Ladies and Gentlemen, The Once and Future Yiddish Language

My review in the Forward of Dovid Katz's new book.


The people want more negativity!

Here's my review of issue 9 of the poetry journal Skanky Possum, together with comments on my review by a couple of less-than-impressed readers.

Postscript: A friend points out that one commenter shares the first name and initials of the journal's editor, and that the other might be a friend of the first. Hmmm: interesting. Well, read the review (or, better yet, buy the journal that's being reviewed, then read the review) and make your own judgment.


Professor Naomi Chana Explains It All To You

Why the War on Intermarriage is such a bad idea.


yoIn Envisioning the Future of American Jewry, Leaders Emphasize the Past

Leaders of the four major rabbinical seminaries made a rare joint appearance on October 13th at Yale University, on a panel titled “Envisioning the Future of American Judaism.” Though the speakers agreed on the most pressing problems facing the American Jewish community, they did not propose any new approaches – rather, each presented his own movement’s philosophy as framed by the history of the American Jewish community. The event, sponsored by the Program in Judaic Studies and the Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale, was held in connection with the 350th anniversary of the arrival of Jews in North America.

Rabbi David Ellenson, president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, pointed out that the American Jewish community found success even in its earliest years (ballooning from three thousand Jews in 1790 to almost a quarter million at the end of the 19th century), despite the fact that the first ordained rabbi came to America only in 1840. Thus the layperson plays an outsize role in American Jewish life, bringing to the table her instinctive “doubts about the inherent validity of halachah” and the authority of the rabbi. Furthermore, today’s American Jewish community is thoroughly acculturated, sharing, for example, the mobility of the average American family, which upends traditional ethnic-religious allegiances based on kinship. While the core of the community is healthy, enjoying “a renaissance of the Jewish tradition which has been unprecedented,” the periphery “barely identifies Jewishly.” The role of HUC, concluded Ellenson, is to train rabbis who can both satisfy the core and attract the marginal.

Rabbi Yosef Blau, the Director of Religious Guidance at Yeshiva University and a leader in various modern Orthodox institutions, began with the observation that “a hundred years ago no one would have predicted that Orthodox Jewry would participate” in such a panel. After a summary of Orthodox American Jewish history (crediting Orthodoxy’s post-war resurgence to the day school movement), Blau cataloged the problems of Orthodox Judaism in America, and of modern Orthodoxy in particular: the very diversity of the movement; the attraction of newly observant Jews to ultra-Orthodoxy; the status of women; and the need to strike a “proper balance between tradition and modernity.”

Dr. Ismar Schorsch of the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary attempted to “extract the meaning” of the arrival of Jews in America. His main, somewhat strident emphasis was that the Jews “came [to America] as a group,” not merely as a collection of individuals, and that Jewish identity, flowing from the “wellspring of the Torah,” is “in deep conflict with the notion of autonomy and the sovereign self” which holds that “nothing is sacred.” Said Schorsch, “Unaffiliated Jews are not social capital for the Jewish community.” Rather, the goal should be to create more “serious Jews” – otherwise, the organized Jewish community is “at risk.”

Schorsch did not mention the Conservative movement per se in his remarks, the only one of the speakers not to put his own institution front and center. He mentioned only briefly, in response to a later question from the audience, that the movement is often passed over by its own members, who must first tend to the needs of the wider Jewish community.

Perhaps the most programmatic comments were made by Rabbi Dan Ehrenkrantz, president of the youngest rabbinical seminary represented, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (founded in 1968). “We are a small movement with a large agenda,” said Ehrenkrantz; since “Judaism is a product of the Jewish people,” future Jewish leaders must appreciate “the entirety of Jewish experience,” being “non-judgmental, yet exercising good judgment.” “We want people who can care for the entire Jewish community,” he said, “committed to Jewish history and the Jewish people without being triumphal or bigoted.” Ehrenkrantz implied that the Reconstructionist movement, whose ordained rabbis serve various functions in communities across the ideological spectrum, is well-placed to determine the direction of Jewish communal leadership: with “profound tolerance and respect for diversity, innovation, and the capability to develop communities” which give “meaning to the lives of Jews.”

