Judaism — it’s a big religion; America — it’s an even bigger place.
But one man — one brave, self-sacrificing man — has taken upon himself the weight and burden of serving both constituencies, of being just the Jew that this country needs, of being: America’s Rabbi.
I’m sorry, did I say “one man”? I meant “five men.”
There are five American men (and yes of course they’re men) currently laying claim to the title of “America’s Rabbi.” Five, can you believe it? Why, that’s as many books as we have in the Torah! We’re going to have to add a chapter to our Holy Scriptures, or at the very least create a field guide, to sort them all out.
So allow me to present to you: A Field Guide to “Rabbis, America’s”
A woman gestures at a Jerusalem demonstration to help agunot / Haaretz
We’re familiar with the stories of recalcitrant husbands who refuse to give their wives a get, a religious writ of divorce, effectively preventing them from remarrying. But less discussed is the heart-wrenching experience of women whose husbands are alive, but unable to interact with them in any way.
The Israeli city of Safed is known for its religious conservatism, but it has just come up with a massive innovation in Jewish law. While a husband’s consent is generally needed to approve a divorce, the Safed Rabbinical Court has just made an exception.
A man who has been in a coma for seven years following a motorbike accident has just been divorced from his wife, a 34-year-old mother of one, Haaretz reports. She believed that he will never regain consciousness, and wanted the opportunity to remarry.
Pennsylvania’s Tom Wolf is a JCC macher, but is not Jewish / Flicker: WolfForPa Campaign
(JTA) — In his coverage of last night’s primary elections, Slate political reporter Dave Weigel mentioned an odd fact: Tom Wolf, Pennsylvania’s newly crowned gubernatorial nominee, has given so much to his local Jewish community center in York, Pa., that many reporters assumed he was Jewish. Only he isn’t.
So why is a non-Jewish businessman one of the biggest donors to his local JCC — so big that, in the midst of a gubernatorial campaign, he’s also co-chairing the JCC’s new capital campaign?
There are a couple parts to this answer. One is that Wolf and his family have deep roots in the York community — in fact, one of the York’s boroughs, Mount Wolf, is named for Tom Wolf’s great-great-grandfather — and he’s been a generous donor of time and money to local civic life.
The second part is that the York JCC is one of a number of JCCs around the country where the membership is majority gentile. (I wrote about this a few years ago for the Forward.) In these communities, the Jewish population is too small to support a decent JCC on its own, so the local leaders have decided to actively recruit members from outside the Jewish community. The Jews get a nice big JCC (and I can attest that the York JCC is very nice, even before its newly planned expansion) with lots of Jewish programming, and the non-Jews get a nice gym and another good local preschool.
So, in that light, Tom Wolf’s JCC donations make sense — he’s just supporting another York civic institution, the way his family always does.
There’s one more twist to the story, though: Tom Wolf, the man so many people believed was Jewish, just beat out Allyson Schwartz — a woman who is, in fact, Jewish — in the Democratic primary race for governor.
Still from a video produced by anti-miscegenation group Yad L’Achim
Imagine this: You’re a young guy in Israel. Scrolling through Facebook, you see the profile of an attractive Jewish girl. She seems interested in finding a date, so you send her a message. She writes back! The two of you make plans to meet up in person next week. When the big day arrives, you show up at the appointed spot, excited and nervous. You hear a sound behind you and turn around, expecting to see the beautiful girl. Instead, a bunch of guys pounce on you and punch your lights out.
The reason? You’re an Arab, not a Jewish, Israeli.
Welcome to Jews Against Miscegenation, a far-right group of male teens and 20-somethings who pose as Jewish women on Facebook to bait and lure Arab “predators” into the open and then beat them up.
These young men made headlines in the Israeli press today after they were indicted at the Jerusalem District Court. Police were able to identify and catch them, thanks to a security camera mounted at the site of one of their attacks.
