Tag Archives: Jews

Jews With Better Food?

by Daniela Enriquez

Have you ever wondered if you have Italian Jewish roots? Or, do you think you have an Italian Jewish last name? You may be right. In spite of the fact that 90 percent of Italians are Catholic, much of the remaining 10 percent is Jewish.

In fact, many Italian Catholics have Jewish genetic markers of which they are unaware.

According to some historical studies, 50 percent of the population of Sicily and Calabria (two southern Italian regions) were Jewish before the Inquisition. Those Jews were Sephardi, and connected with the Spanish and North African communities. During the Inquisition, some families left these regions of southern Italy and moved to northern Italy and other countries, including Greece and some Islamic countries. Others were forced to convert to Christianity and thus became anusim, the Hebrew term for forced converts.

Today, many Italians living in Italy and in the U.S. are interested in rediscovering their Jewish heritage, which they can do with the aid of research centers specializing in tracing genes through DNA sequencing.

Rabbi Barbara Aiello, the first Italian woman rabbi, learned about her Italian Jewish heritage as a teenager. At the age of 28, Aiello visited Calabria and started to document her Jewish history and heritage. In 2006, she organized a conference in New York to help families in search of their own multi-ethnic heritage. During the conference, families were provided with information about DNA testing and archeological documentation of the Jewish presence in Italy. According to Aiello, there are about 26 million Italian Americans in the U.S., 80 percent of whom came from Sicily and Calabria. If it is true that, prior to the Inquisition, 50 percent of “Siciliani” and “Calabresi” were Jews, then it is possible that up to 80 percent of Italian-Americans have Jewish markers somewhere in their DNA, says Aiello.

Given Italy’s location at the heart of the Mediterranean, it shouldn’t be surprising that some studies have also linked Italians not only to Jews but also to other neighboring populations, including the Druze, Bedouins and even Palestinians.

So if you’re an Italian and want to find out about the possibility of your own Jewish origins, don’t be surprised if, in the course of your research, you discover a Bedouin great-grandfather you never knew about.

For more on the genetic links between Catholics and Jews, check out the July/August issue of Moment.

The Haredi PR Problem: Bad For (All) The Jews

by Ezer Smith

There has been some outrage recently over an Orthodox custom known as metzitzah b’peh, and justifiably so: The custom, during which the mohel sucks blood out of the circumcision wound with his mouth, has caused 11 cases of genital herpes in newborn boys since 2005. Two have died, and according to the New York City Department of Mental Health and Hygiene, some “became seriously ill” and others “developed brain damage.” This has prompted reactions from all areas of the journalistic and intellectual spectrum: Publications such as The Huffington Post and The Daily Beast have carried articles; Cantor Philip L. Sherman (a mohel) has included a short F.A.Q. about it on his website; Christopher Hitchens condemned it with his usual brand of anti-religion vitriol; and Rabbi David Niederman of the United Jewish Organization in Brooklyn has defended it, staunchly and vigorously.

What has been left out of the discussion is the effect this sort of thing has on the Jewish community, particularly in New York City, but elsewhere as well. And by “this sort of thing,” I mean, in addition to this most recent episode of bad press, the now well-publicized tendency of Haredim in New York City to underreport (if at all) accounts of child molestation and sexual assault within their community. I mean the anti-Internet protests held by this same group of Haredim that filled a baseball stadium.

I realize that there are two sides to every debate: the Internet really can be corrosive and disgusting; metzitzah b’peh is a 5,000-year-old tradition; and the molestation issue can be satisfied with Jewish law and custom. These arguments, particularly the latter two, may sound hollow and even morally repugnant, but they are arguments nonetheless. They are a necessary part of any conversation about the issue; self-righteousness and ethical bombast, from either side, won’t solve anything. But many Haredim don’t seem to be concerned with ‘debate,’ much less respecting anyone else’s opinion. They believe that they are a sacred community, bound together by God’s sacred word, and that this entitles them to whatever societal system they want to use. I think the logic goes: “American society and the American political system cannot exist forever, but God, and God’s commandments, will.”

