November 9, 2007

Published November 09, 2007, issue of November 09, 2007.
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Religious Committed to Dialogue With Israelis

A November 2 editorial perceptively links Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit’s proposal to drop the law of return and the efforts of American Jewish philanthropists to disconnect the Jewish Agency from the World Zionist Organization (“One People”). Both reflect the growing distance separating Israeli and American Jewry. Let me add an unmentioned nuance.

The WZO does have significant American participation that differs from an Israeli leadership that reflects the Israeli political parties. The American delegation is dominated by the religious streams.

In contrast, the philanthropists and federation representatives are primarily secular. American religious denominations recognize the centrality of Israel to the Jewish future and remain committed to the often frustrating dialogue with Israeli Jews.

Rabbi Yosef Blau
Religious Zionists of America
New York, N.Y.

A Sociologist’s Warning

Arts & Culture columnist Jenna Weissman Joselit does well to remind American Jewry of how much it embraced Will Herberg’s classic sociology of religion, “Protestant-Catholic-Jew: An Essay in American Religious Sociology,” when it was first published in 1955 (“Trailblazing Book Reminds Us How Far We’ve Come,” November 2). Herberg enshrined Judaism as one of the three basic faiths of America, thereby assigning American Jewry significant religious influence within American society.

What Joselit omits to mention, however, is that Herberg concluded his work with a note of admonition rather than celebration. In becoming so mainstream, the religions of America had, in Herberg’s view, forfeited their distinctive voice and content.

Validating what exists became a much safer route than challenging society as to what should be. The prophetic capacity of challenging the status quo, so central to the teachings of Judaism, appeared relatively absent in an America in which religion was more about belonging and affiliation than existential faith and serious commitment.

Herberg’s admonitions in the 1950s were directed to all three faiths. As Joselit notes, American Jewry embraced his message that Judaism was now integrated in America and “here to stay.” However, if Jews are to play a distinctive role in American religious life, they need to take Herberg’s concluding admonitions concerning the blandness of religious teaching and the need for religious voices to proclaim even that which is unpopular far more seriously today than they did five decades ago.

Steven Bayme
Contemporary Jewish Life Department>American Jewish Committee
New York, N.Y.

Let’s Rejoice in Song

Certainly a century of “Hava Nagila” deserves a celebration, and I commend Cantor Sheldon Feinberg for promoting it (“Singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to ‘Hava Nagila’ as Party Classic Nears 100,” October 26). A century ago, “Eli Eli” was the best known Jewish song in the world, a song of tragedy and of faith in the face of bitter suffering. And then came along “Hava Nagila” and dramatized a total change in the Jewish attitude toward life.

As a student of Abraham Zevi Idelsohn, I was interested in the Forward’s report of the controversy regarding authorship of this milestone song. By Idelsohn’s own account, published in his “Thesaurus of Hebrew Oriental Melodies,” the tune was a “court song” of the Sadigura Hasidim, which he collected during his fieldwork in Jerusalem.

In 1918 Idelsohn was in fact teaching in one of the Yishuv’s fledgling Hebrew schools, and conducting a chorus that was scheduled to give a victory concert. The Turks were out, the British were in, there was a Balfour Declaration promising a Jewish homeland — in short, there was plenty to celebrate. He needed a good crowd-pleasing number for a concert finale, and he didn’t have one.

But he had a file. And as if bashert, his hand fell on the Sadigura court song, a wordless “bim bam.” He put some simple Hebrew lyrics to it, arranged it in four parts, and the concert made it an instant hit.

Whether, as Moshe Nathanson and David Lefkowitz both insist, he held a contest in his class for those lyrics, he did not say. And it is certainly possible that if he did, 12-year-old Nathanson could have won it.

In fact, the Israeli government did finally award posthumous royalties to Idelsohn’s heirs. To my knowledge Nathanson never received any royalties.

Now Feinberg is honoring Nathanson for the same song. What emerges from this whole story is probably the fact that both Idelsohn the teacher and Nathanson the student contributed a national treasure to all of us. So Hava Nagila — let’s rejoice!

Rabbi Baruch Cohon
Los Angeles, Calif.

I was delighted to see a November 2 article on Cantor Moshe Nathanson, who in addition to “Hava Nagila” also composed the melody for the familiar opening of the Birkat Mazon. But Nathanson deserves even more attention for his beautiful voice, his wonderful spirituality and exceptional hazzanut.

He trained me for my bat mitzvah way back in 1946, an experience I vividly recollect even today. As a child and then young adult growing up at the Society for the Advancement of Judaism, my fondest memories are of him and the joy of music he brought to all of us.

Yet it does not seem as though he left behind any recordings. I have searched and searched. If anyone has such information, it would be much appreciated.

Froma Zeitlin
Princeton, N.J.

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