Sunday, June 21, 2009

Friday, June 19, 2009

Yiddish version of Judy Garland’s most famous number in “The Wizard of Oz”;

Over the Rainbow

Somewhere over the rainbow, way up high

There’s a land that I heard of once in a lullaby.

Somewhere over the rainbow skies are blue

And the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true.

Someday I’ll wish upon a star

And wake up where the clouds are far behind me,

Where troubles melt like lemon drops away above the chimney tops,

That’s where you’ll find me.

Somewhere over the rainbow bluebirds fly

Birds fly over the rainbow

Why then oh why can’t I?

If all those little bluebirds fly

Beyond the rainbow why, oh why, can’t I?

Iber a Sheynem Regnboygn

Iber sheyn’ regnboygn hoykh un vayt,

Ligt a land, a ganeydn, shoyn fun a langer tsayt,

Iber a sheynem regnboygn alts geyt fayn,

Un di zise khaloymes ven dort mekoyem zayn.

Amol vel ikh oyfkhapn zikh un ale volkns veln farshvundn vern,

Un ale mayne tsores veln flien fun mir vayt avek — un mer nit trern!

Iber a sheynm regnboygn a foygl flit,

Feygl flien in freydn,

Ay, farvos ken ikh nit?

Oyb feygl flien hoykh un fray

Vel ikh oykh mit zey flien — halevay!

The Devil's Arithmetic

Showtime telefilm about The Holocaust
part 1

part 2

part 3

part 4

part 5

part 6

part 7

part 8

part 9 last part

The Alternative Medicine Rabbi

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Penina Moise: Poetess of Judaism

Penina Moise: Poetess of Judaism
by Seymour "Sy" Brody

Penina Moise was one of the most prolific and creative writers of poetry on Jewish themes in America. Her dedication and devotion to Judaism was the driving force in her life and writing.

Her father was a Sephardic Jew who immigrated to the West Indies from Alsace, France. He was a successful businessman who had to flee with his wife to Charleston, South Carolina, when a slave insurrection began in 1791. Penina was the sixth of nine children and she was born on April 23, 1797. in Charleston.

Penina was twelve years old when her father died leaving her with the major responsibility of managing the household as her mother was very sick. Despite dropping out of school to take care of her mother and family, she managed to find time to study and write.

When she was twelve years old, Penina had many of her poems printed in Jewish and non-Jewish publications. She was the first Jew to publish a book of poetry in the United States. Her reputation as a writer became widely known. She was a favorite among the cultured Jews of Charleston.

Penina became the superintendent of the first Jewish religious school in Charleston. She wrote many poems for the children to recite and composed songs for them to sing. All of her creations were of the glories of Jewish history to help them be proud of their Jewish heritage. Though her love of Judaism was profound, Penina recognized the good in all religions. When a prominent Christian minister died, she was asked to write a poem in his honor which was read at the funeral service.

Penina's sister and her daughter returned to Charleston after a thirty year separation. Their joyous reunion was disrupted by the Civil War. Her loyalty was with the South and she wrote poems to encourage the soldiers as they went to battle.

It was at this time that she began to experience problems with her sight and recurrent headaches. It was during this period that she wrote some of her best hymns, rejoicing in God's mercy and thanking him for his goodness. Many of these hymns are still sung in many Jewish Sabbath Sunday Schools.

She was confined in her home for the last fifteen years of her life where she and her sister conducted a Sunday school to support themselves. When the children's classes were over, they would go to her room to read to her and she in turn would tell them stories. Her courage remained high after her sister died and she passed away when she was eighty-four.

Penina's later works were written in the form of hymns on Jewish themes. Many of them are included in the collection of the Union Hymnal used by many congregations including Temple Emanu-El in New York City.

Penina Moise was the first Jewish woman in America to share her love of God with others through her poetry and hymns. She died on September 13, 1880, and is buried in the Coming Street Cemetery in Charleston, S.C. She has left a legacy to the people of America and she is a role model for our children to emulate.

Oprah And Lucy Rolled Into One

by Susan Fishman Orlins

‘The Rise of the Goldbergs” first aired on the radio less than a month after the stock market crashed in 1929. The series, about a Jewish family with one foot in the old world and one in the new, rose in popularity as Hitler was rising to power in Germany. Millions of listeners, Jews and gentiles alike, tuned their radios daily to hear Yiddish-accented Molly Goldberg ladle bowlfuls of compassion and good-humored common sense. The sense of shared humanity that she brought into living rooms across America was as soothing as matzah ball soup.

A new documentary, “Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg,” by award-winning filmmaker Aviva Kempner opens July 10 at Lincoln Plaza Cinema. A one-night-only screening and interview with Kempner is slated for Thursday,
June 25 at the 92nd Street Y. Kempner’s film chronicles the story of Gertrude Berg who wrote, directed, produced and acted in the radio show and later the TV show “The Goldbergs.”

“My M.O. is making films about under-known Jewish heroes,” says Kempner, whose “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg” about the baseball slugger earned an Emmy nomination. About Berg, the filmmaker notes, “It would be as if Oprah were forgotten 60 years from now.”

Kempner says that people think of “I Love Lucy” as the first situation comedy and that “Gertrude Berg was never given credit for developing the domestic sitcom. If you look at ‘Lucy,’ ‘The Honeymooners,’ ‘Seinfeld,’ ‘Friends’ — it’s all about neighbors walking into each other’s homes. Gertrude was the prototype. She also provided a positive image of a Jewish family at a most precarious time for survival of the Jews.”

As Molly Goldberg, Gertrude Berg was everyone’s Jewish mother. In 1950 Berg earned the first Emmy ever awarded for best actress, yet, as Kempner is fond of pointing out, “Gertrude Berg is the most important woman in America you never heard of.”

The world’s troubles were no strangers to the Goldbergs’ living room. In one segment of her film, Kempner juxtaposes archival footage of Kristallnacht with a clip of the Goldberg family at their Passover seder. When someone outside throws a stone shattering their window, Molly comforts her son and daughter and, with ever-present aplomb, urges her husband Jake to continue the seder, a first glimpse of the ritual for thousands of viewers.

“Gertrude faced the Holocaust head on,” says Kempner, whose aunt and grandparents perished in Auschwitz. Referring to a clip in her film in which the Goldbergs receive mail from the old country, she adds, “Gertrude showed what was happening in the world and that she was well aware survivors were coming to America and that it had to be addressed on a national level.”

Born Tillie Edelstein in 1899, Gertrude Berg grew up in what was then a Jewish section of Harlem. The seeds for her career were sown during summers at her father’s Catskill’s hotel, Fleischmann’s, where, as a young teen, Tillie created skits to entertain the children of the guests. Fleischmann’s is also where at age 14 she met Lewis Berg, a Jewish engineering student from England, whom she wed four years later. After a fire ravaged the New Orleans plantation where Lewis worked as an engineer, the Bergs returned to New York City. Tillie changed her name to Gertrude and began writing radio scripts. Second in duration only to “Amos ’n’ Andy,” her radio show “The Rise of the Goldbergs” enjoyed a 17-year run. Then, in 1949, Berg persuaded CBS executives to broadcast “The Goldbergs” on television.

A typical episode opened with the buxom, aproned Molly — framed by her tenement window — making a pitch for Sanka coffee so convincing you could practically inhale the aroma. She then established immediate audience rapport: “Oy, have I got news for you.” Molly’s friend, Mrs. Bloom, sometimes leaned out her own window across an air shaft to summon, “Yoo-hoo, Mrs. Goldberg.” Near enough to try on each other’s hats, the two schmoozed about everything from their catering business scheme to Pincus Pines, the Goldbergs favorite Catskills destination.

When Gertrude Berg appeared on “Person to Person,” Edward R. Murrow’s popular celebrity interview program, viewers got to see not Molly’s modest Bronx apartment, but Berg’s swank Park Avenue duplex. Murrow asked about the distinctions between Gertrude Berg and Molly Goldberg. In unaccented English, Berg, who had written some 12,000 scripts, told Murrow, “I’m really Molly more hours of the day than I am Gertrude.”

Her gracious smile and glamorous digs belied tough times for Jews in the entertainment business, many of whose names appeared on the blacklist. “The Goldbergs” had fallen victim to McCarthyism, a tragedy poignantly portrayed in Kempner’s documentary. Phillip Loeb, who played Molly’s husband Jake, was targeted in “Red Channels: The Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television.” Berg thus lost her sponsors. “She fought like hell to keep Phillip Loeb, confronting sponsors and going to everyone she knew,” says Kempner. She even approached influential Cardinal Spellman, who offered to help keep Loeb if Berg would convert to Catholicism.

Berg finally realized the only way the show could continue was to hire a new Jake, and she made an out-of-court financial settlement with Loeb. Beaten down and unable to find work to support his son, who was schizophrenic, Loeb committed suicide. Berg was devastated.

On a lighter note, Kempner’s “Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg” incorporates footage of laundry flapping outside tenement windows while Molly Goldberg extols the virtues of Duz laundry soap. Gertrude Berg is said to have invented product placement and her audience bought the products Molly raved about, like Pepsodent and the energy supplement, Rybutol. During World War II, Molly encouraged Americans to buy war bonds. She also merchandised her political views. In one episode, Molly goes back to high school where, in a pageant, she portrays FDR delivering a fireside chat.

