Where’s the tough love for Obama?


When it comes to criticizing Israel, liberal supporters of Israel routinely quote the Jewish value of self-criticism. Try telling a pro-Israel critic the following:

“Israel is already being criticized beyond all proportion by much of the world community; it is being demonized and boycotted by a global movement trying to eradicate the Zionist project; it is surrounded by enemies sworn to its destruction; and it already has plenty of criticism and dissent within its own country. Should we, as Diaspora Jews, pile on the criticism and join the feeding frenzy — or should we push back against these exaggerated attacks and make Israel’s case to the world? Why give our enemies more ammunition to hurt us?”

The typical answer you’ll get is: “Because self-criticism is one of the highest Jewish values! It’s not just a right to criticize Israel, it’s an obligation! That’s how we improve. Israel needs our public criticism. It’s the highest and deepest expression of our love for the Jewish state.”

I understand that sentiment: We can’t grow in life without getting some tough love.

But what I don’t understand is this: Why won’t liberal critics of Israel use the same argument for President Obama? If self-criticism is such a noble value, why won’t they show the same kind of “tough love” for the president and criticize him as loudly as they do Israel?

I can’t tell you how often I’ve seen liberal supporters of Israel get all aggressive when criticizing Israel’s policies, but then, as soon as the subject turns to Obama’s policies, they suddenly get all defensive.

Apparently, not all self-criticism is created equal.

This is a shame, because the president could use a lot more criticism from liberals, especially on issues that liberals care deeply about.

In a recent post on the Atlantic Web site titled “Why do Liberals Keep Sanitizing the Obama Story?” Conor Friedersdorf pleads with liberals to “stop ignoring President Obama’s failures on civil liberties, foreign policy, and the separation of powers, treating them as if they [don’t] even merit a mention.”

Friedersdorf takes to task several prominent liberal writers, among them Jonathan Chait, whom he calls “the latest to write about the president as if his civil liberties abuses and executive power excesses never happened.”

Referring to a long assessment of Obama by Chait in New York Magazine, Friedersdorf writes:

“Apparently it isn’t even worthy of mention that Obama’s actions in Libya violated the War Powers Resolution … and the legal advice provided to him by the Office of Legal Counsel.

“Perhaps most egregiously, Chait doesn’t even allude to Obama’s practice of putting American citizens on a secret kill list without any due process.

“Nor does he grapple with warrantless spying on American citizens, Obama’s escalation of the war on whistleblowers, his serial invocation of the state secrets privilege, the Orwellian turn airport security has taken [and] the record-breaking number of deportations over which Obama presided.”

Seriously, how often do we see prominent liberal writers publicly criticize the president for some of these vexing actions, which certainly can’t be blamed on the previous president?

“Why is all this ignored?” Friedersdorf asks. “Telling the story of Obama’s first term without including any of it is a shocking failure of liberalism.

“What does ‘better than the Republicans’ get you if it means that executive privilege keeps expanding, the drones keep killing innocents and inflaming radicals … the Pentagon budget keeps growing, civil liberties keep being eroded, wars are waged without Congressional permission, and every future president knows he or she can do the same because at this point it doesn’t even provoke a significant backlash from the left?”

Friedersdorf says it just won’t cut it “for smart writers and prestigious publications to keep writing big think pieces about Obama’s tenure that read as if some of its most significant, uncomfortable moments never happened.

“Civil liberties and executive power and war-making aren’t fringe concerns. … They’re central to the Obama narrative, and the American narrative, as the president himself would’ve affirmed back when he was articulating lofty standards that he has repeatedly failed to meet.”

So, given all these liberal failures, why are Obama’s liberal supporters “sanitizing” his story? Even before this election season, why have so many of them been reluctant to publicly criticize their president and give him the kind of “tough love” he needs?

Well, here’s one possibility. It’s not that they think Obama is perfect and can do no wrong. Rather, it’s that they see how Obama is already being criticized beyond all proportion by much of the conservative community, and they say to themselves:

“Why should we pile on the criticism and join the feeding frenzy? Better to push back against these exaggerated attacks and make a strong case for our side. Our opponents are so much worse than we are — why give them more ammunition to hurt us?”

Why? For the same reason you criticize Israel — because self-criticism is one of the highest Jewish values! Because self-criticism is not just a right, it’s an obligation!

Because if your beloved Israel deserves your tough love, then so does your beloved president.


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

Documentary traces changes in kibbutz life


Back in the 1930s and ’40s, when Diaspora Jews desperately needed a symbol of Jewish strength and pride, the brawny, sunburned kibbutznik became the poster image for the new Jew emerging in Palestine.

Two generations further on, the straightforward picture has become blurred. The kibbutznik astride a tractor has been largely replaced by the high-tech entrepreneur as the face of modern Israel, and most kibbutzim have had to drastically change their outlook and functions in order to survive.

The history and contradictions of this social, ideological and economic movement are explored in the 79-minute documentary “Inventing Our Life: The Kibbutz Experiment.”

The film, richly studded with black-and-white footage of early kibbutz labor and celebrations, provides a useful, unsentimental look at kibbutz life, from the founding in 1910 of Degania Alef, the flagship commune, to a more recent phenomenon, the urban kibbutz.

Toby Perl Freilich, the film’s director, producer and writer, discovered kibbutz life in the 1970s, while visiting her younger sister, who, to the horror of her immigrant parents, had decided to chuck the American dream and live in a kibbutz.

For her documentary, Freilich visited some 25 of the existing 270 kibbutzim and selected five for closer examination.

The first is Kibbutz Ein Shemer, between Haifa and Netanya, founded in 1927 along the pure ideological lines of a communist commune, a realization of a vision that the Soviets never accomplished.

All property and assets belonged to the kibbutz; children were, for the most part, raised in a group away from their parents; and committees regulated lifestyles and settled disputes. In return, members received all of life’s necessities, from food and clothing to education and health care.

Among the original settlers was Aliza Amir, who proudly declares, “Without the kibbutz there would be no Israel.”

This is no exaggeration. Although in 1948, the year of Israel’s independence, kibbutz members made up only 5 percent of the then-600,000 Jewish population, their ranks were the source of the new nation’s political leaders, ideological shapers, the shock troops of the Palmach and the officers of the defense forces.

Yet another veteran pioneer, David Ben Avraham, is less upbeat. None of his five children has stayed in Ein Shemer, and, voicing the fears of fellow old-timers, he asks plaintively, “How will we survive if our children and grandchildren leave us?”

Ben Avraham has put his finger on the kibbutz’s sorest spot. As Israel has turned from a socialist to an entrepreneurial capitalist society, most of the second and particularly the third generation are abandoning the egalitarian dream for the challenges and rewards of a freer, more competitive and individualistic outside world.

In this sense, the kibbutz history parallels the fate of the utopian communities in America built before and during the 19th century. Few such enclaves could retain the fervor and idealism of their founders beyond one or two generations.

In the late 1960s, the stability and image of the kibbutz movement started to disintegrate. There were bitter internal political splits and growing dissatisfaction with the collectivized lifestyle.

Kibbutzim built large swimming pools, much envied by city dwellers, and many assumed large debts, which they could not repay when the economy soured in the 1980s.

The kibbutzim that have best met the challenges of survival are those that adapted to the new social and economic realities of Israel. These days, almost all kibbutzim have added an industrial and manufacturing component (frequently high-tech), reward managers with higher salaries and have returned responsibility for child rearing to the parents.

There are some cautiously encouraging signs for the movement’s survival. Recent statistics puts kibbutz membership at an all-time high of 140,000, though the figure is somewhat deceptive — considering the tenfold increase in the country’s Jewish population since 1948, the percentage of kibbutz members has actually dropped from 5 to 2.3 percent.

Over time, many kibbutzim have transformed themselves from purely collective to semi-privatized communities. This change, for instance, allows many young couples who work in outside jobs to live and raise their children in the open kibbutz spaces.

Another interesting development is the formation of a few urban kibbutzim, such as Kibbutz Tamuz in the city of Beit Shemesh, west of Jerusalem. Its members hold a range of city jobs but pool their resources and strive for the equality and social cohesion of the old rural kibbutz model.

As the film’s subtitle indicates, Freilich considers the kibbutz an ongoing “experiment,” the outcome of which is yet to be determined. “My film ends with a question mark,” she said. “The jury is still out on the final verdict.”

Freilich’s resume includes numerous awards for the documentaries “Secret Lives: Hidden Children and Their Rescuers During WWII” and “Resistance: Untold Stories of Jewish Partisans.” Her largest financial support for the kibbutz film came from the Foundation for Jewish Culture.

“Inventing Our Life” opens June 8 at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Beverly Hills and Town Center in Encino.

Netanyahu pulls ad campaign for Israeli expats that angered U.S. Jews


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is canceling an ad campaign aimed at luring Israeli expatriates home that some American Jews have found offensive.

The ads, produced by Israel’s Ministry of Immigrant Absorption, attempt to convey the message that the children and families of Israeli expats will not have Israeli identities if they stay in the Diaspora. This week, the Jewish Federations of North America called the ads “insulting,” and the head of the Anti-Defamation League said they were “demeaning.”

“The Ministry of Immigrant Absorption’s campaign clearly did not take into account American Jewish sensibilities, and we regret any offense it caused,” Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, said in a statement. “The campaign, which aimed to encourage Israelis living abroad to return home, was a laudable one, and it was not meant to cause insult. The campaign was conducted without the knowledge or approval of the Prime Minister’s Office or of the Israeli Embassy in Washington. Prime Minister Netanyahu, once made aware of the campaign, ordered the videos immediately removed from YouTube, and he ordered that the billboards be removed as well. The prime minister deeply values the American Jewish community and is committed to deepening ties between it and the State of Israel.”

Though the ad campaign, consisting of billboards and three videos running on YouTube and on some Israeli sattelite TV channels, is more than two months old, Jewish organizations appear to have been galvanized by a report on The Jewish Channel that was highlighted Wednesday by The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg in a blog post titled “Netanyahu Government Suggests Israelis Avoid Marrying American Jews.” Goldberg called the ads a “demonstration of Israeli contempt for American Jews.”

The Jewish Federations then said it was sending a letter to Netanyahu protesting the 30-second spots and asking that they be pulled.

In one of the ads American Jews complained about, the young daughter of Israeli expats sits with her parents while video chatting with her grandparents in Israel, who have a lighted menorah in the background. When the grandparents ask the girl what holiday it is, she says, “Christmas!” The tagline: “They will always be Israeli. Their kids won’t.”

