The Arty Semite

Now You Can Call Ishmael, To Talk About Books

By Michael Kaminer

“Call me Ishmael,” declares one of the most famous opening sentences in Western literature.

But what if the narrator of Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick” was actually asking you to call him?

That was the whimsical thought Logan Smalley offered in a spirited bar conversation about notable first sentences. He jotted the notion down on a bar napkin.

Now, Smalley’s turned that notion into Call Me Ishmael, an innovative voicemail project that aims to spread the love of books by getting callers to share their most meaningful reading experiences.

“It’s about telling stories and discovering great books,” Smalley told the Forward. “Books define us, but we also define the books we read.”

In the month since Call Me Ishmael has launched, callers — who remain anonymous — have left messages about a far-flung range of books, from “Of Human Bondage” to the Merriam-Webster dictionary. A significant number of messages have covered Jewish-themed books.

The daughter of a Holocaust survivor called to share her father’s reaction to “Maus” — and her own awe at learning he knew Vladek Spiegelman, the author’s father. A woman rang up to confess how she wept after reading the World War II novel “The Book Thief” — on a treadmill at the gym. “Even when I look like a complete fool in public, I’m still completely transported by a book,” she said.

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How Lee Grant Recovered From the Blacklist

By Curt Schleier

“Some working actors lost the best years of their lives and don’t know why.” Those words were written by actress/director Lee Grant in her new memoir, “I Said Yes To Everything.” And she should know. She was one of them.

Grant was the “surprise discovery” of the 1950 Broadway season for her role in “Detective Story.” Shortly afterwards, she was discovered by the House Un-American Activities Committee. For a dozen years, from 1952 to 1964 — essentially what could have been the prime of her career — she could not find meaningful work. Often when she did get a job, it was short-lived.

For example, she landed a role on a TV soap opera, “Search for Tomorrow.” But the network canned her after a supermarket owner from Syracuse, N.Y., told the sponsor’s ad agency he would put up a special display asking shoppers if they wanted to “brush their teeth with a product from a company that employs communists.”

Born Lyova Rosenthal, Grant spoke to the Forward about the blacklist, being her own worst enemy, and sending her adopted Thai-American daughter to Rodeph Shalom Day School in Manhattan.

Curt Schleier: Why did you decide to write your memoir now?

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Is the U.S. Getting Better at Soccer?

By Dan Friedman

Getty Images

As Team USA carries the hopes of the English-speaking world in Brazil, inquiring minds are wondering why England is so perennially terrible at the sport it invented (and let’s not get started on cricket).

It is a question that was surprisingly well answered in 2009, along with the corollary question about how America is getting good at a sport it barely cares about, by Simon Kuper in his book “Soccernomics: Why England Loses, Why Germany and Brazil Win, and Why the U.S., Japan, Australia, Turkey — and Even Iraq — Are Destined to Become the Kings of the World’s Most Popular Sport.”

In this soccer version of “Moneyball,” which he co-wrote with Stefan Szymanski, Kuper explains the success of various club soccer teams as well as national soccer teams through the judicious use of statistics. It explains the opportunity cost of racism in England in the 1970s and 1980s and, as the title suggests, provides a convincing explanation of why England are poor and the USA are destined for greatness.

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Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: World Cup Must-Reads, World Cup, Sports, Soccer Books, Soccer, Books

From One Soccer Writer to Another

By Dan Friedman

There are two Jonathan Wilsons writing about soccer in a knowledgeable way. One is Jonathan Wilson from the Guardian, arguably the foremost journalistic expert on tactics in the modern game, the other is Jonathan Wilson, the Tufts University Fletcher Professor of Rhetoric and Debate, who covered the 1994 World Cup for The New Yorker and who covered the 2010 World Cup for the Faster Times, in the persona of a slightly demented Diego Maradona.

It’s hard for me to write about the latter Jonathan Wilson’s fast-paced memoir “Kick and Run, Memoir with Soccer Ball” — a tale that weaves the author’s passion for soccer through his life — because his dreams and realities so closely mirror my own in crucial ways. Although the details of his childhood troubles in London, his relationship with his mother, his time in Israel and the writing experiences mentioned above bear no direct relationship to mine 20 years later, his journeys through Judaism, Zionism, British and American academia into middle-class American middle age share the same outline.

Although he has more successfully used academia to straddle bohemia and bourgeoisie than I did, we both go to sleep dreaming of goals we — or more often now, our favorite teams — scored. Wilson’s knee injury means he has played his last Sunday morning pick up game, while I still struggle on. But the poignant mentions of the deaths (cancer and traffic accident) of his co-players sound a warning knell over my own beloved cohort of Sunday morning strugglers.

