Category Archives: Judaica

Books and movies of interest to the Jewish community

“The Flight Portfolio” by Julie Orringer— Meet Varian Fry

Orringer, Julie. “The Flight Portfolio: A Novel”, Knopf, 2019.

Meet Varian Fry

Amos Lassen

Julie Orringer’s near perfect novel (for me, at least), “The Flight Portfolio” is inspired by a World War II story that many of us are unaware of—the real-life quest of an unlikely hero to save the lives and work of Europe’s great minds from the impending Holocaust. I must admit that I had heard of Varian Fry and of all places, I heard of him when I lived in Arkansas. A friend made me a copy of the film “Varian’s War” and I was introduced to a character who was to influence my thought for some time to come (because of his relationship with one of my philosophical heroes, Hannah Arendt and that will be explained in this review).
 In 1940, Varian Fry traveled to Marseille carrying three thousand dollars and a list of  artists and writers he hoped to help escape within a few weeks. He ended up staying more than a year, working to procure false documents, find emergency funds, and arrange journeys across Spain and Portugal, where the refugees could leave for safer ports. Among his clients were Hannah Arendt, Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp, and Marc Chagall (and these are just my favorites). He was soon involved in a race against time to save them and this was a high-stakes adventure that demanded great courage. We also learn. That Fry was involved in a love affair that could have cost him everything that he worked so hard for.
 
This is a big book that I could not put down and I read all 562 pages in almost one setting. We see the power of art and love beautifully depicted here (even though one reviewer found the bisexual and gay love scenes to be distasteful. To her I say, “Wake up, we are in the twenty-first century where love is no longer expressed by gender.

“The Flight Portfolio”, is named after a collection of paintings, drawings, and other artistic endeavors put together by fleeing artists and authors in Marseilles, France in 1940. Marseilles was Vichy, France and the artists and intellectuals were trying to get to Portugal or North Africa. From there they would be able to make their way to freedom in the US, Cuba, Mexico, or, in some cases, Martinique. Most were short of money and hope. Many should have left Europe earlier and not as the German noose began to encompass France and they wanted to leave now. A group had been set up and staffed by mostly non-Jewish Americans  who were busy “pulling strings, paying ransoms, bribing officials, and making up counterfeit documents.” This was the  “Emergency Rescue Committee” and one of their most important jobs was deciding who was worthy of being sponsorsed and saved by the Committee.
The novel is actually two stories. The first is the story of the rescues of so many people and the way the ERC operated in and around Marseilles. Included in that story is how the Committee was able to smuggle people in  and out of France to go to safer places from which to get a boat or a plane to the US. Author Orringer uses real people as both rescuers and the rescued. The other story is the love affair between the married Varian Fry, the man who was in charge of the ERC  and his old college lover, Elliott Grant. While Grant is a fictional character, he is based on Fry’s real lover, Lincoln Kirstein. Obviously Fry was bisexual because he fathered two children with his second wife. Kirstein went on to found the New York City Ballet and was a noted cultural figure and philanthropist and in 1984 was awarded the Presidential Meadow of Freedom.

Julie Orringer’s writing is beautiful and she manages to juggle the comings-and-goings and the personal stories of the main characters. She evokes Vichy France and  descriptions of the wartime France that are gorgeous to read and she shows the tension that Fry was under and the fragility of civilization itself and the heroic efforts necessary to preserve it, “all made personal in the work of artists and intellectuals that provide the artistic portrayals we need to see and the ideas we need to contemplate.” Varian Fry’s efforts are finally commended and beautifully so.  The book is a fantastic story with heroic people who labored against all odds and every obstacle to preserve the good, true, and beautiful.

“The Jewish Century” by Yuri Slezkine— Interpretative History

Slezkine, Yuri. “The Jewish Century”, New Edition, Princeton University Press Reprint, 2019.

