Tag Archives: jewish

Adding a Little Color to Summer Camp

by Steven Philp

For centuries Jews have been the target of damaging stereotypes; yet in our effort to battle unfavorable myths, sometimes we overlook our own assumptions concerning the Jewish community. Perhaps this oversight is what makes Camp Be’chol Lashon so extraordinary. Located in the forested hills of Marin County—a short 35 miles north of San Francisco—the summer camp seeks to expand the borders of the Jewish community, to allow Jews of color to see themselves as an integral part of world Jewry. According to a New York Times article, Be’chol Lashon—which translates to “In Every Tongue”—has done in two short years what many Jewish communities have failed to accomplish: make the Jewishness of Jews of color a statement of fact, rather than a question. “If there’s Christians of all colors and all kinds, and Muslims of all colors and all kinds then why would Jewishness by any different?” explained Amalia Cymrot-Wu over a typical Shabbat lunch. The descendent of Brazilian and Chinese families, Amalia had helped lead the Torah service that morning. With help from her campmate Maya Campbell, who is half white and half black, she recited the b’rachah celebrating their place in the Jewish community: “Blessed are You, Adonai our G-d, Ruler of the Universe, who has made me a Jew.”

Although vibrant Jewish communities are scattered across the globe—from India to Ghana, Mexico to China—American Jewry has been dominated by its Eastern European majority since the early 20th century; it is their culture that has defined what it means to be Jewish in the United States, from the food we eat— latkes and gefilte fish—to the words we use—oy vey! Yet shortly after the turn of the century, demographers Gary and Diane Tobin determined that 10 percent of the six million American Jews are nonwhite; unlike many of their white peers, a large number of Jews of color have entered our community through conversion, adoption, and interracial parentage. The New York Times notes that other scholars have estimated the number of nonwhite Jews at approximately 450,000. Regardless, this is a significant numbers of Jews who do not see themselves in the self-generated archetypes of our community, even when being Jewish has nothing to do with skin color. Back at camp, Josh Rowen-Karen—born to black and Korean parents and adopted by an interracial Jewish couple in the Bay Area—emphasizes this fact. “Being Jewish isn’t looking a certain way,” he explains. “I could look at anyone and not know if they are or aren’t Jewish. You can’t know till you know the person.”

Camp Be’chol Lashon was born of the experience director Diane Tobin, who adopted her African-American son Jonah as an infant fourteen years prior. Raising Jonah in the Jewish community, she became concerned about how he would be accepted by his peers. “It was a sense of the Other, and we as a community are not great at dealing with the Other,” Tobin told the New York Times. “We had centuries of persecution making us wary. We have a tendency to be more suspicious than welcoming.” At the time of her husband’s death in 2009, the Tobin family had been hosting holy day gatherings and arranging retreats for multiracial Jewish families. This evolved in to Camp Be’chol Lashon, which kicked off last year with 18 children, ages 8 to 16. This year the number of campers has increased to 25, with children hailing from across the United States.

Perhaps the most surprising quality of Camp Be’chol Lashon is its sense of normalcy; the diversity of the campers is celebrated as an integral part of their Jewishness, rather than something that sets them apart. The kids attend services, make challah covers, play games, and spend a couple weeks in the woods, paralleling the summer activities of Jewish children across the country. Yet despite its common mission, Camp Be’chol Lashon helps remind us that Jewishness is not found in skin color, the curl in your hair, or the shape of your nose, but through community.

Israel Takes on Wikimania

by Charles Kopel

“Education is a human right,” declared Wikimedia Foundation Executive Director Sue Gardner to an applauding crowd of six hundred last week in the Haifa Auditorium.

The audience was gathered for Wikimania 2011, an annual event to celebrate the Foundation’s mission and accomplishments, and to plan its strategy for the coming year. Delegates from every corner of the globe proudly refer to themselves as “Wikimedians,” and unite in a common passion for free information sharing. This year, their supervisors were young tech-savvy Israelis, nervous in their first, and possibly only, opportunity to manage and address a large international crowd. A large percentage of them were wearing skullcaps. It was the sort of sight that one needs to see in order to believe.

We all know and use Wikipedia, the Foundation’s flagship project, which attracts 500 million visits a month, and whose tenth birthday on January 15 was marked by celebrations in six continents. But this free encyclopedia and its eleven sister projects are not just public online services–they are the front lines of a growing international movement. Wikimedians contribute time, talents, and energy to the creation and maintenance of an online network “to create a world in which every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge.”

