In the Moment
Last week, Moment published interviews with two graduates of Yeshivat Maharat, the first school to train Orthodox female clergy. Today, Moment speaks with fellow classmate Rori Picker Neiss. Neiss who is currently finishing her final year at Yeshivat Maharat was recently hired as the Director of Programming, Education, and Community Engagement at Bais Abraham Congregation, an Orthodox Synagogue in St Louis.
How did you become involved in Yeshivat Maharat?
I had been working in interfaith organizations and doing lot in terms of building bridges between religious communities. I realized that all the people I was working with were clergy members and thought about what that meant for me—when will I hit my glass ceiling? Also, as I was meeting other people from different faiths or communities, I realized I wanted the skills to delve deeply into my own texts.
Did you always see yourself taking on a pastoral role?
When I first started I was not sure if this was just going to be a conduit for me to go back into interfaith stuff, but I quickly discovered my passion in the Jewish community. It never occurred to me that taking a leadership position could be an option. Where I grew up, women didn’t have religious leadership positions. Of course there were female Judaic studies teachers, but most of their legitimacy came from being married to a rabbi.
What was your family’s reaction when you said you were enrolling?
I am not sure my family understood what I was getting myself into. My parents knew of Avi Weiss from all of the work he had done for Soviet Jewry in the 1980s and had respect for him. Along the way my parents have learned more about the program and they are very supportive. I have three brothers who learn in kollel in Jerusalem, Lakewood and the Five Towns. We mostly just don’t talk about it. It’s like a don’t ask don’t tell type of situation.
Do you consider yourself a feminist?
I do consider myself to be a feminist. But I also recognize the word itself has become incredibly loaded. I don’t see myself as particularly “progressive” or “liberal” but recognize that in the broader community I’m considered that way because of what I’m doing. It’s a funny experience that other people see that my passion to study more and help people in their own Jewish life as too liberal or progressive and “less religious.”
Do you identify with the Open Orthodoxy movement espoused by Rabbi Avi Weiss?
I never grew up sub-qualifying my religious identity and it’s not something I feel the need to start doing now. I understand if it is a helpful term for people looking to be more inclusive on the role of women or issues surrounding homosexuality or other difficult conversations. But I don’t see the need to label myself in that way.
What do you think is the biggest issue facing Modern Orthodoxy today?
Modern Orthodoxy prides itself on being a movement that is firmly committed to halakha, but believes that halakha does not prevent us from living and functioning in the broader society. And I believe strongly that for the Torah and halakha to be true, it must be true in all times and all places—and not just when you remove yourself from society. But we have to be careful that in the push to bring halakha into society and society into halakha, we don’t give up the halakha or give up ourselves. Because if we just make the halakha fit whatever we want it to say, we risk losing it all.
What will be your role at Bais Abraham Congregation in St. Louis?
The official title is Director of Programing, Education and Community Engagement. In a certain sense the title is just a description of what a Maharat does. It’s hard to say I’m a Maharat because people don’t know what that means. But hopefully, through my work, people will learn to recognize the title “Maharat.”
What was the reaction of the community when you were hired in a pastoral capacity? I know there was discussion in the broader community.
Some people are excited, some people are confused, maybe some are a little resistant. Once I get there and get a chance to start doing the work, I hope people will understand more what this is all about. Things are always scarier and more confusing in the abstract.
You have two children—one a newborn. How do you balance your professional and home life?
It’s a challenge. I had both of my kids while in school, and have been the only on-site, full-time student with children while some other students have been connecting remotely or only attend part-time. My husband has been incredibly supportive both emotionally and mentally, and willing to take on a lot. There have been months where I missed a lot of bedtimes, and at one point I did need to step back and, with my husband, evaluate the path I was on. But the school is very supportive in that they recognize times when I say, “I can’t stay late tonight” or “I need to bring in my kids today.”
How do you think this will change once you become a full time clergy member in St. Louis?
I’m actually very optimistic. Now I live in Brooklyn and travel to the Upper West Side to study or teach. Living in the community itself might be easier because I don’t have to worry about the commute. Something my husband and I talk a lot about is how to balance our family life and work life. I might not always be able to have dinner with my kids but I’ll try to always be able to have breakfast. It may mean that we don’t have a typical schedule and typical practices, but that is okay. This is the life we want.
Behold, the Jewish father: an oft-forgotten figure, generally second fiddle to the much-discussed Jewish mother. Though pop culture tends to be focused on the matriarchs of the Jewish family, a few notable fathers have broken through. Here are a few of our favorites:
1. Ari Gold–Jeremy Piven (Entourage)
The wheeling-and-dealing Hollywood agent who loses his temper at everyone except his children.
Likes: Swearing, hugging it out, heated phone calls.
Dislikes: Adam Davies, Amanda Daniels, losing a deal.
Famous for: Making Vinnie Chase a Hollywood legend, despite the numerous setbacks. “LOYLD!”
2. Bernie Focker–Dustin Hoffman (Meet the Fockers/Meet the Little Fockers)
The attorney turned stay-at-home dad who lavishes praise upon his son and saves his every participation trophy
Likes: His son’s accomplishments, positive reinforcement, his wife Roz.
Dislikes: Negativity, his in-laws’ parenting methods.
Famous for: Being a proud dad, sexual innuendos.
3. Guido Orefice–Roberto Benigni (Life is Beautiful)
The Italian bookshop owner, who must shield his son at all costs from the horrors of the Holocaust.
Likes: Making people happy, his family.
Dislikes: Nazis and other Fascists.
Famous for: Creating an elaborate game out of surviving Bergen-Belsen that allows his son to make it through the war.
4. Jack Geller–Elliot Gould (Friends)
Father of series stars, Ross and Monica Geller, and father in-law to Chandler.
Likes: His kids (but mostly Ross), his wife Judy.
Dislikes: Chandler (initially).
Famous for: Putting everyone in awkward situations. Making embarrassing comments, but making up for them with the phrase “I’m just saying…”
5. Jim’s Dad–Eugene Levy (American Pie Series)
Jim’s good natured, and well-intentioned dad, who has absolutely terrible timing.
Likes: Trying to help Jim navigate through life, love, marriage and sex.
Dislikes: Teenagers making poor, uninformed decisions. He probably can’t eat pie anymore, either.
Famous for: Embarrassing his son, giving good advice, walking in at the absolute wrong moment.
6. Julius Levinson–Judd Hirsch (Independence Day)
The grouchy father of super-genius David (Jeff Goldblum) who embarks on an adventure to save the earth from an invading alien force.
Likes: His son, Judaism, complaining.
Dislikes: Looking like a schlemiel in front of the President of the United States, aliens, the fact that his son went to MIT to become a “cable repairman.”
Famous for: Pulling out the old siddur and yarmulke to pray for his son to return home safely from alien fighting, shepping nachas for his son while simultaneously berating him.
7. Larry Gopnik–Michael Stuhlbarg (A Serious Man)
Physics professor besieged by bad luck: an adulterous wife, a pot-smoking son, and a blackmailing student, for starters. In search of wisdom from the legendary but elusive Rabbi Marshak.
Likes: Schroedinger’s cat, the foxy next-door neighbor, his son’s bar mitzvah.
Dislikes: Sy Ableman, Santana Abraxas, his brother’s unannounced visits.
Famous for: Being wholly unfortunate.
8. Magneto (Erik Lehnsherr)–Michael Fassbender and Ian McKellen (X-Men Series)
The mutant supervillain, and archrival of the X-Men; father of the heroes Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch.
Likes: Mutants, metal, elaborate lairs.
Dislikes: Humanity, the X-Men, Nazis.
Famous for: Having the ability to manipulate metal, trying to take over the world every so often, running his own country.
9. Sandy Cohen–Peter Gallagher (The OC)
The ethical center of the television series about privileged teens in California.
Likes: Helping people out, the law.
Dislikes: People who take advantage of others.
Famous for: Taking in the troubled Ryan Atwood, being a good father to his children.
10. Tevye–Chaim Topol (Fiddler on the Roof)
The dairyman trying—with varying degrees of success—to marry off his daughters to suitable candidates.
Likes: His daughters, raucous celebrations, tradition.
Dislikes: Intermarriage, assimilation, Lazar Wolf.
Famous for: Shoulder-shaking, wishing he were a rich man.
