Beyond Shylock: How Jews are portrayed in Egyptian cinema


Images of a seductive Jewish belly dancer move across the screen. After spending her evening entertaining rich tribal sheiks, Sarah returns home to her father, who complains she didn’t bring home enough money.

“Did the blood of your people escape from your veins?”

“I spent the money inciting men against Muhammad!”

The scene is from the 1960s Egyptian film “Immigration of the Prophet.” Although the story takes place in the time of the Prophet Muhammad, no references to such a scene can be found in traditional Islamic sources, said Sariel Birnbaum, a visiting Israeli scholar at San Diego State University. Birnbaum, who translated the film’s Arabic passages into English, spoke May 3 about the depiction of Jews in Egyptian cinema at the Alpert Jewish Community Center in Long Beach as a guest of the California State University Long Beach Speaker Series, hosted by the Alpert JCC. 

The film’s story is purely fictional, Birnbuam said.

As early as 1926, Egyptian filmmakers have wanted to depict the Prophet Muhammad, but Sunni clerics wouldn’t allow it. Stories of his female companions, contemporaries and the first four caliphs were also off limits.

Egyptian filmmakers developed a formula that would allow them to depict the time of the prophet without offending Sunni clerics: They decided to show the rise of Islam from the perspective of enemies of the faith — the Jews.

“When they want to tell the story of the beginning of Islam, they go to the big European repertoire of anti-Semitism and take what they want,” Birnbaum said. In this case, it was the connection between Jews and money.

In another example taken from the 1953 film “Belal Moaazen El Rasoul,” the freed Muslim slave Belal borrows money from a Jew on the condition that if he cannot repay, he will become a slave again. This depiction of the Jew as usurer has obvious links to the Shylock character in William Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice.” The Jew in this film has a hook nose, a shrill voice and, of course, a bagful of money. Even his hat looks like Shylock’s. 

Other Egyptian films showed Jews involved in espionage and intrigue.

“A Crime in the Quiet Neighborhood,” another Egyptian film from the 1960s, takes a slightly different approach: The film distorts historical accounts of the Stern Gang, the underground Jewish Zionist group that assassinated British resident minister Lord Moyne in 1944. At the time, Egyptians demonstrated in support of the Zionists’ actions because the country was still under the yoke of British colonialism, Birnbaum said. 

The gang in the film kidnaps the daughter of an Egyptian police officer charged with investigating the assassination. The female architect of the kidnapping is another dancer; in addition to being a kidnapper and a murderer, she’s shown lacking sexual morality.

In the decades that followed, European anti-Semitic depictions became less common in Egyptian cinema, Birnbaum said. 

The 1979 film “Alexandria … Why?” features a Jewish family fleeing the port city before the Nazis arrive. When the family arrives in Palestine, they encounter fighting. Although devoid of the sort of European anti-Semitism found in films from decades before, “Alexandria … Why?” propagates the idea espoused by the Palestine Liberation Organization during that time that the Jewish state is illegitimate, Birnbaum said.

Later films have shown Israelis as Egyptian adversaries.

For example, the 1993 film “The Day of Glory” depicts the sinking of the Israeli ship Eilat at the conclusion of the Six-Day War. The film points to the arrogance of Israeli naval officers, who casually smoke cigars and disobey orders. Although the portrayal is negative, it is nonetheless based on historical accounts, Birnbaum said, including the commander’s own memoirs.

Fast forward to 2005 and the narrative becomes more complex.

In “The Embassy in the Building,” protagonist Sherif finds himself in a predicament when he returns to Egypt from working abroad: The Israeli Embassy has moved into his building. Comedy ensues as Sherif encounters various individuals — an opinionated prostitute, a Marxist woman and Islamic terrorists — all of whom harbor some form of anti-Israeli sentiments and object to his living in the same building as the embassy. 

When Sherif gets kidnapped by the terrorists, he professes his allegiance only to Allah (as opposed to Egyptian authorities). The terrorists strap a bomb belt around his waist and tell him he has a special destiny. Birnbaum provided a translation: “So, you will stay down here and I will go up?” The terrorist nods and points heavenward, indicating Sherif will enter paradise with other martyrs. Sherif is chagrined.

“The Islamists and those that really want to explode the embassy are the bad guys here,” Birnbaum said. “Of course, they were also the ideological enemies of the regime of that time.”

Sherif does not explode the bomb but later befriends the Israelis. Then a Palestinian boy he knows dies in the intifada, and he throws the Israelis out of his building.

Birnbaum concluded that anti-Semitism largely has disappeared from mainstream Egyptian cinema in the last couple of decades. The trope of the Jewish seductress is a popular one, however, and remains in the Egyptian consciousness to this day.

The path to Israeli-Palestinian peace runs through sewage


Palestinians and Israelis are poisoning each other — no, not just through the normal streams of invective and incitement that characterize the local blame game. The toxic exchanges are much more literal — through noxious reciprocal flows of excrement that provide a definitive — and odorous — answer to the question of what ever happened to the peace process.

According to a recent survey by the Israel Parks and Nature Authority, over 90 percent of sewage from Palestinian towns flows untreated into 162 kilometers of rivers and streams, polluting groundwater aquifers shared by two nations in this fractious land. This means that over 50 million cubic meters of untreated sewage flows into rivers and streams from Palestinian towns (with only 5 million cubic meters treated by largely substandard plants). Israeli settlements in the West Bank compound the problem by releasing about 13 percent of their sewage untreated.

Nowhere is this problem refracted more than in one of the greatest and most beautiful centers of global spiritual and cultural heritage — Jerusalem. Here, the Kidron Valley/Wadi-El-Nar River basin begins in the West Jerusalem neighborhoods of Mea Shearim and Talbieh, skirts the ridges of Mount Scopus and the Mount of Olives, passes through East Jerusalem's Silwan and continues through the Judean Desert to the Dead Sea. Many of the Middle East’s most famous cultural, religious and historic sites dwell in harmony in the valley, along with underground watercourses, monasteries and breathtaking desert landscapes. From the Kidron Valley, Abraham made his journey to Mt. Moriah, Jesus made his way from his Judean Wilderness baptism to the Via Dolorosa, and the Second Caliph Umar ibn Al-Khattab, disciple of Mohammed, sited the Al Aqsa Mosque and the declared the Prophet’s Ascent.

As Reuven Laster, environmental law professor at Hebrew University and chairman of the Kidron River Valley Steering Committee that has authored a master plan for the basin’s development, notes, “Jerusalem, as one of the great centers of civilization, currently serves as a conduit for raw sewage and a depository of solid waste.”

The amount of raw sewage from Jerusalem and the riparian towns in the Palestinian Authority exceeds 15 million cubic meters a year and is projected to increase 5 percent annually. Beyond, or perhaps before, the “final status” of borders and sovereignty agreements, this much more fundamental issue of environmental sustainability is a precondition for precarious political agreements, if they are ever to be achieved. By converting rubbish into resources for development, shared economic interests can emerge that create conditions for political resolutions rather than barriers that continue to undermine them.

