Forward Thinking

Would Talmud Approve of 91 Lashes for Iranian ‘Happy’ Dancers?

By Sigal Samuel

A still from the Iranian version of Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” music video / YouTube

It’s a weird aftereffect of a Jewish day school education that, when I see a headline like “Iran Court Sentences ‘Happy’ Dancers to 6 Months and 91 Lashes,” I immediately ask myself: WWTDD? Or: what would the Talmud do?

You might remember that back in May, seven young men and women were arrested in Iran for recreating Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” music video and posting it on YouTube. Now a Tehran court has sentenced the dancers to six months in prison plus 91 lashes each. Luckily, the sentence was suspended, meaning that the verdict won’t actually be carried out unless the dancers repeat their “crime” in the next three years.


Still, it’s a harsh verdict, and everyone from Pharrell Williams to Iran’s own President Hassan Rouhani seems unhappy with how these kids have been treated. “It is beyond sad that these kids were arrested for trying to spread happiness,” Williams wrote on his Facebook page. “Happiness is our people’s right. We shouldn’t be too hard on behaviors caused by joy,” Rouhani wrote in a May tweet widely seen as expressing support for the dancers.

Likewise, my initial response was: Ouch! 91 lashes? Even the ancient rabbinic texts I studied in school didn’t recommended meting out that many! Then, to make sure my impulse was correct, I did a bit more digging into the wide world of rabbinic whipping.

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Haredi Meets Hollywood in Anti-Vaccine Debate

By Sigal Samuel

A health worker administers a polio vaccination to a child / Getty Images

If you had to guess which neighborhood — Boro Park or Beverly Hills — the following quote applies to, which would you pick?

Parents in these schools are submitting a form called a “personal belief exemption,” which states that they are not vaccinating their kids due to “a diffuse constellation of unproven anxieties, from allergies and asthma to eczema and seizures.”

If the “personal belief” language has you thinking Boro Park, the Brooklyn neighborhood known for its large ultra-Orthodox population — sorry, but you’re wrong.

The quote is actually taken from yesterday’s article in The Atlantic describing the rise of the anti-vaccination movement in wealthy Los Angeles schools. Believe it or not, the vaccination rate there is as low as in South Sudan. That’s thanks to Hollywood actors who — in between “forbidding processed food and dragging their offspring to baby yoga” — explain that they’re against any medications that aren’t strictly “natural” and that not vaccinating makes “instinctive” sense to them.

But don’t worry: You could easily be forgiven for thinking the above quote applies to an ultra-Orthodox community — because the anti-vaxxer argument there runs along very similar lines.

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VIDEO: Satan and Jewess Give Birth to ISIS

By Sigal Samuel

Well, this is weird.

Iraqi TV is rolling out a new satirical series, “Superstitious State,” that portrays the leader of ISIS as the spawn of Satan and — you guessed it — a Jewish woman.

In a promo for the soon-to-come anti-ISIS show, broadcast several times daily on Al-Iraqiyya, we meet a Jewess adorned with a big Star of David necklace. “I hope to get a ring on my finger by someone who will destroy the country,” she says, then points to the red-clad devil, who says, “We will name our child ISIS.” The subtext here is a conspiracy theory, currently circulating in Iraq and elsewhere, that suggests Jews and/or Zionists created ISIS with the intention of ruining Islam.

So, this Jewess is supposed to be the mother of ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi — but she doesn’t give birth to him the good old-fashioned way. Instead, “an egg hatched — and an ISIS-ling was born.” Why?

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How Not To Write About Hasids Buying Weed

By Eliyahu Federman

Cover of the memoir “Cannabis Chassidis” / Amazon

Should the media highlight religious affiliation of criminal suspects when the affiliation has no bearing on the crime, and when those accused are not representatives of any religious group?

This weekend the New York Post ran a story of three Hasidic men busted for attempting to buy 50 pounds of marijuana. The article repeatedly referenced the suspects’ Hasidic affiliation — even how the men wore “traditional yarmulkes and tzitzits.” The men were not practicing rabbis or representatives of any group.

