Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Small answers for Big questions

At some point I will finish blogging my European vacation. In the event that I don't get to it for a while, I'd like to mention the fact that while in London we spent a week in a revitalized area of the East End largely populated by Muslim immigrants. While the neighborhood was different from what my parents were used to, we never felt unsafe or even unwelcome. People just seemed to be going about their business and doing their thing.

The fact that we had just spent time in London (in an urban and ethnic neighborhood no less) and had a lovely time meant that it was quite shocking to hear about riots breaking out within a week of us leaving. While we were there we spent time with various relatives of Mama Yid's and so having just left them we spent a lot of time emailing once the riots broke out. While they were concerned they luckily weren't right in the thick of it so they never seemed super worried, but there was definitely a lot of surprise for us realizing that some of the commercial districts we had been walking through just a week prior had since gone up in smoke or been heavily looted.

It's always a challenge to dissect the causes leading to a significant disaster, and I feel like whereas most rational people are capable of reining themselves in when it comes to disasters caused by nature, that restraint seems to be greatly diminished when it comes to human causes and agency. Obviously, events like the London riots need to and should be studied to prevent similar things from happening again, but it's gotten far too easy to predict which talking heads will come popping out of the wordwork linking mob violence and bad behavior to their pet doomsday issues (usually timing it just right to also plug whatever new thing they have to sell).

Pat took the lead and blamed it on multiculturalism.

The West is in decline because the character of its people is in decline. In Europe,  is dead. The moral code it gave men to live righteously is regarded with mockery. The London riots were the work of moral barbarians with no loyalty to the people in whose midst they live and no love for the society to which they give nothing, only take.

...What were the British thinking when they threw open their doors to mass  from the Third World?
Over centuries, they had failed to assimilate a few million Irish, who were European Christians. So, having failed to assimilate the Irish, they decided to invite in millions of Hindus and Muslims from South Asia, Arabs from the Middle East, Africans from the sub-Sahara, black folks from the Caribbean.
But with no common faith or culture to hold the nation together, Britain is coming apart.

This, of course, assumes that the rioters,

A- Were primarily ideologically motivated (as opposed to being, you know, jerks and hooligans), and
B- Didn't include anyone white or British.

Also, I'm not sure what Pat would have Britain do at this point... are they supposed to deport three or four generations of British citizens in a family if they decide that they haven't become "British enough?" It's not surprising Pat doesn't like multiculturalism; his articles sound like Kipling's gin-induced fever dreams.

Most commenters focused on values, or lack thereof.

There was Shmuley, who blamed the Church of England for being too nice and not bothering to condemn bad things: 

Britain has become a rotting carcass due to the failure of a moribund, stultifying, and amoral religion, more concerned with propriety and causing no offense than simply teaching right from wrong.
I lived in Britain for 11 years where I slowly watched the Church of England and other mainline Christian bodies succumb to PC correctness, refusing to ever condemn immoral behavior... religious leaders failed to ever condemn the narcissistic, selfish, womanizing men who behaved like Neanderthalic inseminators rather than gentlemen.
Contrary to public opinion, values do not come from schools or University professors but from the Ten Commandments.

Shmuley isn't exactly "wrong" in saying that values are worthless if they aren't practiced and taught by role models, but as a secular-oriented person, I think he's off the mark in presenting a biblical framework for his morality and then complaining that Britain doesn't follow his ideas. Well no kidding, Shmuley, considering you just said half the country doesn't believe in God. Sounds like we might need to think of a different way to talk about this then. What's that, that doesn't fit your message? Well, sorry England. Get those butts back in those pews so your pastors (you know, the ones you don't have, don't listen to, or don't preach about anything Shmuley considers worthwhile in the first place) can give you this much-needed dose of moral relevance. I can't picture any way this doesn't work out.

Then there was Dennis, who knows where Shmuley's coming from. In fact, I kind of get the feeling they were sitting too close together when they were writing their respective columns:
There is only one solution to the world's problems, only one prescription for producing a near-heaven on earth.
It is 3,000 years old.
And it is known as the Ten Commandments.
I find it entertaining that Dennis is saying this in the context of being a professional Jew when religious Jews often like to point out that being a good Jew requires following more than the first ten commandments. Incidentally, don't you just love people who proclaim their personal arguments about morality as if they were ironclad facts? Never mind that most people in the world probably don't think that being a moral person is restricted to just following the 10Cs (don't you love finding moments where Orthodox Jews, atheists and Zoroastrians agree?)

Don't believe Dennis? Don't worry, he brought his argument-bag.

1. I am the Lord your God.
There are moral atheists and there are immoral believers, but there is no chance for a good world based on atheism. Ultimately, a godless and religion-free society depends on people's hearts to determine right from wrong, and that is a very weak foundation.
Plenty of people have died in history in the name of God. But many more have been killed, tortured, and deprived of liberty in the name of humanity and progress or some other post-Judeo-Christian value. Religion gave us an Inquisition and gives us suicide terrorists, but the death of God gave us Nazism and Communism, which, in one century alone, slaughtered more than a hundred million people. All the founders of the United States - yes, all - knew that a free society can survive only if its citizens believe themselves to be morally accountable to God.

So, the breakdown on this is... more people have killed in the name of things other than religion than religion itself. Therefore, religion is more moral and the 10Cs are all we need? Also, the founders of the U.S. (ALL of them! Yes, even the ones who were religiously ambivalent) liked God. So, there you go. I guess we got served... somehow? 

3. Do not take God's name in vain.
People have misinterpreted this commandment. They think it prohibits saying something like, "Oh, my God, what a home run!" But the Hebrew literally means "do not carry" the name of the Lord in vain.
In other words, we are forbidden from doing evil in God's name. Only when thus understood does the rest of the Commandment make sense -- that God will not "cleanse," or forgive -- the person who does this.
Thus, the Islamist who slits an innocent's throat while shouting "Allahu Akbar" is the perfect example of the individual who carries God's name in vain and who cannot be forgiven. These people not only murder their victims, they murder God's name. For that reason, they do more evil than the atheist who murders.

It's nice that Dennis is at least willing to discuss evil discussed by religious people (though no one over here is surprised by who he chose as its poster-boy) but this exposes the primary reason why this essay is an exercise in masturbation. Just like a committed Socialist always has the out that Socialism and Communism could "totally work in theory," so too Dennis can't really claim that religion makes people ethical and that "people just need to follow the 10Cs," then try to weasel out of religious evil by saying, "Well, yeah, sometimes religious people do bad stuff, but they're not really religious! If people would really be religious and not do terrible things in God's name, stuff would be awesome!" No kidding! Hey, by the same token, as long as we're wishing for stuff, let's just ask for people to stop doing awful things to each other. We wouldn't even need the 10Cs!

The rest of Dennis' stuff follows the same prattle. Just like Shmuley, it's hard to take Dennis' preaching seriously when his first premise is that all wisdom and ethics everyone needs are located in his particular list, and interpretation thereof. Oh, and the various snark-attack cheap shots he takes at, among other things, colleges, pacifism, and "class warfare" in a discussion of ethics (among them the importance of not lying) don't help.

Last was Lord Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the UK. As with Shmuley, I wasn't surprised that a rabbi would say that values are important to not be, you know, a jerk, but the argument that Judeo-Christian values prevent mob violence and that therefore a drop in one leads to a rise in the other doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me.

Britain is the latest country to pay the price for what happened half a century ago in one of the most radical transformations in the history of the West. In virtually every Western society in the 1960s there was a moral revolution, an abandonment of its entire traditional ethic of self-restraint. All you need, sang the Beatles, is love. The Judeo-Christian moral code was jettisoned. In its place came: whatever works for you. The Ten Commandments were rewritten as the Ten Creative Suggestions. Or as Allan Bloom put it in "The Closing of the American Mind": "I am the Lord Your God: Relax!" 
You do not have to be a Victorian sentimentalist to realize that something has gone badly wrong since. 

Sorry rabbi, but I'm not convinced that both of these things happening simultaneously (drop in religion and rise in social problems) means that they are causal, or that the reverse will therefore solve all the UK's problems:

In the 1820s, in Britain and America, a similar phenomenon occurred. People were moving from villages to cities. Families were disrupted. Young people were separated from their parents and no longer under their control. Alcohol consumption rose dramatically. So did violence. In the 1820s it was unsafe to walk the streets of London because of pickpockets by day and "unruly ruffians" by night.
What happened over the next 30 years was a massive shift in public opinion. There was an unprecedented growth in charities, friendly societies, working men's institutes, temperance groups, church and synagogue associations, Sunday schools, YMCA buildings and moral campaigns of every shape and size, fighting slavery or child labor or inhuman working conditions. The common factor was their focus on the building of moral character, self-discipline, willpower and personal responsibility. It worked. Within a single generation, crime rates came down and social order was restored. What was achieved was nothing less than the re-moralization of society—much of it driven by religion.