In another ad, a dozing Israeli expat father is deaf to his son’s calls of “Daddy!” until the kid finally says “Abba!” The tagline: “Before ‘Abba’ turns into ‘Daddy,’ it’s time to come back to Israel.”

“While we recognize the motivations behind the ad campaign, we are strongly opposed to the messaging that American Jews do not understand Israel,” Jewish Federations leaders wrote to their board of trustees. “We share the concerns many of you have expressed that this outrageous and insulting message could harm the Israel-Diaspora relationship.”

The Anti-Defamation League’s national director, Abraham Foxman, told Haaretz the ads were “heavy-handed, and even demeaning.”

According to the Haaretz report, Israeli’s Foreign Ministry consulted with the Absorption Ministry after receiving several complaints from American Jews and was told that the feedback from Israelis who live in the United States was positive.

Watch the ads:

 

 

 

Meeting again with Jewish leaders, Abbas broaches substance


For Mahmoud Abbas and U.S. Jewish leaders, their second date featured a little more substance and a little less flirtation. And this time the Palestinian Authority president brought a wing man.

Abbas and his prime minister, Salam Fayyad, met separately Tuesday evening with Jewish leaders in New York —a sign of understanding on the Palestinian side of the importance of Jewish sensibilities, in Israel and the Diaspora, to advancing the peace process.

Abbas at the meeting seemed ready to move forward on some substantive issues, which took place during the launch of the U.N. General Assembly session.

In the first meeting, in June, Abbas had frustrated Jewish leaders by dodging issues of substance—returning to direct talks and incitement—but set a tone unprecedented in Palestinian-Jewish relations by recognizing a Jewish historical presence in the land of Israel.

When a group of Palestinian intellectuals challenged Abbas on the issue a month later, instead of backtracking—typical of the one step forward, two steps back peace process tradition—his envoy in Washington, Ma’en Areikat, repeated and reaffirmed the comments.

In the interim, direct talks have been launched, and Abbas was prepared to move forward on some substantive issues at Tuesday’s meeting.

“I would like for us to engage in a dialogue where we listen to each other and where I can respond to your questions because I trust we have one mutual objective—to achieve peace,” he said, according to notes provided by the Center for Middle East Peace.

The center, a dovish group founded by diet magnate Daniel Abraham, sponsored the Abbas meeting, as it did in June. The Fayyad meeting was sponsored by The Israel Project, which tracks support for Israel in the United States and throughout the world.

Making his clearest statement to date on the matter, Abbas said he would not walk away from negotiations should Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fail to extend a partial 10-month moratorium on settlement building set to lapse next week. The PA leader suggested that a way out might be if Netanyahu does not make a public issue of the end of the moratorium.

“I cannot say I will leave the negotiations, but it’s very difficult for me to resume talks if Prime Minister Netanyahu declares that he will continue his activity in the West Bank and Jerusalem,” Abbas said.

Netanyahu is under pressure from the settlement movement not only to end the moratorium, but to resume building at levels unprecedented in his prime ministership. The Israeli leader also is heedful, however, of Obama administration demands that the parties not go out of their way to outrage each other.

Among the Jewish leaders at the Abbas meeting were Malcolm Hoenlein and Alan Solow, the executive vice chairman and chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations; Abraham Foxman, the Anti-Defamation League’s national director; and leaders of umbrella groups such as the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and the Jewish Federations of North America.

Also on hand were Clinton administration foreign policy mavens such as Sandy Berger, Madeleine Albright and Daniel Kurtzer, who maintain close ties with Obama’s foreign policy team.

Abbas also showed that he was attempting to bridge a gap on what until now seemed an intractable issue.

The Palestinians have long accepted the inevitability of a demilitarized state, but they reject a continued Israeli military presence. Netanyahu told Jewish leaders in a conference call Monday that he would trust no one but Israeli troops to preserve Israel’s security on the West Bank’s eastern border. At the meeting, Abbas floated the idea of a non-Israeli force that would include Jewish soldiers.

On other issues, Abbas was less prepared to come forward.

Israel wants a clear commitment from the Palestinians that any discussion of the refugee issue would clearly preclude a flooding of Israel with descendants of refugees of the 1948 war, which Israelis say is a recipe for the peaceful eradication of Israel. Behind closed doors, the Palestinians have said they are ready to provide Israel the assurances it needs, but Abbas said at the meeting only that it is a final-status issue.

Another issue could yet scuttle the talks now that the parties seem ready to put the settlement moratorium behind them.

Netanyahu, having extracted what seems to be an irreversible Palestinian recognition of Israel during his previous turn in the job, in 1998, now wants the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state—a result of the emergence of movements that seek to strip Israel of its Jewish character.

Abbas has resisted, in part because he sees such recognition as cutting off the 20 percent of Israel that is Arab, but also because he seems baffled by the demand. He argues that states are free to define themselves and should not need the approbation of others.

“If the Israeli people want to name themselves whatever they want, they are free to do so,” the PA president said.

In a sign that he also was seeking conciliation on the matter, Abbas said at the meeting that he would accept the designation if it were approved by the Knesset. He repeated his recognition of Israel’s Jewish roots and decried Holocaust denial.

It was not far enough for some of his interlocutors.

Stephen Savitzky, the president of the Orthodox Union, wanted Abbas to recognize not only Jewish ties to the land but with the Temple Mount, the site of the third holiest mosque in Islam.

“President Abbas missed an opportunity this evening to make a key statement that would have created good will in the Jewish community,” Savitzky said in a statement.

Fayyad, less charismatic but deemed more trustworthy than Abbas by the pro-Israel intelligentsia, appeared to fare well in the dinner hosted by The Israel Project, which hews to the centrist-right pro-Israel line of much of the U.S. Jewish establishment. He scored points for admitting that the Palestinian Authority had not done enough to combat incitement.

“Prime Minister Fayyad’s spirit of hope was extremely welcome,” said Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, a founder of The Israel Project.

“We know that some people will criticize us for falling for a Palestinian ‘charm offensive.’ However, there is nothing offensive about charm. More Jews and Muslims, Israelis and Palestinians, should sit together over dinner and exchange ideas—especially when it can help lead to security and peace.”

Exploring what makes up the Jewish tapestry


We’ve all played the “Jewish geography” game — you know, questioning someone we’ve only just met in order to discover common Jewish connections, friends or even family.

In doing so, we are mapping out our experiences, delineating a sort of Jewish topography of interlinking backgrounds, histories and far-flung mishpachah.

Somehow I feel a sense of profound satisfaction when I discover an unexpected link with a stranger. It’s like a gift, an almost magical sense of communion with the densely woven tapestry of Jewish life — or at least with an individual or a place that helps make up that tapestry.

The idea of Jewish topography and the spaces and places — physical and metaphysical — in which Jews live, dream and interact forms the basis of a fascinating new book. “Jewish Topographies: Visions of Space, Traditions of Place” (Ashgate Publishing House, 2008) is a collection of essays by a score of international scholars who participated in a six-year research project at the University of Potsdam in Germany.

Called Makom, or “place” in Hebrew, the project aimed to explore the relevance of space and place in Jewish life and culture.

Paris-based historian Diana Pinto coined the term “Jewish space” in the 1990s to describe the place occupied by Jews, Jewish culture and Jewish memory within mainstream European society, regardless of the size or activity of the local Jewish population.

“There is a Jewish space in Europe that will exist even in the absence of Jews,” she said. “The ‘Jewish thing’ is becoming universal.”

Pinto’s thesis was a spark for my own explorations of the often-intense relationship between non-Jews and Jewish culture in Europe. I coined the term “virtually Jewish” to describe how non-Jews often “fill” Europe’s Jewish space with their own ideas and operations.

“Jewish Topographies” takes a much different approach.

It regards Jewish space from within the Jewish world rather than from the virtually Jewish perspective of outside interaction. It sees Jewish spaces as actual environments that are shaped by Jews, where Jewish life may be rooted and where Jewish activities go on.

“Jewish things” happen there and often, in turn, define the identity of the physical places where they are happening.

One of the goals of the project, the book’s editors write, was to counteract stereotypes that long have conveyed “the pervasive impression that the Jewish experience — except the Israeli one — is one of profound displacement, lacking not only a proper territory but also a substantial spatiality or attachment to place.”

“Jewish Topographies” goes far beyond geography. Its chapters examine very different, and sometimes unusual, places where Jewish experience is strongly linked, physically or emotionally, to specific environments.

Most deal with concrete settings: Jews defiantly (and astonishingly) cultivating gardens in the midst of World War II ghettos. Jews hiking and kayaking through the pre-war Polish countryside to gain connection with the land in which they live. The architectural and spatial symbolism of the eruv in contemporary Germany. The impact of what Jews eat, and the creation of definable Jewish “foodscapes.” A “map” of the new alternative Jewish subcultures that have emerged recently in Budapest.

The book also includes an epilogue that expands the concept of Jewish space into areas that only recently opened up for exploration. Called “Virtual Jewish Topography,” it chronicles the creation and growth of Judaism in the online cyberworld known as Second Life, starting with the creation of Beth Israel, the first Second Life synagogue, in August 2006.

Its author, Julian Voloj, tells a fascinating story of avatars, screen names and self-selected identities as he charts the development of synagogues, Jewish institutions, Jewish cultural activities and Jewish neighborhoods — even anti-Semitic incidents — in a world that in a sense is real but also quite imaginary.

“How does one describe a place that does not ‘really’ exist and that can be changed by a simple mouse click?” he writes. “And how does one describe a culture in transition?”

German-born Voloj is a writer, photographer and former Jewish student leader who now works for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. In addition to his expertise in novel Jewish topographies, he’s also adept at playing classic “Jewish geography.”

Indeed, I was pleased to learn not long ago that Voloj’s grandmother turns out to be a close friend in Hamburg of my own first cousin once removed.

Ruth Ellen Gruber’s books include “National Geographic Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to Eastern Europe” and “Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe.”

Fending off the end of aliyah


Founded with the express purpose of “ingathering of the exiles” — but with no more large groups of Jews to save — Israel is facing the end of the era of mass aliyah.

Recent reports that the Jewish Agency for Israel was considering shutting down its flagship aliyah department have prompted discussions about the future of immigration to Israel even as agency officials quickly denied the department was closing.

“Israel cannot throw away the idea of aliyah because it is one of basics of the ideology of having a Jewish state,” said David Raz, a former Jewish Agency emissary abroad. “You have to create a situation that people will want to come, from the element of being together with Jews. But it’s not simple. There is a trickle, but basically from the free world the majority does not want to come.”

