Letter May 12, 2006

Conservative Seminary Lacks Rabbinic Leader

Opinion writer Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove’s comparison of Arnold Eisen, the newly appointed chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, to Solomon Schechter begs the question (“When a Scholar Became Chancellor,” May 5).

Schechter possessed a profound understanding of Judaism in its rabbinic, theological formulation, as shown by his classic work, “Some Aspects of Rabbinic Theology.” Eisen’s rather meager scholarship, on the other hand, is in history and sociology, not religion and theology. Furthermore, he does not bring to his office the deep knowledge of the Torah — the written as mediated by the oral — that sustained the intellectual leadership of his predecessors.

Who now will serve as the seminary’s halachic authority?

Jacob Neusner

Research Professor of Theology

Bard College

Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y.

Ask Muslim Nations To Help Darfur Refugees

I sympathize with the 160 Sudanese refugees seeking asylum in Israel, but I do not share the outrage of opinion columnist Kathleen Peratis or those American Jewish leaders pressuring Israel to give asylum to those refugees (“Let Darfurian Refugees in Israel Go,” May 5).

There are millions of Africans — be they from Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo or Uganda — who are suffering the ravages of civil wars in which the weak are the primary victims. Yet there has been no worldwide effort to provide asylum for these victims.

As a matter of fact, Israel has been just about the only country to open its door to African refugees, by taking in its co-religionists and former co-religionists from Ethiopia. As Israel welcomed its own, I don’t understand why Muslim countries — particularly those wallowing in oil dollars — can’t do the same for their co-religionists. It seems that Israel is always held to very high standards while little is expected of Muslim nations.

Philip Horn

West Orange, N.J.

Kids Camp, Alive And Well, Is Still Protesting

Fast Forward columnist Masha Leon was surprised to find Camp Kinderland at an April 29 anti-war march (“Hailing an Immigrant Landmark,” May 5). Why is the participation of Camp Kinderland unexpected?

Camp Kinderland, with its bright yellow banner in English and Yiddish, has participated in many anti-war, civil rights and anti-discrimination protest rallies. At the April 29 march, we had a contingent of about 100 people, comprising three generations of our Kinderland mishpokhe.

Leon also states that Camp Kinderland was “once-upon-a-time… Camp Kinderring’s ideological adversary,” which leads to the impression that Camp Kinderland no longer exists as a functioning children’s camp. To set the record straight, Camp Kinderland has been in continuous operation since 1923, although we are now located in the Berkshires in Tolland, Mass., about halfway between New York City and Boston.

The two children’s camps are no longer adversaries, and there are many instances where alumni from both camps are working together in support of important programs in the Jewish community and in our country.

Marvin Itzkowitz

Vice President

Camp Kinderland

Brooklyn, N.Y.

‘Absurdistan’ Novel Is Indeed Quite Absurd

The interview with author Gary Shteyngart and the excerpt from his new novel, “Absurdistan,”both found in the April 28 issue are, indeed, quite absurd (“Six Degrees of Treyf: An Interview With Gary Shteyngart”; “Excerpt From ‘Absurdistan’”).

I found them both to be rantings of a Jewish Judeophobe — how is that for an oxymoron? — who is deprecating his own culture and roots and gratuitously demeaning painful events in recent Jewish history. Not unlike those notorious non-Jewish Holocaust deniers, Shteyngart has had enough of “Holocaust, Holocaust, Holocaust.”

In his “Holocaust for Kids,” he muses, “Studies have shown that it’s never too early to frighten a child with skeletal remains and naked women being chased by dogs across the Polish snow.” To think that a young Jewish writer who has access to young audiences would pervert the message of the Holocaust and reduce it to self-serving images commensurate with his obvious hatred of anything Jewish is truly sad at times when all the hateful antisemitic literature is being revitalized throughout the world.

And how very painful it is to those of us who have been there, who experienced that pain, who survived the Shoah. I, personally, have devoted the past six decades to teaching a constructive moral lesson emanating from this amoral period in Jewish and world history, and I find it gratifying that I was able to give my survival a positive and constructive meaning.

Shteyngart’s piece isn’t even a dark satire. It is a vituperative and gratuitous sarcasm of a negative kind, not serving any constructive purpose — and certainly not contributing to illuminating minds or to elevating spirits.

Helen Fagin

Executive Board Member

Florida Holocaust Museum

St. Petersburg, Fla.

Rethink Approach to March of the Living

Tad Taube’s May 5 opinion article struck a chord with me (“March of Living Must Embrace Life”). Jewish identity cannot be built around the Shoah, though it seems that many outreach programs to the minimally affiliated do just that. Hebrew schools often spend much more time on studying the Holocaust than on how to celebrate Sukkot or Simchat Torah.

I was a participant in the March of the Living in 1990. To the credit of our local organizers in Toronto, we had pre-march meetings in which we learned about the culture of the Polish Jews, and when we were in Poland we visited old synagogues and learned and prayed there. We also met the very small local Jewish population. As someone deeply immersed in Jewish life, through synagogue and day school, the march was a moving and important trip for me, making me face evil and reinforcing my connection with Jews throughout history.

On the 1990 march with me were people participating in their first organized Jewish experience, and they seemed even less sure of how to react — both on the trip and after they returned — and did not significantly increase their Jewish involvement over the long term. Judaism centered solely on the obligation to remember horror was not enough for them.

