Monthly Archives: October 2011

The Shalit Conundrum . . . Or Opportunity

By Leigh Nusbaum

When Gilad Shalit was kidnapped more than five years ago, I was almost 17 years old and en route to Israel for the first time. I still remember how the situation deteriorated even further that summer. Now he is free, at home in a country and a world far different than five years before.

Personally, I am thrilled that Shalit is coming home alive and at least somewhat well. I also realize that the cost at which he was freed presents both problems and opportunities for Israel and the Palestinians.

As for conundrums, Israel has come into conflict with some of its own core values with Shalit’s release. Israel, as well as the IDF, is known for two tenets. One, they never leave a soldier behind. In fact, soldiers in training have to perform the “stretcher march” in which they carry one of their heaviest comrades up hills and down valleys, just to drive home this point of never leaving a man behind. The second tenet is that Israel never negotiates with terrorists. Despite Avigdor Lieberman’s public threat to collaborate with the Kurdistan Workers Party, this too, is almost always upheld, but history has given us exceptions. The case of never leaving a fellow soldier behind, even if behind enemy lines, is one of them.

Israel has freed 13,509 people in exchange for 16 soldiers. That’s an average of 844.31 people per soldier. For Shalit alone, 1,027 prisoners were freed, some of them served life sentences for murder. This idea of never leaving a soldier behind, while noble, opens up a very dangerous situation for Israel. Now, every Israeli soldier is a target and can be used to generate ransom for any terrorist group. I don’t have an answer or suggestion as to whether or not Israel should change its policy, but it does merit some concern.

It is particularly fitting that this exchange happened near Simchat Torah, where we read the end of Deuteronomy and begin again with Genesis. Gilad Shalit’s freedom has the potential to become a symbolic “reset” button on the peace process and Israel’s image in the world. As of late, both the process and Israel’s image have been tarnished. Even if Israel has had successful military campaigns, it is losing the PR campaign in a huge, huge way. Israel’s current popularity or respect within the world today pales in comparison to 2006. For that matter, I don’t remember hearing about “Israel Apartheid Week” five years ago. Now, it’s commonplace.

With the release of the prisoners that can change Israel’s image, not to a state that acquiesces to terrorism, but one that is truly committed to peace. You see, as much as it may be clear to Jews who support Israel that peace is the route to long term stability and survival, many don’t see it that way. If Israel is continually forgiving, such as returning prisoners, even dangerous ones, it decreases global criticism of the Jewish state. Additionally, I would argue that Shalit’s return conjures up memories of the “1990s” Israel and of some one like Yitzhak Rabin, who was so committed to peace that he paid the ultimate sacrifice for it. That’s the Israel that showed through Shalit’s release, and if Israel wants to survive 30 to 40 years from now, that Israel needs to remain.

Time is running out. With the upheaval of the Arab Spring, the deterioration of ties with Turkey, Abbas’s submission to the U.N. for Palestinian Statehood, Israel’s window to achieve an end to this conflict, especially in the form of the two-state solution, is closing because fewer and fewer people are okay with what they perceive as stubbornness and belligerence on the side of Israel. Merely writing this off as delegitimization only closes the window faster. Celebrating a success like Gilad Shalit coming home is a perfect excuse to restart the talks between Palestinians, even if it means freezing the settlements. After all, as Hillel once said, “If not now, when?”

A Very Jewish Halloween

by Sala Levin

Hey, Bette Midler's Jewish, too!

Halloween approacheth, and with it the opportunity to impress your friends with the wittiness and originality of your costume. Or–if you’re like this blogger–the opportunity to take a look in your closet, decide you’re not nearly clever enough for this particular holiday, and celebrate instead with reruns of Hocus Pocus and a pumpkin beer.

But don’t despair yet, costume-less readers, because, when it comes to Halloween, we take our cues from Theodor Herzl: If you will it, it is no dream. So with that determination in mind, here are some last-minute costume ideas inspired by news about Jews. (Because, really, what is Halloween if not secular Purim?)

