Thursday, September 30, 2010

Boxing Gym

Trailer for Frederick Wiseman's BOXING GYM

Lord’s Gym, Austin, Texas:



Clang, clang, clang.


In a small, white shingled building hidden behind a Goodwill store, posters of famous fights and fighters frozen in position overlap on the walls. Worn boxing rings and masking tape-encased punching bags reign supreme.

In this atmosphere of muscles and sweat, Frederick Wiseman’s new film, Boxing Gym unfolds. Wiseman–the Jewish octogenarian filmmaker whose most recent film La Danse took us into the rarified world of professional ballet, now turns his eye to the equally athletic, if more violent, world of boxing.

Boxing Gym (now playing as part of the New York Film Festival), like many of Wiseman’s films, focuses on the minutiae of every day life. Rarely leaving the confines of Lord’s, everyone and no one is at the center of the story. Like the gym itself, the film is universal. Men and women, young and old, wealthy and poor, Americans and immigrants, white, black, and Hispanic–all are welcome and all are captured on camera. With no hero or even narrative arc to follow, the audience is nonetheless quickly drawn into Lord’s hypnotic world. Nothing matters beyond the rhythmic pounding of leather against leather, the grunts of the athletes, and the ever-present beeping of the Everlast timer.

But this movie is not just about boxing. It also is about the deeper communal ties that form within the walls of the boxing gym. Under the watchful eye of the owner Richard Lord, the gym is at once a therapists’ couch, a daycare center, and a refuge as well as a place to train. Mothers leave their babies ringside while they spar, older men philosophize by the free weights, and economic woes are discussed and dismissed.

Although titled Boxing Gym, don’t let that fool you. This film isn’t just about boxing. It is also about desire, focus a hunger to push oneself to the limit. And it is also about championing community. In a country torn apart by social and political strife, it’s almost ironic that all it takes is a boxing gym to bring people together peacefully. But as Wiseman vividly demonstrates, Lord’s is no ordinary gym.

Thursday, September 16, 2010


Yesterday, the French Senate approved the ban on burqas and niqabs (Islamic face coverings) anywhere in public. Today, an Open Society blog post neatly summed up the situation:

"As if the French government hadn't done enough to damage its reputation with respect to its protection of religious and ethnic minorities in recent weeks, the French senate yesterday approved a ban on wearing Islamic face veils (niqabs or burqas) anywhere in public. Once ratified, the law will come into effect after a period of six months during which time the French Constitutional Council will study the new law to make sure that it does not violate any aspects of the state's constitution."

As a friend said to me recently, the French sure know how to get the best publicity...

Monday, September 13, 2010

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

A Film Unfinished

In an East German archive, three reels of silent film lay untouched and forgotten amid the chaos of World War II and its Communist aftermath. 40 years later, on an American airbase, a British film historian came across these reels simply titled, "Das Ghetto." The deceptively simple name, however, belied the power of its contents.

As we quickly learn in A Film Unfinished, the recently released documentary about the making of “The Ghetto” by Israeli filmmaker Yael Hersonsky, “The Ghetto” refers to the Warsaw ghetto and the three reels of film are the missing companions to a fourth reel--discovered in the early 1960s. Until recently, that single reel was used by historians and Holocaust museums as an accurate account of the Jewish ghetto experience. (One might wonder why this was accepted as truth when it is doubtful that Jews would have access to camera, never mind the freedom to openly film their lives, but that is the subject for another post). Together, these four short films were the raw footage—shot in May of 1942--for a planned Nazi propaganda movie. The film was never completed and it is unlikely we will ever learn how the Nazis intended to use the material.

Hersonsky’s documentary is the first to examine the film in its entirety and to present a more accurate picture of its filming of the movie as well as of life in the Warsaw ghetto. The 63 minute work serves as the backbone of her film into which she intersperses three key organizing elements: poignant commentary from survivors of the ghetto watching the film for the first time, a reenactment of an interview between Willi Weis, one of the cameramen of the Nazi film, and an unnamed interrogator, and excerpts from diaries by Adam Cherniakov--head of the Warsaw ghetto Jewish Council--and Emanuel Ringleblum--the ghetto's unofficial historian--about the making of the movie.

