Archive | Jewish Culture

Mockery of the Obamacare Pajama Boy Anti-Semitic?

That’s the claim made by one Jay Michaelson in the Forward:

Yes, Virginia, Pajama Boy is a member of the tribe. Look at him. Pale Ashkenazic skin, Jew-fro’d black curls, Woody Allen specs. Even the smart-ass expression on his face screams of the Wise Son from the Passover Seder.Parenthetically, the model himself is one Ethan Krupp, an Organizing for America staffer who is, in fact, Jewish. But whether Krupp himself is circumcised or not, Pajama Boy is semiotically Jewish, even stereotypically so.

Nope, not a satire. And more:

In fact, Pajama Boy stands at a centuries-old nexus of anti-Semitism and misogyny. As many scholars, including Sander Gilman, David Biale, Paula Hyman, Matti Bunzl, John Efron, and Daniel Boyarin have shown, Jewish men have been accused of being unmanly for hundreds of years – including by other Jews, such as the early Zionists, whose muscular Judaism was a direct response to diaspora Jewish emasculation. This is an old, old motif. The Jew is the Other is the Effeminate is the Liberal. He is the urbanite, the parasite, the usurer, the lawyer. His effeminacy corrupts the Volk or the Heartland or the real American values. He wouldn’t know how to drive a pick-up truck if it was on cruise control. And he definitely votes for Obama. Really, what’s “metrosexual” about Pajama Boy, anyway? The fact that he’s wearing pajamas? Drinking a hot beverage? No – it’s the way in which he so perfectly fits the Right’s image of the liberal Jewish girly-man. There’s a real “masculinity,” and then there’s whatever it is that Pajama Boy is embodying. (For the record, I have no idea whether Krupp is gay or straight. Neither do his haters.)

Still not a satire. Seriously, while I’m aware of the sort of anti-Semitism Michaelson is referring to, [...]

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Interesting Essay on Jews who Oppose Israel

Shlomo Fischer in the Times of Israel:

I suggest that in fact, they [ultra-Orthodox and leftists who are hostile to the existence of Israel] do share a common Jewish theme. This theme was articulated by the great Israeli scholar of the Jewish religion, Gershom Scholem, who argued that the price that the Jewish people paid for their development of the Messianic idea was their own “exit from history.” During the long history of the Exile the Jewish people imagined a Messianic, redeemed world of perfect justice, perfect national restoration, perfect relationship to God and religious observance. They could develop this idea precisely because they were removed from “history” – they could not participate as a national collective in world politics, in world culture and in the endeavors of building a state, developing a national economy etc. Thus, on the national level they did not have to deal with the inevitable, mistakes, compromises and wickedness which is necessarily part of any concrete action in the world. Instead they could develop one of the most important Jewish contributions to the human spirit – The Messianic Idea. But, as Scholem points out, there was something profoundly unreal about Jewish life in the Exile.

Zionism was one of the most profound revolutions in Jewish life. It constitutes, as Scholem defined it, a departure from the Messianic Idea to the realm of history. Once Jews enter the realm of history by building a Jewish state they necessarily become implicated in a life that is less than ideal – they become implicated – simply by the fact of action in the real world – in injustice, in moral compromises, corruption and other ills and wrongs. They can no longer cling to the perfect justice and perfect religion of the Messianic Idea. But here is the rub:

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Forgetting the Jewish Refugees from Arab Countries

My wife and I just attended a tour at the National Archives of the exhibit of Iraqi-Jewish documents that were rescued and preserved from the flooded basement of the Iraqi intelligence headquarters in 2003.  My Iraqi-Jewish wife, along with many others, is very upset that these documents, having been stolen from the Jewish community, are being returned to Iraq. I wonder whether there is some law dealing with looted artifacts that can be invoked by a plaintiff (maybe someone who had owned one of the documents) to enjoin the documents’ return.