Haifa, Israel was chosen as the location of Wikimania 2011 with much fanfare and much controversy. Tomer Ashur, chairman of Wikimedia Israel, related that his team reacted with disbelief last year to their successful bid to host the conference. In his address to the gathered Wiki faithful in Haifa on Thursday, tinged with a tone of apprehensive relief, Ashur explained that Wikimedia Israel had to hit the ground running after the decision in order to identify a host city and prepare a venue.

Haifa was a natural choice, for three reasons: First, it is a university town, home to the Technion and the University of Haifa, two of Israel’s most prestigious institutions of higher education, and therefore conducive to the educational nature of the conference’s mission. Second, the city features an impressive high-tech industry center, aligning it with the technological savvy of Wikimania’s participants. Finally, Ashur announced to resounding audience approval, the northern coastal city is the greatest Israeli symbol of Jewish-Arab coexistence, with 26,000 Arab residents, 10% of the total population.

Wikimania 2011 featured 125 presentations, and was possibly the best-attended in seven years of the conference’s history. The talks included plenaries by Harvard professors Yochai Benkler and Joseph Reagle on the research surrounding Wikipedia’s success, a Q&A with the ten-person Wikimedia board and a closing ceremony with Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales. The majority of the talks were smaller-scale meetings with groups of Wikimedians about strategic uses of Wiki material in business, education, conflict resolution, local cultural heritage projects, and the like. The sentiment at the events was one of optimism and success. Wikimedia sites and networks have grown tremendously in the last several years, academics and journalists are beginning to see its resources as authoritative. At one point, Gardner recounted a conversation she had with a French journalist in New York last January at a celebration for Wikipedia’s tenth anniversary, in which the journalist said to her, “Making fun of Wikipedia is so 2007!”

I had the opportunity to meet and speak with enthusiastic Wikimedians from around the world. Marek Blahus of the Czech Republic writes Wiki pages in Esperanto, and, along with fellow activists at the conference, maintains that Wikimedia should encourage the usage of Esperanto as a universal language, rather than settling on the English standard. All Wikimania 2011 events were conducted in English or Hebrew, with translation services offered. Ming-li of Shanghai, the only Chinese representative, expressed dismay about his government’s strict control over the exchange of online information.  I also encountered groups of students from India and the Philippines, who expressed excitement at the opportunity to visit and experience Israel, albeit for a short time.

Their sentiments are not shared by all Wikimedians, however. A significant movement emerged to boycott the event and Wikimedia in protest over Israel’s policies in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. A Facebook page titled “No for holding Wikimania Conference in Israel” has approximately 500 likes, and the absence of these potential participants was felt by those in attendance.

The Israeli government nonetheless made good use of the opportunity. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, one of the conference’s primary sponsors, distributed a free book called “Facts About Israel” to all Wikimedia participants. Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav also included a letter to participants, along with supplementary literature from the Haifa municipality. Even more strikingly, Meir Sheetrit, a member of the Knesset for Kadima, addressed the crowd, declaring his intentions to fight for expanded broadband access across Israel, and for the release of more government information over the internet into the public domain. The Wikimedias responded tot this second announcement with enthusiastic approval, though, contrary to common misconception, the Foundation has no relationship with Wikileaks.

The conference participants were also treated to a unique taste of Israeli society, as they unexpectedly found themselves sharing a city block with a full tent village of protesters in downtown Haifa. These protesters, part of a growing movement for social change in Israel, had no official interaction with Wikimania, although their proximity was strongly felt by all, and even received mention in several of the talks. In one of the more poignant moments of the events, Harvard professor Yochai Benkler expressed his view that the protesters outside, the conference participants inside, and the brave rebels just 90 miles northeast in Damascus are all part of the same struggle for freedom and social progressiveness.

A Goy in Jews’ Clothing

By Steven Philp

Considering the cultural significance of the kippah, it is safe to assume that an individual who chooses to wear one on a regular basis is Jewish.  But what happens when a non-Jew chooses to don the iconic skullcap? This week a man filed papers at a federal court claiming that he became the subject of ridicule when he decided to wear a yarmulke to work. Ciro Rosselli is a 29-year-old Italian-American who lives in Queens, NY—and is not, by descent, choice or self-identification, Jewish. According to an the New York Post, Rosselli is a practitioner of theosophy—a philosophical tradition founded in the 19th century that seeks to reconcile scientific and religious knowledge through the pursuit of a unifying truth. According to his lawsuit, Rosselli started to wear the kippah as part of his spiritual exploration. Yet when he showed up to work wearing a yarmulke, his peers at McKinsey & Company—an international business consulting firm—explained that his choice in headgear was not, in their opinion, kosher. His supervisor demanded that Rosselli take the yarmulke off, stating: “You’re creeping me out.” Later his boss, Gina Denardo, sent him an e-mail with a subject line that read “Madge Rosselli,” paralleling his appropriation of the yarmulke to pop superstar Madonna’s controversial embrace of Kabbalah. Another coworker accused him of wearing a kippah “to hide his bald spot.”

