A New Read on Jewish Life
Updated: 9 hours 16 minutes ago
“April is the cruellest month, breeding,” sang T.S. Eliot. “Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote,” launched Chaucer. Sayeth Tablet, “Yea, April is National Poetry Month.” Our archives are proudly brimming with material about poetry and poets: interviews with Poet Laureates and Pulitzer Prize winners, literary criticism of new work, appreciations, commemorations, obituaries, celebrations, readings, profiles, and new original verse.
Each week this month we’ll be bringing you highlights from Tablet’s archive. Please join us in helping the American Academy of Poets carry the flame.
Cat Stevens was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on Thursday, but predictably a man named Yusuf Islam turned up to accept it.
Yusuf Islam is, of course, the name adopted by the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens upon his conversion to Islam and abrupt departure from the music business in 1977, citing the temptations of the pop star lifestyle as incompatible with his newfound faith. But it’s a stance that has softened considerably in recent years, as the singer has made a slow return—beginning with recordings of religious music and gradually expanding to more traditional pop offerings (often for various charities) with messages of peace. It all culminated on Thursday, when his friend Art Garfunkel—an odd choice if Islam was really as sympathetic to, say, Hamas as the 2004 NSA decision to bar him entry to the United States would have it—presented him with rock’s highest honor, comparing him favorably to…Paul Simon.
In 2011, Tablet marked the April convergence of National Poetry Month and Passover with a podcast featuring Andrea Cohen and several other poets discussing themes of liberation, ritual, journeying, and food in their work. This year, we’re delighted to bring you a poem by Andrea Cohen about Passover.
In 2012, a poll commissioned by the Israel Project found that while American Latinos supported Israel by a 21 to 8 percent margin, a whopping 46 percent answered “don’t know” or that the United States should stay neutral on the Jewish state. Ruben Gallego, who is running for Congress in Arizona’s 7th District, is not one of those people. As someone raised in an immigrant family and who spent significant time in Mexico, Gallego finds much in common with the Israeli story. “It’s natural,” he told me, in large part because “the Latino experience is very similar to the immigrants who have made Israel.” An Iraq veteran and Harvard grad, the 34-year-old declared his candidacy on February 27, after longtime Democratic Rep. Ed Pastor announced his retirement.
Hailing from a Chicago Catholic family, Gallego was first introduced to Jewish life by his wife Kate, an Albuquerque native from a Reform home, who brought him to high holidays services at Harvard Hillel. It was an event “probably known best for Larry Summers, the president of Harvard, falling asleep during the services,” she recalled. “Nonetheless, it was a good start for Ruben.” Following college, Kate moved to Arizona, while Ruben served in Iraq (he had previously taken off from Harvard to join the Marine Corps). Both now hold public office–Kate as a Phoenix city councilwoman, and Ruben as an Arizona state representative, where he is assistant minority leader for the Democratic caucus. The couple married in 2010, after Ruben proposed on the floor of the 2008 Democratic National Convention.
The suspect in yesterday’s shooting at two Jewish institutions in Overland Park, Kansas, in which three people were killed, has been identified as Frazier Glenn Miller, who also goes by the name Frazier Glenn Cross, a 73-year-old “known white supremacist and former Ku Klux Klan leader who was once the subject of a nationwide manhunt.”
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, Miller founded the Carolina Knights of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1980s, and was the former “grand dragon” of the group before forming another Klan group called the White Patriot Party.
Earlier this year, we reported on the newly-uncovered story of eight antiwar activists who broke into a small FBI office outside of Philadelphia on March 8, 1971. Led by a soft-spoken Jewish physics professor at Haverford College named William Davidon, the conspirators stole hundreds of secret files that exposed the FBI’s illegal efforts to intimidate civil rights activists and Americans protesting the Vietnam War.
Now, in a new documentary called 1971, the members of the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI—the name the activists gave themselves—are speaking out about their actions for the first time on film.
Lena Dunham recently tweeted out to her 1.4 million Twitter followers the link to lifelong friend Isabel Halley’s stylish new ceramic seder plate ($424, The Jewish Museum), declaring it an item “NO ONE CAN PASSOVER.”
It’s true that Halley’s tasteful shimmering platter, with its pinched, gold-rimmed bowls, stands out from so many of its gaudy Passover cousins. But it’s not alone—there are now beautiful seder plates to suit every style and taste, from urban hipster to Palm Beach matriarch. Some are being produced by artisans in Israel. A few fine porcelain companies offer slender Judaica lines. The Jewish Museum’s online store is valuable holiday resource, offering a refined curation of objects to suit diverse budgets and personality types.
