Forward Thinking

Why All Jews Should Listen to ‘Serial’

By Lior Zaltzman

Illustration by Lior Zaltzman

Hello, my name is Lior and I’m a podcast addict. I’ve been streaming “This American Life” for years. I’ve turned podcasts into verbs. No, I can’t answer the phone right now, I’m “Savage Love”-ing. Whenever my husband says “Ok. Alright?” I want to scream “This is Radiolab!” Once I even used “Ira Glass” as my bowling pseudonym (I lost, sorry Ira). For the longest time I’ve felt that listening to podcasts was a niche. But not anymore.

Every Thursday since October 3 has been a battle of the wills for me. I try to hold off as much as I can, giving myself tasks to do before I can listen to the newest episode of “Serial.” Which in turn has made Thursday, arguably, my most productive day of the week.

“Serial” is ending today. The “This American Life” spin-off is the highest-rated, most-listened-to podcast ever. And there’s a reason for that. “Serial” is a melange of “This American Life”’-style candid, heartfelt reportage, the breadth and continuity of an audio book and the edge-of-your-seat suspense of true crime drama. It is everything.

Sarah Koenig, who got her start with “This American Life,” is the Jewish host and executive producer of “Serial.” She depicts an “everyday crime,” one that never got much media attention before the podcast aired: the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee, a high school senior at Baltimore’s Woodlawn High, who went missing on January 13, 1999 and was found dead on February 9 of that year. Adnan Syed, her ex-boyfriend, also a Woodlawn senior at the time, was convicted of her murder. The main evidence came from eyewitness testimony: Jay, Adnan’s “ex-friend” and pot dealer, claims he helped Adnan bury the body.

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Why Jews Should Ride With Muslims in Sydney

By Leah Bieler

People run with hands up from the Lindt Cafe during a hostage standoff in Sydney, Australia / Getty Images

My ears perked up when I heard the news about a potential terror attack at the Lindt Chocolat Cafe in Sydney. “Potential” terror attack, because for a while the nature of the situation was unclear. And then came the now-familiar black flag with white Arabic lettering, and what was murky became just a tiny bit clearer.

For some reason, my thoughts went to what this moment must feel like for the average Muslim living in Australia. Or in London. Or in my own New England city. Because that is an emotion I recognize. Though they had nothing to do with the crime, I imagine that these Muslims experienced that all-too-familiar feeling, that gnawing fear deep in the stomach, that in my house is called, “Oy. Not good for the Jews.”

No Jew who has even a passing connection to community can credibly deny it. When something bad happens, you sit and wait, listening to the radio, watching the news, refreshing the screen. And then, they say, we can identify the attacker, name the criminal. And the name flashes across the screen. You read it and think, “Thank God that’s not a Jewish name. Could that be a Jewish name? Oh man, that’s a Jewish name.”

On one level, of course it’s utterly ridiculous that the actions of a complete stranger could reflect on me as a person. But the truth is complicated. Because no matter who I am or what I do, there will always be people who associate me with the bad apples. And maybe, in some small way, they have a point.

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Why Tunisian Jews Can't Wait To Vote in an Arab Election

By Yael Even Or

Illustration by Lior Zaltzman

Jaco Halfon spent the last week of November glued to his computer at home in L.A. Presidential election results were coming in from his homeland of Tunisia. Halfon, a Tunisian citizen, wanted to make sure that he was up-to-date and that readers of his popular Jewish website Harissa got the relevant commentaries.

Tunisian citizens voted in a free and direct presidential election for the first time on November 23. It had been three years since the Jasmin revolution that overthrew ruler Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. Following an interim government and October’s parliamentary elections, it was time to for Tunisian citizens to vote on who would lead the new democracy.

Jaco Halfon

Among the 11 million citizens living in Tunisia, there is still a tiny Jewish community; it has shrunk from more than 100,000 in 1948 to about 1,800 Jews today, mostly in Tunis and in the southeastern island of Djerba. Most Tunisian Jews have emigrated to Israel and France over the years, while a few thousand have moved to North America.

The new Tunisian election law determines that Tunisian citizens overseas are allowed to vote. Halfon decided not to vote, even though he is entitled to. “I feel a bit [far] away from over there,” he said. “We do not intend to go back there so I think it is a Tunisian issue and it’s for the people who live there to decide.”