The crux of the matter is that immigration of necessity — also called “push aliyah” — is largely at its end, with few Jews left in the Diaspora who need the Jewish state as a haven from persecution or dire economic straits. The Jews of the Arab world fled to Israel in the 1950s, Russian-speaking Jews flocked here in the 1990s and Ethiopians came over the course of the past 25 years.

With nothing pushing mass immigration of Jews today, all that remains are the few immigrants of choice — also known as “pull” immigrants. Officials involved with aliyah say they expect no more than 15,000 or so new immigrants to Israel this year.

“You have Jews in the West who live very comfortably under pluralistic governments that give them unprecedented social and economic opportunities and let them live Jewish lives,” said Uzi Rebhun, a demographer at Hebrew University’s Institute of Contemporary Jewry. “In turn, aliyah to Israel has gone down.”

With the pool of potential push immigrants drying up, officials like Oded Salomon, the director-general of aliyah and absorption for the Jewish Agency, are thinking about how to pull Jews to Israel in new and different ways.

Salomon says the focus now is on educational programs that bring young Jews to Israel in the hope of fostering lifelong connections to the Jewish state and creating new immigrants.

The Jewish Agency wants to create a special visa for visiting Diaspora Jews who want to explore the idea of aliyah by living in Israel for a few months. Such arrivals would be assisted with finding volunteer or work positions and Hebrew study.

Aliyah officials also are embracing the notion of “flexible aliyah” in which immigrants split their time between Israel and the Diaspora. About 10 percent of immigrants who have made aliyah with the assistance of Nefesh B’Nefesh, which facilitates aliyah from North America and Britain with cash grants and assistance, divide their time between Israel and jobs abroad.

Other ideas to attract a new kind of aliyah being discussed include retirement communities near Eilat for American Jewish retirees and the creation of an all-French-speaking town.

Israel has experienced other periods of sluggish immigration, such as the 1970s and 1980s, but in those eras there were large communities of Jews unable to emigrate and come to the Jewish state, such as those in the Soviet Union.

Today, however, the Jews who remain in the former Soviet Union are either too old to immigrate or prefer to stay put in countries where improved economies and more democratic freedoms have made life in the Diaspora more attractive.

Mass immigration from Ethiopia — where politics, economics and religious ideology sent tens of thousands of Jews to Israel over the past quarter century — is expected to end some time this summer.

Yuli Edelstein, the former Soviet refusnik and prisoner of Zion who later served as Israel’s absorption minister, said Israel must make sure it can provide both meaningful professional opportunities and meaningful Jewish life if it wants to see significant immigration to the country.

“This is a real period of rethinking,” Edelstein said in an interview, noting the economic and professional opportunities Jews have in the West. “Without a Jewish motivation for being here, it will be much more difficult to attract people.”

Among Israelis, too, the ethos of aliyah has dampened in recent years, a far cry from when it was described by the drafters of Israel’s Declaration of Independence in 1948 as part of the vision of “the prophets of Israel.”

Despite the country’s founding mission, Rebhun said, “Sixty years after the State of Israel was established, most Jews still live outside of Israel.”

Sergio DellaPergola, a demographer from Hebrew University who also is associated with the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, a Jerusalem think tank, says many potential immigrants are put off by the bureaucracy and difficulties of Israeli life, not to mention Israel’s security situation.

DellaPergola says major reforms are needed to help ease the path of immigrants, especially when it comes to accepting degrees and professional credentials earned abroad.

Despite plans for a new set of tax breaks for new immigrants and other ideas to help pave the way for potential immigrants, at the end of the day immigrants will come to Israel only if they see in the Jewish state the promise of a fulfilling Jewish life, DellaPergola said.

“If it’s a country just like any other,” he said, “then why come here?”

Israel obligated to consider Diaspora views on Jerusalem


Do Jews outside Israel have the right to criticize Israeli policies relating to defense and security matters or eternal issues, like concessions on Jerusalem?

Some argue that while Diaspora Jews may debate a range of Israeli policies, national security and defense policies should be debated only by Israelis, seeing that only Israelis directly reap the benefits or pay the price of such decisions. But this conclusion does not follow from the premise.

We agree that Israelis alone have the right and obligation to decide what Israel should do in life-and-death questions of national security and defense. In fact, we would strongly oppose anyone other than Israelis deciding Israel’s future.

But this does not mean that Diaspora Jews cannot contribute by debate and criticism to the evolution of the decisions that Israel takes. On the contrary, the onus is upon those who disagree to explain why Diaspora Jews, on matters of vital importance to the future of Israel and the Jewish people, should suddenly be struck dumb.

The legitimacy and importance of Diaspora Jewish participation in Israeli debates is all the stronger when the subject is Jerusalem. Here we are not only talking of Israel’s capital but about the central inheritance of all the Jewish people.

Jerusalem is our holiest city, mentioned more than 600 times in the Bible and referred or alluded to in dozens of prayers. Major Jewish rituals, including the conclusion of the Pesach seder and Yom Kippur, end with the age-old affirmation, “Next year in Jerusalem.” And these prayers and rituals refer to the historic old city with the Temple Mount in eastern Jerusalem — precisely the areas that Palestinians are demanding that Israel give up — not the modern suburbs of western Jerusalem.

Jerusalem is also the only city in the world in which Jews have formed a majority since the middle of the 19th century. Under the Rabin government, a “Jerusalem 3000” anniversary celebration was held, something that has not been done for any other historical Jewish city.

Against all that, Jerusalem is not mentioned once in the Quran, nor has it ever served as a Muslim or Arab capital. During the years of Jordan’s illegal occupation of eastern Jerusalem (1948-67), the 58 synagogues there were destroyed, and Jewish gravestones were used to pave Jordanian army latrines.

Despite signed agreements, Jordan did not permit Jews to visit Jerusalem’s holy sites. The city became a backwater, Amman remained the Jordanian capital and no Arab ruler, other than Jordan’s King Hussein, visited it. Moreover, the PLO and Fatah charters do not even mention Jerusalem.

Any division of Jerusalem not only carves out part of the heart of the Jewish people but would also endanger Israel by introducing terrorists within rocket and rifle range of the western half of the city. Just as Sderot near Gaza has been subjected to years of incessant missile and mortar fire from territory handed over to the Palestinian Authority (PA), resulting in almost half its citizenry leaving for safety, the rest of Jerusalem could share the same fate if the eastern half of the city were given to PA control.

And, of course, if concessions are made over the Jerusalem’s holy sites, one can only imagine — after witnessing the torching and destruction of Joseph’s Tomb and the Jericho synagogues once Israeli forces were withdrawn — what fate would lie in store for Jewish sites once the PA obtained control.

Actually we do not even need to imagine: The Muslim waqf, which controls Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, has undertaken renovations and construction programs that have already destroyed priceless Jewish antiquities on that site. Various PA officials over the years have also denied the Jewish religious and historical connection to the city.

Yasser Arafat once said, “That is not the Western Wall at all but a Muslim shrine.” The former PA minister of religious affairs, Hassan Tahboub, asserted, “The Western Wall is Muslim property. It is part of the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Once we control it, Jews must remain six feet away from our holy wall.”

I would add that the Zionist Organization of America’s opposition to the re-division of Jerusalem, contrary to what is often asserted, reflects the expressed views of Israeli public. An October 2007 Tami Steinmetz Center Tel Aviv University poll has shown that a clear majority of Jewish Israelis — 59 percent to 33 percent — oppose, even in return for a peace agreement, Israel handing over to the PA various Arab neighborhoods in the eastern half of Jerusalem.

And this likely reflects the feelings of most Jews throughout the world. Jerusalem is part of our heart and soul. It has great historical and religious significance to Jews, whether they live in Los Angeles, Melbourne, Montreal, Buenos Aires or Paris. That is why Israel is morally obligated to take all of the world Jewry’s feelings into consideration when it comes to this critical issue.

As Eli Wiesel said, “Jerusalem for me is above politics. It represents our collective soul.” Natan Sharansky has said, “Jerusalem is an integral of the identity of the entire Jewish people.” That’s why Jews throughout the world have prayed, “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, may my right hand wither.”

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said during an April 2005 meeting with American Jewish leaders that “Jerusalem will never be divided, and Israel will not negotiate on Jerusalem. Since 1860, the Jewish population of Jerusalem was larger than the Christian and Muslim population combined.” He also stated to American Jewish leaders that “not only can [Diaspora Jews] interfere, but you have to interfere when it comes to Jerusalem,” (Ha’aretz, Feb .23, 2001).

Current Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was emphatic when he told American Jewish leaders last week that “I welcome all thoughts from Diaspora Jews concerning Jerusalem, and I want to emphasize that they have every right to speak out about this issue.”

Morton A. Klein is national president of the Zionist Organization of America.


Mort Klein doesn’t like the “two-state” solution”

The Diaspora may be moving, but it isn’t going away any time soon


When Howard Grossman moved to the northeastern Pennsylvania town of Wilkes-Barre 35 years ago, it was a thriving industrial city with a substantial, long-established Jewish community. Today, anyone who visits Wilkes-Barre cannot help but come away with the impression that this town of 43,000 has seen better days, and will perhaps see not too grand a future.

Along with the decline of the city’s industry, there’s been another loss: a massive reduction in its Jewish population. The community that numbered some 8,000 Jews in the 1920s has now shrunk to barely 2,100, a far more precipitous drop than the 40 percent decline experienced by the city at large.

Wilkes-Barre Jews, Grossman recalls, were prominent among the store owners of its bright and busy shops. But hard times for everyone had an even greater effect on the Jewish community. Today many Wilkes-Barre stores are empty while others have been replaced by low-end retail chains. The children of the original store owners, and of local garment manufacturers, teachers and professionals have, for the most part, decamped.

“It’s a shame,” Grossman says. “This is a town where they had a strong commitment.”

That commitment, Grossman insists, is still there. He estimates that 80 percent of Wilkes-Barre’s Jews are affiliated with a synagogue, a percentage far higher than in most places. Yet the depth of commitment doesn’t reduce the prospect that the community could eventually fade away.

The Protean Diaspora

The trajectory of this Pennsylvania city is nothing new — not in today’s United States, and not throughout the two-millennium-long history of the Diaspora. Jewish communities like the one in Wilkes-Barre have grown to prominence, only to decline over time into insignificance or even oblivion.

“The reality of Jewish life remains complex and protean,” Israeli historian David Vital suggests. “Jewry has no formal boundaries; its informal boundaries are subject to constant movement, change and debate.”