This summer’s Man of Steel, opening June 14th, marks the return of Krypton’s Last Son to American cinemas. Above all the fanfare, a question remains: Do Superman and his Jewish roots still have relevance to today’s American Jews?
The superhero’s origin story is fairly well known: Born Kal-El on the soon-to-be-destroyed planet Krypton, Superman is sent in a ship down the canals of space to Earth by his parents; a kindly Smallville couple, Jonathan and Martha Kent, pick up baby Kal-El and adopt him as their own upon his arrival to this planet, renaming him Clark. On Earth, Kal-El (which means vessel or voice of God in Hebrew), leads a double life as a mild-mannered journalist, using his powers to save the people of Earth, his secret identity preventing anyone from realizing who he truly is.
The story may sound familiar to the Sunday school set, as an allegory for the story of Moses, who was sent away from his home in order to be saved, brought up in a strange land, then become a savior to a group of people he calls his own. Jerry Siegel and Joel Schuster created Superman in 1938, at a time when Jews were still viewed as “others” in the United States, and many immigrant families were having first-generation American children, like Siegel and Schuster. Superman disguised his identity by wearing glasses and acting like a nebbish in order to blend in, just as many Jews took on different names or changed aspects of their lives in order to suitably assimilate into American society. Superman also seems to be partially based on the Golem, the mythical creature created by the Maharal of Prague in order to defend the city’s Jews whenever they came under threat. Similarly, when Superman hears the cry of the imperiled, he rips his shirt open to reveal the shield-encrusted S, which everyone knows and trusts.
Jews, much like Superman, spent much of the early- and mid-20th century forging a new identity in America. From a purely observational standpoint, they have been successful. Jews can legally apply for any job, are allowed to take unpunished leave for holidays, and celebrate their practices and history on main streets, even the National Mall. These are not the Jews who shared Superman’s duality, Jews who hearkened back to the 1800s Hebrew poet and revivalist YL Gordon’s phrase: “a man in the street, and a Jew at home.” Instead, many contemporary Jews publicly balance the religious and secular worlds.
The Jewish immigrant story has not ended, but is in a new chapter. Recent Superman works, such as this summer’s film, directed by Zack Snyder, and the graphic novel Superman: Birthright, by Mark Waid, have explored Superman’s initial hostile reception after first appearing in the skies of Metropolis. Rather than being welcomed as a hero, Superman is treated with hostility and suspicion; the military even attacks due to fear of a possible alien invasion. Superman has to prove himself a hero, and cannot simply put on the tights and claim to be one. Once Superman has accomplished this, and dedicates his values of “truth, justice, and the American way,” he is welcomed and celebrated for his work and contributions to the world, his unraveling path akin to that of the Jews in America.
Prejudice is not gone from this world. One does not have to go far to find a story of a Jew attacked for being just that, a Jew. Superman revealed his identity to Lois Lane and a few others, but it took a long time. There are many to whom Superman cannot reveal himself, to protect those he loves. We, in Superman’s shoes, have revealed ourselves to Lois (the United States), and a few choice others, but continue to lead subtle existences elsewhere. We, the children of Abraham, are still brothers with the Last Son of Krypton in that sense of still needing to balance our identity against those who might wish to harm us.
Larry Tye, author of the recent Man of Steel biography, Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero, wrote in an email to Moment:
“It’s not just Superman’s creators and publishers who were Jewish. The Man of Steel was, too…it is a big deal in a world where Jewish kids like Jerry still dream that someday the world will see them for the superheroes they really are.”
The Jewish calendar is structured on lunar activity. Every time there is a new moon, a Hebrew month begins. We read in Exdous that God told Moses: “Ha’hodesh hazeh lachem rosh hodashim rishon hu lachem l’hodshei ha’shanah.” “This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you.” This statement–that the Jewish people must mark the months–is counted as the first mitzvah that the Israelites received on their way out of Egypt. Rosh Hodesh happens every month, and in modern times, often with little note. But, traditionally, the determination of the first observation of the monthly new moon is the key action by which we live and act as Jews. Before the establishment of settled, printed calendars, it was the diverse voices of Jewish witnesses that set our Jewish calendar, without which we could not have set dates for any of the Jewish holidays. Witnesses traveled to Jerusalem from near and far to testify about having sighted the new moon. The date of every single Jewish holiday, and thus our celebrations and sacred markings of time, can only be determined by reference to the dates of the new moon.
The Mishnah vividly describes to us the importance of the diverse voices testifying about the new moon. Rosh Hodesh is the ultimate occasion of coming together in unity from all of our separate places–even violating Shabbat to testify about the first sighting of the new moon. Even those who could not travel by foot: “They may bring him by donkey [even on Shabbat] and if necessary even [carry him on Shabbat] in a bed…Because for a night and a day they may desecrate the Shabbat and go forth to testify about the new moon.” (Babylonian Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 22a). Everyone’s voices are what makes Rosh Hodesh Rosh Hodesh.
And even today, we gather together as one Jewish people to celebrate Rosh Hodesh. For almost the last 25 years, every month, a women’s group called Women of the Wall has been celebrating Rosh Hodesh at the women’s section of the Kotel in Jerusalem, seeking to connect with our ancient traditions and God’s presence. Recently, there have been many arrests and much discord and violence, arising from Haredi objections to the women davening out loud, wearing tallit or tefillin, or reading from a sefer Torah.
As we consider the Torah reading for this week, Korach, coinciding on Shabbat and also Sunday with Rosh Hodesh Tammuz and the present situation of disharmony and violence at the Kotel, who among us doesn’t feel a little shiver down the spine? Korach and his family and his possessions, all swallowed up by the Earth in a demonstration of God’s power in rejecting their challenge to Moshe’s leadership. In our modern day, who is Korach and who is Moshe?
Korach confronted or stood up to the established leadership of the Israelites, saying that all Israel is holy–and literally was struck down by God for doing this. Did God reject a populist democracy? And who would dare challenge religious leadership or want to follow in his footstep after this?
Or was Korach’s sin an attempt to bring about anarchy and the disruption and elimination of ongoing religious ritual, by challenging not just Aaron, the Kohen Gadol/High Priest, but also all of the priests and the whole structure of religious, sacrificial worship to God? What was Korach’s vision if he had survived to carry it forward? In modern terms, was Korach a democrat or a fascist?
In considering this question a number of years ago, Rabbi Elliot Dorff posed two possible responses. Perhaps Korach was not wrong in seeking a democratic structure for the Israelites, but his timing was wrong. Too many challenges and crises, in a society not ready or able to cast aside strong leadership. Or maybe, Korach’s challenge to the leadership was that of an anarchist, seeking to undo the rule of law, which would leave the people on their own in the wilderness, facing attacks from hostile surrounding nations.
In the end, the elliptical text does not allow us to determine with certainty what was truly dangerous about Korach’s position. And that, I think, is exactly the point.
It would be so tempting to say: “I have the answer–my position is like that of Moshe, not Korach, and I will seek to bring God to strike down everyone who doesn’t see it my way.” With a narrative this rife with this ambiguity, however, none of us can honestly say that.
Let us also remember the alternative to Korach. The challenge was not only to Moshe, but also to the High Priest, Aaron. Presumably, had he survived and succeeded, Korach’s regime would have replaced Aaron. With all of Aaron’s errors and sins–silence in the face of his own sons being struck down by God, collaborating with the Israelites to build the Golden Calf–how is he seen in our tradition? “Moshe used to say ‘Let the law pierce the mountain.’ But Aaron loved peace, pursued peace and made peace between people, as is said: ‘The law of truth was in his mouth, and unrighteousness was not found in his lips; he walked with Me in peace and uprightness and did turn many away from iniquity.’” (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin, 6b, quoting Malachi 2:6.)
From the ambiguity of the narrative and the survival and triumph of Moshe and Aaron over Korach, perhaps we can learn that shalom and shleimut–peace and wholeness–are what we must always strive for, even and especially, in the most challenging times. So for our challenging times, this year, in thinking about the challenges facing our Jewish people, especially on this Rosh Hodesh Tammuz at the Kotel, we offer this prayer for shleimut and izun, wholeness and balance.
Iris Richman is a Conservative rabbi, urging tolerance, pluralism and inclusion for all Jews in the U.S. and in Israel. To learn more about religious tolerance or to get involved, visit http://womenofthewall.org.il/category/divrei-torah/ or email JewishVoicesTogether@gmail.com.
