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The director of Germany’s infamous Passion Play takes its antisemitic stereotypes by the horns

3 hours 19 min ago

BERLIN (JTA) — Nestled in the Bavarian alps, the city of Oberammergau has one major claim to fame: every 10 years, it hosts the world-famous Passion Play, which tells the New Testament story of Jesus’ death and resurrection. 

It has been doing so since the 17th century, almost without fail, and it happens to be on now, after a two-year, pandemic-related delay. About half a million spectators are expected to flock to the town by the time this season is over, on Oct. 2.

Over the centuries, the play — in which all roles are filled by local residents — has been a vessel for some of Germany’s most virulent, religious-based Jew-hatred, feeding into the antisemitic conspiracy theories of the Nazi years and beyond.

But things have changed, observers say. 

No longer are Jews depicted as eternal murderers of Jesus. The play now highlights the Jewishness of Jesus and his followers and clarifies that only the Roman Pontius Pilate — and not the Jews — could condemn Jesus to death.

Such shifts came about largely through the commitment of Passion Play director Christian Stückl, himself a native son, who has now helmed four rounds of the production. He has worked with Jewish organizations including the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League, as well as with educational groups in Germany, to raise awareness about antisemitism and reshape the narrative.

This week, the AJC recognized Stückl’s commitment with its Isaiah Award for Exemplary Interreligious Leadership. Stückl has helped turn the Passion Play into “an educational tool for post-Shoah Christian and German self-reflection,” said Rabbi Noam Marans, AJC’s Director of Interreligious and Intergroup Relations, in an award ceremony held Wednesday in Oberammergau. Stückl has been engaged in dialogue with AJC leaders since the late 1980s. 

At the award ceremony, he said his greatest concern upon becoming the play’s director in 1990 “was to eliminate [its] anti-Judaism.”

The Passion Play was initiated in 1634 as a religious offering against the return of the plague to the alpine village. In keeping with contemporary Church teachings, the play depicted Jews as greedy and deicidal, proclaiming them guilty for all time. According to local legend, the plague never returned to Oberammergau, so to keep it that way, the town staged the play every 10 years. 

The current run, which began in May this year, features nearly 2,000 local residents playing all the roles (they don’t all make it on stage at the same time). Its covered auditorium holds 4,700 people and faces an open-air stage framed by soaring mountains. Reportedly, most of the local men involved let their beards and hair grow out during the season.

Ahead of this year’s performances, Stückl inaugurated a pilgrimage to Israel for the principal actors. He has been trying to view the play through the eyes of Jewish viewers, and to that end has met with Jewish leaders and with students, noted Jo Frank, director of the Ernst Ludwig Ehrlich Studienwerk, a Berlin-based scholarship program for gifted Jewish students. ELES students first met with Stückl in Oberammergau some 11 years ago, and they have met with him again recently, Frank said.

Stückl had invited them not just to have Jews in the audience, but so that he could get their feedback before and after.

“It was really impressive, because he is always trying to reform the text in particular,” Frank said in a telephone interview. “And within the Christian setting, this is an interesting task to undertake, because the Oberammergau Festspiele still has this very strange papal status: the idea that what they show is basically the truth.”

In that context, to change things is “highly commendable. What he has done is reform and bend the rules as far as he could.”

This year, Stückl also engaged a Muslim actor, which “would have been unthinkable 10 years ago,” Frank added. “He really does deserve all the praise that he gets.” 

“For over 300 years we have told the story of Jesus in a spirit that has led to prejudice and hatred. For over 1,900 years the Church had told that the Jews murdered Jesus,” Stückl said at the award ceremony, noting that an American rabbi who saw the play in 1901 — Josepf Krauskopf — came away despondent, doubting that Jews would ever be “cleared of the heinous accusations that have been heaped upon [them].”

It is doubtful that such hate can be fully eradicated, but Christian Stückl “has demonstrated the power of one individual to make a tremendous difference,” Marans said.

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AIPAC broke spending records this campaign cycle — so why did it stay out of Ilhan Omar’s tight race?

Mon, 2022-08-15 21:16

WASHINGTON (JTA) — The theory has preoccupied antisemites and pro-Israel strategists alike: If an anti-Israel political candidate loses, it’s because of pro-Israel money.

That theory came close to being disproved last week when Rep. Ilhan Omar, perhaps the most prominent Israel-critical member of Congress, nearly lost her reelection bid two years after cruising to victory — but pro-Israel donors didn’t play a role. It faces another test next week in a New York primary where a member of the Israel-critical “Squad” of progressives who was narrowly elected two years ago, Jamaal Bowman, is defending his incumbency — and where pro-Israel donors again have so far steered clear.

The lack of spending is especially noticeable in a year when the American Israel Public Affairs Committee has made national headlines for lavishing for the first time in its history tens of millions of dollars on congressional races.

AIPAC officials haven’t said whether they considered entering the Omar race or what they plan to do in Bowman’s. And it’s possible that outsized spending by pro-Israel groups would have benefited Omar, not hurt her: After all, her margin of victory was far wider in 2020, when Israel donors spent big to oppose her — and possibly increased turnout by Omar’s supporters as a result.

Still, the dynamics this year are notable for challenging a number of assumptions about the role of money in politics.

One is the incumbent rule, a longstanding orthodoxy of pro-Israel giving, which posits that sitting lawmakers are too firmly entrenched to merit the expense. Even as AIPAC’s super PAC, United Democracy Project, doled out $25 million on behalf of candidates in other races, making it the biggest spender of any nonpartisan PAC, AIPAC’s other PAC and their allies all bypassed Omar’s race, in part because they have forsworn taking on incumbents.

Don Samuels, whom Omar barely defeated, told Jewish Insider that AIPAC’s adherence to the rule was too inflexible. AIPAC should have understood “that there are different kinds of candidates, and that my potential for beating Ilhan was very high,” he said.

The other assumption being tested is the power of pro-Israel political giving. Omar’s struggle to pull out a win undercuts arguments that the main thing keeping Israel-critical politicians from winning elections is pro-Israel money.

Minnesotans had known for weeks that Omar was vulnerable, say insiders in the state; she brought in heavy hitters to campaign for her, including other members of the Squad, the headline-grabbing grouping of progressives she belongs to, belying her claims that she would easily skate in. Sources close to Samuels said his campaign was puzzled that pro-Israel groups were not taking a greater interest.

Jacob Frey, Minneapolis’ Jewish mayor, said in a postmortem that Omar’s siding with those who would reallocate funds from the police in a city suffering rising crime made her ripe for the picking. “This is the person that literally called out for and said to defund the police,” Frey told Fox 9, a local TV news outlet. (Frey backed Samuels, and they shared campaign staff.)

Frey also faulted Omar for being overly combative. “It’s not just about sending out vitriolic tweets and being mean-spirited, it’s about working with people,” he said.

The Minnesota squeaker also comes hard on the heels of Michigan’s primaries, when AIPAC spent millions to defeat Democratic Rep. Andy Levin, a Jewish self-described Zionist who is nonetheless critical of Israel. (The race was a rare instance of AIPAC opposing an incumbent, but this was because of redistricting: AIPAC backed another incumbent, Haley Stevens.) In one week, AIPAC’s opponents were handed a tidy critique of the group’s approach: AIPAC spent millions of dollars to defeat Jewish royalty, but not a dime to unseat Omar.

In a rare interview, AIPAC’s CEO, Howard Kohr, told The Washington Post that Levin’s Jewishness was not germane. “As we commonly say around here, not everyone who is pro-Israel is Jewish,” Kohr said. “It’s also the case that not everyone who is Jewish is pro-Israel. That has nothing to do with religion, race, ethnicity, party affiliation, etc. It has to do with an orientation. If you wake up every morning finding ways to consistently criticize only Israel, that sends a message.”

But what may be most noteworthy about the Omar primary election and its fallout is how new it is not: Dig a little into the poor performance of most any Israel-critical candidate, and one finds a lot more going on than Middle East policy.

For much of the 1980s and 1990s, AIPAC ran on the reputation that it had ousted Israel’s two most outspoken critics in Congress, Illinois Republicans Rep. Paul Findley in 1982 and Sen. Charles Percy in 1984. Findley wrote a book about it, “They Dare to Speak Out,” depicting the pro-Israel lobby as a gorgon that none but the brave would take on.

AIPAC insiders at the time were happy with the reputation but privately admitted that both lawmakers did more to defeat themselves than any opponent, including the pro-Israel lobby.

Findley, defeated by Dick Durbin, was a Republican moderate who was no longer able to stir the increasingly conservative passions of the GOP base, which affected voter turnout. Reviewing “They Dare to Speak Out” when it came out in 1985, The New York Times called the book “the typical reaction of a Congressman who is offended at being challenged seriously for ‘his’ seat, especially if the upstart should go so far as to beat him.” Percy, preoccupied with foreign policy, was seen as neglecting Illiinois’ bread-and-butter issues, which contributed to Paul Simon’s win.

Perhaps the most apt analog to Omar’s tight race is the 2006 election that removed from Congress one of Israel’s most trenchant critics in that decade, Georgia Democratic Rep. Cynthia McKinney.

McKinney, first elected in 1992, had been ousted in 2002. Pro-Israel donors had played a role in that race, and her father, a state lawmaker, blamed her loss on “J-E-W-S,” which stirred concerns in the pro-Israel community that they had played too prominent a role and were providing antisemites with a target.

McKinney retook her seat in 2004, and pro-Israel donors stayed out of the race in 2006, at first, for a number of reasons: McKinney, having bounced back, now seemed unbeatable. Also, the perception advanced by McKinney, her father and others that Jews were targeting a Black congresswoman inhibited involvement.

That changed when one of several opponents in the primary, Hank Johnson, performed exceptionally well, and he and McKinney went to a runoff. Pro-Israel donors leaped in at that point and helped Johnson win. McKinney has not returned to Congress since.

There are differences between 2006 and last week: For one thing, Omar won, even if it was close. Plus, Georgia’s runoff system, which allowed the pro-Israel community to step in on Johnson’s behalf at the last minute, does not exist in Minnesota.

Like Omar, McKinney was a lightning rod who made as many enemies as friends, although McKinney stands out for the depth of her commitment to marginal ideas and confrontational actions. She once punched a Capitol police officer and entertained inside-job conspiracy theories about the 9/11 attacks. By 2006, her constituents had many reasons to want her gone from Congress.

Like the pro-Israel donors who were spooked by McKinney’s 2004 win, pro-Israel donors were wary of another confrontation with Omar, who won by a large margin in the 2020 primaries, despite big pro-Israel money. Pro-Israel insiders have said donors did not want to be once again exposed to the humiliation of a defeat, and at the hands of one of Israel’s most prominent critics.

That creates a paradox: Shout out loud that you’re critical of Israel, and AIPAC might be more reluctant to come for you. The AIPAC PACs, including the United Democracy Project super PAC, have not targeted prominent Israel critics. Instead, they have focused on politicians who have barely registered on the Israel issue, such as Summer Lee in the Pittsburgh area (who won, narrowly) and Jessica Cisneros in south Texas (who barely lost).

