The ProsenPeople

The New Digital Discourse and Modern Orthodox Judaism

Wednesday, August 24, 2016 | Permalink

Zev Eleff is the author of Modern Orthodox Judaism: A Documentary History. He is guest blogging for Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

In May 1969, Rabbi Norman Lamm published an essay on “Modern Orthodoxy’s Identity Crisis” in a magazine circulated by the Orthodox Union. His mission was ambitious: to identify and grapple with the struggle of modern Americans who were concomitantly committed to Orthodox Judaism. Rabbi Lamm also offered some salience rather than musings. The essay transformed Rabbi Lamm and Modern Orthodox Judaism into a movement marked by stability and rooted identity.

Of course, Rabbi Lamm did not do this alone. Young women and men—many of them, first-generation day school graduates—joined in, and revitalized Orthodox Judaism in the United States. He also benefited from a respectful form of Orthodox discourse. Differing points of view were welcomed as essential elements of a more wholesome conversation. In 1965, the editors of the Rabbinical Council of America published an article authored by Dr. Eliezer Berkovits in the pages of its journal despite the the fact that “most of our Editorial Board disagree with the views expressed in this essay.” Rather than reject the paper, the Orthodox rabbinical organization included it as a marker of communal “revitalization.”

The maintenance of informed and diplomatic public conversation is essential, particularly in anxious moments of tumult. Lately, talk of an “identity crisis” within Modern Orthodox Judaism has resumed. By and large, the discourse takes place in the arena of social media. It is therefore an undaunted conversation. It lacks a moderator and moderation. The rightist wing refers to a “crisis” as it writes off an outmoded “ideology [that] is murky and vague.” The leftists allude to the same crisis, characterizing it as “trying times for Modern Orthodoxy.”

Both sides rehearse similar revisionist histories. Invariably, these sorts of writers and bloggers cite Dr. Bernard Revel, an early president of Yeshiva University, and Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, considered Yeshiva University’s most important historical figure. Their conclusions typically call for change, a Modern Orthodoxy defined by “approaches that came straight from the greatest of European yeshivos” or a vision intended to be, frankly, “something new.” The middle-of-the-road outlook is not too often considered. Further, these kinds of expositions rarely engage the primary sources. They lack texture and nuance, draining the past of all its color and creativity. In the end, these writings are the stuff of polemic; not the language of constructive discourse.

Still, there is more to it. Increasingly, Orthodox Jews turn to social media to take part and read blogposts, articles, and comments on the gripping religious issues of the day. These are the forums in which many Orthodox Jews obtain religion, though an informal type. For many, Facebook and Twitter have emerged as sacred spaces to acquire Judaism and Jewish content. Of course, the synagogue and other important cultural centers still offer much, but these “traditional” institutions compete with digital venues that are always open and are constantly uploading new content. In most cases, it is hardly a contest—after all, the rabbi’s sermon is only a weekly occasion, and adult education classes simiarly must fit into some sort of restrictive schedule. By contrast, Facebook threads are timeless, untethered, and hyperlinked.

Relevance and promptness have assumed unprecedentedly precious qualities of religious commodities. Owing to this, rabbis and educators take to the Internet for this very sort of relevance. The savviest among them upload their sermons and author blogs. These women and men recognize that to be someone of consequence they must become a part of the online conversation.

There is an alluring and democratizing aspect of Facebook. The elites—the most educated, title-holding lot—no longer have so much control. Social media is a dialogue—not a monologue, after all. Consider Daniel Rosenthal’s recently polemical tract, Why Open Orthodoxy Is Not Orthodox. In his tirade against the Orthodox Left, the author marshaled loads of extra-academic evidence that amounted to 487 footnotes: the lion’s share of these citations were drawn from Facebook and YouTube. In one exercise of social media arithmetic, Rosenthal actually counted the number of times a Facebook post was “liked” by members of a particular Orthodox group.