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Jewish Roots of the 'Beautiful Game'

By Dan Friedman

British Jews have never accounted for more than 1% of the population. And their contribution to soccer has always been obscured. But, in his well-researched and compellingly-written history, “Does Your Rabbi Know You’re Here?: The History of Football’s Forgotten Tribe,” Anthony Clavane explains the outsize contribution of British Jews to British soccer and their pivotal role in the creation of the English Premier League.

For America this is the first World Cup. In 1994 the USA (under the guidance of Alan Rothenberg) hosted the games but, beyond the Hispanic community, the nation’s interest was really only piqued by the world’s interest and in a proprietary concern of providing hospitality — it might just as well have been the cricket World Cup for all that mainstream America cared.

John Oliver’s primer about the evils of FIFA is one of the proofs of the current interest. The printed guides to the games in local papers across the country, The New Republic’s dedicated World Cup blog and The New York Times’s three front page stories over the past month are further proof.

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Why Soccer Creates the Best Middle East Dialogue

By Dan Friedman

Getty Images

Thinkers from Cass Sunstein to Eli Pariser in “The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding From You,” have elucidated the threat to social discourse posed by the Internet. Increasingly able to insulate ourselves from disagreement, we live in bubbles of like-mindedness. From whichever angle, it’s epistemic closure in sociological jargon, “bullshit mountain” in Jon Stewart’s terms.

Soccer is one of the few places that sworn enemies talk, argue, read each other’s news: interact. It’s not perfect, there are inequities, iniquities, pitched battles and tragedies but those narratives clash openly in the media as well as on the pitch.

Tamir Sorek’s book, “Arab Soccer in a Jewish State: The Integrative Enclave,” about the social norms of soccer in Israel is an attempt to analyze how Jewish and Arab soccer co-exist in Israel, in various different ways. And to see whether soccer, in such a conflicted part of the world, can have a constructive effect on the situation.

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Abraham Klein, The Greatest Soccer Referee

By Dan Friedman

Image courtesy Abraham Klein

Israel has reached the World Cup finals just once — Mexico 1970 — where, after losing to Uruguay and tying with Sweden and Italy, it failed to progress beyond the group stage. That year in Mexico, though, there was an outstanding Israeli success — referee Abraham Klein.

An unlikely figure to take charge of 22 iconic athletes, the Israeli Klein stood barely 5 feet tall. At age 36, he was one of the youngest referees at the tournament and a World Cup novice, to boot. And what was his first game? England — soccer’s mother country and World Cup holders since the previous tournament in 1966 — against Brazil, perennial contenders (winners in 1958 and 1962) and embodiment of the exuberant reinvention of the spirit of soccer as “the beautiful game.”

Over the span of the next four world cups (though he missed 1974) he would prove his worth as one of the world’s leading referees, officiating as linesman for the 1982 World Cup Final in Spain.

His highly meticulous and detailed system for refereeing is outlined in his book “The Referee’s Referee: Becoming the Best.” which, though a little tricky to get hold of, is a referees’ must-read.

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When Getting Girl Means Pretending To Be Transgender

By Michael Kaminer

Photo: Chloe Aftel

Call it a boy-meets-girl-who-thinks-boy-was-born-a-girl story.

In “Adam,” the debut novel from cult graphic memoirist Ariel Schrag, an awkward California teenager named Adam Freedman parachutes into an alien landscape of subcultures and identities when he joins his lesbian sister in Brooklyn for the summer. (Full disclosure: Schrag was featured in “Graphic Details: Confessional Comics by Jewish Women,” a traveling exhibition which I co-curated and the Forward sponsored.)

Obsessed with scoring — with women, not sports — he finally meets the girl of his dreams. The fact that she thinks he’s transgender — a boy who was born a girl — becomes a temporary stumbling block once Adam realizes he’ll get much further by playing along.

Like her great graphic novels “Awkward,” “Definition,” “Potential,” and “Likewise,” “Adam” balances Schrag’s ruthless eye and scathing precision with beautifully humanistic and generous portrayals of complex, conflicted characters.

Schrag, who has also written for the Showtime series “The L Word” and HBO’s hit “How to Make It in America,” spoke to the Forward from her home in Brooklyn.

Michael Kaminer: Is it a stretch to draw a straight line between Adam’s predicament and the moments throughout history where Jews have had to hide their identities?

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David Bezmozgis Turning 'Natasha' Into Film

By Renee Ghert-Zand

Photo: David Franco

A decade after its publication, Canadian author David Bezmozgis is turning his debut short story collection, “Natasha and Other Stories,” into a film. As with “Victoria Day,” his first cinematic endeavor in 2009, Bezmozgis, a graduate of the University of Southern California’s film school, is both writing and directing the project.

