A New Read on Jewish Life
Updated: 2 weeks 3 days ago
Last week, the San Francisco JCC was abuzz. In the building’s atrium, hip men and women of all ages milled about, munching on tamales as the music of Sleater-Kinney, a late 90’s indie rock band, played from above. The space could have been mistaken for my favorite Oakland bar on a Friday night. It wasn’t, of course, but there was presumably one commonality: a love for Carrie Brownstein.
Brownstein, 41, was at the JCC to promote her new memoir, Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl, through a discussion with local literary celeb Dave Eggers, with whom she let us in on the wild stories behind her creativity, which she details in the book. For nearly two hours, Eggers and Brownstein delved into the nitty gritty of the punk scene in Olympia, Washington, including Brownstein’s journey from a dorky kid living in the suburbs of Seattle to becoming a nationally renowned rock guitarist and actress. They also joked about the rocker’s floppy bowl cut and goofy hats.
A number of years ago, I was talking to a brilliant undergraduate and feminist at Yale College, where I teach English. She was discussing something sexist and demeaning that had happened at one of Yale’s several off-campus fraternities—sexism is such a predictable fact of life at frats that I can’t even remember what the particular demeaning act was. It might have been a grope, a slur, some form of mockery. Anyway, the student was wondering aloud what the school’s response should be. I offered some sort of suggestion, probably having to do with which dean or committee she should take her complaint to. But then I added that what would really send a message to the fraternity would be if women organized a boycott of its parties. Imagine if the message went out that the brothers of Scamma Scamma Gamma weren’t worth women’s time, that the women on campus had decided that any guy who belonged to that fraternity was either a sexist or an enabler of sexism, not worth the time of any self-respecting Yale woman. Imagine if that fraternity’s parties became boring, all-male sausage-fests! Wouldn’t that be something?
The student thought about it, agreed that that would be something terrific, but then said it could never happen. Women would never be able to make common cause that way. They could never achieve that kind of solidarity. The fraternity’s parties were too socially important. Maybe some women could be persuaded to skip the parties, but the hotties, the athletes, and the sorority girls would all keep going. And eventually others would return. A boycott was a nice pipe dream, she said, but impossible to achieve.
As Nehirim, a national organization for LGBT Jews, prepares to close its doors at the end of the year, its executive director, Rabbi Debra Kolodny, is turning her focus toward getting queer clergy involved in broader social justice issues.
“For decades, interfaith queer clergy have been saying we are intersectional, we are not just a one-issue movement,” said Kolodny, 55. Intersectionality is the concept that social identities around race, class, gender, and sexual orientation are interrelated, as are the forms of oppression against these social identities. “I’m frustrated that there is all this rhetoric on intersectionality, but almost no action on it.”
In 2003, I was a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed freshman at Yale when the Afro-American Cultural Center invited the late Amiri Baraka to speak under its auspices. Baraka (né LeRoi Jones) had been a founder of the Black Arts Movement, Black Power’s artistic arm, but had more recently gained notoriety for his Sept. 11 themed poem “Somebody Blew Up America?,” a long-winded, malevolent tirade whose most infamous verse asked, “Who told 4000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers/ To stay home that day/ Why did Sharon stay away?” Calls came to revoke from Baraka the honor of Poet Laureate of New Jersey, and, legally prevented from stripping him of the title individually, the New Jersey state legislature abolished the position altogether.
Naturally, the decision to host Baraka upset many people on campus, not least Yale’s Jewish community. Appeals to the Afro-American Cultural Center to reconsider its invitation were dismissed. As a 19-year-old Jew from the affluent suburbs of Boston, whose only direct, personal knowledge of anti-Semitism had been as the recipient of elementary school joshing for not celebrating Christmas, I was therefore privileged to witness an eminent Jew-hater being welcomed to an institution I venerated and that I hoped would be my home.
University of Missouri President Resigns As Protests Over Racial Tensions From Students and Faculty Crescendo
Tim Wolfe, the president of the entire University of Missouri system since 2011, resigned Monday morning following a series of student and faculty protests calling for his ouster, including a hunger strike. Each demonstration was fueled by growing racial discontent on campus. Over the last month, protests over the response to instances of reported racism—particularly those relating to black students who as of 2014 made up about 7% of the 35,000 students at the flagship campus—have swelled, according to The Maneater, a Missouri student news source.
Racism on campus, reported The New York Times, has come in a number of forms, such as when a group of men yelled racial slurs in September at the president of the Missouri Students Association, who is black. Earlier this month, the Legion of Black Collegians, a black student government group whose mission it is to “heighten the cultural consciousness” on campus, was exposed to the similar verbal abuse while practicing for homecoming “when a white man walked onto their stage and used racial epithets about the black students,” reported the Times. Wolfe was reportedly dismissive of their concerns, though he asserted otherwise.
