Tuesday, November 30, 2010

A megillah for Chanuccah

On Purim, we read a scroll to recall the events commemorated by the day. Why don't we read one on Chanuccah?

Well, turns out we do - or at least, did. David Golinkin, rector of the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem, explains that between the 9th and the 20th centuries, there was a custom in some communities of reading Megillat Antiochus (always known as Megillat HaChashmonaim / The Hasmonean scroll, Megillat Channukah and Megillah Yevanit / the Greek scroll):
[I]t was written in Aramaic during the Talmudic period and subsequently translated into Hebrew, Arabic and other languages.(2) The book describes the Maccabean victories on the basis of a few stories from the Books of the Maccabees and Shabbat 21b with the addition of a number of legends without any historic basis whatsoever...

[W]e know that this scroll was read in public at different times and places. Rabbi Isaiah of Trani (Italy, ca. 1200-1260) says that "in a place where they are accustomed to read Megillat Antiochus on Hanukkah, it is not proper to recite the blessings [for reading a scroll] because it is not required at all"...

In Mahzor Kaffa, which was published in the Crimea in 1735, the Scroll of Antiochus is printed in Hebrew and preceded by the following instructions: "It is customary to read Megillat Antiochus during minhah after kaddish titkabbel [the reader's kaddish] in order to publicize the miracle [of Hanukkah]..."

Rabbi Yahya ben Yosef Zalih, who was the leading rabbi in San'a, Yemen ca. 1715, says "that some read Megillat Antiochus on Shabbat [of Hanukkah] after the haftarah. This is not required; it is only a general mitzvah to publicize the miracle among the Jewish people". But Rabbi Amram Zabban of G'ardaya in the Sahara Dessert viewed this public reading as a requirement.
Rabbi Golinkin doesn't explain why the reading of the scroll never fully "took off" - and why it seems to have faded from memory (although according to Wiki, it is actually printed in the Birnbaum Siddur). But it seems fairly obvious. The fact is that Chanuccah already had a mechanism by which we directly commemorate the victory of the Maccabbees and the associated miracle of the oil: the lighting of the chanucciah. This ritual was specifically designed to recall the miracle and prompt discussion of it - pirsuma d'nisa (advertising the miracle). Another ritual, appearing centuries later, for the same purpose must have seemed to most people unnecessary.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Wikileaks and the law of unintended consequences

It would be rather ironic if the Wikileaks material - meant to expose, humiliate and hurt America, and delivered as a scoop to leftie favorites, the Guardian and NYT - ended up exposing, humiliating and hurting Iran and vindicating the worldview of the right. And yet, as the law of unintended consequences kicks in, that could very well happen.

Lee Smith in Tablet gets it exactly right:

What comes through most strongly from the Wikileaks documents, however, is that U.S. Middle East policy is premised on a web of self-justifying fictions that are flatly contradicted by the assessments of American diplomats and allies in the region. Starting with Bush’s second term and continuing through the Obama Administration, Washington has ignored the strong and repeated pleas of its regional allies—from Jerusalem to Riyadh—to stop the Iranian nuclear program. Perhaps the most disturbing revelation in the documents is the extent to which both the Bush and Obama Administrations have concealed Iran’s war against the United States and its allies in Iraq, Lebanon, Israel, and the Arab Gulf states, even as those same allies have been candid in their diplomatic exchanges with us. U.S. servicemen and -women are being dispatched to combat zones in Iraq and Afghanistan where they are fighting Iranian soldiers and assets in a regional war with the Islamic Republic that our officials dare not discuss, lest they have to do something about it.

Members of the Washington policy establishment should be considerably less worried about how the foreign ministries of allied countries respond to the leaks than how the American electorate does.
The "revelations" which seem to have caused most surprise - the Arab hatred and fear of Iran and its nuclear weapons programme, Iranian interference in Iraq and Lebanon - cannot really have surprised anyone who was paying attention to the Middle East, or to various right-wing pundits. But - in addition to our governments - elements in the media, particularly those chosen as vehicles to carry these "shockers" today, have been instrumental in playing them down over the past years and months, choosing to promote instead narratives highlighting Israel's supposed "warmongering". At what point is it going to dawn them that these leaks they are so thrilled about destroy their own credibility - not just America's?