Hersonsky’s self-defined objective was to recontextualize the Nazi film before the last of the survivors die and leave future scholars unable to separate fact from fiction. Her painstaking process of peeling back the layers of misconceptions that surround the film and its subjects is thorough and crucial. But what makes this film more than just an educational aide, is how it challenges its audience to examine its own preconceptions of ghetto survival. Now that we know the circumstances of the making “Das Ghetto,” it would be easy to paint all of the scenes as clearly staged. But the film, perhaps unconsciously, also forces its audience to accept some hard truths about life in the ghetto--namely that for many imprisoned there, they lived as best they could. One scene depicts, for example, a group of young, attractive men and women smiling as they sunbathe in a patch of dirt. Without context, it would be easy to assume that this was staged, but in fact scenes like this did occur, even outside of the range of Nazi cameras. As one of the survivors commented as she watched, people were still concerned about how they looked even in the midst of all of the chaos and brutality around them. It was a way to maintain their humanity, their sense of self. Another scene showed a well-dressed woman ignoring beggar children on the street. Although we might chalk this, too, up to Nazi propaganda, another survivor simply offered the explanation that without this act of self-preservation, one could not survive. Later, as this same survivor cried as she watched two corpses lie untended on the sidewalk while saying that she was so happy that she could cry as she watched the frame. Her crying made her human, she said, something that she could not succumb to while living in the ghetto.

When we view the Holocaust today, it is easy to see its victims in broad strokes of black and white. The primary goal of A Film Unfinished was to properly contextualize the subjects of the Nazi footage and to further demonstrate the chilling reach of the Nazi propaganda machine. But this film also succeeds in the far more difficult task. It offers its audience a glimpse of the shades of gray that hover, often ignored, just beneath the surface.

Friday, August 13, 2010

A Polish Education

Across Poland, a new form of Jewish remembrance is taking place. Inmates from 10 different prisons are contributing their manpower to a country-wide effort to clean and maintain abandoned Jewish cemeteries. Participation in the project—which is sponsored by the prison service and the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland—is, however, about more than coming up with creative ways to keep prisoners occupied. Beyond the actual labor, the men are also introduced to Jewish culture and religious traditions.

For many of prisoners who came of age under communism, talking about anything Jewish was taboo. But through this program, and with the aid of Poland’s chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich, that is beginning to change. Before the prisoners set foot in the cemeteries Rabbi Schudrich visits each of the prisons and talks to inmates about everything from Jewish marriage laws to how to put on tefillin. By educating the men, the project leaders hope to break through the anti-Semitic outlook that remains present in Polish society and change the way the inmates were taught to view Jews.

So far, the response has been positive. One of the men involved in the project, Artur Blinski, says “the scheme has broadened his outlook towards his country’s past. ‘Until now I wasn’t that interested. This program has changed my attitude towards Jewish culture and I’ve started to get interested in it. I had no idea about this culture and the more I learn the more interesting it becomes.

That it has taken so many decades for Poles to be able to confront not only their own attitudes towards Jews as well as the importance and influence of pre-war Jewish life in Poland is distressing. However, this effort–as well as others aimed at opening up the discussion and breaking societal taboos–is heartening. It takes strength and courage to challenge the status quo. In a recent blog post, I pointed out important steps taken within Poland to confront its past. I hope this latest project represents not the end of such forward movement, but rather just the beginning.

When We Talk About The Middle East

I think Thomas Friedman can read my mind. Just as I sat down to write this blog post, I came across a new op-ed of his that addressed my very topic. (Hat tip to Mr. Friedman)

In his op-ed, Friedman takes on recent efforts by Western political leaders and entertainment personalities to delegitimize Israel. He argues that Israel is a complex and multi-faceted country that deserves to be seen and understood in all of its nuance rather than as a symbol of unfettered cruelty. Furthermore, he gives his readers a glimpse into the Israeli psyche and shows just how it fits into the context of the greater Middle East. But more importantly, he demonstrates that simplistic views, such as the ones put forth by Britain's Prime Minister or Oliver Stone, serve not to ameliorate the situation, but rather simply prolong the anguish for all involved.

