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Lewyn Addresses America

A little politics, a little urbanism- I also blog 100 percent on urbanism at and

I just finished spending a weekend at Limmud, a Jewish learning experience covering not just religious topics but also culture and history.  Some of the highlights:

*My first session Saturday morning was studying Talmudic discussions of work.  The most interesting segment was this:

Rabbi Beroka Hozaah asked Elijah the Prophet: Is there any person in this market who is destined for the world to come [i.e., Paradise]? He replied, no. … While they were conversing, two people passed by. Elijah said: These two are also destined for the world to come. Rabbi Beroka approached them and asked them what they did. They replied: We are jesters, and we cheer up people who are depressed. Also, when we see two people who are quarrelling, we work hard to make peace between them (Babylonian Talmud, Taanis 22a).

Though I’d heard of this segment, I heard a new slant on it: you don’t have to be a professional comedian to be a jester; you can be one in any occupation- perhaps even law professor!  I resolved to think about ways to amuse and cheer up my students (though admittedly, the next couple of weeks will be quite difficult since they involve future interests and the rule against perpetuitites, two of the more difficult subjects in my first-year property course).

*Another segment covered Jewish disunity in the past- in particular, the conflict between Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai (two groups of Pharisees).  Although Pirke Avot says their controversies were “for the sake of Heaven”, the Talmud says that there was a fight between them that possibly involved numerous murders; later Jewish commentators were divided as to whether these references to “slaughter” should be taken literally.  The broader point: even within a group that seems homogenous to outsiders such as the Pharisees, deadly conflict can arise (and has arisen).  So if you think there was Jewish unity in the good old days, you are wrong.

*I attended two sessions with Deborah Dash Moore of the University of Michigan.  Prof.  Moore spoke about her book “GI Jews” which discusses how American Jewish participation in World War II changed Jews.  Before the war, Jews had been concentrated in the Northeast and were widely discriminated against.  A few decades later, Jews were much less geographically concentrated, more assimilated, and less persecuted.  How come?  Moore suggests that military service exposed Jews to southern and western military bases (causing them to migrate south and west after the war, especially to Florida and California), and exposed Jewish soldiers to Christians (causing them to become more comfortable with, and more willing to challenge, Christians).  The other session was about a few Jewish photographers in the 1940s who specialized in downtown NYC street scenes- some interesting photographs by Helen Levitt and Miriam Cherry.  (Just google them to find out more).

*Saturday afternoon I saw part of a talk by Sarah Benor of USC on her new book Becoming Frum. Her book focuses on BTs (short for “baal teshuvas” or “returnees to observant Judaism”) adjust to the culture of “frum from birth” orthodox Judaism- focusing not so much on religious practice or intellectual views as to cultural quirks (for example, certain examples of questionable grammar common in close-knit Orthodox communities).  She also used an interesting phrase I’d never heard before: “peripheral BTs”, which she used to describe someone who is not fully part of the Orthodox community (either in terms of observance or by not living in a heavily Orthodox area) but still has taken on a great deal more religious observance over time.  She noted that BTs often either highlight their distinctiveness from other Orthodox Jews or “hyperaccommodate” (that is, show that they are more religious and /or visibly observant and/or culturally orthodox) than everyone else.

*Later on Saturday night I saw Rabbi Charlie Savenor talk about a distant relative of mine, Rabbi Tobias Geffen, who in the 1930s persuaded Coca-Cola to change one of its ingredients so that Coke could become kosher. (More importantly, he found my father in the DP camps and brought him to Atlanta, where his wife fixed him up with my mother – but Rabbi Savenor’s talk had nothing to do with that). I learned that many rabbis around the country had thought Coke was kosher, but that none had checked its ingredients as thoroughly as Rabbi Geffen.  A short version of the story of Rabbi Geffen and Coke is here; however, we read a responsa (Jewish legal opinion) written by the rabbi himself.  Rabbi Geffen had more of a flair for the dramatic than I had thought; a couple of paragraphs into the responsum, it appeared to me that he was saying that Coke was kosher, then he explains why it isn’t, and only at the end of the opinion does he explain how he got Coca-Cola to remedy the problems with its ingredients so its product could become kosher.

*Sunday I saw Joan Nathan talk about Jewish food in France; she discusses how the food culture changed- first due to medieval migrations from southern to northern France (which caused a shift away from foods like romaine lettuce that grew best in relatively warm weather to cold-weather foods like horseradish), and more recently due to the migration of much of north Africa’s Jewish population to France.  (In fact, because of this migration France’s Jewish population is actually larger than before Hitler).

*Deborah Lipstadt of Emory spoke about the Eichmann trial.  Key point: Eichmann trial, to a greater extent than Nuremberg trials, involved Holocaust survivors as witnesses, perhaps emboldening survivors to tell their stories more over time and thus raising long-term public awareness of the Holocaust.

*Israeli rabbi Aaron Leibowitz discussed kashrut in Israel.  To label itself as kosher, all Israeli restaurants must have certification from the Chief Rabbinate.  Unfortunately, there have been scandals involving Chief Rabbinate supervisors being sloppy- for example, visiting restaurants only once a month or so, not often enough to make sure the restaurant is following directions.  (Of course, if the Chief Rabbinate reforms it might go too far in the other direction, given its reputation for extremism in other areas).

*Today I saw Ethan Tucker discuss when someone can commit one sin to avoid another.  For example, one medieval case involved a Jew whose adult child was being pressured to convert to another religion.  Could the Jew ride a horse or write a letter on the Sabbath (both no-nos) to prevent this?  Some rabbis said yes, some no, some said it depended on how willing the child was to bail out on Judaism.   Tucker said the broader theoretical issue was whether we should worry about our own “personal spiritual batting average” or that of the community as a whole.

*Also today, I saw a photo exhibit about Hebron, a city so radically divided between Muslims and Jews that on some streets, half the street is fenced off for Jews and the other for Muslims.    For more info on this (though from a perspective somewhat critical of the Israeli govt.) you might want to read this page on “Project Hayei Sarah.”  (The second person on the video helped lead our discussion).

*Rabbi Leonid Feldman of Palm Beach spoke about work-life balance (he was for it).  He gave interesting examples; for example, he noted that when Jethro visited Moses after the splitting of the Red Sea, etc. Moses embraced Jethro instead of his wife or sons- and that by an odd coincidence, his sons’ career and children are not mentioned in the Torah.  Perhaps Moses’ commitment to his “work” deprived him of an adequate relationship with his children!

NOTE: I spoke on Sunday morning; I will post that speech separately.


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