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.

      Monday, November 14, 2005

      Plan C

      The Atlantic -- which last year ran a convincing piece explaining why we have no military option against Iranian nuclear facilities -- is running a piece arguing that if we can't attack them directly, we must sabotage their machines, assassinate their scientists, and sink the boats carrying supplies meant for their nuclear plants. The model would be covert operations by Israel against the Iraqi nuclear project before Osirak was bombed. This wouldn't solve the problem but would buy us time, perhaps as much as a few years.
      I'm all for it, although the question is, of course, if we did buy time, would the Western powers use it sensibly to find a way to derail the project permanently?
      I fear not, and that we must begin to plan for a world in which Iran has nukes.

      Unchosen: unsatisfying

      I've finished Hella Winston's highly anticipated Unchosen: the Hidden Lives of Hassidic Rebels, and everyone can relax. It's not that good. Yes, it's a fun read -- she basically lets 5-6 hassidim who have left the fold tell their own stories, and how could that be boring? -- but I found it rather short on analysis. It didn't really come together properly, or add much that anyone who is familiar with those communities can't work out for themselves.
      The main themes that emerge are the tremendous and often unbearable pressure members of these communities are under to conform; how cut off some members of the community feel from the rest of society, and how much resentment that causes in people who are naturally curious; quick and ultimately unsuitable marriages as a way to gain independence from pressurising parents; the enormous difficulty the rebels have in settling into life in the 'outside' world, particularly with few job skills and often, little English, and the completely seperate lives led by the women and men of the community (how little the men really knew and understood about their womenfolk was actually astounding). A minor theme is sexual abuse (including of men, in the mikveh) and sexual indiscretion in the community. Contrary to initial reports, the internet did not figure particularly -- one of the characters did use the internet as one of her many ways of exploring the 'outside' world, but it was just one aspect of her story -- and the character who chaptzem claimed was the well-known blogger 'Mindy' bore absolutely no resemblence to what we know about her from her blog. Interestingly, the flap of the book also contains a recommendation line by 'Hassidic blogger 'Shtreimel' (who, incidentally, makes a brief appearance on p. 17). I find it amusing that a comment by an anonymous, now defunct blogger, who was never read by that many people is now a respectable blurb!
      The interviews which formed the basis of the book were all conducted in the course of Winston's research for her dissertation. To her credit, she brings the phenomenon to life. But I would actually have preferred for her to wait perhaps until she had finished her Ph.d and had a proper thesis around which to center the book; what's the big idea here? One obvious angle she should have pursued is the story from the other side -- the families who are left behind, the leaders who have to deal with these phenomena. We don't really hear from them. There's also so much more to be said about / by people who stay in the community despite their doubts and despite unhappiness, living double lives. From the book (let alone the blogworld...), one gets the impression that the communities are full of these. Again, what is the long-term effect on the community of all these rebels, these people leading double lives, these people feeling trapped, these people lying to themselves and to others? What does this do to a community? What are the prospects for this society?
      In short, there's a better, fuller, meatier book on hassidic rebels still to be written. A promise unfulfilled.


      Incidentally, early in the book -- in the introduction -- one of the hassidic women Winston interviews mentions a high rate of suicide in hassidic society. Winston follows up with some anecdotal evidence from doctors and therapists suggesting high levels of anxiety disorders and depression, but no figures on suicide. Does anyone know anything about this?

      General Assembly: HIllel declares a truce with Habad!

      Miriam asks: Any Bloghead readers at the GA? Do report back...

      Paul replies: The other, more elderly part of Bloghead was there. It is, as usual, a huge conference, attended by several thousands of delegates, with all the usual razzmatazz. Some random impressions (so far):

