|July 20, 2011||The Habsburgs and me||no comments|
|July 15, 2011||The vanishing chevras||1 comments|
|July 08, 2011||Israel must prepare for worst with Egypt||no comments|
|June 13, 2011||Kosher or cosher?||no comments|
|June 02, 2011||Kosher made easy (and cheaper)||no comments|
|May 24, 2011||A little bit of Pittsburgh||no comments|
|May 22, 2011||The extreme center||no comments|
|May 13, 2011||Eichmann's unintended service to mankind||no comments|
|May 06, 2011||C'mon Arik, return the Gandhi Prize||no comments|
|April 27, 2011||Just one question||no comments|
I took more than a passing interest this past week in the imperial funeral in Vienna of Otto von Habsburg, son of the last emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, at age 98.
After all, his grandfather knew my great-grandfather.
Details are sketchy, but my great-grandfather, Joseph Roth, was a young officer — probably a lieutenant — in the Austro-Hungarian army prior to World War I. One of the prized possessions of my family is a photo of my great-grandfather in his gray army uniform, his hair curled and his thin mustache beeswaxed. He looks good!
Somehow (don't ask me how) he came to the attention of then-Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Joseph, who ruled the patchwork, multi-ethnic realm from 1848 to 1916. Somehow, Joseph joined the imperial staff. All my grandmother, Joseph's oldest daughter, ever told me was, "Franz Joseph took a liking to him."
I suppose he did, and even though I'm as American as they come, I always felt a modicum of pride, knowing that my great-grandfather, a nice Hungarian Jew in a doomed empire,had gone about as far as a Jew could in one of Europe's oldest absolute monarchies.
But I also recognized the bitter irony of Joseph's ascension.
You see, the other side of my family also lived in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. On that side, my grandfather, Solomon Chottiner, slung a rifle and marched off to World War I. Back home, his future wife, my grandmother, hid from anti-Semitic Russian soldiers as their Galician village repeatedly changed hands.
Two Jewish families — two very different experiences under Habsburg rule.
As many historians will tell you, the empire didn't have a future with so many of its ethnic minorities clamoring for independence, and getting it once the war ended.
Perhaps Joseph knew that as well, explaining why he left the army, and the empire, before the start of the war, making his way to America and becoming a butcher in the Mon Valley borough of Braddock. What a career change!
Which brings me back to Otto von Habsburg's funeral. Reading about the service at Vienna's St. Stephen's Cathedral, steeped in all the rituals and symbols due a Habsburg emperor, it seemed like a resounding period was being typed to the House of Habsburg, and to so many other families, including my own.
But I hope not.
Otto von Habsburg, a vocal opponent of Nazi annexation of Austria prior to World War II who renounced all claims to the throne in 1961 and went on to join the European Parliament, found a new life after the death of imperial Austria. So did many of his would-be Jewish subjects, including my family.
So maybe his funeral was really a reminder that time changes the lives of families — rich and poor, weak and strong — but doesn't necessarily destroy them. Anyway, I hope so.
It was late at night when my wife, a rabbi, received a sad phone call: An elderly member of her congregation has just passed away.
The family was coming into town; it wanted the funeral done the next day in accordance with Jewish tradition. That, of course, could be done. But what about tahara — the ritual washing of the body? Sadly, that could not be done on such short notice. At least, not in Wheeling, W.Va.; at least, not by the Jewish burial society — a chevra kadisha — which disbanded many years earlier.
This was especially sad, since the deceased had been a member of that chevra.
The story is the same in small towns across western Pennsylvania and West Virginia where once-thriving Jewish communities existed. Many of these places still have congregations, even rabbis. Hadassah still meets, and Jews still raise money for federations, JNF and a host of other Jewish charities. From time to time, though not as frequently, they still celebrate bnai mitzva, confirmations, even weddings.
But where are the chevras?
Not long ago, at an oneg Shabbat, I picked the brain of a member of my congregation who also belonged to the city’s last chevra. He said young people don’t want to do this ultimate mitzvah — ultimate, of course, because the person receiving the kindness can never say thank you.
I don’t know if he’s right, or even how he defines young people. But it’s an interesting question: What would happen if members of Hillel or JBurgh or Shalom Pittsburgh — young people dating, traveling, career building; people who are feeling the pulse of their life forces — were approached and asked to join a society in which they come to a funeral home and purify the body of one whose life has just ended?
What would the responses be?
Whatever the reactions, it wouldn’t help those Jews who still live far for the city lights, where chevras are either vanishing or have long since vanished.
