Top 50 (okay, 10) ideas for filling the Newsweek rabbis list void


As every rabbi in America no doubt knows by now, the Newsweek/Daily Beast Top 50 Rabbis list is no more.

The list’s founders/authors wrote earlier this week that they had decided to discontinue the annual ranking because it “got out of control.” Not only did the list, launched in 2007 and released each year shortly before Passover, start “to carry too much weight for too many people,” they wrote, but it fueled insistent nudging, with some rabbis enlisting friends and colleagues to lobby on their behalf: “Some even came into our offices with personal pleas to be included, others to pray for our souls.”

Now that the Top 50 Rabbis list is gone, how will rabbis, and those of us who like to gossip about them — not to mention those of us who like to kvetch about the list’s very existence — fill the collective void in our lives? Especially in the weeks leading up to Passover, a time when, as everyone knows, Jews have very little to keep them busy.

In the spirit of the list, here are 10 ideas (sorry we couldn’t give you 50, but hey, we had to leave some time for useful activities today):

1) Compile and publish a list of best guesses as to which rabbis (and/or their mothers) actively lobbied Newsweek/The Daily Beast in order to be included. Make sure to rank the rabbis who made in-person pleas higher than the ones who did it by email.

2) Lobby for something useful, like to get your child into a prestigious nursery school.

3) Aspire to be included on one of the many rabbi lists that the Newsweek/Daily Beast one inspired: Jewrotica’s “Sexiest Rabbis,” the Forward’s “Most Inspiring Rabbis,” Channel 13’s “Hippest Rabbis.”

4) Start your own “Top 50” rabbis/Jewish professionals list. Here are some ideas to get you started: Best-Paid Rabbis, Most Boring Rabbis, Most Beloved Shul Custodians.

5) Review previous Newsweek/Daily Beast Top Rabbis lists, and create detailed data visualizations, highlighting which rabbis appeared the most frequently, which rose and fell the most in their rankings and just how disproportionately male the list was.

6) Make a list of rabbis who “officially piss off” New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s allies, who will perhaps be inspired to block access to their synagogue parking lots.

7) Complain about how terribly destructive and inappropriate the Newsweek/Daily Beast list was, even though you appeared on it multiple times.

8) Review previous Top Rabbis lists, and create a detailed Gematria-based analysis of them. Pay special attention to the rabbis ranked with Jewishly significant numbers, like 18 and 36 (chai), 12 (tribes), 10 (commandments/minyan), 7 (Shabbat), 6 (days of creation), 40 (years in the desert), 1 (God), 4 (patriarchs), 5 (books of Moses), 48 (year of State of Israel’s founding), 29 (number of books Philip Roth has published). Try to determine if there is any number under 51 that DOESN’T have some Jewish significance.

9) Plead emphatically to have Newsweek/Daily Beast Top Rabbis list reinstated. Enlist friends or colleagues to lobby insistently. Go to the offices of the list’s authors with personal pleas to reinstate the list and prayers for their souls.

10) Study Jewish texts. Write sermons. Lead worship. Visit the sick and tend to the bereaved. Raise money for a capital campaign. Lament the findings of the Pew report. You know, the stuff rabbis are supposed to spend their time doing.

Rabbi David Wolpe tops Newsweek’s L.A.-heavy list of ‘most influential’ rabbis


Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple is officially the top rabbi in America, according to Newsweek and the Daily Beast.

The sixth annual installment of the “Top 50 Rabbis” list, published on April 2, included rabbis who head religious movements, rabbis who lead political and community organizations, and rabbis known for their scholarship and teaching.

Wolpe, who is a frequent contributor to The Jewish Journal and was listed at No. 2 on Newsweek’s 2011 list, bumped Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky down to No. 2 from the top spot. Krinsky, the chairman of Chabad-Lubavitch’s educational and social services network, was No. 1 in 2011 and 2010.

While many Los Angeles-based rabbis have made it onto Newsweek’s list in past years — which might be due to the clustering of prominent rabbis, major seminaries, Jews and Jewish philanthropists in this city, but also could be attributed to the list’s creators residing here — five of this year’s top 10 spots are filled by rabbis based in Los Angeles.

Rabbi Sharon Brous of IKAR was listed at No. 5 this year (No. 10 in 2011), becoming the first woman to crack the top five. Rabbi Robert Wexler, president of American Jewish University, maintained his position as No. 6 on this year’s list, while Rabbi Marvin Hier and Rabbi Abraham Cooper, who are dean and associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, respectively, jointly occupied No. 8. (In 2011, Hier, was listed at No. 5, Cooper was listed at No. 28.) Rounding out the top 10 is Rabbi Steven Leder, senior rabbi at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, who dropped two places from his 2011 No. 8 ranking.

Other Angelenos on the list are Rabbi Naomi Levy, founder and leader of Nashuva, at No. 23 (No. 19 in 2011); Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, No. 40, the founder and president of the Modern Orthodox social justice organization Uri L’Tzedek, who is new to the list; and, at No. 47 for the second year in a row, Rabbi Laura Geller, senior rabbi at Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills.

