Monthly Archives: December 2010

Montreal Bagels Do It Better

by Lily Hoffman Simon

The Mile End neighborhood in Montreal was the heart of the Canadian Jewish immigrant community. The region brought bagels and smoked meat to Canada and beyond, giving new life to Jewish food. The legacy of this Montreal Jewish community is now hitting New York, with the opening of Mile End, a delicatessen in Brooklyn based on the renowned Jewish cuisine of Montreal. The opening of this deli is more than just a tribute to Jewish Canadian roots, however—it also reflects the tendency to turn elements of Diaspora culture into trendy, consumable commodities.

Mile End, the restaurant, is a hot topic among North American Jewry, inspiring mentions in Tablet magazine and The New York Times, among other publications. The Montreal community is excited as well, claiming that the restaurant’s opening marks the validation of the long-asserted opinion that Montreal bagels really are superior to the fluffier Southern alternatives. The deli acknowledges the supremacy of Montreal cuisine and illuminates the essential contributions of the Jewish community to North American culture. It is no news that Jewish pride is based on food, but to what extent? And to what extent is the American recognition of Jewish culture based on the ability to consume culture?

American society is based on consumption and an emphasis on a supposed multi-culturalism. In order to maintain distinct cultural practices in a society that tends towards assimilation, groups are forced to turn their respective cultures into something others around them can understand; overwhelmingly, this happens through the commodification of cultural elements. This makes sense—if North America is based on consumption and capitalism, a cultural experience needs to be something people feel is attractive enough to invest in, which tends to mean buying.  People can bop around in global food markets and stores, producing a sense of cosmopolitanism and international connection through exposure to different kinds of dress and cuisine. The opening of the Mile End deli contributes to this pattern by transforming the traditional Jewish experience of eating smoked meat into a trendy experience. The Mile End neighborhood itself is undergoing the same kind of cultural commodification. The area is now one of the hippest, multi-ethnic regions in Montreal. The roots of Jewish Montreal, culture, and cuisine are slowly being appropriated by consumption-driven cosmopolitanism.

The same logic goes for the way Jews experience other cultures. Take the example of eating Chinese food on Christmas. This North American Jewish tradition offered poor Eastern European immigrants the opportunity to feel worldly not through the mass extravaganza of spending that surrounds Christmas, but instead through cultural (and literal) consumption of exotic Oriental food. Not surprisingly, Mile End restaurant is going to be serving Chinese food this Christmas.

Jewish food has played a huge role in Jewish cultural development, making it a perfect gateway for non-Jews who wish to experience something Jewish. But a Jewish experience and understanding goes deeper than simply eating a bagel with cream cheese and lox. Experiencing a culture should include a deeper understanding of where it came from and how a particular cultural element developed, among other things. A connection to a culture and its true continuity cannot come only from consumption. It must come from real engagement with and understanding of a culture, and how it evolved. Mile End restaurant is perpetuating a superficial connection to Judaism, which has a necessary place—but that alone is not enough for Jewish continuity.

The Jewish View on DADT? Don’t Ask!

By Steven Philp

Today, President Obama fulfilled a campaign promise when he signed the bill repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” (DADT) the 17-year-old policy barring LGBT citizens from coming out while serving in the armed forces. A handful of Jewish groups have supported the effort for repeal, including the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the Anti-Defamation League, and the National Council of Jewish Women. “With today’s vote, Americans may serve without being forced to choose between their commitment to our country and their integrity,” said Rabbi Steve Gutow, the president of the JCPA, in an interview with JTA.

A key sponsor of the bill was Senator Joseph Lieberman (I-CT), who broke his usual Shabbat observance to champion the effort for repeal on the Senate floor. All thirteen Jewish senators voted for repeal, including outspoken LGBT allies Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA).

Yet there have been dissenting voices from within the Jewish community. In a letter posted online, several Orthodox rabbis condemn Sen. Lieberman for his position on DADT. They emphasize that he “does not speak for the Orthodox Jewish” and that his “actions and opinions are his own and not that of the Torah.” Although their claim to represent the entire Orthodox community is similarly circumspect, they raise an important point: not every Jew supports the repeal of DADT. They point to the perceived friction between LGBT rights and conservative orthopraxy.

This statement makes them unlikely allies with a number of military chaplains who worry how the repeal of DADT will affect their job performance. According to an article posted on NPR, a majority of the 3,000 religious professionals in the armed forces are evangelical Christian, a tradition that maintains a conservative interpretation of Biblical passages condemning same-sex sexual relations. “What happens when the chaplain responds according to the dictates of his faith and says that type of behavior—like other types of sexual sins—is not in accordance with God’s will?” asks Daniel Blomberg, an attorney for the conservative legal group Alliance Defense Fund.

