Are We Smarter?

Last time I wrote about Warren Harding and fears of a repeat of the intolerance of that time. The fears may be justified. Besides that, I cannot keep up with the whirl of events that is our new President’s first days in office, nor do I want to spend every waking hour stressing about it, which is easy to do. I will please or disappoint you by changing the subject, trying to maintain some sense that the usual questions are still of interest.

My question this week is whether we Jews are smarter than other people. If that was ever true, it certainly isn’t provable. I am not sure what all the Nobel Prizes prove. What is provable is how much we value education. Maybe you saw the December release of the Pew Research Center’s latest study, one of educational attainment among people of different religions across the globe. We Jews are the world’s most educated religious group, shout the headlines (at least in the Jewish press.) We have an average of 13.4 years of formal schooling. The global average is 7.7 years. Christians average 9.3 years of schooling, while the “unaffiliated” ( they don’t identify as religious) come in at 8.8. Hindus and Muslims 5.6. Buddhists 7.9.

What does it all mean? Part is just geography: most Jews live in the U.S. or Israel where there is a high level of education overall. 98% of Hindus on the other hand live in developing countries. But it’s not just geography: Jews in Brazil average 12.5 years of schooling, nearly twice that of non Jewish Brazilians.

There are many little subplots here: one is the Muslims in Israel whose younger generations have added four years of education to the older generation’s average, or we see the opposite among Jewish men in the U.S. as so many of the Orthodox go to yeshiva year after year and only 37% have formal higher education (vs. 77% for the older Orthodox men.) The full study can be seen at

What, again, does it all mean? We (still) take education seriously. At least those who identify with the Jewish religion, though I suspect that the numbers for Jews who consider themselves Jewish but not by religion are not so different. I think this is something to be proud of. But not too proud, because – you guessed it- when it comes time for learning about the religious tradition that seems to make us want to learn, we are not doing so well. We are looking at maybe 7.0 years of formal education on the average, and that only for a few hours/week. We pay a price for that. Jews who are highly educated but have a 13 year old’s knowledge of Judaism will almost certainly feel ignorant or uncomfortable in many Jewish settings and try to avoid them. Regardless, it can’t be that our religion encourages us to take education seriously when we have so little contact with it. I am left with no answer to my question. Maybe you can help me.

Next time, barring the unforeseen, we do more demography. I hope you can wait. Best regards.        Bill Rudolph

On the Eve of the Inauguration

With the inauguration just hours away, and many of us on edge about what lies ahead, we might want to look back to another inauguration, that of Warren G. Harding, in early 1921. Jonathan Sarna, not long ago a Beth El Scholar in Residence and arguably the dean of historians of the American Jewish experience, reminds us of the hatred that accompanied and followed Harding’s election, with an eerily familiar ring.

“America First.” “Return to Normalcy.” These were some of the slogans in Harding’s campaign. He represented a sharp break from the previous administration, the liberal presidency of Woodrow Wilson. His election was soon followed by the Emergency Immigration Act of 1921, limiting the total number of immigrants for the first time in U.S. history and placing quotas from countries like Poland and Russia where Jews were hoping to escape the reality that followed the Russian Revolution. At the same time, more immigrants than ever were deported for politic views. Rings any bells? “The hatred of everything foreign has become an obsession,” complained Louis Marshall, the unofficial leader of American Jewry at the time.

Hatred was not confined to foreigners. Domestically, antipathy towards blacks, Catholics, Jews and others surged. The KKK flourished, with a membership of close to 5 million white males in a total U.S. population of only about 106 million. Catholic parochial schools were banned in many cities and in the whole state of Oregon. Discrimination in university admissions hit Jews especially, and clubs and hotels and resorts shut out Jews completely. And Henry Ford, one of the great anti-semites in all of U.S. history and one of Harding’s premier supporters, spewed his hatred of Jews and the “international Jewish conspiracy.” It was not Nazi Germany, for sure, and we don’t expect Trump’s election to lead to anything like that either. Nonetheless, we are chilled when bomb threats are called into dozens of JCC’s, Nazi graffiti appears on walls of schools and public buildings and Jewish homes, and a climate of intolerance for most if not all minorities seems to be gaining ground.

