Monthly Archives: July 2013

Visiting the Soviet Union

I’ve had four opportunities to visit the Soviet Union/Former Soviet Union over the years, the fourth being the trip I’m preparing for as I write this blog that MJL will be posting online while I’m physically there.

Each trip had a different setting, successively bringing me closer to my Jewish brethren. In looking back I realize how fortunate it was that along the way I was never thrown out!soviet.jews.blog

My first trip, as a twenty-six-year-old single in 1968, was mainly exploratory. I wanted to check out the terrible press reports, leave behind some Jewish books, and instill some hope. In this pre détente era when tourism between the USA and the Soviet Union was virtually unknown, I signed up with the Dutch Student Travel Organization, NBBS, for a two week all-expenses-covered trip costing $250. I was the only Jew and the only American among the thirty travelers. The railroad that left Amsterdam took two days and nights to reach our first stop, Minsk. At the intersection between the two Germanys, bloodhounds came on board to search. Crossing Poland, I recognized the names of towns like Bialystok, well known in Jewish history. Were these the same tracks used a quarter century earlier to bring Jews to the concentration camps, I wondered? Continue reading

Posted on July 23, 2013

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Putting Myself on the Line

jewish.professors.political.punditryAs a book editor, my work had always been behind the scenes. When Ron Rubin (an author I had previously edited for “behind the scenes”) asked me to come out from behind and have my name appear on the cover of an anthology of his works, I never considered the possibility I might wind up putting myself on the line.

As I understood it, my role as anthologist would be to cull through the anthologized’s published materials, decide which pieces fit the anthology’s theme, create “abridged” versions for some of the tangential works, organize the material in a sensible pattern, and write a preface and filler blurbs to provide a biographical background and help the reader move through the book.

All went as expected, the manuscript was submitted, and then …

Surprise!

A reviewer for the publisher’s acquisitions department gave the book a “thumbs up” but suggested adding a bridge between the last of Rubin’s published commentaries and the book’s production. Syracuse University Press’s editorial committee agreed, I discussed the idea of a “Postscript” with Dr. Rubin, and he informed me he would gladly help me write it. Continue reading

Posted on July 22, 2013

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

The Teacher Has Plenty to Learn

At Rowan University in Glassboro, NJ, where I teach, all would-be history majors and minors are required to take (and pass–we’re sticklers that way) a course called Historical Methods. This class is a huge challenge for both students and teachers, as it is writing intensive and the students rarely come to it with much of an interest in historiography, theory, or best practices in terms of scholarship. To humanize the issues, I tell tales of historians behaving badly—those who have plagiarized, forged sources, cheated—who paid the price for their professional malfeasance. But as I learned while working on my most recent book, a history of American Jewish women in the suffrage, birth control and peace movements during the early 20th century, there are other kinds of cautionary tales that should also be part of my repertoire.

Before I even began this book, I was already aware of at least two 1916 Yiddish plays about birth control, both of which are housed at the Library of Congress. I knew about them because the images of their front pages have often been reproduced in accounts of American Jewry and because they have regularly been referred to by scholars in the context of general Jewish communal support for the birth control movement. As I dove into the research for my book, I discovered that apparently no one had actually ever translated these plays in full. My reading knowledge of Yiddish, though adequate for Yiddish periodicals and the like, could not cope with the hand-written manuscripts of the plays, so with the help of a grant, I commissioned Naomi Shoshana Cohen to do the translations. She and I discussed my overall project, and she set about the time-consuming task.

Imagine my surprise when, with each scene Naomi translated and sent to me, it became more and more apparent that neither of these plays contained expressions of Jewish support for birth control. On the contrary, both of the plays condemned contraception roundly, and one of them was viciously anti-feminist as well. While literally hundreds of other primary sources that I was finding did confirm the American Jewish community’s overall support of the birth control movement, the very existence of these two plays helped demonstrate that pockets of resistance and ambivalence retained cultural currency and that, as is often the case, the full story was a complex one. My analysis of these plays turned into a scholarly article and a major part of one of the book’s chapters on birth control, and I learned a valuable lesson. Making assumptions based on the assumptions of other people, even distinguished scholars, is hardly in the same category of the egregious historians’ sins I tell my Historical Methods students about. But it is a mistake nonetheless, and one that I am now more attuned to and try to teach my students to avoid. The historian’s mantra of going directly to the sources remains the best advice for students, enthusiasts, and professionals alike.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

Posted on July 19, 2013

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

From Intermarried Couple to Observant Jewish Family

harold.bermanWhen my wife and I speak to groups about our family’s journey to Judaism, inevitably we are asked about our parents. How did Gayle’s parents, devout Christians that they were, feel about Gayle becoming an observant Jew? How did my parents feel about me leaving my Reform upbringing to embrace an Orthodox life?

