Obama ties to ‘separatist’ pastor raise big questions

In the end, it was not the lies about his religion, but the truth about his religion that may have irrevocably splattered the image of Barack Obama.

Democratic presidential front-runner Obama survived a malicious viral e-mail campaign that he was a Muslim. But can the populist candidacy of the Illinois senator survive the truthful revelations about his 20-year relationship with his spiritual adviser, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright, the “black separatist” Christian pastor?

The two men were and are tight — very tight.

It was Wright’s charismatic “in-your-face” African American activism that first brought the unaffiliated, young 20-something Chicago neighborhood organizer, Obama, into the Trinity Church as a practicing Christian in the ’80s. Obama became a regular attendee and took Wright’s inspiration with him when away from Chicago. While at Harvard studying law, Obama morally tutored himself with tapes of Wright’s fiery lectures.

Wright was a moving force in Obama’s family as well. Wright married Obama to his wife, Michelle, and baptized their two children. The pastor’s provocative sermon, “The Audacity of Hope,” gave Obama the title for his best-selling book of the same name.

Obama even huddled with his pastor for spiritual guidance just before announcing his presidential bid. Wright was given a prominent advisory role in the campaign. Wright is more than an arms-length acquaintance. He is precisely the mentor and close personal adviser Obama has long declared him to be.

Wright asserts, “When the black radical liberals want support, they come to the black church because they know we have the numbers. We pack the buses. Fifty buses with 50 people. For example, the black church sent hundreds of men to the Million Man March.”

Whether voters are satisfied with Obama’s moves to distance himself or condemn the recently broadcast bigotry of Wright, the real question is this: How did a man described by many as a leading anti-American, anti-Israel, anti-white agitator become Obama’s closest mentor for two decades?

Exactly what is the objectionable conduct of Wright?

To begin, Wright is a close confidant and supporter of Louis Farrakhan. The leader of the Nation of Islam has called Jews “bloodsuckers” who practice a “gutter religion.”

Wright was among those deeply affected in the early ’80s by Farrakhan’s South Side Chicago activism. In 1984, Wright was one of the inner circle that traveled with Farrakhan to visit Libyan strongman Col. Muammar Qadhfi. The ostentatious Farrakhan junket came at a time when Qadhfi had been identified as the world’s chief financier of international terrorism, including the Black September group behind the Munich Olympics massacre.

By the time Wright and Farrakhan visited, Libyan oil imports had been banned, and America was trying to topple what it called a “rogue regime.” In the several years after that, Farrakhan was pro-active for Qadhfi, even as Libya was internationally isolated for suspected involvement in numerous terror plots, including the explosion of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.

Farrakhan’s and Wright’s 1984 visit and subsequent support was done precisely to openly ally themselves with a declared enemy of the United States. Why? Because these two American men of the clergy — Farrakhan and Wright — are avowed enemies of the United States.

The Farrakhan-Wright connection is no distant matter of the turbulent ’80s. Farrakhan, Wright and the church have remained in close contact until this very day. As recently as December 2007, the church’s publication bestowed upon Farrakhan its highest honor, the Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr. Trumpeter Award for Lifetime Achievement.

An interview with Farrakhan in the church magazine concludes with the words, “He truly epitomizes greatness.” Wright himself described Farrakhan in that article as “a 20th and 21st century giant.”

Wright is the CEO of the church publication, which is said to reach 200,000 readers across the nation. Members of Wright’s family act as publisher and editor. As recently as this Palm Sunday, March 16, the church listed Farrakhan on its prayer list in the weekend handout at church services.

In the Farrakhan mold, Wright is a firebrand anti-American, anti-white, anti-Zionist preacher. His pulpit statements, by now widely broadcast on cable TV and across the Internet, have histrionically asked followers to chant not “God bless America” but “God damn America,” to denounce Israel and Zionism for “state terrorism,” to hold Washington responsible for creating the HIV/AIDS virus as a weapon against black people and to recognize that America is controlled by “rich white people.”

Immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Wright waved his arms and almost danced, bellowing that America had brought the crime upon itself.

Despite his extremism, Wright is no fringe member of the African American mainstream. He is a giant in the black community.

Wright built the Trinity Church from an 87-member congregation in 1972, with a $30,000 annual budget, to a black megachurch said to boast as many as 10,000 members — the largest in the United Church of Christ — operating on a more than $9 million annual budget.

In 1993, Ebony Magazine listed Wright among its top 15 pastors. In March 2007, Wright was honored by a resolution of the Illinois House of Representatives.

The wide black acceptance of Wright’s damning hate rhetoric points up a complete racial disconnect with white America that still lies just below the surface. Angry African American leaders such as Wright see the black church historically as a place of confrontation that still serves that role. Before the Civil War, not a few slave revolts occurred, Wright has said, after getting “worked up” in church. He adds, “The church gave us the strength to fight to end slavery.”