Three strategies were utilized back in the Harding period. One, Jews assisted and supported one another. Two, Jews fought back, with PR campaigns and books and articles exposing and rebutting anti-semitic charges – even causing Henry Ford to issue an apology in 1927 for “resurrecting exploded fictions.” And, third, Jews joined up with other groups like the NAACP and Catholic school officials in legal battles of all kinds, allies working together.

Prof. Sarna says that the most remarkable thing is that, despite all the negativity of this period, Jews managed to thrive in many ways. Economically, they took advantage of a rising stock market and built opulent synagogues and institutions like Yeshiva University. Deborah Dash Moore argues that during the 1920s Jews actually “became at home in America.” The hatred unleashed following Harding’s election worked in the end to make the American Jewish community stronger. One wonders what lies ahead for us, and other minorities, and our country as a whole.

Ponder this and hope, as I do, for silver linings in a pretty cloudy four year forecast. Bill Rudolph

Melting Pot or Orchestra?

Recently a colleague’s daughter suggested that he reconsider the distinctive blessings that he (and many of us) gives to boys and girls at Friday night services or dinners, since there are those whose genders are still emerging or don’t fall neatly into biblical categories and shouldn’t they receive God’s blessings as well? The colleague, Elliot Cosgrove, writing in the Jerusalem Post months ago, was struck by this question, and mused about it in ways I have been contemplating as discussions of issues like gender and intermarriage happen for me at least almost daily. In real ways, the two are not different issues.

Issues like gender and intermarriage are just a piece of larger discussions on boundaries and inclusion and how we navigate between the two. On the one hand, “identity politics” have become more and more charged, as every subgroup stands vigilant against any “micro-aggression” that somehow offends its distinct stature and sensibility. In our time, everyone must be validated in their identities whatever they may be. Spend a few moments on college campuses and you will see this. At the same time, we are living in a post-gendered, post-ethnic, post-everything world; young people look askance at assigned or inherited social identities and the notion of erecting boundaries of any sort is totally displeasing. The intermarriage discussion fits well here – why can’t we marry anyone we want to, our kids ask, whatever their ethnicity, religion, gender? Didn’t you teach us to treat everyone the same?

What does all this mean for the Jewish community in America? Trouble, or a challenge, depending on our mood. There are two historical answers: Israel Zangwill (100+ years ago) in his play The Melting Pot had a grand vision of America as God’s crucible, where the diversity of its immigrants would melt away into one common identity. Not everyone liked that vision, Rabbi Judah Magnes among them; he saw it as suicide for the Jewish community. The counter narrative comes from the likes of Horace Kallen (in my lifetime) – America is like an orchestral symphony in which “every instrument has its specific timbre and tonality.” We must embrace the other all the while retaining our own particularity.

Our time, you have probably figured out, is not the time of the melting pot or the orchestra. It’s a new era, and we are still figuring it out. But we don’t have the luxury of standing on the sidelines while the discussion rages. In our post-everything world of unending validation, we have to retain/retrieve the language of difference. Jews must opt for particularism over universalism, collectivism over individualism. That may sound “old school.” Inclusiveness is nice, but we are in the business of building Jewish identities, Jewish homes and Jewish families. In that business, not every choice is equally OK. We need to find a new language both affirming our liberalism and maintaining that not all life-style choices are equal. As Cosgrove puts it, we need to find “a language of tribalism without triumphalism, affiliation without parochialism, peoplehood without ethnocentrism.” It’s not easy, to be sure. It’s a narrow path to walk. But do we have a choice?

Let me know your thoughts. Best, Bill Rudolph

Star Wars

Happy 2017. I think most people here and around the world are happy to say goodbye to 2016, lots of tsuris, but part of us fears that the new year could be worse. But we can’t think like that.

Gail and I saw a number of movies over the break. Even I have figured out that Hollywood saves its best for year’s end, so the Oscar deciders won’t have forgotten how enthusiastic they may have been for a film if too much time has gone by. So we enjoyed Manchester by the Sea (beautifully done but very sad), La La Land ( terrific but we wished for a different end), Rogue One (see below) and Lion (powerful.)

Rogue One has a lot of deep historical significance for Star Wars fans, I am told. For the average Joe, it is a fun sci fi film with maybe too much violence. What got my attention was an article by Sam Kestenbaum in the Forward that talked about the attention the film is getting from, of all people, white supremacists. I was surprised and read on.