You probably already know that 17th-century Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza was radical for his time—from his notorious excommunication from the Amsterdam Jewish community at age 23 to his proclamation of “the end of Jewish politics,” in his 1677 Theological-Political Treatise, which was written in Latin rather than vernacular Dutch to avoid censorship by Dutch authorities. But University of Chicago political scientist Julie Cooper recently extended Spinoza’s rebel status into the present, defending the radical implications of his thought for Jewish identity and politics today at a lecture held earlier this month at the University of Chicago.
Spinoza remains, to this day, one of the most radical thinkers in Western philosophy and political theory. Condemning the religious superstition and government censorship of his time, Spinoza issued one of the earliest philosophical calls for complete freedom of thought and escape from medieval tradition in a move toward liberal society. Even in his native Amsterdam—one of the most prosperous, enlightened and cosmopolitan cities in the world at the time—Spinoza was excommunicated from the Jewish community for “holding evil opinions.” Yet, in her talk, Cooper explained that it was actually relatively easy and common to repent and be readmitted to Jewish society. But Spinoza never even tried, nor did he convert to another religion. He was, as was almost unheard of in his day, a man free from religious and political association—a rebel.
In her talk, Cooper characterized Spinoza as the “theoretical harbinger of modern alternatives to rabbinic authority,” who first proposed the two models of Jewish political organization still dominant today: 1) equal citizenship for Jews in secular democracy and 2) a Jewish state. But Spinoza’s radical argument is that neither of these options—the only options Jews have today—allows for “Jewish politics,” which Spinoza deemed defunct.
But what would Jewish politics then look like? In the 17th century, most Jews in Western Europe lived in semi-autonomous Jewish quarters, which featured their own courts and leaders, and collected their own taxes—all in accordance with rabbinic law. This theocratic governance is, for Spinoza, the only kind of authentically “Jewish” politics, in that it maintains a Jew’s status, qua Jew, as a political agent (which is lost in secular democracy in which he is equal to all others) and maintains rabbinic law (which he argues is lost under Jewish nationhood).
Spinoza’s radical conclusion in the Treatise comes fundamentally from his reading of the Bible as a historical document, which he thought should be analyzed more like a natural artifact than a sacred message given at Sinai. By this interpretation, he saw the Bible’s accounts on proper Jewish law and political history as historically relative—nothing more than the opinions held by its Jewish authors in the biblical era and no longer obligated or applicable to Jews living in later times. Spinoza thus concludes (much like 20th-century figures like Emmanuel Levinas) that the only binding Jewish obligations are those of morality and reason, while all other political and religious laws lose their legitimacy. In proclaiming rabbinic law non-binding, Spinoza essentially wiped out the need for a rabbinic class of rabbis and judges, since his view allowed individuals to make moral and legal decisions for themselves.
While Spinoza praised Jewish leaders like Moses, he did so not for their status as religious figures, but out of respect for their political abilities. By Spinoza’s reading, Moses masterfully used religion as a means of uniting the Israelites, then largely an uneducated class having been enslaved in Egypt, by appealing to their sense of wonder and organizing them around devotion to God, rather than fear of punishment. And so while figures like Maimonides praised Moses for his philosophical insight, Spinoza saw him primarily as an inspirational figure for Jewish politics. Similarly, Spinoza identified the Jewish people as “chosen” not in a metaphysical sense, but only insofar as they were politically successful. After the diaspora, this chosenness abated, though Spinoza envisioned the restoration of the Jewish state which would constitute its return.
Cooper noted that early Zionists held rallies at Hebrew University in honor of Spinoza—even going so far as to call him the first Zionist. But the implications of Spinoza’s writings for Jewish nationhood are mixed. While the return of Jews to political autonomy in a sense constituted a return to chosenness, Spinoza, ever wary of belief in the supernatural, made clear that the re-establishment of the Jewish state would have to be an entirely practical endeavor of human political and military means—thus making the state of Israel a nation just like any other and subject to the same political forces and moral laws. In this respect, Israel is only a Zionist state, not a Jewish one.
Ultimately, Spinoza’s preferred option was Jewish assimilation into liberal democracy, for several reasons. First, he felt that Jewish self-imposed isolation provoked anti-Semitism and was ultimately self-defeating. Second, he had almost an unshakable Enlightenment-era hope that, under conditions of free speech, democracy and philosophy are mutually reinforcing and the most stable and natural form of organization for human beings. He envisioned liberal democracies like Amsterdam allowing Jews a safe space on account of its freedom of speech and religious expression. Furthermore, its egalitarian political representation also allowed Jews to participate in society as equal citizens. Yet, despite its benefits, assimilation also spelled the end of Jewish politics.
Spinoza’s conclusions constituted in his day a “take your pick” option between democracy and Jewish politics that still holds true today. Alas, the vexed question of whether a Jewish polity can be both Jewish and democratic is older than you thought.
This post originally appeared on http://juchicago.tumblr.com.
Naomi Schaefer Riley, a former Wall Street Journal editor and writer, is the author most recently of ‘Til Faith Do Us Part: How Interfaith Marriage Is Transforming America. She also is the author of God on the Quad and The Faculty Lounges, and the co-editor of Acculturated. She lives in the New York suburbs.
Q: What inspired you to write ‘Til Faith Do Us Part?
A: I’ve been a religion reporter for 15 years now. I was very familiar, from growing up [Jewish], with Jewish questions about intermarriage, but I was surprised in doing my research that other religious communities were facing—not as head-on—the same questions about intermarriage. Not necessarily demographic questions, but finding that interfaith marriages were more common. Religious leaders are facing questions about how to counsel [the interfaith couples] and [whether to] perform [interfaith marriages].
Q: How did you pick the title? Was there an assumption that faith would part these couples?
A: In my book research that I did, and the survey I did, I found that interfaith couples had a lower rate of [marital] satisfaction in certain [interfaith] combinations, and were more likely to divorce.
Q: Did these results surprise you?
A: No, other surveys, such as the American Religious Identification Survey, had come to similar conclusions. There’s a higher likelihood of divorce with interfaith couples. Marriage counselors and others would say that the further apart a couple is on any number of measures, the larger the [possibility] that they will experience tension.
Q: How did your own interfaith marriage affect your writing of the book?
A: I’m in a faith/no-faith marriage, so there is not actually another set of religious beliefs [involved]. I would say that it affected the way I understood these questions before I started writing the book. A lot of people entering interfaith marriages assume, Well, we’ll have a conversation about raising the kids, and one person will ‘win.’ Being in an interfaith marriage made me realize how long-term that conversation is, even if you stick to the same conclusion.
Q: How did you conduct the survey for the book?
A: The survey was done by YouGov, a large polling firm. I developed about 100 questions for the survey that reflected the ways that other survey questions were worded, so we could do comparisons. 2,500 people took the survey. They have algorithms to make the results nationally representative. Then we analyzed the results.
Q: What surprised you the most in the course of your research, both in terms of the survey results and the interviews you conducted?
A: With the survey, there were two things. First, that more than half the respondents in interfaith marriages didn’t talk about the faith they would raise their children in before marriage. And of the same-faith couples, one-fourth started as interfaith. There’s quite a bit of conversion going on. It tells you about the fluidity of American religion and the [importance] of a spouse’s beliefs.
From talking to people, it was how much people were willing to share about the tensions in their marriage. Even if they didn’t regret marrying the other person, it was OK to tell me about the sadness and loneliness they felt.
Q: What do you think will happen in future in terms of interfaith marriages, and what impact will this have?
A: Interfaith marriages will continue to catalyze the longstanding American religious tradition of tolerance, and assimilation. As people get to know people of other faiths, they like them better, and are more likely to marry them. … I don’t really see an end to it.
We will continue to [see] challenges to American religious institutions, and it will continue to cause difficulties for some marriages. [It’s important] to have these conversations more ahead of time about what you expect from your religious life as a couple and a family.
Q: What message do you want people to take from your book?
A: It’s not a self-help book, but if you’re talking about people considering interfaith marriage, having more of these conversations ahead of time. You only fill out 500-question [premarital] surveys once someone has already proposed to someone else. It seems very late in the game.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m finishing a manuscript about young adults and religion, [examining] the question of how religious institutions and leaders are concerned about losing the 20- and 30-somethings. I’ve gone around the country looking at how more successful institutions [keep people] in the fold.
This interview was conducted in partnership with Deborah Kalb. For more, visit http://deborahkalbbooks.blogspot.com.
