Between J Street and the Pew survey.

J Street logoI spoke with many (many) people at the recent J Street conference; middle-aged activists, rabbis of various ages and stages, college-aged-or-just-barely-not-college-aged young men and women of exceeding intelligence and remarkable vision. One of the topics to which many conversations turned, again and again, was the question of Jewish identity.

While not a perfect metric (and it’s important to remember that anecdotes are no replacement for research) it’s worth noting that there were far more kipot in the crowd this time than at any other J Street gathering I’ve ever attended. There were more tziziot. A few speakers even went beyond passing reference to tikkun olam (which, nothing against tikkun olam, but settlers think they’re doing tikkun olam, too). And I was told by people from all over the religious spectrum (as I have been in the past) that the very fact of J Street (or, before it, Brit Tzedek v’Shalom) allowed them to revisit and re-engage with their Judaism.

Which brings us, a little circuitously, to the recent Pew Research poll.

According to Pew, 73 percent of American Jews say that “remembering the Holocaust” is “an essential part of what being Jewish means to them,” whereas only 28 percent can say the same about “being part of a Jewish community.”

Though I hold Pew Research Center in high regard, my sense is that the construction of this survey is not without problems (for instance: What’s the difference between having “an emotional attachment” to Israel and “caring” about Israel? Why was the only question about settlements linked to security?)—but even if we posit the poll as an imperfect tool, imperfection can only go so far in explaining the vastly greater import Jews appear to grant Holocaust remembrance over involvement with other Jews. Forty-five percent is not a small number. We can’t even chalk it up to generational differences: Among 18-29 year olds, the stats stand at 69 percent vs. 26 percent.

Let me be perfectly clear: Holocaust remembrance is a critical Jewish act. It’s a critical human act. The calculated, mechanized effort to rid the world of an entire race of people—man, woman, and infant—because of the blood in their veins is not something that we may ever pass over lightly. We must study the events of the Nazis’ rise and rule, as well as the ideas behind the Final Solution, and we must honor the six million by recalling their lives and their culture. This is part of how we ensure the promise we make every time we say “never again.”

And yet surely it matters that we not only remember dead Jews, but also get to know some living ones. Even if our main goal is to “remember the Holocaust,” surely it matters that we find personally meaningful ways to engage with the very culture that the six million were slaughtered for.

They weren’t all religiously observant; some rather famously didn’t believe in God. I don’t know how many actually understood the language of our prayers, but I’ll bet a fair number didn’t. They argued over theology and how to stage a play and what a good education entailed and whether or not that one guy’s jokes were funny. The six million and their various communities were, in short, like any other modern people: Vastly different from one another, yet also bound by something real, however difficult to quantify.

Ever since sometime in the 1950s, however, when it became popular across much of American society to be suspicious of anything that was difficult to quantify, the Jewish community has emphasized “Holocaust remembrance” over and above almost anything else (with the possible exception of “caring about Israel”). The late, great scholar Peter Novick explained and sliced through the Holocaust rhetoric, but few really listened; it was easier, I suspect, to teach solidarity based on horrifying memory than on the ineffable nature of culture or faith. The kids in Hebrew school might not buy your whole “God” schtick, but show them a picture from Dachau and you’re in.

Quite aside from the dishonor this brings to all we lost, there’s the simple fact that horror is not culture. “Remembering” is not heritage. And the Jewish people—those rich in Torah and those rich in good deeds, believers and unbelievers, prophetic comic artists and hip hop poets, not to mention folks just getting by—have so much more to offer.

Which brings us back around to the J Street conference. The rabbis, the J Street U enthusiasts, the parents sharing tales of synagogue preschool, they all remember the Holocaust, they all care about Israel—and they all care about what being a Jew entails. All of that brought them to the conference in the first place. All of that is why they risk identifying with an organization that cares enough to question institutional Judaism’s long-held conventional wisdom on what being a good Jew means.

Every person with whom I spoke about re-engaging with their Judaism had something different in mind. Maybe they meant focusing on spiritual practice rather than on the brinksmanship of a particular set of politicians in a modern-day nation-state. Maybe they’re writing a dissertation on the impact of Jewish culture on American music. Maybe they’re reading this blog because Open Zion strives to advance the kind of open debate that was once a hallmark of Jewish thought. Maybe they decided to spend a weekend with other Jews in the Washington Convention Center and act for peace with the Palestinians.

I’m a woman of faith; I speak and read Hebrew. It’s easy for me to be active in a Conservative synagogue. But for many, many Jews, that’s neither easy nor even appealing. Nor, would I argue, does it have to be.

But being with Jews, building something of meaning based in our past with an eye on our future—that’s essential. Whether it be J Street, or Jewish poetry slams, or something like LABA, New York’s non-religious house of study, we need to find, foster, and encourage all that will help us remember not just horror, but also joy.

