Forward Thinking

Mountain Jews, Dagestan and Dude Named Genghis

By Cnaan Liphshiz

cnaan liphshiz

(JTA) — An awkward silence set in between me and Genghis after he tells me that I am welcome to spend the night at the Derbent Jewish Community Center, but that I first need to “get clean” in the mikvah.

I have not heard of congregations with mandatory ritual immersions for visitors, but this is my first visit to a center for Mountain Jews and I am open to believing almost anything about this tough and ancient community of Hebrews, with their elaborate system of superstitions, strong military tradition, unabashed disregard for women and, until recently at least, penchant for bride kidnappings.

But as it turns out, a new anthropological discovery is not in the cards for me. The shower in my room is broken and Genghis (“Like Genghis Khan,” he says, to make sure I spell it correctly) is simply offering that I lather up in the shower adjacent to the actual mikvah.

The Derbent Jewish Community Center in the southern Russian republic of Dagestan was thoroughly renovated in 2010, and now features a kindergarten for some 30 toddlers, a wedding and reception hall, kosher kitchen, small museum and tea corner open to the city’s 500-odd Jews.

On the flashier third floor are two rooms for guests, who pay about $30 per night to stay in this Jewish island in a predominantly Muslim ocean whose traditionally friendly attitude toward Jews has been marred in recent years by a radical fringe which may be growing.

I am in Derbent to find out how the community is coping after the near-fatal shooting last month of its chief rabbi, Ovadia Isakov, who was shot in front of his home at night by several assailants the government suspects were Islamists. It followed an earlier attack on the synagogue last year, when a small bomb went off in its interior yard.

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'Feminists of Zion' Scapegoat Orthodox Jews

By Avi Shafran

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A lengthy piece in the New Republic asserts — or, more accurately, hopes — that “an unlikely alliance between Orthodox and progressive women will save Israel from fundamentalism.” The latter word, of course, is intended to refer to traditional Orthodox Judaism.

Heavy on anecdotes about Haredi crazies harassing sympathetic women, the piece, titled “The Feminists of Zion,” details how demographic changes in Israel have brought the decades-old peaceful co-existence of secular and Haredi Jews to something of a head. The “once-tiny minority” of Haredim “now comprises more than 10% of the population,” it informs. And it warns that “as their numbers have increased, so has their sway over political and civil life.”

That sway has resulted in things like “an increase in modesty signs on public boulevards and gender-segregated sidewalks in Haredi neighborhoods,” not to mention “gender-separated office hours in government-funded medical clinics and de facto gender segregation on publicly subsidized buses,” among other affronts.

In 19th-century America, there was much anxiety about the “Yellow Peril,” the pernicious effect that Chinese immigrants were imagined to have on the culture of the union.

During the Second World War, the phrase was applied to Japanese-Americans. The New Republic writers, Haaretz’s Allison Kaplan Sommer and Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick, seem to perceive what they might call (although they don’t) a “Black Peril” in Israel. And the white knight on the horizon who might vanquish the monster is the Jewish state’s “fighting feminist spirit.”

That spirit, the writers say, is championed by the Israeli Reform movement (and its legal arm, the Israel Religious Action Center, or IRAC) and by “modern-Orthodox” women in Israel who are fed up with Haredim. One group of such Orthodox feminists, Kolech, the article notes, has begun to work with IRAC on “a host of issues.”

The “highest profile example of the renewed fighting feminist spirit in Israel,” the writers assert, may be “the stunning success this year of Women of the Wall,” (WOW), the group of feminists that has made a point of gathering monthly at the Western Wall, or Kotel Maaravi, to hold vocal services while wearing religious garb and items traditionally worn by men, which offends the Haredi men and women who regularly pray at the site around the clock.

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Where Was Rabbi Heschel at March on Washington?

By Seth Berkman

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Civil Rights Icon: Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was often seen at the side of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., as in this photo taken during the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery protest march.

