Category Archives: Judaica

Books and movies of interest to the Jewish community

“Rooted Cosmopolitans: Jews and Human Rights in the Twentieth Century” by James Loeffler— The Forgotten Jewish Roots of International Human Rights

Loeffler, James. “Rooted Cosmopolitans: Jews and Human Rights in the Twentieth Century”, Yale UP, 2018.

The Forgotten Jewish Roots of International Human Rights

Amos Lassen

James Loeffler gives us an original look at the forgotten Jewish political roots of contemporary international human rights, told through the moving stories of five key activists

2018 marks the seventieth anniversary of two important events in twentieth-century history: the birth of the State of Israel and the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The two are tied together in the ongoing debates about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, global anti-Semitism, and American foreign policy. However, the surprising connections between Zionism and the origins of international human rights are completely unknown today. In “Rooted Cosmopolitans”, James Loeffler explores this controversial history through the stories of five remarkable Jewish founders of international human rights. He follows them from the prewar shtetls of eastern Europe to the postwar United Nations, a journey that includes the Nuremberg and Eichmann trials, the founding of Amnesty International, and the UN resolution of 1975 labeling Zionism as racism. Here is a book that challenges long-held assumptions about the history of human rights and offers a surprising new perspective on the roots of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

There are several surprises here and they alone are worth the cost of the book but there is also so much more. We see and better understand the complex aspirations for global justice. Here is reshaped Jewish and human rights history. Loeffler’s research reconstructs the forgotten role of Jewish leaders in creating the architecture of human rights and gives us a nuanced account of the common origin of Zionism and human rights organizations “and of their increasingly tortured relationship.”

The book challenges orthodoxies both on the right and on the left and it can transform popular understandings of this critical period of history. Loeffler rewrites our received narratives about human rights and Zionism.

“The “Talmud”: A Biography” by Barry Scott Wimpfheimer— A Remarkable Story

Wimpfheimer, Barry Scott. “The “Talmud”: A Biography”, (Lives of Great Religious Books) Princeton University Press, 2018.

A Remarkable Story

Amos Lassen

The Babylonian “Talmud” is a post biblical Jewish text that is part scripture and part commentary. It was written in a hybrid of Hebrew and Aramaic and is often ambiguous to the point of incomprehension, and its subject matter reflects a narrow scholasticism that should hardly have great appeal. Yet the “Talmud” has remained in print for centuries and is more popular today than ever. Barry Scott Wimpfheimer shares the remarkable story of this ancient Jewish book and explains why it has endured for almost two millennia.

It may sound silly, but I have always been afraid of the Talmud, thinking that it is a work by scholars and written for scholars. I would picture old rabbinic looking men sitting around a table and arguing and I always felt that I would never made the grade to be able to partake of such activities, which seemed to be integral parts of male Jewish life. I still fear the Talmud but not as much as I once did and that is probably because of how I live today as an observant Jew.

Wimpfheimer takes readers from the Talmud’s prehistory in biblical and second-temple Judaism to its present-day use as “a source of religious ideology, a model of different modes of rationality, and a totem of cultural identity.” We learn of the book’s origins and structure, its centrality to Jewish law, its reception and “its golden renaissance in modernity.” We learn “why reading the Talmud can feel like being swept up in a river or lost in a maze”, and why the Talmud has come to be venerated as well as excoriated and maligned in the centuries since it first appeared.

The Talmud is “a received source of traditional teachings, a touchstone of cultural authority, and a powerful symbol of Jewishness for both supporters and critics.”

The cover of this book is quite amazing. It is actually a work of feminist protest art that resembles a rainbow tapestry with shading from red to blue and composed of thousands of small pieces of paper rolled up intro scrolls. Each of those pieces of paper is a small section of a printed Talmud page. American-Israeli multimedia artist Andi Arnovitz entitled the work If Only They Had Asked Us and it suggests that had women been involved in helping to write these books, the laws would be far more colorful and vibrant.

This piece of art is one of the many approaches to Talmud that Wimpfheimer considers here. He was anxious to write about the Talmud because (in his words), it “really lends itself to a biography because it’s had various many periods of existence, and it has lived in various types of ways, and it continues to live in various types of ways: There is the text as it is interpreted and understood in quite different ways and the symbolic register of the Talmud having meaning beyond the meaning of the words inside it. The Talmud can mean so much beyond what is contained within it.”

This study is focused less on what the Talmud contains and what it says, and more on how it has been read and what it has come to mean. Wimpfheimer has explained that “My premise at the outset was that I would embrace the conceit of biography and try to pretend the Talmud was a person, and identify those moments when the Talmud is personified and embodied in its history”. “I began to realize that so often when the Talmud was personified and embodied, it did so in this symbolic register. Thus biography might be the ideal way to articulate this register.”

Unlike most introductions to the Talmud, Wimpfheimer’s book does not include an overview of the topics covered in the Talmud, nor does it systematically lay out the various historical layers of the text. Instead, it considers the Talmud as a work of religious literature produced at a particular historical moment. The Talmud became the central canonical work of the Judaism that emerged after the destruction of the Temple and it still serves as “the ultimate symbolic representation of Judaism, Jewishness, and Jews.