Interpretative History

Amos Lassen

Yuri Slezkine’s, “The Jewish Century begins with this idea: “The Modern Age is the Jewish Age, and the twentieth century, in particular, is the Jewish Century.” The metaphorical yet it totally backs Yuri Slezkine’s provocative thesis that Jews have adapted to the modern world so well that they have become models of what it means to be modern. The focus here is on Russian Jews, including émigrés and their offspring and it is also an original account of the many faces of modernity including nationalism, socialism, capitalism, and liberalism. Slezkine uses his deep insight and skills of analysis to present  Jewish, Russian, European, and American history. It is a detailed study that has us rethink how we understand the situation of the modern Jew.

This is “one of the most innovative and intellectually stimulating books in Jewish studies in years.” Slezkine argues that the Jews were, in effect, among the world’s first free agents. They traditionally belonged to a social and anthropological category known as “service nomads,” an outsider group specializing in the delivery of goods and services. Their role, Slezkine argues, was part of a broader division of human labor between what he calls Mercurians-entrepreneurial minorities–and Apollonians–food-producing majorities.

Since the dawning of the Modern Age, Mercurians have taken center stage. In fact, Slezkine argues, modernity is all about Apollonians becoming Mercurians–urban, mobile, literate, articulate, intellectually intricate, physically fastidious, and occupationally flexible. Since no group has been more adept at Mercurianism than the Jews, he contends, these exemplary ancients are now model moderns.

The book concentrates on the drama of the Russian Jews, including émigrés and their offspring in America, Palestine, and the Soviet Union. But Slezkine has as much to say about the many faces of modernity–nationalism, socialism, capitalism, and liberalism–as he does about Jewry. Marxism and Freudianism, for example, sprang largely from the Jewish predicament, Slezkine notes, and both Soviet Bolshevism and American liberalism were affected in fundamental ways by the Jewish exodus from the Pale of Settlement.

This an excellent, thought provoking and controversial read. If you are at all interested in how Jewish culture and Zionist culture defines and expresses itself, then you must read this. We look at all aspects of Ashkenazi culture as it inter relates with gentile culture, from literature, to ideology, to business and economics and casts an anthropologists look at social life at a simple level everywhere. Some readers and critics see “The Jewish Century’ as a justification for anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic tropes, whilst others see it as a very thorough study of the role of Jews in the 19th and 20th centuries, an area of academia which has often been played down, repressed or totally ignored (because of the trauma of the Holocaust). Jews have been highly influential in every aspect of 20th century life, and Slezkine honestly and openly examines this.The author is engaged in a curious dual process; to make a sociological theory and to explore Jewish history in the twentieth century. The first he does in an interesting manner, however it has the weakness of all theories dividing humans into categories for academic analysis. It is useful but to much just falls through the cracks. For instance the phenomenon of warlike merchant peoples is aluded to vaguely but not examined enough. Are they Mercurian or Apollonarian peoples? It is clearly not the case that a people needs to renounce force or political competition to succeed as service nomads and in fact many did not. Nevertheless it is an interesting idea, and succeeds as a mythic archetype.

You might think that since Slezkine is a scholar, this may not be for the layman. However, it is well written and for everyone.

 

“The Dead Sea Scrolls: A Biography” by John C. Collins— Unraveling the Controversies Surrounding the Dead Sea Scrolls

Collins, John C. “The Dead Sea Scrolls: A Biography”, Princeton University Press, 2019.

Unraveling the Controversies Surrounding the Dead Sea Scrolls

Amos Lassen

If there were only two words to describe the Dead Sea Scrolls, they would probably be discovery and fascination. They were first discovered in the caves at Qumran in 1947 and appear to have been hidden in the Judean desert by the Essenes, a Jewish sect that existed around the time of Jesus. They continue to inspire veneration to this day. This book is not about what I written in the scrolls but rather a biography in which John Collins tells the story of the scrolls and the bitter conflicts that have occurred since their discovery.