Meanwhile, in a book review today of a book about Israel, Thomas Friedman writes, “[The author] then weaves in the next waves of immigrants, the broken survivors of World War II who joined up with the idealistic Zionists to rebuild the Jewish commonwealth in its ancient homeland.” As in unfortunately often par for the course in discussions of Israel and Zionism, Friedman casually treats Israel in its early year as a conglomeration of early European Zionist immigrants and later European Holocaust refugees and survivors, neglecting the hundreds of thousands of Jews forced to flee Arab countries and make their way to Israel, including my parents-in-law. It’s perhaps relatively easy to forget them, because unlike Arab refugees from the Israeli War of Independence they weren’t herded into refugee camps and denied citizenship to better serve as political bargaining chips and human fodder for war and terrorism. But they and their descendants also constitute around half of Israel’s population, and are, for obvious reasons, on average rather more suspicious of peace deals that rely on the Arabs’ good will then are their Ashkenazi fellow citizens. The consistent neglect–even often in Israel–of their collective refugee trauma isn’t conducive to peace. After all, how would you feel about, for example, proposed massive compensation [...]

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Pew Study: 27% of Jewish Children Live in Orthodox Homes

By comparison, only 11% of Jews ages 18-29 are Orthodox.  Two caveats.  First, only 80% of those 18-29 who were raised Orthodox call themselves Orthodox, so if trends hold the 27% will be more like 21.5%.  Second, there is a confidence interval, unknown to me, and the numbers may not be quite so dramatic.  But I did check with demographer Steven Cohen, who reported these data, and he thinks the figures are about right.  If so, this represents a huge and dramatic shift in American Jewish life.  Given that the Orthodox are by definition more actively involved in Jewish life, and most of the rest of American Jewry not-so-much, a huge percentage of what one might call “Jewish energy” in the U.S. will emanate from Orthodox circles.

As an aside, I was thinking how difficult it must be for demographers to do cross-generational comparisons.  To take one issue, in past generations, lots of people just vanished from the Jewish world without a trace by adopting a non-Jewish identity and never mentioning their background to anyone.  It’s hard to know how common this used to be, but consider that individuals who either didn’t know or claimed not to know about their recent Jewish ancestry include Madeleine Albright, John Kerry, and George Allen.  Bush budget director Richard Darman was raised Jewish, but never told his wife and children.  In my own family, I know that one of my grandfather’s first cousins changed his name to Burns and never told his children he was born and raised Jewish–and they were quite surprised to receive an invitation to the Bernstein family reunion.  I’ve also met quite a few people over time who suspect that one of their parents was raised Jewish, or who are dimly aware of family rumors that a grandparent was Jewish. [...]

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Europe’s Proposed Circumcision Ban: How Far Back We’ve Gone While Making Progress

The Council of Europe in Strasbourg has recommended nations consider banning child circumcision. Jewish groups, and the State of Israel, are predictably outraged by the recommendation, which if adopted would make traditional (and not just religious) Jewish life impossible on the Continent. Thus the law has been denounced as anti-Semitic.

While I have recently criticized European hypocrisy in matters related to Jews, here I find little to object to as a formal matter. European nations are well within their rights to ban such practices, despite the significant disruption it creates for religious minorities.

If democratically adopted, such bans would mean that a significant segment of European society thinks, as the Council said, that circumcision represents a barbaric mutilation of a child. That is a legitimate position of conscience; indeed, it is a quasi-religious belief itself, in that it is based on deeply held moral views about essentially unverifiable matters. As a believer in the covenant of Abraham I do not share these views, but they are far from absurd if one does not accept the validity of the covenant.

A majority has a legitimate right and interest to conduct society according to its moral views when articulated in laws that are generally and equally applied. Government is in part an instrument for the expression and transmission of values, and all legislation takes explicit or implicit moral positions. If the values that stand behind generally applicable legislation conflict with the views of religious or ethnic minorities, the majority should not be neutered or have its values annulled to protect the sensibilities of minorities who hold different views.

There are some who think the law is discriminatory, aimed at the religious groups who practice circumcision. It seems to me that circumcision, in a non-religious context, is common [...]

