Letters to the editor: Peoplehood, kapparot, Joseph L. Young and more

Dealing with the Deal, Together

I am writing to say that I agree with what David Suissa said in his editorial (“Bubblehood vs. Peoplehood,” Sept. 11). But he forgot to mention something important. 

It was because we could not come together that we lost Jerusalem and the Temple fell. We Jews as a people are so isolated that it is dangerous for us to fight among ourselves. We need to pull together and say, “Although I don’t agree with the way you worship, I am your brother/sister and it is more important to love one another than to fight.” One of the reasons that we have flourished in the United States is the Freedom of Religion clause in our Constitution. As an American Jew, I am allowed to practice my religion and fundamentalists of all religions are allowed to practice theirs, but not to impose their beliefs on others. We Jews need to learn that we are more alike than we are different.  

I don’t know what to think about this Iran deal, I have heard passionate conversation on both sides. But I think we shouldn’t be fighting one another over it. There is little each individual Jew can do to impact that outcome. But we need to stand together and deal with whatever the consequences will be. 

Suzanne Gallant via email

Kapparot’s Suit

I don’t see how swinging a chicken in the air atones for one’s sins (“The Battle Over Kapparot Goes to Court,” Sept. 11). Maybe I have missed something. It seems more along the lines of hocus pocus and voodoo, and not anything that sane, intelligent people in a modern civilized society take part in. I feel quite certain that God does not approve of this ill treatment toward his creatures.

Cher Ami via jewishjournal.com

Thank you very much for your valuable coverage of the bicoastal campaigns to replace the use of chickens in the kapporos ritual with coins or other charitable objects that do not cause suffering to helpless creatures.

Karen Davis via jewishjournal.com

Amazing Joe Young

Joseph Young was my dad’s favorite and most famous first cousin (“Joseph L. Young: Jewish Knight of Religious Art,” Sept. 11). We always called him “Josie.” He and his wife, Mimi, were a very attractive couple, like out of the movies. When they came to visit us in Aliquippa, Pa., they were always laughing. I never saw him look serious, even though he was considered one of the best mosaic artists in the world. He was down to earth and never let fame go to his head, but you could tell he was a perfectionist.
What a terrific article. Hoping his work is an inspiration forever.

Jeffrey Joel Eger, Mesa, Ariz. 

Two Nickels and a Schimmel

Rob Eshman’s Yonah Schimmel story is not the one of the 1930s and ’40s that I remember (“Meditation on Yonah Schimmel,” Sept. 4). My uncle had a pharmacy on Forsythe Street, and on every visit he would take the hand of his nephew and march me around the corner to Yonah Schimmel’s on Houston Street. There, I would be hypnotized by the array of knishes. I usually selected one filled with kasha. If there wasn’t one in the display case, a dumbwaiter with shelves and on pulleys would rise from the depths of who knows where and be filled with kasha knishes.

For 10 cents — a nickel on the Third Avenue L train from the Bronx to Manhattan and a nickel for the knish, (my uncle paid) — this kid was in hog heaven (excuse the expression).

Jerry Baruch, Los Angeles

Fruits of Labor

Edmon Rodman’s “Deep-Seeded Connections” (Sept. 11) brought back memories. The name Toby caught my eye right away. In my 81 years, I have personally known only one Toby, but did know of another one from my former dermatologist, Dr. Paul Wolfish. He even showed me an old black-and-white photograph of himself and his future wife, Toby, taken while both were in kindergarten. 

Paul Wolfish was a real mensch. While in his office, he would even sing for me the latest haftarah from a recent temple service, and he told me of his daughter who was going to Oberlin College in Ohio. 

I believe the last time I saw him was at Trader Joe’s in West Hills, purchasing a bottle of wine. Thanks for helping me recall one special Jewish doctor. As for Toby’s pomegranates numbering in the hundreds from a single tree, so do my persimmons as of late, also from a single tree.

Samuel Kohn, Canoga Park


An article in the Fall Preview issue, “The Broad Museum’s Long-Awaited Opening” (Sept. 11), incorrectly stated that the Broad Foundation would be moving from Santa Monica into the new museum. It is the Broad Art Foundation that will move.

Peoplehood is history

The latest buzzword in the Jewish world is “peoplehood.” In a recent article in The Jewish Daily Forward titled “Funding Peoplehood,” Misha Galperin, a top official with the Jewish Agency, writes that for the past few years “the organized Jewish community worldwide has recognized that the next major task facing us is strengthening Jewish identity, which we’ve come to call ‘the price of peoplehood.’ ”

As he writes: “Prominent Jewish sociologists have identified the declining bonds of peoplehood as one of the most significant challenges posed by modernity and by a culture of universalism. Having been raised in a world of pluralism and tolerance, Jews younger than 45 do not necessarily privilege their Jewish brothers and sisters above others when it comes to friendship, marriage, volunteerism and charitable giving.”