Collins explores whether the scrolls were really the property of an isolated, quasi-monastic community or more broadly reflected the Judaism of their time. He looks at the impassioned disputes surrounding the scrolls and Christianity and looks at endeavors to “reclaim” the scrolls for Judaism after the full corpus became available in the 1990s. Collins describes how the decades-long delay in publishing the scrolls gave rise to sensational claims and conspiracy theories.

This is a clear and easy to read look at the Scrolls. The subject has always seemed to be clothed in myth. The writing is clear and precise and Collins writes about the different interpretations from various scholars and he summarizes the historical debate about the Scrolls.

“Karl Marx: Philosophy and Revolution” by Shlomo Avineri— Marx as an Intellectual and a Jew

Avineri, Shlomo. “Karl Marx: Philosophy and Revolution”, Yale University Press, Jewish Lives Series, 2019.

Marx as an Intellectual and a Jew

Amos Lassen

Emeritus professor of Political Science at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Shlomo Avineri, takes us on a new exploration of Karl Marx’s life through his intellectual contributions to modern thought and his relationship with Judaism. Marx who lived from 1818-1883 was a philosopher, historian, sociologist, economist, current affairs journalist, and editor and one of the most influential and revolutionary thinkers of modern history. We do not really think of him as a Jewish thinker, and his Jewish background is either overlooked or misrepresented. Avineri argues that Marx’s Jewish origins left a significant impression on his work. Marx who was born in Trier, then part of Prussia, and his family enjoyed equal rights and emancipation under the earlier French control of the area. But with its annexation to Prussia the Jewish population lost its equal rights. This is what led to the reluctant conversion of Marx’s father, and similar pressures radicalized many young intellectuals of that time who came from a Jewish background.
 
Avineri puts Marx’s Jewish background in its proper and balanced perspective, and traces Marx’s intellectual development in light of the historical, intellectual, and political contexts in which he lived. In his exploration, Avineri examines Marx’s well-known and the more obscure writings regarding equal rights for Jews thus giving new insight into Marx’s thinking and allowing the reader to better understand the contradictions in his work especially in his essay, “On the Jewish Question”.

Avineri is one of the experts on Marx and in this study, he separates Marx’s intellectual contributions to modern thought from his political activities by disentangling his ideas from political movements including both communism and social democracy both of which adopted Marx as their standard bearer, their symbol and their authority. We are all aware of the lasting and profound impact, Marx has had on the humanities.

This is the first time that I could trad about Marx and not stop at the end of every sentence to try to get its full meaning. Avineri’s prose is extremely readable and I loved getting a new look at the development of Marx’s mind.

This biography is part of the Yale Jewish Lives Series, “a prizewinning series of interpretative biography designed to explore the many facets of Jewish identity. Individual volumes illuminate the imprint of Jewish figures upon literature, religion, philosophy, politics, cultural and economic life, and the arts and sciences. Subjects are paired with authors to elicit lively, deeply informed books that explore the range and depth of the Jewish experience from antiquity to the present. Jewish Lives is a partnership of Yale University Press and the Leon D. Black Foundation. Ileene Smith is editorial director. Anita Shapira and Steven J. Zipperstein are series editors.”

 

 

 

 

“Reclaiming Judaism from Zionism: Stories of Personal Transformation” edited by Carolyn L. Karcher— Stories from Diverse Backgrounds

Karcher, Carolyn L., editor.  “Reclaiming Judaism from Zionism: Stories of Personal Transformation”, Olive Branch Press, 2019.

Stories from Diverse Backgrounds

Amos Lassen

I have never seen the American Jewish community so divided on Israel. When I was growing up through Zionist youth activities, there was never a question about the way we felt about Israel. We totally supported her and wept when there was pain and rejoiced when there was reason. I will never forget the exhilaration we felt with the Six-Day War, the very same war that is now the basis of so many problems.
Today Jews face a choice. We can be loyal to the ethical imperatives at the heart of Judaism—on one hand, we can love the stranger, pursue justice, and repair the world. On the other hand, we can give our unconditional support to the state of Israel. We face a choice between Judaism as a religion and the nationalist ideology of Zionism, which some feel is usurping that religion.

