Columbia students disinvited from Ahmadinejad dinner

Members of a Columbia University international relations group will not attend a dinner with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad after the invitation was withdrawn.

The invitation to about one dozen members of the Columbia International Relations Council and Association was rescinded Monday by the Iranian mission to the United Nations due to the extensive and negative media coverage, the Columbia Spectator reported.

The dinner is still scheduled to take place on Wednesday evening. Other Columbia students, from the university’s School of International and Public Affairs, are still planning to attend the dinner, the Spectator reported.

Some Columbia students had organized an on-campus protest called “Just Say No to Ahma(dinner)jad.”

The university is not involved with the dinner.

Ahmadinejad is in New York to participate in the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly. His controversial address at Columbia in 2007 embroiled the campus in a debate over freedom of speech and academic freedom.

Guest not: Britain takes back Syria’s wedding invite

Britain rescinded an invitation to the royal wedding to Syria’s ambassador because of Syrian government attacks on anti-government protesters.

The invitation was withdrawn Thursday, the day before the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, according to reports, citing Britain’s Foreign Office.

More than 450 anti-government protesters have been killed by Syrian forces during the month of demonstrations. Hundreds more reportedly have been jailed.

“In the light of this week’s attacks against civilians by the Syrian security forces, which we have condemned, the foreign secretary has decided that the presence of the Syrian ambassador at the royal wedding would be unacceptable and that he should not attend,” a Foreign Office statement said, adding that Buckingham Palace was in agreement.

The dress, the ring, the registry and the rest

Once upon a time, Teresa Strasser was The Jewish Journal’s award-winning singles columnist. Then she met Daniel. Next week the two will wed. In the series below, Strasser charts her journey from “I will” to “I do.” And we’re sure they’ll live happily ever after . . .

Two months after I met Daniel, we sat on his bed late at night and I said, “If we ever get married, let’s just go to city hall like Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio. Big weddings freak me out. I don’t like lots of people staring at me, I don’t like inconveniencing people because it’s ‘my special day,’ and I hate waste. The idea of spending $50,000 on a party is just no-can-do.”

He agreed on all fronts. We had a disgusting conversation about how we are truly soulmates. Recreating any part of that chat would be so cloying you would feel like you just snorted butter cream frosting off a wedding cake. Suffice to say, we were simpatico.

It was easy to talk big before we got engaged this past Valentine’s Day.

It turns out that parents, no matter how groovy and liberal (in my case), don’t love the idea of raising a daughter only to miss out on this rite of passage.

His parents lost their only daughter, Lynn, in a car accident 10 years ago. Could I rob them of this major milestone, after they missed out on so many by losing their child when she was only 30? Did I want to join his family with the clear communication that I’m a selfish badass too cool for a real wedding and, by the way, I’m stealing your son? I couldn’t say, “I don’t” to a communal “I do.”

We settled on a small ceremony, just 15 of us, at a casino chapel in Vegas. That feels right. Monroe and DiMaggio got divorced anyway.

With an actual wedding ceremony in the offing, I was going to have to wear something, and my anxiety about this was manifesting itself in a series of nightmares.

The one time I flipped through a bridal magazine, I saw an article called, “Ten Wedding Dresses Under $900.” Most of my cars have been under $900, and I don’t drive them for one day and convince myself my daughter will drive them again — for one day — in 30 years.

Brides persuade themselves, their tailors, their trainers and their pocketbooks that this must be the best they will ever look in their lives. This moment that is supposed to be about eternal union is more about capturing eternal beauty in a photo that’s going to be mounted in the living room so everyone can silently think, “Man, she used to be a lot thinner.”

What to wear was a small question compared to the larger quandary that was emerging: I wondered how we could include Lynn, Daniel’s sister, into our ceremony.