Details are still sparse about the deadly shootings at two Jewish institutions this afternoon in Overland Park, Kansas. Authorities have confirmed that three people were killed after 73-year-old Frasier Glenn Cross Jr. opened fired in the parking lot of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Kansas City, and then minutes later at the Village Shalom senior care facility. Cross Jr. was apprehended at a nearby elementary school.
At a press conference, the area police chief said that while it was reasonable to assume that the act was a hate crime, that determination was still being investigated. However, news cameras at the scene picked up the suspect ranting in the back of a police car and appearing to shout “Heil Hitler!” Watch the footage below:
Israeli activists and African asylum seekers living in Tel Aviv held an alternative Passover seder event Friday outside the Holot detention center in the Negev desert, where 1,800 African migrants are currently being held. Hundreds of African asylum seekers from the detention center attended the event, during which activists highlighted the connection between the story of the Jewish exodus from Egypt and that of the asylum seekers, who fled Eritrea and Sudan through the Sinai desert to seek refuge in Israel.
The event was part of a campaign to close down the controversial detention center, which opened at the end of 2013. Israeli courts recently slammed the detention process, and the legality of the detention centers is currently before the Israeli Supreme Court.
Etgar Keret, the Israeli writer and Tablet contributor whose stories are small, marvelous gems that will delight and terrify you, shared some advice for writers with Rookie back in 2012 that’s actually helpful not just for writers (rare in those kinds of lists to begin with), but for everyone. It was a while ago, sure, but since Keret himself only shared it on Facebook this week, it’s worth revisiting. Keret’s Facebook page, I should mention, is full of entertaining bits, like the first short story he ever wrote (the pages of which his brother used as a pooper scooper).
His first tip? Make sure you enjoy what you’re doing. “Writers always like to say how hard the writing process is and how much suffering it causes. They’re lying. People don’t like to admit they make a living from something they genuinely enjoy.”
Today, the New York Times published an op-ed that attempts to demonstrate that Israel is drifting towards an Orthodox Jewish theocracy. Unfortunately for the paper, the piece instead demonstrates its authors’ profound ignorance of both Israeli domestic politics and Orthodox Judaism. The entire argument of the op-ed, written by the otherwise excellent Iranian scholar Abbas Milani and University of Haifa’s Israel Waismel-Manor, hinges on one key point:
While the Orthodox Jewish parties are currently not part of the government, together with Mr. Bennett’s Jewish Home, a right-wing religious party, they hold about 25 percent of seats in the Knesset. The Orthodox parties aspire to transform Israel into a theocracy.
Rabbi David Wolpe is the rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and the author, most recently, of Why Faith Matters. In this Scroll series, Wolpe examines a work of Jewish scholarship, either contemporary or classic, which has relevance for modern Jewish life.
Much as it is unwise to judge a person after only one meeting, it’s best not to draw conclusions about a book after only having read it quickly. Even when it comes to Torah, students will at times draw unwarranted conclusions based on an isolated story. In the Torah, each story interweaves with and comments on the other. As the scholar Michael Fishbane has taught us, the entire Tanakh is full of elaborations on and appraisals of itself.
There’s no reason the prohibition against consuming chametz means having to spend another Passover restricted to Manischewitz Concord, Golan Heights Cabernets, or the one-off slivovitz. A holiday that requires adults to down at least four cups of wine at the start ought to pack at least as much punch as St. Patrick’s Day, Mardi Gras, or Cinco de Mayo.
Any beverage produced from one of the five grains—barley, oats, rye, spelt, or wheat—is off the table for Passover. In practical terms, that means no beer, Bourbon, Scotch, Irish or rye whiskeys, most vodkas and gins, or any other drinks made with grain neutral sprits can be consumed during the 192 hours of Passover. Ashkenazi Jews add another layer of self-deprivation by foregoing legumes, corn, rice, and various spices.
There are many distinctive colors which Jews encounter at the Passover seder. There is red for wine and blood, green for the plague of frogs, and black for that of darkness. But there are no shades of grey. Nuance is a scarce commodity in the Passover account. In fact, the story of the Exodus is the prototypical black-and-white moral narrative. There are the innocent and enslaved Israelites, and then there are the cruel and literally baby-killing Egyptians.
There are not two sides to this story. There is no “Egyptian narrative.” Though Jews do briefly note the tragedy of the loss of human life during the seder, pouring out drops of wine for each plague inflicted on their tormenters, this commemoration in no way excuses or sympathizes with the biblical Egyptians themselves. We are presented with an oppressed and an oppressor—a right and a wrong.
