No American Jew could have experienced a more inspiring introduction to Israel that I did upon arriving in darkness aboard the first plane from London after the start of the Six-Day War. Within hours I was in Jerusalem watching the Battle for the Old City from the terrace of the King David Hotel. In the morning we drove a rented Volkswagen along the tank tracks to avoid mines and soon came upon soldiers celebrating their historic conquest by praying at the Western Wall. Never observant, I joined in prayers with this elite brigade of Jewish paratroopers, recruited mainly from secular kibbutzim. Their tribune was no less than Israel’s chief rabbi blowing the shofar—a ram’s horn blast that stirred Jewish souls around the world.
I remained for several weeks to report on the problems facing the victorious nation, most notably the unforeseen conquest of the West Bank from Jordan. It was during that assignment that I first met and befriended Yuval Elizur, then the Jerusalem correspondent of The Washington Post and now the co-author of our book, The War Within. I endured the baleful stares in the Mea Shearim, a dozen blocks set aside for ultra-Orthodox, then a tourist curiosity because it was widely believed that this anachronistic sect would wither away in modern Israel. How wrong we were. Years later, they have become a powerful minority determined to set the tone for society in the Holy City, and the leaders of American Jewry have tread carefully to avoid antagonizing them.
Although the majority of American Jews belong to Reform and Conservative congregations, the American Jewish establishment has maintained connections with the Israeli parties representing the Orthodox, which until now were an essential part of the nation’s coalition governments. For example, within days of the military conquest of the holiest place of worship for all Jews, the Orthodox rabbinate took control of the Western Wall, banned Reformist devotions, and literally walled off women who came to pray. Even when the women were given access to a small sector, there was no serious criticism by major American Jewish organizations lest it be seen as an attack on the government that would give comfort to Israel’s enemies.
American defenders of the Orthodox argue that there are “many shades of black.” But the deepest shade have long had the most political influence and in consequence enjoy the most egregious privileges, the largest subsidies, and the greatest isolation from Israeli society. No American Jew outside the Orthodox enclaves in Brooklyn and around New York City—sects with respected elders recently convicted of fraud and sexual abuses—would agree to a public subsidy of sixty per cent of ultra-Orthodox males who are unemployed, or almost one hundred thousand able-bodied and subsidized yeshiva students who escape military service while they study nothing but sacred texts and learned commentary.
Jews have thrived and won acceptance as both Jews and Americans by adapting our religious observance and culture to the customs of the country. Whenever permitted by local rulers, Jews have always done so. That is a fundamental theme of the Talmud: how does a Jew in a strange land live as a Jew? Of course it is easier in a country of religious tolerance like ours, but surely Jewish survival does not depend on literal adherence to 613 biblical commandments dating back several thousand years: it depends on adapting those rules to modern life—and certainly not on re-creating the Jewish ghettoes that we have spent centuries trying to escape. That is a formula for alienation, irrelevance, rejection, and eventually the disappearance of all Jews, and it applies with equal force to the embattled nation of Israel, which has succeeded against all odds by adopting modernity as its culture
It is an axiom of warfare that the longer one faces an enemy, the more each side has to adopt the other’s tactics to survive and thus willy-nilly start to resemble the other. Israel will not be strengthened by falling into the same fundamentalist trap as proponents of Muslim sharia in their own countries; on the contrary, both sides risk falling back into the past by refusing to embrace the present.
Remember Mandy Patinkin’s character Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride? When Montoya was a child, the story goes, the six-fingered man killed his father. He also slashed Montoya’s face, leaving him with scars on both cheeks. Montoya spends the rest of his life training to exact vengeance on his father’s killer. He practices not only his swordsmanship but just what he’ll say when he finally finds and confronts the six-fingered man: “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”
The main character in my second novel In the Land of the Living is a boy like that, a boy with a dead father, a boy bent on recompense and committed to its pursuit for as long as it takes. His problem is that there is no six-fingered man to kill.
Instead, he attempts to resurrect his father in a manner of speaking—by hewing to certain superhuman ideals in order to safeguard his father’s legacy from the oblivion of the grave. He will brook no failure in his career or his personal life and strives to excel everybody at everything (with the exception of phys ed). Anyone and everyone who gets in his way is the six-fingered man.
William Goldman, the screenwriter of The Princess Bride, has a cynical streak. It’s evident in his first novel Temple of Gold and it’s evident in the way he wreathes so many ironies into the sentimentality of The Princess Bride. A little of that cynicism comes out when Inigo Montoya actually does confront the six-fingered man. His lifelong search has come to an end at last, and Montoya delivers his practiced line, “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” He battles his enemy by sword as planned, but the six-fingered man appears to defeat him. Montoya slumps backward, mortally wounded, and gives up with a line that still sucks the air from my lungs: “Sorry, Father. I tried.” It doesn’t seem to be Inigo Montoya the man that’s defeated then; it’s the boy who took on a task that was much too big for him out of love for the father that should have been there to help him.