The good news is that technology and economic development can solve this problem and increase the opportunities for growth that make co-existence much more likely than endless conflict. By restoring the Kidron Valley, a unique, internationally significant heritage district will increase the number of Christian, Muslim and Jewish pilgrims, eco- and archaeological tourism, and spur agricultural development throughout the Kidron to Jericho and throughout the Jordan River Valley in both Israeli and Palestinian territories.

The first step is the removal of sewage and solid waste from the Valley by joining the five cities and towns comprising nearly 250,000 residents to share a single waste water treatment plant.

Most of the sewage can be converted to useable agricultural water. The facility will not only purify the sewage, it will return purified effluent back to the farms of the valley for agricultural and tourism development. Using proven wastewater recycling technology will solve this problem; Israel already recycles 85 percent of its wastewater. Technology transfer to the Palestinians will mean they can stop pumping scarce groundwater for agriculture needs and have greater resources for economic growth, food exports, and new jobs from tourism. Cooperative work by Israeli and Palestinian experts and local officials have already documented how this could work by setting up a sub-sovereign integrated water basic management district that would benefit all enhanced economic activity in the region without compromising eventual border issues. More than 14 major Transboundary Rivers like the Rio Grande, Danube, Elbe, the Mekong and many others are all managed in this way that minimizes conflicts through integrated water basin management.

No one compromises sovereignty rights by cleaning up the bio solids or solid waste that both nations produce daily. Cleaning up the contaminated river basin, creating water resources, and turning the Kidron into a regional economic and community development asset instead of the deteriorating liability it has become, will spur economic growth and job creation. The project will become self-financing and a model for cross-boundary environmental and infrastructure projects that are desperately needed. If this can be done in Jerusalem, the financial and economic development model upon which it is based can be replicated to the Besor/Hebron, Yarqon, Jenin/Kishon, Zomer/Alexander and other rivers throughout the region.

This story originally ran on Haaretz.com.

Prof. Glenn Yago is Senior Director/Senior Fellow at the Milken Institute, and visiting professor and Dean’s Fellow at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem Graduate School of Business Administration.

The Institute’s Israel Center recently published its report, “Financing Kidron/Wadi-El-Nar River Revitalization: A Bridge to Development”, available in Hebrew and English here.

Vatican steps up condemnation of Libya violence


The Vatican significantly sharpened its condemnation of the violent attack in Libya that killed the U.S. Ambassador to Libya and three other U.S. State Department personnel.

The comments came as Pope Benedict XVI began a two-day visit to Lebanon on Friday.

“The very serious attack organized against the United States diplomatic mission in Libya, which led to the death of the ambassador and of other functionaries, calls for the firmest possible condemnation on the part of the Holy See,” said a statement Thursday by Vatican chief spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi.

“Nothing, in fact, can justify the activity of terrorist organizations and homicidal violence. Along with our sadness, mourning and prayers for the victims, we again express the hope that, despite this latest tragedy, the international community may discover the most favorable ways to continue its commitment in favor of peace in Libya and the entire Middle East,” the statement added.

The remarks update a Vatican statement that had not mentioned the murders of the diplomats and had come under criticism for not having condemned the violence in firm enough terms.

The violence broke out in Libya and other countries after reports of an American-made anti-Islam film trailer on YouTube. The Libyan attack was likely a spontaneous one followed by an organized attack a few hours later that was possibly led by anti-American infiltrators into the country, the New York Times reported on Friday.

In the Vatican’s initial statement, Lombardi had decried the “tragic results” of “unjustified offense and provocations” against Muslim sensitivities.

The Pope’s visit is aimed at promoting dialogue and peace in the region. Persecution of Christians in the Middle East is a particular concern of the Vatican.

Maker of anti-Islam film goes into hiding, the Associated Press reports


The California-based Israeli whose film attacking Islam's prophet Mohammad triggered a deadly attack on U.S. diplomats in Libya has reportedly gone into hiding, the Associated Press reported.

Writer and director Sam Bacile spoke by phone with the AP from a secret location on Tuesday as his movie “Innocence of Muslims” apparently fueled the rage that claimed the life of the U.S. ambassador and three others in Libya. The U.S. mission in Cairo also was the target of protesters, burned an American flag.

Reuters was not able to locate Bacile for comment.

Bacile, 56, is a California real estate developer who describes himself as an Israeli Jew, the AP said.

“This is a political movie,” Bacile told the AP. “The U.S. lost a lot of money and a lot of people in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan but we're fighting with ideas.”

The film portrayed Mohammad as a fool, a philanderer and a religious fake. In one clip posted on YouTube, Mohammad was shown in an apparent sexual act with a woman. For many Muslims it is blasphemous even to show a depiction of the Prophet.

Bacile said the film cost $5 million, some of which was paid by more than 100 Jewish donors, the AP said.

<i>Reporting by Barbara Goldberg and Chris Francescani; Editing by Bill Trott</i>

Director of anti-Muslim movie that sparked attacks on U.S. facilities not Israeli


The director of an anti-Islam film that helped sparked attacks on U.S. diplomatic facilities is not Israeli as he claimed, a consultant to the film said.

The Atlantic blogger Jeffrey Goldberg reported that a Steve Klein, a consultant to the controversial film, “Innocence of Muslims,” and a self-described militant Christian activist in Riverside, Calif., said that the film's directo,r Sam Bacile, is not Israeli and that the name is a pseudonym.

Goldberg quoted Klein as saying: “I don't know that much about him. I met him, I spoke to him for an hour. He's not Israeli, no. I can tell you this for sure, the State of Israel is not involved.” Klein said: “His name is a pseudonym. All these Middle Eastern folks I work with have pseudonyms. I doubt he's Jewish. I would suspect this is a disinformation campaign.”

Meanwhile, a high-ranking Israeli official in Los Angeles told JTA Wednesday that after numerous inquiries, it appeared that no one in the Hollywood film industry or in the local Israeli community knew of a Sam Bacile, the supposed director-writer of the incendiary film “Innocence of Muslims.”

The U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other American diplomats were killed at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, and the U.S. embassy in Cairo was attacked Tuesday evening by angry protesters.

Amb. John Christopher Stevens and three unnamed diplomats were killed Tuesday night in a rocket attack on their car in Benghazi, the White House confirmed Wednesday morning. U.S. officials said that the armed attack on the consulate may have been pre-planned.

On Tuesday evening, Egyptian protesters climbed over the wall of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, pulled down an American flag and tried to set it alight.

The attacks follow the release online of an Arabic translation of the movie. Media reports said it was directed by Bacile, who described himself as a California real estate developer. The two-hour movie attacks the Islamic prophet Muhammad, making him out to be a fraud.

The film was screened one time at a movie theater in Hollywood, someone identifying himself as Bacile told the AP.

Bacile said went into hiding on Tuesday night, speaking to international media from an undisclosed location.

Klein told Goldberg that I there are some 15 people associated with the making of the film, all American citizens.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton condemned the attack.

“The United States deplores any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. Our commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the very beginning of our nation,” she said in a statement. “But let me be clear: There is never any justification for violent acts of this kind.”

