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New Jewish Book Council Reviews

Friday, May 15, 2015 | Permalink

This week's new Jewish Book Council reviews:

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Turning a Visual Project into a Book

Friday, May 15, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Alina Bliumis wrote about the American-Russian-Jewish identity crisis and a photography series she shot, along with her partner and collaborator Jeff Bliumis, in Brighton Beach to explore this crisis as well as photographing a portrait of the American Jewish community. Today she writes about turning these visual projects into a book. Alina is the co-author of the recently published book From Selfie to Groupie and has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

After amassing a large collection of photographs exploring American Jewish identity and American Russian Jewish identity, the next step was to turn the visual project into a book n order to share all those wonderful voices (and images) that we gathered over the years with the public. Genesis Philanthropy Group stepped in to provide the necessary support to make publication possible. A year-long process started—we had to choose 240 images from 7,160 photographs and 1,910 people for the publication. We were working with editor Joshua Ellison and commissioned original essays from David Scheer and Anya Ulinich as well as a “survery” from Jenya Gorbatsevich.

In the publication, Joshua Ellison introducing the project and reflecting on some key themes. His essay reflects on this project’s timeliness and resonances with our culture of sharing and self-presentation: the age of the selfie. In the era of Facebook and Instagram, does a traditional approach to portraiture still satisfy us ethically and artistically? Or is it now our inalienable right as individuals/subjects to decide how we ought to be represented?

David Shneer, the acclaimed scholar and critic of Russian-Jewish culture, contributes vital context for readers, including the history and character of the Brighton Beach neighborhood and its significance to the Russian-Jewish experience in America. The essay recounts the Soviet and post-Soviet migration to the United States and connect that history to the images in the book.

Anya Ulinich’s brilliant essay “Where are you from?” pretty much sum up how many members of Russian-Jewish community often feel, and at the same time she also describes her family history, contributing her own personal reflections on identity and its complexities.

A research sociologist, Jenya Gorbatsevich creates a database of all 1,860 images to be used as raw data for a visual survey— synthesizing the quantitative methods of sociology with the expressive material of photographs. The analysis considers basic demographics, like age and gender, as well are more nuanced information like bodily gestures and word choices. Based on dozens of data points, the essay includes graphs and statistics, comparing our results with findings from the Pew Research Project’s A Portrait of Jewish Americans.

The publication is also includes a historical essay by Konrad Bercovici, “The Troubles of A Perfect Type” (published in 1919), giving us a humorous look on “importance of holding on to one's own unique identity.” He tells us a story that takes place on Lower East Side of New York City and the beginning of twentieth century.

At the same time, identity is still a topic of obsessive interest in the Jewish-American world. The demographics and values of the community are changing, provoking anxiety in many quarters and prompting a deep reckoning over what the future holds for Jews in America. In the book, even though a subject in a photograph expresses their own self identity, taken all together, the photo collection builds up a picture of a group identity.

From Selfie to Groupie is an artist project, case study, a sort of visual sociological research. Spanning eight years and 2,000 participants, it captures a glance of today’s Jewish Americans.

Find out more about this project and the companion book, From Selfie to Groupie, here. In NYC? You can participate in a pop-up version of this photography project at Jewish Book Council's May 19th Unpacking the Book event, "Soviet Roots, American Branches." Register here (it's free!).

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Tackling the “Sticky” Torah Portions in Limerick Form

Thursday, May 14, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Joe Black wrote about how he came to write a book of limericks for every Torah portion. His newest book, There Once Was a Man From Canaan: The Five Books of Limerick, is now available. He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Our tradition teaches that each chapter, verse and even letter of the Torah has great power and significance. And yet, from a homiletic and pedagogic perspective, some parashot are easier to digest and teach than others. We recently had a shabbaton at our synagogue for families who had children that were entering into the process of becoming B’nai Mitzvah. At this particular event, each upcoming Bar Mitzvah boy and Bat Mitzvah girl were assigned the Torah portion for their particular Shabbat. Once they received their date and parasha, each family was given an opportunity to glance over the chapters of Torah that would be read at their service. They were then given an assignment to share with the rest of the families and students a few key points of their parasha.

