a freylikhen shushan purim!

Wishing you and yours a most joyous Shushan Purim from New York!

The following Purim schtick video is brought to you by some of your favourite Jews from the Jewish Theological Seminary:

Those Cufflinks

Last year a friend who had just finished participating in a Birthright program was telling me of his harrowing journey and mentioned that they had gone to the City of David. I said something along the lines of, “Right, Silwan. The tour through people’s backyards” in a tone that implied that I thought my friend, a fellow politically active organizer, would know what I was talking about. But, instead, he said something like, “Wait, that was Silwan?”

It became clear at that moment that the JNF’s aim via subsidiary support for ELAD to dispossess Palestinians of their homes in Silwan and replace them with settlers and a tourist site at the City of David was working. The process is barely noticeable to those who don’t know to look, which is most people. More »

This Land Ain’t Your Land

Cartoonist Nina Paley has been working on a (potential) feature film called Seder-Masochism, and earlier this week she released a first look, which is also its last scene. “This Land Is Mine” illustrates the battles over the patch of land that’s been known as Canaan, Israel, Palestine, etc. in a way that’s reminiscent of Chad Gadya without the animals. Check it out:

If you’re not sure who each of the characters is supposed to represent, Paley offers a guide to “Who’s Killing Who” on her blog.

Joe’s Israel

Long time, no post.

Here’s a new cartoon I created for “Joe’s Israel“, a campaign from the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise.

See more on Joe’s Israel YouTube page, his Facebook Page, on Twitter, and join the discussion at JoesIsrael.com

Throw the Jew down the well

Every once in a while, somebody accuses Jewschool contributors of ignoring or belittling anti-Semitism. For those who found Borat to be a hilarious take-down of the haters, here’s a reminder from JTA of why some of us actually found Barron-Cohen’s shtick just a bit offense:

Bones found in a medieval well in England are probably the remains of Jews murdered in the 12th century, forensic scientists say…. The scientists, who along with archaeological investigations also work on contemporary crime-scene forensics, have speculated that the individuals were thrown into the well — victims of Jewish hatred that was rampant at the time.

A whole Jewish family. Still think its funny? Funny as the murdered Fogel family, I’d say.

Hanukkah and Women’s Voices

The story of Hanukkah is, well, all about men. For the most part, we learn it that way, unless you’re lucky enough to have grown up in a feminist house committed to breaking that cycle, or you’ve seen this great video, courtesy of the Jewish Women’s Archive.  It covers the role of the heroine  Judith in the Hanukkah story, and also highlights other important Judiths in history (Judy Blume is my personal favorite).  The project is a fantastic example of dynamic history, and of the power that comes with reclaiming and rewriting.

The vort: Balak – How (not) to be a mensch

(With apologies for such a belated vort)

Looking back at Parashat Balak, one might be compelled to ask why exactly is this story included within the book of Numbers.  In particular, the Moabite prophet Balaam’s peculiar exchange with his donkey seems rather random when considered within the larger narrative arc of the story. 

As the only instance of a speaking animal since the cunning snake in Genesis, one might expect our portion’s donkey to say something of exceeding importance and weight. Instead, she utters something utterly understated and even banal: she asks her master why he struck her three times when she has never wronged him. The simplicity of the dialogue and the repetitive rhythm of the characters’ actions here all suggest an almost fable-like story structure.  As such, we can perhaps most productively view this story as primarily didactic in nature.


What is the relevance of the speaking donkey? The Midrash Rabbah on the book of the Numbers explains that this scene represents the ultimate reversal of nature. Balaam was the wisest of men, and here he is upstaged by his donkey, the lowest of animals.  For a more lofty and respectful view on the man-animal relationship however, let us turn our attention to a more inspiring passage found in the book of Job (Job 12:7-8):

But ask the animals, and they will teach you,
 or the birds of the air, and they will tell you;
or speak to the earth, and it will teach you,
or let the fish of the sea inform you

Here animals can be understood as possessing the very essence and wisdom of our earth.  To communicate with animals is to share in their well-being, which is ultimately our well-being as humans.  Perhaps this ‘dialogue’ does not take place in actual words, as it does in Parashat Balak, but rather, in actions, such as the way we relate to the environment and to our fellow creatures inhabiting this earth.  Animals serve as the index of our respect for our planet, and, as we see from the recent BP disaster, when we turn away from our responsibility, the result to the earth and to the creatures which inhabit it is devastating.