The angry world of Wright is the embittered experience that most Americans either don’t know or would rather forget. That bitter legacy includes slavery until the Civil War and Jim Crow after; segregation and social torment in the 20th century; thousands of lynchings in almost every state of the union, from Minnesota to Mississippi, continuing into the post-World War II era, and a voting rights law that did not pass until 1965.

On Chicago’s South Side, where Wright and Obama knew their formative years, “block-busting” was a real estate term for fear-mongering about black’s moving into the neighborhood to induce white flight. Being arrested for a DUI in Chicago was “driving under the influence,” but being arrested for a DWB was “driving while black.” The black family on Chicago’s South Side was a shattered concept subjected to inferior schooling, inferior health care and often abysmal living conditions.

Authors explain Jewish influences on their works

The Jewish Journal invited writers who will be featured at Sunday’s Festival of Books to answer the simple, essential question that every Jewish writer is often asked: “What Jewish sources — ideas, writings, traditions — inspire you, and how do they show up in your work?”

The following show that there is no easy answer to what defines a Jewish author, but there is no question that there’s much to draw upon within the faith.

Daniel Handler (Lemony Snicket)

The Jewish sources that have most affected my work are stories of my father’s family leaving Germany in 1938, for the usual Jewish reasons that one would leave Germany in 1938. And the independence of suffering from redemption — in other words that you’re not rewarded for behaving well, and you shouldn’t behave well because of a possible reward.

These seem to me manifestly Jewish ideas, and it is pretty easy to find them in my work. I’ve written 13 books about terrible things that happen to children who do their best to behave well. This is arguably an encapsulation of Jewish history in its entirety.

Novelist and screenwriter Daniel Handler is perhaps best known for his 13-book children’s series collectively known as “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” penned under the pseudonym of Lemony Snicket. Under his own name, Handler has published three novels, “The Basic Eight,” “Watch Your Mouth” and “Adverbs.” An accomplished musician, Handler has played accordion on a number of recordings, including “69 Love Songs” by The Magnetic Fields.

Anita Diamant

Having written six books about Jewish practice — from weddings to birth, from conversion to mourning — it’s pretty clear that I have been inspired by the way Judaism gives expression and shape to the fluid and ineffable cycle of human life. As a journalist and adult Jewish learner, it was a pleasure, as well as a challenge, to translate the wisdom and joy of our tradition into a contemporary idiom.

The other major inspiration I find in Jewish life and letters is our history of debate. The ongoing, sometimes sublime and sometimes silly, argument found in even our most sacred books (Talmud, et. al.) gives me, as a liberal Jew, a sense of belonging to a grand, ongoing and ever-changing wrestling match with the past, with the sacred, with one another.

Anita Diamant is the author of six handbooks of Jewish life and life-cycle events, including, “The New Jewish Wedding” and “Choosing a Jewish Life.” This year marks the 10th anniversary of the publication of her first novel, “The Red Tent,” based on Chapter 34 in the Book of Genesis, but told from Dinah’s point of view. Her latest novel, “The Last Days of Dogtown,” is set in Massachusetts in the early 1800s and chronicles the lives of a group of society’s cast-offs in a poor, rural community. For more information, visit www.anitadiamant.com.

Kirk Douglas

When I was writing my last book , “Let’s Face It,” Peter, one of my sons, said, “Dad, don’t make it too Jewish.” It’s hard for me to obey him, because being a Jew is, as Cole Porter would say, “Deep in the heart of me.”

The history of the Jews fascinates me. We are only about 13 million in number, way out of proportion to what we have accomplished in life and what we have contributed to the welfare of people in so many areas. I am proud of that. And yet, anti-Semitism grows.

Being a Jew is a challenge. It’s often said, “Schwer zu sein a Yid” (It’s hard to be a Jew). To me, it’s been a challenge that I try to accept gracefully, and it has given me many rewards.

Actor, producer, director and author, Kirk Douglas was born to Russian Jewish immigrant parents in Amsterdam, N.Y. He was a wrestler at St. Lawrence University and worked as a bellhop to put himself through school at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Douglas’ books include “Dance With the Devil” (1990); “The Secret” (1992); his autobiography, “The Ragman’s Son” (1988), and “Let’s Face It: 90 Years of Living, Loving, and Learning,” which will be published by Thorndike Press in March.

Gina Nahai

The sources that inspire me are the men and women whose lives I try to render in my stories. They’re the people I grew up with or that I grew up hearing about. I watch them now as I did then and describe what I see, hear them, and write what they say. I don’t invent so much as reveal, don’t comment so much as bear witness. I think a writer’s job is to tell the truth as she sees it, and, having done that, be prepared to defend what she has said.

I’m an Iranian Jew, and most of the people I write about are Jews. I don’t pretend to capture an entire history or to portray an entire nation. I don’t believe that’s possible. But I do believe that by telling the truth of an individual’s life — a personal truth — one can arrive at a universal understanding, and this is what I aim for.