Glenn D. Smith, author of the Berg biography, “Something on My Own,” says, “Through Molly, Berg felt she had a moral obligation. Listeners loved [the politics] or hated it. Some wrote in swearing they wouldn’t buy Pepsodent. ... A number of non-Jewish listeners loved her, but politically conservative non-Jews couldn’t stand her. They listened to the program, then fired off letters saying they’d had enough. One signed off, ‘Viva la Hitler.’”

Some, however, found Berg’s alter ego, Molly, so approachable they believed she could solve their problems. Smith, in his biography, quotes from a letter with a fan’s plea to save her marriage: “Now dear Mollie ... Couldn’t you help me untangle my situation by broadcasting a problem like this one some evening soon?”

Kempner explains, “For those 55 and above, Gertrude and her character Molly are totally memory lane, a smile or a tear in their eye; but for the next generation, especially women, it’s discovering someone who was such an important Jewish entertainer and a real role model for women.

“Ruth Bader Ginsburg, whom I interviewed for the film, told me how much Molly Goldberg reminded her of her aunt and grandmother,” Kempner continues. “Gertrude countered stereotypes. Rather than portraying the domineering Jewish mother, she created a powerful Jewish mother.”

Kempner compares the image of Berg’s character, Molly, to that of Michelle Obama: “homespun, talented, bright and showing by example.”

Berg connected with her audience by blurring the line between reality and fiction. Her own son was called to service at the same time as Alfred Ryder, who played Molly’s son, Sammy Goldberg, on radio. Smith writes that Berg scripted an episode culminating with “Ryder actually boarding a train for boot camp. The final ‘good-bye’ scene was then broadcast live from New York’s Penn Station.”

Although discrimination against Jews led some to change their names in order to land jobs, Gertrude Berg is said to have been the second most respected woman in America, after Eleanor Roosevelt. “You didn’t have to be Jewish to love Molly,” says Kempner. As noted in historian Joyce Antler’s “You Never Call! You Never Write!,” Berg received mail from fans as diverse as farmers’ wives, Quaker women, lumberjacks, sailors and “even one Mother Superior who wrote to Berg to ask for scripts she missed when her convent gave up the show for Lent.”

On the other hand, some Jews were downright critical. Carol Poster, an 85-year-old Jewish grandmother remembers Berg mentioning on “The Ed Sullivan Show” that she had a Chanukah bush. “It disturbed many of us that this ethnic Jewish actress, who engendered great pride, belittled Chanukah,” says Poster.

Others, who are younger, recall that Molly Goldberg reminded them of their bubbies, a source of both pride and embarrassment when Jews were striving to assimilate.

Smith in his biography points out it was long after network executives began pressuring Berg to “tone down” the Jewishness that she yielded and moved “The Goldbergs” from their Bronx Jewish roots to the suburbs.

Here was an immigrant family achieving the American dream with a house on a quiet, manicured street. Neighbors’ names — Mrs. Peterson, Mrs. Van Ness — bore no similarity to those of Molly’s Bronx landsmen, Mrs. Bloom and Mrs. Herman. But with the loss of Phillip Loeb as well as the Goldbergs’ upward mobility and watered-down ethnicity, the show lost its heart and lasted for only one more season, ending in 1956.

At the same time, a different breed of comic performer, like Phyllis Diller and Lenny Bruce, was emerging. As if completing a radio-TV-theater trifecta, Gertrude Berg went on to win a Tony in 1959 for her Broadway performance opposite Cedric Hardwicke in “Majority of One.”

Aviva Kempner’s documentary “Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg” will be screened Thursday, June 25 at TK at the 92nd Street Y. The screening will be followed by ana interview with the filmmaker. The film opens July 10 at Lincoln Plaza Cinema.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Search Upload * Upload Video File * Record from Webcam Kosher not Kosher with Robert Cait

"Kosher not Kosher" delivers two classic sets from the hottest halachically correct comic, the Kosher side recorded in front of an observant audience and the not Kosher performance taken from one of the many Cait concerts on the secular side of Sunset Boulevard. Robert Cait is well known former Yuk Yuk's Comedian.

Guide to Jewish Newspapers (A Satire)

Frum Satire
There is no dearth of reading material for the Jewish community, newspapers and magazines are readily available and here is my take on them. I am sure I left some out, but these are the one’s I have looked at or read on a regular basis. Do you have anything else to add?


The Yated is the yeshvish paper of choice it has the readers write section, in which Lakewood kollel wives complain about women wearing crocs to shul, the visiting day crisis (see explanation below) and how to solve the shidduch crisis by telling girls to stay in the freezer (Lakewood yeshiva policy for not letting guys date after they come home from Israel) just like guys.

The only other interesting feature in the Yated for someone who doesn’t want to read cut and pasted week old AP and Reuters articles is the Chinuch Round table - someone asks a question (sometimes juicy) and a bunch of Rabbis from different institutions answer it. Every Rabbi says the same exact thing and there is no diversity within the group. One week there was a question concerning this family who invites over yeshiva rebels to get them back on track but they have two teenage girls and they scared of the influence - it had the most sexual undertones I have ever seen in a yeshivish publication - but most of the time it has to do with whether or not girls should be taught aleph bais, because that may lead them to want to learn gemara.

The Jewish Week

Then you have the Jewish Week, which is trying to be a Jewish version of the New York times, well thought out articles by academics bashing anything religious or right wing, at least one article per issue about a crisis in Africa which has no Jewish appeal and items that are constantly telling us how philanthropic liberal Jews are even though they rarely give to Jewish organizations.


The Hamodia is actually a real paper, of course its all right wing, doesn’t have pictures of women and is full of ads for kishke and kugel makers - but its a daily paper and people love it, it has absolutely nothing of interest to me, but for folks who can’t tune in to Fox news daily because their TV is behind the mirror in their bedroom it works.

The Jewish Press

The Jewish Press is famous for being the only paper in which their is an ongoing halachic debate whether you can bring it in to the bathroom or take it out of the bathroom. It also has several pseudonyms, The Jewish Mess, The Jewish Prust, etc…and for one reason or another - probably because they have the most diverse roster of writers, is hated by many in the more black hat community.

The Jewish Press has articles from Lubavitchers, secular Jews and frummies and modern orthodox. It happens to be that the Jewish Press has some controversial stuff that is not appropriate for little Ruchie fresh out of seminary. The Chronicles of Crisis in which many of the issues dealt with are swept under the rug on a regular basis is part of the Family Matters section which could be pulled out of the paper for censoring.

While they may be slightly left wing, compared to other orthodox papers, but they are still right wing by journalistic standards, for instance in their chronicles of crisis articles they like to write about frum women who discover one day after 30 years of marriage that their husband is gay - but they don’t call it gay - they call it SSA “same sex attraction” which I think was taken out of the DSM in 1960 or something. The articles viewing frum men who look at porn as diseased addicts are also quite funny.

The Jewish Press also has something that I am surprised more papers don’t have, and that is articles dealing with shidduchim and the so called shidduch crisis. You would think, if there was really a shidduch crisis facing the frum community, more Jewish publications would devote more space to it. Esther Jungreis and Shmuely Boteach love writing about it and at the back of the Press they have the shidduch page which has a male/female response to questions about shomer negiah, saying no after the first date and telling the guy you can’t send him your picture because you haven’t photo shopped it enough yet.

There are loads of local Jewish weeklies and I don’t know of them all, but maybe you can enlighten me with what they spew.

The Five Towns Jewish Times (FTJT)

The Five Towns Jewish Times it seems is devoted to advertising, its kind of like one of those countless free zines with ads for tichel washing - but in a more large print format. Every other advertisement is for an overpriced yeshiva dinner or a raffle in which you can win a dream kitchen or fully stocked beis medrish. I was published in the paper, but I still like the Jewish Star better.

The Jewish Star

The Jewish Star is the other five towns Jewish paper, reading it makes you draw the comparison between it and the FTJT in that the Jewish Star is way more mature and an actual newspaper, whereas the FTJT is just an advertisement ladden NY Post style paper. Not that either of them are that interesting, but if you want news, that’s what its about.

My favorite ads in Jewish newspapers are the ones for New Yeshivas opening up - seems that different programs for off the derech kids open every day. I love how they try to be all politically correct with phrases like “do you want your child to receive the attention they deserve?” Which really means that they have drug tests and wont let the kids out at night.

The Texas Jewish Post

In Dallas they had the Texas Jewish Post which was really an overpriced undervalued edition of the Jewish Week, it was tiny, colorful and had nothing of interest to anyone besides for Texas Jewish Community Center directors - so they could know who to hit up for money.

Mishpacha Magazine

Mishpahcha magazine is the only Charedi magazine, and its actually pretty good. I really like their articles about great Rabbis that passed away or on their yirtzeits. The magazine caters to women it seems, and once in a while they go a little risque and talk about the shidduch crisis or judging within the frum community - but most of the time it is Rebbe stories and how to make sushi for your next vort, or how to wash and set your sheitle.


I bought Heeb magazine once and it was great, it was before I started writing and entered the Jewish literati world. The Beastie Boys were on the cover, they had an ad for kosher butt lube and a picture of a ketuba for same sex couples, but the next time I saw the magazine it had degenerated into an elitist hipster rag of kitschy Jewish things like glow in the dark dreidles and too many bagel and Jewish mother guilt articles.

