The Real Jewish Future

Kudos to the UJA-Federation of New York for completing a Jewish population study. I was sorely disappointed by the failure of the Jewish Federations of North America to complete a nation Jewish population study in 2010, and I’m delighted that the NY Federation has done its own regional study. The findings, on the other hand, are grim.

Most of the press around the study has focused on the significant increase in Orthodox population and poverty, and the continuing decline of Conservative and Reform Jews. All the usual reactions: The Orthodox are sad and smug at the same time, the Conservative and Reform are concerned and bewildered, and the Just Jewish continue to think nothing is wrong – whether because they’ve found a wonderful Judaism outside the bounds of the Big 3 denominations, or because they are indifferent to Jewish life.

But here’s what we should be paying attention to: Non-Orthodox Jews are marrying later or not at all, and they are having fewer or no children. Folks, that’s the ball game. Would non-Orthodox synagogues be fading if families had three or four children instead of one or two? Each additional child adds a few more years of synagogue membership, and a few more years of living a synagogue lifestyle – the kind that might end up lasting a lifetime. And that’s just synagogues.

Young Jews joke about it all the time – that the Jewish community is only interested in them getting married and having babies. And yet, I’d argue that our message has been much more ambivalent. We’ve encouraged our children to get married later and later, after education, after career, after multiple lovers and after living with a significant other. And I fear we’ve made a terrible mistake.

Too many Jewish young adults spend their 20s in an extended adolescence simply because they can. It’s time we remembered that taking on the responsibilities of marriage and family is part of what it means to grow up, not what comes after you’ve grown up.


Electoral Reform and Israel’s New Coalition

PM Benjamin Netanyahu (Likkud) and opposition leader Shaul Mofaz (Kadima) announced a last-minute coalition agreement that will push off Israel’s elections for as much as another 18 months. The new coalition, with over 90 seats, more than 75% of the total seats in Knesset, is Israel’s largest coalition in decades.

Immediate reactions have focused on Mofaz’s 180-degree turnaround on joining a Netanyahu-led government, what this might mean for Israel’s stand on Iran, and on the reality that the upcoming election, now delayed, was going to cost Kadima as many as 14 of their 28 seats. The coalition agreement puts Kadima in charge of reforming the Tal law that has long exempted Hareidi Jews from military service, and in charge of renewed engagement with the peace process. That Kadima was charged with both of these quagmires is also a topic of interest.

Yet it is another aspect of the agreement that caught my attention. Mofaz explained that Likud and Kadima have agreed to reform the electoral system, and that this was his “dayenu” condition – that just this agreement would have been sufficient to lure him into the governing coalition.

The details of the proposed reform are not yet clear, but indications are that they will include regional representation for half of the Knesset seats. Parties will also have to win at least 3% of the popular vote to gain seats in Knesset, up from the previous threshold of 2%.

How will those reforms actually play out? Raising the threshold means that the smallest party that can sit the Knesset will be four seats. Three parties in the current Knesset are smaller than that. But how will regional representation actually work? How will parties choose which candidates should compete in local races and which should be placed on the national list? Will voters now vote twice, once for their local representative and once for a party? Geographical representation tends to favor concentrated populations who can guarantee the election of a candidate from their district. This seems to benefit settlers, Hareidim and Arab parties, whose populations are concentrated in relatively few areas. The emerging logic of Israel’s representational map and districting will unfold in unpredictable ways. Nevertheless, the idea of electing MKs to the Knesset in two vastly different ways reminds me of a joke: One day, the British decide to change over and drive on the right side of the road. After a period of study, a committee of bureaucrats and experts agree that the change should be phased in, starting with only the trucks.

The last time Israel engaged in major electoral reform it was to provide for direct elections of the Prime Minister, starting with the election of 1996. That ill-conceived reform shattered the power of the major parties, as ticket-splitters voted for a mainstream candidate for Prime Minister and a special-interest party for Knesset. Even after the reversal of that reform, the large parties have not fully recovered, and no party in Israel command as much as 25% of the total seats. Will this new reform bring greater stability, or a new set of unexpected consequences? Will there even be any reform at all?

