A recent Haaretz article mentions a new study that found that people believe American Jewish leadership is “elitist, parochial, self-serving and resistant to innovation.”
Also there is “too much overlap, duplication, and non-cooperation” among organizations in the American Jewish establishment.
Thank you, Captain State-the-Obvious.
Reform Rabbi Levi Weiman-Kelman says of Israel’s Lag Ba’omer bonfires: “This is an ecological disaster, it’s virtually rabbi-sanctioned vandalism. Nowadays there is competition between yeshivas and families on who has the biggest bonfire. The rabbis should issue a clear instruction to those who celebrate that it is quality “not quantity” that matters. (YNet)
Tel Aviv has decided to fight annual pre-Lag B’omer plundering of construction sites’ lumber. (YNet)
Reuven Hammer talks about Shimon Bar Yohai, who is strongly associated with Lag B’Omer, and who the rabbis say was perhaps too holy for his own good. (JPost)
The yahrzeit of second-century sage Shimon bar Yohai at his burial place on Mount Meron, coinciding with Lag B’Omer, is “widely viewed as a resounding display of Jewish unity.” But whether a Sephardic trust or a rival Ashkenazic trust owns the site is the cause of a bitter struggle “paralyzing”the development of the most visited religious place in Israel after the Western Wall. And to make matters worse, “there are rival splinter groups within each trust.” (The Forward)
Photo essay of Lag B’Omer in Israel. (YNet)
There were many surreal moments last Wednesday night, when Shimon Peres’ “Facing Tomorrow” conference celebrated the American-Israeli relationship, an evening that culminated with a speech by President George W. Bush.
Perhaps the most ridiculous part of the agenda: two (very sculpted) male dancers in skin-tight white get-ups prancing across the stage as a pianist played the Carole King classic “You’ve Got a Friend.”
Yes. That song.
When you’re down and troubled
And you need some loving care
And nothing, nothing is going right
Close your eyes and think of me
And soon I will be there
To brighten up even your darkest night
The message (or so it seemed): the relationship between Israel and America is flamboyantly homoerotic.
If that wasn’t weird enough, the whole night was, in many ways, a vast communal fantasy, with Bush and Israel’s embattled Prime Minister Ehud Olmert being showered with love and esteem. This for two leaders who may be the least popular in the history of their respective countries.
Indeed, it was good the conference was focused on the future, because the present and past seems more difficult to get into focus.
Of course, the conference was in honor of Israel’s 60th birthday and no one wants to be the party pooper. But, as I discuss in my latest column for The Jerusalem Post, Israel’s birthdays are inevitably complicated, as it coincides with the Palestinian observance of Nakba Day.
In my article, I look at a book that reminds us not to view the creation of the State of Israel in bipolar terms: S. Yizhar’s novella Khirbet Khizeh, which was written in 1949 and was recently translated into English for the first time.
Khirbet Khizeh tells the story of an army unit that, as the War of Independence comes to a close, is given the task of expelling the residents of an Arab village called Khirbet Khizeh. For the most part, the story’s drama takes place in the mind of the narrator. Even as he rounds up the villagers, he’s weighed down by moral questions. “My eyes roamed this way and that. I was ill at ease. Where did this sense come from that I was being accused of some crime?” …
Ultimately, though, Khirbet Khizeh is important for its context – who wrote it and when – not merely its content. S. Yizhar was, of course, the pen name of Yizhar Smilansky, a professor, Knesset member and one of the great scribes of modern Hebrew. Yizhar was a Zionist who helped to shape Israel, politically and culturally. That someone of this ilk could publish Khirbet Khizeh – and in 1949, no less – proves that the founding myths of Israel were not destroyed by the occupation of the West Bank or by the New Historians…
The moral complexities of Israel’s birth were clear from the outset, and we can thank Khirbet Khizeh for reminding us of this. (MORE)
Lag Ba’Omer is next week, and one of the customs of this minor holiday is to light bonfires and eat grilled food. In this month’s Inspired Kitchen, we share a vegetarian alternative to the traditional barbecue:
This salad is made with halloumi, a cheese whose firm, rubbery texture lends itself to grilling over a hot flame. Halloumi has its origins in Lebanon and Cyprus. Some claim its roots in Israel lie with Greek-Jewish immigrants. The cheese is best served warm with grilled fish, crusty bread, or fresh fruit for dessert. (MORE)
The story of Jewry and Galveston is one that fascinates me. Many people, even those well-versed in American Jewish history, may not know of the early 20th Century attempt to bring immigrants to the United States via this small Texas town, instead of New York.
