Jewish culture

Saying No to the Neturei Karta of the Left

 ?הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, אִם אֵין אֲנִי לִי, מִי לִי.?וּכְשֶׁאֲנִי לְעַצְמִי, מָה אֲנִי? וְאִם לֹא עַכְשָׁיו, אֵימָתָ

Hillel would say: If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
If I am only for myself, what am I?
And if not now, when?  (Pirkei Avot 1:14)

When it comes to Hillel’s famous quote, selective memories prevail. The Jewish left has a tendency to forget the first clause—if we don’t stand up for ourselves, no one else will. And the right tends to ignore the second—if we’re only concerned about our own needs, what happened to our essential human empathy? Hillel knew that living in tension with these two values was the jumping-off point for much of Jewish ethics.

This tension surfaced on Thursday evening, as the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston voted to prohibit Council member-organizations from partnering with or co-sponsoring events with “self-identified Jewish organizations...that declare themselves to be anti-Zionist”. This is a good and proper decision.

Some people may not think so. Some inside-the-tent groups on the Jewish left opposed the measure, arguing that we need to expand the Council, to be inclusive of the widest possibly array of voices that are found in the Jewish community. That dilemma—one which progressive minded people are especially sensitive to—was widely felt at the JCRC meeting.

The JCRC vote became a necessity when one of the Council’s constituent organizations—Boston Workmen’s Circle—suggested that its occasional partnering with anti-Israel groups, such as the Jewish Voice for Peace, might mean that they are not in compliance with JCRC’s membership requirements. This prompted a close look at what, precisely, membership in JCRC means.

The JCRC was founded in Boston in 1944 as a coalition of organizations to act as a unified voice for Jewish concerns. First and foremost among those concerns was combating antisemitism. But JCRC also became the leading Jewish voice in New England for progressive causes, such as the labor movement, civil rights, women’s rights, etc. And fighting for a secure, Jewish, democratic, and peaceful State of Israel—which was a progressive cause then, and, for many of us, remains so today.

Thursday’s discussion was absolutely civil and occasionally emotional. Workmen’s Circle, with its Yiddish-socialist early 20th century roots, was a founding member of the Boston JCRC. Its representative, urging the Council to reject the measure, argued that if some groups haven’t found a place at the Jewish “table”, we should “make a bigger table.”  As JCRC Executive Director Jeremy Burton pointed out, there was an appropriate sadness in the room—because it would be sad to lose organizations of good people, committed to righteous causes, over this issue.

Further, it’s terribly sad when Israel—which once was the great unifier of the Jewish people—becomes the thing that divides.

And it’s sadder still when the State of Israel behaves in such reprehensible ways (not only towards Palestinians, but also towards large swaths of American Jews) that some Jews feel that they have no choice but to abandon the Zionist enterprise altogether.

I felt all those things at the meeting—and I also felt a surging sense of pride to raise my card and vote in favor of the resolution.

Because, as Jeremy also pointed out, boundaries in fact mean something. They don’t merely exclude. They also define: what, precisely, do we stand for?

Granting legitimacy to anti-Zionist voices (which, noisy as they may be, are a microscopic constituency among American Jews) would be a disaster.

After all, among the greatest gifts that Zionism brought was the invigorated notion that the Jews are a people; that we are a cantankerous, often dysfunctional, but nonetheless-in-the-same-boat family wherever we are found.  The State of Israel became the greatest expression of this, and the ultimate experiment in putting Jewish ideas into action (a government, a university, a military, a culture, a society) in two thousand years.

Groups like Jewish Voice for Peace jettison all that. They made explicit last week what has been obvious for much longer, when they issued a defining statement affirming that they are opposed to Zionism in all its forms. Let’s be clear: this isn’t an academic exercise. If that point of view gains traction in the American mainstream, the direct result will be the killing of more Jews.

It’s difficult to make those boundaries. Progressive-minded people quite appropriately want to be inclusive of as many others as possible; indeed, we are often stronger together.

But there are boundaries. For instance, most Jews recognize that the group known as Neturei Karta—an arm of the ultra-extremist Satmar Hasidic sect—are beyond the pale of mainstream Jewry. They’re the ones who show up and picket community Israel celebrations, or who meet with the most implacable leaders of Israel’s enemy nations to offer their friendship and support. They call Zionism a demonic abomination (and worse) and insist that it delays, rather than hastens, the world’s redemption.

Well, last week the JVP made it official: they are the Neturei Karta of the left. They chose the side of the Jewish people’s enemies, abandoned the notion of Jewish peoplehood, and rejected any awe of being part of a generation for which our ancestors desperately yearned (and often died). Their argument completely misunderstands or ignores history, utterly abandons the work of the Zionist left, and in fact strengthens those who oppose any vision of a peaceful future for Israelis and Palestinians in the Middle East.

They inhabit that strange parallel universe where the fringiest extremes of the left and right bend around so far that they become ideologically rather close. It’s the sort of place where tiki-torch bearing MAGA extremists dovetail with the antisemitic extreme of elements of the Women’s March leaders, who somehow find it so difficult to disassociate from Farrakhan.

