November 18, 2018

Letters to the Editor: Rabbi’s History Lesson, Privilege, College Students and Thanksgiving Haggadah

Rabbi’s History Lesson Misses the Mark

Rabbi Donniel Hartman of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem comes to a living room in Bel Air to make sure we know how to judge the Israelis in their fight for … survival? (“Hartman Examines How the Six-Day War Forever Changed Jews and Judaism,” Nov. 3.)

No, not so! He is helping us judge an Israel which arrogantly and accidentally won yet another war with a people who seem not to tire of the attempt to make the area “Judenrein,” helping finish Hitler’s work.

According to Hartman, Israel’s sin was in winning the ’67 war and inheriting a bunch of people no one else seems to want, in an area which no one seemed to have wanted.

The 800,000 Jews kicked out of their Arab countries were absorbed into Israel. The 800,000 Arabs who fled the area have not been able to do the same, unfortunately, and Hartman blithely blames the Jews and hangs their well-being on Israel — somehow forgetting he is now talking about hanging the welfare on the almost 5 million enemy combatants they have become. Yes, we have been forced to occupy an unwanted people, even if naysayers think we are somehow occupying our land.

Rightly so, he contends that Israel could be “an inspiration” to the world. How? By giving up the power to defend against the enemy, saying that power, to be able to defend one’s self, “undermines one’s civility.”

I have worked in the wards of many mental institutions, and there have been many conversations that made little sense in the rational world. Hartman’s convoluted logic stands up there with the best.

To Hartman, in his own words, Israel’s survival, in the face of the Arab onslaughts, has been a major contributor to worldwide anti-Semitism.

So good for you, Rabbi Hartman, and to your hosts, Debbie and Naty Saidoff — and to the Journal for giving any and every crazy idea a forum to spread narrishkayt. Those of us who are genuinely inspired by what Israel has accomplished in the face of such huge adversity will try to hope that people like you will never make sense to those “shomrei Yisrael,” the brave guardians of Israel and the Jewish people.

Steve Klein via email

‘Privilege’ and What It Means at UCLA

Gabriella Kamran learned how to spell “privilege” at UCLA; would that she had learned what it means to be a Jew at my alma mater (“Are Jewish College Students Privileged?” Nov. 17). She approvingly quotes current UCLA student leader Rafael Sands and his reasons for not attending this year’s AIPAC conference, to wit: “Inviting Donald Trump and Mike Pence to speak at AIPAC represented American Jewish complicity in the administration’s ban on Muslim immigration, animosity toward undocumented people and hostility to reproductive choice.” Sands condemns American Jews with one broad swipe and at the same time rejects the idea of listening to a speaker with views different than his own. One wonders if he was on the UCLA student council when it voted to endorse the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement aimed at Israel.

Louis H. Nevell, Los Angeles, UCLA ’56

Being a baby boomer, I’m puzzled at the millennial obsession with ethnic or racial privilege, since we’re all products of our past. The civil rights movement has succeeded remarkably in leveling the playing field, but we’ll never be totally equal. People with two caring parents generally do better than those without, as do those who bathe regularly. Of course, as a group, whites are privileged, but many individual whites are not, and increasing numbers of Blacks and other ethnicities are.

Jews descend from a people who led the world in eliminating superstition, idol worship and human sacrifice. Our ancestors were the first to assert that all humans are meant to be free, and realized that this required morality, which they fostered in the Ten Commandments. Thus, our Israelite ancestors were the first to possess a conscience, and passed on this cherished gift by instituting Torah education.

Because they were attacked by one empire after another, and had to live among often hostile gentiles, only the most daring and resourceful survived. So is it any wonder many of us reflect these qualities today? Should we be ashamed of this? Of course not.

Young Jews should support others, but not at the price of abandoning Israel, which is the covenant basis for the belief system that makes us who we are.  They must insist that Israel has every right to exist; her rebirth is indeed a miracle. The reason there isn’t peace is because Palestinian leadership rejected statehood and peace in 1937, 1947, 2000 and 2008, and it is they who must change.

