Posts Tagged ‘Tablet Magazine’

Getting Lost In A Findable Context

July 29, 2011

This post was first published as “How to Lose Yourself in Jewish Lithuania” on The Arty Semite blog of the Forward.

The Summer Literary Seminars are about “getting lost in a findable context,” said the program’s founder and director, Mikhail Iossel, somewhat oxymoronically.

“It’s about losing yourself on a journey with others with a shared interest in literature and creative writing,” he went on to explain about the seminars that have been taking place since 1998 in St. Petersburg, Montreal, Nairobi and Vilnius.

Participants in the programs participate in intensive creative writing and literary workshops, and meet with local historians, journalists and writers. The Vilnius program, which begins this year on July 31, has a special “Jewish Lithuania” track for those interested in delving deeply into Vilna’s rich and deep Jewish past.

Click here to read more.

© 2011 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.

Keep Reading

May 25, 2010

This is the pre-1948 travel poster used to illustrate Ingall's article in Tablet, titled "Never Never Land: I can't talk to my kids about Israel"

Sometimes I have to wonder whether people actually bother to read an article through to the end before launching into a tirade against its author. I really feel for Tablet Magazine’s parenting columnist Marjorie Ingall, who got feedback like, “Thank you for helping me understand why most of my family burned in ovens while American Jews like yourself stoodby doing nothing,” in response to a piece she wrote on her ambivalence about talking to her two young daughters about modern Israel. Those who attacked her for being an ignorant, self-hating Jew and knee-jerk liberal may have gotten their jollies projecting their hate and frustrations on to her, but they clearly missed her point by a mile (at least).

While I don’t completely agree with Ingall’s stance on Israel and how one , as an American Jew and a Jewish parent, should relate to it, I can sympathize with her reticence in talking to one’s children about something that is fraught with moral complexity. Anyone who says that talking about Israel is not a morally complicated undertaking is not in touch with reality, in my opinion. But then again, an awful lot in life is morally complex, and we as parents should not disengage from or ignore any of it. If we don’t engage and expose our children to the grey hues that span between the poles of black and white, then how on earth will they ever know how to do it for themselves when they are older – or how to model this delicate juggling act for their own children further down the line?

As I have stated, I don’t exactly see eye to eye with Ingall. Statements of hers like the following get my dander up (my responses in parentheses):

  • “…the word ‘Zionist’ makes me skittish.” (“Zionist” is not a dirty word. But if you don’t feel comfortable with it, substitute something like “supporter of Israel” for it. Don’t get bogged down in semantics, especially when they main focus is on getting your kids to connect to Israel.)
  • ” I feel no stirring in my heart when I see the Israeli flag. I would no sooner attend an Israel Day parade than a Justin Bieber concert.” (As a Jew – even of a centrist/moderate/leaning to liberal stripe, I find this a bit disturbing. Not really sure how to respond to this, other than to say that Justin Bieber is likely to be a flash-in-the pan in our kids’ lives – not to mention in the larger scheme of things – but Israel won’t.)
  • “I found myself trying to convince her [Ingall’s eight-year-old daughter] that Israel did have that right [a legitimate historical claim to the Land of Israel]. But that’s not what I believe. But I’m not sure what I believe. I want my children to love Israel, but I don’t want them to identify with bullies.” (Israel has a legitimate historical claim to the Land of Israel – at least some of it – and a legitimate right to exist in a state of peace and security. Period.)
  • “Until now, I’ve taught my children about Jewish identity through ancient history, through food, through songs and prayers, through the story of American immigration. I’ve left any Israel talk to their teachers.” (This can be a big mistake. Parents should not assume that teachers know what they are doing Israel education-wise. Research has shown that Israel education is weak and undefined in many non-Orthodox schools and other educational settings – hence the recent focus of educators and funders on developing good Israel education programs and initiatives.)
  • “So, exactly how should liberal parents who want to foster Jewish identity, but who see Zionism as the conversational equivalent of an Alar-coated apple, teach their children about Israel?” (Maybe I don’t get the metaphor here -but is Ingall saying that Israel is supposed to be good for you, but that it is actually poisonous?!?!)

Marjorie Ingall and her daughters

It is only toward the end of her piece that Ingall brings in the expertise of Alex Sinclair, an Israel education expert, who encourages teachers and parents to expose children to a plurality of voices on Israel and to let them try on different stances to see how they fit. She quotes him as saying, “Educational thinkers since Socrates have known that one of the soundest ways in which to get people to feel committed to and invested in a given issue is to ask them to take a stand on it: to debate. In good schools, from the earliest grades, children are asked to collate evidence, analyze data and evaluate positions. Indeed, ‘evaluation’ is the highest order of thinking,…Yet, in Israel education, we seem to want to prevent Jewish children (to say nothing of adults) from aspiring to that level.”

