Saved by Leonard Cohen

a-broken-hallelujahSome people find Christ in their darkest hour. Others turn to Allah. But if you’re a Jew, young, and in trouble, your best bet is Leonard Cohen.

I was thirteen when I accepted the singer as my personal savior. I grew up in a beachside suburb of Tel Aviv, Israel, the spoiled child of a wealthy family. One afternoon, I came home from school, tossed my backpack on the floor, and raided the fridge in search of lunch when someone knocked on the door. It was the police. Three detectives politely forced their way in and informed me that my father—the jovial bon vivant whose hobbies included fast cars, fine hotels, and fat foods—had just been arrested. He was caught red-handed, the lead detective told me matter-of-factly, and confessed to being the Motorcycle Bandit, a brazen criminal who had hit up more than 20 banks in just a few months and whose antics made him a folk hero to many.

And, just like that, life as I knew it ended. I was no longer the child of privilege; I was now the son of the most notorious criminal in a country too small to keep secrets or award privacy. Our house filled up with visitors, and I remember my mother commenting bitterly that it felt like a shiva, the traditional Jewish mourning ritual in which friends and relatives gather to keep the bereaved company.

If the adults had appropriate words of condolence at their disposal, the adolescents, my friends, did not. Like teenaged boys everywhere, they had received no training in the art of empathy, and did not know how to console one of their own in the face of such strange trauma. Instead of words, then, they did what teenaged boys everywhere do and offered mixtapes.

Most of these were dross, catchy pop concoctions that went down easy and left no lasting impression. But one stood out. It contained an assortment of songs by Leonard Cohen.

I barely spoke English then, but Cohen’s words pierced right through the language barrier. They didn’t peddle in sentiment. They weren’t thick with bravado. They spoke a difficult but liberating truth. When I listened to “The Sisters of Mercy” for the first time, for example, I shuddered at the line about those “who must leave everything that you cannot control / It begins with your family, but soon it comes down to your soul.” It didn’t feel like a song lyric; it felt like an insight plucked from some higher realm, telling me to persevere, suggesting that things were tough but not hopeless. Alone in my bedroom, after all the well-wishers had left, I played the tape over and over again. It was the only thing that gave me comfort.

It took me twenty years of growing up and another four of listening intently to Cohen’s music for a book I was writing about him to understand just what I had found so reassuring as a wounded youth. Other artists were better at capturing raw emotion, at stirring the bloodstream, at washing you over with happiness. But then you took off your headphones and walked back out into the world, and the thin mist of feelgood soon evaporated. Like over-the-counter medicine, music was way too weak to fight back the symptoms of life in such an imperfect world. To cure true afflictions, you needed something stronger.

How strong? Consider the following lines, from Cohen’s song “Anthem”: “Ring the bells that still can ring / Forget your perfect offering / There’s a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.” We’ve no better distilled version, perhaps, of Cohen’s ideas than this, and no greater proof that what the baritoned bard is offering isn’t just entertainment but theology. A scion of several renowned rabbis, he believes, like the Jewish sages of old, that redemption is funny business: the messiah, goes the old Jewish adage, will only come when all Jews are kind and pious, but when all Jews are pious and kind, they would no longer need the messiah. There’s enormous wisdom in this cosmic joke. It tells us not to wait for someone else to swoop in and save us. It says, sadly, that we’ve no right to expect divine grace, and that the only thing we have, the only thing we need, is ourselves: with enough hard work, and a little bit of love, we all could transcend even the darkest of fates.

That’s the spirit that animates Cohen’s greatest songs. It’s also the spirit that saved me. After my father’s arrest, religious relatives suggested I partake in their practices, but I found little inspiring in the certainties of religious orthodoxy. Cohen showed me another way to worship, one that understood that because we humans are so imperfect, every hallelujah we mutter comes out broken but is no less holy or joyous for it. It’s not an easy idea to comprehend. It’s not immediately appealing like “all you need is love” or “give peace a chance.” But it has made Cohen, at 80, the closest thing we have to a prophet, and it has made me, at 13, find the strength to carry on.

