The ProsenPeople

Speaking Backwards

Wednesday, December 19, 2012 | Permalink
Earlier this week, Harry Brod wrote about a couple of sayings with which he disagrees and why he always has a valid passport. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

I’ve been told that students in my college courses sometimes have trouble following what I’m saying because I speak backwards.

The problem is the order in which I put words in a sentence. Having grown up in a Yiddish and German speaking household, I seem to think in the structure of those languages even when I’m speaking English. Maybe if I looked like Yoda they’d get into it, but as a New York Jew in Iowa, I’m just strange.

I think of Cynthia Ozick, who has said that she writes Yiddish sentences in English. Some years ago I was invited to deliver a lecture on Ozick’s wonderful paired short story and novella The Shawl and Rosa. I made this point by reading a few words from one of the first sentences in Rosa: “Her meals she had elsewhere.” That, I pointed out, is not standard English prose. In English one would normally say “She had her meals elsewhere.” Standard Yiddish sentence construction is what it is.

I've learned that my students don’t have the patience to try to understand different accents or speech patterns. When I've sent them to hear guest speakers on campus, if the speaker has a noticeable accent many of them come back reporting that the speaker was very difficult or impossible to understand. But it’s not true. With pretty minimal effort the ear adjusts. It’s that they were unwilling to make the effort.

A few years ago some students organized a panel discussion where they invited several faculty members to speak about our various identities and how they interacted with each other (the academic term for this is “intersectionality,” a topic they wished to explore further than they had done in their classes). One of the identities I claimed is that English is not my first language. I was born in Berlin and came to the US with my parents at age two. I told the students that I was always impressed by how well those among them who were monolingual were doing with that handicap. I expressed my admiration for how with only one set of idioms and word choices in which to express themselves they seemed to be managing quite well, and apparently had come up with creative ways to keep themselves from being bored. As I spoke I was enjoying watching the two Asian students sitting up front having a great time with it.

After a couple of years in Iowa I noticed that I was thinking in Yiddish and German more than I used to. I was tempted to attribute it to my regressing back to a sort of second childhood as I age, but I think there’s more to it than that. Having grown up in New York City and then having lived for many years in Southern California, I’m used to being surrounded by the varying sounds of different tongues. Here in the plain Plains, I miss it, relatively surrounded as I am by linguistic monolithic monotony. So I think I've internally recreated that diversity for myself. It’s one way to handle a diasporic existence.

Harry Brod is a professor of philosophy and humanities at the University of Northern Iowa and the author of Superman is Jewish?: How Comic Book Superheroes Came to Serve Truth, Justice, and the Jewish-American Way (Free Press; November 2012).

A Couple of Sayings with Which I Disagree

Tuesday, December 18, 2012 | Permalink

Yesterday, Harry Brod wrote about why he always has a valid passport. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

“It’s better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.” I first realized I didn’t agree with this saying when I spoke at a commemoration of Kristallnacht at Kenyon College where I was teaching in 1988. “The Night of Broken Glass,” as it’s known in English, is often cited as the beginning of the Holocaust, so by that reckoning November 9, 1988 was the 50th anniversary of the start of the Holocaust. I was asked to speak as both a philosopher and a child of Holocaust survivors. The evening’s ceremony included a brief march in which people carried lit candles.

The symbolism of the candles was on my mind because I’ve also got my own, more personal associations with candles on that date. November 9, but in 1965, was the date of the East Coast blackout, where much of the northeast US went dark, including New York City where we lived. We had a lot of candles at home because November 9 was also my father’s birthday. Living in Poland then, he had turned 16 the day of Kristallnacht. Maybe one of these days I’ll write something more about my connections to November 9, because that date in 1989 was when the wall came down in Berlin, the city of my birth, the city where my parents met and married.

As we all looked at the lit candles in the dark during that college ceremony, I said that this saying presented a false choice. The Holocaust is a case where we need to do both, light the candles as well as curse the darkness. Illuminating the events by understanding them, as we were trying to do in our educational environment, doesn't mean we shouldn't nonetheless curse that darkness. Intellectual understanding doesn't replace moral condemnation or emotional release.

