Friday, September 08, 2006

A new beginning...

To Bloghead's readers --
Thank you so much for all the mazeltovs on the occasion of little Eliana's birth (left, at five weeks, below, at eight). It's taken a long time to get back into the swing of things (unfortunately I had a run of bad luck and was in hospital for 3 weeks after delivery) -- but I am now almost fully recovered, and the baby, of-course, is gorgeous, which is the main thing!
Now that I'm feeling much better, I'm going back to blogging. However, I'll be at a new address. I'm joining the (London) Jewish Chronicle's brand-new group blog, which has just been launched and which is busy taking shape. The contributors will consist of the JC's own writers. At the moment it's me and Jeff Barak, the former editor of both the JC and The Jerusalem Post, and other JC journalists will join in the near future. It promises to be extremely lively -- so please check it out and adjust your bookmarks! See you there...

Friday, July 14, 2006

IT"S A GIRL!!!!!


-- to Miriam and Danny, London UK, Friday afternoon July 14. Mum and baby doing well!!!

-- from the proud Grandfather.

UPDATE: 'Eliana Lia'.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

What I've been reading

  • The Boy Who Fell Out of the Sky -- Ken Dornstein writes about his brother David, who was killed on his way back to the US from Israel in the Pan Am bombing. I didn't expect it to be terribly good -- too often these books just tend to idealise the terrorism victim (for understandable reasons) and are too predictable -- but this one was touching because it was so honest.
    David, who was in his mid-20s when he died, had been obsessed with becoming a writer and with fame. When he died, he left hundreds of boxes of notebooks with his writing, and Ken, who was several years younger and had always looked up to David, decided to go through them and publish some of the material.
    To his horror, he discovered nothing publishable -- just half-baked ideas and unfinished stories. Gradually the picture of David becomes rather sad. He emerges as a charismatic and idealistic dreamer, but a dreamer nonetheless, who died without achieving his potential as an artist -- and who probably didn't really ever have the potential. Strangely, in several of his notebooks he wrote that perhaps his life would only have meaning if he died young and even foreshadows death in a plane crash. It is ironic that in the end, he does achieve a form of immortality through art -- that of his brother.
    Another element is how Ken deals with the aftermath of the bombing and of-course with his renewed understanding of his brother. He struggles to emerge from David's shadow and to work out how best to keep his memory alive. For a while, he actually dates some of his ex-girlfriends -- and even marries one of them (they are still married). His openness about this emotional journey is what makes this book worthwhile.
  • The Lie that Wouldn't Die: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion by former Israeli judge Hadassa Ben-Itto -- I'm still in the middle of this one so I won't say too much about it, other than that a. it is a pleasure to read a 'Jewish' book which isn't about the Holocaust / women / Israel / a small handful of other topics which seem to dominate the 'Jewish book' scene b. So far, it is an absolutely fascinating account of the Protocols' origins and dissemination as well as the various Protocols-related trials that took place in the past century. I'm not sure how much here is new -- not much, I suspect -- but I didn't know most of it. C. One of the enjoyable aspects of this book is that it includes a relatively personal account of Ben-Itto's encounter with the forged document. She begins by explaining in detail how she became aware of its continuing influence and importance and intersperses some of the history -- particularly the accounts of the trials -- with her own thoughts. This is somewhat unconventional in this kind of book but it seems to work here, mainly because of her judicial past and her experience on the international diplomatic scene.

Back -- temporarily....

It's a week and a half to my due date and I'm on maternity leave -- so I finally have some time to blog. In fact, after just a few hours at home I am bored out of my mind and really welcome the distraction! So, until the baby appears (pg), here goes.......
(One caveat: I'm supposed to be taking things easy because of high blood pressure. So I'm going to try and avoid discussing the current situation in Israel -- and especially the way it's being covered in the media -- for health reasons.)

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Where we've been...

It may be a little late to announce this a full month after my last post, but it seems I'm on a blog break... As regular readers will have noticed, in fact blogging has considerably slowed down for the last few months.
Thank you all those who left messages of concern / sent me emails inquiring what was up. The simple truth is this: I'm pregnant (due end of July), and until about last week, was either too sick or too tired to do much blogging (usually both). Now I'm feeling better I'm finding I'm catching up with a million other things to do. (And my father is too busy earning a living to fill in...)
I've loved blogging and do not want to shut down Bloghead. Hopefully at some point in the near future it'll pick up again... so please check in from time to time and stay tuned.
In the meanwhile, I also want to point out that Out of Step Jew has officially closed his blog and to thank him for running such an enjoyable and thought-provoking site for so long. To my mind OOSJ was one of the sanest voices in the J-blogosphere and one of the first, if not the first, blogs I would check each day. He really will be sorely missed.
Happy Purim everyone!

Monday, February 13, 2006

Glass ceiling for women educators?

Good discussion on AddeRabbi and Modern Orthodox Woman about women in leadership positions in the Orthodox world, particularly in women's learning institutions, and how they are restricted by the lack of the title 'rabbi' or an equivalent.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Masa to disaster