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Some Takeaways from the Pew Study of American Jewish Life

The study is getting a lot of commentary, and there is much that one can say. But my top takeaways are that Modern Orthodoxy, Conservative Judaism, Reform Judaism, and Orthodox outreach are, all things considered, overall failures, which implies that American Judaism is a failure. Maybe this shouldn’t be a surprise. American Jews were always rather irreligious, the pious Jews generally stayed in Europe. Going back to the early 1900s, socialism, Communism, and Christian Science(!) were rampant in the Jewish community. Few Jews belonged to synagogues, and the center of world Jewish life was firmly in Europe, where the great centers of both Orthodox and non-Orthodox learning were. After WWII, with those centers destroyed, and an absence of traditional European Jews to replenish the community, one could have expected imminent disaster. Instead, a sociological surprise happened–Jews joined synagogues, in-married, and otherwise became much more religiously involved than sociologists would have expected. But perhaps that period, and not ours, was the anomaly. Anyway:

(1) Modern Orthodox Judaism is a failure. Modern Orthodoxy has a lot to be proud of. It’s built a strong network of day schools and Summer camps, it has very low rates of social pathology (if you want to keep your kids away from sex and drugs in high school, sending them to a modern Orthodox day school would improve the odds dramatically), and its adherents are full and successful participants in American life, including a recent major party Vice-Presidential candidate, a U.S. attorney general, and a White House Chief of Staff. Yet, only 3% of American Jews identify as modern Orthodox. This means that the modern Orthodox are not drawing from the large pool of older people who were raised Orthodox but drifted away, is not attracting young Conservative or Reform Jews to its brand of Judaism, [...]

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The Behavior of Nonprofits

I’ve randomly come across two stories that illustrate a truism about “nonprofits”–their leaders often act a lot like leaders of for-profit organizations, seeking to expand market share and the like.

In particular, it’s well-known that non-profits very rarely declare their mission to be over and wind up operations. The famous example is the March of Dimes, which started as an organization seeking to wipe out polio, and when it succeeded expanded into birth defects more generally.

Analogously, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, founded to help resettle Jewish refugees in the U.S. now has precious few Jewish refugees to resettle. Time to fold up shop? Of course not. HIAS has instead transformed its mission to helping refugees in general.

Meanwhile, the “Joint Distribution Committee,” whose mission is to aid Jews in need, has been working in Ethiopia for the last several decades to feed, house, employ and prepare for life in Israel tens of thousands of Jewish Ethiopians. The government of Israel has now declared that mass aliyah to Israel from Ethiopia is over, with everyone sufficiently connected to the Jewish people already given their entry permits. Time to close up shop in Ethiopia? Of course not! Time instead to expand the mission. Maybe young Jewish philanthropists want to give to development in Ethiopia. Maybe young Jewish volunteers want to spend some time in Ethiopia. Maybe the Israeli government thinks that keeping a presence in Ethiopia will help its foreign policy. Maybe Israel will decide that it needs to boost its foreign aid spending to meet OECD targets. But whatever the ratoinale, the last thing the organization wants to do is shrink.

Note that the point here is not to debate what Jewish organizations should be doing, whether Jewish philanthropy should focus more on the Jewish community or on so-called “tikkun [...]

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They Hate Us And/Or Want to Convert Us

Anytime the issue of evangelical Christian support for Israel comes up in a conversation among Jews, someone is bound to say something like, “they may love Israel, but only for theological reasons and they are anti-Semites” or “they are just trying to cozy up to us so that they can convert us all because they think that’s a prerequisite for Jesus’s return.” I’ve noted before that much of what American Jews think about evangelical Christians is contrary to empirical evidence (e.g., conservative evangelical Christians in the U.S. are no more or less anti-Semitic than Americans as a whole, and are substantially less anti-Semitic than some groups than lean Democratic and liberal, such as high school dropouts, Arab American, Hispanics, and African Americans), but a recent Pew study of worldwide evangelical leaders (only 20% North American, and 19% European) provides some additional interesting data about evangelicals worldwide.

