Tuesday, May 31, 2005

PG rating ('Please G-d')

Reuters writes about the new burgeoning Haredi film industry, estimating that 50-100 movies are now made every year. The most astounding claim is that the 'first Haredi chiller,' Cry of the Dead, a "morality tale in which a student, killed in a road accident for verbally abusing his friend, must come back from the dead to atone for his wrong deeds," has been seen by "more than half the adult ultra-Orthodox population of Israel, which numbers in its entirety around 1 million." If true, that's some audience penetration.
I wonder when the Israeli Haredi movie makers will realize that one way of influencing their community's rather bruised image nationally will be to make movies about themselves which will interest the secular public as well, not just as a one-off curiosity but because they're genuinely good movies. There have been several movies about the religious/Haredi community in recent years (eg. Kadosh), by secular directors, which have been very successful so the potential is clearly there.

Khodorkovsky: 9 years in a labor camp, if he survives

The longest verdict in history has finally concluded and -- in a shocking development -- Mikhail Khodorkovsky has been sentenced to 9 years in a labor camp.
As I've written before, Khodorkovsky is no saint, and probably deserves time in prison for some financial ploy or other. Nevertheless, this does not mean that justice has been served. If he can't be convicted in a fair trial in which the defense is treated seriously, in a legal system which holds everyone to the same standards and does not pick and choose to whom the law is applied, he should not be convicted at all. I'm not sure whether Putin picked on Khodorovsky for political reasons, for economic reasons, or both, but it's clear that the law to him is nothing more than an instrument to get his own way, and that's a terrible comment on the state of Russia today.
The only really interesting comment I've seen on the verdict was on the BBC, where two Russian businessmen offer an interesting counter-perspective to the way the Western media is reporting this. Read it keeping in mind that it's in the interests of Russian businessmen to play down the verdict in order to reassure foreign investors and stay on Putin's right side.

UPDATE: Interestingly, since I first read the BBC piece earlier this afternoon, it's been edited to remove the bit that made it interesting. The top piece, by Eric Kraus, originally included two paragraphs towards the top in which he accused Khodorkovsky of trying to buy the opposition to control parliament, trying to control Russia's economic policy in order to benefit himself, betraying Russia by actively campaigning against it, 'buying' American senators etc. I wish I'd copied and pasted... In any case, these long two paragraphs have been replaced by the rather tamer: "Khodorkovsky is in trouble for having interfered too readily in politics, bringing his influence to bear on a bloc of friendly politicians." I guess the pro-Putin line was too strong even for the Beeb.

Bloghead comments

This morning I found two offensive comments on this site signed by a well-known J-blogger currently engaged in a rather public dispute with Jewishwhistleblower. A quick search through the IP addresses of previous commentators on this site showed that the comments were in fact written by someone using the same IP address as, surprise surprise, Jewishwhistleblower ( -- one of several JWB has used in the past). That IP address is now banned and the comments are gone, and I will continue to ban any commentators who abuse this site in such a manner.

Eating disorders in the Orthodox community

Modern Orthodox Woman links to an important new booklet for Jewish educators on eating disorders, published by ATID. The blurb begins:
Tragically, eating disorders are increasingly prevalent among Jewish and Orthodox adolescents.
Has anyone seen a copy? Does it include actual stats?

Monday, May 30, 2005

Ramon and the Labor party betray the country's women

Labor's Haim Ramon has apparently cut a deal with the Haredi parties to allow Ovadia Yosef and R. Elyashiv to choose 6 new Haredi judges to the Rabbinical courts. The aim is to keep out the national religious judges:
[H]is spokeswoman said that Ramon "will not support the appointment of any rabbinical judge who calls for refusing military orders".... Ramon has been saying that he is against appointing rabbis from the religious-Zionist camp because of their rightist political views.
Clearly, this excuse is bunk and scandalous on every level. Firstly, the rabbinical judges rule on family matters (marriage, divorce etc.) and on issues of conversion and personal status -- nothing to do with disengagement, so why is this a criterion? Secondly, there may be some national religious who have called for refusing military orders, but the haredim don't go to the army at all; to imply that they are better/more loyal citizens, and therefore more deserving of a place in the state's courts, is simply ridiculous.
It's unclear what Ramon has to gain here, other than petty revenge on a group whose politics he dislikes -- the article isn't clear on what he got 'in return,' as the Haredim's part of the deal. Presumably, support in the Knesset for something or other (it would be useful to know).
What is clear is who is going to lose: women. I've written in the past about how essential it is that the National Religious judges are properly represented on the Rabbinic Courts in order to protect women. By actively preventing a more balanced and diverse court from forming, Ramon is actively contributing to the suffering of countless women, and helping reinforce a stultified, wildly unpopular system. Perhaps this is his plan: the more unhappy people are with the religious establishment, the more votes the parties of the Left are likely to pick up. That's frankly the only rationale I can think of, although he would do well to heed Labor MK Yuli Tamir: "Ramon will stain the entire Labor Party if his vote leads to the appointment of judges who harm women.... the women won't forgive us for it. I hope Ramon understands the severity of what he is doing."
Ultimately, there is only one criterion that should be used to determine who should sit on a court: who will give a fair and just judgement. Politics should be left at the door. And deciding who sits on the Rabbinical Court should be taken out of the hands of political hacks.

I despair

JPost headline: 'Business community in shock over industrial espionage' .
Oh really?
The TA-25 actually went up today, if only by a little. Some shock.

AUT boycott -- just the beginning?

Melanie Phillips, who knows what she's talking about in this context, explains why the overturned AUT boycott against 2 Israeli universities was merely the beginning of an aggressive campaign against the Jewish State, one which will be much harder to overturn.
She adds:
What has not been recognised by those who have the interests of Israel at heart is that — as I have said before, and this cannot be emphasised enough — the AUT boycott was defeated on the wrong argument. Led by the Engage group, the campaign opposed the boycott merely on the grounds of free speech. It did not oppose it on the most important grounds, that the intellectual delegitimisation of Israel within the universities is based on racist calumnies, lies, libels and distortions.
Good point. Again, the taste of victory against the AUT motion on any grounds should give Israel's supporters some courage to begin standing up for the country on all grounds. Let's hope (and it's a faint hope...) they're less complacent, not more complacent, for the next round.

Come on, Bibi, light a fire

Israel's smokin' Finance Minister, anxious not to be caught by journalists with a cigar in his mouth, almost sets the House on fire. Nice try, Bibi -- close, but no cigar....

Israeli corruption watch

Another day, another scandal:
Attorney General Menachem Mazuz decided Sunday to file an indictment against Knesset Member Shlomo Bernizri (Shas) for bribery, fraud and breach of trust allegedly committed during his tenure as labor and welfare minister.
An indictment is also expected to be filed against Benizri's spiritual and political patron Rabbi Reuven Elbaz on suspicion of facilitating and accepting bribes.
And it's only Monday....

Sunday, May 29, 2005

Do the Gedolim show sufficient sympathy for women's concerns?

Toby Katz asks the question on Cross-Currents and answers that of-course they do; you don't need to be a woman to understand women's concerns. She then brings a story about Reb Aryeh Levene showing empathy to a woman to illustrate -- more on this in a moment.
House of Hock offers a good response, which comes down to four points:
  • Showing sympathy and human kindness to someone on an individual level isn't the same thing as understanding their concerns on a communal level
  • Most of these rabbis live in mostly male environments -- thus their real experience of women's concerns is limited. Even if they understand the needs of the women in their immediate community, they probably won't understand the needs of modern orthodox, or more moderate charedi women etc.
  • Even if you do 'understand' someone, this doesn't mean you're going to be their best advocate, or even that you're going to stand up for their needs at all. This to me is the most imortant point.
  • The proof is in the pudding: they're still coming out with all kinds of rulings which women find objectionable and, I would add, there are too many women out there who feel that their needs and concerns are not being addressed and indeed, have no address.

I would also add that Toby makes a hillarious choice of story with which to illustrate that male rabbis can understand women. It concerns the Tzaddik in our Time (my distant mishpoche, incidentally) going to visit widows of great rabbis, because he understood how lost they would feel without the husband who defined their lives:

With her famous husband gone, such a widow becomes a non-entity, bereft of identity and of respect and acknowledgement. It seems to her that she is nobody, and that her beloved husband, too, has been forgotten. But when his former colleagues and students come to visit, she comes alive again. She serves them cake and tea as she did in the old days, and they fill her ears and heart with reminiscences of the great man around whom her life once revolved.

Now, I'm not disagreeing with the psychology here. But is a story about a rabbi understanding a woman who feels she's nothing without her husband and that she is just aching to serve cake and tea to young men again really the best way to reassure modern women today that rabbis are aware of and sympathize with their concerns???

UPDATE: Modern Orthodox Woman adds her thoughts.

A little insight into human psychology

Google searches that brought visitors to Bloghead within the past few hours:

I think that, a la RenReb, I'm going to publish this stuff more often.

