Thursday, June 30, 2005

Thinking creatively about dayschool costs

Thanks to Orthomom for linking to an article about an initiative by some Woodmere parents struggling to pay dayschool tuition:
Kenny Gluck and Jonathan Isler, both of Woodmere, have organized a Committee for Supplemental Yeshiva Programs, comprising Orthodox parents in the Five Towns, to test the feasibility of joining forces with the Lawrence schools. The parents said they are paying between $6,000 and $18,000 a year to educate a child in the yeshivas. They would pay about $1,500 to bring a religious instructor into the public schools after school hours to educate their children. The students would study with other public-school children during the regular school day and then receive their religious education after hours in the public-school building.
In short, a sort of return to the after-school-cheder system.
Is this practical? Too soon to tell. Is this ideal? No. The best solution is for our kids to go to affordable dayschools. But the initiative is important because it is an indication of just how pressing the problem of dayschool tuition has become, and because it is an indication that people are finally beginning to think creatively about how to address it. Is this a model of things to come? We'll be watching closely.

Yehudi, daber Ivrit....

The issue of the dramatic drop in the number of Diaspora Jews who can speak Hebrew properly has been getting some attention recently.
The Jerusalem Post ran a shortish piece on the problem last week. As Leon Wieselthier put it,

Though it's possible to read Jewish texts in translation, "every translation is also a conversion," that changes the text, he said. "There never was a great Jewry that believed it could transmit Judaism in translation."
Other than Artscroll Jewry, that is...
Now Sallai Meridor, who just retired as chairman of the Jewish Agency, brings it up as one of the pressing problems of world Jewry in an interview with Ha'aretz:

Another strategic goal of Meridor's - the fostering of the knowledge of Hebrew throughout the Jewish world - is not going that well. But he has a few ideas up his sleeve that perhaps his successor - Ra'anana Mayor Ze'ev Bielski - will be able to realize: "We have to build upon the 25 percent of Jewish youth worldwide who are enrolled in Jewish schools, at least the elementary school age children, who learn Hebrew. We have to understand why they do not stay with the language, and how this can be changed."
As for the rest, he raises a few ideas for cultivating Hebrew as an elitist brand: "Perhaps the establishment of institutions like the British Council, which would confer a prestigious cultural status on Hebrew; perhaps the study of a basic dictionary with a few hundred words, via Internet, that would earn the successful student a membership certificate in a `Hebrew Speakers' Club'; or maybe the key is cultivating Hebrew as a secret language spoken by young people to keep secrets from their parents."
The problem of teaching our kids Hebrew must be seen in the context of the decline of language teaching, full stop. Second languages are not getting the attention they used to, thanks mostly to the increasing supremacy of English. Nor is grammar -- English grammar -- getting the emphasis it used to, making it harder to teach a language like Hebrew effectively. And when it comes to modern Hebrew, many of the schools which you would expect to have cultivated it most are opposed to teaching it on ideological grounds.
Altogether, this means that day schools, the arena where Ivrit should be taught most successfully, are just not doing it properly. I will never forget going to a Seder with another family where everyone took turns reading from the Haggadah -- and being absolutely shocked when it became clear that the other kids (well, in their early 20s...), who had all been through 12 years of day school, were struggling to read the text. Unfortunately, this is not unusual. And there is frankly no point even discussing 'the others,' as the Ha'aretz journalist puts it, until the day schools take the lead on this.
Hopefully, as more and more people see this as an issue, and the level of Jewish education continues to rise, there will be more hope for Hebrew.

"It was the beginning of the young nation... I wanted to help, I was afraid they might fall down"

We knew Frank Sinatra had connections to the mob and to several Jewish mobsters in particular. But did you know he smuggled money for the Haganah?

Where's the President?

I was pretty interested to see that Gary Rosenblatt dedicated a rather long column to the Beit Yisrael World Jewish Forum. Apparently he actually presented at it last week.
He has returned to America, apparently, utterly charmed by Israel's President Moshe Katzav:
At the heart of the meeting, literally and figuratively, was Katzav himself, who sat through the entire proceedings while other Israeli officials came and went. The president stayed on message, interrupting speakers at times to question or respond to a point. He stressed that he did not care which plan was put into effect, as long as it was effective, and he impressed his guests with his earnest tenacity. Indeed, his stature and involvement is what gives any future forum hope for traction.... Most participants seemed to feel the conference was more positive than they had anticipated, primarily because of Katzav’s motivation, presence and position.
Interesting, because Katzav doesn't seem to have made much of an impression on anyone else; as expected, he's been a well-meaning but ultimately completely pareve president. Talk of his 'motivation, presence and position,' however, makes me wonder what he's doing to help Israel through some of its most stressful months ever as it goes through the Gaza disengagement. He is supposed to be the country's non-partisan, uniting figure, someone everyone can relate to whatever their politics; come on, Mr. Katzav, let's see you rise to the occasion and use those qualities when they're most needed.

Random question

Not sure what prompted this question, but a reader has emailed to ask:
Have you any idea where Nechama Leibowitz z"l is buried?
Good question. In the absence of a Jewish, can anyone answer?

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

I see dead people

According to a throwaway line in the NY Jewish Week, Rabbi Ariel Sokolovsky, "an ardent messianist who visits 770 several times a year,"

said he has met people who have seen the rebbe in person since he died.
Note to Gary Rosenblatt: this would have made an interesting sidebar. Ask R. Sokolovsky for their numbers, I'll write it for you.
The comment came in the context of a long article about the current goings on at 770 and developments in the the saga of the plaque referring to the Rebbe as "Zatzal" outside the building, which we discussed a few weeks ago. Apparently it's been vandalized yet again (although the Town Crier claims it was removed by mutual consent of the various parties "for security reasons as the disputes became too dangerous" -- does he have a source for this or did he simply misunderstand the Chaptzem blog?). The Jewish Week doesn't add much to JTA's article a few weeks back although it does include some minor gossipy details ("the messianists... are referred to by their opponents as “the Taliban.” The messianists, in turn, refer to Rabbi Krinsky as “the megalomaniac"). It also adds that

Some fear that things have deteriorated to the point that the image of Lubavitch... could be irrevocably tarnished by the mess in Crown Heights.
Image? What image? There is no question that Lubavitch's reputation has already been irrevocably damaged by the Messianist mess. Bit late to worry about that.
Best quote from the Jewish Week article:
“If people believe that many Lubavitch chasidim are crazy people, that will damage their image,” said Rabbi David Berger, a history professor at Brooklyn College.
As Best of the Web might have said: What would we do without history professors?

Doing the Maccabiah Games justice

The Canadian Jewish News is running a cute story about Justice Minister Irwin Cotler, who will be taking some time off his parliamentary duties next month to compete in the upcoming Maccabiah Games. His field: table tennis.
“I’ve been playing ever since I was a kid, but I haven’t played for a long time. I may end up being an embarrassment to the game, but my enthusiasm will be there,” Cotler told The CJN...
Cotler did not have to qualify because he was the only Canadian entrant for the event, said Maccabi Canada national athletic committee chair Allen Gerskup.
Oh well. That's a gold medal for spirit!

Other people's halachic problems

Fascinating article in Ha'aretz about the religious conundrums cellphones have provoked in the Muslim world:
Is it permissible to use verses from the Koran as ring tones? Is it permissible to summon the faithful to prayer via a cellular phone and is it permissible to get divorced by sending an SMS? Numerous Muslims have asked such questions, seeking religious rulings to guide them in this use of the new device. Religious scholars deliberated, and the upshot has been at least four different rulings....
Many faithful are also asking if it is permissible to turn off a cell phone that rings during prayers and whether recharging a cell phone using an outlet in a mosque is not a desecration of its sanctity.
"The cellular mosque," the successor of the "Internet mosque" is seen as a positive development in the use of the new device. The other, negative, side of the phenomenon is evident in reports of harmful use, especially devices that come with built-in cameras... For example, there was a report that three Saudi Arabian youths were sentenced to two to 12 years in jail and 1,200 lashes (combined) because they filmed the rape of a Saudi woman and relayed the images from the cell phone to the Internet. As a result of this incident, Saudi Arabia at the beginning of this year blocked the import of cell phones with cameras, but this directive is apparently being bypassed by rampant smuggling.
Young people send each other SMS messages and pornographic photos and even more common is the harassment (by phone) of young girls using cell phones and photographing women without their head-coverings at restaurants or women-only parties and then publicizing the photos on the Internet or using them for blackmail.
But here, too, there are some positive stories, such as, for example, Umm Ismail of Gaza, who told a correspondent on the popular Internet site Ilaf that she used a cell phone camera at a neighborhood wedding to photograph potential mates for her son, who has already rejected several suggestions from matchmakers.
Bits of this story sound oddly familiar....

