Posted by Bob Goldfarb
Last weekend the Convention Center in Washington, D.C., was packed with 4000 supporters of Israel. They heard from speakers like Sen. Joseph Lieberman; Elliott Abrams, deputy national security adviser to George W. Bush; and Malcolm Hoenlein, executive director of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
Yet this was no Jewish conclave. It was the fifth annual Washington Summit of Christians United for Israel (CUFI), founded in 2006 by Pastor John Hagee and now numbering some 426,000 members. AIPAC, by comparison, claims 100,000. Considering the oft-stated importance of Israel to American Jews, one might expect the Jewish community to embrace these allies who so unequivocally support the Jewish state, financially as well as morally. The reality is that most Jews keep their distance. Why?
One likely reason is simple political differences. CUFI unambiguously supports a conservative agenda, and American Jews are generally liberal. To take one example, a CUFI spokesman summed up its position on one hot-button topic by saying “we don’t believe, recognizing Israel as a sovereign nation, that we can dictate where they can and can’t build.” Advocates of a freeze on new construction in East Jerusalem would naturally disagree.
The discomfort doesn’t end there, however. Given the long history of Christians seeking and sometimes forcing Jews to convert, some Jews have trouble trusting the motives of these new friends of Israel. They wonder if there is some hidden agenda, and since CUFI is a faith-based organization they look for theological explanations.
In particular, some Christians believe that Jews lost the Covenant with God when they rejected Jesus, and that after being gathered in the Land of Israel Jews must convert to Christianity at the End of Days. On the other hand, many don’t, including Pastor Hagee. There are numerous doctrinal disagreements within Christianity. Still, some Jews are afraid that the support of the Christian Zionist movement comes with some strings attached.
On some level this may come from a feeling that evangelical Christians are The Other. The differences in the two communities’ origins, beliefs, and customs have certainly led to mistrust and prejudice over time. Now that CUFI has reached out to Jews by embracing one of our core values—supporting Israel—this may be an opportunity to move beyond our preconceptions, see one another more realistically, and find common ground.
Honest disagreements are part of any political process, and reasonable people can differ on matters of policy. It’s something else entirely to spurn millions of people because we don’t understand them or their religious beliefs. Jews who reject CUFI’s support should ask themselves exactly why they have made that decision. As Hillel said, that which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.
Bob Goldfarb is president of the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity in Los Angeles and Jerusalem. He also blogs at eJewishPhilanthropy.com, and Tweets about Jews, the arts, and Jewish culture at twitter.com/bobgoldfarb.
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July 22, 2010 | 8:23 am
Posted by Bob Goldfarb
The strife in the Middle East comes from the clashing beliefs of two peoples who both believe that the Land of Israel belongs to them. These two peoples of course are American Jews and Israelis, whose mutual incomprehension has surfaced yet again in the controversy over the Rotem bill.
Like any two peoples locked in conflict, each has its own historical narrative. Israel’s population comes from all over the world, and in much of the world it’s customary for a Jewish community to have a Chief Rabbi. Both the Ottomans and the British recognized the Rabbinate in Palestine, and its authority was strengthened after the establishment of the State. A Chief Rabbinate is as normal for Israelis as the Queen is for the British.
Americans, on the other hand, come from a political tradition where religion is a private matter and the state legally cannot interfere. Having a Chief Rabbi would be as peculiar as, well, having a queen. In particular, since pluralism runs deep in American culture, the idea of empowering one stream of Judaism over another seems inherently wrong. For American Jews these principles are generally so self-evident that they are beyond question.
Israelis are mostly secular Jews, and it doesn’t matter to them who decides what’s kosher. Some are unhappy with the Rabbinate’s monopoly on performing weddings and its standards for conversions, but that is more likely because of disagreements over particular standards rather than about the principle of rabbinical power. It’s like the Food and Drug Administration in America: people may disagree with its decisions, but most don’t actively object to its authority.
