The year is 1948. Two Holocaust survivors run into each other on a Paris subway. Though each had assumed the other was killed in the Holocaust, they waste little time exchanging questions about wartime experiences or polite inquiries about the well-being of family and friends. Instead, the two fall back into an argument they had begun many years before, in the period preceding World War II. Both are graduates of the Novardok yeshiva in Lithuania, and their argument is intellectual, philosophical, and also deeply personal. They debate the question of how a Jew should relate to the world around them. One believes the world outside of Judaism is rich with insight and enlightenment. The other maintains that the Torah is the only source of meaning in this life, and all other endeavors amount to nothing but vanity and self-destruction.
Traditional lines between the secular and religious populations are fading, particularly in the realms of music and art.
I’d like to belatedly share excerpts from an article that appeared a few months back in Mosaic Magazine. The growing popularity of religious singers among secular audiences here in Israel has been noted elsewhere. One hopes that this rising trend can serve to combat some of the tragic division we see in Israeli society right now.
“This past Sukkot, a crowd of about 500 children, parents, and grandparents gathered in the Recanati Theater in the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. The audience was made up of affluent and mostly secular residents of north Tel Aviv and its suburbs—stylishly dressed, sipping lattes and organic juice sold at the trendy coffee shop nearby. To an outside observer, the scene would be almost indistinguishable from a family-oriented play or concert in Park Slope, Brooklyn. The content, however, was distinctly Israeli: a jukebox musical called Aluf ha-Olam (literally, “Champion of the World”), based on the songs of the religious Zionist singer Hanan Ben-Ari, written and performed by Israel’s most prestigious children’s dramatic company, the Orna Porat Theater. Tickets for Aluf ha-Olam are in high demand and sell out quickly, so I booked seats for me and my children several months in advance. One could sense from the anticipation in the theater that many others had done the same.
Hanan Ben-Ari is one of Israel’s best-known musical performers, albeit without the international break-through appeal of peers like the religious music sensation Ishai Ribo. His strength is in his songwriting; catchy tunes, drawn from eclectic influences, and coherent, powerful lyrics that comment on personal, often spiritual, struggles…
…Ben-Ari’s penchant for infusing lyrics about universal topics with the language of the synagogue and yeshiva tends to obscure the boundaries between sacred and secular idioms. His 1980s-inspired feel-good ballad “Dream like Joseph,” for instance, argues that every story in the Bible reflects some basic human experience: “everyone leaves his father’s home/ everyone nearly sacrifices his child/ deep within is a little Sodom/ that he wishes to erase already/ and angels will rescue him…”
…Thus the prospect of translating Hanan Ben-Ari’s music into an Israeli secular vernacular, as Aluf ha-Olam seeks to do, is daunting, and perplexing. It raises the question of whether Ben-Ari’s biblicism and Jewish allusions are charming embellishments or so central to his work that they cannot be disentangled from it. But merely to ask this question is to acknowledge that Israeli society’s shared cultural touchstones appear to be growing more and more Jewish, and traditional lines between the secular and religious populations are fading, particularly in the realms of music and art…”
“On a bright spring day in a swanky Tel Aviv neighborhood, a handsome man sporting a trim beard and a perfectly perched black yarmulke alights from an expensive SUV. He kisses his beautiful and modestly clad wife, as three smartly dressed yeshiva boys across the street watch, swoon, and dream of similar lives for themselves. “A yeshiva boy who married well?” one suggests. “No, no—he earned it for himself!” his friend explains: After being expelled from a prestigious yeshiva for owning a smartphone, he flew to Rome, camped out for a week on the doorstep of Borsalino headquarters, and earned the right to open the first official Israeli chain of stores for the high-end Italian hatmaker. Although he is too busy earning money to study in yeshiva full time, he still dedicates time every day to study Talmud. “The modern haredi,” the boys say, sighing. “He enjoys both worlds. He has this and yet he also has that!” As they wave to him crossing the street, a large truck comes out of nowhere and plows into him. And so the show’s question remains: Is it really possible to have both this and that?”