The list was created in 2006 by Time Warner Inc. Executive Vice President Gary Ginsberg and Sony Corp. of America CEO Michael Lynton with help from Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles President Jay Sanderson, who was then the CEO of Jewish Television Network. 

Even as the list commands a good deal of attention — it’s common to see a rabbi’s ranking on a synagogue’s Web site or a book’s author bio block — some are uneasy about (or downright dismissive of) the Newsweek/Daily Beast list.

“We weight the list toward what’s been newsworthy in the last year,” writes Abigail Pogrebin in one of eight disclaimers that serve as an introduction to the list, “because we want to let readers know what’s new in the world of Jewish clergy.”

The list’s creators also acknowledge that the list is subjective and not comprehensive, and that it skews male and bicoastal.

Livni, Giffords on Newsweek’s influential women list


Israeli opposition leader Tzipi Livni and several American Jews, including former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, were included in Newsweek’s 150 “Women Who Shake the World.”

Livni was the only Israeli woman on the list.

“They are starting revolutions, opening schools, and fostering a brave new generation. From Detroit to Kabul, these women are making their voices heard,” Newsweek wrote on its partner The Daily Beast website in announcing the new annual feature.

The feature called Livni “one of the most powerful women in the country,” who is “known for her honesty and integrity.”

Among the American Jewish women appearing on the list are Giffords, the Arizona Democrat who stepped down from the Congress as she recovers from being shot in the head during a constituents’ meeting; Jill Abramson, managing editor of The New York Times; Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, a lesbian rabbi who leads the world’s largest LGBT congregation in Manhattan; and Roseanne Barr, an actress and Tea Party activist.

Other notable women on the list are U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, actress and activist Angelina Jolie, British singer Adele and U.S. war correspondent Marie Colvin, who died in Syria last month.

Sidney Harman, Newsweek chairman and entrepreneur, dies at 92


Sidney Harman, a Jewish entrepreneur who bought Newsweek magazine last year, has died.

Harman died Tuesday in Washington one month after being diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, his family said in a statement. He was 92.

Harman, who was married to former U.S. Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), was executive chairman of Newsweek and chairman of the Academy for Polymathic Study at the University of Southern California, where he also taught, at the time of his death.

He served as a top U.S. Commerce Department official under President Carter.

Harman was the founder of Harman Kardon Inc., which pioneered new technologies in stereo equipment. He left the company, now called Harman International Industries, in 2007.

Jane Harman was a pro-Israel stalwart with close ties to the U.S. intelligence community. She resigned in February to head the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center, a foreign policy think tank.

Drug abuse debate: Legalization, medication or therapy?


On a wall at Beit T’Shuvah’s sanctuary there are plaques with the names of those connected with Beit T’Shuvah who have passed away. One of those names is that of Josh Lowenthal, a former resident who died on June 11, 1995.

The Jewish Journal recently ran a story about “One-Way Ticket,” Rita Lowenthal’s memoir about her son, Josh, who was addicted to heroin from the age of 13 until his death from a self-administered overdose 25 years later. Lowenthal’s moving account of her son’s life punctures the myth that addiction can’t happen to Jews. It can, and it does.

Another myth that Lowenthal would like to puncture is that if addicts only had enough willpower, they could kick the habit — that only weak-willed people can’t pull themselves out of the addiction abyss.

A recent Newsweek cover story is called, “The Hunt for an Addiction Vaccine.” The article says that science views addiction not as a failure of willpower, but as a “chronic, relapsing brain disorder to be managed with all the tools at medicine’s disposal,” and that the National Institute for Drug Abuse (NIDA) is developing and testing compounds that could prevent or treat addiction.

NIDA scientists have concluded that there are three kinds of self-control: putting off present gratification for a later reward, processing sufficient information before making a decision and being able to change responses that have become automatic.

It should come as no surprise that addicts score poorly in all these categories. In other words, addicts’ brains are wired to opt for immediate rewards, to leap before they look, and to keep repeating accustomed behavior in a rote manner. The medicines in development would change the addict’s responses in all three areas.

Ethan Nadelmann, founder and executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, has a different focus: He objects to what he calls the massive failure of the global war on drugs. Like a growing number of responsible voices, Nadelmann argues for drug legalization, or at least decriminalization.

In a recent article in Foreign Policy magazine, Nadelmann makes the case that the war on drugs cannot be won — he cites “mountains of evidence documenting its moral and ideological bankruptcy.” He writes that U.S. administrations have let rhetoric and ideology drive policy, and that in countries that have adopted a different way of dealing with drugs and addicts — Britain, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland — the result has been “a reduction in drug-related harms without increasing drug use.”

When asked about this, Beit T’Shuvah staff and residents uniformly say that legalization and pharmacological addiction treatments are beside the point. Their attitude is that addiction — defined in their Web site as the “obsessive pursuit of drugs, alcohol, food, sex, money, property and/or prestige” — is not about drugs, it’s about the issues that lead to drug use, issues that also lead to other self-destructive behavior.

One long-time Beit T’Shuvah resident, a middle-age man with an MBA and a background in the entertainment industry, said that “you can solve your drug problem and still not be any closer to an effective life. The point is to find out what the problems underneath are: not living your life effectively, not living it with truth. The problem is not the drugs.

