Posted by Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin
Jewish day schools are in very serious shape. To be perfectly blunt about it, they are going out of business. I see it happening locally, where I live in New Jersey. And it seems to be a national phenomenon.
It seems to have hit Solomon Schechter schools particularly hard. Schechter schools lost 25 percent of their students during the the last five years. Since then, Schechter has lost seven schools. http://www.jta.org/2013/07/01/life-religion/for-non-orthodox-day-schools-the-post-recession-struggle-goes-on#ixzz2mSCjKbDP. Reform day schools are also losing students; since 2008-2009, four Reform day schools have closed. Sometimes the schools disappear; sometimes they merge and become community day schools.
Why? You know, or can guess, all the reasons. Tuitions are high. Some schools are dealing with the tuition crisis – for example, Beit Rabban in New York is capping tuition costs.http://www.thejewishweek.com/news/short-takes/beit-rabban-pilot-cap-tuition-costs. But there are other issues. Demographics are challenged. Jewish identity has become attenuated (all that interesting Pew stuff).
I have a suggestion – and, no, it is not tongue-in-cheek.
Let’s open Jewish day schools to non-Jewish students.
I am not merely talking about the recent news that Schechter schools are considering admitting students who are Jewish according to patrilineal descent – a definition of Jewish identity that the Conservative movement has long rejected.http://http://www.jta.org/2013/11/22/life-religion/schechter-schools-considering-embracing-patrilineal-descent Yes, that’s good.
I am talking about accepting full-blown, not-in-the-least-bit-Jewish kids into Jewish day schools.
Why? It seems only fair. For years, Jewish kids have been attending (nominally and not so nominally) Christian day schools. For years, Quaker schools have been popular among Jews. It was because Jews liked the values that their kids would learn in such schools -- even though when it comes to Israel, the Quakers have not always been such good "friends." (Sorry. I could not resist.)
Perhaps it’s time for us to learn how to be hosts as well.
It’s not only good business sense -- expanding the pool of eligible students. And it's not because we would use Jewish day schools for conversionary purposes. No -- it would be because we Jews have some very powerful values to teach, and it’s way past time for us to take them public.
Like what? Here's my short list.
People are made in God's image. Each person carries within himself/herself the spark of God. That has certain implications as to how kids would learn to treat each other – implications that would carry over to adulthood. Imagine the whole "bullying" conversion with this elegant theological idea as a frame.
Truth is pluralistic. Getting tired of the mutual demonization contests that people on the left and on the right love to wage with each other? We have something to teach about the nature of truth. What would it mean for gentile kids, as well as Jewish kids, to come home with the mishnah from Baba Metzia that speaks of two people fighting over a cloak, and then ultimately dividing it? How’s that for a metaphor for discerning truth? How about teaching kids to befriend someone with whom he or she profoundly disagrees on political or cultural issues -- and merely asking that person: "How did you arrive at your position?" I recommend this for adults as well.
The world is built on responsibilities, not just rights. Hebrew lacks a good term for "rights," but a whole bunch of them for "responsibilities." We need a more communitarian view of shared obligation to each other. Yes, there is a right to health care, but more than that, there is an obligation to provide it. Jews and Judaism have a lot to teach here.
Shabbat. Yes, the only ritual item on the list. But it's what people crave.
As my friend, the Christian preacher Barbara Brown Taylor writes:
Since I am technically a Lord’s Day Christian, I have no authority to speak of the Jewish Sabbath, but I freely indulge in what I call “holy envy.”
By interrupting our economically sanctioned social order every week, Sabbath practice suspends our subtle and not so subtle ways of dominating one another on a regular basis. Because our work is so often how we both rank and rule over one another, resting from it gives us a rest from our own pecking orders as well. When the Wal-Mart cashier and the bank president are both lying on picnic blankets at the park, it is hard to tell them apart."
Yes, a caveat. The Jewish community has always expected that its day schools will not only teach, but will be places where kids can meet other Jewish kids. As someone who wears the Jewish continuity T-shirt full-time, I totally get it.
We might lose the automatic, unspoken expectation that our kids will meet and perhaps mate with other Jewish kids. But that might be offset with another, previously unknown benefit: that we get to be a light to the nations – a teaching instrument to the world.
Open our day schools to gentile students, and watch the world change, slowly.
12.4.13 at 7:10 am | Accepting non-Jewish students might just save. . .
11.26.13 at 5:54 pm | If you're burnt out on Thanksgivukkah, there's. . .
