Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Is the truth out there?

This is a weird one. Bnei Levi has posted a link to a new website called 'Project Truth', run by a Chicago Orthodox father-of-ten called Aaron Thomas, who has been excommunicated by Rabbi Shmuel Fuerst -- as proven by the original document on his website. Here's the story, according to Thomas:
"This happened when I sued (with the Beit Din's permission) a Chicago couple in Circuit Court because they comprehensively sexually abused my child, and they refused to appear before the Beit Din. Fearing trial, the couple asked Rabbi Shmuel Fuerst, head of Agudath Israel of Illinois, for help. They are his contributors.
"To pressure me into dropping the lawsuit, Rabbi Fuerst drafted a Ktav Siruv excommunication Order issued by a fictitious convening of his Beit Din. The Order fabricated charges that I had refused to appear before Rabbi Fuerst’s Beit Din, and the Order instructed all Jews to “banish me from their homes.” To give the paper the appearance of an official Beit Din document, Rabbi Fuerst approached two local rabbis separately to attach their signatures. In deference to Rabbi Fuerst’s authority, they did so without the slightest inquiry."
Then Rabbi Fuerst sent the fraudulent Order to certain influential people in Chicago and Jerusalem (where I had move to from Chicago). Due to Rabbi Fuerst’s international stature, the excommunication Order was imposed to a very painful degree."
Thomas has tried suing Rabbi Fuerst for libel, but the courts twice rejected his motions, partially citing the first amendment, which "bars any secular court from involving itself in the ecclesiastical controversies that may arise in a religious body or organization." Now, he has sent letters to 2423 Orthodox households in Chicago, asking them to "Insist on accountability - Insist that Rabbi Fuerst answer this complaint in a forum that will be empowered especially for the occasion."
Elsewhere on his site, he emphasises, "Let it be Clear. I have asked no one to condemn Rabbi Shmuel Fuerst. Rabbi Fuerst’s reputation precedes him and everyone owes him respect - except for me and those few who have first hand knowledge of the corruption. I have only advocated the insistence that Rabbi Fuerst purge himself and the community of these serious allegations in a competently empowered Court of Law."
What to make of this? The allegations against Rabbi Fuerst are devestating and hard to believe: corruption, abuse of power and covering up for sexual abusors because they're rich. And yet, stranger things have happened. The reason Thomas was excommunicated also seems strange; thousands of people have refused to appear before a Beit Din, without suffering the same fate.
So -- could it really be true? Or is this a terrible attempt at character assassination, an excommunicated, bitter man's revenge?
Does anyone know anything about this?

Facing Barak's weirdness

Barak: after and before? (Photo Credit: NRGPosted by Hello

Ehud Barak has had his famous mole removed. The burning question in the Israeli press is: did he inject his face with botox as well?
The tabloids (namely, Ma'ariv) are treating this as a gossip item, more proof of Barak's vanity. But if he did undergo the procedure, I think it is actually an important clue for those still trying to understand Barak, and how he behaved while in power.
Just a few months back, he told Ma'ariv in an infamous interview that, "It is actually unnatural for me to expose my feelings. I don’t derive any satisfaction from doing that.... I just want to be in control so that I can be effective and experience life consciously... Even when I am at the peak I don’t feel any ecstasy."
What better way to hide your emotions than with a botox injection, which freezes all your face muscles?
It's not a beauty statement. It's pathological.

All the rest is...

Commentary Magazine is now charging for some of its online content, including in its current issue. Naturally, all the articles I want to read now cost ($4.95 per article, $10 for 24-hour access). They didn't even have the decency to offer their readers the routine explanation.
Here's my commentary: that sucks.

Times certainly have changed

According to WorldNetDaily,
In a federal-court consent judgment, the town of Palm Beach, Fla., paid $50,000 in attorney fees and apologized for not allowing the display of Christian nativity scenes while permitting Jewish menorahs.

With great press access there must also come great responsibility...

Irwin Kula compares Spider-Man to King David in an article on the character's religious resonance (apparently, "Rabbis recognize something essentially Jewish in Spider-Man" although I don't remember any recent sermons on the subject).
When my movie about David and Saul is finally made, I hope they don't cast boyish Toby Maguire in the title role...

Tuesday, June 29, 2004

You're hired?

Even Michael Steinhardt, one of the founders of Birthright, does not sound entirely convinced about his new venture, a conference trying to convince young Jews to work in community institutions.
“I’m not sure we will be able to persuade them that being a professional leader is a meaningful and satisfying career," the philanthropist told the Detroit Jewish News, "but we’re going to try.”
I guess he knows ahead of time that the real problem isn't a lack of interest in community work amongst young involved Jews, but the stultified and stultifying nature of many of our organizations. As the last line of the article concludes, "the recruiting organizations must be willing to adapt, change and even reinvent themselves if that’s what it takes to engage our best and brightest as professional leaders."
Now, if Steinhardt could fund that...

Kabbalah craze out of control

According to the NYT, every boutique owner in America is jumping on the Kabbalah bandwagon. Forget the Zohar and pure Kabbalah water; you can now buy, amongst other over-priced merchandise, $45 silver and gold bendels (more commonly known as string bracelets), 'Moses Is My Homeboy' T-shirts, Teffilin (presumably decorative only), and candles from a line 'called simply Kabbalah,' which are imbued with frankincense, cinnamon and myrrh and said to promote sexual energy, spiritual cleansing 'and the like.' Each $20 candle, to be sold in Barneys New York, Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus, will be 'packaged with a bendel blessed at Rachel's Tomb in Bethlehem.'
I wonder whether this is, a. the beginning of the end for the Kabbalah Center, which has clearly lost control of its 'brand'; and b. a bad thing, in the long-term, for the rest of us, who unfortunately risk being tainted by the commercialism, opportunism and religious kitsch up to now associated with just one marginal cult.

Quit while you're behind

The Vatican has released a 1943 letter from a bishop "complaining that the Roman Catholic Church was helping too many Jews during World War II."
According to the IHT, this is supposed to help the Vatican's image (by showing they were trying to save Jews after all). Who the hell's in charge of their PR???

Monday, June 28, 2004

Noah makes his (m)ark

Back in his early, funny days, Bill Cosby used to do a pretty good routine about Noah's ark. "You're supposed to see all and know all," Noah tells God. "Well, have you seen the bottom of that ark? Who's going to clean up that mess?"
(Time Magazine)

Noah, it appears, is fast becoming all the rage, as the hero of the latest piece of 'biblical fiction,' The Preservationist by David Maine (St. Martin's Press). He follows hot in the footsteps of Ya'akov's wives and Dinah, Sarah, Avishag, the angel Adiel, Queen Esther, Rachel and Leah again, and Rebecca.
What I don't understand is why, in this explosion of biblical-based fiction, no one has fleshed out what is easily the most powerful and moving story of the lot. And that is, the incredible relationship between Saul and David, whom Saul loves as a son and yet must get rid of in order to save his own kingship. The generally under-rated and under-recognized chapters where Saul is torn between love and hate, and is torn up internally by the conflict, are for me at least, among the most psychologically real and haunting sections in the Tanach. I've always known they would make a brilliant novel (or drama) and wanted to write them up myself, but I'm quite happy for someone to get there before me. I just doubt, in this case at least, anyone can even come close to the original.

Crying 'anti-Semitism'

Rumor on the block -- and I emphasise, this is just a rumor -- is that last week's two arson attacks on British shuls were not, after all, anti-Semitic per se. Apparently, there is no evidence of a break-in at Aish Hatorah, leading police to conclude that whoever was responsible for setting the place on fire had a key, and it was probably an inside job (a disgruntled cleaner, perhaps?). There is also, apparently, some evidence that the fire at the South Tottenham United synagogue's Beit Midrash was the work of run-of-the-mill English hooligans looking to have some 'fun' rather than hard-core anti-Semites looking to scare or damage the Jewish community.
If these rumors are true, this would not be the first time we've made such mistakes. I recall in particular the murder of David Rozensweig, a 48-year-old Orthodox Jew stabbed by skinheads outside a Kosher pizza parlor in Toronto one Saturday night in 2002. The Toronto community was whipped into a frenzy of fear by the incident which they -- and the police -- immediately labelled a 'hate crime.' Within a few days, it emerged that Rozensweig had stumbled into a drug-related fight and was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. But to this day, the community recalls the incident as a watershed in the rise of 'anti-Semitism' in the city.
So while it was entirely natural to jump to conclusions in the case of both the British arsons, particularly considering their proximity in time, the danger in crying 'anti-Semitism' before all the facts of the case are known is illustrated once again. While the British Jewish community over the last few months was definitely cautious about a general rise in anti-Jewish feeling, I think many people are now scared -- probably needlessly. In terms of public relations, exaggerating the extent of anti-Semitism will always, in the end, work against us.
Next time an incident like this occurs, I urge everyone to exercise some restraint. Let's resist the natural urge to assign blame until we are absolutely sure 'whodunnit' -- even when the evidence seems, on the face of things, conclusive.

