Pre-Pesach Update

In my last dispatch, I mentioned that Pesha and I would be scholars-in-residence on a Danube River cruise for Pesach. It was not meant to be. The cruise was cancelled several months ago, and we will be with my parents and sisters and all their families for the Seder. We are very much looking forward.

Since the last dispatch, I have begun writing regularly for several more newspapers and media outlets. I now have a monthly column at the Denver-based Intermountain Jewish News, and I have retained the right to publish those columns elsewhere after they appear at IJN, and all the articles are posted on my blog at the Times of Israel. In these articles, I criticize how hyperactive but bright students are addressed in Jewish day schools, reflect on why Vienna became the birthplace of Zionism, add a dimension to my Commentary review of My Promised Land, and critique Israel’s proposed “Nazi Law” by digging up some old articles in which Ben-Gurion and Jabotinsky compare each other to Hitler. These articles have already been syndicated in Baltimore Jewish Life, The Lakewood Scoop, and The Jewish Link of Bergen County. If you are interested in syndicating my column in your local Jewish paper, please let me know.
Although I have rarely been accused of representing the establishment, I found myself defending the RCA in a series of articles that appeared in the Jewish Week. The initial article praised the RCA for its handling of the controversy surrounding Rabbi Avi Weiss and Israel’s Chief Rabbinate. That article was in turn criticized by Dov Zakheim and Steven Bayme in the same paper, which then gave me the opportunity to publish a rejoinder

The debates about religion and state in Israel proceed apace, and I recently had the opportunity to post my fullest treatment yet of this fraught topic. The context is a critique of a bill that purports to systematize the issue of religious conversion in Israel. The article appeared in Mida, and is currently being translated into Hebrew for that site. This will be my first foray into the Hebrew-speaking world on this issue. In addition, I recently rewrote my critique of religious institutionalization through the lens of the first chapters of the Book of Shmuel and the Talmud’s treatment of them. This article will appear in a forthcoming volume, which I am currently editing, honoring the memory of Marc Weinberg z”l. I have posted it online but have set up a paywall (just $1; if you’re interested in previewing it, email me).

The OU’s magazine, Jewish Action, recently had a special section on English-speaking olim and their impact in Israel. I contributed a short piece on life in Modiin and a short profile of Rav Aharon Lichtenstein’s impact on broader Israeli culture. I was also commissioned to profile filmmaker Joseph Cedar, but that piece did not end up in the magazine. I posted it here.

A couple of other odds and ends include this translation of an interview between Rabbi Prof. Alan Brill and Rabbi Dr. Yehuda Brandes and this translation of an article on Mishna Sukkah by Rabbi Dr. Avie Walfish (see his stuff on Pesachim, too). A few months ago, I was interviewed by Nachum Segal about the English biography of Rav Yehuda Amital; the interview is archived here. A Facebook conversation about the history of Orthodox blogging, in which many of the most popular bloggers from a decade ago participated, was a lot of fun, too. Are we already getting nostalgic about the early years of blogging?

Before returning to Pesach, we must give Purim its due. This year was more productive than most on the Purim front, as I returned to work on our community Purim shpiel after a hiatus of several years. All of the clips can be viewed here, but my favorite is our lampoon of the Beit Shemesh elections, and particularly the concluding parody of “House of the Rising Sun.” I also posted a “news” item about controversies within Eastern Orthodoxy in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In honor of the wedding of Dov and Esther Malka Karoll at the beginning of Adar II, a few of us wrote a קרולץ, a series of brief poems to be recited before each of the sheva berakhot. Good times.

Returning to Pesach, the recently-published Peninei Halakha: Laws of Pesah by R. Eliezer Melamed has been getting some good press and some excellent reviews. R. Eli Fink’s comments are here, and other reviews appear here and here. I was interviewed by Nachum Segal about this book as well. We posted a sample chapter (on kitniyot) last year, here. Speaking of kitniyot, my original contribution this year to the Pesach conversation has been a blog post on a theory of the origins of the kitniyot custom. I relate it to the shift to a three-field crop rotation in medieval Germany and northern France. Curious? Read the whole thing here.

