Forward Thinking

Can't Top Weegee on New Year's Eve

By Michael Kaplan

Ever attend an awkward New Year’s Eve party? Probably can’t top this one.

Here’s a picture taken by Weegee, the famed tabloid Jewish photographer, born Arthur Fellig, at a 1943 New Year’s Eve party 71 years ago. The photo was snapped at Sammy Bowery Follies, described by National Geographic as an “alcoholic haven,” where the uptown rich would reportedly meet with and gawk at the needy to learn some about New York’s underbelly. Seems like that’s probably what is happening here.

The photo is aptly called “the Bowery Cherub,” and apparently sold for $5,400.

Think a party like this would fly today?


News Quiz: Yasser Arafat, Portuguese Plumbers and the ‘Quenelle’

By Lenore Skenazy

From Portuguese plumbers to Maimonides, we’ve got Jews in the news for you, along with Facebook, Yasser Arafat and creamed herring. Just try finding those someplace else. (All together, we mean.)

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How To Defend Quebec’s Secularism Charter

By Sigal Samuel

The Charter of Values seeks to ban conspicuous religious symbols. / Government of Quebec

Do you remember the Quebec government’s Charter of Values, the proposed legislation that would bar public workers from wearing conspicuous religious symbols — like the kippah, hijab or turban — on the job? Of course you do. Have you been biting your nails over how you’re going to defend it at your upcoming family holiday party? Of course you have. Well, never fear! The Parti Québécois has you covered with its newly released, handy-dandy how-to guide for defending the controversial charter.

The six-page handbook, released just before Christmas, features a turkey on its cover (no doubt because a tree would seem too religious) and is enthusiastically titled “Holiday party answers to your family’s questions!” Because what family isn’t itching to delve into this perfect storm of religion and politics at a time usually spent in eggnog-sipping bliss?

The Parti Québécois knows how much you hate it when your relatives best you at family debates, so this year it’s decided to give you a leg-up over that obnoxious uncle or know-it-all cousin. How? By arming you with rebuttals to every objection they could possibly voice when it comes to the Charter.

Oops — did I say rebuttals? I meant diversions. And fallacies. And diversionary fallacies.

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How Not To Solve Israel’s Housing Crisis

By Nathan Jeffay

Has Israel just eased the housing crisis — or issued an invitation for wanton wastage of natural resources?

From the start of 2014 on Wednesday, municipal taxes on second homes will double. Or to be accurate, taxes on all homes that are occupied for less than nine months a year will be double taxed.

This represents a new year’s resolution by the government to deal with so-called phantom apartments that are normally empty, many of them owned by Diaspora Jews and inhabited only during the big religious holidays and a few weeks in the summer. It is also directed against investors who purchased property to take advantage of Israel’s real estate boom and are waiting — with the property empty — for the right time to sell.

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As One Jewish Retail Empire Falls, Another Rises

By Michael Kaminer

Two retail empires with Jewish roots collided in New York this week — one on its deathbed, the other ready to take its place.

Loehmann’s, the fashion discounter founded in 1921 by an enterprising department-store buyer named Frieda Loehmann, announced this week it will shut down its remaining 39 stores after its third bankruptcy filing.

And Barneys New York, the luxury retailer launched in 1923 by an ambitious tailor named Barney Pressman, unveiled plans to take over Loehmann’s space in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood — the same storefront where Barneys began in the first place.

Loehmann’s demise puts an ignominious end to an illustrious history. From a single store in Brooklyn without frills or even dressing rooms, the pioneering chain grew to 100 stores before debt — and competition — accelerated its decline.

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For Edgar Bronfman, Humanity to LGBT People Was Intuitive

By Idit Klein

Six years ago, I had lunch with Edgar Bronfman, along with the Samuel Bronfman Foundation’s executive director, Dana Raucher, at the Four Seasons in New York. The dining area was quiet and empty, and I was nervous. Dana whispered to me, “There’s Barbara Walters. Don’t look.”

I was there to tell Edgar how much it meant to me to have learned just six months earlier that in the early 1970s, as CEO of Seagram, he had stood up for a gay employee.

