November 16, 2018

Anne Frank’s Spirit Portrayed in Graphic Art ‘Diary’

Since the 1991 publication of Art Spiegelman’s groundbreaking “Maus,” to put a new spin on Theodor Adorno’s cautionary aphorism, it is no longer barbaric to write about the Holocaust in a comic book. The latest example of the genre is “Anne Frank’s Diary: The Graphic Adaptation,” adapted from the original text by Ari Folman and illustrated by David Polonsky (Pantheon). Not unlike “Maus,” the graphic version of “The Diary of a Young Girl” is both a challenge and a wonderment. 

Indeed, I picked up the book with some trepidation. How could Anne Frank’s firsthand testimony be rendered in drawings and dialogue balloons without cheapening and distorting the work she created as a doomed youngster in hiding? But by the time I put it down, I was filled with admiration for what Folman and Polonsky have accomplished. Their “graphic edition” serves as a companion volume to — and, really, a midrash on — Anne Frank’s immortal memoir, and the book stands on its own as a work of art, sometimes disturbing but always illuminating.

Ari Folman is the director of the Oscar-nominated animated documentary film “Waltz With Bashir” and a screenwriter for the Israeli TV series called “Be Tipul” (“In Therapy”), which served as the basis for the HBO series “In Treatment.” David Polonsky, an award-winning illustrator of children’s books and a member of the faculty of Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Israel, was the art director and lead artist for “Waltz With Bashir.” Significantly, and despite the audacity of their undertaking, “Anne Frank’s Diary” is authorized by the Anne Frank Foundation in Basel, which gave its official blessing to this audacious re-imagination. 

The project actually originated with the Anne Frank Foundation, which approached Folman with the proposal for an animated feature film based on Anne’s diary. The book, in a sense, is a preview of the feature film, which is scheduled for completion in 2020. Both projects, Folman reveals, were daunting: “It was astounding to me that a thirteen-year-old girl had been able to take such a mature, lyrical look at the world and translate that into concise, probing entries brimming with compassion and humor, and with a degree of self-awareness that I have rarely encountered in the adult world, much less among children,” he writes in an “Adapter’s Note.” “How could I ‘edit’ the book?” Page by page, his graphic edition shows us exactly how the adapter and the illustrator approached and mastered the challenge.

“Folman and Polonsky have reclaimed Anne Frank in all of her humanity, and they allow us to witness for ourselves her beauty, courage, vision and imagination.”

Quite unlike “Maus,” Polonsky’s drawings are literal rather than fanciful. To be sure, they recall the classic era of the American comic book, when artists simplified and stylized their images in order to heighten the tension, drama and action but also sought to depict people and events as somehow hyper-realistic. The eye-stopping two-page spread that shows the downing of an Allied warplane over a public square in Amsterdam is a tribute to the World War II-themed comic books that I favored in my own adolescence. (“Brrr, I hate the sound of gunfire,” Anne writes.) At times, I was reminded of the rich illustration style that the Belgian illustrator known as Hergé brought to his the Tintin series.

The text itself is drawn mostly from the original diary, some passages of which may come as a surprise for readers who first encountered the book many years ago. Only rarely does Folman invent the words that appear in a dialogue balloon into Polonsky’s illustrations. To illustrate what Anne may have been thinking the memorable night when she and Peter shared their first kiss, for example, he inserts a joke: “So, is he going to make a move before the war ends … ?” A moment later, drawing on a passage in the diary, we see Anne and Peter embracing after their first kiss, and Folman includes two figures of Anne, one silencing the other with an outstretched hand. 

“I realized, for the first time, that there is not only one Anne Frank, but, surprisingly, two Anne Franks,” she muses.
“[S]uddenly the everyday Anne slipped away and the second Anne took her place. The second Anne, who’s never overconfident or amusing, but wants only to love and be loved.”

One example of the interplay between Anne’s private thoughts and the soaring imagination of Folman and Polonsky is the page based on her diary entry for Wednesday, Feb. 23, 1944. “This morning, when I was sitting on front of the window and taking a long, deep look outside at God and nature, I was happy, just plain happy,” she wrote in an entry addressed to Peter, the boy who sheltered with the Frank family and her first (and only) love. “Riches, prestige, everything can be lost. But the happiness in our own heart can be dimmed: it will always be there, as long as you live, to make you happy again.” To illustrate these deeply ironic sentiments, we are shown what Anne sees through the window — a pair of seagulls in flight — and what Anne surely imagined and hoped for, the two of them, Anne and Peter, soaring aloft with outstretched arms, a scene so poignant that it brings a lump to the throat. 

At certain moments, the imagination of the adapter and the illustrator supply images to accompany the more abstract musings that we find in the diary itself. She is depicted as the figure in Munch’s “The Scream” or as “The Lady in Gold” in Klimt’s famous painting of Adele Bloch-Bauer. When Anne writes about her bouts of depression and despair, “we chose to depict them as either fantastical scenes … or as dreams,” Folman writes. Thus, for example, her worst fears of what would happen if they fell into German hands is depicted as a detailed Egyptian hieroglyphic with an SS guard overseeing the labor of Jews in concentration-camp uniforms as they erect a pyramid-sized ziggurat topped with a Nazi eagle.

Since the discovery and publication of “The Diary of Anne Frank,” the young girl who wrote the diary has been transformed from a flesh-and-blood victim of Nazi brutality into a shimmering icon. Famously, she was even turned into an object of veneration by a cult in Japan. To their credit, Folman and Polonsky have reclaimed Anne Frank in all of her humanity, and they allow us to witness for ourselves her beauty, courage, vision and imagination, all of the qualities that make her life and early death so heartbreaking. And, in doing so, they have elevated the tools of the comic book to create an astonishing work of art.

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

Walking With the Jews Who Created Christianity

A distinguished Christian scholar has written a fascinating book about a crucial moment in Jewish history and about one Jew in particular, perhaps the most famous Jew of all — Jesus of Nazareth.

“When Christians Were Jews: The First Generation,” by Paula Fredriksen (Yale University Press), offers a glimpse in tight close-up of the Jewish community in Jerusalem in the first century of the Common Era, when “the Jesus movement,” as Fredriksen puts it, was a sect within Judaism that regarded Jesus as the long-promised Messiah of the Hebrew Scriptures. Thus, she argues provocatively, the Christian Scriptures can be seen as “a genre of Jewish scriptural improvisation.”

Fredriksen is the Aurelio Professor of Scripture emerita at Boston University and a member of the Faculty of Humanities at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. She has written often on the linkages between Christianity and Judaism, and her previous books include “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” and “Augustine and the Jews.” Indeed, she wrote her new book in Jerusalem, and she was inspired by setting her own feet on the ground where David and Jesus once walked.

“Simply being here, being able to walk to and in the Old City, to stand near the Kotel and, when local politics allowed, to pace the Muslim area built upon the ruins of Herod’s magnificent temple, charged my imagination and filled me with sadness and wonder,” Fredriksen explains. “What a beautiful, blood-soaked, beloved, contested piece of the planet Jerusalem is.”

Throughout her account, Fredriksen parses the Christian Scriptures to tease out “the intra-Jewish religious arguments” that they embody. When she invokes the founding fathers of Christianity, Fredriksen pauses to note: “All of these men were Jews.” Above all, she reminds her readers that Paul —who cut the ties between Judaism and “the Jesus movement” and thus can be regarded as the actual creator of Christianity — boasted proudly of his Jewish identity: “Circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born to Israel.”

Her knowing attention to detail often turns the Christian version of the life story of Jesus on its head.  For centuries — and, thanks to Mel Gibson, even in our own times — the encounter between Jesus and Pontius Pilate as depicted in the Gospels has been a source of deadly Christian anti-Semitism. Pilate is shown to blame the Jews of Jerusalem for demanding the execution of Jesus. “As history,” Fredriksen argues, “the scene cannot fit into what else we know had to have been the case — namely, that Jesus’ popularity is what led him to his cross.”

Nor is it plausible, as the Christian Scriptures suggest, that the Temple priests contrived to frame Jesus because they regarded him as a dangerous subversive. “After all, just southeast of Jerusalem, at Qumran, an entire community was busy producing their own biblical commentaries, developing their own halakhic practices, disdaining the current temple, reviling its priesthood, and anticipating the Endtime arrival of an entirely new temple, which at least implied the destruction of the current one,” Fredriksen writes. “Against them the Jerusalem priesthood never so much as lifted a finger.”

“What a beautiful, blood-soaked, beloved, contested piece of the planet Jerusalem is.”
— Paula Fredriksen

Paul may have looked beyond Judaism when he brought the Jesus movement to Rome, but even he carried the threads of Jewish tradition into Christianity. The earliest followers of Jesus expected the world to end in their own lifetimes, and they embraced what Fredriksen describes as “the contours of late Second Temple Jewish apocalyptic eschatology.” Jesus is explicitly described in the Christian Scriptures as the direct descendant of King David precisely because his fellow Jews expected the Messiah to carry David’s blood in his veins. 

“The figure of Jesus was draped in the antique robes of Davidic traditions; and those traditions were thereby ‘updated’ by being conformed to the figure of Jesus — his death as ‘King of the Jews’ and his postresurrection anticipated return,” Fredriksen writes. “It is through this process that Jesus became ‘Christ.’ ” 

Even as Christ, however, Jesus was expected to bring a version of the end of the world that owes much to Jewish messianism. “Not only would life be restored to the dead; the ten tribes of Israel, ‘lost’ to the Assyrian conquest in the eighth century B.C.E., would be restored to the nation, ‘gathered in’ with the exiles of Israel,” Fredriksen summarizes. “The false gods of the nations, subdued in their turn, would themselves acknowledge the God of Israel. … And the mother city of the wide-flung Jewish nation, Jerusalem, restored and resplendent, would shine in the End as the place of God’s presence, the seat of his Kingdom.”

The best evidence that Christianity began as a “small messianic sect” within Judaism is that the authors of the Christian Scriptures “retrofitted” the life of Jesus to recall specific passages of the Hebrew Bible, an exercise that would have been meaningful and convincing only to their fellow Jews. “All Israel had been awaiting such a messiah, they proclaimed,” Fredriksen writes. “Moses and the prophets together witnessed to the significance of Jesus and the messiah. … Finally, finally, and in their own days, these prophecies had already been — and would soon be — fulfilled.”

Exactly here is where “the Jesus-community,” as Fredriksen puts is, branches off  from its Jewish theological roots. The Jews who expected Jesus to return in apocalyptic glory during their own lifetimes died off. “The single biggest problem was that the End, stubbornly, continued not to come,” the author writes, and “[t]ime continued to continue.” Subsequent generations of believers in Jesus now sought to convert the gentiles among them and to bring their “good news” to Rome and beyond. Thus did the first Christians explain the delay in the Second Coming: “’The gospel must first be preached to all nations’ before the End can come.”

Surely it is no coincidence that Fredriksen is able to conjure Jerusalem in ancient times while seated at a desk in modern Jerusalem, but it is deeply ironic. Both the Jewish world and Jerusalem in particular are the seat of conflict today, and Fredriksen shows us that it has always been so.

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

‘God Is in the Crowd’: A Memoir and Warning

“My prognosis for the Jewish future is grim,” announces Tal Keinan at the very outset of “God Is In the Crowd: Twenty-First Century Judaism” (Spiegel & Grau). For precisely that reason, Keinan urgently seeks to start a conversation with “the Crowd,” which he defines as “a critical mass of the world Jewish community,” about ideas that he readily describes as aggressive and even radical. But he insists that what is at stake is the very survival of Judaism: “In an era of seemingly limitless personal options, our choice as a community is stark: Create meaning in Judaism or accept extinction.”

Keinan is an activist and an entrepreneur rather than a religious scholar. He attended Israel‘s Air Force Academy and spent eight years as a pilot in the Israeli Air Force (IAF), an experience that “left almost no time for contemplating Judaism.” He holds an MBA from Harvard and runs an investment firm called Clarity Capital. As co-founder of Koret Israel Economic Development Funds, his contribution to Israel focuses on making loans to small businesses. To put it another way, he knows how to fly an F-16 in combat, and he is an expert at number-crunching and asset management, but he relied on Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller for the accuracy of his references to the Talmud and Halacha.

The author starts with the assumption that Jews today, both in America and Israel, do not face the same threat of physical extinction that confronted Judaism during the Holocaust. “Like America, Israel has brought the blessings of security, freedom, and prosperity to many individual Jews.” But he insists that “complacent American Judaism” and “a fundamentally divided, visionless, and consequently rudderless Israel” remain a direct threat to our survival. “American Jewry is dying in its sleep,” he writes, and Israel is growing ever more estranged from the Diaspora: “Israel’s viability will be deeply compromised if the country comes to represent nobody but its own inhabitants.” His book, then, is a cry of alarm and a call to action addressed to the Jewish people in their entirety.

“Keinan’s book is a cry of alarm and a call to action addressed to the Jewish people in their entirety.”

At the same time, “God Is In the Crowd” is an intimate memoir of his own aliyah. Keinan makes the storytelling compelling by allowing us to accompany him through the harrowing experiences of applying to and training for the IAF, and then serving under enemy fire. He writes candidly and movingly about the rough bumps of his own transformation from American immigrant to Israeli citizen. In one memorable moment, he shows us what the offer of a melted cheese sandwich from a kibbutznik on Yom Kippur meant to a soldier from America at a post in the Negev: “I took it without hesitation,” he recalls. “Just like that, the single annual anchor of my Jewish identity melted in the heat of the Negev.”

Above all, he confronts us with what Israel really asks of its men and women, both young and old, whose duties include military service on fighting fronts. “The leap between war and work,” he writes, means the repeated transition from “a normal professional and family life that any Silicon Valley entrepreneur, Wall Street investor, or American Jew would recognize” to “a world fraught with terror, loss, irreversible consequences, and unavoidable guilt.” Only rarely are readers offered an opportunity to ride along in the cockpit of an F-16 on a combat mission in the “Syrian missile umbrella,” and his account is far more thrilling than any movie or video game that offers an ersatz version of the same experience.

The last one-third of the book consists of Keinan’s courageous and visionary attempt to make sense of the conundrums and contradictions that he has explored in the first two-thirds. His goal is “to offer a model of Judaism compelling enough that the vast majority of Jews, in America and in Israel, will embrace it willingly.” He turns to a very modern-sounding (but actually quite old) approach to decision-making variously called “Vox Populi” and “Wisdom of Crowds,” and he insists that “Jewish Crowd Wisdom” has always served as a tool for Jewish self-definition and self-correction. “Perhaps paradoxically, the diversity of our individual readings, and our diverse choices of destination, help to define us as a coherent nation,” he argues. “The Jewish Crowd in Diaspora did not receive dogma from above. It wrestled with its own moral governance.” Drawing on his own expertise in financial analysis, he asks: “Could the evolving Jewish moral code be a representation of a continuous moving average of more than three thousand years of religious, cultural, and moral data points?”

“God Is In the Crowd” rewards the reader with a vivid and affecting account of life in Israel today, while at the same time challenging us to ponder and perhaps even revise our understanding of what it means to be a Jew, both in Israel and America. That’s what Keinan means when he refers to the evolving moral code that is the highest expression of Judaism. “Modernity will end Jewish history and, with it, the distinctive contribution of the Jews to human history,” he warns, “unless the code, and the community that serve as its medium, can be revived.”

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

U.S. and Them: How Americans See Themselves in Israel

On our first trip to Israel, we traveled via Rome to Jerusalem. At the hotel in Rome, we needed to get a converter from the front desk to operate our electric appliances, and the only English-language TV channels were BBC and CNN. Our room at the King David, by comparison, was equipped with a U.S. outlet, and we could watch episodes of “CSI” in English with Hebrew subtitles.

That’s only one measure of the cultural affinity between America and Israel, of course, and Amy Kaplan drills down much more deeply in “Our American Israel: The Story of an Entangled Alliance” (Harvard University Press). Be forewarned: Kaplan is a harsh critic of Israel, and she questions all of the assumptions that prompted President Barack Obama to affirm the existence of an “unbreakable bond” between the two countries.

Kaplan is the Edward W. Kane Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, a former president of the American Studies Association, and the recipient of fellowships from both the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Institute of Advanced Studies at Princeton.  Her scholarly eye falls on every aspect of what she characterizes as the “mythic status and tenacious appeal” of Israel in the American imagination, and she sharply criticizes what she calls “the strangeness of an affinity that has come to be self-evident.”

Indeed, the title of her book reaches all the way back to 1799, when a New England minister preached a Thanksgiving sermon about “Our American Israel” because, as he saw it, “the people of the United States come nearer to a parallel with Ancient Israel than any other nation upon the globe.” She is just as intrigued by the way that artifacts of popular culture, such as Leon Uris’ 1958 best-selling novel, “Exodus,” and the subsequent movie version have shaped American perceptions of Israel: “One cannot overestimate the influence of ‘Exodus’ in Americanizing the Zionist narrative of Israel’s origins.” And she points out that AIPAC sent a copy of the 1978 TV miniseries “Holocaust” to every member of Congress “as part of an intense lobbying campaign against a plan to sell aircraft to Saudi Arabia.”

Kaplan recognizes how the hard realities of recent American experience have only brought us closer to Israel. “After September 11, 2001, Israel’s experience of terrorism offered Americans a ready-made vocabulary for articulating their own sense of unprecedented trauma,” she writes. But she also points out that the theological longings of “Christian Zionists” are equally powerful in shaping American policy toward Israel: “The significance of Israel was not in realizing the political goal of Jewish sovereignty, but in manifesting’s God’s sovereignty and making it possible for some Jews to convert to Christianity to correct the fatal mistake they had made in rejecting Christ two millennia ago.”

