Hanukkah Musings 2021

It’s time for my annual Hanukkah message. I’ve been doing this off-and-on since 1972, when an article I wrote was featured in a Jewish student newspaper at the University of Wisconsin—which seems to be defunct. There was a new Chabad rabbi in town for the new position of any sort of Chabad presence at UW whose name as I recall it was R. Shmudkin. The Hillel rabbi at that time, R. Alan Lettofsky, was going to be out of town, so he invited R. Shmudkin to lead students in reciting the Hanukkah blessings.

I was one of the last students to arrive so there was a bit of a crowd and I stood near the back. R. Shmudkin saw me and raised his eyebrows. He said, “I see that Jack Love has joined us. Jack, perhaps you’d like to excuse yourself as we are about to recite the blessing honoring the Maccabees.” Two things startled me about this. First, that he knew who I was, and second, that he apparently had read my article. I just chuckled and said, “I’ve been lighting the Menorah since I was 5 years old, so I think I’ll keep doing it.” And a brief but lovely service ensued.

My life and career have endured many twists and turns since then, and I suspect that if R. Shmudkin is still around somewhere he is even less happy with my views now than he was then. But I guess he would be happy to know that all these years later I and my family are still delighted to kindle the Hanukkah lights on one of the dozen or so Hanukkah lamps that beautify our home.

What had so disturbed R. Shmudkin is that in my senior year at UW, I had done a lot of research on the ancient history of the Near East. Steeped in the writings of historians such as Victor Tcherikover, Alexander Fuchs, Menachem Stern, and Elias Bickerman I came to understand that a considerable part of the narrative surrounding the origin of Hanukkah was just a fairy tale. In fact, the great devil of the era, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, was not attempting to destroy the valiant God-fearing Jews, he had simply been invited into a struggle among rival factions of Judeans by one of those factions. In other words, it was a civil war and Antiochus decided to intervene on the side of the faction that offered him the most reward. And unfortunately for him, the other side won.

Most modern Jews imagine that we know all about the Maccabees and their struggle because of the preservation of such sources as the books of 1 and 2 Maccabees and the historian Josephus. In fact, the ancient rabbis rejected all those sources and had nothing to do with their preservation. We owe the existence of those sources to Christians. As it happens, the early Church was particularly interested in stories of martyrdom, and as for Josephus, they thought that he had described the era of Jesus and even mentioned Jesus in his Antiquities. The rabbis cared for none of this. But about 1500 years after the Maccabees some Jews also felt that it was important to recall ancient Jewish victories. Having nothing of their own, they plagiarized Josephus, added in a few tales from the Midrash, and published Sefer Yospipon (The Book of Joseph). The conceit was that they had discovered this book written by another of Josephus’ fellow generals in the Roman War of his era. Sefer Yosippon has the same relationship to Josephus as exists between the Gospels and Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

If this is the case, where does our festival of Hanukkah come from? The ancient rabbis faced exactly the same problem that confronted early Christian authorities. That problem was that no matter what they might have argued as religious doctrine, the general populace was not going to be dissuaded from recognizing the change of seasons and most especially, the Winter Solstice. Christians solved the problem by moving the birth of Jesus to a day that is unsupported by their own Gospels. The rabbis composed a tale of the miraculous purification of the Temple by oil which though only sufficient for one day, nevertheless lasted for eight. And this event just happened to coincide with the coronation celebration of the hated Maccabean kings—and so could replace any notion of that in the popular imagination. This tale, by the way, is not recorded in any of the most ancient sources of the rabbis, but rather in the Babylonian Talmud, (Shabbat 21a). The earliest date that could be ascribed to this tale is 300 C.E. and a century or two after that is more likely.

Ultimately, who cares? None of this matters to me as I enjoy the potato pancakes and see the joy in the eyes of my children and grandchildren as they light the candles with us and look forward to treats and toys. Religion is not about history, but rather about what we make of it. History and religion are, as Stephen Jay Gould said, “non-overlapping magisteria.”

About 10 years after R. Shmudkin led the Hanukkah service at UW Hillel, I met the woman who would become the love of my life. We were married on 28 Kislev 5744, the 4th day of Hanukkah, 1983.

Barukh Dayan Emet–Harold Diftler

We learned of the passing this last weekend of a dear friend, Dr. Harold Diftler. Harold and his wife Joyce were among the first people to welcome us to Knoxville.
Harold was one of the most prominent dentists in the region and there are many accolades from his professional colleagues. But nothing tells the story of Dr. Diftler better than the simple fact that he turned no one away over his entire career, and never complained when his patients could not the afford the care.
 
Harold was a veteran of the U.S. Navy. As a member of the Knoxville Track Club he ran marathons all over the USA. His collections of antique clocks and watches are renowned. He was able to converse about many subjects because he so valued education that he never stopped taking courses–in recent years University courses in history, film, political science, anthropology and music.
 
Harold is pictured above from our Passover Seder in 2015. May his memory always be counted as a blessing. May his memory be entwined with ours so that he lives on forever through us.
 
Blessed is the True Judge.
 
 

To Dream the Impossible Dream

Few songs could capture the essence of nearing the completion of a University degree and at the same time demonstrate the nature of the course my students and I have been on together these past four months better than To Dream the Impossible Dream. The song has entered the canon of the American Songbook and is familiar to millions who know nothing of its origin as part of the Broadway play Man of La Mancha. The play is a riff on the great novel Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes which presents a complex view of human nature despite the surface comic opera of the story it tells.