Friedman's views may not be particularly novel, but his words rang especially true for me in the wake of a rather emotional conversation I had with a new Brazilian acquaintance, Peter (not his real name). We were both participants in a journalism training course in Prague and were relaxing at a bar with friends at the end of an intense week. Suddenly, one of the people in our group mentioned that Peter’s last name is also common Brazilian Jewish name. Teasingly, I turned to him and suggested that he might actually be Jewish. His immediate reply of: “no, I don’t want to be Jewish,” didn’t bother me until he added that the reason he didn’t want to be Jewish because of Israel. He felt that Jews were selfish in their dealings with Palestinians and in their refusal to give more land to the Palestinian state. Blindsided, I didn’t quite know what to say. I had expected a simple answer of “I don’t want to keep Kosher” or even, “I’m Catholic, why would I want to convert?” My immediate response—although unsaid—was to reply defensively and demand to know what was so bad about Israel. Another part of me wanted to give him a crash course in Jewish politics and explain the huge rifts within the American Jewish community over that very topic. A third part of me felt grateful.

Grateful because I have always felt secure about my place as a Jew in the American mainstream. While I've certainly gotten into heated discussions with people--primarily other Jews--about Israel or other Jewish topics, I've always felt supported by a larger network of voices. I've never felt alone. But during that quick conversation, I caught a glimpse of what it might be like for Jews from smaller communities elsewhere in the world for whom expressing their religion or their pro-Israeli views is a never-ending exercise in self-defense. A whiff of realization of what it might feel like to always be conscious of one's minority status. American Jews are lucky. Our community is strong and organized and not afraid—for better or worse--to speak out. We don’t feel the need to hide our kippot in public or our synagogues behind innocuous facades. We have a vast network to which we can turn to learn how to respond to anti-Israeli sentiment. While we might not all agree on what anti-Israeli sentiment sounds like, we all, especially today, can find a group from whom to draw confidence in our position as American Jews. Can the same be said for South American or European Jews? Based on anecdotal evidence, I’m skeptical.

Peter and I chose to end the conversation when we realized that a slightly tipsy discussion at a bar about the Middle East was not the best place to talk about such a sensitive topic. Plus, I, and perhaps he too, felt that a potential friendship was more important than an emotionally fueled argument with an outcome that could have left us both uncomfortable in each other's presence.

Thomas Friedman separates criticism of Israel into two categories: constructive and destructive. To him, constructive criticism is to acknowledge Israel and to view its actions within the larger context of the Middle East while looking for a real solution. Destructive criticism is to maintain the status quo and to single out Israel's destructive behavior while ignoring all others. While I think Peter’s views of Jews and Israelis falls into the destructive category, I wasn’t willing to take him on. Perhaps next time, I won’t have to. I’ll simply hand over Friedman’s op-ed and calmly ask if he wants to be part of the problem or part of the solution.

Friday, June 25, 2010

The Helen Thomas Travel Plan

When Helen Thomas declared that Jews have no place in Israel and should go home to Germany and Poland, she unleashed a current of outrage within the American Jewish community. How dare she suggest, they wondered, that Jews should return to the countries of ‘the Final Solution.'

From her comments, it was unclear if she meant that Jews should have been killed in the Holocaust or that they should simply go back to what she viewed as their ancestral homelands--never mind that Israeli Jews are from all over the world, including Israel itself. However, the reaction within the community to the suggestion of Germany and Poland demonstrates that for many American Jews, it amounts to the same thing. But, in fact, it is not. While her proposition is at best preposterous and at worst despicable, let us examine for a moment what exactly today's Israeli Jews would discover waiting for them in Germany and Poland if they left Israel.

Read the full piece here.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

News Link Round-Up

Like everyone, I've been overwhelmed by articles about the flotilla incident. Here are some of the more insightful ones I've come across: from the Deutsche Welle and Slate.

Other news, other wars. More than 60 years since the end of WWII and still its legacy remains.

A video of a massacre of German civilians in Czechoslovakia is released for the first time.

