As a particularly raucous Israeli election season enters the homestretch, a recent Israeli film, now making the Jewish film festival circuit with subtitles, provides some perspective. It’s called The Unorthodox (Ha-bilti Rishmiyim, literally “Those Without Permission”) and tells the little known story of the founding of the Shas political party, a punning acronym for “Torah observant Sephardim.”
It’s common knowledge that Rosh Hashanah, the first day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei, is the Jewish new year. And yet, despite the obvious importance of this High Holy Day, the Bible quite clearly stipulates another month entirely as marking the true beginning of the Jewish year. That is the month of Nisan, whose first day falls this year on Saturday, April 6. By dint of its connection to the story of the Exodus from Egypt, Nisan would indeed seem to be the most important month of all.
Recently, junior congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez invoked distant Jewish roots at a Queens synagogue as a preamble to celebrating the mash-up of Puerto Rican culture and by extension all cultures: “I think what it goes to show is that so many of our destinies are tied beyond our understanding.” Last year, a minor fuss erupted after New York State Senate candidate Julia Salazar made dubious claims to Jewish ancestry.
Such claims, some more credible than others, have been made by various politicians and public figures. Indeed, possible Jewish ancestry has fascinated both Jews and non-Jews when it comes to American historical figures, reaching as far back as Alexander Hamilton (not to speak of my fellow columnist Stuart Schoffman’s fascinating piece on Lincoln). A recent study suggests that one in four Latin Americans has some Jewish ancestry, most likely a vestige of Jewish conversos fleeing the Inquisition to settle in the New World.
There’s something tantalizing about the prospect of uncovering your past with a cheek swab. DNA evidence is refreshingly precise in contrast with the hazy knowledge afforded by family legends and hearsay. Thanks to popular DNA analysis platforms like 23andMe, one can uncover deep connections to hundreds of individuals, of the past and present, whom you have never met. Putting aside the genuinely amazing stories of immediate family reunions that have emerged from 23andMe, the phenomenon also speaks to those with more distant threads to unravel. In one promotional video on 23andMe’s website a Lebanese American man who always wondered about his mother’s gray eyes and his love for Martin Scorsese movies is astounded to learn that he is 9 percent Italian. In that same report he finds some Ashkenazi Jewish heritage as well, a discovery he suggests might hold some promise for peace in the Middle East.
I recently purchased my own 23andMe DNA kit in a Black Friday sale and mailed it in just as Ocasio-Cortez released her Jewish heritage announcement. While I don’t struggle with any glaring mysteries about my past, the thought that these results might offer some new knowledge about myself kindled my excitement. But what kind of knowledge, really? And why the excitement?
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.
In this month’s Jewish Action I review Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg’s new-ish Bamidbar anthology.
Excerpt: Beyond offering specific insights, Zornberg presents an expansive framework for reading Tanach that sets her apart from nearly every interpreter out there. Her books are a true illumination of the Talmudic maxim which describes the Torah: “Turn it and turn it for everything is in it” (Avot 5:22). Zornberg highlights the remarkable potential of Tanach to reflect upon, and in turn be illuminated by, many of the deepest questions and concerns raised in continental philosophy, postmodern criticism and the field of psychoanalysis.
….The word for repentance in Judaism, teshuvah, translates literally as “return.” A secular Jew who becomes observant is deemed a ba’al teshuvah, literally a “master of return.” Or, in modern Israeli parlance, a chozer be-teshuvah, which we might translate as a “returner to returning.” (His Christian equivalent is described as undergoing conversion or, in certain circles, as being “born again”—both of which are more radical than returning.) The word teshuvah implies that no great break is needed on the way to spiritual renewal. Rather, moving forward is a process of getting back in touch with what was, in some sense, there all along, though what you return to might be neither the religion of your great-great-grandfather in the Pale of Settlement nor that of an affable Chabad outreach rabbi half your age. Return need not be to any discernible prior place at all. The Talmud writes that God created the possibility for teshuvah before creating the world (Nedarim 39b). Return is a state of mind….
Jewish history has not always been characterized by laughter, but in Genesis it evokes the freedom and joy of a life in partnership with God.
Last week’s Torah reading of Lekh-L’kha (Genesis 12-17) tells the story of the birth of Abraham’s elder son Ishmael. By contrast, this week’s reading of Vayera (Genesis 18-22) has at its center the birth of his younger son Isaac. I say “by contrast” because, from the very start, beginning with the circumstances of their birth and their respective names, the text makes the difference between the two boys especially stark. Nor are these differences just a matter of literary curiosity; rather, they present divergent ways of relating to God.
In November 2017, the newly constructed Museum of the Bible opened in Washington, DC. It is reportedly the most technologically advanced museum ever built in the United States, and it is the largest privately funded museum in the country. The majority of the financial backing for the museum, which is free to the public, comes from the Oklahoma-based Green family, founder of the Hobby Lobby chain of craft stores and champion of Christian causes. Despite its backers’ beliefs, the Museum of the Bible goes out of its way to make religious Jews comfortable. To take one of many examples, a visitor must strain his or her eyes in order to see the term “Old Testament” used anywhere in the museum. Instead, it is almost always the “Hebrew Bible” or even the “Jewish Bible”—a signal to Jews that their Torah has not been superseded by Christianity. All of that said, the Museum of the Bible is not a Jewish museum, nor should it be mistaken for one. Nevertheless, Jewish visitors who remain aware of the limitations inherent in such an enterprise have much to gain from the Museum of the Bible. Indeed, somewhat paradoxically, a visit to the museum provides an opportunity even for literate Jews to learn something about the impact of our central sacred texts on the wider world and can have a profound impact on our sense of Jewish pride and religious mission.
At the beginning of this week’s Torah reading of B’ha’alotkha (Numbers 8-12), the Bible gives instructions for the daily kindling of the menorah.
The menorah has long occupied a prominent place in the Jewish imagination. From the time of its placement in the inner courtyard of the Tabernacle in the desert and later of the Temple in Jerusalem, to its rekindling after the Maccabees’ defeat of the Seleucids, to its central position on the Arch of Titus in Rome, to its modern repurposing as the emblem of Jewish revival by the state of Israel, few Jewish symbols have been as familiar or as evocative.
And yet the Bible leaves unstated the significance of the menorah and its seven branches, its importance to the Temple, or its meaning and purpose with respect to the relationship between God and His chosen nation and perhaps beyond. On these matters, an examination of five key scriptural passages can shed light.