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Ouch: Israel Probes Matisyahu and Sarah Silverman for Signs of Jewish Life

Shimon Peres apparently thought when he convened his Israeli Presidential Conference this week in Jerusalem that he could bring together several hundred cutting-edge thinkers and doers in the fields of technology, economics, international relations and Jewish thought to interact, share, clash and perhaps create something new, with a few thousand bright people sitting on the sidelines to listen and kibitz and add their own wisdom. From what I could gather, he was about half right.

Now, I couldn’t attend all of the dozens of sessions that were going on simultaneously, but the ones I did attend fell into two categories (and other people I’ve spoken with had the same impression). The ones on the global economy and the Middle East were interesting, sometimes dazzlingly so. I didn’t get to any technology panels, but I hear they were equally compelling. The ones on changing Jewish identity, less so. They tended to end up going around in circles, sometimes in the most embarrassing ways.

It’s partly the nature of the beast, and partly who you bring to the table. The interesting questions about Jewish identity today are to a large degree the ones that people don’t know how to ask. Either you bring together the old experts who have been having this discussion over and over for years and watch them go through their paces yet again, which happened in several panels during the conference, or you bring in new people who are struggling to find new meanings and try to have them talk about their struggles. The trouble is, they frequently don’t know how to articulate the things they’re struggling with. You can interview them to bring it out, but you have to have some idea of what to ask, and you have to let them talk. Unfortunately, the conference repeatedly handed the American seekers over to Israeli journalists who don’t have the first clue about the struggles and ambivalences of young American Jews. So they either ask insider questions that draw blank stares or they find ways to insult the interviewees.

This brings me back to Sarah Silverman. I blogged earlier about her appearance at an opening plenary session on “recipes for a better tomorrow” and the embarrassing efforts of Israeli TV anchor Yigal Ravid to be funny and pry into her personal life instead of letting her talk about better tomorrows. She appeared again on the closing day, at a panel discussion on “Jewish Identity: Younger Generation vs. Ancient Tradition,” and the result was just as painful. Actually, it was worse this time, because of the math. She shared the stage with three other seekers searching for words — Hasidic rapper Matisyahu, Boston biotech entrepreneur Safi Bahcall and Russian blogger extraordinaire Anton Nossik — and not one but two Israelis who didn’t know what to ask, but asked anyway. Silverman finally got to say something thoughtful about Jewish identity, but not because of her examiners.

Bahcall talked about the experience of meeting someone whose life had been dramatically saved by a drug Bahcall had developed and of feeling connected at that moment to something larger than himself. Matisyahu was given a too-brief chance to describe the teenage experience that made him seek out Orthodox Judaism, and then we were pretty much done with him. Nossik began to describe his experience as part of a community of Russian Jews who moved to Israel and then back to Russia, and their interactions with each other and with other sub-communities. He was interrupted in the middle by an Israeli professor on the panel, Micah Goodman, who proceeded to tell him what his (Novik’s) Jewish identity really meant and how it fit into the history of modern Jewish identity, tossing out a bunch of Hebrew terms that he didn’t translate and saying Jewish identity was a mixture of religion and ethnicity of which Israelis have the ethnic part and American Jews the religious, though Israelis’ Jewish identity is superior because American Jews are only religious while Israelis are increasingly combining the two pieces into something that someone (I forget who) once called “androgynous.”

When Goodman was finally done, the moderator, Israeli radio journalist-cum-psychology professor Liad Mudrik asked Silverman what being Jewish meant to her. Silverman said she was “still stuck on androgynous” and asked which side of the Western Wall such a Jew would pray on, which got a laugh. She then said she was “ethnically Jewish,” not religiously, because it “oozes from every pore,” and she talked a bit about Jewish guilt. Mudrik didn’t pursue any of those leads, but turned to Bahcall, whose mother is Israeli, and asked what role Israel played in his life. He gave what amounted to a well-phrased shrug.

The four guinea pigs were then asked, in various forms, what tactics would be effective in combating intermarriage, how to combat the delegitimization of Israel and what role new media could play in shaping new Jewish communities. More shrugs. Someone in the audience identified himself as the chairman of the union of Jewish students in the U.K. and asked Matisyahu and Silverman how his group could “make Judaism more sexy on campus.” Matisyahu’s answer: “Be sexy.”

If you’re curious, Silverman did manage in the end to talk about what Jewish identity meant to her. When an audience member asked her how her first visit to Israel was affecting her, she talked about visiting her sister, a rabbi who lives in Jerusalem.She was “inspired by people like my sister who use the Torah to interpret and draw meaning, and if that’s Judaism, I’m for it.” But, she said, she wasn’t looking for a defined affiliation to contain her own sense of meaning. “I’m not a label-y person. That’s just not me.”

The other instructive moment during the session came when panelist Steven M. Cohen, a sociologist with Hebrew Union College in New York, responded to one of Goodman’s disquisitions with the observation that experts spend a lot of time trying to analyze the forms of Jewish expression they observe, but many young Jews are finding “ways of being Jewish that are not anticipated by the analysts,” and consequently don’t show up in the research. Or, to put it differently, shut up and listen.

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