Thursday, December 20, 2012

Out of the Ghetto by Jacob Katz

The renowned historian of Hebrew University, Jacob Katz wrote a volume concerning the emancipation of the Jewish people during the narrow period of the Enlightenment.  He came to some interesting conclusions after discussing those who championed Jewish rights to full citizenship.  In discussing Moses Mendelssohn and his disciples, Katz explained the subtle nuances and slow inevitable changes that occurred to the Jewish community.

The demand for integration into the Non Jewish world that was advocated by Jewish and non Jewish activists like Mendelssohn and Von Dohm never really fructified.  Only a minimal amount of wealthy Jews were ever integrated.  Although the Christian expectation of conversion also began, it never gained great prominence because the Jewish people retained a certain integrity: not necessarily out of loyalty to Judaism but rather out of refraining from committing a sham conversion.

The thought that giving the Jewish people full citizenship and freedom to choose domicile and so called honorable professions would encourage the Jewish people to leave their lowly status, however, they remained peddlers, traders and money lenders.  The Jewish people continued to seek entrepreneurial opportunities.

The old Jewish world crumbled.  Freedom affected the Orthodox world and it had to contend with Reform.  Judaism was no longer the insulated and isolated community unaffected by the outside. It was no longer directed only by rabbinic leadership.  The old rabbinic ban was not as effective since freedom from Emancipation facilitated splinter groups and break-a-ways.  The Orthodox world had to adjust and rely on measures of persuasion to retain followers.

A new type of Jew emerged devoid of traditional practice hoping to join the outside world. Assimilated to his surroundings, yet, he never integrated. The irony of Emancipation was that although the Jewish community changed its make up, it nevertheless remained separate from the gentile society.  Jews sought out Jews.  Christian Europe never really accepted the Jewish people into its bosom.  As a matter of fact, Jew hatred showed up not too much later.  The era of Emancipation was a short window of hope that did not live up to the grand expectations of its advocates.

Friday, December 14, 2012

The Last Lion (volume I) by William Manchester


William Manchester’s magisterial biography (volume I) of Winston Churchill called The Last Lion stands out as a sweeping detailed discussion of probably the greatest leader of the twentieth century.  Not only does one learn a tremendous amount about the complex personage but also about the traumatic century itself.  One learns about Churchill’s sad childhood, his coming of age and his courage in the cavalry, his mother’s eventual loyalty to him, his wonderful successful marriage, his bouts with melancholy, his fierce sense of truth and character.  He is depicted as the mirror image of Adolph Hitler – with both having insatiable appetites for power yet Churchill shows great inclination toward empathy and magnanimity, qualities lacking in Hitler.  Although the author puts Churchill in the past, one who relished in history, perhaps even dwelling in the past, he nevertheless describes his subject’s uncanny ability to size up and evaluate situations accurately (e.g. Churchill saw a future “iron curtain” in the East and early on recognized the scourge of Socialism). The author makes the point that Churchill consistently sided proudly with the Zionists even though he confused Jews and socialists by equating them early on in his career.  Churchill, the great imperialist is seen as a fierce loyal patriot to the empire, but understands that ultimately it can’t sustain itself under the immense financial stress.

Churchill’s childhood is really a study in parental neglect and had he realized this fact and not had the comfort of an extraordinary governess, he would have greatly been flawed.  One learns about the general immoral behavior of Victorian society and how Churchill’s mother played such a significant role in the life British royalty; there’s intimation that she was a favorite of the King and even Churchill’s brother probably had a different father.  Motherhood comes second to being mistress.  His relationship with his father is tragic: although the son idolizes the father, the father is completely disgusted by the son’s lackluster efforts in school and never lives to see his son’s absolute genius.  His mother shows interest only when Churchill is ready to enter politics and then shows absolute loyalty in making sure all the correct avenues are opened for her son.

As a subaltern the reader learns of Churchill’s personal courage in battle and his heroic escape to Pretoria which catapults him into politics.  He confuses Jews and Communists when warning against socialism and is given an education about the differences: not all Jews are communists or socialists!  His marriage is seen fantastically successful because of their constant communicating even when taking separate vacations.  In an immoral environment, his marriage is a standout model.  He leaves notes for his wife; they could easily be categorized as ‘love notes’.   He values his wife’s opinion, despite occasions when he disagrees.

When Churchill takes the fall for the WWI Dardanelles fiasco, and he is out of politics for a spell, he keeps busy with 3 basic activities that become great antidotes for depression: painting, building (bricks at his home at Chart Well, Kent) and writing (everything from articles to books).  His talents are so impressive that he does not stay out of politics too long.

Manchester makes the astute observation that Churchill is the mirror image of Adolph Hitler.  He points out there similarities of thirst for power and gigantic egos.  Churchill, however, comes off more magnanimous.  Both are considered patriots and fighters.  As a matter of fact, Churchill is depicted as believing the normal course of human affairs is not peace but war.  Mankind is usually in a state of struggle.  And even though Churchill was pejoratively called a ‘war monger’ he is not.  He just understands the course of the direction of human affairs before others do.  This is part of his genius.  He recommends preparing for the worst and expecting the best.  He reads ‘Mein Kampf’ and understands immediately that Hitler is not a bluffer.  He goes on fearlessly warning against the Nazi menace.

Those who want to be inspired by genius, great leadership and a deep understanding of the WWI and the first half of the 20th century should read this book.  

Monday, November 26, 2012

Killing Lincoln by Bill O'Reilly and Martin Dugard

Bill O'Reilly with his collaborator has created a fast paced, engaging account of the last days of Abraham Lincoln.  He has successfully developed the cast of characters that comprised of the conspiracy to eliminate Lincoln.  The book reads like a thriller.  He describes the last battles and General Lee's attempt to escape General Grant's grasp.  His descriptions of U.S. Grant and Robert E. Lee are compellingly accurate.  Lincoln comes off sympathetic and prophetic in expecting his own doom.  Mary Lincoln is sympathetically depicted as mentally unstable.  John Wilkes Booth, however, is described fully with aplomb.  He comes off suave, a lady's man, confident if not arrogant, even narcissistic.

Lincoln's magnanimity is shown through his policies of reconciliation. For example, Robert E. Lee is very impressed with the terms of surrender.  Lincoln, very aware of the need to unify the country is not interested in prosecuting southern soldiers.  He wants people to get on with their lives and not fester hard feelings through harsh measures.

Unfortunately, many were not willing to accept the loss; they were not interested in accepting a different South.  John W. Booth was an angry man bent on destruction.  His anger prevented him from seeing that he could not change the fate of the country by just eliminating the president.  His arrogance knew no bounds.  His little known accomplices came off believable.  Powell, for example who viciously attacks Secretary Seward and his family at his home was described as a classic cold blooded killer.

American History comes alive in this very readable volume.  O'Reilly successfully teaches a tragic episode of the conclusion of the Civil War. In a divided country, Killing Lincoln is a fine reminder that one must be alert for unchecked passions.

