Tag Archives: judaism

The Israeli Spring

The former chess grandmaster Gary Kasparov explained this week why he won’t run for president in Russia.  “In chess you have fixed rules and unpredictable results,” he said. “In Russian politics it’s the opposite.”  The Israeli/Palestinian conflict, which may now be the whirling toward a full-on regional war, is the opposite as well.  The rules are changing daily, but the outcome seems drearily predictable.  And, I think I might know why.

There’s nothing new to say about the latest crisis or what led up to it.  Since the failure of the 2005 Gaza withdrawal and the disaster of the 2006 Lebanese war, and with the growing risk that Iran will build a nuclear bomb, Israel has become governed more and more by its right-wing and religious groups, and has become more heedlessly aggressive toward its neighbors.  Since the election of Hamas in 2006 and the rise of Islamist governments in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and elsewhere, the Palestinians have been emboldened.  War may have not been inevitable, but it sure isn’t a surprise.

Neither is there anything convincing to say about who is at fault in the latest kerfuffle.  Israel might reasonably argue that it is shelling Gaza only to destroy the mechanisms by which Gazans are lofting rockets over the border; but that argument doesn’t explain the hundreds of  bombs being dropped on Gaza, wiping out entire families to eliminate one Hamas commander.  Hamas may claim that bombs are its only currency in fighting Israeli oppression; but that’s a difficult rationale, and ignores the extent to which bombs are a cause of that oppression rather than the solution to it.

I do have my own perspective, though, on the nature of this conflict.

My perspective comes from my being a secular American Jew.  “Secular Jew” is the sort of oxymoron that should mean nothing at all.  After all, what is a “non-religious Christian”?  Oddly, however, it means something very specific:  It means a person who was born Jewish, who does not go to synagogue or practice the faith, but who feels a kinship and loyalty to the Jewish community worldwide.  We love Sholem Aleichem stories.  We cry at Fiddler On the Roof.  We eat deli.  We feel a guilty pleasure when crackpots talk about Jews being in charge of international finance and world media.  In other words, when religion is removed from Judaism, what remains is a familiar sort of ethnic tribe.  (Heck, we are THE “Tribe”).  And, it is this same tribalism that is at play in Gaza today.

As with many secular American Jews (and Christians for that matter), virtually all of my religious training took place when I was in grade school.  Jewish history, as taught to young Jews, is painted in broad caricature:   We Children of Abraham are a big-hearted, downtrodden people.  God promised us the land between Egypt and the Euphrates.  We were forced out of that Promised Land, and since that time we have been inexplicably persecuted by monstrously evil bad guys.  Our lessons were a roundelay of Hellenization,  Blood Libels,  Crusades, and of course The Holocaust.

So, when it came to contemporary Middle Eastern politics, my Hebrew School lessons were very simple.  We are entitled to the Land of Israel, and we have defended it valiantly against our rabidly Jew-hating neighbors (at that time, mostly Egypt, Jordan and Syria).  We are the good guys, and we always win, no matter the odds, because God is on our side.  Pass the challah.

My feelings about Israel remained chiaroscuro for decades.  As with many  American Jews, although I identified with the sufferings of the oppressed, this did not extend to the Palestinians, whom I considered to be vacant-eyed mobs of violent fanatics, ganged up against the good-hearted Israelis.  In my mind, the Middle East was like a Phillip Roth novel.

Then, in 2005, I visited Israel.

It was August 15, 2005; the day that 250,000 Israelis stormed the streets of Jerusalem to protest Ariel Sharon’s plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip.

I watched the protest from a street cafe in the Old City.

It was in Israel that I realized two critical things.  First, the Arabs were not vacant-eyed mobs of violent fanatics, nor were they good-hearted victims.  Second, neither were the Israelis.

As I wandered through Israel in 2005, I was astounded at the way Arabs are treated there.  Unlike the wide boulevards and charming shops in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, the Arab communities like East Jerusalem and Bethlehem are dirty, crowded, and poor.  Although a large percentage of Arabs are Israeli citizens, they are treated as second-class citizens at best.   In the few places where Jews and Arabs coexist, for example in the Old City of Jerusalem, the anger and hostility between Jews and Arabs is palpable.   Like blacks in the Jim Crow south, Arabs are pushed into the poor quarters of the country, harassed by always-present police, and held in constant suspicion.