Others Connect the Holocaust and Pesach

eJewishPhilanthropy has an op-ed from Rabbi Benjamin Berger,senior educator at the Ohio State University Hillel who used the Hagadah and seder format to teach about the Holocaust.

The activation of memory rather than the telling of history is the next component of the seder that make it a unique educational experience. Memory is personal and like the exodus, the Holocaust demands that we personally live as if we were there, even if for a moment.



Pesach and the Holocaust

I am convinced that in the future, we will commemorate the Holocaust as part of our Pesach celebration. At first glance, Pesach and the Holocaust seem entirely unrelated. The Holocaust was the most tragic Jewish experience in two millenia, while Pesach is the archetypal redemption. Yet Pesach is also the most appropriate place to call to mind moments of slavery and oppression. The Freedom Seders and the cries of Let my people go!” of the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry were themselves ignited by the Eichmann trial of 1961. The struggle for the liberation of Russian Jews was ignited by greater awareness of the Holocaust (and the passivity, ineffectiveness, and sometime complicity of Jewish communal leadership in that tragedy), and these activists took Passover and Exodus as the central motif of their struggle. Since that time, the Seder has become a main stage for expressions of solidarity and protest of oppression, and many rituals have been invented to highlight these causes. Miriam’s Cup, adding an orange to the seder plate, or a potato, or coffee beans symbolize the struggles for women’s rights, GLBTQ rights, the Ethiopian exodus, and the ongoing challenge of forced labor around the world. African-Americans have also embraced both the language of Exodus and the ritual of the Seder to commemorate their cultural history of bondage, liberation and ongoing struggle.

There are two dynamics we can consider: how the story of Exodus and its language has been appropriated, reinterpreted and deployed for one, and how the Seder and Passover itself has evolved, and see a convergence. Passover and its themes has been adapted to stand for moments of great triumph that are nonetheless followed by painful, slow and ongoing struggle. Passover is the incomplete redemption, and the call for renewed activism to overcome oppression. Is that the story of the Holocaust?

In Exodus 13:18, the Jews are described as leaving Egypt and heading to the desert:

יח  וַיַּסֵּב אֱלֹהִים אֶת-הָעָם דֶּרֶךְ הַמִּדְבָּר, יַם-סוּף; וַחֲמֻשִׁים עָלוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם. 18 But God led the people about, by the way of the wilderness by the Red Sea; and the children of Israel went up armed out of the land of Egypt.

The word chamushim, translated as armed, is an unusual word, and its similarity to chamesh, five, birthed an infamous midrash that claims that only one-fifth of the Israelites actually came out of Egypt. The rest has perished there. What follows in our tradition is a flurry of arguments, apologia, interpretations and ponderings on this strange and difficult midrash. But I think the matter can be understood simply. For hundreds of years, the Israelites had been enslaved in bitter conditions. Babies were drowned in the Nile, while men and women performed back-breaking labor under the whips of cruel taskmasters. The bondage in Egypt was the first Holocaust, and Pharaoh’s intentions were as genocidal as Hitler’s (though Pharaoh was more comfortable with the notion of Israelite assimilation into the Egyptian race).

With the Passover story so many years in our past, it is difficult to truly evoke the horrors of Egyptian slavery, especially in the face of the mighty redemption by a revealed God that follows. Yet the Hagaddah does its best to bring to light the full measure of depravity that was the Egyptian bondage. The Hagaddah interprets every word of the verses describing the cruelty of the Egyptian slavery, and expands upon it. If we fail to bring the evils of slavery fully to life, the failure is not in our seders, but in ourselves. And that’s where I find the Holocaust. Millions of Jews were killed, and not just during the war. Christian Europe was a Mitzrayim – a Metzarim – a strait and narrow place for the Jews. Over the course of nearly 1000 years, from the earliest pogroms committed during the First Crusade, Jews lived in bondage and oppression. The liberation of the concentration camps and the repudiation of anti-Semitism as a legitimate government policy flowered into statehood in Israel and the breaking down of barriers to Jewish advancement and freedom in the US and elsewhere.