My usual response to opinions like these is to throw my hands up and walk away. If people hold to their views that relentlessly, there can be no hope for reconciliation. This case is an exception, however. The ultra-Orthodox are no isolated group: they are Jews, and Jews come in all shapes, sizes, colors, personalities and ideologies. Whether they like it or not, at some level, these Haredim are lumped together with all the Reform, Conservative, Recontructionist, Sephardic, Humanistic and secular Jews the world over. This is what worries me: anything the Haredim do is tossed into the general category of ‘Jewish.’

At first blush, this may seem a bit selfish, and it is true that this problem does hold personal implications for me. At some level, as someone who defines “Jew” as “anyone who defines themselves as a Jew,” I really care for the Haredim. They are, for better or for worse, my brethren, my family. More than that, I think that they provide a unique perspective on Judaism and on life in general, one that must be considered. To marginalize or dismiss Haredi Jews is to do the same to their outlook, outdated and irrelevant as it may seem. I am for a Jewish tradition that welcomes all opinions, so as to let its members decide, after careful consideration, which one(s) suit them best.

This brings me to the problem of image as it relates to the broader Jewish community. Serious Orthodox Jews have never attempted to market themselves, and why should they? They have no dearth of new members: the birth rate per woman for Haredi Jews is around 6.5, comparable to that of Afghanistan. (The U.S. national rate, meanwhile, is about 2.1.) But a new report from the UJA-New York shows an interesting and perhaps troubling trend: Like the American political system, the Jewish population is expanding at its ideological edges. Secular and highly Orthodox Jews were the only groups that grew in population; all others declined.

The risk in these new numbers is clear: an increase in population in the two groups most at odds with each other means a growing split within the larger Jewish community. I have watched with growing consternation as the New York City Haredi community has blundered its way through these most recent incidents, and I’m sure many of my Jewish friends feel the same way. Most of the Jews I know would say they identify more with the principles of liberalism and fairness than those of Talmudic law; in fact, the two are not so different. It’s time for both groups, the secular Jews and the Haredim, to open lines of dialogue with each other about contemporary Jewish issues, because if they do not, we, as a Jewish community, risk a complete split. That would not be good for the Haredim, and that would not be good for the Jews.

Are We Past Passing?

by Julia Glauberman

“I’ll do it… I’ll be the Gentile, because I could pass best,” says the narrator of Nathan Englander’s recent short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank.” This declaration comes as Englander’s characters are engaged in a game they blithely refer to as the Anne Frank game, the Righteous Gentile game, or, most bluntly, Who Will Hide Me? But it quickly becomes clear that it isn’t really a game; these characters are, in seriousness, mulling the benefits of passing.

The term “pass,” popularized by Nella Larson’s 1929 novel Passing, is often used to describe racial, ethnic or religious misrepresentation. Passing relies heavily on the existence of prevalent notions regarding fixed identities. Such static impressions of identity largely explain why we’re always so surprised to learn of a celebrity’s newly revealed Jewish roots or discover that someone we had always assumed was Jewish is not. Yet as Englander’s characters’ preoccupation with survival suggests, this issue has much deeper roots. The matter of passing or masking (the latter term suggesting a more deliberate act and one that sometimes carries a more negative connotation) is a theme that has emerged time and again throughout the course of Jewish history.

Over the years, masking has often served Jews well. In Nazi Germany, concealing one’s Jewish identity could be the difference between life and death. In the landmark graphic novel Maus, Art Spiegelman chronicles his parents’ survival through the Holocaust, much of which depended upon masking, an act Spiegelman depicts by giving characters physical masks. Closer to home, hiding Jewish roots could be a means of avoiding discrimination in a number of spheres including employment, housing and social clubs, a lesson Gregory Peck taught us clearly in Elia Kazan’s classic 1947 film Gentleman’s Agreement, in which Peck a reporter who posed as a Jew to investigate anti-Semitism. Laura E. Weber’s 1991 case study of economic discrimination against Jews in Minnesota between the years 1920 and 1950 provides a fascinating in-depth look at the kinds of issues that arose from these types of inequities in recent history. In particular, Weber notes that such discrimination, including the near-total exclusion of Jews from all major industries, was generally unsurprising to Jews because of similar experiences before emigration from Europe.

