It isn’t every day that I find myself truly inspired by an Orthodox rabbi; it isn’t often that Forward readers hear me espouse such sentiments. But when the Forward put out a call to readers to nominate a rabbi that inspired or touched them in some way, I felt it my duty to nominate the rabbi who unwittingly impacted my life two years ago.
Fortuitously enough, I had sent a long message the day before to this rabbi’s son – who happens to also be an inspiring Orthodox rabbi, if a bit of a different flavor – explaining how profoundly his father impacted my life.
Sometime late in the summer of 2011, my husband and I walked into the office of Rabbi Aaron Fink, Dean of Ateres Bais Yaakov in Monsey, N.Y., armed with the emotional wherewithal to counter what we thought would be inevitable rejection. We came to try to enroll our four-year-old daughter, Ruchy, in his school – an unconventional Bais Yaakov for girls – a school where love, acceptance and empowerment take precedence over other teachings.
This was approximately three years after we moved out of Kiryas Joel – three years of countless rejections by rabbis of various Hasidic and Orthodox schools.
Before we came to Rabbi Fink, we were told that no one wants former Satmar members in their schools, that our leaving the community indicates a desire to abandon Orthodoxy, that parents are afraid to send their children to school with those whose parents are Hasidic deviants, and that accepting us would negatively affect the school’s reputation. When we came to Rabbi Fink’s door, we were ready to give up on finding an Orthodox school to provide a Jewish education for our kids.
In an imagined juxtaposition, the Hebron settler meets Fiddler on the Roof. / Richard Goldwasser
If you’re online and follow news out of Israel, you’ve probably already seen or at least heard of that wild-and-crazy video of a Hebron settler try to steal a Palestinian flag off a Palestinian roof.
The guy gets caught on some barbed wire and then — even as his compatriots shout abuse (“you son of a whore!”) at Shadi Sidr, the man who lives in the house, and even as Sidr tries to help free the settler from his predicament (while also attempting to reassure onlookers: “It’s okay, don’t worry!”) — the settler explains, with almost otherworldly calm, that in fact “This roof, this is my roof. This is all mine. The whole country is mine. The whole state is mine.” Soon after, soldiers show up and threaten not the settler but the homeowner with arrest, demanding that he take down his flag. Crazy, right? Wild!
Here’s what nobody seems to have noticed though: If the shoe had been on the other foot — that is to say: If one of Hebron’s 170,000 Palestinians had tried to steal one of the many, many Israeli flags belonging to any of the 500-some-odd settlers whose presence dictates every single detail of Hebronian life — that Palestinian would have been shot. That Palestinian would be dead.
In a rerun of a scandal-ridden poll in the fall, Beit Shemesh has reelected its ultra-Orthodox mayor. Rarely has a political campaign pitted Haredim and others against each other to the extent seen in this Israeli city.
The original election in October was fought as a battle between two rival visions for the city. Beit Shemesh has become heavily Haredi, and the Haredi agenda is manifest across the public domain. When I visited for this article in January, I even witnessed signs by religious institutions asking women to cross over to the sidewalk on the other side of the street to avoid disturbing men. Individuals put them up, but the municipality had failed to take them down.
Moshe Abutbul of the Haredi Shas party won the election then, but the poll was marred by illegal activity, violence and even voter fraud, and the court ordered a rerun. The rerun this week resulted in another Abutbul victory.
When Rabbi Noach Muroff needed a desk, he looked to Craigslist for a good deal. He got way more than he bargained for.
The desk, purchased for $150 dollars, turned out to be hiding $98,000 stuffed in a ShopRite plastic bag, that had fallen behind the file cabinet.
And Muroff gave it all back.
Muroff bought the desk last September, right before Rosh Hashanah. When it wouldn’t fit through the door, he and his wife had to disassemble it. That’s when they spotted a shopping bag full of a cash inheritance that the previous owner assumed had been lost somewhere in her home.
The ninth grade teacher at the Yeshiva New Haven Shul looked at his wife and, despite the fact that it was nearly midnight, dialed the original owner’s number. The money was returned the next day. According to Muroff, he didn’t sleep that night knowing that sum was in the house.
“Our jaws kind of just hit the floor. We were in total shock and disbelief. This kind of thing only happens in the movies,” Muroff said, laughing when telling me the story.
