Bernard-Henri Lévy bares his Jewish soul

Philosophers only rarely achieve the celebrity of a rock star or a sports hero, but Bernard-Henri Lévy, who has been described as “France’s greatest philosopher,” is an exception. His tireless and courageous advocacy of human rights, both in print and as a documentary filmmaker, has taken him to war zones around the world. And, still handsome and dashing at the age of 68, his intimate private life, no less than his coiffure and couture, continues to attract attention and speculation in certain circles. 

Significantly, BHL — as he has been dubbed by gossip columnists in Paris — is more celebrated in Europe than in the United States. “A fearless intellectual risk-taker” is how he has been described by British book critic John Gray in the New Statesman, “a thinker we cannot afford to be without.” By contrast, an exceptionally snarky 2015 profile in the Observer (whose publisher is U.S. President-elect Donald Trump’s Jewish son-in-law, Jared Kushner) was titled “Why Does Everyone Hate Bernard-Henri Lévy?” and characterized him as “the French playboy philosopher.”

Born in Algeria in 1948 to an affluent Jewish family, Lévy was raised and educated in France, where his father founded a successful timber business. Early in his career, he served as a war correspondent for the French newspaper Combat during the war of liberation in Bangladesh in 1971, and when he returned to France, he founded the so-called New Philosophers, a younger generation of public intellectuals who set themselves against the moral failures of Marxism.  Since then, he has succeeded in playing the role of activist, adventurer and advocate, which has drawn his eye to Bosnia, Libya, Syria and other places of conflict around the world, always attracting attention to himself as well as the causes he champions. 

The fact that Lévy lives and writes in France makes it all the more remarkable that he publicly affirms his own Jewishness, his admiration of American democracy and his concern for the Jewish homeland, all of which makes him an outlier among European public intellectuals. The point is made with characteristic ardor and eloquence in “The Genius of Judaism,” a kind of moral and intellectual autobiography that was published in France last year as “L’Esprit du Judaisme” and was released in English translation in the United States on Jan. 10 by Random House. 

In the book, Lévy recognizes the irony in the fact that he has so often expressed concern for the fate of countries ranging from “Bangladesh to Iraq and Afghanistan, from the Libyan desert to the mountains of Kurdistan.” His goal is to “untangle why I, a Jew, put my head and body, not once but many times, into certain countries where no being is under greater threat than the Jew and where hostility to the Jew is like a second religion.” The question of how his Jewishness figures in his public life is rendered all the more enigmatic, as he readily concedes, because he is not an observant Jew: “I can barely read Hebrew,” he confesses. “I do not say daily prayers. I do not follow the dietary laws. I am, moreover, a lay Jew who seldom visits synagogues and has not devoted so much time or energy to study.”

The answer is revealed in oblique glimpses as he conducts us on a wide-ranging journey through Jewish tradition in search of “a certain idea of man and God, of history and time, of power, voice, light, sovereignty, revolt, memory and nature.” For Lévy, “the profusion of intelligence that flows from reading the Talmud” remains the seat of Jewish genius, and he calls on both secular and observant Jews to undertake the moral burden that it offers. 

He insists on referring to Muslims as “my brothers in Adam,” but he makes a clear distinction between “terrorist, jihadist, radical Islam” and what he calls “Islam writ large,” that is, the religious civilization that he knows and respects. Returning to the martyrdom of Jewish-American journalist Daniel Pearl, the subject of one of his earlier books (for which he spent more than a year in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bosnia and other locales), Lévy condemns the murder as “the most criminal conceivable jihadism.” But it’s also true that “Who Killed Daniel Pearl?” attributes the crime to a conspiracy between al-Qaida and the Pakistani secret service, an assertion that prompted Scottish historian William Dalrymple, writing in The New York Review of Books in 2003, to condemn Lévy for “an intermittent disdain for Islam, and something approaching hatred for Pakistan.” And the victim’s father, Judea Pearl, told the Los Angeles Times that Lévy’s account of Pearl’s death in the book “doesn’t gel with the facts.” 

As for his persona and the way it attracts the attention of media outlets that are more interested in whom he is dating than what he thinks, Lévy bears some responsibility. He favors stylish black designer suits and bright white shirts worn without a tie, and his flowing locks are still photogenic even though they are graying. Married three times — his current wife is French actress and singer Arielle Dombasle — he has famously socialized with fashion models as well as French presidents, and he is as comfortable in addressing the United Nations General Assembly as he is on French talk shows. He has dabbled, without much success, in newspaper publishing and feature films.

But it is also true that Lévy is paying a price for the fierce independence that characterizes both his intellectual life and his private life. He launched his public career in 1977 with “Barbarism With a Human Face,” a work that condemned Marxism on moral and philosophical grounds. During the collapse of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, he advocated for armed intervention by the United States and its European allies to prevent atrocities against Muslims in Bosnia. He has insisted that the Israel Defense Forces conducted themselves in a humane way in the 2014 war against Gaza, and he has advocated banning the Muslim women’s veil in France. None of these positions was regarded as politically correct when Lévy embraced them. 

The same boldness enlivens the pages of “The Genius of Judaism,” and never more so than when he contemplates the fate of Israel. “It is so tiresome to have to defend Israel,” he announces, thus acknowledging how unfashionable it has become to champion the Jewish state. “So distressing to have to present the same evidence over and over.” But his defense of Israel is actually surprising and refreshing — he argues that Israel is one country that “has found a solution to the problem of multiethnicity, not a perfect solution, but better than in France or the United States.”  

Lévy makes the easy case for Israel’s democracy, “a society composed of Americans and Europeans, Russians and Ethiopians, Jewish and Muslim Arabs.” But he also is willing to make the harder case: “I know a society — Israel, again — where citizens of Arab origin may openly advocate the disappearance of the very state that guarantees them a life that three-quarters of them (according to polls) would not trade at any price for a life in a neighboring Arab country.” 

But he also calls his fellow Jews to account. “What exactly is an ‘orthodox Jew’?” he ponders. “[Ultimately], if orthodoxy means thinking that is frozen or petrified in its dogma and supposedly correct, well-rehearsed forms, then there is one place that, by definition, is antithetical to orthodoxy: the houses of study in which scholars devote all of their time to endless dissection of individual verses of the Torah, to commentary on each verse, and to commentary on existing commentary and so on, ad infinitum.” To put it another way, Lévy insists that “the loftiest task to which the holy books call us is not to burn with love or to swoon before the infinite but to know and teach.” For him, the highest duty of a Jew is “the obligation of the Jew toward the non-Jew, that responsibility-for-the-nations that is so essential to the Jewish person and that we do not always embrace firmly enough.” 

Thus does “The Genius of Judaism” boil with the same passion that Lévy has brought to his every endeavor. It’s almost as if the act of putting words on paper — which, after all, is the work of a philosopher — is now frustrating to him because there is so much more in his heart than words can convey. And, despite the title of his latest book, Lévy is as concerned with the fate of Ukraine, Libya and Iraq as he is with the fate of Israel and the Diaspora. If he draws deeply on the wellspring of Jewish knowledge and tradition, it is with the intention of calling his fellow Jews to what he regards as nothing less than the moral burden of their Jewishness. 

“Because nothing is settled and God himself has not uttered the last word in the matter; because he left that last word to man as early as the sixth day and because, from then on, everyone has had his word to add and his part to play,” Lévy concludes, “we must put all our weight on the scale of the good and the bad, we must weigh in with every bit of our meager force, we must lend it our humblest hand and words.” 

This is what Lévy aspires to do in “The Genius of Judaism,” and he has succeeded magnificently in his effort.

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

Yogi Berra’s passing thoughts on Middle East peace

Jerusalem — Yogi Berra’s death failed to make the news here, which is understandable, because he wasn’t known to Israelis. Except for the Americans who have moved here, Israelis don’t follow baseball, and care not a whit about Yogi’s playing career or his place in American lore as a pre-eminent philosopher. Which is a shame, because they could learn a lot from what Yogi had to say.

Most of the obits today fall into two categories: Those found on the sports pages talk about him as a New York Yankees legend behind the mask, an unpretentious three-time MVP and 15-time All Star. A Hall of Famer. Whether you are a fan or a foreigner, you need know only one thing to put his 18-year occupation as catcher in perspective: Yogi Berra, and Yogi alone, holds the record for a player winning the most pennants and most championships, 14 and 10.

The baseball obits also refer to his beloved cartoon caricature appearance and his affable personality. But don't let those jug ears and simian posture fool you: Yogi was someone who understood the national pastime intuitively, a baseball savant. Contrary to his own insight – “In baseball, you don’t know nothin’ ” – Yogi always knew what to do on a ball field, smart enough to win pennants as a manager in both the American and National leagues – one of only seven to do so. Yogi was a winner, and nothing more need be said.

The second manner of obit focuses on his fortune-cookie philosophies, his personal brand of inspirational wisdom. Yogi-isms they’re called, the witty, self-contradictory or redundant malapropisms, proverbs, and cryptic aphorisms that tumbled out of his mouth and became famous.

To be sure, this original Yogi Bear did say many funny things, but not intentionally. As Joe Garagiola, his friend of 80 years, wrote in the forward to The Yogi Book: I Really Didn't Say Everything I Said!: “Fans have labeled Yogi Berra ‘Mr. Malaprop,’ but I don't think that's accurate. He doesn't use the wrong words. He just puts words together in ways nobody else would ever do.” 

To wit:

“Always go to other people's funerals; otherwise they won't go to yours.”

“Why buy good luggage? You only use it when you travel.”

“Nobody goes there anymore. It's too crowded.”

Pair up in threes.”

“If people don't want to come to the ballpark, how are you going to stop ’em?”

“A nickel ain't worth a dime anymore.”

“If the world were perfect, it wouldn’t be.”

Despite his gnarled syntax sentences of muddled form and function, Yogi’s insightful social philosophy is nevertheless acknowledged, assuring him iconic status in cultural Americana. Yogi should be buried on the front lawn of the Smithsonian.

Where he fails to receive credit, however, is his work as a political theorist and pundit. Yogi was not just serving up endless and eternal truths as a social philosopher; he was also a neo-conservative scholar with an innate understanding of the geo-political Middle East reality. Yogi knew what was happening. Thus while he may not have actually engaged in assessing foreign policy, his profound aphorisms perfectly apply. So what if he sounded goofy?

“It was hard to have a conversation with anyone; there were so many people talking.”

Welcome to the peace talks.

“There are some people who, if they don't already know, you can't tell ’em.”

And there’s no point in arguing with ’em. That’s the real reason it’s hard to have a conversation with anyone on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

I wish I had an answer to that, because I'm tired of answering that question.”

The thought that goes through the mind of every minister, diplomat and functionary at every news conference in Jerusalem. When was the last time any of them admitted an original thought?

“I never said most of the things I said,” and, “Half the lies they tell about me aren't true.”

Deniability is key to engaging in the talks.

“If you ask me a question I don't know, I'm not going to answer.”

Obviously, Yogi never listened to Israeli morning radio.

“You can observe a lot by watching.”

What Yogi meant to say was: “You can learn a lot from observing.” Or maybe he really meant what he said: Watch. Listen. Pay attention. Israelis have been watching and observing, and they understand what they see. They observed how leaving Lebanon in 2000 yielded Hezbollah, and war in 2006; they observed how leaving Gaza in 2005 led to war in 2008 and 2014, and they know war is coming again on both fronts. And on the horizon they watch ISIS, and Iran going nuclear.

“It gets late early out there.”

Yogi might have been talking about the left-field shadows at Yankee Stadium, but he was also mimicking what everybody pushing the peace process pronounces: this is the best time to make the deal because the status quo is unsustainable, and it’ll only get later and darker faster, from here on out. It is, they like to argue, getting late very quickly.

It's not too far; it just seems like it is.”

That’s another argument they like to use, to keep the talks going.

“We made too many wrong mistakes.”

Sitting around the kitchen table, the only debate among Israelis is choosing between the lesser of two evils: do we go for the bad option, or the worse one? And if that’s the choice, then either pick is a mistake. In hindsight, perhaps it was too many bad choices, and not enough worse ones.

“When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

Those were the bad choices taken.

