Forward Thinking

When Will Orthodoxy Be Ready for Me?

By Amram Altzman

Ultra-Orthodox Jews protest at Jerusalem’s gay pride parade / Getty Images

I’ve written about the successes and shortcomings of my fourteen years of Modern Orthodox day school education before, from religious, secular, and Zionist perspectives. I’ve also written about the thought processes behind my decisions to leave the Modern Orthodox world and join — at least for now — egalitarian communities that fall more in line with my (ever-evolving) vision of what my Jewish community should be.

The way I saw (and still see) it, my decision to leave the (Modern) Orthodox world was not one of choice, but of necessity. And, perhaps, it was also a reaction to the ultra-Orthodox community of my youth, a community which ultimately cut off all ties to my family after I was outed as queer, a community which had, previously, told my mother, a pediatrician, not to answer pages from non-Jewish patients on Shabbat, and where I was ridiculed for attending a co-educational high school and not wearing a black hat. Yet I still find myself inexplicably drawn to the Modern Orthodox world.

My decision to leave came not out of choice, but out of the realization that, right now, I do not and cannot exist in the context of Orthodox Judaism. As a queer person, most Modern Orthodox rabbis would not allow me to marry another man. Orthodox Judaism is nowhere near close to finding ways to include (or even recognize, despite the fact that the Talmud readily does so) the existence of those who identify outside of the gender binary. It allows for less, if any, literary criticism of the Bible and historical contextualization of rabbinic codes of law, and is frightened to think critically about God.

When I posed these questions to Orthodox rabbis, I felt shut down. The conversations I needed to have, particularly in high school, were not ones that I could have with my Orthodox educators. And so I chose to ask those questions elsewhere. I’ve begun to answer some questions, but others remain unanswered.

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What Islamic Art Museum Can Learn From Jews

By Mira Sucharov

Courtesy of the Aga Khan Museum

North America just got its first museum devoted to Islamic art, a $300 million project in Toronto made possible by the Aga Khan. The “over one thousand artefacts and artworks” spanning “over one thousand years of history” are meant to capture “the artistic accomplishments of Muslim civilisations from the Iberian Peninsula to China,” according to the foundation’s website.

With 3.5 million Muslims in North America, it’s high time that Islamic art took its place in the sun. After all, Jewish museums have long occupied an important spot in the broader cultural imagination.

For now, the Aga Khan museum’s collection appears to be focused primarily around traditional Islamic art forms like calligraphy, illuminated Qu’ran manuscripts, and ceramic and architectural ornamentation. Given the obvious connection between religion and state across the Muslim world, where regimes have long demonstrated their reach through public displays of art and decoration, this emphasis is not surprising. And given the breadth and beauty of this centuries-long contribution, the focus is deserved.

Still, it will be fascinating to see whether the museum eventually follows the lead of some of North America’s most notable Jewish museums in injecting a playful — and perhaps even subversive — twist on ethno-religious concerns.

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Gay Party Organizers Use ISIS Imagery in Ads

By Sigal Samuel

Drek’s ISIS-inspired party poster / Facebook

Advertising is a tough business. People are busy. Getting them to come out to your event can be hard. But does that justify using ISIS imagery to gain publicity for your party?

Tel Aviv’s popular gay party organizers, Drek, apparently think so. In recent advertising, they used imagery from the gruesome ISIS beheadings — an executioner swathed in black hovering over a kneeling victim in an orange jump suit — to draw crowds to their Haoman 17 Club last Friday.

Wow. Just wow.

Someone actually woke up one day, went to work, and decided it would be a good idea to borrow infamous execution imagery — even as ISIS is going around grabbing chunks of Syria, and even as the group’s victims are being mourned by their families. Including one Jewish family — that of slain journalist Steven Sotloff.

You’d think the organizers would have been a little more sensitive, considering that this victim is one of their own.

But they weren’t — and they still aren’t. Amiri Kalman, one of the Drek’s founders, stands behind the design choice: “We are trying to react to current events. We have been doing it for a number of years. But we reject violence in any form and that includes the (execution) videos intended to scare the world.

“Therefore we also refuse to participate with this fear and refuse to become hysterical. This is satire, and our way of showing our contempt of them and their videos,” he told Ynet.

Kalman also pointed out that the party itself did not feature any ISIS-inspired imagery or props.

Oh good. Everyone feels better now. Right?

Wrong. Oh so very wrong. On social media, Israelis are furious.


Oh, and by the way, “Drek” means “s***” in Yiddish. Pretty perfect, huh?


Should the Holocaust Get Preferential Treatment?

