American Jews are learned in everything — except Jewish texts


The American Jewish community is one of the most learned and sophisticated communities in Jewish history – in everything except Jewish texts. As Jews, we are illiterate.

This phenomenon has its roots in our history over the last 150 years. During that time, the Jewish people underwent five events, each one of which can be counted as a major upheaval. These are the emergence of the Jews from the ghetto into the modern world, the mass movement of Jews from Europe to the United States, the systematic suppression of religion in the Soviet Union, the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel.

These events went far in determining the nature of the Jewish world today and led to the fact that in the United States, we remain comfortable and sophisticated in the Western world and immature in our Jewish knowledge.
The Jewish educational establishment has tried to remedy this problem and, to some extent, has succeeded. The number of day schools certainly has grown. Still, as a community, we remain undertaught and illiterate.

Consequently, when youngsters go off to a university armed with the Jewish education they received in religious schools, or even many of our day schools, they are unable, by and large, to integrate their Jewish knowledge into their much more sophisticated secular knowledge. Even more so, they are unable to have them in equal dialogue with one another.

The basis of good education does not rest on supplying you with facts but on teaching you how to read. In a university, you do not learn science as much as how to function within science or how to read literature or how to write poetry or solve a mathematical problem.

In Jewish texts, by those criteria, we are illiterate. We do not learn how to read Bible but only learn the stories in the Bible. Rabbinic texts that are central in classical Jewish literature remain foreign to most of us. We celebrate holidays, but know nothing of the theology behind them. We pray, sometimes, but know nothing about the theology of the prayer book. Jewish survival relies on loyalty and nostalgia and not on meaning and value.

How can we proceed? I think the first step is an acknowledged awareness of the problem. The American Jewish community does not have literacy as a central focal point. It is spoken about, but the hard truth is not really expressed. I will give a number of examples.

Many years ago, I spoke at an Orthodox congregation on the West Coast. Most of the 200 people there were elderly, and many of them were European-born. I asked them how many of them read Hebrew fluently, and almost all of them raised their hands. I then asked how many understand what they are reading, and almost none raised their hands.
No other group of people would say that they read a language fluently without understanding a word of what they read. Yet this phenomenon continues. We train people to “read the Torah” but not always to understand what they are reading. We train people to “lead” the services but not really to understand the services.

We have Jewish leaders who speak about the importance of Jewish education, but who themselves are not educated or on the path to being educated. We have teachers who are underqualified.

Our expectations are low. If children enjoy going to religious school, that is enough, even though they are learning nothing. We would never tolerate those same criteria for our secular education. Imagine a high school student who loves going to school but cannot read basic texts.

The Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education (CAJE) is one of the educational organizations that is trying to change this. Their recent conference at Duke University was dedicated to the theme of “Jewish Literacy.” This is the necessary beginning.

CAJE must define the question and press the individual schools and teachers to address the problem. At the same time, it must provide them with programs that will bring literacy to their teaching staff.

How can this be done? First, we have to set our goals higher. Teachers must know how to read the text. For example, the Bible has its own style, as do rabbinic and medieval texts. These styles must be taught and mastered. We should be cautious about separating between biblical story and midrash or rabbinical explanation.

We must also understand that the rabbis wrote in a very particular nonlinear style. Information was not given from beginning to end; their style was coded. The prayer book, which they composed, is a master composition, but in order to understand it, you have to know how biblical sections are chosen and put in different contexts and how the rabbis established specific forms of prayer.

The Jewish calendar is a complex theological statement and should be taught as such. Unlike the secular American calendar, all of the holidays are connected one to another.

All of this must be taught in connection to the other, secular education that these students are receiving. They should know the tremendous impact of the Bible on Western civilization and how the concept of history comes from it. They should understand Jewish theology in its many facets.

The impact of science and technology should be taught, along with their limitations. Jewish concepts of death, soul, responsibility and government should be studied.

