On Heroes and Villains and when They’re the Same: Thoughts on Rav Ovadia

“Chain gleaming, switching lanes, two-seater.
Hate him or love him for the same reason.
Can’t leave it; the game needs him.
Plus, the people need someone to believe in.”
–Nas, “Hero” (2008)

In the past couple of days, since Rav Ovadia Yosef died at 93, the Jewish media, both published and social, have been abuzz with tributes about his towering scholarship, bold rabbinic leadership, controversial political and cultural impact, and his frequent episodes of vituperative and hostile verbal violence, especially late in his life.  I have also seen comments by progressive Jews expressing surprise that so many progressive friends of theirs were showing the love to Rav Ovadia.  As one friend put it:  “My FB page is full of love for Ovadia Yosef-from lefty people? I thought he was kind of terrible?”

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Bite Their Tongue: Perhaps Unrestricted Free Speech Isn’t Such a Good Thing

A guestpost from FoJS, Rabbi Mark Asher Goodman

I, like most children of liberal Jewish parents born on the coasts, have long held the first amendment to the constitution to be sacrosanct: just barely below the 10 commandments and slightly higher than a hot pastrami with brown mustard. It is that important. And it was the 1st Amendment ‘Freedom of Speech’ that was always the most cherished of those rights.

But recent events have started to make me question this deep-seated belief. I’ve started to consider whether maybe it’s time we restricted free speech. Let me explain. More »

From Berlin on Tisha B’Av: Commemorating Racist Violence

A Jewish friend who used to live here once commented that, in Berlin, it is impossible to walk more than a few blocks without bumping into another Holocaust memorial. This year, on the 80th anniversary of the Nazi rise to power and the 75th anniversary of the Kristalnacht pogroms,  the entire city is part of a “theme-year”;a memorial to the lethal seeds that were planted here.


“Diversity Destroyed. Berlin 1933-1938-1945. A City Remembers” is the way in which Berlin is teaching its residents and visitors precisely how the diversity and democracy of Weimer Germany so quickly gave way to the rise of the brutal fascism that led directly to ghettoes, concentration camps, and extermination centers. In addition to the permanent Holocaust memorials, there are temporary exhibitions, lectures, films and other programs. These are publicized all over the city on kiosks, in subway stations, in the newspapers. It is impossible to avoid them.

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Isaiah’s vision and Our Blindness (Justice and Trayvon Martin)

crossposted from Justice in the City

Yesterday, in the Jewish tradition, was the “Sabbath of vision.” It is named after Isaiah’s bleak vision described in Chapter One of his eponymous Scripture. Isaiah, speaking, no, screaming at those who would sacrifice at the Temple in Jerusalem declares in the name of God: I am tired of your sacrifices, I am sated already with the fatted calves that you offer, your offerings are now abominations to me. I no longer wish for you to celebrate festival days and Sabbaths. When you reach out to me, when you raise your voices in prayer, says God, I will ignore you, I will turn a blind eye. Why? First you must “Learn to do well; demand justice, relieve the oppressed, defend the fatherless, plead for the widow.”

Finally, Isaiah turns to the city of Jerusalem and wails: “O! How the city full of justice, where righteousness dwelt, now dwell murderers!” It was not a true question, of course, it was the strangled scream of a prophet pointing to the everyday injustices, which led to the larger injustices, all hidden behind a veil of righteousness, of holy celebrations and fatted calves upon the altar and the smell of spices in the Temple. More »

Erika Davis: “What I’m trying to help people understand is that all Jews are not the same.”

Erika Davis is the Chief of Staff at Hazon. She also works as a freelance writer for The Sisterhood, Jewcy, Kveller and others while maintaining her personal blog Black, Gay and Jewish. Erika likes Syrian Jewish cooking and is convinced she makes the best hummus in Brooklyn. She is a volunteer with Jewish Multi-Racial Network, Be’chol Lashon and Jews for Racial and Economic Justice.

Q: Tell us what we can find at Black, Gay and Jewish.