Will there ever be a straw that will break the camel's back?

Another day, another major corruption scandal in Israel. This time it's industrial espionage by some of Israel's biggest companies and top execs.
Over the past few weeks, soap-opera style scandals, corruption, self-indulgence and incompetance at top levels really do seem to have reached dizzying heights. A couple of weeks ago it seemed that Israelis, who have long accepted this kind of behaviour as a given, were beginning to get fed up. There were more than 2000 supportive comments, more than 10 times the usual average, to this op-ed in Ma'ariv expressing outrage at the corrupt culture.
But when are they actually going to do something about it? Will there ever be a straw that will break this camel's back? When are honest leaders going to arise who will lead the anti-corruption fight, and make a difference? Someone has to save the country from itself, but these things are becoming so routine, it's all one can do to muster up the energy to shrug them off.

Voting 'Non' may be the first useful thing the French will do in years

It's an important weekend in Europe as France (and later in the week, Holland) prepares to vote on the European constitution, and possibly, in a surprise twist, reject it, plunging the EU into political crisis.
The interesting point noted by many commentators is that the reasons the French object to the constitution are diametrically opposed to the reasons the Brits are suspicious of it.
The French are afraid they will lose control of Europe, that their cherished social model and way of life (35-hour work week, endless vacations, etc.) will disappear, and that Brussels will instead impose the more liberal Anglo-American system (free market economy). The Brits, on the other hand, are afraid that the constitution will ultimately result in more French control of Europe, that the Anglo model of free market economy and the unrestricted labor market will be undermined, and that the failing French social model, which resulted last year in 10% unemployment as opposed to Britain's 4% and a much slower rate of growth, will be imposed on them instead.
My take is that, although the French and British objections may seem very different on the surface, they are in fact quite similar. Ultimately, they both object to something being imposed on them by faceless Brussels bureaucrats. And with good reason. To understand the EU's attitude to the people to which the constitution supposedly brings them 'closer,' you only have to listen to Mikolaj Dowgielewicz, a European Commission spokesman, who commented on Friday regarding the referendums,
"It is clear that all 25 governments and all the European institutions... remain united in the desire to see the constitution enter into force eventually."
In other words, they'll find a way to get the constitution through no matter what the people themselves think. For an expansion of this idea and an explanation of why Europeans put up with this, see Mark Steyn (p. 3).
Disturbingly, the Times reports tonight that if the French do vote against, Britain will jump at the excuse to avoid a referendum of its own (only one state has to reject the constitution for it to be invalidated). Although the EU wants each state to vote to keep the constitution alive, and anything suggested by the EU is automatically suspect, I actually support the idea. The reasons for the French rejection, if there is one, must not dominate the debate about how to revamp the constitution, when there are plenty of other more important reasons around. Plus, frankly, I don't need the French speaking for me; I want to the opportunity to reject the constitution, for my own reasons, myself, and you don't stop counting votes in an election just because it's clear who's won. If that's what's going to happen if the French vote against, I'd actually prefer the French to vote 'Oui.'

Related: Excellent article in the Economist on the French identity crisis the vote has induced. Did I say 'failed social model'?

Saturday, May 28, 2005

The rage, the pride, the lawsuit

A few months ago, there was an attempt in the UK to bring in a law against 'incitement to religious hatred' (as opposed to 'racial' hatred). The law was dropped shortly before the election, but the Government still intends to re-introduce it. Apparently Rowan Atkinson has secured a commitment that comedians won't get prosecuted -- but how else could it be used?
An interesting indication is coming from Italy, where an Italian judge is allowing a lawsuit against journalist Orianna Fallaci (known in the US for The Rage and the Pride, her post 9/11 diatribe) to go ahead. She's being sued by a Muslim-Italian activist for passages in the Italian version of her 2004 book The Force of Reason which allegedly 'defamed' Islam. (The exact laws under which she is being prosecuted can be found here).
Some of the allegedly defamatory passages are factual statements that may or may not be true ("infibulation is the mutilation that the Muslims force on little girls to prevent them, once they are grown... from enjoying the sexual act. It is a female castration that the Muslims practice in twenty-eight countries of Islamic Africa and because of which two million persons die each year from sepsis or loss of blood...”), others are opinions about political realities I believe to be true ("...despite the massacres through which the sons of Allah have bloodied us and bloodied themselves for over thirty years, the war that Islam has declared against the West... is a cultural war... they kill us in order to bend us. To intimidate us... Their goal is not to fill cemeteries. Not to destroy our skyscrapers... It is to destroy our soul, our ideas. Our feelings and our dreams. It is to subjugate the West once again"), and some are genuinely offensive generalizations ("... Islam is a pond. And a pond is a trough of stagnant water... it is never purified... it is easily polluted, like a watering hole for livestock of little value").
Clearly, the line between the three categories is thin and what belongs where depends on who you're asking. The point is, however, that the law is being used to stop not only genuinely and clearly 'defamatory' statements, but strong opinions which people must have the freedom to express, although some may very well find them offensive. Indeed, allowing people to debate the nature of the acts of terror carried out by Muslims against the West or to debate the impact of a large Muslim presence in Europe is crucial to a free society and to our future.
I personally would prefer to live in a society where people can voice important concerns about a Muslim war on the West but are also allowed to call Islam 'a pond... never purified... easily polluted,' than a society in which no one can say anything at all because they're afraid of prosecution. Dealing with 'defamatory' statements is a cultural problem, and not a legal/criminal problem (as opposed to actively discriminating or inciting to violence). And I would say the same if Fallaci's book concerned Jews, not Muslims. Indeed, at least one of the passages she is coming under fire for concerns Jews:
“…halal butchery is barbarous” just as “shechita butchery is barbarous. That is, the Jewish version which is carried out in the same way and consists of slitting the animals’ throats without dazing them.”
-- Not nice, but surely not a case for prosecution.
In short, such laws are going to be increasingly used to stifle all debate about issues which are crucial to the future of Western civilization in the name of 'political correctness.' I hope Tony Blair's taking note.

Friday, May 27, 2005

Fellow spam sufferers - a solution

As a bloghead service to our faithful readers - I offer a pre-Shabbat tip. At last, having been plagued by deluges of spam on a daily basis for ages, I have found a very good solution - an inexpensive programme called ' Qurb '. Better than any of the others (Macafee etc) - because it works in a different way. It does not try and identify content. Qurb scans your OUtlook 'Contacts' file and your 'Saved email' files. Any email coming from a sender recorded in contacts or whose email you have saved is accepted. Any other address is quarantined. Viewing and accepting/rejecting quarantined mail is quick and easy. I love it.

Academic freedom

The Brits have reversed the Association of University Teachers (AUT)'s boycott of Bar Ilan and Haifa Universities with a two-thirds majority, showing how much of the anti-Israel activity in academia and on campus could probably be stopped if only Israel's supporters were more vigilant, better organized, and more determined.
Sue Blackwell, who organized the original boycott, complained that the vote had been 'fixed' and that many of the people voting had never participated in AUT before. She conveniently forgot to mention that the original vote was also fixed, deliberately held on erev Pesach (on a Shabbos, noch) so that many Jewish delegates couldn't be there, and without anyone speaking against the motion because 'time was running short.' Which is of course not 'fixing' a vote.
Blackwell has also vowed to continue trying to ostracize Israel and declared that
while she had been accused of harming academic freedom, the discussion of such freedom had no significance while Palestinian students did not even have the freedom to get to university.
This line of accusation is repeated by another of the boycott's organizers, Steven Rose, who
said those at Bar-Ilan and Haifa universities who had raised their voices in protest against the infringement of their academic freedom did not do so when it came to the academic freedom of their Palestinian colleagues.
It is true that Palestinian students have in the past sometimes been prevented from attending university on particular days due to Israelis closing certain roads, curfews etc., and that this is a problem. This was in response to Palestinian terror, however, to protect lives, was not a systematic move against academic freedom, and would be solved immediately if Palestinians stopped trying to murder Israelis. The fact is that by and large, not only are there Palestinian students in Israeli universities, but the Palestinians have well-known, well-attended and extremely lively universities including Bir Zeit and Alquds. So lively, in fact, that the Palestinian universities (especially Bir Zeit) are known as hotbeds of radicalism and terror -- whilst most Israeli universities harbor the only die-hard Leftists still known to exist in Israel... If there is any lack of academic freedom in the Palestinian institutions, I would suggest it comes not because of anything Israel has done but from the Palestinians themselves, who ensure through social pressure and other means that academics toe a strictly anti-Israel, anti-peace line. Case in point: the Ha'aretz article ends with Palestinian university teachers calling for Alquds President Sari Nusseibeh, the exception who proves the rule,
to be fired for violating a boycott by signing a cooperation agreement with an Israeli school.
Hey, what about his academic freedom? When are we going to hear Sue Blackwell standing up for him?

