September 23, 2018

Jewish History’s Use and Abuse

“The Stakes of History: On the Use and Abuse of Jewish History for Life” by David N. Myers (Yale University Press) comes at a moment “beset by its own anxiety,” as the author puts it, “over the worth and meaning not only of history but of humanistic inquiry more generally.”

Myers is not explicitly referring to the rancor that has tainted our public discourse — a phenomenon that he knows well and from personal experience — but to the deeper trends of economic stress, declining college enrollments, and institutional retrenchment that have prompted a reconsideration of what we actually can learn by studying history. But Myers is an optimist at heart, and he insists that he remains “bullish” on both the necessity and the rewards of the search for historical truth.

“Rather than succumb to the despair of the moment, I remained more convinced than ever that historical knowledge and perspective were the necessary ingredients in understanding the world we live in,” he writes, “and were capable of playing a constructive (though not risk free) role in the wider world.” His self-declared goal is to find a “serviceable vision of history”  — that is, not only “getting the facts right” but also making use of historical facts to “draw inspiration, motivation, and clear direction from the past.”

Myers is the president and CEO of the Center for Jewish History in New York and the Sady and Ludwig Kahn Professor of Jewish History at UCLA. His book is based on the remarks he delivered in 2014 as a participant in the highly regarded Rosenzweig Lectures in Jewish Theology and History, which are sponsored by the Program in Judaic Studies at Yale.

History can be abused, Myers points out, and he warns us against those who manipulate, distort and falsify history to justify some goal other than the pursuit of facts. He quotes medievalist Patrick Geary for the proposition that the misuse of history “has turned our understanding of the past into a toxic waste dump, filled with the poison of ethnic nationalism, and the poison has seeped deep into popular consciousness.”

“Rather than succumb to the despair of the moment, I remained more convinced than ever that historical knowledge and perspective were the necessary ingredients in understanding the world we live in.”  — David N. Myers

Above all, Myers wants his readers and his fellow historians to be mindful of the “porous boundary between history and memory.” The study of history is (or ought to be) based on hard data, but the human memory is soft-edged and malleable. And the rich collective memory of the Jewish people, which includes the tales passed from generation to generation in the form of myth and legend, folklore and song, only further blurs the line between history and memory. So we are confronted with “a deep chasm between the rich fabric of premodern collective memory and the sober quality of modern critical history.”

The tension between history and memory is especially acute in Jewish tradition. Simon Dubnow, one of the giants of Jewish historical scholarship, pointed out that Jewish tradition has produced a vast library of books but, until the 19th century, few of them could be called history books. “We have sinned against history,” Dubnow wrote. “The time has come to release it and to reconstruct the remains of its ruins.” Even at the moment of his death during the Holocaust, Dubnow is said to have cried out: “Yidn, shraybt un farshraybt!” (Jews, write and record!).

Exactly here, by the way, is an example of the gap that can open between history and memory. Myers, a careful and disciplined historian, pauses to acknowledge that “[m]ultiple accounts of [Dubnow’s] death exist,” the most heartbreaking of which is that he was shot by a German soldier who had once been his student in Heidelberg. “[T]his former student, Johann Siebert, would boast to Dubnow about the number of Jews that had been liquidated each day, to which Dubnow, who was working without cease, would retort, ‘I will record it all.’ ” And Myers finds himself compelled to characterize the dying words of Simon Dubnow as “a legend.”

Still, as a stirring and superbly well-documented exemplar of how Dubnow’s charge was carried out, Myers singles out the Oyneg Shabbes project, “surely one of the clearest instances of historical research in extremis ever recorded.” Under the leadership of Emanuel Ringelblum, a task force that included not only historians and journalists but even young children gathered and preserved thousands of pages of documentary evidence of what actually happened in the Warsaw Ghetto between 1939 and 1942. Myers praises Ringelblum’s “unyielding devotion to history as a vital medium of truth,” and reminds us that “[h]e and his colleagues harbored the hope that history would serve as an ultimate vindication of the triumph of good over evil.”

“The Stakes of History” is a survey of the work of Jewish historians over several centuries, but Myers insists that “it is in confronting the criminal legacy of the Holocaust that historians — and history — have most directly assumed center stage in seeking justice and planting seeds of memory.” The statement is literally true; after all, Deborah Lipstadt was sued for libel by David Irving on the basis of what could be fairly described as a debate between two historians. Lipstadt’s legal defense was based on proving that “David Irving had repeatedly falsified the historical record in his dozens of books on the history of Germany during the war.” Here was another moment of crisis in the study of history. A verdict in favor of Irving would have been a verdict in favor of Holocaust denial. “This prospect exposed both the fragility and the strength of history,” Myers writes.

Myers concludes that “fastidious attention to sources and concern for veracity” are the “professional tools” of the historian, but he also insists that they “need not be at odds with the goal of planting the seeds of memory for future generations.” Indeed, he argues that they can be used “to liberate, to console, and provide witness.” And he declares that he, like the other historians he describes, are “committed to the proposition that history could and must serve life.”


Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.

Why Study Our History?

David N. Myers speaks during a book talk about his two latest works in Royce Hall at UCLA.

Why in the world would anyone want to study Jewish history? This was the question addressed by David N. Myers at a Feb. 13 book talk in Royce Hall at UCLA, sponsored by the UCLA Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish Studies.

The event focused on Myers’ two recently published books. The first, “Jewish History: A Very Short Introduction,” offers a concise account of the entire course of Jewish history in 100 pages. The second, “The Stakes of History: On the Use and Abuse of Jewish History,” is an argument for the study of history, and especially Jewish history, as an anchor of memory and indispensable ingredient for informed civic engagement. The dialogue dealt with the intersecting themes of the two books, which together reveal the pleasures and payoff for studying Jewish history.

Myers is the incoming president and CEO of the Center for Jewish History in New York and also the Sady and Ludwig Kahn Professor of Jewish history at UCLA. His previous books include “Between Jew & Arab: The Lost Voice of Simon Rawidowicz” and “Resisting History: Historicism and Its Discontents in German-Jewish Thought.” Myers also is completing a book with Nomi Stolzenberg on the Satmar Chasidic community of Kiryas Yoel, N.Y.

Jewish history also can serve to disrupt historic narratives, achieve a measure of justice or retribution, provide empathy…

Myers’ two respondents at the event included Deborah Hertz, the Herman Wouk Chair in Modern Jewish Studies and a professor in the Department of History at UC San Diego; and Sarah Abrevaya Stein, professor of history and the Maurice Amado Chair in Sephardic Studies at UCLA. The program was moderated by Todd Presner, professor of Germanic languages, comparative literature and Jewish studies at UCLA, as well as the Sady and Ludwig Kahn Director of the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies.

“Studying Jewish history is ceaselessly fascinating,” began Myers, who was inspired 32 years ago by his great teacher and mentor, Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, author of the book “Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory.” In fact, Myers’ book “Jewish History: A Very Short Introduction” is an homage to Yerushalmi, who inspired in Myers a love and passion for Jewish history, enabling Myers for the first time to view it as “polychromatic rather than black and white.”

From left: Todd Presner, Sarah Abrevaya Stein, David N. Myers and Deborah Hertz take part in the “Why Study Jewish History?” book talk at UCLA.

Myers’ objective in the book was to answer the questions of how and why the Jews managed to survive. He came up with two explanations: anti-Semitism on one hand and assimilation on the other. The hatred of anti-Semitism tended to confirm the identity of Jewish separateness. Over and over again, assimilation flexed the cultural muscle of Judaism.

Beyond its value as a mere accumulation of facts, Jewish history further serves as a witness to events and movements. While history serving life is not unique to Jews, Myers finds Jewish history to be a meaningful guide to life, providing enjoyment, edification, and a predictive capacity by observing patterns from the past that shape blueprints for the future.

Jewish history, as Myers stated, also can serve to disrupt historic narratives, achieve a measure of justice or retribution, provide empathy, and recover lost voices that have been extinguished. “It is an essential repository of discarded ideas which may offer us new ways out of our current quagmires. To me, then, it is a moral imperative to study the past, not just a professional obligation.”

Myers concluded his presentation with a look at history’s future. “History is going to be compelled to adopt new modes of communication in order to be heard — op-ed writing, podcasts, short-form journalism, etc.” He also offered that, “Culture is the lifeblood of Jewish history.” And in terms of the responsibility of the historian: “I’m a historian who believes I have a moral obligation to act and write based on my historical creed.”

The event’s sponsor, the UCLA Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish Studies, is dedicated to advancing scholarship in all areas of Jewish culture and history, educating the next generation about the role of Judaism in world civilization, and serving as an exceptional public resource for Jewish life and learning.


Mark Miller is a humorist and journalist who has performed stand-up comedy on TV and written for a number of sitcoms.

What’s Happening in Jewish L.A. Feb. 9-15

FRI FEB 9
INCLUSION SHABBAT

Join The Miracle Project and Nashuva for a special Shabbat service in honor of Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month. Individuals from The Miracle Project, a theater and expressive arts program for individuals with autism and developmental disabilities, will help co-lead Shabbat services at Nashuva, a spiritual community in Los Angeles. 6:30–9 p.m. Free. Brentwood Presbyterian Church, 12000 San Vicente Blvd., Los Angeles. nashuva.com.

CAROL LEIFER AND KEVIN POLLAK

Carol Leifer (left) and Kevin Pollak (right).

Comedians Carol Leifer and Kevin Pollak will unsheathe their rapierlike wits at the Hollywood Improv for what promises to be an evening of irreverent laughs. Leifer is a four-time Emmy nominee for her writing on “Seinfeld,” “The Larry Sanders Show” and the Academy Awards. Pollak began doing stand-up in San Francisco at age 20 and eventually became a regular on “The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson.” Pollak has some serious acting chops, too, with dozens of films to his name, including “A Few Good Men,” The Usual Suspects” and “Casino.” Music provided by writer, actor and multi-instrumentalist Wayne Federman. 18 and older. 7:30 p.m. doors open; 8 p.m. show. $15. Hollywood Improv, 8162 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 651-2583. hollywood.improv.com.

BOOK OF J

Jewlia Eisenberg and Jeremiah Lockwood

Book of J — acoustic guitarist-singer Jeremiah Lockwood of the Sway Machinery and vocalist Jewlia Eisenberg of Charming Hostess — perform the duo’s self-titled debut album. Their folk-revival vibe draws on Yiddish songs of ghosts and police violence, American spirituals and piyyutim (paraliturgical songs) with a queer bent. Expect old-time religion, radical politics, diasporic languages, hard times resolved and destiny fulfilled — plus guests singing along. The “affecting West Coast duo … covers an expansive musical landscape,” The New Yorker wrote of the pair. 9 p.m. $8 full-time students, $10 members, $15 general admission. Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 440-4500. skirball.org.

SAT FEB 10
KLEZMER AND BEYOND

Polish cantorial soloists Menachem Mirski and Avigail Geniusz perform klezmer and Yiddish music. On Saturday night, they appear at Beth Shir Shalom in Santa Monica. On Sunday night (Feb. 11), they perform at Congregation Beth Ohr in Studio City. Accompanying musicians include Yiddish folk singer and cantorial soloist Cindy Paley, clarinetist and accordionist Isaac Sadigursky, and clarinetist Zinovy Goro. Organized by Friends of Jewish Renewal in Poland. Proceeds benefit Progressive Jewish Life in Poland: Beit Polska. Saturday, 7:30 p.m. $18. Beth Shir Shalom, 1827 California Ave., Santa Monica. Sunday, 4 p.m. $18. Congregation Beth Ohr, 12355 Moorpark St., Studio City. (310) 286-9991. jewishrenewalinpoland.org.

’90s BAR MITZVAH DANCE PARTY — PART DEUX

East Side Jews, which calls itself “an irreverent, upstart nondenominational collective of Jews,” invites guests to enjoy all the magic of a 1990s-era bar mitzvah — without the adolescent awkwardness. What’s not to like? 8 p.m. $25. 21 and older. The Box in Silverlake, 1110 Bates Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 663-2255. sijcc.net/east-side-jews.

JEWISH SINGLES PARTY

Just in time for Valentine’s Day, a singles mixer organized by Persian-Jewish congregation Nessah features DJ Shaad E Shaad. Persian-style bread, cheese and wine served. Ages 35-55 welcome. ID required. 8:30 p.m. $20 presale, $30 door. Nessah Educational and Cultural Center, 142 S. Rexford Drive, Beverly Hills. (310) 273-2400. nessah.org.

SUN FEB 11
JEWISH WOMEN IN HOLLYWOOD: GAMECHANGERS

Celebrating women in Hollywood from Bette Midler to Gal Gadot, a Jewish Women’s Theatre performance and panel examine the evolving role of smart, talented, aggressive and influential women in Hollywood. The morning performance features actress Rena Strober depicting Hedy Lamarr, an Austrian-born actress whom Louis B. Mayer called the “the world’s most beautiful woman,” and who invented a radio guidance system for Allied torpedoes. The panel features four women working in Hollywood who discuss those who have broken the industry’s glass ceiling. 10 a.m.–noon. $20. The Braid, 2912 Colorado Ave., Suite 102, Santa Monica. (310) 315-1400. jewishwomenstheatre.org.

“COMING TO AMERICA”

Provoking tears and laughs, local writer and performer Stephanie Satie brings her topical one-woman show to Beth Chayim Chadashim (BCC). The show is about 10 women from different parts of the world whose lives have been transformed by their immigration to the United States. Satie shows how embracing life in America can be both liberating and daunting. A short Q-and-A follows. Beverages and Middle Eastern appetizers served. 2:30 p.m. doors, 3 p.m. show. $36 BCC members, $40 general, $50 VIP seating. Beth Chayim Chadashim, 6090 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 931-7023. bcc-la.org.

