Thursday, December 30, 2004

Burberry baubles

I am enjoying the beautiful Jerusalem sunshine, and also a city that seems to me livelier and busier than for several years past. On the way, I indulged myself in the duty-free shopping (outgoing) and bought a rather splendid and rather expensive Burberry tie. It is the very first Burberry item I have ever owned, not that the brand is important etc etc, but that pattern is distinctive. This morning I walked over to the Old City. In the Kotel 'cavern' (through the doorway on the left) sat a saintly-looking gentlemen, near to 120 I would guess, with a flowing white beard, hat, coat etc, who was happy to interrupt his tehilim to give me the opportunity to lighten my pocket. Round his neck was a woollen Burberry scarf.


A totally bizarre story of an Arab woman who sold her son to a childless Haredi couple living in Geula for NIS 7,000 (an average Israeli monthly salary). The baby's Jewish father had been murdered 'following a lengthy dispute with his ex-wife and children.'
The affair was uncovered by police a few weeks ago, when [the police] found a soccer ball bearing the child's name and telephone number in a stolen car in the Jerusalem area. When investigators called the house with the simple intention of returning the ball to its owner, the father panicked and told them he did not have a son.
Immediately after the call, the father attempted to formerly and officially implement the adoption process and have the child recorded in the population registry. His efforts aroused suspicions among officials at the Labor and Social Affairs Ministry, and they filed a complaint with the police.
Of all the questions raised by the piece (not least, how did the adoptive parents, who had been found unsuitable for adopting a child legally, get away with not registering the son anywhere for so long? And was the child converted?), I'd really like to hear a little more about this throw-away sentence at the beginning of the article:
The [biological] mother has been living in Mea She'arim as an ultra-Orthodox woman for the past five years.
As it happens, this isn't the first time I've heard of someone passing for Haredi. There is a well-known case in England where one of the Jewish schools discovered towards the end of the school year that what they thought was a very frum, sheiteled teacher was in fact a Catholic cross-dresser (I swear). There's also a case of a non-Jewish Puerto Rican student passing as an Orthodox Jew in this book (which I haven't read, although there's a copy on my shelf...). Still, an interesting choice for an Arab woman -- I wonder why she made the decision and how she's carried it off.

UPDATE: A reader sent me a link to this story in Shofar, Rabbi Amnon Yitzhak's paper, which explains that the woman is converting (after watching Amnon Yitzhak's videos, of course), and which quotes her as saying that if her child is removed from the family he's currently with and is danger of being given to a family 'which isn't suitable for the real Jewish way of life I wanted him to grow up with,' she's going to ask for him back.

Limmud gets racy

Ha'aretz has a totally bizarre report on Limmud, Britain's annual 5-day 'festival of Jewish learning' which concludes today. Bizarre, because although Limmud is supposed to be leaning liberal, from Ha'aretz's description it comes across as a total sex-fest. You'd never know there were more than 750 sessions led by some of the leading activists, academics, media personalities and religious figures in the world. In Ha'aretz's account, the sessions seem to range from discussions of anal sex to talks about how to discuss sex with your children. Heck, this is how they describe the "hundreds" (actually, 1,800) of Jewish participants:
"adults and youngsters, men and women, Orthodox, Reform and secular, emphatically modest and astoundingly sexy..."
'Astoundingly sexy'? Are these Brits we're talking about? (Just kidding....) Since when is 'modest' the polar opposite of 'sexy'? And is Ha'aretz a broadsheet or a tabloid?
In any case, if there are any Bloghead readers out there who went to Limmud, we want to hear from you. Was this year a success? Who were the really good speakers? Drop us a line!

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Small-minded approaches that restrict horizons -- look who's talking

The entire world -- even the BBC -- knows by now that Sri Lanka, at its worst hour of need, has rejected an Israeli rescue mission, and asked them to send medical supplies instead.
The entire world, that is, except the Vatican newspaper, which has published a piece condemning Israel for refusing to send help to Sri Lanka!
Calling for "a radical and dramatic change of perspective" among people "too often preoccupied with making war," L'Osservatore Romano singled out Israeli military leaders for declining a request for emergency medical help....
The Vatican paper observed that in what "should be a time for unconditional solidarity," some world leaders seem incapable of escaping a "small-minded approach that restricts their horizons."
The fact that the devastation swept across different societies, cultures, and nations should help to reinforce the universal perspective, the paper suggested.
I can only assume this is based on a real misunderstanding. No difference; their words betray loud and clear what they really think of Israel and Israelis, and what kind of low standards they expect from us. What kind of selfless act is it going to take to make them acknowledge that sometimes, just sometimes, our intentions are honorable???? And please don't answer, national suicide.


Sorry, I should probably have mentioned on Sunday that I am on vacation this week and my father is away on business -- so blogging will be sluggish...
Back (briefly?) late tonight/tomorrow?

Another $6.8m. to Jewish Education

Is 'Jewish Education gets another boost' going to become a regular corner on Bloghead? I certainly hope so.
The latest piece of good news is that the Avi Chai Foundation was overwhelmed with donations beyond its expectations when it offered to match grants dollar-for-dollar:
Avi Chai originally planned to provide $1 million worth of matching grants over two years. But in its first two-month application period this fall, the program drew $3.4 million worth of eligible donations. Avi Chai matched the amount, generating $6.8 million for Jewish education.
Avi Chai chose to match the unexpected demand rather than risk forfeiting the potential of lifelong Jewish donors, [Yossi Prager, Avi Chai’s North American executive director] explained.
Most of the money will go to Jewish day schools; grant winners will be notified this week. Congratulations!

It's very hard to be fanatically middle-of-the-road

According to the Jerusalem Post, Aish Hatorah celebrated its thirtieth anniversary last week. Whilst the article does a great job tracing various milestones in Aish's development, it offers no insight into why Aish has been so successful and how this reflects on the rest of the Jewish community; it is also a completely uncritical account.
For many people in the Modern Orthodox community, for example, Haredi Keruv organizations like Aish generate mixed feelings. On the one hand, they support any organization that brings unaffiliated/under-affiliated Jews closer to tradition. On the other hand, they are uncomfortable with many aspects of such organizations including the ideal 'end product' and the organizations' hard-sell.
Whilst much of this, I believe, is generated by fear that the increasingly powerful Haredi outreach machine is 'poaching' their own children, the subtext of lots of the negative feeling is, 'this could/should be done differently.' To which the obvious question is -- why aren't you?? Where are the Modern Orthodox outreach organizations?
The answer, much as it pains me to say it, is that they are simply not viable and will never be. The truth is that Aish and the other Haredi Keruv organizations offer something that the Modern Orthodox community simply cannot. Nuanced messages do not sell, especially not to 'spiritual seekers' who are looking for clearcut answers. Even if this were not the case, the Modern Orthodox community is too busy fighting for its own survival and debating its own viability to sell itself to others. And frankly, I've seen no evidence that the Modern Orthodox community has what it takes to perform outreach to the masses; if it had, we would have been trying to do so in a serious way a long time ago.
So, love 'em or hate 'em, when it comes to Aish and the other Haredi outreach organizations, it's them or nothing. I prefer them. And you?

Monday, December 27, 2004

What the Dickens???

The Jerusalem Post's short piece about Charles Dickens' and anti-Semitic content of Oliver Twist is beginning to make its way around the J-blogosphere. In short, the piece claims that after "the wife of a Jewish banker" complained of the "vile prejudice against the despised Hebrew," Dickens made some amendments to the character of Fagin in later editions. Specifically, that he changed more than 200 references to Fagin 'the Jew' to 'the old man,' or simply 'Fagin.'
Fascinating as it may sound, this is certainly not news. One interesting account of Dickens' correspondence with the woman, Eliza Davis -- whose husband bought Dickens' house -- is to be found here.
Interestingly, the author explains what Dickens meant when he told Davis, "See what I make of this in my next novel" (a remark which is left rather cryptic in the Post):
In Our Mutual Friend, his last complete novel, whose serial publication appeared in 1864, a year after his exchange with Eliza Davis, Dickens introduced Riah, a good Jew. This was almost certainly done in atonement for her accusations....
Riah seems to have been modeled on a good Jew plucked from an eighteenth-century play that he had read a number of times as a boy and that he had once considered producing...
Dickens harps on the goodness of this Jewish money-lender, who is mistakenly perceived to be evil because of the manipulation by a shadowy Christian vulture.
Riah's second role in the story is to serve as a kindly "fairy godmother" to a pair of poor, forlorn and downtrodden young women, finding a job for one of them in a Jewish-owned factory. Riah just oozes goodness."
This is only a very partial exoneration; Riah,who is also a money lender, is criticised for being 'stilted,' 'unreal,' too feminized and too much of an outsider, and the changes to Fagin were really only cosmetic. But isn't this already more than you can expect?

