Category Archives: Judaica

Books and movies of interest to the Jewish community

“Siddur Avodat HaLev” by the Rabbinic Coucil of America— With Women in Mind

Rabbinical Council of America. “Siddur Avodat HaLev”, (Hebrew and English Edition), Koren Books, 2018.

With Women in Mind

Amos Lassen

The new RCA Siddur – Siddur Avodat HaLev is a full siddur for Weekdays, Shabbat and Haggim.  It has been ten years in the making and now has a fully contemporary translation, new commentaries utilizing classic as well as contemporary Rabbinic and traditional sources. additional prayers for life-cycle events and the modern observance of Yom Ha’atzmaut, Yom HaShoah and Yom Yerushalayim, the complete Sefer Tehilim, supplementary essays by classic and contemporary Rabbis, appropriate female textual and grammatical formulations where needed. The Siddur Avodat Halev is the new standard Siddur for RCA Synagogues for generations. Additionally there are detailed on-page halakhic instructions approved by recognized authorities.

This is the new Orthodox Prayer Book that keeps women in mind and it “seeks to reflect a sensitivity to women’s prayer experiences.” The siddur accommodates women through its textual and grammatical updates and many of those updates, however, are unprecedented for an Orthodox siddur. The book provides the text for a group of women saying the blessing after a meal, a prayer that is usually omitted with the assumption that a man will nearly always lead that prayer. References to “gentlemen” have been changed to “esteemed companions.” The commentary and supplemental essays make use of female scholarship.

Yet, even with the book’s inclusivity, there are some lines it does not cross. Today Modern Orthodoxy’s leading institutions are divided on the question of whether women can be faith leaders and the prayer book totally ignores this. Hotly contested issues like female clergy are best left out of a siddur.

A new prayer book can mean overhauls to long-treasured siddurim and can take years of dedicated work by a team of rabbis. The traditional Hebrew text presents challenges for rabbis looking for inclusive liturgy. Hebrew is a gendered language; the words for God are nearly all masculine. The process of correcting for this perceived imbalance started years ago among the more liberal Jewish denominations. In 2007, the Reform movement removed gendered references to God from the English in its new siddur. In 2016, the Conservative movement’s Siddur Lev Shalem did the same, for instance calling God “sovereign” instead of “king.”

This siddur continues that trend. It is aimed at American Modern Orthodox Jews,  an observant and wealthy segment of Judaism that values participation in secular culture and professional life while keeping kosher and refraining from work on the Sabbath.

Besides the changes geared toward women, the new siddur, like its predecessors in the Reform and Conservative movements, broadly focuses on incorporating new commentary and translation to complement the centuries-old liturgy. There are notes for nearly every prayer, and includes rabbinic insight into lifecycle traditions like weddings, brises and b’nai mitzvahs.

The features aimed at female congregants are not only for women. The siddur not just women-friendly, but sensitizing men and women to the importance of women in prayer. In its Hebrew text, prayers written in first person offer optional feminized verbs. Perhaps the single most important textual update in the book has to do with the prayer after eating, the birkat hamazon. While there is a rabbinically accepted formula for how to begin the prayer when the participants are only women, that text is nearly impossible to find in any Orthodox siddur. “Avodat Halev” includes that text, and a note explaining the  religious law, behind it. For good measure, it includes, in Hebrew, the feminized version of the words “head of the household” thus recognizing that such a role can be occupied by women.

In the siddur’s English translation, gender-neutral pronouns are used wherever possible, showing that the Rabbinic Council understands how sensitive people are to the question of gender in Judaism.

The siddur also has commentary and supplementary essays from female scholars like the legendary bible teacher Nechama Lebowitz, the historian Yaffa Eliach and the Yeshiva University professor Deena Rabinovich — a rarity for an Orthodox book.

One particular bit of commentary notes that women should always seek a halachic prenuptial agreement, to make sure that they will not get stuck being an agunah, a woman whose husband won’t grant her a divorce.

The new siddur, however, while offering more ways for women to feel like equal participants in a prayer service, does not acknowledge the possibility that they might lead a prayer service.

“BENT”— We Shall Never Forget”

 “Bent”

We Shall Never Forget

Amos Lassen

Film Movement is rereleasing a remastered and Blu Ray copy of “Bent” as part of their classics series. “Bent” is one of the most difficult films I have ever watched. It is also one of the most important films we have today about the treatment of gay men during the Holocaust. The darkest period in the history of mankind is what the movie “Bent” is about. It is not an easy movie to watch but it should be required viewing for all mankind so that we may see what man’s inhumanity to man can engender. It is also important that we never forget the atrocities that we see in the movie that are brought about simply because people are different. It was Adolph Hitler and the Nazi regime that sought to rid the world of those who did not fulfill the Aryan characteristics and this meant Jews, Catholics, gays and gypsies. I think that we forget or perhaps just didn’t know that gays were punished and exterminated during that time. The movie “Bent” and the play upon what it was based attempted to make sure we would never forget. I, personally, can never forget because I fall into two of the categories that called for extermination, being both gay and Jewish. I lost part of my family to the Nazis, a family I would never know and I am determined that the world will never be allowed to forget.

