A New Read on Jewish Life
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The baby that I wasn’t sure I wanted to have was due around Shavuot, the holiday celebrating the giving of the Torah on Sinai. A time of revelation, of divine bestowing.
And yet, I wasn’t sure I wanted to be bestowed upon. Part of me was drawn to the prospect of raising a third child; I loved the first two beyond words, and when I squinted really hard I could envision an extra laughing face at the breakfast table who could bring us all more joy. But another part of me wasn’t so sure. Caring for the two kids I already had felt like it demanded my all my available bandwidth; with a third, what would become of my work? My selfhood? My sanity? Where would a whole extra person, full of his or her own demands and needs, fit into the chaotic, multidirectional pull that so often characterized my parenting moments?
It would appear unwise for Israel (or any country for that matter) to insert itself into additional intractable conflicts, so when Haaretz reported that a plane from Azerbaijan’s defense ministry landed in Israel twice during four days of clashes in the self-declared and largely unrecognized republic of Ngorno-Karabakh last month, it raised some eyebrows. But Israel’s slight embroilment in a severe greater-European security emergency doesn’t necessarily amount to foreign policy recklessness. If anything, it’s a sign of Israel’s surprising freedom of action at the moment—a time when the country’s foreign policy is in a more commanding position than it might appear.
Ngorno-Karabakh is a majority-Armenian region, and current Armenian-controlled separatist enclave, that remained within Azerbaijian’s territory after the former Soviet Republics became independent in 1991, sparking a war that killed as many as 30,000 people. A 1994 ceasefire left some 16% of Azerbaijan’s internationally recognized territory under Armenian control. There’s been little real progress towards peace since then.
Yesterday, the British Labour party suspended one of its members of parliament, Naz Shah, for advocating that Israel be forcibly relocated, comparing the Jewish state to Nazi Germany, and likening Zionism to al-Qaeda. Today, the party suspended one of its top officials, former London mayor Ken Livingstone, for claiming in live interviews that Hitler was a Zionist, while insisting that “during the 47 years I’ve been in the Labour Party, I’ve never heard anyone say anything anti-Semitic.”
On Thursday, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn said, “There is no crisis.”
There are times when a journalist has to use his “editor at large” status at the universe’s leading Jewish publication to reel in some free rock-concert tickets. If an editor at large doesn’t score himself some free tix now and again, he begins to wonder just how large he is. And nobody respects an editor at small—not the editor’s wife, not his daughters, not his dogs, least of all himself.
So when your editor at large saw that the grooviest half-Jewish band in history was playing a one-night stand at the Toyota Oakdale Theatre in Wallingford. Connecticut—the class lost to it by “Toyota” is more than recouped by the Anglo-spelling on “Theatre”—he had to throw his yarmulke in the ring for a pair of tickets. And since half-Jewish is, in America today, the new Jewish, Steely Dan is the new Simon and Garfunkel. Plus, Tablet has written about Donald Fagen before (it seems his partner, Walter Becker, is non-chosen; dissenting readers can weigh in). One might say that no Jewish publication has covered Steely Dan so assiduously. The band obviously knows as much, since their manager came through with two tickets. Not the cheap seats, either.
A group of university students in Israel got together to create an apolitical branding campaign and came up with the Hot Dudes and Hummus Instagram account. The goal? To engage non-Jewish and non-Israeli audiences with humorous and attractive content to create a positive association with Israel.
Orly Geduld, Betty Ilovici, Ayala Lesser and Israel Zari began this account as part of a school project at IDC Herzliya. In just over one month they amassed more than 1,800 followers, with an international audience (because hot-dude-and-hummus-lovers don’t discriminate across borders).
Over the past year, seven states have passed laws withdrawing funds—sometimes contracts, sometimes pension funds, sometimes both—from companies that support boycotts and economic warfare against Israel. Similar laws are winding their way through another seven states. Meanwhile, Illinois, which was one of the first states to pass such a law, has begun implementing it, cataloguing companies that may be affected for bowing to the BDS bigotry.
These companies, as you might’ve guessed, aren’t happy to find themselves on the list. At least one, the prominent security company G4S, appears to have responded with a massive public relations campaign, arguing that its decision to withdraw from activities in Israel was purely economic and not driven by the Jewish state’s detractors in any way.
It’s that time of year again, the 49-day period between the second day of Passover and the day before Shavuot known as Sefirat HaOmer, or counting the Omer, during which we well, count, as commanded. The traditional reason cited in the Talmud is that this is in memory of the 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva who died in a plague for not honoring one another properly as befits Torah scholars.
It’s a weird, strange time, full of any number of semi-mourning practices (dependent on regional or familial custom), forbidding any combination of haircuts, shaving, listening to instrumental music, or conducting weddings, parties, and dinners with dancing. All such restrictions, however, are lifted on the 33rd day of counting, also known as Lag b’Omer, because it was on that day that the epidemic finally halted.