“We're lost, but we're making good time.”

That’s what the delusional say about the peace process, and its illusion of progress. But if you’re already making too many wrong mistakes, rushing ahead only means making more of them.

“If you don't know where you're going, you might not get there.”

Yogi’s explicit warning.

The future ain't what it used to be.”

Duh. Once upon a time the future held out hope. A new summit, a new plan, a new president, a new prime minister – everybody hustling to push the “peace process” forward. But that’s all it ever was: motion, not movement, and motion without movement means doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Wasn’t that Einstein's definition of insanity? Or was that stupidity? Yogi, of course, said it simpler: 

It's déjà vu all over again.”

No kidding. Yogi understood how hard, how impossible, the whole thing is: “In the Middle East, you don’t know nothin’.”

Finally, for the absolutely unversed, his most famous tautology:

“It ain't over till it’s over.”

This speaks to the frustrations in all of us. Yogi, the eternal optimist, the endearing and enduring philosopher, calls to us from his grave not to lose hope. For Yogi, it’s over. For us – it ain’t.

Elli Wohlgelernter is a veteran journalist in Israel. A similar version of this column originally appeared in the Jewish Week of New York.

Doheny Meats owner said to be involved in previous kosher controversy

Thirty years ago, in 1983, Rabbi Pinchas Gruman, an esteemed scholar of Jewish texts who also holds a doctorate in philosophy, was the chair of the Rabbinical Council of California’s (RCC) committee dedicated to enforcing Jewish dietary law at establishments under its supervision.

On November 3 of that year, acting on a tip, Gruman, who still lives in Los Angeles today, drove to Orange County to visit a kosher retailer, Los Alamitos Kosher Meats and Poultry, where he found kosher meat and poultry in the freezer placed alongside some non-kosher animal products.

In an interview this week, on March 31, Gruman alleged that the person who opened the freezer for him was Mike Engelman, who today is the owner of Doheny Glatt Kosher Meats in Los Angeles. Last week, the RCC withdrew its kosher certification from Doheny after being shown video footage of Engelman and his employees, on multiple occasions, bringing hundreds of pounds of unsupervised products into Doheny Meat’s Pico-Robertson retail and distribution outlet.

Unlike the current scandal, which was sparked by film shot by a private investigator and involves boxes whose contents may have been kosher, Gruman said the situation at Los Alamitos Kosher in the 1980s was rather straightforward.

“I’m telling you, he [Engelman] was caught with trayf [non-Kosher] packages, a goyishe [non-Jewish] company,” Gruman said. “I did not do any detective work as I did in other stores. This was, you walked in, he opened up the refrigerator, you opened up the freezer, you pulled it out. It was no difficult clandestine work on my part.”

Gruman, now 82, is not certain of the name of which brand of non-kosher products he saw that day, nor could he recall whether they were poultry or beef. And Gruman was also uncertain whether Engelman was a part-owner of the store or merely an employee.

An article that appeared on the front page of the Orange County Register on Nov. 11, 1983, does not mention Engelman, but describes another individual, Elya Kleinman, as “one of the market’s owners.”

But Gruman said he remembers Engelman, who declined to comment for this article on the advice of his attorney, as the only person he met during the inspection.

Others also said they remember seeing Engelman at the Los Alamitos store, as well.

Rabbi Gershon Schusterman, who served as director of the Hebrew Academy of Long Beach, Calif., from 1971 until 1989, said he believes Engelman was a partner in the shop.

“I’d seen him in the store, so I know that he had a role,” Schusterman said in an interview on March 31. “

By the end of November 1983, the Los Alamitos store was sold to another owner. About two years later, Engelman purchased Doheny Meats on Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles.

Rabbi Meyer H. May, the RCC’s current president, a post he has held for more than 13 years, said that neither he nor Rabbi Avrohom Union, who has been the RCC’s rabbinic administrator since 1990, knew about the Los Alamitos incident prior to being informed about it by a reporter. May said he is surprised that the RCC, after finding non-kosher products at the Los Alamitos store, allowed a person involved in the running or ownership of that store to take on another RCC-certified kosher establishment.

“It’s hard to imagine that anyone would get two strikes,” May said. 

On March 24, the RCC issued a statement to the community saying that all meat bought from Doheny before the store’s certification was revoked at 3 p.m. that day could be considered kosher. In reaching that decision, May and more than half a dozen other local Orthodox rabbis on the board relied on a concept in Jewish law that allows a mostly kosher set of objects to be considered entirely kosher.

(The timing of the revelation – the eve of Passover – and the fact that the boxes seen in the video being brought through Doheny’s doors had originally come from a strictly kosher slaughterhouse, may have helped shaped that decision. According to attendees present at the meeting on March 24, when the decision was made, Engelman personally spoke to the rabbis, and asserted that all the meat he brought into his shop was kosher, albeit not to the RCC’s higher “glatt kosher” standard.)

But back in the 1980s, after Gruman found non-kosher animal products in the Los Alamitos freezer, community leaders instructed Jews to cleanse their kitchens and cooking utensils.

“We had a kosher-in,” Schusterman recalled. “We had a large vat and we went through a koshering process for many of these people. It was a very unpleasant event.”

Schusterman remembers his reaction, three or four years after the incident at Los Alamitos, to hearing news of Engelman’s purchasing Doheny.

“When I found out that Moishe Engelman has a role, in some manner, in kosher meat, it astounded me, because the type of violation is not just a financial violation,” Schusterman said. “It is a religious violation.

“That that person can be rehabilitated,” he continued, “I don’t believe, in halacha [Jewish law], that there is a rehabilitation for him.”

Gruman himself, as chair of the committee on kosher law, was involved in authorizing the RCC to continue certifying Doheny when Engelman purchased the shop 28 years ago. The RCC’s policy at the time, Gruman said, was to allow an individual whose business had had its certification removed to get back into the good graces of the council by handing over total control to an on-site kosher supervisor.

That supervisor, known as a mashgiach tmidi, is charged with overseeing all operations at the store and is given the only key to the door, so that he is the first to arrive and the last to leave.

“It was under the total supervision of RCC, with the mashgiach, with a key and all that,” Gruman recalled. “The idea was generally to promulgate responsible kashrut in the community, and he [Engelman] fit the picture.”

Gruman also said that the fact that Engelman had not been the sole owner of the Los Alamitos market – and may not have had any ownership stake at all – could have impacted the RCC’s decision to certify Doheny under Engelman’s ownership as kosher.

May said he understood why the RCC decided in 1985 to act as the certifiers of Doheny, when Engelman bought the store. He also said that leading rabbis involved in the kosher industry place great faith in the system of constant supervision.

“When I spoke to [Rabbi] Menachem Genack [about Doheny],” May said, referring to the CEO of the Orthodox Union’s respected kosher operation, “he said, ‘You had a mashgiach tmidi, what else could you do?’”

Nevertheless, May said that even though he believes the primary blame should fall on Engelman, he believes the RCC is responsible for a “monumental failure” in their supervision. Engelman appears to have been given a second chance decades ago, but May said there will surely not be a third, no matter what “bells and whistles” might be put in place.

“I can’t trust him, and I wouldn’t trust him,” May said. “It’s done. And now that I know about Los Alamitos, it’s nauseating.”

Rabbi David Hartman, Jewish philosopher, dies at 81

Rabbi David Hartman, one of the great Jewish philosophers of his generation and the founder of the Shalom Hartman Institute, died on Feb. 10, 2013, at 81. Hartman is considered one of the leaders of liberal Orthodoxy, and his philosophy influenced Jews both in Israel and around the world.

In 1976, Hartman founded the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem in memory of his father. The Institute has since become a center for a pluralistic Jewish worldview, responding to the challenges facing contemporary Judaism. Over the course of four decades, Hartman taught and mentored generations of students, many of whom are today at the forefront of Jewish education and thought in Israel and around the world, including many in Los Angeles.   

Born in Brooklyn in 1931 to an ultra-Orthodox family, Hartman was raised and educated at the Lithuanian Lakewood yeshiva, considered the most important and prestigious yeshiva for North American Jews. In his adolescence, he was one of the most prominent students of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, who ordained him as a rabbi. Hartman completed his doctorate in philosophy at McGill University in Montreal, Canada.

After serving as a pulpit rabbi at several important congregations in North America, including Congregation Tiferet Beit David Jerusalem in Montreal, Hartman, inspired by the Six Day War, made aliyah with his wife and children. For more than two decades, he served as a professor of Jewish Thought at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. From 1977-1984 he was an advisor to Minister of Education Zevulun Hammer and acted as an advisor to many prime ministers on the issues of religious pluralism in Israel and the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora.

Hartman published dozens of articles and books, among them “Maimonides: Torah and Philosophic Quest,” “A Living Covenant: The Innovative Spirit in Traditional Judaism,” “A Heart of Many Rooms: Celebrating the Many Voices Within Judaism,” “Israelis and the Jewish Tradition: An Ancient People Debating Its Future,” and “The God Who Hates Lies.”

Hartman’s writings explore the intersection of the traditions of the past and the challenges of the present. At its foundation stands a request for dialogue with the tradition on one hand, and with modern streams of thought on the other.

His philosophy was concisely tied up in Hartman’s contribution to the book of essays, “I am Jewish,” (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2003). He ended his essay: “The historical narrative develops a sense of intimacy with the Jewish people. Through it we become a family and embrace our particular identity with joy and love. But the family narrative is not our only living framework. Every seventh day we interrupt the flow of our tasks and ambitions and stand quietly before God the Creator. The dialectic between our particular and universal identities, between the God of Israel and the God of Creation, is the fate and challenge of being a Jew.”

Hartman earned many awards, including the Avi Chai Prize (2000), Guardian of Jerusalem Prize (2001), Samuel Rothberg Prize for Jewish Education from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (2004), Marc and Henia z”l Liebhaber Prize for Religious Tolerance (2012), and honorary doctorates from Yale University, Hebrew Union College, and the Weizmann Institute.

Source: Shalom Hartman Institute.


Psychotherapy and philosophy intersect in ‘Spinoza problem’

Around our house, Irvin D. Yalom is a familiar name, and for more than one reason.

I first heard about Yalom, author of “Love’s Executioner,” from my wife, Ann, who explained where he fits in the pantheon of theorists and practitioners in her field of psychotherapy.  Then I began to encounter (and review) his rich and provocative historical novels, including “When Nietzsche Wept,” each one deeply rooted in his understanding of the human heart and mind.

Yalom’s latest novel, “The Spinoza Problem” (Basic Books, $25.99), is yet another example of how a psychiatrist’s stock in trade — the secrets spoken only in the therapist’s office — can be spun into gold by a gifted storyteller.  And, like his previous work, “The Spinoza Problem” offers us a face-to-face encounter with a distant and lofty historical figure.

Actually, two famous men appear in “The Spinoza Problem.”  One is the 17th century philosopher Baruch (or Bento) Spinoza, a descendant of Sephardic Jews who sought refuge from the Inquisition in Amsterdam. Spinoza was famously ex-communicated by his congregation when his bold rationalism prompted him to raise questions about the authorship of the Bible and the nature of God. Today, he is recognized as one of the commanding figures of Western philosophy, even if the cherem (censure) against him has never been revoked.

The other historical figure is Alfred Rosenberg, one of the crackpots who achieved a position of power in Nazi Germany, where he served as “the intellectual high priest of the ‘master race,’ ” according to his prosecutor at Nuremberg, “who provided the doctrine of hatred which gave the impetus for the annihilation of Jewry.” Rosenberg ended up on the gallows for his role as one of Hitler’s cronies and servitors.  One of Rosenberg’s many obsessions, as Yalom discovered, was Spinoza, and the great philosopher’s library ended up in his possession during the war.

“The Spinoza Problem” consists of two compelling narratives, one set in 17th century Amsterdam that explores the workings of Spinoza’s brilliant if dangerously unconventional mind, and the other set in the early 20th century, when Rosenberg first placed himself in service to the Nazis. The two tales amount to a mystery novel, although it is a mystery of a very cerebral kind.

