Questioning faith in the parsha
Larchmont Temple—Har Chayim
The 19th-20th Century American Jewish Adventure: History Lessons for 21st Century Jewish Life
CHEVRAH TORAH 5773
WHAT does Joseph teach us about living out the legacy/identity of “Israel”…?
WHAT does it teach us today about being WHO we are?
REMEZ…“Casting aside old paradigms, they transformed their faith, reinventing [American] Judaism in an attempt to make it…more meaningful, more sensitive to the concerns of the day.” [J. SARNA]
v.38 Then Pharaoh said to his courtiers: Could we find another like him, a man in whom is the spirit of God?
RASHI…If we would go and look for him, would we ever find him?
RADAK…Where could we find another like him, for Joseph’s wisdom clearly exceeds any of our magicians!
SARNA…This is the first Biblical mention of “Ish asher Ru’ach Elohim bo” Bezalel is described as another endowed with God’s spirit [Exod 31:3] Belshazar similarly describes Daniel: “I have heard about you that you have the spirit of gods in you—that illumination, extraordinary wisdom and knowledge are to be found in you.” [Dan 5:14] Generally, possession of “Ru’ach Elohim” impels one to undertake a mission, imparts extraordinary energy and drive, [Judges 3:10] and produces uncommon intelligence.
TALMUD…When Pharoah proposed elevating Joseph to his high position, the royal astrologers exclaimed:
“Will you set over us a slave whom his master bought for twenty pieces of silver?”
v.39-40 So Pharaoh said to Joseph: Since God has made all this known to you…You shall be in charge of all my household;
by your command shall all my people be guided; only with respect to the throne shall I be your superior.
RASHBAM… “al pi-cha yi-shak kol ami—by your command will my people be sustained” Yi-Shak
like Ne-Shek, that is, ‘You shall supervise the arming of my people against any enemy.’ [cf I Kings 10:2]
RADAK… Yi-Shak, similar to N’ShiKa—kiss…As the cleaving of two kissing people one to another, so will all the house of Egypt cling to every word from Joseph’s mouth.
v.41-43 Pharaoh further said to Joseph: See—I put you in charge of all the Land of Egypt. Removing his signet ring, Pharaoh put it on Joseph’s hand; and he dressed him in robes of fine linen, and put a gold chain on his neck. He had Joseph ride in his chariot, and they cried before him “AV-rech” Thus he placed him over all the land of Egypt.
MIDRASHEI TORAH… Perhaps, hearing this, he could hardly believe it. Joseph was abashed at such a lofty appointment and not sure Pharaoh meant it, thinking he was mocking “Let Pharaoh seek out a man…”
That is why Pharaoh reiterates: “Re’eh—See, I have truly set you in charge!…”
RAMBAN… The giving of the king’s ring is a sign that the person is second in command, as RASHI states. The full interpretation is that the king’s ring contains his seal, as it says, “And sealed with the King’s ring…” [Esther 8:8] The king gave Joseph his seal so he should be leader of Egypt, commander of the government, sealing whatever decrees he sees fit.
HaKTAV v’HaKaBALLAH… The ring, the uniform, the gold chain—all symbols of high office, for up till now, Joseph had been a slave in jail. The people would not easily accept this sudden elevation, thus Pharaoh gave his decision great publicity, parading Joseph throughout the capital to make it clear…
RASHBAM… “AvRech!” In the words of the aggadah [SIFRE] R’ Yehudah expounded: Av-Rech,
This refers to Joseph, for he is “Av”—a father to Pharaoh in wisdom, yet “Rach”—tender in years.
R’ Yossi ben Durmaskis replied: How long will you distort the text!? Av’rech is related solely to berech,
knee, for everyone must bend the knee by his authority.
MENACHEM ZION… Rav Yehudah interprets Avrech as a tribute to Joseph’s wisdom, so impressed
were the Egyptians with his brilliance…Rav Yossi retorts that this is a distortion because history
demonstrates, again and again, that gentiles do not respect Jewish wisdom unless its backed by power.