Lifestyles Magazine

Lifestyles Magazine has got to be one of the most ridiculous magazines I have ever seen. Basically one thick magazine full of maserati, rolex and personal jet ads with picture after picture of cocktail party attendees with lifted faces smiling because they just gave away a million dollars to some Jewish environmental fund. Its really pathetic, and its like $8 an issue.

New Voices, Jvibe and Presentense

These are the low budget versions of Heeb for college students who use the term Jew-ish. I enjoy all three of them, but am waiting for my subscriptions so I can find out more.

Periodicals I don’t read and therefore can’t throw forth my two cents:

Moment and The Forward - two world class publications which I would love to write for someday. Other than that I know nothing.

The visiting day crisis: The Readers Write section of the Yated erupted with chaos last year when one reader brought up the visiting day crisis, how something deteriorated into a crisis so fast boggled my mind but based on the letters it seems that anything that bothers anyone in Lakewood or Boro Park becomes a crisis.

With that said the so called visiting day crisis revolved around the fact that parents couldn’t afford the costs of visiting day. You have to give tips, drive up and then take the kids to Woodbourne to fatten them up and buy them nosh. I recall visiting day as going for a hike with my dad. But I guess parents have lost the concept of not spoiling their children and turned it into a crisis instead.

I hope to continue this with a satirical critique of Jewish news websites for there are many…and possibly a more in depth look at the types of advertisements in Jewish news papers.

Friday, June 12, 2009

The Kosher Cowboy.

The unfashionable Charles Krauthammer

The unfashionable Charles Krauthammer
Jun. 10, 2009
hilary leilea krieger, JPost Correspondent, Washington , THE JERUSALEM POST

Charles Krauthammer, the Washington Post columnist who quit a job as the chief resident in psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital in the 1970s to find work sharing his views with a global audience (his op-eds are carried in The Jerusalem Post among other publications), does not want to talk about himself or his political opinions.

Instead, the 59-year-old Pulitzer Prize winner wants to discuss the music program he and his wife recently started to try to revive and preserve Jewish music that has been lost to the masses. "Pro Musica Hebraica," as it's called, just finished its first season to critical acclaim, and Krauthammer is looking to raise awareness about the project as it gears up for its second year.

He points to many styles and eras that are neglected these days - the victim of times both banal and horrific. Though the first season focused on Eastern European 20th-century themes, Krauthammer would like to present a wide variety of works in coming concerts, including Ladino, Dutch cantorial and baroque Jewish pieces - the latter of which, he noted, "many people think is an oxymoron: baroque Jewish, what does that apply to, Jackie Mason?"

So if submitting to an interview is what he has to do, so be it. And, agreeing to submit, he does so good-naturedly. The sharp, commanding strokes of a pen that doesn't refrain from taking the powers-that-be to task - a recent column explained why he rejected an invitation to a White House stem cell bill signing ceremony - belie a warm, amiable, humorous person. Of course, for all Krauthammer's strong neoconservative convictions, tempered though they might be with support for abortion rights and other socially liberal positions, he was raised in Canada.

Despite his preference for talking about musical rather than prose compositions, he can't quite escape the writer in him as he speaks, editing sentences as he utters them. His foundation, he dictates, "is a very - you should add a lot of 'very's - a very, very small foundation." In addition to sponsoring the music project, it also supports a Washington-area Jewish high school program, Shorashim, whose mission is to teach students who don't go to Jewish day schools Jewish texts. The common link is Krauthammer's devotion to his Jewish heritage and its preservation, both in a score and on the printed page.

How did you first get interested in this project?

My wife had the idea five, six years ago. It came from two thoughts. One is, when people hear "Jewish music," they think Israeli folk-dancing - "Hava Negila" - they think of liturgical music, they think of Kol Nidre, they might think of klezmer and that's it. It turns out there's a great, rich tradition of classical Jewish music people just don't know about.

The other thing is that Jews, in America and around the world, are extremely supportive of music philanthropically and through playing, producing, composing. [Yet] when it comes to something that has the word "Jewish" on it, there's some sense that it would be too parochial to get involved. And that's absurd. Ever other nationality or ethnicity proudly supports and encourages its own national culture; many Jews find it too parochial. So we wanted to say, here it is. Much of it is at the level of the great music of the world, and we want it to be recognized for what it is.

Why haven't these pieces received more prominence in the past?

Some have come and gone with the historical genre they were part of. [With] Jewish baroque music, there's nothing particular that ended that. Baroque had its fashion for everybody, then it came and went. Some haven't gone: Sephardic music is there, just Western audiences haven't heard it. Obviously Ladino and Sephardic music has declined because of the change in Jewish demographics, where Jews don't live in the Muslim world after 1948... We're not necessarily making the claim that these are great enough to be sustained on their own. We'll let people judge and see whether they feel that it is at a high enough level that it should be learned and transmitted and continued.

At one of your recent concerts, you defined Jewish music broadly as based on a sensibility rather than DNA. The lineup included the non-Jewish Dmitry Shostakovich's so-called "Jewish finale," itself one of the only pieces that featured recognizably Jewish melodies. What, then, did you mean by a Jewish sensibility?

It's music that's either consciously or unconsciously drawn from the folk, the klezmer, the liturgical, the shtetl. Shostakovich, interestingly, absorbed that through his fellow musicians without having experienced it firsthand.

In music it would be drawn from the music of the folk. In literature it's an interesting question, what's a Jewish novel? Again, it has to do with whether there's an attachment to or a feeling of or a concern with the Jewish experience and Jewish destiny, though that's to put it very broadly and bluntly and crudely.

We're not going to do Felix Mendelssohn. He was genetically Jewish, but he was so consciously Christian, and he tried to be European. That's fine - he's one of the great composers and he's in the European canon - but he's not particularly of interest to us simply because he happened to be genetically Jewish.

Can you talk a little bit about your own Jewish upbringing and sense of Jewishness, and how that influences you? I assume it's a factor in this particular project.

I grew up in a Modern Orthodox home. I went to Jewish day school right through high school, so half of my day was spent speaking Hebrew from age six to 16. I studied thousands of hours of Talmud. My father thought I didn't get enough Talmud at school, so I took the extra Talmud class at school and he had a rabbi come to the house three nights a week. One of those nights was Saturday night, so in synagogue Saturday morning my brother and I would pray very hard for snow so he wouldn't be able to come on Saturday night and we could watch hockey night in Canada. That's where I learned about prayer.

That didn't seem to you to be a prayer that was likely to go unanswered?

Yeah, I was giving it a shot to see what side God was on.

And what did you determine?

It rarely snowed.

Despite being raised Orthodox, you said in a recent column that you're not religious.

Rabbi David Hartman, who runs the Hartman Institute [in Jerusalem], was actually at McGill the years I was a student there, and I took his courses on Maimonides. That had a big influence on me in the sense that I was going away from my Jewish upbringing, thinking of it as narrow and parochial, and when I was introduced to Maimonides, it was just sort of at the highest level of world philosophy, Aristotelian philosophy applied to Judaism. I realized that Jewish culture was not just not a Sunday afternoon lecture. It belonged with a great secular culture that I admired as a student. So that kind of reinforced my Jewishness even as I became irreligious.

Was becoming less religious connected to that feeling of Judaism being parochial?

That was not the reason. It was simply a matter of just applying my thinking to these questions of God, a historical God and a God who intervenes in prayer, and I came up short. It was no great epiphany. It was no great disappointment. It had nothing to do with my being [paralyzed in a diving accident] when I was 22. I was already way, way gone by the time I was 18 and 19. It was simply an intellectual conclusion, and I've been basically unchanged for 50 years. I don't make any great claims for it. I would not proselytize my own agnosticism. It's just where I've come to. If I'm honest with myself, I'm not religious but I am very Jewish in the sense that I feel a tremendous duty to the past and the majesty of Jewish culture, to not let it disappear... As for my own practice, it's fairly minimal, but I go on the required days. I go to Yizkor, those kinds of things. I once described to a friend my Jewishness - I said, I'm a Jewish Shinto. I believe in ancestor worship. That's the heart of my Judaism.

What about your connection to Israel?

As you see in my writing, it's very strong. That would be a third example of my connection to Jewish history. I've always been a Zionist, and I believe with utter conviction in the justice of the cause, which makes my writing about it clear and direct. [Defending Zionism] is pretty much out of fashion these days. But to me it's extremely important, in and of itself as a just cause and also in the context of America and how it looks at itself as, among other things, a champion for freedom around the world.

You said Zionism's not in fashion. Is that why there's all this criticism of Israel, because it's not trendy, or because of something deeper?

I think the world is tiring of Israel and of Jews. And Jews, secular Jewish intellectuals are tiring more than most. It used to be they would criticize Israeli actions. That was the norm in the '70s, '80s. Now it's come down the legitimacy of a Jewish state.

It's in part as a result of the disastrous policies Israel has followed since 1993 with Oslo. But it's in part the shallowness in these people who are not quite ready to stand up to the fashions of the times, to the pressures from polite society, from elite society, from various national establishments against Israel. It's far easier to join the cocktail party set. If you deplore Israel, it gets you through the day a lot more easily.

