Posted by Tom Tugend
My only encounter with Nelson Mandela was on June 29, 1990 at the Biltmore Hotel, and the initial impression was more comical than awe-inspiring.
The reserved, soft-spoken Mandela, released only four months earlier after 27 years in South African prisons, stood next to the bouncy Sharansky, towering over the former refusenik by a good foot, while a battery of photographers tried to get the two men’s faces into the same closeup frame.
It wasn’t certain, until the last minute, that the meeting would come off. Mandela had less that 24 hours in Los Angeles, part of a 10-day
tour of the United States, and everybody wanted a piece of the international celebrity.
In addition, though he was allied with many South African Jews throughout his struggle, Mandela had shown little sympathy for the Jewish state in recent statements.
One of the first international visitors to embrace Mandela after his prison release was Yasser Arafat, another short guy and head of the Palestine Liberation Organization,
On this and earlier occasions, Mandela compared the struggle of his African National Congress (ANC) to the Palestinian fight for self-determination against the Israeli occupiers.
To emphasize the point, Mandela had also praised Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi and Cuba’s Fidel Castro as “comrades in arms.”
However, the Jewish community and Israeli diplomats hoped that a meeting between Mandela and Sharansky, both ex-prisoners of conscience, might mellow the South African leader’s attitude.
After prolonged negotiations, spearheaded the Anti-Defamation League, Mandela consented. Sharansky, who is now chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, caught a plane from New York to Los Angeles.
The meeting between the two men was closed to the press, but Sharansky let it be known that his arguments, including a reminder that Israel had been among the first nations to denounce apartheid, had not changed Mandela’s basic position.
I was covering the press conference for a now defunct Jewish weekly, Heritage, but couldn’t find a copy of the story I filed at the time. Fortunately, an article on the event by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency refreshed my recollections.
At a City Hall reception earlier in the day, Mandela had chatted with Rabbi Harvey Fields in his capacity as chairman of the Black-Jewish Clergy Alliance of Los Angeles.
When Fields noted that the Reform movement’s rabbinical arm had just reaffirmed its support of the ANC and of Mandela personally, the latter responded, “Your support means a great deal, more than you can possibly imagine.”
During the brief photo session, Mandela jokingly apologized for having to look down on his short friend. Sharansky responded that thanks to his diminutive stature, he was able to wrap the oversized prison clothes around his body during the cold Russian winters.
“Where I was, it was very hot,” was Mandela’s comeback.
Mandela left right after the photo session to prepare for an early evening rally at the Coliseum, with 70,000 admirers.
Sharansky stayed on for a short while, then looked at his watch. “I have to leave,” he said. “Shabbat starts in 20 minutes and I don’t want to go by foot for two hours.”
12.6.13 at 12:35 am | In June 1990, Nelson Mandela and Natan Sharansky,. . .
11.25.13 at 2:23 pm | My aversion to Hanukkah streetlights,. . .
11.22.13 at 1:51 pm | Rachel Bloom, 26, and Dan Gregor and Jack Dolgen,. . .
11.13.13 at 11:33 am | The educational book publishing company,. . .
11.12.13 at 10:52 am |
11.11.13 at 1:49 pm | During the British Academy of Film and Television. . .
12.6.13 at 12:35 am | In June 1990, Nelson Mandela and Natan Sharansky,. . . (717)
10.12.09 at 4:49 pm | Is it time to claim the explorer as an MOT? (249)
11.1.10 at 5:09 pm | Israeli PUA Tomer Koron offers tips on how to. . . (208)
November 25, 2013 | 2:23 pm
Posted Rivkah Ben-Yisrael
My aversion to Hanukkah streetlights, national-religious pride and surprising similarities between different light festivals- all explored here.
The lights put up in Israel around the time of the winter festival of Hanukkah evoke mixed feelings for me. You probably think that's strange- why would those neon blue 'hannukiahs' and garish yellow strings of lights do anything but fill my heart with festive cheer?!