As I’d learned, one of his senior executives had approached him back then to recommend that this employee be terminated. When Edgar asked why, the executive replied, “Well, you know, he’s a homosexual.”

Edgar’s response? “You’re fired.”

This happened in the 1970’s when anti-gay sentiments were commonplace. Now, many years later, I did my best to emphasize to Edgar the significance of his refusal to tolerate homophobia in his company then.

With his eyebrows raised over his Arnold Palmer drink of iced tea and lemonade, Edgar looked at me incredulously and said, “How else should I have responded?” He shrugged and returned to his Caesar salad.

To Edgar, human decency was intuitive. It was obvious and unremarkable.

Edgar’s commitment to equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people is one of the lesser-known aspects of his legacy, but it helped shift the discourse in the American Jewish community and beyond. Years after our meeting at the Four Seasons, I understand how Edgar’s integrity, moral conscience, and belief in human dignity have animated a Jewish world I call home.

Idit Klein, a 1989 BYFI fellow, is the executive director and founder of Keshet, a Boston-based organization that works for the full inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Jews in Jewish life.


A Man Who Took Jewish Faith as a Challenge

By Naamah Paley

Last summer in Israel, one of the teenage Bronfman Fellows asked me why the group wasn’t required to pray together every morning. He found it to be offensive, and a real loss that a pluralistic group of Jews weren’t learning to pray as a means to transcend their differences of opinion and practice.

I took his question into consideration and replied: “Edgar doesn’t care about God. He doesn’t even believe in God. He wants us to learn together — participating in rigorous debate and respecting each other’s opinions. That’s the vision of this program.”

My ability to offer this response was a product my years of work in carrying out Edgar’s vision through the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel program and our alumni community. It has been my honor. The more I got to know Edgar through our weekly staff Talmud sessions, the greater I grew able to confidently answer questions from our fellows about what the “agendas” of our program were. And with each of these answers, my respect and admiration for Edgar’s vision grew.

Edgar was a deep thinker and was always the smartest person in the room. He never hesitated to challenge the theories and insights posed by the rabbi in the room. And he made it clear he expected the same from others.

From my first Talmud session several years ago, it was clear that I was expected to participate in full, to challenge and argue as much as anyone.

Edgar surrounded himself with interesting people from whom he truly wished to learn. He inspired all of us to do the same. Two years ago, he brought in several Orthodox feminist speakers and challenged them, repeatedly, on how they considered their feminism consistent with their Orthodoxy. How could they possibly sit behind a mechitza yet consider themselves full participants in their faith?

I could see that Edgar really wanted to know. He was struggling to understand. He gave each speaker a platform to try and explain. That approach has been a rich model for me and a tenet of my own work: To follow Edgar’s lead means surrounding ourselves with interesting people and focusing especially on those whose practices we, at our core, don’t understand. But it means also listening to those we have invited and committing ourselves to learning from them. Because it’s those we don’t understand who have the most to teach us.

Naamah Paley, a 2002 BYFI fellow, is Manager of Alumni Initiatives at The Bronfman Youth Fellowships.


How Edgar Bronfman Transformed an Alienated Russian Jew

By Ella Shteingart

Edgar Bronfman, did not know me, and I had limited interactions with him. Yet I feel a deep sense of loss at his passing.

In 1988, as a Russian emigre living in Brooklyn, I was completely unaffiliated, and turned off by the Jewish community. Yet my alienation did not disqualify me from being selected to be part of the second class of the Bronfman Youth Fellowship in Israel program. Through it, for the first time in my 17 years, I was introduced to the breadth of the American Jewish community: to the notion of pluralism and to Conservative and Reform Judaism; to commitment to Jewish life and thought; to the beauty and brilliance of text, and to Israel.

At the time, I did not know that just one year earlier, Edgar had flown to Russia, as head of the World Jewish Congress, to campaign on behalf of Soviet Jewry. His efforts on behalf of Soviet Jews over the years, of course, contributed greatly to their freedom to emigrate.

