Posted by David Suissa
I’m off to Jerusalem for 10 days to study at the Hartman Institute, and I’ve been asked to “blog my trip.” So, in theory, if you check out this “Postcards from Jerusalem” blog every day for the next 10 days, you should be getting a continuous flow of interesting insights from my trip to the Holy Land.
The problem is that I’m not a blogger. This “continuous flow” thing is new to me. I’ve been writing a weekly column for almost three years, and I’m hooked on the “weekly clock”—a slow buildup of an idea culminating in a carefully crafted 900 words. Bloggers are the mad men of journalism. They don’t craft, they draft. Although I’m not a blogger, I love reading them. I love savoring their spontaneous servings of mental popcorn that keep popping out of their restless minds.
Well, now it’s my turn to blog, and as you can tell from this long-winded opening, I have a long way to go before I become Brad Greenberg (my favorite). So bear with me and let’s get through this together.
Would you believe it? I haven’t landed yet, and I’m itching to blog! Why is that? It’s because I’m stuck in the flight from hell and I need to unload.
Here’s the scene. Young couple—very young couple—with two screaming babies are sitting in the row just in front of me, about ten feet to my right. Sitting to my left is a tough-looking Sephardic Israeli guy who looks like he smokes non-filter Camels and owns a delivery truck in Ashdod.
Now here’s the main story line: Tough Sephardic guy would like to sleep. As tough Sephardic guy settles in with his two pillows (I gave him mine) and his blankie, the two screaming babies are showing no signs of wanting to experiment with another form of expression.
Meanwhile, the very young father and mother of the two screaming babies are showing no genetic connection whatsoever to their offspring. How do I know that? They’re calm. They’re spooky calm. They see passengers wanting to tear their hair out and all they can muster is an occasional baby-rocking gesture.
But back to the main story line—tough Sephardic guy trying to sleep. Have you ever heard those animal grunts on the Discovery channel? I don’t know if TSG was doing it on purpose, but every time Screaming Babies would hit some sort of screaming crescendo, TSG would belt out a Discovery Channel grunt. It was like a combination grunt and moan, similar perhaps to that of the Llama species.
TSG, in his clumsy way, was giving us all a heads-up: “Screaming babies better stop screaming.”
As the screaming continued, the tension increased. An enormous question hung in the air that unified all the passengers in the vicinity of Screaming Babies:
Will it ever stop?
By now, we were almost into a full “Law and Order” episode of screaming, and my concerns were shifting. TSG was starting to move his body when he groaned, and, worse, real words were coming out of his mouth, mostly simple phrases like “what is this?” and “hey”.
The reason my concerns were shifting should be obvious: I didn’t want TSG to sleepwalk towards Spooky Calm Father and re-enact a scene from “Scarface.”
Wild scenarios ran through my mind. TSG lunges towards perp while I heroically get in the way and save the life of self-absorbed young father who doesn’t deserve my heroism. But before I got too carried away, TSG decided to wake up.
And like all good Hollywood thrillers, this one had a surprise ending.
TSG and I sparked up a conversation about…take a guess. We compared notes. How many kids do we have…what did we do when we travelled with them when they were babies… these young parents are real losers to let their kids scream like that… they should at least walk these rugrats up and down the aisle or cuddle with them or distract them or change their diapers or give them some ice cream or a pacifier… or anything!
Well, it turns out that during my commiserating with TSG, I heated up more than he did. It could be because I recalled the countless flights I took with my own kids and all the things I did to prevent these crying fits. Or it could be that while TSG was trying to sleep, I had a clear view of Spooky Calm Father actually doing crossword puzzles while his bambinos were in meltdown mode.
So guess what happened? The other TSG— that’s right, yours truly—decided to get up and confront Spooky Calm Father while he was concentrating on finding the right words for his puzzle.
I mumbled something like, “Hey man, we’re dying out here. Can’t you do something?”
Now try to visualize an earnest human rights lawyer with eyeglasses who knows the Geneva Convention by heart. That was Spooky Father. It was like he was expecting me. Before I could finish my sentence, he spoke about his rights, his kids’ rights, his wife’s rights, his family’s rights (OK, I’m exaggerating—you get the picture, this guy knew his rights).
