Friday, July 31, 2009

Turnaround in the Charedi community?

Have the scandals of the past few weeks - including the riots in Jerusalem, the arrest of the NJ rabbis on allegations of money laundering, etc - been a wake-up call in some parts of the Charedi community?

On Tuesday, for example, the Charedi community in New York held a public symposium on business ethics, in response to the money-laundering scandal:

The most surprising moment of the night came at the very beginning, when the Grand Rabbi of the Spinka sect, Naftali Tzi Weisz, at right, took the stage for an unscheduled appearance. Weisz was arrested in a separate money-laundering case in 2007, and just last week he pleaded guilty, reportedly accepting a jail term. Before heading off to serve that term, Weisz delivered an obviously emotional mea culpa for his wrong-doings, first in Yiddish and then in awkwardly translated English.

“Unfortunately we have to admit in public that things happened that were not supposed to happen,” Weisz told the men in attendance (women were not invited to the forum). “We must have to express our wish that these matters will never happen — we have to commit that in the future this will never happen again.”

Weisz spoke in great detail about the compliance program that the Spinka board has entered with the government and he said, “Our community, baruch hashem, is not lacking in smart experienced lawyers and accountants that are willing to teach the tzibur [community], how to conduct their communal affairs in a manner that is in compliance with the law in all respects.”

See, as well, this report on Vos Iz Neias - a very popular aggregator of news from the frum world - on an Israeli Charedi man arrested this week on suspicion of smuggling drugs (in Heathrow, as it happens).

What is interesting here are the comments on the post - almost uniformally condemning the arrested man, and asking whether he deserves help from the community, which, according to the report, is "trying to secure his release".

Are these the seeds of a new era of accountability in the Charedi world?

Let's hope so.

Media bias in Israel - a partial explanation

Re: the call for President Obama to speak to Israelis - Time Magazine reporter Joe Klein claims that "Obama is already planning to make this sort of effort -- Israeli television interviews etc. -- in the coming weeks."

If so, it will be interesting to see whether he can shift the Israeli public's perception of him, or whether his actions will continue to speak louder than his words, even when addressing Israelis directly.

As a side note, Klein also makes an interesting confession in response to Aluf Benn's claim that Obama made a mistake focusing on the settlement issue, because most Israelis have nothing to do with the settlements and know very little about them.

He says:

It's taken me decades to realize this. Most Israelis--especially those who live in Tel Aviv and environs--not only don't see settler types, they also don't see many Arabs. They live their lives, do their work, have fun at the beach. By contrast, when journos like me parachute in, we usually go to Jerusalem, where the government and a significant Arab population lives, and usually (in my case, at least,) combine it with a visit to the West Bank or Gaza. Most journalists based in Israel live in Jerusalem and spend lots of time in both communities. They are aware of the proliferation of settlements and they have experienced the outrageous conditions in the Palestinian territories.

The most interesting bit about this observation is that it took Klein "decades" to realise what every Israeli child knows: Jerusalem and Tel Aviv are two different planets. You have to be quite arrogant to imagine that a couple of days in Israel here or there could possibly result in a deep understanding of it - no matter how many people you interview.

Although I suppose he's not much different to the hordes of tourists who spend Sukkot in the lobby of the King David Hotel and think they know Israel too.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Tisha b'Av urban legend

According to,

The story is told that Napoleon was walking through the streets of Paris one Tisha B'Av. As his entourage passed a synagogue he heard wailing and crying coming from within; he sent an aide to inquire as to what had happened. The aide returned and told Napoleon that the Jews were in mourning over the loss of their Temple.

Napoleon was indignant! "How come I wasn't informed? When did this happen? Which Temple?"

The aide responded, "They lost their Temple in Jerusalem on this date 1,700 years ago."

Napoleon stood in silence and then said, "Certainly a people which has mourned the loss of their Temple for so long will survive to see it rebuilt!"

Alternate versions have the story taking place in Acre, or Napoleon himself going into the synagogue; alternate punchlines have him saying, "I vow that this people is destined for a future in their own homeland. For is there any other people who have kept alive similar mourning and hope for so many years?" or "any people that still feel strongly about events that occurred to them thousands of years ago, will surely survive as a people, and persevere."

I have no idea how or where this story originated. Anyone?

Department of dumb ideas

This is why we have a "shidduch crisis".

Some ingenious mind has just launched a new venture called "Shidduch in a box". The idea is that at an Orthodox wedding, the happy couple puts out a table near the place cards which includes "shidduch profiles", to be filled out by their single friends while waiting for the couple to emerge from the Yichud room / take their pictures etc.

After the wedding and sheva brachot are over, the couple can use the profiles to start setting up their friends.

Brilliant, right?

But let's look at the small print. The Shidduch Box kit, which is given to the couple before the wedding, includes "an explanatory page for the couple - explanatory pages to display at their wedding (one for the men's side, one for the women's)."

I hate to point it out, but if these poor singles were actually allowed to sit together at the wedding, there would be no need for shtick like "shidduch boxes". They might actually be able to meet each other under normal conditions, develop a natural conversation, and maybe even like each other.

But no, let's keep them at opposite sides of the room, and get them to fill out forms........

(Or perhaps the whole idea of the Shidduch Box is that the singles finally get to mingle when they are filling out the forms? Shouldn't there be two shidduch boxes, one for the men's side and one for the women's? Just a thought...)