It’s a relief to see these youths finally taken into custody — not just because their actions are racist (mere Arabness is enough to get you targeted) and sexist (women clearly can’t be trusted to choose for themselves), but because reports over the past few years have suggested that Israel’s police and municipal governments were actually supporting and funding these bigots.
We often think of historians as dry academics walled off in their ivory towers.
But the level of concern about the health of historian Jonathan Sarna, who is hospitalized in critical condition after collapsing, shows that Sarna is something special.
Sarna, a professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University, is not just a deeply knowledgeable and engaging historian. He connects with people — students, historians, laypeople and, dare I say it, journalists.
As my colleague Josh Nathan-Kazis pointed out in a conversation this afternoon: “He’s a historian who steps out of the bounds of the academy and makes himself accessible to answer questions and engages in the world. Professors who do that are rare and valuable.”
I learned firsthand of Sarna’s value during my first months at the Forward, in 2011, when I started investigating a story about George Washington’s lost 1790 letter to the Jews of Newport, Rhode Island.
Sarna was the inspiration for that story after I heard him mention the letter’s importance — and the fact that it appeared to be lost — at a Limmud conference in Britain. Sarna was also my guide throughout the story’s reporting, directing me to source materials and to other important documents of the day.
Since then, whenever I have had occasion to delve into American Jewish history, Sarna has become the first person that I turn to for sources, citations, guidance and inspiration.
Sarna is more than a walking encyclopedia of the American Jewish experience. He is a part of what makes American Jewish history vibrant and vital.
That’s why so many people wish him well right now.
The controversial new bus ad.
Pamela Geller is at it again. Her new set of black and white posters on Metro buses in Washington, D.C. declare: “Islamic Jew-Hatred: It’s In the Quran. Two Thirds of All U.S. Aid Goes to Islamic Countries. Stop Racism. End All Aid to Islamic Countries.” An accompanying photo shows Adolph Hitler meeting with Haj Amin al-Husseini, the grand mufti of Jerusalem during the Mandate period.
Geller is known for her inflammatory ads. But I admit that this one makes me think.
Last week, Foreign Policy CEO David Rothkopf and former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren published a frank exchange about Israel’s past and future. But this was no ordinary discussion. It was between friends: Rothkopf and Oren have known each other since college.
The pair’s long letters, edited and published, were revelatory. Rothkopf’s disenchantment with Israel produced the liveliest reactions from commentators. But less remarked upon was Oren’s unflinching devotion to Israel — a devotion so stirring that Oren, a former historian, has forsaken the historian’s craft in favor of the diplomat’s. That is, his missives to Rothkopf made a case for Israel directed at American Jews. But making a case can involve glossing over facts, sometimes even distorting them.
When Oren started speaking about the relationship between American Jews and Israel, it was clear this was going to be a guilt trip. “As so many American Jews of our generation,” Oren wrote to his old college buddy, “you have this idealized image of pre-1967 Israel. But we’re adults now and adults inhabiting an illusion-less world.”
Oren noted that Rothkopf “once felt a part of” the Israeli story. The rupture, Oren wrote, didn’t happen because Israel changed (it improved!), but because Rothkopf did: “[M]uch of American Jewry has also changed — you, in terms of your Jewish identity, have changed — and acknowledging that is a prerequisite for forming your opinions about the Jewish state.” Maybe Oren’s privy to something we aren’t, but it seems to me he’s conflated Rothkopf’s “Jewish identity” with his support for Israel. There are enough worms to fish the Atlantic Ocean clean in that can.
The more shocking stretch of this guilt trip, however, arose from his defiance of American criticisms of Israel, especially from American Jews.
Forward contributing editor Jay Michaelson has won the 2014 Deadline Club award for opinion writing.
The columnist edged out Forward editor-in-chief Jane Eisner and Fortune magazine’s Allan Sloan to grab the prestigious annual award handed out by the New York City chapter of the Society for Professional Journalists.
“I am so proud of Jay Michaelson for this award, recognizing his brave, insightful and engaging writing,” Eisner said. “Congratulations to him, to his editor Gal Beckerman, and to all the Forward finalists this year.We are in great company!”