“Kaplan insists on showing us the other side of every coin. ‘The Six-Day War’ is commonly considered the turning point in the special relationship between the United States and Israel…yet the victory also marked the emergence of a ‘global counternarrative.’”

Kaplan often confronts us with facts of history that are sometimes awkward and uncomfortable. A British participant in the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry, which studied the impact on Jewish migration to Palestine in 1946, pointed out a certain dire parallel between America’s manifest destiny and the Zionist project: “Zionism after all is merely the attempt by the European Jew to rebuild his national life on the soil of Palestine in much the same way as the American settler developed the West,” wrote Richard Crossman. “So the American will give the Jewish settler in Palestine the benefit of the doubt, and regard the Arab as the aboriginal who must go down before the march of progress.”

Kaplan insists on showing us the other side of every coin. “The Six-Day War is commonly considered the turning point in the special relationship between the United States and Israel,” she writes. “The small nation’s lightning victory and righteous cause appealed to a nation embroiled in the Vietnam War, and Americans en masse fell in love with Israel.” Yet the battlefield victory also marked the emergence of “a global counternarrative,” one that “framed the rise of Palestinian nationalism as a Third World revolutionary movement and linked Israel not with anti-colonial struggles but with American imperial power in Vietnam.” By 1982, when Israel invaded Lebanon, the atrocities in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps prompted columnist George Will to declare: “Palestinians have now had their Babi Yar.”

Ironically, the tragedy in Lebanon only validated the Palestinian in the eyes of some American observers. “A liberal consensus emerged in the 1980s around a narrative of two peoples fighting over one land, and a belief that only mutual recognition could resolve the conflict between them,” she explains. Thus did the two-state solution become an article of faith in American foreign policy, at least until President Donald Trump, “with Vice President Mike Pence, a Christian Zionist, by his side,” recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moved the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv. By doing so, Kaplan argues, “he appealed not only to his pro-Likud Republican Jewish backers, but also to white Christian evangelicals, who overwhelmingly supported him in the election.” And so “[the] liberal consensus has now been replaced by a conservative one.”

Kaplan concludes that Israel today is perceived by Americans not as a light unto the nations but as “an invincible victim constantly besting the challenges of a perpetual war.” Her concerns and doubts about Israel, which run throughout “Our American Israel,” are eventually spoken out loud. She concedes that Israel, nowadays hailed as the “start-up nation,” is seen by some Americans as “an idea factory, manufacturing the ‘meta-ideas’ of the future.” But she argues that “it will be a dystopian future: all around the world, people will inhabit cities that look like military zones, occupied by police indistinguishable from soldiers, and monitored by sophisticated systems of homeland security.”

Kaplan must already know that she will draw unfriendly fire from the right for the point of view she expresses in “Our American Israel,” but no American who loves and supports Israel can afford to ignore the arguments that she makes. She points out that the phrase “no daylight between the United States and Israel” has joined the phrase “unbreakable bond” in the vocabulary of the Americans who support Israel, but she refuses to ignore the facts of history or to refrain from the advocacy of even the most challenging ideas. “We must let in daylight if Americans are to understand why and how this bond has come to be seen as unbreakable,” Kaplan writes, and surely she is right about that.

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

Jewish History’s Use and Abuse

“The Stakes of History: On the Use and Abuse of Jewish History for Life” by David N. Myers (Yale University Press) comes at a moment “beset by its own anxiety,” as the author puts it, “over the worth and meaning not only of history but of humanistic inquiry more generally.”

Myers is not explicitly referring to the rancor that has tainted our public discourse — a phenomenon that he knows well and from personal experience — but to the deeper trends of economic stress, declining college enrollments, and institutional retrenchment that have prompted a reconsideration of what we actually can learn by studying history. But Myers is an optimist at heart, and he insists that he remains “bullish” on both the necessity and the rewards of the search for historical truth.

“Rather than succumb to the despair of the moment, I remained more convinced than ever that historical knowledge and perspective were the necessary ingredients in understanding the world we live in,” he writes, “and were capable of playing a constructive (though not risk free) role in the wider world.” His self-declared goal is to find a “serviceable vision of history”  — that is, not only “getting the facts right” but also making use of historical facts to “draw inspiration, motivation, and clear direction from the past.”

Myers is the president and CEO of the Center for Jewish History in New York and the Sady and Ludwig Kahn Professor of Jewish History at UCLA. His book is based on the remarks he delivered in 2014 as a participant in the highly regarded Rosenzweig Lectures in Jewish Theology and History, which are sponsored by the Program in Judaic Studies at Yale.

History can be abused, Myers points out, and he warns us against those who manipulate, distort and falsify history to justify some goal other than the pursuit of facts. He quotes medievalist Patrick Geary for the proposition that the misuse of history “has turned our understanding of the past into a toxic waste dump, filled with the poison of ethnic nationalism, and the poison has seeped deep into popular consciousness.”

“Rather than succumb to the despair of the moment, I remained more convinced than ever that historical knowledge and perspective were the necessary ingredients in understanding the world we live in.”  — David N. Myers

Above all, Myers wants his readers and his fellow historians to be mindful of the “porous boundary between history and memory.” The study of history is (or ought to be) based on hard data, but the human memory is soft-edged and malleable. And the rich collective memory of the Jewish people, which includes the tales passed from generation to generation in the form of myth and legend, folklore and song, only further blurs the line between history and memory. So we are confronted with “a deep chasm between the rich fabric of premodern collective memory and the sober quality of modern critical history.”

The tension between history and memory is especially acute in Jewish tradition. Simon Dubnow, one of the giants of Jewish historical scholarship, pointed out that Jewish tradition has produced a vast library of books but, until the 19th century, few of them could be called history books. “We have sinned against history,” Dubnow wrote. “The time has come to release it and to reconstruct the remains of its ruins.” Even at the moment of his death during the Holocaust, Dubnow is said to have cried out: “Yidn, shraybt un farshraybt!” (Jews, write and record!).

Exactly here, by the way, is an example of the gap that can open between history and memory. Myers, a careful and disciplined historian, pauses to acknowledge that “[m]ultiple accounts of [Dubnow’s] death exist,” the most heartbreaking of which is that he was shot by a German soldier who had once been his student in Heidelberg. “[T]his former student, Johann Siebert, would boast to Dubnow about the number of Jews that had been liquidated each day, to which Dubnow, who was working without cease, would retort, ‘I will record it all.’ ” And Myers finds himself compelled to characterize the dying words of Simon Dubnow as “a legend.”

Still, as a stirring and superbly well-documented exemplar of how Dubnow’s charge was carried out, Myers singles out the Oyneg Shabbes project, “surely one of the clearest instances of historical research in extremis ever recorded.” Under the leadership of Emanuel Ringelblum, a task force that included not only historians and journalists but even young children gathered and preserved thousands of pages of documentary evidence of what actually happened in the Warsaw Ghetto between 1939 and 1942. Myers praises Ringelblum’s “unyielding devotion to history as a vital medium of truth,” and reminds us that “[h]e and his colleagues harbored the hope that history would serve as an ultimate vindication of the triumph of good over evil.”

“The Stakes of History” is a survey of the work of Jewish historians over several centuries, but Myers insists that “it is in confronting the criminal legacy of the Holocaust that historians — and history — have most directly assumed center stage in seeking justice and planting seeds of memory.” The statement is literally true; after all, Deborah Lipstadt was sued for libel by David Irving on the basis of what could be fairly described as a debate between two historians. Lipstadt’s legal defense was based on proving that “David Irving had repeatedly falsified the historical record in his dozens of books on the history of Germany during the war.” Here was another moment of crisis in the study of history. A verdict in favor of Irving would have been a verdict in favor of Holocaust denial. “This prospect exposed both the fragility and the strength of history,” Myers writes.

Myers concludes that “fastidious attention to sources and concern for veracity” are the “professional tools” of the historian, but he also insists that they “need not be at odds with the goal of planting the seeds of memory for future generations.” Indeed, he argues that they can be used “to liberate, to console, and provide witness.” And he declares that he, like the other historians he describes, are “committed to the proposition that history could and must serve life.”

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

What’s Happening in Jewish L.A. April 21-25: L.A. Jewish Film Festival and Walk to End Genocide

"Seeing Allred."


Writers, poets, artists, musicians and filmmakers appear at the annual Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, a weekend celebration of the written word. Ed Asner discusses his 2017 book, “The Grouchy Historian”; religious scholar Reza Aslan appears in conversation with Jewish Journal Book Editor Jonathan Kirsch; actress, neuroscientist and author Mayim Bialik explores the nexus of science, geek culture and girl power; author Steven Ross (“Hitler in Los Angeles: How Jews Foiled Nazi Plots Against Hollywood and America”) and Journal contributor Bill Boyarsky examine “History: Telling Hidden Stories”; Berkeley Law Dean Erwin Chemerinsky weighs in on “Our Endangered Constitution” and L.A. Times film critic Kenneth Turan participates on a panel titled “The Entertainment Industry.” Through April 22. Saturday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; Sunday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Free. USC’s University Park Campus, Los Angeles.


Amanda Berman, co-founder and president of Zioness, a group that seeks to empower Jewish women to participate in progressive spaces, discusses “Jewish Feminism in the Face of Racialism.” Berman previously worked on Democratic campaigns, and in law school she served at the Bet Tzedek Legal Services Clinic. Her lecture follows a Saturday morning Shabbat service. 11:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. Free. Beverly Hills Hotel, 9641 Sunset Blvd., Beverly Hills. (310) 276-4246.


Over lunch after Shabbat services, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank) discusses the latest goings on in Washington, D.C. Schiff is the ranking member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, which oversees the nation’s intelligence agencies. Sponsored by IKAR. Free. 12:30 p.m. Shalhevet High School, 910 S. Fairfax, Los Angeles. (323) 634-1870.


“Bad Jews.”

In Joshua Harmon’s scathingly funny play “Bad Jews,” two cousins clash ferociously over who has the right to inherit the chai necklace that belonged to their beloved grandfather, “Poppy,” which Poppy preserved during the Holocaust by hiding it under his tongue. Through June 17. Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m.; Wednesday, May 9 and May 30, 8 p.m.; Thursday, May 17 and June 14, 8 p.m. $25–$35. 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 477-2055.


Seeking to influence the end of deadly conflicts in Syria, Sudan, Myanmar and the Democratic Republic of Congo, Jewish World Watch stages its 12th annual Walk to End Genocide. The three-hour event brings together a broad range of advocates sending the message, “We will not stand idly by while genocide and mass atrocities occur.”  The walk raises funds to underwrite support programs in affected communities. 9 a.m.-noon. $36 adults; $28 students, ages 12-22; $18 children, ages 5-11; toddlers, free. Pan Pacific Park, 7600 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles. (818) 501-1836.


A 5,000-year-old board game that originated in the Middle East receives a fresh airing when JIMENA (Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa) and Kahal Joseph Congregation co-host an all-ages backgammon tournament. Prizes will be awarded to the top players, and players who bring their own backgammon boards will receive a free raffle ticket. 10 a.m. Before April 20: tournament entry fee, $20; general admission, $10 adults, kids free. At the door: entry fee, $30; general admission, $10 adults, $5 kids. Kahal Joseph Congregation, 10505 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 474-0559.


Whizin’s Stand-Up Comedy Showcase presents comedians Annie Korzen and Mark Schiff. Korzen played the recurring role of Doris Klompus on “Seinfeld.” Schiff, who recently opened for Jerry Seinfeld in Israel, appeared many times on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” and “Late Night With David Letterman.” He has starred in HBO and Showtime specials, and written for “The Roseanne Show.” 4 p.m. $25. The David Alan Shapiro Memorial Synagogue Center, American Jewish University, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Bel Air. (310) 476-9777.


Singer-songwriter Shelley Fisher performs her musical one-woman play, which chronicles her growing up Jewish in the Deep South with a flamboyant mother who frowned on her dating the local boys, and her dreams of bright lights and show business. 6:30 p.m. $20. Santa Monica Playhouse, 1211 4th St., Santa Monica. (310) 394-9779.


UnCabaret, the downtown Los Angeles home of original alternative comedy for nearly 25 years, holds an evening of laughter, featuring Kira Soltanovich, James Adomian, Lauren Weedman, Zach Sherwin, Paige Weldon and the Frogtown Serenaders. Beth Lapides, who appeared on the series “Sex and the City,” “Will & Grace” and “Politically Incorrect,” hosts this weekly program. 8 p.m. $10-$30. The Showroom at Au Lac, 701 W. First St., Los Angeles. (213) 706-3630.


During this annual Yom Iyun evening of learning, two leaders of Ohr Samayach International explore “Belief: The Challenge of Our Times.” Rabbi Akiva Tatz speaks on “Faith in a Faithless World” and Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb identifies “Reasons to Believe.” For men and women. Refreshments served. 7:30-11:55 p.m. Advance, $10. After April 22, $15. Students free. Nessah Synagogue, 142 S. Rexford Drive, Beverly Hills. (718) 677-6200.


Abigail Pogrebin.

Abigail Pogrebin, author of “My Jewish Year: 18 Holidays, One Wondering Jew,” embarked on a year of research and writing about every Jewish ritual, fast and festival in one Jewish year. In a book infused with humorous details, Pogrebin imparts the wisdom of more than 60 rabbis she interviewed. In conversation with Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom. 7:30 p.m. $10. Burton Sperber Jewish Community Library, American Jewish University, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Bel Air. (310) 476-9777.


Investigative journalist Michael Isikoff, co-author of “Russian Roulette: The Inside Story of Putin’s War on America and the Election of Donald Trump,” shares his conclusions about Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election. The book, which he wrote with journalist David Corn, argues that the attempted sabotage of American democracy brought Trump to the presidency. 7:30 p.m. $20, admission; $42, book and admission. Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, 8844 Burton Way, Beverly Hills. (310) 288-3737.


The advent of Islam in the seventh century brought profound economic changes to Jews living in the Middle East. The Talmud, written in and for an agrarian society, was in many ways ill-equipped for the new economy. Not previously noticed, however, in the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides made efforts to update the halachah to make it conform with Jewish merchant practices. Author Mark R. Cohen talk about his book, “Maimonides and the Merchants: Jewish Law and Society in the Medieval Islamic World.” Cohen is a professor emeritus at Princeton University. Sponsored by the UCLA Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish Studies. Free and open to the public. 4-6 p.m. UCLA Royce Hall, Room 314, 10745 Dickson Court, Los Angeles. (310) 267-5327.


Leonard Bernstein.

On the centennial of composer Leonard Bernstein’s birth, the Skirball Cultural Center presents an exhibition celebrating the life and work of the great American composer and conductor who dedicated his life to making classical music a vibrant part of American culture. The Grammy- and Tony Award-winning Bernstein (1918–1990) wrote landmark scores for musical theater (“West Side Story,” “Candide”) and film (“On the Waterfront”). Organized by the Grammy Museum and curated by its founding executive director and renowned music historian, Robert Santelli. Through Sept. 2. Included with museum admission. Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 440-4500.


Inspired and educated by her father, who headed a rabbinical court in the United Kingdom, Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, a lifetime Torah scholar, discusses her book “Exodus: Narrative or Anti-Narrative?” The London-born former National Jewish Book Award winner has taught Torah in Jerusalem for 30 years. 6 p.m. dinner, 7:30 p.m. lecture. $15, lecture. $40, dinner and lecture. UCLA Hillel, 574 Hilgard Ave., Los Angeles. (310) 208-3081, ext. 108.


Tal Becker, a renowned expert in Israeli political thought, delivers an informative, measured and scholarly lecture on “Israel as a Jewish Democracy: A Conversation Through Case Studies.” He discusses the idea of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, using case studies taken from the headlines, and explores the complex relationship between these two aspirations. 7:45 p.m. Shalhevet High School, 910 S. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 930-9333.


“Seeing Allred.”

From saluting the late entertainment giant Sammy Davis Jr., in “Sammy Davis Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me,” on opening night, to celebrating living icons past 90 years old in “If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast” on closing night, the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival celebrates the tapestry of Jewish experience. Old friends of Davis, including “Laugh-In” creator George Schlatter, actor Tom Dreesen and Davis’ son Manny appear onstage for the Los Angeles premiere of the opening film. Then, over eight days at Laemmle theaters across Los Angeles, the festival showcases films from around the world, including “Seeing Allred,” featuring an in-person appearance by Gloria Allred, and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” the 1935 classic that captured two Academy Awards. On April 28, actor Hal Linden accepts the Marvin Paige Hollywood Legacy Award before the world premiere of his new film, “The Samuel Project,” at Laemmle’s Music Hall, Beverly Hills. On April 29, David Suissa, publisher and editor-in-chief of the Jewish Journal, receives the Visionary Award ahead of the North American premiere of the Israeli television series “Commandments.” Through May 2. Opening night: 7:15 p.m., $40. Ahrya Fine Arts Theatre, 8556 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills. (800) 838-3006.


Daylong conference “Israel and Diaspora: Peoplehood in Crisis?” marks Israel’s 70th birthday by exploring how to develop a compelling narrative that holds Jews from different backgrounds, beliefs and politics together in a meaningful way. Key speakers include Yehuda Kurtzer, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America; Tal Becker, a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute and Jewish Journal Senior Writer Danielle Berrin. Light breakfast and lunch included. 9 a.m.-3 p.m. $36 general, $18 students. UCLA Hillel, 574 Hilgard Ave., Los Angeles.

Zionism at the Center of the Conversation

Gil Troy.

Gil Troy, author of “The Zionist Ideas,” spoke with the Jewish Journal by phone from Jerusalem.

Jewish Journal: The late Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg was the editor of the first edition of a collection of essays titled “The Zionist Idea,” which was published in 1959. Whose idea was it to revise and republish the book, and whose idea was it to pluralize the last word in the title?