By contrast, Alana Newhouse captured the powerful feelings of many American Jews in the New York Times last week. “Future historians,” she wrote, “will inevitably wonder why, at a critical moment in its history, Israel chose to tell 85 percent of the Jewish diaspora that their rabbis weren’t rabbis and their religious practices were a sham, the conversions of their parents and spouses were invalid, their marriages weren’t legal under Jewish law, and their progeny were a tribe of bastards unfit to marry other Jews.”
No Knesset law can invalidate religious practices in the Diaspora; all it can do is fail to recognize them in Israel. As Newhouse’s passionate Op-Ed shows, however, this bill is an emotionally charged symbol. American Jews feel as if they have been slapped in the face by a member of their own family. It doesn’t matter that very few of them will ever be directly affected by anything the Knesset decides. The issue is deeply polarizing.
Meanwhile, both the Rabbinate’s detractors and supporters claim that Jewish unity is on their side. The Rabbinate believes that there must be a single standard – a religious standard – for who is a Jew, otherwise we will no longer be one people. Meanwhile Benjamin Ish-Shalom of Beit Morasha, opposing the Rotem bill, writes in The Jewish Week, “We are one people and must remain one.”
Professions of unity come mostly when unity is in doubt, and the truth is that there are more divisions within Jewish life than we can count. A true pluralist would respect those divisions, rather than ignoring them or trying to defeat the people with whom one differs. Israeli and American Jews share Jewish identity but have different values and expectations. There’s nothing wrong with that. Let’s accept that we live in different countries and grant each other some autonomy. We’ll get along more peacefully with a two-state solution.
Bob Goldfarb is the president of the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity in Los Angeles and Jerusalem and a regular columnist for eJewishPhilanthropy.com. His Twitter feed on Jews, the arts, and Jewish culture can be found at Twitter.com/bobgoldfarb.
June 24, 2010 | 9:02 am
Posted by Bob Goldfarb
A few years ago a young woman from Stuttgart made aliyah, and in time wanted to get married in Israel. She had immigrated with a letter from her rabbi stating that she is Jewish. When she applied for a marriage license, however, the Israeli Rabbinate rejected her because they didn’t accept her as a Jew; they didn’t recognize the authority of the Stuttgart rabbi. When she told them that her mother and grandmother were Holocaust survivors, and that there are photographs of them in Yad Vashem, the rabbinate still would not approve her application. They demanded that she provide copies of those photographs before they would proceed.
That’s when she turned to an organization called “The Rabbis of Tzohar” (רבני צוהר). Tzohar is a metaphorical word for window, and the organization’s purpose is to “bring light to both sides” of the divide between secular and religious Jews in Israel. Operating within a halakhic framework and working through the bureaucracy of the Rabbinate, they help olim prove their Jewishness. (Rabbi Hyim Shafner wrote about them last year on the Morethodoxy blog.)
The head of Tzohar, Rabbi David Stav, interceded with the Rabbinate on behalf of the olah from Stuttgart. He called them a few days before Israel’s Memorial Day for the Shoah and Heroism and gave them a choice. Either they could acknowledge the authority of the Stuttgart rabbi and grant a marriage license, or else he would inform the media—just before the national day of mourning—that the Rabbinate didn’t recognize the Jewish identity of a woman whose mother and grandmother were documented by Yad Vashem as Holocaust survivors. They granted the license.
Rabbi Stav spoke this morning in Jerusalem at a meeting of the Jewish Agency’s Committee on the Unity of the Jewish People, whose members are largely non-Israeli and predominantly American. After he described his work in helping olim with the conversion process, performing weddings for many, and working with non-Orthodox colleagues, he was attacked by several committee members. One, citing Martin Luther and the Bolshevik Revolution as historical examples, declared “the only way change will take place is through rebellion.” He and several colleagues advocated changing the system rather working with it.
The hundreds of rabbis in Tzohar, on the other hand, work to help people navigate the system as it exists – not because they approve of it, but because it is the only system available to Israelis. They undertake thousands of conversions every year, largely for Russian olim. As Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky remarked, sometimes people don’t make decisions based on a general interest in human rights; they just want a conversion that is universally recognized.