Of course, there are drawbacks to the new mode of discourse. Most notably, this sort of unhinged conversation tends to introduce historical errors and oversimplifications. The Modern Orthodox community is far from unique in its embrace of online media as a primary form of discourse. Similar trends are evident in other Jewish communities, and within other religious spheres. Modern Orthodoxy is also not the only one undergoing a so-called “identity crisis.” It is, however, the one that I can best help—that’s why I authored Modern Orthodox Judaism.

Featuring more than 180 texts and images, this documentary history seeks to equip the present digital dialogue with a sturdier foothold within the sources. The anthology aims to restore sophistication and nuance to the new discourse. Far from claiming to offer the final say on any matter, the user-friendly commentaries and annotations are meant to bolster a more informed conversation. For instance, the material on Orthodox Judaism’s parting of the ways with Conservative and Reform, the role of rabbinic authority and the place of women in stations of leadership are crucial. These subjects are pertinent to the classroom, the synagogue pulpit, Facebook and wherever else we may strike up an intriguing conversation on the past and future of Orthodox Judaism in the United States.

Zev Eleff is the chief academic officer of the Hebrew Theological College, Chicago. He is the author of five books and over thirty scholastic articles. His book Modern Orthodox Judaism: A Documentary History was recently published by the Jewish Publication Society.

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Orthodox Judaism and its Conversion to the Cult of Compartmentalization

Monday, August 22, 2016 | Permalink

Zev Eleff is the author of Modern Orthodox Judaism: A Documentary History. He is guest blogging for Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

In July 1984, Ann Landers penned a response to a woman in Dallas who had had enough of her newly Orthodox children. The letter-writer, the irritated “Not Kosher Enough for Our Children in Texas,” complained that her son and daughter-in-law had recently “embraced the Orthodox Jewish religion,” a decision that had taken a step toward family divisiveness and generated “ill will.” The Dallas woman found it terribly offensive that her son refused to eat in his parents’ home, even though “I wouldn’t dream of serving shellfish, bacon or ham or pork”—iconic non-kosher items. Nor would he answer the telephone on the Sabbath, leaving the concerned mother to wonder whether a protocol was necessary if “God forbid, there were a tragedy in the family.”

In truth, the seventy-year-old Texan confessed that she could get past the dietary and Sabbath restrictions. More than anything else, she worried about the idiosyncratic behavior of her “born-again” Orthodox children and grandchildren. First, her daughter-in-law tended to serve gastronomically challenging foods. “When we eat at their house the food is so heavy it gives us heartburn and indigestion,” she told the renowned advice columnist. Second, the whole Sabbath leisure experience appeared to her somehow un-American: “They just sit [at] home and do nothing. No TV. No cards. Nothing.” Third, she feared for her grandchildren, who she imagined would “be considered peculiar by their friends” as they got older.

In response, Landers (née Eppie Lederer) empathized with “Not Kosher Enough.” By no means an observant Jew herself, Landers freely offered that while the dietary laws made sense “thousands of years ago before refrigeration,” they do not anymore “seem logical.” More to the point, Landers reported that she had consulted with a Conservative rabbi in Chicago, who recommended that in a conflict between two Biblical commandments, “Honor Thy Father and Mother” outranked the dietary laws. In other words, the Dallas matriarch had every reason to insist that her children follow the Americanized path of their parents and social milieu. The Sabbath, she reasoned, should still be treated as Saturday, like in all other American households.

Landers’s message was apparent: in Judeo-Christian America, religious communities were supposed to conform to those red-white-and-blue values. In 1955, Will Herberg’s best-selling Protestant-Catholic-Jew had convinced millions of Americans that all three of these religions served as steaming pots intended to boil out all of the hyphenated descriptors and extraneous culture that got in the way of becoming truly American, and Landers’s advice resoundingly echoed this sentiment.

Orthodox leaders would have objected to the columnist’s recommendation. The application was off, and furthermore encroached upon the rigid standards of Jewish law. Yet the idea probably resonated with many Orthodox Jews who sought to blend traditional Judaism with basic American values. Armed with a strong philosophical underpinning, these folks pushed for middleclass refinement, advanced education for young women and men and a healthy embrace of high- and middlebrow culture. Whenever and wherever possible, they would have it, Orthodox Jews should endeavor to synthesize the best of Judaism and America.

