I think it’s high time we deal with the issue of mamzerut.
I was exposed to the subject as a result of my work as a rabbinic advocate in Israel, working with women who were denied divorces and agunot, women chained to dead marriages. Through this work, I became familiar with a host of issues surrounding mamzerut, defined as one who is born as a result of sexual incest relations prohibited by the Torah or of relations between a married Jewish woman and a Jewish man (married or not) who is not her husband.
Many women who had been separated from their husbands and some who waited years for divorces became pregnant by other men, giving rise to these situations:
• women who had abortions rather than give birth to a child who would be labeled a mamzer
• rabbis who suggested women abort rather than give birth to a mamzer
• women who were sorry they had not aborted children now labeled as mamzers
A woman once said to me, “I waited 25 years for a divorce from a recalcitrant husband. I became pregnant by another man, but I aborted the fetus rather than give birth to a child who would be stained with the stigma of mamzerut. This child would now be 21 today, and he cries out to me, ‘How awful that you aborted me! I wanted to be born and to live!’” This woman is now aging and has no children at all.
A mamzer is forbidden to marry someone considered part of the community of Israel. He or she is permitted to marry only another mamzer or a convert, and the offspring are forever considered mamzerim according to Jewish law, even after 10 generations. While the sages gave theoretical priority to a mamzer who was learned in Torah over a high priest who was an ignoramus, the conventional attitude toward mamzers is closer to what was expressed by a rabbi who asked me: “Would you let your child play with a mamzer child?! Would you let your child sit in school next to a mamzer child?!”
An Israeli observes the Iron Dome system in action / Getty Images
Almost one in two Jewish Israelis think that their country could withstand a substantial decrease in American support.
In a new poll by the nonpartisan Israel Democracy Institute, conducted in the light of U.S.-Israel tensions over the end of the peace process, 44% of Jewish respondents took this view. This is remarkable in itself, given the massive funding that the U.S. provides, and the fact that the most admired defense innovation of recent years, the Iron Dome missile defense system, was made possible by the United States. But it’s particularly remarkable given the domestic political tensions.
The defense establishment is facing large budget cuts, and claiming that this will impact on its ability to perform. And so, the confidence of such a large proportion of the Israeli population at this time that loss of U.S. funding could be sustained is highly odd.
What’s more, if you look only at Israeli Jews who define themselves as right wing, this belief that Israel could dispense with U.S. funding is very dominant. Some 70% of those rightists think Israel could withstand a substantial diminution of American funding.
Yet it’s always the political right that is most emphatic that defense spending can’t decrease — and it’s no different with the current budget cuts. Unfortunately, the poll didn’t ask respondents for names and addresses of those who they reckon will fill the gaping hole that a U.S. funding cut would leave.
An Israeli lesbian dressed up as an ultra-Orthodox Jew at the annual Gay Pride event / Getty Images
What do you do if you’re ultra-Orthodox and gay? You almost certainly hide.
On Thursday, Israeli daily Yediot reported new figures released by religious-gay support group Hod indicating that “two-thirds of ultra-Orthodox homosexuals [in Israel] have chosen to marry women despite their sexual inclination”; almost all of the more than 1,100 men included in Hod’s report admitted to having sex with other men at least once a month.
According to Hod founder Ron Yosef, an Orthodox rabbi and gay activist:
The situation of homosexuals in the Haredi society is much more difficult because of the social isolation they live in. A gay Haredi man cannot share his situation with his friends in the community or the yeshiva, his family members or rabbis, and “coming out of the closet” is definitely inconceivable.
It should be noted that Hod’s statistics are based on information received from gay ultra-Orthodox men who turned to the organization for help — which is to say: They reflect a self-selecting population, men who have heard of the group and reached a level of stress, or degree of openness, that would allow them to reach out. It’s hard to know how much the two-thirds figure actually tells us about the lived reality of gay Haredi men, but then, that’s a community about which it would be particularly hard to produce solid polling results.
