Forward Thinking

'Serial' Ends With Nod to Jewish Prof

By Gabrielle Birkner

Illustration by Lior Zaltzman


(JTA) — No spoilers here about the “Serial” season finale, but I will say this much: The episode ends with … a special thanks to a certain Jewish studies professor.

That would be Benjamin Schreier, the interim director of the Jewish studies program at Penn State and the husband of “Serial” host Sarah Koenig.

With “Serial,” Koenig has achieved something akin to superstardom. Her “This American Life” spinoff, in which she reexamines a 15-year-old murder case, has topped iTunes charts — with a reported 31 million downloads as of earlier this week.

“Fame hasn’t changed her. She’s been too busy working on the story to pay attention” to all of the buzz surrounding the podcast sensation, said Schreier, an associate professor of English and Jewish studies at the State College, Pa., university.

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Why All Jews Should Listen to ‘Serial’

By Lior Zaltzman

Illustration by Lior Zaltzman

Hello, my name is Lior and I’m a podcast addict. I’ve been streaming “This American Life” for years. I’ve turned podcasts into verbs. No, I can’t answer the phone right now, I’m “Savage Love”-ing. Whenever my husband says “Ok. Alright?” I want to scream “This is Radiolab!” Once I even used “Ira Glass” as my bowling pseudonym (I lost, sorry Ira). For the longest time I’ve felt that listening to podcasts was a niche. But not anymore.

Every Thursday since October 3 has been a battle of the wills for me. I try to hold off as much as I can, giving myself tasks to do before I can listen to the newest episode of “Serial.” Which in turn has made Thursday, arguably, my most productive day of the week.

“Serial” is ending today. The “This American Life” spin-off is the highest-rated, most-listened-to podcast ever. And there’s a reason for that. “Serial” is a melange of “This American Life”’-style candid, heartfelt reportage, the breadth and continuity of an audio book and the edge-of-your-seat suspense of true crime drama. It is everything.

Sarah Koenig, who got her start with “This American Life,” is the Jewish host and executive producer of “Serial.” She depicts an “everyday crime,” one that never got much media attention before the podcast aired: the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee, a high school senior at Baltimore’s Woodlawn High, who went missing on January 13, 1999 and was found dead on February 9 of that year. Adnan Syed, her ex-boyfriend, also a Woodlawn senior at the time, was convicted of her murder. The main evidence came from eyewitness testimony: Jay, Adnan’s “ex-friend” and pot dealer, claims he helped Adnan bury the body.

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A Most Inspiring Hanukkah at the White House

By Jane Eisner

jane eisner
Rabbi Angela Buchdahl addresses Hanukkah reception at the White House.

By just before 8 o’clock last night, my feet really began to hurt.

I was standing at attention, waiting for the President and his wife, wedged between four bearded Haredi men, a woman with very bare shoulders, and several people way taller than me who had their iPhone cameras at the ready and looked as if they had prior lives as paparazzi. Your typical Jewish crowd.

By that time in the evening, I had stood on line in the surprisingly chilly Washington evening to enter the White House, then stood as we ate, schmoozed, and ogled at the lush Christmas decorations, the historical paintings, the massive kosher buffet and the sheer amazingness of being here, in the central address of American power.

But I was wearing my good black heels and my feet hurt. It was cool enough to be at the Hanukkah reception. Did I really need to pay attention to the actual ceremonial part, too?

In a word, yes.

There was a special excitement about being in the White House on the day that Alan Gross was freed from a Cuban jail as part of a dramatic rethink of relations with our neighbor to the south. The President was eager to connect that story to the larger holiday theme, and a positive current buzzed through the air that was so welcome after a year of awful news.


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News Quiz: Why are Fran Drescher and Marlon Brando in the Same Quiz?

By Lenore Skenazy

Getty Images

Fran Drescher, Marlon Brando and Meyer Lansky — together at last! And also — at first!

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VIDEO: Barack Obama Welcomes Alan Gross Home

By Forward Staff

President Barack Obama trumpeted the release of Alan Gross at the annual White House Hanukkah party.

The president said Gross had his strong family and the entire Jewish community to thank for his release after five hears in captivity in Cuba.

