Forward Thinking

What David Brooks Didn't Say About the Orthodox

By Jane Eisner

Getty Images

There’s a telling moment in David Brooks’ New York Times column today about the growth, and attraction, of Orthodox Jewry. He describes the educational background of Layaliza Soloveichik, the wife of Meir Soloveichik (Brooks’ “tour guide” around Haredi Brooklyn) in this way: Layaliza was admitted to Harvard but went to what Brooks describes as a “religious college, Yeshiva, instead.”

I don’t know the Soloveichiks, but I’m guessing that Layaliza didn’t exactly go to Yeshiva as an undergraduate because, as a woman, she couldn’t go to Yeshiva. She went instead to Stern College for Women. It’s a subtle distinction, I know, but an important one, signaling that the education of girls and boys, women and men, is treated differently in this community and meant for different outcomes. Nowhere in Brooks’ column does he acknowledge the gender disparities in Orthodox Jewish life, which have grown ever more distinct in the last few decades.

There’s more that he doesn’t say.

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Locusts Go Biblical — But Are They Kosher?

By Renee Ghert-Zand

If it were a movie, Israel’s real-life nightmare would be a cross between “The Birds” and “The Ten Commandments.”

Just in time for Passover, the Holy Land has been plagued by millions of locusts swarming in from across the Egyptian border.

Hysterical news reports warned Israelis in the southern part of the country to stay inside and close all doors and windows to protect against the Biblical calamity, said to be the worst to descend upon the Holy Land in decades.

All Photos: Getty Images

But at the same time, some were searching out the pests in hopes of hauling in a tasty — and arguably kosher! — treat.

The skies across southern Israel were blackened this week by the flying insects. Some fields were damaged before the Agriculture Ministry was able to send out crop-dusters to battle the tiny beasts. Fortunately, the pesticide application to 1,865 acres that began early Wednesday morning and extended throughout the day managed to prevent the locusts from doing more damage and moving on to the country’s central regions. Also, a cold front is expected to come in and knock out any remaining swarms.

“It’s like an insect cemetery down here,” Omri Eytana, a farmer from Moshav Kmehin the Nitzana area, told Army Radio as he inspected his fields after the crop-dusting was over. He reported that his tomato plants, which were protected by nets were in good shape, but that there was extensive damage to potato crops.

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Will Jonathan Pollard Be Home for Passover?

By Nathan Guttman

It may sound farfetched to Americans. But some Israelis are hoping Barack Obama will free Jonathan Pollard as a goodwill gesture ahead of the president’s upcoming visit to the Middle East

Activists and even members of Knesset are pressing for the release of the convicted Israeli spy and some have even suggested that Obama bring Pollard with him on Air Force One.

“I pray to that on the day we welcome the President of the United States, we will get to see Pollard walk on the land of Israel,” said Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, a Labor Party lawmaker during a special discussion held on the Knesset floor Wednesday about the Pollard case.

Other lawmakers were equally forceful in their pleas to Obama. They are pressing him, at the least, to discuss Pollard’s fate during his visit to Jerusalem.

“Many Israelis view Pollard as a Prisoner of Zion,” said Likud MK Reuven “Ruby” Rivlin. “The Americans should know that Pollard’s case cannot be considered simply another point of disagreement that both countries can live with.”

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Ex-Mossad Chief: Time for a New Obama Peace Bid

By J.J. Goldberg

Just about everybody who follows Israeli affairs with any seriousness these days agrees that the peace process is dead, that the two sides are too far apart for any deal and besides there’s nobody to talk to. The one big exception is the Israeli intelligence and defense establishment, which remains a stronghold of optimism that a deal can be reached in the near term. Which is weird, because they’re the ones who presumably know the inner workings and thinking of the two sides better than anyone.

When you bring this up to people who care about Israel, the usual response begins something like, “But don’t they realize that Israel’s minimum security needs require…” or “… that the Palestinians are dedicated to…” And you’re left wondering: What does this person know that Israeli intelligence doesn’t? And: Can’t you hear what you sound like?