I was also surprised at the Israelis I met.  They were nothing like American Jews.  They were hard-edged and aggressive to one another, though very protective and gentle toward their own families.  It seemed to be a “me-first” culture.  The shopkeepers were ruthless bargainers.  Jews made no secret of hating and fearing Arabs.

In other words, and despite my Hebrew School notions, what I saw in Israel were two Semitic tribes, playing out a tribal battle of class and territory.  The Israelis and Palestinians were so alike in their fierce tribal identities, in their hard bargaining, in their sly way of arguing, that they could just as easily have been cousins.   Their conflict was not the good-hearted Jews against the fanatic Muslims, nor vice versa.  It was a blood-sport turf war between haves and have-nots, not much different from similar wars in Northern Ireland or Sudan or Kosovo.  Like those conflicts, the Israeli/Palestinian turf war is clothed as religious strife.  It isn’t.  It is yet another Stone-age tribal feud, made even more so because Israelis and Palestinians are almost identically hot-blooded, vengeful, and wily tribes.

When I look at the Middle East this way, I can’t be optimistic about peace.  Like Saddam Hussein, who brought about his own demise rather than admit to his neighbors that Iraq no longer had weapons of mass destruction (or, even more characteristically, like the Iraqi Information Minister who denied that Americans had entered Baghdad), the Israelis and Palestinians do not seem likely to negotiate honestly, put aside old hatreds, or consider their own futures in the way that we Americans expect.  The moves in this chess game may change, but the outcome – stalemate – seems fixed.

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Work, Family, Love, Sex and Surrender: The Five Lessons That Changed My Life; Lesson 2

I was born in 1957, in the Eisenhower age of contented suburban families and pots full of chickens; but it was not until I was in my forties that I discovered the value of family.  Because I had to learn in middle age what most people are able to intuit starting in their earliest childhood, and because I had to stumble my way through most of my life without that knowledge, I think my angle on the value of family is worth exploring.

The streetcorner sociologists say that we Jews, like all Mediterranean societies, hold our families close.  I think immediately of the opening scene of Woody Allen’s “Radio Days,” where the members of an extended Jewish family crowd around a dinner table and argue whether the Atlantic or the Pacific is the greater ocean.  Every bell curve, though, has its tails; and our family was certainly one of the most non-prehensile of those.  Put simply, our Jewish family were so politely distant from one another that we may as well have been from another tribe altogether.

First, there were very few of us.  My father’s family had nothing more to do with us once my parents were divorced; I never knew them.  My mother’s family had only nine members: my grandmother, her two daughters, and each daughter’s two-child nuclear family. If those nine of us had any aunts, uncles, nieces, or fourth cousins once removed, I never knew any of them, and they certainly were never part of our lives.  Neither did we have any of the sorts of close family friends who drop by of a Sunday morning with a cheese strudel and some mischievous stories to tell.

Second, we behaved (and still behave) like vaguely friendly acquaintances. Other than at holiday gatherings, the only time I remember spending any time with my aunt’s family was the one out-of-the-blue occasion when my uncle took my brother and me to see the Harlem Globetrotters play at Madison Square Garden. I’ll never know what inspired this outing, but the inspiration to spend time with us, to go with us to a movie or to offer to throw a ball around, never struck again. My two cousins, then and now, forged their own very separate lives. They have never demonstrated any desire to be close to me or, indeed, to one another.  In what may very well be a common modern suburban development, we lived our parallel but separate lives and rarely thought of one another.

The notion of a “nuclear” family brings to mind the old foam-balls-and-toothpicks model of the atom, with the nucleus (parents) in the center and the electron (Buffy) and proton (Little Billy) in close orbit.  Of course, the actual distances within an atom are not close:  the distance between an atom’s nucleus and (what we used to think of as) its orbiting particles is in roughly the same ratio as the Sun is to Pluto, multiplied by about 140.  In that sense, my family is indeed “nuclear.”  Even after we four cousins all were done with college and were back in the same area, we family members rarely saw each other, almost never called each other, and by and large left birthdays and holidays uncommemorated.

This is not a commentary on our own separate families.  I came to parenting, at barely age twenty, with no experience of being parented or of being a part of an intact household.  Nevertheless, my children and I wove a family on our own terms, picking our way along that path as we went.  In that sense, I certainly experienced the rich value of being part of a family, as I’m sure my aunt and uncle, brother and cousins, did as well in their separate households.  But, that inevitable bond of parents and children who share one roof is not the “family” that I’m talking about here.

