A still from the Netflix show Living With Yourself, co-starring Paul Rudd.
As the secular New Year approaches, many people make resolutions, in an effort to become a better person. What if there were a shortcut? What if, for a tidy sum, you could be transformed, virtually overnight, into the person you’ve dreamed of being?
This the conundrum posed by the Netflix show Living With Yourself, an eight-part series released in late October, starring Paul Rudd and Aisling Bea, who play spouses Miles and Kate Elliot. Rudd is also one of the executive producers.
The premise is this: Miles, a shlub discontent with and disconnected from his wife, and suffering career ennui, discovers a “spa” that offers a treatment to improve his charm and confidence. For a small fortune, they promise, a “new you.” And so, a shlemiel enters and a gentleman exits. Just one problem: [spoiler] it’s actually a cloning lab and, unbeknownst to Miles and Clone Miles, the two men exist and, later, each must contend with the other in his life.
Rudd’s 25 years of movie experience includes Ant Man, Anchorman, Knocked Up, 40-Year-Old Virgin and Clueless. On television, he played Mike Hannigan in Friends and appeared in Reno 911, among other things.
The New Jersey-born actor hasn’t been shy in publicly discussing his Jewish identity. He kibitzed a bit about his Jewishness in an interview segment of Between Two Ferns. In an episode of Finding Your Roots, he found out that his grandfather, Davis Rudnitsky, fought the Nazis, only to return home to England to face antisemitism. In 2017, Rudd played his first (overtly) Jewish character, Moe Berg, in the biopic The Catcher Was a Spy, about a baseball player who joins the Second World War effort as an undercover agent.
In Living With Yourself, there is one explicit Jewish moment, when a Holocaust survivor tells Miles an off-colour anecdote about the Shoah, involving pork. But there are also hidden Jewish themes. For example, envious of a colleague’s extraordinary success in the office, Miles is spurred by the prospect that his technological makeover could help him outperform this coworker. Though Judaism has no problem with someone being motivated to accomplish because of another’s success, the Torah warns against jealousy. The ninth commandment is one obvious caution against such sentiment: “Thou shalt not covet.” Another is Joseph’s brothers (Genesis 36), who, enraged with jealousy, sell Joseph into slavery. In a sense, Miles and Clone Miles are like brothers, and they develop petty and spiteful jealousies, wanting the best of both worlds, but not able to have it.
If only Miles initially had derived fulfilment and was grateful for what he had, he wouldn’t be in this much trouble. Ethics of Our Fathers (Pirkei Avot) (4:1) advises just that: “Who has wealth? The one who is pleased with his lot.” The meaning isn’t limited to “wealth” of materials, of course, but the wealth of blessings that are bestowed upon us, including, for most of us, our loved ones, our safety, our employment and access to the necessities of life.
Notably, though, Miles versus Clone Miles is illustrative of the yetzer hara (good inclination) and the yetzer hatov (bad inclination) at battle with each other. Interestingly, neither character is completely good nor bad, but a combination, reflecting the real, complicated, human condition, where we have both inclinations competing inside us.
Often, we are able to convince ourselves of the nobility of our decisions – that is, find a good reason for our perhaps less-than-good action; explain away the importance of a choice’s potential harm. Paradoxically, the yetzer hatov has a sneaky side. To explain this, author and radio host Dennis Prager often cites the late Rabbi Wolfe Kelman, former head of the Conservative rabbinate. He once told Prager that he had his yetzer hara under control, but his yetzer hatov “always got him into trouble.”
Rarely do ordinary people wake up each morning and strive to make another human miserable. Still, we must wrestle with our “other” selves, overcome our justifications and egos, to make principled choices. Every day is a lesson in living with ourselves.
Dave Gordonis a Toronto-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in more than 100 publications around the world.
No matter your observance level, prioritizing a Jewish camp will boost your kids’ enrichment and ownership in the Jewish community. (photo by Joe Goldberg / flickr)
Day camp or sleepaway camp? Single sex or co-ed? Traditionally Jewish or liberal? Shabbat observant? Kosher? STEM or sports camp? The choices are endless. No matter your observance level, prioritizing a Jewish camp will boost your kids’ enrichment and ownership in the Jewish community.
As a parent, I often feel overwhelmed by the options available. Many say, “You’re the expert!” when it comes to your own kids. Yet, it can be hard to get inside kids’ brains to know what is right for them – and summer camp is one of those big decisions. It’s a time for childcare, enrichment and fun. But it must be decided in advance, it’s sometimes expensive and it can feel like a risky guess. Here are some tips to get started.
What do you need?
If you must get kids to camp before work, let’s be honest. Camp serves as childcare. It needs to be something you can pull off each morning. Make a list of what you need to make it through the summer. Early morning or afternoon care, a way to purchase healthy snacks and lunches, or a bus that picks the kids up? These may be essentials for some parents.
Some need much more. Kosher food? Stricter Sabbath observance? These may limit your choices. If your kid has special needs, your work schedule is unpredictable or you live far from Jewish camping options, things become complicated. Some parents start with geography. For many, it’s unrealistic to try to drive an hour to camp each morning with small kids before getting to work.
If your list of possible Jewish camping options is short, find out when sign-up opens and get your kids’ names on the list. Sign-up often happens in January or February – long before we’re ready!
What do your kids want?
I started my research by asking my twins what they liked to do most in the summer. To my surprise, playing outdoors with Mommy and the dogs ranked top on their list. When I prioritized the other “wants,” it became clear that taking swim lessons at a lake (with a half-hour drive on each end) and just getting a chance for free play in the sunshine were key elements of their summer. For that summer, we had only a month of camp and a long but inexpensive “staycation,” with trips to a lake with a parent. We fit in making challah, doing Jewish art projects and reading PJ Library books, too.
Other requests might include attending camp with a close friend or trying out a new skill (music, acting, soccer, coding) – and these could all happen at a Jewish camp.
Maybe your kids know what they want, but, sometimes, they don’t. That’s OK. A general day camp, with lots of activities and choices every day, may be just the ticket.
One summer, I was sent to a co-ed sleepaway camp far from home for a month. I didn’t know anyone. The daily activities included a large dose of sports, which I hated. Worse yet, there was an outbreak of head lice. It was awful. By contrast, I also spent two years attending an overnight girls’ camp for two weeks each summer with a friend. I loved the library and the arts and crafts stations and have vague but good memories.
A kid’s maturity level matters, too. I was an independent oldest sibling, ready for overnight camps at 8, but, at that age, it was clear my twins were not ready to go anywhere overnight. I did ask them though. Did they want to go to sleepaway camp with some of their friends? I got a resounding no. Your kids often know what they’re ready for and what they wouldn’t enjoy. Give them a choice.