I was quite sceptical when Israel announced its Masa programme, mostly -- but not exclusively -- because it would drain funds from the already proven birthright, which is also potentially much more appealing to un/under-affiliated diaspora students. Several months on, it's been announced that the two organizations are negotiating a merger, because -- you guessed it -- the competition for funding wasn't benefitting anyone.
How would this work? The JPost quotes birthright people suggesting quite heavily that it would mean additional funding for birthright. Ha'aretz hedges its bets with the fears of both sides:
Critics of the union, including Beilin, say it will endanger the reputation and success of birthright. "Masa will not take off, and it might bring birthright down with it," Beilin says.
The Jewish Agency is concerned that the union will mean marginalization and a loss of control for Masa, which is considered to be the Jewish Agency's flagship project for the coming years. The chairman of the Jewish Agency's Education Department, Amos Hermon, says "Masa is a strategic move of the government and the Jewish Agency. Bringing in partners requires very serious consideration."
Personally I'm with Beilin on this. As I've said before, I just can't see thousands of Jews from the diaspora lining up for an entire year in Israel, unless they are already extraordinarily committed (mostly = going to yeshiva for the year), which the kids targeted by birthright, who are the ones whose Jewish futures we should be really concerned about, by definition aren't (see my previous posting on this, link above). Does birthright really want to be in bed with these guys? Wouldn't they be better off waiting a couple of years for Masa to collapse, at which point much of the money would revert back to them anyway? So far, there's been all this money lavished on Masa and it doesn't yet have anything at all to show for it -- other than the harm it's done to birthright.

The roots of Tu Bishvat

(First published Tu Bishvat 2005)

A few weeks ago we talked about the amazing malleability of Channukah, which meant something different to each generation. Today we celebrate Tu Bishvat which is, if possible, even more malleable than Channukah! Two nice explanations of this idea can be found here and here. In short, Tu Bishvat can be roughly divided into four historical periods:
  • Rabbinic/Economic: Tu Bishvat was first mentioned in the Mishnah (Tractate Rosh Hashanah) as the New Year for Trees – one of several new years to do with tithes. The fifteenth of the month of Shvat was, quite simply, a tax day which marked “the end of the arboreal fiscal year: tithes on fruit after this date belonged to the next year,” fruit from before this date belonged to the previous one. As a side note, Shammai wanted the New Year for Trees to fall on the first of the month. Would the festival of Aleph Shvat have caught on as well??
  • Mystical – After Israel’s exile tithing was no longer relevant and so the festival was neglected for a good 1,000 years. It only bloomed again (ahem) in sixteenth century Tzfat, where the Kabbalists, and in particular the AriZal (Rabbi Yitzhak Luria), resurrected it and gave it a new, cosmic face. The Ari was responsible for inventing the Tu Bishvat Seder and for initiating the custom of eating fruit on this day. The ceremony was imbued with Kabbalistic meaning – each fruit, each cup of wine etc. symbolised a Kabbalistic idea. In 1753 the Kabbalists produced a Tu Bishvat Haggadah called "Pri Etz Hadar" or "Fruit of the Goodly Tree."
  • Zionist/National: Tu Bishvat received another boost in the late nineteenth century when the Zionists connected it to the ideas of reforestation of the land of Israel and to the reblooming of the people of Israel in their land. To this day, Israeli school children plant trees on Tu Bishvat – a more recent phenomenon than they may realize. Incidentally, the Knesset held its first ever meeting on Tu Bishvat (1949), at the Jewish Agency building in Jerusalem.
  • Ecological – In the 1960s, environmental activists began to use Tu Bishvat as a day to remember and promote universal ecological issues. This is more of a Diaspora/American face of Tu Bishvat, however….

Wishing you a multi-layered Tu Bishvat!

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Does Islam really forbid the depiction of Muhammed?

The answer is, I don't know -- I'm not an expert on Islamic law and there have been various opinions expressed on this over the past week in the media. However, this blog has collected a series of images of Muhammed from the past few centuries, including many drawn by Muslims themselves. Whatever Islamic law says on the subject, drawing Mohammed has clearly not been a taboo, certainly not a reason for violence. Which either means that a great number of Muslims are ignorant about their own history and faith (as very well may be and as is not unusual in other religions, including our own, as well), or that there's a lot more to the stoking of this story than has been generally acknowledged -- or both.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

More than you ever wanted to know about chulent

We've already discussed the etymology of the word chulent on this blog; here's another chulent-y fact I wasn't previously aware of:
in the old country, Jewish families would take their cholent to communal bakers' ovens. To protect the food's kosher status, the pot was sealed with a paste of flour and water, says Brooklyn's Matthew Goodman, who writes a food column for the national Jewish weekly newspaper Forward.
On the way home from schul, or synagogue, families would pick up their pots. Typically this task was reserved for the men and children of the family, writes Cairo-born food historian Claudia Roden in The Book of Jewish Food.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Damned if they do, damned if they don't