Samson and Delilah, a cautionary tale against mixed marriage, by Rubens / Haaretz
(Haaretz) — On Shavuot, Jews around the world read the Book of Ruth, which tells the story of how the heroine - a Moabite woman - married her way into Judaism. Later rabbis adopted the story as a model of how a Jew may marry a non-Jew.
According to the story, after Ruth’s Jewish husband died, her mother-in-law urges her to find a new husband in Moab. Ruth refuses, saying “Entreat me not to leave you, Or to turn back from following after you; For wherever you go, I will go; And wherever you lodge, I will lodge; Your people shall be my people, And your God, my God.” (Ruth 1:6-7)
Ruth moves to Bethlehem with her mother-in-law, where she meets Boaz, a relative of her dead husband. Following the advice of her mother-in-law, she enters his tent in the dead of night and seduces him. They marry and live happily ever after. Their son Obed, we are told, is King David’s paternal grandfather.
This story so obviously supports mixed marriages that some scholars believe it was written in response to increased regulation enacted by Ezra the Scribe in the late 6th century BCE against marrying foreigners.
An image from the “Invisible” exhibit in Ottawa, Canada / Mira Sucharov
An art exhibit in a quiet gallery inside Ottawa’s City Hall has caused an international stir. Accusing the exhibit of “glorifying terror,” the Israeli ambassador to Canada met with the mayor to express his concerns. And dubbing it a “monument to terror” and a “travesty,” the Jewish Federation of Ottawa called on the City — unsuccessfully — to remove it.
Titled “Invisible,” the exhibit, by Canadian-based and Palestinian-born artist Rehab Nazzal, is comprised of a series of multi-media experiences. One is a series of colors accompanied by audio from protestors being teargassed in the weekly demonstrations at the West Bank village of Bil’in; another is audio feed from an IDF training exercise-turned-fatal in a Negev prison, with a series of abstract-looking stills on a nearby wall. Most controversial, though, is a digital slideshow called “Target.” In it, a series of names, dates and sepia portraits flash by, each encased in a circle of light. These individuals are Palestinian activists who were assassinated by Israel.
On the day I saw the exhibit, the room was empty, before one or two others wandered in. I flipped through the comments book. The ping-pong nature of the discourse wasn’t surprising. Some thanked the City for bringing the Palestinian experience to light. Others complained of “taxpayer money” funding what surely isn’t “art.” Some pointed to the omission of the fact that those assassinated by Israel were themselves responsible for many murders, and others invoked the “glorification of terrorism” accusation. To that, some responded that surely Israel and its supporters would have no problem featuring Ariel Sharon and Yitzhak Shamir in a similar exhibit.
At least three questions strike me from all this. Those who find themselves offended by the political message inherent in the artwork are demanding context, balance and objectivity. They seem to want to insert footnotes, to proclaim that there is another side to the story. But art isn’t meant to serve the same purpose as a newspaper article, a history textbook or an encyclopedia entry. By its nature, art flows from the experience of the artist. It is necessarily and inherently incomplete, a fragment of expression.
Burmese girls at school in Thailand’s Mae La refugee camp / Getty Images
Even though I was raised in a Washington, D.C. suburb, I never spent much time in the district and definitely never toured the White House.
But last month, I joined 150 Jewish activists from 18 states to lobby my elected officials to support the International Violence Against Women Act (IVAWA) — part of the inaugural Policy Summit of American Jewish World Service (AJWS). My civic participation helped me identify the pronounced incongruities between culture on the Hill and the lives of Burmese refugees in Thailand on whose behalf I came to speak.
This moment was a long time coming. Last August, I applied to the AJWS Global Justice Fellowship. I traveled to Thailand with 20 Global Justice Fellows — rabbinical students, graduate students and law students — to learn more about the humanitarian crisis on the border of Thailand and Burma. We met with local organizations, supported by AJWS, that are working to advance basic civil and human rights for Burma’s ethnic minorities and Burmese refugees in Thailand.