  • The Bluth Family: Pop-culture snobs rejoiced when Mitchell Hurwitz, creator of the late, much-lauded Arrested Development, announced earlier this month that the television show would likely return to airwaves for new episodes and even a movie. So grab some friends, stash some bananas in the freezer before Monday night and dress up as the gotta-be-Jewish Bluths (or as most-certainly-Jewish cast members David Cross, Jeffrey Tambor and Jessica Walter).
  • Tavi Gevinson: We admit it: We will never be as cool as Tavi, and, well, we’re jealous. When we wear crocheted cardigans and patterned leggings we look like Nana circa 1983; Tavi does it and she gets introduced to Karl Lagerfeld (not to mention a profile in The New Yorker). The Jewish 15-year-old fashion blogger from the Chicago suburbs even found biblical fashion inspiration in her bat mitzvah: “The Nazirites wore just enough to keep them warm.” But did they wear sweaters with balls of fluff? We may never know, but we’re willing to bet Nana has one of those hiding in her closet somewhere; she might be willing to part with it for a night.
  • Natalie Portman’s baby: Little Aleph broke the hearts of Jewish men and their mothers everywhere when he was born in June. Tiny tutus and black feathers are essential for this costume.
  • Anthony Weiner: Wear gray boxer-briefs and carry an iPhone. Poor decision-making optional, but encouraged.
  • John Galliano: Paint on a thin mustache, wear a gray hat, smoke cigarettes and keep alcohol consumption to a minimum. Try not to tell people how you feel about Hitler.
  • Hipster Henry Kissinger: Because you already own the glasses.

Left-leaning, But Not Left Behind

by Erica Shaps

I am not a rabbinical student. My talit was made in Israel and I recently celebrated my 20th birthday in Jerusalem, not Ramallah. I am not a card-carrying member of J Street. Although I do not fit the descriptions in Rabbi Daniel Gordis’s anecdotes, I strongly identify as a “young liberal American Jew” similar to those he has written about with increasing alarm and fear.

I have deep respect for Gordis, and have read his work fairly regularly since I was fifteen. However, I find his recent articles about rabbinical students’ relationship with Israel and, by extension, my generations’ shifting attitudes regarding Israel, to be shortsighted and concerning.

In a lengthy piece in Commentary, Gordis expresses trepidation regarding rabbinical students’ Israeli politics and what this may mean for the future. He poses the question, “Are Young Jews Turning On Israel?” I share his concern for the future of Jewish leadership and the wider community. However, my primary concern is not an abundance of future rabbis criticizing Israel from the pulpit. Instead, I am concerned about a day when they are indifferent toward Israel.

From my experience, many active liberal Jews in my generation experience a moment of epiphany in which they realize Israel isn’t perfect. Often, they respond with one of three broad reactions: They become completely apathetic to Israel; they join anti-Zionist organizations or become active in movements like the BDS effort; or, to use Gordis’s terms, they work to reconcile their inclination toward universalism with their desire to maintain particularism toward the Jewish people. They try to create a world and an Israel that is better than the one they inherited. This final category likely includes many of the rabbinical students in the Jewish Theological Seminary’s recent and fascinating survey, which was largely prompted by Gordis’ article. Ninety-four percent of both current and former students polled “feel Zionist.” When asked about specific groups, 58% of students said they favorably viewed J Street, a left-leaning Zionist organization that Gordis has criticized. Meanwhile, AIPAC, the largest and most established Israel lobby, was viewed favorably by only 42%.

In his latest article, Gordis still feels that rabbinical students are sacrificing Zionism for liberalism. I can’t comment on his claims regarding the survey’s validity, but I am frustrated by his analysis of its results. Maybe rabbinical schools should review their Israel education programs. My question is, what should this new curriculum include: Materials from diverse perspectives? Or should students simply re-learn the narrative from Hebrew school that failed to quench their thirst for knowledge years ago?

My greatest concern is Gordis’s claim that “responding to this challenge… will be a matter of admissions.” If I understand this correctly, it pains me to think of how many bright and passionate young Jews may be turned away by such a policy. As a member of the laity, I want a rabbi who thinks critically about everything–including Israel.

All of the reasons Gordis gives for this phenomenon (a commitment to universalism over particularism and naivete among them) point to faults within the rabbinical students. However, is it possible that the problem lies within Israel’s policies as well? Could it be that the current Israeli government’s actions, or lack thereof, and not the students’ naivete and universalism, are the catalyst for this notable shift in attitude?

If I could offer Gordis and his contemporaries some advice, I’d say this: We are not turning on Israel, so don’t turn on us. By all means, disagree with us, but please don’t push us away. Let’s talk openly and equally, without predetermined conclusions. If rabbinical students say they are Zionists, don’t tell them that they identified themselves incorrectly because of where they celebrated their birthday or what organizations they might support.

Gordis is right to say that “memory is the first factor.” My generation didn’t witness the 1967 war. Israel has been occupying another people for the entire duration of our lives. We have repeatedly witnessed Israel enact policies that further work against its long-term interest. For better or worse, these events are cemented in our memories.

