I explain why in my latest piece at The Daily Beast:
The election will take place next Wednesday. Just 150 electors, most of whom lack the slightest claim to represent the public, will choose two new chief rabbis for the state of Israel. The winners—one Ashkenazi and one Sephardi rabbi—will become the heads of the state rabbinic bureaucracy and will officially speak for Judaism in the State of Israel. If there’s anything more painfully absurd than the way the chief rabbis are chosen, it’s the idea of official state Judaism.
The politicking has gone on for months. Political parties tried crassly to make deals to amend the Chief Rabbinate Law, aiming to help particular candidates. The deals all failed. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, master of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, dithered about which of his sons to run for Sephardi chief rabbi. Last week police questioned his son Avraham Yosef, chief rabbi of the city of Holon, on corruption charges, so the Shas leader named his son Yitzhak Yosef instead. Since a majority of the electors are state-salaried religious functionaries, a great many tied to Shas, Rabbi Ovadia’s choice could be decisive. Attacking the favored Ashkenazi candidate of relatively liberal religious Zionist politicians, Rabbi Ovadia said that electing Rabbi David Stav would be akin to “putting an idol in the Temple.” On Saturday night, another leading Shas rabbi, Shalom Cohen, declared that all religious Zionists are “Amalek,” the mythical enemy of the Jewish people. “Anti-Semites” would be much too soft a translation.
None of this has added any honor to Judaism. [Read more →]
Herzl carefully adjusted his mouse-gray gloves and followed the young secretary through a massive door held open by a uniformed footman.
“Mr. Herzl, Your Excellency,” the secretary said crisply, standing as stiff as a sentry at a military tomb.
illustration by Avi Katz
The man at the desk carefully penned notes in the margins of a document. His desk testified to his assiduous and deliberate character. Dossiers and documents were piled to the Interior Minister’s left, a large brass telephone with a wooden housing stood at his right hand. In front of him, partly blocking Herzl’s view of his host’s gray head, were the gilded accoutrements of a high imperial official—two tall candlesticks, two inkwells, a paperweight in the shape of a crouching lion, and a small, triumphant angel that served, it seemed, as a pen stand. All were carefully polished; they glinted in dappled August sunlight that filtered in through the oak outside a north-facing bay window. Behind the desk hung a large portrait of Czar Alexander III and a smaller icon of St. Mary Magdalene. Herzl felt faint and his beard itched. But he steeled himself. [Read more →]
June 25th, 2013 by Gershom Gorenberg · Culture and Ideas
As you may remember, the Scripps National Spelling Bee in the United States stirred up a storm in a soup pot when it asked contestants for the one correct English spelling of the Yiddish word for matzah balls. The Scripps spelling czars, working from Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, said the word must be spelled knaidel and only knaidel. The YIVO Institute For Jewish Research said that the proper spelling, as per YIVO’s transliteration method, is kneydl.
The New York Times, misreporting on the fuss, said that “historically,” YIVO’s spelling was the “preferred” one. The Times didn’t say who preferred it, besides the mavens at YIVO. Asserting that there’s just one right way to write a Yiddish word in English, as I tweeted at the time, requires chutzpah, or hutzpa, or maybe ħutzpah, or perhaps hutzpah.
My 140 characters eventually reached my son, somewhere in the Himalayas. He wrote back (with a laptop on which he needed to make some small substitutions in the international phonetic alphabet):
Yehonatan Avraham Gorenberg
Besides the absurdity of putting this word in the spelling bee, there are a few points that YIVO seems to have missed:
The general point: Precise transliteration is impossible because languages are different phonetically and alphabets vary in their use of the letters. The international phonetic sign for Hebrew’s fricative kaf is the Greek letter chei, almost identical to x. If we used x to transliterate the Hebrew sound, native English readers would read it as ks. But x is useful for transliterating the latter consonant combination, which is common in Greek and Nepali (Sanskrit ksh). In old Spanish and Malti (and sometimes in Portuguese), x is used for sh. If we use ch for the fricative kaf, we cause the reader to confuse it with an existing English sound. Yet this is the most common transliteration. If we use kh, we create confusion with transliterations of Tibetan and Indian languages, in which the sound k+h is common. In fact, that was apparently the classical Greek value of chei in the first place.
