September 22, 2018

Richard Greene: How One or Two Words Can Change Your Life

One of the world’s leading experts on public speaking, Richard Greene, explains why people fear public speaking more than death, and discusses the abuse of language in the era of Trump. Visit his website.

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Howard Rosenman: Award-Winning Producer Opens Up

What’s it like to be a gay Israel lover in Hollywood? To act with Sean Penn? To be on top of your game at 74? Hollywood wunderkind Howard Rosenman shares his life’s scoops.

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Rob Long: Hollywood Writer Talks Trump

Award-winning Hollywood showrunner Rob Long talks about happiness, craziness and, of course, Donald Trump.

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Jewish TV Stars and Creators Vie For Emmy Awards

Photo from Flickr.

Members of the Tribe are celebrating their nominations for the 70th Emmy Awards, which will take place in September. The list includes veterans, newcomers, and a shower of accolades for Amazon’s “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” about a Jewish woman who becomes a standup comic 1950s New York. The series scored 14 nominations, including best comedy series and nods for creator-director Amy Sherman-Palladino and supporting actress Alex Borstein, who also received a nomination for her voice-over work in “Family Guy.”

The return of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” to HBO resulted in the series eighth nod for outstanding comedy series, and Larry David’s sixth as lead actor in a comedy series.

Henry Winkler, who was nominated twice for playing Fonzie on “Happy Days” in the 1970s and in 2000 for a guest role on “The Practice,” is up for an Emmy this year for his role as an acting coach in the HBO comedy “Barry,” one of several awards for the show.

“On the one hand I’ve been here before and I know not to get too excited,” Winkler said in a statement. “On the other hand I’m filled with HAPPY and so thrilled for Bill [Hader], Alec [Berg] and the whole company,” he said.

Nonagenarian Carl Reiner, who has nine Emmys to his credit, may get one more for narrating the aging-well documentary in which he appears, “If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast” (HBO).

“My nephew, George Shapiro, came up with the idea and called it “Vitality at 90.”  I just said, ‘If I’m not in the obit, I eat breakfast,’ and that became the title.  94.6% of the credit goes to George, but I’m happy to have lent my agile mind and aging body to such a worthy project,” Reiner said in a statement.

Liev Schreiber was also nominated in the narration category for “24/7,” but the “Ray Donovan” star was shut out of dramatic acting category this year, after three consecutive nominations for the Showtime series.

Judith Light, who has been Emmy-nominated three times, for “Transparent” and “Ugly Betty,” earned her fourth nod for her supporting performance as widow Marilyn Miglin in FX’s “The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story.”

“My deepest thanks to the Emmy voters and of course, the brilliant Ryan Murphy for the gift of being a part of this culture changing production,” Light said in a statement that gave props to the producers, writers, directors, and hair/makeup artists. “My gratitude to all of them and FX is beyond words or measure.”

Mandy Patinkin picked up his fifth nomination for his role as Saul Berenson in Showtime’s “Homeland” (he has one Emmy, for “Chicago Hope”), and both Evan Rachel Wood and Pamela Adlon received their second consecutive nominations for their lead actress work in HBO’S “Westworld” and FX’s “Better Things,” respectively.

“I am completely over the moon and so happy [for] this recognition from my peers for my life’s work and my show, ‘Better Things,’” Adlon said in a statement. “Filled with gratitude. Thank you.”

“Game of Thrones’” 22 nominations include a nod for writers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, their seventh in the category for the HBO series. First time nominees include Michael Stuhlbarg for “The Looming Tower” and series “I Love You America with Sarah Silverman,” both on Hulu.

Bryan Fogel won an Oscar this year for his sports-doping documentary “Icarus,” and since Netflix acquired it, it will vie for an Emmy in the same category as two HBO docs, Susan Lacy’s biography “Spielberg” and Judd Apatow’s homage, “The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling.”

“I’m so glad that people have had such a strong reaction to our documentary and Garry’s life.  I’m somewhat sure he would be thrilled,” Apatow, who was also nominated for directing the film, said in a statement.  Other nominees for directing include Carrie Brownstein for IFC’s “Portlandia” and Barry Levinson for HBO’s “Paterno.”

The 70th Emmy Awards will telecast live from the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles on Sept. 17 at 5 p.m. PT on NBC.

No Rabbi – It’s Not Jewish Love for Our ‘Historical, Religious Narrative’ That Prevents Peace

Photo from Pixabay.

On the 10th of Tammuz (in the Hebrew calendar) the last king of Israel, King Zedekiah, was captured by the Babylonians, who had conquered Jerusalem the day before. Zedekiah was captured after he fled Jerusalem through a subterranean tunnel to Jericho. Exactly 2,606 years later, an article was published in the Forward by American Rabbi Philip Graubart titled “‘Letters To My Palestinian Neighbor’ Is Not The Book We Need Right Now.

I have to admit, when I first saw the title, I thought the article would be about how even though most “moderate” elements of Palestinian leadership: (a) engage in blatant Holocaust denial; (b) promote vicious anti-Semitic canards, such as Jews poison water wells; and (c) deny any Jewish historical connection to the land of Israel — all while promoting and rewarding the murder of Jews (such as through the Palestinian Authority’s “Pay to Slay” program), that this article would argue that we need to wait for a massive sea change in Palestinian Arab culture and leadership before Yossi Klein Halevi’s “Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor” could make a credible difference and help advance the peace process.

Instead, this article took the opposite approach and actually accused Halevi of being too jingoistic, too stuck in the Jewish “narrative.”

Imagining a “Palestinian moderate,” who has never assumed leadership among the various Arab groups representing the Palestinians, Graubart posits that after reading Halevi’s book, this imaginary Palestinian Arab moderate might say to Halevi “why waste time with you? … we already agree on the basics.

Reading such a statement raises the question, what “basics” does Rabbi Graubart think Palestinian Arab “moderates” agree on with Halevi? As should be clear from Halevi’s scholarship, he believes Jews have a deep historical, religious and national connection to the land of Israel. As should be also clear to anyone paying attention, the “moderate leaders” among the Palestinians who run the Palestinian Authority (who are also sadly the least rabidly Jew-hating and extremist among the various Palestinian Arabs factions who have any chance of ruling any Palestinian state in the near future), do not believe the Jewish people are even a people, let alone a people who have a deep 3,300 year old love affair with the land of Israel.

As recently as January 15, 2018 Mahmoud Abbas, the “President for Life” of the Palestinian Authority, gave a speech where he said: Israel is a colonial project that has nothing to do with Jews.” This same “moderate” leader not only wrote a thesis back in 1982 at the Russian Academy of Sciences, which denies and trivializes the Holocaust, and is a featured part of the current curriculum in Palestinian Authority schools; he also, on April 30, 2018, gave a speech where he once again trivialized the Holocaust and said that to the extent the Nazis murdered Jews, their murder was not caused by anti-Semitism, but by … “Jewish financial behavior.”

So again, what “basics” does Graubart think the “moderate Palestinian” and Halevi agree on?

Then apparently ignoring the last 100 years of history (at least), Graubart claims that the main problem with Halevi’s book is that it makes claims – mostly about Halevi’s “loving embrace of religious biblical narrative” – that “no Palestinian could accept” and that the “biblical impulse to build settlements in the West Bank [Judea and  Samaria] is precisely what’s sabotaged an agreement.”

So the “moderate” Palestinian Arab leadership turn down offers in 1937, 1948, 1967, 2000, 2001, and 2008 to have the first-ever independent Arab state west of the Jordan River, and it is the desire of Jews to establish and live in Jewish communities in their biblical homeland that “sabotaged” a peace agreement? It wasn’t Arafat’s rejection in 2000 of an offer to have an independent Palestinian Arab state in all of Gaza and over 90% of Judea & Samaria, and his decision to instead launch the Second Intifada, which led to the murder of more than 1,000 Jews? It wasn’t Mahmoud Abbas’s rejection – without a counteroffer – of an even better offer from Israel in 2008? It wasn’t the decision to turn land Israel fully relinquished (the Gaza strip in 2005) into a terror state run by a genocidal organization whose very Charter calls for the murder of every Jew on the planet, including Graubart?

No. According to Graubart, it isn’t Palestinian anti-Semitism, the Palestinian dismissal of any Jewish connection to the land of Israel or even the Palestinian rejection (in favor of violence) of offer after offer to have an independent Arab state in a land where there has never been one before in history that is to blame for the absence of a peace agreement. It is the Jews’ “biblical impulse” to live in Judea that is the problem.

Graubart even disparages the “impulse” of Jews to live in Hebron, one of the most holy and historically important cities for the Jewish people. Hebron, a city where Jews have lived for centuries and where our ancestors in 1929 were literally massacred, ethnically cleansed from and prevented from returning to (by the Jordanian Army after it illegally conquered and controlled all of Judea and & Samaria in 1949). Per Graubart, however, it is the “religious longing” of Jews to live in places like Hebron that is the obstacle to peace, all while 1.5 million Arabs can live among more than 6 million Jews in Haifa, Jerusalem, Tel-Aviv Yafo, etc. without their presence “sabotaging” peace.

There is so much that is problematic with this perspective it is difficult to know where to start. Perhaps the most obvious problem is that, just like most arguments of the “blame Israel” camp, Graubart’s open letter to Halevi implies the Palestinian Arabs have no agency or responsibility for their actions, and that peace (or the lack thereof) is solely a function of what we Jews choose to do (or not do). The other problem is that this article completely whitewashes nearly 100 years of Arab rejection of peace in favor of violence and more than 1,400 years of Arab persecution of Jews throughout the Middle East, as well as the widely held belief among far too many Arabs that Jews can only be second class (dhimmi) in Arab conquered land, never sovereign and independent.

What Graubart’s piece (albeit likely unwittingly) does a great job of capturing, is the growing divide between many secular Jews in the United States  and the overwhelming majority of Jews in Israel. Jews, like Yossi Klein Halevi, who are in Israel considered quite moderate or even left-leaning.

This divide is represented most strikingly in Graubart’s article where he writes the following illuminating and astonishing paragraph directed at Halevi:

“In fact, if your book taught me anything, it’s that we must begin the admittedly difficult process of privileging basic values over national, religious narratives. In discussing Arab rejectionism after the Six-Day War, you write, ‘What people, in our place, would have resisted reclaiming land it regarded as its own for thousands of years?’ But the answer to this question is obvious: a people who valued peace and democracy and human rights over historical/religious narrative. People who weren’t willing to sabotage future peace negotiations by giving in to religious longings, no matter how deeply felt. People who loved peace more than they loved the ancient stories of their people. In other words, people like you and me and many Jews, in Israel and out. But not, sadly, enough.”

Wow. I agree with Graubart on one thing for certain. This is “sad.” It is sad that it is becoming more and more evident that many Jews living in relative safety in the United States  have not internalized the lessons most Jews in Israel have learned from the history of the last 100 years. It also becoming more and more evident that many of today’s secular leaning Jews in America are not very different from the many Jews in America who before 1940 rejected the very idea of Jews seeking sovereignty and independence in our indigenous homeland.

After all, if we just “privileged basic values” (depending – of course – on whose “basic values” we are talking about) “over national, religious narratives,” then why drain swamps, irrigate deserts, establish fence and stockade kibbutzim all over the land of Israel (where you were certain to be plagued by malaria and were almost always immediately attacked by your Arab neighbors)? Why revive Hebrew from being not only our religious tongue but our national language? Why even fight for our freedom and independence against five Arab armies and nearly a half-dozen Arab militias sworn to snuff out our independence before it even happened?

After all, if we value “peace” above everything else, then we could all just give up on our indigenous faith, stop being “stiff-necked” Jews, and convert to either Christianity or Islam or perhaps to the new pseudo-religion of “secular-humanism.” If only, our forefathers had thought of this solution … Plainly, that would have made the Jew-haters much happier and much more “peaceful” toward us.

Thankfully, most of our forefathers didn’t think abdicating our religious values and our “religious longings” to live in Zion was the way to go, as not only would there be no modern state of Israel today, but Graubart would also have needed to find a very different job; as by now the world would have been Jew-free and Judaism would be like the ancient faiths of Minoanism, Mithraism, and Ashurism After all, if we valued “peace” above everything else, including the justice of Jews being able to live anywhere in the land of Israel, then is there anything worth fighting for?

Of course, by Graubart’s definition, the Maccabees would also be disparaged as people who were “willing to sabotage future peace negotiations by giving in to religious longings.” A people unwilling to “love peace more than they loved the ancient stories of their people.” After all, the Hellenists “just” wanted us to accept their “narrative” and to stop insisting on our sovereignty and freedom in our religious, historical and indigenous homeland; just like so many Hellenized or Islamized people do today.

Today, most Palestinian Arabs reject the idea that there were ever Maccabees who fought to liberate the land of Israel and Jerusalem from the yoke of the Hellenists. And this is where Graubart is the most mistaken in his rejection of Halevi’s book. Graubart assumes it is the Jewish respect and love of our “historical/religious narrative” that is somehow the obstacle to peace. The reality is that it is, and has always been, the Arab rejection of Jewish history and our deep connection to the land of Israel that is the obstacle to peace. The Arab rejection of the fact (not “narrative”) that 2,606 years before Graubart published his article that there was a Jewish king named Zedekiah fleeing the Babylonians and their destruction of the first Jewish Holy Temple in Jerusalem.

And that is the ultimate message of Halevi’s book. In order for there to be peace, the Palestinian Arabs are going to have to meet us halfway and stop asking us to accept that their relatively new Palestinian identity deserves two independent Arab states in the former British Mandate for Palestine (as Jordan is the first); all while they reject more than 3,000 years of Jewish history and Jewish sovereignty anywhere in the land of Israel.

As should be painfully apparent, there are many other things wrong with this open letter to Halevi, but the most glaring problem is the willingness to disparage the “historical, religious narrative” of our people, which is at the core for why we finally have an independent and sovereign state in our indigenous homeland after 2,000 years of recurring persecution, oppression and mass murder of Jews in the Diaspora.