But not everyone agreed. Landers’s advice troubled Rabbi Pinchas Stolper of the Orthodox Union, pragmatically and philosophically. As the former director of the National Conference of Synagogue Youth (NCSY), Stolper had made a career out of convincing religiously uninitiated young people that Orthodox Judaism offered great substance to life. As one of the many pied pipers of the growing “Ba’al Teshuva Movement (literally, “Master of Repentance”),” Stolper could testify to the thousands of Jews who had “returned” to Orthodox Judaism. He therefore dashed off a private note to Ann Landers to dispel her notions of all-or-nothing Americanism. He told the popular columnist of the countless Jews who “observe the Sabbath” and the “tens of thousands more [who] have joined their ranks.” No doubt, Stolper’s numbers were exaggerated but this mattered little in his quiet polemic. “Not using the phone, the car or the television on the Sabbath is one of life’s greatest blessings,” he wrote. “What could be more rewarding and relaxing than one day off from the technological barrage, the slavery to gadgets, the noise and babble of the media?” Stolper also had had some choice words for Landers’ correspondent in Texas:

The lady says that “they sit at home and do nothing. No TV. No Cards. Nothing.” TV and cards are “nothing” even on a plain Tuesday—on the Sabbath, Orthodox Jews enjoy festive family meals, rest and relaxation, prayer, reading, good conversation, Torah study, visits to neighbors—it is a day of rest, joy and spiritual elevation. As for lights and air-conditioning, that’s all on automatic clocks like any good modern establishment. As to heartburn and indigestion—some Jews enjoy eating heavy foods—but this has nothing to do with the kosher laws. I know Orthodox Jews who are “veggies,” “health nuts,” and all the rest.

In a way, Rabbi Stolper had banded together with other smaller religious and racial groups in the United States who, in the 1980s, argued for a multicultural outlook. These advocates suggested that hyphenated identities like “Mexican-American” or “Jewish-American” were hardly inconsistent with the prevailing culture in the United States. This view rejected the postwar “melting pot” notions of the American personality, believing it too stifling of narrow. This argument was what sociologist Charles Liebman described around this time as “compartmentalization.” Orthodox Jews, observed the social scientist, tended to separate areas of their lives that could not, in their view, be synergized. To the contrary, men like Rabbi Stolper won over adherents on the supposition that it was perfectly feasible and acceptable to compartmentalize rather than synthesize.

In the final analysis, claimed Stolper, “where there is love, caring and good will there is no reason why the children and the parents cannot keep each other happy without breaking any of God’s laws.” No doubt, his recommendation came from a good place and was indicative of the success of the Ba’al Teshuva Movement. It also signaled, however subtly, a sea change in mainstream Orthodox Jewish philosophy—one with unsubtle implications.

Zev Eleff is the chief academic officer of the Hebrew Theological College, Chicago. He is the author of five books and over thirty scholastic articles. His book Modern Orthodox Judaism: A Documentary History was recently published by the Jewish Publication Society.

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New Categories and Honors for the 66th National Jewish Book Awards

Thursday, August 18, 2016 | Permalink

Celebrating its 66th year, Jewish Book Council is pleased to announce two new developments for the National Jewish Book Awards. Starting this year, a new category focused on book clubs has been added to the program: The Debby and Ken Miller Book Club Award, dedicated to promoting Jewish continuity for the next generation, will recognize outstanding work of fiction or nonfiction that inspires meaningful conversation about Jewish life, identity, practice, or history. The award recognizes the power of books to inspire Jewish community and thought-provoking discussions.

Additionally, the National Jewish Book Award for Poetry is newly named the Berru Award in Memory of Ruth and Bernie Weinflash, dedicated to honor the memories of Ruth and Bernie Weinflash, who were respected leaders in their Northern New Jersey community for over 50 years. A dynamic couple with both substance and style, Ruth and Bernie Weinflash were not just avid readers but were astute critics, honing in on what spoke to both them as well as the world at large.

The National Jewish Book Awards are presented at a celebratory gathering each spring, following the publication of the books under consideration. The evening includes a dinner and ceremony for the winning authors and is attended by the authors and leading names in Jewish publishing and literature.

