Hat er gesagt

A few years ago, during a summer visit to Israel, we took my then-toddler to the beach. He waded and splashed and, at some point, when the elastic on his swimsuit bothered him, he took it off. A man on the beach took great offense to this and came over in a huff to give me a talking-to about the lack of modesty of my three-year-old. “You have no dignity! There are women here!” Etc. etc. I was quite shaken. My dad was sitting nearby and I told him, “did you hear this guy! What a dirty mind he has if he sees sexuality and indecency in little kids!” etc. etc. My dad chuckled, shrugged his shoulders, and said, “hat er gesagt.” It is a Yiddish expression that means, “so, he said.”

I think about this vignette a lot when I see the enormous graphomaniac outpour on issues of campus speech. Group A put up a flyer! Person B tweeted a thing five months ago! Administrator C censored student organization D for a thing they said! University administrator E said something about faculty member F who said something about group G’s heckling of speaker I! Endless recursive applications of the First Amendment to endless interactions. It seems like we pay so much attention to what this person or that group said that we have no energy left to find out what it is that they even spoke about. Instead of feeling the anguish of war and loss, we drown it in righteous anger over what has been said about war and loss or, worse, what has been said about what was said about war and loss. Perhaps feeling righteous anger is easier than feeling fear and groundlessness. Perhaps being removed from a perilous, terrifying situation urges people to find some connection to the situation, so they tangle themselves in some speech imbroglio. I don’t know.

Here’s what I do know: many opinions about political matters are espoused around me. Some of them I find reasonable. Some of them I disagree with but learn something from. Some of them are stupid or ignorant. Other people’s opinions, if they are not expressed directly to me and ask for my response or are in my field of expertise, are not espoused at me, nor are they necessarily my business unless I choose to make them my business. How much of other people’s opinions I choose to make my business is a function of how knowledgeable I am in that area, whether or not I have energy to spare, and what good I think will come of it. Sometimes, when campus speech veers toward hatred and discrimination that I find acute and dangerous, I say something. Sometimes I let it go because I have bigger fish to fry or because I don’t see the upshot of speaking up. There are short term and long term considerations, all of which are mine to make.

I am not going to singlehandedly improve the quickly eroding standard for civil discourse. Neither are you. We do what we can, where we think it will make a difference, and we dole out our energy wisely.

Arresting Folks with Unsettled Lives

I recently came across an interesting Fourth Circuit case dealing with a situation that is probably quite common: what sort of constitutional protection do people have when their living situation is not clear-cut?

According to Fourth Amendment case law, the police need an arrest warrant in order to arrest A at home (Payton v. New York, 1980), but no warrant is necessary to arrest A in public (U.S. v. Watson, 1976). But there is a third situation: what to do when A is in B’s home? Under Steagald v. United States (1981), an arrest warrant is necessary but not sufficient in this situation: the warrant protects A against unreasonable deprivations of freedom, but does not protect B against the invasion of their premises. So, to arrest A at B’s home, the police need to have two documents in hand: an arrest warrant for A and a search warrant for B’s home (with A listed as the person to be seized therein.)

This is all fine. But it turns out that some people’s situations do not map neatly unto this framework. Enter U.S. v. Brinkley (2020), a 4th Circuit case dealing with a not uncommon person with an outstanding warrant: the international man of mystery with a woman at every port.

Law enforcement agents formed a federal-state task force to execute an outstanding arrest warrant against Brinkley. ATF Agent Murphy received intelligence of two possible addresses for Brinkley, one on, let’s say, Oak Street, and one on, let’s say, Elm Street. Because the water bill for the Oak Street address was in Brinkley’s name, Agent Murphy initially believed that address was Brinkley’s most likely residence.

Detective Stark from the local police force looked on the state law enforcement database and found that Brinkley’s many traffic citations were associated with several addresses. The newest citations referenced the Elm Street address, and Detective Stark reasoned that the older addresses were “probably family addresses” where Brinkley did not reside. He looked up Brinkley’s Facebook page and found pictures of Brinkley’s girlfriend, Marnie, who was also associated with the Elm Street address. Based on this information, Detective Stark concluded that Brinkley and Marnie lived together on Elm Street.

Detective Stark reported his conclusion to Agent Murphy, who came to agree that Brinkley probably resided in the Elm Street apartment. Neither officer was certain that they had uncovered Brinkley’s address, and Agent Murphy later testified that, in his experience, it was “common for someone like Brinkley… to have more than one place where they will stay the night.”

The next morning, Agent Murphy and Detective Stark went to the Elm Street apartment to conduct what both Agent Murphy and Detective Stark characterized as a “knock-and-talk” to “start [their] search for Brinkley.” The officers intended to “interview the occupants to find out if [he] was indeed there,” and to arrest him if he was. Agent Murphy acknowledged that he “had no idea if Brinkley was going to be there that morning,” but thought the Stoney Trace apartment was the “most likely address” to “find Brinkley or evidence of his whereabouts.”

Detective Stark knocked and announced, and after a few minutes Marnie, wearing pajamas, slowly opened the door. The officers could hear movement in the background. Detective Stark informed Marnie that the officers were looking for Brinkley and asked to enter the apartment. Marnie denied that Brinkley was there, and according to Detective Stark, she grew “very nervous”; her “body tensed” and her “breathing quickened,” and she looked back over her shoulder into the apartment. Detective Stark asked for consent to search the apartment and Marnie said she did not consent and asked to see a search warrant.The entire exchange with Marnie lasted a few minutes. Both officers testified that, based on Marnie’s demeanor, the movement they heard in the apartment, and the morning hour, they believed Brinkley was inside.

At this point, the officers decided not to follow the original plan to secure the area and wait to see if Brinkley left the home. Instead, Agent Murphy told Marnie that he believed she was hiding Brinkley and that the officers were going to enter the apartment to serve an arrest warrant on him. They walked around the apartment, found Brinkley in the bedroom, and arrested him. The officers proceeded to conduct a protective sweep to check for others hiding in the apartment. They did not find anyone else, but they did find several firearms and seized them.

On appeal from a conditional guilty plea, Brinkley argued that he did not reside on Elm Street and was there as Marnie’s guest, and that the officers’ warrantless entry was unconstitutional.

The Fourth Circuit sets up the problem as if it is about classifying Brinkley’s situation as a Peyton or a Steagald scenario. But what they actually end up doing is asking two questions that differ from each other. The first one is: how certain do the cops have to be that Brinkley both resides, and is currently present, at Elm Street to walk in there without a warrant? The Fourth Circuit panel concludes that the cops would need to have more than they did in order to walk into the Elm Street address with only an arrest warrant.

But the second question has to do with a different set of concerns: for a guy like Brinkley, who has four or five cribs in town, and lives an unsettled life, where is home? Do you forego the special protection that the Fourth Amendment awards to the home if you have several places you call sort-of-home? Do you have standing in each of these places? What makes home home?