There's only one problem with all of this: it's not quite true. As R. Eliyahu Fink points out, there have been plenty of occasions where so-called religious people committed terrible acts of violence. There are also plenty of people who aren't religious, or don't base their lives around JCVs, who don't commit violence. So it's a little disingenuous to single out a lack of JCVs as the specific cause of the riots and then prescribe more of them as the cure. E-Fink also notes that it is a mistake to assume that none of the rioters consider themselves Christians. Pundits may not consider them as such, but that is an entirely different issue-- and in my opinion, potentially a lot more scary-- than saying the problem is that there aren't enough Christians in England.

A similar argument from a widely different source comes from Christopher Hitchens, who makes two excellent points:

1- Despite its reputation, Britain has hardly been a violence-free society in the last 50-100 years, particularly in urban and poor areas. Think of football hooligans, street gangs, and of course sectarian violence surrounding Protestant/Catholic issues, particularly as they bled into questions about Irish nationalism.

2- That said, it is legitimate to point out that seems to be a new dimension of nihilism, disaffection, and all-around scariness coming from the new youth gangs operating in the UK these days. The fact that the general trend among immigrants seems to be less towards using "multiculturalism" as a way of supporting home culture while also participating and engaging with larger society and more as a tool to encourage separatism and justify xenophobia is also concerning.

I haven't even talked about the various social causes that people have been pointing to contributing to the rioting (among them, high unemployment, low education, bad economy, a perception that the rich are stealing from the people and getting off free, various cuts in social services, and social/cultural alienation). As someone who just visited, I would also venture an extremely cautious guess that the all the Olympics construction and promotion may also have played a role.

There are lots of big issues going on here, with lots of big questions. I freely admit to not having the answers, though I am not so closed-minded as to discount the concept that some of the work that has to be done needs to happen on a values-based, even "spiritual" level. But I don't think I'm alone in saying that, as a young person, as someone who isn't terribly religious, I don't think the way to fix the UK's problems is by shoving religion down everyone's throat.

Big questions need big answers, not small ones.

Hat-tip: E-fink by way of Dovbear.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Family trauma and its ripples

This past spring my only living grandparent, Abbot Yid's octogenarian mother Bubbe, fell and hit her head. In the last few months, she has been in and out of hospitals and rehab centers. This culminated in her being flown across the country to California to a nursing home near L.A., where Uncle Milt and his family live.

Everyone in the family has been struggling with their feelings about this. On the one hand there are certainly feelings of family obligation. At the same time, Bubbe is just about the least friendly or warm person you'll ever meet. And there's the longstanding baggage of Zayde's craziness and abusiveness towards his kids that Bubbe, by all accounts, never really protected them from. At best, she was oblivious. At worst, she was an enabler. So there's a lot of conflicting emotions going on. (The fact that none of the siblings get along has not been helping things.)

I can sympathize with Abbot Yid and his siblings. I have never felt all that close to my grandmother. I "love" her inasmuch as I know I'm supposed to, and I care about her well-being. But the reality is I have not felt any real feeling of closeness to her (or from her) since I was a small child. Her general pattern has been to shift her attention to each new grandchild in turn, usually getting bored with us as soon as we start developing our own interests or stop being cute. (An example: Bubbe is really into arts and crafts, something I have historically been supremely incompetent at. Guess who hasn't been invited to do anything with Bubbe in 20 years?) Bubbe is just not all that good at reaching out to, or interacting with, people.

For a long time, I found the whole dynamic with Bubbe very frustrating. I tried to interview Bubbe on occasion  to find out more about her family, her life with Zayde, etc. She shut me down every time. She wasn't interested in introspection; she claimed she didn't remember any of the things I was curious about. She absolutely refused to discuss any "emotional memories" that I asked about. For a family historian, this was, to put it bluntly, hard to swallow. And there were times where I felt very angry about this. I was trying to connect with her the best way I knew how, and she wasn't interested.

Last year, however, something changed. Bubbe seemed to sense that her memory was going and that if she wanted to tell me anything about the family, it was getting to be now or never time. And one of the things she told me blew my mind:

"I was the oldest, but my sister was born right after me. My mother couldn't handle raising an infant and a young toddler at the same time, so she gave me to my grandmother to raise. I spent most of my time with her, going to the markets, chatting with the older folks. I even took vacations with her to the Catskills when my mother and sister would stay behind in Brooklyn."

I was floored. We all knew that Bubbe's grandmother lived with her three daughters in a 3-story house in Brownsville, but no one had ever known that Bubbe was actually raised by her grandmother, not her mother, for most of her childhood.

This couldn't explain away everything of course. Bubbe and her sister have fundamentally different personalities-- her sister is warm, emotionally engaged, and just generally a positive and fun person to be around (all the things that Bubbe, in general, isn't). But for me, the revelation that Bubbe's mother had not acted like her mother, and consequently had not taught or shown her how to be a mother, was powerful, and I started to process a lot of our interactions and my frustrations through this prism. If Bubbe's emotional connection with her mother had been that bifurcated, maybe that went a long way towards explaining her ambivalence with her children and grandchildren. (To say nothing of what emotional and family models her Old Country grandmother may have passed along to her.)

This model of mothers "abandoning" their children came up again for me recently when I found a new  genealogy record online for Mama Yid's Hungarian grandmother dating from 1888, the oldest record we have for the family in the United States. In it, the grandmother and two of her siblings (aged 6, 10 and 3) were being admitted into the Hebrew Orphan Asylum by their mother. Under cause, it said, "Widow, unable to bring up children."

The interesting thing is that we have a 1900 census record for the same family showing them all together, so the mother must have been able to get them out after a while. But still, the fact that Mama Yid's grandmother, a woman she could never feel any attachment to, and who engaged in some fairly dirty tricks with her siblings, in-laws and grandkids, had an extremely traumatic childhood, first losing her father in Hungary (according to family stories, from a farming accident) and then after making it to America, being given up by her mother to an orphanage.

Of course, all these tidbits really amount to is background information. I don't mean to imply that based on these new discoveries that I condemn the mothers who made these hard decisions, or that hard childhoods immunize the daughters from criticism. But it's hard for me to look at either my paternal grandmother, or my maternal great-grandmother, in quite the same way.

Trauma and alienation seem to have a way of repeating themselves. I hope I can do better.

Liking Israel is not the same as Loving Jews

Since we've been speaking about religious Christian Zionism and how this is, well, kind of awkward, I thought it would be interesting to dissect a few new pieces on this, specifically focusing on Glenn Beck. The Jewish Journal had a point/counterpoint series on Beck's rally and whether it is, to use a cliche, Bad for the Jews. Defending Beck was a former Dennis Prager employee named Sammy Levine:
About a year ago, when the flotilla incident occurred, Beck was out in front, reporting on Israel’s right to self-defense, while so many others in the mainstream media were ambiguous or hostile toward the Jewish state. I decided to watch Keith Olbermann on one of the nights following the incident, and his entire coverage was relegated to a biased interview with one of the “peace activists” on the ship. 
Conversely, Beck did two consecutive shows devoted to defending Israel’s actions in the flotilla incident, as well as educating his audience about the creation of Israel, the history of the Jewish people and anti-Semitism. Furthermore, during the last several months,  Beck has devoted large segments of his shows to discussing how the tumultuous uprisings in the Middle East will affect Israel’s security. Unlike many in the liberal media who blindly cheer these revolutions, Beck — with the fate of Israel on his mind — is engaging the issue with a healthy dose of skepticism. Beck understands that Egypt, under the ousted President Mubarak, kept peace with Israel for 30 years. Now, the virulently anti-American and anti-Israeli Muslim Brotherhood is poised to take power. In addition, Egyptian presidential candidate Mohamed ElBaradei — the lauded “progressive” among Western leftists — said: “If Israel attacked Gaza, we would declare war against the Zionist regime.” It looks like Beck’s skepticism about the fate of Israel vis-a-vis the Egyptian uprising is well founded.
On his Fox News show, Beck repeatedly stated that Israel is the only country in the Middle East that shares America’s values of freedom and human rights. In March, Beck began the show with the statement, “Tonight I stand with Israel,” and then asked: “Tens of millions of Arabs have suffered atrocities at the hands of their own countries … but Israel is the evil one — that is the obstacle to peace? … How many homosexuals have been stoned to death by the Israelis? … How many terrorists are wearing a yarmulke?”