Sanford Col-Erase Pencils - Craft Pens & Pencils (Google Affiliate Ad)

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Unbroken Spirit: a heroic story of faith, courage and survival by Rabbi Yosef Mendelevich

This contribution belongs to the literary genre of Soviet Jewry's struggle for freedom.  It was published thirty years prior in Russian and Hebrew and has finally been brought to the English speaking public.  There are some important features that I thought very worthwhile.  The approach of the KGB, the author's unwavering faith and patience and his determination not to succumb to the pressures of the harsh prison and Gulag experience mark this book as an important read.

The KGB is described in its complete amoral and immoral detail as a cunning machine of deception with the sole purpose of forcing a confession.  The style and detail of Rabbi Mendelevich's description of the KGB is startlingly consistent with the descriptions of Ida Nudel and Natan Scharansky, other freed Soviet Jews.  The seemingly innocuous questions or the 'routine' required signatures are only tactics to secure confessions.  The discussions are reminiscent of a chess game trying to figure out  and counter one's adversary's next move.  When asked to sign for the release of his siddur, prayerbook, the author responds miraculously, "You did not require a signature when you confiscated it, therefore you can return without a signature!"

One wonders what would have become of Rabbi Mendelevich had he not had a cause to go to Israel.  What would have happened to him had he not had a connection to his family.  What would have happened to him had he not been strong in his faith in Gd.  What was amazing about the author was that with the little learning of Torah and Judaism he possessed resulted in a defiance that leaped beyond anyone's expectations.  His legendary hunger strikes for the return of his books and study materials fortify one's soul.

When asked after his release where he wanted to go, he replied "Israel!"  He was shocked by the question because the entire reason for his incarceration was his desire to go the Jewish homeland.  He was told that many want to go the USA to which he responded with 'I want to speak to them'.  He explained that he was not interested in changing their mind, but rather he was interested in understanding why?  For him his Jewish identity precluded any other destination!

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Jews Welcome Coffee by Robert Liberles


Our contemporary world is saturated with a plethora of full bodied flavorful coffees.  While living in Northern California I was partial to the strong aromatic coffee of Peete’s well before Starbucks inundated the marketplace!  One would be hard pressed to remember when coffee was not part of our daily ritual.  Not only is coffee socially relevant but it also is a staple in the Beit Midrash, study hall due to its stimulant caffeine.  I remember one of my teachers in Yeshiva dismissing a beverage because it lacked the stimulant saying in Hebrew “there is nothing in this!.”  A coffee station is universal in every Study Hall in the Yeshiva world.

However, there was a time when coffee was new to the world.  Coffee was introduced in the 17th and 18th centuries in European cities.  That introduction caused a social stir because as the popularity of coffee grew it began to rival and compete with the other beverages of choice: beer and spirits.  The fervor with which coffee caused had serious economic impact.  Beer, for example in Germany brought in tax revenues.  A decrease in beer consumption as a result in coffee’s popularity was felt immediately by the ruling class. In the non-Jewish world there was a social uproar on how to deal with the coffee trade and increased consumption.  At first, the beverage was savaged in upper class circles, however, its popularity was ever rising throughout the entire populace until it supremacy became evident.  Interesting enough, England adopted tea as the modern drink of choice and not coffee.

Robert Liberles wrote a creative history of the Jewish interaction with coffee.  The Jewish community adopted swiftly coffee as a choice beverage.  The rabbis saw quickly the advantages of coffee’s medicinal and stimulant qualities in Torah study.  For example, the custom of Tikkun Chatzot, a very old practice of rising in the middle of the night to say supplications, increased in popularity in the modern period directly due to coffee consumption.  Rabbinic literature is full of interesting discussions: Rabbi Yaakov Emden was lenient in his rulings pertaining to coffee: its kashrut, its preparation and drinking it in a non-Jewish public house.  The Chasom Sofer and others argued against frequenting the ‘coffee house’ as frivolous or wasting precious time from studying Torah or doing Mitzvos. 

There is an interesting court case of discrimination against Jews.  The proprietor of a coffee shop claims that serving Jews discourages his non Jewish clientele.  What makes this an important case is that Germany was still functioning under Napoleonic influence where everyone is equal before the law and thus discriminatory practices would be forbidden. The proprietor claims that had the Jews been wearing the 'French sash' he would have served them!  This injustice resulted in a brawl. 

This book is a fascinating study of the Jewish community during the time of its emergence from the ghetto and how the community interacted with the outside world through the consumption and trade of the now everyday drink.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean by Edward Kritzler


If one is interested in the beginning of the age of mercantilism and how Jews and secret Jews played a major part, then this book is bound to pique one's interest.  The author's thesis is fascinating: with the expulsion from the Spain, Jews were motivated in finding new vistas of settlement and enjoyed being a part of the age of exploration starting with Columbus' voyage to the New World.  The book is heavy on the politics of the enemies of Spain: England and the Netherlands.  It is a story of the convergence of the three nations on the island of Jamaica.  It is the story of the rise of sugar markets and how the Jewish people made an impact in that trade.

Much is made of the voyages of Columbus and his more than a few New Christians aboard as part of his crew.  The book implies that Columbus might have been sympathetic to Jewish settlement.  Columbus sets out to gain riches for Spain and mines for gold in the New World.  Those that come after Columbus become obsessed with his ‘secret gold mine’.

We are introduced to Oliver Cromwell being sympathetic to readmitting the Jewish people to England and how the Jews spy for him.  We are introduced to the mercantilism of the industrious Dutch and how the Netherlands were always a tolerant society.  We get glimpses of the intolerant Peter Stuyvesant and how the Jewish people from Recife, Brazil end up in the Dutch colony, New Amsterdam. 

The Inquisition plays a major role in frustrating Jewish settlement with its charge of “Judaizing”, and being the objective enemy of the Jewish people.  I felt, however, the book could be misleading. One must be careful with such a charge because in general the Inquisition did not have jurisdiction over practicing Jews.  Only Jews found aiding and abetting a New Christian to return to the ancestral faith could be hauled into the grand inquisitor.  The insincere Catholic convert was really the target and challenge to the Inquisition.  Nevertheless, clearly the original 24 Jews asking for settlement in the Dutch colony felt threatened by the Inquisition.

We are introduced to legitimate Jewish Pirates like Samuel Palache who kept kosher and founded the Neve Shalom in the Netherlands.  He comes off like a true swashbuckling pirate, out to foil his nemesis.  The book, however, is difficult in separating openly Jewish people, Conversos who secretly practice Judaism and New Christians who sincerely converted to the Catholic faith.  There seems to be ample proof of Sefardic (Spanish?) names on record, however, there is rarely real proof who were legitimate Jewish buccaneers fighting Spain and who were sincere Catholics out for real profits.

