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Thoughts on Philip Roth: America, Jew, Male


by: Shaul Magid on May 30th, 2018 | No Comments »

Author Philip Roth at this UWS home. Image Courtesy of Wolf Gang

By Shaul Magid (and please also read the afterword by Rabbi Michael Lerner with another and somewhat critical reflection on Roth after the bio of Shaul Magid below)

Why did it matter so much to me and so many others like me that Phillip Roth has left this world? When I first heard the news in the early hours of a late spring morning, I felt a kind of shudder like a window had closed suddenly and the air quality changed just a bit. He was, of course, a gifted writer and an American literary icon, but why does it really matter more than when other great literary figures leave this world?But there was something about Roth for anyone who really came to life in postwar America that is different. He often said he hated the term Jewish writer and always denied he was one. He identified simply as a writer and said “If I am not American I am nothing at all.” And yes, and yet. His use, manipulation, parody, obsession, subversion, and yes even diabolical love of Jewishness and Judaism made him one of the great Jewish writers in the past century at least. He is equal in my view to Shalom Aleichem or Shai Agnon, although painting a different world, for different people, of different Jews.

His Jewishness reminds me of what Hannah Arendt said she was asked what she thought of being a Jew, she replied, “Well, I c

But what was Roth really saying to us…about being Jewish. First, it is that in today’s America, there is nothing to hide about being Jewish. He believed in America and he believed Jews were deeply a part of America. In the early 60s whenGoodbye Columbuswas first published he claimed he was booed at Yeshiva University, after being invited to speak there, and rabbinic leaders there tried to use their muscle to derail his literary career by writing to his publisher. One of the rabbis said, “In the Middle Ages they knew what to do with people like Roth.” (Steve Zipperstein’s May 28thessay inThe Forward“Phillip Roth’s Forgotten Tape” writes that the reception at YU was not nearly a negative as Roth portrayed it). Gershom Scholem said ofPortnoy’s Complaint, “This will be worse for the Jews than theProtocols of the Elders of Zion.” And yet, the way in which Jack Kerouac or Normal Mailer or Truman Capote or Tom Wolfe meant something to the emerging counter-culture in the 1960s, Roth opened up a way for Jews in those years that they no longer needed to be in hiding. Yes, we had Malamud, and Howe, and Bellow, and Singer, but Roth was more subversive and more tempting. Roth pushed the boundaries in different and arguably more disturbing ways. The unveiling of Jewish neurosis for all to see, the queering of stereotypes to make them comical and then fascial, and then banal. The ability to laugh and feel suddenly naked, and then laugh at that too, that was a gift Roth gave us.an’t think of being anything else.” So while Roth may have denied being a Jewish writer, he was a writer who spoke to Jews in a way that was similar but different than the way he spoke to everyone else the same way that Toni Morrison speaks to blacks in a way different than the way she can he heard by whites. But for both Roth and Morrison it is all in the context of being an American, quintessentially so.


Nine Stops on a Long Road: One Jew’s Journey


by: Judith Mahoney Pasternak on May 21st, 2018 | 8 Comments »

1. The Yom Kippur Transgression

Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is the holiest day in the Jewish calendar. Religious Jews fast and pray all day, focusing on repenting the sins of the past year.

On the Yom Kippur before my sixteenth birthday, I was at the neighborhood drugstore-soda fountain, probably buying cigarettes.

I wasn’t supposed to be there. I was supposed to be at home, not to fast or think about atoning for anything, but to stand with all Jews by not publicly flouting the Yom Kippur practice.

It was in the decades after World War II. The Jewish High Holy Days were not yet school holidays even in New York State, with its large Jewish population. American Jews were still assimilating. The process had been accelerated by the war and the Holocaust, the genocide attempted and almost achieved by Germany’s Third Reich, yet those same events made us more than ever conscious of our Jewish identity. So it was that my mother, daughter of two militantly secular, even anti-religious, socialist-anarchist Russian Jews, kept her children home from school on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur as a sign of respect for, and solidarity with, observant Jews. My visit to the drugstore was behind her back, sneaking out for something I needed, which is why I think it must have been cigarettes.