ED: I started to write Black, Gay and Jewish when I realized that converting to Judaism and talking about Jewish things was taking up a lot of space on my now defunct blog about lesbian  dating in NYC (I’d just come out). I started writing it as a sort of personal journal through the process of converting to Judaism and also because there was only one other blog penned by a black, gay and Jewish woman. (This isn’t to say that there weren’t awesome blogs out there about conversion; there are so many that it  boggles the mind. A few are written by gay Jews and by Jews of Color, but rarely did I find anything on the web that had all three.)

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Meet Csanad Szegedi, Your New Favourite Jewish Anti-Semite

Csanad Szegedi was enjoying a fine career as a politician in Hungary’s nationalist Jobbik Party. The 30-year-old Hungarian helped market Hungarian nationalist merchandise online, acted as an EU lawmaker, and did not skimp on the Jew-bashing in his public speeches.

Csanad Szegedi, your new favourite Jewish anti-Semite

This all came to screeching halt upon his recent discovery that his maternal grandmother was a Jew who survived the Holocaust.  Shortly after learning of his Jewish ancestry, he resigned from his positions in the Jobbik Party.

That’s right  ladies: Mr. Szegedi is a Jew by halakhic standards. And he’s available.


This is almost as good as if the recently-declared U.S. Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan would suddenly find out he’s really a woman.  Almost.

יהי זכרנם לברכה yehi zikhronam li’vrakhah May their Memories be a Blessing

David Berger (weightlifter)
Ze’ev Friedman (weightlifter)
Yossef Gutfreund (wrestling referee)
Eliezer Halfin (wrestler)
Yossef Romano (weightlifter)
Amitzur Shapira (track coach)
Kehat Shorr (shooting coach)
Mark Slavin (wrestler)
Andre Spitzer (fencing coach)
Yakov Springer (weightlifting judge)
Moshe Weinberg (wrestling coach)

Historical Amnesia

About a year ago I was watching a young Israeli physician examine an Eritrean boy at the Physicians for Human Rights clinic. The boy sat looking at the ground as his cousin explained that he wasn’t sleeping at night, often waking up sweating in terror. He said the boy was wetting the bed and that he couldn’t keep his food down. When he was asked to get up and walk to the examination table, he wrapped both his hands around his thin right thigh and lifted- left, lift, right, left, lift, right. Only 13, he was thin and weak because of his trek across the Sinai desert. Along the way he was kidnapped and held captive for three months by a Bedouin criminal organization where he was tortured, deprived of food and water and forced to wait as his family in Eritrea was extorted of thousands of dollars. That day in the clinic, wearing donated clothes that hung off his frame, was his second day in Tel Aviv.
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Human Bias and Passover

This is my favorite page on Wikipedia.

It’s a called List of Cognitive Biases, and besides showing what a nerd I am, it basically maps out all the ways in which our brain, on a daily basis, screws up how we perceive the world. These aren’t vague ideas, or suggestions – for the most part, they’re laboratory-tested, easily repeatable things that all of our brains do wrong. Some of them are familiar: the Gambler’s Fallacy (“If I just got three heads in a row, the next flip MUST be tails!”); Hindsight Bias (“Oh, yeah, I KNEW she was going to do that.”); and, getting into sinister territory, the Just-World Hypothesis (“Wow, look at that prisoner. He must’ve done something AWFUL! Fuck him.”).

There are well over a hundred of these biases, just listed on the one Wikipedia page; and, as amazing as it is to go through that page and just “click!” “Oh, I do that!” “click!” “Oh my God, that too!” it’s still a tiny amount. We’re juuuuuust starting to understand ourselves. Philosophers posited the atom in India and Greece in the 6th and 5th centuries BCE, and the physical world has been studied for as long as we’ve been a species, if not longer. But the social survey didn’t exist until around the 1000′s; many people consider the 14th-century Arab Islamic scholar Ibn Khaldun as the first sociologist; and the term sociology wasn’t even defined until 1780, in an unpublished manuscript by French essayist Emmanuel-Joseph Saiyes.