My most meaningful encounter in Thailand involved the Karen Women’s Organization (KWO). The Karen State in Burma is largely undeveloped; people are mostly subsistence farmers and have weathered atrocious human rights violations during the decades-long conflict with the ethnic Burmese military government.
Over rustic yet delicious green curry, I sat with KWO leader Zion Dany, who described abominable conditions in the nearby Mae La refugee camp. More than 50,000 Burmese refugees live there, many since the camp opened in 1984. Zion spoke of a young woman who was raped and murdered in the camp weeks earlier. After the incident, camp officials cremated and disposed of her remains without conducting an on-site rape kit to identify and bring the assailants to justice. Zion spoke with conviction about the absolute necessity to establish protocols so that rape victims receive justice and legal protection, regardless of their citizenship or refugee status.
(JTA) — Just in time for Shavuot, with its reading of the Book of Ruth about Judaism’s first convert, a Tennessee family of 12’s conversion to Judaism has prompted an outpouring of support from Brooklyn’s haredi Orthodox community.
On Sunday, Sholom and Nechama (originally Chad and Libby) McJunkin brought their 10 children to Brooklyn to complete 12 conversions and have a Jewish wedding ceremony.
Their wedding, held in the backyard of Rabbi Tzvi Mandel’s house adjacent to his small synagogue in Brooklyn’s Kensington neighborhood, attracted 100 people. Many of the guests were gift-bearing strangers who had learned about the family through an impromptu surprise online wedding registry established Saturday night by Alexander Rapaport, executive director of the kosher soup kitchen Masbia.
The online registry, which was featured Sunday in the Vos Iz Neias newspaper, includes various staples, such as Judaica and kosher grocery gift certificates, for the family’s newfound Orthodox Jewish life. By midday Tuesday it had raised almost $10,000 from 235 people.
Hey, did you know that Shavuot is upon us?
If you said, “no” or “oh, right, I remember that vaguely from grade school,” you’re not alone. Many non-observant Jews (not to mention non-Jews) are unfamiliar with this festival, even though it’s one of the most important ones in the Bible, celebrating… something (see No. 4).
And you know why? Bad marketing. Here are five ways to get this festival on the map.
Washington’s Synagogue Mural / Jewish Historical Society
Stephanie Slewka was peeling layers of paint and plaster from her just-purchased house in downtown Washington, D.C. when she spied a blue patch — unusual in the mildewy mess of browns and beiges. Removing a few more gunky strata revealed a Star of David. And tearing off even more exposed an arc of Hebrew letters across a sky-blue background speckled with stars. “We didn’t know what it meant, but it seemed awfully cool,” she told the Forward.
The artwork turned out to be a 1920s mural commissioned by Shomrei Shabbos, an Orthodox congregation that occupied the house in the early 20th century. To understand its history, Slewka called on the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington. To restore it, she tapped local artist Nicholas Kahn, who also added a Venice-inspired winged lion. And so the non-Jewish homeowner became the unlikely guardian of a rare and valuable piece of the region’s Jewish history. “It just became part of the house,” Slewka said.
That was 1993. Now, ten years after Slewka sold the house, the mural is facing a new threat to its survival. A developer plans to convert the house to condominiums. And the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington is mounting a last-ditch effort to save the artwork, believed to be the only surviving synagogue mural in Washington.
Man walks by rocket shelter in Israeli town of Sderot / Getty Images
Responding to the new Palestinian unity government yesterday, Israel decided that it will start holding the Palestinian Authority responsible for rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip.
The security cabinet resolved unanimously to “hold the Palestinian Authority responsible for all actions that harm the security of Israel which originate in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip.” In other words, all terror from the West Bank and Gaza will be blamed on the Palestinian Authority.
