Thursday, December 26, 2013

At Year's End

I suppose rabbis are supposed to nod at the arrival of a new secular year without endorsing the concept overly.  And partially I do feel that way. Rosh Hashanah is in the fall. Some years, like this one, the Jewish year actually begins in late summer. For us—and for me too—the whole concept of a new year’s holiday is evocative of Indian summer, of leaves not yet quite ready to begin changing colors, of still walking to shul without a coat, let alone wearing gloves or a scarf. And yet…the secular New Year does mean something to me. I may have been born in 5713—I actually was born in 5713—but that is not the year that springs to mind when someone asks me for the year of my birth. Nor do I think of 5726 as the year of my bar-mitzvah or 5740 as the year of my marriage. Those numbers are correct. But, for all I feel myself steeped in Jewish culture in most ways, I still find it far more amazing to think that we’re about to cross the line to 2014 than it seemed remarkable to me last September to think that the world had made it to 5774 without blowing itself up or, I’m still allowing myself hopefully to think, ruining its climate to the point of no return.

And so, as we prepare to cross the line yet again, this time into 2014, I’d like to offer my readers a reverie on the passage of time…but in a specific key.

In 1995, Moonstone Press (then located in Goderich, Ontario) published my first book of essays, Travels on the Private Zodiac.  The idea of the lead essay was that the ancients were right and wrong in their astrological thinking. Wrong, because the specific lay-out of the planets and stars in the sky at the moment any of us is born does not really have any effect on the courses our lives subsequently take. But they were also right, although not in the way they themselves would have explained the concept.

In my understanding of the private zodiac, we are influenced throughout our lives by the people into contact with whom we come. Some of these people are in close-by orbit—our parents and our siblings, then eventually (at least ideally) our spouses and children. In slightly more distant orbit is a different cast of characters—not the true intimates whose gravitational pull constantly and continually affects our own trajectories through the heavens profoundly, but those others whose presence in our lives affects who we become and what we do a bit less irresistibly as do the people in the first group. These are our grandparents and our elementary school teachers, our neighbors and our parents’ best friends, our rabbis (or some other variety of clergyperson) and our camp counselors, our housekeepers and our coaches. And then there is a third group as well, this one populated by people who affect our courses through life not as meaningfully as our teachers or our neighbors, but whose influence is still discernible and real. These are our elected officials and our high school principals, the professors who lecture to us in college and the authors whose books we find the most moving and influential, the performers whom we only know through their artistry and yet whose work feels as though it affects us profoundly and, at least in some cases, mightily as we decide how to live our lives. Those are the nearer planets and the distant stars that encircle our lives along our private zodiacs.

And then there are comets.

At the end of August in 1998, I flew from New York to Vancouver via Montreal. It wasn’t my usual route. I didn’t usually fly Air Canada at all in those days—there were already direct flights on Cathay Pacific by then—but my father had taken a sudden turn for the worse and I needed to get to New York quickly and the easiest flight to arrange was the one I ended up taking. I had come to New York expecting the scene to be truly grim, but things had improved in the day or two before I arrived and my visit ended up being far more upbeat than I had anticipated it was going to be. And so I flew home—this was even before we moved to California, when we were still living on Lulu Island in Richmond, British Columbia—via Montreal. I had to change planes too, which I found irritating. But then, finally, I was on the flight home. It was late in the evening. The flight was only half-full. I had an aisle seat—I always want aisle seats on airplanes for some reason—so there was the window seat to my left and the aisle itself to my right. For a while, I thought I would have both seats to myself, but then, just before they closed the doors, a young man appeared and sat down next to me.

I am not one of those people who feels any sort of need to strike up conversations with people to whom I am related solely by contiguity, which group certainly includes people I find myself seated next to on busses and trains. And that is true a thousand times over on flights that can last for twenty times as long as a train ride into Manhattan. But still, I’m not an unfriendly person. (I heard that! Maybe you just don’t know me well enough.) And this young man was clearly unhappy. He looked hale and physically well, but also beaten down and sad. In my usual way, I smiled affably at him and then began to read. The stewardess demonstrated, presumably for travelers who had never been in a car, how to fasten a seatbelt. There was that helpful video outlining all the safety features of our aircraft (but which to me personally really just serves as a kind of a catalogue of all the terrible things that can happen on airplane flights).  Eventually, we were in the air. The fasten-your-seatbelt sign blinked off. Beverages were served. I tried to read for a while, then gave in and, turning slightly to my left (and already sensing I was making a huge mistake), I said, “Heading to Vancouver?”

And so it began. He wasn’t going to Vancouver at all, it turned out, just going to change planes there for a JAL flight to Tokyo. He was, he said, planning to spend a year teaching English in Osaka, which experience he was hoping would help him get over the events of the previous few months. I asked if he wanted to talk about it. And talk about it he did. The story began with a young woman who had unexpectedly become pregnant. My seatmate, being both a gentleman and the future father, proposed marriage. She gratefully accepted. A date was set. And then, unexpectedly, she lost the baby. He stayed with her, not only accompanying her to the hospital, but spending the night sleeping in a chair in her room and only returning home to wash up and put on clean clothes the next morning.  A day or two later, she was discharged from the hospital. And the day after that she broke off their engagement, making it clear that she had only agreed to marry him because she felt trapped by circumstance…but now that her “circumstance” had changed—apparently, in her estimation for the better—she saw no reason to carry on with their engagement. Or, for that matter, with their relationship. The next week, the young man, a graduate of McGill with a degree in education, signed on for a year in Osaka. This had all happened the previous March, two-thirds of the way through his first year of teaching. The young woman began dating someone new almost immediately. He found himself carrying on with his life, but slipping into a bad state nevertheless. He was, he said, drinking almost daily and smoking way too much pot. He had actually gone to school—he taught English in some suburban high school near Montreal, he said—he had gone to school stoned a few times, but hadn’t been caught. He stopped going to the gym, stopped sleeping well at night, began to put on weight. He stopped doing the laundry, just stopping off at the local K-Mart to buy more underwear and socks when he ran out. He was, he admitted, a mess.

I listened. Every so often, I prompted him to continue by asking a pertinent question. But mostly he spoke and I listened. It took him hours to tell the whole story. (Trust me, I’ve left out a lot of the details.) I wasn’t bored. I had no place to go. I listened and then, when he was finally done, I told him what I thought. I made some suggestions, pointed out that changes of scenery generally only solve problems related to scenery. I suggested “real” counseling (as opposed to the kind you get on airplanes from strangers), but I also tried to encourage him. He was, after all, only twenty-five years old and his entire adult life was still in front of him. I tried to be kind and encouraging. By the time we finally landed in Vancouver, he was my best friend.

I never saw him again. We didn’t exchange e-mail addresses. (Did I even have one in 1998? Maybe I did!) I didn’t give him my telephone number or encourage him to stop by for a visit the next time he flew home through Vancouver. When the stewardess said we could unbuckle our seatbelts and retrieve our baggage from the overhead bins, he shook my hand and thanked me for listening. I wished him well, offered him a final few words of avuncular advice. And then I turned and got my bag and that was that.

On the private zodiac, we were comets streaking past each other, each burning semi-brightly for a moment before vanishing forever into the darkness.  We didn’t need more. I felt I had done a mitzvah, a kindness. He seemed stronger and better for having unburdened himself. It was what it was, no more but also no less. I don’t need to know what happened. I hope he had a good year in Osaka, then went home, forgot how bad things had once been, found someone to love, settled down, built a life. I can’t remember his name. (Other than Halley’s, how many comets actually have names?) But he remains, even after all these years, part of my story. Just a tiny part, to be sure. If I were a book, he’d be a footnote. Or part of a footnote. But he is a presence, or a kind of a presence, in my life nonetheless.

