Atheists of the Book


Jews have long been called the People of the Book, but the fact is that we elevate words and even letters to the realm of the sacred. The name of God is so holy in pious tradition that we are not permitted to speak it aloud, and some of the glorious wordplay of Jewish texts, prayers and songs is the result of the effort to preserve a primal taboo. 

Even more intriguing, however, is what we dare to say aloud. “In Jewish tradition every reader is a proofreader, every student a critic and every writer, including the Author of the universe, begs a great many questions,” writes acclaimed Israeli novelist and public intellectual Amos Oz, and his daughter, historian Fania Oz-Salzberger, in “Jews and Words” (Yale University Press: $25).

The father-and-daughter collaboration is a source of some playfulness. “We have discussed and disputed topics relevant to this book,” they write together, “since one of us was about 3 years old.” Together, they ponder the miraculous role of words in creating and preserving the Jewish people across several millennia of history, and they offer a benchmark of Jewish identity that has less to do with genomes than with words on parchment, papyrus and paper. “We are not about stones, clans or chromosomes,” they insist. “Ours is not a bloodline, but a textline.”

The authors are quick to announce that they approach the subject from a nonreligious stance. “Both of us are,” they remind us, “secular Jewish Israelis,” a potent three-word phrase that rings with meaning in itself. But they refuse to cede the Bible and the Talmud to their fellow Israelis who are observant. “To secular Jews like ourselves, the Hebrew Bible is a human creation,” they write, and “[t]he Bible is … outliving its status as a holy writ.” But they also agree that the Jewish religious texts have long functioned as the root and anchor of Jewish identity: “In order to remain a family, a Jewish family perforce relied on words,” they write. “Not any words, but words that came from books.”

“Jews and Words” is the work of writers who are in intoxicated with language and in love with texts. Yet they are willing to recognize new meanings in old words, as when they use “text” as a verb to suggest our linkages with the distant past. “Like our ancestors, we are texted,” they declare. “And — if one further liberty with the English language is permitted — we are texted to our ancestors. We are the Atheists of the Book.” 

They are hot-wired to American popular culture: “Think of the Abraham-to-Seinfeld, or the Sarah-to-Hannah Arendt, proneness to argument,” they quip. They cite Philip Roth and Woody Allen, the Hebrew poet Chaim Nachman Bialik and the Yiddish poet Itzik Manger, as readily as they turn to Ecclesiastes, the Song of Songs and the Pirke Avot. 

Even secularists, they remind us, are willing to entertain the subversive notion that truth and fiction are not necessarily opposites. “An archaeologist may worry that biblical accounts are mere ‘fiction,’ but we come from a different place,” they explain. “As readers, we know that it conveys truths. As secular Jews, we have no stake in the historicity of Moses or Miriam.” Storytellers may “invent plots and mess around with evidence,” they concede, “while telling us things about the universe and humankind that we recognize as genuine and profound.”

There are many ways to understand and use “Jews and Words.” It is a heart-stirring tribute to the enduring power of our religious writings, a spirited celebration of a certain kind of Jewish genius that has lasted just as long and a gloss on the Tanakh and the Talmud that allows us to approach the old texts from new points of entry. Above all, father and daughter, authentic and committed Zionists whose beliefs are the same as those of the founders of modern Israel, offer us a way of seeing ourselves not as the victims of history but the makers of history.

“The annals of the Jews contradict the facile assertion that history is written by the winning side,” they write. “Even when they lost, and lost terribly, the Israelites, and then the Jews, took great care to tell the stories themselves. They told their offspring bluntly and honestly all the bad things that had happened: sin and punishment, defeat and exile, catastrophe and flight. It is not a pleasant history, but it is consistently self-authored. To many children, it was — and is — a captivating, troubling, and ultimately exhilarating legacy.”

Leave it to Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzberger to pick exactly the right words.  Captivating, troubling and exhilarating — all three of these adjectives apply with equal force to “Jews and Words,” an important and invigorating contemplation of the shared experiences and values that have always defined the Jewish people.


Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal. His next book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris,” which will be published in 2013 under the Liveright imprint of W. W. Norton to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Kirsch can be reached at books@jewishjournal.com.

Shabbat without religion


How do you talk about Judaism in a way that's not too “Jewish”? How do you convey Jewish ideas to Jews who might get turned off by religious ideas? Is it possible, in other words, to talk about the Jewish religion in a nonreligious way?

Those questions were on my mind last Friday night when I was asked to speak to a group of Jews who had gathered for a wedding weekend. Because many of them were disconnected from the Jewish religion, I thought: Why disconnect them even more? A “religious” talk on the parasha of the week would surely have risked doing that.

Still, I confess, I had an agenda. I wanted every nonobservant Jew in the room to come out of the evening thinking: “Wow, we ought to try this Shabbat thing ourselves once in a while. It was quite enjoyable and it made a lot of sense — religious or not.”

Knowing that their minds were already tainted by the idea of anything too “religious,” I had to find ideas that transcended religious language. 

So, I focused on two ideas: gratitude and peoplehood.

The gratitude part was easy. I spoke about the annual American ritual of Thanksgiving and how Shabbat took that great idea and made it a weekly ritual.

The weekly Shabbat meal, I said, was a time to gather with family and friends and thank our Creator for all our blessings. No matter how difficult or complicated our lives can be, Shabbat comes to remind us that there are always reasons to be grateful.

I could see many heads nodding. Gratitude is one of those great universal ideas. And a meal of gratitude works on so many levels: It brings families together, adds warmth to our homes and injects meaning into our lives. How can anyone be against that?

By the time I brought up specific Shabbat rituals — lighting the candles, welcoming the angels of peace, blessing the woman of valor, blessing the children, the blessing over wine, washing our hands, blessing the bread, etc. — each ritual glowed under the umbrella of a universal idea.

The rituals were not in the service of “religion,” but in the service of the human idea of gratitude.

The next part is where it got trickier, because I connected the rituals to Jewish peoplehood.

Why was this tricky? Well, because Jewish peoplehood can easily be interpreted as a religious idea. If Jews gather to do religious things like pray in synagogues and make blessings at a Shabbat table, doesn't that mean that being Jewish is, first and foremost, a religious idea?

And if I'm not crazy about the idea of “being religious,” why should I be crazy about belonging to a people that worships religion and religious rituals?

So, I decided to go Hollywood and speak about a mind-blowing miracle: How is it possible that the Jewish people could be scattered around the globe for about 1,900 years — since the destruction of the Second Temple — and then, when they finally meet up in a place like, say, Pico-Robertson, they discover that they're all still using the same holy words?

How could it be that after not seeing one another for 1,900 years, we're still reciting the same blessings at the Shabbat table and reading from the same Torah? How is that possible?

“We probably do more editing in one day at The Jewish Journal than the Jews have done to their holy texts in 2,000 years,” I told them, only half in jest.

Again, I saw many heads nodding. The idea that we were all there, gathered at a Shabbat table, doing what our ancestors have been doing for centuries, was not a sermon or a religious idea.

It was simply a moving historical fact.

I spoke about how, after the destruction of the Temple, Jews became a “people of software rather than hardware,” and how the Shabbat table became the weekly centerpiece of this idea, serving to honor “software” ideas like gratitude, holiness and family togetherness.

The rituals of the Temple evolved into the rituals of the Shabbat table, and without this Shabbat table, it's hard to imagine how the Jewish people could have survived.

Our gathering on that Friday night, then, was a continuation of this miraculous story of survival.

The two ideas had merged: We were gathered in a joyous atmosphere to express our gratitude for all our blessings, and one of those blessings was the very idea of Shabbat.

In the same way that the Shabbat ritual has helped to protect and nurture individual Jewish families, it has helped to protect and nurture the Jewish people for centuries.

And, as far as I could tell from all the head nods, you didn't have to be too religious to appreciate that miracle.


David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

Christopher Hitchens, contrarian who embraced and battled Judaism, dead at 62


Christopher Hitchens, the atheist and iconoclast who discovered in adulthood that he was of Jewish descent, has died.

