Tag Archives: history

What’s in a Name?

One of the greatest dilemmas I faced while writing The Benderly Boys & American Jewish Education was how to refer to the group of Jewish educators who were mentored by New York Bureau of Jewish Education director Samson Benderly. At first glance the answer seemed deceptively simple. Benderly referred to his protégés as my “boys,” and the moniker “Benderly boys” was widely used both by members of the group and their colleagues in the field.

And yet, the appellation is problematic. For one thing, in today’s world the term “boy” or “girl” when used in reference to a grownup has taken on a pejorative, or at the very least, a paternalistic connotation. This usage has largely become anachronistic, a relic of the “Mad Men” and “Driving Miss Daisy” era.

More fundamentally, the term “Benderly boys” is misleading. Although the majority of Benderly’s disciples were men, the group also included a number of women. A few attained leadership positions in schools, community centers, camps and other organizations. And while most voluntarily “retired” after marriage or the birth of their children, a few became career women long before the feminist revolution. Libbie Suchoff Berkson, for example, directed Camp Modin, in Canaan, Maine, while Elsie Simonofsky Chomsky served for many years as the principal of Gratz College‘s well regarded Hebrew teacher’s program, the School of Observation and Practice. Still other women gave up leadership positions but continued to wield influence in the field. Rebecca Aaronson Brickner, who served as Benderly’s veritable right hand during his early years at the New York Bureau, officially left education in 1919 when she married Rabbi Barnett Brickner. But her influence continued to be felt in the religious school of Cleveland’s Euclid Avenue Temple (later called the Fairmount Temple), where her husband spent much of his rabbinical career. Likewise, Mamie Goldsmith Gamoran and Elma Ehrlich Levinger published dozens of religious school textbooks, storybooks and other educational materials years after they supposedly embraced domestic life.

Benderly, apparently, did not hesitate to apply the ‘Benderly boy’ appellation to his female disciples. In my book, I discuss the implications of this curious usage. Benderly reflexively used gender as a marker for his closest disciples. If you fulfilled his criteria, which included studying at Columbia Teachers College, assuming administrative responsibilities at the Bureau or one of its affiliated schools, and attending his daily, early morning schmooze sessions, you were considered one of the boys, regardless of your anatomical make-up. Contemporary scholars, however, have been less sanguine about using the term “Benderly boys,” with some preferring gender neutral terms like “group” or “bunch.”

The term “Bureau bunch” was adopted in the 1910s by the larger team of workers at the New York Bureau, while the inner circle of disciples referred to themselves as Chayil , an acronym for the Hebrew phrase “education is our national foundation,” and a word meaning valor or virtue. While I intersperse the term “Benderly group” throughout the book for the sake of variety, I will admit to finding neither “Bureau bunch” nor Chayil compelling. The latter seemed obscure and, in any event, was confined in the day to an exclusive group of insiders. I wished to cast a wider net. The latter, meanwhile, was irredeemably hokey-sounding, particularly in the ear of one who was raised on a seemingly continuous loop of Brady Bunch reruns.

In the end, I decided to stick with “Benderly boys,” despite its drawbacks, and not merely due to its alliterative appeal. For me, the use of the appellation by Samson Benderly and its embrace by his disciples was decisive. By retaining the term “Benderly boys” I felt that I was at once remaining true to history while also honoring the memories of these men and women. But I did not entirely give up on the desire to problematize the designation. That is why I was thrilled to come across a crisp photograph of Benderly walking arm in arm with three of his closest disciples, including Libbie Berkson, while working at theAmerican Jewish Archives. I knew immediately that it needed to adorn the book’s cover. This photo of Libbie, surrounded by men, but clearly accepted as a full member of the Benderly team, juxtaposed with the book’s title, is purposely discordant and meant to induce perplexity. Here was a case where a picture could truly speak louder than words.

Here is hoping that the publication of The Benderly Boys (along with Carol Ingall’s 2010 volume, The Women Who Reconstructed American Jewish Education) helps to encourage a rediscovery of Benderly’s “girls.”

Posted on May 21, 2012

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In Moses Montefiore’s Footsteps

For the past ten years I’ve been travelling the world in Moses Montefiore’s footsteps. This was a man who spent much of his (long) life on the road: besides the usual round of European tourist destinations (Paris, Florence, Rome, Frankfurt and Berlin), he visited Jerusalem seven times in total and passed through innumerable Jewish communities as he embarked on politically motivated missions to places like St. Petersburg, Istanbul, Marrakesh and Bucharest.