The Elusive Body Recomposition Quest

The vegan fitness world is aflutter and atwitter about a new documentary miniseries on Netflix called You Are What You Eat: A Twins Experiment. The show follows a recent Stanford experiment in which pairs of identical twins were randomly assigned vegan and omnivore diets and their metrics were followed for eight weeks. Everyone I talk to about this is a certifiable fitness nerd–including myself–so here is the link to the actual JAMA publication and here is the write-up from the Stanford comms department. In the areas of cardiovascular health and telomere length, the subjects on the vegan diet did better than their omnivore twins:

At three time points — at the beginning of the trial, at four weeks and at eight weeks — researchers weighed the participants and drew their blood. The average baseline LDL-C level for the vegans was 110.7 mg/dL and 118.5 mg/dL for the omnivore participants; it dropped to 95.5 for vegans and 116.1 for omnivores at the end of the study. The optimal healthy LDL-C level is less than 100.

Because the participants already had healthy LDL-C levels, there was less room for improvement, Gardner said, speculating that participants who had higher baseline levels would show greater change.

The vegan participants also showed about a 20% drop in fasting insulin — higher insulin level is a risk factor for developing diabetes. The vegans also lost an average of 4.2 more pounds than the omnivores.

But when it got to weight and body composition, things got a lot trickier. A big challenge in comparing weight loss and muscle gain has to do with the distribution of macronutrients across the two diets: a higher consumption of protein supports muscle growth. I fished out the table from the supplement comparing the macro contents of the diets, which shows that protein provision and consumption among the vegan group was significantly lower than among the omnivorous group. This was true both for the Trifecta meals and for the self-provided ones.

On one hand, this sets up the vegan group to fail: they had fewer muscle building blocks than their omnivore counterparts. On the other hand, this situation may not be all that dissimilar to how vegans and omnivores eat in the wild. For all the good times we have mocking omnivores who inquire “where we get our protein,” when someone is actively strength training and striving to build muscle the quest for protein feels a little bit like nutrition Tetris. I should know: last year I read Stacy Sims’ wonderful book Next Level, about women athletes in perimenopause and menopause. Sims, who studies exercise physiology and is a leading voice in the quest to recognize the uniqueness of female physique (“women are not small men”), emphasizes the importance of lifting heavy, eating protein, improving explosive power through sprints and HIIT, and building strong bones through plyometric sets. It was because of that (and with the help of coach Celeste St. Pierre, as well as coaches Karina Inkster and Zoe Peled) that I changed my training regime quite dramatically. With the new emphasis on strength, I’ve joined the ranks of vegans who are strategic about the protein content of their meals. Sadly, the nutrition breakthrough study we are all waiting for, which will uncover the life-giving properties of pasta with tomato sauce, is not in the cards, and in addition to a lot of protein in my meals, I’m also emphasizing it in my snacks (more on that in a bit.)

But the problem of body composition is by no means endemic to vegans. As Prof. Gardner explains on the show, nutrition studies are notoriously untrustworthy because they require human compliance in areas that are difficult to measure. To try and counter this problem, the research team provided the twins with prepared meals from Trifecta for the first four weeks. The twins also received terrific strength coaching. But it turned out that the twins did not follow these plans to the letter. The subjects who were interviewed said that they skipped carbs (the meals seemed “too carby” to them) and added a lot of cardio to the strength workouts; the nutritionist scolded them for “wasting all that beautiful muscle” that they were building on the diet. Other subjects really struggled to eat enough to build muscle. This fantastic article by powerlifter and strength training coach Casey Johnston explains what’s what. If you’ll look at her avocado diagram, you’ll immediately grasp the problem with conventional dieting: one wants to lose fat, so one cuts calories, but in the process loses muscle as well. When one despairs of the diet and regains the weight, that weight is fat–so now one is bigger but has lost muscle. The next diet will lead to more loss of fat and muscle combined, followed by regaining fat but not muscle, etc. etc. In other words:

What I learned from the twins experiment is that reversing this trend by eating very little or by doing heaps of cardio is a quest destined to fail. For a while, at the beginning of a quest journey, beginners might see a change in body composition that encompasses both muscle gain and fat loss. But after that magical “newbie gains” period, body recomposition becomes much more elusive, and the only way to accomplish it is by periodizing one’s goals: spending a few months bulking (eating more, building more muscle *and* fat) and then a few months cutting (eating less but still strength training to lose the fat):

I know people whose lives revolve around lifting and the gym, and who can devote a considerable portion of their brain space to grams of protein and weightlifting sets. And if I had more time, I might become one of those people; as it happens, I’m working *and* studying full time, which is why I have paid people to do the thinking for me (I just follow the workouts on the app and try to watch my macros). Thankfully, we live in the future: some of my new snacks include conveniently packaged lupini beans and the most wonderful vegan Italian prosciutto and carpaccio (these are not cheap treats, alas. I really hope to see high quality vegan meats, etc., become less expensive in the very near future). The more profound aspect of this is that it is hard, but essential (I think), to leave behind the vacuous appearance-related aspirations and to make the journey about function: gaining muscle and becoming stronger is its own reward.

Here’s how I know: when my beloved father got ill, when I was training regularly, I flew out to be with him at the hospital, and packed a bunch of stuff in my wheelie bag, as I didn’t know how long I was going for. Or was it a trip to a conference? Anyway, it was when I was still increasing weights quite frequently from workout to workout. When I got inside the plane, I braced myself for the dreaded lift of the wheelie bag into the overhead compartment (“lady, do you need help?”). Reader, IT WAS CHILD’S PLAY. I was truly amazed at how much spending 20 minutes in my garage a few times a week improved my quality of life.

I’ve now spent a few months sitting on my butt and doing nothing in the exercise and fitness department: I’ve been busy with my new scholarly pursuits, and the grief and horror have been too great. But I’m not helping anyone, least of all myself, by eating things that make me unwell and letting go of my strength, mobility, and agility. So, it’s back on track for me. The dream of a dramatically chiseled and trim appearance is over. I’m going to focus my attention on aggressively improving my quality of life, so that I can continue to productively contribute my efforts to the world–raising my son, finishing my new schooling, launching a new scholarly adventure, forging a fresh career path, building new community–for many years to come.

AJS Annual Meeting, Day 3

What a wonderful day I’ve had at the AJS meeting today! I highly recommend that every academic attend an annual meeting as if they were attending a science fiction or anime conference, and go to panels that strike their fancy and are interesting to them. Today I gave myself license to attend panels on topics that interest me deeply, including art and music, and learned a lot.

I arrived late this morning for the Jews Imagining Empire panel, and so missed Yaniv Feller’s presentation, in which he proposed to frame early modern Germany as a real or (after Anderson) imagined empire. I did, however, enjoy the Q&A, in which people asked whether there were features that distinguished empires from nation states, and in what ways are there empires without colonies. Yaniv said something interesting: empires support the nation state by defining the “other”.