Additional remarks were made by John Butler, a Yale expert in the history of American religions. “Religion in America has a doubtful future,” he began, quoting the consensus of experts in the late 19th century. Ever since the beginning of the modern era, religious leaders in America have worried that religion can’t compete with the attractions of high technology, urbanism, youth culture, and everything else beckoning from outside the walls of the church (or synagogue). According to Butler, they needn’t have worried, and they needn’t worry today. American religion (and Judaism as an exemplar of this tendency) remakes itself in just those ways necessary to succeed in time of transformation: from immigration to urbanization, and from city to suburb. The importance of religion in this year’s presidential election, and its near-absence from, say, French political campaigning, point to religion’s solid place in American public life, and should help to place in context dire rabbinical warnings of Jewish communal collapse.

Also worthy of note is what was not represented on this panel. In the introductory remarks, it was pointed out that a similar Jewish communal meeting of the minds occurred some forty years ago, at a Yale-Harvard-Princeton Hillel colloquium. At that event, however, there was a representative of “humanist Judaism.” The fact that no such representative, or indeed, any voice from outside the Jewish religious establishment, was present at this year’s panel might bespeak either a shrinking of American Jewish intellectual diversity, or (more probably) reveal the roots of the event itself, which was originally planned to inform Yale students interested in ordination about the different programs available. In any case, established, institutional voices are unlikely to propose bold suggestions for solving the Jewish community’s future problems.

Postscript: The new issue of the YU Commentator, Yeshiva University's student newspaper, features the text of Rabbi Blau's prepared remarks, as well as a write-up of the panel itself by Menachem Butler.


Why I haven't been writing about Darfur

Because I have nothing to say, and I can't think of how to help the situation, aside from giving money. (There are appropriate spiritual responses as well, but despite pro-forma, one-off resolutions from various rabbinic groups, I haven't heard of any massive Tehillim rallies on behalf of the Darfurians. I guess only Gush Katif merits a psalm or two.)

Somini Sengupta reports in the Times that, despite a small diplomatic advance (an increase in the number of African Union personnel allowed into Darfur to monitor the ceasefire), the Janjaweed -- the militia responsible for civilian massacres -- operates with impunity, sponsored, aided, and abetted by the Sudanese government.

What can one do? How can one exert pressure?

The indefatigable Nicholas Kristof castigates the so-called international community -- and us:
[W]hat I can't fathom is our own moral choice, our decision to acquiesce in genocide.

We in America could save kids like Abdelrahim and Muhammad. This wouldn't require troops, just a bit of gumption to declare a no-fly zone, to press our Western allies and nearby Arab and African states, to impose an arms embargo and other targeted sanctions, to push a meaningful U.N. resolution even at the risk of a Chinese veto, and to insist upon the deployment of a larger African force.

I do feel responsible, or at least guilty. But I would ask of Kristof: what am I supposed to do to accomplish these things? Carry a sign with the words "I insist upon the deployment of a larger African force"? (Perhaps this last has indeed been accomplished with the increase in AU monitors alluded to in the Sengupta article. But I wouldn't be surprised if the Sudanese government's agreement were in name only.)

I might be able to exercise some (miniscule) pressure through my vote, but here too there doesn't seem to be much to vote about. The New Republic has eloquently urged both Bush and Kerry to show leadership on Darfur (though placing most of the blame at the feet of the current president):
During the [first] debate, Kerry suggested he would be willing to send troops "if it took American forces to some degree to coalesce the African Union." In so doing, he made an important moral and political point. Emphasizing his willingness to intervene in Darfur without U.N. approval would help deflect Bush's criticism that a Kerry presidency would be a slave to international opinion, allowing foreign leaders to determine U.S. national interests and policy agendas. And, by hammering home this message, Kerry would show how absent Bush has been. After all, it is Bush, not Kerry, who is now presiding over 6,000 to 10,000 Darfurian deaths each month. It is up to Bush, as president, to stop the genocide.

Unfortunately, neither candidate has let the word Darfur pass their lips, beyond those brief mentions made in the first debate. Where do we go from here? I have no idea.
My Blog with Hersh Raseyner

An attempt to translate Mayn Krig mit Hersh Raseyner (My Quarrel with Hersh Raseyner), the novella by Khaim Grade. (I know a translation is already available.)


Do you instinctively blame pharmaceutical companies for everything?

Then read this.


Jewes [sic], poetry, more Jews, more poetry . . .
It's the story of my extracurricular life!