JIB Awards

Dave at Israellycool is launching the first annual Jewish Blog Awards. At the moment they're considering categories -- have your say here.

Friday, December 24, 2004

Two steps forward, one step back -- it's not exactly a miracle, but apparently it wasn't real

The Israeli Ministry of Justice has announced that charges of forgery will be brought shortly against the mysterious antiquities collector, Oded Golan, alleging that he forged the inscription on the 'Jesus Ossuary'. This object is a stone container, used for burial of bones, which contained the inscription (in Aramaic) "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus". Since its discovery, this has been the subject of fierce controversy, especially in the feisty journal the 'Biblical Archaeology Review'.
The other sensational 'discovery' associated with Golan, the 'Jehoash tablet', is also regarded with very high suspicion by scholars.
All of this, plus this week's 'verdict' on the First Temple 'pomegranate' (and the accompanying comments on the authenticity of other items in the Israel Museum and other collections) will inevitably be used for anti-Israel political purposes, discrediting archaeology as revealing the historic Jewish connection to Israel.
The truth is that every antiques/antiquities market, anywhere, is flooded with fakes and forgeries, including the market in Jewish antiques and antiquities. (In the Judaica market, kiddush cups, besamim boxes and 'Marrano' pieces are notorious.) As we have said before - 'caveat emptor' -'let the buyer beware'.

Nitl Nacht -- the origins

This time of the year, there really isn't so much going on other than Christmas. We look forward to getting back to writing about some more 'Orthodox' topics in about a week in a half. In the meanwhile, as a sort of compromise, let's talk about where the phrase 'Nitl Nacht,' or Christmas Eve, and the Chassidish custom not to learn Torah (and do a bunch of other things) that night come from.

1. The origin of the custom: Two main theories:

  • In Eastern Europe, most people were too poor to own sefarim, so they needed to do their learning at the Beit Midrash. On the night of 24 December, it was just too dangerous for people to walk around (i.e., to and from the Beit Midrash), and so the custom arose of not learning on that night.
  • Spiritual/mystical/Kabbalistic -What a Jew learns Torah, it brings about an improvement in the world. We don't want to bring about such improvements at a time when the Christian majority is devoutly steeped in their prayers, lest outsiders believe the improvement came from the Christian worship / lest any of the spiritual energy created by Jewish Torah learning to be diverted to Jesus' credit.
  • Another possibility is that the original practice was to go to sleep early and when the mid-night masses would begin Jews would gather in synagogues and learn all night. All that remains of this custom is not to learn on the eve of December 25th. Seemingly connected is the explanation brought by the Hatam Sofer (Likutei Shut Hatam Sofer no. 20, that ideally, Jews should be learning then to counteract the effects of the Christian prayer during midnight mass. But our leaders did not want to require a special seder(learning session) on that night, lest they appear to be reflecting the practice of non-Jews. Hence, they wisely prohibited learning before midnight, knowing that dedicated students of Torah would rise after midnight to make up the study they had missed.

    2. Origins of the phrase, 'Nitl Nacht': Possibilities include:

  • Derives from the Hebrew word "nitleh" ("hanged"), describing Jesus' end (although Christmas of course celebrates his birth...)
  • The term "nittel" comes from the Latin, either dies natalis (day of birth) or Natalis Domini (birth of our Lord).
  • Some say it alludes to negativity - "nit"
  • Nitl is defined as a yiddish acronom for "nisht tor lernen"/"nisht yidden terren lernen,'-- ie. "not allowed to learn."

    For everything else you ever wanted to know about Nitl Nacht -- including strange customs and jokes (!), there's Ha'aretz. Extensive correspondence on the topic (including several paragraphs which I've shamelessly plagiarised above) here, here and here .
  • The Christians get "proof" of two miracles for Christmas. Here's what we get....

    Not only are we not discovering new Jewish 'miracle sites,' we're having our one of our most famous artifacts, the pomegranate which supposedly belonged to First Temple Priests, declared a forgery. Apparently, a special panel of experts has advised the Israel Museum that the pomegranate itself is too early, whilst the inscription is recent.
    Although there has always been some suspicion regarding the inscription, perhaps this is what Biblical Archaeology Review was referring to a few months ago when it quoted an expert as saying, "The inscription 'is now clearly assessed to be a forgery,'" without any further elaboration.
    The same expert also said at the time that up to a third of the 'inscribed materials' in the Israel Museum were possibly fake. If you wonder how that is possible, you need only read the story of how the Israel Museum secured the pomegranate for its collection:
    [T]he Israel Museum was approached about buying [the pomegranate] in 1987. It decided to do so after well-known archaeologist Nahman Avigad vouched for the pomegranate's authenticity - following a cursory examination that apparently relied mainly on a magnifying glass. The purchase itself was concluded in a highly secretive manner. The museum did not know the owner's identity; all negotiations were conducted via intermediaries. And the museum was asked to deposit the money in a numbered Swiss bank account, after which it was directed to a safe containing the pomegranate.
    Hmmm. Not suspicious at all!

    Thursday, December 23, 2004

    Another one ... how about discovering some of OUR miracle sites??

    Here we go again. News of another New Testament miracle site (OK, OK, I hesitated for a second or two while deciding whether or not to put quote marks round that last expression):
    Archaeologists in Jerusalem have unearthed a paved assembly area and waterchannel at the site of a pool where some Christians believe Jesus gave sight to a blind man, Israel's Antiquities Authority said.
    Perhaps with an eye to Jewish-Christian relations and Christian tourism at this time of the year, they conveniently forgot to add that as a result, Jesus was accused of being Mechalel Shabbos by those pesky Pharisees.
    There's still one day until Christmas -- how many other miracle sites do you think they can unearth in 24 hours?
    (If this is going to be a trend, I look forward to several Jewish miracle sites being discovered around Pesach-time. Which one would you want to see??)

    Starring one bad idea

    Larissa Sysoeva, European director of the World Congress of Russian-speaking Jews, plans to protest Germany's new restrictions on Jewish-Russian immigration (which up til now has been fairly indiscriminate) by holding marches across Germany with Jews wearing yellow stars.
    Something tells me this will go down even less well in Germany than it did in Israel. Is this woman completely insane?

    How much suffering can one family take?

    I was absolutely devastated to read in the Canadian Jewish News of the death of Daniel Baranovski, 10, who was killed in a car crash last week.
    Daniel is the half-brother of Matti Baranovski, a young Russian immigrant who was beaten to death by a bunch of teenagers (some of them Jewish) in a park in Toronto in 1999, after he refused their demand for cigarettes. Any Jew who was in Canada at the time (as I was) will remember what happened as an absolutely seminal event for the local Jewish community, who suddenly realized, with a rude shock, just how poor, neglected and unintegrated some pockets of the city's enormous Russian-Jewish population were. The case also made international waves when one of the accused, Israeli soldier Daniel Weiz who was on special leave to visit his father in Toronto, fled to Israel, from where he couldn't be extradited (Weiz eventually did stand trial and was acquitted). To this day, Matti Baranovski and his family hold a special place in the Toronto Jewish community's heart.
    Mr. Baranovski is apparently still in serious condition in hospital and does not yet know that his second son was killed. I'm not sure what you can possibly say to a family under such circumstances, but I wish him a full and speedy recovery and that his family should know no more sorrow. Our thoughts are with you.

    'It was a strong outpouring of Jewish philo-Christmas-ism'

    I have a piece in the Forward this week about my -- ahem -- fondness for the Christmas season, inspired by my very brief comments on this blog (and incorporating some of my readers' comments!*).

    *For some reason, when Blogger archives my pieces, it always has the number of comments down as 0, although if you actually click on them, they're still there. Can anyone advise?

    We'll wake up when it's too late -- the alternative JFJ shadchanim are here already

    Surfing into a fellow blogsite of impeccable orthodoxy (one of the YU group, I think) my eye was caught by the ad banner at the top. Everyone knows the the site is not responsible for the ad banners. But this one advertised something like 'Messianic dating", with an enticing website called . If you look at the site, it is warm, fuzzy, and clear in its Christian orientation. But it is just Jewish enough to have a measure of reassurance for wavering or ignorant Jews. And it is very seductive. Read it.
    Then look at some of the discussions on this and other blogs recently about the genuinely Jewish, especially frum, singles scene. We are making it impossible to be Jewish, and doubly impossible to be orthodox, except for a smaller and smaller (and more affluent) group.
    Where are the leaders who will bring us a more friendly, less elitist, more understanding, less conformist Yiddishkeit?
    Within a few years, JFJ will have scooped into their disgusting net huge numbers of Jews looking for warmth, reassurance and understanding. They will be refugees from an insensitive community, who will wake up too late to the situation for which they will have a large measure of blame.
    What can we do about it???