Then, Roger Lernon talked about Franz Kafka’s writing about imperial scenarios from faraway lands (“The Great Wall of China,” “The New Advocate” about Grece, and “The Hunter Gracchus” about Rome), to express his ambivalence toward the Habsburg empire, as a Jew in the crux of emancipation and nationalism. Finally, Katalin Rac introduced us to two people I had never heard of before: the Turkologist Ármin Vámbéry (1832–1913) and the Islamicist Ignaz Goldziher (1850–1921), both of whom were Jewish and whose travels and studies raise interesting questions about the relative liberalism of different empires.

The next panel, Jewish Art and Architecture, opened with Daniel Stein Kokin’s presentation about Perli Pelzig‘s prolific artistic career. Pelzig was a sculptor and muralist, whose work can be seen all over Israel. I’ve seen his gorgeous mosaics in kibbutzim and also at the Dan Acadia hotel in Herzliya and it was so well integrated into the space that it didn’t occur to me to inquire after the artist! But it turns out that Pelzig also designed the wonderful Holocaust Memorial Wall at Los Angeles’s Temple Beth Am, which looks like thousands of fingers scratching, and its complement–Pelzig’s evocative sculpture for Yad VaShem, which features hands reaching upward.

This was followed by Carolyn Beard’s presentation about the crucifixion as a motif in Mark Chagall’s paintings. White Crucifixion (1938) is the most famous among Chagall’s 80 (!) crucifixion paintings and, interestingly, eight of them are self-portraits depicting Chagall alongside a Jewish Jesus, wearing a tallit and sometimes tefillin, and images of suffering Jews. Chagall’s Artist with Yellow Christ is a reference to Paul Gauguin’s picture of the same name (1890), and in Christ with the Artist (1951) he depicts angels on the left of Jesus and Chagall on the right. The cross bursts out of the canvas. In another image, Chagall depicted Jesus’ head as a clock, and replaced the INRI script with his own signature.

Then, Fani Gargova introduced a new framework for analyzing women’s contributions to European Synagogue Design. The tendency among scholars of historical architecture is to regard women’s contribution to synagogue architecture as marginal, considering their location (separate and removed) in the synagogue itself. But it turns out that women played an important role contributing essential artifacts, such as menorot and parokhot, to the synagogues, which have been (mis)analyzed as Judaica objects, rather than as what they are: part of what makes the synagogue a synagogue.

After lunch, I went to a fantastic musicology panel. Gordeon Dale introduced the emerging and wildly successful genre of “Pop Emuni,” presenting artists who are and present as Orthodox and engage openly with biblical themes. We listened to, and analyzed, four songs: Ishay Ribo’s Hine Yamim Baim , Akiva (Turgeman)’s Lekh Lekha, Hanan ben Ari’s Holem Kemo Yosef, and Narkis’ Avi Lo. Despite the sharp polarization in Israel, these artists have been able to break boundaries and enjoy wide public appeal.

Then, Ann Glazer Niren exposed the liturgical roots of Leonard Bernstein’s psalms work. Ann hypothesizes that Bernstein was deeply influenced by Solomon Braslavsky, a gifted musician, who was the cantor and musical director at Bernstein’s home temple Mishkan Tefila. Indeed, Bernstein returned to religious themes in many of his compositions, including Jeremiah, Haskiveinu, Mass, and Kadish. We got to hear excerpts from his Psalms–Psalm 148 (1935) and his Chichester Psalms–and learn about some of the wonderful musical devices he used: echoes of Beethoven’s Pathetique and text pairing (which is a huge part of Bernstein’s genius and which I’ve appreciated every time I’ve sung or listened to his work.)

Finally, Amanda Ruppenthal-Stein introduced us to the Abayudaya Jewish community in Uganda, sharing and analyzing the wonderful polyphonic interpretation of “Ha’Azinu” (Deuteronomy 32).

A great coda to the conference was a panel about gender and queerness in Jewish ritual spaces, which opened with Morey Lipsett’s analysis of the “Agaddic element” in the liturgy at my local synagogue, Congregation Sha’ar Zahav (CSZ). I’m an occasional visitor there (one of my goals in the new year will be to become a more regular attendee) but Morey grew up in the congregation and, relying on Walter Benjamin and Judith Butler, he looks at how the synagogue’s founders and leaders have transformed the Kabbalat Shabbat ritual to encompass dynamic ideas of gender and sexuality, beyond just pointing out the patriarchal aspect of orthodox tradition, and toward creating an affirming and accepting space.

Then, Shlomo Gleibman led us through an investigation of the havruta (a long-term committed religious study partnership) as a queer space, starting with one of my favorite pair: Rabi Yohanan and Resh Lakish, from their erotically charged encounter in the river to what is arguably the most epic, dramatic breakup ever. We followed other havruta queer pairings, in the literature of S. An-sky, I. B. Singer, S. Y. Agnon, Tony Kushner, Michael Lowenthal, and Evan Fallenberg.

Finally, Isabel-Marie Johnston surveyed and interviewed Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews about their mikvah immersion practices. Her data indicates that the Mikvah offers relief and healing properties to many of the respondents, but especially to those with complicated micro-minority identities: people in intermarriages, people of color, people of complex sexuality, etc. But it turns out that exclusive practices in many Orthodox-run mikvaoth, including innocuous-seeming screening practices, are a real turn-off to these people.

I learned a lot and have tons of wonderful ideas for future research, and feel professionally energized for the first time in many months.

AJS Annual Meeting: Day 2

Another fascinating day at the AJS Annual Meeting, in which I learned a lot – including about issues surprisingly close to home.

The first panel, Holocaust in Art and Literature, opened with Roy Holler’s talk about Yoram Kaniuk’s book Adam ben Kelev and its film adaptation starring Jeff Goldblum. Of all Israeli authors, Kaniuk is one of the most difficult and least accessible for me, so I was grateful for Roy’s take: rather than seeing the book as a story of human-animal transition, he reads it as a story of “passing” across species and of a commitment to avoid joining a species capable of atrocities. As Roy said, “Instead of ‘God created man’, it’s ‘man created himself in the image of a dog.'”

Next, we heard from Angelica Maria Gutierrez  Ravanelli, who studies Argentinian holocaust remembrance and spoke of a graphic anthology called Camino a Auschwitz y Otras Historias de Resistencia. It’s a controversial, edgy, and sometimes queer take on holocaust survival, which draws inspiration from both Maus and Fun Home: the story of a prostitute who dies in the gas chambers; the exploits of a gay partisan and his sexual escapades in the forest; and an ambivalent, conflicted story about Eichmann’s capture. Angelica walked us through the timeline and plot of the stories, the graphic motifs, and the controversy that their publication stirred in Argentina.