Gina Nahai’s novels include “Cry of the Peacock” (1991), “Moonlight on the Avenue of Faith”(1999), “Sunday’s Silence”(2001) and her new novel, “Caspian Rain” (MacAdam/Cage, 2007). A lecturer in the Professional Writing Program at USC, her writings have also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle and Los Angeles Magazine. Her column appears monthly in The Jewish Journal.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach

The most important Jewish inspiration that I have is the Torah, and especially great characters of the Bible. I am moved whenever I read of the kindness of Abraham, the struggles of Jacob, humility of Moses and the daring and commitment of King David and righteousness of Hebrew prophets.

Discovering these great men in the Bible fills my Jewish spirit with passion and inspiration. It is especially moving to learn of those who embody the patriarchs. In my life, a great inspiration was the Lubavitch Rebbe, who lived with the passion to serve my people and spread the word of Judaism to all corners of the world.

Thirty Years of Carlebach Rock

Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach’s musical legacy has taken many forms, from the
dozens of minyanim whose worship uses his music to the excellent recordings
made by his daughter, Neshama. But the most enduring and unexpected
offspring from Carlebach’s folkie neo-Chasidism is the number of jam bands
performing his music. If that seems incongruous, you only need to hear the
Moshav Band to realize how natural it really is.

Moshav Band, which was founded as a direct result of Carlebach’s influence,
just released its first English only album — “Misplaced.”

Reb Shlomo and a group of his followers had created a musical moshav in
Israel in 1977 in the hills between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, a community
called Moshav Meor Modi’im. Yehuda (vocals), Dovid (guitar), Meir (guitar,
mandolin) and Yosef Solomon (bass), the sons of one of the original members
of that community, are the core of the group, joined by drummer David
Swirsky. Like Inasense and Soulfarm, two other Carlebach-spawned jam bands,
they melded his musical influence with that of the rock groups they heard as
kids — most obviously, The Dead, Dylan, Neil Young — in a splendid blend
of sacred and secular.

The Moshav Band has long been one of the most popular of Jewish-oriented
rock groups, but sometime at the end of the millennium that distinction
ceased to satisfy the group. Perhaps the band had always intended to try
hurdling the wall that generally separates openly Jewish music from rest of
the entertainment world; for Christians that wall has been more of a
semipermeable membrane, as any country-music fan will tell you. Whatever
their motivation, in 2000 the band members relocated to Los Angeles to
launch their assault on rest of the pop/rock world.

“Higher and Higher: The Best of the Moshav Band,” which the Jewish Music
Group released earlier this year, is a canny attempt to straddle the gap
between the moshav and the mosh pit. The set has more English-language songs
than its previous recordings, and it is long on anthemic rockers like
“Waiting for the Calling” that would not be out of place on an album by U2
or Pearl Jam, two bands to which it bears more than a slight resemblance.
But even the straighthead rockers and love songs can be easily read as calls
to God, rather than your usual pop invocations of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’
roll. In truth, the bands it most resembles are ones that are firmly
grounded in the soil of a homeland and its political struggles, bands like
The Levellers or The Pogues (if you sobered them up).

In that respect, the Moshav Band’s heart and soul are still linked tightly
to the hills outside Jerusalem and, fittingly, to the musical and spiritual
legacy of Rabbi Carlebach.

George Robinson is the film and music critic for Jewish Week. His book, “Essential Torah,” will be published by Shocken Books in fall 2006.

Fifty Nifty Tribemembers

The weather may be warmer, the people more laid-back, and it may be several-thousand miles away from the larger Jewish communities of New York and Chicago, but that apparently doesn’t stop Los Angeles from having a big toothy influence on national Jewish affairs.

There are, according to The Forward newspaper’s recently published “Forward 50” — a listing of the 50 most-influential Jews in America — at least seven Angelenos whose voices are being heard way beyond the West Coast.

The complete list — which includes the likes of Ruth Messinger of American Jewish World Service, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and entertainers Jon Stewart and Matisyahu — is seen as the Jewish community’s equivalent of People Magazine’s 50 Most Beautiful People or Vanity Fair’s New Establishment list. The Forward list is a way of quantifying who is most affecting Jewish life in America today.

From Los Angeles, the list includes regular heavy hitters like filmmaker Steven Spielberg — the No. 2 most influential Jew in America, included because of his upcoming epic “Munich” about the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. But it also registers less famous people, like Rabbi Naomi Levy of Nashuva, Rabbi Sharon Brous of Ikar, Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA) Executive Director Daniel Sokatch, J-Date founder Joe Shapira, comic Sarah Silverman and Robin Kramer, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s chief of staff.

“We try to come up with a list of 50 people who we feel are leading and influencing the main trends in Jewish communal life,” said Forward Editor JJ Goldberg. “It’s not an election, and we don’t have people who may be Jewish and prominent but aren’t doing something Jewishly inspired or something to affect the Jewish community. We do try to have geographic balance, and things that happen in Los Angeles tend to have more of a national echo. The Jewish community there is a national community.”

So what does being named to the Forward 50 actually mean for the so-honored?