Vanity Fair, where much of Hitchens’ work appeared, announced his passing late Thursday night on Twitter. He was 62 and suffering from esophageal cancer.

Hitchens, born in Britain but more recently naturalized as an American citizen, emerged from the British left in the 1970s, joining the New Statesman as a journalist.

He pursued some of his targets for decades, urging a war crimes indictment of Henry Kissinger for his role in the Nixon administration as an architect of its policies in Indochina and Latin America.

He also sought to debunk the aura of saintliness that surrounded the late Mother Teresa.

Hitchens had a complicated and evolving relationship with Israel and Judaism.

Regarding Israel, he allied himself in the 1970s and 1980s with Palestinian nationalists and called himself an anti-Zionist.

As an atheist, he engaged with Judaism as he did with other faiths—with disdain for what he saw as a corrupting, malign irrationalism.

Yet in later years it was his inclination against religion that seemed to moderate his views on Israel.

He developed a grudging appreciation for a democracy in a region he saw burgeoning with radical theocrats.

He also detected among some of his fellow Israel critics a tendency toward anti-Semitism, as much as saying it was an element driving the thesis of overweening pro-Israel influence in “The Israel Lobby,” the 2007 book by Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer.

“Mearsheimer and Walt belong to that vapid school that essentially wishes that the war with jihadism had never started,” he wrote in Slate in 2006 of the essay that was the basis for the book. “Their wish is father to the thought that there must be some way, short of a fight, to get around this confrontation. Wishfulness has led them to seriously mischaracterize the origins of the problem and to produce an article that is redeemed from complete dullness and mediocrity only by being slightly but unmistakably smelly.”

Hitchens was 38 when his maternal grandmother revealed to his younger brother Peter that she was Jewish.

He told The Observer in 2002 that the revelation “thrilled” him—living in Washington, he had acquired a passel of Jewish friends. Moreover, he had had a dream of being on the deck of a ship and being asked to join a minyan.

Despite his rejection of religious precepts, Hitchens would make a point of telling interviewers that according to halacha, he was Jewish.

Hitchens’ proclivity, his insistence on pleasing no one but himself, was evident this summer when his target was a small group of pro-Palestinian activists aiming to breach Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip on the anniversary of the Israeli raid on another flotilla that claimed the lives of nine Turks and earned Israel international opprobrium.

He could not resist tweaking Israel for a tendency to blunder into confrontation.

“Since Israel adopts a posture that almost guarantees a reaction of some sort in the not-too-distant future, and since there was such a frisson of violence the last time the little fleet set sail, there’s no reason for it not to become a regular seasonal favorite,” he wrote in Slate.

But then he went on to note the activists’ ties or sympathies with the Hamas-led government in Gaza, also noting Hamas’ embrace of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

“This disgusting fabrication is a key foundational document of 20th-century racism and totalitarianism, indelibly linked to the Hitler regime in theory and practice,” he wrote. “It seems extraordinary to me that any ‘activist’ claiming allegiance to human rights could cooperate at any level with the propagation of such evil material.”

He continued: “The little boats cannot make much difference to the welfare of Gaza either way, since the materials being shipped are in such negligible quantity. The chief significance of the enterprise is therefore symbolic. And the symbolism, when examined even cursorily, doesn’t seem too adorable.”

Religion: The ‘first and worst’ explanation


Until about 1832, when it first seems to have become established as a noun and a concept, the term “scientist” had no really independent meaning.

“Science” meant “knowledge” in much the same way as “physic” meant medicine, and those who conducted experiments or organized field expeditions or managed laboratories were known as “natural philosophers.”

To these gentlemen (for they were mainly gentlemen) the belief in a divine presence or inspiration was often merely assumed to be a part of the natural order, in rather the same way as it was assumed — or actually insisted upon — that a teacher at Cambridge University swear an oath to be an ordained Christian minister.