Leaving the decision to Tunisia’s residents doesn’t mean that Halfon doesn’t have strong opinions about the elections. Out of the 25 candidates, the two who emerged as the leading candidates were Beji Caid Essebsi and Moncef Marzouki. If Halfon were to vote, he would vote without hesitation for Essebsi — or as he put it, “for democracy.”

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Tunisians Turn ‘Ashkenormative’ Judaism Upside Down

By Jonathan Paul Katz

A Tunisian Jewish family on the island of Djerba / Getty Images

The Tunisian Ambassador to the United Kingdom recently came to the Chabad here in Oxford to give a Shabbat dinner talk. Needless to say, this event was not an ordinary Shabbat dinner by any means. After a meal of traditional Tunisian foods, the ambassador spoke about the need for co-existence, the importance of listening to other narratives, and — most interestingly for me — the status of Tunisian Jewry today. Though only about 1,500-strong today, the community leads a vibrant life — and many of the 80,000 Tunisian Jews across France, Canada and Israel regularly return to Tunisia for visits, even buying property there.

The ambassador painted a very inspiring picture. Yet one lady present was not quite in favor of this interpretation: She continuously interrupted him to claim that Jews were either struggling for survival after being forced to leave Tunisia, complete victims, or that the Israeli side of the story was being completely ignored. What’s more, she implied that Jews would only buy property in Tunisia if it were cheap — that there was nothing to see and the country was “dirty” and “barren.” As for one Tunisian Jewish community’s endorsement of the Islamist Ennahda party, she was completely dismissive.

The ambassador responded eloquently to her claims and kept the discussion from being derailed. And another Moroccan gentleman pointed out the ex-Vichy French and Israeli state roles in the deportation of Jews to Israel. But this lady’s outburst made me think: How might the Tunisian Jewish experience shake up some of our (Ashkenazi) assumptions about Mizrahim and Israel?

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Compare Your Salary to These Jewish CEOs

By Maia Efrem

Our annual Salary Survey shows that being a Jewish nonprofit CEO can be pretty darn lucrative. It sure puts to shame the median U.S. salary, which the 2013 Census calculates is $51,939.

Type in your income and see how it stacks up against the median salaries of Jewish CEOs of advocacy and public service, federations, and religious and education organizations. You can also sort by gender, and by individual categories.

You may read it and weep. Or not.

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4 Stories from Zochrot Truth Commission On 1948

By Naomi Zeveloff

Palestinians mark the anniversary of the 1948 Nakba or ‘Day of Catastrophe’ / Getty Images

Is Israeli society ready to reckon with 1948? On Wednesday, Zochrot, an Israeli organization devoted to raising awareness about the Nakba — when 700,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled by Jewish forces during Israel’s founding war — held its first public “truth commission” featuring the testimonies of Israeli soldiers and Palestinian Bedouins who lived through the events of 1948 and beyond.

The commission, held in a hotel in Beersheba, focused on the Negev from 1948 to 1960. Zochrot was specifically looking at the David Ben Gurion-ordered conquest of the area to oust Egyptian forces in 1948 and the subsequent Israeli army deportation of Negev Bedouin through the 1950s. While Zochrot has taken hours of testimony on the topic in the past, yesterday’s event was the first of its kind open to the public, and a rare opportunity to hear from what the organization described as “witnesses.”

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Eric Garner and Moshe Twersky Bound by History

By Phil Getz

Getty Images

As I sit at my desk in a modern office building in lower Manhattan, the chants of angry protestors below grow louder. “I — can’t — breathe,” they shout, echoing the haunting final words of Eric Garner, whose death by asphyxiation I saw on video the day it occurred.

It was in that very spot, just over two weeks ago, in front of the same computer screen, that I learned of the horrific massacre in Jerusalem’s Har Nof neighborhood. The same spot where, also on the day of attack, I saw the photographs of men in blood-drenched prayer shawls sprawled across the reddened floor of a synagogue.