Feel confident in safety
Camp is a lot more flexible than life during the school year. There’s swimming, group sports and many other ways to have fun – and get hurt. Many camps are staffed by well-meaning teenagers and university students, with only a few adults supervising. Be sure things are safe and the activities are a right fit for your kids. Even one bad interaction with a bully or an unsafe situation could make camp hard for your kid.
There’s also a feeling of confidence when you know that the people in charge are knowledgeable and making good decisions that you can trust.
Make sure the camp gives parents and campers lots of information from the beginning about what they will be doing each day, what they need to bring and how to have a successful experience. A camp that doesn’t remind you to bring towels or bag lunches may also be disorganized in other ways, too. See if the counselors offer you information when you drop off or pick up your kid so you can know more about what goes on. Tell those in charge that you expect to know about any injuries or tussles during the day.
Compromise is key
Sometimes, when you’ve gotten through your list of Jewish camps and kids’ desires, you find that the best camp for one kid might not work for the other. Or, the only horseback riding camp is single sex, and the kid’s best friend is not the same gender.
Sometimes, we need to choose out of our comfort zones to make things work. My kids attended a Chabad travel camp for years. It didn’t jive with my egalitarian sensibilities. Some of the theology concerned me. However, they definitely learned about Judaism and had fun. I trusted one of the directors, my kids’ former preschool teacher, completely.
It’s important to optimize things as best you can, and then compromise, too. There are a limited number of Jewish camps out there. Your kids have only a few summers to have fun outdoors with friends. Put aside some of the details you can’t change so you can make the most of their fun – and Jewish – times in the sun. They may remember their camp experience forever.
Joanne Seiff has written regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. Check her out on Instagram @yrnspinner or at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.
With the speed of a street-corner caricaturist yet the precision of someone who seemingly misses nothing, Ben Levinson has for decades been capturing the cityscapes of the many places to which he has traveled with his wife, Carla. No pencil, no erasing. Just a black ink pen and a small sketchbook.
“My architectural career taught me to sketch quickly and furiously, and I am able to see details that most would not see,” Levinson told the Independent in an interview earlier this fall.
During these adventures, Levinson has sketched everything of architectural interest to him: churches, cathedrals, mosques, pyramids and, of course, synagogues, while Carla would station herself at a café.
By the time she was done with her coffee and croissant, Ben would have a complete rendering to show her. During the infrequent occasions she would finish first, incomplete drawings would be filled out when they reached their hotel.
The alacrity, accuracy and artistry of the sketches were at times the envy of those whom they encountered on their travels.
“We met artists whose wives and partners waited all too patiently and were ready to move on, whereas Ben was long done,” Carla said.
After looking through Ben’s sketchbooks one day, Carla suggested he do a show devoted to synagogues. Carla, who ran Victoria’s Gallery 1248, helped curate the selection of sketches that appeared at the Wings of Peace Gallery at Victoria’s Congregation Emanu-El from Sept. 4 through Yom Kippur. Now those sketches have been compiled into a book which is tentatively titled In Search of Identity: The Story of the Wandering Jew.
The book’s 49 sketches transport the viewer throughout the old and the new worlds. Many of the sketches are connected by the common experience of Jews moving on because of antisemitic treatment, despite centuries of coexistence in a community.
The figurative journey, which includes interiors and exteriors and is really the result of several holidays the Levinsons took over the span of two decades, sets off in Toledo, Spain, home to one of the few remaining synagogues left after the Spanish Inquisition scattered Jews throughout Europe and the Americas. Levinson’s exhibit and book spend a lot of time in Sephardi lands: a 14th-century Moorish-style synagogue in Cordoba; a tiny shul in Tomar, Portugal, the only pre-Renaissance temple in the country; larger houses of worship in Morocco, home to the largest Jewish population in the Arab world; and, finally, to the Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam, completed in 1675.
Poignant reminders of the once-thriving Jewish communities of Eastern Europe follow. Levinson leads the viewer through Berlin, Prague and Budapest, along with artistic reconstructions of the Terezin sleeping barracks and an ancient dig in Vienna.
The voyage shifts to France, Italy and Scandinavia, with the majestic Marais synagogue in Paris, the synagogue at the Museum of Jewish Life in Trieste and the Gothenburg Synagogue, the scene of a firebomb attack in 2017.
Levinson also presents active scenes of a crowd forming outside a Venice synagogue on a sunny Shabbat morning, passersby in front of an Antwerp temple and a sea of bicycles by the Great Synagogue of Copenhagen.
The visual trip wraps up with drawings from Mexico City and the Byzantine-style building of Libertad Synagogue in Buenos Aires.
Born in Medicine Hat, Alta., in 1942, Levinson graduated from the University of Manitoba’s architectural program. In 1966, he moved to Victoria and worked for various firms before starting his 30-year private practice as president of Benjamin Bryce Levinson Architects in 1980. In addition to leading his practice, he continued sketching and showing his work at various venues, including the Architectural Institute of British Columbia and the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver.
Levinson was instrumental in restoring Congregation Emanu-El in the early 1980s. When he arrived in town, he felt an initial disappointment upon seeing the synagogue with “its pink stucco, balcony balustrade pickets, missing fence and hidden dome ceiling.” He helped the synagogue’s leadership in obtaining grants and helped steer the building and fundraising committees to get the money necessary to revitalize the region’s most historic Jewish building.
Small Town Architect, the name of his first book, documents his 40-year career in architectural design and recounts his travels and artistic endeavours. His work can be found throughout Victoria and in numerous communities throughout the province; in elementary schools, municipal halls, grocery stores and restaurants, among other buildings.
Sam Margolis has written for the Globe and Mail, the National Post, UPI and MSNBC.
Craig Darch’s L’Chaim and Lamentations (NewSouth Books, 2019) is a bittersweet collection of seven short stories. Most of the characters in his first foray into fiction are older Ashkenazi Jews whose pasts are almost characters themselves. Yet, as strong as are their memories, these Jews are doing their most to live in the present, and to even assure the future.
Darch is the Humana-Sherman-Germany Distinguished Professor of Special Education at Auburn University, in Alabama, where he has taught for 37 years. He has lived several places in the United States, but New York City and Poland are the locations of import in these stories. At least one – “Who’s the Old Crone?” – was inspired by his birthplace, Chicago.
Having moved to South Bend, Indiana, with his family when he was 6 years old, Darch shares in an article on the Auburn website, “We attended synagogue in South Bend and continued to travel to Chicago to see my grandparents, where we frequented the famous Jewish deli called Ashkenazi. I remember always seeing the same three old men in there. I wondered about them, about their lives. Now, through fiction, I can give them names and their own story.”