Spawning myths

According to the BBC, an Iranian paper is running a story about an woman who claims to have given birth to a frog ("with some human characteristics").
Before you laugh too hard, consider that the town where this woman lives, Iranshahr, is home to one of Iran's largest "power plants."
Time to open up your facilities to inspection, guys...

Sunday, June 27, 2004

This should give J-Date a run for its money

Israel is launching a 24-hour cable TV dating channel. Those featured will "have one-on-one conversations with a host, lasting up to three minutes, to tell viewers about themselves and what they are looking for. The segments are taped for later broadcast, with contact information flashing on the screen... The station promises to check applications and yank off the air anyone who has provided false information."

Deliberately invalid marriages

A few weeks ago, I wrote in horror about the possibility that Israel's rabbis were deliberately sabotaging the halachic validity of up to 30% of the marriages they were performing, to prevent a problem with mamzerim, or bastards according to Jewish law, in the future. For those of you interested in the halachic ins-and-outs, there has been a lengthy discussion on the topic on Mail-Jewish, prompted by my posting -- click here and see under 'deliberately invalid marriages.'

Who will come through for the Jews of Yemen?

According to this report,
"Yemen officials Saturday accused the nation's 300 Jewish citizens of supporting a Shiite rebel leader barricaded in the region of Saada north of the country.
"The official daily al-Thawra charged Yemeni Jews were also spying for the benefit of the previous Imam's regime, which ruled Yemen until it was ousted by the September 1962 revolution."
Someone get them out of there quickly -- Jewish Agency or Satmar!

Friday, June 25, 2004

Maccaba loses 'Indecent Proposal' slander case

The Jury in the longest running slander case in British history, Brian Maccaba vs. Dayan Yaakov Lichtenstein, has finally returned its verdict. Dayan Lichtenstein has been cleared of spreading allegations that Maccaba, an Irish-born multi-millionaire who converted to Judaism in 1990, was a "sexual predator" and "serial adulterer." The main defence claim was that Maccaba "offered family friend Alain Attar one million dollars for his wife Nathalie and twice sexually harassed her."
According to The Scotsman, "Mr Maccaba, a twice-married father of six, from Hendon, north London, who is chief executive officer and founder of international technology company Cognotec, showed no emotion except to raise one eyebrow."
Oh well; that's the end of months of gossip and excitement. At least we still have Yvonne Sherrington to keep us amused.

Thursday, June 24, 2004

Our best and our brightest

An inspiring article in Ha'aretz about young Israeli Orthodox rabbis who serve in remote communities overseas and set up creative programs which reinvigorate their congregants.
Writer Yair Sheleg fails to ask them, however, one of the questions which always intrigues me when I hear of Israeli shlichim working abroad. And that is, how has their experience in the Diaspora -- with a community structure virtually unknown in Israel, with generally smoother relations between the different Jewish streams, with the experience of being a minority -- affected their view of Jewish life in general, and of Jewish life in Israel?

Operation Shylock comes to life

The London Times reports:
"Holocaust survivors holding applications to regain citizenship of the land where once they faced persecution gathered in the shade of a stunted palm tree in Tel Aviv.
"Dozens of Israeli pensioners, reading Hebrew newspapers but chatting in Polish, greeted old friends who also fled Poland after September 1939, escaping the fate of countless less fortunate relatives.
"Few of these Jewish grandparents actually plan on moving back to Poland or any of the Eastern European countries that have just joined the European Union.
"They will live out their years in the Levantine sun, but are here at the behest of their Israeli-born children and grandchildren, who have taken note of the entry of ten new countries into the EU and realised the benefits of having Polish or Hungarian-born ancestors. Some are businessmen seeking to increase work opportunities, others are fearful of rising Middle Eastern tensions.
"'I escaped Poland on horseback with my parents when I was five years old. We lost the whole family during the war, four uncles, my grandfather and his daughter,' said Moshe Laschuv, 70, who was born in Plaszow. 'I don’t want the passport for myself, I have a wonderful life and I went through all the wars here; that’s not the reason. I want it for my six grandchildren. You don’t know what will happen here in 20 or 30 years’ time.'"
There have been 2,500 applications so far this year, up from 1,500 in 2003 and 500 in 2002.


The advice column in Salon today features a Jewish woman who went on a couple of dates with a Christian, who dumped her citing their religious incompatibility. She's offended and wonders, "Who are these people who secretly feel that those of other religions (and one would assume other races) are inferior and wrong? Of course they are everywhere, but this guy seemed so good and kind. Do you think a guy like this will find happiness in a relationship, and in life overall? I am kind of hoping he doesn't."
Cary Tennis, Salon's chief copy-editor and interminably long-winded agony uncle, gives "Surprised But Shouldn't Be" a typically fuzzy answer ("maybe he meant this.... maybe he meant that"). Of-course he deliberately avoids the point that people are entitled to want to marry partners with similar beliefs and lifestyles. What really got me, however, was the following comment at the end:
"Was he a bigot? I don't know. I do think he was thoughtless. His actions were far less than divine. I do not think Jesus would have broken up with you that way."
That's correct, Cary. He wouldn't have had to. Because Jesus was A JEW, remember?

Wednesday, June 23, 2004

The magic touch hits England

A group of young Americans have brought their message of sexual abstinence to the UK -- and are finding their message isn't particularly welcome. Perhaps Waterloo station, in the heart of London, is the wrong spot for this campaign? They should try Golders Green or Hendon station.

It's all cultural

The Chief Rabbi of the Tamar region, Yosef Blau, urges that more women should be employed as mashgichot, or Kashrut supervisors. He explains: "It's much harder to fool women about kashrut than to fool men, who generally don't know their way around a kitchen.... I'm sorry to say that it is the less talented yeshiva graduates who turn to kashrut supervision as a profession, rather than the more capable, who become rabbis or teachers."
I'm thrilled for the women. But what is Rabbi Blau implying about current Kashrut standards?

Is the JPost sale on or off?

Hollinger today finally sold its main asset, the Daily Telegraph, to the mysterious Barclay twins. Theoretically, they were going to concentrate on the Telegraph sale before proceeding with the sale of their other papers, including The Jerusalem Post. But despite all the speculation, their plans for the Israeli daily remain unclear.
According to CBS Marketwatch, "Hollinger said it expects to retain its other major properties, the Jerusalem Post, the Chicago Sun-Times and other North American newspapers."
The BBC claims that "Hollinger International is likely to continue seeking a buyer - or buyers - for the [Telegraph's sister-] newspapers, which remain notable titles in their own right." (But we already know how much we trust the BBC.)
Hollinger interim CEO Gordon Paris, who was recently in Israel to personally fire The Post's publisher Tom rose, remained pareve in the company's press release: "We are proud of the continued commitment demonstrated by all of the employees at The Chicago Sun-Times, The Jerusalem Post and Report and our other newspapers across North America."
One thing's for certain: the staff of the Jerusalem Post want it to be sold. Can't Hollinger make them happy -- just this once?

Tuesday, June 22, 2004

One man's terrorist....

The BBC -- like The Guardian before it -- has been celebrating a new study by the Media Group at Scotland's Glasgow University, "proving" that the main UK television television stations are convincingly biased in favor of... the Israelis.
Which just goes to show you can "prove" anything if you want to; on this issue, it certainly helps if your idea of "unbiased truth" clearly squares with the Palestinian narrative.
According to the claims:
• Israelis were quoted more than twice as much as Palestinians in reports
• US politicians who support Israel were "very strongly featured" in news programmes, appearing more than politicians from any other country and twice as much as those from Britain
• Coverage does not stress what military occupation is like
• [There is] a tendency in the media to present the problem as "starting" with Palestinian action, while Israelis were seen to be "responding" with actions that were explained and contextualised
• Researchers also found a strong emphasis on Israeli casualties on the news despite the number of Palestinian deaths being considerably greater
• Words such as 'atrocity', 'brutal murder', 'mass murder', 'savage cold blooded killing', 'lynching' and 'slaughter' were used about Israeli deaths but not Palestinian
• The word 'terrorist' was used to describe Palestinians by journalists but when an Israeli group was reported as trying to bomb a Palestinian school, they were referred to as 'extremists' or 'vigilantes'.
Some of these are just blatant untruths, others are just complaints that the BBC is not acting as the official spokesman for the Palestinians. But why argue over details? On a whim, I clicked on one of the links to the right of this story, looking forward to a good old, reassuring pro-Israel read.
And would you believe it? The story, on the Gaza town of Rafah, begins by featuring Jaqueline Abu Tueimah, who is forced to sleep in a classroom with her 10 siblings because "The Israeli army destroyed their house last month in a major operation during which more than 60 Palestinians were killed."
Why would the Israelis do such a thing? There's no answer for another eight paragraphs, until reporter Barbara Plett explains rather vaguely: "Because, say Israelis, Rafah is a key entry port for smuggled Palestinian weapons."
A little lower down we have "Palestinian militias" and "the militant group Hamas" (I thought that Palestinians were described by the BBC as 'terrorists'?); there is no mention of Israeli civilian casualties anywhere in the article; and while the report complained that "news programmes did not provide enough information about the conflict's history and origins," this report did mention 1948 -- which, it explains, is "when Israel was established and they [the Palestinians] were made refugees."
I could go on and on. But I'm afraid I don't have time; I have to go change my home page from The Jerusalem Post to the BBC. Honest reporting, you see.