In Europe I think it is that the era of Holocaust guilt is over. It was a generational phenomenon. Now that it's over, Europe is reverting to its natural anti-Semitism - not with the virulence obviously that we saw in the early 20th century, but the norm for the 19 centuries before that - Jews as alien, Jews as troublesome, Jews as not quite trustworthy. And it's writ large for Israel. The Jewish people have lost Europe. Israel's lost Europe. The one place it hasn't been lost is America, where there are tens of millions of Americans who are strongly Zionist and many other who are sympathetic. One of the things I try to do is make the case, which I find a very easy case to make, to oppose the fashionable anti-Israeli trend.

How do you feel about being labeled a neoconservative, which is decidedly not in fashion now that a new political guard has taken over Washington?

Irving Kristol, who is the father of neoconservatism, [long] resisted the term because he considered himself the true heir to American liberalism, while liberals were the ones who deviated to European social democracy or into infantile leftism or whatever. He gave up and decided, "What the hell! They're going to call me neoconservative, we'll be neoconservatives." So I don't really mind the label any more than he did.

Neoconservatism is deeply out of fashion now, which is fine with me. We're the root cause of every evil on earth, including the rise of the Red River in South Dakota and Minnesota, but I'm very comfortable with its basic views of the world.

Does it matter that if you carry this label, it might turn people off or make them less receptive to your ideas from the get-go?

It's true. There's no way around it. It's like being Jewish. There are some people who are going to think that I'm a genetically programmed agent of Israel infiltrating America. I'm not going to lose any sleep over that.

So as both a "neocon" and a Jew, how did it feel being in fashion briefly?

Maybe that was the more disturbing moment? Yeah, it actually is. I don't take the fashions very seriously one way or the other. I can accept White House invitations and I can go without White House invitations. I really don't care. Post-9/11 was exciting because there was an administration that was open to conservative ideas and one had to think very hard about what to do, and that's a challenge. It's a lot easier when the other guys are in power and all you've got to do is skeet shoot - blow them out of the sky. Writing in the opposition is a lot easier.

I'm perfectly at ease with the Democrats, the liberals in power. I think we should have a rotation of power. It makes the other side have to act responsibly, as we saw with Obama on Afghanistan [recently boosting forces there].

That's why I can take it either way. In fashion, out of fashion, it hasn't affected my readership, which has grown without stop since 1985. With the newspaper industry shrinking, I think I'm in 209 newspapers as of today. So people obviously want to hear this point of view, and whether they're reading me in the White House or not is not of terrible importance.

In case they are reading you in the White House, what are your thoughts about moving forward in Israel? You're both critical of the Oslo Accords but supportive of a two-state solution, so what do you suggest?

The damage done by Oslo is incalculable but it's irreversible, so one has to go forward. I opposed it from the day I was on the White House lawn, and I opposed it regretfully, hoping that I was wrong. It turned out, very painfully, that I was right. It just did terrible damage. Now Israel's in a position where the peace process is a farce. I'm not against pretending to be involved in a peace process, as we did in Annapolis. I supported the Annapolis conference precisely because I knew that it would go nowhere, so it looks as if everyone's involved and we're all very peaceful-thinking.

But the Middle East is not complicated to this extent. I mean, it has tremendous nuances and curlicues and all that, but it's very simple: As long as the Arab states and Palestinians do not accept a Jewish state, there will not be peace. And on the day they make a collective decision to accept a Jewish state, there will be peace within weeks. It will be a technical matter. And everything else is commentary.

Right now there's no hope for a peace process. Israel withdrew land for peace - they gave land in Lebanon, they got rockets; they gave back the land in Gaza, they got rockets. They give back the land in the West Bank, they'll get rockets and the shutting of Ben-Gurion Airport. I mean everybody knows this, it's simple.

That process is going nowhere until the Palestinians change. And that process might not change in my lifetime, in which case Israel simply has to maintain the status quo as long as it can, and make sure Israel and the West Bank are divided so that there's no one-state solution.

Obviously Bibi [Binyamin Netanyahu] and the Likud will accept a two-state solution - there's no other way out. There's no other way to go, but the Palestinians haven't given up the dream of destroying Israel. That's what the Gaza war was about, that's what the Lebanon war was about. These aren't theoretical propositions; these are realities of what the Arabs say.

So I think Israel needs a very strong defense, it needs the fence, it needs American support. It defeated the second intifada, which everyone said was impossible, and that's where we'll be for years until the Palestinians decide they'll take half a loaf, which has been offered to them since 1947.

How do you see the ultimate resolution?

Everyone knows what the resolution will be. It will be along the lines of the Clinton-Barak proposal in 2000 at Camp David. And I can give you the terms of the agreement on the back of an envelope right now. It will be 5 percent of the West Bank, which will involve some of the larger Israeli settlements, which Israel will take. Israel will give Palestinians equivalent territory out of Israel proper. There will be a Palestinian state, a Jewish state, and Jerusalem will be divided along the lines Ehud Barak offered, and that's what it's going to look like.

Is that an acceptable position to you?

It's a heartbreaking position to me, and I think Ehud Barak did terrible damage to Israel in 2000 in offering the division of Jerusalem because it set a norm, it destroyed a consensus in the West of an undivided Jerusalem. It was US policy until then, not only Israeli policy - but how is the United States going to be more Catholic than the pope? So that's the new reality. It would be heartbreaking, but it would be acceptable. Peace is the ultimate objective. If that's what it takes, that's what it takes.

You said a couple of years ago that the right man to lead Israel was then opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu. Now that he's prime minister, do you still believe that?

Between '96 and '99, the total number of Israeli dead from terrorism was in the 30s. Given what followed, the thousand Jews killed in the second intifada, I would call that very successful. He also gave away very little. [Yitzhak] Rabin and [Shimon] Peres and Barak gave away a lot and got nothing but war in return... I thought Netanyahu was pretty successful in basically holding the line.

I supported [Ariel] Sharon's withdrawal from Gaza, even though Bibi opposed it. People think in retrospect they should not have withdrawn, I think they should have. So I was pretty much a supporter of Sharon and Kadima and the vision that they had, but the Palestinians have decided the Kadima approach was dead by their reaction to the Gaza withdrawal, so that's dead. So we want someone who won't give away the store for dreams, which is what Peres and Rabin did. That happens to be Bibi, and I'm not too happy about the way his cabinet shaped up, but that's a function of the dysfunctional Israeli political system. I don't think he would have chosen his cabinet that way had he had the free hand of an American president.

How do you think he'll manage with the new American president?

I don't know. I think it could be rough. I think [Avigdor] Lieberman as foreign minister is going to be very, very difficult for Israel.

How so, and are those attitudes towards Lieberman legitimate or based on misperceptions?

The fact that he is so reviled in the West, whether for legitimate reasons or not, in and of itself is a reason why he shouldn't be foreign minister, even if it's not just. You don't start out an administration if you can help it with a foreign minister who is exceedingly unpopular in the capitals to which you're about to send him.

And what about the relationship between Obama and Netanyahu themselves?

I'm not that sure that that in and of itself is a recipe for disagreement or unpleasantness. I just don't know, but I don't think there's any reason to assume that.

You said that it's important Israel receive strong support from America. Are you confident that Obama will provide that support?

I don't know and I don't know that anybody does. We've elected a very mysterious man in many, many ways - the most unknown man ever to be elected president of the United States, in the sense of people's experience with him and his own experience. So we have no idea.

Should we have some ominous music playing in the background now?

No. I mean, who would have predicted that George W. Bush would have been the most pro-Israel president since Harry Truman? There wasn't much in his background ever to suggest that, and yet he was. I really don't know what Obama's policies will be. It's hard to read it from his advisers. Some are pretty strongly pro-Israel. Others are less so.

What do you think about his policy of outreach to Iran?

I'm skeptical that these overtures will work, but let's see what he brings home.

Do you think it could work?

I don't think anything will come of it, but then I'm a cynic.

But theoretically, do think engagement can work?

You go the extra mile so that you're in position to do stuff afterward. Will he do stuff afterward? I doubt it.

What if Israel does?

If Israel does, it will be a very difficult day. All hell will break loose.

What about the American response?

We'll get blamed one way or the other, though I'm sure we will not be involved.

Do you see it playing out the way it reportedly did under George W. Bush, with him telling Israel to hold off?

We'll give them the red light, but if Israel feels an existential threat, it will do what it did in '67. Johnson gave Israel the red light as well, and they went ahead and attacked Egypt. They had to. I think the Israelis feel the same way. They just better succeed, like in '67. If you're going to go against the American red light, you better make sure you get the job done; '67 would have been disaster otherwise. This will be a disaster otherwise too.

Looking back over the last eight years, how do you feel about the positions you took, many of which are criticized today? You said you still think disengagement was the right thing to do. What about the invasion of Iraq? Is there anything you need to rethink?

There's always a lot to rethink. Basically I think history will see that the Iraq war was worth it. I think it will look at the Iraq war the way we look at the Korean War, which claimed almost 10 times as many American lives: We didn't get everything that we wanted. It was much more costly than we had expected. But if Iraq continues on the current trajectory, it will end up as a strategic ally in the region, which should be a tremendous advance for the United states. So I think history will look at it with the same balanced but probably favorable view if that outcome is achieved.

