Category Archives: Books

Wrestling on Worldview

A program note: I’m going to appear on Chicago Public Radio’s Worldview to discuss my new book “Wrestling in the Daylight” with Jerome McDonnell on Wednesday, September 5, 12:00 pm (Central). Locals can tune in at 91.5 – everyone else can catch it streaming from the WBEZ website.

Chicagoans: the gala launch party for “Wrestling” will take place this Thursday, September 6, 7:00 pm at The Book Cellar in Lincoln Square. (Click here for the FB event page).

Hope to see you there!

“Wrestling in the Daylight” Launch Party!

Please join me in celebrating the publication of my new book, “Wrestling in the Daylight: A Rabbi’s Path to Palestinian Solidarity” on Thursday, September 6, 7:00 pm at The Book Cellar, 4736-38 N. Lincoln Ave, Chicago.

From a recent review by Rabbi Rachel “Velveteen Rabbi” Barenblat:

Gwen Macsai

“Wrestling in the Daylight”… is Rabbi Brant’s self-curated compilation of his blog posts from Shalom Rav, so if you’ve been reading Shalom Rav, this material won’t be new to you. But I’m finding, as I read, that reading the posts in this new setting and context — curated by their author into a narrative which clearly shows the progression of his thinking over time — is a different experience from reading the blog. And Rabbi Brant has chosen to reprint some of the comments from readers as well as responses he’s offered to those comments, which gives the book a bit of the internet’s Talmudic multivocality (and offers an example of how one can host difficult conversations in a thoughtful and generous way — which can be hard to come by on the internet, especially on questions of Israel/Palestine.)

Andrew White

The choice to include commentary makes the book particularly interesting, I think. Some of Rabbi Brant’s most frequent commentors disagree with him deeply. Over the course of the book, one can see conversations unfolding. Sometimes they are quite heated. And his responses are always thoughtful and respectful, even as he resists attempts at derailing the conversation. Having hosted some conversations about Israel at this blog over the years, I have a sense for how difficult that can be.

Kevin Coval

… Rabbi Brant Rosen is one of my role models in the difficult but important work of coming to terms with the clash between the classic Zionist narrative (a story which many of us want to continue believing — I know I still yearn for it to be true) and some of the realities on the ground in Israel and the Palestinian territories. He models for me not how one would do this internal work despite his ardent Jewishness, but precisely of it; not despite being a rabbi, but precisely because his rabbinate calls him to take seriously the Jewish call to stand with those who are oppressed. And he has also taught me a great deal about how to disagree without falling into the trap of looking down on (or dehumanizing) those with whom one disagrees.

If you’re interested in progressive Jewish takes on Israel and Palestine, this book is worth reading, and worth having on your bookshelf to return to again.

I’m thrilled to be joined at our September launch party by local Chicago celebs Kevin Coval, (Poet, Co-Founder, “Louder Than a Bomb“), Gwen Macsai, (Host, WBEZ’s Re:Sound) and Andrew White (Artistic Director, Lookingglass Theatre Company), who will join me in reading excerpts from the book. We’ll also make plenty of time for Q&A, book signing and quality bookstore shmoozing.

It promises to be a wonderful evening – RSVP at our Facebook event page here.

“Rabbi Outcast:” Important New Book on Rabbi Elmer Berger

Recently finished Jack Ross’ fine biography, “Rabbi Outcast: Elmer Berger and American Jewish Anti-Zionism.” Highly recommended, especially for those unaware of the American Jewish community’s complex historical relationship to Zionism and the Zionist movement.

Rabbi Elmer Berger is not a commonly known figure in American Jewish history, but as the Executive Director of the American Council for Judaism, he played an important role in promoting alternatives to political Jewish nationalism from before World War II through and after the 1967 Six Day War.  Today Zionism – and the Zionist narrative of Jewish history – occupies an indelible place in the American Jewish communal psyche. But not long ago it was a point of lively debate in our community.

Rabbi Berger himself came from a classical Reform mileau that thoroughly rejected Jewish political nationalism on religious grounds. This ethic was made official Reform movement policy when, under the leadership of Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, Reform rabbis passed the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform which declared, among other things:

We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community, and therefore, expect neither a return to Palestine, nor a sacrificial worship under the sons of Aaron, nor the restoration of any laws concerning the Jewish state.