This has also been the history of the Jewish homeland itself: a bright period of ascendancy, followed by a stretch of desolation, and finally, today’s emerging reality, where Israel stands at the brink of becoming, for the first time since the heyday of the ancient state, the home of the largest Jewish community in the world.

Yet through history it has been the Diaspora, for all the contempt felt for it by some in Israel, that has dominated the “protean” history of our people, and marked what Martin Buber once called our “vocation of uniqueness.” Even when the old kingdom still existed in Palestine, Jews thrived mostly in “exile.” As early as 500 B.C.E., Jews established communities from Persia to North Africa. By the time of Jesus, when Hebrews accounted for roughly one in 11 residents of the Roman-dominated Mediterranean, nearly two-thirds lived outside Palestine, with roughly 1 million in Egypt alone.

Over the ensuing centuries these populations were constantly in flux, waxing and waning as economic, political and theocratic fashions forced migrations. Communities rose and then fell. At various times, Jews gathered in Antioch, Alexandria, Trier and, of course, the Eternal City itself. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Jewish fortunes shifted towards the Eastern Empire; later, to Islamic-dominated lands from Spain to Persia.

The Diaspora reached in all directions. Intolerant rulers spurred Jewish colonies to spread northward to The Netherlands and westward to England.

A different movement led eastward, this one from Germany and Central Europe to the vast, under-populated and economically backward lands of Poland and Russia. Between the 16th and 20th centuries, it was there that the largest concentration of Jews, more than 5 million, came to live.

Meanwhile, as Britain, Holland and other European powers stretched their influence around the world, Jews followed. The Diaspora spread as far as India and China, to the “new world” of Australia, and, most portentously, to the Americas.

The Reshuffled Diaspora

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, poverty and growing anti-Semitic pogroms led to the movement of 1.8 million predominately Eastern European Jews to the United States, transforming America into the leading center of Diaspora life.

Then, two inextricably related events further shattered the archipelago of historic Jewish communities: the rise of Nazism and the establishment of the State of Israel.

The first event all but wiped out the great Jewish communities of continental Europe.

The second event, the establishment of the State of Israel, was, of course, a blessing to the notion of global Jewish survival. But it also signaled the end of many of the world’s oldest Jewish enclaves. Muslim reaction against the state led to the virtual elimination of long-thriving Jewish communities in Egypt, Iraq and North Africa. Most of their members sought safety either in Israel, or in the United States, Canada, Australia or France.

This process of consolidation has now accelerated. The collapse of the Soviet Union brought a large population — roughly 1 million at least — out of a traditional center of Jewish life, and in to Israel, the United States and the remaining handful of countries willing to receive it, including, ironically, post-war democratic Germany.

The trend is continuing under the current Russian regime, which, although not openly anti-Semitic, follows an authoritarian, nationalistic bent uncomfortable for many Jews. Perhaps slightly more than 250,000 Jews from the former Soviet Union have immigrated to the United States since the collapse of the communist regime.

Most recently, new developments have enhanced the global concentration of Jews. Rising anti-Semitism and hard economic times, for example, brought many Mexican, Argentine and other South American Jews to Israel and the United States in the 1980s and 1990s. And the rise of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez — a man deeply influenced by the Argentine anti-Semite and Holocaust denier Norberto Ceresole — seems likely to accelerate the diminution of yet another small (roughly 15,000) but well-established Latin American community.

Also significant has been the rise of Islamist Iran, a country closely allied to its fellow oil producer Venezuela, and arguably the leading center of anti-Jewish agitation in the world today. Since the 1979 revolution, about 80 percent of Persian Jewry have left. More than half — at least 50,000 — have relocated to the United States, mostly to Los Angeles and to Long Island, N.Y.

Finding Deeper Truths in Fiction — the Best About Israel


In recent weeks, many of us “Diaspora Jews” kept ourselves neck-deep in news from the Middle East: jumping out of bed to check the front page, keeping the television on all night, refreshing Web sites for the latest headlines. Of course, our routine paled in comparison to many Israelis, who were dashing into bomb shelters, being forced from their homes, arranging funerals. Still, it was a change, part of our anxiety-propelled, bottomless need for information.

But information does not necessarily breed understanding. This is especially true for us who are here and not there, and the distance is a complicating factor. Even those who have planted themselves firmly on one side or another of the political spectrum have been struck by new, different, often uncomfortable thoughts. (“How can I accept the killing of innocent Lebanese civilians, even by Israel?” one asks, while another wonders whether he should up the ante of his support by joining the Israeli army.) Behind these questions is the desire to get a better hold on the exact contours of one’s individual relationship to the State of Israel — not necessarily by figuring out one’s politics as much as by plumbing one’s emotional connection.

The answers to these questions cannot be found on CNN (thankfully). For this, we might be more successfully aided by fiction. One should read Israeli writers, of course — Agnon, Amichai, A.B. Yehoshua, Aharon Appelfeld, Orly Castel-Bloom, Etgar Keret. But the more appropriate template may come from fellow Americans, writers who, by exploring the Diaspora Jew’s relationship to Israel, have gone down this road before.

One of the best of these books is “The Counterlife,” Philip Roth’s 1986 masterpiece. Less a linear tale than five riffs revolving around the same set of characters, the book acts as a kind of narrative kaleidoscope on Jewish identity; with each slight shift of perspective, a whole new picture emerges (think “Sliding Doors,” but smarter). The structure is designed to put the author’s famed alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, face to face with characters who challenge his identity as a Jew — vis-?-vis signature Roth topics (sex, family, psychoanalysis, sex, assimilation, sex) as well as broader ones: the Holocaust, anti-Semitism and, most evocatively here, Israel. Nathan’s good, moderate, American values are challenged — from his resistance to religious ritual and distaste for the political right (“We do not wish to crush the Arab,” a settler leader explains, “we simply will not allow him to crush us”), to his subtle romanticization of Israeli life.

“Whenever I meet you American-Jewish intellectuals,” says his friend Shuki, a wearied Israeli journalist, “with your non-Jewish wives and your good Jewish brains, well-bred, smooth, soft-spoken men, educated men who know how to order in a good restaurant, and to appreciate a good wine, and to listen courteously to another point of view, I think exactly that: We are the excitable, ghettoized, jittery little Jews of the Diaspora, and you are the Jews with all the confidence and cultivation that comes of feeling at home where you are.”
The book is not exclusively about Israel, but those were the sections that moved me. And they are what I’ve found myself rereading over the past weeks.

“The Counterlife” is only one of many, many books about Israel by Americans — from “Yehuda” (1931) by Meyer Levin to “Exodus” (1958) by Leon Uris to “Light Years” (2005) by Tamar Stein (see sidebar). Perhaps it is this kind of reading that can begin to provoke understanding of the conflict a continent away. l

To push fiction as a complement to the newspaper, the television and the Internet in our quest for information and understanding about Israel, we asked readers to help us create a list of the best novels and short stories about Israel written by Diaspora authors:

  • “Yehuda” by Meyer Levin: Based on the author’s own experiences, this book is the first known novel depicting life set on a kibbutz in then-Palestine of 1931 (1931).
  • “Exodus” by Leon Uris: A detailed account of the transition from the ill-treatment of Jews in Europe to the founding of Israel sets up a fictional background for political arguments on issues of the 19th and 20th centuries (1958).
  • “A Weave of Women” by E.M. Broner: A group of very different women band together to save a shelter for wayward Jewish girls (and learn a lesson or two in politics, when they change its official name to “Home for Jewish Future Homemakers”). “Life’s contradictions live throughout this novel,” wrote one reviewer (1978).
  • “Preparing for Sabbath” by Nessa Rapoport: A young woman’s spiritual quest, set in Jerusalem (1981).
  • “The Hope” by Herman Wouk: An epic novel about Israel’s fight for statehood. The author delves into the personal lives of the dramatis personae, including Golda Meir, Moshe Dayan and Anwar Sadat (1993).
  • “Operation Shylock: A Confession” by Philip Roth: An impostor, calling himself “Philip Roth,” causes a furor in Israel by advocating “Diasporism,” the polar opposite of Zionism, encouraging Israelis to return to Eastern Europe (1993).
  • “The Jewish War” by Tova Reich: A radically religious, polygamous man, Jerry Goldberg transforms from a mere social worker in the Bronx to a terrorist leader of a group of American Jews in Israel who secede a portion of the West Bank to form their own nation in this satire (1995).
  • “From a Sealed Room” by Rachel Kadish: The lives of a young woman from New York, a Holocaust survivor and an Israeli housewife intersect (1998).
  • “Damascus Gate” by Robert Stone: A journalist in Jerusalem, reared both Jewish and Christian, feels devoid of a true sense of identity, despite the fact that he is surrounded by some of the most devoutly religious peoples in the world. “The characters in ‘Damascus Gate’ may be ‘God-struck,'” wrote Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times, “they may dream insistently of a better world, but like so many Stone characters, they end up captives of history and their own very human illusions” (1998).
  • “For the Relief of Unbearable Urges” by Nathan Englander: “A debut collection of nine stories that explore the condition of being Jewish with an often hallucinatory, epigrammatic eloquence that is, as advertised, reminiscent of the fiction of Isaac Singer, Saul Bellow, and especially Bernard Malamud,” noted Kirkus (1999).
  • “The Family Orchard” by Eve Nomi: Spanning six generations, this epic follows the lives of one family grounded in Jerusalem (2000).
  • “House of Guilt” by Robert Rosenberg: Police detective Avram Cohen goes on a hunt to find a tycoon’s wayward son, with his search leading him right into the heart of the West Bank (2000).
  • “Strange Fire” by Melvin Bukiet: A dark comedy about a speechwriter for the Israeli prime minister (2001).
  • “Crimes of the City” by Robert Rosenberg: Police detective Avram Cohen must track down the killer of two nuns in Jerusalem while contending with a host of religious and political tensions (2001).
  • “The Ascent of Eli Israel” by Jon Papernick: In seven modern-day stories, the scene is established in Israel, and the plots are mostly driven to underscore hypocrisy, touching on cultural tensions and war (2002).
  • “Quiet Street” by Zelda Popkin and Jeremy A. Popkin: A woman living in the suburbs of Jerusalem must come to terms with reality as she watches her 18-year-old daughter take on the role of soldier instead of farmer (2002).
  • “Seven Blessings” by Ruchama King: Set in an Orthodox community in Jerusalem. King has been described by writer Wendy Shalit as “a writer who writes about a devout lifestyle that she actually lives” (2003).
  • “The Dialogues of Time and Entropy” by Aryeh Lev Stollman: “An expert weaver, Stollman brings together themes of religion, science, and love into an emotional whole,” noted Kirkus (2003).
  • “Welcome to Heavenly Heights” by Risa Miller: A cohort of Jews from the United States ventures to the West Bank to build a new community, but their settlement becomes a primary target of violence (2003).
  • “The Butcher’s Theater” by Jonathan Kellerman: A chief inspector of police who is also a Yemenite Jew begins work on a case involving the death of an Arab woman. After a second killing occurs, the inspector bears witness as Jewish-Arab conflicts ensue (2003).
  • “Ten Thousand Lovers” by Edeet Ravel: A novel, set in the 1970s, about the relationship between a Canadian émigré and an army interrogator. “The tragedy here is both anticipated and inevitable,” said Booklist, “but the textured personal story rises above its political context like a melody soaring beyond the steady rhythm pulsing below it” (2003).
  • “An Hour in Paradise” by Joan Leegant: This collection of 10 short stories covers a breadth of characters — from the secular to Orthodox, young to old — through whom Leegant poses questions about faith, love and change (2003).
  • “The Place Will Comfort You” by Naama Goldstein: In this collection of short stories, American Jews make aliyah and Israelis immigrate to America (2004).
  • “Faith for Beginners” by Aaron Hamburger: An American Jewish family teeters on the edge of collapse. In a last resort, they travel to Israel on a package tour with a mission to reinvigorate their spirituality (2005).
  • “The Task of This Translator” by Todd Hasak-Lowy: According to Publisher’s Weekly, “Hasak-Lowy artfully reveals layers of personal and national identity,” including one story about an Israeli ex-journalist working in the cafe at Yad Vashem who clashes with an American businessman over a stale pastry (2005).
  • “The Covenant” by Naomi Ragen: Set in 2002, a pregnant Israeli woman, her husband and their child are abducted by Hamas (2004).
  • “Light Years” by Tammar Stein: A 20-year-old woman leaves Israel for college in the United States after her boyfriend is killed by a suicide bomber in a Tel Aviv restaurant (2005).

