Bridging the Gap

The announcement that Richard Joel has been named as president of Yeshiva University (YU) is an important and salutary development in American Jewish life. Joel is a gifted leader, able spokesman and prolific fundraiser. He has been able to establish the national Hillel organization which he heads as a “big tent” for American Jews — one that embraces unaffiliated and under-affiliated Jews at a vital stage in their lives (college), while also serving the most committed Jews who enter its buildings to eat, study, pray and socialize with other Jews.

As such, Hillel is perhaps the most successful model of pluralism in American Jewish life. For this reason, Joel’s selection as president of YU is such interesting and, to our minds, good news. The fact that Joel neither sought the job nor came from within the institution (though he once served as a dean of its law school) should grant him a larger degree of autonomy than other internal candidates would have possessed. And he will need as much latitude as possible to succeed in a position that has not been easily filled.

For the past few years, YU could not find a successor to its current President Rabbi Norman Lamm, a man who is both a successful university president and a rosh yeshiva. This relates to one of the most intriguing institutional features of YU. It houses a wide range of secular academic programs, including a law school and medical school — as well as a seminary to train rabbis. In recent years, the tension between YU’s dual functions of Torah u-Madda — of Torah learning and secular studies — has increased. This has been prompted by a broader sociological and theological trend: the rightward drift of contemporary Orthodoxy toward more punctilious ritual observance and less engagement with the surrounding secular world. At a more local level, some of the rabbis in YU’s rabbinical seminary — the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Rabbinical Seminary (RIETS) — apparently feel less and less comfortable cohabitating with the scientists, humanists, lawyers and doctors — some of whom are observant and some not — who lend YU its luster in the American academy.

This discomfort was one of the reasons that Lamm, a learned rabbi and distinguished scholar, proved so difficult to replace. He was both a legitimate head of seminary and a seasoned college administrator, a man who acknowledged and skillfully negotiated the two distinct cultures of YU.

A number of possible successors to Lamm either ruled themselves out or did not quite meet or could not quite fulfill all the expectations of contemporary Orthodoxy. Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter, a noted scholar and one-time head of Manhattan’s Jewish Center, was an obvious candidate, but declined to put himself forward, perhaps in order not to provoke a battle with YU’s traditionalist rabbis. Dov Zackheim, the senior Pentagon official and defense analyst, declined the position, in part because of his role in canceling U.S. funding for an Israeli fighter jet project became controversial. That Joel became the consensus candidate of the a search committee sends an interesting set of messages.

First, YU has apparently decided to divide the tasks of president and head of seminary. Lamm will keep the title of rosh yeshiva for the present time. Second, YU has chosen as its next president an Orthodox Jew who is not a rabbi, but a layman — a man who has spent his professional life outside of the yeshiva world and the Orthodox establishment. Other candidates for the YU presidency, those more internal to the YU than Joel, might have felt more beholden to the authority of the rabbis at RIETS. Ironically, Joel, who makes no claims to greatness as a Torah sage, may feel more at liberty to make key strategic choices affecting YU’s direction, and perhaps that of modern Orthodoxy at large.

If his past record is any indication, then Joel will push toward creating an inclusive and pluralistic Orthodox institution. As head of Hillel, he employed rabbis of all denominations and both genders to teach Jewish students — and to teach them Torah. Indeed, in practice and in principle, Joel is committed to Jewish pluralism, to welcoming Jews of all denominations and perspectives. Presumably, he made no secret of these views and was selected by the search committee because of — not despite — them.

The challenge Joel faces will be to foster a culture of tolerance within YU, mindful of its diverse missions and constituencies. Joel also has the potential to cultivate more civility between his new institution and the non-Orthodox world. This is a most promising moment — one that should be evaluated in the same light as the ascension of Rabbi David Ellenson to the presidency of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the Reform rabbinical seminary. The fact that Ellenson came from an Orthodox background — and, significantly, was feted at an inauguration dinner that was kosher — symbolizes a growing traditionalism within the Reform movement. Seen together, the selections of Ellenson and Joel suggest that the potential for genuine conversation across the American Jewish denominational spectrum may be closer at hand.

Michael Berenbaum is director of the Sigi Ziering Institute at the University of Judaism. David Myers is a professor of Jewish history and vice chair of the history department at UCLA.

Honor Thy Butcher

“Stalin is our fighting strength, Stalin is our youth…. Singing, struggling and victorious, our people go with Stalin.” — from a popular Soviet song.

Would you market a Castro sandwich in Miami? Would a Hitler hot dog sell in Israel? How about selling a Ho Chi Minh burger to the Vietnamese in Los Angeles or a Pol Pot casserole to the Cambodians in Long Beach?

Ridiculous, right? Why would anyone spend money on something named after someone who oppressed and murdered millions in the countries they fled from?

Well, apparently some people would. A few days ago, I walked into a local Russian deli and saw that they were selling an item named after one of the greatest tyrants, mass murderers and anti-Semites of the 20th century. His system murdered millions of innocents — some historians say 45 million, others say 60 or even 80 million. It is more tragic than ironic that this butcher and his meat grinder regime are now being celebrated by a product that has been produced by a much smaller meat grinder: it is a salami named after Joseph Stalin.

The label proudly declares that the Stalinskaya Brand Smoked Sausage is made in the USA; it lists pork as its main ingredient. (Another irony: it is sold mostly to Jewish immigrants and is probably manufactured by Jews.) The maker is M & I International Foods of Brooklyn, N.Y.

I called M & I and spoke to the owner, who didn’t give his name. It was a bizarre conversation. At first he denied that he made it.

“We don’t make it. We buy it from Germany,” he said.

“But the label says ‘Made in USA,'” I countered.

“Sure. The label is made in America. The salami is German.”

I let that one go, and asked why he sold a salami named after Stalin.

“Why not?” he said. “We make a salami named after anyone. We can make a Putin salami, a Berezovsky salami, a Bush salami, anyone.”

“Would you sell a Hitler salami?” I asked.

“Sure,” he said. “Why not? If people want a Hitler salami, we’ll make it.”

We spoke for about five minutes. He pretended not to understand my point. I told him that I was sorry for his children and hung up.

I am quite sure that this man — like all former Soviet citizens — lost relatives to Stalin’s terror. I am looking at a note from my archives that is handwritten and signed by Stalin. It is a reply to a telegram dated Dec. 29, 1938, in which a regional KGB committee wishes Stalin a Happy New Year and proudly reports that it had filled its assigned quota for the elimination of anti-Soviet elements — 17,000 people — but respectfully requests an additional allocation of 6,000 more. Stalin’s response is handwritten — “Happy New Year, comrades! 6,600 more approved for the Krasnodar region. Stalin.” He must have been in a good mood — he gave them 10 percent more than they asked for!

The Jewish population of European Russia was scheduled to be deported to camps in Siberia and Asia in 1953 — Stalin’s version of the Final Solution. This was going to happen at the conclusion and public execution of 12 physicians — most of them Jewish — who were going to be found guilty of having conspired to murder high-ranking party leaders. Orchestrated pogroms were to follow in major cities and the Jews would be deported “for their own safety.” Camps were already built; they still stand today. Railroad cars were standing by. But then a miracle: Stalin died in March 1953. It is very likely that both the makers and the consumers of the Stalin salami would not be enjoying life in America if Stalin had lived just a few months longer.

I told the owner of the Valley deli where the Stalinskaya Sausage is sold that I was upset. He looked genuinely surprised. “What’s the matter with it?” he asked. “Isn’t it fresh?”

So, could Stalin salami be made by Soviet immigrants to be sold by Soviet immigrants to Soviet immigrants? You bet.