“Bent” is one of the most powerful films that I have ever seen and yet, for some reason, I felt it could have been even more powerful. I remember seeing the play in New York with Richard Gere and I was silent for a week afterwards. The movie made me very angry, very very angry. As I have matured I have grown aware of prejudice more and more That is exactly why this movie is so important, it reminds us of just how awful life can be and how humans, with misguidance, can become sick animals just as the Nazis were in both reality and in this film. 
From the first frame of the film, it draws the viewer in and the matter at hand, the Nazi persecution of homosexuals was presented with dignity and grace and respect. What is lacking in character development was made up for by the long silent periods in the film that continuously drive the viewer to realize what is happening. Intensely psychological, the movie drives its point right into the lap of the viewer.

It is easy to rationalize the period by saying that in times of desperation and fear, people do terrible, incomprehensible things. Everything is taken away, self-esteem is stripped, comforts of life disappear and people are places in situations that they are completely unprepared for, We. Who live in a free country, cannot comprehend something like this happening, we cannot understand what is like to face death because we are different. But we do need to be aware that if this happened once in history, there is no guarantee that it will not happen again.

I ask you to try to imagine what is like to watch a drag queen who sings every night to a lonely bunch of men and has the power to protect herself by bribing the Nazis. How can that be? The drag queen saves her life by paying for it with the lives of others. And after one has been turned in and is on a train to a place unknown and which takes him from everything has ever known after being tracked down like an animal where is the justice in that? Then he watches as they drag his lover away. This is the reality of “Bent”.

For so long it was only the travails of the Jews that we heard about regarding the Holocaust. Other groups were treated as badly and this is what “Bent” shows us. “Bent” is a perspective on the holocaust from the unknown number of homosexuals who suffered alongside  the Jews. It is a simple story — a love story between men in terrible circumstances and the bond of love presented in the movie is convincing and moving. Somehow this love maintained with no physical contact and hardly any eye contact. The love scene is not like any you have ever seen. The two men bring each other to climax by words alone, no touch and no looking at each other.

This movie is not a masterpiece, far from it but it is a movie that needed to be made if for no other reason than to remind us of the time. It is a very sad but romantic story. The story and the characters are what made this movie so powerful. The producers were a brave group to even attempt to bring this to the screen. It is an untouched piece of history that has been elegantly brought to us.

It is hard to even write about “Bent” without tearing up. The absurdity of killing people for no real reason except that they are different is something that is hard to understand perhaps because it cannot be understood. The punishment that was supposed to be for a crime against nature was forced labor and ultimately death. Bent depicts a world devoid of physical and eye contact, devoid of humanity, and devoid of understanding. Profound and incredible, “Bent” is a movie that must be seen to be believed and it must be viewed with an open heart and mind so that one can actually feel what the actors feel, not only because they were gay men in love and pain but because, above all else, they were human.

 Here is what Film Movement has to say about this release:

RELEASED FOR THE FIRST TIME EVER ON BLU RAY IN NORTH AMERICA 

FEATURING ACADEMY AWARD NOMINEES CLIVE OWEN (CLOSER), IAN MCKELLEN (LORD OF THE RINGS), JUDE LAW (COLD MOUNTAIN), AND ACADEMY AWARD WINNER RACHEL WEISZ (THE CONSTANT GARDENER), AS WELL AS PAUL BETTANY (THE AVENGERS), NIKOLAJ COSTER-WALDAU (GAME OF THRONES), AND MICK JAGGER. 

MUSIC BY LEGENDARY OSCAR-NOMINATED COMPOSER AND GOLDEN GLOBE WINNER, PHILIP GLASS

Bonus features included Cast and Crew Interviews, Mick Jagger music video Streets of Berlin, Behind the Scenes footage, and new essay written by Steven Alan Carr.

Review

WINNER – Prix de la Jeunesse – Cannes Film Festival 
NOMINATED – Outstanding Film – GLAAD Media Awards 
WINNER – Best Feature – Torino Int’l. Gay & Lesbian Film Festival 
WINNER – Best Actor – Gijon Int’l. Film Festival —

Martin Sherman’s play about the persecution of gays in Nazi Germany makes its transition to the big screen with triumphant results. The acting is superb and the ingenious score by Phillip Glass adds a haunting, surreal texture to director, Sean Mathias opulent, Greenaway-esque production. – Stephen Holden, The New York Times 

Martin Sherman’s harrowing concentration camp drama about the Nazi persecution of homosexuals still has some power to unsettle…Bent has earned its place in cultural history. –Film Threat

The film is a punch in the gut and a kiss on the lips… – Mark Savlov, Austin Chronicle 

Director Sean Mathias has made a very stylized yet substantive movie about the plight of homosexuals in the Holocaust. –Spirituality & Practice

“Torah as a Guide to Enlightenment” by Rabbi Gabriel Cousens— The Road to Liberation

Cousens, Gabriel Rabbi. “Torah as a Guide to Enlightenment” , North Atlantic Books, 2018.

The Road to Liberation

Amos Lassen

Rabbi Dr. Gabriel Cousins was inspired by intense studies, meditation, and a variety of teachings from the great Torah sages to write this book in which he presents the fifty-two Torah as a practical path to liberation. His interpretation focuses on enlightenment and this is what he what he feels was the original intention of the Torah. What we have here is a multidimensional analysis and a perspective that is often missing from conventional teachings.  In order to connect or reconnect with our spiritual roots, it is necessary to seek enlightenment and that is where this book comes in. We must find a way to read and understand the holy writings which simply means making Torah easy to grasp. Rabbi Cousens brings us the wisdom of the sages by providing ways that speak to us directly so that all can hear.
 
