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The Sarajevo Haggadah

Fri, 04/11/2014 - 16:05

Beginning at sundown on April 14, many Jews will be observing Passover at a Seder, the special meal that commemorates their ancestors’ exodus from slavery in Egypt. The book that guides the ritual is the haggadah. The Sarajevo Haggadah, named for the Bosnian city where it is kept, is a rare, beautifully illustrated manuscript created more than 600 years ago in Spain, and many see its own story as a compelling symbol of the Exodus. “It went through so many different cultures,” observes composer Merima Kljuco, “and so many different people took care of the book and helped it survive.”

The post The Sarajevo Haggadah appeared first on Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly.

Jacob Birnbaum was the unsung father of Jewish freedom

Fri, 04/11/2014 - 14:06

A rally for Soviet Jewry on Simchat Torah in 1983. (Center for Jewish History)

This May 1 will mark the 50-year anniversary of the first Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry (SSSJ) demonstration on behalf of Soviet Jews. The man who inspired that demonstration and became the father of the movement, Jacob (Yaakov) Birnbaum, died at the age of 87 on April 9.

Birnbaum founded the SSSJ and, together with others including Glenn Richter, developed the first national grassroots Soviet Jewry organization. But Birnbaum’s legacy was much greater than any organizational affiliation.

Birnbaum was a heroic, legendary figure. In certain ways, his life paralleled the biblical story of Jacob the very Jacob about whom the Passover Haggadah declares, arami oved avi – “my father (Jacob) was a wandering Aramean.”

Jacob Birnbaum was also a wanderer. Born in Germany, his family escaped to England when he was a young boy. After World War II, he became involved in resettling the remnants of Eastern European Jewry. Having seen the horrors of the Shoah firsthand, he resolved to do all he could to save Soviet Jewry.

And so, in the early ‘60s, after coming to New York, he continued to wander — wandering from room to room in Yeshiva University dormitories, wandering the halls of Columbia University, searching, searching for students who would join him in a campaign to free the millions of Jews trapped behind the Iron Curtain. He was unyielding, uncompromising, relentless, stubborn, steadfast and tenacious – he persevered no matter the obstacles.

After wandering for years, the biblical Jacob proclaims, “I crossed the Jordan with my staff, and now I’m accompanied by two large camps.”

This, too, is the story of Jacob Birnbaum. When he came to these shores he had little. But today, as he leaves this world, one could proclaim loudly and clearly that the camps he accompanied were large, numbering well over a million Soviet Jews. And American Jews, too, are part of his camp, as Jacob Birnbaum inspired us in the West to stand up for our brethren in the East, and identify ourselves proudly and clearly as Jews.

Birnbaum was the first. Inspired by his grandfather, Nathan Birnbaum, who is known to have coined the term “Zionism,” Jacob Birnbaum was the first to sound the alarm in America. He was the first to insist that we must collectively cry out in order to save Soviet Jewry; the first to lead the masses into the streets in front of Soviet missions and embassies around the world; the first to understand the spiritual power of the movement and incorporate religious slogans and songs into it.

Indeed, Birnbaum was the first to recognize that not only did we have a responsibility to direct our protests against the Soviet Union, but, we also had the obligation to insist that our own government, the United States, do more, much more, to press the Soviets to let our people go.

Sadly, Birnbaum would often be peremptorily cut off by establishment figures who understood far less than he about the issue at hand. They eventually co-opted many of his original ideas but accorded him virtually no credit for his pioneering work.

In the early ‘60s, Birnbaum asked Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach to compose a Soviet Jewry theme song. The words go back to the biblical narrative, when Joseph, after 22 years of separation from his father, Jacob, asks his brothers, ha’od avi chai – “is my father still alive?”

And today, all of the Jews from the Soviet Union and all of their descendants can declare, yes, Jacob Birnbaum, our father, the father of the Soviet Jewry movement, lives on. On his shoulders we, his sons and daughters from the former Soviet Union and from the free world sing out as one, Am Yisrael Chai, the people of Israel live.