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Who betrayed Sarah Aaronsohn?

Hillel Halkin's next book sounds extremely interesting. He's revisiting Nili, the Jewish spy network based in Zichron Ya'akov which worked for the British against the Ottomans during the First World War, and is shedding some new light:
[A]s I began reading about it back in the mid-1970s, I came across two mysteries that were to form the main thread of my book. The first was an account that I found of what happened when the Nili spies were arrested by the Turks in 1917. Several of the spies came from the village, and those arrested in it were brutally interrogated by the Turks on the spot. In this account it was related that one of the apprehended spies was taunted and assaulted by four local Jewish women who fell on him like Furies and cheered the Turkish soldiers as he was being marched through the streets of the town. The eerie nature of this scene fascinated me. Yet it also puzzled me because I knew that the Jews of Palestine during World War I were not pro-Turkish; on the contrary, they thought of the British army, then at the southern gates of Palestine, as their salvation from a corrupt and despotic regime that was bleeding the country for its war effort. I wanted to find out why these women acted as they did.
The second mystery had to do with one of the four — who, in this same account, was said to have died a "strange death" not long after these events took place. What was so strange about it? The more I asked the old-timers in town who remembered her — she died in 1921 — the less strange it seemed to have been, until one day Epstein's curious reaction to a question of mine led me to suspect that she had been murdered as an act of revenge for informing on the Nili to the Turks and that he alone knew of it. My attempt to find out the truth about this forms the main "plot" of the book, though it's one on which other material is hung.
Sounds intriguing, although I always thought the spies were caught when one of the ring's carrier pigeons was intercepted by the Turks and another member of the gang, Belkind, was captured and gave the game away. Perhaps he didn't after all?
Of-course, no matter how original, provoking and sophisticated Halkin's book is, for an entire generation of Israeli kids, the only book which will ever really count on the subject is Sarah Giborat Nili ('Sarah the Heroine of Nili), Dvorah Omer's heart-breaking account of the affair for children. I first learned Hebrew by reading an abridged version in easy language, and still remember getting upset over Avshalom Feinberg's death. I hope Halkin knows he's treading on hallowed ground!

Easter eggs of our own

Mentalblog points towards a little-known Lag B’Omer custom of coloring/painting eggs. Nowdays it’s observed, if at all, mainly by Lubavitchers and Karliner Chassidim. What are its origins?
Mentalblog’s answer comes from the Ohr Somayach site:
[I]n Yemen, the Jews painted eggs in honor of Purim. They sent these eggs to friends as mishloach manot gifts and ate them at the festive Purim meal. The Jewish community in Yemen was isolated for centuries, and they can trace many of their customs back to the time of the First Temple, so it's clear that they didn't adopt this practice from any other culture. Rabbi Demari also noted that it's conceivable that egg-painting was a custom among European Jews, and that they stopped doing so when it was adopted by other religions.
However, this doesn’t really answer the Lag B’Omer connection.
A little more digging shows that painting eggs was a European custom which predates Christianity, with pagan origins, and it somehow spread further afield as well. In Jewish terms, there is a tradition of European Jews painting eggs on Pesach, which I'm sure must be related to Easter:

[T]here were localities in Poland where it was customary for Jews to "go for a vikup" during Passover. The practice (the Yiddish expression is related to a Polish word meaning "ransom") involved paying a visit to relatives, and receiving from them colored eggs, especially ones that were tinted yellowish-red with the help of a special formula fashioned from onion skins.
In some Hasidic circles, including the Karlin and Lubavitch sects, the distribution of painted eggs took place later in the season, on Lag Ba'omer.
A children's magazine published by Chabad-Lubavitch in 1945 described the thrill of a group of children as they prepared for the festivities. One of the children was especially excited because "Mommy promised to prepare some hard-boiled eggs for my Lag B'Omer lunch--colored." When asked about the reason for this practice, she explained that the eggs are an expression of mourning for the death of Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai* which occurred on that day. However, Rabbi Simeon was very happy when the time came to surrender his soul to the Creator, because he knew that everlasting happiness awaited him. And so, while the Lag B'Omer eggs are to remind us of his death, their purpose is not to make us feel sad on this day. Lag B'Omer is a children's festival, and children love color. And so it became customary to paint the shells of the eggs in various colors to make the children feel very happy on Lag B'Omer.
However, it is not only in Europe that Jews were drawn to coloured eggs. In Afghanistan, the eggs made their ritual appearance earlier in the season, and were associated with the Purim festivities. Throughout the month of Adar it was the custom there to roll the eggs, to see whose could keep going the longest without breaking. For each egg that did get crushed in the competition, the children would curse Haman. In Kurdistan, coloured eggs were included in the Mishloah manot that were distributed to children on Purim.
The significance of the eggs here is that they symbolise the circularity of life and death.
Another source sheds some more light on the Bar Yohai story:

"Bar Yohai and his son Eliezer lived for many years in Palestine. There he grew to be an old man and there he died. Now it was a strange thing, but all the years that Bar Yohai lived no one had seen a rainbow in the sky. The rain came and the sun shone, but no rainbow appeared. But on the day that Bar Yohai died, someone happened to look up, and there was a beautiful rainbow reaching across the sky. It was shaped like a bow, and all the colors of the world were in it. [Although a great and faithful sage had completed his life without fully experiencing a messianic era, the unattained is still achievable.] The minute Eliezer saw that rainbow, he remembered something that his father had told him long ago when they were hiding (from the Romans) in a cave; refusing to leave their home or the study of Torah. He told the people about it.
"`One day,' my father said, `a rainbow will appear in the sky with colors brighter than this, brighter than any rainbow you have ever seen. It will be a sign that there will be no more wicked rulers. Each person will sit under a vine and fig-tree and no one will make another afraid. At this time, the Jews who love Palestine will come from many lands and stay here forever and ever.' All this, said Eliezer, my father told me when we were hiding in the cave."
Note: The colored eggs have all the colors of the rainbow; a sign of God's covenant with all humanity that Creation would outlive destruction.
Anyone ever painted eggs on Lag B’Omer or know anything more on this? Maybe this would be a nice way for Diaspora Jews to celebrate a holiday which, compared to Israel where the whole country gets set on fire, they largely ignore (other than going to see movies and getting married etc.).

Short sighted and selfish

Ha'aretz's interview with Charles Bronfman contains a couple of interesting tid-bits. First of all, the Jewish Agency's alternative programme to Birthright, at least in terms of funding, is about to get off the ground:
Next week Masa, a joint program of the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency, will be launched with goal of bringing 20,000 Jewish young people to Israel each year to spend a semester to a year studying here. The government and the Jewish Agency plan to raise $200 million a year for the program, and a large part of the funding will come from the same group that contributes today to Birthright.
Bronfman avoids mentioning Masa, and he and his partners are careful not to criticize it. Outgoing Jewish Agency Chairman Sallai Meridor, on the other hand, is lavish in his praise of Birthright and says that Masa is the continuation of its work. But beneath the correctness and praise, there is no small amount of tension between the two sides.
Well, if they won't criticize it, I will. This paragraph comes in the context of an article about how difficult it has been to find funding for birthright, hands-down the most successful programme to re-engage Jewish youth in years. Is it really necessary to undercut it simply so that the Jewish Agency can have its own programme to boast about? I really question, in any case, whether there are 20,000 (!) Jewish 'young people' a year who will be prepared to spend an entire semester in Israel. This is an enormous commitment and frankly, the kind of kids they're aiming at are not going to be prepared to take it on unless they've been through birthright. So short-sighted and so selfish.
Secondly, there is a strikingly revealing comment by the Ha'aretz reporter which yet again demonstrates just how out of touch the paper is with the average Israeli voter -- and the average Israeli former Leftist:
Bronfman, a past contributor to Shimon Peres and Ehud Barak... says his political views have not really changed. Therefore the compliments he pays Sharon sound quite surprising.
Well, surprising only to an out of touch Ha'aretz reporter... Of-course, most former members of the Left would say exactly the same thing -- they still believe that the ultimate solution is a Palestinian state and giving back the territories, so their political views have not really changed, but either they believe that now is not the right time, or they believe it has to be done differently to the way Peres, Barak etc. did it, or they simply believe that Sharon is the one who will ultimately carry these policies out. If Ha'aretz hasn't picked that up yet after 2 elections where the Left has defected en masse to Sharon.......... no wonder they can't figure out why their circulation is falling.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Abandoned Jewish blogosphere

There's been some discussion in the J-blogosphere recently about the large number of recently abandoned Jewish blogs. Personally, I think it's nothing more than a function of the expansion of the blogosphere in general. As you get more blogs, you will naturally get more people quitting, including some of those who have been at it for a while and are relatively successful but find they can't take the pressure to post frequently / think their identity is about to get exposed etc. I fully sympathise -- coming up with good material every day is extremely difficult and as OOSJ noted a couple of weeks ago, the mainstream media hasn't been particularly inspirational lately. And it's not even the summer yet.....
One blog whose disappearance is worth noting, though, is Jewish Whistleblower, who seems to finally have shut up shop. For those who have not been following its very public battle with Yori Yanover of USAJewish, suffice to say that the end was extremely nasty. I'm not sure exactly why he/she pulled the plug in the end, other than that they were getting a liberal dose of their own medicine, but I am glad that a website which did so much harm (including harm to a very worthy cause) is out of business.
Another Internet phenomenon which has simply stopped updating, without explanation, is Jewsweek (editor Benyamin Cohen seems ??? to be concentrating on Atlanta Jewish Life ). Noteworthy because Jewsweek was so often cited as an example of how the Internet can attract a young, hip Jewish crowd which the mainstream Jewish media can't. I always thought it was over-hyped, particularly because there was so little original content. However, what's interesting here isn't even that it stopped, but that its end generated so little comment. Has anyone even noticed it's gone?