      1. Outstanding session presented by Hillel this afternoon. Avraham Infeld presented preliminary results of a huge survey Hillel has done of the 'Millenials' - the next wave after 'Generation X'. These findings will be the basis of the Hillel strategy for the next few years - the programme will be presented in 3-4 months time. Basically, the 'M's' are accustomed to choice and individual choice in everything; are very conservative and conforming; very socially and group-conscious;"hypercommunicaters" (email, IM, iPod, text etc etc - simultaneously!). Of the students found (from a VERY wide net cast), no less than 47% had only one Jewish parent (fits with intermarriage estimates). Generally their Jewish outlook (all categories - 28% 'highly committed'; 32% 'middles'; 40% 'low') was very favourable, and they were very happy to be Jewish and to be more Jewish.
      2. At the presentation, a Chabad Rabbi was a presenter. Infeld announced that Hillel accepted, welcomed and legitimised Chabad as Campus partners. The Chabadniks present reacted as though the Messiah had come ... er, oops, you all know what I mean!
      3. Most impressive was the passion, still, after all these years, of Avraham Infeld for the Jewishness of Jewish young people. He really is remarkable and inspirational. Apparently he is leaving Hillel in the summer and returning to Israel. Who comes next?? [Hillel is a whole discussion and deserves a posting by itself.]
      4. Disappointing was the total absence of Toronto from the programme. With one or two exceptions (the Pres of Federation, eg), there were no local speakers, and no local content. That was a pity, as, for example, in the Jewish Education session this morning there was much of local information that would have been very relevant and informative.
      5. The food provision was very sparse and the kosher food supply kept running out.
      6. Still, for all that, it's impressive and 'hinei mah tov etc'

      Sunday, November 13, 2005

      All we are saying, is give us the credit

      Perhaps I'm showing my age here, but I had no idea that a Canadian rabbi was ever cited as a major influence on John Lennon's "Give Peace a Chance." Now, according to the London Times, he is being credited with actually coming up with the phrase:
      Lennon wrote the hit single while staying at a Montreal hotel in May 1969... On Wednesday the Queen Elizabeth hotel envelope with the notes handwritten by Lennon on two sides will be auctioned by Bonhams. The auction house has set a cautious estimate of between £175,000 to £200,000 for the sale price.
      The envelope contains 25 key words such as “bagism”, “shagism” “dragism”, “revolution” and the mis-spelt “evelotion” as well as eight names including “John and Yoko”, “Bobby Dylan”, “Tommy Cooper” and “Norman Mailer”, all of which are in the song.
      But the important clue is the word “rabbi” next to the phone number of 783-9689. It belonged to Rabbi Abraham Feinberg, described at the time as a “hip 69-year-old” who had once worked as a singer.
      The hotel has kept records of Lennon’s stay, which indicate that he called the number and the rabbi went to visit rock music’s most famous couple. Lennon seized on a remark by the rabbi — “John, we really have to give peace a chance” — and realised that he could use it for his new song. Feinberg is only now being credited as the main inspiration for the song. Joanne Papineau, head of public affairs for the hotel, said: “We’ve had hotel staff who have told the story over the years, but perhaps they have not really been listened to. Nobody put two and two together until this envelope turned up.”
      Presumably, the idea that Feinberg was the author of the famous line comes from the staff of the hotel, as the envelope doesn't prove anything. But it's highly unlikely to be true. In fact, a quick Google search shows that the story of Feinberg's involvement with the song was written up in The Montreal Gazette the very day after his visit -- probably a much more accurate source than the hotel staff's gossip 35 years after the event. The report, first of all, establishes that Feinberg did visit Lennon (no need to rely on phone records etc....), clearly shows that Lennon began working out the words to the song in Feinberg's presence (coming up with the direction of the song himself, I should add) -- but also clearly indicates that the key phrase was Lennon's own, written before the session with Feinberg. It's interesting that this account seems to have disappeared into the mists of time, with the main connection between Feinberg and Lennon usually cited as a few appearances by Feinberg on tv on behalf of John and Yoko (why John Lennon should have needed Rabbi Feinberg to do his publicity is beyond me -- is there a Beatles fan out there who can explain?) -- even though the Gazette account seems pretty easy to come by. Let's hope this "revelation" isn't too much of a factor in the high price of the envelope....

      P.S. Picture of Feinberg with Lennon here -- scroll down.

      What happened to Isaac at the end of the Akeidah?

