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4 Questions

 
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Join us as we ask preeminent Jewish thinkers 4 questions about the Jewish experience


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4 Questions with Lillian Faderman

Lilllian Faderman is a distinguished scholar of LGBT history and author of the Jewish Lives biography Harvey Milk: His Lives and Death.

1. In your opinion, what is the defining feature of Jewish life today?

The defining feature at present is one that worries me a great deal because it’s truly divisive for our community: and that’s the passionate disagreements over Israel. As an academic, I’m concerned that so many Jewish college students, and faculty as well, are not nuanced in their criticisms of the Israeli government. They’re hostile to, or dismissive of, the country. They have little sense of the history of why it came into being as a life raft--too late for six million, but there if (or rather, as history would suggest, when) virulent anti-Semitism rears its head again. I’m especially bothered that young American Jews are sometimes in the forefront of their campuses’ BDS movement and don’t do enough to challenge the anti-Semitism that is too often connected with criticism of the Jewish state.

2. What is your favorite Jewish book and why?

There are so many Jewish books that are important to me, but if I had to pick just one I would choose a collection of stories by Bernard Malamud, The Magic Barrel, which was published in 1958. Malamud wasn’t as cerebral as Saul Bellow, and he certainly wasn’t as hip as contemporary writers such as Michael Chabon; but he captured a generation that I knew well from my childhood, and I love him for it. I’ve reread the Magic Barrel stories even in recent years, and they continue to move me. I like the way Malamud gets the Yiddish idiom so right in the voices of his immigrant Jewish characters—I can hear my own immigrant mother and aunt in those voices. I like the ethical issues his stories raise too. He’s concerned with questions about, for instance, the responsibility we have for one another—and he always complicates the answers so interestingly.

3. What do you think Jewish life will look like in 100 years from now?

As a female who in the mid-20th century became part of the group that we now call LGBT, I remember very well how things used to be—and I’m astonished and happy about how they’ve changed. Liberal Judaism has opened up in recent decades to the leadership of women and the presence of out LBGT people. That women can lead congregations, that out LGBT people are now welcome in most reform, reconstructionist, even many conservative synagogues—such expansion of the active Jewish community bodes well for future growth. It also bodes well for “100 years from now” that liberal Judaism has become increasingly vocal in recognizing and welcoming Jews of color. That helps insure that Judaism will continue to grow and that diverse Jews will continue to play a part in the Jewish community.

Another factor (not so happy), that will inevitably impact Jewish life in the future is the perennial sickness of anti-Semitism. Not only history but recent events too demonstrate that anti-Semitism is as regenerative and many-headed as Hydra. If Jews 100 years from now, through assimilation or whatever, forget their Jewishness anti-Semites will remind them.

4. If you could meet any figure from Jewish history, who would it be and why?

If I had to choose just one figure, it would be the man I wrote about for the Jewish Lives series, Harvey Milk. In the course of my research for the book, I discovered all Harvey’s many warts, and I didn’t hold back on revealing them. But I also discovered the ways in which he was big-hearted and brave and truly a mensch. And I grew to love him for his complex humanity. I also grew to admire him deeply for how he crafted the person he became and how he inspired. It may be exaggerating to say that Harvey Milk was the LGBT community’s Martin Luther King—after all, he didn’t live long enough in the public eye to garner the huge national platform that King did. But for huge masses of us, Harvey Milk is the closest thing the LGBT community has ever had to a larger-than-life hero.


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4 Questions with Steven Nadler

Steven Nadler is a Pulitzer Prize finalist and author of the new Jewish Lives biography Menasseh ben Israel: Rabbi of Amsterdam.

1. In your opinion, what is the defining feature of Jewish life today?

If the question is “What does it mean to be Jewish today?”, I would have to say that it is a matter of seeing oneself as belonging a particular (and particularly extended) “family", of identifying with a certain religious (but not necessarily observant), political, moral, literary and social history. On the other hand, if the question is “What most clearly characterizes Jewish life today?”, I’m afraid my answer — at least from my perspective within Jewish life —  would be “division”: between different branches of Judaism (especially orthodox and non-orthodox), between political camps (especially with regard to Israel), between Jews in the diaspora and those in Israel, and between generations.

2. What is your favorite Jewish book and why?

For non-fiction, there is Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed, which I find endlessly perplexing, and Spinoza’s Theological-Political Treatise (yes, it is a Jewish book!), because it basically gets it all right. Under fiction, stories by Sholem Aleichem, S. Y. Abramovitsh and I. B. Singer, Mordecai Richler’s The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (in fact, anything by Richler), Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (one of the great American novels of the last 50 years), and anything by Shalom Auslander.  

