Sunday, January 31, 2010

Compare and contrast

Bill Clinton to Shimon Peres, last Thursday evening:

"Shimon, I don't know what we would have done without
the Israeli hospital at Haiti... The Israeli hospital was the only operational facility which was able to perform surgery and advanced tests.

"In the name of the aid workers that operated in Haiti, in the name of the people who live there, and on a personal level I want to thank, we all want to thank, Israel from the bottom of our hearts."

President Barack Obama, January 15:

"At the airport, help continues to flow in, not just from the United States but from Brazil, Mexico, Canada, France, Colombia, and the Dominican Republic, among others."

Not that I'm suggesting Obama needs to be thanking Israel, let alone from the bottom of his heart, but an interesting comparison nonetheless.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

How the 'Maharat' became a 'Rabba'

Re: the decision to change the title of the NY Orthodox clergywoman from 'Maharat' to 'Rabba', which I discussed here, I now see Rabbi Weiss's full statement:

Over this past year, I have, on numerous occasions, in talks and
symposia around the country, said as clearly as I could that Mahara”t means rabbi, and that Sara Hurwitz has received semikha. Having studied the same curriculum as any man would study for ordination, she has achieved this goal.

We decided when Sara Hurwitz was conferred that we would be assessing whether the title Mahara”t has taken hold in the community.
After a year, what we have seen is that it has gained traction within our own community, at the Bayit. But outside our community, when Sara Hurwitz has officiated at funerals or visited hospitals or when the title Mahara”t appears in newspapers, it has not resonated. Moreover, at times the term Mahara”t has been used inappropriately in a disrespectful way.

And so, after consultation with Rabbi Daniel Sperber, who is signing the klaf with me, we have decided that Sara Hurwitz’s title will now be

In other words, the change to her title did indeed come from a point of weakness - because she was not being accepted as an Orthodox clergywoman, rather than because she was accepted so naturally they could 'afford' to give her the more controversial, rabbinic title (as I think most people have assumed). But according to Rabbi Weiss, the problems were all outside of her own shul (which makes sense).

Will the title make the difference? I hope so but I guess it remains to be seen.

Zuroff: 'I have never met a Nazi war criminal who has expressed any regret'

A couple of nights ago I went to hear Jonathan Freedland interview ‘the last Nazi Hunter’, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Jerusalem Efraim Zuroff, who was in town for the local launch of his new book, Operation Last Chance (reviewed this week in the JC, here).

Amongst the interesting points that came up:

-- Asked whether it was still ‘worth’ pursuing octogenarian former Nazis, who may very well regret actions they took decades ago and who may have gone on to lead law-abiding lives, Dr Zuroff said: “In 30 years of involvement in this issue, I have never encountered a Nazi war criminal who has ever expressed any regret or remorse".

-- He was asked whether any children of war criminals have ever approached him with evidence against their father. He answered that the only cases he encountered where children seem to feel strongly (negatively, that is) about their parents’ actions during the war were all in Germany, where there seemed to be a level of soul-searching that did not occur in most other countries post-War.
He also told a very poignant story about the children of accused war criminal Charles Zentai, a Hungarian currently living in Australia who has been accused of murdering a Jewish youth because he was not wearing his yellow star (the very high-profile extradition fight is still ongoing). On a trip to Perth, some of Zentai’s children asked to meet Dr Zuroff, apparently under the mistaken impression that if they ‘convinced’ him to lay off Zentai, the legal proceedings against him would be dropped.
According to Zuroff, the children tried to tell him that their father had been a good father and a good man, and that he led a law-abiding life in Australia. They could not, in other words, accept that their entirely normal father could be guilty of the crime of which he was accused. Zuroff said he tried to explain to them that one of the tragedies of the war was that people who were not at all criminally inclined were drawn into terrible actions which may be completely inconceivable to people who know them in other contexts. Needless to say, this was not something Zentai’s children could easily accept.
At one point, he said, they told him they "acceptd" there was a Holocaust - as if this was a major concession.

-- Zuroff said, on stage, that the Tories had told him that if/when they get into power, they will act to counter the Prague Declaration, which seeks to equate Nazism and Communism and is pushed by various countries in eastern Europe and the Baltics.

-- To me, one of the most interesting moments of the evening was when Dr Zuroff was asked whether he was worried that the memory of the Holocaust is fading amongst the (Jewish) young, particularly as there are fewer and fewer survivors left. It certainly seems to me that members of my generation, in their 30s and younger, are somewhat detached – they know all about the Holocaust, to be sure, but are not too keen on Holocaust literature, do not search out Holocaust events – in short, they do not want to be defined by it.
Zuroff turned this into a sort of a positive:

“Just 35-40 years ago, many people were very worried that the Holocaust would be forgotten – even Simon Wiesenthal was. His greatest fear was not that he wouldn’t catch Mengele, but that the Holocaust would be forgotten…. [But] the younger generation is not burdened with the psychological burden of living through the war. Younger people find it easier to ask questions, they learn about the Shoah more than their parents did. If you compare what people know today about the Holocaust to what they knew 30 years ago…Who would have imagined the UN would have declared a Holocaust Memorial Day?”*

There will be a full interview with Dr Zuroff in the JC next week.

