Author of "Embracing Auschwitz" and "Mensch•Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi - Wisdom for Untethered Times." Winner of the Rockower Award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism and 2019 Religion News Association Award for Excellence in Commentary. Musings of a rabbi, journalist, father, husband, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and self-proclaimed mensch, taken from essays, columns, sermons and thin air. Writes regularly in the New York Jewish Week and Times of Israel.
Thursday, February 17, 2022
In This Moment: Feb. 18: George Washington Schlepped Here; Should We Ignore the Gazpacho Gaffe? Jewish Humor and the Golden Calf; Civil Marriage in Israel?
Click above to see last week's moving, musical Black History Month Shabbat
Join us Friday evening, in person and online, for Shabbat services. it's always a pleasure to be joined by Leo Mahler. On Shabbat morning (Zoom only), we'll read the dramatic portion Ki Tissa, featuring the episode of the Golden Calf. I'll be looking at the calf from different perspectives. You can preview the discussion by reading this backgrounder, then this article from The Torah.com on the story as a satire; then you can look at some sources and discussion sheets, and, if you have an extra few minutes, this article, focusing on erotic dancing that took place before that golden bovine beauty (I KNEW I could get your attention). As we continue to see positive trends in Covid rates, we are looking to expand our hybrid service capacities over the coming weeks. Stay tuned! Meanwhile, stay safe, and enjoy a restful holiday weekend.
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman
Bronze Statue of a bull discovered at the 12th century B.C.E. cultic site
In the mood for some cold soup on a balmy winter's day? See this enlightening column by Andrew Silo-Carroll: Holocaust Comparisons Are No Laughing Matter (Jewish Week). He writes, "Marjorie Taylor Greene might have learned the difference between “gazpacho” and “Gestapo,” but does anyone seriously think she is done calling Nancy Pelosi a Nazi?"
So the question of the day is how should we respond to this gaffe. Ignore it and hope such inane Holocaust comparisons go away? Or mock the gaffe ceaselessly? As troubling (and, let's face it, funny) as Greene's comments were, they brought back memories one of the all-time great political speeches, delivered at the 1968 Democratic convention by one of Connecticut's three all-time great Jewish senators, Abe Ribicoff, who he stared down Mayor Daley while bemoaning "Gazpacho tactics in the streets of Chicago."
And if you are looking for some funny gazpacho memes, the internet, predictably, has a million of 'em. And that, my friends, is a very Jewish thing to do - Mel Brooks was not the first Jew to mock evil with sharp, splicing humor. As I'll discuss this Shabbat, the Golden Calf might have been the world's first parody meme on idolatry. Within the narrative in Exodus itself, and elsewhere in the Bible, the baby bull is mocked. This is our God? This little calf? Ha! And if you are looking for parodies of evil, the Book of Esther is a brilliant satire if there ever was one, and the most meme-able book in the Bible.
In a timely article about Jewish humor in this weekend's New York Times (timely for many reasons, including this week's return of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, and also because it is the merry month of Adar - though in true NYT fashion, neither Adar nor Purim are mentioned), critic Jason Zinoman writes this about Jews and humor:
Some artists argue that making light of prejudice, or turning purveyors of it into absurdities, robs hatred of power. I’ve been persuaded by that idea, and like many secular types, a Jewish sense of humor is more integral to my identity than any religious observance. It’s also a source of pride. A resilient comic sensibility that finds joy in dark places is one of the greatest Jewish legacies — as is an ability to laugh at ourselves.
This is wise guidance in helping us to respond to the gazpacho gaffe. On the one hand, we all are prone to typos or verbal gaffes. Hey, I once gave a Star Wars themed sermon (not here) about Luke Skyrocket. I literally kicked myself after that one. I tried to walker it back. Couldn't. My typos and autocorrects are legendary.
But I must admit, Zinoman writes of one that he made that surpasses anything I've done. When he worked at the Forward and was transcribing a letter, the letter said. “We knew exactly why Micah told us first to do justice, then to love mercy.” In a "catastrophic mistake," as he puts it, he transcribed it as: “first to do justice, then to love money.” Yes, that's pretty bad - especially since it was 1999 and he couldn't blame autocorrect. He looks back now and realizes that it was also funny. I'm laughing as I write this.
