No easy answers in the search for Jewish origins

Is Jerry Seinfeld a descendant of King David?

The question is no joke. Of all the issues that perplex the Jewish people and the wider world, none is so troubling is the primal one — what, after all, links us to the people, the land and the faith of distant antiquity as described in the Bible?

An answer is proposed in “The Origin of the Jews: The Quest for Roots in a Rootless Age” by Steven Weitzman (Princeton University Press), the Abraham M. Ellis Professor of Hebrew and Semitic Languages and Literatures at the University of Pennsylvania. He has studied and mastered the scholarship of Jewish origins, and he seeks to explain exactly what “connects all Jews into a single people, religion, or community; the very beginning of their collective story.”

The ancient scriptures, the author points out, only complicate the question: “[T]here is more to the story of how the Jews came to be than we can glimpse in the Bible,” he writes. Even the word “Jew,” which derives from the Hebrew word for the tribe of Judah (Yehud), may be misleading: “Are Jews today, in some collective sense, the same people as the ancient Judeans,” he muses, “or are they fundamentally different, transformed by the passage of time, or by some intervening change into another people?”

Weitzman explains the various theories that suggest a discontinuity between ancient and modern Jews. Freud imagined that the prophet and lawgiver Moses, the founder of what we call Judaism, actually was an Egyptian. Some scholars argue that Judaism as we know it today actually began only after the end of the Babylonian Exile or the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. Famously, and rather scandalously, Arthur Koestler’s “The Thirteenth Tribe” argued that the Jews of Eastern Europe actually are descendants of the medieval Khazars, who converted to Judaism in the medieval era. Even more recently, an Israeli historian named Shlomo Sand has argued that “much of what people think they know about the Jewish people goes back to historians in the nineteenth century and the first part of the twentieth, and that their representation of the Jews was a fiction that they contrived.”

Each contending theory carries its own subtext, some of which are overtly hostile to Judaism, or Zionism, or both.

DNA testing and the science of genomics seem to offer the promise of a definitive answer to the question of Jewish origins, but Weitzman reminds us that it can come uncomfortably close to some of the racist assumptions of Jew-haters ranging from the Spanish Inquisition to Nazi Germany. Moreover, while DNA evidence has confirmed that many of the Kohanim — Jews identified as descendants of the ancient priesthood — appear to share a common ancestor, we do not know yet that their ancestry dates all the way back to biblical antiquity.

Even the cutting-edge tools of modern genetic testing, however, do not support the claims of Davidic descent that have been credited to various luminaries, from Rashi to Elie Wiesel to even Jerry Seinfeld. As it happens, Weitzman acknowledges the late David Einsiedler, co-founder of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Los Angles, for the proposition that “there is no complete, reliable and positive proof of claims of descent from David.”

Weitzman’s book is rooted in serious scholarship, but he also is attuned to the ways in which the yearning for identity has been used and abused. Thus, for example, he reminds us of the shameful phenomena of forged Holocaust memoirs and suggests that some prideful Jews are willing to engage in “a kind of ‘genetic astrology’ ” in order to validate their imagined connections to great figures of Jewish history and the Bible.

Weitzman is aware that the authenticity of the linkage between modern Jews and the ancient tribes of Israel has been used against the Jewish people, no less in the ancient world than in the debate over the legitimacy of Jewish sovereignty in Israel today. Indeed, he concedes that some readers may decide that the question itself is “too contentious to pose.”

But it also is true that the Jewish tradition of asking audacious questions starts with the Torah and must be honored as one of the core values of Judaism. For that reason alone, Weitzman’s courageous and illuminating book is essential reading for anyone who wonders or cares about what it really means to be a Jew.

JONATHAN KIRSCH, publishing attorney and author of “The Woman Who Laughed At God: The Untold History of the Jewish People,” is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.

‘No Country’: A view of Israel many won’t cheer


Larry Derfner is one of us.

He grew up in Los Angeles and started his career at City News Service, a fixture of L.A. journalism. A former contributing columnist to the Journal, he still contributes to a long list of distinguished American publications, ranging from Tablet to U.S. News & World Report.

Nowadays, however, he lives in Israel, where he serves on the editorial staff of Haaretz, and his home is in the “model city” of Modi’in. The story of what he found there — a story with deep resonance for many American Jews — is told in “No Country for Jewish Liberals” (Just World Books), a searing memoir and a challenging critique of Israel by a disaffected American Jew who is no longer at home in his new homeland.

Modi’in stands on the near side of the boundary between Israel and the West Bank, and when Derfner moved there in 1995, the development was meant to “show that while the previous Likud government had put its energy into building West Bank settlements, the Rabin government would forget about settlements and build on the Israeli side of the old pre-1967 Six-Day War border.”