The “family” that I’m talking about here – the loving community of relatives and friends – was unknown to me until years after my own nest was empty.  I discovered it in a country farmhouse in the Brandywine Valley area of Pennsylvania, nigh to Christmas, about a dozen years ago.  I was invited there with the Dublin-born woman I was dating, to spend a snowy holiday dinner with her Irish-born relatives.

My entry into this Irish family was not easy.  My girlfriend was reluctant to tell her Catholic parents back in Dublin that she was dating a Jew.  When, finally, she confessed to her Dad, there was a long silence, followed by the Yoda-like pronouncement, “A Jew, is he?  Fierce intelligent race, they are.”

Just so, when I arrived at this Christmas-season dinner, I saw how very different my tribe was from theirs.  Gathered around a fireplace (!!) groaning with decorations and stockings were a dozen chattering relatives, each teasing the other mercilessly about some silly foible, and each giving back in kind.  Presents were exchanged, one more thoughtful and truly welcomed than the next.  They bantered with delight, the way old friends do when they truly cherish each other’s company.  Well, you get the picture; cue Norman O’Rockwell.

I was in my early 40’s then, and I had never in my life witnessed such a thing.  It was transformative.   For the first time in my life, I wanted that same family connection, that same warm community of others.

I wish that I could say that I was able to carry this life lesson into my own family.  I did try.  I gathered the dates of my relatives’ birthdays and anniversaries, startled to find that no one in the family had such a list.  Although I began to send cards and gifts to family members for birthdays and holidays, no one ever reciprocated (though my aunt continued her kind lifelong practice of sending me a birthday card).  I began to host elaborate family dinners.  These, however, were often tense (at one, I asked for some help to move furniture after the dinner, and my relatives stormed out in anger, demanding an apology afterward); and, once I married Barbara, for some reason we stopped being invited to family dinners (though we continue to invite the whole mischpucha to family gatherings at our house).  As for this generation (me, my brother, my cousins and their families), the long careless telephone droughts can last for months.

Nevertheless, the lesson of that Christmas dinner (and the many big-hearted lessons of family and community that Barbara delivers effortlessly) have changed my life.  No longer the autocrat of my own island, I now am happily surrounded by friends and deeply involved in my own and Barbara’s extended families, as well as the enormous community that I’ve created among the thousands of regular patrons and the dozen volunteer staffers at my concert series.

Tolstoy (whose family life at Yasnaya Polyana was certainly no model) of course said that happy families are all alike; and this lesson shows that is true.  Happy families seem to live for one another’s company, and for the joy of delighting one another, comforting one another, and huddling together in a loving conspiracy of family.  I continue to aspire to live that lesson, for yea as we learn from The Godfather:  ” A man who does not spend time with his family can never be a real man.”

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My Very Own Jew! (continued)

So, if I were to have a heart to heart with my very own Jew, Yisroel, it would go something like this.

Yisroel, my Reb Yid, I am a secular American Jew.  That is, I have a warm kinship for other Jews, but I do not practice the faith, and the religion itself remains a mystery to me.  Although I was a Bar Mitzvah, when I was called back to temple a year later, I told the rabbi that I had become a Buddhist.  I did not marry into the faith.  I eat cheeseburgers.

It seems I’m not alone.  According to the National Jewish Population Study (for which the last data are from 2000-2001), ten years ago Jews represented less than two percent of the American population.  Of those, more than half married outside the faith.  And, of those, only 20 to 30 percent raised their children as Jewish.

This is puzzling.  The Jews that I know all feel a strong connection to Judaism, at least as an ethnic group.  Jews are a vibrant and successful part of our country’s culture and economy.  (Outdoors life and sports, not so much).  So, why do we treat the religion so indifferently?

Here’s what I think.

There is not a lot of what the Internet marketers would call “stickiness” to the Jewish religion. Among other reasons (and putting aside monotheistic ethics and the community of Jews), the core of the religion seems to be obedience and tribalism, neither of which is attractive to many modern Jews.