Just over a year ago, Bloghead noted that Rabbi Eli Ben-Dahan, the director general of Israel’s rabbinical courts, told an event for Yad L'Isha -- the Israeli organisation which helps agunot -- that
“Recently Yad L’Isha has positioned itself as a fist/punch to the husband and a fist to the rabbinical courts... The day isn’t far when the rabbinical courts will boycott the organization. If Yad L’Isha turns Eli Ben-Dahan and the Dayanim into their great enemies – you will have wasted your work....”
At the time, we translated this as,
'you’re making life too difficult for us, it’s no longer as easy as it was to settle these cases by sacrificing the wives. We’re beginning to feel threatened – time to get rid of these feminists before they really start getting uppity.'
Well, now the rabbinical courts have made good on Ben Dahan's promise -- and gone one better. Not only are they boycotting Yad L'Isha, they are apparently breaking off ties with any and all organizations which fight for the rights of the agunot:
A spokesman for the management of the rabbinical courts said that the council was "reexamining its relations with women's organizations that claim to protect the rights of agunot."
Rabbinical judges David Malka and Avraham Sheinfeld, both members of the six-man council, told The Jerusalem Post that there had been no official announcement.
However, both men admitted that rabbinical judges were wary of their relations with the women's organizations...
Malka said that there was a lot of bad blood between the judges and the organizations. "We are bitter after all the attacks made by the organizations on the judges."
Unfortunately, there's been more than good reason for the organizations to challenge and attack the judges, who have routinely allowed men to blackmail their wives and keep them in unhappy marriages for decades, encouraged women to give up money that other courts have ruled are owed to them and generally treated too many women with contempt. That the judges react in this way show it's all about their ego. As judges, they are not beyond criticism, reproach or challenge and the fact they think they are, and that they can get away with this behavior, is deeply disturbing.
And if anyone doubted the court's lack of understanding of the women who come before them, you need only continue reading the esteemed judge Malka's comments to the Post, where he unashamedly
admitted that he encourages women to relinquish child support payments owed by the husband or other monetary obligations in order to facilitate the giving of a get (divorce certificate).
"Listen, this is money that she never earned," explained Malka. "Only in theory does it belong to her.
"For instance, according to the law the wife is entitled to half of a man's pension rights even though she never worked a day in her life. I do not think she should remain an aguna because she is stubborn about receiving her half."
That's right, according to judge Malka a woman who spends her life bringing up her family and looking after what is, after all, her husband's home as well has 'never worked a day in her life' and is not entitled to any financial security, and their children, apparently, do not deserve financial support from their father because it's their mother doing the asking. Not that his opinion should really matter; note to judge Malka, women are entitled to this money not by theory, but -- as you yourself noted -- BY LAW. That you think your job as a judge paid by the state is to talk them out of their legal rights is beyond presumptuous.
Of-course, I was being generous before -- it's not really about the judges' easily bruised feelings. With this move, the rabbinical courts are using the strongest means they have to very consciously pressure the women and the women's organizations into shutting up and just allowing them to continue colluding in the ruin of women's lives in peace and quiet, without having to answer to the public for their rulings and actions. But there's no use in the women shutting up; in the years when the women kept quiet or operated more quietly, nothing was done for them either. They're damned if they do, damned if they don't. I hope they do because the rabbis' latest reaction is the surest sign yet that they are feeling the heat and the public pressure to change their ways.

(Via OOSJ)

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Stop downplaying the WJC report

The AG's report on the WJC is out and the feeling among those who have addressed its findings in the blogosphere seems to be that Israel Singer and his colleagues have been completely exonorated. In addition, of course, everyone is jumping on the media coverage, particularly in the Jewish Week, for 'misrepresenting' what's in the report and simply blasting the WJC for the hell of it (or because they're terrible journalists and can't bear to admit they've been wrong).
Well, I beg to differ with the first point, and think that the second has allowed everyone to take their eye off the real issue.
The report, which I've read, is completely and consistently clear on one thing: nothing criminal went on at the WJC and there was no criminal intent. From that point of view, many of the suspicions raised against the organisation have proven unfounded. However -- and this is a big however -- it does, essentially, convict Singer et al of terrible financial mismanagement and negligence with what is NOT THEIR MONEY.
Says the Town Crier: "According to the Attorney General's statement, the WJC seems to be guilty of not much more than having been run like a Jewish Organization."
Well, sorry, the 'everybody does it' excuse simply doesn't cut it -- the only thing it's good for is as a warning to the other Jewish orgs who function this way to get themselves into shape, pronto. The report details some extremely serious issues and actions which -- while not criminal -- should not be downplayed. Officials at the WJC were using the organisation's money to pay for their children's school tuition, for G-d's sake, for life insurance for their partners, car leases, and acting completely carelessly with millions of dollars which again, were not theirs, but came in a large part from donors like you and -- well, not me, in this case, but you get the picture.
The fact is, in this day and age, Israel Singer saying that he simply isn't 'the organizational type' isn't good enough. All of these men are worldly, experienced and intelligent enough to have known better. If they can't handle the money, they should have hired someone who could, way before Mr Herbits was brought onto the scene. The fact is, again, if anyone is to blame for this entire episode, it is not Isi Liebler -- whatever his motives were, and it's clear that he's no tallit shekulo tchlet -- but the WJC men themselves -- for leaving themselves so outrageously open to it.
Think what you like of Gary Rosenblatt's coverage, Isi Liebler's motivations, etc etc etc, but that doesn't change the basic fact that this report is still extremely serious. The very fact that Mr Singer has been barred from taking up any position of financial management speaks for itself. This doesn't make him a bad man -- I'm sure the opposite -- but I'm sorry, if you donated money to the WJC, would you want him handling it? I wouldn't.

A systematic strategy, please

Not having learned the lessons from the Gaza evacuation, when the settlers' attempts to compare the Israeli government to the Nazis generated total disgust from the rest of the Jewish world, Mentalblog is calling the events in Amona a 'pogrom' -- completely devaluing, of-course, the experiences, suffering and deaths of the Jews over the centuries who went through real pogroms. Disgusting.
In the meanwhile, though, I do have to ask why Olmert decided to evacuate Amona at this exact point in time. The West Bank is littered with similar illegal settlements -- none of which I support; I want to see them all dismantled. What is the point of getting rid of one here, one there, though -- so much trauma when another ma'achaz will pop up tomorrow somewhere else and when others continue to exist anyway? What I want to see from Olmert, before the election, preferably, is a statement about how he is going to deal with the question of Israel's presence in the territories as a whole (not leaving it to our imaginations and suppositions -- 'everyone knows' what he's going to do is just not good enough), and then go about it in a planned and most importantly, systematic way. Get rid of all of them, get rid of all of those he wants to get rid of, get rid of none of them, but whatever he does, he should do it as part of a thought-out strategy, and not just as he goes along, as it suits his election campaign. There's simply no point otherwise.

UPDATE: According to Allison, the 'pogrom' accusations may have started with Effie Eitam.