UPDATE: A reader has emailed me to say that Jewsweek has a new editor, former Jerusalem Post writer Jenny Hazan, who is based in Tel Aviv. Unclear why the website hasn't been updated for a month. The reader adds: "I don't know exactly... why such a proverbiallyAmerican operation would be Israel-based." I look forward to finding out...

Monday, May 23, 2005

For a people that are so clever, we seem to be pretty dumb.

Some excellent posts from Melanie Phillips, discussing an article by David Pryce-Jones on the 'Psychological Warfare' behind the AUT boycott. Must reads. But which Jewish / Israeli organisation is heading the counter measures, let alone the counter attack???? See also her second post on the Finkelstein-Chomsky-Cockburn triad.

Christopher Hitchens on George Galloway

Fascinating dissection of GG's appearance before the Senate committee, and of his modus operandi.

YU: from the outside looking in

Menachem Butler, invites me to comment on the fascinating exchange(s) between Rabbi Yitz Greenberg and Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein in tne pages of the YU 'Commentator'. See Menachem's blog for the links, over several postings.

Both YG and AL agree on the changes at YU. Their memories (and their interpretation of the dynamics) are different, but both agree that a broad, inclusive approach to ideas and culture (Jewish and general) has been replaced by a more intensive, narrower focus. Rabbi LIchtenstein clearly acknowledges this.

However, their positions on the issue - are the changes good or bad? - are irreconcilable, and like others who see themselves caught up in the same argument, there is (tragically) not even any room for dialogue.

Louis Jacobs, who was involved in his own battle at Jews' College in London at about the same time, has since written that in retrospect he could not have won his dispute either politically or theologically, because the tide of Orthodoxy was already turning, driven by far greater forces than he appreciated at the time. The same seems to be true of YU. Rabbi Lichtenstein's view seems to be (my paraphrase) "Yes, it has changed; yes, a great deal of cultural and intellectual opennness has been abandoned - but it was worth it, because the benefit in the increase in the quality and intensity of Torah study outweighs the loss."

Together with Rabbi Greenberg, I think that that is a debatable point. Something huge has been lost, and a certain totalitarian mentality has taken its place. All non-Haredi* Orthodox Jews are an endangered species. Whether their / our time(s) will come again is anyone's guess.

*My working definition of Haredi is anyone who sends their children to a school where the 'secular' instruction is at or below the legal minimum.

Yitz Greenberg and Benny Elon - two visions of Judaism and Christianity

.... reviewed by me in this week's "Jerusalem Post".

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Khodorkovsky: political victim, perhaps, but no saint

The verdict in the Mikhail Khodorkovsky trial is still being read and looks likely to drag out for weeks to come. Apparently the joke in Russia at the moment is that he's been given a life sentence of listening to the verdict.
From here, of course, it is hard to judge exactly how guilty or innocent he is of the precise charges against him and what exactly was behind the whole trial. If you can get your hands on it, the best article I've read on the subject appears in this week's Economist. It gives an extremely well-rounded account of Khodorkovsky's background, his business affairs, what he did to earn Putin's enmity, the lessons of the trial, and the future for Khodorkovsky if he survives jail (tuberculosis is rife in Russian prisons). Interestingly, it posits that one of the reasons he's enjoying so much sympathy in Russia is because he stayed to fight his case, unlike some of the other oligarchs such as Vladimir Guzinsky and Boris Berezovsky, who fled to Israel. As a Jew, Khodorkovsky could have made the same choice.
What becomes clear, from this account at least, is that if Khodorkovsky did not technically break the law to gain his tremendous wealth, he certainly stretched it and played hard and fast with the rules. This, however, was fairly typical and Khodorkovsky was perhaps not even the worst offender. One of the things about the trial which scares many Russians, foreign investors and observers, therefore, is not miscarriage of justice but the arbitrariness of Russian justice -- which is not the same thing.
There also emerges a certain irony in Khodorkovsky's reputation today as a defender of democracy, law and order and Western standards. Again, he made his money in shady ways (gaining state assets through rigged auctions) and was not always such an upright citizen:
Foreign investors with short memories are now bemoaning the demise of Russia's most “westernised” oligarch, which is what, when it suited him, Mr Khodorkovsky became. But that was only after he used every means at his disposal to take full control of Yukos. Especially after Russia's default-and-devaluation crash of 1998, some of the means were outrageous: squeezing out minority shareholders; moving important meetings at the last moment; hiding shares in offshore vehicles. There were rumours of worse.
Then, as his supporters now prefer to remember, Mr Khodorkovsky was the first of the Yeltsin-era tycoons to see that there was even more money to be made by going straight. Yukos started to keep western-style accounts and courted foreign partners. Oil prices rose; shares in Yukos, which was pumping 2% of global oil output, rocketed. Still in his 30s, Mr Khodorkovsky became, reputedly, the richest man in Russia.
An unfortunate result of his playing hard and fast with the rules:
The huge enrichment of a few insiders while most people struggled with poverty helps to explain why, for many Russians, democracy and the free market are still synonymous with corruption and inequality. If Mr Khodorkovsky and the other loans-for-shares participants helped to make a return to communism impossible, they are responsible also for the warped nature of Russian capitalism, and their country's disillusionment with reform.
Let me be entirely clear: my sympathies here are not with Putin and his gang. The selection of the politically ambitious Khodorkovsky for prosecution rather than other offenders, Putin's grab for Yukos, and the show trial, all reflect an increasingly greedy, autocratic regime which is stifling opposition and applies the law only when suits. I believe Putin is leading Russia in a dangerous direction and is anti-democratic, and that Khodorkovsky would have been convicted on any charges with which they chose to stitch him up. But let's also be honest: the Khodorkovsky case is more complex than the 'Putin hatchet-job' label allows. Khodorkovsky may be a political martyr, but he's no saint.

When the chips are down....

Went out tonight to a fairly pleasant restaurant where we've enjoyed the food and atmosphere before. Thought it was 'above standard' for Kosher fare.
Tonight, however, my husband's chips (french fries) didn't turn up with the rest of the meal. When we asked the waitress it emerged she forgot to add them to our order. She said she'd bring them to us in a few minutes.
Ten minutes later she returned to announce completely unabashedly that 'unfortunately the chef forgot to take the chips out of the oven and they burned. (!!!! -- ed.) Do we want to wait while he prepares new chips?'
Um, no.
Needless to say, we cancelled and asked for the bill (we'd already finished the rest of the meal by this stage). And whaddaya know? When it arrived, it included a charge for the chips.
Aaah, Kosher restaurants... in a league of their own, at least for brazenness.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Sleeping with the enemy, making money out of idiots

Amazing what passes for art nowdays. Two Israeli men make a not-so-clever play on words and land themselves a gallery exhibition. More amazingly, not only have they found a way to make surfing the 'net for sex respectable, they've made it pay:
Two gay Israeli men have installed a huge double bed in a New York art gallery and are inviting Arab men to become their "lover" as part of an exhibition called "Sleeping with the Enemy"...
But the artists who like to be known simply as Gil and Moti talk about the project in romantic terms, saying it's about "falling in love" rather than sex. Gil said visitors should not come to the show expecting to see pornography....
"We try to actually open up a dialogue and debate which is about more important issues than just sexual matters and if there's sex, OK, but it's not something we're interested in discussing," Gil said.
The sales pitch for the show in which the two live and work in the gallery surrounded by their art reads: "Israeli artists Gil and Moti are gay, married and in love. For 5 weeks, they court an Arab lover."
Since late 2002 they have made contact online with as many as 300 Arab men from across the Middle East. They typically send a message through a dating site asking if they can paint a picture from the man's photo and explaining who they are.
They then scan and e-mail the painting as a means of "seduction" and hopefully start a dialogue and meet, Gil said.
The gallery called Jack the Pelican, in Brooklyn, is displaying over 100 of the watercolors, priced at $700-$900, along with some transcripts of e-mail exchanges, photos and oil paintings and the bed.
Frankly, anyone clever enough to con an art gallery into paying for five weeks of rent deserves a show. Brilliant.