The book’s strong point is the history of the age of exploration and the emergence of the quest for capital with emerging trade routes and fighting lanes in the Atlantic Oceans and Caribbean seas.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Power Faith and Fantasy by Michael B. Oren


Power Faith and Fantasy is a weighty history of the USA’s involvement in the Middle East by Michael B. Oren.  The content and theme of the book is truly incorporated in the book’s title.  As an emerging world power with its religious missionary citizenry enamored with the Holy land, America creates some interesting fantasies and attempts at solving the area’s problems.

The book proves that oil was not the beginning nor sole interest of the USA in the area.  Involvement of the USA in the area begins with the creation of a Marine Corps to release US shipping from the grips of Barbary Muslim pirates in the time of Jefferson.  Instead of paying tribute, the US decides to use force and power to effectively ease and safeguard US shipping to Europe.

American missionaries established outposts and schools with the hope of converting the ‘Ayrab’.  Such a position would prove to be not only untenable but underscored great misunderstandings and fantasies about the indigenous people of the Middle East.  American arrogance comes through in the expectation that the people of the Middle East would obviously see the advantages of Western Democracy.  The shock to missionaries that Muslims reject their way of life and beliefs sends them reeling.  Brutal handling and assaults create the dangers requiring rescue missions. America would come to the missionary’s aid under the pretense of morality.

Hollywood has created a romantic vision of the Middle East that contributes to the fantasies about the area.  In spite of the fact of much testimony to the harsh realities, dangers wrought in the area and the proud nature of its peoples, the USA seems opaque to the possibility that there is a legitimate clash of civilizations. America remains enamored with the birthplace of three of the world’s religions and still feels a largesse toward the area.

Cold War politics played the heaviest role in the USA choosing Israel over the Arab oil states as an ally against the Soviet Union.  Now that the Cold War is past, and the Soviet Union is broken up, one wonders whether the alliances will change.

Anyone interested in a deep understanding of America’s relationship to the Middle East and Holy land will gain much knowledge from this contribution.

One State Two States by Benny Morris


Benny Morris has written a very disturbing book called One State Two States in which he analyzes the current trend among liberal intellectuals that posit the solution to the Palestinian/Israeli conflict is one democratic state in the Middle East.  Morris uncovers this so-called solution as an old idea that really implies eliminating the State of Israel through natural demographics.  Without mentioning the actual statistics but stressing the value of equality, some intellectuals suggest that one state giving citizenship to all the ethnicities would solve the conflict.

With historical aplomb and dexterity, Professor Morris demonstrates that not only did this idea arise in the past but failed miserably.  Professor Morris reminds the reader that the fundamental reason the conflict has not ended is due to Arab irredentism and rejection of the Jewish state.  Demanding a democratic state over a nation-state according to the intellectuals is the contemporary view; the idea of the nation-state is passé. Dr. Morris raises some of the counter arguments. For example, France and Germany are nation-states that have large ethnic populations but nobody seems to demand that those countries change their makeup!  Why start with Israel?

He points out that when the Arab neighbors desire peace the Israelis make enduring treaties.  Theologically, however, the Muslim world claims all of Palestine and calls the Jewish people interlopers.  Such an environment breeds contempt for the Jewish people. 

What I found fascinating was Professor Morris’ willingness to go with a two state idea in solving the conflict by raising an old idea: the Jordanian option.  Should King Abdullah choose to take back, manage and incorporate the West Bank and its Palestinian population there would be a viable solution.  This conclusion basically acknowledges that the chances of a solution are slight.

This book is forcefully argued and well worth reading for a brief historical account of the different options in solving the conflict: ‘bi-national one state’ or ‘two state solutions’.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

The Chain of Miracles: Divine Providence in the Midst of Nazi Persecution by Rabbi Meyer Juzint

As a master religious educator, Rabbi Juzint sets out by explaining that there are 3 types of miracles.  There are those that are natural and are taken for granted. For example, when one wakes up from sleeping, no one thinks about why one wakes; one takes for granted the cycle of sleeping and waking. Waking up, nevertheless is a miracle. There are miracles that are beyond explanation like when a doctor tells a patient that there is nothing else to do or there is no cure yet somehow the person rallies and recovers.  The third type concern the miracles found in circumstances that upon reflection one sees that an alternate turn of events would have resulted in a completely different end.  This slim powerful memoir concentrates on the last type of miracle even though the rabbi experienced all three types. 

Rabbi Juzint loses his extended family of seventy. From the time the Germans enter Lithuania the rabbi is either on the run or captured: sequestered either in a ghetto or concentration camp.  He is liberated by the British at the infamous Death Camp of Bergen - Belsen. Under constant pressure, torture and mental anguish, the rabbi wonders how indeed he woke up every day!  He sees brutal murders, he experiences merciless beatings, even one on the day of his liberation from which he never fully recovers causing him headaches for the rest of his life.

This memoir is not an indictment against the world. The rabbi is quick to remark about the many kindnesses that he experienced by some unusual courageous people.  He mentions that Sudetenland Germans of Czechoslovakia were not bloodthirsty like the S.S. or the Lithuanians but rather, actually showed kindness in dealing with the Jewish people.

Rabbi Juzint's entire experience of 4 years evading death at the hands of Nazis and other Jew haters reflects a chain of events that in every case turns the rabbi away from an unnatural end, teaching the concept of personal Providence. The rabbi describes the sweet ring of "you are free!" upon being liberated as he collapses from just previously receiving a blow to the head from one of Nazi guards. Inexplicably, he awakes as a free person immediately reflecting on his miraculous survival.

This amazing volume reminds me of my own rebbe, Rabbi Dovid Lifshitz ZTz"L the Suvalker Rav relating to our class that we Americans don't know what "pressure" really is. He experiences unspeakable horrors in Poland before in he made his way to the USA via Shanghai.  Rav Dovid would explain how much he enjoyed going to the fruit market on Amsterdam Ave. (in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan)  to pick out special fruit for the Shabbos WITHOUT FEAR!  I can just imagine what it meant to Rabbi Meyer to be able to teach Torah to so many students without any fear.

This book is an important contribution not only to Holocaust studies but also to religious education, inculcating belief in the context of evil.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Six Days of War June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East

Michael Oren has written probably the definitive history of the Six Day War.  Although it is history, it reads like a thriller.  There are two features that I think are worth sharing about the book: Yitzchak Rabin's relationship to Moshe Dayan and the prime minister at the time of the war, Levi Eshkol.

In recounting the events that led up to the war, the reader gets a profound sense of the prudence and wisdom of Levi Eshkol.  His wit, dry Yiddish humor come across in a very compelling way.  His desire to gain consensus shows leadership and prudence often necessary when such profound decisions need to be made.

Throughout the book, one gets the feeling that Yitzchak Rabin was constantly under the thumb of Moshe Dayan.   Dayan comes off as the supreme egoist at the expense of Rabin.  Dayan seems to have taken all the credit by which Rabin was responsible.  The reader learns of the mental breakdown suffered by Rabin and his relative quick recovery during the war.