I was about to counter with my own shtick on passengers’ rights, but then I saw a Do-You-Want-US Marshalls-At-The-Gate look on one of the flight attendants, and I swiftly returned to my seat to commiserate with TSG #1.
Apparently, my bold intervention impressed TSG #1. He got more talkative. We started sharing more personal stories, and then…just like that, when we least expected it… the Messiah showed up.
On this trip from hell, the Messiah was anyone who could stop these babies from screaming. And guess who revealed himself? None other than Spooky Calm Father himself, who decided to put his crossword puzzle down and take one of the screaming babies for a walk, which ended up killing two birds with one stone by calming down both babies.
The crying was over, but I wondered: Is all this drama an omen of my coming week at Hartman? We will see.
For now, shocked by the calm and still wound tight from the ordeal, I turned to TSG #1 and told him I had to work on my computer.
It was time for me to vent and blog—if you can call this blogging.
See you in Jerusalem.
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June 30, 2009 | 4:35 pm
Posted by Rob Eshman
How Jewish Is Al Franken?
The Minnesota Supreme Court just declared that Democrat Al Franken is the winner in the Minnesota Senate race, beating out incumbent Norm Coleman.
That’s the perfect opportunity to explore just how the new senator from Minnesota views his faith.
“I don’t think Minnesota is ready for a gentile in this seat,” Franken told reporters while campaigning against Coleman, who is also Jewish.
In fact, the only time Franken and Coleman were able to bury their very sharp hatchets was when both appeeared at a pro-Israel rally back in January, as the Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported reported.:
Both Franken and Coleman were invited speakers at a pro-Israel rally yesterday in the Twin Cities area, at which Minnesota politicians from across the political spectrum all made appearances. The two candidates even shook hands.
“You can imagine how rare it is for me to agree with everything Senator Coleman says,” Franken said to laughter and applause. Then after pledging to support Israel as a U.S. Senator, Franken joked to Coleman: “That’s something we might disagree on.”
The best in-his-own-words take on this question comes from a 2003 interview Franken did with The Jewish Journal. Here it is:
Q & A with Al Franken
Al Franken, “Saturday Night Live” alumnus, political commentator and satirist made headlines recently when the Fox News Channel sued him for using the term “Fair and Balanced” in the title of his new book, “Lies and the Lying Liars who Tell Them, A Fair and Balanced Look at The Right” (Dutton, 2003). Fox eventually dropped the suit, but not before Franken’s tome attacking conservative arguements hit the top of the best-seller lists, where it remains today.
Franken spoke to The Journal from his house in New York about the California recall, growing up Jewish in Minnesota and the nonissue of a Jew becoming president.
Jewish Journal: What are your thoughts on the recall and our new governor?
Al Franken: Well, I wish him all the best. I know there are a lot of Democrats who are bitter about the whole recall process, I didn’t necessarily think it was proper, but his voters have spoken, and now it is time for people to coalesce around this guy and try to solve California’s problems.
JJ: I thought that you would come with a much more partisan line. From reading your book I thought you would see it more like the 2000 election where the Republicans “stole” it.
AF: There is an aspect to that here. I did listen to him [Schwarzenegger] during the campaign, and he never said anything. It was unbelievable to me. It was like watching a movie, because politicians in movies can’t address specific issues, because the movie has to exist in sort of forever time. His speeches could have been from any year, any time. [Breaks into Schwarzenegger accent] “We have got dem for de people, in Caleeforneeah”—oh, I can’t do him.
But I do have one specific worry, that the men in California—and I hope they don’t take it this way—will see this as a license to grope Maria Shriver. And you know, she is very attractive, but guys, just because she seems to think it is OK, it is not open season on Maria….
JJ: In your book, you write that your father was a lifelong Republican who switched party loyalties in 1964 because [then-presidential candidate] Barry Goldwater didn’t vote for the Civil Rights Act, and he told you that Jews shouldn’t be against civil rights. Can you tell us a little about growing up Jewish and explain how your Judaism shaped your politics?
