New Life for the American Jewish Year Book?

Source: The Forward, 3-30-11

“It’s a shanda (outrage)!” exclaimed Bruce A. Phillips of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Los Angeles Campus. He was reacting to the cessation of the American Jewish Year Book after a successful run of more than a century by the American Jewish Committee.

The Yearbook — a handy compendium of demographic and historical trends, global statistics on Jewry, obituaries, and exhaustive listings of Jewish organizations and publications — has lined the bookshelves of major Jewish community executives for decades, immediately recognizable by its candy color-striped covers. The last volume was published in 2008.

But new hope for the publication came in December at the Association for Jewish Studies conference in Washington, D.C., when Ira Sheskin, a University of Miami professor, declared that he and colleague Arnold Dashefsky, a professor of sociology and Judaic studies at the University of Connecticut, were in discussions with the German-founded Springer publishing company to resurrect the Year Book….READ MORE

Alex Joffe: Jewish Studies in Decline?

Jewish Studies in Decline?

Source: Jewish Ideas Daily, 3-28-11

Mandel Institute of Jewish Studies, Hebrew University.

Reports prepared recently for Israel’s Council of Higher Education have brought despairing news about the condition of the humanities in the country’s universities. Especially dispiriting is the report on Jewish studies, once the crowning glory of Israel’s flagship Hebrew University—and, in the report’s inadvertently nostalgic words, “an investment in the nurturing of the deep spiritual and cultural structures of Israeli public and private life.”

On the Future of Jewish Studies Tomer VelmerYNet.  Just as global interest in Jewish thought has been surging, Israel’s universities, once the leaders in the field, have opted to invest their funds in more “lucrative” disciplines.

What Price Jewish Studies? Jacob NeusnerForward.  The flourishing of Jewish studies at secular American universities has come at the cost of a decline in the sort of classical religious learning that is necessary to the future of Judaism.

That investment has been producing ever smaller returns. While Israel is still the world center of Jewish studies, the field’s decline has been visible for years. Retiring faculty are not replaced, less and less research money is allocated, fewer and fewer students appear interested in pursuing a degree or a career in this or related disciplines.In part this is a story of shifting resources. Faculty, students, and money go where they are needed and where there are opportunities. At the moment, and for the foreseeable future, the opportunities are in the various fields of science and technology, where Israeli research and teaching are world-class. A recent book called Israel the “start-up nation“; who would not want of be part of that success story? In a sense, the utilitarian Israelis are not only in step with but a step ahead of the rest of the developed world, where the need for trained scientists and science teachers is pressing.

In part, though, the decline of Jewish studies in Israel represents another, more complicated trend. Israeli national identity—those “deep spiritual and cultural structures” of which the report speaks—is already nominally Jewish: Hebrew is spoken, the Jewish holidays are celebrated nationwide, most marriages take place under a huppah, and so forth. Why then, a student might well ask, do I need to seek reinforcement at the university level? (This is to put aside the issue of how much the average Israeli high-school graduate really knows about Judaism or even Zionism.)

The answer to that unspoken question is that although the orientation of academic Jewish studies was never either explicitly religious or explicitly nationalist, the field did usefully inform, supplement, and, in certain cases, provide a cultural substitute for those qualities as well as an intellectual meeting ground of Judaism and Zionism. Now, with the exception of a few secular “study houses,” much of serious Jewish learning is increasingly left to the religiously and/or ideologically motivated—notable among them the ultra-Orthodox (haredim), who in principle reject the approach that sees Judaism in the context of the eras it has traversed and the cultures with which it has interacted….READ MORE

Deborah Lipstadt: The Eichmann Trial: Fifty Years Later

Source: NPR, 3-27-11

Listen to the Story

All Things Considered

[9 min 27 sec]

Defendant Adolf Eichmann takes  notes during his trial in Jerusalem.  The glass booth in which Eichmann sat was  erected to protect him from assassination.