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

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on May 19, 2014

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

10 Ways You Can Promote Gender Equality in Your Local School

educating-in-the-divine-imageGender messages are all around us. From images in schoolbooks to images on bus ads, from conversations on the train to those on the big screen, from clothing conventions learned at school or on Fifth Avenue—everywhere we turn, we are subsumed in messages about what it means to be a “correct” or “normal” woman or man. Just this week there has been a heated debate on our Facebook feeds about whether there is room in our society for women to express anger without being dismissed for not being perky enough. Gender is everywhere.

In our research, we have been especially interested in how these gender messages get transmitted in Jewish educational institutions. Schools are big parts of our adult lives—as parents, community members, and former students ourselves. And certainly schools are a big part of our children’s lives. Events taking place in school today are likely to impact our culture for years to come For that reason, we have found it useful to examine the gender messages in schools, and to provide people with tools to ask the important questions about their educational settings.

Here are some useful questions for parents, teachers, students, lay leaders, and other interested members of the community to ask about the educational institutions around you:

1. Whose photos are on the walls? When you walk into a school (or synagogue, or JCC), take a look at the portraits hanging on the walls. Are there an equal number of men and women? If photos are male-dominated, find out why. For example, is it because only school presidents’ photos are displayed and the school has never had a female president? If that is the case, see Question 2. Take note also of the gender make-up of artwork displayed, or of historical figures displayed. If women and girls are underrepresented, start a conversation about it with the school staff and leadership.

2. Who are the lay leaders? Are women represented in lay leadership? Has your school ever had a female president? Are women encouraged to join the lay leadership—prepped in the “pipeline” for future roles as leaders?

3. What does the mission statement say about gender? Mission statements often give strong clues about the values and energies of the school leaders. If a mission statement dedicates a paragraph or more to its relationship with the State of Israel, for example, chances are this was the result of many hours of discussion on the topic, and an express commitment to the issue. Many schools, however, have little if anything written in their mission statements about commitment to gender equality. This may mean that it has never been discussed at length, or that it is not a high priority. Find out the history of your school and its commitment to this topic.

4. Who are the student leaders? Is there gender equality in student government? Do girls and boys have equal opportunities to become leaders? Flip through recent yearbooks and check for gender equality in leadership of clubs and councils. Where do boys stand out and where do girls stand out? For example, is there a place for girls in areas such as chess, the A-V club, or computers? Is there a place for boys in art, poetry, and dance? Find out what kinds of experiences students have had when they challenge gender expectations. For example, what happens when a girl wants to join the A-V club? Also, do girls’ sports get the same attention as boys’ sports—and the same funding? Try to find out from students what kinds of experiences they have had in this regard.

5. Who represents the school at public events and assemblies? In one coeducational day school, a parent was surprised to find out that the school’s model seder had only boys on stage. When she inquired about this with the principal, he told her that it wasn’t “intentional”—each class was told to select a representative, and every single class happened to choose a boy. Check to see if there is equal representation and equal opportunity in public activities.

6. Who leads ritual and prayer? Even in early childhood, prayer and ritual are a significant part of students’ experiences in Jewish schools. In many cases, even in kindergarten, children receive the message that the boys’ job is to lead while the girls’ job is to choose songs or distribute papers. In upper classes, gender differences in expectations around ritual are further exacerbated. In many schools, boys are expected to pray more frequently or for longer periods than girls, boys are expected to come to school earlier than girls, boys’ prayer facilities are nicer than girls’, and boys receive more attention and training in areas related to prayer. Take note of the gender messages around prayer, and find out how these messages affect students’ attitudes towards prayer – and towards gender.

7. What kinds of roles are boys and girls given around Shabbat? Another gender-laden Jewish topic is Shabbat. In many schools, the “Ima shel Shabbat” [Shabbat mother] and “Abba shel Shabbat” [Shabbat father] are fixtures from early on. In some schools, the girl is expected to bring baked goods while the boy is expected to recite the Kiddush. What are the messages around these gender-segregated demands? How do they affect families that do not fit neatly into this “standard” gender model—such as single-parent families, blended families, or single-sex families? How do girls feel knowing that they have no reason to learn to recite blessings? How do boys feel learning that the meaning of being a boy is to always lead girls?

8. What adjectives are used to describe boys and girls? Take note of how girls and boys are described in newsletters, websites, report cards, and public events. Often girls are commended for being “caring,” “kind,” or “giving,” while boys are praised for their “intelligence,” “ingenuity,” and “courage.” Take note of gendered adjectives in your school, and start a school discussion about it.

