Thursday, June 13, 2019

Two Life Heroes

One thing I’ve noticed over all these many years in the rabbinate is how differently people respond to life’s tragedies. Some respond, well, tragically, allowing the sadness and worry that tragedy naturally engenders to overwhelm their natural optimism to the point that it suffuses them with a kind of rage-tinged sadness that eventually affects every aspect of their lives and effectively prevents them from truly enjoying any of life’s pleasures. But other people respond in precisely the opposite way to even the most calamitous disaster, allowing such events to inspire them to devote themselves to repairing the world, to doing what they can to prevent the horribleness that they personally have encountered from wrecking the lives of others as well. In other words, there are those who are ruined by misfortune and those who are ennobled by it. That, I suppose, is almost an ordinary observation. But what strikes me as I consider that thought from the vantage point of all these years in the pulpit is how difficult it would be in advance to predict who will fall into which category.

I was very moved about a month ago watching Marie Nahmias light the national Independence Day torch in Israel, one of the nation’s highest honors for an Israeli civilian, and decided on the spot to write about her in this space. Mme. Nahmias came originally from Tunisia, where she was just a girl of seventeen when the Nazis occupied her homeland. She understood herself and her family to be in mortal danger, but they somehow survived until the British pushed the Germans out in 1943 and things calmed down considerably. But that turned out only to be a temporary respite for Jewish Tunisia: once the country became an independent Arab republic in 1956, anti-Jewish sentiment became rampant and violent. And so, after surviving the Germans, the Sabah family (Nahmias is Marie’s married name) emigrated with almost the entire Jewish community to Israel, where they were housed, not in modern apartment houses or on welcoming, verdant kibbutzim, but rather in one of the vast tent cities called ma·abarot that were set up to accommodate the massive immigration to Israel from the Arab world in the 1950s. Conditions were, to say the least, primitive. There was a strong sense among many that the states assets were not allotted fairly or equitably to all immigrants regardless of country of origin. No one wished to stay any longer than necessary. And Mlle. Sabah, now Mme. Nahmias, didn’t stay either, eventually moving out and becoming the mother of eight children. Things became much, much better. But then Marie’s son Shaul was critically wounded in the Yom Kippur War.
So here was a woman wholly entitled to be irritated with the world: her teenaged years spent first hiding from the barbarians who occupied Tunisia during the dark years of the German occupation and then trying to evade the anti-Jewish thugs that terrorized Jewish people in her newly independent homeland, her twenties spent under the most primitive of conditions in a country that could barely accommodate the level of immigration it itself encouraged relentlessly among the Jews of the diaspora, and then her oldest son very seriously wounded in a terrible war that took the lives of thousands of the nation’s young people. Yet Mme. Nahmias did not respond angrily or bitterly, but instead resolved to respond to her own life by doing good. And so she opened up her house to foster children, but not just to any foster children at all. Instead, she made it known that she would accept in her home solely children with the kind of grievous physical and mental handicaps that basically made them unplaceable elsewhere. Eventually, she took in fifty-two such children, Jewish and Arab, Israeli and foreign, making of her home a warm, accepting place and a wholly safe space specifically for children whom no one else would take in regardless of their level of physical handicap or special needs. 

Mme. Nahmias is ninety-three years old now and has over 100 descendants, including great-great-grandchildren. The committee that chose her to light the Independence Day Torch heralded her as “a symbol of the immigrants who established Israeli society on a foundation of mutual solidarity and help to the needy, and of the thousands of foster families in Israel who opened their hearts to help children in crisis.” At first, she appeared overcome with emotion. But then she was asked to offer the nation her personal blessing, which she somehow managed to do with such unexpected eloquence and graciousness that it was beyond remarkable to watch. Click here and listen carefully—even without Hebrew, you won’t fail to be moved by this woman who had so many reasons to be bitter and angry at the world, yet who responded to her life’s calamities by choosing to do only good…and who even now in her nineties continues to do good.
I’d like to compare Mme. Nahmias’s story to someone a universe away from Israel, a man named Arun Sothea who lives in a town named Phum Thom in Cambodia.

I’ve written before about Aharon Appelfeld’s great novel, Blooms of Darkness, and specifically about its stunning conclusion. In those final pages of the book, a little boy—recognizable to all readers as the author himself, but of course maintaining his in-book identity as little Hugo as the story progresses—a little boy who finds himself entirely alone in the world after the woman who hid him from the Nazis was herself executed by her countrymen for collaborating with the enemy, this friendless, protectorless, completely defenseless waif makes his slow progress through the streets of his hometown in search of his parents and his own past. As he walks, the hearts of the those reading the story are broken: Hugo is still living in a child’s dream world, whereas we, the readers, know that it’s all gone, that his parents and his entire family have been murdered, that the life he is expecting to find intact in the setting in which he last saw it has irrevocably and permanently vanished, that the only way for him to survive is to start life anew…and that we are asking that kind of mature effort to self-define and self-invent of a boy of nine. (To revisit what I wrote back in 2012 about Appelfeld’s book, click here. If you haven’t read the book, I can’t recommend it too highly.)
I have read almost all of Appelfeld’s novels and have come to esteem the closing pages of Blooms of Darkness as one of the seminal passages in Appelfeld’s entire oeuvre. I’ve read it many times and never without tears coming to my eyes. (To read that passage and not be moved to tears would require having a heart made of brick.) And now I read that same story, almost exactly, about another little boy from a different universe.