Israeli Government Defendant Adolf Eichmann takes notes during his trial in Jerusalem. The glass booth in which Eichmann sat was erected to protect him from assassination.

Fifty years ago one of the world’s most notorious war criminals sat in a courtroom for a trial that would be among the first in history to be completely televised.

That man was Adolf Eichmann — and he had been in charge of transporting millions of European Jews to death camps.

A year before the 1961 trial, Eichmann had been abducted by Israeli agents while he was living in Argentina.

The trial captivated millions of people. And it was the first time many of them — including Israelis— even learned about the details of the Holocaust.

Now Deborah Lipstadt, renowned historian and professor of religion and holocaust studies at Emory University has written a new account of the trial. She tells All Things Considered weekend host Guy Raz that the Eichmann trial was different from any other war crimes trial because it featured the stories of Holocaust survivors and captured the emotions that weren’t a part of the document-heavy Nuremberg Trials, which took place more than a decade earlier.

The Spielberg Jewish Film ArchiveWitnesses of the Eichmann Trial

Survivors Stand Up

“There was a march of survivors, I would say approximately 100 survivors, who came into the witness box and told the story of what happened to them. And people watched them and listened to them and heard them in a way they hadn’t heard them before,” Lipstadt says.

Hearing the voices of survivors wasn’t the only aspect of the trial that shook the audience; seeing Eichmann was unnerving as well. This man, who most Israelis considered one of the greatest murderers of all time, appeared so normal.

“People were amazed because he looked much more like a bureaucrat, like a pencil pusher, [with] thick black glasses, an ill-fitting suit, a man who laid out all his papers and his pens and kept polishing his glasses with a nervous tick,” she says.

Lipstadt says people asked themselves, could this really be the person responsible for the destruction of millions?

But Eichmann’s testimony, says Lipstadt, illustrated not only that he was guilty, but how “enthusiastic” he was about carrying out his orders.

The Eichmann Trial by Deborah Lipstadt

The Eichmann Trial
By Deborah E. Lipstadt
Hardcover, 272 pages
List Price: $24.95
Read An Excerpt

“There would be times when he would get a communique from the German Foreign Ministry saying the Italians have contacted them and there’s a Jew in Vilna, or a Jew someplace else in a ghetto who’s married to an Italian Catholic … and Eichmann would quickly rush to get the man deported, sent to Auschwitz or hidden away so that he couldn’t be turned over to the Foreign Ministry and maybe escape. He went after every individual Jew he could find,” Lipstadt says….READ MORE

Annelise Orleck: Clouds Blur Triangle Shirtwaist Fire’s Meaning

Source: The NY Jewish Week, 3-10-11

As centennial of Triangle blaze nears, historians debate event’s Jewish character.

Burning topic: Was tragic fire a Jewish issue?

It is just weeks away from the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, New York City’s worst workplace disaster prior to Sept. 11. But instead of providing clarity, the time since the March 25, 1911 tragedy, and the array of commemorative events being held this month, has raised at least one befuddling question: to what extent was the fire a specifically Jewish event?

After all, the majority of the fire’s 146 victims were Jewish immigrant women, and it was Jewish organizations, from B’nai B’rith and The Yiddish Forward, to workers’ unions dominated by Jews, that brought the fire to public attention. But leading historians of the fire still disagree vehemently over how much the Jewish character of the event matters.

“Within the Jewish and Italian communities, it still does have a unique resonance,” said Annelise Orleck, a professor of 20th-century American history at Dartmouth who has written extensively about the fire. “But to the country and to the world at large, it [has been] less significant that the victims were Jewish and Italian than that they were young girls.”

The fire, set off by a match thoughtlessly tossed away, and exacerbated by the fact that the factory’s exits were locked, killed 146 mostly teenage women in less than 20 minutes. But factory deaths were common then, if not that numerous at one time, which has led scholars to believe that the most salient feature that forced the event into the national consciousness was the age and gender of the victims. “If they were just Jewish men, or grown men, it probably wouldn’t have had the impact it did,” Orleck said.

