In March, the Tel Aviv Jewish museum formerly known as the Nahum Goldmann Museum of the Jewish Diaspora(or Beit Hatfutsot) reopened after a ten-year, $100 million renovation. Now called ANU—Museum of the Jewish People, it offers a cheery, inclusive vision of Jewish peoplehood.
Thank you to Lubavitch International Magazine for the opportunity to consider what my own personal redemption might look like at this time. Please read the full article for wonderful contributions by the poets Yehoshua November, Eve Grubin and David Caplan.
This Is How It Begins . . .
Two summers ago, while my family finalized our aliyah to Israel from the New Jersey suburbs, a few favorite songs found themselves repeating on our Spotify playlist. One was a catchy song by Israeli singer Udi Davidi called “See My Light,” which is in fact filled with rabbinic teachings about redemption. The refrain is a quote from Rabbi Hiyya’s statement in the Yerushalmi Talmud (Berachot 4:2): “This is how Israel’s redemption begins, little by little, everywhere it goes, it goes and multiplies.”
The song gave me a little comfort as I spent the weeks packing up our life in the USA. When we first landed in Israel, and in the ensuing months, I certainly did not hear the bells of redemption ringing. Yet now, more accustomed to daily life and perhaps more sensitive to the spiritual nuances of the atmosphere here, not a few days pass by before I sense a little spark, a frisson, of redemption, geulah. These moments happen when I am out in nature, exploring the historically overloaded landscape of Israel. Vistas which appear in the Bible, were won and lost by numerous civilizations, and still remain a pleasant option for a Jewish family outing.
I feel redemption when my otherwise fully American children recite a verse from the Torah by heart like it is second nature, their natural sweetness blending with the sweetness of our tradition in a way that can’t be separated. Even as shops and businesses are shuttered because of the government’s response to the coronavirus, what should be a glum public mood is elevated by the goodness of the people of Israel. A young, secular smoothie-stand owner brought to his knees in debt still gives a free daily shake to every beggar who approaches his shop. Witnessing such an act of kindness, I looked at him with surprise and he pointed upward, “None of this is from us, you know?” I think I do know, little by little.
A review of Judaism Straight up by Moshe Koppel
Several years ago, a blog called Judaism Without Apologies began to circulate on social media. The blog began by juxtaposing two Jewish characters’ lives and ideals: Shimen, a Gerer Hasid of sorts and Holocaust survivor living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and Heidi, a cosmopolitan Princeton graduate who thinks of herself as a citizen of the world.
A photograph by George Kalinsky of my own Polish Holocaust survivor grandfather at the Siyum HaShas in 1990. I imagine Shimen having a similar intense, independent-minded look.
The series was narrated by the American Israeli computer scientist Moshe Koppel, who had attended Shimen’s Gerer shtiebel in his youth. After obtaining a PhD in mathematics, Koppel spent a year at Prince- ton’s Institute for Advanced Study, where he met the original Heidi, the first of many he would encounter in the years to come. Koppel’s blog may have been rooted in comic sociology, but it quickly morphed into a serious discussion of moral philosophy, game theory, cultural anthropology, the nature of language, and ultimately an argument about the future of Judaism itself. Despite its rather niche appeal, the blog’s unique fusion of a no-holds-barred attitude with serious erudition attracted some diehard fans. Koppel has just published an expanded book-length version, which presents a cleaned-up and even more compelling defense of the old-fashioned Judaism Koppel imbibed in the shtiebel.
Shimen, a real-life acquaintance of Koppel (Heidi is a composite), is at the heart of the book. He survived the Lodz Ghetto and Auschwitz, but his wife and two precious children did not. After the war, Shimen picked up a handgun and collected Jewish children who had been hidden by Polish families and returned them to their communities. Elie Wiesel, who prayed in Shimen’s Gerer shtiebel from time to time, once told a story about celebrating Rosh Hashanah in Auschwitz without wine. An inmate announced, “we’ll take out tin cups and fill them with tears. And that is how we’ll make our kiddush . . . heard before God.” That, apparently, was Shimen. Koppel writes of Polish Hasidic Holocaust survivors like him:
[They] were intense, they were angry, they could be funny in a biting sort of way. . . . But one thing they had no patience for was high-minded pieties. They despised pomposity and self-righteousness. Their devotion to Yiddishkeit, old-fashioned Judaism, as a way of life, and to the Jews as a people, were as natural and instinctive as drawing breath.
“Shortly before the 1991 Gulf War, Rabbi Yaakov Smith, a father of six and an emissary of the Chabad Hasidic movement in the Old City of Jerusalem, hosted a Shabbat dinner. As the guests were leaving, one took Smith aside and said something that would reverberate with his host: “That was an amazing act you performed. Whatever is wrong, take care of yourself.” Fast forward thirty years and Yaakov has become Yiscah Smith, a transgender person who still lives and teaches in Jerusalem. Smith’s transformation is the subject of the documentary I Was Not Born a Mistake, created by the Israeli filmmakers Rachel Rusinek and Eyal Ben-Moshe. The film premiered at the Jerusalem Film Festival this past Hanukkah and made its U.S. debut in January.:
“In the last two weeks of seger (lockdown) in Israel, an almost laughably long list of public figures have admitted to violating the Covid-19 lockdown restrictions. Some of them are lawmakers who are themselves directly responsible for initiating the lockdown.”
Earlier this year, our family left a suburban Jewish community in New Jersey that we loved in order to fulfill a dream of making aliyah to Israel. In the years leading up to our move, we frequently discussed the merits and drawbacks of life in Israel versus the US. We discussed matters like the dangers of living in an isolated enclave surrounded by enemy states versus our seemingly comfortable and secure American lives. My husband often pointed out the spiritual dangers of life in the diaspora as well as the potential for established ways of life to degenerate rapidly, even in advanced Western societies. We boarded our aliyah flight against the backdrop of a common web of excitement, anticipation, and doubt.
Once in Israel, however, our commonplace constellation of concerns was complicated, perhaps overshadowed, by a new set of events. A wave of antisemitic incidents in the New York City area in late 2019 left us to glued to American news sources for updates. I grew up in the idyllic religious community of Monsey; in my mind it was the peaceful foil to whatever uncertainty we encountered in Israel. Yet the attack on a local Hanukkah party by a machete-wielding lunatic revealed that this place was hardly immune from hatred and violence. Sitting in Israel with rockets from Gaza falling in the distance, my heart was nevertheless in New York and New Jersey, concerned about family members and friends. I had the stomach-churning sense that the problem was unlikely to dissipate anytime soon….