Posted by Danielle Berrin
Iddo Netanyahu’s first-produced play, “A Happy End,” about a Jewish couple living in Berlin on the eve of World War II, will premiere in Los Angeles May 21 as a staged reading at The Museum of Tolerance. Here he talks about also being a doctor, why writing shouldn’t be a full time pursuit and why his position in Israel’s most prominent political family would never prompt self-censorship.
Professionally, you are both a doctor and a writer. Did you feel you needed a more practical, economically stable career in order to also pursue the writer’s life?
You can’t become a good writer without devoting to it plenty of time, and fortunately my medical career has enabled me to do so. But beyond that, I’m not even sure it’s a good thing to be a full-time writer. You’ll be lacking life-experiences, and with them the substrates that feed your writing. And by being an outsider of sorts to the writing “community”, you’re less likely to be mentally and psychologically locked into the ruling notions of what constitutes acceptable writing. Such notions can be devastating to original thinking, without which there can be no good writing.
One of your early published works was “Yoni’s Last Battle” about the raid on Entebbe which resulted in the rescue of Israeli and Jewish hostages but the death of your brother. You also worked on publishing a book of his letters, a collection of poetic missives he had written over the course of his life. What did you learn about writing from reading your brother’s prose?
I have no doubt in my mind that while working on compiling the letters and preparing them for publication I came under the influence of Yoni’s way of writing – not only because of his clean, clear prose, but also by the originality and depth of his musings and descriptions. He was able to unconsciously achieve great literary beauty, which is doubly amazing because he often wrote the letters on the fly, when he had a few spare moments to jot something down.
Describe the political sensibility of your fiction.
I don’t go much for fiction which tries to “lecture” us and “educate” us on how we should be thinking, politically or otherwise. It often becomes a form of propagandizing, and when it does so, it’s just plain boring. Which doesn’t mean you can’t have politics in art – it really all depends how it’s done. In fact, I myself wrote a satire about Israel, “Itamar K.”, which certainly relates to political thinking and events there.
The medical profession also has elements of art to it. Is being a good doctor more about science or creativity?
Creativity is certainly necessary for medical research, but that’s a different thing from day-to-day medical work. Being “creative” when treating patients? Very dangerous.
Your first short story was based on an account of an experience you had in the Israeli military. Because of your brother’s position as Prime Minister, and your family’s national prominence, do you ever feel you have to censor yourself when writing about Israel?
I never censor myself. But you don’t need to be the brother of a Prime Minister to go the route of self-censorship. All you have to do is succumb to what is considered “correct” thinking by the powers-that-be. When you do that, which happens all too often, you stop being an artist and become something else, perhaps something closer to a politician. While politics is a fine career for those who like it, it’s not art.
What’s the hardest thing about being a writer?
Not having enough time to write. A true artist finds it intolerable not to be able to create, because you feel there are important and interesting things inside you that you want to communicate to the world – and to do so in an artistic form.
Your play “A Happy End” is about a couple living in Germany on the eve World War II who amongst mounting tensions in Berlin must decide whether to stay or go. Do you worry audiences will roll their eyes at another World War II story?
Not once they see it. And it’s not a WWII story at all, not even a Holocaust story. It’s much about how we perceive events around us, how we truly judge them and what role self-delusion might play in our most important decisions – and in the case of case the Berlin couple a life-and-death decision. The play is set in the shadow of the Holocaust only because that way I could be sure that the audience knows what choice the couple should be making. All playwrights, when they write about the past, are really writing about today.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that with the play’s premise, the title is probably ironic. Do you believe in happy endings?
We certainly have happy moments in life. But life flows without a break – not until we die – and so by definition there is no “ending”, happy or sad. That’s one of the reasons we are so drawn to stories and plays and such things, since they represent contained pieces that do indeed have endings of sort and so provide us with something we crave so much.
Some say Jews are not an optimistic people because we’ve lived through too many horrors. Your father Benzion might have agreed with this, since he famously told The New Yorker, “Jewish history is in large measure a history of holocausts.” Would you say your family has a hopeful outlook even if not an optimistic one?
To be a Zionist, by definition, means to be hopeful – to believe in your power, as a nation, to change the course of your own history, and to be able to stop the cycle of holocausts, whether the numerous and horrible mini-holocausts throughout the ages or of the huge one in WWII. To be willing to struggle for your survival and national prosperity, despite the costs, is to me being optimistic. So yes, the optimism is there, without a doubt.
What book had the most influence on you?