11.19.13 at 7:33 am | Did Lincoln use the words of a rabbi for the. . .
11.12.13 at 3:43 pm | Bush pleads: "Let the Jews stay Jewish!" A. . .
11.5.13 at 4:47 pm | Dual-faith families are back in the news. Let's. . .
10.29.13 at 2:11 pm | Anti-gypsy sentiment is spreading across Europe.. . .
12.4.13 at 7:10 am | Accepting non-Jewish students might just save. . . (391)
8.14.13 at 6:29 am | A Jew and a Sikh form a deep friendship -- and. . . (31)
11.19.13 at 7:33 am | Did Lincoln use the words of a rabbi for the. . . (28)
November 26, 2013 | 5:54 pm
Posted by Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin
Every Sunday, The New York Times Magazine offers its “Meh List” of things that are neither bad nor good – simply “meh.”
If I were to create a Jewish “Meh List,” Thanksgivukkah would be first in line to go on it.
Please don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I have anything against this new-found and never-again-to-be-repeated-in-our-lifetime merging of two great holidays. It’s just that I’m burnt out from the incessant recipe suggestions and design plans for menorahs made out of turkeys and/or turkey basters. It's all just a little cloying.
Thanksgivukkah is a typical modern American Jewish invention. It’s part of what historian Jonathan Sarna has called “the cult of synthesis” – the idea that Judaism walks hand in hand with Americanism. The late Charles Liebman put it this way: “There is nothing incompatible between being a good Jew and a good American, or between Jewish and American standards of behavior. In fact, for a Jew, the better an American one is, the better Jew one is.”
So, is Thanksgivukkah good or bad for the Jews – or for America?
It’s fine. It’s not as if we were talking about the merging of two holidays from different religions. We are not talking about Christmasukkah, or Ash Purim, or Eastover, or Rosh Ha-ramadan. There is no harm in combining a minor Jewish religious holiday with a major American secular observance.
Especially because, in a very subtle and interesting way, the two holidays actually have their roots in the same idea: that religious people can refuse to uncritically blend into a majority culture.
Start with the Maccabees. Though we often connect the legendary miracle of the cruise of oil that lasted for eight nights, there are two “better” miracles.
The first was that a small guerilla army could defeat the most powerful army in the world. The Maccabees actually invented guerilla warfare. This feat won Judah Maccabee a place in a mural at West Point, where he is commemorated as one of history’s greatest military strategists.
And the second miracle was that this military victory led to cultural survival. To this day, the elegant Hebrew term for assimilation is l’hityaven – to become Greek. The Maccabees fought against those who wanted to adopt Greek ways – often, with less-than-pretty results. (The word macabre has its origins in the bloody military escapades of the Maccabees). Their willingness to fight for their faith was an inspiration to Christianity – long before Jews caught on to that message. The medieval church viewed the Maccabees as the paradigms of knighthood and chivalry.
Had the Maccabees lost, Judaism would have disappeared – and Christianity never would have been born.
Come to think of it -- maybe Hanukkah really is the most important holiday in Western civilization.
What about the Pilgrims? The story is so woven into the mythology of American history that it is all too easy to forget its most powerful truths. The Pilgrims were religious dissidents who left England because they utterly despaired of the possibility of reforming the Church of England. Moreover, they founded their own congregations (hence, the Congregational Church) based on their own independent readings of the Bible (how Jewish!).
The story gets scary and violent. The Pilgrims were horribly persecuted. In 1607, they decided to leave England for Holland. The crew members of the ship they had hired turned out to be unscrupulous, robbing them mercilessly. In 1609, they finally succeeded in moving to Leiden, where the welcoming atmosphere and cultural pluralism (yes, even for the 1600s) allowed them to settle – as it had allowed Sephardic Jews to settle as well. And if you are looking for more parallels to the Jews, the Pilgrims worked in the cloth industry.
So why did the Pilgrims move to America? The traditional, mythical story is that they were angry that their children were starting to speak Dutch. (As we Jews have also figured out that the loss of a language is dangerous to continuity). The Pilgrims were disenchanted with the licentious attitudes and mores that they encountered in Holland. And so, they left Holland, arriving at what would become known as Cape Cod on November 21, 1620.
America was founded by religious dissenters. They were not only dissenting from a majority religion; they were also dissenting from a culture that embodied values that they could not accept.
That is the lesson of Hanukkah as well. When we consider that Hanukkah is the story of rebellion against the overreaching nature of Hellenistic culture, we must also remember that the Jews were the only people in the ancient world to rebel against the mores of the Greeks. We were the only ones who said “no.”