The National Jewish Book Awards program began in 1950 when the Jewish Book Council presented awards to authors of Jewish books at its annual meeting. Past notable literary winners include Chaim Grade, Deborah Lipstadt, Bernard Malamud, Michael Oren, Chaim Potok, Philip Roth, Elie Wiesel, Jonathan Safran Foer, Deborah Dash Moore, and Sandy Eisenberg Sasso.

Today, the National Jewish Book Awards honor exceptional Jewish literature in over 20 different categories annually. Guidelines for submission and the online application, which must be completed by October 7, 2016 to qualify for this year’s nominations, can be found on Jewish Book Council’s website to submit a book for this year’s awards. Please contact with any questions regarding submissions or reservations for the spring ceremony.

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The Chuppah: What’s Happening Underneath?

Wednesday, August 17, 2016 | Permalink

Rabbi Lawrence Hajioff’s new book, Will Jew Marry Me? is a great selection with the Jewish celebration of Tu B’Av on the horizon. Rabbi Hajioff is guest blogging for Jewish Book Council asa part as the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

Of all the traditions we have in Jewish life, the one I believe is full of the most meaning yet is the least understood and appreciated is the ceremony that takes place under the chuppah, the traditional Jewish wedding canopy. The bride and groom will spend months preparing the right hall, caterer, band, and dress for their big day, but many times they give little thought to the aspects of the ceremony itself. I wasn't pleased with this, so before I perform a wedding ceremony, I always invite the couple to join me in learning what is actually go on under the chuppah.

I also use treat the chuppah ceremony itself as a teaching moment. I ask couples if they are okay with me giving very brief explanations of various parts of the chuppah as they happen. Nearly all couples are delighted at the opportunity of having their guests appreciate the customs of the chuppah and not have to sit through another boring Jewish ceremony. Invariably I’ll receive positive feedback from the people in the audience, and quite surprisingly the people who enjoy the ceremony the most are often non-Jewish guests who, in most cases, are experiencing a Jewish wedding for the first time.

When writing my book Will Jew Marry Me? I decided to add a chapter outlining some of the beautiful and ancient customs we perform under the chuppah. Here are a couple of highlights:

The Chuppah

The Chuppah is a public display that the bride and groom are now becoming husband and wife by symbolizing the home the couple are about to build together.

If the chuppah represents the Jewish home, wouldn't it make more sense for the chuppah to have four walls like any regular home? Instead, the walls are removed and four poles hold up Chuppah canopy. This design comes to remind us of the original Jewish couple from the Bible, Abraham and Sarah. We are told that Abraham and Sarah lived in a tent. Although in their day people were living in stone structures, despite being very wealthy Abraham and Sarah decided to live in a more portable structure so they could keep moving around to different population centers. They did this so they could fulfill the incredible mitzvah of hachansat orchim, welcoming guests into their home. It was for this reason they kept their tent open on all four sides, so that passing travelers traveling from all directions knew they were welcome into the tent of Abraham and Sarah. Jewish couples recreate this tent at every wedding to reimagine themselves as the first-ever Jewish couple, opening their homes to the needy.

The Wine

Wine is used as part of the ceremony at many Jewish lifecycle events, and the chuppah is no exception. (White wine is generally used under the chuppah, since red wine could stain the brides dress, which is never a good thing!)

Wine represents change. An eight-day-old baby boy at his brit milah, or ritual circumcision (often called a bris), is given wine, as he is about to enter into the Jewish covenant. We welcome in the Shabbat with wine, as the week is changing from the mundane to the holy. On Passover we drink four cups of wine as we celebrate the change the Jewish people went through from slaves to free people. Under the chuppah, the wine represents the bride and groom’s transition from single to married.

Why is wine chosen for this—why not water, orange juice, or coffee? Well, we like wine! But furthermore wine itself contains within it the greatest change: at one point the grapes sat on the vine basking in the sun, before they were plucked, and crushed. An outsider would wonder why such a beautiful thing as a grape would be given such harsh treatment. However after tasting the result of the crushing in the delicious wine it produces, we understand that the suffering the grape had to endure was truly worth it.

