By BERNIE BELLAN Different events that occurred in the past few weeks have come together in my mind to illustrate how rapidly the Jewish community in Winnipeg – and probably just about everywhere else in the world is changing.
First, we had the announcement from the Shaarey Zedek Synagogue that Matthew Leibl was going to be leaving his position as a radio sports announcer to begin studies toward becoming a rabbi. (And yes, I’m well aware that Cantor Anibal Maas is also beginning that same program of study, but for someone whose occupation is already so deeply associated with the synagogue, Cantor Maas’s move would hardly be considered as novel a move as Matthew Leibl’s.)
Then, we heard the shocking news that Jerry Maslowsky had died – only a very short time after he had been diagnosed with cancer. Like Leibl – and Maas too, to a certain extent Maslowsky’s name was synonymous – at least within the Jewish community, with singing. But, it wasn’t just singing that Maslowsky did, it was all forms of entertainment, including dancing (when he was a featured performer at the Hollow Mug back in the day, later with the Chai Folk Ensemble); acting – again, in musical theatre productions beginning with his days at Jefferson Junior High; and m.c.ing, which he did on numerous occasions throughout his life. (One might also add choreographing, which is something I learned he did when I attended the celebration of life held in his honour on Thursday, September 8, at the Convention Centre.)
By the way, not to digress, but this idea of holding a “celebration of life” for someone who is Jewish is bound to become increasingly popular as time goes on. I realize that more traditional Jews might chafe at the notion of incorporating yet another non-Jewish ritual into a life cycle event; however, with the high incidence of intermarriage within our community, it would be unrealistic to think that surviving non-Jewish spouses will be content with having a Jewish funeral alone for spouses who have passed on, if there is even a traditional Jewish funeral at all. I rather think that holding a celebration of life some time after someone has passed, when organizers of the event can gather together various strands of someone’s life in a cohesive and thoughtful manner – through speeches, music, pictures, and video clips, is a beautiful way to say good bye to someone.
To return to my original thought - the common thread that links Matthew Leibl’s decision to become a rabbi and Jerry Maslowsky’s continual role as an entertainer at Jewish events is the word “entertainment” Even as I read the advertisements for the Shaarey Zedek Synagogue in this paper for the High Holidays, I was struck by how much the services at that synagogue are depicted in a manner that can be fairly described as entertainment: shorter services, keyboard accompaniment, introduction of new prayer books with new melodies for traditional prayers. There’s nothing new in what the Shaarey Zedek is doing – it’s just a continuation of a trend that began years ago in the United States as synagogues there sought to become more “relevant”. Heck, if I had to go back through our archives and see the number of stories we’ve had sent to us by our wire service, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, describing yet another innovation within synagogue services – all meant either to attract younger members or just retain older members who had grown bored with traditional services, I’m sure I could fill a 300-page book with stories of that sort.
At the same time though, what Jerry Maslowsky was able to do, more often than not with his also supremely talented sister, Debbie, was provide audiences here with a heavy dose of schmaltzy nostalgia that created a link for so many members of those audiences to a bygone era – an era filled with Yiddish music, and with listening to the Yiddish radio program on Sundays in parents’ or grandparents’ homes. What Jerry and Debbie did, therefore, was create an artificial environment for Jews, even if for just a short time, that made them remember moments in their youths.
But, as those members of the older generation who so reveled in the type of nostalgia that Jerry and Debbie were so successfully able to conjure up pass on, it’s not likely that members of our Jewish community who are taking the places of the older generation will want to continue maintaining those traditional forms of entertainment, just as, by and large, younger Jews are no longer interested in traditional synagogue practices.
This leads me to the other observation that dawned upon me when I attended Jerry Maslowsky’s celebration of life: his immersion in the world of sports - just as Matthew Leibl had also been immersed in that same world. I doubt that there is any other aspect of society in which Jews can so feel completely part of mainstream society as sports.
I was struck by how, at Malslowsky’s celebration of life, one speaker after another – save for two, did not mention even once that Jerry was Jewish. The only two to mention Jerry’s having been Jewish were his life-long friend Dr. Harvey Chochinov, and his sister Debbie. I don’t regard it as an oversight that none of the other speakers even referred to that fact; it simply did not enter into the equation for them in describing how they felt about Jerry.
Yet, for me, Jerry’s identity was inextricably linked to his being Jewish, as every occasion that I had the chance to see him was a Jewish event. It just goes to show how easy it is now for someone to have one foot in society at large – where that person’s identity is not linked to his or her religious or ethnic background, and another foot in that very background.
For Jewish men especially, therefore, it’s the world of sports that has proved to be such an able surrogate for the kinds of experiences that previously either interest in the synagogue or perhaps Israel used to provide. I realize that I’m hardly making a profound observation when I say this. Reams have been written about how sports has filled the void left by the decline of religion for the masses.
Yet, as I listened to speaker after speaker at Maslowsky’s celebration of life describe what they regarded as his essence: his love for the Blue Bombers, his love for family, his love for entertaining, his love for doing things for other people – I thought to myself: Years back all those things would probably have been said about so many other individuals, but either instead of love for the Blue Bombers, or perhaps in addition to that, we would have heard love for the Jewish community, love for synagogue, or love for Israel.
Jerry and I were close in age; I was a few years older. Yet we both grew up in similar circumstances, so I could easily relate to his love for the Blue Bombers. As for Matthew Leibl, he’s well known as a baseball nut – something I find a little harder to understand, as it seems harder to me to develop a fanaticism about a sport where you don’t have a major league team playing in your home town.
But, as the sports writer Scott Taylor (who, at one time, wrote for this paper until he decided he’d had enough of me picking on then-mayor Sam Katz) once observed about sports: “Where else can you care so much about something that matters so little?”
This leads me to a further observation: If sports has supplanted religion as the primary area of interest for so many Jews (and, in fact, has become the new religion), where does that leave caring about Israel in terms of priorities for modern Jews?
I’ve written before about the Pew survey of American Jews a few years back, which showed that interest in Israel occupied a much lower priority for American Jews than used to be the case. My friend Martin Zeilig sent me a fascinating piece written by Uri Avnery about how Israel itself is deeply divided between primarily secular Ashkenazie Jews who are quite sympathetic to the notion of a Palestinian state, and primarily traditional Sephardic Jews who don’t want even to consider the idea of a Palestinian state. Avnery goes on to predict what he calls a coming “civil war” between the two sides, although I think he overstates the case.
Surveys of young North American Jews, however, have tended to show that, not only are they not interested in synagogue, they have a much greater sympathy for Palestinians than their parents. All too often Jews who are critical of Israel’s behaviour toward the Palestinians are dismissed as “self-hating Jews”. Yet, just as younger generations of Jews – if they even identify as Jews in the first place - which is often doubtful, see themselves as part of a larger society in which ethnic and religious identity is subsumed by a larger identity as “Canadians” or “Americans”, don’t have the same interest in Israel as older generations had, we should be careful not to dismiss their criticisms of Israel out of hand.
To bring it all home – it’s quite clear that the Jewish community, both in Winnipeg and worldwide, has changed radically over the years. Jewish traditions have been supplanted by new, secular traditions – and that trend is bound to continue; sports has served as an able substitute for traditional religion; and Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians does not bode well either for the future of that county or the future of Jewish identity among younger generations. We can chafe at what’s been happening or we can learn simply to accept it as the new reality. But, in all cases, we should be willing to accept these changes as essential to understanding what is happening without burying our heads in the sand.