This past Monday, The New York Times ran an opinion piece penned by the honorable Mr. Ronald Lauder, chairman of World Jewish Congress. Mr. Lauder is known for his lifelong public service, renowned philanthropy across the world (including Jewish education) and as a pillar of leadership, a prestigious art collector and curator; one who resurrected pre-WW II culture, particularly of fin-de-siecle Vienna. And a dear, unwavering, cherished friend of Israel.
On a personal note, to me, he is what Anne of Green Gables called a “kindred spirit.” Although we come to it from quite different places, I’ve always taken an interest in pre-WW II life, wanting to re-create my beloved Hungarian Bubby’s native world as much as possible, which was so much at the core of who she was. Knowing the profound, life-altering pain that ruptured her pre-WW II life to smithereens, it was still the place that molded her and rooted her.
Be it the deliciously mouthwatering and elegant Austro-Hungarian strudels or cakes she baked and sliced into elegant rectangles, in typical Austro-Hungarian fashion; or be it the charm of the floral needlepoints and other scenes that she stitched so patiently and beautifully, it all held a magic of the past. Even after half a century in America, a lot of my Bubby was still anchored in the Hungarian culture, primarily in its amazing culinary traditions.
While my grandparents were the catalyst of my interest in pre-WW II, as time went on my horizons broadened, and that is how one day I found myself at Ronald Lauder’s The Neue Galerie, on Museum Mile of Fifth Avenue in New York.
Even before I was struck by the beautiful centerpiece in the museum’s lobby — the grand, elegant, spiraling staircase — I was intrigued.
I had read the story of Gustav Klimt’s “Adele” and I came to see the masterpiece. Once there, I learned of Josef Hoffman and his aesthetic. I called my mother afterward and told her that her aesthetic taste had a name, a designer. Of course my mother knew all about Josef Hoffman. And I told her a card she has framed in the house was in the museum gift shop, too. It was “Architecture of The Plain” by Paul Klee. My mother knew about Klee, too; that’s why she had bought it in the first place.
Well, I bought it too and it now hangs in my apartment.
Not only did I find an exceptionally lovely museum (and museum gift shop), but I found a place, a museum, that encompassed a facet of my mother’s timeless good taste, so that was extra special.
Over the years I’ve bought a handful of the intellectual, historical and philosophical books sold in the gift shop to feed my interest in pre-WW II Vienna. I was also delighted to buy the well done children’s book, Adorable Adele, and I got the Neue Cuisine cookbook, of course, too. So I now have my own little slice of Neue Galerie among my modest library.
While I never sat down at Café Sabarsky, just being in its presence and thinking of authentic apple strudel makes my mouth water. The cafe lends such an air of authentic fin-de-siecle Vienna, it truly transports you. You almost feel as though the men dressed in waistcoats and bowler hats with closed umbrellas in hand, and the ladies in waltzing style dresses with open umbrellas overhead, will suddenly appear strolling down a cobblestone street at any moment.
Certainly, the conversation about Holocaust art and Jews is a complex one. It goes far deeper than a museum excursion.
And of course, Mr. Lauder’s work goes far deeper than creating and recapturing a beautiful museum and cafe reminiscent of the dazzling pre-WW II Viennese days. The first time I ever heard the name “Ronald Lauder” was when, as US Ambassador to Austria, he took a principled stand and refused to attend the inauguration of Kurt Waldheim, a former Nazi officer.
That stuck with me.
A few years later, I was inspired to learn about the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, and all he was doing for advancing Jewish education in Europe.
So when someone of the stature of Ronald Lauder, who has invested so much in Jewish life and in the State of Israel, pens an opinion piece in The New York Times that is critical of Israel, I pay attention.
The article ran this past Monday and its title was “Israel, This Is Not Who We Are,” subtitled “Orthodoxy should be respected, but we cannot allow the politics of a radical minority to alienate millions of Jews worldwide.”
Accompanying the article is a graphic of an Israeli flag, serving as a rug, so to speak, On each side of the flag are differently dressed groups, seemingly representative of the Israeli right and left. On the right side of the flag is a group clad in black yeshiva-oriented looking regalia; on the left, a group of people in contemporary colorful clothes. Ominously, in the space at the center of the flag, between the two groups, there is a rip, communicating a fraught and fraying Israeli flag, threatening to tear completely.