Young Jews must decry condemnation of Zionism and reclaim its glory. If Students for Justice in Palestine, Black Lives Matter, liberal professors and other “progressives” reject this, Jews must reject them. Jews will never gain respect by abandoning Israel or betraying our heritage. We command respect when we take pride in who we are and stand tall knowing where we come from. If that’s “privilege,” so be it.

Rueben Gordon via email

College Students Are Too Coddled

It was refreshing to read Karen Lehrman Bloch’s column (“The Privilege of Gratitude,” Nov. 24) about the victimization culture toward which U.S. society has been evolving. A notable example is so-called “safe spaces” on college campuses. U.S. college students rank among the most mollycoddled and fortunate people on Earth, yet now they need safe spaces to hide in? The billions of less fortunate people who must deal with real-life problems don’t have such spaces and neither will college students once they enter the real world.

Ben Zuckerman, Los Angeles

What’s the Matter With Our Public Discourse?

Reading Philippe Assouline’s analysis (“My Rant Against Conformity,” Nov. 24), I wonder what Teddy Roosevelt might think of our public discourse: “Radical Republicans posturing as conservatives and sniveling Democrats cowering behind political correctness!”

Denouncing those expressing opposing opinions are the new fascists in our land and anti-social media inflames their half-wit intolerance. As Yeats wrote: “Things fall apart, the center cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”

David Taylor Johannesen, Boston


‘A Thanksgiving Meal Haggadah’

We are Catholic with many roots and family that are Jewish. This is beautiful!! Thank you! It is indeed good to give thanks to the Lord!

Mariely Madero de Gessler

Thanks so much for this! I love Thanksgiving but I’ve always wondered how it fits into Jewish life. I might just print this for reading at our Thanksgiving gathering this year!”

Josie Mintz

Fabulous commentary. I shall read at our Thanksgiving table.

Norman Wexler

Perfect for this Thanksgiving Day ’17: Thank you and be blessed.

Paul Magnuson

Things I didn’t know. Thank you.

Leslie Hunt

The Privilege of Gratitude

Photo from Flickr/Shannon Kringen.

About a decade ago, when I was trying desperately to conceive, I read an essay by a woman who was traumatized by the fact that her obstetrician had to use last-minute medical intervention during the delivery of her baby. She had spent months, she explained, taking every measure to ensure that she would have a natural childbirth. And then: She had to succumb to “Western medicine.” The fact that she ended up delivering a healthy baby was only one sentence in her 3,000-word essay.

At the time I read this, I hadn’t realized how her essay was emblematic of a much larger victimization culture. I just remember thinking: Wow, this woman is truly ungrateful.

Today, of course, victim status has become a privileged achievement. Forget innovation or helping to improve the world. What gets you published on the cool websites is being able to detail a horrible thing that “society” has done to you, and nursing those wounds for as much empathy (pity?) as you can get.

Leaving aside the potential harm to their targets, I have come to feel sorry for our modern-day victim junkies. For one, they have confused theory for reality. They appear to have learned — perhaps at an esteemed university? — that the world is divided into oppressors and oppressed, victimizers and victims, and every encounter can classify you — “privilege” you — as a victim, a revered member of the oppressed class.

What they don’t seem to have learned is that Marxism failed precisely because Marx forgot to take into account human nature. Human nature is complex. Life isn’t perfect. Bad things happen.

Victimization theory has been trying to create a fabricated world where humanity can be perfected. Humanity cannot be perfected, only improved. And, of course, one victim’s oppressor is often another person’s savior. The same “Western medicine” that this woman bemoaned enabled me to deliver a healthy boy two years later.

But there’s a more essential point: Why would you want to be a victim? My older brother tormented me for nearly 15 years. He caused my first set of stitches. I could have wallowed throughout my teens and 20s; instead, at 16 I started dating his best friend. That ended that.

My brother went on to become a successful doctor who loves and respects me. He also went on to go through two massive tragedies that put my childhood victimization instantly into perspective. His first wife was run over by a car. His second son died during delivery. He too could have wallowed in a victim state. Instead, he grieved deeply, and then gently moved on.