Man of La Mancha was, as so many Broadway shows of its era, an almost entirely Jewish affair. The creators of the show were all Jews, Mitch Leigh, Joe Darion and Dale Wasserman. Joe Darion was also the lyricist for The Impossible Dream. You’d have to look hard for the fact of his Jewish upbringing because none of the common biographical sources mentions it–apparently Mr. Darion was very private about his upbringing and religious life. The music of The Quest (the original name of the song) was composed by Mitch Leigh, who was born Irwin Mitnick in Brooklyn, NY.

I leave it as an exercise for the reader to decide how the themes of imagination and hopeless causes might have carried so much import for this group of Jewish artists.

Most of the portrayers of Don Quixote on the stage (and screen) were non-Jews.The original was Richard Kiley, a Roman Catholic.The 1992 Broadway revival featured Roman Catholic Raul Julia in the title role. And the 2002 revival starred my personal favorite, Brian Stokes Mitchell. “Stokes” doesn’t say much about his religion, but I’m guessing it isn’t Judaism based on his comments that his heritage is “African American, German, Scots, and Native American.”

Now comes Azi Schwartz, albeit in his role of synagogue Hazzan rather than part of a Broadway show, who sings this song with the perfection for which he is justly famous. For me, hearing his beautiful countertenor reminded me of the Jewish roots of this play and this composition.

A fitting conclusion, I would suggest, for the first course in Jewish Music at the University of Tennessee.

On the Term Shiktza Goddess

Two of my Facebook friends raised some issues related to the joke I posted on that platform and focused on the issue of the term “shiktsa* goddess” used in the joke. The first thing I want to say is that I am glad and grateful that my friends would indicate sensitivity to the issue. It is good to reflect on language and the nuance of words, and the fact that words can be painful or harmful. Others of my friends will take the other side–presumably most of them since the joke seemed to work for them–and most of them would take offense at being labeled something like a misogynist for using that term.

*Note: there is no standard English spelling for the Yiddish word shiktza and I have no intention of making my own practice standard. OCD folks will just need to grin and bear it.

Both of my friends demonstrated their point by looking at another Yiddishism, namely the word “shvartze” which can be the rough equivalent of what we call these days, “the N word.” Let me start with that term. Jews from Eastern Europe referred to people of color by the term “Shvartze” in their Yiddish language. In that language, it simply means “black.” In normal Yiddish usage, it is not a pejorative and carries no more hateful intent than the English word “black.” But–and this is a big but–when that term is used by an English-speaking Jew, at least in my experience it is always used as a racial epithet. If one of my Facebook friends referred to a person of color by this term, I would first ask that they edit their post, then if they did not, delete the post and privately ask that person to refrain from using racial epithets on my page. If they repeated the language, I would block them. There is no place on my page for racism.

Now, I said this could get complicated. What happens if the person using that word is actually a native speaker of Yiddish? They might very well refer to someone as a “shvartze” with no pejorative intent–no more than if an English speaker used the term “Black.” In that case I’d have to look at the context, and I might have to add a note of my own explaining the issues. But I might not censor the comment (and let’s face it, we are talking about censorship here) if I believed the intent to be innocent.

With that background, let’s turn to the issue of the word shiktza. There is not even the slightest doubt that the term began as a pejorative, and a nasty one at that. It is Yiddish, but derives from the Hebrew which means “insect” or “vermin.” At some point in the long history of ethnic conflict and hatred, Jews began referring to “gentiles” or non-Jews with this sobriquet.

My attitude to this word when used by an English-speaking Jew is precisely the same as my attitude towards the term shvartze. I would never use it, and if someone used it on my page, I would first ask them to rewrite the post, if they did not I would delete it, and if they persisted with such offensive language, I would block them. And this is not just an intellectual exercise–I have in fact blocked at least half a dozen people for this behavior.

But the word used in the joke was not “shiktza.” It was the term “shiktza goddess.” This is a term whose origin we know and understand. It was coined by Lenny Bruce, a man who literally went to jail to defend the right of free speech. And he meant nothing offensive to the woman in the term. If anything, he was casting aspersion on the Jewish men of his acquaintance who he saw as chasing after non-Jewish women as a way of denying their Jewish heritage. In the meantime, as often happens with such expressions, not a few women have adopted the term as a badge of honor. I don’t have any good statistics for this, I can only say that I know many non-Jewish women, and a few women who became Jews, who think it’s great that their Jewish friends or partners regard them as “goddesses.” Personally, I have a big problem with calling a woman like Ivanka Trump a shiktza goddess, although it doesn’t surprise me to hear others do so. But Ivanka is now a Jew, so IMO that term is inappropriate for her. Steve Mnuchin’s wife, on the other hand…well, I digress.

Louise Linton, Steve Mnuchin's wife, deletes post in support of Greta Thunberg

It might startle some people to learn that for most of the 19th and a large part of the 20th century, many Jews regarded the word “Jew” to be a pejorative. That’s why Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise called the organization he founded in 1873 and which has become the largest religious organization of Jews “The Union of American Hebrew Congregations.” It wasn’t until 2003 that the organization voted to change its name to the Union for Reform Judaism. Interesting, to me at least, is that they still avoided using the term, “Jew.” In like manner, the Orthodox Jewish organization which was founded to provide no-interest loans to Jews (because interest is forbidden by Jewish law) is called The Hebrew Free Loan Society. HFLS was founded in 1892 and has not changed its name. One prominent Jewish publication which began in 1879 called itself The American Hebrew. Through a variety of changes over the decades it retired that name in 1956 and now survives as The Washington Jewish Week. Emma Lazarus, the poet who wrote the words on the Statue of Liberty, was first published by The American Hebrew.