The panel ended Anne Rothfeld’s talk about a fascinating investigation conducted by Evelyn Tucker into several wonderful paintings by Egon Schiele. It turned out that Egon Schiele was treated by a dentist called Rieger and, short on cash, paid him in fantastic paintings, including Wayside Shrine, Cardinal and Nun, and Harbor of Trieste (all of which can be found now in the Dorotheum). Welz, a member of the Nazi party, got the paintings from Rieger. Tucker suspected that Welz had flourished by spreading a tale of benefitting from American looters. Welz’s version was that he helped Rieger escape (he had not; Rieger died in Theresienstadt.) Eventually, Tucker was relieved of her position after a conflict with the army. The whole thing was fascinating.

The second panel, Negotiating Danger, Difference, and Death, had assorted rabbinical commentary that I found interesting. The highlight for me was Mika Ahuvia’s talk about Angels in Late Antique Conceptions of Death, because some of the images she analyzed came from sarcophagi in Bet Shearim, which is right next to my home town and where I run when I visit my mom. While rabbinic texts identify only male angels (Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, and Bney ha-Helohim from Enochic texts), piyyut and midrash (Bereshit Raba) identify some feminine angels. And, a sarcophagus image depicts a winged female figure. In addition, murals in the Dura synagogue depict a similar figure descending to the underworld.. Where did it come from? Mika identifies the similarities between the figure and the Greek figure of Psyche (Suke in Greek) and investigates artistic copying and common influences.

Shulamit Shinaar uses lenses from critical and queer disability studies, as well as from medical sociology, to examine biblical and rabbinic prohibitions on, and dispensations for, people with disabilities and their caregivers. She relies on Mike Bury’s concept of “biographical disruption”–the impact of a diagnosis on the person’s now threatened identity, their plans for the future, and their daily life. In light o this framework, Rabbinnical literature views people’s lives as disrupted, including their ability to work, dependency on others, and illness impacting witnesses and legal proxies. This lens explains the exemptions for sick people and for their caregivers: Sabbath, Yom Kippur, and seeking healing using objects that are prohibited (except for the “big three”: avodah zarah, incest, and bloodshed).

Finally, Gal Sela turns to Ta’anit 24a-b to discuss theurgic perceptions in the Babylonian Talmud. The story has to do with Rava, who unsuccessfully tries to bring rain through a fast, and when people complain that in the days of Rabbi Yehuda this was easily done, recurs to explain that the more rigorous learning of this generation is insufficient and that the previous generation had a more direct connection to the divine. We talked about the power of the sage, through the ritualistic act of removing his shoes.

The methodologies that were most familiar to me were in full display at the Haredi sociology panel. I learned a lot! First we heard from Dikla Yogev and Nomi Levenkron, who have studied the Meron disaster using information from government meetings, observations and interviews with the police and the public, and an “urgent ethnography” of online data collection (WhatsApp groups and a website.). The Meron celebration, which became Haredi-dominated from around 2000, raises various problems involving transportation, site management, lost children, and the like. Social network analysis shows that the most prominent people to discuss and address the event were the haredim themselves, including the Meron Committee head and the Holy Sites CTO. Dikla and Nomi conclude that Meron suffers from government instability; the police struggle to establish public safety, which is low on the priority list and managed through a network of informal connections that prioritize Haredi brokers and deprioritize the police.

It was interesting to see this unfold in light of Nomi’s other paper on the panel, hilariously titled “The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,” and recounting the regulation of the 1956 Meron celebration. Her point of departure is that police work in holy places calls for negotiation, which has both symbolic and practical aspects. The three parties to the negotiation wanted different things out of it. The father was Ben Gurion, the prime minister, whose establishment of Israel was accomplished through difficult compromises with the Haredim, and therefore needed to give in to them on the celebration; his son, Amos Ben-Gurion, who was a senior police officer, was concerned about the site’s safety risks and demanded to cancel the event; and the Holy Spirit, the Ministry of Religion, needed the Ultra-Orthodox as part of the coalition. To some extent, the 1956 paper provides an omen/explainer of the 2020 paper.

Miriam Moster talked about the ocioeconomics of Haredi Divorce in New York, which used to be fairly common but is now extremely rare. By contrast to divorcées in the general population, among Hasidim, education and home ownership actually make leaving the marriage easier. Miriam also pointed out that finances tied to the husband, especially in cases where the whole extended family is financially entangled–and especially in illegal/under the table dealings–make leaving more difficult. The fallout of divorce can be harsh from an informal social control standpoint.

Finally, Hannah Lebovits discussed the housing patterns of Haredim in American municipalities, showing how leadership deals with housing and contrasting two models: “housing at all costs” (cutting corners, informal economic workarounds) versus “pragmatic skepticism” (representation, legal cases, civil rights action, etc.) She used the term “ritual urbanism” to describe, among other factors, how some spiritual leaders (“rebs”) of the community present themselves as messengers of God when advocating for spatial design or land use.

I was going to stay for more, but instead opted for catching up with Dikla and Nomi and then had to replace all my bicycle gear, which was filched from my pannier by someone who probably needed raingear and a Narcan kit more than I did (but did he really have to steal my helmet and gloves, too? Grrrr.) Very eager to return to the conference tomorrow!

Association of Jewish Studies, Day 1: Dreyfus Postcards, DEI and Antisemitism, and Daughters’ Inheritance

As hinted in various posts, my big professional pivot has been in the works for a while. This year I started my rabbinical studies at the International Institute of Secular Humanistic Judaism (IISHJ). IISHJ requires all its rabbis to complete an advanced degree in Jewish Studies, which brought me to the Graduate Theological Union’s Richard S. Dinner Center for Jewish Studies. In addition to my full-time work, I’m studying full time for a masters degree, and this week I finished the first semester. My plan is to pivot my scholarship at UC Law SF toward Jewish law and Jewish studies, and I have big plans for fostering and encouraging a vibrant academic Jewish legal experience on campus. After retirement from legal academia, I plan to turn to rabbinical work full time.

Today marks an important milestone: I attended my first-ever annual meeting of the Association for Jewish Studies which, conveniently, is being held in San Francisco. I’m not presenting anything–my two brand-new papers haven’t been submitted for publication yet–and it’s been a great experience to listen, rather than talk! Getting into a new field requires quite a bit of humility, and I confess to being overwhelmed when I visited the huge book exhibit and saw the vast wealth of knowledge and original research. It’s daunting and, at the same time, exciting to join such a prolific enterprise, and I wonder what I can contribute to this flourishing field.

I started my day with a panel on visual representations of violence, in which Louis Kaplan introduced us to the work of photographer John Guttman. Trained as an expressionist painter, Guttman switched to photography when he figured that he would not be able to leave Berlin with money, but would be allowed to take expensive equipment out of the country. He bought a wonderful camera and somehow persuaded a German news agency to be their foreign correspondent in San Francisco… and ended up in a gorgeous apartment in Russian Hill. From Tara Kohn we learned about how archival gaps and absences affect our ability to learn about photography–in this case the work of Alter Kacyzne, who documented Jewish life in Poland in the 1920s and 1930s. Only 700 of Alter’s many photographs are in existence–but evidence of their existence exists in copies and references, as if they were fossils. But the most interesting bit, to me, was Karine Macarez’s presentation of… postcards, posters, and trading cards about the Dreyfus Affair! In my work on true crime podcasts, I always think about Marshall McLuhan’s The Medium Is the Message reminder, but here is proof that participatory, sensationalist true crime engagement–complete with wrongful conviction activism–existed through the creation, sale, and exchange of these postcards, which are rife not only with antisemitic tropes (used both straightforwardly, as in the case of Dreyfus’s maligners, and ironically, by the Dreyfusards) but also with actual forensic evidence: people would buy and collect postcards bearing Dreyfus and Esterhazy’s handwriting.

