Israel's population is nearing 8 million, up almost 100,000 from the end of 2011, according to data released on the eve of Rosh Hashanah.
The Central Bureau of Statistics reported that the population of Israel stands at approximately 7,933,200; at the end of 2011 it was at 7.837 million.
The new figure includes approximately 5,978,600 Jews, or 75.4 percent of the population, and about 1,636,600 Arabs, or 20.6 percent. The 318,000 people categorized as “others” include 203,000 foreign workers, of whom some 60,000 are African migrants.
The Israeli population is considered relatively younger than that of Western countries, according to the statistics' bureau. In 2011, children from newborns to age 14 in Israel comprised 28.2 percent of the population and those aged 65 and over were 10.3 percent, compared to 18.5 percent and 15 percent on average in member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Last year, 166,296 babies were born in Israel — nearly identical to the previous year. There were 2.98 children per each Jewish woman, also nearly identical to the most recent figures, and 3.51 children per Muslim woman, down from 3.75.
The population density rose to 347 people per square kilometer, excluding West Bank communities, from 288 in 2000. The Tel Aviv District is the most densely populated; the most densely populated city is Bnei Brak at 22,145 people per square kilometer.
Israel tight-lipped over report on strike on Syria reactor
Nourish Your Soul With a Helping of Jewish Learning
Torah study in its broadest sense is the path to the divine. The Chasidim and their spiritual descendants traditionally reach toward God through ecstatic music, with the mediation of their rebbes.
The more straitlaced Mitnagdim found God in the intricacies of halacha, the “path” that constitutes the Jewish legal system and defines almost every aspect of what a Jew says and does.
Many Reform Jews express their connection with the divine through social action and tikkun olam, fixing God’s world. While all of these are also part of my own life as a Jew, it is study that nourishes my rationalist-traditionalist soul and links me to another realm.
In Deuteronomy 30:11-13, Moses assured the Jewish people that the Torah was neither “too baffling” nor “beyond their reach.” He poetically anticipates their objections — that the words of God are too far way, either “in the heavens” or “beyond the sea,” for a mere human to even approach.
Moses reassures them in verse 14 that Torah is indeed accessible and attainable: “No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.”
When Torah is in your mouth, when you are studying aloud and in the company of other Jews, you are “observing” the Torah, creating a path to God through study.
For adult Jews today who want to study Torah, in its broadest sense of any Jewish learning, the possibilities are manifold. You can pursue as much or as little as possible, finding something that matches your own time and inclinations.
Fairly early in my life I committed myself to learning Hebrew — not just decoding the letters, which I learned in kindergarten, but as both a mode of communication and a tool for Jewish study.
I made this decision many years ago while sitting in a women’s section in an Orthodox shul and using a Yiddish-Hebrew prayer book. With those two languages of my tradition side by side, I felt deeply the power of language as a force that binds Jews as it conveys our tradition, culture and religion. At that moment, I vowed to become fluent in both languages, but I only managed to succeed in Hebrew.
It was a long, hard slog — college and graduate school classes, tapes, easy Hebrew newspapers and two ulpanim 22 years apart. But the paybacks have been manifold.
Hebrew is a compact language that packs a lot of bang in a small space; an English translation of a Hebrew passage, for example, requires many additional words to express the same material. Hebrew words also echo across the Jewish tradition, accumulating meaning across time — through Torah, rabbinic and medieval commentary, and the flourishing modern Hebrew language. And, as the framework of Torah, the letters themselves are said to have a mystical power.
But these same letters sometimes feel like an impossible wall to many adults, keeping them on the outside, mystified rather than mystically moved. I’ve seen them in the adult b’nai mitzvah classes where I teach Hebrew reading. Fear of making a mistake, a terror that “maybe I’m too old to learn,” worry that “everybody but me knows what they’re doing already” — all of these are bulwarks that maintain ignorance. Yes, learning to read Hebrew requires a commitment and time. But as learners make their way to the other side, they’ll find themselves on the inside looking out and feel connected instead of alienated.
Although being able at least to read Hebrew is an important step for Jewish educational self-confidence, much Jewish learning is available without knowing a single word of Hebrew or even the alef-bet, the Hebrew alphabet.
The format that works best for me in Jewish study has been to learn with a cohesive group that studies together for a period of time. When studying with the same group of people, you get to know them personally as well as intellectually. You benefit not only from the knowledge of the group leader, but from both the Jewish and personal experiences of the individuals around the table (and, I mean specifically around a table — this kind of learning doesn’t happen with rows and a dais — although that kind of learning has its place too).
I owe my awareness of this kind of study to the havurah movement, whose tenet for Jewish study is that everyone has something to contribute, be it from their secular work experiences, their personal relationships or their own Jewish learning.
Some subjects work better than others to really ignite this type of study. For beginners, it’s often an adult b’nai mitzvah class or perhaps a conversion class where participants are taking tentative steps toward Jewish understandings by connecting new ideas to their own life experiences.
For more advanced learners, certain texts may work better to unlock personal sharing. I once studied midrashim, or ancient commentaries and stories, on the near sacrifice of Isaac in the book of Genesis with a class of university professors and townies. The rupture of relationship between father and son and extreme demands of loyalty by God brought latent emotions to the surface and promoted acknowledgement of these feelings and personal responses. In my women’s study group we recently studied selected Psalms where the raw feelings, the suffering and the ambivalence toward God’s actions evoked resonances that created meaningful connections between the people present.
Jewish learning also can work well in a class where the leader’s role is more teacher than facilitator (although both are certainly important for any successful learning experience).
The last leg of my own Jewish learning is the Internet, which offers a realm of possibilities. One fantastic resource is myjewishlearning.com, which covers Jewish learning — from Jewish life, practice, and culture to history, ideas, and beliefs, to Jewish texts — in bite-size chunks. The articles are tailored to an Internet audience that wants good information quickly and at the depth required, offering both broad-based introductions to material and nuanced essays on particular aspects of a field.
Through the Internet I also receive several divrei Torah each week — although I have to admit I seldom read them immediately but rather save them in portion-specific files as resources for future use (both for myself and for parents of my b’nai mitzvah students who want to learn about their children’s Torah portions). I also subscribe to the Bet Midrash Virtuali of the Rabbinical Assembly in Israel and every few days receive text and commentary of Pirke Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers. The interpretations come not just from the facilitator of the group, but also from other participants who email their own comments.
Not only are there multiple venues where adults too can participate in Jewish education, but books are being written to specifically aid the process. Barry Holtz’s “Back to the Sources: Reading the Classic Jewish Texts” (Simon & Schuster) has been a resource since 1984, but a more recent amazing aid to serious adult Jewish Torah study is “The Commentator’s Bible” by Michael Carasik (Jewish Publication Society, 2005). This book translates the medieval Bible commentators into accessible English, with the commentators basing most of their comments on either the new JPS translation of the Torah or the more literal old JPS translation.
Jewish education has connected me to the soul of Judaism. I keep kosher, I observe the holidays, I go to services regularly, yet I find study to be my most dependable spiritual connection to the Jewish tradition. I think the rabbis knew that no single path works for everyone, yet their own pursuit of study and discussion is certainly one they have encouraged us to emulate. It is not a mistake that Torah in its broadest sense of both study and practice is one of the three goals for each Jewish newborn, along with chuppah (marriage) and ma’asim tovim (good deeds).
When Torah is in your mouth, when you are studying aloud and in the company of other Jews, you are “observing” the Torah, creating a path to God through study.
Michele Alperin is a freelance writer and a former lifecycle editor for MyJewishLearning.com. She has a master’s degree in Jewish education from the Jewish Theological Seminary.
The centerpiece of the third section of the Tanach, the section known as Ketuvim (the Writings), is the Book of Psalms. The Book of Psalms contains some of the most majestic poetic images in the history of the Hebrew language. They express awe at the artistic power of the Creator and express wonder at the reality of all Being. They reflect on the redemptive design of the God of history who took us out of Egypt and anticipate the ultimate redemption at the end of days. They cry out in the pain of human suffering and appeal to a God of healing. They protest the injustice that surrounds us and the domination of the powerful over the weak. They sing of the yearning for communion with God. And more.
Nowhere is the relationship between God and the Jewish people articulated with more poetic power or artistic beauty than in the 150 chapters of the Psalms. The Psalms have withstood the test of time with their undiminished power to inspire, to move, to touch and elevate the human soul.
The original purpose of the Psalms was liturgical, written to be sung by a choir of Levites during the sacrificial service in the Temples in Jerusalem. Still, in our own day, many of the Psalms are used liturgically and comprise entire sections of the prayer book, the most obvious examples being Psukei d’Zimrah (the preliminary service recited daily before the Shachrit prayers) and Hallel, (the thanksgiving liturgy recited on holidays and Rosh Chodesh), the kabbalists of Safed in the 16th century used Psalms when creating the Kabbalat Shabbat service, which introduces the Shabbat evening prayers with great beauty.
Although the Talmud (Bava Batra 14b) ascribes authorship of the Book of Psalms to King David, even the Talmud ascribes composite authorship, insisting that David incorporated earlier collections of Psalms into his own. Among those the Talmud identifies are two collections, Psalms 42-49 and Psalms 84-88, 13 in all, that were written by the sons of Korah.
It is a stunning statistic that almost 10 percent of the Book of Psalms was written by the sons of Korah. The very name, Korah, symbolizes all that can go wrong in communal life. Korah was the cousin of Moshe and Aharon and Miriam, who protested the undemocratic centralization and personalization of power in the other side of the family. Korah led a rebellion in the wilderness against the authority of Moshe and Aharon. In the guise of egalitarianism and inclusiveness, with the claim that all of the Levites are equally holy, Korah incited 250 followers to join him in his rebellion. The rebellion was immediately recognized as a thinly veiled exercise of political opportunism and a shameful power grab. The rebellion ended badly, as it should have, as it was destined to. In the final scene, Korah was swallowed up by the earth, his minions and his ideas disappearing with him into the depths.
But his sons were not with him.
One might think that because his end was so dramatic, so violent, and so final, that Korah was wiped out once and for all. Remarkably, even though Korahism was dealt a fatal blow in the wilderness, the line of Korah did not die. The sons embraced the claim of the father that they were indeed holy, and they wrote holy words. His sons became poets; they wrote Psalms.
That is, perhaps, one of the reasons why Psalm 49 was selected to be read in a house of mourning. Beyond the ideas contained in the words themselves lies the power of the Psalm’s authorship. The heading of the Psalm reads: “To the leader: A Psalm of the sons of Korah.” The message of Psalm 49, a lesson the sons apparently learned from the bad example of their father, is that death comes to everyone, rich and poor alike. The importance of wealth and status in life is exaggerated because neither can protect us from death; nor are they of any use to us after we die. What is important in life, and in death, are the relationships we have formed with loved ones, with friends, and with God. Love transcends death. Love is eternal, and lives on after us.
Korach is the symbol of rebellion and conflict and despair; his sons are a symbol of hope. Korah brought dissension and tension into the world; his sons comfort the bereaved. Through the words of the sons of Korah, and by their example, we are inspired to embrace life with gratitude, with optimism and with passion, as long as our souls remain in our bodies.
Perry Netter is rabbi of Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles and author of “Divorce Is a Mitzvah: A Practical Guide to Finding Wholeness and Holiness When Your Marriage Dies” (Jewish Lights, 2002). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
My love of journalism started in high school, when I confronted the cafeteria manager at my public — predominantly Jewish — high school about why there was no matzah available during Passover. I’ve always loved keeping people informed, so journalism seemed like a natural career path. When I came to The Journal as a copy editor and had the opportunity to write and edit stories and interview celebrities (both real and pseudo), I couldn’t have imagined a better job.
Then came the curveball: In addition to writing and editing, I was asked to coordinate the obituaries. Ouch. The girl with the Mickey Mouse doll perched atop her computer was faced with handling grief on a daily basis.
It’s strange to be the “Perky Obit Girl,” as I’ve been dubbed by my colleagues. That part of my job mostly involves processing the listings from L.A. Jewish mortuaries.
Sometimes I’ll get a heartwarming listing for someone who lived into their early 100s, did tons for the community and had great-great-grandchildren. And because we’re in Tinseltown, I occasionally have a brush with fame. When the former husband of “Gilligan’s Island” actress Dawn Wells died, she faxed in the notice on her own palm tree-adorned stationery.
On the flip side, there are the ones about the family of three who was killed in a car accident; the 20-something who was lost at sea.
And then there are the odd requests that take me by surprise. One mortuary notice listed the sibling as: Puppy Brewster. Thinking that “Puppy” was a nickname, I ran it as: sister, Puppy Brewster. The family was incensed, and called to complain. Brewster was the name of the deceased man’s dog.
When I tell people what I do, I always take pride in ending with: “….and I coordinate the obituary page.” Sometimes I get a smile, sometimes a wince, but more often than not I get every journalist’s dream answer: “I faithfully read it every week.”
It’s OK to be in a rut, just sit down, crack open a beer and kick your feet up on the ottoman, but don’t get too comfortable there. When you notice yourself stagnating this week, remember this: as an Aries, you need variety. Your life is best when it looks like the all-you-can-eat salad bar at the Sizzler. Sure, you have your regular salad stuff, but you’ve also got some odd pseudo-Mexican snack foods, frozen yogurt, clam chowder and eight kinds of medically contraindicated salad dressings. Right now, you are eyeballing the salad bar of life without a clue what you want, all of which is making you edgy. This one is so easy. Just pick an activity and dig in. You can always go back for seconds.