Another Squad member, New York’s Jamaal Bowman, may face a tough race in an Aug. 23 primary. Redistricting has cut the number of Black and low-income residents in his 16th District and added a substantial Jewish population center in White Plains, potentially making it more of a challenge for Bowman. He faces two moderate Democrats, one of whom, Vedat Gashi, has earned the endorsements of two of Congress’ more prominent former pro-Israel Jewish Democrats: Eliot Engel, who Bowman ousted two years ago, and Nita Lowey, who retired in 2020.

So are the AIPAC PACs reconsidering the incumbent rule? If so, it would present a dilemma: Ilhan Omar, version 2020, or version 2022: Jump in and risk the humiliation of Bowman soundly defeating the AIPAC endorsee, and of drawing national attention to one of Israel’s sharpest critics; or stay out, and risk being seen as overly cautious if Bowman barely squeaks in.

AIPAC’s spokesman Marshall Wittman adopted a wait-and-see posture. “We will continue to review races and opportunities throughout the remainder of the cycle,” he said.

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When Judaism considers the long term, it looks to the past

Mon, 2022-08-15 20:20

He asked them “Who is called a ‘wise man’?” They responded to him, “The person who sees the consequence of their action.” (Babylonian Talmud 32a)

(JTA) — Many years ago I was asked to speak, on short notice, at a symposium in Geneva about the future of the global climate refugee crises. It was an important opportunity, but attending meant I was going to miss my 11-year-old daughter Eliana’s choir concert, the one for which she had been rehearsing for months. I was crushed, but no compromise was possible — I’d be on the other side of the globe for every performance.

To my great shock, Eliana didn’t care, at least not exactly. 

“It’s okay, dad,” she said. “If you miss it, you miss it. But do me a favor. When you are here, how about actually being here?”

I was stunned, a little hurt, but I knew just what she was talking about. For the past year-plus, I’d been wandering around the house, conducting half my business by cell phone, distracted even when I was playing a board game with her. In the great way that children can state a complex thing simply and purely, my daughter had summarized our whole culture’s dilemma.

Stuck in a forever state of reactive short-termism — an almost obsessive focus on the near futureglued to our devices and grappling with never-ending “breaking news” and business plans measured in hours and even minutes, we’ve become too much tree and not enough forest. News about the most recent COVID variant, for example, is a tree. Being part of my kid’s growing up? That’s the forest. Our short-term addictions, understandable as they are, are obscuring our longer term potentials. 

In another story from the home front, my 9-year-old Gideon recently did something…improper. It’s not important what, but let’s just say he wasn’t being his best self. When I found out, I flipped out and really read him the riot act. 

My wife Sharon pulled me aside and whispered, “Ari: longpath.” The word is a mantra in our household — it stands for the deliberate practice of long-term, holistic thinking and acting that, at its root, starts with real, hard-earned self-knowledge. At that instant I saw how off I was. Instead of modeling behaviors of self-awareness to help my son grow, I was reacting, and probably overreacting at that, glued once again to the short term at the expense of the long-term relationship with my son.

On the highest level, I knew who I wanted to be in that moment with my son, but we are reactive creatures, easily prone to short-term decision making.

So why is a futurist, who works with multi-national organizations, governments and leading foundations, and whose TED talk has been viewed several million times, writing about conversations with my children? 

The future is not just about flying cars, jet packs and robots doing our laundry. Nor is it just about climate change, rampant inequality or the loss of global biodiversity. Taken together, these aspects — good and bad — leave us with an incomplete picture of tomorrow’s promises and perils. 

The huge challenges we face as a society are going to require significant action at a political level.We need to vote at the booth and at the check-out counter in a way that aligns with our values. But that is not enough. Shaping the future also entails doing something beyond the political, something in some ways more difficult and definitely closer to home. Shaping the future towards a world we want to see necessitates that we connect with each other — at the human-to-human level — in a way that has significantly more impact than just how we vote or consume. 


Trim tabs. Trim tabs are the small edges of a ship’s rudder that, although tiny, can make a huge impact on the direction of the ship. The futurist Buckminster Fuller used the metaphor of a “trim tab” to explain how even small actions could have massive long-term effects, especially when scaled across populations. 

Shaping the long-term trajectory of society means connecting with others through a lens of empathy and with an eye on how those interactions will ripple out through time. What makes you a futurist — someone who cares and wants to shape society towards a better tomorrow — is putting your device down when your child enters the room and thinking about how your every action will play out over generations. This is the mindset of a true futurist. This is longpath thinking. 

At its heart, the belief in a longpath or “longer-term” mindset is a Jewish one. After all, we’re the people who have dragged our story along to every outpost — the people who have waited on and insisted upon a future return. And just as our Passover story promises a transformation that does not happen overnight, the longpath view says that, yes, you can be an agent of change, not just a slave to the current climate, but it’s going to take some work.

For me, the High Holy Days manifest the essence of a longpath outlook best of all. Rosh Hashanah both reaps the harvest of the past and points us toward our most profound wishes for the future year — but you can’t get there without a Yom Kippur. On this day of teshuvah, which means repentance and return, we understand that to look ahead of us requires that we first look back on the year past and engage in an honest reconciliation with all we have been and all those we have wronged — both in our own eyes and God’s. It’s hard work, but if we do this with an open heart, we have a chance to not only envision a better future, but to participate in creating it — for us and for others.

The longpath view doesn’t just look deep into the future, but deep into the past. It holds that you cannot consider the future without transgenerational empathy, a clear accounting of all the preceding generations went through. Then, when you are ready to face the days, months, years, decades and centuries ahead, you must do your future-oriented thinking with future generations in mind. After all, your community and your world will belong to them.

My father was a Polish refugee who escaped the ghetto and lost most of his family in the Holocaust — he went onto become a commander in the Jewish resistance. Years later, he used to say, “The future really started yesterday.” To move through the narrow passages and get to the land of milk and honey, we must adopt a mindset that integrates the far past and the far future. 

Transgenerational empathy is not merely a high-flown concept — it’s a practice, a way of taking the future seriously. On our mantel, along with photos of my parents and Sharon’s parents, and photos of us and of the kids, we have placed a few empty frames, a reminder of the generation to come. Seeing those empty frames is a subtle but persistent reminder that the decisions we make today, as individuals, as a family, as a community, are going to have everyday repercussions hundreds of years from now.

This Rosh Hashanah marks the beginning of 5783 in the Jewish calendar. That means we’re only 217 years from the year 6000. Some say that’s the latest time for the messiah to arrive and usher in the redemption. Others insist the messiah can and will come earlier. The real question is: Where do we want the world to be in 6000, and what kind of longpath thinking will help get us there?

To give you a little context, 217 years ago Napoleon was crowned King of Italy, Lewis and Clark headed out on their expedition, Beethoven premiered his Third Symphony and the first steam locomotive had just had its first run. There was no electricity, no cars, no phones, no internet. The United States itself was a mere 29 years old.

Consider what can happen in two centuries. How would you like the world to look in Year 6000 and what are you willing to do to help make it that way?

It’s a mistake to think that the people who will be affected will likely not be your people. According to the handy Descendants Calculator, in 217 years, or eight generations, the youngest of my children, 13-year-old Ruby, could have anywhere between 500 and 87,000 offspring, depending on the average number of kids per generation. And that’s just one of my three children! 

What kind of a world do you want your descendants to live in? What do we have to do collectively to co-create that future?

We don’t need the answers this instant, but we do need to start making the small actions and asking the big questions right away.

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Take a number! A Manhattan party for Jewish singles comes back after a pandemic hiatus

Mon, 2022-08-15 20:11

(New York Jewish Week) — How do you stand out when everybody’s dressed in white?

On Thursday evening, nearly 700 Jewish singles in their 20s, 30s and 40s gathered in Manhattan’s Riverside Park to celebrate Tu B’Av, a minor holiday often referred to as the “Jewish Valentine’s Day.” As requested by the organizers, everyone in attendance wore white — but people interpreted the assignment differently. Many women wore trendy, designer dresses, doing their best to look elegant and put together. Some of the men, meanwhile, wore white, wrinkled polo shirts.

This was Bangitout.com’s first Tu B’Av White Party since before the pandemic began. Had COVID-19 not upended, well, everything, it would have been their 20th annual Tu B’Av shindig. Instead, it was an auspicious 18th convening of the summer event uniquely designed for Jewish singles in the greater New York area.

Founded by brothers and Yeshiva University alumni Isaac and Seth Galena in 2001, Bangitout started as a way to share Jewish content online. Over the years, it grew into a platform known for advertising kosher apartment shares, kosher restaurants and shiurim (lectures). They also became known for hosting signature Jewish events, like “Sukktoberfest,” a hybrid Sukkot and Oktoberfest party.

Guests mingle and watch the spectacular sunset over the Hudson River at the Tu B’Av White Party, held in Manhattan’s Riverside Park, Aug. 11, 2022. (Jackie Hajdenberg)

As for Bangitout’s other major annual event, the Tu B’Av White Party, it “simply enables singles to cut the crap and actually meet someone to marry,” according to the organizers’ marketing materials.

The Galenas claim nearly 50 couples who originally met and have gotten married through one of their parties. One couple, who met at the 2012 Tu B’Av White Party, got engaged at the same event the following year.

“These guys are the real deal,” Jordan, a lawyer and freelance writer at Bangitout.com, told the New York Jewish Week about the Galenas.

“You can really see the evolution of life through these parties,” he observed, referring to the matches — and subsequent families — that were made over the years

In fact, the Galenas’ own sister, Sarah, met her husband at a Tu B’Av party in 2008 — something she briefly demonstrated to a reporter by pulling out her phone and FaceTiming with said husband and their child.

Thursday’s White Party, like many singles events, employed a numbered matching system — everyone wears a sticker with a number on it, and a person can write down the number of someone they are interested in and place it in a large bucket. If the other person writes down their number, too, the pair will be set up on a date.

Still, some in attendance urged partygoers to flout the rules: Leora Schiffman, a matchmatcher, event promoter and founder of Leora’s List, encouraged singles to simply ask one another for their phone numbers, old-fashioned style.

“What’s the worst that could happen?” she asked.

The annual Tu B’Av White Party, hosted by Bangitout.com, is a singles event for Jews in their 20s, 30s and 40s. (Jackie Hajdenberg)

As the sun set over the Hudson River, tipsy singles took turns in the photo booth, refreshed their drinks at the bar, or listened to pitches from party sponsors, like Blink Date, a new audio-first dating app, or JScreen, a Jewish genetic screening service. Others pursued their mission single-mindedly: They were here to meet someone.

Two sisters from Flatbush, both in their early 20s, shied away from the crowd. They took seats at a picnic table, preferring to focus on their drinks and each other rather than approach a stranger.

But that’s OK, because a friendly stranger approached them instead. Howard — a young man from New Jersey wearing a white polo, navy pants, gray baseball cap and black, rectangular glasses — told the sisters why white is worn on Tu B’Av, when unmarried women in the Second Temple period would dance in the vineyards at the beginning of the grape harvest. “You wear white so you can’t tell the difference between a rich girl and a poor girl,” he said.

