Burgers, Bibles, Bernie Madoff: There is little news that this week’s quiz doesn’t touch on, except, perhaps, for brisket.
Oh wait! That’s here, too, courtesy of Rick Moranis. Go forth!
Norman Lamm has retired as chancellor of Yeshiva University. The exit of one of the most revered figures in Modern Orthodoxy has been tarnished, perhaps indelibly, by Lamm’s admission to me last year that he covered up sexual abuse of students during his tenure as president of Y.U. between 1976 and 2003.
Since I first reported Lamm’s admission there has been a great deal of speculation surrounding the circumstances of our interview. I have been accused of knowingly taking advantage of a man with a deteriorating mental state while his daughter was terminally ill. There is even a version of our interview circulating in which Lamm’s wife turns me away from his apartment door, so that I have to lurk outside until she leaves before I can sneak back in and take advantage of Lamm.
None of the above is true.
Prior to my interview with Lamm, I was unaware of rumors that Lamm or his daughter, Sara Lamm Dratch, were ill. All I knew was that a handful of former students had told me painful stories of their sexual abuse at Y.U.’s Manhattan high school for boys and that, according to them, the person who knew the most about it was Lamm.
So I did what any reporter would do. I looked up Lamm’s address and, one morning, I showed up at his apartment door. I told Lamm who I was.
I told him why I was there. At first, he appeared unwilling to talk. He went back inside his apartment and had a brief conversation — with his wife, I believe — and then he invited me inside.
Forward editor-in-chief Jane Eisner discusses the paper’s coverage of political and socio-economic events in Israel, and about the future of journalism in the digital age in a video interview with The Marker, a Tel-Aviv-based economic news outlet that is distributed as a supplement of Haaretz.
The interview touches on important issues in Israeli society, including the conflict with the Palestinians, the financial crisis, and how the Jewish state is perceived in the U.S. and Europe.
Among the people who enter our lives, enrich our minds and inspire our hearts are at times those we barely, if at all, know personally. Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, who has just announced his retirement as chancellor of Yeshiva University after a remarkably distinguished career, has for decades played such a role in my life.
His scholarship inspired me during my very first year of graduate school, when I read his path-breaking book on the thought of the Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhin, Torah Lishmah. Hayyim of Volozhin was the most important disciple of the Gaon of Vilna and his writings and, even more so, the great yeshiva he established in the Belorussian town of Volozhin shaped the faction within Orthodox Judaism known as the Mitnagdim, who opposed the Hasidic movement.
Lamm’s work had a lasting impact, ultimately leading me to choose the Mitnagdim as the focus of my doctoral dissertation and subsequent book on the subject. And yet, I never studied at Yeshiva University, nor had I yet met, or even laid eyes on, Rabbi Lamm.
Over the subsequent years, Lamm’s essays and books on the ideology of Modern Orthodoxy — embodied in the motto Torah u-Mada (Torah and science, or secular knowledge) were largely responsible for allowing me to remain within the Orthodox camp, despite my increasing struggles with the increasingly right-leaning, insular and intolerant tendencies of Orthodox Judaism that ultimately led to my own break with it. I still had never met this magnificent man, and uncommonly eloquent spokesman for a truly modern iteration of traditional, halakhic Judaism.
Did NBC smear a prominent Chabad rabbi over his position on reporting child abuse to the police?
The Peacock Network’s ‘Rock Center’ show on June 21 ran a story about Judy Brown, who has written for the Forward and whose bestselling book, ‘Hush,’ chronicles her spiritual journey away from the Hasidic world and discusses sexual abuse in the deeply insular Hasidic community.
Rabbi Avraham Berkowitz, a well-known figure in the Chabad movement, was interviewed for the story. Although Berkowitz supports reporting suspected abuse directly to police, NBC edited his comments to make it seem that he believes they should only be reported only to rabbis, a controversial position that has divided the Jewish community.
