Arguably the most readily identifiable and popular artist of the 20th century, Marc Chagall was a man of astounding versatility. Born in 1887 in Vitebsk, Russia, he grew up and gravitated to his chosen profession during an era that celebrated the concept of Gesamtkunstwerk—stage projects in which music, dance, drama, poetry and the visual arts harmoniously combined to present a more profound experience. One of his St. Petersburg teachers, Leon Bakst, was another Jewish master whose Art Nouveau sets and costumes for the Ballets Russes transformed the world of dance in the years before World War I. It would not be until after 1918, in Soviet Russia, that Bakst’s student would become involved with the Yiddish theatre, where he developed yet another aspect of his genius that would continue to flower until the end of his life.
This season, events on two continents have been inspired by Chagall’s biography and creative vision. Hailed as the winner of the annual Carol Tambor Foundation’s Best of Edinburgh Award at this year’s Fringe Festival in August is “The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk,” written by Daniel Jamieson, a co-production staged by Cornwall’s experimental Kneehigh Theatre and the Bristol Old Vic.
Incorporating expressive movement and dance, as well as Ian Ross’ music and songs orchestrated for an onstage band, this multi-disciplined work depicts both the romance of Marc and Bella, the woman who became his muse and the subject of many of his masterpieces, and the cultural roots that sired the artist’s unique perception. Despite the poverty, bleakness and violence of the shetl, the horror of World War I, and finally, the turmoil and suffering caused by the Russian Revolution, the artist forged an alternate reality, a joyous fantasy that continues to affect the visual and performing arts. “Flying Lovers’” sets, costumes and cast enervate Chagall’s dream world while the cruelty of real life is always at hand. The play’s final scene depicts Chagall’s response to Bella’s death in 1944. Acclaimed by critics and audiences, “Flying Lovers” is touring the United Kingdom through the spring of 2018, and will open in New York, probably later next year.
On view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) until Jan. 7, 2018, is the first exhibit focusing on Chagall’s later stage works. Curated by Stephanie Barron, with an installation designed by LACMA’s artist-in-residence, an innovative opera director and set designer Yuval Sharon, “Chagall: Fantasies for the Stage” surveys the Russian master’s involvement with ballet and opera spanning the decades initiated by his arrival in New York from Nazi-occupied France, and continuing through 1967.
On display are films, studies and sketches, as well as the original costumes, sets and backdrops from four Chagall productions: “Aleko,” danced in 1942 by the company now known as the New York City Ballet; famed impresario Sol Hurok’s 1945 revival of Stravinsky’s “Firebird;” the 1956 Paris Opera staging of Ravel’s “Daphnis and Chloe” ballet, and the artist’s beloved treatment of “The Magic Flute” which debuted at the Met Opera during its first Lincoln Center season
Visitors will also be able to see Chagall’s paintings and drawings focusing on the subject of theatre, furthering enhancing their understanding of his creative process, and the significance of the performing arts within the context of his oeuvre.
Cheryl Kempler is an art and music specialist who works in the B'nai B'rith International Curatorial Office and writes about history and Jewish culture for B’nai B’rith Magazine. To view some of her additional content, Click Here
The U.N. and its system of “specialized agencies” is famous for barring down indiscriminately on the world’s only Jewish state—Israel—and serving as a kangaroo court to heap abuse on the only country in the Middle East that boasts democratic elections, peaceful transfer of power and an independent judiciary that ensures equality for all citizens. According to figures compiled by Fiamma Nirenstein, a journalist and former Italian parliamentarian, the U.N. Human Rights Council has adopted 135 resolutions from 2006 to 2015, of which 68 have been against Israel; the General Assembly has approved 97 from 2012 to 2015, of which 83 have been against Israel; and UNESCO adopts ten country-specific resolutions every year, and all of them against Israel.
