July ’06 Spotlight

We’ve hit mid-summer when many of us are spending long hours in our cars fighting traffic jams on the Dan Ryan Expressway, or driving back and forth to our favorite vacation spots. If the voices on your radio are beginning to annoy you and you find yourself yearning for more depth, you’ll find no better travel companion than David Ruderman.

Ruderman is a professor of Modern Jewish History at the University of Pennsylvania and Director of Penn’s Center for Advanced Judaic Studies. Winner of both the JWB National Book Award from the Jewish Book Council and the International Jewish Book Award from the Koret Foundation, Ruderman has assembled two courses for The Teaching Company: “Between Cross and Crescent: Jewish Civilization from Mohammed to Spinoza” and “Jewish Intellectual History: 16th to 20th Century.” Each box set is 12 hours long (24 lectures, 30 minutes each), and both are available as audio tapes, CDs, and/or DVDs.

I called Professor Ruderman in Philadelphia recently to discuss the relevance of “Between Cross and Crescent” to our own historical moment. I was struck not just by the relationship of various Jewish communities to those two poles, but by the internal diversity. In what sense, I asked, is Jewish history “continuous” given so many continents and so much change over time?

“I think there is a continuous thread in terms of the sacred text themselves,” Ruderman replied, “and the relationship that each community has with those texts. Whether or not historians see these communities as being the same or different, they perceive themselves as being connected with each other. Jewish communities, in every age, create their own exegesis with respect to the sacred texts (and with respect to their collective memory), and that process, is, in fact, the continuous thread. While each manifestation is different, the fact that each community creates something in relationship to the past is the same.”

The process of working with The Teaching Company “was a very complex, very intense experience; getting tenure was easier!” So what motivated him? “Who is listening to me out there? Could I get my word out beyond my classroom? And the bottom line is that people have responded to this in ways that I could never imagine. Almost every day I get e-mails from people asking me follow-up questions. There is a thirst for this!”

To order your set of lectures, visit The Teaching Company website:



In May, I wrote that Israeli playwright Motti Lerner was hoping to arrange a local production of his controversial new play The Murder of Isaac during his recent stint as a visiting professor at Knox College in Galesburg. Unfortunately, there just wasn’t enough time to pull all the pieces together, but Motti’s friend Diane Gilboa, Artistic Director and co-founder of Theatre Or, has stepped in with an exciting “plan B” – she is bringing Lerner’s Hard Love to the Victory Gardens Theater from August 5 to August 20.

In Hard Love, “Lerner examines two Israelis in a life-and-death struggle with the choices they have made and the ones they must make,” says Director Jeffery West of Duke University. “This battle between love and faith resonates with all cultures where the ultra-religious and the secular coexist.” Gilboa will play “Hannah,” the role she created in runs at the Common Ground Theatre in Durham and the Stoneleaf Festival in Asheville. Jeffrey Blair Cornell will repeat his performance as “Zvi” from the same acclaimed productions.

Theatre Or is based in North Carolina where Gilboa and West first met Lerner when he was a visiting instructor at Duke in 1997. For more information, visit the website:



Chicago YIVO’s 2006 summer schedule is filled with concerts, lectures, and scholarly programs for Yiddish lovers. Participating libraries include Evanston Public Library, Northbrook Public Library, Skokie Public Library, and Wilmette Public Library, as well as Indian Trails Public Library in Wheeling and Sulzer Regional Library on Chicago’s northside.

Two local favorites appear again on this year’s calendar: Professor Jerry Mallow of Loyola University Chicago will read from his new book “‘Our Pal, God’ and Other Presumptions: Jewish Humor,” in Northbrook on August 8 and in Skokie on August 10; Rabbi Barry Schechter from Congregation Kol Emeth will present “Again with Yiddish and Laughter” in Evanston on July 12.

All programs are open to the public and begin at 12:15 P.M. Admission is free and no reservations are required, but there’s often a large crowd so it’s best to arrive early.


This year, Chicago YIVO has also arranged to bring an exhibit of photos and memorabilia from the YIVO archives in Manhattan. “The Family Singer” contrasts the careers of Nobel Prize-winning author Isaac Bashevis Singer and his two siblings Israel Joshua Singer (best-known for his epic novel The Brothers Ashkenazi) and Esther Singer Kreitman (best-known for her autobiographical novel Deborah). “The Family Singer” exhibit, previously mounted in New York and Milan, will be on display from July 11 to July 21 at the Northbrook Public Library, and from July 24 to August 4 at the Skokie Public Library. Dr. Carl Rheins, YIVO’s Executive Director, will be on hand for the kick-off at Northbrook Public Library on Monday evening July 10, offering his personal reflections on “YIVO at 80.”

For details, visit the Chicago YIVO website:



“Now here was Deborah herself a citizen of Warsaw, but so hard up she could not afford to buy a hat. To venture forth hatless would be counter to all the unwritten laws of decency. Consequently, Deborah stayed indoors, like an eager dog chained to its kennel. It was all very well for [Deborah’s brother] Michael. He had no hat problem. He could go wherever he pleased.”

I’ve collapsed a few paragraphs from page 122 of Esther Kreitman’s 1936 novel Deborah above to help make the case for Barbra Streisand’s lovely film Yentl. Yes, I know, Isaac Bashevis Singer had nothing good to say when Streisand wrote her own adaptation of his story about a shtetl girl who disguises herself as a boy so she can study Torah, but who made him both judge and jury?

Truth be told, I found Kreitman’s novel pretty tough going; it’s painfully raw and unmediated. Having read Deborah though, I now find Yentl even more compelling, striking a perfect balance between the sister’s despair and the brother’s nonchalant whimsy, and thereby creating an indelible cinematic heroine who transcends them both. Singer scholars can debate the implications of these consanguine and literary relationships, but for now suffice it to say that Kreitman died in 1954 and Yentl made her first appearance (in English) in 1961.


Sam Freedman, professor of journalism at Columbia University, education columnist for The New York Times, and author of Jew vs. Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry, came to Chicago last month to sign copies of his new book Letters to a Young Journalist at the Printers Row Book Fair.

Jew vs. Jew, which won a National Jewish Book Award, was published in 2000, so I asked Freedman the obvious: how does “tribalism” in the Jewish context relate to what’s been happening in the rest of the world since 9/11? “Modernity is so perplexing and so corrosive of community,” he said, “that people in all sorts of faith streams are looking for set answers, looking for strict rules to live by, and looking for a firm sense of community to help them navigate a world in which they feel unmoored.”

“What is different post-9/11? Clearly there is, once again, an existential threat. At the time I wrote the book, and this was my own misapprehension, it looked like peace was going to be made with the Palestinians, and like many other Americans, I hadn’t paid sufficient heed to the al-Qaida attacks that had already occurred. Now, clearly, there is an existential threat [from Islamic fundamentalism], and you have to add Iran to it as well now that you have Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in power.”

“But what’s interesting and notable is that in the past, when these existential threats occurred, they imposed a kind of unity on American Jews; they quelled the internal arguments, and that is not the case now. We have episodes over eruvs (over land use), over ordaining openly gay and lesbian clergy, over the beginning of egalitarian worship in the Orthodox sector. All these things are happening and creating conflict [within the Jewish community] even if it’s at the same time that all Jews are facing an existential threat again.”

Tziviah bat Yisroel v’Hudah (Jan Lisa Huttner) is the managing editor of Films for Two: The Online Guide for Busy Couples (www.films42.com). Send comments and/or suggestions for future columns to Tzivi@msn.com.

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