When the Forward decided to run a feature commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and the Jewish influence on the seminal civil rights event, the first name discussed was that of Abraham Joshua Heschel, a close friend of Martin Luther King.

Was he there? What role did he play?

Heschel passed away in 1972, after devoting much of his life to Jewish causes and the civil rights movement, but his daughter Susannah Heschel has carried on his legacy through her own work as a Jewish studies professor at Dartmouth.

When I called her earlier this summer to discuss memories of her father’s participation in the march, she was a bit at a loss — in her recollection, he was not invited to the March on Washington.

Susannah Heschel said her father met Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., for the first time in the January of 1963 at the National Conference on Religion and Race in Chicago.

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Struggle and Triumph of College for Hasidim

By Frimet Goldberger

For most Americans, a solid high school education is a stepping stone to college. But Hasidic boys and girls who chose to pursue a higher degree do not have this foundation to build on. Most Hasidic boys receive one hour of English studies per day, four days per week, from third grade to bar mitzvah — one hour in which they are taught the bare minimum, often by Hasidic teachers who themselves lack a secular education. Most Hasidic girls, on the other hand, study the rudiments of English, math and science three hours per day, four days per week. Most boys do not graduate high school, and most girls receive non-accredited diplomas.

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Hasidic men and women who choose to go to college do so for different reasons. Some face challenges in providing for their large families, and see education as the key to a bigger salary. Others seek a way out of their communities, and want to function as intelligent adults in the secular world. In their pursuit of a college degree, Hasidim struggle to bridge many academic and cultural gaps.

Six weeks ago, I embarked on a journey to document the stories of individuals, myself included, who took the leap from a rudimentary Hasidic education to college. I spoke with Frieda Vizel, Naftuli Moster and others, who are identified by their first names or by pseudonyms in the piece. (They asked to remain anonymous out of concern that they would face retribution for criticizing the schools in the Hasidic community, of which they are still a part.)

I raked through hours of poignant interviews. What resulted was a story of collective hope, struggle and triumph. Click below to listen.

Frimet Goldberger is a radio producer, writer and senior at Sarah Lawrence College. When she is not running after people with a recorder, she enjoys spending time with her husband and two children.


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Change Sexist Attitudes — Not Ancient Prayer

By Ari Hart

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Josh Halpern’s essay, Should Men Thank God They Were Not Born Women? sensitively and articulately outlines many of the tensions facing those of us who are committed to the halacha and Orthodoxy and at the same time live in a world a seemingly incongruous world: a world where women are first-class politicians, lawyers, doctors, educators and then have second class status upon entering an orthodox synagogue.

Orthodox feminists must promote gender equality whenever it is halachically sanctioned. This is an approach I agree with. This is not the space for exploration of the halachik status of the bracha of shelo asani isha, though perhaps further though in this matter is warranted. However, I would like to offer two reactions and solutions to Josh’s challenge.

First, a practical solution. As a matter of communal practice, I and most of the communities I pray with are advocates of beginning communal prayer with Rebbi Yishmael omer, omitting all the morning blessings from the communal recitation and instead asking the community to recite the morning blessings at the home as they were originally intended. This mitigates the concern of a public statement, whether intended or interpreted, of the value of one gender over another. There is no halachik requirement that these brachot be said out loud, and if their recitation causes half of the people in the room to feel insulted, shamed or silenced it behooves the community to say them privately.

This is an effective, though surface solution. It does not address the deeper issues Josh raises.

So what is an Orthodox feminist to do? One could simply throw out this blessing. But then aren’t there a host of other blessings, passages from the Talmud, even biblical verses that may jibe with today, or tomorrow’s, moral sensibilities?

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Saving Polari

By Nathan Jeffay

A push in underway to save a most unusual language.

Polari is a language — or to be exact a lexicon of 500 words approaching a language — used over the years in Britain by sailors, criminals, circus performers, prostitutes, immigrant Jews and Italians, and the gay community. In short, a bunch of people that didn’t have much in common except for being on the fringe of society and wishing to be able to converse on certain topics without being understood by the mainstream.