Maybe some communities are close enough that members of Pittsburgh chevras can come and perform the rituals. Maybe chevras can be revived in other places. Indeed, representatives from at least one Pittsburgh chevra have given talks in outlying areas.
But the vanishing of chevras away from metro areas is a sign of the times, and not a good one.
Kudos to NBC News for its July 8 report on its Nightly News, reporting that the Egyptian Revolution earlier this year is in jeopardy.
As you read and watched this week, thousands of Egyptians, disillusioned by the pace of reform in their country since the revolution, have returned to Tahrir Square in Cairo. Once again, they're pitching their tents, holding up their signs and waving their country's flag.
And what's their biggest concern? According to NBC's Richard Engel, who is in Cairo right now, they say the military and Muslim Brotherhood are hijacking the revolution that the people of Egypt worked so hard to win.
From Israel's perspective, it's the Brotherhood that is more worrisome. Engel reports that this Islamist party has become flush with money since the revolution, thanks to donations from outside the country; it has moved to palatial headquarters, and it is publicly denigrating Israel.
In an interview with Engel, a spokesman for the Brotherhood said Israel "cannot tolerate peace." Why? "Because they want to live in war," he answered. "It is a history of Jewish people."
That's not anti-Zionism; that's anti-Semitism — the true face of anti-Zionism.
Ironically, the NBC report came the same week reports circulated in the media that the U.S. government may sell 25 M1A1 Abrams tank kits to Egypt. The Egyptians also are asking for other armaments as well.
Meanwhile, the Egyptian gas pipeline that is suppose to supply Israel with 40 percent of its natural gas has been disabled by terrorist attacks three times since the revolution. Still, the interim government in Cairo, which is making noise about cutting back on the gas it sends to Israel, shows little interest in protecting this valuable conduit.
Israel must be prepared for the worst: a hostile relationship with Egypt, replacing the cold peace that at least kept the border quiet for decades.
What does that mean?
• It means Israel — and American Jews — must use every ounce of political leverage they have in Washington to stall any pending arms deal with Egypt.
• Financial assistance to Egypt — the kind that goes to the military — must be conditional on its honoring all treaties and contracts with the Jewish state. According to Reuters, The United States allocated $1.3 billion in military aid to Egypt in 2010 compared to $250 million in economic aid. It also sent $1.9 million for training meant to bolster long-term U.S.-Egyptian military cooperation.
• Finally, Israel must expedite efforts to develop the Leviathan gas field off the Israeli coast, even though Lebanon disputes Israel's claim to the reserves.
A cold peace turn hostile relationship with Egypt isn't a welcomed development for Israel, but it can be handled. However, Israel and its allies, (read, the Obama administration), must act swiftly and decisively.
So, is kosher really all that Jewish?
Well, maybe kosher with a “k” is, but what about cosher with a “c”?
Dictionary.com has a regular feature at its website, called “Word of the Day,” which highlights interesting words from the lexicon — spelling, pronunciation, definition, derivation, etc.
On Monday, June 13, the word of the day was spelled c-o-s-h-e-r (pronounced “KOSH-er”), a verb.
The definition, according to the website, is, “to treat with special fondness.”
How is it used in a sentence? The website offered these two examples:
• “Skinny Guts was rarely known to shell out his money for tucker when there were clan members at hand to cosher himself upon.”
— Miles Franklin, Ten Creeks Run: a tale of the horse and cattle stations of the Murrumbidgee
• "The poor Irish peasantry," writes Prendergast, "with a generosity characteristic of their race and country, never refused hospitality to the dispossessed owners, but maintained them as gentlemen; allowing them to cosher upon them, as the Irish called the giving their lord a certain number of days' board and lodging."
— John O'Hart, Irish pedigrees, or, The origin and stem of the Irish nation
The origin of cosher, again, according to Dictionary.com, is Irish — specifically, “a phonetic spelling of the Irish coisir, "feast, entertainment."
Is that all there is to it? Are they just two different words from two different cultures that happen to look and sound a like?
Well, maybe, but some historians have long speculated that the some of the Spaniards who washed ashore on the Irish coast in the 16th century after the English sunk the Spanish Armada may have been secret Jews.
Indeed, several years ago, when I interviewed Ben Briscoe, son of the late Jewish lord mayor of Dublin, Robert Briscoe, he told me that in his travels through western Ireland, he found customs that resembled Jewish rituals.
Could not a few Jewish words find their way into the Irish language?
According to Dictionary.com, the prevailing definition of our kosher is, “fit or allowed to be eaten or used, according to the dietary or ceremonial laws.”