For Sir Isaac Newton — an enthusiastic alchemist, a despiser of the doctrine of the Trinity and a fanatical anti-papist — the main clues to the cosmos were to be found in Scripture. Joseph Priestley, discoverer of oxygen, was a devout Unitarian, as well as a believer in the phlogiston theory. Alfred Russel Wallace, to whom we owe much of what we know about evolution and natural selection, delighted in nothing more than a session of ectoplasmic or spiritual communion with the departed.

And thus it could be argued — though if I were a believer in god I would not myself attempt to argue it — that a commitment to science by no means contradicts a belief in the supernatural. The best known statement of this opinion in our own time comes from the late Stephen Jay Gould, who tactfully proposed that the worlds of science and religion commanded “nonoverlapping magisteria.”

How true is this on a second look or even on a first glance? Would we have adopted monotheism in the first place if we had known:

That our species is at most 200,000 years old and very nearly joined the 98.9 percent of all other species on our planet by becoming extinct in Africa 60,000 years ago, when our numbers seemingly fell below 2,000 before we embarked on our true “exodus” from the savannah?

That the universe, originally discovered by Edwin Hubble to be expanding away from itself in a flash of red light, is now known to be expanding away from itself even more rapidly, so that soon even the evidence of the original “big bang” will be unobservable?

That the Andromeda galaxy is on a direct collision course with our own, the ominous but beautiful premonition of which can already be seen with a naked eye in the night sky?

These are very recent examples, post-Darwinian and post-Einsteinian, and they make pathetic nonsense of any idea that our presence on this planet, let alone in this of so many billion galaxies, is part of a plan.

Which design or designer made so sure that absolutely nothing (see above) will come out of our fragile current “something”? What plan or planner determined that millions of humans would die without even a grave marker, for our first 200,000 years of struggling and desperate existence, and that there would only then at last be a “revelation” to save us, about 3,000 years ago, but disclosed only to gaping peasants in remote and violent and illiterate areas of the Middle East?

To say that there is little “scientific” evidence for the last proposition is to invite a laugh. There is no evidence for it, period. And if by some strenuous and improbable revelation there was to be any evidence, it would only argue that the creator or designer of all things was either (a) very laborious, roundabout, tinkering and incompetent and/or (b) extremely capricious and callous and even cruel.

It will not do to say, in reply to this, that the lord moves in mysterious ways. Those who dare to claim to be his understudies and votaries and interpreters must either accept the cruelty and the chaos or disown it. They cannot pick and choose between the warmly benign and the frigidly indifferent. Nor can the religious claim to be in possession of secret sources of information that are denied to the rest of us. That claim was once the prerogative of the pope and the witch doctor, but now it’s gone.



Rabbi David Wolpe and Christopher Hitchens will debate religion and faith on Wednesday, Nov. 12, at 7:30 p.m. at the Wilshire Theatre Beverly Hills as part of the Celebration of Jewish Books


This is as much as to say that reason and logic reject god, which (without being conclusive) would be a fairly close approach to a scientific rebuttal. It would also be quite near to saying something that lies just outside the scope of this essay, which is that morality shudders at the idea of god, as well.

Religion, remember, is theism, not deism. Faith cannot rest itself on the argument that there might or might not be a prime mover. Faith must believe in answered prayers, divinely ordained morality, heavenly warrant for circumcision, the occurrence of miracles or what you will. Physics and chemistry and biology and paleontology and archeology have, at a minimum, given us explanations for what used to be mysterious and furnished us with hypotheses that are at least as good as, or very much better than, the ones offered by any believers in other and inexplicable dimensions.

Does this mean that the inexplicable or superstitious has become “obsolete”? I myself would wish to say no, if only because I believe that the human capacity for wonder neither will nor should be destroyed or superseded. But the original problem with religion is that it is our first, and our worst, attempt at explanation. It is how we came up with answers before we had any evidence.

It belongs to the terrified childhood of our species, before we knew about germs or could account for earthquakes. It belongs to our childhood, too, in the less charming sense of demanding a tyrannical authority: a protective parent who demands compulsory love even as he exacts a tithe of fear.