But what does it mean to travel in the footsteps of a man who’s been dead for over 120 years, and why bother? After all, it’s impossible to recreate the nineteenth century travel experience in our world of cars, planes and high-speed trains. (I once met a Reform Rabbi who followed the Montefiores’ route during their first trip abroad; apparently it was very scenic, involving only minor roads.) More to the point, most of the places Montefiore visited have changed beyond all recognition. It’s not just that Bucharest is full of shabby, Ceausescu high-rise flats, or that a whole quarter of Marrakesh is devoted to glitzy hotels. The real problem is more fundamental. The shifting currents of world history mean that places that were once heartlands of the diaspora are now barely Jewish places at all.

And yet, it was worth the trouble. I found no echo of Montefiore’s visit when I travelled through Poland and Lithuania, but the scale of Jewish absence helped me to understand the ways in which twentieth century developments had erased his achievements. Sitting through Shabbat services in Rome’s empty Great Synagogue and the even emptier Choral Temple in Bucharest, I could not fail to notice the ways in which synagogue architecture paid tribute to the aesthetic values of the non-Jewish world. Nothing could have prepared me for the florid extravagance of the former or the delicate, Byzantine beauty of the latter – surely the most beautiful synagogue in which I have ever been privileged to sit. Only retracing the boundaries of Rome’s ancient Ghetto could have shown me how pitifully small it was. Only by visiting the tiny Moroccan sea-port of Essaouira could I appreciate the rocky isolation of this wealthy entrepot that was once home to so many of Moroccan Jewry’s financial and commercial elite.

If anything, then, I regret the places I left unvisited. Damascus and Alexandria are only names to me. But if I close my eyes I can see the golden sands of the beach that is the old Jewish cemetery of Essaouira; I can see the crumbling stone fantasies of the Jewish cemetery in Warsaw; and I can see streets of the old Jewish quarter in Vilna, empty now but in Montefiore’s day teeming with vibrant, impoverished, contentious Jewish life.

Posted on May 9, 2012

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Historians, Biographers

Dr. Abigail Green’s new book, Moses Montefiore: Jewish Liberator, Imperial Hero, is now available.

What makes a good biography? I thought about this question a lot when I was writing my book about Moses Montefiore, and I’ve been thinking about it again recently. As a historian, my preference has always been for biographies that illuminate the broader context – books like Elisheva Carlebach’s The Pursuit of Heresy, which brought the world of the itinerant Jerusalem rabbi Moses Hagiz so vividly to life, or Perfecting the World – a wonderful book about Montefiore’s life-long friend, the Quaker philanthropist and physician Thomas Hodgkin.

Of course, such books don’t necessarily make for easy reading.

A couple of weeks ago I contributed to In Our Time, one of the most popular and long-lived discussion programs on British radio. The subject was Moses Mendelssohn, a fascinating character about whom I know rather less than I should. Preparing for this broadcast, I came across Shmuel Feiner’s brilliantly readable little biography of the German-Jewish philosopher, which just came out in the Yale Jewish Lives series. I loved the way it opened with youths throwing stones at Mendelssohn and his family as they walked down Unter den Linden, Berlin’s smartest promenade; and ended, by alluding both to this episode and to German Jewry’s terrible future. Indeed, it’s hard to believe that this pearl of a book was
written by the author of The Jewish Enlightenment, a superb piece of scholarship but famously heavy-going.

Biographers tend to get bogged down in detail, and my own book is no exception. Something about the brief, interpretative format of the Yale series seems to have liberated Feiner. He tells us everything we need to know about Mendelssohn’s thought and brings the man to life, all in about 70,000 words. Each of which is precious. It’s a far cry from Altmann’s classic, 900 page intellectual biography and infinitely more enlightening.

Feiner’s elegantly concise approach contrasts starkly with the other biography I’m reading at the moment: Jonathan Steinberg’s psychologically driven Bismarck, which I’m reviewing for the European History Quarterly. It’s a bulky volume, and like me he had difficulty cutting a life down to size. Steinberg’s earlier books, such as All or Nothing: the Axis and the Holocaust seemed to me to ask the right questions (why did the Italians and the Germans behave differently during the Holocaust?) without coming up with really satisfactory answers. This time, however, he seems to have struck gold. The style is genuinely sparkling, and focusing on an individual rather than broader societal structures seems to play to Steinberg’s strengths. Two things that resonated for me were Steinberg’s emphasis on the emotional dimension of Bismarck’s approach to politics and the way in which the story of Bismarck’s life was intertwined with the evolving and deeply ingrained hostility Junkers like Bismarck felt towards Jews as alien symbols of change and modernity.