Micha Danzig served in the Israeli Army and is a former police officer with the NYPD. He is currently an attorney and is very active with numerous Jewish and pro-Israel organizations, including Stand With Us, T.E.A.M. and the FIDF. He is also a frequent guest on the One America News Network, including shows like The Tipping Point and The Daily Ledger where he is called on to discuss matters related to Israel and the Middle East.

Salvador Litvak: Can Talmud change your life?

Hollywood filmmaker and Accidental Talmudist Salvador Litvak recounts his journey of how one moment of learning Talmud led to a million followers on Facebook.

“What we learn from the students of Hillel is that you should be able to state the opinion of your opponent in a way your opponent will say, ‘yes, that is my opinion.’ When you do that, you are opening a door for him to say ‘I feel heard. Now I am willing to hear what you have to say.” -Salvador Litvak

Accidental Talmudist Salvador Litvak

From left: David Suissa and Salvador Litvak

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Jewish Choco-Travel Tips

Choco-dar first erupted on our multi-country circuit of Europe in a VW van. That adult onset, self-diagnosed radar for chocolate experiences led us serendipitously to many wonderful chocolate discoveries and surprises. In the process I learned some chocolate travel tips. Chocolate travel generated the book and the website that I came to call On the Chocolate Trail. It all started with travel. Chocolate is a migrant food and the first Jews in the business were refugees from the Spanish Inquisition. Consider building your travels to places where there are particularly interesting Jewish chocolate stories, such as Bayonne (France), Israel, Liege (Belgium), and Courtelary, (Switzerland).

So here are a few delicious tips for fun chocolate exploration, I encourage you to exercise your own choco-dar as you forge your own chocolate trail.

Tip #1: Plan

Plan your adventures before departure. Check On the Chocolate Trail for a list of worldwide chocolate festivals, museums and tours. Do an online search for chocolate in the towns, countries, and regions where you will be traveling. If possible head to chocolate centers. We aimed for chocolate hubs such as Belgium, France, Mexico, Spain, and Switzerland.

Tip #2: Stock Up

Items for storing your chocolate purchases and samples may be packed ahead or picked up at your destination. Carry an insulated bag or two, especially in hot climates. Keep a supply of small plastic bags to protect each find separately and a marking pen to identify. Alternatively, take a photo to provide a visual record, with date/time/location stamp.

Tip #3: Practice Choco-dar

While on the road, stay alert to chocolate events, treats, information, and more as you wander and enjoy. It was choco-dar that led us to a local chocolate festival in Turin, Italy. Choco-dar raised my head from my reading just in time to notice the international headquarters of Valhrona Chocolate as we drove through the small town of Tain L’Hermitage, France. While crossing the Alps into Italy, my choco-dar found the factory store for Venchi Chocolate.

Tip #4: Inquire

Search out local specialties as you explore. Also, it is worth asking the chocolate shop staff for their favorites and whether samples are available. I learned about the mendiants and chocolate fish of France this way.

Tip #5: Buy Local

Check out local groceries in addition to specialty chocolate stores. Some chocolates will be less expensive in local markets.

Tip #6: Record

Keep a journal of what you have tasted, where, your experiences, and what you thought of it.

Tip #7: Collect

Collect pretty wrappers as souvenirs of your trip.

Most of all, enjoy!

When Jews Turn On Each Other

Screenshot from Facebook.

Arguing is part of the Jewish DNA, from the time that Korach stood against Moses. The Talmud devotes far more space to disputes than to agreement.  Sessions of Knesset never, ever can be misconstrued as the local chapter of the Oxford Debating Society. Jews are used to arguing with each other. They can’t be expected, however, to politely cede the mike to those working – intentionally or not – for our undoing.

Suddenly we’ve experienced some developments where Jews may be endangering our collective future. No,​ we speak not of lunatics like Neturei Karta, who kiss-up to Iranians working feverishly to nuke Israel.

But rather we are experiencing the drilling of holes under the collective ship of the Jewish future.

First example: A Jewish summer camp. Traditionally, camps have provided our kids with exposure to Jewish values – and many other things that inspired Jewish novelists and filmmakers. Many camps have strong ideological bents that differed entirely from the next one down the rural road. That was part of the “differences-within-the-family”. But no one – until recently – trained​ young Jews to work for the weakening and possible destruction of the Jewish State.

But it’s happening now. IfNotNow hosted counselors from around the country on May 27 to teach the occupation and Palestinian narratives. They tweeted: “Today counselors from 8 Jewish summer camps are coming together for a first-of-its-kind Camp Counselor Training on the Occupation. These courageous leaders are committed to teaching the Occupation and Palestinian narratives to other staff and their campers this summer. Following ongoing Israeli violence on Palestinian protesters in Gaza, this education has never felt more urgent.”

Another example: When a Chabad outreach worker offered to put tefillin on a passerby at Ben-Gurion Airport recently, one person readily agreed. According to this man’s Facebook page, “a woman with a crazy look jumped up and began to abuse, harass and disturb!” The woman was Professor Penina Peri, who teaches at the Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies at the University of Maryland, and the American University in DC. She is an expert on multi-culturalism and authored, Education in Multi-Cultured Society: Pluralism and Congruence Among Cultural Divisions.  Her husband, who directs the Institute, is a former head of the New Israel Fund.

Apparently religious Jews didn’t make the cut in Peri’s universe of multi-culturalism. Should our young people be exposed to this especially in an Israel Studies department?

Third example: Hebrew Union College (HUC). Its leadership is anything but anti-Israel. Which is why it is impossible – not just difficult – to understand why it invited – (and then defended) – Michael Chabon to deliver the commencement speech to its graduates. Chabon is a well-known author and Israel basher. He shared his core beliefs with HUC and the Jewish world. He used the lectern to sermonize on the evils of Israel, mock the Bible, and advocate that Jews should preferably marry non-Jews. One graduate walked out, and wrote about the event in the Jewish Journal, “As I heard Chabon’s simplified takedown of my country, the room began to spin. I turned back to look at my brother, who served in a combat unit in the Israel Defense Forces. He looked sick to his stomach…I asked my mother if not seeing me graduate would disappoint her. She responded that she would feel ashamed to see me walk on that stage after what had been said. We stood up and left the sanctuary. Standing outside, I was nearly brought to tears as I heard the crowd of Jews give Chabon a thunderous applause.”

Perhaps the most shocking example was the recent gatherings of young Jews to say Kaddish for Hamas terrorists trying to topple the international border with the Jewish State. Hamas has made clear the goal of their riots are not about “occupied territories” but murdering Jews in Israel proper.

Today, these Jews abandon the world’s largest Jewish community, with the largest number of Shoah survivors and their families. They no longer share the destiny of the Jewish people.

Without realizing it, those who said Kaddish were not saying it for innocent, peaceful Gazan protesters. They were saying Kaddish for themselves – and the others like them, who have traded a proud legacy for the vagaries of self-loathing, and compromising the safety of their brothers and sisters as well as the Jewish State. We weep for their loss—and for ours.


Rabbi Abraham Cooper is the Associate Dean and Director of Global Social Action for the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein is Interfaith Director for the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

ADL Decries Anti-Semitic Robocall

Republican Senate candidate Patrick Little, who is running for Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s (D-Calif.) seat, has openly called himself a white nationalist and made anti-Semitic comments that include calling for an America “free from Jews.”

Now, his supporters have created an anti-Semitic robocall, which calls Feinstein, among other things, a “traitorous Jew.”

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) posted the audio and transcript of the robocall — which began on May 14 — on its website. It begins with a man stating that “Feinstein isn’t just a Jew, she’s an Israeli citizen.”

A woman then responds, “She’s a citizen of Israel but she gets to vote as a U.S. senator from California to send billions of our dollars every year to her real country, Israel?”

The man then replies that Jews made it legal to do that. The woman then laments that Feinstein “gets to vote America into Middle East wars based on lies so that Israel can eventually expand its borders like it always planned.”

The man proceeds to call for people to vote for Little, in order “to rid America of the traitorous Jews like Dianne Feinstein,” and that Little will “get rid of all the nation-wrecking Jews from our country starting with Israeli citizen, Dianne Feinstein.”

The robocall ends with the shouts of “Goodbye, Jews!” from the movie “Schindler’s List.”

ADL Pacific Southwest Regional Director Amanda Susskind told the Journal in an email, “We have heard from a wide swath of the Jewish community including synagogues, day schools, pre-schools and community organizations all over the State. People are understandably disgusted and shocked that, in 2018, this level of unabashed and vile anti-Semitism is being communicated on behalf of a political candidate.”

“Auschwitz had ice cream, swimming pools, orchestras, plays, soccer fields, soccer teams. They even had a whorehouse!” — Patrick Little

Such anti-Semitism seems to be in line with Little’s expressed views. He told Newsweek on May 2 that he used to be a pro-Israel libertarian until he read Kevin MacDonald’s book, “Culture of Critique.”

MacDonald is an academic who claims that Jews are undermining the West. Little said he believes Adolf Hitler was “the second coming of Christ” and advocates for Jews to be deported to Israel.

In a May 10 interview with The Jewish News of Northern California, Little said Auschwitz “had ice cream, swimming pools, orchestras, plays, they had soccer fields, soccer teams. They even had a whorehouse! I mean, s––, I’d like to take a vacation at Auschwitz.”

When Little was asked by The Jewish News if he was fine being called “anti-Jewish,” he replied, “For the most part, yeah.”

Little has received heightened media attention since he placed second in an April SurveyUSA poll with 18 percent support. Feinstein placed first with 39 percent support. Under California’s primary system, the top-two vote getters, regardless of party affiliation, will face off in the November Senate election.

However, the San Francisco Chronicle noted that the SurveyUSA poll is “an outlier,” as the vast majority of polls have State Sen. Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles) as Feinstein’s likely general-election opponent. The Chronicle also reported that Little hasn’t raised or spent any money on the campaign.

UCLA political science professor Matt Barreto told Newsweek in April that he did not believe Little had any outreach.

Little appeared at the California Republican Party convention in San Diego on May 5 but was removed by party officials. According to the Chronicle,  California GOP Executive Director Cynthia Bryant told Little, “You’re not welcome here.” GOP consultant Luis Alvarado told the Chronicle that Little was “kicking and dragging an Israeli flag on the ground” as he was being escorted out of the convention.

Following the incident, Little posted a YouTube video claiming that the California GOP was being run by “Zionist stooges.” In the video, Little steps on an Israeli flag and spits on it.

Regarding the robocall, Little told the Chronicle in an email that he had nothing to do with it but he refused to condemn it.

“Show me the lie,” he told the Chronicle, “and I will consider renouncing it.”

Abbas Blames the Jews for the Holocaust

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas gestures as he speaks during the Palestinian National Council meeting in Ramallah, in the occupied West Bank April 30, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas continues to become unhinged as evident by the fact that he blamed the Jews for the Holocaust in an April 30 speech.

According to the Times of Israel, Abbas’ incoherently long-winded speech blamed the Jews’ “social behavior, [charging] interest, and financial matters” for triggering the Holocaust. He also claimed that Adolf Hitler was responsible for sending Jews to Israel by allowing Jews who immigrated there to bring their assets into the area.

In other words, Abbas used a longtime anti-Semitic stereotype of Jews to blame them for the slaughter of six million Jews at the hands of the Nazis.

When he wasn’t engaging in his Holocaust revisionism, Abbas rambled about other anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, including the claim that Ashkenazi Jews have no historical lineage to the original habitants of Israel and that Israel was “a colonial project that has nothing to do with Judaism.”

Abbas also reiterated his refusal to accept any deals from the United States after President Trump’s Jerusalem move and suggested that the PA could take “take tough steps in the near future in our relationship with our neighbors (Israel) and the Americans.”

Naturally, Abbas praised the Hamas-led riots at the Israel-Gaza border.

“Thank God, they (Hamas) finally agreed and this is effective,” Abbas said, implying that the riots have been peaceful although they have been anything but.

The anti-Semitic rhetoric in Abbas’ speech certainly fits his background, which includes him writing a book that engages in Holocaust denialism.

German Jews Warned to Avoid Wearing Yarmulkes Following Anti-Semitic Attack

Screenshot from YouTube.

Jews in Germany have been warned to avoid wearing yarmulkes after an anti-Semitic attack occurred on April 18.

A 19-year-old Palestinian from Syria who was seeking asylum in Israel whipped a teenager wearing a kippah with his belt while shouting “Yahudi,” which is Arabic for “Jew.” The victim wasn’t actually Jewish; he was wearing the kippah in an attempt to prove to his friend that Berlin was not as anti-Semitic as people made it out to be.

In response to the incident, Josef Schuster, the Central Council of Jews in Germany, advised the country’s Jews against wearing kippot.

“Defiantly showing your colors would in principle be the right way to go,” Schuster told German public radio. “Nevertheless, I would advise individual people against openly wearing a kippah in big German cities, and wear a baseball cap or something else to cover their head instead.”

Not everyone was happy with Schuster’s recommendation.

“He [Schuster] is mistaken in the cure for this serious problem,” said Rabbi Menachem Margolin, who heads the European Jewish Association. “To not wear the kippah in fear of anti-Semitism actually fulfills the vision of anti-Semites in Europe.”

Avi Mayer, spokesperson for The Jewish Agency, tweeted that according to the Department for Research and Information on Anti-Semitism (RIAS), “the number of anti-Semitic incidents in Berlin is at its highest point since the organization started collecting data, with several incidents reported every day.”

Earlier in April, The Wall Street Journal reported that there were 1,453 anti-Semitic incident recorded by police in 2017, which was “more than in five of the previous seven years.” The report adds that the number is likely higher than that because most anti-Semitic incidents in Germany aren’t reported.

A couple such incidents highlighted in The Wall Street Journal’s report included a Jewish student being “mobbed by Arab and Polish classmates” and another student being tormented with chants “gas for the Jews!”

The report pointed to the influx of Muslim migrants as a key factor in the alarming return of anti-Semitism in Germany.

“It is wrong to generalize or to stigmatize Muslim communities,” Levi Salomon, who heads the Jewish Forum for Democracy Against Anti-Semitism, told the Wall Street Journal. “But to say there is no specific problem there is even worse. We need to devise urgent strategies to deal with this.”