    In Yiddish, this is called a 'kvetch'

    With exquisite, erev Christmas timing, some archaeologists have announced that they have discovered the actual remains of one of Jesus' famous miracles, the turning of water into wine. (I have linked one of the less tentative headlines!)

    Archaeologists say Site of the Biblical Wedding Banquet Found

    According to a Dec. 22 Associated Press report, “archeologists found pieces of large stone jars of the type the Gospel says Jesus used when he turned water into wine at a Jewish wedding in the Galilee village of Cana.”
    The shards were found during a “salvage dig” in a the modern-day Cana between Nazareth and Capernaum. The pieces date back to the Roman period, when Jesus traveled to Galilee, suggesting the jars were the same ones used during the biblical ceremony.
    "All indications from the archaeological excavations suggest that the site of the wedding was (modern-day) Cana, the site that we have been investigating," said Yardena Alexander, according to AP.

    But every story has its spoilsports and nay-sayers, (hasn't Yankel from the Ministry of Tourism shut him up yet???):
    However, many archaeologists are not sure if the shards are enough to prove they were the same ones used during the miracle, since the type of stone jars are not rare. "Just the existence of stone vessels is not enough to prove that this is a biblical site," said another archaeologist Shimon Gibson.
    Again - in Yiddish: 'nisht farginnern'!!

    This bodes well... Not

    The new Israeli-Diaspora parliament, which is meant to give Diaspora Jews a say in Israeli affairs which affect them, seems to be coming along as expected. Apparently, a paper outlining "a practical proposal for the new body was submitted by the strategic forum of the Zionist Council" -- and was rejected because
    "They didn't even consult with Diaspora representatives before formulating their proposal."
    As expected...

    Wednesday, December 22, 2004


    The two French hostages in Iraq arrived back home tonight. According to their captors, they were released "because of France's anti-war stance."
    Oh, yeah? So why were they kidnapped in the first place? And why did it take four months to release them?
    I bet many French are delusional enough to believe the line anyway.

    Single women and the mikveh

    A question on Lookjed, linked to by Sruliblog, contains the following paragraph:
    At a gathering about a month ago, Rabbi Hershel Schachter of YU was asked whether single women who have no intention of keeping the severe Biblical transgression of nidah should be encouraged to go to mikveh. He answered that they should be encouraged to surreptitiously go to mikveh, but if the mikveh lady discovers that the girl is single, she should not allow her to be tovelet.
    If this is true (can anyone confirm or deny?), no matter whether you agree or disagree with this opinion, I think there's cause to thank R. Schachter for one thing: taking a realistic view of the real issues to do with sex and sexuality facing the increasingly large single Modern Orthodox community. Until now, the only real answer available to singles struggling with issues of Negiah and sex was 'Sorry... We feel your pain, but nothing we can do.' The community has essentially turned a blind eye and, I think, left people feeling rather isolated as they grapple with their options and/or their guilt and/or their loneliness alone.
    The paragraph was raised in the context of a question on the difficulties of being Shomer Negiah in today's dating scene. Whoever posted the question (they chose to remain anonymous) concluded by asking:
    How concerned, as a community, should we be with the fact that engaged couples are generally not shomeri negiyah? Should the status quo "don't ask don't tell" approach be perpetuated? Will Modern Orthodoxy address sexuality?
    I was disappointed to see that the only answer the few respondents could come up with was, 'get married younger and with (even!) shorter engagements.' One person even suggested banning casual dating altogether. Are these things realistic????
    I don't know what the answers are, but I do know that this is yet another issue which sooner or later the community will have to talk about more openly and more creatively. It's in the community's own interest to grapple with this, both because it has a duty not to neglect its singles who are in a truly impossible situation, and because facts are being created on the ground which soon will be impossible to reverse.

    UPDATE (After reading the first comments): Please note that I am not advocating any particular halachic position on this -- and certainly not advocating premarital sex -- but am merely drawing attention to yet another issue, generated by changing social circumstances, which the community may have been too slow to confront. Even as it is getting harder and harder to get married -- eg. because of ridiculous shidduch q's, pressure to make big weddings, etc. -- the rules of social conduct if you are single are getting stricter and stricter. You can't have both.

    Jews, Druze, others, Christmas, JFJ .. three issues

    1. Normally it's the other way around --

    "Twenty-three former call center employees of telecommunications provider IDT Corp. are suing the company, claiming discrimination against non-Jewish workers that ranged from ruined Christmases to the transfer of their jobs to Israel"

    2. JCC is defined as a religious institution --

    " ... a magistrate judge has dismissed a suit against a Jewish community center brought by an evangelical Christian who claims she was fired because she attended a "Jews for Jesus" concert."

    3. A thoughtful piece by Amnon Rubinstein about Druze and Bedouin in the IDF, in the light of the return of Azzam Azzam, (tip to Chayyei Sarah) and the death of five Bedouin IDF soldiers.

    "..... Both cases involve non-Jewish Israelis who feel and show solidarity with the State of Israel. And both events are cause for soul-searching on the part of Jewish Israelis."

    Rabbi Zvi Hersch Weinreb is sure earning his salary

    The Orthodox Union seems to have 'repeat organisational crisis syndrome'. R' ZHW is, by all accounts, a very sane and reasonable gentleman, but, boy, he must have his hands full -- Lannergate aftermath, Shechitagate, Savitskyaliyyahgate, and now JewishActionGoldsteingate. (See the mournful list of links below!)

    I know nothing about the inner workings of the OU, but when small Jewish organisations become big(ger) Jewish organisations, a whole different quality of management thinking and skill is required. (in fairness - perhaps they are on top of it - I don't know). Heading an institution that almost doubled in size in six years, and now has 200 employees and an annual $18m budget (admittedly $CAN, but it's still a lot!), I know of what I speak. Management structure and process are essential - they are not luxuries, nor are they "non-Jewish" or "inapplicable to a 'real' Jewish organisation". Good process, management and reporting should ensure a measure of consistency in the application of standards and ethos to the programme of your organisation, and should prevent aberrational incidents. They may still happen, but at least you then have some process to deal with them. I wish R'ZHW the strength and wisdom to navigate through his organisational troubles, and the time then to devote himself to building an institution instead of putting out fires ...

    Lannergate resulted in the OU issuing these excellent guidelines.
    Shechitagate - Failed has the archive.
    Savitskyaliyyahgate -- Reaction in the Jerusalem Post etc.
    JewishActionGoldsteingate - good response by Joe Schick (series of hat-tips to j-rants , which led me to hirhurim , from where I followed the links ...)
    -- and along the way the OU also pulled its hechsher from ElAl ! Someone, somewhere, commented on the contrast between the OU's pulling of the El Al hechsher over a cheese sandwich in Prague (maybe Budapest) and its sorta defence of what happened at AgriProcessors ......

    Still not getting it

    Congratulations to the Jerusalem Family Court for fining a husband who refused to give his wife a get a record NIS 425,000.
    Make no mistake, however: this is not a case of a court proactively and decisively dealing with a husband who leaves his wife an agunah. This money was given in compensation to the woman for 12 years of pain and suffering -- because that's how long it's been since she was originally refused a get.
    The fact is, the divorce case itself is not in the hands of the Family Court, but in the hands of the Rabbinical Court. Ha'aretz explains:
    In 1992, after the husband first refused the divorce, the wife filed suit in the Rabbinical Court in their town to require him to do so. In 2002, the court ruled the husband was required to give the divorce, but set no sanctions if he refused, and the High Rabbinical Court also refused to set sanctions.
    The woman then filed suit in Family Court through the Yad L'Isha organization. In a ruling her lawyers are calling precedent-setting, the court fined the man NIS 200,000 and an additional NIS 225,000 fine for pain and suffering.
    In the NRG article, a lawyer for Yad La'Isha says he hopes this will send a strong message to husbands who refuse to give their wives gets, that one day they will have to pay for their deeds. But I hope that even more so, it sends a strong message to the Rabbinical Court, who were the husband's accomplices in this case: Your rulings on these matters are unacceptable. Start acting more toughly with husbands holding their wives to ransom, because the rebellion in the ranks is swelling.
    (Perhaps, incidentally, this is why the Rabbinic courts are getting tired of Yad L'Isha. Members of the organization -- Chazku VeImtzu!)

    Tuesday, December 21, 2004

    In the end, economics triumphs?