Those who were assigned narratives from Genesis and Exodus had no problem understanding their Torah portions. The student who received parashat Lech Lecha (Genesis 12:1-17:27) for example – where God tells Abram to leave all that he knows and travel to a new land that God would show him – had an easy time explaining their text. Others, however, found it more difficult. The child who received Tazria Metzora (Leviticus 12:1-15:33) – which deals with leprosy, skin afflictions and sexual organ malfunctions – had a more restrained level of excitement.

Here’s where a good Torah Limerick can come in handy:

When studying Parshat Metzora
You learn to never ignore… a
Peculiar emission
Or painful condition
That’s explained in detail in the Torah.

Some portions are simply drier than others. For example, Tzav (Leviticus 6:1-8:36) contains myriad details about the Ordination of Aaron and his sons and how the Priests who officiated in the Temple service must dress. Once again – a Torah Limerick to the rescue:

Aaron and sons are ordained
Their job is carefully explained
It’s oily and bloody
Messy and muddy
No wonder their robes get all stained!

There’s no reason that studying Torah can’t be both fun and meaningful. Torah Limericks are one more way to inspire and engage everyone.

Joe Black serves as Senior Rabbi of Temple Emanuel in Denver, CO. He also is an author of children’s books and a guitarist/singer-songwriter of original Jewish music. For more information about Rabbi Black, go to www.emanueldenver.org/, www.rabbijoeblack.com or www.the5booksofLimerick.com

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Photographing a Portrait of the American Jewish Community

Wednesday, May 13, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Alina Bliumis wrote about the American-Russian-Jewish identity crisis and a photography series she shot, along with her partner and collaborator Jeff Bliumis, in Brighton Beach to explore this crisis. Today she writes about the expansion of the project to include questions around American-Jewish identity. Alina is the co-author of the recently published book From Selfie to Groupie and will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Over the next few years, while we were publicly showing photographs from our Brighton Beach photography series, we became interested in this question: Considering that Russian-speaking Jewish-Americans are looking to fit into the Jewish-American community at large, what does it mean to be Jewish-American today?

When Joshua Perelman invited us to show selected photographs from the series at the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia in 2013, we saw it as a perfect opportunity to expand our visual survey to the wider Jewish-American community, beyond the Russian-Jewish diaspora. We wanted to ask as many people as possible to describe their identity and record every individual voice that would eventually become a brushstroke in a community portrait.

At that time we also came up with an interactive setup for the exhibition, so that museum visitors could write their identity and take their own photographs without our presence. We printed an 8 x 8 feet vinyl photo backdrop depicting a view of Brighton Beach and sent along three white erase boards—the boards were blank so anyone could write their own group identity with markers. A camera was mounted on a tripod in front and directions for how to participate and take a photo were on the wall.

By the end of the show, Shira Goldstein (who was working closely with Joshua on the show) send us a disk with 720 photographsabout 460 people participated in the project. We were ecstatic with the number of participants and images, the range of voices and expressions, and all of those thoughtful or silly identity definitions. Here are few of them:

The next step for us was to continue the project in other locations, thanks to Vita Anesh introducing us to Audrey David, the amazing leader of the GenerationR program at JCC Manhattan, and in collaboration with Megan Whitman, gallery director of The Laurie M. Tisch Gallery at the JCC, as well as the support of the JCC staff, our Casual Conversation exhibition was opening at the gallery in JCC Manhattan's lobby. Saying that every corner of this community center is in use is an understatement; a ton of people pass through the lobby everyday, and more people translates to more participants. Soon enough, the backdrop started to look like one big graffiti and Avi (who was working with Megan) would start cleaning it everyday. Ultimately, though, the image with all graffiti would be turned into the cover of our recently published book From Selfie to Groupie. We loved that participants took the time to “play around,” writing, dancing, singing, etc. Looking at all the “in-between” photographs we had a sneak pick of their interactions. At the end of exhibition we had 2,070 photographs and 1,049 participants.

Our next stop were photo sessions at Limmud NY, Limmud Bay Area and Jewish Funders Network's international conferences, with our last stop being an event organized by Ilana Volodarsky at JCC St. Paul, MN. It was an evening full of energy and music. All those locations where possible to visit thanks to the dedication of local organizers (Mila Wichter and the Limmud Bay Area team, David Ezer and the JFN team, Ella Shteingart, the Limmud NY team) and generous support of the Genesis Philanthropy Group.

In total, 1,922 people participated in creating a portrait of the community—in its many shades, shapes, and sizes—and a collaborative statement about collective identity. Participants ranged from a two-year-old girl who identified herself as a “future president” to vice presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman, who identified himself as “a proud and grateful Jewish American.”