Taurus (April 21-May 20)
Notable Jewish Taurus: Joey Ramone
Single Taurus: Get ready. Love is in the stars for you this week. I’m not talking about some blah dinner with a guy from JDate. I’m talking about that magical, dynamic, magnetic connection that only happens once in awhile (and often ends in disaster, but let’s take things one week at a time). For now, get waxed, clean your apartment, wash the car, have your hair blown-out and enjoy the romantic ride. The weekend will be especially potent in the “sensual” arena. On a family note, beware that the value of a possession may cause some strife. Don’t let yourself get wrapped up in material things, after all, you’re going to be starring in your own romantic comedy and with any luck it won’t be as cloying and predictable as “Must Love Dogs.”
Gemini (May 21 — June 20)
Notable Jewish Gemini: Yasmine Bleeth
I could give you a lot of mumbo jumbo about your solar eighth house of finances being affected this week by planets visiting Capricorn, but Gemini bores easily so just take this in: if you have been needing a bank loan, home refinance or student loan, this is your week. I know, Smarty Pants Twins don’t fancy comparing boring loan rates and such, but why not use your quick mind for something other than shouting out the answers to “Jeopardy” questions? As for work, this is the week that crazy co-worker seems to go off her medication. Just ignore her, because once you react, the mishegoss can be traced right back to you.
Cancer (June 21-July 20)
Notable Jewish Cancer: Neil Simon
When it comes to horoscopes and Cancers, there’s one major catch: you don’t like advice and you bristle at being told what to do. Fortunately, all I have to say this week is DO NOTHING. That’s right — avoid impetuous decisions, last minute trips and dicey business schemes. Don’t even go to the mall to return that tin of popcorn the size of Bill Maher’s head or digital travel clock you can’t figure out how to use. Stay home. Do laundry. Stick to a safe routine after running around socializing so much. Toward the end of the week, remember that if you control the cash in the family, you control the family, and very few people enjoy this if Oprah is to be believed. Trust and love is what Cancer has all around right now. So that’s your mantra. Say it: trust and love.
Leo (July 21 — August 21)
Notable Jewish Leo: Debra Messing
Driving Leos, start your engines. Oh, what’s that? They won’t start. I don’t get it. You took your vehicle to the Jiffy Lube three years ago, what could be the problem? You know all that stuff they tell you to do — besides the oil change you asked for — that you ignored? Well, this is the week to take care of it. No more riding around with warning lights on, or pretending not to notice the fluid dripping under your tires. This is a time for preventive maintenance. As for your own health, if you want to drop a bad habit, this is the perfect time. Maybe you don’t need six packets of Splenda in your coffee or that fourth glass of wine or that sixth macaroon. Drop a bad habit like you used to drop those oil change reminders — right in the trash.
Virgo (August 22-September 22)
Notable Jewish Virgo: Amy Irving
Some group environments are peaceful, say, yoga class. Others are stressful, say, a distant cousin’s bar mitzvah that’s in some horrible far away suburb and features stale rolls and even stiffer conversation. Here’s the thing, this week means any group activity is likely to bring you chaos. You may feel overly sensitive, or the unswerving need to throw a chair, Bobby Knight-style, into a crowd of people. Find your inner Phil Jackson and be diplomatic. What’s the pay-off for all that restraint? You may witness something extraordinary this week, something only an attentive Virgo would appreciate. Keep your eyes open, and your throwing hand closed.
Libra (September 23-October 22)
Notable Jewish Libra: Barbara Walters
Occasionally, your family has so many feuds Richard Dawson would plotz. These are just minor skirmishes, a political discussion that went sour, a call unreturned, an invitation “lost in the mail.” For Libra, this is the week to reconcile with family members. Coincidentally, the stars also say it’s a perfect time to entertain in your home. So there you go, get out your Swiffer, pop some pre-made crab cakes in the oven, light a nice holiday candle someone gave you at the office and make the place comfortable. Once your home looks nice, it’s time to make nice and invite over any relatives you’ve alienated. On the work front, more responsibility may come your way this week. Don’t get all, “That’s not my job.” Just do what you do best, find a solution that suits everyone
Scorpio (October 23-November 22)
Notable Jewish Scorpio: Winona Ryder
You want your partner or spouse to be happy, but does it have to reach perkiness proportions the likes of which are generally reserved for beauty pageants and morning news shows? This week, the enthusiasm level of someone close to you is downright exhausting, especially in your worn-down state. Here’s the thing, recalibrating someone else’s perk-o-meter is impossible and rude, so let it be. Speaking of rude, this is a time for Scorpio to embrace all forms of etiquette. I’m talking about thank-you notes, turning off your cell phone at the movies and speaking to everyone with respect. Friday the 13 happens to be a magical day for you. Dream big. Ask everyone you know their favorite travel destinations and stories and await inspiration.
Sagittarius (November 23-December 20)
Notable Jewish Sagittarius: Mandy Patinkin
There are times when your mind seems to function faster, like you’ve just upgraded your cerebral PC and the graphics are so sharp you can’t believe it. This week — there’s just no other way to say it — your thoughts are going to be intense, dude. You will have no trouble influencing people with your ideas and impressing them with your projects. Though your brain is both tenacious and focused right now, beware of one thing: Sagittarius is a great conversationalist, but don’t let it slip into gossip. Oh, and that domineering person in your life … could it be a mother figure? Anyway, you will have to stand up to her midweek. Luckily, your mind is so clear now, it will be no trouble “setting a boundary” rather than being a brat.
Capricorn (December 21-January 19)
Notable Jewish Capricorn: Howard Stern
You seem to embrace control more than Janet Jackson. Okay, that was a really old song lyric reference, but you know what I mean. On Tuesday, you will have to relinquish control with the service people in your life, be it the dry cleaner, maid, waitress or even doctor. Let people do their jobs and understand that chaos will creep it from time to time. Know that next week will run more smoothly. On a positive note, this week will bring a one-on-one interaction you won’t forget. Competition or cooperation will arise this week in a big way, but which one depends on you and the situation. After all, there’s a time to sing “Kumbaya” and a time to throw an elbow when the ref isn’t looking.
Aquarius (January 20-February 18)
Notable Jewish Aquarius: Judy Blume
It’s usually annoying when folks throw around phrases like “Go big or go home,” but what can I say? You are going big this week. Big energy. Big changes. You know those times when you just want to stick to your routine, wear your favorite old jeans, watch your usual TV shows, drive the same routes and call the same friends? This isn’t one of those weeks. You are open to any and all new experiences. Oh, and single Aquarians should be happy with that new “something something” you’ve got going. Even if it’s just a mild flirtation, attraction and desire are strong this week. If an ex comes into the picture, crop him or her right out.
Pisces (February 19-March 20)
Notable Jewish Pisces: Philip Roth
Don’t dole out warmth and affection like they give out slices of frozen pizza samples at Costco. I’m saying, don’t just create convenient bite-sized pieces of genuine humanity and place them on a platter for any passer-by to taste. This week, save your goodwill for the inner circle, the people in your daily life who have earned your trust. Speaking of those people, do you ever notice you interrupt a lot? Hear me out. Sure, it’s a cultural thing, talking, debating, leaping into furious discussion, but I encourage you to listen closely this week. You don’t even have to agree, just nod and smile. People love that.
I got a new outfit for yontif. The clothes add to the newness of this time of year, just like the first day of school. I sometimes wonder if the synagogues crank up the air conditioning on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur so we have an excuse to wear our new fall clothes.
The shul I grew up in had assigned seats — the bigger the macher, the closer to the bimah — so we got to know the people who sat around us. I came to rely on them being in their seats as part of the holiday: the woman a few rows in front with the beautiful silver hair; the board member who sat with his son in the section to our right, who was recently carrying his grandson up and down the aisle; the May-December couple who now look more like the a November-December couple, and the “lady doctor” who sat next to us. We knew she was a doctor because Dr. preceded her name on the pledge form we dutifully handed her each year. However, we’ve never learned her name because we didn’t have time to read the entire card as we were passing them on. I wish we had asked her name. Instead, we settled for a smile and a “Good yontif.” I still ask my parents how she is when I call home after services.
I remember the women who wore hats (my mother said women should wear hats on yontif). And I remember hanging out as a teenager, laughing and flirting. Since all the adults were in services and the teachers were busy with the younger children, the shul and its hallways were ours.
Funnily, I can’t remember the beautiful sermons my rabbi gave, but I remember these people. We marked the passing of our years by observing them — the graying of hair, the addition of grandchildren.
I’ve watched as the people having aliyahs have gone from being my parents’ friends to my friends. The children in the hallways are my children. When did this happen? The feeling of being itchy in my new tights and wool jumper, and eating apples and honey with my Hebrew school class is still so fresh in my mind.
The High Holidays make your mind wander — wander around the people around you and no longer around you. I remember sitting in the back of the sanctuary during Yizkor. I wasn’t supposed to be there. None of my friends were allowed to sit with me. But my sister did. We wanted to be there to remember our grandparents. And it was important to be in the sanctuary as if by being there we were lending our strength to our parents who were reciting “Kaddish.”
The first Rosh Hashanah away from my childhood synagogue was lonely. I was a stranger. My husband stayed home with our infant daughter so I could attend services. I sat in the front, not because I was a macher, but because I got there early. I looked around. No one had beautiful gray hair, I had no idea who the board members were and no one was sitting next to me. I saw some men drifting off, but they were not my father. I missed him as I missed my mother and my sister. I missed the familiarity of the hallways. I missed my congregation. I was wearing new clothes, but it didn’t feel like yontif. Suddenly, in walked a boy who I had grown up with, who I was in Hebrew school carpool with. He sat next to me and introduced me to his wife who was expecting their first child. He pointed out people he knew.
We reminisced about home. And with that, it wasn’t just some synagogue anymore — it was my shul.
Meredith Jacobs, author of the soon-to-be released “Modern Jewish Mom’s Guide to Shabbat” (HarperPerennial), runs
In New Orleans, the Jews are the only ones buried in the ground. Others, if their mourners have any means at all, are laid with the expectation of eternal rest in stone crypts to protect them from rising waters. My mother used to say, “Someday, we Jews’ll all be floatin’ down the river.”
Just as in California, where we know that one day “the big one” will come, in New Orleans, we knew that someday the water would overtake us. But the denial overtakes the wisdom, and we stay and build lives. I think of Pompeii. New Orleans was so beautiful.
Last week, I accompanied my daughter, Jen, to New York University for her freshman year. I returned home from New York on Monday, Aug. 29, with the expectation that I would be tending an empty nest. However, on the flight home, the CNN images on my private television screen, showed me that the nest that needs tending is the city itself, the one that nurtured me and held my memories — the place that gave me such delight throughout my youth and so much heartbreak as a young adult, when my mother and sister died in 1971.
I hope to be able to join the Red Cross relief effort, starting in Houston and from there, perhaps, deployed to the Mississippi Gulf Coast, where we vacationed when I was a girl. I will then connect with the recovery efforts of the New Orleans Jewish Federation, which has moved to Houston and Baton Rouge, along with much of my New Orleans Jewish community.
I would like to be a Jewish face in the rescue efforts with the larger community — a student rabbi working in a non-Jewish setting. And then I want the solace of comforting my own.
My hope is to try to provide consolation to the people who surrounded me as I said Kaddish for my father during the flood of 1995. That was said to be the greatest flood in 500 years, and people who came to comfort me came through mud and water, but that experience doesn’t come close to the water and heartbreak that now must be drained from the streets of New Orleans.
My family came to New Orleans at the turn of the last century, and they took part in building many of the Jewish institutions. At one time, we belonged to two Orthodox synagogues, one Reform and one Conservative. I grew up in the classically Reform Touro Synagogue, one of the oldest congregations in the United States.
My grandfather sold furniture from the back of his horse cart, and around 1925, he and five other peddlers pooled their meager resources and opened a store, Universal Furniture House.
As one of seven children, my father inherited one-seventh of his family’s one-sixth share in Universal. He became its manager and built it into one of the largest furniture businesses in the South. Though he only owned a small part of it, as head of it he was able to play a prominent role in the New Orleans business and philanthropic community, particularly the New Orleans Jewish Federation and the Louisiana Red Cross.
My father loved New Orleans almost as much as he loved me. I am so glad he is not alive to see this. Or my Aunt Rosalie, who was the executive secretary to the mayors of New Orleans over a period of 20 years, which means that she had more influence than just about anyone in the city.
As a child, it seemed natural to me to go in and out of the mayor’s office whenever I wanted. We were seated in the mayor’s box at City Hall for all of the Mardi Gras parades, while Aunt Rosalie embarrassed us as she pranced around in her Mardi Gras costumes that were more fabulous each year. My Aunt Ida had an antique jewelry shop on Royal Street in the French Quarter.
Every Shabbat, when I sing “Shalom Aleichem,” I hear their voices, see their faces and smell the chicken being prepared by their cook, who was the sister-in-law of Louis Armstrong.
Until Thursday, Sept. 1, when they were rescued, driven to Baton Rouge and flown to New York, my elderly cousins, 95-year-old Rosalie Cohen (three brothers married three sisters, and they all named their children Rosalie, Ida, Mose and Lazard), and Mildred Brown, 87, were stuck in Mildred’s condo in the Garden District, a part of New Orleans where the water did not get too terribly high — only a few feet. They had a caregiver with them. I actually got through to them on the phone three times.