Wimpfheimer tries to show the experience of studying Talmud by focusing on two particular passages of Talmudic text, one more legalistic—about liability for the damages caused by starting a fire—and one more literary, about how Israel came to accept the Torah at Mount Sinai. He explains these passages in depth and then he demonstrates how they have been understood by various commentators over time giving us an introduction to the classical medieval commentators as well as to Jewish philosophy and to Kabbalah. He distinguishes between traditional readings of the Talmud, in which the Talmud is taken at face value as the record of a historical conversation among the rabbis featured in its pages, and critical readings, in which the Talmud is a literary construct designed by a set of active anonymous redactors to resemble a conversation among those rabbis.

 

“NANA”— Fighting Hate and Intolerance

“NANA”

Fighting Hate and Intolerance

Amos Lassen

In “Nana”, first-time film director Serena Dykman retraces her grandmother’s stories about Auschwitz and shows how she fought against hate and intolerance so that later generations would know how it had once been. Dykman does this through archival footage, photos, and clips. Maryla Michalowski-Dyamant was born in Poland and survived Ravensbruck, Malchow, and Auschwitz, three of the terrible camps set up by the Nazis and part of the final solution to rid the world of Jews. In Auschwitz, Maryla was forced to be the translator of the man who was known as the “angel of death,” Dr. Mengele. Once the war was over, Maryla devoted the rest of her life to speaking about her experiences in “ways that were stunning in their transparency and absolutely heartbreaking to watch.” The reason she did this was to ensure that there would never be a repeat of such experiences would never and she wanted to make sure that the younger generations were aware of what happened back then.

Before I sat down to watch this, I thought to myself “another Holocaust film?” There have been so many lately and I wondered what else could be said. Here it is not what can be said but the charm and the vivacity of the person who says it. Director Dykman decided to make this film after being inspired by her grandmother’s memoir. Mayla died fourteen years ago but her legacy is to continue the work that she started. Dykman says it like this—- “I realized that she [Maryla] was more than a survivor, more than a Polish Jew. The reason she went back to Auschwitz and told her story publicly thousands of times was so that it should never be forgotten, and would never happen to anyone again. Her activism and fight against intolerance lives on today, 14 years after her death, through the thousands of people she touched, and now through ‘Nana’“.

Dykman has a little sense of regret that she didn’t quite recognize her grandmother’s true greatness until long after she was gone and she missed the chance to more fully embrace this woman. whose story is now being told to the entire world. 

We are living at a time when anti-Semitism is on the rise and “political wheels have turned a potentially dangerous direction in multiple nations”. What makes “Nana” so important and timely is that it reminds us that the Holocaust is not far removed from us and we must make sure that it will never happen again.

Maryla’s story actually spans three generations as we also have Serena’s mother, Alice here and she also explore how Maryla’s outspoken activism continues today. We are near the end of the period in which there will be no living survivors of the Holocaust and we certainly see that here. However, there is a small exception and that is that Maryla’s daughter and granddaughter are continuing her work.

Nana will have its movie house premiere on April 13, Holocaust Remembrance Day at Cinema Village in New York. Dykman will appear after the 7pm screenings on Friday and Saturday for a Q&A session. 

“The Woman Who Fought an Empire: Sarah Aaronsohn and Her Nili Spy Ring” by Gregory J. Wallance— A Remarkable Life

Wallance, Gregory J. “The Woman Who Fought an Empire: Sarah Aaronsohn and Her Nili Spy Ring”, Potomac Books, 2018.

A Remarkable Life

Amos Lassen

Though she lived only to twenty-seven, Sarah Aaronsohn only lived to the age of twenty-five but those years contain a remarkable life. Gregory J. Wallance shows us just how remarkable that life was in “The Woman Who Fought an Empire”, the story of a heroic and  a bold young woman who was the daughter of Romanian-born Jewish settlers in Palestine and who became the daring leader of a Middle East spy ring.

Sarah learned that her brother Aaron had formed Nili, an anti-Turkish spy ring, to aid the British in their war against the Ottomans. He did so after the beginning of the first World War. Sarah, had seen the atrocities of the Armenian genocide by the Turks and she believed that only the defeat of the Ottoman Empire could save the Palestinian Jews from a similar fate. She joined Nili and eventually became the organization’s leader. As they worked behind enemy lines, she and her spies furnished vital information to British intelligence in Cairo about the Turkish military forces until she was caught and tortured by the Turks in the fall of 1917. In order to protect her secrets, Sarah shot herself.

Sarah Aaronsohn’s leadership of the Nili spy network during World War makes her one of the most fascinating personalities of the early Zionist era but somehow over the years she has slipped between the cracks. Unfortunately, this is a little known story about a truly impressive young woman who had been shocked by the atrocities she witnessed which were carried out by the Turks against Armenians. Sarah Aaronsohn and her brother stood up to several members of their Jewish community in Palestine and risked torture and death to provide information to the British.

