Archive for the ‘American Jewish life’ Category

The People Of The Books: “Breathtaking” Display of Hebrew Books and Manuscripts

Monday, February 23rd, 2009

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A visit to Sotheby’s during the ten-day exhibit of the Valmadonna Trust Library, which ended last Thursday, was remarkable on two levels - the contents themselves, and the outpouring of New Yorkers who came to see them.

The display of the most impressive private library of Hebrew books and manuscripts in the world was breathtaking. The tenth floor of Sotheby’s on the Upper East Side held floor-to-ceiling shelves of nearly 13,000 volumes in the collection, and many were open, behind glass, including the 16th century copy of the Daniel Bomberg edition of the Talmud, in seemingly perfect shape. (Bomberg, a Calvinist, received permission to print the Talmud in 1519 in Italy and had rabbis advise him.)

It was the first time the collection was being shown in its entirety, thanks to the man responsible for it, Jack Lunzer, a charming 84-year-old diamond merchant from London who has spent more than six decades on what he calls his “obsession,” acquiring the most rare and meaningful Jewish texts from around the world.

Lunzer, whose family is associated with the Italian town of Valmadonna, is seeking a suitable home for his collection - it has filled his sprawling London house until now. He has held negotiations with the Library of Congress in recent years and some say he brought his treasure to Sotheby’s to motivate the Library of Congress to conclude the deal with him.

Experts believe the collection could fetch $40 million, and the stipulation is that it must be purchased intact, and not divided up.

Several major Jewish philanthropists are said to be considering buying the works so that they could be displayed in a Jewish public place, like Hebrew University.

In the meantime, despite little public notice, record crowds turned out each day to revel in the books themselves, and the rich cultural history they represent.

Even a skeptic like me who wondered how seeing thousands of books could inspire found tears in my eyes at the sight of centuries of Jewish history, and I could imagine young boys from centuries past poring over the words of the Bible in front of me and hear the words of Torah being recited across the globe and down through the centuries.

When a youngster in payos and black velvet kippah asked aloud why the Chumash he was looking at did not have Rashi’s commentary on its pages, he was told it was because the 11th century scholar had not been born when this volume was written.

It was also stirring to see so many Jews who cared enough to wait in long lines - over an hour at times - and to feel a part of a family that reveres the written word.

There were Jews of all ages, backgrounds and religious affiliations in the crowded rooms at Sotheby’s where David Wachtel, an expert on the collection who is a special consultant to the library of the Jewish Theological Seminary, gave a lively and erudite description of the works via a megaphone-like device.

Each volume must have a story to tell about how it survived, like the Bomberg Talmud, printed in Venice in the early 1500s; Pope John Paul IV issued a papal bull to destroy all Hebrew books in 1553, and countless thousands were burned. Only those sent out of Italy survived, Wachtel said.
Lunzer discovered a volume of the famed Talmud, which was misidentified, at Westminster Abbey more than 50 years ago. When he learned the set was intact and had been gathering dust there for four centuries, he sought to purchase it. It took him almost 30 years, but he finally gained possession when he bought and exchanged a 900-year-old charter of the Abbey for the Bomberg Talmud.

Lunzer was a presence at Sotheby’s each day, a celebrity signing autographs and delighting in speaking Yiddish with yeshiva children, and encouraging them to sing.

Perhaps soon his other children - the thousands of books he collected, one by one, over the years - will soon find a new home.

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Waltz With Israel’s Image

Friday, February 20th, 2009

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Should we be rooting for the Israeli entry, “Waltz With Bashir,” to win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film on Sunday night?

Many Jews, no doubt, will feel a surge of pride if the highly praised Ari Folman account of the 1982 Lebanon War wins top honors, a first for Israel. But there are many who, while praising the work for its creative and artistic merit, are deeply concerned that more attention for the film will further erode Israel’s image around the world.

Katie Green, an Israeli filmmaker, complains that “Bashir” lacks context, never explaining adequately why Israel was fighting in Lebanon in the first place. In fact, the conflict began as an effort to stop Yasir Arafat’s PLO from terror attacks on Israeli communities in the north. “Although the faces of Israeli friends,soldiers, therapists and politicians are lovingly illustrated in close-up all the way through the film, the enemy being engage has no name and no face,” Green notes in an essay on this Web site.