34% say they sympathize more with Israel than with the Palestinians, while the rest says the sympathize either with both sides equally or with neither side (note that 47% of the leaders surveyed come from sub-Saharan African or Asia outside the Middle East, where the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not exactly the leading issue of the day). 75% of evangelical leaders view Jews favorably, the same percentage as view Catholics and Orthodox Christians favorably. 73% say it is a “top priority” to evangelize among non-religious people, 59% among Muslims, 39% among Buddhists and Hindus, 27% among Jews, 26% among non-evangelical Christians, and 20% among Catholics.

I’d say that it’s pretty hard to look at this data and conclude that Jews should have a specific fear or loathing of evangelical Christian leaders. [...]

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Passover Rhapsody

I’m talking to my daughter’s preschool class about Passover tomorrow, and in preparation I’ve been looking for appropriate Youtube videos to show them. This one didn’t make the cut for the particular occasion, but it’s my favorite Passover Youtube video (and one of a series of very clever Passover videos from Aish.com). A must if you are a “Queen” fan.

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Video of My Father’s Talk at an Immigration Panel at Cary Library in Lexington, MA

My father, Yefim Somin, recently participated in a panel on memoirs of immigration at Cary Memorial Libary in Lexington, MA. The video is available here.

As my father mentioned in the talk, his account of his immigration experience is available in this recent book of Russian Jewish immigrant memoirs published by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. Other contributors include well-known novelist Gary Shteyngart and artist Marc Klionsky. I have an essay in in it as well. I blogged about an earlier version of it here. [...]

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Immigration Stories Event in Lexington, MA

For readers who may be interested, my father, Yefim Somin, will be speaking on his experience of immigration from the Soviet Union to the United States at Cary Memorial Library in Lexington, MA on February 28 at 7 PM. His talk will be part of a panel on the experiences of immigrants who have settled in Lexington. The other speakers will be Brandeis Professor Mitra Shavarini (Iran), and Weidong Wang (China). The address and other details of this event are available here.

My father’s account of his immigration experience is available in this recent book of Russian Jewish immigrant memoirs published by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which you can purchase either online or at the Cary event itself. Other contributors to the volume include well-known novelist Gary Shteyngart and artist Marc Klionsky. I have an essay in volume as well, an earlier version of which I blogged about here.

Copies of Prof. Shavarini’s memoir will also be on sale at the Cary Library event. [...]

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A True Heroine

From the Times of Israel comes the inspiring story of Judy Feld Carr: “For nearly three decades, Feld Carr [a musicologist and mother of six] single-handedly arranged the smuggling of more than 3,000 Jews out of Damascus, Aleppo and Qamishli to safety in Israel and America.”

UPDATE: I wonder if this article might be exaggerating Feld-Carr’s role in saving Syrian Jewry somewhat, given that in 1992 several thousand Syrian Jews left with the permission of the Assad government, on the condition that they go to the U.S. and not Israel.  This is not consistent with the article’s data stating that there were 4,600 Jews in Syria in the early 70s, and she rescued over 3,000 of them. Even if so, her story is a remarkable one. [...]

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Study of Genetic Origins of Middle Eastern and North African Jews

Ha’aretz has the details.  Reading this and other accounts of this and other studies, it now seems well-established that:

(1) The mainstream Ashkenazic and Mizrahi  (“Eastern”) Jewish communities share a genetic heritage tracing back about 2,500 years.

(2) These communities maintained sufficient separation from the local non-Jewish populations that despite vast geographic distances, to this day they have greater genetic similarity with each other than with the non-Jewish population among whom they lived.

(3) The idea that Ashkenazic Jews are primarily descended from converted Khazars, most recently propounded by charlatan Shlomo Sand, is nonsense, and only continues to persist against all scientific evidence because it serves the ideological agendas of anti-Semites and anti-Zionists.

(4) Some isolated Jewish communities, like the Ethiopians, either never had, or eventually lost, their genetic connection to the rest of the Jewish people.

