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Jewish Role Models

Posted by FriarYid on November 2, 2007

Cross-posted from Friar Yid.
In a recent post I mentioned that these days, mostly thanks to what I’ve been picking for reading material, I’ve been conceiving of Jewish identity through the prism of early 20th century Eastern European writers and poets, such as I.J. Singer and H. Leivick. If I had to have a top 3, though, I think it would be this bunch:
1- The aforementioned Singer.

Nowadays he’s mostly forgotten due to his brother’s successes, but old I.J. was the original literary success of the family. He wrote about the same Polish Jews as I.B., but with a much more critical eye (see his “Brothers Ashkenazi” or “Yoshke Kalb,” which I’m still working through). There is little redemption in Singer’s world, and no patience for I.B.’s flirtations and soft spot for mysticism or holy men. On the other hand, Singer’s memoir “Of a World That is no More” is one of the most honest portrayals of Russ-Poland you’ll ever read, warts and all. At a time when many of his peers were running away from their families and religion into the arms of Communism, I.J. was standing apart, unable to return to the shtetl or yeshiva, yet also realizing that Socialism, particularly in Russia, had the terrible potential to turn into yet another Golden Calf.

Singer’s unflinching honesty is tempered by real love for his family, but it’s clear in his work, especially his memoir that, emotionally, he feels stuck. How do you tell your parents you think their lives have been a waste? How do you not let your contempt for your childhood (cue the “abusive cheder experience” trope) color your perception of your religion and culture? Singer’s sudden death of a heart attack at age 50 prevented him from ever delving deeper into this problem. Had he lived, he might have been the one to get the Nobel Prize- and something tells me his speech would have been a lot punchier than I.B.’s.
2- The incomparable Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg.

Back when I was trying to find something resembling a Jewish identity (post-reading The Chosen, pre-going to shul), I stumbled across Hertzberg’s “Jews” and was immediately impressed. The book, while relatively thin, covered an impressive historical scope, tracing Jewish history through the eyes of some of its greatest personalities, as well as its rebels. Hertzberg introduced me to the Baal Shem Tov and Dona Gracia, a Wallenberg-esque figure in Inquisition Spain, as well as Spinoza and his tragic predecessor, Uriel Da Costa. Hertzberg’s passion for Judaism and Jewish history flowed through his writing, and his biography “A Jew in America” confirmed it. Hertzberg came from a similar rabbinical background as Singer, but spent his formative years in America, which also allowed him to see its influence on rabbis of the old school, like his own father, a Hasidic rabbi from Galicia who would probably be considered a liberal MO in Hadisiche clothing by today’s standards.

More than his respect and mastery of his topics, however, what really inspired me about Hertzberg was his ever-present confidence: despite being a liberal on many issues, both political and religious, despite moving away from Orthodoxy to the Conservative movement, there was never any question that Hertzberg knew his stuff and, even more importantly, that he considered himself to be an equally authentic aspect of his family’s and people’s tradition. To see a real Jewish liberal who still knew what he was talking about when it came to Judaism, who actually had that old school background and knowledge, had a tremendous impact on me. If you’ve got the resources, check out some of Hertzberg’s earliest articles for magazines like Commentary- he had an excellent essay about Zionist identity in 1967 a month after the war, in which, among other things, he contemplates the fact that none of his Hasidic ancestors would have been considered Zionist by contemporary standards.
3- Yet another rebel: Hillel Kook, aka Peter Bergson, aka a major pain in the ass to just about everyone he ever met.

This one took a while for me to accept; Kook is one of the few Jews on the right-ish side of the political spectrum that I can tolerate (I basically did a victory dance in middle school when I realized that there was a left-and-right wing element in Zionism, which allowed me to root for “my” side, Labor, and blame all the evils of Israel on the Revisionists), yet reading about his life made me change my mind. Kook was an early fighter for Jewish independence and self-defence in then-Palestine, and was Jabotinsky’s right-hand-man when he began working in Europe to raise funds for the Revisionists. During the war years, Kook and his small cadre of allies operated as a front for the American branch of the Irgun, but quickly modified their mission to battling American and Jewish indifference or inertia to the horrors of the Nazis in Europe. Kook was constantly nipping at the heels of the Jewish and Zionist establishment, using some of the most effective weapons of the 20th century- PR- for his own struggle. At a time when the conventional wisdom among Jews was to keep quiet, not bring attention to yourself, and trust in President Roosevelt to do something about the Nazis, Kook was aggressive, unapologetic, and sensationalist, never afraid to speak his mind about what was happening in Europe, or how American and Jewish leadership were failing to do much about it.

