Willis Barnstone interviewed in Tikkun

Tikkun has an interview with Willis Barnstone in which they discuss Barnstone’s Restored New Testament. I’ve read through a fair share of the RNT (my own interview with Barnstone should be coming out soon in the Journal of Italian Translation), though not all of it – 1500 pages! – and not only is it a strikingly fluid translation in modern English, but it also importantly restores the book to its original Jewish context. You don’t get that, for some reason, reading previous versions.

Money quote:

Basically, in the New Testament only the bad guys are Jews. The hero Jews, meaning Jesus, disciples, and family, come through anachronistically as from a world of later church fathers. In the Old Testament, the Jews are annoyingly called Israelites, children of Israel, Hebrews, anything but Jews (except in Esther), while in the NT the word Jew is used everywhere as a curse. Yet the New Testament was written about Jews, for Jews, and by Jews. Who else were they? Galileans descended from Mars?


The Jewish question in Southern Italy

Haaretz ran a long article back in April on the Jewish revival in Southern Italy. Long story short: once upon a time Italy’s south was brimming with Jewish life, from Roman antiquity straight through the Arab conquest of Sicily, which came to an end with the Christian Inquisition. But the Jews didn’t just disappear. They weren’t murdered off, though there was violence. They were converted to Christianity, their culture was appropriated by the Church (synagogues made into churches, Jewish books used to bind Christian ones, mikves [ritual baths] turned into pigstys, etc…) and all memory of them repressed for centuries.

So in places like Calabria or Sicily, places which almost everyone thinks of as cradles of traditional Catholicism, there are essentially huge numbers of marranos, or secret Jews, similar to what happened in Spain and Portugal during and after the Inquisition. This has led to a number of modern-day conversions back to Judaism, sometimes even of whole communities like that of Trani, in Puglia. Often informal groups sprout up, doing things like getting together on Friday evening  or sitting shiva after a death in the family. Many of them are surprised – but not all – to learn that they in fact are enacting traditional Jewish customs.

I interviewed Rabbi Barbara Aiello, an Italian-American of Calabrian-Sicilian descent, about her activism in the South two years ago. She runs Calabria’s first (legal) synagogue in 500 or so years, celebrating bar- and bat-mitzvahs and Jewish weddings in the Calabrian hills, and offering anyone interested an encounter – perhaps their first – with Judaism. The story is a very interesting one, of course, as is marrano history in general. History is a very amorphous thing at times, and notoriously difficult to pin down, especially when records have been deliberately erased and modified, and physical signs eradicated. The Church officials couldn’t get everything, clearly, and there still exist churches with Hebrew writing in them and Jewish quarters and ritual baths fallen into disrepair all over the south of Italy. In fact, an incredible number of small towns all over in Italy have “ghettos” where Jews once thrived, but haven’t lived for centuries, attesting to their once widespread presence on the peninsula.

We shouldn’t be surprised that the officially Orthodox Italian rabbinate isn’t really interested in Aiello and the other “new” Jews of the South. But I imagine if these small communities continue to grow and proliferate – regardless of whether all these people are or are not Jews in the rabbinic sense – at some point they won’t be able to ignore them any longer. They’ll have to admit that they alone cannot be the arbiters of Jewishness from Venice to Marsala, and will in fact have to open up to the possibility of non-Orthodox forms of Judaism. It will be in their best interests. Otherwise they might be thought of as acting in imitation of the Vatican. And I know they wouldn’t want that.

Pax Ben-Gurioni

Last week I had my beef with Susan Jacoby on her reading of the Gaza flotilla raid as a kind of capsule version of Israel-Arab tribal rivalries. This week she hits the mark in a wonderful, highly critical column about Israel’s Haredim – or ultra-ultra-orthodox Jews – proving that it is possible to criticize Israel without falling into the myopic, anti-Semitic tropes of people like Jose Saramago.

For the record, I share Jacoby’s worry about the Haredim. They are religious extremists dedicated to a Torah-only vision of life on this planet. As an atheist, a secularist and a half-Jew (like Jacoby herself) who cares deeply about the present and future of Israel, I can only applaud her claim that these fanatics imperil Israeli democracy from within.

