The Magic of Keeping Kippot On in Europe

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 12-27-11

On our trip to Spain this Hanukkah, my two sons debated whether they should wear their kippot openly, as they usually do, or cover them with baseball caps. The ensuing family debate stirred many compelling Jewish identity dilemmas. Ultimately, their decision worked for them and us.  Wandering around Christmas-time Barcelona with their kippot naturally, proudly, perched on their heads added Jewish magic to our family vacation.

As an American and a Jew I have long been ambivalent about Europe. As an American, I often feel judged by Europeans as a loud, crude, grasping cowboy.  In return, I confess, I can be a bit judgmental myself, wandering around Venice, Florence or other sites, dazzled by their medieval majesty, but wondering, “what have they done lately?” Of course, as a Jew I am all too aware of what some Europeans did lately, both six decades ago with the Holocaust and most recently with their New anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. Yet, as a Jew I also acknowledge how modern Judaism benefited from its creative symbiosis with Europe. I feel positive resonances of Jewish history throughout Europe, even the relatively Jew-free zone called Spain. And, as a human, I appreciate how much of the cultural, intellectual, and ideological forces I most cherish in Western civilization bear Europe’s imprint.

As a modern Jew I also have my issues with kippa-wearing. Reared as an achievement-oriented Queens-boy in 1970’s New York, I was raised to fit in. Fitting in was America’s great welcoming gift to us, the European Enlightenment’s promise finally fulfilled in the New World. Fitting in was also the key to getting ahead, the Holy Grail for all us middle class wannabes — and a kippa did not fit the plan. It was always about standing out.

Blessed with a name like Gil Troy, I could get great service at Greek restaurants – balancing out all the jokes about whether my mother was Helen-of…. and, joy of joys, I sometimes was even mistaken for a WASP. When I was a teaching assistant at Harvard in the 1980s, a real White Anglo-Saxon Protestant who like me had a last name that also can function as a first name, said to me: “There are so few WASPs like us left at Harvard nowadays.” Putting on my thickest “New Yawk” accent, I retorted: “even fewer than ya think!” Enjoying my malleability, I joined the kippa-ba-kis, the kippa-ever-present-in-the-pocket, crowd — keeping it rolled not folded to avoid telltale creases, but ready to don it for religious ceremonies and in more 24-7-like Jewish contexts.
By contrast, my two sons have a delightfully healthy and natural relationship with the kippa. They wear it all the time. Whereas their dad might feel uncomfortable if “caught” wearing it in the “wrong” context, outside the Jewish bubble and frankly in more secular Jewish contexts too, they feel uncomfortable if they don’t wear it. My son Yoni, now 14, started wearing a kippa fulltime when he decided at the age of four that he was “awthodox.” He didn’t have his “r”s yet but he had his theology intact. For Aviv, 11, it has always been a part of his daily uniform, like wearing a shirt and pants.
We visited Italy in October 2001 just weeks after 9-11 and at the height of Arafat’s war of terror.  In those tense days, when people told us we were crazy even to fly, our hosts in Italy were so uncomfortable, they did not want Yoni wearing his kippa under his baseball cap, lest he somehow be exposed. I felt terrible having to explain to my four-year-old and his six-year-old sister about anti-Semitism and terrorism, initiating them into the ancient Jewish neurosis based in the reality of unfair targeting and enduring vulnerability.
Ten years later, the day we left for Spain, I received an email singling it out as Europe’s most anti-Israel country last year. I told my kids. We had a short to-cap-or-not-to-cap debate. But the boys decided quickly and definitively that they were who they were. They would do the Jewish Full Monty in Spain without cowering behind a Yankee logo.
I am thrilled to report that their kippot served as a friend magnet, bringing out the best in Barcelonans and serving as a homing signal for fellow Members of the Tribe. Aviv did feel stared at once or twice but, the first time, he said “I stared right back, and their super-gelled hair was much weirder than my kippa.” The second time, he just imagined them wondering, “Hey, what are you doing here? We thought we got rid of you in 1492.”
“You see the kippa’s magic,” Yoni said. “It made us new friends. It  attracted one rapper who rapped to us about Jewish-Christian friendship, two mah nishmas -whats up -from non-Jews, three chag sameachs from Jews, and four Israelis who said ‘hi.”” Yoni also noted that, thanks to their kippot, we were able to steer a French family who asked us, to the kosher market.
The Zionist revolution promised normalcy. My sons and I experience normalcy differently. To me, normalcy is the ability, after centuries of ghettoization, to blend in, to pass, to be accepted. To them, normalcy is the ability, despite the enduring curse of anti-Semitism, to stand out, but to feel completely at home about their uniqueness.
Not all European adventures for kippa-wearers end happily. But the few disasters make the headlines while the many magical moments don’t. When I told Aviv that Yoni found the kippot magical, he corrected me – “they are not magical, they are holy.” Then, pushing his dad, he asked: “After this, maybe you’ll consider wearing one all the time too?”

