(JTA) — Rabbi Debbie Bravo once called the High Holiday sermon “the World Series for rabbis.” Not only does it fall in late autumn, but it’s a high-pressure opportunity for rabbis to show their best stuff to what is often the largest crowd — that is, congregation — of the year.
The High Holiday sermon is also something of a “state of the union” address. Rabbis and other clergy often discuss the political and social moment, exploring the issues that preoccupied Jews in the year just past.
This week the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reviewed Rosh Hashanah sermons that rabbis delivered last week and posted online or shared directly with us. For rabbis who did discuss current events, often in the language of America’s largely liberal Jewish community, some themes were common, unsurprising and probably unavoidable: the crisis over Israel’s planned judicial overhaul, climate change, artificial intelligence, book bans and antisemitism.
Other rabbis took on more personal topics, like death and dying and the loneliness epidemic, or focused tightly on the religious themes of the Days of Awe, including renewal, repentance or teshuvah, and forgiveness.
What follows are excerpts from and links to sermons from across North America and the range of Jewish denominations. They form a group portrait of American Jewry at the start of 5784, the new Jewish year.
Rabbi Jeffrey Saxe of the Reform Temple Rodeph Shalom in Falls Church, Virginia, addressed congregants who may be reluctant to criticize Israel despite disagreeing with its government’s plans to weaken the power of the country’s judiciary. He took a lesson from the Book of Jonah, read on Yom Kippur:
God teaches us the most important lesson of the Book of Jonah: that criticism must be given as a blessing and not a curse. Especially when a harsh word of warning is needed to bring one back from the edge, it must be offered as a lifeline and not a threat. …. This text challenges us both to recognize when this is needed, and to remember that the commandment in Leviticus to rebuke your neighbor comes just one verse before, paired inextricably, with the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself. Criticism and disagreement must be conducted with love. By fostering and deepening our relationship with Israel, we take a place in the conversation that comes from caring. By acknowledging all sides and their humanity, we model the sensitivity that is needed to raise the level of the discussion. By being part of one of the countless efforts and organizations to help Palestinians, help Jews, build something, and be part of a positive vision, we earn the credibility to say our piece.
Rabbi Angela Buchdahl of New York’s Reform Central Synagogue also urged solidarity with the hundreds of thousands of protesters in Israel who have taken to the streets in opposition to their government’s judicial reform plans:
If you care about democratic rights — help preserve the only functional democracy in the Middle East. If you care about the vulnerable — safeguard the sole sanctuary for Jewish refugees in need. If you value Jewish Peoplehood, hear the cries of the other half of our Jewish family and remember: the destiny of Am Yisrael is bound, one to the other.
This young, messy, miraculous Jewish state is the most important, sovereign democratic project of the Jewish people of the last 2000 years.
We cannot walk away. While the task can feel at times, overwhelming, exhausting, Pirke Avot teaches:Iit is not our duty to complete it, only not to abandon it.
In his Rosh Hashanah morning sermon, Rabbi Joshua Davidson of New York’s Reform Congregation Emanu-El reported on his visit to Israel with a group of local rabbis and their conversation with politician Simcha Rothman:
When my turn came to speak, I asked him how he intended to protect the rights of those who don’t align with his politics, Israelis who are not haredi or from the Religious Zionist camp. He responded dismissively: “If you Reformim want to secure your rights, more of you should move to Israel.” Stunningly unaware he was addressing a delegation of Conservative and Orthodox rabbis, too, this chair of the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee made painfully clear that his view of law and justice was purely majoritarian. Minority rights be damned.
It was a shattering encounter. One that revealed this coalition cares nothing for me, my Judaism, or my Jewish community. Don’t they know my congregation’s tireless efforts to strengthen American Jewry’s commitment to Israel? Don’t they know we lovingly display Israel’s flag on our bimah? And here my colleagues and I had travelled across an ocean only to get stiff-armed! Oy. Even in Israel, shver tsu zayn a Yid, sometimes it’s hard to be a Jew!
Rabbi Jesse Olitzky of Congregation Beth El, a Conservative synagogue in South Orange, New Jersey, began his sermon with a passage generated by ChatGPT. He went on to discuss how the temptations of artificial intelligence are at odds with a Jewish ethic that wants individuals to be responsible for their own work, and for the introspection demanded during the High Holidays:
No one else can do the work for us. That, ultimately, has been my hesitation with ChatGPT all along. To get judged on performance without doing the work doesn’t seem right. But when we do the work of Teshuvah, of repentance and returning, it can only be our work. And it needs to be in our words. After we’ve done the work, after we’ve dug down deep, the apologies we offer must be genuine, authentic, and specific.
