We must pay attention

And by the way, see you tomorrow.

Rabbi Dr Andrea Zanardo, PhD
6 min readMar 2, 2024

The New York intellectuals were a group of scholars, editors, and essayists who dominated the American cultural scene in the late 20th century. Hannah Arendt, Norman Mailer, Susan Sontag, Saul Bellow… They had a common political outlook: Socialist but anti-Stalinist. They had a common readiness for polemic, they shared intellectual interests, a typical style of radical thought, and they were (as one of them put it) all Jews, by birth or by osmosis. When the Left embraced the Third World movements (including the Palestinians, the New York intellectuals reacted in a very Jewish way: they split. The Left-wing founded the quarterly Left-wing “Dissent” and the more conservative took over the monthly “Commentary”.

I am -like many others- an avid reader of both; as a Reform Rabbi, I feel at home in such a milieu. In the Jewish cultural world, referring to the last issue of either Dissent or Commentary is very common. Perhaps, as Woody Allen suggested in 1977, one day, the two magazines will merge into a new one: “Dysentery”.

If you want to know more about the New York intellectuals, I recommend an intriguing series of lectures by prof Ruth Wisse but do remember to look at the two magazines. In the first lecture, Professor Ruth Wisse summarised the attitude of this circle with New York brashness: “Attention was paid.” And she was right. Paying attention is a Jewish cultural trait.

Our faith and our culture require attention to be paid. Look no further than this week’s Torah reading, Exodus 34:14 (p. 594 in the Plaut Chumash). “You must not worship any other god”. Look at the Hebrew (pay attenttion!) כִּי לֹא תִשְׁתַּחֲוֶה, לְאֵל אַחֵר See? The letter Resh, the last of the word אַחֵר, appears larger than the rest of the fonts. Not only in the Chumash. You can see the same in every Scroll. Why is that letter Resh larger than the others? If you do not look at the vowels -as is the case for the Torah Scroll- you’ll notice that the word other אחר is almost identical to the word אחד one, except for the last letter.

Pay attention and look at the ר

If the last letter is a Dalet, the word means One, and if it is a Resh -like in this verse- the word means Other. And if you know the Hebrew alphabet, you know how similar the two letters, Resh ר and Dalet ד, are. You really need to pay attention! The verse says, “You must not worship any other (aher) god”. And it is in opposition with “Hear o Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is (ehad) One”. In prayerbooks and in the Torah Scroll indeed, the last letter of the word Ehad, the Dalet, in the first line of the Shemah, is printed and written larger than the other letters.

So let me recap: two very similar letters, two opposite meanings. And we must pay attention not to confuse one with the other. Otherwise, we may end up worshipping the wrong god.

Judaism, as a faith, demands attention. Attention when we cook and when we eat — food must be kosher. Attention to the timing: we cannot celebrate Shabbat on Sunday. Attention to the calendar — the most common question among us Jews is always: “When is the next holyday?”. And, as our reading has just shown, Judaism requires that we pay attention to the text.

While they established themselves in the American cultural scene without losing their Jewishness, the New York intellectuals knew very well that paying attention was part of Jewish life. They were children of Jewish immigrants. Their parents had read the situation and paid attention to what was going on; they realised that Europe was not a safe place anymore for the Jews, that pogroms first and then something worse was about to fall on the Jewish masses, so they packed their bags and moved to America.

They, the New York intellectuals, had to learn to pay attention to the signs of another kind of antisemitism, those of the Far Left, in the 60s. Their comrades fell in love with the Palestinian causes, and gradually the Liberal side of the political spectrum — where they thought they were at home — became an inhospitable place for the Jews.

We see today marching in the streets supporters of the Palestinians who shout obscenities against Israel and against Zionism, nonsense such as “apartheid” or “genocide” which lead often to attacks on synagogues. But it is definitively not a new phenomenon. It started in the 60s during the Cold War: the New York intellectuals could spot the signs because -as good Jews- they paid attention. And moved elsewhere, intellectually and politically.

Attention we must pay. Because it’s happening again.

It is important to acknowledge the pain of the Palestinians in Gaza. Still, first and foremost, we must call out the responsible for that pain. Who tortures the Palestinians, who oppress the Palestinians, who starve the Palestinians? Hamas. Who hijacks any form of international aid and diverts that enormous amount of resources to build tunnels and acquire weapons rather than relieve the pain of the inhabitants of Gaza to make a living? Hamas. Who has caused this war? Hamas. Let’s pay attention to the situation in Gaza. The main responsible for the war is Hamas. And Hamas can stop the war just by surrendering and returning the hostages -as the (non-Jewish) Mayor of New York has recently and very calmly stated in front of a group of protesters.

We must pay attention. Because one thing is to acknowledge the pain of the Palestinians, which everybody does, and a different thing is to use the Palestinians’ pain to erase the pain of the Jews. And this is precisely what a group of extremists aim to do tomorrow.

The Palestinian Solidarity Campaign has called for a demonstration in our city tomorrow. They will meet -of all places- in Palmeira Square. This is a provocation. In Palmeira Square, there is a small memorial built by Israeli expats and members of the Jewish community in honour of the victims of October 7. There, we meet every evening at 6:30 to say prayers and read the names of the fallen. These very committed members of our community have been meeting and praying to mourn together every single evening since November 7.

In three months, the memorial was vandalised fourteen times. Fourteen times.

Now, let this sink. There are people in this town who do not want us Jews to express our pain. They want to forbid us to mourn for other Jews.

Pay attention: these people aim to erase our expressions of pain, to cancel our grief. There is no place for us Jews in the world they envision, not for the dead Jews, not for the living Jews. Why these militants will meet tomorrow, of all places, next to our memorial? Think of how many times the memorial has been vandalised, and you’ll know the answer.

Pay attention to their language. It reveals their intention. They talk of genocide — they support a genocidal organisation, Hamas. They speak of apartheid: they want to replace Israel with a State where Jews will be second-class citizens, as it happens in Muslim Countries.

But we won’t allow them to vandalise the memorial. The Sussex Jewish Representative Council invites all Jewish community members and Brighton and Hove’s citizens to stand next to our memorial. Tomorrow morning at 11:30, We will sing, pray, and read the names of the fallen. The police will protect us and will defend our freedom of speech and our right to mourn.

I invite you to show up tomorrow in Palmeira Square. Supporting other Jews in time of mourning is a very important mitzvah. And equally important is to pay attention to what is going on, the shameful, vile, abject attempts to erase our pain by the same people who want to destroy Israel with the pretext of Palestinian rights.

We won’t let them have their way. We will defend our memorial, We will speak out loud, we will sing, and we will pray.

See you tomorrow in Palmeira Square.

NOTE: I am moving here: https://rabbiandreazanardo.substack.com/ Remember to subscribe.

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Rabbi Dr Andrea Zanardo, PhD

I’m the first Rabbi ever to be called “a gangster”. Also, I am a Zionist.