Tablet is a daily online magazine of Jewish news, ideas, and culture. Launched in June 2009, it’s a project of the not-for-profit Nextbook Inc., which also produces the Nextbook Press Jewish Encounters book series. Our archive holds all the articles and features that originally appeared on the website Nextbook.org.
HaKochav Haba is one of Israels most popular televised singing competitions. Instead of mere fame and fortune, each seasons winner is dispatched to represent the nation in the Eurovision song contest, a continental musical extravaganza that is, to paraphrase the saying, a continuation of war by other means. All of this is to say that its a show Israelis take very seriously, which is why they were thrilled this Sunday when Nissim, a black haredi rapper, took the stage.
Born Damian Black in Seattle, Nissim was once described by the Seattle Times as Seattle hip-hops first son, the mini-wrecking ball with a golden voice. He found Jesus when he was 14, but after his friend was shot and killed began questioning his faith and grew closer to a local community of Jews for Jesus. Enamored with Judaisms teachings, he began to study it more seriously, and, together with his wife, converted to Orthodox Judaism. The couple and their five children made aliya in 2012, with Nissim recording a string of albums that featured his high-brow conversational stylethink Talib Kweliwith his obvious passion for his religion.
A seven-year-old Israeli girl and her mother went for a walk earlier this week in the Beit Shean Valley, enjoying an afternoon in nature when the child stumbled on a strange object. She picked it up and handed it to her mother, who just happened to be a student of archeology at Haifa University. The mother didn’t need more than one look to identify the object as an ancient oil lamp dating back 2,200 years, meaning it would’ve been in use in the days of Judah Maccabee.
The two were thrilled to make such a discovery, especially so close to Hanukkah, but the mother’s suspicion soon arose: If such a priceless object was laying out in the open, she thought, that probably meant that antique robbers were out and about. She called Nir Distelfeld of the Israel Antiquities Authority, who arrived on the scene to investigate. When he did, he chuckled: The culprits who dug up the lamp, he said, weren’t robbers but porcupines, who like to burrow for the winter. They’re often drawn to excavation sites, he added, because they’ve been dug over by people and the earth is easier to turn. The young girl and her mother, Distelfeld said, will receive a certificate of commendation for their finding, while the porcupines, he added, will not face any criminal charges. It’s a Hanukkah miracle all around.
Anyone who reads the Talmudas Daf Yomi readers have been doing for the last five yearswill eventually start to wonder about the logic of its organization. The Talmud is divided into orders, sedarim, which in turn are divided into tractates, masekhtot, and each tractate contains a number of chapters, perakim. But at each level of organization, there are anomaliesmoments when it is not clear why the rabbis chose to address this subject matter in this place. Thus the name of Seder Nashim suggests that it will focus on laws relating to women, as it does in the tractates about marriage and divorce; it also contains tractate Nedarim, which deals with vow-taking, a seemingly unrelated topic. Within tractates there is even more variety, because the rabbis will frequently break off their discussion of the main subject to teach unrelated laws that happen to come from the same Tannaitic source, or that follow a similar logical pattern. As a result, its impossible to use the titles of the tractates as a reliable guide to their contents. If you want to know about, say, the laws of temple sacrifices, or of Shabbat, or of ritual purity, you have to look in many different places, not just in the tractates nominally devoted to those subjects.
I know Lorin Stein a little bit. We werent exactly friends, but we were New York City friends, with all that entails. I regarded him, and believe the regard was reciprocal, as the sort of person with whom one could work to mutual advantage without the expectation of enduring loyalty. I believed that he was the sort of personthe rare sort of personwho could make writers better than they really were, and whose literary judgment was trustworthy. One of my goals in life was to write a work of fiction that he would judge to be good, and that he would help to make better. Many, perhaps even most, writers of fiction aspired to be seen as worthy of Lorin Steins attention. Not many were. He had earned the right to confer this privilege by a long record of editorial achievements for which he is justly esteemed.
People admired Stein for his devotion to his craft. They gossiped about him because of his carefully constructed persona. He could be winning, and devilish. He was often surrounded by women who were smart and personable and pleasing to look at, the kind who wore their erudition lightly, and fed upon, and fed, the leisurely mood he seemed to conjure wherever he went. When he fixed his unblinking, mesmerized gaze inches closer than you were accustomed to anyone fixing it, invading your personal space just enough to make you self-conscious, you were aware of a subtle assertion of power. It takes a great deal of self-assurance to impose yourself in the manner that was habitual to him. Whether it was sheer bravado, an act, or the true manifestation of a lordly nature was a subject of ironic (nobody really thought it was the third option) debate among people inclined to gossip about the tiny world we inhabited, where he was regarded (with a mixture of irony, resentment, affection, scorn, and awe) as a prince.
There are more than 7 billion people in the world, and roughly 13 million Jews. There are 6 million Jews in America, and about the same in Israel, with the remainder scattered about the globe. So that leaves about just 6 million Jews in their natural habitat: If we were of the animal kingdom, the Jewish people would be an endangered species. It seems the world will do more to preserve the spotted owl in its natural habitat than the last remaining Jews in theirs. Perhaps Israel, the nation-state of the Jewish people, should be like a bird sanctuary, and the world should make it a special crime to kill a Jew.
The Jewish people are special. There arent many of us left. The perils of assimilation are not new. However, the catastrophic results of our collective failure to give our children an adequate sense of Jewish identity and experience, of Jewish specialnessthe depth of this weakness in the fabric of our collective identity, which saps the will of young Jews to stand apart when its uncomfortable or unpopularthis is new. And the impact is accelerating.