Many were girls barely 15 who had jumped to their deaths from the nine-story factory in Greenwich Village. A public funeral was held two weeks later, with several of the victims so badly burned they were impossible to identify. Nearly 400,000 New Yorkers joined in the public mourning ceremonies, which gave momentum to the slate of workers’ rights legislation that followed, from collective bargaining rights to safety codes and minimum wages….READ MORE

Jan Gross and Irena Grudzinska-Gross: Poles ready to face dark past of profiting off Jews

Source: Deutsche Presse-Agentur, 3-9-11

Poles are ready to face their dark history of profiting off Jews during World War II, according to the author of a book on Poles who sought financial gain amid the suffering of the Holocaust.

‘Golden Harvest,’ by historian Jan Gross and Irena Grudzinska- Gross, narrates how some Poles living near death camps like Treblinka dug through mass Jewish graves after the war in search of gold and other valuables that the Nazis might have missed.

The book is likely to touch a nerve in Poland and stir controversy in the nation that prides itself for having aided Jews during the Nazi occupation.

But Gross says his new book, to be released in Polish on Thursday and in English in October, will prove less controversial than his previous works on the topic.

Poles are now ready to face their dark past because enough time has passed to look back honestly at history, Gross said, and because more has now been written on the topic.

‘I hope this time we’ll be in a different point of the discussion,’ Gross told German Press Agency dpa. ‘Years have passed and now there has been a lot of writing on this subject. It’s a different state. I think the public is much more receptive to it, and my voice is not a lonely voice.’…READ MORE

Jonathan D. Sarna: What the Civil War meant for American Jews, then and now

Source: The Forward, The Jewish Chronicle, 3-10-11

WALTHAM, Mass. — The 150th anniversary of the Civil War is upon us. April 12 is the anniversary of the firing on Fort Sumter, the war’s opening shot. From then, through the sesquicentennial anniversary on April 9, 2015 of Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House and five days later of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, every major event in the “ordeal of the union” seems likely to be recounted, re-enacted, re-analyzed and, likely as not, verbally re-fought.

The American Jewish community, meanwhile, has expressed little interest in these commemorations. A few books, a play, a film and a forthcoming scholarly conference form the totality of the Jewish contribution to the sesquicentennial. When I suggested a talk on the Civil War and the Jews in one setting, the organizers questioned the relevance of the topic. Only a small minority of Jews, they observed, boast ancestors who participated in the Civil War. By the time most Jewish immigrants to America arrived, the war was but a distant memory.

Fifty years ago, for the Civil War centennial, the level of interest within the Jewish community seemed noticeably higher. New York’s Jewish Museum mounted a grand exhibit titled “The American Jew in the Civil War.” Fully 260 photographs, documents and objects appeared in the multi-gallery show. It was the largest display of Jewish Civil War memorabilia ever assembled….READ MORE: The Jewish Chronicle – What the Civil War meant for American Jews then and now

David Biale: Teaching prize awarded to historian of Jewish culture

Source: UC Davis News, 3-8-11

Photo: David Biale portrait next to Roman sculpture posterTeaching prize winner David Biale says: “In history, we take our students on time travel to faraway times and lands, and that is an exciting opportunity for young minds and their intellectual development and imaginations.” (Karin Higgins/UC Davis photo)

UC Davis historian David Biale, a leading expert on Jewish intellectual and cultural history, is the winner of the 2011 UC Davis Prize for Undergraduate Teaching and Scholarly Achievement.

Established in 1986, the $40,000 prize is believed to be the largest of its kind in the country; it is funded through philanthropic gifts managed by the UC Davis Foundation.

On March 8, UC Davis Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi interrupted Biale’s History of Modern Israel undergraduate class to announce that he had been selected as the 24th recipient of the honor.

“It is a privilege to award the 2011 UC Davis Teaching Prize to a scholar and educator of David’s caliber,” said Katehi. “His students describe him as engaging and inspiring, and his colleagues describe him as a brilliant scholar and source of pride for his department. The UC Davis prize recognizes, in particular, David’s ability to help his students create the intellectual tools to be successful thinkers in a global community.”