— Compiled by Elisha Sauers

Article reprinted courtesy The Forward

Will They Ever Understand an Israeli’s Mind-Set?


I am lying in my Tel Aviv bed long after midnight, soaking my pillow with tears.

My cries are echoing in the house. My folks are fast asleep. The war with Lebanon has finally hit me.

In my mind, I see my father crying the evening before, watching the Channel 2 news report. The news shows how nurses and brothers refuse to leave the bombarded northern part of Israel, so as not to abandon the elderly living there.

Touched by the courage and good-heartedness of these nurses, my father breaks into tears against his will. He often sobs while watching the daily news. The daily news in Israel is simply awful to watch.

Then another flashback appears. At dinner, my dad reveals that he wants to go back to the army and help the soldiers fight in Lebanon. “Better I die, who have lived my life fully, than an 18-year-old.”

My father is 61 years old; God bless his soul. I love him dearly. More than a decade after he completed his reserve duty he suddenly wants to go back to the army. Die in the battlefield as a grandfather?

I break into tears again.

At the Sheraton Tel Aviv Hotel near the beach, I am stuck in a basement for four hours without food or water. I came to be auditioned for a position of a spokeswoman who delivers to the foreign TV networks information about the suffering of the Israelis during this war. One-hundred fifty people, mainly from the bombarded north, came to the auditions. They are all eager to share their horrors with the rest of the world.

At first I want to finish the auditions as soon as possible and go home, but something tells me to be patient. I end up sitting on my chair for several hours without leaving it. Dumbstruck, I listen to the stories of my countrymen.
“Explosion. The windows shatter into pieces. My seniora runs to me from the other room. She is hysterical. A minute earlier, she had entered the house from our backyard, where the Katyusha just exploded.” The man tells the story in Portuguese. He is angry, and he starts yelling at the camera until the interviewer asks him to calm down or to leave.

A mother and her young daughter step up to the camera. They are so similar that it is hard to tell who is the mother and who is the daughter.

The interviewer gives them the cue to start. The daughter begins. She hugs her mother tight. “I am standing here today because last year, my older sister was murdered in a terror attack. Our lives have changed ever since. It cannot go on for much longer. We must protect ourselves.”

She is done talking. The interviewer asks the mother if she wants to add anything. The mother straightens her look to the camera and begins sobbing. Cut.
Shattered windows. rockets in the backyard. Murdered siblings. Babies living in shelters for 28 days in a row. Anxiety attacks. As I listen to these stories, I manage to put together in my head pieces of an inconceivable puzzle of pain and bereavement.

Yet these stories are somehow alien to me. After all, I am a resident of the center of the country, a bubble not yet shattered by Katyusha missiles from the north or Qassam rockets from the south. It would take a long-range missile to pop my Tel Aviv bubble.

I almost regret not having a heart-breaking story to reveal to the cameras. What can I say? That my cousin, an infantry soldier, almost got killed on the first day of the war on the Lebanese border? That he now suffers from anxiety attacks and cannot return to his own house in the north? That every time he crosses a certain point in the northern part of Israel, he feels as though a Katyusha is chasing him? Or that my pregnant sister almost fainted at Shabbat dinner when she heard a Katyusha explode 30 miles north of her house? That her father-in-law, who runs a children’s village in the north, has to deal both with cancer and with keeping 200 children in a shelter for a month?

I am terribly ashamed of myself. I have no real stories to tell, a spoiled brat from Tel Aviv.

In Hebrew, the word “hasbara” literally means “explaining.” It refers to Israel’s attempts to explain to the rest of the world why: Why Diaspora Jews ought to make Aliyah. Why Israel still has to defend itself from its neighbors. Why it is in control of the West Bank. Why we will never give up the Golan Heights.

Why and why and why I think to myself. Explaining is one thing, but do they really understand?

Do they understand what it means to grow up wishing that when you are 18, you will be recruited to an elite combat unit (the Ivy League of the army)? Or what it feels like to sit on your grandpa’s lap and hear how he came by boat to Eretz Israel with nothing but a swimming suit and became a dignified English teacher? Or what strength it takes every morning just to glance at the front page of the newspaper, where photographs of murdered civilians and soldiers appear? Or how it is possible that when there is war, Israelis who are abroad return to Israel and not vice versa?

How can anyone understand? Academic essays about the Holocaust will not tell you that. Six-Day War archives will be incomplete. News reports from Kiryat Shmona can reveal only some of the picture. How can anyone who did not grow up here grasp the impossible reality we live in?

The world understands comparative statistics: the number of dead in Lebanon vs. the number of dead in Israel. Ratios of casualties: 10 to 1. Laws: international law, humanitarian law, ICC, ICJ, I-See-You-and-You-See-Me. Weapon arsenals: tanks and fighter jets and smart bombs and JDAMS.

But what do they understand about us? About the people who love their country to death from infancy? Who admire Diaspora Jews who leave their convenient lives behind and ascend to the Holy Land? Who have to be on high alert from sunrise to sunset, or else they will simply cease to exist?

We Israelis can go on and on explaining, but will they ever understand?

Shira Kaplan is a 23-year-old Israeli junior studying government at Harvard. She served in the Israel Defense Forces intelligence unit.

This Week – In and Out


Last Friday, when the sun went down in Los Angeles, the Jewish community came alive.

At Sinai Temple in Westwood, 2,000 people packed the sanctuary — standing-room only — to hear Elie Wiesel speak during Friday Night Live services as part of the temple’s centennial celebration (see story on page 13). Afterward, hundreds of 20-somethings stayed for a special Q-and-A session with Oprah’s favorite Holocaust author.

Not three blocks away, Israeli novelist Amos Oz held an overflow Shabbat evening crowd of 800 in his thrall as Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel’s guest speaker.

I stopped in at two other synagogues that night: at Leo Baeck Temple, a Reform shul in Bel Air, a capacity crowd attended the usual, uplifting service, and on La Cienega Boulevard, at Conservative Temple Beth Am, 100 United Synagogue Youth from around California greeted Shabbat on the rooftop, a foretaste of raucous summer camp nights to camp.

On the way home — you may have gathered that, yes, I drive on Shabbat — I took Pico Boulevard, quiet but for the dozens of Orthodox Jews walking home from services.

That’s just a few square miles of L.A. Jewry — I never made it over the hill, or even to the hill, where hundreds flocked to services at Stephen S. Wise Temple.

There’s only so much herring one Jew can eat, my grandfather used to say; it’s hard to be two places at once.

You’d think by now the fact that Jewish life is lived so intensely in Los Angeles would cease to amaze me — after all, this is the second largest Jewish population in the United States. But there remains such a constant wailing over the state of Jewish life that I occasionally have to wonder whether the worriers actually know any, um, Jews.

The latest round of “Oy Veying” was transatlantic. Two weeks ago, the profoundly talented Israeli novelist A.B. Yehoshua told an audience of American Jews in Washington, D.C., that Jewish life is experienced more completely in Israel than anywhere else.

There is, he said, “a fundamental boundary between Jewish identity in Israel and Jewish identity in the Diaspora.”

The former, he argued, was richer, more meaningful and authentic, rooted in the land and language of the Jewish people. The latter, he said, led to an attenuated sense of Jewishness.

“I cannot keep my identity outside Israel,” he said.

Outside Israel, Yehoshua argued, one wears one’s Judaism like a coat that can be taken on or off. Inside Israel, one wears it like skin.

The remarks before the American Jewish Committee touched off a war of words among Israeli and American Jews. The Israeli daily Haaretz ran essays with supporting and competing views. Yehoshua apologized for the bluntness of his remarks in subsequent interviews, but held to them in a more refined way. It’s an argument Yehoshua and a certain stream of Zionists has been making for years. And while I logically rebel against it, there’s a part of me that understands Yehoshua.

Many years ago, I met him while he was on a speaking tour in Los Angeles. We stepped outside his Marina del Rey hotel so he could smoke his pipe. We spoke, in Hebrew, about how the feeling of one’s Jewishness is of a different quality and intensity in Israel, where I had just been living, than in, say, Marina del Rey.

There was a bit of silence. He knocked the dottle from his bowl and turned to me.

“You have to come back,” he said, then walked inside.

If there weren’t a grain of truth in what he’s still saying, people wouldn’t be so upset. But there are other truths as well about Jewish identity: competing, confusing, contradicting ones that I have come to appreciate in the years since. Having lived in Israel, I can tell you the Jews there don’t all walk about aglow with the flame of their Jewishness. Yehoshua’s novels are populated with characters as spiritually bereft in Tel Aviv as Philip Roth’s are in Newark.