Masking certainly isn’t a modern development. In the Middle Ages, the Spanish Inquisition was undoubtedly a cause for widespread masking in addition to the intended conversions (a number of descendants of conversos have recently returned to Judaism publicly). Even further in the past, there are quite a few examples of biblical figures concealing their religion: Esther, Joseph and Moses all hide their Jewishness for political or strategic reasons until the time came when revealing their faith seemed to be the only remaining option.

Over the course of Jewish history the narrative of passing has evolved. Earlier stories of passing hinged on revealing Jewish identity as a means of mass survival, but more recently it seems that masking Jewish identity has been employed as a means of individual survival. We now live in an era of pluralism, in which many classes of discrimination have been outlawed, but with such a strong history of concealing religious identity, can Jews give up passing and masking entirely?

The Other Jewish Comics

by Kelley Kidd

With the new influx of superheroes and comic book characters into film, what was formerly a somewhat niche genre has become mainstream. On opening weekend, The Avengers made $207,438,708 in the US alone. (That’s a lot—the massively popular The Hunger Games came in at $152,535,747 its opening weekend.) There may not, at first glance, seem to be anything Jewish about the characters that populate superhero movies. But, not only do “comic book superheroes…disguise themselves to save the world,” according to former Marvel group editor Danny Fingeroth, “they also disguise their Jewish heritage and values.” The superhero trope owes much to Judaism and the Jewish authors who have created many of the comic book world’s enduring figures: Captain America, for example, is intended to be a super-soldier to fight the Nazis, and X-Men’s Magneto discovers his powers as his parents are torn from him in a concentration camp.

This month, Washington, DC’s Theater J will produce The History of Invulnerability, a play that explores the development of the Superman story by looking at the struggles Jewish author Jerry Siegel faced while producing the work. Playwright David Bar Kats “doesn’t pull any punches with the brutality of the era,” using the play to reflect the emotional struggle faced by Siegel during his life and creative process, and by humanity during the period prior to America’s entrance into World War II. In the words of one reviewer, “the fantastic stories of Superman swirl with moments of Siegel’s own life and tales of Jews at Auschwitz during World War II” to illustrate that American Jews created superheroes like Superman to conquer their own sense of vulnerability.

Siegel was not alone in this effort—there are books and books written on the role of Judaism in the comic book industry, not only in the cases of Superman, Captain America, and X-Men, but also Batman, Spider-Man, the Justice League, the Hulk and the Fantastic Four. So why have Jews turned to these characters? Superman helped Jews feel more empowered in the face of absolute vulnerability, and others reflect the importance of Jewish ideals like social justice. Captain America, created by two Jewish authors, was a scrawny outcast, the outsider looked down upon until he is scientifically enhanced to be a Super-soldier, building American morale and combating Nazi Germany. On the cover of one of the original Captain America comics, he is even depicted literally punching Hitler in the face. Following World War II, his popularity dwindled until he re-emerged in the 1960s—his story picked back up with the discovery of his body, frozen since World War II. Having been estranged from life as he knew it, he becomes a character lost in a new era and “haunted by past memories, and struggling to fit into 1960s society, which was much like the sentiments of many Holocaust survivors.” He was both a source of hope for those who felt like outsiders, as well as someone to whom Jews could relate in the years after the Holocaust.

Similarly, the Fantastic Four, written by Jewish author Stan Lee and published by Martin Goodman, exhibited sentiments familiar to Jewish Americans. A crime-fighting team of superheroes, the Fantastic Four included a character named Benjamin Grimm whose exposure to radiation transformed him into “a grotesque, scaly-hided strongman dubbed the Thing.” His struggles with his appearance, and the resulting ostracism and insecurity, led him to separate from the Four and go in search of reconciliation and his own sense of identity. His struggles represented the challenges of living as a minority in the 1960s, and the need for “others” to develop “thick skin” in order to make it in an often intolerant world.

Like all popular culture, the comic book serves both as a mirror to reflect and a tool to shape society and self, an avenue explored by Jewish authors to express their frustrations with intolerance and anti-Semitism, to show the world both the experience of the “other,” and to establish a rallying point and a sense of self.