    According to AP, the people of Postville are coming out in support of the Rubashkin plant:
    On Monday, the council passed a resolution in support of the business, noting that Agriprocessors "currently employs approximately 700 local residents and purchases over $100 million of livestock annually." The resolution said the city "renounces unfounded and unproven attacks on Agriprocessors Inc., or its kosher processing."
    "We're farmers here, and we make our livelihood from the land," said Sharon Drahn, editor of the weekly Postville Herald-Leader. "So far I have had no letters to the editor or phone calls [about PETA's allegations]. There are people who have said in passing, `Well, if the PETA people had their way, everybody would be vegetarians.'"
    Although I'm sure there's no sympathy for PETA in the heart of the American meat-packing country, that's quite a turnaround. It would be extremely interesting to have another update to the Bloom book. Any enterprising journalists out there who want to make the trip (or send me!)?

    Life after death

    Can I just point out that Protocols, two weeks after its execution, is still getting more visitors per day than most active Jewish blogs (211 yesterday... 280 last Thursday and 356 last Wednesday!). I guess old habits die hard...

    There's 'externally focused,' and there's self-neglect...

    The Masorati (Conservative) movement in Israel is in deep financial trouble, with a near-permanent overdraft of NIS 2m. and difficulty paying employees' salaries. According to The Jerusalem Post, they're blaming this on lack of financial support from the American 'parent organization' (although there is no direct quote in the article saying this explicitely).
    Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the New York-based International Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative Movement, tried to explain to the Post why the organization isn't putting its money where its mouth is:
    "I agree that it is amazing and I believe it is going to change in coming months... You must understand that the Conservative Movement is special in the sense that it is not as internally focused as Reform and Orthodox Jewry.
    "For us communal life is equivalent to a mitzva. No other religious movement is so involved in such a wide range of Jewish-related activities such as the Jewish Federation, Hadassah and various philanthropies.
    "We are an extremely external-focused movement with many responsibilities. As a result we have a lot of financial obligations. But the [Conservative] rabbinate is keenly aware of the problem and plans to mobilize its congregation."
    Israel, I wouldn't hold your breath. I rather suspect that when the Conservative movement does get its financial house in order, JTS, which suddenly and shockingly revealed a debt of $50m. a few weeks ago, might have first dibs on that money.

    You never call, you never write...

    Anyone who thinks that diplomatic relations between two countries rest on important policy considerations and tactics should read this rather pathetic story about why Israel and Egypt spent much of 2003 ignoring each other. Now that relations have warmed up somewhat, let's hope Ariel Sharon's on a better phone plan.


    Abu Hamza, Britain's arch terrorist and a man who hates this country, the West and everything they stand for, is planning to sue welfare officials for thousands of pounds in extra state benefits which have been denied to him due to his terrorist links. As a jail source was quoted saying: "He has a cheek."
    He also, apparently, has a brand-new hook costing £5,000, courtesy of the state (Captain Hook, as he is known, is missing a hand and an eye. It's not pretty). This in addition to the £30,000/year private nurse, needed for reasons I won't repeat here, and more than £1,000 a week in benefits to his family.
    Abu Hamza should have been extradited to the US a few months ago, but the extradition case has been suspended until the British charges are dealt with. After that -- he's yours, guys. You're welcome.

    Barking mad, that's what

    At least he's not wearing a kippah (NYT)
     Posted by Hello

    OK, so I'm a little late on the Bark Mitzvah thing (18 months after Jewschool, apparently), but this is absolutely one of the most surreal stories I've ever read, line for line. And G-d help me, again, but I find this funny. I just can't get over the pictures of these well-heeled (no pun intended; there's enough of them in the story) Jewish pensioners crowding around that dog. It all sounds like it came straight out of an episode of Ally McBeal:

    Colorful dips were set out in double-bowl dog dishes. There was a cake with a picture of the bar mitzvah candidate and his nickname, Boomie, written in English and Hebrew. In the foyer was a bowl of baby blue satin skullcaps, with Boomie's name and the date printed inside.... Admiral Boom, who wore a bib patterned with Stars of David, spent much of the party under the dining room table... Many checks were written for $50 or more, although some guests brought gifts like flavored rawhide chews....

    I do wonder, however, whether it was really appropriate for some guests to turn up in fur coats. Muzzle Tov!

    UPDATE: Someone just sent me a story The Jerusalem Post wrote on Bark Mitzvahs in September, in which at least one rabbi (!) seems to be taking the joke rather too far:
    A shehehyanu blessing is also recited, and the words from Fiddler on the Roof have been adapted, with the rabbi singing 'May God protect and defend you, may He always shield you from fleas.' And in an adaptation of the barchu blessing, the owners all kneel, alongside their dogs. A bark-mitzva certificate is then issued to each four-legged participant along with a bark-mitzva photograph for a token fee.
    'We do this event mostly as a lark,' says Comess-Daniels. 'But,' he adds, 'the reality is that there is this beautiful underlying seriousness to it that everyone brings, recognizing what an important part of our families our animals are.'
    Can't you just give them a bone or something?

    Monday, December 20, 2004

    Laws of separation -- too harsh?

    A rather heated row has broken out in the comments section of Ma'ariv/NRG after an experienced, brave (and rather frum-looking) brides' teacher wrote that the rabbis should officially shorten the period of sexual separation between husbands and wives each month, by abolishing the 'seven clean days' which the 'daughters of Israel' took upon themselves as an extra stringency.
    What's interesting is the number of religious readers coming out and openly (or at least, as openly as you can on an anonymous Internet forum...) supporting her....

    Sikh-ing censorship

    A couple of days ago, 400 Sikhs rioted in Birmingham (UK) over a play which depicted rape and murder taking place in a fictional Sikh temple. The play has now been scrapped because Sikh leaders refused to give assurances that the violence -- which included smashing windows and doors and pelting police -- would not be repeated.
    According to The Scotsman,
    Ursula Owen, editor-in-chief of pro-free speech group Index on Censorship, said the cancellation of the play was “bad news”.
    She said it revived memories of the play Perdition, which was pulled before a run at the Royal Court Theatre in London in 1987 because of protests that it was anti-Semitic.
    “That took 12 years before it was actually performed again. This decision is absolutely unacceptable. I am shocked.”
    This, of course, is the same group that opined that Theo van Gogh, who produced a work of art condemning abuse of women, was guilty of ‘an abuse of his right to free speech’, his ritual slaughter was ‘his very own martyrdom operation’ and we should ‘applaud Theo van Gogh’s death as the marvellous piece of theatre it was.’
    In other words: offend Muslims, and you are abusing your own free speech; offend Sikhs, and we will protect your free speech. I wonder what Index on Censorship's reaction would have been had the play been set in a mosque.

    Democracy is about more than having a vote

    Much is made of the fact that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East. But how secure is Israeli democracy amongst the younger generation? A new study comes up with some disturbing findings:
    The study, published yesterday, examined the values of 1,750 young people between the ages of the 15 and 18 and between the ages of 21 and 24. It found that 67 percent of these Israelis believe that strong leaders can be more beneficial to the country than laws and public debate. Fifty-one percent of the Jewish subjects said that Israeli Arabs should not be allowed to be elected to the Knesset; about 30 percent of the subjects approve of nonviolent forms of civil revolt like demonstrations without a permit and refusal to serve in the territories, actions that involve disobeying the law; 24 percent support violent revolt, as compared to 9 percent who approved of this in a study that was conducted a number of years ago.
    Ha'aretz correctly attributes this Israel's prolonged state of conflict with its neighbors ("When the cannons roar, democracy is weakened") -- and, I would add, the general militarization of Israeli society, where generals and army are considered the ultimate role-models and authorities. To help inculcate values of democracy in the younger generation, Ha'aretz recommends a constitution and stronger civics education in schools and in the IDF itself.
    You have to ask, though, what's the use of any measures at all when the country's leaders themselves -- those who should be clearest on democracy's merits -- seem so uncomitted to the system. Just this week we have a settler leader urging his followers to 'break the law and be ready for prison.' Leaders on both sides of the political spectrum have urged soldiers to disobey orders and/or to refuse to serve in certain areas. We've seen political leaders inciting to assassination of politicians, and religious leaders publicly saying that rabbinic rulings trump state law. The ruling Likud party has allowed itself to be infiltrated by gangsters and bribery by MKs has become rife in the Primaries. Is it any surprise Israeli youth doesn't know the first thing about democracy?

    Sunday, December 19, 2004

    Jews vs. Christmas

    The question of how Jews should react to public Christmas displays continues to generate debate. Lamed seems, by tone at least, to disapprove; Charles Krauthammer and Jeff Jacoby are pro. My thoughts here.

    UPDATE: And one Jews Vs. Christmas wrap-up to rule them all: See Dov Bear.