But even more than embarrassing the American powers-that-be during the war, Kook’s life is fascinating due to his willingness to speak truth to power among his own countrymen in Israel. A member of the first Knesset, Kook continued to speak out against anyone and everyone that he felt deserved it- whether towards Ben Gurion when he shelved Israel’s Constitution (going on 59 years and counting), or Menachem Begin when Kook felt he was hijacking the late Jabotinsky’s legacy to further his own political vision. Dismayed by his peers’ willingness to settle for political “business as usual,” Kook first resigned from Herut, then left the Knesset after his first term, eventually departing Israel itself. Yet he kept occaisonally rearing his head to take pot-shots at Israel’s now-illustrious heads-of-state, and to send a few shots across the bow of some of Israel’s most cherished orthodoxies. A non-Jewish President? Why not? A Palestinian state? If it could safeguard the country’s longevity, sure. Kook’s “principled flexibility” continued to shock everyone through his lifetime, even loyal little liberals like me, who thought we had the right-wing figured out. Kook, who was on the Altalena, arrested during the Haganah “Season,” worked with Jabotinsky, fought with Begin, and eventually became the first Israeli to wear “post-Zionist” as a descriptive, not pejorative term, showed me that no movement is a monolith, and that questioning authority, even Jewish ones, is no sin.
What do these men have in common? Well, they certainly reflect my Ashkenazic interests and biases, and I think it’s interesting that all three are rebel sons of Orthodox rabbis, and mostly intellectuals, to boot. But more than anything, I guess these men, my pseudo-trinity, if you will, are important to me because they taught me that there is a dignity and legitmacy to creating your own path. They showed me how to find my own way as a person and a Jew. They weren’t perfect men, and their lives weren’t perfect, either. Things didn’t always go their way. They alienated a lot more people than they befriended. But one thing you can say about all of them is that they were fearless, smashing the idols of their day and communities, even when it wasn’t fashionable, and regardless of the consequences. Status and respectability be damned; they could have kept quiet and not made waves and had an easier time of life, but instead they spoke their consciences and made their own way.
Orthodox, certainly not. But to me, at least, they were all faithful sons of Abraham.
Your turn. Name your top three (or five, or ten, or eighteen) Jewish role models. Famous or not, doesn’t matter. Give some background on them (long and expansive or short and sweet, you pick) and then tell us why and how they affected you.


20 Responses to “Jewish Role Models”

  1. JB said

    How sad tht all of your role models are Ashkenazim.

  2. FriarYid said

    So give me some new ones!

  3. AaronfromWG said

    Rabbi Yisrael Abuhatzeira known as the Baba Sali
    Rabbi Aharon Soloveichik
    Rabbi Akiva ben Yosef

    No particular order.

  4. FriarYid said

    Thanks, Aaron. I’ve heard interesting things about the Soloveitchiks- though I must confess I have a tough time keeping all of them straight. I’ve heard of the Rav and read a few articles by his son Hayim on Jewish history, though don’t know much about Aharon or the others. What’s R. Aharon’s claim to fame?

  5. AaronfromWG said

    I will right about him in the near future and give some details of his accomplishments especially in regards to him assist the Anusim.

  6. AaronfromWG said

    I will write about him in the near future and give some details of his accomplishments especially in regards to him assisting the Anusim.

  7. Oyster said

    Wow, excellent post.

    I’m really moving towards accepting Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel as “my Rebbe”. He has a similar story to R. Hertzberg (yes, the same Hertzberg who penned the quintessential reader/intro to Zionist theory).