And given that each group that used it contributed to its vocabulary, it had Jews using criminal slang, Italians using terms contributed by prostitutes and — you guessed it, everyone using words in, or adapted from, our great mamaloshen Yiddish. For example, ugly became meese from the Yiddish meeiskeit, and crazy became meshigener. Yiddish is responsible for 5% to 10% of Polari words.

There are indications that the language has been around for as long as five centuries. But it thrived in the mid 19th to mid 20th centuries, during which time Yiddish had its influence. In the communities that made use of it, including among Jews, it has been forgotten for several decades — yet it lingered for longer in the LGBT community.

This is why gay Manchester artists Jez Dolan and Joseph Richardson are on a “mission” to save it.

They developed an iPhone app that provides English to Polari translation, and have held educational events that have attracted about 500 people. Last year they held a small exhibition at the University of Manchester’s John Ryland’s Library, viewed by 30,000 people and today the open a much larger exhibition which they expect to be seen by 50,000.

Why are they so keen to “save” Polari? It was, in their view, “a bold yet secretive part of gay history,” and they think that in the age of increasing GLBT equality, it’s important for their community to remember the past — and the ad-hoc connections that it made with other marginalized groups, Jews among them. “I don’t think we expect people to start using it massively but we want people to know about it, and know about this heritage shared with others,” said Dolan.


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News Quiz: Nixon, Weiner and Ginsburg (Oh, My!)

By Lenore Skenazy

You’ve got Richard Nixon to kick around again this week, thanks to newly released anti-Semitic tapes. There’s also Anthony Weiner and Ruth Bader Ginsburg — but not together!

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Kippah in Crosshairs as Quebec Mulls Ban

By Renee Ghert-Zand

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You may have heard that if Quebec’s government has its way, we’ll be seeing far fewer yarmulkes on the province’s streets. We certainly would be seeing none of them on the heads of people working or receiving services at government offices, and public schools, daycare centers and hospitals.

The governing Parti Québécois party’s proposed “charter of values” —effectively, a legal ban on religious symbols in the pubic sector— has been met with condemnation from many political leaders, including Jewish ones, in the province that includes Montreal.

Irwin Cotler, Liberal MP and a former Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada, wrote in the Huffington Post that “the so-called ‘charter of values’ reportedly being contemplated by our provincial government would make a mockery of the free and open society that many of Quebec’s nationalist leaders have been promoting for decades.”

Cotler charged the PQ, led by Pauline Marois, with misinterpreting the separation of church and state principle and of planning to deny religious freedom, a right guaranteed by the Quebec and Canadian charters of rights, as well as the Charter of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He went to so far as to sugges that PQ founder René Lévesque is rolling in his grave.

Lionel Perez adopts a slightly more diplomatic tone, but he essentially sides with Cotler. Perez, a 43-year-old attorney and entrepreneur, is the interim mayor of Côte-des-Neiges-Notre-Dame-de-Grâce, Montreal’s largest and most diverse borough, with residents from more than 100 different cultural communities. He is also a kippa-wearing religiously observant Jew and has a very personal stake in all of this.

In an opinion piece in the French-language Le Devoir, Perez wrote that he does not oppose a secular charter per se, but that he is arguing for an inclusive secularism. “The goal of an inclusive secularism is aiming to build a genuinely plural public space, to build a society that avoids marginalizing or traps our citizens in a single mold, depriving them of the right to their moral or religious choice,” he wrote.

“I believe that values of tolerance, respect for others and moral autonomy are equally as fundamental as Quebec secularism.”

With the fact that Montreal accepts over 90 percent of all immigrants to Quebec in mind, Perez is presenting a motion to the city’s government asking it to speak up against what the provincial government is proposing.

“Obviously there is a lot of concern. Any time you have any kind of legislation that indicates any kind of separation, it causes for concern,” Perez told CTV News about his constituents’ reaction to the proposed charter.

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Who Tests the Genetic Tests?