1. George Bush and "the Impostor"
From the Exhibition Guide to Jewes in America, an exhibit running through mid-November at the New York Public Library:
GEORGE BUSH (1796-1859)
The Valley of Vision, or, The Dry Bones of Israel Revived
New York: Saxton and Miles, 1844
Dorot Jewish Division

When New York University was founded in 1830 as a nonsectarian, democratic alternative to elitist, Episcopalian Columbia, it hired much the ablest Hebraist in America, Isaac Nordheimer, a former student in Slovakia of Rabbi Moses Schreiber* -- as its inaugural professor of Arabic. It is a paradox that the city's first secular institution of higher learning should have considered it impossible to permit a Jew to teach the Holy Tongue [. . .] But somewhat paradoxical, too, was their choice, as professor of Hebrew, of George Bush. Competent Christian Hebraist as he was, he was known at the time only as the author of the first American book on Islam -- a biography of Muhammad, whom he insisted on refering to throughout as "the Impostor." [. . .] Bush had made his name as a critic of what he considered disreputable movements -- Islam, millenarianism -- but now he emerged as the leading American advocate of a couple of controversial belief systems of more recent vintage: the occult religion of Emanuel Swedenborg and the alternative medicine of Anton Mesmer. He left NYU and spent the remainder of his life ministering to the Swedenborgian Church of the New Jerusalem in Brooklyn. George Bush's more famous namesakes are the direct descendants of his brother, Timothy.

2. The Bellevue Literary Review

I went to their fall reading Sunday evening. I am pleased to report that it was that rare bird, a reading where everyone was well worth hearing. Particularly impressive was the poet Frances Richey, whose book "The Burning Point" I have requested from the library on the strength of her understated but powerful poems about the current war, her son's military service, her responses to great works of art, and (strangest but most affecting) her recognizing the person of Jesus among men she knew in the 60s. Her poems about war and death, in particular, were moving and thought-provoking without formulaic pacifism or irritating self-righteousness.

3. By the Waters of Manhattan: Talks by/on Jewish Poets

That's the title of a new series that a couple of friends of mine are helping to organize. (Judging from the flier that was handed to me by Bob Rosenthal at shul this past Shabbos, the organizing groups seem to be the Committee on Poetry** and the Educational Alliance's funding project, Jewish Below Fourteenth Street.) In the first event, onThursday, November 4th, at 7, Ed Sanders*** will read his poem entitled "Yiddish-Speaking Socialists of the Lower East Side," and also "speak on the milieu, including Alan Ginsberg."

Bob told me that for some strange reason, the group Jewish Below Fourteenth Street did not want the event to be held in a synagogue. (Too many Jews there!) So it's to be held instead at the Teachers & Writers Collaborative, 5 Union Square West, 7th floor (above Staples). Free and open to the public. I have a phone number for more information, but I'm reluctant to post it on my oh-so-heavily-trafficked blog. E-mail me for it if you like.

*Schreiber is better known among Jews as the Khsam-Soyfer, the Hungarian-Jewish forerunner of ultra-Orthodoxy. His legacy will not in the least be affected by my referring to him in an upcoming review in the Forward of Dovid Katz's book.
**The Web site of the Allen Ginsberg Trust says that Ginsberg "donated much of his income to the Committee on Poetry, a non-profit organization that he organized to assist struggling artists and writers."
***I have no idea who this is, but I imagine it's this person.


More KJ water wars

From the Times Herald-Record:
The Village of Kiryas Joel confirms that it plans to sue Orange County in federal court for discrimination if the county proceeds with a lawsuit against the village's planned water pipeline.

If you don't know what this is all about, read my previous post. And if you read Yiddish, here's even more.


Pray get better, II

There's a new article in the Times on prayer and health. It seems there's a controversy over Federal funding for research examining a connection between the two.

I posted on this matter last year, and I am, of course, skeptical that anything would come of such research. But on the other hand, 2.3 million dollars (the amount quoted in the Times article) is a laughably small amount of money for scientific research. (For the sake of comparison, the FY 2004 budget of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine was about $118 million.)

Furthermore, sometimes extraordinary claims, for which the plausible biological mechanism isn't (yet) known, require judicious open-mindedness when framing the research question. One could do research into prayer and health with only so-so exposure definition and still get worthwhile results regarding the endpoint. In less jargony language: if we defined "prayer" as "any request of a supernatural being," wouldn't it be interesting if a study found a link between prayer and health, if the proper confounders* were controlled for, even if prayer in this instance were not especially well defined?

*A reader (hi, Mike!) asked, on a previous post, what "confounder" means. To abridge a complicated and interesting discussion, a confounder is a variable which is associated with exposure and associated with disease, but is not on the causal pathway between them. For this reason, an analysis that fails to control for a confounder will find a spurious association.

