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Learning Hebrew brought me closer to Judaism — and alienated me from Israel



(JTA) — Speaking to the media in the United States before and after his latest election as Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu reassured American Jews and other supporters of Israel that their widely expressed fears of the undemocratic nature of the new Israeli governing coalition were overblown and would not in fact come to pass.

Netanyahu told the New York Times that he was still at least notionally committed to a peace deal with the Palestinians and told journalist Bari Weiss that policy would be determined by him, and not cabinet ministers like the self-described “proud homophobe” Bezalel Smotrich and convicted criminal Itamar Ben-Gvir, or the haredi Orthodox parties.

Then he returned to Israel, and promptly tweeted, “These are the basic lines of the national government headed by me: The Jewish people have an exclusive and indisputable right to all areas of the Land of Israel. The government will promote and develop settlement in all parts of the Land of Israel — in the Galilee, the Negev, the Golan, Judea and Samaria.” Netanyahu was asserting absolute Jewish sovereignty over the entirety of the West Bank, with no room for Palestinian statehood — as those politicians want and as his many American Jewish critics feared he would do.

That last tweet, despite reflecting the official position of Netanyahu’s newly inaugurated government, did not attract nearly as much attention in U.S. media as Netanyahu’s previous press tour. Because unlike Netanyahu’s fluent English-language interviews with numerous American press organizations, this tweet was in Hebrew — a language in which only 22% of American Jews possess an even minimal degree of fluency.

Like many non-Orthodox American Jews, I was once one of those other 78%. I was brought up attending a Reform synagogue, and I learned how to read enough Hebrew phonetically to have a bar mitzvah ceremony, reciting my Torah portion by rote memorization. I learned the aleph bet, and a few basic words here and there, but not much more. If I read Torah or Talmud at all, it was entirely in English translation.

But unlike many non-Orthodox American Jews, I became interested in learning Hebrew as an adult, as part of a broader interest in learning more about Jewish history, and I enrolled in courses starting in college to study Biblical, Mishnaic and modern Hebrew. Eventually, after years of study, I enrolled in a doctoral program in Jewish history at the University of Chicago, where I had to pass a rigorous Hebrew proficiency exam as a prerequisite to advance to doctoral candidacy status.

In many ways, this should have made me an ideal American Jew. After all, numerous commentators have opined on the need for more American Jews to learn Hebrew, to bring us closer to both Israeli Jewish culture and to Jewish history as a whole. As one Israeli educator stated, “Once you have Hebrew, all Israeli culture can be injected into your life.”

A wide array of American Jewish philanthropists and charities have identified funding Hebrew language education for American Jews as a priority. They should see someone like me — who went from knowing barely enough Hebrew to get through my bar mitzvah to now reading Haaretz each day in Hebrew — as a success story.

Except that this call for more American Jews to learn Hebrew often comes with an embedded political assumption: that if more American Jews learned to read and speak Hebrew, we would feel more closely linked to Israel and reverse the declining support for Israel among young American Jews.

There’s even a claim that American Jews do not have the right to criticize Israel without being able to follow Israeli political discussions in the original language. Daniel Gordis, of Shalem College in Jerusalem, complained that left-wing American Jewish journalist Peter Beinart should not be taken seriously as a commentator on Israeli affairs, as Beinart apparently “cannot read those [Hebrew] newspapers or Israeli literature until it is translated.” 

The assumption is clear: If American Jews do not know Hebrew, we cannot be connected to the state of Israel, nor can we truly understand the Israeli politics we might wish to opine about. If we learned Hebrew, one Israeli-American advocate wrote, we would “be more united and support Israel in spectacular ways.”

Except that in my case, the exact opposite happened. As I learned more Hebrew, I saw how Israeli Jewish politicians often spoke in different terms in English and in Hebrew, tailoring their appeals for different audiences. Netanyahu’s recent sojourn to the United States is only one example. Take Ayelet Shaked, who sounded moderate notes to English-speaking audiences on a trip to Britain, while also telling Hebrew audiences that the “Jewish” character of Israel should supersede the notion of “equality.”

Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with code-switching. Politicians of all kinds do that. But the fact that some Israeli politicians think they have to sound more moderate in English than in Hebrew is telling. And when I opened myself up to what some Israeli politicians say in Hebrew, such as when Netanyahu falsely spread allegations of Arabs stealing votes in the last Israeli elections, something he did in Hebrew and not in English, or when new coalition partner Itamar Ben-Gvir put up a billboard reading, “May our enemies be gone” in Hebrew next to the pictures of three Israeli left-wing politicians, two Palestinian and one Jewish, it opened my eyes to a lot of aspects of Israeli politics that some American Jews would rather not hear.

So yes, it would be good for more American Jews to learn Hebrew. It would be a positive step for more American Jews to engage more heavily with Jewish culture and history. I certainly have no regrets about my time spent studying Hebrew.

But we should be honest about what the effects of that Hebrew language education would be. It might not be to simply make more American Jews “defend Israel” against its detractors. It might mean a more honest engagement with Israeli politics as they truly are, rather than how they are presented abroad to English-speaking audiences. And for some of us, that might even push us further away.

The post Learning Hebrew brought me closer to Judaism — and alienated me from Israel appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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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.

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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.”

Raquel Dancho (left), Member of Parliament for Kildonan-St.Paul, and Nikki Spigelman, President, Gwen Secter Centre

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.)

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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.

The post Palestinian gunmen kill 4 Israelis in West Bank gas station appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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