She argues that “the film plays into the hands of the worst of our detractors, depicting us as mindless invaders who care little for human life.”

But Marco Greenberg, a public relations expert in New York, came to the opposite conclusion after viewing the film.

In fact, he insists that “Bashir” is a more effective pro-Israel too than all of the hasbarah efforts by the Israeli government during the 22-day Gaza campaign because it depicts Israeli soldiers as real people, not a juggernaut.

In expressing their anguish over the long-ago conflict, these men express empathy, compassion and remorse, humanizing rather than demonizing them, according to Greenberg.

Which only goes to prove that we read so much into what we see, depending on our emotions and biases. Judge for yourself when you see the film, whether or not it wins an Oscar.

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Anatomy Of A Rally

Wednesday, January 7th, 2009

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One of the fascinating and never-resolved issues in our community is when and how to hold a pro-Israel rally, and this week’s debate among leaders in New York was a case in point.

With pro-Palestinian holding large demonstrations here and in other parts of the country over the last week, pressure built on Jewish groups to respond in kind. Some leaders urged a mass rally to show support for Israel in its fight with Hamas, while others worried that a small turnout on a winter’s day might signal lack of concern on the part of American Jewry. Still others noted that with Congress and other public officials squarely on Israel’s side, rallies might not be the best use of time or resources.

While the discussion went on in some circles, Rabbi Avi Weiss, who among other roles is head of AMCHA (Coalition for Jewish Concerns), called from Israel last Saturday night to urge Hillary Markowitz, a veteran activist here, to organize a rally for the next day.

She said that was impossible, but managed to plan one for Tuesday afternoon in midtown Manhattan, across the street from the Israeli Consulate.

Markowitz, a nurse, enlisted Meredith Weiss, also a volunteer, and other pro-Israel activists, with “zero budget,” according to Glenn Richter, who has been organizing such rallies since the 1960s campaign to free Soviet Jewry.

On Tuesday afternoon, an impressive crowd of several thousand people turned out on little notice for a the rally, sponsored by AMCHA, Fuel For Truth, the National Council of Young Israel and about 20 other organizations.

Despite the cold temperatures, the spirited crowd responded warmly to a number of speakers who stressed that their presence was as Americans opposed to terror as well as Zionists supporting Israel’s right to defend itself.

Several young people who were themselves wounded in Hamas terror attacks or lost friends or relatives in attacks addressed the rally, as did Fuel For Truth executive director Joe Richards, who asserted: “Free Palestine…from terror, and from Hamas.”

National and local media were on the scene, and the event was featured on radio and television news broadcasts that day and evening.

“This is the way it should be done,” an Israeli official told me during the event. “There’s something to be said for spontaneity, for responding” while others are deliberating as to whether, when and where to speak out. If nothing else, he said, it allows activists to give vent to their emotions in a positive way.

Later, Markowitz expressed deep gratitude for those who attended, including busloads of students from schools in Philadelphia and New Jersey. But she was upset that establishment Jewish groups declined to participate, charging that they refused to send out e-mails to constituents and even encouraged people not to attend, instead urging them to wait for the community-wide rally, planned for Sunday morning, Jan. 11, outside the Consulate.

“I can understand that they didn’t want to co-sponsor, even though we were paying for it,” Markowitz said, “but don’t undermine our rally. It’s very upsetting to me that we are not unified.”

Markowitz said she spoke with Michael Miller, executive vice president and CEO of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, and that he wished her well but said his group plans and coordinates rallies, rather than joins one organized by others.

Miller confirmed that remark, but strongly denied that JCRC would tell people not to attend the rally. He explained that his group is “supportive of every rally for Israel,” but “generally speaking,” does not circulate information for other groups. “In essence we would be endorsing an event over which he have no control,” he said.

In the past, speakers from marginal pro-Israel groups have addressed community-wide rallies and made statements that have caused discomfort and embarrassment to politicians and Jewish leaders, one source noted.

In the meantime, the Conference of Presidents, UJA-Federation of New York and the JCRC are gearing up for a large-scale rally on Sunday. And one can be sure that many of the folks who braved the cold on Tuesday will be there again, caring less about who the sponsors are than the cause itself: showing support for Israel in a time of crisis.