THE JEWISH ARMY TO FIGHT HITLER

Author Rick Richman discusses his new book, “Racing Against History: The 1940 Campaign for a Jewish Army to Fight Hitler,” which presents the previously unknown story of how David Ben-Gurion, Zev Jabotinsky and Chaim Weizmann separately sought American support for a Jewish fight against Hitler. 4 p.m. $5. American Jewish University, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Los Angeles. (310) 440-1264. wcce.aju.edu.

“CASABLANCA” SCREENING AND DISCUSSION

Celebrated film historian Noah Isenberg discusses backstory secrets about one of the most beloved films of all time, “Casablanca,” including the central role that Jewish refugees from Hitler’s Europe played in its creation. He draws on extensive interviews with filmmakers, film critics and family members of the cast and crew. 4 p.m. Free. Wilshire Boulevard Temple, Irmas Campus, 11661 W. Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles. (213) 388-2401. wbtla.org.

“DRUNK IN LOVE”

The third annual “Drunk in Love” Valentine’s Day Jewish mixer and Midnight Mission fundraiser is an opportunity to meet a Valentine or a new friend, help the homeless and introduce yourself to professional matchmakers Jenny Apple Jacobs of Jenny Apple Matchmaking and Jessica Fass of Fass Pass to Love. Mingling, drinks and panoramic views from the 17th floor of the Angeleno Hotel highlight the evening. Bring items needed for donation to the Midnight Mission, including socks and hygiene products. A portion of the proceeds benefit Midnight Mission. All ages welcome. 6 p.m. $18. West Restaurant and Lounge, inside the Angeleno Hotel, 170 N. Church Lane, Los Angeles. eventbrite.com.

TUE FEB 13
“WHY STUDY JEWISH HISTORY?”

David N. Myers

David N. Myers discusses two of his recently published books. The first, “Jewish History: A Very Short Introduction” (Oxford University Press, 2017), offers a concise account of the entire course of Jewish history in 100 pages. The second, “The Stakes of History: On the Use and Abuse of Jewish History for Life” (Yale University Press, 2018), is an argument for the study of history, and especially Jewish history, as an anchor of memory and an indispensable ingredient for informed civic engagement. Myers is the incoming president and CEO of the Center for Jewish History in New York and is the Sady and Ludwig Kahn Professor of Jewish History at UCLA. Moderated by Todd Presner. Noon–1:30 p.m. UCLA Royce Hall, 10745 Dickson Court, Los Angeles. (310) 267-5327. cjs.ucla.edu.

“THE JEWISH COMMUNITY IN 2050”

Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion professor Steven Windmueller explores the key factors that will shape American Jewish life for decades to come. 6:30 p.m. Free. Temple Beth Am, 1039 S. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 652-2384. tbala.org.

“JUDAISM AND THE SELF”

A three-part lecture series examines the relationship between internal Jewish life and external ritual performance, how a religious system relates to the embodied nature of the human condition and how the American-Jewish experience has given rise to new possibilities for individual spirituality. The series kicks off with Shalom Hartman Institute of North America faculty member Steve Greenberg. It continues April 10 with Shaul Magid, a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute. It concludes May 8 with Elana Stein Hain, director of leadership education at Hartman. Participants will learn in small groups and pairs. Includes wine and cheese receptions. 7:30–9:30 p.m. $15 per session. American Jewish University, Familian Campus, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Bel Air. (212) 268-0300. hartman.org.il.

THU FEB 15
“LAND OF MILK AND FUNNY”

Avi Liberman

Don’t miss the Los Angeles premiere of local funnyman Avi Liberman’s documentary about America’s stand-up comedians discovering Israel. For years, Liberman has been bringing comedians to Israel on comedy tours to support families who lost loved ones to terrorism. The new film focuses on one of those tours. Featured comics include Wayne Federman, Ralph Farris, Brian Regan and Craig Robinson. 6 p.m. VIP dinner and meet-and-greet with comedians, 7 p.m. film. $25 general, $100 VIP dinner reception and meet-and-greet with comedians. The Writers Guild Theatre, 135 S. Doheny Drive, Beverly Hills. (213) 254-3162; standwithus.com/milkandfunny.

The American Jewish Historical Society caved under pressure. Good or Bad?

The Centre for Jewish History in NYC

Consider the two following headlines:

Caving To Pressure, Jewish Group Cancels Play By Critic Of Israel

Two anti-Israel programs canceled at CJH and AJHS

The first headline is from the left-leaning Jewish Forward. The second headline is from the right-leaning Arutz Sheva. Both headlines are accurate. The issue here is not one of accuracy — it is one of viewpoint. The American Jewish Historical Society has canceled a play that is probably anti-Israel, and it canceled a panel sponsored by a group that is also anti-Israel. The American Jewish Historical Society caved under pressure. The question is: does one mourn such an occurrence, or does one celebrate it? Does one see this occurrence as a defeat (for freedom) or as a victory (for Jewish sanity)?

These events were not canceled in a vacuum — another reason for consternation or glee. They were canceled amid harsh criticism from right-wing groups over the appointment of a new executive director for the Center for Jewish History. David Myers is seen by these groups as unfit for the job because of his involvement with groups such as the New Israel Fund and because of his past criticisms of Israel.

The appointment of Myers prompted a debate between two factions with strong views and little tolerance for the worldview of the other side. Myers was smeared by his opponents as if he were the worst possible choice for any job — as if he were the worst enemy of the Jewish people. Myers was defended by his supporters as if his appointment were the ultimate test of the Jewish people — do or die. A simple question was often lost in the debate: Are Myers’ views on Israel relevant to the position he will be holding? Lost in this debate was another simple question: Would Myers, as head of such an organization, accept the need for him to refrain from activities and statements that would make him and his institution impossibly controversial? (His answers to both of these questions seems reasonably reassuring.)

The two canceled events came at the worst time for Myers and his organization, and the board of directors was wise to cancel them. Yes, it was caving under pressure. But caving under pressure is not always bad. The pressure came for a reason, and this reason is that many Jews — admittedly, myself included — are uncomfortable with mainstream Jewish institutions becoming a fashionable hub for anti-Israel propaganda. In fact, I see no reason for the Center for Jewish History to be a hub for any propaganda, except for propaganda whose aim is preserving the traditions and vitality of the Jewish people.

Freedom of expression is not the question here. The Center for Jewish History is under no obligation to be the home for plays and panels of the canceled type. It is under obligation to be — or at least to try to be — a place with which as many Jews as possible feel comfortable. And yes, this means a little less edginess, a little less controversy. It means putting more effort at becoming a place for Jews to unite, and not yet another place for them to bicker over Israel or other issues.

Can consensus be fashionable? Maybe the Center for Jewish History can conduct itself in a way that makes it fashionable. Maybe David Myers can conduct himself in a way that makes it fashionable. That would be a great contribution to the Jewish people.

 

 

Letters to the Editor: Rob Eshman, David Myers, forgiveness and Holocaust deniers

Rob Eshman’s Fans Give Him a Shoutout

I will be one of those people who will miss you, Rob Eshman. Your column was always the first thing I read when I opened the Jewish Journal (“The Last Column,” Sept. 29). I truly enjoy your perspective and the many things happening locally and in the world.

Many people think your viewpoint is slanted, but I have found you to be the common sense in the middle of the controversy. Your column has often made me think about how I feel about something, about whether I agree or disagree. I like that. If you decide to have a public email commentary, I would love to be included.

Thank you for your many years of Jewish Journal involvement. It has been your column that has kept me reading the Jewish Journal because I live in the eastern area of Los Angeles County and do not get involved in most the Jewish happenings around the city.

Myra Weiss via email

I’m so sorry you’re leaving the Journal.  (Maybe you’ll write an occasional opinion piece, for old time’s sake?). Even though I feel like I should begin my cover-to-cover reading of the Journal with the rabbinic column on the weekly Torah portion, in reality I’ve always turned to your column first.  They are so insightful and to the point. I don’t know what I’ll do without my weekly fix.

You have led the Journal exactly where it needs to go.  May you find whatever you do next to be rewarding.

Phyllis Sorter via email

In his final column, Rob Eshman announced he is leaving as editor-in-chief and publisher of the bravely open Journal, reassuring the Journal’s faithful readers that the most “Jewish” worldview is an honestly open worldview that the Journal’s staff and readers can, as a complex yet unified community, benefit by if they maintain their grounding in the Judaic belief that “God is One,” while creating an increasingly complex world. Eshman states that the role of the Jewish journalist is to publish stories that reflect the complexities and uncertainties of living, knowing that in publishing stories regarding the complexities of even the smallish Jewish world, one will receive negative responses from somewhere — the Jewish communities in the United States, in Israel or even the small Jewish community in Iran.

A Jew must be courageous in the face of complexity, diversity and even anti-Semitism, yet have sufficient humility to accept those conditions without losing faith in ehad (unity). “Complexity within the context of unity” should continue to be the editorial policy of the Journal.

William E. Baumzweiger, Studio City

How about pitching your personal story as a modern Jewish contemporary replacement to parenthood? That way, the ache in my sad heart would weekly be replenished! Your parents have raised a fine human being. You have been a godsend as well as a blessing to my husband and me. Surviving daily now in this bleak age of that man occupying the White House is horrifying as well as preposterous. But your column (Marty Kaplan’s often, as well) have embraced our hearts, fears and humanism. But asking you to hold back your obvious talents is selfish.

I simply want my letter to be one more of the many you have already received saying you left me in tears and take with you my heart. 

You are never alone or unloved.

Elaine Kretchman via email

Your last column, not surprisingly, was deeply reflective, filled with gratitude and hope. You sound ready for the next (unknown) chapter in your life.

Thank you for enriching us every week with your humanity, your intelligence and your informed reporting. Your column helped me gain perspective on complex issues facing us during turbulent and confusing times in the news.

You will be missed.

Perla Karney via email

I love the Jewish Journal for its ability to reflect different points of view. And the most nourishing in form and content has been Rob Eshman. He will be missed, particularly by this Bronx Jew.

Also, Danielle Berrin’s column (“A Conversation With God,” Sept. 29) reflects humor and wisdom. It’s a distinct pleasure to read a column that makes me smile, think and experience a spiritual backbone.

Rick Edelstein via email

L’shanah tovah to you and your family, Rob. I know that I will miss you on jewishjournal.com and look forward to hearing somehow about your future endeavors. You are doing a wise thing, I think. This is a good time to make a change. I let go of the trapeze at just about the same age as you and I ended up grabbing on to some good bars on the other side.

Howard L. Hoffman via jewishjournal.com

Rob, I am a major Eshman fan, which you know, and although I am also a David Suissa fan because David is a mensch through and through with a heart as big as the Jewish world, I found myself reading your columns weekly often to learn what I thought about this, that or another issue. So, I will miss you in these pages, but am glad that we are friends and I hope that that friendship will continue until we’re both really old men — I have 10 years on you, by the way, but who’s counting? Gmar chatimah tovah v’hatzl’cha b’chol dar’checha!

Rabbi John Rosove, Temple Israel of Hollywood, via jewishjournal.com


David Myers Is Qualified for His New Job

Let’s see if I have this right. David Myers, a professor of Jewish history at UCLA, becomes CEO of the Center for Jewish History in New York, and is deemed by some people to be unfit for that position because they don’t like some of his political positions, not because of his credentials.

My reply, in the words of the Distinguished Professor of Tennis John McEnroe, is, “You cannot be serious!”

Stephen J. Meyers via email


Why Should I Ask for Forgiveness?

I am a Jew and I don’t like nor participate in Yom Kippur. I am a decent person throughout the entire year and there is absolutely no reason for me to participate in a holiday during which I am required to repent for the monstrous acts that I have committed all year long. None exists for me.

Now, I do know many Jews who have been horrible, lying cheats all year long. On Yom Kippur, they fast and attend shul. I ask myself, do they ask forgiveness from God or do these lowlifes consider cheating, etc., as nothing particularly offensive? I spent my Yom Kippur day enjoying a sandwich outdoors and gardening, and I felt completely at ease with myself.

Alexandra Joans, Los Angeles


Science vs. Holocaust Deniers

We never need to fear the Holocaust revisionists (“Rare Holocaust Photos Resurface in North Hollywood Home,” Sept. 29). The secret lies in the paper that the Germans used to print their images. Most of the companies that made the went out of business around 1945. Using fibers, taken from the photographic paper that the Germans used to make their images, today’s science and technology can trace almost to the exact year, month and country from where the images were printed. Because of this, Holocaust deniers can rant all they want about doctored images, but the truth is revealed in the paper, much like the words are revealed from the Torah.

Hallie Lerman, professional photographer, Los Angeles

Center for Jewish History board backs new head David Myers against right-wing attacks

David Myers

The board of New York’s Center for Jewish History is defending its recently installed executive director over calls from right-wing groups for his dismissal.

A campaign against David Myers, formerly a prominent academic at UCLA, centers on his urging Israel to end its occupation in the West Bank.

The critics say his service on the international board of the left-wing New Israel Fund and as a member of the advisory council of J Street, the liberal American Jewish Middle East policy group, disqualifies him from the leadership of a Jewish organization.

The attack against Myers began in earnest earlier this month with an op-ed written by Ronn Torossian and Hank Sheinkopf, both public relations executives with clients in Israel, and George Birnbaum, a former chief of staff to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The piece was published on Arutz-7 and other right-wing Jewish news websites.

Two small advocacy groups, JCCWatch.org and the California-based Israel Group, recently joined the attack. The latter has organized an email campaign against Myers.

But the Center for Jewish History said in a statement approved last week and first reported in the Forward that Myers “enjoys the full and unwavering support of the board and staff.”

The board’s statement noted receiving “a stream of vituperative emails” demanding that Myers be dismissed.