William “Jerry” Boykin / Getty Images
William “Jerry” Boykin, a retired general and Christian conservative, has come under fire after telling an Israeli reporter that Jews are “the cause of all the problems in the world,” in what was seemingly an awkward attempt at humor. Boykin, executive vice president of the right-wing Family Research Council, who is widely known for his anti-Muslim advocacy, also told a reporter that Obama secretly sides with Al-Qaeda and sent “subliminal messages” of support to Muslims during his well-publicized appearance in Egypt in 2009.
The “hot mic” remarks were made following a speech at the National Security Action Summit, held just a few blocks from the Conservative Political Action Conference this past weekend. Boykin spoke at a panel entitled “Benghazigate: The Ugly Truth and the Cover-up.” The video feed for the live webcast went dark but its audio continued running and the off-air remarks are now available on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s website, which first covered the story.
Boykin can be heard accusing Obama of secretly sending messages of support to Egyptians during his famed 2009 speech in Cairo. “If you understand anything about Islam,” he said, “there are subliminal messages.” He asserted that Muslim extremist groups have taken advantage of the supposed unbending support of the American president, confident that he is “unwilling to go against them.”
After Boykin’s remarks about Obama’s supposed unrelenting support for Muslims, a reporter from Israel’s right-wing news site IsraelNationalNews.com approached him and requested a brief interview. Jokingly, Boykin accused Jews of causing all of the world’s problems. The reporter responded, “I know, I know, that’s why we’re trying to fix everything.”
Pro-Palestinian activists hold a banner reading ‘Boycott Israel’ in Paris in 2010. / Getty Images
Score this one in the victory column for BDS supporters and, much more broadly, for anyone who believes we should use language accurately — especially when we’re dealing with loaded terms like “anti-Semitism.”
EBSCO Information Services, a major provider of library resources and online research databases, raised eyebrows when it initially classified articles about BDS — the movement to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel — under the heading “Anti-Jewish Boycotts.” After some sharp-eyed EBSCO users took to Twitter on Sunday and Monday to complain about the classification, the company acknowledged its mistake and changed the indexing to “Boycotts.”
Finally submitted a complaint to EBSCO to get them to stop using “Anti-Jewish Boycotts” to describe articles about BDS/boycotts of Israel.ampmdash; Informed Agitation (@InfAgit) March 9, 2014
@edrabinski Yeah, and then I found an article about actual anti-Jewish boycotting (Nazi-era), and it didn't have that descriptor.ampmdash; Informed Agitation (@InfAgit) March 9, 2014
It’s not hard to see why people were upset to discover that an American research database was defining BDS as “anti-Jewish.” That definition buys into the popular but deeply flawed rhetoric that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has grown fond of promoting, and that other Israeli politicians and American Jewish leaders have grown fond of parroting. It’s a definition that assumes all Israel boycotts are inherently anti-Semitic — a logical fallacy that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.
This is a big week in Israeli politics. Three sets of bills are being introduced into the Knesset for their second and third readings, and all of them have far-reaching consequences. Though there has been much handwringing over them, over fears that Israeli democracy is being ruined, there is no doubt that the Israeli electoral and governance systems need to be fixed. Israel has had 33 governments since 1949 — an average of about one every two years. This makes for unstable government, increases coalition infighting, and undermines coherent policymaking. Still, the manner in which these bills are being passed is what makes them problematic.
In reality, two of the three bills are actually packages of bills, some of them long and detailed. Most contain some positive changes, but because they were passed relatively quickly and without as much opposition input as necessary, without a broader, comprehensive package of reforms, and because they were essentially trade-offs between various parties that make up the coalition (except Hatnua, which just wanted to remain in the government) they will have an overall negative effect on Israeli governance.
1. The Governance Bill
Just passed was the governance bill, comprised of an amendment to the Basic Law: The Government and a regular bill. What’s positive about this bill is the limitation on the number of ministers to 19, and no ministers-without-portfolio. This will reduce bloating of the government and make it a little more difficult to pass time-wasting no-confidence votes.
Albert Einstein, Moe Howard and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad together in the same quiz? What could possibly go right?
Demonstrators in Nairobi, Kenya rally against wave of anti-gay legislation in Africa. Getty Images.
The ancient rabbi Hillel famously asked: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?” I feel it is important to answer the first two questions in the way Hillel hoped—that we must stand up for both ourselves and for others. (After 40 years as a legislator, my answer to the third is “as soon as we have the votes.”)
On Purim, Jews remember the oppression we faced and overcame in ancient Persia and throughout our history. With Hillel’s questions in mind, we must rededicate ourselves to combating anti-Semitism throughout the world and to combating the oppression of others.