Basing our identity in dreadful narratives of death and survival, and/or an amorphous “caring” about a country that’s an ocean away (essential to 53 percent of Jews aged 65 and up, and only 32 percent of 18-29 year olds) is a path to failure. Indeed, if that’s all we care about, I’d say it already has failed.

But basing our identity in each other? That could actually work.

Dear Israeli Right: This is what anti-Semitism means.

Jude starLanguage is a funny thing. On the one hand it’s malleable by nature, because human culture is endlessly malleable; on the other hand, at any given time, the words in whatever language you’re using have actual definitions. Take “anti-Semitism,” for instance.

“Anti-Semitism” has an actual, working definition—and here’s what that definition is:

Anti-Semitism, n. –  hostility toward or discrimination against Jews as a religious, ethnic, or racial group.

I bring this up only because the Israeli right appears to be once again confusing anti-Semitism with “being opposed to things that the Israeli right want everyone to think are non-negotiable.”

Case in point: The sanctions that the European Union is poised to institute against West Bank settlements. The Israeli right feels pretty strongly that such sanctions will do damage to the settlement enterprise, and while we can’t really be sure of the outcome of a policy that hasn’t been implemented yet, I feel safe in saying that the Israeli right is, well, right—in fact, that’s the point of the sanctions: To damage the settlement enterprise. It’s a political action intended to produce political ends.

Representatives of the settlements, including Israel’s Ambassador to the E.U. and members of the Knesset, requested and were granted a special parliamentary session in Brussels earlier this week in which to present their opposition to the E.U.’s new policy—and here’s what MK Ayelet Shaked (of Nafatali Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi party) had to say:

If Europe thinks Jews will return to the days where we were forced to mark our products—you can forget it. Delegitimization of parts of Israel by Europe is the new anti-Semitism. The old anti-Semitism led to the destruction of our people in gas chambers. We will not allow the new anti-Semitism to hurt us.

Now, we could start by noting that whatever you may think of the settlement enterprise, not even Israel thinks that the West Bank is “part of Israel.” Those lands haven’t been annexed, and indeed their future is (putatively, at least) under negotiation by the Israeli government even as we speak. We could start there.

But why start there when we have the specter of gas chambers before us?

This is not the first time that anti-settlement policies have been likened unto racism,anti-Semitism and/or the Holocaust (because, you know, taking the political position that the West Bank does not, in fact, belong to Israel is just like performing torture experiments on Jewish children, sexually enslaving Jewish women, and gunning down 34,000 men, women and children at Babi Yar. Not to mention gas chambers), and it probably won’t be the last.

Indeed, the right’s tendency to label everything vaguely unpleasant as anti-Semitism (and a new Holocaust to boot!) is so strong that Israel’s more non-hyperbolic citizens often mock and satirize it. Perhaps my favorite example of this is an old routine by iconic comedy troupe HaHamishia HaKamarite—you don’t even need a working knowledge of Hebrew to enjoy it.

The mockery comes because many, many Israelis (left, right, and ambidextrous) understand that there’s simply no intellectually honest way to shoe-horn a decision to suspend “grants, prizes, and financial instruments… to Israeli entities or to their activities in the territories occupied by Israel since June 1967” into the idea of hating on Jews because they’re Jews. Or into the idea of killing them. It’s ahistorical. It’s nonsensical. It suggests a lack of book learning. And it’s deeply, profoundly offensive.

When Shaked (or Dani Dayan, or Avigdor Lieberman, or Zeev Elkin) say these things, they’re using the screams of babies, numbers burned into flesh, and ashes that once rose into heaven to try to shame the world into accepting right-wing dogma as settled fact. It is, simply put, grotesque.

Anyone who is even remotely familiar with my work knows that I’m anti-settlement. I always have been. But I don’t think that you have to share my political inclinations in order to agree on this particular point.

Some things really are anti-Semitic—as the Jews of 21st century Hungary, baseball disgrace Ryan Braunthe good people of Virginia, and a young girl I know who was once told that “Hitler should have finished the job” can attest. We need to stand against that hate and that bigotry wherever we see it and educate aggressively so that it becomes a thing of the past.

But the European Union doesn’t oppose the West Bank settlements because the people living in them are Jews. The European Union opposes the West Bank settlements because the people living in them (and the government that sent them)are breaking international law:

In conformity with international law on the non-recognition by the EU of Israel’s sovereignty over the territories occupied by Israel since June 1967…the EU has made it clear that it will not recognize any changes to pre-1967 border, other than those agreed by the parties to the Middle East Peace Process.

But Israel’s right wing (and the Americans who support it) want the world to simply give up and give in, to adopt its ideological position and red-roofed West Bank homes as a fait accompli and play a supporting role in denying the Palestinian people their civil and human rights into perpetuity.

And they’re not above exploiting the deaths of six million people to do it.