Religious affiliation is certainly relevant when a crime is committed under religious pretenses or authority, such as with Nechemya Weberman, who was convicted of sexually abusing a girl in his position as a Hasidic authority figure, or in the case of a religious patrol group accused of targeting other minority groups.

But in the case of a common drug deal, like the one covered in the Post, is religious affiliation relevant? Would nationality, race or membership in some organization be relevant? Was this just an attempt to sensationalize a story that would otherwise be of little interest? After all, drug busts are routine in Brooklyn. Hasidic Jews dealing drugs, now that’s a story.

The next time a financial executive is indicted for insider trading, we are not likely to read that they were a Protestant, belonging to the Our Father Redeemer Church. Nor that they were wearing a crucifix, and had a nativity scene photograph on their desk. Why should Hasidic religious affiliation be any different?

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News Quiz: Who Did Mel Brooks Prank This Week?

By Lenore Skenazy

Getty Images

Mel Brooks, Roseanne Barr and Dr. Ruth? Slaves to the new and trendy we are not. And neither is this week’s quiz (except for the obligatory mention of Sarah Silverman).

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Meet the 'Good Kids' Who Refuse To Spy for Israel

By Elisheva Goldberg

Thinkstock

The refusal of 43 men and women to continue their reserve duty in Israel’s elite 8200 intelligence-gathering unit has taken Israel by storm. The group published a letter on Friday, and it made its way quickly into the Israeli, American, and international headlines. The letter stated that these soldiers and officers are no longer willing to serve in their capacities as occupiers. In their words: “We refuse to take part in actions against Palestinians and refuse to serve as tools in deepening the military control over the Occupied Territories… We cannot continue to serve this system in good conscience, denying the rights of millions of people.”

The response in Israel has been deafening. Members of Knesset who are also former members of the 8200 unit have spoken out. Likud MK and Coalition Leader Yariv Levin announced that “those who refuse to help defend our country cross the line between supporting the Israeli democracy and the freedom it represents to supporting Palestinian terror…” Labor MK and Opposition Leader Isaac Herzog rebuked the letter-writers and emphasized that there were other ways to generate discussion. Not long after it was published, 150 members of Unit 8200 wrote a response letter, calling the move a “cynical use of politics in their legal and moral duty to serve in the reserve unit.”

The question everyone is asking now is — is it? Is this explosive letter a mere political stunt designed to aim more antagonism at a 47-year occupation? Or is it, as the signatories claim, something deeper — an attempt to take responsibility for the unnecessary invasion of privacy of a people who have no civil or legal recourse. It’s hard to tell, and, as with most sticky moral issues, likely a bit of both.

When I sat down with three of the original 43 signatories — a philosophy student, a technology and communications employee, and a computer science doctoral candidate — my first impression was one of earnestness: these were the “good kids.” As an Israeli 18-year-old, you don’t get into Unit 8200 by being a slacker. You get in by doing well in school and by showing flexible thinking, confidence and the ability to work well with others. The hope is that these qualities, plus training, will give these young people enough dexterity and thoughtfulness that they can be trusted with the secrets of Israel’s deep state. Unit 8200 graduates go on to found and power Israel’s innovative start-ups, and these three were likely to be no exception.

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Israeli Criticism of 43 Refuseniks Couldn't Be More Natural

By Brent Sasley

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Forty-three reservists of an elite IDF corps have signed and released a letter setting out their refusal to serve Israeli “military control over the Occupied Territories” anymore. The members of Unit 8200, an intelligence unit often seen as an incubator of Israeli high tech as its soldiers move into civilian life, directly criticized Israeli occupation and settlement activity. Not surprisingly, most of the Israeli political class has criticized the letter as, at a minimum, politicizing what is supposed to be an apolitical military or, at a maximum, directly undermining the security of Israel.

I do not take issue with either the reservists’ questioning of government policy, or with the government’s reaction. Most leaders of most states would react similarly. After all, as the group with the greatest capacity to threaten or even overthrow the government, the military’s voice counts for a lot in the realm of Israeli politics.