The book is a fascinating critical study of the real theater of war on the one hand along with a critical historian's eye for the miraculous events that accompanied the prosecution of that war.  This is an excellent critical history.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Up Stream by Ludwig Lewisohn

This is an autobiography of the modern drama critic.  His story is an extraordinary experience of prejudice and a repudiation of assimilation.  Lewisohn was a founding member of Brandeis University and became an ardent Zionist.

His story is amazing because as a young German immigrant his irreligious father encourages his son's acculturation and assimilation into Charleston, South Carolina's gentile community.  Lewisohn becomes a Church going American and is rudely awakened when in spite of explaining his allegiance to Church and country he is labeled a Jew.  When he protests, he is told that his features are "too Jewish" to be ignored!  He tries very hard to overcome the bias against him and when he gets into Columbia College and gets a doctorate he is told that there will not be any job for him.  He is forced to take a job at Ohio in the German department instead of settling down in his beloved field of literature.

He loses his job when his pacifism during WWI is interpreted as sympathy for Germany; his loyalty is questioned and he feels the alienation of one socially shunned.  He comes to the conclusion that the Jew will never be accepted in a non-Jewish environment and encourages a Jewish environment (not necessarily religious) and a Zionist outlook.  He looks toward his Jewish heritage for comfort and finds inspiration in being Jewish.

I am not sure whether his story will resonate with contemporary readers.  His experience seems to coincide with the rise of American isolationism and the curtailing of immigration.  He bore the brunt of its effects.  However, the injustice that he experienced is 'eye opening' since one does not expect such things to happen in America!  Lewisohn's fictional account repudiating assimilation called The Island Within,(also reviewed on this Blog) is a better articulated argument, however, the actual history is worth reading.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Only the Ball was White by Robert Peterson

This volume is a piece of Americana, a history of black professional baseball before the color barrier was broken by Jackie Robinson in the Major leagues.  It is a history of that great blight on American society when great players like Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson entertained thousands of Americans at big league ball parks when the Major League team was on the road.  It is a story of exploitation and greed, a story of prejudice but also a great story of hope and expectation that sooner or later America would see the real talent in Black Baseball.

One reads about the organizational skills of Rube Walker and how he took care of the his players.  One learns  of the promotional skills and business acumen of people like Abe Saperstein and Eddie Gottleib. The most interesting aspect of this history, however, is learning about the colorful personalities in Black Baseball.  For example, one learns how Satchel Paige refused to be exploited and was not afraid of changing teams when he felt slighted.

Satchel Paige did not develop a curve ball until he was in his 40s!  His fastball had that nasty habit of fooling batters because it hopped as it crossed the plate. He was a master showman and entertained every time he pitched.

One learns some great legends about the history of baseball.  For example, one learns that before there was a color barrier Black players had to worry about getting spiked by opposing players.  Wooden shin-guards were developed for the second baseman because he had to expect instead of a head first slide, a spikes high slide.  One learns that the prejudiced player would sharpen his spikes and split the shin-guards!

Josh Gibson, the Babe Ruth of the Negro leagues was so legendary that they tell the story that he hit a home run  ball that did not come down in Pittsburgh but was called an out the next day in Philadelphia when the ball landed in the outfielders glove!  The pitching great Walter Johnson testified to the talent of Gibson by calling him a $200,000 ball player because that is what any team would pay for his contract were it not for the fact that he was "colored".

Cool Papa Bell could be on third base before the catcher figured he was stealing second!

Not every black player was a major leaguer, however, so many players made there way to Major League Baseball: Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Larry Doby.  Even Willie Mays got his start in the Negro Leagues.  Professional black baseball was so unnecessary and only highlighted this country's bigotry.  The book points out for example, that the baseball leagues in Mexico lacked any prejudice because there was accepted diversity.

This book is a worthwhile read in the history of American sports.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Barcelona and Beyond: The Disputation of 1263 and Its Aftermath by Robert Chazan

This critical study of Nachmanides' public disputation with the apostate Paul Christian is unique in that the author does not credit the Ramban with winning the debate.  Professor Chazan takes on the scholarship of Yitzchak Baer and dismisses the Ramban's account as embellishment and exaggeration and accepts the Church's Latin account (which basically eviscerates the Ramban) as reasonable.  As to who won the debate, Professor Chazan believes the truth lies somewhere in between, a toss up so to speak.  Since Christian was not dismissed in humiliation and kept on missionizing and since the Latin account had the seal of approval of the King James I of Aragon, the Ramban could not have been the victor.  The author acknowledges that the Ramban's written account displays the rabbis exceptional talents and calls the effort a 'Tour de force' noting that this Jewish account goes on to be one of the most popular polemics from Medieval history.

Professor Chazan relies heavily on the argument that the Latin account can not be dismissed since the King put his seal of approval on it. Dismissing it would imply impugning the integrity of the King. The professor believes that had the Latin account been a miscarriage of the truth the King would never have put his seal to it.  I find this argument weak.  Professor Chazan acknowledges in the book that the King sided with the Church, identified with the mission of the Church.  I find it hard to conceive under what conditions the King would refrain from affixing his seal since he must identify himself with Church authority.  Defiance of the monarch in opposition to the Church may manifest itself when the economic demands of the royalty or the monarch's cupidity conflict with the demands of the Church but rarely when a monarch shows his spiritual credentials identical to the Church.

The author does not like the sweeping dismissal of the Latin account by Baer.  Baer shows that in comparing the two accounts the Latin account is incredibly out of order and lacking.  Dr. Chazan is satisfied with an internal analysis without comparing the document with the Ramban's account.  He assumes the Latin account was not for a general audience and was specific to the program of missionizing of the Jews.  As such the document is considered acceptable and reasonable in Prof. Chazan's view.

The author never really investigates the question of motivating the Ramban to write his account.  When the Ramban explains that a local Bishop asked him to write one, Prof. Chazan questions the veracity of such a request.  Given the brevity and impugning of the rabbi's ability to respond in the Latin account, I find it easy to understand a local cleric desire to hear the truth from a well known Jewish leader.  Although the professor acknowledges the greatness of the Ramban as a writer, he does not give credence to his oratory public abilities.

The author dismisses the Ramban's account as a true report of the event because in the authors view Ramban inconceivably makes terribly offensive statements about Christianity and believes that with the rabbi always getting in the final word and making the apostate look foolish strains credibility. Such arguments belie ever experiencing a 'Gadol'-Giant in Torah. More simply put: A professor of chemistry can make a freshman chemistry student look very foolish.

The Ramban was not merely the local rabbi of Gerona, he was a virtuoso master of Biblical and Talmudic literature who's impact is still being felt today. His integrity for truth is felt throughout his Biblical and Talmudic exegesis.  Ramban must have realized his account would have been read by the Church, certainly by the likes of people like Paul Christian and yet he was unafraid to publish it.