I grew up hearing a little Yiddish, mostly from my father, who used it exclusively to scream at bad drivers. “Schmuck!” he’d cry at a tailgater; “Putz!” he’d scream at a speeder. But other than that, I was not exposed to the secular language of European Jewry growing up in my secular European Jewish household in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Even in a Jewish high school, and while pursuing a Jewish studies degree in college, where Yiddish was not taught, I was not privy to the language. Hebrew, yes. Aramaic, some, yes, for Talmudic studies. I even had a teacher obsessed with gematria, the mystical numerology of the Jews. But the only Yiddish I heard outside of my father’s road rage was infrequent, not part of the curriculum, and common: Shlep, kvell, meshugenah.
Ber Borochov loved Passover. Ordinarily, the Marxist, Zionist, and Yiddishist had no patience for the superstitions of his forefathers, but in the haggadah he found a hero for his time: the Wicked Son. The Passover story’s obdurate loner, Borochov wrote enthusiastically, rejects collective destiny for individual liberation, and is therefore no less than “the foundation for the construction of new Jewish life.”
It’s a curious line for many reasons, its jagged provocation the least among them. Why would Borochov, for whom that sphere of spiritual stirring frequently referred to as religion was occupied by nothing but dreams of universalist socialism, bother with a bit of ancient liturgy?
There are certain youthful memories that transcend the past in a way that makes it appear to have been impossibly perfect. This perfection of the past, especially if it occurs in a foreign language, corrects for immigrant anxieties and also compensates for exilic losses.
In the spring of 1985, when the events described here occurred, the political situation in the Soviet Union hardly promised any quick changes of fortune. The “rule of corpses”—Brezhnev’s latter years followed by Andropov’s brief stint on the Soviet throne—had ended in March 1985 with the passing of Konstantin Chernenko. The 54-year-old power-hungry Mikhail Gorbachev had just been elected general secretary of the Communist Party, and his grip on power was still tenuous.
Our Jewish guest is literary agent and author Betsy Lerner, whose latest book, The Bridge Ladies, tells the story of her mother’s bridge club, which has been meeting weekly for 50 years in New Haven, Connecticut. She tells us about getting to know octogenarians Bea, Bette, Rhoda, Jackie, and especially Roz, her mother, and learning to play bridge herself. (She’s now a regular fill-in for the group.)
The past few days of Donald Trump’s presidential bid have been marked by speculation about exactly which version of Republican frontrunner the country is going to get over the next seven months, especially after his dominant, five-state primaries sweep on April 26.
On that day, Politico reported that Trump had been rebuffing advisers who are urging him to act more “presidential.” But whether—and how—Trump might reinvent himself is a question of some urgency for his eventual general election opponent because the businessman has displayed a remarkable ability to abandon his earlier convictions at seemingly no apparent cost. (His personality has been forceful enough to batter through contradictions of both policy and mere being.)
'Keep Quiet' Documents the Journey of Csanad Szegedi, an Anti-Semitic Politician Who Discovers He's Jewish
There was word, Csanad Szegedi was told, of a secret so explosive it would destroy his career.
By 2012, the 30-year-old Szegedi was a rising star in the hothouse world of Hungarian politics, vice president of the extreme-right Jobbik party and a Member of the European Parliament. Jobbik had, in less than a decade, taken on an outsize place in Hungarian politics, resuscitating a long-dormant authoritarian tradition, and its deeply held anti-Semitic prejudices along with it. In 2007, Szegedi had helped to form the Hungarian Guard, a brownshirt organization whose iconography deliberately, and frighteningly, echoed that of the World War II-era Hungarian Fascist Arrow Guard. The rumor being peddled by Zoltan Ambrus, an ex-skinhead with a grudge, was that Szegedi—an anti-Semitic provocateur and pronounced Holocaust skeptic who had once made reference to the extensive damage done to the Hungarian Holy Crown by Jewish artists and intellectuals—was himself Jewish.
The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge are back in Blighty, and their first official order of business after returning from the taxpayer-funded luxury vacation—oops, I meant their “goodwill tour”—of India and Bhutan was to host the Obamas for a private dinner in their rarely used but freshly renovated (to the tune of $7 million) apartment at Kensington Palace. (Is it weird that I get so bent out of shape about the money needlessly lavished on these two—who have carried out roughly the same number of engagements combined since they married in 2011 as the 90-year-old Queen has in the past year—when I don’t pay taxes in the UK? I guess my outrage is on behalf of my husband, who, while technically their subject, has no clue who any of these people are.)
The Obamas, in photographs circulated throughout the world, were greeted at the Palace by a tiny, berobed despot—also known has HRH Prince George—who appeared bewildered by the oddly accented man who had chosen, insultingly, to squat before him instead of the more customary kneeling, before being made to sit atop an uncomfortable hobby horse he had never before seen, seemingly in order to please this mysterious stranger.