Biale, the holder of the Emanuel Ringelbaum Chair in Jewish History, has been a prolific and dynamic thinker and leader since arriving on campus in 1999.

He founded the Jewish studies program and is now the chair of the history department. The author and editor of 10 books and 74 articles over his 33-year career, he is a three-time winner of the National Jewish Book Award and has held fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Biale will receive the 2011 UC Davis Prize for Undergraduate Teaching and Scholarly Achievement on Thursday, May 12, at a gala dinner in his honor at the Conference Center Ballroom.

“I am deeply grateful to the donors at the UC Davis Foundation who established this prize and to all of my students and colleagues for making this possible,” said Biale. “Teaching at the undergraduate and graduate levels provides its own rewards when working with young minds. I’m humbled and incredibly honored by this award.”

Biale said he looks forward to using the award money to strengthen student opportunities in the history department, particularly in the areas of graduate education and the Jewish studies program.

‘Pivotal’ professor

According to Ron Mangun, dean of the Division of Social Sciences, Biale embodies the attributes of the ideal scholar-teacher envisioned by the donors who created this award. Biale has also twice won the Associated Students of UC Davis Award for Excellence in Teaching.

“Professor Biale’s leadership has been pivotal in creating the highly esteemed program in Jewish studies, a favorite of students and faculty alike,” Mangun wrote in a letter nominating Biale for the prize.

Jamie Forrest, a third-year student double majoring in history and political science, said that Biale teaches history as a “discipline concerned with the human experience rather than as a list of dates and events. He has allowed me to form an emotional and intellectual connection to the historical material he covers in class.”

Alan Taylor, history professor and recipient of the 2002 UC Davis Prize for Undergraduate Teaching and Scholarly Achievement, described Biale as both a demanding and thought-provoking instructor.

“Even in the largest classes,” Taylor said, “David invites students to explore the most profound questions about human nature and the interplay of despair and hope, of violence and peace, and of oppression and resistance. He expects much from his students, but they rise to his challenge because they recognize the great insight, care and energy that David invests in helping them.”

Biale describes his teaching approach as “old-fashioned” and participatory. His love for Jewish history, traditions and culture comes from the heart, he says.

“I mostly lecture without notes,” he said, “and even in large classes of more than 200 students I try to get them involved. For me, my personal experience with the subject is the greatest help.”

In the past two years, Biale has taught courses on the history of the Holocaust, the memory of the Holocaust, comparative genocide, secular Jewish thinkers and the history of the end of the world.

“Students are very excited by ideas and books. In history, we take our students on time travel to faraway times and lands, and that is an exciting opportunity for young minds and their intellectual development and imaginations,” he said.

Biale earned both his undergraduate and master’s degrees in history at UC Berkeley, and his doctorate at UCLA.

As a young student, Biale was greatly influenced by Jewish thinkers like Baruch Spinoza, a 17th century rationalist who laid the groundwork for the Enlightenment; Gershom Scholem, the preeminent modern scholar of Jewish mysticism; and Jacob Katz; a leading historian of the Jewish people.

The most formative influence was Amos Funkenstein, a Jewish historian under whom Biale wrote his doctoral dissertation.

“He was truly a Renaissance man in terms of intellectual range,” Biale said of Funkenstein. “He was probably the only genius I’ve ever met.”

Biale, who describes himself as a secular Jew, wrote his dissertation on Scholem. He is the author of “Not in the Heavens: The Tradition of Jewish Secular Thought” (Princeton University Press, 2010); “Blood and Belief: The Circulation of a Symbol between Jews and Christians” (University of California Press, 2008); and “Cultures of the Jews” (Schocken, 2006)….READ MORE

Jonathan Sarna: Science of Judaism Texts Lost in War Are Surfacing in New York

Source: NYT, 3-7-11


Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times

Lotte Strauss’s husband, Herbert, owned one of the books in the collection on the Science of Judaism.