Friday, May 20, 2005

Europe prepares to torture itself again

So, does Shiri Maimon have a hope in hell of winning the Eurovision tomorrow night?
I refer you to Crooked Timber's scientific analysis of the voting patterns of the past 30 years, which, if I've correctly deciphered this scientific mumbo-jumbo, seems to prove that nobody likes us and that they're all anti-Semites (except maybe Germany and -- here's the shocker -- France). Good luck, girl.

UPDATE, SAT. NIGHT: Israel is robbed of its momentary early lead and comes in 4th/24. There you go, told you they're all anti-Semites.

Death of Bishop Hugh Montefiore

Unaccountably, I mssed the death of Bishop Hugh Montefiore last week (13 May), at the age of 85. Hugh Montefiore was the son of a great- great-nephew of Sir Moses Montefiore, but the family was nevertheless still one of England's eminent Sephardi aristocratic families. The house in which he grew up is now the Israeli Embassy in London. Hugh converted to Christianity as a teenager, while a student at one of England's great boarding schools, Rugby. He apparently saw a vision, and that was that. He went on to be one of the Anglican church's more colourful clergymen, and eventually a bishop - this in a church not lacking in colourful clergy! He was the vicar of the Cambridge University Church in the late 1960's, and every so often would be invited to speak at the Jewish Society after Friday night dinner (I very much doubt that such an invitation would be extended today ...) On such occasions, he would come with black yarmulke and join the bentsching with gusto.
While his conversion was a cause celebre in Anglo-Jewry, it was perhaps not as sudden as is generally held. His biography reveals that his mother dabbled in different religions, and was not averse to frequent church attendance. The most intriguing fact (for me, at any rate) was his appearance, which looked like that of an Anglican Bishop out of central casting: over six feet tall, with blue eyes and white hair, the very last thing he looked like was what in fact he was - a Samech-tet ("Sephardi tahor").

Mind your onions! A new issur before shabbat.

The rather feisty UK website, TotallyJewish, reports that the latest ban is on onions. The list of what is permitted is narrowing ominously. Is Jewish life worth living without onions?

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Bar Mitzvahs -- an expensive goodbye to Judaism?

Silly article in Slate on the Bar-Mitzvah ceremony, in which the author diagnoses the correct illness but prescribes the wrong medicine. Because secular kids today get so little out of Bar Mitzvahs (other than presents, of course), she wants to make the ceremony optional and non-age dependent:
Why not do away with the age requirement? After all, as a recent American innovation, the bar mitzvah is surely ours to improve upon. Of course, there are many kids who will never choose to become b'nai mitzvah if left to their own devices, just as there are others who will surprise themselves by choosing to—and by accomplishing more than they think they could, without their parents prodding them at every step. If the bar mitzvah weren't set in stone at age 13, teenagers and adults could choose to read from the Torah for the first time when they were moved to—and they would get a real (rather than symbolic) taste of adulthood. So what if it takes some Jews decades to come around?... Doing away with the set age will lead to fewer b'nai mitzvahs—but they'd be more deeply felt. And that's probably a trade-off worth making.
First, let's point out that no man is stopped from reading the Torah at any point in their lives, and that many people do indeed choose to give themselves late or second Bar-Mitzvahs at a point which is more meaningful to them. In addition, the kids who would choose for themselves to go ahead with a Bar-Mitzvah at 13 would probably get just as much out of it under the current system as well.
The problem, of course, isn't the kids' age -- 13 is still, even in this infantalized era, old enough and a good age for kids to begin understanding something about Judaism, responsibility, community -- but the parents' values and behavior. If the parents, even the most secular among them, shifted the focus away from the $8m. party and onto study, meaning, community, history, etc., the kids would get a lot more out of it. Unfortunately, the parents are too materialistic, too unfamiliar with Judaism, and too divorced from spirituality. This can be solved and indeed, many communities from Reform rightwards are finding that their congregants are thirsting for more spirituality. Some would argue that our society as a whole is finding more value recently in 'spirituality' and perhaps this too will find its way back to the Jewish community and its empty bar-Mitzvahs. By suggesting that people drop the Bar Mitzvah ceremony instead of taking responsibility for it, the author, Emily Bazelon, is simply too accepting of our society's faults.
Unfortunately, we live in a culture where people in too many cases never grow up and where the line between child and adult remains forever blurred. I think it's positive that in our Jewish culture there's still some kind of formal statement that kids are expected to mature, and what better age to make this clear than 13.

Hurricane Judy about to hit

Oh. My. G-d. How could they????
American First Lady Laura Bush will begin an official visit to Israel Sunday, and plans to visit the Temple Mount , Western Wall, and a church in Jericho, Yedioth Ahronoth has learned....
Judy Shalom Nir-Mozes, the wife of Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom is set to receive the first lady upon her arrival, because Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is a widower.
I guess she kicked up such an almighty fuss about not meeting Madonna, they had to give her a booby-prize with Laura. Only G-d knows what awful things she's going to come out with. If Ariel Sharon could get remarried between now and Sunday, he might just save Israeli-US relations.

(Via Harry)

Darth W. Vader

Best quote on the politicization of Darth Vader so far comes from Ami Eden in the Forward:
To paraphrase neoconservative godfather Irving Kristol, an evil Sith lord is a noble Jedi knight mugged by reality.

Live long and prosper, but please don't take any more photographs

So now we know who to blame for Leonard Nimoy's sacrilegious foray into photography -- a lazy maintenance guy on one of his film sets:
Eight years ago, Leonard Nimoy played the prophet Samuel in the film "David." The filming took place in Morocco under a blazing sun, and Nimoy was forced to wear heavy robes. That's when he realized that he no longer wanted to act.
"I found myself in a tiny trailer," says Nimoy, who is visiting Israel at present. "The air-conditioner is working, but no cold air is coming out. The door was a curtain, there were flies everywhere and dust and dirt all around me. I have three beautiful homes in Los Angeles, New York and Lake Tahoe in California, and I asked myself: `Why am I wasting my time? Why do I need to do this?' At that moment, I knew that I wasn't going to return to hotels."
Thank you, whoever you were. Thank you very much.

Rethinking the divine

My review of Tamar Ross's book Expanding the Palace of Torah: Orthodoxy and Feminism appears in the Forward this week:
In 1982, noted Israeli thinker Yeshayahu Leibowitz wrote that "the question of women and Judaism is more crucial than all the political problems of the people and its state. Failure to deal with it seriously threatens the viability of the Judaism of Torah and Mitzvoth in the contemporary world."
Despite the passage of 20 years, and several advances for Orthodox women, the question of women and Judaism — that is, Orthodox Judaism — remains just as pressing, if not more pressing, than it was in Leibowitz's day. Tamar Ross, in her new book, "Expanding the Palace of Torah," analyzes why feminism poses such a great challenge to the Orthodox establishment and why there has been no systematic resolution. Ross, an associate professor of Jewish thought at Bar-Ilan University, suggests an alternative theological framework, which, she believes, will allow the Jewish legal system, known as Halacha, to accommodate feminism while maintaining continuity with tradition. Her book is — per Leibowitz's prescription — a brave, in many ways radical and essential, attempt to deal with the problem seriously, and is a model of erudition and scholarship. And yet, even Ross cannot provide an answer that is likely to satisfy Orthodox feminists unhappy with their lot.
Continue reading

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Loshon Hora, L.H., go to jail the easy way

A Colombian city makes gossip a criminal offence with a potential sentence of 4 years in jail. Slander, apparently, is still ok.

Happy birthday, Bloghead!

I guess I should probably mention that Bloghead is one year old today.
  • Where it all began... here.
And with a bit of luck we might even reach 150,000 hits by this evening... So please feel free to refresh your page :-)

Hair we go -- again...

If you thought you'd heard the last of Hindu hair, think again. The next rabbinical ban is brewing.

One of the only indisputable comments about Koran-gate....

at Out of Step Jew, of course.

Some symbols are too important to tamper with

I rather hoped this story was an urban myth, but then Harry helpfully directed everyone to the first-person original. To cut a long story short, it involves a young Be'er Sheva waiter whose grandmother had been through the Holocaust. Before she died, he asked her permission to tattoo her number onto his own arm -- and did so.
I was surprised to see that many of the comments on both blogs were supportive; some saw it as a fit memorial, others see the gesture as 'reclaiming' and changing the meaning of the tattoo into something positive, much as African-Americans 'reclaimed' the 'n-word.'
There are central questions here of taste, sensitivity to those who have not given their permission (including those who are dead), and whether, by casually tattooing yourself with a number, you are diminishing the experience of those for whom this was a trauma and an eternal symbol of a horror. In addition, I question whether the Nazi tattoo is really something we want to reclaim. First, the status the Nazis defined for us and the things they did to us should not be at the very heart of our identity, engraved on our body. Even if you reappropriate them you are still being defined by them. Second, and more importantly, it seems to me that the number tattoo is important as a painful, negative symbol and history lesson, and it should remain that way, with those associations. Some symbols are simply too important to tamper with.