And as the shouts grow stronger, I realize just how similar we are. It has become a cliché in this country to note the disintegration of black-Jewish relations, not to mention its causes, and perhaps even more so to lament it. Gone are the days when Jews and black folks suffer the same discrimination, prohibited from entry to the same restaurants and public pools. But the images of recent weeks trigger the most terrifying episodes in our respective histories, reminding us that it is in the imagery of our past that we have often found commonality.

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In Berlin, Jews and Muslims Fight for Each Other

By Yermi Brenner

Salaam-Schalom organizes a Jewish-Muslim human chain event in Neukollen / Ömer Sefa Baysal

This past summer, Armin Langer, a 24-year-old rabbinical student in Berlin, came to speak at the Sehitlik mosque in Neukoelln, a district of the German capital with a large Muslim population. Langer is the co-founder of the Salaam-Schalom Initiative, a Neukoelln-based intercultural dialogue group. His pre-scheduled presentation at the mosque, to announce Salaam-Schalom’s new campaign, took place on June 26, just as the violence between Israelis and Palestinians was escalating.

“I thought it was very courageous on his part to go on the stage and introduce himself as a Jewish person,” says Denis Mert Mercan, 26, a devout Muslim who lives in Berlin and was at Sehitlik mosque that day. “And I thought it was an amazing idea that the Jews would defend Muslims and Muslims would defend Jews in terms of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.”

The campaign Langer was introducing was a series of posters against anti-Muslim prejudice, to be displayed on the streets of Neukoelln. He explained that the goal of Salaam-Schalom is for Jewish and Muslim Berliners to collaborate, battling all forms of racism at once.

Salaam-Schalom’s grassroots attempt to bridge the gap between Jews and Muslims is happening at a time when Germany is experiencing a wave of anti-Semitism that’s partly rooted in Muslim communities. This summer, during the Israel-Hamas war, a Palestinian immigrant threw a petrol bomb on a synagogue in the town of Wuppertal, and hate speech against Jews appeared in Berlin demonstrations against Israel’s operation in Gaza.

“We are not soldiers standing against each other on the front. We are average people living in the same city,” said Langer, a Hungarian Jew who attended a yeshiva in Jerusalem and moved to Berlin to continue his religious studies. “Of course we all feel sorry for what’s going on there and we have relatives and friends in Gaza and in Israel and in the West Bank. But maybe we can build up something more peaceful here in Berlin.”

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Why Did Israel’s President Just Oppose Bibi's Bill?

By Ben Sales

Getty Images

(JTA) Reuven Rivlin just did the one thing Israel’s president — a largely ceremonial post — doesn’t usually do: He publicly, and vehemently, opposed a specific bill endorsed by the government and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Addressing a conference in Eilat, Rivlin lambasted the controversial Nation-State Law, advanced this week by Israel’s Cabinet and which seeks to enshrine Israel’s Jewish character in law.

Supporters of the law say it merely places the two sides of Israel’s “Jewish and democratic” character on equal footing and reinforces the state’s Jewishness against its enemies. But the law’s opponents say it gives primacy to Israel’s Jewish side. They point to the absence of the word “equality” in the bill and note that the bill fails to guarantee collective rights to Israel’s minorities.

Rivlin made clear which side of the debate he’s on.

“Ladies and gentlemen, such a hierarchical approach, which places Jewishness before democracy, misses the great significance of the [Israeli] Declaration of Independence, which combined the two elements together without separating them,” he said. “This is the beating heart of the State of Israel, a state established on two solid foundations: nationhood on the one hand and democracy on the other. The removal of one will bring the whole building down.”

It’s not surprising that Rivlin opposes the bill; he’s long been a crusader for democratic and minority rights. But it is surprising that he came out against the government so publicly. The president’s job is to welcome dignitaries, represent the state at such functions as funerals, and guide the formation of a new government following elections.

The president is not a political position, per se, and he’s not supposed to get involved in legislative battles. Rivlin himself stressed that point in an interview with the Times of Israel’s David Horovitz before he was elected in June. He was responding to a question about his opposition to a Palestinian state.

“I won’t intervene in Knesset decisions,” he told Horovitz.”The president is a bridge to enable debate, to reduce tensions, to alleviate frictions.”

So why did he intervene here? A source in the president’s office, who wished to remain anonymous, said Rivlin sees this bill as not just any piece of proposed legislation but fears it will affect the core nature of Israel’s democracy.