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Top 10 signs your rabbi was recently indicted

Frum Satire responds to the New Jersey money-laundering scandal with the top 10 signs your rabbi was recently indicted:

10 Suddenly takes on minhag to wear hat on face

9 Synagogue Charity Auction now includes “Kidney”

8 Unless you work in criminal defense, you ain’t getting Shlishi

7 Rebbetzin is suddenly on Jdate

6 Afternoon Halacha Shiur now entitled: “Ankle Monitors on Shabbat”

5 Will be spending the rest of the summer “upstate”

4 Sermon comes in form of an Affadavit

3 Keeps tying everything to an obscure “Josef in Jail” metaphor

2 Pretty sure he just referred to Bernie Madoff as “Shlita”

1 He’s still wearing Black & White, only this time, it’s all stripes

The White House responds

Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic - whose blog is essential reading, incidentally - followed up Aluf Benn's piece in the NYT, which I wrote about yesterday, with two administration officials close to Obama.

Benn had argued that President Obama is losing Israel, including its left, because he has not spoken directly to them.

According to Goldberg, the officials

seemed to feel fairly strongly that Benn doesn't understand what the President is trying to do...

These two senior officials -- sorry, those were the ground rules -- made the plausible argument that the Cairo speech was, in fact, directed at Israelis as much as it was directed at Arabs. "The President went before a Cairo audience in a speech co-sponsored by Al-Azhar with Muslim Brotherhood members in the audience and spoke of America's strong, unshakable support for Israel," one of the officials said. "He could have gone to a million different venues to say this, but he went to Cairo, and it wasn't exactly an applause line. Isn't it more important to say this to the Muslim world than it is to say it to an audience of Israelis or American Jews?"

The answer, I believe, is in this essay by Harvard's Michael Doran, published earlier this month. He says:

The Cairo speech cast Israel as a bit player in a U.S.-Muslim drama. The President, stressing his Muslim ancestry, did not take the time to fly to Jerusalem, where he might have reasoned with the Israeli public about the value to it of abandoning the Bush-Sharon agreement [allowing for 'natural growth' in settlements]. Instead, his advisers denied flatly (and falsely) that such an agreement had ever existed. As a consequence of this disingenuousness, many Israelis fear that the administration aims to buy goodwill from the Muslim world by distancing itself from Israel...

Historian Yaakov Lozowick, incidentally, takes issue with the officials' assertion that Benn does not understand the President.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

A plea to President Obama

Aluf Benn of Ha'aretz had a forceful op-ed in the NYT yesterday, in which he calls on President Obama to talk directly to Israelis, because he is rapidly losing their sympathy.

It's worth reading in full - considering his terrible relationship with Netanyahu, this might be the closest President Obama gets to hearing what Israelis really think.

In the meanwhile, a couple of particularly astute observations:

This policy of ignoring Israel carries a price. Though Mr. Obama has succeeded in prodding Mr. Netanyahu to accept the idea of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, he has failed to induce Israel to impose a freeze on settlements. In fact, he has failed even to stir debate about the merits of one: no Israeli political figure has stood up to Mr. Netanyahu and begged him to support Mr. Obama; not even the Israeli left, desperate for a new agenda, has adopted Mr. Obama as its icon.....

Mr. Obama seems to have confused American Jews with Israelis. We are close emotionally and politically, but we are different. We speak Hebrew and not English, we live in the Middle East and have separate historical narratives. Mr. Obama’s stop at Buchenwald and his strong rejection of Holocaust denial, immediately after his Cairo speech, appealed to American Jews but fell flat in Israel. Here we are taught that Zionist determination and struggle — not guilt over the Holocaust — brought Jews a homeland. Mr. Obama’s speech, which linked Israel’s existence to the Jewish tragedy, infuriated many Israelis who sensed its closeness to the narrative of enemies like Mahmoud Ahmedinejad.

One point Aluf did not make: It's not enough to talk to Israelis - it would help if he actually listened, too.

Breaking news: Egypt occupies Iraq


This map apparently appeared on the July 27 edition of The Live Desk on Fox News.

They say only a quarter of Americans can identify America on a map, so I don't know why anyone's surprised.....


Monday, July 27, 2009

How the Jews won WWII, and a smelly Brit defeated the mandate

There's an interesting review of Andrew Roberts's new history of the Second World War, The Storm of War, in the Economist.

In brief, Mr Roberts argues that the war started when it did because Hitler was a Nazi, and that Germany lost it for the same reason.

The Nazi leader’s blunders started when he began to turn his anti- Semitic rhetoric into practice, driving many of Germany’s best brains into exile. The allies won because “our German scientists were better than their German scientists”, was the pithy summary of the war’s outcome by one of Churchill’s closest aides, Sir Ian Jacob.

Excellent German engineering and ruthless use of forced labour was not enough to make up for the drain of so many clever people into exile or concentration camps.

In other words, killing off the Jews lost Germany the war. Just wait for the Neo-Nazis to cotton on to this: now they have another reason to hate us!

As a side note, the reviewer (in the Economist, always anonymous) notes that the book is full of "startling facts". My favourite concerns Orde Wingate, the Christian British officer who became an ardent Zionist and played a central role training the Haganah troops. According to Roberts,

Orde Wingate was an ardent nudist who never bathed. (He scrubbed himself with a stiff brush, instead.)

And in the Mediterranean sun, too....

Kids nowdays

614, a web-only magazine published by the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, has a new issue online, dedicated to Jewish Sex ("a new look at an old act").

In this disturbing piece, Shulamit Reinharz, director of the Institute, reports that

a woman in her seventies began sharing her concern with me about the custom in her granddaughter's prep school; Jewish girls were giving Jewish boys blowjobs as bar mitzvah presents! Presumably because they've already got everything else.