And perhaps for that, and for that spirit, we should truly be saying thanks.
November 19, 2013 | 7:33 am
Posted by Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin
It is a bittersweet coincidence – that the fiftieth yahrzeit of President John F. Kennedy and the one hundred fiftieth anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address should occur during the same week.
In many ways, of course, President Lincoln and President Kennedy are soldered together in our memories. That both were assassinated has become part of our national mythology, even our martyrology. Indeed, other presidents have been assassinated, but no one speaks, nowadays, of the murders of William McKinley and James Garfield (except that we have somehow memorized that the latter was shot by a “disappointed office seeker”). The deaths of Lincoln and Kennedy, being ideological in nature (or, so we believe; the jury, literally, is still out on Oswald's motivation for shooting JFK) have placed them both within a unique setting in our collective imagination.
The parallels are famous and even quirky: both were assassinated on Fridays; Lincoln’s secretary was named Kennedy and Kennedy’s secretary was named Lincoln; both assassins were themselves killed before they could be brought to trial; both were succeeded by men named Johnson.
And both were outstanding orators whose words live on beyond them, in ways that few presidents can truly claim.
Which brings us to a rabbi, Sabato Morais, whose name has been forgotten by many American Jews, though certainly not by our scholars – and who might actually have been more influential than we might have once thought.
To be accurate, Sabato Morais was technically not a rabbi; he was what was known in the nineteenth century as a “minister-hazzan.” He was actually the founder of the Jewish Theological Seminary. Born in Italy in 1823, he started his career as the assistant hazzan at the venerable Bevis Marks Synagogue in London, and in 1851 became the hazzan at the equally venerable Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia. He had a broad concern for the Jews, whether Sephardi or Ashkenazi, and was absolutely pivotal to every philanthropic concern in Philadelphia.
In his book Jewish Preaching in Times of War, http://www.amazon.com/Preaching-1800-2001-Littman-Library-Civilization/dp/1904113540Marc Saperstein describes a sermon that Morais gave during the Civil War. He gave it on July 4, 1863, which also happened to be the fast day of the seventeenth of Tammuz. It was at the same time that Lee's armies were retreating from the battle of Gettysburg, ninety miles away to the west – a battle that would ultimately become the bloodiest military venture in American history. General George Gordon Meade would say: “I cannot delay to pick up the debris of the battlefield.” Decaying horses and human bodies, rotting in the July heat.
Saperstein points out that Morais delivered this sermon at the request of the Philadelphia Union League. Amazing. Nowadays, we are quite accustomed to rabbis delivering sermons and lectures in public, gentile or interfaith gatherings.
But in 1863? Here, as we approach Thanksgiving, we can voice our gratitude for the utter uniqueness of the American Jewish experience. It is difficult to imagine a European contemporary of Sabato Morais being approached by gentiles to offer wisdom publicly.
Here is how the text of his oration unfolded: “I am not indifferent to the fact, dear friends, to the event that four score and seven years ago [my emphasis – JKS] brought to this new world light and joy.”
“Light and joy” is a well-known Jewish phrase. It is orah v’simchah, from Esther 8:16, and it makes a guest appearance in the havdalah liturgy as well.
“Four score and seven years ago?” According to Saperstein, Morais regularly sent the texts of his sermons to Philadelphia sermons and to the Jewish press. The late Rabbi Bertram Korn, a scholar of the Civil War period, said that “more of Morais’ sermons were printed in the daily press than any other American rabbi’s.”
A coincidence? The legend has it that Lincoln scribbled those 272 words (272! Only 272! In fact, when he was done, people looked at each other and said, “Is that all?”) on the back of an envelope. Had Lincoln read the widely-circulated sermon that Morais had given, in which the minister-hazzan used that elegant phrase, and either a. unconsciously used it or, b. quite consciously used it, albeit without attribution?
We will, of course, never know. Neither will it matter. And even now, some faithful reader of this essay will be rushing to prove to his/her friends that “a rabbi was Lincoln’s ghostwriter for the Gettysburg Address,” which, of course, is far from the truth.
But in our American Jewish heart of hearts, we would like to remind ourselves that ours is not the first era when the words of rabbis have been taken seriously by those outside the circles of the Jewish people.
We might choose, rather, to believe that the immortal phrase “four score and seven years ago” somehow, uncannily, rose off the pages of Sabato Morais’ manuscript and made its way into the most famous oration ever delivered on American soil.