“I think if it has any impact it is in helping people think of the PJA as a serious organization and a serious force of change in the community,” said Sokatch, who was also named to the list in 2002. “It is certainly something we let funders know about—it is [like] a hechsher in the community. It’s something we feel proud of. In my case, it reflects on our whole organization, and it is definitely a point of pride.”

For Brous, who is on the list for the second year in a row, being named to the Forward 50 bought her a level of national recognition.

“I was on the list last year, and last year it was incredibly significant for [Ikar] because we were brand new and it put us on the map nationally, and it bought people’s attention to what we were doing in the community beyond the people coming to Ikar on a weekly basis,” Brous said. “I get asked to speak at a lot of conferences — including the General Assembly, a lot of rabbis and community leaders around the country are calling me and asking me for their input on how to revitalize their communities. There are new national leadership networks that I was asked to be a part of, and I am sure [all that] has something to do with The Forward.”

Goldberg said that there is no barrier to people being listed in multiple years.

“If someone is doing a good job in a major institution they are probably going to be there,” he said. “There is not a new list every year. As long as they are being effective, we put them on the list.”


A Mother’s Wish for Her Daughter’s Day

Aaaah, to be a Jewish parent 1,000 years ago. Sure you had to worry about anti-Semites trying to exterminate your people, dying from the flu and wild animals eating your children for lunch, but what a breeze to plan your child’s bar mitzvah. No invitations to send, no DJs to hire, no out-of-towners to house. And, best of all, no agonizing over The Speech.

I’m not talking about your child’s discussion of her Torah portion. After all, your Uncle Harry and Aunt Rose from Florida do not expect a 13-year-old to shed new light on a religious text that has been analyzed by theologians for 2,000 years. I’m talking about your speech to your child — where you have 60 seconds to sum up your feelings about a moment that was 13 years in the making. What makes that speech — The Speech — particularly difficult is that the subject is adulthood, but your 21st-century child is light years from becoming an adult.

Things were different 1,000 years ago. People could legitimately be characterized as “children” or “adults” and age 13 was a logical dividing point: marriages would follow a bar mitzvah by a year or two and life expectancy was relatively short. Today, despite our tradition that sets the 13th year as the start of adulthood, 13 is not the end of childhood or the beginning of adulthood. Instead, it is the start of a new stage — teenager. Neither an adult nor child, a teenager is like Dr. Doolittle’s Push-Me, Pull-You: Sometimes he seems to be pushing toward adulthood, and at other times he is pulling back toward childhood.

Because parents are speaking to a new teenager about an adulthood that is still far away, The Speech is difficult to write. A parent in 1005 C.E. had it easy: “Son, mazal tov on your bar mitzvah. May you marry one of your cousins next year, have a dozen children and take good care of our goatherd. Amen.” What we should say in 2005 is not as clear.

I have given The Speech a lot of thought lately. Not because I am faced with writing one in the short term (my daughter’s bat mitzvah is in October 2007), but because several friends are choreographing bar mitzvahs this year. When they are not agonizing over invitations and caterers, they are stressing out over The Speech.

One friend called to lament that her rabbi suggested that she write a speech that spoke to her “hopes and dreams” for her child.

“What should I say?” she implored.

I suggested some sappy boilerplate that would satisfy her rabbi, the congregants and her child. But after I hung up the telephone, I realized that the clichés I suggested, the ones that we routinely recite to our teenagers at their bar and bat mitzvahs, really don’t represent the anxiety over the teenage years that rests deep inside our parenting souls.

Of course, I won’t embarrass my daughter at her bat mitzvah by sharing the stress that I will surely feel as I watch the sun set on her childhood. I will undoubtedly tell her that my hope for her is that she retain the special spark she demonstrated from the moment of her birth through her 13th year. But, just between you and me, here is The Speech I would like to give to my daughter on Oct. 13, 2007.

The Speech

“When a ‘friend’ offers you your first hit of marijuana, I hope you say: ‘No, thank you. I am not mature enough to try a drug. I plan on trying it just once during my senior year in college after it has been screened by a reputable lab not to contain any dangerous substances.’ But if either curiosity or peer pressure overtakes you and you are inclined to say ‘yes,’ I hope that you are at your friend’s house, and her incredibly responsible parents are upstairs watching TV (very quietly), and you start coughing so hard that the parent’s race downstairs to make sure you are OK. (And you are so mortified at being caught that you never experiment with drugs again.)

“I hope that you don’t attend parties in homes where the person responsible for making the mortgage payments and paying the water bill is in Hawaii.

“I hope you learn early on that the angst endemic to the teenager years is temporary and that your life is full of possibility.

“I hope that you never go through that phase where you are embarrassed to be seen with your parents.

“I hope that you always want me to tuck you in.

“I hope that you never get in a car with someone who has been drinking, doing drugs or has had their driver’s license for less than 10 years.

“I hope that you continue to think tongue piercings are gross, smoking is stupid and Britney Spears doesn’t know how to dress.

“I hope that your middle school girlfriends unanimously decide that back-stabbing each other is cruel, and treat each other like actual friends.