Carolyn Karcher brings us a powerful collection of personal narratives with entries from forty Jews of diverse backgrounds who share a wide range of stories about the roads they have traveled from a Zionist world view to activism in solidarity with Palestinians and Israelis striving to build an inclusive society founded on justice, equality, and peaceful coexistence. Naturally this
will be controversial. Those contributors here welcome the long overdue public debate. They want to tear down stereotypes of dissenting Jews as self-hating, traitorous, and anti-Semitic. They want  us to meet readers and writers  who are part of  the large and growing community of Jewish activists who have created organizations such as Jewish Voice for Peace, IfNotNow, and Open Hillel. They want to form and strengthen alliances with progressives of all faiths. However, it seems that their mqin goal is  to nurture models of Jewish identity that replace ethnic exclusivity with solidarity, Zionism with a Judaism once again nourished by a transcendent ethical vision. Nothing  the actions of Jewish Voices of Peace, I was already prejudiced against what I read here and that has not changed. I lived in Israel for many years and served in the Israel Defense Forces. I saw firsthand how Israel was forced to exit day-to-day because she is surrounded by enemies.

One of the reviewers said that, “These powerful stories send a message about the resilience and passion of a courageous group of Jews who have come to the realization that the state of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians does not live up to the ethical standards Jewish tradition demands.” If that is the case, why is nothing mentioned about the way Palestinians have treated Israel and the terrorist tactic the non-nation has used?  The contributors  challenge the idea that Judaism and Zionism are inseparable. I totally disagree that “Their commitment to live a Jewish life without Zionism bodes well for the future of Judaism.” What it does is tear us apart even more that we already are.

An emeritus professor of law at one of America’s most respected universities states “Carolyn L. Karcher has superbly edited a fascinating collection of autobiographical essays describing how devout American Jews disentangled themselves from the distortions of Zionism. In the process they recovered their authentic religiously and ethnically framed identities. Required reading for Jews, and engaging reading for everyone.”  I need to know the definition of devout here. I know members of some of these organizations and the only devout things about them are misinformed and radical views of the Jewish state.

Contributors include: Joel Beinin; Sami Shalom Chetrit; Ilise Benshushan Cohen; Marjorie Cohn; Rabbi Michael Davis; Hasia R. Diner; Marjorie N. Feld; Chris Godshall; Ariel Gold; Noah Habeeb; Claris Harbon; Linda Hess; Rabbi Linda Holtzman; Yael Horowitz; Carolyn L. Karcher; Mira Klein; Sydney Levy; Ben Lorber; Shoshana Madmoni-Gerber; Carly Manes; Moriah Ella Mason; Seth Morrison; Eliza Rose Moss-Horwitz; Hilton Obenzinger; Henri Picciotto; Ned Rosch; Rabbi Brant Rosen; Alice Rothchild; Tali Ruskin; Cathy Lisa Schneider; Natalia Dubno Shevin; Ella Shohat; Emily Siegel; Rebecca Subar; Cecilie Surasky; Rebecca Vilkomerson; Jordan Wilson-Dalzell; Rachel Winsberg; Rabbi Alissa Wise; Charlie Wood.

It is now time to hear from the other side.

 

 

“Gleanings: Reflections on Ruth” edited by Stuart W. Halpern— Inspired by the Book of Ruth

Halpern, Stuart W. “Gleanings: Reflections on Ruth”, Maggid, 2019.

Inspired by the Book of Ruth

Amos Lassen

At first look, the Book of Ruth seems to be a rather simple story about a family that struggles for survival. However, it is so much more than that. It is a wonderful example of a very ancient Jewish text can inspire, education and bring enlightenment to the reader and this book here is a good place to start. Through readings of Ruth, we gain insights into its themes and now with this volume, we get diverse readings from studies that have taken place. There is even more diversity as we look at the characters based upon one’s through the prisms of their respective academic interests and professional fields. The topics of these essays are wide-ranging both topic wise and stylistically. We have poetry and straight essays that are about social work, the Hebrew Bible, spirituality, immigration, conversion, elder care and so on.