Still, it’s understandable that the concerned observer would wonder how a peace process is supposed to square with Hamas’s refusal to accept Israel and the growing turmoil in the broader Arab world. Conveniently enough, former Mossad director Efraim Halevy (appointed by Bibi Netanyahu, 1998; succeeded by Meir Dagan, 2002) answers those questions and sketches the broad contours of a possible peace process in an important piece posted today at The New Republic, “The (Very) Quiet Peace Talks Between Israel and Hamas: The Middle East’s storm clouds have a silver lining.” His bottom line: Given enough pragmatism on both sides, the confluence of Hamas’s interest in stability, Egypt’s quiet mediation and the still-alive Saudi/Arab Peace Initiative make for “a very promising moment to forge durable agreements between Israel and Palestine.” Not a permanent end of conflict, but a viable modus vivendi.

“As Obama prepares to travel to the region,” Halevy writes, “one can fairly hope that he recognizes the value of the cards in his possession. He may not have any aces up his sleeve, but kings and queens should suffice for the moment.”


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Why Obama Won't Go to Rabin Square

By Nathan Jeffay

One of Barack Obama’s hopes for his Israel visit is to address the Israeli public. Some commentators, such as Yoram Meital interviewed for a Forward article, have expressed the view that this lies at the crux of his trip, with him hoping to talk to Israelis about Iran over their Prime Minister’s head.

But anybody who knows Israel knows how complex the notion of addressing “Israelis” can be, with the country divided by so many religious, ethnic, geographical and class divisions. If fact, one of the least “typical” areas, if such a thing exists, is Jerusalem, often referred to within Israel as a kind of bubble inside the country. It is far more religious and far more Arab than most other areas, and has a mentality and culture all of its own.

All indications, however — including the leaked itinerary — are that Obama’s sole speech to the Israeli public will be in Jerusalem. This is despite a campaign by Israelis and invitation by Tel Aviv mayor Ron Huldai for him to talk to a huge crowd in the iconic Rabin Square, where the pro-peace rallies of the 1990s took place. Oh, and a tempting invitation to the settlement of Efrat where mayor Oded Revivi offered to help him “realize that the declaration of two states for two peoples is not realistic.”

A large Tel Aviv event — not large enough for him to be obviously talking over Netanyahu — would be a more natural choice than a small-ish event in Jerusalem of around 1,000 people, which is what is being discussed. This city would welcome him more, and most likely be more enthusiastic about his message. So why Jerusalem?

One explanation is logistical. It’s where his meetings are and the time and security operation for him to travel is unnecessary.

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Hugo Chavez's Long Shadow

By Michael Kaminer

getty images

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s death in Caracas today will likely amplify turbulence that’s characterized life in the South American nation since his ascension to power in 1999. Friends I met during a visit to Caracas last month tell me everything – the economy, social stability, livelihoods, diplomatic relations – could be ripe for upheaval.

I’m also wondering what this means for Venezuela’s Jews, most of whom — if they haven’t fled to Miami — live in the capital of Caracas. The Jewish community has fallen to about 10,000 from a peak of 20,000 just before Chavez came to power in 1999.

During my visit, I sought to interview some Jewish Caraquenos about life under Chavez amid reports of rising anti-Semitism. While I was there, JTA reported Chavez had been accused of spying on local Jewish groups.

During last year’s elections, the late president derided opponent Henrique Capriles, whose grandparents were Polish Holocaust survivors, as “imperialist,” a “capitalist,” a “little bourgeois,” and “Zionist”. And a campaign-related article in state media – headlined “The Enemy Is Zionism” – said Capriles “represents Israeli ideology covertly,” according to CNN.

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Oberlin's Teachable Moment

By Corinne Ramey

Jewish students march against hatred at Oberlin College in Ohio.

Oberlin College is not the first place that comes to mind as a hotbed of racism and anti-Semitism.

