Friday, December 30, 2005

How is the Kinneret doing this year?

You can check via this graphic daily update on the level of the Kinneret.

British Jewry's 'greatest ever' Jew: Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs

A poll initiated by the Jewish Chronicle (no link because it is accessible by subscription only) on the occasion of the 350th Anniversary of the Readmission of the Jews to England , asked readers to nominate and vote on the "Greatest British Jew of all time".

Results were:


1 Rabbi Dr Louis Jacobs,
leader of the Masorti community

2 Sir Moses Montefiore, 19th-century
philanthropist and Jewish communal leader who campaigned tirelessly for Jews at
home and abroad

3 Rabbi Hugo Gryn, Holocaust survivor and broadcaster
who until his death in 1996 was rabbi at the Reform community’s West London
Synagogue near Marble Arch

4 Ernst Chain, biochemist who was awarded the
Nobel prize for his work in developing penicillin

5 Rosalind Franklin,
20th-century physicist who researched DNA and the double helix

Benjamin Disraeli, 19th-century Prime Minister regarded as Jewish even though
his father had him baptised"

(List is courtesy of 'The Times', which ran a good article on the contest and its results)

In an Editorial, the 'JC' comments on the fact that it is interesting that Rabbi Jacobs - a very Jewish Jew, and one whose contribution to Anglo-Jewry has been purely religious, scholarly and intellectual - was the winner.

Rabbi Jacobs is without doubt the most versatile scholar ever produced by British Jewry, having published extensively on almost every field of Jewish learning. Despite his pariah status in Britain's Orthodox community (in that, although not in his theology, he was an early Slifkin), in the famous Lubavitch lawsuit over the Sixth Rebbe's library (did it belong to the Chasidim or to the family?), Louis Jacobs was the expert witness called by Chabad to testify about Hasidic doctrine.

It should give pause for thought that despite the fact that Britain's synagogue membership is still overwhelmingly Orthodox (whatever that means in the UK), no Orthodox figure appears on the list, apart from Moses Montefiore. His place on the list is almost certainly due to his communal leadership rather than his private practices. Altogether, the list is perhaps surprisingly literate - perhaps another indicator of change in Anglo-Jewry?

Anyway - congratulations to Louis Jacobs!

  • Some things never change, however - the official website of the anniversary of the 'Resettlement' is, frankly, pathetic. How about including - just a suggestion - some INFORMATION ON THE RESETTLEMENT ?

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Christmas content

Some worthwhile seasonal pieces from last year:

David Patterson z'l

Professor DavidPatterson, the founder of the Oxford Centre for Postgraduate Hebrew Studies (later renamed the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies) passed away in Oxford on December 10, aged 83.

David loved Hebrew and Hebrew literature, and was perhaps the last surviving Hebrew maskil in the UK. He had a distinguished academic output in the field of early Hebrew literature. However, his lifetime achievement was in founding the Oxford centre. Unlike the USA, there was virtually no significant academic presence of Jewish Studies or Hebrew in UK universities. In both Oxford and Cambridge the residual Christian theological influence on academe had restricted Jewish Studies to a Hebraic subset of Biblical studies. The most famous Oxford figure, Cecil Roth, was actually a junior professor ("Reader", in Oxbridge language), and, apparently because of his most prickly personality, a marginalised figure in the intellectual life of the University. In addition, his emphasis on a marginal subject (Anglo-Jewish history) meant that there was no representation of Jewish religious, cultural or political thought in the University. The founding of the Middle Eastern Centre of St. Anthony's College in 1957 created a major centre in the University that exerted a huge influence on the perception of the Middle East in English diplomatic, research and academic circles.

David determined to create a major centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies in the University. His personal charm and self-effacing, but determined manner allowed him to overcome the natural Philistinism of the Anglo-Jewish community (most of whom to this day are blissfully disdainful of Jewish scholarship), and he raised funds to launch his project. The University gave the centre academic recognition, although it would not commit to funding it. In 1972 the Centre opened in a small house in central Oxford. Within a couple of years David persuaded the Wolfson Foundation to purchase Yarnton Manor, a stunningly beautiful C16 English manor house a few miles north of Oxford. Over the years Yarnton and its outbuildings were renovated, and a huge library, (originally based on the collection of the Israeli journalist Getzel Kressel) was assembled. Accomodation for visiting Fellows was provided, and Yarnton became an international centre for research and teaching, especially (but not only) in Hebrew literature, Dead Sea Scrolls research and Yiddish (utilizing the considerable, and hitherto ignored early Yiddish holdings of the Bodleian library).

David was a gentleman. Yehi zichro baruch.

Monday, December 26, 2005

Frummish LW MO - at 56, can you be more mixed up than that?

The 'Orthodoxy test' bouncing around the blogosphere defined me as "LW Modern Orthodox". I was a little reticent to post that, as I have enough trouble with labels, let alone my increasingly heretical views, to add to the tsimmes. BUT I then took Mirty's "Off the Derech Test' which categorized me as 'Frummish - you're still frum at heart'.


Thursday, December 22, 2005

Jews for Jesus sue

Jews for Jesus is suing Google / blogger over, run by somone critical of the organisation, saying that it infringes their trademark. (The blogger, incidentally, calls him/herself "Whistle blower," but seems to have no connection to Jewishwhistleblower -- for one, they can write a straight sentence).
I was surprised to learn that JfJ had a trademark at all; however, a quick Google search shows that they have acted to protect their trademark on the net before (and won). What's weird here is that the blog in question posted exacty three times between Jan-May 2005 and has been neglected ever since. From this point of view, even if they are desperate to open their own blog under that specific address (although a JfJ-run blog with a similar address or on another domain would instantly overtake the blogspot blog on every search engine and ranking), the action doesn't seem to be worth JfJ's trouble. It certainly calls far, far, far more attention to the site than it would have ever received otherwise and makes it a forum for anti-JfJ comments it would never have been otherwise.
I am no lawyer so perhaps a knowledgeable Bloghead reader can fill us in on whether they actually have a case or not. Personally, the whole thing seems a little ridiculous. The blogger does not pretend in any way to be JfJ and no visitor will confuse the two -- he/she is not trying to use the trademark to pass as JfJ but rather using it in the 'blog about Jews for Jesus' sense. More importantly, if the court rules in JfJ's favor, it is putting a direct responsibility on blogger for the addresses registered which I don't think (? -- anyone know?) it has at the moment. It'll be interesting to see how this develops.

Marrano synagogue discovered

Must-read piece in the Independent about the discovery of a secret synagogue from the 16th century behind a false wall in a Portugese house:
The chance discovery solved an enigma that had baffled historians for years, said Elvira Mea, a lecturer who specialises in Jewish history at the University of Porto. Immanuel Aboab, a 16th-century Jewish scholar, had written that, as a child, he had visited a synagogue in the third house along the street counting from the 14th-century Our Lady of Victory church.
But he didn't specify which side of the street, and archaeological digs had turned up nothing. Then came confirmation of the accuracy of Aboab's text: the house Fr Moreira bought [in which the synagogue was discovered -- MS] was the third house down on the street the Jewish scholar had described.
Historians had been thrown off by the fact that Aboab never described the synagogue as clandestine. His childhood experiences took place five decades after the forced conversion - at a time when secret Jewish worshippers would be tortured and burnt at the stake if caught - so there was no chance a synagogue could function in the open.
"Everyone assumed Aboab had got his dates mixed up," said Professor Mea. "But it had been preying on my mind and, as soon as I saw the ark, all the pieces fell into place."

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

We'll worry about the bill later

Weird column by Ismar Schorsch in today's Jerusalem Post, in which he recommends that the community provide a free Jewish education to every Jewish kid. Not weird, of course, in itself, but in that he never addresses the one really pertinent question -- how exactly does he plan to pay for this??? (His rather vague comment at the end, "American Jews have at their disposal the wealth to affect the wrenching shift in priorities called for," is hardly sufficient). How did this get past his editors? And is this surprisingly woolly thinking a sign that perhaps he chose the right moment to retire?

Farewell, poor Natbag*, I knew him well.....

Finally, someone is trying to 'make seder' in the chaotic world of road signage in Israel. Ha'aretz reports.

* The famous sign in English on the Jerusalem - Tel-Aviv Highway directed to something called 'Natbag'. This word, of doubtful utility to any Anglophone traveller or tourist, was a direct transliteration of the Hebrew acronym for Ben-Gurion Airport - Namal Teufah Ben Gurion

---- and while we are on the subject, and in keeping with the festive season, my all-time favourite Ivrit-English translation: When in the early 1980's we lived in Talpiot Mizrach (a Jerusalem suburb), the local grocer was very keen to capture the custom of the sizeable English-speaking religiously-observant community, so he got someone to translate his flyers and ads into English. Wishing to assure his purchasers that his produce conformed with the Torah laws affecting agricultural produce, he had the phrase 'Naki mehashash orlah' printed on his ads. It came out in English as 'Free from the doubt of foreskin'. [Any other examples? In the Comments,please!]

We're into the Jewish video scene ....

... courtesy of

My favourite: Definitely Lipa -- "Abi meleibt!" !!!! Move over, Matisyahu!!!!