Episode 86 – The Palestinian Refugee Who Became a Yeshiva Boy

Mark was born in Kuwait. His father was a Palestinian refugee, who was born in 1945 in Bet Shean (now a city in Israel). When his father was 3 years old, the family fled to Jordan, and eventually ended up in Kuwait. As a kid, Mark attended activities conducted by UNRWA, the U.N Relief and Works agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East. What they taught him there about Israel, and about Jews, profoundly shaped his views.

But a decade later, when Mark moved to Canada to study at university, an unexpected encounter changed his life forever. This is the story of how Mark, became Mordechai.

Today we’re joined by Mordechai Yossef.

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Rabbi Joseph Telushkin: curiosity and other values

Prolific author Joseph Telushkin discusses some of the most pressing issues in the Jewish world, including a need for more curiosity.

“If people are only going to read things that reinforce what they believe… they’re going to end up demonizing the people that disagree with them.” -Joseph Telushkin

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin

From left: David Suissa and Rabbi Joseph Telushkin

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A Judia Among Christianos

Their gravestones were simple.

Some were engraved with just the woman’s first name: Orabuena.

Some honored them only in reference to a husband: Mujer de Yuçe (Wife of Joseph).

Or a son: Madre de Mose (Mother of Mose).

The Jewish women of medieval Spain may not have been large in death, but I knew they were large in life. I wanted to find out more about them.

My husband and I, along with our youngest son, had taken a year sabbatical in Madrid. And although a religious quest was not my impetus for going, it soon became my passion.

I’m Ashkenazi by birth, but I was raised partly Sephardic because of the special man who became my adoptive father. This duality sparked my curiosity.

What happened to the Jews of Spain? How could an entire race of people, who made up 20 percent of a country’s population, who held esteemed positions in government, medicine and tax collecting, be systematically destroyed?

I read numerous books. I toured the tiny alleys of former Jewish quarters. I looked for clues.

There was the small, rectangular shape on a doorframe in Girona, a ghostly reminder of a mezuzah.

There was the Hebrew inscription over the back entrance to a pharmacy in Hervas. This is the gate of the Lord. The just will enter through it.

There were the bricks with Hebrew writing, interspersed across the municipal brick wall in Barcelona.

There was the water ring of a forgotten mikveh in Trujillo.

And everywhere there was pork — cochinillo (baby suckling pig), the specialty dish of just about every small town in the Castilian countryside. It is a remnant from the Inquisition, whose intention was to “out” crypto-Jews, those forced to convert and become “New Christians,” yet who still held onto their traditions in secret.

In Toledo, you can tour the Sinagoga de Santa Maria La Blanca. Think about that — the synagogue of a saint! There seems to be no guilt, no shame that the Catholics took over a Jewish house of worship after most Jews of Toledo were slaughtered or forced to convert — only a clinical explanation on an audio guide of how this building came to be. The beautiful scallop shape, where the ark was held, is still there — with a big dome and a cross over it.

When we first got to Spain we were advised by the family who lived in the apartment before us: Tell your son not to mention he’s Jewish when he’s at school. Spanish kids have never met a Jew before. It’s better left unsaid.

My son became a modern-day crypto-Jew.

One day, my son’s teacher was talking to the class about Tres Reyes, the post-Christmas Christian feast day of Three Kings, when she accidentally outed him. That was my bad. Earlier, the teacher had asked me if we were going to stay another year. Forgetting the warning, I told her my son couldn’t stay because he needed to go home to have his bar mitzvah. She was an adult, I thought. It was OK that I told her. But in an effort to create a lively Navidad discussion, the teacher announced, “Someone here doesn’t celebrate this holiday.” My son had to defend himself in Spanish: Yes, he believes in God. No, he doesn’t have a Christmas tree. Yes, he still gets presents.

Later, when a boy approached my son at school and asked him what was the difference between a Jew and a pizza — a pizza doesn’t scream in the oven — my husband and I were horrified. But not surprised.

At a fancy dinner party, a Spanish woman asked me, “Aren’t there a lot of Jews in Hollywood?” At first, I was taken aback. Did she say “studios” or “Judios”?

“About half,” I replied, hedging for some reason. I knew there were more. She seemed pleased with my answer, nodding, “That’s not so bad.”

The Spanish Inquisition led, in part, to the Holocaust. Dehumanize a people and you can do anything to them.

Calle Rabillero: It sounds suspiciously like Rabbi Street, but Rabillero is slang for “a dump.”

Marrano: The name used for Converso Jews. It also means “swine.”

San Benito: A gown of coarse fabric with a devil symbol on the front worn by any Converso found Judaizing.

Like the Nuremburg laws, anti-Jewish laws were also passed in Spain, designed to impoverish and humiliate. Juderías or ghettos, were formed, enclosing neighborhoods with locked gates. Jews could no longer practice medicine; deal in bread, wine or meat; engage in handicrafts or trades; fill public offices; or act as money brokers. They could not assume the title Don, carry arms, trim their beard or hair. They could not hire Catholic servants, farmhands, lamplighters or gravediggers. Jews were not permitted to cross the Plaza Mayor, the main center of town, en route to the cemetery. They had to walk around it, burying their dead at night so no one would hear them saying Kaddish.

We were advised: Tell your son not to mention he’s Jewish when he’s at school. Spanish kids have never met a Jew before.

I confess that at times, while living there, I felt very alone. I wanted to tell everyone I met: “I’m a Jew. You tortured me. You turned my neighbor against me. You burned me. You kicked me out. Your inquisition worked!”

Then, something amazing happened.

A friend took me to a service at Bet-El, the Masorti Synagogue with an Argentine rabbi and a congregation of mostly Ashkenazi Jews, who now live in Spain or are just passing through. When I saw the prayer book with Spanish on one side and Hebrew on the other, I nearly wept.

I met the widow of Max Mazin, the man who founded the Orthodox Synagogue Comunidad Judía de Madrid in 1948. I saw her stunning collection of Chagall paintings hanging proudly in her dining room. Her third Spanish-Jewish grandchild recently had been born.

I heard Jorge Drexler, an Oscar-winning composer, singing about being a Judio among Christianos.

Yes, a population was decimated.

But today, there are Hanukkah celebrations in the streets of Madrid, Barcelona and Malaga.

There are tour guides proudly telling Jewish visitors that they are descendants of Converso families.

Here in the United States, there are Latino families in New Mexico who are learning why they always go to the basement and light candles on Friday night.

There are Sephardic Jews in Los Angeles who are discovering why they can’t point at the stars at sundown on a Saturday night.

We can exhume the past and relearn traditions.

Doctoral candidates at UCLA are translating ancient Hebrew Aljamiado, Judeo-Spanish texts, to learn directly from the source.

My uncle reclaimed his Spanish citizenship. He studied the language, retained a lawyer, found documents of embarcation from Istanbul to the United States that proved his family tree, and took a written test.

We can teach the real story of the Spanish Inquisition to the next generation.

We can sing Ladino songs “Los Bilbilicos” and “Morenika” like my great-grandmother Fortuné Gormé sang and then taught to her daughter, Eydie. Yes, that Eydie Gormé.

We can tell our loved ones “Vaya con leche y miel” (Go with milk and honey) when they leave our house.

We can cook frittata and bourekhas, arroz con pollo and biscocho the way the Spanish mamas did.

We can travel to Spain and show school children what a Jewish boy looks like.

We can choose life.


Cambria Gordon is a children’s author and mother of three. Her current project is a young-adult novel set during the Spanish Inquisition.

Dr. Micah Goodman: Is there a light at the end of the tunnel?

Israeli scholar Micah Goodman weighs in on the world’s most intractable conflict — and his ideas for a solution. He explains it all in his bestselling new book, Catch 67, which uses philosophical insights to tackle the Israel–Palestinian conflict.

“Everyone always talks about solving or not solving the conflict. What about shrinking the conflict?” -Dr. Micah Goodman

 

David Suissa and Dr. Micah Goodman in the studios

From left: David Suissa and Dr. Micah Goodman

Check out this episode!

THE POLISH JEWISH STORY: A Historian Examines A Complex Relationship

A Jewish platoon of the Polish Underground in Hanaczow, Lwów district. Photo courtesy of Leopold Kozłowski.

Some books are timely, others are useful and still others are good. Joshua D. Zimmerman’s “The Polish Underground and the Jews 1939-1945” (Cambridge University Press) is all three.

What makes it timely is recently passed Polish law that criminalizes any mention of Poles “being responsible or complicit in the Nazi crimes committed by the Third German Reich.” The ultra-nationalist Law and Justice Party government is committed to advancing a Polish-centric agenda, openly pushing to rewrite the country’s history to stress Polish heroism and obliterate Polish guilt.

Zimmerman’s meticulously researched, scrupulously balanced and comprehensively written work will create much anguish for those attempting to rewrite that history. For few have done the work to examine all the records and fewer still will balance the evidence without bending it to arrive at seemingly irrefutable conclusions.

Polish nationalistic historians won’t be the only ones upset by his findings. Jewish historians who seek simple answers and don’t want to deal with the complications of the Polish situation will find his balance disconcerting. The story is complicated and Zimmerman does not shy away from presenting the complications clearly, unraveling the puzzle and reassembling its parts so that the reader can understand the complexities.

Among serious scholars, it is axiomatic that good scholarship drives out bad scholarship. And for good scholarship there is no substitute for serious homework, going to archives, reviewing the evidence, reading memoirs and listening to testimony, and weighing all this material to present a coherent picture of the whole.

Joshua D. Zimmerman

Zimmerman’s meticulously researched work will create much anguish for those attempting to rewrite that history.

Some scholars do a marvelous job of presenting an overarching theory and then leave the reader and researcher wanting for particular evidence or indications why contrary conclusions don’t hold up. Other scholars drown the reader in detail but miss the larger perspective. Zimmerman does neither; attention to detail substantiates the general picture he offers and illustrates what he is trying to show. One must appreciate such detail and value his major substantive conclusions.

One of them is that the Polish Underground’s attitude toward the Jews reflected the political views of its major constituent bodies, military officers and individuals in pre-war Poland. Those who were open to a more pluralistic Polish society that accepted minorities as part of the landscape of Poland had a radically different attitude toward the Jews than those whose orientations were more nationalistic in the most narrow sense of the term. I suspect that what was true then is still true today.

The attitude toward the Jews was not only a mirror of pre-war attitudes but depended on geography and on the progress of the war. Why geography? Attitudes in the East (the territories first occupied by the Soviet Union after Sept. 17, 1939) were far different than in territories solely occupied by Germany. Poles in the East did not appreciate why Jews were far more welcoming to Soviet occupation when the alternative was German occupation. They were far more ready to identify Jews with Communism, far less willing to understand the impact that Communism had on individual Jews  — capitalists and merchants — and on Judaism while also protecting Jews in Soviet-occupied sectors from ghettoization and vilification by German anti-Semitism.

Why timing and the progress of the war? The Polish Underground’s attitude toward the Jews also underwent a significant shift when it appeared that the Soviet Union, rather than the Allies, would liberate Poland from Nazi Germany. The Polish Underground opposed Nazi Germany but it also properly feared that liberation by the Soviet Union would be a pretext to Soviet domination, not Polish national independence, and certainly not the post-World War I Poland that the Polish people had enjoyed.

How was the attitude toward the Jews affected by the unfolding of the world war and the war against the Jews? It shifted as the larger fate of Polish Jews under German occupation became clear. As the scope, discipline and progress of the killing unfolded, Poles’ reaction toward the Jews changed. Those who would argue that even Poles who resisted German occupation were not unhappy about Germany’s eliminating Jews from Poland — all the while feeling revolted by the means — will find much in Zimmerman’s work to substantiate their views. But he also brings evidence that as the murder of the Jews became more widely appreciated, some Poles became more sympathetic toward their disappearing neighbors.

While the content of this work is exceedingly disquieting, the work of the historian is deeply satisfying.

Why timing? The attitude toward Jews, and especially toward arming Jews, changed after the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943 and the gesture of the ghetto resistance to fly a Polish flag and to proclaim their fight — for our freedom and yours. Zimmerman’s chapters on the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and the Warsaw Uprising on 1944 are comprehensive and insightful. The Polish government-in-exile faced different pressure than the army in the field. The participation of Jewish representatives in the governing council strengthened the support for the Jews from within the government and the desperate need of the Polish government-in-exile for Allied support, and its physical location in Churchill’s London rather than Stalin’s Moscow made it imperative that they portray their struggle for Poland as a democratic one.

The Polish Underground depended on the dedication of its participants to the cause of the Polish nation and their antipathy toward the occupation. Therefore, it was not as willing to define the meaning of “Polish nation.” It did not want to say aloud that Jews might again be considered second-class citizens and not quite part of the Polish nation, even though they were citizens of the Polish state.

Zimmerman is careful to consider individual responsibility and not just general policy. Officers lead their soldiers, men and women in this case, and they set standards for them of what is acceptable and not acceptable, of what is expected and not expected. Some are motivated by ideology and some by the camaraderie of battle, the ties that bind soldiers to one another. Because he has read memoirs extensively and reviewed testimony carefully, Zimmerman is able to show how the attitudes of individual officers and soldiers shaped the attitude of the Underground to the Jews and determined the fate of individual Jews.

Some will read Zimmerman’s book selectively. For example, he devotes an entire section to the institutional efforts of the Polish underground toward the Jews. The behavior and the values of Zegotta — the clandestine wartime organization dedicated to rescuing Jewish children — are admirable. And he recounts the heroic efforts of couriers, especially Jan Karski, who secretly brought Jewish communiques to the West. Yet he also details craven collaboration and institutional efforts that intensified the risk to Jews and facilitated their demise. Both were present in wartime Poland, and the current government’s effort to eliminate all mention of the latter will force historians outside of Poland to question whether a depiction of the heroic Poles alone is credible.

The publications of the Polish Underground and not just its reports to the government-in-exile give a real-time understanding of what was known about the Jews’ fate — and when and by whom. It makes more urgent the English language publication of these bulletins, which currently are available only in Polish.

Zimmerman has set a standard of comprehensiveness, excellence, meticulousness and balance. While the content of this work is exceedingly disquieting, the work of the historian is deeply satisfying.