One could argue that the Ramban did achieve some success by the fact that the Church strategy, its rules of engagement in  public disputation in Spain were changed and refined by the time the Tortossa dispute convened.  Those winning elements highlighted in Ramban's account are not present later.  Instead of free speech, complete controlled speech would be monitored.  Instead of one master Jewish disputant, a team of disputants would participate to make sure that no consistent response could be achieved.  And finally the choosing of an apostate who was a former rabbi fluent in the language of the Talmud to make sure that the Church would not be bested by a Jew.

For a Ramban victory, Professor Chazan expected the dismissal of Paul Christian for being incompetent and would disappear into oblivion. I believe, however, that Paul Christian continued as a  missionary not because he was successful against the Ramban, but rather his credentials as a former Jew fit too well into the Church program.  The appearance of a former Jew (without even opening his mouth) was a powerful argument in and of itself and could not be passed up by the Dominicans and Franciscans.  At such an early stage of the missionary work, Paul Christian was an invaluable commodity for the Church.


Thursday, July 5, 2012

Rabbi Israel Salanter and the Mussar Movement by Immanuel Etkes


What is striking about the Gaon Rabbi Yisroel Salanter is his originality and determination to change the Litvish Yeshiva world.  According the Etkes, we learn of the rabbi's enlightened sources, his strong opposition to the enlightenment, his strong support of Hirsch's and Hildesheimer's methods in Germany but strong opposition to bringing "Neo-Orthodoxy" to Eastern Europe.  We learn of the rabbi's depression and his failure to make a real change during his lifetime and that his personal family life is shrouded in mystery although we learn that at least one son went off the religious path.  The success of Mussar does not come to fruition until it is incorporated into the Torah elite yeshivos instituted by the rabbi's students.  Ultimately, Mussar's harsh message of Yira, Fear of Heaven, is a hard sell seen in stark contrast to Hasidism where the stress is joy.

The rabbi's original intent was to bring character development and ethical changes to the working class of the Jewish world and not to the Torah elite.  Mussar fits into the milieu of Vilna Gaon that Torah learning will ultimately refine one's character.  Yira, fear of heaven however, becomes neglected as the motivating factor in preventing sin.  In order to properly restore fear of heaven in the Torah world, Rav Salanter visioned Mussar houses for the general population and not necessarily for the Yeshivos.  This innovation was vociferously attacked as usurping the traditional Beis Midrash.

I am reminded of the story told by Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik in his signature essay Halakhic Man, that at Volozhin, Rabbi Hayim Soloveitchik rejected mussar by saying such harsh medicine is only effective when one is very sick, however, taking harsh medicine when one is healthy shall surely make one sick!  For Rabbi Soloveitchik, the learning at Volozhin was healthy and did not need the  harsh medicine of Mussar to refine one's character.  (One should keep in mind that Mussar triumphed much later in the Yeshiva world because there is not one major Lithuania type Yeshiva that has not incorporated some Mussar in its curriculum.)

We are told that Rav Salanter's inspiration came from a Maskil, a Hebrew enlightened source that actually took from Benjamin Franklin's writings!  What is clear from Professor Etkes is that Rav Salanter was opposed to the Enlightenment yet retooled some of its ideas and reformulated them into an idiom that was acceptable to the Eastern European milieu in order to curtail the Enlightenment's influence on traditional Jewish society.  For Etkes, Rabbi Salanter's career as a Jewish leader was filled with irony.

Rav Salanter approved of the teachings of Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch and met with Rabbi Ezriel Hildesheimer.  He was impressed with Hirsch's best seller "The Nineteen Letters". He saw, however, that their modern 'scientific' approach could only work in Germany where traditional Jewish life was already ravaged and assailed by the Enlightenment.  He opined that one should not subject oneself to a University environment but be auto-didactic following  the approach of the Vilna Gaon, that a Torah education should include mathematics and natural sciences.

If one compares the Mussar system to the Hasidic approach, one is struck by the contrast.  Fear of Heaven prevents sin for the Mussarnik, however, for the Hasid fear becomes the impediment to performing Mitzvos!  Self abnegation becomes an important value for the Mussarnik whereas, joy and celebration becomes the cornerstone of Torah observance for the Hasid!

Monday, July 2, 2012

Ludwig Lewisohn's The Island Within

This book was published in 1928 recently after the height of Jewish European immigration (1880-1924). It is a a powerful statement repudiating the assimilation of the American Jew.

The book is similar to I.J. Singer's The Family Carnovsky in that it is a family epic story.  The family originates in Vilna that great Jewish city and makes its way to America like so many others.  Each succeeding generation becomes more bewildered about the necessity of a Jewish identity.  The book is very dated in that Freud and Psychoanalysis are fresh, and the protagonist's lover/wife is a feminist, newly associated with women's suffrage.  She is depicted as a kind soul who does not want to be tied down to a man or family but wants to pursue her career.  What I found fascinating was the author's take on feminism.  In the words of the protagonist, a psychoanalyst, the feminist has a "inferiority complex" because she is never satisfied with her own identity as a woman and must constantly compete with a man.  The relationship starts off well and the husband is accommodating to his wife's needs.  Ultimately, the marriage fails despite the fact they are parents to a baby boy.

The interchange between immigrant father and psychoanalyst son is powerful in the acceptance of intermarriage:  The immigrant father says about intermarriage 'you will not be happy' but 'we will not be the cause of your unhappiness because we will accept and treat your wife as she is our daughter!'  So the son asks why do 'you think I will be unhappy?'  Says the father: 'They hate us.'  As the story unfolds what the father calls 'hate' turns out to be non-acceptance or a certain expectation that does not exist among family members.  Expressions like 'your kind' or 'you people' slip out innocuously.  I recall as an adolescent my excitement to share challah bread with someone I was very much enamored.  My excitement and enthusiasm turned to disappointment when her reaction was 'what's the big deal! This is just egg bread!'  For me, to call challah 'egg bread' (even though that is exactly what it is) is a diminution of a whole history!  I came to a realization as an adolescent, I could never marry out of my Jewish community.

The book's message is a powerful observation that the Jewish person should not try to be someone he is not because everyone around him sees him as a Jew.  Either there is the eternal hatred of the Jew that can not be erased or even evaded or one should realize that everyone has an ancestral history that should be welcomed and accepted and not denied.

The book is about the subtle nature of Anti-Semitism in America.  The USA does not have the deep seated open hostility and historical Anti-Semitism.  Here in a America, the words are soft and sound harmless however they have a stinging aftereffect upon reflection.

Lewisohn was a founding faculty member of Brandeis University because he experienced first hand the need for an unencumbered Jewish environment. Although I am not convinced that the book will resonate with a 21st century audience, nevertheless, there is tremendous insight into the immigrant and first generation American Jew who rushed to 'be American' at the expense of Jewish identity.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Eisenhower by Geoffrey Perret

I finished this study on the former president and general to glean some insights about America's leadership during the greatest peace time expansion of its history.