In 1932, as the Nazis rose to power in Germany, a Jewish librarian in Frankfurt published a catalog of 15,000 books he had painstakingly collected for decades.

Ruby Washington/The New York Times

Renate Evers, head librarian of the Leo Baeck Institute, where titles were found.

Ruby Washington/The New York Times

Some of the titles missing from the University Library Frankfurt that were discovered at the Leo Baeck Institute.

Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times

The German identification card of Herbert A. Strauss, who had a Science of Judaism book in his collection.

Ruby Washington/The New York Times

A mid-20th-century map of central Europe that was found among papers in New York.

It listed the key texts of a groundbreaking field called the Science of Judaism, in which scholars analyzed the religion’s philosophy and culture as they would study those of ancient Greece or Rome. The school of thought became the foundation for modern Jewish studies around the world.

In the tumult of war, great chunks of the collection vanished. Now, librarians an ocean away have determined that most of the missing titles have been sitting for years on the crowded shelves of the Leo Baeck Institute, a Manhattan center dedicated to preserving German Jewish culture.

The story of how the hundreds of tattered, cloth-bound books with esoteric German titles ended up in New York includes impossible escapes, careful scholarship and some very heavy suitcases. And while the exact trails of many of the volumes remain murky, they wind through book-lined apartments on the Upper West Side, across a 97-year-old woman’s cluttered coffee table and into a library’s cavernous stacks.

For Jewish scholars, the collection of Science of Judaism texts (in German, Wissenschaft des Judentums) is a touchstone marking the emergence of Jewish tradition as a philosophy and culture worthy of academic study.

“We’re all heirs to the legacy of Wissenschaft,” said Jonathan D. Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University.

The University Library Frankfurt still houses the bulk of the collection, but experts there have determined over several decades that they were missing some 2,000 books listed in the 1932 catalog. In the last two years, a team led by Renate Evers, head librarian at the Leo Baeck Institute, found that her shelves had more than 1,000 of the lost titles….READ MORE

Adam Goodheart: Rabbi Morris J. Raphall and the Rebellion

Source: NYT, 3-7-11

New York, March 1861

The great national debate over slavery brought fame very suddenly to a certain owlish, bespectacled clergyman. Not long before, he had been almost unknown beyond the walls of his own synagogue, B’nai Jeshurun on Green Street in lower Manhattan. Now his name was in newspapers, and his sermon in bookshops from Boston to New Orleans. Like so many men of God – both then and now – he stepped out of obscurity when he stepped into politics, quoting ancient texts to answer modern questions.

“The Bible View of Slavery”: this was the title of the pamphlet that had brought Rabbi Morris J. Raphall such notoriety. He had first delivered the address on Jan. 4, 1861, on the occasion of the national “day of Humiliation, Fasting, and Prayer throughout the Union” proclaimed by President James Buchanan in response to the secession crisis. The learned sage delved deep into the Hebrew Bible – citing the books of Leviticus, Deuteronomy, Job and even Exodus – before concluding that “slaveholding is not only recognized and sanctioned as an integral part of the social structure … [but] the property in slaves is placed under the same protection as any other species of lawful property.”

Rabbi Morris J. Raphall, 1860.Library of Congress Rabbi Morris J. Raphall, 1860.

An ardent Unionist, Rabbi Raphall proclaimed from the pulpit that he was “no friend to slavery in the abstract, and still less friendly to the practical working of slavery. But I stand here as a teacher in Israel; not to place before you my own feelings and opinions, but to propound to you the word of G-d, the Bible view of slavery.” The descendants of Noah’s son Ham – that is, Africans – had been cursed by God, he said, so that “in his own native home, and generally throughout the world, the unfortunate negro is indeed the meanest of slaves.”