Rosalie Cohen was one of the grand dames of the Jewish world — think Miss Melanie of “Gone with the Wind” meets “Driving Miss Daisy.” A celebrated beauty and intellect. Warm and charming, with a lyrical voice and, of course, perfect manners.
She was the first woman vice president of the Council of Jewish Federations, a Hebraic scholar who stayed at the Beit HaNasi (the president’s house) when she visited Israel.
She and Teddy Kollek were the last survivors of one of the major Zionist gatherings, a witness to the Arab riots of 1929 at the Wall and, I believe, one of the last Jews at the Wall before it became inaccessible to Jews for so many years. I have a picture of her with Eleanor Roosevelt.
Rosalie does not understand why she is not in her beautiful home in a lower part of the city, with her ancient and rambling oak tree, which is registered as a “protected tree.” Her younger sister, Mimmie, says she has to explain what is going on to Rosalie 20 times a day.
On Wednesday, I spoke to Rosalie who greeted me in her melodic upbeat voice, “Oh darling, how nice of you to call. We’re just riding it out and waiting for things to get back to normal.” The caregiver told me that they were waiting, hoping to be rescued by the National Guard.
When I told Rosalie that I might be coming in with the Red Cross, she said, “Well, do give us a call when you are in town.” I imagine that when the rescuers came, she put on white gloves and stockings.
How they were able to drive out of New Orleans without the car being hijacked and what they must have seen from that car is beyond me. The survivors whose harrowing stories I know are the ones with means and, therefore, the lucky ones.
When I last spoke to them before their rescue, there was only about a foot of water in their street, but they were probably the only ones remaining in their building. Of course, there was no electricity or air conditioning. The caregiver said they had adequate food and water, although Mimmie said otherwise. When I asked why she didn’t leave, she said she was “too old to travel.”
Today, Sunday, Sept. 4, I spoke to a dear family friend, age 90. She is in Houston with her grandson, having come with only the clothes she was wearing.
She said, “We were given a directive by the mayor to get out in one hour. I left everything, but we, at least, have our lives.
“I’ve just cried constantly since this happened. Such a feeling of loss. Not for the material things … but all the people….
“I wonder who I’ll ever see again. I tell myself, ‘Stop crying, at least you are alive.’ The people in the Holocaust didn’t even have their lives.”
When I told her of Rosalie and Mildred’s whereabouts, she said, “I saw Rosalie at a meeting about a week ago. She was as elegant and beautiful as ever. I told her that she had been my inspiration, all those years ago, for getting involved in Jewish community life and how grateful I was to have her as a role model. Now I will probably never see her again.”
She began to cry.
Was it Ellie Weisel who said, “There are things that are real that could not possibly be true?”
When I speak, I give this picture as a definition of healing:
In 1971, after my mother and sister died, I left New Orleans. When people asked, “How can you leave?” I said, “I have to go. Every tree, every street corner has a memory. It is unbearable.”
Years later, when I returned to New Orleans and people asked how it felt to be home, I would say, “Every tree, every street corner has a memory. It is exquisite.”
Now every tree and every street corner needs healing.
My friend and colleague, Rabbi Amy Eilberg, forwarded, these words:
“Perhaps we cannot expect to know why the world is broken; it may be enough to be blessed with the capacity to see the brokenness and to respond with love.”
Please all of you, do what you can.
Love to all of you. For those of you who pray — send prayers to my beautiful city. For those of you who know New Orleans, you know what a treasure we have lost. n
Anne Brener is an L.A.-based psychotherapist. She is the author of “Mourning & Mitzvah: Walking the Mourner’s Path” (Jewish Lights, 1993 and 2001), a fourth-year rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and a faculty member of the Academy for Jewish Religion.
I’ve always had a difficult time assimilating tragedy, and although it hit much closer to home for me, Sept. 11 was not much different.
Even though it touched people all around me, and I was definitely affected, it still did not seem as intense or painful as it should have been.
I sought the solace of my friends, and gave it as much as possible, just like everyone else in New York City. And although I knew people who died in the Trade Center, and others who lost close relatives and friends, I still only understood the calamity in my mind. It didn’t really hit my heart the way it hit others’.
Then I found a uniquely Jewish way to relate, and was able to come to personal terms with this tragedy.
Many who died in the Trade Center were never found intact. Outside a hospital in the East 20s, a number of refrigerated containers were set up to hold the various body parts that had been recovered while they awaited DNA testing and proper burial.
Of the nearly 3,000 people who died the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, a large number had to have been Jewish. Thus, it was assumed that many of the human pieces in those containers had come from Jewish bodies.
When a Jewish person dies, there is a tradition that someone stay up with the body all night before it is buried, watching over it and saying Tehilim — Psalms. Called shmirah (which literally means guarding), it is a sign of respect for the person who has died. As the days rolled on after Sept. 11, and body parts were recovered, a 24-hour rotation of people began to do shmirah in a tent (or trailer once it got colder) next to those refrigerated containers.
One benefit to freelancing is that I have a flexible schedule, so I often volunteered for a middle-of-the-night shift, from 2-6 a.m. For the bulk of that time, I was alone, saying Tehilim or silently meditating about the tragedy and the real people who had been lost.
Until then, I had mostly focused on the narrow escapes of the living. I had friends who should have been at work in the Trade Center, but weren’t that morning for some strangely miraculous reason or another. Others I know were chased through the streets of downtown by a cloud of smoke and debris as the buildings came tumbling down. Some had even been inside the second tower, or lower down in the first, but thankfully were able to get away safely.
I also knew a young woman, though not a close friend, who was among the Cantor Fitzgerald employees who never made it out. And after Sept. 11, I became friends with a woman who lost her brother that morning. The stories I heard about these people put a personal face on Sept. 11.
Still, despite these personal connections, I still felt less deeply affected by Sept. 11 than I should have, until I engaged in this Jewish ritual.
Jewish mourning practices are designed more for the living survivors than for those who have passed on. The process of moving from the intense seven days of shiva, to the less stringent 30 of shloshim, to the even more relaxed year of mourning following the loss of a parent, allow the survivor to accept the pain of loss and ease back into regular life.
The three weeks that lead up to Tisha B’Av, however, play out differently. As observant Jews approach this day of mourning for the loss of the two temples in Jerusalem, there’s an increase in the intensity of mourning. This allows us to acquire and assimilate a feeling of this loss, even though we never experienced it.
In much the same way, the shmirah I did after Sept. 11 allowed me to feel more compellingly the tragedy of that day. This year, on Sept. 11, I will again be saying Tehilim for the memory of those we lost. I invite you all to do the same.
May all of their neshomot (souls) have an aliyah (uplifting).
The history of any people consists of more than the study of the events that have influenced the course of its development. Even more important is the record of the people’s inner life, its values and aspirations, its views of the good life, its speculation about man and his place in the scheme of things. This is especially true of the Jewish people, whose long and turbulent career has spanned three and a half millennia, as well as six continents.
The life of the Jewish people was shaped primarily by the play of inner spiritual forces, and its survival to this day is inexplicable without taking it into account. An understanding of the Jewish character depends on a sensitive appreciation of its literature, which not only reflected the life of the people, but also helped fashion it. Jewish literature is, of course, long and varied. It exists in a number of languages, reflects many climes, and gives expression to a variety of moods and interests.
Yet, there is one book that stands out above all others in the expression of the Jewish soul, one that is second to the Torah alone in its influence on the Jewish mind and spirit — the Book of Psalms. More than 50 psalms are included in the Jewish prayer book and a number of pious Jews recite the entire book weekly.
Aesthetically, Psalms is one of the most pleasing books in the Bible, consisting of a wide variety of lyrical poetry, the most beautiful spiritual poetry ever assembled. It has won a permanent place in the religious literature of the world, speaking to the men and women who read and reread it because it reflects the yearning of their own hearts.
It is neither a unitary book nor the product of any one pen or age. Tradition ascribes it to David, the “sweet singer of Israel,” and the great king may indeed have contributed to it. But it is not the voice of a king alone that resounds in its pages. A number of its 150 chapters may have been composed by Levites who are referred to in their headings, others like the 20th psalm by priests or like the first or 49th by teachers of “wisdom.” Many reflect the cries of simple souls reaching out from the depths for the God of their salvation, as well as the joyful tones of thanksgiving expressing gratitude for experiencing God’s saving power.
What impresses the reader most is the amazing reality of the psalmist’s sense of his closeness to God. What emerges from virtually each chapter is the communion of the individual soul with God, not alone in solitary moments, but most often in fellowship with others. Indeed, it is only as a member of the worshipping community that the pious person experiences communion with God in full measure, a view that has remained constant in the synagogue to this day.
For the psalmist, as for the Torah, genuine religiosity is expressed both in one’s conduct and in one’s life orientation. The zeal for righteousness is the sine qua non of the religious life: “Who shall ascend the mountain of the Lord? And who shall stand in His holy place? One who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not long after what is false, and does not swear deceitfully” (24:3f.).
Psalms, like the other books of the Bible, is not a philosophical tract but its pervasive theme leaps out at any one who immerses him or herself in its pages. It reflects a deep and abiding trust in God that brings with it a feeling of serene confidence and joy.
On occasion, the joy is muted by a sense of resignation and even despair, but crying to God “out of the depths,” the psalmist discovers the saving presence of God. Humbled, he is ready to accept all that God chooses to send him. He is consumed by one desire alone, to be worthy of the divine love, to prove worthy of experiencing the divine presence: “Who have I in heaven but Thee? And besides Thee I have no desire on earth. My flesh and heart waste away, but God is my portion forever” (73:25f.).
There are many types of psalms such as petitions, laments, songs of thanksgiving and a variety of liturgies, including a number of pilgrims’ songs. But hymns, calling on the congregation to praise God, are dominant. That is why the book is called Sefer Tehillim, the “Book of Hymns.”
The hymn is very simple in its essential form, though occasionally complex in content. It generally consists of two basic elements: the call to praise God and the objective reason for doing so.
It is not surprising, then, that the shortest chapter in the book, and indeed in the entire Bible, is a hymn consisting of only two verses: “Praise the Lord, all ye nations; laud him, all ye peoples. For His loving-kindness is great toward us; and the faithfulness of the Lord endures forever.” Note the combination here of the two elements that are held in tension throughout biblical religion: the assertion that God is concerned about all peoples and, at the same time, that he has a special relationship to a particular people, a theme which recurs through many of the psalms.
Some hymns trace God’s revelation in nature, such as the majestic 104th psalm; others in the history of the world, and especially in the history of Israel, as in the oft-recited 114th. Most of all, God is seen as revealed in the Torah, Israel’s most precious gift. Not surprisingly, then, the lengthiest psalm and the longest chapter in the Bible, the 119th, is an alphabetical acrostic in praise of Torah and of its divine author.
If Tolstoy is correct in judging a work of art by the universality of its appeal, then the book of Psalms is second to none in its greatness. It won the hearts of all through the ages and became their constant companion. It helped sustain countless men and women in their darkest hours and was a source of comfort and faith to those who regularly turned to its pages. It remains one of ancient Israel’s greatest contributions to humanity, an inexhaustible source of solace and inspiration to the world.
David Lieber is president emeritus of the University of Judaism.
This week’s portion is named for Moses’ father-in-law, Yitro. Moses is exhausted because he spends the whole day talking to anyone who needs counseling or judgment. Yitro, who is visiting him, says: “You’ll kill yourself if you keep up at this pace. Get some people to help you.” And that’s exactly what Moses does.
Do your parents ever seem too exhausted to pay any attention to you? The best way you can help your parents out is by telling them you understand, that you know how much they love you and you know that they will give you the attention you need as soon as they are able.
Moses took care of 600,000 Jews. Today, there are 13.2 million of us in the whole world. That’s still not very many.
Here is a list of a few Jewish populations around the world.
Can you match the city or country to the amount of Jews who live there?
Send your answer to email@example.com.
A Jewish Memory
Here is a story written by a sixth-grader.
A few years ago, my dad took me to visit my grandma, Helen, at the nursing home. She was 92, and had had a stroke four years earlier. No one could talk to her much because she was always sleeping. Through the years, she just got worse and worse until she couldn’t even open an eyelid.
When we got there, it was kind of a shock to me, since I hadn’t been there for so long. We finally found Grandma in a wheelchair in the patio. As usual, she was fast asleep. With her pale face and thinning hair, she did not look like the beloved grandmother I used to know. My father told me to talk to her. I tried but she didn’t move. I told jokes, laughed, whistled; I even acted out something funny that I had recently seen on TV, but my grandmother stayed still as a rock.
My dad saw my impatience, and said sympathetically: “Come on, honey, we can leave now,” he said.
But I didn’t budge. I felt I had a goal to attain, so I wouldn’t just let go.
“Let me try one last time,” I answered. I thought and thought, and just when I couldn’t think anymore, I remembered I knew a little Yiddish.
A few months ago had been Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day. I, together with the rest of my class had sang many Holocaust songs including, “Zog Nit Keyn Mol.” I knew Grandma grew up speaking Yiddish with her five sisters in New York, so I gave it one more shot. I sang the song. Surprisingly, it worked. Grandma opened her eyes and smiled. And even though it was only for a brief second, I knew I would treasure that moment forever. I did.