And here is where Levine loses me. Simply put, just as a stopped clock is right twice a day, I don't disagree that there can be areas where Glenn Beck is (from my perspective) factually and politically correct. Yes, there is a lot of anti-Israel misinformation out in the world. Yes, Israel has a right to defend itself, and yes, it is legitimate to wonder how the Arab Spring toppling various governments will wind up affecting Israel.


Beck is not a historian, nor a journalist. He is not unbiased. He is a cheerleader. And I do not think that Israel needs cheerleaders. What Israel needs is people that give it a fair shake and stand up for it when it is in the right, not pretend it has zero problems or issues of its own. To use just one example from Levine's article: there are, indeed, terrorists who have worn yarmulkes. Their methods, structural organization and victims list is not comparable to terror groups like Hamas, Islamic Jihad, PFLP or Al Aqsa. However, the reality is, yes, there have been (and still are) Jewish terrorists. For Beck to insinuate otherwise is a lie. It signifies that either he doesn't know enough about Israel to know about groups like the Jewish Underground or deranged, hateful individuals like Goldstein, Amir or Natan-Zada, or that he doesn't care because he's busy pushing a narrative.

Israel doesn't need people to lie for it. It needs people to tell the truth about it.

Israel needs people to support it, not at the expense of everyone and anyone else, but in the pursuit of being a protected state at peace with its neighbors. I'm certainly not saying I have the magic solution that will make peace happen. But that is my ultimate goal for Israel and its citizens, and I'm unconvinced that Beck and his cohorts have the same goal. I think, honestly, they want to see Israel annex the territories, expel its Arab citizens, and, in a dream scenario, expand its territory to the boundaries of Greater Israel. They would like to see Netanyahu become an Israeli Ronald Reagan (the conservative, idealized version, of course). And the reality is that this is magical thinking, supported with little to no thought given to the impact on the ground for the real people who actually fight these wars and suffer from terrorism. In the last few years I worked to take a step back from being an armchair Prime Minister because the reality is, I am not the person at risk, the Israelis are. I have opinions, I have things I would like to see happen in Israel, but at the end of the day, it's something they need to sort out.

Here's another sticking point:

On his program during the week of Passover, Beck played the part of a rabbi giving a sermon or a Hebrew school teacher giving a lesson as he spoke beautifully about the seder. In fact, he sat down at his own authentic seder, complete with matzah, gefilte fish, maror, karpas and more. 
He then explained why supporting Israel is a moral imperative: “The world wonders why it is that most Americans sympathize with the Israelis in their continual battle with the Palestinians and the Arab world. I don’t think it’s that hard to understand. Israel is a democracy. It’s the closest thing to what we understand as freedom in the entire Middle East. We relate to that. But maybe more importantly, we share common values.” 
Beck also compared the story of the Jews leaving Egypt with the story of the Pilgrims coming to America, as they both faced hardships to escape oppression: “The story is the same for America and Israel and all over the world. … With Israel, Americans have a shared culture, shared history and values. We have been close allies since their inception. … There have been occasional bumps in the road with our relationship with Israel, but we have stood by them when no one else would. But now I fear that seems to be changing.”

First of all, I am very uncomfortable with the idea of Beck essentially putting himself in the "role" of a Jew or a Jewish teacher for the purposes of his TV show. There is a difference between educating people about another group of people and playing dress-up, and this is right on the edge of that line. This is not to say that educating people about other cultures is a bad thing. (I say this as someone who hosts seders every year where the majority of participants are not Jewish.) But, to put it bluntly, I don't think Glenn Beck understands Judaism particularly well (certainly not liberal Judaism), and so I'm really not all that keen in him playing the part of "rabbi" to millions of Christians who have never met a Jew before. Glenn Beck is not the person I want representing my identity or religion to others. It's like asking your accountant to fix your refrigerator: not really their area of expertise.

(Edit: looking at the clip all I can see is Beck poking some gefilte fish and talking about the symbolism of matzah. This seems to be more of a case of Levine casting Beck as a rabbi than Beck actually claiming that for himself.)

Second point: if Beck were honestly looking at Israel's and America's history, he would find that while there are lessons and parallels, there are also challenges. Ironically, these challenges are known quite well to American Jews.

For instance, to the question of values, it would be more accurate to say that America and Israel share some common values, as one of Israel's foundational principles is that it is a nation-state, whereas America is not. This is kind of a big difference. Separation of church and state, a major and significant issue in American legal and cultural history, is not even on the radar in Israel. (By the same token, Israel is far more progressive on things like LGBT rights than the US, certainly more than Beck.)

Should Israel be pilloried for areas where it doesn't "measure up" to the US? I don't think so. Is Israel, on any of these fronts, "as bad" as its neighbors? Not by a long shot. Their situations are different and any examination of these issues needs to start with understanding that premise. However, by pretending that Israel is "just like" the US and that all of their values are the same, Beck is spreading misinformation right as he purportedly works to fight it.

Same thing with talking about the two countries' "special relationship." For the record, America has not always supported Israel, and Israel has not been exclusively helped by America. In fact in the early days of the state it was working with the Soviets. That detail may not make any difference in terms of present-day politics, but Beck's whole approach operates with a disturbing disdain for history and facts. Anything inconvenient (or even just inconclusive) gets minimized in favor of sweeping narrative that focuses on Divinely-inspired exceptionalism.

This is the danger in allowing people like Beck, people more interested in their own agendas than understanding the facts of Judaism and Jewish history, to tell our own stories for us. I would much rather have a conservative like Dennis Prager or an opportunist like Shmuley Boteach, who at least know what they're talking about, represent the conservative and Orthodox perspectives on Judaism or Israel. At least I understand why they're there. For Beck to do it is frankly uncomfortable. (Imagine my surprise to find that there are even some right-wing Israelis who agree with me.)

Back to Levine:
The truth is that if one wants to find consistent pro-Israel coverage, Beck is the person to listen to. The problem is that, for so many liberal Jews, hate of the right overwhelms their love for Israel. As such, they marginalize Beck, even though he is without question the media’s most outspoken supporter of Israel. This is unfortunate, as in this time when Israel is isolated internationally, decried as an apartheid state on college campuses and constantly threatened with annihilation, Beck’s voice is so necessary and precious.
Here we have it in spades: for Levine, what matters is that Beck is pro-Israel. Everything else is secondary. What he doesn't consider is that many Jews are not interested in someone who is "pro-Israel" if they lie or obfuscate to get there. The fact that someone is a propagandist for "the right side" doesn't change the fact that they're making propaganda. When you make propaganda and get caught, it undermines your argument. Israel should not be in the propaganda business.

When Glenn Beck misrepresents Israeli history, he is doing Israel a disservice. When he attacks liberal Jewish rabbis, he is showing he does not respect most Jews' religious beliefs. When he labels Jewish intellectuals and moguls as "the worst people in the world," he shows that he is dramatically opposed to most Jews' political positions. When he promotes antisemitic writers on his show because they share his politics, he is showing his true colors. Not as an antisemite, but as someone who cares about conservative values, not Jewish ones, and whose politics have historically been championed by white Christians whose view of Jews were far from charitable. And he's also showing that in his list of priorities, a person's attitude towards Jews ranks far below their attitude towards liberalism. So forgive me if I don't think Beck understands American Jews very well and that Jewish concerns aren't that important to him.

Glenn Beck supports Israel. Fine. So let him support Israel, let him be a Zionist. But if nothing else, he has to at least recognize that most Jews do not agree with the vast majority of his positions, and vice-versa. If Beck and his cronies are going to ask for a little faith and goodwill from Jews, they might need to start reining in their rhetoric a little. You can't have it both ways. You can't attack the vast majority of us for our values and politics one day and then claim you "love Jews." On behalf of the world's Jews, let me say it right now: please stop loving us. Let's work on being "friends" first. And the first thing you can do to make friends is to stop abusing Godwin's law and accusing rich Jews of running the world. Trust me on this one.

Shopping and Conversation

Day 12- Last Day in Poland.

Our last day in Krakow was also going to be our last day in Poland so we wanted to make the most of it. We got up early and left before 10. We took a taxi to get to Old Town and saw the ancient clock tower, the last surviving remnant of the original Town Hall built in the 1200s. It was huge!

We went inside Sukiennice ("Cloth Hall"), a large ornate rectangular building. Inside was a giant market with around 80-100 booths. Merchants were selling leather goods, wooden carvings, dolls, boxes, glasswork, Polish clothes, and various tourist items. One booth had replicas of medieval Polish weapons and miniature wooden carved heads of famous Poles that could be hung on a wall. (One of them was clearly modeled on Pilsudski; I made a crack about mounting heads of state on your wall but as Abbot Yid knows nothing about Polish history, my brilliant wit was wasted on him.)