I had the privilege of researching hundreds of documents, ship logs, and notes from the venture, left to the American Jewish Historical Society by Rabbi Henry Cohen. Cohen was the on-ground support in Galveston. He himself was quite a character.
Born in England, he rode around Galveston on his bicycle wearing long coat tails. On the cuff of his sleeve, he wrote all of his appointments for the day. He became known as that Chief Rabbi of Texas
At the time, Galveston was an agriculture-based community. Farmers from around the region would come to the city on the weekend to sell their goods. However, the Jewish farmers suffered on Saturday mornings. They would not open their stands at the market until after Shabbat services. Cohen ended services an hour early to help accommodate the community’s needs. At the same time, word got out about Cohen’s dynamic sermons. Christian farmers in for the weekend began attending Shabbat services to listen to the Rabbi. Soon enough, the market closed on Saturday mornings, as all of the farmers, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, came to Shabbat services before selling their goods in the afternoon. The term Shabbas goy takes on a new meaning.
It’s stories like this that bring American Jewish history alive.
Recently the Forward exposed its readers to a slice of story, which I’d like to share:
Way back when, in 1907, a number of American Jewish philanthropists, prompted by the redoubtable Jacob Schiff, sought to ameliorate the lot of would-be immigrants by pointing them in the right direction: away from overcrowded and blighted urban areas and toward the wide-open spaces of the West, whose â€œnature and uncontaminated atmosphere tend to build up constitutions instead of undermining them.â€? Determined to alleviate the congestion characteristic of the Northeastâ€™s â€œgreat ghettosâ€? and to minimize, avant la lettre, the possibility of antisemitism, Schiff and his associates attempted to prevail on those traveling to the New World to enter its precincts via Galveston, Texas, rather than land in New York or Philadelphia. And then, once in that â€œpart of the country in which opportunity still knocks at every manâ€™s door,â€? the new arrivals were encouraged to start afresh by taking a train to and settling in Omaha, Neb., and Kansas City, Mo.; Des Moines, Iowa, and Texarkana, Ark. (MORE)
At the President’s Conference yesterday, I attended a session called “Jewish Identity: Unraveling or Renewing?” a panel discussion featuring — among others — Rav Yehudah Amital, the founder of Yeshivat Har Etzion, where I spent two formative years in the mid-1990s, and Leon Wieseltier, Literary Editor of the New Republic.
Even while I was studying at Har Etzion, I had a complicated relationship with the yeshiva, but I always felt great warmth for Rav Amital, a wise, humble man, who has blazed his own path, negotiating Religious Zionism and the modern State of Israel.
Wieseltier, for his part, is consistently engaging and brilliant, and yesterday he did not disappoint.
He began by noting that the proliferation of conference sessions with similar titles to this one indicates that the discussion of Jewish identity is becoming an important part of Jewish identity.
For someone who authored a book called Against Identity, this is not a compliment.
Of course, Wieseltier isn’t against Jewish identity, he is just against the vacuousness of identity discourse.
“Identity is not self-expression,” Wieseltier repeated for emphasis. “Identity is not customization.”
What is identity, then?
First of all, it is not something passed down by tradition.
“Identity is precisely what is not inherited,” Wieselter opined.
And here’s the Pirkei Avot tie in. Wieseltier quoted Avot 2:17:
Rabbi Yosi said: Let the property of your fellow man be as dear to you as your own. Prepare yourself for the study of the Torah, for the knowledge of it is not yours by inheritance. Let all your deeds be done for the sake of Heaven.
As Wieseltier noted, one might have thought that R. Yosi should have said “Prepare yourself for the study of Torah because it is your inheritance.” But no, one must prepare for Torah because it must be pursued if one is to make it ones own.
And this is not easy. “A real Jewish identity should rob one of sleep on a regular basis,” Wieseltier said, and he railed against the internal relativism of the Jewish community, what he described as: “I like knishes, you like Rambam, let’s be Jewish together.”
For Wieseltier, some aspects of Jewish tradition are more important and weighty and more appropriate to pursue as part of a serious Jewish life.
“Freedom of the mind should not be an excuse for intellectual and spiritual slackness,” he concluded.
Recently the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs released an interesting report on the Jewish Communities of the Western United States. Written by Dr. Steven Windmueller, director of the School of Jewish Communal Service at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, the piece goes into the history and demographics of West Coast Jewry.