Step aside Hilary Swank. Rachel Weisz is taking dibs on Swank’s previously-assigned role to play Deborah E. Lipstadt in Denial, screenwriter David Hare’s adaption of Lipstadt’s legal battles with historian David Irving, who sued her for libel in 1996 after she labeled him a “holocaust denier” in her 1993 book, Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth & Memory. Four years after the trial closed, Lipstadt published another book: History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier. (Lipstadt wrote The Eichmann Trial for Nextbook Press, part of its Jewish Encounter Series).
New York-based film distribution company Bleecker Street has acquired rights for the flick, which will be directed by Mick Jackson (The Bodyguard) and co-star Tom Wilkinson, who will apparently play Irving.
Sammy Samuels makes frequent appearances in stories about Myanmar’s small Jewish community. He is, after all, one of the last Jews here. Since his father died in May, he has taken full responsibility over the preservation of Yangon’s only synagogue, Musmeah Yeshua.
Since this is a story about Myanmar and Myanmar’s small Jewish community, allow me to introduce you to Aung Soe Lwin. This is Sammy Samuels’s Burmese name and it’s the title he used to vote in Myanmar’s historic democratic general elections on Sunday, the freest in a quarter century. It was the first time Samuels, 33, has ever been able to cast a ballot in his home country.
Read a Jewish Book: It's Jewish Book Month, a Tradition Begun in 1925 That Today is Run by the Jewish Book Council
Jewish Book Month, a 90-year tradition run by the Jewish Book Council, kicked off last week and will run through December 6. The annual event, which serves as a promotion of sorts for Jewish authors and books, will be celebrated across this vast continent, from Los Angeles to Winnipeg, Manitoba, to Boca Raton. But it wasn’t always a month-long endeavor.
The tradition began in 1925 when a Boston librarian by the name of Fanny Goldstein decided to set up a display of Judaic books at the West End Branch of the Boston Public Library for one week and call it (what else?) “Jewish Book Week.” And voila, just like that the week caught on; in 1943 it was extended to a month. Soon thereafter, a council was created to produce the event.
My father abandoned organized religion on the day of his bar mitzvah. He ascended the bimah ready to chant his Torah portion and join the generations of thirteen-year-old Jewish males who had successfully negotiated this ritual passage to manhood. Alas, he had memorized the wrong portion.
Talmudically speaking, reading out of order is not an option. So, he never became a bar mitzvah. As an adult, he never joined a synagogue. As a parent, he never sent me to Hebrew school. As a result, I didn’t get invited to a lot of bar mitzvah parties.
One Saturday afternoon in 1978, my father asked me to drive him from our home in New Jersey to Kennedy Airport in Queens, from which he was flying abroad on a business trip. I dropped him off at the TWA terminal and got on the Belt Parkway to head back. Almost immediately, though, I rolled to a halt at the tail end of a traffic jam that stretched ahead as far as I could see. I didn’t know this part of the city other than its expressways, so while idling in the unmoving mass, I pulled a map out of the glove compartment and looked for alternate routes. It seemed like all I had to do was take the next exit onto Conduit Boulevard and then veer onto Linden Boulevard, which would carry me across Brooklyn toward the Verrazano Narrows Bridge and ultimately back to my evening plans with friends from my newspaper job in Jersey.
Relieved to be rid of the traffic jam, I lead-footed the accelerator and raced along Conduit and onto Linden. Maybe fifty feet ahead of me, I could see a panel van moving at about the same speed, nothing to worry about. Just then, the rear doors were flung open and I saw a pair of arms shove out a woman. For a split second, I registered the scene and the gruesome insight it afforded: a human being could bounce off pavement something like a basketball. Jolted back into the moment, I swerved hard to avoid hitting the woman and nearly ran off the road. By the time I had righted my car, with my heart and lungs pumping like pistons, I was too far down Linden Boulevard to stop and give help. So I drove up and down the side streets, searching for a cop. There wasn’t one to be found.
I am child of the Holocaust. Both of my parents are Holocaust survivors. This essay seeks to answer three questions essential to my understanding of the Holocaust, the bystander, and my understanding of duty owed to another individual.
Those questions are: What do we learn from the Holocaust in general, in particular from Kristallnacht, regarding the bystander? What is the responsibility of the individual in the face of unmitigated racism and hatred? What is the most appropriate application of the painful lessons that can be learned from the tragic events of Nov. 9-10, 1938?
Freedom features compositions by Richard Danielpour, David Finko, and the late Mieczyslaw Weinberg. All three draw on political upheavals and the personal tolls they took in Iran and Europe. In particular they considered the impact such tumult had on members of the Jewish community.