Historically, women would swap clothes so that even those who could not afford a new white dress would not be embarrassed on Tu B’Av.  Here in New York, the singles aren’t quite dancing in the vineyards, but they did appear to be enjoying themselves in the public park — perhaps even paying an unconscious tribute to the grape harvest by grabbing a glass of wine. Overheard conversations ranged from women trying to rescue their friends from close-talking interactions with uninspiring men, to discussions on topics that veered from TV to antisemitism.

“I stopped watching ‘Chicago Med’ because I heard one or two of the main actors are antisemitic,” one young woman said to a new male acquaintance, both clutching drinks.

An older man in attendance, maybe in his late 40s, also dressed in white, didn’t come alone: He nonchalantly walked his Cavalier King Charles Spaniel through the crowd. Upon closer inspection, however, the dog, named Chicken, was also looking for love — she wore a number sticker, too.

Even the dog was looking for love! (Jackie Hajdenberg)

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Detroit’s last synagogue, now turning 100, hopes to be a beacon of the city’s Jewish communal future

Mon, 2022-08-15 19:57

DETROIT (JTA) – Just off Woodward Avenue, the Motor City’s main thoroughfare crowded with high-end shops, sleek office buildings and a luxury hotel, a synagogue with multicolored stained-glass windows anchors a block of frozen-in-time real estate. An Old Detroit relic, it sits in stark contrast to the other heavily developed properties in the downtown corridor of this swiftly changing city. 

On this sunny Sunday morning, a Yiddish singer belted out klezmer standards like “Tumbalalaika” and “Shein Vi Di Levone” on the block as a crowd enjoyed ice cream and popcorn. This shtetl in the city will soon see a major development of its own.

It was a special day for Detroit’s Jews: a centennial celebration of the only remaining freestanding synagogue in the city, which doubled as a groundbreaking for an ambitious expansion project. Many of the Jews in attendance at the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue’s block party weren’t even members, but all of them saw the congregation as an important link to Jewish Detroit’s past and future.

“I am so personally excited we made it to this day, hallelujah!” the synagogue’s rabbi, Ariana Silverman, said after reciting the Shehechiyanu prayer (which gives thanks for the moment).

Founded in 1921, the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue is today the last vestige of what, at the time, was a thriving Jewish community in an American industrial boomtown. But the nondenominational synagogue’s leadership is bullish that its best years are still ahead of it. A decade in the making, a $5 million-plus expansion project will turn the four-story building into a Jewish community hub, while accommodating a growing membership base.

Crowds gather at a centennial block party for the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue in Detroit as the synagogue breaks ground on a major renovation project, Aug. 14, 2022. (Andrew Lapin/Jewish Telegraphic Agency)

“In the coming together to build and renovate a physical space, this has also been a very spiritual act, in a way similar to building the Temple in Biblical times,” Samantha Woll, the synagogue’s president, said in her address at the event.

In the period leading up to and in the decades following the Detroit riots of 1967, the Jewish community of metropolitan Detroit — like that of most major cities — underwent a mass migration to the suburbs. The dozens of Jewish houses of worship that once dotted the city became churches, or were abandoned by their members and fell into disrepair. 

As the Downtown Synagogue continued its programming, for many years without a permanent rabbi, many of its members viewed their membership there as secondary, while also having a primary synagogue in the suburbs. They continued to support the downtown programming — including its free High Holiday services — out of a sense of historical preservation.

Matt Lester, president of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, summed up the state of affairs in his own address Sunday: “While many of our local buildings have moved multiple times throughout the years, the Downtown Synagogue has remained right here.”

But something has shifted in Detroit Jewry in recent years. In the early 2010s, as the Motor City lurched toward the largest municipal bankruptcy filing in American history, a growing number of young entrepreneurs and creatives — including many Jews — flocked there, attracted to its low cost of living and boundless potential for experimentation. Some discovered the Downtown Synagogue waiting for them, and its membership grew from fewer than 100 member families a decade ago to more than 400 today.

At some point, the congregation shifted from mostly old-timers to a mix of younger and older members, said Rachel Rudman, the synagogue’s executive director. These younger members began to push for the synagogue to look ahead and, at the pivotal 2009 annual meeting that anticipated its future growth, rejected the plan to sell the building in favor of pursuing the expansion plan. They would meet at Cafe d’Mongo’s Speakeasy, a longtime watering hole next door whose exterior has also become rooted in time, to hash out a vision for the building’s future. 

Samantha Woll, president of the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue in Detroit, welcomes attendees to the congregation’s centennial celebration and groundbreaking on a major renovation project, Aug. 14, 2022. (Andrew Lapin/Jewish Telegraphic Agency)

One of those who did, Vadim Avshalumov, became the synagogue’s president and spearheaded the beginnings of what would become its capital campaign a decade ago. The Azerbaijan native grew up in the suburbs when his family moved to the area from Israel in the mid-1990s but had just moved to downtown Detroit after graduate school to work as a program officer for various local redevelopment initiatives. As the rest of the city got a fresh coat of paint, he wanted the synagogue to have its own makeover.

“I’m very emotional, very happy,” Avshalumov said, reflecting on the culmination of the group’s vision Sunday. “At the same time, I have one of those ‘don’t celebrate until it’s actually done’” feelings. He noted that they still had to fundraise over $100,000 of the $1.4 million needed to get through a limited first phase of construction.

Even today, much of that fundraising is coming from the suburbs, including from longtime Jewish philanthropies like the William Davidson Foundation, where Avshalumov currently works. 

“There’s more money coming from Detroit suburban Jews, probably, than the Jews that are right here,” said Rudman, who used to work for Temple Beth El in the suburbs. “But we’re working on building community all together.”

And rather than trying to peel away members, Rudman said, the suburban synagogues all want the Downtown Synagogue to prosper: “Nobody feels like they’re competing with us. They’re just excited this is happening.”

As the Downtown Synagogue grew, the needs of the larger metro Detroit Jewish community were changing, too. Suburban synagogues with dwindling memberships began consolidating elements like their educational programs, and in fall 2020 the local JCC closed its last remaining health club in West Bloomfield, citing dwindling enrollment and “overbuilt” real estate. 

Next year, the JCC — which does not currently have a presence in Detroit proper — will be one of several local Jewish nonprofits to have a space in the Downtown Synagogue’s new Jewish coworking hub, along with the local federation, Repair the World, Hazon and Jewish Family Services.

The coworking space, which draws some inspiration from similar Jewish models in Chicago and San Diego, will be part of the first phase of construction. Aiming to reopen in early 2023, the first phase will also include an updated sanctuary; elevators and ramps for accessibility; a children’s space; and large glass windows on the ground floor, which Detroit Deputy Mayor Todd Bettison praised at the ceremony because “it will be more inviting and people will be able to see what’s going on.”

A planned second round of fundraising and construction hopes to deliver on the synagogue’s full redesign plan: creating a rooftop deck and event space by 2024. For now, the Downtown Synagogue’s true believers are celebrating what feels like a rebirth. And as their building remains under construction, this year they will be holding their free High Holiday services in churches around town — including one that used to be a synagogue.

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NYC rabbi witnesses stabbing attack on Salman Rushdie

Mon, 2022-08-15 13:19

(New York Jewish Week) — Rabbi Charles Savenor was on vacation with his family and decided it would be a treat to hear author Salman Rushdie speak Friday at The Chautauqua Institution in western New York State.

“We heard a lot about Chautauqua, that [it] is sort of like Limmud for the general world,” the Upper East Sider told the New York Jewish Week, referring to the Jewish-run learning festivals. “They have speakers and music and religious themes as well. It looked like a great opportunity to relax and reflect and have a mind and soul-expanding experience.”

But that soul-expanding experience turned nightmarish seconds after Rushdie and the moderator took the stage at about 10:45 a.m.

“I was sitting about 75 feet away and could see a guy jump up on stage,” he said. “All I could see was the guy’s hand going up and down and they were both quickly on the ground.

A man later identified as Hadi Matar, 24, had rushed the stage and repeatedly stabbed the 75-year-old author, who drew the ire of Muslim fundamentalists and a death threat from Iran’s then top leader with the 1988 publication of his book “The Satanic Verses.”

Savenor said he had taken his phone out expecting to take a picture of Rushdie and wound up taking a picture of the aftermath of the attack. The photo shows event organizers attending to the fallen author and audience members standing and milling in obvious confusion.

At the time, he said, he had no idea of the status of the authors’ health.

“It was very disturbing to see,” Savenor said. “Everyone there was worried.”

According to media reports, Rushdie remains hospitalized with damage to his liver and severed nerves in an arm and is likely to lose an eye. Event moderator Henry Reese, 73, was treated for a facial injury and was released from a hospital.

Matar was arrested at the scene and charged with second degree attempted murder and assault with a weapon.

Savenor said there were no metal detectors at the Rushdie talk, but a badge was required to get into the event. He said the thought briefly crossed his mind shortly before the attack that he didn’t see obvious security.

“I spoke to people who said nothing like this had ever happened before,” Savenor said, adding that he was told Rushdie spoke there more than a decade ago without incident.

Rabbi Charles Savenor, executive director of Civic Spirit, witnessed the attack of Salman Rushdie on Aug. 12, 2022. (Courtesy of Rabbi Charles Savenor)

Savenor, the former director of congregational education at Park Avenue Synagogue, was recently named the executive director of Civic Spirit, a nonprofit that promotes civic education in schools from a non-partisan, multifaith perspective. The group’s message is perhaps the exact antithesis of the religious intolerance that led to decades of death threats against Rushdie. Savenor’s last Facebook post before the picture of the attack was “All You Need Is Love” — a nod to Tu B’Av, the Jewish holiday of love celebrated shortly after Tisha B’Av, the fast day that is in part a day to rue internal religious strife.

Savenor said the irony was not lost on the crowd that the attack on Rushdie came during an event that was was supposed to be about freedom and the safety of exiled writers.

“I expected that he might speak about the threats against him during the talk,” Savenor said. “I did not expect to see an attack.”

Jewish groups have long pointed to Iran’s death threat against Rushdie to warn about the dangers of the Islamic regime, especially in its conflict with Israel. “Tehran celebrating the stabbing of @SalmanRushdie highlights the urgent need to acknowledge the threat of #Iran,” Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt tweeted Friday. “Rushdie has received death threats from the Iranian regime for decades. This is further evidence of Iran’s malign influence in the US and abroad.”

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‘My Unorthodox Life’ family wins $25,000 for anti-child marriage group on ‘Celebrity Family Feud’

Mon, 2022-08-15 13:18

(JTA) — On Netflix’s “My Unorthodox Life,” both Julia Haart and her older daughter Batsheva said they regretted getting married as teenagers, the norm in their Orthodox Jewish community.

So when the family landed a spot on “Celebrity Family Feud,” the star-studded version of the classic TV game show, they said anything they won would go to a group dedicated to opposing child marriage.

On the episode that aired Sunday night, the Haarts prevailed over a set of personalities from the Bravo reality-TV show “Summer House” and sent $25,000 to VOW for Girls, a nonprofit that aims to eliminate the 12 million marriages a year that take place globally involving girls younger than 18.