Monday, December 19, 2005

Not such a super-stition

In recent weeks, hundreds of gullible women have started leaving their underwear at the grave of R. Yonatan ben Uziel at Amuka in the Galilee -- where, according to superstition, those who pray will find their bashert within the year -- because they believe it will help them find their shidduch.
All of which just goes to show once again how quickly it's possible to slip from religion to superstition to sacrilege.
(On the other hand, I suppose that draping underwear across the gravesite may increase their chances of a shidduch by bringing more men to the site -- are these the types of men they are aiming to attract, though?)

(Via OOSJ)

We know better than the people

In a couple of days' time, gay couples in the UK will be able to form civil unions for the first time.
Whether you agree or disagree with this, what's interesting is that the decision was taken by the government without any public debate whatsoever. About a month ago it was simply announced that this was going ahead (presumably those following these kinds of things knew a while before); I have no recollection of any discussion on this in the public sphere at all. Again, whether or not you think this is a good idea, this is a big change in public policy and in any normal country would have been subject to a rigorous debate. That it wasn't shows much both about the social climate in Europe at the moment -- and how much the government trusts and values the opinions of the people (as Mark Steyn once wrote, the difference between the US constitution and the EU constitution is that one begins "We the people," whilst the other begins, "We know better than the people").

Putting our spin on the dreidl

It doesn't take a great genius to realize that the dreidl probably did not originate, per the myth, with Jewish children in Hasmonean times trying to disguise the fact that they were learning Torah. But where does it actually come from? I'd previously never really thought about it, but learned today that it was in fact a popular game in Europe, and especially Germany, in the 16th century -- particularly around Christmas time (aha!). As this site explains, the word 'dreidl' itself is derived from the German word drehen, which means to spin (the explanation I had today, which I don't have to hand , connected it to another German word as well -- will try and update this tomorrow).
So far, so unsurprising. I was intrigued to discover, however, that not only is the game itself Germanic in origin, but that the letters on the dreidl come directly from the German as well:
The letters on the faces of the gambling toy, which were mnemonic for the rules of the game, varied in each nation. The letters on the English spinning top were: T for Take, H for Half, P for Put, N for None. In the German game, the letters were: N for Nichts (nothing), G for Ganz (all), H for Halb (half), S for Stell (put). The Hebrew letters on the dreidel seem to have come directly from the German gambling toy: Nun for Nichts (nothing), Gimel for Ganz (all), Hay for Halb (half), Shin for Stell (put). In an effort to link the game to the celebration of Hanukkah, the Hebrew letters nun, gimel, hay and shin were said to stand for the phrase Nes Gadol Haya Sham, which means "a great miracle happened there."
Also interesting because I had always assumed that 'nun-gimmel-hay-pay' was the real thing and that our diaspora 'nun-gimmel-hay-shin' was the poor cousin....

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Becoming a Shabbos Queen

Some things in the haredi world I will simply never understand. Here's one of them; if you go to so much trouble to make sure you look good, why not simply wear a dress???

The diet better start tomorrow

The Israeli PM, Ariel Sharon, has apparently had a small stroke. He is lucky and will live to see another day, however the whole episode is a stark reminder of just how dependent the entire Israeli political system is on just one man.
It is no secret that Sharon is not in the best of health -- the only surprise in tonight's incident was that he had a stroke, not a heart attack. Unless Mr Sharon drops about half his body weight (and even then, considering his age...), the fact is that he is extremely likely to suffer from other, perhaps dehabilitating illnesses while he is still in office. What will happen then? There are simply no replacements of the same stature currently on the scene. Kadima will be finished. If Sharon dropped dead tomorrow (G-d forbid), chaos would ensue, with no truly popular or authoritative replacement, and the country would be left in a signficantly weaker position. Who is the center-right going to get to replace him?
I have no idea who/what the solution is. But this is a scenario which is becoming increasingly probable with each passing month.

JEW DA MACCABI - New Jewish Rap Video


Friday, December 16, 2005

Great videos of Hasidic life in New York

Google has a beta version running of something called 'Google video'. This is, roughly speaking, a blog service for videos - meaning that (within certain limits - the obvious restrictions apply) anyone can post videos on the web. A young man called Joseph Kolakowski has posted* dozens of short videos of Hasidic life in NY city - mainly celebrations and events. They are of varying lengths, and very varying quality, but some are compelling. He has his personal website, on Geocities, from which it appears as though he is a young Hassidisher, probably about 20, and seems to live in Woodmere. (The website is difficult to access, as he has so much posted that it exceeds the Geocities capacity, and it cuts out after a few moments' viewing.)

Fascinating material.

Kol hakavod.

* go to and then try searching under 'Kolakowski' or under 'Rebbe' etc.

UPDATE: I finally managed to get into the personal website. Some story here ... and the videos accessible from the website are equally amazing.

To Steve Brizel (see comments): It is true that the Hassidic community are photogenic. But they have the ruach which totally escapes the rest of us! Is there any other group within the Jewish world that could generate these videos of such music and such joy? The Litvishe???? I don't think so. We urgently need a new chassidus. [And someone will say - what's wrong with the old Chassidus?]

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Acronym finder

As a public service - acronymically challenged blog readers should check out this site. A few checks showed it was pretty good, including many Jewish blog-acronyms - 'RYBS', and, in fact 'BAYT'!

I learned a new acronym this week - used by teenagers -- 'POS' = 'Parent over shoulder' !!!

The grinch that stole Christmas (amongst other things)

The Forward, the NY Jewish Week and JTA are all running stories about the state of the Christmas wars in the US this year. All three seem to agree on two things: that whilst there hasn't really been an increase in the anti-Christmas movement compared to past years, there has been a significant pro-Christmas backlash from the Christian right; and that too often, the Jews have either explicitely or implicitely been blamed for the anti-Christmas moves.
I'm rather reluctant to write about this in great detail as, in the two years since I've moved back to the UK, I've become increasingly aware of how deep the cultural differences run between the UK and US/North America, and simply don't feel qualified any more to write about deeply American issues. However, based on my limited and now more European experience, I'll say this. Whilst there may be Jews who are vocally 'anti-Christmas,' the majority of the moves against so many public expressions of 'Western culture,' Christmas being just one element, across the West, usually come from two other sources. They are, first of all, left-wing, secular, somewhat self-hating do-gooders who assume they know what offends others -- even though they're usually completely mistaken -- and presume to act on their behalf; and zealous officials and petty bureaucrats who are so worried about any tiny possibility of being perceived as politically incorrect or insensitive to a minority group and hence getting into trouble that, on their own volition, and even though they probably don't care about these issues at all themselves, they act to 'protect' them -- which usually results in the most ludicrous cenorship of all. Of-course, this simply reinforces the extreme perception of what's allowed and what's 'forbidden' to say and do in our society and in that sense, political correctness has a momentum all of its very own and is a self-fulfilling prophecy. That the Jews are being targeted instead by some elements of the Christian right in the US is a whole other issue which again, I can't go into, but it is these groups (primarily the first) more than any minority who, as far as I can see, are to blame for the increasing intolerance of all things majority-culture (including Christmas) in the West.

Covenental Judaism, strike II

David Wolpe striking out to maintain the momentum in the bid for the JTS chancellorship? Or the Jewish Week trying to make up for the fact they missed out on the original story to the Forward? Of-course it suits both parties, but I'd love to know whose initiative this was...

In which I am publicly rebuked:

On the Fringe writes:

"...... Paul Shaviv, this is your last warning: So help me, if you use the acronym BAYT one more time without bothering to explain what it means, I’ll smack you upside the Bloghead. Or knock your Bloghead off. I’m kidding, obviously. But not by much. The Jewish blogosphere is not for Orthodox yeshiva graduates only. It’s full of seekers, late-learners, Baalei Teshuvah (“returnees” to Orthodox Judaism) and Jews by Choice (which, for those not familiar with that term, means those formerly known as converts to Judaism)...."

A bit thick to single me out from the entire www. Anyway, thanks to those who got their before me (and I only came across it by accident) and solved the mystery.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

C.S. Lewis kashered his kitchen

Without getting into the 'Lion, Witch and Wardrobe' debate, on which Miriam has written with her normal devastating logic and good sense (genetic, actually), there is an intriguing footnote to the CSL story.
Joy Davidman's two sons, who bore their father's name of Gresham, lived with CSL after Joy died. The older of the two, David, became very interested in Judaism in his teenage years, and became observant. (This is referred to, somewhat inaccurately, here and there on the blogs.) CSL - at the time, and since, one of England's most popular writers on faith and Christianity - decided that it was his duty to accomodate the boy's religious faith, and made his kitchen kosher. In the film 'Shadowlands', the two boys are made into one character, and this is not mentioned at all. David Gresham, who changed his name to David Gershon, at the age of 17 or so went to live in Stamford Hill (London's Boro Park), and became a Satmarer, bekesher and all. I think that he lived with the Cohn family, cousins of the Swiss film director. He learned fluent Yiddish, and went to Yerushalayim to learn. By 1967 - he must have been in his early 20's - he had moved out of that milieu, and turned up in Cambridge to study Turkish at his father's old College (Magdalene), which is where I met him. On Rosh Hashanah in 1967 David Gershon and Simon Schama had yomtov dinner in my room.
David was briliant, and knew reams of gemara off by heart, which he would use in long arguments with the ex-yeshivah students at the Jewish Society (= Hillel, sort of). At that time there were several who had been in Gateshead or Ponovich for years. At a certain point he moved out even further, reverted to 'Gresham', and decided that he wished to live the life of an English gentleman. His younger brother became a Christian missionary. The boys were left the royalties on CSL's books. Last I heard of David he was living in Spain. {NOTE: Wikipedia states that he is 'living in India with his wife and one son'.}