Even for those familiar with classical Reform’s opposition to Zionism, it is startling to read that anti-Zionism was actually fairly widespread throughout American Jewish communal life at large. I had not realized, for example, that the American Jewish Committee – today among the Jewish community’s leading Israel-advocacy organizations – considered itself “non-Zionist” even after the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948.

I was also rather startled (actually troubled) to learn how deeply the Zionist movement has influenced the evolution of American Jewish communal life. Ross points out, for instance, that the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, considered by many to be the most powerful American Jewish organization today, was originally formed in 1943 as “The Committee on Unity for Palestine” – an effort mobilized specifically to quell dissent over Zionism in the American Jewish community.

Although Zionism would eventually become sine qua non for the Reform movement and the American Jewish community at large, Rabbi Berger’s leadership through the American Council for Judaism continued to provide an important dissenting voice in our community until his death in 1996.  As the the American Jewish community grows increasingly ambivalent to its relationship to Israel and Zionism – and as we witness more and more the sorrows wrought by a Judaism that puts its faith in nation-statism, militarism and land-acquisition, Berger’s vision and leadership feels more relevant than ever. (Jack Ross thoughtfully discusses these implications in depth in his Epilogue.)

Jack packs an enormous amount of material into a relatively short book – and those who are not somewhat versed in the history might find its density challenging. But his book is an important one and is well worth the effort. Click above to hear Jack speaking about his book during a recent appearance at the National Press Club. Pay attention carefully – like his writing style, he often strings his ideas together in something of a mad rush.  But they are critical and pertinent ideas indeed – and deeply deserving of our attention.

Footnotes in Gaza: Sacco’s Profound Testimony

I just noticed that Joe Sacco’s brilliant graphic novel “Footnotes in Gaza” has just come out in paperback. I can safely say without hesitation that this is the best book I’ve ever read about Gaza (and trust me, I’ve read a lot).

Sacco composed “Footnotes” as a first person account of his own experiences in Gaza. He begins by portraying his efforts to document the 1956 massacre in Khan Younis, in which the IDF briefly occupied the Egyptian-ruled Gaza Strip and killed 275 Palestinians. During the course of his investigation, Sacco learns about another, lesser known incident that occurred around the same time in the neighboring town of Rafah, in which Israeli forces killed 110 Palestinians in what should have been a standard “screening operation.”

It’s hard for me to convey the effect this book had on me when I read it last year. It unfolds in a myriad of layers: it’s a mediation on history, on war, on memory, and on the way the past seems to continuously, inevitably inform the present. Especially in this day and age, in which the 24 hour news cycle chops events up into disconnected bits, Sacco’s testimony on the events of 1956 are a critical reminder that Gaza’s current agony is only the latest chapter in a much, much longer story that still continues to unfold. In short: those of us who want to understand the Gaza conflict today must learn this history.

It took me a very long time to read “Footnotes.” Its narrative is dense, its subject matter is profoundly painful, and its depiction of violence so unflinchingly raw. There were several times I had to just stop and put the book down for a few days or weeks just to absorb what I had just taken in. A year after reading it, many of its words and images still resonate powerfully for me.

It’s actually pretty remarkable to think that a comic book accounting of two little known historical “footnotes” that occurred in this tiny strip of land that could provide such a deep and profound testimony. But trust me, it does. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Facing the Silence: On Reading Khirbet Khizeh

When I was twenty or so and living in Israel, I made a valiant attempt to plow my way through the classic 1949 Hebrew novella, Khirbet Khizeh by S. Yizhar. Alas, there was only so much a young American college student could really understand, but I persevered because I was just so eager to experience this seemingly radical counter-cultural work of Israeli literature.

Khirbet Khizeh, which painfully portrays an Israeli unit’s expulsion of Palestinian villagers from their homes in 1948, has long been considered a seminal work in modern Israeli literature, fusing stream of consciousness style Hebrew with poetic Biblical literary allusions.  Even more remarkable is the fact that despite its profoundly controversial subject matter, Khirbet Khizeh has generally been accepted as a classic by Israelis. Indeed, the book has long been included in Israeli high school curriculum and the the author himself went on to enjoy a long and distinguished career as a member of the Knesset.

So imagine my pleasant surprise to learn that almost thirty years later, the great Khirbet Khizeh has finally been published in English translation by a boutique press called Ibis Editions. And I must say that having just now finished it, I am all the more moved by its literary power and moral urgency.