Derfner, whose identities as a Jew and a liberal “meshed very smoothly,” embraced the “now-embarrassing, nostalgic, socialist idea that Modi’in would be the modern-day Israeli version of my Aunt Rose’s apartment complex in the Bronx that we used to visit in the ’50s: a humble community where Jewish working people gather in the evenings on the benches on the big lawn to kibitz.” What mattered just as much to Derfner and his young family was the fact that “the apartments would be big by Israeli standards and relatively cheap.”

“That was then,” Derfner writes. What matters now, as we discover in Derfner’s urgent, often witty and deeply unsettling book, is the hardening of Israeli politics that has reached even Modi’in.

“The majority of Modi’in residents are theoretically in favor of the two-state solution, but suspicious, at best, of even the most modern Palestinians and resentful of foreign pressure on any Israeli government,” he writes. “The people of Modi’in sit very comfortably within the Israeli ‘security hawk’ consensus.” To make the point, he quotes Gideon Levy, one of his colleagues at Haaretz: “It used to be that if you asked two Jews a question, you’d get three opinions. Now you only get one.”

Derfner thinks Israelis are nicer than they used to be — he attributes the softening of the Israeli character to “the advent of prosperity, consumerism, careerism, foreign travel, even air conditioning” — but he also insists that nationalism and patriotism, rather than the moral burden of serving as a light unto the nations, are now the core values of the Jewish state.

“The mindset here is very much like that in red-state America,” he writes. “I think of Israel as a small, Hebrew-speaking Texas, with Tel Aviv the country’s answer to Austin.”

Unlike the rest of the world, American Jews included, the Israelis are no longer preoccupied with the Palestinians, or so Derfner argues. “Israelis don’t believe in a solution; they think that trying to solve things will only make them worse, like it did before, and get a lot of them killed,” he explains. “The army has the Palestinians under control — why tamper with the way things are?”

All of these developments are deeply alienating to Derfner, who points out that ignoring a problem is not equivalent to solving a problem. “Fear and aggression, this has become the Israeli way,” he writes.

He deplores the treatment of Palestinians, African refugees and the Arab citizens of Israel, and he unapologetically declares that “Israel and I have gone in opposite directions.” He writes that he loves Israel “as much as I’m capable of loving a country,” but goes on to say that “it has done awesome damage to the Jewish soul and Jewish conscience.” Indeed, he is even willing to argue that “Palestinian terrorism, for all its hellishness and its innocent victims, amounts to self-defense,” an assertion that would be fighting words if uttered in certain places here and in Israel.

Like many American Jews who make aliyah, Derfner bumped into the sharper edges of the Jewish homeland, where the sacred mission of Zionism — the creation of a place where Jews can seek refuge without passports or visas — has been tragically compromised by those who are empowered by the state to decide who is a Jew. “My wedding was a glorious day, but, unlike my kids’ bar mitzvahs, it did not fill me with gratitude to Israel: Philippa and I got married in South Africa after I repeatedly failed to meet the medieval Israeli rabbinical establishment’s standard of proof of being Jewish,” he writes.

As I read Derfner’s troubling account of his experiences in Israel, I was fully aware of how his book will be received by a great many readers who are not prepared to hear, for example, that he does not blame the Palestinians for cheering the Scud missiles that Iraq launched against Israel, because “when you treat people like inferior beings, they’re going to want revenge, and we’d been treating the Palestinians like inferior beings for a very long time.”

But I could not forget that Derfner voted for Israel with his feet when he made aliyah. He pays his taxes in Israel, he served in the Israel Defense Forces, and so have his children. He has mastered the details and nuances of Israeli history and politics, both as a journalist and as an eyewitness to the most consequential events and personalities of the past several decades.

“Writing this is not treason,” Derfner insists. “It is an attempt at patriotism.”

For that reason alone, when Derfner speaks about Israel, I feel obliged to listen.

Mother and Daughter Authors Are Klass Act

Sheila Solomon Klass and Dr. in Perri Klass — mother and daughter co-authors — don’t finish each other’s sentences, but they do elaborate on them in Talmudic style, layering on comments, memories, opinions and their own interpretations of the same story.

In a kitchen table interview in Sheila’s Washington Heights, N.Y., apartment, the two women talk candidly about their lives and careers — sometimes describing the other and waiting for a correction to be lobbed back — and their new book, “Every Mother Is a Daughter: The Neverending Quest for Success, Inner Peace and a Really Clean Kitchen” (Ballantine).

