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.

On David Broza, Pete Seeger and Other Musings

In my life I have been fortunate to have had close encounters of the musical kind with people imbued with immense musical sensibility and talent. In the early Spring of 1971, I was part of a student effort at the University of Wisconsin (Madison) to discover “future alternatives for America.” This Symposium was a direct result of the loss of a student’s life when a group of anti-war activists set off a bomb in the University’s Sterling Hall, home to the Army Math Research Center.

Each of us on the steering committee were charged with inviting speakers who could address the theme. My dear friend Shelley Falik chose to invite Pete Seeger, and to the astonishment of many of us, Pete accepted.

In order to avoid problems with his record label, Pete’s appearance was labelled “Pete Seeger Speaks” and the nothing in the description suggested that he would be giving a concert. But no one was fooled by that.

The night before the concert arrived and Pete Seeger arrived (in my fuzzy recollection by bus carrying his guitar and banjo). At some point, Shelley picked him up in his beat up jalopy and brought him to his student dive of a house where his girl friend and Symposium helper had made a pot of beans. The rest of us came with the simple offerings of students in those “counter culture” days. Pete pronounced the meal as good as any he could recall.

I don’t remember where he spent the night, but the next day at around 10am, Shelley and I were on a makeshift stage with him at the University of Wisconsin Stock Pavilion which could hold around 2,000 people. It was full. Pete Seeger “spoke” for about two hours.  It was broadcast by UW’s public radio station and I have a recording of that event but no idea whether I can legally post it or not. Perhaps some day.

All this came rushing back to mind yesterday when I had another close encounter with musical greatness. A few days ago my friend Mary Linda Schwartzbart noted in her Facebook page that David Broza’s new film would be screened at our Scruffy City Arts Festival here in Knoxville. Scruff City is a rather odd place–part bar, part performance venue. It sits on Knxoxville’s Market Square in a building dating to about 1900. These days, some enterprising and artistic minded folk have purchased it and use if for things like the Scruffy City Arts Festival.

Imagining that there would be a mob scene immediately prior to the event, Terri and I went over there the day before to buy our tickets. For those of you who do not know, David Broza is one of Israel’s most famous musical artists, a celebrity who can fill stadiums. As I bought the tickets, the manager told me that David Broza would be at the event and might perform a few songs after the movie.

As the event was getting under way, Terri headed off on a brief errand and I handed the ticket taker my stub–and I as I did so I glanced back. Standing right next me, close enough that I could have tapped him on the shoulder, was David Broza. Since I couldn’t actually think of anything to say to him, I gawked for a brief minute and then headed for a seat inside. When Terri joined me I said, I’m pretty sure David Broza is here.

The movie is called David Broza: East Jerusalem/West Jerusalem. It is a small study in the ways that music can enlighten people and contribute to peace. A wonderful surprise for the Knoxville crowd is the presence in the movie of Steve Earle. In this film he could pass for a Hassid.

David Broza at Scruffy City, Knoxville

David Broza at Scruffy City, Knoxville

For reasons I can’t imagine, no one seems to have informed the Jewish community of Knoxville that this would be happening, so the audience consisted of Mary Linda’s friends and the usual suspects who turn up for every musical event in Knoxville–which is a wonderful, motley crew. Fortunately that meant enough people to mostly fill the small auditorium, and the crowd made up for its small size in vocal enthusiasm. Knoxville’s Appalachian residents welcomed David Broza into the fold. They clearly appreciated the film, and even more the songs that Broza played at its conclusion. Those songs included two wonderful pieces from the film: Jerusalem and my personal favorite, The Lion’s Den. He also played a song inspired by the music of the Mughrab and concluded with his most famous tune called Yiyeh Tov, a Hebrew song whose title means something like “It will turn out OK.”

On the “Open Hillel” Movement

A two-year old initiative called “Open Hillel” is once again in the news. For those of you who aren’t particularly interested in Jewish politics, much less the emotional stirrings of Jewish students on college campuses, this probably feels like “much ado about not much.” But it is important to me, and I hope you’ll indulge me for a bit.

When I arrived as a young college student at the University of Wisconsin in 1969, the campus was in almost constant tumult with events related to the Vietnam War. Madison (Wisconsin), UC-Berkeley and the U of Michigan (all campuses where I had or would have strong connections) were among the most active, but the uproar was everywhere. There were even students shot and killed–which left an enduring legacy in the form of the Crosby, Stills and Nash song “Four Dead in Ohio.”

berkeleyHillel

Berkeley’s Hillel House as it looks today.