    Closing off opportunities for Russian immigrants

    I find the Israeli government's now successful campaign to stop Germany accepting so many Jewish immigrants from the FSU extremely offensive. You may or may not agree that Israel is the natural place for all Jews to live, but Israel has no right to try and force people who do not want to move there to do so. The enormous wave of Aliya from the FSU in the past decade and a half has shown that Russian Jews who want to have no compunctions about moving to Israel. Unfortunately, Israel isn't for everyone and Russian Jews who choose to go elsewhere have every right to do so.
    If Israel thinks that more Jewish immigrants should be coming its way, perhaps it should do more to create economic opportunities for them and more to genuinely integrate already existing immigrants. Taking in people who see Israel as their second choice and who resent Israel for deliberately closing off opportunities for them to go elsewhere is not going to result in successful Aliya in any case.
    (For another take on why Israel's campaign was ill-advised, see Jewlicious.)

    Women's prayer groups -- do they survive over time?

    This Friday night, I went to an Orthodox women's-only prayer group -- the first time I've been to such an event in years. Although such groups are still relatively unknown in the UK (there was an enormous battle over them in the early 90s and the Orthodox United Synagogue does not allow them to take place in any US Synagogue), I was impressed to see that there was a wide range of women in attendance, both in terms of age (everything from teenagers to pensioners) and religious affiliation (within Orthodoxy). In fact, there were a number of women there I would never have imagined would be interested in such a group, and certainly many women who don't normally go to Friday night services. The very existance of such a group, and its wide appeal, seemed to me to show at least how the UK Jewish community is changing, and finally becoming a little less conformist and a little less conservative than it was 10 years ago. I do, however, wonder how 'women's-only' prayer groups do over time; I'm sure there was a 'novelty factor' at play here. Anyone got any evidence from elsewhere?

    Friday, December 17, 2004

    Is this better or worse than Rubashkins?? I ask: What is a hashgacha worth??

    This story - posted here on Bloghd only minutes after breaking on an unsuspecting world -- relates another OU-supervised horror story.
    The Mrs. Smith's plant made regular pie crusts with pork lard, and crusts stamped kosher by the Orthodox Union, a New York organization that certifies kosher foods...
    In 2001, Raleigh lawyer Marvin Schiller heard the allegations of a plant employee that workers often substituted regular crusts for kosher ones when the plant ran out.
    What I can't understand is why part of the $2.5 million settlement is going to the OU? Shouldn't the OU be compensating its Kosher consumers for failing to exercise supervision?? I'm thinking of becoming a fruitarian -- no tracheas,no oesophagi, no lard ... no hashacha. Have a wonderful shabbat, y'all! (BTW - in answer to the headline -- at least the offending pie-crusts didn't get up and try to escape from the factory in "unconscious nervous reflex acts").

    Monica? That was nothing

    Azi was right: American-born Kimberly Quinn is Jewish (the daughter of American actress Lugene Sanders, who was, more than 50 years ago, among the highest-paid television actresses in America). Her disgraceful affair with British Home Secretary David Blunkett, which I wrote about at length a couple of weeks ago, has now ended in his rather tearful resignation and swift replacement. And thus, one of the greatest scandals to hit the Blair government -- and arguably, one of the greatest scandals to hit any British government in the last 20 years -- comes to an end.

    Make Aliya, go 'off the derech'?

    Simcha summarizes an article in the current edition of the Jewish Observer, which encourages Haredi families with children to consider Aliya carefully:
    What is at issue is the vast cultural divide between communities outside of Israel and that in Israel... In Israel, affiliation with a group and belonging to it is much more important than in America. Furthermore, the groups in Israel expect strict compliance to their social norms and lack of conformity leads to a degree of ostracization. While many adults can deal with that, children frequently have great difficulty with that. Generally, they either need to adjust completely to Israel or be able to live in relative isolation. Especially those who make aliyah in their teen years, when social patterns and cliques have already developed, have difficulty fitting in. Many - too many, end up leaving the Orthodox community entirely.
    When I was a feature writer for The Jerusalem Post, I wrote an article about haredi girls going 'off the derech.' Having made aliya was cited by all the experts as one of the major 'risk factors,' for boys and for girls, and most of the girls I talked to were originally from the US/Canada/UK. The result for many of these kids is not just leaving Orthodoxy, but can include leaving school, falling prey to drugs and alcohol, and unwanted pregnancies. (There are several homes for pregnant haredi girls in Israel.) To the credit of the Haredi world, this is a problem they are dealing with more and more openly, and I witnessed some really sensitive, helpful programmes for these kids. Whilst I wouldn't want to stop anyone make Aliya, it is extremely positive that these issues are being discussed honestly.

    Thursday, December 16, 2004

    Not long enough...

    Brandeis has unveiled a study of the long-term affects of the birthright programme, up to 4 years after participation. On the plus side:
    They found that 52 percent of participants felt "very much" connected to Israel when they were surveyed in late 2003 to early 2004, or two to four years after their trip. Beforehand, only 35% gave such an assessment... Feelings of strong connection to the Jewish people jumped from 58% among participants before their visit to 69% after, a rate sustained years later.... Additionally, the rate of non-participants who felt it was very important to only date Jews dropped from 27% to 24%, while for those who participated it rose from 22% to 35%.
    On the minus side: The report also found that,
    "despite positive attitudes toward Jewish peoplehood, the trip has little effect on ethical behavior, religious behavior or participation in organized Jewish life."
    This, of course, seems like a disappointment; birthright will only have fulfilled its potential if positive feelings are translated into positive behaviour. I would suggest, however, that it is still way too early to really measure the effects of birthright. These will only become clear in 10-15 years time, when we know whether participants were more likely to marry Jewish and bring their kids up Jewish. The effects of such experiences often do not kick in until it's time to settle down and have children.

    'Frum Affair'

    The blogosphere really is becoming the confession booth of the religious world. Just came across this blog, 'Frum Affair' -- which is pretty self-explanatory. The affair -- now ended -- was, incidentally, pretty frum (as affairs go):
    If you are thinking how I can halachically rebuild a bayit neeman b'yisroel after an affair, well, the bottom line answer is that I never did the "ultimate deed," but emotional affairs can be just as devastating.

    Oh G-d, not another useless Jewish organization

    Plans for a Diaspora 'parliament'/'assembly', which I had originally assumed was just a flight of fancy by Israeli President Katzav, seem to be gathering pace. The 'parliament' (if that's what they choose to ultimately call it) will have the power to consult Israel on policy matters which will affect Jews across the globe, and is also intended to help forge closer relations between Israeli Jews and Diaspora Jews. A working draft should be finalized in the next three months.
    I outlined my reservations regarding such a project in June (although it was then purely theoretical), and believe those reasons still stand, so I won't repeat them here. In any case, this particular initiative has 'disaster' and 'big bore' written all over it. My favorite quote comes from Uzi Dayan, who recommends that the parliament include 'young people,' perhaps as young as 40 (!) -- cutting edge, I suppose, compared to the rest of the Jewish institutions where you're considered young if you're five years into your pension.
    Ultimately, the idea of forging closer relations between Israel and the Diaspora by creating another body where a bunch of unelected old codgers can pontificate is noble, but completely misguided (I'd register my protest, but unfortunately don't have a vote in any of the Jewish organizations which will make the decision). Spend the money by doubling the allocation to Birthright, or paying for every Israeli high school student to spend two weeks with a Jewish family in the Diaspora. That's where you'll make a difference.

    Quite a compliment

    Ma'ariv calls Israel21c "Israel's most efficient hasbara body" and Israel's "real ambassadors."
    In the past year, the not-for-profit organization -- which is run by three former Jerusalem Post-ers, David Brinn, Allison Kaplan Sommer and Harry Rubenstein -- has managed to place more than 1300 positive articles about Israeli science and culture with top American publications, including the NYT, Reuters and Time Magazine. You may remember them from such recent stories as the Israeli who defeated halitosis and Hadag Nahash's tour of America. Kol Hakavod!

    Wednesday, December 15, 2004

    Mmmm, I like it like that, can't eat this and that, I want a Big Mac, I don't know how to snack, So kosher for me, so kosher for me...

    According to WND, the Hanukka Hey Ya! song has now surpassed Adam Sandler's Hanukka Song in popularity, and has been downloaded more than 800,000 times 'since the last holiday season.'
    WND also interviews song creator Eric Schwartz. The Hanukka song, it emerges, is not a one-off shot of genius -- he's made an entire career out of putting Jewish lyrics to well-known raps. Whilst the Hey Ya song is extremely funny, listening to all his songs in sequence (on his website under 'audio and video'), without amusing animations to accompany, suddenly brings back horrible memories of shlock Rock and MC Rebbe. Oy (and don't tell me that's just yo backwards).

