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.
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….
This month, a new Spanish volume was published about Jorge Luis Borges’s relationship to Judaism—timed to be released 50 years after his first visit to Israel at the personal invitation of David Ben-Gurion. The book, titled Borges, Judaísmo e Israel, explores the great Argentinian writer’s various Jewish connections.
A lapsed Catholic with an interest in many religions, Borges (1899-1986) was particularly fascinated by Judaism, especially Kabbalah, and surprisingly erudite references to Jewish texts make their way into several of his stories. Even more unusually for a literary figure, especially one who traveled in avant-garde circles, his appreciation of Judaism translated into enthusiasm for the Jewish state.
Indeed, the 1969 trip to Israel affected Borges profoundly, prompting him to write a trio of poems in praise of the young state and the Jewish people more broadly. “Long live Israel,” he declares in one poem, published in that same year; in another he marvels at how “a man condemned to be Shylock” has “returned to battle/ to the violent light of victory/ beautiful like a lion at noon.”
Written shortly after the Six-Day War—just when much of the literary world was beginning to turn against the Jewish state—these poems celebrating the Jews’ return to martial glory also stand in stark contrast to their cosmopolitan author’s own general suspicion of nationalism.
A half-century since the poems were written—and on the eve of Jerusalem Day, which this year falls on Sunday—its well worth revisiting the story behind them and the place of the Jews in Borges’s worldview.
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 is difficult to find words to respond to the horrific fate that befell 19 year-old Ori Ansbacher. Murdered while she took a walk in the Jerusalem woods. In recent years, we have sadly grown accustomed to such tragedies in Israel. Each martyred victim seems to have been more impossibly sweet than the last. Innocents who, as Agnon once put it, “the enemy was not worthy even to touch.” Yet, the details of this particular tragedy shocks even those ears that are inured to such news. Can I add anything to the cries of mourning that have been echoing across the Jewish world?
Yet, beyond the photos and the loved ones’ memories, Ori left us with a poem. This poem, one among many to be sure, has been publicized in Hebrew and is worth examining closely. Ori’s remarkable personality is laid open within: she offers us a lens into a deep truth that she understood at a young age and was able to crystallize into words.
The poet begins with a call to action, “asi,” so that “your world will be/A world of peace.” Considering the brutal circumstances of her murder, there is something impossibly tragic about this delicate call for peace. Indeed, this is not the externally imposed peace of the activists who seek to displace people like Ori and her family in order to appease an insatiable beast. It is a peace that starts within and emanates outward. Ori understands that the first step she must take to realize this world of peace is to look within and appreciate her own value, “the girl who was” and “the honey that was,” before life became more complicated and challenging. Change is a paradox. One must reach back and reacquire something which was there all along: the sweet core of honey found in an innocent young girl.
For Ori, and perhaps, many of her peers and role-models in the community of Tekoa and beyond, the process of finding internal wholeness precedes seeking perfection from the world around you. It’s the inverse of a certain kind of activism we see among young people in other corners of the world. A world of peace is you something you must try to create for yourself before you can demand it from others. The poem offers affirmation, hopeful but not overblown, that it is possible to reclaim the best parts of ourselves. Something pure and sweet and nourishing with which we may have lost touch.
After Ori’s death, several of her friends and neighbors put her words to music, which they then shared with her family at the shiva. The words and music and voices meld into a beautiful song. And, of course, in this context the song takes on additional shades of meaning: “the girl who was,” the honey that was extracted, a “world of peace” are now invoked ironically with devastating effect. Although those who listen and sing continue to suffer and grieve, the mindset expressed by this song, the sensibility from which it emanates, is a gift. How many great people have we come to know, just in the last three years alone, through their murders by terrorists: Dafna Meir, Hallel Ariel, Miki Mark, Erez Orbach, Elchai Taharlev, Elad Salomon, Adiel Coleman, Rabbi Itamar Ben Gal, Rabbi Raziel Shevach, Kim Levinger, Ari Fuld, Yovel Mor Yosef. The list goes on much further and I do not mean to exclude anyone, only to highlight some names that made an impact on me in particular, perhaps because of similarities in background or mutual acquaintances ensuring that their story would be made known to me. There is a tendency to idealize people after their passing. Yet, these were holy people, each in their own way, in life and in death. Their stories have also introduced us to the communities that produced them, who now gather to mourn. Perhaps it is a geographic issue – many of Israel’s most idealistic citizens live in the areas most vulnerable to Arab attack. Or maybe it is testament to the strong characters of Jewish Israelis more broadly. The lives that were stolen belonged some of the finest people one could encounter, cut down by depraved monsters motivated by hatred and enabled by a political apparatus that is fed too much by the “civilized” world. Yet, in response to that ugliness we see, inexplicably, beauty. Teenagers singing softly at the shiva house, a campaign to bake and share cookies, Torah learning, internal reflection, creativity, and yes some threats to, gasp, build more homes for families in their memory.
Two years ago hundreds of thousands of women in pink hats gathered in major American cities to fulminate and demand a vague set of rights, most of which they already have. This past year angry mobs descended on Paris, flinging firebombs and destroying property, over rising taxes and stagnant economic conditions. In Israel, innocent children are murdered in cold blood at shockingly regular intervals. There is very little chanting. There are very few demonstrations. Rather tears, poetry, memory and love. When I think about this it’s hard not to feel a bit angry myself. I wonder whether the situation would change with a little more righteous fury and collective indignation. Perhaps it would. But I also remind myself of Ori’s words, even more potent when considering these challenges. The perfection we seek in ourselves has the power to emanate outwards. Only by recognizing and embracing our own inner sweetness, the honey that is there and has always been, will we build the world of peace we so desperately need.
So your world will be
A world of peace
The young woman (alma) you are
The honey that was
Before they drew it, and you out
For yourself anew
Revive the girl
And create a world
A world of peace
Before negotiating with yourself
And your beloved
Before the treaties
And the violations
And the battles
עשי שיהא עולמך עולם של שלום שלום עולמיםזכרי את העלמה שאת את הדבש שהיה לפני שרדו בך
נכסי לעצמך מחדש את המתיקות הזו שהייתה שלך
החיי את העלמה ובראי לך עולם עולם של שלום לפני המשא ומתן שלך עם עצמך ועם אהובך
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 his essay on the poet Raḥel, Hillel Halkin offers a fascinating study of her too-brief life (1890-1931), her poetics, and the unique place she occupies in the Hebrew literary landscape. Certainly, against the background of the pioneering Zionist ethos of her time—nationalistic, idealistic, and collectivist—the intense individualism of Raḥel’s verse stands out. No less deeply committed to the Zionist enterprise than other poets cited by Halkin, notably Uri Tsvi Grinberg and Avraham Shlonsky, she devoted herself mainly to the exploration of such seemingly inward emotions as sadness, longing, humility, and self-doubt.
The study of poetry on its own terms is a noble literary ideal, but it is difficult to read the poetry of Raḥel without also ruminating upon the personal circumstances, especially the disease to which she would eventually succumb at the age of forty, that may account for the themes of suffering, loneliness, and longing that run through her work. It is perhaps for this reason that Halkin in the end deems her to be, with emphasis on both adjectives, a “great minor poet”: that is, one who deals with localized themes, seemingly without obvious public import, but who nevertheless addresses them with a clarity and virtuosity that ensures he or she will never be forgotten—as, in Israel, Raḥel has indeed never been.
Yet might this major/minor distinction, which Halkin applies with subtlety and generosity, ultimately be something of a false choice?
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.