Which brings me to the second saying with which I disagree. It’s best known in the French form in which Tolstoy used it in War and Peace: “Tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner.” “To understand everything is to forgive everything.” Sorry, not as far as I’m concerned. The saying inhabits too mechanistic a universe. We can understand what drives a person to do something, but there’s always at least one moment of choice. Call it my existentialist side trumping my determinist side. I want to uphold the principal that what one person can do, another can understand. Otherwise, what are we doing in the university anyway; if we can’t in principle come to understand each other we may as well all just go home. “Nihil humani a me alienum puto,” wrote the young Karl Marx in answer to a question about his favorite maxim, quoting Terence. “Nothing human is alien to me.” But we still may – indeed, sometimes we must – deem actions unpardonable even if we understand them. Again, it’s the Holocaust that comes to my mind here.

Am I too quick to condemn and too slow to forgive, too unwilling to temper justice with mercy? Perhaps. But I think we rarely get the balance between the two exactly right, and I find I’d rather err on this side than the other.

Harry Brod is a professor of philosophy and humanities at the University of Northern Iowa and the author of Superman is Jewish?: How Comic Book Superheroes Came to Serve Truth, Justice, and the Jewish-American Way (Free Press; November 2012).

Book Cover of the Week: Russ & Daughters

Tuesday, December 18, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

This has been a great year for Jewish-interest foodie books. From the The Mile End Cookbook and Jerusalem, to JBC Network books An Everlasting MealBreaking Bread in Galilee, Dinner: A Love Story, The Whole Foods Kosher Kitchen, Get Cooking, Eat the City, and Helen Nash's New Kosher Cuisine, we're swimming in lox over here. Speaking of lox (I know, I know)....be on the lookout for Mark Russ Federman's Russ & Daughters, pubbing from Schocken in March:

Passport to Citizenship

Monday, December 17, 2012 | Permalink

Harry Brod is a professor of philosophy and humanities at the University of Northern Iowa and the author of Superman is Jewish?: How Comic Book Superheroes Came to Serve Truth, Justice, and the Jewish-American Way (Free Press; November 2012). He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

I always have a valid passport. I keep it within easy access and I know just where it is, and I’ve made sure my kids have one too. You never know. It’s not that I’m paranoid – well, maybe it is, but that’s not how I think of it – it’s that I’m a child of Holocaust survivors. I used to think of my need to be exit ready as a fear of being trapped, but I’ve realized it’s got very little to do with what I think about the present or future. It’s about the past. It’s a link to my parents, a way of keeping their worldview alive in me. As bizarre as it may sound – at least to those who aren’t children of survivors, but I expect those who share my background will understand – not to have a valid passport feels to me like a betrayal of my parents, a failure to heed hard won lessons.

Actually, I should clarify that, when I speak of myself as a child of Holocaust survivors, the identity I really claim is that I’m a child of temporary Holocaust survivors. What I mean is that while my parents survived the war years, they both died younger than I think they would have had they not had to endure the hardships and traumas of those years. They survived, but only temporarily, my mother having died by age 49 and my father by 59.

My mother was German and my father was Polish, and I know that after the war they contemplated moving to Switzerland, but our citizenship status wouldn't have been as firmly secure as that of native-born Swiss, and they weren’t about to accept any sort of second-class citizenship.

Here’s a story my father told me about how he got his US citizenship:

The procedure was that he appeared before a magistrate or judge of some sort and was asked basic civics questions, presumably by an immigration official. (I've got only my father’s version of this.) One question put to him was as follows: “You say you’re going to be a law-abiding citizen in the US, but in Europe the law required Jews to turn themselves in. You didn't. So why should we believe you?”

You can imagine the time I've spent trying to puzzle out what could possibly bring someone to ask such a question. Perhaps my father’s English wasn't good enough and he misheard the question. Maybe the interrogator thought he was lobbing my father an easy pitch, expecting some pat answer like “Oh, I know that would never happen here.” Or maybe the guy really was that much of a fool.