In an interview with the Post, Rosselli explained that he adopted the practice of theosophy in 2007, the same year he was hired as an executive assistant at McKinsey. Inspired by the works of Helena Blavatsky, theosophy took root in New York at the close of the 19th century. It ascribes to the motto, “There is no religion higher than truth,” and included broad anti-discrimination clauses in its founding doctrines. This embrasure of cultural variety is what inspired Rosselli to adopt the practice of wearing a kippah. “It is about finding truth in all religions,” he explained. “I’m still learning all of the different facets.”

Yet it is the fact that Rosselli is not, as one coworker put it, a “real Jew” that he received such strong criticism. According to the lawsuit, when he showed up to his office wearing the yarmulke in question, one of his peers stated: “You can’t be Jewish if you’re Italian.”  This statement draws forth several important questions for the Jewish community. First, it shows a general ignorance of the diversity of world Jewry; Jews of Italian decent have a history dating back to the 2nd century B.C.E.  Second, regardless of the fact that Rosselli does not identify as a Jew, what is a “real Jew?” This question has been debated for centuries, and has led to both broad and narrow definitions of Jewish identification, yet it gets to the heart of the matter, which will be asked in the official consideration of Rosselli’s case: does one need to be a “real Jew” to appropriate aspects of Jewish culture or faith-practice? From an American legal standpoint, no: One does not need to be a Jew to engage in the Jewish customs.

Yet from the perspective of our community, how comfortable are we with allowing non-Jews to adopt elements of our identity?  Do we fear that they will misrepresent us, or dilute our unique cultural identifiers?  The fact of the matter is, Jewish culture has already seeped past the bounds of our community. From words like “klutz” or “mensch” to delicatessens and kosher salt, there are pieces of the Jewish community embedded deep within the common property of American culture. Rather than resist curious minds who are trying on a new hat—or yarmulke—perhaps we should welcome individuals like Rosselli as opportunities to share more of our heritage, explaining its significance, and adding it to the broad composition of national identity.

Strauss-Kahn—Still Bad For The Jews?

By Theodore Samets

The idea that France was set to have a Jewish president before the United States sounded weird, anyway.

Of course, some might argue that the current holder of the office, Nicolas Sarkozy, is himself Jewish; his son even married a nice Jewish girl a few years ago.

But Dominique Strauss-Kahn has turned out to be too good to be true. Strauss-Kahn, as anyone who has ventured out in public in the past three months knows, was the managing director of the International Monetary Fund and front-runner for the French presidency until he allegedly attempted to rape a housekeeper in his New York Sofitel hotel suite.

The Manhattan district attorney’s allegations against DSK were splashed across the cover of every newspaper in New York. His bail was set at $6 million. As New York magazine puts it this week in their fascinating look at DSK’s wife, the billionaire Jewish heiress Anne Sinclair:

[Strauss-Kahn and Sinclair] remained silent as initial reports, almost certainly leaked by the prosecuting attorneys, came out about the victim: She was a widow, a single mother, a devout Muslim and daughter of an imam, an illiterate victim of genital mutilation who’d grown up in a mud hut—she might even wear a head scarf! Soon, Strauss-Kahn was led up to the guillotine during his court appearances; hundreds of maids from measly countries around the world, their ill-fitting dark dresses cinched with frilly white belts, gathered to raise fists and chant: “Shame on you! Shame on you!” New Yorkers agreed that they had never seen a more guilty man than the “Horny Toad,” the “IMF Pig.”

Yet now the case is in doubt, mired by the alleged victim’s admission that she lied about a past rape and after an audio tape of a conversation she had with her boyfriend about how to exploit the situation came to light. Why was the boyfriend’s phone call taped? Because he is in prison, serving time for trying to trade counterfeit clothing for 400 pounds of pot.

Strauss-Kahn’s accuser still claims her allegation against the man who was supposed to be the president of France is true, yet it has become hard even for the prosecutors to believe her, according to a July story in the New York Times.

