Judaism as world wisdom


Sandra is in my office because her marriage is falling apart. She is not a member of any synagogue, and doesn’t consider herself religious. But she read some of my insights online and decided that a Jewish perspective might help her figure out her next move. 

Jason is 16 and wrestles with what his life is supposed to mean. He heard me speak, and could use help discovering a meaning for his existence. 

Yusuf writes on my public Facebook page that he’s a Muslim from Saudi Arabia. He doesn’t know any Jews, and I’m his rabbi. Kathy, a Catholic from Maine, writes that she feels the same.

We stand on the precipice of the third great transformation of Jewish life in modern times. It shouldn’t be news to any of us that Judaism has exhibited a dual tendency of retaining the value it inherited from the past and, at the same time, transforming that inheritance to advance the needs of each new age. That trend has accelerated. Judaism is emerging from tribal expression into a stream of world wisdom. 

The bulk of American Jews descend from the great immigration of 1880-1920, when Ashkenazi Jews left the Pale of Settlement for the East Coast of the United States. Most American Jews to this day are related to Ashkenazi Jews from Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and the shtetls of Eastern and Central Europe. They fled to the United States, it should be noted, to get away from two repressive dangers: The first (and the one we love to talk about) are the Cossacks and anti-Semitism. But the second oppressive reality they fled was Orthodox rabbinic Judaism. Make no mistake, the learned and the pious stayed in Europe, and they and their descendants were murdered. 

We are the children and grandchildren of the plucky ignoramuses who wouldn’t take no for an answer. They didn’t bother asking their rabbis’ permission to move to New York, they just packed and left. Onboard, they flung their tefillin and their wigs into the turgid Atlantic. They were not only leaving Russian oppression, they were also escaping rabbinic oppression. No surprise that when they came to North America, the prerequisite was to create a safe, comfortable haven where they could be comfortable as they were: fighting the anti-Semitism of the surrounding culture and creating spaces where they didn’t have to feel excessively Jewish. Ironically, the only way they could avoid a sense of being “too Jewish” was to retreat to places where there were only other Ashkenazi Jews. They created the legendary lodges in the Catskills, where you could talk with your hands, eat pickled herring or pickled salmon (which is something!). The food was kosher and mostly mediocre, but you could order as much of it as you wanted. These havens hired Jewish artists and comedians who shared the immigrants’ humor and sensibilities. 

Those new American Jews needed a haven because the larger culture slammed shut the doors of opportunity. Our immigrant forebears were restricted to certain neighborhoods and specific jobs. They were criticized for talking too loud, with their hands, in Yiddish. They felt like outsiders and so they created institutions in which they would not have to deal with being different. No surprise that they created synagogues where a congregant didn’t have to be too Jewish and wouldn’t get hassled for the patina of Jewish they maintained. These Americanized synagogues successfully met the needs of that first generation. What is extraordinary is that these Jews erected institutions throughout the country. They built synagogues, they established rabbinical schools, and created institutions of Jewish learning and culture that enabled them to successfully navigate the larger culture while feeling at home in this adopted country. 

Their institutions successfully met their needs, but those needs are no longer our own. 

The second great transformation of American-Jewish life took place around and after World War II when millions of our people were butchered back in the very countries we had fled a generation or two earlier. The pressing issue was no longer how do we conform to the ways of this country or even how to gain a foothold, but how to combat the virulent midcentury anti-Semitism? How to create a space for ourselves as Jews where we can be participants in the robust and raucous life of American democracy? To meet these new needs, the institutions that were created and modified in this generation were no longer places to retreat so we didn’t have to be consciously Jewish, this post-War generation created powerful anti-defamation leagues. They expanded congresses and committees. Now was a time to mediate Jewish power in democratic contexts: They scrambled to generate effective ways to support the Zionist effort creating a Jewish democracy in the Middle East, and they created agencies that would engage in the political system and the cultural life of America. This is the period in which the Jews took advantage of the openings in American life, attending their colleges and universities, composing the music sung in their musicals. We became their entertainers, their artists, their doctors and their experts. That age reaped unprecedented success for the postwar generation of Jews. 

Nobody today comments on the disproportionate number of Jews in the Supreme Court or in Congress. It is commonplace to hear Yiddish in the entertainment industry, the finance industry, business and academia. That presence is a tribute to the success of the second transformation of American-Jewish life, the time in which we intensified our Jewishness and insisted that we had the right to apply the lesson of the civil rights and women’s liberation movement: that we could be ourselves not only in private (which is what the first generation established), but also adamantly in public. In ways large and small, we put big Jewish institutions out there for the whole world to see. That was the second wave. 

Today’s challenge with the first and second wave is that they succeeded. They accomplished what they set out to do. American Jews by and large feel comfortable in private and safe in public. And we feel safe exerting pressure on the political system as a whole. This past summer witnessed the American-Jewish community engage in a brutal internal debate on the Iran nuclear deal, a contentious issue of international concern, with Jewish institutions publically exerting enormous political pressure on the United States Senate and with a popularly elected president (who most Jews support) willing to go head to head on an issue that many in the community felt was vital to its own well-being. Whether you agree with that move or not, what’s noteworthy is there were no earthshaking repercussions: Jews were still invited to two Chanukah parties in a kashered White House. Both Democrats and the Republicans still compete to represent Jewish voters and invite Jewish engagement in the upcoming elections. 

Jews are a public facet of American-Jewish life. 

The first two generations’ waves have succeeded, but we paid an unanticipated price for that success. That price is that we can no longer use fear to inspire Jewish living anymore. We can’t use guilt, ethnic solidarity or insecurity as a reason to be Jewish anymore. These claims are what motivated Jewish life in this country for a century: terror and anti-Semitism, the specter of being rejected, isolated and marginalized; these just don’t sell anymore. We Jews live in the same neighborhoods, graduate from the same schools, attend the same universities, enter the same professions, and offer our counsel at every level of business, in academia, in science and in government. 

So, what’s left? What are the needs of today? 

It turns out that Judaism is one of the great traditions of world wisdom. We have nurtured a way of life that has caressed and strengthened a resilient people throughout our wanderings. Whatever the political conditions in each age, Jews could retreat to Torah learning, to the practice of mitzvot (literally commandments, but much more: embodied practices of holiness and responsiveness), to warm and engaging community. In that embrace, they could emerge renewed. 

We have wandered through persecutions and exaltation, into places that were happy to host us and other places that could barely abide our presences. In and out of all of those locations, we carried Torah with us because it made our lives better. Torah – the living and the learning — molded us to be more resilient and stronger.

The time for fear has ended. No one will be scared into being Jewish anymore, and they shouldn’t. Yes, resurgent anti-Semitism afflicts Europe, roiling some of our college campuses, and criticism of Israel’s policies often masks a murderous hatred of Israelis and Jews. These phenomena are real and must be contained. But we are no longer trapped in passive terror. 

Much of the world is open to our insights. Because it turns out the Book of Deuteronomy is right. The Torah tells us, “this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the nations, who, when they shall hear all these statutes, shall say, Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people” (Deuteronomy 4:6), that we are to live our lives in such a way that the nations of the world will look at our practice and say, “What a wise people! What a great God!” Rashi’s interpretation removes any possible misunderstanding: This verse speaks about wisdom. Rav Saadia observes that it is specifically about justice and truth. The standard for Jewish authenticity is wisdom, justice and truth, such that a well-meaning gentile will notice and be inspired.

What would it look like to elevate that criterion for this third tide of American-Jewish life? This hunger for wisdom is not limited to North America. Those same dynamics now affect Jewish life in Europe, Israel, Latin America, Canada, Australia and everywhere there are Jews. Indeed, we are blessed to live in an age in which millions of non-Jews are willing to glean Jewish wisdom if it will help them live better lives. An example: Hospitals now routinely consult with experts in Jewish bioethics (along with other spiritual/ethical counselors) to practice a humane form of medicine. Several years ago, Harvard convened a conference on the environmental challenge that included authorities in Jewish traditions of land and living with the earth. Sharing traditions like letting the land rest every seven years or the Sabbath as a day of harmony with creation offer assistance to a humanity lacking in tools for better living. We will win Jewish (and universal) allegiance if Judaism is robust, if Judaism augments human life, if people can thrive better because of the wisdom Judaism brings to our lives and our communities. Rabbi Harold Schulweis offered an early example of this approach when he established pro bono legal, psychological and para-rabbinic counseling at Valley Beth Shalom as a way of conveying Jewish wisdom and care for any who sought it. The offer of wisdom drew in people.

So that’s the task. That’s what’s going to bring in today’s people. This network of emergent communities, the more established Jewish institutions, the camps that we run, the youth groups that we offer, the adult education, the introduction programs — all of them are a constant effort to give back to the Jewish people and humanity what is already theirs: this ancient and time-tested path for being human. But that old/new goal changes our rhetoric. This passage in Deuteronomy invites us to admit that the standard by which we judge whether someone is a good Jew is no longer how punctilious they are in particular rituals or prohibitions. The question we must train ourselves to ask is: If someone who isn’t already engaged in Jewish practice were to look at your life or community, would they say, “Wow! I love how Judaism augments their values, the way they treat each other, the way they include the outcast, the way they pursue lives of justice and compassion. I want to be more like them, because the Judaism that keeps them strong and keeps them focused and keeps their eye on the goal makes them kinder and sweeter and wiser and more generous and more resilient. And I need some of that, too”?

What if we placed the criteria for a good Jew not in the hands of a small cabal of rabbis and agencies who assess Jewish status by how well one practices a particular ritual, how learned and literate they are in ancient texts, how pure their bloodlines, how vocal their nationalism? Those characteristics can indeed matter, but they are important for what they cultivate, not as an end in themselves. They ought to deliver a mensch (think, for example, of Ruth Messinger of American Jewish World Service, Elie Wiesel, Betty Friedan, Jerry Seinfeld, Ruth Bader Ginsburg), which should be apparent even for someone who doesn’t read Hebrew or Aramaic or is able to supervise a kosher establishment. 

This kind of decency ought to be visible in the way we conduct our lives with ourselves, with our loved ones, with each other and how we engage the world. That’s what our Torah passage insists: that a gentile will look at our lives and recognize that whatever is inspiring us is wise and good and would benefit anyone. But let’s add another group into that mix. Maybe when we say “the nations” we ought to include that large sector of our own people who are themselves wrestling with Jewish illiteracy and ambivalence. How about all those Jews who don’t know how to practice mitzvot? When they look at our religiosity, are they inspired? Or do they recoil before what appears to them as lunacy and cruelty? 

If our passion for Judaism makes us appear insane, smug and judgmental, well, the Torah has already weighed in on whether that counts as good Judaism. Rashi is already agreed with Deuteronomy’s judgment whether it does or not. 

I want to be clear here: I am not arguing against rigorous learning or scrupulous practice. But if the practice does not lead to a broadness of heart, it is no service to God. If it doesn’t lead to a deeper capacity to feel the pain of your fellow human being, to take on their suffering as your own, if it doesn’t allow you to rejoice when something good happens to the one sitting next to you, then what is it for?

Our challenge as Jews hoping to mentor this next wave is to help midwife the transition from Judaism as an ethnic enclave into Judaism as a world tradition of wisdom. We have what to teach: that God sides with the outcast seeking liberation and that all must be included (Passover seder), that we are more than our résumés (Shabbat), that the land owns us rather than the other way round (ger toshav), and that all people deserve respect and dignity (tzelem Elohim). We have what to share with the world: our values, our stories, our traditions and guidelines, our love of a place, our ways of sanctifying time and family, our hunger for justice. 

Ours may be the greatest secret that humanity has yet to discover because it has been hiding in plain view. And it is our job to bring it out there into the world. There are bright lights already pushing back the shadows, groups like CLAL, the Hartman Institute, American Jewish University’s Whizin programs, Rabbi Benny Lau’s innovative 929.org, Ron Wolfson’s relational Judaism and countless others.

To do that, you have to know the sources. How else can we transmit the wisdom that people are starving for if we don’t ourselves become fluent in it? 

How can we become their teachers if we don’t teach them the language of our classics, if we do not teach them the rhythms of Hebrew and its multiple layers conveying meaning over meaning if we don’t ourselves become practitioners?  

How can we show people what a life of spiritual discipline can be if we don’t root ourselves in that Tree of Life, the Torah and its forest of sacred commentaries (midrash, Talmud, codes, philosophy, kabbalah, hasidut, etc), and grow in mitzvot as well? 

But if we do these things simply as a way to judge others more harshly, if we perform these mitzvot thinking they are the criteria for Jewish judgmentalism, then we betray our own heritage. We turn our back on God, and in this age, no one is putting up with it anymore because they can live a perfectly fine life without it.