In the humorous tale Darch has imagined, Rabbi Fiddleman, “held court each day in Schwartzman’s with his two followers – Pincus Eisenberg and Mendel Nachman.” As described by another customer at the deli, the “group of three old men, the only other customers in the place, huddled together with covered heads at a booth in the far corner, all remnants from the Romanian synagogue, bankrupt and boarded up years ago. Now, with no place for them to go, the octogenarians arrived early each morning and stayed for several hours – sipping tea, noshing on the cheapest fare, and kibbitzing about spiritualism and life after death, debates that frequently drifted into polemical arguments concerning the metaphysics of Spinoza and Kant. Though generous with their opinions, when it came to money each one was more frugal than the next, and each had a knack for consuming great quantities of Schwartzman’s tea while nibbling a single bagel over the course of several hours.”
Darch’s characters are recognizable people with whom readers will feel loneliness and friendship (“Sadie’s Prayer”), fear (“Wasserman’s Ride Home”), heartache and bewilderment (“Kaddish for Two”), justice tinged with bitterness (“Leonard Saperstein & Company”), mystery and hope (“The Last Jew in Krotoszyn”), joy and possibility (“Who’s the Old Crone?”), acceptance and perseverance (“Miss Bargman”).
The young people in these stories represent both forces of change and the need for new traditions, as in the emotional story “Kaddish for Two,” in which a son finally gets the courage to tell his Orthodox parents that he is gay, and as preservers of the past, as in the somehow cheering “The Last Jew in Krotoszyn,” in which Magda, a 13-year-old non-Jewish girl, befriends Ruta, the story title’s last Jew.
“Ruta watched Magda run out the cemetery gate, heading toward home,” writes Darch. “Then Ruta shuffled slowly away, each step more difficult than the last. She stopped for just a moment to catch her breath. Bone tired, she rested her hands on her hips. She understood such fatigue was just one more signal, a tweak from the Almighty himself; her time in this world was coming to an end. But strangely, she had no fear of dying. She had faith that Magda would tend the cemetery and pass on the stories, the truth of Krotoszyn.”
Human connections – positive, negative and in between – are at the foundation of every story in L’Chaim and Lamentations. Enjoy.
Standing on the Haas Promenade in southern Jerusalem overlooking the Old City of Jerusalem, the Ethiopian priests wore traditional clothing and carried parasols. (photo by Gil Zohar)
Approximately one-third of Israel’s 125,000-strong Ethiopian Jewish community came from across the country on Nov. 27, the 29th of Cheshvan in Judaism’s lunar calendar, for the festival Sigd. The mass clan gathering takes place 50 days after Yom Kippur, just as the holiday of Shavuot is celebrated 50 days after Passover.
Sigd, derived from the Hebrew word for prostration sgida, celebrates the renewal of the covenant between God and the Jewish people that followed the return of the Jews to the Land of Israel from the Babylonian exile 2,600 years ago, as described in the biblical book Nehemiah.
Symbolizing the Ethiopians’ rapid acculturation from rural Ethiopia to Israel’s high-tech start-up nation, many elders wore traditional clothing while teenagers preferred skin-tight jeans and Israel Defence Forces (IDF) khaki. Many celebrants were chatting on their cellphones.
The central event of the Sigd celebration was the priestly blessing by the kessim (spiritual leaders) in Geez, the sacred language used by Ethiopian Jews in their liturgy. Amharic, their traditional language today, has been widely displaced by Hebrew. Standing on the Haas Promenade in southern Jerusalem overlooking the Old City of Jerusalem, the priests wore traditional clothing and carried parasols.
Prior to being rescued from persecution and poverty in Africa in a series of military and espionage operations, including Operation Solomon in 1991 and continuing until today, Ethiopian Jews would ascend mountain tops above their villages in Gondar province for a mass Sigd prayer expressing their yearning for Zion. In Israel, the holiday has morphed into a day of thanksgiving for their rescue, as well their gratitude for the Torah and their cultural heritage, and most Ethiopian Jews under the age of 40 living in Israel only know those stories from their parents’ recounting. Children were not included in the Sigd observances in Ethiopia, both because of the difficulties of making a three-day trek up a mountain and to preserve the solemnity of the day.
Mingling with the colourful costumes and umbrellas of the older generation are the uniforms of the hundreds of Ethiopian men and women serving in the IDF. With the autumn temperature still summer-like, many youth are wearing skin-tight clothing that would have scandalized their elders in Ethiopia.
Among the elders is Rabbi David Yosef, a silver-bearded kes wearing a crocheted kippah, who explained how Sigd fits into the life of Ethiopian Jews.
The ancient community, which may date back to King Solomon and his dalliance with the Queen of Sheba 3,000 years ago, became cut off from mainstream Jewry, he says. More historically, Jews lived in Ethiopia from before the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE when the Babylonian conquerors of the Holy Land arrived. Driven into exile, these Jews considered themselves to stem from the tribe of Dan, one of the 10 lost tribes. Many were compelled to convert to Christianity in the 19th and 20th centuries but the community continued to dream and pray for a return to Jerusalem.
Starting in 1973, Ethiopian Jews suffered terribly under the dictator Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam. When Israel became aware of their plight, significant investigation and research was done, leading to a rabbinic ruling that accepts the Ethiopian Jews as part of the Jewish nation, entitling them to immigrate to Israel under the Jewish state’s Law of Return. That paved the way for 8,000 Ethiopian Jews to move to Israel. But then Mengistu forbade Jews to leave the country, and that led to the decision to covertly bring them to Israel. The 2019 Netflix movie The Red Sea Diving Resort recounts one of the Mossad’s rescue operations.
Nevertheless, some Israelis disputed the Ethiopians’ status as Jews. Rav Yosef carefully explained the Ethiopian Jewish engagement and wedding ceremonies and asserts that their practice conforms to the mishnaic description in Tractate Kiddushin (part of the Oral Law) of what constitutes proper Jewish betrothal. The community has always preserved its ritual status as Jews, he insisted.
“We missed Jerusalem for thousands of years,” he said. “Today, in Jerusalem, we celebrate … but, just as we say ‘Next year in Jerusalem’ at the Passover seder, so, too, at Sigd, we pray for a rebuilt Jerusalem.”
For Ziva, a 20-year-old from Ashkelon with braided hair, the Sigd celebration is a significant milestone. “I feel like it’s a day of unity for us,” she said.
For the young woman, who arrived in Israel with her parents 12 years ago, the observance of the ancient holiday reminds her that “there’s so much to remember.”