At Berkeley, Jewish students opposed to the war formed a collective they named “The Elders of Zion” and published a campus newspaper called “The Jewish Radical.” The newspaper and the group received support and a home in the local Hillel Foundation. At Wisconsin, Jewish students created an ambulance brigade to provide first aid to demonstrators (or anyone else) who was injured in the demonstrations. That operation, likewise, was housed in the local Hillel Foundation.

Lest you think this was all the exaggerated antics of over-enthusiastic youth, let me provide a very personal anecdote. In the late Fall semester of my second year at Wisconsin, I left a mid-term exam in Geology, got on my bicycle and started pedaling towards my next class. When I turned the corner of State and University Avenues, an unmarked police car pulled up beside me. I glanced at it just long enough to see someone pointing a grenade launcher at me. The grenade hit me in the leg and detonated a tear gas canister. I skidded to the side of the street enveloped by the gas. Suddenly a middle-aged, matronly woman bolted out of the closest building (Chadbourne Hall). She grabbed me under my arms and hauled me into the building where someone else dumped a bucket of water over me.

First aid was important in those days. And no, I had no idea what was going on (it turned out that a band of demonstrators had passed that spot a few minutes before I turned the corner), and I had absolutely nothing to do with whatever the officers were reacting to. Not that I was innocent of participation—I did attend demonstrations. Just not that day.

madison_hillel

Neither this lovely facade nor the photo of Berkeley’s Hillel resemble the buildings of my era. As nice a statement as these facades may make, no one should be surprised that it took major fundraising to transform the old edifices.

At Madison the rabbi of the Hillel allowed the facility to be used for the makeshift first-aid center. At Berkeley, the rabbi supported the student efforts to create a journal for vigorous debate of the issues of the day—particularly the issues that stirred the minds of young, Jewish students. And similar activities were supported throughout the country wherever there were enough Jewish students who desired to use the Hillel Foundation as a home base for their discussions and activities.

A decade or so after the Vietnam War had ended, Berkeley’s students were involved in another cause. Refugees were arriving from Central America. Many campus religious organizations offered these refugees a place to stay and eat. No one at these churches was particularly concerned about the legal status of these obviously beleaguered people. Berkeley’s Hillel Foundation was not directly involved in most of this activity, but there were occasions when there was overflow (too many guests) or a church needed its full facility for an event–and on such occasions the Jewish students would take the refugees over to Hillel for that time.

This was the Hillel of my college and early professional years. Sensitive to the issues that motivated Jewish college students and willing to take small risks (there were never any serious consequences to any of these activities) to assure those students that compassion is an important component of the Jewish faith.

Today, these sorts of things seem to be a thing of the past. Hillel Foundations avoid even the slightest controversies like the plague. Hillel directors shun any sort of activities that cannot be directly connected to matters of interest to Judaism, and even in that smaller arena, the official Hillels are places where any sort of criticism of Israel cannot be countenanced.

What happened? As an historian I like to say, “Whenever anyone says it’s not about the money, it’s always about the money.”

The Hillel Foundations have an interesting history. They were not created by a religious community but rather a fraternal organization called B’nai B’rith (the Jewish version of organizations like the Shriners and Masons). B’nai B’rith was also the home of an international youth association and most-famously the Anti-Defamation League. B’nai B’rith’s status as a fraternal rather than religious organization allowed their affiliated agencies to be non-denominational: all Jewish students should feel equally at home no matter whether their background was Reform, Conservative or Orthodox, or for that matter secular. In order to foster the widest degree of participation, most Hillels tried to serve kosher food and adhere to standards of Sabbath observance that would satisfy all but the most Orthodox of students. Essentially it was a matter of serving the students who would come.

The central office for the Hillel Foundations didn’t have much time to deal with local issues and most local directors (some but not all of whom were rabbis) were given wide discretion. Most of the Foundations were given funds to cover the directors’ salaries and a bit for programming, and needed to raise the rest locally. Oddly enough, this arrangement gave the local foundations a bit of cover which freed them from too much concern about petty local politicking in much the same way that Roman Catholic congregations are sometimes shielded from local politics by the central control of the Vatican.

All this came to a rapid demise in the late ‘80s. Fraternal organizations in general, and B’nai B’rith more than most, saw huge declines in membership and fundraising. Those Hillel Foundations which had received significant funding from the national office were told to make friends locally. That meant dealing with the sources of local Jewish communal funding which generally go by names such as the “Jewish Community Federation of…” Eventually, the situation deteriorated to the point that B’nai B’rith and the Hillel Foundations found it necessary to separate into completely independent organizations. Today, B’nai B’rith has nothing to do with the hundreds of campus Jewish organizations it founded.

One of the casualties of this process was intellectual freedom within the Hillel populations. That may seem like an extreme statement, but bear with me and I think you will understand that it is no exaggeration.

