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?
With the AIPAC conference competing with the Oscars, Jewish politicos will have to choose between watching willowy Natalie Portman grace the red carpet and Jacob Lew explain the White House’s policy on Israel.
(JTA)— Anti-Semites say that Jews control Hollywood. And they say that Jews control Washington. But can we control both at once?
The biggest event in pro-Israel Israel advocacy — the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual policy conference — kicks off this Sunday, the same day as Hollywood’s biggest night, the Academy Awards.
According to the AIPAC conference schedule, the day’s big speakers (Secretary of the Treasury Jacob Lew, Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog and AIPAC President Bob Cohen) will have wrapped up by 7 p.m. — early enough for them to catch the red carpet broadcast from Hollywood.
AIPAC evening events going head-to-head with the Oscars include an offsite dinner for AIPAC leaders, a campus awards program titled “Sunday Night Live” and unspecified “special events.”
This isn’t the first time that a major Jewish organization has had to compete with a major television event.
In 1998, the American Jewish Committee scheduled its annual meeting opposite the series finale of “Seinfeld.”
“What the hell are you all doing here? Don’t you know what tonight is?” show co-star Jason Alexander asked AJC attendees in a video-taped message.
This year’s AIPAC conference continues on Monday and Tuesday, starring Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Secretary of State John Kerry, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and musician David Broza.
As the Israeli government prepares to present the Knesset with its bill to draft yeshiva students into the army, the Haredi community is seething. But even as it kicks into reactionary mode, you’ve got to wonder whether, paradoxically, this could present an opportunity for some limited advancement among Haredi women.
The Haredi media in Israel is abuzz with talk of a possible “march of the million” against the plans to get currently-exempt Haredi men into uniform and criminalize those who ignore draft orders.
The Haredi leaders who are talking about a march saw the “march of the million” during the social protests of 2011 (which was big but didn’t quite reach a million). They believe that if their community can replicate that kind of mass activism, Israeli society and the government will need to take notice.
But there’s an obvious problem. In secular society, if you have a million people, you have a million potential demonstrators. In Haredi society, a million people gives you just 500,000 potential demonstrators.
Quick, if you’re a settler-dominated government uninterested in sharing Jerusalem with the Palestinian people, what’s a good way to telegraph your position without raising a ruckus?
Well, one good way would be to turn over a sizable portion of Judaism’s holiest site to the management of a maximalist settler group — which is precisely what Israel’s government is about to do.
Haaretz reported on Monday that settlement organization Elad—City of David Foundation stands to be granted the management of the Western Wall’s southern section — not the section most people visit, but the part to the south of the rampart up to the Temple Mount itself, where the Jerusalem Archaeological Park/Davidson Center are located.
Elad is best known, perhaps, for its management of the City of David (Ir David) archeological excavations, which it has turned into a right-wing propaganda center, eliding Palestinian history in the city, ignoring findings that don’t support a Jewish-only narrative, and in the process of expanding its work, damaging (or simply claiming) the property of Palestinians living in the surrounding neighborhood, Silwan.
King David, RoboCop and Bar Rafaeli walk into a quiz…. And here it is!
Benjamin Netanyahu casts Hitler mustache on Angela Merkel / Marc Israel Sellem
Ah, the hazards of light and shadow.
When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke at a press conference today with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, he didn’t mean to point his finger in a way that would cast upon her face a distinctly Hitler-mustache-like shadow. But point he did — and Jerusalem Post photographer Marc Israel Sellem captured the moment in a photo that’s now gone viral.
The image has unleashed a tidal wave of laughter, praise and puns. BuzzFeed ran it under the tongue-in-cheek headline “There Is Nothing Strange About This Photo of Angela Merkel — And You’re Crazy If You Think Otherwise.” Gawker’s headline joked that “Angela Merkel Did Nazi This One Coming,” engendering a slew of comments like “Something’s not Reich here” and “Heil get you every time.” Inhabitants of the Twittersphere have been busy nominating it for “Picture of the Year,” while the photographer’s personal Facebook page has been inundated with back-slapping comments from friends (“Congratulations!” “Bravo!”).