What naches ("What joy"... or perhaps, "what satisfaction"?)

1,000 translators have voted 'Shlimazel' as the world's second most untranslatable word.
(The winner: 'Ilunga,' the Tshiluba word for a person who is ready to forgive any abuse for the first time; to tolerate it a second time; but never a third time.)

Chumra(s) of the week

Steven I. Weiss reports that Rav Schachter has reversed his opinion on the New York bugs-in-the-water scandal and has now effectively banned unfiltered water in the areas affected. (For full explanation see Hirhurim, whose scoop it was.)
• Rav Ovadiah Yosef has banned all shavers, and recommends using scissors instead. But no one seems to be paying much attention.

A super-stition

The New York Times has discovered Amuka, the Galilee grave of Yonatan Ben Uziel. Those who pray there are said to find their bashert, or destined love, within a year.
I'm surprised the Times didn't drag up any of the old urban myths associated with the place. A famous one concerns the woman who went to Amuka, took a few photos, and met her husband a year to the day after the visit. After they got engaged, it emerged that he too had visited Amuka on the same day -- and was present in the background of one of her photos.
The larger and more interesting story, however, is contained in this snippet:
"Yoram Bilu, a professor of anthropology and psychology at Hebrew University, said there was a growing veneration of saints in Judaism, paralleling that in Christianity and Islam, as demonstrated by the growing populist reverence for the Talmudic sages whose putative graves are sprinkled throughout Galilee.
"He said forces like the turmoil set off by the Palestinian uprising and disillusionment with once popular movements like socialism had led many ordinary Israelis to latch on to a folk mysticism and New Age spirituality."
The same process has taken place amongst many religious people, whose increasing reliance on and veneration of living rabbis has resulted in an even greater belief in the 'powers' of dead rabbis. And this phenomenon is not just 'New Age spirituality' or something fun and harmless as the Times seems to present it. It is a harmful and dangerous reduction of religion to baseless superstition.

Don't be 'Russian' to any conclusions (oy)

CBS reports that between 50,000 and 100,000 of the 1 million 'Russians' who made aliyah since the early 1990s have returned to the Former Soviet Union, and are leading a Jewish renaissance there.
Many will regard this as an indictment of the way Israel has absorbed the Russian olim; things must be pretty grim in Israel, the thinking will go, if people are actually prepared to return to Russia. But the opposite is true. Approximately half the Jews who arrived in Israel during the first and second aliyot left the country within months; more than a quarter of the Jews involved in the fourth aliya left as well. I'm not aware of any statistics on the number of Anglo olim who left, but we all know plenty of Anglo 'yordim.' If only 5-10 percent of Russian olim have chosen to return, and it took them years to decide to do so, that makes this one of the most successful aliyot ever.

Monday, June 21, 2004

You couldn't make this stuff up -- although plenty have tried

Those following the adoption saga in Israel may be interested in this story, about American Ben Davis, who sat down to dinner with a friend and her roommate Kari one night and found his life changed forever. At a certain point during the conversation, the roommate began talking about her long-lost brother, who was adopted at birth.
"She described how she had longed to know him but had been unable to find him. 'Ben was sitting across from me nodding his head,' said Kari. 'And I looked at him and he said, 'Yeah, I know what you mean. I was adopted from Florida'.
"Then Kari mentioned the date of her brother's birthday: August 9. Ben said: 'That's my birthday.'
"Kari was so startled that she blurted out that none of this could be real because her brother was Jewish, so he could not be Ben.
"But Ben replied: 'I was adopted from a Jewish adoption agency.'
You can guess the ending.

My anthropological adventure, part 2

It was certainly a weekend of contradictions, at least in terms of women’s roles.
On Shabbat morning, as you will recall, I attended the Masorti synagogue for my cousin’s Bar-Mitzvah. My aunt received an aliya, and stood on the bimah as her son read from the Torah; another female cousin opened the ark, and I stood in the center of the congregation and recited the prayer for the Queen (which must have sounded ridiculous with my thick North American accent – although as a naturalized Canadian citizen, I’m sure I was the only person in the room to have ever sworn allegiance to the British monarch). Overall, the service was just as I remembered it: dignified, intense and serious. Being part of it, and having women at the center of the service, felt natural.
That afternoon, we ate Seudah Shlishit with haredi friends. They gave out birkonim and we started to sing zmirot. At a certain point, I became aware I was the only woman at the table who was singing, and quickly toned down to a whisper. I couldn’t quite bring myself to shut up altogether.
“I love singing,” said my hostess wistfully, noticing my dilemma, “but there’s such a thing as kol isha.”
Just hours earlier, I’d helped lead a congregation; and now my voice was being literally muted. Of-course, that’s not representative at all of the Orthodox circles in which I hang out, or even of any of the haredi families I’ve eaten with before. But the contrast and symbolism haunts me, and forced me to ask myself again: why do I agree to be hidden behind a curtain?
The problem, as Pinchas Peli once put it (quoting, I believe, someone else), is that the people I talk to I don't want to daven with, and those I daven with, I don't want to talk to.
Masorti and the non-Orthodox movements except in very rare instances have yet to show that they’ve achieved the intensity of Jewish involvement and Jewish knowledge of the Orthodox community. The Orthox community, on the other hand, have the intensity, but can be infuriating in their social and ideological stances. What to do, what to do?


Still not sure how prominent messianism remains in Chabad today? Check out the rally in the Bat Yam stadium on the 10th anniversary of the Rebbe's 'disappearance.' It is being held 'in the Rebbe's honor,' and no reference will be made to his death.

But other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, did you enjoy the play?

The Economist on Islam's attitude to women:
"Aside from giving them the short stick on inheritance, and having their testimony in law considered half as weighty as men's, and letting husbands marry up to four wives, whom they may beat if they are disobedient, the Koran itself is not unkind to women."
Anything else?

Sunday, June 20, 2004

Adulterers, slanderers and wicked stepmothers

The British Jewish community is doing its best to keep the rest of the nation amused with front-page scandals popping up at regular intervals.
The Maccaba 'Indecent Proposal' case has now become the longest-running slander case in the history of the country. The jury will finally retire to consider its verdict next week.
Not to worry: now there's wicked stepmother Yvonne Sherrington to titillate us instead. Her husband Richard died in a car crash in 2001, seven weeks after he changed his will to leave his £10 million estate to her alone. His three children from his first marriage were totally excluded, and received a total of less than £60,000 from his insurance policy.
Dahlia, Donna and Ramon Sherrington are now suing Yvonne for breaching an understanding with their father that she would look after them in the event of his death. They also claim the will was not properly drawn up and did not reflect his true intentions.
So far, it appears that the marriage was on the brink of collapse; that Yvonne's step-children never accepted her and did not attend their father's second wedding; and that the father continued to talk to his first wife almost daily. There are conflicting reports about the quality of the father's relationship with his children; clearly there was some tension after he divorced their mother.
Stay tuned.

Ban on Haredi music lifted?

According to the Jewish Chronicle -- which did not post this story on their website -- rabbis have removed a ban on Mordechai Ben-David's concert on Sunday night, after determining that the separate seating arrangements for the event were adequate. Which re-raises the question of why they issued the ban in the first place: was it genuinely a question of 'modesty,' or, as some readers of Bloghead have argued in the comments section, an attempt to clean up an industry which has become tainted with at least one major sex scandal?
On the face of things, of course, it would now seem the question is settled in favor of the former reason, which certainly made more sense to me even last week. However, you will recall that the seating situation was clear a long time ago, before the rabbis made their initial ruling. What, I wonder, could have made the rabbis change their minds so abruptly?

UPDATE: The Daily Telegraph, a little behind the times, it seems, reports on the ban. I was particularly amused to read that "This is not the first time that the Jewish community has spoken out against a popular singer. In 1998, ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel were outraged by Dana International, a transsexual singer who won the Eurovision Song Contest for Israel." So everything between Dana International and Mordechai Ben David is ok?

Saturday, June 19, 2004

Arson at Aish London

Although it's not yet in the news (as of this writing), I understand that the Aish building in the London suburb of Hendon was torched last night. According to a friend of mine who works there, shortly after the guards left the building (presumably after the end of davening), the culprits entered, slashed the sifrei Torah inside, and then set fire to the building at three separate points.
Driving past the building tonight, it was clear the building was still standing, although it was impossible to see much more from the street. However, something had clearly happened: the street was cordoned off and a police car was stationed outside.
More details to follow, if / when they come in.

UPDATE: Story here.

