(JTA) — Jewish eras can be defined by events (the fall of the Second Temple, the Inquisition, the founding of Israel) and by ideas (the rabbinic era, emancipation, post-denominationalism). A community reveals itself in the things it argues about most passionately.
It’s too early to tell what ideas will define this era, although a look back at the big debates of 2022 suggests Jews in North America will be discussing a few issues for a long time: the resurgence of antisemitism, the boundaries of free speech, the red/blue culture wars.
Below are eight of some of the key debates of the past year as (mostly) reflected in the Jewish Telegraphic Agency’s opinion section (which I have a hand in editing). They suggest, above all, a community anxious about its standing in the American body politic despite its strength and self-confidence.
Antisemitism and the Black-Jewish alliance
The rapper Kanye West spread canards about Jews and power. Brooklyn Nets star Kyrie Irving shared an antisemitic film on Twitter. And comedian Dave Chappelle made light of both incidents on “Saturday Night Live,” suggesting comics like him had more to fear from cancellation than Jews did from rising antisemitism. The central roles played in these controversies by three African-American celebrities revived longstanding tensions between two communities who haven’t been able to count on their historic ties since the end of the civil rights era. The war of words was particularly vexing for Jews of color, like the rabbi known as MaNishtana and Rabbi Kendell Pinkney — who wondered whether “my mixed Jewish child will grow up in an America where she feels compelled to closet aspects of her identity because society cannot hold the wonder of her complexity.”
Jewish attitudes toward Ukraine
Russia’s war on Ukraine stirred up complex feelings among Jews. It led to an outpouring of support for the innocents caught up in or sent fleeing by Russia’s invasion, and the Jewish president who became their symbol of defiance. It reinvigorated a Jewish rescue apparatus that seemed to have been in hibernation for years. And it probed Jews’ memories of their own historic suffering in Ukraine, often at the hands of the ancestors of those now under attack.
Jews and the end of Roe v. Wade
In June the U.S. Supreme Court voted 5-4 to overturn Roe v. Wade. It was an unthinkable outcome for liberal Jewish activists, women especially, who for 50 years and more had regarded the right to an abortion as integral to their Jewish identity and political worldview. Before the decision came down, Jewish studies scholar Michael Raucher questioned long-held Jewish organizational views that justified abortion only on the narrowest of religious grounds without acknowledging that women “have the bodily autonomy to make that decision on their own.” Conversely, Avi Shafran of Agudath Israel of America welcomed the end of Roe on behalf of his haredi Orthodox organization, writing that the rabbis “who guide us indisputably hold that, absent extraordinary circumstances, terminating a pregnancy is a grave sin.” Responding to Shafran, Daphne Lazar Price, an Orthodox Jewish feminist, argued that even in her stringently religious community, getting an abortion is a “conscious choice by women to follow their religious convictions and maintain their human dignity.”
Colleyville and synagogue safety
After a gunman held a rabbi and three congregants hostage at a Colleyville, Texas synagogue in January, Jewish institutions called for even tighter security at buildings that had already been hardened after the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre in 2018. And yet for some, the sight of armed guards and locked doors undermines the spirit of a house of worship. Raphael Magarik of the University of Illinois Chicago argued that the Colleyville incident shouldn’t lead to an overreaction, especially when congregations are struggling to come back together after the pandemic. Rabbi Joshua Ladon warned about the “impulse to allow fear to define our actions.” Meanwhile, Jews of color said armed guards and police patrols can make them feel unsafe. In a powerful response, Mijal Bitton and Rabbi Isaiah Rothstein of the Shalom Hartman Center wrote that Jewish institutions must think in “expansive and creative ways about how to fight for our combined safety in a way that takes into account the rich ethnic and racial diversity of our communities.”
Anti-Zionism, antisemitism and “Jew-free zones”
When nine student groups at UC Berkeley’s law school adopted by-laws saying that they will not invite speakers who support Zionism, the Jewish Journal in Los Angeles ran an op-ed with the provocative headline, “Berkeley Develops Jewish Free Zones.” In the essay, Kenneth L. Marcus, who heads the Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, argued that “Zionism is an integral aspect of the identity of many Jews,” and that the bylaws act as “racially restrictive covenants,” precluding Jewish participation. Defenders of the pro-Palestinian students countered that groups often invite only like-minded speakers, and that while being Jewish is an identity, Zionism is a political viewpoint. Faculty, politicians and activists weighed in on both sides of what has become a central debate on campuses and beyond: When does anti-Zionism become antisemitism, and how do you balance free speech rights against the claims by some students that their personal safety hangs in the balance?
