Where Korbel Meets Manischewitz

Okay, let’s just get this out in the open. The marking of the second millennium since the birth of Jesus is, well, not a Jewish event. In fact, it doesn’t take a theologian to figure out that it’s pretty much a Christian way of chalking up the years.

Nevertheless, Jews will most likely be celebrating Y2K along with rest of the world, not as a Christian holiday, but as milestone that is part of the society in which we live.

“Jews don’t write 5760 on checks,” says Rabbi Steven Leder of Wilshire Boulevard Temple. “You can’t stick your head in the sand and pretend it isn’t one meaningful way of marking time. It’s not a meaningful way of marking time as Jews, but is a meaningful way of marking time, and that has an impact on people.”

Of course, there are ways of celebrating the New Year that are in keeping with Jewish values.

“If a Jewish value is being expressed in the millennium it’s the awareness of time, the sanctity of time and optimism in the future,” Leder says. He contrasts January 1 with Tishri 1, the Jewish New Year.

“Jews don’t celebrate time in a frivolous or careless way, they celebrate the passage time with introspection,” Leder says. With New Years Eve coinciding with Shabbat this year, some shuls grabbed the chance to infuse some Jewish flavor into a secular celebration.

“I did not want Shabbat to be forgotten nor relegated to a position of secondary importance,” says Rabbi Mordecai Kieffer of Temple Beth Emet in Anaheim. “There are plenty of rabbis who decry the incursion of the secular world into the sacred, so I say it is about time that the sacred begin to influence the secular.”

Kieffer decided to combine Korbel toasts with the Maneschewitz kiddush, putting together a “Shabbat in Two Centuries” program for his Conservative congregation. It will begin Friday evening at 8:45 p.m. with a late Shabbat service and Torah study, followed by dinner, games and a midnight toasting of the New Year. The next morning, services will begin at 8:45, there will be a champagne brunch at 10 a.m., followed by Musaf and then a luncheon. For more information call (714) 772-4720.

The Happy Minyan, a Shlomo Carlebach-style group out of Beth Jacob in Beverly Hills, thought it would be a great week to team up with Rabbi Shlomo “Schwartzie” Schwartz of the Chai Center for special Shabbat services and dinner.

Schwartzie, a legend for attracting the unaffiliated, is always looking for a good hook, so he’s letting the Y2K event replace his usual “Not-A-Christmas Party” for this time of year.

“I think it’s just the right mix of ‘aha!’ when you’re looking for what to do,” he says, giving a good alternative to those who don’t want to be in on the club or party scene.

Plus, he adds, “everybody has in the back of their mind, ‘I’m going to go to a Jewish thing, mother will be happy.'”

Services will be at 4:30ish p.m. at the Holiday Inn Select at 1150 South Beverly Drive, north of Pico. Schwartzie will conduct Shabbat services in English, with members of the Happy Minyan leading songs. Dinner and a game of “Stump the Rabbi” will follow, till whenever. The evening is $26; call (310) 391-7995 for more information.

As for Rabbi Leder, he will celebrate Friday, Dec. 31 the only way he knows how.

“How am I going to celebrate? I am going to celebrate around the Shabbat table, with my family, and do what we do every Shabbat: Express our hopes and love for each other. That is a Jewish way of recognizing the passage of time .”

Is Y2K a Jewish issue?

Is the change of the secular calendar from 1999 to 2000 a Jewish issue?

Some insist that the change of the millennium doesn’t take place until the calendar rolls over to 2001. But no matter when they think the current era comes to a close, people on both sides of the overall philosophical divide are taking firm stands.

“Jews should butt out of the turn of the millennium,” said Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, a historian and visiting professor of the humanities at New York University. “It’s not our calendar. We are not at the turn of our millennium.”

Many in the Jewish community share Hertzberg’s perspective.