Friday, June 18, 2004

My anthropological adventure, part I

It’s my cousin’s Bar-Mitzvah this week, and so I’ll be davening at his shul – which is Masorati. That’s the British equivalent to Conservative in the US, although it’s generally regarded as rather milder. This particular shul, for example, split a few years ago over whether or not women could wear tallitot. I wouldn’t have thought that would have been controversial in a community where women lead davening and leyning –- after all, I’ve seen women wear tallitot in some Orthodox services -- but there you go. My cousins, incidentally, stayed in the more ‘traditional’ half of the shul, where tallitot for women remained assur.
This will actually be only the second time I have ever davened in a shul that is not Orthodox. The last time was for another cousin’s Bat-Mitzvah, in the same shul, a couple of years ago.
As an Orthodox woman who often felt marginalized and cut-off in the women's gallery, it was a powerful experience. My uncle and aunt had arranged to set aside a few rows which were men-only, or women-only, for the rest of the family, and that’s where I sat, but I remember being incredibly envious of everyone else, who got to sit with their entire families. Although I’d never done it that way, it suddenly seemed extremely natural, and I couldn’t quite remember why we did it differently. The entire atmosphere was incredibly dignified; I don't remember feeling exposed, or alternately, that the men were paying particular attention to the women, at all.
On a similar note, I also remember being incredibly impressed by just how quiet and serious the service was compared to my regular Orthodox synagogue. There seemed to be no talking, just praying.
Mostly, however, I was incredibly jealous of my female cousin, who got up and layned the entire parasha confidently and comfortably, without a single mistake – even as some of my nominally Orthodox (female) cousins, who barely go to shul on regular weeks and probably knew a lot less than the Bat-Mitzvah girl about many aspects of Jewish life and learning, made snide remarks about her ‘ignorance of the way things are really done.’ Watching her, it occurred to me I’d hardly ever even touched a sefer Torah or been near one, let alone leyned from one. I suddenly felt ignorant.
At a certain point in the service I had to wonder, why did I usually agree to observer status? Being in the midst of things, an active participant, was such a different and inspiring experience. I truly felt part of a worshipping community, instead of part of the peanut gallery.
It was such a powerful experience that just one week at a Conservative shul was enough to make me feel 'strange' in an Orthodox shul the week after. And the memory of that weekend has continued to inspire me over the past couple of years. Sometimes, though, your memory betrays you. I will be interested to see whether, two years on, I come away with the same positive impressions – and will report back, with further thoughts, on Sunday.

Thursday, June 17, 2004

Three down, two to go

I notice Avraham Bronstein has now been demoted from 'elder' to 'former elder' on Protocols, a day after Sam Singer made the same move. And even the link to his own blog is gone. No announcement from Bronstein, though. The little line, 'who could be next?' under the list of elders takes on quite a different meaning in that context.

I told you 'Esther' wasn't so bad

Now that Madonna is officially asking to be called by her "Jewish name" (does Guy Ritchie know nothing about his wife?), it's only a matter of time before the pop world's other Kabbalah cult member, Britney Spears, follows suit.
I have my money on a 'B' name, maybe Bracha or Batya. Or maybe Zohar? Apparently that's a girl's name now.

Thank goodness R. Levi Schneerson's letters weren't in Israel's national library

According to AP,
"Beetles chewed holes in hundreds of books at Israel's national library, but spared the rare and precious examples — including the letters of Albert Einstein.....
"The beetles usually don't eat modern books whose pages are treated with repellents, said [Rosalind Duke, deputy director of the Jewish National and University Library]. The wood-eating insects also don't like the taste of ink and prefer the binding and the margin of the pages."

Magazine madness

The Baltimore Sun's list of the 50 best American magazines includes The Economist, Esquire, The New Yorker, Time, People and... Heeb, a magazine most people have never heard of and which has only produced 5 editions since October 2002. Hey, like, what do they have against Moment???

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Last minute reprieve for Jew on death row

A federal appeals court has upheld the stay of execution for convicted murderer and rapist Steven Oken, one of a small handfull of Jews on death row.
According to one report,
"Rex Perlmeter, senior rabbi of the 1,500-family Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, where Oken had his bar mitzvah as a boy, said rabbis are 'reaching out to Steven's family. The family is seeking hope and some sort of peace and reconciliation.'
"Davida Oken said her son receives spiritual comfort from a handful of rabbis who have visited him over the last 10 years. While he once practiced Reform Judaism, Oken has embraced Orthodox Judaism on death row, she said, including the morning ritual of attaching tefillin - leather boxes containing biblical passages - to his body.
"'He just loves Judaism at this point and has become enthralled with it,' Davida Oken said. 'He's apologized to his God and to us, and I think he's very comfortable with where he is now.'
Oken was sentenced to die for the 1987 murder of newlywed college student Dawn Marie Garvin, whom he raped and shot. He was also convicted of sexually assaulting and killing his sister-in-law, Patricia Hirt, and raping and fatally shooting motel clerk Lori Ward.


Israel's Sheagra has some competition.

Lubavitch lit.

According to the Federation of Jewish Communities of the CIS, more than 40 letters from the personal archive of the 7th Lubavitcher Rebbe's father, Rabbi Levi Yitzchok Schneerson, have been recovered in the FSU.
According to the tantalizing report, "Among the newly discovered items are letters written by the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe to Rabbi Levi Yitzchok Schneerson. These letters also include correspondence from his son, the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Shneerson, of righteous memory, and his wife Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka... A great part of these documents relates to that period when Rabbi Levi Yitzchok's son, Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, lived in Paris and his parents suffered from repression by the Soviet authorities. The correspondence reflects the tragedies of that time, and the efforts made to preserve Jewish life. Some of the letters authored by Levi Yitzchok Schneerson himself, as well as other important documents in this lot, tell about Jewish life in Ukraine prior to World War Two."
Nu? Some excerpts or details, please.

Something rotten in the state of Israel

Looking back on the legal case against Sharon, I see one important element of the story that has not been sufficiently addressed, if at all. And that is, the complete apathy the great majority of Israelis have shown to the case against Sharon as it developed over the past few months. While the papers had a field day with the accusations, it stirred no passions whatsoever in the general population. I never heard anyone talking about it; there were no demonstrations on the street. And it wasn’t that most Israelis thought Sharon was innocent; they simply did not care whether the man leading them was a criminal or not.
To some extent, of course, that was a result of the complex and technical nature of the accusations against him. No one really understood exactly what he was accused of and so it was hard to feel strongly.
It was also, however, a reflection of just how accepted political corruption has become in Israel, to the extent where it is sometimes even celebrated (eg. Deri). As one friend said to me, “all politicians are corrupt, it’s just a question of how much.” Unfortunately, financial ‘irregularities’ come right at the bottom of that scale – particularly with sums that are not deemed to be huge, although I would warrant they were very large indeed to a military man like Sharon.
Another factor was Sharon’s personal popularity as ‘wartime’ leader, and the fact there’s no obvious replacement in sight. Many Israelis, I think, asked themselves whether it was really worth risking his leadership, and perhaps suffering strategically in the struggle against the Palestinians, over, again, what was perceived as a few ‘minor financial irregularities.' They concluded it wasn’t.
The truth is, of course, that not all politicians are corrupt, and that it makes no difference whether we’re talking about $250,000 or $25m. The crimes Sharon was accused of involved abuse of his governmental position, and thus, betrayal of the people.
Our leaders, like Caesar’s wife, must be above suspicion. If anything, this is more important that ever in times of ‘war,’ when you need to be sure your leaders are basing their decisions on relevant considerations only, and cannot be swayed through their pocketbooks. To be willing to overlook or tolerate corruption, for whatever reason, is to sacrifice the high standards of morality on which Israel was founded and on which it prides itself. If Israelis have lost sight of this, there is something rotten in the state of Israel.

Tuesday, June 15, 2004

With or without my children

Following the strange Satmar-Yemenite saga of last week, the Yemenite hero of the 2003 film "In Satmar Custody," Yahia Jaradi, has appeared before the Knesset Immigration and Absorption Committee to give his expert testimony. He himself, apparently, is still struggling to bring some of his children from Satmar care in New York to Israel, although in his case, his children were taken away by social workers after the death of one of his daughters.
According to The Jerusalem Post, at the end of the meeting, "The committee decided that efforts should be made to bring the 300 Jews remaining in Yemen here before the Satmars lure them to the US and UK."
While I clearly sympathise with Israel's stand, there's still something slightly surreal about Israel struggling to rescue Jews from other Jews rather than from hostile and anti-Semitic authorities.

Smelly Aussies hit Jerusalem

The Premier of the Australian state of Victoria had to wear the same clothes for two days as he toured Jerusalem, met with Ehud Olmert and visited the Kotel -- all because his luggage wasn't loaded on the plane from London to Tel Aviv. Was he or was he not flying El Al? My sources don't say.
They do say, though, that after two days without a toiletry bag, "another in the party admitted to 'breath that would put a camel to shame'." What's the point of travelling with 'a party' if you don't include a personal assistant or someone who can go buy you a toothbrush? Haven't they ever heard of a concierge? Yuck.

UPDATE: The Age says it was British Airways. Phew.