Whatever the final result, it is improbable that DSK will ever end up as president of France. Yet the newest look at his wife and the couple’s response to the allegations give the best opportunity to ask: How bad is this for the Jews?

From Israel’s standpoint, probably not that bad. Sarkozy has been rather pro-Israel and it’s hard to imagine that DSK would have done more for Israel than the current government, even if the New York story does remind us of just how strongly Strauss-Kahn identifies with his Jewish lineage:

His father dropped the “Kahn” from his name later in life and never bestowed it upon Strauss-Kahn, who took it in his twenties. “In my youth, I was called Strauss, like my father,” he has said. “But starting in the seventies, I changed to Strauss-Kahn. It was a way of demonstrating my attachment to my grandfather and also affirming my Jewish identity, which had been awakened by the Six-Day War and Yom Kippur War.”

What about for Sinclair? It seems that her fall from power may be the greatest loss for France’s dwindling, though still sizable, Jewish community. New York reminds us that, as the granddaughter of Picasso’s art dealer, she is “an extraordinarily wealthy art-world heiress and a pillar of European Jewish society.” Furthermore, “she always wanted to prove that, more than 75 years after Léon Blum became France’s first Jewish prime minister, the French would again be willing to elect a Jew.” It now looks unlikely that her husband will be the one to bring that dream to fruition.

When DSK was once asked the obstacles to his presidential campaign were, he replied: “Money, women, and being Jewish.” If the charges are dismissed, as this new report suggests they likely will be at the end of this month, revelations about the extent of Strauss-Kahn’s womanizing will still keep him from becoming president, even in France, where philandering is generally considered cocktail party banter, not the ruin of presidential aspirations.

It’s certainly not good for France’s Jews that Sinclair and Strauss-Kahn’s positions in society have fallen—but is the DSK scandal truly “bad for the Jews?” Other criminals and conspirators—Bernie Madoff springs to mind—were bad for Jews because their actions played into stereotypes that have existed for centuries as anti-Semitic tropes. The same cannot be said for Strauss-Kahn. It’s never good for the Jews when a figure of such importance is alleged to have committed a crime, even when, as in this case, the charges are likely to fizzle. Indeed, the greatest loss may be that DSK was a once-in-a-generation figure for French Jewry, and that a leader such as he may never come again.

Pay No Attention to the Jew Behind the Curtain

By Steven Philp

Over the past year, more than half of all state legislatures have considered proposals that would prevent judges from consulting faith-based or foreign legal codes. Tennessee and Louisiana have successfully adopted such measures, while Oklahoma recently became the battleground for a bill that identifies what many believe is the true target of this growing movement: a prohibition against the application of Sharia, an Islamic legal code derived from scripture, tradition, and centuries of interpretation. According to a recent article from Crown Heights News, the anti-Sharia movement has gained remarkable appeal as near-identical proposals are replicated in state legislatures across the country. Republican State Representative Sally Kern, a sponsor of the Oklahoma bill, explained, “It’s always helpful when you can say to your colleagues: this piece of legislation is practically identical to about 20 other states.” An article in the New York Times points out that the anti-Sharia movement finds its potency in the meeting of several factors, including the controversy surrounding the proposed Islamic center near the rising World Trade Center in New York, paranoia concerning domestic terrorism fueled by events such as the tragedy in Norway, and the advent of the Tea Party. Yet the similarity of over two-dozen proposals cannot be attributed to coincidence alone. Rather, the anti-Sharia movement reflects the efforts of a relatively unknown lawyer from Crown Heights, Brooklyn. It is time to pay attention to the man behind the curtain.

David Yerushalmi—a 56-year-old Hasidic Jew, and the father of the American anti-Sharia movement—is not adverse to controversy; in an essay published in 2006, Yerushalmi offered an interpretation of race that came uncomfortably close to the tenets of eugenics, stating: “most of the fundamental differences between the races are genetic.” He continued, asking why “people find it so difficult to confront the facts that some races perform better in sports, some better in mathematical problem-solving, some better in language, some better in Western societies and some better in tribal ones?” Accordingly, Yerushalmi has endeavored to prove that Islam lies in opposition to the political and economic freedom of the West—and that Sharia may be one of the greatest threats to American society since the Red Scare gripped our country. According to the New York Times, over the past five years he has worked with conservative public policy groups and former intelligence officials to draft reports, file lawsuits, and craft the legislation that has taken the country by storm. And his audience is not limited to ultra-conservative fringe groups, but has been taken up by prominent politicians such as Republican presidential candidates Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain, Rick Santorum, and Michelle Bachmann. The latter two recently signed a pledge authored by the Family Leader that included an injunction against “Sharia Islam.”