Eisenhower was the last president born in the 19th century and never seemed to accept the changes of modernity.  His strength was in his ability to understand issues and problems.  When being direct was called for he was very direct and yet, when being indirect was more advantageous, he could be very cunning.  For example, he refused to confront McCarthy during McCarty's hysteria filled communist witch hunt, fearing that confrontation would fuel McCarthy's hunger for attention.  Eisenhower was confident that McCarthy would end up burying himself in his own falsehoods.  The president comes off as a moderate and did not want to alienate his right wing faction that was feeding and supporting McCarthy.

One gets the impression that he did not like his running mate Richard Nixon.  He was concerned that Nixon would lose to Kennedy (indeed he was right) because Nixon represented bald power seeking and not driven by ideals.  The author gives the impression that somehow Eisenhower was different.  I got the impression that Eisenhower's entire life was one of seeking power.  The difference between him and Nixon was that he was better at it, smoother than Nixon.  Nixon had many more disabilities to overcome (looks, personality flaws etc.)  Eisenhower was able to control his explosive temper.  With such a famous smile, one would be hard pressed to acknowledge he exploded ever!

Eisenhower rose to the rank of general in peace time.  He exhibited an army career of patient diligence and subordination to his superiors that enabled him to rise in rank.  His affable nature helped him both as a leader and subordinate.  He is a great study in power: subordinate yourself when you have no power and use prudent judgement when you have all the power.

The reader is introduced to some great other generals.  One is introduced to Bernard Montgomery's giant ego, bruised when not given supreme command of the Allied Expeditionary Forces and to the bigoted awesome fighter, George Patton.  Although his best General as a fighter, ultimately, Eisenhower had to reassign Patton during the post war administration of Germany due to Patton's unwarranted unrestrained remarks about Jewish displaced persons. One is also told of General MacArthur's incredible arrogance.

We learn that Eisenhower did not respect President Truman even though Truman idolized the General.  Only later after public service, did he change his opinion.

The book is worthwhile only for the enthusiast; it is a dry study of one of the most powerful men in the 20th century.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Storm Over The Land by Carl Sandburg

The author gives bare sketches of the major battles of the Civil War but describes in detail the principle generals with a very sympathetic approach to Lincoln and Grant. Lincoln is the giant emancipator and redeemer - all true! Grant is the dogged commander. The sheer numbers of losses, however, boggle the mind and make one wonder about what it really means to be a general: to be willing to sacrifice great numbers of soldiers at the risk of losing a battle. McClellan stands out from the rest because of his hesitation to do battle. His confrontations are almost inadvertent.  He was dismissed by Lincoln because of that hesitation. Perhaps, he deserves a second look. Maybe McClellan was not interested in so much sacrifice of men? The Confederate Generals understood McClellan's hesitation to their advantage being very aggressive against him.   Some histories characterize him as a coward, yet, Sandburg does not agree saying that McClellan proved his bravery in the Mexican/Indian Wars.

Phil Sheridan reminds me of George Patton: energetic, passionate, brazen and fearless.  Although Robert E. Lee comes off fatherly and sage like through his circumspection about his men and the war, he prosecutes his battles with brilliance and genius. 

The book gives the impression that the South did not have a chance to win because the North outnumbered the South in men and resources.  The North basically choked off the resources of the South. Defeat of the South was then a matter of time.

Lincoln is described as a very sympathetic human being wanting to be lenient with the South at the war's conclusion, allowing for the Confederate leadership's escape to England and not desiring trials for treason.

There was something incongruous about the author's magisterial, almost romantic style about the Civil War, a most bloody affair in American History.

Monday, May 14, 2012

The Anguish of the Jews by Edward H. Flannery


This exhaustive study of Anti –Semitism brings to light an important Church doctrine: to be an Anti-Semite means to deny the Pauline doctrine of Love.  Hating Jews also means an awkward lack of identification of the experience of Christianity’s central figure since he was hated as a Jew (by the Romans.)  The author, a Catholic priest concludes that a true Christian cannot be an Anti-Semite because of the Pauline doctrine. 

A Jewish reader will find the author’s opinion that the Jewish people are complicit in encouraging or causing Anti-Semitism by their separatism somewhat disturbing.  Although the author is quick to clarify that Jewish separatism is only a secondary cause and cannot be the sole cause, he does claim that it is obvious. I would counter and say historically, even when the Jew attempted to assimilate, Jew hatred nevertheless showed its ugly face.  Separatism is certainly easy to point out, but not easy to prove nor obvious to justify vicious hatred.

Throughout the book he defends the Church against the charge that the Church is the fundamental culprit.  He proves from the ancient world of Greece and Rome predating the Church that Jew hatred was well established.   He shows that not all Churchmen were anti-Jewish.  Interestingly, Martin Luther is compared with Mohammed: each expected the Jewish people as allies and when this expectation failed to fructify, each turned vicious against the Jewish people.  During the Enlightenment there was a general assault against religion, Church included.  He shows that Hitler’s racial theory fits well into the pagan Anti – Church authority.  During WWII, the author acknowledges the Church’s silence but so was most of the world silent, making a terrible blemish on humanity. He names many individuals who fought against Hitler, saving Jews. 

The book shows that the USA never had the deep seated roots of Anti-Semitism and it never really took root, even though great Americans like Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh tried hard to poison Americans against the Jewish people.  Although there have been periods of “Gentleman’s Anti-Semitism” with restrictions in lodging and eateries and quotas in education, these actions were never popular.

The timing of the book is interesting by the fact that it comes out at the heels of Vatican II, a conference of conciliation with the Jewish people.  After giving some highly psychological interpretations of Anti-Semitism, he concludes that identifying the causes of Anti-Semitism is difficult even illusory. 
Unfortunately in the 21th century, Jew – Hatred is still part of current events, not related to the Church as much as to Islamist ideology.  The book is a fine read from a Christian point of view.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Moneyball by Michael Lewis


After finishing Moneyball by Michael Lewis, I was reminded of my own short lived high school baseball career as a pitcher.  The last year that I pitched, I had a record of 5-2 and our overall second place team finished with a 7-4 record.  My coach had a very successful strategy: in a 7 inning game, I would start for 4 or 5 innings and be replaced with a dominating closer.  After a few years out of baseball and in College, I bumped into my old coach and after a genuine warm greeting, he commented about my pitching.  Although I am sure he meant well (there was always a rapport between us) he said, “I don’t know how you were so successful for us!  You must have baffled the hitters with such slow pitches!”   I was his workhorse starter and he did not seem to understand that I threw so many different types of pitches all at different parts of the plate.  It was true that I was not like our 6’4’ fireball closer; I was short, left handed with three different fast balls (overhand, ¾ and sidearm) and three different curve balls (deliveries that came from the same way as the fast balls).  I had a sidearm curve that broke off the table that I considered my strikeout pitch.  I was a little hurt that all my coach could remember was that I threw with such little velocity. That he remembered I was successful but did not fit the mold of a classic pitcher and thus implied I was some sort of fluke was disappointing.   After reading about Billy Beane’s approach: efficient, effective and economical baseball based on statistical analysis and results, I compared myself to Chad Bradford, his unusual delivery, his effective results and felt vindicated!

