When Heidi Met Shimen, or, Why Real Religion Endures

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.

To read the full review see the wonderful new issue of Jewish Review of Books.

The Rabbi Who Chose Trans Orthodoxy

“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.:

Read the full review at First Things.

Tragedy and Comedy in Black and White

Lately it seems to be the season of haredim on screen. My immersion in this very particular oeuvre began with Shtisel, the 2013 runaway hit Israeli TV series, which depicts a haredi family in Jerusalem in all of its complicated, charming dysfunction. (The first two seasons are now available with English subtitles on Netflix.) More recently, Autonomies (2018) presents a dystopian division of Israel into separate secular and religious states. In the United States, two recent documentaries showcase radically divergent ways of understanding the New York Hasidic community and the experience of marginal figures within it. Haredi Jews are not always interchangeable with Hasidic ones, and Israeli soap operas are different than American art-house documentaries. Yet in considering all of these offerings, certain patterns inevitably emerge. Counterintuitively, the more serious offerings in this genre are the ones with a lighter touch.

Read the full article in Jewish Review of Books.

Crazy Beautiful Startup: A Review of The Wedding Plan

 

In the Summer 2017 issue of the Jewish Review of Books, I review The Wedding Plan, the latest from Israeli filmmaker Rama Burshtein.

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Excerpt:

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?

Click here to read the article in full

Parshat Korach: The Bible’s Coalition of Complainers

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The Punishment of Morah and the Stoning of Moses and Aaron (Sandro Botticelli, 1482)

…Koraḥ’s conglomeration is thus a distorted mirror-image of the Israelite encampment itself: less a collection of distinct subgroups united in service of a common goal than representatives of different tribes united only in insurrection. One is reminded of John Milton’s confederation of devils and pagan deities who inhabit Satan’s underworld in Paradise Lost: a “promiscuous crowd” with disparate grievances and ideologies who find common cause in the rebellion against God. The debates among these parties, described by Milton as “words clothed in reason’s garb,” vividly recall the grievances of Koraḥ and his mob…

The full article may be read at Mosaic Magazine

Mystical Teachings Do Not Erase Sorrow

“It’s hard to be a Jewish poet,” Yehoshua November wrote in his first collection of poetry, God’s Optimism, published in 2010. Indeed, it must be difficult to juggle November’s identities as a Lubavitch Hasid, a family man, a poet, and a professor. In that poem, November explores some of the challenges inherent in writing religious poetry. These include the fear of confusing readers who are unaccustomed to encountering sincere expressions of Orthodox Judaism in verse, the problem of writing about forbidden or impure material, and the anxiety of trying to create new poems “when there is already the one great book.

In his new collection, however, it turns out that the difficulties of being a Jewish poet do not primarily flow from being either Jewish or a poet but from the underlying difficulties of life itself.”

For my full review of November’s wonderful new poetry collection, Two Worlds Exist, please see the Spring 2017 issue of the Jewish Review of Books.

Literary Voice as an Expression of Theology: The Examples of Deuteronomy and Lamentations

The book of Deuteronomy is unique among the five books of the Torah in that much of it is written in the first-person singular. The book is essentially a speech crafted and delivered by Moshe, with the imprimatur of God. As a genre, it is different from the rest of the Torah, which can largely be divided into the categories of narrative, law or poetry. While Deuteronomy contains all of these components, it also functions as a kind of sermon, rooted in the subjective, personal voice of Moses, that is intended to inspire and strengthen the Jewish people as they enter the land of Israel. The genre and perspective of the Deuteronomy is also interwoven with its message. There is an earthly nature to the book as a whole – it is practically oriented and interested in the human institutions necessary to interpret and actualize God’s covenant in the land of Israel. As Moses says toward the end of the Book (30:11-14):

Continue reading “Literary Voice as an Expression of Theology: The Examples of Deuteronomy and Lamentations”