Suddenly, a voice behind me said, “Judy! What are you doing here?” It was a Jewish high-school classmate, and when I said I was getting cigarettes, she added, “No, why aren’t you in school?”

“It’s Yom Kippur,” I said. If I was breaking the rules, so was she.

“But Judy,” she protested, “you look so Catholic!”

She was mixing up religion and ethnicity. She meant I looked Irish, which I did, because I am. Half Irish, also half Jewish. Standing in the aisle at the drugstore, I explained that to my classmate. Then I went home and announced that for my upcoming birthday I wanted a gold Star of David and a chain to wear it on. I got it and wore it for years afterward, wanting never again to be taken for not Jewish.


2. My Mother’s Hagadahs

The Hagadah is the account of the Jews’ servitude in Egypt and escape – exodus – from it, traditionally retold during the Passover dinners called seders.

To be precise, I’m half Jewish by matrilineal ancestry, if not by religion, which gets me the Right of Return under Israeli law and would have gotten me death in Nazi Germany. The other half is Irish – my father was born in County Cork – and that’s the half I more resemble. My birth name was Judith Mahoney, and I’m blue-eyed and, through my teens, was fair-haired.


Mourner’s Kaddish for Gaza Palestinians


by: Andy Ratto on May 18th, 2018 | 3 Comments »

On Friday, March 31st, tens of thousands of Palestinians, living as effective prisoners in the Gaza strip, launched mass protests against Israeli policies. On that first day of protests for the Great March of Return, at least 18 Palestinians were killed, and hundreds more were shot by Israeli snipers. In the week following this violence, I thought often about the Palestinians who were killed. I also thought about how I, as a Jew, could honor their deaths, and their struggle for independence and self-determination, and how the American Jewish community should respond.

My initial mourning was private and personal, as I thought about the Palestinians who I knew in the West Bank, and what their life is like under Israeli occupation. I have shared meals and slept in the home of Palestinians in the West Bank. Every time violence breaks out between Israelis and Palestinians, I worry about their safety.

But private and personal mourning wasn’t enough, and leaving it at that would betray my Jewish values. In Judaism, mourning is often communal. In the days after the death of a close relative, observant Jews sit shiva in their homes, as friends and neighbors come to pay their respects. In the period after a loss, many Jews recite the Mourner’s Kaddish, often in the presence of at least ten Jews, a religious quorum or “minyan”. This honors the dead by making clear that their loss is felt by the community as a whole, that any loss of life requires healing and reflection by the living.

One week after those 18 Palestinians were killed, I attended services to share the names of Palestinians killed in Gaza during the Mourner’s Kaddish, in order to mourn them according to Jewish values and tradition.


URJ’s Statement on Gaza and IfNotNow’s Response


by: Tikkun on May 16th, 2018 | 2 Comments »

We thought our readers might be interested in the Union of Reform Judaism’s statement on Gaza and the response from people aligned with the young people’s activist group “If Not Now.”

Here is the statement by URJ: https://urj.org/blog/2018/04/09/urj-president-rabbi-rick-jacobs-escalation-gazan-border-tragic-and-dangerous.

Here is the response from If Not Now: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSdm8oQS73YGw8bY7nSdy0smL4-4qjlIyOoD-vJ7SL06N_gDsg/viewform.

Letter to the Editor: Response to Thandeka’s “Creating a Spiritual Practice to Heal and Transform the World”


by: Noreen Dean Dresser on May 7th, 2018 | 1 Comment »

Dear Rabbi Michael Lerner,

Your Winter/Spring Issue of Tikkun’s Exploring Identity Politics presented a number of provocative points of view. Identity Politics, in redrawing self/community, retraces colonial thought and its accompanying theological compromises, as today’s Democratic Institutions are being threatened by ideology

Thandeka’s Creating a Spiritual Practice to Heal and Transform the World brought into laser focus the white community, that across class, economics, age, education and gender, voted Mr. Trump victorious.

Thandeka asks us to consider carefully this whiteness, particularly the wealthy whom she sees as the prime arbiter who mixed the white paint. She asks us to see the need for a redemptive forgiveness of the whites ensnared. She parses out the lead content in the white paint and its real self-harm to the poor who participated. For Thandeka, the white rich force of law which brings thirty lashes on a black bare back or on a shirted Caucasian is still 30 lashes, tearing flesh and sinew to make of itself a raw display of power.