If we’re going to be honest about human nature, let’s acknowledge that embracing a victim status can be tempting. I was tempted myself recently, when I was working on a book project and someone tried to sabotage it. For months, I got so caught up in that mindset that I didn’t allow myself to fully enjoy the project, and the positivity it was generating.

When you wallow in victim status, there is no room to feel gratitude.

Which leads me back to my initial point: When you wallow in victim status, there is no room to feel gratitude, and it is the ability to feel gratitude that is one of life’s great privileges. It is the ability to stop for a few minutes each day and appreciate our children, our friends, the beauty of life. Even those of us who have not been brainwashed by victimization theory often forget to feel gratitude. Yes, we do after sickness or tragedy, but the elevated life is to find gratitude in the mundane.

I have a Facebook friend in India who sends me a meme of gratitude every night. Initially, I found it odd (I had never interacted with him), and then, when life wasn’t going well, I’d find it annoying. But I’ve come to think of these memes as welcome daily reminders.

And you know the funny thing about gratitude? When we allow ourselves to feel it, the fact that we and life are not perfect becomes an afterthought. Life, however messed up it is at times, is indeed beautiful, and each moment is indeed a blessing. And when you learn to look for the light, it will find you.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Karen Lehrman Bloch is a cultural critic and author of “The Lipstick Proviso: Women, Sex & Power in the Real World” (Doubleday). Her writings have appeared in The New York Times, The New Republic, The Wall Street Journal and Metropolis, among others.

Are Jewish College Students Privileged?

Photo from Flickr/Tony Webster.

I sometimes joke that if there’s anything I’ve learned in three years at UCLA, it’s how to spell “privilege” without spell-check.

In the age of identity politics, the concept of group-based privilege frames nearly every political discussion on college campuses, from debates on immigration to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.

The idea is that nearly all of us benefit from some combination of unearned, identity-based advantages embedded in American socio-historical structures. People must “check their privilege,” or adjust their everyday behavior accordingly, by trying to dismantle the structures that give their identity groups a leg up.

This shift in political language poses crucial questions for Jewish students: Do Jews have privilege in America, despite persistent anti-Semitism? If so, what are we doing with that privilege?

Our answers could determine whether we are included within progressive campus circles, which generally regard checking one’s privilege as a signal of solidarity with other marginalized students.

The question of whether Jews have white privilege surfaced in June, when light-skinned Israeli actress Gal Gadot starred in the film “Wonder Woman,” and again in early August when white supremacists chanted anti-Semitic slurs at a far-right rally in Charlottesville, Va.

In his Jewish Journal column about Gadot’s casting, Shmuel Rosner asked, in perhaps one of the most pronounced examples of the generational gap in Jewish priorities, “Who cares if Gadot is white?”

The answer to that question is, of course, college students — including the Jewish ones who reject the very pretense of the progressive expectation that we recognize our privilege. These students claim it’s an insult to say Jews benefit from white privilege in this country when anti-Semitism has often relegated us to otherness.

In 2014, Tal Fortgang, a Jewish freshman at Princeton, appeared on Fox News regarding an article he wrote, “Checking My Privilege,” in his campus conservative magazine. Fortgang argued that accusations of white privilege erased the reality of anti-Semitic oppression his Jewish ancestors faced in Nazi Germany.

“Perhaps it was the privilege my great-grandmother and those five great-aunts and uncles I never knew had of being shot into an open grave outside their hometown,” Fortgang wrote. “Maybe that’s my privilege.”

Other Jewish students feel the burden of Jewish privilege on their shoulders — even more so when it goes unrecognized by the larger community. Prior to this year’s AIPAC Policy Conference, UCLA student leader Rafael Sands penned an op-ed to the Jewish Journal called, “Why I’m Skipping AIPAC This Year.”

Sands explained the moral conflict he felt as an American Jew: Yes, Jews face anti-Semitism, sometimes subtly and other times hideously,  but Jews also have come a long way — succeeding at getting our foot in the door of American politics (AIPAC’s magnitude a case in point) and, by extension, American privilege.

We must consider the need to reckon with the Jewish place in the narrative of American white privilege.

Inviting Donald Trump and Mike Pence to speak at AIPAC represented American Jewish complicity in the administration’s ban on Muslim immigration, animosity toward undocumented people and hostility to reproductive choice, Sands wrote.