I want to finish on a positive note. I think it is great that some of us care enough about these issues to raise objections. They are acting honorably, and it is good to remind ourselves that we need to look at ourselves and our language to ensure that we are actually communicating what we want to say. Not every issue has a resolution that will satisfy everyone. I never use the term shiktza goddess in my own writing other than to quote others. I see that it is problematic. But it’s not a term of ethnic or religious hatred, and it does convey nuance that is difficult to convey otherwise. I’m glad I had this opportunity to think about it.

 


Hanukkah Musings for 5781

Hanukkah 5781 for secular year 2020 is upon us and it is a holiday I always look forward to and treasure. The earliest Hanukkah I recall is one in which I crossed the hall of our tenement to enter the magical realm of my Bubby, my grandmother, who had her family Menorah (lamp, now more properly known as a Hanukkiah) ready for action. Bubby spoke only Yiddish, but we managed to communicate somehow or other, and she taught me how to recite the holiday blessings–in Yiddish, of course. This would have been before I learned to read Hebrew, so it may have been as early as 1957 when I was 5 years old. Whether it was then or a bit later, the warmth of the holiday and love of my Bubby and the joy she felt as I recited those words made an indelible imprint in my memory.

Bubby (Center), Esther and Louie

I was called to the Torah in 1965 and can’t say that I recall many Hanukkah occasions after that until I arrived at the University of Wisconsin. It was in my junior year, 1971, and thanks in large part to our fabulous Hillel House under the direction of Rabbi Alan Lettofsky, that I started paying attention to Judaism and Jewish history–a story for another day.

As a young student (and major) of History, I began reading about the Hanukkah holiday in several volumes that have retained their value and reputation to this day–in some cases more than half a century ago. Elias Bickerman wrote Der Gott der Makkabäer in 1937, the anteroom of the Holocaust. Subsequent accounts of the wars and dynasty of the Maccabees reflected the young state of Israel. Books like Victor Tcherikover’s Hellenistic Civilization and the Jews (which became well known after its English translation appeared in 1958, but which was originally written even before Bickerman’s masterpiece in 1930). These were among the first publications to bring modern methods of historiography and analysis to the period of history bracketed by Alexander the Great and the Christianization of the Roman Empire. And for me, it they were the eye opener for me to understand that there was more to the history of the people who venerated biblical literature than the fairy tales I had known from childhood.

In the case of the Maccabees, and the Hasmonean dynasty they founded, there was a practically unanimous conclusion that the surviving historical accounts do not portray some evil “Greek” attempting to subjugate “the Jews.” Rather, what we see is a civil war in which one group of Jews (the term is actually an anachronism, but for the sake of simplicity, let’s use it) against another. As often happens in such conflicts, one of the groups appealed for and succeeded in gaining the support of the ruler of the area–that evil Antiochus Epiphanes, but when all was said and done, the real war was between opposing groups of Jews who all accepted the Torah and other biblical literature, but had all sorts of diverse opinions about things like the calendar and which priests should be given authority over the Temple.

I wrote an article about this for the University of Wisconsin’s Jewish student newspaper because at this time of year, it’s customary to write about the holidays. Hillel would always have a candelabra (Menorah or the aforementioned Hanukkiah) lighting followed by a talk or group sing-a-long, and I headed over for what I thought would be the usual ceremony. As it turned out, Rabbi Lettofsky was out of town, but he asked the brand new Chabad representative (so new there wasn’t even a Chabad residence yet) if he would like to lead the service. I believe his name was Rabbi Shmodken, but memory does funny things over the decades. Anyway, I arrived to find most people already gathered around the Hanukkiah. Rabbi Shmodken apparently recognized me and arched his eyebrows. He then said in loud, clear voice–although with a heavy Yiddish accent–“Mr. Jack Love has entered the room. Jack, perhaps you would like to excuse yourself while we honor the memory of the Hashmonaim?” As I mentioned, Hanukkah was, and still is, a favorite holiday of mine, so I stood my ground and sang the blessings with my congregation.

611 LANGDON ST | Property Record | Wisconsin Historical Society

The ultimate irony in the good rabbi’s comment is that the original rabbis despised the Hasmoneans and did everything in their power to blot out their memory. They had good reason. The Hasmonean kings by and large supported the Temple priesthood most of whom belonged to the group known as Sadducees. The kings and their allies generally opposed competing groups such as Pharisees and Essenes–and it was the Pharisee sect that developed into the rabbinic group following the Roman war and destruction of the Temple. The Hasmonean king Alexander Janeus was reported to have crucified hundreds of his opponents on the roads leading to Jerusalem–which creates a bit of a problem for those who want to claim that Jews could not have had anything to do with the crucifixion of Jesus–but that is a tale for another day.

The point is that the Pharisees and their rabbinic descendants wanted nothing to do with the Hasmonean kings. They did not copy or preserve either of the books called Maccabees (which were copied and honored by Christians), nor did they copy or preserve the works of the historian Josephus, who also wrote about these events.

But what they did do is tell stories. One of those stories, which appears many centuries after the time of the Hasmoneans, recounts the tale of how the Temple had been defiled by wicked people and required purification. There was only enough oil for one day, but by a miracle, the oil lasted for 8 days. Strangely enough, we have no idea why it was necessary to have a lamp burn for 8 days for this purification to occur. But we do know that by another miraculous coincidence, that 8 day period corresponds exactly to the 8 day festival proclaimed by the Hasmonean kings to celebrate their dynasty.

