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.

A Jewish New Year Resolution: Scaling Back Our Use of the “D” Word

By Leigh Nusbaum

This is not a salvo—this is a challenge.

This past year, both Jewish and secular, has been an incredible conundrum for Jews in Israel and the Diaspora. From the Arab Spring, to the breakdown of relations with Turkey, to the global recession, to the Palestinian bid for statehood—we find ourselves fumbling for some sense of stability. While some of us grope in the proverbial dark, others of us find a crutch to lean on. When it comes to Israel, I’d argue that the crutch is the “D-word”—delegitimization.

To “delegitimize” has traditionally meant to diminish the authority of, but recently this word, as well as the new buzzword “delegitimization,” have come into vogue when discussing Israel. In this new context, the word has taken on a new meaning—to hurt the legitimacy of an authority, usually a government, either in the eyes of its supporters or others. Overuse of the “D-words” is not a healthy habit to pursue.

The overuse of these terms reminds me of one of Aesop’s Fables, “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.” I am not referring to the boy’s lies to the townspeople, but to when he truly saw the wolf, and no one in the village came to his aid. If we label every small act or criticism that doesn’t fall in line with current Israeli policy as “delegitimizing the State of Israel,” such as criticizing settlements in the West Bank,” we run the risk of that call falling on deaf ears in the future, when delegitimization may become a very real danger.

What bothers me most is the immediate leap to label any criticism from the Jewish and Zionist Left as another example of “delegitimizing Israel.” I don’t say this because I am active in J Street as opposed to AIPAC, nor because I could start the argument that criticism is merely tough love. I say it because snuffing out any debate by invoking “delegitimization” goes against our tradition. For centuries, rabbis have debated how to interpret the Talmud and the Torah. Our tradition prides itself on great thinkers such as the Rambam, the Baal Shem Tov, The Rav, Heschel and Baeck. All of them spent their lives thinking and debating their peers. If they were put in a room together, I doubt any subject would be taboo, unlike the way many view the debate on Israel. As the saying goes, “two Jews, three opinions.” Why should we go against one of the very foundations of our tradition?

Moreover, flippantly declaring a comment as “delegitimizing” is not only an ineffective rebuttal—it is lazy. It means that the arguer did not take the time to adequately arm herself with the necessary evidence to parry her opponent’s point. Even so, laziness is not the only danger. The overuse of the word “delegitimize” hurts the overall pro-Israel argument because it potentially narrows the support base for a Jewish state. It can drive away potential supporters, both non-Jewish and Jewish, because their ideas don’t fall in line with a certain viewpoint. Fewer and fewer of these potential supporters have the victories of 1967 and 1973 or Camp David in their minds; more and more remember Lebanon, Olso, the Intifadas and Gaza. How can we expect their support if we brush away their questions? Additionally, the overuse of the word may cause it to lose meaning. Will we be able to discern what does delegitimize Israel and what doesn’t in ten years? Will the world believe us when we argue the point?

A great example of the danger of overuse is the word “Nazi,” though it still connotes hate within the Jewish community. It can now mean anything from an anti-Semite who believes in Aryan supremacy to a disagreeable person, such as the infamous “Soup Nazi” in Seinfeld who screams “No soup for you!” when annoyed by customers. With the overuse of the word Nazi in American life, does it necessarily connote the image of Hitler or murderous SS? I’m not so sure anymore.

That said, we should not stop using the word completely. There are very real attempts to diminish Israel’s legitimacy. Denying the Holocaust, launching missiles from Lebanon and Gaza suicide bombings and the murder of a young settler family are real attempts at delegitimization. These attacks destabilize both Israel’s ability to protect her country and citizens and hurts the region as a whole, particularly since Israel’s reaction, no matter how measured, has been met with condemnation. Similarly, not condemning the arson of a mosque in Galilee or Rabbi Yitzhak Shapiro, who writes in his new book, “It is permissible to kill the Righteous among Nations even if they are not responsible for the threatening situation,” is dangerously delegitimizing to Israel, because it further inflames longstanding biases against Jews. Prime Minister Netanyahu agreed, saying, “the incident contradicts the values of the State of Israel—such as freedom of religion and freedom of worship.” Despite these major issues of clear “delegitimization,” engaging in healthy discussion about the future of Israel, including debate over the legality of settlements or mending relations with Turkey, does not merit that label.

