Posted by Ryan Torok
Ben Folds is oddly really popular right now and also almost Jewish (but not really)
What the heck is going on? Being a judge on this show is enough to make Ben Folds this popular? Back when he released my by far favorite album of his, “Rocking the Suburbs”, nobody cared—the indifference to the album was probably heighted by the fact that it was released on September 11, 2001. Anyway, on the title track, the nerdy, bespectacled and sort-of smart-alecky singer/songwriter/pianist sang: I’m rocking the suburbs, just like Michael Jackson did. I’m rocking the suburbs, except that he was talented. Indeed, the self-loathing has always been strong in Folds. That is his shtick. He hates himself so much he almost sounds Jewish.
It’s funny: I was pretty positive Folds wasn’t Jewish, but I googled “is Ben Folds Jewish?” just to make sure. The first result that came up was an article called “Ben Folds sets his Jewish record straight.” It was from an obscure Israeli newspaper. The article mentions that Folds used to perform at Bar Mitzvahs and is obsessed with klezmer music, but he isn’t Jewish. This is despite the fact that he named another one of his solo albums “Songs for Silverman.”
Anyway, I guess it’s cool Folds is finally getting his due. Even if he had to appear on a reality show hosted by Nick Lachey to get it, his talent deserves to be recognized.
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December 21, 2009 | 7:29 pm
Posted by Tom Tugend
Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Weisz, the Brooklyn-based Grand Rebbe of the Spinka sect, was sentenced to two years in federal prison Monday for a decade-long fraud and money-laundering scheme.
Weisz, 61, had pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy before U.S. District Judge John F. Walter in Los Angeles last August.
Weisz and six associates in Los Angeles, Brooklyn and Israel admitted to participating in a fraudulent kickback scheme in which donors to Spinka charities were refunded up to 95 percent of their donations, while claiming the full amounts as deductions on their income tax.
In 2006, Spinka charities received nearly $8.5 million in donations and made $744,596 in “profits,” after deducting amounts paid back to contributors.
Last year, Moshe Zigelman, the rebbe’s gabbai or assistant, pleaded guilty and also received a two-year prison term.
Spinka is an ultra-Orthodox sect that originated in 19th century Romania and has adherents in Israel, Europe and Brooklyn.
Walter could have sentenced Weisz up to five years in prison, but chose the shorter sentence after concluding that the rabbi did not participate in the scheme to enrich himself personally.
“I am convinced that he never took a penny for himself,” Walter said.
In turn, Weisz told the judge, “I am embarrassed beyond words. My remorse is deep and heartfelt.”
A donor to Spinka charities, who pleaded guilty to using the illegal tax write-off, was sentenced to six months in prison earlier this year. Prosecutors are currently investigating more than 100 other contributors and warned that if they did not come forward voluntarily they might face “significantly higher” sentences.
In a speech last summer in Boro Park, Weisz told thousands of listeners, “We have learned the hard way,” and he urged everyone to follow the law, yeshivaworld.com reported.
Read more here.
December 17, 2009 | 8:13 pm
Posted by JewishJournal.com
Tensions flared in the Senate during an otherwise slow afternoon Thursday when Sen. Joe Lieberman asked for unanimous consent to extend some remarks on health care for “an additional moment.” He didn’t get it.
Lieberman, the independent from Connecticut, has in recent days infuriated his fellow members of the Democratic caucus by nixing any form of public health insurance in the Senate health-care reform bill under consideration. His actions have particularly enraged liberals, one of whom, Sen. Al Franken, the freshman Democrat from Minnesota, happened to taking his turn presiding over the Senate when Lieberman made his request to extend his allotted 10 minutes.
Read the full story at WashingtonPost.com.
December 17, 2009 | 6:09 pm
Posted by Julie Gruenbaum Fax
The West Bank of village of Yasuf has become the object of sometimes unwanted Jewish attention since a mosque was vandalized and torched there in a Dec. 11 attack assumed to have been carried out by Jewish settlers.
Later that week Israeli Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger was pelted with stones as he was leaving the village in an attempt to reach out to residents. Settlers from Gush Etzion were stopped at a checkpoint when they tried to deliver Korans to replace the burned ones, and to offer to help refurbish and clean up the mosque. They spoke with village elders at the checkpoint.
Jewish organizations in Israel and America widely condemned the act.
Rabbi Avi Weiss, a social activist from New York, reports below on his attempt—a little scary, but eventually successful—to reach out to the Palestinians of Yasuf.
Rabbi Weiss is the founder and president of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) Rabbinical School and senior rabbi at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale. He is also National President of AMCHA, The Coalition for Jewish Concerns and author of Principles of Spiritual Activism, Ktav publishers, November 2001.