Egyptian regard for Joseph was based on a simple fact: they were forced by royal edict to bow low!
v.45 Pharaoh called Joseph’s name: Zaphenat Pane’ach, and he gave him Osenat, daughter of Potiphera for a wife.
Thus Joseph emerged over all they land of Egypt.
MUNK… In accord with the Egyptian custom, Joseph is granted a new name on his nomination to a state position.
The change of name is important because it will contribute to masking Joseph’s identity when his family comes to
Egypt. According to ONKELOS, the name means “explainer of the hidden…”
AKEDAT YITSCHAK… As part of the effort to enhance Joseph’s prestige, Pharaoh arranges an aristocratic marriage. Pharaoh took all these steps in order to accelerate and foster Joseph’s acceptance among the Egyptians.
v.51 Joseph called the name of the firstborn Menasseh—for God has made me forget my hardship and my father’s household,
and the name of the second Ephraim—for God has made me fruitful in the land of my suffering.
HIRSCH… To be the only Jew in Egypt, to marry a daughter of the priest, and yet to bring up children of such
virtue that parents to this very day bless their children to be “like Ephraim & Menasseh,” that is indeed great merit!
ZORNBERG…Nowhere does Joseph reveal his identity as nakedly in these names his own feelings about the strange vicissitudes of life. Both names are fraught with paradox…Menasseh—the danger of obsession with his past has the power to cripple him in the task he’s undertaken; perilous to one whose business is sheer survival. But by naming his son for that oblivion, he expresses his ambivalence…In naming Ephraim, Jospeh meditates on the real problems of life-giving. He has been fruitful, but his fierce longing is to have heirs…As sustainer life for many nations, Joseph understands—how to stop things from rotting is more vital than fertility itself…
D’RASH… “ In a creative process of collective self-fashioning, Jews reinterpreted their own culture
and history to fit the circumstances of American Jewish life.” [B. WENGER]
from Stars of David—Prominent Jews Talking About BeingJewish…..
by Abigail Pogrebin “Dustin Hoffman”
…Back to 1967: Nichols, who had seen Hoffman in an off-Broadway play, invited him to California to audition:
“I flew out to L.A. with very little notice, and of course hadn’t slept,” says Hoffman. “I was very nervous. And in my memory, it was an eight-page or ten-page scene in the bedroom, and of course I kept fucking it up. I distinctly remember Mike taking me aside and saying, ‘Just relax; you’re so nervous. Have you ever done a screen test before?’ I said, ‘No.’ He said, ‘It’s nothing; these are just crew people here; you’re not on a stage. This is just film; no one’s going to see it. This isn’t going into theaters.’ And I nodded and I was so thankful that he was trying to soften me; but then he put his hand out to shake mine, and his hand was so sweaty that my hand slipped out of it. Now I was terrified. Because I knew, ‘That man is as scared as I am.’
“I felt, from my subjective point of view, that the whole crew was wondering, ‘Why is this ugly little Jew even trying out for this part called Benjamin Braddock?’ I looked for a Jewish face in the film crew, but I don’t think I sensed one Jew. It was the culmination of everything I had ever feared and dreaded about Aunt Pearl.” He’s referring to his Aunt Pearl, who, upon learning that “Dusty” wanted to become an actor, remarked: “’You can’t be an actor; you’re too ugly.’” “it was like a banner,” Hoffman continues: “’Aunt Pearl was right!’ She’d warned me.”
Obviously the film went on to become a classic and made Hoffman a star. But even after becoming a Hollywood icon, with memorable roles in such films as Midnight Cowboy, Marathon Man, Kramer vs Kramer, Tootsie and Rainman, at the age of sixty-eight, Hoffman says he’s still being “miscast”: Someone told me about a review of this movie I did, Runaway Jury, which indicated that I was miscast because the part was a Southern gentleman lawyer. Which must mean to that critic, ‘He shouldn’t be Jewish.’ The unconscious racism is extraordinary—as if there are no Southern gentlemen Jews. So he implied I was miscast. And I mentioned that to my wife and she said, ‘Well, you’ve always been miscst.’ And she’s right. The truth is that you’ve got two hundred million people in this country and I don’t know the number of Jews—are there six or seven million? [And estimated 5.7 million.] I think there’s thirteen million in the world [13.9]. So in a sense, we’re miscast by definition, aren’t we? That’s what a minority is: It’s a piece of miscasting by God.”