This travesty continues despite the U.N.’s abysmal failure, since its establishment in 1945, to achieve its chief goal to “maintain international peace and security.” The number of deaths attributed to the 100-year old Israeli-Arab conflict are estimated at some 120,000—compared to the grotesque number of deaths attributed to other wars, massacres, slaughters and oppressions are upward of 200 million in the 20th Century. Still, the U.N. system continues to undermine its credibility by finding new and imaginative ways to attack Israel, serving as one of the chief enablers of anti-Semitism—a term which today includes, by most versions, anti-Israel bias.
The most recent series of tainted resolutions have come from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which is headquartered in Paris. In October, the Executive Board voted three times on resolutions that have denied the Jewish connection to Judaism’s holiest site—the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The resolutions, promoted by the Palestinians (which became a full member state at UNESCO in 2011), the Arab bloc and others, were allowed to pass—with diminishing majorities—by the feckless abstentions cast by many member states. This included Christian-majority countries that ostensibly have a vested interest in maintaining the Judeo-Christian historical narrative of the late Second Temple period in the cradle of Christianity.
These resolutions were so outrageous that they even elicited a rare written condemnation by UNESCO Secretary-General Irina Bokova of Bulgaria and expressions of remorse by the presidents of Mexico, Brazil and Italy at their country’s vote. Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi went as far as to tell Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a subsequent telephone conversation that: “To say that the Jewish people have no connection to Jerusalem is like saying that the sun creates darkness.” Renzi promised to vote against such resolutions in the future, and to act to convince other European governments to adopt his position.
All of these efforts by world bodies whittle away at the legitimacy of Israel's presence in Jerusalem and elsewhere in the region, but they have little impact on the ground. These resolutions in fact are so outrageous that they have provided Israel with a perfect cover for keeping out recurrent committees of investigations that the U.N. has tried to send here—usually populated by "experts" whose anti-Israel bona fides are quite evident— in an effort to ignite an already flammable situation.
The UNESCO resolutions could in fact be credited for the record number of Jewish visitors to the Western Wall and the Temple Mount during the Sukkot holiday. On Oct. 23, Interior Minister Aryeh Deri (Shas) called on all Israeli Jews to converge on the Western Wall for the Priestly Blessing. On a Facebook post he said: "This year, we’ll come, in our masses, to Jerusalem, to the Western Wall, to the Priestly Blessing. This Wednesday…we’ll all be there. We’ll send a clear message—nobody will separate us from our holy places.”
Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, the Rabbi of the Western Wall, responded to the UNESCO decision by saying that, "In all of world history I don't know of an 'occupying power' whose land is full of the relics of its ancestors. The holiness of the Temple Mount and the Western Wall for the Jewish people goes back many generations. It does not need anyone's approval. It is ridiculous to deny the (archaeological) discoveries that are occurring all the time. The millions of worshipers who come to pray at the Western Wall in front of the Temple Mount are the Jewish answer to UNESCO."
And as if in perfect timing, two major archaeological discoveries that reinforce the Jewish narrative and connection to Jerusalem came to light just as the international community sought to deny it. On Oct. 27, compelling evidence of the breaching of Jerusalem’s so-called “third wall”—which was said to have surrounded the city during the Roman destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E.—was announced by the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA). The new archaeological find included scores of ancient ballista and sling stones that the Romans fired from catapults at the Jewish guards stationed on top of the tower to defend the wall.
The excavation directors described the find: “This is a fascinating testimony of the intensive bombardment by the Roman army, led by Titus, on their way to conquering the city and destroying the Second Temple.” And a day earlier the IAA displayed an unprecedented document containing a reference to Jerusalem from the First Temple period.
Written in ancient Hebrew script and dating back to the Kingdom of Judah during the 7th century B.C.E., the rare relic—a shipping document made of papyrus—was seized from now-jailed Palestinian antiquities plunderers in a complex IAA unit for the Prevention of Antiquities Robbery operation. The papyrus was pillaged from a remote Judean desert cave and represents the earliest extra-Biblical source yet found to mention Jerusalem in Hebrew writing.
While UNESCO's words might not yet have caused any physical harm, they do undoubtedly provide the grist for ongoing Palestinian efforts to engage in widespread damage to the physical elements of Jewish patrimony in Jerusalem and elsewhere in Israel. Those archaeological finds provide incontrovertible evidence of Jewish primacy in the Holy City from the time of King David and beyond.