Grandma died on Oct. 26, 2003.
Nancy and Kim Goldov wanted to personalize everything about their wedding. She sewed her own gown. He composed music for the ceremony. They both created a new last name to share: combining Stolov and Goldschmidt into Goldov. So it probably didn’t surprise anyone that the couple spent months crafting a one-of-a-kind chuppah to say their vows under.
“The rabbi used the image of weaving our lives together,” when he commented about the way Nancy and Kim carefully planned their creative wedding, with the help of friends and family. Nancy says they decided to make their own chuppah out of hand-dyed silk and handcrafted wood in part because they wanted to create a lasting memory.
“The wedding became a focus for all of our creative energy,” she explained.
They also were able to take such a creative approach to the chuppah because they had lots of time and friends who were craftspeople and willing to help with the woodworking and dying of the silk.
“It wasn’t a sudden wedding. It was a very planned wedding,” Nancy said. “It’s not something every couple could do or want to…. We kind of went overboard.”
But now, thanks to their hard work, Nancy and Kim also have a beautiful canopy over their bed. They can look up and see the magical “tree of life” with pomegranates, apples and figs. The tree surrounds a Star of David made from a piece of spallted maple wood found in a park. The four posts of the canopy are a delicate combination of several different kinds of wood.
Nancy says the chuppah cost a few hundred dollars to make, but is now considered a priceless family heirloom. She is having a quilt made for their bed that mimics the design of the tree. Someday she may change the chuppah in some way to signify their children.
One of the questions Nancy asked concerning her creative chuppah was whether it adhered to Jewish law concerning wedding ceremonies. According to The Jewish Catalog and Rabbi Maurice Lamm’s book, “The Jewish Way in Love and Marriage” (Jonathan David, 1991) the chuppah is affected more by tradition than law.
Traditionally, the wedding ceremony took place under the stars as an omen that the marriage should be blessed with as many children as stars in heaven. To create a more intimate space for the ceremony, rabbis in the Middle Ages allowed the use of a chuppah, which symbolizes the groom’s home into which he invites the bride. It is required only for the seven blessings and only the bride and groom need to stand under it.
“It teaches that this simple, fragile room which is now common to both partners launches the marriage,” Lamm explained.
As with any wedding ceremony decision, it is best to discuss chuppah ideas with your rabbi before you start collecting materials and assembling the structure. Depending on whether the rabbi is Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative or Orthodox, he or she may have different ideas about what is required.
Some of the more common kinds of chuppahs involve a tapestry or tallit fastened to the top of four poles. The poles can be held by four friends or put in some kind of stand. Keep in mind the length of your ceremony before making a decision about whether to have people hold the poles. Some brides prefer to decorate the tapestry with flowers.
How elaborate a chuppah you choose also depends on how much time and energy you want to put into the project. A combination of creative energy and a little chutzpah helped Jenifer Thornton and her mother create a special chuppah for her wedding.
“I’m in a creative field and I knew that I didn’t want to just do the standard,” Jenifer said, adding that they researched whether they could rent a creative chuppah but found nothing to their liking.
“We just kind of thought, if it works out, great.” The only problem was — and this would be a big problem for many brides — they didn’t know what the chuppah was going to look like until an hour before the wedding. They couldn’t put it together in advance and then move to the location of the ceremony.
Jenifer and Philip Thornton’s chuppah consisted of plaster columns; adorned with lace netting, green plants, ivy and copper ribbon.
“It was beautiful and everyone loved it. The only thing I would change would be the lighting,” she said, indicating she would recommend backlighting the chuppah for a greater impact.
She says it wasn’t expensive, but warns that finding proper columns can be a challenge. Most replicas that can be rented are too light and easily toppled by sudden movement.
“It’s difficult to rent them,” she said. “They have to be heavy. You definitely don’t want them to fall over.”
She rented the columns from a friend who doesn’t usually loan them out.
Another approach to creating your own chuppah is to consult with an architect or a landscape designer. When Julie Israel got married about five years ago she was lucky enough to have an architectural designer right in the family, her mother, Linda Haugen.
The chuppah for Julie’s wedding to David Israel consisted of “marbleized” wooden columns and a trellis covered in ivy and flowers. The structurally dramatic chuppah fit in well with the architecture at Temple De Hirsch Sinai.
“It was a very dramatic and important structure and it added considerably to the whole ceremony,” she said.
Fitting the chuppah to the setting and the personalities of the bride and groom is very important, but perhaps the most critical aspect of the project is getting prepared to build it the night or morning before the wedding in just a few hours.
Her experience in architecture and the theater prepared Linda for the project.
“If someone wanted to have a chuppah like ours, they should turn to someone with our level of experience,” she said. “It would be difficult for the average person to do it. It really involves a lot of thought and coordination.”
When asked if such a structural chuppah could have a second life after the wedding, Linda said one could consider reconstructing it in their garden: “It’s your first house and that’s what’s so lovely about it.”
Open Wilda Spalding’s “little black book,” and you’ll discover a code of ethics — written in part by Eleanor Roosevelt and adopted by the United Nations in 1948: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Spalding, who will be at the University of Judaism on Oct. 26, has been a human rights activist at the United Nations in Geneva for more than 30 years. She has campaigned for indigenous people, children, the disabled and others and founded the International Human Rights Consortium, a nonprofit organization that seeks to promote the spirit of the Universal Declaration by honoring human rights advocates. Spalding is a member of congregation B’nai Horin, which holds services outdoors in gardens.
Jewish Journal: What will you speak about at the University of Judaism?
Wilda Spalding: The title of the talk is “Powerful Pixels of Peace: The Individual, the Nation and the United Nations.” Your screen on your computer or your television is made up of pixels. If one of them isn’t on, your television or your computer doesn’t work. That’s how important each one of us is. I want [listeners] to get really connected with themselves and the pretext of the individual and the different forms that can take — individual couples, individual communities, individual nations. One of the forms is the United Nations. I want them to go away feeling their beauty, their specialness, their uniqueness and their power.
JJ: Do Jews have a particular interest in human rights?
WS: A Jew is a living human rights Universal Declaration. By the covenant with Hashem — by the act of creation — they’re called to be the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. From the beginning, the declaration was born from the horrors of World War II.
JJ: How did you get involved with the United Nations?
WS: My mother was in San Francisco at the time of the signing [of the United Nations Charter in 1945], and I was in her womb. Through the amniotic fluid, I heard it, and I went, “Yes! This is for me.” For me, it’s about purpose and enabling people to feel their full dignity and respect. This is a place where people gather to try to do that.
JJ: The American Israel Public Affairs Committee has said, “The U.N. Human Rights Commission promotes anti-Israel, anti-Semitic resolutions.” Do you agree?
WS: I’m in the Commission and have been for many, many years as a senior NGO [nongovernmental organization] participant. Israel as a nation is one thing, and Israel in what it’s doing in other areas of the world in terms of humanitarian work, in terms of being involved in HIV/AIDS, in its work in Senegal [is another thing]. Israel is doing a lot of very exciting and wonderful things. And that does show up in other places.
JJ: In September 2001, the United Nations hosted in Durban, South Africa, “The World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance.” The conference was called anti-Semitic and the United States government boycotted it. Do you think it was anti-Semitic?
WS: It was not anti-Semitic in the sense that it was not anti-Islam. No, it was anti-Israeli. And the fact that, that came through was really indicative of the pain that the world community is feeling and may be turning on the United States in a very similar way.
JJ: Peter Hansen, the head of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), recently said in an interview that UNRWA in Gaza knowingly hires members of Hamas. Israel has called for Hansen’s resignation. Do you think Hansen should resign?
WS: When there is an organization or a club, which is all the U.N. is — it’s a dues-paying club — if you’re not a member of that club, you may not want to join that club, you may not like that club. You may want to criticize that club’s rules. But then how do you get that club to go to the ethical place you’d like it to? By being angry at it? By criticizing it? By not joining it?
If people want UNRWA to be different, then they need to start working at UNRWA.
Is it better that you have the people working for you, so that you can keep an eye on them and integrate them into something positive, or is it better to leave them alone, giving them 10 hours a day to make a bomb?
JJ: What’s something practical that the Los Angeles community can do to improve the state of human rights?
WS: The community is made up of individuals. The first thing all of us have to do is go inside ourselves, clean out the fear. Why are we always pitting ourselves us against them? Why do we fall into the trap of dualism? Is God two? No. God is echad [one].
We have tremendous capacity within ourselves, no matter our situation. Take a look at the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Ask yourself, if you had all the money and all the staff in the world, what one thing would you do?
Wilda Spalding will speak Tuesday, Oct. 26, at 10:45 a.m. after a 10 a.m. reception at the University of Judaism, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Bel Air. $10. For more information, call (310) 440-1283, ext 283.
The last time my name appeared in The Jewish Journal, I had just been dubbed the “Milken Idol” for winning a public-speaking contest with what
The Journal termed a “stirring pro-Israel speech” that called for “Zionist solidarity.”
In that speech, I said that “there are no more excuses for apathy, complacency or passivity” and spoke of how we must empower Israel to stop a “sick, repulsive enemy.” Looking back more than half a year later, I do not know if I truly understood how significant and imperative my message was.
Since making that speech, I have traveled to Poland with March of the Living and visited Israel three times. I now understand.
This past weekend Duke allowed the Palestine Solidarity Movement (PSM) to hold its annual conference on campus. When it became clear to me that the president of the university thought hosting a group that would not condemn terrorism affirmed the value of free speech and “dialogue,” I struggled with how I would react.
I found an apologetic attitude toward terrorism on campus. The editorial in our school paper supported the PSM’s decision to not condemn terrorism by ludicrously explaining that “if the PSM were to take a stance on the legitimacy of suicide bombings and other militant acts as a means for a solution, it might alienate a segment of its members.”
I stayed in contact with members of the American Jewish Congress and StandWithUs, joined Duke Friends of Israel, became active with the Freeman Center for Jewish Life, helped the Joint Israel Initiative with ads for the school paper and joined the Duke Conservative Union, the only non-Jewish student group that condemned and protested the school’s decision to host the conference.
I engaged anyone and everyone in debate and tried to contend with the widespread mentality that believes supporting the underdog is an “educated” point of view. I was invigorated in my outrage when I walked by signs telling me that by virtue of being a Zionist I supported ethnic cleansing.
In the week before the conference, faced with a campus rife with ignorance and no strong collective Jewish voice, I still did not know exactly how I wanted to respond.
I decided to attend a PSM workshop, spend some time at the Freeman Center and then join the protest against the hatefest on its final day.
At the conference, I found the group’s messages abhorrent and reprehensible. It was also painful it was to see some PSM organizers wearing Magen Davids and sporting anti-Israel T-shirts and passing out materials with anti-Semitic slogans. When a Jewish PSM organizer with a chai around her neck walked into the room and stood next to me, I was so repulsed that I had to leave the conference.
I’m a product of Los Angeles Jewish schooling, yet by some divine error I ended up at a campus that was not only devoid of any Jewish identity, but also hosting a divestment campaign.
Yet I keep thinking back to the girl with the chai as a lucid reason of why I ended up here. The image makes clear to me that my role as a Jew in a world that is growing more and more anti-Semitic is not to try and eradicate hatred of Jews from the earth.
My role is to help my Jewish peers be proud and knowledgeable members of this community, so that I never again have to attend an anti-Semitic campaign organized by Jews.
Our survival boils down to one thing: our peoplehood. It is the intangible quality of Judaism that made two Australian girls invite me to Shabbat dinner on the first day of school, even though nothing I was wearing would have identified me as Jewish.
That quality is the thing that allows for Sinai Temple to have a successful program helping our fellow Jews in Argentina and for Milken to have an exchange program with Jewish Mexicans. It is the thing that empties out dozens of El Al jets so that under the cover of night, persecuted Ethiopian Jews can become Israelis. It is the raid on Entebbe. And it is the indescribably beautiful thing that makes Israel an open country to any and every Jew.
The PSM has reinforced the sense of urgency I expressed seven months ago. Anti-Semitism is not the stuff of the 1930s we read about in our history textbooks. It is the story of my past weekend, it is in this morning’s newspaper, it is the truth of many world leaders, and it is not going away.
The PSM showed me once again why the future of the Jewish people does not rest with converting uneducated hypocrites into reasonable human beings.
Our future rests with ourselves — a future rooted in the Jewish people, a future where we continue to be the people God chose and blessed from all others, a future where every Jew recognizes Israel as the physical manifestation of their religion, and a future in which we continue to disappoint every person who dreams of our end by continuing to be the most educated, charitable, successful and cohesive group of people in the world.
Diane Arbus, acknowledged as one of the greatest photographers of the 20th century, thought photographs were the ultimate enigma.
“A photograph is a secret about a secret,” she said. “The more it tells you, the less you know.”
Arbus was a pampered Jewish princess turned chronicler of the weird. That she, of all photographers, would characterize photographs as secretive is somewhat paradoxical. Her most famous images have a startling directness about them. The photographs pull back the curtain on a surreptitious underbelly of people that are not “like us.” They expose the sideshow of society, compelling the viewer to confront things that he or she might be embarrassed of and would prefer to not see.
