Abraham Sutzkever


There’s a song that plays in my head whenever I learn that one of my heroes has died.
“They are falling all around me/the strongest leaves on my tree.
Every paper brings the news that/the teachers of my life are moving on.”–Bernice Johnson Reagon

Abraham Sutzgever died at the age of 96 on January 20. Considering that he risked his life to save Jewish culture from the Nazis, that’s pretty remarkable. Sutzgever was a member of the Paper Brigade, a group of Jewish intellectuals in Vilna, Lithuania who defied the Nazis by saving and hiding Jewish cultural artifacts from Eastern Europe’s largest pre-war Jewish archive, YIVO. At the same time, he continued to write poetry.

“If I didn’t write, I wouldn’t live,” he said in an interview with The New York Times in 1985 while reminiscing over a glass of French cognac. “When I was in the Vilna ghetto, I believed, as an observant Jew believes in the Messiah, that as long as I was writing, was able to be a poet, I would have a weapon against death.”

Sutzkever lived from the founding of the State of Israel until his death in Tel Aviv, editing a Yiddish literary magazine there until 1995. Even though the push in Israeli culture was to forget Yiddish and to teach Hebrew only, Sutzkever kept Yiddish literature and its values alive.

I had missed the initial news of Sutzkever’s death and didn’t understand why  one of my favorite bloggers had posted one of his poems in Yiddish out of the blue. She blogs in Yiddish a lot–I do my best to keep up. We in the succeeding generations continue to take seriously Yiddish speakers’ legacy of courage and creativity. As I researched this post, I found a 21-year-old Youtube user called Ikhveysnit–it means, “I don’t know”–who has been recording the poems of Sutzkever and other Yiddish poets of his generation.

I also found this video–Israeli singer Chava Alberstein, who has also done a lot to keep Yiddish alive, singing a song based on one of Sutzkever’s poems, Unter Dayn Vayse Shtern. The video is Chagall paintings, which is appropriate as Sutzkever saved some of Chagall’s paintings from the Nazis.

Where to Donate to Help Haiti


If you are looking for a way to do something about the massive human suffering of the people of Haiti in the wake of the earthquake there, there are many organizations providing aid to Haiti that are accepting donations.

A group with a long history in the country is Partners in Health. They provide community-based health care and they know the situation on the ground well. They are also seeking doctors and other medical personnel to volunteer.

Another group with a pre-established presence in Haiti is Médicins sans Frontieres/Doctors Without Borders. They have a donation page here.

A Jewish charity doing work in Haiti is American Jewish World Service, which makes grants to other organizations on the ground. You can make similar donations through the social action arm of the Union for Reform Judaism. Another organization, Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) is part of an advocacy effort to allow Haitian immigrants and temporary workers to stay in the US under Temporary Protected Status.

The Jerusalem Post reports that Israel has sent a disaster relief team to Haiti. Israel has a record of expertise in providing earthquake aid in other countries. Several North American Jewish charities have contributed financial support to Israel’s work in Haiti, according to the Jerusalem Post, including American Jewish Committee,  B’nai Brith International,  the Canadian B’nai Brith branch and the Venezuela-based Central American branch of B’nai Brith.

Lighten Up Dude


I have been stewing over how to blog about the Eternal Jewish Family conversion scandal which I have been following on Twitter and on Failed Messiah since it broke. (If you follow the link, you can read the excellent take at Tablet Magazine on the story.) I just didn’t know how to deal with yet another horrible embarrassment for the Jewish people.  But I’m just teasing you–I still don’t know what I can say about this scandal that doesn’t involve a lot of ranting, raving and anthropological jargon.

Nope, today I’m going to write about Krusty the Clown. Remember Krusty, the character on The Simpsons patterned after Bozo the Clown–but Jewish. My former office-mate at the University of Massachusetts used to quote the line, “Krusty the Clown is Jewish?” at me to crack me up. (It didn’t really work, but nice try, Jeff.) Now, according to the Forward, In the next episode of The Simpsons, Krusty is in an interfaith relationship and his rabbi dad is going to officiate at the wedding.