The sight of thousands of Jews taking to the streets of Israeli cities to fight for the right to wall themselves off in their own ghetto within a Jewish state–and at the expense of that state–is utterly dispiriting. These are people who want to write Baruch Spinoza and Moses Mendelssohn out of Jewish history. They want to shackle their own minds and let other Jews–the Jews who who played such a vital role in creating the modern world—do their fighting for them. And they want the rest of us to shut our mouths out of fear that we will be charged with anti-Semitism for saying that their form of religion is rigid, retrograde, and contemptuous of the beliefs of others. That the State of Israel, founded by men and women of far-reaching vision, should tremble in awe of these fearful people is a shame and a disgrace. And it breaks the hearts of those of us who can never forget the hope and pride we once invested in Israel’s future. Even more, it breaks the hearts of the sabra grandchildren of the tough, proud, secular Jews–men and women of reason who hated the very idea of spiritual or physical ghettos–who devoted their lives to the creation of Israel.

So these are the same problems dogging countries like the United States and Italy. The US has its evangelical nutjobs, and Italy its criminal Catholic Church which intimidates Italian politicians in a way strikingly similar to that of the Haredim in Israel. Of course, the Church is a multi-national institution representing the world’s largest religious denomination, and the Haredim are a small percentage of one of the world’s smallest peoples. But they both want theocracy in the end.

So why can’t the Israelis stand up to them? The history of the Jewish people is so rich, so ennobling, so varied and engrossing that the Haredi version palls in comparison. To think that Torah, or the Gospels, or the Qur’an is unequivocally the best guide to life in the twenty-first century is beyond laughable. It’s dangerous. I’m with Susan on this one.

Cricket match in Rome

I was at the park this morning, which is about the best place to be in Rome this time of year. Typically without camera, I saw all sorts of things worth photographing. One was a cricket match, which was kind of exciting because it was some sort of championship (there were trophies on the table and a sound system blasting Europe’s “Final Countdown”), and the other was a turtle sunning itself on a rock which looked suspiciously like a female turtle. My first thought was, “Turtles having sex!” but then I realized I’d been duped by nature. Just a turtle out getting a tan, I guess.

The photo I didn't take
A fine way to spend your day

So you mean my mother’s not a Khazar?

The genetic evidence is in and we Jews are basically what we’ve been saying we are all along – a people. No, not a “race.” But a people with a long history which goes back to, you guessed it, the Middle East. So say the results of two recent genome studies as reported a few weeks ago in the NY Post.

This already raises spectres. Who wants to have their identity confirmed by genetics? Suppose the results were negative. Then would Jews not be a people? Jewish history is absorbing and complex, brimming with migrations and intermarriage (shhhh!), conversions and just about anything else that can happen to people over a period of thousands of years, and then some. Somehow, we are still here, which is the really interesting part. How did we get to where we are?

The Khazar theory has apparently bitten the dust, and with it will go The Invention of the Jewish People, last year’s shock-schlock bestseller (well, if you count France and Britain). Shlomo Sand’s thesis was essentially that what we call “Jewish history” is little more than a Zionist construct. Cui bono, you ask? Clearly to appropriate Palestine from its rightful occupiers, then swindle the world with tall tales of expulsion and diaspora.

Martin Goodman reviewed it for the TLS, concluding that:

In a self-glorifying preface to this book, Sand describes his role as that of a revealer of inconvenient facts suppressed by a malicious political and academic establishment. Some of those who have expressed approval of his book may believe that, like the Israeli New Historians whose discovery of genuinely new data on the events of 1948 has indeed caused much discomfort to that establishment, Shlomo Sand, too, has faced opposition because he has unearthed something new. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Shall Shlomo Sand now eat humble pie?

* If any of you are seriously interested in critiques of Sand’s book, Anita Shapira reviewed it here; Hillel Halkin’s review is here.

Bomb them with art

Today’s Ynet has an article about the first non-Islamic art exhibit in Iran since the 1979 revolution.

It seems someone in the regime has understood that some steam needs to be released – via art, among other things. The country’s museums, including the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, have displayed only Islamic art which supports the spirit of the regime and doesn’t expose too much of the West’s creative riches.

Imagine all that great stuff – Giacometti, Picasso, Pollock – locked away in a museum basement for thirty-odd years, presumably in favor of showing the enticing calligraphy and dizzying pattern repetitions of “acceptable” Islamic art. Come to think of it, it’s not all that different from Pollock, Warhol or Frank Stella. Go figure.