LoveLees Hanukkah Night 1

 

 

Life Since WUJS

Received word from some of my old friends from the program I attended in 1973 in Arad, Israel that we are going to attempt a class reunion. They asked for an update on what we’ve done since graduating. This will likely be repetitive for many of my friends and family, but here goes…

The reason I enrolled in WUJS was that I had been accepted to Graduate School in History at Tel Aviv University, but at that point knew only the Hebrew that was taught in two semesters at my undergrad institution, the University of Wisconsin (Madison). It was a terrific way to build my Hebrew and also participate in a program designed to introduce college graduates to the entire country. Almost a half century later I still treasure the memories of our visits from Rosh HaNikra in the far north to Beersheva and the agricultural settlements south of Arad.

The indelible memory of that year was seared in place by a major conflict known to most people as the Yom Kippur War which effectively ended WUJS instruction for me. Despite offers of repatriation from the US embassy, along with many others in WUJS, I signed up to do what I could. It wasn’t much–one of my memories from that experience was a kibbutznik too old to bear arms who would lean over and tell me in the dining hall, “You eat more than you’re worth.” And friends, I was skinny in those days!

When the war ended, some students remained at WUJS, but it was time for me to begin my studies at Tel Aviv U. My favorite class was elementary Latin (“You mean you want to study ancient history, but you have no Latin?!”). We were the first class at Tel Aviv U. which enjoyed learning Latin via a textbook written in Hebrew. Before that, students had to use a teaching book written in English. Lucky me! But really, it was a huge boost in my Hebrew comprehension.

At the end of that school year, I accepted an offer from the U of California (Berkeley) and began studying for an M.A. in Near Eastern Studies in the Fall of 1974. I completed that degree in December, 1976 and received “permission to proceed” to the Ph.D. But first, I felt that I still needed more coursework, and there was nothing left to take, so I applied to and was accepted as graduate fellow at Hebrew University of Jerusalem beginning in the Fall of 1977.

That academic year, Anwar Sadat stunned the world by coming to Jerusalem. I sometimes quip that my two years in Israel were, “War and Peace.”

I took as many course as I could at Hebrew U, and then it was time to return to the States. But my graduate advisor at Berkeley told me that given that only 4 PhDs in History at UCB had managed to find positions, I ought to consider other alternatives. So I applied to the Rabbinical program at HUC – Cincinnati. Oddly enough, they advised me to join the History PhD program there because I would receive a much better fellowship that way. And so I went from Jerusalem to Cincinnati. The most important scholar there for my interests was Samuel Sandmel. When I got to Cincinnati, I was his only student. During the semester he informed me that he had accepted a position at the U of Chicago and asked me to consider joining him. But the chancellor pulled me aside and cautioned me that Sandmel might not be alive much longer, so I declined his offer and indeed he passed away in February having made the move to Chicago just a month before.

Without Sandmel, staying in Cincinnati didn’t seem worthwhile although I did very much enjoy my studies in Talmud with Ben Zion Wacholder. Life intervened and I received word that my mother was in dire straits and needed my help. So I returned to Berkeley, made arrangements to settle my life down a bit, and then went to New York City to see how I might help my mother. She had had a severe episode of her long standing bipolar disorder and as a result lost her job. She was in danger of running out of money for the rent. My father, her husband, had abandoned us years before–ironically perhaps to move to Israel. I was an only child to her (my sister was born to a different mother) so it was me or no one. I packed her up and took her to California.

Continuing with the PhD program was now out of the question. I took a job as the Assistant Director of the Berkeley Hillel Foundation which involved leading religious services, teaching Hebrew courses and running the rather extensive Hebrew language program of the Lehrhaus Judaica which was co-housed in the Hillel building, and being responsible for the financial part of the foundation. To do that effectively I enrolled in Accounting classes at a local community college.

This was supposed to be a stop-gap until I got my mother settled, but we all know how that goes. I enjoyed my job, I enjoyed having the stability of a real income. In 1979 I purchased my first house in Oakland with the help of the Lehrhaus director. A couple of years later I met the woman who would become my wife of now 36 years.

We sold that first house to buy a house in Berkeley (this time together with our Hillel office manager who went on to be the leader of the Unitarian Universalists west of the Mississippi). And 1985 saw the birth of our first child, Shoshana. In 1987 the University of Michigan offered Terri a tenured position in their Psychology Department, and as much as I loved our lives in the fabled San Francisco Bay Area, we both agreed that moving to Ann Arbor was the sensible thing to do. So in 1988, Terri’s mom came out and helped Terri, Shoshana and our pet rabbits move to Michigan. I came a couple of months later with our dog. And a couple of months after that I moved Momma to Michigan.

Of course I was hoping for a job teaching Hebrew, but Hillel was staffed up and my mere M.A. wasn’t good enough for the U, so I was unemployed for awhile. I had learned a considerable amount about both accounting and database management, and a friend mailed me–quite out of the blue–a T-Shirt emblazoned with the word “Oracle.” One day, I felt a tap on my shoulder as I was picking Sho up from day care, and the father of one of the other kids asked me, “Do you know anything about Oracle?” I replied that “Yes, I had successfully deployed an Oracle database at my former employer in California.” He hired me on the spot to do a training session for his group at the University’s IT department because they had just paid $600k to license Oracle, but no one knew how to use it. After the session, he hired me as an external consultant to help them design databases, and after three years of that they decided it would be cheaper just to give me a job. That’s how I became an employee of the U of Michigan in 1992. In 1995 Ephraim joined our family, and shortly thereafter the College of Engineering hired me away from the IT department. I rose through those ranks and eventually was leading three departments within the College.