We do not learn as much about Sarah’s personality as I hoped we would since I have been familiar with her story for years. (I had an aunt who was a member of Nili). We see that Sarah was a very intelligent and extremely tough woman who could easily become a feminist role model.

Wallance has done great research to bring us this story and while this is basically Sarah’s story, we also get insights into some of the key historical personalities and sociopolitical forces that helped shape the modern Middle East.

“With Liberty and Justice: The Fifty Day Journey from Egypt to Sinai” by Senator Joe Lieberman and Rabbi Ari D. Kahn— Freedom as Birthright

Lieberman, Senator Joe and Kahn, Rabbi Ari D. “With Liberty and Justice: The Fifty Day Journey from Egypt to Sinai”, Maggid, OU Press, 2018.

Freedom as Birthright

Amos Lassen

Having just finished the second Passover Seder, members of the Jewish religion are now moving toward the next holiday of Shavuot (the celebration of receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai)and we realize that the exodus whose story is retold every year at Passover would be an incomplete story if we did not have the revelation at Sinai. Actually the two holidays are so tied together that I find it impossible to think of one without the other. However, I must admit that always think of the holidays in this matter and that actually someone pointed out how one depends upon thee other and their importance in the history of the Jewish people. For those of you who do not remember, we count fifty days between the two holidays and we refer to this as the counting of the Omer

The Passover story that we recount at our Sedarim is the story of freedom but because we had not yet received the law, that freedom had the possibilities of leading to chaos, violence and immorality and, in fact, we saw some of that during the wandering in the desert. We had no standards of morality and they were greatly lacking, especially to a group of people who were enjoying freedom for the first time in their lives yet we had to wait to have these laws given to us. While freedom is part of the birthright, the Bible tells us we did not come out of Egypt just to be free, we were taken out to be God’s people— to accept the Law at Sinai and to agree to live by that law’s principles and to pass those principles on to others. This is what defines the Jewish people. Throughout history, societies have learned that it is impossible to exist without some code of law and morality. Standards are necessary. The fifty days before the two holidays is a wonderful, if not perfect, time to reflect on the tension between freedom and law and look for the balance that justice provides. This can be very challenging in that we want freedom but we need law.

Senator Joe Lieberman and Rabbi Ari Kahn presents give us here fifty short essays on the interplay of law and liberty in our lives. These essays draw on the Bible and rabbinic literature, American politics and modern legal theory, Jewish humor and American folklore, the authors follow the annual journey from Egypt to Sinai. We quickly see that liberty minus law cannot exist and there is no freedom without justice.

The book is conveniently divided into five sections: “Passover, the Journey Begins”, “The Land Before Sinai”, “The Ten commandments”, “The Law Since Sinai” and “Shavuot, Celebrating the Law”. Taken all together, we have fifty essays, one short essay for each of the fifty days and they are short and to the point that it takes a very short time to read one and it is a wonderful way to start or end each day. It is interesting to note that Passover is the most widely celebrated of all of the Jewish holidays while Shavuot that cones just seven weeks later is the least celebrated and probably the holiday that many know noting about or are simply unaware that we even have this holiday. Yet, as I said earlier, the two are bound together and it is actually the holiday of Shavuot that completes the Passover celebration of freedom. What I also have found to be interesting is that the Bible does not really describe the fifty days as a journey from slavery to freedom to law. What we read about Shavuot is agricultural and that the children of Israel were commanded to make an Omer offering to the temple on the second day of Passover to thank God for a good harvest. At that point they were commanded to count 49 days until Shavuot when they bring their harvests of fruit to the Temple. Of course, with the destruction of the Temple, things changed and the rabbis took over in setting precedents. As we go through the fifty days ourselves, it is the perfect time to think about what is written here,

I see this book as a special treat in that I can begin each day with a new thought. It has always been my tradition along with many others to study all night on the holiday of Shavuot. This year picking a topic will be so easy as I allow these fifty essays to come together and, in a way, force us to think about freedom and law and I can promise you that you will find many new ideas. I must also admit that I have cheated a bit and already read some of the essays (I actually read them all to write this review) and I am amazed at what there is here to think about.

“The Trump Passover Haggadah: People All The Time They Come Up And Tell Me This Is The Best Haggadah They’ve Ever Read, They Do, Believe Me” by Dave Cowen— We Should Have Seen It Coming

Cowen, Dave. “The Trump Passover Haggadah: People All The Time They Come Up And Tell Me This Is The Best Haggadah They’ve Ever Read, They Do, Believe Me”, Independently Published, 2018.

We Should Have Seen It Coming

Amos Lassen

“I’d only ever been to one Passover. Back in 1984, when my best Jew lawyer, Roy Cohn, finally convinced me to accept one of his invitations to a Seder at his penthouse in Manhattan. Frankly, there’s only one word to describe that night. Boring. Even with Madonna as my date, and I’m talking still-hot, pre-pregnant, pre-Kabbalah Madonna, it was unbearable. Before we could eat, we had to take turns reading from these old, raggedy, dirt — filthy really — paper manuals, these Haggadahs, right, that’s what you call them? Well, let me tell you, they’re very low energy, very poorly written stuff, and the whole thing went on forever, I left after the second cracker course.”