Jews and Torah depends on each other and the two of them have not had an easy time lately. If we are going to save the Jewish people from oblivion, then we must also save the Torah and vice versa.  Rabbi Cousens gives us a level of Torah wisdom that few contemporary Jews know with it is hope of enlightenment. Like many others, I found myself distancing myself from Judaism and therefore from Torah for a good many years but then as I searched for a sense of community, I found it in my synagogue and I also found a renewed desire to study Torah and I do for faithfully every day for two hours or so.

I gain a sense of history, a sense of spirituality and a feeling of belonging. I have also found that Rabbi Cousens has helped me open yet another door to understanding—not just Torah but also myself. I feel rewarded knowing that when I sit down to study, I am one of many, many others who are doing the same thing at the same time. Rabbi Cousens helps us to unlock the gain a taste of some of the beauty of the inner Torah.  It is indeed possible to find enlightenment through through Judaism. We see it in the great ancient teachings which, in effect, are a guide to help prepare people to receive the “energies of liberation that have been prophesized.”

 

“Dear Zealots: Letters from a Divided Land Hardcover” by Amos Oz— Three Essays

Oz, Amos. “Dear Zealots: Letters from a Divided Land Hardcover”, translated by Jessica Cohen,  Houghton, Mifflin Harcourt, 2018.

Three Essays

Amos Lassen

Israeli writer Amos Oz has written an urgent and deeply necessary work with “Dear Zealots”, three powerful essays that speak directly to our present age, on the rise of zealotry in Israel and around the world. This is “a depiction of one man’s struggle, who for decades has insisted on keeping a sharp, strident and lucid perspective in the face of chaos and at times of madness.” The essays are on the universal nature of fanaticism and its possible cures, on the Jewish roots of humanism and the need for a secular pride in Israel, and on the geopolitical standing of Israel in the wider Middle East and internationally. The language is rich and knowing (we would not expect less from Oz) and the essays are perfectly timed for our world where extremism and polarization has taken hold (something I never thought I would live to see). Oz says that he wrote these for his grandchildren and in them he retells history, religion and politics in a way that they are to be studied and possessed. Our future seems to be more uncertain every day.

The three essays,“Dear Zealots,” “Many Lights, Not One Light,” and “Dreams Israel Should Let Go of Soon,” share a common theme and that is to think as an individual and do not let blind devotion overtake our views.  It is easy to be a zealot; we must listen to our opponents; learn nuance and learn to live with your neighbors. Growing fanaticism is manifested today in the illiberal democracy in the age of Trump and Putin. The characteristic here has become extreme hatred. We forget how disgusted we were with fascism and Hitler and Stalin
One of Oz’s most compelling points is that we were so disgusted by the fascism of Hitler and Stalin but as history fades and complacency rises, we are letting fascism spread.
Oz says  that “Jesus regards all of humanity as morally infantile individuals who commit evil because they do not know that it is evil.” But Oz will have none of this. Even children, he says, are aware of the pain they inflict on other sentient beings. Is not the banality of evil facing us once again? It is indeed time to study Hannah Arendt again.

Oz sees “the essence of Judaism as rebellion against unfairness, presenting doubt against the complacency of certainty, questioning God when God’s actions appear tyrannical, fighting for justice, fighting against fanaticism, using persuasion and counterargument, negotiating compromise, and finding peace through tireless struggle.” I do  not see that as far from my own philosophy.

Oz explains that fanatics are living in a black and white world with a simplistic view of good and evil. They are the people who try to save us from ourselves; the people who can never seem to hear anyone’s voice but their own. They are a people with no sense of humor. The disagreement over the differing views of the Messiah has brought hatred and anger to the world along with persecutions of the Jews, inquisitions, pogroms, mass murders. Why can we not wait patiently and see what happens?

This view of fanaticism informs Oz’s view of Judaism. Using the Torah and the Talmud, Oz argues that Judaism is passed down not through genes, but through books. At the heart of what it means to be Jewish is how we treat each other. It is actually very simple.

The third essay gives Oz’s views on the Israel Palestinian divide which lies somewhere between the right and left, though supportive of a two state solution; yet critical. These are Oz’s thoughts and ideas as he shows the intellectual and moral decay behind simplistic appeal of authoritarianism, absolutism, and religious dogma towards the observance and manner of practices of others. The discussion focuses on the dysfunction between Jewish religious fanaticism and the moral and humanistic intellectual foundation of Zionism. We also get interesting insight to the conflict between two thousand years of Jewish existence and tradition without independence, and the conflict between the humanist-Zionist approach and the messianic-Hasidic approach to the qualification of Israel as ‘Jewish’. There is so much here but I do not want to spoil one’s adventure of reading this very important work so I will stop and urge you to get a copy of “Dear Zealots”.

“The Chosen Wars: How Judaism Became an American Religion” by Steven R. Weisman— Partners

Weisman, Steven R. “The Chosen Wars: How Judaism Became an American Religion”, Simon and Schuster, 2018.