“He never gave up and we never gave up,” Obama told guests at the White House Wednesday evening.


Why I Love Disagreements at Open Hillel

By Becca Rosenthal

Participants in the Open Hillel Conference at Harvard University / Gili Getz

For my entire life, I have been deeply connected to the institutional American Jewish community. From day school to summer camp, youth group to a gap year in Israel, the Jewish community has been my home. As a result, I have a strong connection to Israel.

Since coming to college, I have made it my goal to understand as many narratives as possible around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I spent my entire junior year abroad: a semester in Amman, a semester in Haifa, and this past summer teaching English at two different Arab schools in the north of Israel.

When I returned to the United States, I had a lot of conflicting feelings and information to process. I went to the synagogue in which I had been actively involved since birth, hoping to discuss the conflict in Gaza with my home community. Yet, I was disappointed to encounter a one-sided echo chamber that had little interest in hearing other opinions.

I quickly realized I needed a different Jewish community, one where I didn’t feel a need to justify my complex, conflicting and ever-changing views. A Jewish community that understood the importance of intellectually rigorous debate and that would explore the most difficult and even taboo Israel issues with me.

So I joined the Open Hillel campaign, a movement of students and young alumni, working to promote inclusivity, diversity and open conversations in Jewish spaces on college campuses. To be honest, it’s one of the most splintered Jewish groups I’ve ever worked with. We are left-wingers, centrists and right-wingers, united around one principle: the Jewish tent must be “open.” That’s where our consensus ends — there is no agreement on exactly what that term means.

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8 Nights of Hanukkah for 8 Black Lives Lost

By Mira Sucharov

Images courtesy of #Chanukah Action

As Jews around the world light the first Hanukkah candle, they will choose to commemorate the Black victims of police violence in America, even as they celebrate the Maccabee victory. At least, that’s the hope of an ad-hoc coalition of social justice activists who have launched “#ChanukahAction: A Jewish Day of Action to End Police Violence.”

Aiming to work in solidarity with the ongoing Ferguson Action Network, #ChanukahAction is positioning itself as a “movement not a moment” whose “focus is Black Lives Matter.”

To that end, #ChanukahAction suggests a range of ways to support social and political change. One of these is dedicating each of the eight candles to the memory of one African American killed at the hands of police. In the spirit of the public act of candle-lighting that Chanukah suggests, here is the list of eight victims being commemorated by the coalition over the next eight nights:

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For Hipster Naftali Bennett, 'Sorry' Is Hardest Word

By Sigal Samuel

YouTube

“I’m sorry.”

Apparently, those are Naftali Bennett’s two least favorite words.

In a campaign video posted online today, Israel’s far-right Minister of the Economy and leader of the Jewish Home party poses as a hipster equipped with full-on flannel, glasses, beard and a cute little sweater-clad pug. He bumbles around Tel Aviv, apologizing profusely every time somebody wrongs him.

A waitress spills coffee on him? He’s sorry! A driver crashes into his car? He’s sorry! A woman steals the bike he’s about to ride off on? He’s sorry!

Oh, and when Haaretz reprints a New York Times editorial headlined “Israel needs to apologize,” he reads it and says: “They’re right!”

When at last the hipster pulls off his disguise, the newly revealed Bennett looks straight into the camera and proclaims, “Starting today, we stop apologizing. Join the Jewish Home party today.”


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One More Thing About the Salary Survey

By Jane Eisner

Thinkstock

Sagi Balasha wants you to know that he makes more than you may think. In fact, twice as much.

The CEO of the Israeli-American Council is listed in the latest Forward salary survey as earning only $93,900 a year, making him the second most underpaid on our annual list of executives of national Jewish charities.

Turns out that his actual salary is $191,000. And therein lies a lesson.

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Why Jews Should Ride With Muslims in Sydney

By Leah Bieler

People run with hands up from the Lindt Cafe during a hostage standoff in Sydney, Australia / Getty Images

My ears perked up when I heard the news about a potential terror attack at the Lindt Chocolat Cafe in Sydney. “Potential” terror attack, because for a while the nature of the situation was unclear. And then came the now-familiar black flag with white Arabic lettering, and what was murky became just a tiny bit clearer.