Mixing the Bible and business

A few blogs have linked to a story on an Israeli company, run by an ultra-Orthodox Jew, which claims to have discovered a £3 billion oilfield in the centre of Israel and which is trying to raise £18 million to develop wells and extract the oil. The chup: founder Tuvia Lushkin says he 'based his search' partially on the Bible, specifically on Moshe's promise to Yosef (the tribe -- Menashe and Ephraim) at the end of Dvarim that the land will be abundant in "the precious things of heaven, for the dew, and for the deep that coucheth beneath... and for the precious things of the eternal hills, and for the precious things of the earth and fullness thereof." He assumes this includes oil, and has named his company "Givat Olam" following the verse.
What The Guardian neglects to mention is that Lushkin has been drilling in Israel for 10 years -- clearly, Moses wasn't quite as specific about the location of the 'oil' as the Lubavitcher Rebbe was about the location of Joe Gutnik's 'diamonds.' He has made similar announcements in the past, so far without finding any commercial quantities of oil. But why ruin a good story?
(What I particularly like is the claim that Lushkin was "reticent" about talking to The Guardian about his religious inspiration, explaining that he fears the religious association could detract from the 'seriousness of the enterprise.' Sure... He knows perfectly well that without that quirk, there would be no story.)

Monday, June 14, 2004

What happened to weird?

The BBC filed this funny story under "Religion and Ethics." That's good enough for me.

Baby, baby

In the latest twist in the adoption scandal rocking Israel, it emerges that the disputed child, born to a Christian mother, was adopted by an Orthodox Jewish family -- against the law, which specifies that a child cannot be adopted by parents of another religion.
According to The Jerusalem Post, the adoption authorities always seek out Orthodox parents for Christian babies "in order to avoid problems converting him." Adds family law expert Dr. Ruth Halperin-Kaddari, converting the child is the way to enforce section 5 of the Adoption Law and should not be viewed as a means of bypassing the law.
It would be interesting to hear whether the adoption authorities have ever given -- or would ever consider giving -- a Jewish child to Christian parents they knew would baptize him (although this does not, in Jewish eyes, stop the child from being Jewish), to "enforce section 5 of the Adoption Law." I suspect not.

UPDATE: The Post has now updated its previous story and is now reporting that according to a 'senior official' in the Social Affairs Ministry, "In this specific case, the mother signed a consent order according to which she wants the child to be raised Jewish."

Private Binyamin

Ma'ariv claims that a third of Israeli national religious girls today serve in the army instead of doing national service. Sounds wildly inflated -- and the paper does not say how it reached that figure. Still, even if only a sixth of the girls go to the army, it would be a revolution.
The paper attributes the growth in numbers to "the change in the status of women in religious society in the last several years."

Sunday, June 13, 2004

The hunting of Jews in Iraq and Saudi Arabia

According to Reuters, the video of the killing of US national Robert Jacob in Riyadh last week was posted on "an Islamist website" with the following caption: "The murder of the Jewish American Robert Jacob, who worked for the Vinnell espionage firm."
My question: is there actually any independent verification that Robert Jacob is Jewish? And by that I do not mean his name, which isn't conclusive proof of anything. I haven't seen any Jewish media following this up, anywhere.
(Via LGF)

Sexually abused Orthodox men

Ha'aretz reports on a new Jerusalem hotline for sexually abused haredi/modern Orthodox men. No word on how many calls it gets. While there are still few (the article says, no) rabbis willing to get up and give public support to the victims, the initiative for the hotline came from within the haredi community. A good start; Kol Hakavod.

On a rare personal note

Today’s a year to the day since I met my husband. We have both decided that for us, this anniversary is a lot more meaningful and emotional than our wedding day – the day when our lives truly changed, not just when it became official. So, in honor of our real first anniversary, here’s the story of how we met (and am I allowed to mention I’m collecting dating stories – good, bad, and terrible – for a book? Of course I am. It’s my blog. Send them to the email in the top right corner).
This time last year, I was working for the Jerusalem Post, and after a bad breakup, desperately needed a break. My boss obliged with a junket to London.
About a week before the trip, one of my colleagues suggested that while I’m there, I should meet her boyfriend’s brother. I don’t think she put too much thought into it; it was just instinctive upon hearing I was going to London. In any case, I said no; I only had one free day, and didn’t want to waste it on someone I would never see again.
My colleague, though, was insistent, and told me to check out his website, where there was supposedly a picture of him. And sure enough, on the opening page, there was this cute guy with a computer on his lap...
I agreed to meet him, for an hour, tops.
When the day came and Danny picked me up, I couldn’t believe my eyes. The guy walking towards me looked nothing like his picture. For good reason! Turns out, the picture I saw – and which convinced me to go on the date – was of a random guy from an image library, not him at all. When I went back to check after the date, I found another picture of Danny on another page. Although he’s very handsome in real life, in the picture he looked like an al-Qaida suspect. Believe me, had I seen that picture, there would have been no first date – and no marriage.
Happy anniversary, us.

Welcome, Rabbi Shlita

This is great. The office of Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty has sent out a media advisory explaining that, "On Monday, June 14, Premier McGuinty will meet with Chief Rabbi Shlomo Moshe Amar Shlita" -- which they apparently think is his name. Either that, or Mr. McGuinty has suddenly gone very, very frum.
(Via Religion & Society)

Guy Ritchie speaks out

Madonna's husband, Guy Ritchie, has given an exclusive interview to the London Times about "what kabbalah means to him and Madonna; how it has changed them both; and why even he doubts the motives of some of the movement’s celebrity adherents."
Initially, he says, "‘I was intrigued but sceptical and very, very suspicious... because I thought they were targeting my wife for the simple reason that she was rich and they wanted her money.'"
Trust your instincts, Guy, trust your instincts.
He also denies, incidentally, that Madonna's 'alternative' Kabbalah name is 'Esther.'
Why not? What's wrong with 'Esther?'

Friday, June 11, 2004

"Meshuggah Frum"

Strange debate in the Jewish Chronicle letters page over whether the phrase "Meshuggah Frum" was coined in the UK -- or in South Africa. Anyone else care to throw their hat in the ring? Would anyone else want credit?

America, center of the Jewish world?

In today’s Jerusalem Post, Conservative Rabbi David Starr makes the unusual claim that the Diaspora is becoming the “Jewish people’s cultural center,” rather than Israel. He cites a revival of learning amongst “certain precincts” of American Jewry:
“More American Jews are working harder than ever at being Jewish, in meaningful ways: camping, traveling, studying, building community, wrestling with the mystery of our culture and civilization.
“Ahad Ha'am opined that modern Jewish nationalism would create a cultural critical mass, a center radiating centripetal energy outward to the Diaspora periphery, enabling it to survive, maybe. Yet today the situation seems different, if not exactly a reversal of fortunes. Israeli kids come to American Jewish schools, where they see all sorts of Jews, not just Orthodox children, engaging Judaism. Those same Israeli sojourners in the Diaspora learn how to shake a lulav and etrog, even if they can read the Mishna Sukka in the original.”
Starr is correct that there are many secular/Reform/Conservative Jews in the States who might know more about Jewish culture than their Israeli secular peers; Jewish learning in the States is less polarized, because Judaism in the States is less polarized. I certainly wish Israel were more like the States in this regard.
But – and this is a big but – Starr never once acknowledges that these people are a tiny percentage of American Jewry; the great majority of American Jews have little, if no Jewish content in their lives at all. And what’s more, there are few American institutions (and people) where you can find the depth of Jewish knowledge routinely found in Israeli yeshivot, universities and other centers of learning. Which is why each year, hundreds of Americans seeking more Jewish knowledge must come to Israel to find it.

Women vs. women

Ha’aretz does the religious-single-women-have-children-alone story, a couple of months after the Forward and Post (and a couple of years after the famous Ma’ariv story on the subject). According to the article, the phenomenon, in Israel at least, is beginning to spread from the ‘big cities’ to the sticks. The women in this article -– some of whom are now having second children -- seem more honest than in the other two about the hostility/bemusement they’ve encountered, as well as the enormous support.
Interestingly, the nastiest quote in the piece comes from another woman, Rebbetzin Yehudit Shilat:
"It's a phenomenon of spoiled women who want a doll to play with and don't think about the implications," she says. "Whoever gives a halakhic dispensation doesn't understand the danger this entails to the institution of the family. These single women think that motherhood is their personal right, but they give birth to a child without an identity. This dispensation is being used cynically for the sake of self-fulfillment, and that's not to mention the special permission to give birth from the sperm of a non-Jew."

Shame on her. If she doesn’t think it’s a good idea, the least she can do is show some sympathy to the real plight of many women (and men) who genuinely want children but can’t find a mate. As Rina Aharonov, one of the women raising a child alone, points out, “all those who preach against it are married with children.”
Well, perhaps not all. But point taken.
Incidentally, Shilat’s point – that these women are deemed ‘unacceptable’ because they threaten the institution of the family, and not necessarily for halachic reasons – is one I’ve argued elsewhere. But trying to shut them out, ignoring them or blasting them is simply not the answer. The fact is, more and more Orthodox people are marrying later in life, and others not at all; still others are bringing up children alone, because of divorce, or because they have chosen to become single parents. The institution of the family is changing around the world, and this is inevitably impacting the Orthodox world as well. We must start discussing how to accommodate such ‘alternative’ families – or risk losing good people.