Partners

Amos Lassen

Steven Weisman’s “The Chosen Wars” is the story of how Judaism enhanced America and how America inspired Judaism. We read how Judaism redefined itself in America in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and of the personalities that fought each other and shaped its evolution and, crucially, the force of the American dynamic that transformed an ancient religion.

This redefinition of Judaism explains the larger American experience and the efforts by all Americans to reconcile their faith with modern demands. The narrative begins with the arrival of the first Jews in New Amsterdam and continues over the nineteenth century as a massive immigration takes place at the dawn of the twentieth century. Of course, the first issue was earning a living. Many immigrants had to work on the Sabbath or traveled as peddlers to places where they could not keep kosher. Doctrine was therefore put aside or adjusted. To be equals, American Jews rejected their identity as a separate nation within America and Judaism became an American religion.

Of course, these changes did not come easily or without argument. These are the the stories of the colorful rabbis and activists, including women, who defined American Judaism and whose disputes divided it into the Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox branches that continue today. They include Isaac Mayer Wise, Mordecai Noah, David Einhorn, Rebecca Gratz, and Isaac Lesser, some of the major figures in this wonderful story.

American Judaism underwent a radical shift in the 19th century as it had to adapt its rituals and its theology for an open, modern society. Weisman gives us a thorough and fascinating history of these decades, which gave rise to the liberal branches of Judaism and allowed Jews to feel at home and thrive in America. (As I was writing this, I questioned just how much we feel at home in Trump’s America). This is not only a look at the past, it is also a guide to the future. We still are involved in chosen wars but now we are better equipped to fight them.

American Jews have little self-awareness about their place in the saga of America. Life in the New World transformed their religion, creating distinctive beliefs and ritual. Weisman brings our history to light with narrative flair and wisdom. This is a popular, readable account of the personalities and dramatic conflicts that produced a distinctively American Judaism over the course of the Nineteenth Century.  Weisman tells the story of how Judaism became Americanized largely through the lens of the disputes between the reformers and the traditionalists coming of age in the America of the 1800s. ‘Much of the arguments still ring true through today— the role of women, music, choirs, English versus Hebrew in services, peoplehood versus religion, the difference between awaiting a Messiah or Messianic Age, and the relative importance of prayer and study versus social action.”

Some of you may be surprised to read that much of this history took place in Charleston, South Carolina, which in the 1820s had the largest Jewish community in America. Many of the arguments in South Carolina preceded the arrival of the mass immigration of German Jews in the 1840s and 50s who later became the back bone of Reform Judaism. And because there were so many Jews in the South, the Jewish community split over the issue of slavery with Judah P. Benjamin becoming the Confederacy’s secretary of state. Nevertheless when Lincoln died much of American Jewry viewed him as the second Moses. I remember the influence that Charleston  had on the Southern Young Judaea movement in the 50s and y60s, producing outstanding leaders and Zionist ideology at a time that American Jews were concerned with finding their places. This feeling for Israel is even stranger when we consider that this book is the history of the rise of the Reform movement and the traditionalist reaction against it against the backdrop of an America that was much different from Europe. To the reformers the synagogue was the new Temple and America was the New Jerusalem. Thus there was no need to pray for a rebuilding of the ancient temple and much of the ancient rules seemed out of place in America, especially on the frontier.

In America there was no formal rabbinic authority. In fact there were no Rabbis until the 1830s and no American ordained rabbis until the 1880s. As a result authority was vested in the individual congregations which meant that much of the argument took place among the laity. To be sure there were leading rabbis like Isaac Wise and Jacob Lesser, but they too were responsible to their congregations.

Weisman’s emphasizes the intellectual divisions over the role of spirituality and social justice politics over a connection with God. In many respects religion represents the triumph of faith over reason. To be sure social justice is important. However, there will be those who will maintain that much of the success that Jews have enjoyed in America has come not from political action, but rather from living in a market economy. (“Jews should be “the light among nations,” but should walk the walk with a great deal of humility”).

There will also be those who will say that this book is anti-Orthodox Judaism in many ways. In the excerpts there is a paucity of Orthodox rabbis and the assumption that Orthodox premises are wrong. Nothing in the book about the great American yeshivas and almost nothing about in the book about great American Orthodox rabbis. I would have liked some more attention to development of orthodox institutions in urban centers at end of 19th century and early 20th centuries. We feel the need for a book about that period.

“Never a Native” by Alice Shalvi— An Unforgettable Woman

Shalvi, Alice. “Never a Native”, Halban Publishers, 2019.

An Unforgettable Person

Amos Lassen

With the publication of her autobiography, Alice Shalvi is 92 years old. I met her sometime in the late 1970s when I would grade Israel’s National Matriculation Exams in Jerusalem during the summer. She was already legendary and I never cease to be amazed at how  she becomes more and more legendary with every passing day.

“Alice Shalvi is the most famous Israeli whom the average American Jew has never heard of. Revered Hebrew University English professor, principal of the Pelech school, founder of the Israel Women’s Network, rector of the Schechter Institutes, intrepid feminist activist, prominent advocate for Israeli-Palestinian peace, and winner of multiple honors—among them, the Israel Prize, the country’s Nobel—Shalvi nonetheless remains virtually anonymous in the mainstream Jewish world.”