The questions are hardly academic. We have heard from numerous converts about parents who didn’t understand their decision, who felt betrayed, who now worried for their souls, who sometimes even actively tried to undermine their choices. For Ba’alei Teshuva – those Jews who were not raised observant but became so as adults – the reaction of their Jewish parents often is hardly more positive.

When we are asked about how our parents reacted and if we had any difficulties, we respond honestly that we are blessed. Gayle wrote in the previous blog post about her father. His support of Israel was rock solid. He was a true Christian Zionist and “got it” far more than many Jews I know. He was not only supportive of our move to Israel, but proudly wore his Israel Defense Forces cap in the midst of the cornfields of Farmington, Illinois.

My parents, too, have been unreservedly supportive, in stark contrast to the parents of so many Ba’alei Teshuva I have met. When I started to become observant and Gayle started to explore the possibility of becoming Jewish, I secretly feared my parents’ reaction. I had heard of parents who, upon learning that their adult children now kept kosher, angrily demanded, “What do you mean you won’t eat in my house? My food’s not good enough for you anymore?” Instead, my parents called one day to tell me that they were kashering their kitchen, down to every last plate, bowl and fork. “After all,” my mother said, “my grandchildren should be able to eat in my kitchen.”

A couple of years later, my parents were standing in line at the supermarket next to a man whose son had gone to Hebrew school with me. His son also had become observant as an adult. The father was beside himself, speaking with frustration about his son’s new dietary habits and Shabbat observance. Thinking his words were falling on sympathetic ears, he turned to my parents and sighed, “Oh, where did we go wrong?” To which my mother, without dropping a beat, fired back, “No – where did we go right?”

When we wrote Doublelife: One Family, Two Faiths and a Journey of Hope, about our unanticipated journey from intermarried couple to observant Jewish family, we were surprised to receive so many enthusiastic e-mails not only from the intermarried families for whom the book was originally intended, but from Jews across the religious spectrum as well as religious Christians. The theme in Doublelife that resonates most often, even for those on very different religious paths, is the theme of relationship.

As our journey shows, husband and wife each grow and change over time and are often not the same people years down the road as they were when they married. As husband and wife change, they can just as easily grow apart as together, largely depending on their outlook and how hard they decide to work at it.

Parents and children represent a different kind of relationship, but the same dynamics of constant change apply. There is the same tendency to grow apart or together, depending on outlook and effort. And there is the same imperative to keep the relationship strong, whatever obstacles may fall along the path.

For what we have learned above all – with each other and with our parents – is that obstacles need not remain obstacles. They can be turned into blessings.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

Posted on July 18, 2013

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Abortion, Birth Control, and the Complexity of Halacha (Jewish Law)

ballots.babies.and.banners.of.peaceI recently came across a copy of the June 28 issue of The Jewish PressThe Jewish Press is an Orthodox Jewish weekly periodical out of Brooklyn that has a political agenda with which I could not disagree more. When I saw the headline “Time for the Halachic View on Abortion to Be Heard,” I groaned inwardly and prepared to be outraged. Imagine my surprise when the article, by Yori Yanover, the senior internet editor of the publication, turned out to be a call to traditional halachic voices to distance themselves from Christian anti-abortion activism and to express more forcefully in the public arena the nuanced rabbinical approach to the difficult topic of abortion. While I do not at all appreciate Yanover’s description of both liberal Jewish groups and evangelical Christians as “the crazies,” I think it is extremely important that a publication like The Jewish Press is reminding its audience that even the strictest interpreters of Jewish law consistently approached abortion from the perspective of protecting the viable life of the mother over the potential life of the fetus. The rabbis, Yanover points out, historically did not consider abortion to be murder.