Hard to say, but probably Anna Karenina. I’m afraid I’m not very original here.
Would you say you’re more attracted to comedy or tragedy?
Oh, definitely to both. I love the full range of the human experience which I try to express also in my writing.
Why’d you become a writer to begin with?
It just happened one day on its own. Who knows what motivates the human soul? That’s what’s so interesting about being a writer – the search inside ourselves is endless.
“A Happy End” premieres Monday May 21. Museum of Tolerance. 9786 West Pico Blvd. No charge, but advance reservations required. 310-553-9036 or register online at www.museumoftolerance.com/ahappyend
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May 18, 2012 | 2:38 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
Here’s a line I never thought I’d hear on Mad Men: “I’ve always thought Jewish women are the most beautiful women in the world.”
Even more surprising, it was uttered by Roger, an account executive best described as a blustering, insecure WASP. Nevermind that he was trying to impress the owners of Manischewitz, who, on the show, are seeking to expand their clientele with the launch of a new (non-kosher?) wine. Or that the comment was made also to seduce his soon-to-be ex-wife, who is beautiful, young, heartbroken and Jewish.
While Jewish themes have appeared on Mad Men since its first season, sometimes disguised, sometimes overt—but then, always in the context of the “casual anti-Semitism” creator Matt Weiner coined—it still seemed as if Weiner was carefully keeping his Jewishness in check. References to Judaism came in spurts, sub-plots,and usually in small quantity like sprinkles or icing. But now with “Mad Men” in its fifth season, it’s flowing forth in steady stream: The new talented copywriter at Sterling, Cooper, Draper, Pryce is Michael Ginsberg, who speaks in that rapid-fire, witty New York tongue Jews know well, and whose father speaks with a Yiddish accent. When Ginsberg got the coveted job at the agency, his father gratefully recited the priestly benediction in Hebrew. Which prompted JPost.com to declare Ginsberg “too Jewish”.
Elsewhere on the show, Peggy’s live-in journalist boyfriend is Jewish, a serious socially conscious fellow, and foil to her troubled Catholic past. All the recent references are somewhat surprising, like Weiner has just realized his show is a hit, he no longer has to conform his creativity, and can showcase his own skin.
Yet even as he plays with broader tribal tropes and types, he won’t mess with Jewish women.
Mad Men’s Jewesses are often perched on pedestals. Remember department store heiress Rachel Menkin, who was too worldly and wise for the otherwise irresistible Don Draper? That, coupled with the aforementioned pronouncement that Jewish women are the most beautiful in the world (a line heretofore unlikely to have ever been uttered in the history of Hollywood-produced television and film) is a sign of the increasing ascension of ethnic specificity. The more creators feel comfortable focusing on their own ethnicity, the more it makes room for others to integrate their ethnicity into mainstream culture.
Though it’s a tad ironic that Weiner’s praise of Jewish women comes to the fore as Mad Men’s other celebrated female characters fade deeper into the background. Even with a spotlight this past week, January Jones’s Betty has appeared in maybe two episodes this season. Of this last episode which focused on her wallowing and weight loss, Time’s James Poniewozik wrote, “‘Dark Shadows was possibly fans’ least favorite episode of the season. And while I can’t speak for everybody, it seemed as if a major reason was the episode’s focus on Betty.” He added, “The problem is not Betty but the way Mad Men treats her now: since the divorce if not earlier, the show seems to have lost her thread and any ability to empathize with her.”
Betty’s storyline is not the only one audiences (or Mad Men’s writers) have lost interest in. Christina Hendricks’s Joan figured strongly in episode one, with her visiting mother, newborn baby and derelict husband. Though she quickly disappeared behind her desk. And Elizabeth Moss’s Peggy seems to have stagnated; first in the face of Don’s new wife, Megan (Jessica Pare), “one of those girls” who can do it all, and the more talented copywriter Michael Ginsberg.
But maybe it’s not concern for a particular character than a larger malaise that is settling over all Mad Men’s characters. Betty’s misery as an unfulfilled housewife is symbolic of all broken dreams, how life’s possibilities seem to narrow with age and transformation becomes harder to realize. As Poniewozik writes, “What if life is going to continue–pretty comfortably, in a relative sense, for these folks–but it won’t continue to improve the way it did when they were younger? What if they’re just going to keep getting older and fatter while the rest of the world advances? What if that’s all there is?”