9. Whose pictures are in the newsletter and website – and what are they doing? Similarly, whose photos appear on the school’s website and other materials? And in what capacity? Are girls shown in the same kinds of active, energetic, and intelligent roles as boys? Are girls shown engaging in sports, math, science, and leadership? One camp that we worked with had almost no photos of girls on its website. But when we pointed it out to them, they took note and made changes. Today, the site shows photos of girls everywhere, including doing sports and teaching.

10. Are there men on the educational staff, and in what positions? Teaching is a female-dominated profession, which has repercussions for status and salary. What makes it worse is the inverted pyramid—that often the few men on staff are quickly advanced and promoted. It is not uncommon to see a staff meeting that is almost exclusively female, with the only man in the room constituting the boss. Do dynamics like this exist in your school setting? How do women feel about the gender make-up of the staff?

We hope these questions are helpful. For more information and insights, you can read our book, or feel free to contact us for consultation or to find out how we can help you along in this important process.

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

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on May 16, 2014

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

10 Inspiring Ways That Women Are Fighting for Justice in Israel

war-on-women-in-israelIn my previous post, I described seven frightening trends of religious radicalism in Israel threatening women’s well-being and in some cases women’s lives. Despite this dire report, there have also been some inspiring actions by women’s groups and other social activists fighting for human rights and change in Israel. The most interesting developments are those that come from religious feminist groups, fighting for change from within the religious world. But the work of religious feminism is tremendously bolstered by social activist NGOs working on a variety of fields. Below are 10 examples of inspiring campaigns by Israeli NGOs to reclaim women’s rights in the face of religious threats:

1. Segregated buses. IRAC (Israel Religious Action Center) and Kolech (The Religious Women’s Forum) led a lawsuit against the Ministry of Transport, which eventually made gender segregation on buses illegal. Today, every bus has a sign saying that women can choose to sit where they want. Bus drivers comply because they know they can be fined a month’s salary if their buses are found to have segregation. Today there are less than 50 segregated lines left, down from over 150 in 2011.

2. Women’s faces on Jerusalem streets. The campaign of an NGO called “Jerusalemites” to hang faces of women around the city forced businesses to change their policy of showing women’s faces on billboards in Jerusalem. Even the Jerusalem municipality has restored women’s faces to many of their printed materials, such as this year’s brochure for the Jerusalem marathon which showed women’s faces for the first time in several years.

3. Gender segregation on the streets. Another IRAC lawsuit is pending against the Netanya Hevra Kadisha on behalf of a woman who was excluded from delivering a eulogy at a funeral.

4. Rock throwing in Beit Shemesh. Beit Shemesh resident Nili Phillip is leading a class-action suit against the municipality of Beit Shemesh to hold them accountable for the fact that women are being hurt by rock throwing Haredi men. It is up to the municipality, they argue, to take down signs saying women cannot be on certain streets and to protect women. The lawsuit is pending.

5. Women’s voices on the radio. Kolech and IRAC are in the midst of a 100 million NIS ($30 million U.S.) lawsuit against the broadcasting authorities to protest the practice of the Kol Berama radio station to exclude women’s speaking and singing voices. Kol Berama is at risk of losing its license. The lawsuit may also pave the way for similar actions in other areas.

6. Civil marriage and divorce in Israel. Several organizations are pushing for civil marriage and divorce in Israel—including The Center for Women’s Justice, New Family, Hiddush, and Be Free Israel, among others. The Masorti Movement is also pushing to have non-Orthodox marriages recognized as valid. Public sentiment is undoubtedly increasing in support of this movement and the possibilities are encouraging.

7. Women as directors of rabbinical courts. ICAR is also promoting a bill to change the current law that says that the executive director of the Rabbinical Courts—an administrative position, not a rabbinic one—has to be an ordained rabbi, meaning an Orthodox rabbi. This excludes women as well as non-Orthodox Jews. Changing this law would open up at least one position of authority to women.

8. Challenging the abortion panels. MK Zahava Gal-On (Meretz) is spearheading legislation to make the abortion panels obsolete.

