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Free Educator's Guide

Rebecca Keys

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We're pleased to share a free educator's guide to enrich student learning around the legacy of Harvey Milk.

The educator's guide was created in partnership with Keshet, a national organization 
that works for full LGBTQ equality and inclusion in Jewish life.

Harvey Milk: His Lives and Death
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Jewish Life of the Month: Menasseh ben Israel

Rebecca Keys

  Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Menasseh ben Israel: Rabbi of Amsterdam
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Menasseh ben Israel

Dates
1604-1657

Impact
A pivotal intellectual figure in early modern Jewish history, Menasseh ben Israel was a rabbi and founder of the first Hebrew printing press in Amsterdam. His most famous student was Baruch Spinoza.

Famous Quote
"Now, as if in total neglect of myself, I am engaged in trade; which is not only difficult and full of trouble, but also costs me a good deal of time that I would otherwise devote to my studies. But what else am I to do? I have neither the wealth of Croesus nor the soul of Thersites."

A Rare Interview with a Celebrated Playwright

Rebecca Keys

Lillian Hellman: An Imperious Life
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Watch acclaimed playwright Lillian Hellman discuss her life and career, which included such classic plays as "The Children's Hour" and "The Little Foxes," and her long relationship with mystery writer Dashiell Hammett, in this rare TV interview from 1973.

Learn more about Hellman's legendary career with Jewish Lives.

4 Questions with Steven Nadler

Rebecca Keys

 
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This month Steven Nadler, a Pulitzer Prize finalist and author of the new Jewish Lives biography Menasseh ben Israel: Rabbi of Amsterdam, will answer 4 questions about the Jewish experience.

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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.

Jewish Life of the Month: Leon Trotsky

Rebecca Keys

  Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Leon Trotsky

Dates
1879-1940

Impact
A preeminent Russian revolutionary figure and a masterful writer, Leon Trotsky led an upheaval that helped to define the contours of twentieth-century politics.

Famous Quote
"The masses go into a revolution not with a prepared plan of social reconstruction, but with a sharp feeling that they cannot endure the old regime." 

 
Leon Trotsky: A Revolutionary’s Life
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4 Questions with Danya Shults

Rebecca Keys

 
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Each month we'll ask a preeminent Jewish thinker 4 questions about the Jewish experience.

4 Questions with Danya Shults

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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.

Jewish Life of the Month: Gershom Scholem

Rebecca Keys

  Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Gershom Scholem

Dates
1897-1982

Impact
Gershom Scholem pioneered the study of Jewish mysticism as a legitimate academic discipline. He moved to Palestine in 1923 and participated in the creation of the Hebrew University, where he was a towering figure for nearly seventy years.

Famous Quote
"A mystic is a man who has been favored with an immediate, and to him real, experience of the divine, of ultimate reality, or who at least strives to attain such experience."

 
 

4 Questions with Steve Zipperstein

Rebecca Keys

 
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Each month we'll ask a preeminent Jewish thinker 4 questions about the Jewish experience.

4 Questions with Steve Zipperstein

Steven J. Zipperstein is the Daniel E. Koshland Professor in Jewish Culture and History at Stanford University. He is the author and editor of eight books including, most recently, Pogrom: Kishinev and the Tilt of History. Zipperstein has been awarded the Leviant Prize of the Modern Language Association, the Judah Magnes Gold Medal of the American Friends of the Hebrew University, and the Koret Prize for Outstanding Contributions to the American Jewish community.  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

Four Books, Four Heroes

Rebecca Keys

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We're thrilled to share with you a guest blog post by Professor Barry W. Holtz, author of the Jewish Lives biography Rabbi Akiva: Sage of the Talmud

Professor Holtz’s biography of Rabbi Akiva was recently featured as part of the 2017-2018 Jewish Lives Book Club, a program in which communities around the world read four Jewish Lives biographies together:

In this guest blog post, Professor Holtz will share his insights on what these four prominent Jewish figures have in common, and how their lives and legacies illuminate the Jewish experience.


Four Books, Four Heroes
By Barry W. Holtz

It was fortunate indeed that a few days before I was interviewed for the livestream broadcast of the Jewish Lives Book Club back in May, I had had a conversation with Ethan Witkovsky, the Assistant Rabbi of the Park Avenue Synagogue in New York City about one particular question he was thinking of asking me.