Giving the celebration the government’s seal of approval, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein and Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev both spoke, while President Reuven Rivlin delivered a video message.
The Ethiopian chief rabbi in Israel, Reuven Wabshat, said that, after the mass immigration of Ethiopian Jews to Israel, the decision had been taken by the community to continue celebrating the holiday, even though its essence is about the yearning to return to Jerusalem. He said the decision was made so that the community would not forget the “powerful heritage of Ethiopian Jewry,” and to help Israeli society understand the travails experienced by the Ethiopian Jewish community throughout their history.
The rabbi asserted that it was crucial for broader Israeli society to understand the Ethiopian Jewish community’s heritage and that it is an integral part of the Jewish people because of the “difficulties” the community has experienced in Israel.
The Ethiopian community has frequently complained of discrimination and racism against it and, in particular, has suffered from over-policing and a disproportionate number of arrests and indictments relative to its size. The recent death of Solomon Tekah, killed by a ricochet following an altercation between a group of youths and a police officer, led to renewed claims of police brutality, as well as protests and riots by members of the Ethiopian community. A previous bout of protests was sparked when video footage emerged of police officers beating an IDF soldier from the Ethiopian Jewish community.
“As you know, in recent years, the Ethiopian Jewish community has had difficult experiences, because people do not know and do not appreciate what Ethiopian Jews went through, and looked at things which are not relevant, such as differences in place of origin, but not the internal aspects of Ethiopian Jewry,” said Wabshat. “The Sigd holiday can bring people to the understanding and recognition that Ethiopian Jews are of the same flesh as all Jews around the world and, when the state recognizes Sigd, as it has, it means that we can all be one people.”
Among the kessim who participated in the prayers was Kes Mentasnut Govze from Beersheba. He explained how, in Ethiopia on Sigd, the Jewish community would travel to and ascend a mountain to “pray to God as one people with one heart that we would reach Jerusalem the next year and that the Temple would be rebuilt.”
Govze noted that, although the community has now reached Israel and Jerusalem, the Jewish people’s mission is not yet finished. “We still have not built the Temple and we must be clean,” he said. “If we go on the correct path, the path of the Torah, God will help us, we will build the Temple and bring the sacrifices.”
Member of Knesset Pnina Tamano-Shata described the holiday as “a big gift for Israeli society” since, she said, it could help unite the Jewish people. “It is so wonderful to see so many people here who are not from the Ethiopian community, and this holiday has become a holiday for all the Jewish people,” she said. “It is celebrated in kindergartens, schools, in the army, in local authorities, and the message is that this story is your story, it’s my story, and the story of all Jews, whether from Europe or from Arab countries.”
The MK said the identity of the Ethiopian Jewish community was strong, but noted the problems it has faced, including “difficulties which are connected to Israeli society, such as police violence, discrimination and racism,” but said the community has remained positive.
“We are positive and fully open to Israeli society, we are not in a place of antagonism, even though we have had a very hard, challenging and intensive year, and we are far from getting justice; nevertheless, everything has its time and period,” she said.
Michal Avera Samuel, director of the nongovernmental organization Fidel (Association for Education and Social Integration of Ethiopian Jews in Israel), said the thousands of people who came to the celebrations in Jerusalem came “to learn and understand the heritage of Ethiopian Jews, which is an ancient heritage, which every child should be proud of and pass on to the next generation.”
She added, “The goal is that, through studying in school and youth groups, we can teach the heritage of Ethiopian Jews, and build a courageous identity together with a sense of belonging within Israeli society.”
Gil Zohar is a writer and tour guide in Jerusalem, Israel.
The writer and her husband at the synagogue Slat-Al Azama, in Marrakesh, which was built in 1492 by Jews expelled from Spain. (photo from Miri Garaway)
There are so many adjectives to describe Morocco, but, after being immersed in the country for three weeks and observing the people, the cities, the villages, the markets, the customs, the gardens, the arts and crafts, the architecture, and the potpourri of cultures that weave through this land, one can only conclude that Morocco is a fascinating, diverse country.
Morocco has an air of intrigue that enchants the soul and entices the curious traveler to explore beyond the realm of the imagination. The country has a way of drawing one in. It is the muse and inspiration for writers, poets, artists and craftspeople.
From scenes of everyday life and the feeling of stepping back in time, while navigating the uneven cobblestone streets of the medinas (old cities), to the overwhelming beauty of the landscape, one is transported into another world. Morocco is a land of mazes of narrow alleyways in the enchanting Medina; ochre-coloured earth; women grinding almonds to make argon oil; roadside markets; royal blue doors; rug weavers; tasty, elaborate tagines and mint tea; mounds of olives and spices; dramatic gorges; and captivating Berber villages. I could go on; the list would be long.
Through an extremely knowledgeable private driver, arranged by the company Journey Beyond Travel, we set about to include the Jewish sites of a once-vibrant community, which stretched back more than 2,000 years.
Landing in Casablanca, it felt like an oversize version of Tel Aviv, especially the drive along the beaches and the White City architecture.
During our tour of Casablanca, we visited the Moroccan Jewish Museum, which was once a Jewish orphanage (until the mid-1990s). How wonderful to see our history and culture displayed, with Torah scrolls, traditional clothing, daily life objects, paintings, sculpture and a library containing photographs, documents and videos of Jewish life in Morocco.
Walking through the enchanting, stunning and unique blue city of Chefchaouen, we happened upon the only remaining Jewish fabric merchant. We felt an instant bond, and he welcomed us into his small shop.
As we explored this vast country, we found traces of our ancient history in the archeological Roman ruins at Volubilis (near Moulay Idriss and Meknes); the epitaph of the synagogue rabbi in Greek, for example. The town of Ait-Ben-Haddou, now a centre for filmmaking, was once a significant Jewish community.
Traveling down a country road in Zaouit El Bir Dades, in the Valley of the Kasbahs, we stopped at a Jewish cemetery (all locked up) that was dated 1492.
When I had my first glimpse of the majestic imperial city of Fez, from atop a large hillside, I immediately thought of Jerusalem. The Medina of Fez is a huge maze of tiny alleyways, with colourful visual delights around every corner.
The Orthodox synagogue Ibn Danan was filled with Israeli tourists. Its predominant blue colouring reminded me of the ancient synagogues in Tzfat. The exquisite woodcarving and blue-and-white mosaics make it especially beautiful. It was built in the 17th century in the Jewish Quarter, known as the Mellah. In the mid-1990s, it was restored, and it reopened in 1999. It contains such elements as arches, wooden benches, tapestries and oil lamps.