It’s not like anyone was going to not notice her absence, these big occasions being a time you most miss those who have passed. I was sure it was going to bring back memories of her wedding just a few years before she died. I struggled for a way to invite the sister-in-law I would never meet to her little brother’s wedding. I thought about the smashing of the glass (which they offer in Vegas for a few extra bucks, by the way) and how among myriad explanations for this tradition my favorite has always been that it’s important to remember sadness at the height of personal joy.

When I first started dating Daniel, I caught myself staring at framed pictures of his sister, looking regal and reserved, with Daniel’s eyes and nose. I knew they were very close, but Daniel, being similarly reserved, didn’t talk about her much.

This brings me back to the question of the gown.

Somehow, the idea of me wearing Lynn’s wedding dress came up in conversation. Daniel said his mother still had the gown, sitting in a box in her closet.

I didn’t want his family to be traumatized or freaked out by the idea, but when he ran it by them they were thrilled, and I felt so completely embraced. And that’s how it is that I agreed to wear a dress I had never seen, that was worn more than a decade ago.

When that giant package came in the mail, I wasn’t totally immune to bridal vanity. I said a silent prayer that I would look decent in the dress and that I would have no trouble squeezing into it. Daniel helped me step into his sister’s gown, a perfectly preserved ivory satin confection with a high neckline and two tasteful bows in back. It had dainty satin cuffs at the end of fragile mesh sleeves. Though she was taller, it fit almost perfectly with a pair of heels.

The trend in bridal gowns today is overtly sexy, conjuring images of someone standing behind a velvet rope rather than walking down an aisle.

From the pictures I’ve now seen, the conservative style suited Lynn perfectly, and it fits me somehow too. I might be the most out-of-style bride you will see this June wedding season, or maybe I’ll just look like a fashion renegade, or maybe I just don’t care, because my sister-in-law will be at my wedding in spirit, and satin and silk and bows.

Daniel and I don’t disagree on much, but he insists that wearing the dress was my idea. He’s wrong: I have a very clear memory of him asking me to wear her dress. We have joke fights about this all the time, but the truth is this: If it wasn’t his idea and it wasn’t mine, maybe it was hers.

When Birthday Party Blowouts Blowup

The wedding invitation convinced me that modern moms and dads have officially lost their gumballs regarding children’s birthday parties. “Master Jacob Estroff” read the ivory parchment envelope; it took a moment to register that the addressee was in fact Jakey, my 5-year-old. The bride-to-be (Miss Sophia Rosenthal) was Sophie, his toothless classmate.

The party lived up to its invitation. There were bridesmaids, groomsmen and, of course, a mini groom and a mini chuppah. There was even a wedding cake taller than the birthday bride herself.

In all fairness, Jewish parents come by it honestly. We’ve barely cleared labor and delivery before we’re expected to be on the phone with the caterer ordering bagels and lox for 200 for the bris or baby naming.

It seems a natural progression to plan a three-ring circus in the cul-de-sac when that bundle of joy turns 6. It’s just that somewhere between the petting zoo, the pony rides and the moonwalk we end up with an empty wallet, a giant headache and a kid who is so overwhelmed by the hoopla, he can barely enjoy his big day.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that we bail on our kids’ birthday parties altogether. On the contrary, these annual rites of passage are much-anticipated events in our children’s lives. But going to the opposite extreme isn’t the answer either.

Fortunately, it’s perfectly possible to plan a kid-friendly birthday bash without compromising our values, sanity and pocketbook. All it takes is a little panning for gold.

You know when you take a big clump of mud and swoosh it around in a pan until a few glistening specks of gold are all that remain. Well, we’re going to do the same thing here. Only instead of mud, we’re going to swoosh a big, mushy mess of modern birthday party madness.

