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Ever-Dying People: Review of Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer


by: Brian Bouldrey on October 13th, 2016 | No Comments »

Here I Am, A Novel, Jonathan Safran Foer

Jacob Bloch, the grandson of Isaac, a survivor of the camps, and Julia, an architect who has never had her designs built, have three sons: Sam, Max, and Benjy, wise and lovely kids. Jacob’s father Irv is an outspoken enemy of Arab states and his opinions lean on the rest of the family: his blog manifestos are pretty much the opposite of what you would find in Tikkun. They all live in Washington, DC. Sam, the eldest of the Bloch children, is studying for his bar mitzvah, but has been caught writing a list of vile racial epithets, quite out of his character, but perhaps under the influence of his grandfather.

The rabbi brings Julia and Jacob in to discuss their son’s sin, and threatens to disallow Sam’s bar mitzvah, a much anticipated event that arguably keeps great-grandfather Isaac alive. Sam claims he did not do it, though the words are in his handwriting. Jacob, his father, believes Sam. Julia, his mother, does not. This is the first sign of a rift in their sixteen-year marriage, one that has been full of love, tradition, organic mattresses, and goofy and touching family rituals. And then Julia finds a burner cell phone that Jacob has been hiding from her, full of filthy texts to another woman. “There is not a single story about a cell phone that ends well,” a friend cautions Julia, but that doesn’t mean the story isn’t a great one.

Meanwhile, in the Middle East, a massive earthquake has devastated Israel and all the Arab States, which escalates tensions to the brink of warfare before our very eyes. Family friends of the Blochs, a sort of mirror family with Tamir, Rivka, and their sons Noam and Barak, live in Israel; and while Noam has just started his commitment to the Israeli army, Tamir and Barak come to Washington for Sam’s bar mitzvah, and the earthquake leaves them stranded, while Noam heads to battle.

This is epic stuff, but always written at close quarters. While marriage, families, and the nation of Israel explode outward, the tensions and conflicts are carried out in chambers, conversations, and imaginations. Julia retreats to her architectural drawings of homes she dreams of building. Jacob labors on his unproduced television program, the ruefully-titled, Ever-Dying People. And in a game called “Other Life”, which recalls The Sims (“it’s not a game!” protests Sam), Sam pretends to be other people and builds and destroys a series of virtual synagogues.

As each family member withdraws into the generation of private paraphernalia, life, for the Blochs, heads resolutely toward one of those moments most people would do anything to avoid. In Here I Am, Sam claims he is not destroying his synagogues, but “carving a space out of a larger space.” In essence, this is what Foer is doing with this great quarrelsome, painful, thoughtful, fearful, and at times, very funny novel. Reading Here I Am is not unlike attending a raucous seder where everybody got invited and everybody came.

“‘Judaism,’ explains a rather unwelcome new rabbi in his unexpectedly moving eulogy at the grave of a character that has been killed by one of these conflicts, ‘has a special relationship with words. Giving a word to a thing is to give it life. “Let there be light,” God said, “and there was light.” No magic. No raised hands and thunder. The articulation made it possible. It is perhaps the most powerful of all Jewish ideas: expression is generative.’” Readers may wrestle with, or nod at, the generative expressions throughout this novel, but these too, the arguments and the agreements the reader might contribute, are also part of the generation – Foer’s novel is not a podium speech; it is a conversation. There is, here, something of the great Yiddish tradition of folktales, a kind of oblong realism marked with exaggeration and exclamation marks, both of which are joyfully plentiful in the novel.

And every form of generative expression imaginable is sewn together in order to tell this story. Rabbinical eulogies, Model UN debates, bar mitzvah speeches, yarns, rants, manifestos, text conversations, television scripts, radio interviews, presidential speeches, declarations of independence and war, rumors, whispered secrets, prayers, psalms, poems, eulogies, dirty talk. In a year of politically brain-dead megaphones and outraged one-way tweets, the novel’s vitality comes not from jacked up pronouncements but invitations for real conversation, which is sorely needed these days. Irv likes to have his grandchildren argue any point of their choosing; the boys try to convince Irv that people shouldn’t have pets, that escalators encourage obesity, and that it’s okay to swat flies, and if he likes the debate he’s had with them, he gives them five dollars. Jacob sets up a little postal system with his boys in the house to deliver messages. Sam wants carrier pigeons. Jacob secretly knows American Sign Language. Every member of this family wants, more than anything, to communicate, and they will go to any lengths to do so – and this is the generative expression of Here I Am.