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Danish press -- it's a riot

The protests across the Arab world against the 12 caricatures of Mohammed which appeared in a Danish newspaper -- and which can be seen here (scroll down) -- are continuing to gain pace, several months after the cartoons first appeared (see previous Bloghead coverage here). Danish ambassadors have been summoned, embassies closed, Danish products boycotted, threats of violence issued, street protests launched, etc etc etc. The Danish government and the newspaper which originally published the material have issued semi-apologies, as has the Norwegian PM, as a Norwegian paper reprinted the cartoons recently.
Several points:
  • The media seems to be portraying this as a spontaneous outburst of 'Muslim anger' (an oft-repeated phrase) in the Arab street. Anyone who believes this is an idiot. Several months after the cartoons first appeared, a harsh reaction has clearly been agreed upon at the highest levels -- embassies across a region don't close themselves and ambassadors don't summon themselves.
  • Why now? I haven't seen an explanation of this anywhere.
  • Again, rather than an expression of spontaneous 'Muslim anger,' I see this as another conscious attempt to bully the West into self-censorship when it comes to real and urgent political issues concerninng Muslims, out of fear of Muslim violence. The boycott of Danish products, in particular, is a warning to all of Europe and the entire west; which western paper isn't going to think twice about publishing material potentially 'offensive' to Muslims when the price might be the entire country's economy suffering a blow?
  • If you actually look at the cartoons, I can't say they're not offensive. If I were a Muslim, I would probably be offended. So what? As a Jew, I've been more than offended by plenty of blatantly anti-Semitic cartoons which have appeared over the last few years. Haven't threatened to physically harm anyone, though. As my father-in-law Chaim Bermant once wrote, "The liberty to cause offence, even outrage, is precisely what freedom of speech is about. It presumes the right to be wrong." The real question, to my mind, is not what opinions a society allows to be publicly expressed*, but how a society -- or a group -- reacts when opinions expressed under freedom of speech offend a particular party. With violence and intimidation? Or with education, pr, media work -- trying to change minds peacefully? Only with the latter can a real dialogue, and real freedom of speech, continue to exist.
  • Riding Sun makes a good point:
    Ironically, the fury of the Muslim world's response to these cartoons shows that the cartoons themselves weren't entirely off-base. They depicted Muslims as intolerant and violent, and Muslims responded with intolerance and violence.
    Those who protested the cartoons were united by a common demand that Muslims, and Islam, be treated with respect. The energy that fueled their outrage might be better spent demonstrating why such respect is warranted.
  • Along similar lines, I've seen a few comments suggesting that what's needed now is education in Denmark about Islam and Muslims. Actually, the lesson here is what's needed now is better education among Muslims across the Arab world (and Europe -- where, after all, these riots began a few months back) about proportion, appropriate ways to respond to insults, and freedom of speech.
*I don't include calls to violence and racial hatred in this

Monday, January 30, 2006

Run! It's red beard!

I didn't see much reference to this at the time -- it was published before the PA elections and before Hamas became the 'hot' story of the moment -- but it's worth revisiting. Apparently, before the election, Hamas spent $180,000 on a PR consultant to help them improve their international image (y'know, how to get people to ignore the guns and the killing and the blood and all that without actually giving up any of the violence). As it happens, most of his advice wasn't bad -- basically to start repeating the kind of lies which Hanan Ashrawi etc. repeated ad nauseum, very successfully:
He says Hamas has not helped itself by celebrating suicide bombings; he advises against celebration. And he has told Hamas leaders not to talk about destroying Israel.
"Abdel Aziz Rantisi [the former Hamas leader killed by Israel two years ago] was on television saying things that foreigners cannot accept, like we will remove Israel from the map. He should have talked about Palestinian suffering. He should have said we need this occupation ended. Foreigners will accept this," he said.
Mr Aqtash has also advised Hamas leaders to emphasise that they are not anti-semitic or against Israelis because they are Jews. Hamas has taken the message on board. In an interview earlier this week, Muhammad Abu Tir, who is second on the Hamas election list, twice (and unprompted) offered an assurance that he is not a Jew hater.
"Loving others is part of our religion. We are not against Jews as Jews, we are against oppression," he said.
Many Europeans, as we've seen in the aftermath of the election, already believe this or choose to believe this, no matter what Hamas actually does or what it actually says (most of the Hamas leaders have emphatically not stuck to their 'new' message, which hasn't stopped Europeans talking about Hamas's 'political wing,' bending over backwards to find a way to continue supplying them with funds despite all the lip service, etc.). As for the rest, these messages are exactly what a majority of Westerners want to hear. If Hamas leaders ever do master them, Israel will be in real trouble.
The full absurdity of a terrorist group trying to 'improve its image', however, is brought home by this short list of pointers, which the Guardian helpfully provided, based on the PR consultant's advice:
The advice Nashat Aqtash gave to Hamas:

· Say you are not against Israelis as Jews

· Don't talk about destroying Israel

· Do talk about Palestinian suffering

· Don't celebrate killing people

· Change beard colour (if red)

Yup, especially that last one. Those red beards were always what terrified me most about Hamas!

Blogging to the Knesset...

Danny Hershtal, a frequent commentator on this blog, is running for the Knesset as part of the Yisrael Beytenu list -- and blogging about it. He'll find out tomorrow what position he's on in the party's list, which will be published -- for the rest of us -- on Feb 5. No matter where he's placed, sounds like fun, and I'm sure there'll be plenty of good blog material...

UPDATE: Apparently there's another blogging candidate (thanks, Soccer Dad)

"We had a lot of fun... and having fun in an Egyptian jail is really something"

The great story of how one group of POWs spent their years in captivity in Egypt. Shame the article doesn't say whether the translation was any good.