There were also, of course, lots of places to buy jewelry, especially amber. Mama Yid was in Heaven. Abbot Yid and I, not so much. Mama Yid insisted on seeing every booth and was incapable of "scanning," even when the booths were selling things she didn't want. We spent about four hours there, which was about three and a half hours more than Abbot Yid and I needed.

As a way of killing some time, I decided to walk around with my camcorder and film the place. One of the things I noticed, over and over, were the Jewdolls. For a town with not a lot of Jews left there sure were a lot of different kinds of Jew-dolls.

After finally finishing in Sukiennice, we ate lunch by a statue in the square. On the bench next to us a teenage girl sitting with her family decided she was tired of her sandwich and started scattering it to the birds, attracting a large flock of pigeons. Oblivious to our death-glares, she continued feeding them for about fifteen minutes, even laughing and encouraging her sister to take a picture when a few of them hopped into her hand. I wasn't sure if I was looking at a cultural phenomenon or just a moron who didn't know anything about disease transmission: were Polish pigeons not considered rats with wings?

During lunch I discovered my watch had stopped. We left the square, dragging Mama Yid away from the outer ring of shops around Sukiennice (though I did pop into one place to get a pair of pewter shot-glasses for Deacon Yid and me). We walked south through Old Town, marveling at the incredible buildings. Everywhere you looked there were old churches, houses, flats. Interspersed with them were the ugly modern structures (and of course lots of garish signs advertising shops, restaurants, money-changers and the always entertaining ALKOHOLE stores).

Next we headed to Wawel castle. Though I was sad we didn't have time to go inside, my parents were very good sports and consented to a quick walk around the outside wall. Outside I found a model replica of the castle. I wasn't a fan of the silly snow globe with a cartoony dragon inside it that came attached to it, but decided that I'd rather have something to remember the castle than not.

We went back to the flat for a rest and to start packing before taking a break for dinner. At this point my watch started up again, which was a real relief. (It also gave me a wonderful opportunity to tease Mama Yid that shopping with her actually made time stand stil.)

For our last night in Krakow we decided to go back to Kazimierz one more time. On the way we stopped at the Tourist Center to get a few more Jewdolls, angry American ladies be damned. Mama Yid bought for so she could have some fun table settings for Hanukkah. I got a couple as gifts for friends. I thought they were cute but was also disappointed that the sculptors' imaginations were so limited. If you had never met a Jew and all you had to go on was information gleaned from these dolls, you'd think all Jews did was count money, play klezmer or carry giant menorahs and the occasional book around. Since the only available dolls were men (we looked high and low for a lady Jewdoll for Mrs. Yid), one would be forgiven for assuming that Jews produced asexually, too. Or maybe Jews were like Tolkein's dwarves and men and women couldn't be told apart.

We ate dinner at an outdoor restaurant in the small square behind the bookshop and between three of the Kazimierz synagogues. I had cholent again, beef this time, and it was very good, though I think I still preferred the chicken one from the first night. Over dinner and an Israeli wine from the Golan Heights, my parents and I had a very nice conversation.

"I'm glad I came," said Abbot Yid.
"That's high praise coming from you," I said.
"I think my father would have enjoyed this. I think he would have been happy we came here."

This made me think about Mama Yid's father, who had been twenty years older than any of my other grandparents and died when she was only seven years old.

"If you could tell your father anything, what could you say?"
"I'd want to tell him that my sister and I turned out all right, that we both got advanced degrees and that we were successful."
"And is there anything you wish you could ask him?"
"I think just, 'Who were you?' I was so young when he died..."
I nodded. "It's crazy to think that he was born over 100 years ago. How different things are, all the things we have that he didn't. It's interesting to wonder what he would have thought about the world today."

I turned to Abbot Yid. "Is there anything you wish you could ask Zayde?"
He waved the question off. "I would have liked you to have a chance to spend more time with him. You could have asked him all the good questions."
It was a sad but happy moment at the same time.

I was sad to be leaving Poland but very glad we had come. In a way, I would have preferred to go home right then and had time to process everything that had happened. At the same time, how often did we go to Europe? We had been in touch with Mama Yid's British cousins for years and it was important that we finally have a chance to meet in person. I was also hoping London would be a little less intense and stressful than Poland had been. Maybe we could actually have a little bit more of a vacation there and it would give us some time to think and recover post-Poland.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

(Trying to) Honor the Past

Day 11- Auschwitz & Birkenau

The day started off appropriately enough by raining throughout the morning. Since the previous day I'd had such good navigation luck, I decided to chart us a route through the town surface roads again as opposed to the highway. What I hadn't considered was that though both roads were the same distance, cars can drive about twice as fast on the highway. We finally got into Oswiecim around noon.

Polish signage is generally pretty bad as a rule, but something about the lack of signs for the camp seemed particularly strange. I understood why the town may have preferred visitors to come and visit things besides just the camp (there is a synagogue and Jewish museum, for instance, as well as some other interesting historical sights), but who were they kidding? The camp gets 1 million visitors a year. I'm sorry if you'd rather be known for your antiques or the awesomely-named Mieszko Tanglefoot, but let's face some reality, please.

When we finally did find the museum, it was jarring at how sudden the transition was (though we had been fairly creeped out at seeing stone highway barriers with an all-too-familiar curve on the top, complete with barbed wire attached). It wasn't like the town ended and then the camp was off to the left, standing dramatically by itself. The busy road took you right past the camp and if you weren't looking for  the wooden guard towers peeking over the walls, you could actually miss it.

The parking lots were absolutely packed, despite it being a Monday and raining. There was a large row of strip-mall-like stres on the outer edge. The visitor enter was in a small mall. There weren't any brochures in English (really, Auschwitz museum? really?) but my parents were hungry so we stopped for a snack at the only restaurant in the building, a bizarre hodge-podge of Polish buffet and half-hearted attempts at American and Italian-American food: Abbot Yid got french fries and Mama Yid got a crepe bolognese. We sat across from a carved wooden pizza chef. On the wall there was a sign informing us that "It is forbidden to bring and consume your own food and drinks." There was something about seeing orders posted on a wall that was a little off-putting here, even over something as banal as outside food. The radio alternated between Polish and American pop music. While my parents were eating I identified two songs: one by the reggae group that was famous for writing "Bad Boys," and that Katy Perry song about having romantic liaisons with an alien.

I wasn't sure what I had been expecting at Auschwitz, but this wasn't it. Instead of experiencing Arendt's banality of evil, so far this was the evil of banality.

We wound up spending almost five hours at Auschwitz and Birkenau altogether. Once we got into the museum proper things started getting surreal. The entrance hall and the busses were absolutely packed with giant, crushing crowds-- to the point of bringing up uncomfortable mental parallels. (We weren't the only ones commenting on this; we heard multiple groups of people discussing the "irony" of packing us in like sardines. One guy wondered if this was intentionally designed as "part of the experience.")

It was hard to connect the physical site of Auschwitz with the cultural image I had approached it with. Auschwitz has been built up in the Western imagination as the archetype of evil, but how can anything live up to that? Compared with its image, Auschwitz seemed not foreign, not evil, enough. Here was a prime example of the banality of evil. On first blush, the place did not read as specifically terrible. It had grass, flowers and birds flying overhead. The bad weather and pervasive gray skies certainly added to the moroseness but it didn't feel different from any other spot.

Areas that did have an emotional impact were ones that emphasized the massive scale of the extermination and destruction that happened there: the piles of hair, glasses, and shoes. A room full of suitcases, covered with carefully printed names and addresses of unsuspecting victims long dead. Standing at one end of Birkenau and not being able to see the other side because of how massive the camp was. These were the things that showed the planning side, the inhuman coldness that allowed people to separate out their immediate tasks from the reality that they were building factories of death.

Being inside the Auschwitz barracks was surreal-- the stone stairs were worn down from so many visitors that they had become curved in the middle and were hard to walk on. It added to the experience of feeling off-balance and that things weren't quite right.

We saw the basements of Block 11-- claustrophobic hallways, tiny cells designed for starvation and sadism. Particularly disturbing were the closet-sized punishment cells, where men were forced to stand for hours at a time without being able to sit. The sheer amount of thought put into being evil for evil's sake felt outrageous and obscene.