Alice Shalvi possessed a wide-ranging expertise and coherent in-depth analyses of women’s issues. She is a living denial of feminist stereotypes. Alice was married for more than 60 years and religiously, she practices what is regarded as  modern Orthodoxy. She was born in 1926 in Essen, Germany and then went to England where her family took refuge in 1934.

Alice’s memories of the war years are sketchy. She remembers being afraid when the Gestapo raided her house and when her brother came home beaten by Nazi street thugs. In London, she remembers taping the windows, the sirens and gas masks and running to the shelter.

She also remembers growing up with “a gramophone, records of Gigli, Jan Kiepura, famous cantors; opera, cinema, theatre.” She heard the child prodigy Yehudi Menuhin play at the Royal Albert Hall. During the blitz, her family left London for Buckinghamshire. Her mother provided meals for anyone who came to their door and even hosted a Seder for more than 30 Jewish soldiers stationed in the neighborhood.

Her Zionism was nourished by her father, an active Zionist and co-founder of both a publishing company of Hebrew books and a weekly newspaper whose back page featured Yiddish writing. As a child, Alice had a Hebrew grammar tutor. After the war, her family kept a chauffeur, daily household help, and a nanny.

Shalvi was a bright child who had taught herself to read German before turning 4 and often read aloud to other children. She invented imaginary alter egos to amuse her friends and amused adults with plots of movies she’d never seen but whose stories she’d imagined. She had been denied a formal Jewish education, she eavesdropped on a friend’s father’s Hebrew drills.

When she came to England, her classmates called her “a little refugee” but by the end of the school year, she was at the top of her class. She fell madly in love with English literature and was an ardent monarchist. When King George died, she wore a black armband.

She was determined to eliminate suffering and this began one rainy day while she saw a hungry old man in rags, soaked to the skin, shivering in the doorway, and felt powerless to help him.

She entered Cambridge a year earlier than her age group and spent her free time with the Jewish Society and joined a Zionist study group and discussed Herzl, Ahad Ha’am, Leo Pinsker and was elected its president. In 1946, she attended the World Zionist Congress as a junior delegate. After Cambridge, she went to the London School of Economics and got a degree in social work You get the idea; she was a star.

It was not all happiness, however. She felt like an alien in England “not only Jewish but a foreigner, and though my flawless accent did not betray my foreign birth, my ignorance of … upper-class British traditions and mores would.” At Cambridge, she felt ill-prepared. Physically,  “I did not meet ideal standards. My bust was too small, my hips too broad.” She was ashamed of being “plump.” Before she had a boyfriend, she retreated into one of her fantasy alter egos, “a witty, physically more attractive person far more successful than me in winning the attentions of the opposite sex.”

When anti-Semitic remarks became unbearable, she detached from her “Jewish self” except in the privacy of her home. At the same time, she felt immense guilt for her ignorance of the Holocaust and became aware of “a startling paradox: while the extermination of European Jewry was in progress, I was enjoying what were undoubtedly the happiest years of my adolescence, safe and secure amidst the natural beauties of rural England.”

Her first visit to Palestine was in 1947, a month after the U.N. voted in favor of partition and two years later, she made aliyah. Her achievements as an educator, public speaker, social justice activist, and public intellectual are well known and her life paralleled Israel’s growing pains. However, Israel did nothing to relieve her self-doubt and shame. She had hoped to do social work with Holocaust survivors but discovered her “qualifications were inappropriate” and by accident, she found a job teaching English at the Hebrew University (her former students include Hebrew poets Yehuda Amichai, Dalia Ravikovitch, and Dan Pagis). Her confessions here are a testament to the durability of the female impostor syndrome and the emotional fortitude required for a woman to function in a judgmental patriarchal world.

We read of the unspoken and the unspeakable as Shalvi revisits episodes that sensitized her to gender inequity: The sexist pushback she got from higher-ups when she was the founding chair of the English department at the Institute of Higher Education in the Negev, the misogynistic humiliations that doomed her application for the position of dean of Ben-Gurion University, her service on the Namir Commission shich had been tasked by the Knesset with proposing legislation and other changes to improve the social, economic, and political status of women, her tenure as principal of Pelech, a high school that aims to provide Orthodox girls with both a secular and religious education, where she faced conflicts between Orthodoxy and modernity, her role as co-founder and chair of the Israel Women’s Network, a nonpartisan organization dedicated to advancing women’s status through advocacy, consciousness-raising, litigation and legislation. She initiated new projects, like Nashim, the journal of Jewish feminist studies, created a Centre for Women in Jewish Law, and ended up as the institute’s president. This is a book about a little refugee who, despite suffering self-doubts lived a very large life.

“CITY OF JOEL”— A Town Divided

“CITY OF JOEL”

A Town Divided

Amos Lassen

“City of Joel”, a new documentary captures the conflict and drama surrounding Kiryas Joel, a village occupying a square mile within the town of Monroe in upstate New York that became one of the fastest-growing Hasidic communities in the US. When the secular residents of the larger township learn of Kiryas Joel’s desire to annex adjacent land to address its population growth it sets off a turf war. 