Avi Weiss is the senior rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale-The Bayit. He served as national chairman of the SSSJ from 1983-1991. His memoir on the Soviet Jewry movement, “Open Up the Iron Door,” is scheduled for publication this summer. 

This Week in Jewish Farming: The journeyman’s journey

Fri, 04/11/2014 - 10:17

About two weeks ago, I was one of three farmers in the state accepted into the Connecticut chapter of the Northeast Organic Farming Association’s Journeyperson Program. Run with help from a United States Department of Agriculture grant, the program aims to help beginning farmers develop their skills by pairing them with a mentor and providing stipends for educational expenses and business planning.

The notion that farmers need formalized training might not seem peculiar, but the growth of such programs — If you don’t believe me, Google “new farmers” — signals a real problem for the organic movement. In addition to the obvious challenges entailed in starting a new farm, things like accessing land and finding start-up capital, is something more fundamental: Beginning farmers have a serious deficit of know-how.

Until relatively recently in the history of agriculture, farmers learned their trade the way most human knowledge was passed along — informally, by doing it, often at the foot of a more experienced practitioner. If you were a farmer, chances are your father was a farmer and his father before him, a multigenerational legacy of practical experience, leavened by memories of crop failures and other disasters, distilled over time and handed down — the kind of knowledge different in quality, not just quantity, from what can be acquired in a classroom. Talk to someone who grew up on a farm and you’ll encounter a wealth of practical wisdom, an amateur’s knack for fixing stuff and an intuitive sense of the land that is not quickly or easily taught.

(Cara Paiuk)

But in the decades of American migration from farm to city, much of that knowledge has been lost. Today, about 2 percent of the U.S. population lives on a farm, and less than 1 percent claim farming or ranching as an occupation, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. A century ago, more than half of Americans derived their incomes from farming. That’s a lot of lost knowledge.

The result is that bumbling city folks like myself are scrambling to figure out how to do this thing we believe to be so important. And I’m not just talking about handling plants. Beneath the placid surface of the supposedly bucolic farm life is a welter of highly technical and specialized systems.

Earlier this week, I spent several hours on the phone with an exceedingly patient salesman for an irrigation company in Pennsylvania. Reducing bushings, camlocks, poly nipples, mini wobblers, layflat, goof plugs. Before I knew it, I had racked up a $1,300 order, virtually none of the components of which I can identify. It’s gonna be an interesting day when the UPS truck arrives.

So thank you Connecticut NOFA. I might look like a competent farmer in that highly stylized photo I sent you for my program bio — a bio that looks utterly silly with its list of professional qualifications and degrees from brand-name institutions, all of which are completely useless to my current occupation. Really I’m just another city kid audacious — or foolhardy — enough to think he can do this.

Veteran JTA journalist Ben Harris is chronicling his new life as a Connecticut farmer. Read more of his weekly dispatches here.


From the annals of Jewish farming: In 1933, a JTA correspondent visited a Minnesota “Hachshara” farm that was training pioneers for kibbutzim in Palestine and described how one participant, a former Chicago stenographer named Miriam German, “pledged herself to the ideals of the Chalutz (pioneers) and no amount of milking at dawn or hoeing in the hot sun will shake her faith in them.”

London Orthodox Synagogue Stops Allowing Women To Carry Torah Scroll

Fri, 04/11/2014 - 07:54

Under pressure from the local rabbinical court, a London Orthodox rabbi ended the practice of women carrying a Torah scroll during prayers at his synagogue.

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Why Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway' Is a Bright Shining Lie

Fri, 04/11/2014 - 06:00

Woody Allen’s musical adaptation of ‘Bullets Over Broadway’ is glitzy, thrilling and splendidly acted. It’s also a cynical, pandering sell-out, as Joshua Furst explains.

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Council of Europe executives advise inaction on male circumcision

Thu, 04/10/2014 - 15:14

(JTA) — European rabbis praised the Council of Europe’s leadership for advising against further attempts by members to target ritual circumcision.

The advice appeared in a letter issued by the governing body of the council — an intergovernment al organization with no executive powers — to its parliament.