Jerusalem’s perspective is that this is a logical position now that there’s a Hamas-backed government in the Palestinian Authority. Until now, it blamed Hamas for all terror emanating from Gaza, even if it didn’t launch the rockets.
This Israeli position sounds dramatic, but it is unclear where its real significance lies. Is this just a declarative position, meaning that Israel will point its finger at Ramallah each time a rocket lands near Sderot? Currently, Israel’s response to rockets is standard — it hits terror infrastructure in Gaza with air strikes. It is hardly going to start striking sites in the West Bank in response, and is hardly going to remove the deterrent of strikes in Gaza. The bottom line is that Israel’s reaction to rocket attacks will be exactly the same.
But perhaps the security cabinet declaration constitutes a veiled morsel of optimism from Israel regarding the unity deal — that perhaps the formation of the unity government could actually lead to restraint in the Gaza Strip and could lead to the quieting of rocket launchers. This is against every ideological inclination of the Israeli government, but could represent its practical thinking.
Getty Images: Alfred ‘Chuck’ Leavell, keyboard player for The Rolling Stones, puts a note into the Western Wall in the old city.
Chubby Checker, ultra-Orthodox rabbis and The Rolling Stones reunite for their farewell tour! Ok, so maybe they just unite as part of this week’s news quiz.
Spain’s King Juan Carlos / Getty Images
If Juan Carlos didn’t entirely reconcile Spain and the Sephardic Jews, it wasn’t for lack of trying.
The Spanish king announced his abdication this morning, 39 years into a reign that stands both as an argument for monarchy and an argument against it.
Lionized for shepherding Spain through its democratic transition in the 1970s, Juan Carlos has seen his approval ratings crater as scandals and economic crisis have eroded faith in the Spanish monarchy.
To many Sephardic Jews, the king was not only a symbol of Spain’s resurgent democracy, but of the country’s efforts to atone for the anti-Jewish sins of its past, however ham-fisted some of those efforts turned out to be.
It’s safe to say that, from a Sephardic perspective, Juan Carlos was the best Spanish king in over half a millennium. An heir to the throne of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand, who expelled Spain’s Jews in 1492, Juan Carlos asserted that their descendants remained a part of Spain. In 1992, the king attended a ceremony at Madrid’s main synagogue, a symbolically weighty moment in a country that actively persecuted hidden Jews for centuries.
Russian immigrants to Israel / Courtesy of Alona Sibuk
Her story is well known. She came from a foreign land where she lived like a princess. Despite a very questionable connection to Judaism, she chose to follow her mother-in-law to Israel. There, she lived in abject poverty, getting by only by taking charity. Even when she found a kind stranger to help her, there were those who continued to doubt whether she belonged in Israel, and tried to prevent her from getting married.
Her name is Irina, Svetlana or Marissa, and you don’t have to read the Book of Ruth — as Jews around the world will do this week for Shavuot — to know her story and feel for her, her family, and the literally hundreds of thousands of other Russians of Jewish descent who are living in limbo in Israel.
As a Jewish food educator, I’m often asked for ways to enhance holiday celebrations with authentically themed dishes for the season. What was once a simple plate of apples and honey for Rosh Hashanah becomes a series of prepared desserts featuring these key ingredients. Chanukah gelt can now be acquired with fair trade certification. Vegans can finally enjoy kale challah shipped across the country.
And yet, for Shavuot, folks only want to know about one thing: dairy. Since the majority of elaborate Shabbat and holiday dishes are centered around meat, when it comes time for Shavuot, people think: Finally, an opportunity to plan a delectable dairy meal!
Only problem is, dairy isn’t originally a Shavuot food at all.
I don’t know Rabbi Barry Starr personally, but I don’t like how he is being vilified in the media, most recently in an article in The Forward with the lurid headline “When a Good Rabbi Goes Bad.”
We still don’t know all the facts in this case, and we’ve already found this man guilty in the court of public opinion. I also think there is an important aspect to this case that hasn’t been adequately addressed: the issue of shame.