I was sitting here fuming about a story in the Orthodox Jewish Press, Time to Bring Back the Communal Cold Shoulder. The link is there for completeness; I don’t recommend reading the article since it might raise your blood pressure. The rabbi who wrote this story looks back with nostalgia on his upbringing in Brooklyn, where people who violated Jewish law were ostracized. Why aren’t we ostracizing some of “those whose immoral and illegal behavior has contributed to chillul Hashem and to the diminution of respect others have for the Orthodox community and for the Torah itself.” The way they used to ostracize people back in Bensonhurst–and who is the example from his? An interfaith couple he remembers people shunned. (One in which the wife was Jewish, yet, so that the children would be considered Jewish under Orthodox legal interpretation.)

This is why I still have a job. There are still at least some Jewish leaders willing to compare extreme crooks, people who sell human kidneys, sexual abusers and folks who sell treif meat as glatt kosher–to intermarriage. Because they do not have good sense. If that couple had children, are those children Jewish today? Oh, why not do you think?

I have so many angry things to say about people who think interfaith marriage is more dangerous to the Jewish people than having rabbis who are crooks, creeps and criminals, so many hot words on the moral bankruptcy of this kind of position and why it leads to the kind of scandal we’re seeing at Eternal Jewish Family. 

And then you know–Krusty the Clown is Jewish? Heh.

He’s not the first Jew with a mezuzah on his door who had an adult bar mitzvah and then married a non-Jew. Send him our way–we’ve got a listing of synagogues that are welcoming to interfaith families–and cartoon clowns.

Either the Worst or the Best Thing–We Choose


Paul Golin, associate executive director at Jewish Outreach Institute, wrote an op-ed about the recent Birthright Israel study. Miriam Shaviv, a Jewish journalist across the Atlantic at the Jewish Chronicle in London, thinks Golin’s statistics are “not good news”–because they assert that more Jews in North America are intermarrying than she realized.

It may be that the Brandeis Birthright Israel study is methodologically flawed–though frankly, I’m a historian and I often find it challenging to believe in the causal relationships that are set up in sociological studies. One blogger in an interfaith relationship challenges whether this is even the right question to ask. (He also assumes that the funders of Birthright are emphatically anti-intermarriage, but we don’t believe that is so — several of the leading Birthright funders also fund Jewish outreach to interfaith families–including InterfaithFamily.com.)  Oh! Nearly missed my chance to cite the best blog post title ever: Intermarriage Not Cancer–though the author was just pointing to Leyna Krow’s post on the subject that ends with the line, “No need to taint it by claiming Birthright will fix a problem that isn’t really a problem.”

Here’s how I think about this. Either we as a people are in terrible trouble, because we are going to lose the children of interfaith marriage, who won’t be Jews. Or we are about to get a very nice present, because we are going to gain the children of interfaith marriage, who will be some very committed and interesting bicultural Jews.

Right now, we are seeing both things happen. We have some lovely young Jews from interfaith families working in the Jewish community and joining synagogues, and we have some children of interfaith families who are raising their own children as “nothing.” What’s it going to be? More Jews, or fewer? Punish the children because of who their parents are, or enjoy their company over your Shabbat table? Yes, interfaith families will choose–but they are part of our community, and they don’t make their choices in a vacuum.

I can’t say whether Birthright Israel is the one true way to encourage Jewish commitment. I’m a little nervous about putting all of our eggs in a single basket. I think we’ve developed different denominations, theologies and political ideologies–different ways to be Jewish–so that we can all stay connected to one another and pass along our cultural and religious heritage to a new generation. Interfaith families are part of that. We have run a lot of articles from children of interfaith families about their experiences with Birthright Israel. It’s worthwhile to listen to their voices in this discussion.

What Israelis–and Americans?–need to know about intermarriage in North America


Yesterday the Jerusalem Post published an op-ed I wrote, What Israelis need to know about intermarriage in North America.