Spinoza, who has vowed to tell the truth at any cost, unwittingly incriminates himself by quoting from the Bible, which he knows by heart, and pointing out its flaws and inconsistencies. “Would that your piety were as great as your memory,” warns one of his fellow Jews.  With each word, Spinoza provides his enemies, both Jewish and Christian, with the evidence that they seek in order to punish him for the crime of thinking for himself.

Rosenberg, by contrast, is shown to move away from rationalism in the direction of a crude and murderous anti-Semitism.  “Alfred, we all love to hate the Jews,” says one of his acquaintances, who happens to be a psychiatrist, “but you do it with such … such intensity.”  Indeed, the young Rosenberg chooses action over thought: “Can you use a fighter against Jerusalem?” he asks when he joins the Nazi party. “I am dedicated, and I will fight until I drop.”  His weapon? “My words are my arrows!”

“The Spinoza Problem,” as we soon discover, exists for both Spinoza himself and for Rosenberg.  Spinoza is forced to deal with the consequences of his excommunication — “the ache of homelessness, of being lost, of knowing he would never again walk these memory-laden streets of his youth.”  Rosenberg is vexed by the notion that the philosopher whose ideas he admires could have been Jewish at all: “What a paradox,” the Nazi muses. “A Jew both courageous and wise!  Spinoza had soul wisdom — he must have non-Jewish blood in him.”

Ironically, according to the tale Yalom has invented, Rosenberg seeks to resolve the paradox in therapy, even though he denounces psychoanalysis as a Jewish invention. Clearly, Yalom sees a powerful affinity between philosophy and psychotherapy. “[A] philosophy unable to heal the soul has as little value as medicine unable to heal the body,” says one of Spinoza’s teachers in 17th century Amsterdam, quoting the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus. Something of the same idea is expressed by a German psychiatrist who befriends Rosenberg in the 20th century: “One of the things I love about psychiatry is that, unlike any other field of medicine, it veers close to philosophy.”

Now and then, Yalom steps into his own story, and the novelist offers a moment of observation and interpretation, again not unlike what happens in therapy. “The new wave of psychoanalytic thought,” he writes, “agreed with Spinoza that the future is determined by what has gone before, by our physical and psychological makeup — our passions, fears, goals; our temperament, our love of self, our stances toward others.”  But a man like Rosenberg — “a pretentious, detached, unlovable philosopher-manqué who lacked curiosity about himself and … walked the earth with a smug sense of superiority” — seems to defy the fate that his own sorry background would have predicted for him.

“There is another core and unpredictable ingredient,” Yalom concedes. “What shall we term it? Fortune? Chance? The sheer good luck of being in the right place at the right time?”

Exactly here Yalom captures the real mystery that is at work in “The Spinoza Problem.”  We can plumb the depths of a person’s experience and emotions, we can examine his fears and longings, but we cannot really know why a failed philosopher like Rosenberg (or, for that matter, a failed artist like Hitler) ended up in a position of power that allowed him to write himself into history. We can only speculate on how and why it happened.

“History is fiction that did happen,” Yalom quotes André Gide in “The Spinoza Problem. “Fiction is history that might have happened.”

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is book editor of The Jewish Journal. He blogs on books at

Coming soon — a Jewish liberal arts college

This is one in a series of articles on myriad topics related to Israel that will run weekly as we approach the Jewish State’s 60th anniversary on Yom HaAtzmaut, Israel Independence Day, in May.

Dr. Daniel Gordis
At a time when most Israeli university professors were on strike, Dr. Yoram Hazony, co-founder of the Shalem Center, a think tank and research institute, continued with his course schedule as usual at the center’s handsome, three-story building in the upscale German Colony neighborhood of Jerusalem. He was recapping for Israeli college students alternate ways Western philosophers have solved the dichotomy between the world of ideas and reality. The bookshelves of the small conference room were lined with talmudic and biblical books as well journals on Zionism, political thought and philosophy, many of them Shalem titles.

If all goes well, this course will be included in the curriculum of a new College of the Jewish People, an idea Hazony is determined to bridge with reality in the face of challenges invovled in starting such a college: accreditation, funding, recruitment of student and faculty and resistance by some members of the Israeli media and academic establishment.

Israeli-born and raised in the United States, Hazony first envisioned a college for the Jewish people while an undergraduate student at Princeton, where he describes discussing religion, philosophy and politics late into the night with friends in the kosher dining hall. While seeking answers to questions relating to Jewish identity, it soon became clear to him that an American Ivy League college, whose credo was to prepare leaders “in the nation’s service,” could not prepare leaders in the service of the Jewish nation.

“The idea of the Jewish liberal arts college began with the question: What would Jews or non-Jews interested in the Jewish perspective need to study in order to think about the biggest questions from a perspective that’s relevant to Jews,” Hazony said in an interview in his office.

He founded the Shalem Center in 1994 with others from Princeton, Daniel Polisar, currently Shalem’s president, and Dr. Joshua Weinstein. Hazony believes the groundwork has now been laid to realize Shalem College.

Shalem has grown from a think tank with a staff of three to an institute operating on a $10 million yearly budget with a staff of 100. Most of its funding comes from the Tikva Fund, created by the late philanthropist Zalman Bernstein. In recent months the center has been the subject of scrutiny for internal administrative problems and in the past Hazony’s critiques of Israeli education have been the subject of controversy. Nevertheless, it has established its influence internationally.

Shalem runs six research institutes and its own press, and its senior fellows include best-selling author and historian Michael Oren, former Knesset member Natan Sharansky and former Israeli Chief of Staff Moshe Ya’alon.

shalem center

Last year, Shalem recruited Dr. Daniel Gordis to spearhead the creation of the college. Gordis made news in Los Angeles in 1999, when he announced that he was making aliyah with his family five years after serving as founding dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism (now the American Jewish University). The Ziegler school was the first Conservative rabbinical school on the West Coast, and Gordis’ new position will enable him to once again make Jewish educational history.

“If you can come in on the ground floor of something that you think has the capacity to dramatically transform the country, then that seems to be the ultimate concretization of the ideal of aliyah in a way that nothing else could be,” Gordis said from his new office on the Shalem campus, where he serves as senior vice president.

The college is planned as an American-style, four-year liberal arts school, an educational model that doesn’t exist in Israel. Israelis usually enter a three-year college or university program in their early-to-mid-20s, right after army service, choosing their majors straightaway. Israeli universities generally don’t share American campus or dorm culture. Most students view their college years as vocational training and commute to school, often juggling their studies with a full- or part-time job.

“We want to change the experience of what being an undergraduate student is about,” Gordis said.

Shalem envisions an isolated, rural, full-fledged university campus modeled after American schools like Williams College and Bryn Mawr.

“We want to create a cocoon, not an ivory tower, where people can read and think and sit on a lawn and read Plato and Aristotle and [Rabbi Joseph B.] Soloveichik and [Zionist thinker Micah Joseph] Berdichevski,” Gordis said.

What will differentiate Shalem College from most American universities is an emphasis on an integrated core curriculum that combines studies in Bible, Talmud, rabbinic literature and Zionist and Jewish thought with Western philosophy, political theory and Middle Eastern studies.

“It’s going to be a college that takes Jewish ideas seriously and the Zionist narrative seriously, even though you can critique it,” Gordis said. Shalem has developed a reputation as a politically conservative institute, but Gordis stressed that the college will accommodate a wide range of political views, minus anti-Zionist views: “People who think Zionism has nothing to do with the Jewish world wouldn’t want to be here.”

Anti-Zionism and post-Zionism viewpoints, which question the basic conception, relevance or moral basis of the Jewish state, have plagued humanities departments in Israeli universities since the country’s founding, said Hazony, provost of the college. In addition, he has observed that Judaism and the Bible have been cast as minor characters in the narrative of the development of Western civilization, not only abroad but in the Jewish state.

“The history of political theory is taught from a perspective that assumed that the Bible, Talmud and later literature had no influence at all in what we think today. This is historically false,” Hazony said.

He hopes the college will revive the recognition and prominence of the role of Judaism and the Bible in shaping modern democratic ideas.

Politics of liberal and conservative Jews reverse

Recently, I spoke to Reform rabbinical students in their class on “Jewish Political Tradition.” Which is, exactly, what?

My expertise, I told them, is
politics, not theology. Here was my dilemma: to talk reality or defer to the orthodoxy of Reform Jews, which is to say, political liberalism. (Forget the Reconstructionists, i.e., Jewish Unitarians, who are oxymoronic “religious” secular humanists.) How confusing all this, especially for non-Jews, who are further told that Conservative Jews are somewhere between Reform Jews and Orthodox Jews — sort of like the words “liberal” and “conservative.”

The profoundly influential economist, Milton Friedman, a Nobel Prize winner, championed free market economics. “I am liberal,” Friedman once said to me, explaining that he was a classical liberal, preoccupied with the individual, not the state. And so we have in America this role reversal, where today’s liberals are infatuated with government, except for national security.

And then we have conservatives, who conserve exactly what? Surely, instead, they would uproot the status quo, notably, the failed legacy of the New Deal.

Matters are further complicated, because discussion of values empowers conservatives and threatens liberals. Mythology aside, liberals do not want government to be neutral on values. For example, some liberals promote condoms at public (that is, taxpayer-supported) middle schools.

What then are values for today’s liberals? We are told, tolerance, diversity and an open mind. But they can’t provide even civility at their dominated university campuses, where they shout down speakers who talk about values.

This much I know: the American separation of church and state rejected a church-state but not religion. The founders were steeped in Western civilization and its Judeo-Christian roots. This explains why they invoked God, and some even mastered biblical Hebrew.

Therefore, what informs Jewish political thought? If, as liberals and conservatives agree, we are not a theocracy, then how does one enforce virtue?

Former communist Frank S. Meyer became the conservative theorist for Bill Buckley’s National Review. Born Jewish, converted to Catholicism, Meyer understood from both religious traditions that virtue must be chosen, not compelled. In contrast, the nostalgic Jewish romance with liberalism oddly resembles ancient theocracy. That’s because liberals repudiate limits on government. They would go beyond the Ten Commandments and consequent laws; they would enforce their version of morality.

In sum, as I told these Reform rabbinical students, it is a truism that Judaism instructs us on matters of justice. We may light the world for Jews or even others, for example, that people should voluntarily support charity. That is quite different than liberalism, which would use government forcibly to redistribute wealth.

Liberals are conflicted as they ponder that for much of history, political leaders claimed divine, if not denominational, rule, which most everyone today rejects, except radical Islamists. Perhaps Jewish religious liberals therefore cannot distinguish between government compelled action and private voluntary action. In other words, many liberal Jews who are religious want government to enforce what they consider social justice, rather than for people voluntarily to practice social justice.

A long time ago, I helped engineer the victory of James L. Buckley, elected from the Conservative Party to represent New York. I noticed, then, that Jews who were less affluent and more religious were more open to U.S. Senate candidate Buckley’s election in 1970 and then President Richard M. Nixon’s re-election in 1972.

What did it mean, that we — conservative Republicans — could do so much better, generally, among Jews in, say, Brooklyn or Queens, than, say, among Jews in Long Island or Westchester? Was it that liberal theory was undermined by the real world? For example, Jewish social scientists wanted public housing imposed in Forest Hills (Queens). But local Jewish residents who had worked hard to escape the projects asked Buckley, on his election, to oppose social experimentation in their neighborhood.

Years later, when I returned to California after working in Washington, I saw the same pattern. For example, later in the 1970s, affluent Westside Jews who had their children in private schools supported widespread mandatory busing for Los Angeles public schools. But their San Fernando Valley relatives preferred only voluntary integration tools like magnet schools. By the ’80s and ’90s, Jews in California were split on at least two other issues: illegal immigration and race/gender preferences.

Liberal Jews like Erwin Chemerinsky obsessed about their ancestors in sweatshops in the New York garment district. But Jewish Republican leaders, like former Judge Sheldon Sloan, recent California State Bar president, resented the comparison between Eastern European Jews who went through the system at Ellis Island and today’s (an Orwellian euphemism) “undocumented immigrants,” however hard working, who entered the country illegally and receive taxpayer-funded entitlements.

As for race and gender preferences, Jews with a sense of history (Jewish quotas) and justice (race classification) helped bring about California’s Proposition 209, which prohibited government race and gender preferences in hiring, contracting and education.