In any case, whatever was actually said or meant, that’s how my father heard the question. To his eternal credit, as I always say when I tell the story, my father turned to the judge and said: “Bring in someone else to ask me questions. I’m through talking to him.”

The judge reassured my father not to worry, he would get his citizenship.

Find out more about Harry Brod here.

Levinas: On Ritual and Justice

Friday, December 14, 2012 | Permalink
Earlier this week, Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz wrote about taxation in America and Hurricane Sandy, FEMA, and the Need for Big Government and . He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

The great French Jewish philosopher and Talmudist Emmanuel Levinas, in his Difficult Freedom (pp. 176-177), taught about the power of Jewish ritual to inform and inspire our work to make the world more just, which is of paramount importance. He wrote: “The Justice rendered to the Other, my neighbor, gives me an unsurpassable proximity to God… The pious person is the just person....For love itself demands justice and my relation with my neighbor cannot remain outside the lines which this neighbor maintains with various third parties. The third party is also my neighbor.” Thus, when we pursue justice in a Jewish way, we come closer to G-d. This is because “[t]he ritual law constitutes the austere law that strives to achieve justice. Only this law can recognize the face of the Other which has managed to impose an austere role on its true nature…”

This discipline found in religious life through ritual is needed in our daily lives: “The way that leads to God therefore leads … to humankind; and the way that leads to humankind draws us back to ritual discipline and self-education. Its greatness lies in daily regularity…” One cannot rely on an occasional, passive religious service, but on daily ritual. To Levinas, ritual tames man and calms the spirit: “The law is effort. The daily fidelity to the ritual gesture demands a courage that is calmer, nobler and greater than that of the warrior…. The law of the Jew is never a yoke. It carries its own joy…” Far from religion as dour, drudge-like labor, ritual is joyful labor.

We can see this truth in other areas, as well. Social workers have seen the beneficial effects of rituals on youths who have grown up with poverty, domestic violence, sexual abuse, drug addiction, crime, and parents who either abandoned their families or have been incarcerated. Mark Redmond, Executive Director of Spectrum Youth and Family Services, observed: “Rituals, whether religious or not, are vital to family life. Having dinner together every night—without any television, cell phones or e-mail present—is extremely important. Bedtime rituals are also important. And making a big deal about birthdays and anniversaries and holidays—all important.” These rituals, and religious rituals, provide safety, stability, and purpose to children who otherwise would live in a world of anxiety and hopelessness.

In a similar vein, Levinas argues that the human-Divine relationship formed in ritual gives us the strength to fight for justice: “The fact that the relationship with the Divine crosses the relationship with people and coincides with social justice is therefore what epitomizes the entire spirit of the Jewish bible. Moses and the prophets preoccupied themselves not with the immorality of the soul but with the poor, the widow, the orphan and the stranger.” This human-Divine relationship should not be characterized as “spiritual friendship,” but one “that is manifested, tested and accomplished in a just economy for which each person is fully responsible…” Ritual, therefore, is hopeful, joyful, and necessary to create a just world.

The Jewish sense of slavery, which we return to so frequently in Jewish prayer and ritual, defines our narrative and ethical consciousness. “The traumatic experience of my slavery in Egypt constitutes my very humanity, a fact that immediately allies me to the workers, the wretched and the persecuted peoples of the world. My uniqueness lies in the responsibility I display to the Other…Humankind is called before a form of Judgment and justice that recognizes this responsibility…” Once again, Levinas challenges the view of ritual as insular and passive, recasting it as central in raising our awareness of our commonality with all the poor and vulnerable.

Rituals are non-utilitarian, symbolic acts that involve and promote the cultivation of mindfulness. The transformative power of ritual is achieved when we take the opportunity to explore ourselves, our hearts, and our ideals. We step out of this world to cultivate a meaningful experience and then to return to life changed. This is why we seek to perform ritual on our own and not by proxy. The greatest power of religious ritual, in my view, is the opportunity to deepen awareness about one’s own moral and spiritual values. In ritual, we slow down, refocus on the big picture, and reaffirm our core values. Sometimes we do this in sacred privacy but more often we do it within the spiritual partnership of community.