After lunch, I attended a panel in which Amy Simon (Michigan State), Greg Drinkwater (Berkeley), Nathan Paradise (Minnesota), and Lauren Strauss (American) spoke of their activism–unpaid, emotionally taxing, and exhausting work–to include Jewish concerns and marginalization in the academic curriculum, especially after the Hamas massacre and the eruption of the war. The session was very well attended–standing room only–and offered some thoughts about whether, and to what extent, Jewish issues (including antisemitism) can and should fit in a DEI framework. Lots of useful takeaways, including the huge variation among campuses not only in policies and curricula but also in the interpersonal relationships between the different personages: campus administration, ethnic studies folks (often, but not always, a department devoid of Jewish voices), Jewish studies departments (which are not supposed to be advocacy centers but sometimes become such), Islamic studies departments and colleagues (who sometimes form great coalitions) and the student body (including a big conversation about the extent to which TikTok and the like shape young minds before they even come to college.) It was a great conversation which, while not offering a ton of hope, offered some interesting perspectives and ideas to try, and made me feel a lot less alone than before. I also plan to read Kenneth Stern’s The Conflict Over the Conflict (and will post a review soon.)

I then got to hear a fabulous roundtable about women and biblical law, featuring several interesting projects. Yael Landman, who uses a law-and-literature lens, discussed women’s property rights, especially regarding daughters’ dowries and inheritance; Samantha Rainford, who also studies inheritance roles, highlighted how the the daughters of Zelophechad had to be legally “made into men” in order for their inheritance to fit into the patriarchal lens. GTU’s very own Jennifer Lehmann studies maleness and masculinity in the Bible; as she explains, while men have been the focus of Biblical literature, only recently have they been studied through a gendered lens. She discussed two fascinating examples: Jacob’s sexuality in the Leah/Rachel bait-and-switch, and Joseph’s sexual victimization at Potiphar’s house (including issues of sexual servitude–and comparisons with Hagar.) And Sarah Shechtman discussed embodiment in biblical ritual.

I learned a ton, bought a heavily discounted set of the Bavli with English translation, and I hope made some new friends. Back tomorrow for more!

Happy Hanukkah! Components of a Religious “Package”

This week I had two remarkably similar conversations, one about Judaism and one about Buddhism, which revolved around the ingredients of religious identity. The first conversation came about when my Modern Jewish Thought class (taught by the one and only Sam Shonkoff) used traditional havruta study methods to study an unusual text: sections 48-49 of the Brandeis Center lawsuit I mentioned here. Here are the relevant paragraphs:

  1. The Jewish people share not only religious laws and traditions, but also a deep
    historical sense of Jewish peoplehood. The Jewish people’s history, theology, and culture are
    deeply intertwined with the land of Israel, the birthplace of Jewish religion and culture, and the
    place to which Jews have expressly yearned to return across centuries of forced diaspora.
    Throughout millennia of exile and persecution, the Jewish people have continued to recognize
    Jerusalem (also known as “Zion”) and the land of Israel as the Jews’ ancestral homeland. To this
    day, Jews pray facing toward Jerusalem. The Jewish calendar, Jewish life cycle events, Jewish
    law, and Jewish prayer reflect the deep historic and ancestral connection of the Jewish people to
    the land of Israel. For example, more than half of the 613 commandments included in the
    Pentateuch relate to, and can only be fulfilled in, the land of Israel. YOTAV ELIACH, JUDAISM,
  2. For most Jews, Zionism is as integral to Judaism as observing the Jewish Sabbath
    or maintaining a kosher diet. Of course, not all Jews observe the Sabbath or keep kosher, but
    those who do clearly are expressing critical components of their Jewish identity. Similarly, not all Jews are Zionists, but for those who are, the connection to the Jewish state is integral to their Jewish identity.

There is a lot to unpack here, first among which is the question whether Zionism is part of the Jewish religion or part of Jewish peoplehood or part of something else. Paragraph 49 seems to package Zionism alongside Shabbat and kashrut, and parts of Paragraph 48 tie Zionism to Israel-related mitzvot. But the beginning of Paragraph 48 suggest that, even for non-religious Jews, Zionism is a fundamental part of their identity–if they are Zionist. Which leaves me and, I assume, others, with the question: are there some things that are essential to every Jew’s Jewish identity? It looks like the assorted ingredients change from person to person: a secular Israeli might be completely alienated from Shabbat, mitzvot, kashrut, and all that jazz (perhaps through bitterness over the religious orthodoxy) but has strong ties to Israel and familial heritage. A convert to Judaism as a consequence of marrying a Jew might live in Atlanta or Paris, have no relationship with Israel whatsoever, but has a deliberate commitment to the faith through its intentional adoption. A member of a New York Ultra-Orthodox Yeshiva might or might not have a link to Israel but does have the heritage and orthodoxy tie. Is there any ingredient of this package that seems to be at the core of Judaism for all these people? Strip away all the components that any one person might have and others don’t, and what’s left? Judaism becomes elusive and slips through your fingers.

We had a similar conversation today in my Buddhism in the West class, taught by the incomparable Scott Mitchell. Throughout the semester, a big part of what we did was collapse categories often assumed by people about Buddhism, some of which involved a taxonomy of Buddhisms that distinguishes between “Asian Buddhism” (assumed to have been imported from its countries of origins and thus supposedly pure/unspoiled) versus “convert Buddhism” (assumed to reflect modern sensibilities and be practiced by white people, who focus on what the Buddha taught on the basis of a canon of classical texts without “ethnic trappings” like chanting or making offerings). As Natalie Quli argues,

I suggest that, by beginning with an essentialized Asian Buddhist “tradition,” many scholars have become preoccupied with protecting authentic, “traditional” Asian Buddhism from the contamination of Western-influenced “Buddhist modernism.” This simplistic model of Asian versus Western, traditional versus modernist, repeats the stereotype of a passive Asian and an active Westerner, perpetuating the researcher’s inclination to “save” Asian (and by extension, Asian American) Buddhism from the West. Others have used this dichotomy of the passive Asian/modernist Westerner to promote a new, supposedly “culture-free” form of Buddhism in the West that is unlike the traditional, conservative Asian Buddhism against which they paint it.