Michael Berenbaum is director of the Sigi Ziering Institute: Exploring the Ethical and Religious Implications of the Holocaust and a professor of Jewish Studies at American Jewish University. For the past decade, he has taught the Holocaust to teachers at Jagiellonian University in Poland.

The Future of Jewish Life in Russia

When considering the “Free Soviet Jewry” movement that peaked in the 1980s, it’s easy to focus on the romantic notion of liberation. After all, over a million Jews left the Soviet Union for Israel and the United States, making the movement a crown jewel of communal activist success.

But such success is hardly the complete story.

What’s missing from the narrative of liberation is the complexity of cultural nostalgia — the visceral pull of a homeland, even when that homeland has betrayed you.

In Maxim D. Shrayer’s study “With or Without You: The Prospect for Jews in Today’s Russia,” the complicated nature of what it means to live as a Jew in Russia is delicately addressed. Shrayer was born in Moscow in 1967 and, with his family, spent nine years as a refusenik before emigrating to the U.S. in 1987. Having written and translated numerous books, including two memoirs, Shrayer has become an expert in Russian-Jewish literature and culture.

This newest study details his trip to Russia in 2016 with his fifth-grade daughter, Mira. Like most good Jewish works, Shrayer’s begins with a question that compels us to ask further questions. In the prologue, Shrayer asks Oleg Dorman, a Jewish filmmaker living in Russia, a complicated question: “Why do you stay here?”

What’s missing from the narrative of liberation is the complexity of cultural nostalgia — the visceral pull of a homeland, even when that homeland has betrayed you.

Dorman says poignantly, “G-d gave me as a Jew such a place in life — to live in Russia.” It’s a startling answer to a seemingly simple question. And the idea that God chooses where people will live (and die) is a distressing notion. But it is in this fashion that Shrayer begins his book.

In Moscow, there is a Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center, founded in 2012. It is a miracle that such a place should exist, given the long history of Russian anti-Semitism and the plight of Jews in Russia only decades ago, namely the Soviet Union’s efforts to “annihilate Judaism and traditional Jewish life.” Yet even the remarkable presence of such a place in Russia is unsurprisingly fraught.

Dorman tells Shrayer that when a tram stops at the museum, it is announced only as the “Museum and Center of Tolerance,” all references to Jewishness glaringly omitted. It’s hard to believe, and so Shrayer decides to see for himself, and takes the tram to the museum to discover that the announcement for the stop has indeed been cleansed of all Jewish references. It is a tram stop “already loaded with the baggage of Soviet antisemitism” in a society where the word “Jew” is “somehow indecent,” not something said out loud.

The narrative of Shrayer’s journey through Moscow is interspersed with memories of his own childhood in Russia, and the omission of the word “Jewish” from the tram stop announcement reminds him of his sixth-grade peers laughing hysterically at the mention of the word “Jew” in relation to a composer’s score known in Russia as “Two Jews: Rich and Poor.” Shrayer recounts how the word “Jew” itself was worthy of derision, and so to them the idea of two Jews was especially dirty and hilarious.

A question addressed, however, is whether the omission of the word amounts to real anti-Semitism or whether it is simply a vestige of Soviet discrimination that has lost its meaning and impact. Recent surveys of Moscow residents suggest that Jews are in ninth place as “targets of antipathy,” falling below Roma and Tajiks, as well as Americans, Ukrainians and Armenians. Shrayer agrees that overtly anti-Semitic behavior in Russia has declined considerably in the post-Soviet era, although he is not as optimistic as the study’s authors, who claim that “the dominant attitude toward Jews is that of moderate respect,” and that “negative connotations are largely gone.”

But if anti-Semitism has truly declined in Russia, where have all the anti-Semites gone? History suggests that anti-Semitism never really disappears, but only shrinks beneath the surface to bubble up in new ways. Shrayer draws an important distinction between Russia’s “professional Jew-haters” — politicians and extremists publicly espousing anti-Semitic rhetoric — and average citizens. While public denunciations of Jews are fewer, anti-Semitism’s “putrid flowers continue to bloom” particularly on social media. And so it is that “unprejudiced average Russian citizens by day” are transformed into “outspoken anti-Semites by night.”

It would seem that Russian anti-Semitism has simply put on a new face. It is surprising then that the Chabad-Lubavitch movement is so popular in Russia. Strikingly, most Chabad activists of Russia are ex-Soviets who have become ba’alei t’shuva, and are “Pushkin-quoting men and women in Hasidic attire.” In Shrayer’s words, Chabad-Lubavitch is the “guardian of Russia’s Jews” — a  complex identity indeed.

Shrayer admits that for him, a map of Moscow does not simply reflect his childhood and first love, but is also a “map of antisemitism” revealing the texture of a place that is simultaneously “more tolerant and more foreign” to him. “I’m conflicted about which of the two maps to unfold,” he writes, “which memories to suppress.”

The question of why Jews remain in Russia persists, and in search of an answer, Shrayer interviews seven people. Are they, as columnist Aleksandr Minkin suggests, “living on top of a volcano” whose eruption is imminent or is this an overreaction?

Writer Afanasy Mamedov tells Shrayer that Jewish life in Russia “depends on direct philanthropy,” lamenting that contemporary Russian Jews have no patrons of the arts, no philanthropists in the way they existed for Russian Jews in the late 1800s. “The birth of the next Kafka is unlikely here,” he says. “Everything is still rising from the old yeast.” Indeed, the mass exodus of Jews from Russia has come at a tremendous cost for the literary world.

One of the greatest 20th-century writers, Isaac Babel, left the Soviet Union in 1935. But his identity as a Russian-Jewish writer was tied intricately to living in the Soviet Union: He returned in 1939 and was executed. “If I did not live with Russian people, I would cease being a writer. I would be like a fish out of water,” he once said.

While Russian-Jewish writing flourishes outside of Russia, it often manifests as immigrant literature that is as much a product of a new and foreign home as it is of the writer’s homeland. And although it is quickly becoming its own remarkable literary genre, one can’t help but lament the limited potential for new Jewish literary greats to rise in contemporary Russia.

What, then, is the future of Jews in Russia?

Yakov Ratner, a member of the Chabad community who runs a Jewish publishing house, claims that the future of Jewish life in Russia depends on the extent to which parents are interested in a distinctly Jewish identity. Otherwise, it is only “chance [that] could carry such a child” toward Jewishness.

The interviewees all share, despite their optimism, a sense of foreboding. The Jewish population that remains in Russia is an aging one, its birthrate the lowest of any ethnic group. There are more Russian-speaking Jews living outside of Russia than within its borders. So why do they stay? It’s a question that both is and is not answered in this important study. But it also raises the question: How important is it to Diasporic Jews that Russian Jewish life continue to flourish, and what are we going to do about it?


Monica Osborne is scholar of Jewish literature and culture. She is the author of “The Midrashic Impulse and the Contemporary Literary Response to Trauma.”

Tough Night at the Oscars for Jewish Nominees

Dan Cogan (L) and Bryan Fogel pose with their Oscars - REUTERS

Half a century ago, Bob Hope’s films were wildly popular but the comedian had never been nominated for an Academy Award. So when Hope served as host of the 1975 Oscar bash, he opened his monologue with “Welcome to the Academy Awards… or, as it’s known in my house – PASSOVER.” At Sunday’s 90th award ceremony, Jewish talent, once almost synonymous with Hollywood, could largely repeat Bob Hope’s punch line.

With only one exception and unless someone was hiding his or her tribal descent, no Jewish – or even half-Jewish – nominee got to clutch the golden statuette. In addition, a Jewish actor, tabbed as a likely winner, didn’t even make the nominee list, likely paying for his alleged sexual aggressiveness.

One day before the awards, the list of Jewish nominees, all with realistic chances to strike gold, included: for lead actors, Daniel Day-Lewis (in “Phantom Thread”) and Timothee Chalamet (“Call Me by Your Name”), both with Jewish mothers. Also on the nomination list, but not called to the podium, was past repeat winner Hans Zimmer, who composed the score for “Dunkirk.” Benj Pasek, who last year won the Best Song Oscar for “La La Land,” failed to score in the same category for this year’s “This Is Me,” which, however, became the unofficial anthem of the 2018 Winter Olympics.

The only consolation for tribal rooters was the win by Bryan Fogel for his documentary feature “Icarus,” which helped expose Russia’s widespread doping of its athletes. Fogel, a Denver native, previously developed, co-wrote and initially co-starred in “Jewtopia,” which became an immensely successful play and movie and was based on his book “Jewtopia: The Chosen Guide for the Chosen People.”

But on the negative side were some startling omissions of movies and their creators who failed to even make the list of five nominees in each category (nine for Best Picture nominees.) Foremost was the absence of Steven Spielberg, arguably Hollywood’s most respected personality. The director of “The Post,” a story of journalists facing down the U.S. government, was omitted from the list of five director nominees – although the film itself made the Best Picture nomination list.

James Franco, a perennial Jewish star, was tipped as a likely best actor winner for his role in “The Disaster Artist.” Franco won the Golden Globe for this role, but between that triumph and the deadline for Oscar nominations, he was accused by five women of sexual aggressiveness. Although he denied the charges, enough Oscar voters apparently decided to ignore his name.

Also raising eyebrows was the absence of Israel’s Gal Gadot from the Lead Actress list, although her performance as, and in, “Wonder Woman” was almost universally praised by critics.

In the Best Foreign-Language Film category, Israel’s entry “Foxtrot,” had made the initial list of nine nominees, but was eliminated when the list was cut to five candidates. The elimination of “Foxtrot” so annoyed Kenneth Turan, chief film critic for the Los Angeles Times, that, writing in his column, he told the judges that they  “should be ashamed of themselves.”

It is somewhat risky to deduce a national trend from an evening of Hollywood awards, but the conclusions from watching more than three hours of the Academy Awards seem fairly clear. One is that at a time of profound social change in the United States, fueled mainly by women and African-Americans, Jews are now generally considered as part of the white (and male) establishment. This development may be cause for considerable satisfaction by Jews who struggled for generations against discrimination, but it seems to have dulled the edge that in the past made for dramatic stage and movie plots.

Instead of the Jewish jokes by hosts during past Academy Awards, this time the traditional opening monologue, delivered by Jimmy Kimmel, were about sexual predators, and the loudest voices – and applause – were for women’s job equality, the achievements of immigrants, and the growing presence of Asian-Americans.

Two years ago, there were vociferous complaints about the nominations of almost exclusively white performers, contrasted to the absence of artists of color. This phenomenon was so pronounced that it earned the derisive label of “Oscar So White.” In a turnabout, black, Asian and Latino performers were so noticeable on Sunday’s stage that one African-American presenter wondered aloud whether the evening might be dubbed, at least in the eyes of white viewers, as “Oscar So Black.”

This article has been modified to correct Bryan Fogel’s name.

Jews Are Fleeing France in Droves As Anti-Semitism Goes Unchecked

French President Emmanuel Macron addresses a news conference during European Union leaders informal summit in Brussels, Belgium, February 23, 2018. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

The rising levels of anti-Semitism in France have reached a point to where Jews are fleeing the country in droves, and yet French officials have done little to combat the anti-Semitism that is permeating the country.

University of Paris Dr. Guy Millière wrote in the Gatestone Institute that the Jewish population has declined from 500,000 in 2000 to below 400,000 today, as numerous Jewish families have to “sell their homes well below the market price” in order to leave the country or seek refuge in a safer neighborhood.

Millière quotes Confederation of French Jews President Richard Abitbol as saying that the mass emigration of Jews from French is essentially “an ethnic cleansing.”

“In few decades, there will be no Jews in France,” Abitbol predicted.

AJC Europe Director Simone Rodan-Benzaquen told the New York Post, “Although Jews represent less than 1 percent of the French population, 40 percent of all violent hate crimes in France are anti-Semitic.”

The various hate crimes that Jews endure in France include muggings, threats of being shot and being tortured, assaulted and even murdered. One prominent example is Sarah Halimi, a 65-year-old Jewish woman who was murdered by her 27-year-old neighbor after he broke into her home, assaulted her while shouting “Allah Akbar!” and then tossed her out the window.

Acts of anti-Semitic graffiti are also becoming more prominent and anti-Semitic comedians are becoming increasingly popular.

According to The Huffington Post, the three groups of people in France who are the most anti-Semitic views are the far-right National Front, far-left Left Front and Muslims.

“Muslim respondents were two and even three times more anti-Jewish than French people as a whole,” Rodan-Benzaquen and Foundation for Political Innovation General Director Dominique Reynié wrote. “Thus, for example, 19 percent of the entire French sample adhered to the idea that Jews have ‘too much’ political power, but the rate was 51 percent for all Muslim respondents.”

They also noted that “religiosity” was a driving factor toward anti-Semitim among Muslims, as “37 percent of those born in a Muslim family without religious involvement thought Jews had too much political power, but 49 percent of Muslim believers thought so, and 63 percent of believing and practicing Muslims.”

Millière points out that Islamists in France frequently give anti-Semitic speeches in Mosques and disseminate anti-Semitic propaganda from selling the likes of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion to teaching it in various schools.

And yet, French officials have done little to combat this due to political correctness. For instance, French President Emmanuel Macron called for the country to “rise up today alongside French Jews to fight with them against these disgusting attacks,” but on Holocaust Remembrance Day he didn’t “say a word about Jews or the Holocaust.” Journalists who try to expose the anti-Semitic and anti-Christian sentiments in certain Muslim neighborhoods in France get slapped with charges of “incitement.”

Lawmakers Call On Trump Admin to Investigate Al Jazeera for Spying On Jews

Photo from Flickr/Joi Ito.

A couple of congressional lawmakers are calling on Attorney General Jeff Sessions to launch an investigation into Al Jazeera for their spy operation against American Jews.

In a letter to Sessions, Reps. Lee Zeldin (R-NY) and Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ) argued that Al Jazeera should register as a foreign agent under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) given that the news outlet spreads propaganda from the Qatari government throughout the United States.