When I taught sex education way back in the mid-1980s, it was popular when talking about sexuality to describe a continuum of sexuality, also known as the Kinsey Scale. If you imagine a horizontal line, with the words “completely heterosexual” on one end and “completely homosexual” on the other, and then imagine gradations in the middle, you get the idea of the continuum.
The notion was to get people to think about sexuality not as black and white — completely straight or completely gay — but as something that had lots of grays. For example, it is possibly to be sexually attracted to people of your own gender yet not “be gay.” It is possible to identify as gay but also have some sexual attraction to people of the opposite sex. There are lots of variations in-between, and it’s all okay and normal.
Now it’s 30 years later, and we’re still dealing with this. And we’re not dealing with it well.
(Reuters) — Donald Sterling bought the Los Angeles Clippers for 16 million and is set to sell the team for $2 billion.
That’s a 16,000% return or a lofty 16% a year.
Here’s a look at other investments he could have made at the time, and how much less he would have made.
Since the start of 1981, the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index has risen about 1,315 percent, or 8.4 percent a year.
Including reinvested dividends, the S&P has delivered a total return of 1,509 percent, or 8.8 percent a year.
The Nasdaq Composite Index is up 1,994 percent, or 9.65 percent a year.
The Barclays U.S. Aggregate Index has risen 1,385 percent, or 8.5 percent a year.
Spot gold is up 113 percent, or just 2.3 percent a year.
Earlier this month, London-based Liv-ex said its Liv-ex Investables Index had gained 1,504 percent, or just under 11 percent a year, since its launch in 1988.
New York City real estate appraiser Jonathan Miller says the average Manhattan apartment has gained just 5.75 percent a year in value over the 25 years he has tracked their prices.
Courtesy of Agudath Israel
As I concluded a yearlong course that I have been teaching at a local day school, a student approached me with a concerned look on his face.
“What if I don’t know what my Jewish identity is?” I pushed him to say more. “Well, my parents had the Holocaust, but — I don’t know. I just don’t know what my Jewish identity is.”
Forced to think on my feet, I told him that this is part of the journey. Uncertainly is a prerequisite for growth; through this struggle a clear, focused Jewish identity will emerge. He thanked me and we parted ways.
In the hours since, his question has been replaying in my head. I heard its echo as I listened to the words of Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, the rabbinical head of Agudath Israel. Rabbi Perlow bemoaned a Judaism void of meaning; divorced from its core values. He lamented a disintegrating Yiddishkeit. A new generation, he grieved, was coming — one that does not know its roots. We need, Rabbi Perlow claimed, “a Judaism that has a future.”
These words ring true. We must present a Judaism that sings in the hearts of our Jewish brethren. We need, as I told my beloved student, a Torah that embraces all and that speaks to the masses. We need a loving Torah to overflow in this world.
Rabbi Perlow, however, found a false target for his trepidations. He described “a new danger [that] has appeared on the horizon. [One that] seeks to subvert the sacred meaning of Yiddishkeit.” Indeed, he warned, it is “a sakana (danger) to klal yisroel (the Jewish community).”
He was talking about my yeshiva, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School.
And, though his initial concerns spoke to me, by the end of his speech, I had no idea what he was talking about.
Since Israel’s last general election a year and a half ago, the country’s two most powerful party leaders have exhibited surprisingly good relations.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman united their parties, Likud and Yisrael Beytenu, before the election and have surprised observers by keeping them together and getting along relatively well. Netanyahu loyally kept the Foreign Minister post open for him until his legal troubles ended in November.
But all is no longer rosy in paradise. Netanyahu has angered Liberman by backing Likud’s Reuven Rivlin for president. Netanyahu made the move reluctantly, after failing to recruit a candidate he deemed more suitable. His coolness towards Rivlin even prompted him to take the highly unusual step of trying to bring a president from New York, namely Elie Wiesel.