A WWII era bomb exploded in Germany.

Finally, a twist on Muslim-Jewish relations in Europe. The NYTimes magazine section this past Sunday had a great article about Job Cohen, Amsterdam's Jewish mayor and perhaps next Dutch prime minister.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

The French Railroad on Trial

Reuters reported this week that 100 French and American plaintiffs are suing SNCF, the French national railroad company, for their role in transporting French Jews to concentration camps during the Holocaust. The group, made up of Holocaust survivors and their descendants, insist that it’s not about the money, but rather about exposing the crimes in which the rail company participated. “‘It is about money but not in the way they mean,’” said William Wajnryb, whose father died at Auschwitz. “When people make accusations about money, they should look at the SNCF first of all,” he said. “The core of this story is that the SNCF got money for deporting Jews.’”

I certainly understand the motivation that is driving these plaintiffs to sue the SNCF. The trauma of the Holocaust coupled with the French government’s decades-long refusal to acknowledge its role in contributing to that trauma is enough to want to fight for whatever compensation might be available. That is logical. Just because it is logical however, doesn’t make it right. Had this case been brought to court 40 or 50 years ago, when the money would have made a tangible difference, I would be more sympathetic. But today, with most of the survivors gone and many of their children successful, they don’t need the money to help them survive.

If the money is meant to serve a purely symbolic purpose, then I look forward to reading that each of the plaintiffs is receiving a one dollar bill (or one euro coin) from the SNCF in recognition of their past. But in the absence of such a proposal, there are many other ways to draw attention to the SNCF’s crimes that could have a greater impact.

If the group insists on some sort of significant monetary compensation, they should use their winnings to set up a foundation to help victims of current genocides or donate it to other non-profit organizations that advocate for increased Holocaust education. Another alternative is for the SNCF to publicly acknowledge their guilt, something it has already begun to do. In ‘The SNCF under the German Occupation,’ a self-commissioned study, it was revealed that during the war SNCF workers were, “quite willing to protest vigorously to the Germans about excessive demands in other areas, [they were] ready to pack thousands of Jews and others off to Eastern Europe in plainly inhuman conditions without any apparent qualms.” Reuters does not say how or if the report has been made public, but it is an important step forward.

Alain Lipietz, a spokesman for the plaintiffs, suggested that this trial serves a wider purpose by demonstrating that crimes such as those committed by the SNCF will never be forgotten until justice is served. But justice will not be served if its rewards help only a handful of people. Roughly 76,000 French Jews were persecuted and killed during the Holocaust with the help of the SNCF. No amount of money or admission of guilt can bring them back. So instead of making this trial about reparations for the past, it should be about working towards a future where such gestures will no longer be needed. Only then will it be worth it.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Fabulous, Feel-Good, and Fatwa-Free

When a Muslim and a Jew walk into a bar, it’s a joke. When a Muslim discovers he was born Jewish, it’s a movie. The Infidel, shown as part of the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival, is the story of Mahmud Nasir (Omid Djalili), a middle-aged Muslim man from London’s East End, who discovers after his mother’s death that he was adopted as a baby. Not only was he adopted, but his birth parents were Jews. Jews who named him Solomon (Solly) Shimshillewitz, or as his new friend Leonard Goldberg (Richard Schiff) suggests: Jewy-Jew-JewJewawtiz.

While Nasir is trying to cope with his new identity, he also must deal with the impending marriage of his son to the stepdaughter of one of Egypt’s most radical imams, Arshad El Masri (Yigal Naor). The movie takes off when Nasir discovers that his alleged birth father is dying in a nursing home, but can’t see him until Nasir learns what it means to be Jewish. (For the Rabbi is guarding the door, this means Nasir must know how to say the names of the five books of the Torah in Yiddish or recite the Shema). Desperate, he turns to his caustic neighbor Goldberg who instead, teaches him the truly important aspects of Judaism: how to say “oy” with the right inflection and knowing how to dance the Kazatsky (certainly a critical skill in my family!).

