Randy's Corner Deli Library

25 December 2009

A Serious Marriage

This was my favorite film of 2009, too. RS

A haftorah of contradictions and reconciliation

By Liel Leibovitz | 7:00 AM Dec 25, 2009 | Print | Email / Share

Michael Stuhlbarg and Sari Lennick as Larry and Judith Gopnik in 'A Serious Man'

CREDIT: Focus Features

This week, with the year winding down and the snow piling up, I had a chance to revisit my favorite film of 2009, the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man. I’ve sung the praises of this masterpiece before, but watching it for the second time raised a fresh batch of questions about the film’s rich and strange universe of moral and theological complications.

I was particularly drawn to the relationship between the film’s protagonist, Larry Gopnik, and his wife, Judith. He is a pale physics professor, with eyes by Bambi and hair by Schiele; she is his rapacious ringmaster, a venomous creature who can deliver more derision with a flick of an eyebrow than most humans can with carefully considered words. It’s giving away little of the film’s plot to reveal that it begins with Judith leaving Larry for the delightfully awful Sy Ableman—a baritone-voiced phony—and ends with the two reconciling, holding hands and swapping smiles at their son’s bar mitzvah. The soulful, sultry, and weed-addled neighbor, Mrs. Samsky, offers a brief spell of seduction, but it’s Judith, clearly, that Larry truly wants and, more devastatingly, needs.

There are, of course, many ways to read this bit of narrative, and more than one critic has accused the Coens of perpetuating negative stereotypes of meek Jewish men and grating Jewish women. But an altogether different explanation is possible, and it comes to us courtesy of this week’s haftorah.

As the reading begins, the prophet Ezekiel conjures a strange image:

“The word of the Lord came again unto me, saying, Moreover, thou son of man, take thee one stick, and write upon it, For Judah, and for the children of Israel his companions: then take another stick, and write upon it, For Joseph, the stick of Ephraim and for all the house of Israel his companions: And join them one to another into one stick; and they shall become one in thine hand. And when the children of thy people shall speak unto thee, saying, Wilt thou not shew us what thou meanest by these? Say unto them, Thus saith the Lord God; Behold, I will take the stick of Joseph, which is in the hand of Ephraim, and the tribes of Israel his fellows, and will put them with him, even with the stick of Judah, and make them one stick, and they shall be one in mine hand.”

Likewise, the rest of the chapter speaks of the reunification of the divergent kingdoms, that of Israel in the north and that of Judah in the south, which have split into two separate entities after a brief and bloody internecine battle in 920 BCE. According to most available accounts, the northern kingdom was the one most likely to succeed, surpassing its neighbor to the south in everything from urban planning to sophisticated warfare methods and blessed by far greater rainfall and therefore more robust agriculture. Judeans, on the other hand, focused mainly around Jerusalem, and spent a considerable amount of time fretting about ritual and tradition.

One kingdom, therefore, looked to the future, another to the past. And it’s a tribute to Judaism’s magical sense of time—or, perhaps, sense of magical time—that it was the Judeans who far outlived the crumbling kingdom of Israel. Judah took Judaism seriously, while Israel concerned itself with becoming a player in the complex geopolitical struggles of the region. Judah was provincial, Israel worldly. Israel lasted exactly 200 years before being overpowered by the Assyrians; Judah fared considerably better.

Why, then, would the prophet seek to reunite them? Why not bid adieu to the sinful Israel, with its penchant for Baal worship, and cultivate instead the mostly pure Judah? Such a spiritual equivalent of natural selection might eventually make for a more just, more righteous people. It would also, however, be utterly unrealistic: for a people to survive, the Bible knows well, it needs priests and politicians, prophets and soldiers, urban planners and religious scholars alike.

The same could be said of the Gopniks. Judith spends the duration of the film in search of earthly bliss: she philanders and conspires and is eager to get rid of her poor, hunched husband so that she and the able Ableman may have the house all to themselves. Larry, on the other hand, seeks the advice of rabbi after rabbi, eager to unearth some secret, divine meaning to the trials and errors of modern life.

They need each other, those two. There may be more alluring partners out there, more illustrious and more tempting neighbors and friends. But if the Gopniks are to survive, they need both the seeker and the scammer, the greedy and the godly, the serious man and the sensual woman. The same is true of us Jews. It always has been.

23 December 2009

11 December 2009

Happy Hannukah

10 December 2009

The Hanukkah Story

December 11, 2009
Op-Ed Columnist

Tonight Jewish kids will light the menorah, spin their dreidels and get their presents, but Hanukkah is the most adult of holidays. It commemorates an event in which the good guys did horrible things, the bad guys did good things and in which everybody is flummoxed by insoluble conflicts that remain with us today. It’s a holiday that accurately reflects how politics is, how history is, how life is.

It begins with the spread of Greek culture. Alexander’s Empire, and the smaller empires that succeeded it, brought modernizing ideas and institutions to the Middle East. At its best, Hellenistic culture emphasized the power of reason and the importance of individual conscience. It brought theaters, gymnasiums and debating societies to the cities. It raised living standards, especially in places like Jerusalem.

Many Jewish reformers embraced these improvements. The Greeks had one central idea: their aspirations to create an advanced universal culture. And the Jews had their own central idea: the idea of one true God. The reformers wanted to merge these two ideas.

Urbane Jews assimilated parts of Greek culture into their own, taking Greek names like Jason, exercising in the gymnasium and prospering within Greek institutions. Not all Jews assimilated. Some resisted quietly. Others fled to the hills. But Jerusalem did well. The Seleucid dynasty, which had political control over the area, was not merely tolerant; it used imperial money to help promote the diverse religions within its sphere.

In 167 B.C., however, the Seleucid king, Antiochus IV, issued a series of decrees defiling the temple, confiscating wealth and banning Jewish practice, under penalty of death. It’s unclear why he did this. Some historians believe that extremist Jewish reformers were in control and were hoping to wipe out what they saw as the primitive remnants of their faith. Others believe Antiochus thought the Jews were disloyal fifth columnists in his struggle against the Egyptians and, hence, was hoping to assimilate them into his nation.