The obvious Jewish point: Hebrew words are a large component of high-register Yiddish, and of Yiddish in general. Yiddish has indeed affected the pronunciation of these words in American English. However, transliteration is often based on the original Hebrew, especially with religious terms. So even if Americans Jews say xa:nikə (or some, ha:nikə), [Read more →]
June 25th, 2013 by Gershom Gorenberg · Politics and Policy
Horrifying as the Syrian civil war is, Israel’s best policy option is to stay out
My new column is up at The American Prospect:
In an age-long past—we’re talking about more than two years ago—the country to Israel’s northeast was ruled by a stable but despotic regime. After the battering that it took in its 1973 war with Israel, Syria carefully kept the de facto border quiet. But the regime outsourced the conflict to proxies such as Hezbollah and Hamas, so that the bloodletting between the countries never really stopped. Meanwhile the ruling Assad dynasty stockpiled missiles and poison gas.
It would be hard to say that anyone in Israel is exactly nostalgic for those bad old days. Then again, it’s hard to find anyone who expects better days ahead. The first thing that a local Syria-watcher or ex-general will tell you is that the Israeli government hasn’t managed to decide what it wants to see happen in Syria. The second thing that she or he will say is that this doesn’t really matter: Israel can’t influence the outcome, and all the realistic possibilities look awful. Right now, even the meager hope for a stable regime in Damascus, no matter how anti-Israel, sounds utopian. The direct, public involvement of Hezbollah in Syria’s civil war hasn’t significantly changed this pessimistic perspective. [Read more →]
My latest column at The American Prospect:
Sidney Rittenberg’s face fills the screen in a college auditorium where The Revolutionary is being shown. His eyebrows are bold brushstrokes of white above narrowed, intent eyes. His lips are firm. He has the wrinkles and gnarled neck of an old man. He does not, however, look like a man who is 90 years old, or like one battered by spending 16 of those years in solitary confinement in China for the offense, ultimately, of believing too deeply in the Party and the revolution. “If you put one drop into the long river of human history, that’s immortal … You either make a difference or you don’t make a difference,” Rittenberg says to the camera in his Southern gentleman’s drawl. This is his credo. Outside the auditorium windows, night has fallen. Rittenberg’s larger-than-life face is reflected, translucent, in the glass, as if his memory were speaking out of the darkness. “History,” he says wryly, “rolled right over me.” [Read more →]
My new piece at The Daily Beast:
I was sitting in a café and talking to a friend on the phone while naturally checking text messages that kept popping up on the little screen, when I got a tweet with a link to Jonathan Safran Foer’s article, the one on how each new form of electronic communication leaves us less in touch, more alone. I was so captivated that I didn’t respond to several incoming emails, and my friend hung up. He was talking about his marriage, or maybe it was his divorce. Whatever. I wasn’t quite paying attention.
Most of our communication devices, Foer writes, began as “diminished substitutes” for activities that were otherwise impossible. The telephone allowed us to keep in touch when we were too far apart to talk; then the answering machine allowed us to talk when no one answered. Email eliminated the voice; text messages could be sent quicker but shrank the mail. Each invention communicates less, which people often treat as an advantage. “Technology celebrates connectedness, but encourages retreat,” Foer writes. To which I’d add: Each step forward marches us further into misunderstanding. The voice on the phone has no unhappy shrug of the shoulders; the email has no ironic tone; the text message has no room for politeness. And the more easily a message can be forwarded, the less wise it is to say anything that matters. [Read more →]
illustration by Pepe Fainberg
My back thudded on paving stones worn smooth by millions of pious Jewish feet. I cried out, gasping for air as a twelve-stone policewoman with a Meg Ryan coiffure sat herself on my chest and lit a cigarette. She seemed quite at east despite the chants of “Nazis!” “Heretics!” and “Anti-Semites” coming from the black-cloaked men and long-sleeved woman who were pressing forward in their battle to halt the desecration of the Kotel. Why not? They were not yelling at her.
Noticing that my face was turning blue, she shifted her weight off my diaphragm. I took a deep breath and she blew smoke into my face.
“I’m innocent!” I coughed before once again going into severe oxygen deprivation.
“Right. That’s what they all say.” She considered my Arapahoe Basin t-shirt and Levis. “Although you do stand out in this crowd.”
I shook my head and she lifted herself up ever so slightly. “Respirate,” she ordered [Read more →]
Tags: Women of the Wall
My new column is up at The American Prospect:
“Israel lobby” is a term that could have two meanings, if you think about it. In standard Washington usage, it refers to American groups—often but not always Jewish—that lobby the U.S. Congress and White House on behalf of Israel, or rather on behalf of policies that those groups think are good for Israel. But there’s another possible meaning, as John Kerry implied in a speech to the American Jewish Committee on Monday: Americans, especially Jews, lobbying the Israeli government.
