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In this exclusive ‘Finding Your Roots’ clip, journalist Nina Totenberg learns of a family member’s daring Holocaust escape

Mon, 2021-01-25 22:20

(JTA) — In this Tuesday’s episode of the celebrity genealogy show “Finding Your Roots,” pioneering journalist Nina Totenberg and TV personality Andy Cohen learn about the deep Jewish roots of their family trees.

In this exclusive clip from Totenberg’s segment, she reacts to learning how one of her grandmothers escaped to the United States during the Holocaust by way of Portugal with the help of a sympathetic official.

Totenberg, a longtime NPR correspondent, is the daughter of famed violinist Roman Totenberg. The episode, titled “Against All Odds,” tells the story of how Roman tried to help his family members escape Europe after immigrating to the U.S. in 1938 through a visa program for artists. 

Not all of his attempts were successful, and Totenberg reveals that her father would not talk about his history to the family, fearing it would prove too painful. Totenberg, following in his footsteps, says she has never been to the Holocaust museum in Washington, D.C., for the same reason.

Cohen’s story involves two men on opposite sides of his family tree who were both named Louis. They left their lives in the Pale of Settlement for America, where they sold wares in different stores.

One of them, Louis Cohen, was involved in a legal case that reached the U.S. Supreme Court. During World War I, he was charged with selling wholesale sugar at a price that did not conform to wartime levels, which were set by the government to buoy the economy. Cohen was acquitted by the high court, which declared that the law was unconstitutional.

Both Totenberg and Cohen also get results of DNA tests showing them to be “100% Ashkenazi Jewish.”

Cohen, it turns out, is distantly related to another famous guest once featured on the show, though PBS won’t let us reveal who it is until after the episode airs.

The “Against All Odds” episode of “Finding Your Roots” airs on PBS on Tuesday at 8 p.m. ET. 

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Top children’s books feature a Passover tale and 2 coming-of-age debut novels

Mon, 2021-01-25 22:05

BOSTON (JTA) — A heartwarming and beautifully illustrated Passover tale and two poignant coming-of-age debut novels are this year’s gold medal winners of the Sydney Taylor Book Awards for the best in Jewish children’s literature.

The awards, given by the Association of Jewish Libraries, were announced Monday at the American Library Association’s midwinter meeting as part of the ALA’s Youth Media Awards ceremony. The ALA conference was held remotely due to the pandemic.

In “Welcoming Elijah: A Passover Tale with a Tail,” by Leslea Newman and illustrated by Susan Gal, a young boy celebrating a Passover Seder with his family is united with a lonely kitten shivering at his doorstep on a cold, windy night. The lyrically written story, echoing with the holiday’s theme of welcoming strangers, won in the picture-book category.

Newman is the award-winning author of more than 70 books, including the trailblazing “Heather Has Two Mommies” and “Gittel’s Journey.”

“Turtle Boy,” by M. Evan Wolkenstein, won in the category for middle grades. In this stirring work, seventh-grader Will Levine is a shy loner paired for his bar mitzvah project with a terminally ill hospitalized teen longing for adventure. Kveller, a sister site of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, described the book as a “marvelous coming-of-age story about bravery and the redemptive power of friendship,” and finding meaning in Jewish ritual.

In the young adult category, the top prize went to “Dancing to the Pity Party,” by Tyler Feder. The critically acclaimed graphic-style memoir explores the loss and grief following the death of Feder’s mother. It’s funny and sad, according to Rebecca Levitan, chair of the Sydney Taylor Award Committee, who in a news release described the book as a “singular achievement.”

Six silver medalists and 11 notable books were recognized. The full list is available here.

The Sydney Taylor Book Awards honor books for children and teens that exemplify “high literary standards while authentically portraying the Jewish experience.” They are named in memory of the author of the mid-20th century series “All-of-a-Kind-Family.”

The winners will receive their awards at the Association of Jewish Libraries’ annual conference, which this year will be held remotely at the end of June.

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Orthodox protesters in Israel burn bus as riots against COVID restrictions continue across the country

Mon, 2021-01-25 21:44

(JTA) — A mob of Orthodox Jews torched a bus in Israel amid ongoing riots protesting the country’s COVID-19 restrictions.

Police officers in other cities were also injured during riots in Orthodox neighborhoods, where COVID-19 rates have spiked but residents have objected to lockdown restrictions.

Sunday’s bus burning in Bnei Brak, a largely haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, city near Tel Aviv, came days after rioters there injured seven police officers in clashes last week. Police have sought to close haredi schools and other institutions, which has sparked a violent backlash from protesters.

The bus driver told an Israeli radio station that he was driving in Bnei Brak when he was blocked by protesters burning tires and trash cans. Protesters then surrounded and entered the bus, and one of them began punching and kicking the driver. He said he called the police but they took 15 minutes to arrive. Magen David Adom, Israel’s emergency medical service, finally extricated the driver.

Protesters then set the bus on fire, which also damaged nearby apartment buildings.

“I don’t know how I’m alive,” said the driver, Eyal Tzipori, according to The Jerusalem Post.

Police officers have also been injured by haredi rioters in the cities of Beit Shemesh and Jerusalem.

On Monday, Israeli Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzchak Yosef condemned the rioters for “desecrating God’s name.” Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, a top Ashkenazi haredi authority, is also expected to call for a stop to the riots.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed that all the protesters from Sunday’s riots in Bnei Brak had been arrested, The Times of Israel reported, though there were only 13 arrests.

Also Monday, Netanyahu agreed to weaken a bill that would have doubled fines against those who violated the restrictions at the request of his haredi political allies, according to reports.

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An Israeli leader consoled Nancy Pelosi in 2016 with a poem. It sustained her throughout the Trump presidency.

Mon, 2021-01-25 20:41

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Three weeks after American voters elected Donald Trump, Nancy Pelosi found a friendly ear in another politician mourning a loss.

During the first weekend of December 2016, Pelosi was a guest at the Saban Forum, an annual convening of Israeli and American political and national security leaders.

Then the Democratic minority leader in the U.S. House of Representatives, Pelosi was seated at a table in the ballroom of the stately Willard Hotel next to Isaac Herzog, effectively her counterpart then as the leader of the Labor Party and the Israeli opposition. 

Pelosi was contemplating the prospect of four years serving with a president whom she reviled, and who had lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton. Herzog commiserated, having lost an election 18 months earlier to Benjamin Netanyahu, after multiple polls had shown Herzog in the lead.

The conversation soon turned to literature, and Herzog whispered in Pelosi’s ear.

“What is that all about?” an aide to Pelosi recalled asking one of her colleagues.

Pelosi was soon scribbling on a napkin. 

It was a line from an Israeli poem: “My country has changed its face, I have no other country,” she wrote. Four years later, Pelosi would recite it on the House floor after a deadly raid on the Capitol.