As for obedience, a “righteous Jew” is one who obeys the mitzvot (commandments), of which there are 613 (though most of them do not apply to modern American Jews).  Unlike the commandments of most other religions, the reasons for these mitzvot do not seem immediately logical or emotionally powerful:  From the most well-known (the kosher laws, which despite later rationalizations, did not derive from ancient health codes) to the most obscure (mitzvah #491, you must break the neck of a calf by the river if there is an unsolved murder), many of the commandments seem arbitrary and illogical.  Even more confounding, the mitzvot have been analyzed to death for two millenia by yeshiva bochers and rabbis, who have created a massive oral tradition of even more prolix and granular sub-rules (one example being, you can create an “eruv” area that is exempt from certain commandments by running a wire from trees and telephone poles).

Thus, the day-to-day practice of Judaism is one of obeying a host of laws, which often are divorced from any obvious logic or emotional power.  My guess is that this religion of obedience does not sit well with modern Jews, who come from a culture of independence and skepticism.

As for tribalism, let’s face it:  Our religion is a tribal religion that was born from tribal conflicts.  Philistines, Babylonians, Romans, Egyptians – we fought ‘em all. King Josiah assembled the Torah in about 600 B.C.E. as a political screed, which presented the history of the Jews as the history of the Kingdom of Judah (and its historic king, David) rather than the Kingdom of Israel.

Whether because of this tribal heritage or because Jews have often been under attack for the two millenia since, Judaism is now an us-vs-them religion.  Orthodox Jews are exceedingly insular…don’t try to buy a Hamentaschen in a Crown Heights bakery if you’re not wearing payes.  Jewish philanthropists focus their largesse on helping the Jews.  Jewish mothers pray for their kinder to marry other Jews.  My guess here is that this “is it good for the Jews?” tribalism also is not particularly appealing to modern, assimilation-minded, liberal-thinking American Jews.

Obviously a secular Jew is still a Jew.  For example, Albert Einstein was not an observant Jew, but he referred to his “Jewish soul” and believed in a non-personal God-force present throughout nature.  As to the more orthodox part of Judaism, he made clear that he had “no use for the religion of fear and equally little for social or moral religion.”  If Judaism is to survive, maybe it needs to survive more as a set of values, an instinctive feeling of Jewish soul (nefesh), and a supportive community, and less as a set of commandments and an insular tribe.

So, Yisroel, I won’t be putting on the tefillin.  But, you’ve made me think. For that, I thank you.

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My Very Own Jew!

The line is from the musical Company; Amy, who’s Catholic, recalls that when she first met Paul, she imagined falling in love with him and having “my very own Jew!” (Though, in the bang-up 2008 revival, doesn’t Paul (Robert Cunningham) look as Mormon as Mitt Romney, while Amy [Heather Laws] could be your quirky cousin Sophie?)

Anyway, it turns out that I also have my very own Jew.  His name is Yisroel, and he’s from Australia.  Our courtship, however, has been a bit fraught.

Yisroel is a Lubavitch orthodox Jew.  He spends his Fridays (pre-sundown, natch) roaming through our office building, asking in each office whether any Jews work there.  Because I travel so often, I missed him for several weeks.  However, a few weeks ago (at least, in the version of the story I prefer), when I was away, Yisroel cornered my office-mate Jeff Weinstein and asked him whether, by any chance, Weinstein might be a Jew.  His response? “Not me!  Now, Sheldon over there.  HE’S a Jew!”

Yisroel, ever the patient swain, then arrived every Friday afternoon and asked to see me.  Every Friday afternoon, he was turned away.  Perhaps, he saw us as the Law Office of Laban, and gritted his payess for seven years of courtship.

I, meanwhile, heard about Yisroel’s visits, and wondered what I would say to him once we met.  I knew that the Lubavitch are committed to bringing secular Jews like me into orthodox Jewish practice – but how? I assumed he would come well-prepared with some probing questions and polemic points.  Of course, I could have told him just to go away; but talking to him promised to be more interesting than writing another coverage opinion for AIG.

Finally, I was in the office when Yisroel visited.  He turned out to be a young rabbinical student, as meek and pliant as the Barbra Streisand character in Yentl.

He made some polite small talk, told me he is studying at the rabbinic school in Morristown, and asked me if I happened to want to put on some tefiliin.  Well, no.  I guess even orthodox boys want to get right to third base….no candy, no flowers.  Then, after ten minutes, he was gone, leaving me with his weekly copy of Rabbi Schneerson’s newsletter.

I haven’t seen Yisroel since.  However, he got me thinking about Judaism and about the Lubavitch and Satmar sects in our area.  More in a separate post….



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