Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Too Close to Home?

Ever since the ban on minarets in Switzerland was announced, I've been mulling over the similarities and differences between that and the restrictions on synagogue construction that was prevalent in pre-World War II Europe. I seem to remember, for instance, that synagogues in Germany, until the Neue Syangoge in the mid-1800s, were required to be built behind a plain facade and away from the street. Even after the Neue Synagogue was built, it was met with significant criticism (much of it anti-Semitic in tone) that has echoes in the rhetoric used about the minarets today.

So, I was very pleased to see an article in JTA by Ruth Ellen Gruber, author and journalist, that addressed this very issue. While she doesn't see exact parallels, the recent ban certainly recalls those earlier restrictions and considers it to be a true cause for concern.

"I know it's a very long way from a ban on new minarets to the much more drastic measures that led to this state of affairs. But as my brother Sam put it, "Restricting specific types of religious or cultural expression -- especially when such restrictions are deliberate exceptions to existing building, zoning, health and safety codes -- is discriminatory." It is, he said, "an act of denigration of cultural custom and, by extension, of the people who cherish, or the religion that requires, those very customs."

Monday, December 21, 2009

Don't Rain on My Parade

I am using my executive powers as writer of this blog to post this tangentially Jewish-related video clip. It's from the finale of Glee with Rachel (Jewish female lead) singing Don't Rain on My Parade from Funny Girl (about a Jewish protagonist), not to mention one of Barbra Streisand's (also Jewish) signature vehicles. Have I belabored the point enough? Anyway, ignore me and just watch. Amazing!!


While perusing the bookshelves at Barnes and Nobel yesterday, I came across a wonderful graphic novel entitled The Rabbi’s Cat by the French artist/author, Joann Sfar, best known in the US for his children’s series, The Little Vampire. The Rabbi’s Cat tells the story of a Rabbi, his daughter Zlabya, and their talking cat who live in Algiers in the 1930s when Algeria was still part of France. Narrated by the cat, who is studying to become Bar Mitzvah, the intricate illustrations and the gentle, yet poignant story line draws readers into a seemingly simple world that soon reveals itself in all its complexities. Perfectly situated on the line between perfect and im, wise and bumbling, sacred and profane, Sfar characters made me nostalgic for a time and place that exists only within his, and now my, imagination. But the themes that he draws upon, of internal religious struggle, of familial bonds, of humanness are universal and very real.

The only drawback of the book is the unwritten epilogue. Although only we know it of course, Sfar’s creations are heading for an abyss that they do not see. I can hope that with the help of ever wise magical cat, they will manage to survive.

Even if the very thought of a graphic novel finds you running towards the nearest exit, resist. This is most definitely a book worth getting to know.

Dear Mr. Shalev

Well, the mystery is solved…sort of. The infamous “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign stolen from Auschwitz three days ago has been recovered on the other side of the country from where it was taken. At this point, the Polish police are refusing to comment on the circumstances surrounding the theft or on the motives although five men have been detained. But what has been most striking throughout this whole incident is the wild rhetoric that erupted in its wake. The comment that really got my attention, was one made by Avner Shalev, director of Yad Vashem, the day the sign was reported missing. According to reports by JTA and the BBC, he called the theft “a true declaration of war.”

To which I say: Mr. Shalev, please explain yourself. What does “a true declaration of war” mean? Who is Israel now at war with? With all of Poland? With Polish neo-Nazis (the presumed perpetrators)? With the thieves themselves? With anti-Semitism? And is it all of Israel that is now at war with one or all of these groups or is it just Yad Vashem? Or are Jews around the world at war? Will I be expected to grab a weapon and fight? Yes, I am being a little flip and perhaps it’s not appropriate, but with all due respect, your reaction completely over the top. Yes, this was a vandalization of a sacred place for Jews and for all other groups imprisoned and killed in Auschwitz. But the Polish government and police acted appropriately and after only three days, the sign was found. If these civil bodies reacted more coolly or ignored the incident all together, then it would be cause for greater outrage. But they didn’t.

Moreover, while the theft of the sign is serious, it’s still less serious than if a synagogue had been torched, Jewish Poles had been killed, or any other acts of senseless violence had been perpetrated. Again, if that were the case, then it would be cause for serious concern. But it wasn’t. So please Mr. Shalev, save your declarations of war for the truly heinous acts.

Update (1/1/10): It looks like the Swedes might have been behind the theft.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Complex Justice

The current trials involving alleged Nazi concentration camp guards provoke some complex questions about what constitutes justice. The question is not so much should they be punished, but rather what form that punishment should take. I discuss this in greater detail a recent post for Moment Magazine.

But there are some other areas which I didn't explore: the concept, for instance, of collective guilt. If the families of these former Nazis knew about their father's/grandfather's past, and didn't do anything, should they be held accountable as well? If so, in what way? Should they also be jailed? If they didn't know, should they be pressured to take responsibility for their father's/grandfather's actions? What what form would that pressure take?