Gil Troy: I give 150 percent of the credit to the extraordinary, visionary leader of the Jewish Publication Society. I would never have had the nerve to fill Arthur Hertzberg’s huge shoes, but Rabbi [Barry] Schwartz came to me in 2012 and asked me to do it. I wasn’t sure that the world needed another Zionist anthology, but “The Zionist Idea” had been such an influential text — it was the bible for me and for multiple generations of English-speaking lovers of Israel — that I thought it deserved an update. The more I got into it, the more I realized that we have to invite more and more people into the Zionist conversation, from left to right, from religious to nonreligious. Now that we have a Jewish state, the question remains: How do we perfect it?

JJ: How many of the entries in “The Zionist Ideas” are carried forward from the first edition, and how many are new to this edition?

GT: Arthur Hertzberg had 240,000 words for 38 thinkers. I ended up with 180,000 words, but I was able to bring the total number of entries to 169. So it was a matter of cutting while keeping his core, and then bringing other voices into the conversation — the Mizrachi voice, the poetic voice, the female voice. For example, Henrietta Szold did not appear in the original edition, which was an outrageous act of omission even in 1959, and including her in the new edition is not affirmative action but a matter of historical justice.

“Of all the countries in the world, the only country that was voted into existence by the United Nations is now singled out for a campaign of delegitimization.” — Gil Troy

JJ: How would you sum up the changes in what Zionism means over the six decades since “The Zionist Idea” was first published?

GT: There’s a lot of nostalgia these days about “our grandfather’s Israel,” as Thomas Friedman puts it. But here’s the great irony: Israel in 1959 was a fragile place, but the Zionist conversation was robust. In 2018, Israel is remarkably robust, but the Zionist conversation has turned fragile. Of all the countries in the world, the only country that was voted into existence by the United Nations is now singled out for a campaign of delegitimization. On the other hand, and unfortunately, the fragility is also due to a vast and unacceptable intolerance on the part of both the left and the right in the Jewish community. Like the American conversation, the Zionist conversation should be driven by ideas about how we can bring out the best in us. That’s why the book is not just about Jews and the Jewish state. It’s a profound statement about the values and possibilities of liberal nationalism.

JJ: I fear that many readers will acknowledge that there is more than one idea of what constitutes Zionism but will refuse to acknowledge that any idea but their own is the right one. Are you concerned about the hardening of positions within the Zionist movement and the Jewish world?

GT: Again, that’s why I added the “s” to the title of the book. I was trying to say, yes, there are different ways for Zionists to understand Zionism, but we are all standing in the same tent. One of the most difficult tasks was to decide not only who’s in the book but also who’s out. There was one delicious day I had in Jerusalem when I sat down with two people I respect and asked: Should I include Meir Kahane? One said absolutely yes, and one said absolutely no. At the end of the day, I said no, because Zionism is ultimately a movement about democracy and decency. The Knesset itself voted out Kahane’s party, and that made the decision easier. And I asked the same question about how far left to go? Peter Beinart is in the tent, but another thinker who lives in Israel but calls himself a “post-Zionist” is out. You can be a good person, I’ll have a lunch with you, but if you deny the essential rationale for the existence of Israel, then you don’t fit in a Zionist anthology.

JJ: You identify six schools of thought about Zionism, one of which you call “Diaspora Zionism,” that is, Zionism for Jews who stay in America but support Israel. Some ardent Zionists of my acquaintance insist that you cannot call yourself a Zionist at all if you choose to remain in the galut. And there are those who suggest that the younger generation of American Jews no longer feel a strong sense of solidarity with Israel at all. How do you envision the future of Diaspora Zionism and the relationship between American Jews and Israel?

GT: [David] Ben-Gurion [co-founder of Israel and first prime minister] assumed that once there was a Jewish state, Jews in the Diaspora would either go there or disappear, but the fact is that millions of Jews came to America and stayed there, and only a very small number went to Palestine. I am an optimist, however, and that’s what motivated me stay up all night working on this book. Because I really do believe we are at a cusp — we can use the 70th anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel to either distance ourselves from Israel, or we can use it to double-down on Israel. The Jewish state builds my Jewish identity even if I spend my whole life in Los Angeles or New York or Miami. Jews in Israel and Jews in the Diaspora have something to teach each other. With that realization of identity Zionism, we can learn from each other. That’s the hope of “The Zionist Ideas” — we can give people the tools to have a conversation that isn’t just from the gut but also from the brain, and we can learn how to disagree without being disagreeable.

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

Letters to the Editor: Israel and Refugees, Anti-Semitism and Taylor Force Act

Israel Should Open Judaism to Refugees

I applaud Jonathan Zasloff for his clever arguments in favor of expanding the Israeli population by offering Jewish conversion to refugees and others seeking to immigrate to Israel (“Israel Should Open Judaism to Refugees,” March 23). I often wonder why we seem to be the only religion that makes conversion so difficult and unwelcoming. Why are we afraid of having more Jews in the world? We say we are proud of our religion and heritage. Then why don’t we try harder to share it with others? It makes no sense to me.

Zasloff’s persuasive reasoning does indeed make a lot of sense — both practically by increasing our numbers, and spiritually by spreading the word and meaning of Torah and our rabbinic sages throughout the world.

John F. Beckmann, Sherman Oaks

Author Seems Naïve About Anti-Semitism

I do not know what rock “(((Semitism)))” author Jonathan Weisman lives under, but anti-Semitism is alive and doing well in the United States (“A Call to Action in Age of Trump,” March 16).

There is nothing “new about the prominence of an anti-Semitic subculture in America.” Thanks to the 45th president, it has shown its ugly face even to most naïve Jews.

As for the signs pointing to it, Weisman has not even scratched the surface. He needs to look at the Sanders/Clinton/ Obama shenanigans to understand the reasons for the rise of Trumpism, as he coined it.

Rebecca Gottesfeld via email

Book critic Jonathan Kirsch makes no secret of sharing the views expressed by Jonathan Weisman in his book “(((Semitism)))” regarding the alleged increase of anti-Semitism during Donald Trump’s presidency. Unfortunately, Kirsch neglected to address glaring omissions in Weisman’s theory.

Although anti-Semitism is alive and well among the far right, in his modern-day “J’accuse” book, Weisman fails to acknowledge the entrenched anti-Semitism exhibited by the powerful left in the United States and Europe today. Unlike the fringe alt-right, the progressive left enjoys political power as well as a chokehold on our universities, from Jewish self-loather extraordinaire George Soros and his well-funded Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, to college campus leftist extremist anti-Israel professors brainwashing college students at almost every university across the country.

Richard Friedman, Culver City

The Importance of Studying Jewish History

I thoroughly read Mark Miller’s story about Jewish history (“Why Study Our History?” March 2) and I immediately wondered, “Why have I not thought about this?” I agree that one usually will not have motive to indulge in the studies of our humble beginnings. This topic really has a special place in my heart because I enjoy vacationing in Israel; seeing non-Jewish tourists there shows me the interest others have in our past. This makes me feel accepted by others. I really hope others get this great chance.

Jonathan Hazani via email

Jordan’s King Would Do Well to Follow Father

I agree with Dima Abumaria’s story “Jordan’s King Torn Between His Government, His People and Israel,” March 16. Abdullah has a problem (reacting to the killing of accused Palestinian knife-wielder Mohammed Al-Jawawdeh).

What was not made clear in the story is that appeasement of an angry populace has never proved the best course of action.

Reversal of the security measures on the Temple Mount bought nothing.

Getting out of Gaza bought nothing (other than relieving pressure on Israel from getting out of the West Bank).

Jordan’s king is turning back the clock on the wise courses his father and grandfather took when dealing with Palestinian assassins. He is sure to regret it. It doesn’t take a genius to foresee the problem ahead. Israel can survive it. I doubt that King Abdullah can.

Steve Klein via email

The Dark Side of ‘7 Days in Entebbe’

Eli Fink implied that Zionist and anti-Zionist views of the film “7 Days in Entebbe” are equally valid, by presenting both uncritically (“The Emotional Mission of ‘7 Days in Entebbe,’ ” March 23).

The truth is that the film is anti-Israeli propaganda:

The filmmakers portrayed one of the hijackers as conflicted about the action, honorable and merciful. Where did they get that?

They injected apology for the terrorism, as in service of a good cause. It was actually in service of a campaign of genocide against Jews.

Louis Richter, Reseda

Unity Behind Taylor Force

Over the past few weeks, the Journal published several stories and columns describing the political polarization of Americans, and in particular, the polarization among Jews regarding issues pertaining to Israel. One might think that the Taylor Force Act might be one that would receive bipartisan support.

The Taylor Force Act had strong bipartisan support, prompting Senate leadership a few weeks ago to hotline the bill, which would set it up to pass by unanimous consent, a parliamentary procedure that expedites passage of noncontroversial legislation. If no senator objects to the move, the measure is passed without the need for a floor vote. But the Taylor Force Act was blocked after Democratic senators Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Dianne Feinstein of California rejected the hotline, killing the unanimous consent process and forcing the bill to undergo the Senate’s lengthy cloture process.

On March 23, the Taylor F`orce Act passed as part of the omnibus spending bill. The spending bill has something in it that just about everyone wants and something in it that just about everyone opposes. Perhaps one of the few things that has brought Americans and American Jews together is support for the Taylor Force Act. There is a great need to stop funding Palestinian terrorism using U.S. taxpayer dollars. It’s unfortunate that the act would probably have never been passed except for the death of a great American, Taylor Force, who was killed at the age of 28 by Palestinian terrorists.

Marshall Lerner, Beverly Hills

New-Look Journal

I want to congratulate you on a great redesign and introduction to a much more diverse paper that has views from all facets of the community.

The cover story on the possible meeting between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump by Larry Greenfield (“What Will It Take?” March 16) is excellent, well laid out  and  makes it easy to understand the current situation.

Amy Raff, Los Angeles

A Haggadah for Every Taste

A family of my close acquaintance still uses the Maxwell House Haggadah at every seder. It’s a deeply familiar haggadah that originated as an effort by the coffee company to attract Jewish consumers. To address the concerns of Ashkenazi Jews whose Passover kashrut prohibits the consumption of beans, a rabbi was recruited to certify that the coffee bean is actually a berry and not a legume. But the Maxwell House Haggadah quickly earned an enduring place in Jewish-American culture.

“The iconic blue cover and dual-column Hebrew and English translations have arguably become almost as emblematic of the holiday as the seder plate and Elijah’s Cup among Jews of the Diaspora,” Anne Cohen wrote in the Forward. “It has appeared in the suitcases of Soviet immigrants bound for Israel, been carried onto every battlefield the U.S. military has fought on since 1933, and been the guest of honor at the Obamas’ White House seder.”

By contrast, the haggadah that I use at home is my own effort at samizdat (dissident activity). Thanks to the internet, my haggadah includes portions of the traditional liturgy but also “Go Down, Moses,” an African-American spiritual; a meditation on the victims of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda; and a heart-shaking piece by former Jewish Journal contributor Yehuda Lev on a Passover that he attended while smuggling Holocaust survivors to Palestine in 1947.

So the haggadah remains a genre of Jewish art and literature rather than a sacred text. With Passover upon us, here’s a selection of haggadot — new, recent and classic — that reflect the richness and diversity of our tradition.

“Leading the Passover Journey: The Seder’s Meaning Revealed, the Haggadah’s Story Retold” by Rabbi Nathan Laufer (Jewish Lights) is a unique resource for anyone who is honored with the task of conducting a seder. Laufer makes the point that the haggadah is not just a script to be read aloud. Rather, the seder is an opportunity for contemplation, debate and reminiscence. “Each year, as our family read the Haggadah,” the author explains, “we inevitably segued into my family’s personal stories of survival and liberation from the Nazi concentration camps.” The cup set aside for Elijah, he says, was the only family heirloom that was recovered after World War II and now serves as a “cup of survival, hope and redemption.” At the same time, Laufer expands on and explains the subtext and symbolism of the traditional haggadah, thus addressing the fact that the haggadah asks far more questions than it answers. That’s why Laufer’s commentary is a good book to read in advance of Passover, but it’s even more useful at the seder table itself.

The newest haggadah is actually a book of political humor in disguise, and the joke starts in its title, “The Trump Passover Haggadah: People All The Time They Come Up And Tell Me This Is The Best Haggadah They’ve Ever Read, They Do, Believe Me” by New Yorker contributor Dave Cowan (Amazon). “I don’t know if Haggadahs were once great, and they started not being great at some point,” Trump is made to say. “Think of Trump’s Haggadah as a big play, and divide up the speaking parts amongst your guests, and you’ll re-live the greatness of Trump’s Seder.” Everyone from Melania Trump to Bernie Sanders has something to say. This book is certain to liven up any seder — if it does not result in a brawl among the Trumpers and the Never-Trumpers at your table.

Another new Haggadah with a political agenda is timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. “The MLK+50 Interfaith Freedom Seder” is a publication of The Shalom Center and is downloadable without charge from the website, although a donation of $18 is suggested.  It is authored by Rabbi Arthur Waskow, who introduced the first “Freedom Seder” in the 1960s and now directs The Shalom Center, and is “woven” from three strands — the traditions of Passover, the “echoes of Passover in the Christian Holy Week” and the writings of King. The goal is to connect the ancient story of resistance to Pharoah and the continuing story of resistance to racism, materialism, militarism and sexism in America right now.” Significantly, and not surprisingly, this updated version of the “Freedom Seder” ends not with “Next Year in Jerusalem” but with “We Shall Overcome.”

Here’s a selection of haggadot — new, recent and classic — that reflect the richness and diversity of our tradition.

One sign that the haggadah remains a vigorous literary genre is the fact that an assortment of Jewish authors have tried their hands at haggadot of their own over the past few years. “New American Haggadah,” edited by Jonathan Safran Foer and translations from Hebrew by Nathan Englander (Little Brown) — both of them authentic literary luminaries — is both a full-featured haggadah and, at the same time, a fresh and elevating experience. “We are not merely telling a story here,” they explain. “We are being called to a radical act of empathy.” By contrast, Dave Barry (“He is not Jewish, although many of his friends are”), Alan Zweibel and Adam Mansbach offer a parody in “For This We Left Egypt? A Passover Haggadah for Jews and Those Who Love Them” (Flatiron Books). “We look forward to celebrating Passover for many years to come,” goes the blessing over the Fourth Cup, “until we have to gum the matzoh for fifteen minutes before we can swallow it, which we will do because it reminds us of something, although by that point we will probably not remember what.”

Perhaps the most counter-intuitive haggadah is “The (unofficial) Hogwarts Haggadah” by Rabbi Moshe Rosenberg (BSD), which makes highly inventive use of the Harry Potter saga. For Jewish readers who recall the stern words of Deuteronomy (“There shall not be found among you … a sorcerer, or a charmer, or a medium, or a wizard…”), the conjuring up of the most famous graduate of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry may be off-putting. Be assured, however, that the author is a pulpit rabbi with a lively imagination and a gift for catching and holding the interest of Harry Potter fans as he guides them safely to the traditional Jewish values and observances of Passover.

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

A Call to Action in Age of Trump

Let’s start by deciphering the strange punctuation that appears in the title of “(((Semitism))): Being Jewish in America in the Age of Trump” by Jonathan Weisman (St. Martin’s Press), the Washington bureau deputy editor of The New York Times. As Weisman explains, those six parentheses are a weapon of the Jew-haters who have always been with us but only recently crawled out from under their rocks.

On May 18, 2016, Weisman posted a comment on Twitter about an article he had read in The Washington Post. “Within minutes, I received a response with punctuation I had never seen before,” he explains. “Hello (((Weisman)))” wrote someone who called himself “CyberTrump.”

Weisman suspected that the “those triple parentheses must somehow denote my Jewish faith,” and he wrote back: “Care to explain?” CyberTrump responded: “What, ho, the vaunted Ashkenazi intelligence, hahaha! It’s a dog whistle, fool. Belling the cat for my fellow goyim.”

Thus did Weisman stumble across “what is known in the alt-right as ‘echoes,’ those three parentheses that practitioners of online harassment wrapped around Jewish-sounding names on social media.” A cunning plug-in device invented and used by online Jew-hunters enables them to search the internet for names of individuals that appear between triple parentheses and then launch a cyberattack against them. Weisman himself received more than 2,000 hate messages that used Nazi iconography, Holocaust denial and various anti-Semitic tropes: “the Jew as conservative fifth columnist, the Jew as moneybags financier orchestrating war for Israel, the Jew as leftist anarchist, the Jew as Wall Street profiteer, the Jew as weak and sniveling, the Jew as all-powerful.”

Weisman has drilled down into the subterranean world that he had detected, and his book explains how it reveals the existence — and the new prominence — of an anti-Semitic subculture in America. “Until the rise of Trumpism, Judaism was easy, not just for me but for millions of American Jews,” he writes. “Anti-Semitism was in the past. The ‘Jewish Question’ was little worth mentioning. And then, all at once, it was.” For that reason alone, “(((Semitism)))” is a book that every Jewish voter should read.

“Anti-Semitism was in the past. The ‘Jewish Question’ was little worth mentioning. And then, all at once, it was.” – Jonathan Weisman

To his credit, Weisman enables us to understand the coded language that is used by the latest practitioners of anti-Semitism. At a 2017 rally at the Lincoln Memorial, for example, a crowd of demonstrators took up an insistent chant: “You will not replace us!” Although Jews are nowhere mentioned, the underlying message was articulated by a speaker who led the crowd through a call-and-response: “Who controls the media, who controls the Federal Reserve, who controls Hollywood, who control Wall Street?” To which they replied: “The Jews, the Jews, the Jews.”

The question that hangs over the entire book is why the civility and consensus-building that once characterized American democracy has been eclipsed by an ugly tribalism and even deadly violence. All signs point to the 45th president. “Whether he knew it or not, Donald Trump ran the most anti-Semitic presidential campaign in modern American history,” Weisman writes. “At this point in his presidency, I would venture that he didn’t know it. But haplessness is not a defense.”