I couldn't believe my ears. But then she told me that this practice is so rampant that the Reform Jewish movement has taken it on as a national policy concern. I checked that piece of information out on Google and, sure enough, there is an article to that effect dated November 19, 2005. Rabbi Eric Yoffie, President of the Union for Reform Judaism, addressed 4,200 people in Houston for its biennial convention and explicitly talked about oral sex and hooking up. Bravo, Rabbi Yoffie. For him the issue was that girls are "defining their worth by how they please boys." The degradation of girls flies in the face of the Reform Movement's dedication to the equality of women, he said...

at a recent bat mitzvah I asked the rabbi if he had heard about this topic. He told me his youth group leaders are complaining that this behavior exists and that his synagogue will soon be introducing a curriculum to deal with it.


Friday, July 24, 2009

In praise of Gideon Levy

Gideon Levy of Ha'aretz is widely admired outside Israel for his championing of Palestinian rights, but dismissed within most of Israel as too politically rigid to take seriously. He is entirely predictable on anything to do with the Palestinians - and far, far, far to the left of most Israelis, making him almost irrelevant to a domestic audience (those that don't hate him, that is).

So here is a word in his favour.

Today, he has published an extraordinary article calling for more understanding of, and tolerance for, the Charedim by the secular majority.

This is the second time he has come out with this line, the first being a few weeks ago, when a group of secular residents objected to Charedim moving into the tony Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat Aviv.

And this, in some senses, is a far braver stand than the one he takes with the Palestinians. At least when he stands up for the Palestinians, he knows he has the support of many of his leftist friends, and wide support from overseas. Defending and sympathising with the Charedim is far more unusual in his circles - he really is a lone voice here, and many of those who applaud his stand on the Palestinians will probably hate what he has to say on the Charedim.

It is good to see that he stands up for the truth, as he sees it, wherever it lands him on the political spectrum. An example for us all.

BBC's shameful headline

In the US yesterday, 40 people were arrested for corruption and money laundering, including three New Jersey mayors, two members of the state legislature, and - yes - several rabbis.

Right now, the BBC headline on the story reads, "US corruption probe nets dozens".

But according to the JTA's Ron Kampeas, earlier it read, "US rabbis arrested in crime probe".

What? No mayors? No elected officials?

Sometimes you have to wonder whether it's just Israel they hate.

Looking for a wife - on Facebook

I've heard of picking up dates through facebook. But now, eligible London bachelor Marcus Freed - of Bibliyoga fame - is using the social networking site to launch an official search for a wife.

According to his page,

Marcus is inviting applications for the role of WIFE! Please send serious suggestions to . For real! Successful candidate should expect a life of joy, blessing, adventure, romance, multiple progeny and free yoga. GSOH a huge advantage – you’ll need it.

Future Mrs Freed should be...
1. Prepared for adventure, excitement and happy to be the subject/object of absolute devotion.
2. Tolerant of the neurotic artist-type.
3. Shomeret Shabbat/Kashrut (Sabbath Observant)…if not already. This one’s important.

….abilty to dance in rhythm an advantage. Prior salsa training not essential.

MJF user manual:
- requires small doses of undivided attention on a regular basis. If given too much attention, it results in boisterous and potentially obnoxious behaviour.
- doesn't respond well to being given excessive rules and directions.
- gets grouchy when tired. When this happens, point him in the direction of a couch and a bowl of cereal (granola with flax seed).

Here's what you (the successful candidate) will receive
- a lifetime of joy, blessing, happiness, fun
- beautiful children with unpredictable talents
- support from the extended Freed family (who got all of the normal genes)

About your potential future mother-in-law:
- witty, motivated, clever, and loves doting after grandchildren and babysitting them.

About your potential future father-in-law:
- lovely, sweet, listens to your p.m-i-l (who has final say). Talented musician and amazing handyman who fixes all the broken stuff around the house and can make anything on a sewing machine.

About your potential future sister-in-law:
Born a couple of years after MJF, the parents had refined the child-rearing process so she’s a little more sophisticated and emotionally calibrated. She knows the weak-points of MJF so can help with advice on how to tame him if needed.

Still reading? Ok. Do a quick websearch on MJF. See if that puts you off.

Still reading? really? Ok. Please answer in 50 words or less; why are you still interested? (This is an elimination process. There can only be one Future Mrs Freed). Now email it to .

Thank you. Our people will contact your people.

First date will be on Twitter.

Good luck, Marcus!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Have Jewish/Israeli scientists found a cure for radiation sickness?

Ynet reports:

The first series of tests included experiments on more than 650 monkeys. Each test featured two groups of monkeys exposed to radiation, but only one group was given the medication. The radiation dosage was equal to the highest dosage sustained by humans as result of the Chernobyl mishap.

The experiment's results were dramatic: 70% of the monkeys that did not receive the cure died, while the ones that survived suffered from the various maladies associated with lethal nuclear radiation. However, the group that did receive the anti-radiation shot saw almost all monkeys survive, most of them without any side-effects. The tests showed that injecting the medication between 24 hours before the exposure to 72 hours following the exposure achieves similar results.

Another test on humans, who were given the drug without being exposed to radiation, showed that the medication does not have side-effects and is safe. Prof. Gudkov's company now needs to expand the safety tests, a process expected to be completed by mid-2010 via a shortened test track approved for bio-defense drugs. Should experiments continue at the current rate, the medication is estimated to be approved for use by the FDA within a year or two.

Of course people caught in the centre of the blast would still be killed, but this would save thousands of lives of people in a wider radius and prevent the kinds of severe health problems that arose after the Chernobyl disaster, for example. There are also exciting implications for cancer treatment.

Take that, Ahmadinejad.

Stop calling them 'honour killings'

According to The Times,

A young Muslim woman has been warned by police that her life is in danger after a male friend was allegedly forced to drink acid and was stabbed twice in the back in an apparent “honour attack”.