As it happens, I do meet Israelis all the time who are leading rich Jewish lives — they’re in Los Angeles.

Diaspora just may be as important to the Jewish existence, and the Jewish psyche, as Zion. There is a practical aspect — money and political support from outside Israel helped create and helps sustain the state — as well as a more ethereal one. The power of being the landless outsider, some might argue, roots us in ideals.

“In the name of nationalism,” wrote Douglas Rushkoff in “Nothing Sacred,” “Jews abandon iconoclasm, the long-standing insight into the false idols of land-based peoples…. Zionism has become a mantra for Jews fighting against assimilation. But Judaism itself was formulated as a way of transcending the obsession with physical territory and focusing instead on the supremacy of time and the realm of ideas. What’s more assimilated than rallying around a flag and fighting for a plot of land, just like everybody else?”

Yehoshua isn’t saying that our existence depends on in-gathering — he knows that argument falls flat in the face of 2,000 years of Jewish existence in exile. But he fails to appreciate the fact that so many of us live in the tension between his truth and Rushkoff’s, belonging everywhere and nowhere, forever trying to be in two places at once.

 

Flourish, Not Fail


The financial crisis facing Jewish Community Center (JCC) programs and locations this week will come as an awful shock to tens of thousands of area Jews, and it should (see story, page 14).

JCC officials and Federation lay leaders and staff stress there is no cause for panic. They believe they can work out a way to save the majority of JCC programs and locations. (The Federation is the largest donor to the JCC system.) But there is no question that without immediate community response, the JCC system faces severe cutbacks.

Other organizations have already offered to step in and help those immigrants, seniors, children and others who would be most affected by cutbacks. And JCC supporters are working to make sure that what looked like inevitable closure last week can be avoidable by next.

The writing has been on the wall for some time now: years of accumulating deficits have led to a series of controversies over JCC closures of centers and services from Santa Monica to mid-Wilshire. "Maybe they should have sold the Westside J," an insider told me. "Maybe they should have sold Silverlake. But they always deferred the tough decisions."

What seems clear even now is that the JCC’s present executive director, Nina Lieberman-Giladi, has done a magnificent and largely thankless job since taking over the helm last year. Giladi inherited the accumulated financial woes — and errors — going back a dozen or more years. The hot potato of debt landed in her lap. Credit her with at least not passing it on.

That the JCCs of the second largest Jewish population in the Diaspora face this crisis raises serious questions about this community’s present priorities and future possibilities.

The centers were incorporated in Los Angeles in 1932. After World War II, Judge Irvin Stalmaster provided the lay leadership to establish the centers as a strong, autonomous institution.

"My dad cared so much about the centers," the judge’s son, Lynn Stalmaster, told me from his home in Santa Fe, N.M. Stalmaster, who went on to create a premiere film industry casting agency, remembered how his father devoted almost every evening to nurturing the center. "He felt the community needed places to parti-cipate in Jewish life other than the synagogue," said Stalmaster.

Stalmaster and the activists, staff workers and donors who followed him shared a vision of JCCs as a place where Jewish Americans could be Americanized, and, later, where American Jews could be Judaized. That is, the centers provided generations of immigrants with a familiar foothold in American society. These days, they provide generations of Americans with a way to reconnect with their Jewishness.

JCCs are as important and as effective today as they ever were. In San Jose, Boston, New Orleans, Orange County and elsewhere, communities are spending millions investing in state-of-the-art Jewish center facilities.

What about in Los Angeles? A Federation-funded study based on the 1997 Los Angeles Jewish Population Study revealed that, while only 11 percent of households belong to a Jewish Community Center, an estimated 133,000 households reported contact with a Jewish Center in the course of a year.

Visiting the Westside JCC — as I do about twice each week — provides a clue as to why centers work, even if the system that supports them is broken. On a given afternoon, moms and dads are picking up kids from swim practice, seniors are kibitzing in the activities room, men wearing kippot are playing basketball alongside men whose only connection to Jewish life is the weekly pick-up game. Centers are the gathering place of the great swath of Jewry, religious and nonreligious, male and female, young, old, somewhat wealthy and downright poor. How can we call for Jewish unity but not support the system that physically makes it possible?

Do we really want our children and grandchildren to grow up in an L.A. Jewish community that has more Holocaust museums and memorials than Jewish Community Centers?

This crisis need not leave the JCC in ruins. As the L.A. Jewish community has shifted and changed, centers have changed with it. In 1952, there was a bitter fight over closing a JCC in the West Adams section near downtown, as most Jews had moved west. But the JCC moved west, and grew as L.A. Jewry did.

This crisis too is an opportunity for more growth and change. But for that to happen, JCC and Federation leaders have got to show creativity and leadership. Centers provide a spawning ground for Jewish identity, which in turn strengthens every Jewish institution here. "This is a time to get everyone around the table — Marvin Hier, Uri Herscher, every rabbi, everyone — and figure out how to save the centers. Are those calls even going out?" said someone close to the process.

On Tuesday, I called Herscher, founder and president of the Skirball Cultural Center, and told him what was happening at the JCCs. "I feel like I’ve just been told someone has died when I wasn’t even told he was sick," he told me. "Are we so divided as a community we can’t ask one another for help? I wouldn’t say no."

When he immigrated to America, Herscher had relied on the centers in Cincinnati and San Jose. "They embrace a lot of people," he said of JCC.

We should extend that embrace into the future: a vision of a new, state-of-the-art center, such as the one outgoing Federation Chairman Todd Morgan has promoted, is a place to start. Add to it the brilliant redesign of the Westside JCC that members there have been struggling to bring into fruition. Add to that other visions, along with better financial oversight and better outreach, and there can be a renewed dedication to a system that deserves to flourish, not fail.

Symbol of All Hopes


About 20 years ago the Israeli author A.B. Yehoshua wrote an essay called "Exile as a Neurotic Solution," in which he endeavored to explain why so many Diaspora Jews, for many centuries and in our own day, have avoided coming to live in the Land of Israel.

In 537 B.C.E., wrote Yehoshua, when the Persian ruler Cyrus decreed that Jews who had been exiled to Babylon earlier in the century could return to Zion, many, primarily members of the "upper strata," didn’t. By the time the Second Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E., he observed, one-third of the Jewish people lived outside of the Holy Land. For nearly two millennia thereafter, until the dawn of Zionism, "the Jewish people did not make one serious or significant effort to return to Eretz Yisrael and restore its lost independence. This people, with the resourcefulness, flexibility and cunning to reach almost every point on the face of the earth — from the Atlas Mountains to the Indian Desert, from Tierra del Fuego to the Siberian steppes — did not make one real effort to come back and settle in Eretz Yisrael. Further, the Jews settled in masses in every country around the Mediterranean basin except Eretz Yisrael. In their wanderings the Jews circled around and about the Land, drawn to it, yet fearing it."

Only when the fear of anti-Semitism in the Diaspora exceeded the fear of the Land, Yehoshua continued, did Zionism prevail, but of course only among a minority of Jews. Since the establishment of the State, the overwhelming majority of Jews who have come here to live have been refugees from persecution. The reason, Yehoshua mused, must lie with "the same common factors that deterred Jews from coming for hundreds of years." What did they fear? Was it the inability to make a living in Israel? This cannot be the case, winked Yehoshua, for if it were true it would lend credence to the contention of anti-Semites (he cited Karl Marx) that Jews care only about money. Or can it be, Yehoshua went on, "fear of the security situation"? "This theory too," he wrote, "explains the excuse rather than the essence. One only has to see how Jews flock to Israel when it is threatened, and the way that Jewish students fight to get on planes to take them straight to war, to realize that this theory is not true either." (As much as I esteem Yehoshua, I do not believe he has the gift of prophecy; and yet he might as well have been writing about the solidarity missions and legions of Birthright students who have defied the official State Department travel advisories and come to Israel at the height of the current intifada.)

What, then, is the core reason for the perpetuation of exile? After all, Jews endlessly dream of and pray for the return to Zion, but they stay in galut (exile). Why has this, over the ages, been so? Yehoshua, who has long been fond of psychological interpretation, likened the situation to the neurotic behavior of a bachelor who constantly proclaims his desire to marry and have children but forever finds ways to avoid doing so. There is something in marriage that he fears. What is the deep-seated anxiety among the Jews that prevents them from returning to the Land?

The answer, for Yehoshua, lies in the inherent conflict between the religious and national components of Judaism. In the Diaspora, the power of Jewish religious authorities was limited to the community; but a sovereign Israel, from the standpoint of Jewish Orthodoxy, must necessarily be a theocracy. Thus the Lubavitcher Rebbe (who was indisputably alive when Yehoshua wrote about him) stayed away from Israel because the restoration of Jewish sovereignty would compel him to coerce all Jews here to observe halacha. "In the golah one can preach, cajole, educate or persuade, but in a totally Jewish ambiance there comes a moment of truth, and at that moment the choice must be either religious or secular. Life in the golah postpones that moment of truth. It is as if the people senses how dangerous is its conflict with itself and therefore tries to put off the conditions of full sovereign life which can exist in Eretz Yisrael." Staying in exile, in short, avoids confronting the harsh implications of sovereignty, the necessity to fully come to terms with the clash between political priorities and religious ones.

Yehoshua’s argument is highly debatable, of course, which is surely what the author intended. Yet his emphasis upon the intrinsic conflict between the spiritual and national aspects of Judaism is at least as germane today as it was a generation ago. I flashed back to this essay while standing amid approximately a quarter million of my fellow Jews in front of the Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem. The occasion, of course, was the enormously impressive rally in support of an undivided Jerusalem, initiated by Israeli politicians Ehud Olmert and Natan Sharansky, funded by American Jews, and billed as a strictly nonpolitical event, the imminent elections notwithstanding.

Speaker after speaker invoked the Psalms, the biblical prophets, the traditional prayer book: "If I forget thee, O Jerusalem…" (A friend of mine told me some years ago that the reason he prefers Tel Aviv is that he can forget about it and his tongue will not cleave to the roof of his mouth.) Prayers for rebuilding Jerusalem are uttered multiple times daily, in the "Amidah" and in the "Birkat Hamazon." Jerusalem is invoked at every Jewish wedding in the Seven Blessings and the breaking of the glass. At the rally, I disagreed with not one word about the sanctity, the primacy, the centrality of Jerusalem. After all, I was raised a religious Zionist and remain one to this day, though I no longer belong to the camp that overwhelmingly, well-nigh homogeneously, dominated the rally. (I saw one bare-headed man, though I imagine there were a few more. I wore a baseball cap with the words "National Elk Refuge, Jackson Hole, Wyoming.") I recalled a beautiful essay by Abraham Joshua Heschel called "Israel as Memory" (1973), in which he wrote:

"After the destruction of Jerusalem, the city did not simply become a vague memory of the distant past; it continued to live as an inspiration in the hearts and minds of the people. Jerusalem became a central hope, the symbol of all hopes. It became the recurrent theme of our liturgy. Thus even when the minds were not aware of it, the words reminded us, the words cried for restoration of Zion and intensified the link, the attachment."