The Rise of Jews in the True North

By Scott Fox

Last week, Canada’s Consul General came to talk at my school (Carleton College in Minnesota) about the importance of the United States’ relationship with Canada. But what actually came across was a recruitment speech for joining our Northern neighbor. To tell the truth, I was nearly convinced as he mentioned the country’s comparatively low national unemployment (around six percent), government-provided healthcare for all and its drive for new immigrants.

I’m not the only American looking to Canada for a brighter future. In 2007, the number of American citizens moving to Canada reached its highest rate in 30 years—and the numbers have only been climbing since.

But what does Canada offer Jews? If you’re a Canada-curious American Jew thinking of heading North, don’t worry aboot the lack of Canadian yiddishkeit. Even though they’re usually overlooked, Canadian Jews have a rich culture and history in North America just like their American counterparts. In fact, Canada is home to the fourth largest Jewish population in the world, only standing behind the United States, Israel and France.

Around 375,000 Jews live in Canada—just over one percent of the national population—and are concentrated in the Toronto and Montreal metropolitan areas. And according to writer Jonathan Rosenblum, 74 percent of Canadian Jews have visited Israel—twice the rate of American Jews.

Canadian Jews experienced a somewhat parallel history as their American counterparts. Jews first came to Canada in large numbers between 1880 and 1930 from Eastern Europe. Most settled in Montreal, but rising Jewish immigration also led to rising anti-Semitism. The city’s French Catholic leadership supported discrimination against Jews in housing and employment, and a homegrown French Nazi movement also flourished in the 1930s. However, after World War II, anti-Semitism declined, and during the Quebec separatist movement of the 1970s, most Jews left for Toronto due to their strong opposition to the movement.

In the realm of entertainment, Jews have been as prolific in Canada as in the United States. Recording artist and actor Drake, one of Canada’s biggest stars, identifies as Jewish, attended Jewish day school and had a bar mitzvah. “My mother is Jewish and we have great Jewish dinners on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur,” he says.

The most popular sitcom in Canadian history was “King of Kensington,” which starred the late Al Waxman, who was born in Toronto to Jewish immigrants from Poland. Leonard Cohen, whose grandfather was the founding president of the Canadian Jewish Congress, is the Canuck answer to Bob Dylan. And of course the greatest Canadian entertainer of all is Jewish William Shatner.

And much of what we consider American-Jewish humor is actually Canadian-Jewish. Lome Michaels, Eugene Levy and Seth Rogen are among other funny makers who grew up in Canada. Rogen, whose parents met at an Israeli kibbutz, was born in Vancouver and got his start by performing stand-up routines at bar mitzvahs. His early jokes usually revolved around his Jewish upbringing. His hit film, Superbad, was co-written with Evan Goldberg, a friend Rogen met in bar mitzvah class. In another movie, Funny People, Rogen even wears a “Super Jew” t-shirt that has the Superman “S” inside a Star of David. Canadian literature also has its own major Jewish writer, Mordecai Richler, a foulmouthed version of Saul Bellow and Phillip Roth wrapped into Tim Horton’s pancake.

Becoming Canadian wouldn’t even mean shifting your taste buds that much. Like American Jews, Canadian Jews love deli food, but with French-inspired touches. Montreal-style bagels are smaller, sweeter, denser and have a larger hole than traditional New York bagels. Deli meat is also smoked Montreal-style with less sugar and more peppercorns and coriander than American salted, cured meats.

Hearing about the exciting world of Canadian Jewry almost makes me want to say, “Next year in Mississauga!” But I don’t think I can handle the Montreal-style bagel.

Egypt on the Edge

By Adina Rosenthal

Tensions in the Middle East have sadly reached a familiar high.  Recently, Gaza militants ambushed Israeli vehicles in southern Israel near Eilat, killing eight people in the deadliest attack in three years. In addition to this premeditated act of terrorism, militants launched more than 150 rockets and mortars into Israel—despite a ceasefire—killing one, injuring scores of civilians and inciting panic throughout southern Israel.