The Los Angeles chapter of the Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the Islamic Shura Council are scheduled to hold a news conference Wednesday to condemn the killing of the U.S. ambassador to Libya and attacks on diplomatic facilities and persons in Libya and Egypt.

In Washington, CAIR’s national officials called on Muslims in the Middle East “to ignore the trashy anti-Islam film that resulted in the attacks.”

Egypt security forces, protesters clash outside U.S. Embassy


Security forces fired teargas to disperse stone-throwing demonstrators near the U.S. embassy in Cairo late on Wednesday, some 24 hours after protesters scaled the walls and tore down the flag over a film insulting the Prophet Mohammad.

State news agency MENA said some of those present had been injured, but gave no further details.

Live television showed hundreds of demonstrators gathered at the embassy, where late on Tuesday around 2,000 protested outside after some illegally entered the compound, ripped down the flag and burned it.

Washington has a big mission in Egypt, partly because of a huge aid programme that followed Egypt's signing of a peace treaty with Israel in 1979. The United States gives $1.3 billion to Egypt's military each year and offers the nation other aid.

Clashes between security forces and protesters continued in side streets near the building into the early hours of Thursday. Reuters witnesses saw protesters carrying petrol bombs and saw smoke billowing from one of the streets leading to the embassy.

MENA said earlier Egypt had arrested four people after Tuesday's demonstration in which protesters blamed the film on the United States.

It said the four people were transferred to the prosecutor's office, adding that security forces were still searching for others who scaled the walls of the U.S. mission.

<i>Writing by Edmund Blair and Shaimaa Fayed; Editing by Alison Williams</i>

Peres the prophet


This story has been updated with a correction.

When Shimon Peres appeared at the Beverly Hilton on March 8 before an audience of more than 1,000 Israel supporters, the Israeli president received two standing ovations — before he even uttered a single word.

Peres had just established his own Facebook page at the social networking company’s Bay Area headquarters the day before, and he had a solid schedule of events ahead of him in the Southland. Over the next four days, Peres would meet with some of Los Angeles’ most influential leaders, with a special focus on members of the entertainment industry and the burgeoning Latino community.

Coming at the tail end of a nationwide tour, the 88-year-old Nobel laureate delivered his message of peace and unity to Los Angeles and won fans among every audience he encountered — including some who hadn’t always seen eye to eye with Peres.

“Personally, when he was a political leader, I didn’t agree with many of his political positions,” Rabbi Marvin Hier, the dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said. “But today, as president of Israel, he has fulfilled that role in an amazing manner.”

Because Israel’s government is a parliamentary democracy, its leader is the prime minister. Peres has twice filled that role, but today, as president, he is a head of state and represents the Israeli people in a largely ceremonial role, not unlike the queen of England.

In his remarks that Thursday evening to a ballroom packed with members and leaders of Jewish and pro-Israel organizations, Peres gave diplomatic and thoughtful responses to questions that would have been difficult for a less-accomplished statesman to answer.

And while his onstage interview with former CNN anchor Campbell Brown ranged across a variety of topics, it seemed that when the conversation veered toward something overtly political, Peres often demurred, proffering points of general agreement and less controversial observations instead.

“Like all processes, it has problems,” Peres said in response to one question about the seemingly distant prospects for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. “But that’s not a reason to give up the hope.”

Even so, a number of Peres’ statements that evening appeared to be, in tone at least, different from the party line of the current Israeli government — most notably when he expressed a preference for Israel and the United States to allow time for the sanctions against Iran to work before taking any military action against the country’s nuclear facilities.

“I think the president [Obama] made it clear that he will not compromise on the issue of Iran,” Peres said in his characteristic patient cadence, sounding more in line with the American president’s preference for a non-violent resolution to the conflict than with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s assertions that Israel must reserve the right to defend itself.

“It’s a danger to all of the world, not just to Israel,” Peres continued, “and I think that while everyone is looking for differences, the basis is common and agreed.”

The Angelenos Peres met over his four days in the city were thrilled to have him in town, particularly the Israeli-Americans. “He’s one of the biggest leaders Israel had in its history, and it was very important to be part of his historic visit in L.A.,” Sagi Balasha, CEO of the Israeli Leadership Council, said.

The audience may have been content to allow Peres to suggest that there was general agreement between the United States and Israel on the Iranian nuclear threat. In fact, the elements made public of the meetings Peres and Netanyahu each had with Obama earlier in the week, as well as the three leaders’ speeches at the annual American Israel Political Action Committee (AIPAC) policy conference, revealed significant differences in the situations that could trigger either an American or an Israeli strike on Iran.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who attended the March 8 event, took note of Peres’ comparatively generous approach to the current American administration.

Peres “can come in and speak eloquently of Barack Obama, which no Israeli governmental leader is doing, frankly, because he doesn’t have to be as political as when he was in politics,” said Yaroslavsky, who first met Peres in 1991.

From left: Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Israeli President Shimon Peres and Consul General David Siegel attend a March 8 event hosted by the Jewish community, the Consulate General of Israel and The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

Historically, there have been Israeli presidents who have served while the Knesset was controlled by a prime minister from the opposing party. But according to David Myers, a UCLA professor of Jewish history, none of those presidents had Peres’ political heft.

Peres “has played the role [of president] pretty well, doing as best he possibly can to avoid trampling the toes of his prime minister,” Myers said.

But although Peres might be nudging the customary boundaries of his position, Myers said that in the face of a possible Israeli pre-emptive strike against Iranian nuclear facilities, an action whose consequences are largely unpredictable, the Israeli president might consider taking even more drastic action.

“Whether or not it would be better for Peres to step out of the role and assert his opinion on this important issue is a reasonable question to ask,” he added. Myers said he had been invited to Peres’ Thursday evening appearance, but hadn’t been able to attend.

The event was organized by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and the Israeli Consulate and was co-sponsored by six other community groups, including the Israeli Leadership Conference (ILC) and StandWithUs, an Israel advocacy and education group.

In its work advocating on behalf of Israel, StandWithUs often stakes out positions that lie closer to the hawkish side of the political spectrum. CEO Roz Rothstein, who praised Peres’ speech as “extremely profound” and approvingly Tweeted a few of Peres’ remarks as he was delivering them, said she saw the message he was delivering as consistent with her organization’s.

She pointed to the video released on March 4, “Be My Friend for Peace,” which remixes remarks by Peres with a techno beat.

“Be my friend for peace, I want to hear your voice,” Peres says in the video, which was viewed 188,000 times in its first eight days on YouTube. “Be my friend, share peace. Speak up and change the world.”

“He’s saying that peace is possible, but you have to have a partner on the other side,” Rothstein said. “Between the lines, he’s asking for a partnership. That’s the way I read it.”

Nearly all who heard Peres welcomed his focus on the future — even those whose left-leaning politics led them to fondly recall the days when Peres was still involved in governing Israel. “I only wish that he had more influence in the halls of power,” said Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater of the Pasadena Jewish Temple & Center and a member of J Street’s Rabbinic Cabinet. “Israel certainly needs his wisdom, honesty and calm presence in these most difficult and trying times,” Grater added.

