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April 25, 2003

Neo-Chasidism Aids Continuity Efforts

I read with interest Allan Nadler’s stinging impressions and astute observations of a recent Jewish Renewal conference (“Can New Agers Channel the Old Rebbes’ Spirit?,” April 18).

I would like to remind him that Jewish illiteracy is a far-reaching communal problem and is hardly limited to Jewish Renewal. The causes of such illiteracy are complex and often result in assimilation, alienation and conversion to other religion traditions.

In that regard, Nadler neglects to discuss some of Jewish Renewal’s strengths and contributions to Jewish continuity — not to mention communal ritual practice. By providing spiritually moving religious experiences, Renewal has prevented the loss of countless intelligent and talented Jews. While it is true that such experiences would mean more in the context of a full Jewish life, Renewal is masterful at providing the spiritual “jump start” that many need and can, God forbid, find elsewhere.

Bruce Birnberg

East Brunswick, N.J.

The chasidim of today, with their rigidity, their lack of creativity, their rejection of Jews who do not do things like they were done in the shtetl, these are not the followers of the Bal Shem Tov. The similarity ends with the shtreimel and the black coat.

Neo-Chasidic teachings have brought me back to a meaningful practice of Judaism and a renewed belief in God. My training during the 1950s at the Yeshiva Torah Vodaath, the ultimate Mitnagdic bastion, led me to fall into spiritual malaise. I found it rigid, stuck in the 18th century, and filled with Puritanical ideas. Love and joy were not high on the menu. My Judaism became less and less of a vital force in my life.

In recent years, I have found in my studies that the chasidic masters have more psychological wisdom than Freud, and more spiritual wisdom than the greatest of the Mitnagdim. Let the uneducated seekers come to gain spiritual meaning through the teachings of the great chasidic masters. They were not afraid to selectively communicate the teachings of the Kabbala to the uneducated Jews of the shtetl.

Once the hearts of these alienated Jews are touched by the spiritual powers of the chasidic tradition — the tradition of finding God everywhere, of acceptance of self and others, of tolerance and love, the rejection of one’s narcissism — many will be eager to learn more.

Arnold Feldman

Philadelphia, Pa.

‘Liberal Chic’ Comics

Art Spiegelman never fails to delight me with the originality of his artwork, nor disappoint me with the drearily predictable liberal-chic tone of his politics (“In the Shadow of No Towers,” April 11).

Spiegelman’s comic shows him to be a master of the big sneer. There’s nothing much to argue about with him, other than to note that if French, British and American leaders in the 1930s had possessed some of the realism and will shown by President Bush, Spiegelman would most likely now be drawing for a Yiddish daily in Warsaw rather than an English weekly in New York.

Van Wallach

Stamford, Conn.

Affordable Schools Start With Smart Parenting

As a yeshiva day school parent, I share opinion writer Shalom Lamm’s interest in seeing tuition be as affordable as possible (“How To Make Yeshiva Day School Tuition Affordable,” April 4).

As an adult, however, I realize that the choices I make are my responsibility. Toward that end, choosing to have children is perhaps the most important decision of all. While the rabbis may have set a minimum benchmark of two children to fulfill the mitzvah of procreation, we live in a world where religious obligations need to be sometimes considered in the context of financial, physical and emotional limitations.

Having children is a blessing. Sending children to yeshiva to study our history and heritage is also a blessing. But make no mistake, the responsibility for these blessings begins with two parents who realize what they can give, and what they cannot.

Would Lamm go to a restaurant and order a meal he couldn’t afford, only to negotiate the prices and blame the system when the bill arrived?

Jeffrey Korbman

Highland Park, N.J.

Cancel Soprano Zionism

Opinion columnist Gil Troy goes at once too far and not very far at all in envisioning a new relationship for American Jewry with Israel (“‘Soprano’ Zionism,” April 4).

To suggest that Israel ought to be to American Jews what Italy is for Italian Americans is to obscure our true “Italy,” which for most of us is the Yiddish culture of Eastern Europe. I’ve come to enjoy falafel, but it can never displace matzo-ball soup. Moreover, and more fundamentally, fixing on a country as an “anchor” or “touchstone” loses sight of the basic source of Jewish identity in all times and places: the relationship with God that binds us into a community.

At the same time, Troy’s call for a Zionism that is “straightforward, apolitical and a source of pride” isn’t asking terribly much. For a large majority of American Jews, drawing satisfaction from simple awareness of the existence of the Jewish state is already close to breathing — simply automatic, not a willed or meaningful commitment. It also happens to be about as far as most folks go. If his article were a bumper sticker, it might read, “Don’t honk if you’re a Zionist.”

Josh Pollack

Silver Spring, Md.

Editorialist Inconsistent In Stance on War

In the April 11 issue, the editorialist decides that war isn’t so bad after all, and that America is evil for not going to war in Africa, to keep the people in the Congo from killing each other (“Shame and the Congo”).

Wasn’t it just a few weeks ago that the editorialist castigated President Bush for going to war to rid Iraq of a dangerous regime?

And if America is justified in going into the Congo, why not go to war in Sudan, to free the thousands of slaves there and in dozens of other places around the world where there is rampant evil.

You “blame America firsters” are pushing the limits of reason with your ideas. You don’t seem to understand that, because America has taken the high road of liberating Iraq from its dictator, and Afghanistan from its terrorists, goodness is in motion, and that will reverberate far and wide.

Barbara Mayers Keller

Via e-mail

Touro Professor Not ‘Throwing in Towel’

I write in response to a report in the April 11 “Campaign Confidential” column that I am “throwing in the political towel” and have “assumed the post of chairman of the political science department of Touro College and as senior advisor for communal affairs to its president, Rabbi Bernard Lander.”

If going off the active public payroll is “throwing in the political towel,” then I stand guilty as charged. At the same time, my relationship with Touro College goes back, far back, to when I helped recruit the school’s founding class in 1971. I have been a full-time member of the Touro College faculty since 1974 and chairman of the political science department since 1977. Touro College was kind enough to share me with Senators Hubert Humphrey and, for 20 years, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, as well as, more recently, New York State Comptroller H. Carl McCall.

I am delighted to accept Lander’s exciting offer to serve as his senior advisor for communal affairs. Anyone who knows Lander will understand that working full time for him is hardly “throwing in the political towel.”

David Luchin

Bronx, N.Y.

Liberals’ War Record

Contrary to what opinion columnist Leonard Fein writes, the antiwar movement needs to tender a large apology to the American people (“No, War’s Opponents Need Not Apologize,” April 18).

Indeed, Fein himself should apologize for using the term “chicken hawk” in his column. He would not use that term, for example, for liberal hero Franklin D. Roosevelt, who led the United States through World War II without ever previously having heard a shot fired in anger.

Fein and his leftist ilk have a very wrong view of the United States, its vulnerabilities in this world and its need to use its power to keep its people free. They truly show the truth of the cliche, “The Trotskys make the revolutions, the Bronsteins pay the price.” They should be judged by the visible consequences of what they have supported in the past and never allowed a voice in the formulation of future public policy.

David Levine

Lincolndale, N.Y.

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