Myers, the board said, “is a distinguished scholar who brings enormous energy, intellect and executive talent to the task” of leading the center.

The center is made up of five partner organizations: the American Jewish Historical Society, the American Sephardi Federation, the Leo Baeck Institute, the Yeshiva University Museum and the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.

According to the center’s website, “The partners’ archives comprise the world’s largest and most comprehensive archive of the modern Jewish experience outside of Israel.”

Myers served for 10 years as director of the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies and, from 2010 to 2015 as the department chair of the university’s history department.

The critics say Myers is unqualified to run the center because he has urged Israel to end its control of the West Bank or offer citizenship to Palestinians living there. He also argued in an essay that the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel is not necessarily anti-Semitic.

“On one hand, I oppose the global BDS movement,” Myers wrote in a column for the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles. “On the other, I can’t join in the rising chorus of demonization against it.”

In their op-ed, Torossian and his co-authors wrote, “Those who endorse any form of a boycott of Israel, an end to the Jewish State and sit in positions of leadership for organizations that oppose Israel are free to hold these viewpoints. They should not hold positions of leadership in the Jewish community.”

Richard Allen, founder of the New York-based JCCWatch.org, told the Forward that he is planning a “string of protests” against the center over the Myers hiring. The Israel Group posted the names of the center’s board members on its website last week and urged its supporters to contact the center with their concerns about Myers.

Two prominent Jewish scholars — David Ellenson, director of the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University, and Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University — defended the Myers appointment in an essay for the Forward. They wrote that Myers’ views on Israel “fall well within the scholarly mainstream of Jewish life” and that he “unquestionably” supports Israel’s right to exist.

“No one is more qualified than the charismatic and learned Myers” to run the center, they wrote.

“There should be no ideological litmus test whatsoever beyond an ability to articulate, celebrate, and advance the ideals and mission of the Center itself – and this Professor Myers is uniquely qualified to do by dint of personal temperament and superb scholarship.”

The David Myers debacle

David Myers

With disturbing regularity, Jews hate on Jews.

The most recent example is the jaw-dropping case of professor David Myers.

Last June, the UCLA professor of history — and Jewish Journal columnist — was appointed president and CEO of the Center for Jewish History (CJH), a collection of five New York museums that is the nation’s foremost repository and educational center for American Jewish history.

[MORE: Right-wing activists target David Myers]

The news initially was greeted with unanimous praise. The pre-eminent historian of American Jewish history, Brandeis University’s Jonathan D. Sarna, said Myers was “the very embodiment of what the center should be.”

But last week, an unsigned “expose” on Myers popped up on numerous Jewish websites. It accused him of being a radical anti-Israel leftist. Myers, the piece concluded, was “unsuitable to head a Jewish institution with the long-term and widespread influence of The Center for Jewish History.”

Such nastiness is not unique to this moment in Jewish history. The comforting myth of “all Jews are friends” is belied by the many times in history when Jews fought viciously against fellow Jews: Maccabees murdering “Hellenized” Jews, Zealots stabbing “collaborationist” priests before the fall of the Second Temple, the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. All this violence was the last stop on a long road of verbal assaults.

What’s different now is slandering has never been so fast and easy. The internet has made it so that we can spread our slurs in seconds, under the guise of “breaking news.” Jews are mud wrestling in the same pigpen as the larger culture, where someone with a working email account can slop around gossip, half-truths and lies — which, astonishingly, otherwise sophisticated people accept as fact.

Few people in the world know how to do this better than Ronn Torossian.

The Brooklyn-born founder of a multimillion-dollar New York public relations agency freelances as a one-man, self-appointed defender of Israel against whatever and whomever he determines is “anti-Israel.”

Torossian decided, some four months after Myers’ appointment was announced, that it was time to get dirty. Together with associates Hank Sheinkopf and George Birnbaum, he wrote an attack piece that accused Myers of supporting the boycott of Israel and undermining the Israel Defense Forces.

For Torossian and the current Israeli leadership he is a flack for, any opposition to Israel’s occupation of Judea and Samaria and the settlement movement is hyped as a national threat. Myers — and the New Israel Fund (NIF), where he serves on the board — categorically oppose the global Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement. But both Myers and NIF oppose continued Israeli settlement building, seeing it as a threat to Israel as a Jewish democratic state, and they leave open the possibility that boycotting goods originating from the West Bank could be a legitimate form of nonviolent protest.

I happen to disagree with the latter stand — that’s another column. The bigger problem is that over the past decade this particular Israeli government and its American cheerleaders have moved the goalposts of what is “pro-Israel.” Now, anything short of a warm embrace of a settlement movement and Israel’s 50-year occupation of Judea and Samaria is considered not just anti-Zionist, but anti-Israel.

A week ago, Torossian inserted the Myers hit piece into the ecosystem of right-wing Jewish news sites and, voila, clickbait for well-meaning pro-Israel readers. Arutz Sheva, the Jewish Press and Algemeiner ran the piece as a news article or op-ed. From there, like-minded pro-Israel activists reposted the piece or sent it through email blasts.

Immediately, American-Jewish and Israeli historians, as well as many Los Angeles Jewish leaders, came to Myers’ defense. Even those who sometimes disagree with Myers said there shouldn’t be a litmus test of political correctness for Jewish organizational leaders.

The CJH itself quickly issued a statement backing its president and CEO.

“Various allegations have been made about David Myers,” the statement said. “Professor Myers is an eminent historian. The Board of the Center for Jewish History has full confidence in his ability to lead the Center in the fulfillment of its mission to preserve the treasured sources of the Jewish past and advance public knowledge of the Jewish historical experience.”

But 36 hours after a handful of “news” websites ran Torossian’s hit piece without vetting, fact checking or publishing opposing viewpoints, the echo had entered the chamber.

Some supporters of the American Sephardi Federation, one of the five institutions that make up the CJH, got sucked into the one-sided “news” and sided with Torossian. A couple of far-right Israeli Knesset members demanded Myers’ head — because, you know, Israel has no more pressing problems than a Zionist historian taking over an American Jewish museum.

Myers has yet to speak out, other than to say he appreciates the many people who have come to his defense. In an email to me, he said he refused Torossian’s offer to “answer questions” before the piece went out, because he was unwilling to place his words in the hands of a nonjournalist who by reputation he simply didn’t trust.

The lessons? Just as in the larger media world, there is responsible and irresponsible Jewish media. The good ones don’t print opinion as news articles and don’t allow op-ed writers to create their own facts. The more you believe a story, the more you must seek out the other side to it.

Remember: At the end of a long road of verbal assault, nothing but division awaits. Any great Jewish historian can tell you that. Just ask David Myers.


ROB ESHMAN is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. Email
him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter @foodaism
and @RobEshman.

Right-wing activists target David Myers

David Myers

Historian David Myers’ honeymoon period as president and CEO of the Center for Jewish History (CJH) has not lasted long.

Three months after his appointment, several right-wing Jewish activists are now publicly demanding his removal from the New York-based institution over his ties to organizations critical of Israel.

[Rob Eshman: The David Myers Debacle]

But amid the right-wing criticism, a growing number of supporters have come to Myers’ defense. Among the supporters is former Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who collected 100 signatures on a letter to CJH, calling the attacks against Myers, a professor of Jewish history at UCLA, “scurrilous.”

Leading the campaign against Myers are two New York public relations specialists, Ronn Torossian and Hank Sheinkopf, and political campaign consultant George Birnbaum. They penned a blistering opinion piece calling for Myers  to be fired that was posted on like-minded, right-leaning Jewish websites, including The Jewish Press, The Algemeiner and the Israeli network Arutz Sheva.

Torossian has an eclectic list of clients that includes rapper Lil’ Kim and former mayors of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Sheinkopf does PR for companies such as Home Depot and runs political campaigns. Birnbaum is a former chief of staff for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and served as an adviser for Ben Carson’s presidential campaign.

The opinion piece contends that CJH, a coalition of five partnership organizations that houses the largest archive of the modern Jewish experience outside of Israel, “has made an unfit choice” in Myers, due to his being on the board of the New Israel Fund (NIF), a U.S.-based organization dedicated to advancing liberal democracy in Israel; his fundraising efforts on behalf of If Not Now, an organization that vehemently opposes Israel’s occupation of the West Bank; and his adviser role with J Street, an organization proposing a two-state solution in the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

The opinion piece also condemns Myers for being a “fierce critic” of Netanyahu and his policies.

“Individuals who hold views such as Myers’ should not hold positions of leadership in the Jewish community,” the piece concludes.

The opinion piece has won support from right-wing figures in Israeli politics such as the Knesset’s Bezezel Smotrich, a member of the Orthodox far-right Tkuma party. Smotrich reposted a link to the piece on his Facebook page, adding in his own words, “Naming him as CEO of the Center for Jewish History is gross malfeasance.”

The piece also refers to Myers’ support for “some forms” of boycotts against Israel but doesn’t give specifics. It links to an essay written by Myers in 2014 titled “Why I Oppose a Boycott Mostly.” Myers wrote, “I can’t support a global boycott against Israel,” and also chided Israeli academic boycotts. Later in that article, Myers wrote that, if necessary steps weren’t taken toward Palestinian sovereignty by the end of 2015, “then a boycott of Israel’s settlements and commercial activity in the West Bank may have to be the necessary next step.”

In an email to the Journal, Torossian said, “The purpose of our op-eds was to ensure that his viewpoints are widely exposed and known. … We do not disqualify his academic credentials in the least.”

Myers has contributed to various academic journals and is a Jewish Journal columnist. He has written numerous well-reviewed books on Israel and Jewish history.

Myers is no longer involved with J Street but does remain on the NIF board.

In an email to the Journal regarding the controversy, he wrote, “I’m deeply gratified by the breadth and depth of support demonstrated so far from colleagues, students, and friends in the United States and Israel, especially the Historical Society of Israel.”

Yaroslavsky’s letter includes the signatures of UCLA administrators, heads of Jewish organizations, academics, current and former elected officials, and numerous local rabbis, including David Wolpe of Sinai Temple, Sharon Brous of IKAR and Ken Chasen of Leo Baeck Temple.

The letter calls the attack on Myers “scurrilous,” and compares it to “the worst kind of McCarthyism” and a bullying campaign.

“This is a test for the CJH and the Jewish community,” Yaroslavsky said in an email to the Journal. “Can a small, fringe group of right-wing extremists succeed in intimidating a communal institution into firing a respected and more-than-qualified scholar based on ad hominem and fundamentally false attacks? This is not only about Professor Myers, a lover of Zion and the Jewish people. If this fringe succeeds in its insidious effort, it will undermine the independence of every institution in our community. We must put a stop to this here and now.”

Many others have come forward in Myers’ defense. Some 500 Jewish historians signed a letter of support, and other similar letters have circulated among academics, rabbis and Jewish leaders.

The board of the Historical Society of Israel, the profressional organization of historians teaching history in Israel, issued a statement saying it plans to publish a defense of Myers on various media, with renowned Israeli scholars signing it.

“The Board of the Historical Society of Israel thus calls for an immediate end to the defamation campaign, which presents all critical opinion as ‘anti-Zionist’ and as ‘treason,’ ” it said.

Jonathan Sarna, perhaps the pre-eminent American Jewish historian and a professor at Brandeis University, wrote a letter of support to CJH, now posted on the American Jewish Historical Society’s Facebook page. While Sarna acknowledged that he sometimes strongly disagreed with Myers’ political views on Israel, he said those views should have no bearing on whether Myers is fit to lead CJH.

“It is unthinkable that the Center’s president should be obligated to espouse a particular view, or that there should be any ideological litmus test whatsoever beyond an ability to articulate and celebrate the ideals of the Center itself,” Sarna wrote.

The CJH also released a statement, reiterating its support for Myers: “The Board of the Center for Jewish History has full confidence in his ability to lead the Center in the fulfillment of its mission.”

UCLA Jewish history professor hired as Center for Jewish History CEO

David Myers

David Myers, the Sady and Ludwig Kahn professor of Jewish history at UCLA and the director of the UCLA Luskin Center for history and policy, has been named CEO and president of the Center for Jewish History in New York City, effective July 1.

“I burn with passion to study Jewish history,” Myers said. “It’s what I love doing. I am blessed beyond imagination to be able to do this, to be able to study Jewish history, which is ceaselessly fascinating.”

Myers, 56, a Journal contributor, will remain on the faculty of UCLA, his academic home for 25 years. He will live in Los Angeles during the 2017-2018 academic year and will then move to New York.

He has written extensively on modern Jewish intellectual and cultural history and earned a PhD in Jewish history from Columbia University in 1991. He began as a lecturer at UCLA that same year.

Myers and his wife, Nomi Stoizenberg, a USC law professor, live in Pico-Robertson. They are the parents of three daughters, two of whom live in New York.

At the Center for Jewish History, Myers will oversee what is the largest archive of the modern Jewish experience outside of Israel. Dedicated to history, culture and art, the museum is a collaborative home for five partner organizations: American Jewish Historical Society; American Sephardi Federation; Leo Baeck Institute; Yeshiva University Museum and YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.

Myers expressed remorse about leaving UCLA but said it was time for him to move onto the next chapter in his career.

“I love UCLA, it’s been an extraordinary place to be and work and grow, and I could easily have decided not to make this move,” he said. “But I find the opportunity and challenge to be so exciting, it seemed like this was the time to try something new.”

Broad-based L.A. Jewish coalition forms to respond to Trump actions

President Donald Trump signs an executive order restricting immigration. Photo by Carlos Barria/Reuters

A Los Angeles-based coalition of more than 1,800 self-identified Jews launched this week by releasing a statement that responds to executive actions on immigration and refugees and affirms a commitment to Jewish and American values.