I wish him well as 2014 dawns, whoever he was and wherever he ended up. I always end up feeling a bit global, even a bit cosmic, as new years begin. I’m thinking about the planets and stars I can see in the sky, those still there and those whose light is still there even though they themselves are long gone. I’m thinking about the distant stars too, the ones that are just pinpoints of light in the nighttime sky. And I’m thinking about the comets as well…and finding myself able to wish them all well even without knowing what trajectories they followed after brushing up against me for a moment before continuing on into the night.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Reading Ari Shavit

So I finally finished reading Ari Shavit’s book, My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, published earlier this year by Spiegel and Grau, and I have to say that, although I found parts of it upsetting to read and other parts beyond challenging, I ended up liking the book and I would like to encourage my readers to consider reading it too.  The author writes very well. And even when he is highlighting truths that we—that I—have spent the better part of my life trying to avoid thinking about, he is still engrossing and—almost despite himself—encouraging. That there is a future for the State of Israel is undeniable. But that it could be one founded not on fairy stories but on actual history and on-the-ground reality is a less widely held view. It is, nevertheless, the author’s. And now that I have read his book and digested it, including the gristle, it is mine as well.

All Shelter Rockers know, or should, that the hallmark of my preaching is my disinclination to proclaim from the bimah as truths things that I would be hesitant to say out loud in a court of law if I were under oath and had thus sworn only to tell the truth. It sounds like that would be a simple task—not lying, not fabricating, not dissembling, not stretching the facts to suit some point one is trying to make—but I can assure you that it is anything but simple. Nor is it the key to effective sermonizing, this disinclination ever to lie. Just the contrary is true, actually: I think I could be far more successful—at least in the elocutionary sense—if I were precisely prepared to declaim from the bimah as obvious facts things that everybody would like to think of as self-evident truths. That would be very pleasant! But it would not yield any truly salutary results, because, no matter how gorgeous the oratory, the castle would still be built on the ever-shifting sands of wishful thinking and hopeful fantasy. And, as any architect will tell you, a building is only as permanent as its foundation! Therefore, if you wish to build a house that will last for a long while, you need first to set into the ground a foundation upon which it can stand permanently…or at least for a very long time.  And the same is true of preaching: to speak forcefully and well from the bimah requires not only knowing a lot of interesting stuff, but laying a foundation of ideas and beliefs upon which to build one’s remarks that itself is solid and strong. The alternative, building a gorgeous sermon on ideas that one only wishes were true, is the ideational equivalent of building of a beautiful home on mud that only looks solid from afar. And neither would be a very good idea!

And it is precisely this attitude that Ari Shavit, a commentator on Israeli public television and a columnist for Haaretz (and also a former paratrooper in the IDF), brings to his writing. He is clearly disinclined to build on sand. He understands, perhaps even intuitively, that writing a book and giving a sermon are two variations on the same theme. Both are undertaken to put across a point of view, to convince, to bring others over to one’s personal point of view. Both are offered to a public that will, at least at first, not be able to see the foundation upon which one has built one’s structure, just as no one not possessed of x-ray vision can tell what kind of foundation is under a building just by looking at its facade from the street.  However, because Shavit is an honest man, he has declined to take advantage of that fact and instead to invite his readers not only into the story they can see easily from observing the scene in modern Israel but into the substructure, into the events, ideas, stories, and episodes that form the foundation upon which the modern state rests.

His is a personal story. His great-grandfather, a British Zionist, visited what was then Turkish Palestine in 1897 and understood, almost intuitively, that it was there that his family’s future lay.  But this is not specifically the story of Ari Shavit’s own family, or not solely that. By setting his chapters at thoughtfully chosen intervals between his great-grandfather’s visit and today—there are chapters covering the momentous events of 1948 and 1967, of course, but also chapters set in 1921, 1936, 1942, 1957, 1975, 1991, 1993, 1999, 2000, 2003, 2006, 2011, and this waning year, 2013—Shavit draws a picture that is neither heavy-handed nor weighted down unduly with statistics. This is not a university textbook on the history of the State of Israel, but one man’s effort to understand the different layers that together constitute the foundation upon which the state rests.  These layers, although related, are also distinct. And so Shavit discusses religion, philosophy, political history, sociology, and culture separately and together, trying to show how they are similar and dissimilar, related and yet (at least in some cases) totally distinct from each other, malign (in some cases) and beneficent (in others). Above all, he is sympathetic to the good he sees in others, including in people with whom he disagrees vehemently. This is not a book for people who necessary only want to feel good about Israel. But it is an honest book of real thoughts built on real facts, and it is will be well worth any reader’s time and emotional investment to consider.

Hardest of all for readers like myself will be the passages in which Shavit dissects the question of the Palestinians and their place in the story of modern Israel. Unwilling to look away from the excesses of wartime, yet also eager to set events in their actual context (as opposed to the one history itself has provided as an after-the-fact refuge from its upsetting details), the author adumbrates the various motivating factors that led to some of the most disquieting episodes in Israeli history.  Some reviewers have jumped on this or that detail in Shavit’s account, and particularly of his excruciating retelling of the events that led to the “departure” of Lydda’s Arab population from their homes in 1948, to prove that his book is biased and misleading. (If you are reading this electronically, you can get a good taste of that kind of response by clicking here to read Alex Safian’s posting on the CAMERA website. Or by clicking here to read Ruth Wisse’s far more lyrical, but just as defensive, comments on the Mosaic site.) But those reviewers are clearly missing Shavit’s point. I am not enough of a historian of modern Israel to know where the actual truth lies in terms of every single detail. But the point does not lie in the details—at least not in this specific instance—but in the larger issue of the legitimacy of Zionism itself that Shavit brings into focus.

He is, as noted, an honest man. He does not wish to live in a country built on a foundation of half-truths and fantasies. He is also a committed, deeply patriotic Israeli, born and bred in the country he has no desire not to end his days living in.  Israel is the country in which he has staked his claim in the world, in which he works, in the army of which he served for many years, and in which he has chosen to raise his family. He is, in a word, a completely engaged Israeli who feels just as tied to his homeland as the citizen of any country naturally would to his or her own nation.  And he is a man who wishes to explore things clearly and without falling back on a comforting mattress of fantasy and self-serving delusion. That is why this book is so important…and, ultimately, so successful: it is one man’s honest effort to explain who he is and how he understands his nation’s best chances for a successful, peaceful future.

The question of indigenity weighs heavily over the whole book as Shavit dissects, and ultimately discards as irrelevant, the endless debate about whether it is the Jews or the Arabs who are the “true” indigenes of the land. The Palestinians, after all, never tire of denouncing the early Zionists as imperialists eager to seize someone else’ nation without noticing or caring that it was already inhabited. According to this version of the narrative, the Zionist settlers were no different from the British marching into Kenya or India and unilaterally making those countries part of their empire, or the Belgians doing the same in the Congo or the French in Senegal or Algeria. Seen in this light, the Palestinians’ plight is no less weird than tragic: after all the nations that together constituted the British or Dutch or French Empires became independent, the Palestinians somehow didn’t…and are thus left as the last remaining victims of nineteenth century imperialism. The Zionist version of that story is not that different, only with the roles reversed. In this version of the story, Israel is the national homeland of the Jewish people. It was there, to quote the (Israeli) Declaration of Independence, that the Jewish people was born, that its character was forged, that its national identity was first formed. That others came later to the land to seize it as they could while its “real” owners were moldering in the lands of their exile was never the problem of the Jewish people, and least of all now that there is an independent Jewish state in the Land of Israel to which all may come and in which all members of the House of Israel are welcome to settle. The exile has ended. The exiled have returned to their native shores. That those who moved in while they were absent must now deal with a new reality is, according to this version of the story, their problem either successfully to deal with or to whine endlessly about without actually addressing.

But indigenity itself is a complicated concept.  The world is filled, after all, with countries that were built by immigrants who neither cared nor even really noticed that their new homelands were already inhabited. Included in that club are, among others, the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and every single country in Central and South America.  And that list only considers countries established in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries. If we go back further, the same could be said of other nations as well.  (The Hungarians only came to Hungary in the ninth century C.E., for example, and displaced the indigenous Slavs and Avars.) Once we go back far enough, the migration of peoples across entire continents makes the whole concept of the indigenity less meaningful than it might otherwise be, particularly in light of the biblical stories that make it clear that the Israelites came to Israel from outside the land and seized it from the Canaanites, who—at least to some extent—themselves (so the Bible in the opening chapters of Deuteronomy) had displaced the nations that had earlier inhabited the land. All this underlies much of what Shavit writes.