Today one of the most important ways to combat the oppression of others is to work against the terrible wave of homophobia that is oppressing lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in several African countries. While this prejudice is powerful, we should not paint the whole continent with this brush. In South Africa, Nelson Mandela demonstrated his unsurpassed commitment to defending human rights for all by including in the South African constitution recognition of the right of LGBT people to be free from discrimination. But sadly, Mandela’s example is not always honored.
As a member of Congress, I did what I could to combat the oppression of LGBT people in Africa. I was successful in getting my colleagues on the Financial Services Committee to adopt an amendment urging the U.S. Treasury Department to oppose World Bank loans to countries which — like Uganda at the time, and Nigeria since — denied the basic humanity of LGBT people. I am proud to note that my colleagues in the Congressional Black Caucus, despite their understandable strong support of aid for Africa, agreed that we should not support loans to countries that sanction bigotry.
Esther denouncing Haman / Ernest Normand
These days, many liberal Jews think of Purim as a play date for the kids and a night of drunken debauchery for the grown-ups. We think of costumes and songs and noisemakers, a kind of carnival spirit. But the levity with which we approach Purim is actually pretty astonishing. Because this holiday, fun as it may seem on the surface, has a dark and dangerous underside to it.
Orthodox Israeli scientist and philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz (1903-1994) was once asked whether he would consider living outside Israel. Leibowitz allegedly responded that, no, he would not, one reason being that Israel was the only place he could live where he never had to celebrate Purim. On Purim he would be in Jerusalem (as a walled city, Jerusalem celebrates Purim a day after everyone else, called Shushan Purim) and on the evening after Purim Leibowitz would travel to Tel Aviv. Thus he never had to read the Megillah nor drink to celebrate an act of bloody revenge — that time we killed Haman, his sons and 75,000 of the Jews’ enemies throughout the ancient Persian empire. In typical fashion, Leibowitz cut to the chase. Purim is essentially about the celebration of violence.
Let us not forget that on Purim we drink to celebrate blotting out the nation of Amalek, of whom Haman is said to be a descendant. The Shabbat before Purim, called Shabbat Zakhor, Jews gather in synagogues to read the only biblically mandated Torah reading of the year, the verses that command genocide against the Amalekites. Perhaps we are commanded to get so inebriated on Purim to simulate the seemingly paradoxical notion of blotting out the memory of Haman through the very act of remembering Amalek. We must remember not only to not forget, but to blot out the enemy — not mercifully, but through genocide.
Letty Cottin Pogrebin / Wiki Commons
When I think back to my childhood record collection containing Burl Ives stories, the Broadway cast recording of Fiddler on the Roof, and Top Disco Hits of the 1970s, one LP stands out: the generation-defining, gender-equality kids album Free to Be You and Me. Released in 1972, the platinum album turned 40 along with me. Now the 1974 television special bearing the same name is reaching its milestone birthday, and the Paley Center for Media is hosting an evening this Tuesday in New York to celebrate and reflect on the project.
Though I can recite much of the album by heart, I’m quite certain that as a young child I didn’t realize that the point of the project was to break down gender stereotypes. Through its clever, touching, humorous, always respectful and never insulting writing, and the music alternating between haunting, sad, folksy and cool, the didactic message came through seamlessly.
Letty Cottin Pogrebin, a founding editor of Ms. Magazine, served as an editorial consultant on the album. I caught up with Letty by phone in New York. We spoke about what the creators of the album might change if they could, and how a straight line can be drawn from her feminism to her subsequent areas of activism, including those around the issue of Israel/Palestine.
(JTA) — The line between respecting diverse religious beliefs and violating the rights and dignity of gays and lesbians is at the center of a debate between gay advocates and the PJ Library over a children’s picture book featuring a family with two fathers.
“The Purim Superhero,” by Elisabeth Kushner, was published by Kar-Ben Publishing last year after the manuscript won a contest for Jewish-themed books with LGBT characters sponsored by Keshet, a Jewish LGBT advocacy group. It’s about a boy who turns to his two fathers for advice after his Hebrew school classmates tell him he can’t dress up as an alien for Purim.
PJ Library, the popular program that distributes free Jewish children’s books in North America and beyond, selected it as one of its featured books this month, but as an extra book distributed only to those who requested it — which, apparently, many parents did: All 2,200 copies PJ had purchased were requested within 36 hours, according to an article in The Boston Globe.
Bette Midler and Bernie Madoff share more than just the same initials and religion. Now they’re sharing space in this week’s Jewish News Quiz, rubbing elbows with Ruth Westheimer. At least I hope it’s elbows.