      This coming week’s parsha – ‘Vayera’ – is one of the most interesting in the entire Chumash. It is also one of the longest - 147 verses. But of those 147, 19 stand out – the story of the Binding of Isaac (Genesis 22:1 – 19). I have my own idea of what this is about, but yesterday I spoke at Seudah Shlishit (the ‘third meal’ of Shabbat, often a simple communal meal in synagogue) on the comment of Ibn Ezra to the last verse.
      One of the mysteries of the Akeidah is at the end. Abraham and his two servants come down from the mountain. Is Isaac with them? Maybe he was (see, e.g. the Artscroll commentary); maybe he wasn’t (see, e.g. Hizkuni ad loc). Whether he was or he wasn’t, Isaac then disappears from view for quite a long time. Perhaps he was “studying in the Yeshivah of Shem and Ever”; perhaps he was “recovering in the Garden of Eden” from his experience.
      Ibn Ezra comments that “those who say that he was slaughtered, left on the mountain and then resurrected are contradicting the simple text of the bible’. Huh?? Well, in early Medieval times the Ashkenazi tradition held an astonishing interpretation of the Akedah – that Isaac had in fact been killed by Abraham (in one variation: had died not from A’s knife, but from the fire on the altar A had built), and had been resurrected by G-d.
      Much of this material, based on an explanation of a piyyut by Ephraim of Bonn, may be read in one of my favourite little books, “The Last Trial” – a translation by Judah Goldin of a famous essay by Prof. Shalom Spiegel.
      In brief:
      • there seems to be an early, Midrashic, pre-Christian tradition that Isaac died at the Akedah – perhaps linked to the text as a repudiation of human sacrifice traditions in other cultures. Traces of this (but no more) survive in classic Jewish texts. Isaac is also associated with the blessing of the daily prayer “Who revives the dead”.
      • Christianity then appropriated the akeidah as a key text which they claimed was a precursor of the Crucifixion (including in its details – the fact that Isaac carried the wood up the mountain, for example, was interpreted as a precedent for Jesus carrying the cross.) Although Jewish tradition is mainly that the Akedah occurred at Rosh Hashanah, one Jewish tradition is that it happened at Pesach, which generates another clear line of associations …
      • In an atmosphere of text-against-text disputations, Jews could present the idea of the ‘Resurrection of Isaac’ as a neutralizing interpretation which undermined (and preceded) the uniqueness of the Christian Resurrection.
      • At the time of the first Crusades (end of the C11), there was widespread (and well documented) Jewish martyrdom, including many, many cases of suicide and killing of Jews by Jews ‘al Kiddush Hashem’ in order to avoid torture and death at the hands of the Crusaders. In many of the piyyutim and Chronicles which survived, it is recorded that the martyrs appealed to Abraham and Isaac for sympathy, on the basis that they, too, had known what it was for parents to slaughter children…..

      We do not adopt this interpretation nowadays, preferring the much more plausible general direct meaning of the text. But Ibn Ezra’s comment is one of those fascinating fragments which are in fact windows which we can open and through them enter into an entirely different world of Jewish history.

      Friday, November 11, 2005

      Goliath woz not 'ere

      Here's a little lesson in how rumors get spread and distorted, and of how even dry news reporting can yield rather different results. I was, for understandable reasons, pretty excited this morning to read the following bulletin on JTA, which is already making its way throught the Jewish, and wider, blogosphere:
      An Israeli archeological find could support the biblical story of David slaying Goliath.
      Aren Maeir of Bar-Ilan University’s archaeology department said this week that a shard of pottery found at the Tell es-Shafi, believed to be the site of Goliath’s hometown Gath, carries inscriptions referring to the giant Philistine warrior. Though the shard dates to around 900 BCE, around a century after Goliath was said to have been killed by a slingshot-wielding David, Maeir said it could be the first independent evidence that the battle recounted in the Book of Samuel was true.
      A shard that referred to the biblical Goliath? Sounds like discovery of the century. Intrigued, I googled it. The first piece I clicked on, from MSNBC, came up with this added / different information:
      While the discovery is not definitive evidence of Goliath’s existence, it does support the Bible’s depiction of life at the time the battle was supposed to have occurred, said Dr. Aren Maeir, a professor at Bar-Ilan University and director of the excavation.
      What this means is that at the time there were people there named Goliath,” he said. “It shows us that David and Goliath’s story reflects the cultural reality of the time.”
      A shard which directly refers to the great Philistine warrior, and one that simply happens to use the word 'Goliath,' are two rather different things (although I am interested to hear that until now, they apparently had no idea that the name 'Goliath' was a real one). I clicked on another piece, which added the following:
      the shard, which contains the earliest known Philistine inscription ever to be discovered, mentions two names that are remarkably similar to the name "Goliath".
      Remarkably similar???? What does that mean?? Reminds me of the joke about the lower class Brit who was asked his sirname. "Armstrong-Jones." "And how, sir, do you spell that?" "S-m-i-t-h."
      Professor Aren Maeir, Chairman of Bar-Ilan University's Martin (Szusz) Department of Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology, told the paper that the odds of this being the actual Goliath referred to in the Bible are "small if non-existent."
      So, sorry folks, no Goliath-sized breakthrough quite yet; that's it until next week, when they find David's sling (a piece of wood with a 'dalet' shape -- 'or something remarkably similar' -- on it).