In the late 1970s, the Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia. To subdue the nation, its rulers used the usual tactics of totalitarian regimes to bring the populace to its knees: mass executions, forced deportation, interment in labor camps, intentionally inflicted mass starvation, and the threat of merciless torture for all who run afoul of the authorities. Arun Sothea was a child back then. For the crime of stealing a fish, the starving child was sent to a labor camp for “re-education.” And then, in 1979, when he was still only nine years old, he was released from the work camp in which he had been imprisoned. And now he steps into Appelfeld’s narrative. He had no family, no money, no friends, no concept of what he could or should do. And so he undertook to walk on his own back to his hometown, a distance of 150 miles. Like the boy in the book, he maintained the fantasy that he would find the setting of his earlier childhood intact, his family and friends waiting to welcome him home. But, of course, like young Hugo in Appelfeld’s novel, he found nothing at all. Indeed, it was upon arrival in his village that he learned that the Khmer Rouge had murdered all thirty-six members of his nuclear and extended families, including his parents. He was totally alone in the world. And there was no one to whom to turn or on whom to rely.
He somehow found his way to Phnom Penh, the capital, where he lived on the streets for years. So if there was every someone who could claim the right to be angry, bitter, and resentful it would be he. But he chose a path more akin to Mme. Nahmias’s than the one most people would feel entirely justified in taking: he grew up to found and run two different orphanages, one in Phnom Penh for children on the street like he himself was and one in his home village for children with neither parents nor extended family to take them in and watch over them. I first read about Arun Sothea in a Times of Israel article that detailed the way that various Jewish charities have reached out to help Sothea in his work. Click here for the article, which is very impressive and quite moving. I can promise that you’ll be moved.

It’s a low-rent operation, especially the branch in Phum Thom. The children sleep on mats on the floor; there are no beds. There are a handful of computers on site, but no internet connection. There is a single classroom. I hope that things improve as time passes and Sothea’s work becomes better known. But the point I make here is more about the man than his work: here is yet another person who responded to the most horrific tragedy—the murder not solely of his parents but of his entire extended family and his own childhood imprisonment in the kind of forced labor camp that many adults didn’t survive—and yet who came through the whole experience imbued not with the desire for revenge but with the desire to do good in the world and to reach out to children in need.
These stories—Arun Sothea’s and Marie Nahmias’s—are very encouraging to me. It’s impossible to read them without wondering how I myself would have responded as an adult to a childhood spent trying solely to survive the almost unimaginable brutality of my nation’s oppressors, poverty unlike anything I personally have ever known, and a sense of uncertainty about the future that makes it only marginally possible that I will even have one. Those same thoughts, of course, come to mind when I speak with the surviving survivors in our midst, people who lived through the camps and the death marches, through the brutality and daily degradation that was the lot of Jews caught in the Nazis’ net and somehow not murdered immediately. In the end, I suppose, the answer is that I don’t know—that none of us can truly know—how we would have responded to experiences like those. On the other hand, what I do know is that tragedy embitters some and ennobles others. But why some fall into one category and others into the other—that is a riddle I have yet to come even close to solving.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Virginia Beach

Those poor people in Virginia Beach! They weren’t children. They weren’t soldiers. They weren’t young people dancing the night away in a cool nightspot. They weren’t worshipers in synagogue or people gathered in church for Bible study. Nor were they high school kids rushing from home room to their first classes of the day. In other words, they were just people—regular, grown-up, working people busily attending to their non-flashy jobs in a non-flashy office compound in a city known mostly for having a pretty beach. And now they appear actually to have met posthumous the fate that I feared—but also half-expected—would end up being theirs: front page news for a day or two, then the subject of a follow-up story buried somewhere in the back of the first section a few days later, then, depending on the newspaper and the politics of its editorial board, either forgotten entirely or followed up a couple of days after that with a human interest piece describing of some of the victim’s funerals and then allowed to sink into gun-violence oblivion.

Mass shootings are resembling more and more hurricanes in this violent land of ours: named in the first place to make it possible to keep them all straight in your mind, but mostly forgotten anyway as soon as the skies clear…other than by the people whose homes they ruined or whose livelihoods. Yes, everybody remembers Sandy…but mostly because it inflicted something like 70 billion dollars’ worth of damage. But what about Beryl, Chris, Florence, Helene, Isaac, Leslie, Michael, and Oscar—to name only Atlantic hurricanes that hit the United States in the last year? My guess is not so much. Unless you had to deal with the destruction these storms left in their wake personally, probably not so much at all!
People think about things in the abstract entirely differently than when they are asked their opinion about the very same issues not as pristine philosophical concepts but rather as nuts-and-bolts issues set into the real-life world of actual people. The most famous example, known to most from Philosophy 101 in college, is the famous “trolley-car problem.” It has a thousand different versions, but the basic concept is always that the same people who speak loftily and movingly about the inestimable value of human life—and who claim wholeheartedly to accept the corollary of that idea, namely that it is impossible (i.e., not only morally reprehensible but actually not doable) to place a specific dollar value on a specific human life—those same people when presented with the dilemma of a trolley-car driver having to choose between plowing his run-away vehicle into a crowd of thirty healthy kindergarten children or veering off to the side even though it will mean hitting a terminally ill centenarian who has just a few days left to live invariably say they would aim at the old man rather than take the lives of thirty little children. So much for the inestimable, thus uncalculatable, value of human life!

There are lots of variations. You may have heard the version featuring an individual standing next to a hugely fat man on a bridge and watching a train (not a trolley in this version for some reason) hurtling towards the thirty children. The only way to stop the train is to shove the fat man off the bridge onto the tracks below, which act will almost certainly save the children’s lives at the expense of the fat man’s. It’s basically the same situation as the one with the trolley-car conductor, yet whereas a clear majority almost always say that they would be okay about flipping the switch to save the children at the expense of the elderly sick guy, a majority almost always also say that they would not go so far as actually to shove the fat man off the bridge to accomplish exactly the same goal. (For a fascinating examination of these issues from a Jewish point of view by Tsuriel Rashi, a professor at Bar Ilan University in Israel, click here. You won’t be disappointed!)
To translate this into modern American terms is simple: we all say that we think that the loss of even a single life is tragic, but we have become so inured to gun violence in our country that we only respond viscerally when there is something particularly horrific about the incident: merely being shot to death by a maniac with a gun is nowhere near enough in today’s America to sustain the interest of the nation over more than a day or two. (Oh yeah? I heard that! Columbine is near Denver and Parkland is near Miami…but where exactly is Highlands Ranch again?)