The transcript of the unedited interview shows that Berkowitz said “the rabbis work together hand-in-hand with the authorities,” “deviants must be punished,” and “they’ll be caught.” The full un-aired interview demonstrates that Berkowitz was discussing educational initiatives on abuse prevention, not the reporting of sexual abuse — and makes clear that he believes rabbis should work hand-in-hand with the authorities.
But NBC apparently decided that Berkowitz’s views did not fit the storyline of Orthodox sexual abuse cover-ups. So it selectively edited his quotes and added grossly misleading voice-overs that implied he believes sex abuse crimes should be handled only by rabbis.
“Avraham Berkowitz is a local rabbi in the community and he says people are now acknowledging that sexual abuse is happening and insists that they can handle the problem themselves,” Dr. Nancy Snyderman, of NBC says on the show.
NBC never directly asked Berkowitz whether he thinks abuse should be reported directly to the police. Yet they superimposed his unrelated quotes over a discussion the case of Nechemya Weberman, the unlicensed Satmar “therapist” who was convicted of sexually abusing a young girl. The Weberman case, a narrator intones, “was a rare instance of a Hasid going to outside authorities to report a crime.”
What is bringing down the birth rates of Israel’s Ethiopian immigrants — culture or chemicals?
A new study by the nonpartisan Knesset Research and Information Center found that while Ethiopian Jews traditionally have large families, by 2010 those who arrived in the preceding decade were actually having fewer kids than other Israelis. They were having 1.78, which is 38 percent below the average for Israeli-born women, 2.88.
This study follows a television report last year that alleged that Ethiopian immigrant women were coerced into taking contraceptive shots in transit camps in Ethiopia when waiting to move to Israel, and that they continued to receive the shots in Israel. The Health Ministry wrote to HMOs inferring that there are some Ethiopian women who receive the shots in Israel without fully understanding what they contain — and urged gynecologists “not to renew prescriptions for Depo-Provera for women of Ethiopian origin if for any reason there is concern that they might not understand the ramifications of the treatment.”
Gal Gabbay, the documentary-maker who made produced the television report on the contraceptive shots, says that following the new Knesset report she feels vindicated. “The numbers speak for themselves,” she told Forward Thinking, saying that she is “sure” that the contraceptive shots are behind the drop in birth rates.
But the authors of the study found themselves unable to substantiate the claims of her report, and left the matter of the contraceptive shots as something of an open question. Of course, there are many who say that a reduction in birth rates is expected among an immigrant population encountering completely new, Western cultural norms — especially when it’s one of the poorest segments of society.
This reading of the figures isn’t only coming from outside the Ethiopian community. Shai Sium, a 34-year-old resident of the Southern Israel town of Kiryat Malachi and an Ethiopian-born activist for Ethiopian rights, says that young parents like him “don’t want to have a lot of children in Israel and can’t afford a lot of children.”
He holds himself up as an example. “I have two kids and I decided to have three kids because I want to raise them well.”
The first Egyptian police report described Andrew Driscoll Pochter as an American and a photojournalist.
The 21-year-old student from suburban Maryland was not identified as being Jewish because we Americans, unlike Egyptians, do not carry government IDs that identify our religion. That in itself is a great relief and advantage when living or visiting countries wracked by sectarianism and bigotry like Egypt is today.
The fact that Pochter was taken for a journalist does offer an important clue as to who killed him and why.
He was reportedly killed during an anti-government rally that surged toward the headquarters of President Mohammed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood party in the port city of Alexandria.
Over the past few months, Muslim Brotherhood (MB) militants and at times their allies from the Salifi sect have badly beaten up suspected journalists and in particular photojournalists. They have been particularly aggressive in defending various MB headquarters or MB demonstrations backing Morsi from attacks. They have expressed particular hatred for the passionately anti-Morsi privately owned Cairo press as well as a longer history of deep paranoia about the global press corps.
