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, March 23, 2023
In this Moment: Israel: Jewish AND Democratic; a unicorn and a classic movie; finish lines and picket lines; happiness, tyranny and water lentils
The Shabbat Announcements are sponsored
by Cynthia and Adam Parker in honor of their son,
Gabriel, becoming a Bar Mitzvah.
In This Moment
TBE in Israel: Finish Lines & Picket Lines
Above: TBE's Talia Raich completing last week's Jerusalem Marathon.
Below: Democracy protesters outside Tel Aviv Museum,
photographed by TBE's Carol Krim
Israel: Jewish AND Democratic
The recent passing of Topol brought many of us back to his landmark roles, particularly Tevye in the film version of "Fiddler on the Roof." He has been eulogized, deservedly, as Israel's greatest international star, its "most famous export since the Jaffa Orange."
But within Israel, he would have to climb very high to eclipse another actor and singer, who for over fifty years has been Israel's Frank Sinatra, an actor, TV personality and musician with a voice beyond compare, Yehoram Gaon. Gaon is not nearly as famous as Topol outside the country, but at home he is a treasured institution, and one with crossover appeal, generationally and, more important, ethnically.
On a Saturday night in the the summer of 1973, as part of my teen tour, I had a true Israeli experience - a trip to the movies, where we got to see whether Israelis really did roll empty soda bottles down the aisles (they did) and spit out the shells of sunflower seeds, howitzer-like (yes again). The theater was packed, in part because Israelis didn't yet have much to watch on TV, but also because of the featured film. And for this teenager on his first trip to Israel, the movie was life-altering.
"Kazablan," considered Israel's "best and most beloved musical," is part "West Side Story"and part "Fiddler on the Roof," with a touch of "Jesus Christ Superstar" and early '70s blaxploitationflicks - but with a much happier ending than either "Fiddler" or "West Side Story," (and, depending on who you are rooting for, "JC Superstar" as well). Gaon plays a Moroccan-born misfit, a Sephardic street gang member in Jaffa who falls in love with a wealthy fair-skinned Ashkenazi woman. Israel's ethnic divide plays itself out before us, as it does to this day.
The current constitutional crisis has its roots in longstanding grievances felt by North African and Middle Eastern Jews who experienced systemic discrimination dating from the earliest days of the state. These Israelis have long felt that the courts were stacked against them. The judiciary has always had an Ashkenazic imbalance. That said, it is equally clear that these imbalances can be corrected, with a little tinkering - okay, maybe a lot of tinkering - which would include a constitution, and most especially a bill of rights. The closest Israel came to enacting a constitution has been a series of Basic Laws, in particular one enacted in 1992 enshrining human dignity and liberty as a foundation of the state.
The draconian measures being cynically enacted right now are intended to do far worse than settle old scores. The goal is to intensify ethnic grievance and parlay it into the end of democracy through the elimination of the judiciary as the only check on the power of the intertwined executive and legislative branches, all centralized in the person of Prime Minister Netanyahu. Some call that a dictatorship. But the plan is not working. The old grievance fault lines are not holding, and the country has united, shockingly but resoundingly, against the coup. Most of those in power realize that now. The question is whether any of them have the courage to jump ship and overturn this overturning.
In "Kazablan," this Ashkenazi - Sephardi battle take center stage alongside generational, religious and economic conflicts. This tension is alleviated by some of the greatest songs ever written for the Israeli stage and screen. Two of the songs form a perfect backdrop to our current quagmire, and they present the only way out.
Click below to see the full film with English subtitles, a real treat if you have a couple of hours to spare.
One of these songs is, "Kulanu Yehudim," ("We Are All Jews,") about 14 minutes in. It celebrates the common destiny that links all Jews together, despite our many differences, and it mocks those overblown superficialities that divide us. Sometimes it seems like Jews argue simply for the sake of arguing.
The second song is "Democratia," ("Democracy"), about 40 minutes in, another rousing showstopper, exposing the imbalances of Israeli politics amidst the cynicism of those who have never gotten their due. Despite the cynicism, you don't walk away wanting to junk the whole system. It's a flawed system, the song is saying, but it's OUR flawed system.
See the lyrics of "Democratia" below, translated by Seth Ward. This brilliant musical demonstrated, fifty years ago, that the only road to harmony is one where those two songs, and the principles they enshrine, can coexist in the same libretto.
This week it was revealed that Israel placed fourth on the world happiness scale, its highest placement ever. The survey was taken before this horrid new government took the reins and began trying to ruin the country . No doubt the happiness score would be lower if measured now, but if the country comes through the current crisis with its democracy intact, it will be that much stronger for having fought through all the grievances and cynicism that kept Kazablan from receiving the respect he so coveted (his signature song speaks to that - about ten minutes in. "Kol HaKavod" became the best-selling record up until that time in Israel's history).