Most important, by the time they finish high school, they should be able to examine concepts of knowledge and truth, beginning with the story of the Garden of Eden and working through modern theories of logical positivism, existentialism, chaos and theories of complexity. Why not?

I was once speaking to a principal of a community Jewish high school. He said that attracting students was very competitive. He had to assure the parents that their child would get a secular education that would enable them to get into Harvard, Yale or Princeton and, at the same time, would get a Jewish education. I said to him, “Why not tell them that here your child will master two alternative systems of truth, Jewish and Greek, upon which Western civilization was built. They will master both Aristotelian linear knowledge and rabbinic nonlinear knowledge and be all the wiser for it.”

It is not only possible to do both, but for Jews living in the modern world, it is necessary to do both. They will become literate Jews.

Yosef Leibowitz, director and founder of the Yad Yaakov Fund, received ordination from Yeshiva University and a doctorate from UC Berkeley. He served as a rabbi in Berkeley before moving to Israel. Leibowitz was the keynote speaker on the subject of Jewish texts at the recent CAJE conference focusing on Jewish literacy.

Trio of films offers eclectic choices: sea, spies, punk


“The Guardian”

Raised in a secular Jewish family in Chicago, “The Guardian” director Andrew Davis learned early the values and ethics he continues to believe in.

“My parents taught me war is not a good thing, so do everything you can to not go to war,” he says during a telephone interview. “And it’d be great if the armies of the world could help people and not hurt people.”

“The Guardian,” which opens on Sept. 29, is about the U.S. Coast Guard’s rescue swimmers, of whom there are only about 300 because of the rigorous training and the dangers of the job. Written by Ron L. Brinkerhoff, the film stars Kevin Costner as a heroic but aging swimmer based at Alaska’s Kodiak Island. Assigned to training school, he struggles to teach a brash, possibly reckless young recruit played by Ashton Kutcher.

“At this stage of my life or career, I didn’t want to make a film about how wonderful it is to kill somebody,” says Davis, primarily known for action films, including “Collateral Damage” (2002). “There are no bad people in this movie. Nature and the forces of weather motivate the heroism.

“I’ve done movies about cops and about soldiers, where violence is part of the tension and the entertainment. My most successful movie is ‘The Fugitive,’ which starts off with a woman being killed because her husband was not cooperating in drug protocol. That’s a very dark environment. So I was glad to make a movie where violence is not a part of it.”

Davis’ first work on a feature film was as assistant cameraman on Haskell Wexler’s groundbreaking “Medium Cool,” a political drama shot during Chicago’s 1968 Democratic Convention. His directorial debut was 1978’s “Stoney Island,” based on his brother’s experiences growing up white in Chicago’s racially changing South Side. Davis also directed “A Perfect Murder,” “Under Siege” and “Holes.”

Preparations were under way to shoot “The Guardian” in New Orleans, when Hurricane Katrina hit last year. The crew evacuated to Shreveport, La., amid the chaos.

“We were six weeks away from shooting,” Davis says. “When we arrived at Shreveport, there were 1,000 evacuees at the university gymnasium. So we were in the midst of an evacuation and trying to keep our movie alive. We hired about 200 people all told who had been affected by the storm — cast and crew.”

The Coast Guard, itself, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security, was called into action to help those stranded after Katrina. By all accounts, it performed outstandingly — the Coast Guard’s Leadership News cited 24,135 lives saved by its personnel.Katrina inspired Davis: “I thought it was more important than ever to make this film and really point out what these guys do.”

“We felt the best thing we could do was maybe try to bring more light on these guys, so hopefully the government will fund them better, and there’ll be more of them, and they’ll get better facilities to train in,” Davis says. “It’s an element of the military I do support.”

— Steven Rosen, Contributing Writer

“American Hardcore: A Tribal History”

What would you do if the frustration in your life manifested itself in worries about civil liberties and a lack of freedom of speech, and you felt a combination of repression and depression about the policies and practices of the current political administration? You might be upset enough to write your local government representative or you just might be angry enough to write a punk song.