(5) Contrary to popular myth, the group that Jews most resemble genetically is not Palestinian Arabs, but the Druze.  Geneticists, in fact, put Jews and Druze into one grouping, and Palestinians, Bedouin, and other Arab populations into another.

As I’ve said before, I don’t think such genetic studies bear any true relevance to modern political controversies (nor would they if they had different results)–since “peoplehood’ is purely a social construct anyway, I don’t see why it matters whether Palestinians or Jews “really” are peoples who have long dwelled in the Land of Israel/Palestine, or just think of themselves that way.  The studies are nevertheless interesting on their own terms.

But there are those, like Sand, who spend a good deal of time and energy trying to prove the lack of common Jewish genetic heritage, promoting the Khazar myth, and so on, for political reasons, and go so far as to dismiss contrary genetic evidence as Zionist propaganda.  To them, the classic response is [...]

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American Jewish Voting Behavior, 1972-2008

Here’s a very interesting report from “The Solomon Project.” The main conclusion is that based on election year exit polls, Jewish support for Democrats and liberalism has remained pretty constant since 1972.

If one digs a bit deeper into the report, one learns that current trends suggest that the American Jewish electorate will grow less Democratic in the future. First, unlike the rest of the electorate young Jews were less likely to vote for Obama in 2008 than were older Jews have been less likely to vote for Democratic presidential candidates over the least three elections. Indeed, about 75% Jews under 30 voted for Obama the Democrat (compared to about 85% of the over-60 crowd)* [by the way, this renders the premise behind Sarah Silverman's "Great Schlep" rather ridiculous, no? Maybe the alter kockers in Boca should be going up to Pennsylvania and Ohio to persuade their grandchildren to vote Democrat, rather than vice versa], not that much higher than the 66% of the general under-30 electorate that voted for Obama (the study tabulates the last three elections together for age]. Second, more religiously observant Jews are significantly more likely to vote Republican and not identify themselves as liberals. A rapidly increasing proportion of the American Jewish population is religiously observant thanks to high birth rates among the Orthodox, low birth rates and intermarriage among the non-Orthodox, and the fact that the generation of at least nominally Orthodox Eastern European immigrants whose children were not Orthodox has almost entirely died out, so for likely the first time in American history Orthodoxy is concentrated among the young.

One other interesting data point I can draw from the study is that Orthodox Jews (and possibly other observant or “religious” Jews) are substantially underrepresented in exit polls, or at least recent exit [...]

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More Data Contra Peter Beinart

Back in 2010, I wrote:

Peter Beinart has written a scathing indictment of organized American Jewry’s “conservative” views on Israel. He claims that “right-wing” Israeli policies, combined with American Jewish groups’ unflinching support for Israel, are alienating young American Jews, and reducing their attachment to Israel.

Beinart’s essay has received a remarkable amount of attention, especially considering that its underlying premise is simply false.

The data didn’t support him then, and I pointed out that the data were even less likely to do so in the future, given Birthright and the Internet. (Beinart parlayed the fame achieved from his essay into a book that from all indications has been a commercial flop despite much publicity.)

Now a new study by eminent sociologist Steven Cohen, the same author whose data Beinart previously misinterpreted, finds, as reported in the Forward:

Young Jews are now more attached to Israel than the previous generation, almost reaching the level of interest of their elders, a new poll reveals.

While Jews 45 and older were rated as having a 40-44 level of attachment to Israel, those between 35 and 45 only scored a 24. Those under 35 got a 39 out of 100, according to the poll carried out by the Workmen’s Circle.

The poll looked only at Jews who are not Orthodox and do not attend Jewish day school, thus reflecting the broader Jewish population and particularly the segment of the population that attends such programs as Birthright. It is these trips to Israel, and not a connection to Jewish life, which are being credited with the recent increase is Israel interest.

Given (a) that the older generation has always been more attached to Israel (b) the systematic anti-Israel campaign conducted on America’s campuses in the last decade and (c) predictions of doom [...]

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