Jewish in a Christian Country
Let me explain- I grew up in the cold country of England in a religious Jewish family, in a religious Jewish neighborhood and went to religious Jewish schools. Jewish beliefs were instilled in me from a young age and I grew up proud of my religion and happy to be a part of the Jewish community. However, beyond my home, neighborhood and school was a multi-cultural world that I interacted with on a daily basis. Multi-cultural as the country is, Christianity is the most widely declared and practiced religion in England and this was felt strongly around the autumn-winter time when Christmas decorations would start appearing everywhere. And this, my friends, is the root of my sinking heart that is combined with the smile on my face as I see the Hanukkah decorations adorning the streets in Israel.
You see, the Hanukkah decorations are made using the very same kind of lights that were used to decorate the English streets with festive Christmas scenes. So, on the one hand I have a surge of pride in seeing these Jewish decorations adorning the streets of the Jewish homeland in anticipation of the eight-day festival of Hanukkah. On the other hand, it makes me a tiny bit sad that those decorations will always be associated, in my mind, with Christian festivals. I look forward to raising children here who will know only to associate those lights with Jewish holidays.
Why I Believe Jewish People Should Grow Up in the Jewish Country
No, I'm not anti multiculturalism and growing up with an awareness of other cultures and religions. But I do believe that Jewish children should be growing up in the Jewish homeland, surrounded by Jewish decorations, signs and people. My religious identity is very strongly tied to my national identity and as much as I will always be thankful for the freedom granted to the Jewish people in England to live their lives as Jewish people, I firmly believe that Jewish people should be living and growing in their most natural of places- in the land of Israel that according to Jewish ancient sources was promised to us centuries ago and is the place where the Jewish people can most fully recognize their destiny.
Hanukkah in a Nutshell
Well, now that I've got my mixed-feelings about Hanukkah street lights off my chest I can concentrate on the beauty of the festival and its messages. The eight-day festival is a simple one to celebrate and is therefore embraced quite whole-heartedly by Jewish people of various religious levels. All that needs to be done is to light a nine-branched candelabrum in commemoration of the miraculous story of the solitary jug of oil that was large enough to keep the candelabra in the Temple alight for one day yet lasted for eight days after the victory of the Maccabees against the Greek forces in Jerusalem. I possibly just told you the Hanukkah story in one sentence. I invite you to search for more in-depth explanations of the festival thought, it's quite fascinating.
In addition, to lighting the candelabra together with the family in the cold winter month of November/December, depending on when the festival falls (the Jewish calendar is a lunisolar calendar as opposed to the solar Gregorian calendar and for this reason, its festivals fall out at different times on the Gregorian calendar). There is a wickedly wonderful tradition of eating deep-fried foods (in reference once again to the miracle of the oil), as well as dairy foods (based on rabbinic literature-check this custom out too- also fascinating). We play with a special spinning top called a Dreidel (a story in itself) that comes in all shapes, sizes and materials, light candles, sing songs, eat fried foods with an emphasis on doughnuts and enjoy family time. It's truly as fun as it sounds.
Other Light-Festivals in a Nutshell
While we’re on the subject of Hanukkah, a festival of lights, did you know that there are two other festivals of light? Honestly, I'm not just saying this in order to show how multi-cultural I am, well possibly just a little bit. But, I found it fascinating that just as we have our own wonderful festival of lights, so do those who are adherents to Hinduism, Sikhism and Jainism in the form of Diwali and Buddhists in the form of the Tazaungdaing festival.
· A five-day festival celebrated October/November time (they too have a lunisolar calendar)
· One of the most important festivals of the year
· Celebrated by lighting small lights that symbolize the triumph of good over evil
· New clothes are worn, sweets and snacks are shared with family and friends
The Tazaungdaing festival:
· Celebrated in the eighth month of the Burmese calendar
· Marks the end of the rainy season in Burma, where it is a national holiday
· Monk-robe weaving competitions are held for two consecutive nights
· Hot air balloons lit with candles are released in order to drive away evil spirits
· Charity is given
· Concerts and secular festivities are held
Turns out that light festivals of different faiths have quite a bit in common. I wonder how it could be hold a Jewish-Hindu-Buddhist celebration of light- any takers?