Steven Blush, author, promoter and now scriptwriter compiled the quotations of around 60 of the most notable American-born hardcore bands in “American Hardcore: A Tribal History.” In the book, Blush documents the history of the more hard-edged, second-generation of punk rock.Following up on the book’s success, Blush has written and produced a documentary using the same format. The fragmented and frustrated feelings that inspired this music are all too familiar to Blush, from his beginnings as a nice Jewish boy to his sub-culturally-inspired adulthood.

Growing up in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Blush is the son of a typical Jewish family. His parents made sure he was always cared for; he became bar mitzvah and on the cusp of adulthood, they sent him to George Washington University to get a law degree.

One night while in college, Blush went out to a club and became fascinated by something that would change his life — a band called Black Flag. The group was one of a handful of emerging sub-cultural bands made up of and being followed by a bunch of frustrated and wistful kids with backgrounds similar to Blush’s.

Blush remembers, “I had liked groups like the Sex Pistols; they were pure rock ‘n’ roll out of England, known for being rebellious. Although I loved the music, I had trouble identifying with the scene completely, because most of the people who followed them were either artists, bisexual or heavily into drugs. It really wasn’t me; I was just a suburban kid who played basketball.”

But after he witnessed the slam dancing — the raw and often violent tendencies of what was to become standard behavior at hardcore shows — Blush found his calling. He quickly made friends with everyone in the scene by being the first DJ on the East Coast to play the bands on college radio and by letting touring bands stay on his couch when in town. Blush’s life finally had a deeper meaning for him.

He recalls, “My mom tried to give me the best education and surroundings, whatever our resources were, but I never connected to it and never agreed to it. I didn’t feel part of the thing. The values in my high school were materialistic, they weren’t into the big picture, like politics and free speech. When American hardcore music happened, it was like a perfect storm, it took me over.”

Blush was certainly not the only frustrated kid willing to submit allegiance to the hardcore music scene. From 1980 to 1985, the American hardcore subculture rallied support for its cause against yuppies, conservatism, drugs and most especially, the Regan administration.Blush adds, “It turns out I have been shaped by two ethical codes, one from my Jewish heritage, which I learned from my family, and one from being a part of this music scene. Writing the book and doing the movie is studying my life’s path.”

Feminist Desktop Revolution


Don’t have time to shlep to a museum? Too tired to remember if the free museum day is the first or second Tuesday of the month? Want to conquer a large, overwhelming exhibit in small, 15-minute intervals? Then bring the museum to your desktop and browse at your own pace.

The Jewish Women’s Archive has launched “Jewish Women and the Feminist Revolution,” an inspirational and evocative online exhibit. It’s an innovative way to introduce today’s generation of Jewish women to the pacesetting leaders who paved the way before them.

“‘Jewish Women and the Feminist Revolution’ brings the story of Jewish feminism into the story of American feminism for the first time, connecting their histories in a landmark project,” curator Judith Rosenbaum said.

The brightly colored site is easy to use and fun to surf. Complete with video clips, documents, posters, flyers, photographs, art, radio news reports and first-person statements, the exhibition explores Jewish women’s significant contributions to the American and Jewish feminist movements of the 1960s and 1970s. How did these times change the lives of Jewish women, and how did Jewish women create change during the times?

The site organizes material by themes, timeline, people and medium and covers topics like women’s health, female rabbis, sexuality, arts, education and spirituality.

The exhibition features artifacts from the private collections of 74 notable women, including Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg; Gloria Steinem, pioneering activist and founder of Ms. Magazine; and feminist artist Judy Chicago.

Also featured are three Los Angeles women: Rachel Adler, feminist theologian and professor of modern Jewish thought and Judaism and gender at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion; UCLA history professor Ellen DuBois, feminist author and scholar of 19th century women’s history; and Reform Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, director of the Pennsylvania Council of the UAJC and founding director of the American Jewish Congress Feminist Center in Los Angeles.