Yet as an unsettling wave of hate has thrust the Ohio liberal arts school into the national spotlight, its Jewish community has spoken out and sought to use the incidents to build bridges across the campus.

Jews, who make up about a quarter of Oberlin’s student population, were stunned when swastikas appeared on campus building. But some saw an even greater physical threat to black and other minority students when a person dressed in a Ku Klux Klan outfit was allegedly sighted outside college’s Afrikan Heritage House.

“As a Jew, to see a swastika plastered across a building on campus is an incredibly traumatic moment,” Zachary Pekarsky, 22, former leader of the college’s Hillel group, told a campus rally this week. But it’s more complicated than that, he continued. “The vast majority of Jews have incredible privilege, and come from an incredible place of entitlement. I don’t want these two truths to contradict each other.”

The packed audience hollered and cheered.

The sighting of the alleged KKK figure was the latest in what the historically-liberal Ohio college has called “hate-related incidents.” They have included graffiti swastikas and the N-word as well as the phrase “whites only” written above water fountains. ATwitter feed was set up depicting college president Marvin Krislov dressed as Adolf Hitler.

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March Madness, the Obama Visit Edition

By J.J. Goldberg

With barely two weeks to go before President Obama’s scheduled visit to Jerusalem, the Israeli right seems to be gearing up to prepare as hostile a welcome as possible.

Round one is a dubious claim that received considerable coverage Monday in the Israeli media, according to which Obama is demanding that Prime Minister Netanyahu give him a detailed “timetable for Israel withdrawal from the West Bank” when he arrives March 20.

The claim was first reported in a right-wing Washington news outlet, the World Tribune, which based it on anonymous “sources” in Jerusalem. The Tribune report was then widely re-reported in the Israeli media, including such mainstream outlets as the Times of Israel, Jerusalem Post and Ynet.

The World Tribune quoted its sources as saying that the Israeli plan “would be considered in what could be an imminent U.S. initiative to establish a Palestinian state in the West Bank in 2014.” The report said Obama had indicated to Netanyahu (given an “implication,” the report said) that “if Israel won’t give him something he can work with, then he’ll act on his own.”

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Secrets of the Schneerson Library

By Paul Berger

Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson’s predecessor, Yosef Yitchok Schneersohn, may have had too modern a taste in literature. That may be one reason why Chabad is so anxious to have the famed Schneerson Library returned to the U.S.

Why does Chabad want the Schneerson Library back so badly?

While researching this week’s story recounting the latest twists in Chabad’s decades-long struggle for the library, several people offered various explanations. Somehow, they seemed too speculative to include in the story — but interesting enough to raise here.

Rabbi Berel Levin, the chief librarian of the Chabad Library in Brooklyn, told me that Chabad has 250,000 books at its HQ in Crown Heights. But the thousands of books held in Moscow are, according to Levin, the “core of our library, gathered by the Rebbes of the generations.”

Levin said the books in Moscow are written mainly in Hebrew, and deal mostly in Torah, Gemara and Kabbalah. But because the Soviets and Russians never catalogued the library no one really knows for sure. Even the total number of books in the library is disputed. Russia claims there are about 4,000 volumes, Chabad says the number is closer to 10,000 volumes.

Pinchas Goldschmidt, a Moscow rabbi who has a contentious history with Chabad, said that for the last Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the battle for the library was about much more than ownership and theology. It was about politics and, perhaps, about something more.

“Maimonides spoke of the Messiah as king,” Goldschmidt said. And Schneerson, who died in 1994, wanted to show the world that he had fought like a king and “won against Communism.”

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'Tis the Season: Revisiting Jon Stewart's Passover

By J.J. Goldberg

With the Festival of Freedom fast approaching, it’s time to take another look at Jon Stewart’s Passover midrash from Nisan 5772 (April 2012). Think of this a followup to last month’s “War on Purim” segment. This time, though, I’d argue that there’s a serious argument behind the humor. To quote him: “Mishpoche, we gotta take it up a notch.”