Norman Gelb is the author of many works of history, including The Berlin Wall, Less Than Glory, Desperate Venture, and Kings of the Jews. His most recent book is Herod the Great: Statesman, Visionary, Tyrant. Born in New York, Gelb has spent many years in Europe, as a correspondent for the Mutual Broadcasting System in Berlin and London, and as U.K. correspondent for The New Leader magazine. He lives in London.
Q: Why did you decide to write a biography of Herod the Great?
A: Herod was the subject of one of the chapters in my previous book, on the lives and times of the kings and reigning queens of ancient Israel. While researching that chapter, I came to appreciate how inaccurate was the prevailing popular image of this Jewish Arab ruler of the ancient kingdom of Judaea.
He has long been commonly portrayed as a creature of unmitigated malevolence though the evidence shows there was more to him than that. I felt the record of his horrific misdeeds and shortcomings should be weighed at greater length against his substantial positive achievements. Hence the book, which is meant to draw a more balanced picture of this extraordinary figure.
Q: As you write in the book, “This study is meant not only to tell the story of Herod but also to modify the persisting one-dimensional negative image of a monarch who, despite his failings, was a constructive and fascinating historical figure.” How would you characterize his role in history?
A: Rulers in Herod’s day commonly ruled their subjects in ways that today are considered barbaric, but Herod’s faults were egregious even by standards existing then. He allowed himself to be named king of the Jews by Rome to replace a popular king descended from the Maccabees. Challenged for supremacy in the Middle East by incursions from what is now Iran, the Romans insisted on a reliable figure loyal to them to administer Judaea, which then was the strategically positioned land-bridge between Asia and Africa.
Named king, Herod helped Roman legions bloodily conquer Jerusalem so he could mount the throne there in place of his predecessor. He then transformed Judaea into a draconian police state, murderously crushing all dissent to sustain his long reign despite the hostility of most of his subjects. In addition to being revolted by his brutal rule, they considered him at best a “half-Jew” and a Roman toady who catered excessively to non-Jews in his realm.
He executed members of the Sanhedrin supreme religious council whose loyalty he doubted. His homicidal insecurity and vindictiveness ultimately grew so extreme that he commanded that his soldiers be ordered to slaughter figures revered throughout the land on the day he died so that his subjects would mourn their death rather than celebrate his demise.
Nevertheless, Herod’s transgressions, shortcomings and atrocious deeds should rightly be weighed against his positive achievements. These included transforming his kingdom into a modern, thriving, flourishing state. He revived Judaea’s languishing economy through agricultural innovation, commercial initiative and enhanced international trade that brought relative prosperity to the land and its people.
He magnificently rebuilt the Holy Temple, beautified Jerusalem, brought state-of-the-art urban renewal to some of Judaea’s other cities, sponsored architectural projects in cities from Athens to Damascus, and acquired international significance and esteem for Judaea throughout the all-powerful Roman Empire, of which Judaea was but a tiny patch.
Despite hostility at home, Herod was acclaimed throughout the already extensive Diaspora. His respected standing in Rome earned Jewish communities throughout the Empire significant benefits, including exemption from Roman military service for their men because it would clash with their Sabbath observance, protection against discrimination by local non-Jewish majorities in the Diaspora and permission for Jews to be judged by their own rather than Roman courts.
Diaspora Jews basked in Judaea’s enhanced reputation during Herod’s reign and were gratified by the grandeur of the Jerusalem Temple he rebuilt, the edifice at the heart of their faith to whose upkeep they contributed generously.
Atrocious though Herod’s shortcomings were, when he died, the tyrannically imposed order and peace that had marked his reign gave way almost immediately to turmoil, disarray and public disorder in Judaea. The thousand-year-old Jewish nation began spiraling toward a hopeless war with Rome that sealed its destruction from which it would not recover until the creation of modern Israel 2,000 years later.
Q: You describe Herod’s family as “the dysfunctional royal family in Jerusalem,” and indeed it was–among those he ordered executed were his favorite wife and his three oldest sons. What created this dysfunctional situation?
A: Herod’s paranoia was deeply embedded. It was apparent when, as a young official, he brutally suppressed unrest in Galilee and was almost condemned to death by the Sanhedrin religious council for exceeding his authority. As he graduated to greater positions of power, his insecurity expanded and deepened.
Ultimately it would unsettle the balance of his mind. When, as king, he was persuaded by backbiting siblings to doubt the faithfulness of his adored wife Miriamne, it overwhelmed the love he had for her and he had her killed. Her terrified mother, Alexandra, testified against her daughter at a rigged trial, but it did not save her from a similar fate. The sons Herod executed may or may not have been conspiring against their father, but his merest suspicion that they were assured their elimination.
Herod’s paranoia was deliberately fueled by his older sister Salome and younger brother Pheroras, both, like Herod, of more modest origins than his aristocratic victims. They were indignant about the disdain in which they were held by Miriamne, a scion of the Jewish Hasmonean dynasty Herod had overthrown, and by the half-blue blooded sons he and she had conceived together.
Q: Why do you think Herod’s image has been negative and one-dimensional?
A: Almost all people for whom the name Herod has any significance have an image of him shaped by only one thing: a passage in the New Testament claiming that he ordered the massacre of infant boys in Bethlehem after being told that a new king of the Jews (Jesus Christ) had been born there.
The tale of that horrific deed has also been perpetuated over time by magnificent paintings of that horrific “Massacre of the Innocents” by Tintoretto, Peter Brueghel, Gustave Doré and a host of other esteemed artists, as well as in medieval religious plays.
The irony is that this atrocity for which Herod is best known is not likely to have taken place. The brief, single reference to it in the Matthew Gospel is not repeated in any of the other Christian gospels, though such a significant event in the story of Jesus might have been expected to be. Nor is there any mention of that supposed slaughter in the works of historian Josephus, though he is the primary source of our knowledge of Herod’s reign, misdeeds and all.
Nor is there a reference to it in the well-chronicled accounts of the rule of the Roman Emperor Augustus who, though he befriended Herod, was recorded as having commented acerbically on Herod’s observance of Jewish dietary laws and his execution of his own oldest sons, “I would rather be Herod’s pig than his son.”
Q: The Publishers Weekly review of your book said, “This is an exemplary illustration of revisionist history.” What do you think of that characterization?
A: I am as gratified by praise as others would be and am therefore delighted that my book has been described as “exemplary.” Having attempted to partially rehabilitate the image of Herod the Great, my book is certainly revisionist history, a category which sometimes seems to carry a pejorative tinge. But all new works of history that bring new perspectives and new ideas to old ones are, by definition, revisionist.
Q: What surprised you the most as you researched the book?
A: Two things.
I was most surprised by Herod’s most lasting achievement: how the high regard with which he was held during his reign in the Diaspora across the sprawling Roman Empire promoted and consolidated the emotional bond between men and women in those Diaspora Jewish communities and Judaea, a bond with the Jewish homeland that has endured right through to modern times.
I was also surprised by some of what I learned while researching my “Afterword” chapter for the book. I included that chapter on The Dawn of Christianity because, though Herod the Great was not involved with the birth of the Christian faith, it was the most significant historical event during the Herodian period, which can be considered to have extended until the war with Rome after Herod died.
What surprised me was how profoundly the embryonic Jesus movement in Jerusalem, Antioch and elsewhere in the region was based on, and conformed to, its Jewish heritage before it was co-opted and redirected by the self-appointed Apostle Paul, his evangelizers and those who followed Paul’s teachings rather than the wishes of James, the brother of the crucified Jesus, and the beliefs of the Apostle Peter who had vainly tried to keep the movement true to Torah law.
Q: Are there any particular historical figures to whom you would compare Herod, and if so, who and why?
A: Hard to say. So much depended on historical conditions, like those in which Herod found himself, an ambitious figure in an environment dominated by the Roman Empire and its battle-hardened legions. For example, for much of its existence, the ancient nation of the Jews existed in the shadow of a succession of devouring superpowers: the Assyrians who ultimately obliterated the northern kingdom of Israel (dispersing the “Lost Tribes” of the Jews), the Babylonians who conquered Jerusalem and drove the Jews into temporary exile “by the waters of Babylon”, the Parthians and the Romans.
For many of its leaders, coping with such immediate or potential threats was an existential burden. I can’t say that any succeeded as well as Herod did, to the benefit of his subjects, his kingdom and himself.