While Rivlin is a staunch rightist, both Netanyahu and Liberman dislike him for various reasons, including his refusal to back certain measures aimed against Israel’s Arab minority. But Netanyahu gave in to pressures from within is party, while Liberman remains opposed — and is left angry at Netanyahu for breaking what he said was an agreement not to back Rivlin.
Under the surface of the Netanyahu-Liberman relationship, they are two men jostling for prominence and fighting for the title of king of the Israeli right. And if Liberman can get ahead by generating a crisis based on Netanyahu’s presidential choices, capitalizing on an accusation that he acted in bad faith, Israel may be in for some political turbulence.
Rabbi Yaakov Perlow speaks at the Agudath Isael annual gala / YouTube
On Wednesday we learned that, while speaking at a fundraising gala for the ultra-Orthodox Agudath Israel of America, Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, head of that organization, slandered virtually every Jew on the planet, down to and including a bunch of plain-old-Orthodox folks. We were told that attendees of the event were “stunned.”
“The Torah must be guarded from the secular forces that seek to corrupt its values and the lives of [Jews], from intruders who sometimes in the name of Judaism completely subvert and destroy the eternal values of our people,” Perlow said. And also: “[The Reform and Conservative Movements] have disintegrated themselves, become oblivious, fallen into an abyss of intermarriage and assimilation. They have no future, they almost have no present.” And furthermore, the Open Orthodoxy movement is “steeped in apikorsos [heresy].”
It was quite the little speech. But stunned? Really? Attendees were stunned? Do they not get out much?
Perlow heads an organization that is, by definition, extremist. They believe themselves to be upholding the strictest, and thus most correct, interpretation of God’s own Divine law; they believe that the existence of the Jewish people, the coming of Messiah, and quite possibly the world itself depends on the painstaking observance of that interpretation — which is not, in their understanding, an interpretation at all, but simply Jewish law, halakhah.
Of course he thinks you’re a bad Jew — no, I’m sorry, not a “bad Jew.” He thinks that you’re a literal danger to Judaism itself. You have come — yes, you! — to “subvert and destroy the eternal values” of the Jewish people. You! (Unless you happen to be Haredi, and Perlow’s kind of Haredi at that, in which case, welcome to Forward Thinking, we try to be a very welcoming blog).
The crowd enters Jerusalem’s Old City singing racist chants / A. Daniel Roth Photography
As I made my way out of the Muslim Quarter, the dark alleyways suddenly seemed too quiet. Just moments before, crowds of ultranationalist Jewish celebrants had marched through this same space shouting “Death to Arabs.” Children had banged against shuttered Palestinian homes with wooden sticks and Israeli police had stood by as teenagers chanted “Muhammad is dead.” Now, all that remained were eerie remnants of their presence: “Kahane Tzadak” (Kahane was right) stickers plastered over closed Palestinian shops and the ground littered with anti-Muslim flyers. As Israeli police and soldiers began to unblock closures, Palestinian residents of the Muslim Quarter cautiously ventured outside. This is the only time I cried.
Jerusalem Day marks the anniversary of the Israeli conquest of East Jerusalem in 1967. The March of Flags has become an annual tradition in which thousands of ultranationalist Jewish celebrants parade through the city waving Israeli flags. It culminates in a dramatic march through the Muslim Quarter, generally accompanied by racist slogans and incitement to violence. Israeli police arrive in the area earlier in the day, sealing off entry to Palestinian residents “for their own safety.” Those Palestinians who live in the Muslim Quarter are encouraged to close their shops and stay indoors, while any Palestinian counter-protest is quickly dispersed.
Growing up at the Solomon Schechter Day School of Long Island, I have fond memories of Jerusalem Day. We celebrated every year with school-wide assemblies and dances, singing “Sisu et Yerushalayim” (Rejoice in Jerusalem) and “Jerusalem of Gold” with pride. Even in high school, I never knew the political significance of the day or imagined that my joy might be at someone else’s expense. Today, I know better.