*Please note this is not an exact quote - he was talking too fast - but very close

War on internet is a fight the rabbis can't win

I have an opinion piece in The Forward this week on the futility of the Israeli Charedi rabbis' fight against the internet:

Are Israel’s Haredi religious authorities losing control of their followers?

In December, leading Israeli rabbis launched a new push to curtail Internet use among ultra-Orthodox Jews, emphasizing that their longstanding ban on Web surfing applied to sites geared toward the Haredi community as well. They threatened stricter penalties than ever before for those who disobeyed. But rather than showing their power, the battle against Haredi Internet use has exposed the rabbis’ weakness, as large parts of the community resolutely remain online.

Read the whole thing here.

Meanwhile, Kol Halashon, an Israeli-based website which has archived thousands of Torah classes, has closed in compliance with the latest ban. Considering how many Charedim are evidently still online, is this really considered a win for the rabbis?

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Has the experiment with an Orthodox woman 'rabbi' been successful?

Rabbi Avi Weiss, spiritual leader of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, NY, has announced that the Orthodox clergywoman employed in his shul will from now on be given the title 'Rabbah':

Sara Hurwitz, who has been performing rabbinical duties at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale in New York City, last year had been given the title of Maharat -- a Hebrew acronym that stands for a leader in legal, spiritual and Torah matters.

But in a statement issued Wednesday, Rabbi Avi Weiss, spiritual leader of the Hebrew Institute and Hurwitz's mentor, said the acronym had failed to take hold and that Hurwitz would henceforth be called "rabbah", a feminized version of the title.

"This will make it clear to everyone that Sara Hurwitz is a full member of our rabbinic staff, a rabbi with the additional quality of a distinct woman’s voice," said the statement issued by Weiss's office.

Hurwitz, who has served at the Hebrew Institute for nearly seven years, has completed the same course of training and examination as male Orthodox rabbinical students.

The title 'Maharat' was always a mouthful, so I'm glad it's been changed to something clearer and catchier - though I've already said I'm not that keen on 'rabbah'.

But is there more to this change of title? Certainly, my instinct was to think that the 'Maharat' had been accepted so naturally and easily that the shul decided to give her the more rabbinical-sounding title openly. (There were initial fears that it would provoke a backlash from right-wing elements in the Orthodox world.)

Reading Rabbi Weiss's statement carefully, however, I do wonder if the opposite is true.

'The acronym had failed to take hold' - so what were they calling her? Ms Hurwitz? Or, more likely, her first name? Congregants generally call their rabbis by a title.

'This will make it clear to everyone that Sara Hurwitz is a full member of our rabbinic staff' - again, this seems to be implying that some members have not accepted her as such, and that it was deemed necessary to clarify and bolster her position in the shul hierarchy by upgrading her title.

I love the idea of a woman assuming a rabbinical role in an Orthodox shul so I hope I'm wrong (I also remember Sara Hurwitz, who was in my year in Brovender's, very positively). But the statement can certainly be read as indicating that the Maharat/Rabbah experiment has had its problems.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

New Jerusalem Post site

The Jerusalem Post has apparently redesigned its website and will "gradually replace the current site".

No word on when the switchover will take place.

Rahm Emanuel, the end?

If a week is a long time in politics, a month is eternity, particularly if you are the White House Chief-of-Staff:

January 3, 2010, The Daily Beast:

From their hard-charging patriarch Benjamin (a former member of the Irgun, a militant Zionist group) on down, the Emanuels are poised to become one of the great families in American life: a sprawling but tight-knit group of overachievers - the Jewish Kennedys.

"Oh come on, this is an exaggerations," said Benjamin Emanuel, reached at his suburban Chicago home on New Year's Eve. "We are better than the Kennedys."

January 25, Wall Street Journal:

For its part, the Washington punditocracy is bidding down Mr. Emanuel's chances of survival. On this week's McLaughlin Group, all five panelists agreed he would be gone by year-end...

Monday, January 25, 2010

Explaining away Israel's good deeds

Two more (slightly contradictory) comments on the way Israel has been attacked for providing aid to Haiti, but not Gaza:

Kevin Myers in the Belfast Telegraph:

[Israelis] are perhaps the only people in the world for whom extenuating circumstances are routinely cited in explanation of their charitable deeds. Extenuating circumstances usually occur in mitigation for criminal acts: but for the Jews of Israel they are used instead to explain away corporal works of mercy. That is the underlying and unspoken anti-Semitism of the anti-Israeli lobby: it cannot accept that Jews, as a group, have unselfish, charitable motives.