As an avid hiker in the less traversed mountains and valleys of Judea and Samaria, I am confronted with this sad reality on a regular basis in all areas under Palestinian control: plundered Jewish burial caves, mikvas and wine presses. Nowhere is this destruction more prevalent than on Temple Mount controlled to this day by the Muslim Waqif (Holy Trust). In an article released on Oct. 27 at an IAA conference in Jerusalem spotlighting major archeological finds over the past decade, Yuval Baruch, IAA Jerusalem Region director, describes the vast destruction caused by the Waqif in 1999. Heavy machinery was used on the Temple Mount to dig out an entrance to "Solomon's Stables," which turned it into the largest mosque in Israel. In 2007, the Waqif dug a channel for laying electrical cables on the mount.
The debris from the first incident—dumped unceremoniously in the Kidron Valley—is still yielding artifacts that corroborate the biblical story. One of the most significant discoveries was presented by experts just last month—geometrically patterned marble floor tiles believed to have covered the porticos atop the Temple Mount during the Second Temple period. The tiles are so vivid, intricate and novel in design that you can still read the Talmudic teaching that “whoever has not seen Herod's building has not seen a beautiful building in his life.”
The second incident was approved and overseen by Baruch and yielded some of the only First Temple artifacts to be found in situ on Temple Mount. But other senior archaeologists fault IAA for what they argue is a continuing pattern of non-intervention in the Waqif's design to damage and destroy vestiges of Jewish presence on and around Temple Mount. They fault the state for allowing the Temple Mount artifacts to remain buried due to considerations of expediency (i.e. that such digs would cause turmoil in the Muslim world).
While confronting—with considerable success—the diplomatic war against the Jewish people's chronicle in Jerusalem, the State of Israel must do more to ensure that our physical patrimony is not eliminated under the same motivation. If Israel is unable at this time to engage in a comprehensive expert and vetted archaeological dig on Temple Mount—something which is long over do—due to political, diplomatic and other temporal considerations, it must ensure that these artifacts remain in situ until future generations will have the fortune to do so.
Alan Schneider is the director of B’nai B’rith World Center in Jerusalem, which serves as the hub of B'nai B'rith International activities in Israel. The World Center is the key link between Israel and B'nai B'rith members and supporters around the world. To view some of his additional content, Click Here.
Slated to receive a stipend of $625,000 over the next five years, Josh Kun is a cultural historian who was selected as one of 23 new MacArthur Fellows announced in September. Kun is a brilliant academic, journalist and NPR broadcaster who has mounted exhibits at museums, including the Getty Foundation and the Skirball Center in Los Angeles and Long Beach’s Museum of Latin American Art. The 46-year-old scholar is based at the University of Southern California, where he teaches at the Annenberg School of Communications and serves as director of the Popular Music Project at the school’s Norman Lear Center.
Kun envisions his hometown of Los Angeles—and America as a whole—as a tapestry whose rich and varied coloristic shadings in the visual, performing and culinary arts result from the fusion of his city’s multicultural heritage. Describing his publications including the 2006 “Audiotopia,” a study of Jewish, Latino and African-American multi-cultural music and “You Shall Know Us by the Trail of Our Vinyl” (2008), exploring the iconography of the covers of over 400 Jewish music recordings, the MacArthur Foundation states that Kun, “brings to life forgotten historical narratives through finely grained analyses of material and sonic manifestations of popular culture.”
Much of this “sonic manifestation” has been realized through Kun’s efforts as one of the founders of the Idelsohn Society for Musical Preservation, named for the composer of “Hava Nagila” and sponsored by “Reboot,” an organization dedicated to contemporary Jewish living. With a mission dedicated to the rediscovery and reassessment of niche music including the Latin-Jewish music craze of the 1950s, unknown to generations. Restoring classic recordings including “Mazel Tov,” “Mis Amigos” on DVD, the Society also assembles and produces new DVDs, including “Black Sabbath,” a selection of Yiddish songs, prayers and chants performed by African American artists from Cab Calloway to Aretha Franklin. Another release includes music by Black composers inspired by and incorporating Jewish melodies and liturgical elements.