The Widening Israel-Diaspora Gap

Sunday, January 4th, 2009

Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher

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Few can watch the footage of Palestinian suffering in Gaza these days without feeling great sadness and empathy. But while some of us blame the cynicism and brutality of Hamas for purposely putting civilians in harm’s way as part of its strategy, appealing to the world to stop Israel in its tracks, others blame Israel without considering the context – or worse yet, are convinced that Israel is the aggressor here, not an independent state fighting terrorist thugs whose sole purpose is to destroy it, and Jews everywhere.

I am well aware and proud of so many friends and neighbors who not only follow the news from Israel closely now, during this time of crisis, but as a regular part of their day, every day of every year. These are the people who participate in grassroots efforts on behalf of the IDF soldiers now (from taking part in special prayer sessions at synagogues to sending them pizza). They are the folks who visit Israel regularly, give generously to charities in and on behalf of the Jewish State, and are the backbone of rallies on behalf of kidnapped soldiers or military campaigns.

On the other extreme are a vocal but relatively small portion of the community who oppose Israel’s campaign in Gaza, more concerned about unintended casualties among the Palestinian population than security for the citizens of Israel’s south who have been have been the target of thousands of rockets from Gaza over the last few years.

(And note to journalists and editors in the general press who often use the gentle word “lobbed” to describe those rockets coming out of Gaza: a “lobbed” rocket kills, just as ones that are “fired.”)

I suspect that the majority of American Jews are somewhere in the middle, supportive of Israel’s effort to protect its citizens, but uncomfortable with the IDF campaign, and the painful images they see of the results of the bombings. “Can’t you find another way?” they might be asking of Israel, as if the government and people had not endured years of attacks and provocation before striking back?

“We’d love to, but this is the Mideast, not the Midwest,” would come the reply.

The reality, of course, is that those of us who have been to Israel, seen its borders, met its people, and understood its challenges, are the most compassionate in times like this. My worry is that with an ongoing economic contraction at home, and fewer projects and programs to bring Israeli and American Jews closer together, the gap between us will only widen, and that level of compassion will decline.

I hope I’m wrong.

Feeling The Fragility Of Sukkot

Thursday, October 16th, 2008

Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher

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Much has been made among the rabbis over the centuries as to why Sukkot takes place at this time of year. And the lesson is a particularly timely one now, in the face of an international economic crisis that has made each of us feel more vulnerable.

We are told that the eight-day festival was supposed to take place in the spring. But since it was common for people in ancient times to sit outside in temporary huts at that time of year, it wouldn’t be clear that the Jews were doing so to commemorate God’s protecting them during the Israelites’ 40 years of wandering in the desert. So the holiday was moved to the fall, when most people returned indoors to the comfort of their homes.

We are supposed to build sukkot that are sturdy enough to withstand winds, but a solid roof is prohibited. It must be made of natural elements and fragile and temporary enough so that we can see the sky when we look up and feel the drops if it rains. The point is to remember that it was God’s caring for our ancestors during their long sojourn — with a pillar of clouds during the day to lead the way and a pillar of fire at night - that allowed them to survive the elements.

Sitting in our family Sukkah this year, surrounded by family and friends, I was reminded anew that for all of our attention during the year to doing our jobs and beautifying our houses, it is not the material aspects of our lives that are most permanent but the memories of special moments shared with loved ones that remains most precious and most lasting.

All of us feel the uncertainty now of making do with less. We confront the reality that we cannot take anything for granted, whether it is next week’s paycheck or being blessed to live another year, another day.

That’s why holidays like Sukkot, with its prayer of gratitude for “allowing us to reach this season,” resonate within us, especially in times like these.

Just Rewards

Tuesday, October 7th, 2008

Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher

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The first question posed Monday by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA), chairman of a Congressional hearing on the bank failures, to Richard Fuld, the Lehman Brothers’ chairman who made $480 million over the last eight years at the failed company, was “is this fair?”

It’s a question that hangs in the air at this particularly precarious moment in time, and we ask it not only of the incredible bonuses and over-the-top lifestyle associated with the Old Wall Street (translation: up to a month ago), but of the national bailout that seems to help big business more than the rest of us. And we’re asking if it’s fair for the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates to stoop to name-calling and personal attacks, especially at a time when issues like the economy, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, health care, etc. are so important — and in light of the fact that both McCain and Obama pledged not to go that route.

