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Remembering Arlen Specter

by Natalie Buchbinder

Former Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter, the son of a Jewish immigrant from Ukraine, died Sunday at age 82 after a battle with non-Hodgkins lymphoma.

Specter’s 30-year senate career, lasting from 1981 until 2011, earned him the title of longest-serving Pennsylvania senator. In 2009, the moderate Republican joined the Democratic party, a move that ultimately cost him his Senate seat. Earlier in his career, the Yale Law School graduate served as a Pennsylvania state prosecutor and a lawyer for the Warren Commission.

Specter was an outspoken supporter of Jewish values. The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, the largest Orthodox Jewish association in America, wrote that Specter was a “staunch supporter of a strong U.S.-Israel relationship, fierce advocate for religious liberty, promoter of freedom for Soviet Jewry and more” in a statement on their website.

“Senator Specter has left behind a proud legacy of public service that will hopefully guide future generations of public servants, Jewish or not,” said National Jewish Democratic Council Chair Marc Stanley and CEO David Harris in a statement released on the NJDC website.

Today, President Obama issued a proclamation stating that all flags be flown at half-mast out of respect for Specter.

“Arlen Specter was always a fighter,” said President Obama in a statement released by The White House on Sunday. “From his days stamping out corruption as a prosecutor in Philadelphia to his three decades of service in the Senate, Arlen was fiercely independent – never putting party or ideology ahead of the people he was chosen to serve.”

United by Yiddish

A new group of students is cropping up as the latest champions of the Yiddish language: Israeli Arabs at Middle Eastern universities. A quarter of Bar Ilan University’s 400 students studying Yiddish are Arab, Israeli paper Yedioth Ahronoth reports. Yusuf Alakili of Kfar Kasseem, who is studying for a Master’s degree in literature at Bar Ilan and studies Yiddish on his own, says, “I don’t know who is to blame, but I don’t understand why this magnificent language is neglected, when such an extensive body of literature exists in Yiddish.”

Without Sight, Hearing an Operatic Calling

by Natalie Buchbinder

Laurie Rubin and Popeye (photo credit Jennifer Taira)

If there were one word mezzo-soprano opera singer Laurie Rubin would use to describe her career, it would be “rollercoaster.”

“You get a lot of people telling you you’re great, and a lot of people telling you that’s not what we’re looking for,” Rubin said. “It’s definitely a lot of fun. It keeps you on your toes, this career.”

But Rubin, 33, who was born blind, has not let obstacles block her path to success. The Oberlin- and Yale-educated solo singer, who has appeared in solo recitals and performed alongside opera star Frederica von Stade, continues to travel to performances across the United States.

In addition to a booming singing career, Rubin is also balancing a jewelry line and the release of her new memoir, Do You Dream In Color? Insights From a Girl Without Sight, which will hit bookshelves October 23.

“Music has helped me see in a different sort of way,” Rubin said. A lack of sight enriches Rubin’s sense of the music; she describes instruments as having colors, and different character.

“There is something about the music and the movement,” Rubin said, adding that the different keys and physical motion of the instruments give her a sense of landscape. “When someone says ‘Oh, that is the most beautiful sunset,’ I picture in my head what that sounds like musically.”

Drawn to music at an early age, Rubin always had the idea that classical was her calling.

“I told my teacher that I didn’t want to sing pop music, but I wanted to sing like Christine in Phantom,” Rubin said.

But with musical success came the struggle of finding venues to perform. Wary producers often shied away from the idea of having a blind performer onstage .

“Their vision of blindness is somebody who is fumbling in the dark without their glasses on,” Rubin said.

Rubin’s drive to redefine the perception of blindness is not new. As the first blind bat mitzvah at Valley Beth Shalom in California, Rubin started to accept the role of being a pioneer for people like herself. Rubin’s Jewish identity has played a large role in her musical career. When her friend, Israeli composer Noam Sivan, was tasked with writing a piece for her in 2008, Rubin recalls begging Sivan to write a Hebrew piece of music.

“I really enjoyed singing those Yiddish pieces, those heart-wrenching ones, because I realized that hitting it would also reach out to Jews around the world,” Rubin said of the melodies she sung as a young singer. “It didn’t matter what language, it would be an emotional sort of bonder to a bunch of Jews all over the world.”

According to Rubin, her Jewish identity and connection to Judaism are central to the first few chapters of her book. The book also explores the answers to questions Rubin believes others would ask but are afraid to. The book’s title–“Do You Dream in Color?”–is the question Rubin says she is asked most.

With her book in stores soon and several performances on the horizon, including two concerts in Washington, DC on October 22 at the Kennedy Center and October 23 at the National Endowment for the Arts, Rubin hopes to continue sharing her story with a wider audience.

“There is something about sharing your ideas through music that seems to reach people’s hearts,” Rubin said.

Sherman vs. Berman

by Natalie Buchbinder

For voters in California’s newly redrawn 30th district, the election for a congressional representative has turned into a showdown between Jewish Democrats–with a twist.

Under California’s new top-two finisher primary system, the top two vote-gathering candidates in a race advance regardless of political party affiliation, pitting long-time Representatives Brad Sherman and Howard Berman in a fight for November. Some top Republicans have started to endorse Berman, including Sen. John McCain of Arizona. According to Roll Call, ten more Republicans were slated to announce their support for Berman today.

The new district in Los Angeles County includes a large portion of Sherman’s former 27th district based in Sherman Oaks, a community with a large Jewish population. But the familiar territory advantage may prove insignificant when Sherman faces Berman, who has a far better history of legislative success.  Sherman has maintained  a low profile over his close to 15-year congressional career.