Syrian refugees – actually a lot more than two million.

Last week the world reeled as we learned that the number of Syrian refugees had passed the two million mark.

Which is to say: Two million people—the equivalent of the combined populations of Boston, Detroit, and San Francisco—have fled their homes and country to what can only be called an uncertain fate in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Egypt, and North Africa, with no idea whatsoever when or if they might ever return. Many refugees actually depend on the kindness of family and friends and never register with humanitarian aid organizations, so it’s likely that “two million” is, in fact, a low estimate.

Yet as horrifying as that is, as heartbreaking as the needs of the people fleeing and the people receiving them are, we must remember that those two million actually represent less than a third of all who have run for their lives in the course of this war.

The European Commission Humanitarian Office reports that an estimated 4.25 million Syrians are internally displaced persons—people forced out of their homes and communities by the violence, but who haven’t yet made it across a border. Thus, a total of 6.25 million Syrians—fully one third of the country’s population of 21 million—are, in fact, wandering.

The implications of this are staggering. As the region’s nations face historic internal turmoil and grapple with the sudden influx of hundreds of thousands of strangers—sometimes at a rate of thousands a day—the social and cultural fabric of Syrian life has been shredded beyond recognition beneath bombs and chemical weapons.

Consider a life: Parents, grandparents, growing children. Income is earned, homes are built, marriages celebrated and babies welcomed. You shop for your daily needs, come home along familiar paths, make holiday plans and hope your aunt makes enough of her signature dish. Your father falls ill, your daughter outgrows her shoes, you bring a present to the neighbors. At every turn, your life is woven tightly into the garment of the lives around you, and whether any given day brings sorrow or joy, you know where to find solace, support, or someone with whom to share your good fortune.

Now it’s gone.

It’s gone, and you don’t know if you’ll ever get it back. It’s gone, not just for you and your family and your community, and not even “just” for the two million people who have (at the very least) found a way out of the country and away from the killing. It’s true for six and a quarter million people—the equivalent of nearly the entire population of Israel.

The Jewish people knows what this chaos looks like. We see it in the eyes of survivors; many can still feel it in their flesh. We are a people that until very recently knew little but the hurriedly packed bag, the abandoned home, the loved one lost forever. Whatever Jews and Arabs may have done to or said about each other in the 20th and 21st centuries, surely when we see a father gather a dead child in his arms, our arms must ache, too.

And as the heart cries out, the mind must also be honest about the horror’s further ramifications. It might be possible to imagine that the strife in Egypt won’t spread beyond its borders; it might be possible to hope that Jordan’s King will work with his opposition toward democracy and stability. It’s possible. But there’s simply no way to see the massive, violent movement of 6.25 million people just beyond and all around Israel’s borders as an event that might leave anyone in the region untouched. At a certain point, likely at many points, chaos tips over in ways that cannot be predicted and whoever is within shouting distance finds themselves in the path of the consequences.

This is the time in the Jewish year in which we straddle the universal and the personal at once: Last week we celebrated harat olam, the world’s creation; this week, we stand before the Divine and weigh our most intimate behavior. We do each while surrounded by our community and all we hold dear. We are reminded, at every holiday table and with every blow of the shofar, that our destiny as individuals and as a community is bound in a spiral of mutuality that turns and returns, endlessly.

The Syrian people are not my people. Some of them have killed some of mine; some of mine have killed some of theirs.

And yet they are my people, because they, too, were created b’tselem Elohim, in God’s image. They are my people because they suffer untold terrors. They are my people because wherever their calamity leads, it will brush against or crash into my people and my home. We cannot yet begin to guess the outcome of the shattering of Syria and its people, but lines drawn on maps will not keep the disaster neat and tidy.

I stand before my Creator this week devastated by what humanity has wrought, and not a little frightened of what is to come—frightened for Israel, frightened for everyone in the region, but mostly frightened for the mothers and fathers grasping little hands in the night, and trembling.

Crossposted from Open Zion/The Daily Beast

Ryan Braun and Anti-Semites.

ryan braunSo yes: Ryan Braun, Milwaukee Brewers outfielder and America’s own “Hebrew Hammer” has accepted a 65-game suspension under a drug-testing agreement, which means (aside from anything else) that he cheated in a game which has been (let’s be honest) fairly riddled with cheaters of a similar nature. So that’s bad enough.

But then, but then! On Monday, we heard that back when he was lying about having cheated, Braun called some fellow ballplayers to try to win their support, and along the way, accused the collector of his urine sample of being not just an anti-Semite, but a Cubs fan, to boot.

As a the daughter of hard-core Cubs fans, I’m not sure which accusation could be considered the deeper cut. But I will say this: you shouldn’t be an anti-Semite. Not if you collect the urine of professional athletes, and not if you do anything else, either. (I’ll leave it up to readers to decide what they think about clinging to the Cubs).