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Where do bubbe maysehs come from?

Ah, another myth shattered....

According to the NYT article on Yiddish I referred to earlier (in connection with Shrek), the origin of the phrase 'bubbe mayseh' - literally 'a grandmother's tale' but colloquially, an old wives' tale - has nothing to do with grandparents or seniors of any description:
It was, [philologist Michael Wex] revealed, based on a 16th-century chivalric story about a Christian knight named Bovo who improbably marries a princess under a chupah — a Jewish wedding canopy — and arranges a circumcision for twin sons. Over time, few Jews were familiar with Bovo, so the expression morphed into something said by a bubbe.
Sounds like a typical bubbe mayseh, but unfortunately, Philologos seems to agree...

Friday, November 26, 2010

How Shrek got his name

Perhaps I’m coming late to this, but I’m astonished to discover that Shrek is a Member Of the Tribe.

How so? According to the NYT, one of the relatively new additions to the Yiddish language is the word “shreklekh” – meaning, terrible or frightening.

Of course I initially thought that the word had entered the language after the movie come out. But no. According to this source, Shrek – originally a character in a book - derived his name from the Yiddish.

So there you have it: the green monster is really a good Jewish boy.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Shas's subversive Knesset member

Why was MK Haim Amsalem kicked out of the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox party, Shas?

Three weeks ago, Amsellem made incendiary comments to the newspaper Maariv about the Shas leadership. Inter alia, he condemned strictures against conversion [a longstanding issue for him and subject of a controversial book earlier this year - MS], growing joblessness and army evasion among yeshiva students and an absence of non-religious education for children.

In the Haaretz interview, Amsellem says he opposes the subordination of politics to the party's spiritual leadership.

"It's an MK's right to say he accepts the ruling of a rabbi or rabbis. I'm in favor of that, but I don't think it needs to be put above politics - an upper echelon of spiritual leadership, a rabbinical council alone is vested with making decisions," he said. "I really believe the place of rabbis is the world of Torah, and they shouldn't deal in politics.

"We can and must follow rabbis, but this whole style, which is a copy of the Ashkenazi style, a confederation of rabbinical courts, just doesn't appeal to me," he said.

So what - of all these things - really made R Amsalem intolerable to Shas?

According to Rav Benny Lau, by expelling R Amsalem, Shas made a "final decision to surrender to the Lithuanian model" - that is, follow the Ashkenazi-ultra Orthodox approaches to halachah, work and the state, and to surrender their own authority to that of the Ashkenazi "gedolim", or great rabbis. In this version of events, what we have here is essentially a disagreement that got out of hand over the future direction of Charedi Sephardim.

According to 'Mostly Kosher', the real issue was something deeper: R Amsalem's comments about the impropriety of rabbis interfering in politics. His tendency towards free thought was simply too "dangerous" to tolerate because it threatened rabbinic authority.

Of course, these are not mutually exclusive, and both are certainly true. But the real problem with R Amsalem, as far as Shas was concerned, was clearly even more fundamental. His comments on a variety of topics threatened to expose the lie on which, increasingly in the last few years, Charedi society has been built: that many of the issues by which Charedim have come to define themselves are mandated by halachah, and not, simply, lifestyle choices.

Take all the issues Ha'aretz mentions above.

"Shas leadership" - ie the rabbis' authority: Charedim have convinced themselves, if not others, that there is a religious duty to "obey" "the rabbis" as "the rabbis" have a direct line to G-d and embody "da'at Torah" - the Torah view. Of course, this idea of blind obedience, and that the rabbis can give an "authoritative" ruling on personal issues which have nothing to do with Jewish law, is a very modern phenomenon. It is meant to shore up rabbinic authority and establish the hierarchy of Charedi society, and as such is an entirely social construct - nothing to do with halachah.

"Strictures against conversion" - Charedim have convinced themselves, and many others, that their positions on giyur, obligating converts to conform to very high standards of observance, are pure halachah. Of course, historically converts have been held to varying standards, rarely as strict as Charedim are now advocating, and many non-charedi Orthodox rabbis take much more lenient positions. Charedi positions on giyur have more to do with Israeli politics - cementing their own authority in the Chief rabbinate and in Israeli society - than with any halachic issues.

