“In Culture and Anarchy (1869), Matthew Arnold argues for the role of reading “the best that has been thought and said” as an antidote to the anarchy of materialism, industrialism and individualistic self-interest.”
My young daughter was playing in my mother’s living room and approached me holding a battered prayer book she found on the shelf. When I realized what it was, I gasped. I hadn’t thought of it in years, but the siddur is a family treasure. My grandmother, Raizel Berger, a native of the Maramures region of Romania, was sent to Auschwitz along with her family in 1944. She managed to smuggle a small siddur into the camp by hiding it in her stocking garter. The young women in her bunker, mostly Chasidic Jews from Romania and Hungary, took turns praying from it each night. One of the girls worked in the kitchen and snuck out a potato sack to use as a cover for the siddur, onto which she used a rough yarn to beautifully embroider a Star of David in the center. The pages of the siddur are delicate with age, but the section of Tehillim (Psalms) is particularly worn from repeated use.
After the war, my grandmother married my grandfather, a Holocaust survivor from Poland. They moved to the United States and had four daughters in quick succession. The siddur continued to be used on a daily basis in their brownstone home in Brooklyn. Each holiday, my grandparents lit dozens of Yizkor candles for their many murdered family members. But their resilience to transition into loving parents and industrious new immigrants almost immediately after surviving such horrors still baffles the mind. So too the siddur, once hidden in the bowels of a dark dungeon and used by inmates of the most horrific and debased place on earth, transitioned to use for mundane, though still holy, daily prayers. In unsentimental fashion typical of Jews of my grandparents’ type, the siddur was not treated as a talisman. At some point, someone even scrawled a phone number on the inside cover…
On a June evening in the suburban Orthodox mecca of Teaneck, NJ, a long line of women snaked outside a small independent theater that rarely sees much of a crowd. They were waiting to see Mikva the Musical, which came to the U.S. for a weeklong, women-only run following a successful stint in Israel.
Of course, the terms “mikveh” and “musical” don’t normally go together. A mikveh is a ritual bath, in which, among its other functions, married observant Jewish women immerse themselves each month after completing their menstrual cycles. It’s not something one associates with showtunes and zippy dance numbers: precisely the surprising juxtaposition that gives the play much of its humor and charm.
“Ours is physically the healthiest and most affluent society that has ever existed, and, in some ways, raising children is also more convenient than it has ever been. Yet, children are increasingly perceived as a burden.”
In 2016, a hefty new Artscroll biography was published whose cover stands out in the sefarim store among images of bearded rabbis. Emunah with Love and Chicken Soup is the story of the late Rebbetzin Henny Machlis, whose Jerusalem home was legendary for welcoming hundreds of guests each Shabbos, providing them with home-cooked meals as well as a deeper nourishment they may not have known they needed. The book is written by Sara Yoheved Rigler, author of Holy Woman and a frequent contributor to Aish.com. Rigler writes with a unique appreciation for holy Jewish women. While her books would probably not pass the academic smell test, she is able to convey the passion and fire of a great individual in her writing in a way that tends to escape her more polished peers. Henny Machlis as well as her husband Rabbi Mordechai Machlis were truly great individuals who stretched themselves beyond their individual egos to leave a remarkable legacy. Rigler writes in the book that when Henny was younger she used to say that she wanted to have 20 children and introduce Judaism to the entire world. She ended up having 14 children (with nine c-sections!) and inspired tens of thousands of Jews and non-Jews alike. She was, as the book jacket describes, “a virtuoso in chesed,” someone for whom the normal boundaries separating oneself from others is effaced.
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.