Natan Sachs is right that the letter’s short-term impact isn’t likely to be significant: As he implies, we are still looking at relatively small numbers here.

What I do think is important is recognition of the army’s place in Israeli society. As Israelis begin to question the government’s foreign and domestic policies more and more, the emergence of similar processes in an institution considered so representative of the Israeli ethos is significant. It also underlines the point that some Israelis are pushing back against what they view as problematic, illiberal and dangerous policies.

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In ‘Black-ish,’ Jews Are More Than White-ish

By Sigal Samuel

“Dad, I want to have a bar mitzvah! And — I’ll get a Hebrew name. I’m going to go with either Shlomo or Shmuel.”

So says young Andre Jr. — much to the dismay of Andre Sr. — in the trailer for ABC’s new family comedy, “Black-ish,” set to debut September 24.

This African American kid’s desire to have a bar mitzvah, even though he’s not at all Jewish, sets us up for his dad’s big concern: “Lately, I feel in order to make it, we’ve all dropped a little of our culture.” Worried about his family’s shifting racial and cultural identity, the father resists — “Jr., when you turn 13, I’m throwing you an African rites of passage ceremony” — at least at first.


The premise of the show is funny — but, for a Jewish viewer, it’s more than just that. In “Black-ish,” Jews represent the counterpoint to blackness. They are, in other words, the epitome of whiteness. They’re as white as white can be.

But Jews weren’t always perceived that way — far from it.

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Meet the Female Coach of Y.U. Men’s Volleyball Team

By Hillel Kuttler

Jacqui Dauphinais / JTA

(JTA) — Having been a standout player in high school and college, and an assistant coach, new Yeshiva University men’s volleyball coach Jacqui Dauphinais has plenty of knowledge about the sport.

And in her one season as an assistant for the Maccabees, she showed she wasn’t afraid to speak up.

The real adjustment for Dauphinais, who is not Jewish, may be the Jewish environment at the modern Orthodox school in New York City.

“It was foreign to not have a practice on a Friday night or a Saturday,” said Dauphinais, 30, a native of Cape Cod, Mass. “Also, I didn’t know there were as many holidays.”

She takes over after serving as an assistant under Arnold Ross for a team that won the Hudson Valley Intercollegiate Athletic Conference championship.

As a female coaching men, Dauphinais, not surprisingly, is an anomaly.

According to the National Collegiate Athletic Association, eight men’s volleyball teams in its three divisions had female head coaches in 2012-13, the most recent academic year for which figures are available, compared to 99 men. (Overall, 8,646 of the 9,030 men’s teams in all sports had male head coaches and 384, or 4.2 percent, were led by women, with 316 of the 384 concentrated in swimming, tennis, cross country and track.)

Yeshiva announced the hiring of Dauphinais this summer three weeks after the San Antonio Spurs made Becky Hammon the NBA’s first female full-time assistant coach.

“I think it’s a rarity. I don’t necessarily think it should be,” said Dauphinais, who works full-time as a sales manager for a nonprofit organization that runs several New York zoos. “I know that [the players] respect me and know that I have the skill to push them in the right direction.”

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Jews Take Action Against Jewish Press Gay 'Conversion' Ad

By Rachel D. Benaim

Getty Images

Young Jewish professionals have started taking action against The Jewish Press in response to their advertisement for JONAH International, the Jewish gay “conversion” therapy organization.

Yesterday, as the social media outrage towards the JONAH ad on The Jewish Press’ website continued, Chaim Levin, a former JONAH participant and witness in the infamous lawsuit against the organization, commented on Facebook that he had initially discovered JONAH from the long running Jewish Press ad in question.

In July 2010, Levin and another former participant of JONAH, Ben Unger, alleged in an interview that as part of JONAH counselor, Alan Downing’s therapy, he requested that his participants strip off their clothing in front of a mirror and touch their genitals in his presence.

Both Unger and Levin encouraged the current social action.

Since Levin issued his comments yesterday afternoon on Facebook, Sarah Gross, a board member of Bend the Arc, a Jewish social justice organization, publicized a Facebook group entitled “Jewish Press: Stop Enabling Abuse.”