9. Challenging the rabbinical courts’ jurisdiction over conversion. The Center for Women’s Justice is awaiting a decision on their appeal to the High Court of Justice challenging the right of the rabbinical court to overturn conversions.

10. Reform in the “services” of the Religious Ministry. The Religious Ministry has responded to public pressure by beginning to institute reforms in the way the clerks of the Religious Ministry relate to the public, including allowing for some free market competition by allowing people to choose which city to register for marriage in. Although these proposed reforms contain some problematic elements as well (such as a proposal to make it an arrestable offense for non-Orthodox rabbis to perform weddings!), the fact that there is any proposed reform on the table points to the impact of social pressure and the fact that this entire issue is arguably in the midst of major transition.

There is still much work to be done in Israel to protect women’s basic rights and to curtail the onslaught of radical religious ideas, but the work of these wonderful NGOs, especially the work of religious feminist groups, leaves me inspired.

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

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on May 15, 2014

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

7 Places Where Religious Radicalism Threatens Women’s Well-Being in Israel

elana-maryles-sztokmanWomen being arrested for praying out loud at the Western Wall – it’s a story so shocking that it has managed to make headlines around the world. But the Western Wall is just one piece of a larger picture of religion and gender in Israel today. In fact, the threat to women’s well-being in Israel today, which comes from an increasingly radical religious power structure, finds expression in many areas. On public streets, on buses, in the government, in the army, in the courts, and in hospitals, women’s bodies are the objects of public scrutiny, debate and even violence.

Below are seven places where women’s bodily well-being has been threatened in Israel over the past several years because of growing religious radicalism:

(1) Public buses. Twenty years ago, there was no such thing as official gender-segregated buses in Israel. The first segregated line was established in 1997 between Jerusalem and Bnei Brak, as an experimental Egged pilot to appease haredi leaders threatening to boycott Egged. In 2001, after years of pressure, Egged added another route from Ashdod as well, and stores along the gender-segregated route were pressured to change their displays, remove mannequins, avoid the central bus station to avoid ‘immodest’ signs, and play only certain radio stations. Each year more gender-segregated lines were added – 11 in 2005, 30 in 2006, by January 2011, there were 128 lines. By 2011, there were over 150 lines. And the more lines there were, the more violence against women rose, from one reported violent incident in 2004 to a Transport Ministry report that showed bullying and threats of violence on 5% of all buses.

(2) Public spaces. Signs have been erected on public streets in Beit Shemesh, Jerusalem, and other cities, demanding that women walk on the other side of the street. Signs excluding women have been erected in many other public locations around the country, including cemeteries, health clinics, post offices, libraries, and even public universities. University gyms have asked women to leave at the request of religious male students, women singers have been asked not to sing in cities including the avowedly secular Modi’in. In some cases, this is accompanied by violence: women in Beit Shemesh have been beaten and have had rocks thrown at them and acid poured on them by haredi thugs for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

(3) Municipalities. Gender-segregated municipal events have been held all around the country, including Rechovot, Safed, Jerusalem, Petach Tikva, and more. Women have been disinvited from performing, including singers being asked to leave the stage or having their microphones shut off and dancers who have been forced to wear shawl-like dresses to cover their dancing costumes. Some municipalities have published materials without any photos of women, including the brochure for the Jerusalem marathon.

(4) Media. The Kol Berama radio station not only refuses to air women’s singing, but also refused to allow women to be presenters, announcers or news readers, and would not let women callers speak. The Cnaan advertising company, which places ads on public buses, does not allow women’s faces to appear on the sides of buses in Jerusalem and certain other places. Similarly, companies and organizations ranging from Honigman to organ donation created special no-women ads for Jerusalem, Bnei Brak, Beit Shemesh and elsewhere

(5) The Knesset and government offices. Women were disinvited from singing in the Knesset choir. The health ministry and education ministries have held all-male events – and in one case a leading female medical researcher was barred from walking on stage to accept a prestigious award from the health ministry because women were barred from the event. The Education Ministry also ran a separate ad campaign for Jerusalem and Bnei Brak in which women’s faces did not appear on billboards.

(6) The IDF. As pressure mounts to induct haredi soldiers, the IDF is under pressure to keep women hidden from certain places to make the army “comfortable” for haredi men. This includes plans to build an all-male training camp. According to reports, women have been removed as instructors following complaints from religious soldiers, other soldiers refused to take orders from their female infantry instructors, discussions were being held about limiting the roles of women in tanks and armory, in the Intelligence Corps, women were asked to teach only while standing behind a desk, and more.