Perri, 48, is a pediatrician and writer, and Sheila, 78, is an author and teacher of writing. Between them, they’ve written more than 25 books, although this is their first collaboration. The book is told in alternating voices and reads like their live conversation. They share ideas about home, children, writing, relationships and the way their lives overlap and echo. There’s nothing thorny or strained between them, even as they disagree. The book is funny, thoughtful and smart — full of love but avoiding the pitfalls of sentimentality.

“In some ways we spend our lives telling stories about our mothers,” Perri writes, determined to give her mother her say in print.

Among their similarities, Perri points out that both have three children, long marriages to academic men and work that allows time for writing “around the edges.”

“She started out in a completely different place. She invented the whole thing. I was just copying,” the daughter says.

“Perri gives me too much credit,” her mother replies. “I don’t feel I invented this kind of life. I stumbled upon myself.”

Perri is one of the best-known pediatrician-writers in the United States. She gained national attention as a medical student in 1984 when she began contributing to the “Hers” column of The New York Times and published a much-discussed essay in The New York Times Magazine on being pregnant while attending Harvard Medical School. Since then, she has published widely in magazines, ranging from Parenting to Esquire to Knitter’s Magazine (she’s also a serious knitter) and has written nine books of fiction and nonfiction. In addition to her work at a neighborhood health center in Boston, she directs Reach Out and Read, a national program that trains doctors and nurses to stress the importance of reading.

Sheila is the kind of ardent New Yorker who prefers subways to taxis and wanders the streets with confidence — she’s still dazzled by the city where she’s spent most of her life. For more than 40 years she has taught writing at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, and she has written 16 novels, including several for young readers and a memoir of her time living in Trinidad, where Perri was born. Her other children are also writers: her son a screenwriter, and her younger daughter a poet, songwriter and English professor.

The book is in many ways a paean to husband and father Morton Klass, an anthropologist who specialized in religion and died suddenly in 2001. Perri says that she so missed hearing his voice and thought that this project would be a way for them to look at their memories from different perspectives. After his death, Perri and Sheila traveled to Trinidad, where they had previously lived in a small wooden hut on stilts while Morton did research for his dissertation — this was a return trip they had hoped to do with him.

While Perri grew up in suburban New Jersey with familial support for all of her pursuits, Sheila grew up very poor in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in the 1920s, in an unhappy Orthodox home. In order to attend Brooklyn College, she ran away from home and took a live-in baby-sitting job. Sheila never wanted a life like her mother’s, although she later realized that “she who gives you life is never wholly separated from you.”

Perri doesn’t seem so much like a younger version of Sheila, but there’s a direct lifeline between them. It’s perhaps in their habits of home, kitchen and thrift that mother and daughter differ most, and playfully spar. Sheila never leaves a teacup in her sink, perfectly refolds the newspaper whenever she or anyone else puts it down, lives frugally and gets her assignments in early. Perri misses deadlines regularly and spends much of what she makes. Her home is chaotic and, unlike her mother, who served breakfast every morning at a set table, she tries to remind her kids to grab a handful of nuts on their way out of the house. While Perri isn’t allowed to wash a dish in Sheila’s home, Sheila makes sure to wash Perri’s sink full of dishes whenever she visits, in spite of her daughter’s protests. It’s motherly prerogative.

“When I think about strength, I think about my mother,” Perri says. “My mother has always been very reliable in a way that I don’t think I am. I sometimes come home and I say I’m too tired to even think about dinner. Never in my whole life did my mother, who worked all day and had dinner on the table every night, say she was too tired.”

“Only because I didn’t know I was allowed,” Sheila remarks.

The book ends in India, another return trip for the intrepid pair. Perri makes the plans, adding a few luxuries her mother would ordinarily eschew. The final scene is one of mother-daughter mischief, as they view the Taj Mahal at night.

Perri is about to become a New Yorker. She and her husband, a professor of history, are joining the New York University faculty. Along with an appointment at the medical school, she’ll also teach in the journalism school.

As for Sheila, who has some trouble with her vision and hearing, she’s grateful every day for the gifts of her life. Moving back to Manhattan after her kids left home was like returning from exile. She offers her own mantra: “Let it be known that she never took a cab of her own free will.”

For Journal readers who will be in the New York region, there will be a Mother’s Day event, celebrating mothers and daughters, co-sponsored by The Jewish Week and the UJA-Federation of New York. It will feature a conversation with Dr. Perri Klass and Sheila Solomon Klass – moderated by Sandee Brawarsky and hosted by JCC Mid-Westchester. The dialogue will be followed by a book signing and light refreshments. It takes place Monday, May 15, from 7:30 to 9 p.m., JCC Mid-Westchester, 999 Wilmot Road, Scarsdale. The event is free but reservations are required. Contact Tia Disick, (212) 921-7822 x237, or

Sandee Brawarsky is book critic for The Jewish Week.