Direected by Jesse Sweet, we see two communities with polarized worldviews trying to protect their way of life. On the one side is KJ (or Kiryas Joel), a community of 22,000 Satmar Hasidim founded in the 1970s after the community was priced out of Brooklyn by rising real estate prices. Their Rebbe, Joel Teitelbaum, sought to establish a rural settlement in which the congregants could be secluded from the outside world. Many families left Williamsburg for Monroe, seeking a place to grow for a community (many of whose ancestors perished in the Holocaust).

On the other side are local activists who form a coalition called United Monroe. The activists want to protect natural resources, such as wildlife, trees, and water as well as their hold on political power, which has been significantly weakened by the Hasidim’s ability to act as a unified voting bloc. We meet strong personalities from both sides and each side makes valid arguments.

A leading member of United Monroe says that there’s no separation between church and state in KJ, while a Hasid activist counters that the founders had intended that provision to protect religion, not to protect the government.  

John Allegrosays he moved there for land, privacy, and quiet and that another 40,000 people would be problematic.

The secular locals are Democrats and the KJ Hasidim are Republicans but the source of their difference doesn’t map onto a standard partisan division. The Hasidim feel the opposition for an annexation for more land (507 additional acres) to accommodate growing families is driven by hatred and anti-Semitism. The locals say it has nothing to do with hatred towards Jews, that by opposing large multi-family units they’re just protecting their quality of life.

The film makes it clear that for the Satmars, religion is not just a private affair. A large sign greeting visitors in KJ lay out their traditions and customs, asking for others to respect their values, such as dressing modestly, using appropriate language and maintaining gender separation in all public areas. Therefore, one wonders if it was another group seeking to expand in the area that was less visible, less religious, less particular in their ways, whether the opposition would be so vehement. This is a particularly sore point for this community of survivors.  

The battle centers around a city board vote on whether to allow the petitioned annexation. The stakes and emotions run high as members of United Monroe try to gather votes and strengthen their position. All the while, the Hasidim maintain they have a constitutional right to practice their religion and grow as a community outside of the stifling city, where the other half of their congregants remains.

Harley Doles, an Evangelical Christian and elected supervisor for the town, is a staunch supporter for the KJ residents, trying to protect their faith-based democratic rights. “Monroe is where the clash of civilizations is taking place more here than anywhere else in America,” Doles says in the film. “Here was an opportunity for me to do good.” United Monroe supporters accuse Doles of being a plant recruited by the Satmars.

In one scene, Max Hauer, a Satmar and former KJ resident, meets with hot sauce-seller Allegro and argue that while the Hasidim make up fifty percent of Monroe’s population they would live in less than two square miles, even after annexation, in a town that consists of 22 square miles.  

Hauer says. “What I do believe is that the tensions that are caused by all these events translate into overt, explicit anti-Semitism.” As evidence of that, he reads off anti-Semitic comments made on the Internet by upstate NY residents about the Jewish community in Monroe. 

Nevertheless, “America has been the best thing that has ever happened to Orthodox Jews,” Hauer says in the film.

The members of Kiryas Joel originate from within the Satmar sect. The group was founded in 1905 by Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum.  Hence the name, Kiryas Joel!  In the 1970s, Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum moved the growing community to Monroe, N.Y.  The community, which started as 500 in 1977, grew to over 20,000 people as of the 2010 census.  The current grand rebbe is Rabbi Aharon Teitelbaum and nothing happens without his blessing.  The Satmar rules are so strict that a person who is solely visiting the town must adhere to their rules.  Even if there’s no official law on the books, the custom is to dress modestly and “maintain gender separation in all public areas.”

This is a Satmar community that wants to part of American life.  They want to study Torah, cook, and just go about their day. Satmar is one of the sects that is firmly against Zionism because of religoius reasons. All while waiting for the Messiah to come.

With growing families, the Kiryas Joel community seeks to annex more land.  The citizens of Monroe unite in a “United Monroe” campaign in hopes of defeating this proposal.  Things get so heated that you almost think a fight will break out during the town hall meetings.

One Kiryas Joel resident agreed to go on the record but only if their identity would remain anonymous.  This is a person had a lot of things to get off their chest.  They talk about the strict community rules, which takes a harsh stance against computers and smart phones.  Let alone the fact that women must shave (I know Orthodox women who let their leg hair grow in the winter–hey, if it’s cold and our legs are covered by leggings, so be it!).  This is a guy who describes the schools as being the main instrument of enforcing the rules.  If you live in the community, you can’t even as much as send your children to private schools!

This resident brings up three categories of people that come from the community but have disagreements.  There’s the group of people who pick up and leave.  There are those who are miserable and stay but continue to curse the system.  Finally, there’s the group who make peace with staying.

Some of these people end up staying because of the fear of losing contact with their families.  This is a serious concern.  It’s sad to watch as all of this goes down.  There are those who end up leaving and have to change their whole outlook and way of life.

One young woman was forced to live with her boyfriend when her mom changed the locks on the doors.  This definitely isn’t my Judaism.  However, she says that right now, her life “is so much better” than what it could be if she stayed.  She turned away from a lifestyle that would have saw her barely talk to a husband while staying home to cook and raise a family.  The rules that the Satmar sect enforces on women are so strict that it’s no wonder that anyone would want to leave!