“We find it troubling that the content produced by this network often directly undermines American interests with favorable coverage of U.S. State Department-designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations, including Hamas, Hezbollah, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and Jabhat alNusra, al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria,” Zeldin and Gottheimer wrote. “Furthermore, Al Jazeera’s record of radical anti-American, anti-Semitic, and anti-Israel broadcasts warrants scrutiny from regulators to determine whether this network is in violation of U.S. law.”

The lawmakers added, “Such an investigation should cover the full range of activities undertaken by Al Jazeera in the United States, including reports that it infiltrated American 501(c)(3) and (c)(4) nonprofit organizations.”

Al Jazeera’s spy operation reportedly involved the news organization sending a mole to various Jewish and pro-Israel organizations to cover their efforts in combatting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement on behalf the Israeli government. Al Jazeera conducted the operation as part of a documentary that purportedly exposes Jewish control of the U.S. government, a longtime anti-Semitic slur.

If Al Jazeera is required to register under FARA, they would have to “periodically disclose the nature of its financial arrangements with the foreign principal and provide detailed, regular reports about the distribution of “informational materials” on its behalf,” according to the Brookings Institute.

“American citizens deserve to know whether the information and news media they consume is impartial, or if it is deceptive propaganda pushed by foreign nations,” Zeldin and Gottheimer wrote.

According to Discover the Networks, Al Jazeera was first established in 1996 from a $150 million grant by the emir of Qatar, whose government funnels money to Islamists worldwide. Members of Al Jazeera’s staff have ties to Islamic terror groups like Hamas and al-Qaeda; they were also the platform Osama bin Laden used to disseminate his various propaganda videos.

Unsurprisingly, Al Jazeera’s coverage is slanted against the United States and Israel, even going as espousing the anti-Semitic conspiracy theory that Israel warned Jews about the 9/11 terror attacks before the attacks occurred. One of their sources for this was David Duke, and they failed to disclose Duke’s prior connections to the Ku Klux Klan and American Nazi Party.

Why Jews Love Presidents (Most of the Time)

Most American Jews today love hating President Donald Trump. The hostility is so pure, so intense, so obsessive, it brooks no opposition, correction or nuance. The hatred is so great, even rabbis resist the ego-stroke of joining the ritualistic High Holy Days phone call with the president. The hatred feels so justified, that with each vulgar tweet, Trump’s actions, no matter how hateful, at least offer that guilty pleasure that comes from being right about someone you know is so despicably wrong. And the hatred is so powerful, it trumped the Jewish people’s historic love of Jerusalem as the the capital of Israel for nearly half of American Jewry.

Marking a sobering second Presidents Day in this Age of Trump, this moment’s historical incongruity is striking. The United States has blessed Jews with a parade of presidents who love Jews — including this one.

Most modern presidential campaigns pit two major party nominees competing to show who loves the Jews — and Israel — most. Today’s fury, therefore, is atypical. American Jews usually love to love their president — and love being loved right back.

The 1800s: Dear Jews, Welcome to America!

As with so much good in America, this love affair starts with George Washington. The most famous line from his 1790 letter to the Jews of Newport, R.I., affirms that “the Government of the United States gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”

Washington’s most significant words, however, noted: “It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights.” Instead, he insisted: “All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship.”

These words make America, America. The paternalist “tolerates,” “indulges”; partners share and bond. America changed history by including Jews in the American family. Washington echoed the Declaration of Independence’s recognition that every person enjoys inherent rights. Once rights are that fundamental, we protect one another — as fellow citizens defending shared privileges — sparking America’s real revolution.

Jews’ absorption into America doesn’t reflect Jewish power — just the power of the American idea.

Naturalizing every human’s rights created conditions of true acceptance, of Jews truly being at home. Defending Jews became the default position, for the first time ever outside the Land of Israel, because Jews were “us” not “them.” American Jews weren’t accepted contingent on their good behavior, a leader’s whims or the people’s will. Because this bond applied so broadly — although not at the time to Blacks or women — it penetrated so deeply it couldn’t be contained. That’s why it kept expanding until today it includes everyone.

In short, none of this was done because it was good for the Jews: it was just good. There were barely 2,500 Jews in the U.S. during the Revolution, maybe 15,000 in 1840. Jews’ absorption into America doesn’t reflect Jewish power — just the power of the American idea.

You didn’t have to be an American saint like George Washington to befriend the Jews. Even New York’s scrappy political operator, Martin Van Buren, defended Jews while advancing an even deeper value. In 1840, the United States was politically isolationist and physically isolated. Still, when Pasha Muhammed Ali, Syria’s overlord, kidnapped 63 Syrian Jewish kids and tortured 13 Jewish leaders during the Damascus Blood Libel, Van Buren acted. Expressing America’s “horror,” he explained that in America, we “place upon the same footing, the worshipers of God, of every faith and form.”

As president, Van Buren advanced human rights, not just Jewish rights. He considered the persecution of others, no matter how remote, America’s responsibility because liberty is indivisible and universal. Van Buren anticipated Franklin Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms (from want and from fear, to speak and to worship) — anywhere in the world — and the post-World War II charters defending basic rights for all, everywhere in the world.

Of course, America was a country, not paradise; anti-Semitism existed and persists. But expecting perfection is unfair and immature — the test is how a diverse democracy corrects itself when it sins,  or sinners sin. Historian Jonathan Sarna’s excellent book, “When General Grant Expelled the Jews,” shows how a low moment redeemed Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, the Jews and this country. In 1862, during the Civil War, Gen. Grant’s General Order No. 11 banned Jews “as a class violating every regulation of trade” from Tennessee, Kentucky and Mississippi. Black marketeering was rife, involving some Jews, among others. Still, Grant deemed “the Israelites” an “intolerable nuisance.”

European Jews and Jews from Muslim lands will scoff: How lucky that this obnoxious yet mild restriction ranks as one of America’s “worst” anti-Semitic acts — especially because President Abraham Lincoln rescinded it quickly. The popular story has it that one Prussian immigrant in Kentucky, Cesar Kaskel, lobbied Lincoln directly.

Lincoln responded grandly, biblically:  “And so the children of Israel were driven from the happy land of Canaan?”

Kaskel responded: “Yes, and that is why we have come unto Father Abraham’s bosom, asking protection.”

Father Abraham replied, “And this protection they shall have at once.”

After overruling Grant, Lincoln explained that “to condemn a class is, to say the least, to wrong the good with the bad.”

Grant quickly regretted what his own wife, Julia, called “that obnoxious order.” As president, Grant repented. He appointed Jews to public office. He attended Adas Israel’s three-hour dedication, becoming the first president to attend a synagogue service — perhaps the only one to stay till the end. Like Van Buren, Grant also defended oppressed Jews, this time in Russia and Romania. “Paradoxically,” Sarna argues, Grant’s “order expelling the Jews set the stage for their empowerment. … In America, hatred can be overcome.”

The 1900s: Welcome to American Leadership

If 19th-century America welcomed Jews to be invisible enough to fit in, 20th-century America empowered Jews to become visible and stand out.

Two classic Theodore Roosevelt tales define him — and those two phases of Jewish-American life. In 1895, a German rector, Hermann Ahlwardt, visited New York to, in Roosevelt’s words, “preach a crusade against the Jews.” Jews lobbied their police commissioner — Roosevelt — “to prevent him from speaking and not to give him police protection.” Roosevelt explained it “was impossible; and if possible would have been undesirable because it would have made him a martyr.”

Concluding his speaking tour, Ahlwardt thanked Commissioner Roosevelt, and the Aryan-looking police officers who had protected him — and illustrated his point. Roosevelt then introduced the racist preacher to the “Jew sergeant and a score or two of Jew policemen” Roosevelt had assigned to protect them. Roosevelt chuckled: “He made his harangue against the Jews under the active protection of some 40 policemen, every one of them a Jew!” Roosevelt made Ahlwardt look “ridiculous” to undermine Ahlwardt while teaching Americans “that there must be no division … of creed against creed, nationality against nationality, section against section.”

Inaugurating the 1900s, once president, Roosevelt appointed the first Jew to the Cabinet, designating Oscar Straus as Secretary of Commerce and Labor in 1906. To prove that any American could succeed, Roosevelt had to single out a Jew for the job. “I have a very high estimate of your character,” Roosevelt assured Straus. Then he explained his “further reason: I want to show Russia and some other countries what we think of Jews in this country.”

Perhaps the most heartbreaking presidential “incident” involves Franklin Roosevelt. He was so beloved by most Jews that he made most of them liberal Democrats. Jews joked about having three “velten” — Yiddish for worlds: this velt, the other velt — heaven — and Roo-se-velt. Yet FDR so took the Jewish vote for granted — winning 90 percent of some mostly Jewish precincts from Beverly Hills to Brooklyn — that when the Jews needed him to save European Jews, he could ignore them.

Jewish Trump-a-phobia confirms that Jews are now so comfortably American, that, while still loving to love most presidents, they can occasionally really love hating one, too.

Consider the lame letter Rabbi Stephen S. Wise wrote to his close friend, the president — when solid proof finally reached Wise in late 1942 that Nazis had already killed 2 million Jews. “Dear Boss,” Wise began, “I do not wish to add an atom to the burden you are bearing with magic and, as I believe, heaven-inspired strength, at this time.” FDR swatted away those concerns. No one who called him boss and could minimize such a monstrous problem would ever betray him.

Still, Roosevelt brought so many Jews to Washington that anti-Semites called Roosevelt’s New Deal the “Jew Deal.” Only surfacing later, these disappointments couldn’t extinguish the torch most Jews still carry for FDR, his Democratic Party and his liberal legacy.

That overlap between Jews and liberalism is one of those Jewish characteristics President Richard Nixon constantly condemned. When one of his daughters volunteered at a museum, Nixon fumed, “The arts — you know, they’re Jews, they’re left wing; in other words, stay away.” Another time, he deemed Jews a “very aggressive and abrasive and obnoxious personality,” believing: “Most Jews are disloyal.”

Nevertheless, Nixon hired many proud Jews, including Henry Kissinger, the first Jewish secretary of state. And Nixon supported Israel generously, mobilizing “every [plane] we have — everything that will fly” — to resupply Israel after the Arab surprise attack on Yom Kippur in 1973.

Jews as Mature Americans Today

Since Nixon, the Republican Party, once the “goyish,” even anti-Jewish party, has been pro-Israel and welcoming to a small, outspoken, band of conservative Jews. As my brother Tevi Troy wrote in Commentary in 2015: The rise of evangelical Zionism, the common front against totalitarianism in its communist and Islamist forms, and an approach emphasizing shared values and rewarding loyalty proved transformational. Just as “the world was learning to hate Israel, the Republican Party was learning to love it.”

Alas, amid today’s partisanship, Republican support for Israel risks giving the Jewish state a toxic embrace. Applying the transitive property beyond mathematics (if a=b and b=c, a=c), too many liberal Jews today believe that if they hate Trump and Trump loves Israel, they should hate Israel, too. (Of course, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s alienation of American Jewry has only made things worse.)

In this age of partisan myopia, when conservatives see only liberals’ flaws and liberals see only conservatives’ flaws, many Jewish liberals ignore politically correct bigots and tell a different tale of anti-Semitism. They reduce American-Jewish history to three moments: Gen. Grant’s General Order No. 11 in 1862; the Nazis marching in Skokie, Ill., in 1978 — which never quite occurred — and the Neo-Nazis Marching in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017. Trump’s reprehensible moral failure to condemn these goons preyed on American-Jewish insecurity — although many, many Americans rose admirably to renounce these home-grown fascists.

A less neurotic look at history simply would exclaim, “God Bless America.” Today, we have a bipartisan tradition of a White House seder initiated by former President Barack Obama, beloved by most Jews yet sometimes unfairly caricatured as anti-Israel, and an annual White House Hanukkah Party initiated by another former president, George W. Bush, detested by most American Jews, yet beloved in Israel.

Today, our most Nixonian of presidents intensifies the Nixon conundrum.

Trump, like Nixon, is loathed by most Jews. Trump, like Nixon, relies on many Jewish advisers. Trump, like Nixon, outdoes his Democratic rivals in championing the Israeli government’s interests — and in being popular among Israeli Jews, not their American cousins. Yet Trump, unlike Nixon, has not been recorded cursing Jews, and Trump, not Nixon, is the first White House occupant with Jewish children and grandchildren.

This, then, is Donald Trump’s legacy to Jewish history and the Jewish community. His controversial, polarizing presidency triggers remarkable immaturity among slavish Republican supporters and fanatic Democratic opponents. Yet it may be remembered as another milestone in American Jewry’s maturation. Jewish Trump-a-phobia proves that Jews are not one-issue voters, always supporting the most pro-Israel candidate. Jewish Trump-a-phobia suggests that the ultimate power-play in the token Jew-hiring contest — having Jewish kids and grandkids — doesn’t work and can even infuriate. And Jewish Trump-a-phobia confirms that Jews are now so comfortably American, that, while still loving to love most presidents, they can occasionally really love hating one, too.


Gil Troy is the author of “The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s” and the forthcoming book, “The Zionist Ideas,” to be published this spring. He is a Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University in Montreal.

The Jewish Love Affair With Chocolate

To me, Valentine’s Day is best celebrated as a single person. As part of a couple, you have expectations; even if you dismiss Valentine’s Day as just another hype-driven exercise in consumerism and anxiety, you still want your partner to buy you flowers. Or make dinner reservations, and profess his love in some new, astounding way, ideally aided by chocolate.

Without a partner, you’re relieved from all these hopes. And the dashing of them. And the self-judgment for getting roped in once again by the romantic-industrial complex.

Since getting divorced, Valentine’s Day has become my favorite holiday. Being single gave me space to think about all the other kinds of love in my life — and the other people who could use a show of caring. I now see Valentine’s Day as a time to celebrate love broadly. For the past four years, my son and I have baked cookies for people without partners, for overwhelmed mothers, for friends and colleagues. I like this holiday as a single person because the minute you stop fretting about whether you’re adequately cherished, you can start focusing on making sure others feel the love.

But whether I’m single or in a relationship, one thing never changes: my abiding ardor for chocolate. In little boxes. Or a bar. Preferably dark. Perhaps with sea salt. The chocolate part of Valentine’s Day, it turns out, also has a significant Jewish history.