This Pesach, I encourage you to view Pesach expansively. Our most recent bondage lasted for nearly a thousand years. And our Exodus from Europe did not happen all in one moment, nor did we all go to the same place.But for us, the Holocaust was just the final intensification of a long period of exile – exile not from a land or a country, but exile from membership in the human race. Our redemption was not a journey to one geographical region, but a journey from the ghettos,the shteltls, and the margins of human history and society to the very center of world culture. Judaism was once again relevant, vibrant, honored, and appreciated. It may take more time for the scars of the Holocaust to fade, so that we can see it in the larger context of our history and our narrative, but those scars will fade, and this new vision of exile and redemption will take the stage at the Seder, on Pesach.

Chag Kasher v’sameach to everyone

Purim and the Holocaust

If you’re never sorry
Then you can’t be forgiven
If you’re not forgiven
Then you can’t be forgotten
If you’re not forgotten
Then you must live forever
If you live forever
You cannot be reborn

Pound of FleshRegina Spektor

I was lucky enough to catch Regina Spektor perform recently, thanks to a generous friend and colleague who invited me. The convert was terrific, the cause (HIAS) important, but these words have crowded out nearly every other memory from my mind.

Purim celebrates the victory of Mordechai and Esther over Haman, and the victory of the Jews over Amalek, our ancient nemesis. On the Shabbat prior to Purim, we read Parshat Zachor, a brief set of verses from Deuteronomy 25 commanding us to recall our first encounter with Amalek:

יז  זָכוֹר, אֵת אֲשֶׁר-עָשָׂה לְךָ עֲמָלֵק, בַּדֶּרֶךְ, בְּצֵאתְכֶם מִמִּצְרָיִם.

יח  אֲשֶׁר קָרְךָ בַּדֶּרֶךְ, וַיְזַנֵּב בְּךָ כָּל-הַנֶּחֱשָׁלִים אַחֲרֶיךָ–וְאַתָּה, עָיֵף וְיָגֵעַ; וְלֹא יָרֵא, אֱלֹהִים.

יט  וְהָיָה בְּהָנִיחַ יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לְךָ מִכָּל-אֹיְבֶיךָ מִסָּבִיב, בָּאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר יְהוָה-אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לְךָ נַחֲלָה לְרִשְׁתָּהּ–תִּמְחֶה אֶת-זֵכֶר עֲמָלֵק, מִתַּחַת הַשָּׁמָיִם; לֹא, תִּשְׁכָּח.

17 Remember what Amalek did unto thee by the way as ye came forth out of Egypt;

18 how he met thee by the way, and smote the hindmost of thee, all that were enfeebled in thy rear, when thou wast faint and weary; and he feared not God.

19 Therefore it shall be, when the LORD thy God hath given thee rest from all thine enemies round about, in the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee for an inheritance to possess it, that thou shalt blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven; thou shalt not forget.

Even as a child, I remember confronting the paradox of being commanded to remember what Amalek did on the one hand, and to blot out all remembrance of Amalek on the other hand… and to not forget to blot out Amalek’s memory. And then I listen to Regina Spektor, and I feel like she’s solved the mystery. Amalek can never be forgotten because Amalek is the evil that will not apologize or seek forgiveness. Amalek achieves eternal notoriety, and in a sense lives forever, but is forever unable to be reborn, to be redeemed. Jews will always remember to blot out Amalek, and they will never forget.

Zachor. Remember. Never forget. I know these words. I know them from another context. Not Purim, but the Holocaust. And now I’m confused. Hitler and the Nazis are the only historical people to widely be considered Amalek. Not in a racial, genealogical way, but in the fashion of rich Jewish irony, by explicitly rejecting racial descent as a requirement for being Amalek. And even though the Amalek label has been applied to others in Jewish history, like the Romans, it hasn’t stuck to anyone quite like it has for the Nazis.