Earlier this week, a Holocaust memorial, the wall of a Jewish cemetery, and the fence of a synagogue in Odessa were defaced with swastikas, SS symbols, and the words “Death the Jews”—and with tags indicating the graffiti was the work of members of the far-right Pravyi Sektor, or Right Sector, party.
Some were quick to seize on the graffiti—on the eve of the 70th anniversary of Odessa’s liberation from the Nazis, in 1944—as further evidence of a dangerous anti-Semitic strain emerging alongside anti-Russian politics in Ukraine since the ouster in February of Viktor Yanokovych. “Undoubtedly, the pro-Jewish atmosphere currently is much more credible in Russia than in Ukraine,” Osias Wurman, an honorary consul for Israel based in Rio, told the Voice of Russia network.
A Jewish teacher at Lincoln School in Fairview, N.J. recently came across a strange sight in the hallway: a poster filled with swastikas, Israeli flags drawn on, and pictures of Jewish children with their faces crossed out.
The poster, it turns out, was part of a sixth-grade assignment for students after reading Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars, a work of historical fiction commonly used to introduce young readers to the Holocaust. The collage, however, apparently lacked any sort of context about the assignment or explanation about what the students intended to convey. After the teacher complained, the superintendent ordered the poster be taken down, NJ.com reports.
Brandeis University’s decision to withdraw an honorary degree from the activist and writer Ayaan Hirsi Ali is yet another shameful reminder of how limp the commitment of Jewish institutions to open discourse has grown, and how threatened we’ve all become by a public conversation that permits the expression of nuanced, complicated, even at times offensive ideas—meaning, any ideas at all worth their salt.
Hirsi Ali is a controversial figure in some quarters, and greatly admired in others. Many of her achievements ought to be lauded and some of her statements—in a long career of speaking passionately and openly about her own experience as a black woman who was born a Muslim in Somalia and became a leading feminist and atheist thinker and campaigner in the West—ought to be challenged. Brandeis should have been acutely aware of Hirsi Ali’s work and ideas, and could have privately decided, when discussing whether or not to confer such an honor, that Hirsi Ali was or wasn’t an appropriate recipient of the university’s laurels. But succumbing to pressure and retracting a degree once it was offered strikes us as a Soviet-style tactic that props up an outspoken dissident only to expose her to public pillory. This is simply inexcusable, regardless of anyone’s opinions about Hirsi Ali’s politics (and yes, we made the same argument when the Ramaz School rescinded its invitation to Columbia professor Rashid Khalidi).
Yesterday, we lost a genuine Jewish hero. Jacob Birnbaum, who passed away at the age of 87, emerged during the 1960s when he founded an organization called the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry, or SSSJ, as it was known. He was not a communal grandee, or a remote figure at the head of a polished organization that supported good work. He was a grass-roots activist who made a real difference.
The timing, in some way, couldn’t be more poignant.
Quinoa, that glorious gluten-free superfood, is officially officially kosher for Passover. That’s right, the OU designated it kosher for Passover in time for this year’s seder. It’s just the latest seal of paschal approval for the still-trendy South American-grown food—Star-K proclaimed quinoa kosher for Passover back in 1991:
Despite its fluffy, grain-like appearance, quinoa was designated a member of the goosefoot species, a cousin to beets, and completely unrelated to the five forbidden chametz grains: wheat, spelt, oats, rye, and barley. Furthermore, the Star-K deemed quinoa not kitniyot (literally “small things”)—an additional category of foods such as rice and legumes that Ashkenazi Jews customarily avoid on Passover—which meant it was kosher for all Jews, not just Sephardim that have the practice of eating kitniyot during Passover.
Ed Miliband, head of the British opposition and the Labour Party’s first Jewish leader, said he believed Israel to be the homeland of the Jewish people, but stopped short of calling himself a Zionist, as he met with Hebrew University students today in Jerusalem. This marks his first public appearance on a visit that is taking his efforts to rebuild the United Kingdom’s “New Jerusalem” to the Jerusalem of Old. Just one month after Miliband’s chief rival, Prime Minister David Cameron, was heckled during his speech to the Knesset (unfazed, Cameron said his ambassador had taught him the word balagan prior to his address), Miliband faced a decidedly more favorable audience at the Mount Scopus campus.
Miliband, the son of Polish Holocaust survivors, opened by telling students that this trip takes him back to his first visit to Israel, at the age of seven, when a chance encounter with an old photograph at his grandmother’s Tel Aviv home led his family to tell him his grandfather had been killed by the Nazis. He came to Israel today, he said, with deep gratitude for how his grandmother had been treated by this country.