Hennadiy Korban, the leader of the recently formed UKROP party, a Ukrainian nationalist party at least nominally opposed to President Poroshenko, is being prosecuted on suspicion of having committed a wide range of villainous activity. Korban, a close associate and proxy for the perennially extravagant and crude oligarch Igor Kolomoisky, was detained by special forces of the SBU intelligence agency on October 31, and “was placed under suspicion for establishing a criminal organization, embezzlement, and holding a state official as a hostage,” reported Ukraine Today. (Full disclosure: I worked as the Paris correspondent for Ukraine Today, whose parent company 1+1 Media Group is partly owned by Kolomoisky.)
As he was arrested, and the government cameras rolled, Korban screamed cinematically at the masked SBU special forces squad broke into his place of residence. “What are you doing?” he yelled. “This is my home! My children are here! I defended you on the front lines! Who are you serving?” Unsurprisingly, plausible accusations of selective political prosecution have abounded with many Ukrainians wondering why others equally deserving of arrest have not therefore been apprehended. After spending a night in jail, Korban, who has a thoroughly nefarious history of criminal activity, was released only to be rearrested again on Tuesday. He has since been released once again and sentenced to two months of house arrest. In Ukraine, Korban’s arrest was so widely viewed as an intra-fratricidal proxy conflict between competing oligarchic clans—Kolomoisky and Poroshenko—that even Poroshenko’s loyal ally and speaker of Ukraine’s parliament, Volodymyr Groysman, has raised concerns in public over the arrest.
Preaching to the Choir: Responses to the RCA's Redundant Resolution to Ordain or Recognize Female Rabbis
If supporters and opponents of the ordination of Orthodox female rabbis can agree about anything, it’s that last week’s resolution by the Rabbinical Council of America was a huge waste of time.
Writing in defense of the RCA’s decision to forbid its members from ordaining or hiring women rabbis, Rabbi Gil Student wrote in Haaretz: “We waste our energy when we debate texts and traditions on women rabbis because that is a conversation for a past era.” Advocates of female ordination couldn’t agree more. The Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance released a statement calling the RCA’s resolution “redundant,” nothing that the council has already stated its opposition twice before in the last six years.
I’ve been gripped by a deep shopping dilemma of late: I keep obsessing over whether or not I should buy a midi skirt. I’m attracted to the au courant 1970’s vibe that’s everywhere this season, and I like the idea of not only playing with the unexpected shape and length of a skirt, but also owning one that won’t make me worry I’m unprofessionally flashing my underpants every time I cross and uncross my legs. And yet every time I try one on, I squint at the way it hits me at exactly mid-calf. And, well, I’ll put it this way: I live in a neighborhood in Los Angeles that is almost even split between screenwriters and ultra-Orthodox Jews. If I walked outside in this admittedly tricky yet fashion-forward new skirt length, I’m pretty sure I have a good chance of being classified into the wrong camp.
And yet, maybe that’s the whole point! According to Vogue, Orthodox Jewish style is suddenly all the rage—it’s “Fall 2015’s Sexiest Trend”—especially in regards to their excavation of the new slip dress trend (or rather, old slip dress trend: the 90’s, like the 70’s, are also back, which makes sense given the fact that we were reviving the 70’s in the 90’s. Ah, fashion.) Rather than wearing it in the overtly sexy, slinky “I-just-rolled-out-of-bed” kind of way that is its traditional interpretation (think Courtney Love and Amanda DeCadenet at the 1995 Oscars), Orthodox Jewish fashion designers like Simi Polonsky and Chaya Chanin (of The Frock) have been using them as layering pieces: under over-sized boyfriend blazers, over long sleeve tees and turtleneck sweaters, taking the slip dress out of the bedroom and more into a charmingly disheveled Annie Hall-type realm. Mainstream designers like Rag & Bone have followed suit, layering the dress adorably over skinny leather pants and crisp button down shirts. Now I know what I’m buying instead of paying my electric bill this month.
Five years ago, the Maccabeats catapulted to stardom on the heels of their viral Hanukkah music video, “Candlelight,” which now has more than 10 million views on YouTube. Next week, the group will be releasing their first Hanukkah album, featuring seven new tracks—and we have one of them. It’s an original bluegrass-inflected composition for “Hanerot Hallalu” (“These Candles”), the traditional prayer said over the lit Hanukkah menorah.
Listen to it here:
On Wednesday, Riyad Mansour, the official Palestinian representative at the United Nations, falsely accused Israel of stealing organs from the bodies of Palestinian terrorists. The claim echoed the anti-Semitic blood libel of the Middle Ages, which charged Jews with murdering gentile children to use their blood for Passover matzoh. But you won’t hear much about this egregious anti-Semitic outburst in the media. That’s because Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has once again commandeered their coverage and made himself the story—and not in a good way.