If we are thinking about what it means to relate meaningfully to animals, we also must consider what it actually means to be human.  As humans, we possess the intelligence and power to be deliberately holy beings.  From the text alone, it appears the prophet Balaam prophesizes in the name of “Hashem, my God.” The overwhelming majority of the midrashic commentators pounce on this phrase and insist, rather vehemently, that Balaam was not a monotheistic, but rather, an idol worshipper, diviner, and a generally evil person.  (Intriguing evidence of the former can be found in an inscription discovered in 1967  in the plains of the Jordan, at a site identified with Sukkoth in the area of the Jabok river. These fragments from “Visions of Balaam the son of Beor, seer of the gods”  include a description of a goddess, fear of the havoc she could wreck, and an interesting array of god-names.)

Fragments from “Visions of Balaam the son of Beor, seer of the gods"

Image of the Balaam Inscription

The overarching message, however, seems clear: whereas animals are all too often subjugated to their masters’ will (or that of other creatures), man possesses the unique capacity both for flaw and transcendent holiness, as we also learn through the story of Adam, Eve, and the snake.  How? Through freedom of choice.

Balaam even knew in advance that his attempts to curse the Jews would ultimately prove abortive, but he kept trying—a weakness on his part. Despite his intimate knowledge of God (with God writ large or god in the plural, depending on your understanding of the text), Balaam remained a slave to his own social context. Balaam certainly was capable of achieving holiness, but he failed by succumbing to external pressures until only a donkey could teach him otherwise.

Interestingly, all but one of the Biblical characters in the Pentateuch whose names are immortalized as parasha titles are figures born as non-Jews.  In the cases of Noah, Sarah, and Jethro, each drew closer to God in her/his own way through righteous and deliberate actions (Sarah and Jethro being ‘Jews by choice,’ but I contend that in our modern times all Jews are Jews by choice—today to identify actively as Jewish is no small feat). Such is most certainly not the case with Balak, the Moabite king after whom this pericope is named.  All we know of Balak is his fear and desire to thwart the Israelites in their attempt to pass through the land. In this way, Balak seems to forgo our most interesting and empowering birthright as humans: our capacity for choice and constructive conflict resolution.

Which leads into this coming Shabbat’s portion, Parashat Pinchas, which immediately follows Parashat Balak.  The only born-Jew to have a portion named after him, Pinchas, is, in a way,  the Jewish counterpart of Balak, the Moabite king. Here again, we are revealed the disastrous consequences of an over-zealous man whose only response to a perceived threat is violence and destruction.  Ironically, the house of David emerges from a Moabite woman (Ruth), as if to teach us, at this intersection between the Balak and Pinchas narrative, that all Jews originate from non-Jews, and in all cases (whether Jew or non-Jew), holiness is a choice, and constructive co-existence is a worthy uphill battle.

Image from the Soncino edition of Meshal HaQadmoni. The above shot is from the third chapter, entitled "In Praise of Good Advice," which even includes a story involving a donkey

Image from the Soncino edition of Meshal HaQadmoni. The above shot is from the third chapter, entitled "In Praise of Good Advice," which even includes a story involving a donkey

(And If you’re a fan of morals and religious teachings embodied through speaking animals, I hereby commend yourattention to 13th century Spanish qabbalist R’ Isaac Ibn Sahula’s wonderfully understated collection of fables, Meshal HaQadmoni, a kind of Jewish, Torah-inspired answer to Aesop’s fables.)

The Politics of Archaeology Unearthed

This just in from AP:

An Israeli archaeologist said Monday that ancient fortifications recently excavated in Jerusalem date back 3,000 years to the time of King Solomon and support the biblical narrative about the era.

If the age of the wall is correct, the finding would be an indication that Jerusalem was home to a strong central government that had the resources and manpower needed to build massive fortifications in the 10th century B.C.

Just dig a little deeper, however, and the plot thickens even more. The researcher in question is Eilat Mazar (above), an old school Israeli archaeologist whose essential goal is to prove the historical veracity of the Bible. She’s made no bones (sorry) about this over the years. In a 2006 interview with Moment Magazine, she made this very telling comment:

One of the many things I learned from my grandfather was how to relate to the biblical text. Pore over it again and again, for it contains within it descriptions of genuine historical reality. I work with the Bible in one hand and the tools of excavation in the other. That’s what biblical archaeologists do. The Bible is the most important historical source and therefore deserves special attention.