I decided to retire from the University when I turned 58 because I was qualified for benefits, they were running an early retirement program, my investments had done well, and really, I didn’t need the headaches any longer. I accepted a voluntary position as the first Executive Director (unpaid) of the County’s NAMI program.

2011 was a momentous year for our family. Ephraim had decided to make aliyah and complete his education in Israel. My mother sadly left us that year. And Terri received an offer to become the Dean of Arts and Sciences at the U of Tennessee, Knoxville. After a visit to check it out, we decided to take the offer. We sold our Ann Arbor house at which point Ephraim changed his mind and decided he would stay in Ann Arbor, but we held to our plan and we went to Knoxville while he remained in Ann Arbor.

A few months after our arrival, the Religious Studies Department was notified that faculty members they had hired to teach Hebrew had elected not to come and the director of Judaic Studies and the Head of the Religious Studies department asked me if would teach Biblical Hebrew for the year. And after that first year, they have hired me ever since, seven years now.

Of course they really wanted me to have a PhD, so I was approached by someone who offered to be my mentor for completing that project. She averred that given all my prior course work, it would probably only take me a year to start writing my dissertation. But the Grad School had other ideas about whether they were going to accept decades-old courses. I stuck with it and earned my PhD in History in December 2019.

Our daughter Shoshana now lives in Albuquerque, NM with her husband Karl and our two grandchildren, Clara and Alexander. My son Ephraim joined us in Knoxville after completing his BA at U of Michigan. He’s now in the later stages of a PhD in social geography and spatial statistics, and he is engaged to a woman who is also working on a PhD in the biological sciences.

That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

Added 4/13/20:

My father was a child of the beginning of the Soviet Union, his father was a highly educated Orthodox Jew (musmah Kishinev). My grandfather came to the States first and established a business selling second hand steel in Cleveland, OH. Then he was busted for selling stolen property and after spending everything to avoid jail moved to Detroit. Meanwhile, my great-grandfather, my grandmother’s father, found the cash to ship my Bubby and her three surviving children (three others seem to have died of Tay-Sachs) to Detroit. It’s not entirely clear that my grandfather, the Grand Rabbi, was all that happy to see them.
 
My mother of blessed memory was born in Brooklyn. Her mother had five children of whom my mother was the youngest. She passed when my mother was 14 and my maternal grandfather (who was a Sanitation Dept employee) fostered her out to people who were cousins of ours. Through Facebook I have been able to make contact with that branch of the family and they are all wonderful folks. In those days there was no healthcare and no real pension for city employees, so when my grandfather couldn’t work owing to a savaged back, he eked out a living as fortune teller setting up on the street. He passed the year before I was born. My middle name, Francis is for my mother’s next-in-line sister Frances  who was electrocuted in shock therapy at a Brooklyn hospital, also the year before I was born. I know, many of you don’t want to hear details like this, but if you want to be honest about life, these are the kinds of things that happen.
 
After my pretty typically Orthodox bar-mitzvah, I didn’t want to have anything to do with Judaism. Like Perry, I was impressed with the events of the 6-Day-War. My father decided to make Aliyah–I think as a way of getting away from us as we were not invited to accompany him–and that was the last I saw of him until I got to WUJS (he was in Tel Aviv). In 1971  I had a serious health emergency and my life was literally saved by the invention of colon fiberscope. I was only the 3rd person to undergo that procedure. The doctors found the polyps that were the cause of my issue and extracted them. I’m telling you this because when I woke up the town (Madison, WI) hazzan was waiting by my bedside. A doctor had asked him to come because he recognized that I was reciting the Sh’ma in my delirium.
 
After my recovery, I started hanging out at Hillel and discovered that the rabbi there was both brilliant and not crazy. It was the first time I think I realized that one could be intelligent and religious at the same time. We became lifetime friends–just spoke with him last week–and I’ve been part of Conservative Judaism ever since. It was at this Hillel that I met the “shaliah” who recommended that I go to WUJS. Not to say that “I got religion”–I was agnostic before, during, and after all this. But I found great comfort in being part of a community, and I discovered that I love ritual even if I don’t think it’s going to save any possible soul I might have.

Passover 2020

As most of us will doing this year, Terri and I will be celebrating a limited Seder. There may only be four (or two) of us, but we hope that many of our friends will be joining us via this marvelous technology (Zoom).

Please note that there have been security concerns with Zoom. We are using the zoom server provided by the University of Tennessee; we can therefore say we are safe at our end of things. This cannot guarantee that your own computers are completely safe from hackers.

If you would like to follow along with us, you can find this year’s version of my Haggadah here:

https://www.dropbox.com/sh/3rt0g8tay87r9kq/AACgIyAbQJUp5TpyuxYgCvXja?dl=0

In addition to the Haggadah, there is a short document which explains the people mentioned in memoriam on page 2 of the Haggadah.

If you would like a printed copy of this Haggadah, you’ll need either a laser printer or an inkjet printer, preferably one that can print “duplex” (both sides of the page). You will also need either the full Adobe PDF program, or a good clone of it. In the print menu, use the setting for “booklet.” If you don’t have that setting, your printer might not be able to handle this job. But ideally, that’s all you’ll have to do. Printing duplex, you only need 10 sheets of paper which will then become the 40 pages of the booklet.

