Friday, May 14, 2010

Lubavitcher Rebbe, frustrated engineer

A new biography of the Lubavitcher Rebbe by two experts on the strictly Orthodox community is coming out at the end of the month.

Shmuley Boteach, getting in with an early review, gives a sneak preview:

Heilman and Friedman’s central thesis is that Menachem Schneerson, son of a renowned rabbinic scholar and scion of a distinguished chasidic family, was never completely engaged by his chasidic upbringing, preferring instead the modernizing and secularizing influences that made such significant inroads among young Jewish intellectuals in early 20th-century Russia and Europe. The rebbe’s dream was to live the life of a bourgeois European intellectual and become an engineer, they contend. He yearned not for the chasidic study halls of Warsaw or Lubavitch but for the intellectual cafes of Berlin and Paris. As such, he chose, according to the authors, to trim his beard, wear modern suits, and distance himself from the chasidic community in Paris, where he and his wife, the daughter of the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe (whose place Menachem Schneerson would eventually fill), lived after their marriage.

The rebbe’s ultimate career goal, the authors maintain, was to be a successful engineer. However, after fleeing Hitler to the United States and the court in Brooklyn of his father-in-law, Rabbi Joseph Isaac Schneerson, he gradually accepted the undeniable facts that he was a forty-something immigrant with little English and less chance of making significant inroads as a successful secular professional. Hence, after his father-in-law passed away in July 1950, he reluctantly accepted that a career as a chasidic rebbe would have to do.

Of course, speculation over the Rebbe's life in Europe is nothing new (and Menachem Friedman, one of the authors, discussed many of his most controversial findings about the Lubavitcher Rebbe's early life in a series in Haaretz a couple of years back), but this new book will inevitably provoke heated discussion - and strong denials from those who are inconvenienced / threatened by such 'subversive' material.

Looking forward to reading it.

How the book of Ruth impacted the English language

Over the past few weeks, in the runup to the festival of Shavuot which falls next week, some friends and I have been studying the book of Ruth.

Practically every single name in the book (people and places) seems symbolic, with a hidden meaning reflecting on their nature: Naomi (connected to pleasantness), Boaz (strength), Mahlon (sickness) and Chilyon (weakness or shame), Orpah (back of the neck - as she turned her back on Naomi), even Bethlehem (house of bread - although at the beginning of the story there is a famine and later in the story it is the scene of the harvest), etc etc etc.

The meaning of the word 'Ruth' is the least clear. Some connect it to friendship - Reut.

Today, I came across a fascinating piece by the Chief Rabbi from 2005, about the story of Ruth. While he sheds no light on the meaning of her name in Hebrew, he does explain what it has come to mean in English:

One Hebrew word epitomises the book: chessed, usually translated as “loving kindness”. It is what links the book’s main characters. In fact, it added a word to the English language. In Middle English, “ruth” meant kindness. Today only its negation remains: the word “ruthless”.

Sadly, the Online Etymology Dictionary says it originates from 'Reuthe', or 'Pity, Compassion', which it traces back to the verb 'to rue', but why let that get in the way of a good story.....

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

George Osborne's alleged Jewish connection

So we have a new Chancellor - Gideon Osborne.

Yes, that's right. Gideon.

He changed his name to George as a teenager.

Struggling to come to terms with the personal betrayal, the FT's Gideon Rachman reads perhaps a little too much into this:

Why had Osborne junked the name, Gideon, in favour of George? This was not something I felt I could ask him directly. Perhaps it was an early sign of political ambition. It is all very well being called something exotic like “Barack Obama” in the US, but it might be a bit of a risk in British politics. Gideon is also regarded as a Jewish name (although it is also popular amongst Zulus). I guess that could have been part of Osborne’s motives? But even if it was, I’m inclined to be forgiving. Osborne isn’t Jewish, and I can see it might be odd to have a false ethnic flag pinned to your back. If my parents had decided to call me Sanjay, I might also have changed my name.

First of all he was only 13, so it would have been a very early sign of political ambition.