Rabbi Weiss writes:
Yair Silverman, an Israeli rabbi serving Kehillat Moed in Zichron Ya’akov near Haifa, and formerly a rabbi in Berkeley, California, was in an Arab cab when I phoned asking him to join me on a visit to Yasuf, an Arab village in Samaria, the West Bank, where a mosque had been desecrated the previous week. The driver, Eyad, offered to take us there, suggesting that it would be best to go in an Arab cab. “No one will hurt you, I’ll see to it you’ll be safe,” he said.
As it turned out, Eyad was our savior. The landscape on the way north from Jerusalem was breathtaking. On both sides of the road we passed farmers working the fertile land of Arab and Jewish towns surrounded by hills nourished by the recent rains.
Traveling on toward the outskirts of Shechem (Nablus), in the heart of what is known as “Area A” currently controlled by the Palestinian Authority, passing Shilo and Eli, I thought of my many close friends living there. My children, together with their large family, have made their home in Efrat, one of the largest communities of the Etzion Bloc in Judea.
When we neared Yasuf, Yair put in a call to the local governor - Munir Abbushi. We had expected to meet him at the entrance to the village where the Israeli army has an outpost, express our sorrow and then leave. We were taken by surprise when the governor, on the phone with Eyad speaking in Arabic, told him to “go in” and meet him at the mosque. We were surprised because two days earlier a delegation of Israeli rabbis on the left-wing of the Israeli political spectrum were stopped at the entrance. And a day after that, when Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger and his entourage had come to the mosque under the joint protection of IDF and PA security forces, a curfew was imposed and Yasuf was in lockdown. As Rabbi Metzger left, stones were hurled at his group.
And here we arrived, unarmed, without cameras, with residents of Yasuf in the streets—children scurrying home from school, cars and some mules filling the narrow lanes, laborer’s working on some building sites. We continued on deep into Yasuf, through winding roads, up and down hills. It wasn’t difficult once we were in the village to find the mosque. Workers were inside rebuilding.
Eyad stepped out of the car and we followed. As we stood before the mosque, a few workers emerged. Seeing the kippot on our heads, recognizing that we are Jewish, they grew obviously agitated. I reached out to shake hands and no one responded. Word quickly spread that we were there and about 50 people suddenly materialized out of nowhere. Clearly upset, some gestured that we remove our kippot. We indicated that we could not. The moment was tense. I knew the governor would soon arrive, but he seemed to be taking forever. I looked around. Across the road was a mule, teenagers milling about and a group of angry people gathered in front of us. I turned to Yair and said, “Perhaps we should try to leave. We’re upsetting people, not comforting them.”
Unbeknownst to me, Eyad, as he explained to us later, reacted strongly to those who were belligerent. He told them, “A few rabbis from America have come unarmed, they’ve placed themselves in danger, and this is your reaction?” Eyad continued, “I was not going to let anything happen to our guests.”
I began speaking in English - expressing sympathy and hope for peace, when the governor finally arrived. Our words were translated into Arabic, and Yair and I spoke of the pain we felt at what had occurred. We, the people who had too often been the victims of such attacks throughout history, could not but empathize with our Arab brethren.
I thought for a moment of mentioning the destruction of Joseph’s tomb in nearby Nablus several years earlier and the destruction of synagogues in Gush Katif in Gaza in 2005 where I had spent the final week before the Disengagement, but I decided it wasn’t the place to bring up those incidents. In truth, I wanted to, but did not. Perhaps it was cowardly, but I had the feeling that we would be exposed to serious danger. Moreover, I felt that destruction by one side does not condone similar acts by the other. For there to be real peace, voices on both sides need to speak out against such acts of desecration.
By now, a Palestinian TV crew had arrived. The reporter asked our reaction to a statement made by Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, former Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel, that all Muslims are “less than human.” It was not an easy moment. It’s hard to criticize Rabbi Yosef whom I regard as a great Torah scholar. Nevertheless, he has made similar harmful comments in the past. I responded that I categorically reject such comments. “This is not Torah, it is not Jewish, it is not the Jewish belief,” I said.
Those around us seemed to begin to connect to us. I gave a traditional embrace to the governor on both cheeks, invited him to my home and synagogue in New York, and turned to the assembled and offered a prayer, that much like the holiday of Hanukkah that Jews are celebrating, may light emerge from this despicable act of defiling a house of worship.
And then something wondrous occurred. As we left, many who at first had refused to shake our hands, reached out. We shook hands, made our way into Eyad’s taxi, and slowly pulled away.