(Via Kesher Talk)

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Rav Kadouri: I've met the Moshiach

The kabbalist Rav Kadouri, who is ailing in hospital at age 108 (some say 112), apparently told (and I use the word somewhat sceptically as, according to previous reports, he hasn't been telling anyone anything much for a very long time) an Arutz-7 radio host this very week that
“The Kabbalists will investigate my words over the recent months about the Redemption and Moshiach [The Annointed Leader of the Jews during that period] and will reveal the secret name of Moshiach which was revealed to me on Cheshvan 9, 5764 (November 11, 2003).” The rabbi said he actually met the person who will be Moshiach, on that date.
2003??? Well he sure can keep a secret.... Special prize for whoever can produce his diary of appointments from that day!

Monday, January 23, 2006

The other election...

Kobi Arieli in Ma'ariv / NRG has written one of the only articles I've seen about one of the curiosities of this Israeli election -- the placement of Tzvia Greenfield, a self-described Haredi woman from Har Nof, as the no. 6 on the Meretz (Yachad) list. She is a well-known activist both in the peace movement and against religious coercion and, needless to say, raises a lot of hackles in the haredi community. I'm surprised that the media hasn't made more of this; Arieli, in any case, has sparked an interesting debate on the site about what exactly it takes to be considered a haredi -- to what extent is it a sociological definition, to what extent religious. (I suppose the same debate could equally be held about any segment of the population.)
To read more about Greenfield you can visit her website, in Hebrew, here. More about her, I suppose, if she gets elected!

Canadian revolution?

It's Canadian election day and according to polls, there's going to be a major upset, with the Liberal party thrown out of power after 12 years and the Conservatives returned, albeit with a minority government. Of-course, polls have been wrong before and there's no saying what will actually happen, however it will be interesting to watch -- as will the Jewish vote. The Jewish establishment is considered fairly aligned with the Liberals, however the party has been in some hot water recently for their shoddy attitude towards Israel, and the Conservatives have been much more supportive; in Ontario, run by the Liberals, the province has been in hot water for some time now over the issue of funding for Jewish schools. More on all this here.
It was interesting for me to see, last week when I was in Canada, that even many people I talked to in the heavily Jewish areas of Toronto were considering voting Conservative for the first time in years -- although in Ontario the Conservatives are considered, or were considered until very recently, the yokels from Alberta. Did the people I meet reflect reality? We'll see tonight I guess.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Where political correctness and moral relativism ends

The top story in Canada's National Post today:
A new study commissioned by the federal government recommends that Canada legalize polygamy and change legislation to help women and children living in plural relationships.
The paper by three law professors at Queen's University in Kingston argues that a Charter challenge to Section 293 of the Criminal Code banning polygamy might be successful, said Beverley Baines, one of the authors of the report.
"The polygamy prohibition might be held as unconstitutional," Ms. Baines said in an interview last night.
"The most likely Charter [of Rights and Freedoms] challenge would be brought by people claiming their freedom of their religion might be infringed. Those living in Bountiful would say polygamy is a religious tenet"...
The Martin government commissioned the $150,000 study into the legal and social ramifications of polygamy just weeks before it introduced divisive same-sex marriage legislation. Same-sex marriage was approved last June.
Critics said at the time that the study underscored a deep concern in the federal government that legalized homosexual marriage could lead to constitutional challenges from minority groups who claim polygamy as a religious right.
And, if you live in a society where anything goes and where moral judgements are frowned upon, they have a point...

Quality of life

Sharon -- slowly disappearing from the headlines -- is showing few signs of coming out of his coma. If he doesn't begin to emerge from it soon, one wonders whether he will at all, despite all the 'upbeat' predictions of this week. It's increasingly likely he may simply stay this way for years, out of the public eye. What a tragedy life in a vegetative state would be for a man like him.

Mitochondrial Eves

The JPost reports:
[F]our Jewish "founding mothers" who lived in Europe 1,000 years ago have been credited with being the ancestors of nearly half of all Ashkenazi Jews, who constitute the majority of the current Jewish population.
About 3.5 million people - or 40 percent of Ashkenazi Jews currently alive - are descended from these matriarchs, who were among a small group, probably after migrating from the Middle East, according to the Israeli researchers, who also provide evidence of shared maternal ancestry between Ashkenazi and non-Ashkenazi (Sephardi and Oriental) Jews.
Interesting -- although hardly surprising, because, as we noted (quoting an article in the Atlantic) last time we discussed the Jewish ancestry issue,
20 percent of the adult Europeans alive in 1000 would turn out to be the ancestors of no one living today (that is, they had no children or all their descendants eventually died childless); each of the remaining 80 percent would turn out to be a direct ancestor of every European living today....
and you can most likely say something similar about Ashkenazi Jewry. At the same time, I noted that the same article claimed that the most recent common ancestor of all Europeans lived about 600 years ago; since I'm no scientist, maybe someone can help me out here -- what, if anything, does the latest research imply about the most recent common ancestor of Ashkenazi Jewry?

UPDATE: Another question for the more scientifically inclined: how does this latest research square with this?

