Helped by Michael Douglas and J Street, I have recently become increasingly painfully aware, in the most personal and intense way, of the growing rift between traditional Judaism and everything else that calls itself Jewish.
Mind you, I’ve been a Jewish journalist for more than 40 years and I’ve associated professionally and spiritually with almost every imaginable group in Jewish society, from the Reform movement’s CCAR, which recruited me to design their prayer book, to Ami Magazine, which cancelled my contract as their chief editor because they discovered I once worked for CCAR. I know Jewish rifts. But this one hurt.
Last year I took out to dinner an old friend from my time in America who was visiting Israel. A journalist, she had interviewed me at least twice; we used to chat on Facebook occasionally; our children attended the same middle school. We had lunch at a seaside restaurant in my new home town of Netanya, and during our conversation we were extremely careful to avoid politics. She knows I’m right-wing, I know she’s left-wing, we weren’t looking for a brawl.
Obviously, without that essential spice of every Jewish conversation, our two hours together were strained, and both of us seemed relieved when it was over. I drove her to her temporary place in Ra’anana, and on the way I mentioned how much I liked then Israeli presidential candidate Ruvi Rivlin. “What an awful man,” my friend spurted instantly, “have you heard what he had to say about the Reform movement?”
This was around the time Rivlin got himself in distinctly un-presidential waters when he confessed that he can’t make himself call Reform leaders “Rabbis” and, at about the same time, refused to permit a Conservative rabbi to officiate at a Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremony for disabled children which was organized by the Conservative movement. Frankly, living in Israel, I had barely paid attention to those news items. I supported Rivlin for president because I — like many Israelis across political lines — admired him as a true democrat and parliamentarian, who had stood up to Prime Minister Netanyahu and—even more scary — to Mrs. Sarah Netanyahu and refused to be their henchman from his Knesset Speaker’s podium. He paid the price by being demoted to just another Likud MK — and it was high time to award him with the nation’s highest appointed office, while stepping on Sarah’s and Bibi’s toes.
As I was making those points to my friend, I could see she didn’t care. It made no difference to her — and she said as much — what kind of president he would make for Israel, what she cared about were his insults to Jewish American institutions. It was a painful rest of the ride to Ra’anana, and I don’t believe she and I have exchanged any comments since.
I am an Orthodox Jew, and feel most comfortable in a National Religious, or “Mizrachi” environment. I don’t believe I own the key to God’s gate, nor do I even believe that the Shulchan Aruch is the only avenue to the keeping of the commandments. My most fundamental view of the Torah is as a liberation manifesto, intended to guide human beings into the freedom that comes as a consequence of obedience to the Creator. I know and understand that all the Jewish denominations hold dear this principle, and the proof is always in the pudding: If Jews are behaving like free men and women, thinking independently and viewing their lives as an endless string of opportunities to overcome ego in favor of the other — then they’re Torah Jews, whether or not they drive on Shabbat.
My experience has been that this moral adventure is best endeavored through my grandfather’s tradition. I don’t fault other Jews who wish to attempt the Torah commandments with their own tools. But it has to be through the Torah. My experience and many encounters have led me to believe that all Jewish denominations would sign off on that principle as well.
Which leads me to the press release I received on August 31, titled: “Genesis Prize Foundation And Jewish Funders Network Launch Matching Grants Initiative in Honor of Michael Douglas — Funds Will Support Innovative Ideas for Engaging Intermarried Families in Jewish Life.”
The initiative will generate $3.3 million to support organizations and projects that foster a culture of acceptance within the Jewish community. The particular focus of the grant program is to enhance opportunities for Jewish involvement available to intermarried Jews, their life partners and their children.
How would anyone not applaud this initiative? All of us, right and left. Orthodox and non-Orthodox, should embrace, rather than push away, the intermarried families near us. An alarm went off in my head at the mention of Michael Douglas. In June 2014, Michael Douglas and his wife Catherine Zeta Jones visited the Holy Land for the Bar Mitzvah of their oldest son Dylan Michael, which they celebrated at the Western Wall. Catherine Zeta Jones is not Jewish. She said that she had considered converting, but decided not to.
According to Jewish law, this means her children are not Jewish. But wait, Michael Douglas, son of actors Kirk Douglas and Diana Dill is not Jewish either. His mother did not convert before he was born, and he never converted either.
In other words, this nice gentile couple and their sweet gentile children went to the Kotel plaza to celebrate what?
When news came out about Douglas receiving the Genesis Award (whatever that means — it sounds suspiciously like a Star Trek episode), the LA Times said his “selection may be criticized by ultraconservative Jews.” I have no idea what an ultraconservative Jew thinks, I’m a liberal-minded Jew and all I see is a gentile man, married to a gentile woman, receiving a million dollars for Jewish causes.
It’s true, then, a Jew has to either be born lucky or be born a goy.
Douglas told the LA Times that he was inspired by his son Dylan’s devoutness and his father’s reaffirmation of his own Jewish lineage with his second bar mitzvah at age 83. Douglas was hoping the award would “encourage a new generation and remind them what their roots are and that they are welcome in the fold.”
A Bar Mitzvah (In Hebrew that means “bound by the commandments”) is a ceremony celebrating a Jewish youth’s passage to an age when he is accountable to a Jewish court. Prior to his thirteenth birthday, if he broke a window, his father had to pay for the damage; now, should he let go of an awkward fastball, the window repair is his responsibility. Ours is a legalistic tradition, and we believe adulthood means adhering to the law. Why would a gentile child possibly wish to take on hundreds of commandments which the Torah never imposed on him? Why would his parents pretend that he is an adult Jew when neither of them is one?
Which brings me to Amna Farooqi. On August 20, she was announced asJ Street U’s new president, and she also happens to be a Muslim Pakistani-American. Her views on Israel are consistent with those of the vast majority of the Jewish-American left, and, to be fair, maybe even further toward the center. She’s been celebrated by every powerful left-of-center Jewish publication in America and Ha’aretz, and the Jewish right has attacked her quite unsuccessfully. The fact is, Farooqi seems like a sweet person, I believe she’s sincere, and I would be delighted to break bread with her and share my thoughts and feelings on those issues about which she appears to have forged ironclad views. I wish every non-Jew had shown as much interest in my country, my nation, my history. I don’t believe that she is some kind of Manchurian candidate, as some on the right have suggested.
I just didn’t understand why she was elected president of what I used to believe was a distinctly Jewish organization.
So I went to the J Street About page and read that “J Street is the political home for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans who want Israel to be secure, democratic and the national home of the Jewish people. Working in American politics and the Jewish community, we advocate policies that advance shared US and Israeli interests as well as Jewish and democratic values, leading to a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
I must admit that in all the years of covering J Street’s activities from afar, it never occurred to me to check if it’s a Jewish organization. Turns out it isn’t. Although the J word is bandied about a few times, it really doesn’t say anywhere that it’s Jewish. Sure, the J letter in the name is misleading, but other than that — it’s a pro-Israel organization (whether Israel likes it or not) made up of Americans.
If I were an “ultraconservative,” I’d probably throw a tantrum right about now, which I would probably regret in the morning. Alas, I’m still a small “l” liberal Jew, and I don’t feel threatened by whatever other people, Jewish or not, say with which I disagree. But I must be true to myself and state, calmly, without waving a fist, burning a Palestinian home, or tearing up an olive tree: I hold these truths to be self-evident: Michael Douglas is not Jewish, and Amna Farooqi at the helm of one of its main adjuncts means that J Street is a not a Jewish organization.
I feel much better now.