Reading this book is something akin to cleaning out a wound with astringent: it stings mightily when applied but, in the end, it is more important to keep a wound clean and free of infection than it is to spare oneself some sharp pain. I found Shavit’s writing sobering always and upsetting in parts…but also invigorating, both in terms of my faith in the future and my own native Zionism, and as encouraging as challenging. This is not a book for the fainthearted. But neither is living in the real world! I recommend My Promised Land without reservation and look forward to discussing its details with you all further in the coming months.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Ill, Not Dead

Ralph Waldo Emerson, the greatest American essayist and one of my personal culture heroes, wrote famously in “Self Reliance” about the pointlessness of yearning to have one’s views accepted by the world. “Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood?” he asked rhetorically. “Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.” It’s a great quote, one that has come back to me many times over the years since I first came across it years ago.  And it came back to me again just this last week as I received The Jewish Review of Books in the mail and read Daniel Gordis’s shrill, mean-spirited diatribe castigating our Conservative movement as something between a disappointment and a disaster. (I haven’t written much to you about Emerson and the effect his writing has had on me over the years, but I will.) If you don’t get the magazine at home—although I recommend it to you as something definitely worth reading—you can access Gordis’s essay by clicking here.  If you are a life-long affiliate of the movement, as am I, you won’t like what you find there.

He’s not the only one. Just lately, in fact, there have appeared a whole series of essays forecasting the imminent end of Conservative Judaism and either suffering over or reveling in its forthcoming demise. The Pew Report didn’t help. I wrote at length about that report when it first came out last fall and commented on what seem to me to be its flaws and its virtues. (For readers reading electronically, click here to read my previous letters in that regard.) But although there was—and there remains—a lot to say regarding the larger portrait of Jewish life presented in Pew, I’d like today to write specifically about one specific part of the picture, the part that concerns the state of denominationalism and post-denominationalism in the American Jewish community today.

According to Pew, 35% of American Jews identify with the Reform movement. (That is to say that they self-identify with Reform. Whether they actually belong to Reform temples or are affiliated with any organizations that exist within the umbrella of the Reform movement is obviously another question entirely. The same detail applies to all the numbers that follow.) 18% identify with the Conservative movement. Just 10% responded that they self-defined as Orthodox and another 6% said they identified with smaller movements, particularly with Reconstructionism and Jewish Renewal. That adds up to 69% of American Jewry, which leaves over 31% that responded that they do not self-identify with any specific version of Judaism at all. Who those people are, a full third of whom indicated that they are Jewish “by religion” yet who appear not to have embraced any specific version of Judaism, I’m not sure. But I’m more interested today in discussing the future of our movement than in wondering about people who have consciously chosen not to affiliate formally with the religion with which, when asked formally, they say they identify.

Clearly, our numbers are down. In 1971, 41% of American Jews self-identified with the Conservative movement. By 2000, that number was down to 26%.  Now, as noted above, it is 18%. And the recent spate of synagogue mergers, a phenomenon covering the entire country, only seems to confirm that downward trend in that fewer affiliates obviously need fewer synagogues to serve their spiritual needs. And, if things continue to decline, then it seems reasonable to suppose that even those newly merged larger congregations will eventually have to merge with other super-congregations if they are to stay afloat financially.

The question to ask, however, is not really how many Conservative Jews there are in the world or how many synagogues exist to serve them, but what exactly happened and why the same movement that once attracted over forty percent of our co-religionists now draws fewer than twenty percent. On this specific topic, I have lots to say.

Some of it has to do with the failure of the suburban model in general. We built enormous synagogues in suburban neighborhoods based on the assumption that families would prosper in those places and then, once their children were grown, move away to make room for new families with young children. That must have seemed cogent at the time, but, as we all know now, that’s not how communities work. People don’t move away so fast. In most suburban settings, there are no apartment houses nearby into which empty-nesters might move to make room for new young families in the synagogue’s natural catchment area. And the few that do exist are often beyond the financial capabilities of people seeking to spend less, not more, as they grow older and contemplate retirement. Eventually, there are no new lots to build on…and the neighborhood once populated by thirty-year-olds is suddenly—although not that suddenly—with seventy- and eight-year-olds.

And then there is the demise, equally unanticipated but no less real, of the concept of the ethnic neighborhood. Huge synagogues were built in Jewish neighborhoods. Churches of various Christian denominations too were built in neighborhoods and suburban towns that featured a large enough number of likely constituents to make it likely that the institution would survive. To speak from personal experience, the Queens County of my youth—and this is surely true of Long Island as well—was a study in peaceful balkanization: the Greeks lived in Astoria, black people lived in St. Albans, Germans lived in Ridgewood, and Jews lived in Forest Hills and Kew Gardens Hills…and that was how things were. No one seemed offended or, at least within my personal ambit, especially irritated by the situation as it came to exist. People wanted to live among their own people. And it was practical too that way in that the institutions that served specific ethnic or religious groups could be built in the places that those people lived and worked. But that too turned out to be a chimera as the walls of racial and ethnic discrimination tumbled down and people, slowly at first but then in droves, lost their interest in living solely among their own kind. Our own neighborhood is a good example of that specific phenomenon…but so is the neighborhood I grew up in and so, other than St. Albans, are all the neighborhoods listed above.

And then, on top of all that, America has also experienced a dramatic across-the-board decline in religious affiliation itself. In 1963, for example, a full 90% of Americans self-identified as Christians of one variety or another and a mere 2% said that they had no religious identity at all.  By 2010, the percentage of Americans who described themselves as having no religion was seven times as great. And the percentage who self-defined as Christians had itself declined by more than 20%.

But our problem has to do more with poor urban or suburban planning, or with general trends in American life.

At least in part, we are the authors of our own misfortune. We have a vacuum of leadership that is unparalleled in our movement’s history. Of the major institutions that serve the Conservative Jewish world, only one—my alma mater, the Jewish Theological Seminary—is headed by a serious scholar who has earned the right to speak forcefully and authoritatively on behalf of the movement. And to a certain extent—and particularly just lately—Chancellor Arnold M. Eisen has begun to do just that.  (Click here to see his latest attempt forcefully to promote Conservative values and institutions.) But Chancellor Eisen is not a rabbi. He speaks with neither the bearing of a great religious leader nor with the vocabulary of such a leader. I’m sure he’s doing his best, but the days when the movement had a clear, if not quite titular, head in the chancellor of JTS—I’m thinking particularly of the more than three decades of Louis Finkelstein’s tenure in that office—appear to be long gone.  And the chancellorship is only part of the problem. There was a time when the greatest names in Jewish thought were affiliated with JTS, and through the school with the movement it served. When Jewish theology was Abraham Joshua Heschel, his day job—when he wasn’t writing the books that helped to define an entire generation of theological thought—was as professor of Jewish thought at JTS. But although the faculty is today filled with able, reasonably well-published scholars, there simply are no latter-day Heschels or Finkelsteins at the helm. Nor is there anyone even remotely in their category in leadership positions in the movement’s other institutions.

And yet…even that is only part of the story. It seems to me that what we have really experienced is a drop-off of affiliation that has, paradoxically and a bit cruelly, coincided with wide-spread acceptance of the specific combination of adherence to tradition and openness to change that was forged in our Conservative institutions and which has now won the hearts and minds of so many outside our orbit.  The old-style, know-nothing, I’m-right-because-everybody-else-is-by-definition-wrong style of Orthodoxy lives on in ḥaredi and hasidic circles, but is nothing like the kind of Open Orthodoxy that is characteristic of, say, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. Nor does it live on at Yeshivah University, the flagship institution of Modern Orthodoxy. The old-style, tradition-is-the-enemy-of-modernity style of Reform is so far from what Reform preaches today that it almost seems impossible to imagine Reform clergy seriously, let alone passionately, inveighing against Shabbat observance, kashrut, or b’rit milah as institutions inimical to “real” Jewish spirituality. I know Reform rabbis who put on t’fillin. I surely know Orthodox rabbis who do not think women to be too flighty or unreliable to sign a k’tubbah and who feel hamstrung by a movement so in the thrall of its extreme right ring that it simply cannot permit them to act on their principled beliefs. All this, in my opinion, is Conservative Judaism writ large now that the idea of creating a version of Judaism that embraces traditional observance and strict intellectual and spiritual integrity has found its place in the Jewish world almost as a foundational idea that feels so obvious and so basic that it feels like the kind of axiomatic, self-evident approach that has no origin at all!