"Growing joblessness and army evasion" amongst Charedim - Charedim have convinced themselves, and others, that it is a religious duty for men to learn all day and that going out to work is essentially sinful, a waste of time that should be devoted to Torah. Serving in the army is not the best way to serve G-d. Of course, historically only a handful of men -- the brightest -- ever spent their days learning full-time and everyone else went to work. So do Charedim in America. There is no religious reason not to serve in the army - thousands of serious religious young men do - but the Charedi leadership prefers not to expose its youngsters to "temptation". It's a social (and political) choice.

"Non-religious education for children" - Charedim have fought hard, particularly over the last months, to limit the amount of English, maths and other basic subjects their children are "exposed" to. They are told, again, that these subjects are a waste of time for good religious people, who should instead be learning Torah. In other words, there is a religious reason for the aversion. Of course, the leadership simply does not want to equip its youngsters with skills that will allow them to work (see above), go out into the big wide world, be exposed to other ways of thinking and of life, and ultimately, think for themselves.

Amsalem, in other words, is not just bearing "different" ideas; he is completely subsersive. Should he be "allowed" to stay under the Shas umbrella while preaching his ideas (which, to my mind, promote a dignified and healthy way of life, working for one's living, taking part in greater society and showing consideration and care for its weakest parts), it will become clear to the Charedi masses that their leadership agrees there is actually more than one path a religious person can follow on all these issues - and still be a Charedi Jew. Their leadership's positions on all these subjects are not halachic - they are a choice - ergo the Charedi masses have been duped.

If Shas can live with Amsalem, the entire foundation of Charedi society, as it has developed over the past few years, crumbles. So he had to go.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Bibi, don't negotiate for Pollard

The Jewish world seems to be getting quite excited about the rumour that the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, is asking for Jonathan Pollard to be freed as part of the new freeze deal.

Well, I'm not excited and can't understand those who are. I don't think this is something Bibi should be asking for, at least not in the context of these negotiations.

Now don't get me wrong; if Jonathan Pollard were freed from prison tomorrow, I would be perfectly happy for him (although I think he has done himself no favors, making it virtually impossible for an American president to pardon him by turning himself into a cause celebre, and with his politically ill-judged pronouncements). While he did commit a crime, the sentence was clearly too severe and after 25 years for a crime which typically carries a 10-year jail term, he deserves to be free.

However, I don't think that he should be freed as part of negotiations which involve Israel's long-term strategic interests. In return for a sacrifice that has serious implications for Israel's future - giving up building in its settlements - Israel needs to ask for serious things that will give it strategic advantages in the region and in the peace process. Jonathan Pollard may be a worthy cause, but he is not a strategic asset. His freedom will not help protect Israel from the multiple threats it faces.

So by all means, campaign for Jonathan Pollard's freedom. But ask for it as a correction to an injustice, a mercy which should be done for its own sake; do not inject the issue into the negotiations for Israel's future. The two have nothing to do with each other.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Mostly kosher

I'm particularly busy this week, so blogging is going to be slow. But have no fear. You can keep yourself busy on my younger brother's new blog, Mostly Kosher, instead. Enjoy!

Thursday, November 18, 2010


The Philologos column in the Forward this week concerns Hebrew words that came from the Arabic: ahbal (idiot), kef (fun), ala kefak (terrific), achlah (great), and more. All fairly straightforward.

But then he ends by noting that words travel the other way as well - from the Hebrew to the Arabic (which of course makes perfect sense):
Just yesterday, an Arab friend informed me that nudnik is now a Palestinian-Arabic word!
Of course in about 20 years' time, we'll be accused of stealing the word from them....

Tom Friedman. Kettle. Black.

Since we're on the subject of Tom Friedman, I was rather amused by his latest column in the NYT - "Too good to check" - which lambasts the conservative media for failing to check its facts.

The footnote on the article as I read it on my iPhone (mysteriously it doesn't seem to appear on the website): "In my Nov. 10 column, I mistook the last name of one of the Indian analysts. It should have been Kanti Bjapai."