There were also some bizarre moments involving other people we were there with. A Portugese man with his family took dozens of flash pictures inside the buildings, oblivious to the signs telling him not to and the UV-protection film over the windows. Every picture he was taking was destroying historical evidence of Nazi atrocities, and helping the case of jackasses the world over who claim that Auschwitz is a manufactured fraud. I could have strangled him. There was also a family from Singapore who kept mugging for each other's snapshots, smiling in front of the train tracks, the execution wall and the iconic sign. It made me feel ill. Yes, I was glad that people from around the world visit this place, but going to Auschwitz is not like seeing the Grand Canyon or the Eiffel Tower. I hope to God that if I ever visit  Tuol Seng, someone will stop me if I start grinning like an idiot and taking pictures of myself in front of torture cells. The irony was that the family told us that they had come to see Auschwitz because "we've always heard about it and needed to see it with our own eyes." The impulse was admirable, but it was hard to square that away with how they were acting.

One thing people don't tell you about visiting Auschwitz and Birkenau is how much physical activity is involved: there is a lot of walking around, particularly at Birkenau. The road was composed of dirt and pebbles and was tough to walk on. The final stop is at the Birkenau memorial, surrounded by the ruins of the destroyed crematoria. It was pretty emotional. Abbot Yid cried, and I said Kaddish in memory of the 15 relatives of my mother killed there, the 45 others killed at Treblinka, Buchenwald, Gross-Rosen and others, and the 150 whose fates remain unknown.

We walked back to the gate with our Polish guide, a young woman named Maria. She was from Oswiecim, had gone to University, and then came back. She had been working as a docent at the museum for several years. She seemed proud of her home and mentioned that it dated from the 12th century and had been a large town before the war. We said it must be hard to live so close to the camp and its history.

"Someone has to tell the story," she said. "It's important."

Hearing such a sense of stewardship to a place and its history from a twenty-something was inspiring.

The experience was emotionally and physically draining, though I was glad we had done it-- particularly since we had come not just to experience something in the abstract, but to also see it through personal and specific eyes: this was the place where my mother's cousins had been murdered. We had their names, in some cases we even had their dates and tattoo numbers. This wasn't just about "The Holocaust." It was the grave of these relatives, who had been denied their identities. It felt like going there, saying their names, acknowledging them as individuals, if only in a small way, was a sort of tikkun. A healing.

That night we went back to Kazimierz and the restaurant. I had duck with apples (ok, but not as good as Polish cholent). Mama Yid had tzimmes, which she said reminded her of her grandmother's cooking.

The really interesting part came after the meal, when Mama Yid chatted up two English-speaking women at the table next to us. They were New Yorkers (of course!) and had also visited Auschwitz that day, but with a private guide. The older woman was in her sixties and had taken her 40s-ish daughter to Poland to look for their roots in Northern Poland. They had also had some powerful personal moments, including finding archival records and seeing places in the Old Country their relatives had spoken about for years.

We chatted for a while and then the question of Israel came up. "It's surprising to hear you've been here and not to Israel," the daughter remarked. Her mother started giving her impressions of Auschwitz:

"Our guide was very informative. One of the things that bothered me about the museum, though, is that the point of view is very Polish, everything is about the Poles and not so much about the Jews who died there. Like, they have that cell with the flowers for that Polish Pope who died," she said, referring to a priest, Maximillian Kolbe, who voluntarily submitted to starvation torture to spare a fellow inmate the same fate. "Why do they have a memorial for that Pope and not the Jews?" she asked.

I thought of the plaques and flowers inside the Auschwitz crematorium and the memorial statue at Birkenau. I saw the woman's point; it would be nice to have a personalized experience of some Jewish prisoners with names and faces that visitors could connect with, but at the same time the museum seemed stuck. Anything the museum did would be criticized. There was also the tricky point that most Jews at Auschwitz were killed within hours; the vast majority of the prisoners who were incarcerated there were Poles. I didn't think the Jewish piece should be minimized, but it was challenging to tell both of those stories simultaneously.

"In Israel, at Yad Vashem, the information is much more truthful. At Auschwitz everything is about all the prisoners experienced, but Yad Vashem talks about how little the rest of the world did. How few people helped the Jews. The Holocaust museum in DC is even worse. So politically correct!"

I held back a smirk. Yes, Yad Vashem was probably more unflinching with the details, but the idea that it didn't have a political agenda was either silly or naive. The Israelis had a Holocaust narrative just as firmly as the Americans or the Poles.

The woman continued. "Our guide told us there's still antisemitism around here, too. Like those dolls. Have you seen them?"

We nodded. While they were strange and stereotypical, on average the ones we had seen had tended more towards cute-sy than outrageous. The women shook their heads. "It's terrible," said the daughter. "All the Jewish dolls do is count money. The Poles buy them and give them to their children before they get married as a good luck charm, to help them be successful."

As bizarre and perhaps even cringe-worthy as that may have been, I found it hard to relate to their outrage. In the grand scheme of things I'd much rather see Jewdolls with money than bloody matzah, for example. It wasn't that I didn't think there was zero antisemitism in Poland. Hatred didn't seem to be as big an issue as ignorance and a lack of contact. In order to know about and understand Jews, Poles needed to meet more Jews! Which also meant Jews needed to spend part of their time in Poland meeting with and trying to learn more about Poles, not only focusing on Jewish sites or on things relating to the Holocaust. Two-way streets and all that.

As a counterpoint I told the women about my friend Pavel and his family and our guide Maria and suggested that the younger generation seemed interested in knowing more about and honoring Poland's Jewish heritage. The women nodded politely, as if they weren't sure how to bridge the gap of our very different views of the country and its people.

Walking back to our apartment, I was troubled. I was happy to meet more Jews in Poland but also sad that for so many people, it seemed that their minds were already made up before they got there and that they tended to look for proof to substantiate negative preconceptions. I also realized that for most "connected" American Jews Israel was "advertised" much more than Europe. As the US-Israel relationship has developed and most American Jewish movements have become more Zionist, Israel has been pushed as American Jews' second home, a place that feels familiar and culturally (if not always physically) safe. The irony, of course, was that our immediate ancestors and family had spent far more time in Europe, especially Poland and neighboring countries, than Israel.

Of course Israel had history and tradition and certainly a valuable connection that needed to at least be considered (if not taken) seriously. But at the end of the day a major connector for me was family, personal family history. While we had plenty of cousins in Israel (with interesting stories and history of their own, to be sure), it still felt like a bit of a stretch to claim that Israel was more my ancestors' home than Poland. Yes, our forefathers may have lived in the hills of Judea, but I had found my ancestor's tombstone and touched it with my own hand. That was far more tangible to me than semi-hypothetical connections to Biblical characters.

At some point I am sure I will visit Israel, probably with Mrs. Yid (and perhaps even with my parents). I am sure it will also be a moving and personal experience. But it was frustrating to feel that Poland's Jewish past or direct connection with descendants of Polish Jews had been minimized by a narrative that championed Israel and Zionism as a primary pillar of Jewish identity.

Limited Retrospection

The 20-year-anniversary for the Crown Heights riots/pogroms (depending on who you talk to) is coming up and it's led to a fair bit of discussion among Jewish media outlets, particularly in New York.

Unfortunately, while the myths that Crown Heights was somehow a riot "between" blacks and Jews (implying that the Jews were out attacking blacks instead of hunkering down in their homes) or that the Jewish political establishment used all its resources to stop violent attacks happening in real-time are finally being exposed and challenged, one central myth not only remains unexamined, but continually perpetuated by people who should know better.

That is, the identity of Yankel Rosenbaum. Even this week, the inaccurate statements about Rosenbaum being a "rabbinical student" or a "rabbinical scholar" are being repeated by major Jewish news outlets. Only problem is, those are lies. Intended as compliments, perhaps, but fictional.

The son of Jews who survived the Holocaust in Poland, Mr. Rosenbaum was a lecturer at the University of Melbourne in Australia. He had done his undergraduate work there and, later, had earned a master's degree. His adviser on his doctoral dissertation, Dr. John Foster, said he was studying small Jewish towns in Poland.
The information is out there. This article was written in 1991, as was this one in 1996. Academics have verified who Rosenbaum was, and wasn't. Friends of Rosenbaum have popped up sporadically on the internet trying to clarify who he was: frum, Jewishly literate, and, while not Hasidic (nor Lubavitch, though his family were), certainly on friendly terms with Chabad.