It can be convenient to think in terms of polar opposites, pitting an “Orthodox” establishment against the liberal and secular defenders of “pluralism.” Tzohar, on the other hand, serves tens of thousands of people rather than railing against the system. By choosing action over ideology and helping people one by one, these rabbis are accomplishing tikkun olam here and now.
May 11, 2010 | 10:55 am
Posted by Bob Goldfarb
[This post originally appeared on eJewishPhilanthropy.com.]
Much has been made of the deepening fissures in the Jewish community in the United States. Lately it has been seen as a split over the legitimacy of divergent points of view about Israel, but the schism may actually be more far-reaching and more permanent.
Here’s a symptom. Last week the writer Nicole Krauss spoke with candor and conviction at the International Writers’ Festival here in Jerusalem about what Jewishness means to her. (I describe the event at greater length here). At one point she explained that the title of her forthcoming novel Great House, which is set in the present, comes from a story about the historical figure Yochanan ben Zakkai.
“He was the most famous student of Hillel,” noted the author. “When he went to Yavneh he heard Jerusalem had fallen [to the Romans]. He had to ask what it meant to be a Jew. His answer was, ‘We’re going to pray, it will be portable, it will be internal.’ It’s one of the most powerful stories in the history of Jewish literature and text. Now when we think of Jerusalem we feel we want to get back to it, yet we know we’ll never get back to it.”
That’s a description that many American Jews would recognize and endorse. Rich Cohen’s unreliable pop history called Israel is Real tells the same story in the same terms: “Judaism became portable in those years,” he writes. He, like Krauss, implies that ben Zakkai created synagogues, invented the idea that one could worship God outside of Jerusalem, and believed Jerusalem would never again be the center of Jewish religious life.
That account functions as a myth of origin, tracing the roots of Diaspora Judaism as we know it in America today. There is also a competing narrative, based on the existence of synagogues and Rabbinic Judaism before the destruction of the Second Temple rather than having been invented as a replacement for it. According to this traditional narrative, Jews everywhere prayed for the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem for nearly two millennia (until the advent of Reform a couple of hundred years ago), and Israel will always continue to have special significance for Jews.
The first account ratifies the distinctive values of American Judaism, which are closely related to American values generally. It’s a view more likely (for instance) to see Chanukah as a celebration of the American idea of freedom of religion than as a military victory in a war over control of the Temple. The traditional view, on the other hand, favors Jewish particularity and a kinship with other Jews even if those things conflict with American identity.
The divergence between these narratives may look like the political disagreements between progressives and conservatives or the theological splits between Orthodox and liberal Jews. It is actually a deeper question of identity, however, where each group holds fundamentally different assumptions. These world views operate on different planes rather than at opposite ends of the same spectrum.
Of course Jews have had profound disagreements before. Think of how Labor Zionism, religious Zionism, Labor Bundism, and Yiddish nationalism competed for the loyalties of Eastern European Jews a century ago. That kind of multiplicity seems to be emerging ever more strongly as our future in America. If it does, American Jews will increasingly identify with distinct communities of conviction, rather than as members of a single body politic who happen to disagree about certain questions.
The common ground that remains will be cultural. As beliefs about identity, religion, and politics continue to diverge, what we have in common will be an intuitive connection that transcends those differences. As Nicole Krauss said about her time as a graduate student at Oxford, “I felt out of my depth, but I felt an affinity with other Jews whether I liked them or not. There was a shared understanding.” Building on that cultural affinity while recognizing and respecting our differences is the key to our future.
Bob Goldfarb is the president of the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity in Los Angeles and Jerusalem. He also blogs regularly at eJewishPhilanthropy.com.
May 7, 2010 | 7:27 am
Posted by Bob Goldfarb
More than a generation separates novelist Nicole Krauss, 36, from Aharon Appelfeld, who was born in 1932. The author of The History of Love was born in the comfort and security of America, while the Israeli man of letters spent his childhood hiding from the Nazis among criminals. Yet they feel a deep admiration for each other, and not just for their writing, as their public conversation on the last night of the Writers’ Festival made clear.