It's one of those ironies the sub-desk really should have picked up on.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Why Thomas Friedman hates Bibi

A column by Thomas Friedman in the NYT has provoked a viscious response on the front pages of Maariv.

Earlier this week, Friedman blasted Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu for refusing to halt settlement buildings in order to give peace a chance, and essentially accuses him of bringing about the end of Israel as a Jewish state:

Reading the headlines these days, I can’t help but repeat this truism: If you jump off the top of an 80-story building, for 79 floors you can think you’re flying. It’s the sudden stop at the end that tells you you’re not. It’s striking to me how many leaders and nations are behaving today as though they think they can fly — and ignoring that sudden stop at the end that’s sure to come....

Rather than take the initiative and say to Arabs and Palestinians, “You want a settlement freeze? Here it is, now let’s see what you’re ready to agree to,” Netanyahu toys with President Obama, makes Israel look like it wants land more than peace and risks never forging a West Bank deal — thereby permanently absorbing its 2.5 million Palestinians and eventually no longer having a Jewish majority. That’s the sudden stop at the end — unless the next war comes first. But, for now, Bibi seems to think he can fly.
A couple of days later, on the front page of Maariv and on a two-page spread inside, Avi Ratzon uses some particularly strong language against Friedman:

Dear Mr Friedman, we understand your weakness in everything that concerns Binyamin Netanyahu. When you were volunteering to pick oranges in a kibbutz, he followed in the footsteps of his brother Yoni and volunteered to the Sayeret Matkal elite commando unit, where he became an outstanding officer. He later became Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, a foreign minister and a prime minister. Could it be he had realised your dreams, and this is the reason for your obsession and weakness for the man? It’s not certain, we’re skeptical people here, and still we wouldn’t have rejected the possibility out of hand. After all, jealousy is a human, humane issue...

But we should ask the question, how long can you go on squeezing the lemon of a Jew who volunteered in a kibbutz, who had a Bar Mitzva, who’s a Zionist and who cares about Israel. Stop, enough. Stop threatening and get out of the frame. There are plenty of journalists here who think that your entire existence is indeed one of jealousy, which is why you target Netanyahu; that your worldview is identical to that of the radical Left here in Israel, and that you are serving as an escort boy providing embarrassing journalist services to Obama, who is your light, your support and your god.

Well, it seems unlikely that the multiple Pulitzer Prize winner, America's senior columnist, who has earned enough to live here, is jealous of Bibi. To me this reads like stereotypical Israeli fantasy about how a diaspora Jew - weak and nebbish - must feel: in awe of those strong, independent Israelis. And I strongly object to the implication that diaspora Jews cannot criticise Israel; indeed, that they should put up or shut up. While I think that most of Friedman's comments on Netanyahu are both wrong and naive, I don't see that anything he says removes him from the bounds of normative discourse.

That said, his tone (in this piece - read the whole thing - and in recent interviews) is striking in its contempt and anger for Netanyahu. What, other than jealousy, explains this? Three things.

First, Friedman does genuinely believe that his policies are destructive for Israel, and as a true friend of the Jewish state, is worried. (I agree with him that the lack of a peace agreement endangers Israel's future as a Jewish state, but disagree with him that the main obstacle to reaching an agreement is Netanyahu).

Second, there is a group of diaspora Jews (and indeed, a smaller group of Israelis) who have never got over Netanyahu's first term, and find it impossible to comprehend that many years have passed, that local conditions and the Israeli public have changed, and that Netanyahu himself has matured and grown. They continue to relate to him with the contempt of the mid-1990s, and cannot free themselves from it no matter what he does or what the Palestinians do this time round. For some of these people, hatred of Bibi is a convenient way of channelling their anger away from Israelis in general for making the "wrong" decisions. He's their proxy.

Third, I can't help but feel that there is something in Bibi's personality which brings out the worst in bullies like Obama - and some strong people like Friedman. As Ratzon notes, Friedman has no problem speaking respectfully about some far nastier types - dictators in the Arab world, for example. But for Bibi, he has nothing but contempt. It is as if, despite Netanyahu's intelligence, dedication to his people and other qualities, he perceives Netanyahu to be an inferior specimen. This is why he finds his defiance of Obama (and indeed, of Friedman's own wisdom) so infuriating. That pathetic little schnip!, I can hear him telling himself. How dare he!