“My daughter Batsheva and I were married off as teenagers,” Julia Haart wrote in an Instagram post promoting the family’s appearance. “That is not something that any teenager should have to do.” (Both women were married at 19.)

Three of Julia Haart’s four children — Batsheva, Shlomo and recent Birthright Israel traveler Miriam — joined her in competing on the show, along with Robert Brotherton, her assistant-turned-business-partner whose own family drama was a prominent storyline in the first season of “My Unorthodox Life.” They volunteered answers to questions about what makes a kiss bad — “No passion,” Shlomo Haart suggested — and what parents do after their kids leave home, among others, ultimately eking out a victory over the “Summer House” crew.

The apparently close-knit family has undergone some major life changes since the Netflix show focused on Julia Haart’s departure from Orthodoxy and subsequent career in fashion in a first season that aired last summer. Both Julia and Batsheva went through divorces, with Batsheva and Ben Weinstein citing their marriage at a young age as a reason for strain.

Julia Haart’s acrimonious divorce from Silvio Scaglia cost her her role at Elite World Group, the fashion company where they were co-CEOs. Her firing reportedly took place as cameras rolled for taping a second season of “My Unorthodox Life.” But while Julia Haart announced the second season on “The Ellen Degeneres Show” last year, Netflix has not yet set a release date.

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Dutch city renames square it had named for mayor who betrayed Jews to Nazis

Mon, 2022-08-15 09:43

AMSTERDAM (JTA) — A Dutch municipality has renamed a park that had been named for a mayor who helped the Nazis hunt his city’s Jews.

The municipality of Hogeveen, a city of about 55,000 roughly 80 miles northeast of the Dutch capital of Amsterdam, last month renamed Mayor Tjalma Park, according to a report Thursday on the news site Jonet.nl. The new name is Municipal Park.

In 2020, a local historian discovered that Jetze Tjalma, who had been mayor of Hoogeveen for 30 years until 1958, was the first mayor in Nazi-occupied Netherlands to hand over a list of local Jews after the German army invaded in 1940.

There were about 250 names on the list. In 1951, Hogeveen had only 27 Jews, according to the Jewish Historical Museum of Amsterdam.

Tjalma shared the list voluntarily, according to Brand van Rijn, a local politician whose party, SGP, initiated the research into Tjalma’s wartime record. SGP had for years lobbied for a more critical approach to the legacy of Tjalma, whom many have considered a model mayor, according to the broadcaster RTV. The park was named for Tjalma shortly after his death in 1985.

Several years after World War II, the city under Tjalma took over part of the local Jewish cemetery and paved a road on it. That part of the cemetery was returned to Jewish hands in 2019.

The Amsterdam-based Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies earlier this year confirmed the research done in Hogeveen by local historian Albert Metselaar, prompting the municipality to change the park’s name on July 26, Jonet reported.

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5 Americans, including New Yorkers, among 8 shot in Jerusalem terror attack

Sun, 2022-08-14 22:49

(JTA) — Jewish communities in two countries were reeling this weekend after a shooting just outside the Old City of Jerusalem left eight wounded.

An Arab resident of East Jerusalem turned himself in to police after a manhunt that focused on the Silwan neighborhood there, according to Israeli media.

The shooting took place early Sunday morning as people boarded a bus. Among those shot, according to various reports, were multiple members of a family from Williamsburg, Brooklyn, a center of the Satmar Hasidic Orthodox sect; a teenager from a different Brooklyn family; a pair of Israeli brothers; and a pregnant woman who remains hospitalized along with her child, whom doctors delivered after she suffered an abdominal injury.

The shooting comes a week after an exchange of hostilities between Israel and the militant group Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza in which dozens of Palestinians died and nearly a thousand rockets were fired toward Israelis. It also comes after months of relative calm within Israel following a series of attacks this spring in which 19 Israelis were murdered.

The tourists wounded in the Jerusalem shooting are among the wave of visitors flowing into Israel this summer after years of pandemic travel restrictions had tamped down travel. Hours after the attack, Prime Minister Yair Lapid broadcast confidence in Jerusalem, tweeting a picture of himself eating at a cafe there.

“Our capital city is strong, safe, beautiful and welcoming to residents and tourists,” Lapid wrote.

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— ???? ???? – Yair Lapid (@yairlapid) August 14, 2022

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Brooklyn Orthodox family among those shot in attack near Western Wall

Sun, 2022-08-14 22:16

(New York Jewish Week) — An Orthodox family of four from the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn were among those shot on a bus near the Western Wall during a terrorist attack in Jerusalem’s Old City on Sunday morning. 

Eight people, including five Americans, were wounded during the attack, two seriously according to Israeli police. There were no fatalities.

The suspect in the attack is a 26-year-old Palestinian man from East Jerusalem, who turned himself in after fleeing the scene. 

Rabbi David Niederman, executive director of United Jewish Organization of Williamsburg, confirmed to the New York Jewish Week that Shia Hersh Glick — a member of the Satmar hasidic movement — and his wife, son and daughter were among those shot.

Glick’s wife and son are in stable condition according to Niederman, but Glick is on a respirator after shielding his family from the attacker.

“The bullet that went through [Glick’s] head was taken out and now they are working on his throat,” Niederman said, audibly shaken on the phone, his voice fragile and tired. “Unfortunately, he’s fighting for his life.” 

Niederman, who was in touch with the Glick family, said that Shia Glick is a cancer survivor who “now has to fight for his life again.” 

“The pain cannot be explained,” Niederman said. “We feel it as a community. It didn’t only happen in Israel. It hit home for us. We can only hope and pray.”

Niederman said the family is asking that people pray for them to “go through this and still be whole.”

The family is in Israel because the son, who was shot in the arm, is getting married. 

“His son wants his father to be at his chuppah,” Glick said, referring to the Jewish wedding canopy. “Imagine the bride. Everybody in the community is praying that he will recover, that the family will resurrect from this tragedy to be even stronger, with a new couple and children to come.”

According to CNN, there was also a pregnant woman on the bus who was shot and underwent an emergency cesarean operation.

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Glick was “beloved by all in the community and called the incident a “deeply disturbing and despicable act” during his Sunday press conference.

“We are in touch with the State Department, Israel leaders and Jewish community leaders in Brooklyn to offer any assistance I can,” Schumer said. 

Schumer added that Glick is in “critical condition, but God willing, expected to survive.” 

New York City Mayor Eric Adams also said in a tweet that he is in contact with “authorities and the Israeli government to ensure their needs are met.” 

“New Yorkers stand with Israel today,” Adams said. “We know that some of our own were victims in last night’s terror attack in Jerusalem.” 

New Yorkers stand with Israel today, and we now know that some of our own were victims in last night’s terror attack in Jerusalem. As we pray for their well-being, we are in contact with authorities and the Israeli government to ensure their needs are met.

— Mayor Eric Adams (@NYCMayor) August 14, 2022

Niederman called for an end to the “continuous and unfortunate attacks on Jews around the world” 

“We can’t take it anymore,” Niederman said. “Wherever we are, we have to pray and be vigilant with what’s going on around us. Hashem is guarding us, and we will overcome this as well.” 

This shooting comes just a week after Gaza militants fired rockets into Israel, while Israeli military strikes in Gaza left dozens of Palestinians dead, including children.

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The particular Jewish meaning of my hamsa collection

Sun, 2022-08-14 11:00

(JTA) — I tend to get to Israel every two or three years, and every time I come home with a hamsa. The latest, which I picked up in May (along with a case of COVID — another story) is a lovely teal ceramic design from a workshop in the Golan Heights. We have a wall of these hand-shaped amulets in our house — less for good luck or spiritual karma than to advertise our connection to Israel. 

But to advertise what, exactly? The hamsa’s Jewish roots are slightly tenuous, or at least secondhand. The “hand of Fatima” is a Muslim symbol, perhaps pagan before that, and possibly Christian. According to one interpretation, the five fingers are meant to represent the five pillars of Islam (faith, fasting, pilgrimage, prayer and tithing). Like a number of folk customs, it was absorbed into Sephardic Jewish culture in the lands where Jews and Muslims lived and worked side by side, and where it came to suggest the hand of God, or a talisman used to ward off the Evil Eye. I have hamsas with an eye motif worked into the palm of the hand, others with fish designs — Jewish symbols of both fertility and luck. 

What they don’t have are overtly “Jewish” symbols: I avoid the ones with stars of David or menorah decorations. To some degree that’s my rebellion against Jewish kitsch — the gaudy, insistent aesthetic I associate with old-fashioned synagogue Judaica shops and well-meaning bar and bat mitzvah presents. I think it is also virtue-signaling on my part: The hamsa says I support the multicultural Israel that includes Jews and Arabs, Ashkenazim and Sephardim. “Cool” Jews like me don’t display exclusionary tchotchkes studded with Jewish stars or hang paintings of bearded dancing Hasids. (I mean, I have lots of Judaica with both — we just don’t put them on the top shelf.)

It’s the same sort of insidery, too-cool-for-shul aesthetic that I have long associated with the Wissotzky Magic Tea Chest. I am guessing you have seen this or even have one: It’s a wooden box filled with tea sachets from Wissotzky, the Tel Aviv-based company that has roots in tsarist Russia. Before it was widely available on Amazon, the tea box was a popular souvenir for repeat travelers to Israel. 

At one point I started calling it the “first post-modern Israeli souvenir”: Instead of celebrating Zionism or Judaism, the box’s decorations feature imagery from the Indian subcontinent. The writing is Hebrew but the message is international. Maybe first-timers bring home olive-wood camels and gaudy mezuzahs shaped like the Jerusalem skyline. Old hands like me know that a box of supermarket tea, like that delicately filigreed hamsa, says the “real Israel.”

I know that’s putting a lot on a souvenir, and sometimes a hamsa is just a hamsa. But there is a whole field of scholarship that examines the deep meanings of everyday objects. Jenna Weissman Joselit, the doyenne of Jewish material culture, writes about how even Mordecai Kaplan, the influential 20th-century rabbi “not generally known for his interest in the material side of Jewish life,” counseled Jews to fill their homes with Jewish signifiers. 

“Jewish appointments were intended to convey a moral statement that went far beyond the physical: Manifestations of group identity, they served as constant reminders of ideals and practices,” Joselit writes in her study of Jewish consumerism, “The Wonders of America.”  

Besides, others are going to attach moral statements to your bric-a-brac that you may not even have intended. Search “hamsa” and one of the first things Google delivers is the question, “Is it disrespectful to wear a hamsa?” The answer comes from a jewelry seller, who advises, “it can be culturally insensitive to wear it without knowing what the symbol means.” Insensitive to whom is not clear, although presumably there are Jews and Muslims who object to seeing the symbol dangling from the wrists or necks of celebrities who are neither. At the very least, as one Mizrahi Jew has written, Ashkenazi Jews who embrace the hamsa as a symbol of Jewish or Zionist pride should be aware of and acknowledge its distinct meaning for Jews from the Middle East and North Africa.  