Could that definition have evolved over the centuries into meaning of cosher — “to treat with special fondness?”
We may never know for sure, but if there really is six degrees of separation in the human race, anything is possible.
As you might have heard by now, the official steward of nutritious eating in America, has unveiled it's new icon for healthy and delicious dining from sea to shining sea. Gone is the pyramid. In is — the plate!
Gone also is dessert. It appears nowhere on the USDA's new MyPlate nutrition guide, which First Lady Michelle Obama helped to introduce Thursday (much to Rush Limbaugh's infuriation, surely).
But all politics aside, what does the new MyPlate guide mean for those who choose to, or are at least thinking about, keeping kosher?
Well, the Orthodox Union, which certifies more than 500,000 products in 83 countries as kosher, was silent on the announcement Thursday.
But after studying Choosemyplate.gov, where the new nutrition guidelines are spelled out, it seems as though there's a real opportunity here to reinvent the way we eat kosher in America.
According to the MyPlate diagram, half your plate at dinnertime — half — should be fruits and vegetables. Proteins cover only a quarter of the plate, as do grains, half of which, at least, should be whole grains. And desserts? Well, you didn't really like your Bubbe's pastries and cakes any way, did you?
It's all about combatting obesity in America, which admittedly is a serious problem, and does eventually jack the price of health care in this country.
But the key point the USDA makes is that chicken, fish, beef — the entres on any traditional kosher plate — should be relegated to the role of side dish. And with non-meat sources of protein, they need not be on the plate at all.
That would render many of Bubbe's tastier recipes obsolete. Our torsos would be lighter and our wallets would be heavier (anybody price a brisket lately?).
Fruit and vegetables for dinner, what a concept!
Obesity isn't just a gentile problem. "In my clinical expereince, obesity is just as prevalent in the Jewish community as in the general population," Dr. David Medway, a Los Angeles physican specializing in obesity and weight control told the The Los Angeles Jewish Journal for a 2003 story. "It's a problem that is pervasive throughout all economic groups: It's an epidemic."
So the new USDA plan offers a cure, if we're ready to take. Let's be real, most of us aren't — at least, not all the way. But it's something to think about.
There's a little bit of Pittsburgh wherever you go — even in Lower Manhattan.
My wife and I recently discovered that while visiting the New York campus of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion; if you're a lover of Jewish art (and you happen to be in New York) it's worth a trip.
Much of the ground floor at the SoHo/Greenwich Village facility is devoted to gallery space. There, HUC-JIR prides itself in displaying works by contemporary artists who explore Jewish identity and experience.
Some of those artists — well, at least one — happen to be from Pittsburgh.
As we entered to the building, we noticed on display to the immediate right of the entrance way, a Torah binder created by Pittsburgh's Leslie Golomb. The black, white and gray binder, which is laced with Hebrew liturgical verses and photos of famous figures such as the late Rabbi Solomon Freehof, was done in 2000 to mark the 125th anniversary of the school.
Recently, you'll recall, the Chronicle reported that Golomb is bound for China as one of 15 winners of the 2011 International Print Biennial. In addition to accepting a grant of prize money while there, Golomb will return to China to work as an artist-in-residence for up to three months.
Well, it appears one need not travel that far to see her work on display.
Every time President Obama speaks about Israel, one thing is certain: The speech will generate reams of responses. And most of them are predictable.
From the the extreme Left of the political spectrum there will be chiding of the president for not pushing Israel to make painful concessions on settlements and Jerusalem.
The extreme Right will excoriate the president for not being "pro-Israel," pro-Israel being exactly what the extreme Right says it — no concessions on territory, no concessions on Jerusalem; heck, no concessions, period.
And from the extreme Center?
Yes, there is an extreme Center on the political spectrum. It consists of pundits, journalists, professors, rabbis and every day Jews — religious and secular — who like to consider themselves above the fray of extremist politics. This group likes to carefully analyze every word the president says regarding Israel, surgically dissect his verbal missteps and, in their "eureka" moments, cast light on the important points that the extreme Left and Right overlooked in their rush to make their stale points.
In the interest of full disclosure, I suppose you can call me an extreme Centrist.
Extreme Centrists are not always right. Neither are we always wrong. And we know it, that's what make us different from our extreme colleagues on the Left and Right. They are sure — all too sure — that their positions are always right.
We're not quite there, but we're willing to risk being called out if it advances debate on a subject near and dear to all our hearts: the Jewish state.
Take my colleague, Neil Rubin, editor of the Baltimore Jewish Times, and an excellent journalist. Neil got it right (and wrong) in the same column last week following the president's landmark Middle East policy address.