The stories in the breakout “Natasha” chronicling the saga of the Bermans, a Russian-Jewish immigrant family to Toronto, were hailed by critics as “dazzling,” “scary good,” and “stunning.” The book was translated into 15 languages and won several prizes. Virtually unknown prior to the collection’s publication, the Riga-born Bezmozgis’s literary star rose with “Natasha.” His celebrated first novel, “The Free World,” was published in 2011, and will be followed this coming September by a second novel, “The Betrayers.”

The film version of “Natasha” will focus on the title story, which comes in the middle of the collection.

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Canadian Jewish Book Awards Present Diverse Honor Roll

By Michael Kaminer

A chronicle of Nazi persecution of gay people, a study of Jews and obscenity, and a haunting artistic collaboration are among the wide-ranging winners of this year’s Canadian Jewish Book Awards. After an announcement last week, the awards will be presented at a May 27 ceremony in Toronto.

With its other accolades for a Holocaust diary, a poetic history of Salonika’s Jews, and a novel about Jewish immigrants in South Africa, this year’s honor roll defies easy categorization. “It was an excellent year for Jewish books,” said Natalie Kertes, director of literary programs at Toronto’s Koffler Centre of the Arts, which runs the awards.

The common thread binding 2014’s far-flung winners? “Superb writing,” said Kertes, who also oversees this month’s Toronto Jewish Literary Festival. “It’s often easy to conflate a great story or theme or strong research with really strong writing. It’s really exciting to be able to say that all of the winners this year are exceptionally written, in addition to having strong content.”

What the prize-winners don’t all share, however, is Jewishness. And Ken Setterington, author of “Branded by the Pink Triangle” (Second Story Press), said the award has even more meaning for him as a result.

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Granta Magazine Launches Israeli Edition

By Beth Kissileff

Israel is known for all kinds of things — a burgeoning local food scene, TV series like “Homeland” and “In Treatment,” and high tech companies like Waze. Now, with the launch of Granta Israel, a Hebrew edition of the prestigious magazine started by Cambridge University students in 1889, Israel is officially an international literary powerhouse.

According to the English press release for Granta Israel, set to launch at the International Writer’s Festival in Jerusalem, this literary magazine will “join the international Granta family which includes local versions of the magazine in Turkey, Spain, Brazil, Bulgaria, China, Sweden, Norway and more. “

The magazine is published out of the unpretentious independent bookstore Sipur Pashut in the Neve Tzedek neighbourhood of Tel Aviv. It is the kind of place that editors and authors frequent, and which regularly hosts literary events.

Shira Levy one of the two editors of Granta Israel, with Mira Rashty, who does a regular segment on English language books on Tel Aviv 1 radio.

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The Joys of Amos Oz at 75

By Liam Hoare

In Amos Oz’s “Rhyming Life and Death” it’s a sticky night in Tel Aviv, and the Author is to give a reading. Surveying the room, he begins to fashion life stories for the people attending. He takes note of a boy of about 16, moving restlessly in his chair. “He looks unhappy,” the Author thinks. The torments of his age “have etched a tearful look on his face.” The Author imagines him as a budding poet named Yuval Dahan, “but when he timidly sends his first poems to a literary editor he will sign himself Yuval Dotan”:

Through his pebble lenses he loves this Author de profundis, secretly and passionately: my suffering is your suffering, your soul is my soul, you are the only one who can understand, for I am the soul that pines in solitude among the pages of your books.

This feeling Yuval Dahan has — that the Author is speaking directly to him, that he has him in mind — is an illusion and to that extent irrational. Yet it is a recognizable one. In the process of trying on various writers, for me Amos Oz — who turns 75 on May 4 — was the suit that fit. His narrative voice — in turns precise and lyrical, never wasteful, always insightful — remains the one that speaks back to me, that feels familiar, that feels right.

The first time I read a novel by Amos Oz, I was a volunteer on Kibbutz Ein Hashofet, one of a number of kibbutzim founded on the upland between Haifa and Hadera. The kibbutz had a library divided between Hebrew and English, with the English section open some afternoons, dependent upon the kibbutznik responsible turning up on her bicycle. Oftentimes, it would open and close without much notice.

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A Soviet Journey to Adulthood

By Anna Goldenberg

Ellen Litman dreamed of being a writer when she went to school in Moscow in the 1980s. There was only one problem: She was Jewish, and thus she was advised to focus on something more practical, since in the Soviet Union, Jews couldn’t be successful at writing.