Lately I’ve been perplexed by the seemingly unstoppable popularity of Slavoj Zizek. Not only does his incomprehensible rhetoric annoy me (that would hardly make him special), but his actual positions are puerile when he finally gets around to articulating them. Nonetheless, I actually sort of like him despite his best efforts to be monstrous. He’s said similar things about Jesus – and Stalin, too.

Because that’s what Zizek does. He plays on our preconceptions (Hitler was evil; Jesus was good)) and turns them against us (Hitler was less evil than Stalin; Jesus was a monster), which isn’t always a bad way to make a point. I just wish he could do it without all that Lacanian-Derridean-derived jargon that gets in the way of everything. I found a review of Zizek! by Johann Hari which gets it right:

When you peel back the patina of postmodernism, there is old-fashioned philo-tyrannical nonsense here. At some level, Zizek knows that this is preposterous – he lived under Soviet tyranny, and even joined the opposition. Simply by putting a camera in front of him and leaving it running, Taylor sees his facade and his ideas crumble.

Hari came under fire for this review. Ophelia Benson defended him. There was a massive comment-volley on Butterflies and Wheels (Benson’s site) which is worth reading. Essentially, Hari was attacked for not having read and thoroughly considered the whole of Zizeks’ work (this was back in 2007 by the way), as if that were necessary for a film review. Hari wrote in plain English, and for this he was called a “reactionary anti-intellectual.” He was lambasted for “denouncing” Slavoj Zizek.

Does any of this sound familiar?

It’s called mass murder

Last week I came across an article Terry Eagleton had written on suicide bombing back in 2005. I wasn’t paying attention back then, but Ophelia Benson was. As I read it and re-read it my blood began to curdle. I mentioned that Eagleton’s appeared a defense of suicide bombing, and it was immediately proposed that his was only a way of trying to understand – not glorify – suicide bombers. After all, they’re people, too.

Blowing yourself up for political reasons is a complex symbolic act, one that mixes despair and defiance. It proclaims that even death is preferable to your wretched way of life. The act of self-dispossession writes dramatically large the self-dispossession that is your routine existence. Laying violent hands on yourself is a more graphic image of what your enemy does to you anyway.

Eagleton gets this so wrong in his verve to “comprehend” the bombers’ motives (“self-disposession” is just a fancy term for “suicide”) that I can’t help but read it as pure obfuscation. Since most of the victims of suicide attacks are civilians minding their own business in places like trains, buses, pizzerias and public spaces, I can’t really follow Eagleton in wondering how these people are the “enemy” or what they will do to the poor, oppressed bomber that he can’t do better himself.

But he goes even further:

Suicide bombers also die in the name of a better life for others; it is just that, unlike martyrs, they take others with them in the process. The martyr bets his life on a future of justice and freedom; the suicide bomber bets your life on it.

Does Eagleton realize that in many of the societies that churn out and celebrate suicide bombers, they are seen as exactly that –  martyrs? Or is he eulogizing Joan of Arc and the pantheon of saints who “bet their lives on a future of justice and freedom?” Then there’s that little, almost imperceptible word “just.” The only difference, he is saying, between the just freedom fighter and the suicidal mass murderer, is that the latter “bets” your life on it, too. Eagleton is being compassionate to the plight of the suicide bomber. He’s trying hard not to judge.

He ends his little prose poem with a stab at the meaninglessness of life in a modern, democratic society:

In a social order that seems progressively more depthless, transparent, rationalised and instantly communicable, the brutal slaughter of the innocent, like some Dadaist happening, warps the mind as well as the body.

Imagine this, if you will. A bomber explodes in Baghdad/Tel Aviv/London/Beslan: there are body parts everywhere, torn to shreds, hundreds injured and mutilated for life with nails and screws and shards of metal and glass embedded in their skin end eyeballs. None of them are armed. None of them are soldiers. Their only perceptible crime is that they live in a “depthless, transparent, rationalised and instantly communicable” modern society, whatever that means. If you are Terry Eagleton, you can almost (well, he did write “slaughter of the innocent,” didn’t he?) bring yourself to interpret such atrocities as a “happening.”

I bet if you stare at the mangled gore long enough it even begins to look like art.