Among all the genres and subgenres of writing, those meant to be said aloud, those things of rhetoric that are forms of persuasion, they are not as often taught or sorted out in writing courses or criticism. Yet the transformation, as they are placed on the page and brought back to life by the reader, is vital. Foer, whose prose is known for its energy and enthusiasm, gives over his own intelligence and ideas to his characters, so that none of this feels like soapboxing, but conversational, confiding. Though there are many oral deliveries in Here I Am, none are “apostrophes” – addresses to somebody absent – always and even, a speech or eulogy or list of naughty words is addressed to other people, both invented, fictive people and readers, too, real people who look for the experience of conversational intimacy when opening a book, even a big epic book.

Through all these natural conversational and storytelling forms, Foer fashions what looks like realism, but of the sort Iris Murdoch would generate with her many chatty educated bourgeoisie characters. Murdoch will suddenly thwart her own realism and have the narrative climbing into a dog’s head, before the reader realizes that they’re reading something fantastical, taken for real. Foer, too, in the midst of so much talk and will cast into an imagined future, or an event far away in Israel with people we don’t know. And it is worth saying that Argos, the Bloch’s aging pet, is as important as Murdoch’s sentient dogs.

There are only a few places where the endless invention falters, in which the characters are not much more than talking heads, specifically in a cannabis-driven conversation between Tamir and Jacob, one representing a love for homeland, the other for home; An American Jew and an Israeli Jew, having it out. Though the subjects are important in this long scene – what is more important, love or belief? Between people and in God? – This didacticism is brief but perhaps glaring in a book that is artful and seems artless.

There is much written and sermonized about “hineni“, the “Here I Am” that represents Isaac’s binding, and is also the prayer offered at Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, almost everybody will have heard many sermons on the story and will have their own, strong opinions about it. But this is the strength of Foer’s conversational mode – all opinions are welcome. Perhaps one worth bringing up here is Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who distinguishes Jewish belief from Kierkegaard’s Christian take on Abraham in Fear and Trembling when he says, “Christianity is a leap of faith; Judaism is a leap of action.” Tamir the Israeli pushes Jacob toward the leap of action, but Jacob builds a house of words.

The battles in earthquake-wrecked Israel provide a backdrop of escalating tension, and the possibility of losing it to both natural and man-made disaster. Foer’s families, both American and Israeli, quarrel and agree on what must be done and not done for Zion, and why. Because this is a story about talking and the tools of talking, Foer is engaged in the simultaneous rebirth of Hebrew and Israel. Consider all the territories and protectorates of the world in which the language requires a land – Catalunya, Basque Country, Navajo. On the other hand, Foer points out, all the languages that were ever created to be ideal, like Esperanto or those made of colors or pictures, these “perfect” languages have never been spoken. Language is culture, and culture needs homeland.

“Eliezer Ben-Yehuda single-handedly revived Hebrew. Unlike most Zionists, he wasn’t passionate about the creation of the State of Israel so that his people would have a home. He wanted his language to have a home. He knew that without a state – without a place for Jews to haggle, and curse, and create secular laws, and make love – the language wouldn’t survive. And without a language, there wouldn’t ultimately be a people.” The Israel of Ben-Yehuda is the Israel Foer is willing to fight for.

Homes and homelands alike, synagogues and Wailing Walls, both imagined and real, are destroyed but built again. The Wailing Wall is, after all, already a vital ruin. That four generations of fathers and sons who dwell in fantasies of worst case scenarios can be presented with a real worst-case scenario – an earthquake, a divorce – and find a way to rebuild, again and again, that is both the wedding and the funeral that Here I Am celebrates.