By Doni Bloomfield

Testing the Testers: The Coriell Institute and Genetic Testing from Doni Bloomfield on Vimeo.

What happens when you can’t trust a test meant to stave off a fatal disease? When, even if the test is 99% percent accurate, you don’t believe what it reports?

That’s a question that keeps geneticists like Dorit Berlin up at night. As head of the biobank at the Coriell Institute, a research lab in Camden, N.J., the cells she sends around the world are critical to ensuring that tests work. If a test she helps confirm goes awry, people may think they’re a disease carrier when they’re not, or believe they’re in the clear when they’re a carrier.

This is a particular concern for in-bred groups like Ashkenazi Jews with a large number of genetic diseases. In fact, a recent study found that some methods of screening for Tay Sachs falsely inform over 11% of carriers that they have nothing to worry about. The scary thing is that if a disease is rare enough, even very accurate tests may not be good enough because they may be telling too many people they have the gene when they don’t.

Fortunately, we have a way of finding out exactly how good a test is, and working to improve it. Coriell houses a massive biobank contains cells from thousands of people across the globe, including those with known genetic diseases. Their Ashkenazi panel, with numerous instances of confirmed disease-causing mutations, played a critical role in making sure that when we tell people that they’re not a carrier, we know what we’re talking about.

It’s a part of the process that’s less visible than the explosive revelations and path breaking discoveries, but without it the tests would be useless.

As Berlin, says: “It might not be as sexy as, ‘Oh, we found the disease gene,’ or, ‘We found a cure.’ But we are facilitating people getting tested and getting the correct results, which is also really important.”


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Respect Jewish Dissent on Israel

By Brant Rosen

Throughout centuries of Jewish history, there has been a rich and wide-ranging debate over what constitutes Jewish values and how we might live them out as Jews. Talmudic tradition repeatedly makes it clear that this debate is in fact, a sacrosanct cornerstone of our spiritual heritage.

Jewish Voice for Peace is proud to be part of this Jewish marketplace of ideas. We believe our vision has important and critical role to play in the Jewish communal debate over Israel/Palestine. But we have no illusions that all Jewish institutions will accept our alternate views. We are certainly open to hearing differing points of view; indeed, we would welcome such a conversation as a machloket l’shem shamayim — a debate for the sake of heaven.

Sadly, in the Jewish communal world sacred debate too often devolves into denigration and political name-calling. The latest example: the Anti-Defamation League’s recently released report that publicly puts JVP on the same level as hate groups such as the Aryan Nations and the Montana State Militia.

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Newtown Gets Some Advice From Israel

By Johnna Kaplan

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The people of Newtown have received plenty of advice on keeping children safe since their town was plunged into the national spotlight last December.

Now, Israel is offering its best words of wisdom.

“Awareness has become part of our DNA,” said David Rubin, a former Israeli government official.

Rubin and a group of Israeli experts spoke last week at the Sandy Hook Advisory Commission, established by Connecticut Governor Dannel P. Malloy to review and recommend policies on mental health, gun safety, and school security in the wake of the school shootings in Newtown.

The 16-member Commission, meeting in Hartford, battled technological difficulties to communicate via Skype with consultants from The Israel Experience in Homeland Security, or TIX, which advises law enforcement, government agencies, and businesses on matters of security.

Since the December rampage, when 20-year-old Adam Lanza drove up to the Sandy Hook Elementary School and killed 26 students and staff, school security has been a concern in Connecticut. Yet the attention it has received in the state has paled in comparison to the polarizing issue of firearms restrictions and the compelling dilemmas surrounding the treatment of mental illness.

A working group of a bipartisan legislative task force was dedicated to discussing school safety, but Friday’s appearance by the Israeli group introduced a more comprehensive security philosophy. It also revealed a nuanced but profound divide in the way Americans and Israelis view public safety.

Rubin, former Israeli Economic Minister to North America, along with Israeli Secret Intelligence Service veteran Dov Shiloah and Assaf Heffetz, former Commissioner of the Israel Police, explained that in Israel, school security begins with awareness, a sort of intensified version of the American “If you see something, say something” campaign.