The exhibition can be found at

‘Heart’ Celebrates a Nation’s Dream


Controversy sells movies. Remember "The Passion of the Christ?" Now Michael Moore’s Bush-bashing "Fahrenheit 9/11" is raking in millions since launching its own firestorm when Disney refused to distribute it, citing the studio’s nonpartison history. This July 4 weekend, "Disney will offer a counterdocumentary called ‘America’s Heart and Soul’ with panoramic vistas, soaring music and heartwarming profiles of cowboys, gospel singers and handicapped athletes," Newsweek said.

If the controversy pumps up "Heart," its Jewish filmmaker, Louis Schwartzberg, isn’t taking advantage. The 54-year-old is hardly as flamboyant as Moore, nor has his face been all over the news. Rather, he has been quietly attending Q-and-A sessions about his film, which Disney is promoting via word-of-mouth screenings — a less incendiary marketing tactic borrowed from "The Passion." His powerful, jaw-droppingly gorgeous documentary has been shown to dozens of targeted groups, from Jewish musicians to Future Farmers of America.

The Journal recently caught up with Schwartzberg on the Disney lot between screenings for radio host Dennis Prager and an evangelical Christian organization. Soft-spoken and dressed in jeans, he almost faded into the background as the dynamic Prager conducted an informal Q and A.

"My parents are Holocaust survivors who came to this country with nothing," he said. "They instilled in me a strong appreciation of the American ideals of tolerance, freedom and opportunity, which I wanted to celebrate in a movie."

"Heart" presents 26 vignettes of ordinary Americans with extraordinary stories (think Studs Terkel) including a blind mountaineer, a klezmer clarinetist, and an ex-con who heads the Olympic boxing team.

But don’t call Schwartzberg the anti-Michael Moore. Some of the media spin "makes it seem like [Moore’s] the left and I’m the right, but that’s not true," he said. Schwartzberg describes himself as politically liberal (he’s a board member of two environmental groups); he didn’t intend his film to be "a whitewashed, Pollyanna greeting card vision of America."

He believes it depicts the flipside of the American dream, including homelessness and unemployment, while celebrating the proverbial devotion to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

"It doesn’t matter if these values aren’t perfect or whether they even exist," he said, later, while sitting in a gleaming lobby amid images of Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse. "I know there isn’t yet equal opportunity for all, but shouldn’t we strive for that? That’s what I’m hoping my film will inspire people to do."

"Heart" ends with breathtaking images of Fourth of July fireworks near Ellis Island, which Schwartzberg also traces to his parents.

"The Statue of Liberty is the first thing they saw when they came to this country, and it represents the ideals that brought them here," he said.

Although he shares these ideals, he didn’t always share his parents’ politics. During the Vietnam War, his father, a tool and dye maker from whom he inherited his love of photography, worked for a military aircraft manufacturer; Schwartzberg, meanwhile, shot photo essays about police violence during demonstrations at UCLA.

Rather than go to work for the audio visual department of dad’s company after graduation, he developed a reputation as a preeminent time-lapse photographer. Later he directed commercials and spectacular time-lapse sequences that have been featured in films such as "American Beauty," among other endeavors.

It was while traveling the country to direct promotional spots for local news broadcasts that he got the idea for a movie featuring vignettes that, strung together, "would provide a snapshot of the American character." He spent millions of his own dollars to shoot "Heart," which uses 35mm stock and looks like the priciest of IMAX films. ("I’m out on a limb, big time," he said of the expense.)

Schwartzberg persevered even as every studio in town rejected his film; Disney finally bought "Heart" 18 months ago, well before the Moore brouhaha.

If generating movie controversies has become as American as apple pie, Schwartzberg wants no part of it. "For me, it’s a nonissue," he said.

He’s equally direct with those who might label his film as right wing or naive: "I don’t think it’s hokey to love your country," he said.