Alan Dershowitz in the Huffington Post:

For those who argue that Israel is sending this aid to Haiti for its own selfish reasons, there are two answers. First the realpolitik answer: All nations have interests; and all act, at least in part, out of self interest. When the United States government is asked by Americans to justify its multibillion dollar foreign aid grants, it generally responds by arguing that these grants are serving the interests of the United States.

When it comes to Israel, however, a double standard is always applied. Israel must act only out of altruistic motives, while all other countries are entitled to leven altruism with self interest. The second answer is that Israel is doing far more in Haiti than would be required to satisfy its self interests. It is sending more aid per capita than any country in the world. It is doing it with extraordinary efficiency and real impact.

Isn't it at least possible that the millennia-long Jewish tradition of tzadakah - that is, charity based on justice - is at least part of the explanation for Israel's generosity?

The fact that so many Israelis are advocating medical and other assistance to Gaza, certainly supports this latter theory. Has any other country in the history of the world ever provided medical and other assistance to a people with whom it is at war - to people who continue to support rocket attacks and other forms of terrorism against its own civilians?

More on how Madoff got away with it

Bernard Avishai reviews Adam LeBor's book on the Madoff scam and addresses "the really interesting question of the book":

not why investors were taken in, but why professional investment fund managers and bankers could believe that something like Madoff's fund was not a scam. After all, the fellow who eventually exposed Madoff, Harry Markopolis, was nothing but a Boston fund manager who knew his business. Why didn't more brokers and fund managers smell a rat right away, the way a Las Vegas casino's sharks home-in on the card counters at blackjack tables?

The answer, LeBor's insiders think, suggests what it really means to be, well, inside. Madoff's company, BLMIS, had two arms: a trading arm, buying and selling equities, and an investment and advisory arm, taking other people's money and (ostensibly) holding positions for them and managing their money more generally--the latter being the home of the now exposed Ponzi scheme. What enough Wall Street people told LeBor to be statistically significant is that they assumed the trading arm of BMLIS was subsidizing the investment arm in some way: that Madoff was benefiting from his vast network of connections--not only Jewish connections, but all the aforementioned social connections from Nasdaq to his country clubs--to gain insider information for stock trades; that trading in insider knowledge, itself illegal, was so profitable BLMIS could afford to keep its investment clients happy.

Why, you may ask, did not Wall Street pros then blow the whistle on trading irregularities? Here is where the nods and winks come in. You have to believe that insider trading is, to some extent, so ingrained in the culture of Wall Street that to have suspicions about it is itself unremarkable. Who wants to look pathetically naive?

Read the whole thing here.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Best line out of Haiti this week

The picture of a Haitian government worker being pulled by an Israeli team out of the Customs Office, 125 hours after it collapsed around him, featured prominently in the JC this week - and around the world. Nahum Barnea, one of Israel's most senior journalists, was there when he was rescued. According to his Yediot column this week, the man's first question on emerging from the rubble was,

"where's my cellphone?"

I can only assume - or at least I would hope - this was followed up by 'Where's my wife', 'how's my house' and 'am I going to live?'....

Friday, January 22, 2010

Amsterdam, a haven for Jewish converts

Following on from my last post about how Brits who wanted to convert to Judaism mid-19th century had to do so in Holland, On the Main Line has very kindly sent me an essay by scholar Elisheva Carlibach about the role Amsterdam played for converts even earlier, in the 17th and 18th centuries. Specifically, she writes that Amsterdam, with its relative religious freedom, became a haven for Jews across Europe (but particularly German Jews) who had converted to Christianity - and wished to convert back:

As the number of converts out of Judaism rose with more Jews seeking to disencumber themselves from the burdens of their Jewishness, the number of conversions back to Judaism rose quietly alongside them.

According to reports of both the converts and their missionaries, a significant number of the converts made their way to Amsterdam to return to Judaism. One Jew told [missionary] Heinrich Callenberg that he was wasting his time dealing with converts from Judaism “as there are currently in Amsterdam some two hundred Jews who had been baptised, and have returned to Judaism there."

Caspar Joseph Friedenheim, a former Jew who converted c. 1760, complained that the great freedom to practice their religion that some Christian princes bestowed as a misguided sign of piety constituted one of main obstacles to the mass conversion of Jews. He cited as a special example the freedom granted to Jews by the “Holländern,” the Dutch.

“Yes, they even boast that it is permitted to circumcize Christians there and to educate them to become Jews."

On a completely separate note, her essay brings up an interesting point about the social dynamics in the Amsterdam Jewish community:

The Sephardic community disdained the much poorer Ashkenazim, particularly after their numbers grew in the wake of the persecutions of 1648 in Poland. The socio-economic rift between the two communities was very wide. Ashkenazim served as menial servants in the homes of wealthy Sephardim, and expected and received generous amounts of charity from them. They were regarded as such an unpleasant burden that in some cases the Sephardic community paid for the deportation of Ashkenazim.