Relationships are the same. We go from our single, independent lives into the sometimes challenging environment of sharing every part of our lives with another person. For many people this can be an extremely challenging transition. The wine teaches us that the grape is wonderful on the vine, but through some challenge and a little pressure, an even greater life awaits it in the future.

Rabbi Lawrence Hajioff is the author of Jews Got Questions? and Will Jew Marry Me?: A Guide to Dating, Relationships, Love, and Marriage.

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Book Cover of the Week: Mamaleh Knows Best

Tuesday, August 16, 2016 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

Only two weeks until Marjorie Ingall's long-awaited guide to Jewish parenting, Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jewish Mothers Do to Raise Successful, Creative, Empathetic, Independent Children, comes out!

Is that a mom blowing two children out of a shofar?

Countering the negative stereotypes of the Jewish mothers, Mamaleh Knows Best is packed with history, statistics, and personal parenting anecdotes from raising two kids in New York's Lower East Side.

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Would Tu B'Av Dating Work Today?

Monday, August 15, 2016 | Permalink

Rabbi Lawrence Hajioff’s new book, Will Jew Marry Me? is a great selection with the Jewish celebration of Tu B’Av on the horizon. Rabbi Hajioff is guest blogging for Jewish Book Council asa part as the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

Dating has become a real challenge for many young Jewish men and women. Most people have taken to online dating in order to find their soul mate. Websites like JDate and Saw You at Sinai as well as apps like JSwipe have become most people’s first choice in finding their other half. For some, these avenues have proven successful, but for many others online dating hasn't delivered in its promise of finding, as JDate puts it, “People who share your love of bagels and lox.”

Some are calling the surplus of young and eligible Jewish men and women a “singles crisis”. Maybe it is, or maybe it isn’t, but either way, this isn't the first time in Jewish history we’ve seen a large group of Jewish men and women trying to find love relationships.

In Taanit 30b, the Talmud speaks about one of the happiest days in the Jewish calendar, the Fifteenth of Av, or Tu B’Av, as the date spells out in Hebrew. A number of events are attributed to this festive day in Jewish history. One of them involved a certain custom of pairing up young single men and women for marriage. The women of Jerusalem would dress up in white borrowed garments and go dance in the vineyards. The young single men would go and watch them, and the women would say, “Young men, raise up your eyes and see what you choose for yourself, do not pay attention to beauty, pay attention to family.” This was the successful method they used in stemming the tide of singles in the Jewish community. And, according to the Talmud, it worked.

Is there a secret here which may help us match up Jewish singles today?

Well the first thing that struck me about this Tu B’Av ritual was how our ancestors considered the matching up of young men and women for potential marriage as the happiest day of the year! It wasn't seen as an inconvenience, or a pitiful event to offload the remaining singles; on the contrary, matching singles was seen as a very spiritual and holy duty, that the Talmud even compared to the spiritual effort that was put into Yom Kippur.

Another aspect to this ancient version of JDate I find interesting is how young men and women were not left to their own devices in finding a marriage partner. It wasn't a case of go to college, get a job, and go find a spouse: instead the entire community took responsibility for all the singles, helping them find their potential soul mates. In my new book, Will Jew Marry Me? A Guide to Dating, Relationships, Love, and Marriage, I write that of all the mitzvot in the Torah, getting married is considered a Jew’s first priority. As a community we do a number of actions to take care of others. We assist others in finding work, we give charity to the needy, we build hospitals and libraries and perform many other wonderful charitable acts. I believe just like our ancestors, matching singles should be a communal project we all join in to perform.

What was the purpose of the women borrowing white garments—why didn't they just wear their own? The reason is so that no woman would be embarrassed by those who had more. The king’s daughter, who was presumably very rich, wore the same attire as the daughter of the daughter of the High Priest, who may not have been so well off. This extended to all of society, in which rich and poor, irrespective of what they possessed, would look the same on Tu B’Av, to be valued for who they were, not what they had.