The essays have been written by contemporary scholars, educators, community leaders and people like you and me. Thy give us insights into the story through the lens of their own particular interests. We, in turn see how our perspectives on the challenges and opportunities of our time and on the Book of Ruth can always have something new and vital to say. We see the synthesis of Torah wisdom and general wisdom come together.

The fact that Ruth is so connected to the holiday of Shavuot serves to remind us of the importance of the book and the importance of its celebration. It appears that it all came together because, as we read in Maccabees II, that the Hasmoneans decided to celebrate a delayed holiday on the 25th of Kislev because they had been unable to celebrate Sukkot because of their military struggle against the Seleucid Greeks. This was a celebration of the wanderings of the Jewish people during the Exodus. The story of Ruth is also the story of wandering but from Moab to the Land of Israel. At the end of the wanderings commemorated by the holidays of Sukkot and Shavuot, we find ourselves on the land, our land.

“Gleanings” is divided into five major sections— “Communities of Care”, “Love, Literature, and Interpretation”, “Conversion and Peoplehood”, “Immigration, Law and Identity” and “Biblical, Midrashic and Talmudic Meanings” so there is something for everyone. Taken as a whole, the book is a blessing for those of us who have struggled with the Book of Ruth. Now we can really sit back and take in all of its beauty on a deeper and more intense level.

“The Many Deaths of Jew Süss” The Notorious Trial and Execution of an Eighteenth-Century Court Jew” by Yair Mintzker— A Re-examination of an Infamous Episode in the History of Anti-Semitism

Mintzker, Yair. “The Many Deaths of Jew Süss” The Notorious Trial and Execution of an Eighteenth-Century Court Jew”, Princeton University Press, 2019.

A Re-examination of An Infamous Episode in the History of Anti-Semitism

Amos Lassen

Joseph Süss Oppenheimer or “Jew Süss”, is an iconic figures in the history of anti-Semitism. In 1733, Oppenheimer became the “court Jew” of Carl Alexander, the duke of the small German state of Württemberg. When Carl Alexander died unexpectedly, the Württemberg authorities arrested Oppenheimer, put him on trial, and condemned him to death for unspecified “misdeeds.” Then on February 4, 1738, Oppenheimer was hanged in front of a large crowd just outside Stuttgart.  Today, he is remembered today through several works of fiction, chief among them a vicious Nazi propaganda movie made in 1940 as requested by Joseph Goebbels.

Yair Mintzker’s “The Many Deaths of Jew Süss” is a new study of Oppenheimer’s trial. Mintzker uses a wealth of rare archival evidence as he investigates “conflicting versions of Oppenheimer’s life and death as told by four contemporaries: the leading inquisitor in the criminal investigation, the most important eyewitness to Oppenheimer’s final days, a fellow court Jew who was permitted to visit Oppenheimer on the eve of his execution, and one of Oppenheimer’s earliest biographers.” The result is a story  of greed, sex, violence, and disgrace. Of course, we must consider if the four narrators to be trusted. We have here a meticulous reconstruction of the social world in which Oppenheimer and the others lived. What we really get in this book is  an unforgettable, moving, disturbing, and profound picture of “Jew Süss” in his last days. We also get a lesson about Jewish life as it transitioned to modernity.

I found each sentence to be fascinating and often the story was mesmerizing. It is no wonder that it was winner of the 2017 National Jewish Book Award in History (Gerrard and Ella Berman Memorial Award) and finalist for the 2018 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature from the Jewish Book Council.