Oddly then, these are both books about the German-Jewish symbiosis. Despite their different qualities, they share the same fundamental virtue. Both Feiner and Steinberg are drawing on a lifetime of knowledge – and you can tell that in writing these biographies they had the time of their lives.

Posted on May 7, 2012

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Blazing Saddles It Wasn’t

When a modern audience thinks of American Indians and American Jews, the image that comes to mind is likely to be that of Mel Brooks as an Indian chief in Blazing Saddles.

Dressed in ornate plains schmattes (including war bonnet), and astride a paint pony, Brooks and his warriors come upon a prairie schooner carrying an African-American family. “Chief” Brooks looks at the little group as they huddle together in terror, and then turns to his closest companion who is raising his tomahawk to strike:

No, no, zayt nisht meshuge! Loz im geyn! Abi gezint! Take off! Hosti gezen in dayne lebn? (Don’t be crazy! Let him go. As long as you’re healthy! Take off! Have you ever seen such a thing?).

The “chief” lets the family go in peace, quickly stating the reason for his mercy:

“They darker than us!”

It’s either funny or offensive depending upon who’s watching; but for many, it’s the only reference to Jews and Indians they’ve ever seen.

Pity – because there was a bone fide Jewish Indian chief. His is a tale of guts and brains, as are most stories about Jews among the Indians.

Almost from the beginning of Westward expansion, Jews have made a home on the range. They were fur trappers, gold miners, cowboys, peddlers and scouts. There were sheriffs, marshals, mayors of small towns and at least one gunfighter. A shana medele from San Francisco married Wyatt Earp; a storekeeper from Bavaria and a tailor from Latvia invented blue jeans.

Czechoslovakian émigré Sigmund Schlesinger was one such pioneer. After losing his job in Philadelphia, Schlesinger went to eastern Kansas where he found work on the railroad, only to be laid off again when hostile Sioux took charge of the tracks. Needing work, he volunteered to be an Indian Scout for the Army, despite never having ridden a horse or shot a gun. A quick study, he became a hero of the Battle of Breecher’s Island, Colorado, said by some to be the most ferocious in the history of the Indian Wars.

Years after the battle, his commanding officer wrote to Rabbi Henry Cohen of Galveston, Texas:

He had never been in action prior to our fight with the Indians and throughout the whole engagement which was one of the hardest, if not the very hardest, ever fought on the Western plains, he behaved with great courage, cool persistence and a dogged determination that won my unstinted admiration as well as that of his comrades, many of whom had seen service throughout the War of Rebellion on one side or the other.

I can accord him no higher praise than that he was the equal of many in courage, steady and persistent devotion to duty, and unswerving and tenacious pluck of any man in my command.

But not all Jews encountered the Indians in battle. Some were among their closest friends – and became trusted advocates for their rights and freedoms.

Such a man was Julius Meyer, the hero of my novel Magic Words, born in Bromberg, Prussia in 1851.


Julius Meyer

Meyer came to the United States in 1866. In Europe, he had been a yeshiver bocher and a talented musician. Shortly after his arrival, he joined his older brothers Max, Adolph and Moritz in Omaha where they had a prospering cigar and jewelry business. Separate from his brothers, Julius began trading with Indian tribes like the Ponca, Omaha, and Sioux. So well known did he become for his honesty that the Indians dubbed him “Box-Ka-Re-Sha-Hash-Ta-Ka: “the curly-headed chief who speaks with one tongue.”

According to Julius, in 1869, a hostile tribe attacked him. They tried to kill him – and it was only the intercession of Standing Bear, chief of the Ponca, that saved his life. Julius became Standing Bear’s interpreter and was soon translating for such famous chiefs as Sitting Bull, Red Cloud, and Swift Bear.

For many years, Meyer served as Omaha’s government Indian agent, often fighting for Native rights. Julius was also known as a man who knew how to make a dollar for his friends (and himself). One such scheme involved taking Standing Bear and a group of the Ponca on a yearlong jaunt to the 1889 Paris Exposition where they caused a sensation.

Julius kept up his association with Standing Bear and the Nebraska tribes until May 10, 1909 – the day he was discovered dead in Omaha’s Hanscom Park. He was clutching a revolver and had two bullet holes in him: one in his temple and another in his chest. He was legally declared a suicide, although to this day, there are people who believe that this great Jewish friend of the Indian was murdered.