Ashkenazim were not permitted to pray in the Sephardic synagogues; their children could not study in the same schools. In the words of historian Yosef Kaplan: “The Spanish and Portuguese community of Amsterdam had formed a stereotype of the tudescos [German Jews] and Polacos [Polish Jews]. That image identified them with poverty and beggary, moral corruption and degradation, and even deviation from the ways of Judaism and the observance of the Torah."

Regarding German Jews as even lowlier than Polish Jews, the Sephardic community would not devote significant resources to the redemption of fallen German Jews.

Bizarrely, this actually came up on the BBC recently, in an episode of Who Do You Think You Are featuring none other than Nigella Lawson. One of her ancestors came from Amsterdam and, travelling there to find out more about them, she found herself telling the nation she was hoping for a rich Sephardi forefather rather than a lowly Ashkenazi peasant.

Stop bashing Israel for helping Haitians, not Gazans

Some people, it seems, cannot let Israel do anything good and just leave it at that. Any good deed by Israel must be turned into ammunition against it – used to condemn Israel for not being absolutely perfect.I am referring, of course, to Israel’s selfless aid to the devastated people of Haiti, and the rash of op-eds which have cropped up asking why Israel has not extended similar aid to the people of Gaza. Jerusalem Post columnist Larry Derfner explains, for example, how proud he is of Israel’s actions in Haiti, and then asks:

When will this big-hearted nation stop being heartless to the people in Gaza?

Seth Freedman, over at the Guardian, self-righteously opines that,

It is a damning indictment of Israel that it is prepared only to come to the aid of those who fit certain political criteria, rather than that of every victim crying out for intervention.

And Akiva Eldar at Haaretz, who kicked off this trend, believes that

Even the images of our excellent doctors in Haiti cannot blur our ugly face in the Strip.

So, a few points.

1. Israel – like every other country – does not have an obligation to help any other nation. It has only an obligation to defend and protect the lives, and interests, of its own citizens. Any aid it does extend (and in fact, Israel has offered humanitarian aid to 140 countries since 1958, some of which do not even have diplomatic relations with Israel and some of which would not even accept any goods with any Israeli markings on them) is a bonus, and does not make it responsible for “every victim crying out for intervention”.

2. Some might argue that Israel is, in fact, responsible for the suffering in Gaza and as such does owe it special help. They are wrong. The people responsible for the suffering in Gaza are their own leaders, who could lay down their weapons, free Gilad Shalit, stop educating their Gaza people to hate Jews – and gain open borders, a state and a thriving economy immediately. Israel’s Operation Cast Lead and its decision to close its border with Gaza were correct and just. Again, Israel’s first obligation is to look after its own citizens and residents – not the Palestinian ones (though – to its eternal credit - it went out of its way, during the war, to minimise harm to innocents).

3. There are, in fact, very good reasons why the Palestinians in Gaza should be the last people on earth to whom Israel offers aid. The fact is that the Hamas government has effectively declared war on Israel, a war which – according to its own charter – it does not intend to abandon until Israel is destroyed completely. This is not theoretical: it has launched thousands of missiles at Israel and is building up an enormous arsenal for future use. Asking Israel to extend aid to the people of this regime comes from Christian places – it is asking Israel to turn the other cheek. Is there another country that would be condemned for not helping the people of a state that attacks it? Has anyone, incidentally, asked the Americans to extend aid deep in Taliban country? Perhaps they should build homes for the children of bin Laden’s entourage – after all, they are innocent children living in caves?

4. All that said, I firmly believe that the majority of Israelis harbour no deep-seated hatred of Palestinians and that if the Palestinians did agree to end the conflict, Israel and Israelis would show the same generosity to them that they have shown to the Haitians - just as they immediately returned to doing business with, and visiting, Palestinian areas in the West Bank between the two intifadas. Indeed, the fact is that Israel has already extended plenty of aid to the people of Gaza. Many Gazans have been treated, for example, in Israeli hospitals. Even during the last war with Gaza, Israel opened a field hospital on the border to treat Gazans. To me, this is the ultimate proof of Israel’s good character. It had no obligation to these people, with whom it was at war, and yet it treated them nonetheless. To me this is not just good, it is angelic. Israel, I’m proud of you.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Conversion: How they used to do it

And interesting description of the process of conversion to Judaism in Britain, written in 1853.

The blogger, Mississippi Fred Macdowell, picks up on three interesting points:

-- The author of the book knows of several female converts but no male ones.

-- He claims that the hair of female converts "is shorn"

-- The actual dip in the mikveh took place in Holland:

Formerly in Europe there was only one place where it was legal to convert to Judaism, or at least not particularly controversial, and that was Holland. Consequently, many gentiles wishing to convert went to Holland where they could legally convert. In addition, Jews who had converted to Christianity would go to Holland if they wanted to revert back to Judaism, Holland being the place they could do so safely. In the case of England, I don't think it was really illegal; certainly not by 1853; but traditionally the Jews in England would not convert gentiles, believing that they had agreed to this condition to Oliver Cromwell when he allowed Jews to be readmitted to England in the 17th century.

