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.
Wednesday, December 28, 2022
In This Moment: Some 2023 Predictions from the Jewish Magic 8-Ball; George Santos and Jew-ish-ness; Stamp of Approval; Israel's New Government
In This Moment
TBE Lights the 8th Candle Together
Shabbat Shalom and Happy 2023!
Join us on Zoom-only this weekend (see our weekly announcements for the link), as we welcome in Shabbat, the portion of Vayiggash AND 2023. (See the Jewish way to make New Year's resolutions). I'm a big fan of end-of-year lists; let's take a look at some:
Now it's time for some 2023 prognostications, with the help of the Jewish Magic 8-Ball! Ready to go, O Magic One?
1) Will the miraculous resistance against Putin's invasion of Ukraine, led by Ukraine's Maccabee-like Jewish president Zelensky, bring about a dramatic victory for Ukraine and the free world in 2023?
It's hard to imagine Putin backing down, but it is impossible to imagine the Ukrainians backing down. The ball's hope (and mine) is that there is breakthrough sometime before the summer, with Ukrainians closing in on Crimea and Russian troops abandoning their positions. That scenario is hardly as far-fetched as the fact that the Kyiv wasn't taken in the first week.
2) Will the upsurge in antisemitism in the US and throughout the world continue unabated - including attacks on synagogues, public spaces, and on Jews on college campuses?
It's hard to imagine things getting better right away, given the unabated increase of the two things most needed to fuel violent hate crimes: an epidemic of social media incitement and easy access to weapons. Until we address the craziness of each of these head-on, we will need to be increasingly vigilant.
3) The world Jewish population rose to 15.3 million, and immigration to Israel rose to 70,000, primarily because of Russian and Ukrainian refugees. Will Israel continue to be a refuge for those with a Jewish background?
4) OK, how about a less stressful one. Will Steven Spielberg's auto-biopic The Fabelmans win the Oscar for best picture this year?
In a year with such a focus on antisemitism and in particular the canard of "the Jews owning Hollywood," this film demonstrates the pain and hard work that it took for one of the greatest filmmakers of all time to get his foot in the door. Spielberg's alter ego comes of age while surmounting the trials of midcentury Jewish life, from the outsider's anguish of having the only house on the block without Christmas lights to the real pain of being bloodied and bullied in high school - and a girlfriend who even tried to convert him. This film brings out the ambivalence of the American Jewish experience in a manner worthy of Roth, Bellow and Malamud. Ironically there is another similar film that could be nominated too: Armageddon Time (just exchange California in the '60s for Queens in the '80s). Each of these films should find their way into a growing canon of Jewish American films, that is, films about being Jewish in America.
5) A year from now, what will we be saying about Covid?
The Jewish 8-Ball says it all. My grandmother used to say "Feh" when something was inedible and needed to be removed from the table or directly from my mouth. People are saying "Feh" right now, not to the disease itself but to discussing the disease. The conversation is what's being exiled from our mouths. And when we talk about Covid at all, we've gone from "Feh" to "Meh."
But when I ask the 8-Ball to sum things up with a general reply as to what the world will look like a year from now, the response bypasses "Feh" and "Meh" and goes directly to "Nah."
6) OK, final question. Magic 8-Ball, can you give me some good news?
I invented the term - and he's most definitely not!
Among the many false claims made by George Santos in his recent run for Congress was the assertion thathe has Jewish roots, that his grandparents' lineage made him "Jew-ish." Even when it was shown that his grandparents were Catholics born in Brazil, not Jews who fled the Nazis in Europe as he had claimed, he and his defenders still clung to the Jew-ish idea.
This might all seem funny, a classic "gotcha" moment in politics, but for Jews it's deadly serious, for several reasons.
First, he is playing us for fools by assuming that Jews are so superficial about their voting choices, that all that we care about is whether the candidate is Jewish. If tribe were all that mattered, Jews would be clamoring for a presidential ticket of Bernie Sanders and Stephen Miller. While some Jewish voters might be flattered that someone wants to be so associated with the Jewish people, it's supremely insulting to our intelligence to believe that such lies wouldn't eventually be found out.
Second, while many politicians have embellished resumes before, no member of Congress, to my knowledge, has falsely added "Holocaust survivor" to the family curriculum vitae. By doing that, Santos is committing an act of historical distortion that rubs up against Holocaust denial. If you are going to be so callous with facts having any connection to the Holocaust, you are throwing shade onto a topic that should be kept pristine and unvarnished. The truth of the Holocaust should never come within a mile of such political con games. In my mind, that is disqualifying - and his Jewish constituents should be furious about it.
Finally, we are at a crucial inflection point in Jewish history with regard to the age-old question of “Who is a Jew,” and Santos did not do the Jewish people any favors with his lie. As we speak, members of the incoming Israeli government are planning to amend the Law of Return, which for decades has set the standard for who would be considered Jewish enough to be accepted for automatic citizenship in Israel. In one of the greatest ironies of the past century, the law is based on the Nazi-era Nuremberg Laws, one of most antisemitic in history.