So my wish for you in this near year of 5772, other than being inscribed in the Book of Life for the next year, is to minimize your use of the “D-words.” Instead, do your research, learn about and discuss differing opinions. If you like Alan Dershowitz, read Jeremy Ben Ami, too. If you like Peter Beinart, read Dennis Ross, as well. This year, engage in a different “D-word”—debate.

Last day to send in your Elephant in the Room essays!

Today is the deadline to submit your entry for the Elephant in the Room contest. Many voices have already joined the conversation, but it’s still not complete. Have a different perspective on the question than the ones you’ve seen here? We want to hear it. Here are a few more excerpts to get you started:

“To be Jewish without God means to be able to say ‘I’m Jewish and . . .,’ not ‘I’m Jewish but . . .’ It means I am able to affirmatively state what I do believe and not define myself in contradistinction to what others believe. No sheepish apologies, or defensive postures are offered as I do not need to explain what I do not believe in order to be Jewish.  I am Jewish and I believe in the power and authority of human beings over their own lives.  I am Jewish and I believe that it is incumbent on each generation of Jews to make Judaism personally meaningful.”

– Jodi Kornfeld

“Without our faith, we Jews are nothing. The Holocaust, support for Israel, bagels and lox, and Yiddish expressions cannot maintain a healthy Jewish people.   Without a strong belief in God, standards break down, and society deteriorates.  As the Talmudic scholar Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz so aptly states, ‘Judaism without belief in God is like believing in humanity without human beings.’”

“…To be Jewish means not only to believe in God, but to practice His will: to follow and observe Shabbat, kashrut, prayer, family purity, and all the ethical or moral commandments.”

– Franklin Snyder

“I spent a good long time feeling lonely.  Homeless.  A Jew without God is a Jew without community.”

 “Here is where my Jewish ambivalence peeks out of the burning bushes; I am a self-professed atheist, yet I can’t stomach the thought of my children growing up without their cultural heritage. … This is a heavy burden to carry for twenty years.”

“There are others like me.  Most of them live in New York, not Kentucky.  I am still lonely without a congregation.  I am still riddled with guilt.  And I still don’t have answers for my children.”

– Amy Miller

“Being Jewish without belief in God did not thwart my life-long dream – that of becoming a rabbi. As a Humanistic rabbi, I am able to bring those who, in abandoning the belief in a supernatural deity and no longer willing to say words that they did not believe, felt that Judaism was lost to them. I am enriched by knowing that having a viable alternative brings them back home, into the Jewish community.  Being Jewish without believing in God has not hindered my continuous engagement in Judaism. I have raised my children, celebrated Jewish holidays and marked life’s moments within a Jewish context, consistent with my beliefs, and allowed me to guide others to do the same.”

– Miriam Jerris

“I believe my role as a Jewish mother is to instill in my children a strong sense of Judaism as part of  their personal identities.  I believe I have succeeded because at 4 and 6 they cheer for Shabbat, ask when Sunday School is, know our Humanistic rituals and sing to the Maccabeats on YouTube.”

– Alison Chalom

Neither of my grandparents made it through the war with an intact belief in God, though both of them came from religious families … Still, though neither of my grandparents ever expressed a belief in a supernatural power, both of them showed through their actions what they did believe: that it’s our job to take care of one another; that there is beauty in humanity, in the relationships that we make and the way we treat our fellow men; that ethical behavior exists even without the threat of punishment from an angry God; that there is much to laugh about and much to rejoice; and that even though sometimes terrible things do happen, sometimes there is beauty and kindness, as well.”

– Elana Arnold

It’s All About Culture: The Elephant in the Room

Many writers approached the Elephant in the Room contest by discussing Jewish culture, both as a social and legal community:

“What [Maimonides’s] list did was ensure that, whether we believe in God or not, God would remain a central element in the Jewish experience. Law, ethics, traditions are all there as topics to sort out. But God, and  our belief in God, is at the head of the line of Things To Sort Out … Some Jews (and Jewish movements) may ascribe to a lack of belief in God, but that hasn’t gotten them off the hook of needing to address (and sometimes debate) their position.”