If you’re looking for a light-hearted send-up of Jewish and Muslim stereotypes, this may be the movie for you. The writer (David Baddiel) was not afraid to openly mock both sides with often pointed humor. And watching on-screen chemistry between Djalili and Schiff is definitely worth the price of admission. Beneath the laughs however, the film did try to address some larger issues–religious conflict, death of a parent, loss of identity–which is where it fell flat.

To take on these topics with a comedic touch, as Baddiel did, is admirable but he didn’t trust his writing skills to take his set-up to the next level. For example, towards the end of the movie we see Nasir sitting down with the Torah and the Koran on the table in front of him. Both books are leather-bound with ornate decorations on the covers. He opens each book to the first page and begins to read. Suddenly, he realizes how fundamentally similar these two books are, despite his pre-conceptions and he begins to reconcile his seemingly disparate identities. But instead of letting the message sink in both for the character and for the audience, the camera quickly shows him grabbing a cup that reads, “#1 Mutt.” Sure it’s funny. But it was defensive humor, almost as if Baddiel was afraid that one serious moment would detract from the overall humorous tone of the movie.

Similarly, in making this a film about a man torn between religious identity: Judaism vs. Islam, moderate vs. radical Islam, Baddiel primed us for a deeper conflict that never happened. Comedy gives us permission to explore even the most contentious of situations and has the confidence that audiences will follow. I wanted him to take advantage of this loop-hole and go deeper–to take on the simmering tensions that right now are only accessible through humor. Instead, he came up short–offering only watered-down hostility instead of full-blown craziness.

During the Q and A, Baddiel and Josh Appignanesi (the director) mentioned they had been a little nervous about the film’s reception by Britain’s Jewish and Muslim communities. They were pleased to report however, that after its release no one was burning them in effigy or calling them anti-Semites. Which, considering the topic, is no easy feat. Despite its flaws, the success of the movie proves that Jews and Muslims can agree on at least one thing. Can a comedy about AIPAC and JStreet be far behind?

Sunday, April 25, 2010

News Link Round-Up

Here are some interesting links from this week's news:

Hassen Chalghoumi is France's ideal imam. He's Republican (in the French sense), he's pro-burqa ban, and reaches out France's Jewish community. He's also disliked by those he represents.,1518,690303,00.html#ref=nlint

In the wake of Poland's recent tragedy, Ruth Ellen Gruber sees sparks of change in Polish-Jewish relations.

The French government stated that a bill to ban the burqa from all public spaces will be introduced in May. But whether or not the law will pass and be implemented remains unknown.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

An Oddessy That Didn't Have to Be

Throughout this whole ash cloud "crisis," I kept having the same thought. For all those European travellers stranded throughout Europe, "why didn't they just take the train home?" As strange as it may seem to Americans who only know Amtrak, taking the trains in Europe is actually enjoyable. Fun even. The train cars are comfortable and offer a modicum of privacy with their thick faux leather seats and glassed-in six-seat compartments. On a trip in Germany, I saw one couple get so comfortable on a train, that they pulled down the seats to make a bed, spooned, and read poetry to each other for the duration of the trip. Now, I bet you haven't seen that on a plane.

Even for the un-romantically inclined, there are considerable perks: the food is better, the scenery more attractive--and best of all--there is no cost for carry on luggage.

Well, it seems as though I am not the only one puzzled by the lack of train activity. This morning in my inbox, I got a post from Hidden Europe, a magazine devoted to under-the-radar Europe, that addressed that very question. Here is what they said:

Dear fellow travelers

Well, that was certainly an interesting week for travelers around Europe. Lots of angst for stranded souls. Rich fodder for the British tabloids as brave holidaymakers returned to English ports recounting tales of journeys from hell. Heavens, we never knew that France was really that bad.

Academics interested in travel behaviour, crisis management and collective decision-taking will no doubt be writing serious treatises about how a cloud of ash afflicted European travel. The truth of course is that Europe was not paralysed in quite the way that the media portrayed, and while many travelers suffered real distress and were mightily out of pocket, there was also a good deal of theatre about the whole affair.