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If America Had Laws Like Israel

By Avital Burg

Thinkstock

A new proposed bill, supported by senators on both sides of the aisle, will finally define and determine the United States of America as the land of the Protestant People, the largest religious constituency in the U.S. and the group out of which America’s founding fathers and ruling leadership emerged.

The new law aims to anchor Protestant values in the laws of the land, inspired by the spirit of the American Constitution. Furthermore, the bill proceeds to state that the U.S. will continue to uphold a fundamentally democratic character. According to the new law, the United States will be fully committed to the foundations of Freedom, Justice, and Peace, in light of our Lord Jesus Christ.

At the same time, the bill suggests, the right to implement a national self-definition will be exclusively reserved for the Protestant People. According to the new bill, Protestant values will serve as inspiration to lawmakers and judges at the different levels of the United States’ legislative and judicial branches. In cases where a court of justice encounters difficulties in ruling over issues that have no readily available answers in the Law, in the Christian Canon, or in logical reasoning, it will then rule according to the principles of freedom, justice, integrity and peace stemming from the Protestant heritage.

In addition, the national emblems of the United States, such as its flag and national anthem, will be drawn directly from the tradition of the Protestant Church, and the official calendar of the U.S. will follow the Protestant liturgical year. Finally, the United States will further act to preserve and entrench the Protestant historical and cultural tradition and to cultivate it in the U.S. and abroad.

Any reader who has gotten this far would probably note that such a law could not be passed or even seriously proposed by the United States legislature. In Israel, however, it could become a fundamental law, on a level equivalent to a constitutional amendment in the United States.

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4 Problems With Israel’s ‘Jewish Nation-State’ Law

By Brent Sasley

Getty Images

Members of the Israeli government have renewed a push to create a Basic Law enshrining Israel as “the nation-state of the Jewish people.” This time, the effort is being spearheaded by Prime Minister Netanyahu. Although his is meant to be a “softer” version of previous similar bills, it’s still highly problematic for a number of reasons.

Israel’s Basic Laws are meant to serve as the basis for an eventual constitution. In the years immediately after the establishment of the state, Israeli leaders could not agree on whether to write one up, much less what it should look like. In 1950, the Harari proposal was adopted. The Knesset would pass a series of “Basic Laws” as necessary, and each would be issued as a separate chapter, to be combined into a single constitutional document whenever the time came. In 1995, the Supreme Court gave the Basic Laws constitutional status — which means they’re higher than regular laws and are meant to guide the adoption of further laws and practices in the country.

The most obvious problem is that enshrining Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people makes constitutional the second-class status of Arab citizens. Netanyahu’s bill does mention democracy and individual rights, but (unlike the Declaration of Independence) it does not refer to the equality of all Israel’s citizens. By tying Israel’s identity only to one people, it gives them constitutional privileges no other community can have access to.

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The New 'War on Christmas' (Or Is It Islam)?

By Julie Wiener


(JTA) — Looks like there’s another so-called War on Christmas, and this time it’s the Muslims, not the Jews, who are being blamed.

The decision by a suburban Washington school district to continue closing for Jewish and Christian holidays — but not label them as such on the school calendar — has ignited a firestorm from right-wing bloggers and commentators.

On Tuesday, the Montgomery County Board of Education voted to remove the religious designations after local Muslims had complained that the district observes Christmas, Easter, Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah, but does not offer vacation on any Muslim holidays.

“School Dumps Christmas to Appease Muslims” was how Todd Starnes of Fox News Radio framed the headline.

Describing the issue as “a new battleground in the war on Christmas” and “bad news for you Jews and gentiles out there,” Starnes implied that the holidays will be eliminated rather than just not identified on the school calendar. (“That means no more Christmas, no more Easter and no more Yom Kippur,” he claimed, later noting that the school board “opted to eliminate all religious holidays.”)

In a similar vein, The Blaze wrote “School District Bans Christmas, Easter and Jewish Holidays From Calendar Following Debate Over Muslim Request.”

The Examiner, which accompanied its article with a still from the film “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” headlined it “Christmas, Easter, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur stricken from school calendar.”