At the same time, however, reading it today left me with a baffling set of resonances. How could a work of such abject moral outrage be widely considered as a classic in Israel? How could a society embrace a work such as this, and be so unwilling to face its essential message? (In Yizhar’s words: “We came, we shot, we burned, we blew up, expelled, drove out and sent into exile.”)

Witness the devastating conclusion of the novella, which is told from the point of view of a morally conflicted Israeli soldier who has just participated in the expulsion of Arab villagers from the fictional village of Khirbet Khizeh:

When they reached their place of exile night would already have fallen. Their clothing would be their only bedding. Fine. What could be done? The third truck began to rumble. Had some astrologer already seen in the conjuncture of the stars in the sky over the village or in some horoscope how things would turn out here? And what indifference there was in us, as if we had never been anything but peddlers of exile, and our hearts had coarsened in the process. But this was not the point either.

And how does it end?

The valley was calm. Somebody started talking about supper. Far away on this dirt track, close to what appeared to be its end, a distant, darkening swaying truck, in the manner of heavy trucks laden with fruit or produce or something, was gradually being swallowed up. Tomorrow, both painful humiliation and helpless rage would turn into a kind of casual irritation, shameful, but fading fast. Everything was suddenly so open. So big, so very big. And we had all become so small and insignificant. Soon a time would arise in the world when it would be good to come home from work, to return exhausted, to meet someone, or walk alone, to walk saying nothing. All around silence was falling, and very soon it would close upon the last circle. And when silence had closed in on everything and no man disturbed the stillness, which yearned noiselessly for what was beyond stillness – then God would come forth and descend to roam the valley, and see whether all was according to the cry that had reached him.

I am particularly taken by Yizhar’s reference to silence – and how he subverts it with a final allusion to the anguished cries of Sodom and Gomorrah. Yizhar, who himself fought in the 1948 war as an intelligence officer, was already able to articulate a deep dark silence descending upon the land in the aftermath of those deep, dark days. Now over sixty years after the terrible events recorded in this novella, it seems that this silence has only deepened all the more.

So how could such a devastating book be considered to be an Israeli classic by Israelis?  By any other yardstick, one might assume that such a work would be considered something of an underground novel. In a recent NY Times feature, Israeli author A.B. Yehoshua suggested that “there was no scandal” when it was written “because the society felt itself so just that it could absorb a critic.”

I interpret his comment to mean that as the victorious party, Israel could certainly allow itself a bit of angst over how its victory was achieved. In this regard, you could well draw a straight line from Khirbet Khizeh to the deep moral challenges represented in works of contemporary Israeli writers such as Amos Oz or David Grossman, or films such as Waltz with Bashir or the just-released Lebanon.

In fact, the Hebrew term “shoot and cry” (“yorim u’vochim“) was actually coined in the wake of the 1982 Lebanon war to describe this unique form of Israeli cultural angst, as if these powerful expressions of moral accounting could somehow erase the guilt of what Israel had perpetrated – and continues to perpetrate – against Palestinians.

And so in the end, despite all of the genuinely anguished soul-searching, we are still left with the terrifying silence. But ironically enough, whatever the statement Yizhar was intending to make with Khirbet Khizeh, whatever its literary/cultural legacy, I find that it still cries out with unbearable intensity.

(Click here to hear a very interesting and informative interview with co-translator Yaacob Dweck.)

Selmanovic’s Daughter’s: Don’t Buy Our Dad’s Book!

Thanks to my friend Rabbi Nancy Fuchs-Kreimer for tipping me to this great clip: a homemade promo made by the 14 and 12 year old daughters of Samir Selmanovic, author of “It’s Really All About God: Reflections of a Muslim Atheist Jewish Christian.”

No matter what his kids say, I’m thinking I gotta get this book…

Underground Genesis

R__Crumb_-_Abraham_and_Isaac

OK, I’ll weigh in: I really, really like the new R. Crumb new version of Genesis.

When it was announced that the legendary underground comic book artist was going to take a crack at the Book of Genesis,  I’m sure that many expected it to be an exercise in post-modern Biblical irony. They needn’t have worried. Crumb has reimagined Genesis like nothing I’ve read/seen in a long, long time.