Unlike my grandparents, I cannot see Israel as a mythic utopia out of a Leon Uris novel. After spending four months studying and volunteering here, I see Israel as a complicated and dynamic country that is my spiritual home, the epicenter of my culture and the eternal homeland of my people. It is a place that brings out the best in me. I do not love Israel less than my parents and grandparents: I love Israel differently. I’m sure many of the rabbinical students in question would express similar sentiments.

 

Auslander in the Attic

by Sala Levin

The Holocaust, as Michael Scott so wisely taught us, is one thing we just can’t joke about. (Scott’s other taboos? JFK and AIDS, though the Lincoln assassination was only recently crossed off that list.) But Shalom Auslander, well, bless him, he’s trying. The angry writer behind Foreskin’s Lament recently released a series of book trailers (entitled “The Attic Calls”) for his forthcoming novel, Hope: A Tragedy. In the trailers, Auslander pleads with fellow Semite Ira Glass and friends-of-the-Jews Sarah Vowell and John Hodgman to shelter him and his family if–let’s be real, in Auslander’s mind  it’s when–there’s another Holocaust.

Auslander isn’t the first Jewish writer to wade into the world of book trailers: Last year, Gary Shteyngart released a hilarious trailer featuring everyone’s favorite post-graduate-degree-collecting Jewish dreamboat James Franco and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Jeffrey Eugenides. But Shteyngart only mocked himself; Auslander goes a step further, probing the perceived Jewish proclivity for pathos and pessimism. Another Holocaust is on its way, Auslander says–so make plans now.

So can the Holocaust be funny? Well, the trailers are. (In one notably absurd moment, Glass suggests that, should the need arise, his family and Auslander’s can buy a house boat and “moor somewhere off of the Florida Keys for a few years.”) Jews, after all, have a long tradition of turning tragedy into comedy, of finding levity in a seemingly endless line of sorrows. And the target of Auslander’s biting humor in these trailers isn’t really the Holocaust. In one scene that perhaps perfectly encapsulates much of the Jewish experience, Auslander and his family play in the woods during a rainstorm; he pushes his children on a tire swing and his dogs frolic as drops of water pound down on them. This is the point: It rains, and we play. What alternative is there?

Editor’s Note: Want a chance for Shalom Auslander to read your writing? Send in your submissions for Moment’s 2011 Memoir Contest, to be judged by, well, you guessed it, Shalom Auslander. Deadline is December 31st; find out more here.

Israeli Holidays: Reaching New Highs

by Erica Shaps

While I gaped at my surroundings with shock and wonder, my Yom Kippur hosts smiled at me with amusement and understanding. Since they moved to Israel decades ago, the vacant highways and main roads filled with strolling figures clad in white, children learning to ride shiny new bicycles, and teens racing skateboards up and down Haifa’s steep hills were taken for granted. For me, though, the scene looked like some form of post-apocalyptic utopia. It was a mesmerizing and moving sight, a true embodiment of the “Jewish and democratic” state ideal.

As I reflect on my first Yom Kippur in Israel, I realize that it also serves as an obvious visual representation of the contrast between American and Israeli Judaism. It is not uncommon to hear platitudes about the differences between Israeli and American Judaism: In Israel, there is a drastic divide between secular and religious, which is mostly seen as synonymous with Orthodox Judaism. In the States, we are quick to categorize ourselves within the frameworks of Orthodox , Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative and Renewal Judaism. American Judaism is limited by lack of infrastructure, knowledge, funds and commitment. Israeli Judaism suffers from the controlling nature of a radically conservative Rabbinate and a lack of egalitarian and progressive options for those who may want them. That these gross generalizations pervade our cultures illustrates the divide.

The subtler distinctions, the kinds that can only truly be understood by witnessing them, are more important, presenting valuable learning opportunities for Americans and Israelis. At no time was this more apparent to me than over the High Holidays.

I am guilty of thinking of Jewish religious diversity in terms of the denominational spectrum. While this may be fairly accurate in the United States, the paradigm falls short of fully describing Judaism in Israel. During Rosh Hashanah and the following Shabbat, I had the opportunity to attend four different services. Though three out of four would be considered Orthodox, they were quite different from each other, suggesting that the religious community in Israel is not nearly as monolithic as we here in the States might believe it to be. One service met in a schoolroom filled with patio chairs. One was in a beautiful community center’s designated prayer space. One kept an orderly structure and tempo; another was completely organic and filled with spontaneous singing and dancing. Opportunities for women to participate varied greatly at each of the four minyanim. These differences do not even begin to touch upon the ethnic and cultural differences among traditionally Sephardic, Mizrahi and Ashkenazi congregations.