We may appreciate what is convenient, but that which is easy isn’t necessarily holy.
Neil F. Blumofe, the senior rabbi of the Conservative Congregation Agudas Achim in Austin, Texas, also spoke about artificial intelligence and the hazards of “generative” technology that learns from common patterns in existing sets of data. His synagogue is a recipient of a Scientists in Synagogues grant to study the future of “Ethics, AI, and Well-Being”:
AI reflects what God declares just before God decides to destroy creation back in Genesis — “yetzer lev ha’adam ra minurav” — the tendency of the heart of each person is evil from their youth. If one is building on what prior generations have built, knowing even a little bit about world history, this is not a sterling model for success — rather, this compounds the inherent faults and magnifies that which is most base about human existence. Generative AI is the sum of all that has already been. This is pernicious and leaves little room for curiosity, transformation, intimacy and teshuvah. As we seek to understand AI, we must grapple with the burdens of our inheritance. With a chill, we realize that a group also has a self, or at least an identity that does not reflect who we as individuals would like to be. As a group we can heed the words of the cartoonist Walt Kelly: “We have met the enemy, and the enemy is us.”
Rabbi Eric Woodward of Congregation Beth El-Keser Israel, a Conservative synagogue in New Haven, Connecticut, addressed climate change — and how the focus on what individuals can do to slow global warming shifts the responsibility from the big polluters and policy-makers to individuals who only end up feeling guilty for the ways they fall short. Nevertheless, he says, the everyday actions individuals take — eating less meat, booking fewer airplane trips, buying fewer disposables — are necessary goads to communal purpose and political action:
The individual actions we do — the climate mitzvot we practice — are prayers in the form of action. We know that they do not substitute for communal action. We know that they are perhaps not effective in some total calculus. But we still do them. It’s like praying for healing — we know that this does not substitute for going to the doctor, and we know that it is not really effective in some final calculation. But we still do it. Why? Because we believe in the value of expressing our desire for redemption in the world; because we believe in the importance of giving body and voice to our hopes to God; because we believe that it builds our character and forms our consciousness; because it is how we make a community around our ideals; because it is a beautiful thing that humans have done since time immemorial.
At Stephen Wise Temple, a Reform synagogue in Los Angeles, Rabbi Sari Laufer spoke about the deadly wildfires that tore through Maui, Hawaii, earlier in the summer and the rescuers and healers — whom she refers to as “angels” — who help others recover from trauma:
The angel might be a distant colleague whose note after the death of a parent opens a new friendship. The angel might be a friend who, without asking, drops off a carton of art supplies and projects to occupy your children while you are caregiving an ailing parent. It might be the friend, or spouse, or child who sits wordlessly next to you during treatment, or the one who sends texts to make you laugh. It might be the friend or child who walks around the block with you as you rise from shiva. You don’t have to literally save someone who is drowning to be their angel — oftentimes just showing up, picking up the phone, dropping off a meal is what’s required. Angels are the ones who just show up, again and again, whether you’ve asked them or not.
Rabbi Stacy Friedman of the Reform Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael, California, warned about complacency in the face of what writer Anne Lamott calls “catastrophe burnout”:
An ancient rabbinic commentary imagines the angels asking, “When does Rosh Hashanah begin?” The answer, they learned, is not found on the calendar, but in our deeds; when we recognize the humanity in every human being and act accordingly. Our world calls out to us today to stand up and speak out and to heal what is broken in our world. Last year on Rosh Hashanah, I spoke about our climate crisis, and today I am speaking about what Rabbi Jonathan Sacks called our “culture climate crisis,” and what Judaism demands us in response. It is time to work to repair our fractured nation and to restore decency and dignity both here and in Israel. There is just too much at stake. On Rosh Hashanah we are called to restore a moral vision to our world, one based on our highest values of chesed, compassion, kavod, respect, and kedusha, holiness which resides in every human being. Our task for this new year 5784 is to look at the world as it is and to imagine it as it can be. And then, to do everything in our power to manifest this vision in our world.
Marc Katz is rabbi of Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield, New Jersey; in January, the Reform synagogue’s front door was damaged by a flaming Molotov cocktail thrown by a vandal. In his Rosh Hashanah sermon, Katz spoke about being unprepared for an antisemitic assault — and for the outpouring of community support after the incident, including a community rally that drew 1,200 people:
In World War II Europe, the Jews were really a “people alone.” But after we were attacked we found we had more allies than we could count. This includes, especially, law enforcement and elected officials. Where the Holocaust produced state-sponsored terror, our fire-bombing showed us the power of state-sponsored love. We met one person’s hate with over 1000 acts of compassion and support.