But the directness is deceptive. The images force us to look, but reveal nothing of what we are looking at. Why does the wife in “A young Brooklyn family going for a Sunday outing, New York City” (1966) look like a drag queen impersonating Elizabeth Taylor? Why does the son in that same image look cross-eyed and deranged — is he mugging for the camera, or is his face always like that? And why does the father’s lack of pizzazz seem so horrifying in that context? An Arbus photograph might show, but it never tells.
On Feb. 29, the first major Arbus retrospective since 1972 will open at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. “Diane Arbus, Revelations” consists of nearly 200 of the artist’s most significant photographs. The exhibition will also display her contact sheets, cameras, letters and notebooks, to give some indication of Arbus’ working methods and intellectual influences. The exhibition — and the accompanying book of the same name that her daughter, Doon, put together — are the most complete presentation of Arbus’ work and life ever assembled.
“She was really an extraordinary photographer,” said Robert Flick, a photographer who also teaches photography at USC. “What is extraordinary about her is that she seems to know where she can place herself to be at just the right distance from her subjects. [The distance and framing] is always one of intimacy, even when she is looking hard at something.”
Arbus was born Diane Nemerov in 1923 in Manhattan to wealthy Jewish parents who owned upscale clothing stores. Judaism was not the most central aspect of the Nemerovs life, but it was an important identifying feature for them. Part of the “gilded ghetto” — a clique of wealthy Jews who lived uptown, the Nemerovs sent their children to Sunday school, and they celebrated the holidays. When Diane’s sister, Renee, announced that she wanted to marry a non-Jew, her parents tried to buy him off.
Arbus called her JAPy upbringing “irrational” and “unreal,” and later, through her work, she tried to distance herself from it — to find the world that was the antithesis of the one she came from.
Arbus started out as a fashion photographer, working with her husband, Allan Arbus, shooting department store newspaper ads and fashion features for glossy magazines. Later in 1956, when her marriage broke up, Arbus started taking photographs on her own. She became a portrait photographer, and prowled the streets of New York and New Jersey hunting for the subjects that could evince the startling quality that typified so much of her work.
Jewishness was not endemic to Arbus’ work, but nor was it unfamiliar to it. Arbus photographed Jewish matrons in an attempt to study, as Patricia Bosworth puts it in “Diane Arbus, a Biography” (Norton, 1995), “The relationship between role-playing and cultural identity.”
In 1963, Arbus shot “A Jewish couple dancing, N.Y.C” — the middle-aged duo garishly beaming for the camera, insulated from the world in their bourgeois happiness. One of Arbus’ canonical images is of a Jew. “A Jewish giant at home with his parents in the Bronx, N.Y” is the photograph of Eddie Carmel, who was 8 feet tall and weighed 495 pounds. Carmel was Arbus’ photographic subject for 10 years, but this photograph alone manages to encapsulate the horror of Carmel’s difference. In it, Carmel’s parents look up at him as if they are distant from their progeny and afraid and bewildered of his size. With his cane, his hunch, the sheepish hand in the pocket, Carmel, too, seems unsure of how he got that way and what the purpose of his size really is.
Arbus’ fascination with the oddities of society fulfilled her artistic drive, but it did little to quell her inner emotional turmoil. Toward the end of her life, Arbus became very depressed. In 1971, at the age of 48, she slit her wrists. She left behind a plethora of images that, even 30 years after her death, still maintain that elusive quality that she infused them with.
“Diane Arbus, Revelations” opens on Feb. 29 at the Los
Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. To purchase
tickets, call (877) 522-6255 or visit www.lacma.org .
One of the best things about being the editor of a Jewish paper is I get to meet a lot of Jews.
Looking back over the past year, I see it’s a fascinating perk of the job.
Just in the past two weeks, for instance, I danced (poorly) at the Chabad Telethon when the tote board hit $3.4 million, met with two powerful state legislators, hobnobbed with celebrities and entertainment industry machers, lunched with Israeli diplomats and Jewish professionals and educators, cocktailed with Israeli diplomats and Persian businessmen — you get the idea.
Old, young, secular, black hat, poor, rich, gay, straight, engaged, apathetic, famous and, in one case, infamous: When I say I meet a lot of Jews, I mean a lot of different kinds of Jews. It is a pleasure too few of us enjoy. As Jewish life in Los Angeles has grown and diversified, it has also become increasingly particularized.
Part of this phenomenon is reflected in the recently released National Jewish Population Survey, which shows that a majority of Jewish institutions serve a minority of Jews: synagogues, Jewish Community Centers and federations draw about 40 percent of the Jewish population, and the number of truly active participants is probably far less. That means there is a minority of Jews engaged in what we call, with increasing optimism and inaccuracy, "the Jewish community." Yet most Jews remain outside.
Even among Jews who do, as the jargon goes, "affiliate," the distance among them is great. Of this there is no measurement in the NJPS, but I can tell you anecdotally it is a common phenomenon, and a sad one.
There are 600,000 Jews in Los Angeles, and most of us get to know only one kind among them. Because we are not just Jews, but human, our knee-jerk reaction to these other Jews is to regard them as the Other. The natural result of joining one group is to look askance at all the ones you opted out of. When I told some people I spent last Sunday evening with Chabad, they regarded me as either a dupe or a traitor. I’ve told others about the preschool at Kol Ami, a gay and lesbian synagogue, where children (many adopted from the four corners of the world) discover Judaism as a faith of warmth and inclusiveness — and you’d think I was speaking of the Amalekites. The Jewish communities of greater Los Angeles rarely touch, and even more rarely interact. Many of us don’t approve of the Other, as if we are viciously competitive teams in a regional league, and our common sport is Jewish.
So there are two problems here. On the one hand, we have divided ourselves into Jews on the inside of Jewish life and Jews on the outside, the affiliated and the unaffiliated. On the other hand, within the affiliated groups, we have divided ourselves from one another.
"Do not separate yourself from the community," said the sage Hillel, "and do not be sure of yourself until you are dead." Every day I see any number of examples of us doing just the opposite.
What we don’t seem to understand is that while Judaism may offer immutable rituals and beliefs (itself a notion open to challenge), humans by nature approach faith and ritual as part of their journey through life. The extent to which we become partners in shaping and encouraging someone’s journey to be a Jewish one depends on how open we are to understanding and participating in the Other’s journey. If you want to pull your friend out of the mud, said a great rabbi, first you have to step into the mud yourself.
The nature of religious experience in our postmodern world is personal, mutable and somewhat mysterious. As our choices and freedoms expand, our varieties of Jewish experience will become even more varied. We will have to fight against our instinct to disparage the new and different. Few among us adhere to a form of Judaism that some other Jews, at some point in history, didn’t regard as treif.
Without stretching beyond our immediate Jewish community — whether that community is a mega-shul, a mini-shtiebel, a social action group or a choir — we are unwittingly participating in the diminishment of Jewish life. "If you stop dialogue and debate, you start talking to yourself," said Rabbi Harold Schulweis, "and that is the first sign of insanity." It is also a ticket to self-righteousness and extremism, something we’ve seen enough of in 5763.
Meeting Jews is easy — this town is full of them. Meeting and getting to know and appreciate different kinds of Jews is a challenge, but a crucial one.
Jews in America are more favorably regarded than Catholics, barely less well liked than Protestants and far more highly viewed than Evangelical Christians. Facts you are not likely to have read in the direct mail you receive from solicitors of contributions.
It’s time for Jews, blacks and other minorities to reassess where we really stand in pluralistic America, not where many of our leaders would like us to think we are.
Last week The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal carried important op-eds by a Jew (J.J. Goldberg, editor of The Forward) and an African American academic (professor John McWhorter of UC Berkeley), which speak to our place in the United States of the 21st century.
McWhorter’s piece, "My Master’s House," criticizes the facile invocation of charges of racism from black leaders that "has drifted into a recreational crutch, assuaging the insecurity at the heart of the human soul … fashioning one’s self as eternally battling a white America mired in racism" is, he asserts, a troubling phenomenon.
McWhorter derides Jayson Blair, of New York Times fame, and his assertion of being the victim of bigotry. He also notes with concern other examples of claiming perpetual victim status, such as the president of the Florida NAACP who recently observed that "racism finds itself no matter where we are in the this country and holds its head high," and the head of the Georgia NAACP who announced that "if it were up to the majority of people in the state of Georgia, slavery would still be the law of the land."
I often speak about these and related topics. Invariably, white faces and Jewish heads will nod and agree that the scene regarding race and ethnicity in America has markedly improved in recent years and that those who see pervasive racism are beating a tired, if not nearly dead, horse. "How could anyone not see how the status of blacks, Latinos and other minorities have changed for the better!" the facial expressions shout.
But try and make the same case to a Jewish audience about Jews. Assert that we live in a better, far more accepting America than existed 25 — or 10 — years ago, and the vast majority of the heads will stop nodding vertically and begin a horizontal sweep of disagreement. Dare to tell that audience that Jews have made enormous progress and that anti-Semitism is not the biggest threat that we face domestically, and the arched eyebrows of skepticism spread like a wave across the audience. "Pollyanna" and "naïve" are the two nicest descriptors that inevitably emerge in the subsequent discussion.
The Goldberg piece in The New York Times gives a clue as to why our fears are so widely embraced despite all the evidence to the contrary — we look for, occasionally manufacture, and seem to welcome bad news, and ignore or dismiss information that contradicts our fears.
The recently released National Jewish Population Survey is a case in point. The survey was widely reported to have found that the U.S. Jewish population declined by 5 percent between 1990 and 2000. At this rate, even the most mathematically challenged can calculate, American Jewry is destined for virtual extinction. Countless sermons, synagogue boards of directors meetings and "strategic planning" studies have already been focused on this threat to Jewish "continuity." But, as Goldberg asserts, United Jewish Communities, the funder of the study, got it all wrong and, in fact, "invented a crisis." He raises genuine questions about the methodology of the study and the presentation of its data.
Goldberg cites the analogous study of a decade ago that proffered incorrect data on Jewish intermarriage rates. Goldberg asserts that the 1990 report was motivated, at least in part, "out of a desire to shock straying Jews into greater observance…. American Jews are not disappearing," Goldberg concludes.
Similarly, our fears of anti-Semitism ought to be tempered by reality. Not only is meaningful anti-Jewish hate not about to emerge in America, it hardly plays a role in our or our children’s lives.
A widely ignored 2002 study by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, found that Jews were viewed favorably by 74 percent of the sample of over 2,000 adults. Our 74 percent is identical with the favorable rating for Protestants and Catholics, as contrasted with 54 percent for Muslim Americans and 55 percent for Evangelical Christians. The unfavorable rating for Jews (9 percent) was less than that for Catholics (13 percent), Evangelicals (18 percent) or Muslim Americans (22 percent) and only 1 percentage point below that for Protestants (8 percent).
We ought to just look around us. The vibrancy and activity levels of countless synagogues and Jewish cultural institutions are manifest (in Los Angeles alone, one could keep perpetually busy going to programs at the Skirball, the University of Judaism or the Museum of Tolerance, to name but a few) and belie any data that suggest our demise or ossification.
The American Jewish community needs to read what a McWhorter and Goldberg have to say. We are blessed to live in the real-world incarnation of the "Goldene Medina" that our forebears dreamed about and crossed oceans for. Residual racism and anti-Semitism exist, but the idea that this impedes our success is a fiction. We can be or achieve virtually whatever we set our sights on.
As we begin the New Year and evaluate ourselves, we should be honest in assessing how far we have come and realize that our future success depends most of all on us and what we create from within.
David A. Lehrer is president of Community Advocates, a year-old human relations organization chaired by former Mayor Richard J. Riordan.
We live in an extraordinarily diverse and pluralistic city. It is in our Jewish DNA to want to participate in making the world a better place. It is also in our self-interest to live in a place where the societal needs are being adequately addressed. That is why The Jewish Federation must aggressively reposition itself as a compelling player in the field of community relations with a strong Jewish Community Relations Committee (JCRC). To do so at a time when financial resources are limited is a challenge, but it is certainly doable if we tap into the abundant creative energy in our community.
The Federation is committed to a strong and vibrant JCRC.
Engaging residents of our community to impact the "urban agenda" is the objective. But the agenda of the organized Jewish community must be redefined in a thoughtful, targeted and strategic way to successfully mobilize human resources beyond the core of active, identified Jews. This important core must be supplemented with participation from the scores of involved, but often assimilated Jews. The opportunities for leveraging individuals who burn with a passion for tikkun olam (healing the world) is not only possible but necessary.
Last week we began to engage people about what a future JCRC will look like.
The Federation will work to build a community relations agenda that enhances the decades of intergroup and interfaith activity that has made the JCRC so vital an institution to the organized Jewish community. It is a portal through which Jews will walk if they feel it can make a difference. Thus, it is vital for the JCRC to become a more active outlet for a broader group of volunteers.
The JCRC has a base of strength from which to grow. KOREH L.A., the Jewish response to illiteracy, is a magnificent example of volunteer action. With the continuing generosity of the Winnick Family Foundation, KOREH L.A. has become the largest volunteer children’s literacy project of its type in Los Angeles, helping children in our public schools learn to read. Through the support of the Jewish Community Foundation, The Holy Land Democracy Project is working with children in Catholic schools to educate them about Israel.
So why stop there? Let’s consider a range of other programs directed at children in schools. This would provide a compelling example of the Jewish community’s engagement in an area of concern to all. We can, with planning and action, build extraordinary bridges to the Latino and other ethnic communities around issues of this type.