Two prominent kosher restaurants in the New York area canceled planned Shabbat-oriented New Year’s Eve parties. The prominent kosher supervision agencies that supervise them prohibited Mendy’s in Manhattan, and strongly discouraged Noah’s Ark, in Teaneck, N.J., from holding such celebrations.

Others, however, say that although the millennium isn’t an intrinsically Jewish occasion, it still provides an opportunity — much like Rosh Hashanah — for Jews to reflect on our experiences and goals.

“This next millennium, replete with all its hype, gives us an opportunity to look out at the world and to try and make sense of what we see, to attempt to clarify what we want the future to hold,” Rabbi Rachel Sabath, an associate at CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, wrote in a recent essay.

“Particularly in a time when the world seems upside down, it becomes even more essential to have an orientation, a sense of time, core values that transcend all interpretations, all religions, and all political parties,” she wrote.

Still others say that no matter what our personal feelings about the change in the Christian-created calendar, it would be naive for Jews to ignore the turn of the millennium.

Jews should be prepared for possible technological problems, they say, and should be concerned about a potential backlash by right-wing Christians whose messianic aspirations remain unfulfilled when the calendar rolls over and Jesus has not returned to earth.

“Though apocalyptic expectations have always been proven wrong, wrong doesn’t mean inconsequential,” Richard Landes, director of the Center for Millennial Studies at Boston University, warned at a recent symposium on the millennium, which was sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League.

“The more wrong people are, the more passionate they are,” he said.

Rabbi A. James Rudin, director of interfaith affairs for the American Jewish Committee, is also concerned.

“A lot of my fellow Jews take the turning of the millennium as a joke, but I don’t,” he said. “For some Christians, Dec. 31 is just a night for a great party. But a lot of other Christians take it very seriously.”

“There’s the wise, prudential jubilee approach of introspection and atonement for what we’ve done wrong, which is the Catholic approach,” he said. “Then there’s the prophecy crowd from among extreme evangelical Protestants who make apocalyptic claims for the second coming of Jesus.”

Until recently, prominent conservative evangelical leaders — including the Revs. James Dobson, Jerry Falwell and James Kennedy — were predicting mass upheaval and warning their followers to prepare by stockpiling dried food, water and weapons in advance of an apocalyptic scenario recounted in the Christian Bible’s Book of Revelation.

Christian broadcaster Dobson even gave each of his 1,300 employees an extra $500 to prepare for Y2K, according to a report in the Religion News Service.

Several who had predicted widespread social crisis have in recent weeks largely backed off such doomsday scenarios, wrote the news service, but other Christian fundamentalists and extreme-right hatemongers remain a threat, according to “Y2K Paranoia: Extremists Confront the Millennium,” a report published recently by the Anti-Defamation League.

Inherent in Christian theology is the belief that Jesus will return to earth, ushering in the messianic era.

There are some, primarily right-wing evangelical Christians, who believe that the historical stage has now been set for that chapter to begin, since conditions prophesied in their Bible have been fulfilled: The State of Israel’s creation in 1948; Jerusalem’s reunification under Jewish control in 1967; and the ingathering to Israel of oppressed Jews, particularly from the former Soviet Union, since the 1980s.

When there are high expectations “and then nothing happens, there could be a backlash,” Rudin said.

“If Jesus doesn’t come back, who can they blame?” Rudin asked. “Historically, Jews have often been blamed for not cooperating in this Christian end of the world plan.”

Others are more concerned about technology than theology.

They say that a failure of computer systems worldwide to recognize the change of the millennium could have disastrous consequences for individuals, communities and the environment.

Rabbi Arthur Waskow, director of the Shalom Center, which is a division of ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal, says that the whole problem stems from an over-reliance on computers, which he has dubbed “techno-idolatry.”

His concerns range from the potential interruption of crucial supplies of oil, food and medicines to what he believes is the worst case scenario: “a chemical plant or nuclear plant going haywire, releasing massive amounts of poisonous chemicals. Most nuclear plants require electricity to shut down, so not being able to do so could make serious trouble,” he said.