Officials of the American Embassy were scheduled to follow our visit to Yasuf a few moments after we left. We were told that during the Americans’ visit, residents of Yasuf would be asked to remain indoors, sharply contrasting with the circumstances of our visit.
We had been inside Yasuf for a relatively short period of time, yet we felt drained. What had potentially been an explosive situation, which could have spiraled out of control, turned out to be a meaningful and perhaps healing experience.
It was a simple gesture from the heart and soul that fortunately turned out positively. I am hopeful that it will make a difference for some who were there and perhaps in its own tiny way, have an impact on the larger geopolitical quest for peace—a real peace that all humanity so desperately needs.
December 16, 2009 | 7:10 pm
Posted by JewishJournal.com
US Federal Reserve Board Chair, Ben Shalom Bernanke, named Time Magazine’s 2009 ‘Person of the Year’ is Jewish.
(story continues below)
According to the Ben Bernanke Wikipedia entry:
As a teenager in the 1960s in the small town of Dillon, S.C., Bernanke used to help roll the Torah scrolls in his local synagogue. Although he keeps his beliefs private, his friend Mark Gertler, chairman of New York University’s economics department, commented in 2005 that, “it is really embedded in who he (Bernanke) is”.
The Bernankes were one of the few Jewish families in the area, attending a local synagogue called Ohav Shalom; as a child, Bernanke learned Hebrew from his maternal grandfather Harold Friedman, who was a professional hazzan and Hebrew teacher. His father and uncle co-owned and managed a drugstore that they bought from his paternal grandfather, Jonas Bernanke.
A bald man with a gray beard and tired eyes is sitting in his oversize Washington office, talking about the economy. He doesn’t have a commanding presence. He isn’t a mesmerizing speaker. He has none of the look-at-me swagger or listen-to-me charisma so common among men with oversize Washington offices. His arguments aren’t partisan or ideological; they’re methodical, grounded in data and the latest academic literature. When he doesn’t know something, he doesn’t bluster or bluff. He’s professorial, which makes sense, because he spent most of his career as a professor.
December 15, 2009 | 8:25 pm
Posted by Tom Tugend
In the last two Oscar races, Israel’s entries for best foreign-language film were among the select five finalists – “Waltz with Bashir” last year, and “Beaufort” in 2008.
Both movies dealt with Israel’s wars in Lebanon, and this year the Israel film academy had the choice of sending “Lebanon,” a powerful picture on the same conflict, to Hollywood.
However, since neither of the previous war movies had won the top prize, the Israeli academy decided to switch topics, according to various commentators.
The choice as Israel’s best picture of the year, and automatically the country’s entry in the Oscar race, was “Ajami,” a first-class film on Arab-Jewish life and tensions in a mixed quarter of Jaffa.
Whatever the rationale, “Ajami” has so far not turned on American film critics.
Though it ain’t over until the ballots are counted, as this point it seems unlikely that “Ajami” will make it onto the list of finalists.
While last year, the Golden Globes pick was for best foreign film was “Waltz With Bashir,” in the 2010 nominations, announced Tuesday (Dec. 15), the Israeli entry struck out.
The new Globes list includes two foreign films which have generated the most buzz so far, “The White Ribbon” from Germany and France’s “A Prophet.” Also among the Globes finalists are Italy’s “Baaria,” Spain’s “Broken Embraces” and Chile’s “The Maid.”
In other picks so far, the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. chose another French drama, “Summer Hours,” as best foreign film, while the New York Film Critics Circle opted for “The White Ribbon.”
In these Hollywood beauty contests, upsets are the norm, but if somebody wants a sure bet in one of the main Oscar categories, it would be on Christoph Waltz.
The Austrian actor, playing a suave and sadistic Nazi officer, who is finally bested by a bunch of hard-nosed American Jewish soldiers in “Inglourious Basterds” tops every best supporting actor list so far. – Tom Tugend
December 15, 2009 | 6:29 pm
Posted by Tom Tugend
Some 300 friends and admirers turned out recently at Santa Monica’s Fairmount Miramar Hotel to fete Larry Kurzweil, as the president and chief operating officer of Universal Studios Hollywood accepted the William Shatner Humanitarian Award.
The honor was conferred by the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Los Angeles (BBBSLA) and raised $500,000 for its Camp Max Straus camper program for youngsters, largely from single parent and poverty line homes.
Kurzweil’s touching acceptance speech took the form of a “letter” from the honoree’s childhood alter ego at Camp Straus to his now deceased mother and father describing life at Camp Straus.