I think Bush kept us safe for seven years and it was no accident. I think most of the measures he took were required. To the extent that we dismantle those, which I don't think we will actually, we'll be less safe. But we deeply undervalue the achievement of seven years of safety. No one expected it. Nobody expected six months without a second attack. In completely new, unplanned, ad hoc circumstances post-9/11, I think they did a good job.

So do the critics just have it wrong?

I think there's war-weariness... We didn't find the right general and the right strategy until late 2006. America has a history of not knowing what to do at the beginning of wars. Lincoln didn't find his general until three years in. If he hadn't, we'd be two different countries right now... The Iraq war, as tragic as it was, and terrible as it was, was one of those wars where we couldn't figure out the insurgency strategy and get it right until very late, and that's the reason people are so war-weary, and they are correct to be war-weary.

So none of the things we've seen these years made you rethink ideas or arguments?

Lest I seem unreflective and inflexible, the answer is no. The view of the world that basically led to [Ronald] Reagan's policies - the success of the Cold War, the basic response to 9/11, which is sort of parallel to that in seeing radical Islam as the equivalent of the great totalitarian enemies of the 20th century - I think is basically correct.

We can argue, I think we should argue, whether some of the tactics of counterinsurgency were correctly carried out, and there's no question that they were incorrectly, badly, tragically done in 2004, 5 and 6. But because the first three years of the Civil War were such a disaster it doesn't make you rethink the basic idea of the Civil War, which was to keep the union intact... The basic idea of trying to defeat radical Islam on the ground had to be done. You can't defeat it by cruise missiles and you can't do it by preaching. And if we succeed in creating this seed in Iraq which may actually be happening, it could have a profound effect on the evolution of the Middle East and that would be the ultimate answer to 9/11.

The reason I haven't changed my views is that no one has offered a remotely plausible alternative to answering the challenging of 9/11 and its origins. So when someone does I'll be willing to rethink it.

So when it comes to the current fashions - I'm too old to worry about fashion. I've worn a blue shirt on television every week for 20 years. No, I don't go too much with the fashions.

Where does that come from? Why don't you? So many columnists are trying to be one step ahead of what everyone thinks and says.

I think it's indicative of the fact that I spent seven years in medicine and I quit to do this, and it wasn't exactly an exercise in upward social mobility at the time. My father was scratching his head for years over why I would do it.

The only reason to do it is to say what you believe, and if you don't, it would have been pointless to do what I did. So you say what you believe and you really don't give a damn.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Crusades

The Crusades
The quest to "liberate" the Holy Land and Christianity from heretics
By Joshua Levy

While the Crusades were a holy war against Muslims, the term “crusade” is also used more generally to mean a campaign against those who did not believe in the Christianity of the Church. While the following article outlines the origins and consequences of the Crusades to recapture the Holy Land for Christianity, it is important to recognize that the Church also conducted crusades against heretics, or groups of Christians that did not agree with official church doctrine.

For example, in the 13th century, Pope Innocent III launched a crusade to destroy the Albigensians, a group judged heretical for their dualist theology. The crusade was “successful” after 50 years of bloodshed. The legacy of this crusade includes the Inquisition, a mobile tribunal that judged heretics based on information obtained through torture and secret testimony. The Inquisition would play a central role in Jewish history when it was established in fifteenth century Spain as a means of dealing with the crypto-Jewish population there.Crusades
The Crusade for the Holy Land: The First Crusade of 1096

The origins of the Christian Crusade to liberate the Holy Land are found in the spread of a warrior Asiatic tribe. In 1071, the Seljuk Turks defeated the Byzantine army at the Battle of Manzikert, thereby occupying all of Asia Minor, including Palestine. As stories of atrocities committed against Christian pilgrims filtered back to Europe, the Byzantine Emperor Alexius Comnenus appealed for help against the Seljuks. Pope Urban II called for a crusade against the Muslims in 1095. The stated goal of this crusade was to recapture the Holy Land and ensure safety for Christian pilgrims visiting sacred sites. However, many of the crusaders saw it as the perfect opportunity to serve God and simultaneously make a fortune in looting and ransom.

By 1096, a large army (25,000-30,000 men) was prepared for battle. They marched from southern France to Constantinople, where friction immediately arose between the Byzantines, who were unprepared for such an army, and the crusaders. In 1097, the crusaders left Constantinople and marched towards Jerusalem, which fell in 1099. The goal of the Crusade had been achieved. In celebration, the crusaders ruthlessly slaughtered all of the Muslim inhabitants of the city. The Jewish community in Palestine was forced to surrender to the new rulers, or face execution.
The Crusades Devastated the Jewish Rhineland

The events of 1096 temporarily stopped the intellectual and social activity of Ashkenazic Jewry. Urban II’s call for the Crusade did more than arouse interest in the armies that went to Jerusalem. Two other groups formed, both of which harmed the Jews: itinerant preachers and bands of German peasants. For the most part, the itinerant preachers were only interested in exploiting the Jews financially, demanding money for provisions. The peasant groups were much more dangerous. These bands coalesced around a charismatic leader and engaged in spontaneous violence against Jews.

In the early stages of the Crusade, these latter groups destroyed the Jewish communities in Speyer, Worms, and Mainz. There are accounts of these peasants ruthlessly slaughtering defenseless people, attacking Jews while in synagogue, and storming royal buildings to massacre the Jews.
Acts of Jewish Martyrdom Met Crusader Violence

These anti-Jewish attacks reveal an interesting trend in medieval Jewry: the willingness of the Jews to die for their faith. This act, known as kiddush ha-shem (sanctification of the Divine Name), was quite common, according to the three extant Hebrew chronicles of the First Crusade. These chronicles report Jewish parents killing their children in a manner similar to Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac and Jews examining knives to ensure that the killing of their brethern was done according to the laws of kashrut. In some instances, Jewish martyrs insulted their Christian attackers before being killed as a way of displaying their ultimate faith in God.
The Legacy of the First Crusade

Even though a large percentage of Rhineland Jewry was destroyed in these events, French Jewry escaped unscathed. The First Crusade did a great deal to expose how vulnerable Ashkenazic Jews were, but the status of the Jews in the eyes of royal authorities did not change. The authorities had not instigated the violence; in many instances, the authorities attempted to protect the Jews.

While the events of 1096 debilitated Rhineland Jewry, the First Crusade should not be seen as a watershed event that inevitably lead to the decline of Ashkenazic Jewry. Several Rhineland Jewish communities were destroyed, but they rapidly rebuilt in the early 12th century. Jewish economic activity flourished; moneylending in particular, increased as subsequent crusading ventures needed cash. There was certainly no decline in intellectual creativity among Ashkenazi Jews; the study of law continued, although the focus shifted from Germany to northern France.
Later Crusades Spurred Jewish Travel to Palestine

Although Crusades continued over the next 300 years, subsequent crusades did not affect the Jews in the same way. After the events in the Rhineland in 1096, the Church realized the importance of reigning in the popular armies and protecting the Jews. During the Second Crusade, the preaching of Bernard of Clairvaux, the moving spirit behind the Crusade, condemned anti-Jewish preaching and actions. However, Bernard’s rationale demonstrated that anti-Jewish sentiment was alive and well: for Bernard, the Jews were living witnesses to what happened to Jesus. Their dispersion throughout the world served as proof of their guilt and of Christian redemption.

Interestingly, the Jews of Europe were motivated by the journeys of Christians to the Holy Land, and aided by the increased maritime transportation between Palestine and Europe, to make a greater number of pilgrimages themselves. For example, “The Aliyah of Three Hundred Rabbis” occurred in 1211. This emigration of several hundred rabbis from western Europe (mostly France and England) marks the beginning of an active period of aliyah that continued through the 13th century.

Joshua Levy is a doctoral candidate in the department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University, studying medieval Jewish history. His dissertation, "Sefer Milhamot Hashem, Chapter Eleven: The Earliest Jewish Critique of the New Testament," is an examination of medieval Jewish criticisms of the Gospel of Matthew.

"Hanukkah Blessings" by Barenaked Ladies

How Jews lived under the Turks.

The Ottoman Empire
How Jews lived under the Turks.
By Eli Barnavi

The Ottoman Empire emerged as a great political and military power in the early 14th century—but only in the wake of the expulsion of the Jews of Spain did the Ottoman Empire become a Jewish center. Tens of thousands of Jewish refugees from the Iberian peninsula made Salonika, Constantinople and other cities of the Ottoman Empire their new home, bringing with them the latest European developments in technology, medicine and artisanry.

However, at the beginning of the seventeenth century, the Ottoman Empire and its Jewish community entered a period of decline that would continue until the “sick man of Europe,” as the Ottoman Empire came to be known, met its demise after World War I. The following article is reprinted with permission from Eli Barnavi’s A Historical Atlas of the Jewish People, published by Schocken Books.

The Ottomans began to emerge as a great political and military power from the early fourteenth century. Uthman, founder of a dynasty, came from a small Turkish principality, which in time grew into a vast empire. The swords of his successors brought to an end the centuries‑long Greek influence in the south of the Mediterra­nean basin, replacing it with Muslim domination. Extending deep into the European continent, Ottoman expansion turned Vienna into an outpost of Christendom.