“Frankly, I’ve never seen in my life in L.A. a coalition this broad, that’s come together for this single purpose,” said former L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, one of six members of the organizing committee at the helm of the new group calling itself Jews United for Democracy and Justice (JUDJ).

The other committee members are former L.A. Congressman Mel Levine, civics scholar and social entrepreneur Shawn Landres, UCLA Jewish history professor David Myers, political consultant Dan Loeterman and attorney Janice Kamenir-Reznik.

On Feb. 28, the six organizers sat down over breakfast in Myers’ Pico-Robertson home, the coalition’s impromptu command center, to explain the group’s goals to a reporter.

“We’re not aspiring to be another Jewish organization in the alphabet soup of Jewish organizations. … We certainly imagine ourselves not displacing, but working alongside other organizations that are engaged in the same kind of work,” Myers said.

The group’s statement of principles doesn’t mention President Donald Trump by name, but addresses a perceived threat to democratic institutions posed by his administration.

“JUDJ is deeply concerned about rising threats to religious tolerance, equal rights, a free and fair press, human dignity, and long-held norms of decency and civil society,” the statement reads. “We will speak out and take action when our shared Jewish values require us to counter those threats.”

It lays out, in broad strokes, values it sees as threatened by the executive branch, including “America is a nation of laws” and “America is a nation of immigrants.”

“There’s an almost daily assault on one or another foundation of our democratic tradition — kind of aerial bombardment,” Myers said. “And I think what we’re saying is that in the midst of the confusion that is sown, we want to be a voice of clarity.”

The coalition came together after a Feb. 5 meeting of Jewish leaders in Myers’ living room, called in response to a Jan. 27 executive order by Trump that restricted admissions of refugees to the United States. After that meeting, members formed five working groups: immigration, long-term strategy, coalition building, lawyers and rabbis.

The statement of principles, first circulated widely on Feb. 24, represents the coalition’s public debut. By Feb. 28, the list of signatories included more than 110 clergy members, 55 current and former elected officials and 270 board officers and senior executives of Jewish communal groups and philanthropies.

The list incorporated members of the board of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles, as well as other Jewish membership organizations; elected officials in Sacramento and Washington, D.C.; all three citywide elected officials in Los Angeles, City Attorney Mike Feuer, Controller Ron Galperin and Mayor Eric Garcetti; philanthropists; university professors; and clergy from every major denomination.

The move to establish a new coalition comes as some members of the Jewish community see a lack of organized leadership opposed to Trump’s actions. After Federation President and CEO Jay Sanderson sent a community-wide email that addressed the refugee order without denouncing it, for instance, alumni of Federation’s Rautenberg New Leaders Project wrote a letter expressing their disappointment and requesting that he take a stronger stance.

But members of the JUDJ organizing committee insisted the group wouldn’t compete with Federation or any other Jewish organization, but rather lend political capital to groups that can use it.

“We are not in competition with anybody else,” Levine said. “We’re inclusive and draw people from all of these organizations.”

Levine said one of the primary purposes of the coalition would be to support and join with communities targeted by the administration, naming in particular the Muslim and Hispanic communities. But it also seeks to unite Jews across political and demographic lines in support of democratic values.

“A lot of people in my generation weren’t around for the fights that Zev was around for,” said Loeterman, who is 28. “We weren’t around for the fights that David and Janice and Shawn and Mel were around for. … They see this as kind of our generation’s chance to join with other generations.”

The shape of things to come: Jewish L.A. in 30 years

In commemoration of the Jewish Journal’s 30th anniversary, Jewish leaders discuss their hopes and predictions for the next 30 years of L.A. Jewish life.


Melissa Balaban

Executive director of IKAR

balabanMy greatest hope for the Jewish community in Los Angeles in the next 30 years is that we come together to rededicate ourselves to finding areas of commonality, rather than focusing on our divisions. We are at our best when we work toward common goals, using the wisdom of our tradition toward achieving a shared vision of the world. I would love to see an end to the divisiveness surrounding Israel, as we all work toward ensuring that Israel is a thriving Jewish, democratic and secure state, which reflects its highest Zionist ideals.


Rabbi Amy Bernstein

Kehillat Israel

When I spoke with KI congregants who have lived here for 30 years about what they hope the Jewish community will be like in the next 30 years, they said that they hope it will be a community that is warm, close, inclusive, vibrant, prosperous and safe. They hope that it will be a community that is socially engaged, as well as engaged with the larger community—where all factions get along, where there are no “others,” and where we can truly celebrate the diversity of the Los Angeles Jewish community.


Mayim Bialik

Actress and scientist

I cannot even imagine personally what 30 years from now will look like but I guess I would like to see Los Angeles Jews continue to be what I see as an example of the openness and the inquisitiveness and the beauty that Judaism really models and provide for us as a guide – I would hope that in 30 years no matter what happens politically or globally that L.A Jews continue to lead the way as part of a very significant and thriving community that we always have been.


Rabbi Yonah Bookstein

Pico Shul

Most of the growth in the community, as it has been for the past 10 years, is going to be within what is called the more traditional side of the equation on the spiritual, cultural and religious continuum. … I do have a fear that we will lose a substantial portion of millennial Jews to assimilation … but I also feel like we have the ability to do a lot to prevent that from happening. But it’s going to require a lot of dedication on the part of the community and to approach it with multiple means.


Rabbi Noah Farkas

Valley Beth Shalom

I wish day school tuition wasn’t a hindrance for people going to school.


Jesse Gabriel

Attorney and Jewish community leader

The energy, idealism, and optimism of young Jews is going to reinvigorate our communal institutions and enable us to be guided by our hopes rather than our fears. Their embrace of diversity, commitment to pluralism and inclusion, and willingness to move beyond past divisions will allow us to navigate the inevitable challenges and build a stronger and more deeply engaged community. We have much to be optimistic about!


Rabbi Emerita Laura Geller

Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills

geller2

[I predict] there will be fewer synagogues because the current funding model will no longer work. … Instead of membership in a particular synagogue many people will join a “kehilla” which would be a collaboration of many different synagogues that would hire clergy and teachers. … The large and growing cohort of older Jews will create alternative housing arrangements, including new ways to age in place. … What I hope will also happen is that our community becomes more inclusive, welcoming all kinds of Jews, and that we will have learned to talk to each other about difficult issues with civility and respect, including what it means to love Israel, which has remained Jewish and democratic.


Arya Marvazy

Assistant director of JQ International

aryaMy sincere hope and prediction is that these next few decades will encompass a greater wave toward radical inclusion – embracing others and their unique differences, understanding that at our core, we are all carbon copies of one another. What we express and how we identify with respect to race, religion, sexual orientation and lifestyle will serve far less to divide us, and we will truly focus on those elements of our humanity that make us one gigantic global family.


Patricia Glaser

Attorney and Jewish community leader

glaser-patty-hi-res

Over the next 30 years, I expect the Jewish community to continue to make a substantial contribution to the culture, business and very fabric of Los Angeles. Within the Jewish community, I hope that there is a conscious effort to better understand each other; that a movement emerges to bring together the disparate views and various religious groupings within Judaism in order for an intrafaith dialogue to develop that helps all of us to better understand our community and each other. I hope that younger Jews learn to understand the significance of being a Jew in America and support the State of Israel and to understand that –  whether it is $50, $500, $500 – giving is not a choice; we all must give.


Brian Greene

Executive director of the Westside Jewish Community Center

brian-greene

My hope is that in 30 years – if not sooner – Jewish communal life in L.A. will be inclusive and collaborative. Cultural and denominational divisions between Jews will feel so “ancient.” Our strength will be our commitment to being a unified community that is open and welcoming to all.


Sam Grundwerg

Consul General of Israel in Los Angeles

Given the fact that the Jewish people make up only less than half of 1 percent of the world’s population, it is nothing short than a miracle that we are able to contribute to the world in so many ways, from lifesaving discoveries to high-tech innovation and medical advances. In the next 30 years, may we see Jewish L.A. become more unified, spreading that spirit and passion. When we work together as a community we grow together and we are able to better serve the incredible Los Angeles community. Just like Israel, L.A. is truly a melting pot, and provides us all an opportunity to build stronger bonds with the communities around us.


Aaron Henne

Artistic director of Theatre Dybbuk

Jewish L.A. will be the fertile soil from which provocative, challenging and adventurous artistic work from a Jewish perspective grows. We will be rich in diverse viewpoints, expressed through a variety of forms and techniques, colliding, collaborating, and contradicting each other.  We will dive deep into our Jewish narratives in order to then turn our gaze outward, engaging in the world in humane, empathetic, and mindful ways.


Samara Hutman

Executive director of Remember Us

Marie Kaufman

President emeritus of the Child Survivors of the Holocaust, Los Angeles

hutman

Our hope for them [this generation of young adults] and for all of us is that we honor all communities, that we remember our roots and how we all got here and bring that to our daily work, our lives and our community.


Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky

B’nai David-Judea

kanefskyI hope that the next 30 years bring a more affordable cost of Jewish living to Los Angeles, so that the exodus of our children to other cities might slow down. I also hope that we make the effort to really listen to each other, and learn that right and left both love Israel, that traditional and liberal both love Judaism, and that in the long run, we will pay a bitter price for the momentary pleasure we receive from screaming at each other.


Jessie Kornberg

President and CEO of Bet Tzedek

jessica-kornberg-special-to-the-daily-journal-4At Bet Tzedek, as in so much of L.A.’s Jewish community, our identity has been indelibly shaped by our commitment to meet the needs of aging Holocaust survivors. Our identity for the next 30 years will similarly reflect how we respond to the needs of new populations seeking refuge in our city from violence, war, and persecution.


Kosha Dillz

Rapper

kosha-dillzThe next 30 years of Jewish L.A. are quite vibrant. I predict that … more and more Jews from around the world will migrate to our beloved, sunny Los Angeles. Tech, music and film will continue to thrive and grow to the forefront of their respective industries. We will continue to be unapologetic in our support for Israel, yet continue to engage in our criticism to be better at it, and always engage in conversations with those most critical in an educational way.


Esther Kustanowitz

Jewish Journal contributing writer and editorial director at Groknation.com

esther

I hope that Jewish L.A. will comprise and embody the best that both terms – “Jewish” and “L.A.” –  have to offer; that it will continue to be a bright example of creativity, innovation, diversity and community, and that the geography of this place continues to inspire and reflect the potential that we all have.


Shawn Landres

Co-founder of Jumpstart Labs, senior fellow at UCLA Luskin, and chair of the Los Angeles County Quality and Productivity Commission and the city of Santa Monica Social Services Commission

shawn-landresHere in Los Angeles, our continuing mandate will be to connect our core values with the aspirations and needs of our neighbors of all backgrounds and creeds, especially the most vulnerable. No doubt, individual Jewish Angelenos will continue to contribute across all sectors of our vibrant region. Our broader task is to deepen our  relationships – as a Jewish community and as stewards of Jewish tradition – with everyone in the L.A. mosaic. In 2017, too few Jewish communal leaders (and not only in Los Angeles) are willing to say “Black lives matter” or “Muslim and immigrant lives matter” without qualification or apology. Whether more of us can do so in 2047 – with whoever may need our solidarity – will define L.A. Jewry’s significance in this century.


Rabbi Nolan Lebovitz

Adat Shalom

I pray that our community plays a greater role in modeling how we can love Torah, love Israel, love one another and love our greater community without conflicting values.  


Adam Milstein

Philanthropist and Israeli American Council board chair

milsteinThe Israeli-American community will be an integral part of Jewish Los Angeles for the next three decades. It will serve as an important connector to the State of Israel, as a vibrant home for pro-Israel advocates, and as a source of strength for the broader Jewish community in our great city.


Moishe House Residents

Downtown Los Angeles

moishe-house-residentsMoishe House DTLA hopes the next 30 years will bring greater unity to the Jewish L.A. community, allowing our community to be a symbol of hope and acceptance for others in the L.A. area.


Ayana Morse

Executive Director of Silverlake Independent Jewish Community Center

In 30 years, I see a Jewish L.A. that is a model for the best in local engagement, innovation and creativity. Let’s open our city’s metaphorical gates to each other and delight in the knowledge and mastery that emerges.


David N. Myers

Professor at UCLA

myers

 

I think the next 30 years will bring an intensification of two noticeable trends in L.A. Jewish life: more drift away from institutional affiliation for the majority of L.A.’s Jews, and growing prominence and market share for the Orthodox population in town. In between, we may well see a blurring of the boundary between Reform and Conservative institutions. In this way, L.A. will be like the rest of the country, except more.


Sharon Nazarian

President of the Y&S Nazarian Family Foundation

nazarianJewish L.A. will mirror our great city of Los Angeles, a city reflecting reflecting the richness of its immigrant communities. When we refer to the Jewish Community of Los Angeles, we will be referring not only to European Jews, but also Russian Jews, Persian Jews, Israeli Jews, Iraqi Jews, Syrian Jews, Argentine Jews, Mexican Jews, Ethiopian Jews. While we will continue to celebrate the strength of our cultural uniqueness, we will have consolidated our Jewishness and our cohesion as one community.


Julie Platt

Board chair of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles

plattOver the next 30 years, The Jewish Federation will continue to be a convener for the Los Angeles Jewish community, bringing us together from every spiritual region and every geographic region, casting as wide a net as is necessary. Our Federation will continue to strategically impact this community, informed by our Jewish values and with clear and nimble focus and mission. We will always continue to work together to care for Jews in need, ensure the Jewish future and engage positively with our broader community.


Bruce Powell

Head of school at de Toledo High School

My hope and prediction for the Jewish future of Los Angeles in 2047 is simple: I believe that the thousands of students now in our Jewish day schools will become the leaders of our community and thereby create a vibrant and even more brilliant L.A. Jewish life and vision.