Her analysis then follows this white demarcation line in American History from its creation in the 1600′s when indentured servants/slaves stations were altered to hue, moving on to the Constitution’s three fifths cocktail for the landed rich, to the black face assimilation minstrel coaches for desperate rural European immigrants, bringing us to the Tea party and their Evangelical Protestants with Bannon’s conservative Catholics tagging along.

Recalling Dr. King’s Riverside speech April 4, 1967 Thandeka raises again King’s problem with the power of property over and above the people’s welfare, and what he perceived so clearly that if not corrected, racism, materialism and militarism would be uncontrolled.

Thandeka sees the unabated responses to Donald J Trump rise and his rhetoric- the White Lives Matter Movement and the Resistance Movement with Tea Party tactics as destructive to our democracy. Thandeka’s pastoral experience is evident in her call for an “organization of a spiritual vision quest for Progressives in concrete racial, political and experiential terms.”

Thandeka pastoral call echoes the religiously based reform movements such as Abolitionist, the Shakers, the Quakers, the long line of African American Orators and Preachers, the Jewish Federations… that shape our American history. For generations of Americans the Synagogue and Church has bound up the wounds from the unfettered power of property and Capitalism. The American Social fabric wove in compassion from these charitable institutional trusts.

Thandeka wants Progressives now to embrace spirituality for the white-hot embers of forgiveness to address the broken heartedness in the White Power Movement and to give sustenance to the Resistance. The one question that this raises for me may be the depth of the wound and for whom. Thandeka covers brilliantly a broad historical overview of racial training opportunities for Caucasians to be White and the motivating divisive intention of class. She postulates as to what an individual would gain and would be lost in embracing whiteness.


Theologies of Genocide and Earth Day Ethics


by: Rev. Dr. Brooks Berndt on April 20th, 2018 | 2 Comments »

Children marching for climate justice in 2017

Children marching for climate justice in 2017. Image courtesy of Lorie Shaull.

While waiting to speak at an environmental event earlier this year, another speaker told me a fascinating story. As part of his work for a university program dedicated to energy research, he invited a prominent fossil fuel executive to a graduate-level seminar. For the class, these sharp and highly informed students prepared themselves with arguments to deftly rebut the climate denialism they fully expected to confront. The actual encounter, however, went different than they anticipated. The executive befuddled them with heart-felt declarations of how his corporation was doing the will of God. The students did not know how to respond.

Almost a week after hearing this story I found myself speaking to a group of church youth about climate change. One of the youth who appeared to be about 12-years of age arrived with a passionate zeal to do intellectual battle with me. Evidently, the description of the workshop had motivated him to attend so that he could disabuse me of my ideas about climate change. From the very beginning, he wanted me to know that God gave us fossil fuels, so that we – humanity – could use them. I patiently put forth the perspective that a loving God would not want humans to suffer on a large scale so that we could burn fossil fuels. I did not expect to win him over, but I did want to offer a theological framework for the other youth to interpret and assess such views.

In the case of this youth, the theology espoused is transparently a theology of genocide. It involves a view of God that justifies actions that cause and will cause human death and suffering to an enormous and horrifying extent. Yet, the theological statements espoused by corporate executives and present members of the presidential cabinet can sometimes sound more like theological candy than theological poison. The EPA’s Scott Pruitt would have us believe that the burning of fossil fuels provides an opportunity to bless humanity, not curse it.

Seminary professor Leah Schade provides a compelling biblically-based rebuttal to Pruitt that posits a different blessing – one that is revealed in the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. It is “the ability to discern how to live within the natural boundaries God has set for us.”

Pope Francis had it right. Planet earth is our common home. We don’t want our home to become the planetary equivalent of the gas station bathroom from hell just because of some bizarre moral notion that God has blessed us to spew atmospheric excrement into the air.