AF: I grew up Jewish in Minnesota, in a place where we were a distinct minority. Minneapolis had been a center of anti-Semitism, in the ‘30s, ‘40s and 50s. My mom sold real estate, and she was very aware that there was redlining in Minneapolis for Jews. That awareness, of actual institutional racism by banks and Realtors, made us even more keenly aware of the importance of civil rights laws. So in 1964, when Goldwater was against the Civil Rights Act, my dad, who was like a Jacob Javits Republican, became a Democrat and never looked back. I very much identify with my dad, and that made me a Democrat at age 13.
JJ: I read that your wife is Catholic, and save for a seder once a year your life is low on Jewish practices. Yet, Jewish references and Jewish experiences appear repeatedly in your book. Can you tell me a little bit about your Jewish life today? How much does Judaism figure into your daily experience?
AF: My wife is a fallen Roman Catholic…. We don’t belong to a shul, and my kids have really been raised with no formal religious education, but they definitely consider themselves culturally Jewish. Partly it is growing up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. It was quite the opposite of my experience.
My wife—every year we have a Chanukah dinner and she makes the best latkes and ... the best brisket on the Upper West Side.
But my kids definitely consider themselves Jewish, have very Jewish senses of humor and went to a high school that was two-thirds Jewish.
And the most important aspect of this—we did go to a Reform temple when I was a kid, and my parents were not particularly devout, but we were taught that there was a certain ethical base to our religion that was the essence of our Judaism, and I think my kids have grown up with that.
JJ: In an interview in 2000, you were asked whether the country was ready for a Jewish president. Now it seems that if any of these Democratic front-runners get elected, we won’t be able to escape having a Jewish president. Do you think that America is moving to a place where religion doesn’t matter anymore, and why do you think so many Democrats are eager to be Jewish?
AF: Well, I think that it doesn’t hurt to be Jewish if you are a Democrat, because of fundraising. [John] Kerry is half-Jewish, [Wesley] Clark is half-Jewish, [Howard] Dean has a Jewish wife, [Joe] Lieberman is the whole boat. [John] Edwards is as goyish as you can get; [Al] Sharpton—not Jewish.
I think that the Lieberman candidacy was just a big nonevent in terms of how it affected people at the polls, which is great. It might be different if Lieberman was heading the ticket at this time. But even then I don’t think it would be that big an issue.
JJ: A lot of Jews might agree with you on being anti-Bush on social issues, but they appreciate his stance on Israel. They perceive him as being very supportive of Israel’s war against terror. Do you agree that Bush is a good friend to Israel?
AF: There is definitely a pro-Israel slant, which I basically agree with for Bush. I think that he just ignored Israel for a long time immediately after being elected because he didn’t want to get his hands dirty. He was basically doing everything that Clinton didn’t do. If Clinton had rolled up his sleeves and worked with Barak and tried to reach a settlement there, then Bush decided that the right thing to do was to do nothing.
As far as now supporting Israel, as I also write in the book, there is this odd alliance between the neo-cons, who are very pro-Israel, obviously, and the Christian right, which is very pro Israel. But the neo-cons are very pro-Israel because Israel the only democracy in the Middle East, and the religious right is for it because Jews need to be in Israel in order for Armageddon to happen, at which point we Jews will all die in a fiery death. I think that at that point the coalition between the neo-cons and the Christian Right will dissolve.
JJ: Before I read your book, I thought that it would be very funny on every single page, but there were a lot of chapters and there were a lot of pages in it where I thought that you were being deadly serious, almost to the point where it made me feel sad.
AF: Well—the Wellstone chapter.
JJ: The chapter about the late Sen. Paul Wellstone and even some of the arguments about why the tax cuts were bad and the terrorism chapter, etc. I don’t know if the book is being misrepresented. It is funny, but there are a lot of serious parts in it.
AF: I think that satire…. I don’t think that they [humor and seriousness] are incompatible at all. Even the funny parts are serious.
JJ: I read a Salon interview where you were asked whether your support for Clinton wavered during the impeachment, and you answered, joking I assume, that even during “Pardongate” you needed to give Clinton credit for the pardons he didn’t give, like to the Unabomber and Charles Manson.