This is the introduction to Dave Cowen’s satirical Haggadah that is flying out of stores and I must admit that parts of it are very funny. What is not funny are the tremendous number of errors that should have been caught in the editing process (if there even was an editing process) and the fact that Donald Trump indeed is the president of this country.

Before I criticize it, let’s have a little fun thinking what the White House Seder might be like. First all undocumented chametz must be removed and this is rough since the White House has lost its help due to immigration policy and Melania is allergic to feathers. As the first lady sets the table, Trump reminds her that cushions are needed for leaning and she reminds him that he already leans when he eats on the couch being debriefed.

Pence arrives and demands that they wait for his wife to arrive before making Kiddush, because he cannot attend events where alcohol is served without her. The Kush recites the Shehecheyanu prayer and thanks his father-in-law for his job.

“The four questions are of course asked by Ivanka (the wise child), Tiffany (the wicked child), Donald Junior (the simple child), and Eric (the child who doesn’t know how to ask).” And what about that other child, Baron?

On Amazon.com, the description reads: “The book guides Seder participants through a re-living of the Jewish people’s suffering under the Egyptians and celebrates their freedom from a vain, capricious, thin-skinned, small-handed, megalomaniacal, temperamentally unfit President— er, Pharaoh. If you’re an afflicted liberal Jew, with an unconservative (sic) sense of humor, and you find traditional Seders as dry as matzo, so why not try this radically irreverent political parody Haggadah this Passover.”

On the minus side are the errors (which I will get to) but the text is just a compilation of terrible Trump jokes that we have all heard before. Buy, hey, it is a cheap book ($6) and one day you my want those jokes although I cannot imagine why. There are a number of typos especially in the Hebrew and in the Hebrew spelling of God’s name. Of course this means that the Haggadah has yet another use— counting the mistakes and this is a great way to use the time while waiting for the sponge cake that fell.

With as many mistakes as there are, it is doubtful that this is a utile Haggadah—- it was written for the fun of it. (Nonetheless, Ivanka remains the wise child even if her father told a stripper/prostitute that she was as beautiful as his daughter, the wise child).

I do think that we could have had a really funny Haggadah based upon this presidential (it hurts to use that word with Trump) administration because they are funny. If nothing else, this one gives us an idea to write one that is funnier and without errors. And while you are at it, let’s add a dried prune added to the Seder plate to reminds us of Alec Baldwin’s terrific impersonation of the prez.

“The Zionist Ideas: Visions for the Jewish Homeland― Then, Now, Tomorrow” by Gil Troy— Updating Zionism

Troy,Gil. “The Zionist Ideas: Visions for the Jewish Homeland― Then, Now, Tomorrow”, with an introduction by Natan Sharansky, (JPS Anthologies of Jewish Thought), Jewish Publication Society, 2018.

Updating Zionism

Amos Lassen

Growing up, Arthur Hertzberg’s “The Zionist Idea” was part of my life as I am sure it was with many Young Judaeans. It was until the publishing of Gil Troy’s “The Zionist Ideas” the most comprehensive Zionist collection ever published. But as time marches on, so do ideologies and what was old had to be updated. “The Zionist Ideas: Visions for the Jewish Homeland—Then, Now, Tomorrow” is the definitive look at the diverse and shared visions for the realization of Israel as a democratic Jewish state. Troy builds on Arthur Hertzberg’s classic, “The Zionist Idea”, Gil and explores the back stories, dreams, and legacies of more than 170 passionate Jewish visionaries (four times the number in Hertzberg and that number includes women, mizrachim, and others.

Troy divides the thinkers into six Zionist schools of thought—Political, Revisionist, Labor, Religious, Cultural, and Diaspora Zionism and by doing so, he reveals “the breadth of the debate and surprising syntheses”. He also introduces these visionaries within three major stages of Zionist development that show the length and evolution of the conversation. Part 1 (pre-1948) introduces the pioneers who founded the Jewish state; those that many f us are so familiar with— Theodore Herzl, A. D. Gordon, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, HaRav Kook, Echad Ha’am, and Henrietta Szold. Part 2 (1948 to 2000) looks at the builders who actualized and modernized the Zionist blueprints, such as Ben-Gurion, Berlin, Meir, Begin, Soloveitchik, Uris, and Kaplan. Part 3 showcases today’s torchbearers, including Barak, Grossman, Shaked, Lau, Yehoshua, and Sacks.

With the addition of these new voices, we have diverse ideologies that reinvigorate the Zionist conversation with the development of the moral, social, and political character of the Jewish state of today and the future.

Troy presents an impressive range of thinkers, from the past and the present, from the left to the right, along with commentary, all of which affirm the enduring moral character of the Zionist idea: the fact that Zionism aside safeguarding the Jewish state, “is anchored in a humanistic ideology of universal resonance.”