Indeed, why is that Jews – who by nature like to disagree with one another – think that it isn’t okay to argue about Israel? Israelis argue among themselves – LOUDLY –  all the time about their government’s policies and where their country is going. They do it from the position of already having some skin in the game, of being engaged with something that matters deeply to them. That’s what American Jews can learn from Israelis, and what American Jewish parents can model for and transmit to their children.

Ingall begins to wonder, “Maybe instead we should encourage kids to be able to engaged in informed debate and be able to appreciate Israel’s history while also feeling empowered to urge its government—and ours—to take positions we think are right.”

She concludes: “When you’re an American Jewish parent, ambivalence and sorrow about the state of Israel aren’t necessarily bad. Disengagement is. What I need to fight in myself is the tendency to tune out when I’m confused and upset. When I tune out, I can’t learn, and I can’t teach my own kids. Disagreement with Israel doesn’t mean not loving Israel, just as being upset with your own children doesn’t mean you don’t love them. But I need to engage with what frightens me, and my failure to do so is why it’s taken eight years to write this column.”

I’m sorry Ingall did not express these sentiments earlier in her column. It could have saved her some grief. The upside is that it has brought her and Tablet more attention and furthers an important discussion (ergo this blog post). But I do still wonder about people who can’t stick with an article until its conclusion. That doesn’t bode well for civil discourse, which is something sorely needed when it comes to the topic of Israel.

© 2010 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.

Update: Ingall has written a follow-up column addressing much of the commentary that followed her initial article. Click here to her read her excellent reflection and response a week later.

Hype Or Hiddur?

May 14, 2010

Celebrating Shavuot with Sandra Bernhard

I’m no fashion designer, but I have been thinking a lot lately about haute couture and prêt-à-porter. That’s because I am a Jewish educator and two big Jewish events have come to town. The “Reinventing Ritual”exhibition has arrived at San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum from The Jewish Museum in New York, and Dawn 2010, — an event sponsored by Tablet and Reboot, and billed as “a late-night cultural arts festival celebrating the Jewish holiday of Shavuot” — will take place this Saturday night at the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park.

When I was a museum educator, I used to teach students and museum visitors about the concept of hiddur mitzvah (the beautification of a ritual mitzvah) by showing them antique and heirloom illuminated manuscripts, highly ornamented hanukkiyot, silver filigree etrog boxes and exquisitely embroidered Torah mantles. Elsewhere in the museum were examples of contemporary interpretations of ritual objects. While both these and the antique objects could be considered art, to my mind it was like comparing prêt-à-porter to haute couture.

As fancy as the old etrog boxes and hanukkiyot were, they were still clearly identifiable and accessible, and easy to use in fulfillment of their related religious obligations — the prêt-à-porter in this analogy. Many of the contemporary pieces, on the other hand, were fun to look at, but seemed to be anything but practical.

Fast forward a decade and it now seems that young Jews are all (figuratively) wearing haute couture. Unless a ritual is made artsy, flashy or highly conceptual, no one seems to want to wear it — or own it. The reigning conventional wisdom today is that Judaism needs to be made relevant to the lives of young Jews. But what about young Jews making an effort to make themselves relevant to the tradition?

I am in favor of innovation, but I worry that that younger generations are starting to confuse hype with hiddur. With fewer young Jews actually regularly involved in traditional Jewish ritual, many of them do not understand the essence of the mitzvot underpinning them.

Upon reviewing the program for Dawn 2010 and seeing the line up of presenters, performers and discussion leaders, I have no doubt that some serious Jewish learning and exploration will go on there. But will young Jews, many of whom had never before paid attention to (or even heard of) Shavuot, be interested in again celebrating the holiday unless it is headlined by the likes of Sandra Bernhard, Gary Shteyngart, Jeremiah Lockwood (the Forward’s artist in residence) and Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket)? And does it matter?

I am actually excited to see what Jewish life will look like in the 21st century. My greatest concern is that it not become completely unmoored from the home, the place where you can kick back and wear whatever you like, where what’s on the inside that matters most. I don’t want to see it shift completely to communal gatherings and institutional venues, where the emphasis seems more on the external.

Call me old fashioned, but I have always been under the impression that haute couture just isn’t for real people. The question is whether it has now become — and will continue to be — the fashion for the average Jew.

© 2010 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.

This post was originally published on The Sisterhood blog of The Forward. Click here to read it.

Update:  A related, excellent piece on Shavuot by Maya Bernstein was published on on May 17. Click here to read it.