"America’s Heart and Soul" opens today in Los Angeles.

Read Your Way to Cultural Literacy


Julie Sandorf recalls her immigrant grandparents telling her that they learned to be Americans at the public library, where they improved their English and learned more about American culture.

Now Sandorf wants this generation of Americans to use the public library to learn to be Jews.

Sandorf is the director of a new organization called Nextbook, a nationwide campaign dedicated to promoting Jewish cultural literacy through gateways such as the Internet and public libraries.

Replete with extensive reading lists, a daily cultural news digest and information regarding local library activities, Nextbook’s Web site — www.nextbook.org — has been up since early June.

“There’s an interest here in this being a gateway for disengaged Jews to learn about their culture, history and tradition,” Sandorf said.

Part of the program’s appeal is that it is not rooted in any particular denomination or synagogue, she said.

Reading lists have been a huge project for Nextbook. Books are listed in four separate categories: Discovering Myself, Portraits of the Artist, Sense of Place and Struggle & Justice.

Authors range from Isaac Bashevis Singer and Chaim Potok to Grace Paley and Amos Oz.

Books include “Open Closed Open: Poems” by Yehuda Amichai, “Ideas and Opinions” by Albert Einstein, “Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number” by Jacobo Timerman, and “The Classic Cuisine of the Italian Jews” by Edda Servi Machlin.

“By nature, the book lists are very eclectic,” Sandorf said. “They offer a broad, eclectic view of Jewish life that is consistently high quality.”

Nextbook is a project of Keren Keshet-The Rainbow Foundation, a philanthropic organization formed by the Zalman Bernstein estate to enhance the religious background of Jews in the United States, Europe and Israel.

Nextbook currently has a “multimillion-dollar budget,” with no set end date, Sandorf said.

As a result, “there are no dues, no membership, no test; you can just go in and learn,” she said.

Robin Cembalest, executive editor of ARTNews Magazine, said she uses Nextbook’s Web site to stay abreast of the latest Jewish cultural news.

“I often end up sending articles to friends and family,” said Cembalest, who has been checking the Web site virtually every day since its creation.

Library sections devoted to books donated by Nextbook, and including information on upcoming events, have been installed in three libraries in Chicago and seven in the city’s suburbs.

Pilot library programs also should begin soon in the greater Seattle area and the Washington metropolitan area, Sandorf said.

Amy Eschelman, director of development and outreach at the Chicago Public Libraries, said it’s a “terrific idea to use libraries as an access point” because they’re free and open to everyone.

Eschelman said she has been “pleasantly surprised” by the swift success of Nextbook’s implementation in the libraries.

“The only difficult thing is that we have too many ideas,” she said.

Sandorf intends to employ a “library fellow” in each of the locales where Nextbook programs can be found.

Abigail Pickus, one of two Nextbook library fellows based in the Chicago area, said part of her job is “to work as a liaison between the New York Nextbook headquarters and participating libraries.”

Beyond installing an extensive Nextbook literary section in the libraries, there are plans to “engage the public at large in Jewish literature and culture,” Pickus said.

Events are in the works at venues ranging from libraries and other cultural institutions to coffee shops and book stores, Eschelman said.

Eschelman and Pickus are working to integrate literature with culture, music, art and dance, aiming to attract the 20-40 age group.

“We’re just hoping that Nextbook will have a universal appeal,” Sandorf said.

Nextbook advisory committees have been set up in the Chicago and Seattle areas.

“It’s so important for unaffiliated Jews like me,” said Glazer, who “got hooked on the Web site” and now checks it “on a pretty regular basis.”

Glazer was raised in the 1950s in the Borough Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, where “family was really important growing up, but religion wasn’t.”

“As I approached 50, I found myself wanting to reconnect to parts of my heritage and the culture that I had never learned about,” Glazer said.

A single mother of two who works full time, “my ability to read novels, biographies or historical accounts of my heritage is nonexistent — my time is very limited,” Glazer said.