Read more from Rivkah Ben-Yisrael at http://www.ajudaica.com/
November 22, 2013 | 1:51 pm
Posted by Julie Bien
Rachel Bloom, 26, and Dan Gregor and Jack Dolgen, both 31, have just released their first Chanukah album, "Suck it, Christmas"--an adult-themed comedic ode to the standard holiday music released en masse this time of year. The Jewish Journal was able to interview the trio of talented East-siders about how the project came to fruition in only two months.
Dan Gregor and Rachel Bloom holding their new album "Suck it, Christmas."
JJ: Could you describe your respective jobs?
Bloom: On this album, we were all the writers and performers to varying degrees.
Outside of the album, I'm a writer for the show "Robot Chicken" and I specialize in musical comedy. My videos have been featured all over the internet and I'm currently developing a musical show for Showtime called "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend."
Dan is a writer-producer for "How I Met Your Mother" and is currently developing a pilot for NBC.
Jack is a writer and musician whose songs have been featured all over film and TV. He's also the frequent music producer and collaborator on my videos.
JJ: What inspired you to make "Suck it, Christmas"?
Bloom: Every year, there are so many Christmas albums being released (comedy and non-comedy alike) but rarely any Chanukah albums. So, we decided to make a Chanukah/Jewish- themed album as a subversive twist on the usual 'warm and toasty' Christmas album.
JJ: How would you describe the album in three words?
Bloom: Jews 'love/hate' themselves...we're counting love/hate as one.
JJ: How long did it take to make it?
Bloom: We cranked this sucker out in a little under two months. We realized we wanted to do it in September, so from writing to music production to making the videos it was a ton of work!
We have two more music videos coming out within the next month to promote the album. 'Chanukah Honey' was just the first.
JJ: What's your favorite track on the album? Or at least the one you had the most fun writing?
Bloom: We all really love Judaica. It just brings me such utter joy to hear it.
The inspiration for Judaica: Dan and I were in Paris last December [note: Dan is Bloom's boyfriend], and we were staying in The Marais (the Jewish section of Paris). We were passing all of these Judaica shops and agreeing that, if our parents came here, these shops are where they'd buy their souvenirs because Jews manage to buy Jewish stuff no matter where they go. I had just heard the Britney Spears/Will.i.am song "Scream and Shout" earlier that day (the one where she does that fake British accent) so I started chanting in this techno British monotone "London, Paris, or Milan. Shopping for Judaica." When we came back from Paris and pitched the idea to Jack, he lost his mind.
JJ: Can we expect any live performances in the LA area?
Bloom: Yes! Among some awesome indie comedy shows in the next few weeks, our big album concert is Saturday, December 7th at 8pm. It's at the Nerdmelt Theater at Meltdown Comics. We'll be performing all the songs live and featuring stories from some Jewish special guests!
JJ: Is there anything else you'd like to add?
Bloom: Look out for our music video of "Happy Epic Chanukah" that will be released around December 3rd (done with the YouTube channel Nacho Punch) and the music video of "Lonely Night" will be released in mid/late December (done with the YouTube channel Above Average). We hope to do music videos of "Judaica" and "Foreskin Heaven" next year!
Also, our album cover was designed by the amazing Jewish artist ,Will Deutsch. He's just phenomenal.
JJ: And just for the sake of the season, what's your favorite Chanukah food?
Bloom: I love good old fashioned latkes with sour cream and applesauce. Hipster version--the other night, we made some sweet potato latkes with greek yogurt and those were similarly delicious.
You can check out the video for 'Chanukah Honey' here.
November 13, 2013 | 11:33 am
Posted by Julie Bien
The educational book publishing company, Scholastic, has apologized for printing an English-language children's book, "Thea Stilton and the Blue Scarab Hunt," with a map of the Middle East, sans Israel. Oops.
It's pretty amazing that something like this got through multiple levels of scrutiny. Other countries surrounding Egypt (where the story takes place) are represented, including Libya, Sudan, Saudi Arabia and Jordan.
November 12, 2013 | 10:52 am
Posted USC Shoah Foundation
November 11, 2013 | 1:49 pm
Posted by Julie Bien
During the British Academy of Film and Television Arts' (BAFTA) Britannia Awards in Los Angeles this Saturday, Sacha Baron Cohen appeared to shove an 87 year old wheelchair-bound actress off of the stage. Whoops!
