(JTA) — “Golda,” the new biopic starring Helen Mirren as Israel’s first (and so far only) female prime minister, focuses on the few terrible weeks late in her life that would in some ways seal Golda Meir’s legacy. On Yom Kippur 1973, Egypt and Syria led a sneak attack on Israel that, in its stealth and fury, erased the euphoria that followed Israel’s lightning victory six years earlier in the Six-Day War.
The public blamed Meir for Israel’s lack of preparation; she resigned in 1974 and her reputation, particularly in Israel, has never really recovered.
For Meir’s defenders, her legacy has often been obscured by misogyny and condescension. Biographers like Francine Klagsbrun, in 2017’s “Lioness,” and Deborah Lipstadt, whose “Golda Meir: Israel’s Matriarch” was published this month, argue for a fuller, more generous assessment of Meir. They recall a Zionist pioneer, born in present-day Ukraine in 1898 and raised in Milwaukee, who helped shape public opinion about the nascent Jewish state in the United States and ignited American Jewish fundraising for its cause; a Labor Zionist activist who helped establish the Israeli welfare state that sustained the country and its waves of immigrants through the 1980s, and a foreign minister who, over a decade, forged important alliances with the French, the United Nations and, most importantly, the United States.
In “The Only Woman in the Room: Golda Meir and Her Path to Power,” which came out late last year, Pnina Lahav picks up on these themes and develops another: How Meir, adamant in not calling herself a feminist, nevertheless refused to be defined by the traditional roles set out for her and instead forged a path for other women in politics.
Lahav, born in Israel, is an emerita professor of law and a member of the Elie Wiesel Center for Judaic Studies at Boston University. We spoke this week about the ways Meir has been underestimated, how she defied the Jewish grandmother stereotype and how a flawed leader can also be considered a great one.
Our conversation was edited for length and clarity.
Your book asks us to consider the ways Golda Meir succeeded as a woman in a man’s world, but also asks that we judge her by the standards of Israel’s other male leaders, both in her accomplishments and in her flaws. What did you discover in your research that may have changed your perception, or the public’s perception, of her as a leader?
As I learned about her decision-making, the way she conducted foreign affairs, I came to respect her more and more. I did not expect to see a very savvy, very experienced and caring person as I saw at the end.
I wanted to give [the book] as a gift to the Israeli people, particularly to Israeli women, to say to them that we also have great leaders. It’s not only Moshe Dayan and David Ben-Gurion. Golda was a great leader. She understood exactly what was going on. She was capable of making important policy. She had a very good relationship with the American administration, and we should be very proud of her rather than putting her down. Israelis have a tendency to look down and underestimate her as someone who was not really up to the job. I think it’s a big, big mistake.
Before we look at her political career, I wanted to step back. She grew up in Milwaukee, but was born in Kyiv at a time when Jews were experiencing persecution and pogroms. How much did that shape who she became?
I think very little. Before coming to America, she was a little girl. She was not subjected to a pogrom. Let’s not forget, she used the pogrom as a PR piece. She used it to extol the significance of Zionism: “Outside of Israel we are subjected to pogroms, inside we are protected.”
That was a pitch she used effectively in the 1930s, before she became a central figure in Israeli politics. After moving to Palestine in 1921, she would regularly travel back to the States to fundraise and promote the Labor Zionist cause here, to groups like Pioneer Women and other Jewish groups. To what degree did she create the image of Israel in the minds of American Jews?
She’s the one who laid the foundation for a very strong relationship with the American government and the American people. One of the reasons for this was that she was an American. She knew how to speak to them. It’s not only the language but the body language, the culture. Other leaders who grew up in Germany, or Holland, or even in England did not understand the American instinct in the same way. She always kept her Midwestern accent. And that was very important because it communicated an affinity with the United States.
A lot of the American Jewish establishment was not really keen on Zionism before Israel’s establishment. But she was speaking directly to working class Jews who came to view it as a place, if they weren’t going to move there, that they wanted to support and build.