If career advancement is the thing, at a certain point more success hardly satisfies as much as the early success. But there are other ways Mad Men is changing: A show whose cultural center pivoted around the office, has in its elder years become more fascinated by the home. Certainly for Don, a former philanderer reformed, he has found his match in Megan. She is the woman he wants, the woman he needs, the woman who knows how best to love him.
She is a more realized woman than his first wife, who does all the things Betty did but with aspirations of her own. She cooks and cleans, speaks more than one language, possesses native intelligence and a knack for advertising. She kisses Don’s kids goodbye even as their mother is more concerned with their manners. She is the matriarch, the life force, the woman of valor.
Wonder where Weiner got that idea.
May 15, 2012 | 9:11 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
Two years ago, Fred Kramer took a big, luxurious break from work to travel the world and find himself.
In March, as the newly minted executive director of Jewish World Watch, he found himself locked in a jail cell with George Clooney.
“It was quite a day,” Kramer said of the civil disobedience he stirred alongside the world’s most famous movie star, outside the Sudanese Embassy in Washington, D.C.
It began with a protest walk from the Religious Action Center, just down the street from the embassy, but instantly morphed into a paparazzi party, as hordes of reporters desperately cleaved to Clooney. “People were literally tripping over themselves,” Kramer recalled. Kramer got his one-on-one from a Clooney-side seat in the cop car.
“I rode in the wagon with him; we got booked together at the police station; then we were in a cell together for two or three hours before everything got resolved and they let us out,” Kramer said nonchalantly.
Just a short time ago it would have been almost impossible to imagine that he’d be touting his celebrity run-ins to draw attention to his work, but Kramer’s unexpected turn from business developer to nonprofit overseer has demanded it.
“Our culture is clearly somewhat infatuated with celebrities,” he said.
A mellow, free-spirited type with a penchant for white linen, Kramer once fancied the artist’s life.
An early foray into filmmaking that produced two smallish independent films — “Wednesday’s Child” (1999) and “Amy’s Orgasm” (2001) — quickly proved to him that “my movies were not going to end up getting made.” So he quit producing and went to work developing the technology company WithoutABox, an online international film-festival application program that, after just eight years, he and his partners sold to the Web giant Internet Movie Database. At 37, Kramer had a bundle of cash and a ballooning wanderlust, which he parlayed into a 34-foot Catalina sailboat and a one-year sabbatical.
When he wasn’t wandering Peru, India or one of six countries in Africa, he was likely to be found chattering in the back at IKAR, the synagogue where he served as board chair. But if the social justice seed was nurtured within the walls of the Westside JCC, it flourished while traveling through the African wilderness, where his wanderings brought him into contact with the consequences of modern genocide.
He returned to Los Angeles inspired to act but unsure what to do. A friend told him Jewish World Watch was looking for an executive director. “My initial reaction was, ‘This is not what I do,’ ” Kramer said. “I had considered myself a businessman, and had assumed when I began looking for new work that it would be finding a new business and making money. I had never really considered the option of running a non-profit.”
He said his involvement with IKAR “had a tremendous effect on my willingness to try something like this, both [in terms] of my Jewish identity and my obligation toward the world.” From living in the lap of luxury to visiting the depths of deprivation, Kramer found himself compelled to support “people having a more difficult time than I am.”
Los Angeles, land of plenty, was the perfect place from which to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. “I can tell you that the level of attention we’re able to draw to our issues when a public figure is advocating for them alongside us is completely different than what we are able to attract when they are not,” Kramer said. The glitter of fame has two sides. “Clearly it’s effective.”
Which is why one of Kramer’s early priorities in his new position is to use L.A.’s backyard celebrity candy store to bring attention to his organization’s cause. On May 20, the Jewish World Watch annual 5K “Walk to End Genocide” will take place at Pan Pacific Park in Los Angeles, and for the first time some notable Hollywood names will join: Josh Radnor (star of CBS’ “How I Met Your Mother”), Don Cheadle (“Hotel Rwanda,” “Ocean’s Eleven”) and TV’s Lisa Edelstein (“House”).
For some of those connections, Kramer owes a debt to his fiancée, actress Michaela Watkins, who represents another sea change in his life inspired by his travels. “It was really an opening on a number of fronts,” he said, “and that element of the journey started when I met the woman of my dreams.”
Kramer’s dreams for Jewish World Watch include more interfaith work, expanding programming around the country and creating an office for the organization in Washington, D.C. And just maybe, a little help from Clooney.
“One of the things I asked of him,” — in jail — “was, I said, ‘You know, we have the world’s largest solar cooker project,’ ” which provides women and girls with a cooking alternative that eliminates the dangers of collecting firewood. “And in a movie he did, ‘The Men Who Stare at Goats,’ he actually kicks a solar cooker and talks about what a piece of s—- it is.