White supremacists, alt-right people we now seem to call them, are actually of two minds on Star Wars, this film and its recent predecessors. You won’t like either of the two. On the one hand, some of these white nationalists want the film boycotted, calling it evidence of a Jewish plot to foist racial diversity on whites. “(((Star Wars))) is anti-white social engineering,” says GenFrancoPepe on one “alt-right” forum. [Did you know that the triple parentheses, known as an “echo,” are a way anti-Semites online call attention to Jewish names or perceived Jewish influence?] Look, says GenFrancoPepe, at the multiracial makeup of the stars, look at the female starring roles of late, look how many Jewish writers and producers are involved. It’s the Jewish cabal promoting multiculturalism at the expense of an embattled “white civilization.” Who knew it wasn’t just a movie?

On the other hand, some on the far right love Star Wars. The evil Empire is appealing, Darth Vader a hero. Star Wars creator George Lucas “confused the good guys with the bad,” wrote a Weekly Standard writer early in the Star Wars releases;“the deep lesson of Star Wars is that the Empire is good.” Then there is Steve Bannon, about whom we have heard much, musing as follows, “Darkness is good…. Dick Cheney. Darth Vader. Satan. That’s power.” One commentator with this view urged people to pirate the film (God forbid they pay to get in) and “fantasize about being a stormtrooper.” When you think about it, the Empire leadership is easily mistaken for Nazis. Silly George Lucas, he thought that would make them unappealing! But the Nazis hated Jews and believed in the pure Aryan (white) race – that makes them appealing to the alt-right. Another “alt-right” member writes: “We know which side we prefer. Always buy the Empire Legos. Always root for Hitler. Always retell the story your own way.”

Isn’t this a fitting commentary on what the year now past brought us? Goodbye and good riddance. We hope that somehow 2017 will see a rebirth of civility and tolerance, but it takes all of our optimism genes and more to see that happening. At the least, we can practice those good qualities in our own lives.

Happier topics to follow I hope. Best, Bill Rudolph

Christmas and Chanukah

Shalom. The two exactly coincide this year, which evidently has happened only 4 times in the last 100 years!  It’s good when they are close because we can fool ourselves into thinking there is no school because it’s Chanukah, and we are singing when Christians are singing and we are giving gifts when they are giving gifts.  But of course there is a flip side, as people think the holidays are similar.

Anyway, it’s not been the happiest of secular years that is soon ending, so how about a little on the lighter side to match the holiday season? First an old joke, then a new feel good story.

A teacher was curious about how each of her students celebrated Christmas.  She called on young Patrick Murphy.  “Tell me, Patrick, what do you do at Christmas time?” she asked.  Patrick addressed the class: “Me and my 12 brothers and sisters go to midnight Mass and sing hymns, then we come home and put mince pies by the back door and hang up our stockings.  Then we go to bed and wait for Father Christmas to come with toys.”

“Very nice, Patrick,” the teacher said.  “Now, Jimmy Brown, what do you do at Christmas?”   “Me and my sister also go to Church with Mom and Dad and we sing carols, and after we get home we put cookies and milk by the chimney and we hang up our stockings. We hardly sleep, waiting for Santa Claus to bring our toys,” Jimmy replied.  “That’s also very nice Jimmy,” she said.

Realizing there was a Jewish boy in the class and not wanting to leave him out of the discussion, she asked Isaac Cohen the same question. “Now Isaac, what do you do at Christmas?”   Isaac said, “Well, we go for a ride and we sing a Christmas carol.”  Surprised, the teacher questioned further. “Tell us what you sing.”   “Well, it’s the same thing every year. Dad comes home from the office.  We all get into the Mercedes, and we drive to his toy factory. When we get inside we look at all the empty shelves and we sing, “What a friend we have in Jesus.”  Then we all go on a cruise to the Bahamas.”

Something about that story makes me a little uncomfortable, but let’s stay positive. The past five years the Baltimore Jewish community has put up a giant thirty-two foot Menorah in the heart of downtown Baltimore on McKelden Square. In past years, the mayor of Baltimore and the governor of Maryland and many other dignitaries participated in the lighting celebration and the Menorah has become a holiday fixture downtown.

