Posted by Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin
There has been near-universal joyous reaction to Pope Francis’s recent proclamation that the Roman Catholic Church needs to focus less on issues like homosexuality, abortion and contraception and more on other, deeper spiritual matters. The Holy Father has been lauded for his humility, and his reasoned stance that the Church needs to find a new sense of balance, lest it increasingly become a “small chapel.”
It is not as if the Pope is changing Roman Catholic doctrine on such matters. It simply means that the Church is going to attempt to re-calibrate itself, and to find a sense of balance, moving away from positions that have only succeeded in alienating huge sections of the flock.
So: is the Pope Catholic?
Yes, in its true meaning – genuinely catholic (universal) in his theological and social tastes. But beyond this: in some ways, the current occupant of the throne of Saint Peter is the most “Jewish” Pope we have ever encountered. It is difficult to remember a Pope who actually had the depth of relationships with the Jewish community as this Pope has enjoyed.
Yes, Pope John XXIII completely transformed Christian doctrine on Judaism and the role of the Jews in the crucifixion of Jesus. Pope John Paul II had relationships with Jews in his native Poland, and was the first Pope to visit a synagogue, and as a Polish survivor of the carnage of World War II, had a special sensitivity to the Shoah.
But Pope Francis, nee Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, had a real working relationship with the Argentinian Jewish community, especially with its spiritual leaders. His response to the 1994 bombing of the AMIA center in Buenos Aires was notable for its compassion. He has visited synagogues in Argentina. Moreover, he collaborated with Rabbi Abraham Skorka, the rector of the Seminario Rabínico Latinoamericano in the creation of Sobre El Cielo Y La Tierra (Regarding Heaven and Earth), which is the transcript of a series of conversations with the rabbi.
It is enough to create Pope envy.
Why? Because the Pope has looked critically at the way the Church has communicated its teachings in the realm of sexuality. Channeling the late Peggy Lee, he has begun singing an updated, theological version of “Is That All There Is?” No, the Pope is saying – this is not all there is to the Church, and it is time for the Church to say that and to act on that, and to find a better sense of balance.
[Related: Pope Francis the Liberal]
So, what would happen if Jewish leaders followed the Pope’s lead?
Let’s start with the chief rabbis of Israel. “We, the chief rabbis of the state of Israel, believe in the primacy of halakha. However, we have focused too narrowly on issues like whether women can worship as equals at the Western Wall; or on “who is a Jew?”; or even on the punctiliousness of kashrut. We still care about those things. But our focus on those issues has alienated huge swaths of the Jewish world and has created hostility for traditional Judaism. We need to focus on issues like the meaning of Torah in the world today, or on the ethics of war and occupation, or on the situation of foreign laborers. We are seeking a new kind of balance in Jewish life today.”
Now, let’s move to non-Orthodox rabbis, cantors and Jewish educators: “We have allowed our institutions to become ‘bar mitzvah-centric.’ We train Jewish kids to learn prayers and Torah by rote, without spending enough time discussing their meaning. We need classes on kavannah and ‘awe management.’ We are seeking a new kind of balance in Jewish life today.”
Now, let’s imagine if this conversation could have happened thirty years ago. “We American Jewish leaders believe that we must remember the Shoah. But we note with concern the proliferation of local Holocaust memorials and museums. With prophetic vision, we see the day when there will be a U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum on the Mall in Washington, DC, to which people will flock. We ask our philanthropists to create more powerful and lasting memorials to the more than two million Jewish children who died in the Shoah by endowing Jewish education. Someday, there will be a program called “Birthright.” But we need a birthright program for Jewish education here, in our country. We are seeking a new kind of balance in Jewish life today.”
So, Holy Father, thanks for being our teacher. Thank you for reminding us, and people of all faiths, of the need to balance.
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September 18, 2013 | 6:08 am
Posted by Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin
Just when you think that the United States is evolving into a kinder, gentler, post-racial nation (you do think that sometimes, don’t you?), something comes along and kind of knocks the air out of you.
I am referring to the recent bigoted attacks on the new Miss America, Nina Davuluri, a 24 year old aspiring physician of Indian heritage. In the competition, Nina Davuluri performed a Bollywood dance, bringing her Indian heritage front and center into the American public eye.
It’s truly amazing, and frightening – people making hateful remarks (which I will not repeat here), attacking the appropriateness of an Indian-American becoming Miss America. Some even linked her victory to terrorism and 9/11. Because, well, you know, they’re not really American, are they?