Just to be clear, traditional rabbinic rulings neither condone nor promote abortion. Yanover cites the 1990 Rabbinical Council of America statement that abortion should not be an option except in “extreme circumstances and in consultation with proper Halachic authority,” but he gives equal space to the part of the same statement that rejects endorsement of legislation that would prevent abortion in those cases. Given the greater rights of the living human being–the mother–Jewish law would even allow late term abortions if the fetus poses a mortal danger to her.

This article caught my eye not only because of its source but also because of the questions that persistently came my way when I was writing my recently published book Ballots, Babies, and Banners of Peace: American Jewish Women’s Activism, 1890-1940 (NYU Press, 2013). The book includes two chapters on the history of American Jewish women’s involvement in the early birth control movement. I have repeatedly been asked what the “Jewish position” on contraception was during the early 20th century. Naturally, there was no single position. All of the denominations struggled to formulate a response. The Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis turned down an invitation by the Catholic church to issue a joint statement of blanket condemnation but did not officially endorse birth control for some years after beginning to discuss the issue. The Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly followed suit shortly thereafter. And the Orthodox Union preserved a telling silence, officially neither approving or disapproving of contraceptive practices that the organization saw as best left to individuals making decisions in consultation with rabbinic authorities. There is plenty of latitude within halacha for birth control, which apparently comes as a surprise to those who want to see all religious people of all faiths as equally fundamentalist. I find myself agreeing with Yanover that extremists on both the right and the left could learn something from the history of Jewish institutional and legal responses to the complexities of the intersections of reproductive rights and religion.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

Posted on July 17, 2013

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Mourning the Loss of a Non-Jewish Parent

Gayle2“Ima, Aunt Angela is trying to reach you. I know it’s grandma! I want to go to her funeral!” My 13-year-old son was home manning the phone in Efrat while I was busy teaching piano to American girls at a school in Jerusalem. My mother had been ill for many years with dementia, that terrifying disease that steals the memory and dignity of its victims. Long before we had made Israel our home 3 1/2 years earlier, each day we had expected the call from Illinois telling us that her body had given up the fight. That moment had apparently arrived. Not having my sister’s U.S. number in my Israeli cell phone, I simply continued teaching my piano student.

Soon my cell phone rang. I was sure my sister was indeed calling to tell me that what my son had suspected was true. I told my student, “I’ll be right back,” knowing I could handle what I had been anticipating for years. “Dad died this morning!” I couldn’t believe my ears! No, she meant “Mom,” my head screamed! “Dad?” I yelled! “Yes, Dad.”

As people at the school heard my screaming, they gathered around me, offering tea, love and support. The memories flooded my mind – those late nights I fell asleep in the car and Dad carried me into the house; those years Dad let me keep horses on precious farmland which could have yielded thousands of dollars; the day I told Dad with trepidation that we were moving to Israel, to which he said simply, “You’re free to live wherever you want,” and then launched into a diatribe for the next 30 minutes about how the world is so cruel to Israel and doesn’t understand that she needs to defend herself! He wept when he told me he just couldn’t leave Mom to attend my son’s, his grandson’s, bar mitzvah, just two months before my sister’s phone call. Even though Mom had already been in a nursing home for four years, he would not travel, feeling she needed him and I also think fearing the inevitable would happen while he was gone.

How does a Jew mourn the loss of a parent when that parent was not Jewish? After I finished the phone call with my sister, I asked a rabbi where I teach, and my husband (who was attending an unveiling the moment I called him) asked a rabbi where he works. Both felt that, even though I would not actually sit shiva, I still needed the catharsis that sitting shiva provides. Maybe, they each suggested independently, I could announce an opportunity for friends to visit me at my home, even if just for a few hours.

We chose Friday morning, two days later. After that morning, I understood fully why Jews sit shiva. The cleansing that immersed my soul that morning was the beginning of my healing process. Over 40 people, friends and neighbors in Israel who had never met my father, came to show their support. They sat and listened intently as I told stories about my parents. They blessed me, that I should be comforted with all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem. Some invited my family for Shabbat meals while I traveled the following week for my dad’s funeral. After they had all left, I was exhausted, but I felt renewed. I felt closer to my dad. I felt 100% certain that I had made the right decision several years earlier when I decided to become a part of the Jewish people.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

Posted on July 17, 2013

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Top 5 American Jewish Women Most People Have Never Heard Of

ballots.babies.and.banners.of.peaceOne of the biggest pleasures in writing American Jewish women’s history is discovering the immensely talented, hardworking, committed women whose activities and beliefs and organizations shaped not only the American Jewish past but the whole social, cultural, political, and religious world we live in today. I decided to begin each of the five chapters of my new book, Ballots, Babies, and Banners of Peace: American Jewish Women’s Activism, 1890-1940 (NYU Press, 2013) with a biographical sketch of one of these women. All of them were renowned during their own lifetime for their significant contributions to social and political movements; alas, few are known today. For each chapter I had literally dozens of fascinating women upon whom I could have focused. Here are those I ultimately chose to profile.