If you would like to join us for Passover, here is the Zoom information you will need. If you have access to via the Internet:

https://tennessee.zoom.us/j/760146144

If you live in an area with no Internet, or poor Internet, you might be able to dial-in with your phone. These are the numbers for that, but be aware that your phone company might charge you for this connection:

Telephone:
Dial:
+1 312 626 6799 (US Toll)
+1 646 876 9923 (US Toll)
+1 253 215 8782 (US Toll)
+1 301 715 8592 (US Toll)
+1 346 248 7799 (US Toll)
+1 669 900 6833 (US Toll)
Meeting ID: 760 146 144

The link should become active about 6:45pm both evenings and we are planning to begin at 7pm.

Have a Happy and Kosher Passover!

Jack and Terri

Antisemitism and Politics

A good friend chastised me for declaring President Trump to be a racist and antisemite recently.That he is a racist need not detain us long here, he not only participated in his father’s discriminatory business decisions, but publicly railed against his father when his father decided to accede to Federal anti-discrimination statutes. Later, he famously put up billboards demanding the executions of five Black children who ultimately turned out to be innocent of the crime for which they had been convicted–sexually assaulting a white woman. And later yet there was his obsession with declaring Barack Obama’s USA citizenship to be false. The citizenship issue leads to the manner in which has obsessed over Hispanic undocumented workers while ignoring the fact that his current wife was exactly that. Trump’s supporters raise obfuscatory claims such as his dating a woman of color, as if it is somehow odd that a racist might have a sexual interest in a woman of color. Really, the evidence that this man is a racist is deep, long, and incontrovertible.

The evidence for Trump’s antisemitism is more difficult to explain, but within that explanation some profound truths may be discovered. During his first three years in office, Trump has been seen as a staunch supporter of Israel. The two most fiercely supportive segments of America’s religious population have been white, Evangelical Christians and Orthodox Jews (which is not to imply unanimity, both of those populations also have significant numbers of opponents to his policies and personality). Within his family, his daughter converted to Judaism and married a man who professes a commitment to traditional Judaism and is raising their children, Trump’s grandchildren, as Jews. The chief operating officer of Trump’s business is Jewish, and his legal interests represented until recently by an obviously Jewish attorney.

One reason, and perhaps the most important reason, that people have lost the meaning of the word antisemitism lies in the person of Adolf Hitler and the historical fact of the Holocaust. Thanks to the copious, and often excellent, media exposure of the destruction of European Jewry almost everyone (at least in the cultures of Europe and the USA) understands that Hitler was the embodiment of evil and the Holocaust the incontrovertible evidence of where that evil leads.

The problem with this is that it also results in the logically fallacious notion that one cannot be an antisemite if one agrees that Hitler was evil and the Holocaust awful. The bibliography of writings, both scholarly and popular, describing the history of antisemitism over two thousand years is immense. And despite the ready availability of good information about the topic, most people are convinced that if they do not favor burning Jews alive, they cannot be called antisemites no matter how many other stereotypical ideas they might express about Jews and Judaism.

My father was not a deeply educated man, at least not in academic western civ, but he did have a thorough understanding of the nature of antisemitism as it is expressed in America. He owned a small shop in mid-town Manhattan and several of his most important customers were among the business and cultural elite of New York City. He was dependent on them directly for their business, but more importantly because they also referred their friends telling those friends that they could trust him, that he was an honest Jew.

At home, my father would comment bitterly on such things. I can vividly recall him saying, “These people think they can say things like ‘Some of my best friends are Jews’ as if that means anything.” He understood that many if not most of these people did not really care if Jews lived or died, didn’t want them as neighbors or as members of their private clubs. In the early ’70s I was introduced to the world of business clubs when a good friend took me to the Concordia Argonauts Club in San Francisco. The membership was almost entirely composed of Jews of political importance and wealth, but the raison d’être of the club was that the wealthiest club in the city, where the most important business was transacted, did not accept Jews.

Long before WWII, waves of antisemitism swept through the USA. In a blog post I can’t provide lengthy descriptions, but let me just mention the curious case of Rabbi Jacob Voorsanger of Temple Emanu-El (San Francisco), himself an immigrant to the USA, who supported legislation barring additional immigration of Jews from Eastern Europe because he feared that enlightened Reform Jews might be overwhelmed by the primitives arriving from the East. That too is antisemitism. 

Franklin Delano Roosevelt demonstrates some important aspects of this issue. Regarded as a great savior because he led America out of the Depression and during the most important conflict of the era, and through his efforts millions of Jews did indeed live to celebrate anew. Nevertheless, he was also an antisemite. He was steeped in stereotypical beliefs such as that Jews are “good with money.” This is, of course, an echo of tropes made famous by Shakespeare’s depiction of Shylock. More recently, there has been significant conversation about whether Roosevelt’s antisemitism contributed to a lack of actions which might have ameliorated the Holocaust. That is, in my opinion, overstating the evidence. Roosevelt did not hate Jews, and I believe if he understood that he could have chosen to save lives, he would have.

But let’s look at one piece of direct evidence. In 1939 there was the (in)famous incident of the MS St. Louis, a ship carrying almost 1,000 Jewish refugees. The vessel was bound for Cuba, and the passengers had legal visas to disembark there, but most were refused because Cuba had abruptly changed its laws. The ship next tried to dock in Miami, and frantic efforts ensued to allow them to enter the U.S. Some of the passengers sent cables directly to Roosevelt begging him to allow them to enter, but no reply was heard. High level officials including Secretary of State Cordell Hull and Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau (himself a well known Jew) made efforts to find a place for the refugees. Ultimately a large number of the passengers did find refuge, but more than 250 were killed in German death camps.