A classic example is a study done a few years ago that purported to show a statistical association between pancreatic cancer and coffee drinking. Unfortunately, it turned out that the controls (non-cases used for comparison) were other patients in the same hospital, without pancreatic cancer, who had been diagnosed with other gastrointestinal diseases. These GI patients were, reasonably enough, counseled to avoid coffee, which looked statistically (since confounding was not controlled for) as if pancreatic-cancer patients drank more coffee.

If that's not clear, someone let me know and I'll try explaining again.
Irrelevant appellations

Can journalists please stop labeling people as Holocaust survivors if this adds nothing to the story?
Roman Rubinstein, Holocaust survivor and Sharei Chesed board member, said that he is fighting to convince his fellow members not to sell [their cash-strapped Conservative synagogue to a "Messianic" congregation]. With a chuckle, he said: "I'm against it because Jesus was a nice guy, but he's not my God."

"Holocaust survivor" is neither a qualification nor an honorific, nor should it become one.


Gals and Geshem

The title of this post is shamelessly stolen from an e-mail by my friend Rebecca Boggs, who is interested in egalitarian alternatives to traditional ritual. Thanks, Becca! (Though I didn't ask. I hope that posting your e-mail on this blog is in the category of zokhin le-odem she-loy befonov: You can do favors for someone without their permission. At least, if they think it's a favor.)

But her e-mail needs an introduction. On Shemini Atzeres, the "eighth day of assembly" which is the concluding day of Sukkos (well, only in some ways, not in others -- let's not get into that here), a special hymn is said, called Geshem ("Rain"). It's a rain prayer, of course, parallel to the Passover hymn for dew called, appropriately enough, Tal ("Dew"). The words of the traditional prayer are beautiful and oblique in ways common to piyutim (liturgical poetry). For the life of me I can't find the traditional Hebrew text on-line. (A translation is here, and an nterpretation is here. Warning on the latter: Tendentious Artscroll Alert.)

The question is: where are the women? Water flows over and under nearly every memorable story in the Bible, and where there's water there are leaders of flocks and leaders of people. Most particularly, Miriam (she of the well!) comes to mind. But Geshem (like Tal) includes no references to our matriarchs.

There are a couple of ways to understand this absence. An Orthodox approach, I suppose(though I'm arguing the opponent's case here), might be that women are private creatures ("the honor of the princess is [to be kept] indoors," or something like that -- yes, I know that that translation is misleading, but this is all for the sake of argument), and so one shouldn't refer to them in public. Their role is behind the scenes. At least, I hope that's the argument, and that there is nothing suspect about the merits of our matriarchs. If any traditional commentator remarks upon the lack of women in these piyyutim, I'd be grateful if someone would let me know.

A more plausible approach, at least to my mind, is that every poet has a reservoir of references available to him or her. When Geshem was written (whenever that was! My Elbogen is packed up), the poet simply did not imagine that women were to be classed with men as figures for poetic evocation. So he didn't. Now it's not a simple matter to change the liturgy, but I think that piyyutim are ripe for directed modification. First of all, they are not, by and large, part of the matbeye she-kavu khakhomim, the "coin of prayer" which (it is held) was instituted by the Rabbis of the Talmud. They are later additions: cherished additions, but add-ons nonetheless. Furthermore, if we can, with suitable awe of Heaven and poetic grandeur*, craft an egalitarian version that is equal to the merit of our matriarchs -- well, why not?

This by way of introduction to an e-mail that Becca received. She had written some knowledgeable friends of hers to ask about egalitarian renderings of Geshem. One of them wrote back as follows:
The best place to go to see where people have done interpretive/alternative liturgy is the website ritualwell.org. I looked for something on Miriam. Mark Frydenberg has posted exactly what you were looking for. There is also a poem by Barbara Holender.

You might also want to check out the book of poems, "Journey into healing" by Sherri Waas Shunfenthal.

Of course, another option, if you don't find what you are looking for, is to write a response to the text that you find challenging/troubling/incomplete.

I found something else on the Web, an egalitarian version of Geshem (in Hebrew, no translation available) written by Rabbi Yoram Mazor of the Movement for Progressive Judaism in Israel. I think it's closer in poetic spirit to the original.

I anticipate modifications of this post as more resources pop up. Please direct me to on-line versions of the original piyut, your own Geshem compositions, translations of the Israeli egal version, etc.

*Insert gratuitous bashing of the literary quality of Sim Shalom translations.