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News Quiz: Jerry Lewis, Craigslist and the Cronut

By Lenore Skenazy

Not every creative endeavor is a great one, as we note in this week’s quiz, which touches on a Jerry Lewis movie and a Craigslist personal ad that may or may not bring joy (and boy) to its writers. But at least we’re hoping for that last one.

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Sam Horowitz, Bar Mitzvah Role Model

By Eliyahu Federman

The short clip of Sam Horowitz’s burlesque show-themed bar mitzvah celebration received significant criticism last week. Rabbi David Wolpe, writing in the Washington Post, called it “egregious, licentious … awful” and “a travesty.” Debra Nussbaum Cohen wrote that Wolpe “forcefully and gracefully articulated what many of us were thinking.”

We should be commending this young man for celebrating his religious right-of-passage, not condemning. Many Jews don’t even celebrate their bar mitzvah. It is better to have a bar mitzvah, even with an over-the-top ostentatious celebration, then no bar mitzvah at all.

A bar mitzvah has two parts: the ceremony, which includes reading from the Torah and then the party. Many wrongly presumed Sam’s bar mitzvah was all a Vegas showgirl parade. As it turns out Sam’s bar mitzvah was more than just boogying with dancers to the lyrics of Jennifer Lopez – but included a religious ceremony that took Sam two years to prepare.

The 17th century Hasidic leader, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, once observed a Jew greasing the wheels of his wagon while simultaneously praying with tallit (shawl) and tefillin (phylacteries). While others rebuked the Jew for denigrating the prayer, Rabbi Levi judged him favorably, and exclaimed: “God, look at how holy he is. He even greases the wheels of his buggy with tallit and tefillin on.”

To Sam we should exclaim: Look at how holy you are. Even with a showgirl parade, you still had a bar mitzva! You still spent two years preparing for it.

Sam told ABC News that the highlight was not the dancing but the services ceremony itself, not the well-choreographed dance routine. Allison Kaplan Sommer, in Haaretz, also reported that Sam had participants donate money to charity in lieu of giving him gifts, contributions which totaled $36,000.

If all bar mitzvah boys spent two years preparing for their Torah reading and fundraised $36,000 for charity, the Jewish community would be much stronger. Sam is a role model. I did far less for my Orthodox bar mitzvah.

It is true that the celebration did not need to include prancing girls in short skirts, nor the prohibitive cost associated with the spectacle, but that does not give people the right to denigrate. As a society we overspend on weddings, bar/bat mitzvahs, sweet 16 birthday parties, and other occasions. But how people spend their money is their business, and the extent of unwise splurging does not diminish the value of marking the occasion.

Alarming statistics from the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) indicate that the adult Jewish population identifying as practicing Jews declined from 3.1 million in 1990 to 2.6 million in 2008. How many of those 500,000+ non-identifying Jews hosted a bar/bat mitzvah for their children? Maybe Sam will inspire more to embrace their heritage.

Jews should be lamenting the fact that many don’t care enough, or know enough, to celebrate their bar mitzva — not criticizing those who do.


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When Jewish Toronto Fought Back — 80 Years Ago

By Michael Kaminer

toronto city archive

Was the carving of two swastikas into a Toronto golf course last weekend a random hate crime — or a twisted nod to history?

Police think it was a run-of-the-mill act of anti-Semitic vandalism. But some note the crime took place on the eve of the 80th anniversary of the historic Christie Pits riots, when Jews rose up in anger after being provoked by Nazi symbols.

According to the Toronto Sun, the Nazi carvings were found by a groundskeeper at the tony Richmond Hill Golf Club over the weekend. Police don’t think they have anything to do with the fact that Jewish groups were holding commemorations of the riots at the same time. The timing “is certainly coincidental,” a local police sergeant insisted to the paper.

The historic Christie Pits riots – which took place in a west Toronto park on August 16, 1933, erupted when a Nazi club taunted Jews with swastikas after a ball game.