Back in 2016, Pelosi was transfixed to the point of obsession. She wanted to know more and instructed an aide to get Herzog to send her the full poem, along with background on its author.

This account is based on interviews with aides close to Pelosi, who is now the House Speaker, and to Herzog, who is now the chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel. The account was first relayed to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency from someone close to Pelosi, and confirmed by Herzog’s office.

Herzog did not immediately reply, so Pelosi instructed her aides to noodge, more than once. In May of 2017, Herzog replied. He sent her the poem, “I have no other country,” and explained that it was written by an Israeli poet, Ehud Manor, in 1982 and put to music by Corinne Allal. 

The verse that touched Pelosi was the second: “I will not be silent now that my country has changed her face, I will not refrain from reminding her and singing here in her ear, until she opens her eyes.”

It was recorded in 1986 by Gali Atari and came to be identified with opposition to the first Lebanon War, although Manor had written about his young brother, a soldier who was killed during the War of Attrition. 

It was, Herzog told Pelosi, a song to soothe a crisis of faith in one’s country, whatever one’s political colors. The Israeli left used it to grieve the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995; the right used it to grieve the evacuation of settlers from the Gaza Strip a decade later.

Pelosi held fast to the song, thanking Herzog for sharing it with her the next time they met when Pelosi led a congressional delegation to Israel in March 2018. She cited the song repeatedly in conversations and in closed caucus meetings during the leadup last year to Trump’s first impeachment. 

“She was very taken with it,” an aide told JTA.

She mentioned it in a speech last year to J Street, the liberal Jewish Middle East policy group, a moment that might have been dismissed as scripted by one of her Jewish advisors.

Except it wasn’t, made evident when she spoke in the House after the deadly Jan. 6 Capitol riot, urging Congress to seek the removal of Trump, whose lies about winning the 2020 election had incited the carnage.

“Especially during this sad time, I recall the words of the great Israeli poet, Ehud Manor, and that’s what he said when he said, ‘I can’t keep silent in light of how my country has changed her face, won’t quit trying to remind her. In her ears, I’ll sing my cries until she opens her eyes,’” she said.

“‘I can’t keep silent of how my country has changed her face,’” Pelosi repeated. “I urge my Republican colleagues to open their eyes and to finally hold this president accountable.”

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Reform movement: IHRA definition of anti-Semitism is helpful but should not be codified into law

Mon, 2021-01-25 20:23

(JTA) — A common and increasingly controversial definition of anti-Semitism is helpful but should not be given the force of law.

That’s what the Reform movement, America’s largest Jewish religious denomination, had to say in a statement published Monday about the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of anti-Semitism. The definition includes 11 examples of how anti-Semitism can manifest, mostly involving speech about Israel.

A growing number of countries and organizations have adopted the definition, which has become a lighting rod for debate over if and when criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic. Its defenders, including many Jewish organizations, say it singles out criticism of the Jewish state only when it crosses a line into hate speech. Critics of the definition, like pro-Palestinian activists and human rights groups, worry that it could criminalize legitimate criticism of Israeli policy.

The Reform statement, by four organizations in the movement, aims to stake out a middle ground — endorsing the definition but opposing its codification in law. The statement also cautions that the IHRA definition’s examples could divert attention from the threat of far-right anti-Semitism.

“For years, this definition has been used in U.S. and international reporting on antisemitism around the world to help ensure its accuracy and comprehensiveness, and we affirm our own support today,” says the Reform statement. Its four signatories are the Union for Reform Judaism, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, Women of Reform Judaism and the Zionist group ARZA.

“Our commitment to principles of free speech and concerns about the potential abuse of the definition compel us to urge its use only as intended: as a guide and an awareness raising tool,” the statement says. “The definition should not be codified into policy that would trigger potentially problematic punitive action to circumscribe speech.”

The statement is effectively a dissent from the position of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which aims to speak for a range of Jewish establishment groups, including the four Reform organizations, on matters of government policy. In a recent letter, the Presidents Conference urged the Biden administration to “consider the [IHRA] definition” and its examples in its work, similar to Trump administration policy.

The separate Reform statement indicates that the Presidents Conference letter does not speak for a sizable swath of its own membership. Regarding the letter’s call for the Biden administration to use the definition in enforcing laws, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said, “On that point we would fundamentally disagree. It is not helpful to try to ensconce this definition across every area of the federal government.”

The Presidents Conference stance also comes amid ongoing debates over Israel criticism. Several campuses have faced federal civil rights investigations due in part to anti-Israel activities. A freshman Democratic congressman, Jamaal Bowman of New York, was recently accused of anti-Semitism for calling Israel’s vaccine policies “cruelty.” Coalitions of scholars and activists have debated the proper application of the IHRA definition.

The definition’s text says it is “non-legally binding,” and its lead author, Kenneth Stern, has made largely the same argument as the Reform groups: that the definition is a resource, not a legislative document. Jacobs told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that he worries the definition could be used to chill or penalize legitimate criticism of Israel.

“There are those today who would weaponize the definition and use it, frankly, to stifle free speech,” he said. “It is critical that we not weaponize the definition but work to improve how we handle education, reporting, monitoring and responding to anti-Semitism.

He added, “We also know there is legitimate criticism of Israel.”

In 2019, President Donald Trump signed an executive order essentially adopting the working definition as a reference for adjudicating civil rights complaints on campus. Jacobs said he believes the order and declarations like it are an overstep, and can lead to a “slippery slope.”

While the rabbi strongly disagrees with anti-Israel groups, as well as with the movement to boycott Israel, he does not feel all boycott activists and their groups should necessarily be branded as anti-Semitic.

“I think there is a concerning trend to label groups, including Jewish groups, that are strongly critical of Israeli policy — whether those are policies within the Green Line, whether those are policies in the occupied West Bank — as anti-Semitic, and in a sense demonize those organizations,” Jacobs said.

In addition to fears of limiting free speech, the Reform statement also says the definition’s Israel examples “must not divert attention from the more frequent manifestations of antisemitism, too often violent, emanating from new streams in the hate movements” that are “primarily associated with the far right.”

Jacobs added that he does not believe supporting Israel and opposing anti-Semitism are one and the same.

“There are individuals and countries that are very pro-Israel but very weak in combating anti-Semitism,” he said. “There are groups that are very tolerant and supportive of Jewish people but absolutely antagonistic to the State of Israel, and the lines can be slippery.”

Jacobs hopes that the definition will be useful as a guidepost for the Biden administration. But he and the Reform movement want the administration to focus its anti-bigotry efforts on improving hate crime reporting, securing vulnerable institutions and curbing hate speech on social media.

Regarding the IHRA definition, he said, “If we’re just keeping it as what it’s meant to do — a nonbinding working definition — it’s really helpful.”

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Shortly after I began converting to Judaism, I found myself in a hot tub full of neo-Nazis

Mon, 2021-01-25 19:04

This post originally appeared on Alma.