Moses Maimonides, the Jewish scholar, philosopher and physician, escaped persecution by a fanatical Muslim sect in his native Cordoba, Spain, and lived in Fez from about 1159 to 1165, before moving to Palestine and then Cairo, where he could openly practise Judaism. In the Fez Medina, there is Maimonides’ House, which is a store containing an incredible selection of Jewish antiques and art.
When talking with the cultural director who organized our art and culture tour of Fez, she mentioned that, before 1956, Jewish women lived in Fez and were known for sewing the silk buttons on to men’s jellabas (Moroccan caftans).
In Marrakesh, in the Mellah, we visited the synagogue Slat-Al Azama, built in 1492 by Jews expelled from Spain. Off the courtyard, there is a series of rooms, acting as a museum, depicting Moroccan Jewish history. The Chefchaouen blue (a deep royal blue) doors and blue-and-white mosaics were particularly striking, as was the lovely synagogue. I could visualize it once teeming with life.
The charming coastal fishing town of Essaouira was once home to 70,000 Jews and 48 synagogues. Only three synagogues remain and we visited them all: Slat Lkahal, Haim Pinto and Simon Attia. At Slat Lkahal, we were given an informal tour by a Muslim woman; there were some fascinating historical photographs, which made the old community come alive. Nearby Haim Pinto, a small, wooden 212-year-old synagogue containing two Torahs – one original, one new – is painted a vibrant Chefchaouen blue.
Finally, Simon Attia Synagogue, located outside the Mellah, but within the Medina, is still in use today for the small community in Essaouira. It has a huge wooden door in the shape of a Gothic arch. After several attempts to gain entry during the week, when it was locked, we returned on a Saturday, around noon, and were lucky enough to go inside, as services were finishing. I was expecting a grand interior, but that was not the case. It was lovely, though, and we felt welcome and were glad for the opportunity to visit. One of the anterooms contained a small museum.
The hamsa, or Hand of Fatima, as it is known in Muslim countries, is everywhere in Morocco. One off-the-beaten-track place I would have loved to visit, about 28 kilometres from Fez, is the town of Sefrou, once inhabited by Spanish exiles and Jews from southern Algeria.
Did we feel safe traveling around the country? This is a question many people asked. Absolutely. There was a sense of unity among all religions. Perhaps a sign of hope for future generations.
Morocco is a country that must be seen. I am still in constant awe.
One of the family cards, produced 100 years ago, that is currently on long-term loan in the folklore department of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, on Mt. Scopus. It is from the Chaya and Chana Gitelman Collection.
Not too long ago, I was flipping through a collection of old family cards, all of which were produced 100 years ago in Eastern Europe. On the cover of one card, a young girl sits at a table writing in a notebook. Her mother stands over her, looking on. From a modern perspective, there is nothing unusual about a woman knowing how to read and write. But less than 200 years ago, this would have been considered somewhat revolutionary.
Just how revolutionary? In the article, “The History of Jewish Women in Early Modern Poland: An Assessment,” Prof. Moshe Rosman reported that, at the end of the 19th century, more than half of all Jewish girls could not read, not even in Yiddish. Rosman noted that not only was limited attention given to educating Jewish women, but that those who first wrote the history of this period, deemed it hardly worth dealing with the subject.
In early modern Poland, education for Jewish girls and women was largely designed to make them into faithful Jews who would keep female rituals. For the most part, their education was informal and conducted in Yiddish. Brenda Socachevsky Bacon states that a learned woman was an aberration and considered outside the norm. In analyzing Shmuel Yosef Agnon’s story “Hakhmot Nashim” (“The Wisdom of Women”), which was published in 1943, Socachevsky Bacon says a woman’s very presence in the beit midrash causes the men to be uncomfortable. “They view the realm of Torah study as their own, even as their own hypocritical behaviour belies their dedication to it,” she writes. “The men will not allow this discomfort to continue, even if it involves transgressing the Torah’s commandment not to embarrass another person publicly.”
Fortunately, this was not the whole story of this period. Rosman explains there were secularized school settings in which Jewish girls learned both Yiddish and European languages. The objective of these schools was modernization and general knowledge. Girls read classic European literature. In this instance, the scorn was sometimes transferred, with traditional Jewish literature viewed contemptuously.
According to Prof. Eliyana Adler (“Rediscovering Schools for Jewish Girls in Tsarist Russia”), private schools for Jewish girls were a crucial ingredient in transitioning Russian Jewry into modernity. She reports that, from 1844 to the early 1880s, well over 100 private schools for Jewish girls opened in cities, towns and shtetlach throughout the Pale of Jewish Settlement.
The educators who opened and ran private schools for Jewish girls pragmatically balanced their ideological motivations with very real concerns about funding and retaining communal goodwill. Thus, those who ran private schools offered a variety of student tracks. Rich Jews (like their wealthy Christian neighbours did elsewhere) could pay to board their children. Many schools offered weekly instruction in both music and French as paid electives.
Adler goes on to say, “at the same time, families of modest means were offered tuition payments on a sliding scale. Noteworthy, poor students were actively recruited for scholarship positions. Other schools offered less sophisticated fee scales, but clearly worked within the same framework. The rewards for having a robust student body became clear as both the government and certain private and communal bodies began to award subsidies to successful private schools.”
These private schools for Jewish girls designed Jewish studies curricula to meet the expectations of the Russian Jewish communities from which they drew their students. The curricula had to be modern and useful without being radical. Thus, efforts were made to introduce training in practical crafts; that is, crafts that could be put to use in the marketplace. In 1881, the first trade school for poor Jewish girls opened in Odessa. Thereafter, both trade schools and sections within other schools that offered more in-depth training in such skills as sewing opened with increasing frequency.
By the end of the 1890s, in Odessa alone, more than 500 girls studied in four communally funded vocational schools for Jewish girls. Jewish educators responded to the growing interest in interaction with the surrounding society by opening their private girls schools to Christian girls and by offering to teach courses in the Jewish religion in Russian schools. Prayer served as the common denominator of religious courses – the major focus of religious education was on prayer.
The teaching of Jewish history rather than simply the Torah allowed for an unprecedented degree of interpretation and even mild biblical criticism. Hebrew reading was also offered in many of the schools. Almost all Jewish girls schools offered penmanship and arithmetic.
Every private school for Jewish girls in the Russian Empire required extensive instruction in the Russian language. It was not uncommon for all general studies subjects to be taught in Russian.
Examples of the above educational transformation may be found in the bigger cities of Eastern Europe. In Plonsk (located some 60 kilometres from Warsaw), for example, toward the end of the 19th century, organizations such as Kahal Katan (literally, Small Community), educated the poorer strata of society. Also during this period, the city (which had a Jewish majority) opened a primary school for Jewish children, where some 80 pupils, mostly girls, studied in Russian. (See yadvashem.org/yv/en/exhibitions/communities/plonsk/jewish_education.asp.)