The Society also partners with other institutions in presenting concerts, producing documentaries, and even opening a pop-up Jewish record store in San Francisco. Visitors to the Idelsohn web page are able to read about the men and women associated with the genre’s evolution. They can also access digitized versions of songs like “It’s a Scream How Levine Does the Rhumba,” a title which certainly distills the essence of Kun’s passions, not to mention providing a little kitschy and light-hearted whimsy.
Fittingly appropriating the jargon associated with sound engineering, Kun said: “I strive to be a scholar who crossfades (to make an image or sound gradually emerge on top of another which is, conversely, fading into silence) disciplines, who slides between and creates conversations between multiple publics, who diligently works with archives in order to animate them in new ways, and who follows historical and critical clues to excavate and learn from points of intersection.”
Reinventing the cultural landscape of history through an innovative approach and thinking outside of the box is not relegated to the domain of younger scholars. Hailed as a “splendid” book “seething with ideas” by The New York Times, and ranking high on its list of recommended nonfiction is “The Face of Britain: A History of the Nation Through its Portraits.” Simon Schama, a noted English art historian, is best remembered by American audiences as the writer and narrator of the 2014 PBS documentary series “The Story of the Jews.” His new book was written as a compendium for a 2015 English television show that he hosted at the National Portrait Gallery. The book is organized thematically, focusing on paintings, sculptures, drawings, graphics and photos of men and women from all walks of life—from Queen Victoria and Sir Winston Churchill to Hogarth’s memorable panoplies of 18th century urban dandies and criminals—whose depictions became synonymous with their deeds, and determined the way they would be treated by posterity. Assessing the often primal and voyeuristic immediacy of modern portraits and self-portraits of icons like John Lennon or Lucien Freud, Schama provides an analysis of the contemporary viewer in a nutshell: “we come into the world wide-eyed, ready to stare.”
Art critic Benjamin Binstock writes that Simon Schama is today known for his books on history and culture which display his trademark “sparkling prose and… brilliant capacity to synthesize information.” Born in London to immigrant parents, Schama studied the Talmud as a teenager, and went on to receive his degrees at the University of Cambridge. His award-winning publications include “Citizens,” a history of the French Revolution, “Two Rothschilds and the Land of Israel” and “Landscape and Memory.” Introducing new audiences to the visual arts and history through his radio and television broadcasts in Europe and the United States, Schama received the Commander of the British Empire (CBE) from Queen Elizabeth II in 2001.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons
Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Day) in Israel is not something that can be ignored. All the newspapers and broadcast outlets are dedicated to it. In thousands of ceremonies across the country, schools, academic institutions and government offices solemnly mark the murder of one third of the Jewish people during World War II. Traffic comes to a standstill and everyone—or nearly everyone—stops in their tracks while a piercing siren is heard across the land. I very much doubt that there is another nation in the world that shows greater respect for its national tragedy than Israel does towards the victims of the Holocaust.
Although the main thrust of the commemorations remain on the crimes of the Nazis and the devastation they wrought to a world of Jewish communities, rites, learning, traditions and individual victims, the B'nai B'rith World Center has been at the forefront of an effort to use these tragic events to fittingly turn the spotlight on Jews who went beyond the call of duty, endangering themselves and their families to rescue other Jews. Little known to most people today, thousands of Jews were engaged in such rescue activities in Germany, in the Axis states and in German-occupied territories. Together with a dedicated group of volunteers, members of the Committee to Recognize the Heroism of Jewish Rescuers During the Holocaust (JRJ) and the B'nai B'rith World Center have held annual large scale events on Yom Hashoah in partnership with the Jewish National Fund. JRJ was established over 15 years ago at the initiative of Haim Roet, who survived in Holland as a child through the heroic efforts of two non-Jews who were subsequently recognized as Righteous Gentiles by Yad Vashem and a Jew, Max Lions.