Sundhöllen, a public swimming pool in Reykjavik, Iceland, is located at Barónsstígur 45a, 101. The building’s simple, unadorned exterior appears to be that of a government building, or perhaps a prison, and it gives no indication of the deep clear pools and smoky hot tubs hiding on the other side of its high white walls.

Though Sundhöllen isn’t one of the more glamorous thermal baths for which Iceland has become famous, it is one of the oldest and it’s an actual meeting place among the capital city’s locals. It’s also where I was soaking one gray-skied evening two years ago when I first realized the more negative implications of my impending conversion to Judaism.

I was traveling through Iceland with my brother, doing all of the touristy things there: eating cod, hiking to craters, buying expensive sweaters and swimming in every pool that I could find. I had been in Sundhöllen multiple times, but in a hot tub on one particular evening, I kept hearing the terms “white supremacist” and “neo-Nazi” holding space in my fellow hot tub goers’ conversations. I don’t speak Icelandic, but through the way many Icelanders pepper their conversations with English vocabulary, I could sometimes assume the subjects about which they were speaking. After a few minutes I saw three figures, two men and one woman, stepping into the water, and through the rising steam it was clear to me that they were the neo-Nazis that people were speaking of.

There’s a saying that when we’re stripped of our material adornment, we can more clearly see how similar we all are. I can tell you now that this is not always the case. While their clothes and other accessories, which could have provided clues to their ideological beliefs and social class, were left in the lockers, a more permanent version of who these people were came with them. Their heads were shaved, they were wearing black uniform bathing suits and were covered in tattoos, with some of the identical symbols and images: the Nordic resistance movement insignia, the life rune, SS bolts, etc. Only the classic swastika was missing.

I wondered what it would be like if I had seen one of them on the street that day while on a tour. Would they have been wearing black leather jackets covered in offensive patches, serving as a warning for the conscientious to stay away? Or would their true selves remain unseen, hidden beneath a homemade turtleneck sweater and chinos from Zara?

Similarly to the way these neo-Nazis may have hidden racist and anti-Semitic symbols underneath misleading outfits, I was unintentionally hiding beneath my own Aryan-like physique an element of myself that many white supremacists would believe made me a threat: I was practicing Judaism.

I officially began my conversion process a few weeks prior to the trip but, at that point, already considered myself Jewish. Though I was slow to begin the official process, I had done the required reading, watched the films, attended Shabbat services at my local Reform synagogue regularly and was an active member in the congregation’s tikkun olam society. I was invested in my local community and felt settled into a Jewish identity, regardless of a conversion certificate.

What bothered me more than sharing a spa day with possible neo-Nazis was the realization, for the first time, that anti-Semitism was slowly becoming a personal problem. For many converts, there comes a time when they becomes we, theirs becomes ours.

Though my privilege as a white person is clear and will always play a huge role in the way society responds to me, my conversion to Judaism puts a new target on my back, something I had only briefly considered when working my way through the conversion checklist.

Unlike Orthodox Jews and other members of more visible marginalized groups, my Jewishness was not apparent on me physically. I’ve sat around enough tables full of challah and matzah ball soup to know that most people think I don’t “look Jewish” — whatever that means. I have, however, been told I look a lot like my younger brother, a white, blue-eyed Christian man who was sitting beside me in the hot tub that day. I wondered how his experience and fear in that moment was different from my own. We are the same blood, but I represent a threat to neo-Nazis and he does not.

When we talked about it over scoops of ice cream later that night, he told me it was surprising to have experienced neo-Nazis in Iceland, a country famous for its equality and peaceful society, but he didn’t reveal having felt anything beyond the surprise.

I took this experience home with me though, and it helped me understand the gravity of my conversion. It was the first time that fear made me reconsider my conversion and the choices I was making in my public Jewish life. It was the first time I truly looked inward and asked myself the hard question required of converts: Was I ready to accept the realities of anti-Semitism?

I also asked myself the question so many of my friends had asked already: As a gay man, why would I want to add an additional target on my back?

I used to find the imagery of a target on someone’s back too grotesque and melodramatic for the context of a religious conversion, but since my encounter with presumed neo-Nazis in the hot tub that day, the question has become even more reasonable. On top of all-too-common news of anti-Semitic threats and vandalism, there have been synagogue shootings and Jewish-oriented hate crimes around the world.

At the time of this writing, we are dealing with the aftermath of domestic terrorists storming and overtaking the U.S. Capitol building. Some of the rioters waved Confederate flags, others held signs referencing the anti-Semitic conspiracy theory QAnon. Others wore sweatshirts that read things like “Camp Auschwitz,” an obvious glorification of the Holocaust. During the pro-Trump “Save America” rally leading up to the storming of the Capitol building, a Republican congresswoman, Mary Miller, even quoted Hitler.

While I wait for my city’s mikvah to reopen after being closed due to COVID-19 in order to finalize my conversion, I find myself revisiting the same question I asked myself back in Reykjavik: Is my conversion a smart choice?

In the two years that have passed since soaking in a hot tub with neo-Nazis, I have to admit that my certainty in my desire to convert has taken a few blows. But what keeps me pushing toward the mikvah, however, is that when I’m asked if I’m Jewish, I always say yes.

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Argentina Jewish family attacked by drivers shouting ‘Death to the Jews’

Mon, 2021-01-25 18:50

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (JTA) – A Jewish family in Argentina was physically and verbally attacked with anti-Semitic epithets while driving to a vacation spot in the province of Cordoba.

The family was traveling by car from La Falda to La Cumbre, a mountain destination 10 miles away in central Argentina where some Orthodox Jews go for summer holidays. The driver, who preferred to be identified just as Max C., was with his wife and their four sons, aged 17 to 11, as well as a 1 1/2-year-old baby and his wife’s 91-year-old grandmother.

According to the local media, Max said another vehicle neared his car and blocked it from proceeding. Two passengers in the other car then spewed anti-Semitic insults at the identifiably Orthodox Jewish family, shouting “f***ing Jews, get out of here. Death to the Jews.”

With his children crying and the grandmother having a panic attack, according to reports, the driver got out of the car trying to calm the attackers but was beaten as the assailants shouted “You f***ing Jews, get out of here,” falling dizzy to the ground.

The children ran to help their father but also were beaten amid epithets.

Max said he returned to his car and managed to drive to a hospital for help.

The family filed a report at a police station and said officers refused to provide them a copy.

On Monday, the Cordoba government reported that the alleged assailants were arrested in connection with the attack on a family “for being Jews.” If prosecuted and found guilty, they could be punished under a 1988 anti-discrimination law.

The Argentine Jewish political umbrella, DAIA, denounced the attack and provided details on its website and Twitter on Sunday.