To be sure, Raphall also found reason to chastise American slaveholders. According to the Bible, he said, “the slave is a person in whom the dignity of human nature is to be respected; he has rights. Whereas, the heathen view of slavery which prevailed at Rome, and which, I am sorry to say, is adopted in the South, reduces the slave to a thing, and a thing can have no rights.” Still, in the end, abolitionists who tried to meddle with slavery were opposing the Lord’s will…. READ MORE

Why the Pope’s Rejection of Jewish Blame for Death of Jesus Matters

Source: Time, Reuters, 3-3-11

Pope Benedict XVI waves during his Wednesday general audience in Paul VI hall at the Vatican on March 2, 2011

When Pope Benedict XVI writes that the Jews were not responsible for the death of Jesus, what’s important is less the passage itself than the man who set it down on paper.

By tackling the subject in a book to be published March 10, Benedict, who has struggled in his relations with the Jewish community, doesn’t so much state something new — the affirmation that the Jewish people as a whole were not responsible for the crucifixion is an old one, uncontroversial in the modern Catholic Church — as lend the idea the ecclesiastical equivalent of a celebrity endorsement. “The significance is in the author,” says Joseph Sievers, professor of Jewish history at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome. “He brings together an awareness of the issues in the texts themselves with the history of how these texts have been interpreted through the last 2,000 years.”

Indeed, the Catholic Church has considered the Jewish people free from blame since at least 1965, when the Second Vatican Council wrote that while “the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ; still, what happened in His passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today.”

The difference this time is that rather than being buried deep in a document of dense text, where it can easily be overlooked or ignored, the argument is being laid out by a man whose every word is pored over as an indication of church doctrine. “Most Catholics don’t read the church’s documents,” says Rabbi David Rosen, director of interreligious affairs at the New York–based American Jewish Committee. “The book will certainly be far more widely read.” Benedict’s most recent book, Jesus of Nazareth, was a best seller when it was published in 2007. The passage about the crucifixion will appear in its sequel, Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week: From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection….READ MORE

A Slave to History: Jews and Slavery in the Civil War South

Source: Jewish Exponent, 3-3-11


André Braugher (center) and André Holland (left) let freedom ring, as does Jay Wilkinson as the son of their erstwhile master in “The Whipping Man.”

Four questions? More like a score.

That’s what playwright Matthew Lopez has raised in “The Whipping Man,” his Civil War drama of uncivil behavior between peoples, now playing off-Broadway at the Manhattan Theater Club at New York City Center.

Of all those raised, possibly the key question is: Why is this play different from all others?

Because this one brings to the seder table two slaves who have adopted their master’s Jewish faith, even as the owner’s son has lost his.

In putting out the chair for Elijah, Lopez has also pulled out the chair from under audience’s expectations as “The Whipping Man” gives a whuppin’ to prosaically produced plays.

As rallying cry, the South will rise again begs debate; but what made a New York Hispanic non-Jewish writer with no real professional theatrical background rise to the occasion of such a complex, if arcane, topic as Jews, slaves and internecine infernos?

In a way, argues Lopez, he’s just a slave to history. “I’m an American history geek,” says the 33-year-old with a thirst for Civil War arcana — and a big fan of the movie “Glory” — whose research revealed that some slaves owned by Jews took the religion as their own.

He’s made a matzah meal out of it. But then, Lopez owns up to just following history forged by other writers: “The maxim goes, ‘Write what you know.’ ”

But who knew the rites and rituals of Judaism could be played out — as they are nightly — in such compelling fashion, with the end of the Civil War, the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln and the start of Passover rolled into an historical/theatrical troika that actually occurred in April 1865?

A number of regional theaters did, staging the work — which actually started out in life as a 20-minute playlet — before the Manhattan Theater Club took the drama, as well as the young University of South Florida graduate and erstwhile actor, under its wing, pushing him from the stage wings into the spotlight.

Sharing center stage for audience attention is another of Lopez’s luminous conceits and questions: “How does it affect an individual to suddenly be free?” he asks in reference to the two slaves assayed by André Braugher and André Holland, free men ministering to the gangrenous leg of their owner’s son (Jay Wilkinson), in the brave new and apocalyptic world of post-Appomattox.