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‘The Jewish Lobby’ Pops Up Again

By Nathan Guttman

Wikicommons
Tony Perkins

Once more, it’s the “Jewish lobby,” that troubling term that has Jewish leaders crying anti-Semitism while politicians from both sides use it to discredit their rivals.

For opponents of the administration, remarks by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel about the “Jewish lobby” that “intimidates” lawmakers in Washington, were seen as a hint — or worse — of anti-Semitism. The term, claimed the critics, invoked the notion of a powerful Jewish network influencing American politics behind the scenes. Hagel apologized for the offensive remarks, both in conversations with Jewish leaders and during his Senate hearing and eventually got confirmed as Secretary of Defense.

Now, liberals feel it is payback time. They are gladly pointing to a similar remark made by one of the Christian-right’s most well known activists. Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, a right-wing think tank based in Washington, was caught talking on his daily radio show about the “Jewish lobby” and on how American Jews fund Democratic candidates, all in the context of how bad a choice Hagel would be for Secretary of Defense.

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Michelle Obama Is More Than Bangs and Broccoli

By Jane Eisner

I suppose there’s no end to commenting on the public behavior of the First Lady of the United States, whoever she may be. I’m old enough to remember griping about Nancy Reagan and Hillary Rodham Clinton. In a previous job, I once had to arrange a visit for Laura Bush when her husband was President — nice lady, maniacal staff.

Michelle Obama has the distinction of being the first African American FLOTUS and the burden of holding the position in the Age of Twitter, so it’s no wonder that her every move is catalogued and critiqued. I’ll admit to paying lots of attention to her myself, though I am agnostic on her bangs and was asleep during her Oscars presentation.

But I will defend her campaign against childhood obesity and her passion for physical fitness against all who deride it. Usually that criticism comes from the right — those who worry about a “nanny state” and forget that her voice is only a counterweight to the well-funded orchestrated efforts by the junk food industrial complex to keep Americans filled with fat, salt and sugar and hungry for more.

Sometimes it comes from the newspaper columnists you would think would be more sympathetic.

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Meet the Four Jews Shaping the U.S. Economy

By Nathan Guttman

Getty Images

This could sound like yet another bad-taste Oscar night joke, but turns out that the U.S. economy is run by Jews.

Well, at least the federal government’s top advisers.

On Wednesday, the Senate confirmed the nomination of Jack Lew, an Orthodox Jew, as Treasury Secretary. He will joined by Gene Sperling, director of the National Economic Council at the White House, Alan Krueger, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, and Jeffrey Zients, who heads the Office of Management and Budget. All are Members of the Tribe.

With Lew’s confirmation as Treasury Secretary, he is officially no longer the White House chief of staff. But the Jewish community, a former official with the administration assured, will not lose access. His replacement, Dennis McDonough may be Catholic, but he still has a soft spot for Jewish activists. During his tenure as deputy national security adviser, McDonough launched a tradition of monthly conference calls with Jewish leaders for updates on international issues and was known to meet with almost every major Jewish federation delegation that came to Washington.


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Jon Stewart on the Blackface Purim Debacle

By Seth Berkman

Dov Hikind

“Daily Show” host Jon Stewart and Co. rightly roasted Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind for his Purim faux pas.

In case you missed it, Hikind dressed up in blackface and an Afro wig to play the part of an African-American “basketball player” to celebrate the Jewish holiday.

“It’s the year 5773 and this is still happening?” asked correspondent Jessica Williams (also identified as the show’s Senior Purim correspondent) .

Beyond the yucks, Hikind’s misstep might deserve a harsher critique than predictable jokes about Haman and Purim being the fifth or 10th most important Jewish holiday.

Hikind represents the 48th district in New York, which includes the strongly Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods of Borough Park and Midwood. But there are also black residents of these neighborhoods, as well as numerous residents with the good conscience to be disgusted at such ignorance by an elected politician.

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Labor's Turn To Play Ball With Bibi?