Anti-Semitic incidents are rarely physical in Argentina – most are online or graffiti – but there were three violent ones in 2019. The number of incidents rose by 107% in 2018 over the previous year, according to a DAIA report, the most recent national statistics. Online incidents made up approximately 90% of the 2017 total, nearly doubling the 47% in 2014.

Argentina has about 230,000 Jews in a population of over 44 million.

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In Amsterdam, the personal card of every Holocaust victim returns to Jewish hands

Mon, 2021-01-25 16:45

AMSTERDAM (JTA) — Sonja Levy was a positive person who made an excellent first impression and whose important position exempted her from deportation, according to the personal card that the Jewish Council of Amsterdam made for her during the Nazi occupation.

But the accolades on the card weren’t enough to save Levy, a kindergarten teacher who was in her early 20s when the Germans invaded.

Like more than 100,000 Dutch Jews, she was eventually put on a train to the death camps in occupied Poland and murdered there in a gas chamber.

On Monday, ownership of her personal card – it turned out to be her first epitaph — was handed over to the main museum of the community to which she belonged.

Ahead of International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Wednesday, the Netherlands branch of the Red Cross has transferred to the Jewish Cultural Quarter of Amsterdam — an umbrella of several Jewish institutions, including the National Holocaust Museum of the Netherlands — ownership of more than 140,000 personal cards of Dutch Jews that are slated to be displayed to the public for the first time.

The entire index of the Jewish Council of Amsterdam — a body that the Nazis set up to have Jews oversee preparations for the extermination of their own minority throughout the Netherlands — is among the most comprehensive and best-kept registries of its kind anywhere in Europe.

It is unusual in that it includes references to status and personal traits, reflecting how this registry, unlike most other Nazi lists, was made by for Jews by Jews.

In more than 75% of the cards, the Red Cross after World War II added the date of deportation in red ink — a rare tangible reminder of how in the Netherlands, the Nazis achieved their highest death rate anywhere in occupied Western Europe. Of about 110,000 Jews deported, only a few thousand survived.

The Red Cross has transferred its entire wartime archives to the Dutch National Archives, except for the Jewish Council’s Index Card Archive. On Monday, the Red Cross transferred ownership of the Index Card Archive to the National Holocaust Museum, which is undergoing renovations. The index will go on display next year when the museum reopens, the Red Cross wrote in a statement Monday.

The index “is of great value not only as an archive but also as a museum monument and a tangible reminder of the Holocaust,” the Red Cross wrote.

The cards were digitized in 2012 and available for viewing online upon specific request for a name or other identifying details. But browsing the cards has not been possible. The National Holocaust Museum of the Netherlands is now designing the cards’ display ahead of the reopening, but they will be visible for all to see, according to Emile Schrijver, the director of the Jewish Cultural Quarter.

“It is of the utmost importance that we can show the physical memory of all the Jews who were murdered,” he said.

The cards’ display will add to the picture of Dutch victims that other archives have sketched out. According to the National Holocaust Museum, Sonja Levy was deported in 1944 to Auschwitz-Birkenau and murdered there. She died just weeks after her 25th birthday.

The Jewish Monument, a website that includes the names of most Dutch Holocaust victims, said her husband, a blind architect named Alfred, died there, too.

The Red Cross’ action comes amid major admissions of guilt in the Netherlands over the fate of the country’s Jews.

In 2017, the Netherlands Red Cross apologized for “making things too easy” for the Nazis and failing to speak up for Jews due to “lack of courage,” as the Dutch branch’s chairwoman, Inge Brakman, phrased it.

Last year, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte apologized for the first time for how the Dutch government in exile and authorities in service of the Germans had “failed in its responsibility as a provider of justice and security” for Dutch Jews. For decades, Rutte and his predecessors had declined calls by Jewish groups for them to apologize. Rutte’s apology came more than 15 years after those by leaders of neighboring countries, including France and Belgium.

Also in 2020, King Willem-Alexander for the first time acknowledged how many Dutch Jews felt forsaken by his great-grandmother, Wilhelmina, who escaped to the United Kingdom when the Germans invaded.

“Fellow human beings felt abandoned, insufficiently heard, insufficiently supported, even with words,” Willem-Alexander said at a ceremony for World War II and Holocaust victims. “Also from London by my great-grandmother, despite her steadfast resistance [to the Nazis]. It’s something that won’t let go of me.”

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Israel closes its borders, including for citizens and immigrants, in effort to curb COVID-19

Mon, 2021-01-25 14:34

(JTA) — Even as Israel has emerged as the world’s fastest-vaccinating country, its pace of new COVID-19 cases has set records as well.

Now, in a desperate effort to bring the outbreak under control, the country is taking the unprecedented step of completely locking down its borders.

Ben Gurion Airport has been closed to virtually all traffic in both directions. Since March, citizens have been able to travel freely as long as they follow quarantine rules upon entry, but now even they cannot enter or leave the country. (Non-citizens have largely been excluded, though a patchwork of exemptions has allowed some in.)

Even new immigrants, who have continued to arrive during the pandemic despite limits on non-citizen entry, will have to wait until the shutdown ends to travel to the country.

The airport will remain closed for one week, the government announced Sunday. Exactly what impact the travel ban will have on infections is unclear because there are so many cases in Israel already. But new visa-free travel as a consequence of normalization with several Arab nations has proven to be a vector for disease, with one traveler reportedly infecting 180 Israelis on his return from the United Arab Emirates. The shutdown allows a halt on that travel without rolling back the terms of those deals.

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After 7-year saga, Israeli woman charged with child sex abuse in Australia is extradited

Mon, 2021-01-25 14:29

SYDNEY (JTA) — Malka Leifer has boarded a plane from Israel en route to Australia where she faces 74 charges of child sexual abuse.

Leifer’s departure ends one chapter in a high-profile international saga that captured the attention of both Australian Jews who sought to see her prosecuted and allies in Israel who sought to shield her. The case caused rare tension between Australian Jews and Israel.

Leifer fled to Israel from Australia in 2008 amid allegations that she had sexually abused students when she was the principal at the Adass Yisroel school in Melbourne. In 2014, Australia filed a formal extradition request, but Israeli authorities deemed her unstable and unfit for extradition.

After an investigation showed she was living a normal life, she was rearrested in 2018, and last year, an Israeli panel cleared her for extradition. Earlier this month, Israel announced it would move to speed the extradition process, saying that it had been the “victim to a fraud perpetrated by Leifer and her supporters.”

That fraud, Israeli police have said, included pressure by former health minister Yaakov Litzman to have Leifer declared unfit for trial. Australian Jews protested his appointment as housing minister last year because of his involvement in the case.

In statements on Monday, Australian Jewish leaders praised three sisters who had mounted a public campaign to have Leifer returned to the country to face prosecution.  in statements Monday.

“That Leifer was allowed to escape justice for so long was a travesty,” Jeremy Leibler, the Zionist Federation of Australia president, said in one representative statement. He added: “That she is coming is largely due to the tireless efforts of Dassi Erlich and her sisters, as well as their support network. It is they who kept up the pressure and who never gave up. My thoughts are with them tonight, and with all survivors of sexual abuse.”