Brian Bouldrey is the author of eight books and the editor of seven anthologies, including the forthcoming Inspired Journeys: Travel Writers in Search of the Muse, which will be published by University of Wisconsin Press in November. He teaches literature and writing at Northwestern University.

The Practice


by: Boo Geisse on October 11th, 2016 | No Comments »

The practice is not downward facing dog.

The practice is not ragdoll.

The practice is not stretching hamstrings, strengthening quads.

The practice is love. The practice is learning how to love.

It is messy; it’s beautiful in its nonconformist way. It’ll break you down – visible in the sweat, audible in the huffing of breath.

The practice is not utthita hasta padangustasana. The practice is not standing split or reverse half moon. It’s not a pigeon in which both hips hit the floor. The practice is not looking beautiful while you transition from chaturanga to updog, or feeling invincible in warrior II.

The practice is love. The practice is learning to look for love.

A lighthouse on a hill.


The Big, Orange Shofar


by: Mike Rothbaum on October 10th, 2016 | No Comments »

Donald Trump shouting with an orange face.

If Donald Trump’s campaign was hoping for strong support from American Jews, they are surely disappointed. Trump’s support among Jewish voters is at an historically low 19%. There is an active website with contributions from rabbis and Jewish leaders called jewsagainsttrump.com. The Jewish social justice organization Bend the Arc has shared a satirical video of Jewish grandparents threatening to haunt their offspring if they vote for Trump. Rabbis, normally fearful of running afoul of congregants and IRS regulations, are openly considering speaking against the man on the High Holidays.

For many Jews, the choice is obvious. Trump’s use of xenophobic language about Latinos plays to white America’s basest instincts. His record of slurs against women he finds unattractive is shameful; and his boasting about assaulting women he does find attractive even more so. He all but bragged at the first Presidential debate about his record of shady business ethics. His proposals for a “shutdown” of immigration from Muslim nations calls to mind the religious bigotry that has plagued Jewish communities over the centuries. And there is, of course, the stereotypical Jew-hatred Trump himself shared in a room of Jews, during a meeting with the Republican Jewish Coalition, in which he referred to Jews as deal “negotiators” and claimed we would not support him “because I don’t want your money.”

For Jews, of course, this isn’t just election time. It’s also the Yamim Noraim, the awesome days in which we are invited to confront our own failings and shortcomings. A key part of that process is the sounding of the shofar. The cry of the shofar is designed to wake us up from our ethical slumber, an alarm clock of the conscience.

So while it may make us feel good, or even smug, to say that we’re better than Mr. Trump, to do so would miss the point of this time of year. Our reaction to Trump’s candidacy, instead, is an invitation to look at our own actions, as individuals and in Jewish community. What if we saw him not just as a man who evokes hatred and fear, but as a walking talking wake-up call, a big orange shofar reminding us to get our own houses in order? Consider the following:

  • Racism and xenophobia. Most Jews are rightly outraged by Trump’s shocking comments about Mexicans, and his support of racist stop-and-frisk policing initiatives. But what is our record as Jews? Do we respect and honor the 1-in-5 Jews in our communities who are Jews of color? Do we actively support Jews of color taking leadership positions? Do Ashkenazi Jews say “we Jews” when we really mean “white Jews?” Do we ensure our publicity materials and school textbooks feature Jews of color? If we are employers and landlords, do we give fair consideration to people of color as employees and renters? Do we challenge a criminal justice system that unfairly and disproportionately targets people of color?
  • Sexism and misogyny. Trump’s comments about women are despicable. But they reflect a culture that too often judges women’s worth by their appearance. How do we challenge that culture? Do we pressure Jewish women to “look pretty” so they can “find a husband?” Do we challenge gender roles that shut women out of our most cherished Jewish rituals? Do we raise up young girls to be scholars? Do our congregations consider women as rabbinical candidates? Do we challenge congregants who say they could “never pray with a woman rabbi,” or who judge the women who do serve as rabbis on the basis of their hair and clothes?
  • Business Ethics. Trump made jaw-dropping comments boasting how it was “smart business” not to pay contractors and skirt his tax obligations. How do we fare on that score? Do we see paying workers and supporting the public good as the mitzvot that they are? Do we take seriously the volumes of Jewish learning regarding business ethics, or subordinate those teachings to “more important” mitzvot like kashrut and Shabbat observance? Do we see supporting civil society and keeping “honest scales” as the holy obligations that they are?
  • Islamophobia.  While we’re right to challenge Jew-hatred and ensure our safety and the safety of our children, do we do what we can to make sure that doesn’t slide into bigotry? Do we criticize Muslim Jew-hatred and give a pass to the Jew-hatred that comes from our Christian neighbors? Have we made the effort to meet the Muslims who live in our towns, go to our schools, work in our offices?
  • Jew-hatred. Trump’s snide remarks about Jewish “negotiators” were rightly condemned. But how many times have we heard the same language used within the walls of our own homes and communities? Do we make the easy joke about Jews being cheap? When we hear our kids make these kinds of jokes, do we challenge our children to love themselves and take pride in their remarkable heritage of learning, personal and social ethics, and tzedakah?

