Friday, November 02, 2007

Jewish Role Models

Cross-posted with fancy pictures to Oy Bay.

In a recent post I mentioned that these days, mostly thanks to what I've been picking for reading material, I've been conceiving of Jewish identity through the prism of early 20th century Eastern European writers and poets, such as I.J. Singer and H. Leivick. If I had to have a top 3, though, I think it would be this bunch:

1- The aforementioned Singer. Nowadays he's mostly forgotten due to his brother's successes, but old I.J. was the original literary success of the family. He wrote about the same Polish Jews as I.B., but with a much more critical eye (see his "Brothers Ashkenazi" or "Yoshke Kalb," which I'm still working through). There is little redemption in Singer's world, and no patience for I.B.'s flirtations and soft spot for mysticism or holy men. On the other hand, Singer's memoir "Of a World That is no More" is one of the most honest portrayals of Russ-Poland you'll ever read, warts and all. At a time when many of his peers were running away from their families and religion into the arms of Communism, I.J. was standing apart, unable to return to the shtetl or yeshiva, yet also realizing that Socialism, particularly in Russia, had the terrible potential to turn into yet another Golden Calf.

Singer's unflinching honesty is tempered by real love for his family, but it's clear in his work, especially his memoir that, emotionally, he feels stuck. How do you tell your parents you think their lives have been a waste? How do you not let your contempt for your childhood (cue the "abusive cheder experience" trope) color your perception of your religion and culture? Singer's sudden death of a heart attack at age 50 prevented him from ever delving deeper into this problem. Had he lived, he might have been the one to get the Nobel Prize- and something tells me his speech would have been a lot punchier than I.B.'s.

2- The incomparable Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg. Back when I was trying to find something resembling a Jewish identity (post-reading The Chosen, pre-going to shul), I stumbled across Hertzberg's "Jews" and was immediately impressed. The book, while relatively thin, covered an impressive historical scope, tracing Jewish history through the eyes of some of its greatest personalities, as well as its rebels. Hertzberg introduced me to the Baal Shem Tov and Dona Gracia, a Wallenberg-esque figure in Inquisition Spain, as well as Spinoza and his tragic predecessor, Uriel Da Costa. Hertzberg's passion for Judaism and Jewish history flowed through his writing, and his biography "A Jew in America" confirmed it. Hertzberg came from a similar rabbinical background as Singer, but spent his formative years in America, which also allowed him to see its influence on rabbis of the old school, like his own father, a Hasidic rabbi from Galicia who would probably be considered a liberal MO in Hadisiche clothing by today's standards.

More than his respect and mastery of his topics, however, what really inspired me about Hertzberg was his ever-present confidence: despite being a liberal on many issues, both political and religious, despite moving away from Orthodoxy to the Conservative movement, there was never any question that Hertzberg knew his stuff and, even more importantly, that he considered himself to be an equally authentic aspect of his family's and people's tradition. To see a real Jewish liberal who still knew what he was talking about when it came to Judaism, who actually had that old school background and knowledge, had a tremendous impact on me.

3- Yet another rebel: Hillel Kook, aka Peter Bergson, aka a major pain in the ass to just about everyone he ever met. This one took a while for me to accept; Kook is one of the few Jews on the right-ish side of the political spectrum that I can tolerate (I basically did a victory dance in middle school when I realized that there was a left-and-right wing element in Zionism, which allowed me to root for "my" side, Labor, and blame all the evils of Israel on the Revisionists), yet reading about his life made me change my mind. Kook was an early fighter for Jewish independence and self-defence in then-Palestine, and was Jabotinsky's right-hand-man when he began working in Europe to raise funds for the Revisionists. During the war years, Kook and his small cadre of allies operated as a front for the American branch of the Irgun, but quickly modified their mission to battling American and Jewish indifference or inertia to the horrors of the Nazis in Europe. Kook was constantly nipping at the heels of the Jewish and Zionist establishment, using some of the most effective weapons of the 20th century- PR- for his own struggle. At a time when the conventional wisdom among Jews was to keep quiet, not bring attention to yourself, and trust in President Roosevelt to do something about the Nazis, Kook was aggressive, unapologetic, and sensationalist, never afraid to speak his mind about what was happening in Europe, or how American and Jewish leadership were failing to do much about it.

But even more than embarrassing the American powers-that-be during the war, Kook's life is fascinating due to his willingness to speak truth to power among his own countrymen in Israel. A member of the first Knesset, Kook continued to speak out against anyone and everyone that he felt deserved it- whether towards Ben Gurion when he shelved Israel's Constitution (going on 59 years and counting), or Menachem Begin when Kook felt he was hijacking the late Jabotinsky's legacy to further his own political vision. Dismayed by his peers' willingness to settle for political "business as usual," Kook first resigned from Herut, then left the Knesset after his first term, eventually departing Israel itself. Yet he kept occaisonally rearing his head to take pot-shots at Israel's now-illustrious heads-of-state, and to send a few shots across the bow of some of Israel's most cherished orthodoxies. A non-Jewish President? Why not? A Palestinian state? If it could safeguard the country's longevity, sure. Kook's "principled flexibility" continued to shock everyone through his lifetime, even loyal little liberals like me, who thought we had the right-wing figured out. Kook, who was on the Altalena, arrested during the Haganah "Season," worked with Jabotinsky, fought with Begin, and eventually became the first Israeli to wear "post-Zionist" as a descriptive, not pejorative term, showed me that no movement is a monolith, and that questioning authority, even Jewish ones, is no sin.

What do these men have in common? Well, they certainly reflect my Ashkenazic interests and biases, and I think it's interesting that all three are rebel sons of Orthodox rabbis, and mostly intellectuals, to boot. But more than anything, I guess these men, my pseudo-trinity, if you will, are important to me because they taught me that there is a dignity and legitmacy to creating your own path. They showed me how to find my own way as a person and a Jew. They weren't perfect men, and their lives weren't perfect, either. Things didn't always go their way. They alienated a lot more people than they befriended. But one thing you can say about all of them is that they were fearless, smashing the idols of their day and communities, even when it wasn't fashionable, and regardless of the consequences. Status and respectability be damned; they could have kept quiet and not made waves and had an easier time of life, but instead they spoke their consciences and made their own way.

Orthodox, certainly not. But to me, at least, they were all faithful sons of Abraham.

Your turn. Name your top three (or five, or ten, or eighteen) Jewish role models. Famous or not, doesn't matter. Give some background on them (long and expansive or short and sweet, you pick) and then tell us why and how they affected you. Post in comments or on your own blog.

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