Former Israeli ambassador to Australia Mark Sofer tweeted that he has been “skeptical” that Leifer would ever be extradited. “But I was then unaware of the heroism and tenacity of @dassi_erlich, Ellie, and Nicole,” he wrote. “I’ve never been happier to be so wrong.”

Leifer’s departure from Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport came shortly before the country was due to ground all flights for at least a week to curb the spread of COVID-19. Israel has a high infection rate, while Victoria, the Australian state where Leifer is being prosecuted, successfully eliminated the disease through a grueling months-long lockdown last year.

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Joe Biden’s first Sunday mass as president involves stop at Jewish deli owned by his COVID czar

Sun, 2021-01-24 19:40

(JTA) — Joe Biden is Irish and Catholic, but his family clearly has a soft spot for Jewish food.

On the way back to the White House from Biden’s first Sunday mass as president at the Holy Trinity Catholic Church, the family motorcade stopped in the Georgetown neighborhood so that Hunter Biden could get bagels from the Call Your Mother deli, Bloomberg reporter Jordan Fabian tweeted.

The self-described “Jew-ish” eatery serves bagels, sandwiches, bagel sandwiches and smoked fish sides.

The deli is co-owned by Jeff Zients, a Jewish businessman who ran the National Economic Council under President Obama from 2014 to January 2017 and is now Biden’s COVID-19 czar, coordinating the administration’s plans to tackle the virus.

Some of the recipe testing for the deli’s first location was done at Zients’ home, according to Washingtonian magazine. Zients connected with Andrew Dana, the chef behind Call Your Mother and his business partner, through his father’s friend from summer camp.

“Similar to me, he’s from this area and spent a lot of time in New York and has experienced a lot of the great deli culture in New York and wanted D.C. to be able to replicate that,” Dana told the magazine.

Social media users had fun with the tidbit on Sunday. Historian and talking head Michael Beschloss noted that the store’s pastrami is “excellent.”

We got ya @POTUS! https://t.co/i5ZFVeG0IG

— Call Your Mother Deli (@CYM_DC) January 24, 2021

This is the excellent Call Your Mother bagelry-deli in Georgetown, where Biden family stopped today. Pastrami excellent. One of first local outings by this President. pic.twitter.com/Hx7UVo8B1S

— Michael Beschloss (@BeschlossDC) January 24, 2021

President Biden has tapped a slew of Jewish allies for key positions in his administration, from secretaries of state and the treasury to attorney general. Read the full list here.

Have a recommendation for another Jewish D.C. restaurant that the Bidens should try? Email tips@jta.org with your suggestions.

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Walter Bernstein, respected blacklisted screenwriter, dies at 101

Sun, 2021-01-24 18:38

(JTA) — Walter Bernstein, a proudly “secular” Jewish screenwriter best known for his 1960s and ’70s dramas and for being blacklisted during the McCarthy era, has died at 101.

The cause of death on Saturday was pneumonia, his wife Gloria Loomis told The New York Times.

Bernstein, born to a Jewish family in Brooklyn, called himself a “secular, self-loving Jew of a leftist persuasion,” according to the Times.

That persuasion got him labeled as a communist sympathizer in the 1950s, when the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee cracked down on leftist attitudes in Hollywood.

Bernstein’s career rebounded in the late ’50s, and he went on to collaborate multiple times with fellow New York Jew Sidney Lumet. His most famous films include “Paris Blues,” a drama about jazz musicians starring Sidney Poitier and Paul Newman; “Fail-Safe,” a Cold War thriller with Henry Fonda and Walter Matthau; and “The Front,” a comedy about the blacklist experience starring Woody Allen and Zero Mostel.

The Times reported that Bernstein was involved in several projects into his 90s and was an adjunct professor at New York University until 2017.

“They’ll carry me off writing,” he once told Variety.

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In Israel, teenagers can now get the COVID-19 vaccine

Sun, 2021-01-24 17:58

(JTA) — Israel continues to far outpace the entire world in its COVID-19 vaccine rollout.

This weekend the country’s health ministry announced that teenagers between the ages of 16 and 18 are now eligible for the vaccine.

In all, Israel has vaccinated about 2.5 million out of its approximately 9 million citizens since beginning its drive in late December, the ministry said Friday.

At the same time, the country is in the midst of a strict third national lockdown due to a recent sharp spike in COVID cases.

The health ministry reported that 7,316 new cases were confirmed Friday. Earlier in the week, the new case number peaked at over 10,000, a record.

RELATED: 5 things to know about Israel’s attention-grabbing vaccine spree

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HBO Max’s next Israeli show: ‘Possessions,’ a thriller about a French woman caught in a murder case

Sun, 2021-01-24 17:42

(JTA) — HBO Max will stream a six-episode French-Israeli psychological thriller series titled “Possessions” on Thursday, the latest in HBO’s long line of Israel-affiliated offerings.

“Possessions,” filmed in French, Hebrew and English, involves a young French ex-pat woman living in Israel who is accused of murdering her husband on her wedding night. A French diplomat charged with helping French citizens navigate the difficulties of dealing with Israeli authorities comes to her aid.

But his task is further complicated when he finds himself falling for Nathalie, and he becomes obsessed with the case and her family’s mysterious past.

The show, created by Shachar Magen, is a joint production of France’s Canal Plus and Israel’s Yes TV network. It’s directed by French filmmaker Thomas Vincent, known for directing the acclaimed BBC drama “Bodyguard.”

“The demand for non-English language content continues to grow throughout the world and I am delighted that this exceptional drama will be available for a wide, global audience via HBO Max,” Beatriz Campos, SVP of global sales and production financing of TV Series at Studiocanal, told Variety.

HBO Max, the network’s streaming service, recently debuted “Valley of Tears,” an epic miniseries on the Yom Kippur War.

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Larry King, legendary Jewish TV interviewer, dies at 87

Sat, 2021-01-23 21:17

(JTA) — Larry King, the iconic Jewish radio and TV interviewer who never met a subject he didn’t seem to like, has died at 87.

King died Saturday at a hospital in Los Angeles. His company Ora Media released the announcement and did not list a cause, but King had been hospitalized recently with the coronavirus.

King often recalled — sometimes with elaborate embellishment — his roots as a poor Jewish kid in Brooklyn, where he was born Lawrence Zeiger. One of his first broadcast employers, in Miami, had him change his name to King, saying Zeiger sounded too ethnic.

King, whose most famous talk show aired on CNN from 1985-2010, was known for his genial interviews, a contrast with the adversarial style that propelled so many of his contemporaries to fame. He would ask an open-ended question and let his respondents answer at length. It was a counterintuitive approach that nonetheless elicited headlines. 