Q: Are you working on another book?
A: I might take a break from history writing. Much as I enjoy the research process, in the past, for relaxing breaks from its demands, I also wrote two light novels under a pseudonym. Since Herod was finished, I’ve been toying with a third novel, the proverbial unfinished manuscript so many of us have buried in a bottom desk drawer, awaiting retrieval and reanimation.
This interview was conducted in partnership with Deborah Kalb. For more, visit http://deborahkalbbooks.blogspot.com.
Yesterday, Moment published an interview with Ruth Balinsky Friedman, who will graduate next month from the first school to train Orthodox female clergy. Today, Moment speaks with fellow classmate Rachel Kohl Finegold. Finegold is a graduate of the Drisha Scholars Circle and currently serves in a pastoral capacity as the Education & Ritual Director at Anshe Sholom B’nei Israel Congregation in Chicago. After her graduation, Finegold will become director of education and spiritual enrichment at Congregation Shaar Hashomayim, an Orthodox synagogue in Montreal. Read more »
In June the inaugural class of Yeshivat Maharat, the first institution to train Orthodox women as spiritual leaders and halakhic authorities, will graduate. The three graduates who have spent the past four years studying Jewish law and ritual as well as pastoral counseling and leadership training will earn the title Maharat (Manhiga Hilchatit Ruchanit Toranit) and become spiritual leaders for the Orthodox community.
I spoke with one of the soon-to-be Maharat, Ruth Balinsky Friedman, last week at the Drisha Institute for Jewish education in New York City. After graduation Friedman will join the staff of Congregation Ohev Sholom —The National Synagogue in Washington, DC.
The satirical Diagnostic Manual of Mishegas–created by the fictitious Dr. Sol Farblondget–sends up the DSM with its listing of Jewish disorders.
CATEGORIES OF MISHEGAS
1.0 NERVOUS CONDITIONS OF EVERYDAY LIFE
Nervous conditions are part of the human condition, and thus are as different in their variations as human beings are different from one another. Still, it is helpful to understand what form of nervousness you are experiencing, or what type of tsuris-addict is torturing you with tales of woe, and to thereby figure out how to tell the feeling, or the person, to gei avek (get lost!), gei shluffen (go to sleep), or—our number one suggestion, especially when the meter is running out on your patience for listening to yet another mournful Oy Vey-drenched soliloquy—to tell the tsuris-addict to fardrai zich deyn kopf (literally: ‘Go turn your own head around’—i.e., to leave me alone and make yourself nuts!) Also: a good hot pastrami sandwich, don’t skimp on the mustard, with a nice, fat sour pickle on the side, can’t hurt.
Here follow a list of common nervous conditions that, though different in kind, one from the other, have many qualities in common and, depending on a particular day’s Dow Jones Industrial Average or the state of your kishkas (intestines), can sometimes be used interchangeably.
1.01 Tsuris Reactions and Sequelae
Although Jews like to claim a monopoly on tsuris, the truth is that this condition (troubles, aggravation, worries, suffering) befalls everyone, and most of what passes for mishegas is a natural reaction to life’s vagaries and pitfalls. Thus, when a 54-year-old woman becomes depressed because her accountant husband, also 54, has taken up with an 18-year-old hotsie-totsie, she is not mishugah and in need of psychotropic medications. What she needs, we believe, is to shack up with an 18-year-old lifeguard or tennis pro, and to leave her husband a note, informing him that as an accountant he should realize that 18 can go into 54 many more times than 54 can go into 18.
The point is not to moan, groan and carry on about the tsuris that has befallen you, but to do something about it. Remember: when the Children of Israel fled from Egypt and came to the Red Sea with the Egyptians in hot pursuit, and they complained to God that he had delivered them from slavery into something worse than slavery, and Moses, who did not even ask for a retainer, went to God on their behalf and transmitted his tribe’s complaints, God laughed. “Wherefore criest thou unto me?” God said. “Go forth!” And it was only when the Children of Israel stopped kvetching, and plunged forward into the Red Sea, that the waters parted.
Tsuris addiction is a wide-spread condition which, by cutting people off from their innate capacity for pleasure and encouraging kvetching (complaining), enables them to spread gevalt-laden gloom and doom everywhere. In an iconic example, four elderly Jewish women are wading ankle-deep in the waters at Brighton Beach. “Oy,” says Ethel. “Oy vey,” says Molly. “Oy vey iz mir,” says Lillie. “Please, ladies,” says Annie. “We promised not to talk about our children.”
People who have life-long love affairs with, and attachments to, misery, wind up living in what we think of as The Village of Oy Vey Iz Mir at whose center is the Shtiebel of Gornish Helfin. Tsuris addicts spend their lives holding on to every morsel of real or imagined bad news they ever had—kvetching, for example, about how unfair it is that they had to grow up near people with bigger houses, better time-shares, more cashmere sweaters and fancier cabanas than theirs. In Oy Vey Iz Mir, any and every event is cause for weeping and wailing.
That tsuris addiction is a regrettable and an oft-considered natural part of life is not even mentioned in the D.S.M. (Nor is tsuris attachment, which is pretty much the same thing, except that you can send it to someone in an e-mail.) While some studies show that tsuris addicts may take what they consider genuine (if perverse) pleasure from being miserable, the price of their pleasure is often to plunge many of us into a desire to rip out their vocal cords.
1.02A: The Wisdom of Gornish Helfin
Although the D.S.M. makes a big deal out of attachment theory, we are advocates of de-tachment theory, since experience convinces us that what proves most helpful both to those addicted to tsuris, and those who must suffer from relationships with tsuris addicts, is the concept of Gornish Helfin (meaning, literally, “Nothing will help”), which can be explained by the following archetypal example.
When the great Yiddish actor Mendel Kupietzky fell down in the middle of a Yiddish-language performance of King Lear, and a doctor rushed to the stage and began examining him, a man in the balcony started yelling, “Give him an enema. . . . ! Give him an enema. . . . !” And when, a moment later, the doctor threw out his hands in a gesture of helplessness, and announced that Mendel Kupietzky was dead—still the man from the balcony kept yelling “Give him an enema . . . ! Give him an enema. . . . !” and would not stop despite pleas from other actors and members of the audience. Only when the theater manager appeared alongside the doctor and looked up at the man in the balcony and said, “He’s dead, sir. An enema can’t help. Gornish Helfin . . . Gornish Helfin . . . ”
—only then did the man in the balcony change his tune. “Give him an enema!” he cried one last time. “It can’t hurt . . . . ”
Once we understand that no matter what we do to and for some people, they will not change—that Gornish Helfin, and therefore the best thing is to leave them be—we free ourselves from the quintessential American illusion, pragmatic to its core, that there is no problem for which there is not a happy solution. What we believe is that for many situations and conditions, including most forms of mishegas—tsuris addiction at the top of the list—there is nothing to be done. Thus, any engagement with the tsuris addict—especially telling the addict that kvetching about tsuris is not such a hot idea—merely brings on ever-rising levels of tsuris-addiction.
For tsuris addicts, insatiability is the name of the game. Nothing will ever please them, and it is a waste of time—truly mishugah!—to point out that they have no real reasons for being miserable, or to urge them to find ways to be happy.
Therefore, when engaged in relationships with tsuris-addicts, and you sense an impulse to enter into dialogue with them, the suggestion here is to cock your head to the side, furrow your brow in feigned sympathy, and stare through or past the addict while silently repeating, “Gornish helfin . . . Gornish helfin . . . Gornish helfin . . . ” This way, if by some miracle these people ever do change, you have not destroyed whatever good will may exist between you, and they remain ready to embrace you.
Shavuot, the holiday that marks the receiving of the Torah and the annual cheesecake overload, begins on the evening of Tuesday, May 14. The holiday celebration is twofold in that we celebrate receiving the Torah, including all of the commandments, and the grain harvest, which occurs at this time of year in Israel. When the Jewish people received the Torah, which included all of the dietary laws, they would have needed time to kasher, (make fit or proper) all of their dishes, utensils and vessels. Hence, the custom of eating a dairy meal developed, as they would not have had access to kosher meat without enough time to prepare. My family has always eaten blintzes on this holiday, at times homemade and at times store-bought.
