Published in May just in advance of the third anniversary of Elie Wiesel’s death, in July 2016, Howard Reich’s “The Art of Inventing Hope: Intimate Conversations with Elie Wiesel” (Chicago Review Press) began with a call almost out of the blue.
A veteran writer at the Chicago Tribune and a son of Holocaust survivors, Reich fielded the call from one of his editors, who broached an idea: the newspaper was going to present its Literary Award that year to the iconic Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace laureate.
“Instantly I understood the implications” of the call, Reich writes — “I obviously was going to be asked if I’d like to interview” Wiesel for a Tribune story, “and, I guessed, for the traditional public conversation on the stage of Orchestra Hall.”
“Would you be interested?” the editor asked.
“Yes. Yes, indeed,” Reich said.
The assignment was as thrilling as it was daunting; it was an honor for a member of the so-called “second generation” to meet, let alone speak at length, with Wiesel.
Reich called Wiesel two weeks later. “What do you do at the Tribune?” Wiesel asked after Reich asked some “basic interview questions.”
“I write about music.”
“Then why are you doing this story?”
Reich shared his parents’ story. He completed his Tribune story. He conducted the award ceremony interview. And over the next four years he continued to meet with and interview (and tape) Wiesel in depth. The meeting yielded a friendship and a book.
During their many hours of discussions, the pair covered such topics as the responsibility of being a witness, the genesis of hate and the ability to find hope. The lengthy transcripts have been edited seamlessly for the new book.
For Reich, as for many children of survivors, the conversations with Wiesel served a therapeutic function: Reich’s father had “said very little about what happened to him during the war,” and his mother, “even less.”
“This was not a subject much discussed in the 1950s, when I was growing up,” Reich writes. “Rare was the parent who sat a child down and conveyed what has occurred.”
His time with Wiesel helped to provide answers for him — and for other people who had not first-hand experienced the Shoah — to many unanswered questions about the survivors: “Where did they find the strength to start over? How did they cope with the overwhelming destruction of their families, friends, and shtetls? Why did almost no one help them? How was it possible to believe in God after the Holocaust? Or during? Why did the survivors have children?”
“Wiesel,” Reich writes, “was a guide to me in grappling with questions that perhaps have no answers but require our pursuit nonetheless.”
The issue of intermarriage, always a fraught one in the Jewish community, took on a new urgency recently when Israel’s education minister, Rafi Peretz, compared it to a “second Holocaust.” Which makes the new book by Ed Case, who founded InterfaithFamily in 2001 and for the last generation has been a leading voice in favor of the Jewish community’s acceptance of intermarried families, all the more timely.
Provocatively titled “Radical Inclusion: Engaging Interfaith Families for a Thriving Jewish Future” (Center for Radically Inclusive Judaism), it is a collection of his thoughts on the controversial subject, and it calls for the community not only to accept, but actively welcome such families.
“The liberal Jewish world needs to adopt radically inclusive attitudes towards interfaith marriage and partners from different faith traditions,” he writes, “by promoting how they can help people have lives of meaning, raise grounded children, and fulfill their needs for spiritual expression and community,” he writes in the book’s prologue.
Now retired from InterfaithFamily, Case is founder of the Center for Radically Inclusive Judaism, an unaffiliated nonprofit that published the book.
“Radical Inclusion,” which cites various studies and statistics as well as compelling anecdotes and copious footnotes to buttress his suggestions, offers a strategic look at his open-arms proposal, rather than an outline of tactical, hands-on advice. Case says his “new approach” grew out of the experiences of interfaith families he has seen and heard across the country.
His book, “while primarily directed toward Jewish lay and professional leaders,” is for “everyone interested in seeing more interfaith families becoming more engaged in Jewish life and community,” he writes. In other words, for rabbis and for parents who traditionally have encouraged their congregants and children to marry within the faith.
Case, who studied Jewish communal service at Brandeis University and worked as a lawyer for two decades, calls his work beneficial for interfaith families and for the wider Jewish community. “It is fruitless to decry the phenomenon of intermarriage,” he writes, arguing that welcoming interfaith families, whether or not one partner converts to Judaism, creates good will for the Jewish community and expands the community’s size and strength.
“For partners from different faith traditions, the most important thing is to do Jewish” — i.e., take part in Jewish activities at home and in the Jewish community — and not necessarily to “be Jewish,” Case writes. “It’s the feeling of belonging that is critical. Feeling part of or a member of the Jewish community is a more universal approach that appeals to people who are uncomfortable with tribalism, chosenness, and particularism.”