The protection of children “is provided by existing international instruments,” according to the letter sent last month. It also disputed a past resolution by the parliament that equated mutilation of female genitals and non-medical circumcision of boys for religious purposes, calling them “by no means comparable.”

Rabbi Mendel Samama of the Conference of European Rabbis said the letter was a “sign of real progress on the issue of religious circumcision in Europe.”

The letter was in reaction to a controversial resolution passed by the council’s parliament last year that said the circumcision of boys was a “violation of the physical integrity of children.”

Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, the president of the Conference of European Rabbis, called the letter a “significant step” that he said is “particularly pleasing in light of a worrying trend across Europe where liberal extremes have taken precedence over the basic human right of religious practice.”


Hungary Jewish Leader Gusztav Zoltai Quits

Thu, 04/10/2014 - 13:41

Gusztav Zoltai, the director of Hungary’s federation of Jewish communities, or Mazsihisz, resigned in what community leaders said was a protest against the government over Holocaust commemorations.

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Polish Museum Director Stresses 1,000-Year Jewish History

Wed, 04/09/2014 - 21:01

The new director of the Jewish history museum in Warsaw says it aims to show off the richness of Polish Jewry’s 1,000-year history, not just the devastation of the Holocaust.

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Teetering on the Edge of the Mikveh

Wed, 04/09/2014 - 06:00

A soon-to-be-married woman tells the Seesaw she’s excited to take part in his Jewish life — synagogue, Yom Kippur fasts and all. But go to the mikveh and convert — why should she?

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Observant Women Make Tzitzit — and Stir Controversy

Wed, 04/09/2014 - 06:00

More women are seeking an equal role in Jewish ritual by making and tying tzitzit. A Princeton University student has formed a group to lead the push into this once-male realm.

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A Fifth Cup – Going Beyond What is Required

Wed, 04/09/2014 - 05:00

By Joshua Weinberg

Growing up, I struggled with the impression that being a Reform Jew meant that we did less. Fewer mitzvot, shorter holiday observance, and less time spent in Jewish education. It was a stigma that I carried with me as I wrestled with and contemplated my own Jewish identity. This lead me to a realm of experimentation with halachah (Jewish law) – pushing and pulling my ‘red lines’ as I grew and learned more.

Today, as many of us are busy preparing for Passover, I find myself less occupied by the meticulous aspect of the holiday’s demanded mitzvot, but searching instead for ways to supplement the narrative and to find meaning in a modern context. I commend those who find deep meaning in cleaning out their kitchens and sterilizing their homes, making sure that all leavening ceases at the 18-minute mark and [in the Ashkenazi tradition] nothing that could resemble wheat flour – such as legumes – will be consumed during Passover. However, I would like to offer an additional perspective on Passover by suggesting some meaningful ways to supplement the seder.

Zionism and living in Israel were the answers to my search for Jewish identity, and to me, Passover became a holiday of peoplehood. The central narrative became the one that we clearly state after we sing Dayenu,that B’khol Dor VaDor: “In every generation we must see ourselves as if we went out from Egypt.” In the traditional Haggadah this statement is followed by a biblical and liturgical reading.

In the recently published Israeli Reform Haggadah, A Haggadah for Our Day, each page is supplemented with modern readings and interpretations. It includes a wonderful poem by Amir Gilboa (who many of us will recognize from the music set by Shlomo Artzi) entitled Shir Baboker BaBoker(Song of the Morning). In his interpretation of history, Gilboa talks about a man who “suddenly wakes up in the morning, feels that he is a nation and begins to walk. And everyone who he meets on his way he calls out to them ‘Shalom.’” The poem ends with the same narrative — that this man has woken with the newfound revelation of nationhood — and he sees that the spring has returned and the tree is turning green since last fall’s tree-shedding of leaves.” There’s no more appropriate metaphor for Passover in my mind than the Spring being a time for awakening, discovery, and the realization that we are indeed a people and have the opportunity to come out of “Egypt” (literally ‘out of narrow places’) and enter the Land of Israel as a nation.