Are you swooshing yet? Do you see those overpriced invitations and goody bags spilling over the sides into a bucket by your feet? Great, keep swooshing. But don’t go peeking at those golden nuggets yet. Not until we’ve spent some time looking at the slush in the bucket, and have a clear grasp on what exactly our child’s birthday party does not need to be (regardless of what parenting magazines, party planners or other parents might think):

  • It does not need to be a reflection of our parental prowess. We accomplish lots of amazing feats as parents. Getting our children out the door and into school every morning; keeping them safe, healthy and happy. Our child’s birthday party is but one little parenting accomplishment in a year of millions; it’s hardly a manifestation of our maternal savvy.
  • It does not need to be a Martha Stewart masterpiece. Have you ever bought a magazine based on the teaser “foolproof birthday party ideas” only to realize a page and a half in that you are a fool for buying the magazine in the first place? Not only is making tulip-shaped cupcakes not foolproof, but it takes a degree from the World Culinary Institute. Besides, our kids couldn’t care less if their cupcakes are shaped like tulips or toilets, as long as they’re yummy, icing-soaked and flanked with the right amount of candles.
  • It does not have to be an unprecedented concept. Do you know that sinking feeling we get when we learn another kid is having a birthday gala at the same secret site we’ve booked for our own child’s party — only a week earlier. “The nerve!” we think to ourselves. “I’ve had that inflatable jumpy place booked for a year and that parent stole the idea right out from under me.” But the reality is our kids love playing on inflatable jumpy stuff. They would do it day in and day out if we’d let them. I must ask you this: Would you turn up your nose at an opportunity to go to a spa just because you did the same thing last weekend? I think not.
  • It does not need to go off without a hitch. For my niece’s sixth birthday, my sister-in-law booked a highly acclaimed magician, months — if not years — in advance. You could taste the excitement as the guests counted down the seconds until he arrived. And then they counted some more. And some more. Until it became painfully evident that the magician had taken his vanishing act to the next level.

That’s when they started building Oreo towers. Those kids went through package after package of double stuffs until they’d constructed a bona fide chocolate cookie Camelot. And then it was time to go home. “Thanks, that was fun,” the children told my catatonic sister-in-law as they exited.

Lesson learned? Despite a catastrophic birthday party disaster, my niece turned 6, the guests were happy and we had a family memory that would last years beyond the applause after a perfectly executed magic show.

OK then. I think we’re finally ready to peek at the golden nuggets. At those few precious, glimmering things our child’s birthday party should be. They look something like this:

  • A fun, memorable day spent with family and friends.
  • A means of making them feel happy, proud and loved.

  • A celebration of their development, uniqueness and existence.

Sharon Duke Estroff is an internationally syndicated Jewish parenting columnist, award-winning Jewish educator and mother of four. Her first book, “Can I Have a Cell Phone for Hanukkah? The Essential 411 on Raising Modern Jewish Kids” will be published by Broadway Books, a division of Random House in 2007.

The Other Shiites

The invitation to the gala event came out of the blue, from a woman I had never met, belonging to a group I had never heard of, part of a religious sect I knew nothing about.

Naturally, I accepted.

The evening was billed as, “A Journey Along the Cradle of Muslim Civilizations: Based on the Eleventh Century Travels of Nasir Khusraw.” It was presented by His Highness Prince Aga Khan Shia Imami Ismaili Council for Western United States. Since Sept. 11, we have all been pursuing a continuing education in Islam, but this name, Ismaili, was new to me. The woman who extended the invitation, Dr. Nur Amersi, the council’s communications chair, explained that the Ismaili are a small sect within the Shi’a denomination of Islam. They follow the liberal teachings of Agha Khan, Prince Karim Aga Khan IV, the 49th hereditary imam of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims. I askedAmersi, a Tufts University-trained veterinarian, why I hadn’t heard more about these Shiites. “There aren’t very many of us,” she said.

The night of the event, March 27, my wife and I entered thestunning Orpheum Theatre downtown. Amersi was there, greeting us and an arrayof Jewish and Christian representatives. There are several thousand Ismailis in California, and they have regularly put on an annual theatrical spectacle asa way of educating their children and bringing together their community. Butonly in the past two years, explained chapter president Anwar Mohammed, did thecommunity open up the celebration to non-Muslims.

