The Interview, by Zeek
South of the Border: Talking Peoplehood with Yossi Abramowitz
Stephen Hazan Arnoff
Jewish life in North America is no longer the cultural wasteland it was just ten years ago. Thanks to a host of independent enterprises, like this magazine, Heeb, Hadar, JDub Records, Hazon and Storahtelling and many others, it is rapidly becoming a playground, a battlefield, an orchestra pit, an open house, and a dream where shapes change quickly, narratives jumble, and expectations fall away. In a recent paper entitled “The ‘New Jews’: Reflections on Emerging Cultural Practices,” Barbara Kirschenblatt-Gimblett called the “New Jewish Culture” the “ethos, aesthetics, sensibility, and sociality of youthful expressive energy and diverse Jewish subcultures,” a movement of Jewish content and experience engaged in fluid, sometimes radical relationships with traditional boundaries, leading to initiatives in media, community, technology, the arts, study, and spiritual expression.
Yossi Abramowitz and his many cultural and educational organizations have also played a key role in this transformation. In the insular world of grey hair and suits where the bulk of major Jewish communal decisions are made, he is known for carrying himself into meetings and lectures attired in geek casual, an intense presence both jolly and biting, outfitted with running shoes, wrinkled and untucked shirts, and big old glasses, as he paces and jousts with people and ideas before the suits’ questions even have a chance to begin.
Yet over the past decade, Abramowitz has done some very serious work with some very serious communal support, building Jewish Life & Family! – often called “Yossiland” by both admirers and critics – a multi-million dollar non-profit organization that manages some twenty-five multimedia projects and partners. While his projects do not always carry the same chic and shine as more recent, edgy initiatives of New Jewish Culture, and, in terms of the chronology of the movement he was hitting his stride just before the core cadre of “New Jews” now in their 20s and 30s began to assert measurable impact on the community as a whole, Abramowitz has pioneered fundraising and consciousness raising as well as the establishment of infrastructure promoting a dynamic, generous, and pluralistic brand of Jewish life feeding both the fringe and the mainstream.
But now, having been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize twice before the age of forty, poked his elbows into the bellies of both the US Congress and the Knesset, and nurtured the growth of many important public nexuses of expressions of Jewish life, Yossi Abramowitz has decided to pack up the family home in Newton, MA and move to the Israeli desert. Why?
In his sandy new environs, each morning Abramowitz shuffles to a small office on Kibbutz Ketura north of Eilat, and indulges himself further in a personal fusion of profundity, self-promotion, empathy, goofiness, righteous knowledge, and humility. Playing out the mid-career trick of trying to understand the ultimate mission of the stickiness of his ideas, he was already asking himself whither his brand of open source Jewish missionizing before I arrived. We spoke of the charms of the desert, the gifts of exile, biblical ancestors, his famous sister-in-law, and, as I had hoped, a bit about why he came to the desert and what comes next.
So you have followed your Crocs into the desert after 25 years in the cities of Egypt. You’ve raised something like $30 million for building pyramids of Jewish life – in journalism, on the web, cultural venues, projects and services for social activism. In the realm of Jewish entrepreneurship these successes parallel your namesake Joseph. But despite all of his glory in Egypt, part of him was always lost. What was missing for you in the Old Country?
Yossi: Biblical Yosef had three phases to his life. In the first, he is the dreamer in the desert and a favorite, which pisses off the others. In the second, he is thrown into a pit, becomes a servant, and then thrown into jail. In the third and final stage, he interprets the dreams of others, brings them to life and discovers that this gift is the reason he was created. Dreaming and then realizing his dreams were prerequisites for interpreting and realizing the dreams of others. I’ve followed my dreams and not everyone in Jewish life is happy with another’s success. There are many pits that people have tried to throw me into, or at least wished to, and I’ve already served a little jail time (for a protest or two). A little self-imposed non-exile, living in a tiny house without a stove or bathtub is not a bad thing when one’s luck has been so good for so long. Phase three will come when my family will be ready. We’re happily incubating down here. But unlike Yosef, I haven’t yet done enough to help alleviate world hunger.
Leaving Boston and coming to the middle of nowhere in Israel, which side of exile do you place yourself on now?
Yossi: Global Jewish life is not necessarily Egypt; it is peppered with Babylon and Jerusalem. The real question is: Where is exile? There are plenty of people living in exile in the Land of Israel and there are plenty of people not living in exile outside of the Land of Israel. The ability to suspend the state of Galut [Exile] is not dependent only on geography, but also on living an ethical, principled, Jewish values-based life.
Your blog is called Peoplehood.org. Isn’t that title a little grand for a guy living on a kibbutz in the Arava Desert?
Yossi: I think it is quite chutzpadique to assume the needed grand visions for the Jewish people can be inspired outside of the desert. I seem to remember that the ethical revolution Judaism represents was transmitted in the desert, the great moral code of western civilization was received on one of these mountains and that the Israelites themselves walked in the very sands that my five children now play in and that seeps into my Crocs on the way to my office where I blog. The question itself is symptomatic of a problem of the Jewish people: our grand, collective case of amnesia.
When we are filled with ourselves, we are closed to receiving wisdom and inspiration. So standing in front of majestic mountains each day, or craning my neck on a regular basis at the palm trees, or seeing the same bedazzling night sky as our prophets is the most organic Jewish way I know of feeling small without feeling humiliated. It is magic click for more…