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University in Montreal and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. The author of “Why I am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,” his latest book is the “History of American Presidential Elections.”

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Thomas Friedman (and others) on Israel – Sloppy but not Self-hating

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 12-20-11

This year, 2011, proves that even top journalists can have a bad year. Thomas Friedman started the year with naive reports about the Arab spring as democratic idyll. Friedman turned cranky in mid-year when he witnessed an impressive democratic moment, the ecstatic bipartisan greeting America’s Congress gave Israel’s Prime Minister. Most recently, Friedman’s claim that the “ovation was bought and paid for by the Israel lobby” evoked the ugly anti-Semitic stereotype of rich, powerful and manipulative Jews. It also ignored most Americans’ genuine love for Israel.

But Friedman is neither anti-Semite nor self-hating Jew. Using either epithet to defame him is simplistic and offensive. If Friedman is “a dyed-in-the-wool Israel hater,” as my esteemed fellow columnist Caroline Glick called him yesterday, despite many ties to Israel and his deep, conflicted feelings about the place, what do you call Noam Chomsky? If we group his columns with The Protocols of the Elders of Zion how should we respond to the real, virulent, anti-Semitism so prevalent in the Arab press – or increasingly in the European press? My broad Zionist tent is big enough to welcome Friedman, even while slamming him for being sloppy and insensitive, letting his distaste for Bibi Netanyahu override good taste.
Twenty years ago, President George H.W. Bush called himself “one lonely little guy” facing “powerful political forces” after 1200 Israel activists lobbied Congress seeking loan guarantees to help Israel resettle emigrating 0. Shoshana Cardin, the President of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, asked to meet Bush. As Sheila Segal recounts, when Cardin explained that implying that Jewish lobbyists outmuscled America’s President echoed traditional exaggerations about Jewish power and stirred anti-Semitism.  Bush replied, “But I didn’t specifically mention the Jews, did I?” Cardin replied: “You didn’t have to. It was very clear to us and to everyone. It was offensive, and it was personally painful.” Bush, abashed, apologized. So should Friedman.
Friedman, of course, is not the only reporter whose pen often becomes a negatively-charged magic wand to make Israel look ugly. Israel excites much passion and too much exaggeration. Some Israel reporters suffer chronotaraxis — time disorientation – confusing legislation that is proposed with legislation actually enacted. We are currently living through the Israeli version of 2002’s Steven Spielberg-Tom Cruise movie, “Minority Report,” where criminals are punished before committing any crimes, simply for considering them.
Believe it or not, most of the controversial “anti-democratic” laws recently proposed have NOT passed. Nevertheless, hysterical reporting decries these pre-crimes and prematurely eulogizes Israeli democracy, when it is working effectively, resisting many bad initiatives.  I also wonder how foolish the U.S. Congress would look if every ridiculous law proposed made headlines worldwide.
Reporters also suffer from historical hysteria, analogy inflation, overstating the significance of contemporary actions by invoking some legendary game-changer.  Tanya Rosenblit deserves praise for bravely sitting in the front of a gender-segregated bus from Ashdod to Jerusalem, resisting Hareidi harassment.  Gender segregation on buses does not belong in a modern state nor is it required by our ancestral religion. Still, Rosenblit’s actions don’t match Rosa Parks’ heroism. In 1955, Parks, a black woman in a racist South, broke the law, defied convention, shattered what Southerners considered to be the natural order of things when she sat in the front of a Montgomery, Alabama bus.  Similarly, it’s not McCarthyism if someone disagrees with you, even if they hurt your feelings; it’s McCarthyism when a demagogue exploits government and media power to try blacklisting you, ruining your life, imprisoning you.
Once upon a time, exaggerations about Israel cut in Israel’s favor. Just a few decades ago, in the Israel of “Exodus” and Moshe Dayan, every soldier was a Maccabee, every blemish overlooked. The renowned liberal historian Henry Steele Commager praised Zionism on Israel’s tenth anniversary as “benign” and peace-loving, while characterizing Israel’s neighbors as committed to “chauvinism, militarism, and territorial and cultural imperialism.”
Things changed, thanks to a systematic Palestinian propaganda campaign that resonated with a post-1960s, post-liberal, post-modernist ideology – here Glick and I agree. This worldview caricatured Israel as a white Western racist, colonial power, amid automatic sympathy for the weak over the powerful, the non-white over the white, the Third World over the West, anti-colonial nationalism over liberal democratic nationalism. Just as a concave lens makes an object look bigger while a convex lens makes it look smaller, much of world opinion switched lenses from convex to concave when examining Israel. Viewing Israel through this distorting black-versus-white concave lens magnified even minor flaws into seemingly major sins.
These days, many people also see the Hanukkah holiday through one distorting lens or another. It is easy to caricature Hanukkah as the holiday of violence, of fanaticism, turning the Maccabees into Spartan warriors or Second Temple Hareidim. Examining Hanukkah in America, we could distort it as the holiday of mindless consumption or of dangerous assimiliation – with Christmukkah, the Hanukkah Bush, and, yes, Hanukkah Harry.
But Hanukkah’s power and meaning lie in its Zen balance. Was it God or the Maccabees? Yes. Is the triumph military or spiritual? Yes. Is it a national or a religious moment? Yes. Should we indulge by giving gifts, scarfing down sickly sweet doughnuts, ingesting grease-laden latkes – or should we give charity, celebrate with friends and families, delight in our traditions? Again yes.
Hanukkah’s power stems from its proportionality. Israel’s maturity – as a democracy, as a society, as a topic of concern and conversation, and in coping with critics – will also come from a similar search for balance. We need some Zen in our Zionism while reporters need some poise in their prose – even when writing about Israel.