In this book I didn’t find any such jokes about Clinton. It was more of a paean to him. Monica aside, is there is anything, in your estimation, that Clinton did that was wrong or at least questionable?
AF: Aside from Monica? Well I think that he might have been a bit aggressive on some of the campaign fundraising and he might have gone into Rwanda a little quicker, but basically I thought he had a really successful presidency.
JJ: Finally, what do you think Stuart Smalley would say about your book and your success?
AF: Well Stuart isn’t very political. He would say [in a nasal voice] “Well, good for Al. You know. It’s a big success, and I know him, and you know, good for him.”
Franken elaborated on his college years in an interview with Hillel, the organization for undergraduate Jewish student life:
Q:Tell us a little bit about Harvard in the ‘70s when you were there.
A: Well, I started in ‘69 and I was there until ‘73, and I was going through something of a transition at the time. We were in the middle of a war, so there was a lot of anti-war activity, so there was a lot of focus on that and a little less focus on academics, in some quarters, than maybe there should have been. It was kind of a, you know, the ‘60s. The end of the ‘60s, but the ‘60s, so there was pot, there was Frisbee, there were anti-war protesting, and then we also had to go to school. Every year, I studied less hard. My freshman year I actually was like a student, and then it just became clear to me, one, that I wasn’t going to be a scientist, which is sort of what I thought I was going to be, and then it sort of also became clear I was going to be a comedian. So there was slightly less motivation to be a real serious student, although I did the reading and stuff like that. I also met my wife there in Boston my freshman year, so I had a girlfriend.
Q: Were you involved in Jewish life?
A: There was a Hillel or something like that. I think it was Hillel. I wasn’t really involved that much at all. My girlfriend was a fallen Catholic. I considered myself Jewish, I had a lot of Jewish friends, obviously. Every once in a while I go to somebody or some place for a seder or something like that. I think I went to think Hillel once.
June 27, 2009 | 4:50 pm
Posted by Tom Tugend
Following the first wave of Michael Jackson mania, pundits are now speculating whether his two older children will be returned to the custody of their Jewish mother, Debbie Rowe, which, by extension, makes son Prince Michael I, 12, and daughter Paris Michael Katherine, 11, also Jewish.
After his divorce from Lisa Marie Presley, Jackson married Rowe, his former nurse specializing in dermatological problems, in 1996, when she was six months pregnant.
They divorced in 1999 and Rowe gave up her custody rights, but according to the LA Times, legal experts believe that as the children’s biological mother, she can probably reclaim the two.
The mother of Jackson’s third child, Prince Michael II, has been kept a secret.
As Adam Wills reported in The Journal in January 2004, Rowe was upset that the children were being exposed to the influence of the Nation of Islam through their nanny and Jackson’s siblings.
Wills also quoted Rabbi Shmuley Boteach as saying, “I was shocked to hear that [Rowe] was Jewish, but since Prince and Paris are Jewish, I think they should be raised Jewish.”
June 26, 2009 | 3:21 pm
Posted by JewishJournal.com
The following images are photos from a Michael Jackson auction. In the midst of financial troubles, Jackson decided to auction off a number of his belongings through Julien’s Auctions. He later had second thoughts and sued for the return of some items. Jackson and Julien’s Auctions eventually reached a settlement that included the continuation of the display, though the items were no longer for sale.
June 26, 2009 | 12:33 am
Posted by Adam Wills
The Sacramento Kings used their 23rd pick to make history Thursday night by tapping Maccabi Tel Aviv shooting guard Omri Casspi, the first Israeli to be selected in the first round of the NBA draft. Some in the crowd waved Israeli flags after the announcement at Madison Square Garden in New York, others danced in the aisles.
Portland was expected to nab Casspi when it traded for the 22nd spot, but the Blazers went with Spanish forward Victor Claver instead.
If he can make it to the floor in Sacramento, Casspi will be the league’s second Jewish player, after the Lakers’ Jordan Farmar.
Casspi is the focus of a national obsession with the idea of an Israeli making it into the NBA, in which some 20 percent of the players are foreigners.