Thursday, January 12, 2006

An inspiration

I was reading through Adloyada's account of an uplifting Shabbat with a family of her relatives in Shiloh when I suddenly thought, 'this is sounding really familiar.' And indeed, it turned out she was talking about the Apter family, whose son, Noam, was killed in a terrorist attack on Otniel three years ago. He was one of four boys in the kitchen of the settlement's yeshivah, helping to prepare a meal for the students in the hall, when terrorists entered the kitchen and started shooting. However, the terrorists never got into the hall because the door between the kitchen and the hall was locked. After the event, from the evidence, many people drew the conclusion that Noam, understanding what was at stake (I think already wounded?), had been the person who had locked the door in order to save the students in the hall -- although the exact truth may never be known. If it is true, one of the people whose lives he saved was my brother's, who was one of the students in the hall (the majority of the boys in the room were actually a visiting group from Gush) -- and who, I should point out, also acted heroically by trying to get back into the hall to fight and later helping evacuate some of the wounded.
At the time, I wrote a profile of Noam Apter for the Jerusalem Post (which I can't find online any more, except for pay) and was already then impressed by what an unusual young man he must have been (regardless of what happened that evening), and what a special family he must have come from.
Still, losing a son can break even the strongest family. Adloyada's account of this loving and close-knit family three years on, then -- with 38 (!) youngsters turning up after Friday night dinner -- is a must-read. Whilst they were clearly special beforehand, they are even more of an inspiration today. Read her touching account here.


Let me join the rest of the J-blogosphere by grovelling for your votes in the Jewish and Israeli Blog Awards...
Bloghead has been nominated in 5 categories:
-- Best Jewish Religion blog
-- Best Jewish Culture blog
-- Best Politics and Current Affairs blog
-- Best Overall blog
-- and Best Group blog (voting not yet open)
If you've enjoyed Bloghead over the past year, we'd appreciate your vote! And a big thanks to whoever nominated us.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Slifkin in Toronto: an update

I'm in Toronto this week and am interested to see that the Slifkin controversy is still playing out here. As you will recall, it started a couple of weeks ago when R. Slifkin came to speak in the city and R. Shlomo Miller, the local Rosh Kollel, circulated a letter which was displayed as a poster and also copied and circulated throughout the city, banning the books and saying they had 'the odor of heresy' (rough translation), comparing him to the wicked son of the haggadah and, having discredited science, giving a series of strange scientific explanations about how the Torah accounts of instant creation could be explained by modern theories of advanced physics.
This was followed by a lengthy news report in the Canadian Jewish Tribune about the whole affair, which essentially kicked off the public debate beyond R. Miller's natural circle. A week later it was followed by a strange letter in the same paper (a spoof?) which again was widely discussed.
In the past week, a group of rabbis got together and published a poster protesting the 'pgiah bekavod haTorah' (insult to the honor of the Torah) that a Jewish newspaper could publish this article and letter. Not to be outdone, some more centrist orthodox rabbis (apparently) published an even stronger letter, naming the Jewish Tribune, and also protesting against the assault on the kvod haTorah. Now, last but not least, the Canadian Jewish News has published an opinion piece (entitled, The Slifkin Affair: A Lament for Orthodoxy) protesting the way R. Slifkin has been treated by the rabbis and the way the rabbis have tried to stifle debate.
The reason this is interesting is because this all makes Toronto one of the few cities in which the Slifkin affair has been debated or even covered at any length in the Jewish press. It is also one of the few cities in which widespread opposition by the educated Jewish public to the banners has been expressed -- again in the press -- most remarkably, in an unprecedented attack on the person regarded as Toronto's leading halachic authority. In effect, Rabbi Miller's ban (which, to give it its local context, is widely understood here to be part of a concerted effort to stifle the left-wing-ish orthodox Torah in Motion program run by Rabbi Jay Kelman, who brought Slifkin in to lecture) sparked off the kind of debate and publicity for R. Slifkin that has rarely been seen beyond the blogosphere. It will be interesting to see -- a. where this all ends locally, and b. how this will affect the behaviour of the haredi rabbis in cities which R. Slifkin visits in the future.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Not a steal

The London Times reports:
Burglaries, car thefts and other crimes have more than halved since Israelis began gluing themselves to television sets for news on the health of Ariel Sharon, their ailing Prime Minister...
In the first three days after Mr Sharon's stroke only 865 burglaries were reported, compared to 1,739 in the corresponding period last year. Police attributed the fall to the fact that householders and would-be burglars have been preoccupied with their Prime Minister’s fight for life.
"It’s obviously more difficult to break into a house while the owner is stuck in front of the television," one police source told the Maariv daily. "But it’s also possible that some of the burglars have themselves decided to stay in to follow Mr Sharon’s health.
Or maybe Mr Sharon didn't get $3 million from Cyril Kern at all and now we know where all the extra cash really came from?

Please tell me this is a joke

Yesterday, when news started coming in that Sharon had moved his arm and leg, people around me began joking that this fighter is going to fully recover yet, in time for the next election -- and that his first word will probably be, 'shawarma.'
Ha ha.
Today I read in Ha'aretz that
Among the ways in which physicians hope to stimulate Sharon's senses Tuesday is to place a plate of shawarma, the sliced meat dish said to be the prime minister's favorite, close enough for him to smell it, Army Radio reported.
Smell it, eat it, and induce another stroke???

Sunday, January 08, 2006

JDate changes

The NYT is reporting (a few weeks after JTA, for once) that JDate is adding a feature allowing men to search for men and women to search for women.
Not that surprising, considering how broad the Jewish community is and how standard this feature is on most dating sites -- but one wonders how many men looking for men, and women looking for women, will be ticking the 'modern orthodox' / 'orthodox' box at the same time, per at least one of the interviewees in the NYT article*, and whether/how making it so much easier for gay orthodox people to meet each other and date will affect their position as a group, long-term, in the community?

*In fairness, it doesn't actually say he identifies as either of these, but simply that he's shomer Shabbat. Still.