Vilna is another example. In 1915, the Association to Disseminate Education established three schools – one for boys, one for girls and one mixed – whose language of instruction was Yiddish. Also in 1915, Dr. Yosef Epstein established the Vilna Hebrew Gymnasium (high school), which was later renamed after him. The informal educational system included literature, drama, music, industrial arts and other courses. (See yadvashem.org/yv/en/exhibitions/vilna/background/20century.asp.)
According to Dr. Ruth Dudgeon (“The Forgotten Minority: Women Students in Imperial Russia, 1872-1917”), Russian women, aided by sympathetic professors, created educational institutions that evolved into universities and medical, pedagogical, agricultural and polytechnical institutes for women. Moreover, in 1916, the Ministry of Education overcame its bias against preparing women for public activity, rather than the home, and mandated the equalization of the curricula in the boys’ and girls’ gymnasia.
In the 1870s and 1880s, Jewish-Russian enrolment in the courses for women was between 16% and 21%. The imposition of quotas in the 1880s, however, reduced the number of Jewish students. But, in places where the quota was lifted, the number of Jewish women in the courses soared.
In the restricted Pale of Settlement, young Jewish women wanting to study did everything to establish residency elsewhere. The “everything” included registering as a prostitute. According to Dudgeon, one brother found out about his sister’s actions and then drowned himself in the Neva; the grieving sister, in turn, ended her life by taking poison.
As circumstances for Jews in the Russian Empire deteriorated in the 1880s, those Jews who stayed in that part of the world came to embrace new ideological solutions to the situation. In an atmosphere of violence, deprivation and brutally strict quotas in education and professions, Russian-Jewish parents wanted their children enrolled in schools where the course of study offered some hope for the future.
By the turn-of-the-century period, educators were no longer opening private schools for Jewish girls based on the old model. The schools they opened – whether they were trade schools where Zionism was taught, religiously mixed schools devoted to full acculturation, or Yiddishist schools committed to inculcating socialism – promised more than basic literacy.
In Poland, Gershon Bacon writes, “the education of Polish Jews in the interwar period was characterized … [as] the ‘victory of schooling.’ The compulsory education law of the reborn Polish republic had brought about in one generation what had eluded generations of prodding by tsarist officialdom and preaching by Jewish maskilim (people versed in Hebrew or Yiddish literature). Whether in the public schools or in the various Jewish school networks, Jewish children in Poland were educated according to curricula that deviated in almost every respect from that of traditional Jewish education. [Notably,] religious families had no objections to sending daughters to secondary schools, even though they objected to exposing sons to secular education.
“What is most striking,” continues Bacon, “are the differences in enrolment figures in institutions of higher learning. There was a much larger proportion of Jewish women students among female students as a whole (36% in 1923/1924), as distinct from the percentage of Jewish men among male students (22% in 1923/1924). It would seem that we have here but another example of a phenomenon observed in other countries, where Jewish women entered institutions of higher learning earlier and in greater proportion than their non-Jewish counterparts.” (See jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/ poland-interwar.)
So many factors about these educational statistics still need to be explored. Nevertheless, one can observe that an outcome seems to have been the creation of a modern Jewish Eastern European woman who “opened her mouth with wisdom.” (Proverbs 31:26)
Deborah Rubin Fieldsis an Israel-based features writer. She is also the author of Take a Peek Inside: A Child’s Guide to Radiology Exams, published in English, Hebrew and Arabic.
Izzy Einstein and Moe Smith sharing a toast in a New York bar, 1935. (photo from Library of Congress; New York World-Telegram and Sun Collection)
Wine is a large part of Jewish ritual and tradition. And a glass or two of schnapps is not uncommon. Adults often drink something alcoholic on a holiday or happy occasion. So what did people do when there was Prohibition?
In Canada, national Prohibition was from 1918 to 1920 and, in the United States, Prohibition lasted from 1920 to 1933. How did Jews get wine for Shabbat and holidays during these periods? And who clamped down on those who were disobeying the law?
In both the United States and in Canada, Prohibition laws allowed for wine to be sold for religious sacraments. This meant that rabbis and priests could lawfully possess wine. In the United States, both Jews and non-Jews were known to use this special legal passage as a ruse. It led to bootleg priests and rabbis and to the hoarding of wine for bogus religious reasons.
Although Canadian provinces had various earlier restrictions on liquor sale and consumption, the national Canadian Prohibition continued for only a short period of time. And, importantly, it remained legal to manufacture liquor in Canada. Even more significant, Canadian distilleries could likewise legally sell it to the dry United States, where the manufacture, importation, sale and transport of alcohol was then illegal. Thus, Canadians brought alcohol to the United States via Windsor, Ont., where it usually went on to Detroit, Mich. At the time, Samuel Bronfman was the Canadian Jewish owner of Seagram’s. He had Jewish bootleggers floating so much illegal booze into the United States over Lake Erie that this body of water became known as the “Jewish Lake.”
Remarkably, the two most successful U.S. Prohibition agents were Jewish. Izzy Einstein and Moe Smith were two “regular”-looking guys who had absolutely no resemblance to flashy Prohibition agent Elliot Ness, who has been characterized in television series and in movies. Their ability to fool violators with either their ordinary appearance or with their numerous disguises allowed them to make an outstanding number of arrests. In all, they made 4,932 arrests of bartenders, bootleggers and speakeasy owners. They had a 95% conviction rate. They confiscated an estimated five million bottles of alcohol. At the time, this catch was worth about $15 million US.
Neither man had any law enforcement training. Einstein had been a pedlar and a postal worker. Smith had sold cigars. They were not even strongly for temperance, but they were for upholding the law. Initially, Einstein’s job interviewer didn’t want to hire him as an agent because of his lack of training, but Einstein managed to convince the man that he was right for the job because he looked so unremarkable and because he had a “feel” for people.
Having been born in Austria, Einstein spoke a number of languages. He put his language skills to use when the pair disguised themselves. They were known to have used a huge variety of get-ups, including as German pickle packers, Polish counts, Hungarian violinists, Jewish gravediggers, French maitre d’s, Italian fruit vendors, Russian fishermen, Chinese launderers, streetcar conductors, ice deliverers, opera singers, judges, traveling cigar salesmen, Texas cattlemen, movie extras, football players, beauty contest judges, grocers, lawyers, rabbis, college students, plumbers and delegates to the Democratic National Convention. In my estimation, however, the funniest costumes were those of them dressed as a man and woman. One of them sported a thick beard and mustache and a bowler hat, while the other dressed in a heavy fur coat, scarf and jaunty cloche hat.