“We are used to American writers writing only about America,” remarked the Israeli. Krauss’s The History of Love unfolds in Eastern Europe and Chile as well as Brooklyn. “So you can see Nicole is a very Jewish writer. Why are you a Jewish writer?” he asked her.
Krauss explained, “When I was young it didn’t interest me to be Jewish. The community wasn’t inspiring, it was not interested in the larger world. At Oxford, where I was a graduate student, I felt out of my depth, but I felt an affinity with other Jews, whether I liked them or not. There was a shared understanding.
“When I started the process of writing novels, I started to find out who I was,” she continued. “I hit this rock of being Jewish. It’s so profoundly rich, with endless questions. It’s something that could last for a lifetime to understand.”
“I come from a very assimilated Jewish family,” commented Appelfeld. “So assimilation is part of me. My parents didn’t want to hear about Jewishness-–it was an anachronism in our home. My grandparents in the Carpathians were still believers. We used to come to them in vacations—farmers, working in the fields, coming home, sitting silently, praying silently.”
Krauss declared, “As a writer sometimes I feel I’m free, I don’t have to be responsible to anything. Now I’ll hear your voice echoing if I write something not Jewish.” The older author replied, “You speak of freedom. Yes, every writer is a free man, but he has a family, and a tribe, and he is not so free. And grandparents and uncles, and they are part of his memory. I’ve lost my parents, grandparents. But they are still with you.”
“I have another question,” said Krauss. “I once heard one of my favorite directors, Krzysztof Kieslowski, speaking after fall of Communism. He didn’t want to make films any more, he wanted to quit. Under Communism he had a direct communication with the audience, they understood the symbols, every gesture. In Israel you have an audience that understands your subtext, the secrets within the language. I wonder what it’s like to write for an audience like that?”
“When I came to Israel,” Appelfeld recalled, “I didn’t speak Hebrew. I began at the kibbutz, working in the field, learning Hebrew. I wanted to create a home, a space for me, so I began to write. When I was 26 I came to a publisher with a collection of short stories about my coming to Israel, being alien in this hot country, about not understanding what it is, about the longing to go back to the forests, even to the ghetto. A publisher looked at me – you want to publish these decadent stories? What kind of fantasies are these? You should write about real life—kibbutz, army, not about people who have lost their homes.”
“In the 1950s socialist realism was very strong. It was a very ideological country. You served the country, so you should write socialist realism, not about your experience. Individuality was not a value. But literature is individuality.”
Earlier in the conversation Nicole Krauss had referred to her forthcoming novel, Great House, and to the kinds of Jewish questions that most interest her: “What holds us together? Who we are? With a tremendous sense of loss, how does one seize life, decide to go on living? To begin again, to create where there is nothing?”
Aharon Appelfeld, for his part, looked back to his early years and the impressions he retains of that world. “I absorbed them in the deepest way when I was a child. I think the eye of a child is the real eye of the writer. When I think I still have something of a childish eye I am happy.”
Bob Goldfarb is president of the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity in Jerusalem and Los Angeles. His reports from the International Writers’ Festival in Jerusalem are also on the website of the Jewish Book Council.
May 6, 2010 | 8:17 am
Posted by Bob Goldfarb
The best-selling author Jonathan Safran Foer was one of the most popular speakers at the first International Writers’ Festival at Mishkenot Sha’ananim in Jerusalem two years ago. Returning this year, he spoke to an overflow audience in conversation with an Israeli novelist who, like him, has written about the Holocaust. But Amir Gutfreund’s playful first questions weren’t about their common subject. He was more interested in the consequences of fame.
“Don’t you feel you’re not the same person as before you published your books?” asked Gutfreund. Foer responded, “Nobody is the person he was. And I don’t have an alternate life to compare my life to, had the book not been published.” Recounting how his book found a publisher only after a series of events beyond his control, he added, “I learned an important lesson at the beginning. Some people are lucky, some people are unlucky.”