This unalterable and eternal despot is the origin of totalitarianism and represents the first cringing human attempt to refer all difficult questions to the smoking and forbidding altar of a Big Brother. This, of course, is why one desires that science and humanism would make faith obsolete, even as one sadly realizes that as long as we remain insecure primates, we shall remain very fearful of breaking the chain.

Christopher Hitchens is the author of “God Is Not Great” and the editor of “The Portable Atheist.” This piece was commissioned by the John Templeton Foundation as part of an essay series that can be found at http://www.templeton.org/belief.

No healing the world here — Humanistic Jews are ‘building’ the world


Rabbi Greg Epstein, the young Humanist chaplain at Harvard University, maintains that the question “Do you believe in God?” is totally meaningless and that “tikkun olam,” to repair the world, is the wrong concept.

But he also affirms that religion will never disappear and that the “New Atheists” don’t have the answers to meeting human needs.

In his 31 years, Epstein seems to have done most everything, from being a singer and composer in a professional rock band to studying ancient Aramaic literature at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University.

During a lengthy phone conversation, he previewed some of the points he will raise when he speaks at Rosh Hashanah services at Adat Chaverim, the local Congregation for Humanistic Judaism, points that he analyzes more deeply in his forthcoming book, “Good Without God.”

Humanistic Jews do not believe in an omnipotent supernatural power, “but in this day and age, the term God can mean anything you want it to be,” he said.

“If you mean a bearded deity on a throne who worries about your personal lifestyle and issued 613 commandments, we reject that. But if your god stands for nature, or the universe, or love, that’s fine,” he added.

“The real point is that this is the only world we can ever know and that this life is the only chance we get to make a difference.”

Epstein also thinks that the oft-repeated injunction to repair the world misses the mark, because it assumes there once was a perfect world, which degenerated and must now be fixed.

“I prefer the phrase ‘bniyat olam,’ to build the world,” Epstein said. “Humanistic Judaism teaches that there never was a utopia, but this lack of perfection is no excuse for intellectual or spiritual laziness.

“We must build our relationship to our fellow humans and the world brick by brick, for we are responsible for one another and no one else will do the work.” He added facetiously, “The most pernicious rhyme in our language is ‘Humpty Dumpty,’ the idea that there was once a perfect white egg which shattered into a million pieces, and no one could put it together again.”

Many, but not all, Humanists are atheists or agnostics, but Epstein is no fan of such popular proponents of the “New Atheism” as writers Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris or Christopher Hitchens.

In an early story about these writers in Wired Magazine, the cover proclaimed “No heaven, no hell — just science.”

That distillation oversimplified a “painfully complex” question, Epstein said. “Science is the best tool for determining the truth about us, but that is not the same as doing something about it. It is not enough to just observe, we must engage in our community and do something.”

Epstein also distinguishes his philosophy from that of Jewish, mostly Yiddish-speaking, secularists of previous generations, who maintained that religion would ultimately disappear as mankind became increasingly rational.

“Religion is not primarily about faith in God; it is about community, identity, heritage and being of service to others,” he said. “We Humanists must also do more to meet these needs, rather than complain about what others believe.

“As a friend pointed out to me, when Martin Luther King Jr. gave his most famous speech, he did not say, ‘I have a list of complaints,’ but ‘I have a dream.'”

Questioned about the role of religion in the current presidential race, Epstein recalled that slamming the other candidate’s religion or piety has a long, dishonorable tradition in American politics.

In the election of 1800, when Thomas Jefferson challenged incumbent John Adams, the Federalist Alexander Hamilton, an Adams partisan, swiftboated Jefferson in the following advertisement.

“The Grand Question Stated: At the present solemn and momentous epoch, the only question to be asked by every American, laying his hand on his heart, is ‘Shall I continue in allegiance to GOD _ AND A RELIGIOUS PRESIDENT; or impiously declare for Jefferson – and no god!!!”

Epstein was born in the Flushing section of Queens, N.Y., then a widely diverse, multiracial community, and he had his bar mitzvah in a local Reform synagogue.