Find out more about this project and the companion book, From Selfie to Groupie, here. In NYC? You can participate in a pop-up version of this photography project at Jewish Book Council's May 19th Unpacking the Book event, "Soviet Roots, American Branches." Register here (it's free!).

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“Torah Limericks?” “Really?” “Why?”

Tuesday, May 12, 2015 | Permalink

Joe Black serves as Senior Rabbi of Temple Emanuel in Denver, CO. He also is an author of children’s books and a guitarist/singer-songwriter of original Jewish music. His newest book, There Once Was a Man From Canaan: The Five Books of Limerick, is now available. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

To some people, the idea of writing limericks for every Torah portion seems a bit unorthodox….and they are correct. The challenge of creating a short, concise and (hopefully) funny parasha poem began as a dare, then became a discipline and eventually evolved into something of an obsession. 

You see, six years ago, as I approached my 50th birthday, I began to think about my legacy. What could I do – as a congregational rabbi and sometimes musician – that no one else had already done? I had already written, recorded and performed my original music around the country – but there was nothing unique about that. Singing rabbis are a dime a dozen. As a member of the clergy, I had been privileged to lead a wonderful congregation and share in the simchas and sorrows of my congregants. I had written sermons, eulogies, commentaries and countless bulletin articles which served vital functions for my community, and yet, there was nothing original or unique about them. And then, a dear colleague challenged me to write parasha Limericks.

I wrote one, posted it on Facebook, and soon other people began to write their limericks in response. Each week, I tried to distill the message of the parasha into two sets of rhyming couplets with a closing zinger that rhymed with the first two lines and I found myself getting hooked. I started publishing them in a blog and soon people began asking if I would be publishing them in a book. After a while, I decided to give it a try.

Some of my limericks tell a story. For example, for Bereshit (Genesis 1:1-6:8), I wrote:

Just take a bite, said the snake
Who cares if a rule you might break?
The fruit that you'll eat
Is so juicy and sweet
Think of the pies you could bake!

Others, are more philosophical. Here’s Eikev (Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25):

When you’ve tasted the fruits of the land
It’s important that you understand
That though you’ve plowed and you’ve tilled
And your stomach’s been filled
It really all came from God’s hand

Others stem from Talmudic sources. Here’s Ki Tetze (Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19):

If you have a rebellious child
Who won’t listen, gets drunk and is wild
We’re taught to disown him
So the elders can stone him
(But not once was a case like this filed)

I have been very pleased with the response to the book. People from all walks of life have shared with me how much they enjoy reading my Limericks. I had hoped that, by publishing this book, my obsession with writing these snarky snippets of Torah would be quenched. That was not to be the case.

So thank you for reading this post
Take heed, if you’re ever engrossed
With biblical rhyming
And limerick timing
It’s clear that your future is toast

For more information about Rabbi Black, go to www.emanueldenver.org/, www.rabbijoeblack.com or www.the5booksofLimerick.com

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Addressing the American-Russian-Jewish Identity Crisis, Camera in Hand

Monday, May 11, 2015 | Permalink

Alina Bliumis received her BFA from the School of Visual Art in 1999 and a diploma from the Advanced Course in Visual Arts in Fondazione Antonio Ratti, Como, Italy in 2005, with visiting professor Alfredo Jaar. She is the co-author of the book From Selfie to Groupie and will be blogging here all week for the Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

When I moved from Minsk, Belarus, to New York 20 years ago, I noticed a certain ‘identity crisis’ within the Russian-Jewish community in the United States: Americans often consider members of this community to be Russian, Russians consider them to be Americans, and some Jewish Americans are not quite sure how to relate to this subset of their own community, still struggling to fit into the larger Jewish-American context. The question of how people define their own identity compelled my partner and collaborator Jeff Bliumis and I to undertake our artistic anthropological inquiry into Brooklyn’s Russian-Jewish immigrant population — we wanted to hear from people firsthand.

One morning, on a sunny July weekend in 2007, we drove to Brooklyn’s predominantly Jewish, Russian-speaking Brighton Beach to ask beachgoers to define their identities. Each participant was asked to pose for a photograph with any or all of three signs reading “Russian,” “Jewish,” and “American,” or to come up with his or her own self-definition by creating a unique sign with a marker and a paper pad.