Over the years, the BYFI program has continued to purposefully include Russian-speaking young change-makers, even when the rest of the Jewish community did little to invest in, include, or actively engage this population. Today, three of the four chairs of the BYFI Alumni Advisory Board are Russian Jews – engaged and impacting others in the Jewish community.

On a more personal level, BYFI changed my life and paved the way for my deep commitment to the Jewish community as a lay leader, Jewish professional, and Jewish parent. At one point four of my children attended Jewish day schools of different denominations — a tribute to the impact of Edgar’s commitment to pluralism, via BYFI, on my own outlook.

Ella Shteingart, a 1988 BYFI fellow, is a consultant for the Wexner Heritage Russian-Speaking Jews Cohort, cosponsored by the Wexner Foundation and UJA-Federation of New York.


I Never Said Thanks to Edgar Bronfman

By Jonathan Tepperman

My first meeting with Edgar was not what you’d call auspicious. I was 17 and had just, mysteriously, been selected for Edgar’s newest philanthropic venture, the Bronfman Youth Fellowship in Israel.

This was a mystery because I was a very sheepish and reluctant Jew — as Edgar himself had been at that age — and was confused about why I’d even been included. At a welcoming reception that summer of 1988, Edgar asked me in his Winnipeg/Montreal/somehow-Boston brogue about a baseball team I knew nothing about; I stammered a sheepish response.

Yet Edgar would go on to become a great patron of mine, shaping my life in ways even he probably wouldn’t have anticipated. A few years later, the fellowship led (again mysteriously — I wasn’t qualified) to a job at another Bronfman venture, UN Watch, which launched my career as an Israel-obsessed journalist with a growing fascination with Judaism. More job offers — always mysterious — would issue from the Seagrams Building, Edgar corporate headquarters in Manhattan, over the years (to assist with a book, to work with his philanthropy). Perhaps foolishly, I turned those down. But these encounters led to others, including an irregular series of lunches for two at the Four Seasons. At each, my patron, in his deceptively simple way, would ask deceptively hard questions about what I was doing and thinking — questions that pushed me to learn more, work harder, dig deeper.

Twenty-five years later, the sheepishness, at least, is finally gone, and even the reluctance has faded. I have a career, an intellectual life, and a Jewish home that I owe, in no small part, to that other once-reluctant Jew’s generosity and encouragement.

And I have a wistful sense that I never properly expressed my gratitude for all those gentle nudges — and for the man they helped me become. Which makes me feel a little sheepish.

Jonathan Tepperman is managing editor of Foreign Affairs, a publication of the Council on Foreign Relations.


Watch Limmud Live From Britain

By Forward Staff

The Limmud conference starts today and continues through Thursday. The Forward is exclusively providing the live stream of the event in North America.

limmud on livestream.com. Broadcast Live Free

Jonathan Pollard and the Spying-on-Israel Scandal

By Sigal Samuel

Israelis call for the release of Jonathan Pollard on March 19, 2013 in Jerusalem, Israel.

“Hypocritical.” “Illegitimate.” “Unacceptable.” All these words and more are being used in Israeli political circles to describe Friday’s revelation that the NSA spied on former prime minister Ehud Olmert and former defense minister Ehud Barak in 2009.

And how does the Israeli right wing believe its government should respond to this revelation? Well, it should demand that the U.S. release Israeli-American spy Jonathan Pollard, a man sentenced to life in prison after he was convicted of spying for Israel, pronto. Because, obviously, right?

This reaction is so absurd that not even Netanyahu — a longtime Pollard advocate — can assent to it. He agrees that the NSA espionage constitutes an egregious breach of trust between allies — as he made clear in a statement Monday. And he agrees that Pollard should be freed — as he reiterated Sunday in a renewed request for Pollard’s release. But even he is too embarrassed to suggest there’s any sort of causal link between the NSA espionage and the case for clemency where Pollard is concerned. In fact, he went out of his way to clarify that his request “is neither conditional on, nor related to, recent events, even though we have given our opinion on these developments.”