One of the problems they have always struggled with is how to properly illuminate the entire menorah at night. Nothing has really worked, so this year the rabbi/organizer went to his google machine and searched, “outdoor illumination Baltimore.” Sure enough, in just a flash, Google came up with a number of options. He randomly clicked on one of them, a company located in Harford County north of Baltimore called Good News Electric, and dialed the number. He explained the dilemma to the fellow who answered the phone and asked if this was something they could help with. His response was, “This is something you would need to talk to the boss, Mr. Dennis Seufert, about.”

When reached, Mr. Seufert had already been alerted to the request. It turns out that his downtown office is located just a few blocks away from the site so he went right over and took a look, as well as receiving a picture of the menorah. Within a half hour, Mr. Seufert called back and said they could easily do the job and, in fact, had just the right equipment in their warehouse to do it. Then, he was asked the all important question of how much it was going to cost. He paused for a moment and answered, “Rabbi, I am a devout Catholic and I believe in Divine providence. G-d brought you to me and I wouldn’t think of charging you.” He then added, “Where would we Christians be if not for the Jewish people?”

Does that illuminate and warm your heart? It did mine.

Best wishes for a Chag Chanukah Sameach. Bill Rudolph


Did He Really Kiss Him?

Last time I wrote about “post truth.” And now I ask you a related question: is it possible to be totally objective? Was it ever? I know the world of Bible pretty well, and I can say without doubt that nobody is totally objective when they read and interpret it. But what about the world of the world today?

This week’s Torah portion has the long awaited reunion of Jacob and Esau, apart 20 years after Jacob acquired the birthright and blessing from Esau in dubious ways and fled to his uncle Lavan’s home in Mesopotamia because Esau swore he would kill him. They do meet finally, the morning after Jacob has his scary wrestling dream, and we read (Genesis 33:4) that” Esau ran to greet him. He embraced him and, falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept.” Seems simple enough, except that the word for“kissed him” has dots over it in the Masoretic text, indicating there is something unusual going on here. Some rabbis think it was genuine, others won’t credit Esau with any decent motives and see the dots as a clue that we should read the word (with a not unreasonable vowel change) as “he bit him” and then sucked his blood. How could the rabbis see this reunion so differently? Well, here it gets really interesting.

You see, none of the rabbis know what really happened when Yaakov and Esau met.  That took place more than 1500 years before they lived.  All the rabbis really had to go on were the dots.  All they could do is try to analyze what the dots meant by looking at the whole Torah text and see if there was something one way or the other they could learn from it.  What they learned oftentimes had more to do with their own personal situation than the text.  Some were living in peaceful good times, others saw enemies all around, and their analysis most likely reflects that, flowing from their own background and circumstances.

It is no different today, and I am not just talking Biblical interpretation. We see things the way we do because of our own background and life experiences. Nobody is totally neutral in looking at the world. We all have our “agendas.”

There was a good op-ed piece in Wednesday’s Post by Barton Swaim, titled “An indictment of ‘real’ news.” He talks about the post truth phenomenon, then takes on the legitimate press which we think is giving us “real” news. Here too journalists often produce mostly true statements or key lines that infer far more than the facts allow. He gives examples. The reporters were likely trying, however imperfectly, to report the truth. But their backgrounds or biases, in the examples Swaim uses likely coming from a dislike of Trump, sometimes come into play. In general, “there is no such thing as an uninterpreted fact, and journalists are just as much interpreters as reporters of fact.” And Swaim goes on to say that “I suspect that one of the chief reasons so many Americans prefer harrowing Internet rumors to mainstream news is that they’ve grown impatient with journalists’ pretense that their assertions involve only truth, only facts unmediated by opinion or partiality. These Americans may have their gullible moments, but they know better than that.”

If we look at the ongoing press coverage of Israel, or of two key figures in the post election political discussion – Keith Ellison and Steve Bannon – we can see how much interpretation comes into play. I could do without either of these two men in the positions they will hold or hope to hold, but that is my interpretation of who they are and what they stand for.

So, what to do if everything we read may be interpretation not fact? Work hard to find the facts. If Esau had bitten his brother, they both wouldn’t have wept. That’s almost easy. But it’s not easy in today’s world, where it is now clear that there are few facts that are not filtered through the perceptions of the persons reporting them. The Post and the Times and the Wall Street Journal are not neutral observers of the American or world scene, nor are the main media news outlets. But we must keep at it, and try to get our news from a variety of sources not just one, and try to talk with a variety of people not just those we know agree with us. The times demand our careful attention more than ever, but we can still pray that facts and objective reporting will regain more of a footing someday soon.