This brings me back to the point I would like to make in this essay. Antisemitism of this “kinder and gentler” sort, just the notion that “we don’t hate Jews, but they’re really not us” can lead to a deadening of the senses. It is easier to allow Jews to die in death camps if you don’t think of them as being of your own tribe.

And that brings me full circle back to our current president. Ultimately, the problem with his various forms of expressed racism is that his sensibilities are deadened towards large numbers of people who are suffering. All this talk and wasting of resources on the “wall” is simply a manifestation of racism, in this case directed at perceived “brown” people. No one is claiming that the USA can serve as a refuge for everyone who might want to come here, but we can certainly find ways to admit more people than we have, and we can certainly avoid the harsh and hostile rhetoric and awful treatment meted out to those who do arrive.

 

Hanukkah Message 2019

It’s time for a personal long-standing tradition, a Hanukkah message. I wrote the first one in 1972 for the University of Wisconsin Jewish student newspaper. In it I explained that in reality, Hanukkah celebrates not a victory of a small band of Jewish partisans over the hated Syrian government, but rather commemorates a civil war in which various Jewish factions were pitted against one another.That Hanukkah, I entered the Hillel Foundation intending to celebrate with my fellow students only to find a “guest” had been invited to light the Hanukkah candelabra: Rabbi Schmudken who had recently assumed the job of creating a Chabad House in Madison. R. Schmudken saw me (we had previously met), arched his eyebrows and intoned, “Jack Love has joined us. Jack, perhaps you’d like to excuse yourself as we celebrate the Hasmoneans.” I just chuckled as I knew he was just kibbitzing (kidding), but it does suggest a bit of tension between religious sensibility and historical reality.

The greatest irony, however, is that the rabbinate represents in essence the very opposite of Hasmonean culture. Notice that I used the word “Jewish” to describe the partisans who were striking against the Syrian overlords and their “Jewish” allies. But what does that word “Jewish” mean in the context of these times? These were people struggling for territory they regarded as theirs by Divine right, and above all a place where they believed God is somehow manifest. They believed in sacrificing animals and offering grain for the sustenance of God. For them, all authority was vested in the Priesthood. When they did assume power, for many years they took the role of High Priest and only later that of King.

Contrast that with the religion that both I and R. Schmudken participate in. For us, the priests (cohanim) have a greatly diminished role–and virtually no authority whatsoever. Instead we place authority in the hands of educated people we call rabbis who have not the slightest necessity to be related to the kings, prophets or priests of old. We seek our religious center not in the Temple of Jerusalem, but in synagogues which we can build anywhere we live. We honor the requirements of sacrifice by a system of virtual replacements–for example, when we slaughter animals for meat, we use the symbolism of the priesthood and the Temple in pouring out the blood and then drawing out even more with salt. When we bake bread we tear off a bit of dough and burn it as a symbolic acknowledgment of the grain offerings.

The institution of the rabbinate did not exist in the days of Judah the Maccabee, and Josephus reports that members of the Hasmonean dynasty persecuted the Pharisees who are often imagined to be the ancestors of the rabbis. Once the Temple was gone, the landscape was cleared for people other than the priests to claim authority. By the time two centuries had passed without a Temple, the rabbis were growing in number and authority–simply because people were persuaded that the rabbis knew the right way to do things. Eventually these rabbis set their principles down in a series of books: their interpretations of Scripture and most importantly the various building blocks of the vast library called the Talmud. All of this became the rabbinic claim to supersede the priesthood. And it is the religious practice first established in the Talmud, adjudicated by rabbis, that remains the dominant form of Judaism today. In a very substantial sense, rabbinic Judaism is Judaism, and there really was something else before the rabbis assumed their authoritative roles.

The institution of the holiday of Hanukkah perfectly illustrates what happened. When the Maccabees had their victory and retook the Temple of Jerusalem, they instituted a coronation ceremony for their priest-kings. These Hasmoneans, as the family dynasty became known, felt a need to justify their claim to power. The dedication holiday they held for the Temple lasted for eight days most likely to emulate the Temple dedication festival of Solomon described in 2 Chronicles 7:8ff.

When the rabbis fixed the celebration of Hanukkah, they did so with a tale of a miracle: a candelabra which had enough oil for one day but which lasted for the eight necessary for re-dedicating the Temple. They said not a word about Hasmoneans, this holiday had nothing to with them but everything to do asserting their own authority over the religion. The rabbis also fixed the time for Hanukkah very close to the Winter Solstice, perhaps to divert attention away from Pagan and later Christian adoptions of celebrations of that event.

Today, of course, every Jewish child learns about the heroic Hasmoneans. If the rabbis buried the history of the Hasmoneans, how did this come to be? Therein lies a great irony. While the rabbis made no effort to preserve the historical works of Josephus, and likewise had no use for the books of the Maccabees, Christians did. Christians even regarded the Maccabees 1 and 2 as Scripture. About a thousand years after the time of the Maccabees, Jews living as minorities both in Christian and Muslim lands felt great pressure to justify their historical glories. The victories of the Hasmoneans which they learned about through Christian copyists became a useful tool for asserting the great military prowess of ancient Jews. One Jewish author, probably living in Italy in the 10th century, created a mash-up of Josephus with various legendary materials and called his book Sefer Yossipon. Yossipon was a different general than Josephus, one who could not be tarred with the label of traitor to the Jews. But of course, essentially all the historical material in the book is plagiarized from Josephus.