I don’t think there was anything culturally insensitive about the artists who recently carved an elaborate hamsa into the sands at California’s Newport Beach. Or the Jewish environmental activist who places a clay hamsa along the shore of San Francisco Bay as an “offering to the water.”

I prefer to think of the hamsa as a wonderfully ecumenical symbol. The hand is a blank canvas on which artists can project their own meanings, and the wearer their own statements. My statement is a little smug (“You won’t catch me with a dancing rabbi on the wall”) but also extremely hopeful: The open hand celebrates Israel’s unlikely blend of cultures and faiths, even as it wards off those who refuse to accommodate coexistence.

What’s your most meaningful or interesting Jewish object? What does it say about your “ideals and practices”? Send pics and your thoughts to me at asc@jewishweek.org and I’ll try to feature them in a future column.

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We spoke to Miriam, the Hebrew tutor Nathan Fielder hired for his fake family on HBO’s ‘The Rehearsal’

Sat, 2022-08-13 03:01

(JTA) — Miriam Eskenasy didn’t know exactly what she was signing up for when she applied to tutor Hebrew on “The Rehearsal,” Jewish comedian Nathan Fielder’s reality-bending HBO show in which (ostensibly) real people practice for uncomfortable situations.

But the Portland, Oregon, cantor believed she would be prepared for whatever was thrown her way. After all, she’s taught Hebrew school during every phase of her career, from the time she was a student cantor in the early 2000s until now, as a self-employed Hebrew and b’nei mitzvah teacher.

But Eskenasy had never before encountered a family held together only by the premise that they were simulating family life, with a fast-growing child actor son, to see whether they wanted to embark upon it for real. In the season’s fifth episode, Fielder and his rehearsal-partner co-parent Angela fight over whether their son Adam should be exposed to Fielder’s Judaism or only Angela’s Christianity, which is central to her identity.

When they can’t come to terms, Fielder enlists Eskenasy to give Adam clandestine lessons about Judaism — ones that echoed the secretive lessons Eskenasky herself received as a Jew preparing to move to Israel from Communist Romania. Ultimately, tensions between Fielder and Angela boil over after Fielder invites Eskenasy to the house they are temporarily sharing.

Eskanasy, who moved came to the United States at 16 from Israel, is bound by a non-disclosure agreement not to talk about what happened during the filming and hadn’t seen the full episode before it aired. But she told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that she knows her personality could potentially steal any scene — as she does when she accuses Angela of antisemitism.

“I’m an Israeli, New York, chutzpahdik, Jewish person,” Eskenasy said. “And I wasn’t going to take any shit.”

We spoke with Eskenasy about her childhood in Romania, her own experiences with antisemitism and what she gets out of working with interfaith families that are, well, real.

This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

JTA: The most important question: Are you caught up on “The Rehearsal”? And are you going to watch yourself?

Eskenasy: I’ve been watching the episodes weekly — I don’t know if to tell my friends to tune in to the next episode or not because, oh, my God, it was like — I said so much! And I don’t know what he put in and what he left out.

The episode deals with the challenges of raising a child in an interfaith household. What is your experience like working with families like that?

Today in America, Judaism is all about mixed marriages. I have done a lot of interfaith weddings, and that was my premise, that they were willing to have a Jewish home. When I was working at KAM Isaiah Israel Synagogue in Chicago, interfaith couples had to sign up for a 10-session study with me, the introduction to Judaism classes and what have you. So they don’t have to convert, but they have to understand what Judaism is before they get married.

I would say more than half of the kids that I’ve worked with come from interfaith families. My grandson is half not Jewish. But on the other hand, what I’m finding out is that, most often than not, it’s the non-Jewish parent who makes the commitment to raise the Jewish child, and takes the kid to the bar mitzvah lessons, is invested in learning Hebrew or asking questions about stuff or being interested — whether they convert or not. They have a much less complicated view of Judaism.

We, as Jews, I think, have a very complex relationship with our religion.

Miriam decides to take matters into her own hands and talk to Angela about Judaism. (Screenshot)

You were born in Bucharest, Romania, and lived there before moving to Israel and eventually, the United States. What was it like to be Jewish in Romania in the 1950s? 

I was 10 years old when I left Romania. There were kids who would call me “dirty Jew” or something like that — kids that I thought were my friends.

On Passover, my mother would go to the outskirts of Bucharest and find a box of matzah to show me what it was, that Jews eat this kind of stuff on this day.

My mother sent me to a cheder [lessons for Jewish children] once my parents applied to go to Israel. That was a really scary experience. It was this rickety stairway in somebody’s attic and some old guy was teaching us the aleph bet. And there were two kids, me and the one other Jewish kid from my class. And then that kid got the papers to go to Israel. So the next year, I didn’t want to go by myself. So after one year, I learned nothing. The aleph-bet, then nothing. This is what I grew up with, as a kid.

Your family was among the many Romanian Jews to emigrate to Israel during the Communist era. What was that like?

We had other relatives who would get their papers to go to Israel. [Romania was the only Communist country to maintain uninterrupted relations with Israel, and emigration was possible and even encouraged by Communist leaders as a way to reduce the Jewish population. But Zionism was prohibited and Zionist leaders were imprisoned during Eskenasky’s childhood.] My parents’ friends from their hometown would come the night before they had to leave to stay with us. And so my parents would make this big spread, a meal and a farewell going-away party. And at the end of all these things, they would get up — and I have distinct memories of this — close all the windows, pull all the curtains and they would stand up and sing the “Hatikvah” [Israel’s national anthem]. It was all very hush-hush.

You spoke passionately on the show about opposing antisemitism. What experiences with antisemitism, if any, have you had since you came to the United States?

In the 40 years I lived in New York, I lived in Jackson Heights, Queens. Jackson Heights has a lot of landmark apartments that were built in the 1920s. Those developments were notoriously antisemitic. Not just antisemitic, but if you were not Italian or Irish you basically couldn’t get into those. I was the first person in my building to have a mezuzah on the door. There were two apartments per floor, and my neighbor got very upset one time when I took down some plastic green Christmas wrappings around the railing, which I thought were a hazard, aside from being ugly. She wrote me a note to take down my “mizah,” because it was offensive to her. That was the extent of my antisemitic experiences.

After becoming a cantor in 2002, you worked in synagogues in New York and the Midwest. How did you end up in Portland and what has been your experience there?

I have lived for the past 20 years in a Jewish environment only, working in synagogues and hanging out with only Jewish people and singing Jewish music. When I moved here in 2019 to be close to my daughter, I did not move to the Jewish neighborhood. This is a working-class neighborhood. It’s up and coming but there are no Jewish delis here, let me put it that way.

That’s why I didn’t put my mezuzah up right away — because you read about all this antisemitism. I grew up with it as a kid and even in New York, so I don’t want to be exposed to that.

It was an adjustment until my next-door neighbor texted me one evening to ask me if what I was cooking was latkes on Hanukkah one night, the first Hanukkah that I was here, and that he had to come over and have some. So then I felt a little easier about being accepted here for who I am, what I am.

You encounter some shocking moments during your tutoring on “The Rehearsal.” What have been some of the most surprising or funny moments you’ve encountered in your work previously?

In this one synagogue in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, I had this one kid who never, ever practiced. And I would ask her, ‘How come you didn’t practice this week?” And one time, she said, “I put my Torah portion on the floor, and the dog barfed on it. And so I couldn’t practice this week.” I tell this to all the kids and they crack up.

What do you like most about teaching children about Judaism? 

When I was a student cantor at East End Temple [in New York City], we had this very philosophical discussion about God. And I had this one student, very bright. She thought that God was an alien, who lived on another planet and was controlling life on earth like a puppeteer.

Kids are a hoot. They’re hilarious. They keep me young.

This is the world that I’m in. I want to inspire Jewish kids, I want to make sure that they stay Jewish, that their bar mitzvah experience is not a horrible experience.

Some of the bar mitzvah kids I work with are 14, 15, and they just decide to have a ceremony later in life. I like those kids very much. They’re practically adults already. You can talk to them a little differently. It’s really great. They’re there because they want to be. My job is to get them psyched about it, to get them to want to do it on their own.

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Nathan Fielder’s HBO show ‘The Rehearsal’ offers an unusual portrayal of interfaith parenting gone wrong

Sat, 2022-08-13 03:01

Spoiler alert: This piece contains plot details about HBO’s “The Rehearsal,” including extensive details about Episode 5, “Apocalypto,” which first aired Aug. 12, 2022.

(JTA) — Nathan Fielder has always been open about his Jewish identity in his comedy. But in the latest episode of his hit HBO show, “The Rehearsal,” he has to fight for it.

“The Rehearsal” has drawn massive audiences, critical acclaim and, for many, a dose of discomfort because of the way Fielder seems to revel in awkward silences as he plunges people into detailed replicas of their own lives as they prepare for major life events or difficult conversations they need to have.

For most of the season, Fielder has been staging a rehearsal of parenting for Angela, a 44-year-old unmarried woman who isn’t sure whether she wants to have a family. Angela is soft-spoken and loves dancing by herself when only the cameras are watching. She’s also a devoted Christian who explains to Nathan that Halloween is a satanic ritual.

As part of her rehearsal, Angela is raising a child from ages 0 to 18, condensed into just a few months. Her son, whom she names “Adam” in an obvious biblical reference, is played by dozens of child actors who swap out every few hours (and with a dummy overnight) in order to comply with Oregon’s child labor laws. As the show progresses, and Angela falls short in her effort to find a Christian man to join her in the rehearsal as a co-parent, Fielder steps in as Adam’s father — and Angela’s partner in raising their fake little boy.

Their accidental (and ersatz) family is not exactly comedy gold. Tensions over child rearing come to a head after Fielder’s real-life parents visit from Vancouver, where he grew up and attended Jewish day school. At a pandemic-era picnic visit, his parents learn that Angela is committed to raising Adam as a Christian. (“I was raised Jewish, and I still do all the holidays and stuff,” Fielder had said. “But because Angela was so passionate about Christianity, I thought I’d be open to trying it her way.”) The audience has known this since the beginning, but Fielder’s mother, Deb, is concerned that Nathan doesn’t have much of a say in how he raises his own fake child, reminding him he has fallen into excessive deference in his past relationships in order to avoid conflict.

So Fielder devises a plan to force a conversation about religion by creating an artificial winter around the house, in the hopes that planning for Christmas will create a natural opening for Hanukkah.

The gambit doesn’t work.

In episode 5, Nathan navigates the complexities of an interfaith family. (Photograph courtesy of HBO)

“I am pretty much, like, a ‘no’ on the faith part,” Angela says when Fielder suggests infusing Judaism in Adam’s life. “‘Cause Jesus is the way, the truth and the life.”

What ensues is a mortifying silence in which Fielder attempts to regain his footing with a pivot to movies. But then Angela reveals that Mel Gibson is one of her favorite directors.

Fielder, with food in his mouth, awkwardly points out, “He’s a little, um — I think he just says, like, bad stuff about Jews.” (Gibson’s checkered record includes a history of antisemitism.)

Angela’s face falls a little bit, but she doesn’t say anything beyond “hmm.”