Although implementation of the repeal lacks clear guidelines for chaplains, the right to practice their faith as they see fit is protected, says retired Army chaplain Dennis Camp.  However, he emphasized that his former colleagues are not allowed to act like “moral policemen” and openly discriminate against LGBT service people.

This raises salient questions for the handful of Jewish military chaplains, a small but important component of religious life in the armed forces. In contrast to the publicized resistance of their Christian peers, there has been no public dialogue among Jewish military personnel. Those of us in the Jewish community are left wondering where our chaplains stand on the coming change.

On one hand, they are a minority within a larger body that has resisted the repeal of DADT. At the same time, they are called to represent the entire spectrum of Jewish religious practice. Jewish military chaplains are asked to serve soldiers of varying levels of observance; with this in mind, the standard-issue siddur is published jointly by the Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox movements. In turn, our community is divided on the treatment of LGBT citizens in the armed forces. On one side are the Jewish members of Congress who have fought tirelessly for repeal, and their constituent organizations. On the other side are voices from within the Orthodox community who have condemned the Jewish effort for repeal. LGBT Jews in the armed forces have had their cause championed by their senators and representatives; whether they can find support from their chaplains, however, is another question altogether.

Learning the Right Lessons?

By Symi Rom-Rymer

In a recent poll, 30% of Israeli Arabs, out of 700 questioned, don’t believe the Holocaust happened.  As the Associated Press reported earlier this week, Yad Vashem is trying to change that.  The poll’s creator, Sammy Smooha, insists that the high rate of denial has more to do with a repudiation of Israel’s policies than with true Holocaust negation.  But as the article points out, for many Israeli Arabs, accepting the Holocaust is equivalent to acknowledging Jewish claims to Israel.  In an effort to place the issue of the Holocaust within its proper historical framework, rather than within the flashpoint of Middle East politics, the museum is launching a new initiative aimed at Israeli Arabs educators.

This is not the first time that the museum has tried to engage the Israeli Arab community over the Holocaust, but previous efforts suffered from bad timing.  Just as Yad Vashem opened an exhibit on the Muslim rescue of Jews in Bosnia, Israel began its three-week offensive in Gaza.  Anger over the conflict led most potential visitors to boycott the museum and its exhibit.  They are hoping this attempt will be more successful.

There are several aspects about this initiative, however, that are troubling.  First of all, by emphasizing the Holocaust, Yad Vashem’s project plays into the erroneous belief held by many Arabs that Israel exists only because of the Holocaust; that the ties Jews feel to the land of Israel does not go back thousands of years, but rather only 60 years: to the destruction of European Jewry.  Instead, the museum should seek to create a more comprehensive curriculum that places the Holocaust in a larger context that addresses not only the role it played in the establishment of Israel but that also discusses the deeper historical bonds between Jews and Israel.   Moreover, it is not enough to teach the history of the Holocaust and with it, hope that through those lessons Arabs will see their fellow citizens in a different light.   It is unclear how stories of Jewish discrimination and persecution in Europe will engender feelings of sympathy towards Israeli Jews when many Arabs feel discriminated against by the very people with whom they are meant to sympathize.

There is certainly an argument to be made for why Arab students should know about the Holocaust.  To teach them about that era is not only important to understand a crucial era that continues to deeply influence Jews in Israel and around the world but also to allow Arabs to get insight into the Jewish Israeli mindset; to help contextualize their outlook.   It is not enough, however, to insist that Arabs learn about the Holocaust.  In order to foster better relations between Jewish and Arab Israelis, it is similarly critical that Jews learn about the history of their Arab neighbors and gain better insight into their mindset.  One way to do this would be to teach the Nakba, the so-called disaster Arabs associate with the foundation of Israel, which the majority of Jewish schools do not cover.  This should not be presented as an equivalent to the Holocaust, but rather as an acknowledgment of the traumatic Arab experience from the Jewish population and a genuine desire to understand that history and its impact on the current situation.

A few efforts already exist to try and bridge the gap through education but they are small and isolated.  At Kibbutz Lohamei HaGhetaot, a settlement founded by Holocaust survivors and home to the Ghetto Fighter’s Museum, for instance, they’ve launched a course for Jewish and Arab students, a rarity in a country where most education is segregated at an early age (see Moment‘s in-depth feature on Arab Israeli education).  The course involves a year-long study of the Holocaust as well as an additional second year that focuses on the Israeli-Arab experience.  A tandem curriculum such as this would allow students to explore and better understand the other point of view, within the safety of the classroom environment.