It’s a weird thing, to have Amalek crop up in our language again, in relation to the Holocaust. Though our original battle with Amalek was difficult, the Purim story presents an overwhelming victory over Amalek. No Jews are harmed in the making of this miracle. No casualties in battle, no slaves who never saw redemption – just the opposite, Jews were elevated to positions of greater authority, they wre feared by their enemies, and many non-Jews converted (As per the Megillah, anyway).

Purim is a Jewish fantasy, a flight of wish-fulfillment. Even without God’s overt presence, everything just goes the Jews’ way. It’s a daydream that an exilic Jew might have about how God is still looking out for us, and how our greatest enemies, those who harbor us ill will for no reason other than being Jews, will be defeated. Purim is the idyll, but the Holocaust (and the pogroms, and inquisitions, and all the troubles of the Exile) is the reality.

So how should we relate to our struggle against the enemies of our own day? Are we like Moses, Aaron and Hur, trying to keep arms raised to the heavens, trying to invoke God’s will? Do we take up the sword like Joshua and wage a war of attrition, suffering casualties and slowly, by force and by blood eke out small victories? Or is Mordechai’s realpolitik tinged with religious certainty the correct path? I’m not sure, but I look forward to Purim, and to enjoying the beautiful daydream.

I wanted to comment on Scott Perlo in the Jewish Journal

But when I blew past the 700-word limit, I figured I could just post here. By the way, JewishJournal, if you have a word limit, let me know about it up front, not when I click to submit.

Anyway, Rabbi Perlo’s piece suggests that we’ve had a failure of leadership in articulating and disseminating a vision for Israel’s importance. I agree with him that our discourse has become stale, and revolves around left-right politics and a post-Holocaust justification for Israel’s existence. We certainly do need to reformulate the Zionist project, and with it, the Diaspora-Israel relationship. Where I part with Perlo is that he believes that Rabbi David Hartman may have hit on such a formulation. In Perlo’s summation of Hartman,

Israel is the grand experiment of Judaism. It is important, critical, because it is the only place where the totality of the religious, cultural, political and social ideas of Judaism and Jews are expressed through a body politic. Israel is the only place in the world where Judaism is the civilization, and the ideals we claim to hold apply to a living country. For this reason, if for no other, Israel is of central importance to anyone who loves Judaism.

In Rabbi Hartman’s formulation, Israel is Judaism’s grand experiment, and as appealing as that claim is, it has no support. Secular Israelis continue to be alienated from and hostile towards Judaism. Liberal Jewish movements haven’t had much success in convincing Israelis otherwise. Many of the ultra-Orthodox reject the legitimacy of the state, or at least deny its religious validity. And the religious Zionists have placed the Land of Israel above the State of Israel in their thinking.

The idea of the State as an entity where Jews govern themselves was once a powerful organizing principle. Today it is a tired reality, and a fragmented reality at that. Governing the Palestinians for forty years is one aspect of the problem, but even within Israel proper, the role of non-Jewish minorities poses questions as yet unanswered about the Jewish character of the state. American Judaism’s struggle for recognition, respect, and freedom of worship has deflated the positive feelings of American’s most talented young Jewish leadership towards Israel. And as Israel’s power has grown to regional super-power status, both Israelis and Americans are less willing to give Israel a free pass to use security concerns to justify any course of action.

Why is Israel important? The question itself is outrageous. Millions of people live in Israel, under Israeli rule. Some are members of our tribe, some are our coreligionists, some are ideological fellows. And some are none of these. Israel is another human effort to create a just, happy, and productive society, springing from Jewish thought, culture, and heritage. The question we need to pose is not why Israel is important, but what values should Israel commit itself to, and how should it express those values. In America we value, freedom, democracy, and economic opportunity. Do we value the same in Israel? Should we? If not, how do we explain why our values in Israel are different? Those are questions we have elided for too long, questions that young people are not hearing answers for, and ultimately, questions that we are not too sure of ourselves.

We Interrupt the Holocaust to Bring You…

A chilling story about an Arab man sentenced to 18 months in prison by and Israeli court for rape of a Jewish woman because he posed as a Jewish bachelor interested in a serious relationship. The court ruled that the consent of the woman to have sex was obtained under false pretenses, and therefore the sex was non-consensual.