Regardless, those who refused to eat pork were killed in an early case of pure religious martyrdom.

As Jeffrey Goldberg, who is writing a book on this period, points out, the Jews were slow to revolt. The cultural pressure on Jewish practice had been mounting; it was only when it hit an insane political level that Jewish traditionalists took up arms. When they did, the first person they killed was a fellow Jew.

In the town of Modin, a Jew who was attempting to perform a sacrifice on a new Greek altar was slaughtered by Mattathias, the old head of a priestly family. Mattathias’s five sons, led by Judah Maccabee, then led an insurgent revolt against the regime.

The Jewish civil war raised questions: Who is a Jew? Who gets to define the right level of observance? It also created a spiritual crisis. This was not a battle between tribes. It was a battle between theologies and threw up all sorts of issues about why bad things happen to faithful believers and what happens in the afterlife — issues that would reverberate in the region for centuries, to epic effect.

The Maccabees are best understood as moderate fanatics. They were not in total revolt against Greek culture. They used Greek constitutional language to explain themselves. They created a festival to commemorate their triumph (which is part of Greek, not Jewish, culture). Before long, they were electing their priests.

On the other hand, they were fighting heroically for their traditions and the survival of their faith. If they found uncircumcised Jews, they performed forced circumcisions. They had no interest in religious liberty within the Jewish community and believed religion was a collective regimen, not an individual choice.

They were not the last bunch of angry, bearded religious guys to win an insurgency campaign against a great power in the Middle East, but they may have been among the first. They retook Jerusalem in 164 B.C. and rededicated the temple. Their regime quickly became corrupt, brutal and reactionary. The concept of reform had been discredited by the Hellenizing extremists. Practice stagnated. Scholarship withered. The Maccabees became religious oppressors themselves, fatefully inviting the Romans into Jerusalem.

Generations of Sunday school teachers have turned Hanukkah into the story of unified Jewish bravery against an anti-Semitic Hellenic empire. Settlers in the West Bank tell it as a story of how the Jewish hard-core defeated the corrupt, assimilated Jewish masses. Rabbis later added the lamp miracle to give God at least a bit part in the proceedings.

But there is no erasing the complex ironies of the events, the way progress, heroism and brutality weave through all sides. The Maccabees heroically preserved the Jewish faith. But there is no honest way to tell their story as a self-congratulatory morality tale. The lesson of Hanukkah is that even the struggles that saved a people are dappled with tragic irony, complexity and unattractive choices.

08 December 2009


Humans have a funny way of calculating time. When we're born, we start out at zero. A month goes by and people stop you in the street to ask "how old is your gorgeous baby?" and the reply that usually comes out, until plenty more than a year passes, is "one month". So it is that when I celebrated my 49th birthday on the 16th, I entered into my 50th year on earth. When I do hit 50 in 2010, it will be beyond the calculation I made as a sophomore in Sheldon Bryer's American history class as a sophomore at Sullivan High School in Chicago in 1976, the last time I had a snow day.

I remember sitting in class behind a Greek girl named Zoe who hung with the Howard Street Greasers, the local street gang and who liked to suck on LSD-coated sugar cubes with her friend whose name has faded into the shadows of memory but who did in fact sit across the aisle from her, kitty corner from me, just, I guess, to pass the time while being bored by the writing of Thomas Jefferson and the thought of taking yet another exam on some arcane feature of American government like the Constitution, a document whose fifth amendment undoubtedly came in handy for those LSD-suckers at some point later in their lives.

As opposed to dropping acid in class, I got lost in history and my future, as I actually enjoyed Mr. Breyer's class, though I have to admit that I could and still do daydream with the best of them, only back then it was a particular one that I remember so vividly now, the one where I actually calculated my age as the years went by.

In particular, I remember wondering aloud in my mind "how old will I be in the year 2000"? and coming up with the answer: 40. That, for a 15 year old, was a very long way off; in 2009, it seems, as we come to the end of the first decade of (deep voice) the twENTy First century, the name of a television program hosted by the late Walter Cronkite, like it was a long time ago. And it was. Life has changed so much since the innocent days of a kid from Rogers Park into a thing that I could hardly imagine sitting there in the musty rooms of that old brownish-red brick building at 6632 N. Bosworth Avenue, an edifice which contained the dreams and fantasies of so many teens like me, the hopes for the future and fears for what it might mean. I had no idea then what I'd be like now, or what life could be like, what the world might be like.

There was no internet. If you wanted to make a telephone call, you went to a black pay phone and dialed, rotary-style, for a dime. If you wanted to talk to someone, you either called them or just stopped over. As a senior in 1978, computers were in their infancy. Could you have imagined the role silicon would play in our lives? I knew that computers were neat and big deals, but the extent to which they have come into our lives was, believe me, not on my radar screen. As a kid whose mathematics lessons stopped after my freshman year in college, who took no science classes in college beyond "Weather for Political Science Majors", it was all sort of irrelevant.

Life for me was lived and still is lived by connecting with people. Computers and technology have come into our lives, at least from my vantage point, to attempt to connect people to people. That is the ultimate purpose, isn't it? Whether it's stores, blogs, or information, it's still all about people, the common denominator for all that we do and all that we are.

Who would have imagined the advent of love in an online parallel universe? Whether it's online or offline, it's about people. Information, please? Why? So we can be more productive, more effective, better people. The only lesson now is to reconnect with the time we used to have when silence at some times dominated, when quiet was not something to be feared but treasured, when all the electronics in the house, which mainly meant the radio and the television, which contained the three major networks, ABC, NBC and CBS, and in Chicago, WGN and WFLD, Channel 32, and the Spanish station, Channel 26. Off.

So is it the case that instant information has made our lives better? Are we better people for all the new data? In some ways, most ways, the answer is of course yes. In other ways, it has made us more cynical; people find channels of information that fit and reinforce already held beliefs and it's the task of the truly enlightened to get information from places and people who hold views that are dissimilar to our own, outside our comfort zones and to keep open minds about what it is that other people are saying and why. I am sure that both Zoe and her LSD-sucking friend as well as Mr. Breyer would agree.