And what do these trials offer Holocaust survivors and their families today? A spokesperson for Yad Vashem suggests that it offers some modicum of justice. But again, what kind of justice? All of the accused are elderly and many in ill health. If we morally can't hold their families responsible for their actions, then there is no long-term punishment for these men. We won't be cutting them off from life or happiness prematurely. Yes, they will at long last be imprisoned, but it is only temporary. Others may argue that these trials demonstrates that Germany is exorcising its sins. But few people would argue that Germany hasn't done enough to come to terms with its past. Would these trials really mean the difference between forgiving Germany or not? Would it mean opening up the discussion about the Holocaust in the way that the Eichmann trial did in the 60s? Again, I think not.

I certainly don't have all the answers, (although I do make some suggestions) but would like to hear what some of you think.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Quick Links

For more background on Muslim assimilation in Europe, I would highly recommend the Council on Foreign Relations report, Europe: Integrating Islam by Toni Johnson.

Switzerland is apparently the gift that just keeps giving. Yesterday, JTA reported to that a mainstream political leader is calling for a ban on separate cemeteries for Muslims and Jews.

For some levity, Jon Stewart comments on the minaret ban in Switzerland.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Oliver's Travels - Switzerland
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorHealth Care Crisis

New Gig

If you like what I write about here, come check me out at InTheMoment, the blog of Moment Magazine. My first post about the Swiss ban on minarets is up and awaiting your comments!

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Does This Come in My Size?

These t-shirts are the brainchild of Charles Star and Carrie McLaren, a Brooklyn couple who had some time on their hands and love for the Jews. I totally want one.

Do You Want to Friend Heino?

"My name is Henio Zytomirski. I am seven-years-old. I live on 3 Szewska Street in Lublin [Poland]." This excerpt is from the profile of Heino Zytomirski, a young addition to Facebook. Why is this newsworthy? Because Heino is dead. He was killed in the Holocaust before the age of 10. His profile and status updates are written by Piotr Buzek, a 22 year-old staff member of the Brama Grodzka Cultural Center in Lublin. The Center says that it is harnessing new technology to teach the internet generation about the history of Jews in Poland and to keep their memory alive.

To be perfectly honest, I feel queasy about this approach. First of all, much of what the Center does focuses on Lublin’s Jewish past. Which is important and necessary. But in doing so, it looks backwards and not ahead. There is increasing evidence that Jewish communities in Poland not only exist, but are growing. Just look at the articles published by JTA over the past few days. So why isn’t the Center celebrating and advertising those triumphs? It could easily choose a young 20-something contemporary, living, Polish Jew to talk about his life, experiences, hopes to friends around the world.

Secondly, how can Heino’s story, as horrific as it is, help us today? If more non-Jews are aware of Jewish life in Poland pre-Holocaust and about their subsequent extinction through Heino and his Facebook page, then, again, I applaud the Center’s efforts. But it does no good to focus solely on the Holocaust and not address contemporary issues and conflicts. It is not enough to focus on the past with 20/20 hindsight and proclaim what we should have or would have done. It is too easy to demonstrate support for a long-deceased boy from the comfort and safety of our own homes via computer. Efforts like these are gimmicks, superficial stabs at righting old wrongs that we can never right, however we might wish it otherwise. No matter how many friends Heino makes, they will never be able to save him from death.

Issues of anti-Semitism and intolerance and racism continue to exist in Poland, just as they exist everywhere. There are contemporary victims of other types of oppression and violence around the world whose fates are not sealed and for whom our actions can make a difference. These are the people that we should be creating Facebook pages for. The Center should harness the power and energy of social media and its users to offer a means to organize and fight against injustice that can actually make a difference. If nothing else, we owe to it Heino.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Four Seasons Lodge

Four Seasons Lodge is a lyrical yet powerful mediation on love, aging, and the importance of friendship. The film, shot in 2006, follows a group of 50 couples, all Holocaust survivors, on their last annual trip to the Four Seasons Lodge, one of the few remaining resorts in the Catskills. Shot in a Robert Altman-esque style, we are given fleeting glimpses into the lives of these individuals, while much remains a mystery. Unlike most documentaries about Holocaust survivors, the focus of this film is not the survivors’ wartime experiences. In fact, we learn very little about their lives during that time aside from some brief shots of arm tattoos, a few allusions to Auschwitz, and a smattering of faded black and white photographs. Instead, the real centerpiece is the enduring friendship that have sustained these men and women in their postwar lives. This retreat in the Catskills provides not only a break from city life, but also a refuge where they could feel comfortable being themselves, no matter their demons, while surrounded by others who shared their experiences.