The writer is professor of history at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. He is the author of Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today and The History of American Presidential Elections.

Hillary’s Iraneous/Erroneous View of Israel: Undiplomatic and Offensive

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 12-13-11

Last week, rather than mounting some constructive diplomatic offensive, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton simply was undiplomatic and offensive. In the Obama Administration’s latest insult to the Jewish State, Clinton compared democratic Israel to theocratic Iran and the segregated South.  Secretary Clinton claimed the walkout of some Israeli male soldiers when some female soldiers started singing paralleled life in Iran.  She also claimed the informal, illegal, gender segregation on some Jerusalem buses evoked Rosa Parks, who refused to sit in the back of the bus. Beyond confusing individual lapses with state practices, Clinton demonstrated Middle East discourse’s broken barometer.  Somehow, when talking about Israel, too many people exaggerate wildly, caricaturing Israel crudely – and delighting the delegitimizers.

Even sophisticated players like Hillary Clinton only see Israel through hysterical headlines; they have no clue what really happens. When she visits, Clinton and other dignitaries should go beyond the usual Y2K package – Yad Vashem, the Knesset, and the Kotel, the Western Wall — to experience the real Israel, a dynamic, chaotic, pluralistic, modern democracy which is no Iran.
Had Clinton visited Israel last week, she would have witnessed the intense debate surrounding the latest round of proposed Knesset laws. She would have heard Attorney General Yehudah Weinstein vow that, even if it passed, he would never defend the law limiting foreign government donations to NGOs before the Supreme Court. Golda Meir’s spirit lives: Israel’s incredibly activist Supreme Court is headed by a woman, as are the Kadima and Labor opposition parties. Hearing the din, Clinton could give Israeli democracy the highest grade in Natan Sharansky’s public square test – Israelis denounce the government publicly, shrilly, very regularly, without suffering government harassment.
Last week, Clinton also would have read about Israel’s former President Moshe Katsav going to jail. Beyond learning that in this democracy no one is above the law, she could compare the punishment Israel’s president received for imposing himself criminally on women, with the way a recent American president she knows well dodged punishment for similar crimes – although I doubt she would “go there,” as they say in shrink-speak. As a social reformer before she became an undiplomatic diplomat, she would be more likely to take interest in the “Torani” block where Israel’s most famous new convict now lives. Inmates wake up at 4:30 AM to study Jewish texts all day. These Jewish jailbirds are participating in a fascinating experiment to fight recidivism with Judaism. This is the kind of old-new, Jewish-modern synergy that characterizes life in the Jewish state.
In that spirit, Clinton could have accompanied her Ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, who appeared at the opening of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies’ impressive new $8.5 million Jerusalem campus. Professor David Golinkin, Schechter’s president, says this center for pluralistic Jewish studies programs has a “very simple” mission, “to teach our tradition in an open-minded and embracing fashion to millions of Israeli Jews,” which includes pioneering work empowering women in Judaism. “The Schechter Institute’s programs in Jewish Studies, along with its affiliates — the interdisciplinary M.A. degree programs, the Rabbinical Seminary, the TALI network and the Midreshet Yerushalayim — all provide alternative and innovative models of social action and promote respect for the diversity of spiritual expression,” Ambassador Shapiro said, impressed by the pluralistic programs, which teach 40,000 Israelis annually. “These programs reinforce the ideals of tolerance and inclusiveness that are essential to both Israel and the U.S.”