But the task these days is knowing when to return to silence and simplicity and more importantly perhaps, why. To regain some measure of perspective I think has been lost in the constant red click-clack of everyday living, bombarded as we are by so much, thinking we always have to be in motion, productive, functioning at doing something, anything, to make something. For me, the most important feature of the new decade will be for those of us who can analyze the data efficiently in order to reassert some measure of control over our lives despite the ubiquity of Google and Microsoft, to regain the simplicity in our lives that, I think, we all long for and for many of us, me included, lost somewhere between Windows 95 and Vista. Let us hope that 2010 will bring us a renewed sense of optimism, simplicity and love that transcends mere data and which allows us to truly become who we really are.

Little Life Enhancements

I've never been moved to write about little stuff. But in this instance, the little stuff has added some enjoyment to my life and I thought I would share it with my loyal readers.

First, I've been itching to see what Blu-Ray discs look like in my home, in my living room. Now I don't have a lot of money to spend, and indeed a really outstanding argument could be made that I have no money to spend on seeming frivolities like a Blu-Ray player. But I have to tell you that I have been an audiophile since I have been 15 years old when I got my first Pioneer SX525 receiver with quadrophonic stereo speakers in, oh, about 1976 and perhaps before that, and I've never let up. Music and its delivery has been an integral part of my life since I can remember, so when the opportunity came to enhance my video and audiophilic experience, I am usually among the first to jump on board. I did it with Super Audio CDs (SACD), DVD-Audio (a popular bomb, but still quite the auditory experience) and I did it with HD-DVD, the loser in the format wars of 2006-2007.

So it was that I came to finally decide that, for the right price, I would ante up and see what Blu-Ray had to offer. But money is such that it couldn't only be Blu-Ray. No. As a loyal and long-time Netflix subscriber, I became aware of networked Blu-Ray players that could also pull down my choices in instant movies from my Netflix queue. So it was that I went looking for a networked Blu-Ray player about a month or so ago. After quite a bit of research, I was going to get the LG model as people had complained that the Sony model didn't do Netflix very well if at all, or so I was led to believe. I went shopping at Best Buy (a misnomer) to see what they had, and sure enough, in their "best" Blu-Ray players was this item:

So I got home and checked on Amazon.com for the as-usual better price and soon enough, I was the proud owner of my first (and probably last -- depending on how long it'll hold up under normal use) Blu-Ray player as more recent comments and ratings from others convinced me that Sony had fixed its software issue with this player.

It isn't so much the quality of the video that is so striking, but the audio mixes that accompany the discs. For example, The Who at the Isle of Wight in 1970 is a magnificent video, but for me, the major and best feature of the disc is the sound quality of the concert. You can hear Entwistle, Moon and Townsend chatting it up between songs so clearly it's like having a front row seat, without the problems that one might encounter in time travel. When I tell you it's an experience, believe me.

For those of you who don't have Blu-Ray players, but have Netflix accounts and a computer network in your home, the prices on these things have come down even since I bought this one -- the price I paid was $213.95, no tax and no shipping charges. (I have requested a refund.) It's now well under $200 and is just not an option for those of you who want to complete your home theater experience. I spend a lot of time at home as going out is a major expense these days and going to the movies is too often a quality gamble; I am not into paying $12 for a ticket to a movie that I am not really sure is going to be worth the effort and bother of sitting with strangers watching a film. The last one I went to was "A Serious Man", the Coen Brothers' newest film, and one that I will undoubtedly buy used in Blu-Ray when it comes out because the sound designer did such a superlative job on it and I can't wait to get it home when it does finally hit stores. I cannot recommend this player more highly for any amount of money. It's little things like this that make life worth living.

The other little thing that has enhanced life a lot has been the purchase from Sprint of its new "Hero" phone which runs on the Google Android OS. This thing has been absolutely amazing and with the Blu-Ray player has brought me, at last, technologically into 2009 and beyond. The Google OS is very good, and the people at HTC in Taiwan who created the user interface for it have done a magnificent job. There is no doubt that Google and its own App Store will, by sheer force of numbers, eventually come to dominate the market for touchscreen phones. The Android OS is on phones from T-Mobile, Verizon and Sprint. There may be more carriers of which I am not aware, but those three account for a whole lot of people. More people than AT&T where the i-Phone is trapped.

The thing is just amazing. However, I know as well as the next idiot how to break something and when I tell you that little things mean a lot, I mean exactly that. I needed to find a case for my new phone to protect it from breaking. As it happens, I have hard tile floors on the first floor, and I knew that one day, despite herculean efforts to be careful, I would drop the thing and my Hero would be dead, and I'd be out another $180 for a new phone.

So it was that I went shopping for cases, thinking that a rubberized one would do the trick. However, I found this little product on Amazon.com:

I didn't know it at the time I ordered it, but it was hard and "rubberized" plastic and came in two pieces. I was tempted to return it to get the $10, one piece silicone-rubber-whatever case, but the cost of the return shipping made that impractical so I bit the bullet, so to speak, and snapped it onto my phone and shut my mouth and just dealt with it.

Let me tell you that the two piece case saved my phone over the weekend because when I dropped it, and it was only a question of when, not if, that I would do so, that little $5 Chinese chatchke saved my phone as when it hit the tile in the kitchen, the energy from the drop from my white fleece pullover where it could and did slide out to the floor caused the case to split in two pieces saving my Hero. I just had to write about it, and what's more I couldn't recommend a case more highly for your mobile phone. If you have a chance to get a hard, two piece case for yours, by all means, get it. It'll save you more aggravation than you care to think about, not to mention hard-to-come-by money.

Little life enhancements. Good things.