One last thought. Donald Trump is, sadly, not the only one to make regrettable comments during this election season. While it pales in comparison to Trump’s despicable record, it was nonetheless disappointing that Hillary Clinton labeled half of Trump’s supporters as a “basket of deplorables.” Racism, homophobia, and xenophobia are, indeed, deplorable. But there is a difference between labeling actions deplorable, and writing off people as deplorable. To take Judaism seriously, and to take the process of teshuvah seriously, means to reject the idea that people are irredeemable.  To her credit, Clinton has since apologized for the statement.

“Free will is granted to all,” wrote the Rambam, the renowned medieval Jewish commentator. “There is no one who can prevent a person from doing good or bad,” he continued. We ourselves decide “whether to be learned or ignorant, compassionate or cruel, generous or miserly.”

As the new year dawns, and the election season mercifully comes to a close, may we commit to making ourselves and our communities learned, compassionate, and generous. And having done so, may we commit to bringing that same spirit to our neighbors, or towns, and — God willing — our whole world.

A slightly different version of this article was first published in The Blogs section on The Times of Israel and reprinted with their permission.


Rabbi Mike Rothbaum serves as Bay Area Co-Chair for Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice, and lives withhis husband, Anthony Russell, in Oakland. He has been extensively involved with faith-based social justice organizations, and spoken widely at conferences and rallies, from Moishe House to the House of Representatives. His writing and speaking has been featured in Tikkun, the Huffington Post, KQED radio, CNN, and Zeek.


Come Celebrate High Holidays with Tikkun and Rabbi Michael Lerner in Berkeley this Octoberby Staci Askelrod

An Autopsy of the Bernie Sanders Campaign by Dan Brook

Reflections on Yom Kippur and Mideast Peaceby Ron Hirsch

Minorityphobia: A Letter to American Minorities


by: Nazir Harb Michel and Murali Balaji on October 10th, 2016 | No Comments »

Dear Fellow Minorities,

We are not writing this piece as individuals. We are not even writing this as Brown people in America or members of the Islamic or Hindu faiths. We’re not writing this as academics or researchers or activists.

Rather, we’re writing this as minorities to all our fellow minorities in America. But we also hope that those of you in the majority are paying attention because this concerns us all.

We Have To Stop The Circular Firing Squad of Inter-Minority Prejudice and Violence Right Now

As we are living through this nasty spike in anti-Muslim rhetoric and attacks, we need to keep in mind that the incidents are increasing, not decreasing, as we near the November elections. So far in 2016, there’s been an attack against Muslims in the U.S. every 13 hours. And it’s important that we realize as minorities that these attacks, which seem to target Muslim immigrants, aren’t shouldered by the American Muslim or Middle Eastern communities alone. They’re affecting other minorities too.


Jacob Neusner: In Memoriam


by: Shaul Magid on October 10th, 2016 | No Comments »

Jacob Neunser (1932-2016) died early shabbat morning of Shabbat Shuva, the Shabbat between Rosh Ha-Shana and Yom Kippur.