Levinas reminded us that when we honor the dignity of the other we are also honoring the Other. And when we embrace the Other we are preparing for our work in social justice for the other. May we return to Jewish ritual with fervor and determination, and may we allow its spiritual power to transform us to be agents of love and justice in emulation of the Divine.

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder and President of Uri L'Tzedek, the Senior Rabbi at Kehilath Israel, and is the author of Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America!

New Reviews

Friday, December 14, 2012 | Permalink

This week's reviews:



 

What is That Song Playing in My Ear?

Thursday, December 13, 2012 | Permalink
Earlier this week, Joshua Eli Plaut wrote about Hanukkah events in the NYC area. He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Jews have played a crucial role in popularizing Christmas. They have enhanced the national observance of Christmas by composing many of the Christmas songs beloved by all Americans. More secular than religious, these songs, among them Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas,” Walter Rollins and Steve Fletcher’s “Frosty the Snowman,” and, most recently, Paul Simon’s “Getting Ready for Christmas Day,” remind celebrants that Christmas belongs to all Americans who share in the spirit of patriotism, generosity, peace, and good will. Ironically, other Jews in the United States have developed strategies to downplay the significance of Christmas by composing poems and songs—in print, performance, and the media—that satirize and neutralize the religious nature of the holiday. Humorous songs and comedic performances offer outlets for the disenfranchised to vent disappointment over society’s fixation with the crass commercialization of Christmas.

Harboring an appreciation for music, I listened to many Hanukkah record albums and compact discs that introduced new songs to the public. This led to my discovering musical parodies of Christmas and Hanukkah that were recorded on specialty labels and eventually recreated on CDs, DVDs, and YouTube.

Check out the following:


Joshua Eli Plaut, PhD, is the full-time Executive Director of American Friends of Rabin Medical, as well as the Rabbi of the Metropolitan Synagogue in Manhattan. His most recent book, A Kosher Christmas: ’Tis the Season to Be Jewish, is now available.


Book Cover of the Week: Saul Steinberg

Tuesday, December 11, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

A New York Times Notable Book of 2012, National Book Award Winner Deirdre Bair's latest work (published by Nan A. Talese) focuses on the life of Saul Steinberg, a Jewish cartoonist and illustrator best known for his New Yorker work, specifically this cover


What Is Fair Taxation?

Tuesday, December 11, 2012 | Permalink

Yesterday Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz wrote about Hurricane Sandy, FEMA, and the Need for Big Government. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning

If one listened only to the avalanche of political ads during the recent election campaign, one might believe that Americans were being crushed under the heaviest federal tax burden ever, and that raising taxes on the wealthy (the “job creators”) was tantamount to national economic suicide. This view, bolstered by much of the record $4-6 billion raised for the Presidential and Congressional campaigns, was heavily supported by a small group of billionaires, perhaps topped by casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who reportedly made contributions of a record $150 million himself. In total, billions of dollars were spent by people who claimed that they were forced to spend too much in federal taxes.

In reality, Americans today have the lowest federal tax burden since 1950. Historically, in the 1950s and early 1960s the economy was very healthy, and the top income tax bracket paid around 90 percent. When tax rates were dramatically reduced for the wealthiest Americans, as in the 1920s and over the last decade and a half, brief prosperity resulted, followed by a catastrophic economic crash and the greatest inequality in wealth between the very rich and the rest of the population.

The Jewish tradition has much to say about fairness in taxation, and consistently endorses the principle that those who benefit the most from society have the greatest obligation to pay for the support of the community. For example, Deuteronomy 15:4 states: “And there shall be no needy among you.” In addition, farmers were instructed to go over their fields and vineyards only once, and not to reap the corners of their fields: “Leave them for the poor and the foreigner” (Leviticus 19:9-10). According to the Mishnah, the community was expected to support a communal kitchen, burial society, and other needed infrastructure (Peah 8:7). Later, more defined funds presided over by prominent members of the community were set up to deal with the poor. In order to achieve this, citizens were taxed in proportion to their ability to pay. Thus, Jewish law has consistently upheld the idea that a fair taxation is necessary for the maintenance of the community.