While such hostilities at the hands of terrorists are a tragedy, unfortunately, they are not an anomaly. When news breaks concerning violence against Israelis, the word “Gaza” usually seems to follow closely behind. Despite the recent events being perpetrated by Gaza militants, the backdrop behind the atrocities should also raise some eyebrows.

Despite the difficulty in entering a heavily guarded Israel, the Gaza militants were able to travel through a lax Egyptian border to commit their atrocities. In 1979, Egyptian President Anwar El Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin signed a peace treaty, thereby ending the war that had existed between the two nations since Israel’s inception in 1948. Though a cool peace, the treaty has kept tensions between Egypt and Israel relatively quiet for three decades.

But since Hosni Mubarak’s ouster from office last February, much has changed in the discourse between Egypt and Israel. Over the last six months, there have been five separate attacks on the Egyptian-Israeli natural gas pipeline compared to “zero successful attacks” since the pipeline opened in 2008. Such actions have deprived Israel of gas and Egypt of foreign currency. Last June, Egypt lifted its four-year blockade on Gaza, which arguably contributed to the terrorists’ ease in committing last Thursday’s attacks. Moreover, such a political move may even highlight a shift in Egyptian policy and power, according to Evelyn Gordon in the Jerusalem Post Magazine, as the “cross-border attack took place in broad daylight, right in front of an Egyptian army outpost, without the soldiers lifting a finger to stop it.” Such inaction is particularly surprising, as the violence also resulted in the deaths of Egyptian soldiers. As Gordon also points out, “The Egyptian border policemen on patrol whom Israeli troops allegedly killed in their effort to repulse the terrorists were also clearly at the scene; otherwise, they wouldn’t have been in the line of fire. Yet they, too, did nothing to stop it from happening.”

Although last week’s attacks were clearly initiated by Gaza terrorists, Egypt blamed Israel for the deaths of its border policemen and demanded an apology. According to Haaretz, the IDF stated that its soldiers had “returned fire ‘at the source of the gunfire’ that had been aimed at Israeli soldiers and civilians from the area of an Egyptian position on the border…and at least some of the Egyptian soldiers were killed by the [Popular Resistance Committee’s] terrorists’ gunfire and bombs.” Though Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak immediately apologized after the attacks, adding that they “demonstrate the weakening of Egypt’s control over the Sinai Peninsula and the expansion of terrorist activity there,” Egyptians were not satisfied and popular sentiment amongst Egyptian quickly became apparent. Angry Egyptians responded with protests outside of the Israeli Embassy in Cairo, which included the “Egyptian Spiderman” scaling the 21-story building to take down the Israeli flag. The Egyptian government also threatened to recall their ambassador to Israel, though they later revoked their decision.

Clearly, tensions between Egypt and Israel are high, and a shaky relationship has become even more precarious. Such contention not only affects Israeli concerns with hostile Palestinian neighbors. Now, Israelis realize that their relationship with Egypt has changed in a post-Mubarak era, with popular sentiment growing more vocal and antagonistic against the Jewish state and, subsequently, a future Egyptian government reevaluating peace with Israel.

With tensions mounting daily and popular sentiment coming to a forefront, how can relations between the two states remain cordial?

According to Wafik Dawood, director of institutional sales at Cairo-based Mega Investments Securities, Egypt’s stocks fell to the lowest in two weeks as “The negative global backdrop and the killings on the Israeli border’ are driving shares lower…The main fear is the escalation.” Even more worrisome for Egyptians should be that there has been talk in Washington about cutting the $2 billion in their annual aid if the country backs out of its peace treaty with Israel. As Congresswoman Kay Granger, Chairwoman of the U.S. House Appropriations Foreign Operations subcommittee told the Jerusalem Post, “The United States aid to Egypt is predicated on the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, and so the relationship between Egypt and Israel is extremely important.”

If the mutual interest of keeping peace walks, the hope remains that money talks.

In or Out of the Jewish Clubhouse?

by Theodore Samets

“Of the roughly 17,000 guys who’ve played professional baseball, precious few are Jews.”

