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Jews—Who and What Are We Today?
Define being Jewish: Is it ethnicity or religion? This age-old argument is the point of departure for the new book Religion or Ethnicity: Jewish Identities in Evolution(Rutgers University Press), edited by Zvi Gitelman. Contributing scholar-writers look at Israel, Western Europe, the former Soviet Union and America to discern where our Jewish identities lie today and where they did in centuries past. Some points of interest include:
- 48 percent of Israeli Jews classify themselves as secular, but 57 percent of them do observe some traditions. Secular Ashkenazim are twice as likely to maintain some level of observance as secular Mizrahim.
- While many demographers bemoan the assimilation of American Jews, Calvin Goldscheider, professor of sociology and Judaic studies at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, writes that, “there is no systematic evidence that the changed stratification profile of the American Jewish community results in the abandonment of the Jewish community in terms of the wide range of Jewish expressions.” What unites us today, he concludes, is our success in assimilating into the larger American tapestry.
- In the former Soviet Union, Jews have largely adopted the Soviet notion of Jewishness as ethnicity. Despite efforts to reestablish religious practices in the region, Soviet Jews remain largely secular, though they strongly self-identify as Jews. —Libby Barnea
Something’s Cooking in Teaneck
Anyone who still believes that the kitchen is a woman’s domain hasn’t been to the Torah Academy of Bergen County, a modern Orthodox boys’ yeshiva in Teaneck, New Jersey. Nearly half of TABC’s 37 high school seniors have signed up for the culinary arts elective, now beginning its second year.
Taught by Alex Bailey, the school’s Advanced Placement psychology teacher, the course incorporates halakha, knife skills, cooking techniques and culinary traditions from Asia, France and America.
“In today’s culinary world, kosher cooking doesn’t have to compromise,” Bailey said, explaining that most recipes can be adjusted to follow the laws of kashrut.
Bailey, along with TABC alum-turned-restaurateur Seth Warshaw and curriculum coordinator Nancy Edelman, served as judges for last year’s final exam, an Iron Chef-style cook-off. Students split into groups and created dishes from honey-mustard chicken fingers to khoresh, a Persian beef stew with apricots and yellow split peas.
Parents have called the school to praise the program, which teaches students not only how to prepare a meal but the importance of presentation, on and off the plate.
A Walk Through Christian History
Now, tourists to Israel really can walk in the footsteps of Jesus. Hiking down from Nazareth through villages and descending steep hills to grassy overlooks of the Sea of Galilee is all part of experiencing the recently launched Jesus Trail (www.jesustrail.com).
The 40-mile trail, marketed specifically to foreign visitors, takes about three to four days to hike, stretching along a landscape rich in Christian Bible stories.
Among the stops is the present-day rural community of Tzipori, in Jesus’ day the Roman city Sephoris; the village of Cana, where tradition says Jesus turned water into wine; and the Mount of Beatitudes, where Christians believe he delivered the Sermon on the Mount.
Organizers and tourism officials hope that as many as 100,000 people will hike the trail every year, boosting the local economy of restaurants, bed and breakfasts and hotels.
“When you are actually walking and you see real people living here and real agriculture, a real place, I think that puts you in touch with the history of this place,” said Anna Dintaman, a researcher who worked to establish the trail. —Dina Kraft
Conversion: A Laughing Matter
When Yisrael Campbell was asked to undergo a circumcision for the third time, he grudgingly agreed. “Three circumcisions is not a religious covenant,” he observed, “but a fetish!” A Catholic-born native of Philadelphia who is now an Orthodox Jewish stand-up comic with a home in Jerusalem, Campbell (www.yisraelcampbell.com) recounts this ordeal and other highlights of his unusual life in the one-man show Circumcise Me, opening Off Broadway on November 11.
He tells how a heavy-drinking teenage boy named Chris, whose mother nearly became a nun, ended up embracing Judaism (first Reform, then Conservative and finally Orthodoxy), makingaliya and marrying his Talmud teacher, Avital Hochstein.
Campbell, 46, once studied theater Off Broadway, so the show brings him full circle: “The only thing that’s changed is my name, religion, nationality and marital status. But as an acting student, I always wore black; that hasn’t changed.”
A documentary on his life, also called Circumcise Me (https://circumcise-me.blogspot.com), will be screened at Jewish film festivals in Philadelphia (October 24) and Silicon Valley (November 22). —Leora Eren Frucht
On a farm bordering the counties of Suffolk and Norfolk in England stands Herod’s magnificent Temple—in 20 by 12 foot miniature. Retired property developer Alec Garrard, 79, has spent the past 30 years re-creating the entire first-century B.C.E. edifice, from hand-cutting timbers for the frame to shaping, baking and joining each brick. He even sculpted 4,000 people and animals to populate what he calls a “living Temple”—Roman soldiers, Temple guards and priests bringing a sacrifice, all in historically accurate clothing.
His main sources are the Mishna and the works of Josephus, and, according to visiting experts, his is the most accurate existing re-creation of the Temple. The model is closed to the general public due to, as Garrard puts it, attempts by Jewish and Christian groups to “lay claim to it.”
An avid model-maker, Garrard recalls the moment he decided to make this a life-long project: “I went to a biblical exhibition, and I would have been embarrassed to have my name on [that model]—what rubbish. I thought, ‘I will make a model of the Temple, and it will be the real one.’” —Leah F. Finkelshteyn
An Israeli in the Big Leagues
At a height of 6 feet 9 inches, it’s not surprising that Omri Casspi became a basketball star. But Casspi (above) is shooting even further than his childhood dream of playing for the Israeli team Maccabi Tel Aviv. In June, the 21-year-old small forward, a native of Holon, was selected as a first-round draft pick (23rd overall) by the Sacramento Kings, making him the first Israeli N.B.A. player and the second active Jewish player in the league (Jordan Farmar plays for the Los Angeles Lakers).
Basketball is beloved in Israel, and Israelis and American Jewish fans are celebrating Casspi’s success. Casspi is aware of his responsibility to those who hail him as a hero. “I think the young kids right now, they have somebody to look up to,” he said in a New York Times interview. But, he added, he will be focusing his attention on basketball.
His jersey number? 18.
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