To these I would add a fourth and a fifth:

-- A prospective convert "has to make himself acquainted with the principal parts of the Jewish ritual". It is completely clear in what depth or how long this is expected to take, but in any case is only referred to in passing.

-- The female converts the author knows converted "generally upon being married to Jews", a motivation which is treated suspiciously today.

As Miss. Fred points out, this is not necessarily a reliable testimony (although the author of the book, Rev John Mills, does say that he relied on several Jewish sources, including the editor of the Jewish Chronicle!). But it does appear that many of the commitments we require from Orthodox converts today were not required then.

Hey, if they can do it...

The NY Jewish Week is reporting on a conference of Jewish educators which took place in New Jersey last week, attracting nearly 600 teachers, principals and administrators from across the US and Canada.

The paper notes:

It was the first joint conference organized by the major day school networks from each of the denominations: the Solomon Schechter Day School Association, RAVSAK: The Jewish Community Day School Network, Yeshiva University’s Institute for University-School Partnership, and PARDeS: The Progressive Association of Reform Day Schools.

Ie Conservative, Orthodox, Reform and even cross-communal schools all organised the conference together, sat together, discussed together, exchanged ideas together... There is nothing in the article to indicate that any of the participants were struck by lightening from above or that the heavens fell in as a result.

Anglo-Jewry please note.

What's in a name? Quite a lot, actually

It is, apparently, not just Israelis who are into unisex names.

The American author of this piece has given her child the middle name "Chaim".

Her daughter, that is.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Poles sell 'Jewish pork loin'

A Polish company, Gzella, is selling a product called "Zydowski pork loin" - "Jewish pork loin".

According to their website, it is apparently a steamed pork product with a strong flavour of marjoram.

But what on earth could the Jewish connection be? I emailed the company.

They explained:

"In Poland we have many product called “Zydowski...” It means that it’s traditional and has very good taste.

“Zydowski” in the name doesn’t mean that Jewish people make or eat it.We have Grandmother Ham or Grandfather Sausage and so on - and it doesn’t mean that it comes from Grandma or Grandpa.

But thank you for you e-mail. We will pay attention when we call our new products."

"Traditional and has very good taste?" That's good enough for me......

(h/t: Raffi)

Friday, January 15, 2010

Recognise this man?


This, according to the FBI, is what Osama bin Laden might look like today....

UK community feels 'under constant attack', says peer

Further to our (rather lively) discussion about quality of Jewish life in Britain, comes this report in the Indy yesterday:

The Jewish community in the UK feels under "constant attack", a Labour peer warned today.

Lord Mitchell praised the multi-cultural nature of London but pointed to rising incidents of anti-Semitism. Stickers such as "death to Jews" had been displayed at some of the UK's leading university campuses and had been "slow to be removed", he said.

He told peers in a debate on tolerance in British society that universities had a "duty of care to all students and in many cases they are slow to uphold this duty", citing free speech as the reason for not interfering.

Lord Mitchell said: "It may well come as a shock that the Jewish community in this country feels under constant attack. "I don't want to overstate the case but many Jewish friends have said to me that they felt more frightened, more threatened, than at any time in their lives.

"Incidents of anti-Semitic attacks are up, some are physical, some are verbal. The trend is rising."

Attacks go up when there are conflicts in the Middle East because Jews are held by some to be supporters of the "more extreme elements in Israel", he said.

All synagogues have constant security patrols and most Jewish social events have trained security personnel "prominently watching and checking", he said...

Lord Davies of Oldham, for the Government, said: "There is a minority fascist element in our society that present threats to all minority groups."

That's where the government has it wrong. I don't think this community would feel under so much pressure were it truly just an issue of one minority in society, unsupported by anyone else. What has some elements in the community feeling scared is the feeling that their concerns, safety, interests etc are not taken seriously - by the majority. This is about an overall atmosphere which Jews perceive as negative, not about a problem with one fringe group.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

How bad is Jewish life in Britain?

David Bogner, of the uber-blog Treppenwitz, has posted some very blunt impressions of the British Jewish community following his visit to Limmud last month:

[I]t came as a bit of a surprise when I found the tiny UK Jewish community to be absolutely absent from public discourse in support of Israel. In England, there seems to be a political price to pay for being pro-Israel... and if anything, there seems to be value on the side of those who are critical of Israel....

For the most part, the British Jewish community seems to keep their collective heads down and try to fit in with their countrymen as best they can. Sadly, in many cases this means trying to be more British than the Brits.

Not only is there a serious problem with passive anti-Semitism in the UK, but active anti-Semitic attacks seem also to be quite prevalent and on the rise.