For many of them it was a haven — if something happened, God forbid, we have a place to protect us. She knew how to play on this.
Golda graduated from a school for teachers in Milwaukee, but all of her education in statecraft and foreign policy was on-the-job training. What were her strengths in becoming a spokesperson and diplomat?
As I did the research, it was interesting to me how attentive she was to other views. She was always willing to consult, always willing to listen. She didn’t always accept your advice, but she always took it into consideration. I thought that was a very important thing.
I would also say that the men that she befriended, such as David Remez [Israel’s first Minister of Transportation], who was her lover for many years, also influenced her in terms of foreign affairs. They were very, very experienced and educated people. And she relied on them to learn and to expand her views. She knew how to choose her friends, like Zalman Shazar, who eventually became president of Israel. These were the people that she socialized with and associated with. She didn’t go to school. So she basically absorbed information and analysis from the people that she was socializing with.
Golda was 70 when she became prime minister in 1969, and 75 when she resigned in the wake of the near-debacle of the Yom Kippur War, which in some ways became her legacy. But you, like others, argue for a more complete portrait of what she accomplished as a leader before and after the establishment of the state.
I’m afraid many people today in Israel forget Golda, and many people remember Golda negatively, because of the Yom Kippur War, which they tend to blame her for. It’s not entirely fair. There was a lot of bias against Golda over time, and the reason is basically misogyny: People did not like the idea that they had a female leader, especially in wartime. She also had a lot of enemies in Israeli politics. So people like, for example, Shimon Peres — they did not like her. They were spreading a lot of information about her that was very negative. She had to fight a lot of negative press. I remember myself as a student, that we didn’t really think much of her. It’s only slowly that a younger generation like ours began to value her contributions.
But at the same time, if you look at public opinion polls at the time, you see that the Israeli public was very supportive and very, very positive about her leadership.
Golda’s greatest contribution was in foreign affairs. She came to fame in the 1950s as minister of foreign affairs, and she gained a lot of experience, which she then put to good use later as a prime minister. People saw that she had a very good relationship with the American administration, which was the thing that really counted in Israel. She knew the Nixon administration very well. She had a very good relationship with [then Secretary of State] Henry Kissinger. They did not always see eye to eye, but they had good relationships. They could speak to each other. They would try to persuade each other.
As you said, negative perceptions of Meir came from the Yom Kippur War, when Israel appeared unprepared for the attack by Arab armies and lost not only 2,500 soldiers but its own sense of security. What led to the negative impressions of her during and after the war? Did you find anything that showed that she may not have deserved that kind of criticism?
First of all, before the war, Israelis were on top of the world, and she essentially made the same miscalculation. She announced many, many times before the war, when elections were being held at the same time, that “we never had it so good.” And suddenly, we found ourselves attacked by Egypt and Syria, and the feeling that we were going to lose that war was very strong, very deep. The change from the sense of security and the confidence to the surprise of the war was great. So she became the scapegoat. People will simply blame the leader when things don’t go well.
Still, she successfully made the case to the Nixon administration that it had to resupply Israel with weapons, which helped turn the fight against the Arab states.
Golda had great persuasive powers. Even if you disagreed with her, you’d slowly begin to see her point of view much more positively.
What do people get wrong about her, either positively or negatively? I am thinking how she is sometimes portrayed as sort of a quintessential Jewish grandmother, but was in fact was a really tough and well-informed political operative.
It’s a tricky question, because for young people, the Golda that she was after the war was not the same Golda that she was before. So people look negatively at her after the war and blame her for a lot of things that they actually should have blamed themselves for.
Most Israelis made it very clear after 1967 that they didn’t want to return any of the territories seized in the Six-Day War [which included the West Bank, the Sinai peninsula and the Golan Heights]. They didn’t want to return any of it, and they were not receptive to compromises. They felt the Arab side should compromise. So they were very surprised when they launched this war against them. And they were also very surprised to see that the United States was not 100% behind Israel and was willing to be more objective. And then they looked for somebody to blame, and blamed her for not supporting a compromise with [Egyptian president Anwar] Sadat [before the war]. But public opinion, by and large, didn’t want it. They were not interested in giving up anything.