For some reason, my thoughts went to what this moment must feel like for the average Muslim living in Australia. Or in London. Or in my own New England city. Because that is an emotion I recognize. Though they had nothing to do with the crime, I imagine that these Muslims experienced that all-too-familiar feeling, that gnawing fear deep in the stomach, that in my house is called, “Oy. Not good for the Jews.”

No Jew who has even a passing connection to community can credibly deny it. When something bad happens, you sit and wait, listening to the radio, watching the news, refreshing the screen. And then, they say, we can identify the attacker, name the criminal. And the name flashes across the screen. You read it and think, “Thank God that’s not a Jewish name. Could that be a Jewish name? Oh man, that’s a Jewish name.”

On one level, of course it’s utterly ridiculous that the actions of a complete stranger could reflect on me as a person. But the truth is complicated. Because no matter who I am or what I do, there will always be people who associate me with the bad apples. And maybe, in some small way, they have a point.

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Why Tunisian Jews Can't Wait To Vote in an Arab Election

By Yael Even Or

Illustration by Lior Zaltzman

Jaco Halfon spent the last week of November glued to his computer at home in L.A. Presidential election results were coming in from his homeland of Tunisia. Halfon, a Tunisian citizen, wanted to make sure that he was up-to-date and that readers of his popular Jewish website Harissa got the relevant commentaries.

Tunisian citizens voted in a free and direct presidential election for the first time on November 23. It had been three years since the Jasmin revolution that overthrew ruler Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. Following an interim government and October’s parliamentary elections, it was time to for Tunisian citizens to vote on who would lead the new democracy.

Jaco Halfon

Among the 11 million citizens living in Tunisia, there is still a tiny Jewish community; it has shrunk from more than 100,000 in 1948 to about 1,800 Jews today, mostly in Tunis and in the southeastern island of Djerba. Most Tunisian Jews have emigrated to Israel and France over the years, while a few thousand have moved to North America.

The new Tunisian election law determines that Tunisian citizens overseas are allowed to vote. Halfon decided not to vote, even though he is entitled to. “I feel a bit [far] away from over there,” he said. “We do not intend to go back there so I think it is a Tunisian issue and it’s for the people who live there to decide.”

Leaving the decision to Tunisia’s residents doesn’t mean that Halfon doesn’t have strong opinions about the elections. Out of the 25 candidates, the two who emerged as the leading candidates were Beji Caid Essebsi and Moncef Marzouki. If Halfon were to vote, he would vote without hesitation for Essebsi — or as he put it, “for democracy.”

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5 Most Overpaid (and Underpaid) Jewish Charity Chiefs

By Forward Staff

Matt Brooks topped the Forward’s list of most-overpaid non-profit leaders/Courtesy of Republican Jewish Coalition


The Forward’s annual salary survey allows readers to see how much of the money they donate to Jewish charities winds up in the pockets of those group’s top executives.

So whose pockets got the fattest?

Matthew Brooks, head of the Republican Jewish Coalition, earned that honor this year. His salary of $562,731 was a whopping 154% than what would have been expected for an organization of its budget, according to an analysis prepared for the Forward by Abraham J. Wyner, a professor of statistics at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

The rest of the Most Overpaid list includes Malcolm Hoenlein of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, who took home 106% more than the analysis predicted; Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, who pocketed an eye-popping $765,129 a year; Morton Klein of the Zionist Organization of America; and Abraham Foxman, the retiring leader of the Anti-Defamation League.

The same five leaders were the most overpaid last year, albeit in a different order.

And the most underpaid?

The leader who got earned the least compared to what the algorithm predicted is Robert Wexler, head of American Jewish University. His relatively paltry annual pay package is $198,080, or 48% below the expected amount.

No. 2 was Sagi Balasha of the Israeli American Council, followed by Idit Klein of Keshet, Andrew Rehfeld of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis, and David Zweibel of Agudath Israel of America, who was last year’s most underpaid leader.