About a month ago I blogged about the MASA “Lost Jews” ad campaign, which implied that all of the 50% of young Jews outside of Israel who intermarried were assimilated and “lost.” This is a common misconception in the English-speaking Israeli press, and I called it “the most stupid, ill-conceived effort coming out of Israel in many years.” MASA is a great program that brings young adults to Israel for six months to a year, but promoting it as an antidote to intermarriage will alienate the 50% of young adults who have intermarried parents and who might potentially be attracted to the program.

The ad was pulled, reportedly at the direction of Natan Sharansky, the chair of the Jewish Agency for Israel which controls the MASA program. The controversy even generated an article by Associated Press writer Amy Tweibel, which was widely distributed on newspaper websites all over the US, for example, on the San Francisco Examiner site.

Mr. Sharansky, who is a great hero of the Jewish people, reportedly said that it was important for Israelis to better understand North American Jewry, and vice versa. I thought that was a welcome idea, but then I got worried about who would be teaching Israelis about intermarriage in America, and what they would be told. That’s why I wrote the op-ed, because it is critical for Israelis to know that intermarriage does not necessarily lead to loss of Jewish identity and affiliation; that many interfaith couples and families are engaging in Jewish life; and that intermarriage has the potential to increase support for Israel in America.

If the teaching ever takes place, I don’t know if I’m optimistic about the chances for a balanced presentation about intermarriage. I think that the Jewish Agency or MASA are likely to turn to Jewish thought leaders who hasten to view intermarriage as a threat to Jewish continuity. That’s the approach taken by Jack Wertheimer in a recent op-ed in the Forward, Time for Straight-Talk about Assimilation.

I can’t tell whether fundamental attitudes about intermarriage have changed among Jews more generally. The recent case of the Feinbergs, who wrote into their will that any descendant who intermarried would be disinherited, is another example of deep-seated hostility towards intermarriage. My colleague Ruth Abrams blogged recently about the case, and our friend Julie Wiener quoted me in her column for the New York Jewish Week,
Does It Pay to Marry a Jew. Not only were the Feinbergs wrong to think they could deter their descendants from intermarrying, but they likely discouraged their descendants who did intermarry from engaging in the Jewish life that the Feinbergs wanted to preserve. In talking with Julie I expressed frustration at the apparent ongoing unwillingness to see intermarriage as an opportunity. Julie as I recall disagreed, saying the outcry over the MASA ad and its prompt undoing indicated that attitudes had become more favorable. I’m not so sure. What do you think?

Our Antonio


[float=left][/float]I was so thrilled to learn from a recent piece in the Tablet that Antonio Sabato Jr. was actually Jewish! Sabato is best known for his work as the gorgeous Calvin Klein underwear model and actor on General Hospital.  (Photo by Jerry Avenaim used under a Creative Commons license.)

Sabato’s mother, Yvonne, is Jewish but did not discover her heritage until she was an adult. Her mother hid her Jewish identity and sent Yvonne to Catholic school. The family had also moved from Prague to Italy. Antonio’s grandparents and uncle were killed in Auschwitz during the Shoah.

In the Tablet Sabato describes his upbringing as “very liberal, Judaism, and Catholicism. He does hope to visit Israel with his mother. (What a good Jewish son!) For now, Sabato is starring on his own reality series, My Antonio in which his mother helps him find true love.

Who is a Jew? (Do you want your government to answer that?)


Last week, a British Court of Appeals ruled that an individual’s Jewish beliefs, not birth or conversion, determines Jewishness, and that to deny a child admission to a Jewish school due to the circumstances of his birth is racism. This was in response to a British court case in which the parent of a child was denied admission to JFS (formerly known as the Jews Free School), a publicly-funded Jewish school, because his mother’s conversion to Judaism was through an independent progressive synagogue that the Orthodox United Synagogue didn’t recognize. This is the second time that the case has been heard. JFS has said that it will appeal the case to the House of Lords, which functions like the US Supreme Court in being Britain’s court of last appeal.