So the only reason left for engaging in Torah, the only reason left for our pursuit of mitzvot, is because it brings joy, because it augments depth, and because it heightens wisdom, resilience and community in an age that is scared and desperately lonely and exhausted by the pain of making it through another day. We are, I believe, the heirs of one of humanity’s most beautiful creations, one of God’s greatest gifts. Our heritage is truly something shimmering and on a hill, but it is our job to take it off the hill. It is our job to become so welcoming with it and so good at providing access to it, that we can share it with those who have not yet accessed it. And by those I mean three categories of people: 

I mean Jews who have been swimming in the sea of Torah for a long time and have lost their way. Lost their way because they thought that being punctilious was the end in itself, the goal rather than a means to an end. We can help them through our living to see Torah as a path for a greater life. 

I mean a path for those Jews who have been so wounded by the way Judaism was presented to them, inflicted on them, that all they had when they turned to Torah was pain and rage. We can help to show them there’s another way, a truer way in which Torah becomes the balm of its own healing, and Torah becomes the solution to the problems that its defenders took upon themselves to inflict.

And I mean a new group in this day and age: those legions of human beings (and they number in the thousands if not millions), people who are open to wisdom wherever they find it, people who are willing in the same day to practice Hindu yoga, Zen meditation, listen to a talk of the Dalai Lama and read a tweet from Pope Francis. Yes, they are willing to look at the Facebook page of a rabbi or sage if it can offer something to help them live a better life (check out facebook.com/rabbiartson, facebook.com/rabbiwolpe or facebook.com/accidentaltalmudist for three great examples). 

In an age when people are finally willing to embrace the wisdom of Judaism, don’t we owe it to them to make it available, to be able to first of all wrap ourselves in it like a cloak, and then to be able to share the warmth with those who cross our paths? Don’t we owe it to them to seek them out and help them with Torah’s wisdom whether they are Jewish or not? This isn’t about changing the label; it is about giving access to a tradition that has inspired and transformed human life across the ages. The digital revolution opens access through blogs, online magazines and newspapers, podcasts and videos. Any teacher can enrich our lives anywhere.

What we are sitting on is too precious for us to try to own or monopolize. This is no time for business as usual, no time for simply doing Jewish without opening it to the world. The resilience of Judaism comes from having been repackaged from a time when we were assaulted, and at the same time, allowing us to renew ourselves for each new age. Now is the time for us to be renewed, to allow this time, this day, this age to forge new contact to the Torah of healing, the Torah of humanity, the Torah of wisdom and compassion, and to allow ourselves to be made over in its image so that we ourselves will be forces for healing in turn.


Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson (bradartson.com) holds the Abner and Roslyn Goldstine Dean’s Chair of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies and is vice president of American Jewish University in Los Angeles.

Nazi-looted trove contains lost works by Matisse, Dix


Previously unknown paintings by Henri Matisse and Otto Dix are among a vast trove of Nazi-looted art found in a Munich apartment that includes works by some of Europe's most celebrated artists, German experts said on Tuesday.

Customs investigators seized the 1,400 art works, dating from the 16th century to the modern period and by artists such as Canaletto, Courbet, Picasso and Toulouse-Lautrec, last year, an official said.

They had remained silent until now not because of any “improper intentions”, they added, but because they had chanced upon the art during a tax evasion probe, which compels secrecy.

While experts consider the works to be of huge artistic value, the task of returning them to their rightful owners could take many years and poses a huge legal and moral problem for German authorities.

The haul, found in the flat of Cornelius Gurlitt, the reclusive son of a war-time art dealer, is one of the most significant discoveries of works seized by the Nazi regime. It could be worth more than 1 billion euros ($1.3 billion), according to a German magazine, although officials declined to comment.

Gurlitt, who occasionally sold paintings to support himself, has since vanished.

The paintings, which were found in generally good condition, are being stored in an undisclosed location and no list will be published – something that has been criticised by those seeking to recover lost art. The decision may be intended to deter false claims that would distract expert investigations.

“When you stand in front of works that were long considered lost, missing or destroyed, and you see them again, in a relatively good condition – a little bit dirty but not damaged – it's an incredible feeling of happiness,” said Meike Hoffmann, an art expert from Berlin's Free University who has been assessing the find.

Hoffmann said that among the previously unknown paintings was a self-portrait by Dix, in impeccable condition, and probably painted around 1919.

A similarly unknown Matisse painting, of a seated female figure that he had painted several times, probably dated from the mid 1920s and was confiscated in 1942. There was also a work by Marc Chagall not previously known.

Slides of the works were shown during a news conference, including the Matisse and a group of horses by German expressionist Franz Marc.

SYSTEMATIC PLUNDER

The Nazis systematically plundered hundreds of thousands of art works from museums and individuals across Europe. Thousands of works are still missing.

Investigators made the spectacular find after Gurlitt, believed to be in his seventies, aroused their suspicions as he travelled by train between Zurich and Munich, with a large sum of cash, according to German media.

Jewish groups have urged that the origins of the art works be researched as quickly as possible, so that, if looted or extorted, they can be returned to their original owners.

For some families missing art constitutes the last personal effects of relatives murdered during the Holocaust.

“Had this discovery been made public at the time it was made, families looking for their lost art would have been able to potentially identify works within this collection,” said Julius Berman, Chairman of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany.

“Publicizing the existence of Nazi-looted art is essential to the process of finding heirs,” he added.

The group cited an agreement struck in Washington in 1998, where 44 governments endorsed a set of principles for dealing with Nazi-looted art, including that every effort should be made to publicise it.

Besides paintings the haul included a large number of drawings and pastels on paper.

“We were able to confiscate 121 framed art works and 1,285 non-framed works, including some famous masterpieces,” Nemetz said. “We had concrete clues that we were dealing with so-called 'degenerate art', or so-called looted art.”

NAZIS' DEALER

Cornelius's father Hildebrand Gurlitt was, from 1920, a specialist collector of the modern art of the early 20th century that the Nazis branded as un-German or “degenerate” and removed from show in state museums, or displayed simply to be mocked.

Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels recruited Gurlitt to sell the “degenerate art” abroad to try to earn cash for the state. Gurlitt bought some for himself and also independently bought art from desperate Jewish dealers forced to sell.

Investigators said the collection comprises works which are clearly from the Nazi regime's state-owned collection of “degenerate art”. Others, which may have had several owners or may have been extorted from owners fearing Nazi persecution, will need extensive research.

Jonathan Petropoulos, a history professor at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, California, and author of “The Faustian Bargain: The Art World in Nazi Germany”, said: “Hildebrand Gurlitt became a dealer for Hitler and went to the Nazi art-looting headquarters in Paris where he presumably got a lot of works.”

Gurlitt, who fled to the West after the war, claimed he had lost all his art and papers in the bombing of Dresden. “Obviously that was a lie,” Petropoulos added.

Germany has faced criticism that the restitution process is too complicated and lacks sufficient funding.

Restitution groups and lawyers have often criticised state and museum authorities for not doing enough to research works' origins themselves and instead leaving the onus on relatives.

Ban on non-medical circumcision introduced in Sweden


A bill introduced in the Swedish parliament would ban the non-medical circumcision of males younger than 18.

Two lawmakers from the rightist Sweden Democrats party, noting that female genital mutilation is illegal in Sweden, submitted the bill to the Riksdag on Tuesday.

Bjorn Soder and Per Ramhorn wrote in the measure that “boys should have the same right to avoid both complications of reduced sensitivity in the genitals, painful erections, increased risk of kidney damage and psychological distress by permanent removal, and the tremendous violation of privacy that circumcision actually means.”

The bill proposes to scrap legislation from 2001 that says circumcision of newborns is permissible if it is performed by a “licensed professional.”

Jewish ritual circumcisers, or mohelim, in Sweden receive their licenses from the country’s health board, but a nurse or doctor must still be present when they perform the procedure.

The anti-immigration Sweden Democrats party was established in 1988 but only made it into parliament following unprecedented gains in the 2010 elections, when it garnered 5.7 percent of the votes, or 20 seats out of 349 in Sweden’s parliament. The opposition party is the sixth largest faction in the Riksdag.

Ritual circumcision of underage boys increasingly has come under attack in Scandinavia, both by left-wing secularists as well as right-wingers who fear the influence of immigration from Muslim countries.

The opposition followed a ruling last year by a German court in Cologne that ritual circumcision amounted to a criminal act. The ruling was overturned but triggered temporary bans in Austria and Switzerland.

Sweden has about 20,000 Jews and 500,000 Muslims, according to a U.S. State Department report from 2011.

Torah hidden in Polish monastery is returned


A Torah scroll that has been hidden in a Tuchow monastery since 1942 was returned to the synagogue in Dabrowa Tarnowska in southern Poland.

The Torah was returned earlier this month but reported for the first time on Aug. 24.

It had been brought to the monastery in Tuchow, approximately 60 miles from Krakow, by an anonymous person who asked the Redemptorist priests to hold the scrolls until the synagogue in Dabrowa again became a place of prayer, according to Father Kazimierz Piotrowski of the Redemptorist monastery in Warsaw.

“After the war for many years the synagogue was systematically devastated. The Torah was thus kept in a monastery in Tuchow,” Piotrowski told the Catholic News Agency.

The synagogue in Dabrowa Tarnowska was built in the second half of the 19th century; during World War II the Germans turned it into a workshop. Over the past few years the building was renovated and is now the House of Cultures in Poland.

Following the building’s dedication, the Redemptorists decided to donate the Torah scroll there. In 2010, the mayor of Dabrowa Tarnowska gave the scroll to conservationists, and today it can be seen in the prayer hall of the former synagogue.

EU adds Hezbollah’s military wing to terrorism list


The European Union agreed on Monday to put the armed wing of Hezbollah on its terrorism blacklist, a move driven by concerns over the Lebanese militant group's involvement in a deadly bus bombing in Bulgaria and the Syrian war.

The powerful Lebanese Shi'ite movement, an ally of Iran, has attracted concern in Europe and around the world in recent months for its role in sending thousands of fighters to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government, an intervention that has turned the tide of Syria's two-year-old civil war.

Britain and the Netherlands have long pressed their EU peers to impose sanctions on the Shi'ite Muslim group, citing evidence it was behind an attack in the coastal Bulgarian city of Burgas a year ago that killed five Israelis and their driver.

Until now, many EU capitals had resisted lobbying from Washington and Israel to blacklist the group, warning such a move could fuel instability in Lebanon and in the Middle East.

Hezbollah functions both as a political party that is part of the Lebanese government and as a militia with thousands of guerrillas under arms.

Lebanese caretaker Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour said the decision was “hasty” and could lead to further sanctions against the movement that would complicate Lebanese politics.

“This will hinder Lebanese political life in the future, especially considering our sensitivities in Lebanon,” he told Reuters. “We need to tighten bonds among Lebanese parties, rather than create additional problems.”

The blacklisting opens the way for EU governments to freeze any assets Hezbollah's military wing may have in Europe.

“There's no question of accepting terrorist organizations in Europe,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told reporters.

Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans said in a statement that the EU had taken an important step by “dealing with the military wing of Hezbollah, freezing its assets, hindering its fundraising and thereby limiting its capacity to act”.

In the United States, Secretary of State John Kerry said Syria was an important factor behind the EU vote.

“A growing number of governments are recognizing Hezbollah as the dangerous and destabilizing terrorist organization that it is,” he said.

QUESTIONING EFFECTIVENESS

By limiting the listing to the armed wing, the EU was trying to avoid damaging its relations with Lebanon's government, but the split may complicate its ability to enforce the decision in practical terms.

Hezbollah does not formally divide itself into armed and political wings, and Amal Saad Ghorayeb, who wrote a book on the group, said identifying who the ban would apply to will be difficult.

“It is a political, more than a judicial decision. It can't have any real, meaningful judicial implications,” she said, adding it appeared to be a “a PR move” to hurt Hezbollah's international standing, more connected with events in Syria than with the case in Bulgaria.

Israel's deputy foreign minister Zeev Elkin welcomed the step, but said the entire group should have been targeted.

“We (Israel) worked hard, along with a number of countries in Europe, in order to bring the necessary materials and prove there was a basis for a legal decision,” he told Israel Radio.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague sought to allay concerns about the practical impact of the decision, saying it would allow for better cooperation among European law enforcement officials in countering Hezbollah activities.

Hezbollah parliamentary member al-Walid Soukariah said the decision puts Europe “in confrontation with this segment of people in our region”.

“This step won't affect Hezbollah or the resistance. The resistance is present on Lebanese territory and not in Europe. It is not a terrorist group to carry out terrorist attacks in Europe, which is forbidden by religion.”