It’s a question that others have been reluctant to answer. “We have to ask ourselves, are people emboldened by the inflammatory rhetoric around them?” mused former FBI Director James Comey at an Anti-Defamation League conference in May 2017. “He didn’t answer,” Weisman writes. “He didn’t need to. Donald Trump fired him a few days later.” But David Duke, former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, is less circumspect. “We are going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump,” he told the reporters who covered the Charlottesville, Va., demonstration that ended in a death. “That’s what we believed in. That’s why we voted for Donald Trump.”

I hasten to say that Weisman’s compelling book is not a political screed. Indeed, he offers a rich and illuminating account of how Jewish immigrants have fared in the United States, drawing on his own family’s experiences in Georgia as examples. And he holds up America as a place where Jews have achieved success and security, even if the story is not entirely a happy one: “What became the United States would prove to be the stage for true Jewish liberation, after fits and starts, better times and worse.”

But he also insists on pointing out that American Jews are now facing new and mounting risks and stresses, both within the Jewish community and in the public square of American politics. To cite just one example, support for Israel has turned from an issue of general consensus to a point of bitter conflict. Right-wing extremists in America, for example, demonstrate how twisted it can be. “The alt-right backs the Jewish state — as a destination for the Jews they long to evict from the White Homeland,” Weisman writes. “And, hey, Israelis even kill Muslims! More power to ’em!”

The same venomous anti-Semitism has found its way into the White House under Trump. Steve Bannon famously told his then-wife that he didn’t want their girls to go to the Archer School in Los Angeles because of “the number of Jews who attend.” Bannon’s starting point, of course, was Breitbart News, which Weisman calls “a highly visible mouthpiece of the alt right.” As an example, Weisman cites an article in Breitbart that attacked the distinguished journalist and historian Anne Applebaum: “Hell hath no fury like a Polish, Jewish, American elitist scorned.” Yet when Bannon finally exited the West Wing, his departure had nothing to do with the alt-right toxin that he carried into the heart of the presidency.

Perhaps the most important lesson to be learned from “(((Semitism)))” is that American Jews now find themselves in the company of Muslims, Hispanics, African-Americans, undocumented workers and others who have become targets of hatred, starting in the gutters of the alt-right and reaching all the way to the White House. “Groups that had been maligned over centuries at different times in different regions now shared a common tormentor: the alt-right, a militant agglomeration of white nationalists, racists, anti-Semites, and America Firsters that had been waging war on the Republican establishment for some time.” The irony, of course, is that our current Republican president seems to feel entirely comfortable with his supporters in the alt-right. Or, if he finds them distasteful, he has not said so or done anything about them.

But Weisman is not just a hand-wringer, and his book is a call to action. “Something must be done,” he declares. “And now is the time.”

Weisman will appear at American Jewish University’s Whizin Center on Monday, April 16, at 7:30pm, with Amanda Susskind, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League.

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

The Moral Dilemma of Jews in War

A couple of millennia passed between the occupation of ancient Judea by a Roman army and the founding of the modern State of Israel. For that reason, the body of Jewish religious law that is collected in the halachah had little to say about war until the mid-20th century, when modern rabbis encountered the new and startling realities of a Jewish state and a Jewish army.

To understand how Judaism copes with war, Robert Eisen, professor of religion and Judaic studies at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., focused on the writings and teachings of five influential rabbis in the religious Zionist movement, ranging from Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935) to Shlomo Goren (1918-1994), the first chief rabbi of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and “the only one of our rabbinic figures to have actually served in the Israeli army and engaged in combat.”

The result of Eisen’s remarkable enterprise is “Religious Zionism, Jewish Law, and the Morality of War: How Five Rabbis Confronted One of Modern Judaism’s Greatest Challenges” (Oxford). Unlike much else in the ponderings of the rabbis and sages, what they have to say about the ethics of war are urgent, enduring and more timely today than at any other time since statehood.

“In fact, Israel has never known a time when it has been entirely free of war,” Eisen points out. “Even when not engaged in actual war, Israel has always had to prepare for the next war on the presumption that it is not likely to be far off.”

Conscription, the risk of civilian casualties, the moral distinctions between defensive and offensive wars and between “mandatory” and “discretionary” wars, and the conflict between the duties of a combat soldier and the duties of a pious Jew are only some of the challenges faced by a Jewish state that is both sovereign and observant. All of them were considered in detail by the rabbis whom Eisen has studied. But the rabbis go far beyond the question of what is permitted and what is forbidden on the battlefield and grapple with the ultimate theological questions.

“The rabbis in this community have had to ask why God has required Jews to engage in violence in order to return to their homeland,” Eisen explains. “This question has in turn been connected to the larger issue of God’s plan for history and the role of the state of Israel in that plan. Does the establishment of Israel have messianic significance, and if so, what role does violence play in that enterprise?”

From the beginning of statehood, as we learn in Eisen’s scholarly but also superbly written book, some religious Zionists advocated the creation of medinat ha-torah — “a state according to Torah” — but it remained only aspirational “because Israel’s secular public had no interest in it” and because “the religious Zionist camp did not have a clear idea of what medinat ha-torah meant.” Indeed, as Eisen writes, “it was not clear from a halachic standpoint that such a state could go to war at all, even for defensive purposes.”

“Israel has never known a time when it has been entirely free of war.” — Robert Eisen

Yet war confronted the Jewish state with “facts on the ground.” In 1948, when a young man named Tuvia Bir, a member of the Ezra youth movement, posed seven questions about service in the Haganah (the former Jewish paramilitary organization) to Rabbi Isaac Halevi Herzog (1888-1959) — including a question about fighting on the Sabbath — Herzog declared that he found the very question to be incomprehensible. “In the present situation, if we did not volunteer for defensive operations, then, God forbid, the danger of annihilation would be expected for all of us,” he responded. “What alternative do we have? To surrender to the enemy?” Like Kook, Herzog ruled that, as Eisen explains, “everyday Halakhah and wartime Halakhah are different from each other.”

The touchstone for all of the rabbinical discourse about war is the Torah, which provides an abundance of examples of Jews at war. We are told in the Book of Numbers, for example, that Moses commanded the Twelve Tribes of Israel to conduct a war of extermination against the Midianites to punish them for luring the Israelites into idol-worship. Rabbi Sha’ul Yisraeli (1910-1995) cites the biblical incident as legal precedent for the decision of the Israeli government to send commandos on a rescue mission to Entebbe in an operation that “risked not only the lives of the Israeli commandos but also the lives of the hostages themselves.”

For Yisraeli, the mission was not merely heroic but holy — an act of Kiddush hashem, the “sanctification of the divine name” — because the hijackers had freed the non-Jewish passengers and held only the Jews as hostages. “In singling out the Jews, the hijackers were publically targeting the Jewish people and thus targeting God as well,” Eisen explains. “R. Yisraeli applies the notion of kidush ha-shem to the Midianite war, all subsequent wars initiated by enemy nations, and the Entebbe situation.”

I doubt that such rabbinical musings come up in the war room of the IDF or, for that matter, the front lines where Israeli soldiers actually fight. In fact, Rabbi Goren recognized that nonobservant Jews have always represented a majority of the Jewish population in Israel, and he “stated quite openly that a conscious effort should be made by rabbinic authorities to come up with halakhic positions that would be acceptable to the secular population in Israel.” Above all, Goren came to recognize that there is an inevitable and irreconcilable tension between “the need to wage war and the goal of seeking peace, between the imperative to defeat Israel’s enemies and the obligation to be sensitive to the moral dilemmas war raises.”

Nowadays, “wartime Halakhah” is increasingly relevant, not only because Israel is always at risk of war but also because observant (if not ultra-Orthodox) Jews are serving in the IDF in ever greater numbers. Eisen points out that religious Jews, who represent only 10 percent of the population of Israel, “made up 20 percent of the soldiers in infantry brigades” by the 1990s, “and among combat lieutenants and captains, the ratio of religious to secular was two to one.” So Israel is closer to being a medinat ha-torah than it has been at any time since the pioneering generation of secular Zionists like Ze’ev Jabotinsky and David Ben-Gurion.

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

No easy answers in the search for Jewish origins

Is Jerry Seinfeld a descendant of King David?

The question is no joke. Of all the issues that perplex the Jewish people and the wider world, none is so troubling is the primal one — what, after all, links us to the people, the land and the faith of distant antiquity as described in the Bible?

An answer is proposed in “The Origin of the Jews: The Quest for Roots in a Rootless Age” by Steven Weitzman (Princeton University Press), the Abraham M. Ellis Professor of Hebrew and Semitic Languages and Literatures at the University of Pennsylvania. He has studied and mastered the scholarship of Jewish origins, and he seeks to explain exactly what “connects all Jews into a single people, religion, or community; the very beginning of their collective story.”

The ancient scriptures, the author points out, only complicate the question: “[T]here is more to the story of how the Jews came to be than we can glimpse in the Bible,” he writes. Even the word “Jew,” which derives from the Hebrew word for the tribe of Judah (Yehud), may be misleading: “Are Jews today, in some collective sense, the same people as the ancient Judeans,” he muses, “or are they fundamentally different, transformed by the passage of time, or by some intervening change into another people?”

Weitzman explains the various theories that suggest a discontinuity between ancient and modern Jews. Freud imagined that the prophet and lawgiver Moses, the founder of what we call Judaism, actually was an Egyptian. Some scholars argue that Judaism as we know it today actually began only after the end of the Babylonian Exile or the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. Famously, and rather scandalously, Arthur Koestler’s “The Thirteenth Tribe” argued that the Jews of Eastern Europe actually are descendants of the medieval Khazars, who converted to Judaism in the medieval era. Even more recently, an Israeli historian named Shlomo Sand has argued that “much of what people think they know about the Jewish people goes back to historians in the nineteenth century and the first part of the twentieth, and that their representation of the Jews was a fiction that they contrived.”

Each contending theory carries its own subtext, some of which are overtly hostile to Judaism, or Zionism, or both.

DNA testing and the science of genomics seem to offer the promise of a definitive answer to the question of Jewish origins, but Weitzman reminds us that it can come uncomfortably close to some of the racist assumptions of Jew-haters ranging from the Spanish Inquisition to Nazi Germany. Moreover, while DNA evidence has confirmed that many of the Kohanim — Jews identified as descendants of the ancient priesthood — appear to share a common ancestor, we do not know yet that their ancestry dates all the way back to biblical antiquity.

Even the cutting-edge tools of modern genetic testing, however, do not support the claims of Davidic descent that have been credited to various luminaries, from Rashi to Elie Wiesel to even Jerry Seinfeld. As it happens, Weitzman acknowledges the late David Einsiedler, co-founder of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Los Angles, for the proposition that “there is no complete, reliable and positive proof of claims of descent from David.”

Weitzman’s book is rooted in serious scholarship, but he also is attuned to the ways in which the yearning for identity has been used and abused. Thus, for example, he reminds us of the shameful phenomena of forged Holocaust memoirs and suggests that some prideful Jews are willing to engage in “a kind of ‘genetic astrology’ ” in order to validate their imagined connections to great figures of Jewish history and the Bible.

Weitzman is aware that the authenticity of the linkage between modern Jews and the ancient tribes of Israel has been used against the Jewish people, no less in the ancient world than in the debate over the legitimacy of Jewish sovereignty in Israel today. Indeed, he concedes that some readers may decide that the question itself is “too contentious to pose.”

But it also is true that the Jewish tradition of asking audacious questions starts with the Torah and must be honored as one of the core values of Judaism. For that reason alone, Weitzman’s courageous and illuminating book is essential reading for anyone who wonders or cares about what it really means to be a Jew.

Jonathan Kirsch, publishing attorney and author of “The Woman Who Laughed At God: The Untold History of the Jewish People,” is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.

Calendar: March 17-23, 2017

Scene from "Settlers" premiering March 17 at the Laemmle Theaters.



This documentary by Shimon Dotan offers a provocative look at the controversial Israeli settlement movement. Israel captured the Sinai Peninsula, Gaza Strip, Golan Heights and West Bank during the Six-Day War. The hundreds of thousands of Israelis who have moved into the West Bank have made reaching a peace agreement with the Palestinians much more complex. “The Settlers” examines residents ranging from opportunistic families seeking less costly living conditions to Western-style hippies, messianic religious extremists to idealistic farmers, settler “patriarchs” to new converts. Israeli intellectuals, politicians and academicians weigh in on the issues. Laemmle’s Monica Film Center, 1332 Second St., Santa Monica. (310) 394-9744.


The Young Jewish Professionals of Los Angeles presents an opportunity to connect with a diverse group of 100 career-minded peers while enjoying a four-course meal and open bar. Hosted by Mendel and Rachey Simons. 6:30 p.m. $60; tickets available at; no tickets at the door. Shefa Melrose, 7275 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles.



The JFed Players Community Theater Ensemble presents “Curtains,” the final collaboration between Kander and Ebb, creators of “Cabaret” and “Chicago.” Set in 1959, this clever musical features murder, music, mystery, comedy and romance. 8 p.m.  $25; discounts available. Tickets available at Through March 26 on select dates. The Clarke Center, 401 Rolyn Place, Arcadia. (626) 445-0810.



The Conejo Valley Chapter of the Brandeis National Committee presents “Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction.” Deputy District Attorney Beth Silverman will discuss in detail the case of serial killer Lonnie Franklin, known as the Grim Sleeper, who was charged with the murder of 10 women from 1985 to 2007. This well-publicized trial concluded in May 2016. 1 p.m. $20; $22 at the door. RSVP to Jessie: or Frona: Temple Etz Chaim, 1080 E. Janss Road, Thousand Oaks.


Join Young Adults of Los Angeles’ post-undergrads (ages 22-26) for a 90-minute introductory course on the Israeli self-defense techniques of krav maga. 1:30 p.m. $10; ticket sales close at noon March 17; no tickets available at the door. Krav Maga Worldwide, 11400 Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles.


Greek poet and Holocaust survivor Iossif Ventura is one of the last members of the Jewish community in Crete. Ventura survived World War II as a child in hiding and has used poetry to transform his trauma into words. He has published six books of poetry and his works have been translated into six languages. 3 p.m. Free. RSVP to Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, 100 S. The Grove Drive, Los Angeles. (323) 651-3704.


cal-korzenComedian Annie Korzen returns to the Whizin Center stage. Q-and-A to follow. 5 p.m. $25. American Jewish University, Familian Campus, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Los Angeles. (310) 440-1572.


Leading cantors from across Los Angeles will perform in a concert to benefit the next generation of Southern California cantors. Proceeds from the Cantors Benefit Concert will fund scholarships for cantorial students at the Miller School of the Jewish Theological Seminary and the Academy for Jewish Religion, California. Featured cantors include  Nathan Lam, Marcus Feldman, Lisa Peicott, Don Gurney, Seth Ettinger, Phil Baron, Hillary Chorny, Judy Dubin Aranoff, Ira S. Bigeleisen and Alexander Berkovich. 7 p.m. Tickets start at $25. Adat Ari El, 12020 Burbank Blvd., Valley Village. (818) 766-9426.



Join Temple Menorah and the Islamic Center of the South Bay for a Women’s Freedom Seder. Learn how the Exodus is understood in different faiths and how that message teaches the value of freedom. Come with your focus on unity, tolerance and respect for all faiths and people, and to promote freedom. 7 p.m. $25. Temple Menorah, 1101 Camino Real, Redondo Beach. (310) 316-8444.


cal-snyderTimothy Snyder, the Bird White Housum Professor of History at Yale, is an expert on 20th-century European history. Snyder warns us that in the 1920s and ’30s, many European democracies didn’t believe their countries ever could succumb to Nazism, facism or communism. He wrote a practical handbook called “On Tyranny,” a guide to knowing the signs of authoritarianism. “On Tyranny” provides 20 tips on preserving our freedom. Snyder will be in conversation with Jonathan Kirsch, author, attorney and the book editor of the Jewish Journal. 7:30 p.m. $20. Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, 8844 Burton Way, Beverly Hills.



Enjoy an evening of original student theater based on the life stories of four Holocaust survivors. The performance is the culmination of an eight-week collaborative project between the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust and Santa Monica High School’s theater department. The students in Santa Monica’s acting class participated in the museum’s “Voices of History” theater workshop, learning about the Holocaust, interviewing survivors and working with mentors to write, direct and stage the event. 7 p.m. Suggested donation: $10; $5 for students. Santa Monica High School, 601 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica. (323) 651-3704.



Presented by the Whizin Center and University Women: Coffee & Conversation, author Susan Silverman will discuss her book “Casting Lots: Creating a Family in a Beautiful, Broken World.” Silverman, the older sister of irreverent comic Sarah Silverman, grew up with parents who were atheists. She shocked everyone when she became a rabbi and moved to Israel. The author will discuss her funny and moving memoir about her unique family that will resonate with anyone who has struggled to find a place in the world and to understand the significance of that place. Silverman will be joined by Jewish Journal columnist Danielle Berrin. 7:30 p.m. Free. American Jewish University, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Los Angeles.


Israeli television icon Assi Azar will give a motivational presentation in Hebrew. 8 p.m. $25. IAC Shepher Community Center, 6530 Winnetka Ave., Woodland Hills. (818) 451-1179.


Young professionals in every field are invited to the annual Emet After Party, featuring an appearance by honoree Albert Z. Praw. Emet, which means “truth” in Hebrew, is an active community of Jewish attorneys and other legal professionals in their 20s and 30s. 9 p.m. $30; $40 at the door; free with the purchase of ticket to the Legal Division Dinner. Business attire. The Beverly Wilshire Hotel, 9500 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills.