Best to you and Shabbat Shalom. Bill Rudolph

P.S. If you are in the Washington area, don’t miss the 9th annual Latke Hamantash Debate this Sunday at Beth El at 10AM; it’s a nice break from the news.


The Comet Ping Pong

I heard a wonderful news story that appeared recently on some Jewish websites and blogs. The CEO of a a company that produces children’s sports outerwear received a phone call from the current South Korean UN Ambassador asking to meet. When they met, the Ambassador told the CEO the following, “I have always heard negative stereotypes about Jews and Israel and I took it at face value. Then, my daughter took an internship working on design in your company. Throughout the year, she has been telling me how wonderful it is to work at your company.”  The Ambassador talked about the daily minchah minyan [the firm has Orthodox management], the early closing on Friday afternoon to prepare for the Sabbath, the respect each charity seeker received, and that his daughter was treated with the utmost respect.  Because of the amazing experience and lessons the company taught his daughter, the Ambassador took out his checkbook and was ready to write a check returning all his daughter’s earnings!  The CEO wouldn’t hear of it.

Then the Ambassador relayed the most amazing thing. “As you know, I have voting privileges at the UN. Because of my renewed appreciation of the Jewish people, I abstained from voting on resolutions against Israel on three occasions. 0n one resolution I was the ninth vote needed to pass the motion and because I abstained it failed.”

Feel good story, right? Except that since its first publication it has been deleted from the websites and it’s looking like it never happened! So, any harm done? Is it a big deal? Only if it’s part of a pattern, and it seems to be. We locals all read about James Alefantis, who owns the D.C. pizza restaurant called The Comet Ping Pong.  Two weeks before the presidential election, Mr. Alefantis, who offered to help the Clinton campaign, started receiving hundreds of death threats.  All of his employees were getting similar abusive messages.  He searched online to try and find out what was happening.  He found that there were dozens of made-up articles about Hillary Clinton, claiming that she was kidnapping, molesting and trafficking children in the restaurant’s back rooms.  None of it was true of course!  But Mr. Alefantis, and all of his employees, were bombarded with abusive social media comments and had to start hiding pictures of their children and home addresses.  And this past week, as we well know, a gunman entered the premises seemingly prepared to shoot up the place!

There are too many such stories these days.  In fact, there’s even a name for this -“post- truth.”  It happened so often during the presidential election that the Oxford Dictionary designated it “the word of the year.”  The word itself dates back to at least 1992, but Oxford saw its usage explode by 2000% this year.  What does “post- truth” mean?  The dictionary defines it as follows: “Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”  Yes, people go around making up stories, or believing stories, that are not based on facts but are based on what you want to believe.  And this can be very dangerous!  It is said that Hitler’s favorite Latin proverb was: “Mundus vult decipi ergo decapiatur – the world wants to be deceived, therefore, let it be deceived.”  And that is just what the world is attempting to do or have done to it today, here and certainly at the United Nations. If a U.N. body can pass a resolution that denies that there was ever a Temple in Jerusalem, then we know that “post truth” affects us too. Just one more thing to worry about in these worrisome times.

So, this blog isn’t intended to make you miserable. A late 90’s Beth El mission to Israel included a stop at the Conservative shul Moriah in Haifa that launched a relationship that lasted some time. I just saw that the building suffered major damage in the recent devastating brush fires that hit Haifa especially hard. The second floor of the shul, where we davvened, was destroyed and there was much other damage. Then I read that two Israeli Arab timber suppliers have offered to donate wood paneling to the synagogue. Walid Abu-Ahmed and Ziad Yunis decided to supply the wood free of charge and cover the labor costs after the congregation’s rabbi, Dov Hiyon, sought estimates from them for synagogue repair work. “I had tears in my eyes when I heard what was happening,” Hiyon said. “Jews and Arabs live together in Haifa, and there is no discrimination,” said Abu-Ahmed. “We must continue with this co-existence and promote peace.” “We are all people,” he said. “I call on all citizens — Arabs and Jews everywhere — to continue to live in co-existence. We all want to live happy lives.” So, there are also some real truths, encouraging ones, out there. May they quickly displace the other kind.

Ponder that and have a good Shabbat. Bill Rudolph