Two nights later, Hillary Clinton could have heard the Israeli pop icon David Broza in concert. Even a casual listener could discern the symphony of sounds and influences – the echoes of bluegrass and salsa, of rock and folk – blended into his uniquely Israeli beat. Broza – who days later was in Dohar attending a UN Alliance of Civilizations Forum with 2500 other civil society activists – told me from Qatar that this Jewish cosmopolitan mix is what makes Israel so artistically exciting for him. “It’s like eating kabob with ketchup,” Broza exclaimed, “Israel is the most cosmopolitan young, vibrant, and open-minded society I have ever seen. We can dance the debka while [the American blues legend] John Lee Hooker is playing in the background.”
Broza believes that “because it’s bizarre it’s often misunderstood.” Israelis are “somebody.” They instinctively understand that “without an identity they are lost. Historically, in the Diaspora, we Jews always maintained our identity, our rituals, our tradition, our learning – that was our strength.” And now, “When you reinvent yourself you put all the elements in the pot and what you get is a new persona.”
“I don’t think Hillary Clinton sees this Israel,” Broza speculated. “All she meets is the political box, and the rhetoric. She misses the light side of people.”
Broza is correct. Hillary Clinton and so many others, miss Israel’s light side, its spiritual side, its seeking side. They don’t hear what the Schechter campus’s architect, Ada Karmi-Melamede, calls the “harmonious music of learning that flows through the halls of Schechter,” what Broza calls “my own cocktail of sounds” which he draws from “the source,” his home, Israel.
The week ended with an Israeli scientist Daniel Shechtman collecting his Nobel Prize for Chemistry in Stockholm. When Shechtman discovered quasicrystals in 1982, the famous scientist Linus Pauling scoffed: “There is no such thing as quasicrystals, only quasi-scientists.” Those of us who know the rich, complex truth about Israel are equally isolated, often similarly mocked. We may not get Nobel Prizes for sticking to the truth, but we will enjoy other, sublime awards: the ability to delight in Israel’s cultural cosmopolitanism, as David Broza does; the opportunity to pioneer old-new expressions of Judaism, Zionism, democracy, as the Schechterites do, and the satisfaction of being right, even if it makes us unpopular.

The writer is professor of history at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. He is the author of Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today and The History of American Presidential Elections.

American Jews overreact to a clever critique of American assimilation

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 12-6-11

American Jewry is furious. Israel-Diaspora relations are endangered. Israel’s Prime Minister is apologizing.  And why? Because the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption’s campaign inviting expatriate Israelis back home, suggested, shock of shocks, that there is widespread assimilation in America, so much so that Christmas sometimes trumps Chanukkah, especially for kids; that living in English shifts your linguistic orientation away from Hebrew; and that an American might not immediately realize a girlfriend’s candle-lit apartment on Israel’s Memorial Day sets the mood for mourning not snogging.

