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Rethinking the Exodus Story

A Curmudgeonly, Skeptical Look by Bennett Muraskin   THE PASSOVER HAGODE celebrates the liberation of the ancient Israelites from slavery in Egypt, but provides few details. Its source document is the Book of Exodus — which on this holiday deserves a closer look. Because Pharaoh fears that the burgeoning Israelite population will become a threat to his rule, he […]

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Arthur Szyk, a “Soldier in Art”

by Bennett Muraskin   ALTHOUGH ARTHUR SZYK (1894-1951) is best known today for his Illuminated Hagaddah (1940), still widely used at Passover seders, he was in many ways a political artist, a self-described “soldier in art,” who used his talents to attack fascism, call for the rescue to European Jewry from Nazi-occupied Europe, promote the American war effort and make […]

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Jewish Heretics and Heretical Jews

by Bennett Muraskin   A JEWISH HERETIC, in Yiddish and Hebrew, is an apikoyris –– a reference to the 3rd-century BCE Greek philosopher Epicurus, who taught that the gods have no interest in human affairs and that people would be better off if we did not believe in divine rewards and punishment. (It is not surprising […]

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In Memoriam: Julius Lester

by Bennett Muraskin   JULIUS LESTER  (January 29, 1939-January 18, 2018) embodied the historic Black-Jewish bond in America, as well as Black-Jewish tensions, in his work as a prolific writer, folk musician, folklorist, and public intellectual — and in the very fabric of his identity. The son of a Black minister, he grew up in the upper South, graduated  […]

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In Memoriam: The Woman Who Popularized “Ms.”

by Bennett Muraskin   ALTHOUGH Ms. magazine is most identified with Gloria Steinem, the woman who most popularized the term “Ms.” was Sheila Michaels (1939-2017). The word enabled women to be identified as their own persons, rather than according to their marital status (Mrs. or Miss). Michaels’ career included a variety of jobs including cabdriver, technical editor, co-owner […]

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The UN Partition Plan, Seventy Years Later

by Bennett Muraskin   The United Nations Partition Plan of November 29, 1947 would have established an Arab state in about 45 percent of the British Mandate, with 55 percent allotted to a Jewish state. The two states were to form an economic union, and  Jerusalem was to be the capital of neither. but to be placed under UN control. I submit that the […]

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Nir Baram’s Search for an Israeli-Palestinian Solution

by Bennett Muraskin Discussed in this essay: A Land Without Borders: My Journey Around East Jerusalem and the West Bank, by Nir Baram, translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen. Text Publishing, Melbourne, Australia, 2017, 284 pages.   FOR DECADES, Jewish Currents and others on the left have beat the drum for a two-state solution to the […]

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Aaron Lansky and the Gospel of Yiddish

by Bennett Muraskin   IS THERE A FUTURE for yidishkayt in North America? Aaron Lansky thinks so and offers as a model his National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts. I just heard him speak at a synagogue in Livingston, New Jersey. Anyone who read his outstanding memoir, Outwitting History, would have been familiar with the first […]

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The Bund at 120

A CONFERENCE REPORT by Bennett Muraskin Illustration by Aharon Varady TWENTY YEARS AGO, in honor of the centennial of the Jewish Labor Bund, a day-long conference took place in New York City. Among the speakers were a surviving Bundist leader, Motl Zelmanowicz, and a prominent historian of European Jewry and the left, Abraham Brumberg. Other speakers […]

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More about Marxism: Time to Give Up the Ghost

by Bennett Muraskin   To read Sam Friedman’s recent “Why I’m (Still) a Marxist” in Jewish Currents, click here. To read Lawrence Bush’s “Why I’m Not (Still) a Marxist,” click here. To read about Jewish Currents’ communist history, click here.   IS THERE any precedent in world history for a successful socialist economy? Every place that it was […]

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Mishegos and Mayhem in the Yiddish Press

by Bennett Muraskin Discussed in this essay: Bad Rabbi and Other Strange But True Stories From the Yiddish Press, by Eddy Portnoy. Stanford University Press, 2017, 264 pages.    EDDY PORTNOY, a senior researcher and director at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, who knows Yiddish as well as anyone in his field (and has unearthed such forgotten […]

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Some Religious Roots of Jewish Humor

by Bennett Muraskin No matter how bad things get, you’ve got to go on living, even if it kills you. —Sholem Aleichem   THE STEREOTYPE of the funny Jew is relatively new. Traditionally, Jews were the butt of antisemitic jokes. Among themselves they made fun of the gentiles, but it was far too dangerous to take that […]