And, now, national security becomes the new schism, as many Jews reject Steven Spielberg’s morally depraved “Munich,” in which he equates terrorism with anti-terrorism. It is not surprising that liberals like Spielberg look for endless shades of gray. For all his cinematic genius, he cannot even see contrast.

Good and evil, rather than abortion or homosexuality, is the new values debate that these Reform rabbinical students must confront.

Arnold Steinberg is a political strategist and analyst.

Controversial bioethicist pounces on animals in art

Bioethicist Peter Singer has received death threats for his views on incendiary topics such as infanticide and animals rights.

A human life is not intrinsically sacred because it is human, he contends. Affluent people who do not give most of their income to charity are “murderers”; parents who wish to kill a severely disabled infant should be allowed to do so, especially if the child’s death may result in the birth of a healthier baby.

Singer — an Australian Jew who is considered to be one of the most influential living philosophers — will lecture about how art depicts animals on May 24 at the Getty Center, in conjunction with the Getty Museum exhibition, “Oudry’s Painted Menagerie.” His point of view is a modern brand of Utilitarianism, as outlined by the philosophers Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. Both of these philosophers argued for policies resulting in the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people.

Singer — who spoke to The Journal from his home in Melbourne, Australia — replaces the term “happiness” with the idea of “personal preferences.” It’s immoral to kill someone who wants to live, because you’re making it “impossible for that person to fulfill his preferences,” as The New Yorker paraphrased him in 1999. “[But] if you kill somebody whose preferences don’t have much chance of success — a severely disabled infant, for example, or somebody in an advanced stage of Alzheimer’s disease — the moral equation becomes entirely different.

Singer uses the word ‘person’ to refer to self-conscious creatures: animals often fit that definition, and many humans do not. So when Singer says that you are more likely to do moral harm by killing a healthy cow than by killing a severely handicapped infant, he means that the cow is more likely to anticipate pain and suffer from it than would the child….. The more an animal is able to suffer and understand its surroundings, the more consideration it ought to be given.”

Singer has gone so far as to write: “Killing a disabled infant is not morally equivalent to killing a person. Very often it is not wrong at all.”

Critics charge that such rhetoric echoes the words of Nazi eugenicists; no matter that three of Singer’s four grandparents died in concentration camps.

After the philosopher was appointed the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton in 1999 — provoking an outcry from pro-choice and disability activists — demonstrators reportedly sat in on his first class; Singer subsequently opened mail parcels only after an X-ray machine had screened them.

Love him or hate him, one cannot dismiss the professor’s impact on modern bioethics. He is the author of numerous essays and books that have become philosophy best sellers: “Animal Liberation” (1975), which has sold more than half a million copies, is regarded as a seminal text of the animal rights movement and helped launch People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). Singer’s more recent work has included treatises on how factory farming fuels global warming.

The philosopher demonstrated his unorthodox views even as a boy in Melbourne, where his parents settled after fleeing Nazi-occupied Austria. His childhood home was nonreligious, affluent and steeped in the culture of Jewish Vienna, he told the Australian Jewish News. Even so, Peter stunned his father, a coffee and tea importer, when he stated that he would not become bar mitzvah because he did not believe in God.

Singer was raised with a sense of the horrors of Nazism, but the losses led him to foster anti-fascist, rather than Jewish, ideals. His “abhorrence of cruelty and suffering … and general compassion” might have come from the Jewish tradition,” he hesitantly told The Journal, “though such world views are not unique to Judaism.” Singer added that he feels neither a strong sense of Jewish identity nor of Zionism; the founding of Israel in the land of the Palestinians was immoral, despite the losses Jews suffered during the Holocaust, in his view.

Animal rights did not significantly enter Singer’s vocabulary until he attended Oxford University and met classmates who eschewed meat for moral reasons. He became a vegetarian and in 1973, submitted an essay, “Animal Liberation,” to The New York Review of Books. The feedback was so dramatic that he expanded the piece into his 1975 book of the same name.

Singer went on to publish a number of blunt treatises that outline his severe — sometimes nearly impossible to accomplish — social mores. (Sample: He believes it’s better to save 10 strangers than one of your own children.)

Even Singer’s admirers say such ethics fail to take basic human nature into account.The children vs. strangers tenet certainly contradicts Jewish tradition, which “recognizes that duties come out of our relationships,” said Rabbi Elliot Dorff, a leading Jewish bioethicist and rector of American Jewish University (previously the University of Judaism).

“One is first obligated to take care of oneself, then members of one’s family, then the larger community.”

Even Singer cannot live up to all of his own standards. When his mother could no longer speak or think due to advanced Alzheimer’s disease — rendering her a “nonperson” by his own criterion — he spent large sums to keep her alive. While he says he gives 20 percent of his income to charity, he admits he lives on far more money than the standards set in his books.

“I’m not altruistic enough to impoverish myself,” he said. “I have never claimed that I always do the best thing ethically.” He simply tries to do better each year.

Peter Singer will speak on May 24 at 7 p.m. at the Getty. Singer will speak on May 24 at 7 p.m. at the Getty. For information, visit

Robert David Jaffee contributed to this article.

I challenged karma, but did the karma win?

Contrary to what the polls say, California must be the most religious state in the union. Now that Pluto’s gone, it should be classified as its own planet.

I remember when I first realized this. I’d been living here for less than a year, and I was in a car with three other women.


Jewish Singles Cruises

“So who were you in your past life?” one said matter-of-factly as she drove, as if she were asking us where we wanted to go for dinner.

The other women answered right away: Marie Antoinette, or a man, or something indubitably better than their current commonplace existence, although I can’t exactly recall what. What I do remember is that in answering, they didn’t lose a beat; they didn’t even have to think about the question. It was ready, there, waiting, like the answer to “what’s your name?” or “what do you do?”

“Who were you?”

Then they waited for my answer.

See, I’m the type of person who’s hardly sure some days of who I am, and I spend much of my time contemplating who I’m going to be (somebody, please!), so until that point, I’d never considered who I was, unless it was in the context of the ’90s or ’80s or some other bad hair decade, when I was actually alive, i.e. this time around.

“Uh, I don’t know if I believe in past lives” is what I said after a few moments.

Silence. There was incredulity while they paused to think about how, if I’m confined only to modern, Western psychology then this thing I’m living right here and now — ignominious and penurious — this life is all there is for me, I must be a pathetic and pitiable creature.

I’ve now have been living in Los Angeles for five years, and the hippie-dippie-yoga-Pilates-karma-kabbalah-astrology-Burning Man-surfer-superstitious-psychic-feng shui-acupuncturist-vegetarian ethos has invaded my life. (I’m embarrassed to say I practice some of the above now.)

These days, I barely blink when someone tosses off a New-Ageism like, “This world is just practice to repair your soul,” which would be a conversational bomb anywhere else in the country. I hardly react to the fact that the moon is in retrograde (why I lose money), that my chakras are off (why I’m sad) and that my adrenals are low (why I’m not sleeping).

Yet when it comes to dating, sometimes the New Age is hard to swallow.

Consider the latest buzzword on the New Age scene: “manifest.” Not the adjective that modifies “destiny” and the very prescient concept of American conquest of others’ lands, but a retooling of the transitive verb: “You manifest what comes to you.” If you put it out there in the universe, the universe will “answer.

You want success? You must manifest it. You simply must ask the universe for it, open your soul to it, and it will come. (I think you might have to work for it, too, but I’m not sure how much.) You want a boyfriend? You have to manifest it.

Is this philosophy just another excuse for blaming the victim? Am I single because I’m not open to dating? Am I not manifesting enough?

And yet it’s hard to resist the New Age, the principle that I get what I deserve, that bad karma smacks you in the face like a boomerang, that the guy I never called back means there will be another guy who’s not going to call me back someday, and it will be directly related. That you get what you put out there.

Maybe it’s my fault then that I recently manifested a hippie. I put it out there in the universe that I wasn’t very interested in all the traditional (boring) career-minded guys. That I didn’t care much for being settled, for wealth or material goods. And poof! Like a wish from a genie bottle, I meet a traveling Jewish hippie. He’s kind and loving, romantic — in a Hollywood-lead type of way, just not as clean. Oh, and also a little flaky.
Wait, that’s a judgment, my hippie would say. He prefers to see himself as spontaneous and unplanned.

“I have to see what tomorrow will feel like,” he’ll say if I ask him what he’s doing.

I nod sagely, but this is the point where the New Age leaves me wanting. Why does everything have to be so mysterious? For example: My hippie can leave when he makes his ticket out of here; he’ll have children if he decides to impregnate someone, and in five years, he’ll be exactly where he directs himself.

I hate to sound the cynic, like a friend’s father who once bellowed: “You want to find yourself? You’re right here!” And yet there’s something about this New Ageism that sounds strangely familiar to me: “If it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be”; “All things happen for a reason….”

Wait a minute! Didn’t Rabbi Akiba say that? Gam zu l’tova — this, too, is for the best? Isn’t the idea that your soul is repaired through this world a Jewish concept?

That’s what bothers me. New Ageism is comforting because it’s a religion. It’s a way to exert control over a life that is, for the most part, uncontrollable.

The problem with New Ageism is it’s religion-lite. It tries to provide a superficial panacea to deeper, more painful problems. It’s a Band-Aid for open-heart surgery.

When it comes to dating — to life, really — there are no easy answers. Our own prophet, Job, knew that sometimes suffering had no purpose, that not everything happens for a reason. I can’t say that the Torah is the first place I look when it comes to dating advice, but I’d rather rely on my own religious upbringing than on one that’s been cobbled together by a bunch of peripatetic Angelenos searching for an easy out.

I know the New Age is popular right now, and if I’m not open to it, the universe won’t be open to me. But that’s one chance I’m willing to take.

Manifest that!

One woman’s search for the meaning of life, the universe, and everything

“Why are we here? What’s life all about?/Is God really real, or is there some doubt? Well, tonight, we’re going to sort it all out,/For, tonight, it’s ‘The Meaning of Life.’

What’s the point of all this hoax?/Is it the chicken and the egg time? Are we just yolks? Or, perhaps, we’re just one of God’s little jokes./Well, ça c’est le ‘Meaning of Life.'”

— From “Monty Python’s “The Meaning of Life.”

“Why are we here?”

It’s a hot summer morning in August and I’m sitting in the office with my two editors.

“You told me to come in today so we can talk about the High Holidays,” I say.
“No,” one of my editors says, “Why are we here?”

I look at her out of the corner of my eye, pretending to take notes. Is she having a nervous breakdown? I know the job is stressful around the holidays, but … no, wait, she’s trying to outline a story idea:

“This year in particular, with all the terrible things going on in the world — Israel and Lebanon, Darfur, the war in Iraq, Afghanistan, five years since the World Trade Center — how do people deal with everything? ‘What is the meaning of it all?'”

“Forty-two,” I want to say, but I don’t, because they probably wouldn’t get it if they haven’t read “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” series. If they had, they’d know that 42 is the answer to “the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and Everything,” provided after 7.5 million years by the supercomputer Deep Thought, which was created for just this purpose. The problem is, the protagonists have to go back to find the ultimate question to which 42 is the answer.

My editor interrupts my thoughts. What if I were to embark on a quest, she prods, talk to rabbis and philosophers and regular people to find out what they are thinking. “With the High Holidays approaching, I just want to know,” she says, “what is the meaning of life?”

Quite frankly, I’m probably one of the last people on earth who should be investigating questions such as “Why are we here?” and “What is the meaning of life?” See, I’ve given up.

I was a student of these issues for most of my life. After all, what is Orthodox Judaism — all of Judaism — if not the blueprint for how to live your life? The Torah, the Talmud, the teachings of the rabbis for the last four millennia have been concerned with those very questions: How should man live his life?

I had been schooled in this from yeshiva kindergarten through high school, topped off by a year of seminary in Israel and peppered by summers in religious sleep-away camps (“A Sports Camp in a Torah Environment”). Even in college, I minored in philosophy. I dabbled in Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Locke, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Sartre and Derrida (nowadays I ask myself, can a 21-year-old really understand Dasein, existentialism and Nihilism?).