By Josh Tapper

Courtesy of the website for the Canadian Museum for Human Rights

(JTA) — On the fourth floor of the new Canadian Museum for Human Rights, visitors will find a gallery called “Examining the Holocaust,” which is devoted entirely to the story and lessons of the Shoah. On the same floor, in a smaller, adjacent space, a gallery called “Breaking the Silence” examines a cluster of five genocides officially recognized by the Canadian government: the Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia; the Armenian and Rwandan genocides; the Holodomor, or the starvation of millions of Ukrainians in the early 1930s; and, once again, the Holocaust.

“Examining the Holocaust” is just one of 11 galleries at the $351 million human rights museum that opens in Winnipeg, Manitoba, on Saturday. It is also the museum’s thorniest.

The permanent gallery has long been a source of controversy for the institution, which has fought accusations from a handful of Canada’s ethnic communities, ranging from Ukrainians to Armenians, that allowing the Holocaust its own space downplays the significance of the other human rights atrocities confined to a single room.

In interviews with JTA, museum officials defended their decision by asserting that the Holocaust is in fact exceptional, both as an act of 20th-century genocide and a pedagogic tool. As the trigger for international human rights legislation in the aftermath of World War II, the Holocaust is deserving of its own gallery, the officials said.

“It’s one of the most studied, most well-documented atrocities,” said June Creelman, the museum’s director of learning and programming. “One of the ways to educate is to start with something familiar and move to something unknown.”

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News Quiz: Seth Rogen is Quitting Acting to do What?

By Lenore Skenazy

Getty Images

Kate Hudson, Leonard Cohen, Seth Rogen and Mayim Bialik? It’s either this week’s Jewish News Quiz or a list of who’s sponsoring the Rosh Hashanah kiddush.

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Would Talmud Approve of 91 Lashes for Iranian ‘Happy’ Dancers?

By Sigal Samuel

A still from the Iranian version of Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” music video / YouTube

It’s a weird aftereffect of a Jewish day school education that, when I see a headline like “Iran Court Sentences ‘Happy’ Dancers to 6 Months and 91 Lashes,” I immediately ask myself: WWTDD? Or: what would the Talmud do?

You might remember that back in May, seven young men and women were arrested in Iran for recreating Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” music video and posting it on YouTube. Now a Tehran court has sentenced the dancers to six months in prison plus 91 lashes each. Luckily, the sentence was suspended, meaning that the verdict won’t actually be carried out unless the dancers repeat their “crime” in the next three years.


Still, it’s a harsh verdict, and everyone from Pharrell Williams to Iran’s own President Hassan Rouhani seems unhappy with how these kids have been treated. “It is beyond sad that these kids were arrested for trying to spread happiness,” Williams wrote on his Facebook page. “Happiness is our people’s right. We shouldn’t be too hard on behaviors caused by joy,” Rouhani wrote in a May tweet widely seen as expressing support for the dancers.

Likewise, my initial response was: Ouch! 91 lashes? Even the ancient rabbinic texts I studied in school didn’t recommended meting out that many! Then, to make sure my impulse was correct, I did a bit more digging into the wide world of rabbinic whipping.

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Haredi Meets Hollywood in Anti-Vaccine Debate

By Sigal Samuel

A health worker administers a polio vaccination to a child / Getty Images

If you had to guess which neighborhood — Boro Park or Beverly Hills — the following quote applies to, which would you pick?

Parents in these schools are submitting a form called a “personal belief exemption,” which states that they are not vaccinating their kids due to “a diffuse constellation of unproven anxieties, from allergies and asthma to eczema and seizures.”

If the “personal belief” language has you thinking Boro Park, the Brooklyn neighborhood known for its large ultra-Orthodox population — sorry, but you’re wrong.

The quote is actually taken from yesterday’s article in The Atlantic describing the rise of the anti-vaccination movement in wealthy Los Angeles schools. Believe it or not, the vaccination rate there is as low as in South Sudan. That’s thanks to Hollywood actors who — in between “forbidding processed food and dragging their offspring to baby yoga” — explain that they’re against any medications that aren’t strictly “natural” and that not vaccinating makes “instinctive” sense to them.

But don’t worry: You could easily be forgiven for thinking the above quote applies to an ultra-Orthodox community — because the anti-vaxxer argument there runs along very similar lines.

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VIDEO: Satan and Jewess Give Birth to ISIS

By Sigal Samuel

Well, this is weird.

Iraqi TV is rolling out a new satirical series, “Superstitious State,” that portrays the leader of ISIS as the spawn of Satan and — you guessed it — a Jewish woman.