But when the question came it felt like it came out of the blue:  “Now that we are coming to the end of this year’s book club,” he asked, “how might you see commonalities among the four figures whose biographies we read this year?”

Now, I knew that Ethan was not out to stump me. After all, he had been my student when he was in rabbinical school and a great favorite of my children from his days working at Camp Ramah in New England. So he had floated that trial balloon during our discussion in advance of the evening at his synagogue. 

In fact the interview was moving along smoothly that night. I had, after all, done a number of speaking engagements in various synagogues and JCCs since the book was published. I had even spoken at the National Yiddish Book Center where I tried to relate the stories of Akiva to the much later tradition of storytelling in (mostly secular) Yiddish literature.

So I was used to answering questions about Rabbi Akiva of various sorts. But when Ethan asked me to connect the four books in the year’s book club, I had a moment of brain freeze. “Wait,” I’m thinking to myself, “did I really have an answer to that question? Did I really agree to address that?”  

I offered a few self-deprecating and humorous remarks as I desperately tried to refocus on an answer: Hmm, Einstein, Spielberg, Rabin, Akiva: one born almost 2000 years ago; one born toward the end of the 19th Century; one born toward the beginning of the 20th Century; one born a few months before my own birthday. No connection there. 

One who escaped persecution to live out his life universally admired, dying at peace in Princeton New Jersey; one acclaimed throughout the world for both his work and his philanthropy, still alive and still active; one who was cruelly executed by a vicious oppressor for teaching Torah; and one, a leader of his people, a warrior and a peace-maker, murdered by one of his own citizens out of hatred and fear. Not much of a similarity there.

It was at that moment that my memory of the previous conversation with Ethan clicked in. At that time, without the pressure of being in front of a large audience, the answer to the question was clear to me and I was able to pull my answer out of my memory bank.  

I suggested that you could see each of them as representing a different version of what it means to be a Jewish hero: Einstein stood for the heroism of the mind, in his case scientific intelligence. Einstein used to go by the common epithet, “the smartest man in the world.” And he was a figure of great pride for Jews throughout the world, particularly after the Holocaust. In twentieth century America his rivals might only have been Louis Brandeis, Jonas Salk, and, of course, Hank Greenberg!

If Einstein is the hero of the mind, Spielberg is the hero of artistic imagination. Arguably the greatest film director of all time and certainly the most successful, the very range of Spielberg’s imaginative oeuvre is astonishing: the fantasy of “ET,” the adventure of “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” the historical depth of “Lincoln” and “Saving Private Ryan,” the terror of “Jaws” and, of course, the power of “Schindler’s List," and these films only touch the surface of his output. On top of that, Spielberg’s enormous philanthropic efforts following “Schindler’s List” also made him a hero to many Jews. 

Rabin, is in a sense the obvious traditional kind of hero. For many Jews his leadership of Israel’s Defense Forces during the 1967 war sealed his image as a hero in warfare, but his move as Prime Minister to reach out to find a lasting peace with Israel’s Arab neighbors marked his transition from one kind of hero to another. His death, at the moment in which peace seemed like it might finally be possible, shattered the hopes of many Jews around the world. And the fact that he was assassinated by a Jew, a religious Jew at that, made his life story become almost that of legend.

And finally, Rabbi Akiva. For me Akiva is a hero in many different ways. The stories about him portray him as at once a brilliant intellect who essentially cemented in Jewish memory the notion of what it means to study Torah. Although Akiva did not invent the mode of Torah learning that I like to call examining and interrogating the text, asking questions about every detail, he is the person most associated with what could be called “that Jewish way of reading.”

It can be argued, I believe, that this way of reading influenced Jewish consciousness for millennia, even for secular Jews after the Jewish Enlightenment begun around 150 years ago. It may be summed up in the Yiddish phrase a yiddishe kopp, a Jewish “head.” But Akiva was more than that. He was a model of spiritual depth, admired by Jewish mystics for his profound connection to God and the depth of his prayer life. And of course he too died a martyr’s death, modeling what it meant to be a hero with tremendous courage.

And so in the end I think it is hardly far-fetched to think of these four personages as exemplifying what Jews have admired throughout the ages: mind, imagination, courage and spirit. All of them heroes each in their own way.