The point is, I cared. I read books like Rav Joseph B. Soleveitchik’s “The Lonely Man of Faith,” which I think was about the existential challenges of being a religious person, although it was so esoteric I’m not quite sure, and Milton Steinberg’s “As a Driven Leaf,” a fictional account of the first apostate in the Talmud, a book that had been deemed heretical, which made it an even more appealing must-read in the Modern Orthodox world.

As an English major I was also reading secular books, but at the time I was primarily fascinated by biography and history, such as Golda Meir’s “My Life” and Natan Sharansky’s “Fear No Evil” as well as all of Leon Uris’ oeuvre, including “Exodus.”

None of this is to say that I was any great scholar, because I wasn’t; but I was intensely interested in all issues related to the meaning of life and my place in and purpose in the world — so much so and to such a degree that a week after college I moved to Israel. This, I had decided, was where I could best fulfill my life’s purpose as a Jew, within the Jewish community.

In Israel I worked for a man who believed he could revolutionize the country and its economy by creating a Free Trade Zone in Israel (don’t ask, it’s like nihilism). After more than three years, we failed. But I wasn’t sure I cared anymore. I decided I was finished realizing other people’s fantasies. I was tired of being told what to believe in anymore.

For the next four years I worked as a journalist, mostly covering Jerusalem, the city that really is the intersection of the world’s three major religions, not to mention quite a few minor ones as well. I covered Jews, Muslims, Christians, Seventh-day Adventists and millennialists who were suspected of plotting to commit suicide in 2000 (they were deported).

I covered right-wing settlers accused of harassing Palestinians, I covered left-wing secular people staging illegal marches through the city on Shabbat. And I grew tired. I grew tired of all the conviction. It wasn’t only that everyone was so sure of everything they believed in, it was the fact that they each believed their way was the only way. In the end it all started to blur.

Had I asked a rabbi or a philosopher, they might have told me that just because everyone believed their way was the right way didn’t mean there is no one right way, but I wasn’t consulting any of those people. I had come to a point in my life where I was done with the Big Questions. I was done with Asking Why. I was done with Politics, I was done with Religion; I was no longer going to worry about The Meaning of Life. I was going to start living it.

Which is why I might not be the best person to go searching for the meaning of life, because basically, I don’t care that much.

The Spin on Spinoza — Rebel or Traitor?

“Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity” by Rebecca Goldstein (Schoken, $19.95).

In high school, I read and reread two fluent, erudite surveys of philosophy until the pages of the books fell to pieces. By the time the glue bindings cracked on Will Durant’s “The Story of Philosophy” and Bertrand Russell’s “History of Western Philosophy,” I knew one thing for sure — they both loved Baruch Spinoza.

For Durant, Spinoza was as close as philosophy could come to sainthood — a life of austerity, rationality, independence, principle, rarefied thought. For Russell, the draw was not only Spinoza’s devotion to reason, but his willingness to devote himself fully to the world of thought. For a philosopher to be excommunicated gave him intellectual street cred, a kind of cognitive cache. Spinoza was the real deal.

But I also grew up knowing what Rebecca Goldstein tells us again and again in her about-to-be-released speculative, digressive, charming and lucid book, “Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity”: Traditional Judaism feared and distrusted this child of the enlightenment. Although prominent Jewish thinkers, from Moses Mendelssohn to Solomon Maimon to modern Zionists, have claimed him as their own, every deliberation on Spinoza wonders — is he a Jewish thinker? Surely he does not believe in the chosenness of the Jews or the Divine authorship of Torah or the mandates of halachah — does he even believe in God?

The prosecution has a formidable team. Although Goldstein does not speak very much about the reaction of Jewish scholars to their illustrious precursor, we recall that the great historian Heinrich Graetz, while insisting that Spinoza was one of the greatest thinkers of his time, also described Spinoza’s relation to Judaism as that of a “murderer to his mother.” Hermann Cohen accused Spinoza of “incomprehensible treason” and, needless to say, in more traditional circles Benedict Spinoza in Jewish history is seen with the same sympathy as Benedict Arnold in American history.

Who was this lovable genius and hideous traitor? Spinoza was born in 1632, one of five children. His mother died in his seventh year. He saw around him the multiple traumas that afflicted the Jewish community. Despite the relative tolerance of Amsterdam in that age (their libraries were famous throughout Europe for their extensive, uncensored holdings), there were persecutions of dissidents, excommunications in the Jewish community, vigilance and fear. The historical tidal wave of the Inquisition continued to ripple through Europe. Many Jews were at some stage of hiding: Jews who converted to Christianity and practiced Judaism in secret; Jews who remained sincere Christians but had close Jewish family; Jews converted and then returned to Judaism, weighed down by guilt. These and a thousand other permutations made identity, fidelity and individual contingency very fraught questions. One of the joys of Goldstein’s book is to watch her briefly trace the historical patterns of the Inquisition — work done so extensively in Yirmiyahu Yovel’s admirable two volumes (“Spinoza and Other Heretics”) — and relate it to Spinoza’s character and story.

Here is the “betrayal” of the title. For Spinoza was the most thoroughgoing depersonalizer in the history of philosophy. In the 20th century, existentialism sought to return philosophy to the “I.” It was about my individual, free, personal orientation to existence and my acceptance of the reality of death. Spinoza is the anti-existentialist. The only universal quality that can explain the world is reason. You don’t know my experience, but we can share a syllogism. It is emphatically not about me; a wise man, he wrote, thinks of nothing less often than death.

Spinoza was a monist, believing all things are composed of the same substance and all must have come to be the way they are. There is no room for individual variation, except as a manifestation of the same substance, the whole of which Spinoza called “god.” The way to grasp the substance, and to transcend the false individuality that traps us is through reason. Logic, reason, thought are the tools of salvation and of goodness. To relate Spinoza’s philosophy to the death of his mother or the status of the Jews was precisely to contradict his reigning insight — it is all impersonal and about the austere, diamond-hard, cold and eternal realm of logic. The logical web fastens the universe, and it is our task to understand it better to expand our minds. The intellectual love of God, to know all through logic, is the highest human goal.

One friend of Spinoza’s, quoted by biographer Stephen Nadler, said he never saw the philosopher sad or merry. We might call that a “flattened affect,” but Spinoza would call it philosophical detachment and calm.

In Spinoza’s world, there is no reward and punishment, immortality or freedom; there is the striving to use the mind to achieve union with nature, which is identical with God. We cannot change things, because everything is as it must be: “I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, condemn or scorn human actions, but to understand.”

Goldstein, who grew up in an Orthodox girls school and went on to write novels and become a professor of philosophy, traces many threads of influence on Spinoza: his excommunication, his shattered family life, the way Spinoza used kabbalistic questions in his philosophy, his mathematical aspirations (the “ethics” is laid out like a Euclidean geometry.) She also powerfully investigates the Jewish upbringing that not only led him to a book on the composition of the Bible, but, at the end of his life, to compose a Hebrew grammar.

Spinoza was convinced the Torah was the product of human hands. Although he did not invent biblical criticism, he was an early exponent of it. He was also an early supporter of the “this-worldly return” of the Jewish people to Israel.

Spinoza spent most of his adult life grinding lenses in his apartment. He had friends and acquaintances who testified to the gentleness of his character; he turned down academic offers and offers of stipends. Some have seen him as the first truly secular man — he was excommunicated from the Jewish tradition and never became a Christian. But he could not reliably be called secular when he believed so deeply in a god — albeit a God very different from the one he had known in youth. “God-intoxicated” the poet Novalis called him, and he was — drunk with the Divine.

Spinoza died when he was 44 years old, with the herem — excommunication — still in effect. So can this gentle, heretical philosopher be legitimately included in Jewish history? In modern times, when our sense of Jewishness is broadened, it may be interesting to note which major Jewish figure called for repeal of Spinoza’s herem — David Ben Gurion.

David Wolpe is rabbi at Sinai Temple in Westwood.


Touring With Lévy a Dizzying Experience

“American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville,” by Bernard-Henri Lévy (Random House).

Date: Saturday, April 8, 2006.
Time: 9 a.m.
Place: The Beverly Hills Hotel lobby.

I have come to this palace of privilege to meet Bernard-Henri Lévy, France’s philosophy king, the author of 30 books, including best sellers “American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville,” released earlier this year, and “Who Killed Daniel Pearl?” (Melville House, 2003).

Lévy’s boyish good looks, intellect and swashbuckling charm have made him a superstar in his native France, where he is simply known as BHL, a veritable brand name as famous for his personae as for his words.

In addition to philosopher, he is a novelist, diplomat, TV personality and documentary maker who first made a name for himself nearly three decades ago. In his book, “Barbarism With a Human Face” (Harper & Row, 1979), he had the temerity to call out France’s old-guard intellectuals for their support of Marxism. Soon thereafter, a movement known as Les Nouvelles Philosophes, or the New Philosophers, coalesced around him.

Married to the beautiful French actress, Arielle Dombasle, and the proud owner of a Moroccan palace, the 57-year-old Lévy would appear to have it all. Vanity Fair called him “Superman and prophet,” while The New York Times said, “Bernard-Henri Lévy does nothing that goes unnoticed.”

A rumored recent affair with Sharon Stone has done little to diminish his reputation as a libidinous libertine with a brain.

“Lévy is probably America’s best known French intellectual,” says New Republic Editor in Chief Martin Peretz. Peretz recently defended Lévy and “American Vertigo” in a New Republic column after the appearance of a scathing front-page review in The New York Times Book Review by writer and public-radio raconteur Garrison Keillor.

I sit nervously as the minutes tick by, waiting and waiting and waiting. Suddenly, a frumpy-looking Donald Trump passes by. Like Lévy, Trump knows how to capture the media spotlight and market himself as a star attraction. Unlike him, though, Trump is a crass creation of America’s unbridled capitalism, a man with little charm or class but with lots of cash. French designer Jean Paul Gaultier walks by looking très chic. But still no Bernard-Henri Lévy.

After a flurry of frantic phone calls to his New York publicist, Lévy finally appears — 45 minutes late. European time. He is tall and tan. He wears sunglasses, even though he’s indoors. His stylish shirt is untucked and unbuttoned at his navel, revealing a flat stomach. His black slacks hang just so. Despite middle-age, jet lag and his globetrotting life, Lévy looks more like a male model on holiday than an intellectual hawking his latest work.

“Hi, I’m Bernard-Henri Lévy,” he says, extending his hand.

I am with a veritable French legend. After helping to “dethrone socialism, Marxism and communism in France,” in the words of the New Republic’s Peretz, through his attacks on French intellectuals’ love affair with Stalinism, Lévy trained his sights on Judaism.

His iconoclasm continued with the publication of “The Testament of God” (Harper & Row, 1980), in which he encouraged French Jews — burdened by memories of the Holocaust — to celebrate their identities rather than flee from their heritage through assimilation.

These days, he raises hackles with his “anti-anti-Americanism.” Unlike many French intellectuals, BHL loves America, loves its freedoms, loves its democracy, even if he abhors its penchant for “obesity,” the idea that bigger homes, bigger cars and bigger churches are somehow better.

Lévy, his celebrity notwithstanding, is seen in some circles as lacking intellectual heft and rigor. Many critics note a lack of footnotes and an abundance of opinion in his books.

“I am not sure whether serious philosophers would consider him their equal,” says David N. Myers, a professor of Jewish history and director of the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies. Still, Myers adds, he finds Lévy “an interesting observer and bellwether of the Jewish condition in Europe today,” and respects Lévy’s ability to synthesize historical and sociological data with philosophy.

Myers recently hosted an April 11, UCLA speech by Lévy on European anti-Semitism before a near-capacity crowd of 400.

My plan is to drive with Lévy around Beverly Hills, Fairfax and the Pico-Robertson district, engaging him in conversation about the city’s Jewish life. He doesn’t like the idea.

“Why do you want to drive around?” he asks sourly. “Don’t you think we could get more done just talking here at the hotel?”

His reaction surprises me. I had cleared the plan with his publicist, who, I assumed, had relayed it to Lévy. More importantly, he amassed the material for “American Vertigo” by traveling more than 15,000 miles around the United States by car.