I have hope. Hope that even amidst the whirlwind of fear, we can find shelter and security in one another’s arms. Hope that we have agency, that together, all groups who are equally afraid can come together to turn off the machinery of hate. Hope that when we need it, our community will continue to show up for us, and we them.
Rabbi Dara Frimmer of Temple Isaiah, a Reform synagogue in Los Angeles, warned that the Jewish ideal of deep literacy — a devotion to books and ideas that earned Jews the sobriquet the “People of the Book” — is under assault by a wave of book-bannings and misinformation:
Books can be downright terrifying. I get it. Books challenge our assumptions about the world and the people who live within it. Books invite personal and societal transformation and may even be credited with the occasional revolution or mass Exodus. Books can change us, and, as we know, not everybody likes change.
In a way, we have the renegade rabbis to thank. The Talmud helped to make us bi-literate. We were no longer just the People of One Book. We added more stories to our shelves. We expanded the way we learned and also who got access to the materials. We encouraged people to read together. And we are all the better for it.
Rabbi Yisrael Motzen of Temple Ner Tamid, an Orthodox synagogue in Baltimore, challenged his congregants to engage in more Torah study. In his sermon on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, he related the story of the Talmudic sage Akiva, who was 40 when he took up the study of Torah:
Torah study, Rabbi Akiva now realized, is not a finite pursuit. It’s not about the books you’ve read, the students you have, the titles before or after your name. Torah is our life. “Ki heim chayeinu v’orech yameinu,” we say in the evening prayer. “For it is our life and the length of our days.” No beginning, no end. It’s an opportunity to transcend our finite world.
The mystics explain that when we pray, we are speaking to G-d, but when we study, it’s as if G-d is speaking to us. His infinite wisdom is somehow captured in the stories, the lessons, the laws, and given to us to imbibe. It’s not about learning a particular lesson; it’s about understanding and connecting to G-d Himself. Some go so far as to describe the Torah as a love letter from G-d to us, His beloved people.
Rabbi Ariana Silverman of Detroit’s non-denominational Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue decried the ways the United States is failing its children, from soaring child mortality rates to school shootings to legislation that is “trying to eradicate our kids who are transgender”:
We speak excitedly about the exponentially growing number of kids in our congregation. We speak excitedly whenever a child is adopted or born. And we should. We also need to talk about how our kids are now more likely to die than they need to be. And it is happening on our watch. So before we judge Abraham we need to ask ourselves — Why are we sacrificing our kids?
Why aren’t we listening to the voice yelling from heaven, the voice of our tradition that deeply values life? Fortunately, there are things we can do. These are not problems for scientists or specialists. These are largely legislative problems, that is to say, our problems. The people we elect could pass legislation to make it less likely that kids have access to guns. They could re-enact the expanded child tax credit that lifted millions of our kids out of poverty. They could ensure support structures exist for families with black children and they can work to fight systemic racism. They can stop passing laws that hurt transgender children and they can overturn the bills that already do. In Michigan, there are eight anti-trans bills that have been introduced. They won’t pass if our representatives don’t vote for them.
Rabbi Rachel Timoner of Congregation Beth Elohim, a Reform synagogue in Brooklyn, New York, celebrated the religious diversity within Jewish life, and lamented how such diversity appears to be threatened by the Israeli government, the Israeli Orthodox parties that it allows to suppress non-Orthodox Jewish practice in Israel, and Orthodox leaders in this country who disparage non-Orthodox Jews:
It is time for diverse, pluralistic, feminist, cultural, liberal, progressive, justice-focused Jews to assert our Jewishness, our majority, our legitimate place in setting the agenda for the Jewish people. We care about antisemitism, and we also care about climate, racism, reproductive rights, refugees, LGBT rights, and democracy. We care about Israel, and loyalty to Israel looks like standing with Israelis against this government. Our Judaism is invested in healing the world, in giving hope to the hopeless, in imagining the future that should be, aware that our well-being is interconnected with all the earth.
I want to be perfectly clear. Our vision of Judaism includes Haredi Jews. It’s a vision of a people who unite across our differences to fight antisemitism and make the world more whole. But a black hat does not make a person more Jewish, just like being a man does not make a person more Jewish.
If you are a Jew, there is no one on earth more Jewish than you. No one.
Whatever kind of Jew you are, Own it. Step up into it. Fall in love with it. Our history depends on it.