While I was at Limmud I noticed that security was being handled by an organization called CST... When I asked someone about this they explained that CST was the organization that guarded the synagogues all over London (and presumably in other places in the UK)...

I was shocked. In the US there are occasional hate crimes against JCCs and synagogues... mostly of the spray-painted Swastika sort. But in England I was seeing a relatively small Jewish community where blanket security was required everywhere that Jews gathered in any numbers.

I was further shocked when I got to London and started wandering around Golders Green... in literally every Jewish shop, restaurant, bakery, Judaica store, etc. there was a little display on the counter next to the cash register where customers were encouraged to take [a card with the CST's number].

This kind of card could only exist in a community that feels threatened and vulnerable. They may not be in imminent physical danger (although the need for cards such as these suggests otherwise), but you'd have a hard time convincing me that the U.K. Jewish community isn't experiencing a social, emotional and psychological threat. They are clearly tolerating a great deal of anti-Semitism as they go about their daily lives... trying to act as if everything is fine...

Personally, I think that much of the left-leaning, knee-jerk anti-Israel rhetoric coming from the UK Jewish community today can trace its source as much to British Jewry's need to fit in (i.e. to be more British than the Brits), as to any of Israel's real or imagined misdeeds. England's Jews seem (to me) to be captives of anti-Semitism ... forced to tolerate an oppressed status without fully acknowledging it to themselves.

When I left the U.K. I did so with a profound appreciation for the relative freedom I have experienced throughout my life; both in my American youth, and in my Israeli adulthood. Once one has tasted such freedom, the barest whiff of oppression can't be mistaken for anything else.

A few months ago I wrote a blog post about why British and American Jews understand Jewish life in Britain so differently. American Jews, I wrote, are comparing British Jewish life to an American reality - by which standards, things here are uncomfortable. Brits are comparing it to Jewish life here 20,30,50 years ago - by which standards, things are vastly improved.

Of-course, life being (possibly) better elsewhere does not make life here “bad”. And while there is, undeniably, a certain level of anxiety in the UK community about the future here, on balance, I think daily life is good here for most Jews. But there’s no point trying to argue that with members of a community coming from such a different experience. At the end of the day, quality of life, including quality of Jewish life, is entirely a subjective matter.

Read the whole thing here.

Clearly, this goes a long way to explaining Treppenwitz's strong reaction to British Jewish life. That said, it seems to me that increasing numbers of people here are uncomfortable with their quality of Jewish life here, and essentially agree with him. In my column this week, I wrote about a dinner party my husband and I held on Sunday for three other couples:

At a certain point during the evening, the conversation turned to the JFS case. The court’s “interference” in this internal Jewish matter, said one guest, had left him depressed. He was also stressed by the deep communal divisions revealed by the case. Though not new, these seemed more intractable than ever. “If I could,” he said, “I would leave this country in a heartbeat.”

To my surprise, the table took him seriously. Every guest confessed that he or she had serious misgivings about bringing up their children here. The JFS case had clearly had a more profound impact on the mood of my friends than I’d realised, undermining the sense of security they had derived from living in this country. But there was also pervasive angst about getting children into Jewish schools, and about the quality of their Jewish education. There was worry about our dwindling numbers, waning political influence and the increasing isolation of Jewish students on campus. A mental weariness, too, attended the increasingly hostile attitude to Israel in public discourse.

While more general concerns, such as the coarseness of British society and a sense that this country had lost its sense of cohesion and national purpose, were voiced as well, the tipping point seemed to be the Jewish issues. “I blamed my parents for bringing me up here,” one guest revealed. “Now, if we don’t move, our children will say the same thing.” [MORE]

What do you think?

When did our rabbis learn of the Tropper tapes?

Failed Messiah has interviewed Shannon Orand, the woman at the centre of the Tropper scandal, who converted to Judaism last week.

She explains that she approached Tropper to cover her legal costs in a custody battle with her ex-husband, and that is why she felt beholden to him.

As one of his commentators notes, this is clearly not the whole story - she does not really confirm how much of the sexual allegations on the tapes were true. However. That aside, there is one particularly interesting paragraph:

I knew someone who was well-connected in Israel with the rabbis. The tapes were supposed to go to leading rabbis and everything was supposed to be handled internally. And it was working. Rabbi Amar broke with EJF and the European rabbis publicly condemned EJF.

But someone leaked the tapes.

This implies that rabbis in Israel and in Europe knew, some time ago, that Tropper was involved in a sexual scandal - and yet he was still in place. It implies they never intended to remove him, merely to sideline the organisation.

We need a timeframe here.

Israel's Turkey embarrassment

Jeffrey Goldberg gets it completely right on the scandal of the Israeli deputy foreign minister's deliberate humiliation of the Turkish ambassador. Danny Ayalon has shown himself to be utterly juvenile (as have some Israeli commentators, who have very strange ideas about what constitutes 'national honour').