Zahav, as I’ve had the pleasure of writing here before, is a fantastic Israeli restaurant in Philadelphia, presided over by the magical Michael Solomonov. It’s also the name of a cookbook that is so beloved in my house that, occasionally, my toddlers will urge me to “play Zahav,” which means that they get to open the book and select a few of its dishes, and then I have to cook them. It’s just the sort of joyful, sensuous, unfussy affair you want a cookbook to be—part memoir and part invitation to indulge in some of Israel’s finest dishes. It’s perfect.
A few years ago, I wrote a piece on efforts by Canadian Jewish organizations and individuals to censor an anti-Israel children’s book. Did I think the book was one-sided and lacking in nuance? Yes! Did I think it should have been removed from reading lists or reshelved in school libraries so that only older kids could get it? No! Because censorship is bad. And this is censorship, no matter what you want to call it. The answer to hate speech is more speech, as the kids say.
I thought about our neighbors to the north while at a conference earlier this month called “Who Are You To Say? Children’s Literature and the Censorship Conversation,” at Bank Street College of Education. Children’s literature scholar Leonard Marcus gave a lecture on the history of censorship in the United States; panels featuring a diverse group of authors, editors, critics, and librarians discussed challenges to picture books and young adult books, primarily but not exclusively from the political and religious right; and Joan Bertin, the director of the National Coalition Against Censorship, gave a rousing keynote on literary freedom.
When the corrupt and autocratic regimes of the Arab world began to topple one after another, in the Arab Spring of 2011, it would have taken a cold heart not to share in the hope of so many millions of people. But five years later, it seems that the cold-hearted—those who were skeptical of the possibility of genuine progress, those who warned that revolution would give way to civil war—were right all along. Revolutions never seem to bring the happiness they promise: not in France in 1789 or Russia in 1917, and not in Egypt or Libya or Syria in 2011. Instead, the Middle East has gone from bad—repressive dictatorships built on secret police and theft—to worse—open civil war and genocide.
For Americans witnessing these events, the great question tends to be what role our government played in the disaster. The problem is that there are several plausible answers, all of which contradict each other. In Iraq, America took the most active possible role, invading the country in 2003 to remove Saddam Hussein; today Iraq barely exists, divided irretrievably between Kurds, Shiites, and Sunnis. With Iraq in mind, when it came to overthrowing Muammar Qaddafi in Libya in 2011, the UnitedStates and NATO refused to invade, restricting their role to supporting the rebels with air strikes. But today Libya too barely exists, its territory carved up among feuding tribal militias. Looking back on Libya, then, President Barack Obama steadfastly refused to intervene in Syria, even retreating from his own “red line” about the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons. And today Syria barely exists, as rebellion grew into a years-long civil war that has cost hundreds of thousands of lives and turned millions into refugees. Into the vacuum has stepped ISIS, the Islamic State, whose barbaric violence and cruelty have shocked the world, though not exactly into action.
John Gotti may have once held the title, but the late Gambino crime family boss had nothing on the “Teflon Don” of the Middle East, Bashar Assad. Had Gotti lived to see it, he would be astounded by how easily the two-bit head of a Syrian crime family is getting away with mass murder.
Remarkably, five years after the outbreak of the uprising against him, in which over 450,000 people have been shot, bombed, and gassed for the crime of not wanting to be ruled by a genocidal dictator, Assad is being cheered by many in the West as a protector of endangered minority groups—not to mention as a savior of archeological artifacts. “Hooray,” wrote London Mayor Boris Johnson following the assault by Assad’s allies that retook the city of Palmyra, “Bravo—and keep going.” Sure, Johnson said—mainly for reasons of etiquette—Assad is a monster, a killer and a dictator who, like his father, has ruled through torture, violence and terror, but let’s not have that get in the way of cheering him on.
Editor’s note: A version of this article, published on Tuesday, did not properly describe the decades-long battle over the mysterious origins of the Yiddish language—a “weakening” academic battleground marked by petty, ideological fights—which we covered in a two-part series in 2014.
Researchers from England, Israel, and the United States are arguing that the Yiddish language may have originated in Turkey, rather than anywhere near Germany, and may be more Slavic than German. Thestudy, published in the journal Genome Biology and Evolution last month, uses a so-called ancestral DNA tracking GPS (“Geographic Population Structure”) tool to pinpoint where the first Yiddish speakers may have lived, over 1,000 years ago.
Shakespeare and Cervantes Both Died 400 Years Ago This Week. Which of the Two Might Have Been Jewish?
This week marks 400 years since the death of William Shakespeare, so of course everyone is scrambling to find a Jewish connection. Don’t misunderstand, there are some good ones: From his maybe-Jewish maybe-muse to lots and lots and lots of discussions of Shylock. But in all the excitement, perhaps we have forgotten that it’s not only the Bard’s quadricentennial yahrtzeit.
There is historical evidence that Shakespeare actually died the same exact day as Miguel de Cervantes, the Spanish author of Don Quixote, widely considered one of the most influential novelists of all time. There’s no way to be sure, given Spain and England’s different calendars at the time, but the deaths of two giant contributors to their respective languages were definitely close, and they both deserve accolades.