“I hope that you don’t have a boyfriend until you are at least 16, and that he doesn’t have anytime to fool around with you because he is too busy studying (because he wants to get into Harvard), practicing the piano and running in marathons to raise money for worthwhile charities. And when you break up after the prom — because you listened to my advice that you should go to college emotionally free to date other people — I hope that it is you who did the breaking up because I don’t want you to suffer the excruciating pain caused when someone you love dumps you.

“I hope that you are always healthy, are the only teenage girl on the planet to love every inch of her body, and count spinach and oranges among your favorite foods.”

“I hope that everyone who meets you throughout your life loves and respects you as much as I do.


Wendy Jaffe is a freelance writer. She can be reached at wjaffewrite@aol.com

One Historian’s Look at How Jews Shaped the Modern Age


“The Jewish Century,” by Yuri Slezkine. (Princeton University Press, $29.95).

Yuri Slezkine opens this major new book by declaring: “The modern age is the Jewish age, and the 20th century, in particular, is the Jewish century.” This assertion may ring bells.

Anti-Semites have long claimed that Jews, a miniscule fraction of the world’s population, exert a disproportionate influence, be it in local settings, such as fin de si?cle “Judapest” (as Budapest was known) or through that irrepressible literary trope, “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” Along comes a university-trained historian and suggests that, indeed, the modern age has been permeated through and through by Jewish influence.

But before we leap to a quick and erroneous conclusion, Slezkine is no anti-Semite. He is a gifted historian from Berkeley who has written a big, provocative and brilliant book.

Indeed, in a year of big books that offer intriguing new perspectives on the Jewish condition — Philip Roth’s counterfactual “The Plot Against America” and Jonathan Sarna’s “American Judaism” come to mind — Slezkine’s “The Jewish Century” may be the most important. And what is most intriguing in the book is the claim that those qualities that the Jews have historically embodied and still represent — social mobility, economic ingenuity, intellectual achievement — are the defining features of the modern age, all the more so in the era of globalization.

Now one may agree that Jews have embodied these qualities, perhaps more than any other group. And yet, it seems premature, at the very least, to suggest that these properties have won out over their opposites: economic stasis, national-ethnic tribalism and cultural revanchism.

Could we not argue as plausibly that the 20th century was the century of genocide, or totalitarianism, or capitalism, or, perhaps, of the Americans? It is certainly the case that Jews figured prominently in some or many of the century’s dramas.

Franz Kafka, Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein surely had a major hand in defining the cultural and intellectual direction of the century. And it may well be that the Shoah is the paradigmatic act of genocide — and anti-Semitism, the longest and most enduring of hatreds.

But it still strikes me as triumphalist and tunnel-visioned to award the entire 20th century, no less the whole modern age, to the Jews. This Judeo-centric vision, while framed in most idiosyncratic fashion by Slezkine, has more popular (and misguided) versions of which we should be cautious: assertions of the unreplicable uniqueness either of Jewish achievement or of Jewish tsuris that wrench the actual Jewish experience out of its deeply embedded context.

Despite these reservations about the book’s core thesis, I hasten to add my admiration — I dare say envy — for “The Jewish Century.” It is a work of staggering erudition, literary grace and most precious of all, big ideas. While one may disagree with its big ideas, it is hard to avoid being stimulated by them. It is equally hard to deny the book’s contribution to our understanding of modern Jewish history.

Not only does Slezkine shed new light on largely unknown chapters of the Jewish experience in Soviet Russia; he also fleshes out the personality of one of the most vexing and elusive characters in the modern Jewish experience: the non-Jewish Jew.

A Russian-born historian of partial Jewish origin, Slezkine happened on to this book by chance. Initially, he was interested merely in producing a textured social history of life in a certain apartment building in Moscow. This point of entry soon led him to a broader domain of inquiry: the story of Soviet Jewish communists, a fair number of whom populated the apartment in question.

Slezkine used these Jewish communists, a few of whom were his own relatives, to unfold an even larger story: the unsurpassed success of Jews in gaining access to positions of prestige and power in the Soviet Union in the early decades after the Bolshevik Revolution, only to end up — after Stalin’s purges began — as one of the most anti-Soviet and oppressed groups of all.

This compelling and tragic story led Slezkine to yet another vast new domain of inquiry: the migration of millions of Russian Jews from that large chunk of Eastern Europe (including parts of Poland, Lithuania and Ukraine) known as the Pale of Settlement, into major urban centers like Moscow and St. Petersburg in the late,19th century.

Slezkine presents in “The Jewish Century” a thick and nuanced description of this Jewish migratory stream that, along with Benjamin Nathans’ “Beyond the Pale” (2002), sheds important new light on an enormously consequential — and yet under-researched — movement of Jewish life and culture.