In his piece, Mr. Lauder says that he has “always stood by Israel and I always will”; then continues, “but now, as a loving brother, I ask the Israeli government to listen to the voices of protest . . .” Indeed, the article’s criticism does feel like it is written with the sincerity of a concerned and loving brother.
Mr. Lauder writes about his current concerns about Israel: “This is not who we are and this is not who we wish to be. This is not the face we want to show our children, grandchildren and the family of nations.”
With all due respect, and there is tremendous respect, this time I humbly feel that Ronald Lauder got it wrong.
First of all, the Orthodox world is not a monolith. It is not one lump of like-minded people. There are so many shades of Orthodox. One thing it definitely is not is a radical minority. Yes, unfortunately, in recent years, there has developed a radical minority, and I share the concern, but to brand an entire community based on a radical minority within it is neither accurate nor fair.
But that is hardly the point. The article seemed to delineate Orthodoxy as the dividing point between right- and left-wing Israelis. That couldn’t be further from the reality.
I am proud of the Orthodox community’s Zionism and investment in Israel. If there is concern over growing Orthodoxy in Israel, it is because it seems to be the stream that is succeeding most in passing the legacy of Judaism and love of the land of Israel to the next generation, though the community is not without its drop-outs or challenges. So, if anything, perhaps it would be a good idea to davka look at the Orthodox community and reflect upon what can be learned from it so as to succeed in passing the mantle of Judaism and Zionism to the next generation.
That said, Orthodoxy is hardly the glue between Jews whose political views fall on the right. In Israel, there is a critical mass of young, hip, educated, successful, secular, non-observant yet traditionally or culturally connected Ashkenaz and Sephardic, politically right, proud, Israel-loving Jews. The inverse is true as well, though it’s not as prevalent as secular Jews who are right-wing. But there are Orthodox Jews who, politically, fall on the left of the political spectrum.
The premise of the article is that we are losing young liberal Jews who are turning away from Israel.
Sure, that is what the press has been reporting lately. And, unfortunately, there probably is a group we are losing.
But for the most part, the reality on the ground is that the younger Jewish generation is stronger, more pro-Israel and passionate about Israel, than ever. Especially with Israel being under attack, they have been lit by the fire of justice. Four years ago, on a Nefesh bflight, while rockets were flying overheard, 109 young Jews, through an organization called Gareen Tzabar, made aliyah as lone soldiers, joining the IDF. This past week, on Nefesh b’Nefesh’s second charter flight of the summer, there were 60!
Yes, many of the people making aliyah are Orthodox. But many are not. On the flight I was on, many of the lone soldiers joining the IDF affiliated Conservative, inspired by their role model Michael Levin, of blessed memory. There were Reform Jews, and there were unaffiliated Jews. What they all had in common was their were solid Jewish identity, young people filled with a sense of idealism and passion for Israel.
Just last week, a new fellowship called Zig Zag was launched, to fortify young Jews in dealing with the poisonous anti-Israel sentiment on college campuses. It was founded by Hen Mazzig, a young, hip, secular Israeli.
Mr. Lauder cites three recent example that were upsetting to him. The third example was the recent Nation State Law. I will not address the topic of this law directly, but I will say, that its passage hardly had anything to do with the Orthodox community or with being Orthodox. It affirms Israel as a Jewish state. In fact, one of the MK’s who drafted it, MK Ohana, is a secular guy.
I will not sugarcoat the very real tensions developing in Israel right now. But Mr. Lauder’s suggestion of diluting Judaism or Israel so as to make it palatable to younger Jews is, to my mind, not the right path for going forward.
Mr. Lauder wrote, “this is not who we are.” I don’t know what “this” refers to. But we as a people, as a country, should be who we are, true to ourselves, to our Jewish history, our Jewish values, and to our Jewish destiny. That is the only way forward.
I echo Mr. Lauder’s call for unity. “We are one people, few in number, and we must stop sowing division among ourselves. Once we are united our future will be boundless.”
Mr. Lauder, I have good news. There are so many emerging thirty something leaders, both observant and secular, who are uber hip, cool, smart, interesting, passionately proud Zionist Israelis, whom I would love to introduce you to.
They are the face you actually do want to show your grandchildren.
I’m happy to make the introductions.
Maybe I’ll have to pop by Neue Galerie in the hopes of seeing you there.
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