    Aliya -- up, up, and away

    Amid reports that American Aliya is approaching record levels, the always thought-provoking blog Lamed asks a question I have never heard asked before: If our best, our brightest, our rabbis and educators are leaving for Israel, what does that do to the communities left behind?
    The question was originally posed by Rabbi Reuven Spolter in Jewish Action, and provoked many letters. To be fair, Aliya is just one factor amongst many in the shortage of Modern Orthodox leaders which he talks about -- but more on that later.
    In the meanwhile, just one small point about the rising rate of American Aliya. According to reports, "in the first 10 months of the year, 2,240 Americans exercised their right to automatic Israeli citizenship," quickly approaching the 2,385 who made Aliya in the whole of 2003. Wonderful.
    This very week, however, it was also reported that French immigration levels have reached a 30-year high, with 2,236 French Jews immigrating between January and the end of October 2004.
    Ie. -- although the US has approximately 10 times more Jews than France, it still only managed to send 4 more Jews to Israel in the first 10 months of this year.

    Tabloid sensationalism

    Ma'ariv has a scoop: One of Arafat's main doctors in Paris was a French Jew.
    "[D]espite his Jewish identity, his loyalty to the State of Israel and his wish to assist Israel in any way he can, he refused to divulge any information on Arafat’s condition to Israeli officials."
    Ma'ariv should be ashamed for publishing this. Jewish doctors -- in Israeli hospitals -- have treated Arab terrorists for years, and actually saved terrorists fresh from a murder operation. You would expect no less from anyone who has taken the Hippocratic Oath. They have now, as they themselves have pointed out in the disgustingly tabloidy Hebrew version of this article, contributed to the conspiracy rumors over the cause of Arafat's death.
    They have also done a real disservice to the doctor, who was put in an impossible position -- and now has his ethnic identity suddenly made a public factor and the possibility of a conflict-of-interest planted in the minds of others. I can't really take issue with the Israelis trying to get information out of him -- I'm sure every agency would act the same. However, do they really need to reveal this to the world? They were asking a man to put his career on the line, break doctor-patient confidentiality. By revealing this, they are making an issue of his ethnic identity possibly for the first time in his career, and probably making him profoundly uncomfortable. Shame on them.

    Taking candy from a schoolkid...

    Yesterday, a French schoolteacher had to send back 1,300 packages of chocolate donated as a gift by the City Hall, when it emerged that the chocolates were shaped like crosses and Santa Claus. Accepting them would have, strictly speaking, contravened the law that was implemented last September, banning overtly religious symbols (including kippot) in public schools.
    To a North American reader, this all seems bizarre: isn't religious freedom a right the state should protect, rather than limit? Isn't it ironic, don't you think, that a law which emerged partially out of a desire to stop religious coercion* imposes secular coercion instead -- which is just as bad? And is making everyone pretend in public they're all the same really the answer to France's integration problems?
    Indeed, my first thought on reading the chocolate story was that now the law is affecting the French Christians, maybe they will see how ridiculous it is.
    But perhaps not. For some original insight and historical context about why the French are so hung-up about keeping their schools religion-free, click here.

    *One of the reasons for the law was to help girls who were being forced to wear the headscarf by their communities, against their will

    Tuesday, December 14, 2004

    I'm going to be sacrilegious here...

    The NY Post reports:
    Ali G, aka Sasha Baron Cohen, has been plying his satirical trade in New York with mixed results. In character as Kazakhstan-born journalist "Borat," one of his personas on "Da Ali G Show," the British comic was on Park Avenue Sunday afternoon with a big map of the city turned upside down. He approached p.r. man Ronn Torossian and his wife and asked: "Where is Lexington Avenue? Is that where the Jews are?" Sadly, Torossian and 90 percent of the other New Yorkers he approached identified Cohen immediately. Luckily for us, some tourists were caught in his snare.
    Am I the only person out there who simply does not find Borat funny? Personally, I wouldn't mind watching the footage of the people who recognized Sasha. I'm sure that their reactions -- as well as Sasha's -- were at least as funny, if not funnier, than his tired shtick. Time for some new material.

    Rescued from the Reich

    Came across a copy of Rescued from the Reich: How One of Hitler's Soldiers Saved the Lubavitcher Rebbe, which was published a couple of months ago by Yale University Press. The blurb says:
    The escape of Rebbe Schneersohn [the 6th Rebbe -- MS] from Warsaw has been the subject of speculation for decades. Historian Bryan Mark Rigg has now uncovered the true story of the rescue, which was propelled by a secret collaboration between American officials and leaders of German military intelligence. Amid the fog of war, a small group of dedicated German soldiers located the Rebbe and protected him from suspicious Nazis as they fled the city together. During the course of the mission, the Rebbe learned the shocking truth about the leader of the rescue operation, the decorated Wehrmacht soldier Ernst Bloch: he was himself half-Jewish, and a victim of the rising tide of German antisemitism.
    I took it home. Anyone read it?

    Not sacrosanct

    The obligatory classes on family purity which every Israeli bride must take are notorious turn-offs from religion, one of the major reasons why so many secular Israelis resent the Rabbanut. Today, the Rabbanut finally and officially ruled that the haredi women giving Kalla classes through them must stop haranguing secular brides about the 'correct' way to treat their husbands, why they must immediately become religious, etc. etc., and concentrate on what they are supposed to teach: the laws of family purity.
    This is a positive first step, which -- one hopes -- will do something to alleviate some of the trauma associated with the ordeal for many brides (although I am sceptical whether women who have been teaching in a certain way for decades will really be able to change). The pity, however, is that this experience doesn't have to be merely 'painless' or 'neutral'; one wonderful organization, Tzohar, has shown it can be a downright positive and valuable encounter with religion, through true openness, respect and dialogue.
    The fact the Rabbanut made this change after years of resistance, shows just how loud the protests must have become; perhaps they were also feeling the heat from Tzohar. Either way, the fact that this ruling was announced, particularly in a week when the religious parties look set to rejoin the government, is hopefully a sign they finally realize that they are not sacrosanct, and must shape up -- or else face the consequences.

    Before we call the BBC antisemites and Nazis (again)

    The campaign to free Ron Arad, Maariv, and some corners of the blogosphere are steaming because various international networks - including the BBC - are refusing to air paid ads offering a reward for information about the missing airman.

    Duh! The BBC, as a publicly-funded broadcaster has never, anywhere, at any time, accepted paid advertising of any sort. That's probably why they refused to accept the ads ......

    Isn't a vital background fact missing in this story?

    An unbelievably asinine travel piece on ABC describes contemporary Europe's "rich Jewish culture", in cities like Prague, Paris, Krakow etc. I am left with a nagging feeling that a vital background fact is missing. Perhaps the travel writer doesn't want to disturb the air of seasonal bonhomie he is describing? Krakow's Jewish quarter was 'neglected for years' (why would that be??). Possibly that is connected to the events of the "tumultuous 20th century" whose artifacts are displayed in one of the Prague Jewish Museum's buildings? ("Tumultuous" - could be fun!)

    It reminds me of the plaque that I saw years ago outside the shul in Worms, which described (in German) the history of the site - it ran something like: "Because of the crowded nature of the ghetto, it was subject throughout its history to town fires ('stadtbrennen') - on the last occasion in 1938". People were notoriously careless with their cigarette butts in 1938 (November was a particularly bad month.)


    Monday, December 13, 2004

    Mazal Tov

    Checking out a minor fact about Eric Nederlander, I came across this site. Remember the guy who read Protocols so you don't have to? This guy reads the NYT Weddings section so you don't have to. Gevalt.
    Anyway, as a one-off public service ('cos I'd never read the weddings section otherwise), I've done some research myself, and come up with my favorite Jewish weddings of the past month:

    • The JuBus -- still exist, apparently, and are married by a JuBu minister (On The Face elaborates).
    • The Doctor who picked up the assistant rabbi at the funeral of a little boy she was caring for. ''This is a sign that life continues, and it continues with Henry in it,'' [the boy's mother] said. And also a sign that some people have no shame.
    • The woman who accepted some random guy's invitation to a dinner party he was making for his friends, although she was totally not interested in him ("He is younger than I am, bald, and only talked about a new frying pan he just bought"). In fact, she only agreed to go because she was hoping to meet some other eligible bachelors. Hours before the event, can you believe it, he announced that the sole other dinner guest 'dropped out.' Says the woman: "I had gone on several dates that had been boring, so when Jason invited me out, I figured, `How bad could this one be?'"
    I guess he stopped talking about frying pans.

    Which makes me wonder: Could Chayyei Sarah's nightmare singles Shabbaton possibly -- possibly? -- still have a happy ending? Perhaps for Miriam and Levi? We're on installment number 14 -- and it's still only Friday night!

    British Jewry, shrinking fast

    What are we to make of the fact that there are more Jedi Knights in Britain than Jews -- by a long way?
    I hope the force is with us, 'cos demographic trends ain't.