Rabbi Michael Rose Knopf of Temple Beth El, a Conservative synagogue in Richmond, Virginia, spoke about the biblical text read on the first day of Rosh Hashanah — Sarah’s banishment of her rival Hagar and Hagar’s son Ishmael — and related it to the late civil rights activist Prathia Hall’s concept of “freedom faith,” the belief that “God wants all people to be free, and equips and empowers those who work for liberation”:
Civilizations in which liberty, equality, and rule of law are secured only for a privileged few all ultimately collapse under the weight of their own injustice. People will not stay oppressed forever. The only way to the Promised Land is together.
How might the story have turned out if Sarah made different choices? What if Sarah had seen her and her family’s fate as bound up in Hagar and Ishmael’s? What if instead of allowing her insecurities and past traumas to make her cruel to Hagar and Ishmael, she had realized that the path to securing her and her family’s future could only be through generosity, care, and concern for their wellbeing?
Rabbi David Wolkenfeld of the Orthodox Ohev Sholom Congregation in Washington, D.C. discussed a rabbinic tale that finds a positive message in the troubling story of Sarah, Abraham and Hagar. The idea that “sad stories can have happy endings,” he taught, is essentially the meaning of Rosh Hashanah:
Sad stories can have happy endings if we choose to edit the past through teshuvah and create a brighter future through mitzvot…
Perhaps the most important idea that Judaism offers the world is that there are no tragedies and there are no comedies. Every story is unfinished and every story can have a happy ending. As we edit the stories of our lives we write the next chapter of the human story. Today is the day to re-engage in that process of editing the stories of our lives. And today is the day for the commitments that can take us all to better places in the year to come.
In her sermon on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Claudia Kreiman of the independent Temple Beth Zion in Brookline, Massachusetts discussed what U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy has described as an “epidemic of loneliness and isolation”:
Jewish tradition teaches that after a person dies, it is the job of the shomer or shomeret (a guardian, caretaker, or watch-person) to comfort the deceased person’s soul before the burial.
What would it mean for each and every one of us to serve as a Shomer or Shomeret of Loneliness in the TBZ community and the broader world?
It might mean learning the names of our neighbors. It might mean sitting with someone you don’t know, someone who is not your usual person to hang out with during kiddush.
I want us to encourage us to stop in the street when we see someone in distress. I want us to check in with the person we haven’t seen in a while. I want us to leave everything, when a friend calls for help, cancel the fun plans, to be there and cry with them, even if we don’t have the answers. I want us to answer honestly when someone asks, “How are you doing?” Or to share, “I need help” or “ I am lonely” even if we haven’t been asked directly.
Rabbi Sharon Brous of the independent Ikar congregation in Los Angeles spoke about the recent death of her father, and how a “death-denying health care system” undermines the honest, sensitive end-of-life discussions needed for what Jewish tradition calls a “compassionate death”:
The dying person, deprived of the opportunity to speak honestly about what is happening, is not only denied agency in the end, but also denied our full presence as they go through what for many is the scariest experience of their lives.
And it’s not only they — the dying — who lose in a culture that pathologizes death. We, who live, also lose, because death denial keeps us from fully engaging life. If we really knew how close we were to the edge, would we waste time with such meaningless distractions? And even more concretely, death denial creates a spiritual schism between the bereaved — those forced to confront the reality of loss — and the community, precisely when community is most needed.
Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove of the Conservative Park Avenue Synagogue in New York remembered Harold Kushner, the Conservative rabbi and best-selling author who died in April. In particular, Cosgrove wondered what the author of “When Bad Things Happen to Good People” meant when he said, following the death of his son, “we’re more complete if we’re incomplete.” For help, Cosgrove called Kushner’s daughter, Ariel, a potter:
When one works at a potter’s wheel, she explained, one can trim, clip, shape and refine the clay, working to make everything perfectly symmetrical and without blemish. But, she continued, there is another philosophy, of eastern origin, by which to approach her craft, wabi-sabi, that teaches otherwise. In this aesthetic, the artist endeavors to accept that which is imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete in this world. With this approach, one still sits at the potter’s wheel with focused attention and intention but makes space for imperfection and asymmetry. One coils clay with human hands but sees in each fingerprint not imperfection, but artistry. One presses and molds and strikes the clay knowing that one’s fingers necessarily leave a mark; but that it is in those marks that form and beauty and wholeness are found.