In a sense, Earth Day should be both a house party and a house cleaning party. We should celebrate our magnificent home, and we should be inspired to serve as caretakers of it. This requires that we all do our part, and it requires that we have a leader at the EPA who clearly embodies the caretaking ethic required of us. Instead of serving the fossil fuel industry, we need someone who serves the public by tending to the beautiful world around us. Our present health and our future wellbeing depend upon it.


The Rev. Dr. Brooks Berndt is the Minister for Environmental Justice for the United Church of Christ. He can be found on Twitter as @The_Green_Rev.

Israel@70: Fixing the way we pray for the State


by: Rabbi David Seidenberg on April 17th, 2018 | 2 Comments »

The traditional prayer for the State of Israel, more literally titled “A Prayer for the Peace of the State,” tefilah lish’lom hamedinah, was written in 1948 by the chief rabbis of what had up until then been Palestine, in a time of war. The state was under direct attack by the Arab armies, and there was little distinction between peace, survival, and victory.

As we approach Israel’s 70th birthday, it is time to make such distinctions. Israel and the Jewish people live in a much more complex reality, a democratic reality. A reality where the strongest military cannot create peace on its own.

This reality is one where the triumph of one party or policy can undermine the flow of justice and reverse the outlook for peace. It is a reality where praying for Israel must include not only praying for the well-being of the Jewish people, but also praying for the well-being of the region, and the well-being of the Palestinian people, many of whom are Israeli citizens, most of whom are in some way under Israel’s control. And it is a reality where praying for the well-being of mutual enemies must include praying that people on all sides be protected from their own hatred, not just from attack.


Beyond Resistance: Prophetic Empathy and Radical Love


by: Rev. Carolyn Wilkins on April 13th, 2018 | 2 Comments »

Cat Zavis leading a Spiritual Activism Training in January 2017

Cat Zavis leading a Spiritual Activism Training, January 2017

These are the times that try men’s souls, but we can Rise Up!

A few weeks ago, I was walking to join a protest rally at City Hall in Los Angeles, when I caught the eye of one of the city employees. We briefly exchanged salutations and he then whispered to me, ‘Oh no, not another protest,’ and continued to express his distaste for having his day interrupted by people complaining about something. Instead of arguing with him, I shared that he’s right: most people do complain, but here is a group that wants to do something about it -they are standing up for justice. As my new friend went his way, he said, ‘You’re right, they are doing something worthwhile.’

Many of the people I speak with are frustrated and angry about congress, this administration, the NRA, the environment, Trump supporters, etc. These are (indeed) the times that try (wo)men’s souls - this quote from Thomas Paine, written to dispirited soldiers in Washington, DC, seems so appropriate at a time like this. Yet, we have a choice on how we want to respond to this moment in history… We can complain or we can rise up, take action, and give voice to our vision of a loving and just world.

I want to personally invite you to our next Spiritual Activism Training that begins on April 24. In our program, titled Beyond Resistance:Prophetic Empathy and Radical Love, we are integrating spirituality and activism to build a world of love and justice.


On the 50th Anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Assassination


by: Peter Gabel on April 6th, 2018 | 2 Comments »

As we approached the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., my partner Lisa and I watched all of Eyes on the Prize, the film history of the civil rights movement. Stunning in that history is the utter rage and desperation of the white population of Birmingham and Montgomery and Little Rock as they faced enforcement of the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education desegregation order in the 1950s and early 60s. When nine innocent black children sought to attend Central High School in Little Rock, one young white woman was so distraught that, as one commentator who was there put it, her face was contorted almost beyond recognition with pain and anger; she simply could not believe what was “happening to her.”

What was happening to her? Revealed in her very rage and pain and contortion was that her very self was being ripped away from her. And as I show in Chapter 4 of The Desire for Mutual Recognition, that self is actually a false self, the medium of her recognition as a social person within the nexus of relations that weaved her into what her state governor kept calling “the Southern way of life.” We know that that self is “false” because it is defined by a totally arbitrary “outer” characteristic, the “whiteness” that she experiences on her outside that locates her in an imaginary communion with other whites, an imaginary community that substitutes for an inner absence and inner withdrawnness, an isolation at the very core of her very being. Southern whites in enacting their racist community were not experiencing one another in a relation of I-and-Thou, a relation of authentic mutual recognition of one another’s being. They were not actually present to each other, experiencing the fullness of spiritual mutuality. Rather they were participating in a false community of skin color, which precisely because it was false and merely “outer”, had to keep inflating itself by demonizing their non-white human comrades, who also appeared as merely “outer” to them, whom they could not experience in their true universal humanity.