Please check out the absolutely wonderful latest issue of Jewish Review of Books for a review of the second season of Shababnikim, a fabulous Israel television series with much more depth than initially meets the eye.
In a new symposium at The Lehrhaus entitled “Reclaiming Torah u-Madda,” I was given the chance to reflect on the state of “Torah U-Madda” (the relationship between Torah and Western culture) in the Modern Orthodox community today. I sought to address this topic on a philosophical level, through an analysis of a wonderful story by Isaac Bashevis Singer, as well as through some “real-world” examples of how these ideas might play out in practice. My latter comments generated more controversy than I would have liked. I would like to emphasize that my account of what has challenged me personally about my native community is not meant to constitute a comprehensive indictment of all that is wrong with Modern Orthodoxy. My goal in the essay is to introduce a philosophical framework and then briefly suggest how this framework might cohere in real-life scenarios. I don’t mind disagreement about the relevance of these scenarios but I am even more interested in discussing the worldview that underlies them.
Please see here for the full article. And I recommend perusing all of the terrific contributions to this forum.
A recent conversation over at Tradition Magazine discusses the potential relationship (or lack thereof) between “Great Books” and Judaism. I weighed in with the help of one particularly great book, Antiquitiesby Cynthia Ozick. Please read the full essay here.
An excerpt: “There are many wonderful cases to be made for the contributions of great books to our culture, our civilization, and to ourselves. But on a common-sense level, Menand is right. While people who love literature (myself included) can make a compelling case for why these texts enrich our lives, we cannot generalize that those who read great literature are on the whole better people than those who are interested in other matters. Countless well-known authors and literature scholars have been involved in every kind of sordid affair imaginable. Indeed, whenever a new anti-Semitic tinged crusade against the Jewish State pops up, literature departments are inevitably leading the charge. Menand writes that “knowledge is a tool, not a state of being.” To me there is no doubt that the experience of reading Cervantes or Jane Austen can generate profound insights into the complexity of human experience, and morally sensitive writers like George Eliot or Leo Tolstoy create a powerful case for virtue. Yet clearly something else is necessary in order to lay the foundations of a moral life in practice.”
In his 1905 philosophical analysis of humor, Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, Sigmund Freud cites a classic Jewish joke: “Two Jews met in a railway carriage at a station in Galicia. ‘Where are you going?’ asked one. ‘To Cracow,’ was the answer. ‘What a liar you are!’ broke out the other. ‘If you say you’re going to Cracow, you want me to believe you’re going to Lemberg. But I know that in fact you’re going to Cracow. So why are you lying to me?’”
On the surface, the joke is a self-deprecating jab at the Jewish tendency to overthink things. But on a deeper level (and for Freud of course there is always a deeper level) the joke comments on the difficulty of discerning truth. He asks, “is it the truth if we describe things as they are without troubling to consider how our hearer will understand what we say?” Freud proposes that jokes like the one above “attack not a person or an institution but the certainty of our knowledge itself.” He is struck by how many jokes of this nature are Jewish ones.
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.
“In delineating the various people and parties who could conceivably be offended by a Jewish continuity agenda, Bitton leaves out the most important population of all: the future humans upon whom the entirety of civilization rests. It’s true that having children is physically and emotionally taxing, and undoubtedly the burdens are unequally distributed between genders, at least for discrete periods in a child’s life. Some of these challenges can certainly be remedied; others are on a certain level inherent. Eve is told “in pain you shall bear your children,” and Adam too, is destined to work hard for all the days of life. Yet any account of these difficulties needs to be contextualized with at least a passing mention of the vast potential that accompanies bringing forth new life into the world.”
Please see here for the full response, thank you to Sources and to Mijal Bitton for the opportunity to reflect.
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.