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Which side are you on: Jewish American or American Jew? 



(JTA) — Earlier this month the New York Times convened what it called a “focus group of Jewish Americans.” I was struck briefly by that phrase — Jewish Americans — in part because the Times, like the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, tends to prefer “American Jews.”

It’s seemingly a distinction without a difference, although I know others might disagree. There is an argument that “American Jew” smacks of disloyalty, describing a Jew who happens to be American. “Jewish American,” according to this thinking, flips the script: an American who happens to be Jewish. 

If pressed, I’d say I prefer “American Jew.” The noun “Jew” sounds, to my ear anyway, more direct and more assertive than the tentative adjective “Jewish.” It’s also consistent with the way JTA essentializes “Jew” in its coverage, as in British Jew, French Jew, LGBT Jew or Jew of color. 

I wouldn’t have given further thought to the subject if not for a webinar last week given by Arnold Eisen, the chancellor emeritus at the Jewish Theological Seminary. In “Jewish-American, American-Jew: The Complexities and Joys of Living a Hyphenated Identity,” Eisen discussed how a debate over language is really about how Jews navigate between competing identities.

“What does the ‘American’ signify to us?” he asked. “What does the ‘Jewish’ signify and what is the nature of the relationship between the two? Is it a synthesis? Is it a tension, or a contradiction, or is it a blurring of the boundaries such that you can’t tell where one ends and the other begins?”

Questions like these, it turns out, have been asked since Jews and other immigrants first began flooding Ellis Island. Teddy Roosevelt complained in 1915 that “there is no room in this country for hyphenated Americans.” Woodrow Wilson liked to say that “any man who carries a hyphen about with him carries a dagger that he is ready to plunge into the vitals of the Republic.” The two presidents were frankly freaked out about what we now call multiculturalism, convinced that America couldn’t survive a wave of immigrants with dual loyalties.

The two presidents lost the argument, and for much of the 20th century “hyphenated American” was shorthand for successful acculturation. While immigration hardliners continue to question the loyalty of minorities who claim more than one identity, and Donald Trump played with the politics of loyalty in remarks about Mexicans, Muslims and Jews, ethnic pride is as American as, well, St. Patrick’s Day. “I am the proud daughter of Indian immigrants,” former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley said in announcing her run for the Republican presidential nomination this month.  

For Jews, however, the hyphen became what philosophy professor Berel Lang called “a weighty symbol of the divided life of Diaspora Jewry.” Jewishness isn’t a distant country with quaint customs, but a religion and a portable identity that lives uneasily alongside your nationality. In a 2005 essay, Lang argued that on either side of the hyphen were “vying traditions or allegiances,” with the Jew constantly confronted with a choice between the American side, or assimilation, and the Jewish side, or remaining distinct. 

Eisen calls this the “question of Jewish difference.” Eisen grew up in an observant Jewish family in Philadelphia, and understood from an early age that his family was different from their Vietnamese-, Italian-, Ukrainian- and African-American neighbors. On the other hand, they were all the same — that is, American — because they were all hyphenated. “Being parallel to all these other differences, gave me my place in the city and in the country,” he said.

In college he studied the Jewish heavy hitters who were less sanguine about the integration of American and Jewish identities. Eisen calls Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the renegade theologian at JTS, “the thinker who really made this question uppermost for American Jews.” Kaplan wrote in 1934 that Jewishness could only survive as a “subordinate civilization” in the United States, and that the “Jew in America will be first and foremost an American, and only secondarily a Jew.” 

Kaplan’s prescription was a maximum effort on the part of Jews to “save the otherness of Jewish life” – not just through synagogue, but through a Jewish “civilization” expressed in social relationships, leisure activities and a traditional moral and ethical code.

Of course, Kaplan also understood that there was another way to protect Jewish distinctiveness: move to Israel.

A poster issued by the National Industrial Conservation Movement in 1917 warns that the American war effort might be harmed by a “hyphen of disloyalty,” suggesting immigrants with ties to their homelands were working to aid the enemy. (Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress)

The political scientist Charles Liebman, in “The Ambivalent American Jew” (1973), argued that Jews in the United States were torn between surviving as a distinct ethnic group and integrating into the larger society.

According to Eisen, Liebman believed that “Jews who make ‘Jewish’ the adjective and ‘American’ the noun tend to fall on the integration side of the hyphen. And Jews who make ‘Jew’ the noun and ‘American’ the adjective tend to fall on the survival side of the hyphen.” 

Eisen, a professor of Jewish thought at JTS, noted that the challenge of the hyphen was felt by rabbis on opposite ends of the theological spectrum. He cited Eugene Borowitz, the influential Reform rabbi, who suggested in 1973 that Jews in the United States “are actually more Jewish on the inside than they pretend to be on the outside. In other words, we’re so worried about what Liebman called integration into America that we hide our distinctiveness.” Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, the leading Modern Orthodox thinker of his generation, despaired that the United States presented its Jews with an unresolvable conflict between the person of faith and the person of secular culture.

When I read the texts Eisen shared, I see 20th-century Jewish men who doubted Jews who could be fully at home in America and at home with themselves as Jews (let alone as Jews who weren’t straight or white — which would demand a few more hyphens). They couldn’t imagine a rich Jewishness that didn’t exist as a counterculture, the way Cynthia Ozick wondered what it would be like to “think as a Jew” in a non-Jewish language like English.

They couldn’t picture the hyphen as a plus sign, which pulled the words “Jewish” and “American” together. 

Recent trends support the skeptics. Look at Judaism’s Conservative movement, whose rabbis are trained at JTS, and which has long tried to reconcile Jewish literacy and observance with the American mainstream. It’s shrinking, losing market share and followers both to Reform – where the American side of the hyphen is ascendant — and to Orthodoxy, where Jewish otherness is booming in places like Brooklyn and Lakewood, New Jersey. And the Jewish “nones” — those opting out of religion, synagogue and active engagement in Jewish institutions and affairs — are among the fastest-growing segments of American Jewish life.

Eisen appears more optimistic about a hyphenated Jewish identity, although he insists that it takes work to cultivate the Jewish side. “I don’t think there’s anything at stake necessarily on which side of the hyphen you put the Jewish on,” he said. “But if you don’t go out of your way to put added weight on the Jewish in the natural course of events, as Kaplan said correctly 100 years ago, the American will win.”

The post Which side are you on: Jewish American or American Jew?  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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