She also said that we could overcome anything, and one of the reasons for that is that her military advisors were promising her that everything was going to be okay and that we could always win the war.
Did she have a blind spot toward the Palestinians? She gave the famous interview in 1969 when she said, “There was no such thing as Palestinians,” meaning there was no independent Palestinian Arab state, entity or identity prior to the creation of Israel.
I wouldn’t call it a blindspot. I think it was an effort on her part to cater to the trend in public opinion. The public opinion at the time was developing the view that there is no such thing as a Palestinian people. And she thought it was useful for Israeli foreign affairs. But if you look at her history, she knew very well that there was a Palestinian people. When she came to Israel, she saw a Palestinian people but she slowly went over to this other view. And the feeling that she also shared was that, “we don’t want to compromise.” It was a feeling that Israel fought a successful war [in 1967] and we are entitled now to reap the fruit of our efforts.
Was she especially sensitive to public opinion?
She was the kind of leader who followed the crowd, or public opinion. And so she felt that if that’s what people want, and if she also felt this way, that therefore that was the way we should develop our policy. For a contrast, if you read [Israeli diplomat] Abba Eban’s memoirs, you see that he wanted to compromise, he wanted to reach out to the Arab side and she basically marginalized him. She didn’t want to hear what he had to say.
And so from this perspective, you can say she was not a good leader. Because she did not foresee what was coming. It’s tragic.
Do you have any personal memories of her?
I’m 77. I was a student when she was prime minister, and a child when she was Minister of Foreign Affairs. When I saw her I was at the margins of a crowd, and I was just a lowly 20-year-old.
I do remember watching her once in conversation. I was impressed by the way that she was in control of the conversation. But I don’t want to claim that I knew her or that I have something more valuable to say than that.
There’s a lot of controversy about her views on feminism. Many feminists were and are disappointed that she never could bring herself to endorse the movement despite her own accomplishments.
Whether she liked it or not, she was a feminist. She believed that women should have the power to conduct policy, and to go up the ladder in politics. She wanted to have a life outside of the home. And she said she needed to work and she needed to make a difference.
She was a feminist in action: an ambitious woman who can learn the secrets of the trade and go up the ladder all the way to the prime ministership. But she did not understand the value of feminism. She was afraid of it and the reason I think she was afraid of it is that Israelis were very much against feminism at the time, which is due primarily to militarism. Militarism was very strong in Israel at the time and Israelis admired the strong leaders, you know, the generals in the field.
When you think about Israel now, with a far-right government, with the public upheaval over attempts by the current prime minister to overhaul the judiciary, what lessons from Golda’s life might apply at the present moment?
I believe the word “hubris” should come into the picture. At the time of the Yom Kippur War, we were full of hubris. We were sure that nothing could vanquish us or bring us to do something that we didn’t want to do. And I think we may be in the same situation today. And that is always the problem. We’re fairly strong, with a strong army, the United States is on our side, and we say to ourselves, “we can do anything,” but there is no situation in which you can do anything. And the truth of the matter is you need to listen to the other side, understand where the compromise is, and give something back.
25 years after opening, Yiddish Book Center overhauls its core exhibit for a wider audience
AMHERST, Massachusetts (JTA) — Since its opening in 1997, the Yiddish Book Center has wowed visitors with its architecture. A Jewish village resurrected on a college campus in sylvan Amherst, Massachusetts, the building conveys the Center’s mission: to rescue and revive a language spoken for over 1,000 years by Ashkenazi Jews in German-speaking lands, Eastern Europe and wherever they migrated.
On Oct. 15, the Center is unveiling a new core exhibit, meant to flesh out and deepen the story told by its building and the treasures stored inside. Arriving at a moment when Yiddish is experiencing one of its periodic revivals, “Yiddish: A Global Culture” is a major Yiddish institution’s answer to a question without easy answers: How do you tell the story of a language without a country, and of a culture that lost a majority of its purveyors in a little over a decade of madness?