Within hours of its launch, the page had 152 likes.

The Jewish Press has yet to issue a response.


Bush Press Secretary Live Tweets 9/11

By Anne Cohen

Getty Images

Former President George W. Bush’s press secretary Ari Fleischer is remembering the tragic events of September 11 in an usual way — on Twitter.

As Mashable reports, Fleischer, who served as Bush’s press secretary from January 2001 to July 2003, was with the president when the first plane smashed into the World Trade center, and took notes throughout the rest of the day’s events.

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Judging Ray Rice Instead of Ourselves

By Jay Michaelson

Ray Rice / Getty Images

“Justice, justice, shall you pursue,” we are taught — and what could be more just than punishing a man shown, on video, punching and knocking out his wife in what seems like a brutal, cruel attack?

Thus have we seen, in the last 72 hours, a cascade of condemnations of (now former) Ravens running back Ray Rice, suspended from the NFL and facing criminal charges. Perhaps most articulately, my friend Jodi Kantor wrote movingly in the New York Times about how Janae Rice, who has defended her husband, shows all the signs of a trapped, coerced and battered wife.

The only trouble is — all this is guesswork.

In fact, the public judgment of Ray Rice is a rush to judgment, and a uniquely 21st century combination of the surveillance state, ruthless corporate capitalism and celebrity culture. It makes a scapegoat out of Rice and lets us all cluck our tongues while the gladiator sport that is professional football can continue to entertain us.

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VIDEO: Israel Is the Answer to Your Love Handles

By Sigal Samuel

A still from the Israeli Ministry of Absorption’s new aliyah ad / YouTube

Dear young American Jews: Israel is the answer to the s***ty life you see before you.

That’s the takeaway from the Israeli Ministry of Absorption’s new aliyah ad, a ridiculously kitschy video that urges U.S. Jews to trade in their boring American lives — “love handles and socks with sandals” — for adventure-filled Israeli lives full of camel rides, sunny beaches, macho chest hair and “a free degree on Uncle Shmuel’s tab.”

The video doesn’t just trot out every Israel cliché imaginable — it also tries to make Israel look good by making American Jewish life look stale, meaningless, lame. The U.S. is oh-so-played, while Israel is “a place where the script is still unwritten.”

Not pictured in the video are all of the great aspects of American Jewish life — from bagels to Sarah Silverman’s glorious pottymouth to the ability to marry without a rabbi.

Also not pictured? The not-so-pleasant aspects of Israeli life — like the 50-day war the entire country just lived through this summer.

But never mind that: CAMELS!



Jewish Press Ad for Gay ‘Conversion’ Therapy Causes Outrage

By Rachel Delia Benaim

Getty Images

The Jewish Press’ advertisement for JONAH International, an organization dedicated to gay “conversion” therapy, sparked outrage on social media today.

The ad, featured on the site’s homepage, prominently displays the organization’s navy and white logo in the foreground, with their tagline mission statement — “Institute for Gender Affirmation: Overcoming Homosexuality” — and organizational website just below it.

Tovah Silbermann, a New York City resident who identifies herself as “a loyal reader,” was outraged by the ad. “This organization has caused so much pain and suffering,” she tweeted.

Sarah Gross, a young Jewish professional, took the campaign to Facebook. Using strong language, she shared a CNN article from 2012 that outlined the lawsuit in which gay men sued JONAH counselors who promised to make them straight. “It’s offensive,” she writes of the organization, and “I will officially not be reading articles on TheJewishPress.com after seeing an ad for JONAH [on their site].”

Both medical professionals and rabbinic personalities across the spectrum have denounced JONAH’s work.

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Yeshiva Retracts 'Mazel Tov' to Gay Newlyweds

By Sigal Samuel

A Jewish gay couple takes part in the annual pride parade in Jerusalem / Getty Images

“Mazel tov on your engagement! Oops — actually, strike that. No mazel tov for you.”