Tuesday, December 13, 2005


It's that time of the year again where the Jewish blogosphere competes for the Jewish and Israeli Blog awards and everyone pretends it's all in good fun etc. while secretly checking in every 5 minutes to see how many votes they've got and to call their grandmother's neighbour's son's cousin to make sure they get his vote. This year, in an enormous coup, Israellycool has managed to get the JIBs co-sponsored by the Jerusalem Post. It's a lot of work and kol hakavod, Dave, for all the work.
In the meanwhile, if you've enjoyed Bloghead this year, please remember us kindly -- nominations are open until the 18th; voting begins on Jan 2. May the best blogs win ;-)

Best news we've heard all day

Page 6:
[Spielberg's Munich] was slammed yesterday by influential Hollywood trade magazine Variety. Editor-in-chief Peter Bart declared in his column, " 'Munich' takes such pains to avoid advocacy that it neuters its narrative. The story's thrust repeatedly stalls as all sides of an issue are didactically expounded."
Todd McCarthy, Variety's chief film critic, wrote, "Members of the general public will be glancing at their watches rather than having epiphanies about world peace," and called the movie "a lumpy and overlong morality play on a failed thriller template."
The script is "flabby," McCarthy wrote, and "Munich" "simply does not sustain intellectual interest on a meaningful level."
Previous reports were that it was absolutely brilliant. But if it sucks, it probably doesn't matter that Spielberg seems to be promoting a moral equivalence between the terrorists and the people who hunted them down. (For the latest example, see Spielberg's first interview on the movie, in Time magazine, in which he says: "I think the thing I'm very proud of is that [screenwriter] Tony Kushner and I and the actors did not demonize anyone in the film. We don't demonize our targets. They're individuals. They have families. Although what happened in Munich, I condemn" -- oh yeah, poor terrorists, individuals with families. I'd like to see him make a movie where he treats the 9/11 hijackers as 'individuals with families.' He wouldn't dare. (Of-course, I don't really think that Spielberg doesn't feel strongly against the murders, but the mealy-mouthed 'condemnation' formula... really...)

Knocking on our door

The Jerusalem Report, rather strangely, has taken down its old website before its new one is ready, leaving just a holding page. I wonder why?
More's the shame as it means I can't link to a hilarious piece in its Up Front section, about a Christian man who took out $25,000 (!!!) worth of full-page newspaper advertisements in Jewish media recently, asking to be recognized as a Jew based on a DNA test that showed he was an Ashkenazi Jew by paternal lineage, and asking to be awarded Israeli citizenship under the law of return. The ad included a personal plea to PM Sharon, as well as the full text of his Y-chromosome ancestry report, which confirmed that he had "a rather populous pedigree of Ashkenazi Polish Jews."
After someone read me this much of the story, I guessed that such a meshugganer must come from some deprived European village -- that this was a scheme to move into the first world; and barring that, he was clearly unbalanced. Well, no and no. John Haedrich, 43, is a nursing home director from Glendale, California. He started looking into his Jewish roots in 2000 when he drove around Europe and ended up in Krakow and Auschwitz and got a 'serendipitous feeling' that he might be Jewish. And now, he is going to some lengths to prove it (he won't convert as he says it's unnecessary because he's already a Jew).
Let me point out two things. Firstly, with the rate of intermarriage such as it is, and with hundreds of years of Jewish history in Europe and North America, I would venture that there are very few non-Jews in those places who wouldn't be able to trace back at least one Jewish ancestor at some point (I think I read somewhere that more than half of Brazilians are descended from Jews, or something similar). Secondly, if I had $25,000, here's a suggestion to Mr Haedrich. You would have been much better off writing to Mr Sharon to tell him you have $25,000 to spare -- rather than spending it on the ads. I can almost guarantee you a better response ;-)

The lion, the witch, the wardrobe, the Christians and the Jews

Blogger has just eaten this rather long post twice in 24 hours. Aaarrgh!
The short of it was a criticism of this JTA piece, which poses a strong thesis --
The re-oiling and firing up of the machinery that pulled Christians into theaters and made 'The Passion' a huge hit, as well as 'Lion's' Christian overtones, have given some Jews reservations.
-- and then fails to back it (or at least the first part) up, for one thing interviewing only two people (one of whom is a media professor -- is he even Jewish?).
It's true that the Lion's Christian overtones have made some people in the community ask whether they or their children should / could or are even permitted to see it -- see discussions on hirhurim and yudelline. From there to arguing that Jews have what is essentially a political objection to the movie is a long way. If they do -- and they might -- JTA certainly doesn't show it.
The closest they get is this quote from a young rabbi who, after a long rumination in which he in any case expresses no particularly strong feelings either way, says:
"I haven't seen the movie, but I wouldn't be surprised if they fleshed out the Christianity a bit more to be satisfying to the Christian audience. That's the part that's most disconcerting to me. I also have concerns about the marketing. Hollywood has a way of being very in-your-face."
Extremely respectfully (seeing as I was a bridesmaid at this very same rabbi's own wedding...), I beg to disagree. Would it really be disconcerting to Jews if the studio did flesh out the Christianity a bit to satisfy the Christian audience? Why? Christians are an audience like any other. Studios are allowed to make movies with Christian messages just as they are allowed to make movies with Jewish messages -- or perhaps Ushpizin should be 'toned down' before distribution? In addition, there is an implication here that if the Christian message is overt in the movie, it's somehow a misrepresentation in order to cater for the Christian audience. Let's not forget that the book was written as a Christian allegory, and just because most of us read it at an age when we weren't equipped to recognize this doesn't mean that the Christian message was ever secondary.
The fear of anything overtly Christian in the public sphere (so reminiscent of the great Christmas debate), even a movie, actually gets comical when JTA gets to Peter Sealey, a marketing professor at the University of California Berkeley's Haas School of Business and the former president of marketing and distribution for Columbia Pictures, who
saw "duplicity" in the way Disney is shying away from mentioning Lewis' Christian message in its general publicity materials. In a 16-page "Narnia Educator Guide" that Sealey found on the film's Web site, religion and Christianity aren't mentioned even once.
"The issue is secular audiences. Will they appreciate seeing a religious message without knowing it?" he asked. Disney "should make a statement, they should let people know. The lion is resurrected. "It's a great piece of entertainment and you can enjoy it if you're Christian or not. However, the underpinnings of the work reflect the New Testament."
Since when is religion something audiences need to be 'warned' about -- like sexual content or violence? Perhaps we should create a special label -- pg, pg-13, x, r and rel? Really.
It comes down to this. This movie isn't being imposed on anyone. No one is being forced to watch it. If you don't want to, ignore it. If you want to, enjoy. End of story.
Incidentally, as an English major I discovered pretty quickly that practically every major work in the English language written before 1900 had major Christian themes and influences (or at least that was the joke -- when all other essay ideas fail, you can always draw a parallel to the trinity). If you don't want your children reading the Narnia series, you might as well keep them away from the majority of the English classics.
Of-course, that is some people's choice. But that doesn't mean that the English cannon should be abolished or include warning labels -- or that movies like Narnia shouldn't be made.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Nothing to do with the Jews, everything to do with the Catholics

Mel Gibson's film company, Con Artist Productions, is going to be involved in making a tv miniseries about a Jewish girl who was saved during the holocaust by her Catholic boyfriend.
This is not Gibson's personal production and it's unclear just how involved he will be; it's unclear even if his name will be attached to the project. Not only that, the miniseries will be made for ABC in collaboration with two other film companies. So -- it is actually pretty reasonable to assume that Gibson will have little to do with the decisions over how this series is made. The blustering and hype coming from Jewish sources as to whether Gibson can be trusted to make this movie, etc etc etc is exactly that -- blustering and hype. Most likely, the movie will have little to do with Gibson. He shouldn't be attacked for it and -- contra Rabbi Hier's pronouncement that the project would "give Gibson a chance to redeem himself from the controversy over 'The Passion of the Christ,' which did not portray Jews fairly" -- when it turns out to be just as superficial and predictable as most other made-for-tv miniseries, Gibson shouldn't be given any of the credit either.
The one thing Gibson possibly -- probably -- had a say in was whether his company should collaborate on this in the first place. If so, the first thing that popped into my head was what Deborah Cohn says at the bottom of this Reuters piece -- basically, the pertinent piece of info here is not that it's a movie about a Jew in the Holocaust but that it's about a Catholic savior during the holocaust. Rabbi Hier, you've completely misunderstood.

Death of Rabbi Edward Washington: Truthfully, next to this the odd 'Semikhah' to a traffic cop doesn't look so bad .....

A report of the petirah of Rabbi Washington.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Essential reading / surfing

A truly outstanding Havel Havelim #48 [the weekly volunteer survey of the Jewish blogosphere]- with links to some outstanding (and in some cases very moving) blogs. Go surf through it now. It linked me to several blogs I had never seen before. I truly believe that the Jewish blogs are the real voices of the Jewish community - it is what Jews are thinking and feeling. All of the newspapers seem remote by comparison. Only thing I can't understand is how awhisperingsoul found time to survey so many blogs ......