Today we  live in a world of Zionist ideas with many different ways to help Israel flourish as a democratic Jewish state. We have a revived Zionist conversation, a renewed Zionist vision and these can help to give us a Jewish state that reaffirms meaning for those already committed to it, while at the same time, addressing the needs of Jews physically separated from their ancestral homeland, as well as those who feel spiritually detached from their people. I believe that a lot of conversation will come out of this book and as we talk about it, we will see, in the words of Natan Sharansky “How lucky we are to have this new book, filled with old-new ideas, Theodor Herzl style, to guide this important and timely conversation.”

Hertzberg gave us a great deal to think about just as Troy does here. It is as if we are bring asked to share a new vision for Jewish nationalism that is due to come into being. Theories of Zionism did not end with the creation of the State of Israel, they continue today. This new book expands our range of vision, as it looks at Zionism in its political, religious, and cultural dimensions as imagined by Zionists both in Israel and the Diaspora. 

Reading this is like being on a tour of Zionist thought that Troy is leading us through as he analyzes Zionism’s evolution from its early ideology as a national movement to its development of its own

Philosophy that underpins of its own manifestation to the miracle of statehood for the Jewish people.  We look at a diversity of views about an ideology that has actually come to life and we see the maturation of Zionism as part of a vibrant nation.

In 1959 JPS published Arthur Hertzberg’s “The Zionist Idea” and it became the foremost anthology of Zionist literature in the English language, and it was an inspiration for generations of young Jews throughout the Diaspora.

Zionism is also a way of launching ideas about what Judaism means, how Jewish nationalism can inspire us, and what Israel can mean to each of us. We can see Zionism as a framework for “learning more about our past, finding meaning in the present, and building a more inspiring future by working together as a people – and by seeing Israel as a living old-new laboratory for exciting new ideas and meaningful traditional values.”

We see here the power of liberal nationalism as a force for good in the world that galvanizes people to work together through the magic of democratic patriotism. Perhaps the biggest change that we immediately see is in the title of the book, We have moved from the Zionist idea to the Zionist ideas. Now we can attempt to answer the question of what Zionism means to each individual and does

does Israel mean to me?” liberal nationalism mean to me?” Free download discussion guides can be found at www.thezionistideas.com.

“Hunting the Truth: Memoirs of Beate and Serge Klarsfeld” by Beate Klarsfeld and Serge Klarsfeld— A Dual Autobiography

Klarsfeld, Beate and Klarsfeld, Serge. “Hunting the Truth: Memoirs of Beate and Serge Klarsfeld”, Farrar, Straus and Giroux; (Translation edition), 2018.

A Dual Autobiography

Amos Lassen

For as long as I can remember, I have been in awe of Serge and Beate Klarsfeld and I always hoped that one day I would meet them and tell them so. It never happened. For 50 years the Klarsfelds have devoted their lives to bringing Nazis to justice.

They were born on opposite sides of the Second World War: Beate grew up in the ruins of a defeated Weimar Germany; Serge was a Jewish boy in France, who was hiding in a cupboard when his father was arrested and sent to Auschwitz. They met on the Paris Métro and fell in love. What made them famous was Beate slapping the face of the West German chancellor Kurt Georg Kiesinger, a former Nazi.

Beate and Serge Klarsfeld have hunted, confronted, prosecuted, and exposed Nazi war criminals all over the world. They tracked down the notorious torturer Klaus Barbie in Bolivia and attempted kidnapping the former Gestapo chief Kurt Lischka on the streets of Cologne. They have gone to prison for their beliefs and have risked their lives protesting anti-Semitism behind the Iron Curtain, South America and in the Middle East. “They have been insulted and exalted, assaulted and heralded; they’ve received honors from presidents and letter bombs from neo-Nazis”. Yet they have not stopped fighting relentlessly not only for the memory of all those who died in the Holocaust but also for modern-day victims of genocide and discrimination across the world. They have done it all while raising their children and sustaining their marriage.

Their autobiography “Hunting the Truth” is a major memoir now available in English. It is written in their alternating voices and they tell the thrilling story of a lifetime dedicated to combating evil. The Klarsfelds have maintained a home in Paris and remain to this day devoted to and inspired by each other. Their book is one of historical importance.

Thy were amateurs assuming investigative duties in search of long-overdue justice and they have demonstrated that there’s no moral compromise with history. This is a story of persistence and staying true to beliefs even though the road to justice and hard to navigate and many take a long time. will remind all readers that although it may be slow, justice will triumph. Through their careful research, they provided for the identification and capture of Nazis and others responsible for anti-Semitic crimes. They will be remembered for their emphasis on using the legal system to try the perpetrators of the Holocaust and to prevent their rehabilitation as honored citizens.”

Beate Klarsfeld had been saying for weeks that she would slap the chancellor. Twenty-five years earlier Kurt Georg Kiesinger had been Hitler’s assistant director of foreign propaganda in France and now was Germany’s head of state. In Beate Klarsfeld’s mind this should have been a major scandal. On Nov. 7, 1968, the 29-year-old Klarsfeld rushed across the stage during a meeting of Kiesinger’s Christian Democratic party and slapped the surprised chancellor across the face. It was a slap heard around the world.