The Greek‑speaking Jewish communities, which the immigrants from Spain and Portugal later called "Romaniots" or "Gregos," were all under Ottoman rule at the time of the fall of Constantinople--renamed Istanbul--in 1453. The Arabic‑speaking Jews ("Mustarabs" in the idiom of the Iberian refugees), were the other important indigenous group. They lived in "Arabistan"--countries conquered mainly during the reign of Selim I (1512‑1520) and of his son Suleiman the Magnificent (1520‑1566). For all the Jews the conquest was a salvation, as their situation in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries under Byzantine and Mamluk rule had been extremely difficult.

Then, in the wake of the expulsion from Spain (1492) and the forced conversion in Portugal (1497), tens of thousands of Iberian Jews arrived in Ottoman territories. As all that was required of them was the payment of a poll‑tax and acknowledgement of' the superiority of Islam, the empire became a haven for these refugees.

From early in the sixteenth century, the Jewish community in the Ottoman Empire became largest in the world. Constantinople and Salonika each had a community of approximately 20,000 people. Immigration from the Iberian peninsula, arriving in several waves throughout the sixteenth century, also transformed the character of Ottoman Jewry. Far more numerous than the local Jews, the Spaniards and the Portuguese soon submerged the Romaniots, and the indigenous population was assimilated into the culture and community of the new immigrants.

After the conquest of Constantinople, Muhammad II, wishing to aggrandize the city and make it into a capital befitting a great empire, brought into it many people from the provinces. This migration affected the Jewish community and changed the character it had acquired during the Byzantine period.

The economic and religious situation was indeed ameliorated; but many of the older Romaniot congregations disappeared, their memory preserved only in the names of several synagoguesin Istanbul. The congregations which replaced them in the capital as well as in Salonika or in Tiriya in western Anatolia, were purely Spanish.

Within the communities, the congregations were organized according to the geographic origin of their members. Grouped around synagogues, the Jewish organizations provided all the religious, legal, educational, and social services, thus creating an almost autonomous society. Until the end of the sixteenth century, these institutions were very flexible, allowing significant mobility within them. The geographic origin of its members soon lost its importance, and the development of the congregation was determined by power struggles between rich individuals or groups with conflicting interests.

Throughout the sixteenth century, the Jews in the Ottoman Empire enjoyed remarkable prosperity. The empire was rapidly expanding, and economic demand rose accordingly. Thus the Jewish population could easily enter into trade with Christian Europe, and into industries such as wool weaving which were only then beginning to evolve. Under the leadership of figures like Don Joseph Nasi and Solomon ibn Yaish, they could take advantage of their world‑wide network of family connections and their knowledge of European affairs in order to promote the concerns of the Sublime Porte, as well as to protect their personal interests and those of their community.

This was also a time of cultural blossoming: Hebrew Law was enriched by Joseph Caro's Shulchan Arukh (the "Prepared Table") which was to become the authoritative code for the entire Jewish nation, while from Safed in Palestine emerged the Lurianic Kabbalah of Ha-Ari, one of the most influential trends in Jewish mysticism. It seems that these communities of exiles, suddenly liberated from the danger of extinction, could give expression to an outburst of cultural forces which had been stifled by centuries of persecution.

Eli Barnavi is the Director of the Morris Curiel Center for International Studies and a Professor of Jewish History at Tel Aviv University

Jewish Clothing in the Middle Ages

Jewish Clothing in the Middle Ages
For the most part, Jews dressed like their neighbors. But some trends were outlawed by rabbis.
By Norman Roth

What did medieval Jews look like? How did religious law affect their dress? How did the larger cultural milieu impact their style of clothing? When ordinances on dress were passed, they were often enforced briefly. Reprinted with permission from Medieval Jewish Civilization: An Encyclopedia (Routledge).
Muslim Style: Fancy Duds, Paper Restrictions

Under the spread of Islam (seventh‑-eighth centuries), when the majority of the Jews of the world came under its cultural influence and political con­trol, Jews easily adopted the new styles of dress and were in no way distinguishable from their Muslim neighbors…There is, however, evidence for a require­ment that Christians (Jews are not mentioned) wear a distinctive sash (zunnar) and distinctive sign or mark on their headgear and that of their animals. In 850 the caliph al‑Mutawakkil did, in fact, order both Christians and Jews to wear the taylasin, a shawl‑like head covering, and the zunnar.

In Muslim Spain, however, such restrictions were not generally en­forced. A particularly fanatical Muslim judge in Seville in the twelfth century attempted to enforce regulations that included, among other things, that Jews and Christians may not dress in the clothing of people of position and must wear a distinguishing sign "by which they are to be recognized to their shame." Nevertheless, we have certain contemporary evidence from Seville that indicates that these regula­tions remained theoretical.

In fact, people of the upper classes (and this included most Jews) dressed elegantly in fine silk and linen clothes. These in­cluded the jubba, a flowing robe with large sleeves and of various colors depending on taste, such as green, orange, or rose. Women as well as men wore this, and women also wore the qamis, a fine tunic of transparent gauze. Veils were not common for women, and in fact in the early Muslim period were worn more by men. This is incidentally confirmed by ibn Ezra, who wrote that the veil is a long, thin piece of cloth covering the head and is worn by women only in a few places; "for in the land of Ish­mael [Arabia], Spain, Africa, Egypt, Babylon and Baghdad [!] it is worn on the head by distinguished men and not by women" (commentary on Ex. 29.36). [Abraham ibn Ezra (1089-1164) was a Spanish poet, philosopher and biblical exegete.]
Caps and Colors, Bells and Calves

In Muslim Spain until the thirteenth century the turban was customarily worn by men, including Jews, but was abandoned after that except for certain provinces. The turban was gradually replaced by a woolen cap, usually green or red, and the Jews often wore yellow. The Jews of Muslim North Africa gener­ally continued to wear turbans. In Egypt, ca. 1005, the fanatical caliph al‑Hakim ordered Jews and Christians to wear black robes, and in the public baths Christians had to wear iron crosses around their necks, and Jews bells (in the street they were re­quired to wear a wooden image of a calf, in "mem­ory” of the biblical golden calf). This obligation with regard to wearing bells while in the baths had earlier precedents. However, these rigid ordinances were not strictly enforced and were apparently soon forgotten.

In fact, Jews, both men and women, continued to dress in lavish apparel. There were Jewish makers and sell­ers of clothes, including secondhand, in Egypt, and if we hear of few such in at‑Andalus at least there were merchants engaged in the silk trade and import of textiles.
Christian Europe --Rabbis Prefer Black

Rabbinic sources always need to be used with some caution, since they tend to express the most conservative views. On the basis of some of these it has been stated, for instance, that Jews in Germany eschewed bright colors, preferring dark or even black. However, manuscript illustrations from Germany (13th through the 15th centuries) do not support this. The standard clothing for men was a robe reaching to just below the knees, and at times (probably to protect from the cold) this was covered by a cloak no different from those worn by Christians, which was fashioned with a broach. The colors of the robes and cloaks were red, blue, green, or yellow, sometimes tan.

A special garment worn only for holidays was the sargenes, or kittel, which was a broad robe or cloak with the right side sewn up to prevent carrying. It became customary to wear this garment on the Sabbath (although the community ordinances of Speyer, Worms, and Mayence had earlier prohibited the wearing of this garment in the synagogue on Sabbaths). From other sources it appears that this was also the garment used for burying the dead, and possibly because of this it became customary to wear it also on Yom Kippur (even now many traditional Jews wear a thin white robe, which is also called a kittel on Yom Kippur and at the Passover seder).

While many of the manuscript illuminations por­tray either biblical characters, albeit in contemporary costume, or Jews celebrating a holiday or in the syn­agogue, some few show more mundane examples of working Jews, men and women, or on horseback, and in such scenes may be seen the more typical daily clothing worn for working purposes. Again, there is no distinction between this and the similar clothing worn by Christians. Some of the aforemen­tioned French manuscripts (not by Jewish artists) portray Jewish men in long, flowing robes of various mixed bright colors (red‑orange, forest green, yel­low‑tan, and some light gray), with hose of contrast­ing colors.
Spain vs. Ashkenaz: A Loopy Question

In Spain an outer garment was worn that was open on the sides and had loops through which a belt was fastened. Similarly, Meir b. Barukh of Rothenburg had been asked about the permissibility of wearing trousers fastened by a belt on the Sabbath. He also disap­proved of the custom of attaching a house key to a piece of metal as adornment on a belt on the Sab­bath, since this would be carrying (even though he admits that some allowed this). [Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg (ca.1220-1293) was the foremost Ashkenazi talmudic and legal authority of his time.]
You Can Wear Furs Anywhere

Jews in Spain, men and women, wore fairly luxurious clothing, often adorned with gold or jewel ornaments. However, early depictions, such as the illustrations of the thir­teenth‑century Cantigas de Santa Maria, show Jews dressed little differently from those of France and Germany; however, as noted above, these were by artists of non‑Spanish origin. Also in late medieval Italy, particularly in the north, Jews were lavish in their costume, with fur‑trimmed garments and cloaks, luxurious cloth, and often with hose of con­trasting colors for the men.