Israel/Sharon -- 2 comments

1. There has been some comment on the J-blogosphere about the celebrations in the PA over Sharon's illness. In one response, Dovbear, for example, has warned Jewish bloggers/commentators that
"Any of you who may choose to point out that those bloodthirsty Palestinians are celebrating the news of Ariel Sharon's declining health had better be sure your hands and blogs are perfectly clean on the matter of Rachel Corrie."
But why go that far? Over the past few days, I have been absolutely horrified to read the comments left by Israelis themselves all over the Hebrew internet site of YNet and Ma'ariv's site, NRG, wishing Sharon ill, a hasty death, suffering, or expressing passive-aggressive indifference ("please make sure his funeral is in the afternoon, I have a hair appointment in the morning"). We're not talking about a handful of people but about dozens and perhaps even hundreds.
Now Israeli politics has never been pleasant and Israeli political discourse never anything less than aggressive, so I suppose it's all par for the course, but it's still disgusting. The man is still a prime minister of Israel, a man who dedicated his life to the country, and not least -- a human being.
Comment in the Jewish blogosphere about Sharon's situation, by comparison, has been almost uniformally polite at the very least, even in blogs which did not support his recent policies -- I guess reflecting the more civil norms of political discourse outside of Israel -- kol hakavod.
2. I am slightly bemused by the calm, accepting, even enthusiastic reception Ehud Olmert is receiving in the media as the potential next Prime Minister. He is widely distrusted, with many regarding him as having a shady track-record. And rather than hearing concerns that the man, as mayor of Jerusalem, couldn't even arrange for the garbage to be collected on time -- how can he be expected to run an entire country? -- we're being reassured, somewhat blithely, that he's a 'seasoned politician' who 'knows the system,' and that we're in safe hands.
This shows more about the paucity of the other candidates for the job than about Olmert's suitability. Let's hope that he rises to the occasion and that the moment maketh the man, and that this laid-back attitude towards someone who one week ago would never have been considered prime ministerial material isn't something we all end up regretting.

No shame

Rav Ovadiah Yosef has joined the lengthening list of so-called gedolim who have come out against R Natan Slifkin's books. The idea that some of those on the list haven't actually read the books is not new, but R Ovadiah admits this explicitely -- and goes on to describe the books as "full of words of kefira and minus and falisfication of the writings of Chazal, and a desecration of the foundations of faith passed down from generation to generation," based on what "Several trustworthy, God-fearing, English-speaking, learned men testified before me."
Does a true 'godol' really think that the words of others -- in other words, mere gossip and hearsay, no matter how 'G-d fearing' the source -- is enough for such a condemnation? Shouldn't he be a little more careful with his words?
One wonders, too, what exactly he's doing on this list. After all, the majority of his followers will be never be exposed to R Slifkin's heresy -- why was he pressured to join?

(Via Krum, who provides a rough translation of the letter, which is found in the Hebrew original here)

Thursday, January 05, 2006

'The Times" has it in one phrase .....

Analysis: now Israel must find another strong leader - fast

Head of Orthodox Union: "I believe in Evolution"

Rabbi Zvi Hirsh Weinreb, in Q and A in Haaretz, says categorically that he sees no reason why Orthodox jews cannot fully accept the scientiifc proofs of history (see question about two-thirds of the way down).
"Let me explain my position. I am convinced that there is a strong scientific case to be made for Darwin's theory of evolution as it is currently understood."

Thank G-d there is still one sensible mainstream Orthodox leader around. Now can we move on? It is, however, astonishing that such a prominent O leader is risking the condemnation of the entire Yeshivah world.

Manwhile - and I am aware that I am taking our attention away from the issue of the moment -- an equally astonishing letter in the Toronto 'Jewish Tribune' argues that we all got the wrong impression regarding the nature of Rabbi Miller's condemnatory letter about Rabbi Slifkin.....

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

17:26 EST(00:26 Israel): "Waiting for a miracle"

Haaretz Ivrit has this line:

00:26 ערוץ 10
מקורות בלשכת שרון: אנחנו מחכים לנס

We join kol am yisrael with our prayers for a refuah shelemah.

All bets are off

The news coming out of Israel tonight is grim. It seems entirely clear the PM is struggling for his life; Ha'aretz says says they're waiting for a miracle.
No matter what happens to Ariel Sharon tonight or over the coming days, he's political history. Unlike the previous stroke, Sharon, if he survives, won't be able to shrug this off; this has changed everything.
As we've written several times before, the Israeli political system revolves entirely around this one man. If he's gone, so is everything we think we know at the moment about the political scene, and all bets are off; quite simply, despite all the pressure on the tv networks to predict what will happen next, the system will be shaken so radically that it is simply impossible to predict anything at all.
Most importantly, with Ariel Sharon gone also goes the broad Israeli consensus which has, miraculously, formed over the past few years. There's no one out there who embodies a vision a majority of Israelis can sign on to, other than Ariel Sharon (and that despite the fact that most Israelis aren't even particularly clear about what his vision is; they simply trust him). Sharon's sudden political departure will also leave Israel significantly weaker externally, with no strong leader, no one who can handle the conflict with the Palestinians as assuredly, and no one Israelis really trust to handle their foreign and defense policy.
The questions now are, Olmert, Peres (....or Mofaz??). Will the elections go ahead as planned? What will happen to the MKs who joined Kadima -- does the party still exist? Is there anyone else out there with the charisma and power to continue disengagement? Where does this leave Israel vis a vis the Palestinians?
Whatever happens, we wish Ariel Sharon a refuah shlemah and pray that he pulls through quickly.