But wait! According to Braun’s own mother, who is a Catholic, Braun “is totally not Jewish”—in 2007, USA Today reported that:

Ryan was not raised Jewish and never had a bar mitzvah, but suddenly he’s hearing from Jewish organizations claiming him as their own. 

“He’s totally not Jewish,” Diane says. “I heard some organization started called him ‘The Hebrew Hammer’.” I said, ‘Oh no.’ My mother would be rolling over in her grave if she heard that.” 

“Ryan is proud that people want to claim him now, but where were they before? You know how that stuff works.”

But hold on! It’s not even clear that Braun accused anyone of anti-Semitism! Some of the people to whom he’s supposed to have made the comments have issuedcategorical denials.

And yet, none of that has stopped actual, self-revealing anti-Semites from being just as pleasant as you might expect actual, self-revealing anti-Semites to be.

“Ryan Braun typical sneaky Jew,” tweeted one upstanding sports fan last month. “Of course Ryan Braun took steroids,” wrote another, “he’s a Jew, and last I checked, sports aren’t really their thing.”  And of course: “Bye Ryan Braun, you cheating piece of sh*t. CANT JEW YOUR WAY OUT OF IT THIS TIME.” You can read more (if you really feel the need) by clicking here.

So I don’t know. Was the guy whose unenviable job it is to collect urine an anti-Semite? Did Braun ever say that he was? Does Braun genuinely identify as a Jew, or was he forced into a virtual yarmulke and then despised for it? It’s kind of hard to say at this point.

Here’s what we do know: Braun did, in fact, dope, and then he lied about it, and then he agreed to pay a price for his unassailably awful behavior. And no matter what he did or did not say about the guy who took his pee, actual anti-Semites are a real thing.

It’s been my impression that Catholics have some pretty well-established ideas about lying and cheating and how to address those problems. But if Braun wants to tackle them through the faith of his (Israeli-born!) father, we have a special day coming up on which he can do so. Everyone’s welcome in shul on Yom Kippur.

As for the actual anti-Semites who dumped their repulsiveness on a man they presumed to be Jewish? Some sins are harder to absolve.

Crossposted from Open Zion/The Daily Beast.

Hatred at the Western Wall – not baseless.

Note: The following appeared in Open Zion last Friday.

According to the Hebrew calendar, we’re now in the month of Av, and fast approaching the single most grief-stricken day of the Jewish year. Tisha b’Av (the ninth of Av) begins on Monday next week, the day on which we mourn the destruction of our Temple (twice), as well as a series of other blood-soaked and heartbreaking events which, according to tradition (and in some cases recorded history), all happened on that single, terrible day. We’re taught that the Temple was destroyed (and by extension, Jewish history turned tragic) because of our own ungodly behavior—because of sinat chinam, baseless hatred.

This came to mind for me as I watched the reports out of Jerusalem this week regarding the monthly prayer service conducted by Women of the Wall at the Western Wall. There they stood, these brave women and their male allies, facing the wrath, the spit, the thrown eggs and tossed chairs of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community, right there, at the Kotel, on the very remains of our Temple, the very spot where hatred undid us.

It’s easy for a Jew like me—an egalitarian-minded, Conservative-affiliated, American-Israeli Jew—to see the pictures and read the stories and immediately think: They’re doing what undid us. Those men in their beards and 16th century clothes, those young women bused in from religious institutions all over Israel, those people wielding projectiles and venom—they’re doing that which pulled us apart and scattered us to the nations. How can they not see? How, mere days before Tisha b’Av, can world Jewry not see what they’re doing?

But though I am a woman of faith, I attempt to live that faith in the world as it actually is, not as I would like it to be, and the simple truth is: Those people don’t believe that they’re practicing sinat chinam. They believe, and I’m guessing with all their hearts, that they’re protecting the faith of our fathers from one such as me. That their hatred is not only not-baseless, it is righteous.

“Nazism, Amalekitism, and Reform,” they screamed at their fellow Jews—which is to say: The men in the 16th century garb, the school girls, and whoever stood with them believe that women wearing prayer shawls are like Nazis. Like Amalek, the Biblical evil-doer whose name we are enjoined to “blot out.” And just to complete the picture, they rounded their insult off with the word “Reform”—in their eyes, Reform/non-Orthodox Jews are no better than Nazis. No better than Amalek.

The simple and oft-denied truth is that Jews have not been a unified people since that unfortunate incident with the Golden Calf. We’re not a unified people, because no people is. That’s why religions have reforms and upheavals and breakaways—indeed, that’s why the Talmud looks the way it does. Because people have wildly divergent thoughts about the same ideas.

And that’s also why, in a democracy, we’re not supposed to give one form of religious observance preference over the others—the very thing that Israel has enshrined in law, the very thing that allows ultra-Orthodox protestors to behave so vilely toward women who have come to our most sacred site in order to worship the Holy One.