One of the key innovations of Slezkine’s approach is to juxtapose this migratory current to two other — and more notable — currents issuing from the Pale around the same time: the large stream of Eastern European Jews to the United States and the smaller, but influential, current of Russian Jewish immigrants to Palestine. Slezkine associates these tributaries with three of the five daughters of Sholem Aleichem’s “Tevye the Dairyman,” the hero of the classic “Fiddler on the Roof.”

He uses this literary cover to suggest that Tevye’s daughters, emblematic of most turn-of-the-century Russian Jews, were of one mind in seeking exit from the confines of the shtetl but disagreed considerably over their preferred locus of resettlement. Thus, in Slezkine’s version, Bielke followed her husband to the “goldene medine” of America, Chava made off to the land of milk and honey and Hodel became a revolutionary and emigrated from her parochial shtetl to a major urban center in Russia.

In tracing these three paths, Slezkine offers far more than an homage to Aleichem. His use of Tevye’s daughters as vectors of historical change belies an unusually keen and subversive literary sense. This sense is manifest both in Slezkine’s own writing (which, owing to his formative upbringing in another language, evokes the likes of Conrad and Brodsky) and in the breadth of his reading. Indeed, “The Jewish Century” is, among other virtues, a feast of literary delights, with extended borrowings from and learned excurses on Pushkin, Proust, Dostoevsky, Kafka, Joseph Roth, Osip Mandelstam, Vassily Grossman and Roth, to mention but a few.

At the same time, the book is also a piece of uncommon scholarly virtuosity. While a newcomer to the precincts of Jewish history, Slezkine reveals a commanding knowledge of the Eastern European Jewish experience, and, particularly, of the Jewish “immigrants” to big Russian cities.

His perspective is decidedly not that of an insider — what we might call an internalist Jewish historian — who relies on Jewish communal records or self-consciously Jewish cultural expressions to tell his story. Rather, Slezkine is an externalist, and this has a number of important implications.

First, his chief interest is not in the overtly and avowedly Jewish historical personality, but in those whom Isaac Deutscher famously called “non-Jewish Jews,” those hundreds of thousands who willingly surrendered a distinctive Jewish cultural idiom in favor of a more universalist political agenda or cosmopolitan social milieu. Through a mix of conceptual analysis and statistical evidence, Slezkine traces the rise and fall of these Jews, particularly intellectuals and political activists, who abandoned their Jewish origins to embrace the Soviet communist vision, only to become the chief enemies of the very system in which they had invested so much blood, sweat and faith.

To the extent that these figures were far less identifiable and visible than their Israeli and American Jewish cousins, studying them requires a fine and nuanced set of historical tools. Slezkine makes masterful use of these tools, and his treatment of the metaphorical figure of Hodel and her Russian Jewish descendants is the finest portion of the book. More ambitiously, it amounts to a kind of Jewish counterhistory in which the non-Jewish Jew stands at the center.

There is a second way in which Slezkine’s externalist perspective becomes clear. It is in his tendency to adopt a sweeping comparative perspective in studying Jews. Throughout the book, the Jewish experience is placed alongside and in contrast to that of many other groups, especially fellow Diaspora travelers like ethnic Chinese, Indians and Gypsies.

This tack provides him with an opportunity to make the bold equation of Jewish and modern mentioned at the outset, although, in fact, the origin of Slezkine’s analytical framework lies in Greek mythology. The world used to be divided, he argues, into two distinct groups: Mercurians, who were fleet and fast-moving service nomads, and Apollonians, who were landed, rural food gatherers. Historically, Jews were the classic Mercurians — “urban, mobile, literate, articulate, intellectually intricate, physically fastidious and occupationally flexible.”

In the modern age, these qualities have become more widely disseminated and absorbed — to the point that they seem to blend seamlessly into what we routinely call today “globalization.” Through this process of dissemination, much of the world has become Mercurian. In that Jews are the Mercurians par excellence, the past century was, by extension, “the Jewish century.”

In laying out this stark Mercurian-Apollonian divide, Slezkine recalls grand social theorists of the past like Karl Marx and Max Weber (as well as less notable figures like Werner Sombart and Thorsten Veblen) who have advanced sweeping claims about the social function of the Jews. But he also exposes himself to the congenital weaknesses that theorizing of this scale produces.

For example, beyond similarities in their economic functions, do we gain much by comparing and then conflating the cultural experience of Jews, Gypsies and ethnic Chinese into a single Mercurian type? And even among Jews, themselves, does the Mercurian label really tell us very much?

Imagine if we were to assemble in one early-20th century Parisian salon the following characters: Aleichem, Walter Benjamin, Nathan Birnbaum, Freud, Rosa Luxembourg, Max Nordau, Baron Edmond de Rothschild and Leon Trotsky. Would this mix of capitalist and communist, Orthodox and atheist, Zionist and cosmopolite find common cause, indeed, speak a single Mercurian language? It is highly doubtful.

And if we have difficulty affixing the unified label Mercurian to this group, all the more so for the modern age at large. After all, the potent and enduring force of nationalism, with its spasmodic outbursts of ethnic violence, has marked much of that era. This pervasive neotribalism is the embodiment not of Mercurianism, but of what Slezkine calls the Apollonian instinct.