By Nathan Jeffay

The official deadline on Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition building falls this weekend, but with just one faction on board apart from his own — the six-seat Tzipi Livni Party — he is still short of the Knesset majority he needs.

Only 37 of the Knesset’s 120 seats are in the bag, meaning that another 24 are needed for a majority — and many more for the kind of majority that Netanyahu wants. He is desperate for a coalition large enough that no single party can bring it down.

Netanyahu’s Likud-Beytenu faction says that it is close to a deal with Jewish Home, and announced today that it will meet with Yesh Atid tomorrow, but relations are far from simple with both of these potential partners. Which leads some to ask, could it be the time for Labor to re-enter the game?

Labor said that it wouldn’t serve in a rightist-led government, but the slow progress in coalition building has led to this suggestion being raised from the most unexpected of quarters: the staunchly left-wing Yossi Beilin, former Labor and Meretz lawmaker.

Beilin, who initiated the secret negotiations with the Palestinians that led to the Oslo Accords, has written that things have changed since the January 22 election.

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3 Questions for the Oscars

By J.J. Goldberg

getty images
Seth MacFarlane

Watching gagmeister Seth MacFarlane’s off-color, take-no-prisoners performance as host of the Oscars on Sunday night and then observing public and press reactions afterward, two things become clear. The first is that a half-century after the Civil Rights revolution and 42 years after the debut of “All in the Family,” Americans are still hopelessly divided on the limits of propriety in ethnic and other stereotypes in our humor. Second, none of us has much of a handle on exactly what bothers us when, and where the line should be drawn, if at all.

I was thinking of clearing the whole thing up for you this evening, but I have to run to a dinner date, so I will limit myself to three key observations.

No. 1. Most of the public seems to consider MacFarlane’s jabs as a package—that is, they tend to find his jokes either wholly tolerable (or, to some, very funny) or wholly offensive. Most commentators saw no reason to distinguish between the adolescent lewdness of his song-and-dance number about women’s breasts, his nasty jabs at Jean Dujardin, Chris Brown and Rihanna, his racial insults of Denzel Washington and Eddie Murphy, his morbid Abraham Lincoln joke and the shocking bit about Jews running Hollywood. Either you liked the stuff or you didn’t. Either way, you knew what you were getting when they hired the creator of “Family Guy,” and you sure got it. (For the record, I’m a fan.)

Except for one segment of the public. Many next-day commentators in the Jewish community singled out his Jews-run-Hollywood bit as being beyond the pale of decency, while his other routines were presumably run-of-the-mill, take-it-or-leave-it bits of “Family Guy” tastelessness. In case you missed it, you can watch the clip after the jump.

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Instagramming Purim in Hasidic Boro Park

By Nate Lavey

People in Boro Park tend to stick with traditional Hasidic clothing like headscarves, shtreimels, and rekels. But on Purim you’re bound to see people dressed as clowns, princesses and even SpongeBob SquarePants. Here are a few Instagram photos from around the neighborhood that give a sense of what it’s like on Purim in Boro Park.


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Beauty and The Pig

By Robert Zaretsky

Where is Roland Barthes now that we truly need him?

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Barthes was the French intellectual who founded the discipline of cultural criticism, insisting everything, from the epic to pedestrian, signifies something. Flags and photos, cars and commercials, pop stars and plastic: Barthes trawled the sea of signification for the flotsam of mass culture.

He would have no doubt tossed a lifeline, or at least a few well-crafted lines, to our own age’s great signifier, Dominique Strauss Kahn.

You of course recall DSK (Barthes would have had a field day with the initials): the one-time prince of economics, director of the International Monetary Fund, and pretender to the presidency of France. That is, until the ill-starred night at the Sofitel Hotel in New York, which revealed DSK as a part-time sexual predator and full-time defendant against a range of civil and criminal charges issuing from his nocturnal activities.