      UPDATE: The Jerusalem Post adds: "Written in archaic "Proto-Canaanite" letters, the inscription found on the shard, dating to the 10th or early 9th century BCE, contains two non-Semitic names: Alwt and Wlt... Following intense examination of the inscription, Prof. Meir (along with his colleagues Prof. Aaron Demsky, an expert in epigraphy at Bar-Ilan University, and Dr. Stefan Wimmer, of Munich University) has concluded that the two names which appear in the inscription are remarkably similar to the etymological parallels of Goliath." In other words, they don't even sound like Goliath.

      R-r "R & R" - Re-reading 'Rupture and Reconstruction"

      Following the discussion on this blog (here, here and here), and as indicated in one of the Comments, I have just re-read Dr. Haym Soloveitchik's classic 1994 essay "Rupture and Reconstruction". From here, it downloads as 44 pages. I probably have not read it closely, beginning to end, for at least five or six years.

      1. On re-reading, it is a truly brilliant, original tour de force.
      2. In addition to the central "mimetic vs. text" thesis, the essay is rich in interpretation of socio-religious process.
      3. The comments of Dr. Judith Bleich, referred to by several commenters, apply to a page or so in 44 pages - carefully prefaced by the author as the most subjective of his observations, and offered only as personal impressions, rather than documented argument. I do not see that Dr. Bleich's comments (also somewhat incidental to the essay of hers in which they appear) challenge the central theses of the article, still less challenge its credibility in any way. Also, it should be noted that in footnote #19 Dr. Soloveitchik deals with the issue of the influence of baalei teshuvah (which he discounts, and explains why). Some commenters seemed to imply that he does not deal with the issue at all.
      4. The essay, written in 1994, cites "the telephone, newspapers and cassettes" as constituting the communications revolution which universalizes the world of halachah! Al achat kama v'chama the internet and today's satellite video links and other far more powerful and far faster communications.
      5. I would suggest another quite significant medium - the weekly handouts now universal in synagogues in Israel and throughout N America. Apart from deserving a study in their own merits, as I commented somewhere in this week's discussion, they all contain weekly halachah notes.

      Any way, I strongly recommend anyone interested in our discussion (er, let alone thos e who have been contributing to it!) to download 'R & R" and (re-)read it. And thanks to bloghead readers for a very interesting dialogue this week. Shabbat shalom.

      Thursday, November 10, 2005

      'Must we show everything?'

      For the media, covering a national emergency can be a delicate balance. On the one hand, you want to stay professional and don't want to cause unnecessary panic; on the other hand, you have to report accurately and sensitively, and avoid downplaying important details. When a terror attack strikes Israel, for example, the media often goes into hyperactive mode, the television reporters speaking in urgent voices even before the facts are clear or after it's clear that casualties are minimal, broadcasting disturbing images again and again when they have no new information to share, repeatedly interviewing panicked or hurt people, etc. The cumulative effect is often to heighten the trauma for the nation.
      On the other hand, think of the time when one of Israel's tv channels covered a terror attack by splitting the screen so that it didn't have to stop broadcasting a soccer match; or the drier-than-dry way British tv covered the first hours of the 7/7 attacks, showing almost no pictures from the scenes, no interviews with any survivors, and refusing to speculate -- at all -- about the numbers of dead or share any information about known dead (whilst elsewhere in the world they were already talking about 40 killed). These examples went too far to the other extreme, hardly conveying the sense of an emergency at all.
      France (thank G-d) has not experienced a terror attack, but two weeks of mass rioting is in some ways comparable. Unfortunately I don't pick up French tv (as I used to in Israel), but the WSJ has an interesting little piece about local tv coverage of the 'Paris intifada':

      The country's largest private television network, TF1, refrains from airing footage of burning cars or buildings. "We know that it's the type of thing that provokes contagion," Robert Namias, the head of the station's news division, told the Journal yesterday. He added that the government hadn't tried to influence its editorial decisions.
      The state-owned television channels, France 2 and France 3, have stopped reporting on the number of cars torched by rioting young immigrants every night. "Do we have to exercise self-censorship, to exercise censorship? Must we show everything, explain everything?..." said Paul Nahon, the deputy director general for news at France 3.