Not all who came in contact with Peres were looking for the Israeli president to venture beyond his traditional, strictly ceremonial role.

“When President Peres wanders into the territory of war, peace and politics, it is painfully apparent he has not learned from his mistakes,” Orit Arfa, executive director of the Zionist Organization of America’s western region, wrote in a statement e-mailed after his March 8 speech. “He continues to promote his failed vision of a ‘two-state solution’ and ‘land for peace.’ The President refuses to admit the truth that Mahmoud Abbas and the Fatah Party are no better than Hamas.”

Most of those who encountered Peres in Los Angeles welcomed his optimistic message and were inclined to believe that his statements were aligned with their own political positions.

At Peres’ final event of the Los Angeles visit, a breakfast on March 11 for about 120 political, religious and business leaders, most of the attendees were from the region’s Latino community.

Among the Jewish leaders present, in addition to staff from the Israeli consulate, were representatives from The Federation, American Jewish Committee (AJC) and AIPAC, as well as many people who participated in a summit for Latino and Jewish leaders last September.

Israeli Deputy Consul General Gil Artzyeli, who will return to Israel this summer after four years in Los Angeles, dedicated a great deal of his time and energy to building bridges between the Jewish and Latino communities here.

The developing alliance between Latinos and Jews in Los Angeles was the subject of a Jewish Journal cover story last March, and looking around the well-secured room on an upper floor of the Beverly Hilton, Rabbi Randy Brown, assistant director of interreligious and intergroup relations with AJC, noted just how broad-based the coalition building effort has become. “It’s theological; it’s commerce; it’s political; it’s human relations — all in the same room,” he said.

During the question-and-answer session, Pastor Carlos Ortiz, the national Hispanic coordinator for Christians United for Israel (CUFI), asked Peres what members of his community could do for the Jewish people, “today and in the future.”

CUFI, which counts more than 950,000 members across the country, was founded by Pastor John Hagee of San Antonio, Tex., who also founded John Hagee Ministries, which has contributed over $60 million to charitable causes across Israel. Those donations primarily support organizations operating in Israel, but a small number—in 2006, a JTA report estimated about five percent – of the organization’s funding goes to support Jewish settlements in the West Bank. A sports complex in Ariel, a city-sized settlement in the West Bank, is named in Hagee’s honor.

“We used to live on the land,” the Nobel laureate said, beginning a lengthy, somewhat circuitous answer to Ortiz’s question. “The land was something tangible, measurable. We divided pieces of land; most of the wars in history were because of land.

“Now,” Peres continued, “we make our living not out of the land, but out of science.”

Peres concluded his response by asking Ortiz to “build your contribution, your togetherness and your relationship.”

“He really wrapped it up at the end,” Ortiz said after the event. “He said the best thing you can do is unite.” And while uniting might not be possible in some other countries, Ortiz said, it is a freedom available to him as an American.

“Right here, we can unite,” he said, “that’s why we are Christians United for Israel.”

If what Ortiz heard was Peres calling for more unity, the single most common observation made about Peres during his visit had to do with his preternatural optimism.

“Peres is a wise man,” Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom said after the March 8 event. “He’s lived a great deal of our history, and he’s reflected deeply on what history has taught us. His refusal to succumb to pessimism and cynicism is remarkable. That’s the prophet in him — the ability to continue to hope, to envision peace, to demand better of us.”

Leon Uris, macho man


Jews take pride in calling themselves “the people of the book,” and while there’s something a little vainglorious about the phrase—all peoples have books, don’t they?—its appeal is easy to understand. For millennia, in the absence of land and power, Jews found a kind of virtual sovereignty in texts, and the history of Judaism from the Babylonian exile onward could be written as a history of books and writers—the Torah and the Prophets, the Mishnah and Gemara, Rashi and Maimonides, down to modern, secular authors such as Theodor Herzl, Sholem Aleichem and Primo Levi.

And then there is Leon Uris.

Uris, needless to say, was no Rashi; after reading “Leon Uris: Life of a Best Seller,” the new, distinctly unflattering biography by Ira B. Nadel (University of Texas Press, $27.95), one is tempted to say that he was not even Herman Wouk. But like it or not “Exodus,” Uris’ 1958 novel, has earned its place in the history of the people of the book.

It might, in fact, be the worst-written book ever to do so.

Here, for instance, is how Uris introduces Kitty Fremont, the American gentile love interest of the Jewish hero Ari Ben Canaan: “She was even more beautiful than he remembered. They stared at each other silently for a long time. He studied her face and her eyes. She was a woman now, soft and compassionate in the way one gets only through terrible suffering.”

Yet despite a style that Nadel describes as “melodramatic and mannered,” full of “repetitious phrasing, unimaginative language, and clumsy syntax,” “Exodus” became an enormous, worldwide best-seller. A thoroughly romanticized retelling of the Israeli independence struggle, the novel sold millions of copies and was turned into a movie that reached millions more.

Nadel credits it with an “incalculable” effect on the way American Jews, and Americans in general, thought about Israel and Jewish history.

Jews “were no longer victims but heroes,” Nadel writes. “The sheer number of copies sold meant that many experienced Jewish history and heroism dramatically and romantically.”

Such things are hard to measure, of course, and the turning point in American thinking about Israel is more often dated to the Six-Day War a decade later. But there is no question that “Exodus” mattered to American Jews; and it mattered still more powerfully to Soviet Jews.

Exactly how the first copy of the novel got into the Soviet Union is a matter of rumor and legend. One story has the Israeli consulate in Leningrad receiving copies in the diplomatic mailbag and handing them out in secret to Soviet Jews.

“Exodus” soon became a kind of holy text among the Soviet Jewish refuseniks of the 1960s and 1970s, whose Communist education had left them totally ignorant of Jewish and Zionist history.

For them, Uris’ bold, broad strokes, colored by fervent Jewish pride, were the perfect way to fill in the gap. Samizdat translators spent months turning the book into Russian, and then painstakingly typed out copies to pass hand to hand—the dedication of monks in a scriptorium lavished on an airport best-seller.

Nadel quotes the story of one Soviet Jew, Leonid Feldman, who recalled the danger and secrecy that surrounded “the book”—the title was never spoken aloud.

“He waited one night at eleven in a dark corner of a park. He was handed a heavy briefcase. ‘Take a taxi and go home, but you must return with the manuscript to this spot by seven a.m. finished or not,’ said the courier. ‘No one must know what you’ve done.’ ” (It all sounds rather like a scene from a Leon Uris novel, in fact.)

What did the American and Russian readers of “Exodus” get from it?

First, there was the action-packed story of Ari Ben Canaan, a heroic Haganah commander who outwits the British to bring illegal Jewish immigrants into postwar Palestine. Ari has a lost love, Dafna—after whom he names a children’s kibbutz, Gan Dafna—and a new love, Kitty, whose heart he wins with feats like escaping from a British prison.