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Free Palestine?

by Bennett Muraskin At the convention of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) in Chicago this month, a resolution was adopted calling for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel. Its passage was accompanied by chants of “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” The resolution declares its “solidarity with Palestinian civil society’s non-violent struggle […]

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The Rightwing Specter

by Bennett Muraskin Discussed in this essay: The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues and the Coming Dark Age, by James Kirchick. Yale University Press, 2017, 288 pages, indexed.   A SPECTER is haunting Europe, but it sure as hell isn’t communism. It is rightwing nationalist populism. Its targets are the European Union, globalization of capital, and immigration. If […]

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American Resistance to World War I

by Bennett Muraskin Discussed in this essay: War against War: The American Fight for Peace, 1914-1918, by Michael Kazin. Simon and Schuster, 2017, 400 pages. THE UNITED STATES did not enter World War I until April 1917, over two and a half years after the war began. If the militaristic Theodore Roosevelt had won the presidency in 1912 (he came […]

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In Memoriam: Irwin Corey

by Bennett Muraskin “THE WORLD’S FOREMOST AUTHORITY,” Irwin Corey, has died at the ripe old age of 102. His shtik was to impersonate a professor spouting intellectual gibberish. He typically started his shpil with “However,” and, after a barrage of wordy non-sequiturs, ended it by asking “What was the question?” Typically in the course of […]

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In Memoriam: Henry Foner

by Bennett Muraskin HENRY FONER (March 23, 1919—January 11, 2017), the last of the four activist Foner brothers — all heroes to Jewish Currents readers and other progressives — has left us at age 97. His loss will be felt deeply by JC: He was the eldest member of the magazine’s Editorial Board and a […]

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People of the Book 101

by Bennett Muraskin Discussed in this essay: The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature, by Adam Kirsch. W.W. Norton & Company, 2016, 407 pages. LITERARY CRITIC, essayist, and secular Talmudist Adam Kirsch is a 40-year-old Jewish intellectual with an extraordinary breadth and depth of knowledge. He has a regular column in the […]

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Publications for Secular Jewish Kids: A History

by Bennett Muraskin Discussed in this essay: Raising Secular Jews: Yiddish Schools and Their Periodicals for American Children, 1917-1950 by Naomi Prawer Kadar. Brandeis University Press, 2017, 282 pages. READERS of Jewish Currents should already know something about the history of secular Jewish/Yiddish education in the U.S. from Barnett Zumoff’s review in Jewish Currents of […]

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A Cornucopia of Yiddish Stories

by Bennett Muraskin Discussed in this essay: Have I Got a Story For You: More than a Century of Fiction from the Forward, edited by Ezra Glinter. W.W. Norton, 2017, 433 pages. IT IS A TRIBUTE to the Jewish love of the written word that the Yiddish Forward newspaper regularly published Yiddish literature. More than […]

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Jews Among the Wobblies

by Bennett Muraskin THE MOST RADICAL labor union in American history was the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), colloquially known as the Wobblies. Its active years were from 1905 to 1919, with some campaigns extending into the 1920s. Fierce government repression during and after World War I, along with vigilante violence and internal divisions, […]

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In Memoriam: Stanley Sheinbaum

(JUNE 12, 1920–SEPTEMBER 12, 2016) by Bennett Muraskin STANLEY SHEINBAUM is proof positive that there is such a thing as a progressive millionaire. (Julius Rosenwald and Edward Filene are other examples.) In a career that spanned over five decades, he secured the release of a leftwing political prisoner in Greece; raised funds for the defense […]

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Premature Anti-Fascism

LOOKING BACK AT THE SPANISH CIVIL WAR by Bennett Muraskin Published in the Summer 2016 issue of Jewish Currents Discussed in this essay: Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1938, by Adam Hochschild. Princeton University Press, 2016, 288 pages. FOR THE AMERICAN LEFT, the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939, was a noble […]

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Oedipus in Brooklyn

by Bennett Muraskin Discussed in this essay: Oedipus in Brooklyn and Other Stories by Blume Lempel, translated from the Yiddish by Ellen Cassedy and Yermiyahu Ahron Taub, Mandel Vilar Press/Dryad Press, 2016, 225 pages. THERE WAS A TIME when female Yiddish writers were virtually unknown in English translation. Irving Howe did not include a single one […]

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Against the Phrase, “White Privilege”

by Bennett Muraskin THE TERM “white privilege” should be discarded. This is not to say that African-Americans are not subject to many forms of racial discrimination — including in the realm of policing and the criminal justice system. Blacks are disadvantaged, historically and still today, in housing, education, employment, healthcare, and more. The “Do Black […]