So it is important to note that Pochter was killed as anti-Morsi protesters were trying to storm MB headquarters in Alexandria and were being beaten back by MB militants defending their headquarters. That suggests they might have been involved.
As time passes, this sort of street violence escalates on both sides in Egypt. Clubs replace stones, knives come into play alongside clubs, and in time pistols and shotguns also surface, army steel helmets replace motorcyclist helmets and killing at times trumps beatings.
Those who killed Pochter , whoever they were, would not have known he was Jewish, even if they realized he was an American. In the Cairo street, particularly, the average demonstrator on either side of the fence would not jump to the conclusion that an American tourist could be Jewish. Quite the contrary, they would tend to associate the Jew with the hooked nose, and payus and long beard that they have likely come across in anti-Semitic screeds that circulate widely here.
Peering in from the outside, it may be tricky to understand what’s going on in Brazil right now
Unlike Tunisians and Egyptians, Brazilians did not take to the streets in historic demonstrations last week to overthrow an authoritarian government. After enduring a two-decade-long dictatorship, we’ve been living under democratic rule since the mid-1980s, and those who still carry the wounds of the dark days are the first to say: never again.
Nor, like many Europeans, are we reacting to an economic crisis per se, even though most reports in the international press about our economic boom are rather far-fetched, and the cost of living has risen sharply in the past 10 years
The generation behind the mass protests that took place in over a hundred Brazilian cities this month never knew the pains of hyperinflation or the fear of political prisons. What they know very well is the corruption that plagues every level of government; the chronic lack of investment in education; the lavish spending of public funds to build soccer stadiums for the World Cup while hospitals and roads crumble away.
So now this generation is saying: enough is enough.
Comedian Sarah Silverman is known for her outrageous shtick. But her sister, Rabbi Susan Silverman, and niece, Hallel, have become leading members of the Israeli activist group Women of the Wall, which fights for women’s rights to pray as they see fit at the Western Wall.
The Silvermans are well known for their involvement in the Kotel protests. But Susan Silverman’s husband, Yosef, is himself an activist for green solar technology in Israel.
Recently, videographer Harvey Stein travelled with the family to the monthly prayer protests under threats of violence.
There was an unusual moment at Yad Vashem today. As virtually all foreign dignitaries do, the head of the Anglican church went to Yad Vashem during his visit to Jerusalem. And there, he encountered his own Jewish heritage in a stark and poignant way.
As Archbishop of Canterbury, enthroned in March, Justin Welby leads the Church of England and the Anglican Communion worldwide. He also happens to be half-Jewish — his father was born Jewish.
The staff of Yad Vashem had dug out a Page of Testimony and archival information regarding a young Holocaust victim who was most one of his distant relatives. When he entered the Hall of Names, where the Pages of Testimony of Jewish victims of the Holocaust are housed, they gave it to him.
The Archbishop was visibly moved — he had tears in his eyes, and asked to be alone for a few moments before continuing his tour. The fact that he was there with his wife Caroline and son Peter added to the personal weight of the moment.
On a lighter side, Welby’s Jewish heritage makes him eligible to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return. It’s clear that he has a soft spot for Jerusalem — he revealed today that he was here on honeymoon 33 years ago. So perhaps he could stick around. Quick Nefesh B’Nefesh — catch him before he leaves.
They’re back! And just in time for Toronto’s Gay Pride parade on Sunday, June 30.
Who’s back? None other than Canada’s most high profile anti-Zionist gay organization — Queers Against Israeli Apartheid (QuAIA).
Formed by Toronto LGBT activists on the platform that Israel exists as an apartheid state and oppresses Palestinians — including LGBT Palestinians — QuAIA has fomented controversy every year since 2008 when it first announced its intent to participate in Toronto’s Gay Pride Parade. Despite pleas from the Jewish community to stop QuAIA from marching, and despite efforts by some city councillors to withhold grant money to Pride Toronto organizers unless they keep the agitators out, QuAIA has managed to participate in the city’s Pride Parade four out of the last five years. Pending any extraordinary and highly unlikely intervention from Toronto City Hall, they’ll be marching again on June 30.