Neil got it right (I believe) when he took to task the extreme right for attacking the president for saying (they believe) that Israel should categorically return to the 1967 borders to achieve peace.
"After that, nobody heard that he (Obama) also said “… with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states.”
Kudos to Neil. The Right totally, and in some cases maliciously, misrepresented what the president said. Obama did not call for an uncompromising return to the 1967 borders (a point he made again more clearly at his AIPAC convention address Sunday), though he would have saved himself some headaches had he just called for negotiations based on United Nations Resolution 242, which, a close reading shows, also does not advocate a return to strict 1967 borders, but plays better in the media. Past administrations have preferred the "242" language to "1967 borders."
But Neil stumbled when, in the same column, he wrote the following:
"The president has backed the [Israeli] Prime Minister [Benjamin Netanyahu] into a corner. ... The prime minister has a right-wing coalition to coax along, but the president has not given him any wiggle room. In fact, the prime minister will be under tremendous pressure to not budge."
The context of the quote was the timing of the president's speech, (bad, in Neil's opinion). "It was delivered two days after Jordan’s King Abdullah was in the White House, one day before Netanyahu was to arrive, and four days before President Obama spoke to the influential American Israel Public Affairs convention," he wrote.
Neil couldn't be more wrong. The president didn't deprive Netanyahu of wiggle room; Netanyahu deprived himself — by insisting on running a coalition government that depends on extreme right-wing parties for its political survival. The prime minister could have (and still could) cut a deal with the centrist Kadima party, led by Tsipi Livni, which just happened to be the top vote getter in the last election. Instead, the prime minister is content to cater to the far-right Yisrael B'teinu party, a key member of the coalition, which balks at much of what Obama proposes, and would cause the government to fall if it resigned from the coalition.
So there you have it, Neil was right and wrong in the same column. My assessment could be right and wrong, too — maybe even more wrong than right. (You can read Neil's column in its entirety). But that's what makes us extreme Centrists extreme. We'll dance on a limb to encourage debate, because it is out of the debate that the right answers will finally present themselves.
By the way, some of you may be asking what a moderate Centrist is. Simple. A moderate Centrist would not have written this column at all.
While we celebrated the 63rd anniversary of Israel's birth this week, another milestone in the history of the Jewish state passed much more quietly — the 50th anniversary of the trial of Adolf Eichmann.
Eichmann, of course, was the notorious architect of the Holocaust. Though he only held the rank of lieutenant colonel, he was placed in charge of the logistics behind the mass deportation and extermination of Europe's Jews. And he threw himself into his work with an evil zeal.
An older generation of Jews remember with pride news in 1960 that agents operating for Israel's Mossad intelligence agency captured Eichmann, who survived the war and was living under a false identity in Argentina — working in a Mercedes Benz plant (surprise, surprise). They transported him back to Israel, where he went on trial in 1961 on 15 criminal charges, including crimes against humanity and war crimes. Found guilty, Eichmann was hanged in 1962 — the only execution of a criminal in the 63-year history of the Jewish state.
Kudos to Shalom TV for marking the anniversary with an interview with one of the few major players in the trial still alive, former Israeli Supreme Court Justice Gabriel Bach, who, at the time, was the deputy state's attorney in the case.
Speaking by phone from his home in Jerusalem, Bach provided his interviewer, Rabbi Mark Golub, with fascinating insight into the trial and what was happening away from the courtroom.
But it was one point in particular that changed my entire perspective of the case.
As Bach noted, teaching the Holocaust in German schools prior to the Eichmann trial was practically unheard of. German parents he said, didn't want their children to learn about it. Either they were Nazis and didn't want their kids to learn about their past, or they weren't Nazis, but feared trying to explain to their sons and daughters why they did nothing.
All that changed as the media broadcasted news of the Eichmann trial nightly, according to Bach. Suddenly, a taboo subject in the German education system was ripe for addressing, and that assured that the next generation would know the sins of the fathers (and mothers).
Perhaps that would have happened in another way, at another time, had Eichmann not stood in an Israeli dock. Nevertheless, it did happen that way, and Eichmann's crime — his lust for murdering Jews — came full circle. His long litany of crimes proved instrumental in teaching the young generation of Germans about the Holocaust. Aside from his death sentence, handed down by a Jewish justice system, he could not have known a more bitter irony.
• • •
If you missed the Shalom TV interview with Bach, he also recounted his experience in another forum, Newshound, which you can view on YouTube
Chalk this one up as a bad PR move.
