It was my first shiva call, and it shocked me out of my wits.
Sarah, one of the residents in the Jewish retirement community where I’d been conducting seminars on world news, had passed away. A cheerful lady in her 90s, she had always brought an international aspect to our weekly discussions. I loved her. She was the kind of grandmother I always wished I’d had.
On the day of her funeral, I wore my kippah and stood with the mourners during the service at her son’s home. Afterwards, I spoke to the family members. I talked about my experiences with Sarah and about how proud she had been of her three grandsons and their achievements as musicians, writers and filmmakers.
I had met two of them before, and was impressed by their dedication to their art and their love for their grandmother, who had lived in various countries before coming to the U.S. So, after many conversations about Sarah, and after eating some traditional foods, I wanted to talk to the three sons. I asked their mother whether it would be all right if I went to join them in the basement.
“No problem,” she said, and down I went into one of the finest rec rooms I had seen, dominated by an oversized, cream-colored couch, with the lights dimmed down. The three sons — all in their 20s and early 30s — and their girlfriends, were idling on the plush family sofa. None of them got up when I walked in. They just waved, and one of the sons said, “Come and join us!”
I thought they might be watching a documentary in honor of their grandmother, or a film about Israel.
To my disgust, they were watching porn.
The Tamar drilling natural gas production platform near Israel / Getty Images
It’s now a week since the scheduled start of one of the most important energy deals in Israeli history. But the signing was called off, hasn’t been rescheduled since, and now, uncertainty hangs over the future of the deal.
Australia-based Woodside Petroleum was due to sign in Jerusalem on a 25% stake in Israel’s Leviathan natural gas field, for $2.7 billion. But Woodside clashed with the Israeli government over money, and the signing didn’t take place.
The dispute between Woodside and Israel centers around the complicated formula that will determine how much the company pays in taxes, and how quickly it will start to profit from its investment. There are further elements to the dispute, including guarantees and infrastructure.
The Israeli legal system just got its teeth back.
Much has been written about the conviction this week of Israel’s Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in a bribery trial. The reverberations of the ruling are felt far and wide.
In the political sphere, this seems to be the end of the dream which continued to linger among some Israelis that Olmert would make a political comeback soon and complete the peace deal with the Palestinians, which some say was tantalizingly close when scandal forced him from office.
But one of the most important ramifications is in the legal, not political, realm. Israel’s state prosecution was humiliated at the end of last year, when it lost its much-anticipated corruption case against politician Avigdor Lieberman.
The Jerusalem Post’s latest editorial wades into the Israel-U.S. debate over travel visas — and comes to some absurd conclusions.
The government of Israel has been trying for a while to reach an agreement with the American authorities allowing Israeli tourists to visit the U.S. for a short time without a visa. The U.S. has always refused to grant Israel such an agreement, despite the fact that most Western nations, including European countries, Australia and New Zealand, already enjoy it as participants in the Visa Waiver Program.
The American government recently explained why Israel’s request was denied: “The Department of Homeland Security and State remain concerned with the unequal treatment that Palestinian Americans and other Americans of Middle Eastern origin experience at Israel’s border and checkpoints, and reciprocity is the most basic condition of the Visa Waiver Program,” State Department spokesman Jen Psaki said March 21.
Protestors call for Jonathan Pollard to be released from prison. / Getty Images
Jonathan Pollard — the man who stole huge amounts of intelligence and gave it to Israel and has been sitting in an American prison for 30 years — has become a chip to be traded in order keep Israeli-Palestinian talks going.
Pollard is a very divisive figure: he has staunch supporters who believe that, for humanitarian reasons and because he helped beleaguered Israel, the three decades he’s spent in jail is enough. Others believe that because he was traitor who, allegedly, also tried selling intelligence to other states, he isn’t even an Israeli patriot; he was simply greedy.
Pollard has taken on a larger role in the drama of Israeli-Palestinian talks. In return for extending negotiations, according to reports, the U.S. will release Pollard and Israel will release 400 Palestinian prisoners and quietly freeze (some?) settlement building (excluding in Jerusalem). There is, rightly, a lot of disbelief about this plan. Jeffrey Goldberg thinks it means the talks are close to collapse and won’t do much in the end, anyway. Michael Cohen thinks releasing Pollard to extend talks is just stupid. I share their skepticism, but wonder if there is something more going on here. Perhaps it’s not a sign of the breakdown in talks, but a sign of their seriousness.