Rabbi Diane Cohler-Esses of Romemu, New York’s Jewish Renewal congregation, used Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac as a lens to view her relationship with her own father. Cohler-Esses grew up Flatbush, Brooklyn, where her late dad struggled with her decision, unheard of for a woman in their “insular Syrian Jewish community,” to become a rabbi. And yet, perhaps like Abraham awakening to the reality of Isaac, he came to “hear and see” her more fully:
When I gave my senior sermon in rabbinical school, which was then a major event that all rabbinical students went through — each of us would give a sermon on Shabbat morning and host a celebratory lunch afterwards. My parents attended and afterwards my father said that it was the most spiritual day of [his] life. This is my father who had never before stepped foot in a non-Orthodox synagogue. On that day he was hearing something new, something that called from him something new. On that day, he was able to see his daughter as she was, where she was….
On this day, as we are about to blow the shofar, about to arouse God’s compassion for us — we ask God to tolerate the mess that we are and accept us, hear us just where we are. And respond to us as God’s beloved children.
In his sermon for the second day of Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Joe Kanofsky of Modern Orthodox Kehillat Shaarei Torah in Toronto spoke about what Jews need to do to make themselves ready for redemption:
We have to fix the world and make it ready for redemption, fitting for redemption, a proper vessel for redemption, so that that day can arrive. We have to stand up for what’s right. We have to not stand idly by while another’s blood is being shed. We have to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God. We also have to have kosher mezuzahs and daven every day and learn some Torah every day. Give tzedakah to help others and to bring tzedek, justice, and righteousness into a world that desperately needs it. We have to make peace among ourselves which is sometimes among the greatest challenges. This is how we make the world fitting and ready and deserving of the better days ahead that are yet to come.
The post AI, pluralism and Israel: What North American rabbis spoke about in their High Holiday sermons appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
This Manhattan restaurant is serving a $95 latke for Hanukkah
(New York Jewish Week) — With movie tickets that cost $30 and apartments that can reach staggering, nine-digit figures, New York City is notoriously expensive. And yet, one restaurant’s new luxury latke is still pricey enough to make jaws drop.
For Hanukkah this year, Caviar Russe, an upscale seafood restaurant in Midtown, is serving an oversized latke topped with caviar, priced at a cool $95.
The restaurant’s executive chef Edgar “Teddy” Panchernikov told the New York Jewish Week that this is the first time he has created a holiday-specific menu item, Hanukkah or otherwise, calling the pricey potato pancake a “one-off.”
The latke is an amped-up version of the mini potato pancakes the Madison Avenue restaurant serves year-round as one of the accoutrements to their caviar service, with prices that range from $65 for 25 grams of Pacific sturgeon caviar up to $10,445 for 500 grams of Almas osetra, an “exceptionally rare” caviar.
The restaurant, which opened in 1997, is just one element of Caviar Russe, a caviar business owned by Jewish refugees from the former Soviet Union that regularly appears on lists of the best places to buy the fish roe. The company consists of a wholesale and online business, a caviar boutique and two restaurants, one in New York City and the other in Miami. The New York eatery has been awarded a Michelin star every year since 2014.
The limited-time latke consists of Yukon gold potatoes mixed with salt, pepper and chives — no egg, flour or any kind of filler is used. Chef Panchernikov, the 32-year-old son of Caviar Russe’s founders, then fries it all in clarified butter (no olive oil for these babies!). The crispy plate-sized potato pancake is then topped with creme fraiche, a creamy “egg jam” made by cooking the yolks in a sous vide bath, and one ounce of osetra caviar — which typically retails for about $100 an ounce at Caviar Russe and is one of their most popular varieties, according to a publicist for the restaurant.
In a video shared with the New York Jewish Week of Panchernikov making the latke, he slices it into quarters — so, rest assured, the treat is designed to be shared. However, the latke needs to be ordered 24 hours in advance; interested customers should email email@example.com.
The idea for the luxury latke came from marketing consultant Elana Levin, who was hired by the Caviar Russe team three months ago. “I thought it would be a nice way to tap into his heritage with a potato latke to celebrate Hanukkah at the restaurant,” Levin said of Panchernikov. “He was immediately open to it — he was excited to get creative in the kitchen and to do something that represents their culture and heritage and have a way to celebrate with his guests.”
“The presentation and how he built the latke was the chef’s idea,” she added.
As it happens, the luxury latke isn’t the only Jewish happening at Caviar Russe: “My Unorthodox Life” stars and internet influencers Julia Haart and her daughter, Batsheva, are holding a fundraiser, “Caviar for a Cause,” at the Manhattan restaurant’s bar and lounge. Tickets to the afternoon event on Sunday — which are nearly sold out — are $300, with all proceeds going to Magen David Adom, Israel’s Red Cross.
