Amid the troubling statistics about the state of American Jewry in the recent Pew Research Center Survey there was one staggering, positive number that stood out to us: 94% of respondents to the survey said they were “proud” to identify as Jewish.
So who makes up the 94%? We asked readers, to submit stories, anecdotes, and nominations of people who may not fit in to “traditional” categories of Judaism. Here are their stories:
“I’m a Jew devoid of halakha: No davening, and Yom Kippurs filled with treyf. But I’m a Jewish history professor at a southern college with few Jews, and I bring Yiddishkeit to the classrooms of the Bible Belt. We are a Light to the Nations, so I enlighten the gentiles of Dixie. If locals no longer call a temple a ‘Jewish Church,’ know Anne Frank didn’t find comfort through a fiddler on her roof, can swear in Yiddish like my Litvaks, and approach Sunday Chinese food as sacred ritual, then am I bad for the Jews?”
— Dr. Jarrod Tanny, Wilmington, North Carolina
The Forward is partnering with other Jewish newspapers to offer our readers a peek at some of the best stories from around the country, as selected by the editors at those papers. We will offer a selection of unedited links with brief introductions from the editors of the papers.
Tony Mendez is no longer a spy for the CIA, but the qualities that helped make him one of the best — his wit and unassuming personality — were on full display Oct. 8 at the Writers Guild Theater in Beverly Hills, at an event hosted by 30 Years After, a local Iranian-American Jewish group.
Mendez’s heroic rescue of six Americans hiding in the Canadian ambassador’s residence in Iran during the 1979 revolution there made him famous via the Ben Affleck film “Argo,” which won three Academy Awards at the Oscars this year.
At the theater, Mendez and his wife, Jonna Goeser, who was also a CIA agent, took the stage to discuss his career. Before the event, Mendez, 72, and Goeser sat down with the Journal to discuss the art of spy craft, their work with the CIA and how they met on assignment in Thailand. Read the full story here.
Erin Hyman, 41, is the wife of a congregational rabbi in San Francisco who was diagnosed with breast cancer two years ago. She’s just published “The Day my Nipple Fell Off,” an anthology of essays by women under 45 in the Bay Area with the same diagnosis who meet monthly to laugh and cry together. In honor of National Breast Cancer Month. Read the full story here.
U.C. Berkeley — hotbed of anti-Israel activism, stomping grounds for the BDS movement, home of a student Senate-sponsored divestment bill — is opening its first Center for Jewish Studies next week. They still have no undergraduate major and no Jewish studies department, but it’s a start. And the chancellor is giving them $1 million in seed money. Read the full story here.
Israel is working on a secret plan to cede the Temple Mount to the Palestinians, a lawmaker from the ruling Likud party has claimed.
“The issue here is that the prime minister wants to be rid of the Temple Mount,” Moshe Feiglin, a powerful figure on the right flank of the ruling Likud party, wrote in a column published today.
Feiglin has fought hard for the right of Jews to pray at Temple Mount since winning a Knesset seat in January — causing him to clash with Likud’s party whip. Currently, Jews may only ascend during specific hours and may not pray there.
Feiglin wrote that while past negotiations broke down after other subjects were settled on the matter of Temple Mount, the “current process is just the opposite: Prime Minister Netanyahu has already reached agreements in principle and now he is going to create the facts on the ground and get the public accustomed to the new reality.”
He went on to describe what he sees on the horizon. “First, Israel cedes the Temple Mount and Jerusalem while declaring that we are doing no such thing. But the facts on the ground show that we are — in front of our very eyes. At a certain stage, Netanyahu will have to admit the truth. “
According to most analysts the peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority have reached something of an impasse, and it is unlikely that Feiglin would be the man to know about a secret deal that has been kept from the rest of the world.
The Temple Mount has long been a popular setting for conspiracy theories. Many Arab leaders claim that plans are underway by Israel to demolish the Al-Aksa mosque and demonstrations against the “danger” to Al-Aksa are common.