“So I told him about the cooker project and reminded him of that scene, and he chuckled, and I asked him if he would help me rectify that image and maybe produce a spot where he explains that there’s some real good that comes out of solar cooking.”
Clooney said yes.
May 15, 2012 | 11:55 am
Posted by Danielle Berrin
May 14, 2012 | 8:01 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
A secret bar mitzvah at Bergen-Belsen. Israel’s first astronaut, Ilon Ramon. The fate of the Columbia Space Shuttle.
“I thought I was making a documentary about the Holocaust,” director Dan Cohen tells the camera in a meta-movie about his movie, “An Article of Hope.”
But the story he had planned took a remarkable turn when he made a startling discovery about a miniature Torah scroll, no larger than the palm of your hand.
First smuggled into the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1944 by the chief rabbi of Holland, Simon Dasberg, the tiny scroll was used in a clandestine Bar Mitzvah ceremony for the young Joachim Joseph, who promised his rabbi he’d safeguard it. The rabbi perished in the camp, but Joseph survived; and with the scrap of the scroll that enjoined him as an adult to his people, he emigrated to Israel and became a successful scientist. Many decades later, when Israel’s first astronaut Ilan Ramon was conscripted to travel on the Space Shuttle Columbia, Ramon asked Joseph if he could bring the scroll with him into space “as a symbol”.
“He thought he would show it to the world how a person can go from the depths of hell to the heights of space,” Joseph recalls in the documentary.
And indeed, Ramon did just that. Before the mission’s fateful end on February 1, 2003, images from the spacecraft show him holding up the delicate scroll, like a kitten in his hand, for the world to see. The little scroll had survived the Holocaust, but it would not survive the Columbia’s re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere, when the spaceship and all seven passengers disintegrated into thin air over Texas.
“An Article of Hope,” which traces the journey of the tiny Torah “from a Nazi concentration camp to the heights of space” has screened at film festivals and even at NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC. But it may not be seen by a wider audience unless it can raise almost $14,000 by May 26.
Cohen has secured interest in the documentary at PBS, but the non-profit TV station requires additional underwriting before the doc can air. Cohen has subsequently launched a $50,000 fundraising campaign on kickstarter.com, a Website that aims to help build communities of support for creative projects. Cohen wrote on his project’s Website that the additional funds are needed to help the filmmakers “conform the documentary to PBS technical requirements, [help subsidize] broadcast rights and fees, [for] promotion, [and] web site.”
So far, Cohen has raised $36,843 from 172 supporters—but there’s a kick: He must secure the additional funding before his deadline or he won’t get a cent. According to Kickstarter.com, “If the project succeeds in reaching its funding goal, all backers’ credit cards are charged when time expires. If the project falls short, no one is charged.”
Cohen has 11 days to realize his passion project of seven years. Will the sky be the limit for this story?
It is, after all, a quite literal tale of the magnificent scope of history, from the grounds of a death camp to the known heights of the universe.
As Israeli president Shimon Peres put it during in an interview in the movie, “There are two dimensions: there is a sky and there is a heaven.” Then, in his trademark deep, gravelly voice added, “The sky is a matter of height; heaven is a matter of depth.”
May 10, 2012 | 6:03 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
Today I had the pleasure and privilege of spending some time with Iddo Netanyahu, a radiologist and writer, and the younger brother of Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. I interviewed him for an upcoming story I’m writing on the documentary “Follow Me: The Yoni Netanyahu Story” about his older brother Yoni, an Israeli war hero and soi desant poet, who died during the 1976 raid on Entebbe airport in Uganda, while rescuing Jewish hostages from their terrorist captors.
Without Iddo, I’m not sure the film would have been made. For it was he and his mother, Cela, who decided to publish Yoni’s prolific letter-writing in what became the book, “Yoni’s Last Battle,” which Iddo co-wrote.
I’ve always thought one great gift of being a writer, or an artist of any kind really, is the possibility for making loss matter. The idea that pain can be made meaningful through response is also a central teaching of the Jewish tradition. As Benjamin Franklin said, “The things which hurt, instruct.” We learn from our losses; from pain there is growth.
I asked Iddo if the process of writing the book and publishing Yoni’s letters was therapeutic. He paused, looking at me slightly perplexed.
“There is no therapy,” he said. “That loss doesn’t heal.”