The owners of the restaurant are donating the food – passed cocktails and hors d’oeuvres – and the space. And although Panchernikov describes his family as “not very religious,” he told the New York Jewish Week that he felt compelled to show his support. “Given the recent events, we want to support other Jews and Israel,” he said.
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The most Jewish moments from Barbra Streisand’s memoir
(JTA) — Throughout Hollywood history, many stars of Jewish ancestry have soft-pedaled that heritage, changing their names or speaking rarely, if at all, about their Jewishness.
No one can accuse Barbra Streisand of either.
The singer and actress of the stage and screen — one of the most beloved Jewish American icons of the past half-century — published her long-awaited memoir, “My Name is Barbra,” earlier this month. Throughout, Streisand references her Jewish background constantly, often peppering in Yiddish words and callbacks to her Brooklyn Jewish upbringing.
Here are the Jewish highlights from “My Name is Barbra.”
Streisand was born in Brooklyn, in April 1942. In the book, she writes of her grandfather taking her to an Orthodox synagogue and of attending a yeshiva when she was young — an experience that later prepared her for her movie “Yentl.”
Streisand’s father died when she was 15 months old. She first lived with her grandparents, on Pulaski Street in Williamsburg. When she was eight, her mother remarried and they moved to a different part of Brooklyn.
“We pulled up to a tall brick building (one of many that all looked alike) on Newkirk Avenue in Flatbush, part of a big public housing project called the Vanderveer Estates (a very fancy name for a not-so-fancy place),” she writes in the book. “I remember being very impressed that there was an elevator. I thought we were rich now.”
The very first Broadway show Streisand ever attended, at age 14, was a 1950s staging of “The Diary of Anne Frank,” and it activated ambitions to one day star on Broadway herself.
“I was mesmerized by the play,” she writes. “Anne is fourteen, I’m fourteen. She’s Jewish, I’m Jewish. Why couldn’t I play the part?” In an early theater role, she appeared in the same cast as legendary Jewish comedian Joan Rivers, then still going by her given name Joan Molinsky.
Later, Streisand’s first big Broadway part was in the musical “I Can Get It For You Wholesale,” in which she played a Jewish secretary named Yetta Tessie Marmelstein. While working on that show, she met Elliott Gould, the Jewish actor who would become her first husband and the father of her son Jason.
Described by the author as “two Jewish oddballs who found each other,” Gould and Streisand married and divorced entirely prior to their respective movie star heydays in the 1970s.
Streisand writes repeatedly about her love of food — from complaining about the subpar offerings at a Jewish camp she attended in the Catskills at age 8 to her inability to find New York-quality food while traveling overseas. She also discusses her habit of bringing food with her everywhere.
“Maybe it’s part a collective unconscious of European Jews, because what if a pogrom came and you had to get across the border fast?” she writes. “You have to have a little something to eat until you get to the next country.”
Later, she gushes about knishes from Yonah Schimmel’s on Houston Street in New York.
Streisand worked with many Jewish songwriters, directors, and arrangers during her Broadway days, including Jerome Robbins, Marvin Hamlisch and Jule Styne. “My Name is Barbara,” the song that provides the book its title (albeit with a slightly different spelling), was written by Leonard Bernstein, and she took it up after discovering a book of sheet music of Bernstein’s compositions.
“Can you believe it? I was amazed that such a thing existed,” Streisand writes of finding the song. “Now that’s bashert,” she added, using the Yiddish word for “meant to be.”
“Funny Girl,” on stage and screen
“Funny Girl,” the 1964 Broadway musical in which Streisand played the Jewish comedian Fanny Brice, made her a household name.
“Obviously, we were both Jewish, born in New York City… she was raised on the Lower East Side… so there would be a similar cadence in our speech,” Streisand writes of playing Brice. “I’d already noticed that if I spoke in the Brooklyn accent I had heard growing up, with that distinctive Jewish delivery, people would often laugh… we both had Jewish mothers who were concerned about food and marrying us off.. not necessarily in that order.”
The Jewish Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim, who had been considered to write “Funny Girl” but ultimately didn’t, had insisted that a Jewish performer play Brice. “And if she’s not Jewish — she at least has to have the nose!” Sondheim said at the time, according to Streisand. In 1985, Streisand would lead off her “Broadway Album” with Sondheim’s “Putting It Together” and include several other of his songs.