TRICKY RELATIONS

The Iran-backed movement, set up with the aim of fighting Israel after its invasion of Lebanon three decades ago, has dominated politics in Beirut in recent years.

In debating the blacklisting, many EU governments expressed concerns over maintaining Europe's relations with Lebanon. To soothe such worries, the ministers agreed to make a statement pledging to continue dialogue with all political groups.

“We also agreed that the delivery of legitimate financial transfers to Lebanon and delivery of assistance from the European Union and its member states will not be affected,” the EU's foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said.

Already on the EU blacklist are groups such as Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist movement that rules the Gaza Strip, and Turkey's Kurdish militant group PKK.

Their assets in Europe are frozen and they have no access to cash there, meaning they cannot raise money for their activities. Sanctions on Hezbollah go into effect this week.

Hezbollah denies any involvement in last July's attack in Bulgaria. The Bulgarian interior minister said last week Sofia had no doubt the group was behind it.

In support of its bid to impose sanctions, Britain has also cited a four-year jail sentence handed down by a Cypriot court in March to a Hezbollah member accused of plotting to attack Israeli interests on the island.

The decision also comes at a time of strained relations between the EU and Israel after Brussels pushed ahead with plans to bar EU financial aid to Israeli organizations operating in the occupied Palestinian territories.

EU foreign ministers held a video conference with Kerry who announced on Friday that Israel and the Palestinians had tentatively agreed to resume peace talks after three years.

Additional reporting by Dan Williams in Jerusalem and Oliver Holmes, Stephen Kalin and Reuters Television in Beirut; Editing by Will Waterman

Is there a shortcut to redemption


Pesach – the Hebrew name for Passover– comes from the Hebrew root PSH which means to skip over, to pass over. It appears first in the context of the ten plagues, in which God skipped over the homes of the Israelites while the rest of Egypt suffered.

On a deeper, more fundamental level, the Passover festival is based on this idea of passing or skipping over the regular order of things. The Jews did not leave Egypt as part of an evolutionary process. Their departure was a leap, a shortcut. While the exodus was a move from slavery to freedom – a practical, political situation – it was also a transition from oppression to redemption. From beginning to end, the Passover redemption is a leap over an orderly, consistent historical course into a new, different and better state, and into a much higher level of existence.

The Israelites were not just enslaved. In Egypt they had become slaves in their mindset, their world-view and their sense of personal self-worth. While the sons of Jacob and their families surely had a spiritual and religious legacy, it was not well defined and had no specific rites, that legacy was practically non-existent. Possibly, the Israelites in Egypt did retain some elements of their past, but they surely became more and more assimilated into Egyptian culture and its atmosphere. The forms of their religious worship were likely not very different from those of the Egyptians – although they were probably not permitted to practice the Egyptian religion as equals.

The exodus from Egypt, then, called for a very profound change in the entire psyche and social makeup of the Jewish people.  The act of releasing a slave – one who was born into bondage and with an entire life spent obeying orders – calls for a thoroughgoing personality change. Those who came out of Egypt were immersed in the lowest levels of Egyptian culture. They had to detach themselves completely from their old life and acquire a new set of concepts. Being free was a foreign notion that required a much, much higher degree of abstraction and the acquisition of a whole new universe of ideas.

All the slips and failures of the Israelites during their wanderings in the desert are therefore totally understandable. Yet despite all these personal, social and cultural impediments, this broken and naked nation successfully became a new national entity and began taking a new path. The prophet Ezekiel, in his poetic style, compares the Jewish nation that is redeemed from Egypt to a poor girl, saying (Ezekiel 16:6-7): “And … I passed by thee, and saw thee wallowing in thy blood, I said unto thee: In thy blood, live; yea, I said unto thee: In thy blood, live … yet you were naked and bare.” Thus, over and above all the miracles – in the sky, on earth and in the water – of the Exodus, the greatest miracle of all is that Jewish people did indeed come out of Egypt and became a nation. The entire Exodus then represents a quick leap into redemption, passing over the life of slavery that had lasted for hundreds of years.

There is a great lesson here for every individual in every generation: everyone can “pass over,” make a leap. Not only slow, painful and indecisive changes are possible; we all also have an inborn ability to make quantum jumps. People can, even by the power of their own decision, make transitions that are not gradual but almost revolutionary. The “passing over” of Passover teaches us that such a jump is possible and inspires us to do so.

Passover represents the promise that we will indeed be able to leap over the multitude of small and big obstacles in our path and reach a better, more perfect state of things, both physically and spiritually.


Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz, world-renowned scholar, teacher, mystic and social critic, has written over 60 books and hundreds of articles on the Talmud, Kabbalah and Chasidut. His works have been translated into English, Russian, French, Portuguese, Spanish, Swedish, Italian, Chinese and Japanese. The rabbi’s life-long mission is to make the Talmud accessible to all by bringing the study of Jewish texts to communities around the world. Thel Fourth Annual Global Day of Jewish Learning will be on November 17, 2013.

Israeli lawmakers press for answers on dead Australian ‘Prisoner X’


Knesset members pressed Israel's justice minister for answers on “Prisoner X,” who was identified in an Australian TV report as an Australian-born Israeli who worked for the Mossad and died in an Israeli prison.

The Australian Broadcasting Corp. reported Tuesday that the man referred to in Israel as Prisoner X was jailed in early 2010 and apparently committed suicide two years ago in the high-security Ayalon Prison near Tel Aviv. The report identified him as Ben Zygier, who was known in Israel as Ben Alon. Israel has not confirmed the identification.

A gag order that is still in effect on Israeli media was issued in the incident in late June 2010, according to the network's investigative news program “Foreign Correspondent,” which said the order barred any mention of Prisoner X or of the gag order itself. In December 2010, the Hebrew-language Ynet newsite reported on the existence of the prisoner in a short article that was later removed.

Following the broadcast Tuesday, Israeli news editors were called to the Prime Minister's Office for an emergency meeting of the Israeli Editors Committee, an informal forum comprised of the editors and owners of major Israeli media outlets that dates back to David Ben-Gurion. Shortly after the meeting, news items reporting on the Australian report — a bid to avoid the gag order — were removed from Israeli news sites, according to Haaretz.

“Today we hear that in a country that presumes to be a democracy, journalists are cooperating with the government without the knowledge of the High Court, and that anonymous prisoners are committing suicide and no one knows who they are,” Meretz party chairwoman Zahava Gal-On asked Israeli Justice Minister Yaakov Ne'eman during a Tuesday Knesset session. “How does that comply with democracy and the rule of the law?”

United Arab List-Ta'al lawmaker Ahmad Tibi asked Ne'eman, “Do you have any information, sir, pertaining to this incident? Can you confirm the fact that an Australian citizen has committed suicide in prison under a false identity?”  

“I cannot answer these questions,” Ne'eman responded, “because the matter does not fall under the authority of the justice minister. But there is no doubt that if true, the matter must be looked into.”

“Foreign Correspondent” reported that Zygier was 34 at the time of his death and had moved to Israel about 10 years earlier. He was married to an Israeli woman and had two small children.

According to the Australian Broadcasting Corp.'s website, Zygier was found hanged in a cell with state-of-the-art surveillance systems that are installed to prevent suicide. Guards reportedly tried unsuccessfully to revive him. His body was retrieved and flown to Melbourne, where he was buried.

The network said it “understands that he was recruited by the spy agency Mossad.”

Zygier's family declined to speak to the news program, which reported that friends and acquaintances approached by “Foreign Correspondent” also refused to comment.

Holocaust, Jewish themes remain prominent among foreign Oscar offerings


The long-forecast “Holocaust fatigue” among filmmakers and their audiences has not yet arrived, judging by the entries for 2013 Oscar honors by producers and directors in numerous countries.

Each of a record 71 foreign — meaning non-English-speaking — countries has submitted its top film, ranging alphabetically from Afghanistan to Vietnam.

So broad a representation of the world’s tastemakers and opinion-shapers, though hardly scientific proof, tends to reflect the topics and themes likely to attract home audiences.

So, just as in Hollywood, there are lots of movies on love in all its permutations; high and low comedies; and spy, action and detective thrillers.

But also entered are five movies that deal directly with the Jewish fate during the Nazi era and its aftermath, one film with talmudic roots and one on the wartime clash between Russian and German armed forces.

Also of special interest to Jewish moviegoers are the Israeli entry, and, after an absence, a Palestinian film.

Probably the least-expected entry is “Lore,” submitted by Australia. While the Aussies speak in what might still be considered colonial dialect, that would hardly be considered a foreign language by the standards of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

But “Lore” features an all-German acting and -speaking cast. The title character is a 14-year-old girl, the daughter of a high-ranking SS officer and his like-minded wife, who are arrested by Allied authorities in the closing days of World War II in Europe.

Lore is charged by her mother to take her four younger siblings, one still a baby, across rubble-strewn Germany, pass through the Russian-occupied zone and find the farm of her grandmother in American-ruled West Germany.

Along the way, Lore is befriended and protected by a young man, to whom the adolescent girl is physically and emotionally attracted. To her horror, the Nazi-suckled Lore discovers that her protector seems to be one of the despised and evil Jews she has been taught to hate all her life.

The only Australian part of the film is its director, Cate Shortland, and under the Academy rules, that entitles her country to enter “Lore” as its own.

Shortland, who with the Journal during a visit to Los Angeles, was asked why she would make a film on this particular topic and in a language she doesn’t speak.

“I have long been interested in totalitarianism and, especially, what it does to children,” she said, adding that it was challenging to view ultimate evil from the perspective of the perpetrators.

Her decision was reinforced by her marriage to a man whose German-Jewish parents arrived as refugees in Australia, and by her own conversion to Judaism four years ago.

Aside from “Lore,” the other four entries dealing with the Holocaust were made in Eastern European countries dominated in the postwar decades by communist regimes, which largely ignored the extermination of its Jewish populations during World War II.

One of the entries is from Macedonia and another from Serbia, two countries established by the breakup of the former Yugoslavia.

“The Third Half,” by Macedonian director Darko Mitrevski, has some of the elements of a Hollywood product — poor boy falls in love with rich girl, and the underdog team beats the champion.

In this case, a scruffy, low-class workingman and part-time soccer player pursues the aristocratic daughter of a rich Jewish banker, and his laughable provincial team beats the league’s top team.

What sets “The Third Half” apart is the time — 1941 — and the locale of Macedonia, occupied by Nazi ally Bulgaria. The occupiers introduce all of Hitler’s racial agenda, including the graphically depicted humiliation and deportation of the Jews.

Bulgaria, which saved its own Jews but turned the Jews of occupied Macedonia over to the Germans, has bitterly protested the film as a perversion of history. According to Mitrevski, Bulgarian authorities have retaliated by blocking talks for Macedonia to join the European Union.

The director remains unfazed. “I am fascinated by the individual stories of Holocaust survivors,” he said. “There should be 11 million such movies of Jewish, Gypsy, homosexual and political survivors.”

In Serbia’s submission, “When Day Breaks,” an elderly music professor, who has always considered himself a Christian, discovers that he is the son of Jewish parents, who left him with a farmer’s family and later perished in the Holocaust.

As the stunned professor wanders through present-day Belgrade, he finds that few people remember the war years or that the city’s neglected fairground served as a concentration camp for the city’s Jews. With his musician friends, he set about to establish a memorial on the site.

Like the professor, “I cannot not remember,” said director Goran Paskaljevic in a phone interview. “If we forget the crimes committed during World War II, and later in Bosnia, that opens the door to new crimes.”

The Czech Republic’s entry, “In the Shadow,” starts as a film-noir detective story, but as it evolves, it leads to the anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic show trials of the 1950s, staged by the communist regime in Prague.

The Holocaust targeted not only Jews, but also other “racially inferior” people, particularly the Romas (Gypsies). Hungary, an Axis partner during the war, relives this past in its Oscar entry, “Just the Wind.” The movie depicts the murder of five Romani families in an isolated village and the subsequent trial of the suspects.

“White Tiger” is an enigmatic Russian film that centers on some of the devastating tank battles between German and Soviet forces during World War II. The title character is a massive German tank, which appears suddenly to destroy its Russian opponents and just as suddenly disappears into the void.

Critics have interpreted the film’s underlying theme as pointing to war as a natural part of the human condition or as a representation of the German lust for power and domination, which will fade away for some time and then suddenly reappear.

The Latvian movie, “Gulf Stream Under the Iceberg,” goes back to the biblical and talmudic legend of Lilith, the reputed first wife of Adam, who in subsequent reincarnations controls men through her sexual attraction.

Israel’s contender, “Fill the Void,” wrestles with profound issues of faith within the Charedi (ultra-Orthodox) community of Tel Aviv. Director Rama Burshtein, a New York native who became fervently Orthodox after making aliyah, focuses the film on whether 18-year-old Shira will follow her mother’s wishes to marry the husband of her older sister, who died in childbirth.