The sadness in his face made my question naive. Because when you truly love someone and lose them too soon, there is no getting over it. Instead you learn to live with the loss, the emptiness, the leftover wound that does not heal. Time doesn’t change this, it simply marches forward against your desires, in defiance of your beliefs and even your will.
In the book, “Playing for the Ashes” Elizabeth George writes, “A new relationship can develop. But the cicatrix of the old one remains. And nothing grows on a cicatrix. Nothing grows through it.”
Wounds stay, and the scars they leave behind mark their importance. This happened. This was once real.
When the wound is the only thing left of love, you cherish it.
May 9, 2012 | 12:28 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
Eve Annenberg’s “Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish” is a film full of tricky contradictions.
As its title suggests, it is a celebratory showcase of Yiddish language, with about half its dialogue spoken in Yiddish, with English subtitles. A fact that also happens to fuel Anneberg’s big marketing ploy: “I’m coming to L.A. a week early to literally go around to Jewish senior centers and talk them into getting their people to the theater,” she said during a phone interview the week before the film’s Los Angeles premiere on May 11.
Who says pride is a sin?
“Other Yiddish films will come down the pike,” added Annenberg, who attended Julliard and Columbia University’s film school, “but I think people might say ‘Romeo and Juliet’ was the first to use this much colloquial Yiddish in modern narrative in more than 50 years.”
Efforts to revive the Yiddish language and culture have been on the increase in recent years, but usually not at the expense of other aspects of Jewish culture. “Romeo and Juliet” may be Annenberg’s “love song to Jewish culture,” but it is also a kind of angry lament at Brooklyn’s ultra-Orthodox community.
“For the longest time, I was a little bit anti-Orthodox. Sexist, racist, anti-Zionist; I was just like ‘they [stink]’,” Annenberg told Heeb magazine in January 2011. Her feelings are undisguised in her film. “Fraud,” one subtitle declares, is a “Hassidic family business.”
In one scene, a payot-sporting, black-hat wearing Yeshiva bocher fakes being crippled to beg for money. Later, he removes his fake peyot and is shown smoking a joint as a naked African American girl crawls out of his bed.
The celebration of one culture; the denigration of another.
The film’s milieu, which divides the reputed shadiness of the religious community from “normal Brooklyn,” where people do things like read Shakespeare, is bound to offend. But its edginess is all the more provocative, since much of it is based on truth.
Several years ago, Annenberg was walking down Fifth Avenue in New York one night and found herself bewitched by the sound of music emanating from the Millinery Synagogue on 6th Avenue and 39th Street. She was invited upstairs to a mysterious party called Chulent, organized by Yitzchak Schonfeld and designed to accommodate the “narrow margins where secular and [Ch]aredi, atheist and Chasidic, deepest depths and most foolish foolery, overlap,” according to the Web site neohasid.org. In simpler terms, the late-night party “basically is a drop-in lounge for folks that have traveled (or strayed) from the Chasidic world.”
For Annenberg, it was the only social activity in New York that ran late enough to allow her to first put her dying mother to bed. “That’s how I met them,” she said of the young, former Orthodox men and women who conversed mostly in Yiddish — though they also spoke Hebrew, Aramaic and English (“in that order”), which they had learned in their yeshiva studies. For various reasons, they had all broken away from the Orthodox community to try to make their way in the secular world; but for some, it was easier dreamed than done. With virtually no secular-world skills, many resorted to petty scams as the easiest way to make a living.
Then they met Annenberg.
The 40-something filmmaker was so taken with the young Yids, she hatched the idea to make a movie in Yiddish. “I’m a shallow girl,” she said. “I would look at these guys dressed in their Orthodox gear and think, ‘Ohmigod, look how beautiful they are.’ ” The most famous love story in Western culture seemed a natural fit, not to mention the uncanny cultural parallels — naive youth, rigid families, communal feuds and arranged marriages.
Annenberg recruited a small group to help her translate “Romeo and Juliet” into Yiddish (she deemed a translation from the 1930s too outdated). Then she hired them as actors. Their absolute inexperience with Shakespeare so fascinated her, she taped the translation sessions and made them a subplot in the film. “It was like something out of a Jewish version of ‘Hair,’ ” she said.
But when she posted the excerpts from the sessions on Vimeo, a local Orthodox blogger was so aggressively outraged, one of her actors dumped the tapes out of shame.
“They were so fascinating,” Annenberg said of the Shakespeare sessions. “Their excitement over the material and the fun of it. But in the ultra-Orthodox world, men and women don’t socialize the way we were socializing; we’d sit and talk and study together, and I think that was discomfiting.”