The only problem with this is that the Bible is not a history book – it’s religious literature. There certainly may be kernels of historical fact to be found in these narratives, but I’d say it’s exceedingly problematic for an archaeologist to assume ipso facto the historical veracity of the Bible. Mazar’s comment that she works with a Bible in one hand and her tools in the other speaks volumes about her fundamental bias.

It’s also noteworthy that Mazar worked until recently for the Shalem Center, a partisan Israeli think-tank. Among other things, the Shalem Center believes archeology should support “the claim that the Bible can be viewed as a work whose historical narrative is in large part accurate, and (strengthen) the ancient connection of the Jewish people to the land of Israel.”

It’s striking to compare Mazar’s approach to that of Israel Finkelstein, who comes from a new school of Israeli archaeologists who are aren’t driven by political ideology and are willing to go wherever their research takes them. In a nutshell, Finkelstein and his colleagues have argued convincingly that it’s impossible to say much of anything about ancient Israel until the 7th century BCE (around the time of the reign of King Josiah). This casts doubt on the historical veracity of the Biblical narrative from the period of the Patriarchs/Matriarchs through the reigns of David and Solomon.  These claims have largely been accepted as normative by most mainstream archaeologists outside of Israel.

If you are interested the current thinking of Israeli researchers who are unfazed by nationalist bias, I highly recommend Finkelstein’s 2002 book (with Neal Asher Silberman), “The Bible Unearthed.” Also check out this 2001 piece from Salon, which explores the deeper socio-political implications of Israeli archeology.

What Lurks Within?

[Edited to add: sorry, Jewschool ate my HTML. Hopefully fixed now.]

The Story of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and the Cave.

You probably know this one, but you’ve never heard me tell it. It’s Shabbat 33b, if you want to read the original, but I find a certain degree of paraphrasing makes for more vivid retelling. And if your eyes are glazing over with “ugh, not another homily on Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai in the Cave,” unglaze them, it’s okay, this post isn’t sappy.

Rabbi Yehudah, Rabbi Yose, and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai were sitting, and Yehudah ben Gerim was with them.

Rabbi Yehudah said, Aren’t the Romans great? They’ve done all this good stuff for us! Super markets, lovely bathhouses, and absolutely ripping bridges.

Rabbi Yose said nothing.

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai said, Huh, they made markets so’s they could find whores, bathhouses for pleasuring themselves, and toll-bridges for ripping people off.

Yehudah ben Gerim spread this around (Careless Talk Costs Lives) and the Romans weren’t best pleased. They praised Rabbi Yehudah, exiled Rabbi Yose, and decreed that Rabbi Shimon should die.

Interlude on Yehudah ben Gerim, added in response to comments. Yes, this means “son of converts,” and the reader is cautioned against dismissing this with a “ugh, disgusting attitudes about converts, rotten Talmud.”

Remember “gerim” also means “strangers,” and that the Jews are in a particularly insular mindset at the moment. We’ve just had the Bar Kochba revolt; Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai was a student of Rabbi Akiva, who supported the revolt and ended up being tortured to death. R’ Shimon bar Yochai and his chums aren’t so inclined to trust those on the outskirts of the community. Read it as dissing on converts if you will, but don’t get too invested in that. We continue: More »

A Tiny Tidbit

…of earth. Okay, so yahoo isn’t exactly what I’d call a usual source of news (or actually, any source at all, really), but what the heck, I happened across this…

Seems that scientists in Israel have discovered the oldest surface of the earth… 1.8 million, to be exact. The next nearest is in Nevada.

Hey pretty cool… I mean, hot. yeah.

Has Mugabe Raided the Lost Ark?

This article suggests that Mugabe has stolen the Aron Habrit from it’s spot resting in a museum.

The decayed wooden object ­lying neglected on a shelf in a museum storeroom didn’t look like anything too exciting. But Tudor Parfitt, Professor of Jewish Studies at London’s School of African and Oriental Studies… was convinced that the object, which resembled a damaged, ancient African drum, was in fact the lost Ark of the Covenant.

One of the most holy objects in ­existence, the Ark, thought to have dated back to around 1200 BC, is ­described in the Bible as a form of container that once held the tablets on which were inscribed God’s Ten Commandments.

