Monthly Archives: May 2011

Chagall’s Crucifixions

By Kayla Green

For the first time in history, Marc Chagall’s Bible-themed engravings, originally intended as a gift for his second wife, are on display to the public. The engravings are part of the “Chagall and the Bible” exhibit in Paris’s Museum of Jewish Art and History which contains 105 of Chagall’s engravings illustrating the 1956 edition of the Bible. The full exhibit consists of half of Chagall’s preliminary sketches for the book’s engravings, 25 oil paintings of Biblical scenes and watercolor and gouache mock-ups of Chagall’s glass work.  These intimate and historically rich pieces lend insight into the deep complexity of Chagall’s Jewish legacy, from his identity as a Jew in exile to his reawakening upon his first visit to Israel. Most importantly, they are able to convey Chagall’s interesting perspective of what it means to be a Jew in a Christian world, as well as the Jewish aspects of Christian life.

The three-story exhibition is filled with bright colors and dramatic artistic touches. The whimsical Biblical scenes are accompanied by multi-lingual Biblical verses, ensuring comprehension for each viewer, while the gouache mock-ups of stained glass windows are eye-catching with their vivid orange and purple hues. More amazing than the splendor and beauty of Chagall’s work is the symbolism and meaning that underlies it.

Chagall’s art attempts to reconcile Jews and Christians, usually by depicting Christian beliefs and history through a Jewish lens, creating the effect that Jews and Jewish history are integral to Christian survival and legacy. In one painting, entitled White Crucifixion, Jews flee their Nazi persecutors while Jesus hangs above them on the cross, trying to protect them. This heartbreaking image exposes Chagall’s perception that gentile society could only understand the plight of the Jews in Christian terms. In fact, Chagall painted more than 100 scenes of Jesus and the crucifixion in his life. The connection between Judaism and the New Testament was a common theme in Chagall’s art, says Susan Goodman, senior curator of New York’s Jewish Museum. “It was a way of asserting an ideological challenge to the dominant Christian culture. He was asserting the Jewishness of Christ.” Here, moreover, we can see Chagall trying to downplay the “otherness” of the Jews by reasserting the original connection between Christ and Judaism.

Chagall’s worldview represents the difficulties he faced as a Jew, from his exile from Russia to France and his eventual move to the United States during the time of World War II. The inspiration he found in his trip to Israel, where he visited Jerusalem and the Western Wall is also palpable from the exhibit. What it best describes though, is the complexity of Jewish-Gentile relations. In the middle of Paris, a city known for both philo-Semitism, and xenophobia, art-lovers are introduced to one man’s attempt to explain the plight of the Jews by emerging them in familiar Christian settings as well as his ability to demonstrate the Jewish roots of Christianity. The overall effect is both unifying and eye-opening, as it conveys that peace and understanding art can convey.

San Francisco: No Longer a Cut Above the Rest?

By Steven Philp

San Francisco prides itself on its progressive politics. Yet a proposal to ban circumcision, which city election officials confirmed had gathered enough signatures to appear on the November ballot, has put its local legislature in the center of a national debate concerning what has traditionally been considered the purview of individual families. According to an article on the Huffington Post, the proposed ban was approved with 7,700 valid signatures from San Francisco residents; to qualify an initiative must have at least 7,168 signatories. If the measure is approved by voters, circumcision would be prohibited for all male children under the age of 18; violation of the ban would be considered a misdemeanor, punishable with a fine up to $1000 or up to one year in jail. The proposal includes no exemptions for religious communities.

The ban has been championed by self-described “inactivist” Lloyd Schofield, a longtime San Francisco resident. Speaking to the Huffington Post he argued that circumcision is an unnecessary procedure comparable to genital mutilation; it can be painful and cause permanent damage to the male anatomy. “Parents are really guardians, and guardians have to do what’s in the best interest of the child,” he explained. “It’s his body. It’s his choice.” Schofield’s convictions are not without precedent. With good hygiene the norm in developed nations like the United States, cleanliness is less of a concern for uncircumcised men. As detailed in a study published by the Journal of Urology, it is accepted knowledge that the procedure – by removing sensitive nerve endings found in the foreskin – can reduce penile sensitivity for circumcised men.

Yet creating a parallel with female genital mutilation is misleading; where male circumcision can reduce sensation through the removal of the foreskin, the vast majority of circumcised men are able to have fulfilling sex lives.  Female genital cutting, on the other hand, entails the complete or partial excision of the clitoris, inner labia and/or outer labia, often preventing pleasure from sexual intercourse and introducing complications during childbirth. According to information posted by the World Health Organization, this procedure severely impairs the function of the female anatomy and can cause a number of severe health risks for the victim.  Furthermore, female genital mutilation is not derived from any known religious scripts, although it is a common misconception that it is an accepted faith-based procedure.