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The Menorah Journal

by Bennett Muraskin THE MENORAH JOURNAL, founded in 1915, was the leading English-language Jewish intellectual and literary journal of its era. Unfortunately, it was never fully appreciated by the secular Jewish movement of its day, and its impact on Jewish intellectual life continues to be neglected by the American Jewish community as a whole. The […]

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In Memoriam: Theodore Bikel

May 2, 1924 — July 21, 2015 by Bennett Muraskin From the Spring 2016 issue of Jewish Currents THERE ARE FEW contemporary Jews who have been more steeped in the tradition of progressive yiddishkayt than Theodore Bikel. He grew up in Vienna, but after Nazi Germany took over the country in 1938, his family emigrated […]

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Enough of “They Fought Back”!

by Bennett Muraskin WHY SO MUCH FUSS over the extent of armed Jewish resistance to the Nazis in the pages of Jewish Currents? Resistance took many forms. A few Jews turned to armed resistance as an absolute last resort in the face of a genocidal enemy. But the fact is that armed resistance was impossible […]

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Dispatches from Yiddish New York

by Bennett Muraskin I CONFESS that I never made it to Klezkamp, which had its final hurrah a year ago. I was not willing to sacrifice the time and money to stay overnight at a hotel in the Catskills, and I had the impression that the program was mostly about klezmer music, which is only […]

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Gun Control May Be a Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing

by Bennett Muraskin I RESPECTFULLY SUGGEST that “gun control” should not be accepted at face value by leftists. Take the current proposal to stop persons on the federal “no fly list” from buying guns. Such a ban would arguably affect innocent Arab and Muslim Americans who do not belong on that list to begin with. […]

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From Yiddishland to America

The Creation & Preservation of YIVO by Bennett Muraskin From the Spring, 2015 issue of Jewish Currents Reviewed in this Essay: YIVO and the Making of Modern Jewish Culture: Scholarship for the Yiddish Nation, by Cecile Esther Kuznitz, Cambridge University Press, 2014, 307 pages, indexed.   IN 1940, TO ESCAPE THE RAVAGES of World War […]

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Torturing the Talmud

In the Name of Feminism by Bennett Muraskin Reviewed in this essay: A Bride for One Night: Talmud Tales, by Ruth Calderon (translated by Ilana Kurshan). Jewish Publication Society,2014, 163 pages. RUTH CALDERON HOLDS a doctorate in Talmud from Hebrew University. She is currently a member of the Knesset representing the Yesh Atid (There is […]

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Is Israel Really “The Jewish State”?

by Bennett Muraskin OVER SIX MILLION Jews live in Israel, the largest Jewish community in the world. Its flag is a Jewish symbol; its national anthem appeals to the “Jewish soul;” Jewish holidays are national holidays; the official language is Hebrew. Jerusalem, the capital of ancient Judea, is the also the capital of modern Israel, […]

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You Know More Yiddish Than You Think

Yiddish Words and Expressions Widely Used in American Culture by Bennett Muraskin Illustrations by Johanna Kovitz, from the Autumn 2013 issue of Jewish Currents   JEWS WITH ROOTS IN EASTERN EUROPE, where Yiddish once flourished, make up only a tiny percentage of the U.S. population, and very few speak the language today. Yet Yiddish has […]

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The Last Empire: If Only

by Bennett Muraskin Discussed in this essay: The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union by Serghii Plokhy, Basic Books, 2014, indexed, 489 pages. THE COLLAPSE of the Soviet Union in December 1991 was a pivotal event in modern world history. The first self-proclaimed socialist state and by far the largest country in […]

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Why Reparations Now?

Ta-Nehisi Coates Makes “The Case for Reparations” in The Atlantic — But Our Blogger Respectfully Disagrees by Bennett Muraskin SLAVERY ENDED IN 1865. Jim Crow about a century later. Civil rights legislation banned de jure discrimination and anti-poverty and affirmative action programs have provided a degree of remediation. Many government agencies were established to eradicate […]

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Sholem Aleichem’s Show Biz Triumph

by Bennet Muraskin From the Spring, 2014 issue of Jewish Currents Reviewed in this Essay: Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof, by Alisa Solomon. Metropolitan Books, 2013, 448 pages. It has been half a century since the Broadway opening of Fiddler on the Roof in 1964 — and a century […]