The awards, which were announced last night at a dinner in Manhattan, represent excellence in journalism from print newspapers, magazines, television, radio and the Internet.
The Forward had a record six nominations included pieces in news, arts and opinion.
“Zionism has been taken, kidnapped even, by the far right.”
So says Pulitzer-winning Holocaust historian Saul Friedlander in a Haaretz interview published over the weekend. Explaining that he was “a normal Zionist until 1968,” the professor says that nowadays he can no longer call himself a Zionist — thanks to the movement’s right-wing “kidnappers.”
Friedlander’s sense that Zionism has been stolen and besotted over the past three or four decades is one that will resonate with a lot of Jews — especially young Jews, who eye Israel’s rightward ideological shift, uptick in settlement building and price tag attacks, and occupation writ large with increasing dismay.
I share that profound dismay, but I actually think that Friedlander’s “kidnapping” statement misses the mark. It implies that Zionism started out as a perfectly sound concept but was, unfortunately, hijacked and problematized by right-wingers later on. But Zionism’s problems started long before the late sixties; they go back, I would argue, to the very beginning.
In fact, I agree that Zionism was “kidnapped,” but only if we’re talking in the Talmudic sense — that is, if we look at the movement through the lens of the Jewish legal category known as tinok shenishba — literally, a captured or kidnapped infant.
A Jewish settler boy sticks his tongue out at peace activists protesting in Hebron / Getty Images
This weekend, renowned Holocaust scholar Shaul Friedlander gave sharp expression to a feeling shared broadly by many Jews, in Israel and the Diaspora. “Zionism has been taken, kidnapped even, by the far right,” Friedlander said in an interview with Haaretz. And all around the world, these Jews shook their heads, and sighed. Yes, they thought, it has been.
I have enormous respect for Prof. Friedlander, but I’m afraid I have to disagree. Zionism wasn’t kidnapped, or even merely “taken,” by the far right. It was handed over, with barely a peep, by the vast middle.
Our Ze’ev Jabotinskys, Geula Cohens, and Meir Kahanes have always had a central role in Jewish nationalist thought, but the 21st century has seen their like rise to new prominence. Centrists, hard-core peaceniks, and leftists have watched grimly as Israel has drifted ever rightward since the second intifada. Every step toward peace seemed doomed from the outset, and Israel’s leadership took care to tell us that there just wasn’t anyone to talk to. More and more settlements were built, but again, Israel’s leadership always kindly clarified that these don’t stand in the way of peace, and really, what’s another road, another red roof?
From farfel to Foxman, salami to Streisand, hummus to Howard Stern, we’ve got a lot going on in this week’s News Quiz.
Palestinian students perform in a play against Israel’s separation barrier at the Arab American University in the West Bank.
What’s all the fuss about? Secretary of State John Kerry has spoken the truth. He did so, first, in warning about apartheid. It does not exist at present: Israel’s occupation of the West Bank is a tyranny, and that’s serious — but there is none of the planned institutionalized racism, which is what “apartheid” means. However, if the occupation continues, or if Israel annexes areas of the West Bank, and if Palestinians remain as “second-class citizens” (as Kerry rightly puts it), then the apartheid label will be relevant.
In responding to the criticisms flung against him, Kerry said that Israel today is not apartheid. Again, he is correct. Within Israel proper, inside the Green Line, Arab citizens enjoy full citizenship rights; they do suffer discrimination — but it is nothing remotely like South African apartheid. Anyone who claims otherwise is either ignorant or dishonest.
If Kerry speaks such truth, why is he so condemned and told to apologize to Israel, and even to resign? Some of it no doubt comes from those who fear that his peace initiative might actually, against the odds, result in the creation of an independent Palestinian state, and they are desperate to cut him down. Other detractors are in denial: They cannot face the fact that Israel could slide into apartheid; they deceive themselves into believing that settlement expansion and the oppression of Palestinians can go on forever without any price to pay. The danger of Israel becoming an apartheid state is real and must be confronted. Instead of abusing Kerry, better to thank him for caring and for sounding the alarm.