As we have collectively left Egypt and entered the Land of Israel, as Reform Jews who increase our observance as we adapt to our modern circumstances, we now need a fifth cup at our s’darim (plural of seder). There are many interpretations to the additional fifth cup, including Happiness Inside the State: Toward a Liberal Theology of Israel, by Rabbi Michael Marmur.

Rabbi Marmur suggests that the fifth cup is the “Cup of Confidence,” an understanding that comes from needing “the confidence to appreciate all that has been achieved so far, and the confidence to acknowledge that which is still at fault.” I suggest that we adopt a fifth cup for the fifth “verb” of redemption, which revolves around two verses in Exodus (6:6-7) commonly referred to as “The Four Expressions of Redemption”:

Say, therefore, to the Israelite people: I am the Eternal. I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements. And I will take you to be My people, and I will be your God. . .

However, in verse 8 there is a fifth verb used: “I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and I will give it to you for a possession, I the Eternal.”

As Reform Jews and as Zionists let us use this verse as a way of saying that our fifth cup is the cup of peoplehood and our people are connected to the Land. This Passover, while we sit at our seder tables surrounded by family and friends, let us affirm that this is the time to remind each other that it is our obligation to go beyond our own families and communities and connect to our people and our land. And as the Haggadah says, “Next year in Jerusalem!”

Chag Pesach Kasher V’Samei-ach!

Joshua Weinberg is the President of the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA).

A Bubble Not Burst

Tue, 04/08/2014 - 12:06

Martin Buber tells the story of Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev. Before Passover, the great rabbi was inspecting the local matzo factory to make sure it was kosher. Afterward, he said, ”This factory is not kosher.” When the shocked factory owner said, “We have followed all of the laws of kashrut,” the rabbi explained: “The women in this factory work from early morning until late at night. They are laboring too long and too hard. They are not being paid fairly for their labors.”

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How the Son of German and Polish Jews Became the 'Starchild' of KISS

Tue, 04/08/2014 - 06:00

With the band KISS, Paul Stanley gleefully zigzagged between soulfulness and crassness. But the musician’s new memoir reveals the heartbreak beneath the face paint.

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The Ukrainian Revolution’s Unlikely Street-Fighting Rabbi

Mon, 04/07/2014 - 06:00

Natan Khazin led a Jewish squadron of fighters in the revolution that rocked Kiev’s central square. Meet the yarmulke-wearing IDF veteran and ordained rabbi.

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Chabad Rabbi Accused of Child Sex Abuse Settles Defamation Suit

Sun, 04/06/2014 - 09:31

A defamation suit launched by a senior Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi has been settled following a public apology by the founder of a victims’ advocate group.

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This Oped Will Not Tell You How Great We Are

Sun, 04/06/2014 - 06:00

The public communication of most Jewish organizations is all about naked self-promotion, writes Ken Gordon. But what if those organizations changed their approach to education?

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The Syrupy Tale of How Jews Invented Kedem and Modern America

Sun, 04/06/2014 - 06:00

How did that sugary Manischewitz get to your table? It started 100 years ago with Kedem in New York. Or maybe with Thoreau or Sonic Youth. Here’s the secret history of the sweet stuff.

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Passover-Minded Synagogue Prepares To Sweep All Hametz From Its Inboxes

Sun, 04/06/2014 - 06:00

When Romemu announced it would ban email — or ‘life-hametz’ — on Passover, many fell in love with the Manhattan synagogue’s idea. Will ‘de-emailing’ become a holiday trend?

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Tiny Greek Community of Ioannina Struggles To Keep Romaniote Traditions Alive

Sat, 04/05/2014 - 06:00

When the Jews of Ioannina gathered in their whitewashed-stone synagogue over the weekend, it was to commemorate 70 years since the Nazis destroyed their community.

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Reflections on the Civil Rights Pilgrimage

Fri, 04/04/2014 - 14:00

By Rabbi Fred Guttman

In the beginning of March, I, along with some thirty Congressmen and Senators, was privileged to be a participant in the Congressional Faith and Politics Civil Rights Pilgrimage to Mississippi and Alabama. Beginning in Jackson Mississippi, we commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of the “Freedom Summer,” a summer when more than 900 Caucasians joined African Americans from all over the United States to come to Mississippi and Alabama in order to register African American voters. The Pilgrimage would end in Selma Alabama with a recreation of the famous voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery. This march took place forty nine years ago.