Hoffman grew up unreligious—“My father later told me he was an atheist,” he says of Harvey Hoffman, a furniture designer. Though they celebrated Christmas, one year he decided to make a “Hanukkah bush” instead. “About the time I realized we were Jews, maybe when I was about ten, I went to the delicatessen and ordered bagels and draped them around the tree.”
“It was so traumatic to me, before puberty, realizing that Jews were something that people didn’t like. I have a vivid recollection—literally sensory feeling—of the number of times people would say to me (whether they were adults or kids), ‘What are you?’” Hoffman pauses. “It was like a warning shock—painful. And I lied my way through each instance of that kind of questioning. So here would be the dialogue: You ask me, ‘What are you’”
POGREBIN: “What are you?”
He gives me direction: “Now you press.”
POGREBIN: “What kind of American?”
HOFFMAN: “Just American.”
POGREBIN: “What are your parents?”
HOFFMAN: “American—from Chicago.”
More direction: “Keep pressing—because they would. They’d ask, ‘What religion are you?’ And I’d play dumb.”
So he knew that being Jewish was something to hide?
“Oh, God, yes,” he replies immediately. “I didn’t want the pain of it. I didn’t want the derision. I didn’t come from some tough New York community where I’d say, ‘I’m Jewish—you want to make something out of it?’ There was an insidious anti-Semitism in Los Angeles.
It’s one of the reasons he was impatient to move to New York, which he did, at age twenty-one. Despite the city’s ethnic embrace, when it came to open casting calls, Hoffman learned quickly into which category he fell. “Character actor,” he says with a grin. “The word ‘character’ had a hidden meaning: It meant ‘ethnic.’ ‘Ethnic’ means nose. It meant ‘not as good looking as the ingénue or the leading man or leading woman.’ We were the funny-looking ones.”
…But the short Jewish guy with the nose did choose the trophy wife for his first marriage. “The first wife was Irish Catholic, five-foot-ten, ballet dancer.” He smiles. “I don’t want to discredit this ex-wife, but the grandmother of my current and lasting wife, Lisa, her grandmother Blanche once referred to my first wife as,” Hoffman dons a husky voice, “’He married a bone structure!’” He laughs. “I mean, that was the prize.”
I wonder if he himself ever thought about changing his appearance? “No, but my mother asked me to. When I was a teenager, when she got her nose job, I remember she wanted me to get one, too. She said I would be happier.”
I tell him it’s probably a good thing he didn’t. “Oh but I did,” he jests. “You should have seen it before!”
He says his first set of in-laws—from Chappaqua, New York—weren’t thrilled about their daughter’s choice in husbands. “I think there was a certain amount of ambivalence on her parents’ part that she was marrying a Jewish guy. I don’t think they were tickled about me before I became famous and I think they were a little more tolerant afterwards.”
His second and current wife, Lisa Gottsegen (We just celebrated twenty-three years,” he announces proudly), took him on a more Jewish path. “My wife changed everything,” he says. “Two sons bar mitzvahed, two daughters bat mitzahed.” They have four children together (he also has two children from his first marriage, one of whom was a step-daughter). Their family rabbi, Mordechai Finley, who Hoffman describes as “a red-headed Irishman with a ponytail”—is someone to whom Hoffman speaks candidly about his misgivings about faith. “I said, ‘Mordechai, can I tell you the truth? I used to live on East Sixty-second Street—years ago, when I was still married to my first wife—and there was the Rock Church (it’s still there) across the street. And I’d hear the singing and the clapping and I loved it.’ I said to Mordechai, ‘I always wanted synagogue to be like that.’”