Sensitive and traumatic

Rabbi Ari Katz, the American-born resident of Gush Katif who's blogging about disengagement for the Jerusalem Post, writes:
I want to add one more thing in regard to what happened yesterday at Shirat Hayam. After hearing what happened, I am very scared and nervous.
One thing that no one wants is a civil war between brothers. I have always claimed that the people in Gush Katif will never take up arms against the soldiers (I can't say as much for some of the people from the outside), and I still believe that. But the other side has to understand that what is happening here is something very sensitive and traumatic, and they have to treat it as such (for example, the army could have come yesterday without all of its combat gear). I hope that we can all calm down in time, before it's too late.
I second his call for the 'other side' to understand that what's going on is 'sensitive and traumatic' for the settlers; indeed, as I've said before, I think they should be treated as heroes.
The settlers, however, also must do their part not to make this horrible process more difficult for themselves and for everyone else than need be. The fact is that by the end of the summer, disengagement will have taken place and they cannot realistically hope to change that. But many of them, and indeed many non-settlers who support their cause seem to have become convinced they actually have it in their power to either stop or badly disrupt the disengagement effort. This isn't in anyone's interests as it will simply promote that civil war R. Katz is talking about, and not, in the end, prevent the inevitable. Much trauma on all sides would be saved if the settlers made their protests symbolic (which can still be extremely powerful) rather than actually trying to physically fight being removed.
As R. Katz implies, it would also help if the settlers restrained the non-resident political activists who are flocking in to Gaza to support them and are in many cases itching for a fight (eg. at the hotel, and many of the people at Shirat Hayam). For them this is not traumatic, not in the same sense that it's traumatic for the people who are actually being evacuated from their homes. For them it is simply a political protest, albeit one they consider very significant. Soldiers should certainly not leave their combat gear at home to evacuate people who do not actually live in Gaza and who are there for the express purpose of stopping the army from doing its job, in order to spare their feelings.

Related: The Jerusalem Post's excellent editorial on Avi Bieber's decision to disobey orders, which reinforces and expands on some of the points I made yesterday; The JPost mentions that talks are taking place to limit protests.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Jewish organizations, episode IV: A new hope?

Remember last year we discussed -- and basically rubbished -- proposals for a new Jewish parliament?
Well, the project is still sauntering along under the watchful eye of President Katzav, although no one else seems to be watching at all. A week after the event, JTA and the Jerusalem Post have remembered to report that the 'Beit Yisrael World Jewish Forum,' as it's now called, held its inaugural gathering and that the forum will convene properly in its full format for the first time next year.
And I confess, I was wrong, completely wrong about the whole project. It is a breath of fresh air and heralds a new era in Israeli-Diaspora relations, indeed gives Jewish communities everywhere hope that someone will finally come up with some creative solutions to their problems.
  • The big questions are already being asked: “My big question is: Will it succeed or not?” (Yossi Beilin)
  • Incisive observations are already being made: "“The Jewish world.... [is in] a crisis.” (Stephen Savitsky)
  • Profound Jewish thinkers are being recruited: "Stephen Savitsky, president of the Orthodox Union, suggested that prominent Jews such as computer mogul Michael Dell, comedian Jerry Seinfeld and film director Steven Spielberg should be included."
  • Admin expenses are being tightly controlled so that funds can be spent on the ground: The meeting took place "Over breakfast this week at the King David Hotel"
  • The Lieblers and the Singers are not being allowed anywhere near each other: well, not exactly. "[N]ewly installed chairman of the Keren Hayesod-UIA World Board of Trustees, Mark Leibler, took Israel Singer, chairman of the governing board of the World Jewish Congress, to task for claiming that larger Jewish communities could take care of themselves."
G-d give me strength.

Who we're dealing with

Russia's state prosecuter has called a halt to the investigation into the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, following an intervention by Ehud Olmert. However, Ha'aretz adds,
Political officials in Israel said Monday they think "the Kremlin expects gestures from Israel in exchange for the elimination of the affair."
Some Russian analysts support this interpretation. Anton Nosik, a well-known independent Russian journalist, said the current situation is comfortable for the Kremlin. He expects Russian President Vladimir Putin to increase the price he plans to extract from Israel the worse the problem is depicted. "When you ask the Kremlin for a favor, it can be assumed that the Kremlin will ask favors in return," said Nosik.
Nothing like a tried and true anti-Semitic tactic -- stir up trouble, then make the Jews pay for fixing it. Reminds me, lehavdil elef alfei havdalot, of Goering imposing a fine on the Jewish community after Kristallnacht to pay for the broken glass -- and there are, I'm sure, many other examples.
Shmarya, incidentally, draws attention to the bizarre comments by Russian Chief Rabbi Berl Lazar in The Jerusalem Post, in which he rejected the charge of anti-Semitism in the government, saying, "I tell you clearly: in the top echelons of government, the prosecutor's statement [announcing the original investigation and criminal complaint] shocked everyone." I don't believe it for a minute; even if Putin did not instruct the investigation, in a regime like his investigations like this aren't opened without his consent, implicit or explicit. For Shmarya's take, click here.

Words of wisdom from the man who married his daughter....

Woody Allen stopped being funny quite a few years ago. His recent comments to Der Spiegel, however, bring 'unfunny' to a whole new level:
"As a filmmaker, I'm not interested in 9/11 . . . it's too small, history overwhelms it. The history of the world is like: He kills me, I kill him, only wth different cosmetics and different castings. So in 2001, some fanatics killed some Americans, and now some Americans are killing some Iraqis. And in my childhood, some Nazis killed Jews. And now, some Jewish people and some Palestinians are killing each other. Political questions, if you go back thousands of years, are ephemeral, not important. History is the same thing over and over again."
I could spend a long time explaining why Woody's words are so repulsive, why it's no coincidence he wants to be considered a 'European filmmaker,' etc. etc. etc. But I'm not going to waste my time taking this guy seriously. To paraphrase Allen himself, what the hell does he know about Nazis, Jews, Palestinians, 9/11? He doesn't even know how the can opener works!

Wiesenthal Centre to Anglicans: "When You Say 'Divestment from Israel', We Hear 'Kauft Nicht Bei Juden'"

The resolution by the International Anglican Communion 'commending' divestment in Israel-connected corporations draws this powerful letter by Dr. Shimon Samuels, Paris-based Director of International Affairs for the Wiesenthal Center. He writes: "When You Say 'Divestment from Israel', we hear 'Kauft Nicht Bei Juden' "*.
I have to say that his comment strikes me as a lot more appropriate than the typically mealy-mouthed response(s) of Britain's Jewish community ....
See the website of the Anglican Communion for texts and documents.

UPDATE: The UK's Methodist Church is going to debate divestment from Israel this week as well.

*'Do not buy Jewish'

FURTHER UPDATE: See this link by Melanie Phillips to a statement by one of the UK's foremost Anglicans involved in the Middle East.

Tzemach - what's up???

Tzemach Atlas, veteran blogger,threatens to call it quits. "This web site is populated by people who can't relate to what I write and mean. This loses all purpose for me. Curtains time..."

Messages of chizzuk may be posted here! We would certainly miss his cultured, not to say eclectic, illustrations.

They don't make 'em like that any more -- thank G-d...

Let me add my voice to the chorus of people praising Orthomom for her excellent series on Jewish Heroines (indeed, her whole site is great). See here, here and here for installments so far.
Kind of in the same vein, the Economist this week carried a wonderful obituary for Lillian Lux, a superstar of the Yiddish Theatre. She's not exactly a Jewish heroine in the sense Orthomom probably means, but she was certainly a personality and is a symbol of a lost world.
She was also somewhat sad. She performed with her husband and twin children across the globe almost obsessively, even while pregnant or when her kids had measles. According to the magazine,
Ms Lux's devotion to her enterprise was complete. Travelling and performing were the only life she wanted. Even her children's bar- and bat-mitzvahs were staged as ticket-only events.
You gotta love it. She then couldn't understand why her children left her act as teenagers...

