A Conversation With Ephraim Margolin

AY_MargolinInterviewOn Saturday afternoon, June 10, following a delicious community kiddush lunch, the Achshav Yisrael committee of CBS presented "Witness To The Birth Of Israel: An Interview With Ephraim Margolin." Although the special Shabbat afternoon program could not be photographed, we want to share some of the highlights.

Achshav Yisrael committee member Eileen Auerbach reports that about 75 people attended the program and the audience was rapt, listening intently to Ephraim's anecdotes and perspectives. More than one attendee remarked that Ephraim was so interesting that the interview could have lasted much longer than the two hours allowed. Indeed, Ephraim has led a remarkably full life and it was a treat for so many to learn more about it.

Ephraim was born in Poland in 1926. He fled with his mother to Tel Aviv in 1936, and wouldn't again see his father, Yuli (Yehuda) Margolin, for over a decade (after Yuli was able to make his way to Israel following extended exile in the Soviet Gulag). For better and worse, Ephraim's time and circumstances ensured that his own life would be uncommonly eventful. Writing of his youth in Tel Aviv, Ephraim shares:

"My mother hardly made a living. I still don’t know how she managed to put me through a private high school. She did physical work seven days a week. Our apartment was open to any new 'olim,' refugees arriving in Tel Aviv. We had dozens of people staying in our small apartment, or just show up for a dinner. We never knew who will come. It was just 'the thing to do.' One of the people who stayed in our apartment after arriving in Tel Aviv came in his Polish army uniform. His name was Menachem Begin. He became head of the Irgun, a major underground organization fighting for the establishment of a Jewish State. He would become prime minister of Israel a quarter of century later and win a Nobel Peace Prize for establishing a lasting peace with Egypt.

I, too, joined the Irgun. While serving, I became its clandestine radio announcer, a three-inch mortar gunner, and a commander of the base for illegally infiltrated children arriving in Palestine. [Years later,] in 1948, I became Menachem Begin’s private secretary."

Ephraim-Margolin-768x576Ephraim also highlighted his work as a lawyer in both Israel and the United States, itself dramatic: "While chairing the legal committee of ACLU, I took on 10 of their cases, pro bono, and won them all. I went into private practice in criminal defense and constitutional cases. For the rest of my career, I did one-third of my cases pro bono. I handled several of the race, gender, and free speech cases during the Civil Rights era. I handled and won the first televised argument in California Supreme Court (whether hypnosis of witnesses made their testimony admissible in court) and handled the appeal of John Gotti in New York."

In this, his 90th year, Ephraim shared his life experiences with the audience and talked about what he has learned as a result of them. His 2016 book, Philosophy of Early Zionism, is available on Amazon, and we highly recommend it. Ephraim is currently at work on another book...and his 49th Annual Yom Kippur Teaching at CBS!

ABOUT ACHSHAV YISRAEL: Achshav Yisrael’s mission is to provide quality programming about Israel to Congregation Beth Sholom and the broader community. Achshav Yisrael programs are open to all age groups and will occur on a regular basis. We intend to create a safe space at CBS for community exploration of Israel.

Achshav Yisrael Steering Committee Members: Eileen Auerbach, Becky Buckwald, Sandra Cohen, Betsy Eckstein, Ovid Jacob, Eva-Lynne Leibman, Ira Levy, Ephraim Margolin, Lucia Sommers

Kezayit: Not Every Jew Looks Like You

What's this Kezayit thing? Read here.

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Kone-Miller-family- Writing recently in Tablet Magazine, author David Margolick acknowledged the Jewish people's chauvinistic tribalism.

"Why is it we Jews are not only quick to claim someone as our own, but insist upon claiming all of him? For better or worse, though, we do: our fierce feeling of specialness is something we don’t want to share with anyone else. [...] Our chauvinism knows no bounds, and tolerates no asterisks."

Margolick made this admission in an essay exploring the Jewish antecedence of Supreme Court Justice nominee Merrick Garland, which he penned after reading a New York Times profile of Garland that included the following biographical detail.

"Friends say Judge Garland’s connection to Judaism runs deep. His father was Protestant, but he was raised as a Jew — he had a bar mitzvah in a Conservative synagogue — and he spoke movingly Wednesday of how his grandparents left Russia, 'fleeing anti-Semitism and hoping to make a better life for their children in America.'"

Upon learning that it was "only" Garland's mother who was Jewish, Margolick "felt instantly deflated," and became determined to dig deeper to see what could be turned up about Garland's paternal ancestry. In fact, Margolick learned, Garland's father is Jewish; the Times piece had reported Garland's father was Protestant in error. When the Gray Lady printed a correction, according to Margolick, "everywhere, Jews cheered."

Actually, this Jew didn't. If Garland identifies as a Jew (and is halachically Jewish as well!), why does it matter whether or not both of his parents are Jewish?

Louis-Jeff-used-for-BART-ad_smallerMargolick's article is a reminder that, for many contemporary, secular Jews, ethnic and genetic "purity" -- or yichus -- matters as much if not more than one's behavior or personal identification. Moreover, many members of the tribe (M.O.T.s) tend to prioritize our particularistic "subtribe" (e.g., Ashkenazim discounting Sephardic practice as alien or misguided rather than simply different, or Modern Orthodox Jews looking askance at their Reform brethren), further eroding the virtuous notion of klal Yisrael (the interconnection of all Jews).

Disappointingly, I can recall numerous conversations with fellow Jews, friends as well as relatives, who observed that Ethiopian Jews (Beta Israel), Indian Jews (including the Bnei Menashe), and all manner of converts (gerim) "aren't real Jews." When I blanche, they'll often add something like, "You know what I mean, not genetically."

To be fair, whereas Judaism, the religion, and Jewishness, our ethnic/cultural identity, used to be inextricably intertwined, the two are now viewed as distinct by a large majority of Jewish Americans, and the comments of my friends and relatives reflect their prioritization of Jewishness over Judaism. They accept that Ethiopian Jews are Jews in the sense that they practice Judaism, but they lack any yiddishkeit, which is what qualifies them as "real" M.O.T.s.

Enter Debbie Rosenfeld-Caparaz of Lehrhaus Judaica and Dawn Kepler, Director of Building Jewish Bridges, who co-curated the photography exhibition, This is Bay Area Jewry, currently on view at Temple Sinai in Oakland. Kepler, quoted in a J Weekly article about the exhibition, points out that "many refer to the Bay Area as a diaspora of the diaspora," a region where Jewish identity is complex-compound. Kepler states that the exhibition aims to “[push] folks to think more deeply about what Jewish heritage means and to realize that there are lots of Jews, and not very many of them fit into that Ashkenazi stereotype.”

If, as some leading sociologists contend, the Bay Area offers a portrait of the future of American Jewry, Margolick will need to accept the fact that many dedicated and active Jews look very different from him and/or have very different origin stories. Moreover, a great many of us may have only one Jewish parent...or none!

Kol HaKavod to Rosenfeld-Caparaz and Kepler for conceiving of This is Bay Area Jewry, and to photographer Lydia Daniller and writer Robert Nagler Miller for their efforts, as well. For more information on the exhibition, click here.

Image credits: Both photographs by Lydia Daniller for This is Bay Area Jewry, 2016 -- Top: The Kone-Miller Family, members of CBS!