The book is about prejudice and lack of creativity on the part of traditional baseball insiders versus those who see the game with a creative look of success.  The concept of getting on base to generate runs is so basic to baseball but noticing how a hitter works the pitcher is real poetry in getting to 1st base!  I think of the 1927 Yankees (Murderers Row) as the model of the establishment and how it looks for talent vs. the A’s looking for stats about who get on base every which way and make put outs every which way (like the unorthodox delivery of Chad Bradford).

Billy Beane has the recipe for creating superstars; he sees success in subtle ways through statistics when the player is unknown,  letting them develop with their own style that would have been overlooked by the establishment  because the player did not have the traditional physique of a true athlete.  At Oakland, a player develops and when he is a proven asset and just before free agency eligibility, the A’s sell his contract to the more affluent teams.   Theoretically, the player is thankful and the A’s save and make money.

Lewis’s style is philosophic.  Each paragraph is well constructed and provocative.  Many think baseball as  pastoral, slow and dull, Lewis proves, however, baseball is a business and raises the bar and intelligence quotient.  The book reinforces Vince Scully’s famous characterization that “Baseball is only as slow as the mind that watches it!”

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Abravanel by Benzion Netanyahu

I thought I would investigate the scholarship of Israel's Prime Minister's father, Professor Benzion Netanyahu by reading his contribution on Don Yitzchak Abravanel.

After a brief overview and summary of Abravanel's life, the author evaluates Abravanel's thought as it manifests itself politically, historically and religiously.  He concludes that Abravanel fits really as a Medievalist than a man of the Renaissance.

Abravanel's life was filled with tragedy: he flees his birthplace of Portugal because of a purge - he is accused of disloyalty, a claim that he vigorously denies even after there is no fear of retribution.  His service to King Ferdinand and Isabella is well received, however, Abravanel is unaware that the monarchy has been percolating to expel the Jewish people.  With masterful tact and diplomacy, Abravanel's appeal to cancel the decree of expulsion is unsuccessful.  For Don Yitzchak conversion is not an option, he decides to leave the realm with his family and brethren.  He goes to Naples and services the royal court but also has to leave and after of few other places he finally settles in Venice.

The salient features of Abravanel's scholarship was his anti-rational approach - he disagreed with Maimonides although he held Rav Saadia Gaon in very high esteem.  He generally adopted a mystical approach to history.  He developed a messianism that affected the generations that came after him. He did not believe in civil disobedience even if one suffered from an evil tyrant.  He advocated prayer, asking for the Almighty to remove the tyrant because everything comes from Gd.

Prof. Netanyahu believes that most of the conversos were not secret cryptic Jews; they willingly convert due to great persuasive tactics of the church through public sermons and public disputations.  The author sees Abravanel well versed in all the secular works of his age and places him squarely as a Medievalist and not on the verge of Modernity that brought on severe materialism and secularism.  Prof. Netanyahu does not evaluate Abravanel within the context of Jewish scholarship.   In Yeshivah circles, for example, Rabbi Chaim Dov Rabinovitz sees Abravanel's scholarly independence of the Sages as problematic.

I found this volume a fine critical analysis of one of Spanish Jewry great leaders at a very dark time of Jewish History.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Trial and Error: The Autobiography of Chaim Weizmann

What is striking about Chaim Weizmann's story is that it is providential: a young chemist making his way from Eastern Europe to Central Europe and ending up in England at the time when Zionism needs a spokesman.  His contribution to the war effort (the production of acetone) aids his entry into the upper echelons of English society and effectively convinces the Foreign Secretary to declare Britain's affinity toward the concept of a Jewish State in the ancient land of Israel.  What makes Weizmann's position so important is that the politics of the day - the British interest in the Suez Canal and the Turkish empire aligning itself with Germany in the First World War - sidelined the world Zionist leadership which was Germanic and needed to declare neutrality.  Weizmann ably convinces Britain that the Jewish people are solidly behind the Allies and with the victory against Germany there is a predisposition on the part of the British Empire to help the Jewish people now in a position to help because it controls Palestine.

As one reads this memoir, one is struck by Weizmann's steadfast belief in loyalty and diplomacy with the ever changing British policy that turned a blind's eye, even hostile to its commitment to the Balfour Declaration. He decries "Jewish Terrorism" against the British and he himself is sidelined by Zionist leadership.  He mentions his hurt at being labeled a "British Agent" on more than one occasion.  David Ben Gurion is hardly mentioned except in the context of being asked to become Israel's first president - a clear indication that there must have been serious disagreements.

He goes out of his way to mention more than once that the Peel Commission (to which he testified) proved once and for all that Jewish settlement of the land did not displace any Arab population.

The book is a fascinating study of what Weizmann calls assimilationists and Zionists.  He comes into contact with many people in England and the USA who did not believe that the Jewish people needed a State of their own.  One gets a glimpse of Weizmann's power of persuasion when is is able to convince a Felix Warburg or a Julius Rosenwald.  He mentions Rosenwald with incredulity because his philanthropies were vast and predominantly to non-Jewish causes.  Edwin Montagu, an English cabinet member stridently objects to Zionism saying that he is English and belongs in England and not Palestine.

What I gleaned from Weizmann's perspective was his insight on the conflict within Zionism between the assimilationists and the Eastern European faction as it manifested in the Uganda option.  There was a clear difference of opinion about the fundamental role of Zionism.  Some like Herzl believed that Zionism was fundamentally a solution and refuge from Antisemitism.  Others like Weizmann believed that Zionism was fundamentally a nationalistic cultural movement toward the re-unification of the historical association of the Land of Israel and the People of Israel.  For refuge, Uganda certainly made sense but for a re-unification of the People of Israel with the land of Israel it made no sense.  Weizmann argued that even if one would concede that Uganda was only an interim solution, it was naive to believe that once the Jewish people would have a functioning state (of Uganda) that eventually they would get the land of Israel.  The nations, he argued, would always say "why do you need Palestine, you already have a state!" For the Eastern European Jews who were imbued with Yiddish, Hebrew and religious literature, Zionism needed to be much more than a refuge.  As a result of this disagreement, however, some assimilationists broke away like Louis D. Brandeis in America and author Israel Zangwill in England.

This book is an important contribution to the study of Zionism and a dramatic build up to the State of Israel.















Sunday, March 25, 2012

When General Grant Expelled the Jews by Jonathan D. Sarna

The great Civil War general according to his wife Julia issued an 'obnoxious' order expelling Jewish citizens from the general's war zone.  His general order no. 11 became an infamous rallying point for the American Jewish community to accuse U. S. Grant of prejudice against the Jewish people.  In Professor's Sarna's new book one reads a great narrative that rehabilitates Grant.  One sees that Grant overcame his blunder and went on appoint more Jewish people during his administration that ever before.