“Maus” and school book bans
Caught up in an epidemic of book-banning were Jewish books for children and young adults, a list that includes “The Purim Superhero,” “Family Fletcher” and “Chik Chak Shabbat.” A Texas school board removed a 2018 graphic novel adaptation of Anne Frank’s diary. But perhaps the highest profile case of a Jewish-interest book being banned came when a Tennessee school board voted to remove “Maus” — Art Speigelman’s epic cartoon memoir about the Holocaust — from middle-school classrooms, citing its use of profanity, nudity and depictions of “killing kids.” Coverage of the ban misleadingly depicted “Maus” as an introduction to the Shoah for young adults, while Speigelman recently noted that he had become a reluctant “metonym” for the book-banning issue. Jennifer Caplan explained why the book is indispensable: “‘Maus’ forces the reader to bear witness in a way no written account can, and the [illustrations] are especially good at forcing the eye to see what the mind prefers to glide past.”
Artificial intelligence and real-life dilemmas
Artificial intelligence, or AI, has become a fact of corporate life, with computing advances that power robotic automation, computer vision and natural-language text generation. But what captured the public imagination — and dread — this year were sites like Dall-E, which threatened the livelihood of graphic designers by generating original, credible illustrations with no more than a simple prompt, and ChatGPT, which is able to expound cogently and humanly on practically any topic. Beyond everyday ethical dilemmas (“Can I write my book report using ChatGPT?”) AI raised profound questions about what it means to be human. “Rabbis have historically been very open to the idea of nonhuman sentience and have tended to see parallels between humans and nonhumans as an excuse to treat nonhumans better,” wrote David Zvi Kalman in an essay on the prospect of creating artificial life. Similarly, Mois Navon suggested in JTA that “if a machine is sentient, it is no longer an inanimate object with no moral status or ‘rights’ … but rather an animate being with the status of a ‘moral patient’ to whom we owe consideration.
A Pulitzer for “The Netanyahus”
Joshua Cohen was the somewhat surprising winner of the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction for his novel “The Netanyahus: An Account of a Minor and Ultimately Even Negligible Episode in the History of a Very Famous Family.” Or maybe not so surprising: The book is a fictionalized treatment of a real-life visit in the late 1950s by the Israeli historian Benzion Netanyahu for a job interview at a university very much like Cornell. With Benzion’s son Benjamin angling for an ultimately successful return to office in real life, a satire about Jewish power, right-wing Zionism and Israeli self-regard might have seemed to the judges very much of the moment. As critic Adam Kirsch wrote in a JTA essay, Cohen concludes that both American and Israeli Jewish identities “are absurd, crying out for the kind of satire that can only come from intimate knowledge.” Others weren’t amused. Jewish Currents criticized the novel for being derivative of both Philip Roth and Saul Bellow, and the Jewish Review of Books said that the novel includes “a capsule history of Zionism that is so blatant a distortion that I just gave up.”
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Phyllis Pollock died at home Sunday September 3, 2023 in Winnipeg, after a courageous lifetime battle with cancer.
Phyllis was a mother of four: Gary (Laura), daughter Randi, Steven (deceased in 2010) (Karen), and Robert. Phyllis also had two grandchildren: Lauren and Quinn.
Born in Fort Frances, Ontario on February 7, 1939, Phyllis was an only child to Ruby and Alex Lerman. After graduating high school, Phyllis moved to Winnipeg where she married and later divorced Danny Pollock, the father of her children. She moved to Beverly Hills in 1971, where she raised her children.
Phyllis had a busy social life and lucrative real estate career that spanned over 50 years, including new home sales with CoastCo. Phyllis was the original sales agent for three buildings in Santa Monica, oceanfront: Sea Colony I, Sea Colony II, and Sea Colony. She was known as the Sea Colony Queen. She worked side by side with her daughter Randi for about 25 years – handling over 600 transactions, including sales and leases within the three phases of Sea Colony alone.
Phyllis had more energy than most people half her age. She loved entertaining, working in the real estate field, meeting new and interesting people everyday no matter where she went, and thrived on making new lifelong friends. Phyllis eventually moved to the Sea Colony in Santa Monica where she lived for many years before moving to Palm Desert, then Winnipeg.