The accident occurred right after the "oldest living actress to appear in a silent movie with Charlie Chaplin" presented Cohen with the Charlie Chaplin Award for Excellence in Comedy. The award 'statue' was a faulty cane which caused Cohen to slip, fall and shove the octogenarian off the stage. Womp womp.
After the actress goes flying into the front row, the audiences gasps and clutches at their collective pearls.
Before, this story drives you into too much of a tizzy, rest-assured, it was a prank. The woman in the wheelchair was a professional stuntwoman--not a fragile old lady.
As pranks go, this isn't particularly funny--but here, for your consideration, is the clip:
November 8, 2013 | 2:29 am
Posted by Rob Eshman
There are only three possible reasons why former President George W. Bush has agreed to be the keynote speaker at the annual fundraiser of Messianic Jewish Bible Institute.
1. He loves Jews so much he wants them to experience the joy of being Christian.
2. He really doesn’t like Jews, and what better way to show it than to do the one thing even his most ardent Jewish supporters find objectionable.
3. He really doesn’t pay attention to details. His people mentioned something about the Messiah and a big fat speaking fee, and he nodded without even looking up from his canvas
Since reporter Sarah Posner broke the story in Mother Jones, a small shitstorm has kicked up over the President’s decision. Why are Jews upset?
Because the sole purpose of the Irving, TX-based Messianic Jewish Bible Institute is to convince Jews to accept Jesus as the Messiah. When Jews accept Jesus as the Messiah, they stop being Jews. This is something all Jews agree on—it may be the only thing all Jews agree on. You could argue with that, but it’s just one of those things Jews believe. It’s what makes Jews Jews.
"'Jews for Jesus,' writes Rabbi David Wolpe, “makes as much sense as saying ‘Christians for Muhammad.’”
Mr. Bush, therefore, is helping to raise money to a group whose reason for being is to stop there from being Jews.
It sounds alarmist, but there it is. Success for the group Mr. Bush supports would mean no more Jews.
Of course, the Messianic Jewish Bible Institute doesn’t see things this way. It tells those it proselytizes that they can believe that Jesus is the Messiah and still be Jewish. The thing is, they know that not a single Jewish scholar, or text, or tradition, or belief, supports that claim. So, in order to do away with Judaism, they have to lie, and engage in subterfuge and double-speak. Mr. Bush, a straight-shooter, is speaking to some of the greatest snake oil salesmen in the great state of Texas.
Keep in mind: Jews have no problem with Christians believing in Jesus. Some of our best friends are Christians. Many Jews, like me, even like and admire Jesus, that fiery Nazarite, for his radicalism, his truth-telling, and his courage. Don’t forget, as Reza Aslan, the author of Zealot, said, “Jesus was a Jew, first and foremost, and that everything he said and did has to be understood solely within a Jewish context, that his teachings were simply a form of Judaism that then became what we now call Christianity. He was a fervent, zealous, law-abiding Jew.”
But where we simply part ways, where we remain Jews, is that we don’t believe the man was the Messiah.
For the Bill Mahers and (may his memory be a blessing) Christopher Hitchens out there, this is just a foolish fight between two sets of what Louis C.K. calls, “believies.”
But for Jews, it’s an important, defining distinction. There are many theological reasons why Jews reject Jesus as the Messiah (you can read them here), but I believe the real reason goes deeper than theology, than text.
For Jews there is no Father and Son, there is no Trinity: there is only Unity. One. That is a mindset with vast implications for how Jews see the world and behave in it. God is ineffable, certainly not a man, and God’s power lies precisely in that mystery. We are good with the biggest piece of the puzzle left unsolved—that missing piece is the engine of our spiritual journey.
That’s why when we start believing in Jesus as God, we stop being Jewish-- not just in name, but deep down, in our souls.