Let’s put that in plan English. In Israel, only Jewish men are allowed to lie to get a woman into bed. An Arab man doing the same is a rapist. I wonder how this applies in other situations. Let’s say the man was a Christian? What if he said he was Jewish, but it turns out he had a reform conversion? What if only his father was Jewish, not his mother? What if he was a Mischlinge of the second degree? What if he said he owned a villa in the south of France, when in fact the villa was more centrally located? What if that wasn’t his real hair? What if that story about her college roommate wasn’t the most interesting story he’d ever heard?

Maybe this isn’t an interruption of the Holocaust series, maybe this is a reflection of how the racial policies of Nazi Germany have left a deep mark on the Israeli pysche. The court’s argument doesn’t hold any water, legally speaking. There is no legal duty of honesty in dating, as we well understand. Rather, what the court did was establish a racist principle as Israeli law: that an Arab must declare his racial identity or risk prosecution for otherwise legal acts. Let’s say that a Jew sold an Arab posing as a Jew some land. Could that Arab now be charged with theft, because the Jew would not have sold him the land if he knew the buyer was an Arab? At what point do you just have Arab citizens sew yellow crescents onto their clothes, so that Jews will know for sure to treat them differently?

When my wife heard the story she said “I’m so ashamed of being a Jew right now.” I responded “I’m fine with being a Jew, I’m ashamed of being an Israeli.”

Yom HaShoah and Tisha B’Av

In 1951, the Israeli government declared Yom HaShoah u’Mered HaGetaot (Holocaust and Ghetto Uprisings Day) to occur on the 27th of Nissan. Many know the story by now: The Israeli government, and many Israeli survivors of the ghettos and partisan groups, desired to commemorate the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising that began on the 14th of Nissan. However, because of the conflict with Passover, the date was delayed by two weeks. Nevertheless, the Orthodox community objected to creating a day of mourning during the joyous month of Nissan. They had previously suggested the 10th of Tevet, a day of mourning that was part of the mourning cycle for the destruction of Jerusalem. Another option was Tisha B’Av, for which Hareid rabbis had written Holocaust kinnot (elegies and mournful poems). Many countries adopted different days for Holocaust commemoration, with January 27th being the most popular by far thanks to its adoption in 2005 by the UN and EU.

For some, the question about when to commemorate the Holocaust deals with the halachic feasibility of establishing a new and perennial day of mourning, the standing of the secular state and its holiday, and the related issues of liturgy and ceremony. For me, the questions go deeper, and I think they emerge out of a central tension: is the Holocaust a singular event in Jewish history that may only be understood on its own terms, or is the Holocaust part of the larger sweep of the tragedy of exile?

There are many arguments for the first position. Elie Wiesel and Claude Lanzmann (director of the critically acclaimed documentary Shoah) are only among the most famous to stake the claim that the Holocaust is fundamentally a rupture with time, history, and civilization. It creates its own apocalyptic world and is bounded by a “ring of fire”, per Lanzmann, that cannot be crossed. The Holocaust has no lessons to teach, in this view, other than the depths of man’s cruelty. The only responses to the Holocaust are revulsion, horror, mourning, and remembrance. No pre-existing day of mourning can encompass this unique tragedy so a day must be set aside to visit this dark place and commune with the deepest emotions and memories that it stirs.

Although I am deeply moved by the Holocaust, I don’t think I agree with the above position. I believe that in the historical moment of memory – that is, in that period of time when eye-witnesses of an event remain – an event like the Holocaust takes on an exceptionalist character. Its survivors attain an unassailable moral stature in our eyes, and the events themselves are a touchstone in their lives that colors everything. In this, events that actually happened become, as they recede in time, larger-than-life, even as those who lived them bear witness to the utter reality that these events were life-sized. In time, as memory turns into history, much that was forbidden to think or to say will be permitted and required if the Holocaust is to remain relevant.