And that such a migration is itself a metaphor for the powerful, though sometimes even subtle, effect that the Jewish word has had on America itself.
November 12, 2013 | 3:43 pm
Posted by Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin
That was the response of many American Jews to the news that former President George Bush would be offering the keynote at a major fundraising event for the Messianic Bible Institute, an evangelical group that targets Jews for conversion.
"How could he do such a thing?" a minyan of my Facebook friends and assorted colleagues wailed. It's quite easy, actually. George W. Bush is an evangelical Christian, and that's what they do. They bear witness to the good news of Jesus Christ and seek the conversion of the world to the gospel.
Having heard this news, I jumped into action. I have always had a secret (OK, now it’s out of the bag) desire to be a presidential (or even an ex-presidential) speechwriter, and it occurred to me that this might be the sort of occasion for which George Bush might need one. I could write a speech for him to deliver to the Messianic Bible Institute!
I sat down and wrote the speech, and then I faxed it to him. I don't know. I think something is wrong with fax machines in Texas, because for some reason, I have not received any confirmation that he got it. Or, maybe he is too busy. He could at least have had one of his assistants get back to me.
But I have faith that these will be the words that come out of his mouth.
It is good to be here with you at the Messianic Bible Institute. I salute the work that you do in bringing the good news of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ to the world. I say that with overwhelming confidence, because I have felt the power of Jesus Christ working in my own life.
Having said that, I am afraid that I am about to disappoint all of you good people. I know that this means that I'm probably going to have to return my fee, which will disappoint a lot of people as well -- mostly my wife, Laura.
I believe that we are in error in trying to convert Jews to Christianity.
Let me tell you why.
A Jewish friend of mine just gave me a huge document to read called the Pew Report. I expected it to be an analysis of who is sitting in church on any given Sunday morning. But I was wrong.
No, the Pew Report is a report on the state of American Jews and American Judaism.
I read enough to know that we are wasting our time in trying to get the Jews to believe in Jesus. And why is that? Well, my friends, you don't have to be Maimonides to know that the Jews already have a pile of things that they could believe in, and they are not exactly doing a great job of doing that.
So why would they start by believing in Jesus? It’s not a good investment of our time.
You see, my friends, before I found Jesus Christ, I was a pagan. I was living the unyoked life. And for anyone who is living the unyoked life, a life devoid of covenant and relationship with God, yes, Jesus Christ is the best way to get there.
But, my friends, the Jews – as a people -- already have a relationship with God. I mean, directly. Mano el mano, to coin a phrase.
And their connection with God, whether they know it or not, is still very strong.
Since we are talking about strong connections -- how many of you are still on America Online?
Here's what we can learn from America Online.
Nowadays, if you download the latest version of AOL onto your computer, it wipes out all the earlier versions.
But, back in the old days, when you had AOL on your desktop, and you downloaded the newer version, the two versions of AOL sat next to each other. No big deal.
Now, follow my logic. The covenant that God made with the Jews at Sinai – that’s like Covenant 1.0.
The covenant that God made on Calvary through the blood of Jesus Christ is like Covenant 2.0.
Some of us think that the new covenant wiped out that older covenant.
I would like to invite you to believe something else. Imagine that Covenant 1.0 – the one at Sinai – and Covenant 2.0 – the one at Calvary – both sit on God’s desktop. God's spiritual desktop is bigger than anyone can imagine. And both of those covenants are still valid for those who believe in them.
Not only that: We all love the state of Israel. God gave that precious land to the Jews, because the Jews are God’s first love and they are the apple of His eye.
Do you know why we care about Israel? It’s not because all the Jews have to be back there before Jesus comes back. That's not it at all.
It's straight out of the book of Genesis, chapter 12. Get out your Bibles. “Those that bless you, I will bless, and those that curse you, I will curse.” We evangelical Christians are pro-Israel! Ans And that means that we must be pro-Jewish. And we must be pro-Jewish because we want God to be pro-us. We want that blessing!
To want all Jews to convert to Christianity is to be anti-Semitic, because it would mean that we want the Jews, as Jews, to disappear.
And, my friends, if you are anti-Semitic, then you can kiss that Genesis blessing goodbye, and get ready for the heaping pile of curses that you are going to get. Don't say I didn't warn you.
One last thing. My Jewish friends have invited me to their Sabbath dinners, and they’re beautiful. Their Passover seders are meaningful. The food is great, but the story is even better. That’s the root of our love of freedom, right there. I’ve even been to one or two bar mitzvah ceremonies. The Torah scroll, the Hebrew. Beautiful. Moving.