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News Quiz: Hitler, Sarah Silverman and Grace Kelly

By Lenore Skenazy

Hitler, Sarah Silverman and Jonah Hill walk into a news quiz. You just know it has to be this one, right? Come on — what other news quiz could it possibly be?

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It's a Christmas Tree, Stupid

By Eliyahu Federman

In a Yuletide shift, Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee finally agreed to call a 17-foot statehouse spruce a Christmas tree, admitting that his past practice of calling it a “holiday tree” generated too much anger.

No kidding. Naming a Christmas tree a holiday tree or Hanukkah bush should be offensive to both the religious and secularist or atheist. It is deceptive.

While using green trees during the winter solstice celebration predates Christianity, by the 16th century and possibly even the 15th century the custom of the Christmas tree developed as “devout Christians (bringing) decorated trees into their homes,” according to History.com. By 1982, Pope John Paul II formally introduced the Christmas tree custom to the Vatican.

Urban Dictionary defines a holiday tree as a “phrase used by folks who feel vaguely guilty about celebrating Christmas, and decide to pretend that what they are doing is celebrating some ‘universal’ holiday that uses ‘universal holiday’ trees” and a Hanukkah bush as a “Jewish Christmas tree.”

That is pretty accurate.

The religious should be offended because it is an attempt to secularize a Christian symbol of Christmas. Similarly, the Hanukkah bush is an attempt to Judaize an otherwise uniquely Christian symbol.

For Jews, it would be like calling a menorah a holiday candelabra. It would be misportraying a symbol of the holiday because the menorah represents the Jewish religious holiday of Hanukkah.

Secular people should be offended because it’s an attempt to deceptively rename an inherently religious symbol, in an effort to universalize it so more people adopt it. This is like calling creationism intelligent design in an effort to pass religion off as science.

Renaming the Christmas tree a holiday tree is also subterfuge to avoid potential First Amendment establishment clause issues.

The position that we should accurately define the Christmas tree is reflected in past polls that show Americans overwhelmingly believe it should be called a Christmas and not a holiday tree. According to a 2008 Clarus Research Group poll, eight in 10 side with “Christmas” over “holiday.”

The bottom line is that the Christmas tree is used to symbolize Christmas, not secular holidays or Hanukkah. There is no religion or culture in existence today that uses it to symbolize any other purpose.


Al Goldstein and Me

By Lukas I. Alpert

courtesy of Lukas I. Alpert
Lukas and Al: Veteran New York reporter Lukas I. Alpert strolls with pornographer Al Goldstein, post-stomach staple, through Times Square, which had long been swept clean of the porno theaters, runaways and roving gangs of teens carrying bicycle chains.

There are many words to describe Screw Magazine publisher Al Goldstein: vile, repugnant, crass, filthy, grotesque and even downright disgusting. His obituary in the New York Times referred to him as “scabrous” — a high-brow description for him that only the Old Gray Lady would use.

The Brooklyn-born Jew, who died last week at age 77, would have agreed with every one of those descriptions and even embraced them. That was just the kind of guy he was.

While childish and contemptible, Goldstein was also entertaining and a quintessential example of the New York I remember growing up. To me he was as much the face of the city of my childhood as Ed Koch, Crazy Eddie, Curtis Sliwa or Al Sharpton.

Most of my personal dealings with Goldstein came well after his pornographic empire had crumbled. As a journalist with The Associated Press, New York Post and Daily News, I interviewed him many times over the years.

Goldstein was one of those guys journalists liked to talked to because, as we say in the newspaper business, “he gave good quote.” I was pleasantly surprised that the prepared obituary I wrote for him at the AP about a decade ago ran all over the country virtually as I had written it.

But my first real knowledge of him dates back to my prepubescent days growing up in Manhattan. To be honest, I don’t think I ever read Screw Magazine, but like most of my friends, I was a regular watcher of Goldstein’s lewd leased-access television show “Midnight Blue,” which ran every Saturday night from 1974 to 2003.

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My Friends Suspected Me of Spying for Israel

By Michael Kaplan

A Palestinian worker passes near the Aida refugee camp on December 21, 2005. / Getty Images

Reading the recent reports about Jewish American spies like Robert Levinson and Alan Gross, I can’t help but think back on my own experiences in the Middle East.