Jewish Federations are not democracies. They were designed to raise the maximum amount of money possible, and to do that they learned to cater to the biggest donors. In most communities those donors are rich, politically conservative, and often vigorously pro-Israel. Of greater importance, they often feel strongly that they do not want their contributions funding any activity that might be perceived as “bad for Israel.” And as the Israeli government has become increasingly conservative in recent years, American Jewish federations have moved along that path as well.

To illustrate how this can affect the academic environment, consider the case of Daniel Boyarin. Boyarin is among the most important scholars of early Jewish religion and history. He holds the Taubman Chair of Talmudic Culture within the Near East Studies department at UC Berkeley. His scholarship is unquestionably of the highest caliber, and he has important things to say about the history and evolution of Judaism in its critical and formative period. Despite his stature in scholarship, he is persona non grata in most Hillel Foundations and Jewish communal institutions such as adult educational forums sponsored by those communal institutions. Why? Boyarin has been an outspoken personality on the progressive or if you will left-wing side of Israeli/Zionist politics, and that irks many of the big donors.

In response to these donors, Hillel has posted guidelines which at first glance might seem innocuous, but contain clauses that can be used to exclude scholars such as Boyarin as well as prominent rabbis and other Jews who are unwilling to commit to what ultimately comes to a matter of restraining free and unfettered speech. The guidelines can be found here:

 http://www.hillel.org/jewish/hillel-israel/hillel-israel-guidelines

Without turning this into a lengthy study of these “guidelines” let me say that I think most would agree that the single most difficult part of these guidelines is the bullet point which excludes anyone who supports: “… boycott of, divestment from, or sanctions against the State of Israel.”

berkeley_demontration

This is more like the scenes that I recall…

Personally, after careful consideration, I cannot support what has become known as the “BDS” approach. But I find it completely unacceptable that Jewish students should be prevented from learning why other Jews believe this is the correct approach.

Boyarin’s academic methods and conclusions are not universally accepted in the community of Jewish scholars, but none would deny that his claims are credibly based on profound analyses of the sources available to us. To exclude a scholar such as Boyarin is to make a mockery of the idea of scholarship and to deprive Jewish students of one of the most creative minds available to them. But that is exactly what has happened in Hillel Foundations around the country. And this is directly a consequence of the conversion of institutions such as Hillel Foundations into creatures of the local Jewish communal organizations.

I have used Boyarin as one example of this issue, but he is hardly unique. As those of you who have read him might expect, Noam Chomsky, one of the world’s most renowned public intellectuals would not pass muster under these guidelines. My dear friend Rabbi Jeremy Milgrom, a tireless warrior for peace and the scion of one of the most prominent rabbinic families in the world would likewise be excluded from Jewish audiences if the national Hillel organization had its way.

What is lost in this haze of politics is that students suffer (and this is true whether we are speaking of Jewish students or any other such groups) when they are denied the ability to hear the wide range of opinions that is a significant feature of higher education. Imagine denying Arab students the right to hear an Arab scholar speak about the positive relations between Arabs and Jews in the Middle Ages because some sponsoring Arab communal organization is concerned about looking too pro-Jewish.

And so we come to the “Open Hillel” movement that seems to be gaining traction at many universities these days. As the term suggests, Jewish students on several campuses have declared an interest in hearing from all sides in the fractious environment of the Middle East. They are not willing to exclude voices such as Boyarin’s. And perhaps even more serious from the perspective of the organized Jewish community, they are willing to listen to speakers and organizations which represent pro-Palestinian and even anti-Zionist schools of thought.

There is not the slightest doubt in my mind that if I were a college student today, I would be part of the Open Hillel movement. I strongly suspect that if things were then, when I began my career with Hillel Foundation at Berkeley, as they are now that I would not have been considered an acceptable role model and probably would not have been hired.

The irony in that is that I am neither anti-Israel nor anti-Zionist. While I do have serious reservations about the policies of the current government of Israel, I continue to believe that Israel serves an important purpose in providing refuge for Jews who become the subject of persecution. In a world in which many countries provide special status to their ancestral peoples, I do not see any reason why Israel cannot do so for Jews. But because I am unwilling to declare loyalty for the Israeli policies which I happen to oppose, I would not be considered an appropriate hire for most Jewish communal organizations including most Hillel Foundations.

All of this would be the sad ruminations of an aging curmudgeon if it weren’t for one fact I mentioned above. I believe strongly that the policies I have mentioned here are damaging the ability of Jewish communal organizations to reach college-age Jews. We should all be celebrating the “Open Hillel” movement because it, far more than the regular Hillel Foundations, has a chance of reaching that critically important population sector and perhaps retaining some of these motivated, highly educated Jews for the future of the community.