The fight for Israel at Princeton

An exasperated post on Israpundit detailed what happened when the Walid ShoebatFoundation tried to put on an event at Princeton, and the reaction of the local Jewish students when Princeton applied pressure to stop the event taking place. Disclaimer: I wasn't there,I know little about the WS Foundation, I don't normally read Israpundit, and I have only read the linked account.

But it doesn't surprise me.

On every turn, we face several almost impossible hurdles in defending Israel and Jewish rights on campus:

1. Our enemies are politicised; we are not. As simple as that. Jews are educated to see Israel/Judaism as 'feel-good' items. The political context - day-by-day more important -- is a traumatic shock to many of them.
2. Young students at any University are going to find it incredibly difficult to stand up to University pressure, and to peer pressure. Where were the Princeton Faculty? And where was the Hillel rabbi?
3. Contrary to popular belief, we are not very powerful.
4. Jewish leadership still believes that we will protect ourselves by ingratiating ourselves to political leadership. Given point (3), they may be right, but it is a fatally short-term approach.
5. Local Jewish student leadership is very, very varied, and does not always consist of knowledgeable, proud, intelligent students.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Chief Rabbinate complicit in another scandal...

This story (in the Ivrit Haaretz - no full English translation as yet) relates a new scandal whereby the Chief Rabbinate in certain districts issued fictitious rabbinic ordinations to policemen and othe government employess (see the pop-up link at the beginning of the story for a sample document on CR letterhead). The motivation - no different from the other scandal involving fake degrees issued in Israel by overseas 'Universities' - is that in Israel sizeable pay increases come with additional academic qualifications. (Even seminars and short courses may give you a permanent pay rise. )

Between Slifkingate, this, and a dozen other* wearying stories -- what's left????

*recent local samplers include: Kashrut/hashgachah issues, rabbis who refuse to mention certain names/institutions, schools that exclude .......

Thursday, December 08, 2005

S R Hirsch redux

I just gave a talk on Hirsch as part of my regular adult ed Jewish history course at the BAYT in Toronto. Hirsch is a most interesting individual, rather like Rav Kook in that everyone claims him as their own. Some aspects of his career (eg his compromises with early demands for liturgical change in his first rabbanut in Oldenburg 1830 - 41) are barely talked about today. The best book on Hirsch, which is Prof. Noah Rosenbloom's study 'Tradition in an age of Reform', JPS, 1976, is ignored in all Orthodox bibliographies.

But it struck me again what an unappreciated giant he was. He single-handedly created and articulated a Europeanised Orthodoxy that was intelligable and credible, operating over sixty years of his career in a most hostile environment. It is possible to critique him and his movement on a number of counts (and which movement cannot be criticised?), but his achievement was, and is, enormous - and, IMHO, far more radical than the self-appointed bearers of his standard would have us believe.

So, question: Who is the nearest we have today to a Hirsch? (My nomination is Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks)

Way, way beyond teshuvah

A new blog for BT's has made its appearance. It is an interesting read, and I wish the blog much success. The list of contributors is interesting (see the r.h. side coloumn of the blog) - three rabbis, plus Zelig, Rivka, Arye Leib, Mordechai, Melech, Meyer, Dovid and Chava. No Zekes, Rosemarys, Arthurs, Michaels, etc etc. The discussions show great concern about ..... conformity, and integrating into Haredi society.

Which leaves me asking - why have the non-Haredi Orthodox been such failures in being able to harness and encourage the interest in Judaism among young people of the last 20 - 30 years? There is no non-haredi equivalent of Aish, or Or Sameach, or Arachim. [Cynics might say that there is, and it's called: Chabad ...]. Isn't there a place for a movement which shows a different dimension of Judaism, that does not demand of those becoming interested in deepening their Jewish observance that they adopt a Haredi lifestyle and Haredi attitudes and beliefs?

What did we do wrong?

Gourmet sufganiyyot

Impossible to buy anything like these on Bathurst Street .....

Monday, December 05, 2005

Did I say Kol Nidrei for Lord Haw-Haw's daughter?

The Guardian has an astonishing piece about the daughter of William Joyce ("Lord Haw-Haw"), the English traitor who broadcast Nazi propaganda from Germany during WW2. He was tried and executed for treason after the war. Seems that his daughter (now aged 77) does not share his views, and has for many years quietly attended the synagogue in the historic English town of Chatham (about 50 miles SE of London, a port on the River Medway in Kent, and famous for its British Navy and Charles Dickens connections.) Well, as I write here in Toronto, on the wall near me is a large, framed, colour photo of the Chatham shul, built in 1837 (or so), on the site of an earlier synagogue. Why? Because for some years I went to Chatham (with the family) to daven for the Yamim Naroim. So did I, unwittingly, say Kol Nidrei for William Joyce's daughter????

Slifkin in Toronto - partial perspective

I wasn't going to blog on this, for various (unimportant) reasons, but since a) Miriam and Danny have flown off for a (well deserved) holiday and the blogmistress has cheerfully unloaded on her poor father the responsibility for the blog (since she can't edit this post, I'm enjoying it!) and since b) an 'Anonymous' has asked about it , here is some info:

1. Rabbi Slifkin was in Toronto over the last few days. He spoke at a programme organised by a very enterprising local organisation called 'Torah in Motion', organised by Rabbi Jay Kelman and Dr. Elliott Malamet (his earlier comments on l'affaire Slifkin here). The local Orthodox rabbis heartily disapprove of TiM, seeing it as a sort of local "Edah".
2. I didn't manage to attend Rabbi Slifkin's public lectures, although I understand that he spoke to packed audiences and was enthusiastically received. He spoke at CHAT to our Grade 12's earlier in the week, on 'Evolution'. Students and staff (Jewish/non-Jewish) found him fascinating, reasonable, helpful, knowledgeable and interesting. i have great sympathy and respect for Rabbi Slifkin.
3. As reported elsewhere on the blogosphere, the major posek of Toronto, Rabbi Shlomoh Eliyahu Miller, issued a letter calling Rabbi Slifkin every name under the sun, condemning his books, and then for good measure adding some science. You can read the letter here and judge its contents for yourself. I think English translations are being posted on the web. I doubt that any LOR in the city will dare comment on it.
4. As to an earlier document circulated in the city - allegedly forged - I have no idea of this incident.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Slow blogging

Sorry for the untypically slow blogging this week -- I've been particularly short of time. In fact, I'm actually going on vacation next week so you're not likely to hear much from me until the Monday after next (the 12th). I think I've lined up an excellent guest blogger, though, so stay tuned!
UPDATE, 5 Dec: Sorry, the guest blogger didn't pan out. I'm off for a vacation in the sun and will be back, blogging as usual, next Monday pm. In the meanwhile, hopefully our Toronto correspondent will be increasing his blogging output. Have a good week!

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

They may be rich, but they're morally bankrupt

The search for the world's most vulgar bar/batmitzvah continues -- with a party that reportedly cost $10m (!!!!!). Or did it? The father of the batmitzvah girl, David Brooks, reassures the NY Daily News that "all dollar figures [are] vastly exaggerated."
If the papers were actually doubling the figures, that meant he only spent $5m. What a relief. For a moment there I thought he'd completely gone over the top. Phew!

Creative fundraising

Jewish schools are apparently having to go to wilder and wilder lengths to fundraise. Not so long ago we had a school in California auctioning off a house. Now, Yeshiva Flatbush is raffling off a slightly less attractive, but equally inventive prize of 3 million air miles. The opportunity to "visit your mother in law in California every year for the next 120 years" (is this necessarily a prize?) starts at $250 a ticket.
Here's a suggestion for the next school that needs a fundraiser. Why don't they raffle off free tuition for life for an entire family? I'm sure a lot of parents would be willing to pay $250 for that.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Where the blogosphere gets a little eerie.....

I've always wanted to know who fellow London blogger "Karl" from Knifedge Kvetch was, and since he mentioned on his blog that he was going to be at the Matisyahu concert, I did briefly wonder last night where he was in the massive crowd. When I went onto his blog this morning to find out what he had to say about the gig, I was pretty flabbergasted to discover that, not only did I meet him last night, we actually had a conversation -- although he didn't let on his secret identity at the time :-(