The story of a Jewish enclave in the Soviet Union

Who can tell the things that befell us in Birobidzhan?

Now only a footnote in history, Birobidzhan was a godforsaken stretch of Russian swampland between the Bira and Bidzhan rivers, not far from the Manchurian frontier, where Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin decreed the establishment of a Yiddish-speaking Jewish homeland in 1928. The story is told with wit, discernment and not a little heartbreak by Masha Gessen in “Where the Jews Aren’t: The Sad and Absurd Story of Birobidzhan, Russian’s Jewish Autonomous Region,” the latest title in the distinguished Jewish Encounters series from Nextbook and Schocken.

Gessen, author of the best-selling “The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin,” is a Jewish émigré from Russia. When her family considered its options in 1978, it considered Israel, the United States, Australia and Canada, all places where Soviet Jews were granted asylum. “Just two generations earlier — indeed, even a generation earlier, just after the second World War — this conversation would have included one more option, one that had now receded to something between fantasy and a joke,” she recalls. “Time was, it was spoken of with the same breathless hope with which my friends and I now spoke about Israel or Paris. … The place was called Birobidzhan.”

Indeed, we cannot really understand the history of Zionism without understanding Birobidzhan.  At the beginning of the 20th century, the dream of a Jewish state was not necessarily grounded in the Holy Land. Uganda was seriously proposed as a place of refuge, and so was Madagascar. So it was not farfetched when Joseph Stalin created “facts on the land” in the Soviet Far East by making a place in the wilderness for the Jews to settle. Nor was Zionism necessarily linked with Jewish religious observance, as Gessen points out. Martyred historian Simon Dubnow’s notion of “a secular Judaism as the basis for national identity” provided the ideological rationale for a place like Birobidzhan and, as Gessen confides, “the foundation of my own Jewishness.”

Then, too, Birobidzhan was conceived as a refuge not only for the Jews but also their mama loshen, the Yiddish language. The Bolshevik regime was hostile to Hebrew, the ritual language of the Jewish faith, and the commissars were actively “pulling the Yiddishists into the fold,” as Gessen explains. Indeed, Gessen focuses on the life’s work of the celebrated Yiddish author and playwright David Bergelson, a man who felt at home in the literary coffee houses of Berlin, who arrived on a visit to Birobidzhan in 1932, where he was welcomed by the Jewish settlers “as if he were a long-lost descendant of a royal Yiddish tribe.” 

By 1936, Birobidzhan was elevated to the status of a “Jewish Autonomous Region,” the first step toward becoming a “national republic.” The Central Committee of the Communist Party in Moscow issued its own fact-challenged version of the Balfour Declaration: “For the first time in the history of the Jewish people, its burning desire for a homeland, for the achieving of its own national statehood, has been fulfilled.” When Lazar Kaganovich, one of the few Jews among Stalin’s inner circle of commissars, visited the place, he attended a performance of Sholem Aleichem’s “Di Goldgreber” (The Gold Diggers) and praised the “traditional Jewish cooking” he was served.

The hard-pressed Jewish pioneers barely scratched out a living in Birobidzhan, but they had plenty to read. Six Yiddish-language schools were in operation, a Yiddish newspaper and a Yiddish publishing house, whose first publication was a 62-page book by an 18-year-old author “who, to Bergelson, may have been the single most important argument in favor of Birobidzhan.” The courts, police and municipal government conducted their business in Yiddish. Bergelson penned a manifesto titled “Why I Am in Favor of Birobidzhan,” in which he declares: “I want to work in and on behalf of Birobidzhan, because I wish to partake of those fascinating, delectable juices of life that our Soviet regime bestows upon me.” 

Alas, those “juices of life,” if Bergelson was earnest when he used the phrase, dried up quickly.  The thousands of Jews who were expected never arrived, and the Jewish population stagnated at 18 percent of the Soviet total. Although it was nearly 4,000 miles from Moscow, Birobidzhan was well within the grasp of Soviet terror. By 1939, when Stalin acquired half of Poland under his nonaggression pact with Hitler, he exiled many of his newly acquired Jewish citizens to Siberia, rather than sheltering them in Birobidzhan. When Germany invaded the Soviet Union two years later, and the mass murder of Jews was escalated to an industrial scale, the Jewish Autonomous Region was far beyond reach. 

Once Germany was defeated, Stalin was faced with the challenge of finding a place for the Jewish survivors to live. Sending them back to Belarus and Ukraine, where most of them lived before the war, was regarded as “a disaster” by all concerned. Crimea was considered briefly as a place for Jewish resettlement, but Birobidzhan no longer exerted any appeal: “You are trying to create a new ghetto!” wrote Soviet-Jewish journalist Ilya Ehrenburg. Only a few Jewish survivors managed to find their way to Birobidzhan, “alone or in pairs, shards of families killed by the Nazis, lone remnants of communities that had been destroyed.” Even so, the local officials protested: “These were the poor, the maimed, weakened and hungry Jews who no longer had any home anywhere, and they were not welcome here.”

The once-noble idea of a Jewish homeland within the Soviet Union was dead by the time Stalin turned on the Jews of the Soviet Union in the last few years of his life. “The Jews were becoming the main enemy within,” Gessen explains. Bergelson and other famous Yiddish writers were denounced, arrested, tortured and condemned to death by firing squad for their supposed efforts to “inflame nationalist sentiment among the Jewish population.” Back in Birobidzhan, “[a] policy of Russification was applied … much as it had been to places like Chechnya, from which the indigenous Muslim population had been deported by Stalin.” When Gessen visited Birobidzhan in 2009, only a couple of thousand Jews remained there — and only one of them spoke Yiddish.

The tale of Birobidzhan ends up like a Jewish joke: “[A] place with a Yiddish language newspaper and no Yiddish-speaking residents,” as Gessen puts it, “one of the world’s two Jewish states — the one where the Jews did not live.” But, like any good Jewish joke, it is dense with meaning and memory, tinged with sadness and fatalism, and yet redeemed by its insistent truth-telling. All of these qualities apply equally to Gessen’s beautiful and important book. 

JONATHAN KIRSCH, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.

Musings and insight on the afterlife

There’s nothing surprising about a man or woman who muses about death in the later years of life. For Hillel Halkin, however, the fear of dying began at the age of 11 or 12, when he read an article about leprosy in Reader’s Digest and promptly convinced himself that he suffered from the disease.

“In the years to come, I contracted one fatal disease after another,” he recalls in “After One-Hundred-and-Twenty: Reflecting on Death, Mourning, and the Afterlife in the Jewish Tradition” (Princeton University Press), a work of both scholarship and confessional memoir. He concedes that the wholly imaginary afflictions of his youth and adolescence seem funny in retrospect. “No one could have guessed that I lay in bed at night praying for another year of the life I desperately craved.”

Born in New York in 1939, Halkin made aliyah in 1970 and has since achieved international stature as a translator of Hebrew and Yiddish fiction into English, and as a biographer, critic, novelist and journalist. His book “Yehuda Halevi” won the National Jewish Book Award in 2010. Now, at the age of 77, the subject is no joke.

“For most of us, the years up to seventy, give or take a few, are ones we retain our strength in,” he writes. “We’re not the same at sixty as we were at fifty, but with a bit of luck, our decline isn’t painfully obvious. It only becomes that a decade or so later. By then, we’re all on death row.”

All of these musings prompted Halkin to accept an invitation from the Library of Jewish Ideas, a publishing project co-sponsored by the Tikvah Fund, to survey and comment upon the Jewish beliefs and traditions that touch on death and dying. He discloses that he is not a religiously observant Jew, but he reminds us that “you can’t have lived in Israel for over forty years as I have without encountering death in its Jewish forms: Jewish jokes, Jewish prayers, Jewish funerals, Jewish mourning, Jewish memorial rites.”

The starting point for his journey of exploration through the textual landscape, of course, is the Hebrew Bible. As Halkin points out, the Torah and the other early books of the Bible — unlike other religious writings of the ancient world — do not have much to say about what happens when we die. “Although I would have been prepared when I died for a descent to an underworld,” Halkin writes in the first person about a hypothetical Bible-reader in antiquity, “I would have had no notion of how to reach it, of what awaited me there, or if anything much awaited me at all.”

The later prophets were more explicit: “For behold, the day is coming that shall burn as an oven; and all the proud, yea, all the wicked, shall be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up … ” Here the Messianic idea of judgment, punishment and redemption enters in the Jewish tradition, but it is writ large only in Daniel, a work of the second century B.C.E. “The dead, or at least some of them, will rise bodily!” Halkin explains.

The most important source of Jewish teachings about death, Halkin emphasizes, is the Talmud, in which rabbis and sages prescribe the rituals that observant Jews still embrace during the period of mourning. The underlying rationale of these practices, he writes, is to “allow sufficient space for grief while channeling it into formulaic expressions and surrounding it with numerous prescriptions that make sure its desirable limits are not exceeded.” Too much grief, in other words, is not permitted: “Gradually, mourners are expected to return to ordinary life,” Halkin writes.

Similarly, the writings that compose the Talmud are sometimes “frustratingly ambiguous” and even openly contradictory when it comes to “the world to come” (olam ha-ba), the Hebrew phrase used to describe the afterlife, and just as “unforthcoming” in distinguishing between heaven and hell. Halkin sees a psychological advantage in the lack of clarity and unanimity: “In itself, there is no more to be gained from the contemplation of never-ending torment than there is from the contemplation of never-ending bliss.”

One of Halkin’s great and enduring gifts is his ability to translate the abstruse and difficult passages of the ancient and medieval texts into accessible English, a gift that is much used in “After One-Hundred-and-Twenty.” But the passages that I appreciate most are the asides to the reader in which we hear Halkin’s own voice. He wonders aloud about whether sex in the afterlife will be monogamous, for example, and whether “my celestial body will be a more perfect replica of my terrestrial one, complete with skin and nerves?” Against all the pious speculation of the wise men who have come before him, however, Halkin seems to embody the fatalism of Kohelet.

“I pace and think: what is this thought that I am thinking? It is about bodies and souls, but it is also about the scrape of my scandals on the wooden floor, the pain in the tendon of the heel that I sprained a week ago, the ache in my back from sitting too long at the desk, the August light pouring through the northeast window, the old sheet I hang there every April to keep out the morning sun … and take down again in September,” he writes. “Each time I reach the stairs and turn back, I see this sheet. Its shabbiness annoys me and I think: for years I’ve been promising myself to replace it with a Venetian blind and I’ve never done it.  Soon I’ll be dead and there’ll be no need to do anything.” 

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

Letters to the editor: Ringling Bros. Circus, Dennis Prager, Jerusalem Syndrome and more

The Cruelest Show on Earth

I am an avid reader of the Jewish Journal who found the recent article “Ringling Bros. Circus Has Been a Feld Family Affair for Three Generations” very disturbing (July 22).

No one will dispute the fact that the Jewish people have been subjected to cruelty and suffering throughout our history. At the same time, anyone who researches the suffering inflicted on animals connected with the Ringling Bros. Circus at the direction of their Jewish owners soon realizes that there is another cruel side to that circus. I saw that side once in the past when, during a show, I witnessed innocent animals being prodded, poked, mistreated and forced to do inhumane tricks. 

I hope that one day the Ringling Bros. Circus will eliminate all animals from every performance. Until that day arrives, I am staying home.

Deborah Weinrauch, Culver City

Prager, Right and Wrong

In “The Left Has Cops’ Blood on Its Hands” (July 22), Dennis Prager maligned The New York Times for race-baiting yet supports and will vote for Donald Trump, someone he describes as bigoted, mean, insecure and lacking intelligence. Mr. Prager’s entire professional life has become devoted to bashing the left. There is a profoundly dysfunctional element to the American right and the political party it controls (the Republicans).

The party that nominated Sarah Palin (“I can see Russia from my window”) and now Donald Trump is the laughingstock of the entire world. It would be far more intellectually honest and persuasive if Mr. Prager were more balanced in his commentary.

Aaron Rubin, Los Angeles

Prager responds: I accused The New York Times and the left of breeding an anti-cop hysteria that has helped lead to the murder of police officers. The Times itself just reported on a study by a Black Harvard professor that showed that Blacks are proportionately less likely to be killed by white policemen. And Mr. Rubin responds by writing about Donald Trump and Sarah Palin — even repeating the lie that Sarah Palin said, “I can see Russia from my window.” Tina Fey said it. If Mr. Rubin loved truth as much as he loathes Republicans, he wouldn’t have written this letter.

As for “bashing the Left,” if all I will have achieved in my life is to awaken people to the destructive nature of the Left, it will have been a life well spent. With Prager University garnering 150 million views a year, most of which are people under 35, I feel I am having some success doing so. Just about everything the Left (not classic liberalism, with which I identify) touches it ultimately destroys. Just look at what it has done to our universities and to American and Western support for Israel.

Liberals and Israel

Jonathan Kirsch in his July 22 column reviews Dov Waxman’s book, “Trouble in the Tribe” (“Signs of ‘Trouble’ Seen in American Support for Israel”). He quotes many statements from the book, which essentially say that American Jews, and especially younger ones, are increasingly not supportive of Israel because of their idealistic secular liberal view of the state; that Israel has changed in disturbing ways; that the era of Israel, right or wrong, is over; and most disturbingly, Israel should recommit to the goal of establishing a Palestinian state.

Waxman’s opinions, shared by many liberals (Amos Oz, among others), are hardly surprising. Perhaps Norman Podhoretz said it best: “Liberal Jews don’t believe in the Torah of Moses, rather they believe in the Torah of liberalism.” 

No one believes that Israel is perfect. If you want perfection, you will have to wait for the world to come. But all rational people should understand that Israel is surrounded by countries and terrorists who seek to destroy it. 

It is also not surprising that young Jews are increasingly alienated from Israel. After generations of secular liberal parents and teachers, many of whom have instilled negative images of Israel, what would one expect? No, Israel has not changed — Waxman and his cohorts have.

C.P. Lefkowitz, Rancho Palos Verdes

The Enemy Within

I am not sure I agree with the “prophecy” of Rob Eshman in “Jerusalem Syndrome” (July 22). He tries to make us believe that as soon as we easily defeat militant, jihadist Islam, and filter out the mentally unstable from the reach of those who could turn them into terrorists, the world would become a safe haven for all of us.

The problem is that inside we are all driven by a self-serving, self-justifying nature that views anybody different as a threat. We are all driven toward ruthless, exclusive competition, we all enjoy succeeding at the expense of others. How this nature is expressed outwardly depends on personal, national, cultural or religious characteristics, but at the end of the day we all serve only self-interest at all cost.

Unless we actually address this inner problem, unless we find a way to rise above our instinctive inclination toward other humans, history will remain a recurring chain of vicious cycles until we exterminate ourselves.

It is the Jews who have the only practical method, “Instruction Guide,” that could facilitate people building the necessary, true, mutually complementing collaboration above that instinctive human nature. We are the ones who have to show the shining positive example of unity and mutual responsibility above diversity, argumentative nature and despite unfounded hatred.

S.H. Kardener via email


In a review of Dov Waxman’s “Trouble in the Tribe” (“Signs of ‘Trouble’ Seen in American Support for Israel,” July 22), the author’s university affiliation was misidentified. It is Northeastern University.

Writer-director talks about adapting Roth’s ‘Indignation’

“Indignation,” the new movie based on a novel by the immortal Philip Roth, opens with a skirmish in Korea in 1951 and ends with a scene so shocking that I cannot reveal it here, although readers of the book will know what’s coming. In between, however, the movie focuses on the sexual and emotional coming-of-age of a troubled Jewish adolescent from Newark, N.J., whose childhood home is a battleground, and a college deferment means the difference between life and death. He is a highly indignant young man, as the title suggests, and his indignation plays out in both comic and tragic ways.

“Indignation” is one of Roth’s “late” novels, but it is a gem. As re-imagined by James Schamus, who wrote, directed and produced the movie, life in America in the early 1950s comes fully alive, as does the experience of a generation of Jewish Americans for whom the second world war was a fresh wound and the prospect of making a life among the goyim is burdened with anxiety and gloom. When it is announced that young Marcus Messner will leave Newark upon graduation from high school to attend a small, private college in the town of Winesburg, a friend of the family frets out loud: “How will he keep kosher in Ohio?”

Although “Indignation” is Schamus’ directorial debut, he is a formidable figure in the entertainment industry. He worked closely with director Ang Lee over many years, serving as a writer and producer on films ranging from “Eat Drink Man Woman” to “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” and producing “Brokeback Mountain.” He also oversaw production of many other movies of distinction as the founder and head of Focus Features. With “Indignation,” Schamus reveals himself to be a gifted director whose work is elegant and yet poignant, superbly well observed and even painterly, informed by Schamus’ own Jewish upbringing and identity, driven by powerful performances, and capable of moving us and surprising us.

Working from New York afforded Schamus resources that would not have been available on the West Coast for a movie with a modest budget. While the star of the show is Logan Lerman, a winning young actor who already enjoys a fan following among the 20-somethings, the cast also features several Broadway veterans and luminaries, including Danny Burstein (who re-created the role of Tevye in the recent Broadway revival of “Fiddler on the Roof”) and Linda Emond (who was nominated for a Tony for her recent role on Broadway in “Cabaret”) as the afflicted parents of the story’s young hero.

An outstanding performance is delivered by Tracy Letts, a playwright and stage actor who won a Pulitzer Prize for his Broadway hit “August: Osage County.” Most filmgoers, however, will recognize him as the CIA director in “Homeland,” and his role as the dean of the Midwestern college Marcus attends is unforgettable. Indeed, the on-screen encounters between Marcus and his college dean are the dramatic center of gravity in a movie that offers one intense scene after another, many of them explicitly erotic.