(Via Jewlicious)

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Suddenly, there's money...

According to PR Week, Israel has decided the time is right to launch a major US-European tourism campaign:
Israel is preparing to shrug off its ‘warzone’ image and fight back against ‘distorted’ representations in the Western media with a global PR and advertising campaign.
The Israeli Ministry for Foreign Affairs is to hold a pitch for international and Israeli-based PR agencies to support the drive, which will cover Europe and the US. The Israeli Ministry of Tourism is also seeking British advertising agencies to handle a ‘rebranding’ campaign across Europe but has yet to compile a shortlist.
I guess it's trying to bypass the mainstream media, which it probably regards as a lost cause. Perhaps, however, they would have had more success with that media had they been willing to spend serious money there too, and hire professionals instead of relying on Foreign Ministry hacks.

RELATED: Ceasefire pushes Israel over tourism hump

A small step for democracy in the Middle East, a giant leap for Kuwaiti women

Kuwaiti women were finally given the vote yesterday. If I were a Kuwaiti parliamentarian who had fought against this move, I'd be more than worried today -- they will probably be punished by the brand-new voters in the next election, scheduled for 2007.
Although this was first proposed 6 years ago, it's hard to separate this development from the other moves towards more democratic societies in the Middle East. The question now is how long Saudi Arabian women will be content without a vote, now that their female neighbors in Kuwait and Iraq have suffrage?
It's interesting, by the way, to read Kuwaiti blogs today, especially those by women. The sense of excitement and hope towards the future is palpable and honestly makes you grateful for what you've always had. Check out safat.kuwaitblogs.com, the Kuwaiti equivalent of JRants; also interesting to see just how familiar so many of the entries sound -- tivo, sushi, clothes...

Two solitudes?

Ha'aretz is running a feature about a new NY-based organization meant to encourage ties between Israelis living in the States and American Jews.
I've always seen the separation of Israelis living in the Diaspora from the 'mainstream' Jewish community, which has been the case in every city I've lived in, as tragic (I particularly recall being shocked by an article about the Jews of Amsterdam in which the Israelis in the city were actually counted seperately to 'the Jews'). I blame it primarily on secular Israelis' hostility to religion and therefore a complete disinterest in most of the institutions which form the core of Diaspora life, such as the synagogue and the Jewish dayschool. Ultimately, I worry that without becoming more involved in those institutions, Israeli communities in the Diaspora will end up assimilating and disappearing.
In short, any effort to thaw the relationship between the two groups is extremely positive. What's interesting here, however, is that the effort at the top seems to be coming exclusively from the Israeli side (is the article accurate on this count? Hard to tell from here) and that they see the one factor which can connect both groups as... Israel. One of the founders even explains,
"The idea is to create a new generation of Americans and Israelis with strong ties to Israel, precisely now when the bond has become eroded and American Jews see Israel as an aggressor. We are trying to cement those ties, if not through aliyah then at least by activities that promote it."
There's nothing wrong with this, but it will be interesting to see if this experiment, in the long term, will result in the Israelis strengthening their ties with the 'mainstream' community institutions as well, either through the deliberate efforts of the American Jews who are involved, or because it evolves naturally.
Shame, incidentally, Ha'aretz didn't bother interviewing any Americans for the article....

Disengaging from reality

Ha'aretz reports that two seperate plots by Israeli Jews to attack Temple Mount and disrupt/prevent disengagement have been foiled. Clearly, this is a very dangerous time for Israel as people feel desperate and are tempted to acts of true madness.
A significant detail is that (with one exception) none of the men mentioned seemed to be from the Gaza strip or even from the Territories, but come from 'Israel proper' -- showing just how deep the divisions are running.

The power of the printed word

Many of the allegations against Newsweek over Koran-gate follow a similar theme: that the magazine dropped its standards by relying on one unnamed source in order to score points against the White House / publish a scoop quickly. In other words, that the Koran detail was somehow right from the very begining particularly important to Newsweek.
I don't believe it. If you actually read the original item , you'll see that it's a very short piece about new details of abuse at Guantanamo, in which the Koran was mentioned exactly once as part of a laundry list of abuses. No one is quoted about the Koran incident. It's not the focus of the story. Most importantly, the whole story is buried in the Periscope section instead of being highlighted in a more prominent part of the mag, as it would have been had they regarded it as an important scoop.
What does this mean? That if Newsweek didn't check its sources properly on this detail, it wasn't because the paper wanted to publish at any price but because it simply didn't see this particular detail as particularly important -- and so standards dropped. To me, this is an example of journalists failing to understand that every single word they write has power. Just as academics get stuck in their ivory tower and don't understand the real world, I think journalists sometimes get stuck in their offices and forget that their words actually get read by real people. This is particularly true for short, minor stories which are written relatively quickly, which rarely get high levels of reader feedback, and which are churned out quickly and forgotten. And that's how you get casual and sloppy.
Strangely, the person who is rarely being mentioned at the moment is the mysterious source. What I'd like to know is whether he (/she????), too, simply did not realize the power of the printed word, and therefore wasn't particularly worried about accuracy, or whether, on the contrary, they were supremely aware of its power and deliberately lied for their own purposes. This part of the story is yet to come out, but I have a feeling it will.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Bizarre encounter of the week

JTA is reporting on an American rabbi, Lawrence Troster, who recently attended an environmental conference in Teheran, of all places.
Troster barely got out of the hotel that housed the convention, and so didn’t get to meet Tehran’s Jewish community.
But “as a Jew I was entirely comfortable there,” he said. “There was a lot of security at the conference, but it was unobtrusive. I never felt any hostility. And nobody asked me about Israel.”
Though he believes he was the only Jew registered at the conference, Troster did see two Chasidim there, fresh from a meeting with the country’s president, Mohammad Khatami.
He quickly realized that the two were members of the anti-Zionist Satmar sect.
“They weren’t participating in the conference, but they were welcome because they were anti-Zionist,” Troster said. “It was the last place I expected to see a Chasid, but you never know who you are going to run into at these things.”
Apparently not...

Puppy love

Saved Posted by Hello

When it chief rabbi's family isn't busy kidnapping and beating people up, its diplomatic wives aren't involved in verbal abuse and blinded by celebrity, etc. etc. etc., Israel is actually a pretty easy place to love. And here's one of the reasons why. For the past couple of months, the country seems to have been anxiously following the fate of... 25 little unvaccinated puppies who were illegally smuggled into Israel from Uzbekistan and were threatened with 'deportion.' Animal rights groups have argued that they were too weak to survive the flight back, and that they could not guarantee the animals would be treated well back home. Now, the Tel Aviv Magistrates Court has come up with a compromise that might allow the dogs to stay in the Jewish State. The country can now heave a huge sigh of relief and the papers can get back to covering minor subjects like disengagement.
Really. Only in Israel....

Sunday, May 15, 2005

And while we're on the subject of photoblogging....

Check out Mentalblog's fascinating and moving collection of pictures from the Malachovka Shul outside of Moscow, which burned down / was burned down? last week. The pictures are from 1988.

The view from here

Elms in the Yard recently visited Hadassah Ein Kerem and decided to take some pictures of what the Hospital's synagogue looks like from the women's section. This is it, from eye level standing up:

Posted by Hello
And this, by the way of comparison, is the men's view:

Posted by Hello

The pictures tell the story. As Rahel points out, you'd never guess the hospital was founded by a women's group.
The idea of photographing various synagogues from the women's section, by the way, is extremely interesting. I'm sure there's a book in there somewhere.

The right noises

Say what you will about his past, the new Pope is certainly making an effort to reach out to the Jewish community:
Pope Benedict XVI has told the Israeli ambassador to the Vatican he intends to visit the main synagogue in Cologne, Germany, in August, becoming the second pontiff in history to visit a Jewish place of worship... The pope is planning to make the visit to the synagogue during a planned trip to Cologne for World Youth Day in August.
This, after he invited Rome's chief rabbi to his April 24 installation Mass and made specific mention of "a great shared spiritual heritage" with Jews, and sent a letter of birthday greetings to the former chief rabbi of Rome who received John Paul during his 1986 visit, saying Catholics and Jews can continue dialogue and look with "confidence" toward the future.
These may be repeats of gestures the previous Pope already made, but they do signal that he is serious about keeping up with the spirit of reconciliation with the Jewish community and has the Jewish community high up on his agenda already at this early stage. He is making all the right noises. The question, which there is probably still plenty of time to settle, is whether we will see anything beyond symbolic gestures during his pontificate.