“Members pulled out a swastika flag, while chanting ‘Heil Hitler’ near the end of a playoff baseball game involving mainly Jewish players,” the Sun wrote.

The riots were “a seminal moment for the old pre-multiculturalism Toronto,” according to a report in the Toronto Star this week.

“This was one time that Toronto’s Jewish community would not stand for the abuse, the Jew-baiting, which was quite prevalent in the city in those years just before World War II, when Adolf Hitler had just taken power in an economically flattened Germany and Nazism was ascendant,” wrote Star columnist Rosie DiManno. “This one time, Toronto’s Jews — the teen boys, at least — fought back.”

The now-defunct Toronto Telegram blamed the violence on “Jewish hooligans who started the whole thing,’’ DiManno noted.

To commemorate the riots, The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) hosted “a friendly softball game” at Christie Pits last weekend. Organizers called it “an opportunity to not only to remember the past, but also celebrate the present,” according to CTV.

“We are here more to celebrate where we are – Toronto is the greatest city in the world … and [Canada] is an unbelievably safe and welcoming country for the Jewish community,” Jordan Kerbel of the CIJA told the network.

In the meantime, York Regional Police hate crimes unit has been called in to investigate the swastika carvings.


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English Soccer Kicks Off — Minus Israelis

By Liam Hoare

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Yossi Benayoun

The new English Premier League season will kick off on Saturday without a single Israeli on any of the top league’s 20 teams.

It shouldn’t be seen as entirely out of the ordinary for a nation of Israel’s size and resources not to have any representatives in the Premier League. As Joshua Halickman, aka The Sports Rabbi, explained to the Forward over the past two decades of the League’s existence, only two Israeli players have really made an impact on the English game: Yossi Benayoun and Eyal Berkovic. In reality, “Israelis have never been major players in the Premier League.”

Yet last season, there was a relative glut of Israeli footballers in England’s top tier. Europa League winners Chelsea had ‘the Diamond from Dimona’ Benayoun in their ranks, though he was only a bit-part player, used mostly as a substitute and was unpopular with the fans. Striker Itay Schechter could have made more of an impact at Swansea City had he been given a fair run in the side, while workhorse defender Tal Ben Haim joined Queens Park Rangers for the second half of the season, playing only three games.

Now they’re all gone. Benayoun’s contract expired and he’s now a free agent, rumored to be on his way to Turkey or the MLS. Ben Haim, after having a loan move to Toronto FC nixed, signed a two-year contract with Belgian side Standard Liège. In search of first-team football, Schechter has gone back to Israel and Hapoel Tel Aviv, as has young Fulham forward Omri Altman — though he will play for crosstown rivals Maccabi.

Benayoun and Ben Haim were, in any case, moving to the latter stage of their careers. Both over the age of 30, they were no longer demonstrating that they had the pace, strength, or technical ability to compete in the Premier League. What is concerning, however, is that no players are coming up out of Israel to succeed them. “I don’t think English clubs are at all adverse to purchasing Israeli players,” CNN’s James Masters told The Forward. “It’s just at this moment in time, the majority aren’t at the standard required.”

The question of why countries produce good or bad generations of players is rarely answerable satisfactorily. In the case of Israel’s current paucity of talent able to play in the Premier League, it might have something to do with that as a small nation with fewer resources, the system for developing players at the club level is underdeveloped. “The youth academies need to be revamped top to bottom,” Halickman said. “Israel needs some serious football people and investment which, unfortunately, they don’t have to be able to produce top line footballers.”

It might also be the case, however, that Premier League clubs aren’t looking hard enough. “The problem is that Premier League teams always want proven players and high-profile names,” Raphael Gellar, founder of Gellar Sports Radio and host of Kicking it with Raphael on World Football Daily, told the Forward. “Israel doesn’t have that big name the fans or the clubs in England want. Even if they were very successful in Israel, it doesn’t mean much. If they let the youth play more often and gave more Israelis a chance, I think we would see a lot more Israelis try and play in England.”