Monday, June 27, 2005

Destroying the IDF from within

The case of Avi Bieber, who refused to take part in the demolition of an abandoned outpost in Gaza yesterday, cannot pass without comment. His actions are essentially the opening strike of an outright rebellion which has the potential to destroy the IDF -- and thus potentially the entire State -- from within. He is being hailed as a hero by some, but to others, and to me, is truly dangerous. I hope that the IDF deals with him promptly and severely to set an example to others who are considering following in his footsteps. I also hope that any people who were there for the express purpose of obstructing an evacuation that the democratically elected government of Israel had decided upon are dealt with in the same way.
Last but not least, I hope (in vain, I suspect) that it means something that he was the only soldier to rebel (although some accounts hint at a slightly different version of events). Here's what I think about what he and his father had to say, although the only point which is really important is #2:

  • Ha'aretz: Bieber defended his action as that of a conscientious objector, saying that his family "didn't come to the country to expel Jews from their homes." Firstly, that wasn't what he was asked to do; he was being asked to demolish vacant buildings near a settlement. The only Jews around were protestors who were there deliberately to prevent the military action. In any case, why Bieber came to 'this country' and what he believes the country is about is completely irrelevant; once you've signed up to to the IDF, it's your orders that count.
  • Bieber: "I didn't enlist in the IDF in order to destroy communities or prepare the ground for the destruction of communities. I enlisted in the IDF to defend the state, and this action is not the role of the IDF." The only reason one enlists in the IDF is to obey legal orders. What the army makes soldiers do thereafter is not up to privates but up to the democratically elected government. If he doesn't like the policy, he can vote to change the government, but it's not up to him to disobey orders. In addition, what constitutes 'defending the state' is a matter of political opinion, which is why it's so dangerous for soldiers to begin deciding for themselves which orders they are going to follow. There were plenty of soldiers on the other side of the political divide who thought that fighting in Lebanon contributed nothing to defending the state, but went anyway.
  • Bieber's father Ralph: "He saw that his commanders were beating Jews, and he'd never seen anything like that in his life." Those Jews were there specifically in order to make it difficult for the Army to do its job. They almost by definition put themselves there in order to be 'beaten up' / involved in violence. One might also note that the protestors were deliberately, violently attacking Jewish soldiers -- "military sources reporting that one IDF officer was kicked in the face by a settler and another female officer was attacked and slapped by a youth" -- and that this is just as shocking.
  • Bieber defined himself as a 'conscientious objector': He's clearly not as there are clearly causes for which he is willing to pick up arms. Does he even understand what this means? He may object to the disengagement, but he's not a conscientious objector, who objects to violence under all circumstances.

All the same, despite all the media attention, there's nothing special about this boy. He simply did what he was taught and is repeating back all the key phrases he's had drummed into him, whether they're relevant or not.

Our Palestinian cousins

Last week, we featured the Jewish settler who converted to Islam and went to live in a Palestinian neighborhood of Hebron. Now we have his polar opposite:
A Palestinian youth who converted to Judaism reportedly enlisted in the Israeli military. Amnon Yitzhak-Shachar, who was born Ayman Abu-Zubuch in the Gaza Strip town of Khan Younis, reported to Israel's main draft office last week and was mobilized, Ma'ariv said Sunday. According to the newspaper, Yitzhak-Shachar would not mind serving in a combat unit and fight his former compatriots in Gaza.
The Palestinian Israeli became interested in Judaism as a teenager, when he accompanied his father to work in Kfar Saba. He said his parents banished him from Khan Younis after his conversion, and that he chose his new first name, Amnon, after the surname of the Israeli family that adopted him.
The truth is that there are more family connections with our Palestinian cousins than one might initially imagine. There are quite a number of Jewish women who, for various reasons have converted to Islam and gone to live in the territories with partners, and Palestinian men who've married Jewish women in Israel (somehow I think it doesn't happen as often the other way). At the beginning of the second Intifadah, an American-born, Kippa-wearing friend of mine who lives in Jerusalem once told me he was very nervous whenever he was called up to miluim because a cousin of his mother's had converted to Islam and gone to live in one of the major West Bank cities. He didn't want to find himself in a situation where he'd be fighting against his real second cousins.

(Via Israellycool)

Kabbalah Centre -- end in sight?

A throw-away line in the NY Post about the recent tv program / Radar expose on the Kabbalah Center contains what might ultimately prove the Center's true undoing:
[T]he controversy has attracted the notice of the IRS, which is planning to investigate the Kabbalah Centres' tax-exempt status.
Forget ruined reputations, defections of followers, etc. Money will be what kills 'em off.

Russia regressing

In March we noted that 5,000 prominent Russians, amongst them Boris Spassky, sent a letter to the Russian Prosecutor General's Office, repeating an earlier demand to ban Jewish organizations and claiming that that the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 'teaches hatred toward non-Jews.'
As if that was not alarming enough, Ha'aretz is now reporting that the Prosecuter General is actually launching an investigation into the book! They are looking
to ascertain whether it constitutes racist incitement and anti-Russian material. The prosecutor ordered the probe against a Jewish umbrella organization in Russia for distributing a Russian translation of an abbreviation of Shulhan Arukh.
Last Thursday, attorneys from the Russian State Prosecutor's Office questioned Rabbi Zinovy Kogan, chairman of the Congress of Jewish Organizations - one of the two large Jewish umbrella organizations in Russia. Kogan was asked to explain the contents of Shulhan Arukh, especially regarding its treatment of non-Jews.... The affair has been covered widely by the Russian news media, eliciting sharp reactions from Jewish organizations in Russia.
This is so outrageous and surreal I am practically at a loss for words. For all the Russian Foreign Ministry's lip-service, and although Russia's Jewish community is diplomatically placing the blame elsewhere, I find it hard to believe such an investigation would take place without the knowledge and sanction of Mr. Putin. Jews are again being used in Russia to stir up nationalist feelings; the situation is becoming extremely serious. What with the erosion of democratic rights, politically sanctioned trials, and now (apparently) state-sanctioned anti-Semitism, Russia is heading down a very dangerous path.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

This is tasteless

Hopefully not literally, but definitely in concept:
It's known more for gulag than goulash, but now a cookery book aims to restore at least the culinary reputation of the American detention centre at Guantanamo Bay.
Several hundred recipes prepared for the inmates at the camp are to be published next month in The Gitmo Cookbook, including such dishes as mustard and dill-baked fish, and honey and ginger chicken breast.
The recipes - most of which use fewer than eight ingredients and were originally created to feed up to 100 people - were developed by the US Navy cooks who are in charge of the camp's kitchens....
The chance to eat the Gitmo way is being offered by a group of American conservative activists who believe that the camp's reputation for inhumane conditions and torture is exaggerated.
Yes, I'm sure that the millions who are concerned by abuses at, and the entire legal status of Guantanamo will change their minds once they discover the inmates come home every evening to dill-baked fish....

Who is this??

... it certainly isn't Sir Moses Montefiore!

(Isn't it Arthur James Balfour - he of the eponymous Declaration?)

Closing off opportunities for Russian immigrants, II

YNet is reporting that, following a 2-year campaign by the Jewish Agency, Germany is going to decrease the benefits package awarded to Jewish immigrants from the FSU in order to limit the competition for immigrants with Israel. (German benefits are much higher than Israeli ones, and incidentally, attract a high proportion of very poor immigrants.)
Not sure how exactly this is different to what was reported on this several months ago, but my comments still stand: Jews have the right to live wherever they want and Israel has no right to try and dictate or limit their options. If it can't attract Jewish immigrants under 'free market' conditions, because they freely choose to go there, it should work on making itself more attractive rather than trying to make other options less attractive. This interference is frankly a chutzpah.


Two comments about the Iranian election:
  • Rafsanjani is a moderate only compared to president-elect Ahmadinejad, not by any Western standard. The press' insistance on characterizing this as a contest between a 'moderate' and a 'hard-liner' is testimony to its ridiculous inability to work in anything but the most basic paradigms, a problem we see often in the media's coverage of Israel. Or was it perhaps that the press thought Rafsanjani was going to win, and it suited them to portray him as 'moderate' because of their own political inclinations?
  • It is extremely worrying that no-one in the West seems to have foreseen or even sensed the possibility of Ahmadinejad's victory. Not every election result is predictable, however Iran is public enemy #1 and if our finger is so spectacularly off the pulse of the country's mood, inner circles etc., we're in trouble.

Favorite books

In honor of Shavua Hasefer (Israel's national book week), which just finished, NRG asked eight writers about their favorite Jewish-religious book, and received some interesting answers.
Mine is Shmuel I; as I explained last year, apropos the flood of novels based on biblical material,
I don't understand is why, in this explosion of biblical-based fiction, no one has fleshed out what is easily the most powerful and moving story of the lot. And that is, the incredible relationship between Saul and David, whom Saul loves as a son and yet must get rid of in order to save his own kingship. The generally under-rated and under-recognized chapters where Saul is torn between love and hate, and is torn up internally by the conflict, are for me at least, among the most psychologically real and haunting sections in the Tanach. I've always known they would make a brilliant novel (or drama) and wanted to write them up myself, but I'm quite happy for someone to get there before me. I just doubt, in this case at least, anyone can even come close to the original.
Favorite piece of Hebrew literature: Amos Oz's My Michael and Black Box. 'Jewish' literature -- no all-time favorite comes immediately to mind, however looking over my bookshelf, the one book I'd like to revisit is Anne Roiphe's Lovingkindness, a really rare example of a novel about the dilemmas of modern Jewish-religious living done right.
And you?