Jewish Life of the Month: Jacob

Rebecca Keys

  Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Jacob

Dates
Biblical period

Impact
One of the three biblical patriarchs, Jacob occupies the Jewish imagination as a righteous trickster. His sons represent the 12 tribes of Israel, and he is best known for a series of renowned struggles with his brother Esau, with his father-in-law Laban, with an angel, with his wives, and with his own sons.

Famous Quote
"And Jacob said to his father, I am Esau your firstborn." (Genesis 27:19)

Jacob: Unexpected Patriarch
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Introducing a New Blog Series

Rebecca Keys

 
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Each month we'll ask a preeminent Jewish scholar 4 questions about the Jewish experience.

4 Questions with Anita Shapira

Anita Shapira is professor emerita at Tel Aviv University, where she previously served as dean of the Faculty of Humanities and held the Ruben Merenfeld Chair for the Study of Zionism. Her previous books include the Jewish Lives biography Ben-Gurion: Father of Modern Israel, and Israel: A History, winner of the National Jewish Book Award. Anita is the Israel Prize laureate of 2008, and she lives in Tel Aviv.

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.

Explore the Legacy of Harvey Milk's Activism

Rebecca Keys

We're thrilled to share with you a guest blog post by Robert Bank, President and CEO of the American Jewish World Service (AJWS), about how Harvey Milk’s legacy continues to inspire the Jewish commitment to justice.


Five Ways Harvey Milk Inspires My Work for Social Justice Today

By Robert Bank

It is difficult to imagine the contours of my life without the influence of one of my heroes: Harvey Milk, a social justice giant and the first openly gay elected official in California. I immigrated to the United States from South Africa in 1977, one year before Harvey’s assassination. As a young Jew who was just coming out as gay, I was deeply inspired by Harvey’s courage, confidence and secure sense of self as an ‘out-and-proud’ gay Jewish man, unafraid to speak truth to power. 

These powerful connections with Harvey’s life story came back to me in recent weeks while reading a new and very engaging biography of Harvey Milk by Lillian Faderman. Her book thoughtfully explores Harvey’s life, legacy and activism in relation to his “otherness” as a gay Jew. 

Today, Harvey’s legacy is palpably alive in my work. As President and CEO of American Jewish World Service—a global human rights organization inspired by the Jewish commitment to justice, I have the good fortune to meet and work with advocates for LGBTI rights in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean. When I meet these and other brave advocates we support, I often think about what it takes to make an enduring difference for people who are silenced or rendered invisible. What must we do to ensure that people are treated with dignity? How can we work with others who may not see eye-to-eye with us on every matter? When we face unexpected setbacks, how can we lead with resilience?

Here are five lessons that Harvey taught me about leading for a better world, which still inspire me every day.

1. Be authentic. Be yourself. 
In the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s, when anti-Semitism still held sway over many institutions and communities in the United States, and when many American Jews muted their religious and cultural identities to protect themselves, Harvey proclaimed his Jewishness with pride. Similarly, he knew that ending homophobia would happen only when gay people dared to live openly. “I know that it is hard and will hurt,” he acknowledged, “But come out to your relatives, friends, neighbors, and fellow workers; to the people who work where you eat and shop... Once and for all, break down the myths, destroy the lies and distortions.” In my work with LGBT rights activists in the developing world, I know that living openly requires tremendous courage —often at great risk to the safety of those who are open about who they are and whom they love. But I have learned from Harvey—and from brave activists in Uganda, Haiti, Thailand and elsewhere—that change is only possible if we live our own truths. 

2. Take risks. 
When Harvey first ran for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, he was the owner of a camera shop and had no experience in local politics. And yet, he cared about human rights, recognized the injustices in his community, and wanted to help people who were suffering. I have long admired that Harvey leapt into the unknown world of political campaigns, lost several elections, and kept trying until he finally won. In today’s struggles for human rights here and around the world, barriers to progress often feel insurmountable. But I have learned from Harvey and many other advocates that we don’t know what we can achieve until we give it our all. 

3. Build relationships across lines of difference.
Throughout his political career, Harvey championed many progressive causes. In doing so, he built a constituency that was broader than the gay community, which generated support for LGBT people and other minorities whose interests were often ignored. He frequently held meetings and rallies with people who were considered “outsiders,” including the poor, the elderly, and people of color. Faderman writes, “He had a knack for making whomever he was talking with feel like they had 100 percent of his attention… that whatever they had to say was the most interesting thing Harvey could possibly be listening to.” I continue to be inspired by how Harvey sought to liberate everyone, not just LGBT people, from oppression. And I strive to emulate his practice of deep listening when building relationships with people whose identities are different from my own.