I don’t know why, after Zion was restored, Heschel didn’t make aliyah. Nor do I know why Rabbi Soloveitchik didn’t, or for that matter Maimonides, who settled next door in Egypt. The decision is personal and many factors are involved, and (unlike Yehoshua) I do not fault anyone, illustrious or anonymous, for his or her choice. But I do know that it is less complicated, as a practical matter, for Jews to preserve the pristine status of Jerusalem as inspiration, hope, symbol and theme when they don’t live here. With the establishment of the State, the celestial, ideal, virtual, prayed-for Jerusalem — Yerushalayim shel maalah — slammed hard into the workaday, messy, complex Yerushalayim shel matah, the earthly Jerusalem. Upstairs and downstairs, religious and secular were abruptly conjoined, and their fusion is problematic and highly combustible.

Religion is pure, and the spiritual Jerusalem is indeed the eternal and indivisible bedrock of Jewish national and religious dreaming. Politics is impure, and predicated on mundane reality and compromise. Jerusalem will not cease to be the symbol of our highest Jewish aspirations if ever we share sovereignty here with the Palestinians, no more than its religious power was diminished when, as Heschel wrote at the conclusion of his essay, "numerous conquerors invaded the land: Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Kurds, Mongols, Mamelukes, Tartars and Turks." Heschel continued: "But what did these people make of the land? No one built the state or shaped a nation. The land did not respond."

I am a great admirer of the late Rabbi Heschel, who was a brilliant theologian and scholar and a strong advocate of civil rights — but this last contention, in militant hands, is what can get us in trouble. Whether or not we choose to agree, millions of Palestinians with whom we live in intimate proximity believe they have shaped a nation in this very same land and city. How the new Israeli prime minister chooses to deal with this incontrovertible reality is the central question facing the Jewish people. To invoke, as a political principle, our divine right to this land is a great temptation. But we have come home to a stormy neighborhood, and to veer away from the struggle for peace, to crush the Palestinian uprising with an iron fist, adamantly refuse to compromise on territory, risk a regional conflict — this is a recipe for disaster.

Traveling Salesman


Gerald “Jerry” C. Lasensky describes himself as the Jewish community’s traveling salesman, road warrior and itinerant emissary.

For a more formal title, Lasensky, whose round face and white beard lend him a touch of the leprechaun, is the Western regional director of the United Jewish Communities Network of Independent Communities.Not for him the glittering black-tie fundraisers in Los Angeles or New York, studded with Hollywood celebrities and addressed by an Israeli prime minister or an American vice president.

Rather, his job is to make the rounds of small Western towns and cities with too few Jewish inhabitants to warrant an organized, professional federation structure. He makes sure, for instance, that the few dozen Jews in Victorville, Calif. don’t fall off organized American Jewry’s radar screen or miss the opportunity to contribute their monetary share to the common good in Israel and the Diaspora.

No old-time circuit-riding rabbi or Jewish peddler came close to covering Lasensky’s territory. He makes the rounds of 50 nonfederated communities in the 13 Western states, and his beat extends from Texas to Hawaii, and north to Alaska.

He recalls one memorable trip, which took him from Puerto Rico to Santa Fe, N.M., to Los Angeles and on to Honolulu. In a normal year, Lasensky figures, he logs more than 100,000 air and road miles.

Jewish populations in the towns on Lasensky’s circuit range from less than 100 to 5,000, and the attitudes he encounters toward Jewish identity and communal responsibility vary widely.

In some places, their small numbers draw the Jews close together into a kind of shtetl bond, with a concomitant responsibility for each other’s welfare. Lasensky cites one small Texas town, in which 14 out of 16 Jewish families contribute to the annual fund drive.

In other towns, the lack of Jewish partners and social bonds results in an unusually high intermarriage rate, even by American standards.

“The main product I’m selling is Jewish continuity by fostering Jewish identity,” declares Lasensky. “First comes the friendraising, then the fundraising.”

He sees his task as a two-way street, encouraging Jews in the hinterlands to support organized American Jewry and vice versa.

For instance, when fires recently ravaged the area around Los Alamos, N.M., Lasensky figured out the loss to Jewish families and institutions and then lobbied for assistance from big city federations.

Appropriately, the future emissary to small-town America was born 61 years ago in Sioux City, Iowa, then home to 1,500 Jews, where his Russian immigrant father worked as a cattle dealer. On a rough calculation, Lasensky figures he has raised, directly and indirectly, some $500 million for Jewish causes.Lasensky, the constant traveler, yoked to his cell phone and laptop computer, cherishes his close family ties. He and his wife Dorothy have three adult children and look forward to grandparenthood next February.

His persistence in pursuing his goals can be gauged by an incident a few years ago. At the time, he was in Honolulu attending the annual meeting of the Jewish Federation of Hawaii when he read that President Clinton was coming for a private vacation, following his 1996 reelection.

The Sunday federation dinner in a hotel was well under way when someone reported that Clinton and his entourage were standing in a nearby hallway.

Lasensky dashed out and somehow managed to get close enough to invite Clinton to break bread with a group of Hawaiian Jews. “Bring ’em over,” responded Clinton, and then cordially shook hands and chatted with every one of the 64 guests.

“You’ve got to be prepared at all times,” concludes Lasensky. “You never know who you’re going to meet next.”

Israel and America


When Stuart Schoffman’s cover story, Israel at 52, crossed my desk, I found myself surprised at one significant — for me — omission. There was no mention of American Jewry. My feelings were hurt even though I realized it was foolish of me. This was no deliberate slight on his part; no rejection intended. It was not simply a careless slip of the pen. He was reflecting what has seemed evident to me for some years now: We, American Jews, are no longer a relevant factor in the lives of most Israelis.

Let me add quickly that Stuart Schoffman is no Diaspora basher. Far from it. He is an American writer and intellectual who lived in California, and made aliyah a dozen or so years ago. He has many friends in the U.S. and visits them on his frequent trips here. And also, I would contend from casual conversations with him, he has a deep and abiding affection for this country and for the Jews who reside here.

The Arts


As Israel nears its 50th birthday, events have shifted attentionaway from the stalled peace talks. What dominates the headlines nowis the warlike rhetoric among Jewish factions — both within Israeland in the Diaspora — as they clash over the issue of religiouspluralism.

Gideon Patt is well-versed in the arguments that frame thecontroversy. Before taking his current position as president ofIsrael Bonds last January, the New York University-educated economistheld Cabinet posts in the administrations of Menachem Begin, YitzhakShamir and Shimon Peres, serving at various times as minister ofconstruction and housing, trade and industry, science anddevelopment, and tourism.

Patt, who was in Los Angeles last week to discuss preparations forthe bond campaign conducted annually at synagogues during the HighHolidays, oversees an organization that has sold $18 billion in bondssince 1952. Nearly $1 billion in securities was sold last year alone.Today, 60 percent of Israel bonds are bought by insurance companies,pension funds, labor unions and other institutions. It’s the other 40percent , the individual buyers, whose decision to purchase IsraelBonds carries with it a stronger ideological and emotional componentthat concern him. Whether the current mood among non-OrthodoxAmerican Jews may translate into less support this year for the bondcampaign ( as well as for other campaigns, like United JewishAPpeal), remains to be seen. After the end of this year, when $10billion in US-backed loan guarantees are set to expire, Israel Bondswill undoubtedly be asked to do even more.

The frank and even heated debate that marked Patt’s sessions withlocal rabbis and community leaders was not unexpected. Increasingly,his energy is devoted to emphasizing that Israel Bonds is essentiallya non-political organization and therefore an inappropriate revengetarget for the disgruntled. (“We are,” as he puts it, “in theinfrastructure business.”) More generally, he’s urging Diaspora Jewsto adopt a wait-and-see attitude with regards to events in Israel. Ina wide-ranging interview with The Journal, Patt discussed everythingfrom Israel’s absorption of Ethiopian Jews to its burgeoninghigh-tech industry. But foremost on his mind was the escalatingfractiousness among Jews. Below are some excerpts from thatconversation:

The Conversion Bill

“In the meeting I had here with the rabbis, the major issues underdiscussion were the suggested laws on the question of conversion andthe question of women’s participation on religious councils. My ownposition is a very simple one. Seven times I voted against similiarlaws proposed in the Knesset that, thank G-d, didn’t pass . . .Changing the status quo by passing a law that conversions can be doneonly through an Orthodox rabbi is not exactly a question of who is aJew. It’s more of a question of who is a rabbi. Many rabbis — andrightfully so — feel that their very position within the Jewishreligion is being questioned . . . It casts a shadow. Still, they’renot really pointing a collective finger at Israel Bonds, because wedon’t take the money and divide it up among different groups inIsrael. That money goes towards building the economic infrastructure.We don’t build one road for the Conservative Jews and another roadfor the Orthodox.”

A New Generation of Support

“We had a generation in America — 50 years ago when the Bondsstarted — people who gave to Israel and bought bonds out of Jewishsentiments. Today, we have a new generation, and the giving is amixture of sentiments and brain. When they sum it all up, they say,’Okay, we have sentiments for Israel, so it’s enough for us to gothere and stay in a hotel and spend $5,000. We can enjoy it at thesame time, so why not?’ But when they come to the conclusion thatIsrael is a successful venture, they say, ‘Instead of buying, let’ssay, tax-free municipal bonds and get more or less the same return,why shouldn’t I do it for the State of Israel? It strengthens Israel,and when Israel is stronger, my own position is better.’. . Theirfathers and grandfathers went to sleep at night with a good feelingthat they had supported Israel, and at that time they didn’t evenknow whether Israel would exist in 20 years or if they would get backtheir money. Today, our existence isn’t the question. People buy themfrom a different point of view, a more sophisticated point of viewperhaps, but the results are the same.”

