They may have been sitting in plush chairs in the ornate sanctuary of a synagogue in the Silk Stocking district, but for one night last week authors and journalists Leon Wieseltier and Yossi Klein Halevi were two sons of Brooklyn back in their native borough.
In an event sponsored by The Jewish Week and moderated by the paper’s editor and publisher, Gary Rosenblatt, Wieseltier, the longtime literary editor of The New Republic, and Halevi, the longtime Mideast correspondent for The New Republic, traded barbs (gently) on the presidential election, Israeli settlements, red-state and blue-state Jews and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
From the bima at Park East Synagogue on the Upper East Side, before a crowd of about 300 people, both mocked President Barack Obama’s policies in the Middle East, especially concerning the Arab Spring (“opaque” and “incoherent”). Halevi said that, after four years, the discourse in the community was still divided, in an unhelpful way, between whether Obama “was Israel’s best friend or a closet Muslim.” Wieseltier defended the traditional Jewish (and Democratic) values of civil rights, women’s rights and fairness when it comes to tax policy and immigration. Halevi said that, in his travels around the country, he feels comfortable “as a Jew in blue-state America” but that “as an Israeli” (he made aliyah 30 years ago) he finds comfort in red-state America.
The sharpest exchange came over settlements. When Halevi used the Hebrew word “churban,” or destruction, to characterize what settlers would experience should there be a withdrawal from the West Bank settlements, saying that for them it would be a “self-imposed” destruction, Wieseltier jabbed back. To characterize the “compromise” of withdrawal as churban (the word traditionally means destruction brought upon Jews by others), he said, was “demagoguery.”
On the sticky Israeli-Palestinian question, Wieseltier said both sides had to rid themselves of “the romance of return” — the Jews to every inch of Judea and Samaria, the Palestinians to every olive tree inside Israel.
Yet return the two sons of Holocaust survivors did for one evening, at Rosenblatt’s urging, to middle-class Jewish Brooklyn. The personal histories of Wieseltier, 60, and Halevi, 59, sketch the arc of postwar Jewish American life. They grew up with Holocaust survivors on every block; they felt the tough-Jew appeal of Meir Kahane and the electric jolt of Jewish pride after the Six-Day War; they rallied for jailed Soviet Jews; and they try to make sense today of the impossibly complex reality of an embattled Israel and how American Jews relate to it.
Wieseltier noted poignantly that for them, before the Holocaust became a global event, “it was a family event.” Halevi suggested that it was during the Soviet Jewry movement “when Jewish American power came of age.” He said that because of the “justness of the cause,” it was “easier to be Jewish” then. “It’s harder to be Jewish today.” Wieseltier noted the immense cultural richness of Brooklyn in the late ’50s and into the counterculture ’60s. His day school, he said, had Yiddishists and Hebraists and he studied the great Israeli poets. But there was also Jimi Hendrix at Philharmonic Hall. As if looking back wistfully on a long-gone time, Wieseltier said, “We lived full Jewish and American lives.”
Yes, you might as well say Kaddish for that Brooklyn. There’s a professional sports team there not named the Dodgers, farm-to-table restaurants dot the borough and young couples push $1,000 strollers. The Jewish community there has changed too, of course, the cultural richness Wieseltier spoke of mostly gone.
But for one night at least, two Brooklyn boys were back home. They’d come a long way, for sure, Wieseltier casting his lot close to the corridors of power in Washington, Halevi making ancient Jerusalem his home. But like a letter from your dead father you keep folded up in your wallet, the two carry the old neighborhood with them — so near, so far.
Halevi’s iEngage conversation series runs on The Jewish Week website, thejewishweek.com