Rachel Corrie, the sequel

Question: If you were the editor of Ha'aretz, would you bury the following sterling news item halfway down a really boring story? I really think that this deserves a headline of its own:
In a separate incident on Wednesday which further underscored the growing lawlessness in the Gaza Strip, Palestinian gunmen burst into a house in and tried to kidnap the parents of Rachel Corrie, who was killed in 2003 as she protested the impending demolition of a house in the southern Gaza town, according to their host.
The five gunmen, who also appeared to be affiliated to the ruling Fatah movement, eventually relented after being told who their targets were, according to Samir Nasrallah, in whose house the couple was staying.
Corrie was crushed to death by an Israeli bulldozer in 2003 as she tried to stop it from demolishing Nasrallah's house. Her parents, Craig and Cindy, have repeatedly visited Nasrallah since. They left Gaza safely after the incident, Nasrallah said.
And promptly, I'd bet.
Now, a little note to the idiot kidnappers who seem to be roaming the Gaza Strip: Guys, any foreigners in the area practically by definition are your friends. The only people dumb enough to hang out there support you. D'oh! And no need to thank me for the tip.

(Hat tip: Jenni)

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Shavivs - pere et filles - "Off the derech"!

Well, before everyone says "We knew that a long time ago" or "Any idiot can see that by reading Bloghead for a day or so" -- what I mean is that both of us are quoted in the book "Off the Derech" by Faranak Margolese.

[Derekh = the path, or the 'straight and narrow'. 'Off the Derech" is colloquial Jewish-speak for kids who abandon Jewish observance.]

Well-known blog-denizen Steve Brizel emailed me that I was quoted in the book. After a few days' delay I found a copy ( it has sold out in several shops in Toronto). I am quoted on p. 301 (about the 'pressure to conform' as being a major point of conflict - not even sure where I wrote it), and a feature that Miriam wrote for the 'Jerusalem Post' in 2002 about girls at risk in Jerusalem is quoted on page 297-8.

So - the book itself. I thought it was good. It is not great literature, but it is very informative. It is midway between an anecdotal and an academic study, but it seems to me to to touch on many very clear and perceptive points. There is a mountain of illuminating material - interviews, anecdotes, communications, surveys. It has been criticised for being somewhat rambling (true - it could have done with much more rigorous editing) and not being methodologically up to standard (unfair - the author is very clear about her research, which was extensive, and the book does not claim to be a sociological study). My only grouse is that there is no index.

From my own experience, I thought that many of her conclusions were absolutely correct, and I think that anyone in education, the rabbinate or other community work should read it. Someone should send a few copies to the Gedolim. As she herself points out, it is unlikely to be read by some of the characters who come off worst in the book, because they are from the sector who make it a point of pride not to read books - at least, this sort of book. The other large category of people who could read it are parents - but I guess that most parents will not read it until it is too late.

Among the substantiated findings are:

  • Most people are 'pushed out' of the observant community by the insensitivity of others, rather than 'pulled in' by the glamour of the outside world
  • For the majority, the decisive factors are emotional, not philosophical
  • Insistence on total conformity in every sphere of life, rigidity, intolerance of others (within and without the Jewish community) and unwillingness to understand the individual are major causes of alienation.

France -- still falling apart

A further indication -- if one was necessary -- of just how oblivious French society is to its own ills comes in this little-noticed report on the events of new year's eve, 2006:
French police said on Sunday they were relieved that expected violence failed to materialise on New Year's Eve, just weeks after the worst rioting in France in nearly 40 years.
The government deployed 25,000 police to keep the peace, slightly more than last year, in case festivities led to the kind of violence and vandalism which captured headlines around the world in October and November....
"In the context of the period we had between Oct 27 and Nov 21, we could have feared that urban violence would start up again," National police chief Michel Gaudin said at a press conference on Sunday. "It was nothing."
And what was this 'nothing'?
Police said 425 cars were burnt, of which 177 were in the Paris region, and 362 revellers were detained.
The surprising bit is that this isn't even being treated as a repeat of the riots of a couple of months ago -- because these stats
marked a slight rise from the 333 burnt cars and 272 arrests last year.
In other words, in France of 2005/6, 425 cars torched in one night doesn't constitute news (can you imagine the reaction if this happened on new year's eve in the UK, Canada, the US or Australia???). I guess this explains a little about why it took the French almost a week to get worked up over the October riots.

Monday, January 02, 2006

All a game

In between their Christmas celebrations, the British public spent much of last week worrying about the fate of Kate Burton, 24 -- who spent the past year working for a Palestinian organisation -- and her parents, who were kidnapped in Gaza and released a few tense days later. But now that she's free, apparently, she's not particularly grateful:
British officials have already spoken briefly to Ms Burton, 24, and her parents after their release but are keen to find out more. However, Ms Burton was extremely reluctant to give any descriptions of her captors.
“Kate had long ideological discussions with the kidnappers which certainly tired her out,” one official said, “but we have been trying to impress on her that it was serious and that she was kidnapped...”
Last night Seren Wildwood, 47, Kate Burton’s half-sister, said that she had spoken to her father, Hugh.
“It’s been reported that [Kate] badgered her kidnappers and I could believe that. You can just imagine: there’s this outcry over the kidnapping and she’s arguing with them in Arabic about ideology. They probably thought ‘get her out of here’.”
This lack of cooperation, despite the fact that her captors have already threatened further kidnappings.
But best of all is the report in the Mail, which quoted her as saying that
she felt a "sense of guilt" at putting her parents in danger, but was "pleased that they saw "the positive side of the Palestinians".
"I was aware there was a risk and still took the chances and put my parents at risk. In retrospect I think I shouldn't have done that, but I am pleased they saw the positive side of Palestine," she said.
Somewhere else -- I can't find the source any more -- another friend or relative says that Kate wouldn't blame her captors as she wouldn't believe they could do such a thing 'without good reason.'
Was there ever such a great illustration of the complete moral blindness of so many of the foreign volunteers amongst the Palestinians? Even when this ridiculous girl is a victim of terrorism herself, she still thinks the terrorists are the good guys. One wonders what exactly they'd have had to have done to her to open her eyes.