Recent Google searches which led people to Bloghead

  • "Ketubah goat" (...Can't imagine)
  • "woman sitting next to jew northwest airlines" (Is this the beginning of a joke? Or did I miss an international incident?)
  • "messages of hope from anorexia from a Jewish perspective" (B'hatzlacha)
  • "Jason Biggs nose" (hard to believe, but this was actually the subject of a Bloghead post...)
  • "Depression never kissed"
  • "Never been kissed and in my 20s" (this was about 3 hours after the entry above but was not the same person)
  • "Immodest hospital gowns" (were they looking for them?)
  • "Postville Iowa should they leave community reactions opinions Jews"
  • "jedi official religion law against religious incitement towards jedi knight" (not sure if that's who the law was meant to protect....)
  • "airline chutzpah" (anything to do with that woman on northwest airlines?)
  • "sex scandal in Glasgow mosque" (tell us more)

  • And, last but not least,

    Friday, June 24, 2005

    Psychological warfare

    An Egyptian magazine which is not exactly friendly towards Israel has launched an online version in Hebrew, and YNet can't exactly figure it out:
    Arab Ambassador, the online version of the Egyptian magazine al-Safir, has now launched a Hebrew version, offering Israelis a sneak-peek at what concerns Egypt's intellectual elite and a chance to learn what our southern neighbors really think of us. At first glance the online magazine seems a bit naive, as though it was written in Hebrew in an effort to bring the countries closer together. But a closer look at the content, especially the opinion pieces, proves that yet another tool has been provided to the opposers of peace in the Middle East.
    On the one hand, the magazine declares that it does not advance any specific political viewpoint and promotes dialogue among all people.... But after reading the Hebrew version editor's column... one cannot help but wonder whether the website is just a prank, or some sort of parody. Sometimes it can be hard to tell.
    Considering Israel has entire units of people dedicated to waging psychological warfare on others -- according to YNet's own report -- you'd think they'd recognize it in its most basic form when it's used against them. I'm a bit worried they don't...

    Israeli 'lie detector' to be tested in airports

    Israelis have come up with a system that can identify air passengers with 'hostile intent' -- ie. potential terrorists -- by getting them to place their hand on a sensor which measures their physiological responses when they answer questions. Because the test is 'objective,' it eliminates the need for racial profiling. The system is 95% accurate and will be tested later in the year in the States.
    Now, I'm all for doing whatever it takes to ensure passengers' safety, even relatively painful measures, but I do have one concern:
    "Our system makes an initial assessment within three minutes," SDS chief executive officer Shabtai Shoval said. "If the system identifies a suspect, he can be sent to a personal agent to complete the investigation."
    Three minutes per passenger!? Better hope you're stuck in a nice airport....

    A Palestinian Doctor reacts to the latest suicide bombing attempt

    This article by a Palestinian doctor who works at Beersheba's Soroka hospital reacts to the arrest of Wafa Samir Ibrahim al-Biss, who was caught apparently on her way to blow herself up in the hospital where she was due to receive treatment.
    See Melanie Phillips on this ('Truth from Gaza').

    What's really going on on campus?

    This report goes against everything we've been hearing in the media about the state of affairs on University campuses.
    "After many years of seeing the campus as a burden or liability, the pro-Israel community is coming to see the campus as a potential asset to the American pro-Israel movement," said Jonathan Kessler, director of leadership development at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. "What an incredible turnaround."
    After months of hearing widespread and frequent reports of pro-Israel students being too scared to speak up / being harrassed for their views if they do express them, academics making anti-Israel remarks in class, academic unions voting to boycott Israel, and the general Left-wing PC-ness overtaking academia across the Western world, this evaluation comes as a surprise, to say the least. Certainly, nobody thinks that the campuses are uniformally awful, and I would assume that most are simply neutral, especially now that the second Intifada seems to have died down. From there to a potential 'asset' and a 'more supportive, pro-Israel environment than ever before' (!!!!) is a very big jump and I'd like to hear more proof than the one given in the article, of AIPAC hosting 80 non-Jewish student-government presidents at a policy conference. This is an example of an attempt to sway people, not proof they've been swayed, or of wider sentiment on campus. Some more on this -- particularly research/surveys and stats -- would be useful, because otherwise it sounds a little like AIPAC just blowing its own horn.
    Ido Aharoni, who is in charge of public affairs at Israel's New York consulate, says that the Aipac experience is representative of the general state of affairs on campus. He said that a few organizations have overplayed fears about the atmosphere on campus for "organizational needs."
    "The situation as we see it is not nearly as acute as presented by some Jewish organizations," Aharoni said. "They're creating unnecessary hysteria in the community."
    The problem is, the impression isn't as much through the Jewish organizations, though they may have exploited it, as through the media reporting on real incidents and through the students themselves who are lining up to talk about their experiences and worries. The comments in this article, by the way, were in response to another report which argued the exact opposite case, namely that the situation on university campuses is not good. Any Bloghead student readers out there care to comment?

    Cheap wedding? Don't bet on it

    Remember our discussions about the high cost of Jewish living and of making Jewish Simchas? Even eloping to Vegas is hideously more expensive if you're a Member of the Tribe!

    Advice needed on eating out in Jerusalem

    A friend of mine is travelling to Israel in a few days' time and while there has to take someone out to eat. Sought: High-end, kosher, fleishig restaurant in Yerushalayim; should serve steak in addition to anything else; not El Gaucho ("previous bad experience"). What's currently considered the best???

    Fanatic? Extremist? In you come

    Coming back from the airport tonight, my sister in law's cab driver, who came to London from Afghanistan 6-7 years ago, managed to tell her that there was no proof Muslims carried out 9/11 and that it was really the Jews 'wot done it. He also seemed to think that it was a mistake removing the Taliban, who were really 'freedom fighters' attacked illegally by Bush.
    In the meanwhile, the London Times reports that
    Hundreds of Zimbabwean asylum-seekers held in detention centres have began a hunger strike over Britain’s decision to speed up their removal and send them back to face torture from Robert Mugabe’s regime.
    Scores of Zimbabwean refugees have been removed forceably from Britain in the past month at a time when the United Nations has ordered an investigation into President Mugabe’s latest terror operation which has made up to a million people homeless....
    This includes at least one opposition leader who had already suffered 'crippling injuries' in detention in Zimbabwe and others who have already been victimized by Mugabe's regime. Very sensible immigration policies this country has.

    Thursday, June 23, 2005

    Religion on the brain

    Science and Theology News reports:
    Going to church may not only be good for the soul, but good for the mind as well, say Canadian and Israeli researchers who found that religious practice may slow the insidious progress of Alzheimer’s disease.
    “We learned that Alzheimer’s patients with higher levels of spirituality or higher levels of religiosity may have a significantly slower progression of cognitive decline,” said study author Dr. Yakir Kaufman, director of neurology at Sarah Herzog Memorial Hospital in Jerusalem... Data analysis revealed “higher levels of religiosity and private religious practices were significantly correlated with slower rates of cognitive decline”
    It's still unclear, however, if this is because of something intrinsic to religion and spirituality, or if any type of mental activity has the same effect. WebMD adds that another possible reason can be that religion can help people deal with stress.

    Last on the now-famous Hagba

    Thanks to Naomi Chana for injecting a note of humor into the great controversy:
    If I understand correctly, it all started when Miriam of Bloghead posted about performing hagbah at a WTG gathering the Shabbat before her cousin's wedding. Well, hagbah is fun -- not least because, as I've said in various other blog comments,
    an average-weight Torah somewhere in midcycle is perfectly liftable as long as you have halfway strong wrists -- but from the furor this disclosure sparked, you'd think Miriam had just confessed to incestuous cannibalistic orgies with married terrorists. Of course, Dov Bear picked up on it -- he loves a good controversy -- and the resultant comments were truly fascinating. Thanks to R. Gil, I'm tolerably familiar with what I consider legitimate halakhic arguments against WTGs from the right wing of Orthodoxy (check out the right sidebar of his blog for a list of all relevant posts). But I had hitherto been ignorant of how participating in groups of women praying and studying Torah together will cause said women to sprout facial hair, stop loving their children, produce Christian grandkids, do something unspecified but presumably nasty to True Judaism (tm), and start participating in incestuous cannibalistic orgies with married terrorists.....
    So I am probably still on some sort of goodwill-towards-humanity kick (only slightly marred by the presence of a cold undoubtedly transmitted by one of my wedding guests) when I say that this whole controversy has inspired me. This coming autumn, I will not only continue to attend our local WTG and do things like layn and teach. I will sponsor another kiddush. And when it comes to headcovering -- as a Married Woman, I should think about these things, right? -- I am seriously considering donning a "Do The Daf" baseball cap.