Our very own Sigismund Schlomo Freud didn’t start hypothesizing about what makes individual human beings tick until the late 1800s, and the first social psychology experiment, fusing the social with the psychological, wasn’t published until 1898, when Nathan Triplett wrote down his findings of Social Facilitation, the idea that people do better on simple tasks with other people around. The machine gun, the telephone, the automobile and aspirin are all older than the scientific field of social psychology.
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The Other Israel Film Festival: “77 Steps”

“77 Steps,” a documentary by Palestinian-Israeli filmmaker Ibtisam Mara’ana, is a selection at this year’s Other Israel Film Festival. The subject of the film is Mara’ana herself, who moves from her Arab-Muslim village to Tel Aviv. She includes a conversation between herself and a landlord who agrees to show her an apartment until he realizes she’s Arab. “Sometimes,” she tells the audience, “I had to shorten my name.”

After securing an apartment, Ibtisam throws herself into living life in Tel Aviv. “I want to belong to this place,” she says. At a roof top party, she meets Jonathan, her Jewish-Canadian emigre neighbor who’s been in Israel for 6 years. The rest of the film documents their relationship amid MP Avigdor Lieberman’s calls for loyalty oaths from Israeli Arabs, conflict with families, and Ibitsam’s resignation from the Meretz party in the face of the Gaza war (which the party will not renounce).
It’s Jonathan’s grandfather’s visit from Canada to Kibbutz Ein Dor, which he left in 1948, that’s perhaps the turning point for the couple’s relationship. Jonathan’s grandfather regrets leaving the kibbutz, and feels that his grandson’s aliyah makes up for this. He says, “At the time, Israel represented the best of morality. “Not anymore?” Itbisam asks. “No,” he replies.
At the kibbutz, Itbisam questions a staff member if she ever tells people that the kibbutz was built on Arab land. The conversation deteriorates when the staff member says that she believes Arabs should go live in a Palestinian state, and that although it was an injustice that Arabs were displaced, the Holocaust was “a greater injustice.” Jonathan chastizes Itbisam for being “aggressive” in the exchange. “I’ve lived here my whole life,” she says. “I know how I feel.”
Following a series of conversations that  illumine “the limits of our relationship,”  Jonathan moves out of the apartment building that neighbors Itbisam’s. The end of the affair isn’t melodramatic or angry; instead, it seems like an evolution. For Itbisam, it’s part of what she came to Tel Aviv to do, to stretch beyond the limitations of her previous life in her family’s village and to become more of herself. She counted the steps of the house she grew up in every day she lived there, all 77 of them, until the day she left. Of Tel Aviv, she says, “I found a place where I can get some rest.”
After the film, a conversation and q/a with Itbisam herself and the executive director of the film festival, Isaac Zablocki, took place at the Speakeasy Cafe. Zablocki remarked that the importance of the film for a North American Jewish audience lies in the fact that in it, “Israel is not what the tourists see. It’s a different perspective.”
Ultimately, Itbisam believes that the end of her relationship with Jonathan was due to a difference in culture. “We loved each other for two years, “she said. “I don’t have shame about my story…I’m not asking people what they think about my work. I just work.”  While one of her sisters has seen the film, but it has not been shown in Arab communities. “I”m dealing with taboos. It’s too early for Arabs and Palestinians to deal with this film.”
“The film is about finding identity,” said Itbisam. “I’m lucky that I have a lot of identities. I’m deep in all of them-female, Palestinian, Arab. It’s not hate or love, I have a lot of identities, I’m proud of all of them.”


Last night’s screening of “77 Steps” was co sponsored by the New Israel Fund. The Other Israel Film Festival is running in Manhattan through November 17th. Visit www.otherisrael.org/ for a list of films and to buy tickets.

Asleep at the Wheel

This is a guest post, by Tara Bognar, an attorney in Brooklyn and an alum of Yeshivat Hadar and Drisha. She has also written for the Berman Jewish Policy Archive Blog, Revolving Floor, and Tolerance.ca.

(Crossposted to Lilith.)

Segregating a certain class of people to the back of the bus has an intense resonance for anyone raised on stories of the Black civil rights struggle, Rosa Parks, and the irresistible narrative of how far we’ve come. So it’s not surprising that a story about the quasi-public New York City bus, the B110, where “the women is in the back. The men are in the front” [sic] has spread far and wide from the Columbia University newspaper that ‘broke’ the story.

