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Bad Jews and Berland: Who talks for the Jews?

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It is ironic that the provocative play Bad Jews is on in Johannesburg at the same time as the strange saga of fugitive Rabbi Eliezer Berland is playing itself out. Both have been reported on in this newspaper and others. The resonance between them has to do with who takes responsibility for the well-being and behaviour of Jewish communities; both are attracting intense interest.
by Geoff Sifrin | Feb 03, 2016

Taking Issue

Bad Jews, by US Jewish playwright Josh Harmon, is playing to packed houses - consisting not only of Jews - at the Theatre on the Square in Sandton. It explores the myriad contradictions inherent in Jewish identity, and the tensions and neuroses portrayed in the past by iconic figures like Woody Allen.

They are taken to a new, 21st millennium level in Bad Jews, which drags in everything from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, “politically correct” Jewish intellectuals at fancy universities who are fascinated by other cultures but defiantly turn their backs on their Jewish heritage, the Holocaust, women’s roles in religious ritual, and overprotective mothers. And, of course, the eternal biggie: marrying out, and the reaction in a Jewish man’s family when he falls in love with a non-Jewish woman and proposes to marry her.

The Berland story, involving a rabbi on the run because of alleged sexual misdemeanours in Israel, has provoked South African Jews to somehow take public responsibility for his case, lest he reflect badly among South Africans about Jews’ morality.

Jews are inherently insecure. They feel the need to protect their image among non-Jews, for fear of the anti-Semites gaining ammunition. In contrast, if an individual Christian breaks the law, it is unlikely the churches would feel it necessary to issue a statement distancing themselves.

To many Jews, it seemed necessary for South African Jewry to distance itself from Berland. The combined public statement of the major mainstream organisations purported to speak on behalf of all South African Jewry, saying the criminal justice system should take its due course - meaning he should be arrested by SA police and sent back to Israel.

Inevitably, however, Jews will always express vehemently different opinions. Some immediately objected to turning another Jew over to non-Jewish authorities. One letter on the SAJR website said Berland “should be welcomed into the community, he is a messenger from Hashem and can only help out”.

Another said: “[Chief Rabbi] Goldstein, who gives you a right to make a ‘communal statement’?! Did you ask the community what they believe?! I for one disagree with this statement and I know many who feel like me…”

There are many Jews unaffiliated to the ‘official’ community, and others who reject the representativeness of the organisations. It was the same during apartheid: the SAJBD issued no statement against the immoral racist system until 1986, when it was already safe to do so because there would be no recriminations from the regime. This enraged those Jews who were actively fighting apartheid, often at great personal risk, alienating them from the Jewish mainstream.

The truth is, the Jews are not “one”. Unity is elusive even in a clear-cut case of supporting Israeli law and Berland’s accountability to it. American poet Rodger Kamenetz said wryly in his book, The Jew in the Lotus, that Jews are definitely the eternal people: they will last forever because there isn’t enough time in the universe to finish their arguments.

Berland and Bad Jews are pressing many of the same sensitive Jewish buttons.

In another book Kamenetz examines Franz Kafka’s works. This is ironic too, since the Berland saga and the so-called bad Jews’ reaction to it, is distinctly Kafkaesque.


Read Geoff Sifrin’s regular columns on his blog

1 Comment

  1. 1 Community Claser 14 Nov
    thanks for the article that has been written here. I was so amazed after reading it.


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