The Danish Asian man is in a serious but stable condition in hospital after an incident in Leytonstone, East London, three weeks ago. Sulphuric acid is said to have been forced down his throat.

The 24-year-old, being treated in a specialist unit in Essex, is now blind, his tongue has been destroyed and he suffered 90 per cent burns.

The woman, who claims the relationship is an innocent friendship, and the man live in the Asian community of East London, where their relationship is said to have upset her family for bringing dishonour on them.

It is time to stop calling these attacks "honour killings". They have nothing to do with honour and everything to do with control - families physically threatening and bullying women into behaving the way they would like them to behave.

Calling them "honour killings" merely enforces the lie that honour is the real motive here - and that honour is a good enough reason to kill or maim someone.

From now on, let's call them what they are - "murders".

How to make Orthodox shuls more welcoming to women

Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, a really prominent national religious rabbi in Israel, has put together a halachic document meant to spark off a rabbinic discussion about how to make synagogues more welcoming for women. (Link is to Hebrew story.)

Among his suggestions:

● Women should be partners in the running of the shul. He doesn't impose limits of this - please note United Synagogue, where women still cannot chair synagogues.

● The Torah Scroll should be passed to the women's section and on Simchat Torah, women should be encouraged (note - not "allowed" - "encouraged") to dance with it.

● Under certain conditions, women can read the Torah for other women

● Women can say kaddish in shul provided a man is also saying kaddish in the men's section

And much more.

Predictably, the comment section on YNet is already full of accusations that Rabbi Cherlow is a "Reformist". Of course he is no such thing - he is a highly respected and very frum head of a hesder yeshivah in Petach Tikvah.

In addition, almost every one of his suggestions simply reflect the day-to-day goings on in many Orthodox synagogues (not Charedi) both in Israel and in North America. His document, therefore, is not even that revolutionary - except in the sense that it is an admirable attempt by the rabbis to deal with issues in an organised, sensible and sensitive way, instead of the usual ad hoc, defensive manner.

Together with the recent Kolech conference, in which thousands of Orthodox women voted on the title to be given to women rabbis, it also clearly shows that the question of women's public role in Orthodoxy still has a way to run, and that - contrary to what they would have us believe - the momentum is not all with the conservative forces.

And what about in the UK? Here, a report detailing "inconsistent and anachronistic” attitudes over women’s participation in Orthodox synagogues, and the women's frustration, released last month, was greeted with a big collective yawn. It is hard to imagine that any of Rabbi Cherlow's ideas - non-revolutionary as they are in Israel and the US - will be implemented here for a very, very long time.

One of the differences is that our synagogues are run in a top-down manner, centrally controlled by the United Synagogue, while in Israel and the US, rabbis (even if they belong to an organisation such as the Orthodox Union) do not answer to anyone in the same way.

Our rabbis, therefore, are constrained in the decisions they can make and the practises they can introduce to their synagogues, and even the ideas they can float - while their counterparts overseas can be far more imaginative and daring.

Hats off to an original blog

One of the beauties of the blogosphere is that it gives easy access to quirky and original material.

Jerusalem Headgear is one of the most original blogs I've come across in a while. Its anonymous author has collected hundreds of pictures of the hats, kippot, scarves etc. worn by Jerusalemites. In the latest installments, she visited the Old City on Eastern Orthodox Holy Saturday and included pictures of worshippers on the way to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

It's a brilliant portrait of a very eclectic and diverse city. Enjoy!

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Finally, a sense of hope in the West Bank

A stunning story in the NYT about the prosperity of the Palestinian Authority on the West Bank - stunning because it contradicts the narrative we usually read, that the Palestinians are drowning in a sea of misery, and stunning because of the political implications.

The International Monetary Fund is about to issue its first upbeat report in years for the West Bank, forecasting a 7 percent growth rate for 2009. Car sales in 2008 were double those of 2007. Construction on the first new Palestinian town in decades, for 40,000, will begin early next year north of Ramallah. In Jenin, a seven-story store called Herbawi Home Furnishings has opened, containing the latest espresso machines. Two weeks ago, the Israeli military shut its obtrusive nine-year-old checkpoint at the entrance to this city, part of a series of reductions in security measures....

Asked to explain why the West Bank’s fortunes were shifting, a top Israeli general began his narrative with a chart showing 410 Israelis killed by Palestinians in 2002, and 4 in 2008.

“We destroyed the terrorist groups through three things — intelligence, the barrier and freedom of action by our men,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity in keeping with military rules. “We sent our troops into every marketplace and every house, staying tightly focused on getting the bad guys.”

But he added that the 2006 legislative electoral victory by Hamas, followed by its violent takeover of Gaza in 2007, led Mr. Abbas to fight Hamas. Palestinian troops have been training in Jordan under American sponsorship.

There are now several thousand men trained in that way, and their skills, along with those of the European-trained police force here, have made a huge difference...

Speaking of the seriousness of the Palestinians, he added, “Twice in recent months we have been amazed.” The first time was during Israel’s military invasion of Gaza when Palestinian police officers kept the West Bank calm during protests. The second was in June when the security forces clashed twice with Hamas men in the city of Qalqilya, fighting to the death.

Read the whole thing here.


Is the US reconciled to Iran getting the bomb?

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said that

that the U.S. has a plan to prevent Iranian domination in the Middle East if it gets the nuclear bomb.

"We want Iran to calculate what I think is a fair assessment: that if the United States extends a defense umbrella over the region, if we do even more to develop the military capacity of those (allies) in the Gulf, it is unlikely that Iran will be any stronger or safer," Clinton said during a visit to Bangkok.