Jay Sanderson

President and CEO of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles

As the president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, I live with every day with the question of where we will be over the next 30 years. We are focusing on looking at the greatest challenges and the greatest opportunities facing our community and the Jewish people. And the greatest challenge and the greatest opportunity facing the Jewish people is how do we connect to the next generation of Jews? How do we connect to millennials? How do we make Judaism relevant, and how do we make the Jewish community open and accessible to all Jews?


Rabbi Lori Shapiro

The Open Temple

lori-shapiroWe are going through a Jewish renaissance in Los Angeles and these seeds will proliferate. Los Angeles will become a center of Jewish spiritual creativity and art, and our ritual practice will include film and new media. I predict that our spiritual communities will have not only rabbis on staff but universalist ministers as well as artists and media producers.


Rachel Sumekh

Founder and CEO of Swipe Out Hunger 

I predict that over the next 30 years, L.A. will see the peak of its burgeoning cultural renaissance and there will be a beautiful Jewish component to it –– and one thing I know won’t change is that, Persian Jews will hold the title for greatest Shabbat dinner parties.


Amanda Susskind

Anti-Defamation League regional director 

So for the next 30 years of Jewish L.A., my hope is that we will continue to work in coalition with other minority communities as the city continues to thrive as one of the major diverse communities in the world. But my fear is there will be so many issues to deal with around the world, from climate change to hate to nuclear proliferation, that we will have very, very big challenges to stand up to injustice, and that’s why I think the work of the ADL is going to be so critical, because we do build those coalitions and bridges to other communities.


Craig Taubman

Founder of the Pico Union Project

craigtaubman-2The future of the L.A. Jewish community will bring to us what we bring to it. Rabbi Harold Schulweis said it best: “Think ought. Not what is a Jew, but what ought a Jew to be?” This could be the anthem for our children who, unlike us or our parents, don’t determine their future on what was done in the past. They ought to be inspired by the City of Angels they live in, and like angels strive to be messengers of goodness, kindness, righteousness and beauty. This is the Jewish community I aspire to build.


Rabbi David Wolpe

Max Webb Senior Rabbi at Sinai Temple

Today we will play prophets
Tomorrow, we’ll be fools:
Who will and won’t belong?
We’re certain to be wrong.
Whose words will never fade?
Predict, and be betrayed.
Triumphs may bring tears
‘Lasting’ disappears.
Who knows in thirty years?


Sam Yebri

Attorney and Jewish community leader

When I think of the next 30 years of Jewish Los Angeles, I think of my own daughters and look at that question through their lens. What I hope for in Jewish Los Angeles is there to be a Jewish community that represents the best of our values as Iranian-American Jews – love of family, tradition, and of Israel – as well as the best of our American-Jewish experience –  a community that is progress-oriented and open-minded, that is engaged civically, Jewishly and philanthropically – and also that cares deeply about the greater community and the greater world.


Senior Rabbi Yoshi Zweiback

Stephen Wise Temple

Jewish life 30 years from now? Well, in addition to colonizing space, I have two words for you: rabbi robots. I’m joking, of course, that would be awful for me, personally. What I really see happening over the next 30 years is growth. I think our Los Angeles Jewish community, given its diversity and creativity, is going to grow, both in terms of the number of Jews engaged in Jewish life and in terms of how deeply they are engaging in Jewish life. Because actually now, more than ever before, people need meaning and purpose and that’s what Judaism offers. I’m very excited to be part of that story.

Letters to the editor: BDS and David Myers, Israel’s future, Ben Carson and guns

BDS: Anti-Semitic or Strategic?

David Myers’ article acknowledges a number of important points about the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, but misses the big picture (“Another Way to Think about BDS,” Oct. 16).

Myers correctly states that while some BDS activists are openly anti-Semitic, others are well-meaning people who think they are simply protesting Israeli policy. But BDS should be judged primarily by its political goals, not the intentions of its supporters. BDS is racist at its core because it denies the Jewish people their right to self-determination in their ancestral homeland — Israel. This is true whether its activists realize it or not.

Myers blames the rise of BDS on — what else? — the occupation. But boycotts existed before 1967, and BDS’s current focus on Israel’s presence in the West Bank is purely strategic. BDS co-founder Omar Barghouti himself said, “Would ending the occupation mean the end of BDS? No, it wouldn’t.”

BDS leaders plan to continue until the Jewish people are returned to statelessness because this is their definition of “justice in Palestine.” The anti-Semitic incidents we see on campuses and elsewhere are an inevitable byproduct of this racist agenda.

Lastly, the strategy Myers prescribes is misguided. One-sided condemnations of Israel without equal or greater pressure on Palestinian leaders will only bolster BDS and undermine efforts to achieve a just peace. There’s no need for the Jewish community to heap blame on Israel while shielding Palestinian leaders from accountability. BDS is already doing that quite effectively.

Roz Rothstein

CEO, StandWithUs 

David Myers responds: I oppose the global BDS movement. Moreover, I think we should hold Palestinian leaders accountable for their corrupt and misguided management of their people’s legitimate aspirations for national self-determination. Where I disagree with Roz Rothstein is in the belief that Israel is right in occupying the West Bank of the Jordan river. We do ourselves no benefit with the head-in-the-sand approach that she favors. The occupation is a political disaster, morally corrosive and a huge weight around Israel’s neck that must be lifted.

Two-State Solutions, Three Opinions

Rob Eshman’s editorial left me ambivalent. While I agree that playing the blame game is trivial and that it is time we stop contemplating the past and start focusing on the future, I do not agree with his opinion on a two-state solution. If a two-state solution meant ending this ubiquitous belligerence between Israel and the countries surrounding it, I believe Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would jump at the opportunity and wouldn’t “put off big decisions.” However, the Camp David Summit in 2000, where Ehud Barak offered concessions and Yasser Arafat walked out, is a prime example as to why a two-state solution could never work. No matter how much Israel gives in concessions, it will never be enough. While Eshman might be correct that Israel “can’t survive the death of the two-state solution,” Israel won’t be able to survive the life of a two-state solution until the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state. 

Amira Felsenthal , Los Angeles

I thought “Sticks, Stones and Centrifuges” (Oct. 16) was brilliant. So well written and meaningful. Thank you. 

Might I offer something that may be of interest? It’s about the statements: “So, can Israel make a bold move here? Given the turmoil surrounding it, given the increasing radicalization and despair of the Palestinians, dare Israel dare?” and “I believe Israel has more to lose by clinging to the status quo than by shaking it up.”

Doesn’t almost every Jew want the same thing? It is the question of what comes next that divides us. Hasn’t Israel always taken bold chances, time and again since its creation, to advance peace with the Arabs? 

Has Israel made huge mistakes? Absolutely. We all know it. Yet Israel must continue to take steps for peace. We are in total agreement on this.

Rob Cherniak, Vancouver 

The Second Amendment and the Second World War

Well, Jewish Journal published yet another rant against conservatives, this time Ben Carson was on the leftist chopping block for stating a belief that, had the Jewish people not been unarmed, Hitler could not have achieved the near-total annihilation of European Judaism (“The Nutty Neurosurgeon,” Oct. 16).

I cannot believe a Jewish publication could not be aware of the anti-Nazi uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto, when a handful of Jewish heroes and heroines held off a huge array of Nazi military forces for several weeks with nothing more than a few handguns.

It is highly unlikely that hordes of Nazi soldiers would have entered Jewish homes to haul away our defenseless people had they known each home could have a rifle, perhaps a handgun or two and substantial amounts of ammunition — ready to kill those Nazis on the spot?

Leonard Melman, Nanoose Bay, Canada

Moving and Shaking: Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival, David Myers and Richard Sandler

A red carpet ceremony and a screening of “The Outrageous Sophie Tucker” kicked off the 10th annual Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival (LAJFF) on April 30 at the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills. 

The opening gala, which drew approximately 700 people, was just the beginning of a week of 25 films — including feature-length movies, shorts and documentaries — at theaters citywide.

Among those seen on the red carpet on opening night were Hilary Helstein, LAJFF executive director; philanthropist Daphna Ziman; and actors Radha Mitchell (“Finding Neverland”), Beverly Todd (“The Bucket List”), Max Ryan (“Death Race”) and Ken Davitian (“Borat”). Helstein spotlighted how far the festival has come since its founding a decade ago.  

“Why is this year different from all other years? We finally made it to our 10th — and what a milestone it is!” she said in a statement.

LAJFF founding co-chairs Kim Cavallo and Michele Kaufman were honored “for their creative vision and dedication to the Jewish community,” Helstein said. 

Annette and Robert Lichtenstein co-sponsored the opening night of the festival. 

TRIBE Media Corp., parent company of the Jewish Journal, is the nonprofit sponsor of the LAJFF.

The opening night event’s centerpiece was “The Outrageous Sophie Tucker,” a documentary about the iconic 20th-century superstar who made a name for herself in vaudeville, Broadway, radio, television and Hollywood. A discussion followed with the film’s producers, husband-and-wife team Lloyd and Susan Ecker.

Later during the festival, E. Randol Schoenberg, board president of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust and art restitution lawyer, participated in a Q-and-A after the May 2 screening of “The Art Dealer,” a movie involving Nazi-looted art. Filmmaker Melissa Donovan participated in a discussion after  screenings of her film about an Ethiopian and an American doctor, “Zemene,” on May 3 and 4. 

The closing night ceremony at ArcLight Cinemas in Sherman Oaks featured the first two episodes of the dramatic Israeli television series “Prisoners of War” (“Hatufim”), which inspired the award-winning Showtime series “Homeland.” A Q-and-A followed with Rob Eshman, the Journal’s publisher and editor-in-chief interviewing series creator Gideon Raff, whose latest show, “Dig,” is now on American television network USA. 



David Myers, the incoming inaugural UCLA Sady and Ludwig Kahn Chair in Jewish History. Photo courtesy of UCLA

UCLA professor David Myers has been named the university’s inaugural Sady and Ludwig Kahn Chair in Jewish History, UCLA announced May 19. 

The chair will provide funds for research, graduate student support and more for Myers, the current Robert N. Burr Department Chair in the history department (a position from which he will step down at the end of June).

 “It is a great honor to be the first holder of this chair, which will ensure that the poignant and powerful story of Sady and Ludwig Kahn — and of so many other Jews from the near and distant past — will be taught to generations of students at UCLA,” Myers said. “The Kahn Chair affirms UCLA’s place as a major center for the study of Jewish history in the United States and the world.” 

The late Sady and Ludwig Kahn were German Jews who fled Germany in the late 1930s before starting a successful hat-making business in Los Angeles. Sady, according to a UCLA press release, did not have any children and felt that UCLA, given its role in educating young people, was a deserving beneficiary of the Kahns’ money. She died in 2009. 

Myers has a bachelor’s degree from Yale and a doctorate from Columbia. He has edited eight books and authored several others, including “Re-inventing the Jewish Past: European Jewish Intellectuals and the Zionist Return to History.”


An architecture contest is underway — and may be nearing completion — at Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s (WBT) Koreatown-based Erika J. Glazer Family Campus, in which four major architectural firms have submitted proposals to create a new, 55,000-square-foot event and meeting building, dubbed The Gathering Place. 

The competing architecture firms are Kengo Kuma and Associates, Morphosis Architects, Rem Koolhaas’ OMA and Steven Holl Architects, according to an April 23 press release. Susan Gordon, WBT director of communications and marketing, told the Journal on May 19 that the contest jury committee has recommended architect Koolhaas for the job and that the synagogue is working with the firm to make its plans work financially. She did not provide a cost estimate.

“We didn’t officially announce the choice because we are in a period of due diligence, finding out if what they proposed could be done with a budget we can afford. … In effect, we are working with them to try to come to an agreement,” she said in a phone interview. 

The “inspiring architectural setting … will include a banquet hall with a commercial kitchen, as well as a cafe, meeting and conference rooms, and administrative space,” a press release said. The hope is for groups and individuals both from WBT and from the greater community to hold meetings, programs and other events there.

WBT Senior Rabbi Steven Leder, a jury committee member, said in a statement that architecture holds an important place in the hearts and minds of his worship community. 

“Architecture is a form of prayer. With this building, the temple brings another strong, radiant landmark to our local community, and the larger city of Los Angeles, to further our role as an institution of learning, gathering and giving,” he said.

Among the others on the jury are philanthropist and famed art collector Eli Broad; Hyatt Hotel heir Anthony Pritzker; Lauren Taschen, wife of art-book publisher Benedikt Taschen; philanthropist Erika Glazer; and Richard Koshalek, former head of the Museum of Contemporary Art. 

The completion of the building, expected in 2020, will represent the final phase of the synagogue’s ambitious, three-phase construction effort, the first phase of which focused on the Byzantine-Revival sanctuary that sits on the northeast corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Western Avenue. That construction was completed in 2013. 

The synagogue is in the midst of its second phase of construction — a 6,000-square-foot Karsh Family Social Services Center. 

WBT already has raised more than $100 million, but additional money will be needed for the new building. Its Koreatown campus is one of two of its campuses in Los Angeles. The Audrey and Sydney Irmas Campus is located in West Los Angeles, at Olympic Boulevard and Barrington Avenue. 



Richard Sandler, incoming Jewish Federations of North America board chair. Photo courtesy of Milken Family Foundation

The Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) has nominated Richard Sandler — immediate past chair of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles — as its next chair of the board.

The organization’s board of trustees nominating committee, led by Lori Klinghoffer, will vote on the nomination in November during the JFNA General Assembly, according to a May 14 email from JFNA to its constituents.

Sandler is a past vice chair of the JFNA board and current executive vice president and trustee of the Los Angeles-based Milken Family Foundation. He will succeed Michael Siegal as chair at JFNA, which represents more than 150 federations across the continent.