In addition, over the course of the High Holidays I felt completely welcomed and embraced, an experience that is not always replicated stateside. At all four of my Rosh Hashanah locations, as well as at the Haifa synagogue I attended for Yom Kippur, no one asked me for a ticket or any form of proof that I belonged. Although I had never been to the synagogue in Haifa before, I was offered an honor. I didn’t feel at all uncomfortable or unwelcome even though I was not a paying member.

Finally, the High Holidays in Israel are never a spectator sport. Although I love the booming voice of a hazzan and the graceful melodies of a choir, I sometimes find it too easy to sit back and listen to the prayers as if I were at a concert. This is not the case in Israel. Various community members led services with interesting and creative tunes. Participants sang loudly and passionately along with the leader, sometimes even getting up to dance. During announcements, seated participants called out events, stories or invitations. To varying degrees, each of the five services I attended felt natural, informal, and designed to foster participation.

I do not believe American and Israeli Judaism can, or should, look identical; each culture has its unique advantages and challenges. But that doesn’t mean that the differences between the two societies and their Jewish practices should not be explored and discussed. We can all improve by viewing our strengths and weakness through the lens of a society that is different from our own.  Israelis can learn from the generally unproblematic coexistence of various denominations in American Judaism,  and American Jews can learn from the the unrefined, active and welcoming quality of many services in Israel. In the New Year, I hope global Jewish communities can find opportunities for meaningful interactions with increased frequency, grow together, and be stronger for our efforts.

Losing (and Finding) My Religion

by Maddie Ulanow

It’s always interesting when, on a particular Friday night, we get a new high turnout of students for the weekly Shabbat services – and only about half of them are Jewish.

It would be higher, but some of the regular Jewish attendees are skipping out for the Buddhist meditation.

A 2009 Pew Research poll revealed that 44 percent of American adults no longer identify with their childhood religion; of those who still do, nine percent changed or questioned their faith at some point. Fifteen percent of the Protestants surveyed now identify with a different Protestant faith, and nine percent of the Catholics surveyed are either unaffiliated or Protestant. Nine percent of the Christians surveyed converted to a different religion altogether, one of the options of which includes Judaism.

What is it that makes a change in religion so attractive? And what is it that brings people to, and conversely turns them away, from Judaism? What is it that lures a curious outsider to simply observe a Friday night service, and what is it that leads to a more in-depth inner exploration on the subject?

People pull away from the religions of their birth for a variety of personal reasons, whether it be disagreement with the doctrine, difficulty in observing customs, perceiving ridicule because of it, or simple lack of identification. How, then, do they find a new religion, should they find one at all?

The Buddhist meditation, at least on college campuses full of religion majors, curious freshmen and a diverse student body is often extremely popular among those not originally of Buddhist faith. It offers something new and exotic, and has a reputation for bringing about a peace of mind. Similarly, the Hindu holy book readings may draw a number of interested students. Catholics attend Jewish services and tap into something of their own religion’s past; Jews attend Muslim services and delight in drawing parallels; students, and to a larger extent all of us of all faiths, can explore all religions and find it enriches our own. In relation to Judaism–a  religion once exiled and ostracized–our services and rituals are now a subject of curiosity to the interested outsider, and the number of non-Jews attending Jewish services are increasing.

Why, you might ask, would anyone give up a Friday night or Saturday morning if they didn’t have to, and if they had no clue what was going on? I know I wouldn’t. One factor might be the increasing rate of intermarriage; 54 percent of American Jews today marry non-Jews, and 33 percent of currently wed couples are intermarried.  With these kinds of numbers, congregations, not just on diverse college campuses but across America, must make shifts to accommodate unfamiliar but eager new participants.

Some use prayer books with both English translations and transliterations, so those with a good ear for tune but no knowledge of Hebrew can still sing along, and understand what they’re praying for. Rabbis might stop between prayers for explanations which benefit not just non-Jews, but the Jews in attendance as well. An interesting tidbit from a recent service I attended was that the “lai-la-lai” and “bum-ba-dum” verses of multiple prayers and songs emerged from the peasants of Eastern Europe, Jews who didn’t necessarily know all the words or meanings but wanted to raise their voices in prayer nonetheless. It opens up a path to spirituality and participation to those the eager people who seek it, even curious outsiders exploring the religion for the first time.