We are free to debate the contemporary relevance and appropriateness of the whole Miss America thing. It feels like a throwback to another time. (By the way, Bert Parks was Jewish). But, having said that, let’s celebrate the racial diversity that has marked the Miss America pageant in recent years. There have been seven black Miss Americas, starting with Vanessa Williams 30 years ago. A Hawaii-born Filipina won in 2001.
To coin a phrase, this is another “small step” for the Indian-American community, who are already supplying far more than their fair share of scientists and high achievers, including politicians (think governors Nikki Haley and Bobby Jindhal, to name just a few) and actors (Dev Patel and Mindy Kaling, to name just a few). This is a community that might look different from us, but whose experience in climbing up the American ladder of meritocracy feels very similar to ours. In fact, in many school districts, the whispered ”secret” (because it is hardly a secret) is that “Indian kids are the new Jews,” occupying the upper rungs of the academic ladder in those places where Jewish students used to be.
So, maybe we should call Nina Davuluri the Indian-American Bess Myerson?
Now, there’s a name from the past. Many people will remember Bess Myerson, now close to ninety years old, as being New York City’s first Commissioner of Consumer Affairs, and then later serving as Commissioner of Cultural Affairs under Mayor Ed Koch, who was her frequent public companion. Factoid: she was the first to introduce freshness dating on food, which became the standard practice all over the country.
True enough. But Bess Myerson was also, and most famously, the first (and so far, only) Jewish Miss America.
It was almost exactly sixty-eight years ago – on September 2, 1945, to be exact. The amazing thing is that Bess Myerson was not an assimilated Jewish woman. She had been advised to change her name to something "less Jewish." She refused. Bert Parks ("Here she comes, Miss America....) however, was born Bertram Jacobson. Name changing was big in those days.
Not Bess Myerson. She knew her roots. She came from the Bronx. She was from a working-class sociaiist family who spoke Yiddish at home. They lived in the Sholom Aleichem Cooperative Houses – inhabited by radical Jewish families.
Bess Myerson had been studying music. Her father was a painter and could not afford a piano. One of her sisters convinced her to enter the competition in the hopes of her winning enough to purchase one.
Why was this such a big deal for American Jews (and not just for American Jews; there was rejoicing in the refugee camps of Europe as well)?
Bess Myerson’s victory came only four months after the defeat of Nazi Germany. Over there, Jews had died, and were continuing to die in displaced persons camps.
Here, we were not displaced. This was our place.
Bess Myerson’s victory symbolized that the Jews had arrived. Her victory symbolized that America was starting the process of widening its gaze beyond the WASP ideal of beauty.
Incredible: a Jew had been named the most beautiful woman in America -- at a time when her European Jewish counterparts were emaciated and in rags.
And, to be sure, even after she won the title, there were barriers. "I didn't pose with Ford cars or in Catalina bathing suits," she reminisced. Those companies didn't want a Jew representing them. Not American enough, apparently.
Back to Ms. Davuluri. Her winning the Miss America title symbolizes the further expansion of the American beauty ideal. It turns out that she, and various other Misses America, are the true rainbow coalition.
But more than that. The pushback against her victory, and the ugly remarks that accompanied it, reveal the dark underbelly of American identity politics. Put simply: there are a lot of people out there who simply aren’t interested in expanding the canon of what it means to be a “real” American. Racial profiling, the immigration debate, surveillance of American Muslims, the birther controversy – it is all part of the same malignant stew.
And it has been used against the Jews. And in Europe, it still is.
Hebrew buffs, take note: The Hebrew word for India, Hodu, is the same as the word for turkey (!) – and for “giving thanks.”
Let’s "give thanks" that America has changed.
Even if a bunch of hate-filled turkeys don’t quite get it.
September 11, 2013 | 4:49 am
Posted by Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin
This s the sixtieth anniversary of one of the most unusual, one of the most obscure, and one of the most significant moments in American cultural history.
I am referring, of course, to Perry Como’s recording of "Kol Nidre."
Nostalgia warning: I am about to mention records. Record albums, to be exact. Ten inch LPs, to be even more precise. ("Teach this diligently unto thy children.....")
In 1953, the popular singer Perry Como recorded an album of traditional religious hymns. The album was called "I Believe," and it was subtitled "Songs of all Faiths Sung by Perry Como." It was released in a ten-inch LP format on RCA Victor Records in November, 1953 – exactly sixty years ago. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SY6i6SobW6M
On that album, there were two songs in Hebrew.
The first was "Eli, Eli," a Hebrew/Yiddish cry of anguish to God.
And the other song that Perry Como recorded on the album “I Believe” was not exactly a song. Neither can we rightly call it a prayer. It is a declaration, actually – Kol Nidre.
Perry Como not only recorded Kol Nidre; he also sang it every year around Yom Kippur on his television variety show, The Chesterfield Supper Club.
Perry Como was a man of deep faith, a pious Catholic. He would sit in a side pew in his home church on Long Island because he did not want to distract from the sanctity of the service. He was apparently enchanted by the Aramaic words to Kol Nidre – in Aramaic, which a Jewish member of the Mitchell Ayres Orchestra taught him to pronounce – and perhaps even more so by its melody.
If we were going to continue our cultural history of Kol Nidre, we would, of course, have to mention that Al Jolson sang it in "The Jazz Singer", the first "talking" movie. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mTufuWn3jv8Neil Diamond sang "Kol Nidre" in the 1984 remake of "The Jazz Singer." http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-IEDLZayfdU
And, in the category of “you cannot make this stuff up,” in 1958 -- five years after "Perry Como" recorded Kol Nidre -- Johnny Mathis also recorded it on his album “Good Night Dear Lord.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mGJ4WS1h9YI
And, then in the category of obscure musical renditions of sacred texts: in 1968, an all-but-completely forgotten British rock band, The Electric Prunes recorded an album called “Release of an Oath.” It featured an English translation of Kol Nidre, with some semblance of the traditional melody. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0pVUkQbcO4o
So, what do we learn from the odd American history of Kol Nidre?
First of all, this was not the first time that a song in a Semitic language jumped to the top of the charts. In 1950, The Weavers, whose leader was Pete Seeger, recorded the Israeli popular song, “Tzena Tzena." It was the B side of Leadbelly’s “Goodnight Irene.” "Tzena Tzena" was subsequently recorded by such stars as Mitch Miller, the Smothers Brothers, and Connie Francis.
“Tzena Tzena” comes out of the immediate post-independence American romance with Israel. It is about Israeli girls in a moshav running out to greet soldiers, which must have been ironic, as Pete Seeger is a life long pacifist. “Tzena Tzena” went to Number Two on the music charts – which means that it is the most popular Hebrew song ever recorded in the United States.
In 1953, there was far more anti-Semitism in America than there is today. There were still restricted neighborhoods, restricted professions, and the gates of Ivy League universities were still not completely open to Jews. It was the heyday of Senator Joseph McCarthy -- not a good time for American diversity.
And yet, Perry Como, one of America’s most beloved recorded what is arguably the Jewish people’s most sacred piece of music. And it was a hit – in Aramaic!
I submit to you that Perry Como’s recording of "Kol Nidre" was a watershed moment in American Jewish history. It was a crucial, though underappreciated, part of the process by which American Jews became accepted in America – and by which Judaism became accepted as part of the American religious landscape.
I suspect that few people these days still listen to Perry Como. Musical tastes have changed, which is an understatement.
But when Perry Como recorded Kol Nidre, it was not just a recording of a beautiful and haunting melody. It was the opening of a musical and cultural gateway.
We could stretch this walk down Liturgical Nostalgia Alley a little bit further – and mention that Barbra Streisand recorded the majestic Janowski version of "Avinu Malkheinu." http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0YONAP39jVEAnd the rock band Phish, my sons hasten to remind me, performed the jazzed up folk version of "Avinu Malkheinu," http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eUw4TY9H4-g Odd little factoid here: they once gave a concert on Yom Kippur and included the song in the concert. Sacred or profane? Discuss.
And then, of course, you have Mattisyahu playing to sold out crowds, singing Hasidic reggae. And you know that those crowds are not all Jewish. No way.
Thanks, Perry, for making it happen. In the yeshiva shel maalah, the academy (or concert hall) on high, I hope that you'll be singing it to God this Friday evening -- on Kol Nidre itself.
September 2, 2013 | 12:42 pm
Posted by Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin
Let’s just say that reasonable people (or, even, people in Congress) can disagree, reasonably, about the most appropriate way to deal with the situation in Syria. I’m OK with that.
But here is what I am not OK with.
