Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The Jews of Demopolis Alabama

I had always heard that there were Jews throughout he deep south. It was only when I encountered it personally that I could really come to understand it. The kids and I were walking through Demopolis Alabama when we stumbled upon the Ben Jushran Synagogue. Turns that there was a thriving community for a long time there. Jews arrived with the French in the early 1800's and established a synagogue there. The original building was razed in 1954 to build the current one. It has since been named an Alabama Historic Site The old one was in the ancient "mosque" style. The new one is a simple brick building, rather plain and unadorned. It is no longer in use. In fact the care of the building has been turned over to the Episcopal Church, which is just across the street.

Curiosity overcoming my religious beliefs and aversions, we entered the church to inquire about the temple. The church was quite beautiful and we spent a few minutes admiring it and discussing the symbols. After a while the Reverend appeared. Rev. Dick was a very pleasant and jovial fellow. Well traveled, educated, and friendly he told us about his history, his church, and the temple. Seems that the local Jewish community had pretty much petered out and had given the Church the building for its use. In fact the next day, Wednesday, was the day that they distributed food to the local needy. I asked about the program, and told him I would like to participate in whatever little way I could. He said that they would be there at 8:00 am, and that I should find 'Rebecca'.

Eight o'clock Wednesday morning found me on my bicycle riding up to the old synagogue. There was a long line of people around the building and inside it as well. I took my backpack full of canned goods that Judy had dug out of the boat in to the people in the back to give away. I was stunned and amazed. There was food piled up in great mounds and a platoon of people packing bags, counting and carrying. I gave them my little bag of cans and rolled up my sleeves. We moved the donated food for about an hour to finish packing the over 200 bags of food that they give away weekly, then made room for the next 2 tons of food that was to be delivered later that week.

I told my story about why I was there and heard the tales of the locals. One of the volunteers told me he was good friends with Bert and Mary Louise Rosenbush, the last Jews living in Demopolis, and that he would like to hear from me. He gave me their number and address. I managed to make contact by telephone the next evening. Unfortunately, since we were scheduled to leave on Saturday we could not meet up due to our conflicting schedules. We did, however, have a long and interesting telephone conversation. The Rosenbush family were local merchants for 3 generations. Bert's granddad had started the furniture store in 1895. His daddy had run it for many years, and Bert had only closed it about 3 years previous. He also donated the building it had been in to the Demopolis Historical Society. They had been a long time and prominent members of Ben Jushran . As the congregation dwindled they took down the old building and built the one that stood now. Somehow as the remaining few members were unsure of what to do with the temple it was given to the Episcopal Church. Bert felt that it had been wrested unfairly from the hands of the rightful owners. "Railroaded" was the expression he used. I am sure there is a story there.

The people never had a rabbi as the leader of the temple, nor did any itinerant rabbis visit. The services were always led by a 'lay reader'. Since Judaism does not prescribe a clergy, any adult Jew can lead services. Still the meaning is greater if there is a very learned member of the congregation present. Someone with a great singing voice is a major bonus. Lacking these made the congregation look elsewhere for guidance. Today the Rosenbushs are members of a temple in Montgomery, Alabama. There was never anyone in Demopolis who could teach Hebrew, or give a Jewish education. Indeed when Bert, who is 79 now, went to Israel several years ago he wanted to read from the torah and become Bar-Mitzvah. Unfortunately he lacked the background to even do this.

Many people who wish to identify themselves as Jews seek community. Demopolis no longer has one. Though there was once a thriving population of Jews, and much evidence of their presence Bert and Mary Louise, who never had children, are the last Jews in town. All the others have moved to cities and towns where it was easier to surround themselves with members of their own faith.

During our visit to Demopolis I was struck by how pleasant the town was. Life was fairly easy, the people were very friendly, I had no problem getting things done. I found myself thinking about how it would be to live there. I could imagine having a very nice life in small-town America, a lifestyle that I had previously thought was long gone. Though I asked specifically, Bert said that he never felt bigotry directed at him. This in a part of the country long known for bigotry, and still obviously healing from the wounds inflicted by it.

I don't know whether or not to mourn the passing of the Jews of Demopolis. On the one hand there is the natural progression of things which includes migration of people of many groups. Usually from rural areas to more urban ones. The Jews tend to gather in larger cities where there is more community to share interests and understanding. On the other hand there is a simpler and older lifestyle that is past and can never be recovered nor can I ever achieve. Times change.......