I had the opportunity to talk to James Schamus on two occasions, first in his production office in a gentrified building in the old Garment District in Manhattan and again at a sold-out preview screening of “Indignation” presented by the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival.  

Jonathan Kirsch: Has Philip Roth seen the movie yet, and if so, how did he respond?

James Schamus: Yes, he has, and, thank the Lord, he responded very well!

JK: What was the career path that led you from your work with Ang Lee to writing, directing and producing “Indignation”?

JS: Your question assumes that there is a path, when it was more like stumbling through the brush. We tend to think opportunistically in terms of what’s stirring the imagination. I was at an airport a number of years ago, and I picked up a copy of “Indignation,” which had just been published in a mass-market paperback edition. This was a time when Wi-Fi was not available, and a long flight was one of the few places left on the Earth where I could really unplug. I just fell in love with the characters, and I acquired the rights to the book.

JK: Roth discloses a shocking fact about Marcus Messner early in the novel. Based on my first viewing of the movie, it is not revealed until the end. Am I right? And, if so, what was your reason for delaying the disclosure?

JS: It is disclosed, but in a way that is not necessary for you to register it consciously. I played around a lot with when to disclose. And I am playing with the audience a little bit in one scene, where it is suggested in the lighting and the set. Roth novels are notoriously difficult to adapt, and I was trying to figure out a way to reproduce the sense of what’s left at the end of the book, when you know you have a consciousness who’s reaching out from young adulthood. That’s where I created the framing devices for the film, which are not in the book. 

JK: Your cast is deeply rooted in theater, and especially the Broadway theater. Was that a principle of selection in casting the film?

JS: It wasn’t a principle of selection. It was a requirement of budget. But I knew I could get actors who would precision-target that world and just live it. Danny Burstein and Linda Emond are theater royalty, and I think of Tracy Letts as the king of American theater.

JK: One of the glories of your movie is the way in which it conjures Jewish life in midcentury America in such authentic detail. But the counterintuitive moment for me, both in the book and the movie, is the scene in which Esther Messner objects to her son’s romance with the Gentile character called Olivia Hutton, a beautiful young blonde played by the stunning Sarah Gadon. Esther notices the scars on Olivia’s wrist and tells her son that he can date or marry anyone he wants, even a non-Jew, as long as it isn’t one who has tried to commit suicide. 

JS: Clearly, Roth gave me the gift of this character, and it would have been a mistake to depict her as a caricature of the Jewish mother. This is a mother who knows what she’s doing. Esther Messner is probably the first person in Olivia’s entire life who gets her the minute she sees her. Esther knows who Olivia is and what she’s gone through. Nobody else gets it. But maybe Esther is just thinking: Let’s solve the problem of Olivia and move on. If there’s another battle to fight later on, I’ll figure out the next move in my campaign.

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

Murder and the nuance of language

A lawyerly question provides the starting point for a wholly remarkable new book by


Adopting a new view of faith and family

Let’s get one thing out of the way — yes, Susan Silverman is the sister of actors and comedians Sarah Silverman and Laura Silverman. Perhaps more significant, however, are Silverman’s other achievements and credentials. She is a Reform rabbi who lives in Jerusalem, where she is a highly visible leader of the egalitarian Judaism in Israel. She is the author (along with her husband, Yosef) of “Jewish Family & Life.” And she is the founder of JustAdopt, a nonprofit that is dedicated to finding homes for “unparented” children from around the world.

That’s the theme of her latest book, “Casting Lots: Creating a Family in a Beautiful, Broken World” (Da Capo), an endearing and inspiring account of her own efforts to adopt a child from Ethiopia and raise him as a Jew in Israel. As we quickly learn, the first task turned out to be rather more daunting than the second. Indeed, Silverman’s book reveals some important truths about the choices one is compelled to make to be a parent, a Jew and a resident of Israel.

Silverman, as it happens, is a natural storyteller, and “Casting Lots” is a memoir rather than a manifesto. She harks back to the formative years of her childhood and allows us to witness a childhood tragedy that cast an ineradicable shadow over the generations. She introduces us to her sisters in intimate and surprising ways: Susan and Laura bestowed the nickname “Skunky” on younger sister Sarah because they regarded her as “poopy” and made fun of Sarah’s abundant body hair. “We took to petting Sarah’s legs, repeating, affirming, ‘Your fur is so beautiful.’ ”

And so we begin to understand the toughness and resilience that can be found in Silverman’s big, noisy, sometimes contentious but ultimately loving family. She explains, for example, that the divorce and remarriages of her parents opened the door for other kinds of blended families. “My family doesn’t make distinctions among ‘step,’ ‘half,’ or, to some extent, ‘ex,’ ” she writes. “ ‘Adopted’ was certainly not going to be a defining category.”

When Susan flew to Addis Ababa in 1999 to bring home her adopted son, Adar, it was yet another sister, Jody, who accompanied her. “My whole life had led to this place,” Silverman writes of their arrival at the African Cradle Children’s Center. Yet the baby who was handed to her was dressed in pink. “I looked at him face-to-face and said, baby-voiced, ‘We’re gonna make sure YOU have a penis.’ ” And Jody cracked: “Your first words to your son. Should I write them in his baby book?” Susan said: “This is the first uncircumcised penis I’ve ever seen. Well, sober.”

Susan Silverman, like her sister Sarah, may be blessed with an ironic and ribald sense of humor, but she is also given to theological musings that are no less edgy. “[F]or the first time in my whole life, no voice in my head negotiated with God,” she recalls. “[N]ow, my sister, my new son, the caregivers, and the children in this orphanage with me comprised a microcosm of love, tragedy, hope, apathy, brokenness, and healing — the shattered and the whole — the promise of Sinai. And in it I wasn’t God’s judge or God’s bitch. I was God’s partner.”

The adoption was only the first obstacle. Silverman, a Reform rabbi, sought an Orthodox conversion for her Ethiopian-born son, a culture clash of epic proportions. “I thought about calling the Unitarians,” she cracks. But she was willing to cope with rabbis who refused to recognize her own ordination “as an insurance policy against the schmucks who would question Adar’s Jewish identity.” Even so, it took six years to complete the conversion. But the long ordeal only deepened Silverman’s understanding of Jewish identity.

“Adar held within him a world of disparity and contradiction — gratitude and blame and hope and fear — that could be cracked open like an egg, exposing its spiritual and physical contours,” she muses. “Appreciating mystery is the only way I could honestly approach Adar’s origins. It was the only way I could fathom God. In this way, Adar was a portal to kedusha – holiness.”

“Casting Lots” is, among other things, an act of courage. Silverman is brutally honest about herself, her family and her faith. She wants to inspire her readers, but she never fails to remind them that parenting requires not only love but, perhaps even more importantly, patience, strength, compassion and determination, all qualities that’s she possesses and seeks to share. 

JONATHAN KIRSCH, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.

Dust off your summer reading glasses

Politics is dominating not only headlines, but bookstores, as well, and some of the most intriguing author events in early summer will provide yet more opportunity to agonize over Trump, Sanders and Clinton. Even Sebastian Junger’s new book about why tribalism can be a good thing, and the latest novel from Brad Meltzer, a master of the political thriller, have something to say about how power is wielded in America nowadays. On a different note, thankfully, a bit of escapism can still be found in a charming memoir about the iconic Moulin Rouge in Paris by one of its starring dancers. But best of all, you can meet all of the authors in person at Southern California venues in the days and weeks ahead.

Amid the rancor of American politics, Ronald Reagan looms large for his optimism, kindness and sheer likeability. After all, he created the “commandment” that Donald Trump is determined to break at every opportunity: “Thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican.” No one is better equipped to tell us about the real Ronald Reagan than his son Michael Reagan, whose latest book about his father (co-written with Jim Denney) is “Lessons My Father Taught Me: The Strength, Integrity, and Faith of Ronald Reagan” (Humanix Books). Reagan tells us he visits his father’s grave on the anniversary of his death and reads the inscription on the headstone: “I know in my heart that man is good. That what is right will always eventually triumph. And there’s purpose and worth to each and every life.” He uses his book “to show you how my father’s values and wisdom impacted my life — and changed the world.” I hope someone sends a copy to The Donald.

Reagan will discuss and sign his book at 2 p.m. June 4 at Barnes & Noble at The Grove at Farmer’s Market, 189 The Grove Drive, Los Angeles. 

An unforgettable book that introduced a new phrase into the American lexicon  — “The Perfect Storm” — marked Sebastian Junger’s debut as a best-selling author. Since then, he has written about such elemental topics as “War” and “Fire,” and has distinguished himself as a documentary filmmaker, too, with “Restrepo” and “Korengal.” Now he captures yet another aspect of the zeitgeist with “Tribes: On Homecoming and Belonging” (Twelve).  An Amazon best-seller before it was even published, the book is an impressive enterprise that draws on anthropology, psychology and sociology, as well as the author’s considerable adventures, and seeks to find out what binds together the members of a tribe. Nowadays, “tribalism” is used mostly as a term of disparagement, but Junger argues that tribal connections can be found not only in what we call primitive societies, but in every human community. What’s more, he insists that tribal bonds, like the ones that develop in combat units, are the strongest of all human connections. For Junger, tribalism can be a corrective to the loneliness and lack of meaning in modern American life.

Junger will present and sign copies of his provocative new book at 11 a.m. June 5 at Vroman’s, 695 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena.


A look at the fragmented history of Zionism

“Zionism” is a word that has come to mean many different things to different people, which is why veteran foreign correspondent Milton Viorst decided to take a fresh look at the origins and the destiny of the Zionist project in “Zionism: The Birth and Transformation of an Ideal” (Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press). The conclusion he reaches is deeply unsettling, and it can be ignored only at our peril.

“The Zionism we know today is not a unified idea, but a composite of bitter rivalries between stubborn men and their visions of Jewish statehood,” Viorst writes. “Zionism has created a successful country, but it has not made the Jews more secure. The absence of peace, in my judgment, keeps the Zionist achievement in jeopardy.”

Viorst served as a Middle East correspondent for The New Yorker and has contributed to publications ranging from the New York Times Magazine to Haaretz.  He has written six previous books on the Middle East, most recently “In the Shadow of the Prophet.”  He is a critic of certain strains of Zionism — engaged and compassionate, but a critic nonetheless. For that reason alone, I suspect that his point of view (and his book along with it) will be dismissed by some Jews in both America and Israel. But anyone who regards him- or herself as a Zionist ought to be able to answer the hard questions that his book poses.

“Zionism” looks back at eight foundational figures in Zionism, not only Theodor Herzl, Chaim Weizmann, Vladimir Jabotinsky, David Ben-Gurion, Menachem Begin and Benjamin Netanyahu, but also Rabbis Abraham Isaac Kook and Zvi Yehuda Kook, father and son, both of whom played a leading role in Religious Zionism. Each of these men, in his own way, shaped an aspect of the diverse movement that we call by a single name.

Indeed, Viorst’s book is a useful and important reminder that Zionism has not always been a shared value among Jews; indeed, Herzl started out as a highly assimilated Jew of Vienna who was capable of expressing contempt toward many of his fellow Jews. It’s also important to recall that Zionism started out as a solution to a European problem, the so-called “Jewish question.”   The answer, of course, was national sovereignty. “A flag, what is that?” Herzl wrote in one especially stirring letter.  “A stick with a rag on it?  No, sir. A flag is more than that. With a flag one can lead men wherever one wants, even into the Promised Land.  For a flag men live and die.”

The problem of European Jews was to be solved on Palestinian soil, and when the map of the Middle East was redrawn after World War I — an act of imperial hubris that ultimately resulted in the invention of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq — the future site of a Jewish homeland was planted among them. Yet the earliest Jewish pioneers, Viorst notes, “scarcely took note of their settling on land for which they had no legal title. They were not hostile to Arabs; some even emulated the Arab style of life.  Rather, their ideals contained no room for contemplating Arab possession. They deeply believed Palestine was their land.”

Significantly, it was a dissenting faction of Zionists who spoke out loud what the Labor Zionists preferred not to talk about. “Our peace-mongers are trying to persuade us that the Arabs are either fools, whom we can deceive by masking our real aims, or they are corrupt and can be bribed to abandon to us their claims to priority in Palestine,” Jabotinsky, founder of the Revisionist faction, wrote in 1923. “We may water down and sweeten our aims with honeyed words to make them palatable, but they know what we want, just as we know what they do not want.”

Jabotinsky, according to Viorst, was a crucial figure in the making of modern Zionism. “His huge impact lay in the ideology that he created, which produced a tougher, more rigid, heavily militaristic and deeply divided Zionism,” Viorst writes. So we should not be surprised by the new generation of maximalists like Avigdor Lieberman, who flank Likud on the far right. “Revisionism thrives today with an ideology that has changed little since Jabotinsky’s time,” Viorst warns.

But he does not spare the Labor Zionists from some of the same criticism. When the British first began to consider the formal partition of Palestine among Jews and Arabs in the 1930s, the Labor Zionist leader Ben-Gurion publicly embraced the idea of partition, but privately explained why he saw it as only a tactical concession: “By the time we complete the settlement of our state … we shall break through these frontiers,” he wrote at the time. “All our aspiration is built on the assumption … that there is enough room for ourselves and the Arabs … but I regard this scheme as … an unequaled lever for the gradual conquest of all of Palestine.”

Ironically, it was Ben-Gurion’s great adversary, Begin, who started a process that ultimately supplanted the Labor Zionist leadership that had long dominated the politics of the Jewish state. “His Revisionism succeeded largely because Labor Zionism failed,” Viorst writes. “Over time, he won the approval of the black-hatted haredim and the post-Communist Russian immigrants, who took their place alongside Jabotinsky’s Revisionists and Rav Kook’s Religious Zionists.”

By the end of the book, we are not surprised to learn that Viorst refuses to blame the current generation of Israeli leaders for the stalemate in what we used to call, in more optimistic days, “the peace process.”  Indeed, he insists that it “derives from competing visions of Zionism, dating back to the bitter struggles between Vladimir Jabotinsky and David Ben-Gurion.” And, intriguingly, he expresses hope rather than despair about the fact that the Middle Eastern frontiers that the Western powers dreamed up in 1920 are now collapsing. 

“No one can say how the pieces will come back together, or how long it will take,” Viorst concludes. “But it is reasonable to say that in the interstices between the fragments, there is probably room to maneuver on behalf of a new Israeli-Palestinian relationship.” Exactly here is the best evidence that Viorst sees the whole sad and frustrating picture through authentically Jewish eyes. 

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

A true Jewish star is born in Gabler’s ‘Streisand’

It is telling that the chapter titles in Neal Gabler’s “Barbra Streisand: Redefining Beauty, Femininity, and Power,” the latest book in the Jewish Lives series from Yale University Press, are given in transliterated Yiddish (and sometimes Yinglish) — “Shaynkeit,” “Mieskeit,” “Chutzpah,” “Tsezingen Zikh,” and so on. Gabler wants us to see Streisand not only as an American performer of sublime achievement and iconic stature, but at the same time “the most Jewish of Jewish actresses.” 

“[N]o one who looked like Streisand or had Streisand’s obvious ethnicity, that double whammy of Judaism and Brooklyn … had ever become an American movie star, certainly not a dramatic star, and Streisand would become the biggest,” he writes. “She wasn’t Hollywood. She was Brooklyn. She wasn’t them. She was us.”

No one is better equipped to ponder the Jewish origins of Streisand than Gabler, author of “An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood,” a benchmark history of the role that Jews and Jewishness played in the American film industry. “Of course, there had been other Jewish stars before Streisand,” he writes in “Streisand,” but Jewish entertainers were typically comedians who played their Jewishness for laughs, or they were actors who camouflaged their Jewishness.” Then Streisand came along, the Flatbush girl called “Big Beak” by her classmates yet who refused to prepare for her career by first visiting a plastic surgeon. Indeed, she embraced the characteristics that set her apart: “She was the entertainer of the marginal, the disenfranchised, the disadvantaged, the disaffected, the put-upon, and, not least of all, the different.”

Streisand started out with a gift that turned out to be far more valuable than a bobbed nose. According to film critic Pauline Kael, Streisand proved that “talent is beauty,” and she moved playwright Tennessee Williams to affirm, “She makes me believe in my talent because she so passionately believes in and shares her own.”  Gabler himself compares the rare quality of her performances on stage and screen to “Marlon Brando’s brooding iconoclasm, Sinatra’s cool, the Beatles’ irreverence,” but he goes even further in his praise, declaring her to be “arguably the most important entertainer of her time.”

Gabler reprises Streisand’s life story, but he announces that his real goal was to write as much “a biography of the metaphor that we have come to know as ‘Streisand’ as of the woman herself,” if only because “Streisand is so much more than Streisand.” Thus, for example, he describes the death of her father at an early age and the remarriage of her mother to a verbally abusive stepfather not merely as biographical facts, but as way to understand “the feeling of Dickensian anguish into which young Barbra was thrust” and a clue to her remarkable drive to remake her world. “What all the abuse, ridicule, and hostility also fueled was a growing hunger, almost a desperation, for recognition,” Gabler writes.

She may have been desperate for fame and success, but she wanted it only on her own terms. Here, too, Gabler sees in her origins the explanation for the diva she would become. “Streisand had contempt for nearly everyone — a contempt born of the contempt she had had to endure and that she gave back, no doubt, simply to prove that she could,” he writes. “Streisand was supposed to be grateful, humble, a poor girl anointed.  She was none of these things.” 

Gabler points that out many of Streisand’s “mentors and acolytes” were Jewish, and for them she became “the Jews’ Jew, the woman whose lack of shame over being Jewish, whose flagrant display of her Jewishness, was empowering.” The fateful decision to leave her nose alone was both “an act of professional bravery” and “her greatest assertion … of her Jewishness,” according to Gabler, who frequently comments on the role of that famous proboscis in the Streisand saga. So it is ironic that she stumbled badly in “Yentl,” a movie based on a story by Isaac Bashevis Singer, who later trashed her acting and directing efforts in The New York Times. The most explicitly Jewish of her movies was dismissed by one critic as “Tootsie on the Roof.” 