The question, as always, is how we should respond to yet another of these incidents. I have to admit that I have trouble keeping them all straight in my head—and I’m guessing that that’s how we all feel. To militate for stricter controls on gun purchases, to insist that the government find a way to make guns useless other than in the hands of their legitimate owners (which wouldn’t have worked in Virginia Beach, since the shooter owned his guns legally), to push for more intensive background checks before people are permitted to acquire firearms—all these seem like reasonable steps forward, none of which would infringe on any non-criminal, mentally-stable citizen’s right to bear arms. But there’s also an attitudinal change we need to work towards and, at that, not one specifically related to the NRA or to the Second Amendment but rather to the way we think of the victims of these shootings.
They appear briefly on the front page of the nation’s newspapers for a day or two. If there is something particularly gruesome about the incident that took their lives, then their hold on our national imagination is stronger—and, indeed, the victims at Columbine, Orlando, Parkland, Pittsburgh, and Charleston actually have become part of our national narrative. But what of the rest?

I took note the other day of the two-hundredth birthday of the most original of all American poets and Long Island’s greatest son, Walt Whitman. I’ve been a fan for a long time—the boy in my story “Under the Wheel” who walks around high school with a copy of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass in his knapsack was my adolescent self—and my admiration for the man has only grown over the years. I mention the anniversary of his birth on May 31, 1819, in Huntington, New York, however, not merely to take note of his bicentenary, but because he, of all people, suggests to me how to respond to the endless spate of gun murders in our nation.
If there was one thing Whitman stood for, and in every conceivable way, it was the sacrosanct autonomy of the individual.  Over and over in Leaves of Grass the poet returns to that specific idea, but also to the one he presents as its corollary: the paradoxical notion that the justification for democracy itself rests in the core concept that the individual possesses an inviolate right to live free of the constraints of others and the restraints of society…and that the perfect nation (in his unabashed conception, our own) is one in which citizens band together to promote a society that promotes the inalienable autonomy of the individual.

In other words, the core concept that permeates all of Whitman’s work is that, unlike in the world of insects where the swarm is the thing and the individual bugs that make it up are basically indistinguishable from each other even in their own eyes, in the world of human beings the individual is not merely the building block of society but an entire universe unto him or herself, one that has no more need of the permission of others to rotate on its own axis and at its own speed than the Milky Way needs the permission of other galaxies to travel endlessly through the cosmos on its own and in its own way.
My proposal is that we honor Whitman’s memory by rededicating ourselves to the notion that each man, woman, or child killed in an act of senseless gun violence is best to be taken not a mere individual, but as the nation itself, and that the incident that took that person’s life is thus correctly to be understood as an act of aggression not against that one man or woman but against the American people itself. That core concept—that the individual is the nation and the nation is each of its citizens—is Whitman’s personal gift to the question of how to respond to gun violence in America.

A young man of eighteen, Kendrick Ray Castillo, gave his life on May 7 in the STEM School Highlands Ranch shooting in Douglas County, Colorado, while trying to disarm one of the two shooters who had entered the school building. (Two others joined him in the effort, both of who survived.) Kendrick was lionized in the national press briefly, particularly since the Highlands Ranch shooting occurred just a week after the shooting at the University of North Carolina Charlotte campus in which a different young man, Riley Howell, also lost his life while selflessly and bravely trying to tackle the gunman and thus to give his classmates time to escape. Both men were heroes and deserve to be remembered as such, but as the days pass and the stories of these two particularly school shootings—just two among eight shootings in American schools this year so far and surely not the last—join non-school incidents (148 this year so far and counting) in becoming impossible for any of us to keep straight in our heads, we need to resolve to consider each loss separately and to feel personally aggressed against whenever an innocent life is taken by some angry person with a gun. E pluribus unum does not mean that when we come together as a people we abandon our identities as individuals, but just the opposite: that, as Whitman wrote over and over, the republic exists as a monument to the supreme value of the individual and so, from membership among the many comes the strength of the one to endure….and to flourish unimpeded by the violent machinations of others. The attacks that took the lives of 6,027 Americans (not a typo: click here) in acts of gun-related violence so far this year alone are attacks against the republic itself because each American individual is the nation. That was Whitman’s greatest lesson and it the one I suggest we all take to heart as we attempt not to file Virginia Beach away as just one more tragedy to take stock of and then to move on from.

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Die Kippa

As report after report confirms the rise of anti-Semitic incidents at home and abroad, the controversy surrounding the remarks of Felix Klein, Germany’s anti-Semitism commissioner seems worth considering carefully.

The whole brouhaha began innocently enough just a week ago when Klein told the Berliner Morgenpost, an important German newspaper, that he felt it unwise for Jews to wear kippot in the streets of Germany without first considering where they were and in whose company they might be finding themselves there. When I first read his remark, it didn’t seem that shocking to me. The German government recently reported a twenty percent rise in anti-Semitic incidents in just one year. I have heard anecdotal evidence from friends in Germany in this regard: not that they feel unsafe as Jews living in Germany, merely that it would be foolhardy to advertise one’s Jewishness in the street in at least some neighborhoods. Klein then went on, entirely reasonably, to insist that Germany do better in educating its public officials, and specifically police officers, to recognize anti-Semitic gestures and slogans and to react to anti-Jewish agitation forcefully and decisively. That all sounded entirely right to me!
The response was complicated. Rabbi Yehuda Teichtal, a Chabad rabbi stationed in Berlin, commented that, while he was sure that “Klein’s intentions were good,” he was also sure that “hiding our identity is never the solution.” That also sounded right to me too! Other Jewish spokespeople fell into step with Rabbi Teichtal, most speaking warmly about Felix Klein and admitting that he was certainly right technically, but feeling uncomfortable hearing a government minister appearing simply to accept the status quo as part of how things are and, at least for the foreseeable future, will be.