Somehow I don't find this reassuring. Reassuring would be, "We will not let Iran get the bomb".

UPDATE: I see Dan Meridor agrees with me.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Modesty gone mad

Yediot Achronot's weekend magazine included a fascinating interview (no link) with
Yaffa Benizri, whose husband, Shlomo, a former Shas minister, is due to enter prison in September for (amongst a long list of things)
accepting bribes.

Two things stand out in the interview.

First, the description of their apartment in Sanhedria in Jerusalem, which is, according to the article, dirty, falling apart and neglected. This does not mean he didn't take the bribes - she as much as admits he did, though she insists they weren't bribes - but it is unusual to read of a minister living in such conditions.

Second, Yaffa's weird relationship with her husband. (Translation mine.)

"She is careful to call her husband 'Rabbi Benizri', not only when she is being interviewed for the paper but also when she is alone with him, and that is 'because of the respect, love and appreciation which I feel towards him,' she explains. 'Sometimes he calls be 'the rebbetzin', and I think he does it so that I will carry on calling him 'Rabbi Benizri'.

"She also says that her husband has never seen her without a head covering. Even at night, in the shared bedroom, she covers her hair, and does not allow even one hair to stick out."

Since when is it forbidden in Judaism for a wife to show her husband her hair when they are alone? Sorry, but this does not make Mrs Benizri any more pious than any other woman. We can only speculate what might make a woman decide never to reveal her hair to her husband, or call him by his first name, but halachah has nothing to do with it.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Take a virtual tour of Israel

Ever lived or stayed in Israel? Now you can visit again - without leaving your seat. has been photographing every street and every building in the country. Security risk, I hear you say? Who cares! You can look up all your former haunts and see what has become of them.

Here, for example, is the first flat my parents rented in Jerusalem, after several months in a centre for new immigrants - nearly 30 years ago. There was no fence back then.

I spent five years of my childhood on the top floor of this building. And countless hours on the balcony on the top left of this one. Our old neighbour still has the same car.

It's addictive. Enjoy!


A title of their own

Kolech, the influential (if left-leaning) religious women's forum in Israel, took a vote last week and decided that women who were ordained as a rabbi by an Orthodox institution would, henceforth, carry the title of "Rabba".

For such an active forum to even discuss this is another stop towards the acceptance of Orthodox women rabbis in Orthodox society.

But as for the title itself... "Rabba" is certainly an improvement on "maharat" - the cumbersome title given to Sara Horwitz a couple of months back - but the Israeli women clearly gave little thought to how it would sound in English or other languages.

With most British accents, "Rabba" would be "Rubba" or "Rubber" - just awful.

Welcome to the tribe, Ivanka Trump

This has to be good for the gene pool.

Ivanka Trump has just converted to Judaism, through an Orthodox rabbi, the highly regarded Haskel Lookstein. She will now marry long-time boyfriend, Jared Kushner, who comes from an Orthodox family.

According to New York Magazine,

This spring, for instance, Ivanka attended a benefit for the Mikvah, the traditional Jewish bath, in Jared's hometown of Livingston, New Jersey, with his mom, Seryl, and his two sisters, Nicole and Dara. One attendee reported that Seryl introduced Ivanka to friends solely as "Ivanka," and not as Jared's girlfriend...

One of their favorite activities is to group friends together for dinner parties. "I've learned how to cook," Ivanka said. "Once a week, we have a night in and I cook for just the two of us."

That's Friday night, I hope.

On a serious note, I do wonder what would have happened had she tried to convert in London - it seems more than likely it would never have happened.

Meanwhile, Mazal tov.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Spot the deliberate mistake


Let this headline, from this week's Jewish Tribune, be a warning to all copy-editors out there.

It should have read "Minister welcomes Anti-Semitism report", of course.

It's only topped by the student magazine I used to edit in Canada, Dateline:Middle East, which in 1991, around the time of the Madrid peace conference - and before I was on board - published a huge headline: "Peace breaks out in the Middle".

"East" had dropped off.

What's a nice Jewish boy doing with a gun? (Or, the Pintele Yid)

One of my favourite blogs is up and running again for the summer. Roving Rabbis is the group-blog of all the young Lubavitcher men sent every summer to all corners of the world, to meet estranged Jews and give them a chance to put on tefillin or light Shabbat candles, possible for the first time ever.

The blog really brings home just how dispersed we are, and how there so often turns out to be a Jew in the most unexpected of places.

Take Reuven in Puerto Rico:

We made the trek up windy roads and dangerous cliffs, and at long last, arrived at the beautiful home which he had built. The house is decorated with classic judaica, including a menorah, and Jewish art. He was overjoyed to be able to offer us produce from his garden. The emotion was palpable as Reuben showed us the tefillin which he wears every morning.

Talk about isolation, Reuben tells us that he is the only Jew for an hour's drive in every direction. Can you imagine? When he lights his menorah, there is probably not another one within a hundred miles. Quite a far cry from the Midwestern suburbs where we grew up among kosher butcheries and bagel shops!

Or, from Tombstone, Arizona:

It's a real Wild West city with rough looking guys sporting rifles and 10-gallon-Stetsons. We had heard that there was a Jewish section in the old cemetery so we decided to visit and recite some Psalms—after all, the town was not named Tombstone for nothing!

We asked a cowboy if he knew where it was. He told us that he did and that he was (gasp) Jewish. He divides his time between doing real cowboy things and standing around town looking nonchalant. He offered us free tickets to his shooting exhibition (which we declined) and we offered him the opportunity to put on tefillin (which he accepted). He told us that it wasn't his first time: some Chabad guys in an RV in New York had done the same thing with him when he was there a few years back…

When we got to the cemetery we discovered a startling fact. Nobody in these parts ever died: They were all killed by Indians or their fellow cowboys.