When I returned from the March of the Living, I felt a deep obligation to remember those who died. But how? Eventually I came to the conclusion that the best way to honor their memory was not through memorial services, reading lists of names and erecting plaques, but to do what those who died tragically cannot: to be involved in a vibrant, strong Jewish community and in the social justice movements that prevent others from suffering as we Jews did.

Aurora Mendelsohn

Toronto, Ontario

Tad Taube appears to slightly criticize the manner in which many Jews view the time our people spent in Poland. Yes, many of us view the 900-year experience of Jews in Poland as one of the longest and most bitter refuges that Jews experienced in our 2,000-year odyssey.

It is Taube’s analysis that is naively wrong. My family, like many others, has carried the memories of generation after generation of this Polish cultural experience. The culmination, for those few that remained after the Shoah, was a feeling of deep anger toward a nation that had created a living hell for Jews.

Even after there were no Jews left in Poland. antisemitism continued to find expression there, as Claude Landsman showed in his classic documentary “Shoah.” Many of us have concluded that this bigotry is ingrained in Poland’s cultural expression. The burden is on Poland to show that the legacy has changed.

Ira Gelnik

Longport, N.J.

Tad Taube discusses issues that the March of the Living needs to address in Poland, among them participants’ contact with Jews and non-Jews. It is also important, however, to address the issues that arise after march participants return to the United States.

Once back home, march participants have been known to spread defamatory and offensive impressions of Poland and the Poles. Some marchers seem unable to distinguish between Nazi killers and Polish victims, and hold Poles culpable for the Holocaust. This has been a matter of longstanding concern for Polish Americans. Orientation materials are so inadequate, and participants so ignorant of Polish suffering under Nazi occupation, that some assume the Poles “allowed” the genocide to happen.

An obvious solution would be for participants to meet with knowledgeable Polish Americans before departure. But march organizers ignore our concerns and resist our participation.

The March of the Living once banned contact with local people in Poland. In 1996 it permitted Polish Jews in the march, and non-Jewish Poles in 1998. It’s time to take the third step, and open contacts with Polish Americans.

Charles Chotkowski

Director of Research, Holocaust Documentation Committee

Polish American Congress

Fairfield, Conn.

Task Force Is Together On Israeli Arab Issues

An April 29 article may have given readers a mistaken impression of the study day conducted by the newly formed Inter-Agency Task Force on Israeli Arab Issues (“Jewish Groups Join in Bid To Aid Arabs, But Spar Over Olmert Tie to Rightist “).

The all-day educational forum, held April 26, was a gathering of more than 200 North American Jewish leaders who came together in an unprecedented wall-to-wall initiative to better understand and raise awareness of inequality issues among Israel’s Arab citizenry from perspectives ranging from educational achievement to Halacha.

There was no spar, as the headline to the article states, over Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s ties to Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman. It was an informative and thought-provoking day of education, focused on the history of majority/minority relations in Israel and on the critical issues facing Israel’s citizens today.

Jessica Balaban


Inter-Agency Task Force On Israeli Arab Issues

New York, N.Y.

Leopold Bloom Was Anything But Jewish

I’ve just gotten around to reading a March 17 Fast Forward article on the Jews of Ireland (“The Shamrock and the Star of David”). In it there was a short passage about why James Joyce chose a Jew, Leopold Bloom, as his principal character in “Ulysses.”

There is no indication anywhere in “Ulysses,” though, that Bloom is Jewish. Nor, for that matter, does he do one solitary single thing that a normal Jew would do, except breathe.

Bloom neither says “oy vey”, nor “gevalt” — something that any Jew, in Bloom-ian situations, would be constantly repeating, even just for consolation. And Bloom is not necessarily a Jewish name; I’ve met a Goldberg whose family hadn’t been Jewish for four generations, as well as loads of Isaacsons who’d always been regular churchgoers.

I was born and grew up in Dublin well within Joyce’s lifetime, and I don’t believe there would have been a single Jewish person living in the sordidness of Leopold Bloom. I discussed this several times with my parents and others — contemporaries of Joyce, even some who knew him — and it just didn’t happen.

Zerrick Woolfson

Victoria, British Columbia

Parents Need To Get Involved in Education

Every Sabbath, I co-conspire with my partner, our two tots and a growing number of Reform parents for a spirited, age-appropriate tefillah service (“Jewish Education Needs A Copernican Revolution,” April 21). “Torah Tots” has the future of our culture and religion rolling in blessings, weekly portions and good old-fashioned spirit.

This is an expression of pure passion, and also one small measure to alleviate our fear of an assimilated planet. And Temple Israel of Greater Miami has welcomed our “Torah Tots” initiative.

Simply put, we sensed a void, put together a program, and committed ourselves to it each and every week, secular holidays and hurricanes notwithstanding. We didn’t park our bus, to use Conservative scholar Jack Wertheimer’s metaphor, and wait for enough passengers. We just started driving and picked up passengers along the way.

Our clergy has had the good sense to applaud and support our work.

During the week, I teach at two different high school age programs. The programming is topical, the air is hip, and teachers and administrators encourage leadership to step and change the world, or at least be accountable. Attendance changes with the wind. And as the teens grow older, they are more likely to blow off the teen map.

I believe that Jewish educators are lithe and relevant. I have faith that families who understand the stakes will impart those values to their children, who in turn will show up for class. It may be that the parents need the talking to so that their teens may follow in kind.

Chaim Lieberman

Miami, Fla.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.
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Letter May 12, 2006

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