According to its 2011 IRS filling, Messianic Jewish Bible Institute, the group Mr. Bush is supporting, spent $1.2 million convincing Jews around the world not to be Jews. Read through the filing and you’ll see how the group goes about doing this. It spent $69,000 in Ukraine, $79,000 in Russia, and a whopping $203,000 in Ethiopia (note to IRS—that seems like an awful lot of money in an inexpensive place where there aren't many Jews left anyway). The group spent only $20,000 in Israel, and no expenditures are listed for the United States or Western Europe.
The Jews of the former Soviet Union, cut off from practicing their religion first by the Holocaust, then by the Communists, are among the least educated about Jewish belief and practice. Ethiopian Jews suffered under the Communist regime there as well. Messianic Jewish Bible Institute is piggybacking on a century of persecution to reach the low-hanging fruit of Jewish identity.
And now, they have a former American President to give them a boost.
Rob Eshman is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of the Jewish Journal. You can find him at Twitter @foodaism.
November 2, 2013 | 9:28 pm
Posted by Tom Tugend
Theodore Meir Bikel and his parents peeked through the drawn curtains of their Vienna apartment as in the street below Adolf Hitler, standing in his limousine, slowly rolled by, cheered on by frenzied crowds.
It was March 15, 1938, when Nazi Germany officially annexed Austria, changing forever the life of 14-year old “Theo” and of the country’s Jews.
On Thursday evening (Nov. 7), Bikel will stand on the rostrum of Austria’s Parliament Building before an audience of the country’s highest government and cultural leaders to mark the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the night that synagogues throughout Germany and Austria were put to the torch.
Historians generally mark this event as the forerunner, if not the beginning, of the Holocaust.
Bikel will accept Austria’s highest honor in the arts and then give an hour-long concert of mainly Yiddish songs, interspersed with a few numbers in English and German.
For the finale, Bikel will present the Song of the Partisans, in Yiddish. He will ask the distinguished audience to rise as he renders the powerful words and notes of the anti-Nazi resistance during World War II.
The irony and meaning of the occasion is not lost on Bikel. “The Nazi criminals are gone, I am still here,” he said during an interview in his West Los Angeles home.
“I think I was created for this occasion,” Bikel added, referring to the Vienna commemoration.
That is saying a lot for a man who, during a 70-year career, has distinguished himself as an actor and folksinger on stage, screen and television, author, raconteur, union leader, advocate for the arts, and champion of Soviet Jews and human rights.
Of his many roles, Bikel cherishes that of folksinger the most, presenting “the songs of my people, songs of pain and songs of hope,” he said.
Bikel grew up in a strongly Zionist home, which named its only child in honor of Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism. By coincidence, the two men share the same birth date, though in different years. After leaving Vienna, the Bikel family settled in Tel Aviv, while Theo spent two years at an agricultural school, aspiring to the Zionist ideal of working the land. He then joined the Kfar HaMaccabi kibbutz, “but it soon became obvious that my talents lay elsewhere,” he observed wryly.
The kibbutz management came to the same conclusion and sent him to a three-week course for training actors in Tel Aviv. After his first taste of the limelight, “there was no turning back,” Bikel said, and he was admitted to the Habimah Theatre school. The man who was to gain international fame as Tevye in the musical “Fiddler on the Roof,” got his first paid role in the stage play of “Tevye and his Daughters.” He had the role of the Russian constable who warns the shtetl’s Jews that they better get out before the next pogrom. For his 29-word dialogue, Bikel received the equivalent of five dollars per show.
Bikel’s trip to Vienna was praised by the White House through its Jewish liaison, Mathew S. Nosanchuk. “I cannot think of a better emissary to carry a message of hope, perserverance and survival – on behalf of the Jewish people – to Austria, as the world marks these dark days,” Nosanchuk wrote. “You are the living embodiment of Jewish art and culture.” Interviewed two days before flying to Vienna with his companion Aimee Ginsburg, it was obvious that Bikel, at 89, has no thought of retirement. For one, he is now in the midst of producing and starring in the documentary film, “Theodore Bikel in the Shoes of Sholom Aleichem.”
As for his general health, while he hasn’t escaped the aches and pains of advancing age, he firmly proclaims, “I still retain the same mental vigor, the same energy, and the same curiosity.”
But just in case, for his tombstone, he plans the inscription, “He Was the Singer of His People” – in Yiddish.