“We think it’s important to show a different face of Islam,”he said.

The result was a warm and welcoming reception, a peek at theperfect world: Christians, Catholics, Jews of all denominations and Muslimschatting volubly and extending handshakes over platters of delicious MiddleEastern food — all kosher. L.A. Mayor James Hahn pointed out that as the city’spopulation becomes majority immigrant, such demonstrations of cultural bridgebuilding are not just ideal, but imperative.

The performance itself was a kind of pageant of Muslimhistory through liberal eyes. I couldn’t help but notice that when theperipatetic Nasir Khusraw, a Muslim Benjamin of Tudela, arrived in Jerusalem,the play presented a version of that hotly contested city’s history that was asbalanced and open-minded as one could imagine. At a time when Shiite leadersand followers in Iraq are presenting a violent and incendiary face to theworld, the question again popped into my head, Why hadn’t I heard more aboutthese Shiites?

The Ismaili spiritual leader is the Aga Khan, a descendent,according to the group’s history, of the Prophet Mohammed through his grandson,Ali.

Ali’s descendants, known as the Fatimids, founded Cairo inthe 10th century, making it their capital, and produced a 200-year period ofrenaissance in Islamic culture that spurred contributions to arts, science andphilosophy. This came to an end when first Saladin, then the Moguls, defeatedthe Fatamids and dispersed their followers across the globe. There are about 14million Ismailis in the world today — about the same as the number of Jews.

Their leader encourages intellectual freedom, tolerance andeducation. The men and women we met at the Orpheum were engineers, doctors,lawyers and entrepreneurs. Their children attend the best schools. They praynot through imams but according to liberal texts disseminated by theHarvard-educated Aga Khan himself. 

The Ismaili, then, is a sort of Reform Jew of the Muslimworld. But it seems that proportionately, Ismailis are as few in number amongMuslims as Reform Jews are as plentiful among Jews.

This fact has not been lost on those Muslims who have spokenout on behalf of liberalism in their faith. Irshad Manji, author of “TheTrouble With Islam,” has pointed to Ismailis as an example of the liberalpotential of Islam. At the same time, she is clear that such potential is farfrom having been reached.

“The problem is that these denominations are absurdlyperipheral within the world of Islam,” she said in an interview senior producer Deborah Caldwell. “All of them deserve to havemore theological influence than they actually do.”

Manji, herself a marginal figure within mainstream Islam,went on to draw the parallel even more sharply: “In the world of Islam,Ismailis tend to be better educated, more entrepreneurial and morephilanthropic than most other Muslims…. As a result of those traits, they arealso often accused of being Jews. In fact, they are often called, ‘the Jews ofthe Muslim world.’ And it’s not surprising that being accused of being anIsmaili is the second-biggest accusation that I get, second only to what –being accused of being a Jew.”

There is some group in every religious tradition thatgravitates toward absolutism. There are Jews who would embrace the Ismailis butreject their own Reform brethren, and we know there are Muslims who prefer toalloy their hard-line faith with militant nationalism, the results of which areon the evening news. 

I’m under no illusions that Ismailis will become the Islamicmajority. But, in our continuing education about Islam, it’s important not toneglect the lessons they have to teach.  

A Chanukah in the ‘People’s House’

The invitation to the White House was completely unexpected. It arrived in a caligraphied envelope, with a Chanukah stamp in the corner and a menorah showing through.

A Chanukah card, I thought, but I was wrong. There was a gold presidential seal at the top of the card and a few lines of black engraving: "President and Mrs. Bush request the pleasure of your company at a Hanukah reception to be held at the White House. Six o’clock. Wednesday, December 6. East Entrance."

Not bad from a man whom most of my friends thought I was crazy to vote for, because he was a member of the "religious right." (Then again, as it turns out, so am I.)

My wife and I spent most of the day speculating as to what the event would be like. How long would it last? Would President Bush’s involvement be perfunctory or meaningful?