I’ll be honest–I usually dread making blintzes. I make it into a whole production. Going to the store, buying special ingredients, spending a ridiculous amount of time on making the crepe shells… well, it can be overwhelming. I decided to tackle my self-imposed blintz challenge by doing a pantry and refrigerator raid, only using ingredients I already had at home. Adding spontaneity and some fun twists made me actually look forward to making a batch of blintzes. My daughter, Logan, and I came up with six different fillings, and thought of a few more we might try in the future.
I stuck with a few traditional fillings, like potato, but prepared the fillings closer to how I regularly cook, cutting down on prep time and making the dish just a bit healthier. As a general rule of thumb, I never peel potatoes when I make mashed potatoes. I like the texture of the skins and leaving the skins on keeps the nutrients in for what would otherwise be just a starch.
The recipe for the crepe part of the blintz yields around 2 dozen blintzes, depending on the size of your sauté pan. If you don’t roll all of the crepes into blintzes, you can freeze them for later use by wrapping them with a layer of parchment paper or wax paper in between each crepe. Wrap tightly with aluminum foil and place in freezer where the package can remain flat.
Ingredients – Crepes
2 C. flour
2 tsp. salt
2 2/3 C. milk (note: you can use soymilk or almond milk to make this dish pareve)
Butter or margarine for sauté pan
1. Combine all ingredients in stand mixer. Mix at medium speed until batter is smooth.
2. Put a sliver of butter or margarine in small sauté pan and heat over medium-high heat until melted.
3. Spoon a large serving spoon sized scoop into pan and swirl around until batter is distributed.
4. Cook for approximately one minute on each side. Crepe is ready to turn when it slides easily as pan is shaken from side to side.
5. Let crepes cool before filling. I spread crepes out on a sheet pan to let them cool, and start rolling them while I’m standing at the stove cooking up the batch of crepes.
For the fillings, get creative! We made six varieties in this batch including mashed baby potatoes, cottage cheese, carrots with ginger compound butter, Nutella and banana, peanut butter / jelly / banana and fruit compote. If your cupboards are somewhat bare, think simple. A thin layer of jelly or preserves would work well, or even cream cheese mixed with a dollop of jelly.
24 oz. assorted baby potatoes, cut into chunks, or potato variety of your choice
½ C. milk (or milk substitute such as almond or soy milk)
¼ C. butter or margarine
Salt and pepper to taste
1. Boil potatoes until soft enough to mash.
2. Add milk, butter, salt and pepper and mash with potato masher. I like to leave mine somewhat lumpy.
Carrot Filling with Ginger Compound Butter
3 carrots, peeled and sliced
1 cube Dorot frozen ginger or 1 tsp. fresh grated ginger
¼ C. butter
1. Let butter soften and ginger defrost, if using frozen ginger. Mash ginger into butter with the back of a fork.
2. Steam carrots in water into soft. Strain and toss carrots in compound butter.
Summer Fruit Compote
Compote is basically cooked fruit. You can use fresh fruit that’s in season, or frozen fruit that you stock up on when it’s on sale. Make a bigger batch to have in the refrigerator as a dessert, a topping for ice cream, pancakes or waffles.
½ C. mango chunks
½ C. peach slices
½ C. blueberries
1 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. cream of tartar
¼ C. water
1. Cook fruit in water over medium-high heat until soft. Add cinnamon.
2. Reduce heat to low. Add cream of tartar. Stir occasionally, cooking until liquid has thickened. Remove from heat.
Banana Nutella Filling
Spread a thin layer of Nutella on crepe. Add 3-4 slices of banana.
Peanut Butter, Jelly & Banana Filling
Spread thin layer of creamy peanut and jelly of your choice. Add 3-4 slices of banana.
Cottage Cheese Filling
Combine 1 C. cottage cheese with a dash of cinnamon. Caution – Don’t use more than a tablespoon or so of this filling in each blintz, or it will ooze out when it cooks.
Additional Filling Ideas:
- Sweet potato & carrot mash with curry powder
- Lemon curd and fresh raspberries
- Cheddar cheese and green chiles
- Ricotta cheese and sliced strawberries
- Chocolate chips and peanut butter
- Sautéed spinach and mushrooms
- Be conservative on the amount of filling you use. Using too much filling makes it hard to roll the blintzes. About a tablespoon is a good amount of filling.
- Roll the bottom of the blintz up once.
- Fold in the sides.
- Continue rolling up from the bottom. This method creates a “lock,” holding the sides in nicely.
Once blintzes are rolled, bake on sheet pan at 350º F for 10 minutes or so, until fillings are heated through. You can also make the blintzes a day or two before you need them. Refrigerate in a well-wrapped pan or glass Pyrex dish. Allow for additional heating time, or allow blintzes to come to room temperature before heating.
Rudy with the Afikomen
Glenn Frankel, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who spent many years as a Washington Post reporter and editor, now serves as director of the School of Journalism and G.B. Dealey Regents Professor in Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin. His new book is titled The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend. It focuses on the making of the movie The Searchers, starring John Wayne, and the real-life story of Cynthia Ann Parker, on which The Searchers was partly based. He also is the author of Beyond the Promised Land: Jews and Arabs on the Hard Road to a New Israel, and Rivonia’s Children: Three Families and the Cost of Conscience in White South Africa.
Q: What first intrigued you about The Searchers, and why did you decide it would make a good subject for a book?
A: I was always intrigued by The Searchers since I was a boy and I saw it for the first time on the big screen. It was a very unsettling, exciting, challenging film. I saw a lot of Westerns as a kid, and it was the only one that stuck with me. In college, Andrew Sarris taught it at Columbia—he held it up as an example of great filmmaking. I always thought that it was a great American story. When I came back to the U.S. in 2006, I was looking for an American book. I came back to The Searchers. I thought I would undertake a “making of the movie” book. I knew there was something called the “captivity narrative.” I had no idea that The Searchers was loosely based on a true story. It opened up an entire area of research work.
Q: What surprised you most in the course of your research?
A: A couple of things. One was that it turns out to be easier to research Cynthia Ann Parker and Quanah Parker in 19th century Texas than to research John Ford in Hollywood. That was because John Ford didn’t leave much in the way of writing, or explanation of his work. I was putting together pieces of the puzzle. And Texans are so in love with their history that there are so many places [to do research]. It was surprising and interesting. Another thing—you can see all these places. Monument Valley—you can see where Ford filmed. In Texas, you can see…Palo Duro Canyon. In Oklahoma, you can see Quanah Parker’s Star House. As a journalist/historian—I’m not sure which I am at this point—it’s important for me to see things, to see the settings. They are still very evocative settings; it was a pleasant surprise.
Q: What does the story of Cynthia Ann Parker, and that of her son, Quanah, say about the often-troubled relationships between whites and Native Americans in this country?
A: What Cynthia Ann did involuntarily—she was dragged over the border from one people to another. There was no border line, there were no customs officers, but she was pulled from one to the other, and she was dragged back again 24 years later. Her story tells a lot about the wars between the [whites] and the Comanches. It was violent—it was not just collateral damage, but families were really the targets of the war. She was a victim or a survivor—she epitomizes [the situation].
The story of Quanah speaks to racism on both sides. He was considered a “noble savage,” and was venerated by whites because his mother was white. That made him a source of suspicion among the Comanches….It took someone with his talent to save the Comanche nation. They were down to less than 3,000 in the 1870s, and were headed for cultural extinction. It was more dangerous for the Comanches to be a ward of the U.S. government than to be an enemy of the U.S. government for 40 years.
Q: You write that “some critics have accused the film of practicing the same racism it purports to condemn.” What is your sense of the issue of racism as it relates to this film?
A: John Ford was a man of his times, at best paternalistic to Native Americans. The film depicts Comanches as barbarians, rapists, killers. At the same time, the lead character is racist, a psychopath about race and sex. He is a great American hero, yet he resolves to kill his niece because she had sex with Indians. It’s an honor killing like in the Middle East.
The character is not comfortable with this resolution—he can’t process what happened…He’s a man of violence, so he resorts to violence, but he’s not happy about it. It’s the powerful performance of John Wayne, and the younger searcher, Martin Pawley, observing and commenting on it. He’s the moral center of the movie, and wants to restore the young woman to her family.
You have to give the movie and Ford credit for understanding the struggle and depicting it. It’s all going on within a very charismatic protagonist. We want him to succeed because he’s John Wayne, but it’s dark. Love and hate are in conflict. Martin Pawley has Native American blood—that was Ford and his screenwriter, Frank Nugent—it was not the case in the novel. It was something they added because they wanted to raise the ante. You can point to racist parts of the film, but it was invested with something deep, dark, disturbing. It’s very powerful.