Ongoing efforts by QuAIA opponents to halt the group’s inclusion on the basis that the term “Israeli apartheid” violates Toronto’s human rights policy and Ontario’s Human Rights Code, have been unsuccessful.
And a recent statement by Toronto’s chief lawyer which acknowledges that the words “Israeli Apartheid” violate neither the city’s human rights policy, nor appear to violate the province’s human rights policy, all but guarantees that QuAIA will again be part of the festivities.
Opponents of QuAIA, like myself, are not pleased. Its supporters, however, certainly are. Tony Souza, a member of QuAIA, was quoted in the May 27 Toronto Star saying, “Every single report that comes out says we don’t violate any hate laws…. we certainly don’t ‘hate’ anybody. We just want justice in Palestine.”
Big smiles and excited eyes were all around at one Greenwich Village synagogue on Wednesday noon. Members of Beit Simchat Torah, a congregation that has been a strong advocate for LGBT rights for four decades, were stopping by to congratulate each other and celebrate the historic moment.
Two hours earlier, the Supreme Court delivered landmark victories for gay rights, forcing the federal government to recognize same-sex marriage for the first time and striking down California’s effort to ban it.
Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, who is a lesbian and leader of the Simchat Torah congregation, said the importance of the Supreme Court ruling could not be overstated.
“It is saying that the highest court in our land will not stand for discrimination,” said Kleinbaum. “It is saying that’s not OK.”
Beit Simchat Torah was established in 1973 at the heart of Greenwich Village, a neighborhood that serves as a hub for New York’s lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transsexual community. The synagogue is located a few blocks away from Stonewall, the site of the 1969 riots, a monumental event that launched the fight for LGBT rights in the U.S. The congregation includes members from different ages and backgrounds.
A few of them agreed to go on camera to share their feelings following the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling.
The shouting for joy over this morning’s Supreme Court decisions had barely subsided when a long ago memory flashed into my mind. Twenty-two years ago, my partner and I were on vacation in Pennsylvania with our daughter. My partner became ill and I took her to a nearby emergency room.
In this smalltown hospital. they were terrific about taking her right in to be seen by the doctor before any talk of payment or insurance. But when they came out to begin those conversations, they asked me, “Does she have any family members here?”
We had been together seven years. I said, somewhat facetiously, “Well, her daughter is here.” “Oh, so may I speak to her daughter?” asked the nurse. “Sure,” I said. “She’s 10.” And only then did the nurse, well-meaning, not really understanding, agreed to speak to me.
My prayer is that along with same-sex marriage in California and federal benefits for those married in other states, today’s Supreme Court decisions will begin to create a broad atmosphere of justice in the small, crucial places of our lives: hospital rooms and funeral homes, synagogues, churches and mosques, the school principal’s office, the neighborhood cookout.
The other memory that came along unbidden was that of Matthew Shepard, beaten, tortured, and left to die on a fence. I remember crying along with many others during a prayer for him at the synagogue where I am serve as a rabbi, Kolot Chayeinu. Today I also pray that the expanding atmosphere of justice prevent killings of LGBTQ people because they are, whether in Montana way back then or in the Village last month. May children grow up in confidence or in acceptance, knowing that some law is on their side.
News of the Supreme Court’s landmark decision to pave the way to gay marriage found gay Jewish leaders at the end of a meeting with two dozen Democratic senators on Capitol Hill. A staffer passed a note to Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) reading: “DOMA is struck down” and the senator shared the news with the Jewish leaders, gathered for their annual meeting with the Democratic steering committee and cheers were heard from all corners of the room.
“I got hugs and applauds,” said Alan Van Capelle, CEO of Bend the Arc who led a gay rights movement before joining the Jewish organizational world. Van Capelle whispered to himself the Jewish blessing of “Shehecheyanu,” thanking God for “keeping us alive to see this moment,” he recalled.