Feiglin ends his column with a rebuke to the religious-right, saying that by not visiting in large enough numbers, they are allowing this to happen. “We cannot complain about Netanyahu or the police because if only twenty Jews a day visit the Temple Mount, as opposed to tens of thousands of Arabs, then all my words are meaningless,” he wrote.
The Arab conspiracy theory about Temple Mount gets people galvanized; are we seeing the start of a Jewish conspiracy theory to the same end?
The Kremlin’s self-styled flag experts have declared that the flag of Russia’s Jewish Autonomous Region —which bears an uncanny resemblance to the rainbow gay pride symbol — is in fact 100% kosher, Buzzfeed World reported.
The flag, designed in 1996 for the Birobidzhan region, boasts colorful stripes on a white background. It was under review for its possible violation of Russia’s ban on LGBT propaganda.
“Regarding the similarity of this flag with the symbol of the gay movement, we explain that not every rainbow image is linked to sexual orientation,” Georgy Vilinbakhov, a Kremlin advisor, wrote in a letter published by local website EAOMedia.ru.
“Obviously, the above described flag, the flag of the Jewish Autonomous Region, whose foundation is a white cloth, has nothing to do with that,” he wrote. “This flag does not contradict the current law of the Russian Federation and so there is no basis to cancel or change it.”
The Jewish Autonomous Oblast, or region, was designated by Stalinist Soviet authorities in 1934 as a “Jewish socialist republic.”
Interviewed by the same local outlet, the flag’s creator, Alexander Valyaev defended his design. “On its flag the gay movement uses seven stripes, not six,” he pointed out. “The rainbow is a divine symbol, taken from the Bible. God threw the rainbow from the sky into the wilderness of the desert as a symbol of hope.”
Each year, the Forward publishes the Forward 50, which is our opinionated list of American Jews who made a difference in the preceding 12 months.
Creating the list is a long process for the staff of the Forward. Each of us is required to propose names of candidates — and defend our choices in meetings with colleagues who are equally passionate about their own picks.
Call it a cage fight for Jewish journalists. Jokes aside, it’s a process that ends with a selection of Jewish figures from activism, arts, business and religion — among other fields — that are inspiring, unexpected and just plan fun.
We also ask readers to weigh in with their own suggestions.
The deadline for nominations is October 18. Submissions should be sent to email@example.com.
A small yet vocal group seems to be holding the artistic and ethical sensibilities of the Jewish community of Washington, D.C. hostage, leading Theatre J to scale back its planned production of ‘The Admission’ by Motti Lerner.
Theatre, like all arts, is meant to create dialogue as well as delight, foster intellectual discourse for new and challenging ideas, and to bring community together over important social issues through creativity and openness. In other words theatre is meant to enlarge us, not constrain us.
The small group, COPMA (Citizens Opposed to Propaganda Masquerading as Art), is advocating censorship. In its small-minded way it has decided that Jewish communal funding mechanisms should not fund plays they feel de-legitimates Israel. As a result they started a witchhunt to force the local Jewish federation to withdraw funding from Theatre J’s, home at a Jewish community center.
This is McCarthyism, pure and simple.
Motti Lerner’s credentials are impeccable. He is an honored member of the Association for Jewish Theatre (as is Theatre J). He has written for television and for theatres throughout Israel including the Cameri and the Habimah National Theatre. He won the Prime Minister of Israel Award for Writers, the Meskin Award for Best Play (1985), and the Israeli Motion Picture Academy award for best T.V. drama in both 1995 and 2004.
The morning after the funeral for Samuel Cohen-Eckstein, the Brooklyn teenager who was killed by a van just a month before his bar mitzvah, the leaders of his family’s synagogue wrote to me, extremely upset about our coverage. Since these are leaders I respect, who raised serious, vexing questions, I responded to them right away.
Then Dave Goldiner, the Forward’s director of digital media, who oversaw the coverage of this horrible accident, suggested that I explain to readers just how we go about making decisions in these cases, when the impulse to honor a grieving family’s privacy conflicts with the journalistic imperative to tell stories that matter to our readers.
