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Jewish Life of the Month: Mark Rothko

Rebecca Keys

  Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Mark Rothko

Dates
1903-1970

Impact
One of the greatest painters of the twentieth century, Rothko was born in Russia and immigrated to the U.S. when he was ten. His paintings are recognizable for their rectangular fields of color and light.

Famous Quote
“You’ve got sadness in you, I’ve got sadness in me – and my works of art are places where the two sadnesses can meet, and therefore both of us need to feel less sad.” 

4 Questions with Lillian Faderman

Rebecca Keys

 
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This month, Lillian Faderman, a distinguished scholar of LGBT history, and author of the Jewish Lives biography Harvey Milk: His Lives and Death, answers 4 questions about the Jewish experience.

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.

Who was Menasseh ben Israel?

Rebecca Keys

His father was tortured by the Inquisition…
His family was forcibly converted to Christianity…
Yet he became the most famous Jew of the 17th century.

 Illustration by Sefira Lightstone

Illustration by Sefira Lightstone

Menasseh ben Israel: Rabbi of Amsterdam
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Menasseh ben Israel (1604–1657) was among the most accomplished and cosmopolitan rabbis of his time, and a pivotal intellectual figure in early modern Jewish history.

He was a teacher of Baruch Spinoza. He argued for the Jewish resettlement of England, from which Jews had been banned since 1290. He founded the first Hebrew printing press in Amsterdam.

Learn more about the great Amsterdam rabbi and celebrated popularizer of Judaism with Jewish Lives.

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REVIEWS

“In this lucid and engaging biography, Menasseh ben Israel emerges as a force of nature, moving swiftly and easily between the Jewish and Gentile spheres in Amsterdam. In recreating Menasseh's life, Nadler has stitched together some of the leading figures of the century into a vivid tapestry.” —Russell Shorto, author of The Island at the Center of the World

"Fluidly written, lively, and truly excellent from every point of view, this book portrays Menasseh's role in the development of Amsterdam Jewish life and learning and in the broad context of seventeenth-century Jewish-Christian intellectual relations." —Jonathan Israel, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton

"Excellent." —Rabbi A. James Rudin, Reform Judaism


FREE READING GUIDE

Yitzhak Rabin: Soldier, Leader, Statesman

Rebecca Keys

Yitzhak Rabin: Soldier, Leader, Statesman
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Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was a military hero who embarked on a historic effort to bring peace to his country. He was assassinated 23 years ago, on November 4, 1995. 

Learn more about the soldier who became a statesman with Jewish Lives, and check out the resources below from our partner MyJewishLearning.com:

A Quick Primer on the Life of Yitzhak Rabin

7 Important Quotes from Yitzhak Rabin

8 Things You Didn’t Know About Yitzhak Rabin

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Reviews

"I want to thank Itamar for writing this book...It's amazing that so much ground could be covered in so few pages." —President Bill Clinton

“A thoughtful and extraordinarily comprehensive account of a significant leader” —Henry A. Kissinger

“I recommend his book to all those interested in peace between Arabs and Israelis.” —James A. Baker, III

“This highly informative and tightly-packed biography is undergirded by a deep personal knowledge of Rabin’s strengths and flaws...” —Derek Penslar, Harvard University and the University of Toronto

"Puts the complexities of [Rabin's] career and achievement in fresh perspective" —Kirkus Reviews

Jewish Life of the Month: Jerome Robbins

Rebecca Keys

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Jerome Robbins: A Life in Dance
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Jerome Robbins

Dates
1918-1998

Impact
A legendary choreographer, five-time Tony Award-winner, and two-time Academy Award-winner, Jerome Robbins is best known for his work on Peter Pan, The King And I, West Side Story, and Fiddler on the Roof.

Famous Quote
“I can’t sit still and direct a ballet. I have to get the feeling of the movement, then I can tell where it ought to go."

Get to Know Julius Rosenwald

Rebecca Keys

  Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Did you know that Julius Rosenwald funded the construction of over 5,000 schools for African American children in the rural south in the early 20th century?

Learn more about the businessman-turned-philanthropist with Jewish Lives and check out the new discussion guide featuring Rosenwald produced by the Jewish Book Council (see page 26).

 
Julius Rosenwald: Repairing the World
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Celebrate the 100th Anniversary of Dance Icon Jerome Robbins

Rebecca Keys

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Jerome Robbins: A Life in Dance
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Explore Jerome Robbins' extraordinary body of work, bridging together Broadway and ballet like no other choreographer before or since.

Learn more in the new Jewish Lives biography JEROME ROBBINS: A LIFE IN DANCE, by Wendy Lesser

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REVIEWS

"This brisk biography . . . is light and bright, utterly persuaded by its subject and intoxicatingly in love with movement." —New York Times Book Review

“Wendy Lesser’s new biography deftly introduces readers to her complex subject and his many remarkable creative achievements.” —The Wall Street Journal

“Lesser. . . inspires. . .” —Pam Tanowitz

“This book answers questions I didn’t know I had. It is a fascinating and generous point of view.” —Mark Morris

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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.