The movie is powerful in its simplicity. It has no real narrative arc and the filmmakers don’t push the survivors to tell their stories. Rather the camera allows us a peek the inner workings of this family that they’ve created for themselves out of the ashes of Holocaust. Warts and all.

It's now playing at Quad Cinemas.

For a more in depth review of the film, click here.

Watch the trailer here:

Monday, November 16, 2009

Swiss banks Aren't the Only Ones Holding Out

Le Monde published an interesting article today regarding the payment of 25 million Shekels ($6.7 million dollars) by three Israeli banks to The Company for Restitution of Holocaust Victims Assets (an organization set up to oversee reparations to Holocaust survivors and their descendants). Apparently, goods belonging to Holocaust survivors (including land, furniture, etc...) have been held by 5 Israeli banks for the past sixty years. Only recently have 3 of these 5 banks agreed to find the survivors (and their families) and give them their financial due.

What the article doesn't address however, is how or why Israeli banks have these goods and how they acquired them. From the survivors themselves? From Swiss banks? From relatives? Interestingly, I haven't found any other articles about this issue in Israeli or Jewish papers.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Gaza Examined

I highly recommend the New Yorker article in this week's issue examining the events that led up to the recent Israeli/Palestinian conflict in Gaza.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

J Street Redux

There has been so much written about last week's 1st annual J Street conference that I feel pretty superfluous. This posting could essentially just be a bunch of links to other articles. But I will ignore that feeling and post a few original thoughts of my own.

1) The opening night of the conference, I had a conversation with a guy who works at the U.A.E. embassy and who grew up in Dubai. He told me that he had just arrived in DC a few weeks ago and spent part of his first pay check on the conference fee. When I pointed out to him that this was quite a gesture, he said that growing up in Dubai he never learned about the Holocaust or heard Jews spoken about in a positive way. It wasn't until he was at college in Australia did he learn about the Holocaust and was overwhelmed by how much he didn't know about Jews and Jewish history. Since then, he has been a strong supporter of real peace in the region and was excited by what J Street is trying to do. He didn't, however, tell his colleagues at the embassy that he was attending the conference.

2) I also met a junior member of the Swiss Embassy who was there officially. I didn't realize how engaged the Swiss government is in the Middle East and how it tries to provide a neutral ground for many of the parties involved. The ambassador told me that the Embassy likes to keep up to date on the various movements within the American Jewish community and so he was there to get a sense of what J Street was all about from the inside. They didn't spring for the gala dinner though...

3) One of the best breakout sessions I went to was a theater performance sponsored by TheaterJ. It was a one woman show performed by Noa Baum, an Israeli who now lives in the DC area. She took her years-long friendship with a Palestinian woman and wove their conversations into an incredibly moving mediation on friendship, war, and family. Through her show, Noa was able to vividly bring to life the real people behind the 'Israeli' or 'Palestinian' label and demonstrate how often they have much more in common than they imagine.

I'll post a longer piece soon on one of the major debates of the conference: what it means to be 'pro-Israel.' Stay tuned.

Fun Times with Google

Little fun fact via the NYTimes: The co-founder of Google, Sergey Brin, is a) Jewish and b) was brought over to the US from the Soviet Union with the help of HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society). I also love the little dig at philanthropies later on in the article, "He has already learned enough about philanthropy to add immediately: 'Our foundation is not soliciting proposals. Please make sure to include that.'

I guess I'd better scrap that grant proposal I was working on.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

So what do you get

when you put together pork, Schindler's List and a mohawk-wearing, football-playing Jew from Ohio? Glee! This new TV show that focuses on a group of outcast high school singing and dancing Broadway hopefulls turns out to be pretty good at satirizing stereotypes of all kinds and last night, its lens honed in on the Jews.

I can't quite put my finger on why the confluence of treif, the Holocaust, Simchas Torah, and the female lead wafting through the window in a white nightgown with a star of David around her neck like in a modern-day Chagall painting is so amusing--but it really is!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Call me tasteless if you want...

But I am kinda tickled by the description of this book created by Alloy Entertainment, a production house for teen-girl themed books and other products:

"You Are So Not Invited to My Bat Mitzvah!," an account of the coming-0f-age trials of Stacy Friedman and her misplaced affection for one Andy Goldfarb-a classmate who speaks in hip-hop slang, and whose belt buckle reads "G-Farb..." (The New Yorker, October 19, 2009)

Anyone know a tween girl I can borrow this from?

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Inaction is not Always the Right Action

Earlier this year, I got several emails from the Manhattan JCC, as well as from other Jewish orgs., warning me that a hateful and offensive (they put it more diplomatically) church based in Topeka, Kansas would be picketing them and advised visitors to simply ignore the group on their way into and out of the JCC. "Although you are entitled to your right to free speech" the email read, "we ask that you calmly pass these protesters and walk directly into our building without incident."