We can see this trend in the 1979-2005 period, which was especially unique for its lower taxes on the wealthy. Congressional Budget Office data indicate that among Americans:

  • The top one-hundredth of one percent had an income growth of 384 percent, while their tax burden decreased by 11.4 percent
  • Median income increased by 12 percent, and the tax burden for the middle quintile decreased by only 4.4 percent

In addition, from 2000-2007, the top 0.1 percent of American earners saw a 94 percent increase in income, compared with a 4 percent increase in income for the bottom 90 percent of earners. As former Secretary of Labor, Robert Reich observed, citing 2011 data, poverty – especially among the young – is on the rise, and there are deliberate efforts to create even greater economic inequality:

  • 21 percent of American school-aged children lived in poor households, a 4 percent increase since 2007
  • Nearly one out of every four children lived in a family that had difficulty obtaining a sufficient food supply at some point during the year
  • In spite of this, about 60 percent of all cuts in the proposed 2011 Republican budget targeted child food, nutrition, school programs, food stamps, and Medicaid

In the past, this trend toward lower taxes for the wealthy and greater inequality of wealth led to a pattern of booms and busts. The worst economic downturn occurred after one such period, culminating in the stock market crash in 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression. The second worst economic downturn came at the end of George W. Bush’s second term in 2007, also following a period of tax cuts for the rich and great economic inequality. During his Presidency, the stock market lost about 25 percent of its value, and the NASDAQ lost nearly half its value. In contrast, President Bill Clinton, who raised income taxes for the highest earners, presided over a booming stock market, with the Dow Jones average climbing more than 7,000 points over his two terms. Thus, raising taxes on the wealthy appears to aid economic growth, while cutting taxes for the rich only exacerbates income inequality and encourages reckless financial schemes that can lead to deep economic recession.

This year has offered stark evidence of how lowering taxes for the wealthy tends to increase economic inequality. In one 3-month period in 2012, ExxonMobil’s profits were $16 billion, the highest ever recorded by an American corporation. In spite of this, the oil industry will receive an average of more than $15 billion of subsidies annually from the federal government. On the other hand, most Americans continued to struggle. For example, the greatest number of jobs created was in retail sales, where the average annual salary was less than $21,000. In addition, the number of those unemployed, working part-time but trying in vain to get full-time work, and those who gave up looking for work reached more than 23 million. In a callous gesture, the extended benefits period (the last 20 weeks) of unemployment insurance was cut off this summer due to congressional failure to renew the program, throwing millions of people off unemployment benefits. If Congress fails to act by the end of 2012, an additional 2 million Americans will lose their unemployment benefits.

The 2012 Presidential election campaign offered Americans the opportunity to choose whether to continue the Bush tax policy or return to Clinton-era policy of a slight increase on the tax rate of income above $250,000. Republican Presidential nominee Mitt Romney stated that he paid a 14 percent rate on his income tax in the one year for which he released his returns. However, his effective tax rate was around 10 percent—far less than the rate most middle class Americans pay. In November, the American people voted to re-elect President Barack Obama, thus voting to raise taxes on the wealthy. As Americans, as Jews, and as activists for justice, we must continue to press Congress to carry out this policy.

Bend the Arc, the great Jewish social justice organization, is leading the way on this cause and others can join their fight by signing on to their petition.

Find out more about Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz here.

It's Hanukkah Time! Where's the Party?

Tuesday, December 11, 2012 | Permalink

Last week, Joshua Eli Plaut wrote about Festivus and Jewish Santas. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Every December, I am overwhelmed by the magnitude of Jewish celebrations taking place across the United States. This is a continuing testimony to what I document and espouse in my recently published book A Kosher Christmas: 'Tis the Season to Be Jewish. We Jews can rejoice in Jewish ways beyond the Hanukkah festival and embrace the goodwill generated by Christmas to find Jewish meaning in the December holiday season.

Saturday night marked the first night of Hanukkah. Menorah lightings will abound in homes and in public places. I presided over the menorah lighting at East 35th and Park Avenue in New York City at 5:00PM. We were crammed onto the median with cars whizzing by! Exciting but a bit on the dangerous side. I had never officiated at the lighting of a menorah in a public space!