Realizing that he will never get Angela’s approval to raise Adam with Judaism, Fielder decides to take control of Adam’s Jewish identity on his own.

The dynamic depicted in the show may not be a perfect example of a real-life situation, given the HBO budget and fake child, but Keren McGinity, the interfaith specialist for the Conservative movement of Judaism and a professor at Brandeis University, says it does touch on one important principle her research into interfaith families has shown: “It only takes one Jewish parent to raise a Jewish child.”

In fact, the 2020 Pew survey of American Jews found that most children of intermarried couples are being raised Jewish — an effort that requires cooperation by the non-Jewish parent.

Nathan turns the pages of a photo album, reflecting on the Jewish father he is learning to become. (Screenshot)

Having determined that Angela won’t offer that cooperation, Fielder instead clandestinely takes Adam to a Reform synagogue in Portland, Oregon, Congregation Beth Israel, under the guise of heading to swimming lessons. (The service appears to be poorly attended, perhaps because it was filmed on a Thursday.) Fielder explains to his son that the kippah is a special hat for Jewish boys, but he soon realizes he doesn’t quite know enough to teach Adam everything about Judaism by himself. He finds and hires a tutor to give Adam lessons — also in secret.

It wasn’t the typical dynamic that the tutor, a real-life cantor named Miriam Eskenasy, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that she experiences in her work with interfaith families. In at least half of the families she works with, one parent is not Jewish, she said — a statistic that mirrors reality for non-Orthodox Jews in America.

Usually, Eskenasy said, she sees the non-Jewish parent making an even stronger commitment to raising a Jewish child than the Jewish parent. She said the non-Jewish parent often takes the kid to bar mitzvah lessons and shows interest in Judaism, whether or not they convert.

“They have a much less complicated view of Judaism,” Eskenasy told JTA about the non-Jewish parents she works with. “We, as Jews, I think, have a very complex relationship with our religion.”

McGinity, who has not seen “The Rehearsal,” said she was excited to see a portrayal of interfaith Jewish households showing a man being an involved Jewish father.

“I’m getting goosebumps because something I’ve been talking about now for a while is the need to bring Jewish egalitarianism from the bimah [synagogue stage] into the family room,” McGinity said.

But Fielder doesn’t offer an inspiring example. Adam’s lessons with Miriam kick off an elaborate web of lies in which Fielder trains Adam to recite factoids about the nonexistent lifeguard from his nonexistent swimming lessons to throw Angela off the scent of his Jewish studies.

Fielder makes a self-conscious connection between his Jewish parenting and episodes of antisemitism in Jewish history. In one scene, he tells Angela that he and Adam are going to collect eggs from the chicken coop, then takes his son into the basement to teach Adam about Hanukkah.

“Under King Antiochus, many Jews were afraid for their lives,” Fielder reads to Adam. “So they were forced to follow the king’s orders. This group was called the Maccabees.”

It’s impossible not to see the lesson as a contemporary reenactment of that story, in which the Maccabees maintain their Judaism in hiding from the Greeks in the second century BCE. And to a knowledgeable viewer, the insinuation is that Angela, in her inability to compromise on religious practice, is King Antiochus, whose attempt to Hellenize the Jews failed due to the successful revolt led by Judah Maccabee.

There’s another Jewish story that Fielder’s rehearsal echoes — one to which the season’s intricate set offers a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it clue.

Since the second episode, in wide shots of the living room there’s been one quote in the foreground in the Live, Laugh, Love aesthetic that reads, “Perhaps this is the moment for which you were created.” That comes from a Christian version of the Book of Esther — the same one Jews read on Purim — as Mordecai tells his niece Queen Esther she must stand up for the Jewish people in the face of the looming threat from the story’s antagonist, the court official Haman who is seeking to destroy the Jews of Persia.

Like Queen Esther, Fielder has been pretending to be someone he wasn’t in order to avoid conflict, just as his mother said he tends to do. But now the time has come to take charge of his own life and that of his fake son.

Nathan hangs up a mezuzah on the outside of the rehearsal house. (Screenshot)

After watching Miriam teach Adam about Judaism and taking home some lessons of his own, Fielder dramatically throws out the Christmas tree he and Angela had put up and removes all of the Christmas decorations from the house — with Adam’s help — replacing them with Hanukkah-themed decor. As Fielder hangs up his new mezuzah, he is physically staking a claim to the idea that his home is a Jewish one.

“It was time to stand up for my own values and the values of those who came before me,” Nathan says in his deadpan voiceover. “We don’t always get to choose what happens in life, but we do get to decide if we rehearse for it.”

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With climate bill passed, Democrats deliver on top policy concern for American Jews

Fri, 2022-08-12 21:48

(JTA) — The passage of a milestone climate bill in Congress on Friday means major progress on a policy issue that American Jews rank above all others in recent surveys of voter priorities.

While climate change is not often pegged as a Jewish issue — unlike, for example, abortion or Israel — a set of poll results suggest concern about it is nearly a consensus in the community. 

Already eight years ago, a survey from the nonpartisan group Public Religion Research Institute found that a far larger percentage of American Jews believed that climate change was a concern than Americans as a whole do. At the time, an estimated 8 in 10 American Jews said the planet is facing a crisis or a major problem. 

It’s not just that Jews find the climate situation alarming because they tend to be liberal, and that liberals are far more likely than conservatives to prioritize the issue. According to recent polling, Jews not only care about climate — they also seem to prioritize over almost any other issue. 

For example, a 2020 election exit survey of 800 Jewish voters by J Street, a liberal pro-Israel group, found that climate change ranked second after the COVID-19 pandemic among issues determining who they picked in the presidential contest between Donald Trump and Joe Biden — above health care, the economy, racial justice and other matters. 

Two subsequent polls add to this impression. In 2021 and 2022, the Jewish Electorate Institute, a group led by prominent Jewish Democrats, conducted national surveys of Jewish voters and found that the top issue they wanted President Biden and Congress to focus on was climate change. Voting rights and the economy came in second and third in both cases. 

About two years ago, a new group called Dayenu: A Jewish Call to Climate Action launched seeking to harness the overwhelming level of worry American Jews seem to have about how greenhouse gas emissions are wreaking havoc on our weather and oceans. 

According to Dayenu’s chief strategy officer, Phil Aroneanu, there has long been a widespread desire among Jews to be more green as individuals and to organize as Jews for systemic change.

“That’s why we’re drinking out of a firehose when it comes to Jews engaging with Dayenu and our campaigns,” he said. 

Margery Cooper, a member of Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn, was inspired to help start one of 80 local Dayenu chapters that now exist around the country and abroad. 

“In our congregation, people sometimes ask why we are involved in this issue,” Cooper said. “For myself, I have 30-year-old children and I don’t say this to them, but when they talk about having, you know, future children, I am terrified. And then we’ve got the rabbi who’s a young mother, and she talks about having to hide with her daughter in a closet during intense storms. And then we’ve got other parents whose children see pictures of wildfires and can’t sleep at night.”

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who spearheaded the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, as the $370 billion climate bill is known, attends services with Cooper as a fellow congregant at Beth Elohim. 

When Cooper helped organize a Jewish climate rally in Park Slope last year, Schumer showed, marking a high point in Dayenu’s visibility and providing a piece of evidence that climate can be effectively galvanized as a Jewish issue.

The very fact there’s a near-consensus might be the reason climate has been under the radar as a Jewish issue, according to Leonard Saxe, a social psychologist at Brandeis University who conducts demographic research on Jews. 

“If there were two Jews arguing about climate change, Jewish journalists would be reporting on it — because it’s a fight,” he said. “Perhaps it’s not an issue because there’s not much debate in the Jewish community about it.”

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Once buried in Europe, a Hitler puppet stashed in Frank Oz’s Oakland attic tells his family’s Holocaust story

Fri, 2022-08-12 19:28

(J. The Jewish News of Northern California via JTA) — Long before Frank Oz gained fame as the puppet master behind such iconic characters as Miss Piggy and Yoda, he was Frank Oznowicz, an Oakland kid who attended Tech High, ate burgers at Kwik Way and watched movies at the Grand Lake Theater.

And from time to time, he’d rummage through the attic of his home. One day he came across something that would prove to be extraordinary: a set of wooden marionettes, carved in the 1930s by his Jewish father, Isadore “Mike” Oznowicz, a Holocaust refugee from Antwerp, Belgium.

The costumes were handmade by his mother, Frances. One of the puppets, with its Charlie Chaplin mustache and raised right arm, was unmistakably a mocking caricature of Hitler.

“Every few years I’d see [the puppets] and not think twice,” Oz recalled of his youth. “When I was an adult, I moved to New York and I realized, ‘My God, look what we have here.’”

Long before storing the puppets in an Oakland attic, Mike Oznowicz had buried them in Antwerp for safekeeping before fleeing the Nazi invasion, then retrieved them after the war. They remained in the attic until his son, by then fully aware of the historical importance of his parents’ handiwork, transported them to his Manhattan apartment, where he has kept them for more than 30 years.

The puppets have never been on public display until now. They are the centerpieces of a new exhibition, “Oz is for Oznowicz: A Puppet Family’s History,” open now through Nov. 27 at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco.

The exhibit consists of the Hitler figure, as well as a puppet cabaret band decked out in swanky satin jackets, along with a raven-haired chanteuse in a red dress. Also included are archival photographs, reflections from Oz and his siblings and a video account from Mike Oznowicz recounting his harrowing escape from Nazi-occupied Belgium.

“The wear and tear is very evident,” Heidi Rabben, senior curator of the CJM, said of the treasures. “The costumes are faded and torn. The Hitler costume is broken down the front seam. I asked Frank why he thought his parents buried [the puppets] and did not destroy them. He said if someone creates something with one’s own hands it becomes meaningful. This [Hitler] marionette was for his parents a form of resistance.”

Frank Oz, 78, is best known as the puppetry genius who partnered with Muppets founder Jim Henson. He was the voice of Miss Piggy, Burt, Cookie Monster and, as recently as 2019, the voice of Yoda in the Star Wars series. As a filmmaker, he directed “The Dark Crystal,” “Little Shop of Horrors” and “What About Bob,” among others.

But his puppeteering began at home, under the influence of his parents.

When Germany invaded Belgium in 1940, possessing a subversive marionette like the Hitler puppet posed a danger to both Mike Oznowicz, a sign painter by trade and an amateur puppeteer, and Frances, a dressmaker. The couple buried it and several other marionettes in their backyard, then fled the country, wandering from Portugal to North Africa. While hiding in Casablanca, it was Frances who supported the family with tailoring work.

After the war, they returned to Antwerp, retrieved the puppets and eventually brought them to Northern California, where they built a new life for themselves and their three children. They continued to make puppets and performed shows in the region, including at Children’s Fairyland at Lake Merritt.

Mike and Frances Oznowicz at the Children’s Fairyland Puppet Fair in 1956. (Courtesy of San Francisco Bay Area Puppeteers Guild and Children’s Fairyland Archives)

Oz told J. his father never liked to talk about the war, which claimed the lives of many of his relatives. Nor did he divulge the origins of the Hitler and cabaret band puppets or whether he ever performed with them. Mike Oznowicz, who died in 1998, was “very scrappy” and had an “attitude of rebelliousness,” according to his son.