Shoes were usually of leather (in Germany one of the rabbis was asked about the permissibility of making shoes from hides originally intended for Torah scrolls). In an interesting responsum, Ibn Adret was asked if it were permitted to wear patines in the street on the Sabbath, a word that seems to refer to a wooden shoe or shoe with cork soles to prevent slipping on the ice (in modern Spanish it means "skates," but the medieval term used is akin to a French or Lombard word), to which he replied that it is the custom of "all the wise of the land" to wear them and is certainly permitted. [Solomon b. Abraham Ibn Adret, the RaShbA (ca. 1233-ca.1310) was one of the greatest Spanish rabbinic authorities in the Middle Ages.]

Greetings from Baghdad

Greetings from Baghdad
A Sephardic Jew records his impressions of the city and its Jewish leadership in the 12th century.
By Benjamin of Tudela

(trans. Marcus Nathan Adler)

Benjamin of Tudela was a rabbi and world traveler. In 1165/6, he set off on a voyage through the Mediterranean region, Mesopotamia, Palestine, Arabia, Egypt, and other parts of Asia Minor and the Near East, returning to Spain in 1173, where he published the famous account of his journeys through the Jewish world. His Book of Travels has been translated into many languages, and is considered one of the most important descriptive works of the twelfth century.

The object of Tudela's journey is unknown. Scholars speculate that he was a merchant and his voyage was a commercial venture. His Book of Travels contains information on many Jewish communities of the twelfth century, as well as general geographic, demographic, political, economic, and social conditions and descriptions of places which have made the work a classic

The following portrays Jewish self-government in Baghdad during the Abbasid caliphate, c. 1168. Benjamin of Tudela records the structure and function of the political leader of the Jews, the Exilarch (“Head of the Captivity”) and the spiritual and religious leaders of the Jewish community, the geonim, who headed the famous academies.

Thence [from Hadara], it is two days to Baghdad, the great city and the royal residence of the Caliph Emir al Muminin al Abbasi of the family of Muhammad. He is at the head of the Mohammedan religion, and all the kings of Islam obey him; he occupies a similar position to that held by the Pope over the Christians. He has a palace in Baghdad three miles in extent, wherein a great park with all varieties of trees, fruit bearing and otherwise, and all manner of animals.

There the great king, Al Abbasai the Caliph holds his court, and he is kind unto Israel, and many belonging to the people of Israel are his attendants; he knows all languages and is well versed in the law of Israel. He reads and writes the holy language (Hebrew)…

In Baghdad there are about 40,000 Jews and they dwell in security, prosperity and honor under the great Caliph, and amongst them are great sages, the heads of the Academies engaged in the study of the law. [This population figure is greatly exaggerated. Scholars estimate Jewish population in Baghdad at this time was closer to 4000.]

In this city there are ten academies. At the head of the great academy is the chief rabbi, Rabbi Samuel, the son of Ali. He is the “Head of the Academy Which is the Excellency of Jacob” [the “Gaon”]. He is a Levite, and traces his pedigree back to Moses our teacher. His bother Rabbi Hananiah, a warden of the Levites, is head of the second academy. Rabbi Daniel is the head of the third academy. Rabbi Elazar the scholar is head of the fourth academy. Rabbi Elazar the son of Zemach is the head of the order, and his pedigree reaches to Samuel the prophet. He and his brethren know how to chant the melodies as did the singers at the time when the Temple was standing. He is the head of the fifth academy. Rabbi Hasday, the “glory of the scholars,” is head of the sixth academy. Rabbi Haggai the Nasi is head of the seventh academy. Rabbi Ezra is the head of the eighth academy. Rabbi Abraham, who is called Abu Tahir, is head of the ninth academy. Rabbi Zakkai, the son of Bostanai the Nasi, is head of the Sium [last academy].

These are the ten batlanim [lit. “men of leisure;” here batlanim are men who had the leisure to devote themselves to community service] and they do not engage in any other work than communal administration; and all the days of the week they judge their countrymen, except on the second day of the week, when they appear before the chief Rabbi Samuel, the Gaon, who in conjunction with the other batlanim judges all those that appear before him.

And at the head of them all is Daniel the son of Hisdai, who is styled “Our Lord the Head of Captivity of All of Israel.” He possesses a book of pedigrees going back as far as David, King of Israel. The Jews call him “Our Lord, Head of Captivity,” [or the Head of the Exile, the “Exilarch”] and the Mohammedans call him “Saidna beg Daoud,” [noble descendant of David], and he has been invested with authority over all the congregations of Israel at the hands of Emir al Muminin, the Lord of Islam [the caliph at Baghdad].

For thus Mohammed commanded concerning him and his descendents; and he granted him a seal of office over all the congregations that dwell under his rule, and ordered that every one, whether Mohammedan or Jew, or belonging to any other nation in his dominion, should rise up before him (the Exilarch) and salute him, and that any one who should refuse to rise up should receive one hundred stripes. And on every fifth day when he goes to pay a visit to the great Caliph, horsemen, Gentiles as well as Jews, escort him and heralds proclaim in advance, “Make way before our Lord, the son of David, as is due unto him…”

He is mounted on a horse and is attired in robes of silk and embroidery with a large turban on his head, and from the turban is suspended a long white cloth adorned with a chain upon which the cipher of Muhammad is engraved…

The authority of the Head of Captivity extends over all the communities of Shinar, Persia, Khurasan and Sheba which is El-Yemen, and Diyar Kalach (Bekr) and the land of Aram Naharaim (Mesopatamia), and over the dwellers in the mountains of Ararat and the land of the Alans [in the Caucasus]…His authority extends over Siberia and the communities in the land of the Turks …Further it extends to the gates of Samarkand and the land of Tibet and the land of India.

In respect of all these countries, the Head of the Captivity gives the communities power to appoint Rabbis and Ministers who come to him to be consecrated and to receive his authority. They bring him offerings and gifts from the ends of the earth. He owns hospices, gardens and plantations in Babylon, and much inherited from his fathers, and no one can take his possessions from him by force. He has a fixed weekly revenue arising from the hospices of the Jews, the markets and the merchants, apart from that which is brought to him from far off lands. The man is very rich and wise in the Scriptures as well as in the Talmud. And many Israelites dine at his table very day.

In Baghdad there are twenty-eight Jewish synagogues, situated either in the city itself or in Al-Karkh on the other side of the Tigris; for the river divides the metropolis into two parts. The great synagogue of the Head of the Captivity has columns of marble of various colors overlaid with silver and gold, and on thee columns are sentences of the Psalms in golden letters. And in front of the ark are about ten steps of marble, on the topmost step are the seats of the Head of the Captivity and of the Princes of the House of David.

The city of Baghdad is twenty miles in circumference, situated in a land of palms, gardens and plantations, the likes of which is not to be found in the whole land of Shinar. People come thither with merchandise from all lands. Wise men live there, philosophers who know all manner of wisdom and magicians expert in all manner of witchcraft.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009



A popular prayer with a controversial history.
By Seth Winberg

Aleinu is a relatively short prayer that marks the end of all three daily prayer services. Its two paragraphs express both particularistic and universalistic themes: The first paragraph speaks of a specifically Jewish obligation to praise God ("It is our duty to praise the Master of all..."). The second paragraph calls for universal recognition of God by all people ("and all humanity will call upon your name"). It closes by invoking collective recognition of God, citing the verse "And the Lord shall be king over all the earth; in that day there shall be one Lord with one name" (Zechariah 14:9).

Commenting on Aleinu's prominence in Jewish prayer services, Ismar Elbogen, a 20th-century scholar of Jewish liturgy, said it was certainly significant that "the idea of... the future union of all mankind... in the service of the one God became part of the daily service."

Both paragraphs of Aleinu are recited in a standing position. During the first paragraph, it is customary to bow while saying the words, "We bend the knee and bow."
A History of Controversy

Though the second paragraph of Aleinu expresses a harmonious vision of collective recognition of God, Aleinu has caused a fair bit of discord at various points in history. Particularly contentious is the line in Aleinu's first paragraph, praising God: "who has not made us like the nations of the world and has not placed us like the families of the earth; who has not designed our destiny to be like theirs, nor our lot like that of all their multitude, for they bow to vanity and emptiness and pray to a god who cannot save."

When reciting the end of this line, Jews used to spit, because "emptiness" and "spit" share the same Hebrew consonants (r-i-k). Some synagogues were even constructed with special spittoons in their pews, designated for this part of the service.

Not surprisingly, Christians of the Middle Ages were angered by this line, assuming the "god who cannot save" referred to Jesus. Church decrees, government edicts, and censors sometimes demanded Jews omit this reference--even as late as 1750 in Prussia. In other cases, Jews took it upon themselves to omit this line, probably out of fear that including it would incite further Christian persecution.

As the line fell out of use, so did the custom of spitting. Today, many Jews, including some Orthodox Jews, still omit the reference (and the spit).

Yet Jewish tradition does not associate the "god who cannot save" with Jesus specifically. The Prophet Joshua is traditionally considered the author of Aleinu (Teshuvot ha-geonim, Gates of Repentance, #43). He was thought to have composed the prayer when he was about to conquer the city of Jericho--long before Jesus' lifetime.

Most scholars, however, credit Rav, a third century Babylonian sage, with writing Aleinu. Certain phrases which occur in the prayer, such as "the supreme Sovereign of sovereigns" and "the Holy One, blessed be" are rabbinic phrases, and would not have been used by Joshua.