The quest should have ended 10 years ago when Oded Katash had a two-year contract with the New York Knicks, only to lose patience and hope during the extended player lockout of 1999 and to return to Maccabi Tel Aviv before the American season could begin.
Since then Doron Shefer, Lior Eliyahu and Yotam Halperin were drafted, all in the second round.
Eliyahu and Halperin, in the end, lacked the necessary talent to make it to the big-time, and Shefer lacked the necessary luck.
However, sources close to player said earlier this month that the player is likely to play for a European team next year even if he is picked in the first round of the NBA draft.
The Kings would have the luxury of bringing Casspi over this summer or stashing him overseas for further seasoning.
Casspi has a good reputation as a tough, hard-working player. He’s aggressive, athletic and can finish around the basket. He needs to work on his jumps-shot and ball-handling.
As is often the case with international players, it takes longer to adapt defensively than offensively.
June 25, 2009 | 9:28 pm
Posted by David Suissa
“Sing me your favorite melody, David”, Michael Jackson said to me.
I was sitting alone with Michael in one of the many living rooms at his Neverland ranch in the summer of 2000, and we were talking about melodies.
I had come up to see him because we were planning to discuss him writing an article for our “Parents” issue of OLAM magazine. I spent a lot of time that summer hanging out with Rabbi Shmuley Boteach (going with him to the Sydney Olympics, among other things) who everyone knew was close to Michael.
Shmuley, the great schmoozer that he is, told me that Michael “really loved” OLAM magazine, and that he might be interested in writing an original piece for the “Parents” issue.
So off we went to Neverland, with, of course, my two young daughters, Tova and Shanni.
On the way up, I played some old Michael videos (“Thriller”) to give my daughters a little education on someone who a decade earlier had been the most famous person on the planet. When we got to the ranch, we had to sign special papers at the main gate, and agree to take no pictures.
That’s too bad, because I could have taken some great shots at the moment Michael met my daughters. Shanni’s first question for him—before even how are you? or nice to meet you—was: “Is it true that you have rollercoasters?”
One of Michael’s handlers took my daughters to see the rides and the elephants, while the grown-ups sat down to talk. Shimon Peres’s granddaughter, Mika Walden, who would soon be working at my ad agency, came along for support. We talked about OLAM magazine and the special issue on “Parents”, as well as other projects that Rabbi Shmuley was working on with Michael.
The issue for me was, how candid would Michael be if he wrote an OLAM article about his childhood? The last thing I wanted (OK, not the last thing) was a puff piece with just a famous name attached.
Thanks in large part to Shmuley’s help, Michael came through with an honest piece. He fessed up to the lack of love he felt growing up, especially from his hard-driving father. But in the sweet, enchanted tone that he was known for, he also wrote lovingly of the little moments—his father putting him up on a little pony or getting him his favorite glazed donuts—that marked him growing up.
The day the issue broke, we started getting calls from People magazine and TV news shows who wanted to know how we got Michael to write for OLAM. We had our fifteen minutes of fame, but we didn’t divulge anything that was not in the magazine. That was our deal with Michael.
Beyond the article he wrote, what I will remember most is the moment we spent alone in his living room. By then Shmuley had gone to another part of the house for a meeting with Michael’s manager, and there I was, completely alone with the King of Pop.
I decided that I wouldn’t waste this moment with mindless chatter. So I thought of something he might be interested in that I felt passionate about, and I dove right in.
“I have always been madly in love with melodies”, I told him. “The whole idea of a beautiful melody blows me away. How can a certain arrangement of notes have so much power over me?”
“There are certain melodies that I cannot imagine living without”, I continued.
“They’re like a part of me. I surrender to them.”
By now I was kvelling and I couldn’t control myself—but I meant every word. At that moment, Michael, in his sweet, hummingbird voice, looked at me and said, “Sing me your favorite melody, David.”
And I did. It was an ancient Sephardic melody that Moroccan Jews sing only on Yom Kippur. It is my all-time favorite melody. Growing up, I would often cry when I would hear it. It’s the melody that has done the most to keep my emotional connection to my faith and my people. Today, I “cheat” and sing it before doing the Hamotzeh on Shabbat.