Born in South Florida, Yerushalmi became interested in Sharia after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. At the time he was living in Ma’ale Adumim—a settlement in the Israeli-occupied West Bank—working on commercial litigation, while offering his services to a conservative research institute dedicated to the promotion of free market reform in Israel. After returning to the United States, he began his study of Islam under two Islamic scholars, both of whom he refused to name. He told the New York Times that his research led him to the conclusion that militant groups—such as those that perpetrated 9/11—had not “perverted” Islam, but were reflective of a tradition that seeks global hegemony. In January 2006, Yerushalmi started the Society of Americans for National Existence, an organization to promote legislation that demanded punishment for individuals caught observing Sharia, while raising funds for a project called Mapping Sharia, which seeks to establish a link between American mosques and jihadist groups. This led Yerushalmi to a partnership with conservative policy analyst Frank Gaffney – as president of the Center for Security Policy in Washington, Gaffney has been able to secure meetings with prominent neoconservative and Tea Party leaders. The results have been mixed. On one hand, there has been the successful integration of an anti-Sharia polemic into conservative rhetoric. Yet bills proposing a ban on Islamic law have failed to pass constitutional muster; the controversial measure in Oklahoma was blocked by a federal judge, after the Council on American-Islamic Relations, an American Muslim advocacy group, claimed the law was an infringement on religious freedom.

To what end is a movement against Sharia necessary? Speaking to the New York Times, Salam Al-Marayati, the president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, explained that these efforts are embedded in gross misperceptions of Islam: “The fact is there is no Shariah takeover in America.” He continued, “It’s purely a political wedge to create fear and hysteria.” Andrew F. March, an associate professor studying Islamic law at Yale University, lends credence to this line of thinking, explaining that the perception of Sharia as a unified, authoritative source is misleading. “Even in Muslim-majority countries, there is a huge debate about what it means to apply Islamic law in the modern world,” he said in an interview with the New York Times. Yet however incongruent Yerushalmi’s arguments may be with reality, his stance on Islam has finally pushed this small-time lawyer in to the national spotlight—with some, not so favorably. Both the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League have condemned him for his bigoted polemics. However, this is good enough for him; Yerushalmi explains that his cause hinges less on personal success, and more on public awareness. “The purpose was heuristic,” he said. “To get people asking this question: What is Shariah?”

Glenn Beck’s Wet Hot Israeli Summer

By Adina Rosenthal

Glenn Beck is making quite a splash in the Jewish state this summer. This August, Beck will host “Restoring Courage,” a three-part event that Beck’s website describes as “an opportunity to demonstrate to the world that Israel does not stand alone.” The first event will be for American Christians “to get the Christian community in America to wake up and start standing up [for Israel].” The second will be more explicitly political in nature, purportedly including Senator Joe Lieberman, GOP presidential candidates Rick Santorum and Herman Cain, and two other presidential candidates yet to be revealed. The final August 24 event that, according to the Jerusalem Post, “would be attended by more than 30 American national political figures, 70 international politicians and citizen delegations from 100 countries around the world, including Bahrain” will be held at the Southern Wall excavation site in Jerusalem’s Old City.

Beck pledges to make this event bipartisan, not a rally against President Obama and his administration. For Beck, “If it’s just an event, we failed…It’s a launch of a movement of decent, like-minded, freedom-loving peaceful people who know the answer won’t come from Washington or Copenhagen. It’s not going to come from our political leaders, but from the people. It’s a freedom movement.”

However, not everyone is quite as enthusiastic. On the American home front, Beck has received criticism, especially from left-leaning press and groups. In response to a question about Glenn Beck’s participation in a summit in Israel, Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J Street, replied that association with Glenn Beck is “not in the interest of the American Jewish community.  Alluding to a “proven track record of anti-Semitism,” Ben-Ami concluded that “this kind of friend Israel doesn’t need.”  In a recent Huffington Post piece titled, “Glenn Beck Defiles the Holy Land,” commentator MJ Rosenberg further draws out this accusation of anti-Semitism, describing Beck as treyf who is using Israel “as a disinfectant to cleanse him of the stink of anti-Semitism, racism, and proto-fascism. Without Israel, Beck is just another right-wing bigot and crackpot. But with it, he becomes almost legitimate and so does the dangerous and ugly portrayal of Jews that has become his trademark.”