To prepare, he and his wife have stockpiled two weeks’ worth of supplies for five people: bottled water, cans of tuna, vegetables and fruit, as well as flashlights and batteries, and a radio powered by turning a crank. They are keeping lots of books, especially a Bible, close by.

Waskow may be one of a small number of Jewish voices calling for other Jews to take such precautionary measures, but he’s not alone.

“How scared do you want to get?” Rabbi Jeff Glickman, spiritual leader of Reform Temple Beth Hillel in South Windsor, Conn., asked referring to the several examples of potential disaster that he could cite.

Glickman, too, is preparing for Y2K by stocking up on non-perishable food and filling a lined trash can with fresh water for each member of his six-person family. He is also taking “a considerable amount of money” out of the bank to hold in cash, he said.

“Banks interact with thousands of other institutions every day. If any garbage comes in from any of them they may have to stop and verify every transaction. How long would that take?” he wondered.

What’s more, “there could be a horrible run on things at the end of December, like food and stocks, whether or not the computer glitch happens.”

Glickman and Waskow have both tried to use their pulpits — Glickman at his synagogue and Waskow through seminars at the Jewish Renewal retreat center Elat Chayyim in New York — to convince Jews that the real solution to millennial concerns is to work toward a greater sense of community by increasing personal contact between people rather than continuing to rely so heavily on technology.

Glickman tried to organize his congregants into “family groups” of several people who live in the same area, with the idea that they would look out for each other and develop closer relationships.

Both the rabbis, however, have gotten a weaker response than they had hoped.

When speaking about it from the pulpit, Glickman said, “I feel like I’m in a Dunkin’ Donuts, with the amount of glaze on people’s eyes.”

Still, the two rabbis aren’t the only ones hedging their millennial bets.

“I for one am not ready to give up the batteries and bottled water in my kitchen cabinet,” said Pam Schafler, an ADL lay leader who introduced the millennium symposium there last month.

For his part, Landes said that even if the calendar changes over from 1999 to 2000 without incident, debate and fear will not end.

“I don’t think it’s intelligent to assume that this will all decrease next year,” he said.

The End of Days

The way Richard Landes goes on about Y2K and the end of days, you might think he’s some kind of nut. He’s not. It’s just that he’s been watching kooks for so long, he sometimes begins to sound like one.

A professor of medieval history at Boston University, Landes is a leading expert in what’s known as millennial studies. He and his colleagues peer into the minds of people who think the end of the world is nigh. Landes’ specialty is the religious unrest that he says swept Christian Europe around the year 1000 — what he calls “the Y1K problem.”

Lately, he has diversified. For the last four years, he’s headed Boston University’s Center for Millennial Studies, tracking the unrest sparked by the approach of the year 2000. He’s fast becoming the most quoted expert on the approaching calendar shift and what it means.

It’s drawing controversy. Besides analyzing the various religious raptures, death cults and computer bugs associated with Y2K, he’s become a sort of advocate. Landes claims that the millennium’s dangers aren’t being taken seriously enough. He wants the public — government, business, society at large, the Jewish community in specific — to start preparing.

Landes doesn’t believe the world will end next year. A religious Jew — raised Conservative, currently Orthodox — he attaches no special meaning to having three zeroes in the Gregorian calendar.

No, what worries him is that a lot of other people believe it, and they may respond in alarming ways. That could make life unpleasant for the rest of us. It won’t be the end of the world, but it might sometimes feel like it.

He’s especially worried about what happens when the world doesn’t end, and true believers look for someone to blame. “In the later periods of a millennium wave, there’s a period of disappointment and frustration,” Landes says. “In the past, this has often led to the scapegoating of Jews. Things like, ‘If only they had converted, Jesus would have come.’ And that can get nasty.”

“My point isn’t that this is going to happen,” he says. “My point is that it could, and we need to talk with Christians and take steps to prevent it.”

