As most of my long-suffering readers have probably noticed, an important landmark was recently reached in the history of Jewish journalism with the publication of my fiftieth article for the Jewish Free Press. For those of you who might not have been keeping count, my first contribution appeared in the Jewish Free Press's premier issue on November 15 1990 issue, while the Hanukkah feature in the Nov. 30 1994 issue was my fiftieth.
While I await the lavish surprise party that my editor is no doubt preparing for her most popular columnist, I have been devoting some thought to the purposes of my journalistic endeavours and how they have been received by my Esteemed Readers.
One of the greatest pleasures of newspaper writing is the challenge of adapting myself to the restrictions of the medium, especially the need to produce for deadlines ("We're going to press in two hours. Make sure you have something ready") and to compress my wisdom into finite chunks that can be squeezed between the advertisements.
On deeper reflection, I realize that there are some more substantial reasons that attract an academic scholar to the journalistic venue. Chief among my motives is my determination to infect people with own fascination with Jewish history and culture.
One of the most gratifying responses that I often hear from readers is that they had not realized that learning about Judaism could be so entertaining. Initially I found such reactions to be odd, but I have come to realize just how widespread this perception is. It is symptomatic of some immense gaps in what passes for Jewish education.
Indeed, I do take pride in the fact that most of the details and trivia that I assemble in my articles are not readily found in popular surveys or textbooks, and often have to be pieced together from works that are considered esoteric and scholarly; whereas the prevailing impression that emerges from so much popular writing on Jewish history is that Judaism is an arid and deadly serious system of laws and doctrines, which must be treated with such heavy doses of reverence that it becomes unapproachable to ordinary people.
This impoverishment of our cultural literacy flows naturally from the ideologies to which we have entrusted most Judaic teaching in recent generations, namely the Zionist movement and religious Orthodoxy. For all that these world-views might diverge over other fundamental issues, they are as one in their determination to erase any meaningful Jewish experience between Bar Kokhba and Herzl, implying that throughout this period Jews did little more than pray, study Talmud and endure persecution. This misrepresentation does a great disservice to the richness and vibrancy of our history.
In keeping with my own agendas I tend to emphasize a recurring set of themes. For example, many of my articles are devoted to finding parallels between recent events and topics that are described in Jewish sources from earlier eras. My underlying assumption is, of course, that our ancestors were very much like ourselves and dealt with issues very much like the ones that confront us today.
Another idea that often finds expression in my articles is that Judaism has never been static or monolithic. The tradition has made room for legalists, philosophers, mystics and others, each of whom has interpreted the heritage in their own distinctive manner.
As is inevitable amid such variety, our ancestors produced varying proportions of wisdom, virtue, eccentricity and folly. Though my attitude to the Jewish past might not always be a reverent one, it is usually affectionate. At any rate, it is our "family" and cannot be denied or disowned.
This attitude of amused distance, fueled by my academic dabbling in Religious Studies, also affects my treatment of other religious traditions. Rather than indulge in polemical diatribes on issues that defy reasoned verification, I enjoy tracing the manifold patterns of similarity, contrast and interaction that have characterized Judaism's relations with both Christianity and Islam over the centuries. This exercise can lead to a clearer understanding of what is distinctive and what is universal in ourselves.
There were times when I entertained doubts about my ability to continue coming up with original ideas for articles for each impending deadline. After all, won't I eventually run out of novel things to say about each year's festivals?
Experience has taught me that this is not likely to present a real obstacle. The Jewish religious and cultural legacy contains sufficient resources to keep me occupied for the next fifty articles at least.
|This article and many others are now included in the book|
First Publication: Jewish Free Press, January 19 1995.