We didn’t know what to expect. Would people be willing to interact? Would they feel comfortable publicly sharing their identity or be willing to be photographed, considering the history of Soviet Jews hiding they Jewish identity for decades?

We started at 6 in the morning, as we wanted to get a few shots of the three signs on a deserted beach. While we were photographing the signs, a seventy-something-year-old man named Alex walked by (from my experience in New York, passersby don’t usually get involved in other people's business, but that rule doesn't apply in Brighton Beach). The man stopped and asked “Chto vu zdes’ delaete?” (what are you doing here?). Again, anywhere else this question or the fact that he didn’t attempt to ask it in English might be strange but not in Brighton Beach. We explained that we were artists and told him about the project, asking him if he was willing to participate. He quickly replied “it is easy, I have an American passport, so I am American.” He took the “American” sign and posed.

We took his photo, and then as Alex was telling us his “immigration” story two more men, also in their seventies, walked by and asked: “Chto vu zdes’ delaete?” Once again we explained, and they both picked up all three identities and posed for a photograph. One of the men, Boris, explained “We are Jewish, we fought in the Russian army during Word War II, and we have American passports, so we chose all three signs.”

Alex wasn’t satisfied with Boris's answer, though, and argued that once you move to a new country, you have to forget your past and move forward. Boris and his friend disagreed, and the conversation became more heated. At that moment we understood that it might be an interesting day ahead of us.

Each interaction took about 15-30 minutes: we introduced ourselves and our project, talked about where we came from, listened to where the participant(s) came from, talked about family history, occupation, interest, health, assimilation, political views, etc., and then we would finally, at the end of the conversation, we would ask them to participate and pose for a photograph. To our delight, most of the participants would say “yes,” although sometimes it took some persuasion. For example, one young women believed that it is bad “karma” to take a photo, so we explained to her that her voice (via the identification markers) was what mattered and she could cover her face, if she wanted. She did.

By 3 in the afternoon, 52 people had posed, and 44 portraits were taken.

And while the photos present part of the story, the explanations of the participants adds an additional level of nuance to the question of how one self-identifies. A few of these explanations can be found below:

“When I was living in the former Soviet Union, we had to hide the fact that we were Jewish. I wouldn’t want to make it public and talk about it openly. When my family moved to the USA and became citizens, I was able to say openly and proudly that I am an American Jew.”

“I am an American citizen but I don’t feel American. I like living here but I haven’t assimilated, didn’t learn the language well, and don’t have a deep understanding of American culture.”

“A writer is condemned to work with his own identity, shaped by language. In my particular case, Russian and English are the tools of this Soviet-born and American-raised author from Odessa.”

“In the Soviet Union, a ‘rootless cosmopolitan’ was someone who lacks patriotism and betrays his birthplace. They were wrong: a cosmopolitan is someone who believes that all people are equal, no matter where they come from.”

Find out more about this project and the companion book, From Selfie to Groupie, here. In NYC? You can participate in a pop-up version of this photography project at Jewish Book Council's May 19th Unpacking the Book event, "Soviet Roots, American Branches." Register here (it's free!).

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American Jewish Writers and Israel

Friday, May 08, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Michael C. Kotzin wrote a two-part series on radical Islamism’s war against the Jews. You can find part one here and part two here. He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

In the summer of 2011, after having been an executive at the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago since 1988, I cut back my hours and changed my title from Executive Vice President to Senior Counselor to the President. Though throughout my tenure as a Jewish communal professional I had done a good deal of writing, those pieces were mostly on subjects closely related to my work. With the time that was freed up by the reduction in my Federation workload, I returned to involvement with literature of the sort that had defined my earlier career engagement when, with a Ph.D. in English from the University of Minnesota, I served on the faculty of Tel Aviv University for 11 years.

Happily accepting an invitation to become a Visiting Professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in the spring of 2013, I taught a senior seminar on a topic I devised called “Reflections on Zion: American Jewish Writers and Israel.” It was an approach that brought together both of my professional careers, and I much enjoyed my return to the classroom while finding the students delightful and engaging.

Along with the teaching, as I dug into the texts I had selected I found myself once more preparing publications on literary subjects. I wrote an article on I.F. Stone’s 1946 Underground to Palestine demonstrating the manner in which that icon of the left was sympathetic to the Zionist dream, and I was invited to prepare a piece on In Search, the 1950 autobiography by the novelist Meyer Levin. (That essay is scheduled to appear shortly in Hebrew translation in a special issue of an Israeli journal focusing on Diaspora, Exile, and Sovereignty.)