As a result, it seems to me that we need to look away from the numbers and keep on doing what we’ve always done best. We should continue to promote a kind of big-barn Judaism that is open to all, that does not impose ritual requirements on any who would join us and learn from us, and that has no place in its ranks for misogyny, homophobia, racism, xenophobia, chauvinism, anti-intellectualism, or unearned arrogance. We need to continue to promote the idea of spiritual integrity above all else, and to explain to any who would listen that that core concept implies the impossibility of serving a God defined as the ground of morality in the universe by acting immorally, unjustly, or inequitably. We need to continue to put forward the idea that the covenantal concept requires not that we slavishly imitate our ancestors, but that we continue to evolve ethically, intellectually, and morally in our ongoing attempt to serve God honestly and successfully. And we need to understand that our specific brand of intellectual honesty in the context of spiritual development is the core value that makes religion distinct from superstition.  These, to my way of thinking, are the values that have motivated us over the last century and that have led to the creation of truly great Jewish communities. And they are all ideas that have grown directly out of our Conservative movement.

Many have responded to Gordis’s article. Of what I’ve read, however, two essays stand out as exceptional in terms of their vision, Rabbi Gordon Tucker’s response essay entitled, “Eight Families and the 18 Percent,” which you can find on-line by clicking here, and Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky’s article, “Living in the USA,” which you can access by clicking here.  Both are passionate, intelligent responses to Gordis and I think all my readers will profit by considering what these two of my colleagues—both of them my friends of many years—have to say. On the same website,, you will also find responses to Gordis by Susan Grossman, Elliot Dorff, Noah Bickert, Judith Hauptman, David Starr, and Jonathan D. Sarna. (If you are reading this electronically, you can find them all neatly listed and briefly summarized here.)  You’ll also find a long set of far shorter response to Gordis’s article, many of which appear to have been written by people who live on planets other than Earth.  In short, we have our work laid out for us.

Daniel Gordis is entitled to his opinion. I’m entitled to mine. I believe that, despite our missteps and mistakes in the past, our specific brand of Jewish life—one that attempts to integrate unfettered intellectual integrity, traditional observance, and a ground-level refusal to act immorally merely because traditional endorses behavior we now recognize as outside the pale of normal ethical behavior—that Conservative Judaism has a profound message to bring to the world. That we have put our faith in institutions that appear no longer to serve the needs of an ever-evolving Jewish world is surely something we need to address and rectify. But the ideational ideas upon which the rest of it all rests, that substructure retains its cogency and its comfort for me. For better or worse, this is where I live. And this specific brand of Jewish life is my m’kom torah, the place in the Jewish world that feels to me the most like home.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Three Books and a Fourth

All my readers know that I read a lot. How I choose what I read is less easy to say, however. Sometimes people recommend
books to me. Sometimes I read a book review and become curious about the book under discussion. Other times I am the recipient of books as gifts. And still other times I myself develop an interest in a specific author or kind of literature and read until I feel that I’ve adequately gotten the picture. Reading in such a disorganized way has its own rewards, however, because sometimes the specific pattern of books that I end up reading itself becomes meaningful to me. In other words, it sometimes happens that the arbitrary order of books I find myself working through brings me to understand some specific book differently than I would have had I read it before and after two different books than the ones that actually did precede and follow it on my reading schedule.

This is all a long way to getting around to telling you that I’ve just finished three remarkable books…and that all three feel different to me now that I have embarked on a fourth book, the widely-reviewed and best-selling book by Ari Shavit, My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, published just last month by Spiegel and Grau, and already on the New York Times’ bestsellers’ list.  I’m only about a third of the way through the book, or maybe not even that far, but I’m already mesmerized and convinced that this is a book we are all going to want to read and discuss in detail. I look forward to writing to you about it in far more detail once I’m done reading.

Shavit has a lot to say. But the specific experience I want to write about today is not specifically about his book, but about the light his book is casting on the three books I mentioned above that I just completed the other day. All three were published by Yale University Press, but, contrary to what one might expect from an academic press, all three are novels. Moyshe Kulbak’s book, The Zelmenyaners: A Family Saga was published just this last October in Hillel Halkin’s very felicitous translation from the original Yiddish. Yehoshue Perle’s novel, Everyday Jews: Scenes from a Vanished Life came out a while ago, in 2007, in an equally skilled translation by Margaret Birstein and Maier DeshellAnd David Bergelson’s The End of Everything, translated by Joseph Sherman, was also published in 2007. All three came out in the press’s New Yiddish Library Series, a joint project of the Fund for the Translation of Jewish Literature and the National Yiddish Book Center.  So far, there are six books in the series and I intend to read the other three as well as soon as some space on my night table presents itself. (For my younger readers, let me explain that before everybody read everything on e-readers, people used to stack up books they were planning to read on the little tables next to their beds.  And, yes, the pile used occasionally to fall over, or at least mine did.)

All three are exceptional books. And all are linked by intrinsic and extrinsic details. All three were originally written in Yiddish. And all three books’ authors were murdered: Perle at Auschwitz, and Kulbak and Bergelson by Stalin after show trials, in 1937 and 1952 respectively, in which they were denounced as enemies of the state and summarily executed. (In a non-Jewish/non-twentieth-century context that would seem more remarkable than I suspect it does to most of my readers.) Also, all three—although for this, regretfully, I cannot vouch personally—all three were apparently written in a kind of particularly rich, evocative, eloquent Yiddish that has almost entirely disappeared from the world. I want to describe these three books to you and, I hope, to whet your appetite to sample them for yourselves. And then I want to say what it’s been like wading into Shavit’s book with these three still so clear in my memory.

I read Perle’s book first. At first reading slightly like a shtetl-based Catcher in the Rye, Everyday Jews is a portrait of life in Poland in the years between the world wars that is—like life itself, I suppose—alternately grim and amusing, occasionally tragic and always deeply involving. The book was widely condemned when it was published as presenting an essentially negative picture of Jewish life, but I didn’t see it that way. Yes, it’s true that the author dared write about things more famous (and more commercially successful) authors tended to ignore. And it is true that there is a certain bleakness hanging over the entire narrative. But it’s also true that the book rings true and ends up presenting a portrait of life that is at least as appealing as it is dingy. Everyday Jews is a boy’s story, the story of a boy’s life as he stands on the threshold of adolescence. His parents’ wholly dysfunctional marriage is described in detail. His eventual seduction by an older woman is also part of the story, as are his friendships with various other boys, Jewish and Gentile, to whom he relates in complicated, always interesting ways. Perhaps the most compelling passage is the one in which Mendel—we only hear his name once or twice in the book—almost dies in a snowstorm that he is attempting to negotiate simply because of the undeniable need to distance himself from his parents’ home.

The whole book is about life in the context of tension: the tension between the sexes, the tension between Jews and Gentiles, between parents and children, between traditional ways and the modern world. In the end, I found the book far more compelling than off-putting, and I recommend it to you. The town in the book is not Anatevka, not the shtetl of Sholom Aleichem’s stories and novels and certainly not the fictitious town’s Broadway version. This, for better or worse, is the real world…the one my own ancestors fled gladly when the opportunity presented itself and the one in which almost everyone they left behind eventually perished. Perle’s own story is grim enough—he survived the mass deportations from the Warsaw ghetto and lived long enough to compose a chronicle, still unpublished in English, of life in hell, only to be shipped off anyway, first to Bergen-Belsen and then eventually to Auschwitz—but even he could not have imagined his own fate when he was busy writing this novel in 1935. And yet…there is something intensely interesting about this portrait of a world unaware of how soon it would vanish, of these people trying to invent themselves in a new world in which—although no one knows it yet—none will die of old age.