These laws, designed to protect racial "purity," determined that anyone with one Jewish grandparent would be considered to have sufficient ties to the Jewish people to be removed from Aryan society, which ultimately meant killed. Once the Nazis were defeated and Israel was established, it was determined that those seeking sanctuary in the Jewish state should be accepted even if their Jewish ties were based on a single grandparent. With the embers of Auschwitz still smoldering the founders of Israel went to great lengths to make it possible for Jews to escape persecution.
So, the Law of Return was grandfathered, so to speak, from the infamous Nuremberg Laws. One Jewish grandparent was enough.
This liberal interpretation of Jewish lineage was crucial in the rescue of millions of Soviet Jews in the 1970s and '80s and in the immediate acceptance of highly assimilated American Jews for programs like the successful Birthright Israel trips for young adults, and for the purposes of immigration.
And since last February, it has proven invaluable in assisting Russian and Ukrainian Jews to escape from Russian attacks.
But far right members of the new Israeli government want to revise the Law of Return, writing off thousands upon thousands of people who may technically not be Jewish from the perspective of Jewish law, but see themselves as full-fledged members of the Jewish people. The revision of this law and other aspects of the "Who is a Jew" debate (such as conversion), could cause a permanent fissure between Israel and diaspora Jewry.
By stepping on this landmine so clumsily, Santos just gave a heaping helping of propaganda to Israelis who think American Jews don't take their Jewish identity seriously. What a joke, they can say – even a South American Catholic thinks he’s Jewish enough to qualify for Israeli citizenship as a Jew. Who’s next? The Pope?
If Santos wants to become a Jew, I'll be happy to convert him - and to assuage those who question that conversion's authenticity, I'll be happy broadcast the bris on C-Span. And for an encore, we'll feature his nude immersion into a ritual bath on HBO.
I'll be happy to convert you, George, but until then, please don't play fast and loose with Jewish identity. Don't make the question of Jewish identity even more confusing than it already is.
I'll let you in on a secret, George. I invented the expression "Jew-ish." At least I think I did, in a column for the New York Jewish Week in 2009. As I wrote there, the usage of "ish" was just becoming popular at the time:
“The suffix “ish,” indicating approximation, is increasingly popular among today’s youth, according to the language forum, “Wordreference.com.” Kids are constantly tossing it about: A movie is “creepish,” he looks “Europeanish,” the dress is “greenish” and the meeting begins at “five-ish.” In an age where fluidity is the norm, and everything, from the national debt to Arlen Specter’s party affiliation, is a moving target, we all need to learn how to go with the flow. Fortunately, we Jews are uniquely prepared to do just that: We already have “ish” in our name.”
So I think I coined it. One might say that I'm the inventor-ish. But I'm not so bold as to put it into my resume.
You might want to think about taking it out of yours.
The Stamp of Approval
Did you happen to pick up stamps this month at the post office and notice a lovely design for Hanukkah? Well, the USPS's official Hanukkah Forever stamp for 2022 was designed by Woodbridge artist Jeanette Kuvin Oren, who just happens to have designed our TBE ladder logo and cover for our TBE service guide. Mazal tov to Jeanette!
This logo is a reminder of ideals we've long espoused, which Jennifer so exquisitely depicted. Here is some of the backstory. As the congregation prepares to engineer a new strategic vision, what a perfect opportunity to remind ourselves of our core values,
This logo tells the story of a community that is constantly ascending, striving together to reach a the loftiest of goals. This is aninclusive, embracing (but not suffocating) community, an egalitarian and diverseone (note the wheelchair, for example) but where all the generations (note the cane) are mixed. We are interdependent, always reaching out to help a neighbor.
We are also a participatory community. Some may be higher at the moment, but no one is holier. Everyone is at a different place on a personal journey, but all are on the same journey, headed in the same direction. One might say that "home" in this scheme ("Beth El") is the journey, rather than the destination. One congregant compared the rungs of the ladder to Reb Nachman's Narrow Bridge (Gesher Tzar Me-od), yet note how, no matter how perilous the journey. everyone is dancing, joyous. There is a dynamic energy to this fearless ascent, and what we see here is the essence of a sacred community. Our courage comes from our unity and our willingness to link hands.
...Jacob awoke from his dream at dawn, the same time when, years later upon his return to the Land, he wrestled with his Higher Self (or an angel, or God). We, as children of the original Israel, are God Wrestlers as well, struggling to make sense of ultimate questions as we engage in spiritual ascent. We also recognize the need for Jewish literacy(hence the books), both to assist in our ascent and to help balance the see-saw like rungs. The lights of dawn illumine this logo; we are nourished by the rays of a rising sun and its promise of a new day. But that sun isn't blinding. The dawn is not only extraordinarily colorful, but it also reminds us that real life is not lived in the glare of noon or the blackness of midnight. Life includes all shades; we are guided by nuance and bathed by a light that changes by the second, an endless variety of color, along with all shades of gray.