(7) Rabbinical courts. There is arguably no place in Israel where women’s rights are more systemically trounced upon in the name of religion than the rabbinical courts. The current system for marriage and divorce leaves all Jewish women in Israel, regardless of religiousness, lifestyle, or volition, completely at the discretion of the ultra-Orthodox state-backed rabbinical courts. This situation has been chronicled by many great activists, and there are some band-aid solutions in place. But the fundamental situation in which haredi judges can ruin women’s lives according to their own constantly radicalizing perceptions of women remains in place. And this situation makes Israel a scary place for Jewish women to get married.

In my next post (Part 2), I will share 12 remarkable ways that women are fighting back and reclaiming power over body integrity and basic human rights in Israel.

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

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on May 13, 2014

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

“Are You Jewish?”

invisible-cityYes. But it’s complicated.

My mother is Jewish, which, as my grandmother used to tell me, means that the Nazis would have come for me, too. My dad, on the other hand, is Christian. And not just a Christmas Christian, he is a church-going Christian; a Christian who left his career as a lawyer to be ordained when he was 55. A Christian who wears a cross around his neck. My sister and I grew up “both.”

Let me explain.

My mother is a proud Jew, from a family of Southern Jews for whom Judaism was their primary identity. My grandparents went to temple almost every Friday night of their lives. My grandmother used to tell me that that’s what their group would do as teens in the 1930s in Nashville: temple, then out for a movie. My great-grandfather was a prominent Zionist. He ate with Golda Meir and gave jobs to hundreds of European refugees at his hosiery mill during World War II.

Then, in 1972, my mom married my dad, and my great-grandfather sat shiva for her. She had grown up in his home and she never saw him again. The wedding was small; immediate family were the only ones on either side who showed up. Everyone else was too angry and anxious. Neither is converting? What will the kids be? Confused!

But guess what? We weren’t confused. The message my parents sent my sister and I was about faith in God, about love and kindness and about the power of tradition. Although the rest was important to them – my dad takes communion every week, and my mother never misses her parents’ yahrzeits – the differences, from a child’s perspective at least, were basically unimportant. Was Jesus the messiah? That was the divergence as I saw it. But why focus on that one thing when pretty much everything else seemed essentially the same? Love God, love your fellow man. Seek justice, be honest, do good.

As a child and adolescent, it was relatively easy to move between the two faiths, and I found myself taking on the role of contrarian. I never felt more Jewish than with Christian friends. When people asked me what religion I was I’d say both, although the idea was always for me to choose once I “grew up.” For my 13th birthday, my parents gave me a gold necklace with two pendants on it: a Star of David and a simple cross. They said I could wear them however I wanted to and I chose to wear them together, but it didn’t sit well with people. Everyone seemed offended, or confused. I stopped wearing the necklace at all after a few months.

As the years went by, I came to understand that I didn’t need to mark myself. I went to Hebrew summer school as a child and Sunday school at my dad’s church as an adolescent. My sister had a bat mitzvah, but I did not. Sometimes we accompanied my grandparents to Friday services. The whole family celebrated the High Holy Days, Passover, Easter, Christmas and Hanukkah.

As an adult, I have always identified as Jewish. As my grandmother said, “We need more good Jews.” And, how can I say it, I feel Jewish. You can choose Christianity, but Judaism chooses you, and that means something to me.

Being a Jew, for me, now, is about claiming the joys and burdens of a tribe of people I respect. Even growing up in the 1980s, the Holocaust was very present in my home. My grandmother told me stories about her cousins, European Jews who were barely observant, who considered themselves Frenchmen or Germans, but who were forced to announce themselves as Jews and be killed for it. Would you stand up and announce yourself? was the implicit question. And the answer, for me, was always yes.

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

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on May 12, 2014

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 Previous Tenant

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julia-dahlIn October 2007, my husband and I were looking for an apartment in Brooklyn. We’d seen too many to count and none worth the price, so when a one-bedroom just off Prospect Park popped up for $1200 we jumped. On the way to the appointment, the broker gave us the news: The man who lived in the apartment until last month had committed suicide there.