“City of Joel” culminates with the town hall meeting prior to the town board’s annexation vote.  The debate gets heated and people go over their allotted time to speak.  While the town board ultimately approves Kiryas Joel’s annexation request, they deny the request for larger land.  United Monroe comes to support Kiryas Joel’s secession if it means putting a stay on annexations for the next ten years.

The residents of Monroe have every right to speak out and be upset.  After all, America has an establishment clause that prevents the establishment of an official religion.  Nevermind just how much of the town’s money is being used for social services.  Many of the Kiryas Joel residents live in poverty.  There’s more to be said about this aspect of the community but the film’s bigger focus is on the annexation of land.

Jesse Sweet takes us inside the battle lines as the film is able to capture a clash between cultures.  One can only hope that differences have settled down when the next request comes up for annexing land.  The Satmar sect will surely grow too big for their current size during the next few decades.  Nobody knows what the future holds but City of Joel is a very fascinating and even-handed approach to the workings of the Kiryas Joel community.

“The Fourth Reich: The Specter of Nazism from World War II to the Present” by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld— It Never Happened

Rosenfeld, Gavriel D. Rosenfeld. “The Fourth Reich: The Specter of Nazism from World War II to the Present”, Cambridge University Press, 2019.

It Never Happened

Amos Lassen

Ever since the collapse of the Third Reich, anxieties have persisted because of rumors about Nazism’s return in the form of a Fourth Reich. Gavriel D. Rosenfeld tells us (and for for the first time that these postwar nightmares of a future  never happened and explains what they tell us about life, politically, intellectually and culturally. We see how postwar German history might have been very different without the specter of the Fourth Reich as a mobilizing idea to combat the right-wing forces that threatened the Germany’s democratic order. Rosenfeld looks at the universalization of the Fourth Reich by left-wing radicals in the 1960s, its transformation into a source of pop culture entertainment in the 1970s, and its ultimate embrace by authoritarian populists and neo-Nazis seeking to attack the European Union since the year 2000. We now live in a right-wing world and this is what makes this book so relevant.

This a fascinating look at something that never happened. We see how people imagined how this would look. Writer Gavriel D. Rosenfeld is the pioneer of counterfactual history and what he has written is disturbing. We see that fears and fantasies about a new type of Nazi regime have preoccupied Western societies since 1945. Rosenfeld tales apart the dreams, anxieties, and speculations associated with the idea of a Fourth Reich. He explores the history of the Fourth Reich: while it never existed, fears that it might come about certainly did. We see these as well as their political context and cultural expression. It cannot be easy to write about something that never existed yet remained a place in the heads of many.

The Fourth Reich at its most basic is a linguistic symbol and it is a metaphor that means one thing literally but is used figuratively to mean something else. It is also a slogan— a highly rhetorical signifier that uses an attention grabbing phrase to persuade and inform. It can create solidarity by providing a rallying point and can be used to foster social polarization by causing opposition from groups whose membership believes differently. However we see it, it is not to be regarded lightly.

“The Land of Truth: Talmud Tales, Timeless Teachings” by Jeffrey L. Rubenstein— Telling Stories

Rubinstein, Jeffrey L. “The Land of Truth: Talmud Tales, Timeless Teachings”,  Jewish Publication Society, 2018.

Telling Stories

Amos Lassen

Everyone loves a good story and the narrative world of the Talmud has many. Perhaps the best thing about a story from the Talmud is that, in fact, that it satisfies two purposes—one is the great story and two is a look at the Talmud itself.

I have, until recently, regarded the Talmud as akin to the holy of holies—something so wonderful that admittance into it demands piety and good deeds as well as high esteem for Judaism. I never felt that I was quite good enough to enter the Talmudic world. Then, quite by surprise, I received an invitation to join a group that was going to begin a serious study of Talmud and I jumped at the chance.

Talmud scholar Jeffrey L. Rubenstein gives us both famous and little-known stories and analyzes the tales in their original contexts, explores their cultural meanings and literary artistry, and shares their relevance. Everything that we need to know about a story is right there. Through the stories we experience both rabbinic life (the academy, master-disciple relationships) and Jewish life under Roman and Persian rule (persecution, taxation, marketplaces), we see how storytellers used various literary conventions such as irony, wordplay, figurative language, and other art forms with the goal of communicating their intended messages. What is amazing is that the stories are still relevant today.

Rubenstein selected fourteen stories found in rabbinic literature and he shows us what they mean at the time they were written and what they mean today. First, he looks at each story in the simplest of levels and then goes beneath the surface and behind the words to explore various levels of meaning. Next, he looks at what later generations of commentators did with each story and how they applied the story to their own time and place. He compares and contrasts the stories with what was written or said about the same topic by others in the Graco-Roman world. He looks at what philosophers have to say on each story’s topic and considers the implications and meanings of each story today.

I love the way that Rubenstein deals with the famous story of the man who wanted to convert to Judaism and  came before the great rabbis Hillel and Shamai, asking them to tell him the entire Torah while standing on one foot. Shamai sends him away explaining that it is impossible to summarize all that he has learned in such a short time while Hillel tells him that the Torah  says that we should do unto others and is done to us and that the rest is commentary and sends the new convert off to learn. For most of us this is not a new story but what might be considered new is Rubenstein’s commentary. He says that there is an essence to Torah and it is upon that essence that everything is based. It is not enough to understand this since it is just as important to study all of the Torah. A core gives us value but there is as much value in what else is there. Rubenstein then reminds us that we  love Hillel’s answer but that we have ignored the second half of  Hillel’s answer—to go and study. Rubenstein gives us examples of this by looking at what economist Steven Landsberg thinks and how science fiction writer Isaac Asimov sees this. The two-part statement of Hillel contains two interdependent ideas.