The next book I read was David Bergelson’s The End of Everything. If Everyday Jews is the Jewish Catcher in the Rye, then The End of Everything is the Jewish Madame Bovary. This is the story of Mirel Hurvitz, a kind of proto-feminist in a man’s world who cannot quite decide what she wants from life. The book was first published in 1913, a long time ago. (Bergelson was born in 1884, just four years before Perle. The more famous Yiddish authors of their era were considerably older: Sholom Aleichem was born in 1859, Y.L. Peretz was born in 1852, and Mendele Moykher Sforim, born in 1836, was older than either of them.) The Second World War was unimaginable, but this was all even before twentieth-century modernity itself had come fully to Kiev, clearly (although it wouldn’t have been to me personally) the city in which the book is set. (Joseph Sherman’s lengthy introduction to the novel is excellent and fills in all sorts of details contemporary readers either won’t know or may easily miss.)

Mirel is twenty-one when the book opens just after she has broken off her engagement to Velvel Burnes, a pleasant, well-meaning local, for reasons she herself seems unable clearly to articulate. As she moves along in the months and years that follow—the book begins in 1905—we see in her the story of Eastern European Jewry itself attempting to grapple with modernity. She is, to say the least, independent. She has at least one extramarital affair. (She has several non-extra-marital ones with men of various sorts as well, six in total.) In one of the most powerful scenes of the book, she undergoes an abortion. She is at once wholly self-centered and fully focused on the search for…something. When she finally agrees to marry Shmulik Zaydenovski, it’s hard to decide if she is growing up or giving up. (The details of their intimate life, offered delicately but also clearly, only make it more, not less, difficult to answer that question.) Shmulik himself is a very provocatively drawn character. At once her most ardent admirer and her doormat, he seems unaware that he is behaving pathetically…and yet I found myself not only sympathizing with him but also liking him as a character. When he finally agrees to a divorce, it is just one more kindness he is willing to bestow on Mirel in exchange for…nothing at all.

Bergelson’s Kiev too is not Anatevka. These are modern, in some ways post-modern, people we are reading about. They are happy and miserable at the same time. They are grappling with forces they neither understand nor even fully perceive. They are on the cusp of…something. But even they have no clear idea what that something is or how their Jewishness—drawn here in such sharp lines it almost feels like the author was wielding a knife rather than a pen—is going to fit into the future they imagine for themselves. Nor, needless to say, do they have any inkling that it’s all a dream, that they have no future at all, that almost all their descendants who fail to emigrate will be murdered within their children’s lifetimes.

The third book in the series that I read was Moyshe Kulbak’s The Zelmenyaners. The book suffers a bit—but not terminally—from the fact that it appeared in serial form in the Yiddish-language Soviet monthly, Shtern, from 1929 to 1935 so the author has to assume that his readers will have forgotten all sorts of details from installment to installment. Still, the novel is rich and satisfying. Set in a rundown neighborhood in Minsk in the various homes that surround a single courtyard, all of which are inhabited by the descendants of one Zalman Khvost (and primarily his widow Bashe and his sons Itshe, Folye, Yuda and Zishe and their families), the novel—the title is the collective name used in the book to label all of Reb Zalman’s descendants—is about Jewish people trying to negotiate strange new terrain as Stalin’s specific version of communism takes hold in what was then the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic, now Belarus, in the late 1920s and early 1930s. The novel is very funny, far more so—at least overtly—than the other two. There are a lot of jokes and the literary equivalent of sight-gags, and the people in the book are presented both lovingly and sharply critically as only someone writing from the inside could possibly manage to do successfully and convincingly. The annihilation of the Jews of Minsk is one of the most horrific of all Shoah stories—the specifics of the barbarism the Germans brought to bear in their effort to murder every single one of the 850,000 Jews who were eventually crammed into the ghetto are so horrifying as truly to be unimaginable—but, of course, that is unknown to the characters in the book. And so here too is a work of people unaware of the precipice at the edge of which they are all standing…and so instead trying merely to live their lives in something like a normal way.

I liked all three books. All three are intelligent, thoughtful works about a world that exists no more. They would be worth reading in that light alone, but since the world they depict is the world from which I myself, and so many of my readers, come…and since we, as opposed to the characters in these books or their authors, know the indescribable horrors that are about to descend on the Jews not only of Minsk, Kiev, and Radom (the city on which the shtetl in Perle’s book is apparently modelled), but on all European Jewry, the experience of entering into these people’s homes and their lives is that much more poignant and moving.

And then I began Shavit’s book.  Am I the only person who opened My Promised Land after reading the three novels I’ve just written about? Possibly I am!  But whether I am or not, the point is that approaching the story Shavit has to tell—and his sober, thought-provoking way of intertwining the glorious history of the Zionist enterprise with its darker side, which he describes in almost shocking detail and without pulling any punches at all—approaching Shavit with the understanding these three novels collectively offer of the reasons that political Zionism, when all was said and done, grew directly out of the untenable situation that the Jews of Europe, and particularly Eastern Europe, found themselves in as the twentieth century dawned. And that, of course, is without knowing what horrors awaited them all.  I want to finish reading My Promised Land before I write to you about it, so I won’t say more here. But the three books I have finished are all available easily for all in print and as e-books, and I recommend them to you all wholeheartedly.

Despite the fact that I hadn’t heard of any of these books, each was a bestseller in its day. And although they are set in different places and slightly different times, they can be taken together both as a kind of triptych depicting a vanished world and also as a mirror into which any may peer who wish to see the face of twenty-first century Jewry looking back.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Thanksgiving 2013

And so…another Thanksgiving. And another Chanukah too. Like most of you, I get the part about Thanksgiving and Chanukah never having coincided before because the last time they could have was two years before President Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving as a national holiday in 1863, but don’t quite seize the part about the next time Chanukah and Thanksgiving coinciding being in the eight hundredth century. (More precisely, most of the e-mails I have received on the topic—and they are legion—indicate that the specific year in which the two holidays will next coincide will be 79,811 C.E.) What life will be like 77,798 years in the future, who knows? Will people be e-mailing back and forth to each other about how long it’s been since Chanukah coincided with Thanksgiving back in the twenty-first century? Will there still be e-mail? Will there still be Thanksgiving? Will the human race somehow have managed neither to annihilate itself nor to make the planet too cold or too hot or too inarable to support human life? It’s hard to know. A century seems like a long time. Ten centuries seems like a really long time. 778 centuries seems like a really, really, really long time. One thing I think we can all agree upon: whoever’s left to comment on the vagaries of the Jewish calendar in the eight hundredth century, it won’t be me or anyone reading this today! And yet…for some inexplicable reason it seems to matter. A little, at least. To me, at least. And, I’m guessing, to some of you all as well!

Thanksgiving and Chanukah actually go together quite well, and not merely because the Hebrew words for “turkey” and “give thanks” (as in the psalm: “Give thanks to God, for God’s mercy endureth forever”) are the same word. (More exactly, they’re both homophones and homographs—which is to say that they are pronounced and spelled the same way—without actually being the same word.)  Both are times that evoke a national sense of gratitude, that strengthen a people’s sense of itself as a nation under God. And both are family-oriented holidays that imagine the family as the nation writ small, and that encourage on the micro-level (that is, the level of the family, the most basic of all societal building blocks) the celebration of sentiments that mirror the large-scale feelings reflected in the national narrative that serves the festival as its ideational backdrop.  I wrote in the synagogue’s November bulletin about the specific way I understand the triple interplay between Chanukah, Thanksgiving, and Sukkot, so I won’t repeat myself here. Instead, I’d like to talk about the emotions that the strange intertwining of Thanksgiving and Chanukah—my favorite American holiday and my children’s favorite Jewish holiday—are stirring up in me as we make our forward through this wet, weather-weird November—it is thirty degrees warmer outside as I write this than it was at this time two days ago—and its festivities.