“As Jewish Federations look to build a strong future for our children and grandchildren, we need a national leadership that will inspire others and help them connect to our critical work,” Siegal said in a statement. “The nominating committee has identified an outstanding slate of individuals that includes a diversity of experience and leadership skills.”

Moving and Shaking highlights events, honors and simchas. Got a tip? Email ryant@jewishjournal.com.

Maintaining Jewish faith: Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi’s collected essays

He was for many decades the dashing Jewish prince of new historians who came of age shortly after the Holocaust already heartsick and shell shocked from what had just happened.  He was also already thinking about how he might write a new script that looked at Jewish suffering through a different lens.  Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi never had a definitive game plan, he knew only that he felt compelled to look where others hadn’t.  His two masterworks, “Zakhor Jewish History and Jewish Memory” (1982) and “Freud’s Moses  Judaism Terminable and Interminable” (1991), won him tremendous critical acclaim for the provocative questions it sparked among Jewish academics. 

He died at 77, in 2009, after a spending a lifetime writing and teaching and mentoring a generation of new historians who would take their places at the nation’s most prestigious universities.  He spent his time at Columbia and then Harvard and then Columbia again.  He was always anxious about the future of his fellow Jews, and this is evident in every sentence he wrote.  He also feared that his own work might somehow accidentally cause further rupture, and he worried about causing harm.  But his work possessed the zealousness and poetic beauty of a driven man who believed he saw what others didn’t, and this fueled his pursuit with an inspired frenzy.

Yerushalmi flirted briefly with becoming a lawyer, but wound up at Yeshiva University before attending the Jewish Theological Seminary, where he was ordained as a rabbi.  He worked at a synagogue in Larchmont, N.Y. for a short time, but never with the intention of making it his vocation.  He was drawn to studying medieval Jewish history, looking at the ways Jews of that era found ways to survive against harrowing odds.  Often this involved endearing themselves to the various royal courts, or publicly converting but practicing their religion in private. 

These Jews were known as the Marranos, and many of the finest essays in this new volume of his work, “The Faith of Fallen Jews: Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi and the Writing of Jewish History,” edited by David N. Myers and Alexander Kaye (Brandeis University Press/The Tauber Institute Series for the Study of European Jewry), examine how they lived.  Myers, once Yerushalmi’s doctoral student at Columbia and now a distinguished professor of Jewish History at UCLA, brings to it his perceptive scholarship on Yerushalmi, whom he has studied for decades.  Myers claims that Yerushalmi never abandoned his hope for a vibrant future for the Jews. 

Yerushalmi grew up in the Bronx with his Russian immigrant parents who allowed him to choose his own path but only after receiving firm grounding in the Bible and the Talmud and the rabbinical commentaries.  His parents arrived in the 1920s, hoping their only cherished son could escape the traumas they had each endured.  And for the most part, he did.  He is remembered by many as a very private man.  Some recall he could be prickly at times and that he was always smoking.  A classmate at Yeshiva University seems to suggest that Yerushalmi spent his early twenties experimenting with various identities, uncertain perhaps as to where he belonged.  He changed his name from Josephy Hyman Erushalmy to Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi for reasons that remain mysterious.  Myers guesses that perhaps it was his way to pay tribute to the modernist Yosef Hamim Brenner.

Myers believes that Yerushalmi’s strength lay in his refusal to make any grand assumptions about truth or redemption, but rather to search elsewhere for revelation.  He thinks the underlying question beneath all of Yerushalmi’s work is this one: “Can Jewish identity survive the modern secular age, with its impulse to dissect and atomize the past?”

I believe Yerushalmi was looking for something to replace Judaism, although he never would have said so aloud.  Not replace it really, but change it into something accessible for modern Jews.  But what?  And at what cost?  He told an interviewer late in his life that he once sought the counsel of a Jungian therapist in Israel.  He recalled sitting in her Haifa apartment on the floor and throwing loose coins into the air for reasons he could not precisely remember.  But it is clear from his own story that he experienced periods of doubt and confusion. 

And Yerushalmi spent years obsessed with Freud, perhaps seeing in Freud’s life a mirroring of some of his own conflicts.  After all, both men were strong and opinionated trailblazers who wished to be free of external restraints regarding their own intellectual pursuits.  Both were forced to wear two faces for the world, one for non-Jews and the other for their fellow Jews.  Both were held back by anti-Semitism in the elite realms they wished to enter.  And both were haunted by their parents’ suffering.  Freud tells a harrowing story about listening as a young boy to his father tell him about having his hat knocked violently off his head by a Gentile thug while walking down the street.  When young Freud asked his father how he responded, his father told him he picked up his hat and left, which left Freud feeling ashamed by his father’s passivity. 

Yerushalmi spoke about his father’s departure for Palestine during the early 1920s, and his work on a kibbutz.  He had come to Palestine with one of his brothers, who soon left to go back to Russia to get their father but neither returned — both victims of anti-Zionist assaults.   As were his father’s many other siblings.   His father soon contracted malaria and left for America, where he was able to recuperate with a friend.

In Yerushalmi’s book on Freud he spends enormous time looking for clues that Freud had successfully become a modern assimilated Jew, but one who had not abandoned his roots.  He provides letters for us that Freud wrote to family and friends that reveal Freud’s essence as having remained essentially Jewish; even without God.  Near the end of his book on Freud, Yerushalmi bravely drops his professional mask and speaks directly to the already dead Freud, seeming to almost expect he might get a response.  He says to Freud: “I think in your innermost heart you believed that psychoanalysis is itself a further, if not final, metamorphosed extension of Judaism, divested of its illusory religious forms but retaining its essential monotheistic characteristics, at least as you understood and described them.  In short, I think you believed that just as you are a godless Jew, psychoanalysis is a godless Judaism.”  I believe Yerushalmi believed this as well for a time, but worried that just believing in psychoanalysis would remove something vital from Judaism even if he couldn’t yet say precisely what that was.

Yerushalmi understood the rigors and discipline required by Judaism, but lived the life of a modern Jew free to choose which rules and rituals he would follow.  His childhood home was bathed in Jewish thought and learning, but it was not an observant one.  We can sense his connection and loyalty to both the ancient world and the modern one — the world of the psychological Jew.  He describes the Jewishness of the psychological Jew as a man who seems, “at least to the outsider, devoid of all but the most vestigial content; it has become almost pure subjectivity.  Content is replaced by character.  Alienated from the classical ancient texts, Psychological Jews tend to insist on inalienable Jewish traits.  Intellectuality and independence of mind, the highest ethical and moral standards, concern for social justice, tenacity in the face of persecution…these are among the qualities they will claim, if called upon as quintessentially Jewish…Psychological Jews tend to be sensitive to anti-Semitic prejudice in a particular way.  Floating in their undefined yet somehow real Jewishness, they will doubly resent and fiercely resist any attempt on the part of the surrounding society to define them against their own wishes.” 

In this excellent new volume of Yerushalmi’s best essays, he writes about Isaac Cordoso, who was born a New Christian in Portugal in the first year of the 17th century.  Cordoso’s family had been forced to convert under the threat of death generations ago during the time of the Inquisition.  But, disturbingly, they were still labeled as “New Christians,” and forced to live under restrictions not applicable to other Gentiles even though they had given up Judaism and been baptized.  They were still seen as a threat; a more dangerous one since now they were somewhat on the inside of the Gentile world.  Cordoso decided to leave his comfortable position as a royal physician and return to Judaism even though he knew almost nothing about it. 

Yerushalmi is drawn in an almost romantic fashion to Cordoso’s determination to live an authentic life at great personal cost.  He discusses how difficult it was for many New Christians to return to Judaism, and is impressed with their strength of mind.  He tells us how some submitted themselves to penitential flogging.  Others remarried in Jewish ceremonies to validate their union.   The men were circumcised and many changed their names to Jewish names.  Some had difficulty dealing with the severity of rabbinical authorities.  Yerushalmi tries to understand  them.  He quotes the poet Joao Pinto Delgada who himself returned to Judaism in France during the 15th century explaining that his parents in Portugal had somehow planted in his soul “The tree of the most Holy Law whose fruits were late in coming.”

In one essay, Yerushalmi explores how Jewish history was recorded for centuries.  He explains that by around the year 100 of the Common Era, the Jews almost seemed to have stopped writing even sacred history.  Then, for another 15 centuries, there is almost no historical record other than what has already been recorded.  The rabbis who formed the Judaism we know today seemed to have lost all interest in what they viewed as mundane history and focused exclusively on the oral law and trusted in the covenant.  So that Roman history, Parthian history, and even the contemporary Jewish history of the Hasmoneans and the Herodians were for the most part ignored since they were not considered worthy of rabbinical history.  Oddly, Yerushalmi writes, “I do not happen to be among those who, even now, would fault medieval Jewry for writing relatively little history.  Far from indicating a gap or flaw in their civilization, it may well reflect a self-sufficiency that ours no longer possesses.” 

It almost impossible to believe Yerushalmi really believes this, since so much of his work was devoted to scavenging around for what wasn’t in the holy books but alive and pulsing in the homes of the Jews of ancient times.  How did they feel?  What was going on around them?  How did the Marranos hide their secret Jewish identities and what motivated them to do so?  How come the New Christians were never trusted and included among the Gentile majority?  These are the questions he repeated raises and hypothesizes about.  He must have felt frustrated by the gaps in Jewish history; the almost complete absence of personal testimonies.

But perhaps the motive for his reticence to criticize medieval Jews and the way the rabbis chose to record their history and their relationship with God lay elsewhere.  He seems to almost confess to a persistent schism that lingered in his thinking and admitted as much in Zakhor when he wrote this: “As a professional historian, I am a new creature in Jewish history.  My lineage does not extend beyond the second decade of the nineteenth century, which makes me, if not illegitimate, a least a parvenu within the long history of the Jews.  It is not merely that I teach Jewish history at a university, though that is new enough.   Such a position only goes back to 1930, when my own teacher, Salo Wittmayer Baron, received the Miller professorship at Columbia, the first chair in Jewish history at a secular university in the Western world.  More than that, it is the very nature of what and how I study, how I teach and what I write, that represents a radically new venture.  I live with the ironic  awareness that the very mode in which I delve into the Jewish past represents a decisive break with that past.”

Elaine Margolin is a frequent contributor of book reviews to The Jewish Journal and other publications.

Letters to the editor: The Gaza conflict and cycles of war

United Under Fire

I have always enjoyed reading David Suissa’s columns, but this last one … it really touched me as a Jew and as a human being (“Gaza War: Taking Sides,” July 25). You wrote words out of my mouth — just better than I would have.

Sheila Ellman via email

That all Jews should support and stand with Israel is obligatory to our survival; that we should not question the process, absurd; that we should stop searching for a road to peace with our neighbors, immoral.

Afshine Emrani via jewishjournal.com


Gaza Truths

Rob Eshman’s column is the most thoughtful, honest and complete evaluation I have seen to date of the conflict in Gaza (“10 Truths About Gaza Conflict,” Aug. 1). I agree with each one of his 10 points. Like him, I fully support Israel but charge them with not making better choices.  

Barbara Bergen via email


War Cycles and Cyclones of Opinion

Excellent analysis, David Myers (“How Many More Cycles of War?” Aug. 1). As many Israeli security experts and others argue, there is unfortunately no military solution to the Israel/Palestinian conflict.

While it now seems more difficult to obtain, Israel needs a comprehensive, sustainable two-state resolution of her conflict with the Palestinians in order to avert increased violence and diplomatic isolation and criticism, respond effectively to her economic, environmental and other domestic problems, and remain both a Jewish and democratic state. Failure to obtain such a resolution will result in a very negative future for Israel, the Palestinians, the U.S. and, indeed, much of the world. 

Of course Israel’s security has to be a major concern in any agreement.

Most people look at the world in terms of good vs. evil, us vs. them, and often demonize opponents. Rather than doing that, I think it is urgent to seek common ground and solutions. It is easy to win a thousand debates, as the Palestinians have often acted irrationally and evilly, but it is important that each side try to see things from the other’s perspective as well as their own, and seek solutions.

Richard Schwartz via jewishjournal.com

David Myers accuses a large segment of the pro-Israel community of being “moral absolutists,” and of being in “lock-step support” for the government of Israel. I’m sure if Myers ventured beyond his Ivory Tower perch, he would meet many on the right who care deeply about aggrieved Palestinians, perhaps even more than those in his ideological camp. If you truly care about the Palestinians, your goal should be the destruction of Hamas, which is the true cause of the suffering of Palestinian civilians.

As for the accusation that we are all in “lock-step support,” I find it laughable that anyone could accuse any group of Jews this large of having total unanimity on anything. We simply acknowledge the reality that despite its short-comings, Israel is, by far, the morally superior side in this conflict. That the Palestinians suffer due to the conflict is entirely Hamas’ fault, just as the suffering of the German civilian population was entirely the fault of Hitler and the Nazis.

Justin Levi, Los Angeles

David Myers acknowledges the “odious Hamas charter” but still thinks that Israeli leaders could end the cycle of war with some “statecraft.”  Exactly what kind of statecraft does Mr. Myers think will work with those dedicated to the destruction of Israel?  This sounds like willful blindness.  Regrettably, every time he and his “silent constituency” place sole responsibility for the ongoing Gaza conflict at Israel’s doorstep, without confronting Hamas’ evil objectives, they undermine Israel and the Jewish people.

Curt Biren, Santa Monica

corrections

In the article “Criticism of Israel’s Gaza Offensive Expressed in Two Rallies” (Aug. 1), the correct name of the Friends of Sabeel’s Los Angeles chapter member who was quoted is Tony Litwinko. In the same story, Dorien Grunbaum was misquoted; the correct quote is, “I understand that Netanyahu knew that the three teens had died and kept it a secret, did not let that out, so he could enrage the Israeli public …”

A Calendar item in the Aug. 1 issue mistakenly identified the German composer Max Bruch as Jewish. He was Protestant.