As a result, it’s critical for her “to have quick reading materials, whether it’s for pleasure, work or current events,” she said.

“This is the perfect media for me,” she said. “I think it’s a fabulous venture.”

Anxiety about Jewish Literature


As long as the Jewish people lives, it will generate a living culture, and as long as that culture values the written word, Jews will write books.

Individual genius notwithstanding, these books will reflect the Jewish culture of their time. The Talmud was argued and codified when the Jewish elites concentrated on interpreting Jewish law, and the New York intellectuals generated Commentary and Partisan Review when American Jewish elites began "arguing the world." In between, Jews of Spain took up poetry, and Jews of Poland created hagiography about their rebbes, each in creative response to their religious communities. The diarists of the ghettos during World War II raised the pen against the swastika in an appeal to history that was as absolute and passionate as their forefathers’ appeals to God.

Our present anxiety about Jewish literature derives not from a slump in contemporary Jewish writing, but from the insufficiencies of American Jewish life. An ignorant Jewry inhibits even the knowledgeable Jewish writer.

Sholom Aleichem, at the turn of the 20th century, assumed that his main readers would be familiar with the Jewish prayers, though they might no longer be observing the commandments. Thus, when he wanted to create an "ordinary Jew," he imagined a dairyman so saturated with liturgy and Bible that he could improvise riffs on the psalms as he guided his horse over a country road.

But when Tova Mirvis writes in the first-person plural about "the ladies auxiliary" of an Orthodox synagogue, she feels obliged to explain one Jewish ritual per chapter to educate a potential readership of Jews who may know as little as gentiles about their religion. Her self-consciousness about what earlier writers could take for granted — intimacy with Jewish languages, texts and way of life — saps the energy from her voice, which could just as easily belong to the Methodist down the block. Some Yiddish words used to draw a laugh in the general culture as reminders of the immigrant condition that American Jews had outgrown. Nowadays, every manifestation of Jewish observance is played for comedy.

Add indifference to the ignorance, and Jewishness becomes silly putty. Say what you will about the Jews who wrote in German, even Heinrich Heine and Karl Kraus — who accepted baptism as their passport to European civilization — but they never lost their awe or dread of the religion they no longer practiced.

Judaism throbs in their works as pulsating conscience and threat. They registered the high cost of being a Jew. There is no such tension in authors such as E.L. Doctorow or Grace Paley, who treat Jewishness as whatever they wish it to be. Because of the benignity of American democracy, conversion to American liberalism requires no ceremony. Modern Jews don’t have to acknowledge that they are switching allegiances as they substitute leftist pieties for the tough Jewish discipline: They can pretend that they have never defected at all. If American Jews judge Judaism by the standards of The New York Times rather than judging The Times by the standards of Judaism, those writers who dream of being reviewed by The Times will reflect its values instead of God’s.

Cowardice is the third and most serious hindrance to the quality of the Jewish book in America. I wonder whether there has ever been in the history of the Jewish people a generation as craven as the one in whose midst we live. The single Columbia University professor Edward Said — who falsified his biography so that he could blame the Jews for losses inflicted on him by the Egyptians — managed to cow thousands of his Jewish fellow academics into apologizing for the existence of the Jewish State. In the 53 years since the Arab countries launched against Israel the longest and most protean war in modern history, the Jews of America have been beating a steady retreat from defense of the Jewish homeland. Most American Jews don’t even have the grit to speak out for what other Jews daily defend with their lives. No wonder Mark Helprin looks for heroes in World War I, and Michael Chabon in the comic book supermen of World War II. They would be hard put to find models of heroism among the Jewish elites of Los Angeles or New York.