Blogger Unpious describes the general tenor of the media response: “Like a school of hungry piranhas, the secular media seems to have discovered misogyny in the Chasidic world and they’re having themselves a feast.” He has a thoughtful critique on the dynamics of outside criticism on this insular community:

The outrage of outsiders won’t effect change largely because outsiders don’t seem to actually care about the plight of Chasidic women. Rather, they seem driven by a general distaste for all things Chasidic and, in this case, by the larger symbolism of back-of-the-bus discrimination. To them, Chasidic women are pawns in a larger struggle to root out discrimination everywhere, a worthy cause, no doubt, but one that Chasidic women, by and large, will not care for. Moreover, outsider outrage produces a defensive posture within the Chasidic community – on the part of both men and women – and speaking out against discriminatory practices, even by the tiny minority who might do so otherwise, becomes even more unlikely. I have yet to see those indignant outsiders bother to speak to actual living, breathing Chasidic women (or men, for that matter) to gauge how they feel about it.

However correct Unpious may be, and even if NYC’s response is unlikely to actually effect more progressive gender norms in the Chasidic community, it is offensive for the city to permit a public franchise to discriminate in this way.

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Quick: List the offensive things in this article!

Jewneric: Jewish Guys & Asian Girls, Oy Gevult!

Trust me, I’m a Jew. So what’s the deal with this attraction anyway?

After galavanting around Manhattan this past Saturday night with Jewish girls of course, I found myself sharing a cab with a Filipino girl back to Brooklyn. Relax mom I was just making sure she got home..uh..safely.

Mind you, officially Filipinos are Asians and the Philippines is part of Southeast Asia. The Philippines used to be called the Philippine Islands of the Pacific, so describing Filipinos as Pacific Islanders is still not wrong.

Our lively conversation ensued, and because this attraction has been plaguing me for so long I had to get her thoughts on the matter at hand. After clearly offending her when I told her the Jewish guys that I know think Asian girls are more submissive- bad idea- she started a defense on behalf of the whole female Asian community. I don’t think she saw my point, that sometimes the attraction is rooted in low self-estee­m men who can’t handle the tough Jewish woman, and are attracted to ­the general passivity of asian women.

That’s just a sample.

Personally, I’m not sure if I should be more offended by the terrible writing, lack of editing, antifeminist approach to dating, conflation of race and religion…. oh, shit, if I list everything then you won’t get to play.

The Most Important Film You Will Ever Watch

In what seems like a development only possible on the satirical pages of the Onion, Mel Gibson’s Icon Productions has just unveiled plans to co-finance a new film about Judah Maccabee, with Joe Eszterhaus of Showgirls fame onboard as screenwriter.  This is too good to be true. I mean, who better than Mel Gibson, the man who boldly asserted that Jews are responsible for all wars in the world,  to capture the quintessential epic military struggle of Jewish national religious pride versus the lures of assimilation?

I can see it now: in a creative twist on the Hanukkah story as related by the Talmud, Mel Gibson’s Hanukkah Tale: The Jews burn for eight days.

In light of this exciting news, I’d like to offer Mr. Gibson some free advice as preparations go underway for this sure-fire blockbuster:

Free Casting Advice to Mel Gibson from a Jewgirl Cinephile:

The first one is a no-brainer: we’re casting Russell Crowe as Matisyahu (if the connection isn’t obvious to you already, here’s a hint: follow the first link and check out 1Maccabees 2:46)

The role of Judah Maccabee is a tough call, but I think our winner is Vincent Gallo.

In his debut dramatic performance, Prince Harry of England will play Jonathan Maccabeus, and comedian Andy Dick will play Simon Maccabeus. John Hyrcanus will be played by Rick Sanchez.

Charlie Sheen needs a role in this cinematic masterpiece as well.  Let’s cast him as Eleazer Maccabeus.

We’re going to offer the role of Antiochus to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—an offer he surely can’t turn down.

Oh, and wardrobe will definitely be by John Galliano.

Well, time will only tell what choices Gibson will make, but if he sticks to my above plan, we’re going to have something even greater than The Passion of the Christ (2004).  Or, as Reb Yudel puts it, “If Gibson’s Hanukkah film succeeds, can his Tisha b’Av blockbuster be far behind?”