The ending note of Gabler’s superb book is not without a certain pathos. He points out that when Streisand returned to the screen after a long absence, in “Meet the Fockers,” a low comedy in which she plays “an oversexed Jewish mother,” the film was denounced as “a flagrant defamation of Judaism” by the same Orthodox rabbi who had served as her adviser on “Yentl.” After persuasively celebrating her gifts and achievements at length and in detail, perhaps the saddest fact Gabler reports is that “Meet the Fockers” turned out to be the highest-grossing movie in Streisand’s otherwise distinguished half-century career. 

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

Culturally rich history of Jerusalem is literally in the woodwork

When it comes to the Middle East, and especially the city of Jerusalem, everything in the built environment has a significant historical subtext, as we are eloquently reminded in “Till We Have Built Jerusalem: Architects of a New City” by Adina Hoffman (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), a superb and sharp-eyed account of “burials, erasures, and attempts to mark political turf by means of culturally symbolic architecture and hastily rewritten maps,” as Hoffman puts it.

“As I stroll the main street of the city I’ve called home for most of my adult life — a city that has held me in its grip, delighting, infuriating, bewildering, surprising me since I first encountered it — I’m considering both what meets the eye and what doesn’t,” Hoffman explains. “Captured and recaptured some forty-four times by different powers throughout its long history, the city is as renowned for the structures razed there as for those it has retained.”

To make her point, Hoffman focuses on three architects, each different from the others in origin, ambition, style and achievement.  Erich Mendelsohn, an influential Jewish architect in Weimar Germany, despaired of the imported European architecture he found in Jerusalem when he settled there in 1934, seeking instead “to learn from the local Arabs who’d come to understand over centuries how best to shelter themselves from the glare, how to build with thick, cooling walls, and small, carefully placed windows.” Austen St. Barbe Harrison, “essentially, even implacably, British,” was the chief architect in the Public Works Department of Palestine in the early years of the British Mandate. And Spyro Houris was an enigmatic figure with a Greek first name and an Arabic last name, whose signed buildings from the 1920s remain but whose biography is so obscure that Hoffman wonders if he is just a figment of someone’s imagination.

The book serves as a short biography of each man, as well as an architectural history of Jerusalem in the first half of the 20th century. Not incidentally, it is also a work of richly detailed cultural and social criticism by an author with a deep command of history. All of these many facets reflect the light of Hoffman’s own experience in Jerusalem as she finds herself “walk[ing] the streets of Jerusalem compulsively, as I thought I could track down a ghost’s footprint.” Wherever her eye falls on the architectural landscape of modern Jerusalem, she detects not only the footprints, but also the tool marks of its builders.

For example, when Harrison designed the official residence of the British High Commissioner of Palestine, which was completed in 1931, he wanted to “sidestep the politics that surrounded his every choice of carpet and candelabra” in order to create a structure of “sublime timelessness.” Even so, one architecture critic at the time praised the finished building as a “Crusaders’ Castle of To-Day.” For Hoffman, the design was an ironic failure of the architect’s imagination in a place that was both “antiquity-obsessed” and yet vividly aware of the day-to-day conflict between Arabs and Jews. Indeed, Jerusalem had been rocked by an earthquake in 1927 and riots in 1929, both of which served as reminders that nothing is timeless in Jerusalem: “Deliberately or not, Harrison had built a citadel on a far-off hill, a citadel worthy of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem — which as he of all people knew had lasted almost two hundred whole years,” she concludes.

By contrast, when Houris used elaborate tiles to ornament the houses he designed and built, according to Hoffman, he was drawing on the extraordinary richness and diversity of Jerusalem, a quality that can be easily overshadowed by the blood in the streets, then and now. Hoffman writes: “To fathom how those tiles landed on the walls of [an] Arab Catholic family’s elegant home — and ultimately on the doorposts of so many of the city’s twenty-first-century Jewish residents — it’s crucial to grasp how this now almost-forgotten Greek architect took inspiration for the arrival on the scene of an Armenian refugee ceramicist, brought from afar by a group of aesthetically alert British officials intent on repairing the façade of the most iconic building in the entire city, and a structure sacred to Muslims everywhere.”

Countless books have been written about Jerusalem, and I lost count long ago of the number I have read for pleasure or reviewed for publication. For me, the most memorable among them is a thick tome given to me as a gift by the public relations director of the King David Hotel, but only because it prompted a vigilant security officer at Ben Gurion Airport to pull my suitcase out of the X-ray machine for closer scrutiny.  But I am confident that none of the many books about Jerusalem is quite as charming and engaging, nor as surprising and satisfying, as Hoffman’s marvelous examination of the Jerusalem streetscape through the eyes of three men who helped to build it.

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

Festival of Books ready to add another jam-packed chapter

The largest book festival in the United States will reprise on the USC campus this weekend, April 9 and 10, when the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books has its 21st edition. Much has changed in the publishing industry since the L.A. Times launched the festival in 1996, and it is significant that the festival, like book publishing itself, has morphed into something far more expansive and diverse. In many ways, the event is now an all-in festival of arts and letters, and its 500-plus presenters include not only authors, but also celebrities, musicians, artists, chefs and much more.

Arianna Huffington. Photo courtesy of

Carrie Brownstein. Photo by JohnnyMrNinja/Wikipedia

To be sure, the beating heart of the festival remains the program of book-themed talks and interviews that take place in classrooms, lecture halls and auditoriums across the USC campus. Among this year’s featured authors in the L.A. Times Ideas Exchange series, for example, are Carrie Brownstein, co-creator of the “Portlandia” television series and author of the best-selling autobiography “Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl,” and Arianna Huffington, digital media mogul and author of “The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life One Night At a Time,” who will be in conversation with Times veteran columnist Robin Abcarian. Padma Lakshmi, author of “Love, Loss and What We Ate: A Memoir,” will be interviewed by Noelle Carter, and astronaut Buzz Aldrin will talk about his latest book, “No Dream Is Too High: Life Lessons From a Man Who Walked on the Moon,” with L.A. Times book editor Carolyn Kellogg.

Padma Lakshmi. Photo by Tabercil/Wikipedia

Buzz Aldrin. Photo by Phil Konstantin/Wikipedia

Another tradition of the Festival of Books is the awards ceremony for the Los Angeles Times Book Prizes, now in its 36th year, which honors the best books of the previous year in nine categories, ranging from biography and history to graphic novels and comics. The program includes a lifetime achievement award given in the name of my late father, a longtime Times book critic, Robert Kirsch, which will be bestowed this year on poet, author and activist Juan Felipe Herrera; an award for “first fiction” named after the L.A. Times’ late book editor and Book Prize founder Art Seidenbaum; and an Innovator’s Award, which will honor best-selling author James Patterson for his philanthropic efforts “to make books and reading a national priority.” The awards ceremony takes place on the evening of April 9 in Bovard Auditorium, and it’s always the single-best opportunity to spot a constellation of authors and other movers and shakers in the publishing industry all in one place.

Luis J. Rodriguez. Photo courtesy of

The good vibe at the festival, which got its start as a rare opportunity for book lovers to meet one another en masse, is now something more than the sum of its parts. If you are a purist, of course, you can stop by the Poetry Stage to hear readings by such celebrated poets as Jorie Graham, Andrei Codrescu, Los Angeles Poet Laureate Luis J. Rodriguez and California Poet Laureate Dana Gioia. Or you can marvel at the erudition on display when Joyce Carol Oates is interviewed by KCRW broadcaster Michael Silverblatt

Joyce Carol Oates. Photo by Larry D. Moore/Wikipedia

But you can also see and sample cooking demonstrations, listen to travel talks, watch local artists at work in the Artists’ Row gallery space or at the five street art installations around the campus, take the kids to children’s and young-adult stages for nonstop performances, or simply sit back and enjoy the sounds. The festivities begin on the morning of April 9 with the eye-dazzling and heart-pumping spectacle of the Trojan Marching Band, and the musical-stage performances range from the Saved by Grace Gospel Choir to an alt-country group called I See Hawks in L.A.

The Festival of Books, in fact, reaches beyond the USC campus. Among the attractions featured in the Festival After Dark program is the Book Drop Bash, a Saturday night gala hosted by the Library Foundation of Los Angeles at the Los Angeles Public Library. A library can be even more magical by night, especially when good books are enhanced with music, food and drink, as well the authors and presenters who participated in the book prize ceremonies earlier in the evening. And the price of admission is the donation of a book. 

So many sights, so little time! Truth be told, experienced festival-goers have already strategized  the attractions that they want to attend, an effort that requires luck, timing and a good pair of legs, if only because there are so many events at so many venues over the hectic two days of programming. Tickets for some of the events have already sold out, but there is always something to see and do at FOB. For the complete schedule of the Festival of Books, as well as prices, information and tickets, visit


Sex in the Talmud uncovered in different ‘Shades’

According to a pious tradition, the unmarried men in a yeshivah were asked to leave the study hall whenever the rabbi began to teach one of the passages of the Talmud that frankly address the subject of sex, an act known in talmudic usage as “the mitzvah act.” Now, thanks to a rollicking but also illuminating new book by novelist Maggie Anton, we can all find out what the bachelors were missing. 

In “Fifty Shades of Talmud: What the First Rabbis Had to Say About You-Know-What” (Banot Press), Anton draws on her own deep knowledge of Jewish history and writing, as well as her sly sense of humor, to open our eyes to “texts that sound more like they belong in a locker room than in a seminary.” The irony that suffuses her book is spoken aloud: “[A]ccording to the Torah … a Jewish man is both obligated to have sex, under certain circumstances, and forbidden to have sex, under other circumstances,” she explains. “This means the talmudic rabbis had to use their prodigious intellects to determine those precise circumstances — how, when, where, with whom?”

Of course, this is hardly the first time that Anton has pushed the envelope on matters of gender in Jewish tradition. She is beloved by her many readers for the award-winning novels in the “Rashi’s Daughters” trilogy and, more recently, the “Rav Hisda’s Daughter” series, both of which extract the mostly hidden female offspring of ancient Jewish sages from obscurity and bring them fully and dramatically to life on the printed page.

Anton, following the advice of Rashi to always begin a lesson with a joke, “because students will learn better when they are laughing,” opens “Fifty Shades of Talmud” with what happens to be my single favorite Jewish joke of all time. (The punchline of the joke, at least as I tell it, is: “It might lead to dancing.”) And, she explains, not without another moment of humor, that the Talmud, which began in distant antiquity, remains the foundational document of Rabbinic Judaism to this day: “Even those Jews who don’t do Judaism,” she cracks, “it’s Rabbinic Judaism they don’t do.”

True to her mission as a historical novelist, Anton offers a woman’s take on what has been a mostly male enterprise. The divine commandment to “be fruitful and multiply,” she points out, was understood by the Talmudic sages as an obligation imposed on men only. “[T]he Sages not only let the woman off the hook, but they also recommended ways for her to avoid pregnancy (some of which probably worked).” At the same time, she quotes a saying that honors the woman’s experience of sex: “Why does the Talmud call marital relations the holy deed? Because if done well, the wife cries ‘Oh God’ many times.”

She also points out that the Talmud can be almost prudish when it comes to sex. No word exists in the Talmud for “penis,” she writes, and the rabbis instead euphemistically used names of other body parts. “As you can imagine, this can lead to passages that actually denote limbs, feet, or legs sounding quite salacious.” When it comes to female genitalia, however, they confined themselves to the Hebrew phrase “Ha makom,” which literally means “that place.” Here, too, Anton is quick to point that “since Ha Makom is one of many names for God, this can lend an unholy connotation to some holiday texts.” 

Anton’s high-spirited text is ornamented with lovely line drawings by Richard Sheppard that manage to remain mostly, if not wholly, chaste while, at the same time, delivering a ribald message. And Sheppard both captures and enhances the spirit and the substance of Anton’s text: “Better stand back,” Adam tells Eve in the caption to one drawing at a moment before they have realized their nakedness, “I’m not sure how big this thing gets.”

Jonathan Kirsch, book editor of the Jewish Journal, is the author of “The Harlot by the Side of the Road: Forbidden Tales of the Bible.”

‘The Yid’ embarks on a hero’s journey

Moscow-born author and journalist Paul Goldberg first learned about the so-called blood libel — the hateful lie alleging Jews use Christian blood in their rituals — in a place where slander against the Jews is deeply rooted. After immigrating to the United States in 1973, Goldberg began to report and write about the Soviet human rights movement (“The Final Act” and “The Thaw Generation”) as well as the business and politics of cancer, but he did not forget the stories that he’d brought with him from the Soviet Union, the literature of the blood libel. Now, at last, he has unpacked those stories and put them to use in “The Yid” (Picador), a brilliant novel that is at once surreally comic, suspenseful — if slightly cracked — and punctuated with eruptions of violence, but with a poignant ending.

The book begins in 1953, during the last week of Joseph Stalin’s life, when a new wave of anti-Semitic persecution was already beginning to build. Among the targeted victims is Solomon Levinson, an actor who once performed in the long-suppressed State Jewish Theater and now faces the same oppression Stalin has decreed for all Jews of the Soviet Union. As the story plays out in “The Yid,” however, Levinson shows himself capable of both audacity and courage, even if, as the author suggests, he is starring in “a madman’s play.” Whether it is earnest or wholly fanciful remains to be seen

The characters, the settings and the suspenseful storyline all come alive in the author’s expert telling of his tale. He has a sure command of his characters, sometimes zany and sometimes poignant, a sense for the telling detail and a flair for the fascinating aside. Thus, for example, when he describes the arrest of Levinson, he puts us on the darkened landing of Levinson’s apartment, where three young policemen have announced their presence not with the stereotypical knock on the door but with “a light kick of a military boot.”

“Three men standing in cold, stinking darkness, waiting for someone to hear the kick on the door is not an inspiring sight,” Goldberg pauses to note. “They might as well be scraping at the door, like cats, except cats returning after a night of carnage and amour are creatures of passion, while nineteen-year-old boys with sidearms are creatures of indifference, especially at 2:55 a.m. on a February night.”

The aged Levinson, as we soon learn, is made of sterner stuff than his tormentors anticipate. We see him as a younger man whose visceral response to the German invasion of Russia in 1941 was “to kill and survive, and kill again, as directly as possible, preferably silently, in the darkness.” As it happens, he was able only to serve in a Red Army acting troupe that brought “the Bard to the trenches, mostly in Russian, sometimes in Ukrainian, and sometimes in Yiddish.” In one of many scenes that ought not to be revealed in a review, Levinson draws on his theatrical exploits from the second world war to wreak vengeance on his young persecutors.

So begins an extraordinary, rich and surprising tale of intrigue that quickly focuses on a mad plan by Levinson and his memorable little band of fellow eccentrics to stand up against Stalin and his reign of terror. “You are a crazy, stubborn old Yid,” says one of Levinson’s comrades, an African-American man whose employer sent him to the Soviet Union in the ’30s and who never went back. But the fact that Levinson is meshugge is almost beside the point. “One should never underestimate the power of a stubborn son of a bitch,” Goldberg writes, and “The Yid” is his case in point.

“The Yid” is a novel, to be sure, but Goldberg draws on a rich vein of real history. One of Stalin’s real-life victims was a star of the Yiddish theater named Solomon Mikhoels, an actor who was famous even in far-off America. In Goldberg’s novel, the real-life Solomon Mikhoels is imagined to have been the rival and nemesis of the fictional Solomon Levinson. But Goldberg also reports a fact of history — the celebrated Mikhoels was supposedly killed in a traffic accident, but he was actually among the earliest victims of Stalin’s final purge. “No phantom truck,” the author insists. “A bullet in the head. An execution in a Lubyanka cellar.” Goldberg imagines a final reckoning for Stalin himself in unsettling detail — a scene that conjures up King Lear, Frank Lloyd Wright, Marc Chagall and Paul Robeson — and the historical underpinnings of “The Yid” make it all the more plausible, even if it begins to resemble a fever dream. “The accused, Stalin, I., is sentenced to the highest measure of punishment: the extraction of all blood, drop by drop.”

Paul Goldberg has been aptly compared to a whole constellation of Jewish literary geniuses — Sholem Aleichem, Philip Roth, Cynthia Ozick, E.L. Doctorow, Michael Chabon and even the Coen brothers. (I would hasten to add Mordecai Richler to the list.) And “The Yid” is proof that he surely belongs in their lofty ranks. But it is also true that Goldberg possesses a voice and vision that are entirely and uniquely his own. Indeed, the words that best describe his achievement in “The Yid” can be excerpted from the book itself, where the author uses them in a different context to describe his hero’s exploits: “[A]wash in fresh blood … comedy, tragedy, and history abruptly join into one mighty stream.” 

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

Marvin Kalb discusses the U.S.-Russian game of chicken

The voice of Marvin Kalb, deeply familiar to any baby boomer, is calm, measured and authoritative.  He was one of “Murrow’s boys” — the young reporters mentored by iconic broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow — but he was dubbed “the Professor” because he had been recruited to join the CBS News team from a doctoral program in Russian history at Harvard in the 1950s. Over the next four decades, he continued to bring both wisdom and gravitas to television news.

Now, Kalb is re-entering the public conversation with a timely and wholly fascinating book about a man and a country that have seized our attention even during the wackiest moments of the presidential campaign. “Imperial Gamble: Putin, Ukraine and the New Cold War” (Brookings Institution Press) is a book for the ages, to be sure, but it could also be a briefing book for our next president.