Moving forward, Rubenstein looks at the postmodern world. He compares us to the convert who wanted to learn Torah standing on one foot. Today’s world is one of sound bites, smartphones and shortcuts. Because of this our attention span is short and constantly shrinking and we want to learn compacted versions rather than full length studies. Forget the one leg approach to Torah and think about learning it in one tweet. Hillel cautioned us that the rest is commentary and that we are to go and learn. To be successful, one must have talent but that is not enough. We must also exert effort, show patience and work hard. This is what we need to learn. We need to work hard to gain wisdom. Rubenstein wonderfully juxtaposes the wisdom of the rabbinic sages with the teachings of the Greco-Roman world to show how their insights are contrasted to our values. We will then see the past differently and regard the present from a new perspective.

By relating the stories to issues in our time and explicating the stories within their original contexts, we gain a whole new way of looking at text and at ourselves.

“Talmud stories are valuable repositories of meaning for anyone who desires a deeper connection to the past. Yet today’s readers are at a lengthy remove from this rhetorically technical, often inaccessible world. A master teacher is necessary to guide us toward understanding the text. That is the strength and value of Rubenstein’s volume: opening up to modern readers a heretofore closed text.”—Beth Kissileff, author of Reading Genesis: Beginnings

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments    
Introduction: Of Stones and Stories    
Part 1. The Human Condition
1. The Surreal Sleeper    
2. What to Do with an Aged (and Annoying) Mother?    
3. Forbidden Fruit, or How Not to Seduce Your Husband    
4. Men Are from Babylonia, Women Are from the Land of Israel    
5. Sufferings! Not Them and Not Their Reward!    
Part 2. Virtue, Character, and the Life of Piety
6. The Ugly Vessel    
7. An Arrow in Satan’s Eye    
8. The Land of Truth    
9. Torah for Richer or Poorer    
10. Heroism and Humor    
Part 3. The Individual, Society, and Power
11. Showdown in Court    
12. Alexander the Great and the Faraway King    
13. The Carpenter and His Apprentice    
14. Standing on One Leg    
Notes    
Bibliography    
Subject Index    
Biblical and Rabbinic Sources Index

“Mavericks, Mystics & False Messiahs : Episodes from the Margins of Jewish History” by Rabbi Pinni Dunner— Intrigue in Judaism

Dunner, Pinni. “Mavericks, Mystics & False Messiahs : Episodes from the Margins of Jewish History”, The Toby Press, 2018.

Intrigue in Judaism

Amos Lassen

Most of you who read my reviews regularly know that I love being Jewish. Yet when I examine that statement more closely, I mean to say that what I love about being Jewish is dealing with all of the intrigues within the religion. Judaism almost forces me to examine each aspect closely and study is an important part of Judaism. I love the studying and the constant finding of new ideas.

Most of us look at the history of the Jewish people in a linear fashion. Many times we simply ignore that which is not comfortable regarding the traditions of the religion. While we dismiss these historically, they affect us personally and there is so much we do not know and there is so much we dare not ask about. For example, why do we need ten men in order to read Torah and why do we light two candles on Shabbat? Why do we have two challot on the Sabbath table? Why do we not have answers to these questions and why have we never asked.

“What were the outside factors that influenced what happened on the inside? How did the Shabbetai Tzvi and Emden-Eybeschutz controversies affect how we live our lives as Jews in the twenty-first century? How did the Get of Cleves controversy influence Jewish law going forward, so that rulings arrived at today are determined by this seemingly marginal episode?” How is it that some of us believe3d the false messiah and so many others did not? Even more is why are some so interested in the coming of the Messiah and other show no interest whatsoever? 
The uniting theme of “Mavericks, Mystics & False Messiahs” is the very individual personalities of these marginal characters and the impact they had during the time in which they lived. All of those whose whose lives are explored here are represented in their individuality and their unique stories  (which, in actuality, are aspects of the broader narrative of their eras and prove how aspects of Jewish history that occur outside of the spotlight have a residual effect on what is happening in today’s world.) 

Writer Dunner, who is also a rabbi leads us through a Jewish history that many of us have never had. I saw much of the same kind of thought that I witnesses from my father who believed that nothing could be accepted without investigation and whatever the issue was , it directed the amount of research needed. You could not, for example, in my house, as a kid, make a statement that the sky is blue. We also would have to know how you reached that conclusion. Rabbi Dunner introduces us to
“the combatants, crackpots, dreamers, and tzaddikim who together embroider the Jewish mosaic.” Because he is a wonderful storyteller we are mesmerized by what he has to say. It is the wonderful look at the past and an exciting look at the present. I must say that I was struck by the stories but I was even more struck by the brilliance of the person bringing them to us. This is one book you do not want to miss and I do realize that I sound selfish by not giving you a great deal of information. That is simply because I want each and everyone of you to experience this gorgeous book.