Still, if Julius Meyer was an honorary Indian, Solomon Bibo became the real thing: real enough, in fact, to become a chief.

Bibo was born in Westphalia in what is now Germany, in 1853. Like Meyer, he immigrated in 1869 and joined his brothers in business. The Bibos were among Santa Fe, New Mexico’s most successful traders, known for square dealing with their Indian neighbors. Bibo and his brothers became speakers of several Indian dialects and Solomon was often called upon by the Acoma Pueblo to negotiate treaties between their tribe and the U.S. government.

In 1885, Bibo married Juana Valle, the granddaughter of an Acoma chief. Later that year, the Acoma elected Bibo their new “governor,” the equivalent of tribal chief – a position he held four times. He helped create the tribe’s first modern education system, hired its first schoolteacher and supervised the first Acoma school building.

Solomon Bibo

Solomon and Juana were married for nearly fifty years and had six children. Years before, she had converted to Judaism. At 13, their son, Leroy became a traditional Bar Mitzvah but also participated in the Acoma rituals of manhood. The couple was separated only by his death on May 4, 1934; they are buried side-by-side in a Jewish Cemetery in Colma, California.

Posted on May 4, 2012

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A Jewish Magician at the Egyptian Theatre

When you do anything creative – from writing stories to hooking rugs – people are likely to ask you where you get your ideas.

A lot of times I haven’t had a good answer; but in the case of my new novel, Magic Words, the lightning bolt of creativity hit me in the midst of pursuing one of the most American of all activities.

I was watching TV.

The program was a PBS documentary “The Jewish Americans;” and a nice little show it was, too. All of the Yiddishe luminaries were included: Abraham Cahan and Irving Berlin; Emma Lazarus and Jerry Seinfeld; Jacob Adler and Hank Greenberg and I guess, a coupla doctors and scientists.

Then there was the young man in buckskins. He only appeared for about 10 seconds in the show: short, with curly hair and a droopy moustache, he stood proudly behind four Indian chiefs in a posed studio photograph taken sometime in the 1880’s.

julius meyerThe voiceover said that the kid was one Julius Meyer, a Jewish immigrant who became a famed translator for many Native American tribes: or words to that effect.

I was amazed: a boychik from Europe who somehow gained the confidence of a group of people rightly suspicious of the white man? An Israelite adventurer who once conversed with the free-living masters of the mountains and plains?

As the photograph faded from the screen, I knew I had found the subject of my next novel. All I needed now was a little research.

Not that Julius was easy to track down. He was, to say the least, obscure. There wasn’t very much about him on the Internet (he still has no Wikipedia page); so I had to search for him in more traditional ways. I wrote to Jewish historical societies; I haunted libraries and perused photo collections.

And the more I discovered about Julius, the more fascinating he became.

Born in Bromberg in what is now Poland; immigrated to America after the Civil War to join his brothers who were merchant princes in Nebraska; captured by the Ponca and eventually made their interpreter; named Box-ka-re-sha-hash-ta-ka (“Curly-headed white chief with one tongue”), by the greatest chieftain who ever lived; Indian agent and trader; speaker of seven Siouxan dialects.

But two facts really sold me on Julius. First, there were the circumstances of his death. He was found dead around noon in Hanscom Park in Omaha in the Spring of 1909 – with one bullet in his breast and another in his head -and declared a suicide. The possibilities around that almost wrote themselves.

Then, in an article in the September 10, 1926 issue of The American Hebrew, I read that Julius brought a magician named “Herman the Great” to a Ponca camp to perform for the great Standing Bear and his people – and about how that night as Alexander slept, a young brave attempted to kill him for his hat, believing it to be the source of his mystic power.

For me, this was like that one good gift at Chanukkah. A magician? I’m there!

And it got even better. Further research revealed that “Herman” was in fact, Alexander Herrmann, the most famous magician in the world before Houdini and the creator of many of the famous stage illusions still amazing audiences today; the inventor of the “Cake From A Hat” and the “Floating Boy”; the wizard who sold out the Egyptian Theatre in London for 1000 straight nights.

I knew I had found my second leading man; and when I discovered that Alexander’s mother’s maiden name was Meyer, I used my author’s prerogative to declare them cousins. Besides…how else would a humble man of the plains like Julius know a prestidigitator of such distinction?

A year and a half later, I had a book. All because of 10 seconds of TV that provided a tantalizing glimpse of a man who was a member of the tribe…in more ways than one.