The odd concatenation of America’s most spiritual secular holiday and Judaism’s most secular spiritual holiday feels tailor-made to call us to contemplate the way our Jewish and American identities converge and diverge as we decide how we feel about the agreement between Iran and the so-called P5+1 group (the latter comprising China, Russia, France, Germany, the U.K. and our own country) signed last weekend in Geneva. The terms are complicated in terms of detail, but simple enough in terms of their overall thrust: Iran will freeze certain key parts of its nuclear development plan and the West will relax, but only to a certain degree, the sanctions that brought Iran to the negotiation table in the first place. President Obama praised the agreement as “an important first step.” And surely it is just that: a first step. But is it a step in right direction? If by this time next year a final agreement is in place that permanently ends Iran’s potential to acquire nuclear weapons, then the interim detail signed last weekend will be a mere footnote to a much longer story. On the other hand, if it becomes clear that no real agreement will ever be signed and that the whiff of cooperation between Iran and the West that the most optimistic among us are already claiming to be able to sniff in the wind turns out to be nothing more than a bit of sweetly-scented smoke, then the interim agreement just signed will also be quickly forgotten as just one more hopeful moment that came to nothing when the time came for Iran actually to agree to give up its nuclear pretentions. That being the case, the real question to ask as we ponder the recent events in Geneva is whether this interim accord makes a final deal more likely.

Senator Schumer clearly doesn’t think so. Neither does Senator Robert Menendez, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who said the other day that he thinks the correct way to exploit the Iranians’ sudden willingness to negotiate a deal is to increase the sanctions imposed on their country as a way of guaranteeing their compliance with the interim agreement. And neither do any number of other senators and representatives, both Republicans and Democrats alike. On the other hand, a Reuters/Ipsos poll this week yielded the result that 44% of Americans supported the deal reached in Geneva, while half that many, 22%, opposed it. What the other 34% of the citizenry thinks, the poll did not reveal.Given the Iranian leadership’s ongoing use of the language of annihilation and extermination to describe its hopes for the future of Israel and its shameless willingness to question aloud whether Israel’s leaders are fully human, it is impossible for people such as myself to consider these issues other than with reference to the Shoah. We never grow tired of mocking Neville Chamberlain for his willingness to hand over somebody else’s country to the Nazis in a vain attempt to reach some sort of understanding with the German leadership while there was, he thought, possibly still time to dissipate the clouds of war already gathering on the horizon. In retrospect, of course, it hardly takes a military genius to realize that the “correct” way to deal with the Nazis would have been years earlier when it might still have been possible militarily to bring the Nazi regime to its knees before it began to act on its grandiose fantasies of world domination. In the end, though, all the Munich Agreement did was buy the Nazis time. Is that how generations to come will think of the Geneva Interim Agreement? Or is the interim agreement nothing more than a tentative step forwards towards a future that specifically does not feature a nuclear Iran?

Let’s think more about Munich. The specific issue on the table was the question of whether the world could or could not live with a German annexation of the part of Czechoslovakia inhabited mostly by German-speakers. There was no question of whether this region was or was not part of Czechoslovakia. The boundaries were completely clear—this was specifically not a boundary dispute that able cartographers could have possibly resolved—but the Germans wished for things to be otherwise and threatened to go to war to achieve the annexation of property they wished to become part of Germany. That was what the Munich Conference was about formally. But what it was really about had nothing to do with the German-speaking population of the so-called Sudetenland at all and was far more about the intense desire of France and the United Kingdom not to go to war with Germany, not as each other’s ally and certainly not alone. Purchasing “peace in our time” with other people’s freedom seemed like a good deal…for the signatories to the agreement, which included France, Britain and Italy but not (of course) Czechoslovakia. (There is a reason the Munich Agreement is called by the Czechs, even today, the Munich Betrayal, the Mnichovská zrada.)  Is Israel’s absence from the table in Geneva simply the latter-day equivalent of the absence of any representatives of the Czechoslovak government at the table in Munich? Phrasing the question sharpens the issue nicely. But is it just or fair?

During the height of the Cold War, American policy towards the Soviet Union was rooted in the understanding that there simply was no way the Russians ever would, or even could, “unlearn” the way to construct a nuclear arsenal. That being the case, the only rational way to make the world safe was to pursue a policy of mutual containment that would simply make the price too high for either side ever to contemplate undertaking a nuclear attack against the other side. Obviously, the best of all solutions to Soviet belligerency would have been for the good guys to be the ones with the guns. That not being feasible, we went for Plan B—second best, to be sure, but workable and reasonable. And it worked. The Cold War remained cold. Both sides possessed the ability to annihilate the other, but neither did…and precisely because neither side could do so without risking its own future existence. Because winning a war that entailed the annihilation of one’s own country seemed like somewhat of a pyrrhic victory, no one selected that option. 

Iran, as far as anyone knows, does not possess nuclear weapons. There is, therefore, no need for Plan B. Yet. We do not need to fall back on a policy of mutual assured destruction because, at least so far, only one side has the ability fully to annihilate the other. It should, therefore, be possible to create a future that does not entail Iran acquiring nuclear weapons that could easily end up in the hands of the various terror organizations Iran sponsors. Although I see President Obama’s point that small steps in the right direction are better than no steps at all, I do not see how handing over seven billion dollars to Iran in exchange for their promise not to move forward with their nuclear program in a meaningful way is going to lead us anywhere good. Perhaps I would be more sanguine if the task of supervising Iranian compliance hadn’t been handed to, of all institutions, the United Nations, an organization whose implacable hostility to Israel has its own long history and about the trustworthiness of which I could not feel any less secure. In the end, the question on the table is simply whether Geneva is Munich.These are the questions that I am bringing with me this year to the Thanksgiving table. 

And they are the ones that I can already hear ringing in my ear as I sing everybody’s favorite Chanukah hymn, Maoz Tzur. It’s a very old hymn, Maoz Tzur, one written in thirteenth century Germany as the Jews of the Rhineland were trying to contextualize the horrific massacres perpetrated by the Crusaders on their way to “liberate” the Holy Land.  It has six stanzas, each one devoted to another effort to annihilate the Jewish people in a different epoch and to the miraculous way that, despite the foe’s best efforts, the Jewish people survived the onslaught as one by one their enemies vanished from the world stage. Pharaoh’s armies drowned in the sea. The Babylonians, in their day the world’s greatest superpower, disappeared. The Syrian Greeks whose persecution of the Jewish people led to the Maccabean revolt that Chanukah memorializes vanished so completely that today even the name of their empire is unknown to almost anyone. So too did vanish the Roman Empire, even after doing their worst and destroying the Temple and the Holy City.  The poet imagined that the same fate would await the Crusaders who wreaked such havoc in his own day, and who with almost unimaginable cruelty slaughtered so many innocents.  And, indeed, the Crusader kingdoms in the Middle East are so long gone that it comes as a surprise to most non-experts to learn that they even existed! I have to think the same fate will await the enemies of Israel today, including the rulers of Iran. They seem to have endless amounts of money to finance their efforts to make real their rhetoric. They are certainly dedicated to entering the nuclear age one way or the other. But, in the end, their threats will dissipate as their day comes and goes, just as history shows again and again to be the fate of all who go to war with the people Israel.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Fifty Years On

It was a Friday in 1963 as well. I know where I was. Unless we are too young to have been anywhere in 1963, we all know where we were. Specifically, I was in Mrs. D’Antona’s fifth grade classroom in P.S. 196, located then as now on 113th Street in Forest Hills overlooking the Grand Central Parkway. We had finished with lunch and recess was over; it was early afternoon and we were back in class. Our principal, Mr. Abraham Tauschner, suddenly appeared at the door with his assistant principal, Mrs. Natke, in tow. This was highly unusual. Mrs. D’Antona, responding to the unusualness of the moment, left us unattended for a moment and stepped out in the hall. When she came back, her face was ashen. We were, she said almost inaudibly, to close our books, to pack up for the day, and quietly to assemble in the auditorium where Mr. Tauschner was going to talk to us. I remember this like it was yesterday, just as I remember coming home from Hebrew School the following Sunday to find my parents still in shock after having watched—after actually having watched on live television—Jack Ruby murder Lee Harvey Oswald in a Dallas police station. I was ten years old. Even at that age, I think I can remember feeling the earth shifting beneath my feet.