Monday, November 28, 2005

Matisyahu live

Continuing my Jewish culture blitz, I went tonight to hear Matisyahu in his first ever concert in London, which was kicking off a European tour. It was a full house -- 800 people -- and I have to say, I've never seen anything like it. The sight of this slightly gangly chossid -- whose trainers were the only sign as he came on stage that perhaps he wasn't a totally typical yeshivah bocher -- driving the audience into a frenzy was simply surreal. Where other stars might get the audience going by tearing off their shirt, a very charismatic Matisyahu got his shrieks by taking off his hat (song 2) and then -- gasp! -- his black coat (song 4). At one stage some woman actually shouted that she loved him and someone started throwing their clothes on stage. The men were all in the front rows were all reaching out to touch him. One wonders if even the Lubavitcher Rebbe himself ever inspired quite such mass hysteria...
That said, the most remarkable part of it all was not the star but the audience. I've never seen such a wide variety of people at a Jewish musical event. He got everyone from the slightly rebellious haredim (all heavy smokers...) and the modern orthodox to the totally secular, the Kabbalah Center freaks, the secular Israelis, women with rasta hair and more than a few non-Jews. Which got me thinking: to what do we attribute this Matisyahu phenomenon? He's not the only Jewish musician using non-Jewish music forms to reach out, but he's certainly the most successful and he really does seem to appeal to an extraordinarily wide range of people. Part of it, I started thinking, was to do with the ba'al teshuvah movement, perhaps the nature of Lubavitch is part of the story here, certainly the fact that reggae is much cooler than the faux-pop of other religious performers...
And then it hit me.
Almost everyone I spoke to last night told me what a wonderful blend Matisyahu was of Judaism and secular culture. As I was leaving the venue, going completely against the grain, someone began to complain to me that the performance wasn't Jewish enough. Yes, his lyrics might have been Jewish but they were so unintelligable with the volume, and the way they were sung, that the Jewish side was completely irrelevant. At the same time, one of the non-Jewish guys at the concert -- a tourist from the States who actually owns a Matisyahu CD -- asked a friend of mine what the word 'Hashem' meant.
At the risk of sounding completely heretical, that's part of Matisyahu's secret. Most of his songs are not heavy on Jewish content -- yes, they all have religious messages, but he approaches his subjects lightly. In any case, the way he sings, at least in concert, makes it completely impossible to understand a single word he says if you haven't actually sat down and read his lyrics. Without the words, all you're left with is some pretty good reggae (by others' accounts -- I'm no judge!) and the fascination of it coming from a guy in a black hat and black coat (until song 4...). If you can't hear the words properly, or don't really understand the message, or manage to ignore what are really only occasional explicitely religious lines and words, the 'frum factor' is interesting, unusual, and cool -- a definite attraction -- but you don't feel that it's being rammed down your throat, threatening or 'frummie' in the way you might feel about Mordechai Ben David and the like. You're just left with the music -- and with the exoticism of it all.
OK, ok, that's not the whole story. But it is part of it. I'm convinced that if half the audience tonight, particularly the secular half, could actually hear and understand what he was saying, or if his content was as intensively Jewish as his form, he wouldn't be quite the hit he is today.

Sunday, November 27, 2005


In keeping with last night's theme, I spent tonight watching Ushpizin, a lovely little movie, full of chen. I'm not going to write about it because so many others have so well (was I the last person on the planet to see this movie?), but I do want to recommend that people watch this on DVD so that they can see the section about how the movie was made -- which is almost as interesting as the movie itself. There's a lot on there about the process of main actor Shuli Rand's chazarah bitshuvah and his considerations making this movie; the rare relationship and interaction between the religious and secular members of the crew, and the dialogue that the movie became for them; and the religious extras who were all the real thing, turning up on the set in their real clothes. In one of the most interesting clips, Michal Rand (Shuli's wife in real life and the main female character) is having a massive fight with one of the other haredi actors, over whether the way they wanted him to play a certain scene was a chillul hashem or not; in the background, the haredi extras start dancing in a circle and singing so that they're doing something better with their time than standing around watching the fight. Gold.
Incidentally, I also want to point out that while so many critics of the movie wrote about it "putting a human face on the haredi world," "showing haredim in their day to day lives," to me this was more specific than that -- part of its charm was the way it so accurately portrayed a very specific kind of Israeli ba'al teshuvah, who comes from a real arsi (how do you translate that?) background and who still shows signs of their previous life. Most obviously, lots of the vocabulary and expressions used by Shuli and his wife were clearly from their non-religious days, but it was also something about the wife's personality (not to mention the scene where she smoked the cigarette, or kicked the 'ushpizin') and the relative ease with which they related to their secular guests. The fact that the ushpizin turn up from Shuli Rand's previous life is not just a gimmick to get the plot moving; this movie is as much about humanizing the strange creature that is the Israeli ba'al teshuvah -- who, in a country which is dominated by a harsh religious-secular divide is often regarded as completely alien by his/her secular peers -- as it is about humanizing the wider "haredi community." In short, there's an Israeli context and nuance here that I wonder if some people, even some committed religious Jews in the diaspora are missing.

Bloghd hits 250,000

See the counter. Quite an achievement! Well done, Miriam, you deserve a holiday!

Ma'ale short movies

Last night we went to a screening of three short movies made by students at Maale, Israel's religious film school. They were of varying quality but all interesting, and all showed that the way religious people are portrayed in Israeli cinema is undergoing a transformation, and will continue to become more sensitive and nuanced as more religious filmmakers come on the scene. The movies were by no means uncritical -- the opposite -- but were all made from a point of sympathy. I was interested to see that although the students at Maale are mostly national religious and to the left of that, two of the movies were set in the ultra-orthodox community, and were in Yiddish. I guess that this community remains intriguing even for the modern orthodox, is unexplored enough territory in film to make movies about it compulsive viewing, and that many of the dilemmas of religious life are easier to portray at the extremes. I was actually sorry that one of the movies -- Cohen's Wife -- wasn't set in the modern orthodox community. It would have been harder to get right but possibly more satisfying for that. In any case, I understand that there was a similar screening of these movies in NY and if you get a chance to see them, take it up!

The movies were:

  • Eicha (2001)-- "Eicha is a young religious girl living in a typical West Bank settlement. Her unique and unusual name, Eicha, is the Hebrew title of the biblical scroll of lamentations that is read on Tisha B’av, the annual fast day commemorating the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem 2000 years ago. Tisha B’av is also Eicha’s birthday. Upon reaching the age of 18 she decides to change her name and try to establish her own identity."

  • This movie was definitely my favorite. Eicha grows up with very idealistic and ideological parents and feels confined by the role she is expected to play. She also feels very pressured by the way that everyone in the society around her looks at the way she dresses (typical settler) and assumes they know exactly what she thinks and feels (something I think that many people in Israel can relate to -- certainly I could. When I returned to Israel in 2000 I wore only skirts and eventually, felt so uncomfortable that I was being pigeon-holed and that assumptions were being made about what I thought politically and culturally that I couldn't take it and began wearing jeans -- something I hadn't done for years. Unfortunately, clothing in Israel is an even more political statement than it is elsewhere). This movie is supposedly about how stereotypes are not necessarily true, but ironically it plays very heavily on stereotypes itself and the stereotypes get the biggest laughs -- Eicha's mother is the slightly batty American settler, a woman in misrad hapnim is deliberately and hysterically indifferent and rude, Eicha's siblings are called "Hevron" and "Yerushalayim" (big laughs from the audience). The movie also ended rather abruptly. Nevertheless, perceptive and touching.

  • Elyokim (2002) -- "Elyokim, who is ultra-orthodox and a brilliant talmudic student, is in love with Rachel, the daughter of his Rabbi. The social conventions which govern Elyokim's world means he will never be formally introduced to Rachel. Elyokim takes matters into his own hands…"

  • Elyokim is actually disabled -- something you don't realize until a few minutes into the movie. The movie portrays very well just how frustrating it is to have your dating prospects so utterly out of your hands, and how, in the shidduch system, and if you are unlucky enough to suffer from a disability -- which in general society can make finding a match difficult enough -- it doesn't matter if you are talked about as a future rosh yeshivah or if you are a total tzaddik, you are not going to get introduced to the 'good' girls. The frustrations end up driving Elyokim to some rather unpleasant ends -- he eventually essentially ruins the girl he is interested in. It's not entirely clear to me whether this was just revenge/jealousy on his part (in the one entirely unrealistic part of this movie, he spots her having a secret rendezvous with a secular man who brings a tour group into the haredi neighbourhood each day, and calls mishmeret hatzniut) or whether it was his way of bringing her down to a level where she was such 'spoiled goods' that her family would finally have to consider a shidduch with a disabled man. But the psychological ambiguity is part of the charm of this rather good little movie.

      • Cohen's Wife (2000) -- "Rivki Cohen, a young ultra-orthodox woman, opens the door for a strange man that come for Tsedaka (charity). She is raped. Now she is awaiting the rabbinical court’s decision whether her husband, Motle, must divorce her. According to the Jewish Halacha, 'A Cohen’s wife who is raped is forbidden to her husband'"

      This was the slowest-moving of the movies but it was also nuanced and subtle. The husband and wife clearly love each other but as they await the ruling whether they must divorce or not, essentially suppress their feelings to protect themselves, especially the husband. At one very moving point, the husband wants to put his arms around his wife but can't bring himself to do it. Ultimately, although the beis din rules that they can stay together, the movie suggests (the ending is slightly ambigous) that the way they each handled the period while they were waiting for the ruling has irrevocably damaged their relationship.

      RELATED: Salon on the vitality of the Israeli cinema scene

      Friday, November 25, 2005

      All Zionists, Israelis, etc - please read this:

      The latest email from Daniel Gordis tells it as it is, and is essential, plain reading as we go into the Israeli election.

      Thursday, November 24, 2005

      Sneaky is the generous term for it

      In some haredi communities, tv and not the internet is still the issue at the moment. A reader from the UK sent me the following email. By way of background to American readers, in the UK you need to pay for a licence to own a tv set so that there is funding for the BBC, which is a state-owned channel (a bit like the agra in Israel):
      It is rumoured that [a certain haredi school in the UK -- MS] has been ringing up the TV Licensing Authority masquarading as certain parents in order supposedly to check that their licence is still valid. Of course, if the TVLA confirms this, then they bring in the parents for a severe talking to or to suggest that their children may be better off at another school.
      Quite apart from the appalling ethics of this, I suspect it could be illegal for reasons of data protection if nothing else. There are other issues relating to identity theft etc.
      I.e., they've found a sure-fire way to confirm whether parents at the school have tvs or not.
      I did a little check today and it is possible to get the TVLA to tell you over the phone whether your tv license is up to date or not with just a name and address -- I told them I was at work and had forgotten to bring my tv license number and they were quite happy to confirm everything was in order. I haven't named the school/city 'cos I don't want to get sued and this is, at the moment, just a rumor -- but if anyone knows of any CONCRETE CASES of this happening in the UK, please contact me.