If all the Jews converted to Christianity, then Judaism would disappear.
And I, my friends, am not ready to let that happen.
Because I cannot believe that a loving God, Who made an eternal covenant with His people, could ever want that to happen.
So, why are we here?
I mean, really.
November 5, 2013 | 4:47 pm
Posted by Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin
In one of his nightclub routines from the early 1960s, Woody Allen describes his first marriage. “I was an atheist, and she was an agnostic. We couldn’t agree on what religion not to raise the children in.”
If only it were that funny. If only it were that easy.
Dual-faith parenting is back in the news. It recently got a prominent placement on the New York Times op-ed page.
In that essay, the author describes raising children of interfaith marriages in two religious traditions. She names the holidays that her family celebrates – a combined religious calendar of Jewish and Christian observances. She hopes that her children will ultimately decide which religious tradition they will follow, and that whatever religion they choose, they will have an understanding and an appreciation of the other.
I am sensitive to the family dynamics and the spirit of compromise that brings people to such decisions. These are good, loving people who want to do the best that they can under challenging circumstances.
I believe that children need a core religious identity. Children need a spiritual address. Children need a sense of belonging and of believing. They need to know who they are.
Children should not have to choose between Judaism and Christianity, especially when that inevitably means choosing one parent over another. More than that: Judaism is fighting an uphill battle in a culture that is, by default, Christian. It’s just not a fair “fight.”
Is it even possible to blend both religions? Not without ignoring or watering down some very important, basic truths.
Take Judaism, for example. Here’s the Jewish “elevator speech”: God revealed Torah to the Jewish people (however you want to understand that event – and, lucky us, we have no shortage of possibilities). The Sinai event gives us mitzvot. The purpose of Judaism is the fulfillment of the mitzvot as the way we sanctify our lives and redeem the world.
And the Christian elevator speech? Far be it from me to speak for Christians and for Christianity, and I loathe utter simplification, but if I understand the theological basis of Christianity correctly and sympathetically, it would sound something like this: God revealed the divine self/embodied the divine self through Jesus of Nazareth, whose teachings constitute a new Torah, and who died on the cross and was resurrected and who will someday return in glory. The essence of historical Christianity, as taught by Paul, is that the Christ event negates the mitzvot. They are not only unnecessary; they are actually counterproductive.
Let’s talk about ceremonies. Baptism (in which the child is re-born in Christ) or brit milah/baby-naming, in which the child becomes part of the covenant of Abraham and Sarah? First communion, in which the child partakes (even symbolically or metaphorically) of the body and blood of Jesus Christ – or bar/bat mitzvah, in which a child shares and teaches Torah to a community?
Holidays? Jews don’t believe that the Messiah has come. Full stop. You can talk all you want to about how Christmas has become just an American gift-giving holiday, but I’m wondering if you’ve checked out that theory with Christians who really believe.
OK, well, most people could care less about theology. What about “real,” day to day, “in the news” issues?
True story. A mixed couple – Jewish mother, Presbyterian father -- who were raising their kids as “both.” The (halachically Jewish) son decided that he wanted to go on Birthright. “Great,” says Mom. “Wait a second,” says Dad. “My church has been debating whether we should be boycotting Israel and divesting from it. I don’t believe that he should go.”
Another true story. A Jewish-Catholic couple and their child. They were contemplating switching off between a Jewish religious school and catechism. As the Jewish father said, “it’s no big deal.”
I asked them to consider a hypothetical and uncomfortable situation. What would happen if their daughter became pregnant at the age of fifteen?
With the speed and certainty of a game show contestant offering an answer, the Jewish father said: "Easy. She'll get an abortion."
The Catholic mother screamed: "Like hell, she will!" and broke out in tears.
The husband was not offering a “Jewish” position on abortion, which is far more nuanced than we can delve into at this moment. He was merely parroting a “whatever” position. But the wife knew what the husband would not imagine: religion is serious stuff. It’s about real ethical issues, real life issues, real issues of meaning.
Years ago, the psychologist Robert J. Lifton wrote about "Protean Man," named for the Greek mythological figure who could change his identity with relative ease. Lifton noticed that a new type of individual had emerged in our day: one whose interactions with his environment are characterized more by change and disruption than by stability and constancy. What has caused this new type of person? He answered: a loss of connection with the vital symbols of our cultural traditions. Lifton noted that people are starved for ideas that can give coherence to their world.
