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Am I a Jew?

November 1, 2012 Leave a comment


No, no. I’m not asking. It’s the title of a book I’m reading: Am I a Jew?: Lost Tribes, Lapsed Jews, and One Man’s Search for Himself by Theodore Ross.

From the publisher’s blurb:

What makes someone Jewish?

Theodore Ross was nine years old when he moved with his mother from New York City to the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Once there, his mother decided, for both personal and spiritual reasons, to have her family pretend not to be Jewish. He went to an Episcopal school, where he studied the New Testament, sang in the choir, and even took Communion. Later, as an adult, he wondered: Am I still Jewish?

Seeking an answer, Ross traveled around the country and to Israel, visiting a wide variety of Jewish communities. From “Crypto-Jews” in New Mexico and secluded ultra-devout Orthodox towns in upstate New York to a rare Classical Reform congregation in Kansas City, Ross tries to understand himself by experiencing the diversity of Judaism.

Quirky and self-aware, introspective and impassioned, Am I a Jew? is a story about the universal struggle to define a relationship (or lack thereof) with religion.

I know about the book only because there was a feature on it in Harper’s Six Questions series, in which they interview authors of selected new books. Four weeks ago, Ryann Liebenthal chatted with Ross, who is himself a former Harper’s editor. Here’s the first question and answer.

In your research you traveled among “crypto-Jews”—those whose ancestors hid their Judaism—in New Mexico, Orthodox Jews in upstate New York, and flag–saluting Reform Jews in Kansas City. You also went to Israel. Has your definition of Judaism changed? And have you answered your titular question?

No. I don’t think I’m in any greater position of certitude after completing the book than I was at the beginning. I didn’t set out necessarily in a literal-minded way to answer whether or not I was Jewish. By any reasonable measure, genealogically I’m Jewish; my mother’s line as far back as anybody knows is Jewish; I was genetically tested during the research for the book, and they confirmed it. I got the check, I am a Jew. For me the greater question was, What exactly does that mean? The more I drilled down into that, the more I realized that it’s a question that really can’t be answered in any particular kind of way. And the process of trying to answer it—the thought process, the critical thinking that goes into what constitutes a Jew, particularly in the United States—that, for me, is Judaism.

I downloaded a Kindle sample after reading the interview, then downloaded the book a week later. I must have read the first 10 pages four times by now, picking it up every few days and trying to decide if it’s what I want to read next. I’m still not sure, but now I’ve gotten past those first ten pages. I’m all the way to 25. I think I’m on my way.

I’m also 20 pages into a 600-page book on the English Civil War. Fascinating so far, but requiring far more concentration, which I don’t think I can give in the next week or two. So Ross first. More on the civil war book soon, unless Ian Rankin’s Standing in Another Man’s Grave gets in the way. It comes out in the UK next week, might just arrive immediately after my upcoming New York and Chicago trips.

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Categories: Books, Religion

From Sublime to Ridiculous

March 17, 2012 Leave a comment

Thanks to a tip from Joel, I have been a regular reader of Robert Paul Wolff’s blog, The Philosopher’s Stone. I’ve even corresponded with Bob a bit. And Joel lives just down the road from him.

On Monday, Wolff had a personal note of just a few lines in anticipation of attending a performance at UNC with his wife of Bach’s B Minor Mass. Wednesday, after in writing about how moved he was by the piece’s power, Wolff turned to the passing political scene. I quote his closing thoughts:

I write, you understand, as a life-long atheist, an unbeliever, someone who has never been a communicant of any faith, and who will go to his grave without the consolations of faith. And yet, through the transcendent beauty of Bach’s music, I was able to feel the power of the Christian message. A lifetime spent reading philosophical disquisitions about the finite and the infinite, the temporal and the eternal, a lifetime reading Plato and Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas, Maimonides and Averroes, Luther, Calvin, Kant, and Kierkegaard, combined with a lifetime steeped in the music of Bach, to give me yet again a deep emotional appreciation of the mysteries and wonders of this message that I am utterly incapable of believing.

As I sat in that auditorium, the final sections of the Credo unfolding, a strange, vagrant thought entered my mind, a thought quite unworthy of the moment, and yet impossible to put aside. This extraordinary message, I reflected, is presented to Rick Santorum in its impenetrable mystery, and yet all that impoverished, vulgar, cheap little man can think is that it is all about sex — about who is giving pleasure to whom, and how, and where, with or without protection. Offered a vision of eternal life, the dirty little mind of this wretched homunculus turns to “man on dog.”

It occurred to me — and I say this as a confirmed atheist — that what is wrong with American politics is not that Christianists have brought religion into the public space. What is wrong with American politics is the debased, diminished, soulless, conception of religion they have brought. These are trivial men and women, vulgar, ignorant men and women, men and women who have never felt the least tingle of divinity and would not know what to do with it if they did.