This is what I think is Bibi's problem. Despite his strong rhetoric, he is weak: indecisive, with a tendency to fold under pressure, physically nervous around Obama. Aggressive people pick up on this and don't respond well. Weakness actually riles and provokes them, and they pounce on it.

For people like Friedman (and Obama), Bibi is the village idiot who is witholding the keys to regional piece, and he just can't stand it.

RELATED: Bradley Burston on Friedman and Bibi.

Next-Chief-Rabbi watch

Last month we noted that one of the rabbis who is regularly mentioned as a potential successor to Lord Sacks, Lincoln Square rabbi Shaul Robinson, was going through a tough time, with construction on his new Manhattan shul being halted due to a lack of funds and the resignation of his president.

Well, the shul construction project has now been rescued with an anonymous, magnificent $20 million donation.

It is possible that London now looks a little less attractive...

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Reform goes kosher?

America's Reform rabbinical association is coming out with a new guide to Jewish dietary practice: "The Sacred Table: Creating a Jewish Food Ethic".

No, the word "kosher" is not mentioned on the cover. But according to JTA, "Reform kashrut" is part of it, in a way that was unimaginable even a year ago, when Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, dropped plans to suggest kashrut as a model for Reform dietary practice following an outcry from his lay leaders.

In Reform circles over the past two years, conversation about kashrut and Jewish values has come from the grass roots, youth groups and the pulpit. It’s part of the movement’s new readiness to examine once-discarded Jewish rituals for their spiritual potential, and the focus on kashrut comes within the context of heightened interest among Americans generally in the politics and morality of food production and distribution...

“This is part of a continuum within Reform Judaism,” said [Rabbi Mary] Zamore, who pushed the project along for 13 years. “It’s not liberal Judaism becoming something different; it’s that we continue to evolve. Here is a topic which for many Reform Jews was taboo or a non-starter. Now everywhere I go, people are talking about these topics as Reform Jews.”

This is a really positive development. True, there is still no agreement in Reform about what precisely it means by "kosher". Many Orthodox people might not recognise some of the definitions being reached: bringing in "ethical" principles for food choice does not necessarily mean they are "kosher" halachically (although they might be. And it would be nice if more people in the Orthodox camp had some regard for "ethical" food choices as well as for halachic ones. One of the ironies here is that the renewed Reform interest in kashrut is partially being credited to the scandal of the Lubavitch-run Agriprocessors meat plant, which provoked little soul-searching - and some of the opposite - amongst the Orthodox).

But who can object to the movement becoming, in its own way, more comfortable with Jewish practice and terminology? Who knows where their journey will end.

Of course, we are a long way off from seeing a majority of Reform's rank-and-file members keeping kosher. Rabbi Yoffie's experience last year suggests that the image of Reform's rabbis being frummer than their followers has an element of truth to it and a decade ago, just 8% of those keeping kosher were Reform, despite being the largest denomination.

But just how serious this is might be discerned from the comments of Rabbi Joel Abraham of Temple Sholom in Scotch Plains NJ, who writes
that he does not keep kosher, opposing its power to separate Jews from non-Jews. He explains his position as a “moral choice based on my definition of Reform Judaism,” and says he feels marginalized at Reform events that serve only kosher food. They may think they’re being inclusive, Abraham writes, but in fact such meals exclude him and his beliefs.
Of course, he is not excluded, because he can still eat the food, while kosher people at a non-kosher dinner cannot eat. That he clearly feels threatened perhaps indicates that something substantial really is happening.

How is this knight different...?

Ever wonder what the youngsters did to entertain the bride and groom before the days of silly hats, plastic glasses, balloon poppers and jump ropes (ah, Jewish weddings can be so classy!)? Well, in medieval times - because I'm sure you spent hours wondering - turns out they did jousting.

One of my favorite blogs, On the Main Line, explains a particular bit of Talmud (Sukkah 45a):
The background is that the Mishnah writes that in the Temple, on the last day of Sukkot, the people would take the lulavs from the children and eat their Etrogs. Naturally there are two ways to understand this: one is that the people would eat the etrogs, the other is that the children did. But Rashi interprets it that it was the adults who would eat them. Therefore the Mishnah is describing a situation where the adults apparently grabbed the lulavim and esrogim from the hands of the children, and Rashi explains that this was not stealing - it was a fun game.