Tunisians Turn ‘Ashkenormative’ Judaism Upside Down

By Jonathan Paul Katz

A Tunisian Jewish family on the island of Djerba / Getty Images

The Tunisian Ambassador to the United Kingdom recently came to the Chabad here in Oxford to give a Shabbat dinner talk. Needless to say, this event was not an ordinary Shabbat dinner by any means. After a meal of traditional Tunisian foods, the ambassador spoke about the need for co-existence, the importance of listening to other narratives, and — most interestingly for me — the status of Tunisian Jewry today. Though only about 1,500-strong today, the community leads a vibrant life — and many of the 80,000 Tunisian Jews across France, Canada and Israel regularly return to Tunisia for visits, even buying property there.

The ambassador painted a very inspiring picture. Yet one lady present was not quite in favor of this interpretation: She continuously interrupted him to claim that Jews were either struggling for survival after being forced to leave Tunisia, complete victims, or that the Israeli side of the story was being completely ignored. What’s more, she implied that Jews would only buy property in Tunisia if it were cheap — that there was nothing to see and the country was “dirty” and “barren.” As for one Tunisian Jewish community’s endorsement of the Islamist Ennahda party, she was completely dismissive.

The ambassador responded eloquently to her claims and kept the discussion from being derailed. And another Moroccan gentleman pointed out the ex-Vichy French and Israeli state roles in the deportation of Jews to Israel. But this lady’s outburst made me think: How might the Tunisian Jewish experience shake up some of our (Ashkenazi) assumptions about Mizrahim and Israel?

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Why We Lost to BDS and 3 Ways To Win Next Time

By Matty Lichtenstein

Getty Images

On December 10, UAW 2865, the union representing 13,000 University of California graduate student workers, announced that a resolution to align with the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel had passed a membership vote. This is the first American union to join the BDS movement, and the outcome is deeply upsetting to many Jews, Israelis, and non-partisan opponents of one-sided boycott and divestment tactics.

For some, it might be tempting to argue that UC students, especially the Berkeley and UCLA students that made up the majority of the vote, are instinctively anti-Israel and that this fight was hopeless. I would advise against that defensive line of reasoning, convenient as it may be. I believe that there are three primary — and remediable — reasons we lost.

First, this was hardly a fair vote. The same union leadership first staked out its clearly partisan position in a one sided pro-BDS statement and then oversaw the voting process to support it. Nearly all materials sent out to membership strongly advocated a yes vote, and little space was given to the opposition. If you were not already a member, to vote, you had to join a union that had already made clear its vision of Israel as a “settler-colonialist” state. BDS supporters were also able to use an already mobilized base of union members and leaders to swing the vote their way. BDS opponents were fighting an uphill battle to both mobilize a new base and to convince ambivalent or uninformed union members.

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Compare Your Salary to These Jewish CEOs

By Maia Efrem

Our annual Salary Survey shows that being a Jewish nonprofit CEO can be pretty darn lucrative. It sure puts to shame the median U.S. salary, which the 2013 Census calculates is $51,939.

Type in your income and see how it stacks up against the median salaries of Jewish CEOs of advocacy and public service, federations, and religious and education organizations. You can also sort by gender, and by individual categories.

You may read it and weep. Or not.


My Iconic Mideast Photo Is Not a Fake

By Ricki Rosen

Thinkstock

As the photographer of the photo discussed in a December 12 article, “Iconic Mideast Photo Is a Fake — and a Heartbreaking One at That,” I am angered by the charge that the photo is “faked.” The article reveals a lack of understanding of the difference between a faked photo, which misrepresents reality, and a photo illustration, which uses models and props to convey a concept.

My photo is not fake, because it doesn’t pretend to document an actual time, place or personality. Rather it is a symbolic illustration of peace and coexistence, which is why it has been reproduced countless times — not just in the Middle East context, but also by Buddhists and pop musicians. It was the magazine photo editor’s choice, not mine, to create this cover illustration of generic rather than specific peace partners. It is no different from the symbolic photos illustrating all kinds of issues, which are published regularly in the media.

An example of a truly fake photo is the infamous image of the toppling of the Saddam Hussein statue in Baghdad, supposedly a spontaneous protest by Iraqis but in fact stage-managed by American troops.

I am especially offended by the way the Forward has cast aspersions on my credibility as a photojournalist. At the time I shot this photo, I had been working for years as a contract photographer for Time magazine. The vast majority of my work over 30 years is documentary, not illustrative, and it has been published in Time, The New York Times Magazine and every other major international publication.