While the outraged headlines may indicate otherwise, the decision seems to have pleased no one, least of all the local Muslim activists. One activist, Zainab Chaudry, told the Washington Post that the school board was willing to ““go so far as to paint themselves as the Grinch who stole Christmas” to avoid granting equal treatment for the Muslim holiday.

“They would remove the Christian holidays and they would remove the Jewish holidays from the calendar before they would consider adding the Muslim holiday to the calendar,” she said.

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Using Ex-Nazis as Spies? I Saw It Happen.

By Josh Nathan-Kazis

Hubertus Strughold worked for Hitler’s Luftwaffe throughout World War II — and was later recruited by the U.S. / U.S. Air Force

I got an email the other day from a Jewish man who saw something in Germany 60 years ago that he can’t forget. The man reached out to me after reading my story on Eric Lichtblau’s new book about the U.S. government’s coverup of its use of former Nazis as spies.

The man has asked that I not use his name, in consideration of promises he made in the 1950s to keep quiet on pain of court martial. Today he is a retired attorney. We’ll call him Robert.

Robert was inducted into the U.S. Army in the summer of 1954. Already a law school graduate and a member of the bar, he turned down a commission as an officer and enlisted as a private.

In January of 1955, after completing basic training, Robert boarded a troop ship in Staten Island bound for Germany, where the Army maintained a massive postwar presence. He landed in Bremerhaven and was sent on to a replacement depot to be assigned to a unit.

Robert’s assignment was unusual. Of all of the soldiers on his ship, he was the only one sent to a group called the 7807 USAREUR Liaison Detachment.

The name was a cover.

“It was really run by the CIA,” Robert said. “I reported to a civilian. A CIA civilian… He never said he was CIA, but he obviously was.”

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Our 'Car Talk' Rebbe in God's Auto Repair Shop

By Jeffrey Salkin

“Car Talk” hosts Tom and Ray Magliozzi

It’s a stereotype, but Jewish men have an ancient and mostly well-earned reputation for not being able to fix things. (There have been many notable exceptions to this, including my father, who could fix anything).

I have done my best to uphold this proud tradition of our people. Several years ago, I was riding my bicycle and the chain popped off the sprocket. Heartbroken, I proceeded to drag my bike back home. I would have to drive it to the local bike shop where it would be repaired by someone who — you guessed it — never went to Hebrew school.

Except that morning I had heard a brief news item — yes, on National Public Radio. An Israeli Orthodox rabbi had declared that Reform Jews were not really Jews. This was great. I celebrated my sudden loss of Jewish identity. I turned the bike over, put the chain back on the sprocket (and yes, got my hands dirty) and continued on my merry way.

That might have been the last time that I ever fixed anything. For that reason, and many more, I loved NPR’s “Car Talk” show. Tom and Ray Magliozzi (Click and Clack) had more than four million listeners a week, and I was one of them. That is why I will sorely miss Tom, who died this week of complications of Alzheimers’ disease at the age of 77.

“Car Talk” had more listeners than any other program on NPR. What was it about that show that we loved (and continue to love) so much?

It was because the Magliozzi brothers were the real deal — the realest of deals. There was no sham in their show, no pretentions. These were self-made men, in the style of our parents. They grew up working class in East Cambridge, and never shed their working class vowel-less Boston accents — even and especially after they attended MIT. They worked with their hands.

But there was another thing. “Car Talk” had deep Torah in it.

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7 Best Jewish Comebacks to Catcalling

By Lilit Marcus

I’m sure you’ve seen it by now. A video made by the anti-street harassment group Hollaback shows a woman, the Jewish actress Shoshana Roberts, walking around in New York City getting unwanted attention from men.

The video struck me because, when I moved to New York ten years ago, two things happened: street harassment became more and more prevalent in my life, and I became more and more bold about speaking out about it. I read Rebecca Solnit’s wonderful book Wanderlust: A History of Walking, which examines the seemingly simple concept of walking from different historical perspectives. The takeaway was that as a woman living in a 21st-century metropolis it is still revolutionary that I can walk, alone, from Point to Point B.