Einstein claimed that it was key to come into a speakeasy carrying some kind of tool of the trade, so he often carried a string of fish, a pitcher of milk, trombones, a fishing rod or a big pail of pickles. He did not carry a gun, however, and Smith carried one only occasionally.
The greater their chutzpah, the greater the risk to their personal safety. At one Bowery saloon, for instance, Einstein even produced his actual agent’s badge and asked for a pint of whiskey. The bartender thought it was a gag and served him.
So that he had enough evidence to bring charges against the offenders, Einstein devised a special hidden liquor collection system. There were three parts to this system: a rubber bag hidden below his shirt, a rubber tube that was connected to the bag, and a glass funnel sewn into his vest pocket. He sipped the liquor and, without anyone noticing, poured the rest of the drink down the funnel, which then led to the rubber tube.
The pair’s success on the job became a matter of public record. New York newspapers frequently covered their escapades. They became so well known that Einstein’s face was even hung in certain speakeasies. But even that did not tip off drinking customers, as Einstein reportedly once stood below his photo without anyone catching on.
Einstein and Smith had worked as federal Prohibition agents for about six years when they were laid off, perhaps because they inadvertently made other agents “shine” less than they did. They both went on to be a different kind of agent, successfully selling insurance. Some of their clients, it is said, were people they had busted.
Deborah Rubin Fields is an Israel-based features writer. She is also the author of Take a Peek Inside: A Child’s Guide to Radiology Exams, published in English, Hebrew and Arabic.
In recent years, sufganiyot have easily become the unsung heroines of new Chanukah traditions. (photo from piqsels.com)
Full disclosure, Chanukah has always been my favourite holiday. It has all the things a good holiday needs: dark wintery nights, deep-fried oily foods, magical lights, melancholy songs and cozy family time.
As a child, I looked forward to latkes and gatherings round the stove at my grandparents’ house, homemade sufganiyot – the jam-filled deep-fried doughnuts, consumed exclusively and excessively on this holiday – and the week-long vacation from school. Needless to say, my romantic view of Chanukah was somewhat tarnished as I reached adulthood only to realize that Chanukah is considered a vacation for schoolchildren; for university students and working normal folk, it’s business as usual, plus sufganiyot, plus kids. Living in Israel, a country that demands a lot of sobering up as you reach adulthood, I still count this as one of my top three.
The origin story of Chanukah frames it as a holiday of miraculous intervention. Chanukah songs and school teach us that this holiday is all about chasing away the darkness – most appropriate, given its wintery timing – and the Maccabees and their ferocious war of rebellion against the Greek-Hellenistic Seleucid Empire. We have the admirable protagonist of Judah Maccabee, waging his David vs. Goliath-like war against the archvillain of tyrant Antiochus IV Epiphanes, famous in Jewish lore for his relentless persecution of the Jews. And, of course, there’s the miracle of the oil: as the victorious Jews returned to purify the recaptured Temple, the tiny amount of oil they had miraculously lasted for the eight days it took to do so. This talmudic tale is the source of the modern eight-day celebration of Chanukah centred on the ritual of lighting the chanukiyah, adding a candle with each day.
These mythical tales reinforce the traditional Jewish narrative of a war of independence, and the few fighting and winning against the many, with the aid of a heavenly power. As a Jewish holiday, Chanukah joins the lore of religious and cultural oppression, a fierce tale of valour with a great hero in Judah Maccabee, and a grand finale celebrated in the Temple. Its roots also lent themselves perfectly to creating the holiday’s traditions; the oil from the lamp becoming a staple in both foods and in lighting the chanukiyot, when those were still oil-based, as well as holiday songs equating this religious war with chasing away the darkness.
With time and as with many holiday traditions, the modern celebrations of Chanukah grew to outshine these origin stories. This is partly helped by the holiday’s lack of family traction – no vacation time for grownups, no prescribed big family meals like on Rosh Hashanah or Passover – leaving more room for personal traditions to form and for purchasable items or foods to take centre stage. Our traditions become lighting the candles with our roommates or sharing fancy doughnuts with our work colleagues.
For me, the loose nature of Chanukah tradition also represents the growing pains of adulthood, as we’re freed to make, or burdened with constructing, our own traditions with our own families and friends. A lot of this comprises practical choices, like who to celebrate with and where, but, in the broader perspective, this is our way of connecting, or disengaging, from our community. A way of choosing our group of peers, perhaps redefining some set-in-concrete values we never considered were malleable along the way.
Chanukah provides us with an opportunity to redefine some of those traditions along with their meaning, reshaping them according to our personal beliefs and faith. Take the Chanukah narrative, for example. Do we continue to raise our children on tales of Jewish plight and persecution, of wars as heroic, of the Temple as an utmost goal worth sacrificing our lives for? Are stories of male combative heroism the most important lesson we want to teach the next generation? Is religious separatism still an essential value, or how do we tell this tale while encouraging pluralism and tolerance? And where are all the women in these stories? (There is the tale of Judith and her beheading of opposing military leader Holofernes, which is a rare account of female heroism in a terribly masculine world.) Essentially, how do we create a more challenging version of the holidays and still allow our children, and ourselves, to enjoy these traditions, not losing our sense of community as we go?
In a way, it’s fitting that the main paraphernalia of Chanukah – the chanukiyah, has also historically been a vessel for establishing Jewish identity in the Diaspora. As one of the few items used in Jewish ritual that doesn’t have a Christian parallel (like a censor or chalice, for example), the artists making these objects were free to use any type of decoration, as there was no risk the object would be mistaken for a non-Jewish item. Thus we find chanukiyot with the eagle of the local Austro-Hungarian emperor, architectural flourishes resembling renowned local structures – be they churches or mosques – or even the Chanukah tale of Judith beheading Holofernes. There are Moroccan chanukiyot made of reused sardine cans, as this was a predominantly Jewish industry, Italian chanukiyot featuring animal hybrids and putti (baby angels common in Italian
Renaissance and Baroque art) and Israeli chanukiyot with the Israeli flag. (The Israel Museum has an impressive collection of Chanukah lamps, museum.imj.org.il/stieglitz.)
As the questions of reestablishing our communal and individual identity remain, the grounding of Chanukah in our everyday world is often found in much more earthly places. In recent years, sufganiyot have easily become the unsung heroines of new Chanukah traditions. Bakeries and cafés are finding ways to make their doughnuts progressively outrageous with each passing year, adapting them to the millennial taste for opulence, decadence and quick satisfaction, since who knows what tomorrow might bring. It might not be a perfect solution, but it is undeniable that existential quandaries are best answered while consuming vast amounts of deep-fried, sugary foods while singing songs in the candlelight.