If the appeals court decision stands, the 97 Jewish schools in Britain, all of which are Orthodox, will have to create new criteria to determine who is eligible for admission into Jewish day schools. A spokesperson from the British Board of Deputies (the equivalent of the United Jewish Communities in the US) told Haaretz that Jewish schools could be compelled to use “faith tests” similar to those done by publically-funded church schools in Britain. These faith tests could include home visits and attendance checks at the local synagogue. I can envision it now, desecrate the Sabbath, get kicked out of school!

Continue reading

Jewish Congressman to Marry Muslim State Department Aide


Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-Brooklyn, Queens) is engaged to marry Huma Abedin, a member of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s staff at the State Department, the New York Daily News reported Sunday. Weiner is a strong supporter of Israel in Congress, leaning to the right on many issues, as the English-language Israeli news website Arutz Sheva reported. Continue reading

Life Lessons From New Israeli Cemetery


This morning, I read a news story about a new cemetery in Kfar Saba, in Israel. The Jerusalem Post article about the cemetery notes that this cemetery will provide options for interfaith couples who want to be buried together. Civil burials have been legal in Israel since 1996, when the Knesset passed an Alternative Burial Law. Until that time, death, like other lifecycle events, was governed by the religious community of the individual. Israel inherited this system from the British Mandate government, which in turn maintained what was in place under Ottoman rule, so for centuries, interfaith couples in the land of Israel couldn’t be buried near one another.

Until recently, the only burial option for interfaith couples (and presumably for anyone whom the Israeli rabbinate didn’t consider Jewish) was to be buried on one of the kibbutzim that shared non-religious cemetery space. The Kfar Saba plots will cost much less than kibbutz burials. Residents in Kfar Saba will pay what everyone in Israel pays to bury relatives in government cemeteries.

According to the article about the cemetery in Haaretz, The society that maintains the cemetery is called Menucha Nechona or “correct rest,” which is resonant with the words of the Jewish memorial prayer, El Malei Rachamim (God, Full of Mercy). The civil cemetery will allow people to have secular burials with such customs as coffins and music at funerals, though these are not allowed in state Jewish funerals, but I don’t see this as an anti-religious effort. The regular burial society of Kfar Saba cooperated with the new group in dedicating some of the burial ground as a traditional Jewish cemetery, and there will be Orthodox burials there in additional to liberal Jewish burials and secular, non-religious ones. Allowing immigrants from other countries burials in a style that they are used to is secondary to the issue of being able to bury families together.

For interfaith families in Israel, this is a step forward. It also provides a model for Jews in the diaspora. The Jewish community is pluralistic, it contains non-Jewish family members and it has to accommodate difference. Our cemeteries should allow for all of that too.

An Exciting Israeli Supreme Court Decision? Not Really.


If you are a Jew by choice or a person who is married to a Jew who would like to become Jewish, it’s a pretty crazy time to live in Israel. On the one hand, Jews by choice, no matter who performed their conversions, are eligible to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return. The Law of Return also includes relatives of Jews or people with Jewish  ancestry.

If you want to get married in Israel, to use a Jewish cemetery to bury your relatives there, or to enroll your children in religious school, you have to be Jewish according to the Orthodox Israeli rabbinate, and this has nothing to do with the Law of Return. This has gotten a little more complicated in the last year or so. It was just a little over a year ago when the Israeli High Rabbinic Court ruled that Israel’s own (Orthodox) conversions were invalid. Specifically, they ruled that the head of the state conversion ministry did not preside over kosher conversions. Later, they also invalidated the Jewishness of the son of a famous Jewish theologian on the grounds that his Orthodox conversion at birth was invalidated by sloppiness in observance of Jewish law later in his life. Most believed this decision, like the previous one, was motivated by political animus toward other rabbis. Still, it threw into doubt the Jewish status of any person converted for adoption who might appear before the rabbinical court.

All of these cases throw into doubt the common assumption in the Jewish community that an Orthodox conversion is what’s required for acceptance into the Jewish community.

These strange cases might have had some impact on a recent Israeli Supreme Court decision that non-Orthodox religious movements should have equal government funding for conversion preparation programs to the funding Orthodox programs receive. The secular court ruled that there was no reason to prefer Orthodox conversion education programs. Continue reading