1. Maud Nathan (1862-1946) took pride in her heritage as the daughter of an elite Sephardic Jewish family. Married to her cousin Frederick Nathan, she was involved in multiple organizations and causes in New York, including the National Consumers’ League and the National Council of Jewish Women. Nathan, a gifted speaker and parliamentarian, earned especial fame for her suffrage activism on both the national and the international stage. She believed that Jewish women had a special civil responsibility that could best be demonstrated through social reform and political participation.

2. Rose Heiman Halpern (1881-1976) immigrated to the United States in 1902 already politically active. After marrying William Halpern, she gave birth to six children in rapid succession and became involved with the American birth control movement from the founding of the first clinic in 1916. Halpern grew close to Margaret Sanger and became an exemplar of a woman who not only used birth control to shape her own life but also remained committed to activism on behalf of the cause for decades. Continue reading

Posted on July 15, 2013

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

West and Schwartz, Dreaming at the Movies

west.schwartz.salingerWhen it comes to 20th-century Jewish authors, it’s BellowRoth, and Salinger who generally grab headlines. But their immediate predecessors—Delmore Schwartz and Nathanael West—worked in an era that will always captivate me. The term “bygone time” gets tossed around a lot, but to read Schwartz and West is to truly step into a different America—the America of the 1930s—than the one that Bellow, Roth, and Salinger chronicled.

For one thing, World War II had not happened. For another, the television had not yet taken over as a standard domestic appliance. But the movies and radio were in full swing, forever altering the way we consume words, images, advertisements, and stories. Schwartz and West had to compete with these newfangled media. In one of my favorite passages from Miss Lonelyhearts, West, through the prism of that novel’s narrator, laments how the noun dreams has lost its aura in this new era:

“Although dreams were once powerful, they have been made puerile by the movies, radio and newspapers. Among many betrayals, this one is the worst” (39).

Almost as bad, for West’s narrator, is the way consumerism and vanity have encroached upon dreams as a once-sacred trope:

“Guitars, bright shawls, exotic foods, outlandish costumes—all these things were part of the business of dreams. He had learned not to laugh at the advertisements offering to teach writing, cartooning, engineering, to add inches to the biceps and to develop the bust” (22).

There’s no way to prove that Schwartz had these passages in mind when he wrote his legendary story, “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” two years later. But if the title is merely an unwitting homage to Lonelyhearts, the thematic overlaps are too powerful to ignore. To wit: Schwartz’s entire story takes place not only in a movie theater, but also in a theater that is the setting of a dream the narrator is having.

The movie depicts the clumsy courtship of the narrator’s parents. The theatergoers are all along for the romantic ride, with the exception of the narrator, who disturbs the other patrons with his protestations: “Don’t do it. It’s not too late to change your minds,” he shouts at the screen, after his father proposes to his mother. Naturally, the theatergoers wish he would just shut up and let them enjoy the film. They’ve paid good money to see it (thirty-five cents, in 1935).

In many ways, Schwartz and West set the stage for The Catcher In The Rye (1951), in which Holden Caulfield spends many a paragraph ridiculing the implausible idealism of mainstream American films. All of that—the march against phoniness—is generally credited to Salinger, and for good reason: His contrarian novel cracked the mainstream, giving vent to hypocrisies that most readers felt but never expressed. But let us remember that when it comes to the movies—and their corruption of dreams—West and Schwartz were there first.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

Posted on July 12, 2013

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

A Word on Who I Am

ilan.mochari.creditA few months ago I finished Pete Townshend’s autobiography, Who I Am. I can’t say I was surprised to read the following:

“We shared our house with the Cass family, who lived upstairs and, like many of my parents’ closest friends, were Jewish. I remember noisy, joyous Passovers with a lot of Gefilte fish, chopped liver and the aroma of slow-roasting brisket” (11).