The extraordinary government-relations work of the Los Angeles JCRC in Washington, D.C., and in Sacramento has led to the granting of funds for California’s first Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities (NORCs), has staved off Medi-Cal cuts for some of our local agencies’ critical programs and has led to the adoption of stronger hate crime legislation.
Beyond the critical service we provide in maintaining public support for essential programs of our agencies, we can engage these agencies in the creation of the new JCRC agenda.
Jewish Angelenos participate in disproportionate numbers as leaders in organizations addressing public education, health, welfare and even the environment. Our goal is to engage these activists so that they see that the JCRC is relevant to their interests. We live in a place where people do not always communicate or cooperate with others who care deeply about the same societal goals. The JCRC must reach out to a broader base of influential Jews to exchange ideas, successes and failures and to strategize about the communal urban agenda.
Where are the opportunities to engage more volunteers? Virtually every synagogue has a social action committee. Let’s create a mechanism to tap into these powerhouses. And how about a plan to take the younger leaders of our community and broaden their involvement? The College Campus Initiative, a collaboration of the JCRC, Hillel and the Shalom Nature Institute, provides college students on seven local college campuses with exciting social action opportunities, as well as training in Israel advocacy. The New Leaders Project gives Jewish young professionals an opportunity to learn about the broader Los Angeles community and to develop leadership skills. These are great examples of the good works of the JCRC. Let’s figure out the tactics to use the graduates of these training programs to be the leaders of the JCRC today.
Last week we met with members of the JCRC to discuss its future. They reminded us of the proud history of JCRC in protecting our interests and serving as the leading framework for the voice of Los Angeles Jewry to the broader community. The opportunities to once again revitalize and expand with meaningful action exist. The recent work of the Blue Ribbon Task Force of this Federation recognizes the need to narrow the focus of our activities in order to ensure impact, while bringing resources to those activities. Let’s make the urban agenda of this organization the centerpiece of the new JCRC. And let’s create a positive force for substantive action. I believe that the resources to implement that force, human and financial, will be a communal priority.
John Fishel is president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.
When director Warner Shook saw Alfred Uhry’s "The Last Night of Ballyhoo" in 1997, he immediately recognized the story.
Shook ("The Kentucky Cycle") was familiar with genteel Southern anti-Semitism and its repercussions — but from the non-Jewish side. "I grew up a privileged WASP," he said.
His great-grandfather, Braxton Bragg Comer, was governor of Alabama and a founder of the textile mill Uhry refers to in his play, "Driving Miss Daisy." Like Daisy, Shook’s parents employed a black chauffeur who was close to the family.
Nevertheless, his childhood in Birmingham, Ala., was white and segregated. His few Jewish friends seemed to live in another world: "Our home was very chintz and Chippendale, and I recall going over to a Jewish friend’s house that had velvet and looked different," Shook, 54, said. "Even the smells were different — not a clove of garlic passed through the Shook house — and it just seemed very exotic to a little WASP boy."
Yet, young Shook understood that his friend couldn’t join his restricted country club; nor were Jews welcome at the cotillions where his sisters made their debuts.
"So the Jews of Birmingham had their own country clubs and debutante balls, a phenomenon described in ‘Ballyhoo,’" he said.
What surprised him was the play’s reference to Jewish bigotry: "I had known nothing about the conflict between German and Eastern European Jews," he said. Shook was so fascinated he decided to direct the piece; to learn more, he read books on Jewish Atlanta and watched documentaries such as "Delta Jews," narrated by Uhry.
He had his cast do the same while rehearsing Ballyhoo at Seattle’s Intiman Theatre in 1999 and last month at South Coast Repertory.
During recent rehearsals, he found himself acting as a "translator" for his actors, none of whom are from the deep South. "Some of the characters’ behavior seems foreign to them," he said. "So I tell them stories about my family and about people I have known. I offer insights about Southern behavior that, I think, add to the patina of the play."
He spoke of his family estate on Shook Hill Road, an exclusive neighborhood similar to the Habersham Road address described in the play; he talked of learning to ride a bicycle in the resort town of Point Clear, Ala., which is mentioned in "Ballyhoo;" and of the veneer of graciousness his mother sometimes used to her advantage ("She could charm a snake," he said).
He emphasized that while the behavior is Southern, the message is universal. "The play is a testament to self-acceptance," he said.
Eric Rudolph, the U.S. white supremacist arrested over the weekend for four bombings, including an attack at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, was apparently motivated by an anti-Semitic ideology known as Christian Identity.
Rudolph, 36, also wrote a paper espousing Holocaust denial while in high school.
Although it is unknown whether Rudolph considers himself a formal follower of the group, in 1984 his family spent four months at a Christian Identity camp in Missouri and the family was friendly with Christian Identity preachers.
In addition, his belief system seems to coincide with what Identity followers espouse, according to experts on U.S. hate groups. Christian Identity has its origins in Great Britain in the 1800s. During that time, an ideology known as British Israelism developed: Its followers believed that the British were descended from the ancient Israelites. But only when Christian Identity migrated to North America at the end of the 19th and the early 20th centuries — where it found a home in New England, the Midwest and West — did the ideology take on anti-Semitic and racist overtones.
Adherents to Christian Identity on this continent believe that non- Jewish "white Europeans and their descendants elsewhere are descended from the lost tribes of Israel. Therefore, they’re God’s chosen people," said Mark Pitcavage, director of fact-finding for the Anti-Defamation League.
Others, including Jews, Asians and blacks, therefore, were inferior and sinister.
There are an estimated 25,000-50,000 Christian Identity followers in North America, according to Pitcavage. Among these are members of the Aryan Nations, whose leader, Richard Butler, ran a 20-acre compound in Idaho until it was taken away from the group following a 1998 incident in which a teenager and his mother were beaten there.
Buford Furrow Jr., who is serving a life sentence in jail for killing a Filipino American postman and wounding five people at a North Valley Jewish Community Center in Granada Hills in a 1999 shooting spree in Los Angeles, was a member of the Aryan Nations.
Some of the more theologically inclined Christian Identity followers believe that Jews are descended from a union between Eve and the biblical serpent that they say created Cain — and that Jews are descended from Cain, Pitcavage said. They also believe in more than one biblical creation and that blacks and Asians — whom they call "mud people" — were created during "practice" creations.
But for all Christian Identity followers, anti-Semitism "is absolutely critical. Everything about Christian Identity is that Jews are Satanic and need to be eradicated," said Heidi Beirich, a spokeswoman for the Southern Poverty Law Center, a watchdog group.
Rudolph was arrested Saturday in western North Carolina after a five-year search by investigators. In total, he is believed to be responsible for four bombings, in which two people were killed and 150 people injured. This week, he agreed to be transferred to Alabama to face charges in one of the attacks, a 1998 bombing at an abortion clinic in Birmingham in which an off-duty police officer was killed.
He also allegedly bombed a gay nightclub and an office building housing another abortion clinic.
But Jews came in for particular hatred, said his former sister-in-law.
"[Rudolph] hated Jews more than probably any other race," Deborah Rudolph, who is divorced from Rudolph’s brother, Joel, told ABC’s "Good Morning America."
He "felt that, you know, they’ve been run out of every country they’ve ever been in. They’ve destroyed every country they’ve ever been in. They have too much control in our country," she said.
He considered the TV "The Electronic Jew," she said in an interview a few years ago.
"You could be watching a 30-minute sitcom and the credits would roll and there’d be Jewish names and, excuse my expression, but he would say, ‘You f——- Yids.’ Any little thing and he would start," she said.
Rudolph’s formal introduction into white supremacism seems to have started in 1981, after his father died in South Florida from cancer. Rudolph’s mother was upset that laetrile, a drug sometimes used to treat cancer, was made illegal. Her anger helped transform her and her family into staunch anti- government ideologues — often a pathway into white supremacism. With the help of Tom Branham, a sawmill owner arrested in 1984 for possessing illegal explosives, Pat Rudolph moved the family to western North Carolina.
There, as a ninth-grader, he wrote the paper denying the Holocaust.
"Eric’s paper saying that the Holocaust never happened, this was Eric’s and Joel’s and the whole family’s deal," Deborah Rudolph said in the interview.
Can you think of someone who used to live in your neighborhood or went to your school but moved away? How did you feel when they moved? Was the person who left someone who did nice things for people? Was he or she helpful?
Inventive? Was it fun to play with that person? Then you probably miss him or her a little bit. Now think: What if you moved away? What kind of impression would you leave behind? Would people miss you?
Answer that question to yourself — and be honest. It might be time to say: “I should be a little more helpful” or “Yeah, I’m a good kid.”
Riddle Me This!
Here’s a Riddle.
E-mail the answer
Charan is the name of the town that
Abraham left and Jacob returns to in order to find a wife. Mount Ararat is where Noah’s Ark landed. In which country can we find both of these biblical sites?
Hint: The answer has something to do with an upcoming holiday.
walking in the woods.
Suddenly, a bear appeared
and chased him. When the
bear cornered him, Moishe
thought his life is over until he
saw the bear take out a yarmulke
and put it on his head.
“Oh, good,” he thought,
“he’s a Jewish bear.
He won’t eat me.”
Then the bear said:
“Hamotzi lechem min ha’aretz.”
(The blessing before eating a meal.)
When Murray Mednick was an impoverished 14-year-old growing up in the Catskills, he took a series of busboy jobs at rundown hotels frequented by Holocaust survivors. "I was working in dumps, very cheap kucheleins, like rooming houses, but they all had dining rooms and they all needed busboys," said Mednick, 63, an Obie-winner and founder of the renowned Padua Hills playwrights’ festival.
For $12 a weekend, he rose daily at 5 a.m. to fillet the pickled herring, slice the tomatoes and onions, and place butter and cream pitchers on the slightly soiled white tablecloths. Then he ran around to serve the five-course breakfast, as the cook screamed and the customers made demands.
"These were survivors who had almost starved, so food was very important to them," Mednick said. "They’d yell, ‘Hey boy! Hey, I’m not finished yet!’ ‘I asked for stewed prunes 30 minutes ago! What’s the matter with you?’"
Mednick recognized their voices — and those of the hoteliers and guests — when he began jotting down 40 pages of dialogue that came into his head 11 years ago. The result is his loosely autobiographical play, "Fedunn," now at the Odyssey Theatre, which draws on his memories of being a worker, not a guest, in the mountain resort area frequented by New York City Jews in the post-World War II era.
Set in 1948, the drama explores the legacy of the war on the diverse personalities at a modest Catskills hotel owned by the fictional Silverman brothers. The play’s title, "Fedunn," is the name of a blond gentile youth who lurks around the hotel stealing food. He forms a mysterious bond with a dying Holocaust survivor, Tali, who recognizes in him a spark of the son she lost in the Lodz ghetto.
Mednick said the characters are all Catskills archetypes based on people he met while working in more than 30 hotels from age 14 to 32. "Tali is a composite of refugees I knew, silent and impenetrable," he said. "Pini is the guy who runs the kitchen and yells. Solly and Dudi are the townies I grew up with who came back from the war. And Hesh is the Lower East Side struggling artist who — as I did — kept returning to the Catskills to wait tables and earn extra cash."
Like Hesh, Mednick had mixed emotions about the place: "The work got more and more depressing, because it was humiliating, and you were treated like a servant," the soft-spoken, intense author said. "But I also loved its Yiddishkayt, its Jewish diversity, because the hotels were full of every possible Jew you could imagine.
"The Catskills was like a country, like being in a Jewish land in America," he said. "That’s why I wrote ‘Fedunn,’ as a testament to that place and that way of life."
If the Catskills was a Jewish land in America; the national pastime was eating — although not always happily. Mednick remembers that "the refugees ate silently, almost grimly and with a certain purpose. But I understood, because I was a poor kid, and food was also very important to me."
Mednick described himself as the son of an ineffectual, childlike father and a mentally disturbed mother, the eldest of six children who grew up malnourished and lice-ridden in a filthy hovel across the street from a synagogue in Woodridge, N.Y. He said he was often so hungry that he stole money to buy food. "Like Fedunn, I was a sneak-thief," he said.
Mednick said he turned to books "primarily as an escape from the noise and the chaos" at home. He voraciously read Tolstoy and Hemingway in the wee hours, the only time the household was silent.
His sympathetic teachers allowed him to sleep in and to miss school in the mornings; during his senior year, they collected several hundred dollars to help him attend Brooklyn College. By then, Mednick was writing short stories. "My writing saved me," he said.
Eventually, he joined a circle of Lower East Side poets and discovered the theater, where his Catskills experience came in handy. "Working in the dining room was very theatrical," he said. "You were always performing for one another or for the guests. And we had a tough crowd, I’m telling you."
Mednick went on to develop a career that would put him at the forefront of avant-garde theater in New York and Los Angeles. He won two Rockefeller Foundation grants, a Guggenheim fellowship and an L.A. Weekly award. In 1978, he founded the Padua festival (now called Padua Playwrights Productions), which nurtured theater luminaries such as Sam Shepard, John Steppling and Jon Robin Baitz.
As a teacher and festival leader, Mednick is apparently as demanding as the refugees he once served in the Catskills. "Murray is a hard taskmaster who’s crafted many of us into artists," director Roxanne Rogers told the L.A. Weekly last year.