At the same time, Uris introduces the history of the Holocaust through another character, Dov Landau, who survives the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and Auschwitz to become an Israeli freedom fighter.

Most important, however, was the way Uris turned these unimaginably tragic and complicated events into a clear-cut and inspiring tale of good against evil—a Middle Eastern Western. Before writing “Exodus,” Nadel shows, Uris had spent time as a screenwriter in Hollywood thanks to the success of his debut novel, the World War II saga “Battle Cry.”

Uris was not nearly as successful writing scripts as he was with books. The directors with whom he worked, including Otto Preminger and Alfred Hitchcock, complained of his inability to pare down his stories to the requirements of the screen or work collaboratively.

Uris’ one unambiguous success as a screenwriter was “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral,” a retelling of the Wyatt Earp story, and he learned its lessons well.

“You can write Westerns in any part of the world,” Uris remarked, and he did: “Mila-18” was a Warsaw Ghetto western, “Topaz” a Cuban spy Western, “Trinity” an Irish Western.

Nadel shows how he adopted the genre’s themes: “brotherhood, heroism, the sacrifice of women to a greater cause, male stoicism masking anger” and, of course, “heroes and antiheroes, strong men of virtue and weak men of anger.”

If Uris never really mastered the screenplay, he did import many cinematic techniques into his novels.

“Often, his novels seem storyboarded,” Nadel writes, “as if the plot had been rendered in a series of sketches with a line or two under each drawing expressing the main action.”

This helps to explain why his books were so easy to read, even though they were so terribly written—and why they were critic-proof.One of Nadel’s section headings, “The Critics Are Again Unkind,” says it all. Indeed, reviewers seemed to treat each new Uris book as a contest to come up with most imaginative insult. (About “QB VII,” Christopher Lehmann-Haupt wrote in The New York Times, “One can read it and simultaneously work out tables of actuarial statistics … or iron out the snags in Kant’s ‘Critique of Pure Reason.’ “)

Even David Ben-Gurion couched his praise of “Exodus” carefully: “As a literary work it isn’t much. But as a piece of propaganda, it’s the best thing ever written about Israel.”

Menachem Begin was less pleased by the way “Exodus” transformed the Irgun into a fictional underground group called the Maccabees: He wanted full credit for his exploits.

American Jewish intellectuals frequently were appalled by the way Uris turned the Israelis into fantasies of toughness—what one critic called “Jewish Tarzans.” To Robert Alter, “Exodus” was a clinical case study in “what Americans would like to think about Jews and what American Jewish intellectuals would like to think about themselves.”

Yet as Nadel shows, this view doesn’t get Uris quite right. It’s true that Ari Ben Canaan was a wish-fulfillment figure, a cliched expression of Uris’ lifelong admiration for tough, fighting Jews. But Uris’ whole emotional and mental life seems to have been animated by cliches, and he took this particular one seriously enough to become a fighter himself, for good and bad.

The good came early on, when the 17-year-old Uris enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps just after Pearl Harbor. He was eager to escape a thoroughly miserable childhood spent shuttling back and forth between his divorced, bitter parents.

His father, William Uris—formerly known as Wolf Yerushalmi—was the bane of his existence, as he explained in a late, autobiographical novel, “Mitla Pass.” William came to the United States from Belarus by way of Palestine, but he did not find America a golden land. He drifted from job to job, had a half-hearted career as a Communist organizer, and married and divorced Leon’s mother, Anna Blumberg.

His attitude toward his successful son was a mixture of narcissism and criticism. Freud would have had a field day with the story, told by William in all guilelessness, about how he autographed Leon’s name in a fan’s copy of one of his books.

Joining the Marines was a godsend to Leon—“the war came along at a time when I needed to go to war,” he said—and he identified with the corps for the rest of his life. (His tombstone, in a military cemetery in Virginia, reads “American Marine/Jewish Writer.”) Uris’ experiences in the South Pacific, where he saw action on Guadalcanal and Tarawa, also gave him the subject matter for his first novel, “Battle Cry.”

From the very beginning, Nadel shows, Uris saw it as his mission to offer an unambiguously patriotic account of the war, in contrast to writer-veterans such as Norman Mailer and James Jones. uris provided “patriotism not nihilism, heroism not cowardice.”

The secret to Uris’ success was that he applied this same uplifting formula to every conflict he treated, from the 1948 war (the Jews were good, the Arabs evil) to Northern Ireland (Catholics good, Protestants evil). To Jewish readers, Uris’ message of Jewish toughness, repeated in book after book—even “Battle Cry” featured Capt. Max Shapiro, who dies heroically—was a welcome antidote to anti-Semitic stereotypes. And it was only because Uris genuinely believed in this cult of toughness that he could so earnestly create heroes like Ari Ben Canaan.

Yet as Nadel shows in his account of Uris’ private life, masculine toughness is generally a way of concealing insecurity and confusion.

After hearing about Uris’ rages, bullying, grandiosity and infidelity, it’s no surprise to learn that his first marriage ended in divorce. His second wife committed suicide just months after their wedding. His third wife, who was the same age as his grown children, also left him in the end.

By the book’s close, when the aging Uris, no longer a best-seller, is seen bragging about getting beaten up by a prostitute (she apparently found him “too aggressive”) and asking his (female) editor to “procure him some women,” he seems a pathetic, ugly figure.

It might be fun, or even therapeutic, to read about Jewish Tarzans once in a while, but you wouldn’t want to live with one—or be one.

(Reprinted from Tabletmag.com, a new read on Jewish life.)

The voice of wisdom


Just like that, she was gone.

With no forewarning, Parashat Chukat tells us “Miriam died there and was buried there” (Numbers 20:1). “She died with a Divine kiss,” the Talmud says, and with that one kiss, the sole female voice in the Israelite camp was gone.

Who was Miriam? She is the only woman in the Torah who bears the title “Neviah” — prophetess. So who was she?

We first meet her anonymously, without any proper name. She is referred to as “his sister,” that is, the older sister of a little boy whose mother hid him in a basket on the Nile River. Once the mother placed the baby in the basket, “His sister stationed herself at a distance, to learn what would befall him” (Exodus 2:4). When Pharaoh’s daughter discovers the basket with the crying baby, “His sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter: ‘ Shall I go and get you a Hebrew nurse to suckle the child for you?'” (Exodus 2:7) Miriam is first described as a loving and caring sister, who saw to it that her baby brother Moses was protected and cared for.

We next encounter Miriam on the banks of the Red Sea, following the Song at the Sea. It is there that we first learn her name and title: “Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister…” (Exodus 15:20). It is strange, the Talmud remarks, that she is referred to as “Aaron’s sister”: “Was she only the sister of Aaron and not the sister of Moses?” Through this question, the Talmud actually probes a deeper question: Why was Miriam accorded the spiritual title of “prophetess”? Rabbi Nachman taught in the name of Rav, that Miriam was referred to as “the prophetess, Aaron’s sister,” because at the moment in her life when she first experienced prophecy, Aaron was her only brother. This takes us back the early period of the Israelite enslavement, when Miriam is said to have predicted: “My mother is destined to bear a son who will save Israel” (Seder Olam 3, Megilla 14a). When Moses was born, the Talmud says, the whole house was filled with light, a divine indication that Miriam’s prediction was in fact a prophecy.