The Jewish book reflects this moral collapse, and our best books are those that tell of it most honestly. Saul Bellow’s "Bellarosa Connection" registers the consequence of forgetting and neglecting what is sacred and significant. Midge Decter wrote "Liberal Parents, Radical Children," and Philip Roth adapted it as the superb novel "American Pastoral." Cynthia Ozick is our toughest naysayer, refusing the placebos of a homogenized culture. Those books are the truest that expose the ignorance, the indifference and the cowardice, reminding us through negative, if not yet positive, representation of what the Jewish people could yet become.

Lieberman’s Next Story


I thought I saw Arthur Goldberg the other night at USC. The late Supreme Court justice died in 1990, but his ghost surely hung over the Trojan campus Wednesday during Sen. Joseph Lieberman’s speech at the Casden Institute for the Study of the Jewish Role in American Life. Two great men, two American Jewish leaders. What could they say to each other?

I think it’s this: Arthur telling Joe, you did right.

In 1962, Goldberg, whose name was once synonymous with "New Deal Liberal," became the fifth vote of the Warren Court majority; his logic gave us not only the right to counsel on appeal but the right of married couples to contraception, laying the groundwork for Roe vs. Wade.

Think about the connections: Goldberg’s father was a fruit-and-vegetable peddler; Lieberman’s ran a liquor store. Goldberg, with a lifetime appointment, was the highest-ranking Jewish official in America. Lieberman was a two-term senator from the state that gave us Abe Ribicoff. In 1965, Goldberg was 57, just a year younger than the Connecticut senator when he was named running mate by Al Gore.

He must have thought that time was on his side when Lyndon Johnson prevailed upon Goldberg to resign and become his ambassador to the United Nations, filling the vacancy left by the death of Adlai Stevenson. It’s said he thought he could end the Vietnam War. It’s said he thought later presidents would reappoint him. How can you turn down the president?

It would be the biggest mistake of his life.

Goldberg took the ambassadorship, but three years later, as Vietnam raged, he resigned. Goldberg ran unsuccessfully for governor of New York in 1968, then returned to private legal practice until his death. His career had luster, but never again shine.

There were many political observers last fall, and for a while I was among them, who forgot the lesson of Arthur Goldberg. They criticized Lieberman for failing to put 2,000 percent of himself into Gore/Lieberman 2000.

They wanted him to fall for flattering opportunity and a crack at destiny. Give up the bird in the hand for the one in the bush.

Lieberman did not. Practical politician, the un-Goldberg learning from history, he ran for both at once, the vice presidency under Al Gore and for his third term as Connecticut senator. This was likened to a man who wears both suspenders and a belt, overly cautious and self-serving. But considering Florida, and recalling Arthur Goldberg, of course, it turned out to be smart.

What would have happened had Lieberman listened to his critics, given the split in Congress? Good thing we’ll never know. But right away, we do know some things. For one, USC’s Town and Gown would have been empty rather than sold out. For another, W. himself would not be praising his would-be opponent for "putting aside the election" and working instead for education reform. Lieberman startled his audience on Wednesday refusing even a moment’s rancor. No more talk about being the party in "exile." He is, for the moment, the darling of the middle, his centrist Democratic Leadership Council position lodged strongly in values-based foreign and domestic policy.

Finally, the Christian Science Monitor would not be running editorials, as they did last week, comparing Lieberman’s career with JFK’s.

In learning from history, Lieberman becomes, in the words of Marlon Brando in "On The Waterfront," a "real contender."

At the Casden lecture last week, I met two filmmakers who are trying to tell the Lieberman story, however it turns out.

Ron Frank, whose documentaries include "The Eternal Road," the story of Kurt Weill’s opera and the fate of German Jewry, and "The Hunt for Adolf Eichmann," followed Lieberman along the campaign trail. He and his producer, Ann Benjamin, have a deal with Connecticut Public Broadcasting for a three-part series on 20th-century American Jewry. Lieberman’s story provides the centerpiece. They’re seeking completion funds for the project (frankprod@earthlink.net).

Frank tells me, "There’s a sense of Jewishness that he brings to the campaign trail, both an ethnicity and an American political sense.