In a promo for the soon-to-come anti-ISIS show, broadcast several times daily on Al-Iraqiyya, we meet a Jewess adorned with a big Star of David necklace. “I hope to get a ring on my finger by someone who will destroy the country,” she says, then points to the red-clad devil, who says, “We will name our child ISIS.” The subtext here is a conspiracy theory, currently circulating in Iraq and elsewhere, that suggests Jews and/or Zionists created ISIS with the intention of ruining Islam.

So, this Jewess is supposed to be the mother of ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi — but she doesn’t give birth to him the good old-fashioned way. Instead, “an egg hatched — and an ISIS-ling was born.” Why?

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How Not To Write About Hasids Buying Weed

By Eliyahu Federman

Cover of the memoir “Cannabis Chassidis” / Amazon

Should the media highlight religious affiliation of criminal suspects when the affiliation has no bearing on the crime, and when those accused are not representatives of any religious group?

This weekend the New York Post ran a story of three Hasidic men busted for attempting to buy 50 pounds of marijuana. The article repeatedly referenced the suspects’ Hasidic affiliation — even how the men wore “traditional yarmulkes and tzitzits.” The men were not practicing rabbis or representatives of any group.

Religious affiliation is certainly relevant when a crime is committed under religious pretenses or authority, such as with Nechemya Weberman, who was convicted of sexually abusing a girl in his position as a Hasidic authority figure, or in the case of a religious patrol group accused of targeting other minority groups.

But in the case of a common drug deal, like the one covered in the Post, is religious affiliation relevant? Would nationality, race or membership in some organization be relevant? Was this just an attempt to sensationalize a story that would otherwise be of little interest? After all, drug busts are routine in Brooklyn. Hasidic Jews dealing drugs, now that’s a story.

The next time a financial executive is indicted for insider trading, we are not likely to read that they were a Protestant, belonging to the Our Father Redeemer Church. Nor that they were wearing a crucifix, and had a nativity scene photograph on their desk. Why should Hasidic religious affiliation be any different?

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News Quiz: Who Did Mel Brooks Prank This Week?

By Lenore Skenazy

Getty Images

Mel Brooks, Roseanne Barr and Dr. Ruth? Slaves to the new and trendy we are not. And neither is this week’s quiz (except for the obligatory mention of Sarah Silverman).

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Meet the 'Good Kids' Who Refuse To Spy for Israel

By Elisheva Goldberg

Thinkstock

The refusal of 43 men and women to continue their reserve duty in Israel’s elite 8200 intelligence-gathering unit has taken Israel by storm. The group published a letter on Friday, and it made its way quickly into the Israeli, American, and international headlines. The letter stated that these soldiers and officers are no longer willing to serve in their capacities as occupiers. In their words: “We refuse to take part in actions against Palestinians and refuse to serve as tools in deepening the military control over the Occupied Territories… We cannot continue to serve this system in good conscience, denying the rights of millions of people.”

The response in Israel has been deafening. Members of Knesset who are also former members of the 8200 unit have spoken out. Likud MK and Coalition Leader Yariv Levin announced that “those who refuse to help defend our country cross the line between supporting the Israeli democracy and the freedom it represents to supporting Palestinian terror…” Labor MK and Opposition Leader Isaac Herzog rebuked the letter-writers and emphasized that there were other ways to generate discussion. Not long after it was published, 150 members of Unit 8200 wrote a response letter, calling the move a “cynical use of politics in their legal and moral duty to serve in the reserve unit.”

The question everyone is asking now is — is it? Is this explosive letter a mere political stunt designed to aim more antagonism at a 47-year occupation? Or is it, as the signatories claim, something deeper — an attempt to take responsibility for the unnecessary invasion of privacy of a people who have no civil or legal recourse. It’s hard to tell, and, as with most sticky moral issues, likely a bit of both.

When I sat down with three of the original 43 signatories — a philosophy student, a technology and communications employee, and a computer science doctoral candidate — my first impression was one of earnestness: these were the “good kids.” As an Israeli 18-year-old, you don’t get into Unit 8200 by being a slacker. You get in by doing well in school and by showing flexible thinking, confidence and the ability to work well with others. The hope is that these qualities, plus training, will give these young people enough dexterity and thoughtfulness that they can be trusted with the secrets of Israel’s deep state. Unit 8200 graduates go on to found and power Israel’s innovative start-ups, and these three were likely to be no exception.