Shira is caught between the strictures of her community — whose rituals and lifestyle are depicted in loving detail and not without humor — and personal choice.

In the Palestinian film, “When I Saw You,” Tarek is a precocious 11-year old, who flees his West Bank village after the Six-Day War and ends up with his mother at a refugee camp in Jordan.

Seeking freedom and adventure, Tarek leaves the camp and falls in with a group of militant anti-Israel fighters.

The motion picture academy will winnow down the 71 foreign entries to an initial shortlist of nine semifinalists and is scheduled to announce the results on Dec. 21. Subsequently, five finalists will be made public on Jan. 10. The Oscars will be presented on Feb. 24.

Among film critics, the favorites for the top prize are Austria’s “Amour” and France’s “The Intouchables,” which were both nominated for Golden Globe awards. However, Israel’s “Fill the Void” and Australia’s “Lore” also are considered likely contenders, and the selection committees for best foreign-language film are well known for their often-unexpected choices.

In the meantime, though, the academy has already announced its 15 nominees for best documentary choices. Included are “5 Broken Cameras” by directors Emad Burnat, a Palestinian, and Guy Davidi, an Israeli; and “The Gatekeepers” by Israel’s Dror Moreh. “The Gatekeepers” consists of lengthy and surprisingly frank interviews with six former heads of Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security agency, discussing the past and likely future of the tumultuous regional conflicts.

Hungarian Jewish body to sue lawmaker for ‘Nazi’ speech


A Hungarian Jewish organization said it will file a complaint against a lawmaker who proposed drawing up a list of “dangerous” Jews in government.

“There is no alternative to legal recourse now,” the Unified Hungarian Jewish Congregation said  Tuesday in a statement about the parliamentary address the previous day by Marton Gyongyosi of the ultranationalist Jobbik party.

During a Parliament session on Israel’s latest clash with Hamas, Gyongyosi said that Jews in the government posed a national risk and should be monitored. He also said a census should be held of all Hungarian Jews.

Rabbi Slomo Koves, a Chabad emissary and director of the Budapest-based Unified Hungarian Jewish Congregation, said his organization is initiating a “criminal procedure” against Gyongyosi's “open Nazism inside Parliament.” The statement did not specify the procedure.

Koves also called on Hungarian democratic parties to “take action” on Jobbik, a party that the Anti-Defamation League calls “openly anti-Semitic.”

Several lawmakers in Hungary wore yellow Stars of David on Tuesday as hundreds of protesters rallied to condemn Gyongyosi for his speech, according to The Associated Press.

Kidnapping plot against Tunisian Jewish community reportedly foiled


A network plotting to kidnap and ransom members of a southern Tunisia town's Jewish community was broken up by the country's national guard, a Tunisian newspaper reported.

The network was started by a police officer who was formerly responsible for protecting the Jewish community, according to the report  in Al Hacad, a Tunisian weekly. The officer was reportedly recruiting young Tunisians to take part in a kidnapping operation that aimed to force Tunisian Jews to leave the country. He had a car registered in Libya as well as firearms stockpiled.

A Jewish resident of the southern Tunisian town of Zarzis told JTA that extra security measures had been taken up by the national guard in the Jewish neighborhood, where about 100 Jews live.

“I was wondering why we had a new army truck stationed about 40 meters from our synagogue for the past week, and then I read about this,” he said.

The police officer reportedly was known for being involved in an Islamic extremist group and was plotting to carry out a kidnapping operation on a Friday evening when local Jews spend Shabbat on the beach.

After the plot was foiled, all those behind it were arrested. The case has been referred to the Court of First Instance in Tunis.

While relations between Muslims and Jews in Zarzis have been relatively calm in recent years, there have been past incidents where the Jewish community was the target of violence.  In 1982 the synagogue in Zarzis was torched, and Torah scrolls were destroyed in the blaze. The arson attack was considered a response to the Sabra and Shatila massacre in Lebanon.

As Morsi and Brotherhood spur alarm, what to do about Egypt?


Jewish groups looking for signals from Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi regarding his views were appalled when one finally came — in the form of a nod and what appeared to be a muttered “amen” to an imam’s call for God to “deal harshly” with the Jews.

Morsi's nod at Friday prayers Oct. 19 and a separate call from the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood's top leader for Muslims to unite and use force against Israel in a “holy Jihad” have drawn expressions of alarm from Jewish groups.

The Anti-Defamation League released a statement expressing its “deepening concern over the anti-Semitic rhetoric coming from the highest echelons of Egyptian society.” The Zionist Organization of America and the Simon Wiesenthal Center called on the Obama administration to cut off ties with the Muslim Brotherhood, the movement behind Morsi's Freedom and Justice Party, though the new Egyptian president formally resigned the party's head after his election.

The American Jewish Committee said it is reaching out to Egyptian officials for further clarification.

“AJC has a longstanding relationship with the Egyptian government, we are determined to maintain that relationship throughout his transition,” said Jason Isaacson, the AJC's international affairs director. “Whatever the views of Egyptian leaders, the fact remains Egypt is a neighbor of Israel, maintains a peace treaty with Israel and requires constant attention.”

Morsi, who assumed office in June, has done little since then to assuage concerns that his Muslim Brotherhood background would severely alter the most populous Arab nation’s relationship with the West and, more particularly, its peace with Israel.

“Anyone who thought the Muslim Brotherhood would moderate simply because it won elections doesn't understand how ideological the organization is, and doesn't understand how it is structured to resist moderation,” said Eric Trager, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Trager described a system in which it takes five to eight years to attain full membership in the Brotherhood, and during which aspirants are subject to tests that weed out moderates.

Jewish concerns about how Morsi will handle relations with Israel have mounted in recent weeks.

Addressing the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 27, Morsi did not mention Israel by name once, although he spoke at length about the Palestinian cause. His only reference to Israel was as “a party in the international community” that denied Palestinian rights.

The text of Morsi's speech as prepared and distributed in advance by Egypt’s mission to the U.N. included a positive reference to the Arab League's 2002 peace initiative, which called for comprehensive peace and recognition of Israel in exchange for Israel’s withdrawal to the 1967 lines and a resolution to the Palestinian refugee issue in exchange. Yet Morsi, JTA has discovered, omitted that part in the speech he delivered.

Also removed in the remarks Morsi delivered was a vow that was included in the advance text to uphold international commitments — an assurance that the United States has sought, particularly as it relates to the 1979 peace treaty with Israel.

Next, in October, in a public message, Mohammed Badie, the Muslim Brotherhood’s supreme guide, reportedly said that “Zionists only understand the language of force” and “increased their corruption throughout the world, shedding the blood of the people, trampling sanctuaries and holy places, desecrating even their own sanctuaries through their actions.”

Then, on Oct. 19, Morsi attended Friday services at a mosque in Mersa Matruh, an Egyptian seaport, at which the imam – a prominent local Brotherhood figure – prayed to God to “deal harshly with the Jews and those who are allied with them.” The Middle East Media Research Institute published video of the event in which Morsi appeared to nod and mouth “amen” to those words.

“The drumbeat of anti-Semitism in the 'new' Egypt is growing louder and reverberating further under President Morsi and we are increasingly concerned about the continuing expressions of hatred for Jews and Israel in Egyptian society and President Morsi's silence in the face of most of these public expressions of hate,” the ADL said in a statement.

Morsi and the Brotherhood also have been consolidating their power. In August, Morsi replaced the leadership of the military — long seen as a bulwark of support for maintaining strong ties wit the U.S. and upholding the peace treaty with Israel. He has also removed limits on the presidency that the junta that controlled Egypt after Hosni Mubarak’s ouster in early 2011 had inserted.

Joel Rubin, the director of government affairs for the Ploughshares Fund, said that much of this posturing has to do with internal political considerations as the Brotherhood seeks to consolidate its leading role in the Egyptian polity.

“He’s making a priority of maintaining the leadership profile,” said Rubin, who previously worked on Middle East issues as a congressional staffer and at the State Department. “He has a political base he speaks to.”

Trager said that the offending statements of the sort delivered by the imam were not uncommon in Egypt.

“What is as disturbing is that these prayers are ubiquitous in Egypt and a common feature,” Trager said. “It’s awful, the president sitting there and saying amen, but you have tens of millions of Egyptians saying amen.”

A poll in September commissioned by The Israel Project found 74 percent of Egyptians disapprove of the fact that Egypt maintains diplomatic relations with Israel. The poll, conducted by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, was based on face-to-face interviews with 812 Egyptians and had a margin of error of 3.5 percent.

There are already disagreements between Congress and the Obama administration over how best to deal with the new Egyptian government. The State Department announced in September plans to maintain the $1.3 billion in military assistance to Egypt and to increase economic assistance and support for democratization programs.

Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas), the chairwoman of the foreign operations subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives Appropriations Committee, immediately put a hold on $450 million in emergency aid,  saying “I am not convinced of the urgent need for this assistance and I cannot support it at this time.”

James Phillips, a senior fellow at The Heritage Foundation, said that giving the emergency aid “sends the wrong signals to the Egyptian government.” He noted the two days it took for Morsi contain mob attacks on the U.S. embassy on Sept. 11 and publicly criticize them. “He has proven himself to be someone who can’t be counted on,” Phillips said.

But Rubin said the assistance, primarily designated for the military, helps bolster Egyptian moderates. Still, he said that it was appropriate for the Obama administration to make clear its unhappiness with anti-Semitic and anti-American pronouncements. He noted Obama’s declaration in an interview with Telemundo recently that Egypt was neither ally nor an enemy — a significant downgrading of the status of Egypt, which has long been one of the leading recipients of U.S. aid.

“We should be comfortable in telling Morsi what we think is appropriate and telling him what we think the government of Egypt needs to be saying and not saying regarding Israel,” Rubin said.

Steven Cook, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said that the U.S. should closely watch areas where tensions between Israel and Egypt could flare up.

“There are certain discrete things the U.S. can do, like help manage the situation in Sinai,” he said, noting the increase in tensions after attempted terrorist attacks from the Egyptian peninsula bordering Israel. “That’s the flashpoint where political leaders have to do things are rational from their perspective, but that could lead to” an outbreak of conflict.

Israelis possibly targeted by bomb-makers in Cyprus


Cypriot authorities discovered a small amount of explosives that may have been intended for use against Israeli targets. 

A Cypriot tabloid, Alithia, reported on Thursday that agents of Cypriot security services had discovered 100 grams of explosives at the port in Limassol, which were intended to target cruise ships carrying Israelis. The explosives, according to the report, came in the form of a pink powder.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, an expert on terrorism with ties to the Cypriot government told JTA that “unless there are other packages,” the small amount found could suggest the charge was meant to target one person in a car bomb or other small explosives devices.   

“The find may not be linked to Israelis at all, but a way for the police to send a message that they know about a pending hit,” the source said.

Last month, Israel asked security forces around the world, including in Cyprus and Greece, to increase protection for Israeli tourists ahead of the High Holy Days.

In July, Cypriot police arrested a Swedish passport-holder of Lebanese descent who was allegedly tracking the movement of Israeli tourists on the island.

Jewish leader unveils model bill on regulating shechitah in EU


European Jewish Congress President Moshe Kantor has unveiled a model bill designed to set “strict legal terms” on religious freedoms in order to enshrine them in Europe.

Kantor, who is also co-chairman of the European Council on Tolerance and Reconciliation, or ECTR, presented the model bill on Oct. 15 at the European Parliament.

Designed to delineate the legal boundaries of tolerance in light of “anti-Semitism, racism and attempts to limit freedom of worship in Europe,” the document proposes to enshrine Jewish and Muslim religious slaughter practices, shechitah and halal, as well as ritual circumcision. It also recognized the state’s right to regulate these practices.

Citing “overriding” public safety reasons, the bill proposes to ban burkas and other face-covering headgear. Kantor said he hoped parliaments of European Union member states adopt the principles laid down in the model bill in legislation, as “only by defining the boundaries of real tolerance can we ensure it.”

The model bill was co-authored by Aleksander Kwaśniewski, a former Polish president and co-chair of ECTR, a Brussels-based NGO comprised of Nobel Peace Prize laureates, several former heads of states and others recognized for adding to tolerance.

Under the model bill, “migrants who refuse to learn the local language may face deportation due to their unwillingness to integrate,” said Prof. Yoram Dinstein, one of the documents’ co-authors and an Israeli expert in international law.

“Many support tolerance as an abstract idea but find it hard to specify how it should be applied,” he told JTA. “This document tries to translate aspirations into practice.”