This mix of the blues and grays colors the play in a spectrum of splashy debates, cleverly conceived; indeed, this unchained melody of free verse has a Hebraic lilt to it.

“Pockets of our history,” says the playwright of the epiphany that is the existence of black Jewish slaves, “yield some fascinating results.”

Truth Is Stranger …
And, yes, says Lopez with a laugh, he does understand that the tableaux of the two André characters sitting down for their seder and hewing to the Haggadah “does seem unbelievable,” even as the ritual’s parallels in African-Americans’ own exodus are sketched out clearly.

But Lopez did get the hechsher of one major historian: Philadelphia native Jonathan Sarna, chief curator for the National Museum of American Jewish History, on Independence Mall here, as well as the Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University.

The professor’s imprimatur impressed the playwright of his own slavish devotion: “I felt, ‘Oh, my God! I did my homework correctly.’ ”

Gold star, says Sarna, who was asked by the Manhattan Theater Club for historical advice about the script’s accuracy. As for Torah-spouting slaves adhering to kashrut — as the freed characters do in “The Whipping Man” — it’s all, indeed, kosher.

Only in America?

“More so in the Caribbean,” notes Sarna. Not that such Jewish adherents were common in the States, “but it’s plausible. I can think of cases where it occurred, usually as products of liaisons” between Jewish masters and female slaves.

Historical Embarrassment?
As for the nettlesome injection into the play of the moral minefield manifested by Jews owning slaves — a case of hide the afikomen and the historical embarrassment?

Replies Sarna: “It’s a very real issue: Any Jew in the South who could afford one, had one.”

Let these people go: Two types of audiences have helped sustain the see-worthy play by Lopez (whose next project, “Tio Pepe,” about a Puerto Rican family, hits closer to home): Black and Jewish theatergoers, says Lopez, not only have been showing up in droves for “The Whipping Man,” “they are taking the play home with them,” where the debate and the dialogue rage from the page to the stage to the cages rattled over dinner tables.

“People are taking home a sense of ownership.”

And some would like to take home the playwright.

“I’m going to a seder,” says Lopez of accepting the invitation from one of his producers and her family for next month’s celebration of Passover. “If I wouldn’t, I’d feel guilty.”


Maybe he is Jewish after all.


Mel Gordon: Badkhn Belt? Jewish humor was born in 1661, prof says

Years of terror during the Chmielnicki massacres and the badkhn’s appearance led to the canonization of what we know as Jewish humor.

Source: JTA, 3-3-11

The Chmielnicki massacres weren’t particularly funny.

A drawing of a Jewish badkhn
Photo by: JTAFrom 1648 to 1651, nearly 100,000 Jews were slaughtered throughout Ukraine by Bohdan Chmielnicki and his roving bands of Cossacks. It was arguably the worst pogrom in history, leaving hundreds of Jewish communities in ruins.

Yet according to Mel Gordon, a professor of theater arts at the University of California, Berkeley, those years of terror led to the canonization of what we now know as Jewish humor. Much of what we’ll be laughing at during Purim festivities, this year starting on March 19, stems from that horrific period.

And it happened on one day in July 1661 when the badkhn — a kind of cruel court jester in East European Jewish life — was spared a ban on merrymakers.

“We’re funny because of the badkhn,” Gordon told JTA.

Gordon, who has authored numerous books on theater, cinema and popular culture, lectures widely on his badkhn theory at Jewish and non-Jewish venues.

“Everyone says that Jews are funny because they suffered so much,” he said. “That’s ridiculous. You think the rest of the world hasn’t suffered? What about the Armenians, the Biafrans, the American Indians? None of them are known for their humor.”

Nor are Jews funny because they’ve “always been funny,” another common falsehood, Gordon says. It’s only in the past 100 years, with the rise of Hollywood and nightclub society, that Jewish humor has become a staple of American popular culture.