To more deeply understand Buddhists in the global ecumene, we must abandon nostalgic notions of “pure” cultures and traditions and recognize the presence of multiple and hybrid identities—such as both Asian and American, or Asian and Western. Many Buddhist scholars have relied on an unarticulated Western Self/Asian Other dichotomy, manifesting in a “hierarchy of field sites” that discourages studies of Western Buddhism, including both Asian Americans and non-Asian American converts, continuing to cultivate those old colonial fantasies of pure cultures and pure traditions.

Natalie Quli, Western Self, Asian Other: Modernity, Authenticity, and Nostalgia for “Tradition” in Buddhist Studies, Journal of Buddhist Ethics 16 (2009).

The existence of many hybrid Buddhisms, and the futile quest for unattainable “authenticity,” raises another question: Is there anything at the core of Buddhist identity? Friends in class, who belong to various Buddhist traditions, tried to come up with something and came up rather short. Someone suggested the Lotus Sutra (but what about Theravada Buddhists?); another suggested the Three Jewels (the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha); another suggested chanting; I proposed the Eightfold Path; someone else said maybe the Bodhisattva vow. Many of these would be familiar to many Buddhists, but the emphasis would be different; and then there are people born to Buddhist families and surrounded by Buddhists, who are Buddhists themselves but do not actually practice. Strip the components that are not shared, and what’s left of a Buddhist identity is as elusive as what’s left of a Jewish identity.

This is an especially important question to those of us seeking a spiritual life in a secular humanistic community. Without commandments, without a God, without necessarily a connection to Israel, what is Jewish about a secular humanistic Jewish congregation? The IISHJ has an answer to this, and here it is from Rabbi Adam Chalom:

Why Be Jewish? Rabbi Adam Chalom

The answer to the question “why be Jewish?” is going to be different for different people. For me, tonight, the answer is lighting candles with my son, my mom, and my partner, singing Hanukkah songs, and finding some extra light in the darkness, especially if it comes from a dinosaur-shaped hanukkiah.

Hail the Return of the Light with Candles

Next week we will celebrate Hanukkah at my son’s school. We come equipped with David Adler’s The Story of Hanukkah, svivonim (dreidels) and, if we can make the trek to the wonderful vegan bakery, delicious donuts. I read online that many Israelis feel such despair that they have no desire to celebrate the holiday; it is a holiday purportedly celebrating a miracle involving a religious uprising and the parallels and antagonisms to the murderous energies, failed leadership, and dread about what’s coming are too painful.

Perhaps folks might find something psychologically useful and encouraging from an alternative reason to celebrate the holiday, which can be found in Bavli Avodah Zarah 8a 7-8. My beloved high school teacher Aviva Sela (in the picture above) taught me this story as she was battling cancer as we talked about witchcraft, ritual, and encouragement (here is an incredible interview she gave at a radio show, which showcases what a one-of-a-kind person she was.) Leave it to her to imbue the holiday with sensitive psychological meaning. In any case, here’s the story:

לפי שראה אדם הראשון יום שמתמעט והולך אמר אוי לי שמא בשביל שסרחתי עולם חשוך בעדי וחוזר לתוהו ובוהו וזו היא מיתה שנקנסה עלי מן השמים עמד וישב ח’ ימים בתענית [ובתפלה]. כיון שראה תקופת טבת וראה יום שמאריך והולך אמר מנהגו של עולם הוא הלך ועשה שמונה ימים טובים לשנה האחרת עשאן לאלו ולאלו ימים טובים

When Adam the first man saw that the day was progressively diminishing, as the days become shorter from the autumnal equinox until the winter solstice, he did not yet know that this is a normal phenomenon, and therefore he said: Woe is me; perhaps because I sinned the world is becoming dark around me and will ultimately return to the primordial state of chaos and disorder. And this is the death that was sentenced upon me from Heaven, as it is written: “And to dust shall you return” (Genesis 3:19). He arose and spent eight days in fasting and in prayer. Once he saw that the season of Tevet, i.e., the winter solstice, had arrived, and saw that the day was progressively lengthening after the solstice, he said: Clearly, the days become shorter and then longer, and this is the order of the world. He went and observed a festival for eight days. Upon the next year, he observed both these eight days on which he had fasted on the previous year, and these eight days of his celebration, as days of festivities.

One need not be a serious sufferer of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) to respond to the changing seasons with melancholy. The weather, at least here in the Northern Hemisphere, is getting colder; the days are shorter, and our kids cannot play in the playground as late as they would like; we turn our attention inward and dwell on memories past and fears of the future. The horrid weight of the last two months is compounded by the falling shadows in the afternoon; the darkness of the morning adds to the despair one feels trying to get out of bed. Lighting one more candle each day can serve as a psychological reminder that the light will return, and that we can fight even a small part of the darkness outside with a light we carry within.

Yesterday I attended kabalat shabbat at Congregation Sha’ar Zahav. The congregation commemorated the AIDS crisis and the rabbi read out a quote from Tony Kushner’s Angels in America:

This disease will be the end of many of us, but not nearly all, and the dead will be
commemorated and will struggle on with the living, and we are not going away. We won’t die secret deaths anymore. The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come.
Bye now.
You are fabulous creatures, each and every one.
And I bless you: More Life.
The Great Work Begins.

So it does for all of us in the East and West.

Brandeis Center Sues UC Berkeley for Antisemitic Discrimination

Yesterday, while on business on the UC Berkeley/GTU side of the bridge, I ran into a colleague who offhandedly mentioned that the Brandeis Center was suing the university for its antisemitism. I swiftly got hold of a copy of the complaint, which you can find here in its entirety:

Brandeis Center Complaint 1… by hadaraviram

Let’s parse out what is going on here.

Much of the complaint walks well-trodden paths I know merely from being a Jewish-Israeli-American academic on both sides of the bridge. Yes, yes, yes, yes, being Jewish, and especially Israeli, on American campuses these days is like swimming through a river of shit. But experiencing distress, ugliness, and hostility in itself is not ground for legal relief. Moreover, expressed opinions, odious as they may be to the listener (and even when expressed in an odious manner), are protected under the First Amendment. So, what is the legal argument being made?

Brandeis’ argument is more or less the following: Beyond the hostile work environment experienced by Jewish students, various law school student clubs (whose activities, notably, are unrelated to Israel/Palestine) have required that their members, if Jewish, (1) disavow Zionism or (2) attend a “Palestine 101” class in which they are told Israel has no right to exist. It looks like the law school clubs are trying to skirt around limitations pertaining to religious discrimination by allowing Jews to join, but only what they consider to be the right kind of Jews: anti-Zionist ones. These limitations extend not only to the students, but also to speakers and to people hoping to publish articles in some of Berkeleys’ law journals. These loyalty oath requirements and reeducation camps preceded the current crisis by at least a couple of years. I vividly remember giving a talk about FESTER at Berkeley’s Center for the Study of Law and Society a couple of years ago. The talk, which had nothing to do with Israel or Judaism, was advertised on Twitter by Berkeley’s media team, and some of the commenters replied by tweeting, “but will the students let them speak?” I didn’t encounter any problem that day, but to be fair, I was there by invitation of my colleagues to speak to colleagues, and student clubs were not involved. Because I would never agree to loyalty oaths or gulags, I imagine that some student clubs (including those concerned with prisons or healthcare) would not invite me to speak there, and I also imagine that it’s not worth my time and effort to send papers to any UC Berkeley journals, because they will not be judged on the merits (for those of you scratching your heads, the law review publication market is insane; not only is the article selection not anonymous, but people actually submit their CVs alongside their articles. This explains the bizarre incident a few years ago, in which some student in a law school that shall remain anonymous asked me to omit my military service from my CV so that he’d be able to persuade his fellow student editors to publish the piece. So none of this surprises me in the least.)