    Other Conservatives at a crossroads?

    The Forward claims that the American Orthodox community's love affair with Bush is on shaky grounds, over disengagement:
    Many influential Republican loyalists and non-Orthodox hawks appear to be emaining firm in their support of Bush. But a growing number of Orthodox activists who were avidly courted by Bush in the 2004 election are feeling distinctly dismayed as the administration embraces Israel's Gaza disengagement plan and presses for more aid to the Palestinians.
    What did they think? That the President of the United States was going to be more right-wing on this than the Prime Minister of Israel? Bush is on record supporting a Palestinian state, condemning assassinations of terrorist leaders, supporting the road map, and explicitely supporting Sharon's disengagement plan for more than a year. If they're disappointed by his attitude on this, it's because they weren't listening to what he's been saying all along.

    Conservatives at a crossroads

    JTA, the Jewish Week and the Forward all have good pieces about the search for the new Chancellor of JTS. They all pretty much say the same thing, which is nothing new: the movement is in an identity crisis and is about to enter a monumental battle over its future direction. Some names are being bandied about as successors to Schorsch (not really including any women, as the Forward points out) but it's early days.
    Two blogs have sprung up following the selection process: JTS Future and JTS 2006. So far they are basically reprinting material from elsewhere -- I hope they start posting some original material, including debate, comment and of course inside info. Does anyone know of any other blogs offering insight on what's going on in the movement?

    Ha'aretz website

    After 2-3 months of using it, I have to say I hate the way Ha'aretz website has been redesigned. I find it impossible to find anything on that site any more. Is it just me?

    Second time lucky

    Gotta check out this hilarious website -- It's for people who want to connect with someone they met but who are missing their name / contact details.
    Random sample include the guy who can't remember the name of his Friday night dinner hostess but knows she likes Rice Chex (how did he get there in the first place?), the pervert who's trawling Only Simchas to find pictures of hot girls to date, and the guy who thinks a girl he went out with 2 1/2 years ago will be flattered enough by his ad to try again -- although he can't remember her name...
    I think we have a hit on our hands.


    Wednesday, June 22, 2005

    Making the American soil bloom

    Lovely little piece in the NYT about a near-forgotten episode in American Jewish history:
    In the 1880's, pogroms and anti-Semitic laws in Russia caused a historic exodus of Jews. Most ended up crowded into tenements in American cities. But some Jewish thinkers urged their brethren, as one of them wrote, "to become tillers of the soil and thus shake off the accusation that we were petty mercenaries living upon the toil of others." And so hundreds of Jews established agricultural colonies on land bought for them by charities and philanthropists.
    The odds were against them. Often the land was unyielding. The settlers, mostly tradesman or scholars, were ill prepared for a life of clearing tree stumps and birthing calves.
    By the turn of the century, though, the United States was speckled with settlements like Beersheba, Kan., and Bethlehem-Yehudah, S.D. - nearly 100 in all.

    Is your blood pressure too low?

    ****** Early today I posted under the above heading criticising Cross-currents for publishing an apologia /whitewash for Satmar/Neturei Karta. On reflection, and after seeing the direction of the comments, I have decided to delete it. Life is too short, and I don't have the inclination to get into an argument about either Cross-Currents, Satmar or NK. For the record, I find the current antics of Neturei Karta, all over the world, despicable. And, sorry, but I've blanked out the comments as well. Next topic, please. *******

    'Prayer leader for the women'

    As a side note to the discussion on Women's Tefilla Groups, I'd like to refer people back to what I wrote a few months ago about Avraham Grossman's book, 'Pious and Rebellious,' and about 'Mothers and Children: Jewish family life in Medieval Europe.' Both these books made clear that in the High Middle Ages, a time which is generally considered oppressive for women, Jewish women took on a whole range of roles and obligations which today would be unthinkable, including as Sandek in a Brit, Shochetet, mohelet, and in certain small communities, receiving aliyot and reading from the Torah. They also participated in Zimmun, and there is ample evidence of women, mostly from the 'upper classes,' wearing a tallit, tzitzit, and (on a more limited basis, apparently) tefillin. Eg. Rav Avigdor Kara, a thirteenth century French sage, wrote of 'some righteous women who were accustomed to wearning teffilin with a blessing and to enwrap themselves in zizit.'
    Something I didn't mention in my previous discourses on the subject was women's prayer. It appears that women's sections in many synagogues back then were completely seperate from the men's. In others, they were connected to the men's just by a 'small and narrow opening.' In yet other communities, the 'women's synagogues' were actually in seperate buildings from the men's. The upshot of all this is that in women's 'sections' in general, there was the need for a woman to lead the prayers, either because they were in completely separate rooms or buildings from the men, or because they just couldn't hear them properly. From the Grossman book:

    'The worship arrangements in the women's synagogue indicate that the women felt the need to express their religious feelings. Confirmation of this may be found in those women who served as cantors... As the halacha at that time forbade men and women singing together, this was done seperately.... The title given to Richenza in the Nurnberg memorial book, 'Prayer leader for the women,' makes it clear that this refers to a woman who served as cantor for the women....
    Incidentally, he goes on to describe how women leaving prayers early was considered 'a serious transgression' (modern authorities please note).
    Now, why am I mentioning all of this? Partially as a historical curiosity. Those who argue about 'women's traditional roles' should be aware that this phrase covers a much greater range of options than they are imagining, and there is precedence for women doing a great deal more in communal life than they do today, or than any authority in the Orthodox world would dream of allowing them to.
    I also mention it because of the arguments that have been set forth in the comments section here and elsewhere to the effect that women davening by themselves is in some way either forbidden, or not 'meaningful,' or undesired because davening with a quorum of men is considered preferable. There were clearly centuries where women davening alone was the way religious men preferred it, for both cultural and halachic reasons. So again -- with a bit of historical background, things are not as black and white as some might make out.

    What would Jesus eat?

    The London Times covers the $40m. 'Christian diet' industry, which aims to get people eating like they did back in biblical times. Dieters have a choice of
    Creationist Diet: Nutrition and God-Given Foods According to the Bible Gary F. Zeolla (2000): Divides foods into ‘God-given’ and ‘non-God-given’
    The Prayer Diet: Matthew Anderson (2002): Says God will determine your ideal weight
    What Would Jesus Eat? Don Colbert (2002): Says we should copy Jesus’s simple diet and recommends eating fish, cooking with olive oil and walking every day The Lord's Table: A Biblical Approach to Weight Loss (Setting Captives Free): Mike Cleveland (2003) Says the proper motive for losing weight is the glory of God
    The Maker’s Diet Jordan Rubin (2005): A 40-day eating plan that addresses spiritual, physical, mental and emotional health using the Bible
    Of course, Jews follow a 'biblical diet' every day, namely Kashrut, but no one seems to be recommending that....

    "The sooner she was converted the better"

    Amusing interfaith story in the NYT -- Jewish doctors vs. Catholic nuns.
    Of course, the way the nun understood the Dr.'s comments -- even under medication -- shows quite a bit about the way her own religion works, how little she knows about Judaism, and perhaps something subconscious about fear of Jews?

    Tuesday, June 21, 2005

    Guess what! She didn't get off on good behavior!

    The story of the daughter of the Israeli ambassador to the UK being released from jail in Peru, where she was imprisoned for drug offenses, is taking a predictable turn, and the Peruvians are beginning to ask awkward questions. I guess the developments (partially....) answer the question I asked last week, 'I wonder who had a word with who?'
    Incidentally, the story hasn't really received any coverage yet in the UK. That will probably change now the story's been picked up by AP.

    Walking out during Yizkor

    A week or so after Yom Tov, Danny argues against walking out during Yizkor.
    I sometimes used to daven in a shul in Ra'anana where every year the rabbi would ask people who are not saying Yizkor for close relatives not to leave for the exact reasons Danny gives; each year, everyone would walk out anyway, so strong is this superstition.

    Where do we go from here?