Keeping up with the Greens

Tongues are wagging across the UK about the party of the year. And surprise, surprise, it's a Bar Mitzvah. From the front page of today's London Times:
THE guest list is worth £10 billion, the after-dinner entertainers cost £1m and so many private jets have been flying into Nice airport that special airspace has had to be created.
Philip Green, Britain’s foremost high street retailer, is throwing a three-day celebration this weekend to mark his 13-year-old son Brandon’s bar mitzvah...
Brandon got his reward as the singer Beyoncé Knowles stepped down from the poster on his bedroom wall to sing live for the guests with her group Destiny’s Child.
Thirty security men circled the hotel grounds between Nice and Monaco to keep out paparazzi as the group performed hits such as Bootylicious and Bills, Bills, Bills.
It was Green who was left with the £4m tab [$8m. -- MS] for throwing the bash, his biggest since he flew 200 guests to Cyprus in 2002 to celebrate his 50th birthday with a three-day Roman-themed toga party....
Technicians had worked round the clock to finish the stage on time, prompting rumours that it was being built for the wedding of the actress Cameron Diaz and Justin Timberlake, the pop singer.
Andrea Bocelli, the blind Italian operatic tenor, entertained guests on Friday night with a rendition of classical songs such as Ave Maria and Time to Say Goodbye (Con te Partiro)....
One guest said: “There are so many private jets flying into Nice airport that they have had to clear special air space.
“Philip has hired the [£1,000-a-night] hotel for almost a month exclusively to plan the party and deck it out."
Not to worry, though, not to worry, it wasn't all bad taste, missing the point and inappropriate:
Brandon stood up and sang unaccompanied in Hebrew for more than 15 minutes at the traditional ceremony that marks his coming of age. All eyes were on him, and Green’s wife, Tina, and several other women were in tears as he finished his chanting.
A family friend said: “Philip and Tina were very proud of Brandon. He had spent 18 months learning the chant off by heart and he did fine. He wasn’t nervous.”
And what did the poor boy get for his trouble? Rumor has it, not even a Bar-Mitzvah present.... Cheapos.

Desperate Foreign Ministry Wives

Israel's foreign service is a shambles. First of all, the ambassador to Washington, Danny Ayalon, is alleging that Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom tried to get his assistant fired -- because Silvan's wife Judy was furious that said assistant did not manage to arrange a meeting for her with Madonna when the star visited Israel. Quite what the Washington-based worker has to do with Madonna's visit is unclear (to me, at least) but judging by Judy's track record, the story is not at all unlikely.
The scary thing is that it's widely acknowledged that the real driving force behind Silvan is Judy. Without her push and resources (her family owns a big chunk of Israel's media), he probably would not have got very far. How much influence and involvement does this shallow, brainless, spoilt woman have in Israel's foreign ministry? It's about time someone looked into this.
Not that Anne Ayalon, the wife of the Israeli ambassador to Washington, is any better. According to YNet -- which, of course, is owned by Judy Nir Mozes Shalom's family and is therefore perhaps not an entirely trustworthy source on this matter -- the Madonna allegations were intended to deflect a scandal about Anne treating the embassy's staff as if they were 'her personal servants.' According to the site, amongst other allegations, Ayalon -- who at one point wanted to replace the entire staff body of the embassy -- regularly called staff, including senior staff, 'stupid' in front of others, in fits of rage. And worse... My favorite quote, presumably from an interview with her:
"אם תשוחח עם אנטוניו תגלה שהוא בעצם מפגר. לא ידענו את זה כששכרנו אותו".
למה את מתכוונת ב"מפגר"

"אני מתכוונת לזה לחלוטין. אם תדבר איתו תבין".

Or in English:
Ayalon: "If you talk to Antonio [the butler -- MS] you'll discover he's actually a retard. We didn't know that when we hired him."
Interviewer: "What do you mean by 'retard'?"
Ayalon: "I totally mean it. If you speak with him you'll understand."
Which is just charming. (And please don't tell me that Israelis tend to such politically incorrect terms more freely than Europeans and Americans. Apart from such language being completely inappropriate and insensitive in its own right, the Ambassador's wife really should know better.)
In short, television execs sick of setting their dramas and soap operas in law offices, hospitals and police stations might want to turn their attentions to the Israeli foreign ministry. What luck that there are no important issues to deal with, leaving ministers, ambassadors and their wives with plenty of time to develop all that good material.

UPDATE: I see that YNet has dished the dirt on 'Madam Ayalon,' who apparently is American-born and bred, before. Could she really have asked her babysitter to bow before her???????

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Who is a 'complete Jew'?

I was disappointed to read AB Yehoshua’s latest essay in the Jerusalem Post, which for once seemed to fall from its normal standards and offer the reader little original. Yehoshua essentially revives the old argument that Israeli Jews are more 'complete' Jews than their Diaspora peers because every aspect of their life is somehow 'Jewish':
The vast difference between the Jews of the Diaspora and Israel lies in the completeness and scope of the reality, and binding intensity, in which they live and work.
The Israeli Jew is a total Jew, bound to a Jewish framework that determines all aspects of his physical, economic and social existence.
Jews in Israel can send a Jew to fight a war (even one he opposes), evacuate him from his home, and, of course, levy taxes and impose other obligations on him. In Israel, all the elements of reality that make up a Jew's life are Jewish, just as in Holland all the elements of life are Dutch. While a Jew in the Diaspora may feel Jewish 24 hours a day, the significant elements that make up his life are in no way connected to a Jewish reality; instead, they are bound up in the non-Jewish reality in which he lives.
Yehoshua never explains what exactly is Jewish about the 'reality and binding intensity, in which they live and work,' beyond the fact that they do it all with other Jews. Is this enough to call an experience 'Jewish' -- more Jewish than a religiously meaningful experience in a non-Jewish setting? If for example you never keep Shabbat, Kashrut, observe any of the Chaggim or have any knowledge of Jewish texts and history, but spend your entire life with Jews, are you really a more 'complete Jew' than a Hassid in NY or Toronto? I would argue not -- although you could argue you are a more 'complete Jew' than your Diaspora peer who never keeps Shabbat, Kashrut, observes any of the Chaggim, etc.
In short, Yehoshua's argument is old and unnuanced, and it seems to me that too many Israelis use this argument to justify their complete lack of observance and interest in their religion.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Talking of stealing melodies...

Tonight we went to hear an up-and-coming Israeli artist, Yasmin Levy, who sings Sephardi songs, mainly in Ladino. She has a stunningly beautiful voice and a gentle stage presence and will be singing at Carenegie Hall in December.
In any case, towards the end she began singing a song in Ladino which I immediately recognized as our family’s favorite tune for Tzur Mishelo. Sure enough, she soon slipped into the Hebrew Zemer. Much to my surprise, with a bit of research, I discovered that this tune was originally a Ladino folk song – a love song, in fact – which over the years “has been incorporated into this zemer of Shabbat.” Its original name was Los Biblicos. Anyone know anything more on this?


Andrew Sullivan links to an article about the recent Amsterdam beating of Chris Crain, a prominent American gay man, allegedly by 'Moroccans'. By way of explanation the director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights Project at Human Rights Watch, Scott Long, is quoted as saying:
"'There's still an extraordinary degree of racism in Dutch society. Gays often become the victims of this when immigrants retaliate for the inequities that they have to suffer," Long said.
This reminds me of London Mayor Ken Livingstone's attitude when he invited a radical Muslim cleric to town, although he advocated throwing gays and lesbians off cliffs and Livingstone was supposedly extremely pro-gay rights. Can someone please explain to me when/why standing up for 'immigrants'/Muslims took precedence for liberals over standing up for gays and lesbians and other 'oppressed minorites,' even when those Muslims actively threaten the lives and liberties of other groups?

Israel's siren song

The Palestinians have announced that they are going to mark Israel's Independence Day by sounding a siren and asking Palestinians to stand still for a minute -- just as Israelis do on Yom Hazikaron. Ironically, as much as this shows their desire to separate from Israel, adopting this practice also shows just how closely intertwined the two societies are and to what extent the Palestinians take their cue from the Jewish state.