Oppenheimer was executed almost three centuries ago but his trial never quite ended. Even as the trial was unfolding, it was already clear that Oppenheimer had committed no crimes and the verdict of death pronounced in his case conspicuously did not give any specific details about the reasons for the death sentence. The significance of the trial, and the reasons for Oppenheimer’s public notoriety ever since the eighteenth century, seem to come out of the fact that Oppenheimer’s rise-and-fall story has been seen and understood by many as an allegory for the history of German Jewry in general. Oppenheimer was a man who tried to fit in, and seemed to do so for a time, but was eventually rejected. He was a Jew who enjoyed much success but then fell from power and met a violent death. Whenever the status, culture, past and future of Germany’s Jews have hung in the balance, this story comes up again. Mintzker reminds us that “Jew Süss is to the German collective imagination what Shakespeare’s Shylock is to the English-speaking world.”

There are close to thirty thousand handwritten pages of documents from the time period of the trial in the Stuttgart archives and among these pages are the materials collected by the inquisition committee assigned to the case; protocols of the interrogations of Oppenheimer himself, his alleged accomplices, and many witnesses; descriptions of conversations Oppenheimer had with visitors in his prison cell; and a great number of poems, pamphlets, and essays about Oppenheimer’s final time. However, even though the abundance of sources about Oppenheimer’s trial is truly remarkable, the sources themselves never tell the same story twice.

We have doubts, uncertainties, and outright contradictions about who Oppenheimer was and what he did or did not do. Mintzker explores four different accounts of the trial, each from a different perspective. The result is the uncovering of new documents and these documents refuse to reduce the story of Jew Süss to only one narrative and we get an unforgettable picture of Jew Süss in his final days. However, because the world looks different from different perspectives is not the bottom line of a good work of history.

“THE SAMUEL PROJECT”— Art. History. Life.

“THE SAMUEL PROJECT”

Art. History. Life.

Amos Lassen

 Eli (Ryan Ochoa) is the seventeen year old grandson of Samuel Bergman (Hal Linden)  and he has a lot of questions but Grandpa isn’t talking. Some things are too tough to talk about.

Samuel runs a successful dry-cleaning business in San Diego  but doesn’t show up for work one morning. One of Samuel’s employees has been there eight years and says his boss has never missed a day of work in all that time. Samuel is the best in town, according to his customers. However, he can’t ever seem to remove a stain from Vartan (Ken Davitian),  the butcher’s apron. Vartan comes around to the store not only to have his clothes cleaned, but also to exchange verbal jabs with Samuel and continue their seemingly never-ending chess game on a board set up behind the counter. 

Eli wants to be an artist and his father, Robert (Michael B. Silver), is still struggling to pay the bills even with a “real job.” Robert’s advice: go to community college, get a degree in a stable profession, and be an artist on the weekend. But Eli has to be an artist now because he has been assigned a history project in Mr. Turner’s (Philippe Bowgen) media class. The winning entry gets a scholarship to art school, which Eli desperately needs because he doesn’t have his father’s support,  financial or otherwise. Samuel doesn’t quite understand his grandson’s “doodles” either, but he’s fascinated that people can actually make a living doing that.

For the project, Eli pairs up with Kasim (Mateo Arias), a brooding musician who is being pressured into working at his father’s butcher shop. Eli offers to work at the dry-cleaning store before and after school without pay if Samuel will open up to him. The story about a young boy whose entire family was torn away from him by the Nazis, the teenage girl who rescued him from a gunshot wound inflicted by her own father, and his eventual journey to America all alone is the story that Eli wants Samuel to tell him.

Marc Fusco co-wrote (with Chris Neighbors and Steven Weinberger) and directed “The Samuel Project”. Eli piqued his grandfather’s interest in the project after giving him a ride to meet an old friend named Uma (Trina Kaplan) in Laguna Niguel. Eli wants to discover the significance of this woman in his grandfather’s life. In turn, he learns about his grandfather’s harrowing tale throughout the course of this project.