From this explanation Tosafos [medieval commentaries - MS] derives a principle: One can learn from here that those bochurim (youths) who ride horses and war with one another, before grooms, and tear each others clothing or hurt the horse, are exempt from the damage they've caused because this is the customary way of providing joyous entertainment for grooms....

So there you have it: in the times of Tosafos the bochurim would get on horses and joust with each other for entertainment.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Never been kissed? You're not alone

I'm always intrigued by the search terms that led people to this blog. Take today; there's been "hairy Miriam" (nothing to do with me, I swear), "not the godol hador blog author" (ask this guy, no need to come here for that), "Eliza Davis Dickens", various queries about the number of Jews in Russia, J Street, the Stuxnet virus etc.

Also regularly popular are "Amish year off", "are Jews smarter" and "Arafat daughter" (whom I wrote about here and here).

But the all-time most searched term; the term which wins almost day in, day out, is "never been kissed blog", which I wrote about here. Today alone, in addition to various searches for that blog, I've also had "26 never been kissed" and "I'm 38 and never been kissed".

Clearly a more common problem than one might think...

Dybbuk debunked

Remember the dybbuk that allegedly possessed the body of a Brazilian man last year, and was subject to several 'failed' exorcism attempts by leading Charedi mystics?

Well, I bet you never saw this coming. The Brazilian man - a seemingly random member of his community, Ezra Weiss, now reveals - was "mentally ill" and made it all up. All the languages which the "dybbuk" was "speaking" were languages the man already spoke (although at the time, one of the "proofs" that there was a dybbuk was that the man was speaking languages with which he was unfamiliar). The approach to the mystics was apparently made by another member of the community.

In other breaking news, there's no tooth fairy. Nevertheless, some commentators do seem surprised (or in some cases, offended at the implication that some of the kabbalists involved in the exorcisms were either fools or charlatans, though they must have been one or the other).

Oh well, I guess it could be worse. Next thing you know, we're all going to be believing in a talking fish.


Friday, November 12, 2010

Bribing your yeshivah to success

Competition between yeshivah programmes for 18-year-old Anglos in Israel is intense. There are many smaller yeshivot struggling to establish themselves and struggling to survive. And of course, with fees, as I last heard it, in the tens of thousands of dollars, there is a lot of money being thrown about as well.

All of which perhaps goes to explain this rather disturbing post on the Lookjed list (run by Bar Ilan's Lookstein Center for Jewish Education):

I recognize that recruitment for Israel yeshivot is a cut-throat business, but I was (perhaps naively) shocked at a recent proposal made to me be a somewhat prestigious yeshiva to remain nameless. Every student from my school who ends up in this yeshiva will earn me $1,000 cash. In my seven years doing Israel Guidance, this is the first time I have been approached in this way. I am hoping that this post and the ensuing conversation will somewhat bring this to light and discourage such practice.

Rabbi Eli Mandel
Vice Principal, Jewish Studies / TanenbaumCHAT / Toronto, Ontario
You have to wonder what such a yeshivah is teaching our children.


Thursday, November 11, 2010

What's in a unisex name?

Last year I looked into why Israelis love unisex names. The consensus amongst the experts to whom I spoke was that it was far more common for boys' names to become appropriate for both genders than for girls' names; and that this was a reflection on the patriarchal nature of Israeli society, where manliness is admired.

So I am rather intrigued to see that gender-neutral names are also becoming more common in American society. However, there is a crucial difference. As one parent explains it:
"Among my generation of parents, our nontraditional boys’ names—vaguely androgynous, nonmacho, or just plain unique—reflect our own desire to raise sons who will be as comfortable pushing dolls in strollers as pushing trucks,” said Deborah Siegel, Ph.D., author of Sisterhood, Interrupted and founding partner of SheWrites, whose 1-year-old son is named Teo.
So, while Israelis are trying to 'toughen up' their daughters through their names, Americans are trying to neuter their sons. "My name is Sue, how do you do" - coming soon to an American suburb near you.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

My Palestinian cousins II

A few months back I wrote about a documentary produced by an Israeli woman who had tracked down her Palestinian cousins - the children of an aunt who had somehow (depending on who's telling the story...) ended up married to an Arab man. At the time, the only interviews I could find with the film-maker were in Hebrew.

