(JTA) — In the weeks since Israel’s latest government was sworn in, questions relating to assimilation, defining Jewish identity and what it means to be a Zionist have been central to the public and political discourse, which in some ways is perhaps more heated and divisive than it has ever been.
One useful addition to the discourse might be recalling the thought and example of an author and Zionist leader who died 100 years ago last month. Max Nordau was a central figure in the early years of the modern political Zionist movement, literally founding the Zionist Organization (today’s World Zionist Organization) with Theodor Herzl and heading multiple Zionist congresses. A physician and renowned man of letters prior to his “conversion” to Zionism following the Dreyfus Affair in France, Nordau’s joining the Zionist movement gave it a notable boost in terms of renown and respectability.
He also coined the term “Muscular Judaism” — a redefinition of what it meant to be a Jew in the modern world; a critical shift away from the traditionally insular, “meek” Jewish archetype devoted solely to religious and intellectual pursuits. The “Muscular Jew” in theory and practice was necessary in order for a modern Jewish state to be established.
Reviving interest in Nordau now is a continuation of a conversation that an Israeli historian kicked off four decades ago. The historian, Yosef Nedava, embarked on a crusade to renew interest in and appreciation of Nordau. Nedava was a proponent of Revisionist Zionism, a movement led by Zeev Jabotinsky and later Menachem Begin that was considered to be the bitter ideological rival to the Labor Zionism of David Ben-Gurion and others. Broadly speaking, Revisionist Zionism was more territorially maximalist when it came to settling the Land of Israel, and favored liberal principles as opposed to the socialist ones championed by Ben-Gurion and his colleagues.
Nedava had a penchant for fighting the battles of unsung heroes of history who he thought should be better remembered. He led a crusade to clear the name of Yosef Lishansky, the founder of the NILI underground movement that assisted the British during World War I who was executed by the Ottomans. He also worked to exonerate fellow Revisionist Zionists accused of murdering Labor Zionist leader Haim Arlozorov — an event that shook Mandatory Palestine in the early 1930s and beyond.
About Nordau, Nedava said at the time, “For 60 years he wasn’t mentioned and he was one of the forgotten figures that only a few streets were named after.”
Nedava’s sentiment was clear, even if his words were somewhat hyperbolic. Nordau had in fact been studied and cited over the years, and there were in fact at least a few streets named after him in Israel. At the official state event marking six decades since Nordau’s death, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin even declared, “We never forgot Max Nordau, his teachings and his historical merits.”
Following Nedava’s efforts leading up to the 60th anniversary of Nordau’s death in 1983, Begin set up an official committee to memorialize the Zionist leader. The committee was tasked with publishing Nordau’s works, establishing events and honoring him in other ways like getting his face on a stamp “and maybe on a monetary bill,” according to Nedava.
But no bill was ever printed with Nordau’s visage, and there’s no question that Nordau never has gotten nearly the credit nor recognition that Herzl received. If the streets referenced by Nedava are any indicator, there are currently a respectable 33 streets named after Nordau in Israel, though that’s just about half of what Herzl’s got. There’s a city called Herzliya, with a massive image of the Zionist founder overlooking one of Israel’s most-trafficked highways. Nordau has a beach in Tel Aviv, a neighborhood in Netanya and a small village far in the north — but no city of his own.
That’s not to say he didn’t have his fans. The Revisionist movement and Begin’s Herut and Likud parties idolized him, often mentioning and depicting him alongside Herzl and Vladimir Jabotinsky. Revisionist historian Benzion Netanyahu, father of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, greatly admired Nordau, even editing four entire volumes of his writings.
“Alongside Herzl, the Revisionists loved him, as he was a liberal. Yet he was also accepted and respected by those on the other side of the political spectrum,” Hezi Amiur, a scholar of Zionism and the curator of the Israeli Collection at the National Library of Israel, told me.