That was how Scott Barancik, editor of Jewish Baseball News, framed the debate in the New York Times over whether to welcome Ralph Branca to the rather small club of Jewish ballplayers.

Not everyone agrees with Barancik, who argues that the revelation that Branca’s mother converted from Judaism to Catholicism is evidence enough for Jewish sports fans (a group far larger than professional Jewish athletes, it would seem) to claim Branca, a pitcher most famous not for something he did right, but for something he did wrong.

On Oct. 3, 1951, Branca, pitching in relief for the Brooklyn Dodgers, gave up a game- and series-ending three-run home run to New York Giants outfielder Bobby Thompson. The moment became known as the “shot heard ‘round the world.” The Giants went on to the World Series, and the Dodgers went home for the winter.

It’s an iconic moment in baseball – most baseball fans know at least part of the story – and clips of the home run are replayed every October, alongside footage of Carlton Fisk waving for his home run to stay fair in game six of the 1975 World Series and Bill Mazeroski’s walk off home run in game seven of the 1960 World Series.

For fans on the winning side, these moments are relished for generations. They still hurt for many of the losing fans, and the players associated with these moments often never reclaim any pretense of greatness.

So why would Jews even want to claim Branca as one of their own?

Barancik certainly has an argument – we only have so many Jewish players; every addition counts.

But for a player who caused nightmares for so many Jews (the Brooklyn Dodgers had a disproportionately Jewish fan base), wouldn’t it be better to just forget that Branca has a Jewish past?

That seems to be what’s behind Alan Dershowitz’s conviction. The expert in everything Jewish, including – it seems – the 1950s Dodgers, Dershowitz’s strong opinions extend to Branca’s Jewishness:

“Ralph Branca is not a Jew,” said Alan Dershowitz, a Brooklyn-born Dodgers fan, lawyer and Harvard professor. “Whatever the definition, it doesn’t include someone who willingly accepted a different religion. He didn’t stay home on Yom Kippur like Koufax.” (Koufax, of course, knew he was a Jew.)

Dershowitz, in fact, theorized that Branca, to his eyes as a boy, did not pitch “Jewishly.”

Jewishly?

“Koufax altered strength and guile and knew that you pitch for six days and you rest on the seventh,” he said. “Branca was straight-on; you could see there was nothing Jewish about Ralph Branca.”

All respect for Dershowitz aside, the second part of this argument barely makes any sense. Jews aren’t “straight-on” athletes? What about Mike Cammalleri, as straight a shooter as there is for the Montreal Canadiens, or Ken Holtzman, he of the killer fastball, who threw two no-hitters for the Cubs and played a major role on multiple A’s championship teams? As the esteemed lawyer would tell you, however, all that matters is that something sticks, and Dershowitz has one importantpoint: Branca never saw himself as Jewish, didn’t act like a Jew, and was never a Jewish idol like Sandy Koufax, Hank Greenberg, or in more modern days, Shawn Green, a (Los Angeles) Dodger himself who sat out a Giants-Dodgers game of his own when it fell on Yom Kippur.

What is it, after all, that inspires many Jews to assemble lists of their religious brothers and sisters who have succeeded in nearly every field? I’m as guilty as anyone else – I shep naches thinking about Natalie Portman’s success on the silver screen, and appreciate Marc Chagall’s art more than I probably ought to, solely because they’re Jewish. In sports, it’s no different. Given that Jews aren’t generally stereotyped as prodigious athletes, we may be even more likely to idolize those few who have broken through and achieved success. Yet two aspects of Branca’s case make it unique: his infamy and his indentification with a faith besides Judaism.

Neither on their own is a deal breaker. Did we let Bob Dylan off when he temporarily found Christianity? Absolutely not. And infamous folks like Marc Rich? Still as Jewish as ever, helped in part by his support for Birthright.

But when both of these things happen? There’s precedent for the claim that we ought not to add Branca to our rolls. David Berkowitz, a.k.a. the Son of Sam, isn’t a name we see often in Jewish encyclopedias, especially after he was born again.

So when it comes to Branca, it’s a bit of a stretch to welcome him as a Jew, at least until he speaks up and says something about it. For that, we’ll just have to wait for his upcoming autobiography.