With that slap Klarsfeld actually changed the nation’s mind about whether an ex-Nazi should be the head of their government. It did not take long when

Kiesinger’s speeches were being hissed at and there were chants of “Kiesinger Nazi.” In September 1969 his party lost the election to the rival Social Democrats. The new chancellor was Willy Brandt, who had left Germany when Hitler took power. The next year Brandt would fall to his knees before the monument to the Warsaw ghetto fighters heralding a new era in German history; a time when reckoning with the Nazi past was not only permitted but mandatory. Beate Klarsfeld was more responsible than anyone for this change in German public life. She received a four-month suspended sentence for her attack on the chancellor and this was a tacit recognition that her slap carried moral force.

For Beate and her husband, Serge, hitting Kiesinger was the beginning of a career of fifty years as political activists and this is what we read about in their memoir. Beate alternates chapters with Serge so what we really get is a heartfelt dialogue between the two. Not only are the Klarsfelds Nazi hunters, they are also committed to bringing German and French war criminals to justice. They have campaigned against anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, and have worked to stop massacres elsewhere in the world.

It was Serge who brought Beate into a new existence and Beate suddenly understood “that it was not only difficult but thrilling to be German after Nazism.” Her fight against Kiesinger embodied a new idea, that Germans were responsible for the Nazi past. They thought Nazism was something that had happened to them, but instead, it was something they had done. Beate told Germans that owning the Nazi crimes was not a mere burden but rather an awakening to the truth.

After Kiesinger, Beate rapidly widened her campaign against anti-Semitism to include the Eastern Bloc. Serge quit his job as a lawyer at Credit Lyonnais in 1970 so he could work on the dossiers of Nazi war criminals living in Germany even though French courts had condemned them in absentia. Chief among these men was Kurt Lischka, the head of the Gestapo’s Jewish Affairs Department in France. Lischka had been sentenced to life imprisonment by a French court, but he lived openly in Cologne, a wealthy industrialist whose name was in the phone book. The Klarsfelds began stalking him and filmed him outside his house and gave the footage to television news. They tried, and failed, to abduct him and carry him across the border to France. The Franco-German legal agreement, now known as the Lex Klarsfeld, was finally ratified in February 1975, so that Nazis with the blood of French Jews on their hands could, at last, be put on trial.

Golda Meir announced that “to Israel and the Jewish people Beate Klarsfeld is a ‘Woman of Valor’—a title that has no peer in Jewish tradition.” The Klarsfelds became frequent visitors to Israel, sometimes guests of Teddy Kollek, former mayor of Jerusalem, at kibbutz Dalia.

The Klarsfelds’ most famous victory was the extradition of Klaus Barbie from Bolivia to Germany to stand trial. Barbie was the “butcher of Lyon,” who tortured and killed many prisoners by breaking their bones, setting dogs on them, and other barbaric methods. Barbie also led the raid on the orphanage at Izieu, where in 1944, 44 Jewish children were sent to their deaths. Serge’s research revealed that Barbie was living as Klaus Altmann in La Paz, Bolivia and Barbie’s existence was no secret to the West’s spy networks, which cared nothing about bringing him to justice. The U.S. Army’s Counterintelligence Corps had helped Barbie escape to Bolivia after the war, and he was employed by German intelligence as an agent in the 1960s.

After years of hard work by the Klarsfelds, Barbie was brought to France in 1983, and four years later received life imprisonment for crimes against humanity. The Klarsfelds fought against the French tendency to make excuses for the Vichy regime. Vichy was often thought of as a necessary compromise with Nazism and it had long been known that Pierre Laval, Vichy’s second in command, rounded up Jewish children on his own initiative, rather than being forced by the Nazis. But only recently did a French president, François Hollande, declare that the deportation of Jews to their deaths was “a crime committed in France, by France.”

The Klarsfelds’ argued that Germans should feel guilty for remaining silent about the Nazi past and they provided a clear pathway to reparation: bringing Nazi war criminals to trial. retained their moral compass. Unlike many German leftists, the Klarsfelds were disgusted by the Soviet Union’s plan to eliminate the state of Israel by arming its Arab enemies.

The Klarsfelds have been honored with Israeli citizenship, along with their son, Arno, who has carried on the couples’ work by prosecuting Maurice Papon for helping to round up the Jews of Bordeaux. Beate Klarsfeld has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and for the German presidency.

Together, the Klarsfelds testify that today in Europe there is blind nationalism and anti-Semitism of the left and the right, but also a willingness to learn from the past and to stand for decency. They jut need someone who is willing to give another slap when needed.

“The Invention of Religion: Faith and Covenant in the Book of Exodus” by Jann Assmann —How the Book of Exodus Shaped Fundamental Aspects of Judaism, Christianity and Islam

 

Assmann, Jan. “The Invention of Religion: Faith and Covenant in the Book of Exodus”, (Translated by Robert Savage), Princeton University Press, 2018.

