October 23, 2018

Avraham Infeld Makes His Case for a Passionate Judaism

Avraham Infeld.

A story is told of a visitor to The Hebrew University of Jerusalem who is taken on a tour of the buildings named after famous Jewish writers. But the name on one building is unfamiliar to the visitor.

“What did he write?” asks the visitor, to which the guide answers: “A check.”

I was reminded of this story in the opening pages of “A Passion for a People: Lessons From the Life of a Jewish Educator” by Avraham Infeld with Clare Goldwater (YouCaxton Publications). It’s the memoir of a man who has written his name into our history — not with a book, not with a check, but with his life’s work, both in Israel and throughout the Diaspora.

Over the years, he has served as president of Hillel International, CEO of the Melitz Center for Jewish Zionist Education, director of English-speaking youth programs for the Jewish Agency and planning director of Birthright Israel, among other posts.

“I am a builder — not of buildings but families,” Infeld explains. “I start with my own family … [a]nd then I expanded my perspective, yielding to the eternal pull that I feel toward the extended Jewish family to those I don’t know personally but love anyway and to the relatives across time and space that Jewish history has bequeathed me.”

Born in South Africa in the 1950s, Infeld was raised in what he calls a “secular, ethnic, Zionist form of Judaism,” and only later found his way into observant Judaism.

“For our family, Shavuot was an agricultural festival that had been revitalized by the Zionist movement,” he recalls. “I had no idea that Jews around the world celebrate Shavuot as the day on which the Torah was given.”

Even so, he insists that describing Judaism as a religion “is a distortion of what we are.” He says: “One cannot practice the Jewish religion without a sense of belonging to the People.”

His devoted work for a diverse and distinguished list of Jewish communal organizations was in service of the overriding goal of reminding Jews that they belonged to a people rather than a faith. According to Gideon Shimoni, a professor at Hebrew University, “peoplehood” is “a concept which became the hallmark of his famed educational enterprise.

Intriguingly, he does not identify anti-Semitism as the greatest challenge to the integrity and vigor of the Jewish people.  Rather, he reaches back to the Emancipation of the 19th century, which enabled Jews to escape the ghetto and enter the secular world, an event that shattered the Jewish people into what he calls “subtribes,” including “the Zionist, the Haredi, the assimilated Jew, and the denominational Jew — each with its own definition of what it means to be a Jew.”

Yet he regards the diversity of Judaism as the source of its richness, strength and vitality, if not also some of its greatest challenges.

A book about the Jewish religion that even a wholly non-observant Jew will find endearing and enriching.

“[M]y understanding of being Jewish today has been continually enriched by the multiplicity of modern Jewish identities that I have encountered. … And the assumption behind it is very important — namely, there cannot be a single way or truth for what it means to be Jewish, there are only multiple perspectives on the same truth,” he said.

Early in his career, Infeld spent time at what is now the Brandeis-Bardin Campus of American Jewish University in Simi Valley, and he singles out its founder, Shlomo Bardin, as one of his teachers and mentors. But Infeld also confesses that America causes him to feel both “love and fear” precisely because “you can be Jewish and American at the same time.”

The reason for his trepidation is found in the fact that Judaism is regarded as a religion in America: “[If] Judaism is a religion, like Christianity, then there is no national identity to express and no contradiction between being American and being Jewish.”

Exactly here we find the cutting edge of Infeld’s candor. Since the United States and Israel, at least during the pioneering era of secular Zionism, sought to achieve “freedom from religion,” the goal of both countries seemed to provide “an ability to be Jewish without religion.”

For Infeld, then, we must recognize our membership in the Jewish people before (and whether or not) we participate in the religious practices of Judaism.

“After all, a religion is understood as the truth of all truths, and religions want others to accept those truths,” he explains. “If we had that approach, we would actively look for those non-Jews who wanted to try on tefilin and perform other mitzvot. … But we are not a religion, we are a people, and our rituals and values apply only to those who are members of our People.”

Infeld sums up his own prescription for the health of the Jewish people with the metaphor of “the five-legged table,” that is, “Memory, family, Mount Sinai, Israel and Hebrew.”  Notably, only one leg of the table is explicitly religious: “Mount Sinai signifies the earliest recognition of a transcendent power and the ensuing realization that if there is already a God, then human beings are not God,” he writes. “From here we learn the values and rituals that are our particular inheritance and that govern our behaviors, our role in the world, and our contribution to humanity.”

Even when it comes to the miraculous account of Mount Sinai that we find in the Torah, Infeld keeps an open mind: “Whether or not it really happened, this event changed us forever.”

“A Passion for a People” is a book about the Jewish religion that even a wholly non-observant Jew will find endearing and enriching.  It is beautifully written, full of resonant stories and recollections, gentle instruction and both courage and candor. “I live in perpetual tension between my universal and particular tendencies,” he writes. “I am both Avraham Infeld the Jew and Avraham Infeld the human being.”