Foer pointed out, “My environment isn’t literary festivals or an advance for a book.” Describing his daily life in Brooklyn with his wife, his children, and his dog, he observed, “Many things are grounding and humbling: having a children, having a family, living in a community. I feel extremely grateful for any success.”
Reflecting on the relationship between writer and reader, Foer reflected, “You hope someone reads the book as you wrote it, as a novel. A book is not an argument. You write the thing that seems to you authentic and you see what happens.” And sometimes it’s unpredictable. Foer recalled a radio call-in program where he was interviewed about Everything is Illuminated. A listener who had read the Holocaust-themed book phoned in to say, “You told my family story. I recognized myself, my family, the secrets we kept, the silences at dinner.” The caller turned out to be a 60-year-old black man in Trenton.
Gutfreund wondered how his colleague decided what to write about. “Loss, silence, difficulties in expressing oneself are real subjects,” noted Foer. And he agreed that “one of the hardest things is to choose a topic. Many people can write at the technical level of a Nobel Prize winner. It’s the choices you make rather than how you execute your choices.” Foer summed it up: “It’s hard to care about something over three or four years, wrestling with something, being invested in it. I write about the things that are home for me.”
One of Foer’s great influences, he revealed, is Bruno Schulz: “There’s no writer I like more than him, who is more inspiring.” Schulz, author of just two books, was shot by a Nazi officer in the streets of Drohobycz in 1942. Foer wrote the preface to a recent collection of Schulz’s fiction. “Bruno Schulz keeps me honest as a writer,” he attested. “You only have to look at a page of his to know what is possible.”
Bob Goldfarb is president of the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity in Jerusalem and Los Angeles. His coverage of the International Writers’ Festival also appears on the website of the Jewish Book Council.
May 5, 2010 | 5:32 am
Posted by Bob Goldfarb
Paul Auster, the prolific American novelist and screenwriter, and David Grossman, one of Israel’s premiere writers, have been close friends for more than a dozen years. Auster told an overflowing crowd at Jerusalem’s Mishkenot Sha’ananim last night, however, that their friendship isn’t based on their shared profession. “We don’t talk about writing when we’re together,” he said.
Moderator Kobi Meidan gave them an opportunity to do just that. When he asked what it’s like to finish a book, Auster reflected, “You’ve been living with the characters, as real and as vital as flesh-and-blood human beings. So there’s a great sadness because you have to say good-bye to them. They’re leaving your life and it takes some time to recover.” Grossman echoed the sentiment. “If a character was a significant, meaningful part of my life for a few years,” he affirmed, “of course I will be with it, and I hope it will be with me for the rest of my life.”
Grossman spoke specifically about the protagonist of his novel Isha Borahat Mibesora, known awkwardly in English as “To the End of the Land,” more literally translated as “A Woman Fleeing a Message.” (It will be published in America in September.) Ora’s son, a soldier, has been assigned to a dangerous military operation. Fearing devastating news, she leaves her home and walks across the land with a friend, talking about her son as her way of somehow keeping him alive. In writing the character, said Grossman, “You have to surrender to her completely. While writing Ora I lived her, being her.”
He continued, “Being a writer allows you to melt and diffuse into other options of personality. I don’t think it’s so different from the experience of writing about any other Other. It’s just allowing yourself to go there. When I write I want to be invaded by the people I write about. I want to explore this magic of what it means to be another human being. I can reach it only by writing.”
Auster remarked that he had written from the points of view of people of different races and religions, destitute people, rich people, fat people, a boy who can levitate, and a dog. “They’re all part of me or I wouldn’t be able to think of them. But I also feel they’ve found me, or I’ve found them.” And he sees a similarity with what actors do: “embody another human being, become somebody else. If you can do it successfully,” he believes, “there’s a conviction the reader will automatically feel.”
David Grossman is more publicly engaged with politics than Paul Auster, but they voiced similar concerns. Auster senses that “people seem tired, worn out by conflict” in Israel. “I can understand why people would become apathetic. It’s almost too much to live this way all the time. But something’s got to give.”