Though he remains best known for his Native American-themed "The Coyote Cycle," the author has also written five plays since 1991 that draw on his Catskills roots. Padua’s 2001 season consisted of the three Jewish-themed dramas he wrote after "Fedunn." They are: "16 Routines," about an aging vaudevillian, which was inspired by the standup comedy rhythms he heard in the Borscht Belt; "Joe and Betty," a semiautobiographical account of Mednick’s troubled parents, and "Mrs. Feuerstein," which revolves around a Holocaust survivor who squares off with a German couple.
"Fedunn" also explores the legacy of the Holocaust, even though it’s set in the microcosm of a Catskills hotel. It’s Mednick’s most Jewish work to date.
"While the three plays performed last year were meant for general theater audiences, ‘Fedunn’ is more for my own people," he said. "It’s like a folkloric letter to the Jews, a celebration of a place I knew as a teenager, but no longer exists."
Why are we the People of the Book? Why aren’t we the People of the Question?
After all, before Moses receives the Torah on Mt. Sinai, like Abraham earlier, he answers God’s call to service with a question. In Exodus 3:11, he says, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt?”
I empathize completely. For who am I that I should host the seder every year, moving all the furniture out of the living room and moving in a couple dozen relatives, friends and folding chairs as well as the requisite stranger or two?
Why am I burdened with standing upright in the kitchen while all those people sit relaxed and reclining at the seder? Really, I’ll take 603,550 whining Israelites and a 40-year hike any day.
But long before sundown on April 7, the night of the first seder, I’ll be having my own culinary crisis and vowing to spend next year not in Jerusalem but at my sister Ellen’s new condo. Yep, next year I call dibs on hosting the family Sukkot celebration — a potluck, paper plate, alfresco affair.
But the point is not to match Moses’ tsuris-ridden trek through the wilderness with complaints of our own. Rather, the point is to regard ourselves as if we personally went out of Egypt and to do this by asking as many questions as possible. We begin with the proverbial “Why is this night different from all other nights?” and end, hours later, with an exasperated, “Why does ‘Chad Gadya’ have so many verses?”
Why so many questions?
For one reason, the Torah commands us, no less than four times, to tell our children the story of the Exodus. Never mind that after all these years and all those tuition payments to Jewish day schools, they should already know it.
Conveniently, the haggadah guides us in this evening of questioning and answering, which results in effectively recounting the story.
But we must tell the story in four distinct ways, for the rabbis remind us that there are four kinds of children, each asking a different question and each requiring a different approach.
The Wise Son asks, “What are the decrees, statutes and laws that God has commanded concerning Passover?” He can easily grasp the complex and profound teachings of Judaism.
The Wicked Son asks, “What does the service mean to you?” He is scornful, an outsider. We are told to reprimand him.
The Simple Son asks, “What does this all mean?” For him, we need to start at the beginning of the story, explaining slowly and carefully.
And the Fourth Son does not know how to ask a question. Not even, “Can I go to the mall?”
I too have a set of Four Sons, currently 17, 13, 11 and 9, each claiming to be the resident Wise Son and each accusing another brother of being the Wicked Son.
I explain that the Wicked Son, surprisingly, is not the problem. For he, at least, is engaged enough to pose a question and potentially can be coaxed back to Judaism. This is probably not best accomplished, however, by “blunting his teeth,” as the haggadah recommends.
The challenge is the Fourth Son, who cannot even formulate a question, who cannot even begin to understand the world around him.
And perhaps this is the second reason for this quintessential night of questions, to demonstrate that just as God leads us out of bondage in Egypt, so the act of questioning leads us out of the bondage of ignorance.
“Ask and learn,” the Apocrypha tell us.
And so we do, spending our lives firing questions. From “Where did I come from?” to “Where am I going?” From “What is life?” to “What is love?” to “What makes the world go ’round?”
And in this pedagogic process, we invent the wheel, eradicate smallpox and split the atom. We fly to the moon and delve into our subconscious. And most important, we come closer to comprehending how this huge, daunting and marvelous world works — and where we fit in.
When my son Zack was 4 and riding in the car with my husband, Larry, and me, he asked, “If Mom wants the window shut, and Dad wants the window open, what do you do?”
“It depends,” my husband answered.
“No,” Zack repeated intently, “If Mom wants the window shut, and Dad wants the window open, what do you do?” He wasn’t asking about automobile etiquette; he was asking, “Hey, who’s really in charge here?”
Now, at 17, he raises and lowers his own windows.
But he still asks plenty of questions. And that’s exactly what Passover teaches us to do — to ask wise, wicked and simple questions, difficult and chutzpadik ones. And to teach this critical skill to our children.
As the German Jewish inventor Charles Steinmetz said, “No man really becomes a fool until he stops asking questions.”
YMCA leaders in Los Angeles strongly denounced a report by an international YMCA affiliate in Geneva, which accuses Israel of using "massive force against unarmed protesters and completely innocent people" and urges that "the YMCA take the side of the oppressed Palestinian people."
The report, titled "A Shattered Peace" and "A History of Oppression," was issued by the World Alliance of YMCAs. It has been met with outrage and protests by YMCA leaders in the United States and Canada, and by several Jewish organizations.
These critics note that the report was compiled during a four-day visit to Palestinian areas by a five-person group, which made no attempt to visit Israel or get the Israeli viewpoint.
"I am appalled by the report, which is dramatically unbalanced and fails to recognize the suffering on all sides," said Larry Rosen, president and CEO of the YMCA of Metropolitan Los Angeles, in a phone interview Tuesday. "It undermines the quiet, behind-the-scenes efforts by YMCAs to achieve a peaceful solution in the Middle East."
Rosen noted that the World Alliance has no governing or policy-making role and functions mainly as a facilitator in arranging conferences and interchanges among YMCA branches, each of which governs itself independently.
In its report, the World Alliance also claims that the world media has a pro-Israel bias, criticizes the "increasing brutality of the Israeli army and settlers," and charges Israel with "systematic and widespread human rights abuses." The report also calls for the creation of an "international protective force" to shield Palestinians.
Leading the criticism of the report in the United States is Kenneth L. Gladish, national executive director of the YMCA of the United States, headquartered in Chicago.
"[The report] can serve only to inflame the long-standing tensions in the region," Gladish wrote to Nicholas Nightingale, a Briton who serves as secretary general of the World Alliance.
In a sharply worded follow-up letter, Gladish slammed the "prejudicial, political and polemic rhetoric" of the World Alliance, and warned bluntly that Nightingale "put at great risk the financial and organizational support" of the American YMCA.
One of the curious aspects of the report is that it seems to have been issued with the goal of attracting minimum attention, even among YMCA branches.
The 3,000-word report was released in the December issue of the World Alliance magazine and posted on its Web site, neither of which, apparently, enjoys a wide readership.
"We didn’t know of the existence of the report for nearly a month after it was posted, and then learned about it through a call from an Israeli reporter," said Arnold Collins, spokesman for the national YMCA of the USA.
Collins said there had been no formal response from Geneva to Gladish’s critical letter, but that a "dialogue" on the issue was underway.
However, acknowledging the widespread criticism, the World Alliance has posted a defense of sorts on its Web site (www.YMCA.int). The rebuttal states that the investigating team was unable to visit Israel "for reasons of time and circumstances.
"Our position is not against the Israeli people," the posting continues. "We condemn all violence and reaffirm that Israel has the right to exist within safe and secure boundaries."
Among Jewish organizations protesting the report are the Anti- Defamation League (ADL) and the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Wiesenthal Center, said that he has scheduled a press conference for Mon., Feb 26 and will demand that YMCA branches around the world cease funding the World Alliance, unless the report is rescinded.
Cooper spoke on Tuesday from Washington, where he has taken up the matter with members of the House Foreign Relations Committee. Earlier, he visited Canadian YMCA leaders in Toronto.
"If we ignore this matter, there is the danger of a disastrous domino effect, in which other non-governmental organizations will gang up on Israel to justify the behavior of the Palestinian Authority," said Cooper.
In the ADL statement, national director Abraham H. Foxman said that "To release a report that does not mention Palestinian violence or concern for Israeli victims, under the auspices of the international YMCA, provokes the situation more than it subdues it."
The YMCA has branches in 130 countries, with 2,372 centers in the United States alone.
Talmudic sages wondered how King Achav of Israel could have reigned for decades, considering his practice and encouragement of idolatry and every type of sin. They arrived at the answer that at least during his reign there was, if nothing else, unity among the Jewish people. Today we find deep divisions among our people, perhaps nowhere more so than in our attitudes toward Israel and the peace process. It almost makes you wish for the good old days of King Achav.
These days, there are radical hard-liners on both the right and left who are ready to push their single-minded agendas even at the cost of death and destruction. There are racist, bigoted Jews and self-hating anti-Semitic Jews, and both must be discredited at all costs.
As for the rest of us, it sometimes seems as though if we are united in anything, it is in the belief that the other side is dead wrong and largely responsible for the terrible predicament that confronts our people. At least we agree on something.
The losers in this struggle are Israel and the Jewish people. This is not a new circumstance for our people. The sages of the Talmud tell us that baseless hatred was the proximate cause of the destruction of the Second Temple. While this has traditionally been seen as a philosophical point, with the “great sin” tipping the scales of some heavenly balance, it has a more pragmatic interpretation as well. The Jews of Jerusalem were busy with internal conflict even as the Roman siege tightened around them. Large storehouses of food were put to the torch by Jews who didn’t agree with government policies, and the people and the city were then doomed. The unthinkable has already happened. We must not let it happen again.
We have no choice but to see ourselves again as one people. Our adversaries certainly don’t differentiate us by religious or political variant. More importantly, our own Torah sees us as one people, warts and all.
Promises by G-d of a special role in the world, of a land of our own and of our continuity as a people, were made to the nation of Israel, not to its left or right wings. It is only together that we can fulfill our destiny as Jews.
The road to achdut (unity) is long and arduous. We can begin by finding the common ground, our support for the people and the State of Israel. We feel their pains and hurts as if they were our own. It is in this spirit that we of the Orthodox Union call upon the Jewish community to unite in a rally in support of our brothers and sisters in Israel and their quest for a true peace, Sunday, Feb. 11, 10:15 a.m., at the corner of Olympic and Doheny. (Rain location is next door at Beth Jacob Congregation, 9030 W. Olympic Blvd., Beverly Hills.) The program is to include prayer, addresses by Israeli Consul General Yuval Rotem and Rep. Henry Waxman, an address by Rabbi Marvin Hier and songs of hope, unity and peace. It’s a start — please join in.
Dr. Larry Eisenberg is president of the Orthodox Union’s West Coast region.
by Arthur Hertzberg and AronHirt-Manheimer (HarperSanFrancisco, $25)
Can one speak of a “national character”? Whileacknowledging that the practice has a pernicious side, Rabbi ArthurHertzberg, in his provocative, if mislabeled, new work, points outthat many books speak of national character and are readily acceptedand praised. For example, Luigi Barzini’s book on the Italians,numerous modern works on the nature of the Russian people, or workson the character of the Greek or Roman peoples in antiquity all seemharmless exercises in interpreting the culture of another. While itis true that plumbing the “Jewish character” is an enterprise thathas been twisted by malevolence, particularly in the last century,that does not mean that certain traits cannot be said to distinguishthe Jewish people throughout their history.
For Hertzberg, Judaism has been sustained by thetwin riverbanks of chosenness and anti-Semitism. Both arise from theconviction that God has designated a special mission for the Jewishpeople. Hertzberg does not say whether he believes this to be true;more important is that Jews act as if it were true. To act chosen isthe guarantor of survival, and of worth. To act chosen means tobelieve in the betterment of the world, to “take actions because theyare right, not because they bring personal comfort and materialgain.”
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I offer this sketch because “Jews” is an almostpersonal book. Almost personal, as there are no deep revelations orcharacter analyses. Still, Hertzberg uses this book to schmooze abouthis experiences, his view of the world, his presumptions about theJewish future. This is a book in the manner of the table-talk booksof the 19th century, the sort of book Hazlitt, Landor or Holmes wouldpen if they took Jewish history as their métier. The chapters,co-written with Reform magazine editor Aron Hirt-Manheimer, trolllightly through Jewish history, with stories, sketches and anecdotesloosely linked to the theme of “the Jewish essence.” SinceHertzberg’s life has been so rich, there is substance as well ascharm to his backward glances.
Unfortunately, the book is being marketed assomething other than it is. The flap copy and advertising leads oneto imagine that “The Jews” is a sustained, focused meditation on thecharacter and destiny of Judaism. It is not. Evidence ofrigorlessness abounds: Midrash is quoted as history (indeed, thepassage about Abraham’s smashing his father’s idols, a midrashiclegend, is quoted twice, and pivotally); vast phenomena are sweptaside with a bromide (“We Jews know why we suffer. Society resentsanyone who challenges its fundamental beliefs, behavior, andprejudices.” “That Jews have a special destiny…is why so manyparents want their children to marry a Jew”); and there are even somemisstatements (Isaac Luria did not “invent tikkun olam .”)
Much of the book is taken up with thumbnailsketches of some fascinating personalities. There are familiar names– Benjamin Disraeli, Spinoza the Baal Shem Tov — as well as namesknown to the cognoscenti, such as Isaac De Pinto, Abraham Seneor andJacob Emden. A few of the biographies contribute to the overridingthemes, while others make an appearance because of their intrinsicimportance or interest, but without adding to the general thrust ofthe argument.