General Grant became frustrated with speculators and opportunists that exploited the changes in prices between the North and South.  Many of the those traders were Jewish merchants and the General banned the Jews as a "class" of people.  It was an outrageous charge, a generalization that could not possibly reflect the whole truth.

In reading this history, I was reminded of a theme mentioned by Rabbi Chaim Dov Rabbinovitz from his The History of the Jewish People, that Jewish heroism comes out of anonymity.  One anonymous Jew, named Cesar Kaskel, an immigrant from Germany dwelling in Paducah, Kentucky was issued the order having to leave the department within 48 hours.  Kaskel went straight to Washington DC to appeal to President Lincoln! He was not a famous rabbi or personality, only a simple person feeling the absolute injustice of the order.  The famous rabbi sees the president only later after the president rescinded the order.

This volume is a wonderful introduction to 19th century American Jewry where one is introduced to many major figures: Isaac M. Wise, Isaac Leeser, the Seligmann brothers, Simon Wolf and others.  We understand the empathy of Abraham Lincoln, moreover, we see Grant make great efforts to overcome his blunder and make long lasting relationships among the Jewish community.  The volume is a testament to this country's commitment to civil rights and liberties and how the Jewish people fit into its fabric.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Righteous Victims: A history of the Zionist-Arab conflict 1881-2001 By Benny Morris

If one would have an ax to grind against Zionism, Benny Morris' fine history could be easily taken out of context and misused to slam some famous Zionists.  In this hefty well written and well researched book one finds Ben Gurion opining for 'transfer' and Begin not wanting to give up an inch of Judea and Samaria.  We find Sharon instilling fear in his opponents because of his successful career as a soldier.  We read of Rabin being dressed down by his mentor Ben Gurion and about the courage of Ehud Barack for willing to deal and attempt to make peace with Arafat.

Morris sets out by explaining his unique approach: he will rely on the narratives and sources that are available to him and attempt to use their voice.  This could explain why the Palestinian narrative sounds sympathetic.  The author is less critical of Arafat then some of the Zionist counterparts.  His theme assumes that both sides have legitimate claims. Both sides have righteous victims.

Morris deals with many questions that have become flashpoints in the conflict.  For example, he discusses the dispossession of Palestinians.  He clarifies that the process of Jewish colonization of the Land Israel in the beginning was not a typical imperialistic push for conquest.  The evidence is very clear that the Zionists legally purchased land from absentee owners, much of it swamp without dispossession.  He mentions tenant farmers being legally terminated, however, the real dispossession of people did not occur until the War of Independence clearly initiated by invading truculent irredentist Arab neighbors.  War creates refugees.  (Israel's founding includes the absorption of Jewish refugees.)  Curiously the concept of Pan Arab-ism does not allow the absorption of Arab refugees to neighboring countries due to Arab irredentism and intransigence, a strident attitude not to compromise.

What I find extraordinary are Morris' concluding remarks.  As a critical historian with great ability to appreciate nuance and subtlety, he calls the Zionist enterprise nothing less than 'miraculous'!  He marvels at the speed, success and contribution of the State of Israel and concludes that it is Israel that is winning this conflict without predicting the future.  When the opportunities have presented themselves for peace, it has been the Palestinians who have allowed them to pass by.  The Israelis, however, may moan and groan but they make peace.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Lies my Teacher Told me: Everything Your American History textbook got wrong by James W. Loewen

The first half of this book was fascinating in evaluating High School American History books and takes on the 18th and 19th centuries by showing that most Histories fail miserably in discussing the truth about Native Americans.  The concept of Manifest Destiny really meant the decimation of Native Americans.  Native Americans were wrongfully called "savages" and were really responsible for European settlement survival.

The author is brutal against patriotic textbooks at the expense of accuracy and truth.  When the author discusses the 20th century, however, I felt there seemed to be a bias in favor of Democratic administrations.  For example, JFK's flaws are revealed almost grudgingly. The author believes in the class struggle of the poor against the rich but does not touch upon how the Asian or Jewish immigrant communities brought themselves out of poverty.

The author also questions the American Foreign policy and believes that Middle east hatred would be due to the America/ Israel alliance.  Unfortunately, like so many Americans, there is a lack of understanding of the relationship of the Islam and the West.  For example, since the founding of the Marine Corps during the time of Thomas Jefferson, the USA has confronted a hostile Middle East.  Thinking that Israel is the problem is far too simplistic and historically not true. According to the scholarship of Bernard Lewis Islam's relationship toward the West and Christendom should be understood as a percolation toward conquest.

I thought the book was provocative and has taught me to be more skeptical and cautious in teaching history texts.  One always has to look for bias and attitude; there is no such history text that is "objective" including this one!

 

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Blessing of a Skinned Knee and Blessings of a B- by Wendy Mogel, Phd.

Although there is some solid psychology and some good advice in these books, I can't recommend them.  I had serious problems with the author's methodology. She brings an array of opinions that comes off more as a hodge-podge than a systematic study of Jewish sources.  What she cites is often only what she can tolerate (example: Traditional Judaism is generally good like Shabbos dinner; yet the role of the woman she can't see bringing into her home for her daughters.) She does not hesitate to cite Abraham Twersky, Miriam Adahan, and Mordechai Finley (a Reform rabbi from LA) in the same breath!  She can cite Chazal along with the gentile British psychologist Winnencott as if there is parity!!  Her chapter on G-d was for me absolute rubbish!  There is no reason to mention Jesus in a book that showcases rabbinic ideas no matter how cute the quote is from a child!  Most of the chapter discussed doubt about G-d and even justified questioning G-d's existence as if somehow that was a Jewish tradition!  All of her issues about Judaism come out in this book when read carefully.  I see much Southern California hang ups in it.  The book would have been better if it would have reflected Yiras Shomayim, fear of Heaven! But there was NONE.
     This book was written by someone whose own practice as a therapist plunged her into crisis and instead of finding a solution to her problems as a therapist changed course and now lectures as "an expert" so she does not have to suffer actual and real problems of children!  She justifies what she does by calling it "preventative mental health."  It is not preventative mental health but rather parent education pure and simple!!  She has to somehow relate what she does now to her former practice as a therapist! She is being highfalutin by calling parent education as preventative mental health.  I would rather recommend Twersky, Adahan or even Winnecott over this book and certainly not any sequel because at least I know that with those other authors I am getting a consistent message. 
           Nevertheless, the sequel is just as painful to read because of the mistakes in Jewish tradition like informing us that the mitzva of taking the lulav is at night!  She utilizes a famous rabbinic trait of citing the source from whom she heard the story, however, to cite a story from the public domain in the name of a particular Rabbi gives the incorrect impression that the rabbi is the original source of the story.
            As I said from the outset, the simple psychology in the books is solid; it's common sense: allow your children to learn from their mistakes and experiences and don't shelter them so much.  Allow them to experience the consequences of their actions so that they may learn from them. The books' uniqueness of citing the Rabbinic wisdom on the subject is, however, disappointing to one familiar with the tradition.