The day the music died...

According to the Jewish Chronicle, a bunch of British rabbis have signed declarations banning their followers from going to upcoming concerts by two well-known Jewish singers. The reason: their concerts create an “immodest environment.”
Were they referring, perchance, to Madonna (just kidding. She’s still not Jewish)? Lenny Kravitz? KISS lead singer Gene Simmons?
Haredi stars Avraham Fried and Mordechai Ben-David. Those wild and crazy guys!
Note that the ban took place after the organizers promised to provide separate entrances, exits and seating for men and women.
I guess the rabbis are instituting a new chumra: instead of the 3 weeks, let's just have the 52 weeks...

UPDATE: One of the organizers of the Avraham Fried concert thanks people for attending "even after what the rabonim said about it"; The Manchester Jewish Telegraph reports that the rabbis banning the MBD concert distributed an article explaining that "the intention of "frum singers" is "only to make money and they ignore the terrible negative influence that they are bringing with their music. Even if it is not intentional, it still takes control of the minds of young fans." (Update via Blog in DM)

Thursday, June 10, 2004

Camp and continuity

The Forward revisits "How Goodly Are Thy Tents," a book about Jewish summer camps which came out last year (why does The Forward say it's new?), and which comes to the interesting conclusion that
"some of camp's strongest effects are on the counselors, not the campers. As it turns out, it is the staff of camps who develop the strongest bonds both to the camp in particular and the Jewish community in general. As they struggle to teach, organize, survive and, somehow, sleep, they — even more than the campers — are having their lives transformed. Moreover, because most staff are between the ages of 18 and 25, it is they, and not the campers, who are in the most critical period of identity development in contemporary American society — a time known as "emerging adulthood." To paraphrase a well-known camp song, the kids may be brats and the food may be hideous, but studies suggest that the experience of being a camp counselor is more than just fun and fooling around; it can be even more life changing than that of being a camper.
Funny, all I seem to remember from my summer as camp counselor is the bratty kids and the hideous food. Not to mention, the ongoing battles against the head counselor, who refused to let us add any fun Jewish activities to the kids' sports-heavy schedules, although they were bored out of their minds. And yet, and yet...

Yeshiva dropouts

A new website for and about boys who are 'off the derech' or about to drop out of Yeshiva. The site does not mention who's running it.
Questions in the open forum include:
"My mashgiach is roidefing me!!! Can`t cope!! He doesnt look at any of the other boys, except me!! I am the only one who he notices by davening!! He hates me... and I hate him... What should I do???"
"I have got a problem... I am 18 and am a bum, a shaigets. I really would wanna be a nice, honest bachur, and be close to god, but i can't be bothered. I want to become stabile, but can't be bothered because its a long long way... so I want to want to be good. Please answer me"
"im in a very good small yeshiva and im marbits torah all the time but i have enough that the mashgiach and the other rabbis are running after me all the time,like where im going at night,where im going for shabes,to who im talking all the time on the phone,.... !! so i desided to go to the 'mir',but i am afraid that i will not marbits torah anymore there cause its a hefkerplace. can someone help me..."
It's gratifying that the community is finally trying to find creative ways to help these boys. Shame not all the questions sound, let's just say, 100% real...

Wednesday, June 09, 2004

Tabloids and the Torah world

Talking of Ma’ariv, their new site may look horrible, but their section on religion is fun. It’s full of lively articles by religious people, about religious people, for religious people, and light, silly gossip about the leaders of the Israeli haredi community ("MK Litzman's driver crashed his car"... "Rav Eliashiv skips Gur wedding").
You don’t usually see this kind of material in print in the mainstream, secular Israeli media, and it will be interesting to see how the haredi community reacts over time to a different kind of media scrutiny.
In the meanwhile, however, I wonder whether the section will work for Ma’ariv or against it. In recent years, Ma’ariv has captured a large proportion of religious readers who find Yediot too sleazy and too full of smut (Ma’ariv is perceived as the cleaner, and more serious, tabloid). Increasing its religious content, and its coverage of the Orthodox community, has long been on its agenda, and should theoretically help it in its ratings battle.
But if you look at the comments section on the haredi gossip section, for example, you will find that most of the reactions are negative. The readers, some of whom identify themselves as religious, are blasting it for “disrespect” to rabbis and to Judaism.
What did they expect? Ma’ariv treats everything it writes about with an equally casual tone. But suddenly, it seems, when it writes about the religious community, Ma’ariv is too much a tabloid after all.

Better than Carlebach

According to Ma’ariv/NRG (here for those of you who can read Hebrew on their computers), a new monthly disco has opened in Ramat Bet Shemesh – for religious women.
Says Na’ama Meir, “We wait for these disco nights each months, it’s an amazing way to unburden, amazing fun. We get women who look as square as can be, with head coverings to their eyebrows, letting loose and going wild. I’ve already found myself a permanent dancing partner.”
Organizer Miri Shalem says that the women-only events are beginning to appeal to “Haredi lite” women as well.
Sounds like a great idea -- but do they dance to the sounds of Eminem? Inquiring minds want to know.
(A few months ago I heard of similar events taking place in Jerusalem on Emek Refaim St., which I really wanted to write about, but couldn’t track down. Anyone?)

Divide, conquer and profit

The London Times reprints Yossi Klein Halevi’s riveting piece on the Kabbalah Center, first published in the New Republic (and being riveting on the subject is no mean feat, considering how much has been written on the subject recently).
As one of his side points, Klein Halevi raises one of the most tragic, yet least known accusations against the Center: “‘They tell their people that family isn’t important, that the Centre is your new family,’ claims one woman, who says her husband became deeply involved with the Centre and divorced her.”
Years ago, when I first moved to Toronto, I had two friends whose fathers became involved in the local Kabbalah center – and who both hold the center responsible for their parents’ divorce, for the exact same reason.
I discovered this when our friendships were still very fresh, and I made the mistake of inviting both friends over for the same Shabbat meal. At some point, the subject of the Kabbalah center was raised. One friend detested the place as a result of what it did to her parents’ marriage, and couldn’t bear to hear anything positive about it. The other, who was closer to his father, agreed that the Center had encouraged his parents to separate, but maintained that his father was right to associate with the Center because of its ‘spiritual benefits.’ He himself, it emerged, kept a copy of the Zohar on the dashboard of his car, because the Kabbalah Center told him it would ‘protect him,’ and told us how you ‘absorb spirituality’ simply by running your fingers over the lines of text. He’d bought the Zohar directly from the Center for what seemed to us an exorbitant amount of money.
Needless to say, this didn’t go down very well on the other side of the table (the rest of us simply could not believe what we were hearing), and a full-blown screaming match ensued. It was easily the most awkward meal I’ve ever been at – let alone hosted.
At the time, I didn’t understand just how popular the cult-like Center was (or was about to become). But I knew enough to understand that this was their modus operandi the world over: divide and conquer, and hopefully profit.


INCIDENTALLY, while most commentators complain that the Center has “dumbed down” Kabbalah, Klein Halevi explains that it’s much worse: “it inverts its intention. In traditional Kabbalist meditation on the names of God, the goal is to transcend the separated self and experience oneness... In the Centre’s world, though, the spiritual quest isn’t about God, but the seeker... Where Kabbalah’s goal is to transcend this world, the Centre’s goal is to master it.”

Tuesday, June 08, 2004

Israel and the Diaspora, on two diverging paths

Yehezkel Dror, founding president of the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, argues that Israel must start seeing itself as part of a wider context of world Jewry, and consult with Diaspora Jews before making decisions which impact upon them. In particular, he recommends that “constitutional provision be made to codify the status of Israel as the state of the entire Jewish people” and that a “Jewish People Council” should set up to advise Israel on Diaspora Jewry’s positions.
It would certainly be a positive step if Israel and Israelis developed a stronger religious identity, and if they gained a better appreciation of the Diaspora’s history, dynamics and needs – and these are both possible, although past experience would not be encouraging. But Israel cannot and will not ever forge the kind of partnership with the Diaspora that Dror advocates.
There are several reasons:
• Firstly, historically, the Zionist movement began as a rebellion against 19th century Jewish existence. A desire to be different from the Diaspora, and as a result, sometimes even scorning it, is part of what Israel is all about (Shlilat Hagalut etc.). It’s not just that such attitudes are too deeply ingrained in the Israeli mentality ever to be completely overcome; asking Israel to “partner” with the Diaspora would in a sense be asking it to go against its own nature.
• Secondly, at this point, after 56 years of Jewish sovereignty, Israel’s interests and priorities are naturally of a completely different nature and magnitude to those of Diaspora Jewry. The concerns, outlook and responsibilities of an Israeli Jew, used to being part of a majority, are completely different to that of a Diaspora Jew, whose minority status is a defining factor and whose Jewish life revolves around a community structure most Israelis never experience and can’t understand. Despite all the commonalities, the two are on diverging paths, which will only diverge more with time.
• Thirdly, Israel and the Diaspora are in no way equally equipped to be partners in decision-making. Israel is a democratic state, in which its citizens have a vote, whilst in the Diaspora, people participate in the community voluntarily, with no civic status within the Jewish people. Which is why organizations such as the Jewish Agency, and the WZO, which set out to bridge certain Israel-Diaspora gaps just as Dror advocates, never really succeeded; who do they actually represent?