We would hope that other religions offer these subtle, welcoming opportunities to Jews as well – and they do. In a diverse society such as ours where more people than ever are questioning and exploring, especially in the area of new faiths and ideas, pursuit of different religions is a natural outcome. Learning about another religion can help enrich our own, and in turn, teaching someone about Judaism is mutually beneficial. This holiday season, perhaps an attempt to learn something new, and also teach something new, would grant an important new insight for an exciting new year.

Yom Kippur, Israel and Turkey

By Leigh Nusbaum

There is a saying in my High Holy Day siddur, the Gates of Repentance, that says, “For transgressions against God, the Day of Atonement atones; but for transgressions of one human being against another, the Day of Atonement does not atone until they have made peace with one another.”

This sentence always unnerves me when I hear it. I feel as though I have not received that clean slate that I am supposed to possess upon breaking my fast, that my name’s inscription in the Book of Life is still in question the moment after the Ni’lah service is over.

My own personal fears aside, I do wonder what went through the minds of Israel’s political leaders this Yom Kippur if they heard this line as well, particularly when it comes to the issue of Turkey.

For someone who has visited Israel three times in the last five years and has spent the past summer living and working in Istanbul, I find the breakdown in relations between Turkey and Israel both distressing and disturbing. Eyal Peretz, the head of the Arkadas (Turkish for friend) Association, an Israel-Turkish cultural center in Israel, puts it best, “I’ve seen how a warm relationship has been erased in one fell swoop. It’s very painful, very frustrating.”

The expulsion of Israel’s ambassador to Turkey is the most recent chapter in a disappointing saga that has been several years in the making. In 2009, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan issued a harsh public criticism of Operation Cast Lead, a three-week invasion of the Gaza Strip, at the World Economic Forum, saying to President Shimon Peres, “When it comes to killing, you know well how to kill.”

A year later was Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon’s “controversial behavior” towards the Turkish ambassador to Israel in 2010, when he stated to Israeli television cameras, “The important thing is that people see that he’s low and we’re high and that there is no flag here.” Ayalon apologized after.

Most notably, later that year, six ships, including the Turkish ship, Mavi Marmara, attempted to run the Israeli blockade in order to deliver humanitarian supplies to residents of the Gaza Strip. In response, Israeli marines boarded the ship and in the ensuing fight, nine activists were killed—eight Turkish, and one American of Turkish descent. Turkey demanded an apology; Israel refused.

The breakdown in relations between Turkey and Israel, relations that have existed since 1949, will not help either country in the long run. Though Erdogan has in many ways become a hero for the Arab Street and a well-liked leader within his borders, his inflamed statements will hurt Turkey’s EU accession talks, particularly since Israel has increased ties with Cyprus, a country whose northern half is occupied by Turkey and is set to inherit the EU’s rotating presidency in 2012. Turkey and Cyprus have their own share of problems, given that Turkey occupies Cyprus’s northern half. As long as Turkey attacks Israel on the global stage, Israel and Cyprus, will likely grow closer due to their mutual respective rows with Turkey, and likely impede Turkey’s EU aspirations. If relations were to improve between Ankara and Jerusalem, however, Israel could have a chance at helping mediate and eliminate the dispute between Turkey and Cyprus, since Israel and Cyrpus have had strong bilateral relations since the 1990s. Solving the conflict between Turkey and Cyprus would clear one of Turkey’s major roadblocks to EU accession.

Still, Turkey is not alone in this problem. Israel’s continued stubbornness to resolve their relations with Ankara holds potent risks as well. Israel has damaged a relationship with one of the largest Muslim majority countries in the world, a country that at one point not only had decent relations with Israel, but countries like Syria, Lebanon and Iran. While Netanyahu has stated that he does not want Ankara to mediate any future negotiations between Israel and Syria, repairing the Turkish-Israeli relationship makes Turkey uniquely suited to mediate between Syria and Israel more than the United States. Though Israel has no influence on Syria domestically or internationally, Turkey does. Even if Assad is removed from power, Turkey, who like Israel shares a border with Syria, will still have influence on the Arab Republic, especially if the Sunni majority takes over Damascus. Additionally, Turkey would be ideal in relieving the tensions between Israel and Lebanon and even Israel and Iran.

I am not advocating who is right or who is wrong—I am just encouraging both sides to talk. Now is not the time of brinkmanship be it an increased Turkish naval presence in international waters or Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman threatening to openly negotiate with the Kurdistan Workers Party or PKK (The PKK is recognized by the United States as a foreign terror organization). Openly trying to destabilize the other country not only decreases respect for Turkey and Israel on the international stage, but it is also a waste of time and money for both. Talking and airing out grievances between one another leads to making peace. Making peace will erase the blemish on an otherwise successful relationship that has lasted over sixty years.