The curriculum for the course consisted of essays by Louis Brandeis and Marie Syrkin, along with Saul Bellow’s To Jerusalem and Back and a number of fictional works. When papers were invited for a session on “Zionism and the Novel” for the January 2015 meeting of the Modern Language Association that took place in Vancouver. I contemplated returning to Victorian Literature, my earlier area of specialization, to write about George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda. But another paper had already been submitted on that topic and I decided to return to works from my class. The result was a presentation in which I talked about Zionist elements in Leon Uris’ Exodus (1958), Philip Roth’s The Counterlife (1986), and Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (2007).

Written in very different times and circumstances by authors who themselves were different in many ways, the books, with differing purposes as well, nevertheless can be seen to treat parallel Zionist themes. Especially notable in this regard are their disparate yet overlapping portrayals of the basic Zionist concept regarding the creation of a “new Jew.”

For Leon Uris, in his iconic bestseller, the epitome of that type is Ari Ben-Canaan, a rugged Sabra fighter. In a contemporary talk, Philip Roth expressed no patience with the Jew as tough guy. But later, in his own complex, dazzling novel, the figure of the new Jew again has a gun while now being split into Henry Zuckerman, a dentist from New Jersey who finds his Jewish identity by going to Israel, and Mordecai Lippman, a zealous settler leader who picks up the fighter image.

For Michael Chabon, writing still later, when America’s – and American Jewry’s – relationship with Israel had become even more complicated, the treatment of these and related themes takes a further turn. While the book is sometimes regarded as offering a post-Zionist perspective, I’m more inclined to see it as set in an alternative “pre-Zionist” world, where Yiddish is the lingua franca; where there is no Israel (the state having been destroyed almost immediately after its creation); and where Jews are shown living in a condition of permanent exile.

This book’s Jew with a gun is a detective out of a noir novel of the 1920s and ‘30s who is involved not with the collective redemption of the Jewish people in their homeland, as was the case with Exodus, nor with an individual’s new life in a communal setting in that land, as in The Counterlife, but with personal redemption in exile and the achievement of “union” only with his former wife.

The course I taught ended by focusing on two short stories by Nathan Englander and on Yosef Yerushalmi’s lone, posthumous work of fiction. Englander’s stories, we observed, show a familiarity with Israel as it has become for those American Jews for whom it remains a central part of their identity. In the story by Yerushalmi, a highly regarded New York-based scholar of an earlier generation, many of the themes of traditional Zionist thought are recapitulated in a striking fashion.

All in all, this course’s foray into the treatment of Israel by select American Jewish writers over the last century, while hardly comprehensive, showed me and my students that there is richness to be mined by exploring the topic and its evolution. While not one of the most widespread subjects treated by American Jewish authors, the subject of Zionism, Israel, and their meaning to American Jews has been significantly drawn upon by a range of such writers, a matter meriting further examination.

Michael C. Kotzin is a longtime Jewish communal professional and former professor of English Literature at Tel Aviv University. He has been an executive at the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago since 1988 and is the author of the recently published On the Front Lines in a Changing Jewish World: Collected Writings 1988-2013.

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New Jewish Book Council Reviews

Friday, May 08, 2015 | Permalink

This week's new Jewish Book Council reviews:

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The “Docu-Novel “ and My Wallenberg Hybrid-Novel

Friday, May 08, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Alan Lelchuk wrote about researching Raoul Wallenberg across the world and meeting Daniel Pagliansky, Wallenberg's KGB interrogator. Lelchuk is the author of the acclaimed novels, American Mischief, Miriam at Thirty-Four, Shrinking, Miriam in Her Forties,Playing the Game, Brooklyn Boy, Ziff: a Life?, and On Home Ground. His most recent book is Searching for Wallenberg, and he has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

In 1956 Meyer Levin wrote Compulsion, a novel about two young thrill killers in Chicago, based on the real life murderers Leopold and Loeb. Levin knew the local story well of the two young men, and observed the trial as a journalist. A popular movie was made from the novel, and Compulsion became the first of what we have named “docu-novels.” This was followed in 1966 by the even more popular In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote, which the author considered a non-fiction novel. (Again another Hollywood movie was made from the very realistic book.) This concerned a quadruple murder in Kansas by two killers, and Capote went out to Kansas (with Harper Lee) where they conducted long research, and produced a true crime story that was emphatically fact-based. Next, in 1979, came Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song about Gary Gilmore, a murderer in Utah, a work of some 900 pages based on a some 15,000 interviews done with Gilmore in the last 9 months of his stay on Death Row. Here, very often Mailer employed Gilmore’s actual words from those interviews for his novel. In those books, the facts ruled the day.