GIVING Diaspora Jews power to elect a council which would provide advice to the Israeli government is not an option (and here the Israel-based perspective of Yehezkel Dror neatly illustrates the problematics). How would the countries in which Diaspora Jews reside react to the fact that Jews were some sort of voting citizens of another state? Wouldn't this even endanger Jews in some regimes? Equally, by no means every Jew around the world would welcome the assumption by Israel that they have rights (and therefore responsibilities...) in the State of Israel.
So far, regarding Israel, Diaspora Jewry has accepted its role as friend and supporter, but not decision-maker. I strongly commend Prof. Dror for wanting more for the Diaspora; if only more Israelis showed the same concern. However, more is simply not realistic.

Just when he lost the NRP...

Israel's Chief Rabbis agree to give Ariel Sharon "Torah lessons" once a month, at his residence.
"The prime minister told the rabbis that whever he has free time, he studies the bible. According to Sharon, 'I am sorry I am not more religious,' and the rabbis responded, 'There is no such thing as religious or non-religious. All Jews are religious, some less, some more.'"
Noble sentiments indeed.


Yechiel Nahari, son of the Yemenite woman who 'escaped' to Israel last week with the help of the Jewish Agency, denies she had been held hostage by the NY Satmar community, in whose midst he still lives.
"'It's not right to lie about the Satmar,' Yechil Nahari said yesterday inside a small Monsey restaurant off Route 306. 'No Satmar stopped my mother. They have helped us. My mother wanted to go see her sick parents in Israel. She had visa problems, and this group offered her a free ticket.
"'She wanted to Aliyah, to immigrate. My mom is like the boss. My father didn't want to leave and didn't want to leave the other children behind. They had a problem inside the family.'"
Unfortunately, Satmar's attitude to the Yemenite families it "rescues" is well documented. And I can't imagine the Jewish Agency giving a free ticket to someone who "wanted to go see her sick parents in Israel."

Looking backwards

The Jewish Press launches a new monthly in Israel, hoping to cash in on people's "nostalgia." Or on people's need for something to wrap their fish in?

Mazal Tov

Bernie and Dianne Adler, who met at an Israeli folk-dancing class, become the first Jews to get married in Lincoln since the Jews were expelled from England in 1290.
“The last recorded Jewish wedding in Lincoln took place on the site where Jews’ Court now stands [and where the Adlers got married] in 1275, between Judith, daughter of Bellasez, and Aaron, the son of Benjamin of Lincoln. A document in Westminster Abbey notes that Judith married Aaron “for a dowry of 20 marks stirling and the 24 books of the bible properly provided with punctuation and the masora (the critical notes made on manuscripts of the Hebrew scriptures) and written upon calf skin”.”
The city is, of course, famous for the ‘ritual murder’ libel that followed the discovery of the body of a young boy named Hugh in a cesspit in 1255, resulting in the deaths of 19 Jews.

Monday, June 07, 2004

Not Really Good

Ma'ariv has announced the re-launch of its Hebrew site, now to be called "NRG" (Get it? Energy?). Verdict: lots to read; hard on the eyes; hate the naff name, which is another blow to the Hebrew language.

Update: Ha'aretz likes the horrible design. Oh well, I guess they'd like anything that isn't YNet.

D Bible is gr8

After Microsoft reportedly reduced the 24 books of The Iliad into 32 lines of sms to make it more accessible to the masses, The Sunday Telegraph has done the same for the Bible (with a little nod to the New Testament at the end):
Task 4 God: mke wrld. Job 6 dys. Rests Sun. Eve flirts wiv snake. Uh-oh. L8r Cain kills bruvver.
Floods. Noah: CYa! Scapes in ark wiv anmls 2by2.
Locusts. Dry soil/toil. Lots greybeards, hevy dudes, bum era. Moses & Co. exit Egyp. Moses parts Red C. Cool. Goes up Sinai, 10 rules, then Holy Lnd. Wait 4 Messiah. Who he?
Can anyone out there do better?

After Atkins

Christian groups have begun promoting competing, bible-based diets:
• The 'Hallelujah Diet' ("Drawn from Genesis 1:29," encourages eating fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds)
• The 'What Would Jesus Eat?' diet (non-animal-derived "living foods")
• The 'Weigh Down Diet' (encourages following "God's perfect boundaries of hunger and fullness")
• 'The Maker's Diet' ("Drawn from the book of Leviticus," encourages eating certain meat and dairy products and warns against an all-raw, vegan regimen)
My favorite quote comes from Rev. George Malkmus, who employed a researcher who determined that the Hallelujah diet he founded was deficient in vitamin B-12.
"This shocked me, that God's perfect eating plan could have a flaw," Malkmus said. "But we realized that fruits and vegetables back then were more nutritious because of the topsoil."
Actually, I thought G-d was pretty clear about his "perfect eating plan." It's called Kashrut.

Sunday, June 06, 2004

Oh, yeah? Where are these people?

According to the Baltimore Sun,
"'African-Americans and other minorities are increasingly attending synagogues,' said Gary A. Tobin, president of the San Francisco-based Institute for Jewish & Community Research.
"'We fully expect over the next 20 years for the face of Judaism in the U.S. to change dramatically from largely a white, Eastern or Central European group to include many more Asians, Latinos and blacks,' he said.
"Tobin estimates the number of black Jews nationwide at 50,000 to 100,000, though others dispute that figure. James Landing, a professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago who has studied black Judaism, says their numbers probably do not exceed 10,000....
"At least 350,000 blacks, Asians and Latinos practice Judaism in the United States, according to a 2001 survey done for Tobin's institute."
UPDATE: Perhaps they're in Great Neck, where the local Reform congregation has just appointed Rabbi Theodore Tsuruoka, a Japanese-American convert to Judaism, as its spiritual leader. Hat tip: Reader TTC of Protocols.

Faux Bar-Mitzvahs, part II

More evidence of the increasing popularity of the Bar/Bat-Mitzvah ceremony among non-Jews, as I first noted last month. At least this woman understands it’s about more than just a party; kudos to the Jewish family whose daughter’s Bat Mitzvah brought her to that conclusion.

(Via Religion & Society)

In the name of the father

The Daily Telegraph has an exclusive interview with Saddam Hussein’s eldest daughter, currently living in Amman with her 5 children. She seems to be taking her brothers’ deaths and Saddam’s capture really hard:
“As Saddam undergoes daily interrogation by his CIA captors and Iraq is plagued by a bloody insurrection, the mother-of-five has undergone cosmetic surgery, works out several mornings a week at a smart ladies' gym and is often seen in Amman's leading jewellery and clothes stores...
“Jordanians who visited the Amman Surgical Hospital last summer... were told that Raghad had undergone cosmetic surgery on her breasts, and possibly also a tummy tuck last August, shortly after her brothers Uday and Qusay were killed in a shoot-out with US forces in Iraq....”
“Remarkably, one of their first instructions to the leading Jordanian lawyer, Mohamed Roshdan [appointed by the Hussein family to defend Saddam – M.S.], was that he should write to John Ashcroft, the American attorney-general, requesting the return of jewels from the former presidential palaces, and even the wads of dollars found with Saddam at the time of his arrest.
“These were the family's personal wealth, they said, and not state property.”
And before anyone counters that Uday and Saddam were responsible for murdering her husband, according to the article, her house is “a shrine to Saddam. Visitors ushered through the front door by a Filipina maid find themselves staring at a painting of the deposed dictator”– with nary a picture of her husband in sight.

Reading material II

I’ve started reading We Have Reason to Believe, the book which got Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs into so much trouble in the 1960s and which continues to divide British Jewry today. Several pages into it, I have come to one conclusion: nobody proof-read this new, expanded edition.
From the introduction: “The sam (sic) applies to the otherwise unrealistic story of Noah’s Art (sic).”
Talk about revisionism. No wonder he got branded a heretic!

Reading material I

I have just finished reading two books about intermarriage, Double or Nothing? by Sylvia Barack Fishman and Interfaith Families by Jane Kaplan. Both try to get across the personal stories of intermarried couples, rather than focus on dry statistics. Among the (minor) points which alternately fascinated and horrified me:
• The couple who brought up their sons as Jews, their daughter as a Catholic
• The woman who converted to Judaism 20 years ago – and still hasn’t found a way to tell her Catholic parents
Recurring themes:
• Jewish men who actively dissuaded their wives from converting
• Catholic women saying Judaism was hard for them to understand, because for them religion meant being serious about going to church and participating in other rituals – whereas to be Jewish “you don’t really have to do anything” (attitudes presumably picked up from their husbands)
• Catholic parents who secretly baptize their Jewish grandchildren
• Wives whose first and often only step in trying to make their homes more “Jewish” is to drag out Kosher cookbooks
• Kids in Jewish day schools who go to church on Sundays

I’ll be writing up a review of the books later this week, for The Jerusalem Post.

