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On Being with Krista Tippett is a public radio project delving into the human side of news stories + issues. Curated + edited by senior editor Trent Gilliss.

We publish guest contributions. We edit long; we scrapbook. We do big ideas + deep meaning. We answer questions.

We've even won a couple of Webbys + a Peabody Award.
Thank goodness for Reuters:

A white rose is placed on barbed wire at the museum of the former Nazi death camp of Auschwitz Birkenau marking the 67th anniversary of the liberation of the camp by Soviet troops and to remember the victims of the Holocaust, in Auschwitz Birkenau January 27, 2012. [REUTERS/Kacper Pempel]

~reblogged by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Thank goodness for Reuters:

A white rose is placed on barbed wire at the museum of the former Nazi death camp of Auschwitz Birkenau marking the 67th anniversary of the liberation of the camp by Soviet troops and to remember the victims of the Holocaust, in Auschwitz Birkenau January 27, 2012. [REUTERS/Kacper Pempel]

~reblogged by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

Thank goodness for Reuters:

A white rose is placed on barbed wire at the museum of the former Nazi death camp of Auschwitz Birkenau marking the 67th anniversary of the liberation of the camp by Soviet troops and to remember the victims of the Holocaust, in Auschwitz Birkenau January 27, 2012. [REUTERS/Kacper Pempel]

~reblogged by Trent Gilliss, senior editor


Are Arab Jews Extinct?

by Naava Mashiah, guest contributor

Misbaha, Muslim Prayer BeadsA man holds a misbaha in the old city of Jerusalem. (photo: Flavio Grynszpan/Flickr, cc by 2.0)

The growing rift between Israel and the Arab world makes it hard to imagine that Jews and Arabs once coexisted across the Middle East. At one point these identities could be found not only in the same neighborhood, but even in the same person.

Is it an oxymoron to be an Arab Jew? An Arab Jew refers either to a Jew living in the Arab world or one whose ancestors came from Arab countries. This term flourished once in the Middle East but is not widely known today. Not long ago there were Jews living in the cities of the Middle East who were integrated into their societies and held influential roles in their communities and economies.

My grandfather, Baba Yona Mashiah, was such a figure in Baghdad. He was, I would say, an Arab Jew. My childhood was sprinkled with stories of his grand personality, power and business acumen. He was a prominent land and real-estate developer and in the 1940s contributed to building “Baghdad el Jedidah,” a chic neighborhood in the Baghdad suburbs. His partners were mostly Muslim and some were prominent government officials.

Over the years I have accumulated stories about Baba Yona like pearls on a string and play with these beads, just as he played with the beads on his misbaha, the traditional Muslim prayer beads. My father recalled how he used to accompany my grandfather, who was also known by the Arabic name Abu Fuad, to meetings in cafés and the respect that people showed him.

Baba Yona was an integrated member of Baghdad society and its business world, yet he was a Jew.

In the 1950s the Jews of Baghdad experienced an exodus from Iraq. A reluctant exodus, I would claim, which was brought about by a combination of increasing Zionism, anti-Semitic propaganda, envy of the privileged life Jews had when Iraq was under British control and the creation of Israel. The displacement of thousands of Palestinians and the humiliating defeat of the Arab armies were the final blow.

Life had become unbearable for the Jews and even those who had wanted to stay were compelled to leave. Jews were assumed to be a fifth column and turned into scapegoats following the defeat of Arab armies by the Israeli Defense Forces. Baba Yona watched his empire crumble. His peer and neighbor, Mr. Addas, another influential Jew, was hung in the square. He himself was imprisoned for three months, accused of having Zionist connections.

At a certain point the Iraqi government offered a deal for Jews, inviting them to escape to Israel if they would renounce their citizenship and relinquish their property. Baba Yona was forced to leave Baghdad with over 100,000 other Jews to the one country that would accept them at the time — Israel. Ironically, the Zionists, whose movement played a part in alienating Muslims from their Jewish compatriots, were there to save them.

So as they were airlifted out of Baghdad, did my nine year-old father know where he was headed? Was it en route to Cyprus and during the eventual landing in Israel that he stopped being an Arab Jew?

In Israel, the younger generations became embarrassed by their Arabic-speaking parents. My father, Sabah, was given a Hebrew name, Shaul, but his brother who had arrived in his late teens, too late for a name change, is called Jamil until this very day.

In fact, my father’s Arab identity was totally effaced in Israel. It was a combination of external pressures and self denial. Thus he became successfully integrated into the dominant culture in Israel of that period.