Searching for Wallenberg has some of the docu in the novel, but I would prefer to call it a hybrid work. Yes, there is actual documentation it, and also some of Wallenberg’s own words from his writings. The several known historical facts here are documented clearly, based on the reality, as we know it, of chaotic Budapest 1944-45, and Lybianka Prison, Moscow 1945-47. And yes, too, I researched much of the era, especially the climate surrounding the figure of Wallenberg. But what remained, always at the center, was mystery—as in the gaps of history, the gaps in Raoul the man. Hence much of my novelistic journey was consumed by filling in those gaps with a credible, imagined reality. With scenes that were constructed from a known basis, a context of empirical reality—such as, Wallenberg coming from a very rich Swedish family, Wallenberg saving approximately 17,000 thousands Jews directly in Budapest in 1944-45, Wallenberg the Russian prisoner for two whole years in Moscow’s Lybianka prison, Wallenberg the man having no record of any real girlfriends in Michigan or Budapest, or Stockholm for that matter. So therefore my task was to invent scenes that revealed the possible truths behind the facts that we did have, and to create and dramatize the history that we didn’t have. From the empirical to the imagined. Whereas in the docu-novels cited above, the task was to fictionalize those facts in order to bring out the known facts more emphatically, mine was a bit more risky, I’d say, but for different and necessary reasons. And let me add to the hybrid nature by pointing to the making of history itself by my seeing the interrogator Pagliansky and recording that scene in the novel.

So what we have here is layer upon layer of material, both real and imagined, in the service of …one mystery on top of another. No need for me to tidy it all up for the reader, but rather only present the layers for him or her to judge, interpret, value. In the end, I hoped for an internal organic mystery, enticing and rewarding, which the reader might investigate alongside me, and my fictional counterpart Emmanuel Gellerman, a partner detective, you might say, in the long and unfinished and unfolding journey.

Alan Lelchuk's short fiction has appeared in such publications as Transatlantic, The Atlantic, Modern Occasions,The Boston Globe Magazine, and Partisan Review. He is an editor at Steerforth Press and teaches at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. Read more about him here.

Searching for Wallenberg: A Novel

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Radical Islamism’s War Against the Jews: Who Cares? (Part 2)

Wednesday, May 06, 2015 | Permalink

In part one of "Radical Islamism’s War Against the Jews: Who Cares?" Michael C. Kotzin wrote about radical Islam and the Jewish community. Today read part two of this two-part series and check back on Friday for Kotzin's final post for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

The Houthi rebels of Yemen have been receiving considerable media notice since their rebellion against that country’s government caught fire. Yet their slogan – “Death to America, Death to Israel, Damnation to the Jews” – has attracted relatively little attention. That may be understandable since their main current activity is as a key player in Yemen’s Civil War, in which they have been linked to Iran even as the Saudis have been increasingly involved on the other side. Still, there is something revealing and typical in the fact that we have now been introduced to one more group of Islamist fighters for whom hatred of Israel and of the Jewish people is a central tenet, and in the fact that the Western media pays little attention to that reality.

On January 17, the New York Times ran a lengthy story on “Chérif and Saïd Kouachi’s Path to Paris Attack at Charlie Hebdo” which traced the jihadist radicalization of these two brothers and went on to talk about their connections with Amedy Coulibaly, who killed a French police officer the following day and then murdered four Jewish shoppers at the Hyper Cache Market the day after that.

The article tells its readers that a court transcript on another charge revealed that as early as September and October of 2004, “Chérif never stopped talking about the Jewish shops, of attacking them in the street in order to kill them.” Never in this lengthy article did the Times try to answer the question as to where such violent hatred of Jews came from. Was it part of the culture of the community in which Chérif grew up and lived? Was it taught by the jihadist mentor he had first learned from? Did he pick it up from the Internet or from satellite broadcasts emanating from the Muslim world? Why would Chérif and others be so receptive to such messages?