A troubled production that became a huge hit, the success of “Funny Girl” on Broadway led to a 1968 film adaptation, directed by Jewish filmmaker William Wyler, that won Streisand the Best Actress Oscar. In the film, the Egyptian actor Omar Sharif was cast in the male lead opposite Streisand. In a movie shot not long after the Six-Day War, Streisand writes, “Some people didn’t like the idea of an Arab man romancing a Jewish woman.”
When headlines stated that the reaction to the casting in Sharif’s homeland had been negative, Streisand joked, “‘Egypt angry?’ You should hear what my aunt Anna said.”
In 1973, another hit movie starring the actress, “The Way We Were,” involved a love story set against the backdrop of the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings, between a “Jewish girl” (Streisand) and “gentile boy” played by Robert Redford.
A “nice Jewish girl” on the cover of Playboy
A notable sex symbol throughout the 1970s, Streisand famously appeared on the cover of Playboy in 1977 with the headline “What’s a nice Jewish girl like me doing on the cover of Playboy?” She did not pose nude but did participate in a lengthy interview. The book, for the first time, includes a photograph, from that same shoot but unused, of Barbra in a Playboy bunny costume.
Barbra and Bella
Streisand has been a supporter and friend of numerous Democratic presidents and other political figures. When she started to get politically active, around 1970, she became a close friend and supporter of Jewish politician Bella Abzug, when she ran for Congress.
“Here we were, two Jewish girls… Bella from the Bronx and Barbra from Brooklyn… who made good!” Streisand writes.
Streisand later discovered that both she and Abzug were included on President Richard Nixon’s enemies list.
In 1983, Streisand made her directorial debut with “Yentl,” an adaptation of the Isaac Bashevis Singer short story “Yentl, the Yeshiva Boy,” about a girl in 19th-century Poland who disguises herself as a boy to attend a yeshiva.
“I’ve always been proud of my Jewish heritage,” Streisand writes, about her desire to make “Yentl.” “I never attempted to hide it when iI became an actress. It’s essential to who I am… And I wanted to make this movie about a smart Jewish woman who represented so many qualities I admire.”
Her son, Jason, studied for his bar mitzvah around the same time that his mother was preparing to make “Yentl.”
The movie was filmed in what was then Czechoslovakia, beyond the Iron Curtain, at a time when the communist government was cracking down on Jewish worship. But Streisand wore a Jewish star on her cap while in that country — and “wore it defiantly,” she writes.
Streisand also clashed with her co-star, the famed Jewish actor Mandy Patinkin, on the set of “Yentl.” She hadn’t wanted to cast Patinkin, who at that point was much better known as a Broadway actor, and she considered Richard Gere for the role. According to the book, once filming started, Patinkin behaved in a hostile way on the set. When Streisand asked why, he answered: “I thought we were going to have an affair.”
When Streisand replied “I don’t operate that way,” she writes, the actor, then in his late 20s, cried. She threatened to replace him, and they continued to clash after that, but Streisand ultimately praises Patinkin’s work in the film.
Many years later, Streisand writes, Patinkin asked Streisand to write a blurb on one of his albums, and she brought up what had happened on the set. As an explanation for his behavior, Patinkin told her that he was “scared.”
Barbra and Israel
A premiere was held for “Yentl” in Israel in April of 1984, and on the same visit, Streisand dedicated the Emanuel Streisand School of Jewish Studies at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, named for her father. On the trip, she met with both the then-current prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir, and a future prime minister and president, Shimon Peres. Streisand was not daunted by a terrorist shooting that took place in Jerusalem while she was in the country and continued her trip as scheduled.
In 1993, during the negotiations that would lead to the Oslo Accords, Streisand was invited to a luncheon with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, through her close friendship with President Bill Clinton. Streisand was later involved with an effort to make a film about the lives of Rabin and Yassir Arafat, leading up to their handshake at the White House. The project remained alive even after Rabin’s assassination in 1995 but later fell apart due to a financial dispute between the Showtime network and the director.
Streisand returned to Israel in 2013, for her first-ever concert in the country, and also to sing at a 90th birthday celebration for Shimon Peres. On that trip, she drew controversy when she gave a speech about the treatment of women in Israel.
“It’s distressing… to read about women in Israel being forced to sit in the back of the bus… or when we hear about the Women of the Wall having metal chairs hurled at them while they attempt to peacefully and legally pray,” she said in a speech while receiving an honorary doctorate from Hebrew University.
Obama’s Jewish joke
In 2015, Streisand received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, along with fellow honorees Sondheim and Steven Spielberg. “Born in Brooklyn to a middle-class Jewish family,” President Barack Obama joked in his introduction speech. “I didn’t know you were Jewish, Barbra.”