In Scandinavia, kipah becomes a symbol of defiance for Malmo’s Jews


Across Scandinavia, the kipah is becoming a symbol of Jewish defiance.

On Sunday, about 70 Danish Jews took a double-decker bus from Copenhagen on a 10-mile bridge across the Strait of Øresund, on the Baltic Sea, to go to Malmo in a show of solidarity with the embattled Jews of that Swedish city. All the men on the bus wore kipahs, a rarity in Scandinavia.

Last December, a small group of Malmo Jews violated security protocol by keeping on their kipahs on the street after attending synagogue, according to Fredrik Sieradski, a spokesman for Malmo’s 700 or so Jews, and then made a regular habit of it every few weeks. New marchers join every time.

And in August, hundreds of people from across Sweden went on public “kipah walks” in Malmo and Stockholm.

It’s not just in Scandinavia. In early September, a flash mob wearing kipahs gathered in Berlin after a rabbi and his 6-year-old daughter were attacked. The yarmulke-clad crowd included not just Jews but Christians, Muslims, local celebrities and politicians.

But in Scandinavia, where the Jewish communities of Denmark, Sweden and Norway are relatively tiny and used to keeping a low profile, the shift to public demonstrations against anti-Semitism marks a turning point. Sunday’s bus trip marked the first time that Scandinavian Jews from another country had come to Malmo to express solidarity. Malmo, Sweden’s third-largest city and the site of some of the country’s highest profile attacks on Jews, has been a focal point for the demonstrations.

“The community here used to keep a low profile, but there’s a feeling that we are lost if we do nothing now,” Sieradski told JTA.

He attributed the change in Malmo to “a slow build-up” of frustration since 2009, when Israel’s war with Hamas in Gaza sparked anti-Israel and anti-Semitic demonstrations in the city, leaving Jews with the feeling that they were under threat and without sufficient protection from the authorities.

“This build-up has finally reached a critical mass,” Sieradski said.

The need for Jewish response became impossible to ignore in 2009, community leaders say, when Israeli tennis players showed up to compete in the Davis Cup, which Malmo was hosting. Anti-Israel demonstrations erupted and quickly morphed into violent, anti-Semitic riots.

Some 50 to 100 anti-Semitic incidents occur here annually, according to police and community statistics. Many of the perpetrators are first- and second-generation Muslim immigrants, who make up 30 to 40 percent of Malmo’s population of 300,000. Sieradski says that wearing a kipah in Malmo can lead to insults, harassment and vandalism.

Rabbi Shneur Kesselman, a Chabad envoy to Malmo, has been targeted many times since coming here in 2004. Last week, someone carved the word “Palestina” into his new car.

“I had no idea it would be like this before I came here, and I probably wouldn’t have come had I known,” said Kesselman, who has four children. “But it would be very bad for the community if I left.”

Making matter worse, Malmo Mayor Ilmar Reepalu has advised Jews who want to be safe in Malmo to reject Zionism. Though he has condemned anti-Semitism, Reepalu has called Zionism a form of “extremism” comparable with anti-Semitism, said the Jewish community had been “infiltrated” by anti-Muslim agents and denied that Muslims perpetrated the attacks on Malmo Jews.

During her visit to the country in June, Hannah Rosenthal, the Obama administration’s special envoy for combating anti-Semitism, said that Reepalu had made “anti-Semitic statements.” Malmo under Reepalu, she said, is a “prime example” of “new anti-Semitism,” where anti-Israel sentiment serves as a thin guise for Jew-hatred.

Reepalu’s unsympathetic stance has been among the key factors that have galvanized Scandinavia’s Jews. Aboard the bus on Sunday from Copenhagen to Malmo, the mayor was a subject of frequent condemnation.

Finn Rudaizky, a Copenhagen alderman and former leader of Denmark’s Jewish community, said he felt there was “a Jewish duty” to show the Malmo community it was not alone.

“Leadership especially matters in conflict situations,” he said. “Reepalu’s approach is complicating the situation.”

“Reepalu needs to be fired,” said Anya Raben, a young Jewish woman from Copenhagen. “He is a problem, and the fact he still holds his post is scandalous.”

Following the 30-minute drive through the tunnel and bridge that since 2000 have connected Copenhagen to Malmo, the passengers disembarked at Malmo’s main Jewish cemetery and attended a Holocaust commemoration ceremony.

One of the headstones there is a testament to the strong bonds that connect the Jewish communities of Copenhagen and Malmo, despite cultural and language barriers. Born in 1943, Golde Berman was 4 months old when thousands of Jews fled Nazi-occupied Denmark to neutral Sweden en masse aboard boats in a famous rescue operation. Sweden’s Jewish communities mobilized to absorb the refugees from Denmark by sharing their homes and food and raising funds. Gothenburg’s Jewish community gave up some of its offices in favor of a Danish school for the refugees’ children. Many refugees stayed in Malmo. 

Little Golde, however, was in a hospital on the day of departure, Oct. 1, 1943, and her parents left her behind. She died in December. The Danish Red Cross transported her small body to her parents in Malmo, where she was buried.

It was Golde’s brother-in-law, Martin Stern, who spearheaded the solidarity visit from Copenhagen and covered most of the costs.

“Now it is the Danish Jews’ turn to return the favor, when the Jews of Malmo are in their hour of need,” Stern said.

Some Danish Holocaust-era refugees were on the solidarity bus from Copenhagen.

“Fortunately, the attitude in Malmo was different when I was a little boy,” Allan Niemann, the president of B’nai B’rith Denmark who was in Malmo in exile in the 1940s, said in a speech at the cemetery. “If Mayor Reepalu were in place then, I’m not sure I would be standing here.”

Sunday’s bus trip was just the latest Jewish demonstration in Sweden. Earlier this month, some 1,500 people rallied in support of Israel in Stockholm and Gothenburg, Sweden’s two largest cities. Many of the demonstrations have been organized using social media and other grass-roots strategies.

Community members say their newly vocal stance is beginning to have an effect. Malmo’s handling of anti-Semitic incidents has improved noticeably since the rallies and solidarity actions began, Kesselman said.

He also credited Rosenthal’s visit to Malmo in April, during which she met with Reepalu, prompting Malmo police to follow up on complaints of verbal anti-Semitic abuse. Suspected perpetrators whose identities are known are now brought in for questioning, he said.

“The decision by the political leadership of our community to step up the pressure has yielded yet another change,” Kesselman said. “Now people stop me on the street to say they support us Jews, to encourage us to continue to stand up for our rights. It changed the balance.”

Parallel universe: A Jewish what if


In 1901, a sixteen year old Jewish girl from Hungary, Kati Berger, along with several brothers and sisters, arrived at Ellis Island in New York.  A brother and sister who remained in Europe, eventually both perished in a Nazi death camp in 1942.

Young Kati settled in Mount Vernon, New York, and subsequently met and married a young trolley car conductor , a devout Catholic from Italy, John Branca.  The Brancas ultimately  became  the proud parents of  sixteen  children, but Kati secretly kept her Jewish heritage to herself, never telling her children that by Jewish law, they indeed were Jewish.  Their children all grew up to be observant Catholics.

A son, Ralph, born in 1926, grew to be a great athlete and in 1943, signed a major league baseball contract to pitch for the Brooklyn Dodgers.  Ralph won 21 games for the Dodgers in 1947, and was selected for three All-Star games.

In 1951, Ralph went from being famous to infamous, because of one pitch that he threw.  That year, the Dodgers and the New York Giants finished the season tied for first place, with identical records, and so a three game playoff  was scheduled to determine who would play the New York Yankees in the World Series.  On Monday, October 1, Ralph Branca started and lost game one.  Game two saw Brooklyn win big, and so game three would determine who would win the National League title.

In one of the greatest baseball  games ever played, the Dodgers held a 4-1 lead in the bottom of the ninth inning.  Don Newcombe, the Dodger ace, pitched brilliantly but became exhausted, giving up a run with two runners on base, when the Dodger manager elected to go to the bullpen.  Ralph Branca was brought in to relieve Newcombe, and to face the Giant's Bobby Thomson.

On Branca's second pitch, Thomson hit the “shot heard round the world”, a three run homer that won the game, won the pennant and broke the heart of Brooklyn!  Branca was traumatized and at age twenty five, his once stellar career was basically over.

What's the point of retelling a baseball story that has been rehashed for 60 years?  Well, what if Kati had  told her children that indeed she was Jewish and what if her children grew up as observant Jews?  The point is that Rosh Hashonah, the Jewish New Year started at sundown on Sunday, September 30 and into Monday, October 1.  What if Ralph Branca, as an observant Jew, said he would not pitch the first playoff game on Monday.  The Dodgers had a deep pitching staff and certainly another pitcher had a strong chance of winning game one.  Since they easily won game two, then game three would not have been necessary.  Bobby Thomson would not be famous, and Ralph Branca would not be infamous.

What if Kati had served blintzes and borscht, instead of lasagna and linguini, then the Dodgers might have won the pennant!

George Karp was born 5699 in Brooklyn, and Bar Mitzvahed at Hebrew Alliance in Brighton Beach.  He has just returned from Jerusalem and finalized this article on his flight back home.  George has 10 grandchildren all eating blintzes and carrying on our tradition.   George Karp is a Certified Financial Planner in Boca Raton, Florida, helping families with life insurance, estate planning, and  legacy issues..

Iranian diplomat in Brazil: Soon there will be no place for Zionists


A Brazilian newspaper has published an opinion article by an Iranian diplomat asserting that “there will soon be no place for Zionists in the Middle East.”

Ali Mohaghegh, first secretary of the Iranian embassy in Brasilia, made the asertion in article published last month in the newspaper Folha de S. Paolo. “This [Israeli] regime that once sought to dominate the land between Nile and the Euphrates, now needs to hide behind a wall,” Mohaghegh wrote. He added: “The Zionist regime of Israel is the foremost reason for international terrorism.”

CONIB, the representative body of Brazilian Jewish communities, condemned the opinion piece published as “unacceptable.”

Several responses to Mohaghegh have appeared in Brazilian media, including in Folha.

Flavio Morgenstern, a translator and writer for the commentary site Papo de Homem, accused the paper of “ceding inches to anti-Semitism.”

Writing in O Globo, another major Brazilian daily, Osias Wurman, Israel’s honorary consul in Rio de Janeiro, accused Iran of state terrorism.

Joshua Bloom: His voice is more than the sum of his parts


The old theater saying that there are no small parts, only small actors, can also be said for opera. Just ask Australian bass Joshua Bloom, who was in town last month to begin rehearsals as Masetto for the Los Angeles Opera production of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni.” The opera’s seven performances run Sept. 22 through Oct. 14 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

Masetto marks Bloom’s L.A. Opera debut. “Masetto is a small role, but a good one because you can certainly make an impression,” Bloom said during a break in rehearsal. “There are some roles where nobody remembers you, but Masetto has enough meat to it — it’s great to debut with in a major house.”

The role has already earned him accolades at other major opera houses, including last year at the Metropolitan Opera. In The New York Times, Anthony Tommasini praised his peasant Masetto as “stalwart,” adding that his “hearty bass” made for an “endearing performance.”

Audiences may recall Bloom from his Walt Disney Concert Hall debut last year as Algernon in a striking concert version of Gerald Barry’s unpredictable operatic take on Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest.” Though primarily a bass, Bloom’s flexible range comfortably negotiated this quirky comic baritone part.

Bloom’s lyric, rather than dramatic, voice type has a substance and weight that projects well, especially in the Handel, Mozart and Rossini repertory.

“A lot of the roles for my voice type are smaller, but they’re significant,” Bloom said. “Masetto is the only one who stands up to Giovanni in any meaningful way, and that makes him interesting in a cast of people who are often manipulated by Giovanni without any recourse.”

Masetto is just one of the comprimario, or supporting parts, in Bloom’s repertory. In August, he played Leporello, the Don’s servant, at a festival in Tallinn, Estonia. And when Bloom returns to L.A. Opera in May 2013 for a six-performance run of Puccini’s “Tosca” (May 18 through June 8 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion), he will be playing Angelotti.

“Angelotti is another small part, but actually it’s really pivotal,” Bloom said, “and possibly my favorite small role to do. You have some really good music, and it’s very dramatic.”

L.A. Opera music director James Conlon observed in an e-mail that the late tenor Charles Anthony often made his greatest impact in smaller parts. A New York Times critic, reviewing his Met debut in 1954, said Anthony even made bit parts, like the Simpleton in Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov,” unforgettable.

“Angelotti is very, very important,” Conlon said. “A great deal of the first act of ‘Tosca’ absolutely depends on a strongly sung and defined Angelotti as a counterweight to the other characters.”