It's great stuff. Kol hakavod, Lubavitch.

What a riot - not

For the past couple of nights, a group of Charedim has been rioting in Jerusalem, protesting the arrest of a Neturei Karta woman who has been accused of starving one of her children almost to death. She apparently suffers from Munchausen's Syndrome by Proxy and refuses psychiatric evalution.

The boy, who is three-years-old, weighs just 7 kg - less than my nine-month-old - a shocking picture can be seen here. Now that he has been seperated from his mother, he is apparently gaining weight. A hearing for the mother is underway as I write.

The husband, incidentally, is London-born, though the family name has not been released.

The Jerusalem Post has contacted various experts to try to explain how the Charedi activists can take the mother's side when the evidence against her seems so conclusive. They say that the fight is being led by a small sect, with a history of tension with the state and its institutions; that once they begin a fight, it is very hard for other Charedim to come out against them, as they will be seen as less keen to "defend Judaism"; and that many Charedim see the arrest of the woman as an attack on the reputation of their community.

I will add:

1. The fight is directed at two audiences. Yes, there is the external one - though how anyone thinks that they will be able to defend their community's image as 'wholesome' by erupting into violence is unclear. But there is also an internal audience. Many of the rioters may genuinely believe that this woman is being victimised, badly treated etc etc etc, but surely those behind the riots know full well that one of its functions is to maintain and create the tension with the state - not just reflect it.

2. It is clear that the Police and Jerusalem municipality have no idea how to handle these Charedi extremists, who have been rioting on various pretexts throughout the summer (this is not new - I remember as a child growing up in the 1980s similar riots every summer).

3. It is clear that the Charedi leaders also do not know how to handle these extremists, who are inflaming the street often to the great consernation of much of the rest of the Charedi world. But no one is prepared to say or act, and in some cases, they actively encourage, for fear of looking 'soft'.

4. Given 2&3, it is going to be a long, violent summer, at least until the yeshivahs start up again in the beginning of elul.

5. Expect further secular flight from Jerusalem, which is perhaps the greatest loser in all of this mayhem.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

If you can't bear to part from your sukkah...


DovBear has posted an ad by a North London sukkah company, which promises "a written guarantee that your sukka will go to you to Eretz Yisroel when Moshiach comes."

I phoned the gentleman who owns the company, one Mr Bard, to find out why exactly anyone would want this.

He explained to me that the Gemara says that when Moshiach comes, all shuls will go to Israel. The Kedushas Levi adds that so will all Jewish houses which were filled with Torah. Sukkahs going to Israel as well, however, are Mr Bard's own addition - "if houses that are filled with Torah go, a Sukkah, which is a piece of a mitzvah, must go too."

There's no actual need for a sukkah to be transported to Israel in messianic times (as someone on DovBear's website commented, surely you can buy sukkot in Israel) - "just if you want it to".

Sadly, no one has taken him up on the offer of a written guarantee yet - but "it's a new thing".

Evil Zionist chewing gum plot

Those devious Mossad agents are at it again - trying to corrupt the Gaza youth:

Hamas suspects that Israeli intelligence services are supplying its Gaza Strip stronghold with chewing gum that boosts the sex drive in order to "corrupt the young," an official said on Tuesday.

"We have discovered two types of stimulants that were introduced into the Gaza Strip from Israeli border crossings," Hamas police spokesman Islam Shahwan told AFP.

"The first type is presented in the form of chewing gum and the second in the form of drops," he said...

The story came to light after a Palestinian man filed a complaint that his daughter had experienced "dubious side effects" after chewing the offending gum, Israeli media reported."

So let's get this clear. Israel is being accused - at the same time - of trying to decimate the Palestinian population, and encouraging them to breed uncontrollably. Well, which is it?

Monday, July 13, 2009

Michael Jackson, the Jew

Roseanne Barr - possibly not the world's most reliable source - has written a note to Michael Jackson's children:

You are jewish, and your dad really loved jewish people and considered himself one of them. He considered that it didnt matter if a person was black or white, rich or poor, Muslim or christian, but that it DID matter if a person was jewish. Your dad believed that the Jewish People would change the world just by changing themselves. This is a very important jewish concept! Your dad would want you to know these things, he was a student of kabballah. kabballah teaches us that the jews need to change themselves, and to do that, they need to accept that they came from africa, from ethiopia, and not from europe!"

If Michael Jackson considered himself such a Jew, how come he converted to Islam?

Friday, July 10, 2009

Should sheitls be banned?

And while we're on the subject of covering up...

Hadassah Sabo Milner, an Orthodox Brit currently living in Canada, writes about her changing emotions about covering her hair:

When I was first married, years ago, I didn’t want to cover my hair, I just did it because it was asked of me. Almost every time I covered it I felt like I was putting shackles on. I never researched it, never wanted to understand the reasons why. I just went along with the flow – shalom bayit, y’know? I know there are a lot of women out there who feel the same way, and yet they plod along because it is expected of them.

At the time that I uncovered my hair, about 10 days after receiving my Get, I did so after a lot of conscious thought and reflection... My Get happened mere weeks after we separated. I was in so much deep pain and suffering and at that time, I needed, for myself, to physically show signs of my grief (other than crying all day long wherever I was – that gets old quickly), to work through the grief and the pain and the anguish and all of that.

It was never about “not married any more so who needs to cover their hair, I am doing what I want”. I needed to do it to help heal my spirit. I needed to show myself and the world that I was not the same person I was when I was married.