“You can legalize drugs, you can find chemical ways of neutralizing the effects of drugs, but the end result will be the same: the root problem will still be there, and the person who has that problem will suffer in a different way. If it’s not drug addiction, if it’s not incarceration, it’ll be family dysfunction or abuse or other issues. These are all manifestations of a deeper problem, just as drug addiction or alcoholism is a manifestation of a deeper problem. And it’s that deeper problem that has to be treated.”

Lowenthal agrees that addiction’s deeper problems should be addressed: “Anyone who has been shamed and punished for addiction needs understanding and support.” But she points out that the situation with illegal drugs, as opposed to alcohol or prescription drugs, makes users subject to the law: Her son was in and out of San Quentin and other prisons because he stole in order to maintain his addiction. “Try getting a student loan, a job, or sympathetic in-laws after serving time in prison,” Lowenthal says.

If her son had lived in a society where heroin use is not a crime and where it’s cheaply available, then he probably wouldn’t have stolen, she believes. He probably wouldn’t have gone to prison over and over, and he might not have chosen to take his own life at the age of 38.

Briefs: Newsweek ranks the rabbis, ‘Passover in a Box’


Los Angeles wins again on Newsweek’s two new top rabbi lists (“Is Your Rabbi Hot or Not?”) with locals heading the 25 Top Pulpit Rabbis in America (No. 1: Rabbi David Wolpe of Temple Sinai) and the 50 Most Influential Rabbis in America (No. 1: Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, for the second year in a row).

No surprise there as the list makers — Jay Sanderson, CEO of the Jewish Television Network and JTN Productions; Michael Lynton, chair and CEO of Sony; and Gary Ginsberg, executive vice president of News Corp — are all Angelenos.

Which also might be why five out of the 25 top pulpit rabbis hail from Los Angeles: In addition to Wolpe, there’s Sharon Brous, Ikar, (9); Yosef Kanefsky, B’nai David-Judea, (11); Ed Feinstein, Valley Beth Shalom, (20); and Mordecai Finley, Ohr HaTorah, (24).

And why 13 out of the 50 Most Influential Rabbis are also from Los Angeles: Hier, (1); Robert Wexler, president of American Jewish University, (3); Uri D. Herscher, founder and CEO of Skirball Cultural Center, (6); Yehuda Berg, Kabbalah Centre, (11); Wolpe, (12); Harold M. Schulweis, Congregation Valley Beth Shalom, (19); Abraham Cooper, Simon Wiesenthal Center, (25); Brous, (30); Bradley Shavit Artson, dean of Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University, (31); Elliot Dorff, American Jewish University, (35); Nachum Braverman, Aish HaTorah, (38); Naomi Levy, Nashuva, (41); and Steven Leder, Wilshire Boulevard Temple, (49).

Wolpe and Brous are two of the eight rabbis that appear on both lists. Of the 10 new additions to last year’s inaugural list of 50 Most Influential Rabbis, three are from Los Angeles (Brous, Leder and Artson).

No doubt there are many other ways to analyze the lists (denomination, gender, other regions) and no doubt in the year to come, many rabbis and their followers will try.

‘Passover in a Box’

Rabbi Pearl Barlev will ensure that patients at UCLA Medical Center have the opportunity to celebrate Passover.

Barlev, who is in her first year as Jewish chaplain in the hospital’s multifaith Spiritual Care department, along with volunteers, will distribute 50 units of “Passover in a Box” to patients during bedside visits.

“Passover in a Box” is this holiday’s version of “Shabbat in a Box,” which Barlev developed and distributes each week to some 20 patients (there are more Jewish patients, she said, but that’s all her limited resources allow). Each Shabbat box contains a set of electric candles, challah, grape juice, a wine glass and a copy of the traditional blessings in Hebrew and English.

“It serves different needs for different patients — some need it to actually practice Shabbat, while for some it pulls on an emotional memory,” Barlev said. “It’s a way to touch base and to enhance for those who want to observe.”

The Passover box will include enough matzah for the first two nights of Passover, kosher macaroons and a Passover information sheet (including a haggadah). Barlev said she hopes the boxes will “help patients feel as though they’ve had a relationship with the holiday.”

Jewish teachings can be meaningful for patients struggling with illness, she said, and she turns to these as she prepares her written texts.

For the Passover box, Barlev wrote about Mitzrayim, the Hebrew word for Egypt whose root means “narrow places.”

“While in the hospital, we may be in our most narrow places, but the story contains inspiration that I hope people can gain.”

To volunteer or donate to the “Shabbat in a Box” program, contact Barlev at (310) 794-0542.

— Anita K. Kantrowitz, Contributing Writer

A While for Weil

Steven Weil, senior rabbi of Beth Jacob Congregation in Beverly Hills, has been offered the position of executive vice president of the Orthodox Union (OU), which serves as the education, outreach and social service organization for Orthodox synagogues.

As of press time, Weil had not yet decided whether he was going to accept the position, which would require relocating his family to New York by June 2009, when the OU’s current executive vice president, Rabbi Tzvi Weinreb, leaves the position to continue on as emeritus for three more years.

