While Avraham Infeld was recently in Los Angeles to give the keynote address to eleven hundred attendees at the Israeli American Council gala dinner, I had a chance to interview my old friend about changes in his thinking and life since the publication of his first book, A Passion for a People: lessons from the life of a Jewish Educator.
“I’ve lived for extended periods in four counties,” Avraham begins over fish at the Milky Way, the kosher restaurant owned by Steven Spielberg’s mother. I say that beyond diplomats and foreign correspondents this is rare. I know that he is referring to South Africa where he was born, Israel where he made Aliyah at sixteen, and the United Kingdom and United States where he served for years in various Jewish educational service.
“In every one I lived in, I found being Jewish very different from each other and none satisfactory. Growing up in apartheid South Africa, my natural understanding of being a Jew was a tribe. Everyone I knew was a member of a tribe. It was no different if they were black or white. The servants in my home were members of tribes and spoke different languages. To me it was natural to think of these tribes as extended families with cultural ties but not necessarily values.
“Israel was completely different. The secular Israel environment where I most often found myself in 1959, was a tribe struggling to become a nation. Very survival oriented. Their view of the rest of the Jewish world was either as a reservoir for Aliyah or people doomed to assimilation or the assault of anti-Semitism.
“In America, the only relics of Judaism were religious and spiritual, and the Jews made demands on the next generation which were completely illogical and unattainable. Like look at the non-Jew and become as like him as possible, but just don’t marry him. Make God central. When I look at America’s attitude to God, it’s very strange. No country talks about God more and is so comfortable with God, and there’s no place in the world where God is so powerless. ‘I love you, you’re going to appear on my coins but you can’t come into my schools or politics. I’ll tell you where you can go.’
“Living in the UK helped me understand America. I found a Judaism parallel to the high church, not a Judaism of different denominations. The way society related to the queen was the same way the Americans related to God. The queen was similarly a powerless figurehead.
“None of these four were fully satisfactory to me. I had to become a Jewish carpenter in order to build a house in which they all could live in separate rooms but with all their futures dependent on the whole house standing. It needed all the rooms. Therefore I spent my entire life trying to introduce residents of one room to those in the others. Basically I looked to find the essential plumbing I needed in the house that would enhance the sense of interdependency. For years I spoke about this without success. Over time it developed into the theory of the Five Legged Table.”
This formulation I know stands at heart of his work and is detailed in A Passion for a People. Avraham identified five essential “legs” of Jewish life: Jewish memory, family, Mount Sinai, the land of Israel and the state of Israel which are not the same thing, and the Hebrew language. The notion is that a table meant for five legs can stand on four. They can stand on three legs. On two, they fall over and on one they’re not even a table. The magic of the number five is every Jew who commits to three of the legs will have at least one thing in common with all other Jews. If every Jew would find a way of internalizing at least three of those five legs, he often says, “we won’t be uniform but we’ll be unified.”
Infeld turned seventy-five on Friday at a fabulous Shabbat birthday dinner hosted by David Suissa, editor of The Los Angeles Jewish Journal in his home. Avraham published his first book at age 74.
“I never saw writing a book as important. But people kept asking me, ‘Where’s your book?’ I realized that while people were excited at my lectures, after time the memory faded. Unexpectedly, since the book came out, I’m getting questions, overtures and requests that are far more serious and penetrating than before.
“I’m speaking to the IAC Sunday evening. There are more than a million Israelis living outside Israel now. They have to recognize having an Israeli identity card that says they are Jewish is no longer enough. They now need an identity consciousness. These Israelis have to go back to their memories and make new ones.
“The world too is beginning to realize that for every Jew who marries out, there’s a non-Jew potentially marrying in and working together to decide what memory to provide their children. It can be an enriching, bonding experience for the couple.
“We’re in a new world and I have to adapt to the rapidity of change that comes with it. The reality of intersectionality in the US, that nobody has one single identity is a fact of life, and this challenges so many of our previously conceived assumptions.”