My interest in my Arab roots began about ten years ago when I established my business, which focuses on economic cooperation between Israel and the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Many Israelis asked me why I had chosen to do so. The notion that Israel should forge economic ties with other countries in the MENA region is not self-evident within Israeli society.

Their questions led me to excavate my own identity and connect with my grandfather’s world. I am discovering more and more young Jews like myself who have been able to distance themselves from their parents traumatic experiences and proudly reclaim their Arab roots.

I recall one day when I brought home old records of Abdul Wahab, a famous Egyptian singer, and put them on the phonograph. My father Shaul transformed back to Sabah and sang all the words. He did not understand how I could be interested in this music. My curiosity for the poetry and music is deep-rooted to an extent that baffles him.

Today when I ask my father if my grandfather was an Arab Jew and he proclaims, “No way, there is no such thing,” I beg to differ.

Naava MashiahNaava Mashiah is CEO of M.E. Links, focused on the transfer of technology from Israel to the MENA region, Senior Consultant at ISHRA and the editor of MEDABIZ.

A version of this article was published by the Common Ground News Service on January 17, 2012. Copyright permission is granted for publication.


This is storytelling at its finest and its darkest, but Auslander’s wry sense of humor and delivery give the heaviness of the situation a light touch. For those of you with delicate sensibility about the Holocaust or profane language, be forewarned. He does swear a few times and is brutally honest about his visit to a concentration camp in Germany. His ending is worth it and his point all the more salient because of this humorous approach. 


Some people have a way of bringing laughter to deep, painful sorrow - but not in a way that ignores or diminishes the reality of that sorrow. It’s like some people have this ability to see the microscopic punchlines and jokes even in the darkest of places. Writer Shalom Auslander has this ability. Here, he tells a live story with The Moth in NYC about his reluctant trip to a WWII death camp. And if you like this, you can hear more stories from him on This American Life, read more stories in his (amazing) books & articles, or listen to him talk with Terry.

~reblogged by Trent Gilliss, senior editor


Tuesday Evening Melody: “Mazzel” by Leo Fuld

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

I had a She & Him track from their new Christmas album all lined up for tonight. And then I realized that I’d be one culturally insensitive Tumblr jockey if I didn’t cue up something for the first night of Hanukkah. Thankfully, my colleague Nancy Rosenbaum is dialed in, recommending this celebratory song of “good luck” from The Idelsohn Society’s wonderful new album Songs for the Jewish-American Jet Set.

We’ll be lighting our menorah tonight. Here’s wishing you all a Chag Urim Sameach!


Unlikely Sources of “Customs” for Leading a Modern Life and Marking Sacred Time

by Krista Tippett, host

Scott-Martin Kosofsky is a designer of books, an author and editor, and an aficionado of early music. Like many postwar American Jews, he grew up “nonobservant but strongly Jewish identified,” surrounded by family members who had escaped Europe’s horrors. Scott-Martin Kosofsky at work He grew up speaking the Yiddish of the life his parents had led before, but their generation had not yet found words to speak of the Holocaust that haunted the lives that came after.

Still, the Holocaust was real to him, and present. There was no comfort and no hope, he felt, that it would not recur. He realizes, looking back, that he took spiritual solace in the music he came to love, much of it Christian in origin. He worked on several Christian projects before he took on a Jewish one, the creation of the illustrated The Harvard Hillel Sabbath Songbook. And in searching in Jewish history, he chanced upon a handbook of illustrations and instructions that moved and surprised him. What he discovered was a “Customs Book” — a Minhogimbukh — helping ordinary medieval Jewish families navigate the complexities of ritual, prayer, and the seasons of a Jewish life.

For three hundred years, versions of this book of customs translated tradition into daily action and teaching into the vernacular. And then Judaism spawned several competing traditions. The Enlightenment made its mark on Jewish thought. The notion of a single compact guidebook to Jewish practice came to seem impossible, and the Minhogimbukh died out.

When Scott-Martin Kosofsky rediscovered a 1645 edition of the The Book of Customs in the late twentieth century, he did so neither as a rabbi or a scholar, nor as a passionately devout adherent of any strand of Judaism. For him, the different branches of Judaism seemed to have more in common than apart, so he set out to recreate an updated book of customs in English, for modern people. He delved into the structure of Jewish practice, the ancient stories behind its teachings, the rituals and symbols that had seemed dead to him for most of his life. He added historical detail and notes on contemporary application. Jewish life is really all about moments, he realized anew — moments that are set aside to honor God. To his own surprise, he found himself not only chronicling this sensibility but participating in its power.