In Jackson, we went to the home of the assassinated civil rights hero, Medgar Evers, and heard remembrance from his widow, Myrlie. On the trip, I also met David Goodman, whose brother Andrew was killed in 1964 along with another Jew, Michael Schwerner and an African American, James Earl Chaney. In the chapel at Tougaloo College, I chanted the El Male Rachameem prayer for the four murdered activists which was quite a moving experience!

I am proud to know that many of those who came to Mississippi and Alabama during the “Freedom Summer” of 1964 were Jews (including a member of our congregation!). It is estimated that of the 900 who came to Mississippi, some 500 were Jews. I am also proud of the fact that so many rabbis were involved in the Civil Rights movement in those years. One, Rabbi Arthur Lelyveld, was severely beaten in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.

In Selma on March 7, 1965, some 600 civil rights activists began a march from Selma to Montgomery Alabama. At that time, only 2% of the African Americans in Alabama were registered to vote. The march began at Brown Chapel Church. When the marchers arrived at the Edmund Pettus Bridge over the Alabama River, they were met by Alabama State Troopers who, after telling them to turn back, proceeded to charge the marchers and beat them with clubs. Seventeen were hospitalized including a young (now Congressman) John Lewis who had a concussion. This event became known as “Bloody Sunday” in the annals of American Civil Rights history.

Two weeks later on March 21, a second march took place. President Johnson had federalized the Alabama National Guard which protected the 3,200 marchers. This march was led by Dr. Martin Luther King. Dr. King had urged faith leaders to come join him in Selma for this march and his friend, Dr. Abraham Joshua Heschel, along with other prominent rabbis came. It is estimated that there were 450 clergy in that march. There is a famous picture of Dr. King, Dr. Heschel, Ralph Bunche, Rev. Ralph David Abernathy and John Lewis marching together arm in arm across that bridge.

For the past fourteen years, Congressman John Lewis and the Faith and Politics Institute in Washington DC have organized a symbolic March from Brown Chapel Church to the other side of the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Forty-nine years after “Bloody Sunday,” I, along with the elected representatives, was privileged to participate in the commemoration of this event.

While there were other clergy on the trip, I was the only rabbi. I am grateful to Senator Kay Hagan for nominating me to be a part of this incredible pilgrimage. While I was the only rabbi on the trip, I was not the only Jew. Accompanying the trip was Congressman Susan Davis (D-CA), Jan Schakowsky (D – IL) and Eric Cantor (R-VA). While on this incredible trip, I had a chance to speak with these and other Congressmen – including Minority Leader Congressman Steny Hoyer (D-MD) and Congressman John Lewis (D-GA). I even interviewed Congressman Lewis concerning the March 21 march with Dr. King and Dr. Heschel. The interview may be found on YouTube on our “tegreensboro” channel.

It was indeed a thrill to recreate the march from Brown Chapel Church to the Edmund Pettus Bridge. I could not help but notice that many of the Alabama State troopers who were providing security were African Americans. How times have changed!

But then again, maybe not? When we stopped at a rest stop after crossing the Alabama border, we saw racist and anti-Semitic graffiti in the restroom.

As we approach Passover, I am reminded once again that from our perspective as Jews, as long as there are those who lack the freedoms we cherish – as long as there are those who suffer from the “slaveries” of poverty, abuse, lack of healthcare, restricted voting and more – our own freedom is not complete! On Passover, we tell the story of our liberation. In Selma, I felt that I was a part of the recreation of the African American story of liberation. This was an incredible experience and honor!

This year, Passover will have an added meaning for me. When we read, “In every generation, a Jew is required to feel as though he or she was liberated from Egypt,” I will add, “and from Selma!”

A Zissen Pesach – A happy and joyous Passover to all!

Rabbi Fred Guttman is the senior rabbi at Temple Emanuel in Greensboro, NC.