Litman studied math and computer programming, and immigrated to Pittsburgh with her family in 1992. It took her several years to work up the courage to take a writing class; she worried that she couldn’t write in a language that was not her native one. It turned out she could: In 2004, she completed her Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing at Syracuse University. In 2007, she published her first book, “The Last Chicken in America,” which deals with the experiences of a young woman from Russia trying to settle into Pittsburgh.

In March, Litman, who is an assistant professor at the University of Connecticut and teaches writing and English, released her second novel, “Mannequin Girl.” Set in a Soviet boarding school for children with scoliosis, it tells the story of a Jewish girl, Kat, and her journey into adulthood dealing with her parents, who teach at her school, as well as unrequited love and latent anti-Semitism.

Litman, 40, lives with her husband and two children in Mansfield, Conn. She spoke to the Forward’s Anna Goldenberg about playing with autobiographical elements and why moving to the United States hasn’t changed her idea of Judaism.

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Rock Journalism and Mick Jagger's Shoes

By Michael Kaminer

When Lisa Robinson name-checks Elton, Mick and Iggy, it sounds completely natural. It should; through four decades, the legendary music journalist has been nearly as pivotal a pop figure as her subjects. Robinson famously introduced David Bowie to Iggy Pop, helped The Clash and Elvis Costello score record deals, and hung out with the Beatles. In great detail, she recounts these and other unbelievable-but-true anecdotes in “There Goes Gravity: A Life in Rock and Roll” (Riverhead Books), a vivid, richly detailed memoir that functions as a de facto history of rock — and of an edgier, bygone New York.

Robinson culled her copy from thousands of hours of tape-recorded interviews she’s collected since her first columns were published in the British music weekly Disc and Music Echo in 1969. Today, as a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, she oversees music coverage and profiles pop royalty like Jay-Z, Beyonce, and Lady Gaga — who ended up cooking Robinson pasta. The Forward caught up with Robinson by phone from Manhattan, where she lives with her husband of more than four decades, Richard Robinson, himself a onetime rock journalist who produced Lou Reed’s first solo album.

Michael Kaminer: “There Goes Gravity” offers all of these fascinating anecdotes about pop legends, but gives away very little about Lisa Robinson. Why did you leave out autobiographical details?

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Bosnia Through Muslim Eyes

By Dorri Olds

New York author Susan Shapiro and her Muslim physical therapist, Kenan Trebincevic, bonded, and together they wrote the recently published “The Bosnia List: A Memoir of War, Exile, and Return” (Penguin Books). The book tells the story of the Bosnian War through Trebincevic’s eyes.

In 1992 he was 12 and living a normal, happy childhood, until his beloved karate coach arrived at the door one day with an AK-47 rifle and yelled, “You have one hour to leave or be killed.” Christian Serb neighbors and classmates turned on him and his family. Their crime? They were Muslim. Trebincevic fled to America. Now, after two decades in the United States, Trebincevic is going back to visit his homeland to confront the neighbors who’d betrayed him and his family.

The Forward’s Dorri Olds caught up with Shapiro for an exclusive interview.

Dorri Olds: How did you come to co-write “The Bosnia List”?

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How Jews Became 'White' On Broadway

By Michael Kaminer

Even if you’re not a theater nerd, Warren Hoffman’s “The Great White Way” (Rutgers University Press) makes a fascinating read. The book’s subtitle, “Race and the Broadway Musical,” only hints at its breadth, and the depth of Hoffman’s laser-sharp analysis of an all-American art form. Billed as “the first book to reveal the racial politics, content, and subtexts that have haunted musicals for almost one hundred years,” “The Great White Way” also delves into Jewish contributions to the musical stage, including a kind of myopia around race and ethnicity as Jews fought to fit in themselves. Hoffman, a playwright himself, works by day as associate director of community programming at the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. He spoke to the Forward from his Philly office.

MIchael Kaminer: It’s hard to believe that no one’s explored a topic this ripe. Why is that?

Warren Hoffman: Until recently, musical theater hasn’t been given real attention. People looked at it as a fluffy art form with nothing to say of real significance. “Oh race, that’s too serious, how can a musical be about that?” But it’s all over the place. Because you don’t see African Americans or Asian Americans when you look at show like “Hello Dolly,” people ask how it can be a show about race — there are no people of color present. But that’s almost a misstep. People have missed some of what’s actually in front of their faces.

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Reinventing Israel in Argentina

By Liam Hoare

Every year, of the 75,000 young Israelis who complete their military service, it is estimated that around one third leave everything behind to go backpacking. The nomadic ramble through Southeast Asia and South America in that indeterminate period between youth and adulthood is hardly unique to Israel, but it takes on its own characteristics at the end of mandatory service — a break from order and a getaway from the confines of a small state under siege.