I can certainly understand why these orgs. would not want to draw additional attention to this group, but I didn't feel entirely comfortable with the idea of just doing nothing. Even if it wouldn't change their mind (they are obviously too far-gone for that to happen), it would demonstrate that their views are repugnant to the average New Yorker. So, I was thrilled open my local paper this morning and discover that when the group came to Beth Elohim, one of Park Slope's largest synagogues, on the day before Yom Kippur, a crowd of a hundred or more were there to greet them and drowned out the hate speech with calls for tolerance and unity. And despite a local synagogue's email which asked for people to ignore them, the synagogue's Rabbi climbed on the roof of the synagogue and defiantly blew the shofar.

And what ultimately happened? Yes, the incident got publicity. But the story was not that the church protested in Park Slope, but rather that the community rose up against them, outnumbered them and ultimately drowned them out. Now that is absolutely the kind of coverage that I can get behind.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Holocaust Preservation in the Ukraine

There's been a recent flurry of interest in the Ukraine as the Kiev city council toyed with building hotels for its 2012 European Football championships on the site of the Babi Yar massacre. The massacre, carried out from September 29 to Oct. 1, 1941 by the Nazis, killed 33,000 Jewish men, women, and children. Due to pressure from local and international Jewish and human rights groups, the city council ultimately decided against building the hotels.

Not surprisingly, all of the media coverage I've seen has been from the Western/Israeli Jewish perspective. Any space given to the Ukrainians has been quotes from Jewish leaders hypothesizing why the Kiev city council acted as they did. For instance, the Jerusalem Post offers this from Dr. Efraim Zuroff, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Jerusalem, "perhaps it is not surprising that such a decision was made in a country in which there was extensive participation of locals in the mass murder of the Jews...Since their independence, [Ukraine] has not investigated a single case of a local Nazi war criminal, let alone brought any such murderers to justice."

It is all well and good to write articles vilifying those who wish to destroy Holocaust memorial sites, but what new do we gain from those pieces? Not much. Dr. Zuroff attributes Kiev’s lack of respect for Holocaust victims to anti-Semitism. But that kind of rhetoric neglects to take into account the cultural and societal narratives that evolved in the Soviet Bloc around World War II and the Holocaust that sharply diverge from those in the West and in Israel. More helpful would be some insight into the thinking behind the hotel proposal or questioning if the city council understood the full significance of the site. Anti-Jewish sentiment or Holocaust denial may have played a part, but in the often corrupt Ukrainian government, I’m sure that there were other baser motives as well—like greed.

To build a hotel on the Babi Yar site would be grossly inappropriate. And even if we do gain a deeper understanding of the Ukrainian position, this does not make the council’s initial decision less offensive. However, there is nothing to be lost by trying to insert more nuance into the discussion, even if the conclusions remain the same.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Canadians to the Rescue!

I came across an interesting clip from CBC tonight saying that Israel recently optioned the rights to Little Mosque on the Prairie, a Canadian television sitcom that follows the ups and downs of a small Muslim community in Canada previously mentioned here.

CBC tries a little too hard to create a link between the positive reception to LMOP and a possible thawing of relations between Jews and Muslims in Israel. Plus, it is, of course, much easier to feel at ease with humorous characters of any religious background on TV than to confront generations-old battles in your own backyard.

The show succeeds because it humanizes its subject with warmth and humor, and most importantly a light touch, as it simultaneously tries to address heavier issues of integration, prejudice, assimilation, etc. In a country as tough and hardbitten as Israel, some of LMOP's plots may come across as fluffy or even worse, unfunny. But even light comedy, smartly done, can affect change where much else has failed and a feel-good Canadian sitcom may be as good a place to start as any.

Racism Up Close

I apologize for my lengthy absence, but am eager to dive back in!

On September 24, Mustapha Kessous, a journalist for Le Monde, wrote a piece detailing the prejudices that he must confront daily as an Arab male in French society. Kessous' article resulted in a record number of comments on the Le Monde website, many of them with similar testimonials detailing the author’s own experiences of discrimination.

France's leaders have, for too long, pushed aside the significant problem of race and prejudice in French society. Perhaps this article, and its overwhelming response, will underscore the significance of this reality and encourage the French government, and by extension the larger French society, to address this issue head-on rather than spend its time banning headscarves and willfully ignoring the real anger that fuels the annual violent riots in the banlieues.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Jewish Leaders Part II

In a previous post, I mentioned my frustration with some American-Jewish leaders who knowingly disseminate false information when discussing Obama's views on Israel and the Middle East conflict. Well, The Jewish Alliance for Change, a group that formed during the 2008 campaign, seems to share my frustration. In response, they have started their own fact-checking website to take on these myths. Here's how they describe their new role:
"Enough is enough! Reprising our role during the election, the Jewish Alliance for Change announces a new "Obama Middle East Myths and Facts" site which debunks, on an ongoing basis, the most frequently heard smears and calumnies deployed against President Obama and his bold effort to achieve a new beginning in the Middle East."