“What we do personally with any aspect of faith … is a deeply personal response. What we can’t do is will it … out of existence. We can’t behave as if it’s not a tenet of our collective tradition at all. We named our people in the purest moment of truth and insight. We are the people Yisrael. We struggle/wrestle/contend with The Divine.”

“Can someone be Jewish and not believe in God? Of course.
Can someone be Jewish and not ever talk about God? Probably not.”

– Leon Adato

“It must be recognized that religion is a major element of a culture, and so we may choose to adopt a broad or a narrow definition of what religion is.  A functional definition of religion is that it performs several important functions: enunciating and reinforcing ethical values, providing a close community, celebrating life-cycle events, offering occasions that are inspiring or inspirational (spiritual?), giving us a sense of roots in a culture, and imparting all of these things to our children.  The remaining function is worship; and minus worship, all of the other functions can fill a need for “Godless” Jews whose integrity demands that they say what they believe and believe what they say.”

– Jane Goldhamer

“It was around halfway through college that I adopted a different view of Judaism. It wasn’t belief, that wasn’t commanded. It wasn’t observance, that was only needed to be a “good Jew”. It was identity, simple as that. The concept of god isn’t even an intrinsic part of Judaism. Look at the ten commandments. The first commandment is to not hold any gods in higher regard than the god of the bible. The second is not to worship idols. All atheists have those down by default. It’s identifying as part of a group. Look at the ten commandments again. Those were handed from god to Moses to the Jewish people. That means there were Jews before we had the bible and all the laws that came with it. That alone seems enough to show that Judaism is first and foremost a community. Within that community there is a subset of religion but it cuts off a lot of shared social history to only accept that one facet of the tribe.”

– Adam Pober

“To be Jewish one needs grit. Judaism is the culture of my grandmother – who could nearly murder with a stare. It is the culture of the comedians – quick, biting. It is the culture of the intellectuals – wry, probing. It is millennia of tradition – weighty, deep.”

“Most Jews I know are comfortable with yelling, with banter, with hair-splitting of Talmudic proportions. Most Jews I know express their deepest selves. Most Jews I know give in to the power of their own emotions with a certain frequency. We can make ourselves depressed because we are critical, insightful, and aware. But we find ways to laugh at the perfect insanity that characterizes our busy and modern lives. We delight in chutzpah, irony, and beauty. We love passionately. To be Jewish is to embrace this world, this life.”

–          Denise Handlarski

“At Sunday school we learned about the six points of the Jewish star as a way to describe Judaism’s six elements. One of those elements is belief. … The other five points are history, language, culture, values and rituals.”

“Jewish culture is based around one thing … food. … If you think about it, the way you know that there’s a Jewish celebration is there’s food and dancing.”

“Being Jewish  for me isn’t just about pleasing a higher power but rejoicing in one’s self and having a community of people who care about you who can hold you up when you fall and vice versa. Judaism is a key to learning and if I wasn’t an atheist Jew I wouldn’t be who I am today.”

– Libby Otto

“In my experience, two kinds of Jews dominate conventional thinking about God. Bagel Jews … are Jews whose identity is expressed through Woody Allen films, smoked meat sandwiches, and an occasional Israel trip for an obligatory Dead-Sea-floating postcard shot. … The second group, Torah Jews, are by turns respected for being “keepers of the faith” so the rest of us can drive to the mall on Saturday, and sometimes resented for being overly fundamentalist in their Judaic practice.”

“But there’s a third group that we ignore at our collective peril. This is a group that I call ‘minding-the-gap Jews.’ These are Jews for whom God is not a concept that speaks to them. They may even call themselves atheists. But at the same time, ‘mind-the-gap Jews’ desire Jewish literacy, communal connection, and even rich Judaic ritual practice.”

“My mind-the-gap Jewishness means that I am aware of living in the contradiction between lacking a personal God concept and serving as a public vessel through which my community can worship, and serving as a lay leader attempting to shape a synagogue community in nourishing directions.”

– Mira Sucharov