While one can escape Israel, one cannot escape Israeliness. On the road, for linguistic, cultural and emotional reasons, Israeli backpackers have come to constitute their own community. Along the so-called “hummus trail,” as Dor Glick reported for Ha’aretz, there has built up “a chain of laid-back refuges in which the sacred tongue rules in loud tones and the de rigueur item of clothing is a T-shirt signifying the conclusion of an army training course.”

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The Author as Therapist for her Characters

By Liam Hoare

Literature is in Zeruya Shalev’s genes. Born in Kvutzat Kinneret in 1959 — a kibbutz by the shores of the Galilee where the songwriter Naomi Shemer was also born — Shalev grew up with a father who was a literary critic and an uncle who was a poet. Her cousin is the acclaimed novelist Meir Shalev, author of “The Blue Mountain” and “Four Meals.” Her husband, the writer Eyal Megged, is himself the scion of writers Eda Zoritte and Aharon Megged.

Writing, then, for Zeruya Shalev was practically predestined. “Encounters with pain and sorrow made me want to write. When I was 6, I was already writing sad poems about cats and dogs that had been killed and soldiers that were dying in war,” Shalev said at a recent event at London’s Jewish Book Week. “It’s in my DNA.” During the Six Day War, she composed poetry while cocooned in the bunker at Kvutzat Kinneret, verse that she still remembers to this day.

After failing in her training to be a therapist while conducting her military service, Shalev sees now that her career is to be “a therapist for literary figures. Normally the characters I create are busy in some sort of crisis and, as a literary therapist, it is my job to help them overcome it.”

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Did Dreyfus Affair Really Inspire Herzl?

By Liam Hoare

Wikimedia Commons

The idea that the trial of Alfred Dreyfus inspired Theodor Herzl to write “The Jewish State” is “simply not true,” Shlomo Avineri declared in a pointed, fluent, and well-received lecture that opened the first full day of London’s Jewish Book Week on February 23.

Discussing his biography of the father of modern Zionism, “Herzl: Theodor Herzl and the Foundation of the Jewish State,” Avineri asserted that through examining Herzl’s diaries and letters, he concluded that the Dreyfus affair did not preoccupy Herzl’s thoughts at that time. Only in hindsight would the fate of Alfred Dreyfus come to be seen as a pivotal moment both for European Jewry and the history of the Zionist movement.

Rather, the background to “The Jewish State” was the collapsing scenery of 19th-century Europe and specifically the Austro-Hungarian Empire which had, up until that time, been “the best country for Jews in Europe” and had been referred to as the “goldene medine,” even before the United States. Emancipation began towards the end of the 18th century, while in the 19th century the Emperor Franz Joseph I obtained the moniker “Froyim Yossel” from his Jewish subjects who during his reign became more equal members of his multi-national, multi-ethnic empire.

During the 1890s, however, “nationalism threatened the unity of the Austro-Hungarian Empire,” while the advent of democracy resulted in the emergence of “racist, populist, and anti-Semitic candidates” for office. This affected Herzl’s city of Vienna, where Karl Lueger of the Christian Social Party won municipal elections in 1895 by decrying “corrupt liberalism” and charging that Jews controlled the Austrian economy and the press.

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Modern Love Illuminated

By Amy Klein

The sea of love can be a “dark and scary place — deep, cold, impenetrable, and populated by billions of freakish creatures lurking in the depths with their gnashing teeth and electrified appendages,” Daniel Jones, editor of the Modern Love essay column in The New York Times, writes in his new book, “Love Illuminated: Exploring Life’s Most Mystifying Subject (With the Help of 50,000 Strangers),” (HarperCollins).

Jones should know: He receives about 100 submissions a week for the column, which he’s edited for the past nine years. Appearing in the Sunday Style section, Modern Love is one of the most-read columns in the world — by women, anyway. Columns have resulted in at least 37 different books, making the column one of the most sought-after reads by writers, as well.

You might expect Jones to know everything there is to know about love, but he denies being a guru. In “Love Illuminated,” he examines the trends he’s seen over the past decade, broken down by stages from “Pursuit” to “Connection” to “Monotony” to “Infidelity,” mixed with anecdotes from published essays, his own pre-Internet path to marriage and amusing questionnaires.

The Forward’s Amy Klein spoke to Jones, who has a Jewish grandfather and his wife is Jewish, about concepts like destiny, soul mates, the role religion plays in love and, of course, what type of stories pique his interest enough to be published in Modern Love.

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