Conlon added that Angelotti’s escape from prison sets “Tosca’s” entire drama in motion, which ends —  (spoiler alert!) — in the violent death of the opera’s four most prominent characters.

Bloom has sung larger parts, including the title character in Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro,” and Nick Shadow (the Devil) in Stravinsky’s “The Rake’s Progress.” Next year, he is scheduled to sing the bass role in Gerald Barry’s opera “The Triumph of Beauty and Deceit.” It’s part of a double bill with Handel’s “The Triumph of Time and Truth” at a festival in Germany.

“I play Time in both shows,” Bloom said. “The role has very low notes, but also very high. Gerald likes to explore the extremes of people’s ranges, so there’s not a huge difference between his baritone and bass roles. He writes a lot of falsetto for basses as well.”

Bloom, 38, grew up in Melbourne with musician parents who exposed him to all sorts of music from a very young age. But they encouraged him to go to law school. 

“Music wasn’t something I ever thought of doing as a profession,” Bloom said. “Music, to my parents, was not a good career choice. I think they wanted me to get a real job.”

Bloom, whose father is Jewish, went to Anglican schools on a music scholarship as a cellist and double bass player. “Technically, I’m not really Jewish,” Bloom said. “My parents are firm atheists, so I was never particularly religious. I went to Jewish kindergarten. That was as far as it went. Nonetheless, obviously having a Jewish father, and my name being as it is, well, there you go.” 

Bloom majored in history at the University of Melbourne, focusing on Hitler’s Germany, Holocaust history and Russia under Stalin. He also started acting in fringe theater, “doing the odd musical.” 

“I wanted to be an actor,” Bloom said, but people who heard him sing recommended he take voice lessons. “I kind of fell into opera. It wasn’t something I was desperate to do from a young age.”

Bloom left Melbourne for New York when he was 26 and is now based in San Francisco. Since his father was originally from Chicago, Bloom said he’s never had a problem working in the United States, which became necessary for him to cultivate an interesting career.

“Australia is very isolated geographically, and the arts scene is tricky,” Bloom said. “If you want to be a full-time, professional opera singer, there’s really only one company that is available — Opera Australia.”

Over the years, Bloom has been invited back regularly to Opera Australia, but he doesn’t regret leaving. “It’s a great country,” he said, “but for opera singers, it’s a difficult environment.”

Bloom, who is on the road for most of the year, said his parents are “very proud” of his thriving singing career. But, he added, living out of suitcase gets old quickly. And there’s no time for relationships outside the work.

“I would have to establish something quickly and then manage the long-distance thing, which is difficult at the best of times,” Bloom said, adding that most of the people he meets are in the business.

Though he continues to enjoy the variety of small and large lyric roles he’s offered, Bloom said he hopes in the next decade to venture into heftier emotional terrain. One of his dream roles is King Philip in Verdi’s “Don Carlos.” 

“He’s such a complex and profound character,” Bloom said. “There’s a lot of pathos involved, and the music is extraordinary. Although I’ve never played him, Don Giovanni is also a role where, depending on your stage of life, you have a different insight into the character. Those roles have multiple layers, to be explored over a lifetime.”

For more information and to purchase tickets, visit

The illusion of a solution


Of all the incendiary books that have been written about Israel over the last year or so, none is quite as fiery as “Israel: The Will to Prevail” by Danny Danon (Palgrave Macmillan: $26).

Danon is a young activist in the Likud Party and serves as deputy speaker of the Knesset. He agrees with the various critics and commentators on the left on only a single point: “We are now at a critical juncture in our brief but momentous history,” Danon writes, “and our very survival is once again at stake.” Unlike Peter Beinart or Jeremy Ben-Ami, however, Danon rejects the notion that the United States (or, by implication, American Jews) is entitled to tell Israel how to conduct its affairs.  

“Israel must take firm hold of its own destiny, with a ready willingness to act decisively on its own behalf,” he insists. “[H]istory shows that when we act on our own, according to our own best interests, the results are not only better for Israel but for world peace as a whole.”

Lest anyone mistake his political colors, however, Danon pointedly insists on using the words “Jewish communities” and “residents of these communities” in place of “settlers” and “settlements.” The West Bank, of course, is referred to as Judea and Samaria. “The Jewish people’s claim to Israel,” he writes, “is older and stronger than any other people’s in the history of the world.” Indeed, Danon presents his fierce little book as nothing less than “a road map for Jewish victory — achieved with or without backing from her allies.” 

Danon insists that it is in the strategic best interest of the United States to support Israel, by which he plainly means the hard-line policies of Likud. “It’s an unfortunate fact that Israel has grown more distant from the United States,” he writes, “and I believe this puts both our countries in peril.” And he cites President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as advocates of what he calls “the growing acceptance in the United States and abroad of a left-wing, so-called progressive position on Israel” and “a one-sided view of Palestinian aspirations.”

“Discomforting behavior continues to come from the White House, which makes Israelis wonder whether the United States is really on our side,” Danon writes, “and strengthens the case that we must be confident to take matters, when necessary, in our own hands despite world or U.S. opinion.”

Nowadays, of course, the demarcation between left and right is blurry. Who, after all, would disagree with Danon’s assertion that “Israel’s experience with Gaza demonstrates the folly of those who say that the only pathway to peace involves handing over our land to the Palestinians.” Yet Danon also insists on salting his prose with fighting words — “our land” is a phrase that simply ignores the fundamental question of where the boundary is to be drawn between Arabs and Jews. Even when he claims that he “actively welcome[s] a healthy debate on the subject of Israel and the United States,” it is hard to discern where “healthy debate” leaves off and “criticism that demonizes Israel” begins.

The conclusion he reaches is that Israel cannot afford to take the risk of a compromise with the Palestinians: “Over and over again,” he complains, “Israelis are exhorted to concede more and more, while the Arabs are only asked to stop incitement and killing.” And, crucially, he argues that “any manufactured claim to a Palestinian state” is trumped by the inevitability that “such an entity would be a serious and ongoing threat for Israel.”

Danon calls instead for “a three-state solution,” an antique approach to peace-making in the Middle East that would assign sovereignty over the Palestinians to Israel, Jordan and Egypt. Clearly, his plan is not likely to succeed, and I suspect that’s the real reason why he advocates it: “Before we can make the three-state solution a reality,” he warns, Israel must be afforded “real recognition” by the existing states, and “Israel must take on and defeat those who are against us — Hamas, Hezbollah, and others.” 

“Israel: The Will to Prevail” leaves me in   exactly the same place I found myself after reading books by his adversaries in the progressive wing of Zionism — it’s a locked room in which the doors and windows are only a trompe l’oeil on solid walls. How Israel and the Jewish people are to extricate themselves from our unhappy predicament remains unexplained.


Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. His next book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris,” which will be published in 2013 under the Horace Liveright imprint of W. W. Norton to coincide with the 75th anniversary year of Kristallnacht.

Israel trip helps Polish Jews in Jewish rediscovery


After Jerzy heard about frequent vandalism at an old Jewish cemetery in his home city of Gdansk, Poland, he decided to visit the graveyard.

It had fallen into such disrepair that “people would go there to drink beer,” said Jerzy, who gave only his middle name due to fears of anti-Semitism. 

He made a few trips to the cemetery, meeting a member of the local Jewish community who invited him to come to Friday night services and Shabbat dinner. 

“I liked Jews all my life,” said Jerzy, 32, who although not raised Jewish had worn a Star of David as a child. “It was the opposite of all of Poland.” Around Gdansk, he said, he sometimes sees graffiti of a Jewish star hanging from a gallows. 

As he learned more about Poland’s Jews, Jerzy began to research his own family history. He traveled to his father’s birthplace near Lublin to find his father’s birth certificate; soon afterward, he learned that his father and his maternal grandfather were Jewish.

Three years later, Jerzy — whose arms are covered in tattoos — has across the back of his neck a huge Hebrew tattoo that reads “Shema Yisrael.” He is converting to Judaism to gain recognition from traditional denominations.

Jerzy was one of 19 participants to travel to Israel last month on a trip for Poles with newly discovered Jewish roots. The trip, according to Shavei Israel, the group that organized it, aims to teach participants about Judaism and to involve them more in Jewish life and support of Israel.

“The Jewish people are a small people, and there are these communities out there that were once a part of us,” said Michael Freund, founder and chairman of Shavei Israel. “When someone discovers or rediscovers their Jewish roots, it makes them more sympathetic to Israel and Jewish causes, so it’s something we stand to benefit from [regarding] diplomacy and hasbarah,” Israeli public relations.

Based in Israel, Shavei Israel also runs programs for those with Jewish roots in Spain, Portugal, India and Russia.

The two-week August trip took participants throughout Israel. They traveled through Jerusalem, to northern Israel and also to West Bank settlements such as Hebron and Mitzpeh Yericho, where they spent Shabbat. Freund said that the visits to settlements do not indicate that the trip takes political positions.

“We stay completely away from political messaging,” Freund said. “There is no political agenda here. The agenda is to give them an opportunity to see the land of Israel and visit important historical sites.”

The group also visited Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust museum, to gain an Israeli perspective on a tragedy also etched deep in Polish national memory.

Trip leaders did not discuss politics, participants said. Several said that their favorite part of the journey was the feeling of being in a Jewish society where they were free to wear kippot on the street and to try out their Hebrew. 

After doing advanced coursework in Jewish studies, Gosia Tichoruk, 35, learned two years ago that her maternal great-grandmother was Jewish — and therefore that she, her mother and her grandmother were as well, according to Jewish law. In Israel, “The first thing that struck me was you’re walking down the beach, and you have Jews all around you,” she said. “It’s this safety you have, people greeting you with ‘Shavuah tov’ and ‘Shabbat shalom.’ “

Like a few of the participants, Tichoruk has started keeping kosher, observing Shabbat and learning Hebrew. She said Jewish life is sparse in her hometown of Poznan, but cities such as Krakow and Warsaw have more Jewish resources.

The Krakow Jewish Community Center has been a boon to Jedrek Pitorak, 23, who goes there for Shabbat dinners, holiday celebrations and Hebrew classes. Pitorak, who has known he is Jewish his entire life, was one of the group’s most experienced Israel tourists. Unlike many who were first-time visitors, he came here in 2009 on Taglit-Birthright Israel, which sponsors free trips to Israel for young adults.

Pitorak is heartened by “how many small children we see here. It’s a bright sign.” Although he’s involved in the contemporary Polish Jewish community, he does not think his homeland will become a center of Jewish life, as it was before almost all of its Jews perished in the Holocaust. Approximately 4,000 registered Jews currently live in Poland, although community leaders suspect that tens of thousands of Poles may not have identified as Jewish.

“There are many old people and the community is not growing,” Pitorak said of Krakow’s Jews. “If you come to the JCC, you see more volunteers and sociologists than real Jews.”

Participants said that they enjoyed Israel’s religious options, historical sites, beaches and food. But one of the features of Israeli life that Pitorak likes best may surprise Israelis and American tourists alike. He appreciates “how polite the drivers are to each other and the pedestrians.”

$20,000 fund to advance Jewish innovation in Australia


A $20,000 fund to advance Jewish innovation in Australia was launched by the ROI Community, a global network of young Jewish innovators, and Australian Jewish Funders.

The Dave Grants—named for Dave Burnett, a young Australian Jewish leader and ROI Community member who died in an accident in 2008—were announced last week at the Australian Gathering For Young Jewish Leaders in Melbourne. More than 50 of Australia’s future Jewish leaders convened to discuss ways to engage more Jews in Jewish activity.

The grants will support collaborative projects born out of connections made at the gathering that have a fresh and dynamic approach to Jewish community-building.

Burnett, an alumnus of Birthright Israel, led the Australasian Union of Jewish Students and was an elected leader in student politics at Sydney University.

“Dave personified all that a community might look for in a young leader and everything a person might look for in a friend,” Sandy Cardin, president of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Philanthropic Network, which includes the ROI Community, said in a statement. “Dave’s passion for Jewish life inspired this fund, which will support collaborations between young Jewish social entrepreneurs in Australia.”

Cardin added, “In order to engage more young Jews in the community, we need to embrace new and innovative approaches, and we believe that the grants will empower these young activists to create change for themselves and for the broader Jewish community.”

Australian Jews balk at ‘Breaking the Silence’ abuse reports


Australian Jewish officials lashed out at a group of former Israeli soldiers who reported abuses they witnessed while serving in the Palestinian territories.

The front pages of the Sydney Morning Herald and Melbourne’s The Age newspapers on Monday carried a report on the Aug. 24 release of testimonies by 30 former Israeli soldiers who belong to Breaking the Silence, an Israeli nongovernmental organization that has amassed more than 850 testimonies from soldiers about military abuses in the Palestinian territories over the last decade.