Bill (Baruch) Mintz

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Monday, November 19, 2007

Holocaust and Identity

Guy Carmi made an assertion that is possibly true. If it is, it is very disturbing:

The Holocaust is an integral part of our Jewish and Israeli identity.

Think of it: "Holocaust R Us." Maybe he didn't mean it quite that way. He was arguing against a law that would limit freedom of expression by curtailing references to the Holocaust. But it seems that a lot of people really feel that the Holocaust is part of their identity. An annual survey in the United States found consistently that "the Holocaust" ranked first among the things that people said define Jewish identity. This embarrassing result was apparenty avoided in subsequent surveys by dropping that response possibility.

Many people will be sore at me for saying this, but the Holocaust is not part of my identity. It is not what makes me a Jew, a Zionist, an Israeli, an intellectual, a man, a nudnik - me. I don't have a number tatoo. I don't have nightmares about the Holocaust. I think about it. Family members I did not know personally died in the Holocaust. But it is not part of my identity or my Judaism. I don't define Jew as "a person who was a victim of the Holocaust or had relatives who were victims of the Holocaust." Judaism existed before the Holocaust, and I existed only after it. The Holocaust is part of the history of the Jewish people. As I am a Jew, it is part of my collective history. The Holocaust was part of Hitler's identity, not mine. He did it, and he thought it was a good idea, and his name will forever be associated with it. Hitler and Eichmann and the whole gang.

I am a lot of things as far as identity goes: Jew, Zionist, American, socialist, lover of women, of science and literature and of furry animals of all kinds, person with insatiable intellectual curiosity, son of the Middle East, Palestinian.... Yes I am a Palestinian and the son of American-Palestinians and the grandson of Palestinians and great-grandson of Palestinians, from before there was a place called Palestine. Our people were called Palestinians before 1948, not the Arabs. That is part of me. Humus and Barad (ices) and my grandfather's Turkish army uniform and the grusch with a hole and a house with walls a meter thick in Beit Yisrael are all things I know something about, along with a 1935 Ford automobile on blocks and hula hoops and "all the way with L.B.J." Likewise, the calm voice of the radio announcer saying, "This is an emergency. Israel is undergoing a missile attack. Please stay calm and enter your sealed rooms." These are all some part of me. But I am not a Holocaustist.

I am not a Holocaustist, because I don't see any value in dwelling on it and it is not a positive value. The Jews must not become the Holocaust people. Holocaust for Jews is like a disease or an affliction. A person or a people can do great things despite a disease or tragedy, but never because of it. There is no great spiritually uplifting message to be garnered from the Holocaust. It was a terrible event that must not be allowed to occur again. People really can do such things, and no god intervenes to stop them. There are special reasons why Jews are more vulnerable than others to such events, but in principle, human cruelty can apparently be unlimited. Those are the only messages.

To say that the Holocaust is part of Jewish identity or Israeli identity is declaring that we are a people who will have a persecution complex forever and ever. It is to say to everyone and ourselves, "This is who we are and this is what we have to offer: Auschwitz, Maidenek, Bergen Belsen, Treblinka. Naked people lining up and waiting to be gassed. If you choose to join us, then you are buying in to a big piece of misery." The revolt of the Warsaw Ghetto can be part of my Jewish identity and our collective identity perhaps, and Hanah Senesh lives in all our hearts as does Ann Frank, but not the Holocaust.

I am balding, but I was not always balding and I was always me. It is not part of my identity. The Jewish people did not always have the Holocaust history.

Imagine that your child is just growing up, and he or she says, "What are Jews?"

You say, "We are Jews."

Child says, "OK, but what are Jews?"

Would you say "Jews are the people who were victims of the Holocaust?"

What happened to "people of the book?" "Bnei Yisrael?" "Inventors of abstract theism?" "Scions of Abraham." "The people who produced the Bible," the people of Spinoza and Albert Einstein? Of Bar-Kochba and Judah Maccabee? The Holocaust cannot be "part" of an identity. If it gets a hold of a bit of your identity, it has to become all of it, like being the hunchback of Notre Dame -- that's who he was, or like Cyrano with his nose. People who survived the Holocaust can define themselves that way, and sometimes they must. For others to do so is wrong. Those people are a part of us. The Holocaust itself is not.