Though “The Samuel Project” is basically the simple story of a high school student bonding with the grandfather he doesn’t really know, it also is about the importance of learning your family history. Knowing the past can bring people closer together in the present, even when the older generation feels so disconnected from the youths of today. There are many people in the world who live unassuming lives and have fascinating stories to tell. The account here is not new but one we have heard time and time again throughout history. It is about how rhetoric and hate led to the deaths of millions of people and how young children became displaced from their families during WWII.

When Eli’s project is revealed at the end of the film, we find ourselves either openly weeping or holding back tears. as we watched the final product. Eli’s animations bring Samuel’s journey to life in an amazing way. “The Samuel Project” is also a film about young people finding and forging their own paths in life. Eli and Kasim must prove to their fathers that pursuing their careers in art and music may not be as financially stable as becoming businessmen but are worth exploring because they are passion projects they truly believe in, and that sometimes, all you need to do is follow your heart.

“This is a heartwarming and moving story that encourages kids to not only be curious and follow their dreams but to seek out information about their family history and the historical paths that may have had a hand in shaping their lives before they were even born.”

“Subversive Sequels in the Bible” by Judy Klitsner— Sex, Gender and Universalism

Klitsner, Judy. “Subversive Sequels in the Bible”, Koren, 2011.

Self, Gender and Universalism

Amos Lassen

In “Subversive Sequels in the Bible”, Hebrew Bible teacher Judy Klitsner invites us on a voyage of discovery through familiar biblical narratives. She remains deeply faithful to the texts but dares to interpret and draw parallels between biblical passages to reveal previously overlooked layers of meaning. Through scholarship, creativity and passion, Klitsner illustrates the dynamic nature of biblical attitudes toward timeless issues of self, gender and universalism resulting in a collection of provocative and original readings. The book is the winner of The National Jewish Book Award and rightfully so.

We see that even the most familiar stories of the Jewish Bible have so many odditiess and historical commentaries that there is always something new to learn. In the first three chapters, we have a kind of warm-up to establish the author’s method, after which she shows the evolution of woman’s roles and rights after the early low point in which Eve is condemned to pain and subservience. Throughout the book, Klitsner focuses readers on a more involved, more just engagement with the world, using the stories of the Bible as broad guides and as inspiration.

Klitsner reads the stories as one reads good literature, showing that different biblical tales frequently and purposely use similar language, often the same word, to draw readers’ attention to the connection between the tales. The basic part of this technique is well-known and used by many people to help them understand and appreciate the depths of biblical narratives. However, Klitsner makes a profound contribution to the understanding of the Bible. She proves, with dozens of demonstrations, that the subsequent stories subvert – radically reexamine, develop, and change – the idea or ideas that appear in the prior tale.

Three of the six chapters in the book examine the changes in the Bible’s portrayal of women. The first narrative, in Genesis (chapter one) shows the first humans as “full and equal partners in their capacity to create and subdue.” However, in chapter two, that equality is lost. The man patronizingly sees woman as a unique and irreplaceable gift, “and as one who gives him as sense of completion as a human being.” Thus, chapter one’s equality of the sexes is lost. The woman becomes subservient to man, a source of pleasure.

The woman is frustrated with this secondary status and at the end of chapter two, we see another subversion in that  she seeks independence, meaning, and satisfaction. She speaks with the serpent in the Garden of Eden and expresses her feelings by violating the man’s command by eating the forbidden fruit.

In chapter three, her status deteriorates further when she is named by man which  expresses his mastery over her, just as when he named the animals he showed mastery over them. God further accentuates this when He declares “he will rule over you.”

Klitsner, however, does not see this as a biblical pronouncement that women must be unequal. It is rather “a description of sociological realities that play out through much of human history.” This becomes clear when we read that the pair are driven from the garden, and its entrance is guarded by “cherubim,” two angelic figures, which by Talmudic tradition are “symbols of male-female equality.” “Seen in this way, the Cherubim symbolize male-female equality as a prerequisite to entering God’s holy places.”