This event is, to the best of our knowledge, the only annual tribute dedicated to Jewish rescuers anywhere in the world. Through it we strive to inspire the nearly 1,000 school students and border police cadets present with the understanding that contrary to the popular perceptions validated by some Holocaust historians, Jewish solidarity did not die in the Holocaust—although it was, undoubtedly, put under tremendous strain. In reality, thousands of Jews rose to the challenge and, when the opportunity arose, found ways and the wherewithal to help fellow Jews.
The contemporary message we wish to promote is clear: these days when divisions among the Jewish people are escalating and dialogue has become polarized, the example of those Jews who rescued others in the face of annihilation should encourage us to rally our sense of solidarity and common Jewish destiny. Hundreds of thousands more in Israel are exposed to this message through the press coverage the event receives and other initiatives undertaken by the Committee.
Another 8,000 young German Jewish men released from Nazi imprisonment—many ransomed using his own fortune—were rescued through a scheme he proposed to establish internment camps in Britain. Israel died on June 1, 1941 along with actor and British intelligence office Leslie Howard when their plane was brought down in the Bay of Biscay by the Luftwaffe on a flight from Lisbon, Portugal. At that time Israel was busy planning the rescue of children from Nazi-occupied Europe to pre-state Israel for the Jewish Agency. He is credited with saving 50,000 Jewish lives. Each rescue story—like these two examples—is a narrative of heroism and selfless dedication to fellow Jews.
Through the efforts of the World Center and the Committee, key institutions and leading figures have become aware of the phenomenon of Jewish rescue. Writing to me and to Roet last month, Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot noted that “our letter to him (about rescue by Jews in the Holocaust) brought home the importance of memorializing the Jews who endangered their lives to rescue the lives of their brethren during the Holocaust. As a result of this I found it appropriate to note these heroic rescue activities in my comments at a symposium of the General Staff at Yad Vashem prior to Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Day. We must remember and not forget the bravery that was shown alongside the pain. The principals of courage and camaraderie upon which the Jewish people acted in order to rescue their brethren, accompanies us—the commanders of the IDF and its soldiers…”
Also, in a letter dated May 17, Asa Kasher, professor emeritus in philosophy at Tel Aviv University and the author of the IDF’s code of ethics and a leading moral voice in Israel, wrote to the Committee in support of its initiative to amend the Yad Vashem Law and charge it with recognizing Jewish rescuers.
Another recent breakthrough is the acceptance of an MA thesis by the University of Haifa Faculty of Humanities, Multidisciplinary Program in Holocaust Studies by Noa Gidron, “Jews Saving Jews—individual initiative during the Holocaust 1939-1945” in which the World Center’s work on this issue was recognized.
These developments have inexorably set Jewish rescue on a path to become the next major topic of Holocaust research and attention.
More from the World Center:
Days ago, Queen Elizabeth II awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for services to theatre and the arts to Sonia Friedman, the most acclaimed producer of her generation. The daughter of two eminent British musicians, Friedman founded Sonia Friedman Productions in 2002, and has gone on to establish a reputation as the guiding force behind literally hundreds of hits in London, New York and around the world. Winning more Oliviers—the British equivalent of the Tony Awards—than any other producer, she possesses the vision and acumen for bringing together gifted teams—directors, writers, designers and ensembles of actors—that assure success to a wide range of repertory, encompassing the mounting of classic plays like “Othello” or “Death of a Salesman,” as well as staged adaptations of films including “Boeing- Boeing,” “Legally Blonde” and “La Cage Aux Folles,” to groundbreaking new works (“1984,” “King Charles III”) “must sees” which have quickly taken the theatre world by storm.
Friedman’s current productions in the West End are “Bend It Like Beckham,” a musical treatment of the feel-good movie about a girls’ soccer team, and J.K. Rowlings’, “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,” which is a sequel to the “Harry Potter” series and the first official staging of a work by the author, is slated for an official opening at the Palace Theatre later this summer. Replete with amazing special effects, but now using puppets instead of the live owl, whose anarchistic behavior created havoc on opening night, the drama naturally attracts legions of devotees who are eager to experience the tribulations of the adult Harry and his son as they conjoin their magic powers to defeat the forces of evil.