Despite the problems outlined above, Yad Vashem’s effort to reach out to Israeli Arabs is a step in the right direction.  The issues it seeks to address are pressing, especially in the wake of reports this week of a swell of support by Israeli Municipal Rabbis for the proposal to ban Jews from renting apartments to gentiles (seen by many as directed specifically at Arabs).   The ban and its supporters only further highlight the obstacles the museum faces as it seeks to overcome the distrust that often seems insurmountable.   While Yad Vashem’s latest undertaking is not perfect, at least it is seeking to build a bridge between two communities that live side-by-side, yet in vastly different worlds. Perhaps with the right approach and care, this project can begin to make those vastly different worlds feel ever so slightly closer together.

Play Hard, Pray Harder

By Gabriel Weinstein

Just two years after leaving the University of Florida facing charges of larceny and theft Auburn University quarterback Cameron Newton was full of gratitude winning the Heisman Trophy. Though Newton thanked his parents, coaches and teammates, he opened his speech thanking someone who has never helped him ice sore muscles or analyze a blitz–God.  He proclaimed: “First giving all the honor and glory to God, who is the head of my life. Without him we would not even be here right now. Thank you for that.”

The number of athletes publicly proclaiming their faith has ballooned over the past 50 years through the establishment of sports ministry organizations such as Athletes in Action and Fellowship of Christian Athletes. These ministry organizations have made religious expression more socially acceptable in the locker room and on the playing field. According to former San Francisco 49ers and San Francisco Giants team chaplain Pat Richie, sports ministry organizations encourage athletes to publicly proclaim their Christianity. Since sports ministries became a major force in collegiate and professional sports they’ve had mixed success in creating religious sentiment both tolerant and respectful of Christian and non-Christian individuals.

One notable example is Bill McCartney, who transformed the University of Colorado football team from a perennial cellar dweller to a vaunted national power between 1982 and 1994. Though McCartney guided the Buffaloes to a share of the 1990 national championship, his tenure was marred by scandals surrounding his evangelical Christian beliefs. Player complaints about McCartney coordinating religious activities forced administrators in 1985 to create a university policy outlawing coaches from organizing team prayers or Bible study sessions.  In 1990, McCartney filled the 50,000-seat football stadium with members of his all male Promise Keepers ministry. Critics accused Promise Keepers of promoting a misogynistic agenda. In 1992, McCartney labeled homosexuality an “abomination against almighty God” from a university podium (he’s since apologized for his comments).  When McCartney surfaced as a candidate for the position of Colorado’s head football coach a few weeks ago, professors sent protest letters to the university’s chancellor.

The Washington Nationals were thrust into the center of the faith and sports debate in 2005 when a Washington Post article described how team chaplain Jon Moeller, who gathered the teams for prayer and distributed religious pamphlet, told one player that all Jews go to hell.  Local rabbis seethed at Moeller’s statement and put pressure on team officials to discipline Moeller.

While the Nationals’ attempt to promote religious expression proved a blunder, the Colorado Rockies managed to create a religious environment comfortable for Christians and non-Christians alike during the 2007 season. The previous season the Rockies had gained a reputation as an organization with a strong Christian culture after USA Today published an article describing the religious zeal of players and club executives. About 10 players on the Rockies’ 25-man active roster that season regularly attended Sunday chapel. The evangelical presence on the 2007 Rockies did not stifle or alienate other players. Jason Hirsh, a Jewish pitcher who was with the Rockies that season, said in a New York Times article that the Rockies’ religious players didn’t “impress it upon anybody”.

Professional football players have faced similar problems in their relationship with Christianity and football.  Former NFL player Anthony Prior resents Christianity’s presence in professional football. According to Prior, Christianity is used as a vehicle to breed a culture of submission among players, particularly African-American players. Prior said that during training camp players in danger of getting cut carried around Bibles to impress management. Once players secured roster spots, they stopped carrying Bibles. Former tight end Esera Tuaolo said that during his season with the Jacksonville Jaguars there was a major rift between members of the Champions for Christ ministry and the rest of the team.

While Prior is skeptical about Christianity’s presence in professional sports, chaplains state their purpose is to help religious players achieve spiritual nirvana, not conduct outreach with non-Christian players. Ritchie said that the ultimate reason chaplains work with professional teams is because “Most teams want to have their players’ needs met.”

Though Christianity’s presence on the athletic field has been met with mixed reactions, it seems primed to remain a major factor in high profile athletics. The massive presence of ministerial organizations on campuses combined with the presence of several high profile Christian athletes will continue to make Christianity popular among elite athletes. But the greatest challenge for these divinely inspired athletes will be creating a tolerant environment for players of all religious practices and levels of faith.