This story was an important news event in the Jewish community. Samuel’s parents are prominent members of a thriving synagogue, Kolot Chayeinu, and are well-known in their Brooklyn neighborhood. They have been advocates for traffic safety and have spoken at public forums about the need to better protect pedestrians. The spot where their son died, next to a popular entrance to Prospect Park, is instantly recognizable to many of our readers; indeed, I drove by there the other day and was moved by the memorial created by his friends and neighbors.
The Knesset returned to work today, after its exceedingly long summer break, and all indications are that we’re in for a session full of passion, arguments, and anger.
The key issues on the table divide Israel along its various social and electoral cleavages: religious, ethnic, dove-hawk, and left-right on domestic matters. And of course, this is without even touching on the big strategic matters of Syria, Iran, Egypt etc.
First up, religious. It’s supposedly decision time for the issue of the Haredi draft. Expect angry stamping of feet by Yesh Atid when proposals fail to meet the scale of draft it promised voters and the tearing up of legislation proposals at the Knesset podium by Haredi lawmakers. Expect Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu trying to mediate between them and ultimately trying to delay any decisions — but not without plenty of spilled ink, raised tempers, and talk of Yesh Atid walking out of the government.
Chief among the ethnic conflicts will be objections by Bedouin citizens to the state’s plans to urbanize them and remove them from lands to which they claim historic rights (the state doesn’t agree). This is a highly emotive issue that could well serve for an outlet for broader frustrations in the Arab sector.
Doves and hawks will clash on every detail of the ongoing negotiations. If there are more terror attacks, there will be more claims from hawks that negotiations should be suspended and/or the planned release of Palestinian prisoners (a concession that Israel is making as part of the peace process) should be cancelled. Expect one of the most bitter confrontations over the bill to require a referendum before any peace deal is agreed. Hawks see this as a get-out clause and/or a democratic right; doves tend to see it as an underhand way to sabotage any diplomatic advances.
On domestic policy, the left and the right will face off over the High Court’s recent decision that struck down a controversial law that allows the state to detain illegal immigrants for up to three years. The right is furious, claiming that Israel’s hands have been tied and it is weakened in its actions against illegal immigrants. But it goes deeper than this — the right sees this as underscoring all that is bad about the High Court, chiefly what is perceived as its political activism against the government. The left views the High Court decision on this issue as a welcome indication that the justice system still protects the weak, and will fight tooth-and-nail to avoid and return moves in Knesset to challenge the ruling or to institute long-term detentions by way of new legislation.
It’s a long time since the Knesset got much real work done. This time last year the Knesset was already gearing up for elections; then came coalition building; and just as the government was formed and lawmakers were settling in to their offices, it was the summer vacation. Now is the time for the many Knesset freshmen to get themselves noticed — and they have the perfect politically-charged environment in which to do so.
Given that The Daily Mail has never liked anyone whose politics are to the left of General Franco, it is hardly surprising that they would not care for Ralph Miliband or indeed his son, Ed.
After all, Ralph Miliband was one of the foremost English socialist thinkers and writers of the 20th century. Miliband favoured the upending of the existing class structure and the dismantling of the existing establishment including the Church, the Lords, and the business elite. He also favoured nationalisation of key industries with a view to “improving the efficiency of a capitalist economy,” much to the chagrin to Mail, who wrote that he “chose to ignore the lamentable performance of nationalisation, which proved to be anything but efficient.”
“The Man Who Hated Britain” – the Mail’s recent feature on Miliband – labors (forgive the pun) boringly and boorishly on his politics and its implications for what his son might do if he were Prime Minister.
“But how passionately he would have approved today of his son’s sinister warning about some of the policies he plans to follow if he ever becomes Prime Minister,” Geoffrey Levy writes. “Such as giving councils draconian new powers to seize into public ownership land held by developers who fail to build on it.” The horror.
And yet were the piece merely a castigation of the professor’s unabashed socialist politics, then that would be fine, insofar as it falls within the Mail’s usual remit.