  8. Oyster said

    Rabbis that I want to learn more about: R. Heschel, R. Soloveichik, R. Schneerson, R. Kook, R. Hertzberg, R. Steinsaltz…

    Jewish role-models: Simon Wiesenthal, Ilan Ramon, David Ben-Gurion, my dad, Dan Appleman…

    … more to come. Gotta think more about this…

  9. FriarYid said

    I came across a really excellent biography about Heschel a few years ago. I only made it through his early years (up through his attending school in Berlin), but it’s really good stuff, scholarly and readable. Check it out if you haven’t.

  10. Oyster said


    JB above is not the regular ‘JB’ that frequents Oy Bay.

  11. lchaimlover said

    How interesting that you all have only named men…

    Jewish Role Models:

    Sarah Schenirer: founder of the Bais Yakov movement

    Rachel Akiva: The wife of Rabbi Akiva, who would only agree to marry him if he went to learn.

    Rebbetzim Chaya Mushka Schneerson: the wife of the famous Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Scheneerson.

  12. Oyster said

    How interesting that you all have only named men…

    Nice! 🙂

  13. Oyster said

    Just for the record, Lady LchaimLover, I am in awe of all the Prophetesses of Israel, from Miriam to Hulda. And Beruria, the female Torah scholar from the Talmud, who sometimes had her opinion win over some of the rabbis to have it be accepted as binding Halakha.

    Too bad that Orthodoxy tries to white-wash their roles as Torah sages, and denies that women can become rabbis.

    Oh yes. I did. I just did. 🙂

  14. lchaimlover said

    Female Rabbis aside, without my role models, y’all wouldn’t have any. Just wanted to point that out.

    Women need to be rabbis like there needs to be oranges and water on seder plates, while it’s a nice idea, and it fine if you want to do it in your tradition, don’t force it on me.

  15. kneidalach said

    My role models are Jews who are Baalei Teshuva and Jews who are converts. While it is so much more tempting to become less religious and less restrained by religious lawes, some people choose to go back to religion, and I still find that amazing.

  16. kneidalach said

    My role models are Jews who are Baalei Teshuva and Jews who are converts. While it is so much more tempting to become less religious and less restrained by religious lawes, some people choose to go back to religion, and I hopefully will always find that amazing.

  17. kneidalach said


  18. Oyster said

    Women need to be rabbis like there needs to be oranges and water on seder plates

    A nice reference to Dr. Susan Heschel, LchaimLover. But it’s water in cups, for Miriam’s cup, not seder plates.

    Speaking of Miriam, she’s the first Jew referred to as a prophet (in this case, a prophetess) in the Torah. Even before Moishe Rabbeinu.

    So LchaimLover, when did women cease being fit to be prophetesses and experts of Halakha (like Beruria)? And why?

  19. Friar Yid said

    The female rabbi question is interesting (though obviously divisive). I occasionally spend time reading biographies of famous rabbis and rebbes (which, for better or worse, also traipses into hagiography). However I have yet to come across similar works pertaining to rebbetzins. This seems unfortunate for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that in a lot of Jewish memoirs from the past 100-plus years, the family dynamic seems to be that the matriarch was doing at least as much work as the husband- and not only in the raising of children. The Singer brothers capably document their parents’ (and grandparents’) relationship and it seems clear that while the men were more educated and in positions of authority, that the rebbetzins were also dealing with their own, female constituencies, and in some cases were also involved in resolving disputes and dispensing advice.

    I haven’t invested that much effort in following the nitty-gritty of Chabad’s history, but over the years I’ve still managed to absorb a fair amount of info about the last rebbe’s life. But I (and I’m guessing plenty of other Jews) probably know next to nothing about his wife (or all the other Chabad rebbetzins), which seems unfortunate. Aside from Moshe Schneerson (the convert), I’m willing to bet the last Rebbetzin has one of the more interesting stories among the Schneerson dynasty.

  20. Oyster said

    Wow, what a tragic story about Moshe Schneerson. Thanks for pointing that out.

    I’m sure that his blend of genius and insanity is related to the Cochran-Hardy-Harpending Hypothesis (trivia note: the link goes to my first blog post, ever! 🙂 ).

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