      It's not money they need, it's talent and organization

      It's a chicken-and-the-egg question: do good products attract money, or do you need money to create a good product?
      I bring this up because JTA has sent out a rather sad email asking people who registered to its site for a monetary donation (boasting, noch, that its news is 'timely').
      With 80+ years under its belt, JTA is a known quantity. Presumably, it thinks it needs money in order to improve; I say it needs to improve before it has the gall to ask casual readers for money. It wouldn't take much to show an immediate difference; an intern with a laptop could probably do a better job on its breaking news and one good editor could probably vastly improve the copy.
      In the meanwhile, anyone out there more kind-hearted than I am, who wants to donate $500, $100, $50 "or even $25" to a news service whose breaking news is always 3 days late and whose features routinely read as if they were written by high schoolers, should write to

      Happy thanksgiving!

      Rabbi Steinmetz has a piece -- on his blog and in the Jerusalem Post -- on why Israel needs its own thanksgiving:
      Perhaps the one thing the noisier ideologues of the Right and Left in Israel agree upon is pessimism. Both believe the country is falling apart; they simply quibble over who is to blame.
      Extremists on the Left invoke the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin to demonstrate that the Right are a bunch of bloodthirsty extremists who hate democracy. Extremists on the Right invoke the disengagement from Gaza to demonstrate that the Left are a bunch of appeasing, heartless people who throw their fellow Jews out of their homes.
      However, if you remove the political particulars these arguments are essentially the same: "The country is falling apart. And you [the other side] are the traitor who is to blame."
      Ironic ally, this pessimism is self-fulfilling. The greatest danger to Israel is not the Right or the Left or the religious or the secular, but rather the way all segments of society relate to each other. These nasty divides are the product of sincere people doing their best to prevent the destruction of Israel. But their pessimism adds a dangerously bitter edge to their rhetoric, transforming political opponents into personal enemies and democratically-elected prime ministers into "traitors," or worse...
      THIS IS why Israel needs a Thanksgiving. A day to remember all the blessings we can be grateful for: for freedom and prosperity, for being able to live in the country
      of our ancestors, for a democracy which, with all its flaws, is still a true democracy.... Most importantly, we need to thank God for the miracle of the State of Israel... Perhaps, if we got intoxicated with gratitude, we might begin to appreciate our brothers and sisters.
      Unfortunately, I can't see Israelis buying into this, for the simple reason that they are way too cynical and concerned with image. Despite the fact that Israelis profess to admire and emulate America, I'm pretty sure they would see the idea of sitting down and expressing thanks for all these things as nerdy and 'uncool.'
      Which is perhaps one more reason why Rabbi Steinmetz is right and this is a good idea!

      (Perhaps, strangely, Israelis would do better with a big public ceremony or demonstration for this than something private and home-based. Incidentally, some of the comments in the JPost suggest Succot as a thanksgiving -- see R. Steinmetz's note on his blog.)

      German architecture students recreate destroyed synagogues

      This website is a huge resource on 2,200 synagogues in Austria and Germany that were closed or destroyed by the Nazis. Part of it is digital reconstructions (exteriors and interiors) of fifteen complete synagogues (see the 'Virtual Synagogues' link) . The site and reconstructions were created by architectural students in Darmstadt. Kol hakavod.

      A paean to pickles

      The JWR has an important article on Jews and pickles, or, as they are known in the UK, 'pickled cues'.
      I was hopelessly salivating just reading it. I inherited a total addiction to pickled cucumbers from my father o"h. The true and only home of pickled cucumbers is/was the Petticoat Lane market in London's East End [this is fabulous site!]. As a boy, in the 1950's, my greatest treat was to be taken 'down the Lane' on a Sunday morning. Our walk throught the market would be punctuated by stops at pickle stalls, a chat with Prince Monolulu [never in my dreams did I think that I could Google him! None of the links seem to mention the rabbit foot and the fly whisk] and would finish at Blooms in Whitechapel Road. There were three great flavours of pickled cucumbers, none of them available in North America:

      1. 'Haimishe', which were not sour, but had a full flavour which I can't identify from memory.
      2. 'New Green' - long, curly, rather vinegary pickles, of which the N American green 'half-sours' are a pathetic and misleading imitation, which I alweays buy and always am disappointed. The genuine 'New green' has a subtle, deep flavour.
      3. the real aristocrat, however, were the 'Dutch Yellows' - huge, fat cucumbers, which pickled to a bright yellow colour. They were available all year long, but in my memory are connected with pesach. They, too, were sweet not sour. For passing the 11+ (too complicated to explain), while all my friends got bicycles, briefcases etc ... I got a whole Dutch Yellow cucumber. It was an art to eat one. I haven't seen one for 40 years.

      Nowadays the Jewish pickle market is dominated by the very briny/salty I sraeli cucumbers, which are not bad, but lack subtlety. The 'kosher dills' are tasteless. Where can I get a real English pickled cucumber ....... and a REAL salt-beef sandwich????????

      Whacko Jacko's defense

      For those of you living under a rock, Michael Jackson has been accused of anti-Semitism after Good Morning America broadcast a message he left (two years ago) on the answer machine of a former advisor, calling Jews leeches who have conspired to leave him penniless.
      Why anyone cares any more what this freak says or thinks is beyond me (and if the thought that he may have been a child molestor didn't turn his fans off, accusations of anti-Semitism certainly won't), but the best part of the story is his lawyer's defence:
      Brian Oxman, a Jackson family attorney, insisted in a statement that the messages were actually "telephone conversations recorded without permission."
      Oh. Well that makes it ok, then....

      Wednesday, November 23, 2005

      More films of prewar Jewish Communities a la Munkatch

      There is a great deal of excitement in the blog world about the short film of prewar Munkatch that has been circulating. However, there are dozens of similar films available online through the excellent website of the Spielberg Film Archive at the Hebrew University - especially the Jewish Communities site. Enjoy.

      Words of wisdom from Limor Livnat

      Headline in the JPost: "Livnat: Whoever is elected will be elected"
      Limor, Limor. What would we do without your insight?

      Lakewood ban in NYT

      The Lakewood internet ban has -- finally, almost 2 months after the event -- hit the NYT. To their credit, they understand that when the rabbis talk of the 'threat' of the internet, they are not only talking about pornography but about exposure to theology, free discussions, exchange of ideas etc, and the article is quite heavy on this point. Indeed, they begin with an anecdote about a blogger, Shtreimel. It appears that Mr Streimel -- who ended his 'Hassid and a Heretic' blog in October with a long 'confession' about how he's changed his wicked ways, and removed his archive -- has in fact been blogging, quite normally, on another site since July, under a completely new name. Hmmm. It was obvious to everyone that the way his previous blog ended was unlikely. Now that the web address is in the NYT I suppose he'll have to give us all an explanation: was he threatened with outing? Or did he just feel constrained by the format of the old blog, in which case, why the strange ending? And -- most importantly -- if he wanted a fresh start as a blogger, for whatever reason, why is he suddenly drawing attention to the fact that "Shtreimel" is still writing?
      Back to the NYT. I'm surprised that again, considering the ban was announced before RH, the paper apparently never thought to ask how many people are actually obeying it. You would think that was an essential component of the story. The whole article, btw, reads as if it were the bare bones of a much longer piece that the writer never got around to writing.

      Tuesday, November 22, 2005

      The politics of personality

      Sharon is reportedly considering calling his new party 'Kadima,' or Forward. As a colleague of mine commented today, perhaps a more suitable name might be 'Kadima, smolah, smolah, od ktzat smolah...' ('Forward, left, left, a little more to the left')....
      Another suggestion for a name for his party that I heard today was, 'Acharai' -- 'After me' -- the mythical battle cry of commanders in the Israeli army, who lead the way for their soldiers. It is apt here because the new party revolves so much around Sharon. Were he, G-d forbid, to drop dead tomorrow from a heart attack (unfortunately not an entirely impossible scenario...), the whole party would collapse with him in about three seconds flat. Indeed, one of the interesting things about this election is that even though the country reverted back (in 2001) to a system where there is no direct vote for prime minister, but each person instead gets one vote, for a party, more people than ever will, in effect, be basing their vote exclusively on who they want to see as PM -- the rest of the party be damned. Whoever votes for Achrayut Leumit / Kadima will really only be voting for Arik; a vote for Labour will, for a very large proportion of people, be a vote specifically for Amir Peretz; and while the Likud is in some senses the exception to this trend -- there are many people who will vote Likud whoever leads it, and others who will find its new/old hard-right line appealing whoever's at the top -- if Bibi, for example, ends up as leader, he personally will be earning many people's votes as well. Some have said that the past week has finally divided the political map into three distinct political visions, given it a right, a center and a left; the truth is that at least two of these are embodied completely, and only, in two specific people, upon whom the entire political arrangement depends at the moment. Their parties are blank, bland, irrelevant slates and stand for nothing. In short, Israel could just as easily have abolished the party vote as abolished the direct vote for PM -- that's the vote that people will be casting anyway....