That CNN journalist who paid 800 dollars to travel by taxi from Warsaw to Berlin when his booked flight was cancelled probably had no idea that few sane Europeans traveling to Berlin from Poland think of flying. There are on average only 78 available seats each day on the Warsaw to Berlin air route. Compare that with the more than 50 passenger trains which every day cross the Polish border into Germany - each train certainly capable of carrying dozens or even hundreds of passengers. Trundling by slow train through Polish villages would have made a fine news story. Western Poland is at its springtime best at the moment with heaps of blossom and soft April sunshine dancing on birch forests and water meadows. But no, CNN wouldn't have it that way. Instead it was a desperate tale of an irate journo haggling with a bemused Polish taxi driver who really did not want to drive 600 kilometres to Berlin. Not at any price. And he certainly did not want to be paid in dollars.

There were rumours of a flotilla of small vessels being despatched from Britain to rescue stranded patriots from foreign lands. A revival of Dunkirk spirit. Yet all the while those stranded travellers could have hopped on a train and been home within a day or two. When the prospects for air travel were at their bleakest, it was still possible to book a train ticket from Germany to Britain for 59 EUR. Eurostar never entirely sold out and we noted seats still available for 96 EUR on trains from both Brussels and Paris to London even just a few hours prior to departure.

Yesterday evening, we watched a small fleet of express coaches leave Berlin, taking passengers back to London. True, few of those travellers would have paid the bargain fare of 44 EUR, for that had long since sold out. The regular fare is 93 EUR for the overnight journey from Berlin to London.

We do wonder whether, amid all the magnificent theatre of doughty travelers struggling against all odds to get home, the seeds of something rather significant may have been sown. For international journeys between countries on the continent, air travel already has only a tiny market share. As we have reported repeatedly in hidden europe, Europe has a splendid network of railways, often complemented by good bus and ferry connections. For those short hops between European cities, the plane is more a luxury than a necessity. Now might be the moment for travelers to rediscover the joys of slow travel. You can read our manifesto for slow travel online at "".

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe)

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Halal for All

In a year that has seen contentious debates over French national identity and religion--much of it swirling around the French-Muslim community--it's nice to finally read some positive developments in French-Muslim relations.

The Deutsche Welle reports today that the French food industry is finally reaching out the previously unexplored French Muslim market. (Only took them 50 years or so). According to the article, French supermarkets including Casino, France's second-largest supermarket chain, will start carrying halal food and perhaps even the newest product on the market, Night Orient, a non-alcoholic sparkling wine.

Previously, "mainstream brands didn't want to be associates with halal because it was considered low-brow and because French Muslims had little money and unenviable social positions," suggests Antoine Bonnel, the founder of an annual halal trade show in Paris. "So the global image was a cheap image."

While it's debatable whether their social position has changed much, the visibility of this community certainly has grown in recent years as has its buying power. As Abbas Bendali, the head of Solis, a market research firm that specializes in ethnic niches points out, "Five and a half billion euros are going to be spent on these kinds of products this year in France. There are five million potential customers. This is a real consumer segment."

So the next time I'm in Paris and I get a craving for mock ham or halal pate, I'll head for the nearest Casino or Franprix. The non-alcoholic wine though is another story.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Xenophobia on the Rise in Hungary

The results from Hungary's elections are in. And according to the Deutsche Welle, the outlook for minority groups does not look good. In the first round, the round that determines who will lead the government, the conservative party, Fidesz, won 53% of the vote. But even more concerning is the success of Jobbik, a far-right anti-Semitic, anti-Roma party that won 17% of the vote.

According to Nora Szoeke, an Eastern European political consultant, the outcome is not surprising. "In Hungary the extreme right is more embedded within the society," she said. "It's not just an extreme fringe group that supports Jobbik … it's any voter who has been disappointed by the government and politics up to now."

The article offers good insight into the reasons behind the right’s success—they essentially chalk it up to Hungary’s growing disenchantment with the Social Democratic coalition and accompanying corruption and mismanagement--but what I want to know more. How are the election results being interpreted by the Hungarian Jewish and Roma communities? What has the response been? Are they concerned? Taking it in stride? Are they speaking out? Are other groups speaking out on their behalf?