Categories: Music, Politics, Religion

Hajj at The British Museum

February 27, 2012 Leave a comment

I’m always keenly aware of major exhibitions in New York museums that I won’t get to see. But for the most part I’m happily unaware of what I’m missing in London. Today is an exception. Malise Ruthven wrote a piece at the New York Review of Books blog on The British Museum‘s exhibition Hajj: Journey to the Heart of Mecca. Ruthven explains:

Over the next two months the great domed interior of what used to be the British Museum’s reading room, where Marx researched Das Kapital and Bram Stoker (creator of Dracula) was a reader, is host to Hajj, a remarkable exhibition that celebrates the most sacred event in the Islamic calendar, the pilgrimage to Mecca. The exhibition seems more than a cultural event—a milestone, perhaps, in the public recognition and acceptance of Islam at the heart of British life. Conceived by British Museum director Neil MacGregor and the museum’s Islamic art curator Venetia Porter with assistance from the Saudi Arabian government, it is an unusual collaboration between a museum dedicated to secular learning and the current rulers of Islam’s holiest sites, who have lent many important works.

The British Museum press release provides the following description:

Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam will be the first major exhibition dedicated to the Hajj; the pilgrimage to Mecca (Makkah) in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia which is central to the Muslim faith. The exhibition will examine the significance of the Hajj as one of the Five Pillars of Islam, exploring its importance for Muslims and looking at how this spiritual journey has evolved throughout history. It will bring together a wealth of objects from a number of different collections including important historic pieces as well as new contemporary art works which reveal the enduring impact of Hajj across the globe and across the centuries. The exhibition which has been organised in partnership with the King Abdulaziz Public Library Riyadh will examine three key strands: the pilgrim’s journey with an emphasis on the major routes used across time (from Africa, Asia, Europe and the Middle East); the Hajj today, its associated rituals and what the experience means to the pilgrim; and Mecca, the destination of Hajj, its origins and importance.

[snip]

A wide variety of objects will be lent to the exhibition. Loans include significant material from Saudi Arabia including a seetanah which covers the door of the Ka’ba as well as other historic and contemporary artefacts from key museums in the Kingdom. Other objects have come from major public and private collections in the UK and around the world, among them the British Library and the Khalili Family Trust. Together these objects will evoke and document the long and perilous journey associated with the pilgrimage, gifts offered to the sanctuary as acts of devotion and the souvenirs that are brought back from Hajj. They include archaeological material, manuscripts, textiles, historic photographs and contemporary art. The Hajj has a deep emotional and spiritual significance for Muslims, and continues to inspire a wide range of personal, literary and artistic responses, many of which will be explored throughout the exhibition.

We haven’t been to London since July 2004, following ten days in Glasgow, where we visited friends and commuted down to Troon to attend The Open Championship on five of the days. During our day and a half in London, we made The British Museum our first stop, once we checked into our hotel and had lunch. The next day, my sister, her husband, and her son took the train over from Paris to meet us. We headed to the Tate Modern, had lunch, and by late afternoon found ourselves again at The British Museum. Somewhere in there, we squeezed in a visit to The National Gallery too, plus nightly dinners at Indian restaurants. Pretty full visit. Unfortunately, I don’t see us getting back by April 15, when the Hajj show ends.

Categories: Museums, Religion

Shi’ism: A Religion of Protest

December 8, 2011 Leave a comment

On finishing Alexandra Fuller’s Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness last weekend, I anticipated returning to the two books I was already some ways into before starting it, Robert P. Crease’s World in the Balance: The Historic Quest for an Absolute System of Measurement or Max Egremont’s Forgotten Land: Journeys Among the Ghosts of East Prussia. Instead, I got distracted by the attraction of reading one of three recent novels (more about them another time), but before I could choose, the current New York Review of Books arrived with Malise Ruthven’s review of Hamid Dabashi’s Shi’ism: A Religion of Protest. (Dabashi is the Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University.)

For years, I have wished to learn more about Shi’ism. Thus, the review caught my eye and was the first piece I read in the issue. Ruthven describes the book as “challenging and brilliant.” I then turned to Harvard University Press, whose blurb reinforced the notion that this was the book for me:

For a Western world anxious to understand Islam and, in particular, Shi’ism, this book arrives with urgently needed information and critical analysis. Hamid Dabashi exposes the soul of Shi’ism as a religion of protest—successful only when in a warring position, and losing its legitimacy when in power.

[snip]

Shi’sm: A Religion of Protest attends to the explosive conflicts in the Middle East with an abiding attention to historical facts, cultural forces, religious convictions, literary and artistic nuances, and metaphysical details. This timely book offers readers a bravely intelligent history of a world religion.

Then I downloaded the opening of the book from Amazon and was less sure that this was what I needed to be reading. Not that it’s in any way bad. It’s personal and engaging in a way I didn’t anticipate, as Dabashi recalls from his childhood the celebration of Ashura in his home town of Ahvaz, in southern Iran.