What's more, this is the man who - as you recall - confessed he had no idea that Michal Kaminski, the Polish MEP he hosted on a visit to Israel, was in any way controversial and the subject of a massive row in the UK, until he read about him on the front page of the JC, waiting to be interviewed in our office.

If Netanyahu can't, for coalitionary reasons, fire Ayalon right now, I hope he is gently eased out sometime in the coming months. He is completely unfit to hold public office.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Israeli woman flees Gaza and her Muslim husband, with her children

The Jerusalem Post is reporting on the strange story of Oshrit Ochana, 29, an Israeli woman who married a Muslim resident of Gaza, moved there, had four children with him - and has now returned to Israel.

Speaking to The Jerusalem Post just hours after her escape while on her way to her family's home in Ashdod to celebrate, she said she had reached the decision months ago to get away from her husband, Abdallah, who ekes out a living smuggling goods through the elaborate system of tunnels connecting Rafah with Egypt.

"That was no life for me and the children," she said. "The children had dreams that I wanted to make true. And we couldn't as long we remained in Gaza.

"Now I am trying to forget everything".....

Ochana and her four children - Mahmoud, seven; Abdel Rahman, five; Sali, six; and Asma, not yet two - left the apartment they shared with her husband's family on Tuesday morning....

She plans to change the names of her children to Hebrew names.

Yad L'Achim's Lipshitz, who has helped other women escape from marriages with Arabs, said there were "hundreds" of Israeli women in similar situations.

"Some are in Gaza, others are in Nablus or Tulkarm, and there are some in neighboring Arab countries," he said.

It is quite likely this assertion is true. An American-born friend of mine in Jerusalem once told me he dreaded doing miluim, or army reserve duty, in a certain West Bank town (I forget which), as his American-Jewish aunt had married an Arab man from there and set up a family. He was afraid of having to arrest or confront his own first cousins.

In any case, Ms Ochana's story does not end here. Her children, presumably, did not know she was Jewish; did not know they were Jewish. After growing up in Gaza, where hatred of Jews and of Israel is pushed daily on children's television shows, by the Islamist government and in schools, to suddenly be told they are part of the "enemy" nation (and part of a family they never knew) must be an incredible shock. It is going to take much more than a change of names to adjust.

Also, I wonder whether the father could sue for custody - she has, after all, kidnapped the children and according to Muslim law, they are Muslims. It would be an interesting case....

Worth following?

A new website has just launched, Jewish Ideas Daily, which will include links to pieces of Jewish interest every day. Looks really good....

Friday, January 08, 2010

European rabbis object to EJF - for the wrong reasons

As we report today, the London Beth Din dayanim and the Conference of European Rabbis have signed a letter blasting the controversial American conversion group, Eternal Jewish Family, and warning it not to expand its activities into Europe. The head of EJF, Leib Tropper, recently resigned after recordings emerged of him discussing having sex with a prospective convert.

The statement complained that EJF “actively influence gentiles to convert which is against the traditions of our community from previous times, and there is a concern for a breach of the walls of our faith in Europe.”

It also said that “the leaders of this aforementioned organisation caused a desecration of the Divine Name and a disgrace to the name of the Orthodox rabbinate throughout the world in recent weeks”.

The CER rabbis said that if EJF does not cancel the seminar, “we call upon the rabbis that were invited to the seminar not to participate with them and to guard themselves from entering there”.

First off, the LBD and CER rabbis should be commended for saying, in such strong terms, what so few other rabbis have dared say publicly - that Tropper is a "disgrace". The fact that so few rabbis have said what everyone else is thinking, and that there is even talk of some rabbis rehabilitating Tropper, is a disgrace in itself.

However, make no mistake here. The reason the LBD is objecting to EJF is not because it finds its approach too stringent or too inflexible, which is the major objection put forward by the modern Orthodox. It objects, first, because it finds its approach too liberal - because it evangelistically tries to persuade the non-Jewish partners in mixed marriages to convert. Second, and I suspect far more to the point, they simply don't want another group, particularly from the outside, interfering in their own area of authority.

As Abba Dunner, executive director of the CER, explicitely told the JC:

"There are sufficient Batei Din which know what they are doing and we don’t need another organisation poking its nose in.”

In other words, it is a territorial issue, not primarily a halachic one.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Dybbuk exorcism, live in Israel

Last week we reported the strange story of the Yeshivah student from Brazil allegedly possessed by a dybbuk, or a disembodied spirit. An Israeli kabbalah master, Rav Dovid Batzri, attempted to remove the dybbuk via Skype, without much success (surprisingly enough).

Last we heard of the possessed man, he was on his way to Israel to have the dybbuk removed in person.

Well, there is good news and bad news.

The good news is that the Brazilian man -- according to Charedi portal Lada'at -- has spent the last week visiting senior rabbis in order to obtain their blessing before another exorcism is attempted.