Scholars also cite the original context of Aleinu as evidence for Rav's authorship of the prayer. Aleinu got its start in Jewish liturgy as the opening of the malkhuyot section of the Rosh Hashanah musaf liturgy, in which Jews declare God to be their Sovereign. This entire section of liturgy is attributed to Rav, including Aleinu. In his ancient Babylonian context, it is more likely Rav had pagans, not Christians, in mind, when writing about those who worship a "god who cannot save."

Israel Ta-Shma, a scholar of Jewish history who taught at Hebrew University in the 20th century, noted a French version of Aleinu, preserved in a 12th-century English manuscript. In this version of Aleinu the passage which so angered Christians reads: "for they bow to vanity and emptiness and pray to a god who cannot save: a man, dust, blood, bile, dangling flesh, a worm, impure ones, adulterers…"

It seems from this text that some Jews in medieval France modified the text of Aleinu to reflect their experiences. They added to a line which previously had not referred to Christians, so that it would become an anti-Christian polemic. This version of Aleinu is the exception that proves the rule: the text of Aleinu did not (and does not) refer to Christians.

Modern Jews have also tackled the difficult language of Aleinu. Early Reform prayer books in Europe and America omitted the prayer entirely. Both the 20th-century Reform Gates of Prayer (1975) and the recently published Mishkan Tefillah offer several different versions of Aleinu, one of which includes the traditional Hebrew text (without the reference to "a god who cannot save."). The English is translated euphemistically to avoid potentially offensive ideology being expressed by the worshipper. A similar approach is taken by the Conservative Siddur Sim Shalom which translates: "He [God] made our lot unlike that of other people, assigning to us a unique destiny"—a euphemistic translation of the original Hebrew. No Reform, Conservative or Reconstructionist prayer books retain the reference to "a god who cannot save."
Aleinu's Popularity

Despite the strong Christian reaction to the harsh language of the prayer's opening paragraph, Aleinu grew in popularity among medieval Jews.

In The Vale of Tears, a 16th-century martyrology (a catalogue of martyrs), Joseph Ha-Kohen describes the persecution of the Jews of Blois, France in 1171:
Many Masters of the Torah died at the stake [and] the death of the saints was accompanied by a solemn song resounding through the stillness of the night, causing the Churchmen who heard it from afar to wonder at the melodious strains, the like of which they had never heard before. It was ascertained afterwards that the martyred saints had made use of the Aleinu as their dying song.

We do not know whether these martyrs sang Aleinu because they identified their persecutors with the negative description of gentiles in the first paragraph of the prayer, or because they wanted to stress their hope of universal recognition of God which would include their persecutors. But this story does illustrate that Aleinu was an important and well-known prayer, as early as the 12th century.

Over time, Jews began to recite Aleinu at the end of the morning and evening services, probably because Aleinu's theme of universal recognition of monotheism complemented the Shema, which was said during morning and evening services. And eventually Aleinu was included in afternoon services too--another testament to its growing popularity.

Chaim Potok

Chaim Potok
His Judaism, and his dissatisfaction with it, formed the cornerstone of his stories.
By Matthue Roth

As a doctor of philosophy, a rabbi, and a biblical commentator, Chaim Potok (1929-2002) had a lot to say. He would often wake at four or five in the morning, driven to wakefulness--because, he would say, of the sentences in his head. But foremost among his talents, Potok was a writer. Often his most profound thoughts and arguments would come not from his own mouth, but from the mouths of his fictional characters.

Over his lifetime, Potok authored eight novels, a number of short stories and novellas, and three children's books. His most famous works included The Chosen, The Promise, My Name Is Asher Lev, Davita's Harp, and I Am the Clay. He was also the author of a nonfiction book, Wanderings: Chaim Potok's History of the Jews, and many works of Torah commentary.

Potok was born into an Orthodox family in New York, the eldest of four children. His parents were both immigrants from Poland whose life in Brooklyn was not so different from the Old World shtetl they had left behind.

After high school, Potok attended Yeshiva University. He earned his bachelor's degree in English literature, going against the wishes of his family, who expected Chaim to become a teacher in a yeshiva.

Potok soon became disenchanted with the Orthodox world, finding Yeshiva University intellectually stifling. He went on to earn both his master's degree and rabbinic ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary, a Conservative institution, and subsequently served as the editor of Conservative Judaism magazine.

In 1965, at the age of 36, he moved temporarily to Jerusalem with his family to write a dissertation for his doctorate in philosophy from the University of Pennsylvania. There, he dabbled in fiction, writing his thesis in the afternoons and a novel-- about New York City--in the mornings. After he concluded his doctoral work, the Potoks returned to America, and Chaim began to seek a publisher for his just-completed book: The Chosen.
Chosen for Greatness

Published in 1967, it became a bestselling phenomenon, birthing a sequel (Potok's next novel, The Promise), a major motion picture, and a deluge of critical praise.

The novel, set in the 1940s, tells the story of an unlikely friendship between two teenage boys--Reuven, who is Modern Orthodox and lives with his widowed father, and Danny, the son of a formidable Hasidic rebbe. It commences in the most unlikely way: During a baseball game between the Hasidic boys and the Modern Orthodox boys of the neighborhood, Danny accidentally injures Reuven's eye, by hitting a fastball straight at him. Danny's father sends him to visit Reuven in the hospital, and the two strike up a friendship.

Their friendship is helped along by both boys' fractured family structures--Danny's father only speaks to him during study periods; Reuven's mother is dead and his father is an emotionally-distant academic. Though they discover the gap that divides their worlds, they also gain confidence in each other.

Danny trusts Reuven with his biggest secret: He has been reading secular books in the library, studying forbidden subjects like psychology and philosophy. In return, Reuven is welcomed into the cloistered Hasidic enclave. But when the State of Israel is founded, Reuven's father becomes a vocal proponent of the fledgling state, and Danny's father disapproves of Zionism. The two boys wrestle with their allegiances to their respective dynasties and to each other.

The Chosen depicts the split of Orthodox life between opposing elements--modern and yeshivish; Zionist and anti-Zionist--a factionalization which Potok witnessed firsthand during his time at Yeshiva University, and which may have led to Potok's frustration, and ultimate rejection, of Orthodoxy.
The Burden of the Artist as a Young Man

In 1972, Potok's third novel provided another look at the secluded Orthodox community. My Name is Asher Lev follows a Hasidic teenage boy with emotionally wounded parents; Asher's father travels constantly, and his mother suffers anxious spells after her brother's death. Asher is anti-social, and a talented painter. His art is the only thing that gives him solace.

Asher's father is skeptical about his son's talents, especially after finding nude studies of women and sketches of crucifixions in Asher's possession. When they consult the Ladover Rebbe, the leader of their Hasidic sect, he is positive, even encouraging of Asher. The Rebbe pairs him with Jacob Kahn, a non-observant Jew who is sympathetic to their sect. Jacob hones the boy's skills and gives Asher a sense that other possibilities exist for him--that he doesn't have to be a Hasid forever. Though he contemplates breaking from religion, ultimately, he remains faithful to both his love of art and his love of God. At the book's finale, Asher combines his artistic talent, his family anguish, and his Orthodox sensitivities by painting the masterpieces of his career: Brooklyn Crucifixion I and Brooklyn Crucifixion II, representing both his mother's struggle and his own.

Like The Chosen, Asher Lev is a work of fiction, though both feature actual historical events and characters that are amalgamations of real people. According to Potok, the painter Jacques Lipchitz was a model for Asher Lev. The character is said to also include elements of Hendel Lieberman, a Lubavitch Hasidic painter who was an acquaintance of Potok.

The book inspired a sequel, written 18 years later, called The Gift of Asher Lev. It finds a much-older Asher living in rural France--still observant, but separate from his community. In the novel, he is summoned back to New York after a family emergency and becomes embroiled in the search for the next heir to the Ladover Hasidic dynasty.
More than Just a Jewish Writer

Though his books can be considered their own subgenre of Jewish fiction, Potok was reluctant to stay within his boundaries. I Am the Clay (1992) tells the story of a Korean family that adopts an orphan to replace their dead child. Davita's Harp (1985) is historical fiction about intermarriage, religious devotion, and Communism in 1930s New York, and, unlike all of Potok's other novels, features a woman as its central protagonist. Though successful and critically praised, these later books failed to have the widespread appeal and staying power of Potok's earlier novels.

Potok was also a painter, producing Chagall-like portraits of dreamlike Jewish ritual scenes and animals. This, too, never quite reached the mass audience of his Jewish fiction. Potok's painting career somewhat paralleled the journey of Asher Lev: a young man, very creative and very religious, who didn't fit with his community. "I began to paint when I was about nine or ten years old," Potok once said in an interview. "It really became a problem in my family, especially with my father, who detested it." Potok even painted a Brooklyn Crucifixion of his own, resembling the painting in his novel.

As an academic and a rabbi, Potok was also deeply involved in textual commentary and interpretation. In 1965, he was appointed Editor-in-Chief of the Jewish Publication Society. Though he resigned from that position in 1974, he served in a freelance capacity as "Special Projects Editor," encouraging and editing projects--among them the pshat commentary for the popular Rabbinical Assembly Torah commentary, Etz Hayim.

Potok struggled with religious Judaism, but also remained committed to it, and left behind a legacy of Torah commentary as great in scope and content as his fiction. He was not afraid to question tradition. But he also was not afraid, as he did in his Torah commentary and his non-fiction, to embrace it.