Best wishes for a chag kasher ve-same’ach,


My Profile of Joseph Cedar - and More

The most recent issue of Jewish Action features a large section on English-speaking olim to Israel. It profiles several communities and several olim who have had an impact on broader Israeli society. I was asked to write about being an oleh in Modiin, and was also asked to write two of the personal profiles. One - my profile of Rav Lichtenstein (scroll down)- was published. I also profiled filmmaker Joseph Cedar, but unfortunately the profile was ultimately left out, mainly because he simply does not consider himself an oleh. I really enjoyed my conversation with him, anyway. The editor has permitted me to post my profile of Cedar else here, so here it is:

Filmmaker Joseph Cedar has won awards and acclaim in Israel, Europe, and the United States, and has twice been a finalist for the Best Foreign Film Oscar. Yet the day before the Academy Awards, a Shabbat, he walked several miles to a media event and addressed the crowd from a seat to which a microphone had been affixed beforehand, while his fellow panelists used hand-held microphones. This might make him seem like an American Orthodox dream come true, yet Cedar himself often wonders if the same avenues would have been open to him had his parents not made aliyah in 1973, when he was five. He looks at American Orthodoxy and sees that it has largely given up on attempting this balancing act, either by leaving the religion to assimilate and pursue ambitions, or by withdrawing from the broader cultural and professional world into a more exclusivist religious environment. He credits his sense of balance to his parents and the environment they chose to raise their family: “Their move to Israel meant I grew up with a values system that turned out to be superior to the one I would have adopted had they not made aliyah.”

Cedar does not consider himself an oleh. Aliyah, implies choice, and, as he puts it, “Nobody asked me.” He does not even consider himself American-Israeli, as his social milieu growing up in Jerusalem’s Bayit Vegan neighborhood was almost entirely Hebrew-speaking. As Joseph and his five younger siblings grew up, even his parents’ home became Israeli. Yet American and world culture remained part and parcel of the home. “My parents exposed me to everything,” Joseph recalls, “not just American culture. The soundtrack of our house consisted of Broadway musicals, an American art form, but there were other things as well.”
Though he envisions a primarily Israeli audience when he makes his films, he acknowledges that this exposure, plus the additional years Joseph spent living in the US – as a student at NYU and when his father, a renowned molecular biologist, was on sabbatical – helped him consider a broader audience. His first two films (“Time of Favor”, 2000, and “Campfire”, 2004) explore aspects of the religious Zionist culture in which he was raised. They were acclaimed in Israel, but registered mild interest outside. His third film (“Beaufort”, 2007) examined the futility of Israel’s military presence in Lebanon. It won awards at major international film festivals. “Footnote” (2011), Cedar’s most acclaimed film, to date, is set in Hebrew University’s Talmud department and depicts the petty rivalries, competing theories, and sense of futility that characterize arcane academic disciplines. It won the award for best screenplay at Cannes and, like “Beaufort”, was an Oscar finalist.

Cedar made aliyah young enough to become a full-fledged, unhyphenated Israeli, a home-grown insider, but one who has been enriched by the culture, values, and religious sensibilities of his parents’ home. In this vein, he reminds us that the most profound way that Anglo olim make a difference in Israel is through their children and unborn generations who will be part of the Jewish future in the Jewish state.


A Unified Theory of Kitniyot

The Ashkenazic custom to refrain from kitniyot developed out of agricultural and climatic conditions and developments that were particular to those communities. It is not the result of some sort of communal neurosis.

That's the gist of the brand-spanking-new theory of kitniyot that I just posted at the Times of Israel.
Enjoy, and please consider sharing that post with all those grumpy Ashkenazim and all those who think this custom is nonsensical.
Hag kasher ve-same'ah.