“Am I Gentile? Am I a Jewess? Both and neither. What am I? I am what I am.”
Israel has produced several fabulous television series in recent years, perhaps especially those which depict fictional lives of religious Jews. These include the iconic Srugim, which tracks the Friends-like relationships between a group of single friends navigating the South Jerusalem “national religious” dating scene. The entertaining, if somewhat melodramatic, Kathmandu follows the legitimately exciting lives of a Chabad couple living and working in Nepal. Shtisel, both hysterically funny and understated, set a new bar for subtlety and depth in exploring the dynamics of a rather dysfunctional but wholly endearing hasidic-haredi family in Jerusalem.
Shababnikim, one of the latest additions to the mix, is a slickly produced and fast-paced series that chronicles the adventures, both external and internal, of four twenty-something denizens of an elite haredi yeshiva in Jerusalem. The aesthetics, four studs sauntering off to some irrelevant destination with the backdrop of a throbbing rock soundtrack, recalls the HBO series Entourage. The substance spans the gamut from romantic comedy to profound observations about Judaism, the relationship between the religious and secular worlds, and what it means to be a man. In other words, it’s the kind of series that could only exist in present-day Israel, and it’s the invention of a talented religious graduate of the Ma’aleh film school named Eliran Malka.
“For Cecil B. DeMille,the revelation at Sinai was a purely solitary affair. Charlton Heston’s Moses ascends the mountain on an individual spiritual quest; he hears the Ten Commandments as the Israelites are preparing to worship the golden calf. The scene certainly captures part of the biblical narrative, but it ignores entirely the collective and communal aspect of the moment, as well as the tension between the people’s desire for direct knowledge of God and their quite correct fear of what such knowledge entails. It also ignores the all-important prelude to the revelation: the covenant between God and Israel, for which Moses is nothing more than a go-between.”
One way of telling the story of rabbinic Judaism is to say that it was born in a conversation between Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai and the Roman general Vespasian, in the shadow of a besieged Jerusalem. Rabbi Yochanan had feigned death in order to be smuggled out of the walled city in a coffin despite the opposition of the Jewish zealots, who were not interested in negotiations with the enemy. Vespasian, impressed by Rabbi Yochanan’s bravery and his prediction that Vespasian would eventually become emperor of Rome, asked him what he wanted. Rabbi Yochanan’s famous answer was “give me Yavneh and its [Torah] sages,” thus establishing a center of Jewish learning independent of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Rabbi Yochanan’s foresight transformed the brick-and-mortar reality of a Temple-centered Judaism into the port- able diaspora-ready religion with which we are familiar, and thus granted a powerful second wind to a Jewish nation that might have been otherwise brought to its knees by Roman oppression.
Dara Horn’s mind- bending new novel, Eternal Life, takes place from the perspective of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai’s heretofore unknown mother Rachel. Rachel embodies a gruelingly literal interpretation of Rabbi Yochanan’s lofty project. Like a Judaism that endures beyond destruction, Rachel cannot die because of a vow she took at the Temple in order to save an ailing Yochanan. With the Temple’s destruction she is left in this liminal state, along with her lover, Elazar ben Haninah, the son of the high priest and the child’s real father. The novel, and Rachel and Elazar’s occasionally intersecting lives, span the centuries between Second Temple Jerusalem and modern-day New York…
If the first chapters of Genesis explore the universal origins of humanity, this week’s Torah reading of Lekh l’kha (Genesis 12-17) turns to a more particularistic narrative. Beginning with God’s command to Abraham to uproot himself from his father’s home and travel to an unknown land, it caps the command with a divine promise:
I will make of you a great nation,
And I will bless you;
I will make your name great.
And you shall be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you
And curse him that curses you;
And all the families of the earth
Shall bless themselves by you.
To this, God adds: “I will assign this land to your offspring.”
But there is one problem: Abraham and his wife Sarah are unable to have children.
Thus, the very beginning of the Jewish people’s existence is framed within the context of marriage and of marital discontent. If Sarah can’t conceive, the fulfillment of God’s promise is in jeopardy. Both Abraham and Sarah must struggle to reconcile that promise with their immediate reality. Although they will ultimately overcome this and other tests of faith, Sarah’s conduct in particular has been subjected to censure in both traditional and more modern Jewish sources.