Friday, June 04, 2004


Israeli scientists have invented Viagra for women. Hold on, I thought Israeli women were "among the top "doing-it divas," whose "fast, high-adrenaline lifestyle spills over into their sex lives" ?? I guess that was last week.

(Via Jewschool)

Have rabbis faked 30% of Israel's weddings???????

As usual, the most interesting -- and scandalous -- part of this Ha’aretz article is buried at the bottom.
According to the article, one of the reasons Rabbi Bakshi-Doron is calling for the end to the Orthodox monopoly on marriages in Israel is his concern that too many rabbis are deliberately sabotaging the halachic validity of the ceremonies are performing.
Why would they do such a thing? In recent years, apparently, the Israeli rabbinic courts have taken an increasingly hard-line on children who according to Jewish law are mamzerim, or bastards. And rabbis are increasingly concerned that the issue of marriages they are performing, for various reasons, could fall under that category.
Sometimes, if necessary, they will ‘annul’ the marriage in retrospect:
“The rabbinic courts use every possible trick to prove that the marriage of the children's mother is invalid in the halakhic sense, even if it was an ostensibly kosher, Orthodox marriage. The antecedents of the witnesses were not valid, the rabbi did not mean it seriously, the ceremony was held at an non-kosher venue...”
And – here’s the scandal – sometimes in advance, without the knowledge of the people they are marrying:
“Among the ultra-Orthodox rabbis, confirmed horror stories are current about rabbis who admitted after the fact that they performed a wedding ceremony but beforehand intentionally did something so that the marriage would not be valid according to halakha. ‘And this isn't about the margins,’ said Bakshi-Doron at the conference of dayanim a year ago, ‘but about 20 to 30 percent of the state.’”
What a disgusting mockery this makes of halacha, of the institution of marriage, of our rabbis. If the rabbis really think the children could be mamzerim, they have no right to marry the parents. And if they have no reasonable basis to think so -- how dare they perform a fake ceremony?
It makes no difference if Rav Bakshi-Doron was vastly exaggerating and it applies to 'only' 5% and not 20% of marriages. If it turns out that Rabbis, who by Israeli law are the only qualified people to perform marriages in Israel, are deceiving the people they are marrying and not giving them a halachic ceremony, the Orthodox establishment immediately forfeits the right to insist on one. More than that: a full investigation is warranted into the conduct of what must be hundreds, if not thousands of rabbis, and the conduct of the religious councils / leaders / rabbis who knew and stayed silent whilst Israeli and Jewish law was being made into a laughingstock.

Starting 'em young

An eighth grader in Florida has been suspended after inserting a message in German in his yearbook, reading, "Death to the Jews."

Asking for trouble(s)

After Avi Becker arguing in Ha'aretz that anti-Semitism is good for the Jews, we now have Jonathan Sarna arguing in The Jerusalem Post that assimilation and alienation from the Jewish community are not necessarily bad for the Jews either.
His reasoning is two-fold: fear of assimilation drives the Jewish community to revitalization; and that "The young, the alienated, and those on the periphery of Jewish life, precisely because they are not wedded to the community's central assumptions, are the most likely to come up with innovative approaches and creative ideas," that ultimately help preserve the religion.
While this may be true in a perverse and paradoxical way, Sarna never really addresses the point that it's a much smaller and tighter community which remains to be revitalized.

Outrunning Arik

Ex-Minister Lieberman. Posted by Hello

Ariel Sharon has finally managed to fire Minister Avigdor Lieberman from his government – although in a typically Israeli fashion, it wasn’t just a matter of sending him a letter.
The reason Sharon is firing Lieberman and Minister Benny Elon is so that they wouldn’t be able to vote against his Gaza disengagement plan at the cabinet meeting on Sunday morning. Termination letters take 48 hours before they come into effect. Ie. – he has to fire them this (Friday) morning.
Sharon apparently sent the letters with delivery messengers to Lieberman and Elon’s homes. Knowing what was coming, they both left home in order to delay the sacking for as long as possible. They’re yet to find Elon (as of this writing). They found Lieberman, but having met him in person, I can confirm that his ‘hiding place’ was, in theory at least, indeed ingenious, possibly the least likely place you might expect to find him (other than at a sulha with Arafat): the gym.

Thursday, June 03, 2004

From Jew to Muslim terrorist in 3 generations

I’m posting this although it’s almost a week old, because I haven’t seen it mentioned anywhere else in the Jewish blogosphere / press (? Please correct me if I’m wrong).
Last week, the FBI announced it was launching a manhunt for 7 alleged terrorists – including one American citizen, Adam Yahiye Gadahn, who is the grandson of a prominent Jewish doctor from Orange County.
LA Times has the family's story:
“[Adam’s] grandfather, the late Carl K. Pearlman, was a prominent Jewish urologist in Orange County who worked with various charities to aid Jews after World War II, according to a 1998 obituary in the Idyllwild Town Crier.
“He was also a member of the board of directors of the Anti-Defamation League and longtime member of the Orange County Philharmonic Society. The couple also served on the board of directors of the Idyllwild Arts Foundation, in the city where they had a second home...
“Son Philip took a different path. He is a free spirit who wanted to get away from the creeping influence of technology. Shortly before he moved to a 40-acre goat ranch in Winchester in rural Riverside County in the 1970s, he said he changed his surname to Gadahn ‘for reasons that had nothing to do with religion’ — only because he wanted a "new start."...
“But in the late 1960s or early 1970s, he picked up a Bible left on a Southern California beach. “I read [the Bible] and said, 'There's something here,'” he said. ‘I came to believe in God. There is a God.’
“Because his beliefs came to embrace many faiths, Gadahn said, he called himself a "universalist." ‘I don't like labels for religions; they don't tell you anything.’ But the faith that came closest to his heart was Islam.
He said he made Muslim friends, who taught him how to slaughter his goats in accordance with Islamic dietary practices. He became a halal butcher — one who follows Islamic law — and supplied milk, cheese and meat for a Muslim market in Los Angeles....
“In 1995, at 17, Adam Gadahn moved out of the family's Winchester home, his father said, because ‘he wanted out of the country and wanted to be in the city,’ where he lived with relatives in Garden Grove.
“It was then that the youth turned to Christian radio for spiritual answers. He wrote that the Christian fundamentalists' rhetoric held a ‘strange fascination’ for him because it was filling the ‘void I had created for myself.’
“But he ultimately rejected the faith because of his inability to accept basic Christian concepts such as original sin and the infallibility of God's world.
"'I began to look for something else to hold onto,' he wrote.
“Gadahn began using a computer, visiting Islamic websites and Internet discussion groups. He said he found the faith ‘fit my personal theology and intellect, as well as basic human logic.’”
Gadahn converted in 1995 and began to hang out with a group of Muslims who were not allowed to meet on mosque property because they were so hard-line. According to the mosque’s former president, “those Muslims didn't like the mosque's moderate teachings and protested its outreach to Christians and Jews. He said they printed fliers calling the cleric "the Jew," among other things.”
He is now wanted by the FBI for allegedly attending a terrorist training camp in Afghanistan and working as a translator for Al Qaeda.

Some forward planning would have been handy

Captain Hook... the scarier version Posted by Hello

The scariest man in Britian, the terrorist Abu Hamza, made an appearance in court today, to start fighting extradition to the US (take him! He's yours!).
According to reports, "The start of the hearing was delayed whilst security guards found restraining body belts after realising they could not handcuff Hamza."
The picture explains it all.

Two camels and a goat

This story made me run to my Ketubah to check out what my husband promised to pay me if we ever got divorced. Somehow I never really thought about the Ketubah sum before we got married (or until today, in fact). And now, I'm suddenly beginning to regret getting married in Israel. Let's just say, the hefty sum he named in Shekels ain't much in British pounds...

Is anti-Semitism good for the Jews?

An opinion piece in Ha’aretz argues it is, at least in the sense that it strengthens community identity, and results in increased Jewish activity.
Perhaps, then, the paper ought to soften its opposition to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon – whose policies, according to yesterday’s editorial, are partially to blame for Fritz Hollings and Anthony Zinni’s anti-Semitic comments over the last month. Can’t they resist any opportunity at all to pull a political punch? Ugh.

Jerusalem Wonderings

Check out this interesting new blog on Jerusalem life.

Shades of Yossele Schumacher

Jewish Agency rescues Yemenite family from Satmar

"'The Satmar promised to take them to a 'golden land,' but when they got here they found themselves in more of a Yiddish-speaking shtetl,'" said [the head of the Jewish Agency Aliyah Delegation in North America, Michael] Landsberg, who led the rescue operation."
Unfortunately, the JPost article lacks some vital context; these stories are not new. See here, here and (ref. to Satmar towards the end) here.

UPDATE: El Al slaps $250 fine on the escaping family for having more than two suitcases. For real.