    Two days? I can solve this problem in two minutes flat

    Ma'ariv / NRG is reporting that Ha'aretz is holding a two-day conference for senior management in order to work out how to stop its readership falling any further. (Why doesn't Ma'ariv have any figures on this??). Not surprisingly, the paper concluded that it had trouble appealing to the younger generation. Amongst the options being considered is turning to tabloid -- a move which several broadsheets have executed successfully recently in the UK, although not without a price:
    The Independent is becoming increasingly dependent on tabloid-style splashes on its cover, with recent high-drama headlines about the MRSA hospital superbug and the one billion children at risk from war, poverty and hunger.
    Meanwhile, The Times was criticised by The Guardian’s Roy Greenslade on the BBC’s Culture Show this week for softening its journalism.
    Can Ha'aretz really afford to soften its own style of journalism? Surely not; that is half of its appeal and uniqueness.
    Clearly, the editors are simply in denial over the fact that there's only one solution: Moving towards the Center. The fact is, Ha'aretz's natural readership base has moved en masse rightwards over the past few years; the Left, which was the core readership of Ha'aretz, practically doesn't exist any more. If the paper doesn't move with them, it shouldn't be surprised if readership slides.

    American Haredim flex some political muscles

    Two weeks after the event, Eric Yoffe, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, has welcomed a statement made by Aguda's executive vice president, Rabbi Shmuel Bloom, in which he urged American haredim to take a greater role in American Jewish communal life.
    This is, of course, an extremely interesting development, which, as Rabbi Bloom points out, seems to reflect shifting demographics and thus greater Haredi power. It also seems to reflect a growing Haredi dissatisfaction with some of the positions taken by the mainstream community, which is further to the Left politically. (I would be interested to hear other hypotheses on why this announcement comes now, specifically -- a question which seems to me to warrant some further thought. One person has suggested to me that perhaps they are a little scared of being too overshadowed by the OU, where Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb seems to have established himself in a short time as a very sensible player and effective leader, but I'm not sure if that's enough).
    In any case, it seems interesting that while Bloom very clearly says that the Haredim are looking for more 'responsibility,' Yoffie seems to wonder, at least at the end of the article, if what they are actually looking for is more 'influence.'
    It is also important to remember that as much as the Haredim can change the American Jewish community through increased communal participation -- they, too, are liable to be changed. It will be interesting to watch how all these factors play out.

    Mistress of his domain

    Eric Nederlander was famously dumped by wife Jessica Sklar, who left him for Jerry Seinfeld just a few days after their honeymoon. Yada yada yada, he's now tied the knot again, and by my count, his second marriage is already more successful than his first. Mazal Tov!

    What's wrong with 'Merry Christmas'?

    I've been overwhelmed in the last few days by articles both in the UK and the US suggesting that people should send out 'Happy Holidays' cards instead of 'Merry Christmas,' or reporting that workplaces should not display their Christmas decorations too prominently, etc. etc. etc. The most notable anti-Christmas move, of-course, came from Macy's, which suggested that managers avoid displaying "Merry Christmas" banners and have ordered employees not to talk about it.
    The thought behind all this is that some people who are not Christians might be 'offended' because they are excluded.
    Let me say that as a Jew, I am not remotely offended by other people celebrating their festivals. I accept that I am part of a minority culture, and do not want the majority culture to tone down their celebrations on my behalf. It would be different if I felt that I was in any way coerced to take part in celebrations which are not mine, or if I felt that I was being discriminated against because I am not taking part. But I'm not.
    In the UK, at least, the country goes out of its way to mark Hindu and Muslim festivals, and indeed revels in their celebration. My entire office, for example, recently attended a Diwali party and everyone thought it was wonderful. I see no reason why Christians should be made to feel guilty about their own celebrations simply because they are the majority; religious freedom isn't just for minorities. Indeed, I find the suggestion that we might be 'offended' at this rather offensive in itself; how insecure and whiny do they think we are???

    Messiah may be imminent -- previous experience suggests disappointment in view.

    Rabbi Michael Melchior and Moshe Feiglin are reported as agreeing that religious parties in Israel are bad for Judaism.

    Iowa Secretary of Agriculture "reverses her view" of AgriProcessors

    According to this breaking report, Iowa Secretary of State Patty Judge has reversed her view of the Agriprocessors plant after touring it. She is quoted as saying that "the animals she saw slaughtered died quickly and were treated humanely." This is a reversal of her previous statement , which implied condemnation of processes at the plant, made after she was called on by PETA to prosecute AgriProcessors. It then transpired that her department did not have jurisdiction over the processing plant.

    Here is a longer report of the same visit. Mr. Rubashkin might be better served if he was a little more diplomatic.

    Her statement may be significant. Will Temple Grandin now visit Postville?

    BTW -- I don't think that any bloggers have yet drawn attention to the famous, and fascinating article on Dr. Temple Grandin written by Dr. Oliver Sacks (see here for an amusing profile) in his book 'An Anthropologist on Mars' (the book title is from the essay on Dr.G.). Highly recommended book. Oliver Sacks comes from a famous family of Hebrew scholars and doctors in London; an aunt was Elsie Landau, the legendary Principal of the Evelina de Rothschild Girls' School in Jerusalem. [The profile claims that Elsie Landau was his mother, which I don't think is correct.]

    CORRECTION: Nope - my memory failed me (not so unusual nowadays .... ) Elsie *was* his mother. The famous aunt was Annie Landau. "Annie Landau was one of the brilliant hostesses of Jerusalem, comparable to her more famous contemporary Gertrude Bell in Baghdad. A spinster of the undisputed Jewish orthodox brand but catholic in taste, she gathered around her British officials, the Arab /Palestinian elite, Italian bishops and Greek patriarchs, besides Jews of all kinds." This quote turned up as the only reference on an A9 search as part of an article on Jacob de Haan. Now there's a story ........

    Sunday, December 12, 2004

    What does Chanukah actually celebrate?

    Ruminations on the malleable nature of Chanukah here and here. As Paul Greenberg concludes:
    There is more than a single theme to this minor but not simple holiday. One can almost trace the ebbs and flows of Jewish history, its yearnings and fulfillments, its wisdom and folly, its holiness and vainglory, by noting which themes of Chanukah have been emphasized when in Jewish history.
    So does history say more about the time in which it is written than the time it describes. The message of Chanukah changes from age to age. And the past we choose to remember becomes the truest reflection of any present.

    Meanwhile, the local shul ... er, church ... er, shul celebrates Chanukkah

    No comment.

    This isn't going to win a war... I see it in the stars

    Bit of luck the Americans were around to win the Second World War. According to today's London Times, the Brits' grand plan was... "to flood the world of astrology with fake horoscopes in an attempt to influence Hitler."
    Hitler was known to be interested in astrology... British agents decided to exploit Hitler’s interest in the stars by inserting bogus horoscopes in newspapers around the world, knowing that reports of his impending demise would get back to Berlin.
    It was hoped that the weight of celestial opinion would undermine Hitler’s authority and cause him to doubt his own decision-making ability...
    Unbeknown to the British, however, Hitler had lost some of his faith in stargazers after Rudolf Hess, his deputy, had used astrological charts to plan a flight to Britain that ended with him being incarcerated for the rest of his life.

    At this point, frankly, I'd rely on Rev. Sanchez' shechitah as more authentic......

    This just-breaking story tells an interesting tale of members of a church in Albuquerque who had themselves DNA tested, and found that a high proportion of them had the unique Cohanim gene! According to their Pastor, the Rev. WIlliam Sanchez, it explained a lot, including "the special knives used to butcher sheep in line with Jewish kosher tradition"; and, similarly, the practice of Mr. Keith Chaves' grandmother: ""She kept a kosher knife rolled up in a piece of leather that she would only use for killing," Chaves said. "And she would kill the animal by cutting its throat in one motion. She abhorred the ways others killed animals."

    Perhaps she could advise the OU??

