A Provocative Talk Among ‘We Jews’

“We Jews: Who Are We and What Should We Do” by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz (Jossey-Bass, $24.95).

Is modern Judaism facing an identity crisis? One would think so from reading “We Jews: Who Are We and What Should We Do?” by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz. This provocative work, which Steinsaltz calls “a private, intimate conversation within the Jewish family,” looks to bring out into the open “the issues and subjects that are rarely raised in a straightforward [manner].” Included are controversial topics such as “Are We a Nation or a Religion?”; “Do We Have Our Own Set of Character Traits?”; “Is Money Our God?”; and “Are We Excessively Warm or Excessively Cold?”

Although Steinsaltz could have written a scholarly treatise, he chose instead to compose “a conversation-like study and a clarification of thoughts that should provoke the reader to further thinking and to drawing his own conclusions.”

He acknowledges the many objections that readers could have to his work. But his easy-to-read prose allows for a wider readership than a scholarly work. The book should elicit conversation. I found myself arguing with the text and then expanding on the ideas Steinsaltz introduces. Even when I don’t agree with him, I admire his well-thought-out arguments.

Perhaps the most controversial chapter deals with the nature of the Jewish people. The question of whether we are a nation or a religion has never been successfully answered. What Steinsaltz believes is that neither of these determinations adequately describes the connection that exists between Jews. Instead, he feels we are a family, “not a family in the biological sense of the word… [but] rather a human-spiritual structure.”

So a “gentile who converts to Judaism does not only belong to the Jewish religion; he is considered a son of the Jewish people and even a son of the family.”

Steinsaltz does believe that the Jewish people have their own character traits, but he also says “that sometimes we use them and sometimes we abuse them.” While he feels it’s impossible to outline all Jewish characteristics, he mentions “our flexibility is a critical survival skill,” that “we are quintessentially a stiff-necked people” and that “we are buoyed by faith.”

These traits have their good and bad sides. For example, being flexible has helped the Jewish people adapt to the different countries they have lived in during the Diaspora. On the other hand, this same trait “leads to a sense of dissociation, in the sense that a person can go from one place to another without striking roots too deeply in any particular place.” By being able to belong everywhere, Jews may never truly feel that they belong anywhere.

The chapter about Jews and money takes on the myth that Jews are obsessed with money and that all Jews are rich. Steinsaltz looks at the historical origins of this idea, explaining how this “error of perception” came into being. He also looks at the reasons why Jewish poverty is “not visible to outsiders,” emphasizing the fact that Jews have always looked to each other to support the needy members of their community.

In the section that examines “are we too cold- or warm-hearted,” Steinsaltz uses a cultural perspective, showing how these generalizations tell more about the people who make them then they do about Jews.

Jews are often criticized as being too intellectual on the one hand or too emotional on the other, but Steinsaltz finds the combination of these traits “praiseworthy” since they “can be understood as two expressions of the same power.” Using our brains and our emotions gives a depth to the Jewish experience and leads to “a clearer and sharper way of thinking.”

Steinsaltz also explains how Torah study, prayer and mysticism have benefited from our ability to express both sides of our nature.

In other chapters, Steinsaltz looks at the Jewish messianic complex, the role of Jews in the world, whether or not Judaism influences our thinking processes, how anti-Semitism affects other nations and the nature of Jewish leadership.

Many times I found myself debating the ideas he sets forward. For example, is Jewish identity only based on the “religious stuff” as he claims? Secular Jews might well disagree. As I thought more, I found myself acknowledging that without the “religious stuff,” the cultural aspects of Jewish identity might soon disappear, especially since Jews have so easily adapted to the civilizations they’ve lived in.

What “We Jews” doesn’t deal with is the many practical problems currently facing the Jewish world. It avoids the “Who is a Jew” question faced by Israel. The more politically inclined will wonder how his work can help them deal with the crises currently facing Israel. It is one thing to say that we need to return to our religious values; it’s another to define what those values are.

But the main concern of this work is not politics; it seeks to help readers work out their religious ideas and place them in the context of modern life. In that context, the book worked for me personally: It made me analyze my feelings about Jews and Jewish identity.