Judea Pearl: Boycott Israel? Not on my campus

There are many good reasons to oppose the American Studies Association (ASA) decision to boycott Israeli universities. But there are some bad reasons as well. Many arguments against the boycott play exactly into the hands of the pro-boycott propagandists and give them the ammunition they need to continue their racist campaign with renewed vigor and self-righteousness.

The two most dangerous “objections” to the boycott consist of these arguments: 1) There are worse violators of human rights in the world, so why pick on Israel?  And 2) Israel is aware of her crimes, and is willing to confess and repent, with the help of an international team of expert “confessors” who are about to fix all that is broken with Zionism.

I will not comment on the second point because anyone who has been watching Israel’s relentless effort to extricate itself from having to control other people’s lives, how her poets, playwrights, educators, philosophers, journalists, jurors and political leaders have been struggling for the past 66 years to redefine Zionism to fit the changing dynamics of society and circumstances would laugh at the idea that what Zionism needs at this point is expert confessors from the Diaspora, to teach it what it truly stands for.

But the first point deserves a comment or two, because it has been used as a crutch by many commentators, not least among them UCLA professor David Myers, writing in these pages.

Admitting “You caught me stealing, but there are bigger thieves in town” is precisely what the boycott cronies want to hear, and the ASA president’s response, “We have to start somewhere,” sounds much more compelling and honest than the plea for first chasing after the other thieves in town. After all, once you admit to being part of the Mafia, you have no business telling the police how to go about fighting crime, and you should not be surprised if you are arrested first.

I want to assure our students that the case against academic boycott is not as flimsy as these arguments make it sound, and that the majority of faculty on our campuses do recognize both the difficult predicaments of Israel and the non-academic character of the boycott campaign. They recognize that Israel did not choose to occupy another people; her presence in the West Bank was imposed upon her by neighbors who admit to wishing her disappearance and who make sure she understands that lifting the occupation would only intensify their wishes.

They recognize that, obviously, the occupation “has a negative impact on the working conditions of Palestinian researchers and students” (this is a quote from the ASA resolution). But it is also obvious that Israel cannot lift movement restrictions in the West Bank while she is intimidated daily, both rhetorically and physically, with existential threats; normalcy must be symmetrical.

They recognize that while occupation is ugly and unsustainable, the Arab side shares (at least) equal responsibility for prolonging this conflict by nourishing a culture in which coexistence is non-existent.

In particular, Palestinian educators, researchers, students and academic institutions who now call for boycotting Israel are greatly responsible for perpetuating this culture of anti-coexistence, hence no less deserving of a boycott than their Israeli counterparts. Most ASA members should agree that denying peoplehood to a people, for more than 65 years, is no less a crime than causing students at Nablus University to be late to class.

ASA members should be concerned about the reputation of their organization if allowed to be hijacked by the rhetoric of the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement and its radical supporters.

While the resolution itself may sound benign, ASA members should take a hard look at the purpose for which this document will be used in the future, given the radical agenda of its supporters.

The leaders of the BDS movement do not hide that purpose: In every conversation with them. they make it crystal clear that their ultimate goal is not to end the occupation, nor is it to achieve a peaceful solution in the Middle East, but rather to defame Israel in the public eye, to choreograph an arena where Israel’s criminality is debated, to intimidate pro-coexistence voices into silence, if not shame, and eventually bring about Israel’s isolation, if not her demise.

Omar Barghouti, a key ideologist of BDS, stated publicly (Sept. 29, 2013),  “Colonizers [read: Zionists] are not entitled to self-determination, by any definition of self-determination.”

ASA members should also take a hard look at what the passing of this resolution would do to campus climate, how it would isolate faculty members who choose to collaborate with Israeli universities and what it would mean to the posture of Jewish students on campus once BDS supporters sense the smell of victory, however mild.

The commentary by UCLA professor Robin Kelley, who wrote in support of the boycott in these pages, was a perfect reflection of this BDS mentality. We are witnessing a “professor of history” who is as quick to desecrate the word “apartheid” as he is to ignore the historical context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the responsibility of the Arab side in sustaining that conflict. Some “professors of history” can preach for hours and hours on the moral right of the Palestinian people to self determination and, at the same time, ignore or deny the historical right of their neighbors to the same self determination.

In the old days we used to label such professors “racists,” but nowadays that label is reserved strictly for Islamophobes and “white settlers’ colonial societies,” so, on a technicality, Kelley is exonerated. One of Israel’s painful misfortunes is that professors like Kelley formed their worldview at a time when the only villains in town were “white settlers.”

Today, when there are no such settlers in existence (except perhaps the British settlers in the Falkland Islands), history professors must invent them, no matter how absurd the resemblance. And you can guess whom they chose for the honor — the only functioning society in the Middle East that speaks the language of its historical birthplace.

On the positive side, we should not forget that despite its symbolic victory in the ASA case, the BDS movement has given the Jewish people two important gifts. First, support of BDS has become a crisp and unmistakable litmus test by which to distinguish potential discussants from hopeless bigots, and by which to determine whom to include and whom to exclude from the broad tent of “Jewish conversation.” Drawing such red lines was one of the smartest things our sages enforced to preserve Jewish identity. At times it involved painful decisions, which left the Karaites, the early Christians, the Shabtaim, the Spanish Conversos and “Jews for Jesus” out of the community. But these were necessary, life-saving decisions. Today, as if by divine supervision, BDS supporters find themselves excluded from the Jewish conversation — a life-saving demarcation line has been drawn, and a stronger, more united community has emerged

The second blessing has been a miraculous awakening and an unprecedented galvanization of Jewish students and faculty to confront the dangers of the BDS assault. It is still too early to assess, but I would nevertheless venture to predict that next year will not be an easy one for Israel’s enemies on campus. 


Judea Pearl is a professor at UCLA and president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation (

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Avoid zero-sum thinking

The journalist Robert Wright argues in his book “Nonzero” that communication, cooperation and trust increase the likelihood that humans can avoid that favored term of game theorists: the zero-sum game. Whereas greater complexity and nuance allow us to avoid the zero-sum trap, the more simplistic and insular we are, the more likely we are to fall into it.

One was reminded of this lesson when observing two events last week, one local and one global in scope: the conviction of 10 students from UC Irvine (UCI) for disrupting a speech by Israel Ambassador Michael Oren, and the Palestinian bid for statehood at the United Nations.

In the first instance, members of UCI’s Muslim Student Union (MSU) undertook, in premeditated fashion, to shout down Oren at his appearance at UCI on Feb. 8, 2010. The disruption was obnoxious and at odds with the spirit of civil discourse that we try to foster on university campuses. In response, the UCI administration sanctioned the students and suspended the MSU for an academic quarter. Inexplicably, Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckus decided to pursue criminal charges against the students, as if there weren’t more important crimes to prosecute in Orange County. After the verdict was announced on Sept. 23, Rackauckus declared in rather hyperbolic fashion that “we will not tolerate a small band of people who want to hijack our freedoms.”

Sadly, some in the Jewish community regard this verdict as a triumph. Shalom Elcott, the president and CEO of the Jewish Federation & Family Services, Orange County, declared after the convictions: “While we accept the right and requirement of a public institution to provide an unfettered forum for diverse points of view, we do not, nor will we ever, support ‘hate speech.’ ” Hate speech is notoriously difficult to define, though there is a long tradition in American law of adopting a wide and tolerant view of First Amendment rights to free speech. A good, if painful, reminder of this tradition came in the recent 8-1 Supreme Court decision permitting the hateful language used by members of the Westboro Baptist Church, often at funerals of U.S. military personnel. If the speech of the Westboro members, odious as it is, is permitted, then it seems hard to argue that the words of the MSU students protesting the Israel ambassador, annoying as they may have been, should be criminalized.

What is particularly unfortunate is the sense that there is a strong Jewish interest in prosecuting this case. We should be clear: The subtext animating this interest is the desire to lend support to the cause of Israel on college campuses. In the name of defending free speech, Jewish advocates of prosecution of the Irvine students are in fact serving to chill open expression of diverse, if unappealing, views on Israel. But this is not a Jewish interest at all. Support for Israel does not and cannot rest on stifling such competing views. Nor does it require pitting Jewish interests against Muslim interests. On the contrary, American Jews and Muslims, despite differences between them over Israel, have much that joins them. Both are members of minority groups for whom the defense of free speech is an essential fortification of the foundations of democratic society. The costs of tolerance may seem high in the short term, but they are a necessary investment in freedom in the long run. This point was made with considerable clarity in 1979, in the midst of a very troubling situation, when neo-Nazis attempted to march in the streets of Skokie, Ill., home to a large number of Holocaust survivors. The executive director of the ACLU at the time, Aryeh Neier, who lost family in the Holocaust, wisely opined: “Keeping a few Nazis off the streets of Skokie will serve Jews poorly if it means that the freedoms to speak, publish or assemble any place in the United States are thereby weakened.”

Just as we should not see the criminalization of free speech in Irvine as a Jewish victory, so too we should not regard American opposition to the Palestinian statehood bid at the United Nations as a win. In the latter case, Jews who dwell within the bubble of organized communal life tended to regard President Obama’s speech last week — in which he called for direct negotiations in lieu of a U.N. bid — as a clear affirmation of support for Israel. It hardly can be denied that direct negotiations are the ideal way to solve the conflict. But they are not currently possible. The Palestinians negotiated with successive Israeli governments for nearly 20 years and are no closer to a state than before. The current Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has no intention, it seems, of uprooting settlements to make way for a territorially viable Palestinian state. And so, the Palestinians have adopted a nonviolent, diplomatic tack intended to push the hand of Israel and the United States. It is a bold gambit and one that may well fail. But after 63 years of statelessness, a condition to which Israel, neighboring Arab states and the international community all have contributed, it is understandable. The time has come to accord Palestinians self-determination. It is right, and it is just. And it is the only way to assure the long-term existence of Israel as a Jewish state. For without a division of the land between two states, the future holds only a single state.

Jews, of all people, should recognize this. Instead, we find ourselves mired in zero-sum thinking that measures our success by the failure of others. Regrettably, it also places us against the tide of both history and justice.

Where hope is to be found

Recent events have cast a dark pall over Israel. The total collapse of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) has led the latter to pursue the course of unilateral action, as reflected in the drive for United Nations affirmation of Palestinian statehood in September. Meanwhile, a wave of parliamentary activity, instigated by Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu Party, threatens to undermine key foundations of Israel’s democratic tradition by seeking to stifle dissent and free expression.

And yet, on a visit in late July, I discovered that there are persistent and rather unlikely signs of vitality in Israel — and Palestine as well — that allow for a measure of hope. What is distinctive about these signs is that they eschew the kind of sweeping, top-down political solutions that have been the source of so much expectation and accompanying disappointment. Quite to the contrary, they emerge from the bottom up, from grass-roots efforts that seek not a grand resolution to the simmering conflict, but a measure of justice and dignity for individuals.

The first sign of this kind is the remarkable social ferment that has gripped Israel for the past several weeks. On the night of July 30, 150,000 people took to the streets to protest the unaffordable prices and insufficient stock that make housing a desperate concern for many Israelis. Protesters across the country began to dwell in tents in streets in dozens of cities and town to express their opposition to the unrestrained free market that has priced out most Israelis from purchasing or even renting apartments. The protesters are students, parents, religious, secular, individuals, families, Jew and Arab. 

Until recently, this curious collection of Israelis would have said that efforts at large-scale change in their society would lead nowhere. They were shaken out of this belief by the unlikeliest of catalysts — a lightning response, fomented by Facebook, opposing an overnight 100 percent increase in a basic Israeli staple, cottage cheese. The “cottage cheese boycott” of mid-June not only forced a rollback of the extortionist price increase, but also encouraged young Israelis to take to the streets to express their dismay at the fraying social compact in Israel. It is not clear where the protests will lead — whether, for example, they bear the potential to force serious reforms to Israel’s economic privatization strategy (which widens the gap between rich and poor by the day). But it has been an exhilarating example of social enfranchisement for many — a sort of Tahrir Square for Israelis, 87 percent of whom indicated support for the tent protesters in a recent poll.

On a far smaller scale, and without the overwhelming support accorded the tent protesters, rays of hope can be found in the work of small and dedicated groups of activists who fight every day to make Israel live up to the ideals of its own Proclamation of Independence. I spent time with one of these activists, a co-founder of the Israeli group Shovrim Shtika (Breaking the Silence). This group has the mission of collecting testimonies from Israeli soldiers about aberrant practices they observed during Israel Defense Forces (IDF) operations in which they participated. Breaking the Silence also conducts regular tours to the Jewish quarter in Hebron with the mission of exposing the ugliest face of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. 

Hebron was the site of the brutal uprooting of the ancient Jewish community in 1929, in which 67 Jews were massacred. Bent on restoring a presence in Hebron, groups of extremist settlers forced their way back into the city after the Six-Day War in 1967. In order to secure the safety of this small group of settlers, the IDF, along with the police and border patrol, have created a virtual ghost town in the once-teeming marketplace of Hebron — this to assure that hundreds of Jews have free movement while thousands of Palestinians are restricted in gaining access to their homes, cars and businesses. It is a haunting, Orwellian maze of streets and checkpoints that costs millions of dollars a year to maintain and yields blatant discrimination based on race and religion. (One wonders how Israel’s housing crisis would look if the massive government investment in the settlement project were reversed.)