In response, the new exhibit depicts the “secular” Yiddish culture that arose in the mid-19th century as a distinctly transglobal, modern movement that includes theater, the press, mass market publishing and intellectual ferment in big cities from Warsaw to New York to Shanghai.
The exhibit is “foregrounding a story of creativity, tremendous accomplishment and tremendous diversity of a culture that has migration built into its DNA,” David Mazower, the Center’s research bibliographer and the exhibition’s chief curator, told me when I visited Amherst last month.
The displays in the exhibit will surround and weave in and out of the Center’s book stacks, another striking architectural feature of the building. The stacks offer duplicates of the Center’s collection of 1.5 million Yiddish books and periodicals, for sale and browsing. I couldn’t be the first visitor to be reminded of the closing scene in “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” which reveals a colossal government warehouse filled with, in the words of the screenplay, “crates and crates. All looking alike. All gathering dust.”
What a casual visitor might not see is all that is happening at the Center to blow the dust off those books, including translator workshops, summer fellowships, conferences, an oral history project, a busy publishing program and a riotous summer music festival.
Interest in all of those activities has been helped along by young Jews interested in the language and culture and a pandemic that created a demand for online Yiddish classes. The Yiddish Book Center has been drawing 10,000 visitors a year since its pandemic shutdown. The New York Times made the latest revival official (to non-readers of the Jewish media, anyway) in an essay last month by the Jewish polymath Ilan Stavans, declaring that “Yiddish Is Having a Moment.” Stavans notes a flurry of new translations of obscure and classic Yiddish writers, the all-Yiddish staging of “Fiddler on the Roof” and the Yiddish dialogue in three recent Netflix series: “Shtisel,” “Unorthodox” and “Rough Diamonds.”
(More controversially, Stavans also reports that Yiddish is appealing to those — presumably young anti-Zionist Jews — for whom Hebrew “symbolizes far-right Israeli militarism.”)
Such a revival also challenges keepers of the flame — not just the Yiddish Book Center, but the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York, The Workers Circle, publications like In geveb and the Yiddish Forward, academic departments plus a host of regional Yiddish organizations — to define a language and culture that means many different things to many different people.
Is it a language of a decimated past? A progenitor of the Jewish left? A tongue, still spoken daily by haredi Orthodox Jews, that continues to grow and evolve? Is it an attitude — a Jewish way of being and thinking — that survives in humor and cooking and music even if those who appreciate it can’t speak the language? For European Jews of the Enlightenment, the Yiddish scholar Jeffrey Shandler reminded me a few years ago, “Yiddish represented the resistance and inability of Jews to enter the cultural mainstream. It represented something atavistic, a way of holding Jews back.” For Zionists, meanwhile, it represented a weak Diaspora and everything associated with it (a clash explored in a current YIVO exhibit, “Palestinian Yiddish: A Look at Yiddish in the Land of Israel Before 1948”).
Goldie Morgenthaler, herself the daughter of the Yiddish writer Chava Rosenfarb, has written that she teaches Yiddish literature to mostly non-Jewish university students in Alberta, Canada because “studying what is specific to one culture is often the first step to understanding many cultures.”
At YIVO, an institution founded by scholars in Vilna in 1925 and transplanted to New York in 1940, Yiddish is regarded as an expression of and vehicle for “Jewish pride,” according to its executive director and CEO, Jonathan Brent.
“For Jewish people in the Diaspora to understand that they have in fact a future as Jews,” he said last week, “they have to take pride in their heritage. For all kinds of historical reasons, many Jews felt that [Yiddish] was somehow a shameful or devalued heritage. It was ‘zhargon’ [jargon], and it had been basically eliminated from public discourse in the land of Israel. YIVO from the very beginning wanted to study Yiddish as a language among languages, the same way you studied Russian or Spanish or French. It was a language with a history.
“What Yiddish does,” he continued, “is help anchor us in the language in which our grandparents and great grandparents communicated their deepest thoughts and feelings. And that has real implications for the survival of the Jewish people.”