If anything, it was the response from the non-Jewish world that was surprising…and far less charitable. Joachim Herrmann, the Bavarian Minister of the Interior and a member of a right-wing Christian party, commented that “everyone can and should wear a kippah wherever and whenever he wants to.” And then he went on to warn specifically about the dangers of giving in “to the hatred of the Jews” and making it clear why this should be a matter of deep concern not just for Jews but for non-Jewish Germans as well. Now I’m really not sure what I think: he sounded right too!
But if the response from inside Germany was emotional and strongly put, the response from outside Germany was even more shrill. The President of Israel, Reuven Rivlin, pronounced himself “deeply shocked” by Klein’s remark. And then he went on to note without any trace of historical irony that “responsibility for the welfare, the freedom and the right to religious belief of every member of the German Jewish community is in the hands of the German government and its law enforcement agencies.” And then, speaking for his nation more than just for himself, the President went on to say this: “We acknowledge and appreciate the moral position of the German government, and its commitment to the Jewish community that lives there, but fears about the security of German Jews are a capitulation to anti-Semitism and an admittance that, again, Jews are not safe on German soil. We will never submit, will never lower our gaze and will never react to anti-Semitism with defeatism – and expect and demand our allies act in the same way.” So what can I say? He’s right too!

The national newspaper, Bild, one of Germany’s largest, went so far—is this beyond bizarre or truly touching?—they went so far as to publish a kippah in the newspaper that sympathetic citizens could cut out, paste together, and then presumably wear in the streets of Germany as a kind of public rejection of the kind of anti-Jewish sentiment that Klein was decrying in his interview with the Morgenpost.

The headline was unambiguous: “Show Your Solidarity with Your Jewish Neighbors! Make the Bild-Kippa.” The copy beneath the cut-out was what you’d expect, but was somehow still very moving: “If even one person here can’t safely wear a kippah, then the answer can only be that we’re all going to wear the kippah.” And then, for people unfamiliar with the concept, Bild offered even more explicit instructions: “Place the kippah on the back of your head and attach it to your hair with a hairclip. Done!” But it was the words of Bild editor-in-chief Julian Reichelt that stopped me in my tracks: “Die Kippa gehört zu Deutschland,” he wrote: The kippah belongs to Germany. It’s hard to know what to say to that!

This whole incident feels personal to me.
Joan and I lived in Germany before reunification, when Heidelberg was still in West Germany. But that’s not the only way Germany was a different place back then. The war was in the past, for example, but not that far in the past. I was present in Heidelberg on May 8, 1985, the fortieth anniversary of German’s unconditional surrender to the Allied Forces under the leadership of General Eisenhower, for example, and at several ceremonies I attended surrounding that anniversary I took note of the presence of actual Wehrmacht veterans, many of who were younger then than I am now. (I write about this now with a certain level of sang-froid. But it was beyond creepy to be there at the time, unsettling and wholly unnerving for me actually to see these people in the flesh.) I had students young enough then to be the children, not the grandchildren, of Nazis. One of my students’ own grandfathers had been a guard at Sobibor. The basic story of the Shoah was known to educated people, of course, but the details were so regularly brushed past for the 1979 broadcast of the American mini-series Holocaust, starring (among many others) Meryl Streep, James Woods, Joseph Bottoms, Michael Moriarty, and Tovah Feldshuh, to be able to capture the attention of an unprecedented number of viewers. Fifty percent of the entire population of Germany, 20 million people, watched the series. After each episode, a panel of historians appeared on screen to take questions from viewers, but no one expected there to be thousands of calls—or, more amazingly, for most of them to be from people who seemed to have previously known nothing about Treblinka or Babi Yar. The national catharsis surrounding that show, in fact, was sufficiently intense for people still to be talking about it five years later when I arrived in Heidelberg in 1984.

Germans have grappled with their own heritage for decades now. They seem to veer back and forth, sometimes embracing the horrific nature of their own nation’s war crimes and other times backing off from accepting what must for most be the almost unbearable burden of history. When Henryk M. Broder wrote in 1986 that the Germans will never forgive the Jews for Auschwitz, he was saying something profound about the amount of energy and steadfastness it takes for a nation to consider crimes on the scale of the Nazis’ war against the Jews without flinching or seeking the blame the victims. He made that comment in 1986, but the comment just last year of Alexander Gauland, co-leader of the extreme rightist party Alternative für Deutschland, that the Shoah was merely “a speck of bird poop on a trajectory of German history that has gone on for a thousand years,” he was essentially saying the same thing. Yes, he was speaking in a crass, vulgar way, but he was nonetheless giving voice to a deep wish of all Germans: that the nation of Kant, Goethe, Schiller, and Beethoven not solely be remembered for Sobibor. I imagine I’d feel the same way if I were in his boots! And yet…the bottom line is that having illustrious ancestors does not exonerate anybody of anything. And I have to assume that Alexander Gauland knows that as well.
Other nations that collaborated in the extermination of their Jewish neighbors have yet even to begin to come up to Germany’s level of self-analysis and acceptance. (And in that regard, I think not only of Eastern Europe and the Baltic states, but also of nations like France and Holland, whose perception of themselves as victim-states has almost entirely rid them of the need to confront their own wartime perfidy with respect to their Jewish co-citizens.) For one thing, other than Germany and our own country, how many nations even have federal officials tasked with addressing anti-Semitism? And also worth noting is that, in the end, Felix Klein did backtrack and announced that he had merely been speaking in a monitory voice intended to awaken people to a serious problem, not actually suggesting that Jewish people should be afraid to identify in public as Jews.

The German blogosphere is busy debating the question of whether the “real” problem with anti-Semitism in Germany today has more to do with the resurgence of the German version of the alt-right or the deeply engrained hatred of Israel that festers in parts of Germany’s Muslim community. There are reasons to see it both ways, but the bottom line has to be that the Germans are trying to do the right thing, both by their current Jewish citizens and also by the generations whose ongoing existence was brutally terminated by the parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents of today’s Germans. As Simon Wiesenthal taught over and over, only the dead can forgive their murderers. Surely the living cannot speak for them. But we who are alive today can note that, despite the dark forces that continue to gather force in the various lands of our dispersion, there are also decent people in the world for whom anti-Semitism is anathema. We should hold that thought close to our breasts as we do what we can to combat the forces of hatred that seem to exist in an eternal cycle of dormancy and revivification. Sometimes fighting the battle is winning the war.  