Some Israelis are not impressed with Beck’s message either, but some for unexpected reasons. An an interview with Channel 10 news last week, during the second of his three solidarity trips to Israel (the first was on Israeli Independence Day), drew criticism that Beck may not be conservative enough.  Although he told a Knesset committee that the Israeli Palestinian conflict “is about the destruction of Israel and the end of the Western way of life,” his comments to Channel 10 news that “I’m not against a Palestinian state. I’m not here for a political solution,” elicited a sharp response from nationalist parliamentarians. National Union MK Arye Eldad told Beck “I believe in a two-state solution, because I remember that there is already a Palestinian state in Jordan…Israel belongs to the Jews. We need to end the occupation—the Muslim occupation of Israel that began 1,300 years ago.” MK Ayoub Kara (Likud) added “There were never Palestinians in this area.” In addition, Beck has never advocated freeing Jonathan Pollard from prison, a cause which MK Tzipi Hotovely (Likud) and MK Marina Solodkin (Kadima) mentioned to Beck at the meeting.

Despite the flack Beck is receiving on all sides of the Israeli aisle, whether you like his politics or not, his heart seems to be in the right place. In a video on his website, Beck describes in detail the brutal murders of the Fogel family last March, and cites that most Americans had no idea of the atrocities as a platform for the importance of his initiative to stand with Israel. When asked about a segment on his former Fox News show dedicated to the heinous acts, Beck replied, “You have a horror show that Hollywood spends months dreaming up. You have villains like I’ve never seen before,” lauding Israelis’ courage and hope despite such suffering such tragedy. Beck also has plans to visit Tamar Fogel, daughter and sister of the victims, as part of this summer’s upcoming trip to Israel. Glenn Beck’s message is clear: “Israelis may like to hear and see that you’re not alone…There are millions of people [who support Israel] that you don’t see, because the media doesn’t want to tell their story, either.”

Love him or hate him, as MK Danny Danon (Likud) quipped, “If we didn’t have someone like Glenn Beck we would have had to invent someone like him.”

The Jewish National Pastime

By Aarian Marshall

Some people collect stamps, others baseball cards—Neil Keller collects famous Jews. He speaks quickly, with a slight lisp, and with his red polo and faded jean shorts, looks like he took a wrong turn on the way to a suburban Little League game, though it’s unclear whether he belongs with the throng of eager parents in the stands, or with the overexcited kids in the diamond. Before him is a tableful of binders, each nearly five inches thick. They are color-coded, their titles neatly typed and affixed to their fronts. And Neil Keller is grinning, in a way one rarely sees among men in their thirties.

His website boasts that Neil is the “Expert On Who Is Jewish,” and that his collection of Jewish memorabilia, which includes over 15,000 items, is one of the largest in the world. And that is what’s in those binders—pages and pages of sports trading cards, signed headshots, and personally addressed letters from thousands of celebrities, either confirming or denying their Jewish-ness.

“John Kerry is half-Jewish,” he told me. “His father changed his last name from ‘Cohen.’” So is Katie Couric—through her mother’s side. Blonde, buxom, blue-eyed Scarlett Johansson was raised celebrating the Festival of Lights. And Marilyn Monroe, that other blonde, converted to marry the playwright Arthur Miller. Most surprising? “Probably Elvis Presley. There’s a Star of David on his mother’s gravestone.”

Neil began his project on a whim. He was at a flea market in 1990 when he spotted a Sandy Koufax trading card. “I knew he was Jewish,” Neil said, “and that he didn’t pitch on Yom Kippur.” As the product of an Orthodox community (though not an Orthodox household), Neil respected that. “I read something about him, learned that his catcher was also Jewish,” he remembers. From sports, it moved onto entertainment, to politics.

With the advent of the Internet, Neil’s research has become a lot easier, but he spends a lot of time corresponding with celebrities themselves. He estimates that of all the celebrities he has written, 90-95 percent have written him back. Robert De Niro sent him an autographed headshot (not Jewish). Madonna reported that she had shared his website with her friends at the Kabbalah center. When Hall of Fame baseball player Rod Carew wrote Neil to tell him that no, he had not converted to Judaism (despite his taking to wearing a chai in photographs), Neil sent the information to Adam Sandler, whose popular Chanukah Song had included Carew in its run-down of Jewish people. Sandler wrote back to thank Neil, and subsequently changed the lyrics of the song.