The work that Breaking the Silence does in calling attention to the unconscionable situation in Hebron brings down upon it much criticism. Its activists are labeled traitors, anti-Zionists and even “terrorists,” according to the delusional rhetoric of a recent Knesset proposal. They are anything but. The guide who took me on a site visit to Hebron is a proud Israeli and observant Jew who is motivated by what he regards as the best of Jewish and Zionist values. He seeks not the dismantling of the State of Israel, but the realization of its fullest potential. He does not hold his breath for a breakthrough in high-level negotiations, but rather than sit on his hands, he works from the bottom up to effect justice at the local, individual level. He has hope, because he refuses to succumb to the alternative.

I encountered a similar sentiment while giving a lecture at Al-Quds University in East Jerusalem. The Palestinian students were attentive, curious and engaged. As we sat together in the university cafeteria, they told me that they, too, harbored little hope of a negotiated settlement. All the talk of a two-state solution that attended the Oslo peace process had brought a Palestinian state no closer to fruition. Later, they gave voice to the view that the average Israeli, in their experience, is a violent, gun-toting soldier.

Hearing them talk this way was disheartening, an indication of the deep chasm between the two proximate societies. And yet, quite remarkably, many of the students, just minutes after describing their fear of Israelis, expressed the strong desire to meet their contemporaries across the Green Line. Some had even organized surreptitious encounters between Israelis and Palestinians, social opportunities in which politics was set aside in order to order to get to know one another. The students had fought through their own fears, in extremely trying conditions, to recognize the innate and core humanity dwelling in their fiercest of rivals. 

It is at such moments that glimmers of hope enter the dark chamber of despair. Israel is not bathed in hope at present. But it was important to be reminded, especially by the young people of the region, that we are not at liberty to surrender to despair.

Not your grandfather’s shtibl

As we walked back from shul on a recent Shabbat, my friend and neighbor David Myers asked me if I was “comfortable” with the service we had just attended.

He asked me that question, because I’d mentioned that I’m not used to a service where they don’t separate the men and the women. I have many non-Orthodox friends, and have occasionally visited their synagogues, but this was the first time I really got down and prayed with them.

So no, I was not too comfortable in these unfamiliar surroundings.

But I was fascinated.

While the Pico-Robertson neighborhood is clearly dominated by the Orthodox community, there is a whole other hood within the hood that is not Orthodox. And to be honest, I feel somewhat guilty that it’s taken me about 40 columns to finally get to them. I guess I was going where my comfort level was. Orthodox is what I was raised with, and it’s what I know. But when David invited me to an egalitarian minyan on Robertson Boulevard, I saw my chance.

The first thing that shook me up is the namethe Shtibl Minyan. Shtibl? Doesn’t that sound a little ultra-Orthodox, like something you might see in a shtetl?

Well, yes, but nothing about the Shtibl Minyan is too predictable. For one thing, everyone chips in on everything. And I mean everythingthey take turns leading the prayers, reading from the Torah, making commentaries on the Torah portion of the week and, of course, setting up and cleaning up after the Kiddush.

That’s why they call it egalitarian. There are no presidents, no rabbis and no chazzans. Everyone’s equal. It’s sort of a structured free-for-all. If a decision needs to be made, it must be by consensus. You wonder how they still talk to each other.

When I visited, there were maybe 25 or 30 people in a nondescript, medium-sized conference room, which they rent from the Workmen’s Circle. There are long tables facing each other, a perfect setting for, say, a city council meeting in a tiny Midwestern town. But you quickly realize that you are in a shul, a serious shul. No one talks, everyone prays.

And which melodies do they use when they pray? A Chasidic rabbi’s, of course: the late Shlomo Carlebach, the master of the joyful niggun. On the Shtibl’s Web site, they claim to bring the energy of Simchat Torah to their Shabbat services. That’s easier said than done, but these are clearly happy people who like being where they are.

I’ve been to many Chasidic minyans, and when the simcha hits a fever pitch, we usually clap our hands or bang on the tables. At the Shtibl minyan, they do something I hadn’t seen: they stamp their feet. Not in a loud way, but almost gently, to the rhythm of the prayer and the occasional circular dances that sprinkle the service.

In fact, everything about the Shtibl mynian has a certain gentleness. The dress is earthy casual, the facial expressions reverential but still laid back. If a liberal, musically inclined kibbutz had a minyan, this might be it.

There was one moment in the history of the shul, however, when gentleness took a back seat. This was about seven years ago, during the Democratic Convention in downtown Los Angeles. Arieh Cohen, a pony-tailed Talmud professor with the look of a beatnik hipster, decided to gather a little group of friends for a political demonstration. This show of passion so galvanized the group that it led to the creation of the Shtibl Minyan, which also became a home base for social activism.

This is not a shul that is Jew-centric. The membersa mix of progressive intellectualstake their tikkun olam very seriously. They interpret the Jewish mission broadly to care for the downtrodden of all races and religions. Their Judaism has the most meaning when it is taken out into the real world, like when they link up with groups such as American Jewish World Service, which fights worldwide poverty, and an anti-slavery group called iAbolish, which bills itself as the “world’s first e-abolish movement.”

While I admire these causes, I confess that in the past few years my priorities have shifted. I’ve become more Jew-centric. The Jews are my people, and since we are so tiny and have so few friends around the world, I don’t mind saying that they are my main agenda. When I asked Arieh if he felt a certain obligation to put his Jewish brethren first, he quoted Torah sources that speak to the importance of tikkun olam, and then he brought up a notion I had never heard beforewhat he calls “permeable boundaries.”

Permeable boundaries are Arieh’s way of reconciling the dual obligations of the Jewish faith. When it comes to helping God’s children, we don’t set boundaries that can’t be crossed. It’s a constant back and forth between helping our fellow Jews and helping our fellow humans, and it’s up to us to find the right balance. Personally, my balance skews toward other Jews, but I love knowing that there are Jews like Arieh who might have a different balance.

So when David asked me if my egalitarian experience had made me uncomfortable, it turned out to be a trick question. Because while the correct answer was yes, the more important answer was that it didn’t really matter.

What mattereda lot more than my comfortwas that I met Jews who love their Judaism, and who showed me different ways of expressing that love.

It’s true that there’s a lot to be said for the comfort of the familiar, but there’s also a lot to be said for those butterflies you feel when you discover the unfamiliar.

Especially when that unfamiliar happens to be family.

For more information, visit http://www.shtibl.com.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.

Open Debate Preferable to Blind Support

A recent report in The New York Times captured almost perfectly the thorny questions that stand at the center of relations between the American Jewish community and Israel. Should one be permitted to criticize the government of a foreign country with which one feels a deep affinity, or is it a moral and political imperative to support the policies of that government, right or wrong?

What was so striking about The Times article was that it raised these questions not about the American Jewish community and Israel, but rather about the African American community and Zimbabwe.

The parallels between the two cases couldn’t be more intriguing. Just as a number of American Jews, usually of the progressive persuasion, have asserted their right and responsibility to criticize Israeli government policy, so, too, a group of African American intellectuals and activists recently abandoned their posture of strong support and advocacy for Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe by issuing a stinging condemnation of his policies, including appropriation of white-owned farmland.

In a letter of June 3, 2003, they recalled their “strong historical ties to the liberation movements in Zimbabwe, which included material and political support, as well as opposition to U.S. government policies that supported white minority rule.” But they quickly moved on to denounce “the political repression under way in Zimbabwe as intolerable and in complete contradiction of the values and principles that were both the foundation of your liberation struggle and of our solidarity with that struggle.”

This public letter provoked a torrent of responses from African Americans, many of whom were critical of the signatories. According to The Times account, the letter writers have been cast as “politically naive, sellouts and misguided betrayers of liberation struggle.”

Among the more serious critics, professor Ronald Walters of the University of Maryland justified his opposition to the letter by stating that “I am on the side of the people who claim there’s a justice issue in terms of the land. You can’t escape the racial dynamic, and you can’t escape the political history.”

Another critic, Mark Fancher, questioned the legitimacy of the letter writers. “This is an African problem, a Zimbabwean problem” — beyond the ken of “people who are really disconnected from the day-to-day lives of people in Zimbabwe.”

It is hard not to hear in those words echoes of a refrain frequently uttered in the American Jewish community — the gist of which is that it is the responsibility of American Jews to express enthusiastic and unequivocal support for the government of Israel.

The underlying logic is that American Jews are themselves “disconnected from the day-to-day lives” of Israelis. It is not they who fight the wars or suffer from the scourge of terrorism; consequently, they have no standing to criticize. Indeed, to express criticism of Israeli policies is to abet the enemy — and thereby come dangerously close to treason.

I am familiar with these arguments, because I have often been on the wrong end of them. Those of us American Jews who have felt compelled to condemn the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip as immoral, self-destructive and a violation of Israel’s own best ideals have often faced the wrath of fellow community members. How could a Jew attack Israel in a time of need? Hadn’t the Palestinians surrendered any right to a state? Weren’t they better off now than before 1967?

A similar set of justifications now issues from the mouths of the opponents of Mugabe’s African American critics. How can one attack an African leader, a heroic figure, in time of need? After all, as Fancher asserts, “The one thing nobody disputes is that, whether he won or not, Mugabe got a lot of votes.” Such statements reveal the absurdity — and moral bankruptcy — of blind support.

Curiously, the tables have turned in the case of American Jews and Israel. Not too long ago, it was taboo to criticize Israel’s occupation. Israel’s government had to be supported, regardless of its policies.

But will the same people who insisted on these principles now be able to reverse course? After all, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, in a speech to his own party, used the “O” word — occupation — to refer to Israel’s hold on the West Bank and Gaza. All of the extraordinary Israeli and Jewish public relations efforts that went into claiming that the territories were “administered” rather than “occupied” went out the door after that speech.

Even more significantly, Sharon has adopted the “road map” for peace. The logic of blind support would dictate that American Jews line up in warm embrace of this Israeli government policy.

It is tempting to argue that those who demanded in an earlier period that American Jewish progressives hold their criticism do the same as Israel enters a new and more promising phase, even if they have reservations about the road map. Tempting perhaps, but not beneficial in the long run.

The recent case of African Americans and Zimbabwe reveals that the stifling of dissent not only reinforces a dangerous status quo but replicates the very policies of repression that one might want to criticize. Open debate, with all its messiness, is preferable to blind support.

This is an important principle to keep in mind — now and in the future — as Jews and African Americans debate the policies of, and demonstrate their bonds to, the countries of their dreams.


David N. Myers is professor of Jewish history and vice chair of the history department at UCLA.

Can We Find the Golden Mean?

In the opening book of his monumental code of Jewish law, Maimonides declared, "We are bidden to walk in the middle paths which are the right and proper ways…." The great medieval sage was articulating the golden mean, the principle that we should avoid extreme behavior, ethical or physical, at all times. The person who succeeds — indeed, who navigates between indulgence and self-denial — is, by Maimonides’ standards, the wise one.

Wisdom, alas, has not always been present in the still-swirling Wolpe affair. At times, the two sides have vied to outdo one other in a cyclical game of delegitimization. Each side would do well to lower the rhetorical volume and adopt the golden mean in its behavior toward the other.

But this does not mean that the competing perspectives on whether the Exodus took place can be reconciled. Rather, it means that we in the Jewish world must tolerate radically divergent ways of understanding the world. The fact is that those who believe in the veracity of the Exodus account exist in a parallel universe to those who question it. The two can acknowledge one another, but they are unlikely ever to reconcile their distinct views.

Many noble and great thinkers have tried their hand at reconciliation. Medieval philosophers labored mightily to achieve a harmonious position between the truths of revelation and reason — before more modern figures like Spinoza overturned the cart. Undaunted, their Modern Orthodox descendants offered up a modified version of this reconciliation, insisting on the compatibility of Torah and science (Torah uMadah).

I am dubious about the prospects for success. The critical historical sensibility that Rabbi Wolpe invoked submits every event, actor or text — without exception–to the scholar’s scalpel. In this approach, evidentiary support and contextual corroboration are the essential tools of the trade. These tools are notoriously, even deliberately, indifferent to claims of sacredness.

And they have been applied to the Exodus story for some time now. It is in this regard that adepts of the modern historical approach found Rabbi Wolpe’s lecture anything but newsworthy. The Jerusalem Report, hardly the first word in archaeological research, devoted its April 8, 1993, cover story to the theme: "Did the Exodus Really Happen?" The author, Felice Maranz, canvassed a large number of historians and archaeologists with an intense interest in the Exodus story. Maranz’s conclusion, which drew upon scholars ranging from Jerusalem’s Benjamin Mazar to Toronto’s Donald Redford, was that "there isn’t a shred of hard evidence … to prove that the Israelites were ever slaves in Egypt or that they ever wandered in the Sinai desert."

But does this necessarily consign Exodus to the resting place of false legends? I believe not. The religious believer understands a sacred event as resistant to historical dissection. Such an event, by definition, assumes mythic proportions. This is not to say that it is false or illusory. On the contrary, myth connotes a truth that transcends a particular historical context. Its function, as Mircea Eliade wrote in "Myth and Reality," is "to reveal the exemplary models for all human rites and all significant human activities." It is precisely in this regard that Exodus has served and continues to serve as a grand myth. It is a sacred narrative of the creation of Jewish peoplehood, as well as an exemplary model for all who are intent on liberation. As such, it is true in ways that can not be disproved by historical analysis — much like Jesus’ divinity or Muhammad’s ascent can not be refuted for most believing Christians or Muslims.

Contrary to the fears — and hopes — of many, the advent of modernity has not put an end to such mythic thinking. Religion lives on — in fact, thrives — in much of the world. At the same time, many have embraced the contextual logic of the critical historical sensibility. Sometimes, those who maintain their faith and embrace history are the same people. I suspect that they maintain equilibrium between the two more by compartmentalizing than by reconciling. For this is the way of the bifurcated modern world that we inhabit. To the extent that most of us contend with competing sensibilities within us, we would do well to respect the divergent views of others — if only as a way of honoring ourselves.