How the Book of Exodus Shaped Fundamental Aspects of Judaism, Christianity and Islam

Amos Lassen

Of all of the stories in the Bible, The Book of Exodus may be the most spectacular and certainly the consequential story ever told. However writer Jann Assmann, a leading historian of ancient religion, does not write about the spectacular moments of heaven-sent plagues and parting seas. Assmann sees the true importance of Exodus in the story of Moses leading the children of Israel out of captivity to become God’s people and the foundation of an entirely new idea of religion. That event lives on today in many of the world’s faiths.

“The Invention of Religion” examines the ancient scriptures to show how Exodus has shaped fundamental understandings of monotheistic practice and belief. We go into the power of the narrative of the exodus by looking at how it was written and what is distinct to it—motifs and dichotomies: slavery and redemption; belief and doubt; worship and idolatry; loyalty and betrayal. Assmann maintains that revelation is a central theme (“the revelation of God’s power in miracles, of God’s presence in the burning bush, and of God’s chosen dwelling among the Israelites in the vision of the tabernacle”) in the Book of Exodus. But above everything else, it is God’s covenant with Israel; that obligation of the Israelites to accept and acknowledge God as their redeemer and obey His law. Without a second thought, this is a transformative idea and it has challenged basic assumptions about humankind’s relationship to God in the ancient world.

Assmann gives us a powerful account of how ideas of faith, revelation, and covenant which were ideas and ideals that were first introduced in Exodus have shaped Judaism and then were later adopted by Christianity and Islam to form the basis of the Abrahamic religions.

What we see is how the Book of Exodus preserves the memories of prebiblical Egyptian and Israelite while at the same time bringing forth a monotheism based upon loyalty and this has become a leading factor in Western religion. What we see here that we have not seen before is the tremendous importance of ancient civilizations, cultural memory, and biblical texts that show the Exodus story as both the story of the liberation of a people and the story of the invention of a new conception of religion that was radically different from what already existed and that also became the basis for Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

It is not often that we get a scholarly work in which the author takes us by the hand and explains his ideas in ways that are easily understood. By the time I was on page two, I knew I was reading something very special. The amount of work that went into this study is astounding and I felt as if I can trust every word. While this is a scholarly study, it can be read by anyone who has an interest in the Book of Exodus. It is so beautifully written that each sentence is a gem and it is certainly easy to see that there are debates coming about what he has to say here. This is a must read for anyone who is interested in the history of monotheism and a great read for everyone else. Below is the table of contents so that you can get an idea of what is covered here.

Contents

List of Illustrations xi

Foreword xv

Introduction 1

PART ONE | GENERAL FOUNDATIONS

Chapter One

Theme and Structure of the Book of Exodus— God Reveals His Name—God Reveals His Power

Sinai—Calling, Covenant, and Law

The Way to Sinai—God Reveals the Covenant

Divine Presence 25

God Reveals the Tabernacle—Revelation of the Divine Being: Breach and Reconciliation—The Tabernacle Is Built—The Revelation Concludes: God’s Permanent Presence

Chapter Two
The Historical Background: Event and Remembrance 32

Memories 34

The Hyksos—Amarna—Ḥabiru/ʿapiru—Waves of Migration,

Sea Peoples—Theocracy

Experiences 47

Miraculous Redemption from Mortal Danger—The “Secession of the Northern Tribes”: The First Occasion for Remembering the Exodus?—Israel Refounded: The Principal Occasion for Remembering

Chapter Three

Textual History and the History of Meaning 55

Redaction as “Cultivation of Meaning”: Textual Layering in the Bible 55 From Myth to Canon and Back 74 The “Mosaic Distinctions” and the Monotheism of Loyalty 79

PART TWO | THE EXODUS

Chapter Four

The Tribulations of the Israelites and the Birth of the Savior 93

Bondage in Egypt 93 The Birth of the Child 106 Moses’s Childhood and Upbringing 114

Chapter Five
God Reveals His Name: Moses at the Burning Bush 117 Moses Is Called 117 God Renews His Promise 123 Excursus I: The Burning Bush in Schoenberg’s Opera Moses und Aron 126 IAmThatIAm 131

Chapter Six
Signs and Wonders: God Reveals His Power 138

The Plagues of Egypt 138 The Egyptian-Hellenistic Tradition 154 The Institution of the Passover Feast and the Passover Haggadah 161 Excursus II: Moses’s Song of Thanksgiving and Handel’s Oratorio

Israel in Egypt 173 PART THREE | THE COVENANT

Chapter Seven
The Calling of the People 181

Holy People and Portable Fatherland 181 The Torah as Memory 191 The Development of the Covenant Idea: Bridal and Filial Metaphors 196

Chapter Eight
Treaty and Law 204

The Deconstruction of Kingship: Treaty and Law as the
Constitution of God’s People 204

The Ten Commandments 209 The Covenant Code and the Solemnization of the Covenant 224 Excursus III: “Excarnation” and Theologization of the Law 236 Excursus IV: The Decalogue and Egyptian Norms for Judging

the Dead 240 Chapter Nine

Resistance: Moses and the Violent Fate of the Prophets 253

Murmuring in the Desert 253 The Murder of Moses? 271 The Violent Fate of the Prophets 276

Chapter Ten
The Institutionalization of Divine Presence 287

YHWH Comes to Dwell among His People 287 The Golden Calf: The Original Sin against the Covenant 302 Excursus V: The Golden Calf in Schoenberg’s Opera Moses und Aron 317 A “Book of the Temple”? 322

Conclusion 327

Narrative, Historical, and Performative Truth 327 Revelation 329 Out of Egypt 332 Exodus as Political Myth 334 Exodus and Monotheism 335

Notes 339

Bibliography 365

Illustration Credits 383

Index 385

“(((Semitism))): Being Jewish in America in the Age of Trump” by Jonathan Weisman— Looking at Jewish Identity

Weisman, Jonathan. “(((Semitism))): Being Jewish in America in the Age of Trump”, St. Martin’s, 2018.