Call me old-fashioned, but I still believe that this is precisely what kids need. Not a Whole Foods salad bar of rituals and symbols to choose from. Rather, they need a central, defining story.
And they need a connection to a people that tells that story.
October 29, 2013 | 2:11 pm
Posted by Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin
My parents thought that it was funny. But it wasn't.
They used to threaten to “sell me to the gypsies.”
The gypsies (or, more properly, the Roma) are back in the news again. In Farsala, Greece, a blonde-haired, blue-eyed four year-old girl was discovered in a Roma camp. How did her swarthy parents wind up with a child who looked like that? It did not compute, and this led to a worldwide hunt for her real parents. A DNA test proved that she was not, in fact, the child of her alleged Roma parents, and they have been offering conflicting explanations as to how the little girl came into their care.
And then, there was the case of the girl in Dublin. The same kind of story – blond-haired, blue-eyed girl with dark complexioned parents. Irish authorities removed her from her family, but this time, a DNA test proved that she was, in fact, the child of her parents.
That’s the mythology about the gypsies/Roma – that they steal children. And, of course, the gypsies have long had a reputation for fortune telling and various other scams. Watch “Borat” again and you will see what I mean.
The renewed Roma-phobia in Europe has prompted various responses. Some of them appeared in the New York Times Letters page, in which sincere correspondents decried the new persecution of the Roma. Prompted by an article titled “Are The Roma Primitive, Or Just Poor?” http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/20/sunday-review/are-the-roma-primitive-or-just-poor.html?_r=0, letter writers defended the Roma. One of them decried: “The Roma are the last group in Europe toward whom it is still widely socially acceptable to express overt racism.”
“The last group in Europe?” Ahem. A recent survey reveals that one quarter of European Jews are afraid to appear in public with kippot on their heads.
Because of/despite my parents' "humorous" "threats," I developed a fascination with the gypsies -- especially with the utterly murky question of their geographical origins. I have always been quick to see the historical parallels between the Jews and the gypsies/Roma. We have both been pariah peoples and diaspora peoples. A legend says that a gypsy tinker provided the nails for the crucifixion of Jesus, so we were both "implicated" in that historic crime. Europeans believed that Jews and gypsies collaborated to spread the Black Plague. Like the Jews, gypsies were expelled from the medieval guilds of Europe, forced into their own crafts and handiwork. Gypsy religious observances mirror ours. They circumcise their sons; they forbid hunting and wanton bloodshed; their ritual system is reminiscent of Leviticus.
In Germany, there were anti-gypsy laws as early as the 1890s. The 1937 Law Against Crime specifically links gypsies with beggars, tramps, prostitutes, and those who show "anti-social behaviors."
Thousands of Roma died in Nazi medical experiments. Mengele had a particular fascination with gypsy twins. There were Roma in every concentration camp in Europe. There were Roma in the Lodz and Warsaw ghettos. Roma died at Babi Yar. They died next to our family members. We call our catastrophe the Shoah. They call their catastrophe Porraimos ⎯ the devouring. More than a million died.
Even in vulgar conversation, bigots speak of “jewing” someone down. We rarely think of the origins of being “gypped.”
As we prepare to mark the seventy fifty anniversary of Kristallnacht, we are afraid that our memory will be distorted or lost. We are afraid of forgetting that:
• Never before had a state set out, as a matter of principle and policy, to annihilate every man, woman, and child belonging to a specific people.
• Never before had an entire civilization conspired to kill.
• Never before had mass killing become a matter of bureaucracy, technology, and industry.
• Never before had a civilization killed with the wholesale involvement of its lawyers, doctors, business executives, industrial leaders, professors, policemen, engineers, chemists, railway designers, civil servants.
Moreover, no other people has ever occupied the imagination as have the Jews. The Jew exists as a paradigmatic figure, a symbol, a metaphor.
We are afraid that the reality of the Shoah will be historicized, relativized, marginalized, and trivialized. We are afraid that the Shoah is too large for us, and perhaps not large enough to share with others.
As Elie Wiesel wrote: We fear a mathematical journey that will go like this. First, it was six million. Then it will be eleven million, of whom six million were Jews. And then it will be eleven million (including six million Jews; our losses will become parenthetical). And soon, perhaps they will not even speak of the six million. They will speak only of eleven million.
But I also believe the words of Julius Lester: “Our suffering is a long-stemmed rose that we hand to humanity.”
That is why we read about what is happening to the gypsies/Roma, and it is as if we are looking into the mirror.