Spectator – Young Historians Find Their Genre

When Erica Silverman was looking for a subject for her latest children’s nonfiction book, she decided to seek inspiration from one of the most famous Jewish writers of all time, Sholom Aleichem.

With pathos and humor, Sholom Aleichem amused generations of fin-de-siecle Jews with his Yiddish stories exposing the idiosyncrasies of shtetl life. His writing found its place in the canon of Yiddish literature, but today many Jews are familiar only with the most popular adaptation of his work, the musical “Fiddler on the Roof.”

“I think Sholom Aleichem has a spirit of mischief in him that has a natural appeal to children,” said Silverman, whose book “Sholom’s Treasure, How Sholom Aleichem Became a Writer” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005) is being showcased this week at the Jewish Literature for Children conference at Sinai Temple. “His writing captures a pivotal moment in Jewish history, [when Jews] were at a turning point between the past and modernity, and I think [this book] is a good way to introduce children to that part of Jewish culture.”

“Sholom’s Treasure” is adapted from Aleichem’s autobiography, “From the Fair,” and tells the story of a mischievous boy who wants only to please his indigent father by finding a treasure to solve his woes. Beautifully illustrated by Mordicai Gerstein, the book introduces young readers not only to Aleichem, but also to a time when Eastern European Jews lived in poverty in tiny villages, always scrambling to make ends meet.

At the conference, Silverman will be joined by others who write Jewish history for kids, including Boston-based Norman Finkelstein, who recently published “Ariel Sharon,” (Lerner Publications, 2005) a young-adult biography of the Israeli prime minister. Finkelstein said he was drawn to the Jewish children’s nonfiction genre when, as a public school librarian, he couldn’t find any books geared to a younger audience about the Holocaust or some of the great Jewish historical figures.

“I wanted to find a book that [spoke about these subjects] in very simple, non-threatening and nonfrightening language, and I couldn’t find [them],” said Finkelstein, who spoke to The Journal by phone from his home in Boston.

For these authors, children and young adults represent a fresh audience.

“I know it’s a cliché, but children are our future,” Silverman said. “I remember the effect that reading had on me [growing up], and I want to share that experience with another generation.”

The “2006: Focus on Non-Fiction” — Jewish Literature for Children, Third Western Regional Conference,” will take place Feb. 20 at Sinai Temple’s Blumenthal Library, 10400 Wilshire Blvd, Los Angeles, from 9 a.m.-4 p.m. For more information and registration, contact Susan Dubin (818) 886-6415 or e-mail Lisa Silverman


Wake Up and Smell the Fish

For UCLA geography professor Jared Diamond, the fall of a great civilization can come down to fish.

“Fish prices have tripled; fish form a significant part of our diet,” Diamond told The Journal. “At the rate we’re going, most of the world’s major fisheries will be gone within a decade.”

He doesn’t expect Los Angelenos to obsess about it. “Fish don’t focus the attention the way a single earthquake does,” he said.

But Diamond knows what he’s talking about. He’s the author of the best-selling nonfiction book “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed” (Viking, 2004). His book is the inspiration for a special exhibit at the L.A. County Natural History Museum. Diamond will talk about his book and his ideas on Jan. 10 at a Writers Bloc Presents lecture at the Skirball Cultural Center.

Diamond, who received a 1985 MacArthur Foundation genius grant, won the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction with his earlier book, “Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies” (W. W. Norton & Company). The scope of Diamond’s research spans not only geography, but also ornithology, physiology and environmental history.

In the earlier book, Diamond examined how and why Western civilizations developed the technologies and immunities that allowed them to dominate much of the world. “Collapse” looks at the flip side: What caused some of the great civilizations to collapse into ruin and what can people today learn from their fates?

Some of what happens could come down to fish, Diamond said, or to other somewhat overlooked factors. Diamond expects a future massive fish decline to be a global version of the New Orleans levees breaking during Hurricane Katrina. A world without fish, he said, will result in “countries collapsing…. A substantial fraction of the world’s people rely on fish for protein.”

The Cambridge-educated Diamond, who is Jewish, said he has not found evidence that Jews, Judaism or any other major religion played a dominant role in why a civilization ended.

“I have not noticed that one particular religion is more prone or less prone to collapse,” he said.

Nor does he list the modern scourge of terrorism among crucial factors — at least it doesn’t rank nearly in importance with the supply of fish. “People don’t get excited about the gradual disappearance of fish,” he said, “until 2 billion people start sending out terrorists because they’re starving.”

Jared Diamond will discuss “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed” at Writers Bloc Presents on Tuesday, Jan. 10, at 7:30 p.m. at the Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. For more information, call (310) 855-0005.