I can't speak for their veracity, but certainly hope that their efforts bring some needed nuance to the discussion.

Tired of Fighting the Crowds at Ellis Island?

Then I have a suggestion for you...The Tenement Museum. Located on the Lower East Side and housed in the only remaining untouched building in New York City, it is an amazing piece of living history. Unfortunately I don't remember the exact statistics, but from the time 97 Orchard St was open to residents in 1863 until 1941, when it was condemned by the city of New York and boarded up, thousands of families passed through its walls. Since all visits to the museum are guided tours, in large part because of the fragile state of the physical building, I just took one tour that told the story of Jewish immigrants who lived in the building both in the late 1890s when they operated sewing factories out of their apartments and in the late 1910s when such work had been relegated to large garment factories that dotted New York city. The conditions in which these immigrants lived, especially before 1901, when outwardly facing windows were the exception rather than the norm, was pretty incredible. The fact that so many of these immigrants and their families (often large families with 6 people per apartment in a space of a studio apartment today) not only survived but thrived to the point that they were able eventually to move into larger homes, is a testament to the will of the immigrants to carve out a better life for themselves and their children.

I took a few pictures of the outside of the building, but unfortunately couldn't get any of the inside of the apartments. But, hopefully this will whet your appetite to go and see the real thing!

97 Orchard Street

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Jewish Leaders Have Done Us Wrong

The Jerusalem Post recently published a speech by David Harris, the Executive Director of the AJC, in which Harris, under the guise of "caring criticism," perpetuates the myth that President Obama stated in his Cairo speech that the Holocaust is the primary cause for the founding of Israel. Not only is this untrue, it also helps to feed the notion that Obama is anti-Israel, a belief that a number of American Jews seem to accept as fact. When this article landed in my inbox, I scurried to my copy of the Cairo speech transcript and found...nothing that made that assertion. Thinking perhaps I had missed something, I let it go. But then, last night, I came across a Capital J blog post whose author, Ron Kampeas, seemed just as frustrated as I was:

"Obama. Did. Not. Link. The Holocaust. To. Israel's founding.


...America's bond with Israel -- not Israel's existence -- is rooted in three things: Culture. History. And sympathy for the tragedy of Jewish history. In its entirety. Not just the Holocaust. Obama's presumption -- and it's not a stretch by any means -- is to imagine these three elements are what sustain American support for Israel: 'America's strong bonds ... this bond ... it is based.' Nowhere does he say, he has not
ever said, 'And the sole underpinning of this bond is the Holocaust.' Nowhere
does he say, he has not ever said, 'And because of this bond, Israel exists.'
Saying this does not, by any means, discount the lives of the 6,000
Israelis who fell fighting for its independence. It is plainly delusional to
suggest as much."

Pleased as I was to have my opinion vindicated, this episode also left me with a more important question--why do American Jewish leaders continue to give life to this falsehood? Do they not realize that these kinds of misstatements only help to fan flames of anxiety already present within the Jewish community? What do they hope to accomplish? While all Jews may not agree with the path that President Obama is pursuing in the Middle East, that is no excuse for Jewish leaders to be absolved of their responsibility to present accurate information to their constituents. Indeed, if these leaders truly wished to provide guidence, they could do no greater service than to lay out the facts, as they exist--not just how they are interpreted--and allow the average person to make an informed decision for themselves. A shocking proposition...I know.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Veil On Display

Yesterday, I went to the Austrian Cultural Forum to see their current exhibit on the veil. Part of the recent NY Muslim Arts and Ideas festival, this exhibition, The Seen And The Hidden: [Dis]covering the Veil, brings nuance and personal immediacy to a subject and a debate in which those ingredients are often lacking. Below are a sampling of some of my favorite pieces.

This piece, created by Asma Ahmed Shikoh, features hijabs from 100 women across the United States incorporated into a honeycomb-shaped sculpture. On each cell of the honeycomb, Shikoh has provided the name, city as well as some detail about the meaning of this particular scarf of each participant. I found this piece to be particularly powerful because of the personal connection that the artist encourages between the viewer and these women. The intimate information she provides forces the public to recognize these women as individuals, rather than members of a nameless bloc, with personal histories which inform the range of reasons why they have chosen to wear the veil.

I was particularly drawn to this piece because of the additional nuance that Esin Turan brings to the discussion. By using highly charged symbols such as the veil and the rainbow flag, he introduces alternative perceptions of gender and sexualtiy into the public consciousness, creating an unexpected twist in veil debate.