Some might quibble with his rendering of certain episodes (and I do), but I don’t think anyone can reasonably call this a novelty version. Crumb has definitely done his homework – and while he admits in his introduction that he does not regard the Bible as the word of God, he clearly has a healthy respect for its mythic power:

(The Bible) is a powerful text with layers of meaning that reach deep into our collective unconsciousness, our historical consciousness, if you will. It seems indeed to be an inspired work, but I believe that its power derives from its having been a collective endeavor that evolved and condensed over many generations before reaching the final fixed form as we know it during the “Babylonian Exile,” circa 600 BCE…

If my visual, literal interpretation of the Book if Genesis offends or outrages some readers, which seems inevitable considering that the text is revered by many people, all I can say in my defense is that I approached this as a straight illustration job, with no intention to ridicule or make visual jokes. That said, I know that you can’t please everybody.

Though it seems like an unlikely project for him, Crumb’s earthy, hyper-realistic style actually serves the Biblical narrative quite well. Many will undoubtedly regard his graphic representation to be reductionist or even idolatrous (the most obvious example being God rendered as a stern, old bearded man). I personally experienced his effort as “visual midrash” that has intellectual and emotional impact in virtually every panel.

There have been a number of worthwhile reviews of the Crumb Genesis. If you are interested in reading up on the critical reaction, I highly recommend Biblical scholar Robert Alter’s recent piece in The New Republic.

For Armistice Day 2008

ww-1

Here’s my offering in honor of Veteran’s Day, formerly Armistice Day, the anniversary of the armistice that ended World War I (famously signed on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, 1918…)

An excerpt from one of my favorites: Erich Maria Remarque’s classic WW I novel “All Quiet on the Western Front” – still one of the greatest antiwar statements ever:

I am young, I am twenty years old; yet I know nothing of life but despair, death, fear and fatuous superficiality cast over an abyss of sorrow. I see how peoples are set against another, and in silence, unknowingly, foolishly, obediently, innocently slay one another. I see that the keenest brains of the world invent weapons and words to make it more refined and enduring. And all men of my age, here and over there, throughout the whole world see these things; all my generation is experiencing these things with me. What would our fathers do if we suddenly stood up and came before them and proffered our account? What do they expect of us if a time ever comes when the war is over? Through the years our business has been killing; – it was our first calling in life. Our knowledge of life is limited to death. What will happen afterwards? And what shall come out of us?

A Tale of Love and Hope

A hopeful gesture in response to tragedy: the family of an Arab man killed in a terror attack has made a contribution toward the Arabic translation of Amos Oz’s memoir, “A Tale of Love and Darkness” to further the cause of coexistence.

In 2004 George Khoury (right), an Israeli Arab student, was shot while running in the French Hill neighborhood of Jerusalem by a gunman from the Fatah Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade who mistook him for a Jew. Khoury’s family decided to make the donation in an effort to help create greater cultural understanding between Arabs and Jews. The translation is expected to be distributed in the Israeli Arab sector and eventually in other Arab countries.

Khoury came from a prominent Jerusalem family known for their efforts at promoting Jewish-Arab coexistence.  Khoury’s father, Elias, is a famous East Jerusalem lawyer who has represented Palestinian political figures and Israeli Arabs in court. George, the middle son in the Khoury family, had participated in interfaith dialogues in Germany and England. He had been studying economics and international relations at the Hebrew University and planned to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a lawyer before he was killed.

The translator of “Tale,” an Israeli Arab scholar named Jamal Gnaim, said he loved the book and spoke of his “sacred” efforts to stay true to Oz’s vision:

(The book represents) Oz from the point of view of his language and associations, and Hebrew literature and Zionist thought, and it’s important that others get to know this milieu.

A recent Ha’aretz article has the full story…

Big Honors For “Exit Wounds”

I just read in Ha’aretz that Israeli artist/writer Rutu Modan’s “Exit Wounds,” has won the Will Eisner Comic Industry Award for best graphic novel, apparently the highest award a graphic novel can receive in the US.

I’d say it’s a richly deserved honor. It’s a wonderfully drawn and multi-layered book; the plot focuses on a young Israeli cab driver’s search for his long lost father, who may or may not have been killed in a terrorist suicide bombing. “Exit Wounds” simultaneously reads as a detective story, a portrait of deeply scarred Israeli society and a poignant family drama. I enjoyed it thoroughly when I first read it last year and recommend it highly.