Letters, Summer 2023

Outside but Where?

In their provocative and important article on Israeli history and memory (“History—and Israel—from the Outside In,” Spring 2023), Jehuda Reinharz and Motti Golani write that Chaim Weizmann’s:

outsider’s view of the Yishuv led to conflict with those whose lives remained Yishuv-centered even when they were busy overseas. And yet, it is precisely that perspective that historians (and arguably contemporary Israelis) would do well to recover.

I read this not long after being part of a demonstration against the lopsided judicial reform proposal by the Netanyahu government—a government I voted for. So I focused on what Reinharz and Golani had to say about the importance of the outsider’s perspective for contemporary Israelis, not historians, and with regard to current policy, not to the way we remember Israel’s founding on Yom HaAtzmaut.

Perhaps a great diaspora Zionist leader like Chaim Weizmann (or Justice Louis Brandeis!) would have seen the folly of these reforms by virtue of his outsider perspective. On the other hand, I cannot help thinking that the government’s folly has been as much looking to unfortunate or inapplicable outside political models, just as much as it has been failing to think about the opinions of diaspora Jews and other democracies. In particular, it seems to me that the some of the would-be reformers were misapplying or misunderstanding lessons learned from the Federalist Society and the ideas about constitutional originalism that it promotes within a radically different legal system. Other Israeli politicians and policymakers, I am afraid, were looking to much worse outside models: the “illiberal democracies” of Hungary and elsewhere.

The view from the outside in is important, but it depends on where that outside perspective is coming from.

T. Berger
Tel Aviv, Israel
via email

Satmar Literacy

I was shocked to see Daniel B. Schwartz’s review, “Satmar, American-Style” (Spring 2023) referring to the “community’s failure to raise literate Americans.” This ignores the reality of a nearly 100 percent literacy rate in the Satmar community. By the age of thirteen, nearly all the boys in that community are fully capable of reading in three languages: Aramaic, Hebrew, and, of course, Yiddish. The girls are all capable of reading Yiddish and English. In those situations where girls fall under the umbrella of dyslexia, the community hires qualified teachers to work with the girls and help them acquire mainstream reading skills.

As far as “bilking the system,” the community accesses all government programs to which they are legally entitled, as does every other community in this country. They are regularly audited by the various government agencies that provide the funding. 

Every single Satmar Hasid I know personally is fully employed. This means that every single one of them pays federal, state, and New York City taxes where applicable. They also contribute to a very needy Social Security system, as will their children. This article is not far off from the traditional anti-Jewish bias that we see over and over again from The New York Times. The Jewish Review of Books should hold itself to a higher standard.

Judah Lerer
via email

Daniel B. Schwartz Responds

Judah Lerer’s efforts at Satmar hasbara unwittingly concede the very claims he disputes. He protests the contention in First Things, which I cite in my review, that the Satmar community has failed “to raise literate Americans” by asserting a “nearly 100 percent literacy rate” within the community, by which Lerer means that most boys by thirteen are “fully capable of reading … Aramaic, Hebrew, and, of course, Yiddish.” His omission of English speaks volumes.

The crux of the First Things critique is not literacy per se, but cultural literacy. To be a “literate American” requires a basic command of English and an adequate secular education at a minimum, both of which Satmar private schools have utterly failed to provide, especially to boys. Nor does “bilking the system” seem too strong to describe the fact that Hasidic schools have taken huge sums of taxpayer money over the years while refusing to adhere to state educational standards. Contrary to what Lerer insinuates, that is not legal, and it is only the sway of the Satmar community as a political bloc that has allowed it to avoid serious oversight until recently.

On the Interpretation of Freud

While Adam Kirsch’s premise in “Freud as Talmudist” (Spring 2023) that Freud employed talmudic logic in psychoanalysis is a strong one, the mystery of how Freud would have used this approach while not having received a Jewish education is perhaps not as much a mystery as Mr. Kirsch makes out.

Simply put, he was surrounded by people, including his father, who were Jewish and were most likely very familiar with the approaches of talmudic analysis. When anyone analyzes a problem or gives thought to an issue, they reflect their training, education, and background. This was Freud’s background, if not his education. If his father, relatives, or even Jewish acquaintances shared their thoughts or analyzed a problem, their thinking was necessarily informed by their training, education, and background, both cultural and religious. 

My late mother who never went to Hebrew school, indeed never learned Hebrew, was surrounded by Jews throughout her childhood. When I learned talmudic analysis, I was surprised that I was already familiar with some concepts. My mother—to botch Molière—had been speaking talmudic prose her entire life without knowing it.

It is likely that Freud, through conversations and daily life in a Jewish family, even an assimilated one, had absorbed the analytical and structural knowledge of talmudic analysis, even if he didn’t know it, which is rather ironic, but probably on point.

Diana d’Ambra
West Orange, NJ

Adam Kirsch’s article “Freud as Talmudist” (Spring 2023) was correct both literally and figuratively. While Freud dissembled about his Jewish background and knowledge of Judaism, the facts negate this. At the Freud Museum in London, the curator found a complete twelve-volume German translation of the Babylonian Talmud in Freud’s library, as well as a four-volume set in the original Aramaic, which Freud obviously felt was so important that he had to take them with him from Vienna to London.

Max Mulberg, PhD
via email

Bicycles and Tefillin in Krakow, Arabic in Hebrew Poetry

Thank you for publishing Agnieszka Traczewska’s striking photo essay about the bicycle-driven tefillin factory run by Gerer Hasidim who have returned to Krakow (“Bind Them as a Sign,” Spring 2023). I found it especially powerful to see those images after reading Meir Buzaglo’s illuminating discussion of Almog Behar’s Arabic-sprinkled Hebrew poetry (“A Little Arabic within Our Hebrew,” Spring 2023).

Nadine Ellenberg
via email


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