You may have read in this week's Chronicle that Rabbi Arik Ascherman, executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights, an organization of rabbis in Israel, from all denominations, who support the rights of minorities and Palestinians, and who fight what they see as human rights violations of those groups, was in the States this week to accept Gandhi Peace Award, which promotes the work of distinguished citizens on behalf of peace.
The award is, of course, named for Mahatma Gandhi, the Indian activist who led that country's historic nonviolent campaign for independence in the 1940s.
I'm not here to chide Ascherman, a man who sincerely believes in his causes, however controversial they may be in some Jewish quarters.
But I will state reality: As Ascherman himself noted this week in an interview with the Chronicle, human rights groups in Israel, such as RHR, are under fire for their work in what some Jews call the West Bank, others call the Occupied Territories, and others still call Judea and Samaria.
Things won't get any better with Ascherman's acceptance of this award.
As the Chronicle reported this week, RHR "has represented impoverished Israelis whose welfare benefits were in danger of being cut, playing a key role in getting the Knesset to cancel the so-called Wisconsin Program, designed to reduce the number of Israelis getting government assistance. It has fought the depletion and lack of maintenance of public housing for Israelis. And it has worked to promote education about, and protection of, the human rights of Palestinians."
Ascherman defended his work as in keeping with Jewish and Israeli values, and he told our staff writer, Toby Tabachnick, that he is most definitely pro-Israel.
“Our membership is all rabbis,” he said. “As Zionists, we are dedicated to an Israel that lives up to our highest Jewishness as articulated in Israel’s Declaration of Independence.”
Well and good, so why is Ascherman accepting an award named for a man who was decidedly anti-Israel?
Here are some of Gandhi's more controversial statements:
His quotes about Zionism disturb me most; they go straight to Gandhi's ignorance on the subject. He seems totally oblivious to the Jews who lived in "Palestine" for centuries, that they constituted the majority of Jerusalem's population as early as the 19th century and that vast numbers of visitors to region that same century reported swaths of land that were totally uninhabited.
Regarding Gandhi's remarks endorsing collective suicide for Jews during the Holocaust: Had they taken his advice, I wonder, who would have sat on the podium of the Jewish Community Center in Squirrel Hill this past Monday, bearing witness to the Nazis' infamous crime? In effect, Gandhi advocated a way to help Holocaust deniers make their bogus case.
That's why I suggest that it might have been better for Aschermen, indeed all Jews, if he rejected the award and publicly stated why he was doing so. Such a move need not have any impact on his work on behalf of Palestinians, whom he believes are getting a raw deal. But it would have shown that by his actions — and not just words — Ascherman is truly pro-Israel.
By the way, it's still not too late. If Richard Goldstone can retract parts of his assailed United Nations report on the Gaza war, clearing Israel of the war crimes allegation, then Ascherman can still return the Gandhi Prize. Here's hoping he at least considers the possibility.
Now that the rival Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas have apparently agreed to a reconciliation deal; I have a significant question: is Fatah now signaling that it will not sign a peace treaty with Israel?
It’s a reasonable question, especially in light of a statement made by Hamas spokesman Taher Al-Nono following news Wednesday that the two entities had agreed to form an interim government and hold general elections within a year. A formal announcement is expected next week.
“All points of differences have been overcome," said Taher Al-Nono, a Hamas spokesman in the Gaza Strip, according to Reuters.
One would assume that Israel is one of those “points of difference.” Fatah has entered into peace talks with the Jewish state in the past based on a two–state solution, which have stalled. But Hamas refuses to recognize Israel under any circumstances.
So if the two factions now agree on all points of difference, does that mean recognition of Israel is off the table?
Don’t believe that? There’s wiggle room, you say? Well, Daniel Kurtzer, former U.S. Ambassador to both Israel and Egypt has a sobering story to tell.
Kurtzer, currently a lecturer and professor in Middle Eastern policy studies at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University, spoke last month at the Central Conference of American Rabbis annual convention in New Orleans. At that time he recounted a visit he and group of his students made to the capital of Syria, Damascus, where they met with Hamas leaders living there in exile.
The students, according to Kurtzer, asked the Hamas side — hypothetically, of course — if they would recognize Israel were it to agree to all its demands. The Hamas response was direct and unequivocal: No.
This is the entity that apparently is about to enter into a governing coalition with Fatah, which is now seeking unilateral recognition of its statehood from nations around the world. What accommodations did both sides seek? What did they get?
Again, one must ask, is Palestinian recognition of Israel now off the table? Fatah owes the world a clear answer — at least as clear as the one Hamas gave Kurtzer’s students.