French far-right Front National party leader Marine Le Pen / Getty Images
Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s right-wing Front National party, is well known for her Islamophobic statements. This is a woman who has compared the presence of four million Muslims in her country to the Nazi occupation of France during World War II.
And yet, fully one third of the French population says it supports her ideas. Front National is expected to do very well in municipal elections this month and in EU parliamentary elections in May.
But what’s most worrying in all of this is that a growing number of French citizens see Le Pen’s ideas as acceptable, even if they don’t support the Front National. According to a poll released last month by Le Monde newspaper, 46% of the French population views the Front National as “the face of patriotic conservatives, with traditional values,” rather than as a party of the “nationalistic, xenophobic extreme right.” Only half the population thinks the party “poses a threat to French democracy,” while in the 1990s as much as 75% thought it did.
Le Pen’s party is now considered part of the democratic landscape; she has, in Le Monde’s words, a “normalized image.” Of course, what this really means is that Islamophobia is going mainstream. And that is — or should be — very disturbing from a Jewish perspective.
Writing in Tablet Magazine, Liel Liebovitz — or perhaps Tablet’s headline writer — recently asked the apparently rhetorical question “Why Talk About Israel With People Who Want It To Disappear?”
Here are five answers.
1. Because many of them and their supporters are Jews.
Hillel, the Jewish Museum, Ramaz and other organizations that have lately banned anyone who supports BDS or is otherwise insufficiently pro-Israel all have missions that involve outreach to Jews. Are some Jews simply beyond the pale? Do we give up on Jewish peoplehood when Jewish people aren’t supportive enough of Israel? Perhaps instead of swearing fealty to an ideological position, organizations that do outreach to Jews should do outreach to Jews.
2. Because talking with people who disagree with us is good.
I’m not really clear why this has to be stated, but since Liebovitz argues forcefully that it’s better not to talk to some people, I guess it does. Encountering people we disagree with is part of the process of becoming a grown-up. Thoughtful people listen to people we disagree with, and dialogue with them to see where we disagree and why. This process may not persuade anyone, but that’s not the point; the point is to be thoughtful, reasonable, and well-informed. At Hillel, in particular, this should be an obvious value, since it works in a university context. Should students not read disagreeable philosophers? Should they boycott their disagreeable peers down the dorm room hall? Oh, and saying “you can go hear this anti-Israel speaker somewhere else” is not a reply. What that says is there’s a place for the free exchange of ideas, and then there’s a little Jewish ghetto where we don’t talk of such things.
At 111, Dr. Alexander Imich may be the oldest living Holocaust survivor. / YouTube
As a writer for a Yiddish newspaper and as a Yiddish translator, I spend a lot of time working with Holocaust survivors and their writings. I’ve spent upwards of 1000 hours conducting oral history interviews with Holocaust survivors and translating Holocaust testimony. Recording, preserving and sharing these stories is a large part of my day-to-day life. So although I’d hardly consider myself an expert on the topic, the Holocaust plays a much greater role in my life than it does for the average 20-something American Jew.
That’s why I was taken aback last week when I realized that I couldn’t answer a colleague’s seemingly simple question: “Who ‘counts’ as a Holocaust survivor?” The question arose after the inimitable Alice Herz-Sommer died at 110 years old on February 23. Herz-Sommer, a gifted pianist who knew Kafka in her youth, survived the Theresiendstadt concentration camp in her early 40s along with her son Raphael. Herz-Sommer’s life, musical career and indomitable spirit are recalled in the Oscar-winning film “The Lady in Number 6.”
Although Herz-Sommer was widely described as the world’s oldest Holocaust survivor at the time of her death, I believe there is an older survivor living in New York City. Dr. Alexander Imich, with whom I conducted an oral history interview in July, was born in Czestochowa, Poland on February 4, 1903. That makes him 111.
Palestinian Orthodox Christians at the 2013 Palm Sunday procession in Gaza City / Getty Images
Last week the Knesset voted to force yet another division onto the Palestinian people.
The Palestinians are already divided in a myriad of ways: There are those who live in the Diaspora and are divided there, from America’s well-fed middle class to Syria’s hungry refugee camps; there are those who live in the West Bank, and those in Gaza, each under a different kind of military occupation; there are Palestinians who live in Israel’s capital city but aren’t given Israeli citizenship, and those who live elsewhere in Israel and do have citizenship (if often of a second-class variety); there are Bedouin Palestinians who have citizenship and are even drafted to the army, but if anything, are treated even less equally than their non-nomadic Palestinian brethren; and long ago, Israel decided that those living within Israel’s borders aren’t even Palestinian: They’re Arabs. Israeli Arabs.