On Being a Mentsch: The Legacy of Rabbi Louis Jacobs With a Nod to the Opposite of a Mentsch, Jonathan Sacks

Rabbi Louis Jacobs was a mentsch. The word is Yiddish and conveys the notion of an honorable person. In today’s dialect, one might say that he was a stand-up-guy. I need to say at the outset that Rabbi Jacobs was far more Orthodox than I am comfortable with. I would not consider attending his synagogue because he was adamantly opposed to allowing women to have have the opportunities for public prayer. In Rabbi Jacob’s synagogue women were not called to the Torah, they did not chant the services, and they did not even sit with men.

Louis Jacobs was a thoroughly orthopractic rabbi. He scrupulously kept Jewish dietary law and honored the Sabbath and the festivals. He was consulted far and wide by those who sought to live their lives according to Halakhah, the standards of traditional Jewish practice.

Louis Jacobs was a highly educated man. He earned both the Rabbinic ordination and a secular doctorate at the most rigorous of institutions. He was a faculty member of the Jews College of London and a visiting professor at the Harvard Divinity School. By the end of his life he authored 50 books including one of the standards of modern Jewish scholarship, the Oxford Companion to the Jewish Religion.

In 2005, a Jewish newspaper with the highest circulation in the British Commonwealth conducted a poll to determine who was the greatest British Jew of all time. Rabbi Jacobs handily defeated Moses Montefiore and Benjamin Disraeil. A silly poll to be sure, but still!

Despite these vast accomplishments in both the scholarly and religious realms, Rabbi Jacobs became a target of hostility by the British Orthodox establishment. What was his great sin? In one of this 50 books, We Have Reason to Believe, published in 1957, Rabbi Dr Jacobs expressed his support for scholars who discerned different documents comprising the Torah. This doctrine, known as the Documentary Hypothesis (DH) had been in development for over a century by then and was and still is the accepted theory of the construction of the Torah by every Biblical scholar who is willing to apply to the Bible standard literary and historical analyses to ancient materials.

The DH is even accepted by major Christian denominations and taught, for example, in the seminaries of the Roman Catholic Church. The opposition to the DH is confined to two populations–the Evangelical Protestants who group the DH with Evolution as forbidden doctrines,  and extreme Orthodox Jews. The reason I qualify Orthodox with “extreme” is that there are people who call themselves “Modern Orthodox” who have found various ways to deal with the literary theories of the creation of the Bible without simply denying obvious fact.

Upon publication of We Have Reason to Believe (which has gone through more than five editions), Rabbi Jacobs was branded a heretic by members of the British Orthodox establishment. He was slated to become the Head of the Jews College of London, but that path was now blocked. He was compelled to change congregations–and more than once.

Eventually, a group of Jews coalesced around Rabbi Jacobs who worshiped according to tradition, kept dietary laws and were in almost all respects indistinguishable from Orthodooxy. They took the name Masorti which means “traditional.” This could have become a numerically significant movement in England akin to the Conservative Movement in the United States, except that ironically enough, Rabbi Jacobs was too Orthodox. The Jews interested in the Conservative Movement were pressing for greater reform, particularly with regard to the removal of a barrier between men and women (mehitzah).

When Rabbi Jacobs was 83 years old, he went to an Orthodox synagogue on the occasion of the uphruph of his granddaughter. (Uphruph is a Yiddish word which means a celebration of an upcoming wedding.) He expected, as is the custom, to be called to the Torah. But in a public display of pique, he was denied this opportunity by the order of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who was in a position of authority at this synagogue. Rabbi Sacks claimed that he was saving Rabbi Jacobs from the sin of perjury, since he was precluding him from participating in a ceremony which proclaims that the Torah is truth and all its words are truth.

Thus Rabbi Sacks struck a great blow for Orthodoxy. He deprived an old man of the opportunity to honor his granddaughter.

Rabbi Jacobs held to his view of tradition and was surrounded by a loving congregation, the New London Synagogue, from 1964 to his death in 2006. It was in the year before his death that he received news that British Jews viewed him as the most influential Jew who ever lived in England.

Rabbi Sacks will be recalled as vindictive and bitter, spreading disharmony and hostility within the Jewish community. He recently gave a speech before the House of Lords (he was recently named a Baron of the British Empire) which was heard by at least the two or three Lords who turned out in an otherwise empty chamber. He is the very definition of the word “jerk.” I believe that Rabbi Jacobs will be remembered for his humility, piety, dedication to congregants and students, and for his willingness to engage with modernity. That is why, even though I disagree with him on many of the important issues of the times, I say that Rabbi Jacobs will be remembered as a mensch.