Poets, philosophers, princes and warriors, scientists and saints, all are to move over and eventually they must move out, because there is no longer room for anything else once the Holocaust moves in. This is the danger facing American Jews, who seem to overwhelmingly mention the Holocaust as the defining Jewish event. It got out of hand, because it is like an intellectual tapeworm or some virulent cancer. There is no half way with the Holocaust. It is not the sort of thing you can keep in a corner. Over three thousand years of magnificent intellectual achievement and astonishing bravery would be thrown away for ashes and bitterness. What normal person would define themselves that way and what normal people would base their national existence on the Holocaust? "I get incinerated, therefore I am?"

The Arabs of Palestine built their identity around the Nakba - their "disaster." Their national events all correspond to mini-disasters in the "Nakba" and their national heros are all people who helped to bring the Nakba upon themselves. There is no Palestinian Arab Albert Einstein and no Palestinian Spinoza, and no Palestinian Jonas Salk. This is a people that must cling to refugee camps and to distorted memories of their Nakba in order to be sure to retain its identity. And as long as they remain obsessed with the Nakba they will never produce any such heros and role models.

We are not a people who created ourselves or recreated ourselves in 1945 because of some crazy Germans led by a crazier Austrian. We are one of the oldest peoples in the world, with a special magic secret that allowed us to survive as a people throughout 2,000 years of history. Whatever that secret is, and whatever we have brought to the world, we must not throw it all away because of those lunatics and their criminal nightmare. If we do, if we make the Holocaust part of our identity, then they will have won.

We must not ever forget the Holocaust, but we must never make it part of our identity as a people or let it take over our identity. There were other holocausts in Jewish history. There was a holocaust following the rebellion of Bar Kochba. A very large proportion of our people were murdered or exiled and sold into slavery, as evidenced by ancient lore and backed by recent archeological findings. There was another holocaust at the time of the Crusades. A large part of European Jewry was apparently killed then as well. These events became part of our history, not part of our identity. The results and events of the Holocaust certainly shape who we are, and how we think about ourselves and even about god, but the Holocaust is not part of my identity. We are, perhaps, the people who survive holocausts, but if we make the holocausts part of our identity, we will not survive them as a people. That is an empty sort of identity, useful for nothing and attractive to no one.

Ami Isseroff

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Friday, November 16, 2007

Please don't bring the children

Some time ago, a person with whom I had once worked invited a group of news professionals to his home in Tel Aviv. He wanted to tell us about his research for a book he was writing.

He told us he was not seeking publicity. Rather, he explained, his aim in telling a bunch of colleagues about his book-in-progress was to put himself under pressure to finish it. With other people knowing about the book, he said, he would be embarrassed to leave it unfinished.

Not long after that, he was found dead.

Nothing suggested foul play. It was a natural death, people said. I found the sequence of events spooky in any case and continue to think about it. If there is such a thing as a curse on writers who blab about work which they haven't completed, this could be one form which the visitation would take.

That is prologue to the following confession: For years, I have failed to finish writing a children's story titled, "Please Don't Bring the Children."

The idea for this story came to me after someone I know in Israel received an invitation to a wedding in the United States, accompanied by a telephoned clarification: "Please don't bring the children."

This was an understandable request, according to a coworker. He and his young family had recently come back to Israel after a few years in the states, where he discovered much different attitudes toward children. Israelis in the United States tended to show up at social events with little children in tow, he said, while the local folk practiced segregation between children and grownups. It was only natural that someone inviting Israelis to an event might fear that the whole family would arrive, little kids and all.

What brings this to mind is an experience last night in a small Tel Aviv restaurant. Three of us entered and sat at a table for six. A server came over immediately and asked us to move to a table for four. I told her we were waiting for someone to join us, and there might be more than one person.

Her response was less than gracious. Instead of the-customer-is-always-right, she argued that if we took the smaller table we could still pull up an extra chair if needed.

Just then our fourth grownup arrived with her year-old baby in a stroller. It didn't take long before the restaurant staff were coming around to admire the baby. In a few minutes the baby was standing on the tabletop, smiling and doing a little dance. Our server, no longer grumpy, invited us to move to a bigger table. The baby continued to attract attention from the staff during the meal.

If you want to see an Israeli melt, bring a baby or small child along. It's acceptable here to show unabashed affection for little kids. Children sense that they are welcome to be seen and heard. The others at our table last night could testify to this Israeli trait. They had just arrived from New York after a sleepover in London, two cities where restaurants don't exactly welcome customers who let their babies dance on tabletops.

This reminder of the contrasting attitudes toward children encourages me to take another crack at rewriting "Please Don't Bring the Children." The first draft didn't work. A second version took a different direction, also unsatisfactory. Some day I'll probably try again to finish it. Meanwhile I hope that this post does not bring a curse down on anyone's head.