That may explain why he crafted a puppet that ridiculed Hitler. The tradition of mocking the German dictator continued for decades, from Bugs Bunny to Chaplin’s “Great Dictator” to Mel Brooks’ “The Producers.”

“It’s part of our cultural fabric,” said Rabben of the CJM. “The Jews have always been an oppressed people who found ways to fight back, implicitly or more subtly. When you think of the legacy of Jewish humor in the U.S., that was a way for Jews to reclaim power and agency over how their stories were being told and who was telling them.”

Oz said he sees the CJM exhibit as a way to honor his parents for their creativity and resilience.

“I see it as beautiful folk art,” he said of his parents’ handiwork. “[My father] didn’t go to woodcarving school. He just did it, and [the puppets] are representative of so many people who just appreciate the core of humanity.”

A version of this piece originally ran in J. The Jewish News of Northern California and is reprinted with permission.

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To save Jews and keep the Nazis away, these doctors invented a fake infectious disease

Fri, 2022-08-12 19:12

(JTA) — How the subject of his new documentary, “Syndrome K,” has largely escaped public attention is a mystery to filmmaker Stephen Edwards.

“It’s the greatest elevator pitch in Hollywood,” he said. “The story of three doctors, one of them Jewish, practicing with a fake identity, that fool the SS with a fake disease that saved Jews from certain deportation.” 

“Syndrome K,” which hits digital and VOD platforms on Tuesday after some Jewish film festival showings, tells that little-known, surefire story: How three doctors at a hospital in Rome shielded a group of Jews from the Nazis in 1943 and 1944 by inventing a fake infectious disease called Syndrome K. The prospect of catching the disease kept the Nazis, who were occupying Rome following the fall of Mussolini, away from the hospital. The Jews there hung on until the Allies liberated the city in June of 1944.  

Edwards, who has spent most of his career as a composer, is not Jewish — he was raised Catholic — but grew up among the large Jewish community in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that he got the idea for the film when he saw a meme about the “Syndrome K” story on Facebook, and was shocked to discover that no one had ever made a documentary about it before.  

Adriano Ossicini, one of the doctors behind the Syndrome K ruse, with “Syndrome K” director Stephen Edwards in 2018. (“Syndrome K”/Freestyle Digital Media)

Fatebenefratelli Hospital was located very close to the Jewish Ghetto in Rome. The three doctors were Vittorio Sacerdoti, Giovani Borromeo and Adriano Ossicini. Sacerdoti was Jewish, while the other two were Catholic. Borremeo, who among other things protected the family of one of his Jewish mentors, is recognized as a Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial authority.  

Jews were kept in hospital rooms designated as dangerously infectious. “The Nazis thought it was cancer or tuberculosis, and they fled like rabbits,” Sacerdoti told the BBC in 2004

The exact number of Jews saved, according to the film, is unknown, although various historical accounts have placed the number in the dozens.

“That’s why I think it’s such a secret story — the doctors didn’t crow about what they did, or talk about it a lot,” Edwards said. He added that the Syndrome K story is so obscure that the late historian Robert Katz’s “The Battle for Rome: The Germans, the Allies, the Partisans, and the Pope, September 1943–June 1944,” which is considered a definitive book about the Nazi occupation of the city, does not mention it. 

When Edwards first began working on the film in 2018, he learned that Ossicini was still alive at age 98. Reaching out through an Italian-Jewish journalist named Ariela Piattelli, Edwards and his producer went to Rome and interviewed the doctor. On that trip, he also talked to a pair of brothers who survived the hospital as children, and Pietro Borromeo, the son of Giovani Borromeo. Both Ossicini and the younger Borromeo passed away within a year of their interviews.

For interviews with the others featured in the film, Edwards utilized the USC Shoah Foundation, which has collected and archived interviews with more than 55,000 testimonies now arrived at the University of Southern California.  

That archive included an interview with the Jewish doctor Sacerdoti from around the year 2000, made shortly before his death and believed to be the only one he ever gave. The physician never married or had children, and there’s no record of where he is buried.  

Edwards was full of praise for the Shoah Foundation, founded by Steven Spielberg, for including a system of tagging in their archive that allowed them to find interviews with survivors of the hospital of whom the filmmakers were previously unaware. 

“We have no film without Sacerdoti,” Edwards said. “If I meet Spielberg at some point I’m going to thank him.” 

Ossicini and Pietro Borromeo aren’t the only voices featured in “Syndrome K” who have since passed away. Ray Liotta, the famed actor, provided the voiceover narration for the film. He died on May 26, at age 67, while shooting a film in the Dominican Republic.  

Edwards said that he had gotten to know Liotta a bit when their daughters went to school together throughout their childhoods.  He had reached out to the actor to gauge his interest in narrating the film, and “two weeks later, he’s in my studio.” Liotta recorded the entire narration in three hours, on a single day in late 2019.  

(Edwards added that on the day of Liotta’s arrival he joined his editor and writer to watch the first 30 minutes of “Goodfellas,” Liotta’s best-known role, in which the actor performs a voiceover narration that the director calls “top five all-time.”)

Patients lay in beds in the “Syndrome K” unit at Fatebenefratelli Hospital. (“Syndrome K”/Freestyle Digital Media)

Edwards, who holds Italian citizenship through his late mother, especially appreciated Liotta’s ease with the story’s many difficult Italian names and places.

“He walked in, and it’s not an easy gig: It’s Fatebenefratelli Hospital,’ Adriano Ossicini, Giovani Borromeo, Vittorio Sacerdoti, all the Roman names, plus all the German names, all this vocabulary,” Edwards said. “And he was such a fun guy to work with, super-funny, top-level pro, profane, lots of F-bombs, we were just laughing, we were having a ball… we were just so sorry to lose the guy.” 

The director had always been a World War II buff, and two of his uncles fought in the war. But he remembers very well first learning about the Holocaust. 

“When I was probably 12 or 13 years old, I was watching TV on a Saturday morning… when I saw one of these documentaries about the Holocaust, where it showed all the atrocities and horrors. And I was just horrified — I had no idea, I hadn’t gotten to that history lesson in school yet.” He asked his father, who explained it to him.

The Holocaust, of course, can be a weighty and depressing subject, especially when one is immersed in it for a lengthy period of time. How did Edwards handle the burden? 

“The story itself was more about the threat of atrocities,” he said, noting that 80% of Italian Jews survived the Holocaust, a very different percentage than in most of Europe. “This is a story about people being their very, very best, in the face of people being their very, very worst, and that’s what really attracted me to it.” 

In addition to the documentary, Edwards said that he has brought a team together to try to make a feature film version of the Syndrome K story. In the meantime, he appreciates the irony of the timing of the documentary’s arrival. 

“You can’t make that stuff up,” he said. “Making a movie about a fake disease in the middle of a pandemic is just so ironic.”  

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Leaked memo shows Israeli support for law that keeps Jews out of leadership in Bosnia

Fri, 2022-08-12 19:03

(JTA) — Last month, Jewish leaders in Sarajevo joined widespread condemnation of a proposed law that could further distance Jews and other minorities from positions of political power. Now a leaked document from the Israeli embassy in Tirana, Albania, which also serves Bosnia and Herzegovina, shows that the Israeli government backs the controversial plan.

“The readiness and proposals of the Croatian side, which arrived during the negotiations on changes to the electoral law, are welcome,” read the Israeli memo, which began circulating on Monday.

While most ethnonationalist parties support the proposition, many prominent Bosnian politicians do not, and the leak created a political storm.

“It is hard to fathom how the official policy of the State of Israel could be to welcome the discrimination of Jews in not being able to hold office in Bosnia and Herzegovina,” said Bosnian Foreign Minister Bisera Turkovic, according to Haaretz. “The proposed electoral legislation would cement the current discriminatory system towards minorities in Bosnia.”

“We can safely say that this has hurt Israel’s image among the Bosniak population. It came out of left field,” said former Bosnian Energy Minister Reuf Bajrovic.

The plan has been most vocally backed by the Dragan ?ovi?, the head of the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), a Croat political party in Bosnia. Milorad Dodik, the Bosnian-Serb member of the country’s tripartite presidency, and his SNSD party also stand to benefit from the new law. Both ?ovi? and Dodik have also been outspoken supporters of Israel.

In the same memo, the Israeli embassy also expressed gratitude for the country’s adoption of the IHRA definition of antisemitism last month — a move that was pushed by both ?ovi? and Dodik — as well as the removal of street names honoring Nazi figures and local WWII era collaborators in the city of Mostar.

“The State of Israel supports the recent steps taken by various institutions of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which benefit all its citizens and its Jewish community, and hopes that these steps are an expression of a welcoming trend,” the statement reads.

However, both ?ovi? and Dodik have been criticized for their denial of atrocities that were perpetrated by members of their respective ethnic groups during the Bosnian war, including the Srebrenica Genocide, which took place in an area under Dodik’s jurisdiction in the Bosnian-Serb enclave, Republicka Srpska.

?ovi? has also been accused of ordering the use of slave labor from the prison in a factory he ran in the 1990s. He has denied the claim, but representatives of survivors of the camp wrote to the Israeli ambassador in Albania, Noah Gal Gendler, to criticize him over his support of ?ovi?’s proposal.

“For the government of Israel to come out and say this is, in my view, crazy. It’s seen as Israel siding with people who want Bosnia gone, far-right genocide deniers,” Bajrovic said.

Israel ultimately offered a clarification of its position, after Turkovic sent a diplomatic request for one.

“The Israeli embassy in Tirana, which is also responsible for Bosnia and Herzegovina, issued a document [on Monday] in which it expresses the support [for] the preservation of the rights of the Jewish community in the country. The document was sent following a local initiative to change the election law and the fear that the implications of the discussion around this change might harm those rights,” the Israeli embassy’s statement said. It did not elaborate on how the bill would preserve the rights of Jewish people in Bosnia.

Under Bosnia’s electoral system, which was established at the end of the Balkan state’s brutal war following the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, high level political positions are distributed equally among three “constituent peoples”: Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats. As a result, Jews and other national minorities that fall outside of those three groups cannot run for offices ranging from the tripartite presidency to the upper chamber of Bosnia’s parliament — the House of Peoples — as well as countless other local roles.

Though only around 900 Jews live in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the majority of whom reside in Sarajevo, it is estimated that at least 400,000 residents, including Bosnia’s 60,000 Roma citizens, are barred from high level political roles under this system.

As part of the peace agreement that ended the 1990s war, Bosnia’s government is also overseen by a High Representative, an unelected official traditionally selected from the European Union who wields broad power. The Office of the High Representative proposed the new law last month, which would redistribute the ethnic representatives amongst the country’s cantons, or districts. Previously, each canton elected a representative from each ethnicity; the new system would move ethnic representatives from cantons with less than 3% of a given ethnicity to another one with a majority, consolidating their power in those areas.

