In Passing…..

Food. We had an excellent meal and excellent time at Vasilis, a Greek/Mediterranean restaurant in the Kentlands section of Montgomery County. Formerly in Gaithersburg, we had to wait almost 45 minutes for our table Saturday night in the much too small ante-room, but the friendly atmosphere of our fellow future-diners and the aroma of the food being prepared and eaten kept us going. The wine list proved acceptable, and everyone was satisfied with their fish, their seafood, or their gyros. It is a family owned restaurant – with the parents in the kitchen and at least one of their sons waiting tables in a very friendly fashion, making you feel right at home.

Perhaps too much at home? The two couples next to us were having so much fun with their wine and their laughter, and so apparently unconcerned as to how much noise they were making, that everyone seemed to have been affected. When they got up to leave, the entire restaurant burst into spontaneous applause. Our waiter/owner said: “Boy, was that the most embarrassing thing that ever happened to me.”

Two nights earlier, I had a meal at Parthenon, the Greek restaurant near Chevy Chase Circle (over 20 miles closer to my house than Kentlands). Food equally good – and the atmosphere so different. The Parthenon looks like it was designed with 1962 in mind, while Vasilis is quite contemporary. No one was laugh at the Parthenon as they did last night.

Lectures:

The Gildenhorn Institute for Israeli Studies had a full day, open and free session on Israel as a Jewish state last weekend. I attended the morning panel only, but found it provocative, informative and well worth attending.

What is a democracy? According to Prof. Shlomo Hassan, democracy has two elements: political democracy (e.g., one man/one vote), and social democracy (e.g., civil rights and protection of minorities). Israel clearly ranks high on the first, but less so on the second, although higher than most countries in the middle east. As to whether separation of church and state is a necessary function of democracy, perhaps it is not. It is a hallmark of American democracy, but much less so with respect to European models. And in Israel, there are various democratic concepts: democracy for all, accommodations from all to reach compromises, democracy only for some groups (others of which creating security problems) or democracy nationality by nationality. Prof. Shlomo Fischer agreed for the most part, but was less neutral in his conclusions, believing that religion was clearly an element of democracy in Israel and would always be, putting Israel squarely in what he called a European/Turkish tradition. He believes that all Israeli Jews agree with this, even the most secular.

Bernard Avashai disagreed with this, and took the position that Israel was more and more an important part of a globalist society, where religion should have no part in government or economic decisions. He was the most aggressive of the speakers, calling the others directly to task. Fischer (I believe it was Fischer) responded by saying that globalism had its downside, that is was good for the elite of Tel Aviv, but was what was leading to such a great disparity of wealth in the state, so different from pre-Globalism days.

The fourth speaker, journalist Amiel Ungar, took a different approach and spoke about politics and religion – suggesting that the small and previously dominant religious parties might be losing ground to the larger Likud coalition as observant Jews no longer wanted to be one issue voters and wanted to participate in the larger political environment. He suggested that Israel was on its way to becoming a more traditional two party state, with a leftish and a rightish party vying for control.

Later in the afternoon, I understand that things got even more testy, as a religious leader maintained that there was freedom of religion for all Jews in Israel. When it was countered that you couldn’t have a mixed or a secular marriage, he responded (to audience disbelief): you can have it for the price of a plane ticket to Cyprus.

Poor Israel. It was come so far, and has so much further to go.

I also attended a lecture at the Library of Congress where Ronald Florence spoke about attempts to save the Hungarian Jews during 1944-1945, and the possibilities of bargaining for their freedom with the increasingly desperate Nazis, who needed war materiel and appeared to be willing to barter Jewish freedom for supplies. An interesting story, focusing on Adolf Eichmann and German-selected Joel Brand, as an underground leader of the Budapest Jewish community. One more interesting story – some of it based, it appears, on incontrovertible truth, some of it on reasoned speculation as to what the motives of the parties really were.

Theater: Amazons and their Men at the Forum is a thought provoking, but not fully satisfying, one act (70 minute) play, based loosely (read “extremely loosely”) on German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl and the relationship between art and politics. In the play, set as a comedy in the midst of tragedy, the unnamed Riefenstahl is making a movie about Amazon leader Pentheselea, who falls for the beautiful Achilles. The movie is about love winning over war, and about beauty. Especially, perhaps about beauty, because it is the beauty that engenders the love.

But its 1938, and war is about to begin in real time. Achilles is being played by a Jewish actor, who the director is going to protect, Pentheselea being played by pseudo-Riefenstahl herself (who else could possibly play her?), her sister is the “girl” who has to be at p-R’s beck and call, and a messenger boy is co-opted into playing Achilles’ oldest and best friend, Patroclus.

Were Patroclus and Achilles lovers? In the old Greek stories it may not be clear, but in real life, it turned out that the Jewish actor and messenger boy developed a strong physical relationship. Once again beauty wins out, and p-R, who thought that her own beauty could not be ignored, is on the losing end. In addition, funding and government support for the film dries up, and the “girl” berates the director for giving insufficient protection to her two male actors once she discovers that she herself is no longer the center of their attention.

What is the role of art? What is the role of the artist, when it comes to politics? Does the artist serve the political system of the day? Is she dependent upon it for her own success? Is the artist outside the political system, no matter how it may appear to a voyeur? Does the artist have a responsibility to fight the political system, when a fight would be appropriate?

All of these questions are interesting and important, just as the relationship of Judaism and Israel forms an important question.

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