“This is the only time for most of the kids that they get three balanced meals a day…and they are treated with dignity and respect,” Kurzweil said.
As dinner co-chairs Howard Spunt and Sandy Sigal noted, during Kurzweil’s 10-year tenure in his present position, which includes running the City Walk entertainment complex, he has motivated his staff to participate actively in charitable projects.
Through the studio’s Discover a Star Foundation, $5 million have been donated to 60 organizations, benefiting mainly homeless and needy children.
So far, some 43,000 youngsters have enjoyed the one-to-two-week long Camp Straus experiences, noted Margy Feldman, BBBSLA’s president and CEO.
Ron Meyer, president of Universal Studios and many of Kurzweil’s colleagues from the entertainment industry attended the event.
December 4, 2009 | 3:08 pm
Posted by Rabbi Mark Diamond
Rabbi Mark Diamond is Executive Vice President of the Southern California Board of Rabbis.
On Monday the rabbi went to the movies. More accurately, a large group of rabbis and Jewish leaders attended a private screening of Inglourious Basterds sponsored by the Jewish Journal, the Israeli Consulate and the Board of Rabbis. Following the film, Journal editor-in-chief Rob Eshman led a discussion with producer Lawrence Bender and actor Christoph Waltz (“Col. Hans Landa”). They were joined from the audience by actor Eli Roth (“Sgt. Donny Donowitz,” a.k.a. “The Bear Jew”) and director and writer Quentin Tarantino (an unexpected bonus).
This was not your typical rabbis’ gathering. Then again, Inglourious Basterds is not your typical World War II movie. The film is set in Nazi-occupied France and tells the fictional story of a squad of Jewish-American soldiers (“the Basterds”) who foment fear throughout the Third Reich by killing and scalping Nazis. Inglourious Basterds is replete with graphic violence, inspired performances (especially Waltz and Mélanie Laurent, who portrays French-Jewish refugee “Shoshanna Dreyfuss”), a rollercoaster ride of comical and terror-filled scenes, and enough provocative dialogue and action to keep moviegoers talking for weeks.
That’s what I appreciated most about the film – it generates strong feelings in viewers. My informal survey of colleagues who attended the screening reveals a wide range of reactions, from positive comments (e.g. “I loved the film”) to negative ones (e.g. “Revenge is not a valid Jewish response”). During the question and answer period after the screening, Christoph Waltz discouraged the audience from worrying about what others might say or think about Inglorious Basterds. Instead, he encouraged viewers to form their own opinions of the film.
I agree, for this is what a work of art is supposed to do. For me, Inglourious Basterds is a modern-day Midrash on the Purim story. With apologies to my traditional friends, I see the Biblical Book of Esther as an ancient Jewish fable of justice and revenge. To wit, what would happen if the tables were turned and we had power over our enemies? With all the merrymaking and child-centered focus of the Purim holiday, we tend to forget that the Jews of Shushan kill 75,000 of their foes toward the end of the narrative (Esther 9:16). Then they go out and have a big party to celebrate their success.
Put in stark terms, was this too good to be true? Or too bad to be true? No one I respect would disagree with the premise that it would have been glorious had a band of Jewish soldiers killed Hitler and his top henchmen. But what do we make of scalping the heads of enemy combatants? Or of killing innocent people who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time (a.k.a. “collateral damage”)? Is violent revenge the victim’s only legitimate response to terror and brutality?
These are among the difficult questions that emerge from the film. We hear echoes of a similar debate in this week’s parasha. As the Torah portion opens, Jacob is frightened and alone. He has not seen Esau in twenty years, and fears that his estranged brother intends to settle old scores. Jacob’s anxiety is heightened by the messengers’ report that Esau is approaching with an escort of four hundred men.
The Hebrew text of the Torah captures the true extent of Jacob’s fear. Vayira Yaakov me’od vayeitzer lo. Literally, “Jacob was very frightened and upset.” (Gen. 32:8). According to Jewish tradition, no word in the Torah is redundant. Why then does the text state that Jacob was both frightened and upset. A Midrash answers that Jacob was doubly fearful. He was afraid that Esau and his retinue might harm him and his family. And Jacob was upset that he might lash out in acts of hatred and revenge against his brother. He was fearful of what it would mean for the hunted to become the hunter.
Seeing and setting Inglourious Basterds in the context of this week’s Torah portion and the Book of Esther frame my understanding of this fascinating film. They help me to appreciate why the movie evokes such strong feelings in viewers, especially an audience of rabbis and Jewish leaders. I encourage you to see the film if you have not already done so, and to probe the disturbing issues it raises for all of us.