Being a feel-good Hollywood movie, Montoya of course fights back from the edge of defeat. But in a way, what follows is even more cynical. The six-fingered man begs for his life. He promises Montoya anything he wants in exchange for mercy and Montoya answers, “I want my father back, you son of a bitch,” and he kills the six-fingered man.
He doesn’t fail his father after all, but because he can’t have the one thing he wants—for his father to be alive—he does in a sense fail himself. He asks his friend what he ought to do with his life now that his quest is over, and when his friend suggests he become a pirate, it seems ridiculous even according to the unreal, comedic laws of Hollywood fantasy. With his face alone, Mandy Patinkin smuggles into the scene a look of haunting ennui before the comedy-romance carries on with its merry business.
My book, In the Land of the Living, is a pretty funny book—it needs to be, to balance out the tragedy at the core of it—but it’s no Hollywood comedy. It’s a realist novel, and its protagonist doesn’t have the option of sailing away as the Dread Pirate Roberts, much as he’d like to. The land of the living is a less forgiving place than the land of The Princess Bride. Neither the death of the six-fingered man nor suicide solve the problem of grief. The only way forward is to figure out how to live a good life. And that is where my main character’s odyssey begins. Off he goes through graveyards and hospitals, loving and losing, traveling with his brother from L.A. to Cleveland in search of an answer to the question of how to live.
I think of it as a modern-day Don Quixote. In Part I, I used chapter titles that satirize medieval romance just as Cervantes did. It’s a novel that purposely dwells in an unstable region between comedy and tragedy, dream and reality, which is to say that it dwells in the real world, where the laws of nature are unyielding, and the human heart unflagging.
For many years the political power of Israel’s Orthodox minority spread as if it would never reach a limit. While their number of seats in Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, remained small in relation to their power and also remarkably stable, the Orthodox rabbis and their political representatives influenced government policy by offering to vote as a bloc to sustain any ruling coalition. There was a price, of course: exemption from military service and subsidies for strict religious education and the welfare of the yeshiva students. These and their other favorite projects expanded after each election campaign. No wonder that an increasing number of Israeli intellectuals, including a noted sociology professor at Hebrew University, warned that Israel might soon become a theocratic state not unlike Iran.
But finally came a pushback in the decades-long battle between State and Synagogue. The results of this January’s elections proved that a good part of the political strength of the Orthodox may have been a myth. It finally may be receding toward a reality more representative of Israeli society, which is predominantly secular in practice although committed to Judaism as a religion.
It all began in 1948 during the first Israeli government when Prime Minister David Ben Gurion excused a mere 400 Orthodox yeshiva students from serving in the army and ceded to the rabbinical courts total jurisdiction over marriage and divorce of Jewish women in the new state. This set the pattern for the small religious parties’ clever manipulation of the ruling parties, which needed their parliamentary votes to hold power –whether the leftist Labor governments of the early days of the state or the rightist governments of recent years.
To the surprise of many Israelis, the elections demonstrated that religious parties can be a serious political liability and no longer an asset purchased by budgets and political concessions. For Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu they have become a menacing factor that are literally stuck in his throat as he struggles to form a new coalition. For more than a month since the January 22nd elections, the leader of Israel’s largest political party, Halikud Beitenu, has been unable to form a government without antagonizing the religious parties. According to Israeli law, Netanyahu has until mid-March to form a government. If he can’t, President Shimon Peres must declare new elections.
Trying to work out deals under this sword of Damocles, it seems likely that Netanyahu will somehow succeed in forming a government with or without the votes of the religious parties. Yet there is a lesson to be learned from the present debacle: The political leverage of the religious parties has been dramatically reduced. From now on, both right- and left-wing leaders will try to form governments on their own from the nation’s handful of parties and perhaps even reform Israel’s political system without the need to depend on the support of the religious parties by kowtowing to them.
Let one thing be clear: all this political maneuvering has very little to do with the influence of religion on life in Israel. That will continue to be substantial. Even with the religious parties in the opposition, Israel will be still a country where most yeshiva students will not serve in the army, the Sabbath will be an officially enforced day of rest, and only kosher food will still be served in the army. There will still be rabbinical marriages although civil marriages may finally be possible through a series of interim arrangements.
But whatever the shape – and stability – of the ruling coalition that finally emerges, the veto power of the rabbis has been blunted and may finally be broken.
Many people have asked why I included a biblical map in The Bronfman Haggadah. Well, for starters, I love maps and I guess I assume that other people love them as well.
As a kid, I spent a lot of time poring over maps. Growing up in New Orleans, maps helped me figure out where I was in relation to the world. I wanted to know, for instance, where I was in relation to Europe. Where was Paris?