It has been claimed that circumcision may have some benefits, including the reduction of penile cancer and the prevention of certain sexual transmitted diseases and infections. According to an article posted by HIV Plus Magazine, clinical trials in Kenya, South Africa, and Uganda showed circumcision reduced HIV infections between heterosexual partners by 60%. However, a San Francisco study conducted in 2008 found that circumcision had little to no effect on transmission rates between men who had sex with other men; it is unclear whether this shows no correlation between circumcision and HIV infection, or is more reflective of growing infection rates and poor safe sex practices among certain communities of sexually active men.

Opponents of the ban claim that the initiative violates religious freedom as guaranteed by the American Constitution. “For a city that’s renowned for being progressive and open-minded, to even have to consider such an intolerant proposition … it sets a dangerous precedent for all cities and states,” explained Rabbi Gil Yosef Leeds to the Huffington Post. Based in Berkeley, Leeds serves as a mohel for the Bay Area Jewish community. He mentioned receiving numerous phone calls from concerned Jews, although he is confident that the measure would not survive judicial scrutiny.

Drawing from injunctions in Genesis 17:10-14 and Leviticus 12:3, circumcision has been considered a visible and permanent sign of the covenant between Jews and G-d. It is generally performed eight days after the birth of a male child, accompanied by a series of blessings and the bestowal of his Hebrew name. As one of the distinctive traditions of the Jewish community, the brit milah is widely practiced among Jews. Only recently have some communities experimented with different naming ceremonies, such as the brit shalom – or covenant of peace – proposed in an article by the organization Jews Against Circumcision. Although the ban may stimulate an interest in alternative practices, it does raise concerns for traditionally observant Jews across sectarian divides; how do we accommodate changing opinions within secular society, while also maintaining our religious integrity?

Speaking to the Huffington Post, the chief of pediatric urology at the University of California, San Francisco Benioff Children’s Hospital Dr. Laurence Baskin explains that he remains “neutral on the subject of circumcision.” However for people who do want to have the procedure performed, there are ways to minimize pain. “It has what I would say would be a minimal amount of pain if done properly, so my recommendation is to use anesthesia,” he said. For the Jewish community, such a recommendation may present a way to accommodate concerns about trauma while also allowing for the practice of circumcision. What is clear is that Bay Area Jews may need to reconsider their faith commitments, or be prepared to outsource their circumcisions outside San Francisco.

I Was So Much Older Then

by Sophie Taylor

On music legend Bob Dylan’s birthday, take a look back at his origins withMoment’s “Unauthorized Spiritual Biography” of the singer. Seventy years ago today, Robert Zimmerman was born in Hibbing, Minnesota, a middle-of-nowhere town whose other claim to fame is its six-by-three mile open-air mine shaft. He grew up in a small but deeply Jewish community, studying for his bar mitzvah at a rock-‘n’-roll café and practicing in his garage. Moment editor-in-chief Nadine Epstein chronicles Dylan’s small-town life, his arrival in Greenwich Village, and his early rise to fame, and explores the Jewish, then Christian, themes in his music. Dylan’s religiously inspired lyrics range from:

Oh God said to Abraham, ‘Kill me a son’/Abe says, ‘Man, you must be puttin’ me on’/God say ‘No.’ Abe say, ‘What?’/God say, ‘You can do what you want Abe, but/The next time you see me comin’ you better run’/‘Well,’ Abe says, ‘Where do you want this killin’ done?’/ God says, ‘Out on Highway 61.

To the much more New Testament-y:

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed/You’re gonna have to serve somebody/Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord/But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.

References aside, Dylan’s lyrics and their meanings remain ever-elusive.

Read the full story here.

Tweeting AIPAC

Well, folks, another AIPAC Policy Conference has come and gone, and this year’s had no shortage of buzz. With a pair of high-profile speeches from Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu, bookended by the former’s speech on the Middle East last week and the latter’s Congressional address earlier today, the 2011 Conference generated a lot of chatter on that up-and-coming phenomenon, the Internet. Here are a few of our favorite tweets from the weekend’s events:

Noah Pollak (@noahpollak), Executive Director of the Emergency Committee for Israel:

  • “Boehner is great. But he looks like he spent the weekend pounding Bud Lites on a motorboat. Sunscreen, Mr. Speaker. Check it out.”

Jeffrey Goldberg (@Goldberg3000), national correspondent, The Atlantic:

  • “AIPAC convention feels a bit like what I imagine the atmosphere inside the Loehmann’s dressing room to be.”
  • “Is it possible to find speakers who can pronounce ‘Iran’ correctly? All existential threats should be pronounced with care.”
  • “A problem for Israel: Bibi looking to marry Republicans, but some Republicans might only be interested in dating through 2012.”
  • “Basic problem for POTUS: AIPAC is a Leon Uris crowd, Obama is more Philip Roth.”

