by Sala Levin
Jerusalem's Old City (tripadvisor.com)
Matt Gross went to Jerusalem, and all he got was this lousy set of tefillin.
This, more or less, was the takeaway from Gross’s piece in the New York Times this Sunday, in which the paper’s former Frugal Traveler took on the holiest city in the world. He says at the outset: “Of all the world’s roughly 200 nations, there was only one…that I had absolutely zero interest in ever visiting: Israel.” Well, okay. Naive assumptions led me to believe that travel writers didn’t have a blacklist, and it seems deliberately petulant for even a self-described “deeply secular Jew” to disavow any interest in the Jewish state. But hey, better late than never, and Gross was on his way now.
Gross, understandably, focuses primarily on the Old City, the hotspot of holy landmarks. He visits the Luthern Church of the Redeemer, awed by its “impossibly elegant” architecture and “transported” by the no-frills prayer service. When it comes to Jewish culture, Gross admires the Hurva Synagogue, but is put off by a Californian rabbi who tries to convince him to put on tefillin. “I could be persuaded to try again,” Gross writes, but the rabbi fails his test, leaving Gross underwhelmed. “I couldn’t find my way into the believers’ world,” he writes.
Is it a surprise to anyone that a rabbi peddling tefillin didn’t leave Gross with lasting enlightenment? Anyone who has encountered these rabbis knows that it’s not a spiritual experience–it’s a sales pitch. If Gross expected a revelation, he was bound for disappointment. But even Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum, doesn’t seem to have much meaning for Gross. Mostly, he writes, he is “terrified that I’d come across the identity card of a long-lost relative or the photo of someone I somehow recognized.” Why terrified? Maybe a murdered relative would have forced Gross out of his complacency, his hands-off attitude toward Israel, his misguided belief that somehow he is free to desist from the task of understanding the role of the Jewish national homeland in today’s world. It’s an irresponsible position, one unbefitting a man whose job it is to travel, a tasks that demands curiosity and openness–even to our own history, even when we would rather avoid it.
By Symi Rom-Rymer
A picture is worth a thousand words, so goes the old cliché. But as Alana Newhouse’s recently published New York Times article on Roman Vishniac demonstrates, what that picture is actually saying is often more complicated than it seems.
Her piece focuses on Vishniac’s “A Vanished World,” a pictorial representation of pre-World War II Jewish life in Eastern Europe. Or at least, that’s how it was marketed and sold. But through Newhouse’s piece, we come to learn that the photos used in the book showed only one part (the poor and the religious) of that world. They did not, as Vishniac claimed, represent the totality of shtetl life. Instead, these photos were taken so that the Joint Distribution Committee–a committee that worked on behalf of impoverished and persecuted Jews around the world–could fund-raise. Continue reading
By Symi Rom-Rymer
The New York Times recently published a piece recently about a former Polish neo-Nazi who discovered his Jewish roots as an adult and is now ultra-Orthodox. As he acknowledges in the article, “he was drawn to extremes.”
Pawel’s (now Pinchas’) story is certainly engrossing. Not only do we learn that he has Jewish roots, but that his grandparents, who are still living, are Jewish and hid their religion from him so that he would not exposed to anti-Semitism. Moreover, his wife (also a former skinhead), also comes from a Jewish family and both of their families are from the same Jewish community. His journey from skinhead to Orthodox Jew, then, tells both his personal story as well as that of contemporary Poland and how truly intertwined Jewish and Polish communities are just below the surface. Continue reading
By Caroline Kessler
I’ve realized that the world of writing about all things Jewish is small—or perhaps the powerful juggernaut that is the Internet just makes it feel that way. Case in point: the “hey-there-are-Jews-even-in-the-backwoods” piece in the New York Times that people can’t seem to stop talking about: the wide-eyed take on a bomb-sniffing dog that only understands Hebrew, but is trapped in the flatlands of Montana. This piece has been ripped apart in more places than I want to count (but did, as I put off my final exams).
So, in the spirit of tackling Jewish issues before the rest of the snarkier, faster blogging world gets to them, I want to point out another “relevant” piece in our favorite New York paper. Slightly hidden in their ‘N.Y. / Region’ section (that I can’t imagine many people outside of the region actually look at), I found this gem: “In a Manhattan Classroom, Judaism Meets the Facts of Life.”
Interestingly, Tablet’s blog, The Scroll tackled the issue of sex education in Orthodox Jewish schools a few days ago, albeit the focus was Israeli schools. The Times article focuses mainly on Rabbi Haskel Lookstein who teaches at the Ramaz High School on the Upper East Side. There were several quotes from previously anxious students, now relaxed and even excited by the idea of talking about sex with a rabbi who’s pushing eighty. Continue reading
By Michelle Albert
These days, to have a truly memorable bar mitzvah, it has to be somewhere special. Like jail.
According to the New York Times, New York City’s Department of Investigation is pursuing an inquiry into how an inmate held in a jail in Lower Manhattan could have arranged a bar mitzvah party for his son last year. The party, held in the gymnasium of the Manhattan Detention Complex, featuring Orthodox singer Yaakov Shwekey as the night’s entertainment, boasted 60 guests and lasted six hours. It seems a good time was had by all.
The problem, according to the City, is that the party featured real silverware, including metal knives (not allowed in jail), and that the guests brought their cellphones with them (also not allowed). The city is also flummoxed at how Tuvia Stern, the inmate who planned the shindig, could have pulled it off. Rabbi Glanz, a chaplain for the New York Department of Corrections, was suspended from duty. Peter Curico, the Corrections Department bureau chief of facility operations, retired.
Though the party was against the rules, it was something the bar mitzvah boy will never forget. Who else in New York has had a bar mitzvah that caused both the Department of Corrections and Mayor Bloomberg to get involved? Apparently, there is such a thing as too much fun.