July ’08 Spotlight

The recent death of actor Charlton Heston set me to brooding about Rome, so when I learned that The Teaching Company had added a new course by Isaiah Gafni to its catalogue, I ordered it immediately. Gafni, the author of Land, Center and Diaspora: Jewish Constructs in Late Antiquity, is the Sol Rosenbloom Professor of Jewish History at the Hebrew University.

Beginnings of Judaism (Gafni’s twelve-hour audio course) is anchored by two critical events: the destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E. and the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 C.E. The image of Heston as “Judah Ben-Hur,” dragged from his Jerusalem home in chains and marched over the desert sands by Roman soldiers, terrified me as a child. Gafni describes waves of earlier conquests by Assyrians, Macedonians, Ptolemies, and Seleucids, all of them also exporting enslaved Jews to foreign lands, although the massive scale of the Babylonian exile (in which approximately 10,000 Judean priests, officers, warriors, and community leaders were transported to what is now Iraq) was an historical anomaly.

But, as Gafni explains, the Diaspora grew by “pull” as well as “push.” By the time of his death in 323 B.C.E., Alexander the Great had conquered most of the known world, and the imposition of Hellenistic frameworks enabled trade routes to expand as never before. Even as the Romans conquered Judea in 63 B.C.E., Jewish communities were building synagogues in cities along the North African coast; Jewish merchants were finding their way to the Crimean and Iberian Peninsulas; and a large Jewish population had already settled in the city of Rome itself.

According to Gafni, the painful process of adaptation begun during the Babylonian captivity enabled the Jewish people to thrive in the Diaspora, and then to survive as a people after the Second Temple was sacked: “The lessons that Jews would have to learn after their initial dispersion around the Middle East go to the heart of understanding Judaism, and the complex makeup of Judaism, which at times is a faith but at times is a land-oriented religion,” Gafni told me by e-mail. “We Jews have juggled these two components of our self-identity for centuries, and we still do so today.”

To order Gafni’s lectures (available on CD and DVD as well as audio download), visit The Teaching Company website: www.teach12.com.


“Never judge a book by its cover,” teachers warn us, and sometimes that admonition also applies to movie posters. A current case in point is the new British film Brick Lane. I’m not saying it isn’t a film about a Bangladeshi woman living in London, I’m just urging you to dig deeper.

“My grandmother was 17, the same age as my lead character ‘Nazneen,’ when she got sent to England from Berlin, on her own, in 1937,” director Sarah Gavron told me when she came to Chicago last month. “My grandmother spent her whole life trying to fit in. Some of her friends hadn’t known she was Jewish until her funeral, when I was 26… When you make a decision to direct, it’s a huge commitment, and I have no doubt that one of the things that drew me to Brick Lane was having seen the world as an outsider through my grandmother’s eyes.”

Brick Lane is a haunting evocation of immigrant life, tenderly delineating the slow steps by which Nazneen acculturates and makes a home for her daughters so different in every way from the one she knew as a girl. To read the rest of my conversation with Sarah Gavron as well as my review of Brick Lane, visit my website: www.films42.com.

Also recommended is James Sheridan’s new play Relatively Close, a comedy about three sisters with different ideas about how to allocate family property now that both parents are deceased. Looked at as individuals, there’s nothing very Jewish about these sisters, and they don’t go about their negotiations in any specifically Jewish way, but the pace is brisk, the writing is sharp, and the moral injunction to treat your own family better when you leave the theater is all the weight required on a summer evening. Relatively Close will be at the Victory Gardens Biograph on North Lincoln Avenue in Chicago through July 13. For tickets, call the VGB box office at (773) 871-3000 or visit their website: www.victorygardens.org.


Peter Ascoli’s recent biography of his grandfather, Julius Rosenwald: The Man who Built Sears, Roebuck and Advanced the Cause of Black Education in the American South, was named one of the best books of 2006 by the Chicago Tribune. But also contained within the 453 pages of this monumental book is the story of Ascoli’s grandmother Augusta Nusbaum Rosenwald. Ascoli will talk about “Gussie” for the first time at a meeting sponsored by Hadassah’s new Shachar Group on Wednesday July 16 at 7:00 PM at Chicago’s Harold Washington Library Center.

“It is indeed true that I have never spoken before, in Chicago or anywhere else, about my grandmother,” Ascoli told me in an e-mail message. “But unlike the wives of other philanthropists, who are largely unknown and unrecognized, Gussie was a real personality in her own right. She was a good friend of such luminaries as Jane Addams and Henrietta Szold, and she had her own views. For example, it is likely that she was more pro-Zionist than her husband.”

For more information, call the Chicago Hadassah office at (847) 675-6790, or visit their website: www.chicago.hadassah.org.


I went to the Zygman Voss Gallery at 222 West Superior in Chicago on June 14 for the opening of a new exhibit of work by Moshe Rosenthalis. Rosenthalis was born in Lithuania in 1922 and trained in the style of Soviet Social Realism, but he made aliyah in 1958 and he’s been painting bright, beautiful canvases with echoes of Chagall and Matisse ever since. I loved the contrast between the teals and turquoises of the paintings done in his Jaffa studio, and the pinks and purples coming from his studio in Sfat. Almost every painting is accented by streaks of intensely bright yellow. After 50 years, he clearly still remembers the shock of his first encounter with Israeli sun after years of Baltic cold.

Into Color closes on September 6. For more details, visit www.zygmanvossgallery.com.


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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