Just hours after the U.N. incident, it was announced that Dr. Ran Baratz, a conservative Israeli academic, had been tapped as the country’s new director of public diplomacy. Reporters quickly dove into the past statements of this purported media maven, and what they found was not encouraging. On his Facebook page, Baratz had accused President Obama of expressing “modern anti-Semitism,” suggested Secretary of State John Kerry was not “a person whose mental age exceeds 12,” and openly mocked Israeli President Reuven Rivlin as “a marginal figure” who could be “sent in a paraglider” to Syria.
I have this idea—it’s my mission, in fact—about Jews of color becoming an integral part in Jewish conversations to the point where we have equal representation at the table of “mainstream” American Judaism. I believe that in order for this to happen, we first need to be recognized as a unique facet of the Jewish picture. That is, we need statistics about Jewish diversity in Jewish identity as a whole, beyond denomination and retention rates, for example. What we need is deep, data-driven information about Jews of color—a group that includes those who would be identified ethnically as a “person of color” had they no Jewish heritage; Jews who are phenotypically “white” but who do not come from an Ashkenazi background, such as white Latinos, Greeks, Moroccans, and Italians, among others.
It seems that while nearly every conceivable minutiae of America’s Jewish population has been recorded and re-recorded with painstaking detail, Jews of color have been omitted from just about every Jewish survey of note to date—from the Pew polls, to the those of National Jewish Population Surveys (1971, 1990, and 2000). According to my research, for which I used the Jewish Survey Question Bank, a searchable, open-access database of surveys in social research, there is no documentation of a survey dedicated to accounting Jewish diversity. In fact, of the 117 questions that come up when searching for “diversity,” only two questions actually broach the topic of racial or ethnic background. (They are: “Regarding your ethnicity, do you consider yourself to be White, Hispanic, Black or African American, Asian or Pacific Islander, bi-or-multi-racial, or something else?” from the 2013 Greater Columbus Jewish Community Study and 2010 Howard County (MD) Jewish Community Study, and a question about a survey taker’s level of agreement with the statement, “Cultural diversity within a group makes the group more interesting and effective,” from The Second Year: Evaluation of the Break New Ground Jewish Service Learning Initiative (2010) survey.)
Ayelet Shaked is an anomaly in Israeli politics. She’s a successful female politician in a landscape governed almost entirely by the male graduates of the Israel Defense Forces’ elite units. She’s a secular woman who had ascended the ranks of a religious party. And she’s a computer programmer who found herself, after a brief and meteoric rise, as Israel’s minister of justice.
Shaked has used her position and her telegenic presence to promote a host of controversial measures, from advocating to revoke the citizenship of Israeli Arabs convicted of terrorism to scrutinizing left-wing nonprofit organizations that receive large sums of money from European governments to promote causes like BDS. Each of these measures won her precious moments in the limelight—and plenty of criticism. Yet, oddly for a politician, she seems genuinely unmoved by public opinion. She speaks with the same unguarded passion that catapulted her from a tireless grassroots campaigner for right-wing causes—against the biased liberal media, against Israeli artists boycotting the settlements, against the illegal African immigrants who cross the Israeli border in search of shelter and work—to the pinnacle of Israeli politics.
Bruce Jay Friedman has been a stalwart of American Jewish fiction for 50 years, ever since the publication of his debut novel Stern in 1962. Now 85 years old, he has written 19 books and several hit screenplays, including Stir Crazy and Splash. His work helped to create what we now think of as the voice of Jewish comedy—zany yet bleakly ironic, knowingly self-deprecating. Yet he has never enjoyed the commanding fame of a Philip Roth or a Neil Simon; and the Friedman-like characters we meet in his new book of short stories, The Peace Process, are uniformly haunted by a sense of not quite having made it. They are middling writers or show-business veterans clinging to the unglamorous margins of the industry, dreaming of their glory days and hoping to make a comeback.
Thus the narrator of “The Big Sister” is a former producer of Las Vegas shows who “found myself being sidelined, squeezed out” and tries to make a living putting on Chekhov one-acts on the Lower East Side: “Wasn’t Chekhov supposed to be money in the bank? Done tastefully, of course. Maybe if I’d set the plays in a bowling alley.” In “Any Number of Little Old Ladies,” an aging playwright is so desperate for a hit that he ignores his wife’s warning not to write a character based on her: “Perhaps I’m being overly sensitive, but if you don’t mind, I’d rather the whole world didn’t know about the yodeling when I climax, or the Girl Scout costume,” she tells him. As these examples suggest, Friedman’s jokes are broad and direct, and they arrive right on the beat—we are clearly in the hands of a comedy professional.