Eli Lake (@elilake), national security reporter, The Washington Times:

  • “When Netanyahu ends his speech, will Congress PA system play the theme song of Greatest American Hero? Believe it or not it’s just Bibi.”

Matt Yglesias (@mattyglesias), political writer:

  • “GOP should solve Boring Pawlenty problem by amending the constitution to make Bibi eligible to run.”

M.J. Rosenberg (@MJayRosenberg), Senior Foreign Policy Fellow at Media Matters Action Network:

  • “How can same people produce Andy Samberg, Jon Stewart, Jake Gyllenhaal, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Franco & Eric Cantor.”

What did we miss? Tell us in the comments!

Moment Magazine Launches Tweets4Peace Contest

Moment Magazine is thrilled to announce the Tweets4Peace contest.  Lengthy tomes have been written about the Middle East conflict, which ranks among the world’s most intractable.  Amid the mountains of scholarship, research, and analysis, Moment seeks new ideas in the shortest, simplest form possible: Twitter updates.

Through June 30, the Rabins, Sadats, Gandis and Kings of the world are invited to submit their solutions to Middle East peace via Twitter using the hashtag #Tweets4Peace.  At a time in which peace appears distant, the contest represents an opportunity for fresh thinking and new ideas.  Aside from the obvious reward of bringing peace to the Middle East, the contest winner will receive a 1-year subscription to Moment in addition to a special peace prize (look out, Nobel), to be announced.

Moment Magazine, an award-winning bimonthly with a flagship print publication, lively website, comprehensive digital version, celebrated blog IntheMoment, popular thrice weekly e-newsletter The Fix and much more, was co-founded by Nobel Peace Prize-winner Elie Wiesel in 1975 and relaunched in 2004 by journalist and entrepreneur Nadine Epstein. As an independent voice, Moment includes points of views that transcend ideological and denominational divides; highly-diverse interpretations of religious thought; a food section for thinking people called “Talk of the Table;” award-winning in-depth features; and first rate book reviews edited by former New York Times Sunday Book Review editor Mitchel Levitas. Contributors include Calvin Trillin, Cynthia Ozick, Wolf Blitzer, Yossi Klein Halevi, Theodore Bikel, Erica Jong, Dara Horn, David Margolick, Dani Shapiro and many others.

For more information on the Tweets4Peace contest or to arrange an interview with editor and publisher Nadine Epstein, contact Niv Elis at (202)-363-6422 or nelis@momentmag.com.

Ron Paul’s Unkosher Track Record

by Amanda Walgrove

Representative Ron Paul announced his bid for the presidency over a week ago, but not before taking a hit from the Republican Jewish Coalition. Foreseeing the problems that Paul’s candidacy would cause for Jewish Republicans, RJC executive director Matt Brooks took the precaution of expressing concern about Paul a day before the Texas congressman announced his campaign, saying that Paul’s “misguided and extreme views” are not representative of the Republican Party. While Brooks is correct, the Republicans have yet to produce many convincing contenders who could pull the spotlight away from Paul and highlight views toward Israel that can be representative of the GOP. Some say that his policies don’t reflect any anti-Jewish sentiments, but rather just a broad isolationist view, which happens to include cutting aid to Israel. But this isn’t the first time that Paul has made RJC nervous. During his campaign for the 2008 election, Paul was barred from the RJC’s Candidate’s Forum due to his stance against providing further foreign aid to Israel.

A former obstetrician, Paul transitioned into politics because of his interest in reinstating the gold standard that Nixon slashed. While Paul ran as the Libertarian Party’s presidential candidate in 1988 and as a Republican in 2008, having his name on the Republican ticket for 2012 doesn’t sit well with all GOP members. Especially during a time of turmoil in the Middle East and with all eyes on Israel, the foreign policy of the winner of the 2012 election will be crucial in garnering support. Paul already has an infamously unpopular track record with his policy. He has suggested cutting $3 billion in annual defense assistance to Israel as well as denying funds to its Arab neighbors. Brooks asserted that Paul appeals to only a narrow constituency in the U.S. electorate, citing his “dangerous isolationist vision” for the U.S. and harsh criticism of Israel. As a prime example of this, Paul openly condemned the raid and murder of Osama Bin Laden.

It’s not only on the topic of Israel that Paul’s viewpoints place him squarely outside the mainstream. A recent Tablet Magazine article highlighted some of the more offensive musings of Paul’s political career. Most outrageously, in a New Republic article from 2008, James Kirchick revealed how Paul’s newsletters—then a conventional way for hardline conservatives to communicate with the populace—contained statements that were not only disrespectful to Jews but were also racist and offensive to homosexuals. While Paul’s adversaries have plenty of opportunities to easily inflame the severity of some of these statements, many believe that as a presidential candidate, Paul should account for some of these previous transgressions. Many laud Paul for his consistency, but considering his track record, consistency may not be an attractive quality. His inability to reform his idealistic objectives over time makes him a bit of an outcast, and an unsuitably inflexible candidate.