Aaron Lansky, the founder and president of the Yiddish Book Center, said the story he wants to tell goes back to his days as a graduate student in Yiddish at McGill University in the 1970s, when he first started saving the discarded books that would become the core of the Center’s collection.
“People think of [Yiddish] as this nostalgic creation,” he said. “But the truth is, it was a profound, multifaceted and really global literature that emerged in the late 19th century, and then just took off throughout the 20th century…. It wasn’t long before writers were using every form of literary expression — expressionism, impressionism, surrealism, eroticism. It all found expression in this very short period of time, and even the Holocaust didn’t destroy it. “
Lansky admits his own vision is more literary than the core exhibit’s, and thanked Mazower for creating a broader view of Yiddish as a global culture.
That view is represented in a 60-foot mural that serves as an introduction to the exhibit. Cartoons by the German illustrator Martin Haake depict key historical vignettes in Yiddish history, from nearly every continent. Glikl of Hameln, a German-Jewish businesswoman, writes her diaries at the turn of the 18th century. Women call for a strike at “Yanovsky’s Cigarette Factory” in Bialystok, Poland, in 1901. A nursery scene honors the leading Yiddish activists who were born in Displaced Persons camps after World War II. And tubercular Yiddish writers are seen recovering at the Jewish Consumptive Relief Society in Denver, Colorado, which operated from 1904 to 1940.
The mural lines the ramp that leads to the bookshelves, where displays (some of which Mazower calls “wedges”) use artifacts and wall-mounted photos to talk about the breadth of Yiddish culture. There’s a display about Yiddish celebrities, including writers, such as Sholom Aleichem and Chaim Zhitlowsky, who would draw tens of thousands of mourners to their funerals. Another display honors those who preserved and studied Yiddish culture, from YIVO (described here as “The Mothership”) to the monumental “Language and Cultural Atlas of Ashkenazic Jewry” undertaken between 1959 and 1972 by the linguist Uriel Weinreich. A Yiddish linotype machine, rescued by Lansky, anchors an exhibit about the Jewish press.
A centerpiece of the core exhibit is a recreation of the Warsaw literary salon of the writer and playwright I.L. Peretz, a leading figure of the late 19th century and early 20th centuries. While few actual artifacts belonging to Peretz survive, the room will include contemporaneous objects and photographs to immerse visitors in the literary scene of the day.
“You’ll step through his doorway the way that so many young writers did, clutching their first manuscripts to show them either in Hebrew or in Yiddish,” Mazower explained. “His name, his address was known throughout the Russian Empire at that time. People would come thousands of miles in some cases to Warsaw to try and get entry into this alchemy-like space where extraordinary things happen.”
One of those pilgrims was Mazower’s great-grandfather, the famed playwright Sholem Asch. When Asch showed Peretz a draft of his notorious play “God of Vengeance,” whose lesbian subplot would shock audiences and rile religious leaders, Peretz reportedly told him to burn it.
“My hope is that through the exhibition as a whole you see Jewish history through a Yiddish lens and in a different way from the Holocaust-defined story that so many of us have been educated with and that popular culture feeds us,” said Mazower.
The exhibit treats the Holocaust as one part of the Yiddish story, not its culmination. The original Yiddish edition of Elie Wiesel’s “Night,” published as part of a memorial project in Argentina shortly after the war, rests in a wedge about individuals who rescued Yiddish culture under the Nazis. The same section features a tribute to Rokhl Brokhes, a writer murdered in the Minsk Ghetto in 1945. A still from a recent animated adaptation of one of her stories by Alona Bach, currently a PhD student at MIT focusing on the “intersections of electricity and Yiddish,” affirms one of the Center’s aims: to bring young Yiddishists into conversation with the past.
The story of Yiddish theater will wrap around the auditorium, starting with a large photo of the audience at the opening of the Grand Street Theatre in New York in 1905. A memorial section remembers the probably thousands of actors, playwrights and musicians who were killed in the Holocaust.