Playing at the Savoy Theatre is the first revival of the musical “Funny Girl” since it made its British debut in 1966. Remembered for catapulting the young Barbara Streisand to fame, it now features a new book by American actor and playwright Harvey Fierstein, but happily retains Jule Styne’s dynamic score, including the music for show stoppers such as “People” and “Don’t Rain on My Parade”
The story of “Funny Girl” was inspired by the life and career of Fanny Brice (1891-1951), a singer and comedian born to Lower East Side immigrants, who rose to fame as a Jazz Age star and frequent headliner of the Ziegfeld Follies. Numbers which she popularized during her heyday included “My Man,” an American version of a French torch song whose lyrics proclaimed a street waif’s devotion to her boyfriend, a faithless and violent pimp, as well as the wistful lament “Second Hand Rose,” and the whimsical and sunny “I’m Cooking Breakfast for the One I Love.” Characteristically resorting to the stylized Yiddish inflection that was at the time was considered funny by both Jewish and non-Jewish audiences, she lampooned the contortions of a snooty Russian ballerina in “It’s Gorgeous to Be Graceful” and fused Native American ethnicity with that of her own Lower East Side persona in “Look at Me, I’m an Indian.” On radio and then on television, she starred as Baby Snooks, a snarky little girl whose sarcastic comments delighted fans nationwide. Using tricks which often bordered on blackmail, Snooks always got the better of her long suffering and harried dad.
For more than a year now, the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council document Nostra aetate, on Catholic relations with other faiths, has been celebrated. Though lamentably still unknown by most people irrespective of their religion, Nostra aetate is indeed of great importance in a positive sense. Catholic bishops’ formal post-Holocaust adoption, not without internal struggle, of an essentially constructive approach to Jews marked a pivoting away from the contempt and estrangement that had characterized much of nearly two millennia of relations between the church and the Jewish people. Even more substantial, though, has been the remarkably rapid and continual deepening of Catholic-Jewish friendship in the few decades that followed 1965.
At the same time—ironically, since Nostra aetate is probably more often commemorated by Jewish institutions than by Catholic communities worldwide—the document is not quite, from a Jewish vantage-point, a “perfect” one. The text, which makes clear the special status afforded by the church to Judaism in light of Christianity’s Jewish roots, is nonetheless a decidedly Christological one, written by Christians for Christians. Even as it continues to be abhorred by a tiny fringe of Catholic ultraconservatives, its content fell somewhat short of what Jewish communal professionals at the time (and some theologically progressive Catholics) had hoped for. The declaration established, vitally, that “the Church… decries hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone,” that “the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures,” and that a charge of responsibility for the death of Jesus cannot be applied to “all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today.” It does say, though, that “the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ,” and that most Jews did not adopt Christianity, adding, “indeed not a few opposed its spreading.” Finally, Nostra aetate affirms belief that while God “does not repent of the gifts He makes,” including to the “chosen people,” “the Church is the new people of God.” Its all-but-explicit eschatological vision is one in which all people ultimately find salvation through acceptance of the truth represented by the church. Accordingly, the text’s assertion that achieving “mutual understanding and respect… is the fruit, above all, of biblical and theological studies,” and not only of “fraternal dialogues” and cooperative coexistence, deserves more attention by Jewish readers.
The Holy See and Israel have established diplomatic relations (if rarely convergence on Middle East politics). And successive popes have regularly met with such Jewish organizations as B’nai B’rith, paid tribute at sites where the crimes of the Holocaust occurred (Francis is expected to do so in Poland this July), visited synagogues and made pilgrimages to the Jewish state.
Arguably, Jews should also be better attuned more broadly to the theological framework within which, and the lexicon using which, modern Catholic overtures to Jews have been conducted at the official level. Again, this outreach has been momentous and laudable; the global Jewish community, no less than the Catholic community, can do more to make the genuine progress in relations known to its members; and even any “deficiencies” in the church’s conciliation have been situated primarily in the realm of theoretical belief rather than that of practical engagement. However, while the Vatican has been largely consistent, and uniquely artful, in crafting careful messaging to and about Jews, the nuances of its positions are often lost on Jewish observers keen to take the overtures only at face value.