    Reflecting on the topics and resultant threads that have caused an explosion of comments on a circle of two or three blogs -- especially bloghead and DovBear -- Mirty has it exactly right: she highlights the reductionist-halachic tendency among contemporary orthodoxy. You can accuse some trends in Jewish life of being too 'touchy-feely'; but the opposite seems to be truer and truer of Orthodoxy (especially non-Hasidic Orthodoxy). Every vestige of emotional / spiritual feeling and spontaneity is neutralized and delegitimized by reduction to an arcane halachic argument - usually a battle of which Rabbi said what, or is reputed to have said. See the astonishing comments (some from otherwise usually constructive people) on the great hagba controversy. No female is allowed to have a religious spiritual experience or feeling; it is all a matter of (male) halachah.
    SECOND to this as a frustrating read is the apparent ignorance of some contributors of the historic changes in Jewish practice.
    THIRD is the graceless jeering at other Jews and their (assumed) beliefs, practices and values.

    ---- all very depressing.


    Monday, June 20, 2005

    Why the Jews rejected Jews for Jesus

    I loved David Klinghoffer's most recent book, Why the Jews Rejected Jesus, however, I was quite shocked by this piece he wrote for the Forward last week, now reprinted in Jewcy, in which he basically wonders aloud why Jews for Jesus are any more beyond the pale than other groups rejecting essential tenets of Judaism.
    Maybe we should hand him over to Toby Katz? She probably also doesn't believe there's much difference....

    Jewcy claims this is real

    Posted by Hello... although it doesn't say when/where the picture was taken, which makes me a little suspish.

    (Via Jewcy, formally known as Jewsweek)

    Israeli prison guards, defenders of the (Muslim) faith

    Anyone still under the delusion that Muslim prisoners' complaints of abuse of the Koran in both the US and Israel are anything but tactical (no reader of this blog, I'm sure), should take note of this latest incident in Shikma prison:

    A female Palestinian security prisoner in Ashkelon’s Shikma Prison tore up pages from a copy of the Quran and threw them toward the toilet during a routine search Sunday, the Israel Prison Service said.
    The 22-year-old detainee from a village near Hebron is an Islamic Jihad member who was arrested three months ago in suspicion of hostile terror activity.
    She resisted a routine search by a female guard, and then took out torn Quran pages from her skirt and hurled them toward the toilet. The guard handed the torn Quran pages to the prison’s director, and Prison Service officials said she showed heightened sensitivity to the holy Islamic book.
    Nice little PR twist for the Israelis -- not that anyone'll give them much credit...

    A different type of conversion....

    Jews who convert to Islam always make good copy. Religious Jews who convert to Islam even more so (one example I remember from a couple of years ago involved a clearly confused former Satmar Chossid who moved from Brooklyn to Israel, became a follower of Ovadia Yosef and then was converted, together with his wife and four kids, by a Muslim cleric he met on an Internet chatroom). Now, we have the 'extremist settler' who began by debating religion with a Palestinian garage owner and ended up converting to Islam and moving to a Palestinian area of Hebron.
    My favorite quote from the AP article:
    After his conversion to Islam and marriage to Sabena [a Muslim -- MS], Mahadi's life among the Jews of Kiryat Arba became increasingly fraught.
    Wow. Who could have seen that one coming?


    Toby Katz, one of Cross-Currents' normally respectable team, doesn't approve of the Shabbat Kallah I went to. Perhaps going a wee bit over the top, she posts to DovBear:
    You take hagbah, Miriam. Enjoy it. Let me know when you grow a beard.
    I will, Toby, I will. Don't expect to hear from me any time soon....

    *You should, incidentally, read the rest of the exchange which is very interesting. Orthomom and some others answer her very well.

    Is Michael Jackson's head a place you really want to get into?

    Uri Geller is milking Michael Jackson's acquittal for all it's worth, and has just published one of the most sychophantic and yet at the same time self-centered and altogether pukey pieces I've ever read. He uses the UK's Daily Telegraph (which should really know better -- but I guess it's trying to compete with the tabloid Times) to repeat the bizarre claim he made last year that he hypnotized Michael Jackson to find out if he was really a child abuser:

    When he confessed to me that he needed more than motivation, that he wanted to
    be hypnotised, I was surprised.....
    I agreed to place him in a hypnotic trance and to manipulate his sub-conscious, to direct his mind. It's a technique I have used many times on heavy smokers who are trying to quit. He was a remarkably suggestible subject for hypnosis. Within a few seconds he had surrendered his will and was allowing me to lead him into a relaxed state of trance. I have hypnotised many people, and it's easy to tell if they are faking. A good subject can eat a whole onion in the belief that it's a sweet apple. Michael was an excellent subject.
    If I was to become this man's friend, if I was going to introduce him to my family and invite him to dine with us, there was something I had to discover, for my own peace of mind, while he was in a trance. "Michael Jackson," I said, "tell me with total honesty - what was the real story behind the allegations of sexual abuse made against you by the boy Jordie Chandler?" He answered without hesitation: "It was all made up. His family just wanted my money."
    "Why did you pay the family?"
    "It was the easiest thing to do." The statement was simple and unembroidered, made without sufficient pause to invent a lie. "I couldn't take it any more. I'd had enough."
    "Have you ever touched a child or a young person in a way that you shouldn't?" I asked. And he replied: "Never. I would never do that. My friendships with children are all very beautiful."
    Later, he told me that hypnosis had brought immediate benefits, of calmness and focus, but I am certain he did not remember the series of searching questions I raised at the end of the session. While he was still under hypnosis, I ordered him to forget I had ever asked. Maybe it was not ethical of me, but I had to know - and I believed what he told me. Sadly, it seemed as if many others did not believe his denials, despite an absence of real evidence which, I am told, would have ensured that in this country the case would have been thrown out of court.
    Thank God, the jury agreed with me.
    Or perhaps, Ur, they were agreeing with Michael Jackson's new confidante and spokesman, a magician who attended court at part of Michael's entourage? Sounds like Michael's paranormal needs are currently being met elsewhere....

    Sunday, June 19, 2005

    Cafe Oleh

    The Jerusalem Post website has finally followed in Ha'aretz's footsteps and started a section focusing on Olim's life in Israel. It includes several new 'blogs,' although any resemblance to blogs as the rest of us know them is purely coincidental, and it also seems to be hosting the excellent Jerusalem Wanderings blog, which deserves the wider audience the JPost will presumably give it.

    In which I get hagba

    Yesterday I went to an unusual Shabbat Kallah. The bride had organized a women's tefillah group in her home, and her friends conducted the entire Shabbat service. Although there are Orthodox women's tefillah groups elsewhere in London, and there is a monthly tefillah group on Friday nights in my neighborhood, this is the first time (to my knowledge) that one has taken place on a Shabbat morning in this area.
    Yet again, it struck home that women coming together to pray is a special spiritual experience. It also makes a difference to be in a small group, to be participating in the proceedings as well as observing, and to be close to the 'action' rather than stuck on a balcony or behind any form of mechitza. The entire service feels altogether different -- more intimate, more immediate, and again more spiritual. In addition, I must note that the women were extremely supportive of each other as they leined for the first time, led davening for the first time, etc., often overcoming quite a lot of nerves.
    One nice surprise was that I was given Hagba. As always, it occured to me how sad that after being a regular shul-goer for 28 years, holding or touching a Sefer Torah still feels strange and unfamiliar and that despite watching Hagba thousands of times, I still had to be told what to do because I'd only ever seen it from a distance and never with an eye to doing it myself.
    Unfortunately in London, unlike some shuls in the US and Israel, women are not allowed to conduct any of these activities (including Fri. night tefillah groups, and Megillah readings) in Orthodox shuls. On the negative side, this means they get no casual visitors and even Megillah readings, which have increasingly wide acceptance in Orthodox communities in other countries, are still regarded as suspect here. On the plus side, this leaves the women more free to conduct and develop the services as they see fit.
    What is clear is that at least locally, more groups are popping up / expanding the range of events they conduct, and that the ones I have been to, at least, have included an interesting mix of ages and levels of religiosity within Orthodoxy. The rabbis can try and ignore and delegitimize these events as much as they like, but the will is still there from the women.