“Had Yiddish theater not suffered a rupture, which it did, it would have continued to evolve and borrow and expand,” said Lisa Newman, the Center’s director of publishing and public programs. “What’s so important about this exhibition is that it places Yiddish in this context of language no less than any other country’s, except it’s not a country.”
I asked Mazower what kind of stories he did not want to tell about Yiddish culture.
“It’s not a story about Yiddish humor,” he said. “It’s not a story about the Holocaust. It’s not a story about the state of Israel. It’s not a lachrymose story about Jewish persecution through the ages.”
Other Yiddishists told me much the same thing (Brent said that the story of Yiddish “shouldn’t be told as a collection of jokes, or Yiddish curses, or as a cute language that connects you to Bubbe’s gefilte fish”).
And yet, said Lansky, “We’re not feinschmeckers, we’re not elitist when it comes to Yiddish. Yiddish was a vernacular language, and I am happy to embrace that. I love the humor and social criticism that’s embedded in it. It’s the aggregate that’s so impressive. To see all of this literature and culture in a lively and accessible way can be quite transformative.”
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San Francisco Giants fire Jewish manager Gabe Kapler after disappointing season
(JTA) — The San Francisco Giants have fired Jewish manager Gabe Kapler after four seasons.
Kapler joined the Giants in November 2019 and led the Giants to a 295-248 record during the 2020-2023 seasons, highlighted by a 107-win 2021 campaign that earned Kapler the National League Manager of the Year award. The team rewarded Kapler with a two-year contract extension that was set to run through 2024.
The Giants were eliminated from postseason contention this week, missing the playoffs for the second consecutive season.
In addition to his 2021 accolade, Kapler’s tenure in San Francisco was punctuated by his unorthodox style both on and off the field. The 48-year-old Hollywood, California, native is a fitness geek with an active social media presence and his own blog. ESPN deemed him “the most interesting man in baseball” in May 2022. Kapler also has a Jewish tattoo on each leg: a Jewish star on his left leg and “Never Again” — a reference to the Holocaust — on his right leg.
On the field, Kapler in 2020 became the first MLB manager to kneel during the national anthem amid nationwide Black Lives Matter protests. In 2022, in the wake of the deadly mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, Kapler announced that he would begin skipping the pregame national anthem to protest the “state of this country.” He frequently used his platform in the sport to share his political beliefs.
Kapler played for six teams during his 12-year major league career, largely as a role player and backup outfielder. After retiring in 2010, Kapler played and coached for Team Israel in the 2013 World Baseball Classic. He previously managed the Philadelphia Phillies from 2018-2019 and worked for the Los Angeles Dodgers organization.
With Kapler’s firing, San Diego Padres manager Bob Melvin becomes the league’s lone Jewish skipper.
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Flash floods put a dangerous damper on the first night of Sukkot in NYC
(New York Jewish Week) — Mark Vogel, who lives in Riverdale and runs a website about Jewish and kosher travel, spoke for many of his neighbors when he posted a video on Instagram of his sukkah being pounded by rain, standing forlornly in the middle of his flooded backyard.
“I built a Sukkah,” he wrote in a caption. “I should have built an ark.”
Vogel, and many of the other millions of Jews in the tristate area, have been coping with the reality that Sukkot, the most outdoor holiday on the Jewish calendar, has coincided with heavy rains that have flooded highways, shut down subway lines and triggered a state of emergency in New York City. More than 8 inches of rain had fallen at John F. Kennedy airport by Friday afternoon, and more is expected into Saturday.
New Yorkers should expect heavy rain and flooding to continue throughout the night tonight,” Gov. Kathy Hochul posted on social media on Friday afternoon. “To our Jewish neighbors celebrating the beginning of Sukkot, please take steps to stay safe during this severe weather event.”
Sukkot begins Friday night, and on the weeklong holiday, Jews traditionally eat their meals and even sleep in the sukkah, an outdoor hut with a roof generally made from tree branches that recalls the Israelites’ biblical sojourn in the desert and emphasizes the need for divine protection.