This is wild stuff. The theory rests on a few assumptions.
1) The Lemba of South Africa and Zimbabwer descend from the Ancient Israelites.
This claim has been largely accepted once the evidence came to light that their priestly caste, the Buba, carry the genetic Cohen marker sometimes called the Cohen Modal Haplotype.
2) Rashi and other were correct that there were two Arks, one wooden, and one gilded.
This is very hard to demonstrate but has decent backing in the mythology.
3) The wood object is of the correct age to be the first of the arks.
It has been carbon dated to 1350, when the Lemba say it was rebuilt. This is not conclusive for or against.

There is lots more. Definitely read this article examining the claims and intrigue surrounding the ark and Mugabe.

British man in process of constructing to-scale model of the Second Temple

30 years in the process and still in progress.

Check out the pics here!

Tales From the Family Attic

I’ve been hearing stories of people losing jobs, having trouble finding jobs, stealing massive amounts of money from Jewish institutions, and generally getting very worried. It’s troubling, painful, and can be hard to listen to.

But during the great depression one Jewish man, calling himself B. Virdot to conceal his true identity, placed an advertisement offering to pay people to share their stories with him.  The people who wrote to him had no idea who he was, and his grandson, who had heard the story, had no idea it was his own grandfather until this past summer, when he found a suitcase of their letters in the attic.

His grandson, Ted Gup, wrote an article in the NY Times about his grandfather and the letters he found. Searching for an explanation for this act of kindness- he comes up with this one:

So why had my grandfather done this? Because he had known what it was to be down and out. In 1902, when he was 15, he and his family had fled Romania, where they had been persecuted and stripped of the right to work because they were Jews. They settled into an immigrant ghetto in Pittsburgh. His father forced him to roll cigars with his six other siblings in the attic, hiding his shoes so he could not go to school.

My grandfather later worked on a barge and in a coal mine, swabbed out dirty soda bottles until the acid ate at his fingers and was even duped into being a strike breaker, an episode that left him bloodied by nightsticks. He had been robbed at night and swindled in daylight. Midlife, he had been driven to the brink of bankruptcy, almost losing his clothing store and his home.

By the time the Depression hit, he had worked his way out of poverty, owning a small chain of clothing stores and living in comfort. But his good fortune carried with it a weight when so many around him had so little.

If his grandson is right, Samuel Stone (a.k.a. B. Virdot)  was able to listen to all these stories because he had not forgotten his own. Perhaps our daily obligation, as Jews, to remember our own story- of slavery and oppression, can help us listen to the stories of others, however painful and troubling they might be, and reach out in times of need.

Indian Jewry

As an undergrad, I wrote my thesis on the immigration and business patterns of Gujaratis (especially in the US as a way to re-imagine ethnic entrepreneurial niches). Gujarat shares the West Coast of India with a few other provinces including Maharastra (home to Mumbai) and Kerala (home to Cochin and most of India’s native Jews and Christians). As a result of that research, I got the chance to read a fair amount about the long history of Indian Christians and Jews. All this to say, the history is fascinating and there is a great (brief but deep) synopsis of the two thousand year old story in a recent New Republic article. Here is a particularly intense passage:

“The Indian Jewish identity is the only one that hasn’t been created by persecution,” he said. “We’ve never felt scared. This is the first time we’ve been made to feel like Jews.” That, to me, has been among the most tragic casualties of this terrorist attack. In a barrage of grenades and bullets, a part of the Indian dream that’s 2,500 years old has now been buried in a pile of bloody concrete shards.

Check out the story and I hope you’ll share my interest and wonder whiter Indian Jewry.

The Dead Sea Tablet?

The New York Times reports,

A three-foot-tall tablet with 87 lines of Hebrew that scholars believe dates from the decades just before the birth of Jesus is causing a quiet stir in biblical and archaeological circles, especially because it may speak of a messiah who will rise from the dead after three days.

If such a messianic description really is there, it will contribute to a developing re-evaluation of both popular and scholarly views of Jesus, since it suggests that the story of his death and resurrection was not unique but part of a recognized Jewish tradition at the time.

The tablet, probably found near the Dead Sea in Jordan according to some scholars who have studied it, is a rare example of a stone with ink writings from that era — in essence, a Dead Sea Scroll on stone.