In the mid-2000s, Jakob Finci, president of the Bosnian Jewish community, and Dervo Sejdic, a Roma leader in Bosnia, disputed Bosnia’s political system in a complaint to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). The court ruled in their favor, placing full political rights for minorities as a requirement for Bosnia’s candidacy as an EU member state — but no progress has been made to implement those rights in the years since the ruling.

Nearly 30 years after the end of the Bosnian war, many citizens also feel that that the age when local politics being divided on ethnic lines should be a thing of the past, and that moving towards a civic national identity as “Bosnian-Herzegovinians,” along with EU membership, should be the goal. The proposed bill would serve to further cement the current system, moving Bosnia farther from EU acceptance.

Despite the spat, Israel and Bosnia Herzegovina have had relatively warm relations since the Muslim-majority nation was solidified as an independent state in 1995.

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Polio detected in NYC wastewater as data reveals heavily Orthodox Williamsburg is vulnerable

Fri, 2022-08-12 18:54

(New York Jewish Week) — Polio has been detected in New York City wastewater, three weeks after a Jewish man in Rockland County was diagnosed with the first polio case in the U.S. in 10 years.

The announcement suggests that the potentially deadly virus is circulating in the city, officials say. 

New York City and State health officials made the joint announcement on Friday. Traces of polio had previously been found in wastewater samples from Rockland and Orange Counties, north of the city. 

“The risk to New Yorkers is real but the defense is so simple — get vaccinated against polio,” New York City Health Commissioner Ashwin Vasan said in a statement. “Polio is entirely preventable and its reappearance should be a call to action for all of us.”

After the Rockland man was identified as an Orthodox Jew, attention turned to the Orthodox Jewish communities in suburban New York and Brooklyn, where there are pockets of people resistant to getting vaccines. Williamsburg, Brooklyn — home to one of the largest Orthodox Jewish populations in the state — has the city’s lowest rate of polio vaccination, with a 56.3% of children between the ages of 6 months and 5 years having had three doses of the vaccine, according to the New York Citywide Immunization Registry.

The press release said that “of particular concern are neighborhoods where coverage of children aged six-months to five-years-old with three doses of polio vaccine is less than 70%, putting these children at risk of contracting polio.”

Citywide, 86.2% of children have been vaccinated against polio. 

The New York State Department of Health said that Rockland County, which also has a sizable Orthodox population, currently has a polio vaccination rate of 60.5% among 2-year-olds, compared to the statewide average of 79.1%.

Shortly after the Rockland polio patient was announced July 21, New York City health officials held a conference call with leaders of Brooklyn’s haredi Orthodox community. During the call, officials from the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene urged the leaders to encourage members of the city’s large haredi and Hasidic communities to get the polio vaccine. 

The United Jewish Organization of Williamsburg, which represents the Satmar Hasidic community in Brooklyn, urged the community to get vaccinated in a press release sent out almost two weeks ago.  

When the New York Jewish Week reported on the conference call on Aug. 3, Rabbi David Niederman, the organization’s executive director, said, “people are vaccinated here” in Williamsburg.

“Polio is something that when people hear about it, they shiver,” Niederman said. “Everybody is concerned.” 

After Williamsburg, Battery Park City is the second-least vaccinated New York neighborhood against polio at 58%, followed by Bedford-Stuyvesant/Ocean Hill/Brownsville with 58.4%, Bedford-Stuyvesant/Clinton Hill/Fort Greene with 62.5% and East Williamsburg with 65.4%.

In a press release, State Health Commissioner Mary T. Basset said that the detection of polio in the city is “alarming, but not surprising.” 

“For every one case of paralytic polio identified, hundreds more may be undetected,” Basset said. 

She added that the State Health Department is “responding urgently, continuing case investigation and aggressively assessing spread.” 

As of press time, the Rockland county man — described by a source wishing to remain anonymous as a “young adult, in a wheelchair” who “got married recently” — is the only known case of polio. According to the source, he is home from the hospital and reportedly living at his parents’ home with his wife.

Officials are urging anyone who is unvaccinated to get vaccinated to protect themselves. For more information on polio vaccinations, visit health.ny.gov/polio.

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Comedian Jessica Kirson is ‘constantly complaining’ her way to Jewish comedy royalty

Fri, 2022-08-12 15:17

(New York Jewish Week) — “How long is this interview going to be? My agent said this was going to be brief,” comedian Jessica Kirson says, greeting a New York Jewish Week reporter. 

“I’m constantly complaining,” she added by way of explanation. 

While that may be true — in her 23 years in comedy, Kirson has made a name for herself doing less-than-charitable impressions of family members and riffing on how life is horrible —  the 52-year-old Jewish mom also called this reporter a “sweetheart” during a 15-minute conversation. 

A mainstay at the Greenwich Village’s legendary Comedy Cellar, Kirson — who grew up in South Orange, New Jersey and calls herself a “proud Jew” — is having a breakout moment thanks to viral clips on social media where she masterfully battles hecklers. “I’m working on an all crowd-work special right now,” Kirson said. “No woman has ever done one before.” 

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A post shared by Jessica Kirson (@jessykirson)

According to Dani Zoldan, owner of another leading New York comedy club, Stand Up NY, Kirson is “really one of the funniest comedians working today. And she has so much respect amongst comics, too.” 

She’s recently been a guest on “The Howard Stern Show” and most major comedy podcasts, including “The Joe Rogan Experience.”  On her own podcast, “Relatively Sane,” she’s interviewed comedy heavyweights like Bill Burr, Jim Gaffigan and Rosie O’Donnell. 

Her own full-length special, “Talking To Myself” premiered on Comedy Central in 2019, and she has a featured performance on Burr’s “Friends Who Kill” comedy special on Netflix. 

In 2021, she produced a feature-length film with FX called “Hysterical” about women in comedy, which features Nikki Glazer, Margaret Cho, Chelsea Handler and others. It’s streaming now on Amazon Prime video.  

Next up, Kirson will be performing at The Chosen Comedy Festival in Coney Island on Tuesday, Aug. 16, a show produced by Zoldan. It features an all-Jewish lineup of comedians and musicians including Alex Edelman, Leah Forster, Laivy Miller and more.  

Before the festival, the New York Jewish Week caught up with Kirson to talk about her Jewishness in her life and comedy, and what it takes to make it in such a male-dominated field. 

This interview has been lightly condensed and edited. 

New York Jewish Week: You are a New York-based Jewish comic. Can you describe what that translates to on stage?

Jessica Kirson: I bring a lot of New York flavor into my comedy and I talk about being Jewish a lot. I’m really proud to be Jewish, and I think it’s important to talk about. I do a lot of characters in my act, and I act out my Jewish family and my Jewish grandmother and all her friends, and people love it. 

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I do a lot of clubs around the country, and I talk about being Jewish in my set. It’s important because a lot of people in this country don’t know about Jewish people. They’re clueless, and they’re uneducated, and I feel like I really teach them a lot about our culture, and who we are. They really learn a lot about us through my comedy. 

And then also, a lot of them do know about us, and they love it and they relate to it. A lot of Jewish people around the country love when I come to the clubs in the area. They love seeing a Jewish comic perform because they might have these small Jewish communities, like in the South or in the Midwest, and they’ll come up to me after the show and be so excited to talk to me. It’s become a very big part of my act. 

But it’s also very upsetting to me, just all of the hate out there, and what has gone on obviously for so many years, for forever, since the beginning of time, and what’s going on now and how bad it’s become. I feel like I need to put out a message on stage and educate people and address it and not stay silent about it. I can do that through humor and it’s very powerful to talk about it. 

There’s also an element of sweetness in your performances, like a Jewish mother who’s just had it and is letting it out all out on stage. Is that a fair interpretation of your comedy? 

Yes. I have four children — I definitely have that in me. It’s also on purpose. It’s a way of saying things that are so intense and powerful in a way that’s disarming. I say these things that could put people off, but I do it in a very loving way so that people don’t get turned off. I can come off likable, and they’ll be willing to hear it and be open to it. I do it on purpose that way.  

I think it’s important to talk about what’s like being a woman in comedy — a typically male-dominated industry. You’ve had a good amount of success, that continues to grow with your social media, your specials, and you are appearing on podcasts all over the place. How do you think you did it?

That’s a good question. I am seen as a comic, and not a female comic. A lot of male comics say that. I purposely appeal to men and women. I don’t do jokes about being a woman at all, and that’s on purpose. I know that it’s very important to do material that men will laugh at and want to hear because 50% of the audience is men, and a lot of the industry is run by men. In fact, most of it is, so it’s crucial to do material that men will understand and relate to. 

I am also a very good businessperson. Both my parents are very good business people, so I have a great business mind. That’s a really important factor to make it in this career. 

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And, thank God, I was born with this ability to present myself on stage in a powerful, confident way that’s assertive, that could be called male. I don’t come off as insecure or timid or nervous. 

It’s very important to come off with a “don’t screw with me” kind of attitude. It’s crucial to be like that as a female comic, because the minute you go on stage as a woman, they’re thinking, “you’re not funny.” That’s the first thing they’re thinking. You have to prove them wrong immediately. 

And I’ve just worked really, really, really hard. I think that when people see me, they don’t even think about gender, they just think, “this person’s funny.”

What’s the most Jewish thing about you?

I complain from the second I open my eyes. In my head, I’m just negative. I usually look at the worst-case scenario. I have stomach problems constantly. Every day, I just work on trying not to be negative. I was brought up in a family where everyone was always anxious and negative and worried and so that’s the work I’ve had to do. I try to not be like that with my kids, to try to break the pattern. That’s really the Jewiest thing about me. 

The New York Jewish Week is the media partner for The Chosen Comedy Festival. For tickets and information click here.

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In new book ‘Koshersoul,’ award-winning chef Michael Twitty fuses African-American and Jewish culinary histories

Fri, 2022-08-12 13:37

(JTA) — The James Beard Award-winning chef Michael Twitty released a book of recipes and essays that fuses Jewish and African-American culinary histories this week.

Twitty, 45, won acclaim for his 2018 book  “The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African-American Culinary History in the Old South,” which also drew parallels between African-American and Jewish history. Twitty grew up in Washington, D.C., in a Christian household but around Jewish food, with a mother who regularly made challah; he converted to Judaism in his early 20s and now keeps kosher.

“[T]here are some things that science cannot explain, it’s a calling, it’s a connection, it’s above us,” Twitty told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in 2017.

“Koshersoul: The Faith and Food Journey of an African American Jew,” released Tuesday, is a more direct mashup of the different sides of his identity. The book includes 50 recipes with names like koshersoul collards, Louisiana-style latkes and Mrs. Cardozo’s Famous seven-fruit haroset from Suriname. Readers also get essays and insights into both Twitty’s experience as someone who is both Black and Jewish as well as histories and stories about how the two cultures overlap.

The book’s cover shows a yarmulke-wearing Twitty in front of various loaves of challah. According to Twitty, each one represents a different part of his identity.

“Challahs are braided and braiding them together means I’m a whole person,” Twitty said in an interview with ABC News. “The idea that this Jewish bread can also represent all the different parts of me is what I want to convey to the readers before they even open the book at all.”

For more on Twitty’s story — and the culinary reason why he chose to convert in a Sephardic synagogue — read our full 2017 profile.

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