Meanwhile, in 2005, Osborne explained to the Telegraph:

"It was my small act of rebellion. I never liked it. When I finally told my mother she said, 'Nor do I'. So I decided to be George after my grandfather, who was a war hero. Life was easier as a George; it was a straightforward name."

What on earth did he mean by that?? (My antisemitism antenna perks up....)

My colleague Martin Bright, however, tells me that Gideon is actually a very posh name, and that Osborne was probably trying to downplay his poshness - rather than his 'Jewishness' (or Zulu-ness, I suppose....). This is also quite clear from the context of the Telegraph article.

Sorry, Gideon R.....

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Lady Jakobovits's grace under fire

A lovely Lady J anecdote from Nathan Jeffay in the Forward:

She also lived up to her British title of lady, conducting herself with the class and unflappable grace of an aristocrat. At a night of Sheva Brachot—a blessing ritual for newly married couples—for my wife and me, my wife’s grandfather knocked over a candle, setting a paper pineapple decoration on fire and unwittingly igniting Lady J. Even with her blouse alight, Lady J remained unflustered, making a gentle joke to ensure that my wife’s grandfather was not embarrassed, then excusing herself from the table.

Frum fashion

Introducing the YamulKap, which allows you to wear your kippah while protecting yourself from the sun.

Of course, a visor and a couple of hairclips does the same thing. Or a baseball cap. And you don't look stupid.

Somehow I suspect these are not going to take off.


Monday, May 10, 2010

When rubbish theology backfires

So the volcanic ash cloud is heading towards Israel, and may force the closure of its airspace.

What, I wonder, is Rabbi Lazer Brody going to make of this? Several weeks ago, the learned rabbi - notorious for claiming that Hurricane Katrina was God's display of wrath following the Gaza withdrawal - asserted, pretty confidently, that the ash cloud that paralysed British airspace was God's punishment for the decision by the Advertising Standard Authority to ban an Israeli ad using an image of the Western Wall.

What, pray, Rabbi Brody, is Israel being punished for now?

(For more on this bizarre theology see Dov Bear here and here; the first comment on the second post is mine.)

Boris's loose grip on Middle East reality

Our mayor, Boris Johnson, is worrying me. He writes this morning:

The whole thing is unbelievable. As I write these words, Gordon Brown is still holed up in Downing Street. He is like some illegal settler in the Sinai desert, lashing himself to the radiator...

Illegal settler in the Sinai desert? Who on earth can he be referring to - the Egyptians?

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Judge Goldstone responds to death penalty story

We asked Judge Goldstone to confirm the report in Yediot that as a judge in the South African court of appeal, he sentenced 28 people to death. Here is what he had to say:

I have seen a translation of today's "preview" in Yediot. The facts relating to the death penalty are:

1. During the nine years I was a trial judge from 1980 to 1989, I sentenced two people to death for murder without extentuating circumstances. They were murders committed gratuitously during armed robberies. In the absence of extenuating circumstances the imposition of the death sentence was mandatory. My two assessors and I could find no extenuating circumstances in those two cases.

2. While I was a judge in the Supreme Court of Appeal from 1990 to 1994, all executions were put on hold. However, automatic appeals still continued to come before the Supreme Court of appeal. We sat in panels of three and again, in the absence of extenuating circumstances, some of those appeals failed.

3. It was a difficult moral decision taking an appointment during the Apartheid era. With regard to my role in those years I would refer you to the joint public statement issues in January by former Chief. Justice Arthur Chaskalson (the first CJ appointed by President Mandela) and George Bizos, (Nelson Mandela's lawyer and close friend for over 50 years). The statement was published in full by the South African Jewish Report on about 23 January...

Finally, I would say that these events took place 25 - 30 years ago. At that time a number of democracies had not abolished the death sentence. I do not understand why my actions as a judge im those years precludes me from campaigning today against the death sentence or precludes me from judging war crimes whether committed in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda or the Middle East.

Other of the Yediot allegations are either false or distorted.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Judge Goldstone sentenced 28 people to death

More trouble ahead for that champion of human rights, Judge Richard Goldstone.

According to Yediot Achronot, as a judge on the South African court of appeals in the 1980s-90s, he sentenced no less than 28 (!) black people to death, writing in one of his verdicts: "The gallows is the only deterrent for murderers".

