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In Search of the Jewish Zeitgeist

In Search of the Jewish Zeitgeist

Zeitgeist is “the spirit of the times,” a sense of the direction and mood of an era. Tina Brown, premiere commentator and editor, reflected last week on the current state of America’s Zeitgeist and what we want to read and consume:
Sexy brain food. Give us something to make us smarter, but for God’s sake don’t make it feel like work. People are in such a glum frame of mind they are looking for confidence, audacity, practicality, and FUN. They want to stop talking about problems and hear about solutions. Everyone loves “The Social Network” because the on-screen Zuckerberg is such an effective little son of a bitch, doing whatever it takes to get his idea done. (
Where can this brand of Zeitgeist be found in the Jewish community? We asked the insightful and thoughtful editor of the Los Angeles Jewish Journal Rob Eshman to provide direction.

Sexy Brain Food

“To a Jew, ‘sexy brain food’ is redundant. Original bold thinking is our foreplay, and I’m fortunate to come across a lot of it where I sit. Here’s my latest turn-on: “Evil and the Morality of God,” (KTAV, 2010) by Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis. It’s a new edition (with a foreword by Rabbi David Ellenson) of a 1984 work. At 86 years old, Schulweis is still on the cutting edge of Jewish thought and activism, and the argument he puts forward in this book — that we can’t look to a personal deity for consolation — is as challenging as it is, strangely, comforting.”


“These days the No. 1 tough Jew is Jon Stewart. Think about it: He could just play it safe and do his very funny show night after night — dayenu. But now he’s stepping up with his “Rally to Restore Sanity” and crossing a line from social commentator to movement leader. You can’t get tens of thousands of people, or more, to Washington, D.C. and just call it a goof or a gimmick. Stewart has decided that just getting people to laugh isn’t enough: he wants them to act. He’s taken on this burden, and it will be interesting to see how he navigates between satire and activism.

There are other audacious Jews, but at least on the national stage, I don’t think a single rabbi would make the list. I’m not sure what happened, but the days of the outspoken, audacious rabbi-as-prophet, as a kind of public firebrand/intellectual, seems to have passed. There are brilliant, accomplished men and women rabbis out there, but not one has stepped up to rock the status quo and capture the broader, public American imagination.”


“The Re’ut Institute, a Tel Aviv based think tank created by Gidi Grinstein. I turn to them time and again for fresh, clear analysis and ideas about Israel’s never-ending supply of thorny issues. Re’ut embodies the kind of sustainable Zionism — to co-opt a green movement term — that goes beyond the same tired, dead end left/right and religious/secular debates.”


“Matisyahu concerts, even if you don’t get high. Tel Aviv at 2 a.m., even if you aren’t single. Sukkot, even if you aren’t Jewish. “Weeds,” “Mad Men,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm” — even if you “don’t watch TV.” Granted, Jews have a strange definition of fun. For me it’s getting three uninterrupted hours to read the new Philip Roth novel. Or cooking Shabbat for the kosher winemaker Jeff Morgan, then drinking a couple bottles of his Covenant Cabernet Sauvignon over dinner.”

Zuckerberg-type Character

“To answer the question almost literally, only one Jewish leader has figured out how to use the power of the Internet to build a network, and attract, inform and activate followers, and that’s Jeremy Ben Ami, who founded J Street. Whether you agree with his politics or not, whether you think he’s being secretly funded by an underground al Qaeda cell operating out of an eco-kosher BBQ brisket stand in Prospect Park, J Street has demonstrated the effective use of social media for Jewish causes, and Ben-Ami’s opponents, while they’re trying to ostracize him, ought to also try to learn from him.”.

More Background

Tina Brown, prolific author and former New Yorker and Vanity Fair editor, is current editor of The Daily Beast, which she co-founded with Barry Diller. Brown is strongly rumored to become Newsweek’s next editor-in-chief.

Rob Eshman is a true leader in Jewish media with his innovative approaches at the Los Angeles Jewish Journal ( Eshman is married to Rabbi Naomi Levy, a prolific author and founder of Nashuva ( Eshman and Rabbi Levy are both JInsider Top Jews.

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