(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.
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.
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.
(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.
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.”
“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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
Fried rolls of meat? ‘Nuff said.
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.
Robert Ransdell’s campaign slogan on view in Kentucky / WLWT
“With Jews We Lose”? No, this isn’t a poster from Nazi Germany. It’s a campaign placard currently on view in Kentucky, where write-in candidate Robert Ransdell is running for U.S. Senate. His party, The White Guard, “seeks to show White people the facts regarding the Jewish role in America’s decline as well as highlight the destructive effects that multiculturalism, diversity, and political correctness have had on this country.” (He details his whole platform in this incredibly rambly video.)
We here at the “Jew Media,” as Ransdell calls it, had a few questions about his views. And so we emailed him. To our surprise, he answered back. Highlights of the interview, which has been edited for style and length, include: his belief that Christian Zionists should relocate to Israel, that no Jews are white, and that there’s only one group out there more arrogant than members of the tribe.
Ladies and gentlemen, Robert Ransdell in his own words:
I don’t share that view because Jews themselves don’t share that view, it is absurd and a fantasy that Jews in America do not make a distinction between Jews and Whites, I won’t even bother quoting the numerous statements made by Jews, past and present, that affirm this fact. Most Whites falsely see Jews as White because they are never given an in depth and accurate portrayal of Jewish solidarity, unity, and identity which would go to show, again through the actions and statements of Jews, through the prolific number of Jewish interests organizations, that Jews regard themselves as what they are, a separate group.
Well, this is weird.
Iraqi TV is rolling out a new satirical series, “Superstitious State,” that portrays the leader of ISIS as the spawn of Satan and — you guessed it — a Jewish woman.
In a promo for the soon-to-come anti-ISIS show, broadcast several times daily on Al-Iraqiyya, we meet a Jewess adorned with a big Star of David necklace. “I hope to get a ring on my finger by someone who will destroy the country,” she says, then points to the red-clad devil, who says, “We will name our child ISIS.” The subtext here is a conspiracy theory, currently circulating in Iraq and elsewhere, that suggests Jews and/or Zionists created ISIS with the intention of ruining Islam.
So, this Jewess is supposed to be the mother of ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi — but she doesn’t give birth to him the good old-fashioned way. Instead, “an egg hatched — and an ISIS-ling was born.” Why?
“Dad, I want to have a bar mitzvah! And — I’ll get a Hebrew name. I’m going to go with either Shlomo or Shmuel.”
So says young Andre Jr. — much to the dismay of Andre Sr. — in the trailer for ABC’s new family comedy, “Black-ish,” set to debut September 24.
This African American kid’s desire to have a bar mitzvah, even though he’s not at all Jewish, sets us up for his dad’s big concern: “Lately, I feel in order to make it, we’ve all dropped a little of our culture.” Worried about his family’s shifting racial and cultural identity, the father resists — “Jr., when you turn 13, I’m throwing you an African rites of passage ceremony” — at least at first.
The premise of the show is funny — but, for a Jewish viewer, it’s more than just that. In “Black-ish,” Jews represent the counterpoint to blackness. They are, in other words, the epitome of whiteness. They’re as white as white can be.
But Jews weren’t always perceived that way — far from it.
Young Jewish professionals have started taking action against The Jewish Press in response to their advertisement for JONAH International, the Jewish gay “conversion” therapy organization.
Yesterday, as the social media outrage towards the JONAH ad on The Jewish Press’ website continued, Chaim Levin, a former JONAH participant and witness in the infamous lawsuit against the organization, commented on Facebook that he had initially discovered JONAH from the long running Jewish Press ad in question.
In July 2010, Levin and another former participant of JONAH, Ben Unger, alleged in an interview that as part of JONAH counselor, Alan Downing’s therapy, he requested that his participants strip off their clothing in front of a mirror and touch their genitals in his presence.
Both Unger and Levin encouraged the current social action.
Since Levin issued his comments yesterday afternoon on Facebook, Sarah Gross, a board member of Bend the Arc, a Jewish social justice organization, publicized a Facebook group entitled “Jewish Press: Stop Enabling Abuse.”
Within hours of its launch, the page had 152 likes.
The Jewish Press has yet to issue a response.
People stand outside the ‘As du Fallafel’ shop in the Marais district in Paris / Getty Images
The news from France is bleak: anti-Semitic sentiment is on the rise, violent incidents are piling up, and Jews are packing up and leaving for Israel.
Recently, I learned that one of my cousins, tired of feeling marginalized, was planning such a move. That got me thinking.
I lived in Paris for a three-month period in the summer of 2013. Even then, I felt that being Jewish in France was a whole other ballgame than my experience as a Jew in Montreal or New York. French Jews were either French people who happened to practice Judaism, or Jews who happened to be French. I felt that there was no, or little, French cultural Judaism such as the Woody Allen/bagel-and-schmear combo we’re used to. At the same time, I felt more kinship with the Jews in France than I do with most New York Jews — because Jewish culture in France is Sephardic and, well, incredibly French.
There is certainly cause for alarm when stores close their doors for fear of attack; when shul-goers need to hide from an angry mob like the recent events on Rue de La Roquette; and when Jews like my family, who have been proud French citizens for decades, feel the need to leave their homes. But in all that panic, it’s easy (and dangerous) to forget what a strong impact Jews have had, and continue to have, on French culture. Here are a couple of examples:
Given the amount of street style snaps and runway shots invading my Facebook and Instagram feeds, fashion seems like a good place to start. French Jews have always been involved in fashion. In fact, the cult classic “La Verite Si Je Mens” revolves around a non-Jew trying to pass himself off as an Ashkenazi Jew in “Le Sentier,” Paris’ garment district — which is inherently funny because, duh, everyone there is Jewish (and Sephardi, but more on that later).