Posted on May 2, 2012

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Seeking Fact, Finding the Unknowable

Debra Spark is the author of The Pretty Girl, a collection of stories about art and deception.

In literature, as in life, you may go looking for one thing, only to find another. Several years ago, I decided to go to London to do research for a novel I was planning to write. I had written a short story about Victorian toy theatres — it’s in my most recent book, The Pretty Girl — and I didn’t think I was quite through with the subject. I had an idea of writing a novel that was set, at least partially, in Victorian times and focused on a Jewish engraver of plates for the toy theatre. I felt, from the start, that I was in over my head. What did I know about Victorian London? Much less, Jews in that time period? As part of my research, I engaged a tour guide who took me on a daylong tour of Jewish London. By the end of the day, I felt unequal to the task of my novel. There was too much I didn’t know. The last stop on the tour was an Orthodox synagogue. My female tour guide and I arrived during services and crept upstairs. We were the only women in the balcony and from the looks of things, there hadn’t been any other women up there in decades. In one back corner of the balcony, there was, of all things, a clothes rack on which hung racy pieces of women’s lingerie. Downstairs, men davened seriously, muttering their Hebrew so quickly that I couldn’t make out a word. At one point, a man whipped out a cell phone, though he continued to pray, and I thought perhaps he was putting in a call to the Big Guy at that very moment.

I loved this strange scene, but didn’t know what I could take from my day beyond my pleasure. I was dispirited. I felt I’d have to do a Ph.D. in history, before I could write the book I intended. I was also anxious to get back to the Marriott in Swiss Cottage where I was staying. My mother and young son were waiting for me, and I knew my son would be impatient for my return. He was not, at that point in his life, good with an extended separation.

It was late in the day when I finally got to the hotel. On the way up to my floor in the elevator, I saw a man in a yarmulke holding a clipboard. I almost had an urge to tell him about my day, as if all Jews were bound to be interested by my dip into history. I saw the words Adin Steinsaltz on the man’s clipboard. Now I had another reason I felt like speaking. “He wrote my favorite book,” I said, pointing.

“What’s that?” the man said, interested.

The Thirteen Petalled Rose.”

“Do you understand that book?” the man said abruptly.

I had actually studied the book, which attempts to explain the Jewish mystical system that is kabbalah, fairly seriously at one point, so I gave him a longer answer than he might have liked. “I feel like if there are 100 levels on which to get that book, after reading it twice, I managed to get to level two.” The book had meant a lot to me, because it opened up a way to think about Judaism that made me feel what I do in the world, my actions, whether kindly or not, influence the structure of the universe. I liked the notion that if you do a good act, you put more good in the universe, and similarly with a bad act. Thus, each day man has the potential to create the world as a better or worse place.

“Well, I tell the rabbi, I don’t get that book,” the man said, and he introduced himself. He was Steinsaltz’s personal assistant.

I was shocked. The Steinsaltz book—and other books by Steinsaltz—had once been so important to me that I had named my son, Aidan, after Adin. Or that’s not quite right. My husband, who isn’t Jewish, had found the name Aidan in a baby book. He liked it. I did, too, but then thought it was strange to give a boy whom we were going to raise as Jewish such an Irish name. Somehow “Adin,” though I knew it was pronounced differently, made me think it would be OK after all.

It turned out that the Rabbi, who is known perhaps best for his translation of the Talmud, was speaking that night. To a sold out crowd. But the assistant said he could get me in. As exciting as this prospect sounded, I had to say no. I couldn’t leave my son any longer with my mother. So the assistant offered something else. I could come up the next day to the Rabbi’s hotel suite and have coffee with him.

I could barely sleep that night. I was so excited. Later, I told Steve Stern, a Jewish writer friend in New York, about this encounter, and he gasped, “He’s a holy man!”

My meeting was brief. I was embarrassed by my secular self in front of the rabbi. I should have counted on not feeling quite frum enough to be meeting with him. I felt I should have a question for him, but I hadn’t prepared a question. I didn’t know what to say. He was gentle and kind, but I struggled to hear him, as his voice is soft, and my hearing isn’t so great. I ended up deciding to ask him about the end of the Book of Esther. The end of the book had troubled me, since I reread it in preparation for taking my son to his firstPurim celebration. Like most Jews, I knew that Haman, the bad guy, gets his just desserts, that he is hung on the gallows that he intended for Mordecai, the hero. But I didn’t know (till I reread the book) that afterward, the Jews go out and kill 75,000 additional men. I asked the rabbi about it. The lack of clarity in the Book of Esther bothered me. Thanks to an edict that the king has signed, the Persians have permission to attack Jews on a certain date, even though Haman is dead. But it is not clear they are taking advantage of that permission, when the day comes.