      Rabbi Goldschmidt, threat to Russia's national security?

      JTA is reporting (in its breaking news -- could JTA actually be reporting a story before everyone else?) that Russia's internal affairs ministry has confirmed that it will not be letting Moscow's chief rabbi, Pinchas Goldschmidt, back into the country. This is despite the fact that the Russian foreign minister recently promised Silvan Shalom that the matter would be resolved satisfactorily, and despite the fact that the man widely assumed to be behind the ban, Russian Jewish Congress head Vladimir Slutsker, resigned his post.
      As you will recall, Moscow's initial excuse for denying Goldschmidt re-entry into the country was that his visa had expired. The strangest-sounding thing about the newest twist in the story is Moscow's new excuse:

      The letter cited an article in Russian legislation that prevents foreigners who are deemed threats to Russian national security from entering the country.
      Apparently, however, this is Russia's normal excuse when denying religious figures visas. The majority of the references to this online are connected to a draft government report from 2003 which explicitely named the Catholic church, the protestants, the Muslims and a few sects as 'threats to national security' due to their 'extremism,' and outlined ways to 'deal' with them. I don't know what happened to the report -- I'm sure one of our readers will be able to tell us -- however,

      The draft paper defines “extremists” as those who conduct the “propaganda of exclusivity, of the supremacy or inferiority of citizens according to their attitude to religion and according to what social, racial, ethnic or linguistic group they belong.”
      These are the kinds of charges that were very recently made in Russia against the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, which, Russian nationalists were claiming, was a racist document.
      In any case, this article from 2003 quotes one Nadeshda Kevorkova -- I don't know who she is -- as writing in the Gazeta newspaper, prophetically, as it turns out:

      “The officials have set down Catholics, Protestants, sectarians and foreigners as extremists — that is, everyone except Orthodox adherents, Buddhists, and for the time being, Jews."
      Well, that was then. Russia already has a rather heavy track-record either expelling or denying visas to Catholic, Protestant and other religious leaders in recent years (using the 'national security' excuse). It appears as if this is finally the context in which we have to see its treatment of Rabbi Goldschmidt; this is not a Russian war on one specific man or organization but on religion, specifically non-Orthodox religion, which is being portrayed as un-patriotic, 'foreign' and downright treacherous. Suspicion of the foreigner and of the enemy within, of course, keeps Russian nationalism burning and shores up support for the government.
      The question remains, however, what made them decide to turn the screws on the Jews at this specific moment, after years of 'protecting' them from these expulsions which affected everyone else (of-course, Putin always interfered in the Jewish community in other ways, but anyway). Had our luck just simply run out? Or, after all the speculation and the conspiracy theories, is there still more behind this story?

      UPDATE: Shmarya's take here.

      Lakewood internet ban -- follow up necessary

      This article about the Lakewood internet ban, in the NJ Star-Ledger, also contains an update of sorts:
      While figures were not available, rabbis said many parents among the Ocean County community's 6,500 Orthodox families have already canceled their Internet subscriptions.
      The word 'many' is interesting here. I wouldn't have expected them to have said 'all,' but I would have expected a boast about the 'majority' or 'a large proportion'. Has the response been disappointing? Then, there's 'Mesh' (sic?) Gelman, a father of four who has banned i'net from his home on the order of the rabbis.
      Gelman, who dropped off his 6- and 8-year-old boys at Yeshiva Bais HaTorah yesterday, said he's still trying to figure out how to work at home without the Internet.
      Why didn't he get a heter -- which the rabbis said were available to people who need to work from home? Is this a sign the rabbis are being mean with issuing exceptions? And how do others who are still 'figuring out' how to make a living without the internet actually feel?
      The answer to these questions may be no, no and fine. But in short, a proper follow up is in order. Anyone on the ground?

      (Via TTC)

      UPDATE: Well, it's the closest you're going to come to scientific proof: Site Meter tells me that at least one of the latest visitors to Bloghead (8:06 pm UK time) came from Lakewood.....

      Move over, Matisyahu

      Most interesting member of the Jewish music scene I've come across in a while. And if only I hadn't noticed that Mr Nelson "currently serves as director of music at Hopewell Baptist Church in Newark, NJ" (albeit one which is housed in a former synagogue), it would all have been perfect...

      Monday, November 21, 2005

      Sink or swim

      So, Sharon has exploded Israeli politics and gone to set up his own, supposedly more 'centrist' party. It is a bold move and he is a very brave man to attempt it; the last (admittedly then former) prime minister who tried setting up his own rebel party (with none other than Shimon Peres), David Ben Gurion, notoriously failed, and the party, Rafi, dissolved after one term.
      The question now is this. Several senior Likud ministers have committed to come with him. Now, at the moment of truth, how many members of other parties are going to come too, particularly following the recent changes in the Labour party? Ie. who is going to be as brave as Sharon himself, considering that the new party is a complete unknown and their chances of getting elected in a good spot are also unknown? The answer to this question, in the next few days, will tell us straight away whether the PM's party is going to sink or swim. If they come with him, it is a vote of confidence and the momentum will probably carry it far. If Sharon is left struggling for members, or if he gets the Shimon Pereses of the other parties -- the rejects -- the loser air will be hard to shake and the prophecy will fulfill itself. Furthermore, if all he does is attract other Likud members and a few strays from other parties, all he would have done is split the Likud vote, in effect strengthening the other parties. The next few days, in other words, are crucial.

      Sunday, November 20, 2005

      The Cohanim are kosher - but the Levi'im ....?

      A speaker at our shul yesterday is the Director of an Institute for Kohanim in the Old City, and spoke about the project to isolate the 'Kohen gene'. The "eureka moment" actually took place in our shul, when 'Kohen' Dr. Karl Skorecki (also, I may modestly point out, a CHAT graduate) asked himself whether he would have a common gene with a Sefardi kohen who was having an aliyyah. The rest, as they say, is history. However, when he had finished, the speaker asked for questions, and was asked about the Levi'im. [This prompted the Rav to make some painful comment about 'Levi genes' ]. The speaker was a little less enthusiastic. Apparently, (and, in fairness, this is clearly spelt out in the link provided) the genetic testing on Levi'im , who should also have a common gene, is a great deal more problematic! So, for Cohanim, the genetic research shows that "Science proves the Torah etc etc" but for Levi'im "the genetic test is a curiosity, and of course it is the halachah that is important" !!

      Much better than smuggling guns and weapons

      ...... The BBC is outraged that Krembos with false hechsherim are being smuggled into Israel from Gaza. The most embarrassing part of this is the offensive name of the fake product.

      Rethinking shul architecture

      Kolech has held a competition for architects to design women-friendly orthodox synagogues. The winners are currently being exhibited in Ramat Gan and if anyone has seen it / goes, please let us know. In the meanwhile, there's one picture of the winner on NRG, which has the bimah, shelves for siddurim etc. in the middle of the shul -- so everyone, I suppose, has exactly equal view and equal access. I'm not quite clear how this would work in practice, but in any case, anything which encourages architects and community leaders to think creatively about these kinds of issues is to be commended -- how the shul appears to the women is so often neglected (the number of shuls I've been to where you can only see the bimah from the first row of the women's gallery, for example...), and a little creative thinking could do so much to make shuls more welcoming to women. I've dropped a line to Kolech asking for more pictures and explanations of the entries and encourage other people to do so, so we can judge for ourselves.

      Going after the sleaze

      Things I can't stand include people who use anti-Semitism as an excuse when they are being held to account for real sins or to deflect any kind of criticism of people who happen to be Jewish. Case in point: Mr David Radler, who, fearing that he was going to get a heavier sentence than former partner Conrad Black, apparently told his colleagues: "They’re going after the Jewish guy."
      No, David, they're going after the thieves. Please don't bring the rest of us into it, even as a joke.

      Measuring intangibles

      Michael Steinhardt writes an impressive piece about the lack of proper statistical research in /on the Jewish community. He is establishing a new research institute to correct this (and to provide further information, for example, on the highly fraught question of how many American Jews there actually are) and to provide some real information and 'objective assessment' about which of our programmes is actually successful, so that money can be invested in a more informed manner (his birthright is, I believe, one of the most closely-followed-up and studied programmes in the Jewish world). Among the questions the Steinhardt Social Research Institute will look into:
    • First, the percentage of Jewish dollars going to the Jewish world has declined regularly since the middle of the 20th century. This represents a slow-motion but ultimately fatal bleeding away of our capacity to function. How can we halt and reverse that decline?
      One of the projects the SSRI might focus on is philanthropic giving. Such a study could include profiles of philanthropists; research into the shift toward non-Jewish causes; and analysis of what factors, if any, are able to change priorities back toward Jewish giving. Our objective will be to reinvigorate Jewish giving, particularly in the areas that matter for the Jewish future.
    • Another area that calls for attention is Orthodox outreach. I would estimate this to be a $2 billion a year industry. What is the yield per dollar? The returnees appear to be less than 1% of American Jews - if one can trust the National Jewish Population Studies. I would like to see a serious, disciplined study of many such programs to establish whether this is true medicine for our demographic decline, or is it, in the end, just a vast WPA for the Orthodox community?
    • Another area of potential research concerns the sacred cow of Pluralism - the orthodox religion of the liberals and secularists. Well, how about some disciplined research on what behaviors pluralism nurtures? Does it have a dark side? Is pluralism in fact an invitation to nebulous ideas and a marker of I-don't-really-care loyalties (as I suspect)? Or does this type of inclusiveness inspire people on the periphery to come closer? Again - let the chips fall where they may. I hope that we can get some facts for a change to help us make some true judgments on this powerful dogma.
    • The problem with some of these things -- eg. his research on the 'Orthodox outreach' -- is that it is incredibly difficult to measure their intangible effects. If Lubavitch gets someone to put on tefillin in the street and creates a warm fuzzy feeling, and three years later this results in their registering for a Jewish class in university, how do you measure that? Can it be measured? The full 'returnees' that Steinhardt talks about are not the whole story and measuring these efforts in 'yield per dollar' makes me somewhat uncomfortable. (I am also, incidentally, astounded by the $2b. estimate and assume that includes a lot of Lubavitch's budget). In short, a lot of what Steinhardt wants to 'scientifically' measure is actually highly subjective and difficult to nail down. Which is not to say it isn't a highly worthwhile project -- we'll simply be watching closely to see how his institute actually measures these things and deals with these problems.