My sister-in-law, Elizabeth Vitanza, a Ph.D. student in French at UCLA, leads Lévy; my brother, John (doubling as a photographer), and me to her Toyota Corolla. The philosopher reluctantly steps in and takes a seat next to me in the back. I am sure he is accustomed to traveling in a better class of vehicle. He does not put on a seatbelt. As we drive through Beverly Hills, I point to a mansion. I tell him that more than one-third of the residents in this city of multimillion-dollar homes are Jews. Looking at these houses, I ask, what can one say about the concept of Jewish obesity?

A good question, I think. Shows that I’ve read his book and digested the big ideas. He, apparently, doesn’t share my opinion. Lévy furrows his brow. He looks disappointed.

“I would not enter into that,” he says. “I’ve met many poor Jews in my travels in Los Angeles. Some really lower middle-class Jews. They are not victims of this syndrome of obesity at all.”

Strike One. A French intellectual whom I’ve admired since my junior year at La Sorbonne in Paris more than 20 years ago thinks I’m a dolt — perhaps just a cut above the cop who, in Lévy’s book, chastises him for urinating at the side of the road. What to do? Like any good journalist, I do the obvious: I ask Lévy about himself.

“You’re a self-proclaimed agnostic,” I say. “Yet, you call yourself a Jew. Isn’t that a contradiction?”

The cool demeanor melts away, and the conversation, like Lévy himself, perks up.

“I believe [being an agnostic] is one of the best ways to be a Jew,” he says. “Jewishness is an experience of the nonevidence of God. That’s one of the main differences between Judaism and other faiths. The Jewish faith, the Jewish relationship to God, is the one most aware of [God’s] absence sometimes, the silence often. If you read really the prophets of the Bible, you’ll find that their main experience isn’t one of the warm presence of God, but of the despairing absence of it.”

Passionate Jews like himself need not believe in God to embrace the bedrock Jewish value of tikkun olam.

“At least, I would say for me, it is the only viable conception of an individual,” Lévy says. “If you are not committed to repairing the world, better do something else.”

Lévy points out the car window to an Orthodox Jew wearing a kippah and says, sadly: “This in Paris, you don’t see so much. In some parts of Paris and the suburbs, it exposes you to blows.”

American Jews, unlike French Jews, have the freedom to openly practice their Judaism without fear. They are also for the most part free, he says, from “the stupid loss of time” of constantly having to fight anti-Semitism.

And what accounts for this anti-Semitism? Many factors, Lévy says, including “the Shoah, the Holocaust. Europe is still bleeding.”

But wouldn’t that historical memory make the French and other Europeans more sensitive to the Jewish plight? I ask.

“They are fed up with guiltiness!”

Then, are teaching and talking about the Holocaust bad for Jews?

Absolutely not, he says. Sure, some people might complain about being bombarded with Jewish suffering, but knowledge of that suffering helps others’ become more compassionate. In France, he says, the Jews, with their history of the Shoah, were among the first to raise their voices against the slaughters in Bosnia, in Rwanda and, now, in Darfur.

“If Holocaust education stopped it would be bad for the Jews,” Lévy says. “It is a wall, a shield against anti-Semitism.”

It quickly becomes clear that he has little desire to comment on the landmarks of Jewish Los Angeles and is far more interested in letting our conversation take us where it will. As we pass Jewish day schools, synagogues and kosher restaurants, he speaks of his pride in his Jewish roots, despite never having set a foot in a synagogue until he began working on “The Testament of God” in the late 1970s.

“The tradition of Talmud is as great as the tradition of Voltaire and Racine and La Fontaine and Rabelais,” he says.

Strong words for a man of French letters.

We stop at Canter’s. He poses for two photos in front of the deli’s mural, one with his sunglasses on, the other with them off. No smile. As we enter, Lévy checks messages on his incessantly ringing blackberry. He grabs his pants as they start to slide off his tiny waist.

“I have to be careful,” he says, flashing a smile.

“I wish I had such a problem,” I respond, suddenly self-conscious about the extra 15 pounds I’ve packed on since college.

We seat ourselves in a booth, with Lévy taking a place next to my attractive sister-in-law, Elizabeth. He orders black tea, but doesn’t touch the chocolate ruggalah on his plate. Then, he holds court, telling us that the old anti-Semitism, the anti-Semitism that blamed the Jews for the killing of Jesus and vilified Jews as an inferior race, is largely dead. In its place, a new anti-Semitism has taken shape that is every bit as dangerous and disturbing.

“If I had to describe this, I would describe it in three words,” he says, pausing for effect. “Israel and anti-Zionism.”

This “anti-Zionism as a vehicle for anti-Semitism,” Lévy says, appears in newspaper and magazine articles that attack Israel without providing the political and historical context found in stories about other countries. Another variant of this new anti-Semitism occurs when the Jews’ enemies resort to anti-Semitic canards in their vicious attacks on Israel.

“A lot of things that you are no longer allowed to express, that you don’t dare to express, you can express through your hatred for Israel,” he says. “For instance, you can no longer say Jews are thieves, but you can say Israel has robbed the earth of the Palestinians.”

There is a final example of this new anti-Semitism, and it is coming from unexpected places, Lévy says. In America, minority groups such as Native Americans, African Americans and Latinos, just like large swaths of Europe’s immigrant communities, have increasingly come to view Jews as competitors for the spoils of suffering. In this zero-sum game, to borrow a political-science term, Lévy says Nation of Islam’s Louis Farrakhan and Native American activist Russell Means, among others, have concluded that sympathy for the Jews somehow diverts attention from and diminishes concern for the plight of Indians, Latinos and blacks.

In “American Vertigo,” Lévy writes about his disturbing encounter with Means, a veteran of the 1973 takeover of Wounded Knee. Meeting the Indian icon at his home in the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, Lévy feels proud to be in the presence of such a hero — until Means opens his mouth.

“You here, Mr. Lévy? Not in Israel yet? But I heard on the radio that Sharon wanted all the Jews in France to emigrate to Tel Aviv! Ha, ha!”

Shocked, Lévy doesn’t laugh. He considers himself sympathetic to the Indian cause, so he asks Means why no one has suggested creating a kind of Yad Vashem of Indian suffering? Why, instead, do Native Americans seem to unite around “the casinos that are a slow-working poison?”

Means response: “I don’t need advice from Zionists; you understand?”

The Indian activist goes on to say that Indians are “the poorest of the poor” in America and the “most diseased people in the Western Hemisphere.” The whole world is against Native Americans.

Back at Canter’s, Lévy argues that this competition among minority groups for “the crown of martyrdom” has mutated into virulent anti-Semitism.

“It’s an absurd, disgusting, ridiculous belief that suffering is like a market, and, in a market, you have a limited number of shares,” he says. “So, if there is a booming share for one community, there will not be for the others. You have some people in America and Europe who believe human consciousness, the human mind is unable to shed tears twice.”

“In the United States, my prediction, my fear is that more and more [minorities] could start to say, ‘Stop with the Shoah, the Holocaust. The more you speak of this past suffering, the less you keep space in the public debate to think about our presence,'” Lévy says.

What about the evangelical Christians? I ask. Are they a danger?

Yes and no, Lévy replies. They say they like us, but offer their friendship for the wrong reasons. He turns to Page 77 in “American Vertigo” and reads: “And beyond all that, what about the brilliant evangelical Protestant idea of the need to ensure a peaceful, faithful, and, above all else, Jewish Israel for the time when the Christian Day of Judgment comes?…. Perhaps I’m wrong. But I wouldn’t like to bet on American support, for the survivors of the Shoah if it comes down to depending, really depending, on an outlook of this sort.”

“Let’s realize we don’t have so many allies,” he later remarks. So let’s take their support; but with a gun under the pillow.”

A sobering thought.

Back in the car, I tell Lévy that, according to the National Jewish Population Study of 2000-2001, the U.S. Jewish population has dipped 5 percent, to 5.2 million, since 1990. Not to worry, he says. The problem of Jewish assimilation dates back to the fall of the Second Temple.

“You see a tendency to come back, and a tendency to withdrawal,” he says.

From the 12th or 13th century until the end of the 18th, Lévy estimates that maybe half of the Jewish population disappeared, some from pogroms by the majority, from conversion and assimilation.

That sweeping statement raises my suspicions. Smart as Lévy is, he occasionally seems to exaggerate for effect, substituting philosophy and opinion for factual analysis. In “American Vertigo,” for instance, he calls Cooperstown, home of the Baseball Hall of Fame, “the cradle of a national religion, the new Nazareth.”

A national pastime, maybe, although the shrinking World Series audience might belie that. But a national religion? Only in Yankee Stadium.

Similarly, Lévy opines that Sun City, Ariz., an upscale retirement community that bars children and teenagers, a “gilded ghetto,” in his words, could serve as a model for future planned cities that bar the elderly, gay men, women or Jews. Nice theory, but existing housing laws prevent such discrimination.

Is Lévy right? Did the Jewish population shrink by half from the late Middle Ages to the Enlightenment?

Although the Jewish population did dip to less than 1 million by 1500, disease and illness accounted for the decline more than Lévy’s claim of conversion and assimilation, UCLA’s Myers says. Furthermore, the drop in the Jewish population was consistent with general societal trends. Contrary to Lévy’s assertion of a Jewish population shrinkage that continued until the 18th century, Myers adds, the number of Jews began to rise in the 16th century with medical advances, among other factors.

As we hurry back to the Beverly Hills Hotel for Lévy’s noon interview, I ask him a final question: Is it easier to be a Jew in America or in France?

“It’s not completely comfortable to be a Jew anywhere,” he says. “Don’t believe, my friends, that there won’t be an uneasy tomorrow. You have uncomfortable friends. You have strong enemies. You have new arguments that make it easier to spread anti-Semitism.

“Of course, you will win,” Lévy adds.

“Rushmore as a Myth,” excerpt from “American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville,” by Bernard-Henri Lévy (Pages 63-66)

Rushmore as a Myth

Three small facts that I’m not sure the countless tourists who come every year in pilgrimage to Mount Rushmore know and that I, at any rate, was unaware of.

First, the architect: the famous John Gutzon de la Mothe Borglum, to whom we owe the idea for, and then most of the construction of, the four stone faces that are the symbol of American democracy the world over, especially since Hitchcock’s film, “North by Northwest.” In Wounded Knee I learn, from the mouth of an old Indian woman I meet at the entrance to the little monument built on the site of the 1890 massacre, that he was a member of the Ku Klux Klan; that his first great project was a memorial in Georgia to the glory of the Confederate heroes Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and Stonewall Jackson; and that it was only after the failure of this first project — and thus his break with the dubious United Daughters of the Confederacy — that he fell back on Rushmore.

Then the site itself. This magnificent place, chosen for the way it takes the light, the profundity of its granite rock, and its resistance to erosion through the ages. But its other characteristic, its location in the heart of the Black Hills, a holy place for the Indians and for the Lakota Nation in particular, to whom it had been guaranteed by the terms of the Treaty of Fort Laramie. Other options had existed. The Rockies, even the Appalachians, weren’t lacking in superb places where the admirer of Rodin could have given shape to his dream. But he chose this one. He and his sponsors, beginning with the secretary of the South Dakota Historical Society, Doane Robinson, could think of nothing better than to stick their monument in this highly disputed area, in the heart of what the Indian nation holds as most sacred.

Finally, the name: Rushmore, which I had always thought, because the sound of it was unfamiliar to my French ear, was some sort of traditional Indian name. Not so. There is nothing less age-old than the name of Mount Rushmore. For here is an extraordinary detail I discovered a little later on, as I was surfing Internet sites devoted to tourism in the regions: it’s the name of Charles E. Rushmore, a lawyer who in 1885 — in the midst of the gold rush, when people were looking for all the military and legal methods of expropriating the last Indians — crisscrossed the Black Hills on behalf on an American mining company. What is the name of this rich mountain? he is supposed to have asked his guide. No name, the guide replied. It’s an old Indian mountain without a name. Give it your name, and this act of naming will justify expropriation….