**Update: 1800 PST: Amazon refused to refund my money, as it's not their policy to do so after the item ships, even if the price subsequently drops and the item can still be returned. What bullshit. So they want me to return the thing and THEN get it cheaper from THEM? So I argued a bit with the "leadership team director" who was, by his accent, in India, and got him to send me a promotional gift certificate on a "one time only" basis. This is a ridiculous policy, especially when the item can still be returned. Amazon, are you listening? Probably not. But your man in India made me a wee bit happier in giving me a gift certificate for the difference. Thank you for that, "Eric".

18 November 2009

Germany's Nazi Exception

Constitutional Court OKs Curtailing of Free Speech

By Dietmar Hipp

Neo-Nazis gather in Wunsiedel in 2001 for a parade to honor Hitler deputy Rudolf Hess.

Neo-Nazis gather in Wunsiedel in 2001 for a parade to honor Hitler deputy Rudolf Hess.

Germany's constitution strongly and explicitly protects the freedom of speech. Still, the country's highest court has now said that -- given the injustice and horrors of the Nazi regime -- it is constitutional to make an exception that bans speech glorifying Hitler's ideology.

Wunsiedel is a small town of about 10,000 in the northeastern corner of Bavaria. Every year, on one particular day, this otherwise sleepy town is on high alert. In late August, thousands of people come here from all over Germany and abroad. Dressed in black, these neo-Nazis come to march in commemoration of Rudolf Hess, the Hitler deputy and convicted war criminal who has been buried here since 1987.

Some of the locals board up their houses and get out of town. Others bring banners to protest the parade and even block it with vehicles used for transporting liquid manure. In 2004, the town's mayor, Karl-Willi Beck, launched a campaign called "Wunsiedel is colorful, not brown." Together with town councilors, church officials and citizens, he tried to block the streets. A group of skinheads insulted him as a "traitor to his fatherland" and a "grave desecrator." The neo-Nazis threatened to run him out of town.

But, since 2005, he hasn't had to deal with the crowds. In that year, the Bundestag, the lower house of Germany's federal parliament, passed an amendment that strengthened the legal article dealing with incitement to hatred. Otto Shily, who was Germany's interior minister at the time, said that it was done "in solidarity with the democratic public of Wunsiedel." The amendment was meant to make it easier to outlaw neo-Nazi commemorative marches in Wunsiedel and elsewhere. The amendment worked. And, last year, the Federal Administrative Court confirmed the decision upholding a ban on such assemblies based on the new law.

Still, Jürgen Rieger, the recently deceased Hamburg-based lawyer and neo-Nazi who organized the Hess commemorations, was determined to keep marching. To do so, he placed his hope in Germany's Federal Constitutional Court, based in Karlsruhe. Sure, the judges had already dismissed a number of Rieger's expedited motions. But, in this case, they had expressly determined that the new ban "raised a series of difficult constitutional issues." However, they also felt that these were not the type of questions that could be dealt with in expedited proceedings.

Challenging the Amendment

Now, the Constitutional Court has finally decided that the strengthening of the article in the penal code is constitutional -- and that the administrative court's ban on such assemblies can logically follow from it. Although the judges have determined that Rieger's constitutional complaint is "unfounded," their decision, announced on Tuesday, also shows the enduring trickiness surrounding the fourth paragraph of Article 130 of the German Penal Code. That paragraph prescribes a sentence of up to three years for whoever "approves of, glorifies or justifies the violent and despotic rule of the National Socialists" in a way that "disturbs the public peace in a manner that violates the dignity of the victims."

In German law, if a complainant dies, a legal case is usually closed. Accordingly, Rieger's sudden death in October almost allowed the legal dispute to remain unanswered. But, in this case, the judges believed it was warranted to still deliver a judgment that was long in the making. It was their belief that, since the decision was meant to clarify a legal issue that "transcended the highly personal matter of the complainant" and applied to "a number of future gatherings," the decision had "a general constitutional significance."

Wrangling over Wunsiedel

Neo-Nazis held their first march to honor Rudolf Hess, their "martyr of the fatherland," in Wunsiedel in 1988. Two years later, the march saw violent confrontations between skinheads and counterdemonstrators. As a response, the gathering was outlawed in 1991. For years, various courts approved the ban.

But, beginning in 2000, Rieger was given the legal green light to start marching again. The increasingly astute lawyer was able to persuade the Constitutional Court with his arguments. In 2003, the court's justices determined, on the one hand, that there was "no indication" that the police were not able to carry out "their duties" related to preventing and combating individual criminal acts and, on the other hand, that "glorifying persons and ideologies of National Socialism" could not, in and of itself, be used to justify a ban on such gatherings.

Peter Seisser, a member of the Social Democrats (SPD) who represented Wunseidel's district in the state parliament at the time, was not impressed with the ruling. He said that -- according to its legal reasoning -- if it gave the go ahead for a march for Hess, then it couldn't forbid a public ceremony to commemorate Adolf Hitler. In early 2005, 40 prominent residents of Wunsiedel -- from state-level politicians to Catholic priests -- traveled to Berlin to ask members of the federal parliament specializing in domestic issues to draft new criminal legislation specifically tailored to Wunsiedel's particular situation. "They really pestered us," recalls Cornelie Sonntag-Wolgast, who chaired the Bundestag's Internal Affairs Committee at the time. "It was one of the major reasons we managed to get a majority to amend this law."

Legal Wranglings

The amendment made itself felt. Whether it was in Wunsiedel, Magdeburg, Aachen or Hanover, a whole series of demonstrations were outlawed for providing "sufficient indication" that events surrounding the gatherings would violate the newly amended law.

But, in the wake of the decision, there was also serious doubt about whether the strengthening of the penal code was constitutional. It's a doubt that has now actually been confirmed by the Constitutional Court.

According to the Basic Law, the name given to Germany's constitution, limitations of freedom of speech are only permitted when they are based on a "general law." In the case of this paragraph, however, the justices determined that it is not a "general law." What's more, earlier court decisions also hold that such a law cannot "be directed toward the expression of an opinion as such." Instead, it must serve to protect a "legal right per se, without regard for a certain opinion."