More recently, Jews have left the shmatte for high-end luxury. French brands like Sandro, Maje and Claudie Pierlot have fashionista followings from London to New York. You may not know, however, that all three brands are owned by Jews — sisters, in fact. Judith Milgrom and Evelyne Chetrit were born in Morocco, and moved to France with their parents when they were kids, mirroring the experience of many French Sephardic Jews, who now outnumber the older Ashkenazi community. Both are vocal about their Jewish heritage. In an interview with The Telegraph in 2012, Milgrom even talked about not working on Shabbat: “About 20 years ago, I started to observe the Jewish Sabbath really seriously. From dusk on Friday until dusk on Saturday, I don’t do any work, don’t shop or look at my email or phone. It’s unbelievably therapeutic.”
On the more kitschy side of things, let’s not forget Yiddish Mama. As Laurent David Samama over at the Daily Beast shows, young Parisian designer Camille Vizioz-Brami is doing for French Yiddish culture what Mile End did for the New York deli. Boasting slogans like “Power Yiddish Mamma,” “Super Mensch” or “Chepselleh,” her apparel makes quite a statement in a time where Jews may feel compelled to mask their identity for fear of anti-Semitic reprisals.
Jewish and Muslim demonstrators advocate peace at a rally in Paris / Getty Images
Is it the spike in anti-Semitic acts or rather their growing banality that drives Jews in Paris, Lyon and Marseille to seriously consider emigration?
Maybe both. Caught between the rise of far-right movements like the Front National and the tide of anti-Semitism preached by Islamists, French Jews today look like they are once again stuck in an age-old historical trap.
After WWII and the massive trauma of the Holocaust, my country — France — tried to build a society free of anti-Semitism. Over the years, various pieces of legislation have prohibited Holocaust denial and racist acts in general. Several associations (SOS Racisme, MRAP and LICRA) have worked hard to erase differences between French citizens. Now, for the French Republic, you are neither Black, nor Asian, nor or Caucasian. You’re not Catholic, Jewish or Muslim. You are French. I grew up with this wonderful principle along with the Republican motto “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité.” But our society is not equal to these principles and, sadly, it has taken only four decades for anti-Semitism to return to my country.
The result? My family is a good example. My Tunisia-born grandparents came to France in the late 1950s and had two sons; my father then had three. One of them now lives in New York with no plans of coming back to Paris, the other one studies in Spain and Sweden, and the last one is writing down these lines. Within months, I silently bore witness as a large part of my entourage made aliyah — including some of my friends and all of my girlfriend’s family. It was quite a strange feeling. I wouldn’t say that I felt abandoned, but I was definitely disappointed by all those people choosing to live a different life abroad.
Can we talk?
Gay men have always loved our outsized female heroes, and Joan Rivers was right up there with the best of them. It’s no coincidence that a disproportionate number of these divas are Jewish (Rivers, Barbra Streisand) even though many (Judy Garland, Madonna) are not. In fact, gay men love strong women for very Jewish reasons.
First, gay icons (divas, glamour queens) and Jewish women both tend to be strong, outspoken, and assertive – models for drag queens like Bianca Del Rio and RuPaul. Once again, of course, Rivers was among the best. Her humor was almost always blunt, occasionally offensively so. (In a good way – people who get offended by humor are usually taking themselves too seriously.)
This strength of spirit is, itself, a rebuke to patriarchy – or, if that’s too lofty, to macho chauvinist jerks who subjugate women and persecute gays.
But Rivers was not merely a strong person; she was a strong woman. Here, again, gay men cheer on the sidelines as powerful women stand up to institutions of sexism and the individuals who uphold them.
Rivers, like Streisand, broke barriers – ethno-religious ones as well as gendered ones. The night-time talk show circuit was an old boys’ club until River broke that glass ceiling. And while Jews were omnipresent in the television world of the 1950s and 1960s, they often stayed behind the scenes as writers, or closeted their Jewishness, or were limited to comic relief. Rivers was brash, in your face, female but not ‘feminine,’ and also aggressively Jewish.
“The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood at first,” explained Chava Karen Knox, an African-American woman who converted to Judaism a couple of years ago.
Knox is referring to the Jewish volunteers who work on a weekly basis in Eden Gardens, a community-run urban farming project in East Detroit.
The project is a collaboration between the local African-American neighborhood association and the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue.
Jews journey from their homes in suburbs or more affluent parts of the city to weed rows of leafy collard greens and stake tomato plants. Some say they get far more back than they give in sweat.
“Working in the garden is a place where I often feel the most Jewish. Let my sweat pants be my tefillin,” said Noah Purcell who coordinates the volunteers on part of the synagogue.
Eden Gardens has two ambitious goals: The garden provides much needed nutrition to a low-income neighborhood, where healthy food options are absent. But the project also aims to build a bridge between two estranged communities: Jews who grew up in Michigan’s affluent suburbs after their families joined the ‘white flight’ in the 1950s and African-Americans who live in the city of Detroit, which has been struggling for decades with record numbers of unemployment and foreclosure.
The vegetables in Eden Gardens are soon ready to be harvested. But the trust between Jews and African-Americans is growing at a much slower pace.
“Trust is being built by us showing up every week,” Purcell said. “As we continue to show that we’re not here for a quick photo and a pat on the back. It will continue time to build trust.”