October 23, 2013 | 7:04 am
Posted by Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin
Tony – as in Tony Soprano.
Tevye – as in, well, Tevye (did he ever have a surname? Good research project).
That was my reaction when I first learned about the ring of ultra-Orthodox rabbis who have been involved in violently coercing recalcitrant husbands into giving their ex-wives gittin (Jewish divorces). Once upon a time, when husbands did not give their wives gittin, they could expect that their businesses might be picketed, or that they would be ostracized by the community. But now the ante has been upped to kidnappings, beatings, and even the use of electric cattle prods. “You put it in certain parts of his body and in one minute the guy will know,” Rabbi Mendel Epstein of Brooklyn explained – which inspired the Daily News to dub the crew The Prodfathers.
Why did this make national news? Because it is the Jewish equivalent of “man bites dog.” We simply don’t expect pious Jews to be acting this way.
The pre-modern Jewish man utterly rejected physical violence and the use of coercive power. To this day, haredi men have weak handshakes. Why? Someone once figured out that gentile knights originated the firm handshake, and so it became instantly treif. According to tradition, the tefilin were to be worn on the weaker arm – to say that spiritual power is more important than physical strength. Zionism was a critique of this mindset. The Maccabiah games celebrated Jewish physical prowress, and they were named for the Maccabees -- "real" men. Check out Bialik’s famous poem “City of Slaughter,” in which he castigates the yeshiva bochers in Kishinev who would not fight back against the anti-Semitic hoardes who had raped their women. They could only crawl out of the cellars to ask their rabbis if their wives, having been raped, would now be permitted to them.
No, said Bialik -- we must fight back against anti-Semitism, physically if necessary. But that is hardly the same thing as violence coercion of recalcitrant husbands -- simply to prop up a system which is itself coercive against women.
But I see a hand raising in the back of the audience: “This is simply harediphobic Orthodox bashing!”
Actually, one of the most interesting dimensions of contemporary Judaism has been the eagerness on the part of the non-Orthodox to learn from the ultra-Orthodox and "their" texts. I’m thinking here of the sages whose work Art Green has recently made widely available to us through Jewish Lights -- Speaking Torah: Spiritual Teachings from Around the Maggid's Table http://www.jewishlights.com/page/product/978-1-58023-668-3 Neither the Sefat Emet or Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, just to name two luminaries, would have eaten in my house (it’s vegetarian, so maybe…) I am a Jewish pluralist, studying most summers at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.
I see another hand. “Why do you care about this? This is an Orthodox Jewish problem!”
In my experience, many non-Orthodox divorcing couples care about the get process and want to engage in it – this, despite the fact that Reform Judaism, from its very beginnings in Germany, affirmed that divorce solely according to civil law would be acceptable and appropriate. So, this is about all Jews.
A religious system that needs coercion and violence for its maintenance needs serious, intensive soul-searching. That’s why, increasingly, Orthodox rabbis are discussing prenuptial agreements and creating annulments that would make this whole thing even more utterly unnecessary than it already is.
Another hand from the side of the room: “This kind of news is not good for the Jews.”
Right. But it’s also not good for God. It’s called hillul ha-shem – the profanation of God’s reputation in the world. Surely, the rabbis with cattle prods studied Talmud, Yoma 86a -- a pious student who acts abominably causes people to say, “Woe to his teacher who taught him Torah! This man studied the Torah: look, how corrupt are his deeds, how ugly his ways.” Remember the Pew study and all those Jews who do not identify religiously as Jews? You think the specter of coercive violence helps? News flash: it is possible that violent religious extremism has contributed to making "none" the third largest religion in the world?We are God's PR department.
One last thing.
You’ve probably seen that viral video of the ultra-Orthodox rabbi brothers singing a flawless rendition of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Sounds of Silence.” http://elderofziyon.blogspot.com/2013/10/rabbi-brothers-singing-sounds-of.html#.UmfUDhb3A6U
Yes, their singing and guitar playing is exquisite.
But when it comes to violent rabbis, there are real sounds of silence emanating from the ultra-Orthodox world.
There are modern and moderate Orthodox rabbis who have correctly and courageously spoken out: Rabbi Asher Lopatin, the new president of Yeshiva Chovevei Torah, Rabbi Seth Farber, and others.
May their voices go viral as well.
October 15, 2013 | 2:22 pm
Posted by Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin
Seinfeldian. n. A Jew whose major source of Jewish connection is an attachment to reruns of the “Seinfeld” show.