After battling breast cancer four times in approximately 20 years, she developed metastatic Stage 4 lung cancer. Her long-time domestic partner of 27 years, Joseph Wilder, K.C., was the love of her life. They were never far apart. They traveled the world and went on many adventures during their relationship. During her treatment, Phyllis would say how much she missed work and seeing her clients. Joey demonstrated amazing strength, love, care, and compassion for Phyllis as her condition progressed. He was her rock and was by her side 24/7, making sure she had the best possible care. Joey’s son David was always there to support Phyllis and to make her smile. Joey’s other children, Sheri, Kenny, Joshua and wife Davina, were also a part of her life. His kids would Facetime Phyllis and include her during any of their important functions. Phyllis loved Joey’s children as if they were her own.
Thank you to all of her friends and family who were there to support her during these difficult times. Phyllis is now, finally, pain free and in a better place. She was loved dearly and will be greatly missed. Interment took place in Los Angeles.
Gwen Centre Creative Living Centre celebrates 35th anniversary
By BERNIE BELLAN Over 100 individuals gathered at the Gwen Secter Centre on Tuesday evening, July 18 – under the big top that serves as the venue for the summer series of outdoor concerts that is now in its third year at the centre.
The occasion was the celebration of the Gwen Secter Centre’s 35th anniversary. It was also an opportunity to honour the memory of Sophie Shinewald, who passed away at the age of 106 in 2019, but who, as recently as 2018, was still a regular attendee at the Gwen Secter Centre.
As Gwen Secter Executive Director Becky Chisick noted in her remarks to the audience, Sophie had been volunteering at the Gwen Secter Centre for years – answering the phone among other duties. Becky remarked that Sophie’s son, Ed Shinewald, had the phone number for the Gwen Secter Centre stored in his phone as “Mum’s work.”
Remarks were also delivered by Raquel Dancho, Member of Parliament for Kildonan-St. Paul, who was the only representative of any level of government in attendance. (How times have changed: I remember well the steadfast support the former Member of the Legislature for St. John’s, Gord Mackintosh, showed the Gwen Secter Centre when it was perilously close to being closed down. And, of course, for years, the area in which the Gwen Secter Centre is situated was represented by the late Saul Cherniack.)
Sophie Shinewald’s granddaughter, Alix (who flew in from Chicago), represented the Shinewald family at the event. (Her brother, Benjamin, who lives in Ottawa, wasn’t able to attend, but he sent a pre-recorded audio message that was played for the audience.)
Musical entertainment for the evening was provided by a group of talented singers, led by Julia Kroft. Following the concert, attendees headed inside to partake of a sumptuous assortment of pastries, all prepared by the Gwen Secter culinary staff. (And, despite my asking whether I could take a doggy bag home, I was turned down.)
Palestinian gunmen kill 4 Israelis in West Bank gas station
This is a developing story.
(JTA) — Palestinian gunmen killed four people and wounded four in a terror attack at a gas station near the West Bank settlement of Eli, the Israeli army reported.
An Israeli civilian returning fire at the scene of the attack on Tuesday killed one of the attackers, who emerged from a vehicle, and two others fled.
Kan, Israel’s public broadcaster, said one of those wounded was in serious condition. The gunmen, while in the vehicle, shot at a guard post at the entry to the settlement, and then continued to the gas station which is also the site of a snack bar. A nearby yeshiva went into lockdown.
Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant announced plans to convene a briefing with top security officials within hours of the attack. Kan reported that there were celebrations of the killing in major West Bank cities and in the Gaza Strip, initiated by terrorist groups Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Hamas said the shooting attack Tuesday was triggered by the Jenin raid.
The shooting comes as tensions intensify in the West Bank. A day earlier, Israeli troops raiding the city of Jenin to arrest accused terrorists killed five people.
The Biden administration spoke out over the weekend against Israel’s plans to build 4,000 new housing units for Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also finalized plans to transfer West Bank building decisions to Bezalel Smotrich, the extremist who is the finance minister. Smotrich has said he wants to limit Palestinian building and expand settlement building.
Kan reported that the dead terrorist was a resident of a village, Urif, close to Huwara, the Palestinian town where terrorists killed two Israeli brothers driving through in February. Settlers retaliated by raiding the village and burning cars and buildings.
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