Voices like these are active opponents of the values inherent in the mainstream Jewish community, especially its civil rights elements—the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, the National Council of Jewish Women, the American Jewish Committee, Jewish Labor Committee, etc. Not to mention the wonderful Zioness Movement—“unabashedly progressive, unquestionably Zionist.”

And then there’s Boston’s JCRC itself:  historically standing for decency, justice, human rights, and peace for all. “For all” includes us, too, you know. Our opposition to Trumpism in all of its grotesque forms does not mean we have to join together with other kinds of haters, including antisemites.

Hillel himself would have appreciated the irony.


פידלער אויפן דאך—Fidler Afn Dakh: The Yiddish Fiddler on the Roof

We all know the well-worn critiques of Fiddler on the Roof: it’s sentimental, full of caricatures, and frontloads all of its most memorable songs in Act One. More significantly, it romanticizes a world that in reality knew more than its share of misery. Suffering belies the Jews’ dancing on tables with Cossack “brothers” during the song “To Life!”  

Still I love it, and always have felt that the critics protested too much. After all, an antisemitic cloud hovers over the plot, and the population of Anatevka does end up being expelled from the Pale. This musical was never simply one long hora.

Joel Grey’s Yiddish-language production, just closing at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York and making aliyah to the Theatre District, makes that point clearer than it’s ever been.

Since (the English-language) Fiddler is now more than a half-century old, we can better appreciate the context in which it appeared. Historian Rachel Kranston sees Fiddler as an expression of the “ambivalent embrace” of post-WW2 American Jewry’s flight to the suburbs. While many Jewish families found comfort and economic success, thoughtful Jews of that generation understood that big sacrifices were being made when they left the cities. Jewish leaders worried that with prosperity there would be a spiritual descent, a loss of multigenerational intimacies, and a turn towards political conservatism that comes with not seeing the daily struggles of your neighbors. Fiddler—along with the photo-essays of Roman Vishniac and Abraham Joshua Heschel’s The Earth is the Lord’s—were romanticizations of the past, signs of a generation sensing that something precious was being lost.

Celebrating Yiddish, too, carries the same risks. The language of the daily life of Ashkenazi Jews for centuries, Yiddish was the primary vehicle of their spirituality, their wit, and their literary character. Unfortunately, Yiddish for many people connotes lazy nostalgia or borsht-belt vulgarity. The author and scholar Dovid Katz upends most of this conventional wisdom in an entertaining history of Yiddish, including the mistaken notion that Yiddish is in decline. The truth is that Yiddish is alive and well and embraces more speakers every year. It’s just that almost all of them are Haredi (ultra-Orthodox Jews)—not the sort of mamaloshen that most nostalgists have in mind.

Fiddler on the Roof being performed in Yiddish is a great experience, and aims to restore some of those losses. One thing that always rang hollow was its clunky use of Jewish language. Take, for instance, the “Sabbath Prayer.” No Jew says “Sabbath”, of course; that’s Jewish-in-translation for outsiders peering in through a window. But would any audience have been confused because of the word “Shabbos”? Surely not. Even if Fiddler were being performed by a public high school in Fort Smith, Arkansas, the audience would have understood. So why the coyness?

Same goes with “Torah”—or, better, the Yiddish Toyre—instead of Tevye’s constantly invoking the “Good Book” like a frum John Calvin. In the minimalist set of this Yiddish production, a backdrop with the word תורה shadows the set. At first I thought it was a hokey device—until the culmination of the first act. During Tzeitl’s and Motl’s wedding, Russian thugs vandalize the town and beat up the Jews and, at the scene’s climax, rip the tableau “Torah” in half. It’s an unexpectedly visceral and powerful moment.

Similarly, there’s something restorative about reading the spellings of the names in the playbill—“Motl”, “Hodl”, “Khave”, “Leyzer-Volf”, “Anatevke”—rather than their more familiar, ever-so-slightly Americanized versions.

My grandmother never called the Yiddish language “Yiddish”—she just called it “Jewish.” Which is, of course, what it means. And she had a point. Just as Robert Frost once defined “poetry” as “that which is lost in translation”, so too does Judaism in translation lose some of its Jewishness.

Language means everything in Judaism. “The Sabbath” is not “Shabbos”, “the Good Book” is not “Torah”, “charity” is not “Tzedakah”, and a “house of worship” is not a “shul.” The Yiddish Fiddler restores so much of this to the rhythms and cadences of songs and dialogue that have entered our vernacular.

Despite a half-century of rabbis’ and scholars’ gripes about Fiddler, I’ll keep going to see it forever. It is a Jewish-American landmark, and deservedly so: There is just so much memory of Jewish pain coursing though its veins. But Yiddish is the most effective vessel of that pain and that memory, and having seen Fiddler in Yiddish, I don’t think I’ll ever again enjoy English versions of the play quite as much.

Fiddler Yiddish.jpeg