Benjamin Pogrund is a South African-born journalist who lives in Jerusalem. His latest book, “Drawing Fire: Investigating the Accusations of Apartheid in Israel,” is being published by Rowman & Littlefield in July.
As a child growing up in apartheid South Africa, I clearly remember the myriad daily humiliation and discrimination imposed upon black South Africans. I went to a privileged white school where no black pupils were allowed. Instead, black children were forced to attend atrocious township schools, where they received an inferior education. I visited sick friends and family in the Johannesburg General Hospital, where “whites only” were treated with affordable and excellent medical care. No black patients were allowed. Instead, they were sent to overcrowded hospitals with low-level facilities and given low-level care. I remember clearly park benches and public toilets reserved for white people, and traveling to university on white-only buses. Black people had to carry passes to enter so-called white areas. The discrimination was institutionalized, pervasive in every part of our daily lives. Transgressors were penalized and often jailed.
How different is the situation in Israel? During my frequent visits to that country, I have visited my sister-in-law in Hadassah Hospital in a ward with Jewish and Arab women. I have fetched friends’ children from school and seen the diverse make-up, with Jewish and Arab children laughing together as they left the building. I have seen integrated buses, parks, universities, restaurants and workplaces, and engaged with senior Arab leaders in the political arena and in civil administration.
It is difficult for me to understand how a comparison can be made between a model of discrimination manifesting in every facet of South African life under apartheid and a country with entrenched equality — politically, legally and in every sphere of life. Discrimination, mandatory in South Africa, is illegal in Israel.
Yes, Israel has its problems and challenges, but to label it as an apartheid state shows a lack of understanding of — and indeed has the effect of belittling — the true evil of apartheid that we remember too well in South Africa.
Wendy Kahn is the national director of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies.
“A nice girl came to me and expressed interest in renting my apartment. She also informed me that she was in a relationship with a woman. Given her relationship status, is there a Jewish law preventing me from renting the apartment to her?”
When this question was recently posted to one of Israel’s popular religious internet forums, Ramat Gan’s chief municipal rabbi Yaakov Ariel had this to say:
“If the two women want to rent the apartment together, don’t rent it to them. If just one of them wants to rent it, you can let her — but only if you have no better option.”
There you have it: proof that housing discrimination is alive and well in Israel, the country that likes to bill itself as a haven for the LGBT community.
It’s an incredibly disappointing response, of course. Disappointing to think that prominent rabbis are going around saying, as Rabbi Ariel did in a follow-up interview, that lesbian relationships are “unnatural” and that property owners don’t need to make themselves party to such “strange things.”
Disappointing to think they’re inculcating in Jews the belief that “Jewish law doesn’t look kindly on couples like that,” without bothering to add any sort of nuance, like the fact that lesbian relationships don’t really become an issue in Judaism until Maimonides gets around to them in the 12th century.
Disappointing to think that if my girlfriend and I were to try and rent an apartment in Israel, daring to be as honest and forthcoming as the would-be tenant mentioned above apparently was, we could easily be discriminated against.
Disappointing — but not at all surprising. Because this rabbi’s don’t-rent-to-lesbians policy is just the latest in a series of similar rabbinic responses coming out of Israel over the past few years. Remember the don’t-rent-to-Arabs policy? Or how about the don’t-rent-to-Ethiopians policy?
Chabad Lubavitchers bring religious Jewish life to Laos in 2008.
If you saw the Anti-Defamation League’s scary new report on global anti-Semitism, you might have been intrigued to learn that the least anti-Semitic country in the word is…Laos.
Laos? Yes, Laos.
But why Laos, you ask? Good question. Maybe the landlocked Southeast Asian country has an amazingly tolerant and morally evolved population? Perhaps it’s been impressed by the wit of the Talmud, the humor of Seinfeld, the literary prowess of the Jewish Nobel winners, the breakthrough research of Israeli scientists? Do they just really like knishes over there?