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The Bible as (Not!) History

by Bennett Muraskin PEOPLE OFTEN CLAIM that the history of the Jews dates back 4,000 years. Actually, it is closer to 3,000 years, but that’s still a long time, in human terms. Certainly, few non-fundamentalists take the Adam and Eve or Noah stories literally, but many people do insist, on no firmer historical basis, that […]

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The Beilis Blood Libel Trial

One Hundred Years After the Acquittal by Bennett Muraskin A Jewish folk tale: One day a man who left the Jewish faith came to Rabbi Yehuda Ha-Khosid and expressed his desire to repent, but Rabbi Yehuda sent him away, saying: “No more can the staff in my hand blossom and produce green leaves than can […]

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Mandela and the Jews

by Bennett Muraskin American Jewish organizations, from the Anti-Defamation League to the American Jewish Committee and the American Jewish World Service, have issued statements mourning the passing of Nelson Mandela in the most laudatory terms. Mandela, for his part, in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom,  wrote that “in my experience I have found Jews […]

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Is Israel a Colonial Settler State?

Perhaps, but with Lots of Provisos by Bennett Muraskin Peter Beinart, in an article in the September 26, 2013 issue of the New York Review of Books, wrote: “Virtually every Palestinian I’ve ever met considers Zionism to be colonialist, imperialist, and racist. When liberal American Jews think about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they think about Isaac […]

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Jews and the Advent of Capitalism

by Bennett Muraskin Discussed in this essay: Capitalism and the Jews, by Jerry Z. Muller. Princeton University Press, 2010, 267 pages. We progressive Jews like to think that Jews are predisposed by Jewish tradition and historical circumstance to embrace socialism, but Jerry Z. Muller makes a strong case that Jews have a special affinity for […]

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The Prophetic Tradition: Is It Ours?

by Bennett Muraskin MORRIS U. SCHAPPES WAS of the long-time editor Jewish Currents and an American Jewish historian. A progressive secular Jew from the old school of Jewish communists and socialists who came of age before World War Two, he once wrote about the prophetic tradition: There are… two traditions in Jewish life and history. […]

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Secular Jewish Education, a Critique

by Bennett Muraskin Thanks to the Sid Resnick Historical Archive at the Jewish Currents website, I recently read an article by Itche Goldberg from the September 1959 issue: “Secular Jewish Education in the U.S.A. — The Meaning of Secularism and the State of Progressive Jewish Schools.” Goldberg was for many decades the leading pedagogue among […]

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The Origins and Meanings of Ashkenazic Last Names

by Bennett Muraskin (Editor’s note: Corrections and updates for this article are listed at the end of it. See also Bennett Muraskin’s follow-up piece by clicking here. For a musical exploration of Ashkenazic names by Corey Weinstein, click here.) Ashkenazic Jews were among the last Europeans to take family names. Some German-speaking Jews took last […]

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Jews and the Left: A Conference Report

by Bennett Muraskin YIVO’s Jews and the Left International Conference (May 6-7) played to a packed house, but it was no celebration. Historian Ezra Mendelsohn, Hebrew University professor emeritus and editor of Essential Papers on Jews and the Left (1997), concluded the conference with a eulogy and not a very favorable one at that. The […]

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Jews in American Sports

by Bennett Muraskin From the Autumn, 2011 issue of Jewish Currents FOR THE JEWS the Jews of the East European shtetls, strenuous physical activity was for goyim — and for those Jews unfortunate enough to have to earn their keep as shleppers, water-carriers, porters, and the like. A Jewish boy was supposed to study. From […]

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Yiddish Literature in English Translation

An American Tale by Bennett Muraskin Modern Yiddish literature is a prime expression of Jewish humanism. Its creators were typically rebels against authority and proponents of universal ideals of freedom of thought, social justice and human dignity. Yiddish authors did not write for the educated elite, but for the average Jew. They formed a special […]

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In Memoriam

Abie Nathan April 29, 1927 – August 27, 2008 Abraham Jacob Nathan was a free spirit and a visionary. In 1966, as tensions mounted between Israel and Egypt, he flew a small plane named “Shalom One” to Egypt to discuss peace with Egyptian President Gamel Abdul Nasser. Nathan attempted to repeat the deed in early […]

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Demographics and Democracy in the Jewish State

Do demographics predict destiny? Probably the most common argument made by Jewish Israelis against annexation of the Occupied Territories is that it would “endanger the Jewish character of the state” by extending citizenship to millions of non-Jews. In the early 1990s, Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, a progressive American Zionist, opposed the building of Jewish settlements in […]

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