The Nazi Exception

Ulli Rühl is a Bremen-based expert on constitutional law and legal philosopher. Already during the process of drafting the law, he warned that, in constitutional terms, the proposed expansion of the law against incitement was very "borderline." As he saw it, "in point of fact," the law only applied to "adherents of old- or neo-Nazi ideologies," which automatically meant it wasn't "free of bias when it comes to opinions." And Rieger criticized the law on his Web site, saying things like: "Stalin killed over 30 million people, but he can be glorified."

Still, if you look at the reasoning of the Constitution Court in a certain way, you can see that the Germans are in no way trying to pass judgment on Stalin's crimes. Rather, the real issue here is the horror of Hitler's regime.

In a sense, the fact that Germany's Basic Law was meant to consciously and decisively make a break from the Nazi era means that, in its very essence, it is designed to explicitly forbid Nazi propaganda. As the judges put it, the Basic Law can "almost be understood as the exact opposite of the totalitarianism of the Nazi regime." For this reason, they claim, it is permissible to have "regulations that set limits on the propagandistic endorsement" of the Nazi regime and that this was permissible -- as an exceptional circumstance -- as a targeted restriction on one's freedom of speech.

When it comes to Rieger's argument that the march was only meant "to honor Rudolf Hess," the Federal Administrative Court had already delivered a decision that shot it down. According to that court's decision, a "reasonable observer" would have "clearly recognized" that the commemorative march -- if it were to ever be held again -- "would endorse the totality of the National Socialist regime without restriction."

Woman wearing tallit arrested at Western Wall


Randy Shiner

JERUSALEM (JTA) -- Jerusalem police arrested a woman praying at the Western Wall for wearing a tallit.

The woman, who was participating in Rosh Chodesh services, was arrested Wednesday based on an Israeli Supreme Court ruling that the public must dress according to the customs of the site, Israel Radio reported.

Police came to the site after the Women of the Wall group asked to read from a Torah scroll, according to reports. The group usually holds its services at Robinson's Arch, located near the Wall.

Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch, the Western Wall rabbi, called the group's actions Wednesday "an act of provocation that seeks to turn the Western Wall into disputed territory," according to reports.

The chairwoman of the women's group, Anat Hoffman, said it was the first time that a woman has been arrested at the Western Wall for donning a tallit. She identified the arrested woman as Nofrat Frenkel, a medical student from Beersheba.

13 November 2009

Dick Katz, 85, Jazzman of Many Gifts Over 6 Decades, Is Dead

November 13, 2009

Dick Katz, 85, Jazzman of Many Gifts Over 6 Decades, Is Dead

Dick Katz, a pianist, record producer, educator and writer whose knowledge of jazz from the stride-piano era to 1960s modernism made him a valuable presence on New York’s jazz scene for six decades, died on Tuesday in Manhattan. He was 85.

The cause was lung cancer, said his son Jamie.

Mr. Katz’s piano idols were soloist royalty: Teddy Wilson, Art Tatum, Fats Waller. But he was a more reserved musician, finding his place somewhere between accompanist, arranger and subtle improviser.

One of his breakthrough moments was his role as pianist on the saxophonist and composer Benny Carter’s 1961 album “Further Definitions,” meshing with a first-class multigenerational crew including swing-era veterans and younger musicians. Another was his 1965 collaboration with the singer Helen Merrill, “The Feeling Is Mutual,” an arty, cooled-out album of jazz standards of which he was co-leader, arranger and producer.

Richard Aaron Katz, born in Baltimore on March 13, 1924, was already playing in local clubs there as a teenager before he left for the University of North Carolina to study music. He joined the Navy in 1942 and fought in the battle of Saipan; in 1946 he became a professional musician in New York.

While working for his father’s advertising agency, he studied at the Manhattan School of Music, where John Lewis, later of the Modern Jazz Quartet, was a fellow student. In 1950 he took private lessons with Wilson. By the early 1950s he was performing regularly with the clarinetist Tony Scott’s group at Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem and making a string of records with Mr. Scott, including “Music After Midnight” and “Jazz for G.I.’s.”

For several years in the mid-’50s, Mr. Katz played in the house rhythm section at the Cafe Bohemia in the West Village with the bassist Oscar Pettiford and the drummer Kenny Clarke, backing Miles Davis, among others. He also toured with the popular twin-trombone band led by J. J. Johnson and Kai Winding and played with the trumpeter Kenny Dorham’s Jazz Prophets.

His old friend Lewis helped Mr. Katz secure a record deal with Atlantic in 1958, which resulted in the album “Piano and Pen.” Through the ’50s and ‘60s he appeared frequently as a sideman, on records by the vocalist Carmen McRae, the saxophonist Sonny Rollins and others. Starting in the late ’60s, two of his most frequent collaborators were the trumpeter Roy Eldridge and the saxophonist Lee Konitz — brilliant players on opposite chronological sides of bebop, jazz’s great stylistic divide.

In 1966 Mr. Katz and the veteran record producer Orrin Keepnews founded the jazz label Milestone. Staying with the company until the early ’70s, he produced records by Mr. Konitz and others, as well as “Alone Together,” a highly regarded duet album by the guitarist Jim Hall and the bassist Ron Carter.

Beginning in the middle ‘80s Mr. Katz worked with the American Jazz Orchestra, a repertory ensemble directed by Lewis, and the saxophonist Loren Schoenberg’s big band. From the ’80s onward he taught at the New School, the Manhattan School of Music and Jazz at Lincoln Center.

Mr. Katz was also among a select group of jazz musicians who wrote well about their art. His astute essays about Davis and Tatum in The Jazz Review, published in 1959 and 1960, led to other writings, for books and album liner notes. He received Grammy Award nominations for the notes he wrote for “Jazz Piano: A Smithsonian Collection” (1990) and “The Complete Capitol Recordings of the Nat King Cole Trio” (1993).

Mr. Katz’s first marriage, to the former Edith Shapiro, ended in divorce. He is survived by his wife, the former Joan Seifer, as well as four sons — Jamie and Frank, of Manhattan; Jeffrey, of Washington; and Ivan, of Brooklyn — and two grandchildren.