By this we better understand why the Torah composes its tales in this extraordinary way. Each narrative is an event or parable written to express a particular message and is not intended to reveal the entire truth. The truth can only be grasped by reading the entire Torah, all of the narratives, not by reading one in isolation.

Klitsner builds upon these subversive sequels to analyze the relationship between the Abraham and his wife Sarah causing us to see Abraham unfavorably. We note that God speaks to the male, but not to the female, just as in the Adam and Eve narratives, except once, when God criticizes Sarah for laughing that she would have a son. Klitsner also examines the stories of Sarah’s daughter-in-law Rebecca, Isaac’s wife. She highlights that all of the biblical women, beginning with Eve, Sarah, Rebecca, and Rachel, are frustrated over their subsidiary roles. She also shows that in the subversive sequels about Deborah, Jael and Hannah, the Bible considers their frustration justified and their mistreatment by society and their spouses as wrong.

One does not have to agree with what Klitsner says but she does help us see the text in new ways. Occasionally her exposition is strained but for every non-sequitur there are dozens of insightful connections in inner Biblical interpretation.

For example: let’s look at the connections between the Jonah story and the Noah story: Noah sent a dove (Hebrew, yonah) to see if the flood was ended; Jonah is, of course Yonah. God flooded the world because of hamas (violence, injustice); in Jonah, the Ninevites repented of their hamas and turned away from it.  Noah and Jonah’s stories both involve boats, sea journeys, and water-induced catastrophe (even though Nineveh is nowhere near the sea). The Noah story is about judgment without mercy; the Jonah story is about mercy over judgment. Noah ends his career in self-induced slumber and drunken self-destruction; Jonah begins his quest sleeping in the hold of the ship, then asking to be drowned in the sea, and at the end praying for God to take his life. Noah is ambivalent about the destruction of the world while God is unrelenting; in Jonah, God wants to save the wicked, but Jonah is unwilling.

Klitsner questions God’s motives in the story, as she apparently views the Biblical narratives as human writings about God. Therefore, in the way she sees the story, it is possible  that the Noah story represents an earlier and inferior view of Divine judgment and mercy. Klitsner’s insight into the verbal parallels, puns, and interconnections has forever changed the way of reading both stories. Her analyses rely on close readings of the Hebrew text and this approach allows for many delightful connections that are not obvious and make the book interesting and fun to read.

However, Klitsner’s larger thesis, that the bible has a series of interconnected stories where the conclusions of one are challenged are reversed by a second, does not hold up. Often the conclusions of both stories are ambiguous and tentative and do not seem to be in conflict. Klitsner has a definite agenda to show that the status of women in the Bible and their relationship with God changes from a patriarchal model to a much more inclusive model. I wish that this held through the five books but it does not.

What is convincing is the degree to which these narratives interact with common theme and language. What is surprising is that the results of such an examination yield a subversive yet stubbornly reverent approach to Bible study.

Anyone who reads this book will find their appreciation of the beautiful tapestry of Biblical narrative enriched and their understanding enhanced. And those interested in bridging the gulf between Bible texts and contemporary readers will find this approach to be helpful, illuminating and exciting.

The Holy Temple of Jerusalem” by Rabbi Israel Ariel— The Splendor and the Beauty

Ariel, Yisrael Rabbi. “The Holy Temple in Jerusalem”, Maggid Books, 2019.

The Splendor and the Beauty

Amos Lassen

Originally published in Hebrew several years ago, we are now lucky enough to have an English edition of this glorious book. We get a look at the Temple’s glory and honor, as well as an understanding of the divine service that was performed there during the festivals and all year round. Through these pages the reader can almost feel himself walking through the Temple’s hallowed precincts, while observing the service of the priests. It is so fitting that Rabbi Yisrael Ariel wrote this since he was among the paratroopers who liberated the Temple Mount in the 1967 Six Day War.

We see hundreds of detailed artistic renditions of the Temple as created by some of Israel’s finest artists. It is hard to imagine the beauty of the Temple since all we have are really the descriptions in the holy writings which are indeed overwhelming.