Incidentally, I vividly recall dragging a date to a Sunday matinee screening of his last Jew epic in 2004. We paid for two tickets to see Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights in the hopes that our tickets wouldn’t profit Gibson’s film, but later, a friend in the industry explained to me that films only benefit from concession stand money, not from actual ticket sales. Alas.  The film itself wasn’t particularly noteworthy, aside from its curious subtitling choices. While Gibson promised to cut out any direct implication of the Jews in Jesus’ crucifixion, the English subtitling did not always match the Aramaic dialogue onscreen. (I attended a high school which forced us to learn Aramaic. Now on facebook, I smugly resent that under the languages option, there is an “Aramaic of Jesus” and not also an ‘Aramaic of Rabban Gamliel.”)  We, along with busloads of young Christian children, some of whom were as young as four years old, proceeded to watch what amounted to two full hours of Jesus being beaten to a bloody pulp. ::Spoiler alert:: Jesus is killed.

Video survey: Racism in Israel

Eli Ungar-Sargon of Cut fame, whose blogging here at Jewschool has generated some interesting conversations, is off and running on his next project—a documentary film about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As part of that project he surveyed both Israelis and Palestinians about their attitudes towards the other (i.e. Israelis about Arabs and Palestinians about Jews). The interviews with Palestinians have not been completely translated yet, and so the data is not ready, however, the data about Israelis is ready. Its not surprising, though its not pretty. At the same time, the data and interviews do not seem to support the screaming headline that the piece was given in Electronic Intifada where it was published. Here is the video:

The essay is here

Return of the Jew Moneylender 2011

Meet Les Gold. Mr. Gold is the patriarch of American Jewelry and Loan in Detroit. His family business is the subject of Hardcore Pawn, a new reality television show on the TruTV channel. The show is a window onto the type of Jew we’ve come to associate with the Rhineland in the 17th century more than the American Midwest in 2011. The family that runs the shop is Jewish, not only in the plain meaning of the word, but also in the symbolic, nasty sense of the idea – The Golds are sometimes benevolent, sometimes nasty moneylenders serving a predominantly impoverished, black clientele in the middle of Detroit.

With over two million viewers, Hardcore Pawn is often compared to Pawn Stars, a History Channel reality TV show that, like a blue-collar Antiques Roadshow, presents a gang of Vegas hacks appraising antique soda machines and the Civil War currency. Yet, in reality, Hardcore Pawn isn’t really interested in appraising anything but the fraught relationship that one Jewish family has to the black ghetto in America in our own times. It’s ethnic and racial antagonism presented in documentary style, where the Jews try to pay as little as they can for gold and electronics from a population mired in stress and aggression, with a little bit of tenderness if the need arises.

The show demonstrates a few scenarios. An angry black woman arrives to pay off her interest, only to find out that after waiting 45 minutes in line, she doesn’t have enough money to retrieve her child’s video game console. In another, a poor, elderly black man brings in a ring so he can pay his rent, only to be told that his last valuable possession is worth about ten dollars to Les Gold’s son, Seth. In another, an aryan-looking white woman brings in what she says is Eva Braun’s swastika-bedazzled bracelet. Les Gold says he’ll buy it if its authentic, stating that he’ll use it to teach his grandkids what the Gold family endured during the Holocaust. (Nevermind the bracelet is a fake.)

What an embarrassment.

Of course John Galliano’s lawyer is Jewish…

In the great tradition of Jewish lawyers defending Nazis and Nazi sympathizers (such as the infamous Supreme Court case involving neo-Nazis marching in Skokie, IL in the late 1970s), turns out that the most recent source of drunken and/or drug induced anti-Semitic rants (in the great tradition of Mel Gibson and Charlie Sheen), fashion designer John Galliano, has got himself a Jewish lawyer–to be fair, according to the interview linked below, he has been his lawyer for the last seven years.

YNet has published an interview with the Galliano’s lawyer, Stephane Zerbib, who has apparently received threats because representing the former top designer of Christian Dior. You can see the video of the clearly drunken and rather despicable rant at the HuffPost.

My favorite gem from the interview comes right at the beginning.