    The case of the heartless chicken

    News today (reported in the Jerusalem Post, and quickly picked up by the bloggers -- see Jewlicious , who gets straight to the point) is of the Rabbinic counter-attack to the PETA accusations.
    I totally agree that to defend the apparent practices at Postville as acceptable shechitah, and the PETA revelations as an attack on shechitah generally, is a **huge** mistake -- not only to the non-Jewish world, but to the Jewish world as well. What kosher-observing consumers want to hear at this point is that Postville was an aberration that will never happen again -- not that the shechitah was kosher, and therefore the animals were by definition dead, and therefore by definition not feeling pain, end of story, everyone who says otherwise is an antisemite and Nazi. (We also want some definitions of what hashgachah actually means , now that the credibility of the long list of 'choshever hashgochos' at Postville has been entirely discredited.)
    Anyway .... one of the interesting points raised is how the halacha is going to reconcile current scientific data with psak halachah regarding animals' ability to feel pain after correct shechitah has been carried out. This raises the whole question of halachic adaptation to scientific knowledge, especially where that knowledge contradicts exisitng halachic assumptions.
    One of the classic cases here is the 'Case of the heartless chicken', considered by the Chacham Tzvi in the early eighteenth century in Amsterdam. The Chacham Tzvi (Teshuvot 74 et seq) considered the case of a young girl who claimed that she opened a chicken after slaughter, and found that it had no heart. Was it kosher? (Central to the case was the presence of the household cat in the vicinity). The Chacham Tzvi ruled that it was inconceivable, given the state of scientific knowledge at the time, that any animal could exist without a heart, even though classic Jewish sources could be brought to hypothesise such a possibilty. He was attacked for this, but held his ground. In other words -- he based his halachic position fairly and squarely on new, contemporary scientific knowledge.
    Poskim dealing with shechitah -- please take note, and stop the King Canute act (who sat on the sea shore trying to command the tide not to come in).

    UPDATE: Looking at the refs, or at least the first few listed on Google, it seems that Canute himself initiated this theatre to show his courtiers that he had no power, being fed up with their fawning. That's not quite how I remember it, but you get the principle. You cannot hold out against the tide, or reverse the inexorable facts of nature by commanding them that they are wrong. And, by the way, what have the EDAH or Chovevei crowd commented on the Postville debacle?

    Camps and day schools - do you love your mother or your father more?

    A recent survey reported in the NY Jewish Week by Marvin Schick shows an 11% increase in the Day School population over the last 5 years, including a 7% increase in the number of "non-Orthodox" students. (I wanted to wait until I had the full text of the survey to write about it - I still may - but it apparently will not be released for another few days, and, in the author's words, it's not clear how much longer it will take to get to Canada...... It's also not clear to me whether this latest survey includes the northern neighbour or not).
    However, 68% of all day school students are in the NY area, of whom 97% are in Orthodox schools; overall, 80% of all students everywhere are in Orthodox schools, although that doesn't necessarily mean that they themselves, or their families, are Orthodox in practice.
    The area in which I have a certain interest -- Community High Schools - is not specifically delineated in the JW article, but it reports that the total number of students in such schools (which are categorized as 'Non-Orthodox High Schools", presumably including a few Solomon Schechter High Schools) has increased from "1,500 in 1992 to 2,200 five years ago to 4,100 this year". Well, CHAT in Toronto has (as of Friday end of school!) 1,402 G9-G12 High School students, which means that we are doing pretty well compared to the whole of the USA. In every Canadian city (and in Australia, South Africa and, increasingly, the UK) there is a strong tradition of day school commitment by non-orthodox families that seems never to have existed in the USA.
    While it is true that a good day school leaves an indelible Jewish imprint on its graduates, Jerry Silverman, the Director of the Federation of Jewish Camping, writes a paean of (deserved) praise for the Jewish Camping movement for the Jerusalem Post.
    The answer is - both. The Day School provides an irreplaceable depth of knowledge, but it must perforce do so - and can only do so - in a school setting. The Camp is experiential, and complements, not rivals, the school. Interestingly, the AviChai Foundation (only lately rivalled by PEJE as discerning, focussed and effective agencies helping schools) has for some years funded a Shabbaton initiative, which encourages schools to run experiential programmes themselves. At CHAT the Shabbaton programmme has been phenomenally successful.
    Objectively, the whole picture shows how for families who use them, Day Schools, Camps and perhaps other agencies are replacing the synagogue as the main institution of Jewish family affiliation ......

    Israel and the Jewish genius

    One of the things which has always puzzled me about modern Israel was why, considering the large percentage of Jewish Nobel Prize winners, the Jewish state had so few internationally outstanding scientists and mathematicians, was not better known for its science, and why its school system was in so much trouble. Has the 'Jewish genius' somehow skipped over Israel?
    The simple answer, I think, is that the country has had no choice but to channel its creativity and cash into another area, namely the military, where they are clear leaders on a global scale. That is why it is so heartening to see two Israelis receive the Nobel Prize for Chemistry. The surprising thing here is not that a small country like Israel has finally won a Nobel in the sciences, but that they haven't already won more. The winners show that we still 'got it,' even when our resources are generally diverted elsewhere, and that when peace finally does break out in the Middle East, hopefully sooner than any of us dared imagine just a couple of months ago, you can be sure that Israel will be taking the scientific world by storm.

    Saturday, December 11, 2004

    Pious and Rebellious

    I just finished reading Pious and Rebellious by Avraham Grossman, another fascinating book on Jewish women in the High Middle Ages in Europe and elsewhere.
    Grossman shows how between 1000-1300, women's status within the Jewish community gradually improved. The main impetus for this was economic; as the Jewish community became more bourgeois, the women themselves helped out in their husbands' businesses, took responsibility for the businesses when their husbands went overseas, and earned their own money. Mostly as a result, they gained a lot of power at home and within their communities.
    Grossman lists ten main improvements in their status, including acknowledgement of the woman's right to initiate divorce proceedings, not to be divorced against her will, a ban on polygamy (particularly important because husbands travelling abroad could take new wives in their absence), a relaxation of the prohibition against teaching Torah to women, the effective abolition of the prohibition against marrying a woman who has buried two husbands, and the imposition of the herem and corporal punishment upon physically abusive husbands (domestic violence was apparently rife, as women were seen in such a feudal society as being under their husband's authority, and as corporal punishment was regarded as an educational tool).
    Another improvement he notes is women's increased share in performing the mitzvot. In particular, they struggled for the right to recite blessings over mitzvot aseh shehazman grama (time-linked positive commandments). Women also acted as sandak to new babies, were included (by some) in zimmun with men, allowed to act as mohelot and ritual slaughterers, and allowed, in principle at least (it's not clear to me whether this one ever happened), to receive an aliya and read from the Torah in small communities where there are only Cohanim.
    In general, however, the picture Grossman paints is of extremely unstable family life. Some other interesting facts in his study:

    • Women were married at 12-16, sometimes earlier. They usually began married life living with their in-laws.
    • Whilst polygamy was not generally known in Ashkenaz, when the men started travelling on business to Muslim countries where it was known, they sometimes took second wives. Sometimes, they abandoned their first ones, leaving them agunot; in any case, as women brought more substantial dowries to their marriages, the fear of a second marriage -- and their fortunes being passed into 'unrelated hands' -- increased. Hence the ban on polygamy, and strict fines on husbands who abandoned their wives or their fiancees.
    • In Egypt in the 12th century, there was a widespread, well-organized rebellion of women who refused to use the mikveh, and followed the example of the Karaite women who sufficed with pouring water over their bodies at home or in the public bath houses. This continued for several years, encompassed thousands of women, and was only stemmed when Maimonides and his colleagues threatened that they would lose the money from their Ketubah. A similar, but less extensive phenomenon occurred in 13th century Byzantium.
    • Sexual licentiousness was rife, particularly in the upper levels of society. There is clear evidence of the existance and acceptance of Jewish prositutes (particularly in Spain), gentile maids having affairs with their Jewish masters, women whose husbands were away on business taking lovers, and a general atomosphere of sexual frivolity.
    • Whilst there are some examples of particularly learned women (eg. Rabbanit Asenath Barzani, who headed a yeshiva in Kurdistan, Dulca, the wife of R. Eleazar of Worms who died a martyr's death in 1196 and was an 'expert' in halacha, many women who copied Hebrew books and developed an expertise in halachic literature), the majority of women were illiterate in both Hebrew and the vernacular. There's lots of evidence that most women both prayed and read the haggadah in the vernacular because they didn't understand what they were saying in Hebrew. Women often davened in completely seperate rooms to the men and had female 'prayer leaders' who sang aloud for them.
    • Despite this, the women seem to have been unusually 'pious' and dedicated to Judaism. They seem to have taken a leading role as martyrs during the Crusades and other pogroms, and are given major credit for stopping their husbands converting, refusing to go with their husbands who did convert even if this left them 'agunot,' and killing their own children and spouses to save them from the Christians.
    • Divorce rate was at least 20% and was not stigmatised. The reasons for this include the early age of marriage, the improvement in the economic state of the women which made them less fearful of divorce, an improvement in women's status which contributed to their self-image and confidence, and increased mobility which meant that some women did not want to join their husbands who moved, particularly if they were very young and could easily marry again.

    Whilst I haven't seen any reviews of this book in English (yet -- I'm going to review it together with the Baumgarten book for the Forward), it was an instant classic in Israel when it first appeared in Hebrew -- and deservedly so. It's published by Brandeis.