I don’t hate the people who equate Jews like me and Women of the Wall with Hitler. I don’t want to blot them out. I will not suggest that their Judaism is inauthentic. But I do not doubt that their hate for and fear of me is very, very real, and that their political power gives that hate and fear very real consequences.

As a student of history, I believe that we lost our Temple because we were defeated militarily (this sort of thing happened a lot in Jerusalem, to all kinds of people); as a social scientist, I understand that the odium motivating this week’s protests has a good, solid base. There’s nothing we can do about either of those things, and none of my crunchy-granola angst about tikkun olam will change that.

What other-than-ultra-Orthodox Jews need to do is precisely what Women of the Wall is doing: Claim our space. Take the state to court. Insist that there is no single way to be a Jew, and that no Jew can claim hegemony over that which is holy to us all.

Even as I struggle within my own spiritual practice to learn the lessons of Tisha b’Av and expunge sinat chinam from my own heart, I don’t need the ultra-Orthodox to not-hate me. I need the state of Israel to protect my rights.

Crossposted from Open Zion/The Daily Beast.

Israel: nation state, or ultra-Orthodox synagogue?

Next Thursday is Rosh Chodesh Iyyar, the first day of the month Iyyar according to the Hebrew calendar, and on that day, we can expect to see faithful Jews arrested in Judaism’s most sacred space for having the temerity to pray openly and with our faith’s most holy ritual objects.

Why? Because the Jews in question will be women.

As reported in The Forward’s Sisterhood blog:

In a March 14 letter to Anat Hoffman, chair of Women of the Wall, Yossi Pariente wrote that he met with a deputy attorney general for the government of Israel to go over the rules pertaining to Women of the Wall, which include prohibitions on:

“…Wrapping yourselves in tallitot [prayer shawls], holding a minyan [prayer quorum] of women including the Kaddish [the mourners’ prayer] or Kedusha… and reading from the Torah.”

Pariente warns that, starting on the next Rosh Chodesh, which falls on April 11, Women of the Wall will be arrested and charged with breaking the law for doing any of these things.

“We would like to inform you that, starting on this coming Rosh Chodesh, the Israel Police will fulfill its duty to enforce the law.”

In the Jewish tradition, Rosh Chodesh is closely associated with women’s spirituality, and for the past 15 years, Women of the Wall has held monthly Rosh Chodesh services at the Western Wall because they

not only seek personal fulfillment in group prayer and Torah reading at our most sacred site, but also want to achieve recognition by the legal and religious Israeli establishment of our prayer service for the sake of all Jewish women.

They have often been met with violence, and many have been detained and then released by police, but at the most recent Rosh Chodesh observances, worshippers were largely left to their own devices, because three female Members of Knesset had joined their prayers, and MKs have legal immunity. It’s worth noting that for all these past struggles, Pariente’s most recent letter represents a genuine escalation—arrests and charges, rather than detention, and for the first time, a prohibition on saying Kaddish and Kedusha. Speaking with The Times of Israel, Hoffman said:

“Prohibiting women from saying Kaddish is a shanda [shameful] and brought on solely by the hegemony and short-sightedness” of the Western Wall’s rabbi, Shmuel Rabinowitz.

… Rabinowitz had “without a doubt, crossed a clear red line, as women’s right to say Kaddish is respected and accepted by the entire Jewish world, including Orthodox factions,” she said. Organization sources also said it held United Torah Judaism MK Meir Porush to blame.

What Women of the Wall regularly do and propose to do next week is nothing that women do not do in synagogues across North America. Indeed, it is a limited version of the worship practiced by most Diaspora Jews, because it is still prayer held in segregation from men.

But Israel—the modern nation state that would claim our allegiance, our donations, and our political support—is once again paying from state coffers to strictly enforce religious limitations that reflect the worldview of only a small minority of the world’s Jews, the ultra-Orthodox. Once again, Israel’s government is telling the world’s Jews that they know what Judaism is, and we don’t.

This is not a women’s issue. This is not a social issue. This is not a niche issue. This is a Jewish issue par excellence, and if the Jewish state matters to Diaspora Jews, we all need to say so, men and women alike.

Moses was a jerk, & Passover wouldn’t have happened without five women.

Re-up from a couple years back, but every word (down to “tonight is the start of the second holiday” and “writing about Passover on Easter Sunday”) is true again, so here ye be! This is the kind of stuff I like to think about. I hope you enjoy it, too.


Moses appears to be a bit doubtful that this is going to end well.

It really does seem that every year, Passover goes by faster. One minute I’m hyperventilating over the inhuman amount of cleaning, the next minute I’m all “what, it’s over?” But here we are. Tonight is the start of the second holiday, the one that closes the week, and then boom – it’s back to bread*. What this means for you, dear reader, is that I won’t be posting on Monday (it being a holiday and all) – so instead, here I am on Easter Sunday, writing one more time about Passover.

