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December 15, 2010

Dis-assimilated

http://www.jewishjournal.com/rob_eshman/article/dis-assimilated_20101215

It was a very Jewish week, even more than usual.

On Tuesday, I had a conversation on stage with Rabbi Uri Herscher at an annual Chanukah brunch at the

Skirball Cultural Center, which he founded and runs. 

At one point, Herscher asked me to name the five issues I find myself writing about most often, and I rattled them off: Israeli security, oil independence, our obligations as Jews to one another and to society at large, political and religious extremism, and this constant worry over Jewish continuity.

On Wednesday, at the Journal’s editorial meeting, Uri Regev dropped by to explain how his new organization, Hiddush, is fighting to separate religion and state in Israel — not a terrible idea, considering the headlines that morning about 50 municipal rabbis in Israel urging Jews not to rent land to Arabs.

At lunch, I met up with Josh Neuman. Neuman was the publisher of the now online-only Heeb magazine, which in its print format, as it continues to do on the Web, both celebrated and skewered Jewish culture. Josh left Heeb after the print edition folded, and he is now spreading his talents in Hollywood, which he has found highly receptive to funny Jews.

That evening, I went to a Chanukah party at the home of Jonathan and Ann Kirsch. Every year, they celebrate the last night of the holiday with the same core group of friends and neighbors. Children who once couldn’t reach the table are now towering over the menorahs. 

“We’ve been doing this for 30 years,” one of their friends told me. “We’ll probably do it for 30 more.”

Thursday. At noon, I gave a speech at a fundraising lunch at the Marriott in Woodland Hills for the Conejo chapter of ORT. Each year, ORT, founded in Russia in 1880, offers job training to some 300,000 young Jews and non-Jews around the world, enabling them to move up the economic ladder.

Nikita Lazarus Putnam, the young, South African-born advancement director for the organization’s West Coast region in Los Angeles, urged the mostly senior women in attendance to make up for a poor economy by giving just a little bit more than usual. Glass goldfish bowls stood by the entrance, each designated for a different-sized check: $100, $500, $1,000, $2,500, $5,000.

“I see the $5,000 bowl is still empty,” Putnam chided.

That evening, I kept on my same suit and headed over to the Grand Ballroom at Hollywood & Highland for the Shoah Foundation’s annual dinner, this one honoring DreamWorks’ Jeffrey Katzenberg. Out in the foyer, where bartenders were pouring Grey Goose caipirinhas and passing cones of tuna tartare, a few men gathered for a shmooze — Steven Spielberg, Katzenberg, Jerry Bruckheimer and George Lucas. That’s entertainment.

Inside, the program followed pretty much the same plan as the ORT luncheon — get like-minded supporters in a room, entertain them with a speaker, and, in the process, raise some money for a good cause.  Except that in Woodland Hills, I was the show. In the H&H Grand Ballroom, late-night host Craig Ferguson warmed up the crowd, followed by a breathtaking Jennifer Hudson.

Spielberg himself, in introducing his friend Katzenberg, explained how he was moved to use the proceeds from “Schindler’s List” to record for all time the stories of the survivors of the Holocaust and other genocides. To date, the foundation has collected 51,000 testimonies, and catalogued and preserved them with cutting-edge technology that will last hundreds of years. Hundreds of years.

As he talked, I was thinking back on my first meeting of the week, on Monday morning, with a woman named Barbara Spectre, who runs an organization in Sweden named Paideia. Founded in 2001, Paideia is dedicated to the revival of European culture through the intensive education of adult Jews by means of the texts, history and rituals of their faith.

World War II, the Cold War and the European proclivity to submerge one’s identity to the nation state worked to suppress Jewish life, Spectre told me. But now, throughout Europe, thousands of adult Jews are rediscovering their Judaism, asking questions about it, eager to engage.

“So often we see assimilation as a one-way street,” she said. “It’s not. There’s also dis-assimilation.”

That word stuck in my mind all week, through every speech and banquet and discussion.  Dis-assimilation. What Spectre said is happening in Europe, we have perfected here in America: maintaining a bubbling, irrepressible and, frankly, exhausting expression of our community in the midst of our deep American-ness.

Even as so many are fretting over our future, prepared to write the epitaph of modern Jewry, here, we are uncovering and rediscovering it.

That Shabbat evening, I roasted a rather skinny chicken that had been raised naturally on an Amish farm and shipped out by a new natural-kosher meat distributor. I sat down to a quiet dinner with my kids — my wife was away, speaking to Jews in Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey — and my daughter and son, 14 and 17, chanted the blessings.

“In our history,” the writer Isaac Bashevis Singer once said, “between being sick and dying is a long way.” And we’re not even close.

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