Hoffman acknowledges he hasn’t given the time to his Judaism that he has to his acting. “I have no one to blame but myself, because I could have learned it,” he says. “Every one of my kids that has had a bar or bat mitzvah, I’ve had to learn my part phonetically; it’s uncomfortable for me.” The family observes all Jewish holidays, though Hoffman noticed is son Max didn’t go to Synagogue on Yom Kippur in Providence, where, at the time we meet, he’s just started Brown University. “We called up Max in Rhode Island, and the first thing he said was ‘Good Yom Tov.’ But he didn’t go to services. He just said it to say, ‘See, I know what today is.’”
He says Lisa cares deeply about Jewish tradition, while his connection is more unconscious. “I have very strong feelings that I am a Jew.” He punctuates the declaration with his fist. “And particularly, I am a Russian, Romanian Jew. I love herring and vodka; I feel it comes from something in my DNA. I do love these things. And I know I have a strong reaction to any anti-Semitism.
He recounts a story that was clearly disquieting. It happened when he took his family to the premiere of his film Outbreak in Hamburg, Germany—the hometown of the film’s director, Wolfgang Peterson. “I said to my wife before we left, ‘Are there any concentration camps around there? Because I think these kids are now finally at the age when they can handle it.’ We found out that Bergen-Belsen was forty minutes south. That is where Anne Frank was taken.”
They decided to go the morning after the premiere, and Hoffman took an early walk from the hotel to buy some provisions for the drive. “I heard there was a nearby fancy bakery, and I could get wonderful German pastries and sandwiches. And this place had all these little tables, like this,” he gestures around our restaurant, “and against the wall were these beautiful pastries and the waitresses were very attractive German girls in their striped uniforms—it was as upscale as you would come across. And I’m aware of the fact that no one is coming up to me—because when you’re a celebrity, you’re aware of when you’re being recognized—and they were quite respectful.
“I’m waiting in line to pay, and as I start to pay, a man is sitting at a table—a man in his twenties—short haircut, drinking coffee, well dressed. And he starts yelling ‘Juden!’” Hoffman pauses. “And the place stops. In my memory, it was like a movie: Suddenly everyone stops like this.” He freezes. “And he repeated it: ‘Juden!’” Hoffman is inhabiting this character now, shouting threateningly—with an accent: “’Dostin Hovvman! Juden!’ I remember my brain had to do some work, but I had already done Merchant of Venice in London and I remembered that Shakespeare had used the word in the play. So I made the connection: ‘Oh, that must mean Jew.’ It was an extraordinary moment. The irony of hearing this when I’m buying German pastries to go to a concentration camp.
“Finally I turned to this guy and he’s just with his coffee—he’s not drunk. And I’m aware of men in overcoats walking over to him,” Hoffman acts this all out, “and they didn’t grab him; he just stood up and they followed him out. And I go back to pay, and there was complete, total denial. All of us. Everyone in the room, including me.” He pantomimes paying his bill. “’Thank you very much.’ And I walked out in a kind of haze. And of course, when I get a block away, I think of what I should have done. I should have gone over to him and said,
‘Yeah—and? And? What of it?’”…
Pinchas PELI… The handsome thirty year-old prince travels throughout the country,
feeling very much at home. He moves in all the right circles…The process could have gone
unobstructed. Joseph and his family might have been lost for good, had not the appearance of
his brothers suddenly thrown him back into a world he may have preferred to forget. In an
unexpected turn of events, the interpreter of the dreams of others is reminded that he himself is a
dreamer—a dream including those long-forgotten brothers…More than 1,000 years later…
All the oil of the Temple had become contaminated with the tide of Greek culture sweeping
over Israel. Those in high office seemed to welcome assimilation into the great Hellas,
the foreign culture compelling, their own dreams as Jews set aside. But a chain of events starting
with the defiant act of one man in Modin leads to a new direction, renewing the dream of Israel,
not easily forgotten…and brings us back to Joseph.