But that is not the same as rewriting the man's life and identity and turning him into just another yeshiva bochur! Rosenbaum was a passionate young man who had created his own business and was pursuing high-level academic studies in the secular world. He spoke five languages, he had a master's, he was working on his doctorate, and he was a lecturer at the University! These details don't detract from his life or his Jewishness, they add color and texture to them. In a small way, Rosenbaum was a living model of how to successfully, and proudly, live as an Orthodox Jew in an open environment, without needing to cloister oneself in a cultural ghetto. The Orthodox world (heck, even the larger Jewish world) needs more role models like him. If nothing else, that is what is insulting about him being turned into a faceless symbol of the Haredi everyman struck down by antisemitism. It deprives us all of a wonderful learning opportunity.

Yankel Rosenbaum was an Orthodox Jew who chose to live in the non-Jewish world and had been successful at it. But for an accident of random chance (which ironically happened when he was visiting a major Jewish enclave, as opposed to all the times in Australia when he was in part of a small minority), he would likely still be here.

There are lots of lessons we can take from his life, but to do that we first have to be willing to learn about the truth of who he was. Not the myth he was turned into.

Edit-after-the-fact: Every time I write about this, I manage to find more people who knew Rosenbaum personally. (One of the blessings of the Internet!) One of them had this to say: 

I actually knew Yankel, A"H. He was a person, not a symbol, and I don't think he would have been upset at the descriptions you're complaining about.
Melbourne even today is a much more diverse community than most places in the US, and lots of people have complicated religious and intellectual backgrounds. Yankel's family wasn't Lubavitch and he wasn't the sort of person you could easily classify, but he certainly associated with Chabad. Yankel went to a Lubavitch school and yeshiva, was a counsellor at Chabad camps, and socialised with people both within and without Melbourne's Lubavitch community. None of this is especially important, but I hope it fleshes him out a bit more.

Here was my response:

I appreciate you sharing the background about your friend more.
As I've gotten interested in Yankel's life just been frustrated by what I see as attempts to put this interesting person into a certain box, when it seems like a lot of what he was about was, as you said, being involved with and interacting with various different communities. I would like to see that spirit honored and remembered when people think of him, as opposed to immediately putting him in a neat category of "martyred Lubavitcher Hasid" and going on their way.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Jewish Disneyland

Day 10-Krakow

We left Cz and drove to Krakow. I continued in my role of navigator by charting us a path through various towns and castles on the Jura (Jurassic-era plateaus) rather than going via highway routes, which took us farther out of our way. Though it rained quite a bit, it was a fun way to see the countryside and we made excellent time-- apparently Sunday is a great day for driving in rural Poland (Travel tip!)

As per usual, my good luck ran out as soon as we got into the city-- we probably spent about an hour trying to find our apartment thanks to mis-labelled street signs. Thanks to a friendly employee at a Chinese restaurant, we found the building and unloaded.

Abbot Yid found us a nice place right across the river from Kazimierz, the old Jewish section. We wound up going there every day for the three nights we were in Krakow. Our first stop, as always, was the Tourist Center. While exiting this place and waiting for Abbot Yid to finish buying some postcards, Mama Yid and I got to have this delightful conversation with a young Israeli couple:

Him: "Where are you from?"
Me: "San Francisco."
Him: (Smirking) "There's a Jewish community in San Francisco?"

He was sounding more dismissive than humorous. Already I could tell this had potential to quickly delve into jerk territory.

Me: "And where are you from?"
Them: "Israel."
Me: (No duh.) "I meant, where in Israel."

Long stare while they tried to decide if our limited knowledge included geography...

Her: "I'm from the North."
Him: "I'm from the Middle."
Me: (Really? That's cool, we have cousins in Netanya, Eilat, Rehovot, and the Negev. Middle, you say? What a fun place that sounds like.)
Her: "How long are you here?"
Mama Yid: "Another few days and we'll have been here two weeks."

They were dumbfounded. "You've spent two weeks in Krakow?"

Mama Yid poked me to tell them "the story." I was reluctant since I could tell the guy wasn't going to care, but I tried to be a good sport.

"We've been all over. We started in Warsaw where my father's family was from, and we just came from Czestochowa where my mother's family was from."

I purposefully left out the cemetery story as I was close to positive they didn't care. Mama Yid said I had left out the best part and told them about the cemetery. The woman looked slightly interested but the man seemed bored.

Him: "And next, are you going to Israel?"

I had known this was coming. Just like with the nun, I put out a big smile. "Not this trip."

He frowned. "What a shame. All this way and Israel is only three hours away. Have you been to Israel before?"

My smile got even bigger. This guy was going to be a Sabra par excellence. Just roll with it. "Nope."

He looked incredulous. "And you come to Poland before you come to Israel?"

Abbot Yid had just stepped out the door and caught the tail end of the guy's question-- and his tone. I could tell he was getting irked already, but I played dumb. "Well, maybe we'll try next time."

"Well you have family waiting for you when you come," the woman said with a smile. We all nodded politely.

The man still wasn't done. "How's your Hebrew?"
"Nonexistent," said Mama Yid.
"Low," I said.
"So, just prayers and things?" he asked. I couldn't tell if he was fishing for info or confused at how Jews couldn't know Hebrew. I shrugged.
"Well, enjoy your trip," he said.
"You too," I said as we walked away.
"Shmuck," Abbot Yid said under his breath.

And we had had such a wonderful time with Dina and her Israeli high schoolers in Cz! I guess the universe didn't want us to get too far away from cultural stereotypes. (Does this count as reverse-hasbara?)

After that we walked around the neighborhood for a while. We saw some of the old synagogues and popped into an excellent Jewish bookshop where I snapped up a couple of things. (I had operated with total restraint up until this point, I swear. Besides, who could resist a DK-style book on Polish Jewish history?)

From there we went looking for someplace to have dinner. Initially Abbot Yid wanted to eat somewhere that kept kosher (at least we'd know if something had dairy or not), but the first place that had "glatt kosher food" advertised turned out to be the Izaak Synagogue (now run by Chabad) that, in addition to catering, also served meals out of the shul kitchen. Not quite what we had in mind. So we settled for another spot called Noah's Ark.

The food was marvelous- I had my first taste of cholent, and despite the bad rap it seems to get around the Jblogosphere, I found that this recipe, at least, was delicious. Mine was chicken with kasha, seasoned excellently, and the portion wasn't too large. Real comfort food. (Maybe it's just frum cholent that's bad?)

Over dinner we talked about how interesting it was to be in Kazimierz, where Jewish trappings--if not necessarily content-- were so prominently on display. As Abbot Yid put it, "It's like Jewish Disneyland, except without Jews."

Ok, that line is not entirely fair. There are an estimated 1,000 "active" Jews living in Krakow (with at least two active synagogues), and probably another few thousand of partial Jewish descent. I think what we were talking about, however, was how much "Jewishness" is built into the commercial shtick of Kazimierz, more or less divorced from the actual people. The effect is a bit of a cultural dissonance-- kind of like an Egyptian person visiting the Luxor casino. On the one hand a lot of it was fun to see (especially for someone interested in English-language Ashkenazi history, a lot of times my choices are perusing random Orthodox Judaica shops or attempting to find the few Jewish books in the "Eastern Religion" section at large US chain stores). On the other hand, there was certainly a fair amount of stereotyping and ignorance going on. For instance, at our restaurant a lot of the dishes were named after random Biblical characters, ranging from Miriam to Jacob.

The best example of non-Jews marketing Jewish kitsch to Jews were the various "Jewdolls" that we saw everywhere. They ranged from an inch or two to a foot high, always made of wood or clay. All the dolls had beards and large noses, usually with dark clothes, peyot and a hat. Most were counting money though a few held menorahs or books with Stars-of-David on them. I saw a few holding a pillow-shaped object that could have passed for a Torah if you squinted hard enough. I said, "There's something very odd about seeing our culture simplified down to an extreme degree and then made into a commodity to be sold to tourists." I bought a few Jewdolls as gifts (I preferred the clay ones with slightly cartoonish figures; they reminded me of old French and Belgian comic characters and toys I used to have), though it did make me think about old toys and books like Tar Babies and Little Black Sambo.

As we finished up, my parents mentioned that they were happy that Mrs. Yid and I were invested in finding ways to make Judaism and Jewish heritage personally meaningful to us-- and that we invited them to participate without ever making them feel coerced. Abbot Yid even said something surprising:

"You may not believe this, but even though I don't necessarily do Jewish things, I still feel very Jewish and strongly identify as Jewish. As ambivalent as I might feel about Judaism, a long time ago I realized that if I had been around when the Nazis were here, they would have considered me Jewish. It's just who you are. It's like being black. You can't really run away from it."

I appreciated the sentiment, though I couldn't help wondering where this left people like Mrs. Yid.