      No, monsieur, but you have to show and tell something -- especially the basic facts. The number of cars torched (more than 1,000 on some nights), pictures of rows upon rows of cars and dozens of buildings being set alight, are absolutely integral to this story; they are the story. We're not talking about dead people here, which is where the really delicate questions come into play. You don't have to show pictures , for example, of the disabled (Muslim) woman in a wheelchair whom the rioters burned alive. But without these central, elementary numbers and images, as local press reporting on your own doorstep, you're Pravda.
      Why do they really not want to share this key and, again, incredibly basic information with the people of Paris? One can only surmise that the events -- which disprove the whole theory of French exceptionalism, call into question the the very foundations of the fifth republic, and expose to all just how very deep French social problems run -- scare them so much that they can't bear to face up to the reality or to face the natural consequences. It's so much easier to downplay events and hope it all goes away. Move right along, folks...
      Unfortunately, the French people need this information to be able to deal properly with their social problems. It's a scary thought that the media, or at least some of it, is not rising to the occasion.

      (Via Backspin)

      UPDATE: More on the self-censorship here and here.

      The Jews knew, again...

      Ah, of course. What would a major terror attack be without the obligatory 'the Jews knew' story -- as we noted in the aftermath of 7/7 and discussed in September? is reporting that Israelis staying at the Jordanian hotels that were blown up last night received a security warning and were evacuated before the bombings, as is a Kuwaiti news agency. The anti-Semitic implication, of course, is that the dastardly Jews saved themselves and neglected to share the info.
      Except that this time, the report originates with none other than Ha'aretz; the report is still in their print edition, although they have now published a retraction on their website. Apparently it originated in a misunderstanding -- Israelis were led back to the border, but only after the bombings. This does not get Ha'aretz off the hook. They should be aware that these types of stories inevitably pop up after major attacks and provide conspiracy-theory fodder for anti-Semitism. Couldn't they be a little more careful?

      Bar/bat mitzvah celebrations gone mad, #3,793, or: money does not buy taste

      The bar-mitzvah which hit the front pages of Britain's broadsheets (!) a few months ago for its extravagance has an American rival. The cost of the 13-year old (sic) bat-mitzvah girl's dress alone, in this case, comes to a whopping $27,000 (what's she wearing, pure gold?) -- more, probably, than most bat-mitzvahs cost altogether. G-d knows what her mother's wearing.

      The end of the Israeli political scene as we know it

      Oh. My. God.
      Amir Peretz (a man most non-Israelis have probably never heard of) has become leader of Israel's labour party. It's been a long time since anything interesting happened in the Labor party, but this is worth paying attention to because it is going to completely transform the Israeli political landscape.
      Peretz -- who was elected under heavy suspicion of voting fraud and 'irregularities' -- is the head of the Histadrut union, a populist hack with a trademark Stalin-esque mustache who is good at stirring up trouble and talking about the poor but whose economic policies hark back to Israel's socialist days and who, it hardly needs saying, does not have the authority and is not enough of a hard-hitter to handle the conflict with the Palestinians (he is, incidentally, a member of Peace Now). A few years ago, he left Labor to set up the 'Am Ehad' faction, which won 3 seats (he came back to Labor just last year). That probably says it all about his power, when it comes to the crunch, to pull in the votes and is probably an indication of what Labor can expect to get next time around. Whilst Labor has become identified with the 'elites' in the past few years, Peretz attracts the exact opposite type of voter -- the poor and the desperate. It is reasonable to assume that most of the people who voted for Labor last time around (and these were a limited bunch, anyway...), and who are voting on the peace process, not economics, will move elsewhere.
      But where?
      What is interesting is that this complete earthquake in Labor comes at a time when Ariel Sharon is contemplating shaking up the Likud as well, and setting up his own party. Sharon wants to leave behind the Likud's rowdy central committee, together with its extremists, and set up a new, more centrist party. If he does, some members of the secularist Shinui will join; most of the Likud cabinet has already announced it's prepared to jump ship; and this latest development will only make it more likely that a big, big chunk of Labor MKs will join him too.
      In theory, this is great -- a sure vote-winner, Israel's pragmatists coming together -- but it does leave me worried that with one mega-party representing an enormous center, there will be no real opposition. This is completely unhealthy for a democracy, but is a very probable scenario.
      On the other hand, even if Sharon does not jump, there will be some kind of re-alignment as I simply cannot imagine most of Labor's MKs functioning under Peretz. Perhaps they will all go to Shinui under Tommy Lapid, although Shinui holds together members with a wide range of positions on the ME conflict, and an influx of Laborites would simply be an 'old Labor' putsch. This would be the scenario in which least, realistically, changed -- Likud vs Shinui, full of Labor MKs, rather than Likud vs Labor -- but there is a feeling of a real shake-up in the air and I hope something more radical happens; there hasn't been a real opposition, a true alternative to the Likud, for ages now.
      Either way, it truly marks the end of an era in Israeli politics, an era when Labor dominated the political map. How the political cards will be reshuffled, how the map will be re-drawn, remains to be seen. It may all happen sooner than anyone would have predicted only yesterday, as Peretz has already promised to take Labor out of the coalition, meaning the fall of the government. Will this leave enough time for everyone to find themselves new political homes? One thing's for sure: it's going to be an exciting few months in Israeli politics.

