Recently, my three-year-old began starting every sentence with the qualifier “I feel like”: “I feel like I had a good day at school,” “I feel like we should go to the park now,” “I feel like I want to color.” I couldn’t understand where this linguistic hedging came from until I realized she was mimicking me. All day long in Zoom work conversations or personal chats I tend toward this verbal tic, qualifying my opinions and thoughts. While it’s just a small detail, it made me realize how closely she follows my words and actions. After all, I am one of only a handful of adults in my daughter’s world. I’m her model of how to go through life, which means I need to be cognizant of how I model frustration, how I model kindness, leadership and everything else. As she gets older her world will expand, and she will be able to choose whom she wants to model herself after.
Even as adults, how we choose our role models is largely unconscious; we even have “mirror neurons” that help us copy behavior we witness and build empathy. Yet there is something to be said for proactively choosing figures we admire and aspire to be like. It can provide us with road maps to possible futures and encourage us to think of what we truly value. In Pirkei Avot (Ethics of Our Fathers) we are instructed “asah lecha rav,” or “make for yourself a rabbi.” Some view this passage as a commandment to find yourself one rabbinical figure to follow absolutely, but a more expansive interpretation is an instruction to energetically seek out for yourself a teacher, a mentor, someone to learn from.
Learning from someone does not mean following them without question. After all, in Judaism we don’t sanctify or deify people. Even the Bible shows our founding figures with shortcomings—Sarah’s cruelty toward her maidservant Hagar, Moses’s quickness to anger—and rabbinical commentaries discuss these biblical characters’ faults openly. But we are still encouraged to view them as holy and to try to emulate their middot, or virtues. This is a helpful message to keep in mind at a time when we are frequently being challenged to reassess our heroes. As times and mores change, people who were once thought of as role models are being criticized for their racism, their sexism, their choice of words and more. (Admittedly, these criticisms have always existed but were often made by people in the margins and ignored.) Holding people accountable for their actions is the right thing to do. It is also right to acknowledge what good they have done in the world. Seeing and accepting a full person, failings and all, is much better than viewing them through rose-colored glasses or writing them off entirely.
Role models can provide us with road maps to possible futures and encourage us to think of what we truly value.
Which brings us to this issue’s “Big Question”: “Who are your role models, and why should future generations know their names?” Rabbis, philosophers, activists, scholars and others, such as Marge Piercy, Evgeny Kissin and Alexander Vindman—whom many consider role models themselves—weigh in on the people who helped shape who they are today. The answers vary widely, covering figures from the biblical Esther and Baruch Spinoza to the Lubavitcher Rebbe and Gilda Radner. (It is worth noting that men almost exclusively chose other men as their role models while women chose both men and women. But that’s for a different column.) The answers were so rich and nuanced that we are running the feature over two issues.
We hope Part I inspires you and gets you thinking about your own role models. Please let us know who they are at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Turning to politics, midterm elections are on the horizon, and while these often serve as a referendum on the party in power, the specter of Donald Trump and the Supreme Court’s recent overruling of Roe v. Wade have made the outlook less clear-cut. In this issue we check in with our Jewish Political Voices Project (JPVP). In the lead-up to the 2020 election we followed 30 Jewish voters from ten battleground states for more than a year as they navigated whom to vote for. Now we speak with some of those voters about the most important issues influencing their vote, how they view their party, and if they consider Joe Biden or Donald Trump political boons or liabilities. The answers are surprising and don’t break neatly along party lines. Just like the project as a whole, these interviews demonstrate that voters are more than data points and that political decisions are shaped by many aspects of our lives.
We also take on an issue roiling the Jewish political world in “Moment Debate”: “Are there dangers in the increase of Israel-related money in American electoral politics?” This question rose to prominence during the most recent primaries when some candidates were backed by Israel-related PAC money even when Israel wasn’t on the agenda. In “Perspectives,” Paul Scham shows how the usual self-images of Israelis and Americans seem to be in role reversal; Shmuel Rosner dares to ask whether anything would really change if Benjamin Netanyahu were not part of Israel’s political future; and Sarah Posner looks at the GOP’s Christian supremacy problem, which, she notes, is also an antisemitism problem. In “Ask the Rabbis” we ponder, “Can Jews married to non-Jews be considered spiritual leaders in the Jewish community?” It’s a question that ignites a lot of emotion, and we expect to receive passionate responses from you, our readers.
In “Literary Moment,” Gloria Levitas reviews the memoir of composer and scion of Broadway royalty Mary Rodgers. Maggie Anton, author of Rashi’s Daughters and other historical fiction, reviews a groundbreaking collection of feminist midrash from Israel, while Robert Siegel looks at four generations of Morgenthaus and how they helped create the America we know today. In “Visual Moment,” Frances Brent examines the controversial Philip Guston exhibition that was initially put on hold due to the artist’s use of Ku Klux Klan motifs, but is now on a four-city tour.
The High Holidays are just around the corner, which means menu planning. While we often focus on the meal that breaks the fast, in “Talk of the Table,” Vered Guttman offers up pre-Yom Kippur food traditions from around the world. And if you need meal ideas for the entire holiday season, take a look at our new ebook, The Delectable History Behind Your Favorite High Holiday Foods, celebrating the rich cultural history of Jewish foods from across the globe and featuring mouthwatering recipes from venerated chefs. It’s available for free when you give two gift subscriptions at momentmag.com/sweet-as-honey.
Wishing you a happy and healthy new year. Shanah Tova!
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