Your client is accused of making rather harsh anti-Semitic comments. What is your explanation for this?

“I have no explanation. It could happen to any one of us. Anyone can go to a bar, drink a little and get into a fight with someone.”

Yes. It could happen to any one of us. You walk into a bar, become obliterated drunk while under the influence of prescription drugs and then tell the people next to you that you wish Hitler had killed them… Happens all the time.

My personal opinion, for what it’s worth, is that Galliano’s comments are unforgivable and despicable. Not to mention, in the greatest sense of irony, as a homosexual and self-proclaimed “gipsy” (apparently very publicly) he too would have fallen victim (twice) to the egregious and murderous crimes of the Nazi regime. However, I also think it wrong for people to be threatening his lawyer. Justice is justice, and lawyers take an oath to uphold justice; not to pick and choose which parts of the law to uphold. All the more so I find it acceptable for Zerbib to represent Galliano if they have had a professional relationship for nearly a decade.

Ultimately, anti-Semitic sentiment (drunken or sober) will not be eradicated because Jewish lawyers refuse to represent anti-Semites. Again, justice is justice and in free and democratic societies all people have the right to fair representation in court. Plus, if Galliano’s lawyer is going to make arguments in court such as the one quoted above–that any one of us could, in a drug and alcohol induced state, proclaim our love for Hitler–well, I think we can feel comfortable in how this case will go.

On JStreet and Creating a New Narrative

I am loathe to make Passover references at this point in the year, but this one is most applicable. Recently, someone referenced Reb Mimi Feigelson on cleaning your house of hametz-in addition to the removal of physical materials, you should also be cleansing yourself of narratives that no longer apply to you. I spent this weekend at the J Street conference, hoping to find new narratives, people who could supply me with inspiration, and the ability to confront my anxieties about peace and what it would mean to make real concessions for it.

Sometimes I scare myself with my knee jerk reactions. Example: in a session on American Jewish and Muslim efforts to work together, Edina Lekovic of the Muslim Public Affairs Council discussed the idea of having preconditions in relationship building. Convergence is the result of meaningful relationship building, and so we can’t have preconditions if we want people to sit together sincerely and purposefully with this goal in mind.

Chanel’s brain: But I need there to be the precondition that we all renounce violence so that I feel safe sitting with you.

Chanel’s other brain: Yeah, well, Muslim and Arab folks probably need you to check your assumption that they all support terrorism and re-evaluate who has power in this situation,so, there you go. How does it feel to need?

I am worried about J Street and the potential for leadership saturation. As in, we’re so happy to see it that we expect it to fix everything, the way we expect Obama to reverse 8 years of stupidity and trauma within the first 20 minutes of being President. And at the same time, what I most wanted in the moments following my two brain dialogue was someone to raise the question of how, in order to do this work, we have to confront the anti Arab and Muslim rhetoric, that, consciously or not, we all believe. (I know, I could have asked the question myself.) We’re not exempt because we’re peace activists, in the same way that progressive, feminist identified men aren’t incapable of sexist behavior. In spite of our efforts to resist it, it’s made it in, and triggered by feelings of vulnerability (real or perceived).

On a panel regarding the American role in the Middle East, J Street cofounder and Senior Research Fellow at the New America Foundation Daniel Levy spoke of the need to create confidence “between the occupier and occupied 18 years after Oslo,” and “the need for a new language. You can’t treat the Arab population as a demographic threat and also advocate for equality within Israel.” It’s not okay to express opinions from the press box (clapping, booing), but my colleague and I almost passed out with surprise and joy. Hypocrisy named, exposed, opened. I found myself smarting with how hard Levy’s words struck me. There are so many layers of work to do, so much facing of ourselves and what we’re willing to put on the line in the name of peace, so easy is it to get lost in the abyss of process and policy and theory and fear.

Speaking of Tunisians

Remember the ‘Macaca’ incident that ended the Senatorial campaign and presidential aspirations of George Allen?   You may recall that in the ensuing fallout he denied his Sephardic Jewish heritage, inherited from his Tunisian mother Etty Allan (nee Lumbroso).

Allen is working to revive his political career, and is owning up to his roots at Chabad’s National Jewish Retreat.  Weird? Or no?