Now Jonathan Freedland has written about the film for the Guardian. An excerpt:

Noa's research took her to the West Bank, to meet Pnina's children and grandchildren. Most did not want to talk, anxious that any contact with an Israeli – let alone an admission of Jewish ancestry – would raise suspicions of collaboration among their fellow Palestinians. The only one of Pnina's eight children who agreed to speak to her was Salma, a middle-aged woman who had reached rock bottom: "She had no money, she had no work, she needed money for food – she had nothing to lose." With a husband and sons in and out of Israeli custody, usually for trying to work in Israel without a permit, Salma reckoned that contact with an Israeli might prove helpful – especially as Noa's uncle, Shmulik, is a former military governor of Ramallah, in charge for a time of military intelligence on the West Bank. Salma was keen to make contact, sensing that her Israeli cousins might be a lifeline.

The Israelis are not so sure. Noa's camera records her mother, uncles and others debating the wisdom of the family reunion Noa is planning. "What will we gain from this, except helping them out?" asks Shmulik's wife, Sarah. Great-uncle David is worried that, if they help Salma, 10 more Palestinian relatives will pop up demanding similar assistance: "That's our problem with the refugees. They left with two or three children, now they're clans!" In that sentence he speaks for those many Israelis who believe that, while the estimated 700,000 refugees of 1948 might be eligible for some kind of restitution, it's too much to compensate the many millions who now make up the Palestinian nation.

Read the whole thing here.

Separate lives

Haaretz is running a disturbing piece on the increasing separation of genders in the public sphere amongst Charedim. Disturbing because so many of the people involved don't actually want it; but everyone, including the rabbis, is afraid of looking "less frum" than their neighbour, even if halachah actually has little to do with it. It is a sad time when there are no rabbis willing to take a principled stand because they are afraid of "the street". Disturbing, also, because these trends have a way of "leaking" into the margins of the national-religious community, and from there, in some ways, to the rest of us.

Personally, among a long list of meshugaas, I found this paragraph most disturbing:

The trend toward increasing gender segregation is evident as well in various local initiatives in Haredi communities and neighborhoods. In Komemiyut, a small ultra-Orthodox moshav in the Negev, separate hours have been designated for boys and girls at the public playground. In a dental clinic subsidized by the Chabad Hasidic sect in Mea She'arim, men and women have been allotted separate days; a similar system exists now at a branch of the Clalit health maintenance organization on Jerusalem's Strauss Street.
First the playground: completely apart from the fact that this makes life impossible for mothers, who can no longer bring their whole broods to play together, this completely sexualizes young children. The idea that there is some kind of problem with two-year-old (or eight-year-old) boys and girls playing next to each other (under parental supervision!) is actually sick.

The medical facilities: Goes with a wider trend of men and women unable to share public space that was once, just several years ago, completely normal. It goes without saying that it is ridiculous that adults are apparently no longer trusted to sit in the same waiting room without pouncing on each other. Beyond that, though, I worry that national public services like Clalit - and like bus company Egged - are misguidedly buying into these ideas, helping to turn extremist values into a norm and imposing them on people who are not interested.

Friday, November 05, 2010

The Yitzhak Rabin we choose to forget

My latest Jewish Chronicle column, 'Rabin's legacy sits to the right', appears today:

Fifteen years after his murder, Israelis don't care much about Yitzhak Rabin.

None of the main television channels planned to cover the commemoration ceremony for the slain leader this year - the state broadcaster, Channel 1, only reversed tack following a Facebook campaign. Last Saturday night, the organisers of the memorial could not even fill Rabin Square, the site of Rabin's murder on November 4, 1995. They will most likely have to move to
a smaller location next year.

But even as Rabin seems to fade from public memory - today's soldiers were only three years old when he was assassinated - the buds of his rehabilitation are already apparent. Particularly on the right, his legacy is starting to be revaluated. This is a healthy process, which the left should embrace as well.