Don’t get me wrong — it’s not at all clear things are going well. The reported deal extends talks into 2015 — another nine months from now. Who knows what new international crisis might develop in that time to distract the Obama Administration from the Israeli-Palestinian arena. John Kerry might simply be too exhausted to keep up the pace. Spoilers in Israel or in Palestine could undermine popular support and political will. Meanwhile, the American rush to placate Benjamin Netanyahu on every issue has led to such an imbalance in talks that it wouldn’t be a surprise if the whole edifice fell over by then.
How should Jewish donor dollars get spent?
Today, the largest share of Jewish donor dollars goes to Israel-related charities, as the Forward reported last week in the first part of our series on Jewish charity finances. (Part two of the series, published today, is here.)
Are we spending too much on Israel? Or maybe too little? Should we be allocating more to other causes, like education or health?
Below, in our interactive infographic, you can indicate where you think Jewish contributions should go. Once you have adjusted the sliders to a breakdown that looks right to you, click “submit” to let us know what you think. The Forward will publish the results of this unscientific survey sometime in the next few weeks.
Once you have submitted your breakdown, click the Facebook and Twitter buttons to show your friends how you think charitable dollars should be spent.
The breakdowns below reflect contributions reported by groups in the Forward’s database of financial data on Jewish charities. We’ve left out contributions to federations and foundations, as that money is meant to be granted to other organizations. We’ve also left out contributions to groups that didn’t fit cleanly into any category and to religious groups, as most religious groups don’t file with the IRS and as such were not included in our database.
We’ve all felt it. That ever-present desire — compulsion, really — to check and then recheck our email. Just one more hit of the refresh button. Just one more scroll. Just one more reply-all. Just one more delete. We love it. And we hate it.
Most of the year, we bemoan but ultimately accept the fact that our work lives require us to be shackled to our smartphones. But as Passover approaches, that reality becomes even more problematic. How can we celebrate our liberation from slavery when we still feel — mentally, if not physically — enslaved? How can we rid our houses of chametz — the leavened food that Hasidic masters taught symbolizes everything unessential and overcomplicated in our lives — while holding fast to something that complicates our lives more than any breadcrumb ever could?
Romemu, a progressive synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, today announced its quirky solution to this contemporary problem. In a notification sent out to the entire congregation (via, yes, email), Rabbi David Ingber and Executive Director Ilene Sameth wrote that over the holiday they will be getting rid of “The Ultimate Chametz: Email.”
From Monday evening, April 14th until sundown on Tuesday, April 22nd, Romemu will not send any community emails and the staff will not send or respond to any individual emails.
And since any chametz that is owned during Pesach should not be eaten after Pesach (this is known as chametz she’avar alav ha’Pesach), any emails that come in while we are out will not be read. Everyone will get an auto-response asking that the email be resent after Pesach.
After reassuring congregants that staff will still be reachable by phone voicemail in case of a death or other emergency, the Romemu leaders signed off with an invitation to “De-email…and taste freedom.”
Most of the Jewish and general world is fuming over Russian President Vladimir Putin’s takeover of Crimea. But some ultra-Orthodox Jews are positively delighted by it.
This week, Grand Rabbi Moshe Shternbuch, the vice president of Israel’s Rabbinical Court and a descendant of the revered rabbi known as the Vilna Gaon (aka “Genius of Vilnius”), announced to his disciples that Putin’s actions are a sure sign that the Messiah is on his way.
Apparently, Shternbuch heard this secret prediction from Rabbi Yitzchak Chever, who heard it from Rabbi Chaim of Volozhyn, who heard it from the Vilna Gaon himself, who said shortly before his death:
When you hear that the Russians have captured the city of Crimea, you should know that the times of the Messiah have started, that his steps are being heard. And when you hear that the Russians have reached the city of Constantinople (today’s Istanbul), you should put on your Shabbat clothes and don’t take them off, because it means that the Messiah is about to come any minute.
Shternbuch’s pronouncement, which was reported this weekend in the ultra-Orthodox press in Israel, has some Haredi Jews working themselves into a messianic frenzy. A few, like this rabbi, are even going so far as to say that “we owe a note of thanks” to Putin for hastening the coming of the Messiah.