      What they think of us .....

      Mirty explains to her readers:

      Also at the Connection, you'll find my reflections on marriage and mystery. That blog got a bit of publicity too, in the Canadian Jewish News. FYI, CANADA is a country to the north of the U.S. It's inhabited by Canadians and caribou., of course, the odd wild blogger, shooing away the pesky beavers and scraping the snow and ice off the keyboard to offer an occasional posting.

      Thursday, November 17, 2005

      'Four goals and a barmitzvah'

      Why, you ask, am I hanging around the streets at night, in -10 degrees, I might add, with a woman in a 60's time warp and a kid in his dressing gown?
      It's because I'm on the set of 66, a movie about a kid whose barmitzvah falls on the same day as the world cup soccer match in 1966 between England and West Germany (which England won 4:2). It's being made by the company that produced Four Weddings and a Funeral, Bridget Jones and Billy Elliot and stars Helena Bonham Carter (who I saw tonight and who puffed a big cloud of cigarette smoke into my face). The entire British Jewish community seems to be involved in the shooting, with scenes filmed in various synagogues and 'Jewish' locations around town. A bunch of my friends are going to be participating in a wedding scene next week, and this scene -- which involves the boy's house going up in smoke, hence the fire engine -- was shot just around the corner from my house. About 3/4 of the extras, including the mother and son in the picture, were people from shul. So there you have it. It was all good fun, but I can't vouch for the script -- let's hope, for G-d's sake, that it's better than Anglo-Jewry's last effort, Suzie Gold!

      [More about the movie, and more pictures, here]

      Beware what you write on blogs

      A couple of guys have started up a blog about what's happening at YCT. I'm sure it will be interesting and thoughtful (esp. if it follows the example of contributor Drew Kaplan's other blog), however, without meaning to scare these guys off, the problem with writing on a blog -- even a brand-new blog that they probably assume not that many people are reading -- is that you're washing your dirty laundry in public. So, for example -- whilst I agree with and admire the sentiments in the rest of the post , and applaud the way the problem, whatever it was, was handled -- you can't write a paragraph like this:
      Yesterday, the Rosh haYeshiva, Rabbi Linzer, addressed the yeshivah regarding an incident that had happened and apologized for the way he had handled it. I don't know how big this issue really was, as most students, including myself, had not heard of it until his address. Nevertheless, it was important to start a discussion regarding women and the yeshiva.
      without the rest of the world wanting to know what happened. So come on, guys, 'fess up...

      Covenental Judaism?

      The Forward's lead story today is that there is gathering momentum behind the candidacy of David Wolpe for the chancellorship of JTS. There is no question that he is highly intelligent, knowledgable and thoughtful (which is why I used to use him as a book reviewer for the J-Post), but more importantly, good looks, charisma and yichus go an extremely long way, particularly when an organisation / movement is feeling a little rudderless and is looking for a savior. This isn't necessarily a bad thing if these qualities are used positively to energize and inspire others (English readers can compare, lehavdil elef alfei havdalot, to what's going on at the moment in the Conservative Party, where form is winning hands-down over substance at the leadership level -- and the party is beginning to feel alive again).
      Still, there is a tendency to jump at 'inspirational' and charming figures without being properly aware of, or even caring, what exactly they stand for (see, again,the Conservative party); and as the article says, R. Wolpe's views are not universally popular, or even properly known. As I'm not a Conservative Jew and do not know enough about where he stands on anything, really, I'm not going to comment, except in one respect. According to the Forward, he has proposed changing the name of the Conservative movement to 'Covenental Judaism':
      In his November 10 speech, Wolpe argued that the Conservative movement often seems opaque and paradoxical to lay people who are craving a clear vision and message. "I'm from L.A., the land of simple marketing," he quipped. "But I want
      to tell you that simple marketing does not mean simple ideas, it means simple expression of ideas."
      Wolpe said that his proposed name change to "Covenantal Judaism" was meant to capture the profound importance that Conservative Jews place on three central relationships — between Jew and God, Jew and Jew, and Jews and the world. Conservative Jews, he added, view Halacha, or rabbinic law, as the language for engaging with God, and like any good conversation, it is dynamic and evolving. Wolpe contrasted this understanding with both Orthodoxy, which he said tends to view Halacha as a set of fixed laws, and Reform Judaism, which does not accept Halacha as obligatory.

      Never mind that this is a gross over-simplification of the orthodox viewpoint; does he really think that a theologically-heavy and cumbersome term like 'covenental Judaism' is good marketing? Does he really envision people describing themselves as 'covenental Jews'?
      I worry.

      Wednesday, November 16, 2005

      "HeChodosh ossur min hatorah" -- new book

      Just received a feast of a new book from Israel “HeChodosh ossur min haTorah” – over 400pp of collected essays of the Hebrew U historian of Orthodoxy, Prof. Moshe Samet.

      Table of contents (translated):

      Introduction by Prof. Immanuel Etkes


      1 Reaction of the halakhah to modernity
      2 Haredi Jewry in the modern age (I)
      3 Haredi Jewry in the modern age (II)
      4 The ‘Besamim Rosh’ of R. Shaul Berlin
      5 Moses Mendelssohn, Naftali Weisel and the Rabbis of their generation
      6 Essay on the issue of shaving on Hol Hamoed
      7 Leaving the dead overnight; the history of the controversy regarding determining the moment of death
      8 Changes in the synagogue rituals – the stand of the Rabbis against the ‘Innovator’ Reformists
      9 The Hatam Sofer – the Masoret and the Halachah
      10 Additional directions [towards defining] the biography of the Hatam Sofer
      11 ‘Gerut’ and Zionism
      12 The conflict on the institutionalization of Jewish values in the State of Israel

      --- this is clearly of direct interest to many of our readers, particularly those following the recent posts on "R&R". It is only a shame that we are in the middle of winter and one no sooner has had a ‘shlof’ on Shabbat afternoon than it is time to go to minchah – no reading time!
      • If your appetite has been whetted – you can order the book from here – I HIGHLY recommend Books International (based in Israel, despite the name) for all books from Israel – they are fast, efficient reasonable in price, HELPFUL and have always answered my email enquiries within a day or so. Their website is great as well, and through it you can keep updated on significant new books from Israel.
      • While looking up links I came across this equally important book - has anyone read it yet??

      Tuesday, November 15, 2005

      Yehudi Menuhin's son - antisemitic, neo-Nazi......

      This astonishing account in the London 'Times' relates that the son of the late, world-famous violinist Yehudi Menuhin has been force to resign from a foundation set up by his late father.

      Gerard Menuhin, 57, caused uproar by suggesting that Germany was being blackmailed by an international Jewish conspiracy preying on the country’s war guilt.

      The rest of the story is simply bizarre, and shows that the aforesaid Gerard has a long history of very strange and obnoxious views.

      Mr Menuhin, who describes himself as a film producer and writer, is something of a maverick within the family. “He was the least musically gifted,” a family friend said, “and he suffered from that emotionally.”

      Yehudi Menuhin (later Lord Menuhin) was quite a mild and reasonable character. He was a great peace-nik in his opinions on the Middle East, but (despite claims by anti-Zionists) he was not anti-Zionist, and accepted the prestigious Israeli Wolf Prize in 1991. He believed passionately in the power of music to heal and make peace, and straight after the War toured Germany giving concerts in the camps for refugee and survivor Jews. As a teenager in the 1960's I met him and interviewed him, and asked him about his Jewishness. He referred to his Hasidic background and to Israel, which he first visited in 1950.

      However, the same cannot be said for Moshe Menuhin, his father and Gerard's zaidey. (Yehudi Menuhin disassociated himself from his father). Moshe Menuhin was a Russian-Jewish Hebrew teacher who emigrated from the Yishuv to San Francisco before WW1. He became obsessive and controlling over his infant prodigy son, and the two ceased to have contact with each other. Moshe's claim to fame was that he was the father of Yehudi. He became a fanatic anti-Zionist, published a disgusting book, and became a darling of the American Council for Judaism and their fellow-travellers. Seems as though the genes skipped a generation. BTW - Gerard is also a direct descendant of the Ba'al haTanya.