….This temple of the Idea, this semisanctuary, where millions of Americans come believing they can find the elemental spirit of their country’s manifest destiny, this cluster of icons that that a former member of the Ku Klux Klan sculpted on land that was stolen from the Indians and christened by a gold prospector (I discovered later that, after his break with the KKK, Gutzon Borglum never completely renounced his anti-Semitism or his ideas on the supremacy of the white race) — all this an outrage as well as a memorial. Do the Americans know? Do they feel, even obscurely, that their Founding Fathers are, here, also Profaning Fathers? Is that the reason the memorial, which was originally meant to be enlarged, to make room for and honor other figures, finally remained as it was? All I can say is that the American Idea is too important, too beautiful, and also too indispensable to the symbolic economy of the world to be left in the care of the fetishists of Mount Rushmore.

Excerpted from “American Vertigo” by Bernard-Henri Lévy, copywright 2006 by Bernard-Henri Lévy. Reprinted by arrangement with The Random House Publishing Group.

Punk Princesses: Jews With Attitude

There were always Jews in punk, even before there was punk.

“It really begins with Lenny Bruce,” says Steven Beeber, whose new book “The Heebie Jeebies at CBGBs: A Secret History of Jewish Punk,” will be published next year by A Capella Books. “Bruce sort of epitomizes the attitude, the whole smart-ass, clever truth-telling.”

In fact, the punk attitude is also a Jewish attitude that begins with the midrash, in which Abram smashes all but one of his father’s household idols and blames the sole survivor for the wreckage.

In its early days, punk was not only a form of music but also a philosophy, a way of looking at the world. And for three Jewish women musicians, it still is all that and more.

Jewlia Eisenberg, the founder and leader of Charming Hostess, a constantly mutating musical aggregation from the Bay Area, embraces the label “Jewish punk diva” with glee.

“Punk is a form of opposition,” Eisenberg wrote in an e-mail interview. “Real punks are radical in politics and culture. Punk is about screaming and dancing your way out of the margins. Punk is anti-materialist, DIY, direct, and in your face. Punk is a point of view; it’s a site of resistance, it’s a community…. And I can get with all that.”

But if you listen to records made by Charming Hostess — or Annette Ezekiel’s band Golem or Sophie Solomon’s Oi Va Voi — and expect shrieking three-chord rock played at the speed of light and the threshold of permanent hearing damage, you will be surprised. And if you are looking for torn T-shirts, safety pins and Doc Martens … well that’s so 1970s.

Or as Eisenberg dryly observes, “[Punk] is not defined simply by its symbols, which indeed are used to commodify punk and the energy it represents.”

Although the original spirit of punk was a kind of working-class outrage, expressed through a do-it-yourself homemade aesthetic, Eisenberg, Ezekiel and Solomon are university-educated, trained musicians. Of course, punk itself moved beyond three chords and inchoate snarls almost immediately, but the music of Charming Hostess, Golem and Oi Va Voi is stunning in its complexity.

Which is not to say you can’t dance to it.

When Golem played a couple of weddings during their West Coast tour this fall, there were horas and mosh pits side by side.

“Oh, yeah, that was our moshiest tour so far,” Ezekiel says with a grin.

So is Golem punk?

“It’s hard to label our music,” Ezekiel says. “I’m doing straight-up Yiddish music with a punk or rock attitude, but it’s not something you can see from the music.”

Heeb Magazine thinks they are punk, so much so that they won the award as “best punk band” at the publication’s first Jewish Music Awards. Reminded of this, Ezekiel laughed a little then noted that a friend of the late Joey Ramone, who was given a posthumous lifetime achievement award at the same ceremony, came up to her after hearing Golem and said approvingly, “You are so punk!”

For Ezekiel, too, it’s a question of attitude. She compares Golem’s approach to that of some of the more tradition-bound klezmer revival bands.

“I know deep down that we are punk, that we are a wild, edgy band,” she says. “I love the klezmer revival, but sometimes it’s missing the visceral energy, and everyone is playing the same material.”

By contrast, Golem leans more heavily on songs from Yiddish theater, perhaps not in a style that Molly Picon or Seymour Rechseit would recognize.

“People are always asking us why we don’t play more originals,” Ezekiel says. “I have no interest in writing songs. The research is what I love, and we reinterpret the songs we find by adding new elements.”

By contrast, much of Charming Hostess’s material is written by Eisenberg, although she draws on a bewildering variety of texts for her lyrics, ranging from the correspondence and diaries of Walter Benjamin to the verse of Bosnian poet Sem Mehmedinovic. She runs them through her own cerebral Mixmaster and creates delirious music for three female voices and occasional instrumental accompaniment. The result is best described by Ari Davidow, proprietor of the splendid KlezmerShack Web site ( as “what Sweet Honey in the Rock might sound like if they had a bit more punk sensibility and broadened their range to include Balkan Ladino and Jewish campfire tunes.”

Eisenberg herself describes Charming Hostess’ music as “nerdy-sexy-commie-girlie,” and can number Ezekiel as one her most enthusiastic fans. Golem and Charming Hostess played a number of concerts together in California last fall, each described the experience as a joy.

“We even did some tunes together, which was great fun,” Eisenberg notes.

“I’ve never been so happy with a double bill before,” Ezekiel says. “We’re both really into the background and research and culture behind the music we perform, but we’re not bogged down by it.”

“I was talking to Annette today,” Eisenberg wrote, “and I told her why I think the … music of Charming Hostess and the raucous klezmer of Golem are a good double bill; Charming Hostess does avant music framed by a folk sensibility and Golem does folk music framed by an avant sensibility.”

Sophie Solomon, like Eisenberg and Ezekiel, was trained as a classical musician. Her own sensibility is certainly avant, although she would probably opt for hip-hop rather than punk as a label, and Oi Va Voi’s wildly energetic mix of Yiddish, Balkan, Roma, rock and rap undoubtedly draws on as wide a range of folk musics as Hostess or Golem.

Asked about Solomon, Ezekiel exclaims, “Yeah! She’s taking the old stuff and making it sexy, wild and contemporarily relevant. Totally!”

Solomon’s own musical background includes stints as a DJ at clubs and raves in her native England, and she is probably as well-known here for her collaboration with Josh Dolgin, better known as Socalled, on the “Hip-Hop Khasene,” a spirited meeting of Jewish wedding, turntablism, sampling and rap, as for her frenetic fiddle playing with Oi Va Voi. Coincidentally, Golem was also part of a highly publicized musical spoof of Jewish wedding traditions, “Golem Gets Married,” featuring a cross-dressing bride and groom and the band’s spirited musical readings of traditional tunes.

“Hip-Hop Khasene” is a project that speaks directly to Solomon’s own interests and underlines her affinities with Eisenberg and Ezekiel.

“I want to evoke the Jewish musical experience of the past two centuries,” she says, discussing the live version of “Khasene.” “You hear a sample from Naftule Brandwein at the same time that [80-year-old] Elaine Hoffman Watts is playing onstage with David Krakauer and me.”

Socalled’s sampling magic and breakbeat manipulation speak directly to Solomon’s desire to combine Jewish music cross-generationally and her own cross-cultural influences.

“The collage nature of what Josh does is particularly interesting to me,” she says. “I wanted to do something that is authentic — these are real, living wedding traditions — and the concert is like a wedding from beginning to end, the wedding ceremony from ‘Dobriden’ to ‘Zay Gezunt.’ But I also wanted to do something that raises questions about what ‘authentic’ is. This isn’t 19th-century Eastern Europe.”

In a way, Solomon’s remark about authenticity sums up the distance that punk has traveled from the Sex Pistols, the Dictators and the Ramones through the hip-hop world and into the contemporary Jewish music world inhabited by Charming Hostess, Golem and Oi Va Voi. As Steven Beeber says, “Hip-hop is the new punk, and has been for a long time.”

So are these women Jewish punk divas or Jewish hip-hop divas or what?

Ari Davidow, a particularly astute observer of everything klezmer and beyond, remarks, “The issue … is less punk than mash-up — the incredible variety of sounds you get when people who have grown up part of the rich tapestry of musical heritages now care enough about Jewish sources to do a Jewish remix.”

Charming Hostess’s most recent album is “Sarajevo Blues,” on the Tzadik label. They will probably be performing in Los Angeles in February. Golem’s most recent CD is “Homesick Songs” on Aeronaut Records. Oi Va Voi’s most recent recording, “Laughter Through Tears,” is on the Outcaste label, and “Hip-Hop Khasene” by Solomon and Socalled is widely available.

George Robinson is the film and music critic for Jewish Week; his new book, “Essential Torah,” will be published by Shocken Books in fall 2006.


Meow With a French Accent

Comic books aren’t just for kids anymore. In both the United States and France, they’ve been enjoying a popular explosion among readers of all ages.

One of the stars of the explosion in France is Joann Sfar, an enfant terrible whose work has become so popular, that it can be found on the bookshelves of hip intellectuals there.

The prolific Sfar, 33, at last count is the author of 40 different comic-book series, including the wildly popular “Little Vampire” and “Big Vampire.” But only two of them — “Dungeon” and “Little Vampire” — are available in English, and they have been aimed mainly at young adult readers.

This summer, however, Sfar’s profile in the English-speaking world is likely to be raised: The first volume of “The Rabbi’s Cat,” one of his best-loved series in France, will be released in English by Pantheon Books in August. Translations of “Big Vampire” and “The Tree Man” are in the works.

“The Rabbi’s Cat” chronicles the adventures of a talking cat, who lives in Algeria with a rabbi and his daughter. The first volume in the series recounts the cat’s desire to have a bar mitzvah. Along the way, it tells the story of how the cat learned to talk — he ate the parrot — and how he took on “the rabbi’s rabbi,” chiding his master’s teacher for his narrow, dogmatic approach to Judaism.

When asked about the abundance of Jewish themes and philosophy in his work, Sfar, who was born to an Ashkenazi mother from Ukraine and a Sephardi father from Algeria, says that for him, Judaism isn’t “an all-consuming passion” it’s just what he knows best. — Lauren Elkin, Jewish Telegraphic Agency


Spectator – The Geffen’s Great Escape

In the 1930s, with the Great Depression at home and Hitler saber-rattling overseas, George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, two sharp-witted Jewish lads, kept Broadway and the nation laughing.

Together, they wrote such comedic classics as “Once in a Lifetime,” “The Man Who Came to Dinner,” “I’d Rather Be Right” and “You Can’t Take It With You.”

The latter play, which debuted on Broadway in 1936 and won a Pulitzer Prize and as an Oscar-winning movie two years later, has now been revived by the Geffen Playhouse.

The revival marks the 100th anniversary of Hart’s birth and, to keep the familial connection, is directed by his son, Christopher.

Cunningly constructed, the play relates the adventures and misadventures of the Sycamore Family of New York, whose guiding motto is, do whatever turns you on, however eccentric, and you’ll have lots of fun, avoid ulcers and enjoy a happy ending.

This philosophy may not always work in this harsh world but it surely does on the stage.

The pace of this production is not quite as antic and frantic as we recall from the olden days, but there are enough laughs to get your money’s worth.

Excelling in a somewhat uneven cast is veteran British actor Roy Dotrice as the family patriarch, who quit the rat race 35 years ago and has never looked back.

Also amusing are Conrad John Schuck as an irascible Wall Street tycoon, and Magda Harout, who doubles as an inebriated actress and an aristocratic Russian refugee who has fallen on hard times.

The Geffen’s performances have been in exile on the Veterans Administration grounds while its Westwood playhouse has been undergoing a $17 million facelift.

Included in the renovations are a plusher main stage and audience seats and construction of the smaller Audrey Skirball-Kenis Theatre.

A grand reopening of the Westwood facility is set for Oct. 17. The inaugural drama on Nov. 4 will be Tennessee Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” directed by Gilbert Cates and starring John Goodman as Big Daddy.

“You Can’t Take It With You” concludes its run on May 22 at the VA’s Brentwood Theatre. For information, call (310) 208-5454 or visit


For Heaven’s Sake

The Torah portion for this Shabbat is Korach, which details a disastrous mutiny led by Korach, a first cousin of Moses and Aaron. Korach says to Moses, who is leading the Jewish people through the Sinai desert on the way to Canaan: "You take too much upon you, seeing all the congregation is holy, every one of them and the Lord is among them: therefore, why do you raise yourself above the assembly of the Lord?"