It is written, not engraved, across two neat columns, similar to columns in a Torah. But the stone is broken, and some of the text is faded, meaning that much of what it says is open to debate.

Still, its authenticity has so far faced no challenge, so its role in helping to understand the roots of Christianity in the devastating political crisis faced by the Jews of the time seems likely to increase.

Full story.

A summer puzzle for archeology nerds (like me)

I just received this from the JTS Bible department listerv from my former Bible M.A. adviser:

mystery text

Are you tired of doing the NY Times crossword puzzles or sudoku puzzles (at the evil level) during the summer? Here is a puzzle you might want to consider working on while on the beach or in Vermont. It comes from someone who has just visited Russia. She wants to know what the accompanying text is (part of her letter to me is underneath). If anyone has some success in solving the text, let me know. There is no prize, but the “winner” will be acknowledged with great acclaim at the next Bible Dept Lunch.

Good luck!
- DM

[email from person who found the book]
Recently while visiting on of the countries of the former USSR I was approached by someone with a question: the family was in possession of what they believe is an ancient Jewish religious book/scripture and they were interested in finding out exactly what this book meant. Several experts from Russia attest that the language is neither Arameic, nor Hebrew, and that the red frame around the words is uncharacteristical of ancient Jewish religious writings. And this is as far as anyone got… The cover of this book is wooden and the pages appear to be made out of pergament.

*Since 3 people on the listerv already figured it out, I wanted to see if any Jewschooler wants to try an solve it. The winner will have the option of writing a guest post related to archeology and modern relevance. (Here are some leads for you). The contest will end by Shabbat of next week. Go for it!

McCain and the Qumran Connection

I believe this is the first, and probably last time I will ever write this next phrase: DailyKos has a really funny post up that is both John McCain and Caves of Qumran themed.

In light of kos’ display of Barack Obama’s birth certificate, John McCain’s campaign has released a rare glimpse of the Republican candidate’s own birth certificate.

qumran mccain

Thought lost for the ages, the document was found in a clay jar, in an abandoned cave, on the outskirts of Sedona, by a shepherd boy in 1947. The desert climate and the dry atmosphere in the caves kept the parchment remarkably well preserved.

Unfortunately, the language on the document is in Essene, a language which has been dead for about 1,900 years. So, much like a lot of Senator McCain’s modern-day speeches, press releases, and interviews, nobody can really comprehend what it says.

Well done OWCH. Both the Essenes and John McCain come from the desert, have strongly held eschatological beliefs, and have versions of the “straight talk express”. The big difference, of course, is that the Essenes were ascetic and avoided marriage. McCain likes marriage. In fact he was married to his first wife Carol when he went to war. She got disfigured in a terrible car accident and he soon divorced her and married a loaded beer heiress named Cindy source. I wonder what Josephus has to say about that.

10 Tevet

II Kings 25:1-2 and Jeremiah 52:4-5:

In the ninth year of his reign, on the tenth day of the tenth month, Nebuchadnezzar moved against Jerusalem with his whole army. He besieged it, and they built towers against it all around. The city continued in a state of siege until the eleventh year of King Zedekiah.

As I left my apartment this morning, I noticed that the weather in Jerusalem on 10 Tevet is rainy and very cold. (Not as cold as, say, the northern United States outdoors, but much colder indoors.) And I couldn’t help but wonder: What was Nebuchadnezzar thinking? Why pick this time of year to send his army to Jerusalem, where they’d have to build towers in the cold and rain? Everyone knows that military campaigns start in the spring. The besieged people inside were also presumably doing ok at that point, since they would have already harvested whatever they’d need for the winter. Indeed, according to Jeremiah 52:6, they didn’t run out of food until the summer (the fourth month is Tammuz). So what gives? Clearly, ìöòøðå, Nebuchadnezzar was successful in the end, but was this the most effective way of accomplishing his objective? Or is this the biblical narrative’s subtle way of indicating that the destruction of Jerusalem was divine punishment and not a mere human conquest, by showing that the destruction went ahead despite questionable tactics (cf. Elijah pouring water on the altar before it gets consumed by fire)? Any thoughts?

May this be the last year that the fast of Tevet is a day of mourning. (Since this is a sad day, I’m not going to amuse myself and about three of you by pointing out that, redemption or no redemption, 10 Tevet will in fact not occur in 2008.)