The Messianic Jewish movement’s new marketing tool / Hody Nemes
If you went searching for a mainstream Jewish organization that welcomed the findings of the Pew study of American Jews, which showed declining levels of Jewish affiliation and high levels of intermarriage, you’d be hard pressed to find one.
But so-called Jews for Jesus found news to celebrate: 34% of American Jews reported that a person can accept Jesus as the messiah and still be Jewish.
Now this perplexing finding of the Pew study has made its way into a storefront display in midtown Manhattan.
I’ve walked by this particular building on 31st Street several times without noticing it. But yesterday, I stopped in my tracks when I caught a glimpse of the photo in its window: a group of Hasids are seen walking in front of the Western Wall, and one of them is wearing a Photoshopped red t-shirt that reads “Jews for Jesus.”
But that’s not all.
The text printed beside the photo reads: “34% of Jewish people surveyed say you can be Jewish and believe in Jesus. What do you think about Jewish people believing in Jesus?” A phone number is provided – to which you can, apparently, text your answer.
Tania Ward and Nicola Pettit / Courtesy of Nicola Pettit
(Haaretz) — Tania Ward and Nicola Pettit will make history this Saturday when they become one of the first same-sex couples to legally marry in Britain.
More than that, their marriage will be among the first to receive a Jewish blessing, as Liberal and Reform streams prepare for a flurry of simchas to follow the change of law.
Since 2005, the United Kingdom has allowed civil partnerships which give the same rights and responsibilities as traditional marriage.
Campaigners, however, continued to lobby for full equality, facing opposition from conservative politicians and religious communities despite broad public backing. The new law comes into effect on Saturday March 29.
The couple, who live in southern England’s seaside Brighton resort, one of the country’s most bohemian centers of LGBT life, met when a mutual friend set them up on a blind date six-and-a-half years ago. “And that was that, really,” says 27-year-old Nicola.
Supporters listen to Austrian Freedom Party head Heinz-Christian Strache in 2013. / Getty Images
Last Friday, a German magazine article quoted Andreas Moelzer, a member of the European Parliament for the far-right Freedom Party of Austria, saying that the Third Reich had fewer rules, regulations and bans than the European Union, and probably looked informal and liberal in comparison.
The fact that controversial Moelzer — the co-publisher of the controversial German national newspaper “Zur Zeit,” in which an author once praised Adolf Hitler as a “great social revolutionary” — made these statements is hardly surprising. The public outcry that followed was to be expected as well: Politicians from other parties as well as Oskar Deutsch, the president of the Jewish community of Vienna, demanded Moelzer’s withdrawal as a candidate for the upcoming EU parliamentary elections, while news outlets lamented the frequency of Nazi comparisons uttered by Freedom Party leaders.
The statement is outrageous, no question. It is offensive and plain wrong. Austria joined the European Union in 1995 and, growing up there, I never had the impression that I was growing up in a dictatorship. After all, I can work and travel freely in 28 countries, while my grandmother was denied the chance to attend school at the age of 12 and forcibly deported to a concentration camp.
Nevertheless, public outrage over Nazi comparisons is a double-edged sword. While it is necessary, there is little point in doing so unless we face a vital, underlying question: Why isn’t the Freedom Party’s voter base more upset about this? The answer isn’t as obvious as it seems.
Yemeni Jews get instruction at a center for immigrants in Israel. / Getty Images
As the Israeli-Palestinian peace process grinds on, and the issue of Palestinian refugees continues to be a sticking point, some Jewish groups are arguing that these aren’t the only refugees we should be considering as the parties move forward in negotiations.
They’re calling on Western governments to recognize the more than 850,000 Jews pushed out of Arab countries in 1948 and the years that followed — and claiming that the Arab Jewish refugee issue should be tied to the fate of Palestinian refugees.
“Palestinians document every tent, well and thicket they had here but we left behind property worth billions of shekels,” Meir Kahlon, representing Libyan Jews, recently told the Israeli press. He argued that stolen property should be compensated for as a part of the ongoing U.S.-led negotiations.
And just a few weeks ago, six years after a similar resolution passed in the United States, activists pushing for recognition of Arab Jewish refugees enjoyed a big win in Canada, when pro-Israel Prime Minister Stephen Harper decided to back a government committee recommendation to “recognize the experience” of Jewish refugees.
(JTA) — There is a town in Spain called Castrillo Matajudios, and in Colombia “Matajudios” is a common surname.