In 1992, King asked oil billionaire Ross Perot what his plans were, and Perot seized the opportunity to announce a third-party presidential run that would change history, helping to oust incumbent George H. W. Bush and install Bill Clinton.

He was an affable presence — no jacket, always in suspenders, dress shirt sleeves rolled up, leaning forward. His guests, perhaps not consciously, were drawn into the ambience and also leaned forward. The dynamic once led Marlon Brando to kiss King on the lips.

At times, King’s softballs could on a dime turn hard. In 1992, he asked Vice President Dan Quayle, who was identified with the Christian right, if he would support his daughter if she wanted an abortion.

“I would counsel her and talk to her and support her on whatever decision she’d make,” Quayle said. King followed up: “And if the decision was abortion, you’d support her?” Quayle, cornered, said he would, making headlines.

One of King’s few public feuds was with Piers Morgan, who replaced him on CNN, and whose ratings were not nearly as high. Watching Morgan’s show, King said, was “like watching your mother-in-law go over a cliff in your new Bentley.”

King welcomed all comers, saying he interviewed 50,000 people over the course of his career, including every president from Gerald Ford to Barack Obama. (He interviewed Donald Trump multiple times before his presidency, including in 2000 when he was contemplating a presidential run on the Reform ticket.)

King had Louis Farrakhan on his show in 1995 so that the anti-Semitic leader of the Nation of Islam could air an appeal to speak to Jewish leaders, without preconditions. Organizational Jewish leaders, who wanted Farrakhan to apologize for his toxic rhetoric, were not game.

King’s open-ended questions sometimes nonplussed interview subjects. In 1997, he interviewed the Dalai Lama, then on a campaign to raise recognition of the oppression of Tibetan Buddhists by China’s government.

“Our honored guest tonight is his holiness, the Dalai Lama, the exiled leader of Tibet,” King began. “Help us a little, before we talk about China and the conflict, with Buddhism. Is it in conflict with Christianity, Judaism, Mohammed-ism, other isms? Is it a continuation of these faiths?”

The Dalai Lama, whose face had constricted from a serene smile to utter bafflement, said, “What do you mean, conflict?”

Buddhism arose in the Far East, thousands of miles from the three monotheistic faiths King had mentioned and had little interaction with each.

“Do you pray, and if you pray, who do you pray to?” King followed up. “We pray to Buddha!” the usually unflappable Dalai Lama said, his eyes rolling.

Larry King, shown in a 2020 show with a Donald Trump puppet, continued to interview people well past his departure from CNN. (Fox via Getty Images)

King in 2003 told the Los Angeles Jewish Journal that he grew up in a home where Jewish laws were observed — he said with some pride that he did his entire bar mitzvah in Hebrew — but that he began to grow disillusioned with faith after his beloved father died when he was 10.

King’s personal politics were liberal as a result of the welfare payments that saved his family after his father’s death, he said.

Seeking radio work in his 20s, a mentor advised King to move to Miami, where there was a burgeoning market. (At 22, he asked a Roman Catholic priest how many children he had, he recalled in a profile in 2003 in Lifestyles, a Jewish magazine. “The look on his face is something I still see in my nightmares,” he said at the time.)

King became a popular radio presence in Miami but also indulged a damaging gambling habit. His career took a dive in 1971 when he got involved with Louis Wolfson, a wealthy Jewish industrialist tainted by a stock market scandal and the bribery case that drove Jewish Justice Abe Fortas off the Supreme Court.

Wolfson asked King to deliver a $25,000 payment to Jim Garrison, to quietly subsidize the New Orleans District Attorney’s investigation into conspiracy theories about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. King, Wolfson said, pocketed $5,000 to pay gambling debts.

The charges were dismissed but King’s career was over, or so it seemed. Within a couple of years, he was back at work in Miami. In 1978, he was asked to take over a midnight to 5:30 am syndicated talk show.

He honed his modus operandi on the show: a long, friendly interview with a celebrity or politician, followed by questions from callers. Ted Turner, CNN’s founder, asked King to move the format to live TV in 1985. King continued to broadcast his talk show after his 2010 departure from CNN, for a time on the English service of RT, the Russian broadcaster, and online.

He also had a regular column in USA Today for 20 years, a collection of unrelated thoughts separated by ellipses. The column’s randomized style was much mocked — The Onion ran a parody headlined “I am f***ing insane” — but King may have been prophetic. He revived the style for Twitter, where he created the hashtag #ItsMy2Cents and accrued millions of followers.

King was married eight times to seven women. He married Alene Akins, a former Playboy bunny, twice in the 1960s. His longest marriage was to Shawn Southwick, whom he married in 1997 and was 26 years his junior. At the time of his death, the couple were undergoing divorce proceedings, reportedly because King said they could not overcome their difference in age and religion. Southwick is a Mormon who sometimes brought King to services.

King called himself an agnostic but fund-raised for Jewish charities. In 2016, he auctioned off a signed pair of his red suspenders for the American Jewish Historical Society.

As bland as he sometimes appeared to be on TV, in private King was known as a profane raconteur, telling stories of unlikely sexual conquests. He was also known to describe an adventure as a kid that he had with Jewish baseball great Sandy Koufax that never occurred. Koufax said he did not meet King until they were adults, according to King’s obituary in The Washington Post.

King never lost his sense of wonder at his success. 

“Larry Zeiger is still in there — he is Larry King on the outside,” he told the Los Angeles Jewish Journal in 2003. “But every day I feel amazed.”

Bantering with Jerry Seinfeld in 1991 about how Seinfeld’s eponymous show had become a hit, King said of making a living by making people laugh: “It’s like getting paid to interview somebody, crazy.”

King is survived by three children, one from a brief marriage in 1961, and two whom he had with Southwick. The two children he had with Akins — one he adopted from her previous marriage, and one he had with her — predeceased him last year.

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Bernie Sanders had his most viral week ever

Fri, 2021-01-22 21:58

(JTA) — Bernie Sanders was everywhere on James Corden’s late-night show set on Thursday.

Life-sized cardboard cutouts of the Jewish senator in his now famous inauguration ceremony pose — hands and legs crossed, slightly crumpled in his chair, wearing a pair of fawned-over mittens — sat behind a synthesizer next to the house band, behind the bar for guests and scattered throughout the practically nonexistent audience.

“Speaking of breakout stars of the inauguration, we have another one with us in the studio,” Corden said, barely holding in his laughter.

It was a fitting indication ofjust how ubiquitous Sanders’ image was in pop culture and for the eyeballs of social media this week. No regular Instagram or Twitter user could have scrolled through their feeds since the presidential inauguration on Wednesday without seeing the mittened Sanders — usually in meme form, with humorous accompanying text, often comparing him to cranky relatives and the like. 