Thursday, May 23, 2019

A Great Loss

You all probably know the old joke according to which there are three stages of life: youth, middle age, and “you look fabulous.” Hardy-har-har! But now it turns out there’s a fourth stage, the one characterized (at least retroactively) by the response “he/she was still alive?” For many of us, the death at age 96 last week of Doris Day was in that last category: I think I thought she had died years ago. But now I have a new candidate for that fourth stage: Herman Wouk, who died last Friday at age 103. This is more than slightly embarrassing to me however, because it turns out Wouk’s last book, published just three years ago, was entitled, Sailor and Fiddler: Reflections of a 100-Year-Old Author. How can I have missed that? I was and am a great fan, and to this day I consider Wouk to be one of our least appreciated American authors, a true giant who apparently ran afoul of the literary establishment by publishing book after book that resonated deeply with the reading public and brought him the commercial success that those people find impossible to square with true literary talent. I couldn’t disagree more. Mind you, those people didn’t (and don’t) think much of John Steinbeck or James Michener either.
Far more accurate in my mind were those who, at a gathering held at the Library of Congress in Washington in 1995 to celebrate Wouk’s eightieth birthday, acclaimed Wouk as an American Tolstoy. And, indeed, Wouk—in this just like Tolstoy—filtered what he saw of the world through his own religious consciousness to produce pageant-like novels filled (like life itself) with countless characters, some centerstage and others present only briefly for a moment before disappearing into the wings, some crucial to the development of the plot and others depicted as merely standing next to more pivotal personalities. And the intrigues and adventures of those personalities—varying from profound to trivial and from inspiring to shameful (and yet somehow never crossing the line to tawdry, let alone to truly vulgar)—those stories became, for both Wouk and Tolstoy, the canvas on which to paint a picture of the world not merely as they saw it but, far more profoundly, as their insight allowed them to understand it. That, after all, is the novelist’s true calling: not merely to tell make-believe stories about make-believe people but to use the narrative medium to say something insightful and moving about the real-life world in which the author and his or her readers actually live.

Like most of my readers, I suppose, my first Wouk novel was The Caine Mutiny, for which the author won the Pulitzer Prize in 1951 and which was made into an Oscar-nominated film in 1954 starring Humphrey Bogart, Jose Ferrer, Van Johnson, and Fred MacMurray. I loved the book, found it far more engaging than the movie, and resolved to read more, which I did: I believe that I read every single one of Wouk’s novels in the course of my lifetime as a devoted fan of his writing. I’ll read Sailor and Fiddler this summer.
Marjorie Morningstar was the first of Wouk’s novels to be published during my lifetime. (I had to wait a bit to get to it, though, since I was only two years old when it came out.) I had to read it surreptitiously, though—according to the idiotic rules that pertained during my teenage years, Marjorie Morningstar was a “girls’ book,” so not one any boy would be caught dead reading…at least not in public—and I also saw the 1958 movie starring Natalie Wood. (Other books boys didn’t read included Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and, of course, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. Enough time having passed, I now feel able to admit to having read both. Don’t tell the guys!) It too affected me deeply, but more because of its Jewish content than its plot…and also because of the fact Herman Wouk was born in the year of my mother’s birth and Marjorie Morningstar, née Morgenstern, in the year of my father’s. Because of that, I think, the whole book felt like a kind of a window into my parents’ world, and particularly into the strange ambivalence they brought to their Jewishness that Wouk captured perfectly in the opening chapters of the book. In the end, Marjorie sees the error of her ways—although she is given a strong push in that direction by her own failure to succeed as a Broadway actress—and ends up abandoning her decision to abandon her Jewishness, marrying a nice Jewish fellow named Milton Schwartz, and settling into suburban Jewish life. The Jewish ending had no precise parallel in my parents’ lives (other than them getting married and living happily ever after), but the effect the book had on me was profound…and eventually I lived out its dénouement personally by adopting an observant lifestyle and embracing a version of Judaism my parents felt more than able to live without.

And then there were The Winds of War and its sequel, War and Remembrance, published in 1971 and 1978 respectively. I read both with the greatest enthusiasm, identifying particularly strongly with one specific character, Berel Jastrow, who is depicted as being in 1941 roughly the age I was when I was reading the book and who functions as the Jewish heart and soul of the story line in the second book. What was remarkable about the books, I thought then (and still do), is how Wouk depicts the Hitler’s war against the Jews as one of two simultaneous wars of aggression being waged by the Nazis: one against any nation deemed to be standing in the way of Germany’s expansionist goals and the other against the Jewish people. Both wars are depicted in detail in both books and, indeed, the story revolves around two families, the Henrys and the Jastrows, who respectively represent these two wars in Wouk’s narrative. I found Wouk’s ultimate point—that neither war is fully comprehensible without a clear understanding of the other—both validating and motivating. Decades later, when I read Ken Follett’s Winter of the World  (the second book in his “Century” trilogy), a book recounting the intertwined stories of five families during the years of the Second World War but in which the Shoah is almost never mentioned and is otherwise wholly absent from the narrative, I was struck by the degree to which Wouk’s worldview had become my own.
I think my favorite Wouk book is Inside, Outside, one of his least well-known works. Published in 1985, it tells the story of four generations of the same Jewish family from the vantage point of one Israel David Goodkind, who belongs to the third generation of the four. It’s an interesting book in a lot of different ways—filled with historical personalities like Richard Nixon (delicately left unnamed in the book but unmistakable), Golda Meir, Ira and George Gershwin, Marlene Dietrich, Bert Lahr, Ernest Hemingway, and others, what the book felt to me like it was really about was how a man who made every conceivable sacrifice to thrive in the highest echelons of American society, how even such a man in the end felt drawn back to his roots and ended up embracing a version of Judaism he had earlier on mostly rejected. That image of the Jewish individual sacrificing everything to succeed in the secular world and then returning, one way or the other, to his or her roots keeps coming back again and again in Wouk’s books. That isn’t my personal story, but it is the story of so many people I’ve known over the years that it is nonetheless very resonant with me. I suppose I should mention that I read Inside, Outside in our apartment on the Heinrichfuchsstrasse in Rohrbach, the little town outside Heidelberg that Joan and I lived in during the years I taught in Germany. So I read this book about American Jewry when I myself was both inside and outside—the ideal setting! I wonder if I’d find it as compelling today. I suppose could find out easily enough.