This is also the world of pluralism, dialogue and humility. Morality and knowledge are not relativistic, neither is the truth "black and white." We are always climbing toward greater clarity, as our knowledge increases, but we never quite get there.
We looked at lots of logos of other synagogues for inspiration. Regretfully, not many were very inspiring. In choosing our logo, we could have gone the route of just about every other synagogue, contorting a star of David, twisting it like a pretzel into something that looks original. Or we could have taken a menorah, as so many do, to look traditional. We could even have looked for a new name. After all, how commonplace is Beth El?? Sometimes I feel that there are more Beth Els than Starbucks!
The point here, is that, commonplace though it is now, Beth El might just be the most extraordinary and awe-inspiring place found in the entire Torah.
Beth El: Population - 1 dreamer, a few rocks, a magical ladder and a band of angels.
The logo speaks to our eternal desire to break convention and find creative solutions to problems old and new. Complacency and stagnation have no place here. This is a logo set in motion, more a verb than a fixed image. Tradition and ritual are crucial, but not when they become rote. Spiritual growth requires roots, but its greatest enemy is routine.
I've always been a fan of circles, but when I saw this ladder, I realized that it is right for us and for now. Barack Obama's acceptance speech included the imagery of the ladder, and it is increasingly being used as a metaphor for helping to lift others out of the depths of poverty and despair. I love it also because it makes it absolutely clear that no one is holier than another, as long as we are ascending - and dreaming.
The Conservative movement also increasingly uses the metaphor of the ladder in describing how we grow as Jews in the performance of mitzvot. It's never all or nothing- we ascend one rung at a time. And no really ever makes it to the top! In fact, there is no top rung. No false, cheap n' quick messianism for us. We just keep climbing.
As we ascend toward the secular new year, perhaps we can begin to think of each rung as a quality of Jewish life that we might begin to adopt - be it a value concept, a section of text or a series of actions - mitzvot - that will help us to ascend.
And where was Jacob's ladder rooted? In the soil of the Land of Israel, which he was just about to leave. We too are nurtured and held up by our deep connection to the land, people and history of Israel. But like Jacob, we need to set out on journeys that extend far from those sacred borders as we interact with the world. We seek the protection of angels on this perilous journey and wherever we go, we are energized by our love of our ancient homeland.
Still home is transportable. Like so many in this flat, postmodern world, we are mobile (1 in 5 Americans relocate every year), but we are not social climbers; rather we are Spiritual Climbers.
"I am Joseph, Is father alive?" Those six (Hebrew) words changed everything. This packet digs into the legends, commentaries and psychology surrounding that pivotal moment as Joseph's exhausting masquerade ends. it also includes a New Year's poem by the irrepressible Russell Baker.
When he reveals himself to his brothers, Joseph tells them not to obsess over what they did to him - that he in fact was giving them the benefit of the doubt, feeling that it was God's plan all along. This packet explores the Jewish value of judging others favorably and seeing the good in everyone you meet.
Looking back and looking ahead, as we do at this time of year, it's best to take the long view of history. That's what God tells Jacob in this portion, as Jacob prepares to make the fateful decision to relocate his family to Egypt, with all the risks that would entail. It would all turn out well in the end. But when is it the end?
Heretic in the House - Shalom Hartman Institute podcast- America has a fascination with Hasidic Jews. But these popular depictions don’t tell the whole story; they just tell the story the public wants to hear. What they hide is a complicated dance between Orthodox Judaism and those who leave the community, and a web of stereotypes that trap Hassidim, rebels, and the public alike. On Heretic in the House, a limited podcast series from the Hartman Institute, Naomi Seidman takes us on a deeply moving journey with believers and heretics to uncover their hidden stories and how they grapple with Jewish identity, religion in the public square, and pluralism.
Netanyahu Rolls Out His New Government; Jewish Americans React (Moment) American Rabbis and community leaders are speaking out as never. before, anticipating radical new policies, including such proposed laws as refusing medical treatment for LGBTQ Israelis, elimination of laws ensuring equality, and even putting an end to the production of electricity on Shabbat. Several hundred prominent U.S. rabbis have signed a letter pledging not to allow members of the Religious Zionist bloc to speak in their communities. “When those who tout racism and bigotry claim to speak in the name of Israel, but deny our rights, our heritage, and the rights of the most vulnerable among us, we must take action,” the letter stated. I am among the hundreds who have signed it. For those who say we should "wait and see," we see how that worked out with the Dobbs decision and abortion. The agreements that have been signed already are reason enough to express our love for Israel by setting reasonable limits on what will be acceptable - and working with our government to encourage moderation.
Below is the Rabbinical Assembly's statement with regard to the new Israeli government.
For this week's Hebrew front page, I've included, in Hebrew and English, Wednesday's front page of Ha'aretz. The essay, written by the great novelist David Grossman, is entitled "Chaos." Those who can phonetically sound out the letters will note that the Hebrew headline is exactly the same, as the word "chaos" is common to both languages, and to politics everywhere. For a clearer pdf version of these front pages and Grossman's powerful essay, click here for English and here for Hebrew.