12 November 2009

Death At Fort Hood - The Coming Storm for Muslims in America

I am heartbroken at the loss of life at Fort Hood, Texas. I kind of always suspected that psychiatrists, listening to their patients' tales of pain, rage, anger and hurt couldn't help themselves and become just as pained, angry and hurt as their patients. Professional objectivity is obviously measured in very subjective ways. Until some kind of break. As a lawyer, believe me, it is a difficult proposition not to put myself- my self - two words - into all that I do for a client whose rights I am being paid to protect or assert. But this is exactly why people hire me - because I care, and it shows in what I do.

But psychiatry is a different animal. I have never been on the other end of a therapy session - except when I find myself the defacto therapist myself -- part of, I suppose, my job at times, but to state the obvious: everyone has their breaking point, especially when we attempt to comprehend the endless possibilities that lie within each of our minds, even violent ones.

But what could be the causes behind a rampage like that which took place at Ft. Hood? That will be for a battalion of psychiatrists, behavioralists, lawyers and clerics to determine as Major Hasan proceeds through the military justice system. For anyone to speculate that it was one cause or another is to simplify the man to a caricature, which I assure you is impossible if we are to attempt to treat Major Hasan fairly and do justice to ourselves in judging what he did and why.

I cannot help but think that as more news comes out about Major Hasan's affiliation with jihadi imams around the world we will start to see a backlash against fundamentalist Islam here in this country such as has not been seen since FDR signed the executive order to round up all persons of Japanese descent on the West Coast as an alleged matter of national security after the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. And that, frankly, as a Jew, scares me, but at the same time makes me question a system of belief - jihad, dhimmitude, the worst that Sharia has to offer - can possibly be so attractive -- perversely so -- to a smart, educated man like Major Hasan who is as American as me, with a story not unlike any one of us whose descendants did not arrive in this country on the Mayflower.

When can we honestly point to certain things and say to the world in all honesty that a certain set of beliefs is anathema to Western civilized society? I am no expert on Sharia law. But I can understand how, when the world seems stacked against you, it's exactly as then-candidate Obama said -- people reach for the perceived solidity and morality of their religion - "the clingers" -- and it happens in every religion, regardless. There are those of us (and I speak obviously from a Jewish perspective) whose lives can spiral so out of control, those of us whose desperation cannot be slaked by anything other than a closed fist around whatever belief system one happens to guide oneself by. And in the case of Major Hasan, obviously a rational human being, something in him made the notion of killing his fellow soldiers in the name of Allah a burning desire within him which directly resulted in the horror at Ft. Hood.

One has to think about this: if Major Hasan's name was Washington or Cohen, would the country be so concerned with the killer's religious beliefs? No. The world's experience with terror has been almost exclusively with those whose views and reading of the Koran are literal and therefore dangerous. The same was true with the killer of Yitzhak Rabin and other Jewish terrorists. So it is that as a country, we are at a crossroads: in my view, there will be a deserved backlash against those individuals who have such fundamentalist and literalist views of the Koran that it will spread to the entirety of the Koran itself and all of its adherents, whether they are fundamentalist jihadis or not. And that is sad, because, again, to state the obvious, not all Muslims are terrorists.

But if a system of belief can create generations of people who want to die for Allah, what does that say about that system of belief? For me, as for Judaism in general, the first tenet is to live. God wants us all to live and be happy and, to borrow that oft-quoted phrase of Rodney King's after the LA riots, to just get along. Any system of belief that contributes to those things is worthy of anyone's attention, attention in a positive way.

But suffice it to say that all fundamentalist positions on all religions can only lead to badness when they are attempted to be imposed on others without their consent. And therein lies the heart of the matter: I know enough about Islam to say this: that the Koran and actions based on it which could in any way contribute to what Major Hasan did must be brought into question as a valid belief structure. Any religion that empowers people to die or gives them reasons to die and not live is contrary to the very fundamental basis of all life on earth, at least to my way of thinking.

I do not buy into the notion that Islam is all wrong. There is much beauty and are many decent life lessons there, I am sure. No religion has it all right; there is plenty in my bible that I find utterly abhorrent. But there are those ultra-Orthodox fundamentalists who would and do disagree with me. That's fine, as long as there is respect going both ways, and it is this lack of respect for divergent viewpoints in the fundamentalist weltanschauung that to me makes for most of the problems we humans on earth face. Fundamentalists think they have it all right, as if it were up to them to decide. Fealty to one point of view without consideration of others' is just another way of attempting to intellectually and religiously (and in some cases physically) dominate another people or person. It is intolerable. And if there's one thing that I don't tolerate, it's intolerance.

And so it is that I am afraid for American Muslims who will, I think, face the wrath of those that think all Muslims are killers or terrorists or that somehow Muslims have to be controlled in the way that American Japanese were. What amounted to a suicide attack at Ft. Hood does not bode well for millions of Muslims who would have nothing to do with what Major Hasan did. Who left the Middle East long ago or even recently because of the incessant fighting and intransigence.

That backlash, I fear, is coming, though, much to my dismay and angst. Let cool heads prevail, but in the meantime, the first duty is to preserve the nation, and if there is a fifth column (and there is -- did you see the FBI attacks on Jihadi Muslims in Detroit a couple of weeks ago?) of jihadi Muslims being home-grown as they are in the United Kingdom, we would do well to act with a great deal of caution but just as much resolve, and this will take the active participation of moderate, real Muslims who do not subscribe to the fundamentalist viewpoints espoused on a daily basis in too many mosques in this country. It is time for those people to stand up against fundamentalist teachings and be heard. I stand with them. But I fear the coming storm.

Randy Shiner

08 November 2009

A Failure of Common Sense

FromRandy Shiner <randy.shiner@gmail.com>
11622 El Camino Real
Suite 100
San Diego, CA 92130
ToSan Diego Union-Tribune, North County Times, San Diego Daily Transcript
SubjectA Failure of Common Sense
MessageLast night, the House of Representatives passed the most sweeping social legislation since Medicare, which Ronald Reagan himself compared at the time to a communist takeover.