Last Monday, by a vote of 31-6 (out of a total 120 Members of Knesset, so one has to wonder where everyone else was), Israel’s legislative body passed a law the ultimate goal of which is, according to its sponsor, “to distinguish between Muslim and Christian Arab citizens and to heighten involvement of Christians in Israeli society.”
In a recent essay in the Forward, I made the case for jettisoning the time-honored (if, to me, less than honorable) term “ultra-Orthodox.”
I argued that, like “ultra-conservative” or “ultra-liberal” in domestic politics, the prefix implies extremism, something that isn’t accurate about most Haredim.
What best to replace it with is less obvious, as “haredi” is a foreign word, and euphemisms like “fervently Orthodox” insult non-haredi Jews, many of whom are as fervent in their prayer and observances as any haredi Jew (not to mention that some haredi Jews are far from fervent).
I suggested using the unadorned word “Orthodox” to refer to Haredim, whose lives, I contended, most resemble those of their forbears.
After all, I argued, self-described “Centrist” and “Modern” and “Open” Orthodox Jews are, well, self-described, with those prefixes of their choices. So why not use “Orthodox” alone, without any modifier, to refer to “black-hatters,” or “yeshivish” folks. (The Haredi subset of Hasidism could simply be called Hasidim, a word familiar to English speakers.) Think Coke, Cherry Coke, Diet Coke…
One immediate response to my essay came from Samuel Heilman, a Queens College professor of sociology.
Professor Heilman’s jaundiced eye regarding Haredim is legend. He is often quoted in the media as critical of Orthodox Jews more conservative in their practices than he. (After September 11, 2001, he famously, risibly, implied that haredi yeshivas are “quiescent” beds of potential terrorists.)
The professor rejects “ultra” too, but sees the prefix not as a pejorative but as reflecting the idea that Haredim are “truer in their beliefs and practices than others.”
He also accuses Haredim of departing from the Orthodoxy of the past. The example he offers is that, in the charedi world, “water must be certified kosher.” And he decries the Haredi “notion that Orthodox Jews always shunned popular culture.” Hasidic rebbes,” he explains, were, “among the crowds who streamed to Marienbad, Karlsbad and the other spas and baths of Europe for the cure, so much a part of popular culture in pre-Holocaust Europe.”
Ultra-Orthodox lawmaker Meir Porush at a Jerusalem polling station in 2008. / Getty Images
A boycott of West Bank settlements is a favorite subject for discussion among Palestinian activists and Western liberals alike. Surprisingly, it’s getting some ultra-Orthodox Israelis talking too.
In fact, a Haredi lawmaker has revealed that he’s coming under “tremendous pressure” to initiate a boycott of settlement enterprises. Meir Porush of United Torah Judaism is “preventing it” for the moment but said that he doesn’t know if he can keep a lid on it. “I do not know if this matter will remain under control,” he said.
Porush made the comments on the religious Kol Berama radio station and they were reported by the pro-settler news service Arutz Sheva.
So what’s the rationale behind this Haredi boycott mindset?
Ultra-Orthodox bride Rivka Hannah (Hofman) at her Jerusalem wedding in 2014. / Getty Images
About 20 years ago, when I was a staff writer for JTA, the editor and I were called into Agudath Israel of America for a meeting on the “ultra-Orthodox” issue. Rabbi Avi Shafran and other Agudah representatives were unhappy even then with the term, explaining as Shafran did recently in this forum that they viewed it as a pejorative term. We explained why journalists use the term and discussed using the term Haredi, which is more commonplace today than it was at that time, instead. We concluded by asking them to recommend alternatives with which they might be more comfortable.
It would be nice to have a viable non-Hebrew alternative, though we do not use “ultra-Orthodox” as a reflection of bias or desire to disparage, no matter how subtly. Instead, it is shorthand to distinguish between this part of the Orthodox community and the more modern segment from which Haredi Judaism is, as Shafran is well aware, quite distinct. When a premium is put on economy of language, as it is in journalism, ultra-Orthodox fits the bill.
We all like to think we are centrist and that everyone else is extreme in comparison. But it is disingenuous at best for Shafran to say that there is nothing “ultra” about the way his community elects to live. He protests the notion that his community merits being described as “extreme.” Really? It brings to mind the Saturday Night Live “Weekend Update” bit with Seth Meyers and Amy Poehler. Does Shafran really believe that it will ever suffice simply to describe his community as “Orthodox?” Really?