But the photographer himself, and his employer, seem to be taking an altogether more bashful approach. Sellem initially uploaded the photo to his Facebook page, but then deleted it, according to BuzzFeed. The Jerusalem Post has said that it will not use the photo, with reporter Lahav Harkov taking care to clarify that the image did not (despite appearances) get posted to the Jerusalem Post’s Facebook page, and tweeting in quick succession:
Just want to clarify that none of the higher-ups at JPost are pushing that picture. It's not on our site and won't be in the newspaper.ampmdash; Lahav Harkov (@LahavHarkov) February 25, 2014
There’s a whiff of embarrassment and defensiveness about these remarks — and that’s probably just as it should be. Looking at this photo, you can’t help but laugh. But you also, well, kind of cringe.
Some of the rabbis from the Newsweek Top 50 Rabbis list. / The Daily Beast
If we’ve ever watched how a well-intentioned concept can generate unintended consequences, it’s the Newsweek Top 50 Rabbis list.
It was conceived back in 2007 simply because we were genuinely curious about which rabbis were considered leading lights and why.
It evolved over the years into a more reported piece, as we tried to showcase the broad diversity of pacesetters, speakers, teachers, authors, activists, and congregational leaders.
We tried to make it more reflective of the rise of women in the rabbinate and we tried to introduce readers to lesser-known trailblazers.
The list never pretended to use any scientific methodology. We were always transparent about its subjectivity. We always kept our sense of humor.
But despite our lightheartedness, the list started to carry too much weight for too many people.
The Forward is launching The Seesaw, a new advice column which will focus on the real life issues faced by interfaith couples and families.
While the Jewish establishment wrestles with the communal implications of interfaith relationships, a growing number of American Jews are simply living in one. For them, intermarriage isn’t a problem or a solution but a day-to-day, Hanukkah to Christmas, bubbe to grammy, brisket to pork chop reality. Like a seesaw, life in an interfaith relationship involves a lot of back and forth and up and down, with no expectation of ever reaching an equilibrium. This is what makes it challenging, and also what makes it interesting.
When the Forward started its legendary advice column “A Bintel Brief” in 1906, it was to help Jews navigate the foreign world that was America. In this tradition, we hope to continue to help American Jews and their partners, families and friends navigate the foreign terrain they live in now, even if it happens to be in their homes.
Starting in March, we will bring together a panel of people who have gone through it themselves: writers, experts and all-around well-meaning yentes to answer questions submitted by our readers about life in an interfaith world. Every week, we will post your questions — anonymously — along with answers from three or four of our columnists. It’s a diverse group, from James Ponet, who officiated at Chelsea Clinton’s wedding to Susan Katz Miller who wrote a book about “being both” to Jim Keen, a non-Jewish father in the midwest who is raising his kids Jewish and Laurel Snyder, author of “Baxter, the Pig Who Wanted to be Kosher” — and many more.
We aim to offer a mix of insights and opinions on everything from whether you should get a Christmas tree to how best to explain circumcision to your wife’s Swedish family.
The Seesaw won’t be driven by one particular agenda or point-of-view about interfaith relationships. This isn’t about getting more people to convert, or convincing your Aunt Sharon that your kids are fine attending both Hebrew school and Sunday mass. Instead, we want to create a conversation that represents the diversity of feelings and ideas found in the Jewish community — ambivalence included.
We invite you to submit your questions about interfaith life to firstname.lastname@example.org. And don’t hold back! Remember, answers will be posted anonymously, so hit us up with the strange, the silly, and the altogether embarrassing. We only want to help.
A man stands beside a military oven in Independence Square in Kiev, Ukraine. / Getty Images
Over the weekend, the Forward contacted Ukraine’s chief Reform rabbi, Alexander Dukhovny, to ask him about how he felt seeing the months of protests on Kiev’s central square lead to a clear resolution in the president’s ouster. This is his response.
Every citizen of Ukraine including Jews has his or her right to express their position. Those Jews who came to support the protestors were blamed that they were in collaboration with nationalists. Yes, there are some marginal groups in Ukraine whose views are anti-Semitic, and some of those people were among the protestors. However, the protestors’ main focus was on changing the corrupted presidency, government and unjust courts, and on getting rid of oligarchs.
At the moment, Ukraine’s Jewish communities and all Ukrainian people are confronting the uncertainty over our country’s political future. The protestors and many Ukrainian people throughout Ukraine want to establish in their country the Western/European standards of life, social security and a better future for their children. We want to introduce all the qualities of a person who “can dwell in God’s tent” (Psalm 15).