Given the oddities of Paul’s career, an NPR article considered the curious flocking of youths to Paul’s campaign, evident by the substantial number of twenty-somethings turning up at his rallies and book signings. Sixteen-year-old Rob Gray wasn’t surprised by the young audience, offering that it’s just “the old canard of the young being more open-minded than the old.” Some attendees at the most recent book signing for Liberty Defined mentioned that they may someday have to support a candidate with a better chance of winning, but not now.

Although the third time may not be a charm for Ron Paul, for now, his candidacy mostly seems to be stirring up controversy, especially among RJC and its supporters who are left biting their nails until a fresh face emerges. With Newt Gingrich losing his support, it’s time for a GOP candidate who condones America’s aid to Israel to step up to the plate if the Republicans want to retain their support of the Jewish homeland.

Lars von Trier Acts Up…Again

By Symi Rom-Rymer

This past week at the Cannes International Film Festival, Danish film director and provocateur Lars von Trier announced in a press conference for his most recent film, Melancolia, that he understood Hitler and that Israel was a “pain in the ass.”  These comments and several others, made in response to a question by a journalist about his self-described ‘Nazi aesthetic,’ predictably caused an instantaneous uproar at the festival.  Cannes organizers responded by banning von Trier from the festival. Jason Solomons, chairman of the Film Critics’ Circle in London told Reuters that he believes the political furor in the wake of von Trier’s remarks will prevent the festival from considering his current entry for the Palme d’Or, the festival’s top award.

The American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors & Their Descendants (AGJHSTD), an umbrella organization of survivors groups, immediately issued a statement applauding the festival’s decision.  “This is a welcome action which declares to the world that the suffering of victims is not a fit subject for mockery or casual self-promotion.…The organizers of the Cannes Film Festival have eloquently taken a determined moral stand against cavalier expressions of hate and insensitivity to those brutalized by the Nazis—Jew and non-Jew.”

Von Trier seems to enjoy courting controversy.  In 2005, he said that “President Bush dreams of being spanked by Condeleezza Rice.” Indeed, just before he launched into his Hitler-themed ramblings at Cannes, he mentioned that he was planning to make a four hour porn film starring Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg, the female leads from Melancolia, with lots of “uncomfortable sex.”  Danish photographer Martin Hoien, who was covering von Trier for a Danish newsmagazine, told The New York Times that among Danes, the filmmaker has a reputation as a provocateur. He observed that “It’s not a surprise that he said what he said. Mr. von Trier is uncomfortable doing press [conferences] and seems to act out because of it.”

It is tempting to jump on the anti-von Trier bandwagon and add to the expressions of outrage.  After all, he is an adult and must therefore have some understanding of (and take responsibility for) the impact that his words would have on his audience.  But examining the situation more closely, it really isn’t worth all the indignation. The AGJHSTD said that the Holocaust is not “fit for mockery” and they are right.  But von Trier was not mocking the Holocaust.  He did not denigrate its victims or their suffering.  His use of politically loaded words: ‘Nazi’ and ‘Hitler’ was dumb, but using outrageous language is not equivalent to mocking others pain.  His remarks that he ‘understood’ and even ‘sympathized with Hitler’ have been blown out of proportion. Articles about the incident have led with sensationalist headlines, “’I’m A Nazi…I Understand Hitler” or “Lars Von Trier Declares Himself A Nazi, Hitler Sympathizer.”  Out of context, his comments are, indeed, deeply troubling.  One might even assume, based on headlines alone, that von Trier is a closet neo-Nazi.  Taken within the larger context of his body of work, however, his remarks have a different meaning.  Von Trier has made a career out of making films with dark plots and destructive protagonists, such as Antichrist and Dogville. That he might  be fascinated with a dark and disturbed historical figure such as Hitler would not be surprising given the themes that he repeatedly returns to in his films.

Over the past week, there has been a great deal of space online and in print devoted to this latest Cannes controversy.  Much of the reaction from the press or from Jewish groups, however, is little more than political theater.  If von Trier wants to call himself ‘a Nazi’ or say that he understands Hitler to attract attention to his film, then let him.  He is not using his media pulpit to call for another Holocaust or express solidarity with today’s neo-Nazis or truly saying anything that could harm anyone other than himself and the actors—by dint of association—who acted in his film.  Until he does, we might all save some valuable energy and react as the Danish photographer Hoien did when he heard von Trier’s comments: roll our eyes and walk away.