When I came out of that movie theater in Jerusalem, my connection to Israel was cemented even more firmly than it had been already. Yehoram Gaon played the perfect antihero, one that could cure us of our addiction to the Americanized, sanitized and idealized Ari Ben Canaan of "Exodus." Kazablan gets into trouble, but he dreams of his mother's Sabbath table back in Morocco. He's Sephardi and proud, Jewish and proud, Israeli and proud.
I even went and got myself one of those Kazablan caps and wore it out.
The message here is that Israel, at its best, does not have to compromise between being Jewish and democratic. If "Kulanu Yehudim" and "Democratia" could coexist in one musical fifty years ago, Jewish peoplehood and democracy can now as well. It doesn't have to be a compromise.It's not a zero sum game. If Israel can figure out how to become a more perfect union, then the Jewish people as a whole will become more perfectly united. Israel's other minorities will benefit as well. And all the divides will begin to heal.
The alternative is an abyss too perilous to contemplate, an Israel where, in a circular firing squad death-dance of the macabre, the Supreme Court strikes down a Knesset ruling intended to strike down the Supreme Court, and the military and police are forced to decide which government to follow. Oh yes, and the defense minister has threatened to resign if the new laws go through.
The next few weeks will be fateful ones, in Israel and America too, where democracy will also continue to be tested by the expected indictment of a former president (multiple times).
So much is at stake right now, and the outcome remains very much in doubt. Tevye and Golda packed and left Anatevka. Tony and Maria met their tragic demise on the streets of New York. But Kaza did not run or die, and new possibilities sprouted from the Jaffa sand.
The film could not end more optimistically, despite all the damage done. Fittingly. "Kazanblan's" finale takes place at a bris (another great song).
We need to give our current drama a happy ending too.
Move over Topol, move over Yehoram Gaon....
...There's a new kid in town. Noa Kirel, 22, the perfect fusion Israeli, of Sefardi-Ashkenazi-Mizrahi descent, has burst onto the music scene and will be Israel's featured singer at this year's Eurovision contest. Here are 18 things to know about her. The 19th is that she is considered one of the favorites to win the contest. And her song, "Unicorn," has a fabulous message that can be understood on a number of levels, from building confidence and pride for young girls, to overcoming old prejudices, to being change agents. Anyway, here's the official video, and beneath that, a new video highlighting Israel's illustrious Eurovision history. A welcome break from current events.
This Passover, Israel will recall ancient freedom under the threat of modern tyranny (David Horovitz, TOI) - As I write these lines, the so-called “Constitution, Law and Justice Committee” in our sovereign parliament is initializing legislation that if, or more probably when, enacted into law next week, will begin the process of providing our duly elected prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, with many of the autocratic powers of a modern-day pharaoh. The legislation, with which Netanyahu’s minions were still tinkering this week even as they crushed opposition objections to its democracy-destroying terms, shatters the independence of our court system. It will enable Netanyahu’s majority coalition to fill the next two vacancies on the High Court when its president, Esther Hayut, and a colleague reach retirement age this fall, to then appoint one of those two new appointees as court president, and gradually but inexorably politicize the entire judiciary. As our overlords steamroll their laws through parliament, Israel’s Zionists, patriots and democrats will attempt to legally resist. The political opposition, and a range of activists, will petition those High Court justices to strike down the legislation before it can strike them down. But were the court to rule in favor of preserving its essential independence, this, in the skewed vision of our “justice” minister Yariv Levin, “would mark the crossing of every red line.” Directly threatening Israel’s top court, the self-styled champion of Israeli democracy declared on Monday: “We certainly won’t accept it.” If the Netanyahu coalition’s brutal insistence on unleashing its revolution just in time for Passover should highlight anything, however, it is that the revivedJewish sovereign nation cherishes its freedom and will not easily be denied it. Netanyahu won the election, but not a mandate to empty out the democracy that restored him to power.
Noa Tishby talks about judicial reform on 'Real Time with Bill Maher (JPost) - “What's happening in Israel right now, what we're seeing is literally democracy on full display. It's actually quite extraordinary. So, let's backtrack for a little bit. So, a few months ago Benjamin Netanyahu won the election and because of how the parliamentary system is built in Israel, he started this coalition, which is on the extreme side, it's right-wing, more religious. As it happens in the US, when new governments come in, they jump in to make sweeping changes quite quickly, and that's what this government decided to do,” Tishby continued. “They suggested a judiciary overhaul, which is going too far, and the Israeli people are basically rebelling against it.” See video here
Israeli Democracy Faces a Mortal Threat (David Grossman, The Atlantic)Tectonic plates are shifting beneath our feet. I imagine that the people who are trying to hijack the country, who have the audacity to rewrite the Israeli legal system, were not expecting such widespread and zealous resistance. Even the protesters, those who object to the so-called reform, seem surprised at their own founts of fervor, passion, and courage. Hundreds of corporations and organizations, individuals including current and former Shin Bet and Mossad officials, tech executives, El Al pilots, and many other public and private entities are joining the protesters’ ranks every day. Thousands of reservists, who constitute the army’s backbone, have announced that they will not report for duty. Even retirement-home residents in wheelchairs are out on the streets, protesting what they see as the destruction of the state they fought for.