Flamboyant Ballet

When Boris Eifman’s ballet, "Tchaikovsky: The Mystery of Life and Death," premiered in Moscow in 1993, angry picketers surrounded the concert hall.

"They stood with a banner that read, ‘Stay away from our Tchaikovsky,’" said Eifman, whose ballet debuts at the Orange County Performing Arts Center May 16-18.

The provocative phantasmagoric piece explores the beloved Russian composer’s tortured psyche, especially his repressed homosexuality. His inner split is portrayed literally, with one dancer representing the closeted, anguished Tchaikovsky, and another his sexy, uninhibited alter ego. Homoerotic playing cards cavort in one sequence, while another depicts Tchaikovsky kissing a sleeping prince, rather than a princess, in an allusion to his ballet, "Sleeping Beauty." The piece is as explicit, if less sensationalistic, as Ken Russell’s 1970 film "The Music Lovers."

The audaciously flamboyant work is what audiences have come to expect of Eifman, whose ballets include "My Jerusalem," an ode to the Israeli capital, and "Red Giselle," about a Soviet ballerina gone mad.

While noting that Eifman’s company has received far more attention in the West than others in Russia’s vibrant, contemporary dance scene, Los Angeles Times dance critic Lewis Segal nevertheless praises his "talent for grand-scale pictorial splendor" and for creating "very gutsy work within that society."

"Homosexuality was only legalized in Russia in 1997, and here he has a seminaked Tchaikovsky and his boyfriend doing male duets," Segal told The Journal. "His ‘Red Giselle’ has a communist [official] virtually raping the heroine. Eifman managed to stage dances about religion, and he is a Jewish artist who managed to stand up to the communists and not back down. So I give him amazing points for courage."

The renegade choreographer took his first dance classes at age 6 in Siberia, where his father, an engineer, had been ordered to work in a tank factory during World War II. In 1953, his family relocated to Kishinev, Moldavia, where Eifman began choreographing at 13 — to his parents’ chagrin.

"A musician in a Russian Jewish family, it’s normal, but a dancer is abnormal," he said through a translator.

The authorities also regarded him as abnormal when, after graduating from the Leningrad Conservatory, he founded his own company in 1977 to create "absolutely nontraditional work that broke the canon of Soviet ballet."

While audiences cheered his unorthodox mix of contemporary movement and Freudian drama, the cultural commissars disapproved. They nixed his funding and forbade him from touring outside the U.S.S.R, forcing Eifman, now 58, to scrape by on ticket sales in the provinces. They also pressured him to leave the country: "They said, ‘You’re not a Soviet choreographer; better you should go to Israel,’" Eifman recalled.

The harassment included anti-Semitism, even though the choreographer felt "this is my culture; it’s just like a difficult relationship in a family."

So he chose to remain in the U.S.S.R., although he took the first opportunity to visit Israel, when Perestroika hit in 1989.

Walking around the capital, Eifman said, spurred "My Jerusalem," in which three soloists personify Judaism, Christianity and Islam co-existing in one place.

"I wanted to show that God created this city to show a model of love," he said.

Four years later, Eifman focused on Russian culture when he holed up in the St. Petersburg library to research a piece on his favorite composer, Tchaikovsky. He pored over diaries and letters in which the musician described his unhappy marriage and a suicide attempt.

"My whole life I wondered why he composed such tragic music, and I learned it was because he lived a double life," Eifman said. "He was a religious man, and he thought his sexuality was his personal tragedy. I decided two dancers could show the conflict between his soul and his body."

When "Tchaikovsky" premiered in New York during the Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg’s triumphant 1998 United States debut, not a single picketer surrounded the concert hall. Instead, excited Russian immigrants lined up to see their favorite company, along with expectant dance critics.

After the first performance, The New York Times’ Anna Kisselgoff wrote that "you won’t find such daring actor-dancers anywhere else, not even in other Russian companies."

Eifman traces his success to his dual cultural roots. "I make Russian ballets with a Jewish soul," he said.

Tickets, $20-$65, are available at (714) 556-2787, ext. 6677; online at www.ocpac.org; and through Ticketmaster, (714) 740-7878 or (213) 365-3500.