Many employed Jewish humor along the way.

when you're at a shiva for a guy you didn't like pic.twitter.com/Qy5vOQdiqM

— Kairotic Neutral (@AriBrostoff) January 20, 2021

In Jewish yoga this pose is: waiting for my wife at Loehmann's pic.twitter.com/Qik7wsZ0ad

— Chandra Steele (@ChanSteele) January 20, 2021

Bernie's just waiting for the shul president to finish announcements so he can go to kiddush already. pic.twitter.com/2MV20rkHEf

— Naf (@naftibabyisback) January 20, 2021

Then came the photoshop phenomenon. Social media users began splicing the Sanders’ silhouette into other photos of people and places all over the world, even into screen shots from movies and TV shows.

View this post on Instagram

A post shared by Nicolas Heller (@newyorknico)

The #BernieSanders meme combined with kittens may just be perfection pic.twitter.com/akDxU1H6ZA

— patronsaintofcats&bats&cybernats (@patronsaintofca) January 22, 2021

bernie sanders, a horror icon. pic.twitter.com/UNmHhaHCr7

— Helen Shivers (@thecroakerqueen) January 22, 2021

Our sister site Alma, not content with one long slideshow of Bernie memes on Instagram, posted three sets of Bernie photoshopped into everything from “Fiddler on the Roof” to “When Harry Met Sally” to a Haim music video.

View this post on Instagram

A post shared by Alma (@hey.alma)

The meme deluge became so unrelenting that some were fatigued with the image by Friday.

I have Bernie Sanders Meme Fatigue.

— Kathryn Aagesen (@katfoodbreath) January 22, 2021

An entire market of merchandise inspired by the image has quickly sprouted. The National Museum of Jewish History in Philadelphia is hawking “bundled up Bernie mugs” and more. Designers are incorporating it into their work on Etsy. Sanders’ own online store is now selling a sweatshirt with the image and donating all of the proceeds to Meals on Wheels Vermont. Even the progressive magazine Jewish Currents has its own Bernie merch.

“The mug for a bris, a shiva, a long line at Zabar’s, a protracted and infuriating call with your insurance provider. This isn’t an endorsement of anything other than sitting Like This,” the magazine tweeted.

As with most random internet phenomena, there is no firm answer as to why the image went viral. Sanders has been a social media star before — most notably for the memes based on his December 2019 presidential campaign ad, in which the progressive lawmaker asks his supporters “once again” for donations.

But this photo seemed to capture the essence of Sanders’ public persona as the nation’s grumpy grandfather — and a Jewish one at that, with Ashkenazi features and an unmistakable Brooklyn accent. His homemade wool mittens, a symbol of Sanders’ Vermont style and his repudiation of anything fancy, also fit just a little too perfectly with a senator known for his rants about income inequality. (The gloves have a heartwarming backstory involving a public school teacher that only helped fuel the fire.)

The intensity of the political moment, charged into a new gear after the deadly insurrection at the Capitol — especially for Jews, newly frightened by the display of anti-Semitism at the right-wing riot — likely had something to do with it too. The country, one could argue, was primed for a feel-good meme sensation. As a Refinery29 writer put it, the inauguration was, for the majority of liberal-leaning America, a “sigh of relief.” 

Alma’s Emily Burack wrote: “As an Ashkenazi Jew with grandparents from Brooklyn, it’s hard not to feel a kindred spirit in Bernie. And in a year — well, in the past four years, really — when we’ve dealt with a rise in antisemitism, the worst antisemitic attack in American history, and an emboldened faction of white supremacists, the undeniable grumpy Jewishness of Bernie offers a real sense of catharsis.”

Writer Amanda Silbering tweeted that the memes “offered American Jews a chance to heal from the rampant anti-semitism in the news cycle.”

A large part of Sanders’ appeal to his progressive fans has always been his stubborn focus on substantive policy debate and his impatience with the fluff of pop culture. As Refinery29 continued, the cross-legged Sanders photo captured that ethic perfectly.

“He has things to do and places to be. His demeanor is unsentimental, unmoved, and largely unbothered,” Michelle Santiago Cortes wrote.

Sanders’ comedic response to the phenomenon was a Tik Tok video that expressed just that. Its caption: “Fashion? Let’s get to work.” The video showed a clip of him responding to a question about the photo on a news show and what he had “in mind” at the time of the shot.

“$2000 per adult. That’s what the Senate has got to do,” he replies, referring to the debate over how much money the next COVID-19 stimulus relief should include.

But Sanders eventually did have some sense of humor about the whole thing. The timing of the shot, taken as the country watched Joe Biden become president, prompted inevitable musings as to whether Bernie truly was cranky about the event, especially after coming so close to winning the Democratic nomination last year. Sanders, a longtime friend of Biden’s, dispelled those thoughts in an appearance on “Late Night With Seth Meyers” on Thursday night.

“I was just sitting there, trying to keep warm, paying attention to what’s going on,” he said to Meyers with a smile.

As the Biden era begins — without the prospect of a President Sanders, and subsequently no pressing need for Larry David to portray Sanders on “Saturday Night Live” — could this be the end of Sanders’ pop culture stardom?

As one Twitter user wrote: “If @nbcsnl doesn’t have Larry David dressed as @SenSanders in the background of every skit this weekend…then I don’t want it.”

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No, Twitter did not suspend Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader

Fri, 2021-01-22 20:43

(JTA) — On Friday, reports surfaced that Twitter had appeared to suspend an account belonging to Iran’s vehemently anti-Israel supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

But @khamenei_site wasn’t the authoritarian leader’s real account.

The reason for the suspension was that the account had tweeted a photo calling for “revenge” against former President Donald Trump. Along with a photo showing Trump golfing beneath the shadow of a military airplane, the tweet read “Revenge is inevitable. Soleimani’s killer and the man who gave the orders must face vengeance.”

As president, Trump ordered the killing of Qassem Soleimani, the senior Iranian general who commanded a force that had supported terrorist groups across the Middle East.

But Twitter said it suspended the account because it was fake, Reuters reported. Khamenei’s main account, with more than 880,000 followers, was still active.

Twitter told The Associated Press that it had suspended the fake account for violating the platform’s “abusive behavior policy” as well as its “manipulation and spam policy.”

Officials in Israel and the United States have drawn attention to Khamenei’s active account as debates over moderation on Twitter have escalated, and particularly as the platform has restricted and then suspended Trump’s account for inciting violence.

At a hearing last year in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, an Israeli activist asked why a Khamenei tweet calling for Israel’s elimination was allowed, given that a label had been appended to tweets by Trump. A Twitter official responded that “foreign policy saber-rattling on military and economic issues are generally not in violation of Twitter rules.”

Kayleigh McEnany, Trump’s press secretary, said the statement spoke to Twitter’s “overwhelming, blinding bias against conservatives and against this president.”

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For centuries, Jews thrived in Khujand, Tajikistan. Now the city’s last Jew has died.