4. Understand history.
When police in San Francisco were violently harassing gay men in the 1970s, Harvey wrote an open letter to the City of San Francisco Hall of Justice, a Superior Court in California, using a trope that would become central to his future writings and speeches. He argued that ignoring police brutality against gay men in San Francisco at that time was dangerously similar to ignoring Nazi brutality against Jews in Germany in the 1930s. He argued that even San Franciscans who disdained LGBT people needed to oppose police brutality because if they didn’t, they would “one day find that they, too, are becoming victims of a police state.” For me, as a Jew who grew up in apartheid South Africa and whose family members battled racisim, I greatly admire how Harvey, like my relatives, understood the lessons of Jewish history to advocate for others who experienced discrimination and state-sanctioned violence in a very different context. 

5. Spread hope. 
“I know that you cannot live on hope alone, but without it, life is not worth living,” Harvey declared to a crowd during one of his political speeches. “You, and you, and you, and you—you have to give people hope.” While uttering these words, he pointed to multiple people in the audience to convey that each and every person has a responsibility to shape a better future. Many of the LGBTI and human rights activists my colleagues and I support in the developing world today have been victims of horrific brutality, political conflicts, and disasters. And yet, they remain hopeful and continue to work for justice against unfavorable odds, reminding me that if we persevere, we will change people’s lives for the better. Harvey’s unwavering optimism is a key ingredient for building a world we can all be proud of. 

I am committed to honoring Harvey’s legacy each and every day in my work for justice and human rights. My own life, and the lives of countless others, have been immeasurably enriched by Harvey’s courage. May his memory continue to be an inspiration to us and generations to come to fight for the dignity and rights of every person. 

Robert Bank is the President and CEO of American Jewish World Service. Inspired by the Jewish commitment to justice, American Jewish World Service (AJWS) works to realize human rights and end poverty in the developing world. Learn more at www.ajws.org.

We're celebrating with FREE SHIPPING all month!

Rebecca Keys

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May is Jewish American Heritage month, and we're celebrating the exceptional lives of Jewish Americans! Get FREE SHIPPING on all Jewish Lives books + collections, only at JewishLives.org.

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Video: Meet the Ruthless Clan in Lillian Hellman's Little Foxes

Rebecca Keys

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Watch the cast of the Manhattan Theater Club production of Lillian Hellman's Little Foxes explore the play's characters and the brutal ways they clashed. 

Learn more about the audacious playwright Lillian Hellman and her theatrical legacy with Jewish Lives

Explore Israel @ 70 at the Center for Jewish History

Rebecca Keys

  Image courtesy of IsraelGPO

Image courtesy of IsraelGPO

Hear from Jewish Lives series editor and author Anita Shapira, Jewish Lives author Ambassador Itamar Rabinovich, Nicole Krauss, Elliott Abrams, and more at a day-long conference on Sunday, June 10th, featuring discussions about Israeli society and politics as well as relations between Israel, America, and the Jewish diaspora. Learn more about this event at cjh.org/israelat70

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Jewish Life of the Month: Julius Rosenwald

Rebecca Keys

  Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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Julius Rosenwald

Dates
1862–1932

Impact
Rosenwald rose to meteoric wealth at the helm of Sears, Roebuck. Yet his most important legacy is the pioneering changes he introduced to the practice of philanthropy. 

Famous Quote
"Do not be fooled into believing that because a man is rich he is necessarily smart. There is ample proof to the contrary."

Celebrate the Art of the Game

Rebecca Keys

  Image courtesy of SeanKaneBaseballArt.com

Image courtesy of SeanKaneBaseballArt.com

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Own a baseball fan's dream glove with Hank Greenberg art by Sean Kane, and learn more about the legendary Hebrew Hammer with Jewish Lives

"Come Yom Kippur - holy fast day wide-world over to the Jew, 
And Hank Greenberg to his teaching and the old tradition true... 
We shall miss him in the infield and shall miss him at the bat,
But he's true to his religion - and / honor him for that!"

-Edgar Guest