      RELATED: Am Echad; Shaister; Faith in Nathan (for a positive reaction); Dutchblog Israel.

      Link dump

      Some good material from around the J-blogosphere recently:
      • OOSJ on 'boredom and the haredi girl.'
      • Adloyada on the anniversary of Kristallnacht and the idea of historical 'narratives.' This woman really is good, we should all be reading her more often.
      • Vasserveibel, at Mayim Rabim (the mikveh blog), on her body in the aftermath of her divorce.
      • Amusing conversation noted on Jewschool.
      • The Town Crier notes that Rav Mordechai Eliyahu is 'fiercely disputing' the idea of a list of 'rabinically forbidden' names, including Ariel and Omri, which was all over the media last week. Of-course, the reports were totally irresponsible, exaggerated and unprofessional, which I would have written about -- had Steven not beaten me to it.
      • Interesting perspective on an Orthodox wedding -- from a lesbian woman (via Moshe).
      • Gilly hosts two IDF soldiers who are converting to Judaism.
      • Two good political cartoons, via Dutchblog Israel (for the first link, I'm talking about the top one).
      • Finally, another story I wish I had covered at the time (almost every single regret I have concerning this blog relates to stories I didn't cover and posts I didn't write rather than those I did). Credit where credit's due. The parents of a Palestinian boy who was shot by mistake donated his organs to Israelis, for the sake of peace. It is an extraordinary gesture -- Orthomom has the story.

      Quality on JDate

      According to JTA briefs,

      A second U.S. congressman has been found using JDate.
      Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) began using the Jewish online dating service in May, the Hill newspaper reported, under the screen name “jim2005ofDC.” A spokesman for Sherman confirmed he used the service. Sherman chose to not offer much information on his profile, telling one prospective female that he did not want the entry to become a news item, which happened to Rep. Steve Rothman (D-N.J.) when he used JDate last year.
      Sherman, 51, is a lifelong bachelor.
      So did this 'prospective female' run straight to the media? Sure sounds like it, and in any case she completely betrayed his confidence. The Hill paper elaborates:
      According to a woman on JDate whom he tried to pursue, he wrote, “I regret my bio does not divulge much, but as it happens, I am a member of Congress. One of my colleagues posted a revealing bio on J-date only to see it published as a ‘news’ story in his hometown newspaper. In any case, I prefer phone to email. Perhaps you could email me your phone number or call me — or just email me a note if you prefer. — Brad Sherman hm 202/***-****.”
      Moral of the story no. 1 -- do not trust anyone you meet online. Of-course, it's a moral of which a congressman really should have been ultra-conscious, and it's amazing just how naive people who should definitely know better still are about the internet and email -- cf. Alan Stadtmauer. Frankly, I worry about these people.
      Moral of the story no. 2 -- Just because the guy hasn't filled out his profile on JDate doesn't mean he's a lazy no-gooder who was pushed into registering by his mom; he may turn out to be your congressman.
      Moral of the story no. 3 -- Last, but not least, the woman who shared with the media is a total b***h.