Fri, 2021-01-22 19:51

(JTA) — For many centuries, the city of Khujand in Tajikistan, a mountainous Muslim-majority country, had been a center of Jewish presence in Central Asia.

But the once-rich communal life of Bukharan Jews in Khujand ended last week with the passing of the city’s last remaining Jewish person: Jura Abaev died Jan. 15 at the age of 93, Radio Free Europe reported Thursday.

The Bukharan Jews are a regional minority with Persian roots.

A retired factory worker, Abaev had served as the spiritual leader of Khujand’s synagogue, which according to the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress had closed down in 1999. He was a respected and well-known resident in the city of about 200,000. His neighbors called him “Jura Ako,” meaning “older brother” in the local dialect.

Abaev had five children, all of whom left the country for Israel in the 1990s, along with virtually all of Abaev’s other relatives.

A few dozen Jews, many of them Ashkenazi, still live in the capital of Dushanbe, situated about 150 miles south of the northern city of Khujand, one of the region’s oldest with a 2,500-year-old history.

Tajikistan is one of several Central Asian countries that saw the mass emigration of their Jewish residents following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The movement also greatly reduced the number of Bukharan Jews in neighboring Uzbekistan and the region’s Mountain Jews — another minority descending from Persia that has many ties to the Bukharan Jews. Many Ashkenazi Jews, whose families came to Central Asia during World War II, have also left.

But the exodus from Tajikistan, which once had at least 15,000 Jews, was particularly thorough, owing to a vicious civil war that broke out there in 1992 and raged for five years, resulting in many thousands of fatalities, mass displacement of civilians and extreme poverty.

Many of the few hundred Jews who remained left after that war following the murder of Gavriel Gavriilov, the late leader of the Khaverim Society of Tajikistani Jews, which was set up in the post-communism years in a bid to revive Jewish culture after decades of Soviet repression. The murderers were never caught.

Abaev had also immigrated to Israel — three times, according to the Radio Free Europe report, including after the death of his wife in order to be near his children. But he returned each time, calling Khujand the only home he ever had.

In Khujand, “everybody knows me, greets me and calls me Ako,” he told the Tajikistani media in several interviews in recent years. Abaev walked away from a steady monthly pension that would have allowed him to live comfortably in the Jewish state, he reportedly said.

“Abaev used to say, ‘I felt like I’m a nobody in Israel. When I go out in Khujand, people in my neighborhood smile at me and say, look, Jura Ako is coming,'” Tajik journalist Tilav Rasulzoda, a longtime friend of Abaev, told Radio Free Europe.

“Abaev was happiest when he rode his bike — with a basket attached to its front for groceries — to the Panjshanbe Bazaar” market located near his home, a neighbor told the Radio station.

Living alone in a large family home in the center of Khujand, Abaev invited an impoverished family of six to move in with him for free. They cared for Abaev in his old age, Radio Free Europe reported. The family still lives in that house.

Abaev’s parents — a factory worker and a theater actress — led different lives and divorced. He remembered being in abject poverty during World War II, when his family lived on a daily food ration of about 10 ounces of bread.

For decades until the disappearance of the Jewish community of Khujand, Abaev performed the duties of a rabbi, including officiating at funerals, as well as the main caretaker of the synagogue, which was situated near his house, according to the Radio Free Europe report.

In 2015, when Abaev was the only Jew in town, the disused synagogue was knocked down to make room for a shopping mall. Dushanbe, the capital city, now has the country’s only synagogue.

The Jewish cemetery of Khujand, located on its southern edge, holds Abaev’s remains. Until a leg injury three years ago made it difficult for Abaev to get around, he used to be the sole caretaker of that cemetery as well. A local caretaker has taken over that duty with funding from Jewish organizations abroad.

In the absence of Jews in Khujand, there was no one to conduct the religious burial rites at Abaev’s funeral, according to Radio Free Europe. But it was well attended by many friends and neighbors who gathered at the cemetery to pay their last respects to Khujand’s last Jew.

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Nazi memorabilia at Paraguay art fair prompts Jewish watchdog to call for new law

Fri, 2021-01-22 19:51

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (JTA) — A trove of Nazi-themed objects found at an art fair in Paraguay moved a Jewish watchdog group to call on the country to enact anti-discrimination legislation.

Photos of Hitler, “Mein Kampf” books, Nazi clothing and more were sold at the fair in San Bernardino, a small town about 30 miles from the capital city of Asunción.

On Jan. 15, the head of the Latin American branch of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, based in Buenos Aires, wrote to Paraguay’s foreign minister, Federico González Franco, and urged him to legally adopt the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism. Argentina and Uruguay have adopted the definition.

RELATED: The IHRA definition of anti-Semitism and why people are fighting over it, explained

“Mr. Foreign Minister, the San Bernardino Fair represents a choice, to follow the democratic Germany of today or the remnants of the war criminals, such as the Auschwitz ‘angel of death,’ Josef Mengele, who had evaded judgement by escaping to Paraguay,” Ariel Gelblung wrote in his letter.

The letter also mentioned that in 2003, Hezbollah terrorists implicated in the 1994 Buenos Aires AMIA Jewish center bombing reportedly hid in Ciudad del Este, on the Paraguayan side of the “triple frontier” with Argentina and Brazil, a hotbed of illegal Hezbollah activity.

The fair’s organizer removed the Nazi objects from display on Wednesday but added that showing the items did not break any laws.

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City of Antwerp invites residents of heavily Jewish neighborhoods for COVID-19 testing

Fri, 2021-01-22 19:48

(JTA) — The mayor of Antwerp, a city in Belgium with a large haredi Orthodox Jewish community, has singled out their neighborhoods for intensive COVID-19 testing.

Bart De Wever, a right-wing politician who enjoys strong support in Jewish circles, announced the plan on Thursday to carry out 6,500 tests in two neighborhoods of central Antwerp with many Jewish residents because infection rates have jumped there and are now four times higher than the city average, he said.

“Our city crisis team is following infections in various neighborhoods,” he said. “We want to do a major testing campaign in neighborhoods where it’s going badly,” also to “see if there additional variants of the virus.”

De Wever stressed at a news conference that the two neighborhoods are being singled out not because Jews live there, but because they “have many contacts in the United Kingdom, and there’s a chance that the British variant is going around there and we want to know on what scale.”

The so-called U.K. COVID-19 strain, or B-117, emerged in the United Kingdom late last year and is believed to be more infectious than the original Chinese strain that started the pandemic.

Testing for the strain “helps prevent thousands of people going into quarantine. We want to act in a focused manner,” de Wever said.

He also told the VRT broadcaster that the neighborhoods in questions “have more non-Jews than Jews.”

Tests are voluntary. The city has delivered to letter boxes 6,500 personal invitations to be tested this weekend and on Jan. 24.

Despite early projections of high infection and death rates in close-knit haredi circles, Jewish community representatives and members have said only a handful members have died of COVID-19.

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