But in “The man who hated Britain,” there are evidently other motivations at work. Miliband is described as “the immigrant boy whose first act in Britain was to discard his name Adolphe because of its associations with Hitler, and become Ralph, and who helped his father earn a living rescuing furniture from bombed houses in the Blitz.” For rescuing, read pilfering.
When you run a relatively small news organization in a gigantic city, it’s inevitable that talented staff members will get recruited to bigger jobs. So it’s with a mixture of pride and sadness that I report on the departure of two respected colleagues, Nate Lavey and Abigail Jones.
Both originally came here as interns, and their excellent work propelled them into full-time jobs.
You’ve undoubtedly enjoyed Nate’s award-winning videos on subjects ranging from a young Orthodox weightlifter to an aging Philadelphia synagogue. Check out some of his work here.
And you’ve read the ambitious work that Abigail has written and edited, from the sharpest tweets to the Inspired Rabbis project to her exploration of the rise and fall of the Jewish Catskills. See her work here.
Nate has joined newyorker.com, while Abigail will be part of the relaunch of Newsweek. They’ll always be Forward alums.
I’m delighted that Martyna Starosta, a multilingual video producer, has joined our staff and will bring her varied skills and unique sensibility to our growing body of video journalism. Abigail’s replacement will be announced shortly.
And don’t forget: Deadline for nominations for the Forward 50 is October 18. Submissions should be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org
The Forward is partnering with other Jewish newspapers to offer our readers a peek at some of the best stories from around the country, as selected by the editors at those papers.
We will offer a selection of unedited links with brief introductions from the editors of the papers.
From the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles
The Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project issued its “Portrait of Jewish Americans” on Oct. 1, setting off alarms throughout the Jewish community about the future of Jewish life.
Among the greatest concerns is this statement: “Among Jews in the youngest generation of U.S. adults — the Millennials — 68% identify as Jews by religion, while 32% describe themselves as having no religion and identify as Jewish on the basis of ancestry, ethnicity or culture.”
To hear the voices behind the statistics, the Journal invited Millennials to speak for themselves about what it means to them to be American Jews.
The Israeli election in January was widely lauded as a testament to the revival of Israel centrism. Coming out of nowhere the brand new Yesh Atid party won 19 seats — almost a sixth of the Knesset’s mandates. Is this revival now over?
A poll just conducted for the Globes financial newspaper found that if elections were held now, Yesh Atid would poll at just 12 seats, down by 7.
The two main parties to the right of Yesh Atid have, between them, increased their support by the equivalent of 6 seats, which would appear to indicate that Yesh Atid voters have shifted their support rightwards. Yesh Atid’s loss is the gain of Likud and the religious-Zionist Bayit Hayehudi.
But how much is this shift about ideology, and how much is it about the honeymoon period of celebrity-turned politician Yair Lapid ending, hitting Yesh Atid support hard? Has the ideological direction of Israel changed, or have Israelis just lost their love of Lapid and looked around at which other parties are options for their support?
And if the shift is ideological, is it as simple as it seems? With the Likud-led government participating in peace talks with the Palestinians, many Yesh Atid voters may have turned to Likud but remained avowedly centrist on the peace process. Their logic most likely goes: why support a centrist party when the stronger Likud party is following the centrist policy of negotiating?
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu went a long time to neutralizing Lapid’s appeal on social issues, which had been strong, by cornering him in to the role of Finance Minister. Now he could be stealing his thunder as a centrist.
The Knesset returns to work this week after a long summer break. Whether Yesh Atid’s woes stem from personality factors or Likud bursting its bubble, if is to survive as an electoral force, it desperately needs to prove its relevance.
Israel’s political golden boy Yair Lapid has been making the rounds in Washington this week, filling up some necessary gaps in his resume.
The telegenic Lapid, who until recently was a newspaper columnist and TV host, had hardly had a chance to establish ties with the American political elite before pulling a huge surprise in last year’s elections and becoming the leader of Israel’s second largest party.
Now finance minister, Lapid has replaced his trademark black T-shirt with a dark suit. And he is making sure not to miss any required stop on the power tour.