Sadly, the Republican party has not learned a thing in over four decades since that groundbreaking legislation was passed. How can our elected representatives, most of whom presumably have minds and consciences within them, not see the common sense that is health care reform in this country? A healthy country is a more prosperous country and a prosperous country is a better country. It should not take simple logical syllogisms like that to prove the point, but the fact that only ONE Republican congressman, the first ever Vietnamese immigrant to ever reach the House of Representatives, Rep. Cao (Joe)Anh (LA-2), voted for this legislation?

Do not our Republican members of Congress possess an ounce of common sense? Or has it all been bought off by insurance company money and pandering to the "tea partiers" who have seemingly hijacked what used to be an intellectually respectable party? Whatever is said in the aftermath of this historic vote, I hope that those reading this will remember those Congressmen and women who voted against improving the health of their constituents. That is the bottom line. Nothing more, nothing less. The entire Republican party, the party of no ideas, has lost even a measure of common sense. Sad.

Sunday Wax Bits


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Who Is a Jew? Court Ruling in Britain Raises Question

View from a booth:
The world view of mainstream Orthodox Judaism, represented by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks who made the decision to bar "M" from the Jews' Free School is closed, insular and stulted. As is pointed out at the end of this article, the order barring "M" because his mother was not converted according (allegedly) to Orthodox standards (too much of which is purely political) would bar 40% of those who consider themselves Jewish and who practice Judaism. The same people who will shry like banshees over this ruling are the same ones who think Sharia law -- or at least some elements of it -- is awful, when in fact those that follow the mainstream Orthodox line are the same rigid thinkers as are Sunni or Wahabbi Muslims -- no room to wake up to the reality that it's 2010 almost, not circa 1800 Poland. Either Judaism accepts change, either halacha changes organically like any other body of law, or it will devolve, if it already hasn't, into a moribund weltanschaaung that will eventually die. Too many Jews who do their best to practice Judaism with the right intention are being turned off by rules that those within the current Jewish power structure do not want to see change at any cost. This is a recipe for disaster for the future of Judaism, which should be a living, breathing organism, not what those on "the inside" say it should be, to the exclusion of far too many people. Can Orthodox Judaism afford to continue its present path? For me, no. The Court in Britain that decided that "M" was discriminated against was correct: if the JFS is going to accept government money, then it has to live by government rules.
Of course, there will be those who say "we have to maintain standards", a proposition with which I essentially agree, but it should not be up to one body or stream of Judaism to say what those standards are. Anyone or any group which claims a monopoly on what they think Jewish standards are correct and true to Jewish thought are to be viewed at least with skepticism. Judaism is too complex for one view to be right and all others to be wrong. That is a simplistic zeitgeist that only serves the simple minded who do not wish to explore the true essence and meaning of what it is to be Jewish.

Randy Shiner

November 8, 2009

LONDON — The questions before the judges in Courtroom No. 1 of Britain’s Supreme Court were as ancient and as complex as Judaism itself.

Who is a Jew? And who gets to decide?

On the surface, the court was considering a straightforward challenge to the admissions policy of a Jewish high school in London. But the case, in which arguments concluded Oct. 30, has potential repercussions for thousands of other parochial schools across Britain. And in addressing issues at the heart of Jewish identity, it has exposed bitter divisions in Britain’s community of 300,000 or so Jews, pitting members of various Jewish denominations against one another.

“This is potentially the biggest case in the British Jewish community’s modern history,” said Stephen Pollard, editor of the Jewish Chronicle newspaper here. “It speaks directly to the right of the state to intervene in how a religion operates.”

The case began when a 12-year-old boy, an observant Jew whose father is Jewish and whose mother is a Jewish convert, applied to the school, JFS. Founded in 1732 as the Jews’ Free School, it is a centerpiece of North London’s Jewish community. It has around 1,900 students, but it gets far more applicants than it accepts.

Britain has nearly 7,000 publicly financed religious schools, representing Judaism as well as the Church of England, Catholicism and Islam, among others. Under a 2006 law, the schools can in busy years give preference to applicants within their own faiths, using criteria laid down by a designated religious authority.

By many standards, the JFS applicant, identified in court papers as “M,” is Jewish. But not in the eyes of the school, which defines Judaism under the Orthodox definition set out by Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth. Because M’s mother converted in a progressive, not an Orthodox, synagogue, the school said, she was not a Jew — nor was her son. It turned down his application.

That would have been the end of it. But M’s family sued, saying that the school had discriminated against him. They lost, but the ruling was overturned by the Court of Appeal this summer.

In an explosive decision, the court concluded that basing school admissions on a classic test of Judaism — whether one’s mother is Jewish — was by definition discriminatory. Whether the rationale was “benign or malignant, theological or supremacist,” the court wrote, “makes it no less and no more unlawful.”

The case rested on whether the school’s test of Jewishness was based on religion, which would be legal, or on race or ethnicity, which would not. The court ruled that it was an ethnic test because it concerned the status of M’s mother rather than whether M considered himself Jewish and practiced Judaism.

“The requirement that if a pupil is to qualify for admission his mother must be Jewish, whether by descent or conversion, is a test of ethnicity which contravenes the Race Relations Act,” the court said. It added that while it was fair that Jewish schools should give preference to Jewish children, the admissions criteria must depend not on family ties, but “on faith, however defined.”

The same reasoning would apply to a Christian school that “refused to admit a child on the ground that, albeit practicing Christians, the child’s family were of Jewish origin,” the court said.

The school appealed to the Supreme Court, which is likely to rule sometime before the end of the year.

The case’s importance was driven home by the sheer number of lawyers in the courtroom last week, representing not just M’s family and the school, but also the British government, the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, the United Synagogue, the British Humanist Association and the Board of Deputies of British Jews.

Meanwhile, the Court of Appeal ruling threw the school into a panicked scramble to put together a new admissions policy. It introduced a “religious practice test,” in which prospective students amass points for things like going to synagogue and doing charitable work.