Here is a passage from the introduction to his updated version of The Book of Customs, the passage that made me want to interview him:

"I did not go back to the traditional customs and liturgies expecting to find lost meaning, but there it was. Even more surprisingly, I found deep meaning in texts that had been dropped or modified by the liberal denominations: the prayers of supplication and confession, the tragic liturgies of the Tishah b’Av, and even the Avodah, the daily call for the restoration of the Temple and a return to the sacrifices of old. What can a post-Freudian person like me find in such things? I found these: a broad and intimate confrontation with myself and with God, a sense of community for better or for worse, an appreciation of God’s greatness, miracles, and ambiguities — all together, a clearer view of the moral and the immoral.”

This week’s episode isn’t strictly a Hanukkah show, but we released it this year as the season of Hanukkah is about to begin. And woven throughout our conversation is rich material for reflection on the meaning of this “minor” and sometimes misunderstood season of Jewish life — and its place in American culture. Hanukkah commemorates an ancient, triumphant Jewish revolt and restoration of the Temple after a period of occupation and desecration. At various times in history — such as at the founding of the state of Israel — this commemoration provided a potent symbol of Jewish identity and strength. In America, by contrast, the rise of Hanukkah was connected with the rise of the Christmas card. Like Christmas, it has become interwoven with cultural and consumer practices.

Still, while naming and holding the ambiguities of culture and religion in tension, Scott-Martin Kosofsky works to recover his own understanding of the meaning of Hanukkah and other rituals he had previously ignored as unmodern, incomprehensible. A palpable sense of the sacred lies behind his words and ideas. He does not convey certainty so much as mystery, but mystery as something you can almost touch and hold in your hand. For example, pondering the story of Hanukkah, Scott-Martin Kosofsky is left with haunting religious questions. He asks himself if God was still in that desecrated Temple — and why would he leave his House in the first place? He concludes that, if all we celebrate in such rituals is the “memory of God,” it is still very important to keep that memory alive.

About the image: Scott-Martin Kosofsky at work in what he calls his sukkah. (photo: Amanda Kowalski)

Truth has to be given in riddles. People can’t take truth if it comes charging at them like a bull. The bull is always killed. You have to give people the truth in a riddle, hide it so they go looking for it and find it piece by piece; that way they learn to live with it.

Chaim Potok, from The Gift of Asher Lev

Thanks for reminding me of this mind-enlivening piece of art.

~reblogged by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis (1856-1941)

Justice Brandeis entered Harvard Law School in 1875 without a formal college degree, and broke academic records there. President Woodrow Wilson named him to America’s highest court as its first Jewish member. While serving on the Supreme Court, he wrote of the right to privacy and defended civil liberties. Brandeis University in Massachusetts is named after him.

On November 17th, we’ll be releasing our interview with his great-grandson, Paul Brandeis Raushenbush, in which he speaks about the the social gospel movement and how it may be resurfacing in a renewed interest for authenticity.


Novelist Asks Ira Glass If He’d Hide His Family in the Attic

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

"If there’s another Holocaust, can I hide in your attic?"

Novelist Shalom Auslander puts this question to the host of This American Life and a couple of other TAL alumni — Sarah Vowell and John Hodgman — as part of his promotional effort for his new book, Hope: A Tragedy. Playing on the theme of the "collective Holocaust guilt" of Jews that runs throughout his novel, he crafts some pretty brilliant (and entertaining) video trailers touching on some rather delicate religious ground.


A Sukkah of One’s Own at Occupy Boston

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

The People of Occupy BostonAri Daniel Shapiro crafted a beautiful radio piece including a rabbi and other Occupy Wall Street protesters in Boston with the erection of a sukkah as part of the Jewish holiday of Sukkot. Some truly great religion reporting on NPR’sWeekend Edition Sunday.

Photo by Sam Marshall/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

I know the country is open to a renaissance of spiritual-moral values, and the rabbis kill it. We have a rabbinate that has absolutely no connection to the people, no understanding of Jewish history, no understanding of the Zionist revolution.

In Rabbi Hartman's officeDavid Hartman, Jewish philosopher and Orthodox rabbi

As this quotation from our interview with the unorthodox thinker indicates, Hartman’s is a voice that challenges all types of conventions. Our show with him is airing on more than 250 public radio stations across the U.S. this week and via our podcast. If you want the unexpurgated version (like all our interviews), we’ve made the mp3 available too. How’s that for transparency!