It cited allegations of maltreatment of Palestinian children by the soldiers, including “forcing them to act as human shields in military operations.”

The newspaper reports triggered a scathing response Tuesday from the Executive Council of Australian Jewry’s president, Dr. Danny Lamm, who described it as “crude propaganda” and challenged the testimonies, which he said were “anonymous, non-specific as to times and places, devoid of critical detail and untested by any kind of cross-questioning.”

“Sadly, many Australians … are being left with the false, indeed ridiculous, impression that the IDF is a serious abuser of children’s rights,” Lamm said.

But Dana Golan, the executive director of Breaking the Silence, fired back Wednesday, accusing Lamm of “insidious allegations against us” and scolding his “armchair Zionism” for “questioning our loyalty and integrity.”

“It is precisely because we have been on the front lines that we understand that the future of our country depends on its moral fortitude no less than on its military might,” she said in a statement co-signed by 15 ex-soldiers.

Lamm was backed by Zionist Federation of Australia President Philip Chester; Labor lawmaker Michael Danby and Dr. Colin Rubenstein, executive director of the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council, who said it was “profoundly disappointing” to see Australia’s leading broadsheets “so uncritically repeating the latest rehashed propaganda.”

“Even in the unlikely event that the 15 or so incidents of alleged wrong-doing … in this report were fully confirmed, this would not alter the fact the IDF remains probably the most moral army in the world,” Rubenstein said.

Families of Burgas victims attend memorial ceremony, visit attack site


The families of the Israelis killed in a terror attack at the airport in Burgas, Bulgaria, attended a ceremony for the victims.

The memorial was held Tuesday at the Great Synagogue in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia. The families of the five victims of the July 18 attack visited the site of the suicide bombing a day earlier.

Bulgarian President Rosen Plevneliev said after the ceremony that he has set a deadline of Sept. 15 for a public report on the investigation into the attack, according to the Focus News Agency.

“Israel and Bulgaria will not calm down and hold our peace until all people involved in the terror attack in Burgas are punished,” said Moshe Yaalon, Israel’s deputy prime minister and minister of strategic affairs, said at the ceremony. “We will pursue them [the perpetrators] with all the strength we have and we will not give up until we get even with them. We will do it without wondering and without batting an eyelid, just like we have always done.”

Bulgaria’s minister of economy, energy and tourism, Delyan Dobrev, met with the families on Monday at the airport.

“The security measures that were taken for the tourists in Bulgaria will not be just temporary but will remain for good,” he said according to Focus. “In cooperation with the Israeli services, we analyzed the security at key places in Bulgaria and we will apply even more measures to guarantee the enhanced security.”

Five Israelis and the bus driver were killed in the attack on a bus full of Israeli tourists shortly after boarding in the Burgas airport.

Turkish minister: Religious freedom no longer guaranteed in Germany


Turkey’s minister for European affairs, Egemen Bagis, has called circumcision bans in Germany “a danger for liberty.”

In an Op-Ed published Tuesday in the German newspaper Suddeutsche Zeitung, Bagis wrote that recent court rulings in Germany against circumcision mean that “Turkey watches on with astonishment how freedom of ritual is no longer fully guaranteed in Germany.”

He also wrote that in addressing the circumcision issue,  German Chancellor Angela Merkel should have referred to it as a Muslim ritual as well as a Jewish one. Germany, Bagis wrote, should lift limitations on circumcision and “set an example in the religious and cultural domain.”

In a letter sent this week to European Jewish Association director Menachem Margolin, Merkel wrote that she was “happy Jews have made Germany their home” and promised to help preserve religious freedom in Germany.

In July, she said, “I do not want Germany to be the only country in the world where Jews cannot perform their rites.”

The German parliament passed a resolution in favor of circumcision. The government is expected to advance legislation that legalizes it in the coming months.

Earlier this month, a lawsuit was filed in Germany against a rabbi from Hof for conducting a circumcision. In May, a court in Cologne ruled that circumcision amounted to a criminal act. A hospital in Zurich and a few Austrian state-run hospitals subsequently imposed a moratorium on circumcisions, which they have since lifted.

U.S., Israel, Jewish groups apprehensive about Iran-hosted non-aligned summit


As Iran gets set to host the Non-Aligned Movement triennial summit, Israel, the United States and a number of Jewish groups are worried that what happens in Tehran won’t stay there.

The decision Wednesday by Ban Ki-moon, the U.N. Secretary General, to attend the 16th triennial event from Aug. 29-31, has set off alarm bells in Washington and Jerusalem.

The U.S. State Department spokeswoman, Victoria Nuland, reiterated after Ban’s announcement “concerns that Iran is going to manipulate this opportunity and the attendees, to try to deflect attention from its own failings.”

U.S. Jewish groups that deal with the United Nations echoed that apprehension.

“For Iran the goal is quite clear,” David Harris, the director of the American Jewish Committee, who had released a web video urging Ban not to attend, told JTA. “Tell the United States and its friends not only are we not isolated, we are fully engaged. We are going to purport to speak on behalf of the non-aligned movement of 118 nations.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Aug. 12 urged Ban not to attend – and, in a rare diplomatic breach, made the plea public.

“Even if it is not your intention, your visit will grant legitimacy to a regime that is the greatest threat to world peace and security,” Netanyahu told Ban in the phone call, according to a statement from the prime minister’s office.

Israel and the West are locked in a diplomatic struggle with Iran to force the Islamic Republic to make more transparent a nuclear program it insists is peaceful but that Western intelligence agencies say is intended to produce a bomb.

The non-aligned summit sharpens tensions between Israel and western nations over whether diplomacy and sanctions have been played out; Netanyahu believes they have, and is pressing the Obama administration to make more specific the military consequences should Iran not comply. Obama administration officials are in turn pressing Israel to stand down from rhetoric that suggests an Israeli strike is imminent.

The non-aligned summit, planned long before the recent intensification of efforts to confront Iran, throws such tensions into the spotlight.

Which may seem odd, given the relative relevance – or lack of it —of the movement.

The movement, a 1960s relic that once brought together nations seeking to resist cooption by either the United States or the Soviet Union, has struggled for definition since the end of the Cold War. With the summit, Iran assumes the rotating three-year presidency of it.

A measure of the movement’s declining significance – and of Iran’s isolation – is that just 30 leaders of about 120 member nations plan on attending the 16th triennial summit.

Still, expect the Iranian government to exploit the event for its symbolic value, said Alireza Nader, an analyst at the Rand Corporation, a think tank that often consults with the U.S. government.

“It’s a lot of posturing and photo-ops,” Nader said. “But the fact that Iran is hosting the summit and the fact that the U.N. Secretary General is going and especially that Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi is showing up are good public relations moves.”

The presence of Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood leader recently elected president of Egypt, will likely be exploited by Iran as a signal that it is extending its influence in a region roiled by regime change, Nader said – although that would overstate the case.

“Iran has in recent months tried to boost relationships with Egypt, but Egyptians have been relatively standoffish. They haven’t embraced Iran, and that’s more important than whether a meeting will be held,” he said.

Already, Iranian officials were hyping the summit as a nexus for resistance to Western “hegemony.”

“In light of its focus on multilateral cooperation, disarmament, sustainable world peace, rights of nations and horizontal relations defying hegemonic structures, the Non-Aligned Movement is a major cross-regional group in the United Nations, and U.N. leaders have always participated in its summits,” Alireza Miryousefi, the Iranian envoy to the United Nations, wrote in an Aug. 21 letter to the Washington Post.

“By bringing dozens of world leaders together, the summit promises to make significant contributions to the movement’s lofty objectives.”

It is precisely the exploitation of such symbolism that concerns Jewish groups, said Michael Salberg, the director of international affairs for the Anti-Defamation League.

“Symbols matter, and when the symbol is represented by the secretary general of the United Nations it’s a neon light—and that makes it all the more troubling at a difficult time,” Salberg said.

The concern, said the AJC’s Harris, is that the gathering grants legitimacy to the Iranian leadership’s unvarnished and incessant anti-Semitism, as well as its oppression of its own people, its backing for terrorism and its role in the Syrian regime’s violent repression.

“The fact that an Iranian regime can support Syria’s barbarism before the world’s eyes, call for the annihilation of a U.N. member state and incite religious hatred and still be seen by some nations as a partner,” Harris said, “Does that validate Non Aligned Movement policies?”.

Nuland, the State Department spokeswoman, said that absent a boycott of the summit, reminding Iran of its obligations was the least it expected from those attending.

“We hope that those who have chosen to attend, including U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, will make very strong points to those Iranians that they meet about their international obligations, “ she said. “For them to begin to come clean on their nuclear program and to solve this particular issue diplomatically, and about all the other expectations that we all have of them.”

Ban suggested in his announcement that he got the message.

“With respect to the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Secretary-General will use the opportunity to convey the clear concerns and expectations of the international community on the issues for which cooperation and progress are urgent for both regional stability and the welfare of the Iranian people,” it said. “These include Iran’s nuclear program, terrorism, human rights and the crisis in Syria.”

Salberg said such caveats paled next to the symbolism of Annan’s participation.

“It says, you can act with impunity, you can say what you want and I’m still going to come, the embodiment of the international community,” he said.

Amsterdam Jewish community warns U.S. Jews of ‘dangerous’ Dutch politician


The chairman of the Jewish Community of Amsterdam asked a Dutch politician to warn U.S. Jews about a “dangerous” rightist Dutch legislator.

Ronnie Eisenman, chairman of the executive board of the Jewish Community of Amsterdam, or NIHS, wrote on Twitter on Tuesday that the “Amsterdam Jewish community regards [Dion] Graus as a danger for the interests of Dutch Jewish community.”

Graus, an advocate of a ban on ritual slaughter, is in charge of animal welfare for the Party for Freedom headed by Geert Wilders.

Eisenman said the statement was based on “the content of [Graus’] standpoints and his presentation” in debating ritual slaughter.

The message was “conveyed” to Wim Kortenoeven, another legislator, before Kortenoeven’s visit to to the U.S. earlier this month to meet with Jewish groups, Eisenman said on Twitter.

It is rare for Dutch Jewish community institutions publicly to state their positions on individual politicians or political parties.

In June, the Dutch Senate scrapped a ban on ritual slaughter that the lower house had passed last year. The law, tabled by the small Party for the Animals, had passed the lower house largely due to the support of the Party for Freedom—the country’s third largest.

Last month, the Party for Freedom pledged its commitment to legislating a ban in its platform for elections in September.

The Party for Freedom “was never prepared to go into a discussion with the Jewish community,” Eisenman also said.

In the U.S., Kortenoeven—who recently left the Party for Freedom—met with representatives of key Jewish organizations. He says he warned them about Wilders’ support for a ban on ritual slaughter.

Kortenoeven said he spoke with Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, and met with Orthodox Union representatives and other prominent Jewish American groups.

Austrian politician probed for publishing hook-nosed banker caricature


Prosecutors in Vienna are examining the recent posting of an allegedly anti-Semitic caricature on Austrian politician Heinz-Christian Strache’s Facebook page.

The page featured a caricature depicting an obese, hook-nosed banker wearing star-shaped cufflinks. Strache leads the rightist FPO, Austrian Freedom Party

“There is no decision yet to start a criminal investigation regarding the publication, but we are looking into it and will decide whether such an investigation should be opened,” Thomas Vecsey, a spokesperson for the Vienna Prosecutor’s Office, told JTA.

If initiated, the investigation would focus on suspicions of hate speech.

Oskar Deutsch, president of the Jewish community of Vienna, in a news release accused Strache of disseminating anti-Semitic, 1940s-style propaganda. The release described the star-shaped cufflinks on the banker’s sleeve as Stars of David.

In response, a posting on Strache’s Facebook page said the cufflinks were diamonds and that one needed to be “fairly paranoid to see a Star of David in that shape.” Interpreting the hook-shaped nose as Jewish “is in fact anti-Semitic, and we reject this,” the post read.

The caricature shows the obese banker eating food that a waiter labeled as “the government” puts before him. An emaciated third character labeled as “the people” sits beside the banker with just a bare bone on his plate.

Strache and other FPO lawmakers have frequently faced accusations of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.

“The FPO and Strache are experts in deflecting accusations of anti-Semitism,” Ilja Sichrovsky, the Austria-born secretary general of the Muslim Jewish Conference, an interfaith organization, told JTA. “What is certain is that it was insensitive of Strache to place such a caricature in light of Austria’s history with the vilification of Jews in caricatures.”

Peruvian Amerindian neo-Nazi party takes root


Peru’s Jewish community has urged authorities to stop the activities of a nascent neo-Nazi party headed by an anti-Semitic Amerindian.