I imagine that to be the definition. I first heard the term this afternoon on a NPR broadcast, in which a panel of young Jews were discussing the Pew report – especially the report’s insight that a large number of American Jews believe that having a sense of humor is central to Jewish identity.
One of the young panelists said (and, I believe, correctly) that Jewish identity cannot lose its religious basis and simply devolve into, well, stand up.
Stand up has a long and venerable history in Jewish life. Consider the traditional role of the badkhn – the jester. His main job to make fun of couples at their weddings -- even telling the bride that she was ugly, or disparaging their wedding gifts. After the Chmielnicki massacres in Ukraine in 1648, communal leaders believed that those terrors had befallen them because religious observance was too lax and that there was too little Leviticus and too much levity.The badkhn was almost out of business.
What saved the badkhn? One rabbinical authority noticed that the badkhnim were mostly involved in social satire that was often abusive. They weren't funny. So, apparently not being funny, they were no threat. They could stay around. WHich is how we wound up with Lenny Bruce, Jackie Mason, and the whole rest of the list.
But back to "Seinfeld." For those of you who watch the re-runs incessantly, what could you be learning about the contemporary Jewish condition?
A little history. In 1989, the late Brandon Tartikoff sat down with two fellow NBC executives to watch a pilot for a new sitcom, then called "The Seinfeld Chronicles." "Too Jewish," he assessed. So, the very history of “Seinfeld” is a chapter in American Jewish identity.
Let’s move to the actors themselves. Jerry Seinfeld is Jewish (has visited Israel). Jason Alexander is Jewish (ditto – and has been very committed to Jewish causes). Jerry Stiller and Estelle Harris (affirmatively Jewish). (Michael Richards, who played Kramer, is apparently not Jewish, so he is out of this discussion.)
So, four Jews in the cast – each one with a Jewish identity that would show up somewhere, positively, in the Pew report.
But then there’s Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who played Elaine.
She is a Dreyfus, which is one of the oldest and most distinguished Jewish families in the world, going all the way back to Alsace. She is related to Alfred Dreyfus, and somewhere along the line, the actor Richard Dreyfuss. Their family tree goes back to RASHI, the great medieval commentator, and even further back, to King David himself. They are Jewish royalty.
But, alas: Julia L-D does not identity as being Jewish. (Yet. See below).
And the characters on "Seinfeld?"
Kramer is not Jewish. Elaine is also not Jewish.
Jerry Seinfeld, playing himself, is Jewish. In one of the most “Jewish” episodes, he had the temerity to make out with his kashrut-observant girlfriend Rachel during a showing of “Schindler’s List.” This, of course, was reported to her parents by the unspeakable mailman Newman, who (we hope) is not Jewish. And Jerry’s parents? Excuse me -- Del Boca Vista? But, it’s Jewish as metaphor, as vague ethnicity, as attitude.
What about the Costanzas?
George Costanza is the classic schlemiel, of whom Sanford Pinsker wrote: “The schlemiel has a hand in his destruction; the more he attempts, the greater seem his chances for comic failure.”
But are the Costanzas, in fact, Jewish? They observe Festivus, a holiday “for the rest of us." They have an Italian surname. Italian Jews?
Jason Alexander has said that the Costanzas are, in fact, Jews -- who are part of the Federal Witness Protection Program. Jews in hiding. Ridiculous, modern day Marranos.
So, take the actors and the characters they play, throw them together, line them up, and you meet some of the stock figures of the Pew survey.
You get: affirming Jews; Jews who have been to Israel; a kosher Jew (Rachel, Jerry's girl friend); ethnically obvious Jews (Mr. and Mrs. Seinfeld); ambiguous maybe-Jews (the Costanzas), and a non-Jewish Jew (Julia Louis-Dreyfus).
Julia Louis-Dreyfus is one of America's funniest comediennes. (Check out "Veep"). She is one of many Americans who have a connection to a glorious Jewish past.
And so, I started with "Seinfeldian." I end with "Louis-Dreyfusian." It refers to the opportunity that we have with our "non-Jewish Jews" or folks with some Jewish ancestry.
Experience shows: introduce them to serious, gutsy, engaging, idea-driven, joyful Jewish study – and we can win them back.
Jewish history is filled with them.
Without that effort, American Judaism will truly become “Seinfeld.”
Which is to say: a show about nothing.
It is so worth the effort.
PS: Check out my video of “The Jews, We Are A-Changing.” https://vimeo.com/76691413