John Kennedy was not our only American president to be assassinated. (To that club belong as well Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, and William McKinley. And another thirteen, including every president since Kennedy’s day, were only not killed in office because they escaped credible attempts on their lives.) Nor was JFK the only president with a beautiful wife or with a family fortune behind him. And although Kennedy is to this day the only American president ever to have been awarded a Purple Heart after being injured in battle, there were many American presidents who served in the military with great distinction. (George Washington, Ulysses S. Grant, Theodore Roosevelt, and Dwight D. Eisenhower come to mind first, but twenty-six of our forty-three presidents served in the Armed Forces of the United States other than as Commander-in-Chief.) So why is it that Kennedy’s death became the watershed moment in the nation’s unfolding sense of itself and its destiny that it clearly did become? That is the question I find myself pondering as I ponder the fiftieth anniversary of the president’s death.

Partially, I suppose it has to do with Vietnam. And, indeed, although the roots of our nation’s involvement in Vietnam go right back to the days of the Kennedy administration (if not even earlier to President Eisenhower’s decision to send 900 American advisors to prop up the Diem regime), the escalation of the conflict—and the way that the war tore apart the fabric of American society in a way that would have seemed unimaginable even a few years earlier—those developments need realistically to be assigned first to the Johnson years and then to the Nixon presidency. As a result, at least in retrospect, the death of John Kennedy seemed to mark the end of an age of innocence, of American contentedness, of national unity, of a sense of widely agreed-upon national purpose. The images that became indelibly etched in the national consciousness were part of this as well: even today when I think of the Kennedys I picture them playing touch football in Hyannisport, while the first thing I think of when someone mentions Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon are the massive anti-war protests that characterized my teenaged years and which tore many families, including my own, apart. (I’ll write about that some other time.) Is that fair to Presidents Johnson and Nixon? Probably not. But in politics, as in most things, perception is everything. Or almost everything.

And partially it has to do with the general Zeitgeist and the way things changed different so quickly and so irrevocably after President Kennedy’s death. The 1960s—the decade itself—was a kind of watershed in American culture in a way that the nation hadn’t experienced since the Roaring Twenties. American tastes in music shifted more from 1957 to 1967 than in the previous half century. The same could be said with respect to art or fashion, even to architecture. And, yes, accompanying all that cultural stuff was a shift in sexual mores that felt at the time, and which even in retrospect still feels, unprecedented…and which, particularly for people just a bit older than myself, really did change everything. None of these developments can reasonably be attributed to anything President Kennedy did or said…and yet it seemed to many, and still seems to many, that nothing that mattered was the same after the assassination as it had been before. (And the Kennedy years, at least in retrospect, feel far more like the end of the 1950s than like the opening years of the decade to which they actually did belong.) I read Profiles in Courage when I was in tenth grade and remember thinking that it felt as though the book had been written in a different era, not a mere decade before I got around to reading it in 1967. I couldn’t imagine Jimi or Jim or Janis reading that book…and yet I, who at fourteen related to those three as demi-gods, was impressed by what I read. It just seemed odd to imagine the four of them—Jimi, Jim, Janis and John—in the same room or on the same stage. I could imagine JFK listening to Frank Sinatra. But I couldn’t even begin to imagine President Nixon listening to Janis Joplin, much less Iron Butterfly.

But most of all, I think the reason that President Kennedy’s assassination became a watershed moment in our nation’s history has to do with the concept of heroes.

Just the other day, I read an interesting essay by one of my colleagues in which he mentioned that, when he asked a class of middle-school-aged children in his synagogue’s Religious School who their heroes were, they all answered with the names of athletes or pop singers. In and of itself, that isn’t so surprising.  Such people, after all, are endlessly hyped in the media, endlessly promoted as celebrities whose lives are well worth following. And the so-called “social media” have made it possible not merely to follow such people in the vague way people once did by reading about them in fan magazines, but actually to follow them around as they make their way through the days of their lives and report on details that would once have seemed too private (and too banal) to mention to anyone at all, let alone to strangers. But my colleague’s point was not to lament the advent of the age of Twitter, but to observe that not one single child who responded mentioned the name of someone who exemplified the values we all insist that we wish our children to embrace. There were no war heroes, for example, who risked their lives to make our nation safe or to do good in the world. No child mentioned anyone who had selflessly devoted his or her life to public service. There were no saints, no martyrs, no one who had sacrificed his or her privacy to serve the public weal or, for that matter, who had sacrificed anything at all for a greater and nobler goal.  In other words, somewhere along the line the concepts of heroism and celebrity appear to have coalesced so totally that young people, when asked about the former, responded with answers that presumed they had been asked about the latter concept.

For people my age—I was seven years old when President Kennedy became president—JFK was an old-school hero. He came from one of America’s most powerful families, but he put his life on the line in the service of our country and almost died in the summer of 1943 when his PT boat was rammed by a Japanese destroyer. He possessed unimaginable wealth, yet he chose to devote his life to public service. He could have fostered a cult of celebrity built around himself, but instead he published Profiles in Courage specifically—or so it seemed to the young me—to promote public service as the ultimate civic virtue and to vaunt the heroism of people who risked their reputation and in some cases their careers to act honorably and in consonance with their own sense of justice and moral rectitude. Was I wrong? Maybe I was. I am well aware of the widely-held theory that Profiles in Courage was ghost-written by Theodore Sorensen, but that was unknown to me—and to everybody—back then. Nor is it a relevant point: what I want to stress is how things felt back then, why President Kennedy’s death seemed so totally to change everything.

If I had been asked as a young teenager who my hero was, I would have answered instantly that it was John F. Kennedy. I was as besotted as every other young American with the Beatles—Please, Please Me, their debut album, was released in March of 1963—and with a thousand other pop acts. I knew my movie stars too and knew who my favorite baseball players were. (Mrs. D’Antona, for the record, was not just my fifth grade teacher, but at the very beginning of her teacher career also Whitey Ford’s, a detail I for some reason seem never to tire of mentioning.)  But I also understood the difference between a celebrity and a hero. I would have loved to have had really good seats to see the Beatles at Shea Stadium in 1965. I would have loved to have been present when the Yankees won the World Series in 1961 or 1962, or even when they lost in 1963 or 1964.But I didn’t really want to be a Beatle or a Yankee. I wanted to be like John Kennedy, whom I admired as the paragon of every virtue I hoped someday to emulate.  Clearly, I didn’t know the whole story. I was, after all, a child. I certainly hadn’t heard any talk of the president’s marital infidelity. I had a child’s understanding of the world, of politics, of what it really meant to win a presidential election. (I doubt I even knew that Kennedy won the popular vote in 1960 by a mere two-tenths of one percent.) But even as a child I knew  a hero when I saw one, someone who didn’t earn his fame by singing well or playing a game well but by exemplifying what then seemed to be as the finest virtues to which anyone could aspire.

By the time I became a bar-mitzvah, the universe had changed dramatically. I grew up. America itself grew up. As we made our way forward, the Kennedy years became recalled as Camelot. We learned all sorts of unsavory details about the past, some of which seriously altered the way we now understood things we had once recalled entirely differently. But the part, at least for me, that remained and remains unchanged is the concept of the hero, of it being worthy to look up to someone like John Kennedy who is someone to emulate not because of his good looks or his wealth but because he himself is a profile in courage…that concept of having a hero and wanting to become better and finer so as more closely to resemble that specific person—that is what I believe our country has lost in the half-century that now separates us from those awful days in November all those many years ago. I would like to think we could conceivably re-discover and re-embrace that specific concept of heroism. It would be a good thing for our country, and it would be a particularly good thing for our children. 

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Circumcision in Europe

I have written to you in the past about the question of whether circumcision could conceivably be banned as an illegal infringement of a baby’s natural right not to have its body altered for non-medical reasons at an age when it cannot possibly consent to the procedure. (You can read that letter by clicking here or by going to and searching for the word “circumcision.”) That previous letter was written in the wake of initiatives both on the federal level and in California to ban circumcision, and also the publication of a comic-book-style diatribe against circumcision that resurrected the worst of anti-Semitic stereotypes to depict Jewish parents as bloodthirsty ghouls interested solely in spilling their sons’ blood for the sake of appeasing their no-less-bloodthirsty God. I expressed myself there about the issue, but only because the concept itself seemed fascinating to me and not really because I thought such a ban could ever actually become law.

