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 →]
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 →]
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 →]
“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 →]
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.
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 →]
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 →]
I bought a pair of tickets to Dudu Tassa and the Andalusia Orchestra performing the works of Tassa’s grandfather and great-uncle, the Al-Kuwaiti Brothers, the forgotten Jewish maestros of Baghdad. The tickets set me back two Yitzhak Ben-Tzvis, the equivalent of one Zalman Shazar, which is to say two 100-shekel bills or one 200-shekel bill. By next year, when Israel’s new banknotes are in circulation, that will be two Leah Goldbergs or one Nathan Alterman. Poets are replacing politicians on our money.
The concert cost considerably less than classical European music does at the same Jerusalem hall. Marginalized culture comes at a discount, and its icons don’t appear on cash. The chances that portraits of Daud and Saleh al-Kuwaiti will ever adorn a 200-shekel bill seem slim. But you never know. After much controversy, Jerusalem has named a street after dissident philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz. The gates of commemoration are forever open.
The Leibowitz fuss had barely ended when the shouting about the banknotes began. Last week, at the Bank of Israel’s request, the cabinet voted to approve the new bills. [Read more →]
Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz lived on Ussishkin Street in Jerusalem. The street was named by Menachem Ussishkin himself. An early Zionist leader, prideful, pugnacious, Ussishkin headed the Jewish National Fund for nearly 20 years. In 1931 he built an imposing house on what was then Yehudah Halevi Street, named for the 12th century philosopher-bard. All the streets in the new neighborhood of Rehaviah were named for poets and philosophers of the Spanish Golden Age. For his 70th birthday, Ussishkin decided to honor himself. He ordered JNF workers to remove all the signs saying “Yehudah Halevi” and replace them with ones that bore his own name. And so the name of the street is Ussishkin unto this day.
You can’t imagine Yeshayahu Leibowitz doing this. If Leibowitz knew that city council members would one day propose naming a street after him and that the proposal would cause so much loud opposition that the mayor would have to drop it from the agenda, as happened last week, he would have felt honored by the controversy: The Yeshayahu Leibowitz Memorial Upheaval.
The last time I visited Leibowitz was 19 years ago, on Israeli Memorial Day, 1994. I came to his home to pick up a handwritten article [Read more →]
I’m pleased to announce that Company C and A Crack in the Earth are now available as e-books in all major formats as well as new print-on-demand paperback editions, all with new covers designed by my talented daughter, the animator Mizmor Watzman.
It’s spring here in Jerusalem. Fields, yards, and the few vacant lots that remain in this increasingly overbuilt city are burgeoning with blood-red anemones. Two weeks ago, Ilana and I visited a hill not too far away that is carpeted with purple lupines, growing over the ruins of an ancient city. The flowers perfume the air and after each of the rainy season’s final drizzles the soil itself smells alive.
illustration by Pepe Fainberg
Perhaps spring came late in Leipzig in 1727. How else to explain the sorrow of that opening chord in the organ and strings, the melody that rises, then falls as if it can go on no longer, only to rise again? Why, if your Redeemer died for your sins, did you sigh rather than celebrate? Why, if the equinox had passed and the day was already longer than the night, did you have the choir, entering just as the instrumental melody comes to rest, stun me with a wail of helplessness, of hopelessness, “Come ye daughters, share my lament—see him!”
Yes, I know, “Him,” with a capital H. A big Him for you, a little him for me. [Read more →]
Winter-Spring 2014 Lecture Dates Still Available: Gershom will a visiting professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism from mid-January through May 2014. If your organization, campus or congregation would like arrange a lecture, please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org Dates are filling fast; don't delay!
The Unmaking of Israel: How It Broke. How to Fix It.
"Until I read The Unmaking of Israel, I didn’t think it could be possible to feel more despairing, and then more terribly hopeful, about Israel, a place that I began at last, under the spell of Gershom Gorenberg’s lucid and dispassionate yet intensely personal writing, to understand."
The Archive of Occupation / The Archive of the Making and Unmaking of Israel
Exclusive at South Jerusalem: We provide an on-line library of original historical documents on Israeli rule of the occupied territories and the origins of the settlement enterprise.
Click here to enter.
New: A developing library of source material on the development of Israeli democracy and on the undermining of the state. Click here to enter