My subversive side took particular pleasure in this piece. Apparently the artist, Princess Hijab, has carried out a sort of guerrila warfare in the streets of Paris painting veiled women, such as these to the left, on outdoor advertisements around the city. With so many French threatened by the idea of women in headscarfs roaming the streets, seeing this ad must have really shook them up.

Especially this one with a woman smiling while wearing the scarf. Someone must have put her up to it!

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Yes, good TV does exist outside of Hollywood

I recently went to a panel discussion on Media and the Arab world which discussed the lack of positive Muslim role models in the Western media from TV news anchors to movie stars. Although the topic was Western media, they primarily focused on American media outlets as they believed that it is American TV shows, movies, and other forms of journalism that has the greatest influence on Western audiences. This may be the case, but I just want to briefly highlight a few non-American Western shows and movies that do star Muslim characters and/or focus on Muslim plotlines and are doing precisely what this panel would love to see from Hollywood.

1) Little Mosque on the Prairie. This Canadian TV show, now in its fourth season, follows a small Muslim community in the small town of Mercy, Saskatchewan. Its characters represent a plurality of religious, ethnic, and political voices and the writers demonstrate a real interest in presenting a more thoughtful, nuanced look at Muslim life in the West. Unfortunately, it's not available on Netflix, but you can watch all the episodes on YouTube.

2) Only Human, a screwball comedy set in Spain, tells the story of a Jewish woman who brings home her Palestinian boyfriend for Shabbat dinner. For all the madcap chaos that ensues, much of it not having to do with the Jewish/Palestinian premise, it also slyly manages to address stereotypes on both sides with a refreshing lack of melodrama or preachiness.

These are but two examples of media projects that are trying, through humor, to offer to bridge the seemingly insurmountable gap between the West and the Muslim world. I am excited by these works and enthusiastically say--keep them coming!

When nuance is not so nuanced

So I am currently working my way through The Heart of Islam, by Seyyed Hossein Nasr--a book I picked up at the recent Muslim Arts and Voices festival in New York City. The book's flyleaf promises a thoughtful and nuanced examination of cultural, political, and religious Islam as well as an acknowledgement and exploration of the religious beliefs and traditions that it shares with the other Abrahamic faiths, Christianity and Judaism. Given these laudable goals, I am disappointed that his discussion of these three faiths often results in his extolling the virtues of Islam above the others and dismissing facts which contradict his claims. For example, it is quite frustrating to read a sentence that states, "In the middle part of the Islamic world...[there are] still some Jews...although most of the Jews from Arab countries migrated to Israel after 1948." Factually, Nasr is correct in stating that most Jews living in Arab countries left during that time period (Andre Aciman in a recent New York Times op-ed placed that number at 800,000), but it is also misleading to make such a statement without any sort of context. There is no mention of the anti-Semitic rhetoric, policies, and violence that forced Jews to leave en masse. If Nasr wishes to extol the relative peace of minorities in Muslim lands, it is equally important to recognize when this is not the case.

Similarly, when Nasr discusses Christian missionary work in the Muslim world, he is equally one-sided. He is highly critical (appropriately I believe) of missionary efforts to convert Muslims and charges Christian groups with using material aid (food, medicine, etc...) as temptation. He does not however, or at least not yet, talk about how these same tactics are used within the Muslim world, especially among more radical groups (i.e. Hamas in the Gaza Strip, Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, etc...) to win converts. Perhaps these situations are not exactly comparable, but when Nasr so strongly condemns Western consumerist culture, and does not acknowledge that these same activities (with similar aims--conversion) occur within the Muslim world, between Muslims, it demonstrates a double standard which directly contradicts his stated aim of a nuanced discussion.

In spite of, or perhaps because of, these points of contention, this book is certainly food for thought. If I do finish it, I hope that by the end I will have gained a somewhat deeper understanding of religious Islam...if nothing else.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Victimhood revisited

In following the media coverage of the recent shooting at the Holocaust Museum, there has been a lot of focus on the psychology of the shooter and of white supremacist groups in general, but there has been no exploration (at least that I've seen) of the psychology of the Jewish response. The insistence on Jewish victimhood at the expense of other hate crime victims, the fear of a rise in anti-Semitism (despite polls that show otherwise), etc... that proliferated in op-eds and articles written by Jewish authors, in the Washington Post and other publications, presented a response that I found to be particularly narrow and frustrating. I wrote a Letter to the Editor (see below) that pretty much sums up my thoughts:

"From Professor Jonathan Sarna wondering if this latest attack signals an “open season on Jews” to Rabbi David Saperstein insisting on “the quintessential victimhood” of Jews in the Western world, this rhetoric of victimization only serves to breed fear and heighten tension. To pay mere lip service to other violent acts of discrimination recently suffered by other minority groups in the US, as both these men did, while emphasizing the anti-Semitic incidents is to deny the universality of racist and xenophobic hatred that James von Brunn, and others, embodies. The deadly attack at the Holocaust Museum serves as yet another reminder that there are those who wish to wreak havoc on our society, but in order to confront this threat, we must acknowledge this and fight against the danger that these views pose for all Americans, not just Jewish Americans. "

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Oy! American Girl Goes Jewish

Well, the papers are all abuzz with the new addition to the American Girl family: Rebecca, a young Jewish girl who lives with her Russian immigrant family on the Lower East Side in the 1910s.