According to The Guardian, the Jewish community of Peru said in a statement that it rejected the “open expression of anti-Semitic racism” of the Andean Peru National Socialism Movement—a far-right group that is currently attempting to gather enough signatures to be registered as a political party.

Authorities needed to “take the necessary measures to halt the incitement to racial and religious hatred,” the statement reportedly said.

The Lima-based La Republica daily reported this month that the group had six members and that its founder, Martín Quispe Mayta, has called for the expulsion of the country’s Jewish community.

According to Mayta, the group has 70 volunteer activists. He said he founded the movement after reading Adolf Hitler’s book, “Mein Kampf,” in his youth, and Henry Ford’s “The International Jew.”

“Hitler turned against the real enemy, the Jews, who killed millions and who poisoned millions,” Mayta is quoted as telling La Republica. He posed for the paper with five other party activists while wearing a Nazi uniform.

Asked about the Holocaust, he reportedly called it “a lie of the Jewish press” and added, “The gas chambers never existed.”

Fewer than 5,000 Jews live in the country, according to the Guardian.

Paraguayan Jewish soccer boss suspended for racial slurs against Arabs


Paraguay’s soccer association has suspended the Jewish president of a team for hurling racial slurs at a colleague of Arab descent.

During a match last month, the president of Asuncion’s Olimpia soccer team, Marcelo Recanate, accosted Juan José Zapag, the president of a rival team.

Recanate will be suspended for four months and suffer a 60-month reduction in pay, Dr. Raul Prono of the ethics committee of the Association of Football in Paraguay said on Thursday.

In a recording of the incident, Recanate is heard repeatedly cursing Zapag “and all of his countrymen.”

Recanate has apologized for the insults in a press conference, which he convened shortly after the incident.

“I want to offer my apologies to the father of my fathers all the way to Abraham, and the patrimony of the Jewish and Arab people. There can be no place for racism against my brothers,” he said at the press conference.

Olimpia has won 39 national titles, more than any other team in Paraguay.

Descendants of Nazi SS to take part in March of Life


Fifty descendants of officers of the Nazi SS, Wehrmacht and World War II-era German police officers will be among the participants in the March of Life, which will start on Sunday at Auschwitz.

Several hundred people from Poland, Israel and Germany will take part in the program, which will commemorate the victims of the Holocaust and oppose anti-Semitism.

The participants will visit Auschwitz, Treblinka, Belzec, Majdanek, Chelmno, Sobibor, Warsaw and Kielce.

Among them will be 50 people from Germany who are descendants of the officers of the Nazi SS, the Wehrmacht and the World War II-era German police. At the sites of the former death camps there will be ceremonies during which both the descendants of the victims and perpetrators will speak.

The main ceremony will be on August 23 in Warsaw. Special guest of the March will be Lia Shemtov, a deputy speaker of Israel’s Knesset and a member of the Yisrael Beitenu party.

March of the Living is an initiative of Jobst and Charlotte Bittner, and TOS Ministries of Germany, a non-denominational church founded by the couple.

The program was prepared in cooperation with many organizations in Poland, Israel and Germany. Similar marches have taken place in more than 80 cities in 12 countries.

The Jews of Kaifeng, China


Jewish liturgy and ritual frequently remind us that the Israelites were scattered to the “four corners of the earth,” as symbolized by the four fringes of the tallit, or prayer shawl. The extent of the geographic dispersion of the Jews over millennia has been vast, ranging from Baghdad to Burma, Marrakesh to Melbourne, Jerusalem to Los Angeles. 

But it wasn’t until I arrived in China for a two-and-a-half week stint to teach Jewish history that I realized just how dispersed these “four corners” are.

In Kaifeng, where Jews once lived — and still do — I witnessed the past and present of one of those dispersed “corners.” I also learned what it is like to teach Jewish history in China, where the field of Jewish studies is undergoing a surprising growth spurt.

The absence of a firm trail of historical evidence leads some to maintain that reports of a medieval Jewish presence in China are unfounded. I tend to agree with another group of scholars, who believe that there was such a presence — and that Kaifeng (pronounced “Ky fung”), in Henan province, is the oldest known Jewish community. This group argues that Jewish merchants, most likely originating in the Middle East, traveled along the vaunted Silk Road and made their way to and through China as early as the seventh century C.E. A document written in Judeo-Persian detailing business activity dates Jews in China to the early eighth century. Meanwhile, scholars surmise that sometime between the 10th and 12th centuries C.E., Jewish traders — likely of Persian origin — laid roots in Kaifeng. Kaifeng was no mere station along the Silk Road, and surely no backwater. It was one of the “Seven Ancient Capitals of China,” serving as the administrative center for five dynasties. Even more remarkably, Kaifeng was reputed to be the largest city in the world in the 11th and 12th centuries, with a population estimated at between 700,000 to 1.5 million. The list of other leading urban population centers in this period includes Córdoba (Spain), Constantinople (Istanbul), Cairo and Baghdad, all of which were or would become home to large populations of Jews. In fact, the Jewish romance with the city was not a modern invention. In a city, one could find a spirit of openness, new ideas and, of course, abundant commercial opportunities. In this sense, it would be no surprise that Jews made their way to medieval Kaifeng.

Kaifeng in its golden age was a masterfully designed city, with three sets of city walls, at the center of which was the elaborate Forbidden City where the emperor and his court were located. The Jewish community lived within the city walls, dwelling in close proximity to the community’s first synagogue, built in 1163, whose construction was commemorated in a stele dated to 1489. Unlike many of their medieval co-religionists, the Jews of Kaifeng, it appears, were largely unscathed by discrimination or persecution. The Song Emperors, based in Kaifeng, held the Jews in high esteem. And the Jews maintained good relations with their local Chinese neighbors. 

It is reasonable to assume that amiable relations hastened the pace of cultural integration. Within several hundred years, many of Kaifeng’s Jews, who at their peak numbered several thousand (some estimate as high as five thousand), lost knowledge of the Hebrew language. And yet, a key feature of traditional Jewish life remained throughout the entire existence of the community, even up to today: Jews in Kaifeng abstained from eating pork. Another distinctive feature of the Kaifeng community also survived: One of the Song Emperors, who could not pronounce the Hebrew names of the Jews in his realm, bestowed on them seven Chinese family names that are still in use today.

The existence of this community was unknown to the West until 1605, when the intrepid Jesuit scholar and missionary in China, Matteo Ricci, received a visit from a Kaifeng Jew in Beijing. After an initial confusion in which the two thought they belonged to the same religion, Ricci recognized that he was dealing with a previously unknown phenomenon: a native Jewish community in China. This well preceded the later communities established in the late 19th century in Shanghai and Harbin. 

A model of the Kaifeng synagogue at Beit Hatfutsot – The Museum of the Jewish People, Tel Aviv. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Some decades later, the city of Kaifeng, including its Jewish community, confronted a major disaster. In 1642, a devastating flood of the Yellow River wreaked massive destruction upon the city, killing large numbers of residents, including Jews, and laying waste to much of the city’s infrastructure, including the synagogue. The glory days of Kaifeng as a world center of commerce were over.

After the flood, the Jews did manage to rebuild their synagogue, distinguished, like the original one, by a large Chinese-style roof, along with a number of other distinctive Chinese features. But the community’s best days were past. Fewer and fewer Jews attended the synagogue or had familiarity with Jewish ritual. In 1841, another major flood hit Kaifeng, again destroying much of the city, including the second synagogue. And this time, no communal institutions were available afterward to provide support or services to Kaifeng Jews. 

One might assume, on the basis of this story, that the history of Kaifeng Jewry has come to an end, a victim not of anti-Semitism but of Chinese hospitality. My visit to Kaifeng suggests otherwise. My host in China, professor Xu Xin, one of the founding figures of Jewish studies in China (about whom more later), took me to visit Esther Guo Yan, a woman of about 25 or 30 who preserves one of the seven Jewish family names. Esther is the granddaughter of the last renowned Jewish notable from Kaifeng, and she runs a tiny, rough-hewn shrine to the history of Kaifeng Jewry. She waits for the occasional tourist to find her home, which is located in the historic Jewish quarter. Her interests are both to recall the old Jewish community and to bring knowledge about Chinese culture to what she refers to as her “hometown,” Jerusalem.

Indeed, a strong connection to Israel marks the larger group of Jewish descendants whom I met in Kaifeng. I first visited them at the end of their weekly four-hour study session of English and Hebrew with their ebullient, chain-smoking Israeli teacher, Shulamit Gershovich, who had been sent by Shavei Israel, an international group that seeks out lost Jews. She is concluding a six-month stint teaching the Kaifeng group and lives in one of the two rooms that now serve as a kind of community center under the name Beit HaTikvah (House of Hope). This name was bestowed by the center’s founder, a young American Jew named Eric Rothberg, who began to work with and teach the group two years ago. 

On a Thursday evening, I met with a group of eight students, some of them bearing the ancient names of Kaifeng Jews who, thus, are “descendants,” and others who have no Jewish blood but are married to descendants. Here in Kaifeng, as in post-Soviet Eastern Europe, the most important criterion of Jewishness is not the rabbinic standard of matrilineal descent. Rather, it is the willingness and desire to be a Jew. Against remarkable odds, the members of Beit HaTikvah are assiduously studying what it means to be a Jew. Though a small number of younger family members have been sent off to Israel or the United States to study and undergo formal conversion, the majority of the 25 or so attendees at Beit HaTikvah are on their own path of Jewish self-discovery in China, where they likely will remain. (I should add that, in the ancient and venerable ways of the Jews, there is another group of a similar size studying at a different locale in Kaifeng with a Messianic Jew named Tim Lerner, though I did not get to meet them.)

Without a doubt, the highlight of my time in Kaifeng, and a reflection of the group’s indomitable spirit, was the Shabbat I spent at Beit HaTikvah. I was brought to the Friday night gathering by Ari Schaffer, an Orthodox undergraduate at Johns Hopkins University, who is conducting research on the community. The small, nondescript room was filled with some 25 people, ranging in age from 16 to 75. On one wall was an unusual array of symbols: the flag of the State of Israel on the right, the flag of the People’s Republic of China on the left, and in the middle, the Shema prayer flanked by a pair of Hebrew words, shemesh and kamon.  

Shemesh means sun. Kamon’s meaning is a matter of dispute; some scholars believe it refers to an angel, while others maintain that it connotes moon. In any case, this pair of words seems to have served a sort talismanic function for the community.

After candlelighting, Gao Chao, the leader of the small community, began to sing “Yedid Nefesh,” the medieval poem sung at the outset of Kabbalat Shabbat. Typically enough for this community, Gao Chao is not of Jewish descent. He is married to a descendent, but has taken on the responsibility of learning Hebrew and Jewish prayers so as to serve as the prayer leader on Friday nights. He led the community through Kabbalat Shabbat, with members joining in in their Chinese-inflected Hebrew (which was rendered into Chinese characters for them to follow). The degree of ritual fluency for a community that does not include a single halachic Jew and has been studying Hebrew intensely for only two years was remarkable. The community chanted with gusto and competency many of the standards of Jewish liturgy and custom on Friday night: “Lechah Dodi,” “Ve-shamru,” and “Shalom Aleichem.” It was particularly moving when the congregation joined with Gao Chao to sing the penultimate line of the Friday night Kiddush: “For You have chosen us and sanctified us from among all the nations, and with love and good will given us Your holy Shabbat as a heritage.”

After services, the entire group sat down to a potluck vegetarian Shabbat dinner, my first with chopsticks as the utensil of choice. Dinner was tasty and spirited, but a mere prelude to the memorable post-meal singing. We sang the grace after meals and then spent several hours singing zemirot and other Hebrew and Israeli songs at the top of our lungs — aided, it must be said, by a potent Arak-like beverage native to the region. One member of the community — not herself a Jewish descendant, but married to one — had assumed the Hebrew name Netta. She seemed to know virtually every Hebrew song sung. She had an infectious smile, beautiful voice and a true sense of oneg Shabbat — the joy of the Sabbath. Other members did not know many of the songs, but added their own enthusiastic and well-timed rhythm by clapping and pounding the table.

The one song that all knew was the one whose name adorns the current Kaifeng community: HaTikvah. At a certain point in the midst of the cacophonous frivolity, the group rose as one to offer a sonorous version of “Hatikvah” — in Chinese! Those of us who knew followed in Hebrew. It was another stunning moment in an evening of stunning moments. Few of the community members are likely to make aliyah, but somehow they have managed to develop a strong bond with and sense of pride for Israel. There was also a strong sense among all of us present of the past and future shared by Jews. Assembled at a long Shabbat table in Kaifeng, we experienced, in the rawest and purest form I’ve ever witnessed, the unbroken spirit that links Jews scattered over the four corners of the world, from California to China.


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