We’re all familiar with culturally Jewish uses of chocolate: the chocolate egg cream, the chocolate babka, the chocolate rugelach, the chocolate gelt. (Elite chocolate gelt is so integrated into our culture that you can do a calorie search on myfitnesspal.com. One bag = 80 calories.) But cacao and chocolate have also played an important role in the economic and philanthropic lives of the Jewish people, it turns out.

“Chocolate provided business and trade opportunities to refugees in their new locations. Their success enabled them to support synagogues and philanthropic endeavors in their communities,” said Rabbi Deborah Prinz, author of “On the Chocolate Trail: A Delicious Adventure Connecting Jews, Religions, History, Travel, Rituals and Recipes to the Magic of Cacao.” Her book is also the basis of an exhibition currently on view at the Bernard Museum of Temple Emanu-El in Manhattan.

The book and exhibition are filled with tales of New World Jewish community leaders who rose to prominence in part through chocolate. Tracing the Jewish Diaspora through the trading of chocolate also gives an upbeat view of our shared past, as Prinz told the crowd gathered on the opening night of the book’s museum incarnation. “While some historians of Jewish life identify history of the Jewish people from a lachrymose view — from a focus on tragedy and sadness — these are stories of resilience and of opportunity.”

Aaron Lopez, for example, was an 18th-century immigrant to the Colonies from Portugal. He established himself as an importer of cacao beans and a retailer of chocolate, among other things, in Newport, R.I., soon becoming one of the city’s wealthiest men. He helped found the city’s first synagogue and led the way in charitable giving. One item included in food donations? Balls of hard chocolate that were ground into a beverage at the time.

Prinz describes her own relationship with chocolate as constant and devoted. “I eat chocolates almost every day. I eat it religiously,”  she said.

Her book also looks at the ritual role of chocolate across religions, and she traveled with her husband to places where chocolate was incorporated into spiritual practices by Jews, Catholics, Quakers and Mayans. “I had no idea that there were so many ritual uses of chocolate, so many historic connections,” she said.

“Yes, separate milk from meat…But do not separate Jews from chocolate.” — A.J. Jacobs

For most of its history, chocolate was consumed as a drink, and Prinz found stories of Jews who left Portugal and Spain for New Spain in the 16th and 17th centuries, and adopted some of the indigenous practices around grinding cacao and drinking chocolate.

“This got worked into Jewish ritual practice, such as using drinking chocolate for Kiddush Friday nights instead of wine,” Prinz said. “They were also drinking chocolate before the fast of Yom Kippur and at the break-fast, and they used the balls for meals of consolation for mourners. The food given to mourners is supposed to be round, and they’d include chocolate balls.”

Prinz found some evidence, while traveling through Belgium, that the giving of chocolate gelt might stem from a ritual associated with the Protestant Festival of St. Nicholas.

As far as Valentine’s Day specifically? Prinz sees the summer holiday of Tu b’Av, the 15th Day of Av, as the closest Jewish equivalent. Tu b’Av is an ancient full-moon holiday that was a matchmaking day for unmarried women and has been somewhat revived as a Jewish Valentine’s Day, particularly in Israel.

Whether celebrated in February or midsummer, Prinz encourages people to find more lasting ways to show caring and affection.

“Is the best way to express love by sending flowers and — I shouldn’t say this — chocolate? Or going out on a night when there are no reservations to be had?” the rabbi said. “Perhaps we can express our love for others in ways that are akin to Jewish life, like giving tzedakah and working on behalf of Jewish organizations.”

Neither of which, in my mind, conflicts with decorating cookies or eating clearance-rack boxes of chocolates on Feb. 15.

Or, to quote writer A.J. Jacobs, commenting on Prinz’s book, “Yes, separate milk from meat. And wool from linen. But do not separate Jews from chocolate. They shall be yoked together for all time.”


Wendy Paris is the author of “Splitopia: Dispatches From Today’s Good Divorce” and the co-author, with Jane Mosbacher Morris, of “Buy the Change You Want to See: Harnessing Our Purchasing Power for Good.”

Pew, Pew, Pew

Jews have trouble with good news. That’s why Jewish grandmothers taught us the spitting sounds “poo, poo, poo” to ward off the evil eye anytime something good happens.

So much good stuff has happened to Jews in America that we might as well say poo, poo, poo all day long. This is the modern Jewish paradox: We suffered for centuries with really bad news, but now that we have really good news, we’re afraid to embrace it too tightly, lest we lose it.

The poo-poo-poo mindset expresses itself in different ways, sometimes by minimizing good news (“Joey got into Harvard — poo, poo, poo”), other times by maximizing bad news (“Is it true a neo-Nazi was stalking our shul?”).

There’s something endearing about a people who are always watching their backs. Jews can never trust too much, get too comfortable or too happy. That’s what 2,000 years of persecution buys you: We never know when some evil force will come and take all this good stuff away.

This mindset also keeps us sharp. Let’s face it, when you see threats around every corner, you’re less likely to get ambushed by reality.

The Jewish community is especially good at seeing threats around every corner. Surveys from the Pew Center have become the evidence par excellence. If you want bad news about “the new generation,” Pew will deliver. No doubt this is helpful for fundraising: If Pew says young Jews are assimilating at an alarming rate, what better set-up for philanthropists worried about the future of their people?

In short, bad news is good for the Jews. It keeps away the evil eye, keeps nonprofits in business and enlivens conversations. Poo, poo, poo.

So much good stuff has happened to Jews in America that we might as well say poo, poo, poo all day long.

This is even more true in journalism. Bad news is our lifeblood. I will confess: I was electrified when I heard last week that a man with neo-Nazi connections was suspected in the Orange County slaying of a gay Jew, Blaze Bernstein. I thought of finding an enterprising reporter to infiltrate and expose the neo-Nazi group and create a national story. I had no time for sadness. I was just thinking of the story.

I go out of my way to include some bad news in every issue of the Journal. Last week, we were able to provide two good pieces of bad news: a mezuzah that was removed from the doorpost of an office at UCLA, and a binational, Jewish same-sex couple who were suing the U.S. over parental rights. This week, all we have is the neo-Nazi story.

I imagine that the simplest way to provide bad news every week would be to have regular columns quoting Pew studies. One of the more fascinating Pew findings is the growing divide between American Jews and Israeli Jews. In surveying Jewish adults in both places, Pew found sharp differences. For example, while 39 percent of Israeli Jews quoted “economic problems” as the most important long-term problem facing Israel, only 1 percent of American Jews did. This may help explain the greater obsession with the peace process among American Jews — it’s the luxury of not living in Israel and facing everyday problems.

In terms of Jewish identity, there’s more bad news: 53 percent of American Jews identify as Reform or Conservative, compared with only 5 percent of Israeli Jews. No wonder so many divisive religious issues have flared up in recent years, among them the egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall. The two camps are living in different realities.

The Jewish community is especially good at seeing threats around every corner. Surveys from the Pew Center have become the evidence par excellence.

If you bring a bad-news mentality to such findings, you will use them to nourish the crisis narrative of Jewish communal life. We’re all familiar with this narrative. It’s a lot more energizing to talk about a crisis than to do a calm analysis that will help us better understand the issues.

This, then, is the dilemma: How do we handle bad news without letting it drown us and define us? If bad news is the surest way to raise funds or get media attention, how do we keep it in its proper place?

It’s clear that bad news gives us a sense of purpose, a direction to improve the world. But if we focus so much on the bad that we lose our sense of joy, what good is living? If we become so good at complaining that we lose the ability to create and imagine, what kind of future is that?

This past Saturday night, I bumped into a group of French Sephardic Jews at Shiloh’s restaurant. I knew many of them. They all spoke French. I could tell they were having a really good time. They had come out of a Torah class given by a rabbi from Paris. It seemed as if all they talked about was good news, as if they were looking for good news, or at least things to laugh about.

I should have said poo, poo, poo.

Fewer Tribe Members Get Oscar Nods

Photo from Flickr.

In a normal year, a rundown on Academy Award nominations is cause for Jewish celebrations and self-congratulations. However, 2018 is not one of those years.

Even the iconic Steven Spielberg couldn’t break the jinx. While his widely praised “The Post,” a paean to journalistic courage, got a best picture nod, Hollywood’s most admired Jewish name was shut out of the best director list.

Another apparent shoo-in, actor James Franco, who just won a Golden Globe for his turn in “The Disaster Artist,” went missing on the Oscars’ best actor nomination list. It is a fair assumption that a rash of current reports on Franco’s sexual misbehaviors contributed to the omission.

To add to the disappointments, “Foxtrot,” Israel’s wrenching entry in the best foreign-language film category, was eliminated after earlier making the shortlist of nine nominees. In the same category, Germany’s “In the Fade,” which focused on the rise of neo-Nazism, was also eliminated.

However, not to paint an entirely dark picture, there were some eminent Jewish names on the final nomination list. Foremost is the film “Call Me By Your Name,” which probes the love affair of two young Jewish men in the 1980s, which came up with four nominations for Jewish talent. These included lead actor Timothee Chalamet, best picture, adopted screenplay and best original song (“Mystery of Love.”)

Other members of the tribe also made it to the finals — the glamorous Academy Award ceremony in Hollywood on March 4. Among them are Britain’s Daniel Day-Lewis for his role as a noted dressmaker in “Phantom Thread.” Day-Lewis, a three-time best actor winner, has announced his retirement from stage and screen.

Also nominated were veteran composer Hans Zimmer for his numerous film scores, including “Dunkirk.”

Another composer, Benj Pasek, who wrote the lyrics for last year’s hit “La La Land,” is up this time for best original song, “This Is Me,” from the musical “The Greatest Showman.”

Well, there is always next year.

JTA contributed to this report.

Mrs. Maisel and the Jewish Revolution

Screenshot from Twitter.

I was delighted when “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” won the Golden Globe for best television series — but not for the reason you think. “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” is as Jewy as it gets. It is witty and humorous and deserves its award. But more than its laughs and giggles, Hollywood — and the rest of us — really need the very serious and timely message hidden in this overtly Jewish show.

We are witnessing a massive cultural shift in Hollywood and Western culture. For decades, abusive behavior and mistreatment, especially toward women, went unchecked. As the most powerful people in Hollywood summarily announced at the Golden Globes, “Time’s up.” The revolution is well underway.

The trouble with revolutions, though, is the extremist nature of revolutionaries. People who upheave society are not just rebels, they are zealots. Average people don’t take on city hall. Hollywood and Western culture desperately needed drastic change, and it took the strength, courage and near-recklessness of incredibly brave revolutionaries to inspire this transformation.

As is often the case with revolutions, initially the #metoo movement brought everyone together. But the subsequent hedging and handwringing by more moderate voices was inevitable. The pushback began. It was then followed by the pushback to the pushback as people quickly retreated from the harmonious center to their partisan corners.

“Mrs. Maisel” embodies the Jewish secret to resolving this vicious cycle.

In the show, 20-somethings Miriam and Joel Maisel are living out their scripted lives along with their two children in 1950s New York City. Everything changes when Joel confesses to an affair and Miriam, or Midge, as her friends call her, kicks him out. As per “the script,” Midge’s parents expect a quick reconciliation, but when Joel apologizes and begs for a second chance, Midge goes off-script and says no. Viva la revolución!

The trouble with revolutions, though, is the extremist nature of revolutionaries.

Midge’s rebellion leads her on a winding road to a bright future as a trailblazing female comic and a strong, powerful woman. The most impressive part of Midge’s personal cultural revolution is that her path is entirely original, yet she manages to include multiple parts of her previous, scripted life in her new life. In other words, Midge does not innovate at the expense of her entire past. She rejects all that is bad in the script and embraces all that is good. Her parents, her family, her fashion, her etiquette, her femininity, her Judaism and her sentimentality are all brought along into Midge’s journey.

In the season’s final scene (mild spoiler alert), Midge confirms her identity is independent from her past but also rooted in that same past when she creates her stage name: Mrs. Maisel. Despite the fact that she is divorcing Mr. Maisel, and despite the fact that she is an independent woman, Midge appropriates the name she was given and turns it into the name she chose.

In some ways, this frames Midge as a moderate revolutionary — a feminist hero toppling society’s conventions, gently. Midge’s foil in the show is her manager and adviser, Susie Myerson. She is the other kind of revolutionary. Susie is completely cut off from her family, she dresses and acts androgynously, and she has enough chips on her shoulder for herself and for Midge. There’s nothing gentle about Susie.

Some may think that a gentle revolutionary is weaker than a scorched-earth revolutionary. But the historic Jewish cultural revolutions of deity, ritual, philosophy, literacy and justice were not scorched-earth revolutions. We validated and valued the past while molding the present to create a better future. We have adapted and adopted from every culture we have visited on our 2,000-year Diaspora journey. We have created Judaisms that are unique to their time and place, interpretations specific to different academic spirits, and rituals that connect us to our surroundings. We are the gentle revolutionaries.

“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” is the story of Jewish revolutions retold for a postmodern world. To inspire Hollywood’s cultural revolution, we needed scorched-earth revolutionaries. Now, to make Hollywood’s cultural revolution stick, we need gentle revolutionaries.


Eli Fink is a rabbi, writer and managing supervisor at the Jewish Journal.

Jews and Muslims Seek Relief in Laughter

Left to right, Sami Sutker, Ahamed Weinberg, Danielle Soto​, Alex Powers

At a recent stand-up comedy show at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, headliner Ahamed Weinberg welcomed the crowd with “Salaam aleikum.” About half of the audience responded “Aleikum salaam,” prompting Weinberg to remark: “Everyone who didn’t answer, get out. This is a Muslim temple now.”

The crowd laughed. Weinberg then explained that his mother, born Irish Catholic, and his father, born Jewish, both became Muslim. They met as “the only white people in the mosque,” he said. “They locked eyes and said, ‘Let’s make the weirdest kid possible, whose only career option is stand-up comedy.’ ”

The Jan. 4 show, titled “Night of Too Many Stars and Crescents,” featured Jewish and Muslim comics. It was organized by YoPro, the young professionals group at Temple Emanuel. Two of the comics were Jewish and female, two were Muslim and male. All were aware that they were performing in the chapel, in front of an ark holding Torah scrolls.