I’m not sure making women wear one another’s clothing would work today, but the message is a good one. Giving advice to single men and women in their dating efforts and assisting them with sound and honest council, so they don’t make the mistake of judging potential mates purely by what they have, but rather by who they truly are, could do much in helping them find their way under the chuppah.

Finally, and I realize that this is a stretch in dating today, the amount of time young men and women date for, needs to be curtailed somewhat. I’m not suggesting one night dating like the original Tu B’Av is at all practical today, however the young men and women I meet who date for three, four and sometimes many more years before they become engaged (or in many cases break up) can be reduced in order not to waste each other’s time.

So maybe dancing in vineyards like our ancestors isn't really viable in today’s day and age, however creating communal events, having married couples take responsibility for setting up their single friends, and structuring our communities as a source of advice and support for dating couples certainly is.

Rabbi Lawrence Hajioff is the author of Jews Got Questions? and Will Jew Marry Me?: A Guide to Dating, Relationships, Love, and Marriage.

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New Reviews August 12, 2016

Friday, August 12, 2016 | Permalink

This week's new reviews at Jewish Book Council:

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Jewish Book Council Staff Picks for August 2016

Thursday, August 11, 2016 | Permalink

Posted by Salma Felah


This month, I am reading The Seven Good Years by Etgar Keret. It is as funny, as odd, and as true as his unforgettable and entertaining short stories.


Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza by Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole is an interesting look into a world of Jewish scholarship I knew nothing about, and a good Jewish history.


The Life of Louis Kahn by Wendy Lesser is an extremely personal story because it is about my grandfather. It is very interesting to me to read a story I have heard about in pieces. It is extremely well written, and even though it has not come out I recommend it to all!


I haven't started yet, but I am very excited to read The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz this month!


Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer is an intergenerational look American Jewry, its relationship to Israel, the Holocaust, Jewish ritual, politics, technology, and media (among other things...) and how they each play out in a domestic space and the world more generally.


This month, I am reading I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. Set in the English countryside during the 1930s, it is narrated by a young girl who lives with her family in a decrepit castle in England. So far it is a good read, but I have not finished it yet!


This month, I am reading The Waiting Room by Leah Kaminsky. Her writing is compelling and her characters are already living with me—and I just started!


At some point in everyone's life, you dream about "running away." Leave Me by Gayle Forman is that story. Overworked, very busy mother, wife and full-time editor, Maribeth Klein gets sick and can not recuperate. This novel is about what Maribeth does to face her real life again.


I'm riding the last month of summer for all it's worth with my August reads. Currently I have my nose burred in Moonglow: A Novel by Michael Chabon and an upcoming English translation of Tommy Wieringa's These Are the Names, which won the 2013 Libris Prize in its original Dutch. It doesn't take long to see why: I'm only a few chapters in and I'm already spellbound by the novel's balance of mundane and mysterious between two seemingly inharmonious stories without ever striking a discordant note.

And for those wondering how Moonglow compares to his previous novels: Chabon's back.

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Dispatch from South Africa's First Jewish Literary Festival, Part II

Wednesday, August 10, 2016 | Permalink

Recently invited to speak at South Africa’s first-ever festival of Jewish literature, The Rowing Lesson author Anne Landsman shares the story of her visit and the discoveries she made there as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

(Read Part I of the essay here.)

In Cape Town, one is never too far from the cawing of sea gulls and the bracing scent of sea spray, with Table Mountain and the peaks surrounding it presiding over the human activities in the city below. The splendor of the natural environment, so close to the buildings and highways, so interwoven in the fabric of everyday life, is ever-present, and I could not help bringing this awareness to the community center on the brilliantly sunny morning of the festival. People milled about a central courtyard waiting to enter the various venues. Days earlier, all 650 tickets to the festival had been sold out and there was a discernible hum of anticipation and excitement in the crowd.

There was something for everyone on the program: a range of offerings for adults as well as programming for young children and teens, which included childcare for the very youngest attendees.