Grossman picked up that line of thought. “I live here, I experience it. I look at Israel – it’s my place, it’s the most significant place for a Jew to live. There are still so many things in Israel that are miraculous to me. But the place we are heading will make life unbearable for us and our neighbors, and I see our self-destruction, our self-paralysis.”
Kobi Meidan wondered if these writers saw themselves as resembling nineteenth-century novelists who wanted their work to transform society. “I don’t know,” mused Auster. “I used to think that when I was young. I thought poetry could change the world. And maybe poetry can change the way somebody thinks about something, sometimes. But what’s beautiful about art is its utter uselessness. It doesn’t serve any purpose. It’s not a political agenda.”
Although he didn’t quite agree that literature is useless, Grossman acknowledged “I think every moment of the character, not the future of Israel.” At the same time, “if you give yourself away to your characters you inevitably write a political document, a social document. We are products of our era.”
Bob Goldfarb is president of the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity in Jerusalem and Los Angeles. His posts about the Writers’ Festival also appear at www.jewishbooks.org.
May 4, 2010 | 8:03 am
Posted by Bob Goldfarb
An amiable chat between historian Simon Sebag Montefiore and novelist/essayist Amos Oz ended the first evening of the Mishkenot Sha’ananim Writers’ Conference. The pair would probably have been just as genial and entertaining no matter what they talked about, but their topics were the historian’s area of expertise and the novelist’s birthplace: Russia and Jerusalem.
“I love Jerusalem even when I don’t like it, even at times when I cannot stand it,” said Oz. “That is the situation right now. The Jerusalem of my childhood was filled with fanatics, and Jerusalem now is filled with fanatics. Then everyone was obsessed with the future; now everyone is obsessed with the past.”
On today’s Jerusalem he elaborated, “Everyone is obsessed with the idea of restoring some glorious past or other. It is in the nature of fanatics to view the future as a repetition of some glorious past – the past will come back, there will be a restoration of the glorious past, and then there will be an everlasting present, and no history, one everlasting plateau of happiness.” He mused that it might help normalize the city if the holy places could be sent to Scandinavia for 100 years.
Oz asked Montefiore, the author of two biographical volumes about Stalin, how he came to be interested in his subject. “Stalin is a fascinatingly complex figure, which is why people are still interested in him,” said the historian. “He helped created the world we know today. He was the true victor of World War II, the ‘good war.’ He ended up with an empire greater than that of the tsars. In Russia today he is no longer a Communist figure, he’s a tsar.”
How did Stalin do it? “There are two kinds of politicians,” he explained: “those write articles, charm people, and kiss babies, and those who commit bank robberies and make people disappear. Stalin could do both.”
Montefiore asked Oz what he thought of Ben-Gurion, since Oz had personal memories of the statesman. “He was the single most impressive human being I have ever met in my life,” he answered. “He was like a laser beam. With the years he grows on me. In Jewish history he will go down as a greater figure than King David.” Why? “Compare what David received from Saul and gave to Solomon, and what Ben-Gurion got from Weizmann and gave to Levi Eshkol.”
Simon Sebag Montefiore is a direct descendant of Moses Montefiore, who built a house in Jerusalem 150 years ago just a few steps away from where they were speaking. Amos Oz asked the British scholar about his forthcoming book on the city. Montefiore revealed, “It’s about holiness. And holiness is competitive. Mt. Zion has been holy to everybody: first with a synagogue, then with the Christian Coenaculum. Later it was revered as the tomb of David, found in Crusader times. After that the Mamlukes took it as Muslim site, and when the Wailing Wall was under Jordanian rule Mt. Zion became a site of Jewish pilgrimage.” And so they ended where they began, contemplating the city’s turbulent past and its complicated present.
Bob Goldfarb is president of the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity in Jerusalem and Los Angeles. His posts about the International Writers’ Festival also appear on the website of the Jewish Book Council.