At the end of the book, Hertzberg makes apassionate plea for pluralism. Raised in an Orthodox home (his fatherwas a well-known Chassidic Rabbi), he is indignant at what he regardsas Orthodox triumphalism and rigidity: “The incontrovertible fact isthat all of the modern Jewish movement, the very ones from whichOrthodoxy proclaims it will save us, arose because in the course ofthe nineteenth and twentieth centuries Orthodoxy could not keep mostof its children within its ranks.” He also cites the surprisingstatistic yielded by an analysis of the 1990 population study that ofrespondents raised Orthodox, only 22 percent still identified withthat branch of Judaism. Of those raised Conservative, 57 percentstill identified as such, and in the case of Reform, the percentagewas 78.
These are provocative assertions. While they arenot argued at length, and do not flow seamlessly from the preceding,the bite of the provocateur outweighs any puzzlement at the exactfocus of the argument.
Hertzberg’s prescription for Jewish survival isnot new: engagement with texts, seriousness about tikkun olam,grappling with the presence and absence of God, permitting aplurality of serious voices to be heard without delegitimizingothers.
What makes these arguments worth reading is therange of reference, the authority of the writer, and the pungency ofthe tone.
This book should be read less for information –though, surely all who read it will learn — than for an encounterwith an original. Arthur Hertzberg is a deeply learned and passionateman, that rare historian who has abandoned the academic sideline fora place in the fray. Read with a pencil in hand, for thesereflections will engage and infuriate. In the end, however, like theman, they will both charm and enlighten.
David Wolpe is spiritual leader of SinaiTemple.
A Living Legacy
By Diane Arieff Zaga, Arts Editor
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Combining the lyrical sensibility of a poet withan historian’s disciplined and far-ranging curiosity, author ThomasCahill explores the nature of Judaism’s contributions to the worldwith freshness and an elegant sense of wonder. “The Gifts of theJews” follows Cahill’s best-selling “How the Irish SavedCivilization.” It is the second work in his “Hinges of History”series, which explores pivotal moments in the evolution of the humansensibility.
This is not history written as a rote series ofnatural and man-made disasters. It’s not a dry, footnote-ladenacademic exercise either. Cahill manages something perhaps moredifficult, and certainly more compelling: He places the spiritualjourney of biblical-era Jewry firmly in a historical context whilesimultaneously making them come alive in a way that is almost sensoryin its immediacy.
Cahill’s overarching goal with this book, and withthe entire series, is to examine the various important legacies ofvarious peoples at unique passages in time. Not surprisingly then,the author exults in the rich contributions of the first monotheists– flawed and human, but revolutionary, too. “The role of the Jews,the inventors of Western culture,” Cahill writes, “is singular; thereis simply no one else remotely like them…their worldview has becomeso much a part of us that at this point it might as well have beenwritten into our cells as a genetic code.”
Beginning with patriarch Abraham’s startlingjourney from Sumeria to Canaan, and continuing on through theBabylonian exile, the author delves deep into the nature of theJewish “gift,” illuminating the links between ancient biblical eventsand the modern ideas and values we hold dear.
By trusting in his god, the intrepid Abraham wasthe first human being to believe that the future could be better thanthe past. Abraham’s journey was a complete break with the worldviewthat maintained that human experience was cyclical — the present arepetition of the past, as the future would be a repetition of thepresent, and that all human life was merely a diminutive version ofthe life of the gods. In Asia, Europe, the Americas, the dominantworldview was that human life existed within a wheel: passive,timeless, predetermined, nonindividualistic.
“The very idea of vocation, of a personal destiny,is a Jewish idea,” Cahill concludes. After Abraham, God is no longera petty kitchen god represented by a portable amulet. The Sumerianbusinessman-turned-nomadic-patriarch comes to have faith in a higherGod, mysterious, omnipotent and ultimately unknowable.
If Abraham’s journey was a dramatic symbol ofpersonal destiny, Moses’ later journey, leading the liberated slavesout of Egypt, broadened into the destiny of the People of Israel. Theescape from the land of Pharaoh and awe-filled scene at Mount Sinaiare familiar to Jewish and non-Jewish readers alike. Rightly, Cahillchooses not to linger in the detailed recounting of such familiarepisodes. Instead, he is intent on exploring how such cataclysmicevents shaped this band of nomads and, millennia later, shape usstill. Throughout, Cahill’s prose is peppered with contemporaryreferences that are usually welcome, if sometimes a bit precious.(the poetry of John Donne, modern Hebrew slang, even Bob Dylanlyrics).
But it is his passion and excitement for hissubject, combined with a gift of insight and almost cinematic feelfor drama, that make this book such an enjoyable and provocativeread. Of the grumbling band of desert wanderers who accompanied Mosesto the base of the “terrible mountain,” which he would ascend toreceive the Ten Commandments, Cahill writes:
“The people who first heard these words wereunrefined and basic, the Dusty Ones, wandering through Sinai’s lunarlandscape, denuded of the ordinary web of life, baked in absoluteheat and merciless light. This was no age or people or environmentfor anything but the plainest, harshest truths…. This was the time,this the place, these the people who must receive the unassailabletruth of the Ten Words and carry them forward.”
Cahill gives the reader a new opportunity to bemoved by biblical events that may have begun to seem stale, remote oreven inaccessible. The elementary rightness of the Ten Commandmentsas a prescription for living, a set of laws given withoutjustification or vacillation, represented the gruff sort of truththat would resonate deepest with Moses’ followers, yet they remainelegantly simple and flexible enough to contain all the complex moraldilemmas of modern life. Time, the author argues, has proved theircompleteness.
“…If I can peer through the mists of historyand see the begrimed, straightforward faces straining upward towardthe terrors of Mount Sinai and if I can imagine this immense throngof simple souls trudging through the whole of history — all theordinary people down the ages in need of moral guidance in all theincredibly various situations and cultures this planet has known –it must be admitted that it would be fairly impossible to improve onthe Decalogue as we have it.”
After the fateful climax at Sinai, Cahillcontinues his imaginative journey through ancient time, revisitingthe charismatic King David and the later, elegantly poignant calls tojustice by the prophet Isaiah. With each step, he makes the case forhis book’s title more convincingly. Our modern conception of justice,compassion, the idea of the Sabbath day of rest as the sign of a freepeople, all are rooted in the Jewish religious experience, one theauthor insists “remains fresh, even shocking, when it is read againstthe myths of other ancient literatures.”
The final chapter, entitled “From Then Til Now:The Jews Are Still It,” is a wake-up call of sorts, in which Cahillillustrates the still-relevant and still-radical power of the Bible,even if many of us, in this postmodern era, tend to approach it withweary, half-seeing eyes. Modern liberation movements in places suchas South Africa and Poland, for example, the abolitionist movement ofthe last century, and our pantheon of modern heroes (Gandhi,Sojourner Truth, Cesar Chavez, etc.) are unimaginable withoutreference to the collection of Jewish works we know as the Bible.”The Jews,” Cahill writes, “gave us the Outside and the Inside — ouroutlook and our inner life. We can hardly get up in the morning orcross the street without being Jewish. We dream Jewish dreams andhope Jewish hopes.”
Those who grumble that the author doesn’tadequately explore differing scholarly interpretations of events, orthat he is unduly informal, almost glib in some of his meanderings,may be missing the point and the value of his latest work. Byconnecting us so vividly to the hearts and minds of our spiritualancestors, Thomas Cahill has given readers an important and lastinggift of his own.
Gangs of masked, Yiddish-speaking thugs inBrooklyn have been abducting Orthodox Jewish men and beating themsavagely to force them into granting their wives a religious divorce,or get, according to several men who say they were victims of such assaults.The beatings allegedly were ordered by an Orthodox rabbinicalcourt.
The story surfaced just before Purim, but it’s nojoke. The Brooklyn district attorney’s office is investigating twocases and may submit evidence to a grand jury within weeks, the DA’sspokesman says. Newsday, a local daily, reports that it has uneartheda dozen such get-related assaults.
One of the alleged victims, Abraham Rubin, filed a$100 million civil racketeering lawsuit in state court in Januaryagainst the people he claims attacked him. The suit names severalprominent rabbis charged with authorizing the assault.
Also named is America’s second-largest Orthodoxrabbinic association, the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the UnitedStates and Canada, which the lawsuit says acted “in conspiracy” withsome of the accused rabbis. The union’s executive vice president,Rabbi Hersh Ginsberg, says that his group had “nothing to do” withany beatings, adding: “We have 500 members, so whatever a member mayor may not do has nothing to do with us.”
The union last won headlines on the eve of Purim1997 by decreeing that Reform and Conservative Judaism were notJudaism. Founded in 1900, it is the oldest Orthodox rabbinic group inAmerica. Often derided by critics as marginal, the union’s membershipincludes some of the leading Talmudic authorities in traditionalOrthodoxy.
The allegations are the latest twist in acontinuing Orthodox debate over the fate of agunot, or “chainedwomen”—women who cannot remarry, because their husbands won’t givethem a get. In rabbinic law, the divorce document can only beinitiated by the husband. An ex-wife without a get is still a wifeand may not remarry, though a husband without a get may sometimestake a second wife.
Women’s rights advocates say that husbands oftenuse the get to extort better financial or child-custody terms than acivil court might grant. Many agunot, activists say, are womenfleeing abuse. Their number is unknown, but some activists put it inthe thousands.
Rumors of get-related beatings have beencirculating for years, but “there’s never been any hard evidence,“said Susan Aranoff, who is with the women’s rights group Agunah Inc.“We think it’s barbaric.”
A beating is rumored to cost about $5,000,including rabbinical court fees.
Rubin and his attorney, Thomas Stickel, held apress conference last week with five other Orthodox men who claimedto be victims of get attacks, including one beaten in 1992 bybat-wielding, Yiddish-speaking thugs in ski masks. Stickel believesthe same group of rabbis ordered most of the assaults.
Rubin’s lawsuit paints a sad picture of a 1986marriage that ended in 1990, when his wife, Chaya, fled to Canadawith the children. She agreed to settle their dispute in rabbinicalcourt, the suit says, but, instead, she obtained a civil divorce inMontreal in 1992. Then she asked for a get.
Beginning in 1995, the suit says, a series ofrabbinical panels ordered Rubin to appear for divorce. In 1996, aseven-member “star-chamber-like tribunal” allegedly issued a writ,“ordering plaintiff’s abduction and torture.” On Oct. 23, 1996, Rubinsays, he was snatched off a Borough Park street by three men whodragged him into a van, handcuffed, blindfolded and beat him, andrepeatedly shocked him with a stun gun, demanding in Yiddish that heissue a get. He says that he passed out and was later dumped near acemetery. Stickel says that Rubin was told the get had been concludedwhile he was unconscious.
In the broader Jewish community, the case hasaroused, well, not much of a reaction. Only two secular tabloids,Newsday and the New York Post, even reported the story. Orthodoxleaders who are asked for comment typically offer responses rangingfrom “nothing’s been proven” to “it’s not news; we’ve known aboutthis for years”—sometimes both from the same person.
The community’s ringing silence is not hard toexplain. It’s tough to know whom to dislike more in this, a sordidtale without good guys. But the silence also betrays a largerpathology: a tendency in the Jewish community, particularly theOrthodox community, to circle the wagons and resist outsidescrutiny.
It’s an old instinct, based on real fears ofvulnerability and a determination to shut out the outside world. Butit won’t work anymore. The outside world keeps creeping in.
Agunot were rare until recent times. That waspartly because divorce was infrequent, and partly because rabbis oncehad the power to flog a husband until he agreed to divorce. Israelirabbis can still jail a husband, but rabbis elsewhere have no suchpower. Not legally.
The problem is most acute in the United States.Because of church-state separation, no central authority governsrabbinic courts here, so husbands may bring a divorce to any tribunalthey choose. Some right-wing panels are known for favoringhusbands.
What’s emerged is basically a home-grown Americanproblem, something the Talmud never foresaw: growing numbers of wivesopting out, growing numbers of husbands refusing to free them. TheOrthodox community faces a crisis that it is just beginning toacknowledge. Society’s ills are taking a toll on a community thatlikes to think itself immune.
Actually, pummeling husbands isn’t the onlyhalachic way to help agunot. One tribunal in New York, headed byRabbi Moshe Morgenstern, began arranging divorces last year withoutthe husband’s participation. The panel uses an old procedure, akin toannulment, in which a get can be written without hubby’s consent ifthe rabbis rule the original marriage contract invalid.
But Morgenstern’s panel has evoked gales ofprotest from a spectrum of Orthodox rabbis who say the speedy getsare invalid. In January, the Union of Orthodox Rabbis convened aspecial “emergency meeting” to condemn the tribunal’s work as”deceitful.”
The reported get beatings, if proven true—andfew who know the community doubt there’s something there—are asign of what happens when change strikes a community that doesn’t believe in change. An irresistible force meets an immovable object.The result is violent chaos.
“This is what’s going on,” says Morgenstern. “It’sperfectly legitimate to beat the husbands up, but it’s treif to annul the marriages. There’s something wrong with that. Whether or not itwas once acceptable to use corporal punishment, it’s now against thelaw.”
J.J. Goldberg is author of “Jewish Power:Inside the American Jewish Establishment.” He writes regularly for The Jewish Journal.