    London Beth Din: 1, Chief Rabbi: 0

    The London Beth Din is continuing its quest to be regarded as the strictest Beth Din in the world in matters of conversion and has rejected a compromise by the Chief Rabbi which would allow Guy Sagal, whose case we discussed here and here, to attend JFS, an Orthodox Jewish High School in London:
    The London Beth Din has rejected a compromise proposed by the Chief Rabbi, Sir Jonathan Sacks, to end the controversy over the conversion to Judaism of Helen Sagal, the JC has learned. The proposal, under which Rabbi Sacks suggested that Ms Sagal’s son, Guy, be accepted as halachically Jewish for the purposes of receiving a place at JFS — leaving other questions about his religious status in abeyance — was turned down by the dayanim last week.
    The Chief Rabbi's compromise is of course woefully inadequate -- essentially satisfying no one. Sadly, he does not have the courage to stand up and say what needs to be said, namely that Guy Sagal's mother was converted by an Orthodox Bet Din in Israel and that the London Beth Din should go concentrate on real problems in the community instead of denying women who converted through an Orthodox Beth Din the chance they desperately want to give their children a Jewish education.
    The reason for his reticence, one could reasonably conclude, is a historic reluctance on the part of this Chief Rabbi to confront his Beth Din, partially due to his own insecurity over his halachic authority, and partially due to his consistent desire to be accepted by the Haredim, a segment of the community, incidentally, who never have and never will accept him as their representative.
    Three points:
    1. It has been pointed out before that the London Beth Din is completely out of touch with and non-representative of the people it supposedly represents. Judging by the fury this case has provoked in the community, here's as good an example as any.
    2. I'd really like to hear what the Sephardi Beth Din in Israel, who converted Mrs. Sagal, has to say about the London Beth Din questioning their conversion. (It would also be interesting to hear what English Sephardim think about this -- they are strangely silent on this matter).
    3. Most of all, I would like to read a piece interviewing other Brits who converted through the Sephardi Beth Din in Israel, or through other foreign Batei Din, about their feelings on this case. (Anecdotally, London seems to have a very high percentage of converts; I've met more converts here in the past year-and-a-bit than I've met in the previous 27 years.) Are they now worried that their own cases will, at some stage, be questioned? Because it occurs to me that what the Beth Din is doing is essentially making it impossible for many British residents who've converted overseas to ever feel totally comfortable and accepted in the community, as there is now a precedent for questioning their conversions and turning their lives completely upside down, even 20 years after the fact.

    Friday, June 17, 2005

    Nothing new under the sun ... Kabbalah Centre, London, 1780

    On Shavuot night I gave a session on 'a murky corner of Jewish History' - an account of a colourful character known as 'The Baal Shem of London' - R' Shmuel Falk, who arrived in London in about 1748, and died there in 1782. While there have been occasional articles about him over the years, Michal Oron, a professor at Tel Aviv U, her curiosity piqued a few years back by a casual reference to him by Gershom Scholem, has published a very interesting book which also publishes parts of his diary, his will, and the diary of his 'shammas'. From it emerges a picture of an engaging charlatan, alchemist, writer of 'kamayot' ( = amulets) and spells, who was also apparently a teacher of kabbalah to eminent European nobility, for whom a visit to the 'Kabbalist of London' became a de rigeur excursion on the 'Grand Tour'. In this capacity he has a series of honourable mentions in the history of Freemasonry. Falk was also a teacher of the celebrated Swedish mystic Swedenborg, and some maintain that Falk's influence may be traced in the ideas of the poets William Blake and W. B. Yeats. Prof. Oron notes that despite the list of titles of kabbalistic commentaries in his personal library, there is no evidence whatsoever that he ever read any of them, and she hazards a guess that they may have been for show!
    Despite the fact that I was careful to indicate on the shul bulletin that this was a talk about a not-too-kosher character, part of the (very large - 100 +) audience clearly came expecting to hear about an unknown Hasidic tzaddik who chopped wood for old ladies on Kol Nidrei night and lived alife of maasim tovim .... instead they heard about a character who was one part Philip Berg, one part Shmuley Boteach, and one part Uri Geller. Plus ca change ......

    • FURTHER INTERESTING NOTE: The portrait of Samuel Falk [which if I could work out how to do it, I would post here] was painted by the Anglo-American portraitist, J. S. Copley, who also painted several other prominent Freemasons. An engraving derived from the painting has often been reproduced - wrongly - as a likeness of the 'real' Baal Shem, ie the Besht, founder of Hasidism. Check your sukkah-decoration 'Portraits of Gedolim' posters!

      The book can be ordered from Israel via the very efficient service of . I didn't link to them because you can't link to individual pages on their site. I find them the cheapest and best for getting books from Israel. However, their description of the book is misleading.

    All Kabbalah Center, all the time

    While we're on the subject of the Kabbalah Center, Radar's 'expose' of the Kabbalah Centre founding family, the Bergs, seems to be rapidly spreading across the blogosphere, with everyone from Boing Boing to Gawker down to Jewschool and the Town Crier talking about it. I'm not sure why since the news that they are crooks, liars, in it for the money, celebrity-chasers whose organization bears much resemblance to a cult etc. etc. etc., is hardly news.
    One interesting, albeit unsurprising tid-bit is that the Bergs, who live in the lap of luxury, have full-time volunteers who cook and clean for them for a $35-a-month stipend. Let's hope they at least get a couple of bottles of Kabbalah water thrown in, which would probably effectively double their salary.
    The only really new fact seems to be that they used Craigslist to look for freelance ghostwriters to help them "write 'scholarly' books on Kabbalah, some of which the writers are encouraged to model on new-age best-sellers." As Daniel Radosh put it: "Totally crazy, right? I mean, everyone knows Craigslist is only useful for anonymous sex."

    Thursday, June 16, 2005

    Move over, Madonna?

    Whacko Jacko's dabbling in Kabbalah and apparently wore a bandel (red bracelet) during his trial.
    Note to the Kabbalah Center: Not worth pursuing, for your purposes. He's broke.

    (Via the Yadda Blog)

    Etymology corner

    I had no idea that the English word 'glitch' -- as in, computer glitch -- is an import from the Yiddish.

    Israeli army trying to round up volunteers? **Bloghead scoop**

    An Israeli reader has emailed me with the following:

    Interesting thing happened today... Someone from the army (unit friend, not an offical person) called to ask me if I'd be willing to volunteer for the hitnatkut*. It seems that the army is fearing such huge amounts of sarvanim** that they are looking into units which have already done their part.*** The thing is that legally they can't call us without two month notice...which they don't have. So to get around it they want you to seems there is a loophole where if 50% of a unit volunteers they can call up the entire unit. (This law sounds weird to me, but that is what he claimed.)
    Anyone else getting calls like this? Can anyone confirm the army law, which indeed sounds somewhat fishy?
    Considering the general balagan and complete lack of forward planning around disengagement, I wouldn't be suprised if the army was resorting to this. (Although you'd think they'd just issue Tzav 8's nearer the time?**** Perhaps that's considered too traumatic?)

    *Hitnatkut -- disengagement
    **Sarvanim -- soldiers refusing to serve

    ***I assume this means, miluim for the year -- which the gentleman who sent the email has done.
    **** Emergency reserve duty orders

    A year's a long time in the blogosphere...

    Avraham pays us a compliment (I think...) and offers a criticism. Well, they say there's no such thing as bad publicity, so we'll accept them both gratefully. In a cliche-saturated answer to your point about Unbroken Glass, Avraham, the sad truth is that in the blogosphere as in most spheres of real life, people have short memories, once you're gone, you're gone, fame is fleeting, people move on, nobody is irreplaceable... and that's just the way of the world. I expect one day it'll happen to us as well... sniff.
    Talking of former Protocols elders, what's happened to SIW's Canonist, which has been down for several weeks now, and to CampusJ, which hasn't been updated properly for a month?

    Rabbi Ismar Schorsch retires

    A brief update on the The Forward website:
    The chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, announced to faculty members Wednesday that he would be retiring in the summer of 2006, at the end of the next academic year.
    According to a source, Schorsch announced his decision, noting that by next summer he will have turned 70 and served for 20 years as chancellor of Conservative Judaism’s flagship institution.
    Schorch sounded a similar note in a mass email to JTS supporters.
    "I decided long ago to step down while still in top form,” Schorsch wrote. "The time, however, has come for me to return to the life of the mind.”
    Schorsch asserted that in "its 120-year history, [JTS] has never been larger, stronger or more focused.” He also said the institution was in strong financial shape, "buttressed by a balanced budget, well managed portfolio and vigorous annual campaign, its endowment grows apace.”
    In his e-mail, the chancellor made no mention of the school’s ballooning debt, revealed last year when Schorsch announced that the school needed to repay nearly $40 million in loans to an internal source. Schorsch and other JTS officials have refused to answer questions about the school’s financial situation.
    It will be interesting to see to what extent the latter paragraph emerges as a factor, either privately or publicly. Presumably if urgent financial problems were the deciding factor he would have been pushed to leave before the summer of 2006.

    As if deciding what to wear to the prom wasn't stressful enough...