This week Weil will be negotiating with OU officials before making his decision.

Ohr HaTorah Moving to Mar Vista?

Ohr HaTorah synagogue is trying to raise $3.8 million in the next 45 days in order to purchase a building in Mar Vista as its new home, congregation officials announced April 10.

The nondenominational synagogue, which was founded in 1994 by Rabbis Mordecai and Meirav Finley and a small group of families, now has 300 member families. It currently meets in the Faith Tabernacle Church in West Los Angeles; the church recently decided not to renew the synagogue’s lease.

The building, located on the corner of Venice Boulevard and Barrington Avenue, was the home of Beth Torah, a Conservative congregation that recently merged with Adat Shalom of Westwood. Although the original asking price of the facility was $4.75 million, Ohr HaTorah was able to reach an agreement price of $3.8 million — with the added bonus that the land already is zoned for religious use.

“We are excited to have the opportunity to provide a much needed home for Jewish life in the south Santa Monica/Venice/Mar Vista area,” the memo said.

Rabbi Hier tops ‘Newsweek’ list of rabbis


Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the most influential American rabbi of them all?

Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, according to a list published Monday in Newsweek. An article titled “American Jews: The List — Choosing the Chosen,” rates America’s 50 most influential rabbis — with three of the top five working in Los Angeles (a total of 11 Angelenos are named).

The list was not the idea of Newsweek , nor was it the result of a scientific survey; rather it is an account of the private rankings of just three men: Michael Lynton, chairman and CEO of Sony; Gary Ginsberg, an executive at News Corp.; and Jay Sanderson, CEO of JTN, the Jewish TV Network.

“I think it opens up a great deal of discussion on what a rabbi is, what a Jewish leader is, and everyone defines it differently,” Sanderson told The Journal.

He said Newsweek liked the idea that it was compiled by people working outside Jewish institutions.

The ratings of the top rabbis — culled from a shortlist of 100 candidates over a few months’ time-were based on a points system:

  • Are the rabbis known nationally/internationally? (20 points).
  • Do they have a media presence? (10 points);
  • Are they leaders within their communities? (10 points).
  • Are they considered leaders in Judaism or within their movements? (10 points).
  • Size of their constituency? (10 points).
  • Do they have political/social influence? (20 points).
  • Have they made an impact on Judaism in their career? (10 points) .
  • Have they made a “greater” impact? (10 points).

That system might explain some of the strange inclusions and the order of the ranking, such as that of controversial figure Kabbalah Centre founder Rabbi Yehuda Berg, who is listed fourth and described as Orthodox, although the denomination might rankle some in that movement). Rabbi Shmuley Boteach of “Kosher Sex” fame, ranks ninth.

“Obviously the most controversial is Yehuda Berg, but no one knew who he was 10 years ago, but now Kabbalah is part of the national conversation,” Sanderson said. And as to Boteach, “the guy has written best-selling books, He has a TV show; he’s everywhere. He’s a media guy.”

“I’m not judging who these rabbis are,” Sanderson said. “But the reality is in terms of social and political spheres of influence in modern life, we looked at all these factors: rabbis who are authors, and rabbis who are pulpit heads, heads of denominations-rabbis who have the greatest spheres of influence.”

Seventeen of the rabbis are listed as Orthodox, 10 as Conservative, 18 as Reform, three as Reconstructionist and two as Jewish Renewal rabbis. There are five female rabbis (including Angeleno Rabbi Naomi Levy).

The Los Angeles rabbis include: Hier (“one phone call away from almost every world leader, journalist and Hollywood studio head,” said the list, which provided brief biographical information on each.), the Skirball Cultural Center’s Founding President and Chief Executive Officer Uri D. Herscher (3), Berg (4), American Jewish University (formerly the University of Judaism) President Robert Wexler (7), Valley Beth Shalom’s Harold M. Schulweis (13), Sinai Temple David Wolpe (18), The Wiesenthal Center’s Abraham Cooper (29), American Jewish University Rector and professor of philosophy Elliot Dorff (30), Aish Hatorah’s Nachum Braverman (36), Nashuva’s Naomi Levy (42), and Ohr Hatorah’s Mordecai Finley (50). Finley is also Lynton’s rabbi.

“Between 30 and 60 the differences are minute,” Sanderson said. For example, Ikar’s Rabbi Sharon Brous, who is often referred to an up-and-coming leader in the movement, “could have been 50 with an bullet,” Sanderson said, adding that she will probably make the list next year.

But are they planning on doing it again next year?

“If it resonates, if it does what we want it to do, we will. I want it to open a discussion about Judaism today and the role of our communal leaders,” Sanderson said. “We should be talking about these things because it’s very reflective of the changes that are going on in the Jewish world and should be going on.”

For some of the local rabbis, an appearance on the list came as a surprise.

“What list?” said Dorff of the American Jewish University, thinking it was the “Forward 50,” which annually ranks the top 50 most influential Jews at the end of each year. After being informed that both he (as number 30) and Wexler made Newsweek’s list, Dorff said, “I’m glad to be recognized, but that’s not the reason why you do it.”