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Bob Filner's Too Bad for Hooters

By Doni Bloomfield

Hooters is drawing a line in the sand — and his name is San Diego Mayor Bob Filner.

The jiggle joint restaurant chain, not normally known for its political correctness, has announced it will no longer serve the embattled Jewish pol, according to signs posted outside locations across the city.

Filner, recently slammed with a large number of sexual abuse allegations is now facing a major campaign to recall him from office.

The unlikely coalition arrayed against Filner now includes prominent female Jewish leaders such as Dianne Feinstein, Barbara Boxer, Debbie Wasserman Schultz — and Hooters.

“We believe it is imperative for people to have standards,” reads Hooters’ sign, posted next to an ad featuring a blond woman, in the restaurants’ typical revealing waitress uniform, inviting men to drink Coors Light. “We believe women should be treated with respect.”

“Our Hooters girls in San Diego have spoken. Not a corporate gig, but we support our girls,” the company said in a message posted via Twitter, Reuters reported.

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Bob Filner

This may seem like a case of the fleshpot calling the kettle black: Hooters itself is not unfamiliar with sexual abuse lawsuits, as when, in 2004, dozens of women sued after being secretly filmed during interviews which involved changing into the chain’s skimpy waitress outfit.

Allegations against Filner, including a claim that he demanded a date in return for helping a Marine recovering from PTSD, have become so extreme that Hooters’ decision seems less than ironic.

In fact, Filner may find that Hooters’ doors aren’t the only ones closed to him from now on. The locks to the mayor’s office have been reportedly changed to give Filner a very unwelcome return from therapy.


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Gay, Orthodox and Outspoken

By Michael Kaminer

Shlomo Ashkenazy

The Supreme Court’s decisions around marriage rights may have elated gay and lesbian Jews and their allies. But for LGBT Jews in the Orthodox community, the ruling might have the opposite effect. The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations issued a statement reiterating Judaism “forbids homosexual relationships”; Agudath Israel went a step further, claiming the “sanctity” of marriage “may have been grievously insulted by the High Court.”

Enter Shlomo Ashkinazy. A quiet but pathbreaking activist, Ashkinazy has counseled gay and lesbian Orthodox Jews about reconciling “untenable contradictions” in their religious and sexual identities. Most recently, he’s leading a video storytelling project for Eshel, the New York-based organization which advocates for acceptance of LGBT Jews in Orthodox communities.

Ashkinazy’s personal activism stretches back much farther. In the 1970s, he became the nation’s first openly gay social-work graduate student. And in 1985, he became founding principal at the Harvey Milk High School, the first public school for LGBT students in the country.

On the heels of historic high-court decisions on civil rights for LGBT people, the Forward caught up with Ashkinazy from Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood, where he lives with his partner Michael.

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Marijuana Legalization Is Freedom of Religion Cause

By Eliyahu Federman

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Medical marijuana is spreading in acceptance, with Illinois this month becoming the 20th state to legalize medical marijuana. But so far no states have legalized religious marijuana use, even though there is compelling reason to do so.

People consume alcohol for religious reasons, especially Jews. At least 25 states even allow minors to consume alcohol for religious purposes. So why not legalize marijuana for legitimate religious purposes?

Various world religions include the practice of ritual drinking of alcohol. Christians drink communion wine. Jews drink Kiddush wine, Passover Seder wine, and consume alcohol on festivals such as Purim where the tradition is to celebrate by drinking until one can’t distinguish Haman (our enemy) and Mordecai (our hero).

Last year, Northwestern University defrocked Chabad rabbi Dov Hillel Klien for serving alcohol to underage students. Klien maintains that he was serving moderate amounts of alcohol for legitimate religious purposes, such as Kidush wine on Shabbat, with the knowledge of university officials. Klien is currently suing Northwestern for religious discrimination and for “singling (Jewish groups) out from other campus religious organizations that ‘commit the same acts’ — meaning Christians who celebrate the Eucharist with wine.”