      Wednesday, November 09, 2005

      Quality in the Jewish blogosphere

      Two blog events worth noting, and somewhat connected. Firstly, the relatively sudden closure of the magnificent and wildly popular Not the Godol Hador (again...). Although people will inevitably connect his closure to recent "pressure" (otherwise known as threats to 'out' him) from certain people who considered him theologically "dangerous," he claims it has more to do with a new boss -- seemingly confirming the observation by MOChassid (I believe), before he closed down, that most successful bloggers were people who have too much time on their hands at work. It does look more than a little suspish, but let's give him the benefit of the doubt. Either way, his blog was original, insightful, entertaining and fulfilled a real need, and its closure is a great loss.
      A week or so ago, Hirhurim celebrated its 500,000th hit, making it (as far as I can see) one of the top 2-3 blogs in the Jewish blogosphere. On the face of things, this is extremely surprising, as Gil's posts are lengthy, deep, often legalistic/technical, assume a sophisticated level of Jewish knowledge, and cater to a very niche market. In another medium, it would have had very limited exposure; compare, for example, to the circulations of journals dealing with similar topics, in similar depth. The Godol Hador, for all his brilliance, would have received no exposure whatsoever; and although his format and tone do seem more natural to the blogosphere, his blog's success, too, is surprising, in that it is heavy on theology and again seemingly caters to a very niche market.
      What the success of both these blogs emphasises yet again is the versatility of the medium, as well as its strength as a forum for voices who are usually under-represented. It also shows that, whilst there are still many people out there who sneer at the blogosphere and assume it to be a waste of time, good and thoughtful writing is rewarded.
      In Jewish terms, for all their differences and for all their faults, these blogs -- to different extents and in different ways -- again emphasise the thirst for real debate and open discussion in the Orthodox community, to which the blogosphere is perhaps uniquely suited, as well as the passion, intensity (and interest in minutiae...) of some of its members. They show that we deeply care about issues of belief and theology, which routinely get ignored or suppressed in other forums. Most of all, I am impressed by the high quality of these blogs (as a result of the synergy of writers and commentators); even compared to the top 1% of the blogosphere, as far as I can see, these seem unusually knowledgeable and sophisticated. It's worth noting.

      For G-d's sake, please let Peres win something, finally

      Amir Peretz is a joke, a man who never grew up, and who is completely and utterly unsuitable for the role of leader of one of Israel's great historic parties. If he wins the Labour Party leadership tonight -- and at the moment, the exit polls are decidedly mixed -- it will surely be the end of Labour (although some would merely consider it the final death knell).
      On the other hand, I'm not particularly enthusiastic about the candidacy of Shimon Peres, either. He really is a great man whose time has passed; he should have retired years ago -- gone off to star in BBC documentaries and be honored by Wizo, or something. It's also a complete disgrace that the Labor Party still has not managed to produce one attractive and viable leader from a younger generation.
      Nevertheless, waiting for the final result, I have one just thought: Dear G-d, can you really let poor Mr. Peres lose yet another election? Can one mortal man really be expected to handle so much rejection? I literally cringe at the embarrassing thought of having to watch one more concession speech from this man. Please, finally, let him win something -- if not this vote, maybe the lottery? A goldfish? Anything!

      Next issue: Rosh Yeshivah vs. Mara d'Asra

      In the ongoing debate (see here and here), my latest question is:

      As has been pointed out in comments to the first two postings (there are two parallel discussions now taking place, which is a little confusing --- and I am now adding a third! - sorry -- maybe continue ALL comments on this posting? ) -- the issues raised by Dr. Soloveitchik in his R&R article (the breakdown of the mimetic/family practice tradition and its replacement by halachah learned from books) are interesting and original - but not the whole story by any means.

      It is not only the content of contemporary halachah which is the issue - in a way that is a symptom of the bigger problem, which is the process. A hundred years ago the writings of the galaxy mentioned by Steve Brizel would have been read only by a small group of Rabbanim, and the average person would have lived according to the rulings of his/her local rav - the "mara d'asra", whether at town level or at shul level. Halacha was therefore more local and tailored to local and personal circumstances. (The popular archetype, which is trite and simple, but illustrative, is the story of the rav who is brought two chickens with identical she'elot on a Friday, rules one treif and one kosher because the first questioner is wealthy and the second poor.)

      And therefore the question is:

      How much of the problem arises from the rise in influence of the Rosh Yeshivah and the exactly parallel decline in the influence of the 'town rov' ??