And so, Infeld has given us a book that  is intended to open both doors and

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

UJ’s Levy crafts confab to celebrate authors

Considering that he’s an educator, whose job description is heading up a university adult-ed program, you might not expect Gady Levy to be so … well-connected. Yet here he is in his office at American Jewish University (formerly the University of Judaism), looking more the impresario than the academic.

On one wall hang his diplomas — for master’s and doctorate degrees in education from Pepperdine University; on another are photographs of Levy with President Clinton, Shimon Peres, Madeline Albright and other luminaries from the wildly successful public lecture series he launched for the university five years ago.

A new bookshelf, overflowing with volumes, testifies to Levy’s latest and perhaps most ambitious endeavor: the Celebration of Jewish Books, which begins on Monday and extends through an all-day festival on Sunday. The celebration will offer lectures and signings with 40 authors — including big names, such as Larry King, Michael Chabon, Kirk Douglas and Daniel Handler (Lemony Snicket) — plus music and dance performances, food and a thousand titles for sale, provided by Borders and the Hebrew-language bookseller Steimatzky.

Levy, the 38-year-old dean of AJU’s Whizin Center for Continuing Education, says he enjoyed the annual book fairs he attended as a child in Tel Aviv, so he was intrigued by a 2002 Jewish Journal story about how Los Angeles could not sustain its own festival.

The void certainly wasn’t for a lack of trying, the story noted; the Jewish community centers had hosted a fair, but the budgets were low (generally $3,000 to $10,000), attendance was poor, and the program had died out soon after the turn of the millennium. If Los Angeles was home to 600,000 Jews, why were we fest-less?

Levy didn’t think the reason had to do with Los Angeles’ vast geography: “If you create a good event, people will drive,” he said. “This city provides a lot of opportunities for us to be entertained, to do things by ourselves or with our families, some of them Jewish, some not Jewish, so people really have to pick and choose,” he added. “In order to put a book festival on your radar, it has to be ‘big.’ You need ‘big’ authors to provide name recognition, and to offer people access to the authors of the books they actually read.”

This week, Levy’s theory will be put to the test with evening conversations with Pulizter Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner (“Angels in America” and the screenplay for “Munich”), Sam Harris and Rabbi David Wolpe, Israeli novelist Ram Oren and cookbook authors Judy Zeidler, Judy Bart Kancigor and Joan Nathan. The festival’s budget is $225,000, much of it provided by a two-year grant from the Jewish Community Foundation.

Participants will be able to feast on a three-course meal hosted by the cookbook writers and walk through a life-sized replica of Anne Frank’s attic hiding place; popular writers such as Naomi Ragen (“The Saturday Wife”) and Judith Viorst (“Alexander and the Wonderful, Marvelous, Excellent, Terrific Ninety Days”) will fly in for the festival’s family day on Nov. 11.

“I felt that if I did an event just with local authors, it could be very interesting, but I didn’t think it would be enough to get the several thousand participants we’re hoping for,” Levy said. “When you have a number of best-selling authors in one place at one time, that makes an event.”

Levy knows well how celebrities can create (and sustain) an event. In 2002, he revived the campus’s public lecture series — despite some who protested that the old series had lost money — by hiring the biggest “name” he could think of to launch the program: President Clinton. He got Clinton by assiduously networking, creating relationships with agents — and allotting funding for the president’s five-figure fee. The investment paid off when the just-retired president sold out the Universal Amphitheater, which helped convince other leaders to sign on to the now world-class program (Tony Blair is on the 2008 roster).

The fact that the lecture series has drawn such speakers as Al Gore and Henry Kissinger helped impress the literary agents Levy approached for the celebration. He paid to hire four “celebrity” authors (Kushner, for one, will receive $15,000) and then was able to engage other writers who were eager to appear on the same “ticket” sans fee (but with travel expenses reimbursed). He found them by flying to New York with his festival chair, Emily Corleto, and two staff members to hear 200 authors pitch their work over three days at the annual conference of the Jewish Book Council.

Most authors who declined to attend the celebration did so because of scheduling issues — although “Maus’s” Art Spiegelman had a more unusual reason: “He insisted on smoking on the stage, which is forbidden by the Fire Department, so that was a deal-breaker,” Levy said.

In order to draw as large an audience as possible, Levy planned events to appeal to diverse populations: To reach Israelis, he invited Ram Oren, whom he describes as “the Danielle Steele of Israel” (see sidebar). Authors such as Handler and Viorst, as well as a student essay contest, will appeal to families with young children; Kushner should draw theater enthusiasts as well as those who are curious about the controversy over his “Munich” script (some deemed it anti-Israel).

Levy said he read a number of articles on Kushner before reaching out to him. “I wanted to make sure he wasn’t going to come here with a political agenda,” he said. “As an educator, I think it’s important to bring speakers of many different backgrounds,” he added. “One of my goals is to give people access to figures who might be controversial, or even misunderstood, and allow them to ask their own questions. When you read something in the media, it’s all about the ‘spin,’ but when you can ask someone a question in person, and they’re sitting right there on the stage — you can’t get closer than that.”
For more information, visit http://www.celebrationofjewishbooks.com. The Jewish Journal is a co-sponsor of the event.