But Marjory Taylor Greene said "gazpacho" but MEANT to say "gestapo." It was no simple gaffe, and this from a woman who recently had to be brought to the Holocaust Museum, after a series of offensive Holocaust references, like a kid being made to write on the blackboard after school. She claimed to have learned a lot. Well, as we can see, that did a lot of good.
I've long said that there are appropriate places and ways to interject historical lessons, including and especially the Holocaust, into current conversations. in an essay for Slate, Yale historian Timothy Snyder explained how and when Holocaust analogies are not only appropriate, they are necessary.
To forbid analogies makes the Holocaust irrelevant to future generations. If an American child can identify with Anne Frank, an American child might ask what it is like for immigrant children to be separated from their parents. To forbid analogies is to forbid learning, and to forbid empathizing . . . The point of historical comparisons is not to seek a perfect match — which can never be found — but to learn how to look out for warning signs.
Even Michael Godwin, the originator of Godwin’s Law (which states that the longer you get into a debate online, the more likely someone will bring up Hitler or Nazis) tweeted after Charlottesville that his law had met its match. “By all means, compare these (expletive)-heads to the Nazis,” he wrote. “Again and again. I’m with you.”
Jews especially should feel empowered to bring up the H-word. We were there. We are witnesses. We need to absorb and inculcate the lessons. We shouldn't abuse the privilege, but sometimes humor is the best way to get a point across.
And therefore, we also need to mock the heck out of those who put their ignorance out there for all to see. Recent surveys (see the most recent one below) have indicated that for American Jews, humor continues to be more essential to their Jewishness even than Jewish law. But remembering the Holocaust continues to lead the way. That is our essential mitzvah, our mission.
So we can feel comfortable combining the two, and in mocking those who make a mockery of themselves, gratuitously goose stepping on our sensibilities. As Luke Skyrocket - or maybe it was Mordechai - would say, "May the forks be with you."
Inspirica is looking for volunteers to provide and prepare a meal to be dropped off at their site. Unfortunately, staying to serve is not offered at this time. Use our Meal Calendar to check for an available slot, and sign up to serve! The meal drop-off would be between 5:00 to 6:00 p.m. at 141 Franklin Street, with meals to serve twenty people.
Civil Marriage may be on the table in Israel. But at a cost. Read about an intriguing potential deal, which would involve a major change to the Law of Return. I would hate to tighten restrictions on aliyah, but I would take this offer in a second. The chance to have marriage freedom in Israel is just too precious to let pass. What that would do for LGBTQ rights, religious pluralism and the loosening of the rabbinate's monopoly on personal status, would be priceless. It would be a game changer for the majority of Israelis who have felt trapped by repressive restrictions on marriage, as well as conversion, funeral practices and access to pluralistic communal prayer at the Western Wall.
The deal would involve no longer considering someone automatically eligible for aliyah if they have just one Jewish grandparent. A prospective non-Jewish immigrant would need to have one Jewish parent to qualify in the "Law of Return." It's interesting that at least we are talking about either parent being Jewish, which would include those who are Jewish only on their father's side (patrilineal descent).
The Law of Return, first passed in 1950, allowing all Jews automatic citizenship in Israel, expanded the traditional halachic definition of a Jew to include as anyone with a single Jewish grandparent. At that time, the embers of Auschwitz were still fresh. The Law of Returnwas designed to mirror the Nuremberg Laws, which used that criteria to determine who would be considered Jewish and thereby marked for extinction.
But now, current Israeli religious authorities don't want to "dilute" the Jewish character of the state by allowing lots of non-Jews with just a single Jewish grandparent into the state. I find that strategy to be shortsighted and counterproductive; I've seen many such individuals find their way back to Judaism. We should welcome with open arms anyone who wants to identify with the Jewish people. But really, there aren't a lot of people fitting that definition clamoring to move to Israel these days.
But many Jews living in Israel want to get married and can't because of the oppressive restrictions imposed by the rabbinate. Some end up going to Cyprus or opting for common law marriages, and others for no marriage at all. It's time for true marriage equality to come to Israel.
So yes, I'd take the deal in a second.
But, given the way these things get floated and quashed, it is probably already off the table.