Israel’s Other Refugee Problem

by Daniel Kieval

On Monday night, a few days after thousands marched for human rights in Tel Aviv, Israel deported about 150 refugees back to their country of origin, Sudan. Israel has said that all of the people involved are leaving voluntarily, that it has ensured they will be returning to a safe environment, and that it is providing each family with $500 to help them readjust to life in Sudan. Still, the action is likely to draw criticism from human rights advocates, especially coming just two weeks after the government announced plans for a new detention center for illegal border-crossers in southern Israel. It is the latest event in a saga that is now several years old, in which Israel has struggled with the economic and social consequences of accepting Sudanese refugees and the ethical consequences of not accepting them.

Over 2 million Sudanese have fled north to Egypt since the genocide in Darfur began in 2003. Even there, however, many have faced harsh conditions, discrimination, and violence from Egyptian citizens and authorities, leading thousands to seek asylum a second time in Israel. While Israel has accepted some refugees (about 1,200 Darfuris currently live in Israel, according to the Jewish Virtual Library), many others have been deported, detained, or chased back across the border where they are shot or arrested by Egyptian border police.

Israel has many good reasons to be strict about whom it allows over its borders. The Darfur refugees are only a portion of the thousands of African migrants who try to enter Israel, many for economic reasons. As in any country, and especially in such a small one already full of demographic tensions, immigration can put stress on economic, social, and political systems if not handled carefully and systematically.  Moreover, Israel certainly seems justified in arguing that the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, which is officially responsible for supporting refugees and finding them a permanent home, should do more to resolve the issue rather than leaving it to Israel, especially since other countries have repeatedly rejected Israel’s requests to take in some of the refugees. Add to this list the importance of Israel’s borders for national security and the fact that Sudan is officially classified as an “enemy state” because it harbors terrorists, and Israel seems to have plenty of reasonable justification for its strictness toward the refugees.

Yet for many, these justifications do not override the moral imperative to help Darfur’s victims. A country whose very founding was meant, in part, to provide a safe haven for victims of genocide and whose Law of Return permanently engraves its status as such a haven for anyone with a Jewish ancestor might do well to remember its foundational principles in a situation like this one. It is true that Israel only finds itself in this situation because several other parties have not tried hard enough to mitigate it—the UNHCR, Egypt, and other nearby countries, to say nothing of Sudan itself. It may also be true that managing the refugees would be very difficult for Israel (when is a refugee situation easy?).

Perhaps, though, it is precisely because no one else seems willing to that Israel should step into the role of safe haven for Darfur’s victims. To truly be a Jewish state, Israel must embody Jewish values even when they run counter to international trends. In Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) it is written, “In a place with no worthy persons, strive to be a worthy person.” As the state of a people who have spent more than their fair share of time as refugees in search of a haven, Israel has even more reason to be that “worthy person.”


Bridging the Gender Gap in Prayer – Sort Of

By Lily Hoffman Simon

The patriarchal tradition of Orthodox Judaism is being challenged all over the world. The recent controversy surrounding the ordainment of Sara Hurwitz as the first female Orthodox rabba (see Moment’s cover story) indicates the extent of this gender revolution. One recent development in the struggle is the birth of what are known as partnership minyans, which bring together males and females for synagogue services. Yet despite its progressive nature, its gender-equitable approach reinforces the presence of gender equality in orthodox circles.

A minyan in Jewish tradition refers to the number of Jewish adults necessary to conduct Jewish ritual, such as prayer or service. Traditionally, this quorum is set at 10 Jewish males of Bar-Mitzvah age. While Reform congregations and many Conservative ones tend to include women in this count, Orthodox Judaism has continued to restrict women from being included. As a result, women have been considered secondary in religious services, and are also restricted from performing other ritual tasks, such as reading from the Torah, or leading prayer. In Orthodox synagogues, and still in numerous Conservative communities, women and men sit in segregation from each other, separated by a mechitza. Often the women are seated on a balcony on second floor of a synagogue. The bima, or stage, of the service is usually placed on the male side of the mechitza, or downstairs, and as a result, women lack a clear view of, or ability to participate in, the service.

The inaccessibility facing women in a traditional Orthodox service has prompted a response by Orthodox feminists, especially through the work of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance.  A solution proposed is what is called a ‘partnership minyan.’  This minyan necessitates 10 men and 10 women to be present in order to meet quorum, a development that acknowledges the importance of women while conforming with the halachic rule necessitating 10 men. Although services implementing this minyan are still gender segregated by a mechitza, the bima is usually centered before it, enabling clear sight of the service for both men and women. Women are allowed to read from the Torah, receive aliyot, and lead some parts of the prayer service.