In his week long tour of New York and Washington, Lapid spent an evening speaking to PBS’s Charlie Rose and the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board; in Washington he met with the House and Senate leadership; sat down with the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC; and gave what is almost a mandatory presentation for any aspiring Israeli leaders coming to town – a speech at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
In coalition negotiations with Benjamin Netanyahu following the January elections, Lapid initially aimed for the post of foreign minister, but after Likud members insisted on keeping the position open for Avigdor Lieberman, Lapid opted for the treasury. The trip to Washington was timed to fit his participation, with other finance ministers from around the world, in the fall meeting of the International Monetary Fund.
But Lapid succeeded in packing his schedule with diplomatic meetings and speeches, indicating that his interest in the foreign ministry, or, as many speculate, in running for prime minister in the next elections, has not subsided. The administration rolled out the usual tribute it reserves for up-and-coming Israeli leaders: a one-on-one meeting with the vice president. Biden and Lapid met for more than an hour on Thursday and the meeting, according to official readouts, focused on Iran’s nuclear threat and the upcoming negotiations with Tehran.
When I was a kid, my mom told me, “Dress British, think Yiddish.”
The credo for Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) now is “Learn ‘Litv-ish,’ daven ‘Hasid-ish,’ act ‘normal-ish.’”, according to Rabbi Daniel Landes, who on Sunday formally installed Rabbi Asher Lopatin as the second president of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah.
The installation ceremony, held at the historically-significant Orthodox Park East Synagogue, formally invested Lopatin as YCT Rabbinical School’s successor to founder rabbi Avi Weiss.
Lopatin has served as the rabbi of Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel Congregation, a cutting edge Modern Orthodox Synagogue in Chicago. He is a scholar in Medieval Arabic Thought, and is a double ordinee: by Yeshivas Brisk in Chicago, and by Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary.
Yeshivat Chovevei Torah has for the past decade and more promoted the idea of “Open Orthodoxy,” a pluralistic approach to Modern Orthodoxy that pushes a number of envelopes in Orthodox practice — including the role of women in leadership positions — while maintaining a commitment to traditional modes of rabbinical study and Orthodox ideology.
Numerous speakers at the ceremony re-affirmed the Chovevei mission, but each put his or her own stamp on the event.
Weiss offered a thoughtful exploration of organizational transition, which reached back to Jewish history and tradition. He closed with his signature expression: leading the assembled in the singing (and dancing) of a traditional hymn. In anyone else’s hands, the moment would have been hokey in the extreme; done by Weiss, the moment was moving, indeed profoundly so.
Rabbi Dov Linzer, Chovevei’s dean, set the tone for the event with a traditional d’var-Torah. Historian Marc Shapiro was both thoughtful and moving in connecting the dots between the work of Rabbi Jehiel Yaakov Weinberg, one of the 20th century’s great halakhic scholars who headed the famed Hildesheimer Seminary in Berlin, and Chovevei. Shapiro argued that Rabbi Weinberg’s scholarly and pluralistic Orthodox Hildesheimer was a model for Yeshivat Chovevei Torah.
Lopatin, in his response, picked up on the Weinberg/Hildesheimer theme. In an unusual d’var-Torah, Lopatin wove together “Ger” Chasidism from the classic Sfas Emes with a responsum from Jehiel Yaakov Weinberg’s classic S’ridei Eish, demonstrating the power of bringing together classic themes in Modern Orthodoxy, and the importance of bridge-building.
The installation was preceded by a symposium on “Training New Rabbis for a New Generation.” Discussants included Rabbi B. Elka Abrahamson, president of the Wexner Foundation; Dr Arnold Eisen, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary; Rabbi David Ellenson, president of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion; Rabbi Arthur Green, rector of the Hebrew College; and Lopatin.