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There’s a new Jewish Caucus in Congress. Its mission is still unclear.
WASHINGTON (JTA) — More than a dozen Jewish members of Congress gathered on Friday for the first meeting of the U.S. House of Representatives Jewish Caucus.
But following the meeting, held in the offices of Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, an influential Jewish Democrat from Florida, it remains unclear what the caucus will stand for as the chamber’s Jews are deeply divided over the Israel-Hamas war and other issues. A statement from Wasserman Schultz’s office suggested the caucus was still finding its feet.
“We had a very-well attended, constructive meeting focused on how we can work together and develop our broader mission,” the statement said. “We did a lot of listening and considering one another’s opinions and thoughts. We left looking forward to continuing to engage in these discussions with our colleagues so that we can come together in consensus on how a secular Jewish Caucus can be most effective.”
The House has 26 Jewish lawmakers, all but two of them Democrats, and it is unclear which attended the meeting and whether either of the Republicans made it — especially because six congresspeople who RSVPed canceled at the last minute due to illness or sudden conflicts. Ohio Republican Max Miller had said he would attend, but he did not confirm whether he was there. Nor did Tennessee Republican David Kustoff.
Wasserman Schultz is alarmed at the spike in antisemitic attacks and rhetoric in the United States since Hamas terrorists massacred 1,200 people in Israel on Oct. 7, launching the current war in Israel and Gaza. She wants to formalize a united front among Jews in Congress to confront the hatred.
For decades, Jewish members of Congress had been gathering unofficially. Earlier this month, Axios reported that Wasserman Schultz got the go-ahead from House administrators to make the Jewish Caucus official — though it appears that not all Jews in the House believe the caucus should exist.
For the last decade, the unofficial gatherings were helmed by Rep. Jerry Nadler, a New York Democrat who is the longest-serving Jew in Congress. He told Axios that he would attend Friday’s meeting, but was concerned that the organizers — i.e., Wasserman Schultz — did not consult with all the Jews in the chamber before creating the caucus.
“In the rush to form this new group, by contrast, most Jewish members were left out of the discussion altogether,” he said. He also said the hurt feelings would be a distraction as the caucus seeks unanimity on the Israel-Hamas war.
There are currently official Black, Hispanic and Asian-Pacific caucuses in the House, and there are formal Jewish caucuses in state governments; one of the most active is in California. But one issue that may have prevented the formation of a House Jewish Caucus until now is the age-old question of what “Jewish” means.
A concern reported by Axios — which has long been discussed among Jews in the U.S. Capitol — is that some Jewish lawmakers fear setting the precedent of establishing an explicitly religious caucus — especially because Jews tend to cherish the separation of church and state. That may be why Wasserman Schultz’s statement included the word “secular” right before “Jewish Caucus.”
Another fear is that the wide differences among members of a Jewish Caucus would undermine its purported purpose: Jewish unity.
In late October, Nadler wrangled all 24 Jewish Democrats into signing a statement backing the Biden administration’s robust support for Israel in its war against Hamas. Within weeks, that united front was crumbling, as a number of Jewish Democrats joined calls for a ceasefire.
Beyond differences about the war, there are vast differences among Jews in Congress over, well, everything. Wasserman Schultz sought, and got, Miller’s membership in the caucus, making it the only one of the ethnic caucuses to have bipartisan membership. But Miller is among the most enthusiastic endorsers of former President Donald Trump, while the caucus also includes Nadler and Reps. Jamie Raskin of Maryland, Dan Goldman of New York and Adam Schiff of California — all of whom played leading roles in one or both impeachments of Trump. Schiff and Trump routinely express the hope that the other is jailed.
Some members, such as Florida Democrat Jared Moskowitz (who hoped to attend but was unable to), see Jews as an ethnic minority subject to persecution.
“At a time when there’s people marching through the streets with signs calling to ‘Gas the Jews,’ it is absolutely critical that Jewish members form a united front against antisemitism and for the safety and security of the Jewish people,” Moskowitz told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
The sensitivity of the get-together made even the most voluble of lawmakers clam up about it. A number of spokesmen promised to get back to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency about whether their bosses were in attendance but never did. A spokeswoman for Vermont’s Becca Balint, a Democrat who joined Congress earlier this year, simply said that she was not in attendance.
Kathy Manning, a North Carolina Democrat, attended the meeting and said it centered on the need to confront antisemitism.
“I’m pleased to join in the founding of the Congressional Jewish Caucus,” she said. “During this time of rising antisemitism, it’s imperative that the Jewish community have its unique experience and perspective represented at the leadership table in Congress.”
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