Clearly the attitudes are not unique to these brothers. Indeed, it was Coulibaly who, as he said in a recorded message released after he was killed, “went after the Jews” during the three-day terrorist spree. As has been reported in a piece in Tablet, last August Coulibaly and Hayat Boumedienne were recorded by a surveillance camera in front of a Jewish school, and after they had entered the school, he asked a security guard if “it was true that there were Jews inside of the building.”

On the day of the supermarket incident, the car he was driving had maps marked to show the designations of various Jewish schools in Paris, one of which was said to be near the spot where he killed a police officer on Thursday of that bloody week, leading to speculation, recently verified, that such a school was his intended target that day. It has also been speculated that he may also have been looking for a Jewish school on the following day, with the Hyper Cache, identifiably Jewish as a kosher market, then emerging as a target of opportunity. In any event, it clearly was living Jews, such as those he murdered and wounded in the market, not the building per se, that Coulibaly was after.

There have been a string of lethal Islamism-linked attacks on Jewish sites around the world in recent years. Those include the murderous shooting at a Jewish school in Toulouse, France, two years before the Paris attack; the murders at the Jewish Museum in Brussels last May; and more recently, the Copenhagen killings that included a Jewish civilian security guard outside of a synagogue where a Bat Mitzvah was being celebrated. These targets were not chosen by accident, nor was the motivation of the killers unrelated to the Islamist ideology of hate.

For all of that, little has been said to account for or even acknowledge the anti-Semitic loathing behind such activity, even as Islamist violence in general has garnered increased attention since the Paris incidents. Indeed, even regarding that case there were many in the Jewish community who doubted that the Hyper Cache killings would have evoked nearly as much of a response if they hadn’t been linked to the Charlie Hebdo massacre, which certainly got the lion’s share of the attention during the subsequent massive unity march in Paris. And while governments in several Western European countries have stepped up protection for Jewish institutions, neither their spokesmen nor community leaders have demonstrated full comprehension of this element of the problem.

Is there simply an understood expectation that the Jewish people, persecuted by so many through the ages, are an inevitable and natural target of today’s hatred and violence? Might there even be, in some quarters, an underlying assumption that the Jews have it coming?

While some commentators may automatically link anti-Jewish sentiment and behavior to feelings about Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, and while that might be an aggravating circumstance in some cases, it is a far too easy and superficial way to account for all of what is happening.

Not that there is no connection with Israel. Surely the establishment of a Jewish, democratic, Western-style state in what they regard as the heart of “their” territory is an affront that many Arabs and Muslims have never gotten over, and the Jews of the world by extension are identified as the enemy. But the hatred I am talking about preceded the establishment of the State of Israel and transcends it. Indeed, the attribution of today’s anti-Semitism to the existence of Israel and whatever acts it may carry out might in many cases be seen as an excuse for that hatred rather than a reason for it.

In a 1950 autobiography called In Search the Chicago-born author Meyer Levin wrote about the Arab riots that took place in Palestine in 1929, when he was there living on a kibbutz. He noted that the Jewish victims of the Hebron massacre of that time were not recently-arrived nationalistic pioneers but religious scholars who had been there for generations, and he observed that the murderers had been provoked by incendiary sermons in their local mosques.

As relative disinterest in the implications of the singling out of the Jews by radical Islam continues even while the global thrust and threat of that danger grows, it becomes increasingly difficult not to think that there may be a willful blindness at work, something that perhaps itself reflects a residue of anti-Semitism. Where else can refusal to face the facts come from? Might it all go back to an urge to get free from lingering guilt about the Holocaust, which come to think of it was pretty much played down in its own time?

Could it be that to acknowledge what is happening and what it echoes would upend the belief that many hold about who currently wears the mantle of victimhood – at a time and in an ideological culture where the title of chief victim is coveted? In any event, the degree of silence that exists about the verbal and physical targeting of the Jews by today’s violent Islamist extremists says more about western society and its media than it does about the Jews. And that can’t be a healthy matter.

Michael C. Kotzin is a longtime Jewish communal professional and former professor of English Literature at Tel Aviv University. He has been an executive at the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago since 1988 and is the author of the recently published On the Front Lines in a Changing Jewish World: Collected Writings 1988-2013

On the front lines in a changing Jewish world: collected writings, 1988-2013

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