There’s a lot more to write about. I read Wouk’s “Israeli” novels, The Hope and The Glory when they came out in 1993 and 1994. They’re expansive, big books, the first covering the years from 1948 to 1967 and the second moving forward through the Yom Kippur War, Entebbe, and, finally, Anwar Sadat’s visit to Israel in 1977. Like The Winds of War and War and Remembrance, Wouk tells his story by intertwining the stories of fictional characters and historical personalities, and he does yeoman’s work in both volumes: even today if someone asks me what to read to “get” the whole Israeli story, I send them to those two books.
There are lots more books I could write about. I read Youngblood Hawke, Wouk’s fictional biography of a young American author not unlike Thomas Wolfe. I read Don’t Stop the Carnival, about a Jewish New Yorker who attempts to escape his own middle-age crisis by moving to a Caribbean island. And, of course, I read Wouk’s book about Judaism itself, This Is My God, in which the author talks about his own trajectory as a Jewish American but leaves for readers to see just how many pieces of how many of his novels were rooted in his own understanding of the nature of Jewishness and the ultimate meaning of Judaism.

There have been many great American Jewish authors, but few, if any, wrote about the Jewish part of their Jewish characters with more insight, with more sympathy for the spiritual dilemmas they encounter engaging with the secular world, and with more overt affection than Herman Wouk. Yehi zikhro varukh. May his memory a blessing for his readers and for us all.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Eurovision 2019

To say that the annual Eurovision Song Contest has not been a big part of my life is really almost to say nothing at all. Obviously I had heard of it before last year when Netta Barzilai won the contest for Israel with her slightly bizarre but extremely catchy hit song, “Toy”? (The bizarre part has to do with her mimicking a chicken in the course of the number. But she was a very engaging chicken and the voters loved it, and I did too! To take it all in, click here.) For one thing, I was still at JTS the year that Israel won for the first time with Izhar Cohen and the Alphabeta’s performance of Nurit Hirsch and Ehud Manor’s song “A-Ba-Ni-Bi” (click here) and remember loving the song and feeling very proud of Israel for winning. And I was only one year older when Israel then pulled off the remarkable feat of winning for a second consecutive year in 1979 with Kobi Oshrat and Shimrit Orr’s song, “Hallelujah,” performed by Gali Atari and the musical group Milk and Honey (click here). It then took almost twenty years for Israel to win again, taking the prize in 1998 with Dana International’s truly remarkable rendition of Tzvika Pick and Yoav Ginai’s song, “Diva.” (Click here and you’ll see what I mean.) And then, twenty years later still, Netta took the prize again last year.

The general principle is that the contest is held in the country of the previous year’s winner and there have only been a handful of exceptions, mostly connected with the winner’s country not wanting to shoulder the expenses involved in hosting the contest. (In 1980, when the contest should have been in Israel for the second year in a row, Israel declined to host the contest because its date fell on Yom Hazikaron and it seemed impossible to contemplate to hold a contest like Eurovision on a day of national mourning for the fallen servicemen and women of the IDF.) But that was then, and Netta’s win last year meant that this year’s contest would be held in Israel, which is exactly what has been going on this last week.
It’s been a wild time with missiles from Gaza aimed at civilian targets clearly meant to discourage people from coming to Israel to attend or participate in the contest. There have been endless efforts by anti-Israel groups of all sorts to condemn the participants for coming to Israel and adding their name to a contest that will surely bring Israel international prestige. And yet there are forty-one countries participating in Tel Aviv. The semi-finals were on Tuesday and Thursday; the finals featuring singers from Greece, Belarus, Serbia, Cyprus, Estonia, the Czech Republic, Australia, Iceland, San Marino, and Slovenia are this Saturday night. Will Israel’s Kobi Marimi manage to win the prize for Israel for a second consecutive year with his English-language song, “Home”? I suppose we’ll all find out soon enough, although he’s not favored to win or even to come close to winning. But who knows? The world is full of surprises! (You can decide for yourself what you think. Click here to hear Kobi Marimi sing “Home.”)

More impressive even than Netta’s chicken dance from last year is the fact that no contestants at all pulled out of the contest this year—and that despite the intense pressure that was exerted on some of them not to perform in Israel. The rockets—hundreds of them, some landing less than twenty miles from Tel Aviv—also failed to affect the party. Yes, it’s true that fewer tourists came to attend the contest than Israel had expected. But the bottom line has to be that the contest came to Israel, that it unfolded precisely according to plan, that no one was successfully bullied into backing out, and that Israel felt—for the course of almost a full week—like a regular country among the nations of the world, one that takes its place naturally among the nations who participate in international song competitions like Eurovision, like a contestant state among contestant states…and not as the recipient of such endless hostility from the very nations that should be Israel’s most staunch supporters and allies that we—we who keep track of these things and who truly care about Israel’s future—we barely even notice insults and aggressive statements of the kind that would ignite international storms of outrage if they were directed against any other country at all. 

