When I was first invited, along with 30 other Hillel directors (mostly from North America, but also from Germany, Russia and Israel) to travel around Israel this winter, I assumed that the trip’s purpose was to help us to deal with the mushrooming BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement, and to empower us to advocate on campus for the Jewish state. But because many of my colleagues on the trip had visited Israel dozens of times, largely through staffing Birthright trips, the idea behind the trip was broader; it was to expose us to elements of Israeli society that we had not encountered before. Thus, the bulk of our time was spent learning not as much about Israeli politics as about Israeli culture. Yet by the end of the trip, I was to discover that Israeli politics and culture are so interwoven as to be almost impossible to separate.
The timing was pretty good, as the Sony hacking scandal continued to be front-page news; Britain and the U.S. had just announced new cyber war games; and The New York Times had just profiled a new website offering “hackers for hire,” available for everything from breaking into your ex-boyfriend’s Facebook page to changing the rent on your apartment’s website.
By the time young Jews from my hometown of Harrisburg, Pa., marry and have children, most have already relocated to larger urban areas and joined other Jewish communities. So it was with particular pride and pleasure that I recently attended the bris of the son of one of my former students who grew up in my neighborhood and has now settled just a few houses away from me. Representatives of all the local synagogues were there, the buffet tables groaned with food, and the mood was joyful and uplifting. There was only one thing missing; the mohel, who was imported from Baltimore for the occasion, missed almost every opportunity for humor.
Richard Dawkins, world-class scientist and staunch atheist, is surrounded by admirers and skeptics at the home of Andres Roemer, the Mexican consul general in San Francisco. They are assembled to learn more about the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science, which supports science education as an antidote to religious fundamentalism, broadly defined. Roemer, a Jewish atheist representing a mostly Catholic country, had invited Dawkins into conversation as part of his lifelong quest for truth in public discourse.
Seders during my childhood in Great Neck invariably began with the same unintentional ritual. My father knocked over his brimming glass of wine, sending crimson rivulets speeding across the starched white tablecloth, like the Israelites scurrying across the desert. We spent most of the first half of the seder mopping up the mess; by the time we got to the description of the cascade of blood that was visited on the Egyptians, we were just about ready, like Pharaoh, to throw in the towel.
There is an old story, a kind of midrash, in which the wanderings of the Jewish people are compared to the journey of a stone. Brought back to life by the mysterious modern commentator known as the Draschba, this story begins with the Akedah, the binding of Isaac, which we read during Rosh HaShanah. In the Draschba’s telling, the rock on which Abraham attempted to sacrifice Isaac was split open when the ram was substituted for the man. Those flints, impregnated with the joy of life affirmed, floated downstream into human history, distributed randomly in every direction, bubbling to the surface every time a text is split open, and its holy power ignited and revealed.
Registering minority voters, campaigning for stricter environmental laws, performing agit-prop theater against economic inequality — much of my free time in graduate school in New York in the 1990s was spent working with activist Jewish groups like Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ). When I moved to Central Pennsylvania a decade and a half ago, I assumed that the Jewish community here would be similar, in its political orientation, to the one that I had left behind on the Upper West Side.
A biography of literary dissembler Vladimir Nabokov might be a strange book to reach for during these past weeks, with Israel at war with Hamas, and the moral questions at stake murderously clear. But as often happens with writers, the book that must appear often does appear, at just the right time, even if it seems to come from left field.
For their jubilant “Celebration of Learning” last month at their Jewish day school in Harrisburg, Pa., my two younger daughters, Sarah and Leah, performed selections from “Fiddler on the Roof.” My children have done a lot of adorable things over the years, but nothing beats a 9-year-old dressed in a kerchief singing “Matchmaker, Matchmaker,” or a 5-year-old shaking her arms and belting out “Tradition.” Little wonder that the most moving number in this month’s 50th anniversary of “Fiddler” gala by the Folksbiene was a parade of New York City schoolchildren, many of whom were not Jewish, doing a tribute to “Fiddler” in Yiddish.