Genesis famously offers two “versions” of Adam and Eve’s creation. The first, in the first chapter of Genesis, is a broad overview: “And God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.”
The second chapter of Genesis presents a more detailed narrative: God forms the man Adam from the dust of the earth (adama), Adam dwells in Eden for a bit, and then God proclaims that “It is not good for man to be alone; I will make a fitting helper for him.” Afterward, God borrows a rib from Adam when he is sleeping, which he fashions into a woman. This act has profound symbolic significance, which Adam himself relates in a kind of poetic mode: “This one at last/ Is bone of my bones/And flesh of my flesh./This one shall be called Woman (isha)/For from man (ish) was she taken.”
In examining the verses of both creation stories, we learn important lessons about not only the origins of human beings and our relationship to our creator, but also about what marriage should involve.
Embracing Genesis’ messages about marriage may require departing from certain sacred cows of modern Western life. But Genesis suggests that the tradeoff is worth it. Here’s my take on it:
This review appeared in the Fall issue of Jewish Action Magazine
The Israeli writer Shmuel Yosef Agnon, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1966, authored works of modern Hebrew literature that are steeped in the language of the Torah and hundreds of years of Eastern European Jewish history and tradition. His stories, set in his Galician hometown of Buczacz, transport the reader into the vibrant world of Polish Jewry before World War II. There are probably few readers outside of the Orthodox Jewish community who have the cultural literacy necessary to recognize many of the Jewish allusions in Agnon’s stories. Yet Agnon’s works have not made the deep inroads into the Orthodox world that one might imagine they would.
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The monarchy begins twice.
This week’s Torah reading of Shoftim (Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9) concerns itself, more than any other, with political matters. It begins with the commandment to appoint “judges and officers in all your gates,” and ends with the laws of war. As is true throughout Deuteronomy, many of the precepts found in Shoftimare repetitions or elaborations of injunctions from previous books of the Torah. But one passage stands out both for its significance and for its novelty:
If, after you have entered the land that the Lord your God has assigned to you, and taken possession of it and settled in it, you decide, “I will set a king over me, as do all the neighboring nations,” you shall surely set a king over yourself, one chosen by the Lord your God.
Most surprising about this verse is its ambiguity: is appointing a king a requirement, or simply an option? And that’s not all: to the modern Western reader, accustomed to constitutions, the setup appears counterintuitive. One would have thought the Torah would prescribe a particular regime, and that the people would have some say regarding who, exactly, should rule. Instead, the people are to choose the form of government—evidently a monarchy—but the monarch himself is chosen by God…
The full article may be read at Mosaic Magazine
In the Summer 2017 issue of the Jewish Review of Books, I review The Wedding Plan, the latest from Israeli filmmaker Rama Burshtein.
Born in New York and raised in Israel, Burshtein currently lives with her family among a small cluster of Hasidic families in the predominantly secular Tel Aviv. Early in her career, she worked in the ultra-Orthodox cottage industry of films made by and for women, but when Fill the Void came out she crossed over to the international film festival and art house cinema scene, without losing touch with her initial audience. It was possible to enjoy Fill the Void as the tale of an unexpected love story amid tragic circumstances in an exotic setting, but it also spoke to her original audience. That film’s soundtrack was punctuated by a modern Israeli rendition of the song “Im Eshkacheikh” (If I Forget Thee O Jerusalem), which is often sung under the wedding canopy. For those conversant with Jewish tradition, the song powerfully expressed the connection between the film’s plot and the tension between joy and tragedy already evoked in the Jewish wedding ceremony itself.
A similarly poignant countertext in The Wedding Plan is the hymn “Eshet Chayil” (Proverbs 31), which is traditionally sung each Friday night before Shabbat dinner. Like the film itself, it sings the praises of a faithful “woman of valor.” Early in the film, Michal confesses her desire for a husband to sing “Eshet Chayil” to her, and the film closes with a rendition of the song. While the traditional performance of the song presupposes a husband to sing it, the woman of valor’s husband is not really described in the hymn. It is she who takes care of all of her family’s needs, engages in complex business ventures, cares for the poor, elevates her husband’s standing, and is, consequently, cloaked in strength and majesty, as well as wisdom and kindness. In incorporating this song, Burshtein places her idiosyncratic heroine in the tradition of great Jewish women, but not without some gentle irony. How far, after all, is Michal from that desperate bachelor who proposed to her, and every other woman, on the first date?
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