Avia Shemeshis an art history PhD student, studying medieval Spanish art, and living in central Israel. She is passionate about anything to do with art and culture, and loves to write about the ways we interact with the visual world around us and with one another. When not working or writing, she likes to travel, bake and go to yoga classes, like the borderline millennial she is.
The chanukiyah is an expression of Jews’ commitment to place the particular into the mainstream of history. (photo from pxhere.com)
Jewishness is not merely determined by a biological accident. It involves commitment and dedication to the spiritual worldview contained within the vast literature produced through Jewish history. Without Torah – however understood – Jewish identity lacks a vital and ultimate purpose. Torah saves Jewish identity from being reduced to pure secular nationalism or racist folk sentimentality.
During the Chanukah period, one is challenged to reflect on the two main motifs of this festival: the Maccabean struggle and the rekindling of the menorah. A Jew can draw inspiration from his people’s courage to revolt against religious tyranny and from his being a member of a community that nurtures its national identity on the basis of a spiritual vision of life.
The Maccabean revolt is a compelling symbol not because of chauvinist nationalist tendencies but because of the values and way of life that this revolt aimed to preserve. The Maccabean revolt expressed intense loyalty and passionate dedication to monotheism and mitzvot. The courage, commitment and heroism of the Maccabees should not, however, be divorced from that for which they fought.
One of the distortions of modern existentialism is the exaltation of the virtues of sincerity, devotion, authenticity, etc., irrespective of their specific content. The sincerity of the Nazis in no way mitigates their barbarity and depravity. Subjective attitudes are important aspects of human behaviour only if their content is worthwhile and significant.
It is ludicrous to celebrate Maccabean courage and devotion without seriously considering the underlying values that motivated them to persevere in their struggle. In order to appreciate the full importance of the Maccabean victories over the enemies of the Judaic tradition, we must understand the basic values of that tradition.
The lights of the Chanukah menorah symbolize the strength to remain different and the right to sustain particular values and loyalties in a world in which one is different and often isolated. Placing the Chanukah menorah near the window for all to see represents the great message that Jews convey to the world: we choose not to hide the flame of our spiritual tradition within the secluded confines of our people, our family, but rather we wish to have our flame radiate light in the marketplaces of history. The Chanukah menorah is a concrete expression of Jews’ commitment to place the particular into the mainstream of history, to enter the marketplace with dignity and integrity.
To love Judaism, one must Jove Jewish particularity. This love is expressed by a passionate involvement with Jewish history and with efforts to enhance the well-being of the particular people who are the living carriers of the Judaic tradition.
Chanukah focuses attention on the problematic issues involved in the survival of a community within a world whose values and cultural rhythms seem so dissimilar and foreign to its own. How can one sustain the vitality of the intimate family in an impersonal world of mass culture? How can one keep alive a vital interest in that which is unique to one’s particular culture and experience if one allows modern technology to bring a diverse array of values and cultures into one’s private home?
Some Jews believe that cultural particularity is incompatible with modern mass culture and that the bonds holding together the family of Judaism cannot bear the stress caused by exposure to the cultural rhythms of the broader culture. According to this school of thought, Chanukah celebrates the Maccabees’ courageous repudiation of the world culture of their time, Hellenism. “Hellenistic” and “Hellenization” have become derisive terms that connote the assimilating Jew, the cultural opportunist without deep roots in his community’s value system.
Those who accept this assessment of Judaism in the modern world turn to social and cultural separation in order to secure Judaism’s survival. Withdrawal into well-defined ghettos, the total rejection of secular learning even remotely related to cultural values, banning television sets in one’s home or any form of alien culture – all these build up the walls insulating this vulnerable community from the threatening world outside. Radical separation is the way these people express their will to survive.
Others are skeptical as to whether this approach can succeed. Modern communication technology makes it impossible to escape acculturation to modern Hellenism. It is, in their opinion, futile to resist. We should accept our fate and accommodate ourselves to the inevitability of our assimilation.
A third option rejects the defeatism of the latter point of view and also the separatism of the former. This approach questions the belief that Judaism has always survived because of its radical separation from the surrounding culture. Chanukah does not commemorate a total rejection of Hellenism but, as Elias Bickerman shows in From Ezra to the Last of the Maccabees, the revolt focused specifically on those aspects of foreign rule that expressly aimed at weakening loyalty to the God of Israel.
The Maccabees rejected the paganization of Judaism. They were selective in their attitude to Hellenism: they rejected what was considered to be inimical to the continuity of Judaism and incorporated within their way of life what was compatible with Jewish values and practices.
To determine the criteria of such a cultural selection is undoubtedly difficult. Can one ever determine the point beyond which outside cultural influences destroy an individual’s character and identity?
Maimonides’ thought was clearly enriched by his exposure to the writings of Aristotle, Ibn Vaja and Al Farabi. Soloveitchik was enriched by Kierkegaard, Kant and Hermann Cohen. These two great teachers who strengthened Jewish particularity by their halachic teachings are examples of cultural openness and of the intellectual and spiritual enrichment that results from exposure to non-Jewish intellectual and spiritual frameworks.
The major question that we must ponder on Chanukah is whether the Jewish people can develop a profound personal identity that will enable it to meet the outside world without feeling threatened or intimated. The choice need not be ghettoization or assimilation. Can we absorb from others without being smothered? Can we appreciate and assimilate that which derives from “foreign” sources, while at the same time feel firmly anchored to our particular frame of reference?
Chanukah is a time to reflect on such questions. How we answer them will influence our priorities, the types of families and institutions we build, and the character of the leaders we train.
The destinies of both Israel and the Diaspora depend on how solidly we build Judaic values into the core of our identities, so that Jews will be able to interact with the world from a position of dignity and rootedness. The modern return to Jewish nationhood is incomplete and destined to end in assimilation, if we do not witness a modern return to the values for which the Maccabees fought.
Jewish chauvinism and mistrust of the world is lessened when we experience the joy of mitzvah. Intense Judaic learning in the spirit of Maimonides and Soloveitchik is the key to integrating Jewish particularism with modernity. Israel’s great gift to the Jewish world is that it enables us to realize that ghettoization or assimilation are not the only choices possible in the modern world.
Rabbi Prof. David Hartman(1931-2013) was founder of the Shalom Hartman Institute. This essay on Chanukah, one of several on the holiday, dates to 1980. This and other writings have been brought to light by SHI library director Daniel Price. Articles by Hartman, z”l, and other institute scholars can be found at shalomhartman.org.