Hier, who had been informed of the list, joked, “I promise I won’t let it go to my head,” and said that he took it as a “collective compliment” to the Simon Weisenthal Center and the work it was doing.

Hier also said he is glad so many Angelenos and rabbis from the West Coast are on the list.

“I think people on the East Coast will see it that there is Jewish life outside New York,” Hier said.

But the list, of course, is subjective, he said. “You can’t devote such a thing into a science. There are many great rabbis — talmidei chachamin and great scholars-who were not on the list.”

Although there were a number of Orthodox rabbis on the list, such as Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Norman Lamm (44) and scholar Saul J. Berman (14), there were only a few ultra-Orthodox, such as Zalman Teitelbaum, the new leader of the Satmar Chasidic community in Williamsburg (25), and Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky (2), leader of Chabad and its CEO.

“The criteria was not Jewish scholarship,” Hier said. “There are many outstanding scholars [not on the list] but it’s probably because they didn’t know of them. It was compiled with a different criteria.”

Not that he’s complaining. “It’s good to be on the list and it’s certainly good to be No. 1, whatever the criteria are.”

Rabbi Irwin Kula also made the list. Video courtesy JTN.
JTN bug

Articles of Faith


 

I keep wondering how the editors of Newsweek will frame their upcoming editorial note correcting their misreported story on the Quran desecration.

At least 17 people were killed in riots that broke out after the May 1 Newsweek story asserting that American interrogators at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, tried to humiliate prisoners by flushing a Quran down the toilet.

The report infuriated Muslims throughout the world. In Afghanistan, an anti-American riot broke out that left some 17 people dead and more than 100 wounded.

By Monday, Newsweek retracted the story. But somehow the lexicon of terse editorial apology falls short. “Newsweek regrets the error” just doesn’t begin to cover it.

No, this isn’t like getting the domestic supplier numbers on a Wal-Mart story wrong by a factor of 10, which the magazine also did last week. This was a matter of faith and belief, which, to the apparent surprise of Newsweek editors, also is a matter of life and death.

“The big point that leaps out is the cultural one,” Michael Isikoff, who reported the story for Newsweek, told The New York Times. “Neither Newsweek nor the Pentagon foresaw that a reference to the desecration of the Quran was going to create the kind of response that it did.”

What? How is that possible?

Isikoff, the other reporter John Barry and Newsweek’s editors should have been more savvy.

“It does seem incredible to me that a reporter wouldn’t understand that desecrating someone’s holy book would be an outrageous offense,” said professor Diane Winston, holder of the Knight Chair in Media and Religion at the USC Annenberg School for Communication. “It would help if Isikoff and other reporters knew when they wrote these things that they would have an effect.”

At the same time, Newsweek had every right and responsibility to report the story correctly. After all, if my government is using the profanation of religion as a torture tactic, I’d like to know about it. The documented abuses at Abu Ghraib and other detention centers have tarnished the positive results of the Iraq War, and there is every reason for a democracy to monitor its military. Shifting the focus to the messenger for a moment, however justified, shouldn’t distract journalists from pursuing important stories with hard-to-anticipate consequences.

The lesson in this tragedy is not just the obvious one about relying on shaky anonymous sources. It is this: Journalists need to learn to take religion seriously.

“Religion, spirituality and moral values are the heart of each of us,” said former Los Angeles Times editor Michael Parks, “and they’re not covered by the news media, not nearly enough, not well enough.”

Parks, who also belongs to The Journal’s board, directs the School of Journalism at the USC Annenberg School For Communication. He spoke at the installation ceremony for Winston held April 8 at USC. Winston holds the only J-school chair in the country dedicated to religion and media (Columbia’s Ari Goldman also specializes in religion and media).

The chair’s creation couldn’t come at a more opportune time.

Think about it: Sept. 11, Terri Schiavo, the Kansas City Board of Education debate on creationism, “The Da Vinci Code,” the “Left Behind” series, the former and current popes, Orthodox protesters in Jerusalem — faith has leapt from the ghetto of the sleepy, weekly “Religion Section” to the bloody, daily front page.

The problem, as Winston told me, is that reporters are by and large ill-equipped to handle the move.

“Most of us don’t have a background in world religion,” Winston said of journalists. “How do we make sense of it? How do we feel about it? We know these are important issues, but we don’t know what to think about them.”

The result is coverage that often portrays religion in a black-and-white, kooks-versus-rational-beings way, which fails to draw out and explain the more mysterious, faith-based aspects of belief. And then there’s the example of Newsweek, which should have at least delved into the potential consequences of the Quran-flushing accusations before reporting them.

There are exceptions. Winston said the Los Angeles Times’ Teresa Watanabe, Don Lattin at the San Francisco Chronicle and writers Jeff Sharlet, Jeffrey Goldberg and Yossi Klein Halevi do excellent jobs translating complex religious issues to the public.

Winston’s own background straddles religion, journalism and academia. She has a doctorate in religion from Princeton University, a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University, a master’s in Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School and a bachelor’s from Brandeis University.

She worked as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun, Dallas Morning News, Dallas Times Herald and The News and Observer in Raleigh, N.C., and directed religion and media projects at New York University and Northwestern University.