The similarities between the two Jewish candidates are uncanny; both are long-time politicians with law degrees, Berman from University of California, Los Angeles, and Sherman from Harvard Law School. The two share an alma mater, as Sherman attended UCLA as an undergrad.

Berman may have a slight edge in an election where the Jewish vote is being targeted by candidates from various levels of government. Both are pro-Israel, but Berman has been a prominent force in his term as the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs committee. Berman introduced several bills promoting Israeli security and Iranian sanctions, including a bill that would provide American support for Israel’s anti-missile defense system.

But Jewish support may not be the only deciding factor in the predicted tight election. According to data gathered by Survey USA in mid-September, a non-partisan research firm, Sherman leads Berman 45% to 32% in votes.

Moment Wins Religion Newswriter Association Awards

Moment editor Nadine Epstein at the RNA awards ceremony

Saturday night I got to shepp a little nachas when Moment swept the Religion Newswriters Association awards ceremony, winning first place for Overall Excellence as well as three other honors.

In addition to the award for overall excellence, the magazine won first place for graphics with its Ten Commandments 2.0 Symposium. The illustration was created by uber-talented designer Navid Marvi, who also won third place for design and layout with a detailed photo essay on Jews in Iran.

Editor and publisher Nadine Epstein won an award for her 2011 investigation, The Other Rosenbergs, which recounted the never-before-told story of two innocent Jewish engineers who lost their jobs at the U.S. Army Signal Corps at Fort Monmouth, N.J. after the arrest of Julius Rosenberg because their last names were Rosenberg. The story was funded by the Fund for Investigative Journalism.

What a great start to the New Year!

Reclaiming a Symbol of Destruction, Lawful or Not

by Natalie Buchbinder

It’s tough to make a horrific event that happened over 70 years ago relevant to young people.

It’s the struggle that Holocaust museums and March of the Living tours to concentration camps have attempted to address. A recent New York Times article profiled young Israelis who have found a way to keep the Holocaust alive, tattooing the numbers of their survivor grandparents on their young forearms.

Eli Sagir, 21, was inspired to get a tattoo of her grandfather’s number, 157622, after a high school trip to Poland. Her brother, mother, and most recently her uncle have followed Sagir’s lead and had the same done to their own arms.

“All my generation knows nothing about the Holocaust,” Sagir told The New York Times. “They think it’s like the Exodus from Egypt, ancient history.”

To some, the act of tattooing is a reclamation of an act of victimization. During the Holocaust, millions of Jews were crudely branded and tattooed as a symbol of Nazi ownership, a filing system of lives. Hopes, dreams, achievements, family were all erased in favor of a new identity. According to The New York Times, some survivors consider the tattoo a medal of valor, signifying their survival through harsh camp conditions. Only those selected for work at Auschwitz and Birkenau were branded with the numbers. Tattooing the number of a loved one in takes takes the sense of ownership and spins it in a positive way.

But the reclamation of the practice is not entirely kosher. “You shall not etch a tattoo on yourselves,” commands the Bible in Leviticus 19:28, as translated by Chabad. The Torah and Jewish law forbid any activity that alters the body, a supposed recreation of God’s image. According to the laws of Rambam, tattooing falls under the category of idolatry, one of the highest sins in Jewish culture.

“Torah clearly forbids tattooing and self-cutting as ways of mourning or memorializing,” Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan of Or Shalom Synagogue in Vancouver, Canada told Moment in 2009, in the “Ask the Rabbis” section.  “However, Torah also implies that piercing can be opportunities for good or bad. The Israelite men donated their earrings to build the golden calf, but the Israelite women donated theirs to build the mishkan (Sanctuary).”

While it is unlikely that rabbis will be hosting tattoo parlor minyans anytime soon, the practice is slowly shedding its taboo in younger generations. The Conservative branch of Judaism discourages, but does not ban the practice. Tattoo restrictions are still covered under Jewish law, but do not eliminate a person’s burial in a Jewish cemetery; bubbes or Jewish mothers often preach and perpetuate this misconception in an attempt to squelch their daughter’s hopes of forever etching the name of a fleeting boyfriend, or better yet, a Jewish symbol, on her body.

The topic was re-opened briefly last year in London, when heavily tattooed (and taboo for unrelated reasons) singer Amy Winehouse was buried without incident in the city’s Jewish cemetery.

Tattoos are becoming an increasingly widespread phenomenon among American youth. According to data maintained by the Pew Research Center, 36% of 18-25 year olds and 40% of 26-40 year olds had at least one tattoo as of 2007. Tattoos are more prevalent than having a piercing on a place other than the earlobes, with 30% and 22% in those respective populations.

The number of Holocaust survivors declines each day. When the last person who experienced the terror firsthand no longer is among us, we will lose our connection to a historical event that is so unfathomable that future generations may have a hard time understanding how such a thing could happen. Sagir and others’ action against Jewish tradition will bridge the gap between history and reality for a few moments longer, so that the Holocaust is not just another page in a history textbook. It is real, and it is relevant.

Sukkahs Yet to Make Appearance in Campaign Videos

The new election-year video making the online rounds features Samuel L. Jackson exhorting less-than-active Obama supporters to “wake the f*** up,” and is sponsored by the Jewish Council for Education and Research. Based on the famously suave–and often profane–Jackson’s audio book version of Adam Mansbach’s tongue-in-cheek children’s book “Go the F*** to Sleep,” the video, which isn’t explicitly (or even implicitly) Jewish, enumerates Romney’s flaws and Obama’s successes. Meanwhile, the Republican Jewish Coalition has produced a new video of its own, focusing on the relationship between the U.S. and Israel.