By promoting gender equity in services, this development is a breakthrough for gender relations and representation in Orthodox Judaism.  Congregations using this model are springing up all over the US, and even in the old city of Jerusalem (like the Shira Hadasha congregation–see Moment’s interview with its founder, Tova Hartman). Much of the motivation behind these communities comes from the idea that hiding or silencing the voices representing community demographics is equivalent to lying before G-d, which is an abomination–especially during prayer. By extending the accessibility of service participation to women, partnership minyans are acknowledging traditional guidelines, yet adapting them to fit modern feminist and egalitarian principles, which are slowly infiltrating established practice of Judaism.

Although partnership minyans support gender equity both in representation and participation, they are still based on an assumed distinction between men and women. The continued use of a mechitza during services perpetuates the idea that the interaction between men and women during services is impure, leading to distracting sexual thoughts. This conception not only reinforces heterosexuality as the norm, but also tends to objectify the members of the opposite gender as merely sexual images; a concept usually applied more to women.  By reinforcing these ideas, men and women remain distinct from each other, and not necessarily equal. There is also no place for transgendered individuals (who identify as a different gender than their biological sex or do not identify with either side of the gender dichotomy) in this scheme (see Joy Ladin’s account about her transgendered experience at the Western Wall).

The remaining challenges beg the question of whether some streams of Orthodox Judaism are truly moving toward creating gender equality or simply reinforce traditional conceptions of gender. Partnership minyans represent one attempt to fundamentally shift the foundations of Orthodox patriarchy, by adapting Halacha to encourage gender equity. As our society’s conceptions of gender continues to change, patriarchal Orthodox institutions will face new and different challenges on its gender journey.

Who’s Afraid of Nixon’s Anti-Semitism?

By Steven Philp

As governments process the information illicitly made public by Wikileaks, the legal release of conversations recorded during the Nixon administration may seem irrelevant.  Many of the recorded conversations released this week by The Nixon Presidential Library and Museum were recorded shortly before the Watergate scandal. Yet these tapes have come to public attention for their racist and anti-Semitic content.

According to The New York Times, after a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir in 1973, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger told President Richard Nixon that if the Soviet Union sent its Jewish citizens to the gas chambers, it would not be an American concern.  Responding to Meir’s request that the United States pressure the Soviet government to allow the emigration of Russian Jews, Kissinger says, “The emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union is not an objective of American foreign policy.” He continues, “And if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian concern.” Nixon agrees with Kissinger, stating, “We can’t blow up the world because of it.”

Although the anti-Semitism of the Nixon administration has been touched upon in earlier recordings and documents, this set of tapes makes the President’s relationship with the Jewish community more explicit. For example, in a conversation on February 13, 1973 Nixon tells his senior advisor Chalres W. Colson that “the Jews are just a very aggressive and abrasive and obnoxious personality.” In another recording, he points to a perceived Jewish inferiority complex. “Most Jewish people are insecure,” Nixon says.  “And that’s why they have to prove things.”

Although it is easy to draw a connection between the Nixon tapes and the Wikileaks–both call attention to the role of confidentiality within the political sphere–we must ask if this comparison is apt; whereas the former occurred in the 1970s, the latter deals with information relevant to the current state of affairs.  While the Wikileaks contain actionable information, the White House tapes leave us wondering: what do we do with this new knowledge?

On one hand, we have reason to condemn Nixon and Kissinger for their anti-Semitic statements (especially Kissinger for choosing realpolitik over his own Jewish heritage).  Yet what if we propose a radically different approach to this story, one of forgiveness rather than censure? The tapes are four-decades old, reflecting opinions that are no longer relevant to current politics. New information is only relevant insofar that it can be applied to politics occurring in real time.  Instead of wasting our breath on the past, we should focus on the future.

With that in mind, perhaps the release of these tapes can inform our approach to the Wikileaks controversy. This material is more current, with a greater bearing on international politics as such. For example, a recently released document illustrates American efforts to curb Venezuelan geopolitical influence in 2008. Considering our earlier model, the Venezuelan government has two options: react with indignation, or recognize this document as a discreet historical event, consider its implications, and develop new policies that address these issues. The past cannot be changed, however recent; as such, it would be a better expenditure of time and energy to move our conversation from injury to productivity. How can this information inform current policy? We must challenge ourselves to move the rhetoric from reflection to progress, from a focus on past events to the formation of our shared future.