      THAT is an issue which deserves serious scholarly attention! Start with the idea that when halacha is determined in the academies and not in the market place, it quickly loses touch with everyday life, becomes more theoretical and strict, and less practical and realistic ....


      The Times is carrying translations of editorials in the major French papers, amongst them, this from France Soir:
      “The helplessness of the Government to restore order and to propose a political solution is shaking citizens’ trust in the republican pattern. Can republican fraternity still win, or is our country turning to social apartheid, which we thought was the privilege of US society?”
      Their hatred of America -- and their arrogance -- runs so deep they are completely blinded to their own social problems and divides; what's more, what is completely obvious to anyone from the outside is that whilst there are deep social divisions in the US as well, in the US most of the socially disadvantaged still identify themselves as (and want to be) American, whilst France has a large minority population which literally hates France and does not in any way consider itself French. If France's reaction -- as the France Soir piece indicated -- is to try and dig its heels in, and insist on trying to make its beloved, but failing, social model work, it will just dig itself deeper into the hole in which it currently finds itself.

      Tuesday, November 08, 2005

      Lema'an yaarichun yamechah

      Interesting finding in a Central Bureau of Statistices (CBS) survey (covering 1998-2002):
      The survey indicates that among the districts, the highest average life expectancy is in Jerusalem - 80.1 years - and the lowest is in the southern district - 77.3 years.
      The survey finds a positive connection between the social-economic standard of a locale to its residents' longevity. The higher the social-economic index, the greater the longevity.
      A number of cities, such as Bnei Brak, Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh are exceptions to the rule - their residents' longevity is high despite their low social-economic status.
      Hmmm. J-M and BB do not just have 'low social-economic status' -- they are the two poorest cities in Israel. Is it a coincidence that all three* of these cities have a large, or very large proportion of religious residents? In other words -- does this bolster the school of thought which claims that religion is good for your health? Or is it just that sitting in yeshivah all day is less strenuous than working for a living?

      *According to this site, Beit Shemesh has 70% religious -- I guess it depends what you count as Beit Shemesh).

      Orthodox Jews can finally breathe easy again...

      An Israeli couple from Shavei Shomron have invented a version of Su Doku you can do on Shabbos.

      "Journal of Religion and Abuse"

      Someone just handed me (in a professional capacity...) a new publication called "Domestic Abuse and the Jewish Comunity: Perspectives from the First International conference." It looks like it has several interesting articles, which I will try and get through, but -- straight off -- I was interested to see that the book was "published simultaneously" as part of the sixth volume of the "Journal of Religion and Abuse." Who ever thought there was such a thing?

      Is contemporary halakhah dysfunctional?

      For some reason the 'Comments' on my post below regarding Modern Orthodoxy have 'frozen up', and I can't access them (can anyone else?). I hope they unfreeze, and I apologise to those whose contributions have evaporated into cyberspace. This is/was my response to the comments posted, and I'm posting it here , with some minor changes, as a stand-alone:
      As I remarked yesterday to a colleague, discussing the issue of how halakhah is functioning in today's community:

      The needs of society (=Jewish society) must not only be *set* by halakhah - they also have to be *met*.

      Part of the problem is the lack of sophistication (perhaps because of the anti-history tendency of Haredi society?) in the theoretical understanding of halakhah, which is in its grassroots application a relative, social system, and not an abstract, absolute mechanical / mathematical system. Take it away from its social context and it is inoperable. It is a lso a hierarchied system, where the power to make decisions is in a structure. Today, people who can barely read Hebrew email across the globe with "R'x says that ..." messages, and our shul weekly bulletins and handouts are filled with English 'Halachah notes' of formidable detail that a generation or so ago would have been restricted to a small circle of Rabbanim. They are avidly read by the
      "It says that / You've got to ...." brigade.

      Well, you don't have to.

      The halakhic spiral in which we are caught is making it impossible to be frum, unless you are frum as a profession on a full-time basis (="in learning"), and can carry out your existence unimpeded by small considerations such as real life, earning a living, and interacting with the 99.999% of humanity who are non-Jewish.

      And, before the normal bunch jump in to tell me how misguided and wicked I am - I do not welcome any of the above developments - at all. I would much rather that we returned to sanity and generated the leaders who would offer us a theoretical AND A PRACTICAL 'Moreh nevuchei hazman', and give us an inpiring, reasonable, engaging orthodoxy for our times.