Now settled in Los Angeles, she is a member of the IKAR congregation, where her 5-year-old daughter attends Hebrew school. Her two stepdaughters are Presbyterian.

Los Angeles, Winston said, is an ideal place for journalists to learn how to bridge the worlds of faith and facts.

“People have this idea of L.A. being godless and irreligious, but that stereotype is not representative of the larger culture here,” she said. “This city is a living laboratory of religious diversity, and people here take it seriously.”

Now Winston needs to train a new generation of journalists to do the same.

 

Saudi Plan Marks Change


When Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser swept into Khartoum for an Arab summit less than three months after the Arab debacle in the 1967 Six-Day War, he was greeted like a hero.

Newsweek ran a cover story titled, "Hail to the Conquered!" The summit passed the notorious "three no’s" defining future relations with Israel: No negotiations, no recognition and no peace.

In July the following year, Nasser took a young Yasser Arafat, traveling on an Egyptian passport under the name of Muhsin Amin, with him to Moscow on an arms shopping spree.

In the war against Israel, Nasser told Arafat, "You can be our irresponsible arm."

Nasser’s pan-Arabism meant mobilizing Arab power to defeat Israel — and support for Palestinian terror was part and parcel of the package.

Palestinian terror today may be more intense than it was then, but the political context is totally different. Part of the importance of the recent Saudi Arabian peace initiative is that it re-emphasizes, at a time of crisis, how far the Arab world has moved since Nasser’s day.

For moderate Arab states, Palestinian terror is no longer an "irresponsible arm" of policy but an embarrassment, undermining their relations with the West and encouraging radicals opposed to their regimes.

Whatever the final nuances, the Saudi initiative envisages an Arab world at peace with Israel and conducting normal relations with it — though the definition of normalcy may differ from country to country.

Some Israeli commentators see that as a conceptual breakthrough on a par with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s trip to Jerusalem in November 1977.

Others are more skeptical. They say the Saudis launched their initiative to improve their image with the United States and quiet Muslim radicals, and that it offers no mechanism for ending Israeli-Palestinian violence or renewing Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.

Moreover, they point out that the Saudis played a similar gambit with an eight-point peace plan presented at two Arab summits in Fez, Morocco, in the early 1980s. Nothing came of that, the skeptics say, and nothing will come of the current initiative, because when Arab countries finish watering it down for the sake of consensus, there will be nothing left for would-be peacemakers to latch onto.

Until the last minute, Israel and the Palestinian Authority kept sparring over whether Arafat, the Palestinian Authority president, would be allowed to attend the summit, with Israel demanding that Arafat first call for an end to Palestinian violence and take some steps to put his words into effect. That, in turn, led Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to threaten that he also would not attend.

Still, the Arab leaders said they were likely to discuss the Saudi initiative whether or not Arafat is present.

Even if the Saudi initiative is not another Sadat-like breakthrough, it is important, not least because of its timing. It fills a void, presenting an Arab vision of peace when there are no others; it comes in the midst of a vicious cycle of Israeli-Palestinian violence and suggests Arab backing to help end it, and, because of the similarities, it seems to imply an Arab readiness to accept the main principles of the American peace plan announced by President Bill Clinton in December 2000. That could be crucial for future peacemaking.

The fact that the initiative has been put forward at this time is a subtle critique of Palestinian violence. It offers the Palestinians a way out of their politically barren standoff with Israel and a way to achieve, through diplomacy, the national goals they have failed to attain by terror.

It also affords the Palestinians a wider context for peacemaking with Israel and suggests that matters of war and peace go beyond Palestinian decision making.

There is, of course, another side to the Saudi coin: The Arabs are laying down conditions for peace and displaying little willingness to negotiate.

If Israel doesn’t accept the conditions, could it be the beginning of a slippery slope to regional war? Some Arab leaders describe the Saudi initiative as Israel’s "last chance." Coming generations, they warn, may be less amenable to the notion of peace with Israel.

They have a point. Younger Arabs across the Middle East are becoming more, not less, militant toward Israel. The hope was that better communications in the global village would spur modernization, commerce and peace.

But 18 months of one-sided intifada pictures broadcast on Al Jazeera, the independent Arab satellite TV station that reaches hundreds of millions of viewers across the Middle East, have fanned widespread street anger against Israel and the United States.

Vice President Dick Cheney was exposed to the anti-Israel and anti-Western sentiment during his March tour of the region, which led the Bush administration to intensify its efforts toward an Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire. The administration now sees Israeli-Palestinian quiet as essential for the promotion of American interests in the region, including a possible attack on President Saddam Hussein of Iraq.

That is where the Saudi initiative and American policy might just meet. If the Americans back the Saudi initiative as part of a major international effort to bring about Israeli-Palestinian peace, interesting things could happen.

Israel’s former foreign minister, Shlomo Ben-Ami, long has urged a U.S.-led international conference to impose a settlement on the Israelis and Palestinians, using the Clinton proposals as the basis. Should the administration actually try something along those lines, the Saudi initiative could be an important adjunct.

If, as is more likely, the international community does not impose a deal but encourages the parties to move ahead on the basis of the Clinton and Saudi proposals, the United States still would have to play a vital mediating role.