Before I lose all my American friends, let me acknowledge. Yes, the 30-second commercials were simplistic and heavy-handed.  But what effective advertisement isn’t?  Yes, it is awkward that the Israeli government produced the ads not some web whiz kid.  And yes, there are arrogant Israelis who don’t “get” American Jews and “dis” them.
Furthermore, this is not how I educate; this is not my kind of Zionism. My book Why I Am A Zionist encourages affirmative identity Zionism not reactive, guilt-laden Zionism.
Still, the shrill reaction is disproportionate.  The campaign hit a nerve because it highlighted some uncomfortable truths we should acknowledge:
·         Bebis America’s great blessing – and curse. American culture is welcoming and enveloping, for better and worse. While the US is open enough so millions can keep their traditions, many more jettison their pasts to dwell in the present, believing that to succeed as a “somebody” they must act like everybody — which risks making you, existentially, a nobody.  Living by Facebook not the Good Book, worshiping at the altar of mammon, these new pagans, addicted to the iPod, the iPad and the me, me, me, are mall rats not church-goers, deifying celebrities,  revering themselves, and orienting their lives by the here-and-now not the-tried-and-true. And, yes, Virginia, America’s most seductive, most dazzling holiday is Christmas, which, many Christians lament, has been drained of its piety, becoming too consumerist and too Americanized. Intermarriage and ignorance, apathy and alienation are epidemic among American Jews, even as a committed Jewish minority – a minority within the minority – thrives.
·         Many Israelis living in America embrace America’s assimilationist ethos on steroids.  Most ignore the organized Jewish community. Many come to America denuded of the kind of rich Jewish identity which keeps some American Jews Jewish because of Israel’s absurd all-or-nothing, religious-or-secular absolutism.
·         Israel’s Remembrance Day is probably the hardest day for Israelis abroad. Even many involved American Jews are unfamiliar with the intense, intimate, reverent way Israelis observe that day. A few years ago, a snafu scheduled Montreal’s Jewish film festival’s opening for Remembrance Day Eve. The organizers could not understand why a respectful moment of silence before the festivities began still offended many Israelis. The organizers had no clue about the Yom Kippur-like atmosphere, the closed cafes, the somber songs, the restricted TV schedule that makes the day so difficult for Israelis to observe, anywhere but Israel.
In advertising’s blunt, cartoonish way, the three internet ads captured these complex issues, dramatically, effectively.
This American Jewish freak-out is strange given all the talk lately about how Israelis must learn to take criticism from Americans and American Jews without freaking out. The “big tent” looks less welcoming if the criticism only flows, like the donations, from enlightened America to benighted Israel. “Hugging and wrestling” must be mutual; otherwise it becomes moralizing and finger-pointing.  With Jewish Voices for Peace becoming ever louder, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton comparing Israel to theocratic Iran and the segregated South, while Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta browbeats Israel to kowtow to the Palestinians, Americans have shown they know how to disparage Israel.
The controversial ads are being “disappeared” down the Internet’s 1984-style “memory hole.” As an educator, I would rather use them to spark discussion.  We are living in an extraordinary moment in Jewish history. Two fabulous centers of Jewish life are thriving in Israel and North America, each offering distinct advantages and disadvantages.
North American Jews should acknowledge the occasional thinness of their lives, and learn more about the innate thickness of Israeli life – the overlapping communal, religious, national, traditional, ties fostering Israelis’ sense of intimacy, that sense of connectedness to each other and to the past. The Jewish State provides many of its citizens with natural frameworks for meaning and belonging that enrich their lives.
Simultaneously, Israel suffers from the overstated, all-or-nothing divide between secular and religious, the rabbinic establishment’s depressing, destructive ability to drive Jews away from Judaism, and the unappealing prominence of Judaism’s most illiberal, intolerant, unforgiving Jewish expressions. Israelis should learn from the more centrist, fluid, human-centered expressions of Judaism flourishing in North America today.
The days of David Ben-Gurion’s shlilat hagolah – negating the Diaspora – are over. While some of Israel’s Jewish critics arrogantly engage in shlilat ha’aretz – negating  Israel – we need a true friendship, a real partnership, between Israel and the Diaspora. Despite tiffs like this, there is more mutuality today than ever. Sophisticated Israelis are learning they can learn from the philanthropic, creative, pluralistic American Jewish community. Sophisticated American Jews are realizing that Israel as “Start Up Nation” can be an inspiration and a partner not just a charity case.
We need a meaningful, mature Zionist conversation. In both America and Israel, Zionism, the dreams and the reality, the grounding of nationhood and the possibilities of statehood, should be used as tools to explain, enhance, challenge and critique the status quo. For all its glorious impact on both sides of the Atlantic, the Zionist revolution’s full redemptive potential remains untapped. And those common understandings, the shared dreams, even applied to different realities, can build a solid foundation of mutual respect, carving out room for constructive criticism, honest exchange, and, most important, real growth in both communities.
 

The writer is professor of history at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. He is the author of Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today and The History of American Presidential Elections.