That has led to all sorts of awkward practical issues, said Jon Benjamin, chief executive of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, because Orthodox Judaism forbids writing or using a computer on the Sabbath. That means that children who go to synagogue can’t “sign in,” but have to use methods like dropping prewritten postcards into boxes.

It is unclear what effect the ruling, if it is upheld, will have on other religious schools. Some Catholic schools, accustomed to using baptism as a baseline admissions criterion, are worried that they will have to adopt similar practice tests.

The case has stirred up long-simmering resentments among the leaders of different Jewish denominations, who, for starters, disagree vehemently on the definition of Jewishness. They also disagree on the issue of whether an Orthodox leader is entitled to speak for the entire community.

“Whatever happens in this case, there must be some resolution sorted out between different denominations,” Mr. Benjamin said in an interview. “That the community has failed to grasp this has had the very unfortunate result of having a judgment foisted on it by a civil court.”

Orthodox Jews, of course, sympathize with the school, saying that observance is no test of Jewishness, and that all that matters is whether one’s mother is Jewish. So little does observance matter, in fact, that “having a ham sandwich on the afternoon of Yom Kippur doesn’t make you less Jewish,” Rabbi Yitzchak Schochet, chairman of the Rabbinical Council of the United Synagogue, said recently.

Lauren Lesin-Davis, chairman of the board of governors at King David, a Jewish school in Liverpool, told the BBC that the ruling violated more than 5,000 years of Jewish tradition.

“You cannot come in and start telling people how their whole lives should change, that the whole essence of their life and their religion is completely wrong,” she said.

But others are in complete sympathy with M.

“How dare they question our beliefs and our Jewishness?” David Lightman, an observant Jewish father whose daughter was also denied a place at the school because it did not recognize her mother’s conversion, told reporters recently. “I find it offensive and very upsetting.”

Rabbi Danny Rich, chief executive of Liberal Judaism here, said the lower court’s ruling, if upheld, would help make Judaism more inclusive.

“JFS is a state-funded school where my grandfather taught, and it’s selecting applicants on the basis of religious politics,” he said in an interview. “The Orthodox definition of Jewish excludes 40 percent of the Jewish community in this country.”

29 October 2009

China's Boom: The Dark Side in Photos

Orville Schell

A family of five children who emigrated to Inner Mongolia from the nearby Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region to find work in the Heilonggui Industrial District, April 10, 2005. The oldest child is nine years old; the youngest is less than two. Photographs by Lu Guang (courtesy of Contact Press Images).

I have seen some woeful scenes of industrial apocalypse and pollution in my travels throughout China, but there are very few images that remain vividly in my mind. This is why the photographs of Lu Guang are so important. A fearless documentary photographer who lives in China’s southern province of Zhejiang and runs a photo studio and lab that funds his myriad trips around China, Lu photographs the dark consequences of China’s booming but environmentally destructive economic development in ways that stay with you.

Torah on 1 Foot : Parshat Lech Lecha

Torah on 1 Foot
Parshat Lech Lecha

God: If you go, I'll make you a great nation. Deal?

Abraham: Deal

Circumcisions on the house.


The Goldstone Factor

Point Of View
The Goldstone Factor \ Yossi Klein Halevi August 13, 2009
Yossi Klein Halevi, Senior Fellow at the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies, explains how the Goldstone report may change the scale of the next Middle East War. Read also in Point of View on The Demons of Normalization by Uriya Shavit and When Everything is a Crime by Yagil Henkin.

The Israeli reactions to the Goldstone report on the Gaza war of January 2009 have focused, understandably, on its outrageous omissions and distortions and one-sided judgments, as well as on the moral corruption of the report's sponsor, the UN's Human Rights Commission. But the far-reaching strategic implications of the Goldstone report require no less urgent consideration.

If a large part of the international community endorses the report's conclusions and opts to put Israel on trial – symbolically or literally – the clear message to Israel will be the rescinding of its right to self-defense against Hezbollah and Hamas, both of which are embedded in civilian populations. That will require a basic rethinking of Israel's current strategic policy of containing the terrorist enclaves on its northern and southern borders.

In the decades following the Six Day War, Israeli policy, upheld by successive Labor and Likud governments, was to deny terrorists a foothold along any Israeli border. That was, in part, the rationale behind Moshe Dayan's open bridges policy between Israel and Jordan in the 1970s, as well as Ariel Sharon's West Bank settlement drive and the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. When that war soured, so did the appeal of the policy that inspired it.

Israel's two unilateral withdrawals – from Lebanon in 2000 and Gaza in 2005 – both resulted in the creation of terror enclaves on its borders, negating long-standing strategy. The policy of prevention was replaced by a policy of containment.

That policy of containment was expressed in the 2006 operation against Hezbollah in Lebanon, and by this year's operation against Hamas in Gaza. In both those mini-wars, Israel opted not to uproot the terrorist enclaves, hoping that the partial flexing of Israeli power would deter further aggression.

The Goldstone report may well mark the end of Israel's limited wars against terrorist groups. Israel cannot afford to continue to be drawn into mini-wars against terrorists hiding behind their own civilians to attack Israeli civilians, given that each such conflict inexorably draws the Jewish state one step closer toward pariah status. Limited victories on the battlefield are being turned into major defeats in the arena of world opinion.

That untenable situation may well leave Israel no choice but to return to the post-1967 policy of preventing altogether the presence of terror enclaves on its borders. Better, Israelis will argue, to deal decisively with the terror threat and brace for temporary international outrage than subject our legitimacy to constant attrition, even as the terrorist threat remains intact.

Israelis will be keenly watching the pace of Qassam rocket fire from Gaza for signs of an emboldened Hamas. If attacks do intensify – as they have in recent days – and the quiet achieved by the Gaza offensive is forfeited, the Israeli public will blame the Goldstone report. And Israelis' operative conclusions will likely lead to a less restrained response next time – the oppposite result Judge Richard Goldstone sought to achieve in his attempt to deny Israel the right to self-defense.