Why was I not surprised? As a lifelong fan of The Who, I’ve often felt there was something ineffably Jewish in their themes and melodies. I’m thinking in particular of the devotional litany from Tommy:

“Listening to you, I get the music / Gazing at you, I get the heat / Following you, I climb the mountain / I get excitement at your feet / Right behind you, I see the millions / On you, I see the glory / From you, I get opinions / From you, I get the story.”

In the way it builds, in the way it deifies, in the way it mounts and repeats, it has always reminded me of Ein Keloheinu and Adon Olam.

And here’s my confession: I like singing this part of Tommy. A lot. As in, every day. As if it’s a prayer I can’t live without. It owns me. Even though I’m a secular cat. Even though I’d hesitate to call myself spiritual.

I have often wondered why Tommy has such a grip on me. My best guess? I think it stems from my six summers at B’nai B’rith Perlman Camp in Starlight, Pennsylvania.

BBPC was a place where you could get in serious trouble—you’d get “docked” from canteen or a team sport, and you’d get a dozen “dead arms” from your counselor—if you didn’t sing with the proper levels of respect and passion. It didn’t matter what the song was. It might be the “Birkat Hamazon”; it might be “The Circle Game”; it might be your color war team’s anthem.

This mild form of cultural hazing left a mark. To this day, I get annoyed at Passover when not everyone is pulling his weight on “Echad Mi Yodea.” And I get annoyed at music shows when the lead vocalist isn’t “bringing it” with everything he has.

And it all has to do with the belief—cultivated at BBPC—that singing is not to be done in a half-assed manner. It doesn’t matter if it’s the Passover table or a stadium concert. Sing it like you mean it, or don’t sing at all.

That last sentence is The Who in general, and Tommy in particular.

And so here I am, more than 20 years past my summer camp days. I’m an adult who almost never goes to temple. For all intents and purposes, I’m an atheist. But when I sing songs from Tommy, I feel like I’m regaining a precious piece of my childhood puzzle. It might not be a piece that belongs, strictly speaking, to the Jewish tradition; but it belongs to a lesson that I first learned in a Jewish setting. It is a lesson about passion, and a lesson about effort. And it is a lesson that has stayed with me, ever since.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

Posted on July 10, 2013

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Not All Autobiographical Elements Are Created Equal

zinsky.the.obscureI get this question all the time: How autobiographical is your novel?

The book’s style, setting, and protagonist invite the question: It’s a first-person coming-of-age debut. It takes place largely in New York and Boston, where I’ve spent most of my life. And the main character—the Zinsky of the title—is my age.

But my honest answer is this: “The life I’ve lived is different from the tale I spin about a fictional character named Zinsky. But I’ve used plenty of ammunition from my life to create Zinsky and his story.”

The thing is—there’s heavy ammunition, and there’s light ammunition.

In the category of heavy ammo, I’d list the following:

  • My parents separated when I was six. Same thing happens to Zinsky.
  • My mother was an English teacher. That, too, is the profession of Zinsky’s mother.
  • I’m a zealot of all things related to literature and football. So is Zinsky.

And yet, I never quite feel like the heavy ammo provides the entire picture. The book contains dozens of minor elements—in the form of small descriptions, single scenes, and turns of phrase—that are also autobiographical. This is what I call “light ammo.”

For example: There’s a wedding scene in Chapter 21, in which two characters—bored by the ceremonies—play a game of prayerbook baseball. Here’s how it works: Zinsky whispers a page number to Jimmy Calipari, the character sitting next to him. Jimmy attempts to open his prayerbook to exactly that page. If he succeeds, he’s hit a home run. If he gets within five pages, it’s a triple. Within 10, a double. Within 15, a single. Beyond 15, it’s an out. So the game begins, with the same general rules—three outs to a half-inning—as regular baseball.

A friend taught me this game in seventh grade. We were sitting next to each other during the Bar Mitzvah ceremony of another friend. We were bored out of our skulls. And this was 1987, so you couldn’t just take out a smartphone.

So you see, prayerbook baseball’s appearance in Zinsky is an autobiographical element. It’s not the heavy stuff of location, vocation, or family; but any way you slice it, it’s material from my life that I mined to create a fictional scene.

The point is, it’s easy to think of a novel’s autobiographical elements in terms of big-picture similarities between the author’s life and the life of his or her main character.

But just as often, it’s the small stuff.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

Posted on July 8, 2013

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

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