But even though no one withdrew, there was still the lingering irritation regarding the decision specifically not to have Eurovision in Jerusalem despite the fact that the regular practice is always to hold the contest in the capital city of the previous year’s winner’s country. In the past, this hasn’t been an issue: the contest was held in Jerusalem both in 1979 and in 1999. You could say that nothing much has changed since 1999 with respect to Jerusalem: it was the capital of Israel then and it is the capital of Israel now. But that wouldn’t be taking into account the world-wide efforts of the BDS movement and its Israel-hating leadership to delegitimize Israel’s existence and, with particular venom, its natural right to establish its capital wherever it wishes, a right naturally and uncontroversially accorded every other country on earth. It is true that many Eurovision contests have not been held in capital cities—when Germany hosted the contest in 2011 contest, for example, it was held in Düsseldorf rather than Berlin—but these were not political decisions, just ones related to how much money the host city was willing to spend and other venue-related considerations. Only here does it feel certain that political considerations outweighed all others. Yes, it’s true that the European Broadcasting Union, which is the parent company that organizes the Eurovision contest, said publicly that their decision to hold the contest in Tel Aviv rather than Jerusalem was simply a function of Tel Aviv’s “creative and compelling bid.” But, at least as far as I can see, that has convinced basically no one at all. Nor is it at all clear that our own nation’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel was unrelated to the EBU’s decision and their eagerness not to be seen to be supportive of that move. So there’s that issue too in the mix of emotions I bring to Eurovision this year!

For me personally, the whole scene— this is the rabbi in me talking, not the music fan—the whole scene evokes a set of feelings unrelated to the world of pop music and unrelated, even, to Netta Barzilai. That longing to be one of the nations, after all, is as old as the Jewish people…as is the tension between that longing for normalcy and the sense that Israel—both it is sociological guise as the people Israel and its political one as the State of Israel—has a role to play in the history of the world that is uniquely its own, a role for which it was chosen from among the nations of the world to play in the pageant of human history that is different from the parallel roles assigned other nations and peoples.
Scripture uses the phrase am s’gulah mi-kol ha-amim (“the treasured nation from among all the nations”) three different times to reference the Israelite nation. How that somehow morphed into the much-maligned epithet, the “chosen people,” I’m not entirely sure…but it clearly happened a long time ago: the benedictory formula recited when someone is called to the Torah includes the Hebrew version of that expression and requires that the person coming forward acknowledge God as the one who “chose us from among the nations to grant us the revelation of the Torah.” There was a time when those words were considered entirely normal and not at all chauvinistic or arrogant. But even to me they feel just a bit iffy these days…and I am someone with the greatest respect for the liturgical heritage of the Jewish people.

I suppose I too long for normalcy. I want to see Israel treated like the other nations of the world. I want Israeli athletes to compete freely in whatever tournaments they qualify for, not only those that take place in countries that will grant them visas. I want Israeli professors to be welcome guests in the universities of the world, not to have to negotiate minefields of unwarranted hostility from their own colleagues in academe. I find it beyond problematic that Israel is forced by the United Nations to be part of the Western European Group (delicately renamed in their honor as the Western European and Others Group) rather than welcome to join the Asia Group, membership in which you would think would be naturally awarded to a country that is, after all, in Asia. I hate that Israel is singled out again and again by self-appointed critics who find it offensive for Israel to self-define as a Jewish state but who seem not to care at all about Iran or Pakistan self-defining as Islamic ones.
And so I find myself in a familiar bind, wanting specialness and normalcy, uniqueness and averageness. I want Israel to be seen as a regular nation, as a normal one, as just another member of the family of nations. But I also want to embrace the concept of Jewish destiny, a concept inextricably tied in my mind to the unique role in history that is Israel’s. I suppose we all feel that about ourselves at least to some extent, that we want to be thought of as unique, as special…but somehow also not to stand out unduly or to be perceived as other than regular people living regular lives. I’ve learned over the years how to live with a bit of ambiguity, how to accept that the tension that inheres in every set of incongruent desires does not need to be resolved, how to want two incongruous things and not feel obliged to abandon either merely because it feels impossible to have both. Sometimes—and I say this both on the macrolevel of national identity and on the microlevel of personal individuality—sometimes you just have to choose not to make a choice.

Thursday, May 2, 2019


At the end of the Yizkor Service last Saturday, I invited the congregation to join me in widening the scope of our prayerful focus as the cantor chanted the twenty-third psalm to include not just our co-religionists murdered while at prayer at the Har Nof synagogue in Jerusalem or in Pittsburgh, but also the members of other faiths who have been similarly killed in their own houses of worship. Foremost in my mind, obviously, were the dead in New Zealand and Sri Lanka. But I also had in mind those poor souls executed in Charleston in 2015 by an individual sufficiently depraved to have been capable of murdering people with whom he had just spent an hour—his victims’ last hour on earth—studying Scripture, as well as the twenty-six innocents murdered during Sunday prayers at the church in Sutherland Springs in Texas in 2017 and the six killed at the Sikh Temple in Oak Creek in Wisconsin in 2012. Little did I know that another such outrage would be perpetrated on the Pacific coast in California just a few hours after I was done addressing my own congregation as part of the same Yizkor service at which I was speaking. Or how personal it would feel to me—and neither because Poway is just an hour or so down the road from the town in California in which I used to live nor because Yom Hashoah just happened to be falling this week.

It’s hard to imagine a less likely place for an attack like that than Poway. It’s a quiet place, a suburban/rural community of fewer than 50,000 souls north of San Diego and south of Escondido off of Interstate 15. And although I’m sure many Californians—and certainly most Americans—couldn’t have said exactly where Poway was last Friday, it now joins Sutherland Springs or Oak Creek in our national roster of places people previously hadn’t heard of yet now speak about as though they’ve known where they were all their lives.
Nor was the storyline unfamiliar, at least as the police have pieced it together so far. A disaffected young man, in this case just a teenager, falls under the sway of white supremacist doctrine and concludes that his personal problems—and the problems of his fellow travelers—are being inflicted upon him and them by some identifiable group of others—in this case Jews, but the role also fillable, as we all know all too well, by black people, gay people, Hispanic people, Asian people, or any other recognizable minority. A manifesto—in this case really just a letter—detailing the specifics is composed and posted online or otherwise distributed to the media. And then the young man—almost never a woman although I’m not sure why exactly that is—gets his hands on the kind of gun that can kill a lot of people very quickly. The screed is posted. The die is cast. The killer gets into his car and drives to what he must realize could just as easily turn out to be the site of his own death as well as that of the people he is planning to make into his victims. And then he opens fire and kills none or one or some or many. (For a very interesting analysis posted on the Live Science website regarding the specific theories proposed to explain why so few women become mass killers, click here.)