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Israeli Criticism of 43 Refuseniks Couldn't Be More Natural

By Brent Sasley

Getty Images

Forty-three reservists of an elite IDF corps have signed and released a letter setting out their refusal to serve Israeli “military control over the Occupied Territories” anymore. The members of Unit 8200, an intelligence unit often seen as an incubator of Israeli high tech as its soldiers move into civilian life, directly criticized Israeli occupation and settlement activity. Not surprisingly, most of the Israeli political class has criticized the letter as, at a minimum, politicizing what is supposed to be an apolitical military or, at a maximum, directly undermining the security of Israel.

I do not take issue with either the reservists’ questioning of government policy, or with the government’s reaction. Most leaders of most states would react similarly. After all, as the group with the greatest capacity to threaten or even overthrow the government, the military’s voice counts for a lot in the realm of Israeli politics.

Natan Sachs is right that the letter’s short-term impact isn’t likely to be significant: As he implies, we are still looking at relatively small numbers here.

What I do think is important is recognition of the army’s place in Israeli society. As Israelis begin to question the government’s foreign and domestic policies more and more, the emergence of similar processes in an institution considered so representative of the Israeli ethos is significant. It also underlines the point that some Israelis are pushing back against what they view as problematic, illiberal and dangerous policies.

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In ‘Black-ish,’ Jews Are More Than White-ish

By Sigal Samuel

“Dad, I want to have a bar mitzvah! And — I’ll get a Hebrew name. I’m going to go with either Shlomo or Shmuel.”

So says young Andre Jr. — much to the dismay of Andre Sr. — in the trailer for ABC’s new family comedy, “Black-ish,” set to debut September 24.

This African American kid’s desire to have a bar mitzvah, even though he’s not at all Jewish, sets us up for his dad’s big concern: “Lately, I feel in order to make it, we’ve all dropped a little of our culture.” Worried about his family’s shifting racial and cultural identity, the father resists — “Jr., when you turn 13, I’m throwing you an African rites of passage ceremony” — at least at first.


The premise of the show is funny — but, for a Jewish viewer, it’s more than just that. In “Black-ish,” Jews represent the counterpoint to blackness. They are, in other words, the epitome of whiteness. They’re as white as white can be.

But Jews weren’t always perceived that way — far from it.

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Meet the Female Coach of Y.U. Men’s Volleyball Team

By Hillel Kuttler

Jacqui Dauphinais / JTA

(JTA) — Having been a standout player in high school and college, and an assistant coach, new Yeshiva University men’s volleyball coach Jacqui Dauphinais has plenty of knowledge about the sport.

And in her one season as an assistant for the Maccabees, she showed she wasn’t afraid to speak up.

The real adjustment for Dauphinais, who is not Jewish, may be the Jewish environment at the modern Orthodox school in New York City.

“It was foreign to not have a practice on a Friday night or a Saturday,” said Dauphinais, 30, a native of Cape Cod, Mass. “Also, I didn’t know there were as many holidays.”

She takes over after serving as an assistant under Arnold Ross for a team that won the Hudson Valley Intercollegiate Athletic Conference championship.

As a female coaching men, Dauphinais, not surprisingly, is an anomaly.

According to the National Collegiate Athletic Association, eight men’s volleyball teams in its three divisions had female head coaches in 2012-13, the most recent academic year for which figures are available, compared to 99 men. (Overall, 8,646 of the 9,030 men’s teams in all sports had male head coaches and 384, or 4.2 percent, were led by women, with 316 of the 384 concentrated in swimming, tennis, cross country and track.)

Yeshiva announced the hiring of Dauphinais this summer three weeks after the San Antonio Spurs made Becky Hammon the NBA’s first female full-time assistant coach.

“I think it’s a rarity. I don’t necessarily think it should be,” said Dauphinais, who works full-time as a sales manager for a nonprofit organization that runs several New York zoos. “I know that [the players] respect me and know that I have the skill to push them in the right direction.”

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Jews Take Action Against Jewish Press Gay 'Conversion' Ad

By Rachel D. Benaim

Getty Images

Young Jewish professionals have started taking action against The Jewish Press in response to their advertisement for JONAH International, the Jewish gay “conversion” therapy organization.

Yesterday, as the social media outrage towards the JONAH ad on The Jewish Press’ website continued, Chaim Levin, a former JONAH participant and witness in the infamous lawsuit against the organization, commented on Facebook that he had initially discovered JONAH from the long running Jewish Press ad in question.

In July 2010, Levin and another former participant of JONAH, Ben Unger, alleged in an interview that as part of JONAH counselor, Alan Downing’s therapy, he requested that his participants strip off their clothing in front of a mirror and touch their genitals in his presence.

Both Unger and Levin encouraged the current social action.