I was a little too old for the books (and dolls) when they first came out and always thought the stories were a bit too fluffy (I was more of an All-of-a-Kind Family girl myself). But hey,
if a blond Christian girl in North Dakota enjoys pretending she is living in a tenement on the Lower East Side in 1914...

who am I to complain?

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Muslim Voices, Arts & Ideas

There is a fascinating festival going on right now in New York called Muslim Voices, Arts & Ideas that aims to use culture (books, film, visual arts) to break through the stereotypes that we (Americans and Muslims) have about each other. As part of this festival, the New York Public Library (NYPL) hosted a panel discussion entitled New Eyes on the Arab World: Breaking Down Barriers of Fear and Prejudice with Muslim and American writers and translators this past Saturday evening.

One of the most interesting things I learned was that there are a large number of young Arab writers who are interested in getting published in the West. It wasn’t completely clear as to why this is (do they want to reach a larger audience, is there more money to be made by selling in the West, do they want to de-exoticise the Arab world, or perhaps all three), but Paul Theroux, one of the panelists and a well-known Arabic-English translator, was encouraged by this wave and half-jokingly suggested that these young authors should be in touch with him as he is always looking for new books to work on!

Raja Alem, the only female writer on the panel, also seemed encouraged by these younger writers even if many of them may be able to sell more books than she, especially if they write books in the “chick lit” style of the Girls of Riyadh. She seemed particularly excited by the the web, in all its permutations, and sees the internet as a real opportunity for young Arab writers to be free from geographical borders and allows their work to be accessed immediately anywhere and by anybody.

Of course I always think of questions once the event is already over, but it occurred to me afterwards that no one really addressed the numerous books by Iranian authors that have already reached a wide audience in the West. I’m thinking of: Reading Lolita in Tehran, Persepolis, Lipstick Jihad, etc. Have their works helped to “break down barriers” and introduce a more nuanced Iran to Western audiences? What about hyphenated authors (i.e. Syrian-Americans, French-Algerians, etc…)? How do their experiences of living in multiple cultures influence their work and bridge the gap between the Arab world and the West?

The festival ends June 14. Go check it out!

Monday, May 25, 2009

Have you heard of Irena Sendler?

I know I'm a little behind the curve here but did any of you see the film, The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler on the Hallmark Channel? I Tivoed it when it aired but, faced with the prospect of seeing another melodramatic Holocaust movie (complete with clich├ęd Nazi brutality and weeping Jewish victims), I let it fall down in my queue.

Well, I came across it last week and ended up watching it. For all its shortcomings (curiously enthusiastic Catholic families eagerly welcoming Jewish children into their homes and their families, minimal addressing of Polish anti-Semitism, etc...), the story itself made compelling TV. Irena Sendler, a Catholic social worker in Warsaw, became so incensed at the treatment of Jews inside the Warsaw ghetto that she conspired with a small group of trusted colleagues to smuggle children out of the ghetto. In the end, she managed to save over 2,500 Jewish children (the famous Oskar Schindler, for example, saved 1,100).

Yet the most fascinating part of the story is what was not explored on screen. In typical made-for-TV fashion, the movie ends when Sendler is reunited with her lover and we are left to assume that they lived happily ever after in post-war Poland. However, while perusing Hallmark Channel’s website after the movie, I realized how wrong that was. In reality, she lived in obscurity following the war, was labeled a fascist by the Communist regime and—even after 1989--chose not to discuss her role in saving these children because of lingering anti-Semitism in Poland. Instead, it fell to a group of high school students in Kansas to uncover her story and bring it to light.

Addressing the psychological aftershocks of total war is a far messier business than the typical good vs. evil narrative so often marketed to the Hallmark audience. But if the directors chose to expand the arc of the movie to encompass the postwar life of their heroine, it would have provided an additional, richer, dimension to the story and placed Sendler’s extraordinary actions into even greater relief. That would have been a movie I would have watched right away.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Being Jewish in France Part I

Tonight I'm checking out a new movie, Being Jewish in France at the Walter Reade Cinemas. I'm really hoping that it proves to be more nuanced than the typical "France was, is, and always will be an anti-Semitic country" movie. But considering that Neil Genzlinger's review in The New York Times suggests that the director's [Yves Jeuland] "aim is to draw a through-line from the Dreyfus affair at the turn of the last century...to recent anti-Semitism," I have a sneaking suspicion that Jeuland decided to eschew complexity in favor of a more "traditional" story line.