The bad news is that Rav Batzri's second attempt, last night in in a mass ceremony in Jerusalem, apparently failed. Kikar Shabbat , which has pictures and a video, also has the following account (translated roughly by

Literally thousands of people gathered in and around the yeshiva to watch.

“Get out immediately! Go out from the small toe on his foot!” Rav Batzri told the dybbuk.

“I turn to you now and tell you: If you leave now, I assure you that we will make a tikkun for you,” said Rav Batzri.

“Go! Go! Go!” yelled the crowd upon the direction of the rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Hamekubalim.

But the dybbuk wouldn’t leave the body of the Brazilian avreich, who was shaking like a leaf.

Thousands watched as Rav Batzri attempted for hours to chase away the dybbuk, which refused to leave. For a long time, Rav Batzri begged the dybbuk to reveal its name, but it refused.

Exhaustion was written all over Rav Batzri’s face. With numerous sifrei kabbolah [Kabbalah books] opened before him, shofars were blown and tears formed in his eyes as he exerted much effort to finally get rid of the dybbuk trapped inside the Brazilian’s body.

The voice coming out of the body didn’t say much and would not cooperate with Rav Batzri. One of the few times when the dybbuk’s voice was clear, it said that when he “was alive, he once killed a couple and took their son for avodah zarah [idol worship].”

So the dybbuk is still with us. A third attempt to remove it will apparently be conducted "soon".

But here's a suggestion. They might be better off sending this poor Brazilian boy to a shrink who can deal with what is clearly some kind of mental illness.

The rabbis 'treating' the dybbuk might be referred at the same time.....

UPDATE: Another account of the exorcism attempt here.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Where antisemitic comment is not free

I was pretty impressed, in September, to read that a 99-year-old Charedi woman had died in Jerusalem leaving 1,400 descendants. She had 11 children herself, and by the time she died, had great-great-grandchildren.

Surely some kind of a record, no?

But this week, apparently, we lost the greatest matriarch of them all. Yitta Schwartz, a Holocaust survivor from New York, died with no less than 2,500 descendants (and at 94, got there even quicker than the Israeli woman)! She had 17 children herself, and also had great-great-grandchildren.

Kind of puts things in perspective for most people in the West where two-children families are the norm, and most people can expect to have four grandchildren.

The downside? Apparently only "several hundred people" turned up to Mrs Schwartz's funeral - a pretty poor showing considering the size of her family.

I guess that's what happens if you don't keep up with all those birthday cards...... (Eight birthdays a day, that is, a colleague notes.)

Woman dies with 2,500 descendants

I was pretty impressed, in September, to read that a 99-year-old Charedi woman had died in Jerusalem leaving 1,400 descendants. She had 11 children herself, and by the time she died, had great-great-grandchildren.

Surely some kind of a record, no?

But this week, apparently, we lost the greatest matriarch of them all. Yitta Schwartz, a Holocaust survivor from New York, died with no less than 2,500 descendants (and at 94, got there even quicker than the Israeli woman)! She had 17 children herself, and also had great-great-grandchildren.

Kind of puts things in perspective for most people in the West where two-children families are the norm, and most people can expect to have four grandchildren.

The downside? Apparently only "several hundred people" turned up to Mrs Schwartz's funeral - a pretty poor showing considering the size of her family.

I guess that's what happens if you don't keep up with all those birthday cards...... (Eight birthdays a day, that is, a colleague notes.)

Monday, January 04, 2010

Weird historical footnotes

1. According to David Harris,

in 2001, Richard Reid, who was later to become the notorious shoe bomber, flew on El Al. According to a CBS news report, while the Israelis didn't have enough on him at the time to keep him off the plane, they were suspicious. They examined everything before he boarded and then, for good measure, placed a marshal in the adjoining seat. If he was on a scouting mission, he got the point and looked elsewhere.

That's the last from me on airport security, I swear.... (for now...).

2. Over the weekend I finished a great novel in Hebrew, Ot Me-Avshalom - A Message from Avshalom - by Nava Makmel-Atir. It tells the story of Avshalom Feinberg, one of the heroes of Nili, the Jewish spy network in Ottoman Palestine which helped the British during the First World War. He disappeared in the Sinai desert, which he was crossing by foot in order to reach the British in Egypt, and his body was not discovered for more than half a decade. His remains were found under a palm tree that had sprouted from the seeds of a date Feinberg had carried in his pocket.

Avshalom's story is well-known. But this new book included a fascinating footnote that was completely new to me. According to Makmel-Atir, Dora Bloch - the grandmother who was murdered at Antebbe - was Avshalom Feinberg's first cousin. Their fathers were brothers.

This geneology website seems to show the same thing.

Not only that, but one of the women killed in the collapse of the Versailles wedding hall in Jerusalem a few years back was Bloch's granddaughter, through her son Ilan, who was with her on the Air France plane that was hijacked.

And Avshalom's great-nephew, also named Avshalom, was a soldier killed in the early 1970s.

It seems like an awful lot of bad luck for one family.