On the whole Passover dealio, let’s be honest.

Anyone who knows anything about Passover (and is over the age of 10) already knows the main message: Let my people go, freedom from slavery, big-ass crackers instead of fluffy bread for a week, etc and so on. (And by the way, if you’re under the age of 10, you really shouldn’t be reading this blog).

However! There are other messages that emerge from the story, if you poke around and look a little, messages that are also powerful and necessary.

Like the fact that people can change. That even the worst dregs of humanity can turn their lives around — can, perhaps, become heroes.

Like Moses.

Do you know who Moses was before he became the dude who stared Pharaoh down, the great prophet, the redeemer of the Israelites, the fella who got to go up to the mountain and chat with The Holy One Blessed Be He?

He was a confused princeling with anger issues — and a murderer, to boot!

Moses was ultimately raised in Pharaoh’s family, but he was cared for early in life by his biological mother, and he knew he wasn’t really Egyptian. One fine day, he “went out to his kinsfolk and witnessed their labors” — which is to say, there he was, all dressed up in his royal finery, watching the slaves go about their business (survivor’s guilt, anyone?). Seeing an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, Moses did what any of us would do: He turned to his adoptive father and asked that reforms be instituted.

No, no! I kid!

He killed the dude. And hid the body. (Exodus, chapter 2, if you’re wondering).

Discovering the next day that there were witnesses (and I have to ask: How was this a surprise, exactly? Dude was a prince. How exactly did he think he would not be noticed in the act of killing someone?), he runs away to the land of Midian, where he becomes a shepherd, a husband, a father, and a prophet (in that order).

So, to recap: Moses is a murderer. And then he becomes the savior of his people.

We don’t really know what happened to Moses in the intervening years, up until the point where “a long time after that, the king of Egypt died. The Israelites were groaning under the bondage and cried out; and their cry for help from the bondage rose up to God” — but I’m guessing quite a lot. One doesn’t move from life as a prince to life as a shepherd, or abandon murderous anger for hesitant, self-effacing leadership, without undergoing an internal change or two.

But no matter who you are, or who your enemy is, or what that annoying asshole at work or in elective office did or said — there is always room for change. As long as there is life, there remains the possibility for genuine, even earth-shattering redemption.

And I’ll go one further: Sometimes our heroes are the people we most despise.

Sure, Moses is the prophet. Sure, he was the one who turned his life around and saved his people.

But he would never have gotten the chance if it weren’t for Pharaoh’s daughter — the actual child of the evil emperor.

When you read the story of Moses-in-the-bullrushes (Exodus 1), it emerges that five women (I’ll just repeat that: FIVE WOMEN) are the real heroes here:

  1. The two Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, who refused to kill the baby boys despite Pharaoh’s decree
  2. Moses’s biological mother, who hides him at home and then hides him where he might be found and kept alive
  3. Moses’s sister Miriam, who stands watch over him and has the courage to offer her help to Pharaoh’s daughter
  4. Pharaoh’s daughter, who plucks Moses out of his basket, agrees that Miriam should find him a wet-nurse, and then pays Moses’s mother to care for him.

Reading the story, it becomes blindingly obvious that the daughter of Pharaoh — who, let’s just recall, was heinous enough to order the mass murder of infants — knew exactly what she was doing. And that without her, the efforts of the other four women would have been for naught.

She says, straight up: “This must be a Hebrew child.” Then another child, who could only have been equally recognizably Hebrew, pops up out of the bullrushes and offers to find a wet-nurse — and then a wet-nurse is instantly found.

Pharaoh’s daughter had to know — and she went with it. She saved the baby, gave him back to his mother for as long as she could get away with it, and then raised the child as her own.

So on top of the freedom-from-slavery thing (which is, don’t get me wrong, a very, very good message), here’s another message that I get out of Passover:

No one’s life is predetermined. We cannot know what people are capable of, we cannot know who will save us. We cannot even know about ourselves.

We can only open the basket in the reeds. We can only listen to whatever voice of goodness and grace we hear, whether by water’s edge, or while moving sheep from point A to point B. We can only make ourselves available.

And believe that redemption is real.


Though we live in America, we’re Israelis-in-exile, so we observe the holidays in keeping with the customs of Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel), which means a seven-day Passover. Most observant Diaspora Jews keep eight days — that is, through Tuesday.

Fantasy Seder – like Fantasy Football. Only nerdier.

Jon Stewart at a table that is clearly not a Seder Table as there are rolls present.

Jon Stewart at a table that is clearly not a Seder Table as there are rolls present.

Americans have a penchant for making lists and imagining scrupulously constructed alternate realities in which we, the individual Americans, play a central role. Dungeons and Dragons comes to mind, as does Fantasy Football. Not to mention the List of Five popularized by Friends.