He also sentenced four black people to flogging - and let off four white policemen who burst into the house of a white woman who was suspected of having sex with a black man (then a criminal offence).

His defence?

He apparently told Yediot that he was always against the death penalty (although that seems to contradict what he said at the time); that he never discriminated against black people (although the legal system was weighted against them); and that during the apartheid era, he had to obey the law.

Did he really? Was he forced to be a judge?

What his defence essentially amounts to is, 'I was just obeying orders....'

Full story in the weekend edition of Yediot.

(H/t Dani Wassner. See also Jerusalem Central.)

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Anyone fancy some Jew's Ear Juice?

You've heard of Yinglish - the mixture of Yiddish and English? Now, courtesy of the New York Times, comes Chinglish - the mixture of Chinese and English:

For English speakers with subpar Chinese skills, daily life in China offers a confounding array of choices. At banks, there are machines for “cash withdrawing” and “cash recycling.” The menus of local restaurants might present such delectables as “fried enema,” “monolithic tree mushroom stem squid” and a mysterious thirst-quencher known as “The Jew’s Ear Juice.”

A quick search on Google shows this stuff actually comes in a can - and is a black fungus juice. What it has to do with Jews still remains unclear, but one blogger ran a review:

It’s a nasty-looking thick semi-transparent cloudy brown liquid. It’s smell is weird, like a mix between the apple vinegar drink and turkey gravy. It’s a little thick and slimy, but the flavor is actually mild. The flavor isn’t anything at all like the cooked wood ear that I’m used to eating.

It’s so strange that it tastes like bland, bad, old apple cider...

Well, what do you expect with a name like 'Jew's Ear Juice'?

Kugel: an expose

Kugel is generally regarded as a 'traditional' Jewish food. But the Conversations in Klal blog is running an exposé: Kugel was not actually that common in the homes of our European ancestors (for those of us who have European ancestors...). The blog explains that it was incredibly difficult to keep food warm over Shabbat and that most food was eaten cold:

Stoves in pre-War Europe were coal fed or wood fed. The more time you spent in cooking, the more fuel you had to feed that stove. Those home stoves could not be fed fuel right before Shabbos and remain hot until after the mid-day meal on Shabbos. Some people, those with more money, would have special niches built into the side of the fireplaces they used for heating their rooms, niches that a pot could go into to stay warm. Those fireplaces were larger and before Shabbos wood could be added and the fire banked so that there would be warmth throughout the night and into the next day. That was during cold weather. When the weather turned warmer, such that the house was not being heated, there was no fireplace niche to keep food warm.

Some people would rely on a local bakery for warm food for Shabbos. The fireplaces in these bakeries were oversized, resulting in large baking slots above the fireplace. Many people would bring their pots of food to the bakery before Shabbos to be inserted in one of these slots to keep warm over night. There was a charge for this bakery use, and not everybody could afford it.

Kugels were not wrapped up in foil paper as many are today--ask your grandmother if she had foil paper at home in Europe. The kugels were placed into the cholent to keep warm, for those who had cholent. They were not the consistency of the kugels we see today.

And yes, another method of keeping things warm was to take a hot pot right before Shabbos started and wrap it up in a feather bed. Also not available to everyone, because a feather bed, certainly an extra feather bed, was a luxury.

So, did our ancestors in Europe eat kugel every Shabbos, and we're just continuing their custom? Not likely. Some may have eaten it on Shabbos during cold weather, or maybe not. The "kugels" that ended up inside of a cholent pot for Shabbos did not resemble what we call kugel today, and many of those cholent kugels were not made with potatoes at all, but with flour. The wealthy or well to do had some options that whole swathes of the rest did not have. And in the hot weather months cold food on Shabbos was the rule and hot the rare exception.

I knew that traditionally chulent was cooked overnight in bakers' ovens but honestly, had never really thought about why households couldn't cook it at home. I am kind of upset to realise that all of those meat and fish delicacies referred to in our shabbat zemirot (and it's astonishing how many of them do actually refer to food) were eaten stone cold...