That’s essentially the message Israeli yeshiva Ma’ale Gilboa conveyed to one of its former students and his partner this week, upon realizing that the couple consisted of two gay men.

On the public notices section of its website, the national-religious yeshiva posted: “Congratulations to Uri Erman on his engagement to Daniel Jonas.” But it soon retracted the statement, chalking it up to an error on the part of the website’s student editor. “This is a mistake; we thought [Daniel] was a woman rather than a man.”

Ouch.

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Does Israel Buy Influence at U.S. Think Tanks?

By Nathan Guttman

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks alongside Saban Forum Chairman Haim Saban / Getty Images

The New York Times over the weekend shed some needed sunlight on the close ties between Washington think tanks and foreign governments. Digging into the funding practices of some of the nation’s most respected research institutions, the article outlined an impressive array of foreign money funneled into think tanks. These contributions, the article revealed, come with many strings attached and could put into question the independence of the research conducted in think tanks. (Though, it should also be noted that think tanks, as opposed to universities, are set up, in many cases, around a certain ideology or belief and do not claim the mantle of objectivity.)

The list of foreign governments supporting American think tanks is populated heavily with Arab countries and also demonstrates the significant role played by Norway in funding these think tanks (much of this focus is thanks to Norway’s aggressive public disclosure policies that allowed the writers to follow the money from Oslo to Washington.)

Israel, however, is absent from the list. The reason is clear: Israel does not directly provide government money to fund American think tanks. But this doesn’t mean there is no Israeli input. Pro-Israel donors in the United States have long made generous gifts to research institutions of their liking.

Three decades ago, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) sought to increase its influence in Washington policy circles by setting up its own think tank. It founded the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and funded it for several years. Since, however, the Washington Institute has severed its institutional ties with AIPAC and is now completely independent. But it still counts among its major funders some of the lobby’s key donors.

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News Quiz: What Did Joan Rivers Say?

By Lenore Skenazy

Getty Images

Joan Rivers, Marcel Proust and the U.S. Open would all, if they could, welcome you to this week’s quiz. After all, they’re in it!

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500 Years Later, a Queer-Inclusive Bentsher

By David Zvi Kalman

A page from the Seder Oneg Shabbos bentsher / Courtesy of David Zvi Kalman

Books are probably going extinct, but it doesn’t matter — in the Jewish world, ritual texts are still key players in the spread of ideology. Three texts, in particular, have been in print since the printing press was invented: the siddur (prayerbook), the bentsher (Grace After Meals), and the haggadah (Passover seder guide). If you took every copy of each of those books that was printed in the past 30 years, I bet you’d find that the vast majority were printed by Orthodox publishing houses or edited by Orthodox rabbis and scholars.

This is true for a number of reasons, but one important one is that Orthodox publishing houses in both American and Israel have been producing a consistent stream of well-designed, easy-to-navigate publications. These publications are so functional that they’ve broken out of the Orthodox market and are widely used by many non-Orthodox Jews and institutions, many of whom are indifferent to the textual and ideological idiosyncrasies of the Orthodox publications. These books have become the default, while other ritual texts — including those which “on paper” many Jews would find more ideologically compatible — are speciality items, bought only by those who care enough to choose differently.

We weren’t satisfied by this situation. If there were to be a default edition, we wanted it to be as inclusive as possible. We wanted a bentsher that didn’t belong to a denomination and could be accepted by everyone — by the Orthodox, the non-Orthodox, everyone.

Between February and June of this year, a team lead by Joshua Schwartz and myself set out to create a new bentsher. In it, we included options for queer couples, like: “You are Blessed, Hashem, Who brings happiness to: the groom and the bride / the groom and the groom / the bride and the bride.”

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4 Ways Jews Are Thriving in France

By Anne Cohen

People stand outside the ‘As du Fallafel’ shop in the Marais district in Paris / Getty Images

The news from France is bleak: anti-Semitic sentiment is on the rise, violent incidents are piling up, and Jews are packing up and leaving for Israel.

Recently, I learned that one of my cousins, tired of feeling marginalized, was planning such a move. That got me thinking.