Like many of his generation and ilk, Nordau, himself the son of a rabbi, rejected religion and tradition as a teenager, opting to join mainstream European secular culture. He changed his name from Simon (Simcha) Maximilian Südfeld to Max Nordau. The shift in surname from Südfeld — meaning “southern field” — to Nordau — meaning “northern meadow” — was very much an intentional act for Nordau, the only son in his religiously observant family who chose northern European Germanic culture over the traditions of his fathers. He even married a Danish Protestant opera singer, a widow and mother of four named Anna Dons-Kaufmann.
In a congratulatory letter sent to Nordau following his marriage to Anna, Herzl, who was also not a particularly observant nor learned Jew, wrote:
Your concerns regarding the attitudes of our zealous circles [within the Zionist movement] regarding your mixed marriage are perhaps exaggerated. … If our project had already been fulfilled today, surely we would not have prevented a Jewish citizen, that is, a citizen of the existing Jewish state, from marrying a foreign-born gentile, through this marriage she would become a Jew without paying attention to her religion. If she has children, they will be Jews anyway.
This particular vision of Herzl’s has certainly not come to fruition, and the topic remains a particularly heated one, continuing to roil the Israeli political system, and — no less — Israel-Diaspora relations.
Similar political forces to those that have kept this particular Herzlian vision at bay may have also been responsible for ensuring that Nordau’s impressively whiskered face never made its way onto Israeli currency.
According to one report, Begin’s Likud government abandoned its efforts to get Nordau’s onto a shekel note in 1983 in order to avoid a potential coalition crisis. The concern was that the religious parties that were part of the ruling coalition could become outraged at the prospect of having someone married to a non-Jew on Israeli money. Whether the report was fully accurate or not, the sentiments behind such a potential coalition scare are certainly familiar to anyone following contemporary Israeli politics.
Nonetheless, perhaps the two most influential religious Zionist rabbis of the 20th century, Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaKohen Kook and his son, Rabbi Zvi Yehuda, not only somewhat overlooked Nordau’s assimilationist tendencies and intermarriage, they even celebrated the man and his vision.
The elder Rabbi Kook, who served as the rabbi of Jaffa, Jerusalem and the Land of Israel in the opening decades of the 1900s, uncompromisingly criticized some of Nordau’s views, especially with respect to the separation of religion from Zionism. But he was a big fan of Nordau’s “Muscular Judaism,” writing among other things, that:
…a healthy body is what we need, we have been very busy with the soul, we have forgotten the sanctity of the body, we have neglected physical health and strength, we have forgotten that we have holy flesh, no less than we have the holy spirit… Through the strength of the flesh the weakened soul will be enlightened, the resurrection of the dead in their bodies.
Decades later his son, likely the most influential Israeli religious Zionist spiritual leader until his death in 1982, defined Nordau (as well as seminal Hebrew poet Shaul Tchernichovsky, who also married a non-Jew) as a “baal tshuvah” — a term imprecisely translated as “penitent” that is generally used to refer to non-observant Jews who become more religiously observant. Yehuda based his designation on a Talmudic teaching that “Anyone who transgresses and is ashamed of it is forgiven for all of his sins.”
Like anyone, Max Nordau probably regretted and felt ashamed of various decisions and actions in his life, but marrying a non-Jewish woman does not seem to be one of them. He and Anna stayed married for decades until his death in 1923.
Both Kooks were able to overlook the decidedly non-religious (if not outright anti-religious) life Nordau chose to lead. Instead of his personal choices, they focused on the central contribution he made to ensuring the reestablishment of a Jewish home in its ancestral land.
The majority of Israel’s current ruling coalition claims to be the ideological descendants of Begin and the Rabbis Kook, men who managed to have great admiration for the teachings and achievements of Nordau, even if they may have found his anti-religious, assimilationist tendencies and intermarriage reprehensible. Nedava wanted Israel to learn from Nordau 40 years ago. It’s possible the country still could today — if only the striking level of tolerance and respect with which he was considered in the past can still be summoned.
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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