By the time last year’s barmitzvah preparations were in full swing and the barmitzvah boy asked that I wear a sheitel and not a hat to the festivities, I had to do some tremendous soul searching... Standing there, on the day of the barmitzvah, watching my son lain his parshah, my heart swelling with enormous pride and love and gratitude to G-d, I knew I had come full circle. I knew my mourning was very much over. I let go of the past, of the pain, of the anger and bitterness. That day marked my son’s barmitzvah but also in some ways my rebirth.

Since that day I have been lucky in finding my soul mate, and in February we celebrated our wedding, and the merging of two lively households. I wore a sheitel to my wedding. I cover my hair now when I leave the house. I am a married lady, and it is what’s right for me.

Many religious men take it for granted that their wives will cover their hair, but they have no idea what a difficult mitzvah this is to keep. I struggled for so long with it, and it was only in the absence of keeping this mitzvah that I learned to appreciate the finer points of it. I wish that when I had first got married that there were classes to explain the whys and wherefores of hair covering, to help us come to terms with it. As girls and teenagers, we obsess about our hair, and then all of a sudden we are expected to cover it. It’s a lot to have to deal with."

A reminder that in our religion, too, covering one's hair is not always an issue of entirely free choice - there are social and familial pressures at play here too.

So - like the burka - should sheitls be banned?

The difference, I think, is that wearing a burka makes it difficult to interact with others, obscuring a woman's personality and turning her into a faceless entity.

A sheitl may be uncomfortable and unwanted (for some), but it does not obscure a woman's essence. It is not oppressive, nor does it interfere with public order.

In addition, a burka is a political statement to do with radical Islam, not just a religious (and social) symbol like the sheitl.


'The burka gives me bad headaches'

Should the burka be banned?

A debate is raging in France, echoing discussions which have taken place in this country and around Europe in the last few years. Those who think they should be banned - including President Sarkozy - claim that they are a polical statement rather than a religious one, and oppress women.

Others - such as President Obama, in his Cairo speech - think that women's right to wear the burka in public must be protected; the state has no business telling people what to wear and essential freedom is involved.

An interesting insight, therefore, in this Reuters piece about burkas in Afghanistan. Sales have dropped by as much as 50 per cent since the Taliban was toppled in 2001:

In the gardens of the shrine of a revered sufi poet, cousins Margol and Amirejan Abdulzai chatted together as they walked among rose bushes and marble tombstones.

Margol has lifted her burqa over her head for now because she can relax a bit more in the enclosed and quiet space. Amirejan wore a black chador namaz decorated in swirling white flowers.

"When I wear a burqa it gives me a really bad feeling. I don't like to wear it. My family are not really happy with me wearing a chador namaz, they tell me to always wear a burqa. But I don't like it, it upsets me, I can't breathe properly," 18-year-old Amirejan said.

Margol, who is in her early 20s, said that she was used to the burqa now, having worn it since she was about 15. Her family prefers her to wear it and does not approve of her walking the streets with her face on display.

"My family says I have to wear it, they say the chador namaz is bad. You understand that if you don't wear a burqa and your face is open, people will just gossip about you," Margol said, giggling.

"But it does give me bad headaches, it puts a lot of pressure on my head, especially if it's sewn too tightly," she added.

Her cousin Amirejan said she would rather wear a mantau chalvar and discard her chador namaz if it was left up to her.

"Now they say that Afghanistan is free and women should be able to breathe more, but no, your mother, auntie and family still tell you that you have to wear the burqa ... I just don't like it, I like to be free, not under a burqa."

President Obama, please note the common thread - wearing the burka is not the free choice of these women. They are pushed into it by their relatives (including female relatives).

No Gilad Shalit deal until his condition is verified

The Hamas leader in charge of the Shalit portfolio, Osama al-Muzeini, has said that only a few people in the organisation know whether the Israeli soldier is "wounded, sick or dead", and that even the leadership is in the dark. (Fuller report in Hebrew here.)

Now, it is perfectly possible that this is a negotiation tactic; implying that Shalit may be "wounded, sick or dead" certainly ups the pressure on Israel to conclude a deal quickly.

However, there is a lesson in this for Israel. During the last prisoner exchange, with Hizbollah exactly a year ago, the government was widely criticised within Israel for not knowing whether they were negotiating to receive live soldiers, or bodies. Although kidnapped soldiers Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser were widely assumed to be dead, this was only finally confirmed when their coffins were delivered to the border. Had Israel known this for absolute certain beforehand, it would have surely affected the price they were willing to pay to get them back.

Israel cannot repeat the same mistake with Shalit. It must know exactly what state he is in before they make any promises, whatsoever, to Hamas - they need to know what they are negotiating for.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Giving Ruth Madoff the benefit of the doubt

A couple of days ago I wrote about how few people had come to the defence of Ruth Madoff, Bernie's wife. Now, Debra Nussbaum Cohen quotes from Ruth's statement, on The Sisterhood, one of the Forward's blogs:

"From the moment I learned from my husband that he had committed an enormous fraud, I have had two thoughts – first, that so many people who trusted him would be ruined financially and emotionally, and second, that my life with the man I have known for over 50 years was over … Lives have been upended and futures have been taken away. All those touched by this fraud feel betrayed; disbelieving the nightmare they woke to. I am embarrassed and ashamed. Like everyone else, I feel betrayed and confused. The man who committed this horrible fraud is not the man whom I have known for all these years.”

I find her claim that she does not know her husband –- her high school sweetheart – intriguing.

Is it, as one friend claimed at a lively shabbat dinner table discussion last week, simply a legal maneuver to distance herself from being further implicated in Bernie’s criminal conduct?