Probably not. A more likely answer can be found in the Wikipedia page devoted to “History of the Jews in Laos” — yes, there is such a page, and here it is in its entirety:
Laos has no established Jewish presence, but as this communist country gradually opens up to foreign tourism, Chabad has secured permission to establish a permanent presence in Luang Prabang in 2006, where the young Rabbi Avraham Leitner provides meals and shelter to Jewish travelers. In all, there are only four permanent Jewish residents in the country, who serve the Israeli backpackers, tourists, and diplomats visiting Laos.
Wait a minute. Four Jewish residents?
Has the ADL considered that the low incidence of anti-Semitism in Laos may be due to nothing more than the tiny size of its Semitic community?
And why is the community so tiny?
It should be said that if there’s a lack of Jewish life in Laos, it’s not for lack of effort. Chabad Jews have been very keen to bring Yiddishkeit to the country — which, being communist, doesn’t look too kindly on religious activity. That hasn’t stopped this guy from trying.
Apparently, there was some drama in Laos back in 2008, when local police expelled Chabadniks from the country after they organized a Rosh Hashana celebration for 200 backpacking Israelis. The Chabadniks were arrested and interrogated, then put on a plane (along with their Torah scroll) to Bangkok, where they landed just one hour before the start of Yom Kippur.
So, establishing Jewish life is a tricky endeavor in Laos; there’s almost no permanent Jewish presence there; there’s also almost no anti-Semitism there. Should we be scoring that in the victory column?
At first sight, the ADL’s stats seem to tell a clear story. But they leave us with some murky questions. Laos is one of them.
Hillel President Eric Fingerhut chats with a student / Flickr: Hillel News and Views
As members of Open Hillel’s steering committee, my fellow organizers and I commend Hillel International’s recent announcement to create the “Hillel International Israel Strategy Committee,” which will review the organization’s current approach to dialogue on Israel and Palestine and make recommendations for improvement. According to a letter written by CEO Eric Fingerhut on Hillel’s website, this committee “will include a diverse group of students from a broad range of backgrounds and experiences.”
This announcement, along with other potentially hopeful ones made by Fingerhut, proves that Hillel International is starting to listen to students’ concerns. Open Hillel’s campaign to change Hillel International’s policies is working. Three college campuses have already declared their Hillels to be “Open,” and several more have issued petitions to change their current policies. Plus, there’s evidence that these Open Hillels have experienced increased attendance at their events because more students now feel welcome.
An ultra-Orthodox bride at her Jerusalem wedding in 2014. / Getty Images
This past Sunday, I spoke about sexuality and modesty in front of a group of ultra-Orthodox rabbis. Both professionally and personally, it was a profound moment for me, a formerly ultra-Orthodox woman, to sit there and name experiences that the ultra-Orthodox community hasn’t wanted to hear. To say aloud: I was raped, to say aloud: modesty can breed vulnerability to sexual assault, to say aloud: all girls deserve sex education. And to have these rabbis — some of whom were surprisingly open to these ideas — carefully listen to me articulate these silenced realities.
At this event, five former ultra-Orthodox Jews met with four ultra-Orthodox rabbis and one Orthodox woman in an optimistic but perhaps quixotic attempt to build bridges of communication between these two communities.
Tensions have risen between the two, as former ultra-Orthodox Jews have grown to be a bold voice for justice around issues of sex abuse, negligence in education, forced marriages, oppression of personal choice, removal of children from deviating parents and abusive treatment of deviating teens, in their communities of origin.
Former ultra-Orthodox Jews don’t speak with a unified voice, but our diverse perspectives are perceptive and essential — and troubling for the ultra-Orthodox world, which has often viewed them as an affront to their way of life. There is little constructive conversation between the two groups, for a number of reasons, including — as I, a former ultra-Orthodox Jew, have experienced — a tendency for the ultra-Orthodox community to attack the veracity and mental health of any former ultra-Orthodox Jew who publicly tells their story.