Apparently, I was wrong. Or maybe I was right with respect to our own country—or I hope that I was—but I was clearly not at all right with respect to Europe, where a major, continent-wide drive is apparently underway to ban the circumcision of baby boys unless the procedure is medically indicated or requisite.  Let me present you with some details.
  • In Germany, fifty members of Parliament, all from the Social Democratic, Green, and Left Parties, have submitted a bill that would ban the non-medical circumcision of boys under fourteen regardless of their parents’ religious convictions. This, after the Germans finally approved a bill specifically permitting circumcision for religious reasons after a 2012 court ruling in Cologne that found the circumcision of babies to constitute a crime.
  • The Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly voted last month for member countries to encourage its member states to “take legislative and policy measures that help reinforce child protection” in cases where boys are routinely circumcised to suit their parents’ religious convictions. I’ll return to this below.
  • Britain’s Jewish Chronicle reported last week that children’s ombudsmen from five Nordic countries are currently working with their national governments to achieve a ban on non-therapeutic circumcision of under-age boys. A motion to ban the circumcision of boys and young men under eighteen has been presented to the Swedish parliament.  Just a day or two ago, Norway’s health minister announced his intention to introduce new legislation “to regulate ritual circumcision” before next Easter. (Pegging the introduction of legislation that could effectively conclude the possibility of living a normal Jewish life in Norway to a Christian holiday was a nice touch.)  What the new law will entail he did not say, but his announcement followed renewed, ever more shrill, calls by Norway’s Children’s Ombudswoman to make the non-medical circumcision of underage boys illegal. 
  • A poll commissioned by the Jewish Chronicle yielded the result that a full 65% of Britons either support the prohibition of ritual circumcision or are undecided about the reasonableness of such a ban. The other 35% of the respondents opposed such a ban.
I’ve seen some articles lately on-line suggesting that these anti-circumcision initiatives have been fuelled more by anti-Muslim sentiment than by anti-Semitism. (To set that thought in perspective, consider that there are six or seven Jewish boys circumcised annually in all of Norway as opposed to about two thousand Muslim boys.) This, presumably, is supposed to be comforting…at least to non-Muslims. But it doesn’t feel that way at all. Let me add two statistics that will round out the picture from a Jewish point of view.  That same poll yielded the result that almost three out of four Britons either support or at least don’t oppose a parallel bill that would outlaw kosher slaughter in the U.K.  And, in a survey of 5,847 Jews from nine European Union member states (Sweden, France, Belgium, Britain, Germany, Italy, Hungary, Romania, and Latvia) conducted by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights and released last week, twenty-nine percent said they have considered emigrating in recent years because they did “not feel safe” living in their countries as Jews, according to Morten Kjaerum, the director of agency. Also worth nothing is that the figure for Jews contemplating emigration was particularly high in Hungary, France and Belgium with forty-eight, forty-six, and forty percent respectively saying they had considered leaving in recent years.
Still, the news isn’t all bad. François Hollande, the president of France, wrote just last month to the French Jewish community affirming his personal support for the right of citizens of France to circumcise their boys as they see fit. And Thorbjorn Jaglan, the secretary general of the Council of Europe, said in Berlin at a meeting of the Conference of European Rabbis, an Orthodox group, just this last Monday that the council has no plans to ban the circumcision of boys despite the anti-circumcision resolution that the council’s Parliamentary Assembly passed last month. And it is also bears noting that no member state of the Council of Europe, which includes all European countries other than Vatican City, Belarus, and Kosovo, has actually banned the non-medical circumcision of minor children. Yet.

I’m sure there are people out there who oppose circumcision because they can’t imagine baby boys wouldn’t all be happier with their foreskins, and not because they hate Jews or Muslims. Similarly, I’m sure there are people who don’t see why animals shouldn’t all be slaughtered according to the same rules everywhere without taking anyone’s religious sensitivities into regard. Such people, presuming that they are not being motivated by feelings of racism and prejudice, do not need to be denigrated for their opinions. But neither can such people—even those who are genuinely well meaning—be allowed to prevail. This isn’t just about circumcision or kosher slaughter either. It isn’t even really about the ill ease many “regular” Europeans apparently feel with respect to their own burgeoning Muslim populations. (In a poll I noticed on-line the other day, I read that forty-six per cent of Britons who were presented with British immigration statistics thought there were “too many” foreign-born residents in Great Britain, as opposed to 23% in the U.S. and 13% in Canada who responded similarly with respect to their own countries.) In my opinion, it is about something else entirely.
For the most part and with respect to most pressing social issues relating to children, the Jewish citizens of most countries share their co-citizens’ opinions. We believe that children should be safe and that they should be vaccinated against terrible diseases. We believe that every child has the right to clean drinking water, to eat nourishing food, to breathe clean, unpolluted air. We believe that every child has a basic human right to be educated to the point of eventual self-sufficiency. And we believe that children have an inalienable right to be protected from abuse, from bullying, and from sexual and other kinds of predators. With all that we are in full agreement with our countrymen and women.
But it is when the camera pulls back and the larger picture comes into focus that we part company. The sense, basic to secular culture, that children are tiny pre-adults leads to the assumption that, for all they may well need to be protected because of their naiveté and their basic powerlessness, children nevertheless have the same rights, or some version of the same rights, that adults have. And foremost among those rights is the right to be considered an individual, to be treated as a citizen distinct and separate even from the nuclear family in which that specific child is being raised, and to be completely free to chart his or her destiny forward in life without being obliged to play a role in someone else’s play, in someone else’s drama.  How different is the Jewish perspective! For us, for Jewish people imbued with a sense of the Jewish present as a gateway in time between history and destiny…the concept of the child as independent agent could not be less resonant. The unity of the Jewish people—and the related notion of the specific role each individual Jewish soul is called upon to play in the pursuit of Jewish destiny by virtue of his or her membership in the House of Israel—is the core concept that underlies the eternal nature of the Jewish people and serves as the frame into which is set our own sense of our redemptive mission to the world. For us, circumcision is the sign of the covenant, the mark carved into the flesh of every Jewish man that marks him and the children he fathers as willing participants in the pageant of Jewish history. (Why women bear no such parallel mark is an interesting question. I have my own answer, but I can also recommend wholeheartedly the book of one of my own doctoral advisors, Shaye J.D. Cohen,Why Aren’t Jewish Women Circumcised: Gender and Covenant in Judaism, which was published by the University of California Press in 2005.) But leaving that question aside—perhaps I’ll write about it on another occasion—the basic concept is that the covenant between God and Israel is the foundation stone upon which all the rest rests, the indispensable basis for the ongoing existence of the Jewish people. Opposing circumcision, therefore, is tantamount to opposing the existence of the Jewish people itself…and not a policy shift to which we could ever acquiesce politely or apathetically.  There is no question in my mind that Jewish people will continue to circumcise their sons and that this will be the case no matter what the Norwegian or Swedish parliaments do or do not decide. Whether there will be a future for the Jewish communities of Europe should these bans on the most basic of Jewish rituals become law is another question entirely, one unrelated to the future of the Jewish people itself.
Our children are ourselves. They are we no less profoundly or meaningfully than we are they; the barrier between generations is one set in time as parents cede their place in the front lines of Jewishness to their children, who in turn will eventually cede their places to their own children. But that barrier is not one that exists other than as a coordinating metaphor for the progression of the generations. You could just as reasonably argue that it barely exists at all, that the generations follow each other when set into the context of time past, present, and future but that the concept itself dissolves in the image of all Israel—including the unborn of all generations—gathered at Sinai to receive the terms of the covenant that would forever bind Israel to its God….and the parallel image of the Jews of all generations moving as one across the face of the earth in ghostly concert as the exile finally ends and the world experiences the knowledge of God washing over it as the waters cover the sea.
For us, the question on the table is an issue of cosmic consequence, not a medical detail or a question of baby’s civil rights. To argue that a Jewish baby has the right not to be formally set in place at the confluence of history and destiny at which every Jewish boy finds himself as he enters the covenant…is an idea that will only sound reasonable to people for whom the right of any individual not to be part of his or her people’s destiny overrides every other conceivable concern relating to that individual’s welfare. I suppose there are people out there who think just that. But those are not people who share our understanding of the mission of Israel!