Q: How would you rate John Wayne as an actor, overall and in The Searchers in particular?
A: I rate him very highly. I didn’t always. My image was of a right-wing, pro-Vietnam warmonger of the 1960s and 70s, wearing a toupee, slightly overweight, playing the same part. I always liked him in The Searchers, but I thought The Searchers was the exception.
I have come around—he was a different performer in his early films, especially when he was working with John Ford or Howard Hawks. His performance was more complex. As I studied John Wayne, [I saw that] his trademark walk, the hesitant way he talks…it was all a performance. He put it together from watching other actors and stuntmen. It was a very powerful performance. The Searchers was a mature movie for him. It was really one of [his] great film roles. Wayne brings so much to it physically.
Q: One of director John Ford’s accomplishments in the film, you write, was “his ability to weave myth and truth into a seamless fabric.” How do you feel he succeeded in doing that?
A: He takes a simple little story of an incident that occurred and gives us the Comanche-Texan wars. A lot was from the Alan LeMay novel [The Searchers], but Alan LeMay weaved history and fiction together. [Ford moved the filming] to Monument Valley, he was creating characters when he needs to. …[He uses] bits and pieces of history and mix[es] it with fictional characters.
He’s looking at the building of community at the edge of the frontier, how a community knits itself together, what is the role of the Indian fighter, what did people on both sides tell each other as they destroyed their enemy. We get great elements of myth [including] the iconic hero and the virginal girl. They’re all themes from American myth, the myth of the frontier, yet he undermines each in interesting ways, especially the hero.
Q: What about the genre of the Western has captured the imagination of so many people?
A: It’s a pretty good story—good guys and bad guys, cowboys and Indians, gun violence, resolution, a satisfying narrative. In the movies, there are beautiful settings, men on horseback…On the surface, there’s a dramatic story. Underneath, there’s the theme of how the West was won, how we conquered our enemies. [There’s the concept that] if Native Americans can kill families, we are justified in destroying them [Native Americans]. In the 1940s and 1950s, this gave us a vision of our own goodness, of a simpler era [involving] “white civilization.” It was a comforting fable to tell ourselves after World War II and the Cold War. The height of the Western’s popularity was that period. On TV when I was growing up, at least one-third of the TV shows were Westerns. Kids like me, and my parents, would watch avidly.
Q: How did you conduct your research for this book?
A: I hit the archives, many, many archives, for the Texas part, the Hollywood part, and the links between them in the form of Alan LeMay. Then there was the contemporary part of talking to the two sides of the Parker family that still exist today. Archives, interviewing people, going to as many places as you can to see the settings. All three aspects are really important, and they overlapped. At the archives at the University of Texas, I was looking for new material and found some handwritten notes. [Cynthia Ann’s cousin] Susan Parker St. John had interviewed people who knew Cynthia Ann. I put great store in firsthand contemporary accounts. I was using journalistic techniques to do research, and using historical research techniques [on the journalism side].
Q: Are you working on another book?
A: I’m sorting through a couple [of ideas]. I unsuccessfully worked on a project about Brian Epstein, the manager of the Beatles. I’m not sure what I can do with it. I’m very gratified at the reception for this book [The Searchers]. I’ve heard from a lot of people who have read it. Adding a movie to the mix is intriguing. It’s really nice to write a book that people read. I’m looking for another.
This interview was conducted in partnership with Deborah Kalb. For more, visit http://deborahkalbbooks.blogspot.com.
A supplement to our special Washington, DC Jewish American Heritage Guide:
The Jews of Washington, D.C. : A Communal History Anthology edited by David Altshuler, 1985, Jewish Historical Society of Washington (listed below as JHSW). Reprints of articles from journals and newspapers on synagogue life, community organizations, society and culture.
Jewish Life in Mr. Lincoln’s City edited by Laura Cohen Apelbaum and Claire Uziel, 2009, JHSW. Articles on Jewish Life in Civil War, and lists of Jews in Washington and Alexandria at that time, giving occupation, address and place of birth. Read more »
Six hundred and thirty one kaddishes ago my dad passed away. Each day, since we buried him, I wake when it’s dark, retire when it’s dark, and fill the day with kaddishes. It’s a new life now, a new mindset, “When will I say kaddish? What am I doing today? I need to say kaddish.”
The repetitive nature of kaddish (the Jewish hymn for mourning)–each day, about seven times a day I say it–has made me obsessive. On a drive from Chicago to Pittsburgh, I was nervous I’d miss it one morning so I stayed overnight in a motel near a synagogue in Toledo, Ohio. I didn’t sleep that night, not for fear of bedbugs, foreignness, or crime, but because I was afraid I’d miss my alarm. At home it’s no different. I’m married to my clock: 12:17, 2:31, 3:48, 4:52, “I might as well get up; I don’t want to be late.” I cannot miss saying kaddish. I hire babysitters so I can go to the synagogue. When the babysitters are late I bring my daughters in their pajamas. Holding one girl in my arms, while the other two are bickering, I say it, “Yisgadal, vayisgadash, shmaeh rabbah.” In the same breath, I ask, “Dad, do you hear me,” and I wonder, “God, are you happy?”
I love when other people are saying kaddish–I just push the words out, like a bottle in the waves, and let my voice drift, swallowed up by the sound of mourners. My mouth moves, the words exit, and with closed eyes I see him. He’s healthy here. Sometimes, my dad is sitting on a stationary bike, in his bedroom, reading a magazine, as the pedals churn. Other times, as I stand in the synagogue, he’s there, beside me to my left, resting in the same spot where we sat together so often. He’s funny; he’s still wearing his red sweatshirt from Temple University–get it, “Temple”?
There are times that I’m a lone voice. No one else is saying kaddish, but me. The service breaks for kaddish and my words usher out across the room, piercing the silence–for me. I don’t know if anyone else hears it. It’s hard to find him here, when I’m alone. That’s the worst, I’m searching, trying to remember, and nothing, just words.
Since I started paying attention three months ago, people say kaddish in so many ways. Some race through it; others meander, overstressing syllables and creating awkward pauses in the text. I’ve heard people yell it, whisper it; one guy, I was convinced, was saying it in a Scottish accent, which is strange because he’s from Virginia.
Kaddish is the universal song of mourners. I’m saying it for my 61-year-old dad. She’s saying it for her 82-year-old brother. Rocky is saying it for Mickey, and the rabbi is saying it for people who can’t. Over the last few months, I’ve developed a spoken-unspoken bond with my fellow grievers. There’s a hurt we’re carrying and each time we say kaddish we audibly demonstrate that pain to the others present. We’re like a little sad society–exclusive eligibility, but always welcoming new members.
People say that it gets better with time. That’s not comforting. About 1,600 kaddishes from now I’ll be done for the year. Then what? It’s not like I can go back to how it was before. Do I ignore the roll of mourning voices? Do I stoically respond to someone else’s prayer? “Dad, if I close my eyes and talk to you then will I be crazy?” Will I sleep better knowing there’s no kaddish to rush to, or will I sleep worse?
Each night, as I conclude my kaddish, “Oseh shalom bimromav,” I say, “Good night Dad. I’ll see you tomorrow.” About 1,600 kaddishes from now, as I finish that final one, what will I say? What will I tell him then?
I don’t know. I can’t think about that now, I have to go say kaddish.
Adam Reinherz is an instructor at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Pittsburgh.
The Big Bang Theory, the perennially popular CBS sitcom centered around the social and romantic woes of three exceedingly intelligent physicists and one engineer, is consistently among the most popular shows in primetime on network television, even in its sixth season. The engineer of the bunch, and the only member of the male quartet of characters without a Ph.D., is Howard Wolowitz. Wolowitz is a physically small, even timid, man who is awkward around women, often exaggerating his masculinity and prowess, and who still lives with his overbearing mother. He is also Jewish, although if you didn’t glean that from this description, you obviously don’t watch a lot of television.
The range of Jewish references and experiences on the show marks Howard as being more informed by Judaism than one might expect, even if his behavior on the show doesn’t reflect that. Put differently, in spite of the increased presence of Jewish references and the knowledge of Judaism the series assumes on the part of its viewer as compared with previous television series, The Big Bang Theory doesn’t depict Judaism as serving as a resource for action, identity, or meaning-making for Howard. This indicates the lack of a functional purpose for Judaism in the series, made all the more odd by an emphasis on substance in the form of jokes about and knowledge of Judaism.