I hope my non-Jewish peers agree that it was refreshing to hear such remarks from a Jewish UCLA leader. The work of justice requires, before anything else, that we address our flaws.

This is not to say there isn’t a serious need for progressives to grant more legitimacy to claims of anti-Semitism, which sometimes seem to get thrust outside the circle of real oppressions. We should never have to choose between condemning anti-Semitism and supporting social justice movements.

In our own community, though, we must consider the need to reckon with the Jewish place in the narrative of American white privilege, the reality that some Jewish people and institutions have been reluctant to do so, and a progressive alliance that’s not going to wait for us while we figure all of this out.

If Jewish students want to be true partners to our progressive peers, it is our responsibility to check our privilege — even if, at times, we’re unsure what we will find.

Gabriella Kamran is a third-year communications and gender studies student at UCLA.

The Heart of Jewish Joy

A modest proposal: As a reward to the Jewish people for having survived the 20th century, let’s make Purim our High Holiday.

Not that there’s anything really
wrong with our current High Holidays. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are compelling days of personal introspection, reflection and evaluation. But after withstanding a century of pogroms, mass dislocation and Holocaust, claiming a tiny sliver of a homeland only to attract the rage of a billion Muslims and the resentment of the rest of the world, we’ve earned a holy day of unconditional joy.

If Jews the world over, including the most alienated and unidentified, are going to find their way to synagogue just once a year, let it be a day we hand them a mask and a grogger and share the jubilant story of a courageous Jewish princess and her triumph over evil. Let it be a holiday celebrating the victory of life over death. Let it be a day of unmitigated Jewish joy. We’ve earned it.

And we need it. The long career of Jewish suffering has twisted the Jewish soul.

I taught Hebrew school years ago, and one Sunday morning I overheard a conversation between a father and his child.

“Dad, I hate Hebrew school,” the kid said. “It’s boring, it’s stupid, the teachers are mean, the kids aren’t nice. I hate it and I don’t want to go any more.”

The father pushed his child up against the wall and said to him: “Look, kid, I went to Hebrew school when I was your age, and I hated it. It was boring, the teachers were mean, the kids weren’t nice, but they made me go. And now you’re going to go to Hebrew school just like I did.”

What a tragedy, what a catastrophe to raise generations who know only a twisted Judaism, a Judaism of coercion, boredom and emptiness.
My grandfather would read the Yiddish papers and mutter, “Shver tzu zeiner Yid” (It’s hard to be a Jew). For my grandfather, being a Jew was an unquestioned destiny, but the world made it so difficult, so painful.

In our time, we’ve twisted this around. It’s no longer a description.

It’s become prescriptive: “Shver Tzu Zeiner Yid.”

We’ve come to expect that anything authentically Jewish must be hard, painful, difficult. No chrain, no gain.

A friend — a truly beautiful soul — converted to Judaism. She came back to see me in deep sadness. Her Christian friends and co-workers congratulated her on her new faith. They bought her gifts to celebrate. Her Jewish friends were openly derisive: Why on earth would you want to be Jewish? What’s wrong with you?

The greatest book on American Judaism is Mordecai Menahem Kaplan’s classic, “Judaism as a Civilization.” The first line of that book reads: “Before the beginning of the 19th century, all Jews regarded Judaism as a privilege; since then most Jews have come to regard it as a burden.”

To heal the twisted soul of the Jewish people we need unequivocal expression of Jewish joy. So let’s make Purim our High Holiday.
Purim is a deceptively simple holiday. Its merriment masks a complex set of issues: the power politics of Diaspora, the multiple identities engendered by assimilation, the single-mindedness of evil, the conflicted conscience of the righteous. It is a story of secrets, hidden truths and concealed realities. And somehow we sense the Presence of God in the story’s shadows. But it ends in a flash of light, of truth and of celebration. It is thus a remarkable treatise on the nature of Jewish joy.

Jewish joy is not escapist or delusional. Who knows the world’s darkness and brokenness better than we do? But standing before light and darkness, blessing and curse, life and death, we choose life. It may be the most difficult mitzvah in the Torah to fulfill. But we choose life. That is the heart of Jewish joy.