After all, the most powerful man in the world has better things to do than stand around and eat latkes all night. I have learned that if you don’t expect too much in life, you will never be disappointed.

We arrived at the White House gate a little early and were immediately admitted (this president is noted for his punctuality). We walked down a grand hallway.

Coming around the next corner we heard a high school choir singing Chanukah songs next to a large, illuminated antique menorah that came from Congregation Rodeph Shalom in Philadelphia.

Moving up the stairs, we found ourselves literally in the center of the White House, in a grand foyer. The walls were adorned with portraits of past presidents; a military orchestra was playing festive music, and already 100-200 guests were milling about in their finest party clothes.

To the right, was a grand hall that turned out to be the State Dining Room. This was where the kosher table was set up — a full bar (the wine was Hagafen) and an assortment of food. The mirror image room to the left was the East Room, which contained the nonkosher — though not overtly treif — spread of food.

By this time, a fairly lengthy receiving line was already forming in the East Room, as people waited for a chance to meet the president and first lady. We recognized and chatted with several other Los Angeles residents, including several prominent rabbis of all denominations: Marvin Hier, Abraham Cooper, Steven Weil and Mark Diamond.

When our turn finally came, one of the military ushers formally announced our name and escorted us to the president and first lady. We exchanged cheek kisses between the mutual spouses and chatted for a minute or two both before and after our photo was taken.

We spoke briefly about our children, and if the president didn’t actually remember them ("you have a beautiful family, if I recall"), then he certainly pretended to very well. We thanked both the president and first lady for all they were doing for us and for having us to their house.

"This is the people’s house," the president replied.

Following this exchange, we had dinner and visited with some of the guests and luminaries in attendance. Ben Stein was there, as were Sen. Arlen Spector (R-Pa.) and Fred Zeidman, chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum Council. We also had a chance to speak at length with Josh Bolton, deputy White House chief of staff (Jewish), and briefly with Andrew Card, White House chief of staff (not Jewish).

At around 8:30 p.m., after the Bushes finished receiving their guests, they emerged one last time, personally thanked orchestra members, waved a final goodbye to the crowd and ascended the stairs to the private residence. Remarkable, I thought, for a man who reportedly rises every day at 5 a.m.

What came to mind was the Passover refrain Dayenu, it would have been enough. It would have been enough if we had just received the engraved invitation; it would have been enough if several hundred Jews had just taken over the White House for a Chanukah party that night; it would have been enough if they had set up a nonkosher table in the East Room and a kosher table in the State Dining Room.

It would have been enough if the president had just lit the menorah in the private residence with a few friends in attendance (notably, he is the first president ever to have done this — last year); it would have been enough if the president had just come down and mingled a bit, made a speech and then gone upstairs to relax.

But no, instead, the most powerful man on the planet spent well over two and one-half hours standing on his feet and greeting each and every guest personally.

So my friends, when you count your blessings this Chanukah season take heart in two things: Not only do we Jews have a great friend in the White House, but we have a real mensch there as well.

Dr. Joel Geiderman is co-chair of the emergency medicine department at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and a presidential appointee to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum Council.

Lonely at 50

On the eve of the 50th birthday of the Jewishstate, Israelis have seldom felt so lonely. No one wants to come tothe party. Vice President Al Gore is one of the few foreigndignitaries who have accepted an invitation to the April 30 fiesta.The rest are either stalling or saying, “Thanks, but nothanks.”

Like most Israelis, the diplomats are in no moodto celebrate. The Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations aremoribund, if not actually dead. President Clinton’s plodding envoy,Dennis Ross, went home this week with his tail between his legs. InWashington, State Department spokesman James Rubin said the process,launched with such high hopes in Oslo five years ago, was “in direstraits.” Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was threatening towash her hands of the whole affair.