“Well, you’ve never been beaten,” the rabbi said.

“What?”

“If you were beaten, you’d understand.”

It seemed to me that we were talking about contemporary Israel and Palestine and not ancient Jews and Persians. Later I realized we probably were. I discovered that the rabbi’s politics were far to the right of my own. The other thing the rabbi said, though I can’t remember what we were talking about that led him to these words, is that he liked children, because they weren’t ruined yet. It didn’t seem the sort of wisdom that you’d get from a great man. It didn’t even seem true, though I love children myself.

Why am I telling these stories?

Because the meeting with the Rabbi redirected me, though not in the way I thought it would, when I was up all night, anticipating my morning coffee with the rabbi.

When we talk about fact and fiction in novel writing, I think we are frequently talking about direct borrowings from one’s own autobiography. For me, fact works in a more complex way in my fiction.

I never wrote that book about toy theatres, the one I planned to write when I went to London. Instead, I wrote a novel, called Good for the Jews, that is a loose retelling of the Book of Esther and makes explicit use of the Rabbi’s words about being beaten. I also wrote a story for my subsequent book, The Pretty Girl, called “A Wedding Story.” In it, a rabbi says what Steinsaltz said about children, and the character who hears his words stumbles on them; they are not what she wants out of a sage.

I couldn’t understand enough about the facts of the Victorian world, so I couldn’t write the novel I intended to. I couldn’t understand the Rabbi’s thinking, and so I found a story I did feel I could write. Stupidity, you could say, stopped me, and stupidity led me forward. Different kinds of stupidity. To write about something, you need to know about the things that are knowable. If there are facts to be had, you need to have the facts. But you don’t need to know about what is unknowable. You just need to be present to it.

Posted on April 23, 2012

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The Secret Code of “Hava Negilah”

Hava Nagila (Hebrew: הבה נגילה) (lit. “Let us rejoice”) is a Hebrew folk song that has become a staple of band performers at Jewish weddings and Bar/Bat Mitzvahs.  The melody was taken from a Ukrainian folk song from Bukovina. The commonly used text was probably composed by Abraham Zevi (Zvi) Idelsohn in 1918 to celebrate the British victory in Palestine during World War I as well as the Balfour Delcaration. (From Wikipedia)

Yesterday was some day- I almost cannot remember the clock moving; it began early in the day at Shul and ended late at night. It was a day of constant motion and if I would fill you in on the details of the day… well, suffice to say we could sell such stories to ‘Ripley’s Believe it or Not’!

At about 5 pm, I find myself at my next challenge of an already hectic day: attempting to find parking on the island of Manhattan. Finally, I spot a garage and quickly turn my vehicle into the lot with about 10 minutes to spare for my 5:13 pm appointment in mid-town New York.

As I open my door and begin to exit, the dark-skinned attendant and his side quick greet me with a smile. They could be African-American, Latino, Indian, Bangladeshi, Arab or perhaps Sephardic Jews (however, that last choice is very unlikely).

As I am step totally out of the car and place my hat on my head, suddenly my parking pals burst out in a spontaneous rendition of Hava Nageela.

At first I am totally shocked by this unexpected occurrence of being ‘bageled’ – by these perfect parking strangers. After all, here I am in the middle of Manhattan as these two men of unknown lineage are serenading me to the tune of Hava Nageela.

As I am in a rush (which seems more and more to be the norm of my life and not the exception) – I am somewhat turned off by this unneeded and bothersome waste of time.

However, as I looked at their smiling faces and their genuine attempt to connect with me on my terms I realized that this impromptu medley came from a good and pure place of the human experience; namely their want and their desire to connect to another human being in friendship.

With this epiphany in hand, not only was I no longer agitated by this spontaneous song, I was elated.

Indeed, this was exactly the G-d send I needed to cheer me up on this stress ridden and difficult day. In less time than you can say “Uru aḥim! Uru aḥim b’lev sameaḥ” I joined their duet and we immediately created the ‘Nageela Trio’ in the middle of a cold night in Manhattan.

On and on we went, “Hava Nageela, Hava Nageela….” as the three of us sang the night away – well, that’s somewhat of an exaggeration as in truth our opening rendition lasted about thirty seconds; however, the joy and fun we had was real and meaningful- not to mention great fodder for today’s blog.