Which is the closest I can come to an explanation for the fact that if you were to look closely at the insides of my brain you would find—tucked behind all the other brick-a-bat—my Fantasy Seder List. Because (apparently) being an egghead who likes a good Ottoman joke isn’t quite nerdy enough.

The rules undergirding the Fantasy Seder are as simple as they are few: To make it in the imaginary door, the potential guest has to be 1) Jewish (duh); 2) alive (double duh); and 3) a complete stranger to me (this is why we call it “a fantasy” and not “an actual guest list”).

Jon Stewart.

I figured I should just get that out of the way, because of course Jon Stewart. I’m an American Jew of a decidedly liberal bent with delusions of low-brow intellectualism. Of course Jon Stewart. The only reason he’s not on my List of Five is because I’m afraid I’d fall in love, and then where would my marriage be? Fantasy Seder it is.

And if Jon Stewart, then Adam Sandler. Sandler and Stewart go way back, and it’s always nice when people have friends at a party!

Now, I will confess that there exists a not inconsiderable handful of Sandler movies of which I am… not a fan. But I did like Zohan and Fifty First Dates, and I loved Punch-Drunk Love and Funny People—but more importantly, every time I see him interviewed, I’m impressed with one very simple fact: Adam Sandler is a mensch. It oozes from his pores, you can see it plain as day. I think he’d be ferrying food to the table, and trying to help ease my nerves. And I’d be apologizing awkwardly for admitting in public that I’m not a huge fan of some of his movies, because frankly, that wasn’t very nice of me.

Here the list grows a little more random: Peter Himmelman — semi-obscure rocker with a decades-spanning career, scorer of popular TV shows such as Bones and Men in Trees, Grammy-nominated children’s performer, son-in-law to Bob Dylan (yes, really), and Orthodox-ish. Himmelman is very, very invited. According to one of my favorite radio DJs of all time (Terri Hemmert, WXRT-Chicago, not Jewish, so not invited), he’s a fascinating conversationalist who’s as likely to talk about philosophy and theology as he is about rock n’ roll or his kids. Heck, I’d even have the event catered for him, as I suspect my Conservative Movement kitchen might not be kosher enough.

The Gyllenhaal siblings are also a shoo-in, though I fear I would jibber and jabber—and possibly giggle—over Jake. Given that I presume my husband will also be attending (not to mention Jon Stewart), fingers crossed that I keep that in check. And Maggie—the presence of Jake’s way-too-cool-for-the-likes-of-me sister might also impose a certain respectability. One can only hope.

And oh, oh! Barney Frank! Totally! I would feel not nearly smart enough to talk with him directly, but I would love to her him chatting with, say, Peter Himmelman. Or with Jack Black! Who is, of course, also invited. Can you imagine Barney Frank and Jack Black conversating over the harosest? Dude. To be a fly on that wall!

And you know Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan will have their invitations printed on the good stationary—but I don’t think I’d let them sit next to each other. Or next to Barney Frank. They’d start talking about the other Justices, or get going on DC insider-baseball, and we’d all be like, “What up Elena, Barney, and Ruth Bader? Talk with the rest of the class!” No, we’ll have to scatter the Washington types amongst the entertainers. I’ll make a note.

Finally, Terry Gross. First of all, she knows everything but is utterly charming about it. Second of all, she really, really likes musicals. Third of all, if there’s anyone on earth who could keep a conversation going among such an odd group of weirdly gathered individuals, you know it would be her.

And there’s your minyan! Mind you, my family and I round the number up to 14, which is neither round nor has any meaning in our religious tradition, but whatevs. If I can get Jon, Adam, Peter, Maggie, Jake, Barney, Jack, Elena, Ruth, and Terry to come to my house? I’ll deal with it.

Crossposted from Open Zion/The Daily Beast.

It’s hamantaschen time. You all need my latke recipe.

latkesYes, it’s hamantaschen season (being nearly Purim, and all) and thus not the time for latkes. But there is a lively debate underway on Twitter as regards the relative worth of hamantaschen (three-cornered cookies with [usually] jam filling made in homage to the three-cornered hat said to have been worn by the Purim villan, Haman). (In Hebrew [fun fact!] they’re called oznei Haman, Haman’s ears, and I like that better).

This debate is something of an annual ritual in American Jewish circles, and really, the future of our people depends on all right-thinking Jews understanding the clear superiority of the latke. I mean, really.

HOWEVER – in the course of the Twitter debate, it has become clear to me that some poor souls have never had a decent latke! They have even been referred to as (gasp) “meh hash browns”! o_O

And so I have taken it upon myself to educate the unwashed Jewish masses with the following: my latke recipe. It is the best latke recipe in the world, and I can only take a little bit of credit because though I added one small tweak (flour rather than matza meal), I actually found it somewhere. I just don’t know where anymore, and so in the tradition of great chefs everywhere, I believe I’ll now take all the credit.