It was Steven Bayme who, from the audience, best summed up the event. To Bayme, National Director for Contemporary Jewish Life at the American Jewish Committee, “The event demonstrated the power of an Orthodoxy that is truly modern, in the sense of synthesizing modern scholarship and culture with Judaic tradition and learning, and an ‘Open Orthodoxy,’ open to all Jews and open to hearing other viewpoints. It is a beautiful reflection of what can be accomplished when Jews, notwithstanding profound theological and halakhic differences, can work together in the spirit of Klal Yisrael for the betterment of the Jewish people”
What does the Lopatin installation presage for Orthodoxy, and by extension for American Jewish religion and religious groups and movements?
Given the data of the recent Pew study on American Jews, with its findings of increased polarization within the religious communities and continued vibrance of Orthodoxy, my sense is that as Modern Orthodoxy goes, so goes the future of intra-communal Jewish relations.
As Bayme put it, “The future of intra-Jewish relations depends in large measure on a vitality within Modern Orthodoxy, and its ability to construct bridges with the rest of the Jewish world. The Lopatin installation symbolized a vibrant segment of Modern Orthodoxy consolidating its leadership, a leadership that is capable of building those bridges.”
Jerome Chanes is a fellow at the Center for Jewish Studies at the CUNY Graduate Center, and is the author of four books on Jewish history, public-affairs, and communal issues.
There’s a new weapon in the anti-BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanction) arsenal. It’s a viral video by Cleveland-based Orthodox hip-hop artist Ari Lesser, and, based on the more than 18,000 hits it’s gotten since Monday, it’s proving to be pretty powerful.
Lesser raps “Boycott Israel,” a catchy reggae number pointing out the hypocrisy of boycotting Israel when countries all over the world are committing human rights violations—many of them far worse than anything Israel is doing to the Palestinians. Lesser points out specific offences and atrocities committed globally—from North Korea to Syria to Russia to Ecuador, and every point in between.
The song’s refrain pretty much sums up Lesser’s point:
Boycott Israel if you think that’s just, But unless you have a double standard you must Also boycott the rest of the nations, Where there are human rights allegations. We’re not perfect, but if you think we’re the worst, First take a look at the rest of the Earth. Don’t pick and choose, to pick on the Jews, Pick up the paper and read the news.
The musician was commissioned by Here Is Israel, a new pro-Israel campus advocacy group, to write and perform the song.
“It’s not to say that Israel is always right — I definitely criticize when I disagree — but I don’t think a boycott of the whole country is honest,” Lesser told The Times of Israel. “Really, you see if you’re not willing to boycott every major country — and minor country — in the world, then BDS is anti-Semitism, or anti-Israelism, or whatever.”
President Obama’s nomination of Janet Yellen to be the next chair of the Federal Reserve will, if confirmed by the Senate, make her the first woman to lead the bank since its creation nearly a century ago. But she’ll be far from the first Jew.
Yellen, whose nomination to head America’s central bank was reported Tuesday, will follow her immediate predecessor Ben Bernanke who was Jewish, and Bernanke’s immediate predecessor, Alan Greenspan, who was Jewish, too. There have been two other Jewish fed chairs in the past century. In fact, the other frontrunner for the position, Lawrence Summers, was Jewish too.
Yellen, 67, was born in a working class neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York, to Julius Yellen, a family doctor, and Anna Blumenthal, who was a school teacher. A recent profile of Yellen published in the Financial Times described the family as “Jewish, although not particularly observant.”
Yellen studied economics at Brown and Yale and has spent nearly two decades in the academic world before joining president Clinton’s economic team. She served as a Federal Reserve governor, chair of the Council of Economic Advisers, chair of the San Francisco Fed, and until now, vice chair of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors.
Ever since Pew published its new study of American Jews last week, we’ve been hearing a lot about what Jews aren’t.
Jews aren’t as religious as they used to be. They don’t go to synagogue as often. Jews aren’t marrying other Jews or raising their kids Jewish or affiliating with the Conservative movement.
Here at the Forward, we think that what’s been missing from the conversation is an exploration of what Jews are. Ninety-four percent of all Jews are proud of being Jewish. Even among demographic groups that don’t send their kids to Jewish summer camps or attend Passover Seders in overwhelming numbers, the vast majority says they’re proud of their Judaism. Only 24% of Jewish 18 to 29 year olds say they always or usually light Shabbat candles; 96% of that young demographic say they are proud to be Jewish.