We took it anyway and when I went to sign the lease at the landlord’s office in Borough Park, I could tell he was pleased to have unloaded the apartment.

“He was a very sick man,” said the landlord. “He stopped taking his medication. His family was devastated.”

After about a week, the woman in the apartment next door came to introduce herself. I asked if she knew the man who’d lived here and she said yes.

“His name was David,” she said. “He was a teacher. And he was really nice.”

I told her what the landlord said about him, and she had a different story.

“He was Hasidic,” she said. “And he was gay. His family abandoned him.”

Then she peered into the apartment and said: “They did a good job of cleaning it up.”

The first piece of mail addressed to him arrived about a month later. It was a post card from Spain. Judging by the handwriting, the note was from a woman. More letters arrived over the next few months: a flyer with a photograph of a man in lipstick advertising a performance in the Greenwich Village; something official from the Teacher’s Retirement System; a check-up reminder from the local hospital.

I didn’t open any of the letters, but I kept all the mail in a folder in my desk. As a reform Jew who grew up in Central California, I had only recently realized that communities of ultra-Orthodox even existed in the U.S., and, I have to admit, the people who lived in this world fascinated me. I saw them on the train, dressed in clothing that seemed from another time; clothing that separated them, that screamed, I am Jewish.

I started to read about their community, and the more I read, the more I wanted to know David. I listened for him, but never saw signs of a ghost. For a while I toyed with the idea of tracking down his family and bringing them the thick folder of mail. But I realized that that would be an exercise in selfishness. If they hadn’t wanted to hear from him, they certainly wouldn’t want to hear from me.

So, because I could only imagine him, I did what writers do when we get curious: I started to write about him. Well, not him exactly (although you’ll find a reference to him in my novel, Invisible City), but the world he came from.

And I still have his unopened mail.

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

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on May 7, 2014

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

Why I Write About Crime

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invisible-cityFor the past 10 years I have devoted my professional life – and my imagination – to things most people would rather not think about. I have written about teenagers stabbing their parents to death; about rapists gone unpunished; about the high rate of suicide among police officers and soldiers; about mass shootings and children gone missing and bodies unidentified for years.

Sometimes, people ask me why this is the path – or in journalism-speak, the “beat” – I’ve chosen. Usually, I shrug and smile and say something to end the conversation: “I guess I must be missing a chip.”

But the truth is more complicated.

As Jews, we learn about evil early. The Holocaust is personal. We hear the stories and we know that if we had been born just a little earlier, in the place where our grandparents lived, we too would have been the victims of this great crime. And as a potential victim, I couldn’t help but think: who are the people who did this? Why? What did it feel like to be pushed onto a train at gunpoint? How did all those Nazi officers, born human just like me, turn into killing machines? We’ll never really know, I suppose, but as I grew up, they were questions that gnawed at me.

And then, my freshman year in college I took a course called “Suffering and Salvation.” The primary focus of the semester was to examine this question: How can God exist, and be both good and all-powerful, with so much evil in the world? We read St. Augustine and the Book of Job; Letters from a Birmingham Jail, Albert Camus, William Styron and Elie Wiesel.

One day in class, the professor screened a series of films depicting the death camps. I’d never seen such graphic images: naked, skeletal bodies being carted on wheelbarrows to mass graves. Piles of people in shower rooms built for murder. It was harrowing, but the professor challenged us not to look away. If they had to endure it, she said, the least you can do is bear witness.

As a crime reporter, I bear witness to a lot of evil. And not just the things that are easy to point to and call evil. I see evil in the system that imprisons and executes innocent people too poor to afford decent counsel; evil in the teenagers locked in solitary confinement; evil in the thousands of rape kits languishing in police storage across the country; evil in the hate-filled man who takes a gun to Jewish institutions and guns down three people.

Crime is what we call the evil we do to each other. This evil must be witnessed, and it must be chronicled. We must be made to see the ugliness in ourselves. As John Steinbeck so perfectly put it in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech: “The ancient commission of the writer has not changed. He is charged with exposing our many grievous faults and failures, with dredging up to the light our dark and dangerous dreams for the purpose of improvement.”