Classic millennialism is based on the New Testament Book of Revelations, which is often interpreted to say the year 2000 will bring the second coming of Jesus and the war of Armageddon, followed by the kingdom of God on Earth.

Landes warns that thousands of “premillennial” Protestants will want to be in Jerusalem next year to witness it firsthand. Some may prepare for resurrection by attempting mass suicide. Others may try to help things along by starting the war themselves — blowing up the Temple Mount, for example. The Israeli police take the danger seriously enough that they’ve formed a special millennialism unit.

Not everyone who believes in the millennium is a dangerous nut, Landes cautions. “Millennialism simply refers to the belief that at some time in the future, there will be a dramatic transformation. The classic millennial vision is Isaiah 2:1-3, about swords and plowshares.”

Such beliefs often make for a better world, he says. Zionism, liberalism, even modernism itself are all forms of millennial belief.

When it gets dangerous is when it turns apocalyptic. “Apocalyptic means you think it’s about to happen,” he says. “If I tell you the kingdom is coming in 200 years, it’s not going to have a lot of impact on your life. But if I tell you it’s happening now, you get a new set of rules, and people start defecting to the new rules.”

Landes’ end-time studies cover a range of trends and players: Mainstream churches innocently celebrating Jesus’ 2,000th birthday; apocalyptic sects claiming that the new year will bring Jesus’ second coming and the war of Armageddon; oddball death cults, such as the suicidal Heaven’s Gate and the homicidal Tokyo subway plotters.

He’s also studying responses to the notorious Y2K (for “Year 2000”) computer bug, the programming defect that could cause computers all over the world to stop dead at midnight, Dec. 31. The computer failures could disrupt anything from electric grids to food-distribution networks. Doomsday cultists call the bug a clear sign that the end is near. Landes calls it “the coincidence to die for.”

He’s in the center of a fast-growing field. Interdisciplinary millennial studies now go on at dozens of universities, combining history, psychology, political science and religion. The American Academy of Religion has brought the field together at an annual consultation since 1995.

Ironically, Landes’ Y2K expertise may overshadow his original career. His main work, studying medieval European end-time unrest, follows a classic theory now widely discarded. Many now say the first millennium passed quietly. Landes is part of a stubborn minority.

That hasn’t slowed his Y2K work, though. Whatever happened 1,000 years ago, something is happening now. Landes is one of the clearest voices addressing it.

The computer bug typifies the ways Landes thinks society fails to confront the millennium. Government and business are reprogramming their computers. The press reports their progress. But nobody is telling the public how bad it is.

In the vacuum, Landes says, conspiracy theories are spreading. Frightened consumers, unable to get straight answers about their water supply, are logging onto far-right Web sites at record rates.

“My personal opinion is, this is something we should be talking about as a community, not as individuals,” Landes says. “But we’re passing on that discussion. We’ve decided to sleep through it.”

The same goes for the Jewish community. “The Jewish community is basically immobilized when it comes to thinking about Y2K,” he says.

Right now, he says, Jews have a window of opportunity. “We have a lot of slack from a wide range of groups. The Holocaust is still fresh as a matter of discussion. People are reluctant to get unpleasant with us.” He cites Vatican recognition of Israel and widespread Protestant support for Israel.

At the fringes, though, classic anti-Semitism thrives. “If you go on the Web and type ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion,’ you get 300,000 hits. This stuff is out there.”

How long will it remain marginal? That depends on what Jews do next, Landes says. Already, disputes over Holocaust history are chilling Catholic-Jewish relations. Relations with the Protestant right could sour in the wake of a post-millennial letdown. What’s urgently needed, he says, is frank talk — with others, and among ourselves.

“When I first read ‘The Protocols,’ I was stunned. I told a colleague, we should publish this to let people know. He said: ‘You think you’re inoculating people? You’re actually spreading the virus.’

“That’s the crucial question. Do we talk about these things openly? Do you or do you not trust the American public? If you don’t trust the American public, then God help us.”

J.J. Goldberg writes a weekly column for The Jewish Journal.