In “Imperial Gamble,” Kalb drills deeply into Russian history, a subject that is as timely as a news crawl at the bottom of the television screen. “Putin’s gamble in Crimea (and it was a gamble) was reckless, even dangerous,” he explains. “Why had he acted so impulsively, so Russianly?” The answer lies in the roots of Russian history, but it casts a shadow over the world in which we live now: “If there is a Putin doctrine, hidden somewhere in his rhetoric, it would be that people who consider themselves Russian, no matter where they live, cannot and will not be abandoned by Moscow.” 

The crisis in Ukraine, as Kalb sees it, marks the re-emergence of Russia as America’s strategic adversary and a decisive player in world geopolitics: “Putin is not the reckless, unorthodox, swaggering Kremlin chief usually depicted in the West, but rather one operating in the mainstream of Russian policy for the last 100 years and more… [l]ike Yeltsin, Gorbachev, Brezhnev, Stalin, and Lenin before him.”

I was privileged to hear Kalb’s memorable voice in a conversation about his remarkable career, his new book and what it means for America’s future.

Jonathan Kirsch: Let me start with the notion that you are the last of “Murrow’s boys.” Do you look on what passes for television news nowadays with some despair?

Marvin Kalb: Yes, very much so, but I am also aware that, just as Murrow represented a significant change in the way in which the American people picked up their information about the world, today there are other journalists working with a totally different technological advantage in the way in which they accumulate information and pass it on to the American people. The danger there is that the technology not end up fashioning the message. [When] I had to do an important story on Russia from Russia, I would be shooting footage, I would then have to get the footage to New York, which would give me a day or two to think through what I wanted to say that would be the voiceover for the film. I didn’t have to be an instant analyst.  Today, everything is instantaneous, and we have to be mindful of the incredible responsibility on every reporter to be a great genius in an instant. 

JKYou write that for some Russians, including Putin, Ukraine has never really been a separate country of its own, which puts me in mind of the argument that is made about the Palestinian Arabs, not to mention Syria and Iraq. Does it really matter whether Ukraine or Palestine have ever been countries in the past, if that’s how they think of themselves now?

MK: The Jewish people in prayer have always said: “Next year in Jerusalem.” Why? Because a couple of thousand years ago, we were there. And so you want to recapture something. From the point of view of modern-day nationalism, if you have the opportunity to recapture something from the past, you seize that opportunity.  These days the Ukrainian nationalists, in order to strengthen their claim, state that the core of their country goes back to a place called Kievan Rus in the 10th or 11th centuries. That would be fine, except that the Russians, including Putin, say exactly the same thing about the starting point of Russia.

JK: You write that Putin represents an insurmountable problem for Ukraine, but that, in a larger sense, “Ukraine is Ukraine’s biggest problem.”  What is that problem and how can it be solved?

MK:  Sure, the problem can be solved, but probably not for another 50 years, and that’s taking an optimistic view. Since 1991, Ukraine has been an independent country. Fine, but then you have to act like an independent country. You have to do something about the corruption in your state, which has paralyzed the Ukrainian economy. The people who run it know exactly what has to be done, but they can’t do it because they live in the midst of Slavic sloppiness combined with communist ineffectiveness. It is a disaster.

JK: You write that Putin wants the world to see him as “a cool, modern intellectual and not just a powerful Russian leader.” How do you see him?

MK: Putin is a Russian nationalist leader without any fixed ideology except a belief in the effectiveness of raw political and military power.  Putin agrees with the expression that we hear in the Middle East about establishing facts on the ground.  Putin believes that if you establish a fact on the ground, the world will have to adjust to it.  In the face of what he regards as a direct existential threat to Russia — the rise of a Western, nationalist, democratic Ukraine — he is prepared to put boots on the ground.  His question to Obama is: “Are you?”  And the answer is clearly, “No.” So Putin says to himself, “Thanks very much, I am going to do what I want to do.”  And he is.

JK: You write that Putin “is without doubt the strongest Russian autocrat since Stalin, but oddly the most vulnerable.” What is his greatest vulnerability?

MK: The greatest problem that Putin has stumbled into is that he has made himself the leader of a Shiite group taking on the Sunni part of the Islamic world in Syria.  Russia is now a country of 142 million people. Twenty-one million are Sunni Muslims. Two million Sunnis live in Moscow. If you go down to Dagestan, south of Chechnya, on any Friday or Saturday, you will hear clerics giving sermons absolutely comparable to what you would hear in an ISIS mosque in Syria right now. There is a great danger of an explosion of Sunni wrath, disappointment and anger at the Russians.  And Russian leaders from Lenin on have always been concerned about it. In my judgment, it’s something that Putin will pay a price for. 

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

Brandeis: The first Jewish jurist named to the Supreme Court

Exactly 100 years have passed since the first Jewish jurist was named to the Supreme Court.  Until the nomination of Louis Brandeis to the high court by President Woodrow Wilson on Jan. 28, 1916, all nine seats had always been occupied by white, Anglo-Saxon males, almost all of them Protestant. Since then, the Supreme Court has been opened to not only Jews but to jurists of all faiths, colors and genders. Today, three Jewish jurists — Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan — now serve on the Supreme Court, and the very notion of a “Jewish seat” would sound like mere tokenism.

Brandeis is a familiar name, but I fret that it is now more widely associated with Brandeis University — or, locally, the summer camp and cultural institution that bear his name — than with the jurist himself. That’s why this is an appropriate moment to remind ourselves of the stature and achievements of the man who is nowadays remembered by most only as the first Jew to serve on the Supreme Court, if he is recalled at all.

Louis Dembitz Brandeis, child of Jewish immigrants from Bohemia, was born in 1856 in Louisville, Ky. His American success story began with studies at Harvard Law School and the practice of law in Boston, where he co-founded (with Samuel D. Warren) a law firm that remains in existence today under the name of Nutter, McLennen & Fish. Although he assured his fortune through the practice of law, he also devoted himself to championing the progressive causes to which his heart turned, with the result that he earned the moniker of the “People’s Lawyer.”

Brandeis did not merely excel in the legal profession; rather, he changed the law itself and the way that law is practiced. To describe his impact, we invited four distinguished members of the legal community to reflect on some of the many ways Brandeis literally wrote himself into American jurisprudence. Laura W. Brill, a leading appellate lawyer who served as a clerk to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, explains the origin and function of what has come to be called a “Brandeis Brief.” Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the UC Irvine Law School, explains how Brandeis championed the “freedom to think as you will and to speak as you think” as the essence of “political truth.”

But the influence of Louis Brandeis reaches far beyond the chambers of the Supreme Court and has endured long after his death in 1941. David Nimmer, author of the benchmark treatise “Nimmer on Copyright,” explains how the right of privacy, an idea Brandeis first proposed while still in private practice, casts a long shadow on the information-gathering activities of the U.S. government that have come to light in recent years after revelations by Edward Snowden, a one-time government contractor. And Bruce Ramer, among our most prominent entertainment attorneys, explains how Brandeis embraced progressive values while, at the same time, raising “smallness” in both government and business to a guiding principle.

For my own part, I am proud to salute Brandeis for the role he played in the Zionist movement, a story that is now mostly eclipsed by the subsequent events of history. Significantly, Brandeis was born to the generation of Jewish immigrants who arrived from the German-speaking lands of Central Europe in the mid-19th century, but he felt compassion for those Jews who later fled Russia and Eastern Europe. His daughter described Brandeis as “a completely nonreligious, a nonobservant Jew,” and his biographers find no evidence that he was a victim of anti-Semitism, yet Brandeis decided in 1910 to join with (and came to lead) those of his fellow Jews who aspired to create a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

“He did not believe in the mass salvation of ‘isms,’ ” Melvin I. Urofsky writes in his 2009 biography, “Louis D. Brandeis, A Life” (Pantheon Books). “[T]he world would be made better one person at a time.” Yet Zionism was, for Brandeis, the great exception. At a time when American Jews, fearful of the accusation of “dual loyalties,” were mostly skeptical, if not openly hostile, toward Zionism, the highly assimilated Brandeis assumed the leadership of the Zionist movement, even though it meant “absorbing fact after fact about Zionist and Jewish life in America, occasionally asking a question or repeating a strange-sounding Hebrew or Yiddish name.”

Brandeis insisted that he “came to Zionism through Americanism,” and Urofsky helps us to understand that the kind of Zionism that appealed to Brandeis carried a distinctly American brand. “Unlike those Zionists who wanted to create a nation governed by Jewish religious law, Brandeis envisioned a secular society populated by Jews who lived according to American values that Brandeis conflated with those of the prophets.” By 1916, when Wilson nominated Brandeis for a seat on the Supreme Court, Wilson articulated an idea that has become an enduring article of faith in American politics, now more than ever. “In the opinion of the president,” Brandeis wrote, “there is no conflict between Zionism and loyalty to America.”

As Urofsky points out, Brandeis was born shortly before the shelling of Fort Sumter and died shortly before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, two events that fundamentally changed the world that he knew. Brandeis himself, during his active and consequential life, succeeded in imprinting his own vision and values on the American civilization. In that sense, we continue to live the American democracy that he helped to create. 

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


” target=”_blank”>FREEDOM TO THINK AS YOU ARE


Growing up half Middle-Eastern

At this fraught moment in history, a cartoonist named Riad Sattouf has achieved best-seller status in France with a memoir in the form of a comic book with the provocative title, “The Arab of the Future: A Childhood in the Middle East, 1978-1984.” The first volume of the trilogy, translated by Sam Taylor, is now being published for the first time in the United States by Metropolitan Books. The book, which has been compared to such cartooned memoirs as “Maus” and “Persepolis,” is smart, funny and endearing, if ultimately heartbreaking. Above all, however, the book offers a remarkable opportunity to glimpse the experiences of one Arab childhood through the eyes of a gifted writer and artist.

Sattouf was born to a Syrian father and a French mother, which may account for what he describes as his “long, thick, silky, platinum-blond hair” in early childhood. With a degree in history from the Sorbonne, Sattouf’s father accepts a teaching position in Libya under Moammar Gadhafi, and then in Syria under Hafez al-Assad, which compels young Sattouf to grow up in a kind of netherworld, neither fully Arab nor fully French, and always aware that he is an outsider in both places.

For a memoir set amid the squalor and horror of our troubled times, “The Arab of the Future” is filled with ironic humor. Sattouf recalls his early childhood, when Gadhafi’s displays of grandiosity and self-importance on Libyan state television struck a chord with the attractive toddler who was accustomed to being doted on by his parents and admiring strangers: “He reminded me of me,” Sattouf recalls. “Like me, he had lots of people admiring him and smiling at him all the time.” And a theological debate between his parents ends with a punchline that will be baffling to readers of this review, but not to readers of the book, where it turns into a running joke: “I didn’t understand the word God,” he explains. “But from that day on, whenever I heard it, I would see the face of [French singer] Georges Brassens.”

Significantly, Sattouf is always aware of his mix of origins and never fully comfortable with either one. When the family arrives in Syria, his young cousins are confused by his blond locks and denounce him as “Yahudi” — Jew — and set upon him with fists.  “It was the first word I learned in Syria,” he recalls. But he is surprised to find that he is ready to fight back: “I was drawn, propelled toward the violence.” When he hears the call to prayer at 4 the next morning, he reveals the impression it made on him in an aside next to a dialogue bubble: “The saddest voice in the world.”   

Sattouf quickly notices that photographs and statues of Assad are just as ubiquitous in Syria as those of Gadhafi had been in Libya, but with one difference. “He wasn’t as handsome or sporty,” Sattouf recalls. “He had a large forehead, and there was something shifty-looking about him.” Yet everyone seemed to mimic his mustachioed face: “With his mustache, even the bus driver looked like Assad,” he writes. “In fact, every man on the bus had a mustache, except for my father.” And when his father puts a bucket over Sattouf’s head during a rainstorm, it is not to protect him from the rain, but from the sight of two corpses hanging from a scaffold as a warning to the populace about breaking the law.

Hatred of Israel is a fact of life for young Sattouf in Syria. Plastic toy soldiers come in two varieties, the Syrians “all frozen in brave, heroic postures” and the Israelis “shaped in deceitful, treacherous poses.” One of the Chinese-made figures is of a dead soldier impaled with an Israeli flag. As the new boy in the neighborhood, he was told: “All right, so you get the Jews.” At the end of the game, an Israeli toy soldier is beheaded with a kitchen knife. “Victory is ours,” his playmate declares. “God is great!” When the boy’s mother scolds him for vandalizing his toys, he protests: “I was cutting off a Jew’s head! I’m allowed to do that!”

The central figure in young Sattouf’s life — and in his book — is his father, a self-proclaimed atheist who is fearful of ghosts and genies and reads to his son from the Quran.  He dreams of gold, and he fancies that he will find it among the Roman ruins in Syria. After Sattouf’s father discovers that his own brother has sold off the land in Syria that was his legacy, he persists in vowing to build a “luxury palace” of his own.  When he insists that Alawites sell their children as slaves to the Sunnis, he looks at his young son and asks: “Can you just imagine? What if I sold you in exchange for a Mercedes?” Back in France, he discourses on why the Arab world needs the discipline of dictators. “One day, I’ll stage a coup d’etat,” he cracks, “and I’ll have everyone killed. Hee hee.”

As the book ends, Sattouf finds himself on the verge of the family’s return to Syria. By then, we are so fully engaged with this charming young boy that our hearts sink along with his. Two more volumes in the series will reveal what happens next, and it’s a measure of Sattouf’s gifts as a storyteller that I found myself longing to find out.

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

The lure, history and humor of the Catskills

The Catskill Mountains are, of course, a fact of geology located northwest of New York City. The Catskills are also a nearly mythic place — the so-called Borscht Belt —where Jewish cuisine, humor, music and sheer joie de vivre reached such a high boil that they spilled over into American popular culture — “Disneyland with knishes,” as the resort called Grossinger’s was laughingly but aptly described by novelist Mordecai Richler.

The story is told in all of its richness and curiosity in “The Catskills: Its History and How It Changed America,” by Stephen M. Silverman and Raphael D. Silver (Knopf), a well-told and lavishly illustrated overview of a place that is wholly unique. The story begins in the early Colonial era, when the Catskills were an object of botanical curiosity for early explorers, but the book sprawls across the next three centuries of American history.

“Henry Hudson arrived purely by accident, only to make the foolish mistake of moving on,” the authors write. “Others, chiefly Prohibition-era mob figures famous enough to be remembered by their nicknames (Waxey, Lucky, Legs, Dutch), literally got there by hook or crook, conspiratorially aware of how the remoteness of the terrain protected them. And others still, among them businessman manqué Selig Grossinger, wandered into the woods wishing nothing more than to become simple farmers, only to find themselves (in Selig’s case, by necessity) evolving into the standard-bearers for the world-class American hospitality industry.”

The jokiness in the prose is perfectly fitting in a book about the Borscht Belt, but the authors are quite serious about capturing the sweep of history. We are reminded of the significance of the Catskills in the Revolutionary War, the writings of Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper, the paintings of the Hudson River School and the machinations of pols and robber barons in the Empire State. Indeed, the Catskills are made to serve as an observation point from which the authors survey a vast landscape of war, revolution, politics and culture.

As early as 1773, as the authors point out, the first Jewish person on record showed up near Woodstock, a man called “Jacob the Jew.” But, as late as 1877, a local hotel owner turned away a prominent Jewish banker named Joseph Seligman with the announcement that “no Israelites should be permitted to stop at this hotel.” The incident “triggered a wave of pent-up anti-Semitism,” and signs began to appear at boarding houses and hotels: “Jews and Dogs Are Not Welcome.” Yet, Jewish-owned hotels soon opened to meet the demand of city-dwellers who sought a place where they could take “a whiff of fresh air.” The Grossinger family, for example, began to take in paying guests at its farm in 1914 after a couple from the Bronx showed up and asked for lodgings: “When I saw the sheitel, I knew yours must be a truly kosher household,” the woman told Mrs. Grossinger.

The appeal of the Catskills, as it turned out, had less to do with kashrut than with pleasure-seeking. Maurice Samuel, a disapproving Zionist intellectual, decried the Borscht Belt in his 1925 prose poem: “And here in Catskill, what do Jews believe? … In charity and in America, / But most of all in Pinochle and Poker, / In dancing and in jazz, in risqué stories / And everything that’s smart and up-to-date.” 

In fact, the Borscht Belt prefigures nothing so much as Las Vegas, offering customers “everything from swimming pools to dress stores to top-name entertainment, all within the confines of the same property.”  

For many of us, the Catskills are something we have only read about in Herman Wouk’s “Marjorie Morningstar” or seen in movies ranging from “Having a Wonderful Time” to “Dirty Dancing,” all of which distort the reality to varying degrees. (The 1938 film “Having a Wonderful Time,” starring Ginger Rogers and Douglas Fairbanks Jr., “exorcises every Jewish character name” that appeared in the Broadway play on which it was based.)  In that sense, “The Catskills” is a healthy corrective that allows us to see the place in all of its glorious complexity.

Quite a different take on the Catskills can be found in “Summer Haven: The Catskills, the Holocaust and the Literary Imagination,” a collection of provocative and highly illuminating essays edited by Holli Levitsky and Phil Brown (Academic Studies Press).  Here we find a tight focus on the strange and powerful point of connection between the Borscht Belt, a place of escape and frolic, and the Holocaust, an event of dire gravity. “We explore how vacationers, resort owners and workers dealt with a horrific contradiction — the pleasure of their summer haven against the mass extermination of Jews throughout Europe.” With contributions from scholars and writers including Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum (a Jewish Journal contributor credited by the editors with inspiring the book), novelist, essayist and law professor Thane Rosenbaum, comic artist Art Spiegelman and the beloved Nobel Prize-winning author Isaac Bashevis Singer, “Summer Haven” is a unique exercise in extracting new meanings from the unlikeliest of sources. 

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