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

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on May 6, 2014

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 Jews and the Second World War: A Reading List

gwen-edelmanI started reading about the fate of the Jews during the Second World War when I was eleven. No one I knew ever mentioned the subject, but I just became obsessed and have continued to read about it ever since.

One reading experience I particularly remember is “Fragments” by Benjamin Wilkomirski. Because I had already read so many memoirs by Jews about their experiences during the war, I immediately thought something was wrong. All the memoirs I had read before were characterized by very clear recall of details, but this memoir instead was vague and floating. While I thought it was a good book, something just didn’t ring true.  Offering him the benefit of the doubt, I reminded myself that Wilkomirski was only two years old during the Holocaust and that his memories might be floating in gauze like this because of his young age. I had never read a memoir by someone that young. But, as you probably know, it turned out he had invented the whole thing. Unfortunately, I was not surprised at all. Rather, I was only surprised that he had not called it a novel. And a very good and imaginative one, too.

Here is a list of ten books which are, for me, some of the most powerful and most meaningful books concerning (in most, but not all cases) the fate of the Jews during The Second World War:

Into That Darkness by Gitta Sereny
A portrait of Franz Stangel, commandant of Treblinka, based on extensive interviews by one of the outstanding journalists of our time.

Kaputt: A Novel by Curzio Malaparte
A stingingly irreverent, cruel, and brilliant look at the war in some of the places where Malaparte, a diplomat, spent those years: Russia, Poland, Finland, Romania.

The Skin: A Novel by Curzio Malaparte
The tragic and corrupt carnival of life in Naples from 1943 until the end of the war.

Life and Fate: A Novel by Vasily Grossman
An extraordinary and epic novel with a huge cast of Russian and German characters centered around the battle of Stalingrad. One of the
great novels of the twentieth century.

The General of the Dead Army: A Novel by Ismail Kadare
A brilliant novel by one of the greatest contemporary writers. Set in Albania 20 years after the war, the story follows an Italian general and an Italian priest to Albania where they are to retrieve and repatriate the bones of Italian soldiers who died during the Italian occupation of Albania.

Mr. Sammler’s Planet: A Novel by Saul Bellow
Far-ranging meditations by a Holocaust survivor now living in New York.

History: A Novel by Elsa Morante
One afternoon in 1941 in Rome, an Italian woman is raped by a German soldier and gives birth to a boy. The story of this strange boy and his older brother in wartime Rome, and the woman’s determination that her two boys survive is the drama of ordinary people caught up in a horrific war with which they they had nothing to do.

The Periodic Table by Primo Levi
In which Levi, himself a chemist, discovers that a German chemist with whom he has been corresponding and with whom he has placed an order, had been the chief of a laboratory in Auschwitz where Levi himself had been a prisoner.

The Holocaust Kingdom by Alexander Donat 
One of the best non-fiction accounts of day-to-day existence during the Holocaust. Donat and his wife and child were in the Warsaw Ghetto. He and his wife were later deported to nine different death camps.

Words To Outlive Us: Eyewitness Accounts from the Warsaw Ghetto edited by Michal Grynberg
A collective memoir by many voices of experiences of the Warsaw Ghetto. Extremely powerful and immediate accounts.

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

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on April 28, 2014

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

Changing Times, Changing Letters, and Moving Forward

a-bintel-briefAbraham Cahan loved Yiddish, but he was not afraid of change. He urged his readers to be less religious, and to learn how to be Americans. While other Yiddish newspapers refused to print Americanized Yiddish, Cahan’sForward welcomed the English words that found their way into Yiddish—vinda (window), boychik (boy).

The early Bintel Brief letters are timeless and could have been written anywhere, by anyone who had left his old life behind and traveled across the ocean to a new world. To read them is to get to the essence of things. The later Bintel Brief letters, on the other hand, are bitter. As the Forward’s readership aged and dwindled, the letters were more often written by older people, no longer new to America. They were the last bastions of the Yiddish language, watching sadly as their children grew up, went to college, made money, and became ashamed of their parents. ‘Dear Mr. Editor,’ people would write, ‘Our children have a Christmas tree;’ ‘Our children don’t keep kosher;’ ‘Our children don’t want us to read a Yiddish newspaper in public. It embarrasses them.’