Why ignore those moments which are so precious and so meaningful when you connect with another person in joy and simcha? Why ignore someone when they reach out to you on your terms? If nothing else, at least acknowledge and smile back – it will change your day.

 

Posted on April 9, 2012

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Waiting Too Long to Teach about Israel

I had an all too familiar conversation with someone the other day who was talking about a community Jewish high school that offered only one course on Israel, in 12th grade, that was optional. Several years ago, when my kids were in day school, I had been shocked to learn that I was paying a fortune for a Jewish education that I took for granted included courses on Israel but had only one poorly taught elective course on Zionism offered the semester before graduation. After that epiphany, I learned that this was common in many day schools. And parents wonder why Jewish students are ill-equipped to respond to Israel’s detractors in college.

The truth is the Jewish community has been asleep at the wheel for decades. Since at least the 1960s, people have written about the lack of preparation of our young people and yet little has been done since then to educate them. In the last ten years, especially, the community has thrown a lot of money into Israel advocacy training for college students. This has been very important; however, it is also very late to first introduce young Jews to the Aleph-Bet of Israeli history, politics and culture.

It is certainly not the kids’ fault that they are ignorant. Where would they get the necessary background if not in day schools? They certainly don’t get it in public schools or after school Hebrew schools that barely have the time to teach basic Judaism.

I recently attended a meeting of educators and donors that seemed to, at long last, recognize the crisis in Israel education. Not surprisingly, there is a multiplicity of opinions as to how to address the problem. Still, a few areas of consensus were clear. These included:

• The need to integrate Israel education in an age-appropriate manner from kindergarten through high school.

• That Jewish summer camps offer opportunities to teach Israel to large numbers of students, especially those who do not attend day schools.

• The importance of training teachers to teach about Israel.

People have certainly talked about teaching Israel for a long time and a lot of curricula have been developed over the years. Shockingly, however, no textbooks were available to teach basic Israeli history to high school students. A typical course would be in a loose-leaf binder and contain a hodgepodge of information, articles and maps. The Jewish Federation of Los Angeles used something like this in a unique program they developed for educating students in Catholic schools about Israel. The organizers of this Holy Land Democracy Project recognized that something more was needed and asked me to write a book that would cover what everyone should know about Israel.

Having written the Complete Idiot’s Guide to Middle East Conflict, I had experience in explaining the complexities of the history and politics of Israel for a lay audience. My goal with this new book was to help readers get to better know Israel and Israelis, to teach them the essential history, lay out some of the dilemmas the nation faces and to ensure they have the information they need to feel knowledgeable. Of course, one book cannot provide all the answers. The American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise publishes the book Myths and Facts to address more specific issues that frequently arise on college campuses such as attacks on Zionism, critiques of Israeli security measures and canards about Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.

The new book, Israel Matters: Understand the Past – Look to the Future (Behrman House), does provide an overview and context that enables readers to understand how history, politics, religion, geography and psychology influence Israelis and the policies of their government. Through profiles of important figures in Israeli history, and descriptions of typical young Israelis, I hope that readers will also get a better sense of the people who live in Israel.

One of the problems with Israel education has been to present an idyllic portrayal of the Jewish State. Students today are too sophisticated to see Israel through rose-colored glasses. They are sensitive to what appears to them to be propaganda. They are correct in recognizing that Israel is a complex place that aspires to be a light unto the nations but is not perfect. Part of our challenge as educators is to give them the background they need to wrestle with Israel, to see it, warts and all, and to reach their own conclusions.

Given the proper education, I am confident that young Jews will become passionate Zionists who will know how to respond to the detractors inside and outside college classrooms and, ultimately, become active members of the pro-Israel community.

Posted on April 2, 2012

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Where the Debate on Modern Judaism Really Began

The mid-19th century in Germany is, to my mind, the most unappreciated period in Jewish history. The reason is simple: modern Judaism as we know it was born then and there. Do I exaggerate? I think not. Spinoza’s revolutionary thought in the mid-17th century certainly paved the way for new thinking (see Chapter VIII of my book). Mendelssohn’s attempts in the late 18thcentury to reconcile faith and reason lay the
groundwork within the Jewish community. The early reforms of Israel Jacobson, along with the responses of the Parisian Sanhedrin to Napoleon in the first decade of the 19th century mark the irreversible first steps of putting theory into practice.