“At the turn of the 20th century, the Jews were commonly perceived to be a humorless, itinerant nation,” he wrote in “Funnyman,” a 2010 book co-authored with Thomas Andrae about the short-lived Jewish comic book superhero.

So it’s not genetic, and it’s not because of suffering or social marginalization, that led to this thing we call Jewish humor — it’s the badkhn.

The badkhn was a staple in East European Jewish life for three centuries, mocking brides and grooms at their weddings. He also was in charge of Purim spiels in shtetl society.

His humor was biting, even vicious… Much of the badkhn’s humor was grotesque, even scatological.

Before the 1660s, there were at least 10 different stock comic types in shtetl life, Grodon says. One would rhyme, one would juggle, one might sing. Wealthy folks would hire a variety for their simchas, or festive celebrations.

But in the summer of 1661, a decade after the Chmielnicki massacres and its resultant famines, leading rabbis from Poland and Ukraine — the “Elders of the Four Councils” — met in Vilna to discuss why such evils had befallen the Jewish people.

The elders decided the Jews were being punished by God. A return to strict observance was the only solution. Levity and luxury were to be avoided.

As one of the new conditions, wedding festivities became much more somber, and holidays such as Purim and Simchat Torah less raucous. The traditional Jewish comics were outlawed.

During one discussion on July 3, 1661, Gordon relates, a rabbi asked his colleagues, what about the badkhn? He’s not really funny, the rabbi said. In fact, he’s abusive.

The elders agreed, and the badkhn was exempted from the ban — he wasn’t a merrymaker and wasn’t encouraging levity. And that’s how the badkhn became the only Jewish comic permitted in the shtetls, Gordon says, and how his particular brand of sarcastic, bleak humor set the tone for what we know today as Jewish comedy. Before the 1660s, the badkhn was the least popular Jewish entertainer – now he was the sole survivor.

“Jewish humor used to be the same as that of the host country,” Gordon said. “Now it began to deviate from mainstream European humor. It became more aggressive, meaner. All of Jewish humor changed.”….READ MORE

Cal law school adds institute for Jewish, Israel stud

Source: JWeekly, 3-3-11

Over the last few years, the U.C. Berkeley School of Law has offered study opportunities in the field of Jewish law, often as casual lunchtime lectures at Boalt Hall.

No more brown-bagging it. As of this week, informal becomes formal with the start of the Berkeley Institute for Jewish Law and Israeli Law, Economy and Society.

Launched with a $750,000 seed gift from the Santa Monica–based Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Foundation, the institute has hit the ground running with a 15-member faculty advisory board  drawn from a wide variety of disciplines, as well as an ambitious academic plan.

That plan takes the shape of two basic programs, one focused on traditional Jewish law; the other concentrated on modern Israeli law and society.

BAcal kasher, david

Rabbi David Kasher

“Each arises out of experiences in the law school that dovetail quite well with the strengths of the [larger] campus,” said Kenneth Bamberger, the institute’s faculty director and a professor of constitutional and administrative law. “It made sense to approach them in a more thoughtful, systematic and institutional way.”

The institute is offering classes, but much of the programming centers on guest speakers, symposia and collaborations between other U.C. Berkeley departments and Israeli universities.

For the classes, the institute will use professors from the law school (such as Bamberger) as well as other U.C. Berkeley academic departments, from history to economics to Jewish studies.

Two courses currently in progress are Religion in the Jewish State and Jewish Law in Comparative Perspective. Students interested in research can explore topics such as the Jewish view of privacy and Israeli data protection law.

David Kasher, a staff rabbi and educator at Hillel of Berkeley, had spoken at many of those lunchtime lectures past. He’s on board with the new institute, having recently been named its Gilbert Lecturer in Jewish Law.

“We support Berkeley and visiting faculty in developing classes,” Bamberger said. “This year we also brought Menachem Hofnung, a visiting professor from the Hebrew University teaching an undergrad class in legal studies.”…READ MORE