At the Red Sea, Miriam the prophetess organized the first spiritual gathering for Israelite women. Miriam “took a timbrel in her hand, and all of the women went out after her in dance with timbrels, and Miriam chanted for them: Sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously” (Exodus 15:20-21). Miriam’s song and dance was, according to Rabbenu Bahya, a “direct address and praise to the Shekhina,” the feminine side of God. Miriam the prophetess was the first feminine voice to directly address the God of Israel.

Miriam’s next episode is more controversial. Miriam “spoke against Moses, because of the Cushite woman he had married” (Numbers 12:1). What happened to her younger brother that Miriam criticized him? He had now become Moses the devoted “Man of God,” and it was on this that Miriam had a critique. In becoming a prophet and “Man of God,” Rashi says, Moses first separated from and then ultimately divorced his wife, the “Cushite Woman” (understood by Rashi to be Zipporah). Miriam expressed disappointment at her younger brother’s abandonment of his wife, with an underlying critique of the concept of holiness achieved at the expense of a normal family life. God punishes Miriam, afflicting her with leprosy. How did the Israelite camp feel about Miriam’s words and her subsequently being “shut out of the camp for seven days”? The fact that the Torah tells us “the people did not march on until Miriam was readmitted” (Numbers 12:15) is a strong indication that the community understood the need for her powerful presence. Without her, they lacked the sensitive voice of a woman.

This brings us to Miriam’s sudden death. The lone prophetess of Israel dies, and in the very next verse, “The community was without water” (Numbers 20:2). The Talmud teaches: “Water is likened to Torah.” The impact of Miriam’s death was the drying of Miriam’s Well — a Well of Torah that had drenched the community with what Proverbs calls “Torat Imekha — “The Torah of your Mother.” The Israelites lost the sensitive, feminine voice of Torah — the voice that not only foresaw the birth of a savior but also instinctively protected him, the voice that sensually sang and danced to the Shekhina, and the voice that risked punishment by reminding the Israelites that spirituality is as much about family as it is about God.

Miriam did not speak often, but when she did, she mirrored the closing lines of the “Woman of Valor” poem, chanted every Erev Shabbat around the table: “She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the Torah of kindness is on her tongue.”

Miriam reminded her brother Moses, and all of us, that “Torah” is a lot more than just a “Holy Scroll.”

Daniel Bouskila is rabbi of Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel.


Loyalty to Jews or to humanity? There is no ‘either-or’


The question is whispered and must be answered in a forthright manner: Darfur or Israel? Is your loyalty to your people or to humanity? Is your loyalty to Judaism or to mankind? Are you essentially a Jew or a human being?

Be wary of the framing of the question, because it forces a stranglehold on us, a hard disjunctive either-or choice. It is like the question my aunt asked me as a child: “Tell the truth, dear. Do you love your father or your mother?” That is a cruel option.

For a Jew, to love Judaism is to love humanity. That is basic Jewish theology. God of Israel is global, not tribal. The traditional formula for our liturgy reads, “Blessed are Thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe.” Melach ha-olam. We are the custodians of the world and its inhabitants.

The righteous indignation of the Jewish prophets was not restricted to Jews or Judaism. The prophets' call to repentance was not for Israel alone. In Judaism, the defense of human dignity never was, or is, for Jews only. When we open the Bible, we learn that the first Jew, Abraham, first defended not Jews but the pagan citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah and confronted God: “Shall the Judge of all the world not do justice?” Abraham spoke to God in passionate defense of the people of Sodom, none of whom were Jews.

On Yom Kippur, we read that the prophet Jonah was sent to prophesy to the people of Ninevah, none of whom were Jews. They repented for their transgressions, and God repented for his punishment.

The prophet Amos addressed God's concern not only for Israel but for the people in Damascus, Gaza, Tyre, Edom, Ammon and Moab.

Do you love your people or humanity? We reject the premise.

To be a Jew is to love humanity. To love God is to love His creation. On Rosh Hashanah, we do not celebrate the birth of any of our Jewish patriarchs — not Abraham nor Moses. Our High Holy Day calendar does not celebrate the birth of a Jewish messiah or the accomplishments of any of its Jewish prophets. The Jewish calendar is calculated not as 2006 C.E. or sixth Century B.C.E. but commemorates the birth of the universe and of all humanity.

In the beginning, God created Adam. Adam has no race, no ethnicity and no creed. Adam is each man and each woman and each child created in the image of God. So, in the first chapter of Genesis, we read: “And God created the human being in God's image, male and female, created He them.”

When the sages ask “from what continent? From what corners of the earth — south, west, east or north — and from what color earth was Adam formed?” they reply, “Adam was formed from every corner of the earth and out of black, white, red and yellow dust.”

If you hurt my brother or my sister — black, white, yellow, red — in Europe, Asia, Africa or America — if you humiliate, torture, torment them, you rip apart the image of God. It is my flesh, soul and heart that you wound. It is my flesh that is pierced and my tongue you cut out and my eyes you make blind.

The God of the universe did not create Islam or Christianity or Judaism. God created Adam, the human being, who through his religious choice cultivates religious culture, conscience and compassion.

Wise people repudiate the making of false either-or choices. The choice is not either-or: either our own or others; either we shed tears for our family alone or for the other families of the earth.

Compassion and justice are not like pieces of pie. Cut a slice for yourself; you take away from the other. Your pie is too small. Your god is too small.

True love and mercy are inclusive, expansive, embracing, enlarging. So, our sages taught “mitzvah goreret mitzvah” — one good deed leads to another. Love of the Children of Israel leads to love of all the children in God's world. The moral choice is not either-or. The Jewish response is “both-and.”

Like charity, love begins at home, but it must not end there. If it ends at home, it is not love and charity but tribal narcissism. Therefore, in our tradition, we are mandated to care for the poor, the pariah, the diseased, the murdered of all humanity. We are mandated to feed the hungry of the stranger, together with the hungry of Israel. We comfort the bereaved of the alien, together with the bereaved of Israel. We visit the sick of the nations of the world with the sick of Israel.

Above all, Jews and non-Jews must not fall victim to the humiliating game of “one downsmanship” — “my genocide is worse than your genocide.” Your blood is not as red as my blood. Genocide, no matter its color, ethnicity or religion of any fabric is the ultimate blasphemy to the image of godliness.

Loyalty to Jews or humanity? The Torah teaches a kinship of suffering, whether the victims threatened are in Judea, Armenia, Chad, Bosnia, Rwanda or Darfur — all souls are threatened. And on Yom Kippur, we fast for all who are afflicted with drought and famine.

It is a false choice: Do you love your children or the children of others? On the contrary, because we love our children, we love other children. Because we love our families, we love other families. Because we mourn our Holocaust, we mourn the holocausts of the world.