But I wonder if we ever truly know even the people with whom we are most intimate. On this question the two married couples at the table were silent. Only the never-married man at the table thought she must have known what was going on. The rest of us, perhaps, knew better.

After all, even among couples in my generation (late-30s to 50s), many times one partner handles the finances and the other says that she (usually it’s the wife) leaves it in her husband’s hands.

All the more so for couples of the Madoffs’ generation. Ruth is 67, Bernie 71. It was typical, when they were married 50 years ago, for women to be uninvolved in their family financial life and certainly in their husbands’ business affairs, even if they were close in other respects.

I feel sure that she enjoyed all of the material fruits of her husband’s fraud. But I think she can only be blamed for greed and willful ignorance. And, to a certain extent, can’t we all?

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Enough with Michael Jackson

Hands up anyone who - like me - objects to the Michael Jackson hoopla.

I don't mind celebrating his music - the bestselling album of all time certainly deserves to be marked.

But do we really need to elevate Whacko Jacko to the status of saint?

Poor Ruth Madoff?

A sad profile of Ruth Madoff in New York Magazine.

It portrays a woman separated, forever, from the love of her life; completely shunned by her children; who has lost her status in society; who is struggling to come to terms, psychologically, with her downfall; and most of all, who is almost universally reviled by the general public.

Friends seem to be divided as to whether she knew about her husband's illegal activities. Some contend that she was a close partner of Madoff's and must have known the true source of their fabulous wealth, while others say that she had little knowledge of his business and grew up in a generation where women did not ask too much about their husband's financial affairs. She has not been charged with any wrongdoing, and it is possible we may never know the truth.

So - given the uncertainty - why is she hated so much, by so many? Why has she not been given the benefit of the doubt?

Bernie may be behind bars, but his crime is still very much an unsolved mystery, a tangled money trail that may take years to sort out. Fairly or not, as long as there are loose ends, and until every last penny of the $170 billion prosecutors say flowed through his fraudulent enterprise is accounted for, Ruth will be a target of suspicion.

In the public eye, Ruth has come to represent the spoils of her husband’s criminal activity: The lifestyle, the furs and jewelry, the fancy hair salon, the clinking glasses at parties, the trips around the world—they all seemed like they were her domain, orchestrated and enjoyed more by her than by the stone-faced, withdrawn Bernie.

It didn’t matter that Ruth came from modest beginnings; something about the way she carried herself—her highlighted hair, the upturned collar and petite physique—played into the stereotype of the pampered, free-spending wife.

Ruth’s problem seems to be a particularly female one.

“It’s the gender politics of the culture,” says Gloria Steinem. “It’s easier to blame the person with less power.”

And, she adds, why aren’t people blaming her sons? “They would be much more likely to be in cahoots, because they were in the same professional field. And the answer is, they’re men, that’s why.”

While there is an element of truth to both explanations, to me, the money explanation seems stronger than the gender one.

Compare Mrs Madoff with Frau Fritzl - wife of Joseph Fritzl, who imprisoned his daughter in an underground prison for 24 years and raped her thousands of times (a far more heinous crime than Madoff's).

The question of how much she knew seem much more pertinent in her case - after all, three children appearing from nowhere on her doorstep is much more suspicious than a never-ending flow of money from a successful businessman, a former chair of the Nasdaq, to boot.

Yet, despite the loud whispers that 'she must have known', Mrs Fritzl was constantly given the benefit of the doubt, and excuses were constantly made on her behalf. She was in denial; afraid of Fritzl; his lies were plausible etc. No one has bothered making parallel excuses for Mrs Madoff.

Why the difference? It seems to come down, mostly, to envy of the rich.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Is the Tube dangerous for your soul?

According to Hamodia, religious educators have warned parents not to let their children travel alone on the Piccadilly Line, as they might overhear unsuitable announcements over the loudspeaker system.

Apparently, Tube drivers have been given a book of quotes which they are being encouraged to read from over the intercom to break the monotony of their passengers' journey.

(Apparently it's ok to drive a train and read a book at the same time - although any car driver attempting the same would be arrested. This might also explain a lot about train delays.)

The quotes come from Shakespeare, Gandhi and Einstein, among others, but according to Hamodia, "may oppose Torah oppose Torah hashkafah [outlook] or even be divrei kefirah [heresy]".

"I would advise parents not to let their children travel alone, so that if they hear anything contrary to daas Torah [the Torah view] the person accompanying the child would give the Torah's view on the subject", said a "leading mechanech" (educator).

Let's leave aside the obvious impracticality of forbidding children to travel alone on the Tube - advice that will surely be ignored by the community; the assumption that the adults will be able to counter the "kefirah"; and the implication that a quote or two from Shakespeare might be enough to shake the worldview of a young Charedi child, and requires immediate intervention.

Has anyone heard any of these announcements? What quotes are they worried about?

Are we really that ugly?

A local newspaper in Vail, Colorado, is under fire for describing a suspect in a robbery as being "of Jewish or Eastern European descent".

And what does someone of Jewish descent look like?

According to the paper - which, even worse, was simply repeating the press release issued by the Eagle County Sheriff’s Department - he had "dark hair, large nose, pierced ears, narrow face and eyes that were close together.”

What, no horns?

Why Gaza is free from swine flu

In Britain, 100,000 people a day are expected to become infected with swine flu. But in the Gaza Strip, despite the crowded living conditions, infection has been extremely limited - just 40 people so far.

How come? It's the Zionist occupation:

Dr. Fuad El-Eisawi of the Palestinian Health Ministry said the disease has not spread to the Gaza Strip because Israel's blockade prevented its residents from leaving or entering the Hamas-ruled territory.

I'm back...

Back from maternity leave and blogging again. Stay tuned...