“Constructive ambiguity” that might be overlooked by master diplomats characterized even some of the celebrated relevant pronouncements of Pope John Paul II, who had an undeniable personal kinship with Jews. For example, his written prayer at the Western Wall in 2000, which spoke of being “deeply saddened by the behavior of those who in the course of history have caused these children of Yours to suffer… the people of the Covenant,” did not quite spell out the perpetrators and victims to whom he was referring. (Likewise, even Pope Francis’s statement in 2013 that “a true Christian cannot be anti-Semitic” can be interpreted in different ways. Did he mean to absolve all Christians, including senior churchmen across time, of anti-Semitism, or simply that anti-Semitic hatred is incompatible with a faith whose call is to love and whose focal point was a Jew?)
More substantively, was John Paul’s 1987 reference to Jews as “our elder brothers in the faith of Abraham” not merely a moving expression of esteem but an attempt to equate and link the “old” and “new” covenants, or, even more problematically, in keeping with the biblical propensity for younger brothers to have spiritual superiority over their elder ones, a subtle nod to the theology of Christian supersession of Judaism? (Pope Benedict XVI—who himself in 2008 reauthorized a Good Friday liturgy that includes a revised prayer for Jews’ hearts to be “illuminate[d]” so that they “acknowledge Jesus Christ is the Savior of all men”—wrote in a later book that he chooses to call Jews “fathers in the faith” rather than “elder brothers” in order to allay such concerns.)
In a gesture at the dawn of Catholic-Jewish rapprochement that could similarly be understood in different ways, Pope John XXIII received an American Jewish delegation in 1960 with the stirring words, “I am Joseph, your brother!” The pope—a champion of the reconciliation with Jews who had personally worked to save Jewish lives during the Holocaust, and whose given middle name was the Italian for Joseph—was invoking the story in Genesis in which the youngest of the patriarch Jacob’s first eleven sons is reunited with his long-estranged siblings, but in which Joseph also effectively reveals to them the fulfillment of the prophecy of his privileged station after they had rejected and persecuted him on account of it.
More than a half-century since John XXIII signaled a promising but complex trajectory in Catholic-Jewish ties, the two communities (or one, if you’re a Catholic seeing Judaism as “intrinsic” to the church—a view reflected in the inclusion of its office for relations with Jews within the Vatican’s intra-Christian, not interreligious, affairs wing) continue along this path. By now, interspersed with disputes such as those over papal ties to Kurt Waldheim or Yasser Arafat, sainthood for Edith Stein or the war-era pope Pius XII, a convent at Auschwitz or the taxation status of Catholic assets in the Holy Land, the church has repeatedly denounced anti-Semitism (and, less prominently, anti-Zionism) as a sin. The Holy See and Israel have established diplomatic relations (if rarely convergence on Middle East politics). And successive popes have regularly met with such Jewish organizations as B’nai B’rith, paid tribute at sites where the crimes of the Holocaust occurred (Francis is expected to do so in Poland this July), visited synagogues and made pilgrimages to the Jewish state.
And, in late 2015, following several prior publications on Catholic-Jewish engagement since the adoption of Nostra aetate, the Vatican’s commission on the relationship released a new document, “‘The Gifts and the Calling of God Are Irrevocable’ (Rom. 11:29): A Reflection on Theological Questions Pertaining to Catholic-Jewish Relations.” The text validates some of the hallmarks of the process of relationship-building between the Catholic and Jewish communities, while also attempting to keep in check what Catholic traditionalists can perceive as theological oversteps emanating from the “reforms” of the Second Vatican Council. The result is that the document confirms, most importantly, that “the Catholic Church neither conducts nor supports any specific institutional mission work directed towards Jews,” and also disputes the suggestion that “Jews are excluded from God’s salvation because they do not believe in Jesus Christ as the Messiah of Israel and the Son of God.” At the same time, the document states that “Christians are nonetheless called to bear witness to their faith in Jesus Christ also to Jews,” albeit “in a humble and sensitive manner,” and that because “God has never revoked his covenant with his people Israel, there cannot be different paths or approaches to God’s salvation.” It strongly rejects any “theory that there may be two different paths to salvation, the Jewish path without Christ and the path with the Christ,” saying that this “would in fact endanger the foundations of Christian faith.”