Yom Hazikaron

Today is Yom Hazikaron Lechalalei Ma'arachot Yisrael -- Israel's National Memorial Day, in which both fallen soldiers and victims of terror are commemorated.
Chances are that if you live in Israel, you know one or more person in each category. At this time of the year, I always think about Dovid Boim, who was 17 when he was shot waiting for a bus outside Bet-El on the way home from school in 1996, and about Ari Weiss, who was killed in the line of duty in Nablus in 2002. I didn't know either of them very well but I knew their families, or members of their families, very well, and my thoughts are actually as much about/with them as they are about/with Dovid and Ari.
Curiously, the one person who I think about most of all is someone I've never met. His name is Steven Kenigsberg and he was a young South African Oleh who was killed three years ago at Kissufim.
As I recall, he was killed on a Sunday. The next day I still hadn't found a subject for my weekly feature in the Jerualem Post and was getting rather desperate -- my deadline was Wednesday morning and it was getting tight. My editor suggested I go to Steven's funeral and shiva and write about him, because as an anglo he was of special interest to the Jerusalem Post readership. I really didn't want to because, I said, he was just 18 -- how on earth could I find 2500 words to write about a random teenager, no matter how he died?
With hindsight, I'm rather shocked I ever thought that, and of-course I was soon reminded that every human being has a unique and interesting story to tell. My editor made me go. I spent a couple of hours talking to Steven's father and when he finished, I lifted my head to discover the entire room crowded around listening to our conversation. Like me, they were mesmerised and touched by Steven's story -- the story of a boy who was just becoming a man and was cut off before his prime. I think I was so moved because for once, a father managed to portray his son as he was*, flaws and all, instead of sticking him in the 'outstanding pupil/leader' model so many fallen soldiers are fitted into-- and this made him so much more real to me; because Steven's determined, idealistic, attractive personality still shone through; and because of the supreme irony and tragedy that he died defending the country which gave him 'a new lease on life.'
His story, which I wrote through tears, will always stay with me. Please read it here and remember Steven.

*Or as the father saw him -- not quite the same thing and, I'm aware, possibly not something everyone would agree upon

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Original theory on the Omer

Somewhere around on the ‘sphere someone was asking about the real meaning of the Omer. I have a theory, which briefly is as follows (the full version is a 90-minute shiur):

· The Omer’s structure (7 x 7 + 1 -- – 49 days plus Shavuot) has an exact parallel in the Shemitta/Yovel cycle (7 x 7 + 1 ---- 49 yrs plus Yovel)
· The two Torah passages concerned with each (Emor and Behar) have many parallels of language
· The real characteristic of the Omer is its SABBATICAL nature – it is a sort of annual, seven-week ‘sabbatical time’, both in terms of melachah (no weddings – predates avelut customs, and in the Shulchan Aruch’s note that women are forbidden to do melachah after shekiah during the Omer – something, incidentally, that I’ve never heard that anyone observes), and in agricultural terms – see following:
· This is why in parshat Emor (lehning 2nd day Pesach), where the list of the chagim is given, there is the puzzling (see eg Rashi) pasuk in the middle, immediately after the mitzvah of sefirat ha’omer, about peah and leket. Peah and leket are commanded during the harvest time as an annual symbolic shemittah – they are available to the poor and the stranger because, like shmittah produce, they are hefker. [‘le’oni ve’lager’ is a result of peah and leket – not a reason.]
· Mourning during the Omer is an Ashkenazi custom, directly from the Crusades, and was unknown to Sefardim until they met Ashkenazim. Rabbi Akiva’s students etc was posited as a reason in Geonic times for forbidding weddings (actually because of the Sabbatical character of the Omer) and later projected as a general reason for mourning. There is no suggestion anywhere else that we observe mourning because of this Aggadata.

For the thoughtful person there are also numbers of parallels between Shavuot and the Yovel - eg the theme of new contracts (Matan Torah is the great contract between the Jews and God), the shofar etc. I will leave readers to discover more.

Rabbenu Bachai notes a lot of the above as well, perhaps without indicating the conclusion.

Anyway – please don’t post asking me for the detailed sources, because I have no time to reply! (On avelut – Sperber’s Minhagei Yisrael records most of the data).


Monday, May 09, 2005

Does a Mezuzah belong in Auschwitz?

Fascinating debate in Ha'aretz over whether Sharon was right to affix a mezuzah to one of the barracks (the one now used to commemorate the murdered Jews) at Auschwitz last week.
Apart from the halachic question of whether one is really necessary in such a place, it seems strange to me from a spiritual, symbolic and emotional perspective as well. Putting a mezuzah on the door of a room seems to me to convey some sense of spiritual ownership and belonging. Whilst millions of Jews may have lived and died in Auschwitz, and it means a lot to us in many different ways, we certainly don't belong there and it's not a place we should want to 'own' in this sense. Auschwitz is not ours and is not a Jewish place, and certainly 60 years after the fact there's something incongruous about a Mezuzah on one of the barracks there.
Anyone else have any thoughts on this?

The Amar scandal: three comments

1. I was initially really sorry for him, but I'm more than a little puzzled as to why Israeli Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar is still in Thailand when his wife, daughter son are being officially charged with extremely serious crimes, kidnapping and beating. It's true he couldn't have made it home before Shabbat, but surely he should have been on the first plane home on Motzai Shabbat. This is now two days later and still -- no sign of him. Is it at all possible that he is staying away to politically distance himself from the goings-on??????? Or does he have something to hide? I'm not sure which is worse.
2. Of all the disturbing facts about the Amar's son Meir, the most disturbing is the oft-repeated claim that he 'left home when he was 13' to begin a new, secular life. No mention of a boarding school or anything -- simply 'left home.' How do parents let their 13 year old son 'leave home,' under any circumstances?
3. I saw at least one article yesterday (which I can't find again -- if anyone can direct me to it I'd be grateful) about how the Haredi community is blaming the evils of the Internet for this whole episode. Let's be clear: this is not about the evils of the Internet, which like anything can be used for good and for bad, but about the evils of insufficient parental guidance and supervision, of seeing physical violence as the solution to one's problems and of seeing 'family honor' as a prime value.
The article in today's Jerusalem Post, in which a Haredi journalist suggests that his community will see R. Amar's family as heroes for the way they dealt with this problem -- "Most people in Bnei Brak think that boy got off too easily," said Weiner. "What are a few bruises? They should have broken some bones" -- is even more disturbing in the crudeness it reveals.

Using the Holocaust to sell the EU constitution

Wondering why Sharansky's next book is going to be on the importance of the nation-state? Here's why:
A senior European Commissioner marked VE Day yesterday by accusing Eurosceptics of risking a return to the Holocaust by clinging to "nationalistic pride".
Margot Wallstrom, a Swede and the commissioner who must sell the draft constitution to voters, argued that politicians who resisted pooling national sovereignty risked a return to Nazi horrors of the 1930s and 1940s.
Mrs Wallstrom, vice-president of the commission for institutional relations and communications, was speaking in the former Jewish ghetto of Terezin in the Czech Republic.
She blamed the Second World War on "nationalistic pride and greed, and … international rivalry for wealth and power". The EU had replaced such rivalry with an historic agreement to share national sovereignty.
Her fellow commissioners also issued a joint declaration, stating that EU citizens should pay tribute to the dead of the Second World War by voting Yes to the draft constitution for Europe.
The commissioners also gave the EU sole credit for ending the Cold War, making no
mention of the role of Nato and the United States.
To a certain extent, of course, this is what Europeans truly believe: because nationalism was one of the causes of the second World War, it must be quashed. To use the Holocaust to sell the unpopular EU constitution (now in danger of being rejected even in France), however, is rather despicable. It's not just the cynicism and fear-mongering, but the fact that another Holocaust is just as likely to emerge from a centralized system where faceless bureaucracts make decisions without being properly accountable (if carried to its logical conclusion) than from a system of nationalistic democracies.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

You heard it here first: Sharansky's next move

The scoop will be in the JPost tomorrow morning (and online within a half hour or so, I'd imagine), but you heard it here first: Natan Sharansky, who quit the government last week over disengagement, is joining the Shalem Center as a Distinguished Senior Fellow. He's going to be devoting his time to writing a book defending the nation-state in general, and Israel as the Jewish nation-state in particular -- particularly in the age of the European Union, globalization, etc. In addition, the Shalem Centre will be publishing the Hebrew edition of his recent best-seller (in English), The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror.
The right-wing conservative think tank is probably a natural home for Sharansky, who, in any case, was always a better writer (/ journalist) than politician. Good move.

UPDATE: Dammit. The Jerusalem Post online got there first (by a matter of minutes...) after all. Never mind, you still probably heard it here first :-)

The Muslim vote

One interesting trend in the British election was that, despite the election of the odious George Galloway, British Muslims by and large did not abandon Tony Blair:
Muslim Vote UK, run from Birmingham by Shaista Gohir, an academic, said: "The older generation are traditional Labour supporters. They had nowhere else to go. It's the younger ones who have become politicised."....
There is plenty of evidence to show that the Lib Dems and Respect benefited from Muslim anger.... But Labour had one advantage and mobilised Muslim councillors and activists to neutralise the Islamic lobby, which was out to "get Blair"....Asians also like to win and they sensed that Mr Blair would return, wounded but victorious.
"Muslims are becoming discriminating," said Mr Bunglawala. "This is why the council did not go for the anti-Blair line. The Labour Party's links with Muslims did not entirely break down because of the war."
Perhaps, as well, it shows that the Muslims did not object to the war quite as much as was commonly assumed. I wonder whether many people actually secretly supported it but it was simply a taboo to say so publicly, much as being against Israel is taboo in the Jewish community (unless you're talking to an Israeli fundraiser...). Others, of course, did object to the war, but in the end bread-and-butter issues proved more important to them.