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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 Phyllis Rose

Phyllis Rose, a renowned literary critic, is the author of the Jewish Lives biography Alfred Stieglitz: Taking Pictures, Making Painters.

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

Let put this personally. My Jewish parents had three children who all married Jews and had six Jewish children. Not one of those six children married a Jew and none of the seventeen children in the next generation has been raised as a Jew.

When I did that DNA analysis you can do now and saw that I was 98% Ashkenazi Jew, I was shocked to realize that I was the end of a two-thousand-or-so-year-old astonishingly pure genetic line. In retrospect, I respected the pressure my parents put on me to marry Jewish, which at the time I deeply resented. The line was continued for another tiny bit.

My parents were able to travel in Europe speaking Yiddish wherever they went. I hear a Jewish voice in works by Philip Roth, Grace Paley, Woody Allen, Nora Ephron, and the Coen Brothers. Yiddish as a transnational language is gone. The Jewish voice will go.

The defining feature of Jewish life at the moment seems to me its disappearance. “Jewish” as a global ethnic identity seems at an end, and a great cultural tradition may die with it. That’s why the Jewish Lives Series seem important to me, calling attention to Jewish achievement before the meaning of the word Jewish changes completely.

2. What is your favorite Jewish book and why?

Favorite book is a hard one. The Wise Men of Chelm is in many ways the essential Jewish text, especially for Eastern European Jews. The Collected Stories of Grace Paley because I love that woman and can re-read and re-read her work and be with her, with all her generosity, warmth, and humor. If I could, instead of favorite, choose the one I think most important in American literature, I’d pick Portnoy’s Complaint, which explored so dazzlingly for my generation Jewish identity in America. I read it with my students recently, and the book had not lost its power to shock and delight.

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

The Jewish cultural tradition is probably at an end, and if Judaism survives, it will return to being primarily a religion. People who find strength and solace in Judaism will band together. Social centers will be important. A new tribalism will emerge.

On the other hand, my crystal ball may be completely cracked. We in America may be at a moment, like in the late 1920s, early 1930s, in Europe when many European Jews felt they had become totally assimilated, barely identified as Jews thought of themselves as French or Dutch or German, and were about to be slaughtered en masse for being Jewish.

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

I’d like to meet Anne Frank to tell her that her work will live long after her personal death.


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4 Questions with Paul Mendes-Flohr

Paul Mendes-Flohr, editor-in-chief of the twenty-two-volume German critical edition of the collected works of Martin Buber, is the author of the Jewish Lives biography Martin Buber: A Life of Faith and Dissent.

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

Contemporary Jewish life is increasingly defined by diversity. To be sure, since its biblical beginnings, Jewish life had multiple expressions. Until the cusp of the modern period, the Torah and Halakha provided a shared center. Today the diversity of Jewish life has a centrifugal thrust; if at all there are competing centers, e.g, Holocaust remembrance, State of Israel, Feminism, and various religious denominational and secular affiliations.

2. What is your favorite Jewish book and why?

The Hebrew Bible. After all it is the fons et origo Jewish spiritual and ethical sensibilities, from which all expressions of Judaism ultimately draw their inspiration.

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

Diversity will undoubtedly continue, which one would hope should nourish spiritual and intellectual vitality. The challenge would be, as it is today, to ensure that pluralism does not lead to fragmentation and the attenuation of the existential and cultural bonds that sustain the Jews as a community of shared destiny and mutual responsibility.

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

Amos the prophet who urged us to affirm that the God to whom we are beholden is the God of all of humanity. The universality of Amos’s admonition resonates – or at least should --even with contemporary Jews whose Jewish affiliation is defined by secularized cultural and spiritual values.


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4 Questions with Adina Hoffman

Adina Hoffman is an award-winning essayist and biographer, and the author of the Jewish Lives biography Ben Hecht: Fighting Words, Moving Pictures.

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

  2. What is your favorite Jewish book and why?

    I don’t have a favorite, but I do have numerous books, or really works, that I love and that might be called  (among other things) Jewish. These include, in no particular order, S. D. Goitein’s A Mediterranean Society; Etty Hillesum’s diary; Pirkei Avot; S. Yizhar’s Khirbet Khizeh; Claudia Roden’s Book of Jewish Food; Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table: Philip Roth’s Patrimony and Sabbath’s Theater; the Books of Psalms, Ecclesiastes, and Ben Sira; all of Georges Perec; essays by Cynthia Ozick, Chaim Nachman Bialik, and Natalia Ginzburg; Arthur Cohen’s An Admirable Woman; Solomon Schechter’s Studies in Judaism; poetry by Paul Celan, Avot Yeshurun, Avraham Ben Yitzhak, Charles Reznikoff, Lea Goldberg, Aharon Shabtai, and the Andalusian Hebrew medievals; Peter Cole’s Hymns & Qualms: New and Selected Poems and Translations; S. Y. Agnon’s Shira; Joseph Roth’s What I Saw: Reports from Berlin; Yaakov Shabtai’s Past Continuous; Lore Segal’s Tell Me a Mitzi; Gershom Scholem’s Sabbatai Sevi: The Mystical Messiah; short stories by Franz Kafka, Yitzhak Shami, Grace Paley; song lyrics by Lorenz Hart, Irving Berlin, Bob Dylan, Ira Gershwin, Yip Harburg, Leonard Cohen; film criticism by Robert Warshow, Manny Farber, Pauline Kaelall of which seem to me part of one big Jewish book, which is still being written.

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

    Unless she was a psychic, a writer asked this question in 1919 couldn’t possibly have answered with any kind of accuracy, so I think it might be wisest for me not to venture a random guess.

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

Ben Hecht, of course!  Since I’ve just devoted several years to writing a book about him, I’d like be able to at least sit down with him for a drink. We’d have a lot to discuss—from his movies and novels to his witty friends and withering critics. I’m sure things would get pretty heated if the subject of Israel came up, but he enjoyed a good fight as much as anything, and after all this time I’ve spent arguing with his archive, I’d welcome the chance to have it out with him in person.


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4 Questions with Judith Rosenbaum

Judith Rosenbaum, PhD, is the executive director of the Jewish Women’s Archive.

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

I would say choice. Jewish life in the 21st century is voluntary, and – even for those of us for whom Jewishness is a primary identity – it is one among many commitments and affiliations.

2. What is your favorite Jewish book and why?

It’s hard to pick just one, but if forced to choose, I would have to say Grace Paley’s The Collected Stories. Her stories, which focus on women’s lives, capture how the most mundane, brief moments of everyday life (a walk with a friend, moms watching kids in the park) contain everything we need to know about people and the world. I also love the intersections of politics, family, and storytelling. No one was better than Grace Paley at making clear the political imperative, as well as the human imperative, to love people and to tell their stories. I return to these stories again and again for Paley’s deep wisdom about people, relationships, love, and justice.

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

As a historian, I have a great deal of humility about making predictions. As in the midrash of Moses feeling lost in the beit midrash of Rabbi Akiva, I expect – and hope – that I would be surprised and perhaps confused, because Judaism should continue to evolve.

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

Again, how to choose just one?? I’d love to meet the 19th century feminist Ernestine Rose and hear about how it even occurred to her to sue her rabbi father in the Polish civil court over her betrothal to a man she didn’t want to marry and the loss of her inheritance to him. I’m also fascinated by Emma Goldman and would enjoy meeting her. And I’d be interested to get Bella Abzug’s perspective on how to grapple with politics in this challenging era. Among many others.


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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.