A friend and I lived and volunteered in the Aida refugee camp, just outside Bethlehem, for several months after graduating high school. It was a great and memorable experience for both of us, but living in tense regions of the world has more downsides than just poor resources and facilities, which are to be expected. There is also the almost constant fear that your own friends might be suspicious of you.

One night there was a loud thump on the front door of our home, as if someone had thrown a large stone or possibly a brick. It was followed by a louder thump, another bang and then a few seconds of calm. My friend and I quickly, almost instinctively, grabbed the largest kitchen knives we could find and ran, knives in hand, to the front door.

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Forward on Film

By Martyna Starosta

What do Hasidic hats, the Borscht Belt, the king of competitive dreidel-ing and a tiny row house shul have in common? They all played starring roles in the Forward best videos of 2013 — along with a poignant portrait of the Jewish mother who lost her son in the Newtown school massacre.

This year saw a major transition in our video department: Nate Lavey, who had laid the groundwork for stunning video journalism at the Forward moved to the New Yorker. Since the fall, I have the privilege to continue our practice of ambitious visual storytelling. Here are them most delicious highlights from this year.

We used the camera for time travelling. Borscht Belt takes us on a trip to Upstate New York to re-discover the history of Jewish summer resorts. Little Row House Shul depicts how a tiny synagogue in southeast Philadelphia is struggling to survive after a century of service. And Men of Many Hats investigates the changes in two Hasidic neighborhoods in Brooklyn through the prism of hat fashions. This beautiful report won Lavey the first award of the national Press Photographers Association.

It’s always yummy to combine film and food. In Debating the Deli David Sax and Josh Ozersky go head to head-to-head on “new school” versus “old school” delis. We also had the pleasure to chat with the famous chef duo Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi who share insights on The 8 Flavors of Jerusalem.

One of my favorite challenges is to produce “vox pops”, which confronts a diverse set of people with the same question. In response to the Pew survey “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” we created quick video portraits of Jews from different backgrounds. The question: What does “Jewish” mean to you? The answer: It’s Complicated. The video A Fine Balance features the voices of participants of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance Conference (JOFA). It’s intriguing to witness how Orthodox feminists are trying to balance the desire for inclusion with the aim to preserve traditional gender roles.

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Peace Now Was Wrong To Exclude Einat Wilf

By Gerald M. Steinberg

Peace Now members call for an Israel-Hamas ceasefire on January 10, 2009. / Getty Images

Former Knesset member Dr. Einat Wilf was recently invited and then uninvited by the influential Israeli NGO Peace Now to participate in its annual “Conference of the Left” meeting. In attempting to justify the abrupt reversal, Yariv Oppenheimer, the organization’s head, blamed Wilf’s membership in the International Advisory Council of NGO Monitor. Wilf, who entered the Knesset in 2010 as a member of the Labor Party, replied, “If the Israeli Left has no place for those who support a two-state solution and who also wage battle against those who seek to delegitimize Israel, it will not return to lead the country.”

This example of political blacklisting highlights the self-destructive ideological purity and conformity that has come to characterize many “progressive, liberal” Zionist NGOs and their supporters. Instead of engaging on the substance of criticism offered by NGO Monitor, which points to the exploitation of liberal values in the political warfare against Israel, groups like Peace Now have worked overtime to silence the messengers.

While Oppenheimer did not offer details regarding NGO Monitor’s violation of Peace Now’s litmus test, others filled in the charge sheet. Writing in The Forward, J.J. Goldberg supported the decision to disinvite Wilf due to her links to NGO Monitor. His justification cited a “quick search of the organization’s website,” which yielded “271 postings that discuss Peace Now, nearly all of them negatively.” If he had gone beyond Google stats, Goldberg would have discovered that nearly all the references to Peace Now are parenthetical or appear on European government lists of NGOs that they fund. Peace Now does not appear on NGO Monitor’s Index of over 100 NGOs, many (but not all) of which exploit human rights and humanitarian aid principles to demonize Israel.