An extremist Jew is arrested at a 2012 rally for ‘price tag’ attacker comrades / Getty Images
Over at Tablet, Liel Leibovitz is unhappy that Israeli author Amos Oz is going around calling violent Israeli settlers “Hebrew neo-Nazis.” He claims Oz’s statement suffers from “a logical flaw,” one that has “more to do with philosophy than with politics.” And yet, for all that Leibovitz likes to namedrop Kant, it’s his argument that doesn’t stand up to logical scrutiny.
In case you missed it, here’s what Oz had to say on Friday:
“‘Price tag’ and ‘hilltop youth’ are sweet, sugary nicknames, and the time has come to call this monster by its name. We wanted to be like all other nations, we longed for there to be a Hebrew thief and a Hebrew prostitute — and there are Hebrew neo-Nazi groups.”
And here’s the follow-up explanation Oz offered on Sunday:
“I object to comparisons to the Nazis. The comparison I made on Friday wasn’t to the Nazis but to the Neo-Nazis. Nazis erect ovens and gas chambers; Neo-Nazis desecrate places of worship, desecrate cemeteries, beat up innocent people, and scribble racist slogans. That is what they do in Europe, and that is what they do here.”
Leibovitz isn’t satisfied with this explanation, because he doesn’t like what he takes to be Oz’s tacit assumption: that “an action is an action, intents and purposes be damned.” Surely, he argues, it matters that in the case of the “rowdy” Israeli settlers “whose particular form of teenaged ennui sometimes involves defacing mosques with hurtful graffiti, torching cars, and other acts of baboonery,” we’re dealing with an intent that is vastly different from that of the neo-Nazis, whose purpose is “the reinstatement of a regime responsible for the systematic murder of millions of human beings based on no other reason save for their religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or political views.”
Okay. So. Two problems here.
First, Leibovitz grossly mischaracterizes Israel’s “hilltop youth” — by describing them in exactly the same “sweet, sugary” terms that Oz was trying to warn against. He talks about them like they’re naughty teenagers, guilty of nothing more than a bit of vandalism — childish maybe, hurtful maybe, worthy of a slap on the wrist maybe, but nothing requiring that we “really be worried.” What he ignores is that these settlers are increasingly engaging in what can only truly be called terrorism.
Rahm Emanuel and Sarah Silverman are an ITEM? Sort of… in that they are both items in this week’s quiz. They are joined by Godzilla, Santa and Tony the Tiger. And Portnoy!
Ultra-Orthodox Jews protest plans to enlist them in the Israeli army / Getty Images
When it comes to off-the-cuff remarks, we all know that stuff happens. Jokes are made that blur the boundaries of decency, people get offended, and apologies are (sometimes) made. And when it comes to broadcast media dependent on audience share, the situation is even starker: shock talk can be seen as a ratings booster. But looking at the broader context around last week’s Israeli Army Radio gaffe, there’s something’s rotten in the state of Israeli discourse.
Not far off from Yom Haatzmaut, an Israeli comedian riffed on controlling Israeli population through cannibalism. There was a catch, though, he said. The population he’d like to cull first is the ultra-Orthodox, but he didn’t think Haredim would taste good (“too bland”). Knee-slap banter about flavor and matzo balls ensued, and the station eventually issued an apology.
As a rip-off of Jonathan Swift, the joke was already suspect in quality. But the reason that Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” is funny whereas the Army Radio bit was decidedly not, is, of course, irony. Swift was mocking shameful societal attitudes — in that case, as reflected in policies towards the poor. The Army Radio segment, on the other hand, sadly serves to prop up the very attitudes that Israelis should be addressing head on.
Hatred of the Haredim in Israel is pervasively and casually disseminated. Consider Ari Shavit’s widely lauded book My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, where he mentions the various populations comprising Jerusalem’s schoolchildren. There, he decries the fact that not enough are nice, secular Jewish kids. Too many Jerusalem pupils, in his opinion, are either ultra-Orthodox or Arab.