The problem is, in Spanish one meaning of the name is “Kills Jews.” Which has led a Colombian emigre cashier in Argentina to attract the ire of a Jewish organization there.
It all started when Adrian Marguiles, a customer at the Expoalimentos supermarket in Argentina’s San Isidro district, discovered, upon reviewing his receipt, that his cashier went by the name Ivan Matajudios.
Thinking the cashier had chosen Matajudios as a nickname, in order to incite violence against Jews, Margulies complained to DAIA, a Jewish group that, just four days earlier, had signed an agreement with the district’s mayor to work together on educational activities promoting coexistence and tolerance.
When DAIA leaders met with the supermarket owner, they discovered that Ivan Dario Matajudios Galindo was the cashier’s actual name.
DAIA Vice President Waldo Wolff told JTA that the supermarket owners asked if they should fire the worker.
“We told them that this is not necessary at all,” he said. “But we want the cashier to appear in the receipts with his other surname, as Ivan Galindo.”
DAIA plans to request a meeting with Argentina’s interior ministry to request that immigrants with names that appear to promote anti-Semitism be required to choose a different moniker while in Argentina.
Perhaps Amajudios, or “Loves Jews,” would be a good option.
Right-wing activist Baruch Marzel wipes his eyes at the grave of Baruch Goldstein. / Getty Images
These days, you can order almost anything by phone. Books. Movies. Food. Sex. Salvation?
Sure, why not. Salvation. And not just any old kind, but the kind you can only get by virtue of an appeal to one of Israel’s most notorious killers: Baruch Goldstein.
Goldstein murdered 29 Palestinians in Hebron’s Cave of the Patriarchs 20 years ago, and to this day right-wing Jews still flock to his grave in nearby Kiryat Arba. They go there to pray, hoping that proximity to this “holy man” will help get their prayers through the pearly gates.
But since not everyone can afford to make that pilgrimage, Baruch Marzel — a right-wing activist and Goldstein devotee — has organized a telephone service allowing Jews to outsource their prayers, according to a Walla report cited today in Yeshiva World News.
Call Marzel’s service and you’ll be invited to “Push 1 for a Yeshua,” a salvation. That salvation, which will come by way of a prayer to be said on your behalf at Goldstein’s grave, includes everything from financial and romantic success to improved health and victory in court cases.
From Jewish porn stars to bacon-flavored Kosher treats to Martin Scorsese’s new, “Jewish” movie, the world is becoming a very eclectic place. Or at least this quiz is.
Bernie Madoff / Eli Valley
In an interview from prison last week, Bernie Madoff insisted, “I don’t feel that I betrayed the Jews, I betrayed people.”
I’m no psychologist, and it’s possible he was just trying to salvage any scrap of social and cultural connection as he languishes alone. But taking his words at face value, I agree with Madoff.
He didn’t betray “the Jews,” he betrayed human beings of all religious and ethnic backgrounds. Although his scheme disproportionately swindled from Jewish individuals and charities, they were targets not because they were Jews but because they were the most easy to access. They existed in his vicinity – in synagogues, country clubs and other social circles – and they were willing to give him money.
“Betrayal” insists that Madoff targeted his victims because they were Jews, and/or that he owed them more because they were Jews. It touches on an uneasy balancing act between peoplehood and chauvinism that comes to the fore whenever there’s a Jew in the news (i.e., always). While there can be something charming about ethnic responsibility and group fealty, it can quickly cross uncomfortable lines – lines the Jewish community never tolerates when others talk ominously of Jewish preference. It’s a line that makes some Jews mourn more deeply when a Jew is identified among scores of victims, or gloat when a Jew escapes tragedy by observing Shabbat, or even machinate to keep non-Jewish communities out of affordable housing. “Betrayal” implies crimes against Jews are worse than those against others, and Jewish lives more sacred.
Benjamin Netanyahu / Getty Images
Last week we learned that Israel’s government is advancing plans for another 2,269 settler homes in the West Bank and East Jerusalem; 144 are planned for the Jerusalem settlement neighborhood of Har Homa.
Discussion surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict tends to focus on minutiae, or the broad sweep of an entire century; our frames of reference rarely allow us to discern patterns within the broader picture. In geopolitics, however, the patterns found in any nation’s behavior are often determinative – such as, for instance, the pattern we find expressed in Har Homa.