Rabin, according to the new theory, was not the staunch peacenik we were all led to believe. Rather, he had severe doubts about the Palestinians' intentions, and never intended to establish a Palestinian state.

Read the rest and please come back here to comment.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Pornographic challah

Those who have been following this blog for a while know that I love extraordinary challahs.

But there's extra-ordinary, and then there's x-rated.

Yup, pornographic challah. Bet you've never seen that before. (Sorry, this is a family blog - I'm not posting the picture - you'll have to click on the link...)

The backstory (allegedly - this has all the makings of an urban myth): the ad, belonging to a chain of food stores, appeared in a local advertising magazine distributed in a religious part of the Jerusalem suburb of Ramot. The magazine claims it was "human error", with the picture being taken from an internet site about bread rolls (by a blind person???). The store claims that it saw the draft ad only in black-and-white, and didn't notice the picture.

Either way, I'm guessing it wasn't a best-seller....


Wednesday, November 03, 2010


I'm coming to this a bit late (via ADDeRabbi), but Dr Alan Brill has a fascinating post about a new phenomenon amongst religious teens: 'Half-shabbos'.
I was asked by an Jewish educator- principal if I know what it means when current HS kids ask each other if they keep “half shabbos” or “full shabbos?”
Since I know the lay of the land, I said sure it is texting.
He said: Your right. The kids call someone who texts (and tweets and posts) on Shabbos as keeping half-shabbos and those who don't, full shabbos.
This phenomena is more widespread than just the average modern orthodox. I have seen rabbinic kids here who wear black hats admit that they text on shabbos.
The educator said that the kids consider it part of daily verbal communication.
Much of the discussion on the blogs seems to revolve around the teens' relationship with their cellphones; whether texting is seen as a 'teen' activity which they will give up, on Shabbat, as they grow older; whether they are so addicted to texting they actually cannot give it up; and whether a heter can be found to text on Shabbat (depending on what the issur actually is). A couple of commentators also speculated that the teens felt this was a 'private' violation of halachah, as phones are easy to hide, as opposed to, say, turning on and off a light or using a computer.

To my mind, these kids are not 'privately' violating Shabbat. They are not 'just' texting, but also tweeting and even 'posting' (presumably facebooking?). These leave very public evidence, complete with time stamp, of breaking Shabbat. That's the whole point of social media; it's about connecting with others.

But these teens don't care about breaking Shabbat in front of others. They do it entirely casually, and have found an ingenious way of having their cake (feeding their social media addiction) and eating it too (remaining in the Orthodox fold): "Half-shabbos" (ADDerabbi says the terminology comes from the Syrian community). Once upon a time, crossing such a clear Shabbat boundary - for example, turning a light on or getting into a car - would have been accompanied by tremendous trepidation and guilt. Now, a chunk of the next generation has conveniently managed to side-step all this emotional and theological upheaval, by placing themselves on a shomer-Shabbat spectrum.

Now, they're not entirely wrong on this. We are all somewhere on that spectrum; most people break Shabbat in some way and we all manage to explain away, in our minds, our own violation, whether it be pushing a stroller (another very public act), tearing toilet paper, or sticking the wrong food on the hotplate. People are capable of living with great contradictions and, once committed to an Orthodox lifestyle, few people think that their own particular Shabbat sin (or sins of any kind, for that matter) removes them from the category of 'observant'.

Nevertheless, in communal eyes, there are some Shabbat sins which drop you off the spectrum altogether, usually the more public ones, and certainly few Orthodox adults will have much sympathy for kids posting on Facebook on a Saturday. The kids, whose social lives depend on their facebook page to an extent most adults cannot appreciate, but who rather like the rest of their comfortable Orthodox lives, are just extending that spectrum, with a faux-innocent nudge and a wink.

Personally, I think these kids are on to something. I'm thinking about adopting "half-kashrut" (yes to crab and shrimp, but the rest of my meat has to be glatt?). And it's probably only a matter of time until we hear about the new wave of teenagers, those who keep "quarter Shabbos" - texting, tweeting and smoking - coming up against their peers who keep "three quarters Shabbos" - all of the above, but only on Friday nights.