And then there is Michael Bloomberg, the popular mayor of New York, seeking a third term, insisting that he is the ideal person for the job at a time of economic crisis. Only trouble is, term limits is the law, and he is completing his second and final term. Is it right to ignore, or at least skirt around, the will of the people?

We all know that life is unfair; it’s something we’re told, and made painfully aware of, from an early age. So is it naïve to kvetch about examples of inequity in the public sphere?

Raising these questions on the eve of Yom Kippur is especially dicey because while we praise God as Just, and call on the Creator to punish those who oppress us, we also put ourselves at God’s mercy throughout the 25-hour holy day, repeatedly appealing to God’s attributes of forgiveness.

We are unworthy sinners, we say as we beat our breasts, and do not deserve a break. But don’t judge us objectively, we plead, show us Your mercy instead.

We are created in God’s image and commanded to emulate God’s ways. But when are we to insist on retribution for wrongdoing and when should we offer forgiveness? It’s a question we should be asking ourselves not only on Yom Kippur but every time we face that inner struggle between competing impulses. And maybe the best approach when confronting these dilemmas is to think of ourselves in the other guy’s shoes.

After all, it’s only fair.

Who’s Fasting Today and Why?

Thursday, October 2nd, 2008

Gary Rosenblatt, Editor and Publisher

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After feasting for two days on festive Rosh Hashanah meals, there no doubt are many of us who have sworn off food today. But there are others who are doing the same for religious rather than dietary reasons.

That’s because the day after Rosh Hashanah on the Jewish calendar is Tzom Gedaliah, the Fast of Gedaliah, a little-known minor fast (meaning it is “only” from dawn to dark, unlike Yom Kippur and Tisha B’Av, which start the night before).

The Gedaliah we refer to was Gedaliah ben Achicham, a Jew who was appointed governor of Judea by the conquering Babylonians after the destruction of the Temple in 586 B.C.E. Some Jews criticized him as a puppet of the hated enemy, and he was assassinated by his fellow Jews, some say on Rosh Hashanah.

The prophet Jeremiah had hoped Gedaliah would permit the Temple to be rebuilt, and he considered his death a tragedy, particularly because it was at the hand of Jews.

When I was in high school, a friend told me he didn’t fast on Tzom Gedaliah because “if I died, would Gedaliah fast for me?”

But the truth is the day is a meaningful reminder of the dangers of Jewish violence against Jews as we prepare to mark the 13th yahrtzeit of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, killed by a modern-day Jewish zealot, and as we read of increasing incidents of hostility in Israel among a small group of militants opposed to territorial compromise.

As long as the land is seen by some as holier than the lives of fellow Jews, we need days like this for fasting and reflection.

Claiming Paul Newman

Monday, September 29th, 2008

Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher

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Now that Paul Newman is gone, Jews obsessed with knowing whether celebrities are Jewish or not (which seems to account for everyone I’ve ever met), are noting with pride that the legendary actor and gentleman considered himself one of the tribe.

To women (and many men) of a certain generation - actually several generations - Newman was the coolest guy around. He was a leading actor with talent, good looks (yes, those Blue Eyes) and a self-deprecating sense of humor that indicated he never took himself too seriously. And that was before he became a director, leading racecar driver, businessman and major philanthropist - all done with low-key grace, well aware that he was blessed but striving to be a regular Joe.

According to halacha, Newman would not be considered one of us. His father, Arthur, was Jewish; his mother was a Roman Catholic who converted to Christian Science. Newman explained that he considered himself Jewish “because being Jewish is more demanding.”

It always strikes me as curious how Jewishly flexible many of us are in embracing those we like, like Newman, as one of us, no matter how big a stretch it takes, while denying the Jewishness of someone born of two Jewish parents but who led a life we don’t approve of, as in, “You mean Louis “Lepke” Buchalter [a mobster who ran Murder Incorporated] was Jewish? What a surprise!”

Endearing or annoying, depending on your point of view. But one thing is clear: we’d go a long way to be associated with the style, success and exemplary good works of Paul Newman, may he rest in peace.