Kevin Bloom spoke to John Matisson about the impact of South Africa’s Jewish journalists; Nechama Brodie gave a talk about slavery in the Cape; Dennis Davis, in conversation with Johnny Copelyn, dealt with the question of whether unions really influenced the character of South Africa’s democracy. The indomitable Albie Sachs, famous for his anti-apartheid activism which cost him an eye and an arm in a car bombing in Maputo in 1988, spoke to Ruth Carneson about surviving childhood trauma.

Jewish topics were discussed by academics including Steven Robbins, author of Letters of Stone, a heartbreaking Holocaust family memoir; Adam Mendelsohn, author of The Rag Race: How Jews Sewed Their Way to Success in America and the British Empire; as well as a panel that dealt with the stories of Jewish country communities across Africa. Tony Leon, the politician who served as leader of the Democratic Alliance, South Africa’s opposition party, from 1999 to 2007, addressed Zionism head on, and how it is understood in the world right now.

On the literature end of things, Karina Szczurek, André Brink’s widow and a gifted writer in her own right, shared her passionate understanding of South Africa’s Jewish Nobel Laureate, Nadine Gordimer. Aviva Laskov spoke to how writers from different language backgrounds added their voices to Israel’s literary tradition. Poetry and other forms of writing were covered together with Spanish dance, Yiddish theater, motherhood, food, cryptic crossword puzzles, and athletic sports. Theodore Yach, the marathon swimmer who recently completed his 100th ocean swim from Robben Island to Blouberg, Cape Town—a shark-infested, icy cold ordeal of almost 5 miles—explained how he prepares mentally and physically for the challenge.

I spoke too, describing what went into the writing of my novels, how each book grew out of a different phase in my life. For someone who has lived so far away for so long, it was a great thrill to identify deeply familiar faces in the crowd, and to be seen and heard by those who have known me since I was a child. In the Q&A session, I was moved by the thoughtful questions that were asked, as well as a humorous anecdote an audience member told about my late father, on whom my novel The Rowing Lesson is based.

Later in the day, I was on a panel discussing what makes a book Jewish with Rabbi Sam Thurgood, Dennis Davis, and Marcia Leveson. I was excited to be in the company of Dennis Davis, a brilliant and compelling law professor (and now a High Court judge) whom I had heard speak at anti-Apartheid gatherings when I was a student in the late ‘70s; Marcia Leveson, a former University of the Witwatersrand English professor who published People of the Book: Images of the Jew in South African Fiction, 1880-1992; and Rabbi Sam Thurgood, the Rabbi of Beit Midrash Morasha, who recently created a significant and inspiring library of Jewish books there. We had a spirited debate about how narrow or broad the definition should be, in which I found myself arguing for inclusivity, for the term to accommodate as wide a range of Jewish experience as possible.

I came away from Cape Town’s Jewish Literary Festival with a sense of pride at the vibrancy of this small community, and the high level of participation of its members in a completely new endeavor. There was clearly a thirst for intellectual engagement and a desire to hear a wide range of voices reflecting the full panoply of Jewish life. On a personal level, I was touched over and over again by the people I knew, both those who spoke as well as those who attended. After so many years away, I found myself completely at home.

Anne Landsman is the author of The Rowing Lesson, a 2009 finalist for the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature.

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Book Cover of the Week: Where the Jews Aren't

Tuesday, August 09, 2016 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

One of my favorite nonfiction writers has a new book coming out at the end of the month that addresses the bizarre history of Birobidzhan, a Russian region granting autonomy to its Jewish settlers along the border with China:

Envisioned as a stronghold of Jewish culture, Birobidzhan became home to thousands of Jews within a couple years of its establishment in 1929 before it was plundered for intellectuals and elites in a wave of arrests in the late 1930s. Following World War II, refugees from the Jewish Pale of Settlement reinforced the remote region's population, only to succumb once more to the Soviet purges which effectively silenced Birobidzhan's inhabitants and their story—until now.

Those stories forming Where the Jews Aren't: The Sad and Absurd Story of Birobidzhan, Russia's Jewish Autonomous Region could not be left to a more capable custodian than Masha Gessen, whose previous books on Russian history and current events range from biographies of mathematicians to the love stories of LGBT Russians to the fate of the Soviet intelligentsia under Communism to the Pussy Riot revolution.

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