The New York Times called him the most published individual in history. In his excellent book, Jacob Neusner: An American Jewish Iconoclast (NYU Press, 2016) Aaron Hughes suggests he is the greatest Jewish scholar of Judaism born in the United States. Whether either of these claims are true, and they are certainly reasonably so, he was surely one of the most towering figures in the study of Judaism in the past half century.


Overcoming High Holiday Hypocrisy


by: Gabi Kirk on October 7th, 2016 | 1 Comment »

During the High Holidays, Jews chant Ashamnu, the confession of our sins. We beat our chests and ask God for forgiveness, for we have been hypocritical, we have turned away from the truth, we have stolen, we have lied. We are responsible for our own wrongdoings, but collectively we are also responsible for the ills of our society. Many synagogues add specific contemporary sins to the traditional list – gun violence, global warming, poverty – but few synagogues, at this time of year or any other, admit the American Jewish institutional community’s role in upholding Israel’s military occupation, though we have had nearly 50 years to admit, atone, and change.

We have been hypocritical in supporting equality at home but injustice in Israel/Palestine. Growing up, I learned of Jews marching for civil rights for black communities in the American South, standing with Cesar Chavez and the Filipino and Chicano farm workers’ boycott, and working to end apartheid in South Africa. I was never told that Israel maintains a separate system of military law over millions of Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, who are subject to separate courts and prisons with a nearly 100% conviction rate. When I learned how Israel “rescued” Ethiopian and Yemeni Jews, I was never told of the deep racial hierarchies present within Jewish Israeli society.


The King is the Field – Chabad Insights on the Divinity of Creation


by: David Seidenberg on September 29th, 2016 | No Comments »

During the High Holidays, we strive to fashion our heart to become a dwelling place for God in the physical, earthly realm – a dirah batachtonim. However, the earliest aggadic (storytelling) midrash, Genesis Rabbah (fourth or fifth century), taught that “the root/essence of God’s presence was in the lower creatures /`iqar Shekhinah batachtonim haytah.” (19:7)

If the Shekhinah, the indwelling presence of God, was essentially in all creatures, how did we arrive at the idea that the primary dwelling place of God was within the human heart? This is the journey I would like to share below.

According to Genesis Rabbah, even though the Shekhinah was interwoven with the physical world from the beginning, human sin drove the presence of God further and further away from the world. This alienation was “put into practice,” so to speak, in later midrashic texts. Midrash Y’lamdeinu, in opposition to Genesis Rabbah, taught in the sixth or seventh century that humanity was supposed to be the locus of God’s presence in this world, and that this is what it means for us to be “rulers batachtonim.” (Batey Midrashot 1, B’reishit 9) If Genesis Rabbah describes how sin generated the flight of Shekhinah from a world that was once full of God’s presence, Y’lamdeinu describes instead a world which was never the home of Shekhinah.


A Family Story: John Singer Sargent’s Mrs. Carl Meyer and Her Children


by: Roslyn Bernstein on September 27th, 2016 | No Comments »


John Singer Sargent’s Mrs. Carl Meyer and Her Children

The Jewish Museum

September 16, 2016-February 5, 2017

New York City, New York


Adele Meyer never crossed the Atlantic. Married to Carl Meyer, a Jewish financier who was named the Baronet of Shortgrove in 1910, she led a life of privilege as a philanthropist in the arts and as a hostess, both in London and at Shortgrove, her 1000-acre country estate in Essex.

How fitting, then, that John Singer Sargent’s masterful portrait of the Meyer family, Mrs. Carl Meyer and Her Children (1896), not seen in the United States for the past 10 years and on loan from the Tate Britain, has now been installed in a gallery at the Jewish Museum that was once the dining room of the Felix Warburg Mansion. Warburg, like Meyer was a distinguished banker of German Jewish origin.

Organized by Norman L. Kleeblatt, the Susan and Elihu Rose Chief Curator with Lucy H. Partman, Curatorial Assistant, the exhibit focuses on the Meyers’ portrait, one that Kleeblatt describes as having “near cinematic status.” The painting was shown at the Royal Academy’s 1897 exhibition and subsequently at the Copley Society of Boston in 1899. In 1900, it was awarded a medal of honor at the Exposition Universelle in Paris.