It is perilous to abandon the particular in order to love the universal. It is equally foolhardy to abandon the universal for the particular.

As the philosopher George Santayana noted: “You cannot speak in general without using any language in particular.” Judaism is our particular language through which we address humanity. From out of the depth and memory of our own pain, we cry to alleviate the pain of our brothers and sisters.

The Book of Jonah: when doves call


It’s time for Jonah again. I cherish this prophet, whose Hebrew name, “Yonah” means “dove,” the bird of peace. I consider him a member of the family.

Shortly after the deaths
of my mother and sister in 1971, the rabbi of New Orleans’ synagogue, Shir Chadash, gave my dad, Mike Brener (z’l), the honor of reading the Book of Jonah on Yom Kippur afternoon. The rabbi hoped this would engage my father in the community and deliver him from the waters of grief.

My father embraced the invitation. Like Jonah he escaped drowning.



I wrote this prayer several years ago. I read it to a congregation for the first time last year in New Orleans:

Unatana Tokef

We now confront the meaning of this day
As we stare into the face of our own mortality.
We form a circle.
Hands and souls linked,
We stand as community.
Together we contemplate
The Yomim Noraim.
The days of awe,
The days of trembling.

Our eyes scan the room
And lock with the eyes of others,
As we consider the year just begun.

As we cross the threshold of a New Year,
We are not so foolish
As to think that it will be
A year unblemished by tears.

Give us the strength to stand as a circle,
When the year is touched by anguish and pain.
When injustice, illness, and death,
Enter the circle,
Give us the compassion not to avert our gaze.

Only You know what the year will bring.
Who will live and who will die.
Who will face cancer or depression
Or the other maladies of flesh and soul.

Job loss, addiction, infertility, heartbreak,
Temptations to stray from vows to family and community.
Impoverishment, earthquake, hurricanes, acts of terror,
We are vulnerable creatures subject to Your grace.

We do not ask to be exempt from the afflictions of being human.
We only ask that you be with us in the peaks and in the valleys,
That you help us to stand with each other in good times and in bad.
And that the circle of witness and consolation
Remains unbroken
In the coming year.

Amen.

— Anne Brener



In gratitude, my dad framed a wooden structure in the synagogue courtyard to be outfitted each year as a sukkah and used for celebrations. His gift captured the exquisite paradox affirmed after Yom Kippur when we build sukkot: Life is fragile, like these huts, but despite our vulnerability we celebrate zman simchatanu, “The Time of Our Joy.” My father continued to chant Jonah until his death in 1995. He and Jonah became so closely linked that the year after he died, only the rabbi would step up to the bimah on Yom Kippur afternoon to fill his shoes.

Jonah is so human. This prophet, who hears God’s call and runs in the opposite direction, speaks for the part of all of us that would rather sit, like Jonah, in the shade, drink cool drinks, and mutter about evil, rather than arm ourselves with righteousness and set upon the overwhelming wrongs we are called to confront.

While I am no prophet, in the last year I have had the sense of being called. Like Jonah, I would not have chosen my missions. As the Days of Awe approach, I realize that it has been a Year of Awe. The Hebrew word for awe, “yirah,” is variously translated as awe, fear, reverence, terror, and horror. It describes our shock when we come toe-to-toe with the great mysteries of life and death and cannot absorb them. Our spiritual imperative is to traverse the narrow bridge from the awe of fear and trembling to the awe that represents a renewal of reverence and love.

This year, with Jonah as my companion, I have taken two journeys on that bridge. These excursions have given me a frightening view of what Al Gore might call “An Inconvenient Promised Land.” I have visited the Land of Mass Environmental Disaster and the Land of Cancer. I fear these might be waiting for all of us, if we remain mired in fear and denial and do not find a way to steer our community to align with the Yom Kippur biblical call to “choose life.”

My call came three days before Rosh Hashanah last year. It came, not from heaven, but on my cellphone, through God’s representative: the current rabbi of Shir Chadash. I was in New York, after working with the Red Cross in Mississippi. I had intended to go to Baton Rouge where the relief efforts of the New Orleans Jewish agencies were regrouping. But Hurricane Rita was approaching. I headed East instead of West and waited out the storm.

I e-mailed the rabbi to ask if I could help, thinking he would ask me to make pastoral visits to congregants remaining in Louisiana. Within an hour, he called. Most of the congregation was in Houston. He was going there to lead Rosh Hashanah services for them. There was a small group left in New Orleans. They wanted a service. Would I lead?

Like Jonah, I was afraid. In the seconds between his question and my response, I reminded myself that I had only three days to learn an unfamiliar machzor, write sermons and review Torah portions. I had never led High Holiday services without a cantor. I blow shofar poorly. Then I thought of Jonah who ran away when he was called. I said, “Yes.”

A few frantic days later, I was on a plane, headed, not to Nineveh, but to New Orleans.

A flight into New Orleans used to have a party atmosphere. But on the day before the Yomim Noraim, my fellow travelers and I descended with mouths agape in horror. We looked down at the swamps that had reclaimed the Crescent City. My fellow travelers were in two categories. There were the relief workers: FEMA, the Corps of Engineers, Red Cross, Salvation Army and others from around the world on missions of mercy and repair. And there were the returnees: people coming home from exile, having fled to havens across the Southern states and further. I was in both categories.

I was coming to bring relief, and I was coming home. I fled New Orleans years ago, not because of a hurricane, but after the deaths of my mother and my sister. So in a sense, though I have spent much time in New Orleans in the ensuing years, I was also returning from exile. I was making the journey on the day before Rosh Hashanah, the day that had sent me running from the city in 1971. For it was on the day before Rosh Hashanah in 1971 that my mother killed herself.

As I headed to New Orleans, my early losses, my efforts at healing, first for myself and then through my writing and work as a psychotherapist and spiritual director, and, now my rabbinical studies, all of this seemed to be part of some mysterious curriculum that had been preparing me for this for my entire life. My teacher, Rabbi Jonathan Omer-Man, used to ask, “What is the question for which your life is the answer?”

My question had to have been, “Will you come to help after Katrina?”

And there was more. Thirty-five years ago, before the deaths of my mother and sister, I worked for the Ecology Center of Louisiana. I bicycled from the Garden District to the French Quarter each weekday to present a five-minute radio segment. We hoped to alert residents of the Gulf South to the dangers of the chemical by-products of the oil industry; the toxins in our food chain, water and air; global warming; the erosion of the coastal wetlands, and the potential for disaster when the Army Corps of Engineers tries to out-engineer God and nature.

That was in 1970 and 1971.

And when I returned to New Orleans, that day before the Birthday of the World, I witnessed the fulfillment of the environmental nightmare we forecast all those years ago. I visited homes weeks awash in the Katrina flotsam, reeking of mold and chemicals, penetrating every material thing that denoted daily life. Nearly every refrigerator in town was covered with the spores of long-decayed food, and set out on the sidewalk awaiting removal and disposal.

By whom? To where? I smelled the smells. In New Orleans they still smell the smells.

Now, late at night, as I begin to fall asleep, I return to New Orleans. I see the houses that are still stained with waterlines above their doorways and smell the mold that remains in many places more than a year later. I remember the gray of seemingly nuclear winter that covered the foliage, leeched by the fetid water of its verdant semitropical green. I feel the nausea that rose in me as I drove through the debris-filled streets around my father’s flooded and looted store in the Ninth Ward and saw not one other human being.

But that’s not the only nausea I have felt this year. Nausea has been an occasional side-effect of the treatment for the cancer found in my body shortly after I returned from my three months in the Gulf South. During these Days of Awe, I weigh these back-to-back catastrophes to see if there is a relationship between them. I try to find some meaning that will allow me to better align myself with the Holy Call to Heal the World.

As a child in Louisiana, I can remember the black skies of summer. Darkened, not by clouds prophesying rain, but by mosquitoes flocked so thickly they blocked the sun. Clouds of white followed them. Again, not the lamby clouds of impending precipitation, but of DDT belching into the sky to kill the insects. Did this give me cancer?

Or was it the secondhand smoke from my mother’s Salems as I rode in the passenger seat through the streets of New Orleans, stopping periodically at the gas station, where I inhaled the sweet fumes of refined Louisiana crude? Or was it swimming in Lake Pontchatrain before it became illegal?

Or maybe the birth-control pills or the diet sodas or the hormones or the toxins in hair products and cosmetics or the fact that I did not eat enough organic? Overeating? The L.A. air? My laptop sitting on top of the womb where the tumor was found?

During these Days of Awe, we contemplate what we must do to align ourselves with the Holy Call. What better way to observe the days between the Birthday of the World and the Day of Atonement than to ponder our connection to the planet?

When Dana Reeve died, the tender eulogies remembered her grace, courage and kindness. Commentators committed to fighting the disease, finding a cure and wiping the scourge of cancer off the face of the earth. No one mentioned the earth itself.

We early environmentalists made a public relations blunder that weighs heavily on me on these Days of Awe. Instead of “Earth Day … Friends of the Earth … Save the Earth,” we should have appealed to human narcissism, crying out, like Jonah in Nineveh, “Repent … save yourself … your days are numbered…” How grotesque would it have to be to be as effective as Jonah and rouse the community to break through denial and honor the sacred call of tikkun olam? And do we have time? The earth will take the time it needs to recover itself. It is human beings who are in urgent danger.

I was the first one to arrive last year at Shir Chadash on my mother’s yahrzeit to prepare for the next day’s service. Waiting, breathing New Orleans, I pressed my nose to the window, looking past the mud and mold, trying to see if the sukkah was still standing.

In the silence, I heard the cooing of a dove, a yonah. I followed it around the back of the synagogue. It led me over a fence toppled by Katrina, to my father’s sukkah. The sukkah was standing in the courtyard, not a splinter taken by the storm.

The next day, the congregation (100 for the evening service and 170 in the morning) gathered in the small chapel, stripped of its carpet, smelling slightly of mold. Present were Jews from every denomination, from unaffiliated to Chabad. At one point a group of men from Beth Israel, the Orthodox synagogue destroyed by Katrina, shared the bimah with me. There are some fences that Katrina toppled for which we can feel grateful.

Anne Brener is an L.A.-based psychotherapist. She is the author of “Mourning & Mitzvah: Walking the Mourner’s Path” (Jewish Lights, 1993 and 2001), a fourth-year rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and a faculty member of the Academy for Jewish Religion.

What Is Greatness?


As I sit in the heartland of Israel, surrounded by simple and beautiful people, I am constantly amazed at the kindness, the goodness and the utter simplicity of the average Israeli Jew. It is hard to pinpoint why their lives seem to be so greatly enriched even as they struggle to eke out a simple subsistence living. I cannot help but to contemplate a definition of that greatness.

.

And yet, the great personal tragedy of Moshe is hard to miss — especially in the book of Bamidbar (Numbers). As the book commences, Moshe — an incredibly unlikely candidate — has already accomplished the impossible of bringing freedom to an entire nation, uniting them to receive the Torah, defending them in times of crisis and now safely perching them on edge of the land of Israel. Moshe can taste the ultimate fulfillment of his destiny as leader of the Jewish people.

One senses the pulsating excitement as Moshe invites his father-in-law, Yitro, to join him on this triumphant march toward the land of Israel. Nosim anachnu el hamakom. “We are traveling to the place. Come join us.” We, both the Children of Israel and myself are all entering the Promised Land. At this point one feels that nothing can stop the rendezvous with ultimate destiny.

Indeed, the rabbis in the midrash relate that had this march been successful, the Jews would never have experienced the bitter taste of exile. Moses’ entrance into the land of Israel would have ushered in the Messsianic Era, once and forever.

It was not to be. One sin creeps upon the next, and finally the sin of the spies seal the fate of the Children of Israel. A sense of hopelessness pervades and the Children of Israel display intermittent episodes of anger, resentment and even outright rebellion toward their great leader, Moshe. Shortly thereafter, Moshe loses his personal right of entry into the Land of Israel. As the people, so goes the leader.

Thus concludes the tragedy of Moshe, the singular personality who literally gives up his family life and merges his own personal identity with that of the Jewish people. He is denied the success he so passionately desired.

And yet, Moshe remains the greatest leader of the Jewish people. He was the vehicle for the Jew, and, ultimately, the world receiving the Torah. Indeed, Moses Maimonides (1135-1204) considers Moshe’s unique prophetic status as being one of the 13 primary principles of Jewish faith. So how do we reconcile the notion of the tragic Moshe with the great Moshe?

One of the more poignant moments of this incredibly tragic book of Bamidbar is the moment in our parsha, Matot, that God delivers to Moshe his final command: “Avenge the Midianites and then you shall return to your nation.”

Moshe’s death will follow shortly thereafter. It is thus only pragmatic that Moshe would delay the implementation of the command. Would Moshe not want another stab at overturning the Divine Will so perhaps he can enter his beloved Israel? Yet Moshe does not delay. Rather he submits to the Divine will. Perhaps it is this consistent and constant refrain that marks Moshe’s life that is the true definition of greatness.

I have often thought that one of the major values of Western society is the value of results, of tangible accomplishment. Bluntly, the bottom line is the bottom line.

“To the victor goes the spoils” is the modus operandi. In stark contrast, Judaism exalts the process, the struggle over the result. It is interesting to note that the very word Israel means to wrestle with God.

Most of the great Jews that I know toil in the cloak of anonymity — leading wholly ordinary lives laden with challenges and frustrations of normal human existence.

Their greatness lies in their ability to perceive the Divine in every situation and their desire to do what is right rather than what is purely pragmatic. As I reconnect with old friends who have made aliyah, I realize it was that very process that brought most of my Ivy League educated highly successful professionals to “give up” their cushy jobs for simpler jobs that produce far less cash and convenience but perhaps yields something even greater — greatness.

Asher Brander is the rabbi of Westwood Kehilla, founder of LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel) and long-time teacher at Yeshiva University of Los Angeles High Schools.