But modernity hits its stride in Judaism in the second decade of the 19th century. In 1817 the Hamburg Temple embraces reform of Judaism as its raison-de-entre. In 1819 Leopold Zunz establishes the pioneering Society for the Culture and Science of Judaism, which advocates for the academic study of our sacred texts and religious heritage. The same year a leading traditionalist rabbi, Moses Sofer, castigates this approach in his broadside Eleh Divrei Habrit. The grounds for the great debate have been set.

The debate truly unfolds over a ten year period (1836-1846) between three giants of modern Judaism who were contemporaries, and actually knew and liked each other (until their disagreements drove them apart). Rabbi Abraham Geiger began arguing that Judaism has always evolved and should continue to change with the times. He called for radical shifts to meet the demands of modernity, including the critical study of Torah, the elimination of outdated prayers and customs, and the equal treatment of men and women. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, while acknowledging the need to engage in secular learning in the new age, contended that Judaism’s truths and law was eternal and not subject to evolution. Rabbi Zecharias Frankel, an advocate of “moderate reform” famously stormed out of an 1845 conference in Frankfort over the elimination of Hebrew from some of the liturgy.

Rabbis Geiger, Hirsch, and Frankel became known, respectfully, as the “fathers” of Reform, Orthodox, and Conservative Judaism. The spectrum of modern denominational Judaism was born in that time and place. Chapter IX of my book chronicles this remarkable debate. While the central locale of the debate would soon shift to America it was these three German Jewish leaders, through their sermons, books, and organizational activities who set the stage. Though hardly household names in the Jewish community today we owe a debt of gratitude to their great debate. I once taught a course about them called “The Three Tenors of Modern Judaism.” Their magnificent voices created the opera we sing today.

Posted on March 30, 2012

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Saying New Things About Old Historical Episodes

When I first anounced that I was writing a book about Ulysses S. Grant’s General Orders #11, the most notorious official act of anti-Semitism in American history, colleagues were skeptical. “Can there be anything new to say about the subject?” a good friend asked.

Although I pointed out that not one single book had ever been written on the topic, and that nobody had looked at it afresh in many decades, friends wondered aloud whether I was making a mistake. Wasn’t the chapter on General Orders #11 in Bertram W. Korn’s American Jewry and the Civil War, published in 1951, the accepted account of the subject? Why waste my time on an event that had already been written about before?

There were, of course, good reasons to re-examine the subject. First of all, a host of new documents had become available thanks to the publication of 31 volumes of The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant. They shed new light both on General Orders #11 and on Grant’s subsequent relations with Jews. Second, Grant’s entire career is currently being re-examined by scholars. The image of the drunken, coarse and corrupt general and president — largely manufactured in the twentieth century by opponents of Grant’s benevolent policy toward African Americans during Reconstruction — is giving way to a new image of a fair-minded, far-sighted humanitarian, one of the finest presidents in American history. Grant’s infamous order needs to be studied anew within the context of this revisionist view of his life. Finally, previous studies of Grant and the Jews ended with Abraham Lincoln overturning General Orders #11 and declaring nobly that “to blame a class is, to say the least, to wrong the good with the bad. I do not like to hear a class or nationality condemned on account of a few sinners.”

Little has been written concerning the order’s aftermath: how it factored in the election of 1868 and how it affected Grant’s subsequent presidency. I suspected that this would yield an interesting and important story.

It did. In fact, much of what we once believed about U.S. Grant and the Jews turned out to be wrong. Yes, he had expelled Jews from his warzone and President Lincoln had overturned the order. Grant had identified a widespread practice -– smuggling — with a visible group, and blamed “Jews as a class” for what was in fact an inevitable by-product of wartime shortages exploited by Jews and non-Jews, civilians and military men alike. But it also turned out that after being excoriated for the order in the 1868 election campaign, Grant had publically repented of it. “I do not pretend to sustain the order,” he declared in a public statement. “I have no prejudice against sect or race, but want each individual to be judged by his own merit.”

Moreover, as president, he demonstrated his respect for Jews by appointing more of them to public office than all previous presidents combined. He also lent strong support to efforts to aid Jews facing persecution in Russia and Roumania. He even became the first president to attend a synagogue dedication and, after he left office, the first to visit the Land of Israel. When he died, in 1885, he was mourned by Jews as a hero and compared to the greatest Jew in the world at that time, Sir Moses Montefiore of England, who died the same week as Grant did.

All of this reinforced for me the value of looking anew at old episodes. Given new sources, new questions, and a broader perspective than previous scholars had, I can now confidently report that there is lots new to say about Ulysses S. Grant’s General Orders #11.

Read my book and judge for yourselves.

Posted on March 15, 2012

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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