Accordingly, it seems a stretch to label our age Mercurian. Perhaps it would be more accurate to speak of a ceaseless battle between Mercurian and Apollonian impulses, if not of outright Apollonian victory.

Both the porousness of Slezkine’s opposing categories and the premature victory accorded Mercurians (i.e., Jews) in the modern age ultimately undoes the grand theory undergirding “The Jewish Century.” But the merit of this book does not rest on the theory’s ultimate success. Through his wide-ranging erudition, Slezkine challenges us to think about deep structural patterns in human and Jewish history, as well as about the uniqueness of the Jewish historical experience.

Moreover, his wide comparative lens brings into focus three distinct Jewish paths in the modern age, two of which are rather well trodden (America and Israel) and one of which (the Soviet Russian) receives rich new attention. The effect is a fascinating literary and historical journey that leads to a rewriting of modern Jewish history, a kind of counterhistory populated by a motley crew of mainly non-Jewish Jews. At once ubiquitous and marginal, privileged and persecuted, Mercurian and Apollonian, these figures rise up against their creator to demonstrate that the modern Jewish condition is complex, diverse and resistant to reduction.

At the same time, they empower their creator to ask the big and important question of whether the age in which they live is created in their own intriguing image. At the end of the day, I think it is not. But Slezkine is owed a big debt for forcing us to think deeply about our own purchase on the claim of Jewish uniqueness.

 David N. Myers is a professor of Jewish history and director of the Center for Jewish Studies at UCLA.


Do We Have Anything Left to Give?

Do the Jews have anything left to give to America?

This question was on my mind recently, after I was on a panel at Brandeis-Bardin Institute to discuss the Jewish influence on American culture. The popular view on this subject is invariably, "Just look at all the Jews who run Hollywood and the media; look at the humor, the attitude, the Yiddish terms, etc. Jews are everywhere."

This is true, but when you start to look beneath the surface, you see a more complicated picture, one that suggests the waning influence of Judaism and the need to re-examine the Jews’ role in America as we begin the 21st century.

Culture is easy to steal. What was clearly "Jewish" at the turn of the century is now just as likely to be called American. Of course, America didn’t just steal it, we gave it away, with the gusto of a grateful people desperate to fit in.

And who can blame us? After 2,000 years of getting beat up everywhere we went, we discover this all-you-can-eat freedom buffet called America, and what do we do? We eat, and we cook and we have lots of people over.

Culture was the perfect Jewish thank-you gift to America. Movies, music, humor and literature are entertaining, relatively harmless and easily appreciated. They’re also easy to co-opt. That’s why the Gershwins, Bellows, Berles, Spielbergs and Streisands are at least as American as they are Jewish.

That’s not to say culture was all we gave; we’re not that homogeneous or disciplined. For every Woody Allen directing a film, there was an Abbie Hoffman directing a civil rights march.

But in the explosive areas of morality and politics, there was always a collective care in the Jewish community not to offend our gracious hosts. We may have planted the seeds of Jewish morality, but in the field of culture, we grew a forest.

This 100-year cultural love fest between the Jews and America has been a source of rightful pride, but it has left us with a nagging question that many Jews have difficulty answering: Do we have anything "Jewish" left to give?

We have trouble answering this question, because we’ve developed an instinct to equate everything Jewish with everything American. In other words, if our cultures are now so intertwined, then everything else — including our values — must be as well.

The American values of freedom, tolerance and diversity? They’re Jewish. The Jewish values of freedom, tolerance and diversity? They’re American.

It’s a simple, convenient formula that lets us feel Jewish and American without offending either side (even in our activism to defend Israel against terrorism, we never miss the chance to equate it with America’s war).

But there is a catch. In our zeal to equate America and Judaism, we have lost sight of some important differences. If we can learn how to internalize and share these differences without feeling like disloyal or ungrateful Americans, we will deepen both our Jewish identities and our contribution to our adopted country.

There are three areas where Judaism differs with America. As the historian Stephen Whitfield explains in his book, "In Search of American Jewish Culture" (University Press, 1999), America focuses on the individual, the here and now and the pursuit of pleasure, while Judaism focuses on the community, the past and the pursuit of meaning. In a nutshell, America is about freedom, while Judaism is more about what to do with that freedom.

Judaism respects the individual, but it places a higher value on connecting the individual to the community. Judaism is active in the present, but it elevates the lessons of history, the beauty of tradition and the power of considered thought (read one paragraph of Talmud and you’ll see that Judaism does not promote a short attention span). And while Judaism certainly doesn’t shy away from pleasure, it puts a higher priority on the value of leading a meaningful life.

In a litigious society that reveres the legal loophole, Judaism goes beyond the letter of the law to its spirit. It’s not enough to be right, we must also be good. Our Pirke Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) picks up where the U. S. Constitution and Bill of Rights leave off. Judaism is not obsessed with rights; it’s obsessed with obligations.