But just because it wasn’t illegal for me to walk around alone didn’t mean that I could do so without being harassed. That came to a head in 2012, when I was living in a predominantly Satmar Hasidic neighborhood in south Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Frustrated by the fact that street harassment was not only taking place but coming from people within my own community, I began using specifically Jewish responses to the whistles, catcalls and questions about whether I wanted to get in their van. (Spoiler alert: I didn’t. Ever.)

The weeks that followed were so interesting, and the men’s reactions such a mix of damning and hilarious, that I documented the project for an article in Heeb magazine. The piece got reactions all over the spectrum — some women saying they admired my nerve, a lot of men saying that I wasn’t hot enough to get hit on and that the real problem in the world was prejudice against men. There were also charges of anti-Semitism.

After the piece ran, I started getting emails from people suggesting new comebacks and responses I could use the next time a Hasidic man said something inappropriate to me or another woman. Since I ended up moving out of the neighborhood, I didn’t get a chance to use too many of them. But since Jewish street harassment is a real and ongoing thing, I present them here for you to use and enjoy.

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Young Israelis Say No to Separate Buses

By Sigal Samuel

An Israeli soldier walks past a bus on which suspected Jewish vandals painted graffiti reading ‘Gentiles in the land are enemies’ / Getty Images

Young Israelis don’t want separate bus lines for Palestinians — and they’re asking American Jews to ensure segregation never becomes a reality.

That’s the nutshelled version of a letter sent today by Young Israeli Labor, the official youth branch of the Labor Party, to the leaders of major American Jewish organizations including Abe Foxman (Anti-Defamation League), Malcolm Hoenlein (Conference of Presidents), Jeremy Ben-Ami (J Street), Eric Fingerhut (Hillel International) and Rabbi Rick Jacobs (Union for Reform Judaism).

The striking thing about this is not just the willingness of Israeli youth to speak out against segregated buses, but the fact that they’re turning to American Jewish leaders to appeal, on their behalf, to Israeli leaders — specifically, Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ya’alon. The subtext seems to be that they don’t feel they can make themselves heard (or heard successfully) in their own country without a powerful intermediary. We can chalk this up partly to their perception that “Ya’alon is caving in to a well-organized campaign of the extreme right, who hold powerful positions inside the Likud party.” Here’s the rest of their letter:

This unfortunate decision is a disastrous one in any respect. Apart from being a severely miserable decision in every moral aspect, it also adds a very powerful weapon to the arsenal of those seeking to undermine Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.

Side by side with you, we, the Young Israeli Labor, the official young branch of the Labor Party, lead an uncompromising struggle on Israel’s international standing. Exactly because of our love for Israel, we must at present do whatever it takes to stop this poor decision from realization.

I call upon you to turn to Israel’s Prime Minister, MK Netanyahu, and demand that he interferes in this matter and prevents Defense Minister Ya’alon from surrendering to the extremist right-wing in Israel, which is jeopardizing our continuing existence as a Jewish and democratic state.

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At 'Simchat Torah Across Brooklyn,' No Politics, Just Joy

By Gabe Friedman

N.Y. Jews kick off the ‘Simchat Torah Across Brooklyn’ celebration / Dove Barbanel

In the Grand Army Plaza, at the entrance to Prospect Park in Brooklyn, the circle dance threatened to close me in. I had avoided it for some time, but the energy was contagious. I gave in and danced in one of the joyful concentric circles.

This was the third year of “Simchat Torah Across Brooklyn,” an outdoor celebration spearheaded by Rabbi Andy Bachman and Cantor Joshua Breitzer of Congregation Beth Elohim in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Over 500 people from over twenty Jewish organizations and synagogues (from the Park Slope Jewish Center to Repair the World: NYC) stopped by over the course of the night to sing, dance and meet friends. Jews of all denominations and ages were present, but the majority of people in the crowd were younger than 40. It was safe to call it a party.

“I think it’s important what’s going on here, young people coming out and celebrating the Torah,” said Rachel Grossman, 24.

A few dancers lugged Torah scrolls around with them as they circled. Cantor Breitzer wore a headlight on his forehead and never left the center circle.

“As you can see,” Bachman said, “it’s impossible to hold him down.”