“It seemed to me then that no one took the message of religion seriously, and everyone recited prayers just by rote,” he said. “So I soon started exploring everything except Judaism and visiting every place except Israel.”

After graduating from the University of Michigan, Epstein studied Buddhism in Taiwan and China, then joined the rock band Sugar Pill and recorded two albums. Like many of his contemporaries, Epstein said, “I wanted to express myself through art and music, rather than religion.”

At this point, Epstein discovered the pioneer Humanistic Judaism congregation established by Rabbi Sherwin Wine in suburban Detroit, and “I finally connected to my heritage, but also realized that I had a lifetime of learning ahead of me.”

The process began with five years of study in suburban Detroit and Jerusalem at the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism, followed by a master’s degree in Judaic studies at the University of Michigan, and another master’s degree in theology and comparative religion from the Harvard Divinity School.

Four years ago, he became a chaplain at Harvard, where he advises students in the Secular Society, Interfaith Council and the Harvard Humanist Graduate Community.

Epstein’s thoughts are frequently expressed in national publications and on radio networks, and he is one of a select group of invited panelists for the On Faith blog, started jointly by Newsweek and the Washington Post.

According to the 2000 National Jewish Population Survey, there are 1.6 million American adults and children who define themselves as “just Jewish,” and who are either secular or without any denominational affiliation.

Epstein said that one out of five young American Jews between ages 18 and 25 fall into that category, and that globally 1.1 billion human souls do without formal religion.

If all secular and unaffiliated American Jews joined together, they would form the country’s second largest Jewish denomination, barely trailing Reform membership.

The problem for Epstein and other Humanist leaders is that the 1.6 million are not organized and are not joining the existing congregations/communities of the Society of Humanistic Judaism.

After more than 40 years on the North American scene, the movement claims only some 10,000 adherents and 30 congregations, according to national executive director M. Bonnie Cousens.

Only six of the congregations are led by ordained rabbis, the others by lay leaders or “madrichim.”

What accounts for the low figures, given the large pool of potential members?

There are no clear-cut answers, but Cousens and other national leaders speculate that secular Jews, having arrived at this state through personal doubts and mental wrestling, are just not prone to join any organization.

Another cause may be that there is still, at times, an onus attached to “coming out” as a secular or atheistic Jews, though reactions by more traditional Jews seem less shocked and outraged than in the past.

Rabbi Miriam Jerris, president of the Association of Humanistic Rabbis, bemoaned the society’s lack of popular visibility, saying, “There are so many Jews out there just waiting to discover us.”

Epstein is more upbeat. Drawing on his four-year experience at Harvard, he said that in the beginning only four students regularly attended his meetings.

Now his meeting rooms are crowded and last year, when he organized an international conference on “The New Humanism,” some 1,100 people attended.

“We may be a small minority, but minority groups can have a profound impact on mass movements,” he said. “Even now, I believe, liberal mainstream congregations are speaking more to human needs than divine needs.”

To have a growing impact, Humanistic Jews “must sing and must build, and I mean that literally and metaphorically,” he said.

So Epstein is hopeful, but within reason. Quoting playwright Tony Kushner, Epstein said, “We are optimists, but we are not stupid optimists.”

Actor of ‘Favor’


"I am not Menachem."

So says Israeli heartthrob Aki Avni, referring to his character in "Time of Favor," the Israeli psychological thriller opening in Los Angeles movie theaters Feb 1. The film, winner of six Israeli Oscars last year, including picture of the year, tells the story of a religious settler army unit in which one student, Pini, takes to heart his rabbi’s ideological rantings about the Temple Mount, and crazily decides to blow it up.

Avni plays the lead character, Menachem, a religious company commander who must weigh his loyalty to the rabbi and the unit with his own sense of personal responsibility and his love for the rabbi’s daughter, Michal, and in the end, save Pini from himself.

Even now, pounds thinner, hair choppier (he’s just growing it back after shaving it all off for his last film) than when he played the 23-year-old religious commander, it’s hard to separate the actor from the character. That quiet confidence, charismatic goodness and soft-spoken assurance with which Menachem carried the film (he won an Oscar for best actor) comes across in person.