In the midst of all the clear-eyed analysis it’s important to remember how these political movements affect the people on the ground. I hope their voices won’t be forgotten in the next news cycle.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Seder: Not Just for Jews Anymore

Did you know that the three pieces of matzo used during Seder represent the holy trinity? Or that a leg of lamb on the Seder place could replace the shank bone? Sound absurd? Perhaps, but not if you’re celebrating Passover as a Christian.

Yes, that’s right. Passover is no longer just the domain of Jews, but also of Christians who are– according to Rabbi Rami Shapiro, a comparative religions professor at Middle State Tennessee University and co-author of “Let Us Break Bread Together: A Passover Haggadah for Christians”–seeking a closer connection to Jesus as a man and as a Jew. “The practice of Seders is a growing phenomenon. Christians are really interested in the Seder meal and [churches] are trying to give their members a sense of what it was like during the life of Jesus.”

Leafing through Rabbi Shapiro’s Haggadah, there is no mistake as to the intended audience. From the title, “Let us Break Bread Together” (a reference to the New Testament) to the replacement of Adonai (Lord our G-d) with Abba (Father) to better reflect Jesus’ relationship with God, you know you won’t be seeing this version on your Seder table anytime soon.

While the idea of Christians celebrating Passover no doubt makes some within the Jewish community uncomfortable, there is also another way to look at it. During the Seder, we hear and accept questions from four children: the wise child, the wicked child, the simple child, and the child who does not know how to ask. Through their questions, each of these individuals is seeking a place for themselves within an established ritual. So too, are Christian communities who see in Judaism, and especially in Passover, an opportunity to connect with the roots of their own religious practices and faith.

By teaching them the Jewish framework for the celebration in which they want to take part, we are not only offering them an opportunity to feel closer to their religious figures, but also to better understand Jews and contemporary Judaism—something that can only be a positive step forward.

Then again, if more and more Christians do start celebrating Passover and realize just how delicious matzo and gefilte fish truly are, they might want to start celebrating other Jewish holidays as well. Like Sukkot–to see their Sunday school version of the tabernacle come to life–or Chanukah with all the presents, the candles and the latkes. But then we’d have to tell them that Santa Claus doesn’t really exist and try to convince them that a menorah really is just as much fun as a Christmas tree.

On second thought, I think we’re safe.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Imam Search

There are two interesting pieces that recently came out about the struggles faced by Muslim communities in the US and Germany. The first, published in the Washington Post, tells the story of a young American-Muslim imam who is searching to find a place for himself within the Muslim community. Unlike Christian and Jewish communities who have an established employment network set up for newly minted Rabbis, Priests, Ministers, etc., according to Adeel Zeb, the story’s protagonist, there is no such network for young imams. In fact, many American-Muslim families hope their sons will grow up to be lawyers or doctors rather than men of the cloth. Moreover, the generational divide is a significant obstacle. Imams not only need to be learned, but must also look the part: older (Zeb is 28) and sport a “gray beard.”

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, German Muslims are facing similar problems. At a recent event that addressed the question: “What Role Do Religion and Culture Play in Integration? A Transatlantic Comparison of Muslim Integration in Germany and the U.S.” hosted by the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies (AICGS) in Berlin, the discussion quickly turned to the lack of German-born imams. As Zeb noted in the Post article, “most American mosques are led by imams from overseas who aren't fluent in English. They know how to lead prayers but don't necessarily have the professional credentials or communication skills to become community leaders.” If Germans read this article, I’m sure they could relate. The lack of locally born imams is concerning to a country that still struggles with how to integrate its Muslim population. Moreover, those who do work in Germany often lack language skills, knowledge of the country in which they, and their congregation, live, and are uneducated about the cultural touchstones of their adopted countries.

While Zeb no doubt faces real frustrations, it seems as though, based on these two examples, it is the American-Muslim community that comes out ahead. In the US, at least, there is an opportunity for him to receive the type of training that for German-Muslims is still an abstraction.

The Post article ends on a wistful note offering thoughts about what professions Zeb might enter into, none of them being the one of his choice: imam. Perhaps I have one additional suggestion for him. Learn German and move to Germany. I hear they’re hiring.