The actors who play Romeo and Juliet in the film even had a real-life romance — their first. The entire film was shot in 30 days for $175,000, and it won an audience award when it premiered at the Berlin Jewish Film Festival last year. Now, several of the formerly floundering ex-Orthodox are pursuing film careers.
But the journey wasn’t entirely blessed. In the middle of the shoot, Annenberg was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer, had a double mastectomy on a Wednesday and returned to the editing suite the following Monday.
“I was really, really lucky,” she said.
Perhaps God liked her movie, I suggested.
“Or not,” she joked. “I can’t tell you how many Orthodox Jews told me, ‘If only you had kept the Sabbath’ ... if only you hadn’t played ‘Avinu Malkeinu’ during the love scene!’”
“Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish” opens May 11 in Los Angeles.
May 7, 2012 | 4:01 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
Last week the British-born, Scottish-raised, Israeli-based biblical scholar Avivah Zornberg visited Los Angeles. She lectured twice, first at Sinai Temple in Westwood and then at UCLA Hillel. Both nights I weeped through her words.
I’m not going to attempt to encapsulate what she taught, because that would be like trying to unzip fog, but I wanted to say something about the sheer seductive power of her Torah. Because it is a Torah the world needs; a Torah of poetry and art, love and sexuality, psychology and fantasy. I’ll save some of the beautiful things I learned for another post.
There are two basic reasons why I find Zornberg’s biblical scholarship astounding. The first is that she draws upon an extraordinary amount of the most erudite secular literature. It is indicative of her approach, for example, that two of her books, while concerned with biblical subjects, make reference in their titles to the poetry of Wallace Stevens—“The Beginnings of Desire” and “The Particulars of Rapture.” Marrying sacred and secular literature is a foundational element of Zornberg’s style; it is how she writes, teaches and thinks. And it is a testament to her background in both religious and literary worlds, as she is a descendant of a long line of Eastern European rabbis and earned her PhD in English Literature from Cambridge University. These discrete but complimentary sensibilities infuse her style, and speak to the bible’s vitality as a living document. Last week, Freud, Lacan, Kafka, Henry James, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and even the Hollywood movie “Letter from an Unknown Woman” found expressions and reverberations in various Exodus stories.
Zornberg revels in paradoxes and contradictions. At the same time she celebrates the rabbinic tradition of adding to the original text (the Talmud after all are the words of rabbis interpreting the words of God), she also subverts the tradition by exposing its inadequacies, or what she calls, “gaps”.
In “The Particulars of Rapture,” she writes: “In my approach, the biblical text is not allowed to stand alone, but has its boundaries blurred by later commentaries and by a persistent intertextuality that makes it impossible to imagine that meaning is somehow transparently present in the isolated text,” adding, “it continues, in a sense, the rabbinic mode of reading, where ‘the rabbis imagined themselves as part of the whole, participating in Torah rather than operating on it at an analytic distance…”
The difference is that for Zornberg, revelation does not stop with the rabbis. The written biblical text is not a totality unto itself but a kind of core architecture that could be decorated different ways, by different designers. Additional modes of interpretation articulate gaps in the story which she considers “repressed”, which brings me to the second reason I adore her work.
Zornberg reads the Torah from a woman’s point of view (I dare say she wouldn’t call this “feminist” since she made a sort of haughty comment about feminist readings of the bible at UCLA). But it could be said that what defines Zornberg’s Torah is its attempt to unearth the “unconscious layers” of female experience in the bible. Acknowledging that women are mostly “absent” from the Exodus story, but with few transient exceptions, after which “women essentially disappear,” Zornberg turns to Midrash—and Rashi, in particular, whose commentary she refers to as biblical “second nature”—to retrieve or reconstruct what is hidden. “Women have a separate, hidden history, which is not conveyed on the surface of the text,” she writes in “Rapture”. And it is this “hidden sphere,” a phrase she borrows from Vaclav Havel, that most preoccupies her.
And it is her distinctly feminine reading of the bible that I find most enrapturing. Because it is investigating through these eyes that Zornberg illuminates desire, sensuality and love in the bible. And yet, those elements figure in only when there is a relationship in which to contextualize them. They symbolize being drawn, lured, attracted, compelled. For central to Zornberg’s teaching is discovery of the self, which is premised upon the engagement in relationships. Zornberg teaches that every human journey is defined by how the individual responds to the challenges of being in relationship—with oneself, with others and with God.