A natural starting point in an examination of Howard’s Jewish identity is to ask if there is evidence that Howard engages in traditional Jewish religious observances, practices, or holidays. We know that Howard observes Shabbat, albeit in an idiosyncratic fashion. Howard tells his friends that on the Sabbath, “My mother and I have a tradition of lighting the candles and watching Wheel of Fortune.” Howard has also had a bar mitzvah, as we discover when Leonard decides to sell all his comic book and sci-fi collectibles. Howard calls his mother to ask how much his “bar mitzvah bonds” are worth, then offers Leonard “twenty-six hundred dollars and two trees in Israel.” Finally, the series does show Howard praying in Hebrew. Howard goes to the International Space Station in a shuttle at the end of Season 5; upon re-entry, he screams a bracha. One of the other astronauts asks him what he’s saying, and Howard responds, “The Jewish prayer for eating bread. We don’t have one for falling out of space.”
It’s clear that most of the information about his observance is mentioned only in passing and has occurred in the past, and that Howard hasn’t internalized any of their messages, rituals, or observances. That is, Judaism doesn’t seem to provide Howard with any resources to help him as he faces the world as an adult.
One of the most obvious aspects of the portrayal of Judaism in The Big Bang Theory is its treatment of Howard’s mother, Mrs. Wolowitz. As is well known, literature, television, and film have long portrayed Jewish mothers as affectionately overbearing, lovingly controlling, and compassionately critical toward their sons especially. This “Jewish mother” stereotype seems to be in evidence right from the beginning for Mrs. Wolowitz. In the seventh episode of the series, Howard has fallen hard for a girl named Christy and has invited her to live with him. The only problem is that he still lives with his mother. When we first hear Mrs. Wolowitz’s voice—that grating, nasal, New Jersey-esque, always screaming voice—she’s arguing with Christy and she not only calls Howard a “putz,” but also tells Christy to “go back to Babylon, you whore!”
The issue of intermarriage has long been front and center for Howard. His first date with his future wife, Bernadette, goes horribly until they start bonding over how overprotective their respective mothers are. Once the ice is broken, Howard says, “Listen, you have to come to Shabbos dinner at my house sometime.” When Bernadette asks why, he replies, “A Catholic girl like you, wearing a big cross like that might just give my mother the big brain aneurysm I’ve been hoping for.” Smiling, Bernadette says, “Okay, but only if you come to Sunday dinner at my house wearing a yarmulke.” “It’s a date,” replies Howard, and then they toast each other. This interest in non-Jewish women has long characterized Howard’s feeble attempts to attract women. At the same time, though, Howard is aware that his dating women outside his Jewish faith is an issue for his mother.
Taken together, one could argue that all the components we’ve examined—religious holidays, practices, and observances; Howard’s Jewish mother; and interfaith relationships—indicate a much deeper and richer portrayal of Jewish identity in the series when compared with other series that depict Jewish characters. If viewers expect that this means Howard’s Judaism will take on functional meaning for him, though, they’re wrong. What The Big Bang Theory does, then, is to provide much more information, or substance, to the viewer regarding Howard’s Jewish background, while never showing that substance serving any performative purpose. The show doesn’t show Howard’s Judaism in a functional sense, as we’re never shown what Howard’s Judaism does—religion never serves as a motivating factor in any of his moral actions or ethical decisions. While other shows have shown religion (and Judaism in particular) as a motivating factor in decisions or actions, The Big Bang Theory avoids that tendency, and instead portrays Howard’s Judaism as a conglomerate of non-determinative punch lines, albeit a much larger and more comprehensive conglomerate than found in other shows that contain Jewish characters.
Perhaps it’s best to conclude by letting Howard have the final word on religion. When Bernadette confronts Howard for his repeated excuses to avoid helping prepare to move and asks him why he can’t do it that day, he responds, “You know, I’m Jewish, and technically we’re not supposed to drive or carry anything on the Sabbath, so this one’s on God.” Bernadette snarkily notes, “That might be a little more convincing if you didn’t have a mouthful of bacon cheeseburger.” In a response that indicates once again the minimal influence Judaism has on his decisions and behavior, Howard says, “Well, religion’s kinda loosey-goosey. Basically as long as you got your schmeckel clipped and you don’t wear a cross, you’re good.”
Dr. Dan W. Clanton, Jr. is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Doane College in Crete, NE, and is the author of several works exploring the reciprocal relationship between religion and popular culture.
I’m delighted that Jon Levenson has good things to say about my book, The Book of Genesis: A Biography in Moment‘s March/April issue. In fact, several parts of the book bear his imprint, particularly my focus on the reception of Genesis in Judaism and Christianity. Levenson is one of my favorite biblical scholars, even when I disagree with him. In the second part of his review, he raises some important issues where his perspective and mine diverge. I wish to respond to these issues, not that I have any clear answers, but because a conversation about them is potentially illuminating.
According to Levenson, the key problem is this: my “handling of modernity reveals a contradiction, or at least a serious weakness, in the overall argument…On the one hand, Hendel seeks to appreciate the afterlife of Genesis, for it ‘transforms, renews, and extends’ the book. On the other hand, he describes the traditional interpretive methods of Judaism and Christianity as very often ‘false, or based on faulty premises.’” Levenson seems to think that these two statements are in contradiction. But I hold that they are not. Our lives are shaped by as much by erroneous premises as they are by true ones. This is a key lesson of modernity. As I explain, “the afterlife of Genesis…mostly consists of such creative illusions. Sometimes these illusions are profound, providing the means for human life to flourish. Sometimes they are cruel, justifying the forces of injustice and oppression. But in either case, they provide the inevitable atmosphere of human life.”
With the timely release of the new DVD of my film The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg upon the heels of the Jackie Robinson biopic 42, I want to share some thoughts on how Jackie Robinson’s heroic story impacted the making of my documentary about the iconic Jewish baseball player.
It’s downright shameful how politically incorrect the playing field was in those days. It’s not surprising, as baseball was America’s favorite pastime and back then racial hatred was woven into the fabric of this country. For all of us, Robinson will always be the courageous pioneer who integrated baseball with tremendous dignity.
As Jews, we should also remember how Hank Greenberg, too, played in a hostile environment. Among the stories in the film is the revelation from fellow Tiger, catcher Birdie Tebbetts, about the anti-Semitism that Greenberg faced while playing during the Golden Age Of Baseball. He says, “I think that Hank, on the ball field, was abused more than any other white ballplayer or any other ethnic group ballplayer, more than anyone except Jackie Robinson. But once the game was over, Hank could go any place. Jackie, unfortunately, couldn’t go any place except go out on the field and take the abuse.”
When I was finishing the Hank Greenberg film years ago, I realized how linked the two players were, and that I needed to show that relationship in the film. As there was a great story of Greenberg warmly greeting Robinson at first base when they collided in 1947, I decided that powerful story had to be the ending of the film.
In recent years, when the DVD of the film went out of print, I decided to go back to the interviews I did not use and edit them into a special disc of more than two hours of extras. I was especially motivated to make a new DVD when a young Jewish boy asked me if Greenberg had “been on steroids.” I realized then that I had to re-issue the film so that younger generations could learn what adversity Greenberg and other Jewish players encountered during the height of domestic anti-Semitism.
Among these new stories of what Jewish baseball players faced in the 1930s and 40s is one from fellow Tiger, Harry Eisenstat. The Jewish pitcher recalled a fan throwing a tomato at him and yelling, “What are you so upset about? Wasn’t I nice enough to take it out of the can?”
I cannot imagine how it is to go to work every day under the hostile circumstances Greenberg faced. He countered the hatred by hitting the pitches out of the stadium.
So it’s not surprising that when Hank did face Jackie on the day they collided at first base, there was a small passing of the baton from the Jewish player in the last year of his career to the courageous black player in his rookie year. The only thing missing from this inspiring story is that there was never a picture taken of them together at first base. Such a photo would have been a great accompaniment to this essay or the perfect ending to the movie.
Yet that image will always remain in my mind.
Filmmaker Aviva Kempner directed and produced The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg and is finishing a documentary film on Chicago philanthropist Julius Rosenwald. The new DVD of The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg is available at hankgreenbergfilm.org.
©2013 Moment Magazine. A project of the Center for Creative Change.