3. What do you think Jewish life will look like in 100 years from now?

Unless we find a way to heal the current divisions, Jewish life in 100 years will not be a pretty picture; there may not even be something that can be identified in the singular as “Jewish life” (and maybe there isn’t such a thing now).

4. If you could meet any figure from Jewish history, who would it be and why?

Spinoza.  There’s a couple of things I’d like him to clear up.


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4 Questions with Danya Shults

Danya Shults is the founder of Arq, a digital community that helps people connect with Jewish life and culture in a relevant, inclusive, and convenient way. Learn more about Arq at thisisarq.com.

1. In your opinion, what is the defining feature of Jewish life today?

A blend of curiosity and originality. Personal ownership. Fluidity. Nuance. Uncertainty.

Today, I see people seeking new, creative, and spiritual ways to practice Judaism - observant and non - that merge progressive values and lifestyles with a love for tradition and history. Specifically, when it comes to Israel, people are seeking belonging in communities and conversations that encourage a plurality of views. Ritual and community are paramount, but prayer and belief in God aren't required.

2. What is your favorite Jewish book and why?

The Chosen by Chaim Potok holds a special place in my heart. Growing up, we had a family rule that we could bring a book to shul if it had Jewish themes, and an old, original copy of The Chosen was my go-to. It's serious enough for Yom Kippur, and its themes of personal purpose and desire and identity, deep friendships that push people to be their truest selves, and tradition v. modernity are my favorite kind.

On the other hand, another one of my shul books is Are You There God, It's Me Margaret, by Judy Blume, which is about sex and religion and womanhood and everything in between and is always worth a re-read.

3. What do you think Jewish life will look like in 100 years from now?

On one hand, the more things change, the more they stay the same. As the world shifts drastically around us, we cling to the things we know and that are safe and comfortable, and for many people, that's religious tradition. At the same time, every paradigm in our lives - from sexuality to gender and race - is shifting and becoming more blended and fluid, and I think we'd be naive to believe religion won't follow that same path in some way.

In 100 years, when my future grandchildren are grown-ups, I hope and imagine they'll honor and practice the same core Jewish rituals and holidays that my family and I have practiced for generations, but also that their Judaism will be part of a larger more colorful spiritual whole and that their Jewish life will be open and inclusive. That said, I think it's likely Jewish life will also be more divided than it is today, with the ultra observant in one camp and everyone else in another.

4. If you could meet any figure from Jewish history, who would it be and why?

Joan Rivers for her entrepreneurial and comedic prowess and unabashed Jewish pride, Miriam for her bravery and leadership, and my great grandparents who fled persecution in Eastern Europe and built brand new lives in the United States - I wish I could discuss our current day issues with them and, hopefully, glean optimism and sense of possibility from them.


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4 Questions with Steve Zipperstein

Steven J. Zipperstein is the Daniel E. Koshland Professor in Jewish Culture and History at Stanford University.  He is also a series editor of the Jewish Lives biography series. 

1. In your opinion, what is the defining feature of Jewish life today?

The astonishing interplay between powerlessness of Jews in the recent past and Jewry's influence today in the west and military power in the Middle East.  Tough to wrap one's head around, and alas fertile ground for contemporary hatred, at least unease.

2. What is your favorite Jewish book and why?

Impossible to choose just one, so a brief medley: Song of Songs, Philip Roth's The Counterlife, Richard Holmes' Footsteps, and quite any of the fiction of A. B. Yehoshua, Amos Oz or Nicole Krauss.   

3. What do you think Jewish life will look like in 100 years from now?

Immense presence of Chabad, continued cultural vitality of Israel amid political decay, unending predictions of the disappearance of American Jewish life beyond its Orthodox sector despite all evidence of its continued health. 

4. If you could meet any figure from Jewish history, who would it be and why?

Josephus


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4 Questions with Anita Shapira

Anita Shapira is professor emerita at Tel Aviv University and author of the Jewish Lives biography Ben-Gurion: Father of Modern Israel. Anita is the Israel Prize laureate of 2008, and she is also a series editor of the Jewish Lives biography series. 

1. In your opinion, what is the defining feature of Jewish life today?

I would choose Jewish diversity, and the existence of two basic forms of Jewish lives: living in a Jewish state, and living in a liberal non-Jewish state.

2. What is your favorite Jewish book and why?

The Tanakh. It is the most interesting, influential, inspiring epic ever. There can hardly be Jewish culture without it.

3. What do you think Jewish life will look like in 100 years from now?

I don’t know. One thing I am sure about: it would not be one way of life, but many.

4. If you could meet any figure from Jewish history, who would it be and why?

King David: the most controversial, full of contradictions and flaws, and hence most modern and human person in the galaxy of Jewish figures.