Israel’s Secular-Religious Rift

“Right now, I’m much more concerned with social stability insideIsrael than I am with the peace process. The peace process may goahead and it might not, and either way, we can handle it. But thisfrightens me more than Judea, Samaria, Arafat or terrorism. Our rightto exist will depend upon whether we can master the right answers forour people — social answers –to have a State of Israel. For if weare not unique socially, and if we are not unique as far as thejudiciary system is concerned, so who needs us? . . . Look, I’mjealous of people who have all the answers. But what I want the Stateof Israel to be is such a place that Jews around the world, who haveit very good, would want to come and live there because it’s a uniqueJewish state with unique values. . . not a theocracy, or they won’tcome. And they won’t come if Israel is economically poor. That’s whyI’m mostly concerned with the social fiber of Israel. We are at ajuncture and it’s a dangerous one.”

The Diaspora-Israel Relationship

“The question of religious matters, which can cause a wide gapbetween the Jews of the Diaspora and Israel, is something that keepsme awake many, many nights. It’s not because of the money. If halfthe Jews in America decided tomorrow not to buy bonds, so I wouldsell them to other pension funds. The bonds are not my concern. Myconcern is that the misunderstandings and the gap created by thisquestion of religious pluralism will widen into other aspects oflife, and the unity of the Jewish people will be hurt to the pointwhere the State of Israel will not be able to lean on the Jewishpeople the way they have in the past. On good days it has been less,but on bad days, much more. But even on good days, for Israel to knowthat if bad days come — and they will come — that the Jews arealways behind us.”

Marco Polo Redux


Travelers Meiand John Krich

The affinity of Jews to Chinese food reaches its apotheosis inJohn Krich’s “Won Ton Lust: Adventures in Search of the World’s BestChinese Restaurant” (Kodansha, $24). It’s no outrageous stereotype tostate that, as a people, American Jews seem to need a good Chinesemeal to kick-start us into the week. It’s nothing to be ashamed of;neither is it anything to take lightly.

For those of us who agonize over the lack of great Chinese cuisinewest of Monetrey Park or, at least, west of Chinatown, imagine thejoy luck of Manhattan native John Krich. Raised, as were many of us,in “the particularly Jewish-American ritual of ingesting illicitspare ribs, accompanied by bowls of pretzel-like prefab noodles,”Krich met and wed a native of Shanghai, Mei, and together they setoff on a mission to find the best Chinese food not in their SanFrancisco home, not in America, not even in China, but in the wholeworld.

Since the Chinese diaspora at least equals another one we know of,that meant that the Krich’s dined everywhere from Chez Vong in Paris,to Li Li’s in West Melbourne, to Vancouver’s Kowloon, to Kong Yi Jiin Beijing, to Avalon in Gallup, N.M., to Shun Lee Palace in NewYork, to Yujean Kang in Pasadena — 450 meals at 350 restaurants in23 countries over a 15-month span. If you haven’t tried the BuddhaJumps Over the Wall at the Hai Tian Lo in Singapore — a seafood soupcosting $200 per bowl — you deserve the take-out you get.

The couple begins their enviable journey in Venice, Italy, fromwhere Marco Polo once set out to discover the best ice cream,gunpowder and noodles. The Kriches find that — surprise — the wholeworld is crazy over good Chinese. Fortunately, the Chinese themselvesare among its biggest fans, and their single-minded dedication to thecrispiest duck skin or the perfect cup of tea greatly improves theodds of finding an excellent Chinese meal anywhere. (And afterreading “Won Ton Lust,” you’ll never be so thick as to lump all foodfrom China in as broad a term as “Chinese.”)

Even in humble Los Angeles, the Kriches are amused but notdisappointed. They dismiss Wolfgang Puck’s Chinois and the trendyMandarette as more image than eats. But Krich, 47, appreciates YujeanKang, adores the tableside-poached flounder at Charming Garden inMonterey Park (who wouldn’t?) and swoons over the Mint and DuckTongue at Good Chances in the San Gabriel Valley, whose chef oncecooked for Mao.

Throughout, Krich’s writing is chatty and familiar. The book has ahelpful ranking system, a few mostly indifferent recipes and — amajor oversight — no index. But Krich’s eagerness and appetite isinfectious, whether he’s writing about the Taft (néTaffapolski) branch of his family in Melbourne or about New York’sfamed Shun Lee Palace, which reminds him as nothing so much as “animperial Jewish deli.” And there’s more than a little perception inthat description.


Beef with Ginger and Scallions in Clay Pot

This recipe comes from Charming Garden in Monterey Park, courtesyof “Won Ton Lust.”

Ingredients:

1/2 pound sliced beef

4 cloves garlic

6 green onions

3 slices ginger

1 tbs. Chinese marinated black beans

1/4 tbs. cornstarch

1/4 cup peanut oil

Marinade:

1 egg white

1/2 tsp. soy sauce

1/4 tsp. rice wine

1/2 tsp. cornstarch

Sauce:

1 tbs. rice wine

2 tbs. chicken broth

Slice the beef thinly against the grain. Combine the marinadeingredients and pour over sliced beef. Stir together.

Crush the garlic and slice green onions into 2-inch pieces. Placethe beans in water, let stand 10 minutes, then drain and mash thebeans. In a separate bowl, blend the cornstarch and 1 tbs. wateruntil smooth.

Heat the oil in a wok. Sauté the beef briefly, then remove.Add garlic and beans, and sauté briefly; add the beef to thepan, and stir-fry until fully cooked. Add the sauce, then thecornstarch mixture. Cook 30 seconds.

Add a little oil to a clay pot or other heat-proof vessel. Placeon the stove until hot, add scallion and ginger. Cook until fragrant,then add beef mixture and serve.


Shalom, Hunan

To say that Shalom Hunan is the best kosherChinese food in Los Angeles is not the left-handed compliment itseems.

Granted, the competition is not stiff. This cityand its environs has some of the best Chinese restaurants in theworld (see book review) — the kind of places where I imagine thestaff of Shalom Hunan goes to feast on days off. But the kosherChinese choices I’ve tried — and I haven’t tried them all — seem tostick to bland, oily versions of mid-1970s takeout favorites: kungpao chicken, fried rice, broccoli beef.

Shalom Hunan, a branch of a popular Brookline,Mass., restaurant owned and operated by Chinese-Americans, aimshigher, and mostly succeeds.

It would be easy to fault the restaurant for notliving up to the flavors of other Chinese establishments, butconsider its limitations. Chinese cuisine is the antithesis of kosher– a fact that probably accounts for its rampant popularity amongmany Jews. Its governing laws have everything to do with the complexbalance of clear flavors, in whatever natural form they occur. Kosherlaws severely limit the choice of those forms. None of the standbys,such as shellfish or pork, are allowed, of course. Neither arestandard Chinese condiments, such as oyster sauce. On the plus side,the cooking naturally is dairy-free, so the bane of kosher cuisine –dairy substitutes — needn’t appear.

Unfortunately, while stunning, completelyvegetarian Chinese cuisines exist (try the non-hechshered Fragrant Vegetable inMonterey Park), Chinese kosher chefs feel compelled to imitate themenus of non-kosher restaurants. That’s where Shalom Hunan’sweaknesses show. Appetizers such as “spareribs” ($3.50), beef eggrolls ($1.95) and chicken in foil ($3.95) are notable for the flavorsthey lack. Beef with Broccoli ($10.95) is simply salty, not complexor intense.

But there are many successes. Egg Drop Soup($2.50), thick as a bog, can be a flavorful cold-weather boost.Flavors of citrus and garlic burst forth from Orange Flavored Chicken($12.95) and Shredded Beef with Garlic Sauce ($10.95). You might askfor more heat with your Hunan Fish ($16.95) and Kung Pao Chicken($9.50), but the dishes don’t disappoint.

The lunch specials, a mid-city bargain at around$6.50, are usually filling and flavorful. I can’t help but think thatbehind the pots and pans at Shalom Hunan is a chef who, given theopportunity, could really impress.

And it is no small fact that Shalom Hunan,situated in the former home of the Shanghai Winter Garden, issumptuous in a way restaurants used to be. Deep booths, rich woodcarvings, scarlet rugs, paper lamps dripping gold tassels, etchedscreens setting off quiet rooms in the large elegant space — nokosher restaurant in Los Angeles, period, can boast such atmosphere.And few have Shalom Hunan’s attentive, efficient servers.

At Shalom Hunan, you can wait for your friends inthe bar, sipping a scotch or an Israeli red, then eat a kosherChinese banquet that is, as the movie says, as good as itgets.

Shalom Hunan, 5651 Wilshire Blvd. (213)934-0505. –Robert Eshman

On What It Means To Be Armenian in America


About a decade ago, I was interviewing Professor Richard Hovannisian, the eminent UCLA authority on modern Armenian history.

He lamented the state of the Armenian Diaspora in Los Angeles, with its infighting and confrontations between church leaders, and its American-born generations forgetting the mother tongue and marrying out at an alarming rate.

“Hey,” I said, “that sounds exactly like the Jews.”

“Yes,” responded Hovannisian, “except you’ve got your country, and we haven’t.”

Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Armenians, proud of the oldest civilization in Christendom — always conquered but never vanquished — have finally regained their own country.

But, judging by Leslie Ayvazian’s play, “Nine Armenians,” at the Taper Forum, the redeemed portion of the ancestral land is not a happy place.

Embroiled in constant warfare with its Moslem neighbor, Azerbaijan, and bedeviled by a stagnant economy, the Armenia presented to us is a country bereft of basic amenities, a place where starving citizens have burned their trees and furniture for some spark of warmth during the harsh winters.

As the fate of Israel and the memory of the Holocaust pervade the consciousness of American Jews, so do Armenia and the genocide of 1.5 million of their ancestors permeate the consciousness of American Armenians.

These twin markers of the Armenian experience are a constant underlying presence in the play, with the remembrance of the genocide as a festering wound. The scar has never healed, because the Turks have never acknowledged their guilt and the world — in contrast to the Holocaust — still largely ignores the deep tragedy.

Playwright Ayvazian and director Gordon Davidson work hard to show that, otherwise, the three-generation clan of the play’s title leads a warm, haimish, American family life.

There is the normal quota of affection, bickering, humor, death and growth, and an extraordinary amount of hugging and yelling — apparently, two Armenian ethnic traits.

Yet, with all this, few of the characters are developed fully and deeply enough to warrant the full engagement of the audience or to transmit a distinctly Armenian persona and distinctiveness to the non-Armenian.

A laudable exception is the family matriarch, Grandmother Non, portrayed by Magda Harout. Whether imparting Old World wisdom, showing her granddaughter how to really express suffering, or leading a lively regional dance, Harout infuses her role with warmth and élan.

“Nine Armenians” ends on Aug. 31. For tickets and times, call (213) 628- 2772.