But rain makes those observances close to impossible — leading most would-be sukkah-dwellers in New York to accept that they’ll be eating indoors on the holiday’s first night, and sparking a wide variety of theological and practical responses from rabbis and rank-and-file Jews alike. For others, it has complicated travel plans hours before the holiday’s start, backing up traffic and making the subway especially hard to navigate.
“I once heard that if it rains on [the] first night of sukkoth, it’s some sort of sign that God is displeased with us,” Linda Gisselle Roth, who splits her time between New York City and Connecticut, wrote on Facebook on Friday. “And it’s been raining for days. And I’ve never felt like this before.”
She added, “I want to spend [the] first night of sukkoth, in my sukkah. So for right now, I’m asking, please let the rain stop.”
While the rainy season in Israel traditionally begins right after Sukkot, rain is a common occurrence on the holiday in the United States and even inspired the title of a children’s book from the 1990s, “Why Does It Always Rain on Sukkot?”
Observant Jews have varying customs when it comes to dealing with rain on the holiday. Many avoid their sukkah entirely, while others will quickly recite blessings over wine and challah in the sukkah and then eat the rest of the meal indoors. Adherents of Chabad, the Hasidic movement based in Crown Heights, try to eat in the sukkah under nearly all circumstances.
One resident of Teaneck, New Jersey, a heavily Jewish suburb, posted a single-spaced, two-page guide from his local rabbi on what to do if it rains on the holiday. (The rabbi, who is not named in the document, recommends saying blessings over wine and challah in the sukkah and then continuing the meal inside.)
Rabbis on social media, meanwhile, explored the theological dimensions of the weather. Some cited a passage from the Mishnah, the ancient code of rabbinic law, that compares rain on Sukkot, following the effort of building a sukkah, to a servant bringing his master a jug of wine, only for the master to throw water back in the servant’s face.
“Nasty weather on sukkot is a sign of God’s displeasure with us,” Rabbi Ysoscher Katz, who teaches at the liberal Orthodox Yeshivat Chovevei Torah seminary, wrote on Facebook. Then, referencing the recent High Holidays and addressing God, he wrote, “If all we did the last few weeks is not good enough for You, what’s left for us to say?! We did the best we can. If You want more, You will have to let us know what that more is.”
Rabbi Ethan Tucker, the president of the Hadar Institute, an egalitarian center of Jewish study based in Manhattan, also cited the passage and encouraged people to focus on the experience of the servant in the parable. He added that because the first day of the holiday falls on Shabbat, the other central commandment associated with Sukkot, praying with four species of plants, is also deferred a day. (Sunday is expected to be sunny.)
“What does it *feel like* when you have prepared for something and then you cannot execute it as planned?” he wrote on Facebook. “It feels like rejection, as in the parable. The weather may in fact just be the weather, but it doesn’t necessarily make the feeling of loss less palpable. Is there a way to make this Sukkah rainout an opportunity to sit with rejection? To empathize with other such experiences, even if they are not our own?”
Some New Yorkers tried to stay positive. “It might be flooding and we might consume a lot of rain water with our food lol but Sukkot Dinner under the Stars is still on even if we might end up eating indoors under a roof instead!” a Facebook user from Queens posted on Friday, advertising a meal that night.
Nina Jochnowitz, a State Senate candidate in New Jersey, cited the rabbinic idea that Sukkot is considered a time of joy, and referenced a Hasidic saying that “‘joy breaks all boundaries,’ transforming even the most negative occurrences into blessings!”
And others reached for seasonal parallels: “If only sukkot came with rain dates like baseball,” one person posted.
For Vogel, the travel writer and Riverdale resident, the rain was especially unfortunate, as he has built a smaller sukkah in recent years to limit capacity due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This was the first year he had gone back to building a larger one.
“Well, I was looking forward to eating in a large sukkah this year with friends and family,” he told the New York Jewish Week. “But we can’t control the weather, so we will make the best of it.”
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