Walking a Constant Tightrope Between Vulnerability and Responsibility

by Krista Tippett, host

In Rabbi Hartman's office It feels poignant, and important, to put this conversation, “Opening Up Windows,” with David Hartman out into the world this week. Last week’s experience of the Palestinian philosopher Sari Nusseibeh evoked a bit of light and air in the present contested moment. So, too — albeit very differently — does David Hartman. Neither of these men speaks for his people, but each uniquely embodies and articulates the drama of his national narrative.

What David Hartman offers is a window into intra-Israeli searching and struggles that drive news headlines from this part of the world, but are rarely heard in and for themselves. The effect of his presence is at once humanizing, uncomfortable, and revealing.

Years ago, in the early days of creating this program, people sometimes asked me about the balance of drawing out a single voice to speak to a complex issue. The question, I think, betrays the way we’ve narrowed the idea of balance in our public deliberation of many important issues. There is certainly a place for debate between fixed, competing positions; but the biggest “issues” before us are often, as Sari Nusseibeh so acutely put it, matters of gradual human maturation and evolution. Point-counterpoint exchanges bury this possibility, but it can be heard through a single voice — in the self-examined life of a person who wrestles with complexity and change, and who continues to challenge oneself.

So, in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, questions of how to define statehood and draw borders always coexist with related, but not identical, questions of how two peoples can maintain their dignity and live together. As a Jew who chose to move to Israel with his wife and five children in the aftermath of the Six-Day War of 1967, David Hartman has lived along the continuum of the Jewish encounter with all those questions in the decades since. A former congregational rabbi, he created a think tank and educational center that has brought Jews of different traditions together in unprecedented ways.

David Hartman has also been an unusual religious figure in Israeli society as a leader who challenges traditional Judaism from the inside. His daughter Tova is known as an Orthodox feminist. In part, because of her influence, David Hartman became an activist for the inclusion of women in ritual and practice, challenging traditional Jews to see the matter of women’s rabbinic ordination as a statement of nothing less than the character of the God one worships. To deny the full personhood of women, David Hartman says with characteristic forcefulness, is “spiritual suicide.”

He is frank and searching, too, on Israeli-Palestinian relations. “That’s so painful,” he says, when I ask how his discernment on God and the dignity of women might relate to the Jewish relationship to Palestinians. On the morning I interviewed him, a Jewish family, including a three-month-old infant, had just been brutally murdered in a settlement near Nablus. The weight of that news was all around us, and so too was the fear — soon to be realized — that this act of violence would yield to a new cycle of reprisal and attack, with grief on both sides. “I am constantly moved up and back,” David Hartman tells us. “When my family gets killed, and my family’s frightened to go to sleep at night, I get angry. I have a lot of anger in me. But part of my tradition is to learn how to control that anger. And I don’t know if they really want to live with me.”

It’s strange, really, that for all the human drama that is so assiduously reported from this part of the world, we so rarely hear the kind of direct struggle with anger and pain that David Hartman offers in this conversation. Both emotions are embedded in the fabric of daily life in this land, and they merge with the longer lineage of Jewish history. “[A] core meaning of the State of Israel,” David Hartman has written, “is precisely the will of the Jewish people to remain in history, despite overwhelming evidence of the risks involved.” In Israel as in the rest of the world, as he describes it, Jews walk a constant tightrope between vulnerability and responsibility — alternately powerful and weak, and both at once.

He describes the dignity he experiences of being at home in Israel as “a return to memory.” And so, he adds evocatively, “How do we deal with this memory? Narcissistically? Triumphantly? Arrogantly? Or we say, ‘Now that I have my memory, tell me about yours.’” This echoes the journey Sari Nusseibeh shared with us, of walking into a former “No Man’s Land” in 1967 and looking back at where he came from — wanting to see himself from the other side. In such images, we don’t merely experience a new way to see a painful global crisis; we feel ourselves addressed.

About the photo: Krista Tippett interviews Rabbi David Hartman at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. Photo by Trent Gilliss.


Animated Shorts on the Lessons of Forgiveness and Repentance for the High Holy Days

by Susan Leem, associate producer + Trent Gilliss, senior editor

The son of an Israeli nuclear physicist, the artist Hanan Harchol moved to the United States with his family when he was two years old. And it’s his father’s accent that Harchol impersonates and argues with in these two humorous and enlightening animated shorts for the High Holy Days. 