--Joseph M. Hochstein, Tel Aviv

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Saturday, November 10, 2007

Violent death---updating the U.S.-Israel comparison

People continue to ask if it's safe to visit Israel. Here is an update comparing deadly violence in Israel and the United States.

In 2006, Israel's ratio of death from all acts of violence---including murder, suicide bombings and the Second Lebanon War---was lower than the U.S. murder rate.

This is in line with earlier years. Despite being depicted in television shows and U.S. government travel warnings as a dangerous place, Israel customarily experiences a lower rate of deadly violence than the United States.

Here are the rates of violent death for both countries in 2006, the most recent year for which 12-month U.S. data are available:

Israel 2006:
5.4 deaths from crime, terror and war per 100,000 inhabitants

United States 2006:
5.7 deaths from murder and non-negligent manslaughter per 100,000 inhabitants

Various U.S. metropolitan areas report above-average deadly violence. Here are a few examples from among many. The numbers represent murders per 100,000 residents:

New York City, 7.3
Miami metro area, 7.6
Los Angeles metro area, 8.4
Houston metro area, 9.6
Atlantic City metro area, 11.1
Los Angeles, inside city limits, 12.4
Miami, inside city limits, 19.6
Atlanta, inside city limits, 22.6
Detroit-Dearborn metro area, 23.0
Philadelphia (AKA the City of Brotherly Love), 27.7
Washington, D.C., inside city limits, 29.1
Cincinnati, inside city limits, 29.9
New Orleans, inside city limits, 37.6
Baltimore, inside city limits, 43.3

The numbers come from data announced by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation in its Uniform Crime Reporting Program. This program compiles data from local law enforcement agencies throughout the United States.

The FBI reported that 17,034 acts of murder and non-negligent manslaughter took place in the United States in 2006. This was at a rate of 5.7 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants.

By contrast, Israel's 188 conventional homicide victims plus 30 people killed by suicide bombings and other acts classified as terrorism represented a rate below 3.1 violent deaths per 100,000 residents. The Second Lebanon War in the summer of 2006 took the lives of 119 Israeli soldiers and 44 civilians. This added 2.3 points to Israel's violent-death rate, raising it to about 5.4 per 100,000 inhabitants.

As a percentage of population, the deaths of 119 Israeli soldiers in a six-week war were more than six times as great as the entire U.S. military death toll in Iraq for all of 2006. Despite this, Israel's rate of deadly violence including the Lebanon war deaths was not only below the 2006 U.S. murder rate but was less than the lowest yearly homicide rate ever recorded in the United States (5.5 per 100,000 inhabitants).

Ami Isseroff has written about the phenomenon of U.S. residents saying it is dangerous to live in Israel yet telling their own stories of danger in the United States. I recall a briefing for editors arriving for a two-week seminar at Columbia University. The briefer told us to look out the windows at Morningside Park. We were pretty sure he was preparing to say that the place was unsafe at night. What he told us was that we should never enter the park during the day. That was quite a few years ago, and it's reported to be better now.

The FBI has taken to urging us not to rank or compare localities' crime rates without more information.

"Until data users examine all the variables that affect crime in a town, city, county, state, region, or college or university, they can make no meaningful comparisons," the FBI stated.

In this connection, it's worth repeating what I wrote in an earlier report on comparative homicide rates:

"[C]omparisons like this can be misleading. The numbers are general and cannot tell us important facts about the violence they reflect. They do not identify the neighborhoods where most violence takes place, nor do they show which elements of the population are most vulnerable. They do not show the relationship, if any, between the victim and killer. They do not show who is likely to commit violence. They do not tell us how many violent attacks the authorities succeeding in thwarting. They do not measure tension and fear among the living. Nor do they tell us what may happen tomorrow."

Even if comparisons are inexact, they can put some things in proportion. Take the accusations of the anti-Zionist teacher Ilan Pappe. He cites Palestinian deaths at the hands of the Israel army in 2006 in support of his claim that "Israel is employing genocidal policies in the Gaza Strip." Palestinian sources put the 2006 Gaza death toll at 588. The non-governmental groups Amnesty and Btselem announced lower figures. Whichever number is correct, it reflects a death toll no more genocidal than the murder rate in Baltimore, a city whose tourist promotion bureau assures us that it is "a fun and accessible destination for all to enjoy!"

--Joseph M. Hochstein, Tel Aviv

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