    The NY Jewish Week is reporting on an increasingly frequent problem in Jewish schools: do they allow their students to bring non-Jewish dates to the prom?
    “The core argument on one side is that Jewish day schools should foster the value of Jews marrying other Jews and building Jewish families, and that value should [permeate] the culture of the school, including the prom,” [Marc Kramer, the executive director of the New York-based Ravsak, an umbrella group representing more than 90 Jewish community day schools in North America] said.
    “The other argument — equally valid, but wildly different — is that … a policy saying students can only bring Jewish dates to the prom oversteps the boundaries of what a school should dictate”........
    Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University, said as more intermarried couples send their children to Jewish day schools, some parents are “reluctant to be taught that intermarriage is wrong.”
    “[The debate] represents two clashing worldviews in the Jewish community: those who see intermarriage as a challenge and those who see it as an opportunity,” he said.
    To make matters more complicated, many kids bring friends to the prom rather than romantic partners.
    If a kid ever chose to force the issue, what would be the schools' legal position?

    Blind date horror stories

    They're sharing blind date horror stories over at Treppenwitz, so off you go. [Elms in the Yard has her own contribution as well.]
    More than a year ago when I'd just moved to England but didn't have a job yet, I started collecting my friends' shidduch horror stories, with the intention of bringing out a book. Of course it stopped as soon as I found a job but I did get to 40 or so good ones (it took some weeding out; most guys' version of a 'Shidduch horror story' was, 'I got to the place we'd arranged, wasn't attracted to the girl and carried on walking'; most women's version was, 'I waited forever for my date, finally I saw him walk right by me without stopping').
    Some of my favorites include:
    • The girl who dated two guys at once -- without realizing they were roomates (I have that from the guys' perspective)
    • The guy who, mid-week, served his date his mother's oily brisket leftovers from Shabbat and, when she didn't gulp it up enthusiastically enough, started attacking her for not appreciating his mother's cooking
    • The guy who told a girl he'd seen 3-4 times that he was getting back together with his former girlfriend, but wanted to carry on seeing her nonetheless
    • The girl who decided to have some fun with her boring, uptight date by eating her falafel as messily as she could, deliberately letting falafel stick to her face and tehina drip down her chin, as he looked on in horror

    And many more...

    Oh well. Feel free to email me other stories or post them here (pls. include your email address if you're willing to be quoted) and maybe I'll pick the project up again....

    Wednesday, June 15, 2005

    Throw away the key

    Well, here's something everyone forgot to mention about Israel's shady ambassador to the UK, Zvi Heifetz, during the lengthy battle over his nomination to the post. His daughter is in jail in Peru for possession of 9 kg (!!!) of cocaine (I think we can safely assume she was dealing but the article didn't specify...).
    And why is this important, you ask? Because she's just been let out of jail, after serving just one year of her 7-year sentence, following a special order by the Peruvian president. Coincidentally, said president and his Israeli wife visited Israel just two weeks ago. I wonder who had a word with who?

    You're not helping the countries, you're helping the Jews

    Can the Canadian Jewish News be reporting this story correctly?
    The executive editor, columnist and editorial writer of the Jerusalem Post [Amotz Asa-El] says Jews living in the Diaspora, particularly in wealthy countries, must nurture Jewish life in the rich and free world, not Israel, and definitely not in Germany, Poland, Slovakia or Russia.
    “I’m totally opposed to the active resurrection of Jewish life in those European countries,” he said.... “Investment of Jewish dollars to build yeshivas and community centres should not be done,” he said. “Investment of Jewish dollars should be confined to keep countries like the U.S., Canada, England and Australia alive and thriving....”
    “My family is from Czechoslovakia and the Czechs had some tolerance of Jews, but I think we should not be helping those other European countries. Yes, we should visit the death camps to commemorate those we lost, but there shouldn’t be Jewish life there. Too much happened there.”
    One can understand his historical distaste, and furthermore one can argue that Judaism has a better chance of surviving and thriving in the free world and so is a better financial investment. But unfortunately, like it or not, there is substantial Jewish life in these countries, and a large proportion, if not most of the Jews show no inclination to move very far (they'll go from the FSU to Germany, if anywhere). What does he propose? Abandon them and allow millions of Jews to assimilate and disappear?

    One man's defamation...

    Last year, Adel Smith, President of the Union of Italian Muslims, brought a lawsuit against Oriana Fallaci for 'defamation of religion' (in her case Islam). A judge allowed the case to go forward last month.
    Now, in a bizarre twist, Smith has himself been convicted of 'defamation of religion.' In his case it's Christianity:
    On January 4, 2003, Adel Smith, during a TV program broadcast live on the Paduan channel 'Serenissima Tv' made accusations against the Catholic church defining it as "criminal association" and against Pope John Paul II, defined as "a foreign man who heads the church" and "able double-crosser. [...] I declared undeniable modern historic facts: for this reason I do not regret my declarations. It seems to me that the sentence is political. I am very curious to know what those think who yesterday invoked the freedom of judgment and criticism today: is it so for me too?"
    Smith said he will appeal against the sentence and if necessary will resort to European courts "until he is acquitted."
    "I am confident and sure that at the end I will have justice."
    The rest of us are all curious to know whether Smith, who is today invoking the freedom of judgment and criticism, will realize that it goes the other way too, and drop his suit against Fallaci? And when will the Italians realize that one person's religious defamation is another person's 'undeniable... facts', and allow these conflicts to be settled socially and culturally rather than through the courts?

    Salvaging a battle, losing the war?

    There's been a development in the case of the Agunah we've been following for the past week or so. Apparently her counsel has resigned and apologized for 'the pain and the embarrasment' caused to the Dayan who resigned after the case received some media exposure. She also apologized for not understanding that the session to which the Dayan and his colleague didn't turn up would not take place last week -- although the Court clearly told her that morning that it would, and one of the three Dayanim himself turned up and actually issued an arrest warrant for the husband because he didn't turn up either. The Dayan has now agreed to return to the case.
    Here's how I read the situation: the counsel and Yad L'Isha did the only pragmatic thing they could to get the Agunah's case resolved as soon as possible (the resignation would have meant months of delays while a new Dayan was appointed and got up to speed with the case). However, this does not mean they were in the wrong. As I've written before, after 4 1/2 years of getting nowhere, they were perfectly entitled to take this case to the media and make the details of the proceedings public. If everything had been above board and fair, the Dayan, like any judge, should have been able to handle the media scrutiny (which was limited, in any case, coming mainly from Ma'ariv). He should also have put the woman's interests first, however he may have felt about her counsel and indeed about the media reports.
    His actions were, the way I see it, a crude attempt to reassert his authority over the counsel and Yad L'Isha who were not handling the case in a way which was convenient for him, who were slipping from his/the court's control, and who actually dared expose the shady goings-on in the court to scrutiny. It was part of a long-simmering vendetta against Yad L'Isha who are making the court's work more difficult by actually representing their clients and bringing their plight to the attention of the nation, rather than allowing the court to walk all over them without ever being held to account by anyone. By apologizing and giving in, Yad L'Isha have put this particular client's interests first, as they should, and salvaged a battle. Let's hope it's not an omen for the rest of the war.

    RELATED: The appointment of a number of new Dayanim is dragging on, and continues to be dominated by shady political deals and power games. Is it any wonder the rabbinical courts are in the state they're in?
    RELATED: Bambi Sheleg on the rabbinical courts

    Tuesday, June 14, 2005

    Shavuot -- the aftermath

    Over the Chag I came across a lighthearted piece on Shavuot written by my father-in-law Chaim Bermant, A"H, for the Jewish Chronicle in 1994. It began:
    Shavuot is, without doubt, my favourite festival.
    It is short, undemanding, with attractive customs and happy associations. I suppose, too, the fact that it usually coincides with the beginning of summer adds to its many pleasures.
    Judaism not only impacts unpon the soul, it can be -- and should be -- tasted on the tongue. And no other festive fare, not Channucah latkes, hamentashehn on Purim, honey or honey-cake on Rosh Hashanah, galuptzi (or holishkes) on Succot, or matzah balls on Pesach can compare to cheesecake, blintzes and borscht on Shavuot. Different sages have suggested different reasons for their origins, but have overlooked the most obvious one. This is, of course, the fact that milk curdles quickly in summer.
    There have been moments in my life when I have had the deepest reservations about Judaism, but I have always come round to the view that a faith which actually requires the faithful to eat cheesecake and blintzes must have something to commend it.
    -- Hear, hear!

    Sunday, June 12, 2005

    Chag Sameach...

    To Bloghead readers and to Klal Yisrael (-- future Bloghead readers... ;-) ). Back Wednesday.

    Miriam and Paul