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.