Jews and Evangelicals: Head vs. Heart

The other day I discussed Ben Shapiro's column about Rick Perry's "The Response." In that column, Shapiro claimed that, among other things, "public displays of faith strengthen the unity of our nation."

Only problem is, when your religious display has fundamentalist preachers with exclusivist views of salvation, it kind of brings the unity down.

For instance, John Hagee, who gave a prayer at Perry's rally. Yeah, that guy. The guy that was so nutty John McCain was forced to disavow him (after toadying up to him) during the last election. Swell.

It's interesting to follow some of the threads here. Hagee runs Christians United For Israel, an organization that many Jews are a tad wary of. Of course, some think CUFI is just great, like the self-proclaimed "America's sellout rabbi" Shmuley Boteach, who liked the CUFI dinner he went to in July so much he sang its praises in his op-ed column.

The Christians United for Israel dinner in Washington, DC was an experience I won’t quickly forget. Until you sit in a room with five thousand Christian lovers of Israel and absorb their enthusiasm for the Jewish state and the Jewish people you would be hard pressed to think it possible. But there I was, surrounded by Christians from all over the nation waving Israeli and American flags, pledging eternal love and support to the most vilified country on earth. The speeches came fast and furious. The statements bold and unapologetic. Israel must never trade land for peace. Every attempt to do so has led to terror bases for Hamas and Hezbollah. Israel is one of the freest and most democratic nations on earth. President Obama better stop pressuring Israel or pay for it at the polls. Iran is an existential threat to both Israel and the United States. Those who treat the Jews poorly are abandoned by G-d, as history has shown time and again. The American University campus has become a hub of anti-Israel hatred. We’re deploying our legions to fight it.
Sheesh. I could scarcely sit down. Nearly every line deserved an ovation.

What? I can see how statements of support are good, but these are specific policy positions being phrased as moral absolutes. "Israel must never trade land for peace?" If Israelis get pissy about Diaspora Jews dictating terms to them, why would a bunch of US Evangelicals be any better? And "deploying our legions to fight it?" Wow, nothing like some fun holy war imagery to warm the cockles of the heart.

Lest you think it was just Hagee's people at this thing, Shmuley sets the record straight:
The crowd was anything but monolithic. The head of CUFI’s campus operations is a young African-American student who pledged his life to fighting for Israel. Shades of all colors were to be found in the audience with a smattering of yarmulkes dotting the landscape as well. Glenn Beck, the keynote speaker, is a Mormon even though the vast majority of participants were evangelical Christians who are often suspicious of Mormonism. An orthodox Rabbi gave the opening benediction. My friend Dennis Prager addressed the crowd the night before the banquet, and my friend Michael Oren, Israel’s Ambassador to the United States, gave a moving historical account of Christians over the last century who were moved to support Israel based on Biblical teaching. 
That's right, people. Count it, that's four whole Jews including Shmuley including a "smattering" of yarmulkes! Bam. Diversity, baby. Right there. (Ok, to be fair it seems like there were some others, too. Not sure why Shmuley didn't mention them. Maybe they weren't famous enough?)

Incidentally... if broad support is good for Israel, wouldn't it be really, really great to try to have a wider swath of Christians (both denomination and political orientation-wise) be included in CUFI? I mean, it's cool that they had evangelicals AND a Mormon, but given that evangelicals are only 26% of the population, it might be good to try to encourage the CUFI folks to have a big tent. As opposed to, you know, consigning everyone else to hell. Just a thought.

And here we get into some of the weirdness:
 “I am an Israeli,” declared CUFI founder Pastor John Hagee, swearing to forever defend Israel against attack at the risk of life and limb.
Right, except you're actually not. Just like Glenn Beck isn't a Jew. No, really, apparently this needs to be clarified:

But what brought the crowd to its feet for a lengthy standing ovation, which included the waving of the Israeli and American flags and the blowing of the shofar, was Beck’s pledge to stand by Israel at any cost. “Today I declare: Count me a Jew, and come for me first,” he told the cheering crowd. “Let us declare: I am a Jew.”

Now, Rabbi Jonathan Ginsburg points out that this is meant to be an act of solidarity against Jew-haters, in the same vein as the (apocryphal) King-of-Denmark-wearing-a-yellow-star-story. Fair enough. But again, I personally find that there's something a little disconcerting about such a passionate embrace of Jews and Israel by evangelicals-- to the point of claiming those identities and labels for themselves even when they aren't true. Maybe it's a style thing, maybe it's an intellectual thing, but it rubs me the wrong way. It feels over the top. It feels disconnected from reality. Which, given that issues of fantasy vs. reality, the true meaning of words, and of course, who are the "real Jews" are all big issues dividing Jews and conservative Christians already, is maybe not the smartest rhetorical style to employ.

In fact, this may be the key to understanding some of the fundamental differences between Jews (certainly liberal Jews) and their would-be conservative Christian allies. In a sense, Jews are the intellectual Yeshivish to the Christians' more folksy, heartfelt Hasidim. Head vs. Heart. (While the "liberals think they're smarter than everyone else" trope is a longstanding cultural jibe, anyone who has spent time with or studied populist religious movements such as Hasidim or evangelicalism knows that these groups have plenty of elitism in their own way.)

The reality is, most Jews, certainly in America, tend to connect with their religion on a level that is more intellectual than mystical. Ditto for personal identity, relations with Israel, etc. Mystical and spiritual levels may exist as well, but for the majority, these are intellectual matters, approached in a serious manner. Hearing about Christians dancing the hora, blowing shofars, talking about defending Jews from a future Holocaust and proclaiming themselves Jews and Israelis by virtue of the fact that they think we're cool-- this does not come across as serious, but as pageantry. And to the degree it is taken seriously by the participants, it's actually kind of distressing as it shows how far the gap between the two cultures is.

As I've said previously, I don't think Christians supporting Israel is bad. Certainly it's preferable to hatred or animus. But the kind of support CUFI seems to want to offer, the kind of relationship they are cultivating, which views everything within a specific political and religious lens, is somewhat alarming. Because Israel does not seem to be appreciated or related to on its terms, but CUFI's. Granted, this is something many American Jews may also be guilty of, but, not to seem self-centered, I feel that as Jews, our investment in what happens there, at least on the level of collective Jewish engagement, is somewhat higher than your average American Christian. At the end of the day, I don't think CUFI cares about-- or understands--  the modern, secular-ish, Green Line part of Israel. When people like Glenn Beck or John Hagee say they love Jews and Israel, exactly who are they talking about? All the attention seems to go towards the quasi-Messianic vision articulated by Likud and other parties to its right. I would feel much more comfortable with CUFI if its policy was to support Israel, period, not agitate for specific political policies that they think its government should stick to.

Shmuley writes about Beck's speech specifically addressing the often-repeated concern that Christian support of Israel is primarily focused around End-times theology:
“It’s not only the support we offer Israel,” said Beck, “that matters. The reason for doing so is also important. We can’t do this because we think it will bring final salvation or for any other reason. Rather, it’s about love. Why did Ruth declare to Naomi, “Where you go I’ll go. You’re G-d is my G-d. Where you die I’ll die, and there I’ll be buried. Because she loved her. This has to be about love.” His words directly addressed the discomfort some Jews feel with Christian support for Israel as being based on end-of-days prophecy and a necessary precursor for the return of Christ.
There is nothing wrong with love, but this is love coming from strangers. Before you say you're Israeli or you're a Jew, show us you understand what that means. Do you even know the people you claim to love/identify with? I'm going to go out on a limb and say that most of CUFI's supporters and participants are really fans of Jews who fit into their cultural reference-point: religious and politically conservative. This poses something of an issue, as most of the world's Jews are not Orthodox (at best, the Orthodox are a third, at worst, a seventh), and the vast majority are politically liberal. Given how fond evangelicals seem to be of using holy war language, I have to say, it's a little tricky to square away how they can dislike us so much when discussing anything else, but we're supposed to take their word for it that they actually really, really like us because we happen to be Members of the Tribe. Again, it comes off as either disingenuous or verging on psychotic.

I guess what I'm saying is, show us you guys aren't nuts. Sorry if that sounds mean, but I don't think I'm alone when I say that when first meeting someone I'd much rather start with a hello and a handshake than getting a bearhug and being told that we're long-lost twins.