Too often, in the scholarship of American Jewish life, the Eastern seaboard becomes the main and sometimes only subject of research. But as Windmueller reminds us in the opening of his report, a quarter of American Jews live on the West Coast and that numebr is growing:
Jews of the West represent a new breed of American Jewry. Despite such challenges as low affiliation patterns, high intermarriage rates, and limited financial participation, Western Jewry has generated new organizational models. The Western pioneering spirit seems to have made its mark on Jewish communities as well and inspired their leadership. (MORE)
I’m currently in Jerusalem at a conference convened by Shimon Peres, entitled Facing Tomorrow, in honor of Israel’s 60th birthday. It’s a star-studded event, with last night’s speakers including Peres, Ehud Olmert, Elie Wiesel, and Tony Blair.
So far most of the sessions have suffered from the same problem: overbooking. I just came from a lunchtime panel featuring six Jewish Nobel Prize winners. A nice idea. But WAY too long. Six speeches plus an introduction all before the main course!
The highlight thus far was today’s morning plenary, featuring Amos Oz, Henry Kissinger, Bernard Henri Levy, and Abby Cohen, and moderated by Dennis Ross.
Kissinger spoke first and began by noting that Dennis Ross warned him that if he speaks longer than his allotted 15 minutes a trap door would fall open beneath him. Audience members from across the political spectrum could chuckle together imagining gnomish Kissinger falling through the floor.
Amazingly, the rest of his speech was equally engaging. Kissinger spoke about living through the years of Israel’s rise, and the honor he felt being involved politically in some way.
“I can never treat Israel as a foreign country,” he said.
The thrust of Kissinger’s comments: The nation state is in a process of modification. This is most apparent in the rise of Asia (China and India) and the centralization of the European Union. European states, said Kissinger, have given up sovereignty to become part of the EU.
One ramification of this according to Kissinger is that state’s became great because they could ask their citizens to make compromises and sacrifices. The EU has dissolved this sense of responsibility, and it has yet to be replaced.
Indeed, Kissinger suggested that the differences between the US and Europe have little to do with the policies of this particular administration, rather they come from divergent notions of international affairs, the US still living in a world where risk-taking is sometimes valued.
Kissinger saved his strongest words for Iran. The threat of nuclear weapons in Iran should not be seen as just a threat to Israel, but rather as a threat to the entire international system. If Iran is allowed to develop nuclear weapons, despite the international bodies meant to deter them, nuclear weapons are bound to spread to even more countries.
His greatest fear when he worked in government, he said, was that the president would call him in and say: “I exhausted all diplomatic options. Should I use nuclear weapons?”
This was in a two-power world where you could basically predict reactions, but in a 10-power world, this will be impossible.
I rarely agree with the Haredim, but recently they have instituted a boycott against Bamba and other Israeli snacks:
The Haredi Community, an ultra-Orthodox communal organization which strongly opposes Zionism, declared a consumers’ boycott on leading Israeli food brands that have been adorned with the Israeli flag in honor of the country’s 60th birthday. (MORE)
Isn’t a ban on peanut butter-flavored Styrofoam good for the Jews?
Reviewing the efforts of Carter, Jerome M. Segal argues that while â€œHamas has indeed said it will never recognize Israel, nor give up on the right of returnâ€?, there is plenty to work with here for hammering out an arrangement, since â€œif Hamas is saying it will accept a ratified treaty as binding law, that is a very big deal. â€œ (Haaretz)
Zvi Barâ€™el wants us â€œto recognize now that a long-term cease-fire cannot coexist peaceably with the policy of sanctions Israel imposes on Gaza.â€? (Haaretz)
Former defense minister Amir Peretz backs direct negotiations with Hamas and freeing jailed Fatah leader Marwan Baghouti. (Jerusalem Post)
Daniella Peled says that what a Syria-Israel deal would consist of has long been known, but what is lacking is the will to get it done. (Jewish Chronicle)
Is Israel â€œedging toward ‘silent acceptance’ of a truceâ€? in Gaza? (Jerusalem Post)
Akiva Eldar argues that â€œtalk of an alleged breakthrough in the attempts to renew negotiations between Jerusalem and Damascus are nothing more than camouflage for a major setback in Israel’s talks with the Palestinians.â€? (Haaretz)
Herb Keinon looks at the question of why is it that, just now, Olmert is so interested in negotiating with Syria? (Jerusalem Post)