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Introducing the Torah Party, My New Favorite Ritual

By Abby Sosland

Getty Images

Just a few months before he was killed in a 1996 bus bombing, my JTS classmate Matt Eisenfeld held a party in his Jerusalem apartment. It was a Saturday night, but it was hardly a typical Saturday night event. It was a siyyum, a conclusion of study, celebrating his completion of Masechet Kiddushin, a long and difficult tractate of Talmud.

I’ll never forget the sense of joy at that party, as Matt taught us a passage from the tractate, and we ate and drank in his honor. It felt like a party with purpose, a party that honored his personal commitment to study, and it inspired me to begin to learn Talmud on my own. I may not finish a whole tractate, I thought at the time, but I can start…and I’ll see where it goes.

Since then, I have completed a few tractates of Talmud, and I’ve always thought of Matt at the concluding ritual.

But when I began to leyn, or chant, from the Torah, it never occurred to me that I could do the same. Jewish tradition doesn’t have any ritualized siyyum for reading the whole Torah aloud. So when my cousin told me he had hosted a Kiddush when he finished reading the text, I knew my next move. I started to keep track of the aliyot that I read, and I began to request the ones I hadn’t read yet for each next assignment. It got me to synagogue regularly, and it helped me get to know the people in the new communities I was joining. And this past summer, when I read the final aliyah that I had left, I hosted my own Kiddush, which I like to refer to as my Torah party.

With Simchat Torah around the corner, I’ve been thinking a lot about this Torah party. The thing is, it’s not really a thing in the Jewish community. Yet. But I think it should be.

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Why Yom Kippur Tells Us To Fight Ebola

By Ruth W. Messinger

A newly arrived patient suspected of suffering from the Ebola virus sits on the ground at Island Hospital in Monrovia, Liberia./Getty Images

As Jews around the world prepare for Yom Kippur — a day when we pray to be “sealed in the Book of Life” for the year to come — the people of West Africa are struggling to save the lives of their loved ones from the Ebola outbreak, one of the most desperate crises of our day.

In Liberia, the country hardest hit by Ebola and one I last visited just two years ago, people are dying outside overcrowded hospitals. The bodies of those who have succumbed to the virus lie in the streets for days, awaiting burial. Ebola has already claimed the lives of more than 2,600 people in West Africa, and the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other authorities have estimated that it might infect between 20,000 and 1.4 million more before the outbreak is contained. Clearly, the book of life is closing far too early for many West Africans.

The virus is spreading like wildfire, in part because many people don’t understand how it is transmitted. Some communities view Ebola as something caused by evil spirits; others think it’s a government conspiracy. In some parts of Liberia, Ebola is inadvertently spread by traditional healers.

Fear is also fueling the epidemic. Neighbors are accusing neighbors of inflicting a curse. Not surprisingly, those who fall ill — and the families they leave behind — are marked with stigma and shunned. The epidemic has also sparked violence, as the Liberian government has sent armed soldiers to cordon off slums and impose quarantines — often with no warning.

As Jews, these developments are chilling. We know too much about human suffering as a consequence of panic and fear, dating from Medieval times when Jews were blamed for the spread of the plague—and from Nazi Germany, when we were depicted as vermin-like carriers of illness.

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9 Sephardi Dishes That Won’t Make Buzzfeed Gag

By Anne Cohen and Sigal Samuel


If your signature dish can be mistaken for cat food, you’ve got a problem.

Or that’s what Buzzfeed’s most recent experiment would have you believe. They got “random people” (aka non-Jews) to try classic Jewish foods for the first time and recorded their reactions. The response to gefilte fish? Gag. To kugel? Gag. To matzo ball soup? Yum! To chopped liver? “This is poop.”

One problem: what Buzzfeed considers to be traditional Jewish food is actually just Ashkenazi food. This is not surprising: America has long made the mistake of thinking “Jewish” is limited to Ashkenazi. From bagels to Woody Allen, Eastern European traditions reign.

And so, as two Sephardic Jews raised on a very full stomach, we humbly present these alternatives — they won’t make you gag. Promise.

1) Moroccan Cigars

Fried rolls of meat? ‘Nuff said.


2) Salade Cuite

This cooked Moroccan salad is really easy to make, if you have three hours to spare watching peppers and tomatoes simmer in oil. The end result is worth it. Trust.


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