John Singer Sargent, Elsie Meyer, 1908, charcoal on paper. Private collection

Now, building on the painting’s international reputation and resembling an archeological dig or excavation, the show unearths a cache of other works and documents related to the Meyer family, as well as ancillary material, from the personal and intimate to the banal, that illuminates their life in high and popular culture. “Here is a whole family story,” Kleeblatt said, “with John Singer Sargent and Adele Meyer as co-conspirators in this work.” The exhibit is the first in a series that will showcase one work or a group of masterpieces, by examining the larger context of a work of art.

The excavation began during Kleeblatt’s initial networking session at the Tate Britain, when one of the curators there rather casually mentioned that there was someone working as a curator at another museum who was a relative of the Meyers. So, he discovered Tessa Murdoch, Deputy Keeper at The Victoria and Albert Museum (Department of Sculpture, Metalwork, Ceramics and Glass), and also a great granddaughter of Mrs. Meyer, and a granddaughter of Frank Meyer. Adele Meyer bequeathed the painting to the Tate with life rights for two generations.

With Murdoch’s help, Kleeblatt discovered two drawings by Sargent, who stopped portrait painting in 1908, but whom the family clearly continued to patronize: one, from 1908, of Adele’s daughter Elsie Charlotte – looking very much like a Gibson Girl, and the other, from 1909, of her sister Cecile Von Fleischl. The Carl Meyer portrait in the exhibit is the work of Sir Hubert von Herkomer, a well-known portrait painter from the period.


Come Celebrate High Holidays with Tikkun and Rabbi Michael Lerner in Berkeley this October


by: Staci Akselrod on September 15th, 2016 | 1 Comment »

A dictionary open to the definition of love. Source: Flickr (Il Mago di Oz).

Dear Reader,

Would you be interested in experiencing High Holiday services that combine a Judaism of Love and Justice with deep spirituality? Rabbi Michael Lerner, our spiritual leader, leads our community in a serious teshuvah process (which we understand as both inner transformation and societal transformation). He teaches that the prayers are only cheerleading for the process – the real work has to happen in our own lives in the ten days from Rosh HaShanah (which starts Sunday night, October 2) to the conclusion of Yom Kippur (on Wednesday, October 12th). This combination of services plus engagement in teshuvah is such an extraordinary experience that I’m willing to give you your money back if you attend all the services, do all elements of the teshuvah process that Rabbi Lerner lays out, and don’t feel that it was really amazing and transformative! And please tell your non-Jewish friends about this as well – you don’t have to be Jewish to get a huge amount of psychological and spiritual nourishment and even have a transformative experience by going through the process with us. True, some of the prayers are in Hebrew, but there’s enough English so that non-Jews who have come in the past have told us that the experience was just as powerful for them as it was for the Jews who participate.


Bal Taschit: What’s Wrong With the Jewish Law Against Destruction and Waste — and How to Fix It


by: David Seidenberg on September 8th, 2016 | 5 Comments »

[Managing Editor's note: The spirit of David Seidenberg's insightful Torah commentary (below) is directly related to The Environmental & Social Responsibility Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, a call by The Network of Spiritual Progressives for a radical change in policy about how corporations interact with the environment. Join us at www.spiritualprogressives.org.]

Commentary on this week’s Torah portion – Shoftim

In Deuteronomy, we encounter one of the deepest principles in Jewish law: “When you lead a siege against a city many days … you may not destroy any tree of hers, to hew an ax against it, for from it you will eat, and you may not cut it off! Is the tree of the field a person, to come before you in the siege? Only a tree that you know is not a tree for food, that one you may destroy and cut off, and build siegeworks …” (20:19-20)

For the rabbis and later codes, the rule not to destroy fruit trees in war became an overarching principle, “do not destroy,” bal tashchit. If even in a time of war one could not destroy fruit trees, all the more should one not destroy or waste anything under normal circumstances.

Mainstream Jewish environmentalism in the early days began and ended as a paean to bal tashchit, the prohibition against destroying anything. How far have we come in Jewish environmentalism and ecotheology in the past forty-plus years? How we interpret the prohibition of bal tashchit is a good litmus test. Here’s why: