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.
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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
October 8, 2013 | 11:22 am
Posted by Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin
By now, any Jew who has been awake for the past week has read numerous essays on the implications of the Pew research study on the current state of the American Jewish community. Like many others, I find the results of the study to be of great concern. I believe that there are still many more things that we, as a community, can do that would clearly make a different and could yet refresh and reinvigorate contemporary Jewish life.
And so, having written just about all that I want to say about the study, at least for now, I am returning to an earlier form of creativity: the song.
Like many kids with a guitar and a creative urge, I used to write a lot of songs. I used to perform them at college coffeehouses, camp, and various youth events. I wrote Jewish songs -- most notably with my friend and colleague Cantor Jeff Klepper http://www.jeffklepper.com I even wrote a few protest songs. The protest song is an honorable Jewish art form, going all the way back to the prophets (you knew that Isaiah had a rock band, didn’t you?), and including such luminaries as Bob Dylan, Arlo Guthrie, and the late Phil Ochs and Tom Lehrer.
Or, if you choose, you can label my song a parody song, in which case its musical zeyde would be the late Allan Sherman, whose fortieth yahrzeit cannot go unnoticed.
Therefore, my humble musical offering to the cause of Jewish continuity -- which, like Zionism, needs a musical anthem.
The Jews, We Are A-Changing
(with apologies to “The Times, They Are A-Changing,” by Bob Dylan – recorded exactly fifty years ago this month)
Come rabbis now gather wherever you preach
It’s more than creating an eloquent speech
Admit that we must change the way that we teach
It's a brand new game that we're playing.
There's so many people out there to reach
For the Jews, we are a changing
Come cantors, musicians and all those who sing
Let's think of the spirit that we try to bring
Cause people won't pray if it don't mean a thing
And don't understand what they're saying
Plug in your keyboards, and tune up your strings
For the Jews, we are a changing.
Come organizations all over the land
Will people come forth for things that are bland?
Are we hearing precisely what these times demand?
Our institutions are graying
It's time now for asking: just what is our brand?
For the Jews we are a changing.
Come all you philanthropists, all those who lead
We must understand now just what people need
A sense of belonging not only a creed
You know that our people are straying
It's time to respond and to do it with speed
Cause the Jews, we are a changing
We wonder exactly how this came to be
Maybe it happened because we are free
To keep or discard our identity
But this great tradition’s worth saving
Let’s say it one last time, we all can agree
That the Jews, we are a changing.
I would say that the song is best accompanied by an acoustic guitar.
Or, given the nature of things, perhaps a shofar would be best.
Because we all need a wakeup call – musical or otherwise.
October 2, 2013 | 1:05 pm
Posted by Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin
It has not been a good week. Not for America, and not for the Jews.
Actually, the government shutdown will eventually go away. We should be so lucky with the Jewish shutdown.
These are my main takeaways from the Pew Center study on American Jewish identity.
We wanted to be part of the American mainstream, and we won. When our great-grandparents sailed into New York harbor, many of them took out their tefilin, kissed them goodbye, and threw them overboard. There is an underwater mountain of tefilin somewhere near the Statue of Liberty. That became the dominant metaphor of the American Jewish experience. But it didn’t stop with tefilin. The whole tallit of American Jewish life is unravelling.
Is there anything left for us to do? Yes.
Intermarriage: Many basements in my general area of New Jersey have water problems. A contractor told me: “You’re constantly fighting a battle with the water. It just wants to come in. So, you put in sump pumps and French drains and hope for the best.”
To continue the metaphor -- none of the sump pumps or French drains or fancy waterproofing devices have kept the flood of unlimited freedom out of the American Jewish basement. Can we still win the intermarried for Jewish life?
My son, Sam Salkin, suggests a Birthright Israel program for the intermarried, the intermarrying, and those who are considering conversion. As sociologist Len Saxe has shown, Birthright is working for college students. I am willing to gamble on the fact that it would “work” for young marrieds as well.
Synagogue life: When Jews talk about having cultural connections to Judaism, they’re not just talking about bagels. No – there actually is a bonafide Jewish culture – music, film, art, literature, theater. In fact, here’s the good news that didn’t make it into the Pew study: almost all of the creative stuff that is happening in the Jewish world is happening in the arts. Bring it all into the synagogue – sort of like what Lab Shul is doing. Bring it into worship services. (Channeling Mordecai Kaplan here!). Perhaps even the creation of synagogues that are entirely devoted to the arts. And we need far more synagogues like Bnai Jeshurun in New York – with joyful, quality Jewish music.
Investing in young leaders: Remember all those young people who are going on Birthright? Consider how that experience is going to reshape the American Jewish future. Within the foreseeable future, a majority of American Jews will have spent time in Israel. This will help transform American Jewish life. We should be investing more heavily into Birthright Next programs, tracking participants, leadership development, etc.
One last thing (and back to the real estate metaphor): When you have your house inspected, the inspector will show you all the problems – many of which you had no idea about. You can then repair the house, or you can walk away.
We have major cracks in the American Jewish foundation. We knew about it. We neglected the repairs. Or we invested in the wrong kind of repairs. Or we put a little spackle here and there, thinking that we had done the best we could.
We were wrong. We just read the American Jewish inspection report, and if we are truly serious about what is wrong, and if we are interested in going beyond self-congratulation (as if there are any reasons to be sanguine), and/or protecting our own programmatic agendas and fiefdoms – then we are going to have to roll up our sleeves and work together.
Do we have the communal will and energy to do it?
I am hoping that we do. Time is short.