Opinion: What if climate change meant not doom — but abundance? (Rebecca Solnit, WaPo) -Much of the reluctance to do what climate change requires comes from the assumption that it means trading abundance for austerity, and trading all our stuff and conveniences for less stuff, less convenience. But what if it meant giving up things we’re well rid of, from deadly emissions to nagging feelings of doom and complicity in destruction? What if the austerity is how we live now — and the abundance could be what is to come?
See also A day in the life of an oak tree, from mistle thrush in the morning to mice at midnight(Country Life)Our friends the trees have an unremarkable life, or so it seems to us. They come into leaf, their fruit drops, or is gorged on by birds and the winds of autumn strip them of their dressing to leave them as the cold, bare sentinels of winter. However, if we were to stand, tree-like ourselves, in a British copse and watch a single oak tree for an entire 24 hours — say when spring hatches out of winter — what would we see?
Are American Jews the most loved and hated religious group at the same time? (Forward) -Among all religious groups, Americans like Jews the most. That’s according to a Pew Research Center surveyout this month. “You’d think in these dark times,” writes columnist Rob Eshman, “this bit of good news would be worth spreading. You’d be wrong.” Why don’t Jewish organizations tell this story? “It could be that it contradicts a dominant narrative of victimhood,” Rob argues. “A cynic might say no Jewish defense organization ever raised a dime telling donors that Jews are well-liked. But we may also take our good standing for granted, forgetting the past generations of American Jews that had to struggle against institutional discrimination in order for us to gain such widespread acceptance.” Jewish Americans are subject to the same problems as all Americans.“Hate crimes are up for everyone. Mass shootings are up for everyone,” Rob writes. “There is less tolerance and civility across the board.” An ADL report from last month had this headline: “Murder and Extremism in the United States in 2022.” None of the victims were Jews.
Atificial Intelligence: The Newest Revolution in Torah Study? (Jewish Action) The app basically recreates a scientific edition of rabbinic texts. At the swipe of an icon you can [decipher] abbreviations and see footnotes identifying sources and subsequent quotations of the text. For example, there are later commentators who quote Moses Naḥmanides. If I’m studying a line in Naḥmanides’ commentaries and I want to know every single latter authority who quoted this particular line, I can now easily access that information. You can also see the different ways the Naḥmanides has been quoted. . . . You can actually compare all the different versions with the differences highlighted. Notes and paraphrases of later sources can be systematically identified, and digitized manuscripts can be compared.
Which Alcoholic Drinks Are Kosher For Passover? (MyJewishLearning). Yes, Vodka CAN be made Kosher for Passover - though most often it's not. But really, after four cups of Manischewitz, who needs anything else? For that matter, who needs Manischewitz
The Kveller Haggadah (co-authored by TBE's Gabrielle Birkner!) - The Kveller Haggadah is for curious kids — and their grown-ups. The Passover seder shouldn’t feel like a long to-do list — it’s an adventure! Designed to guide families through an epic journey from slavery to freedom, we go deep into Jewish traditions in a kid-friendly way, yet we don’t overlook the dramatic tensions of the Passover story. We created the Kveller Haggadah to promote curiosity, even when there are no easy answers.
Download Hadar's Pesach Reader -The first mishnah in Pesahim tells us to search for hametz by the light of a small, handheld candle. Why use a little flame and not a torch? It forces us to come closer, notice the finer details, and discover what might otherwise be overlooked. With insights from Hadar faculty and activities for children and families, this Pesah reader is your guide for noticing, wondering, and finding new meaning in the holiday. See also The Maggid Map - a colorful guide for understanding what the different parts of Maggid are doing and how they fit together.
HIAS Haggadah - With more displaced people around the world than at any time in recorded history, the words of the Haggadah are more poignant and relevant than ever before. As we read these words, we are commanded to put ourselves back into the narrative, to consider ourselves as though we, too, went out from Egypt, from the narrow place. We do this so that we may rise up renewed in our commitment to stand together as a thriving American Jewish movement supporting today’s refugees and asylum seekers.