And so we came full circle. The rabbis who initially suppressed the Hasmoneans recreated them and the modern holiday of Hanukkah emerged: a solstice festival which combines both the original myth of the eight days of oil with the military gallantry of the Hasmoneans.

But you see, by the 10th century, the rabbis knew they had won. No priests or royals existed to threaten their authority. So let the good times roll!

The Shtender By Arnold Schwarzbart Z”L

For me, as a student and teacher of what is often termed “Jewish History” the most startling observation from this week’s readings was the number and variety of commentators who raised the Holocaust in one way or another to illustrate important points about the role of memory in History (and vice versa). While I fully understand that our major objective is the use of these ideas and techniques to elucidate the history of the medieval Mediterranean world, I believe I have sufficient cause to spend some time on a topic related to the Holocaust.

I would like to start a conversation about a piece of visual art. The piece is a small sculpture created by a long-time, recently deceased Knoxville resident, Mr. Arnold Schwarzbart. On Sunday, the Knoxville Jewish Community will be inaugurating a new wing of their facility, an art gallery named in honor of Schwarzbart.

Arnold Schwarzbart was a survivor of the Holocaust (using the broad definition of the term since he was not confined to a concentration camp, but rather was among those who fled the Ukraine for Russia). He arrived in Knoxville shortly after the end of the war knowing no English. He learned the language, succeeded at earning a degree in architecture, and spent about twenty years as a successful architect before changing careers. Something led him to the world of art based on Jewish themes and he spent the rest of his life creating works large and small in every imaginable material: clay, wood, metal and stone, paper and ink.

Without further ado, here is the piece I would like to share:

The Shtender

The Shtender

At first glance, this piece might look interesting or quaint to most people. At this point in time, most American Jews probably would lack any sense of its meaning. But Arnold was born and bred in the culture of the East European shtetl (Jewish community or ghetto), and to anyone who understands that culture, the figure is instantly knowable and arresting. It is the figure of a man (and this was a male role in that culture) studying a holy book. We know this because he is wrapped in a large talit, or prayer shawl, which covers his head and a large part of his body. He is standing at a tall table or lectern upon which a book would have been laid. In many shtetl synagogues, the man would have been joined by other men standing around the lectern studying with him.

Even more arresting is the fact that the man is not actually in the sculpture at all. Like a ghost, his physical existence is suggested only by the shape the of the shawl. When pressed, Arnold explained that the reason he showed the man in this way is because the man under the shawl had been turned into ashes. He no longer walked the earth.

When do we remember? I can’t say when Arnold Schwarzbart remembered a figure such as this. Perhaps he never saw the person himself–after all, he was but a child when he was taken to the camps. The first time I can recall seeing this was not, oddly enough, during my youth in the Jewish part of the Bronx. Rather, it was when I was already done with college and had headed off to Israel for a year abroad, a gap year before I would start graduate school.

I was in a place called the “WUJS Institute” located at that time in Arad, some 7 km from the Dead Sea. The institute employed a man who had arrived in Israel from his native Poland. One of the small number who had somehow escaped the Holocaust and subsequently the Communist attempt to erase ethnic memory. He was a deeply pious man who worked hard all day and then at its end retreated to the synagogue where he studied. When I saw Schwarzbart’s figure, it was this man (whose name I never learned) who I saw.

The figure is probably evocative for a number of reasons to different people who may be members of different groups, but Eastern European Jews could not escape its authorial intent, and not even the women who, after all, had much less experience with study in the synagogue. I wonder how many people would pick up on the notion of the absence of a figure under the canopy.

When I think of the world of medieval Mediterranean society, I wonder how many Jews might have recognized this “Shtender.” I have no idea when such an image might have become commonplace nor in which locales. I suspect strongly that Maimonides, who towers over any notion of medieval Mediterranean Judaism would not have recognized it at all. Indeed, what symbols would he have recognized? In fact, despite the burgeoning of Jewish representational art in modern times, there is little that I can think of images symbolic of Judaism that would have been used in that area in those times. For Maimonides and those Jews acculturated in Islamic lands, there might have been a reluctance to adopt such symbolism owing to Islamic prohibitions on imagery. But even in such Christian lands as Italy and Byzantium, I can think of little in the way of symbolic Judaism. When the Jews began to fill books with illustrations, my understanding is that they used Christian artists and art forms to accomplish their goals.

Music is also crucial to the preservation of culture and aids in memory. Here again, Jews seemed to have followed rather than led. The Jewish music of northern Europe followed the modalities of the Gregorian Chant, while the Jews of Islamic countries sounded for all the world like a muezzin or a qari.

I must leave this topic for the moment as I have simply run out of time, but I look forward to revisiting it and elaborating on it as such time permits.

Arnold’s wife Mary Linda adds the following:

Arnold’s family was from Tarnopol, Ukraine, but he was born in Russia where his mother with her father got to during the war.)  After the war, the family moved to Vienna, where they lived from about 1946 until leaving for Knoxville in 1951. Arnold was 9 when they arrived here. I have photos of him on the ship coming over, and found the ship online. It had been a troop carrier and was converted to bringing refugees to the US. They came in through New Orleans. He practiced architecture from 1969 until 1981, but never gave up his license, finally retiring it.