From there Van Capelle rushed to the steps of the Supreme Court to celebrate with other gay rights activists. In an interview while surrounded by crowds applauding the decision, Van Capelle said it was “the first moment in which I felt free in this country.”
He then took the train back to New York, where he plans to go directly to his Lower East Side home and “give a kiss to my partner Matt and a hug to my son Ethan.”
Most Jewish communal leaders celebrated the landmark Supreme Court decision striking down the Defense of Marriage Act. The Jewish community, with 81% of support for gay marriage according to public opinion polls, is the constituency most supportive of marriage equality, second only to the LGBT community in its backing of the rights of gays and lesbians to marry.
“We believe that this is one of the necessary steps to ensure that the human rights of people of all sexual orientations are respected everywhere in the world,” said Ruth Messinger, president of the American Jewish World Service in a statement. AJWS one of the world’s largest funders of LGBTI rights across the world.
All Jewish Supreme Court justices: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan, voted with the majority against DOMA. The key attorney representing Edith Windsor in her challenge of the Defense of Marriage Act, was Roberta Kaplan a New York Jewish lawyer.
What do Alice Walker, the Turkish prime minister and Hooters have in common? Aside from the fact they are all in this week’s news quiz?
That is a good question. Feel free to tell us if you figure it out. Meantime, here goes after the jump!
President Barack Obama wasted no time hailing the Supreme Court’s decision on gay marriage.
Within moments of the ruling striking down the Defense of Marriage Act, the president Tweeted:
Today’s DOMA ruling is a historic step forward for #MarriageEquality. #LoveIsLove.
Obama later applauded the decision that makes married gay men and women eligible for federal benefits, and he directed Attorney General Eric Holder to review all relevant federal laws to ensure the ruling is implemented.
“We are a people who declared that we are all created equal, and the love we commit to one another must be equal as well,” Obama said in a written statement. He got the news as he flew to Africa aboard Air Force One.
Obama said the ruling applies only to civil marriages and that how religious institutions define and consecrate marriages has always been up to those institutions.
Jonathan Sacks, the outgoing British chief rabbi, is warning of a twin threat to Judaism from assimilation on the one hand and ultra-Orthodoxy on the other. At his retirement dinner, he said that “those who embrace the world and reject Judaism, and those who embrace Judaism and reject the world” represent a “global danger” to Jews and Judaism.
Assimilation and ultra-Orthodoxy, Sacks said, are phenomena that presently “dominate the Jewish world”. Pointing to secularism and intermarriage, he called it a “tragedy” that “one young Jew in two (decides) not to have a Jewish marriage, create a Jewish home and build the Jewish future.” In the next breath, he blasted Haredim as a group that “segregates itself from the world and from its fellow Jews.”
“This is very dangerous, because if there is anti-Semitism or anti-Zionism in the future, who is going to fight it?” Sacks asked. “The Jews who abandon Judaism? Or the Jews who abandon the world?”
As the spiritual leader of the United Kingdom’s Orthodox community, Sacks has reason to be concerned. According to a 2010 study produced by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, 73% of Jewish households are affiliated with a synagogue, yet the percentage of affiliated households across the denominations has fallen by 17 percentage points over the past 20 years. Orthodox households still represent over 50% of affiliated households, but their number has contracted by one third. At the same time, the percentage of Jewish households affiliated to an ultra-Orthodox synagogue has more than doubled from 4.5% in 1990 to 10.9% in 2010.
Sacks expands on this theme in his new pamphlet, A Judaism Engaged with the World. Since he first became chief rabbi 22 years ago, and faced with the challenge of a shrinking, disengaged population, he has seen a massive effort to respond.
“British Jewry has responded magnificently to the challenge. The new schools we have built, the cultural creativity British Jewry now shows, and the higher profile we have in the public square, will, I believe, mean that we will have more Jewish grandchildren than might otherwise have been the case,” he writes.