The legitimacy and arguments of Korach and his followers are rejected by God as stated in our Torah portion. Korach felt that Moses had overlooked him when he made the appointment of chief of the Levite division of Kohat. Korach thought he should have gotten the job. What started as a family fight, soon turned into a major political upheaval through the skillful manipulations of Korach.

In Pirke Avot (5:19) we read: "A controversy for the sake of heaven will have lasting value, but a controversy not for heaven’s sake will not endure. What is an example of a controversy for heaven’s sake? The debates between Hillel and Shammai. What is an example of a controversy not for heaven’s sake? The rebellion of Korach and his assembly."

More than a few rabbis from various branches of Judaism have viewed other branches of Judaism as resembling Korach’s rebellion and have called them "inauthentic" and have used considerable quantities of ink to demean and invalidate their views. In contradistinction to Korach and the 250 princes who followed him, I see many leaders of the streams of Judaism today as teaching Torah Judaism with sincere goals that are for the sake of heaven. The debate today by the most respected leaders of some streams of Judaism is more like the classical rabbinic disagreements between Hillel and Shammai, where each would quote the other with profound respect (and not a put-down) before advocating their own position. Dennis Prager coined a term years ago describing "serious Jews" as those who come from different Jewish backgrounds but who share a passion for Judaism, Jewish texts and a commitment to Jewish living. Serious Jews can debate each other with respect while quoting their sources to support their different views.

I remember Sonja Silverman (who died in 1980) for the continuous inspiration she derived from Judaism. She would shlep all over Los Angeles to attend lectures by rabbis of every stripe. If she knew a particular rabbi or scholar had some precious Torah teaching to offer — she was there. Sonja inspired me. Her husband, Phil, inspired me and continues to do so by his teachings. Forty-one years ago, he was my confirmation teacher at a Reform temple. Sonja taught in various religious schools around town.

I distinctly remember Sonja cringing when a rabbi would clarify a point about Judaism by saying in a put-down tone: "However, according to the Orthodox [or Reform, or Conservative, etc.]," because Sonja was a Jew with appreciation for all branches of Judaism and absolute loyalty to no one movement. Her loyalty was to the entirety of Judaism, to Torah and to God. In her mind, as I understood her, one should not limit Judaism to a particular "stream," to use today’s terminology.

The philosophy of Jewish institutions such as Brandeis-Bardin Institute, the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, the Board of Rabbis of Southern California and The Los Angeles Community Bet Din is encouraging.

I remember one of my teachers, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, who today is the regional rabbi of Efrat in Israel, advocated several years ago that there be a bet din for conversion that would require nine rabbis — six more than what Jewish law mandates — in order that Reform and Conservative movements should be represented without taking away the Orthodox requirement for three Orthodox rabbis. Though his proposal never was enacted at that time, may God bless his intention and his efforts — perhaps one day they shall bear fruit.

Years ago I heard a fellow Jew, who does not keep kosher in any way, criticize another for eating kosher only at home but eating out in non-kosher restaurants, even foods that were clearly not kosher. I knew the other person he was speaking to, who at one time did not observe kashrut at home. I cringed when I heard one Jew berating the other. In my mind I was admiring how this Jewish person had begun on the path of observance and was slowly but surely moving up the ladder, despite his current inconsistencies. In my mind this was far preferable to being consistently treif in all matters of observance, which was the modus operandi of the first Jew, whom I also knew quite well. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once said that we should not only make sure that the food that enters our mouths be kosher but that the words that come out of our mouths be kosher, as well. One can be meticulously kosher with the food he eats and completely treif by his language and intonation.

Some believe that anyone more observant than oneself is a fanatic and anyone less observant or knowledgeable than oneself is an ignoramus. Hillel and Shammai would reject such judgements. Consistency is not the highest value in Judaism — unless we are consistently working for ways to bring our people together by emphasizing our shared goals and values. Then any disagreements between us will be debated with respect and will be advocated for the sake of heaven. Then we shall remark in wonder how "these seemingly contradictory positions and statements are both expressions of the living God."

Gershon Johnson is rabbi at Temple Beth Haverim in Agoura Hills.

Coalition Lesson

Community activist Karen Bass’ victory in the 47th Assembly District’s Democratic primary provides a valuable opening for coalition efforts between the Jewish community and a new generation of African American and Latino activists.

Los Angeles has a long and distinguished history of biracial coalitions. Rooted in the 10th City Council District, then divided among African Americans, Jews and Asian Americans, the coalition behind Tom Bradley stormed the gates of City Hall.

Bradley was first elected to the City Council in 1963 and then to the mayoralty in 1973, a position he held for 20 years. The Los Angeles black-Jewish coalition became a national model for interracial politics and governance.

But the Bradley coalition has largely fallen by the wayside as the city’s politics have fragmented and as the leadership ties that sustained the coalition have atrophied. While promising efforts to build bridges between Jews and Latinos are beginning to bear fruit, they are still young.

The open 47th Assembly seat seemed likely to hurt rather than help intergroup coalitions. The 2001 redistricting had reshaped the district represented by former Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson from a surefire black seat to one potentially contested between African Americans and whites.

The district was moved westward and northward and now includes such white liberal — and significantly Jewish — areas as Westwood, Cheviot Hills and Beverlywood. Whites represent 37.8 percent of the population; African Americans, 40.1 percent; Hispanics, 22.6 percent; and Asian Americans, 8.5 percent. The voting population, however, is more skewed toward blacks and whites.

With three strong black candidates — Bass, Rickey Ivie and Nate Holden — fragmentation of the black vote and intergroup conflict with whites seemed possible. A white candidate could have potentially won the race but without broad-based support in the district.

Bass took the creative way out of the box: She reached out to Latinos, organized labor and white voters, including Jews. The three black candidates received a combined 88 percent of the vote, with Bass drawing a near-majority 48 percent. Clearly, Bass received strong support both from African Americans and white voters. Out of possible conflict came something much more promising — potential bridges among African Americans, Latinos and Jews.

I was less surprised than I might otherwise have been, because of my knowledge of Bass’ previous work. I first met Bass about a decade ago. A federal agency had contracted with me to study how a particular organization in South Central Los Angeles managed to impact the alarming dispersion of liquor stores.

I visited the offices of the Community Coalition for Substance Abuse Prevention and Training — later shortened, thankfully, to the Community Coalition — where I met Bass, the organization’s energetic director. She was working to prevent the rebuilding of some liquor stores that had been burned down during the violence of 1992. The office was brimming with energy, with young staff and volunteers, African American and Latino.

There was a serious conflict of interest between those who wanted the stores reduced in number and those whose livelihood depended on the stores staying open. In New York City, a similar conflict became highly racialized, as calls arose to "kick Koreans out" of inner-city communities.

By contrast, Bass’ dedication to keeping the conflict nonracial helped Los Angeles to keep the focus on the behavior of individual liquor stores and not on the ethnicity of the owners. Bass insisted that it did not matter who owned the stores, only how the stores were operated.

Because she and her organization stuck to that philosophy with such consistency, no traction could be created for an anti-Korean campaign.

I spoke with leaders of Korean American organizations who saw themselves under attack on the liquor store issue. Those I interviewed were very unhappy and resentful about the coalition’s pressure but recognized and appreciated that Bass kept the racial aspect to a minimum. Bass was also adamant about reaching out to Latinos in South Central Los Angeles and actively incorporated them in her organization’s activities.

Bass’ victory in the 47th Assembly District marks another new turn for the politics of urban Los Angeles. New participants — organized labor, Latinos, young minority activists — are reshaping the city’s traditional politics of black and white.

While African American candidates are likely to keep dominating the offices in Central, Mid-city and South Los Angeles for some time to come, their constituencies are shifting. The Jewish community should keep its eyes and ears open to these developments and look for new ways to connect to a promising, exciting and boundary-crossing politics of the next Los Angeles.

Raphael J. Sonenshein, a political scientist at California State University, Fullerton, is the author of “Politics in Black and White: Race and Power in Los Angeles” (Princeton University Press, 1993). His article, “The Battle Over Liquor Stores in South Central Los Angeles: The Management of an Interminority Conflict,” appeared in the July 1996 issue of the Urban Affairs Quarterly.

The Core of Judaism

Each year, Rabbi Leib Saras made a pilgrimage to see Rebbe Dov Ber, the Maggid of Mezrich. When asked what Torah he went to learn, Leib Saras answered: “I do not go to learn interpretations of Torah. I go to watch the way he ties his shoes.”

Try this experiment: Put your hands in your pockets and try to explain to someone — verbally — how to tie shoes. It’s an exercise in frustration, because there are certain things you can learn by description, and there are others that can only be learned in the doing — learned not by words and concepts, but by involving fingers, hands and heart. Theory is important. But there is a knowing through practice and participation that cannot be replaced by theoretical description.

That kind of knowing has its own special character.

In the Torah this week, each of the Levitical families receives a part of the responsibility for transporting the mishkan (the shrine of God’s dwelling). Two of the families receive oxen and carts to carry their burden of holy instruments and accouterments. But to the third, no oxen and/or carts were distributed. That family was assigned the responsibility for the Ark, itself, and they were required to carry it upon their shoulders — bakatef yesau (Numbers 7:9).

There is much of our tradition that can be conveyed through description. One can learn about the history, about the philosophy, about the culture of Judaism. But the core of holiness, the experience of God’s presence, cannot be learned about; it cannot be done for us by others; it cannot be made lighter, easier, more convenient. It requires the intensity of full personal involvement and investment. It requires the whole self — bakatef yesau.

This month, thousands of youngsters will depart the comforts of home and family to share the experience of Jewish summer camps. A month or so from now, those same kids will tumble off buses, sleepy and soiled and transformed. They will take home crafts, new friends and a profound sense of having touched the core of Jewish life. They will bear vivid memories of Friday night sunsets, Havdalah beneath the stars, new Hebrew songs and a sense of belonging. They will learn little about Judaism. They will have lived Judaism personally and intensely.

Centuries from now, when the definitive history of American Judaism is written, scholars will note the contribution of synagogues and seminaries to American Jewish life. But they will single out the summer camp as the most unique American Jewish institution. No institution changes young lives as powerfully as does camp. No other institution offers the chance to come so close to the core of holiness and feel the joy of carrying Judaism oneself — bakatef yesau.

The Midrash connects our verse with another, Psalms 81:3, siu zimrah, “Take up the song! Sound the timbrel, the melodious lyre and harp!”

Carrying the Ark upon their shoulders gave the Levites the power to sing. This is true of every person who serves God, concludes the sefat emet (language of truth). True service fills a person with light and with joy.

And so, too, our kids. Returning from camp, they evince a thirst for Jewish learning and a new joy in Jewish living. Having touched the core of holiness, they take up an ancient song. Do yourself a favor this summer — you who are tired of the depressing pessimism that attends so much Jewish life — go and visit a Jewish summer camp and breathe in its joyful spirit.

Years ago, I staffed a Jewish summer camp. Each summer we opened the camp for a visitors’ day, which was inevitably the hottest day of the summer. Late in the afternoon on one visitors’ day, I trudged back to my cabin for a cold drink. On the way, I encountered an elderly man, sitting alone and obviously upset. I stopped to see if I could help him, but he waved me away.

“Can I help you find your family?”

“Leave me alone, young man, I’m fine.”

“How about a cold drink?”

“I’m fine, don’t bother.”

“Well, you’re obviously upset, so let me sit with you,” I persisted.

We sat a few moments, and finally he turned to me and I saw the tears in his eyes.

“I’m a survivor. Do you know what that means?” he asked.

“Yes, sir.”

“I’m a survivor, and an old man, and I didn’t want to shlep up here today. But my daughter made me come because my granddaughter is here. She’s one of your campers. When I left Europe, years ago, I never thought I’d ever see Jewish children happy again. How can Jewish children be happy, being Jewish, after what Hitler did? But I look here and I see young people dancing, singing, with yarmulkes, speaking Hebrew. Young man, you, your friends, this place has given me back something Hitler took away.”

In tears, the two of us sat on the bench together.

Ed Feinstein is rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.