This new “peoplehood” buzzword is just the latest iteration of a broader issue that’s been around for decades, using terms like “Jewish continuity,” “assimilation,” “intermarriage” and so on. “Peoplehood” is the latest reminder of a familiar problem for the organized Jewish community: American Jews in general don’t feel compelled to connect to their Jewish tradition.

What I find fascinating about this latest emphasis on “peoplehood,” however, is its tribal connotation. It’s like an admission of failure. We couldn’t get you to connect to Judaism so let’s try something more primal: Connect to your tribe! To your people! It’s the outreach of last resort.

No wonder Galperin’s piece got some heated responses. Ruth Messinger, president of American Jewish World Service, which focuses on Jews helping the world (and not just other Jews), wrote: “What’s missing from this piece is a more expansive, values-based understanding of how Jewish peoplehood is expressed.”

Another critique came from Daniel Septimus, of myjewishlearning.com, who wrote: “What is the content of Galperin’s ‘bond of peoplehood’? What is this bonded people supposed to do? What values do they cherish and share? What mission do they work to achieve? The Jewish community’s inability to articulate answers to these questions, while at the same time fetishizing ‘peoplehood’ to the brink of idolatry, is exactly the reason the younger generation has drifted away.”

Personally, I’m torn between two lovers. I have a deep sense of Judaism as a way of life and as a source of meaning and mission, but I also have a deep sense of Judaism as belonging to a miraculous people. If I moved to the desert and did absolutely nothing Jewish for three years, I would still feel nourished by my Jewish identity. The mere fact of “belonging” to my people is enough. It is the very transcendent nature of this feeling that moves me.

In the same way that faith and belief in God transcend reason, my connection to the Jewish people does the same. If I had to constantly justify this connection through reason — if I made it conditional on common actions or values — it wouldn’t have the same power or emotion.

In fact, it’s a mistake to assume that a deeper connection to Judaism and Jewish values will naturally lead to a deeper connection between Jews. Not necessarily. If I see “Jewish values,” for example, as being synonymous with humanistic values like compassion, social justice and freedom, how does that connect me with Jews in yeshivas? Similarly, if I pray and learn Talmud all day, how does that connect me with Jews who express their Judaism by helping Muslims in Darfur?

Given all that, how might we promote a sense of peoplehood with Jews who feel no special connection with their Jewish brethren?

If you ask me, the most natural way to promote Jewish peoplehood is to teach the extraordinary history of the Jewish people.

And I don’t just mean biblical stories with all their grand moral lessons. I mean history, pure and simple. I mean the history of the migration of Sephardi Jews throughout the centuries; the history of the Jews of Europe and the Jews of Persia; the beginning of the Chasidic movement; the golden age of the medieval philosophers; the Jewish contributions to humanity; the beginning of the Zionist movement and so on.

I mean teaching Jews (yes, even in day schools and yeshivas) not just our master story, but also our cultural and ancestral stories — warts and all — and how those myriad journeys have improbably converged in our generation.

Our sense of solidarity can only be enhanced by a greater familiarity with our incredible journey.

Unfortunately, history is the ugly stepchild of Jewish outreach. It doesn’t have the romance of spirituality, the imperative of Torah study, the headiness of repairing the world or the practical relevance of daily rituals. What it does have, however, is narrative. Hundreds and thousands of narratives that have the power to bond us with the collective Jewish experience.

A few weeks ago, I reconnected with my cousin Sydney Suissa, who I grew up with in Casablanca and Montreal. Sydney was always a history buff. He ran programming at the History Channel and is now doing the same thing at National Geographic. My cousin is not Torah observant, but he has a deep connection to his people.

Why? Because he’s been learning Jewish history for most of his life. His connection to his people didn’t come from studying Torah, or from doing tikkun olam, which are important acts in their own right. It came because he embraced a remarkable story and heritage he feels he belongs to and would like to continue.

Galperin and the Jewish Agency are onto something. But maybe Galperin’s next piece should be titled “Finding Peoplehood.” He should invite and help Jews everywhere to discover the amazing story — and stories — of their people.

Values, rituals and study are important, but to build real human connections, you also need great stories. Just ask any Jewish screenwriter.

VIDEO: Duke professor searches for ‘kohanim’ genetic marker

Dr. David B. Goldstein from Duke’s Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy talks about tracking the genetic history of the ancient Jewish priesthood (kohanim) and the Lost Tribe of Israel, the focus of his news book, “Jacob’s Legacy”.