Just overhead was the ethereal spire of the Empire State Building glowingly lit in blue and white and wrapped in mist! As with everything of import, there is a story surrounding the Hanukkah lighting of the Empire State Building. In 1997, nine-year-old Mallory Blair Greitzer wrote a letter to the management of the Empire State Building in Manhattan requesting that the color of the building’s tower lights be changed in honor of Hanukkah. This request was steadfastly rejected on the basis that the management’s policy limited the lights to honor each religion on one day per year. (The landmark’s lights are blue and white for Israel Independence Day.) Upon receiving this answer, Mallory asked her parents if she was Israeli. They explained that she was not, which prompted Mallory to write a second letter to Leona Helmsley, the management company’s owner. Mallory explained that she was not Israeli and therefore wondered what this policy meant for her and the other Jews in the country who were not Israeli. Against the advice of her staff, Helmsley granted Mallory’s request. In celebration of Hanukkah in 1997, the Empire State Building was (and each year thereafter) set alight with the colors blue and white. Grass roots campaigning at its best!

In homes and apartments everywhere, the wafting smell of latkes cooking in oil will flood kitchens and hallways and sufganiyot will be plentiful. If you are looking for new and exciting events for Hanukkah, check out the following in the New York City area:

Major League Dreidel/Target Tops Tournament on December 13th at 8:00PM
(This one I have written about in
my book)
Created in 2007, Major League Dreidel has been described as an “amped-up Hanukkah party and battle royale.” Players compete for the longest dreidel spin. This year hosts the first doubles tournament. Register at info@majorleaguedreidel.com by Wednesday, December 12th. Proceeds of the event will benefit Playworks, a nonprofit whose mission is to end playground bullying. Even if you don’t register, take a look at the website and then head to Full Circle Bar in Williamsburg, Brooklyn to watch the tournament.


Matisyahu Festival of Light
Matisyahu, formerly Hasidic but always remaining a reggae star, performs his annual Hanukkah concert on December 15th at 9:00PM at Terminal 5. Find more Festival of Light concert dates around the country here.

We also want to give a shout out to Jewmongous is Sean Altman!
Fabulously funny, Jewmongous is an irreverently comedic concert taking place on December 15th at 8:30PM at Towne Crier Cafe in Pawling, New York. NOTE: This should not be mistaken for the Jewmongous show at City Winery on December 25th (more to follow on that one). 

Don’t dismiss Santacon!
There are always a few Hanukkah Harry(s) and Mrs. Hanukkah Harry(s) amongst the thousands of Santas that throng and cavort around New York City. According to the website, the New York happening is on December 15th with information to be revealed the night before.

A Chanukah Charol
Comedian Jackie Hoffman reenacts her one-woman retelling of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol using a semi-autobiographical and very Jewish lens. December 8th-December 29th at 8:00PM, New World Stages.

Fourth Annual Latke Festival
Chefs from 16 local restaurants—including A Voce, Balaboosta and Veselka—compete for first place latke on Monday December 10th at 6:30PM at BAM Peter Jay Sharp Building. Taste and judge for yourself! Profits from ticket sales will be donated to the Sylvia Center for childhood nutrition.

Gail Simmons: Latke Sizzle
Chef Gail Simmons talks with James Beard Foundation executive vice president Mitchell Davis about latkes and other types of Jewish food to be followed by a latke tasting and vodka pairing. December 11th at 8:15PM at the 92nd Street Y.

The Big Quiz Thing’s Christmahanukwanzayear Spectacular
Noah Tarnow is host at this holiday-themed multimedia quiz show at 7:00PM on Tuesday, December 11th and Wednesday, December 12th, at Littlefield in Brooklyn.

Joshua Eli Plaut, PhD, is the full-time Executive Director of American Friends of Rabin Medical, as well as the Rabbi of the Metropolitan Synagogue in Manhattan. His most recent book, A Kosher Christmas: ’Tis the Season to Be Jewish, is now available.