Since Levin issued his comments yesterday afternoon on Facebook, Sarah Gross, a board member of Bend the Arc, a Jewish social justice organization, publicized a Facebook group entitled “Jewish Press: Stop Enabling Abuse.”

Within hours of its launch, the page had 152 likes.

The Jewish Press has yet to issue a response.


Bush Press Secretary Live Tweets 9/11

By Anne Cohen

Getty Images

Former President George W. Bush’s press secretary Ari Fleischer is remembering the tragic events of September 11 in an usual way — on Twitter.

As Mashable reports, Fleischer, who served as Bush’s press secretary from January 2001 to July 2003, was with the president when the first plane smashed into the World Trade center, and took notes throughout the rest of the day’s events.

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Judging Ray Rice Instead of Ourselves

By Jay Michaelson

Ray Rice / Getty Images

“Justice, justice, shall you pursue,” we are taught — and what could be more just than punishing a man shown, on video, punching and knocking out his wife in what seems like a brutal, cruel attack?

Thus have we seen, in the last 72 hours, a cascade of condemnations of (now former) Ravens running back Ray Rice, suspended from the NFL and facing criminal charges. Perhaps most articulately, my friend Jodi Kantor wrote movingly in the New York Times about how Janae Rice, who has defended her husband, shows all the signs of a trapped, coerced and battered wife.

The only trouble is — all this is guesswork.

In fact, the public judgment of Ray Rice is a rush to judgment, and a uniquely 21st century combination of the surveillance state, ruthless corporate capitalism and celebrity culture. It makes a scapegoat out of Rice and lets us all cluck our tongues while the gladiator sport that is professional football can continue to entertain us.

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VIDEO: Israel Is the Answer to Your Love Handles

By Sigal Samuel

A still from the Israeli Ministry of Absorption’s new aliyah ad / YouTube

Dear young American Jews: Israel is the answer to the s***ty life you see before you.

That’s the takeaway from the Israeli Ministry of Absorption’s new aliyah ad, a ridiculously kitschy video that urges U.S. Jews to trade in their boring American lives — “love handles and socks with sandals” — for adventure-filled Israeli lives full of camel rides, sunny beaches, macho chest hair and “a free degree on Uncle Shmuel’s tab.”

The video doesn’t just trot out every Israel cliché imaginable — it also tries to make Israel look good by making American Jewish life look stale, meaningless, lame. The U.S. is oh-so-played, while Israel is “a place where the script is still unwritten.”

Not pictured in the video are all of the great aspects of American Jewish life — from bagels to Sarah Silverman’s glorious pottymouth to the ability to marry without a rabbi.

Also not pictured? The not-so-pleasant aspects of Israeli life — like the 50-day war the entire country just lived through this summer.

But never mind that: CAMELS!



Jewish Press Ad for Gay ‘Conversion’ Therapy Causes Outrage

By Rachel Delia Benaim

Getty Images

The Jewish Press’ advertisement for JONAH International, an organization dedicated to gay “conversion” therapy, sparked outrage on social media today.

The ad, featured on the site’s homepage, prominently displays the organization’s navy and white logo in the foreground, with their tagline mission statement — “Institute for Gender Affirmation: Overcoming Homosexuality” — and organizational website just below it.

Tovah Silbermann, a New York City resident who identifies herself as “a loyal reader,” was outraged by the ad. “This organization has caused so much pain and suffering,” she tweeted.

Sarah Gross, a young Jewish professional, took the campaign to Facebook. Using strong language, she shared a CNN article from 2012 that outlined the lawsuit in which gay men sued JONAH counselors who promised to make them straight. “It’s offensive,” she writes of the organization, and “I will officially not be reading articles on TheJewishPress.com after seeing an ad for JONAH [on their site].”

Both medical professionals and rabbinic personalities across the spectrum have denounced JONAH’s work.

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Yeshiva Retracts 'Mazel Tov' to Gay Newlyweds

By Sigal Samuel

A Jewish gay couple takes part in the annual pride parade in Jerusalem / Getty Images

“Mazel tov on your engagement! Oops — actually, strike that. No mazel tov for you.”

That’s essentially the message Israeli yeshiva Ma’ale Gilboa conveyed to one of its former students and his partner this week, upon realizing that the couple consisted of two gay men.

On the public notices section of its website, the national-religious yeshiva posted: “Congratulations to Uri Erman on his engagement to Daniel Jonas.” But it soon retracted the statement, chalking it up to an error on the part of the website’s student editor. “This is a mistake; we thought [Daniel] was a woman rather than a man.”

Ouch.

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