Avni, 35, in a typically Tel Avivian formal outfit of sleek black — collarless blazer, untucked buttoned shirt, stylish pants — stands at attention to demonstrate how he got into the role of Menachem. Chin raised, shoulders back, heels clicked together, instantly, he becomes the character, the one on the screen who stole the heart of Michal and the audience with his sympathetic portrayal of a conflicted man: religious, idealistic, but learning to doubt.

Very different from the real Avni, who in the past few years has started becoming observant.The boy who grew up in Rehovot in what he calls an "atheist house" now keeps kosher and observes the Sabbath, and has an older brother who’s a Bretslover Chasid living in Jerusalem’s Mea She’arim. "I became interested in the wisdom in Judaism. … It would be a shame to lose it," he says.

His film character goes in a different direction. Menachem slowly disconnects from the spirited singing of his soldiers, his rabbi’s orders to soldier on and forget Michal — though it’s never clear how far Menachem breaks from it.

Playing the part of Menachem was no problem — he’d already starred in the popular weekly drama series, "Basic Training"; but to absorb the religious settler aspect, Avni spent time in yeshivas in Hebron and elsewhere. "I wanted to know the [behavioral] code between the students and the rabbi," Avni told The Journal.

Avni acts his part as convincingly as fellow actor Assi Dayan acts the role of Rabbi Meltzer, a chillingly sane man with a belief in the Greater Land of Israel, who holds sway over many impressionable yeshiva bochers (students), indirectly influencing Pini, a diabetic genius, to try to bomb the mosque after being rejected by Michal.

But did they play their parts too well? In Israel, during the year since the film has come out, many religious people were outraged because they felt the film portrays settlers in a negative light.

"All in all, it’s not a biography, it’s a movie," Avni says. "Even though the story could be realistic, in a far-off possibility, but it could be realistic."

The possibility of fanatical words leading to acts of terror isn’t really far off; it’s the world we live in today, post-Sept. 11, the world the film is being released into, even though it was made long before. But Avni is not concerned that "Favor," depicting Israel now to the world at large, depicts the nation in a fanatical light. "The movie clearly says there are extremists everywhere, but we [in Israel] don’t accept them."

Avni believes American audiences will appreciate the film more now. "There is a great parallel between the story [of the film and that of] every extremist," he says. "Of course," he adds, "there’s a big difference between Pini and terrorists."

Like most Israelis, Avni has a lot to say about the situation — about Yasser Arafat not being a partner, about the failed Camp David talks, the need for a Palestinian state so that Israel can act freely, and the effect on Israelis and Israeli culture. "Whenever the security situation is bad, luxury is the first thing that hurts…. Today there are fewer people going out," Avni explains. "But people always want to be entertained, and we have a nation that’s very, very strong; people are very strong in the State of Israel … and no one will break us. Everybody understands that now more than ever."

His patriotism aside, Avni plans on spending more time in — where else? — Hollywood. Avni’s wife, Israeli model Sandy Bar, will join him in their Marina del Rey apartment next month, and he is hoping to land work here. He has already signed with the Don Buchwald agency.

After nearly a decade of fame in Israel — in theater, television and film as, say, the Israeli equivalent of Tom Cruise — can the big fish from the small sea handle it as small fry here in Tinseltown?

"I’m nobody here. No one knows me," he admits. "But I love challenges. You know what? I look at it as something very good that happened to me. Israel, it was like my laboratory. I learned what I should do and what I shouldn’t do," he says.

Avni started acting at age 12; his formal training began after his army service, studying at the Yoram Levinstein studio in Tel Aviv. For a few years Avni was pigeonholed as a TV show host ("The Price Is Right") before he got cast on the dramatic "Basic Training."

He doesn’t seem to care that he might have to start all over again. "To tell you the truth. I feel like I’ve done it already. I don’t have to prove anything to anyone," he says. "I know the feeling of going on the street when people want your autograph, I’ve done it already. I want to work in the biggest professional system that I can find, which is here, probably. That’s what interests me."