Looking at Jewish Identity

Amos Lassen

“(((Semitism))): Being Jewish in America in the Age of Trump” is Jonathan Weisman’s exploration of the disconnect between his own sense of Jewish identity and the expectations of his detractors and supporters. He looks at the rise of the alt-right, their roots in older anti-Semitic organizations, the odd antiquity of their grievances and their aims to spread hate through a political structure that has so suddenly become tolerant of their views. This is a powerful contemplation on how Jews are viewed in America since the election of Donald J. Trump, and how we can move forward to fight anti-Semitism. Lest we forget; Anti-Semitism has always been present in American culture and we feel it now with the rise of the Alt Right and the number of threats to Jewish communities since Trump took office.

When Weisman was attacked on Twitter by a group of neo-Nazis and anti-Semites, “witnessing tropes such as the Jew as a leftist anarchist; as a rapacious, Wall Street profiteer; and as a money-bags financier orchestrating war for Israel”, he began wondering if and how the Jewish experience changed, especially under a leader like Donald Trump. We now must look at anti-Semitism as part of more stressing threats while still understanding the viciousness of hate. Weisman proposes a unification of American Judaism around the defense of self and of others who are even more vulnerable than Jews, to wit— undocumented immigrants, refugees, Muslim Americans, and black activists who have been directly targeted, not just by the tolerated Alt Right, but also by the Trump White House itself.

The American Jewish experience and Weisman who was raised Reform says that he like many Jews of his generation drifted away (partly because Jews had become entirely comfortable in a pluralistic, liberal democracy that seemed to be progressing toward tolerance and acceptance and that the idea of anti-Semitism was an issue of the past). Then came the Trump campaign and the emergence of white nationalists who worked hard for Mr. Trump’s election. Jews became a target of the alt-right’s attack, forcing us to reconsider our identities in light of how we were being identified by bigots. We had the choice—we could either embrace Judaism or shun it but it was no longer something that could be ignored. There are too many Jews who have managed to have rationalize away the threat of white nationalist hate to justify political and social views that were formed before the emergence of this new reality.

We do not know whether we are living in a temporary era of intolerance or whether the progress made after the war is real or not. New democracies such as Russia and Hungary have fallen back into authoritarianism. Intolerant nationalism is on the rise around the world. As Americans, we love our institutions and traditions, and these we want to save.

Racism and anti-Semitism have always been normal in certain areas of American society. However, when the president of the United States says “very fine people” marched in Charlottesville on both sides, we see his fear of condemning the bigots who love and elected him. Today expressions of intolerance are more tolerated now than they were two years ago. Pluralism and diversity are no longer as valued as we once thought. How do we deal with the chants of “Jews will not replace us” that were heard in Charlottesville and the bigoted violence of the alt-Weisman tough on American Jews. He sees that too many of have subverted the interests of the Jewish community and the broader nation for the comfort of their present

Weisman says that the main audience of the book s the complacent Jew who has not reflected on the Jewish community’s place in America and the importance of democratic pluralism to the security of Judaism itself. But this is not a book for just Jews, it is for all Americans to be vigilant about the erosion of democratic institutions and the rise of intolerance. Weisman fears that we are moving in the direction of an American authoritarianism and that voters will overlook the affronts to the Constitution and democratic principles and decide against a change of course.

Even Democrats today have been unable to articulate a principled stand for pluralistic democracy. Now it is up to the American people to stand firm. Weisman shows us how hatred can slowly and quietly erode the moral fabric of society. Today bigotry and oppression longer hide and do not fear reproach. Weisman gives us a manifesto that outlines the dangers of marginalization and demonization of minority groups, not just Jews.

The “new anti-Semitism” is hundreds of years old and what distinguishes the alt-right from its predecessors is its method of organization, its technological knowledge, “its sarcasm and irony, and its ability to at least seem ubiquitous.” By spreading its ideology on the Internet and through social media, the alt-right has become unavoidable. It is no longer an invisible subculture. It is now disseminating its ideology and while many reject it. Most young people reject it, there will always be those who will be drawn to the instruments of hate. Weisman shares his own Jewish identity and about the rise of anti-Semitism and he calls upon American Jews “to unite around the defense of self and others.”

“A chilling look at anti-Semitism in America in the wake of Donald Trump’s political ascendancy…a thoughtful and deeply personal account.” ―Publisher’s Weekly