“The Jews enjoyed light and gladness, happiness and honor” (Esther 8:16). And so may it be for us.

Happy Purim.

Ed Feinstein is senior rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino. He serves on the faculty of the Ziegler Rabbinical School of the University of Judaism, the Wexner Heritage Foundation, the Whizen Center for the Jewish Family and the Synagogue 3000 initiative.

Accepting Judaism as a Privilege

One Sunday morning, many years ago, as parentscame to pick up their kids from the Hebrew school where I taught, Ioverheard a conversation. “How was class?” A father asked his son.The child began to whine. “I hate Hebrew school,” he said. “It’sboring and stupid, the teachers are mean, and the kids aren’t nice. Idon’t want to go any more.” The father stopped, turned to the kid,and said: “Listen, when I was your age, I went to Hebrew school and Ihated it. It was boring, the teachers were mean, the kids weren’tnice, but they made me go, and, now, you’re going to go too!”

What a tragedy. What a catastrophe. To have raiseda generation of children who associate Judaism with coercion, boredomand emptiness.

When my grandparents described the painfulcondition of the Jewish people, they would shake their heads andsigh, “Shver tsu zein a Yid” — “It’s hard to be a Jew.” To them,being a Jew was a privilege, but the world made it so difficult, sopainful. Somehow, we’ve turned this around. No longer description, ithas become prescription: Shver tsu zein a Yid. For anything to beauthentically Jewish, so many seem to feel, it must be hard, painful,difficult: “No chrain, no gain.”

A friend of mine, a Jew by choice, was invited toaddress a community commission that was researching outreach toconverts. After her statement, a prominent community leaderquestioned her: “You say that you keep a kosher home. Don’t you findthat very difficult these days?”

“No,” she replied. “With new labeling of packages,it’s actually getting easier.”

“Well, certainly, you find it veryexpensive.”

“No, not really. You just shop wisely.”

“Well, doesn’t it severely restrict what you caneat?”

Catching his direction, she explained pointedly,”Kashrut brings to my kitchen and to my home a level of sanctity andgodliness that is precious to me and to my family.”

“Well, obviously,” the chairman concluded, “youdon’t keep strictly kosher!”

Shver tsu zein a Yid. If it doesn’t hurt, it’s notreally Jewish. I once gave a sermon in a synagogue on a Shabbatmorning. A woman came over afterward and said, “Rabbi, I enjoyed yourtalk so much, I had such a good time, I forgot I was in shul!”Oy.

Mordechai Kaplan’s classic text, “Judaism as aCivilization,” opens with a sad observation: Once, Jews acceptedJudaism as a privilege; now, they regard it as a burden.

This is a twisted, tortured, contorted form ofJudaism. In the face of such an attitude, it is no wonder that whenasked in a national study of the Jewish population, “What is yourreligion?” 1.8 million Jews answered, “None.” After all, if Judaismis only a painful burden, who needs it?

It is time we recover Jewish joy. And this holidayof Sukkot, called by the tradition, z’mansimchateynu — our season of joy — is agood place to begin. It is a mitzvah, a divine imperative, toknow Jewish joy. It is a sin to have twisted Judaism into a dry,joyless, morbid burden. Jews must learn to say to their children andgrandchildren, in the most unequivocal of terms: “I do Judaismbecause it brings my life purpose, beauty and depth. I do Judaismbecause it makes me happy.”

As we will read this week: “You shall rejoice inyour festival with your son and your daughter…and have nothing butjoy” (Deuteronomy 16:13-15).

My greatest triumph as a rabbi came one Sukkot,when a little kid came and whispered in my ear:

“Rabbi, I feel sorry for my neighbors.”

“You feel sorry for your neighbors? Why?” I askedhim.

“Look what we get to do today, Rabbi,” he said.”We get to eat in the sukkah, sing the prayers and march with thelulav and etrog. We’re together as a family and with all our friends.Rabbi, for us, today is Yontif, but for them, it’s justThursday!”

May all Jewish children feel the same. HagSameach.

Ed Feinstein is rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom inEncino.