Und zo – just in time for your Purim celebrations, I give to you:

THE BEST LATKE RECIPE IN THE WORLD (the trick is in that second step)

2 lbs potatoes (about 8), peel if desired
1 T grated yellow onion
2 lg eggs, beaten
¼ C flour
1 t salt
½ t black pepper
Oil for frying

1.Grate potatoes (by hand or food processor).

2. Place grated potatoes in thin, clean dishcloth. Wring cloth with potatoes over small bowl. Set liquid aside and allow to settle. After a few minutes, discard water, but reserve collected starch.

3. Place drained potatoes in medium bowl. Grate onion into bowl, add onions, eggs, flour, salt, pepper, reserved potato starch, and mix well.

4. Heat oil in heavy skillet over medium flame (should be about 1 inch deep). Use ¼ C of potato mixture per pancake; form pancake with hands, keeping the thickness uniform. Let fry until golden (about 6 minutes), then flip. Keep warm in oven (200 F).

Serve with apple sauce and sour cream. Serves 4-8.

The one book you need to read: The Unmaking of Israel – Gershom Gorenberg

Gershom Gorenberg

Gershom Gorenberg

I am late to this, but The Unmaking of Israel (published 2011) is that one book that you need to read on Israel, if you read no others.

And if you read others, you should still put Unmaking at the top of the pile.

And if you read nothingnothing else?

At least read the first chapter. It’s only 14 pages, and it’s a brilliant little précis of the book’s entire argument.

Plus the book’s short, and honed razor-sharp, and a pleasure to read, to boot. (And look! It’s only $10.94 on Amazon!)

Gorenberg is an American-Israeli like myself, except he stayed. He’s been there for more than 30 years, is Orthodox, lives in Jerusalem, and he’s a very, very good writer — I often recommend his short-form work, and over on the right you’ll see a link to his blog, South Jerusalem. Before I go any further, though, a caveat: I agree with virtually every single word in Unmaking, and the only reason I say “virtually” is because I’m sure there’s some small point that I would have handled differently, because surely there has to be. I just can’t remember which one, just now.

So it’s possible that part of why I recommend this book so highly is simply because it is such a relief to read something that to me feels like the very finest of common sense. But even so, having gotten that out of the way: It’s a great book, with an excellent summary of Israeli history that manages the supposedly impossible task of respecting the Palestinian narrative as well right in that first chapter, and you really should read it.

Gorenberg’s bottom-line point is this: The settlements, and everything that led up to and is flowing from the settlements, is pulling apart the positive good that is Israel, and has been so doing since 1967 — and it’s not just Israel that’s suffering, but Judaism itself.

The trends I’ve introduced here did not grow out of one carefully premeditated policy. Some resulted from ignoring commonsense warnings about long-term rule of another people. Some are the completely unintended consequences of seemingly safe decisions, or of choices made to solve immediate problems. Many are the product of continuing to sanctify values that made sense before 1948, when Jews were seeking self-determination — and that make no sense in an independent state.

There’s an essential chapter about the utter lawlessness of the entire settlement enterprise — even by Israeli legal standards — and Gorenberg very clearly lays out the dangers of allowing a particular ideological group rise to the top of the military in a democratic state (especially when that group openly opposes government policy), as well as the danger in fostering the flowering of an entire sub-society, the ultra-Orthodox, that rejects the secular state, contributes nothing to it and consciously fails to prepare its children to ever contribute to it, all while depending on that state for its livelihood.

In his concluding chapter, Gorenberg writes:

For Israel to establish itself again as a liberal democracy, it must make three changes. First, it must end the settlement enterprise, end the occupation, and find a peaceful way to partition the land between the Jordan and the Mediterranean. Second, it must divorce state and synagogue — freeing the state from clericalism, and religion from the state. Third and most basically, it must graduate from being an ethnic movement to being a democratic state in which all citizens enjoy equality.

As someone who focuses almost exclusively on Gorenberg’s three-part #1, I must say I got a little bit of a frisson in my Israel-loving heart when I realized that hey now, he’s about to say that ending the occupation/settlements is not the be-all, end-all! Because of course it’s not. It’s the first, prerequisite step, but then there are these other messes that we’ll have to clean up.

In those final pages, Gorenberg presents a very, very reasonable plan (a series of very, very reasonable plans) to essentially save Israel from itself, and perhaps the greatest disagreement we have is in tone — merely by laying these things out, Gorenberg suggests their possibility, and I have become so disheartened that I have a hard time believing anymore in those possibilities. I would venture that Gorenberg probably has his bad days, too, though.

And even if it never happens, I believe there’s value in marking the place and saying “This is what might have been.”

At any rate: If you read nothing else about Israel, read Gershom Corenberg’s The Unmaking of Israel.

(And happy new year!)