At TED Conference: Kahane assassin’s son, Toscanini’s pants and other Jewish moments

The super-hip New York architect launches into a brilliant review of the last 30 years of architecture, keeping a brisk pace pace to make the 18-minute format of the TED Conference. When he gets to the requisite biographical slide, the image of his teenage self is wearing a Camp Ramah T-shirt, entirely in Hebrew. A message hidden in plain sight.

The annual TED Conference, the original that spawned the viral phenomenon of TED Talks — altogether viewed online more than a billion times — and a global network of locally organized TEDx conferences, turned 30 this past week. The occasion was celebrated with a new, custom-designed pop-up theater at this year’s TED Conference in Vancouver, British Columbia.


Though the speaker list changes every year, it’s never a surprise to see folks like Keren Elazari, an Israeli hacker and cyber-security expert; Moshe Safdie, the renowned architect; Larry Page, the CEO of Google; or Mark Ronson, the British DJ and rocker whose family name used to be Aaronson.

But like the architect’s T-shirt, it’s the unlikely stories and the underlying messages projecting from the TED stage that often catch me by surprise.

“This was my grandfather. He was a cobbler,” says Avi Reichental, a leader in the field of 3-D printing, pointing to an image of elderly man in an Eastern European shtetl projected on a high-resolution screen the size of several billboards.

Nearing the end of his 18-minute talk on the disruptive future of his field, Reichental points to his feet and says, “Even the shoes I am wearing today were manufactured by a 3-D printer.”

“I never met my grandfather,” he continues. “He perished in the Holocaust. But standing here today I know that I am carrying on his work.”

The illustrator Maira Kalman tells a riveting personal story of Arturo Toscanini’s stand against Hitler and fascism and the pants he wore when he conducted the inaugural season of the Palestine Symphony Orchestra in 1936.

Her story begins, “My family fled their shtetl in Belarus in 1932 to Tel Aviv,” and ends with her showing off the pants she is wearing on the TED stage, the same pants Toscanini wore on the conductor’s stand in Tel Aviv in December, 1936.

David Brooks, in a session of prior TED speakers invited back for TED’s 30th anniversary, reflects on Sting’s performance the evening before and then chooses to relate Sting’s personal journey to Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik and his seminal work, “The Lonely Man of Faith.”

But it is Zak Ebrahim who hits the most powerful chord, speaking just before Bill and Melinda Gates, in the one conference session that is simultaneously live-streamed out to the world.

“My father killed the Jewish rabbi Meir Kahane,” Ebrahim admits. Ebrahim is the son of El Sayyid Nosair, the Islamic extremist who gunned down the firebrand rabbi in New York in 1990 and is serving a life sentence in prison for various terrorist conspiracies.

Ebrahim, who is now an anti-violence lecturer, goes on to describe a childhood during which he moved 20 times in 19 years, was taken to shooting ranges and was taught to “judge people based on arbitrary characteristics.” Finally, he reaches the moment when he and his mother broke their ties with his father, his mother saying, “I’m tired of hating.”

Ebrahim’s message of reconciliation and empathy moves the crowd to a standing ovation and touches me profoundly.

Contrary to TED’s reputation for slick presentations and untethered optimism, there is a groundedness to these stories, and a rawness, too; a longing by even the most accomplished individual to place him or herself in a bigger context. The feisty defensiveness of an eternal underdog and the passionate search for human decency play out together, side by side.

Israeli Jews and Jews of the Diaspora stake out their roles in our collective future. I squint my eyes and see the latest chapter of the Jewish people playing out on the TED stage, hidden in plain sight.

Catching up with Marc Kushner, the hip New York architect, on Thursday evening, we walk past a wall of photos, one for each presenter. At the right moment, Kushner pauses to have his picture taken in front of his head-shot, with one of his friends saying, “We need this picture to send to your mom.”

Another Jewish moment at the TED Conference, I think to myself, as we are swallowed up by the crowd.

(Danny Krifcher, a past board president of JTA, has been attending the TED Conference since 1996.)

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