[As an aside: Even though most of the stench wafting from this lawsuit emanates specifically from Berkeley Law, Erwin Chemerinsky or the law school are not being sued, and neither are the particular student orgs, which I find curious. I would love to know why, though I suspect it has to do with Chemerinsky’s recent op-ed expressing his dismay about virulent antisemitism and/or with the expectation of having responsible adults as adversaries.]

Berkeley’s counterargument, I imagine, will go something like this: none of the student club behavior, and none of the university’s tacit or explicit endorsement of these rules and exclusions, is antisemitic, because none of it bars Jews from participation. It only bars people who are openly Zionist. And here’s where things might get interesting.

In 2010, the Supreme Court decided Christian Legal Society v. Martinez. The respondent is my colleague Leo Martinez, who was Acting Dean at UC Law SF (formerly Hastings) at the time. The plaintiff was an off-shoot of CLS-National, an association of Christian lawyers and law students, which charters student chapters at law schools throughout the country. Like Berkeley, UC Law SF is a public school with nondiscrimination rules in its charter, and subject to the Bill of Rights. Under this nondiscrimination regime, UC Law SF had an “all-comers” policy for its student orgs: they must be open to participation of all students. CLS, however, required that all its charters adopt bylaws requiring members and officers to sign a “Statement of Faith” and to conduct their lives in accord with prescribed principles. Among the tenets that prospective members had to commit to was the belief that sexual activity should not occur outside of marriage between a man and a woman; CLS interpreted its bylaws to exclude from affiliation anyone who engages in “unrepentant homosexual conduct.” CLS also excluded students who hold religious convictions different from those in the Statement of Faith. In light of these requirements, UC Law SF refused to approve CLS as a registered student organization (RSO), which denied CLS access to university funding.

The Supreme Court ruled against CLS (which led to much rejoicing at the next faculty meeting, as you can imagine.) Justice Ginsburg, who wrote the majority opinion, found the “all-comers” policy reasonable, and the balance struck with CLS (they can host events as an outside entity–just not allowed to receive money from the school) constitutionally proper.

The situation with the Brandeis lawsuit is a bit different, because it comes from the opposite side: a complaint from students who cannot access these organizations and opportunities. Since Berkeley, like UC Law SF, has an “all-comers” policy, it looks like whether or not these clubs have run afoul of it depends on whether you accept Brandeis’ premise that “Zionism is an Integral Component of Jewish Identity.” At least for some Jewish UC Berkeley students (as recent events have obviously proven), this is not true–one might even say that anti-Zionism is an integral component of whatever identity they have, Jewish or otherwise. In an interview to the Jewish News of Northern California, Dean Chemerinsky estimated that “to say anyone who supports the existence of the State of Israel–that’s what you define as Zionism–shouldn’t speak would exclude about, I don’t know, at least 90 percent of our Jewish students,” though more recent events might suggest otherwise. I don’t know, and neither does anyone at Berkeley, because no one has done a survey, and moreover, in all the disputes about who is and is not a Zionist, one is often hard-pressed to find a solid definition of Zionism (or even any rudimentary education on the subject.) The question remains: Is Zionism “an integral component of Jewish identity?” And it it is to some but not to others, is it to be regarded as religious discrimination if, for Jewish Zionists, it is?

Let’s take a look again at the CLS policy from CLS v. Martinez. Notice that, at no point, did CLS deny membership to gay or lesbian members. Presumably, if you are homosexual and keep your homosexuality to yourself, CLS would welcome you. Or, if you’re riddled with shame about your desires and attractions and your homosexual conduct is “repentant,” you should be fine. I think the point of the analysis is that CLS cannot claim to be inclusive of gay people if it is only inclusive of those of them who remain in the closet and are guilty and conflicted about who they are and who they are attracted to (do some people love sad queers in the same way that others love dead Jews?). But is being Zionist, for Jews, the same as being “out and proud” for gay people? This requires a lot of intricate, hairsplitting attention to the components of each identity.

Assume, for example, that CLS had allowed any and all openly gay people to join its ranks, but only if they (1) disavowed support for same-sex marriage (not every gay person supports gay marriage, some for assorted anti-heteronormative reasons) or (2) attended “family values 101” that would teach them that children with same-sex parents are miserable and deprived. Would that pass muster with the Supreme Court? I don’t think so, but if it would, then we need to ask ourselves whether supporting the State of Israel’s right to exist is more of an “integral part” of being Jewish than supporting same-sex marriage is an “integral part” of being gay.

This brings up lots of complicated questions about the relationship of different Jewish denominations, throughout history, with the aspiration to return to Israel. One documented issue that was repeatedly brought up in debates about Jewish emancipation in Europe had to do with the Jews’ “dual loyalty,” to the emancipating country and to their ancestral land. For this reason, when the newly established Reform strain formed their credo and ethos upon inaugurating the Hamburg Temple, they excised from the liturgy not only the Hebrew language, but aspirations to return to Israel and any messianic content. To their Orthodox detractors, that was tantamount to rejecting an “integral component of Jewish identity.” But to the assimilation-hungry Reform congregants, it was nothing of the sort: it was the fashioning of a new, modern Jewish identity that they could live with and feel well integrated with their surroundings. In other words, what is and is not an “integral component of Jewish identity” means different things to different people in different times and places. There are even diasporist critiques of the centrality of Israel to Jewish life, though as Julie Copper points out in this interesting article, they tend to “prove wanting because they contest Zionism on the terrain of Jewish identity” as opposed to “envision[ing] Jewish political solidarity beyond the confines of the nation-state.”

But if we were to envision such solidarity, what exactly would it consist of, except agreeing that living on American campuses right now downright sucks? If, as various organizations like Bend the Arc or Tru’ah argue, our consensus should form around issues of progressivism and tikkun olam and all that jazz, why does it feel like engaging in these advocacies proves a hollow hope from Jews as it produces exactly the opposite of political solidarity? If you take Israel out of the equation, in other words, what is left (pun intended)?