Neil’s total investment in this hobby might seem strange, but considering his warm receptions at speaking engagements, it might not just be Neil: this obsession spans the Jewish community. Neil travels to camps and JCCs alike to give short talks, consisting of forty-five minutes of straight trivia. Perhaps short is an understatement—at one talk in Toronto, the audience kept Neil onstage for a full four hours. “People love to hear about this,” Neil says. “They love to know who is Jewish.”

He might have a point—something of a cottage industry has cropped up around the question of who, exactly, is Jewish. Sandler’s Chanukah Song aside, there’s Guess Who’s the Jew, a website that allows users to, well, guess who’s Jewish. The Chicago Tribune inexplicably maintains a website of celebrity Jews, as does Wikipedia. And the blog Stuff Jewish People Like, which occasionally updates a list of things that really get Jewish people going (Florida! All You Can Eat Buffets!), names Famous Jews as its number one.

Which raises the question: Why? Why are Jews so into knowing who is Jewish? For some, knowing whether a public figure is Jewish can become a strange, inexplicable need, the seed of a thousand Googlings. Maybe it’s because there’s something a little goofy about imagining that hot stud on the television chanting at his Bar Mitzvah, kippah slipping off his head. We do silly things for Judaism sometimes, but so do you, Jake Gyllenhaal.

Neil had as much trouble putting his finger on it as I did. “It’s…inherited,” he said. “We all want to know.” Heebz!, a group that maintains its own Famous Jews website, asserts that Jews are “at the center of every creative, scientific, cultural, political and philosophical endeavor,” and while that might be a bit of an overstatement, it’s true that there is this peculiar “Jewish Mystique.” Maybe it’s because being Jewish occasionally veers into the not-so-cool—the hair, the nose, the books—that famous Jews are so thrilling. Think we’re ugly? Take a look at Natalie Portman. Think we’re wimpy? Challenge Bruce Goldberg to a wrestling match.

Maybe there’s a bit Neil’s self-affirming, red-poloed exhilaration inside all of us. Neil wants to find me a picture of Elvis Presley’s mother’s grave, and his keyboard clacks furiously. “Oh!” he stops. “The creator of Google is Jewish!” And that, I decide, is kind of cool.

Andy Samberg’s Semitic Appeal

by Amanda Walgrove

Andy Samberg is one of three geeky brains behind the comedy troupe, The Lonely Island, whose sophomore album, Turtleneck and Chain, was released last month. Along with Akiva Shaffer and Jorma Taccone, the trio is responsible for the hilarious Digital Shorts that interrupt the live performances of SNL. Some have even argued that the videos are the only remaining aspect of the thirty-six year old sketch comedy show still worthy of watching.

Since Samberg emerged on the scene in 2005, his curly hair and prominent nose have made him a Semitic sex symbol for tweens, twentysomethings, and possibly Cougars (Cameron Diaz’s SNL skit said it, not me.) Born David Andrew Samberg, the 32-year-old grew up in a Jewish household and his maternal grandfather, Alfred J. Marrow, served as the executive chair of the American Jewish Congress. Add to that his most charming quality, the one by which he makes a living—his sense of humor—and he’s quite the kugel-eating catch.

In an interview with MSNBC, Samberg noted that he was inspired by funny Jewish forerunners such as Adam Sandler, with his 1993 debut album They’re All Gonna Laugh At You!, along with Mel Brooks and the Marx Brothers. Back in 2008, Samberg told schmooze that he was saturated with Jewish comedy growing up and now, since he considers it family comedy, he tries not to let it inform his own routines: “I’m never laughing when the punch line is something like, ‘Oh, just a couple of Jews!’ To clarify, there’s Jewish comedy and there’s Jewish comedy. If it’s done the right way—it’s funny not just because it’s Jewish, but because it’s really funny—that’s great.”

Executive Producer, Lorne Michaels’ ability to see something valuable in Samberg’s talents prompted him to hire the young stand-up comedian as a cast member, while bringing Shaffer and Taccone onto the writing team. The digital shorts, which the boys produced as side projects without expecting a profit, quickly went viral, and SNL began to reach its young, digitally savvy audience in new ways.

Beginning with their 2009 debut, “Incredibad,” The Lonely Island churned out faux music videos, glorifying the awkwardness of sexual inadequacies and inabilities to impress females. Chock full of parody and self-deprecation, the comedic styling of Samberg and team tug strongly at the Jewish roots of comedy. Their ability to take something conventional, question it and stand it on its head through a satirical filter is the basis of aggadic midrash. Bring musical interludes into the mix and you’ve got yourself a full service.