All this to say that yes, Judaism still has plenty to share with America. The good news is that America is ready to hear the Jewish message — we live in an open, multicultural, emotional country that doesn’t mind being moved and challenged. And after being such wonderful guests for so long, we’ve certainly earned the right to make a bolder contribution.

The not-so-good news is that Jews have become so American that all we’re giving back to America, it seems, is more of itself. This is a shame.

If more Jews had the chutzpah to assert and live up to our differences, we might add an exciting new dynamic to our relationship with America (and isn’t asserting one’s difference part of the American way?). Ironically, the Jews and America are now in the same boat: We both could use a little more Judaism.

For our Jewish leaders worried about "Jewish continuity" and "Jewish pride," they ought to educate and encourage Jews to become the unapologetic messengers of Judaism and its distinctive values. Instead of spending $6 million to count the Jews, they could spend that money to make Jews count.

And they ought to realize that a Jewish identity shaped by a negative, crisis mindset — against assimilation, against intermarriage, against anti-Semitism — is not as nourishing and lasting as one driven by the empowering questions: What values am I for and what values can I share?

In the 20th century, we were geniuses at sharing the value of our culture. In the 21st century, we can be geniuses at sharing the culture of our values. That would be good for America, and it certainly would be good for the Jews.

David Suissa is founder and CEO of Suissa Miller Advertising and founder/editor of OLAM magazine. He can be reached at editor@OLAM.org.

Students Sound Off on War in Mideast

“The U.S. had all the right reasons for going to war with Iraq without the support of United Nations,” said Jordana Friedman, an eighth-grader at Kadima Hebrew Academy in Woodland Hills. “[Their leaders] lied. They said they were disarmed. Do we want another Sept. 11? I think we’re totally justified.”

The 14-year-old is adamant as she expresses her point of view in Mari Siegel’s honors history class. While some educators claim that youngsters are apathetic about current world events, it is clear that many local middle school and high school students have strong opinions and are expressing them loud and clear.

While the 12th-grade-and-under crowd might be too young to remember the Gulf War, they are anything but naive when it comes to world events. Having lived through Sept. 11 and technological advances like the Internet, America’s youth today is savvier than ever. On middle school and high school campuses across the Southland, televisions tuned to CNN blare in classrooms, providing students with the most current reports from Iraq. Many schools, including Milken Community High School of Stephen S. Wise Temple in Los Angeles, allot time at the beginning of each history class to update students and allow them to ask questions about recent developments in the war. But rather than asking questions, many students already have the information and are quick to impress teachers with their own insights.

At Milken, the topic of war is on everyone’s lips both in the classroom and out.

“I thought we should give the [weapons] inspectors a longer time in Iraq,” said Howie Hendler, a junior, in regards to his anti-war stance. “They said the inspections were working.”

Marissa Mendleson, another junior, shook her head.

“I don’t think the inspection would have worked,” she countered with conviction as the two chatted in an outdoor amphitheater between classes.

In Matt Levenson’s ninth-grade history class, even a few seemingly unconcerned students became reactive after the teacher presented an article depicting a boastful American soldier’s experiences in Iraq.

“It almost seems like this commander has a plot of his own and he enjoys killing,” exclaimed a horrified female student. “I think it’s sick.”

A girl on the opposite side of the classroom raised her hand.

“We’re not out there on the front line,” she said. “We don’t know what he’s going through.”

A boy who was sitting quietly suddenly spoke up.

“He’s only one soldier and it’s just his point of view,” he said. “It’s obvious he’s pro-killing, but you can’t base a war on just one soldier.”

Some students admit the their feelings about the war have evolved over time. Before having a change of heart, Akiva Gottlieb, a senior at Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles, attended a few anti-war rallies.

“What really changed my mind was when I thought about Israel. It’s a country surrounded by all these other countries that don’t want it there. I began thinking we could make the situation much better in the Middle East if we get rid of Saddam,” said the 17-year-old.

The student was doubly convinced when he came across a newspaper article that mentioned restructuring the Middle East and ridding the world of terrorism.

Even the most vocal students admit that some of their peers choose not to keep up with the war.

“Because it’s in a different country, I feel that my generation doesn’t understand the full scope of what’s going on,” said Moshe Netter, a Shalhevet sophomore. “It’s so distant that it’s much easier to be at peace with it.”

Gottlieb admits that he was once apathetic.

“For a long time I had abstained from taking opinion on the matter,” he said. “In general, I’m an anti-war person, so I thought I had to be anti-war on this war. As it got closer to going to war, I started to realize that this situation is so complex.”

While the issues may be complex, they’re not complicated enough to stop the eighth-grade honors students at Kadima from exploring them.

“I don’t think we should have reporters in Iraq at the bases,” said Karen Hen, 13, during an in-class history presentation. “It takes time out of the soldiers’ days because they have to protect the reporters.”

Student Nicole Rabiezadeh had a differing point of view.

“We pay millions of dollars in taxes every year, so we have the right to know what’s going on,” the 14-year-old argued.