This already happens. Recently American Jews have publicly pushed for changes in Israeli policy on two issues. In both cases, though, they were arguing about deck chairs on the Titanic: how much they cost, and who gets to sit in them. Speaking to the AJC’s Global Forum, the secretary of state warned that the ship is sailing into an iceberg. His listeners, he said, should urge, beg, nudge, and bagger the captain and crew to change course.
Here’s one example of reverse Israel lobbying: Last month, the Israeli cabinet was about to vote on the national budget. One item would have eliminated an exemption from Value Added Tax for tourists. That is, a foreigner would have to pay tax on her hotel room or car rental, just like an Israeli. The chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Richard Stone, [Read more →]
The Faux Israeli Everyman, Naftali Bennett, Appoints His Extremist Rabbi To Teach Us Judaism
My latest at The Daily Beast:
Naftali Bennett, Israel’s minister of religious services, has decided to appoint Rabbi Avihai Ronski to head a brand-new Jewish Identity Administration.
One could simply say, “Ronski is the wrong man for the job.” But there’s a logical flaw in that sentence. The job shouldn’t exist, so no one could be right for it. Furthermore, the post will be in a ministry that only does a disservice to religion. And the fact that Naftali Bennett sees Ronski as his master and teacher provides additional proof that Bennett shouldn’t be minister of anything.
Let’s start with Ronski, [Read more →]
At a slight delay, here’s my column from the American Prospect on the Lapid-Netanyahu budget:
A familiar tale: In a small country on the Mediterranean rim, the government chooses to solve an economic crisis by enacting an austerity budget. Regressive taxes will rise. Aid to families will be cut. Less will be left of the welfare state built decades ago. The novice finance minister promises this will heal the economy.
As the people of that unhappy land say: Happy are those who believe. [Read more →]
We were just getting on the New Jersey Turnpike when Danny Engel bent over his guitar and placed his lips on those of Debbie Lieberman. Both of them were sitting on the floor in the aisle of the crowded bus that was taking our Washington Metro Area Midrasha’s students back from a Chabad Shabbat in Crown Heights. Sam and I were sitting on a pair of seats to their left, me the aisle and he by the window, just behind the couple, giving us an excellent view. Danny had started strumming and singing softly to Debbie right when we left Brooklyn. Ripples of streetlight, filtered through the long adolescent locks of the kids in the bus, played like starlight over the lovers. I was jealous. Nothing like that ever happened to me. And I kind of liked Debbie.
illustration by Pepe Fainberg
Sam paused in his narrative about the young family he’d stayed with as he followed my gaze. We waited for Danny to raise his head softly and look deeply into Debbie’s eyes.
But that got boring after a while, so Sam got back to his story.
“So, you know, I’ve just gotten out of the shower and Yisroel, that’s the father’s name, knocks on the door a crack and calls out that I should hurry or we’ll miss mincha
. And I open the door so the steam will go out—it must filled up the whole tiny apartment, our kitchen at home is I think the same size—and say, ‘mincha
?” and he explains, as if I don’t know, ‘The afternoon prayer.” So I say, we already did mincha
, over there at Lubavitcher headquarters, whatever it’s called …”
“Seven-seven-seven,” I filled in.
“Right, seven-seven-seven. And he says, ‘What was it like?’ And I say, ‘Well, it was cramped.’ And he says, ‘The room was full?’ and I say, ‘Actually, when we went in there was plenty of room, but then just before we started to daven
the Rebbe walked in and everyone took three steps back. And since the room was maybe only ten steps from front to back, I got crushed between two black suits.’ Wow, they’re still at it.”
He stared at Danny and Debbie. Debbie opened her eyes for a second and I thought she was looking at me. I looked back. Or was it at Sam? [Read more →]
Tags: Chabad·fiction·love story
Why Israel Can’t Be Part of Obama’s Calculus on Syria
My new column is up at The American Prospect:
From Tel Aviv, so the usual map sites say, you could drive to Damascus in three hours and 20 minutes, if only there were no borders, barbed wire or war in the way. From vacation cottages in the Upper Galilee, where city people go to find some quiet, you can look across the Jordan to the ridge that barely blocks a view of the Syrian capital. Just past the horizon, impossibly close to us, people are killing their countrymen. Cities are being crushed into rubble.
Israel is a place with very little agreement on anything. Perhaps the closest thing to a national emotional consensus is horror at what’s happening in Syria. But there’s also unusually wide agreement, especially among policy and strategic experts, that Israel can do pretty much nothing to affect the outcome of the Syrian conflict. [Read more →]