Boosting their commercial value, the off-beat videos have developed a reputation of being star-studded, boasting surprise guests such as Justin Timberlake, Nicki Minaj, Lady Gaga, Michael Bolton, Rihanna, Susan Sarandon, and T-Pain, who are equally willing to make fools of themselves. Natalie Portman famously satirized her own goody two shoes, Jewish girl image in her video, “Natalie’s Rap,” where her SNL alter-ego dropped a few beats about engaging in criminal activities while at Harvard.

The Lonely Island has parodied rappers, hip-hop songs, Rastafarians, 80’s R&B, “Creeps” (aka John Waters), and E.T. on their debut album cover. While the structure of their creations pays homage to Samberg’s comedic ancestry, the young pop culture sensation has yet to take a direct comedic crack at the Jews—not even a klezmer parody. He’s not looking to overdo the stereotypical Jewish punch line.   Then again, Sandler debuted his acclaimed Hanukkah song on SNL; we trust that Samberg can find his own clever spin, too.

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.

G-d Comes Out on the Side of Equality

by Steven Philp

In the national debate concerning equal rights for the LGBT community, the opposition has consistently claimed that they have G-d on their side. Only this week, the anti-equality group National Organization for Marriage held a rally in the Bronx featuring several prominent clergymen and women from local congregations, all of whom advocated for a definition of marriage that excludes same-sex couples. According to a video posted on Good as You, religious leaders like Reverend Ariel Torres Ortega of Radio Visión Cristiana – citing the Bible as witness – stressed that LGBT people are “worthy of death.” The same blog snapped a picture of Rabbi Yehuda Levin, a prominent Orthodox community leader who – according to a media release posted on the Christian Broadcast Network – has blamed the LGBT community for causing the September 11th terrorist attacks, Hurricane Katrina and the earthquake in Haiti, among other catastrophic events. Although there are strong advocates of LGBT rights within the faith community, such as the Right Reverend Gene Robinson of the New Hampshire Episcopate, many are LGBT-identified themselves. And even so, the perception has been created that allies within congregations are few and far between.

Yet in early May the Empire State Pride Agenda, an LGBT civil rights and advocacy group, issued a press release that gives cause for a little faith. The announcement names 727 clergymen and women from across New York State who have come out in support of marriage equality legislation, currently heading to the state Senate and Assembly. Governor Andrew Cuomo has repeatedly stressed the importance of LGBT rights under his administration; this particular bill is “among his top priorities to achieve before the current legislative sessions ends in June.”

The listed names and their respective congregations represent a wide range of faith traditions, although the vast majority of the signatories are Christian. But among the clergy included in the press release are a number of Jewish leaders. “Jewish tradition prizes family as the basic building block of a community and we know that the stability of the family is enhanced when the family unit enjoys legal protections,” said Rabbi Debora S. Gordon of Congregation Berith Sholom in Troy, New York. “It is in accord with very important Jewish values to recognize and protect the bonds between loving couples, irrespective of the gender of those two adults.”

Not surprisingly, all of the rabbis quoted in the press release – in addition to the vast majority of rabbis listed among the signatories – are members of the Reform movement. In fact, only one rabbi unassociated with a congregation listed his affiliation with the Conservative movement; all others were labeled as Reform or Reconstructionist. “The Reform Jewish Movement has long held that all loving, committed couples deserve the opportunity to celebrate their relationships and have them recognized in the eyes of the law,” explained Honey Heller and Donald C. Cutler to the Empire State Pride Agenda, co-chairs of the Reform Jewish Voice of New York State. “Too often we see opponents of marriage equality using faith as their shield. However we believe that faith demands of us that we treat all couples equally.”

What is striking about these statements is that each of the clergymen and women attributes their attitude toward LGBT equality to their faith. The Jewish leaders who listed their names among the signatories did not do so because they felt it was the politically expedient thing to do, but rather because they were motivated by their engagement with the Jewish community. “As a rabbi, I am honored when families invite me to share in their lives, in the daily routine as well as times that are very special,” explained Rabbi Dennis S. Ross, Director of the Concerned Clergy for Choice. “My pastoral experience demonstrates the value and sanctity of marriage, and the importance of extending the protections and responsibilities of legal marriage to same gender couples.

As we wait for the marriage equality bill to weather the State Assembly and Senate, it is important to identify allies in our respective communities. For many Jews, this includes our individual temples, shuls, and synagogues. And whether or not this particular legislation is successful, at least we know one thing: according to 727 clergymen and women, G-d is on our side.