The most outrageous error is the insinuation that I had racist intentions in “faking” this photo. The article suggests that there is a racist aspect in dressing Zemer, the boy wearing the kefiyeh, in an outfit Palestinians might consider “degrading — akin to blackface.” The reference is totally irrelevant to this image in which the boys were photographed anonymously from the back and not engaged in any activity degrading to either Palestinians or Jews.

The fakery here seems to be the Forward’s, by inventing a supposedly racist background for a simple photo illustration.


New Quiz: Is Adam Levine on Sale?

By Lenore Skenazy

Getty Images

Adam Levine, Golda Meir and a Nazi ad agency? Not to mention a giant pickle? Jump in!

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Who's To Blame for Ziad Abu Ein's Death?

By Ben Sales

(JTA) — Here’s what we know: Israel Defense Forces soldiers grabbed Palestinian Authority minister Ziad Abu Ein during a scuffle at a West Bank protest and tear-gassed him. He died en route to treatment at a Ramallah hospital.

Abu Ein, the P.A.’s minister in charge of opposition to Israel’s West Bank settlements and security barrier, was participating in a protest Wednesday near Ramallah against Adei Ad, an Israeli outpost. The protest escalated into an altercation with Israeli troops, who then grabbed and tear-gassed Abu Ein.

Everything else is up for dispute, from what happened at the protest (was Abu Ein hit by a rifle butt?) to how he died to who is responsible. Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian doctors present at Abu Ein’s autopsy disagreed on the cause of death.

The Israeli doctors, noting the minister’s high blood pressure and poor health, say he died of a heart attack caused by stress. They say that his being grabbed by the neck accelerated the heart failure. But Palestinian doctors say he died from inhaling tear gas, from being struck at the protest and from a delay in getting medical attention.

This much is clear: Both sides agree that Abu Ein died as a result of the altercation with the IDF. They just disagree on whether the IDF is responsible. And that disagreement has caused an escalating crisis between Israel and the P.A. that threatens to ignite the territory.

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4 Stories from Zochrot Truth Commission On 1948

By Naomi Zeveloff

Palestinians mark the anniversary of the 1948 Nakba or ‘Day of Catastrophe’ / Getty Images

Is Israeli society ready to reckon with 1948? On Wednesday, Zochrot, an Israeli organization devoted to raising awareness about the Nakba — when 700,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled by Jewish forces during Israel’s founding war — held its first public “truth commission” featuring the testimonies of Israeli soldiers and Palestinian Bedouins who lived through the events of 1948 and beyond.

The commission, held in a hotel in Beersheba, focused on the Negev from 1948 to 1960. Zochrot was specifically looking at the David Ben Gurion-ordered conquest of the area to oust Egyptian forces in 1948 and the subsequent Israeli army deportation of Negev Bedouin through the 1950s. While Zochrot has taken hours of testimony on the topic in the past, yesterday’s event was the first of its kind open to the public, and a rare opportunity to hear from what the organization described as “witnesses.”

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No, Judaism Doesn’t Justify CIA Torture

By Jesse Lempel

Christian art depicting Jews being tortured in hell

Are the Jews somehow to blame for the CIA’s torture of detainees?

That’s what some want to know after yesterday’s release of the so-called “CIA Torture Report” by the Senate Intelligence Committee.

The CIA is in the business of extracting secrets and then burying them deep in its bureaucratic pockets. So it was somewhat surreal yesterday when the agency was forced to publicly spill its guts in the 528-page Senate report (redacted from a still-classified 6,000-page version). Among the disturbing revelations: the tactics were both more brutal and less effective than the CIA had claimed; some interrogators were inexperienced and should have been “flagged” for violent tendencies; the program had no meaningful oversight; and the CIA systematically duped the media, Congress and even President Bush in exaggerating the tactics’ success.

Another startling scoop from the Senate report is that CIA lawyers cited the “Israeli example” as part of their legal rationale justifying torture, referring to the 1999 Israeli Supreme Court decision that allowed interrogators to exert “moderate physical pressure” in some circumstances. This has already caused a stir among some, including the website Electronic Intifada, and is bound to embolden those who see a Zionist finger behind all the world’s evils.

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