I lived in Paris for a three-month period in the summer of 2013. Even then, I felt that being Jewish in France was a whole other ballgame than my experience as a Jew in Montreal or New York. French Jews were either French people who happened to practice Judaism, or Jews who happened to be French. I felt that there was no, or little, French cultural Judaism such as the Woody Allen/bagel-and-schmear combo we’re used to. At the same time, I felt more kinship with the Jews in France than I do with most New York Jews — because Jewish culture in France is Sephardic and, well, incredibly French.

There is certainly cause for alarm when stores close their doors for fear of attack; when shul-goers need to hide from an angry mob like the recent events on Rue de La Roquette; and when Jews like my family, who have been proud French citizens for decades, feel the need to leave their homes. But in all that panic, it’s easy (and dangerous) to forget what a strong impact Jews have had, and continue to have, on French culture. Here are a couple of examples:

1) Fashion

Given the amount of street style snaps and runway shots invading my Facebook and Instagram feeds, fashion seems like a good place to start. French Jews have always been involved in fashion. In fact, the cult classic “La Verite Si Je Mens” revolves around a non-Jew trying to pass himself off as an Ashkenazi Jew in “Le Sentier,” Paris’ garment district — which is inherently funny because, duh, everyone there is Jewish (and Sephardi, but more on that later).

More recently, Jews have left the shmatte for high-end luxury. French brands like Sandro, Maje and Claudie Pierlot have fashionista followings from London to New York. You may not know, however, that all three brands are owned by Jews — sisters, in fact. Judith Milgrom and Evelyne Chetrit were born in Morocco, and moved to France with their parents when they were kids, mirroring the experience of many French Sephardic Jews, who now outnumber the older Ashkenazi community. Both are vocal about their Jewish heritage. In an interview with The Telegraph in 2012, Milgrom even talked about not working on Shabbat: “About 20 years ago, I started to observe the Jewish Sabbath really seriously. From dusk on Friday until dusk on Saturday, I don’t do any work, don’t shop or look at my email or phone. It’s unbelievably therapeutic.”

On the more kitschy side of things, let’s not forget Yiddish Mama. As Laurent David Samama over at the Daily Beast shows, young Parisian designer Camille Vizioz-Brami is doing for French Yiddish culture what Mile End did for the New York deli. Boasting slogans like “Power Yiddish Mamma,” “Super Mensch” or “Chepselleh,” her apparel makes quite a statement in a time where Jews may feel compelled to mask their identity for fear of anti-Semitic reprisals.

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French Jews, Escaping to Israel Is Not the Answer

By Laurent-David Samama

Jewish and Muslim demonstrators advocate peace at a rally in Paris / Getty Images

Is it the spike in anti-Semitic acts or rather their growing banality that drives Jews in Paris, Lyon and Marseille to seriously consider emigration?

Maybe both. Caught between the rise of far-right movements like the Front National and the tide of anti-Semitism preached by Islamists, French Jews today look like they are once again stuck in an age-old historical trap.

After WWII and the massive trauma of the Holocaust, my country — France — tried to build a society free of anti-Semitism. Over the years, various pieces of legislation have prohibited Holocaust denial and racist acts in general. Several associations (SOS Racisme, MRAP and LICRA) have worked hard to erase differences between French citizens. Now, for the French Republic, you are neither Black, nor Asian, nor or Caucasian. You’re not Catholic, Jewish or Muslim. You are French. I grew up with this wonderful principle along with the Republican motto “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité.” But our society is not equal to these principles and, sadly, it has taken only four decades for anti-Semitism to return to my country.

The result? My family is a good example. My Tunisia-born grandparents came to France in the late 1950s and had two sons; my father then had three. One of them now lives in New York with no plans of coming back to Paris, the other one studies in Spain and Sweden, and the last one is writing down these lines. Within months, I silently bore witness as a large part of my entourage made aliyah — including some of my friends and all of my girlfriend’s family. It was quite a strange feeling. I wouldn’t say that I felt abandoned, but I was definitely disappointed by all those people choosing to live a different life abroad.

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