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Now They Come for the Gays

By Sharon Kleinbaum and Yelena Goltsman

The Jewish community should feel a sense of déjà vu as it witnesses the government-sponsored persecution of LGBT people in Russia. We should respond with a statement of determination nearly as familiar to us as the Shema: Never again.

In the 1960s, with our awareness of the Holocaust very fresh in our memory, American Jews took seriously Soviet scapegoating of Russian Jewry and the efforts to destroy the Russian Jewish community. In 2013, in Putin’s Russia, gays are the new Jews.

In his assault on democratic institutions in Russia, Vladimir Putin is counting on xenophobia, homophobia, anti-Western and anti-immigrant sentiments to turn the Russian people against anybody perceived to be different. Government-run media supports these policies. The precious few independent media outlets cannot compete with Putin’s huge propaganda machine. This, along with the infamous new law banning the spread of “nontraditional sexual relations,” all but silences LGBT people in Russia.

Act Up’s slogan “Silence = Death” comes from recent U.S. history, when coming out and speaking out were essential to changing public views of homosexuality and to mobilizing response to the AIDS epidemic of the 80s and 90s. If you are gay in Russia in 2013, it is no longer lawful to affirm who you are, even in front of your own children.

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Why I Support the Academic Boycott of Israel

By Eric Cheyfitz

On Sunday, the American Studies Association, of which I am a member, voted to support the academic boycott of Israel called for by Palestinian civil society. Included in their announcement of the vote are the statements of 13 scholars in support of the vote, among which I am included. Here is my statement:

I am a Jew with a daughter and three grandchildren who are citizens of Israel. I am a scholar of American Indian and Indigenous studies, who has in published word and action opposed settler colonialism wherever it exists, including of course the Palestinian West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. It is worth noting in this respect that just as the myth of American exceptionalism seeks to erase the genocide and ongoing settler colonialism of Indigenous peoples here in the United States, so the myth of Israeli exceptionalism seeks to erase Israeli colonialism in Palestine and claim original rights to Palestinian lands. It is from these personal and professional positions that I applaud the decision of the NC to support the Academic boycott of Israel, which I support, and urge ASA members to affirm that support with their votes.

I offer the personal information in this statement so that people will know that I have an immediate interest in a just outcome for the Palestinian people, which would also be a just outcome for the state of Israel. Simply put, I want my grandchildren to grow up in a democracy, not in a state that proclaims itself a democracy while denying human rights to a population under its control — a population that has the right to a sovereign state of its own on territory currently under the colonial domination of Israel. We should remember that Palestinians on the West Bank live under Israeli martial law. I also believe that in the long run Israel cannot survive caught in the vice of this political contradiction. And I want Israel to survive.

Professionally, I have my investments as well, to which the statement alludes. As a professor of Native American and Indigenous studies, I am acutely aware of how the agendas of settler colonialism — land grab being the primary one as it is in Palestine — actively decimated the Indigenous population of the United States from an initial estimate of four to five million in 1492 in what would become the lower 48 states to 250,000 by the end of the nineteenth century. While the Native population has been growing since then and since 1924 Native peoples are citizens of the U.S., nevertheless the lasting effects and ongoing forms of settler colonialism are instrumental in making Native peoples the poorest of the poor in the U.S.

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The Exodus at the 92 Street Y

By Jane Eisner

Well, I certainly never had that happen before. In years of moderating sometimes heated public conversations, never has a panelist just walked off the stage. But that’s what Commentary editor John Podhoretz did Monday night. And I’m still trying to figure out why.

Of course, I expected a feisty evening when the venerable 92nd Street Y asked me to moderate a panel about what it means to be “pro-Israel” (their words), with Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J Street; David Harris, executive director of American Jewish Committee, and Podhoretz. And from the outset, it was clear that Ben-Ami and Podhoretz were going to disagree about everything, with Harris positioning himself — literally and figuratively — in the middle.

We talked about the latest controversy at the Swarthmore College Hillel, and who should or should not be invited to speak at a Jewish institution.

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