But, these illustrated videos mining a deeper understanding of the Jewish concepts of teshuva (repentance) and slicha (forgiveness), Harchol says, weren’t inspired by a personal sense of devotion or religiosity. Just the opposite, in fact. The requirements of the project stipulated that he immerse himself in the texts, and through studying them he reevaluated the essence and spirit of Jewish teachings he had ignored or rejected for many years:

"I spent my life gravitating towards, and making, narrative art that explores the human condition from a psychological, philosophical, and existential perspective. While Judaism offers thousands of years of wisdom on the human condition, I avoided it as a source because of what I perceived to be its preachy, judgmental, and shaming tone.

Then, in 2009, I was commissioned to create a short artistic animation that interpreted the eating of bitter herbs during Passover. As part of the project, I was mandated to participate in a monthly Jewish study group under the leadership of a dynamic and brilliant rabbi named Leon Morris. To my surprise, I discovered that the human themes we were discussing and wrestling with in the study group were precisely the kind I had always been exploring in my personal artmaking. Even the process itself of sitting around a table, debating and wrestling with these human concepts (a process I did regularly with my friends and in my artmaking) proved to be a fundamental part of the Jewish study and learning process.

I became filled with questions about how much my Jewish heritage had influenced how I was raised, how I behaved, how I thought, and even who I was as a person and an artist. What I discovered was a wealth of wisdom. Within the Jewish texts were crucial teachings and lessons that applied as much to our contemporary lives as they did when they were written. By avoiding the Jewish writings because of their religious nature and tone, I was missing out on thousands of years of deep thought and study on the human condition itself. I had thrown the baby out with the bath water.”

I know about leaving. People would say to me ‘If you don’t like it, go change it.’ What they mean is, ‘Go away and change it.’ But there’s power to staying.

Tova Hartman, founder of Shira Hadasha, a modern Orthodox Jewish synagogue in Jerusalem that has no central leadership or rabbi, and permits women to lead services and bat mitzvah ceremonies.

Read Kevin Grant’s full article on The Huffington Post.

~Trent Gilliss, senior editor


T’shuva: Recognizing Holiness

by Laura Hegfield, guest contributor

Found Heart-White Mts, NH, USA

I was watching the gathering clouds and their shifting shadows on those familiar mountains for quite a while. I saw you, but it wasn’t until I turned and took a step that I could truly see you.

With an intake of breath, my heart expanded in awe, recognizing yours, so perfectly formed.

How many others had passed by without noticing? What if I had not turned that afternoon, had not taken a step?

Gratitude awakened, witnessing this mirrored image of sacredness balanced on the mountainside.

                                                  You.   Me.   God.

Standing as One in this single moment of grace.

I love this tree. I love remembering the feeling of awe that filled me when I looked through the viewfinder of my camera and realized that the branches and leaves grew into a perfect heart shape. But I didn’t see it right away; it took a while until I was standing in just the right position to be aware of what was in front of me the whole time.

The form was there, the core essence of holiness was present all along, but I had to orient myself properly in order to recognize it. I think the same can be said for the holy essence that resides within each of us.

During the month of Elul, leading up to the Yomim Noraim, the Jewish High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, it is a Jewish spiritual practice to make t’shuva — to turn, return to our goodness, our godliness, to God.

We turn inward. We look in our hearts and examine closely the mountains of mistakes we have made. We turn towards those we have hurt and ask for forgiveness. We promise to do better — at the very least to try to be kinder and more thoughtful in the year to come. We do what we can to repair what we have broken. We make a conscious shift from where our hearts were positioned when we were intentionally hurtful or simply not paying attention to our words and actions. We return to God awareness, remembering that it is when we forget our own divinity and that of others that we inflict harm.

We choose to change, to grow. Like the micro-movements of alignment a yogini must make to settle into vrkasana (tree pose) with strength, firmly rooted, balanced, open, present, we readjust our inner stance until we can see beyond the misdeeds, harsh words, insincerity, apathy, judgment and wounds to discover our own holy hearts, beautifully formed, strong, rooted, balanced, open and fully present; silhouetted before the jagged background of those mountains. The dark clouds move aside, our holiness shines brilliantly. It was always there. Here. We forgive ourselves; perhaps the hardest step of all. We have returned.

Laura HegfieldLaura Hegfield is a daughter, sister, wife, mother and lover of life with an artist’s soul. Diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis three years ago, she is no longer able to work outside her home. She stays engaged with the world through photography and shares her journey on her blog.

We welcome your reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the Being Blog. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.