What’s Ashura? Well, that’s the point of reading the book, isn’t it? We should all know the answer. From Wikipedia:

The Day of Ashura is on the 10th day of Muharram in the Islamic calendar and marks the climax of the Remembrance of Muharram.

It is commemorated by Shi’a Muslims as a day of mourning for the martyrdom of Husayn ibn Ali, the grandson of Muhammad at the Battle of Karbala on 10 Muharram in the year 61 AH (680 AD).

You’ll learn a lot more from Dabashi, but not in a direct historical or scholarly exposition. Rather, at least so far, Dabashi weaves his personal account with history, Freud’s analysis of totem and taboo, the origin of religion, father versus son sacrifice, the murder of Ali, the sacrifice of Isaac (or Ishmael), Jesus and communion (son self-sacrifice in effect), and lots more. Dizzying. Brilliant indeed, though greatly condensed. Perhaps Dabashi will elaborate on some of these themes as the book progresses.

In any case, when I read the sample the other night, I wasn’t sure I wanted to continue. But then I read the news yesterday of Tuesday’s bombings in Afghanistan, became all the more convinced that I really needed to know more about Shi’ism, and downloaded the full book once I got home. From the NYT account of the bombings:

A Pakistan-based extremist group claimed responsibility for a series of coordinated bombings aimed at Afghan Shiites on Tuesday, in what many feared was an attempt to further destabilize Afghanistan by adding a new dimension of strife to a country that, though battered by a decade of war, has been free of sectarian conflict.

The attacks, among the war’s deadliest, struck three Afghan cities — Kabul, Kandahar and Mazar-i-Sharif — almost simultaneously and killed at least 63 Shiite worshipers on Ashura, which marks the death of Shiite Islam’s holiest martyr.

Targeted strikes by Sunnis against the minority Shiites are alien to Afghanistan. So it was no surprise to Afghans when responsibility was claimed by a Sunni extremist group from Pakistan, where Sunnis and Shiites have been energetically killing one another for decades.

I didn’t even realize that Ashura was upon us until I read this. And for that matter, I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t know what Ashura was until I started reading Dabashi’s book.

Perhaps my ignorance can be excused. It would be nice to think that our presidential candidates know more about Islam. I suspect not.

Categories: Books, Religion

Moroccan Fish Balls

October 9, 2011 Leave a comment

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago how much I’ll miss the Wall Street Journal’s arts/culture/wine/food/sports coverage when we soon stop taking the paper. (I won’t miss the rest and won’t miss Murdoch, the reason for canceling it.) Another gem appeared as the daily front-page feature (the A-Hed) a couple of days ago, Lucette Lagnado’s piece with news that fabled Jewish food producer Manischewitz was branching out from gefilte fish to Moroccan fish meatballs. Yes, the acme of Ashkenazi food was heading over to the wild Sephardic side.

For years, gefilte fish—plump little patties of minced fish—has been the Jewish holiday treat that some Jews love to hate.

[snip]

Even Paul Bensabat wasn’t that impressed when he tried it. “Boring,” he says. “Pretty bland.” And he’s co-CEO of Manischewitz Co., one of the largest producers of gefilte fish. When Mr. Bensabat and partners took over the 123-year-old company, they decided to spice things up. One idea: Moroccan fish balls.

[snip]

Mr. Bensabat, a Moroccan Jew born in Casablanca, had never tasted gefilte fish when he and his partner joined an investor who had acquired the company. Some Manischewitz fare hadn’t been a part of his upbringing. “I never grew up eating matzoh-ball soup,” he says. His childhood memories were of couscous and other dishes of the Mediterranean.

He started sampling jars of gefilte fish. Manischewitz makes more than 50 different kinds—sweet and not sweet, in jelly and in broth, to name a few.

His partner and co-CEO Alain Bankier, also Moroccan-Jewish and also from Casablanca, is more diplomatic. “It is an acquired taste,” he says.

They agreed Manischewitz needed to go beyond gefilte fish—and quickly. Sales of traditional gefilte fish in a jar were still a pillar of the business, but were steadily going down. Younger consumers favored other foods or brands. The company hadn’t produced new products in years when Messrs. Bensabat and Bankier joined it in 2008.

[snip]

Mr. Bensabat’s prescription was to branch out to Mediterranean fare—starting with his mother’s Moroccan fish balls.

The company’s food technologists at its headquarters in Newark, N.J., were mystified: They hadn’t a clue how to make Moroccan fish balls.

The solution: a cross-cultural, trans-Atlantic cuisine transplant, in which Mr. Bensabat would get the family recipe from his 83-year-old maman and Manischewitz’s cooks would translate it for large-scale production.