Similarly, many religions engage in ritualistic marijuana smoking dating back thousands of years. It was used in the worship of the Hindu deity, Shiva, and most widespread today by Rastafarian’s as a Bible study, and meditation aid.

Roger Christie is a minister of the Religion of Jesus Church, which uses marijuana as a “sacramental herb.” Christie and 13 others associated with his ministry are currently facing marijuana possession and trafficking charges for offering pot as a part of religious services in Hawaii.

Whether Christie was using and selling marijuana for bona fide religious purposes, or as a cover for conventional drug dealing is unclear, but the question remains whether marijuana should be permitted for sacramental use.

Even though religious marijuana use is not generally permitted, in 2006 the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the Brazilian-American church União do Vegetal could import and use illegal drugs in worship services. Native Americans are routinely given exceptions to use an illegal Schedule I substance called peyote.

Under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, passed by Congress in 1993, the government is required to show a “compelling interest” in order to “substantially burden” a legitimate religious practice. If hallucinogens like peyote can be legal under this standard, why should more mild drugs like marijuana be any different?

Even Prohibition, which banned alcohols in the U.S., exempted wine “for sacramental purposes, or like religious rites.”

Alcohol is a drug like marijuana with potentially harmful effects. But if alcohol is widely accepted for religious use among Jews and others - maybe marijuana should be too.


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News Quiz: 'Potter' Star's New Role

By Lenore Skenazy

True, this week’s quiz touches on Anthony Weiner and pickles, but not in the same question. We have our standards! We also have Daniel Radcliffe, A-Rod and Dr. Zizmor, all ready to quiz you about the Jewish news of the week.

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J Street's Breakthrough With Likud and Shas

By Nathan Guttman

J Street, the dovish pro-Israel lobby that was shunned in its early years by Israeli government officials, is now making another step toward the acceptance by Israeli politicians.

wikimedia
Tzachi Hanegbi

This coming September, J Street will host, for the first time, a member of Knesset from the ruling Likud Party and a member of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party at its annual conference in Washington.

Tzachi Hanegbi, a hardliner turned peace supporter, will be the first member of the Likud to participate in a J Street event. Hanegbi is the son of Geula Cohen who was a fighter in the Irgun underground organization operating before the establishment of the State of Israel and who later became a right-wing politician.

Hanegbi’s first steps in politics were as a pro-settlers activist and he was one a handful of Israelis who refused to evacuate the settlement of Yamit during the Israeli withdrawal from Sinai which was part of its peace agreement with Egypt.

He was also a vocal critic of the Peace Now movement during the 1980’s.

In the Knesset, Hanegbi was first elected in 1988 as part of the Likud Party, but in 2005 he broke off with other members led by Ariel Sharon to establish the more moderate Kadima party. Later Hanegbi returned to the Likud and has since spoken in favor of a two-state solution. Still, in interviews and statements Hanegbi has stressed the responsibility of the Palestinians for the lack of progress in peace negotiations.

Hanegbi’s participation at the J Street conference, a result of outreach efforts conducted by the lobby’s office in Israel, is viewed by organizers as a mark of success. It is a sign, said Jessica Rosenblum, the group’s director of media and communications, “of the growing acceptance of J Street and the growing recognition of the common purpose,” of advancing a two-state solution.

J Street’s founding in 2008 was initially met with a cold shoulder by the Israeli government. Officials refused to meet with the lobby’s activists and the Israeli embassy boycotted its events. Since, however, the group established working relations with the embassy and an Israel senior diplomat delivered a speech at last year’s conference gala dinner. Hanegbi’s participation will signal yet another step by J Street away from its lefty image and closer to the Israeli mainstream.

Another first at this year’s conference will be the participation of Yitzhak Vaknin of Shas at the event. Shas, a Sephardic ultra-Orthodox party has supported in the past Israeli-Palestinian negotiations but has since shifted to the right. Currently it is not a member of the Netanyahu governing coalition.


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