Thus the imaginary community of whiteness served as a defense against an inner absence and emptiness and deep vulnerability, grounded in fear of each other’s non-recognition of their true social being…and it’s this whiteness-defense that desegregation, with its “mixing” of the races, was threatening to strip away from this woman in the throes of her contortion and rage. Her true fear, however, was not the loss of communal whiteness, the white outer bond, but rather the terror of being thrown back upon her true being as a longing social person, longing from birth to be truly seen and loved and to truly see and love others. Stripping away the whiteness defense threatened her with being revealed as utterly vulnerable to the revelation of her vulnerable deepest humanity, and to the utter humiliation of being seen as longing for the true spiritual bond of I-and-Thou that she had never been allowed to experience in the course of her Southern conditioning. The contortion of her face expressed her inner terror at being robbed of her defensive “way of life,” the nexus of the false sense of “we” that established her in what social connection existed in her world. And in truth that false sense of “we” was not only based on common whiteness, but on the “erotic” energy flows among Southern whites that actually constituted the Southern way of life as a felt web of social practices – from the paddling of children to the romancing of “Gone With the Wind” to an infinite number of other relational customs . By “erotic” I refer not to explicit sexual energy as such, but to the binding embodied energy of the flow of social recognition whose pathological nature is revealed in its association with the absurd outer characteristic of whiteness, imagined absurdly to be a “superior” characteristic, and in many other ways.

In reality, nothing was being taken away from the woman who was beside herself with despair and rage by the nine innocent black children seeking to join her school community. In reality, she was being offered, finally, the opportunity with the end of segregation to reveal herself and see others as fully human, as beautiful embodiments of the deep, universal social being longing for its own mutual recognition that was denied to her in her spiritual imprisonment of the false self and false “we” of her conditioning. But she could not face the terror of the humiliation that nothing would be there if her “white” self was taken away, was denied its segregation and imaginary preeminence.

And the same was true for James Earl Ray, Dr. King’s presumed assassin, who 50 years ago on April 4th, felt he had to destroy the person offering him a pathway to a more fully human, fully loving, moral destiny.

For more on the destructive role of imaginary community, see Chapter 4 of The Desire for Mutual Recognition, available from Routledge Press and at Amazon.


Peter Gabel is the Editor-at-Large of Tikkun and author most recently of The Desire for Mutual Recognition, published by Routledge Press.

Passover at a Detention Center


by: Jonathan Rosenblum on April 3rd, 2018 | 1 Comment »

A diverse group of people gathered for social justice seder

Photo from Mele / Northwest Detention Center Resistance Solidarity Seder, courtesy of author

Passover is quintessentially a union story. Some 3,500 years ago, in the middle of the night, 600,000 immigrants downed the tools of their oppression and defiantly walked away from slavery in Egypt. It was the first recorded mass strike in history. And yes, it was an illegal strike!

Given the story and lessons of Passover, it seemed only fitting to celebrate the holiday at the site of today’s most inhumane injustices – to recall past freedom victories while also reminding us of yet-to-be-completed liberation work that requires our collective action.

On April 1, more than 100 Jews and friends gathered outside the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington to recall the ancient story of liberation and to recommit ourselves to fighting for the rights of today’s Hebrew slaves – immigrants unjustly detained inside places like the for-profit-run Northwest Detention Center, awaiting legal proceedings and likely deportations.

“We cannot be free until we are all free,” noted Rabbi David Basior of Kadima Reconstructionist Community in Seattle, pointing out that 1,500 people are held behind the barbed wire of the detention center, and that the center itself was built on occupied Puyallup tribal land. “Let us celebrate Passover, let us acknowledge it, but in this world where there are still places that occupy indigenous land, that break moral codes of how we should treat one another, that defy our values, not just as Jews but as humans . . . our work is not done,” Rabbi Basior said.