Har Homa is located in what is inaccurately called (by everyone, including me) “East Jerusalem.” The inaccuracy becomes clear as soon as you look at a map: Har Homa is actually south of the Green Line that demarcates internationally recognized Israel from the West Bank; it’s southwest of the Old City. Much of the Palestinian land that Israel has annexed in its decades-long push to turn what was once tiny Jewish Jerusalem into a behemoth of land and resources is east of the historically Jewish part of the city, but much of it is not. Another well-known settlement neighborhood, Pisgat Ze’ev, is to the north, as is French Hill. A more accurate term would be “Palestinian Jerusalem” or, in the case of Har Homa (which was never any part of anyone’s Jerusalem) “the West Bank.”
Every settlement is a political statement – “here we sit, we will not be moved” – but Har Homa’s is particularly blunt: Established in 1997, four years after the Oslo Accords were signed, Israel’s then-Prime Minister was very clear about Har Homa’s purpose: “The battle for Jerusalem has begun. We are now in the thick of it, and I do not intend to lose.” Who was that Prime Minister? Benjamin Netanyahu.
Last summer, I hit upon a way to measure Jewish institutional power: Using data from the IRS, I would gather financial information on every single Jewish organization that files a tax return.
My first story based on that project is printed in this issue of the Forward. This addendum, which is only for readers with a high tolerance for boring data stuff, describes how I built my database.
I started with two files, posted online by the IRS last spring, that contained data from all tax returns filed by tax-exempt groups in the 2012 calendar year. The IRS posted one set of data extracted from Form 990s, which are filed by larger tax-exempt groups, and another from Form 990-EZs, which are filed by smaller groups. I chose not to include a third dataset extracted from Form 990-PFs, which are filed by private foundations, as those groups are generally harder to classify as Jewish or not-Jewish.
The Form 990s and Form 990-EZs ask different questions, and the datasets provided by the IRS were structured differently. I mapped the two datasets onto each other so that they could be considered together. Then, using another dataset from the IRS — the Exempt Organizations Business Master File Extract, which includes information like names and addresses on all tax-exempt groups registered with the IRS — I searched for Jewish organizations.
Left: Ophir Ben-Shetreet on Israel’s ‘The Voice.’ Right: Sister Cristina on Italy’s ‘The Voice.’
I’m not usually the type of person who goes in for reality TV shows. Especially not when they revolve around singing competitions, and especially not when one of their singers’ performances becomes an overnight Internet sensation, to be endlessly posted and reposted on social media.
So why did I feel compelled to watch a Sicilian nun singing a song by Alicia Keys on Italy’s ‘The Voice’ about a dozen times over the course of this weekend?
After giving it some thought, I realized it wasn’t the TV lover or even the music lover in me that drove my obsessive replaying of this video. It was the Jew — or, more specifically, the formerly Orthodox Jewish woman — that couldn’t resist its charm.
Strange as it may sound, watching 25-year-old Sister Cristina Scuccia belt it out on stage while a cluster of habit-clad nuns cheered her on from the sidelines, I couldn’t help but do a simple thought experiment: What if this were an ultra-Orthodox Jewish woman instead? Would she dare to sing like that in front of a mixed audience of men and women, knowing that her performance — her intimate voice — would be broadcast to millions more around the world? And would her ultra-Orthodox female friends stand there, cheering her on?
No way, I thought. Not in a million years. The reason why can be explained in two words: Kol Isha.
Harvard students pose at Yasser Arafat’s grave. / Twitter
Last Monday, the Harvard College Israel Trek went to the Muqata’a, the offices of the Palestinian government, in Ramallah. While they were there, the group took a picture with Yasser Arafat’s grave, which was inevitably Tweeted by the group’s tour guide. The photo was picked up by two far-right blogs — one Jewish, one not — and then nailed down by the Jewish Press, which ran the provocative headline “Jewish Donors Funded Harvard Students’ Trip to Arafat’s Grave.”
The headline, of course, is ridiculous: The family foundations and Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies funded a wide-ranging ten-day trip all over Israel for 50 of Harvard’s best and brightest, during which they spent half a day in Ramallah and 30 seconds for a photo shoot at Arafat’s grave.
But that’s not the point. The point is that allowing students to engage in conversation on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with Palestinians themselves is still taboo among the American Jewish establishment. And it’s high time that changed.