“But I could not live with myself,” Sacks continues, “if I did not continue to do everything in my power to continue to try to make Judaism more compelling for the next generation, intellectually, ethically and spiritually. We must be prepared to engage with the world, unashamedly and uncompromisingly as Jews. Otherwise we will find yet again that the choice will be either to assimilate or segregate, leaving no one left to challenge the world or make a contribution to it as a Jew.”
Of the Haredim, Sacks says “there is no reason to turn our back to the world. …Now is the time [for the haredim] to turn outward and share its energies with the rest of the Jewish world.” The Times of Israel’s Miriam Shaviv reports that such words represent a departure from his previous tone towards the ultra-Orthodox. Previously, Sacks has been accused of being too deferential to Haredi rabbis as part of a desire to accommodate this burgeoning sector of British Jewry. In 2003, Sacks amended his book The Dignity of Difference after leading Haredim deemed the work too relativist regarding the truthfulness of other faiths. Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv described the book as being “contrary to our faith in the Holy Torah.”
But whatever his fight with the ultra-Orthodox, Sacks is perhaps more saddened by those who have chosen the path of assimilation. With intermarriage and disaffiliation, “a family tree that had lasted a hundred generations comes to an end with them. a chain of continuity that held strong for a hundred generations has broken”:
While the two extremes are growing, the centre is shrinking. Jews are either drifting away from mainstream synagogues or starting small, new, breakaway communities. Shuls that once brought together Jews from a wide range of commitment are declining. A certain kind of Jewish identity – proud to be Jewish, proud equally to be an active citizen of the wider society – is waning. …The Jewish world is spinning apart.
The question Sacks’ pamphlet never quite answers, however, is where the boundaries of this Jewish center extend to. It is certainly not the case that Sacks believes only Orthodoxy constitutes Judaism or Jewishness. After all, Liberal and Reform leaders were part of Sacks’ retirement celebrations, and Sacks spoke of God and Judaism in broad terms. Indeed, the percentage of households affiliated with the Conservative Masori movement has almost doubled in the last 20 years, while in the past five years the share of Liberal Jewish households also went up.
Sacks’ Jewish center would seem to be one with faith and belief at its core, which does appear a little pinched. Sacks wants the new generation of British Jews to be “ambassadors of the divine presence, living Jewish lives, energised by Jewish texts, sustained by Jewish prayers, driven to share our legacy of hope”, which is a noble ambition. But can one not be energised by Jewish texts, or embody “the Jewish values of study, intellect, independence, iconoclasm”, without being a believer-in-God-who-believes-in-us, as Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzberger have argued?
Sacks later asserts that secular Israelis “are maaminim bnei maaminim, ‘believers, the children of believers,’ who have simply not yet encountered a Judaism that speaks to them,” noting them to be the most receptive audience to his ideas. But are secular Israelis – or secular Jews more widely – any less Jewish or in some fashion incomplete or less whole simply for their lack of affiliation or belief in the supernatural?
Whatever these reservations, Sacks’ closing speech and new pamphlet do highlight quite rightly the ongoing need to sustain Judaism and Jewish life, as the face of the community changes and the demographic balance between the denominations shifts. A Judaism Engaged with the World certainly gives a good indication that this is precisely the work that Sacks will go on to dedicate himself to when he officially leaves his post in September.
Fifty years ago civil rights activists staged a sit-in at the lunch counter of Woolworth’s in Jackson Mississippi to protest the segregated seating which existed, mandating separate areas for black and white patrons.
Young students from nearby Tougaloo College, both black and white, sat together at the “whites only” counter, waiting futilely to be served. These brave young students were attacked by local citizens who felt that their way of life was being threatened. The mob screamed, cursed, spat on and punched the people sitting-in at the lunch counter. They poured coffee, salt, pepper, sugar, ketchup and mustard on them. They hit them with brass knuckles.
Eventually, after several hours of violence, the police moved in to break up the mob.