When negotiations bogged down at Camp David in July, Clinton appealed to the Saudis and Egyptians to help the Palestinians make concessions on Jerusalem. They refused. Now they seem willing to do so — even intimating to the United States that they might be willing to back Palestinian flexibility on an Israeli tie to the Temple Mount.

But is the Bush administration ready to make the supreme effort Clinton did? When Nasser took Arafat with him to Moscow, the Soviet Union was still a great power. The Americans could not then have made a Pax Americana even if they wanted to. Now perhaps they can.

Taking on the Bible


Remember that great scene in “Inherit the Wind,” when Clarence Darrow asks William Jennings Bryan if a book that details rape, incest, slaughter, nudity and sodomy should be banned? The fundamentalist Bryan answers, “Of course!” and Darrow, with a flourish, whips out a copy of the Bible and declares, “Then you must ban this book!”

Well, Jonathan Kirsch is the Clarence Darrow of literary Bible critics. His newest book, “The Harlot by the Side of the Road: Forbidden Tales of the Bible” (Ballantine, $27), zeroes in on the juicy parts: Lot’s daughters copulate with their father. A traveler offers his daughter up to a mob to be gang-raped and killed. A man rapes his half sister, then throws her out into the street.

It’s all there, in the holiest of holies. And in the oppressive flood of mass-consumption Bible criticism books out this year, Kirsch’s book surfaces for taking on the Bible in all its wild excess. And making sense of it.

“A haze of piety surrounds the Bible,” Kirsch says, during an interview in his Century City law office. “But it had human authorship. I was always curious about what this book really was and where it came from.”

Kirsch, 47, a former Newsweek correspondent who now practices law, was inspired by writers such as Harold Bloom, whose “The Book of J” sought to tease apart biblical authorship.

“There’s tremendous diversity in the Bible,” says Kirsch, who also serves as pro bono counsel for The Jewish Journal. Different authors, writing through different periods, influenced by common folk tales, divine insight, historical and political agendas, turned out a deep, complex document with one bottom line: “It’s always instructional,” says Kirsch.

Even the good parts.

“We have a tendency to reduce the Bible to Sunday-school stories,” he says. “But the Bible writers were willing to include all of it. Because they felt it was important.”

So Kirsch set about finding the touch points in what might be called the biblical saga. Each section of this lucid, well-crafted book begins with a retelling of a biblical tale that, in some cases is boldly violent and sexual. And riveting, it should be added. Kirsch is a talented storyteller and manages to translate the stories into familiar English without sacrificing their richness. Then, he dissects them, drawing on a wide range of biblical criticism as well as on his own original insights.

Take Judges 19. Kirsch retells the story of a traveling Levite who, in order to save himself from a violent mob, offers them his concubine. After the woman is gang-raped and killed, the Levite dismembers her body and sends the pieces to the four corners of Israel to incite vengeance against the tribe that committed the deed.

In a chapter entitled “God and Gyno-Sadism,” Kirsch explores the various meanings behind such a horrific story. It might be a parody of male arrogance written by a woman, or perhaps a defense of the monarchy written at a time of near-anarchy. Kirsch lays out a convincing case for both.

In his book “God: A Biography,” Jack Miles writes that the Bible is truly for “adults only.” Of course, that’s hyperbole. Part of any great work’s worth is its ability to appeal and speak to many ages, over many generations.

But, for many generations, the very parts that render the Bible NC-17 have been excised from public consumption. Kirsch’s book is a salvo in a crusade to learn from all that the Bible has to offer. “We’ve suppressed [these stories],” he says. “For centuries, we’ve avoided them and pretended they’re not there.”

But, aside from better understanding these stories, what can we learn from them? Clearly, Kirsch’s agenda, his point, is not to titillate. (Note: If most of these stories titillate you, seek professional help). It is to build an argument for openness and tolerance.

“There’s tremendous moral diversity in the Bible,” he says, “and diversity of moral value is in itself a moral instinct. The Bible is more compassionate and understands a greater range of human behavior than we often do.”

Indeed, as chapter after chapter demonstrates, it is not the meek and well-behaved who get the most column inches of Holy Writ. “If you push the envelope of morality, you may play a role in sacred history,” Kirsch says.

Those aren’t lessons that would sit well with the fundamentalists among us today, just as they stuck in Bryan’s craw 75 years ago.

“The Bible is a map of the human heart,” Kirsch writes, “and no secret chamber or hidden passage is left out.”

Fortunately for us, Kirsch isn’t afraid of blood.

Painting by Botticelli (15th c.), showing Judith returning to Bethulia with the severed head of Holofernes. Illustration from My Jewish World, 1975



I.B. Singer: A Life

UCLA Professor Janet Hadda uncovers the contradictory journey of the great novelist

Janet Hadda’s captivating biography of Isaac Bashevis Singer begins with the story of Hadda herself as a miserable young graduate student.

On a “bleak snowy day” in 1968, wandering the Cornell University library, Hadda comes across a copy of “The Family Moskat,” by a writer unfamiliar to her. She opens it. “One paragraph in, and I was already hooked,” she writes. “By the time I finished, I had decided to get my hands on that culture, that world, that language.”