I'll keep you posted.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Guarding Memory

There has been a recent wave of media coverage of a fund-raising campaign by the Auschwitz museum to raise over 120 million Euros, or $200 million, to put towards to the upkeep and refurbishing of the barracks and other buildings at the Auschwitz concentration camp that have fallen into disrepair due to age and exposure. The money raised would to be used towards laying down new floorboards in the barracks, replacing rusted hardware, among other improvements, including dismantling the infamous sign, “Arbeit Macht Frei,” temporarily replacing it with a replica while the original is being refurbished. Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, the director of the international Auschwitz center, asserts that all these changes, will be done in such a way as to exactly match the materials and building practices of the 1940s. The goal, Bartoszewski assures us, is not to ‘Disnify’ Auschwitz, but rather to maintain the site and its authenticity.

Yet it is exactly this authenticity that risks being lost in the name of preservation. The camp is visited by hundreds of thousands of visitors a year who seek, above all, a genuine experience and the hope that being in exact spot where so much suffering occurred will allow them deeper insight into an event and a place is often impervious to true understanding. Will that understanding truly come from an ersatz camp, made up of refurbished barracks and polished signs?

Auschwitz has been preserved to play a specific role in our contemporary world: that of ‘lieu de memoire,’ a tangible yet fragile connection to a brutal era that every day recedes further into the rearview mirror of history. Indeed, more than almost any other symbol of that era, this camp has become synonymous with the Holocaust and its brutalities. In reading these articles, it is clear that for the advocates of this fund-raising campaign, there is a direct line between the physical presence of these buildings, and the feelings of horror and sadness that they provoke, and the ability of subsequent generations to absorb and pass on the story of the Shoah.

Indeed, as Piotr M.A. Cywinski, member of the Auschwitz museum administration insists, “allowing the camps to return to nature …is not a responsible alternative for remembrance," “That's being completely irresponsible. Allowing the same to happen to Auschwitz would simply be finishing what the Nazis started - "realizing the SS's dreams. That's why we are trying to keep the memory.” (Click here to read the full article)

The museum leadership is right to be concerned about the education of future generations. But they are mistaken if they truly believe that is only through the physical presence of the buildings that their children will absorb the lessons of the Holocaust. In an era when hundreds of novels, biographies, memoirs, and other works of scholarship are published yearly throughout the Western world, not to mention the numerous Holocaust movies to appear from Hollywood directors, it is clear that subsequent generations have in fact taken this history to heart and continue to seek out ways to represent it in all its complexity. This multimedia approach does not override or negate the importance of the site nor of its preservation. However, they must be taken into account by those for whom the loss of the buildings spell the end of Holocaust remembrance.

There are many reasons why the camp must be sustained as a site of remembrance and bereavement. But the real fund-raising emphasis should be on raising money to support programs within Poland and throughout the world that support not only Holocaust education, but also education about the roots of other forms of contemporary hatreds: racism, bigotry, and xenophobia. For it is most essential that this generation understand that the hatred that led to the Holocaust did not die in Auschwitz nor does it only concern Jews. It unfortunately lives on in many forms and against a multitude of groups. One day, the buildings that comprised Auschwitz the camp may very well crumble and disintegrate and return, as Mr. Cywinski says, back to nature. But if the Auschwitz museum and others like it champion education for future generations, the knowledge of the camp and the inhumanity that it represents will be impetus enough for them guard and pass on the memory.

And this helps how?

Ah...those Europeans are at it again. For anyone who thinks that classical singing is boring or staid, has obviously not seen opera in Europe. From dead animals strewn about the stage to graphic rape scenes, European opera houses have ripped the proverbial envelope wide open in an effort to prove their relevance. Perhaps in the case of the most recent production of Samson and Delilah at the Flander's Opera in Antwerp, the directors, Omri Nitzan and Amir Nizar Zuabi--Israeli and Palestinian respectively, couldn't find any dead animals, but given what they came up with, it might have been the smarter course.

In an area that is experiencing ongoing waves of violence between and against its Jewish and Muslim citizens in part because of the conflict in the Middle East, why these directors, who had to have known what they were doing, chose to play into that anger and hate through the controversial interpretation of this opera is beyond me. From "Israeli soldiers dancing orgiastically with their phallic rifles" to Samson reimagined as a suicide bomber, the directors' ham-fisted approach would be laughable if it what was at stake wasn't so soberingly serious. As Michael Kimmelman so vividly describes, this interpretation did very little to advance any sort of productive discussion.

Perhaps the opera lovers among us, myself included, should be thrilled that people believe that this art form truly can have such a transformative effect on people's outlook and politics. But in this instance, I think that we would all be better off to leave the passion to the performers and the political discussions to cooler heads.