“Historically, Muslims and Jews have not always been BFFs [best friends forever],” said YoPro member Danielle Soto, who produced the event that attracted an audience of Muslims and Jews of varying ages. “I wanted a comedy event that lets our community know that if you’re down to laugh, eat, drink, make friends and be open to other cultures, YoPro’s door is wide open to you.”

Refreshments included wine and nonalcoholic drinks for the comfort of Muslims and other teetotalers.

“I feel like Muslims are the new Jews in comedy,” said Rabbi Sarah Bassin, Temple Emanuel’s associate rabbi. “They are drawing on the experience of being minorities to hold up a mirror to our culture at large. There’s something really meaningful about being able to share that perspective with another religious group that gets it.”

Comedian Atif Myers talked about being “a s—-y Muslim” for loving pepperoni pizza. He confessed that he’s on a Jewish dating app, JSwipe, as a Muslim. “How else are we supposed to get Mideast peace, guys?” he asked.

During her set, comedian Alex Powers — whose biological father was a Sephardic Jew but whose adoptive parents were Catholic — displayed her tattoos: a Star of David and a crescent moon on her fingers and a hermit crab on her hand. After a raunchy bit, she explained, unapologetically, “I’ve got a tattoo of a bottom feeder. This never was going to be kosher.”

When he took the stage, Weinberg — who proclaimed himself “the only Muslim who went on Birthright” — turned around and touched the ark. Recoiling, he made a sizzle noise and said “Ouch!”

Jewish comedian Sami Sutker said in her performance that she was uncomfortable being at a temple. “I can feel my bat mitzvah coming back all over again,” she said, mentioning the mustachioed and mulleted cantor who helped her prepare. “Maybe this explains how my Judaism fell apart.”

“I feel like Muslims are the new Jews in comedy.” — Rabbi Sarah Bassin

Bassin said the goal of YoPro and Temple Emanuel “is to build community that reflects our values of inclusion and openness. We’re particularly excited for this comedy event to do some good as we make people laugh.”

Part of that “good” is Temple Emanuel’s participation in “The Big Fill,” a campaign involving several Los Angeles synagogues in collecting clothing, medical supplies and other essential items for the Save the Syrian Children organization’s relief efforts. A table in the back of the room at the comedy show was designated for donations of new and used clothing.

Soto added that she and her friends at YoPro “genuinely care about bettering our community and beyond.”

“I consider having the ability to make people laugh a gift,” Soto said. “Giving back to the community through organizing shows is my way of showing gratitude for this gift.”

SACRED PROTECTORS: Crossing Boundaries of Time and Faith, These Muslims Safeguard Morocco’s Holy Jewish Sites

Muslim caretaker opening the gate of Jewish cemetery of Tahanaout, High Atlas Mountains, where the shrines of Rabbi Yacoub Abu Darham and Sliman Aviav are located. Photo by Aomar Boum

It’s a hot summer day when I arrive at Khmis Arazan, a small rural town in southern Morocco, about 170 miles south of Marrakesh. It’s Thursday, market day, and a group of local children spots me. Before I say a word, they know where I’m headed. There’s only one reason why outsiders find their way to this remote community: to visit the synagogue.

It has been four decades since the last of the Jews left Khmis Arazan, whose 8,000-some residents are nearly all Muslims. But it’s clear from the well-trodden path that more than a few tourists have made their way down these unpaved streets to the now crumbling Jewish neighborhood.

Arriving at the synagogue — an adobe structure dating from the late 19th century and recently renovated — I am greeted by Hmad Harim, a Muslim man in his late 60s who has spent much of his life working as caretaker for this relic of Morocco’s rich Jewish past.

More than 130 Jews lived in the town as recently as the 1930s, and Harim has vivid memories of the Jewish neighbors in his childhood, even recalling many of their family names.

“Every Friday, I used to hear the sounds of their prayers — it was as normal as our Friday prayers for us [Muslims],” he told me. “I will never forget those times.”

Harim isn’t unique. In my travels throughout my native Morocco, I have met people like him again and again — Muslims who have taken it upon themselves to protect and maintain the places that were holy to their country’s all-but-vanished Jewish community.

“I think of this as a moment of consolation in the wave of hatred that reigns in today’s world.” — Simone Bitton

I am a Muslim-born historical anthropologist specializing in studying the Jews of North Africa. Years ago, I noticed that whenever I would visit a Jewish cemetery in Morocco, I would notice a sign near the entrance listing the phone number of the caretaker. If the cemetery lacked a wall or fence, sometimes the number was posted on a rock by the roadside. Every time I called one of the numbers, the person who answered was a Muslim, often someone who had inherited the task from a parent or even a grandparent.

The work of these dedicated guardians has become all the more remarkable in an era in which U.S. Jews have seen their cemeteries desecrated in suburban St. Louis and Philadelphia, and vandals have repeatedly defaced synagogues with swastikas and anti-Semitic graffiti in the U.S. and Europe.

While Morocco also has experienced its own occasional vandalism incidents at Jewish sites over the years, such desecration is relatively rare, in large part thanks to the Muslims who have taken on the protection of Jewish sites as a sacred responsibility.

In the coastal city of El Jadida, I met Abbas, who has served as guardian of the cemetery since the 1950s. In Ighil N’Ogho, a village south of Marrakesh, a woman named Zoubeida holds the keys to the recently restored synagogue. In Essaouira, Malika Idarouz and her son guard two Jewish cemeteries and the Synagogue of Haim Pinto, named for the prominent Moroccan rabbi of the 18th and 19th centuries.

When I met Malika in the summer of 2017, she assured me that “no matter what goes on in the world,” Muslims will always be there to care for Morocco’s Jewish cemeteries, places she called “a reminder of the history of Jewish-Muslim relations.”

The Moroccan Jewish community is one of the oldest in the Arab world. Before the early 1950s, some 240,000 Jews lived in Morocco, but in the three decades that followed, nearly the entire Jewish population emigrated, with most going to Israel, but also to Canada, France and South America. Now, fewer than 3,000 Jews remain.

Zoubeida, caretaker of the Synagogue of Ighil N’Ogho. Photo by Aaron El Kiam

Historically, Morocco’s Jews lived under the protection of the country’s sultans and kings. Outside the sultans’ rule, tribal lords ensured their security and protection. Linguistically and culturally, Jews mostly shared customs with Morocco’s Muslims. And they worked in a variety of occupations, including as artisans, peddlers and merchants.

Although Jews once paid a special tax in exchange for physical protection, since Morocco gained independence in 1956, Jews have been considered citizens with full rights.

What remains of Morocco’s Jewish community is mostly centered in a few cities: Casablanca, Rabat, Marrakesh and Fes. While Casablanca has Jewish schools, a few synagogues that hold services and, of course, a Chabad emissary, the Jewish population is aging, and most younger Jews tend to immigrate to Europe.

Despite the dwindling Jewish population, Moroccans are determined to preserve the community’s sacred places. That effort was led in part by the Foundation of the Judeo-Moroccan Cultural Heritage, established in 1995 to safeguard both the community’s “material” heritage — its synagogues, cemeteries and shrines — and its more intangible elements, such as literary works, food and music. Its work has resulted in the restoration of more than five synagogues as well as maintaining a Jewish museum in Casablanca.

But preserving Morocco’s Jewish relics isn’t a uniquely Jewish effort. In 2011, Morocco took the unusual step of changing its national constitution to acknowledge that the country has been “nourished and enriched” by “Hebraic influences.”

“In Morocco, you do not need to teach people that they should respect the dignity of the dead,  Jewish or Muslim.” — Brahim

And in 2010, Morocco’s King Mohammed VI launched an initiative to preserve Jewish cemeteries. Through that program, overseen by Serge Berdugo, the head of the national council of Jewish communities, the country preserved more than 167 cemeteries and some 12,600 individual graves. The project included erecting protective fences, clearing grounds, washing and restoring gravestones, and installing new gates and doors. (The effort is documented in a 2015 book, “Rehabilitation of the Jewish Cemeteries of Morocco: The Houses of Life,” published by the Council of Jewish Communities of Morocco.)

While Jewish community leaders oversee the efforts and the sites, it is the Muslim caretakers — often working for no salary — whose work has made it a reality. Many of these people see the cemeteries as living archives, memorials to an important part of their country’s history, an element that an ever-smaller portion of Moroccans remember.

“In Morocco, you do not need to teach people that they should respect the dignity of the dead — Jewish or Muslim,” said Brahim, the owner of the Jewish museum in Akka when I interviewed him several years ago. “It’s part of our culture.”

The pilgrimage trend isn’t likely to slow down, thanks to efforts by the government.

Simone Bitton, a Moroccan-born filmmaker who now lives in France, has spent more than a year working on a documentary with the working title “Ziyara” (Arabic for “pilgrimage”) about the Muslims who guard Jewish cemeteries. She said she became fascinated by these men and women, who often live in cemetery compounds and spend their days watching over Jewish graves, some centuries old.

“It is a very moving experience for me as a Jew,” she said. “These are ordinary, illiterate people who made an effort to learn Hebrew script — and they are familiar with Jewish tradition.”

For example, she said, caretakers often ask her whether she is a Kohen, because they know Jewish law forbids Jews with that designation from being in close proximity to graves. And cemetery guards often ask her to wash her hands before leaving the cemetery, in accordance with Jewish tradition. Many guards have learned such customs as well as Jewish prayers or phrases either from their childhoods or from stories passed on by parents or grandparents, Bitton said.

Moved as she is, Bitton also acknowledged that many of the guards have financial incentives for their work. They rely on tips from visitors and other cemetery-related income to support themselves and their families.

Still, she said, she finds the guards’ devotion inspiring. “I am not naïve,” Bitton said, “but I do think of this as a moment of consolation in the wave of hatred that reigns in today’s world.”

While that may be, there are other incentives for the preservation efforts, not only for the caretakers but for the country. In recent years, many Jews with ancestry in Morocco have traveled to the country to seek out their roots, visiting their ancestral hometowns and searching for the graves of grandparents or great-grandparents. Jews travel to the country for hilulot, visits to shrines marking the tombs of prominent rabbis and other holy figures.

The pilgrimage trend isn’t likely to slow down, thanks to efforts by the government. In February 2013, at the dedication of a newly restored synagogue in Fes, the king called for the restoration of other major Jewish places of worship. That led to the restoration of Casablanca’s Ettedgui Synagogue, completed in 2016. Another landmark, the Simon Attias Synagogue in the city of Essaouira — dating back to 1882 — is currently under renovation. And André Azoulay, a prominent Jewish leader who is an adviser to the king, has plans to open a museum and research center at the Simon Attias Synagogue in 2018 focused on Judaism and Islam.

Azoulay also has been involved in efforts to organize music festivals in towns near the shrines of historical Jewish figures, events partly aimed at attracting Jewish tourists to the country.

Jardih Rhimou in front of images of Meknes holy Jewish saints of the Toledano Family.

Those who might not be able to make the trip to Morocco have another way to seek out the final resting places of their ancestors: in cyberspace. That effort is led by Georges Sebat, who was born in Morocco and lived in Montreal before settling back in Casablanca in 1993. Sebat has documented several Moroccan cities’ Jewish cemeteries on websites such as cimetierejuifcasablanca.com and communautejuiveagadir.com, where users can find photographs of their ancestors’ tombs.

Sebat explained that the project stemmed in part from his interest in a massive 1960 earthquake that that killed as many as 15,000 people in his hometown of Agadir. Passionate about computers and technology, he developed a website in memory of the city’s entire Jewish community. That included making photos of the tombs available on a website. “For the family members outside of Morocco who wished to ‘visit’ the graves of loved ones, it was, of course, much appreciated,” Sebat said.

Sebat received significant assistance from a man named Si Ali, the Muslim caretaker of the Agadir Jewish cemetery, who was himself a survivor of the earthquake.

“He had a complete devotion to this place,” Sebat said. “It was his work, and he was the encyclopedia and the memory of the cemetery until his death.”

Now it is Ali’s son, Mohamed, who does that work, caring for the graves of a community he never knew with dedication and kindness. Like so many other caretakers I have met in my travels, he is carrying on a legacy of respect and coexistence that crosses barriers of religion, nationality, memory and time.

As Bitton, the filmmaker, put it, “I want to know what is left of the Jew in the imagination of these Moroccan Muslims.”

I asked Harim — the Muslim caretaker in the town where the kids led me to the synagogue — what would possibly motivate a Muslim to devote his life to this kind of work. He didn’t hesitate to offer an answer. “The synagogue and the cemetery are a trust,” he said. “Our religious consciousness and moral obligation demand that we keep them safe. We did it when they were among us, and we knew that their owners would come one day to reclaim these places. I’m glad I did it.”


Aomar Boum is associate professor and vice chair of undergraduate studies in the anthropology of department at UCLA.

A Hunger for Memory

Meme Suissa, bottom left, with her parents and siblings at a pilgrimage in Morocco, circa 1934.

Why would my mother serve an Arab kid before serving her own hungry children? I was about 6 years old, and my family was on one of those pilgrimages to visit the gravesite of a Jewish holy man on the anniversary of his death. Along with hundreds of other Moroccan Jews, we would camp out for a few days in some type of wilderness location, not far from the gravesite. For kids, it was a chance to ride on donkeys, play a little soccer and have some “camping fun.” For the grown-ups, it was a chance to pray and bask in holiness and blessings.

As my father was pitching the tent and we got settled in, I recall my mother cutting up slices of a megina, a type of omelet pie, to feed her four hungry kids. But before serving the first slice, she noticed a young Arab boy sitting off to the side, his eyes fixated on the pie. Quietly, she took the first slice and brought it to him, and then came back to serve us. She didn’t say a word about it — no “teachable moment” about caring for the stranger, etc. — and neither did anyone else. It was one of those innocuous moments that has lingered silently in my memory for decades, not dramatic enough to ever discuss, but not routine enough to ever forget.

Years later, when my Jewish journey triggered the memory of that moment, I brought it up to my mother. She had no recollection. Evidently, she had just followed her natural order of things — she felt the hunger of a kid, and she gave him some food.