Commemorating the Holocaust as part of Tisha B’Av gives the events an eternally relevant context. As the most recent and well-documented of the tragedies memorialized on this day it provides us with visual memory and intimate contact with the horror, brutality and absence of meaning that mark all of human suffering, and particularly Jewish suffering. The Holocaust gives us access to pogroms, to inquisitions, to blood libels, expulsions, and even to the distant destruction of our Temples and homeland thousands of years ago. But in return, we acknowledge that the Holocaust is not primary in the canon of lamentations. Always first is the destruction of the Temples. The scroll we read will always be Eichah, not Megillat HaShoah. The day will always have a religious character, not a historical one, which means that it will be tied to a notion of repentance, and an understanding of the cause of evil as sin. It will assume God and struggle over His role, rather than present the question of Evil, ot be struggled with anew each year.

I don’t accept the Holocaust as suspended in air, emerging fully-formed from its own head, exceptional and ahistorical. But I also deny that it can be shoehorned into pre-existing tragedy. I certainly reject the triumphalist “out of the ashes” notion that the Holocaust and the founding of Israel are a continuity. Yom HaShoah is its own day, but it needs to be moored to Jewish history and tradition through fasting, prayer, ritual, and ceremony. As of yet, Yom HaShoah’s observance has not felt, at least to me, as authentically and deeply Jewish as I need it to be. That’s why for me, Tisha B’Av will remain a day of Holocaust remembrance.

Tisha B’Av and the Holocaust

Over the next few days I’m going to write about Tisha B’Av from various perspectives. For those of you who have read my previous pieces in 2008 and 2009, you’ll probably recognize similar themes. This year though, I will focus on the Holocaust as my primary lens for looking at Tisha B’Av.

A couple of months ago, I read Avraham Burg’s poignant and painful book, The Holocaust is Over, We Must Rise from its Ashes. The book echoed my sentiments that the Holocaust as currently understood and as currently intertwined in the Zionist narrative was unhealthy for the continued development of the Jewish people in Israel and in the Diaspora. Burg cited liberally from Hannah Arendt’s controversial report on the Eichmann trials, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, so I read that too. Arendt’s focus on the complicity and passivity of Jewish victims made her book difficult to read, but her point that the Holocaust was not unfathomable and incomprehensible rang true. To confirm her point, I looked to Raul Hilberg’s masterwork, The Destruction of the European Jews. Though Hilberg corroborates Arendt’s points, his work occasioned much less debate.

Spending my leisure reading in this dark period has been really strange. Engaging in the Holocaust not to memorialize, but to understand and analyze, has been refreshing and invigorating. Rather than pulling on a solemn face and grave attitude, as we typically do when confronting the Holocaust, I looked forward to it. I read about the Holocaust on the train and on the subway, and in bed before I went to sleep. For me, a grandchild of survivors and child of Sabras, it was my first encounter with the Holocaust outside of its religious, nationalist or personal dimensions. This was an exploration of the Holocaust as a historical phenomenon, free, for the moment, of the need to position it within a broader narrative that could give it meaning, or that could exceptionalize it, and place it outside the realm of meaning. I tried to simply learn what happened, and how it happened, holding everything else in abeyance.

At a certain point, I’m not sure when, an idea began to take shape though. I guess you can only live in that place of suspended judgment for so long. I started to sense the shadow of Tisha B’Av creeping closer, and I began to contextualize my reading around that. I had some idea that I would use this reading experience to write, and that it would culminate on Tisha B’Av – even though I never saw that as the day for Holocaust remembrance. But once that idea took hold, another interesting thing happened. I began to grow more aware of the mourning practices of the Three Weeks and the Nine Days – the lead-up to Tisha B’Av itself. The rituals I chose to observe took on greater meaning, even as my confusion over the relationship between the Holocaust and Tisha B’Av grew.

Over the next few days, I’ll try and cover some interesting ground, starting with Yom HaShoah and Tisha B’Av, and moving on to questions of Israeli and Diaspora narratives, and the changing nature of Holocaust remembrance, as we shift from preserving memory to teaching history, and as we escort our last living survivors to their final rest. I welcome your comments and feedback.