In keeping with his long tradition of using his op-ed columns to pimp himself out, Shmuley has a new book coming out. This one's about Jesus, and in keeping with his long tradition of having zero creativity, he's calling it Kosher Jesus.
The book seeks to offer to Jews and Christians the real story of Jesus, a wholly observant, Pharisaic Rabbi who fought Roman paganism and oppression and was killed for it. While many Christians will be confused by its assertion that Jesus never claimed divinity and not only did not abrogate the Torah but observed every letter of the Law, they will find comfort in my tracing most of Jesus’ principal teachings back to Jewish sources, this before he was stripped of his Jewishness by later writers who sought to portray him as an enemy of his people.
...But the book is also for Jews who remain deeply uncomfortable with Jesus because of the Church’s long history of anti-Semitism, the deification of Jesus, and the Jewish rejection of any Messiah who has not fulfilled the Messianic prophecies... But as Christians and Jews now come together to love and support the majestic and humane Jewish state, it’s time that Christians rediscover the deep Jewishness and religious Jewish commitment of Jesus, while Jews reexamine a lost son who was murdered by a brutal Roman state who sought to impose Roman culture and rule upon a tiny yet stubborn nation who will never be severed from their eternal covenant with the G-d of Israel.
As always, I'm totally unclear who Shmuley thinks his audience is. Lord knows it's sure not anyone in my house.

Hat-tips: Dovbear and JewishIsrael.

Sunday, August 14, 2011


Here I've actually been posting some good stuff for a change instead of all the political drivel I'm known for, and what gets the most readers in ages?

My favorite line (back-translated from German):
Quintessence of the blog, is the historical derivation and also the personal pedigree information of the Lord are highly questionable.

Yup. Oh, and hi Ehav!

If Sofer gets bored teaching people Abir, he should totally start making some Jewish action movies. I am totally serious when I say I would pay money to see this. Israeli-Hollywood, get on it.

Bait and Switch

I like to think I'm something of an iconoclast. At least compared to people's stereotypes about what a 20-something liberal Jew from San Francisco might be. For instance, when it comes to "youth culture," I've found that I'm far more prudish and old-fashioned than people might think. If and when Mrs. Yid and I have children, I have no doubt that I will be a supremely uncool Dad when it comes to what my kids are allowed to do, what media they can consume, and, should they be girls, what clothes they can wear (while I am anxious about the prospect of raising daughters, Mrs. Yid tells me that she doubts that our kids will be the junior-Orgy type).

I say this simply because I work with children, and while I'm glad that most of the kids I see regularly have their heads screwed on straight, it's clear to me that the world they inhabit and which is fed to them 24/7 is clearly not their friend, particularly when it comes to sex stuff.

The irony is that I doubt I'm the only liberal who is made uncomfortable by the idea of 10-year-olds dressing like streetwalkers. When it comes to common causes, I'm pretty sure, "Keep children from being slutty" is fairly bipartisan. You'd never know this by reading conservative op-eds, though. Take this column by a radio host (and Messianic Jewish pastor) named Michael Brown.

Brown bemoans an increasingly sexualized popular culture being marketed to young people, an analysis which I largely agree with.
How many children watch MTV and VH1, mimicking the moves and memorizing the lyrics of the latest song by Britney Spears or Lady Gaga, having no clue that the moves they are making and the words they are mouthing are sexually charged. These kids are too young to have any understanding of sexuality, and yet it is no secret to the TV execs that these same children are a major part of the viewing audience.
What's bizarre, however, is that Brown only talks about his supposed topic for a few paragraphs, before launching into a totally separate discussion about teaching LGBT history in school. For Brown, including gay history in social studies curriculum is apparently the same thing as Molly Cyrus pole-dancing on TV-- maybe worse.
I’m talking about teaching gay history to elementary school children, as now mandated by law in California with the recent passing of SB 48, thereby introducing sexual categories to little ones who haven’t the slightest clue what sexual orientation is, let alone have the ability to wrap their minds around “bisexual” or “transgender.”
Give kids and teachers some credit. Bisexual is really not that hard to explain, Michael. Yes, transgender is more complicated, but also something that small children are perfectly capable of understanding if presented in an age-appropriate context-- which, incidentally, is sort of the teacher's job in the first place. Put it this way: I don't think Kindergarteners are going to be studying the life of Herbert Garrison. Incidentally, the law doesn't give any specifics about age groups or subject matter content. All it says is that social studies will include studying the "role and contributions of... LGBT individuals" to California. Those bastards! How dare they want textbooks to talk about gay or trans folks being productive!
To add insult to injury, parents will have no right to opt their kids out of these classes, a hard lesson parents in other states have already learned, where the courts have sided with the schools rather than the parents. Already in Massachusetts, a couple was so upset with this state-sponsored sexualizing of their first grader that they took their battle to court, where Judge Mark Wolff of the US Court of Appeals ruled that the schools have a greater responsibility to teach “diversity” than to honor the requests of the parents. 
Dude, the whole point of public schools is that they have state-mandated curriculum. Personally I find the concept of having your kid opt-out of any part of the curriculum strange already. If your school is teaching something you have that big of a problem with, maybe a private school would be a good idea for everyone involved, including your child. Also, given that part of the point of SB 48 is to combat bullying and promote inclusion, I have to say, yeah, asking for your kid to be excused is kind of a jerk move. And that's coming from someone who is contractually obligated to sit through multiple anti-bullying assemblies a year.
What is unique in California is not that gay-themed lessons will be taught to little children.
Especially since that's not actually happening.
Rather, it is that these lessons will be mandated across the entire state for all schools and all classes, which, of course, will be reflected in the textbooks that will be used. And, as is well known, what happens in California doesn’t stay in California, meaning that the textbooks printed for our most populous state will be used throughout the nation.
Uh, yeah, the bill was about modifying existing curriculum. That's sort of a state-wide thing. That's how school curriculum works. Have you, by any chance, ever been to a school? You sound like you've just discovered some hidden conspiracy. Also, the second-largest textbook market is Texas, not without its share of conservative activists.
In the specific language of SB 48, the bill amended “the Education Code to include social sciences instruction on the contributions of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people.” And note that previous bills relating to LGBT issues – including AB 537, AB 1785, AB 394, SB 777, SB 572 – were not enough. SB 48 had to go one step further.
Yo, putz! The fact that you managed to find five bills "relating to GLBT issues" has nothing to do with whether SB 48 was needed or not. You didn't, by any chance, bother to read those bills, did you? Two  had to do with updating California anti-discrimination codes for hiring practices, workplace discrimination, etc, and adding GLBT people as a protected category. One was about monitoring school compliance with a previously passed law. Another added Harvey Milk Day to the school calendar. Only one of them, AB 1785, had anything to do with school curriculum (and in fact, most of the bill focused on schools reporting and sharing data on hate-crime incidents). You're throwing any pretense toward intellectual honesty or analysis out the window, Michael. Are you seriously trying to play the "there are too many gay laws" card? Hey, last I checked there were a lot of laws on the books against violent crime, too. Does that mean we shouldn't pass any more laws against that? I mean, since that category is pretty much covered and all, right?
[SB 48] will demand that the categories of “gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender” be introduced to six year-olds.
First of all, the law does not specify age groups, so your false outrage about the poor little ones is based on imaginary information. Since the context is within California history, in fact, there's an excellent chance any detailed discussion of this stuff won't come up until at least Third or Fourth grade. Given that you live in North Carolina, I wouldn't expect you to know little details about when Californians study California history, but trust me, that's when we do it.

Second, as I said, there is a way to talk about these topics in an appropriate way. Incidentally, I've noticed that conservative writers who complain about teaching "adult" ideas too early to kids are often using the "too young" argument as an excuse; very often the reality is that for them it's never appropriate to teach these things. Sex ed and evolution are good examples of this.
I have watched videos of classes taught in different parts of the countries where elementary school children are shown pictures of artists or musicians or politicians or other famous figures and are told, “He (or she) was gay,” as if they had the slightest real concept of what “gay” actually meant.
This would be an example of either bad teachers or bad curriculum. I had bad math teachers when I was a kid. Using this logic, we should abolish math class. Incidentally, when conservatives fight tooth-and-nail against any proposal to have GLBT curriculum in the classroom, guess what the result is? More politicized schools, more politicized curriculum, and less thought and effort put into actually making good lessons or teaching them well. People like Michael Brown are at least partly responsible for the very superficial and ideological teaching he complains about.

And, incidentally, Michael? As someone who sat through crappy lessons like that and indeed, made zero connections at the time, let me assure you, bad GLBT history lessons are really not a threat to anyone's kid.
(As I recall, in the early years of elementary school, boys like boys and girls like girls. Does that make all of them “gay”?)
I'm going to give you a droplet of credit here and say this is you failing to be funny, as anyone actually this stupid shouldn't be allowed to write their name, let alone a syndicated column. (And they also let you on the radio? Man, talk about lowering standards.)