Hillel Halkin brands Women of the Wall ‘childish provocateurs’ who put their rights to protest ahead of other Jews’ feelings
Prior to the sit-in, Medgar Evers, then the Field Secretary for the NAACP in Jackson, wrote a letter indicating their intent. “We are determined to end all state and local government sponsored segregation in the parks, playgrounds, schools, libraries, and other public facilities. To accomplish this, we shall use all lawful means of protest,” Evers wrote.
Two weeks after the sit-in, Medgar Evers was murdered by a local KuKlux Klan member. Woolworth’s closed the lunch counter altogether to avoid serving blacks.
But the protests resounded — and humanity prevaile. A year later, Congress passed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, prohibiting discrimination based on race.
Reading today about this historic struggle in American history reminded me of my own experience last month on May 10 (Rosh Chodesh Sivan), when I was privileged to be a participant with the Women of the Wall in Jerusalem.
Strangely similar to the accounts of the struggle in Mississippi were the screams, the taunts, the cursing, and even the spilling of food, such as water and coffee by the Haredim, who were protesting the existence of the Women of the Wall, our prayers, our tallitot, our voices rising to the Heavens.
Like the mob in Mississippi, they were worried that their way of life would be threatened.
While President Obama attended meetings in Berlin prior to his grand address at the Brandenburg Gate, First Lady Michelle Obama and their children, Malia and Sasha, visited the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Guided by the director of the site, Uwe Neumärker, the family spent half an hour among the 2,711 stone sarcophagi which range in height and rise and fall along the undulating ground across the five-acre site.
“They were impressed that we Germans have such a memorial in the centre of our city,” Neumärker later told the JTA. The First Lady in particular was said to have commented that the memorial “really has an aura.” But while the site has the White House seal of approval, since its opening in 2005 — in fact, even during the years preceding its construction — Peter Eisenman’s memorial has been controversial and divisive.
I have been to the memorial on several occasions at different times of day and night and at different times of year. With each visit, my impression of the site evolves and changes. Its scale – the memorial takes up an entire city block – can at times feel alienating and at others speaks to the scope and enormity of the catastrophe. Its logical, fashioned layout and the cool and unrelenting greyness of the stones can either feel distant and impersonal or like a statement about the cold, mechanised, and rationalised way in which the Holocaust was carried out, how it came to be faceless for those who were committing the crime.
In particular, I appreciate the way in which Memorial to the Murdered Jews has come to be the focal point for commemoration of the Jewish past in Berlin, a space for strangers to explore, wander, and wonder. When you walk down into the very centre of the memorial, sunken and enveloped by the looming columns, the sounds and sights of Berlin are eradicated. The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe thus, at its best, creates the space for reflection and contemplation, or at the very least forces an emotional response through isolation and dislocation. At night, when the stelae hold back what little light there is, such thoughts and reactions are only heightened, deepened.
This is made possible by the memorial’s abstraction and ambiguity – nothing about it is guided or forced, each visitor granted the space to engage and have their own experience. But it is this indistinctness and the almost remote nature of the memorial that has beget criticism. Writing in The New Yorker, Richard Brody stated that there is a vagueness about the memorial which is he finds “disturbing”. Indeed, without the full title, “it would be impossible to know what the structure is meant to commemorate; there’s nothing about these concrete slabs that signifies any of the words of the title, except, perhaps, ‘memorial.’”
This disconnection Brody identifies is indeed inescapable. For a site which proclaims itself to be specifically dedicated to the memory of murdered Jews, there is nothing particularly Jewish about it at all. By comparison, across the street is the Memorial to the Homosexuals Persecuted under the National Socialist Regime, at which through a small window in a concrete cuboid, a movie depicting a kiss is visible. This scene is befitting as a symbol of defiance, “a lasting symbol against exclusion, intolerance and animosity towards gays and lesbians.” Whatever one thinks of the memorial and the film, it does at the very least fulfil its duty in this way.