This week, DSK sank to a semiotic depth as deep and dense as the Mariana Trench. The respected magazine “Le Nouvel Observateur” published excerpts from a forthcoming book, “Belle et Bête” — yes, that’s right: “Beauty and Beast” — published by the equally respected publishing house Stock. The book’s author, who was also interviewed by the magazine, is Marcela Iacub. Iacub is a controversial intellectual, newspaper columnist and essayist.

To her list of professional achievements, as her interview and book make clear, we now need to add lover, betrayer and analyst of DSK. At the very moment Strauss-Kahn wrestled with the multiple court cases issuing from his encounter with Nafissatou Diallo, Iacub published an essay in which she argued the true victim was not the hotel maid, but Strauss-Kahn: “punitive and radical feminists” had transformed DSK’s act into an ideological hammer to beat all men into sexual submission. In a turn of phrase that would dumbfound Barthes, Iacub concluded that feminists had made rape “their supreme power.”

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Farming the Jewish Way

By Tanya Tolchin

tanya tolchin

I recently joined more than 150 people at the Pearlstone Center near Baltimore for the 5th annual Beit Midrash to learn about the Jewish calendar and how it connects to sustainability and farming. The Beit Midrash has become an annual ritual for my family and we have watched it grow from an informal gathering of friends with potluck meals to a mature and multifaceted conference. The gathering now offers a rare glimpse of a Jewish community where people from so many varied backgrounds learn together. The eclectic group of participants included rabbis and rabbinical students, farmers and future farmers, babies and grandparents, Chabadniks, reconstructionists and post-denominational Jews of all kinds.

As a Jewish farmer living in a rural area of Maryland far from the nearest synagogue, this conference offers a respite from our day to day isolation from Jewish community. We return because it is one of the few places outside of Israel where our Jewish life and farming life join together so seamlessly. My husband and I run a small organic farm about 20 miles outside of Washington, D.C. where we grow vegetables, strawberries, herbs, and flowers that we sell through a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) project. We also run a small business called Israeli Harvest that sells products from organic farms in Israel to the Jewish community in the U.S.

Like most American Jews, we did not grow up farming and are part of a larger movement of new farmers working to build alternatives to conventional agriculture. At times, farming and Jewish life can feel like the perfect combination. At Passover, we gather our own parsley for the seder and our sukkah is always placed on the edge of our fields during harvest. But on the flip side, we miss being closer to Jewish community.

While it is easy to joke that being a Jewish farmer is an oxymoron, in fact Judaism is firmly rooted in agriculture. There is a strong history of Jewish farming in the U.S., Israel and around the world. The Pearlstone Center, which features an onsite farm complete with goats, chickens, vineyards and vegetable gardens, has become a national center for people interested in the intersection between farming and Jewish life. It is also part of a growing movement of organizations including Hazon, Adamah and the Jewish Farm School that are creating new Jewish farming programs.

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A Possible Pope Goes to Shul

By Jerome Chanes

Timothy Cardinal Dolan, Archbishop of New York, went to shul Shabbat yesterday. Not for the usual davening.

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Timothy Cardinal Dolan

Cardinal Dolan, who is considered papabile (a candidate, albeit a very dark-horse candidate, for the papal throne recently vacated by Pope Benedict XVI), immediately captured the standing-room-only crowd in the Manhattan’s Lincoln Square Synagogue by greeting the congregation with an open-armed, joyous, blazon: “How papal is that!”

A moment later, the cardinal, in a consummate display of theater, interrupted his talk in mid-sentence, left his lectern, walked across the synagogue bimah, and exchanged his zucchetto (the red yarlmulke-like cap) with the kippah of the bar-mitzvah boy.

In his prepared remarks, Dolan offered no surprises. Identifying two core practices Catholics and Jews have in common — the Sabbath and the tradition of “good works ”— the cardinal noted that each has been a model not only for the two faith-communities, “but for the entire world.”

Cardinal Dolan’s agenda was clearly that of bridge-building with the Orthodox community (“Six hundred thirteen commandments? I have trouble with The Ten!”). He noted the “historical leadership role” of Lincoln Square in New York’s Orthodox arena.

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