I also loved the colors of maps, as maps are very beautiful. Indeed, I think they are beautiful for a reason: so that we may enjoy and admire them as we investigate the world and place ourselves within a certain universe.
For that reason, I thought it would be useful and important to be able to turn to a page in the Haggadah and see the part of the world that we’re talking about. I also realized that I’d never seen a map in a Haggadah—and I have looked at countless illustrated Haggadot. And so, I decided that a map would indeed be a very interesting, unique, and informative detail.
This led to many days of research about biblical geography, and that’s when things got complicated. There’s an open-endedness about our story and it is nearly impossible to pinpoint specifics. It turns out that there are five possible sites for Mount Sinai, and there are at least three possible routes taken by the Jews—there were established trade routes, important cities flourishing, and various tribes settled among the land.
I know that I am not alone in loving maps, so I hope that including one in The Bronfman Haggadah will not only entertain and inform readers, but also open their eyes to a new aspect of the Passover story.
A few weeks ago I was asked to provide a blurb for an about-to-be-published collection of short stories, The Best Place on Earth, by a young Israeli born writer named Ayelet Tsabari. Set against a backdrop of war, conflict and the army service, with underlying themes of displacement, the quest for ‘home,’ love and loss, the stories in this collection pulse with raw energy as they unfurl along the fault lines within Israeli society. The author stretches herself to write from a broad variety of perspectives, and while not every story works perfectly she captures the particular intensity, urgency and ambivalence of the young Israelis she depicts, and there is a compelling urgency to each of the stories and to the collection as a whole that reflects the multifaceted society she brings to life.
Tsabari is an Israeli of Yemeni descent, and her stories are all told from the perspective of Mizrahi Israelis. I realized as I was reading it how rarely I have seen that sector of Israeli society represented in fiction and how hungry I am for more fiction about the lives of non-Ashkenazi Israelis. A recent visit to Ethiopia intensified that interest, so if anyone can recommend fiction by Mizrahi and/or Ethiopian Israelis that has been translated into English I would really appreciate it. (I wish I didn’t have to rely on English translations or books written in English as Tsabari’s is but, alas, my Hebrew is not up to the task) You can write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
When Edgar asked me to illustrate the text of The Bronfman Haggadah, which at that point he had been writing for several years, my first response was: “But I’m not an illustrator!”
“Good. I don’t want an illustrator. I want you to do it,” was his swift reply.
And so began a project that was the opportunity of a lifetime. An artist does not often get the chance to have complete and full creative freedom to do what they want with something that is so meaningful—both in a personal and spiritual sense.
Not once was there anyone looking over my shoulder trying to edit what I was doing. Certainly not Edgar or even Rizzoli, the publisher.
This project was a chance to actually branch out and use all of my creative juices. And it was a wonderful, wonderful thing to do at this point in my life as an artist. I’ve spent many years in my studio alone creating various bodies of work, so to finally have the opportunity to collaborate—with my husband no less—was a tremendous joy.
Looking back, Edgar’s request was truly a blessing in disguise. For an artist, the biggest challenges often yield work of a totally unforeseen—and remarkable—quality. I was continuously striving to present the material in the most stimulating ways possible. How would I keep adults interested? How do I encourage the children, who would be at the table for their first and tenth times alike, to open the Haggadah and to look forward to turning the page?
My new inhabitance of the mind of an illustrator was, as it turned out, something of a metamorphosis. It changed the way that I approached my art, the way I perceived the art world, and the way I presented my work.
One of the great pleasures of writing for me is researching historical events and details that help me understand and more fully realize the lived experience of my characters. The research I did for my second novel, Your Mouth is Lovely, for example, opened up a world to me—that of early 20th century life in the villages and prisons of the Russian Pale of Settlement—that I had previously only encountered filtered through the imaginations of the great fiction writers of that era. For my most recent novel, however, I decided not to do to any formal research. The Imposter Bride is set in the Jewish community of Montreal in the years immediately following the Second World War. It is told from the perspective of a young woman named Ruthie who is the daughter of a Holocaust survivor. I wanted to stay true to the knowledge Ruthie would have had at that time—the 1950’s and early 60’s—both within her own family and within the larger Jewish community, rather than superimpose onto her narrative the knowledge that we now have about the Holocaust. I wanted to convey what it was like to be a child—as I myself was—at a time when the truth of what had happened to many of the adults in the community was just slowly beginning to emerge.
In the years immediately following the war the details about what had happened in Europe were not widely discussed and taught as they are today. The refugees coming over from Europe faced a wide variety of reactions, including compassion, of course, but also aversion, a certain condescension and varying degrees of ignorance. What had happened during the Holocaust was not yet taught in schools, and was not written down in history books, nor did the adult survivors who lived among us expressly articulate what they had experienced. The truth of what happened in Europe was revealed to us slowly and often indirectly, through behaviors, the lingering fears and reactions that we witnessed, the tattooed numbers that we could see on the arms of some of our teachers and parents, and only the occasional verbal comment or description. It was Ruthie’s experience of that time that I wanted to convey and to do that I relied on my own memories of that era and those of my siblings, friends and cousins, rather than doing formal research about the facts of the time.