"Win or lose, we still have a story to tell."

True, it’s a long time to 2004. But Goldberg would think it will be time well spent.

Rye Humor


The Marx Brothers, The Three Stooges, Jack Benny, Milton Berle, Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Lenny Bruce, Jackie Mason, Woody Allen and, of course, Seinfeld. The history of American comedy is the history of America’s funniest Jews. But while being Jewish and funny has never been mutually exclusive, comedians in days of yore mostly kept their Jewishness offstage. Times are changing, and with multiculturalism comes a new brand of Jewish comedian.

Recently, The Journal caught up with three comics whose Judaism informs their act and whose career informs their Judaism. Cathy Ladman quips about her intermarriage; Mark Schiff brings his comic pals to perform at an Orthodox shul fund-raiser; and Larry Miller views stand-up as Talmudic discourse.

“People think Jews are funny because we’ve been oppressed, but I shake my head very quickly and very firmly at that,” Miller says. “I say, ‘No, comedy is intrinsically Jewish and something Jews are very good at and really right for. Because we’re people of the book, word and thought.'”

Jews don’t lift weights. They ask other people, ‘Would you help me pick those up, please?’

Every New Year’s Day for the past 20 years, comedian Mark Schiff has flown to New York to have lunch with his comic best buddies Jerry Seinfeld, Paul Reiser and Larry Miller.

“We have a club that meets once a year,” Schiff explains. “It’s called ‘The Funniest Men in America.'”

Schiff has known Seinfeld and Reiser since the three hung out together every night in the comedy dives of New York in the ’70s. Like his friends, Schiff went on to regularly appear on “The Tonight Show” (he was one of Johnny Carson’s favorite comics) and to create an act that kvetches about the irritating minutia of life.

He complains about parents, grandparents, his wife. He imagines a set of “unmotivational tapes,” dispensing such advice as “Get a bottle of whiskey and a pie and go back to bed.” He describes the frustrations of shopping at a supermarket: “I can never find people who work in these stores. I was in the meat department. I saw a guy in a white coat –blood all over the thing. I said, ‘Excuse me?’ He goes, ‘I don’t work here.'”

Schiff, an observant Jew, also makes comic observations about Jews. “There are no Jewish bank robbers,” he says. “The reason is that they’d have to say, ‘Put your hands up and get on the floor.’ But Jews can’t handle that. They’d say, ‘No, no, get up, you’ll get dirty.'”

Schiff decided he wanted to become a comedian at age 12, when his parents took him to see Rodney Dangerfield perform stand-up comedy in the late 1960s. “I was mesmerized by all the laughs, the love, the attention Dangerfield was getting,” says Schiff, who grew up in a Bronx sixth-floor walk-up where “Everyone was always complaining and yelling and threatening…I never felt heard when I was a kid. I never felt understood. And I had to find a way to be understood or go crazy.”

Stand-up comedy provided the outlet, and so did Schiff’s first Showtime special, “My Crummy Childhood,” in 1993. “My mother always used to say, “Do socks belong on the floor?'” he recalls, in his act. “I can’t wait until my parents get old and they come to live with me. I’ll say to them: ‘Do teeth belong on the floor?'”

Schiff began his journey to observant Judaism 12 years ago, when an Aish HaTorah Bible class convinced him that there was a better way to fill his inner emptiness than with the fleeting attention he received onstage.

Since then, he has joined two Orthodox synagogues, Anshe Emes and B’nai David-Judea, and he has convinced the Funniest Men to perform at an Anshe Emes fund-raiser. More recently, Schiff, a former staff writer on “Mad About You,” co-wrote an episode in which Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt observe Shabbos — sort of. In the episode, the characters meet an Amish man and are inspired to experience 24 hours without electricity.

“Words are important in Judaism, so I try not to slander anybody in my act,” Schiff says. But gently complaining about his wife is OK. “I don’t see it as LaShon HaRah. I see it as a bit of kvetching so I feel better.”

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