Who was Rav Kook, the first chief rabbi of Jewish Palestine? Many have tried to understand this complex, charismatic scholar whose embrace of modernism existed side-by-side with strict traditionalism. How to explain his contradictory mixture of tolerance and orthodoxy, nationalism and universalism, mysticism and activism? Kook was a poet, religious jurist, philosopher and communal leader. Was he a Zionist?
For many Jews, slivovitz—the Eastern European plum brandy—is wrapped in nostalgia, evoking memories of irascible relatives downing fiery shots over Yiddish banter, or the mysterious bottle at the back of your grandmother’s pantry, revealed only during Passover seders. Over the years, slivovitz has become a distinctly Jewish beverage, one to rival Manischewitz wine, and a popular social lubricant to celebrate the good times and lament the bad.
The title, Little Failure, is of course ironic. By now, after Gary Shteyngart’s three best-selling comic novels, many travel articles and dozens of interviews—in which he rarely gives a straight answer—his Russian Jewish immigrant parents must have forgiven him for not becoming the lawyer or accountant they envisioned. Or have they?
When I was a teenager, there was a legend repeated in the Jewish schools of my hometown. If you somehow manage to get into godless Harvard, don’t go. But if, against your rosh yeshiva and rebbe’s advice, you actually go, whatever you do, don’t take biblical scholar James Kugel’s class. If you do, you’ll walk into Introduction to the Bible, see that the professor is wearing a yarmulke and assume the course is kosher. And, the story goes, you’ll walk out a heretic.