The next part too feels almost scripted. The police issue a statement and open an investigation. The following day, the front page of America’s newspapers are filled with statements of outrage by public officials of various sorts. A day or a week later, there’s a follow-up piece about the victim’s funeral or the victims’ funerals. The nation shudders for a long moment, then moves on. Except for those who actually knew the victims, the matter dies down and eventually someone shoots up some other place and the cycle of outrage followed by getting over it begins anew. For most, the moving on part feels healthy. And it surely is so that the goal when someone we love or admire dies is precisely to move through the initial shock that almost inevitably comes upon us in the wake of unanticipated loss to a kind of resigned acceptance, and from there to true comfort rooted in a new reality. But can that concept rationally be applied to incidents like the murder of Lori Gilbert-Kaye in Poway last Shabbat?
What surprised me the most about the California shooting is how inevitable it all felt. Indeed, to a certain extent, it felt like we were watching yet another remake of a movie we’d all seen before. There were the expected presidential tweets lauding Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, whom the President has surely never met, as (of all things) “a great guy.” And there was the expected tongue-clucking by the leaders of Congress and by the chief executive officers of every conceivable Jewish and non-Jewish organization, all of them decrying the fact that this kind of violence directed against houses of worship is slowly—and not that slowly either—taking its place next to school shootings and nightclub shootings and military base shootings and concert-venue shootings and movie theater shootings as part of our American mosaic, and that there doesn’t seem to be anything at all to do about it. The traditional debate about repealing the Second Amendment then ensues. Would such a move prevent this kind of incident? I doubt it—but it’s hardly worth debating, given that the chances of the Second Amendment being repealed in any of our lifetimes are exactly zero.

Last November, after the shooting in Pittsburgh, I wrote about a science experiment I recall from my tenth-grade biology class, one in which our teacher demonstrated that you can actually boil a frog alive without restraining it in any way if you only heat the water slowly enough for the rising temperature to remain unnoticed by the poor frog until it becomes paralyzed and thus unable to hop out of its petri dish to safety. (To revisit those comments, click here.) Is that where we Jewish Americans are, then, in an open-but-slowly-warming petri dish? It hardly feels that way to me…but, of course, it doesn’t feel that way to the frog either. And yet the degree to which we have all become inured to anti-Semitic slurs, including in mainstream media, makes me wonder if we shouldn’t be channeling that poor amphibian’s last thoughts a little more diligently these days.
Just last week, the New York Times published in its international edition a cartoon that could have come straight out of any Nazi newspaper in the 1930s. The cartoon, by a Portuguese cartoonist named António Moreira Antunes, was picked up by a service that the Times uses as a source for political cartoons and apparently approved for publication by a single editor whom the Times has not identified by name. Its publication too triggered a storm of outrage from all the familiar sources, but the response the whole sorry incident provoked in me personally was captured the most eloquently by Bret Stephens, himself an opinion columnist for the Times, who wrote that the cartoon—which features a Jewish dog with Benjamin Netanyahu’s face and wearing a big Star of David necklace leading a blind and obese Donald Trump whose ridiculous black kippah only underscores the extent to which he has become the unwitting slave of his wily Jewish dog-master—came to him (and to most, and surely to me personally) as “a shock but not a surprise.” To read Stephen’s piece, in which he goes on to describe in detail and to deplore his own newspaper’s “routine demonization of Netanyahu,” its “torrential criticism of Israel,” its “mainstreaming of anti-Zionism,” and its “longstanding Jewish problem, dating back to World War II,” click here. You won’t enjoy reading what he has to say. But you should read it anyway.

I’m guilty of unwarranted complacency myself, more than aware that I barely even notice untruths published online or in print about Jews or about Israel. After the Israeli election, for example, I lost track of how many opinion pieces I noticed interpreting the Netanyahu victory as a kind of death knell for the two-state solution. (One example would be the headline of the Daily, the daily New York Times podcast, for April 11: “Netanyahu Won. The Two-State Solution Lost.”) The clear implication is that the Palestinians will only have an independent state in the Middle East when Israel finally decides they can have one. But is that even remotely true? Palestine has been “recognized” by 136 out of the United Nations’ 193 member states. If the Palestinian leadership were to declare their independence today and invite the neighbors in (and not solely the Israelis, but the Jordanians and the Egyptians as well) to settle border issues, and then get down to the business of nation building, who could or would stand in their way? But the Palestinians have specifically not moved in that direction…and surely not because the Israelis haven’t permitted it. That much seems obvious to me, but how many times have I just let it go after seeing that specific notion promulgated as an obvious truth? Too many! Just as I haven’t always responded when I see other ridiculous claims intended solely to degrade Jews or Judaism or to deny historical reality. (When the Times published a piece by one of its own reporters, Eric V. Copage, a few weeks ago in which the author denied that Jesus of Nazareth had been a Jew and suggested instead that he must have been a Palestinian, presumably a Palestinian Arab, I didn’t run to my computer to point out that  there were no Palestinian Arabs in the first century C.E. since the Arab invasion of Palestine only took place six centuries after Jesus lived and died, granting myself the luxury of leaving that work to others. Many did speak up and a week later the Times published a “revised” version of the piece that omitted the offensive reference. But my point is that I personally should have spoken out and now feel embarrassed by my own silence.)
It’s true that the Times published a long self-excoriating editorial about the cartoon episode just this week in which it acknowledged its own responsibility for fomenting anti-Semitism among its readers. (Click here to read it.) That was satisfying to read, but it should remind us that the only useful way to respond to Poway is to resolve to speak out more loudly and more clearly when we see calumnies, lies, or libelous untruths in print about Israel or about the Jewish people…and not to just assume that other people will do the heavy lifting while we remain silent.