There was an article in this past Sunday’s New York Times magazine – a personal reflection by a man who had a terrifying bout with something called transient global amnesia. In other words, he had inexplicable short-term memory loss. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/01/magazine/a-brief-vacation-from-myself.html?ref=magazine&_r=0 In order to test the extent of the damage, the attending physician asked him the name of the current president; he could not remember. Nor could he remember what he had for breakfast. The doctor then showed him three objects and asked him to remember what they were – apple, table, penny – and again, he couldn’t remember.
“We are all just one misfiring neuron away from forgetting who the president is or what we did last night or what transpired in our most intimate moments. In an instant, I had become like my grandmothers in their last years, floating through life, uttering the same old phrases as if for the first time.
“Your accumulated memories make you who you are — how terrifying is it that they can simply vanish? What do you become then? This question still nags at me every morning I can’t remember where I put my keys, each time I can’t recall why I came downstairs. Now I have a simple way to ground myself. I repeat three words in my mind: apple, table, penny.”
But this week, we need only repeat one word in our minds: gas, gas, gas.
Here was Chris Matthews, last week:
"If you basically put down a red line and say don't use chemical weapons, and it's been enforced in the Western community…Don't use chemical weapons. We didn't use them in World War II, Hitler didn't use them, we don't use chemical weapons, that's no deal. Although we do know that Assad's father did. Then he goes ahead and does it......" http://www.city-data.com/forum/politics-other-controversies/1942953-more-stupidity-chris-matthews.html#ixzz2dO6MAdcj
And then, University of Chicago professor John Mearsheimer joined PBS Newshour to argue against military intervention in Syria. Here’s what he said:
“[But] chemical weapons are not weapons of mass destruction, like nuclear weapons are. The reason that chemical weapons were not used in World War II wasn’t because someone like Adolf Hitler was above using them for moral reasons."http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/world/july-dec13/syria_08-28.html
The Nazis didn’t use chemical weapons?!? What, then, would you call Zyklon B? And let the record note, they "even" used chemical weapons against combatants, i.e. the Soviet army.
I would have expected more from Chris Matthews.
But as for John Mearsheimer, it only shows that Israel-bashing is a gateway drug.
Remember Mearsheimer and Walt? John Mearsheimer collaborated with John Walt on The Israel Lobby And U.S. Foreign Policy. They essentially say that a Jewish conspiracy is malignantly affecting United States foreign policy. Mearsheimer even blurbed a book by the execretious Gilad Atzmon, which refers to American Jews as “the enemy within” and which claims that “robbery and hatred is imbued in Jewish modern political ideology on both the left and the right.” Gilad Atzmon is an Israeli jazz saxaphonist who has compared Israel to the Nazis and has accused Jews of trafficing in body parts. He proudly calls himself a "self-hating Jew."
So let us not be surprised that Mearsheimer’s latest screed approaches the suburbs of Holocaust-denial -- or at the very least, minimalization.
We are now seventy years after the Warsaw ghetto uprising, and seventy five years after Kristallnacht. If the Shoah was a final exam, we all flunked. Just look at what has happened since the Shoah: Pol Pot. Rwanda. Kosovo. The Kurds. Remember “Hotel Rwanda”? The Hutus slaughtered eight thousand Tutsi a day for one hundred days straight, and no one did a thing.
You know the US Holocaust Museum? Every DC tourist’s favorite stop? School groups from Topeka and Anchorage and Chevy Chase wearing out the carpeting? A $53 million annual budget?
The US Holocaust Museum has not prevented a single death.
As US Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Powers, writes in her magisterial book on genocide, A Problem From Hell: America And The Age of Genocide
http://www.amazon.com/Problem-Hell-America-Age-Genocide/dp/0061120146, time and time again, American leaders did not act against mass killing for one major reason: they did not want to. They knew that genocide was wrong, but they simply did not want to invest military, financial or political capital in fighting it.
True: no one wants another Viet Nam. No one wants another Iraq or Afghanistan.
But: how about not wanting another Rwanda?
I remind you of the man in the New York Times Magazine who endured transient global amnesia.
Yes, there are many who now have (moral) amnesia.
Yes, it seems global.
But is it transient?
We cannot know. And as I write these words, we cannot know what, in fact, the Congress will choose to do about Syria. And as I said, reasonable people can disagree on the precise contours of American policy.
As we enter Yom Ha-zikharon, the day of remembering, Rosh Ha Shanah – let us at least, as Jews, be the shock troops in the war against amnesia.