It is clear, then, that the theological strains that complicate this exceptional interfaith relationship have not vanished. Neither is the relationship free of political tripwire: the Holy See’s recent agreement prematurely recognizing a “State of Palestine” (and one, it is implied, with oversight in Jerusalem), Arab Christian clerics’ mimicking of one-sided Palestinian narratives concerning Israel and Pope Francis’s surprise 2014 photo-op at an imposing section of Israel’s security barrier near Bethlehem are only a few examples. (Francis could perhaps be counted among those world leaders, with longtime Jewish friends, who have maintained friendships with Jews as well as Israel, but who may be less sentimental than some predecessors about that relationship and most personally invested in other “liberal” concerns that now also resonate more with younger constituents.) This said, in how “normal” and well-established the Catholic-Jewish engagement has become, featuring as it does commonalities and differences alike, this relationship may be optimally positioned to model for other communities the possibility of overcoming even the most longstanding of divides, and even those hardened by a religious orientation. At a time when the challenge of “holy war” overshadows international affairs—nearly 15 years following the 9/11 attacks—any cause for hope in the potential for such peacemaking could not be more welcome.
Moreover, as the Jewish community looks this summer to yet another round of proposals in mainline Protestant churches for harming Israel practically—and Israel alone—through economic pressure campaigns, the larger Catholic Church certainly manifests a friendlier interfaith partner.
To be sure, the Catholic orbit, too, is not immune to a skewed, astoundingly simplistic post-1967 view of who in the Arab-Israeli conflict represents “David” and who “Goliath.” As disturbingly, some anti-Israel activists in the Christian world are quick to invoke Jesus’ challenge to “the Pharisees” in their treatment of complex contemporary geopolitics. But Roman Catholicism, characterized by more centralized and cautious decision-making than certain ecumenical counterparts, has solidified ties with the Jewish community on a rather firm footing—undergirded by warm personal relationships and by ongoing channels of communication.
In this sense, the ostensibly modest 1965 document Nostra aetate demonstrates that a start may be only a start, but it can have a profound and lastingly positive impact on what is to follow.
Images of breathtaking architectural treasures photographed at sites across Europe draw the visitor into the website of the European Association for the Preservation and Promotion of Jewish Culture and Heritage (AEPJ). AEPJ is an organization that was established in 2004, and now sponsored by a consortium of six Jewish organizations, including B’nai B’rith Europe, which sponsors two major activities, the European Days of Jewish Culture and the European Routes of Jewish Heritage. Both projects were originally initiated in 1987 by the Council of Europe, which continues to provide generous support to these and other AEPJ endeavors. Throughout its history, AEPJ has continually expanded its mission to introduce and educate people of all backgrounds to the development and innovations fostered by Jewish architecture, fine and decorative arts, literature and their role within the context of European history and culture. One of AEPJ’s missions is to keep alive the memory of the Shoah for generations to come.
The European Days of Jewish Culture is an annual celebration which takes place in dozens of cities and towns across the continent every fall, with each year focusing on a multifaceted theme like music, festivals, nature, art and even Jewish humor. Communities, arts organizations, churches and synagogues partner with AEPJ to produce concerts, tours, lectures, film screenings, art exhibits, theatrical productions and interfaith ceremonies that entertain and expand the perceptions of the topic for its audiences. In 2016, “European Days” will explore the myriad aspects of Jewish languages. Those interested in reading more about the past history of these observances can access eleven years of handsomely produced reports and documentary photos archived on a special webpage.
In March, the AEPJ coordinated a week of events that honored the 500th anniversary of the Jewish ghetto in Venice, Italy, culminating in a series of moving ceremonial tributes taking place in the ghetto itself.
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