Hadda’s attraction to the Yiddish world that Singer resurrected through his writing would evolve into a career. The daughter of non-Yiddish-speaking German refugees, she studied at Columbia University and YIVO, eventually becoming professor of Yiddish at UCLA. She also trained as an analyst at the Southern California Psychoanalytic Institute.

She then turned her sights on Singer himself, her two fields of study being the perfect tools with which to dissect the author. Although she met him several times — and describes the meetings in finely wrought, revealing anecdotes — she realized that his character remained elusive. Setting off to uncover the facts of his life, she found herself surrounded by the kind of kantike menschen, or oddballs and difficult personalities, that populate his stories. Former lovers, recalcitrant nephews, litigious relatives all conspired to make researching her book an otherworldly, Singerian experience.

Fortunately, she stuck to it. The result, “Isaac Bashevis Singer: A Life” (Oxford University Press, $27.50), is an unvarnished and bewitching account of the century’s most acclaimed Yiddish writer. In 215 pages that read with the speed and cutting insight of a Singer novella, Hadda, 51, brings her dual expertise as a Yiddishist and psychoanalyst to bear on a man who turns out to be someone altogether different than our image of him.

Since gaining international fame as the recipient of the 1978 Nobel Prize for Literature, Singer has held a cherished place in American-Jewish hearts alongside grizzly ‘ol Ben-Gurion and Bubbe Golda. Just as we have mythologized the latter two, we have de-personified Singer, reducing him to a caricature of the grandfatherly storyteller, with little more on his mind than a spare little tale about rebbes and fools.

Hadda uncovered at least another side to Singer, and it’s dark, calculating, lonely and wounded.

The son of a weak, withdrawn father and a brilliant, morose mother, Singer grew up in the shadow of his gifted brother, Israel J. Singer, who went on to write “The Brothers Ashkenazi.” The Singer household was a cold, unloving place — Bashevis Singer, Isaac’s mother, abandoned a daughter, Hinde Esther, for the first three years of the girl’s life.

Hadda traces Singer’s lifelong sense of loneliness and depression to his neglected childhood. “Yitschok understood that his compulsion to write stemmed from misery,” writes Hadda, drawing on the observations of Singer himself.

Leaving behind the world of the shtetl, Singer came to the United States in 1935. He struggled here, working at the Yiddish-language Forverts, again in the shadow of his brother. His wife, Alma, to whom he had a strained 51-year marriage, supported him by working as a department-store sales clerk. (Singer was in his 60s before he earned enough as a writer for his wife to stop working.)

But the greatest hardship Singer faced was in writing for an audience whose world had been destroyed. In a telephone interview with The Journal, author Hadda described the dilemma: “He couldn’t go back. He would never go back. But his readers didn’t want to hear about the United States. He had to draw from a source he had abandoned early on.”

To do so, Singer perfected a technique of writing that seamlessly blended fact and fiction. The “infusion of reality” into fiction, writes Hadda, “provided relief from his forsaken solitude.” With his family and his entire childhood world dead, Singer could recreate, both in a more pleasing and healthy light. Thus, the rabbi of “In My Father’s Court” has all the erudition but none of the frailty and aloofness of Singer’s real father.

After Singer became famous, he began to work his literary legerdemain on himself. Those close to him often reviled Singer as mean-spirited, manipulative, lecherous and coldhearted — he abandoned his only son for 20 years and carried on a series of lengthy affairs. But the author nurtured a public image as a simple, wise Yiddish zaydie.

“He saw that it worked, and that’s what post-Holocaust American Jews wanted,” Hadda says.

The Old World charm, which Singer seemed to be able to turn on and off at will, worked media magic. Hadda still finds it remarkable that, in reporting on Singer’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech, the major newspapers overlooked Singer’s erudite, slightly aggrandizing speech as well as the anger the selection provoked among many Yiddish readers, who thought that Singer didn’t measure up.

For his part, Singer went so far as to keep knowledgeable Yiddishists away from the Swedish Academy so that their opinions wouldn’t influence the judges.

For a time, Hadda, confesses, the realization that Singer was not like his image upset her, and she even had a personal falling out with him. In some sense, she told The Journal, the book was “absolutely” her opportunity to work through her own conflicted images of him, to discover who he really was.

Sometimes, when Hadda relies too heavily on psychoanalytic training, her deliberations threaten to reduce Singer’s genius to a collection of classic symptoms. But, in the end, Hadda-the-Yiddishist wins out. Her portrait of Singer is sad, clear-eyed and awesomely complex.

It’s also loving. As much as a kantike mensch as Singer himself could be, he also gave life to a world Hadda, and millions more of us, still cherish.

“As the years have gone by, I see how much of Yiddish culture there was and how much is fading away,” Hadda says. “If there’s one person who has managed to uphold that culture, it’s him. And he did it through translation, and he did it by recreating himself.”

Before she began her project, one of Singer’s friends told Hadda: “You know, you’ll never be able to figure him out. He’s a contradiction.”

In “Isaac Bashevis Singer: A Life,” Hadda has gone a long way toward proving that friend mistaken. — R.E.