A week earlier, British Foreign Secretary RobinCook raucously warned his Israeli hosts that continued Jewishsettlement, in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, was destroying thepeace process. Israelis, on the left as well as the right, wereoffended by his theatrical visit to Har Homa, where Israel plans tobuild 6,000 Jewish homes on land captured from Jordan in the 1967Six-Day War. But Cook evidently felt that the message was more urgentthan the obligations of good manners. He spoke for the 15-memberEuropean Union, of which London currently holds the rotatingpresidency. Significantly, neither his own prime minister, TonyBlair, nor the other European governments have repudiated him.

Meanwhile, in Ramallah — Yasser Arafat’sunofficial West Bank capital — the premature explosion last Sundaynight of a massive car bomb, apparently destined for Jewish WestJerusalem, sounded a more ominous warning of what the realalternative is. On the run-up to Passover, Jerusalem’s Malchashopping mall, billed as the biggest in the Middle East, was desertedthis week. It is too tempting a target for the next Hamas suicidesquad. Families are sticking to their local supermarkets to stock upfor the holiday.

Israel’s diplomatic isolation is almost total. TheAmericans are exasperated at Binyamin Netanyahu’s rejection of theirproposal to hand over 13.1 percent of the West Bank to thePalestinians as a second interim installment of the Oslo accords –less than half of what Arafat was demanding. As Tommy Lapid, a robusttelevision panelist, asked: “What happens when Micronesia abandonsus?” (In recent votes in the United Nations General Assembly, theobscure Pacific archipelago and the United States were Israel’s onlysupporters.) Jordan and Egypt, the only Arab states to have signedpeace treaties with Israel, have consigned cooperation to the deepfreeze.

The irony, as Israeli and American commentatorshave pointed out, is that a 13.1-percent withdrawal would be atremendous victory for the right-wing Israeli coalition — and Arafatwas signaling his readiness to grasp it as the best available offer.”Palestinians,” wrote Henry Siegman in the International HeraldTribune, “have been bludgeoned into going along with a proposal that,until recently, would have been seen as requiring a total Palestiniansurrender to Israel’s far right.”

During Ross’s latest shuttle, Netanyahu haggledover fractions of percentage points, as if Israel’s very life hingedon them. The government offered 9 percent, well short of theAmericans’ promise to the Palestinians of a “low teens” evacuation.The prime minister insisted that each 1 percent of occupied land wasequivalent to the area of Tel Aviv. “So,” quipped the skeptical Laboropposition leader and former army commander, Ehud Barak, “he’s readyto give up nine Tel Avivs, but not 13.”

If Barak is right and such figures do not threatenIsrael’s existence, then Netanyahu is either putting the survival ofhis government before the Oslo peace, which he promised the voters hewould pursue, or he is working to demolish the process while blamingArafat for failing to keep his side of the bargain. The “Land ofIsrael Front” of 17 coalition parliamentarians threatened to bringNetanyahu down if he relinquished even 1 percent. The prime ministerwas reluctant to call their bluff, even though left-wing oppositionlegislators were preparing to spread a safety net under any advancetoward a compromise peace.

Although the Likud leader’s hold on power seemsmore stable than ever before, he can hardly claim to represent anational consensus. A poll published last weekend in Yediot Aharonotlogged 75 percent of Israelis wanting to continue the Oslo process,and 62 percent ready to evacuate more than the government’s 9percent.

There were hints before and during the Ross visitthat Netanyahu was putting together a more generous package. The baitfor Arafat was said to be territorial contiguity, yielding thePalestinians blocks of land that would form a more credible basis fora state (though Netanyahu would be more comfortable if they called itan “entity”). The emphasis, the spin doctors explained, would be onquality rather than quantity. But either Arafat was not forthcomingenough on Israel’s security demands, or Netanyahu was looking for apretext to do nothing.

All may not be lost, however. U.N.Secretary-General Kofi Annan, a more tactful visitor than Robin Cook,told the French daily Le Figaro: “Netanyahu is pragmatic andrealistic. He will surprise the whole world for the better.” PerhapsAnnan knows something we don’t know.