So what does it mean to be proud to be Jewish if you don’t light Shabbat candles? You tell us.
We’re looking for Jews who have their own real connection with Jewish life.
The mom who struggles to bring her kids up Jewish in the age of Miley Cyrus. The guy who doesn’t celebrate Hanukkah, but plays Klezmer-influenced hip-hop at a go-go bar in Queens. The woman who sees her Palestinian solidarity activism as an extension of her Jewish background. The old-timer whose Texan synagogue needs him to make a minyan. For the teenager obsessed with artisanal gefilte fish even though she’s never set foot on Orchard Street.
Help us find the 94%. Tell us the stories of today’s proud American Jews. Tell us who they are, describe what they do that’s important to all of us and we may feature them in an upcoming issue of the Forward.
Let us know your name, your email, and the name and story of the person you are submitting in the form below.
News of the death of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, a towering religious and political figure in Israel, plunged millions into mourning.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Yosef “was imbued with love for Torah and his people.” President Shimon Peres cut short a meeting with Czech Prime Minister upon hearing of Rav Ovadia’s death. Ordinary people fainted with emotion and grief.
Even amid this outpouring, we should not forget Yosef’s true colors: He was a racist and inflammatory bigot.
It is true that Yosef was an instrumental and often lenient religious arbitrator throughout his decades-long career. He famously ruled that widows of Isreali soldiers who went missing in the 1973 Yom Kippur War should be allowed to remarry. When large number of Soviet Jews arrived in Israel in the 1970’s and it was unclear if they were really Jewish by traditional, rabbinic standards, Yosef found a way to ensure that they would be accepted as legitimate members of the Jewish community.
At the same time, we should not be blinded by his political or religious importance to his shameful discriminatory language. When Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, Yosef said black Americans brought the disaster on themselves.
“There are terrible natural disasters because there isn’t enough Torah study,” he said. “Black people reside there (in New Orleans) Blacks will study the Torah? (God said), ‘let’s bring a tsunami and drown them.”
The rabbi’s offensive talk was not limited to the African American community. In 2007, Yosef explained that some Israeli soldiers are killed in battle because they are not observant enough.
(JTA) — I didn’t need to ask directions.
Stepping out of the Central Bus Station, I saw them, men in hats and coats walking together slowly, a steady stream moving east along one of Jerusalem’s central thoroughfares to the funeral of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. At 5 p.m., an hour before the funeral, the streets were already closed to cars – the capital’s rush-hour rigmarole giving way to foot traffic that was softer but no less intense.
From a distance it looked homogenous –aerial photographs would later show a sea of black choking the broad avenues of haredi Orthodox northern Jerusalem. But as the group coalesced, men in polo shirts mixed with boys in sweatshirts and soldiers in full uniform – some still holding their guns. Knit kippot bobbed in the crowd with black hats, Sephardi haredim in wide fedoras walked with Ashkenazi hasids in bowlers. A man in a black coat made conversation with another in short sleeves. Women, almost all with modest dress and vastly outnumbered, mostly stood to the side.
The men talked, they shook hands. A few took out their cellphones, perhaps not ready to begin the public mourning of a public leader who, to many, still felt so close. Everyone in Israel knew Ovadia Yosef’s name, but in public his followers would hardly use it, opting instead to call him Maran, our master.
On the sidewalk, a half-dozen men stood at a long table offering a sugary orange drink. Behind them, a speaker blared a recording on loop, quoting a common blessing:
“’To give life to every living soul!’ Come say a blessing over a cold drink to benefit the soul of Maran, may his holy righteous memory be blessed!”
The faithful heeded the call, crowding around a spigot, holding cheap plastic cups that formed a growing pile on the ground once the commandment was fulfilled.
Behind them, on the street, men and boys stood with oversize tins collecting charity. Paper printouts taped to the cans promised that Maran approved of the collection.