He had caught me off-guard. It was the only thing I could thing of singing. In the song, the lyrics describe Abraham’s apparent sacrifice of his son Isaac. At one point, the son asks innocently where his father is taking him, oblivious to the biblical drama that is about to unfold.
I sang for no more than a minute.
I don’t remember what Michael said after I finished. All I remember is that while I was singing, his eyes were closed and he was smiling.
June 25, 2009 | 1:36 am
Posted by Susan Freudenheim
David Levinson, who founded Big Sunday as a Mitzvah Day at Temple Israel of Hollywood in Los Angeles and grew it into a nonprofit organization that attracted 50,000 volunteers of all ages for a weekend of giving back in May has been named by Governor Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver as the inaugural Nonprofit Leader of the Year as part of the 2009 National Conference on Volunteering and Service.
Levinson’s philosophy that everybody can give grew from a 200-person day of volunteering at 19 sites in 1999, the first year, to include participation from synagogues, churches, mosques, public schools, neighborhood groups and individuals of all stripes to work together to build and renovate homes, rehab apartments, wash dogs, spruce up school yards, entertain the elderly and much more. More than 500 sites benefited on the weekend of May 2-3,2009, from Solvang to San Diego.
The state of California received more than 100 nominations for the 2009 award, according to California’s Secretary of Service and Volunteering, Karen Baker.
June 24, 2009 | 7:25 pm
Posted by Adam Wills
Thursday will likely be a historic day for the NBA. Omri Casspi, a small forward for Maccabi Tel Aviv, is expected to become the first Israeli taken in the draft. With Portland nabbing the 22nd pick from Dallas, they move ahead of Sacramento (23rd), which had been eyeing Casspi. Observers are viewing this move as an attempt to grab the lanky 6-foot-9 Casspi for the Trail Blazers, the fourth seed in the 2009 playoffs.
From USA Today:
“It’s like a dream come true. It’s huge for me to accomplish one of my biggest goals of my career — to play in the NBA, to be the first one from my country and to feel like I am representing something,” Casspi said.
Casspi, 21, played four professional seasons in the Euroleague for Maccabi. He won several awards, including newcomer of the year and sixth man of the year after his second season. In 16 Euroleague games last season, he averaged 8.8 points and 3.1 rebounds in 17.3 minutes.
Playing for a team with national prestige has helped prepare Casspi for the NBA limelight. He’s expected to be picked in the mid- to late part of the first round.
“Basketball is huge in Israel,” said Casspi, 6-9, 222. “Every Euroleague game is a big thing in Israel. The (whole) country is following you. Everywhere you go everyone is talking to you and really respect you as a Maccabi player.”
Casspi had a chance to see this support carry over to the USA when Maccabi played a couple of games here and the Jewish community came to see the team.
“We were amazed by the fans and the big support Maccabi players and the Maccabi organization got,” Casspi said.
Casspi cited several differences in the international and NBA game, such as court size, but remains unfazed.
The larger NBA court allows for more spacing, while in Europe players can just camp out in the paint, Casspi said. The bigger court should help Casspi, who thrives on slashing to the basket on offense, NBA talent evaluator Ryan Blake said.
Casspi can “create off the dribble one-on-one with a quick first step and (he) can finish with either hand,” Blake said. “He knows how to use the screener well, he knows how to use the pick-and-roll. (He) can go left, use the screen and pull up, pass or finish in the hole.”
In predraft workouts, Casspi said he surprised some teams with his toughness and aggressiveness. He is a versatile player who has experience at every position except center.
“When he was first playing for Maccabi, they brought him out playing point guard,” Blake said. “That’s extremely important to note, because he’s a guy who’s played almost four (positions and) because he played some power forward overseas.”
Casspi, however, still is developing his shot. Blake said Casspi is not a great shooter “but has the potential to be a very good shooter.”
Casspi said he has been working on his shot to improve his game, not to tailor it to the NBA: “I will do whatever it takes to be the best Omri Casspi can be.”