There were a few obstacles, starting with the fact that his mother, Claire Bensabat, lives 4,000 miles away in Nice. She speaks French and doesn’t use recipes or follow a cookbook to prepare her delicacies.

Her recipe for fish balls: Take a fish, and “add a little bit of cumin.”

Read the full story.

Now I’m eager to try the fish balls, or fish meatballs, as Manischewitz decided to call them. Manischewitz has a recipe for the meatballs at their website, along with the photo at the top of this post.

Also, accompanying the WSJ article is Mrs. Claire Bensabat’s Festive Sweet Couscous Recipe, along with this explanation: “Sweet couscous is a specialty of Mrs. Claire Bensabat, Paul Bensabat’s mother, that she loves to make; since she cooks by instinct, it was hard for her to come up with exact measures, but through the efforts of working together with her son, she produced the following recipe for The Journal.”

Gail, should we give it a try?

Categories: Food, Religion

Militancy, Non-Violence, and Religion

September 23, 2011 1 comment

This item is over a week old, but I can’t resist writing a post that gives me the opportunity to present the extraordinary graphic above. In a September 14 post, Spencer Ackerman wrote about recent FBI training material on Islam acquired by Wired’s national security blog, Danger Room. As Ackerman explains,

The FBI is teaching its counterterrorism agents that “main stream” [sic] American Muslims are likely to be terrorist sympathizers; that the Prophet Mohammed was a “cult leader”; and that the Islamic practice of giving charity is no more than a “funding mechanism for combat.”

At the Bureau’s training ground in Quantico, Virginia, agents are shown a chart contending that the more “devout” a Muslim, the more likely he is to be “violent.” Those destructive tendencies cannot be reversed, an FBI instructional presentation adds: “Any war against non-believers is justified” under Muslim law; a “moderating process cannot happen if the Koran continues to be regarded as the unalterable word of Allah.”

The image above is taken from a slide presentation by FBI analyst William Gawthrop. Ackerman again:

An FBI presentation titled “Militancy Considerations” measures the relationship between piety and violence among the texts of the three Abrahamic faiths. As time goes on, the followers of the Torah and the Bible move from “violent” to “non-violent.” Not so for devotees of the Koran, whose “moderating process has not happened.” The line representing violent behavior from devout Muslims flatlines and continues outward, from 610 A.D. to 2010. In other words, religious Muslims have been and always will be agents of aggression.

We are fortunate to be alive now, at the very moment when adherents of the Torah and the Bible converge on on total non-violence. We were already getting pretty close throughout the twentieth century. Those world wars? The work, I guess, of Koran adherents. Hitler? A closet Muslim. Stalin? Another one. The list is a long one.

For more, including an embedded video from Wired of Gawthrop’s presentation, see this report in the NYT three days ago.

Categories: Politics, Religion

Friend of Muslim Americans

July 30, 2011 Leave a comment

On Wednesday, Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain apologized for comments he made two weeks earlier in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, in which he described the construction of a mosque there “an infringement and abuse of our freedom of religion. … This is another way to sneak Shariah law into our laws, and I absolutely object to that.”

Cain explained in his apology that

While I stand by my opposition to the interference of Shariah law into the American legal system, I remain humble and contrite for any statements I have made that might have caused offense to Muslim Americans and their friends. I am truly sorry for comments that may have betrayed my commitment to the U.S. Constitution and the freedom of religion guaranteed by it. Muslims, like all Americans, have the right to practice their faith freely and peacefully.

When I read this, I thought it one of the more stunning examples I’ve seen of a non-apology apology. I described it to Joel, noting the part that particularly bugged me. He confirmed my suspicion that there may be little point dwelling on the doings of nut jobs. But the apology is still on my mind, so I’ll dwell nonetheless.

Here’s the thing. I’ve become accustomed to the standard celebrity apology addressed to “those I may have offended,” the kind that hints that if you’re offended, maybe it’s your problem. You know — nothing was done wrong here, at least not by me. Maybe you shouldn’t be so sensitive. But here’s your apology anyway.

Cain’s apology is in that family. There he is speaking of statements that “might have caused offense to Muslim Americans.” It’s his next phrase, though, that stunned me: “and their friends.”

Cain is apologizing to friends of Muslim Americans? This is so maddeningly bizarre. What qualifies one to be a friend of Muslim Americans? What must one do? Or look like? What if I’m offended simply because what Cain said is, by any objective measure, offensive? Cain even suggests why this might be the case in his next sentence, in which he admits to betraying his “commitment to the U.S. Constitution and the freedom of religion guaranteed by it.” That’s what offends me. That’s why I would welcome an apology.

Can only declared Muslim Americans and their friends receive this apology? Can’t I just be a US citizen, one who believes in the constitution and the rights it guarantees?

Well, so be it. I will join the Friends of Muslim Americans. How do I sign up?

Categories: Politics, Religion