Finally, in the last couple of months I’ve noticed that American Jews and American Israelis experience the issue of Zionism and anti-Zionism in very different ways. Obviously, when people express academic fascination (theoretically or not) with the scintillating question whether or not you and your loved ones have a right to exist, they shouldn’t be all that surprised to find you an unenthusiastic intellectual partner for that exercise, and you’re not likely to enjoy the debate. In 2018, Bret Stephens wrote precisely that:

All this is to say that Israelis experience anti-Zionism in a different way than, say, readers of The New York Review of Books: not as a bold sally in the world of ideas, but as a looming menace to their earthly existence, held at bay only through force of arms. It’s somewhat like the difference between discussing the effects of Marxism-Leninism in an undergraduate seminar at Reed College, circa 2018 — and experiencing them at closer range in West Berlin, circa 1961.

Which raises another cluster of questions: If, as Berkeley will likely claim, Zionism is not an integral part of one’s Jewish identity, is it an integral part of one’s Israeli identity? If the student club policy cannot be classified as religious discrimination, is it discrimination on the basis of nationality? Is it possible to surgically separate one’s belief that one’s country has a right to exist from being a citizen of that country? And, given that, under the Law of Return, every Jew has a right to return to Israel, the Jewish nation state, is every Jew being discriminated against (on the basis of putative nationality)?

I look forward to seeing how this lawsuit evolves and will post more as developments unfold.

Welcome Home: The Value of a Human Life

The wonderful videos are up and tears are rolling down my cheeks: children hugging their parents, families hugging grandparents. The first hostages are being returned. I wished for nothing more than to live to see these videos and my heart flows with gratitude. I have been watching Ohad Munder’s first hug with his dad again and again, sobbing with joy. But I feel so much inquietude around all this, mostly paralyzing fear for the fate of the remaining hostages. And I fear that some of this dark teatime of the soul has to do with confronting the transactional value of human life.

Recently, I got to read a classic anthropological text from 1923 by Marcel Mauss called The Gift. Mauss marshals evidence from various societies in which gift-giving is common to show that gifts are not spontaneous or selfless; rather, they are surrounded by elaborate social norms that dictate how to give, how to receive, and how to reciprocate. Gifts are an important and thoroughly ritualized social adhesive. At no time is the issue of reciprocity and value-setting clearer than when witnessing a hostage exchange, which makes a transaction out of the gift of human life between parties whose animosity is at its peak. As I read coverage about the Israeli hostages and the released Palestinian prisoners I think, who is being valued more? Whose children are coded as “children” and who are coded as “prisoners,” “Palestinian terrorists,” or “Zionist occupiers”?

The transactional nature of the releases brings into stark relief the range of values that the many stakeholders and parties to this conflict affix to different human lives. A few years ago, I read Peter Singer’s The Most Good You Can Do, where he makes an impassioned argument against parochialism. By contrast to Rashi’s adage that “the poor people of your own town come first,” Singer argues that all lives have the same value and that altruistic giving should therefore eschew parochial considerations and, instead, maximize the good for as many people as possible. I understand, cognitively, what Singer is trying to say, and of course I cognitively comprehend that every life is precious. But I think that, in his admonitions, Singer is being less than responsive to the basic workings of human psychology, which I am observing in my own soul as well as in the souls around me. A Gazan family will be welcoming a released teenager soon with their own joy, adjacent to the Israeli joy but not touching it. The folks online reminding and admonishing and lecturing about how you can feel for both sides are able to host a modicum of generalized warmth because they are not psychologically invested and wound up in one side of this conflict or in another. This is not about who has a heart and who is heartless, but about where people are positioned. And I’m beginning to think that Rashi did not issue an edict so much as offered a description of where people’s natural sympathies flow.

(As an aside, it is such a psychologically bizarre experience to scroll through Facebook posts, finding Israeli and, to a lesser degree, Jewish posters concerned with the fate of the hostages and posting incessantly about them and about the war, while other people post silly memes and their Thanksgiving tables. The folks who post thus are not bad or evil or lacking in empathy. It’s just… not their thing. How many horrific human disasters in faraway lands have I heard about and, while feeling keen sorrow for those involved, moved on with my life, largely unaffected?)

Along these lines: twenty-four people were released yesterday, 11 of which were Thai and Nepalese workers. What a heartache, to be thrusted into the heart of hell in a conflict unrelated to you, because you had to move away to a far away land to make a living; to find yourself caged and tortured, caught between parties in a war zone. Initially, their names and pictures were unavailable, anonymous in captivity and in liberty as they were when trying to make a living in a cruel global economy. This morning I finally saw their picture. I was so moved to see Jimmy Pacheco’s release and how he was embraced by kibbutz members. The man for whom Jimmy worked as a caregiver, Amitai Ben-Zvi, was murdered by Hamas, and Jimmy was kidnapped and manhandled with horrific violence. The world devalues the lives of foreign workers so systematically and deeply. The hug between Jimmy and members of the Ben-Zvi family was a balm to my heart.

And then there are the lists. A huge, painful, never-healing wound in Jewish history involves the Judenrat’s listmaking in ghettos, making horrifying decisions on who must be saved and who must be shipped to the east to be murdered in concentration camps. It is really hard to reckon with the fact that people’s demographics play a horrifying role in setting their price in hostage exchanges. I wake up nightly from horrible nightmares involving the toddlers in captivity, especially baby Kfir Bibas, and shudder when I consider that the monsters who hold them captive understand the psychological value we affix to children. As my beloved late colleague Sherry Colb and her husband, Michael Dorf, wrote in Beating Hearts, there is a special premium on the lives of children. And at the same time, there is a frailty to aging people (which I addressed in several of my works). And I’m so moved by the return of the brave, stoic grandmothers, many of whom lost husbands to sadistic murderers. But this also means that the precious lives of young men are going to be devalued by comparison, and that they will have to withstand captivity longer, and I worry that the calculus of the worth of human lives versus military objectives will change as the war rages on.

Speaking of Colb and Dorf’s book, I also think a lot about the lives of animals brought into this homo sapiens conflict. One brief clip from the horror footage of October 7 keeps sawing through my mind: the murderers and kidnappers drive a truck away with hostages on it, weeping. The family dog chases the truck, barking, running, trying to save his family members. And these evil monsters shoot the dog dead. Why? WHY?! Why the dog? What does the dog have to do with any of this? Is the dog a Zionist occupier? I think about all the families who had to make the tough decisions to leave their dogs and cats outside their safe rooms and shelters. Family members whom they loved and cherished, like we love and cherish Inti and Gulu. What a thing to confront and to reckon with. They were trying to save their children’s lives, their parents’ lives. What choices people have had to make. And what complicated feelings to process amidst the layers of horror and grief.

I’m sure I’m not the only person who is confronting complicated and uneasy feelings about all this. What makes me feel a bit better, a bit more inspired, is an amazing statement made by Yoni Asher, whose wife and two daughters were returned from captivity yesterday. Asher says: “It is okay to rejoice and it is okay to shed a tear, but I am not celebrating and will not celebrate until the last of the hostages returns.”

May we live to welcome them all home.