It is a different type of hunger — a hunger for memory — that has triggered our cover story this week by my friend Aomar Boum, assistant professor of anthropology at UCLA. Aomar is a practicing Muslim who was born and raised in the southern province of Tata, Morocco. From what I’ve been told, my ancestors were also from the south of Morocco, and were called the “people of the Sous” (hence my last name).

Aomar and I share more than geography in common. We both love Moroccan culture. We both love holiness. And we both love memory.

Aomar’s story brings these three loves together. It’s the story of Muslims who for centuries have cared for the Jewish holy sites throughout Morocco. At our Shabbat table last Friday night, he elaborated on this unique attachment between Muslims and holy Jewish sites. But as he has written in the past, this is only one chapter in a larger, more complicated story.

By the late 1980s, about 240,000 Jews had emigrated from Morocco, many to Israel (we moved to Canada). Today, fewer than 3,000 Jews remain. In his book, “Memories of Absence,” Aomar explores how the Jewish narrative in Moroccan history has largely been suppressed. A good part of his scholarship is devoted to reviving that narrative.

He writes: “Called ‘people of the book’ (dhimmi) by Muslims, the majority of Jews lived under the protection of the Moroccan king.

My mother recalls the unique coziness of growing up in a Jewish neighborhood in a Muslim country… and the holiness of Jewish gravesites that perfumed the Moroccan air.

“The Jews had ambivalent relations with their Muslim neighbors. Although Jewish communities resembled Muslim ones in language and custom, Jews faced occupational and social restrictions, such as in farming, and were mainly artisans, peddlers, and merchants.

“Rabbis and wealthy leaders who enjoyed special ties with Muslim authorities administered the Jewish community’s internal social, legal, and religious affairs. Around 1862, the Alliance Israélite Universelle (AIU) built schools in the coastal cities and later in the hinterland, enabling many Jews to integrate into the wider world beyond Morocco.

“Around the same time, however, political Zionism began to make inroads among the Jews of Morocco, and a century later, in 1956 after Moroccan independence, Jews were affected by the new government’s Arab-Islamic policies and a widely celebrated national Arabization program. Zionist movements began to encourage Jews to move to Israel, and many people of Jewish descent left.”

In this story of gradual physical absence, pretty much all we have left is memory.

“Moroccans are left with the memories of a Jewish life that once existed,” he writes. “The great-grandparent and grandparent generations continue to discuss nostalgically the richness of Jewish-Muslim life in the past; the younger generation demonstrates narrow and misinformed perspectives of Jews.”

My mother belongs to the grandparent generation, from the Jewish side. She may not recall an anecdote of serving an omelet slice to an Arab boy, but she recalls a lot more. She recalls the unique coziness of growing up in a Jewish neighborhood in a Muslim country, the textures of an Arab culture that infiltrated Jewish life through food, music and language and, maybe above all, the holiness of Jewish gravesites that perfumed the Moroccan air.

It’s true that memory can play tricks on us — that we have a tendency to exaggerate the past, whether in a positive or negative light. It’s also true that we hunger for memories that can nourish our present.

Maybe I’m blessed that the trauma of the Holocaust did not contaminate my childhood memories, as it did for many of my Ashkenazi friends. I’m left with a nostalgia for a past I barely knew but still remember, a past that I now see through the lens of others who tell me story after story of what life was like for the Jews of Morocco.

As my own Jewish journey has progressed, I have found myself constantly looking back to my Moroccan heritage for some kind of spiritual nourishment. I want to learn more about my ancestors, my bubbes and zaydes, and I want to hand down these things to my own children.

I especially love that it’s a Muslim friend who is helping me on this journey, just like my mother helped that Muslim kid.

When Jews Defend “Merry Christmas”

Photo from Pixabay.

Every December, for many Jews, constantly hearing “Merry Christmas” is an uncomfortable reminder of our outsider status in American society – that no matter how integrated we are, in some ways we’re still excluded. Hurtful childhood memories of feeling left out of holiday fun never seem to go away.

So for some of us, the more inclusive “Happy Holidays” reaffirms that Chanukah (and by extension Passover and Rosh Hashanah) are also fully American expressions of religious faith. As such, we encourage our offices to turn Christmas parties into holiday parties, and our employees to avoid “Merry Christmas” when interacting with customers.

Now, for several years, conservative Christians (led by Fox News) have complained of an imaginary “War on Christmas” – aggressive secularists oppressing Christians by watering down the season with generic greetings and pareve department store sales.

Many Jews, then, are caught in the middle, wanting equal inclusion in the joyous holiday season without sounding like soldiers in the War on Christmas.

Certainly, on an interpersonal level it makes no sense to pick fights with people whose greetings are heartfelt and unaware. Some Jews have well-honed retorts like “Guess again!” or even “Happy Chanukah.” Others just smile and say thank you, or offer a Merry Christmas in return.

But Christians saying Merry Christmas to Jews (or to everyone) is problematic.

I don’t go around telling everybody “Happy Birthday” on October 9th, and I don’t tell my British friends “Happy Independence Day” on July 4th. If a lesbian told all her office colleagues “Happy Pride” on the day of the parade, it might seem a little aggressive. And here in Israel, I would be a real jerk telling Arabs the traditional greetings “have an easy fast” on Yom Kippur or “have a kosher and happy holiday” on Passover.

We wish people well for their holidays, not ours. It’s basic courtesy.

Indeed, for many gentiles, learning how their Merry Christmas-es are sometimes perceived by friends and neighbors is enough to make them switch to Happy Holidays-es. They may be surprised, confused, or even defensive, but not hostile.

Sometimes hostility comes only from other Jews for whom the season’s greetings are touchy in the other direction. They get aggressive toward other members of the Jewish community who don’t welcome “Merry Christmas.”

The greeting “doesn’t bother” them at all, they insist – an entirely reasonable stance, particularly regarding day-to-day interactions with Christians who celebrate the holiday. But when their defense of Christmas means denouncing fellow Jews who want to keep December public school parties generic, for example, they’re crossing a line.

It doesn’t matter why so many American Jews are made uncomfortable by Merry Christmas – that’s how they genuinely feel. And telling someone to change their feelings (as opposed to their minds) is rarely successful. It is incontrovertible that hundreds of thousands of American Jews prefer Happy Holidays, and personal accounts that implicitly or explicitly shame them for hypersensitivity are unkind.

Interestingly, that kind of chastisement seems to come from the right as often as it comes from the left, with Orthodox and Reform, conservative and liberal American Jews sharing testimonials of enjoying the songs and the lights. That’s fine, but not everyone does. (I enjoy hearing Christmas music at the grocery store, but less so when, inevitably, I start singing along.) One person’s comfort with a practice doesn’t make it illegitimate for others to object.

In what other matters of communal disagreement does one group of Jews tell another what to feel, as opposed to what to think or do? The Kotel? Intermarriage? Support for Israel? Who is a Jew?

The same Jews who holiday-shame their co-religionists wouldn’t dream of telling an African-American she’s wrong for objecting to Confederate statues, or demanding transgender people stick with their biological pronouns.

This subject is particularly touchy because a common trope in Christmas mythology – expressed in countless TV specials and stage productions – involves bringing “the Christmas spirit” to people who don’t have it. And nobody wants to be a Scrooge or a Grinch.

Look, Jews who enjoy the Christmas season should do so. But scolding those who don’t is disrespectful – and not very Christmas-y, to boot. (Look over the comments on this essay on Facebook and elsewhere and you’ll see what I’m talking about.)

Personally, I rarely encounter this problem, because I spend the season in virtually Christmas-free zones: the British Jewish learning extravaganza Limmud and my home in Israel. Please don’t tell me I’m wrong to feel less comfortable when I’m in the United States during the month after Thanksgiving. When it comes to coping with the complications of being an American Jew, nobody’s feelings are wrong.


David Benkof is a frequent contributor to the Jewish Journal. Follow him on Twitter (@DavidBenkof) or Facebook, or E-mail him at DavidBenkof@gmail.com.

L.A.’s Iranian Jews Call for Boycott of Iranian Muslim Singer’s Concert over Anti-Semitic Lyrics

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Local Jewish activists and community groups are calling for a boycott of a Dec. 16 concert by the popular Iranian Muslim musician and singer, Mohsen Yeganeh, who they accuse of using anti-Semitic and anti-Israel lyrics in a song.

“Our community is now recognizing that in this great country, while bigots are free to express bigotry, we are also free to shout down their hate, shame them, and hurt them in their pocketbooks,” said Sam Yebri, president of 30 Years After, a local Iranian Jewish nonprofit group.

Others who have publicly opposed the upcoming concert at downtown L.A.’s Microsoft Theatre include Sinai Temple, Nessah Synagogue and the Hebrew Discovery Center (HDC), a Jewish Iranian organization based in Reseda that created an online petition demanding that the concert be cancelled which has generated more than 4,000 signatures.

“As Jews living in Iran for hundreds of years, we did not have a voice or the right to speak out when anyone in the country spoke bad about us,” HDC’s Rabbi Netanel Louie said. “Now that we have a voice and a right in this country, we must speak out and make people aware of this hate generate against our people”.

One controversy stems from the Farsi language lyrics in Yeganeh’s song “Flock of Vultures,” which in English states, according to one translation, “Two triangles they put on top of each other, then they put a new name on the town, two triangles mean fear and prison, they are the enemies of smiling children.”

Local Iranian Jewish activists argue that the reference to the two triangles refers to the Star of David and that the vultures of the songs title refers to Jews. Another lyric — “just pray that our Friday night man can get back our land” — is believed to be a reference to the Iranian regime’s imams, who during Friday night prayers in Iran regularly call for Israel’s destruction and for Iran to recapture Israeli lands for Muslims.

“We (Iranian Jews) say it in loud and clear terms that we will not stand for attacks to our dignity and to the Jewish State based on hatred and lies, “ said George Haroonian, a local Iranian Jewish activist and former board member of the Iranian Nessah Synagogue in Beverly Hills. “We know and understand Iranian culture and the political scene. Calling Israel and Jews a flock of vultures is pure and simple anti-Semitism!”

Iranian Jewish community members said they were also very upset with an online Farsi language video created by Aparat.com, an Iranian regime state-sponsored news website, that features Yeganeh’s song playing over a series of graphic images of dead or injured Palestinian children, anti-Semitic cartoons and more.

Various Anti-Defamation League local and national offices recently released statements on Twitter condemning the video’s content and Yeganeh’s song. Likewise the “Creative Community For Peace” an entertainment industry organization based in New York that fights cultural boycotts of Israel also released a statement on social media platforms condemning Yeganeh’s upcoming L.A. performance because of his anti-Israel song.

In a letter posted on Facebook, Sinai Temple wrote,  “Yeganeh is anti-Semitic in his lyrics, as well as his behavior/actions. An obscene music video … depicts Israel as a child-killing nation, flashing graphic images of maimed and dead children. In the video, he blatantly calls for he destruction of Israel and burns the Israeli flag. Yeganeh’s message is demeaning, divisive and hateful.”

Angela Maddahi, the Iranian Jewish president of Sinai, wrote an email to the theater opposing the concert and calling for it to be cancelled, but indicated that she had received no response.

The Journal’s emails and telephone calls to the Microsoft Theatre were not returned either. According to the venue’s website, tickets for Yeganeh’s concert range from $60 to $350 per person and the performance will be his second in the U.S. after a previous 2014 U.S. concert and other sold-out shows in Europe.

Yeganeh, 32, who according to his website is a self-taught musician and singer who took up his career while studying industrial engineering at the University of Tehran, also did not respond to emails sent to him for comment.

However, he was asked about the concert controversy Dec. 14 during an appearance on the Studio City-based Farsi-language radio station KIRN 670 AM. His response was that he has never tried to make people intentionally upset in his life and that the Iranian regime used his song in its video without his permission. He did not make any apology or further explanation.

The recent campaign against Yeganeh’s has galvanized many Los Angeles area Iranian Jews to speak out. This is a unique phenomenon for a community who for centuries in Iran and for decades in America remained largely silent on the sidelines during such controversies involving Iranian anti-Semitism. In the past, community members in Los Angeles and New York often were not actively speaking out against the Iranian regime’s anti-Semitism for fear of the Iranian regime’s potential retaliation against Jews still living in Iran.

Activists said today a substantial segment of the Iranian Jewish community in Los Angeles that are estimated to be 40,000 strong, typically patronize Iranian cultural and musical performances. They said they hope to send a clear message that hatred for Jews or Israel will no longer be tolerated.

Frank Nikbakht, an Iranian Jewish activist and head of the L.A.-based “Committee for Minority Rights in Iran” said he was not surprised at Yeganeh’s song lyrics expressing hate for Jews or Israel because the Iranian regime for nearly three decades has been indoctrinating young people in Iran with anti-Semitic, anti-Israel and Holocaust denial ideology.

“The specific policy of anti-Semitism in Iran dates back to the late 1990s,” said Nikbakht who has been monitoring anti-Semitic Farsi language media put out by the Iranian regime for more than 30 years. “It has been successful as far as being accepted by millions, including anti-regime factions even though there are indications that some people have been drawn towards the Jews, towards Israel and the minorities because of the regime’s excessive propaganda.”

This isn’t the first time that local members of the Iranian Jewish community have mobilized against performers from Iran perceived to be anti-Semitic. In 2015, various community activists launched a campaign against Akbar Abdi, a Iranian Muslim comedian who had used derogatory terms to describe Jews and who had traveled from Iran to perform Farsi language shows in Southern California and elsewhere in the country. These efforts ultimately led to the cancellation of his event.

Haroonian said many local Iranian Jewish activists will continue to voice their opposition to Yeganeh’s performances during his U.S. concert tour and work with American Jewish groups to expose his song’s message of hate.

He also said some local Iranian Jewish activists will be seeking to reach out to Farsi language media outlets and non-Jewish Iranian media personalities in an effort to educate them about Israel and anti-Semitism.

“We must say to all Iranian artists and entertainers that Jews have always supported and participated in the enhancement of Iran’s culture,” Haroonian said. “Your role should be one of ‘peacemakers’ and if you want to make a political statement, then have the decency to speak out about the whole story — not just the lies and hate propaganda”.