When I set out to create the illustrations for The Bronfman Haggadah, I knew I wanted it to be historically accurate. But I also wanted it to be imaginative, surprising, and distinct from all other Haggadot. Of course I knew there were many iconic ideas that needed to be expressed, but I didn’t want to make them so rote.
As an artist I was drawn to the symbolism in the Exodus story. Ultimately, my embrace of the Haggadah as metaphor is what allowed and contributed to the co-mingling of both historical accuracy and the flights of my imagination throughout the project.
Moses’s basket, an emblematic part of the Passover story, is a perfect example of the challenges I faced in terms of departing from the traditional, whilst still remaining loyal to the narrative, and of course, history.
The discovery of the basket in the Nile by the princess, where you see the princess looking down at it, is a scene depicted in endless Haggadot, and I knew I didn’t want to create that kind of an illustration. Instead, I was drawn in by the vastness of the Nile. So many people don’t realize just how enormous it is at some parts. I thought the most interesting way to work with this scene was to focus on the juxtaposition of this tiny little basket against this huge river.
In keeping with my dedication to historical accuracy, the majority of my illustrations are made up of patterns. When I started the Haggadah, and I began thinking about what imagery I would use, my first impulse was to go back to the source—what kind of imagery would the Jews have been exposed to at the time? I realized that it would’ve been mostly Egyptian art and artifacts, plus the influence of Greek and Roman cultures. I am also drawn to African textile patterns and used these in many of the paintings. Geometric patterns are widespread in all traditions, and they complemented my vision for a distinct Haggadah.
My overall goal was to create a Haggadah that was constantly surprising. I wanted the reader to feel that each page was different from the next, hopefully inspiring a sense of discovery and wonder but mostly to make our seder experience interesting.
The first step for me in writing fiction is deciding which of my characters is telling the story. I might sense an entire novel taking form inside of me but if I start writing from the wrong point of view I cannot find the story I want to tell. My most recent novel, The Imposter Bride, is a case in point. The first scene of the novel seemed to write itself. It describes a young woman named Lily arriving in Montreal immediately following the Second World War, having taken someone else’s identity to cross borders and gain entry to a new life in a new country. The first drafts of the early chapters told the story from Lily’s point of view but each time I tried to move beyond that first scene I hit a wall. A first person account of a Holocaust survivor’s life during and after the war simply did not feel like it was mine to tell, nor did it feel like I was gaining entry into the heart of the novel I felt within me. I kept writing and rewriting from Lily’s perspective for longer than I care to admit, aware that it wasn’t working but not pinpointing that the problem was one of perspective and point of view. Finally, one morning another voice came into my head. It was the voice of a six-year-old girl, the daughter of Lily, living in Montreal in the 1950’s. As I began to follow that voice the story opened to me. The details and story lines that had eluded me for so long poured out. It became a story of the intergenerational effects of trauma within a family and within the community in which I was raised.
The main challenge I faced when preparing a biography of Louis Marshall stemmed from the gap between the perceptual confidence that characterizes American Jewish life in the 21st century and the tensions and insecurities of Jewish life in the United States during the first decades of the 20th century. The trick, I believed, was to create an intelligible dialogue between these differing modes of thought and feeling. To recreate historical events uncritically, exactly as Marshall and his peers saw them, would draw contemporary readers into a morass of inhibition about being “too Jewish” that is foreign to them, whereas to overlook realities and attitudes that were indisputably part of Marshall’s American Jewish milieu would be condescending and, worse, injurious to empirical rules of historical scholarship.
American Jewish history is happily devoid of the angst that characterizes Jewish life on other continents and in other contexts. It is perfectly reasonable for contemporary readers to assess critically the self-defense labors of previous generations of American Jews, and conclude, in some instances, that past Jewish leaderships were overly defensive and inhibited, even in ways that could be paranoiac or self-defeating.
Yet this critical license to look at the past heroes of American Jewish life as high-strung, occasionally histrionic, figures can be taken much too far; and to my mind, at least, much of the finest recently published scholarship on American Jewish life in periods and context applicable to Marshall’s life, such as the Roaring Twenties, is flawed to some extent by researchers’ anachronistic projection of Jewish life in America in the late 20th century or early 21st century onto the American Jewish past. Scholars who focus on how Jews came to feel “at home” in America in a period like the 1920s tend to under-emphasize the extent to which anti-Semitism was a constant presence in the minds and real life circumstances of both well-established Jews, and struggling immigrant Jews. Continue reading