If the early Bintel Brief letters make me feel connected to my great-grandparents and to my past, the later letters hold an uneasy mirror up to my newfound nostalgia. To me, the letters embodied a bitter-sweet kind of longing for my own culture, and homesickness for my own city. Not many people speak Yiddish anymore—a loss that is too big to fathom; our culture lived in that language, more than in any place.

While I worked on my book, I felt like I was writing my own Bintel Brief letter to Abraham Cahan: “Where are the Jews I can relate to,” I asked. “Where is the old, scrappy New York, the New York that corresponds to my intense, worried, immigrant’s soul?”

How did Cahan answer the late Bintel Brief letters? He didn’t.

Not one for sentimentality, he handed off the role of advice columnist to a staff-member at the Forward, occupying himself with more interesting matters, such as writing a great American novel, eating schav (a green soup), and taking up bird watching. If Cahan were alive now, I don’t think he’d have been the editor of a Yiddish newspaper. He’d be one step ahead of the rest of us, finding the new zeitgeist before we knew it existed. I love the past, and long for it, and seek it always. But Cahan’s spirit is not in the past. It is here. It is now. It does many good things in the world, including teaching nostalgic misfits like me to understand that we do belong in the here and the now.

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

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on April 25, 2014

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 Ghetto in the Middle of a City

warsaw-ghetto-mapCentral Park, in the middle of the city of New York, is 843 acres. The Warsaw Ghetto, in the middle of the city of Warsaw, was 832 acres.

One day you are walking down Fifth Avenue. You see stone masons slathering mortar on red bricks. A wall is going up. Around Central Park? How strange. There’s never been a wall around Central Park before. You ask one of the masons why they’re building a wall. He shrugs. He’s been told to build it. That’s all. He doesn’t know what it’s for. Another mason nearby says the same. What could it be for? To keep whom in and whom out? It’s all exceedingly strange.

This has not happened in New York City. But it did happen in Warsaw in November of 1940. From one day to the next, a six foot high red brick wall began to go up around the poorest part of the city. Several weeks later, signs appeared all over Warsaw. Jews were to move to the enclosed space behind the walls within two weeks, under pain of death. Jews from all walks of life were suddenly uprooted and forced to move to the poorest, most dilapidated part of town. In the space of a few weeks, they had to find an apartment, pack up all their worldly belongings on carts and wagons, and move into their new quarters where they found themselves squeezed into tenement apartments with other families. In the beginning there were visitors. Non-Jews going to say goodbye to friends, relatives, employers…

Soon the pieces of the mysterious walls were connected. There were twenty-three gates with armed guards at each one. And then the gates closed. In the middle of the city, a new universe came into being, shut off from the old. Inside there was no food. Because the caloric allotment for Jews was 86 calories a day, the smuggling between the two sides of the wall began immediately. The guards were paid off, the Poles on the “Aryan side” were paid. And the business of surviving began.

There are no apartment buildings and no streets in Central Park. But imagine that there were. Imagine that inside Central Park, there are only Jews. Invisible behind the walls. The life of the city goes on all around the walls. And inside? What is happening? You are walking down Fifth Avenue near the six foot high wall. As you pass one of the gates, you see Jewish laborers being marched out to work outside the ghetto. From your side of the wall you can see them throwing food and goods over the wall. You can see them burrowing through holes that have been carved out beneath the wall and in the middle of the wall. The smuggling is never ending—both from the ghetto side and the “Aryan side.” Bags of kasha and potatoes and sugar are thrown into the ghetto. Leather goods and textiles are thrown back. Contraband is brought through the gates in wagons or by smugglers, many of them children.

You can see them shooting Jews at the gate, shooting at Jews attempting to scale the wall. From inside you hear gunshots, shouts, screams. A reign of terror. And you can hear it, you can smell it. Another universe is in motion. The shooting, the screaming, the stench of blood and filth and corpses. The starvation. The trains that leave several times a day packed with Jews headed for Treblinka… On the other side of the wall, there’s a war going on. It’s not exactly peacetime outside the ghetto. But this is another world. It’s not far away, it’s not on the outskirts of town. It’s a walled kingdom of death right in the midst of the city.

This wasn’t Central Park, of course. This was Warsaw in 1940, 1941, 1942, 1943…

You cannot be oblivious to what’s going on inside those walls. Or can you?

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

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on April 25, 2014

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