A Familiar Name Fights Presbyterian Divestment

Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s nephew takes on the U.S. church

Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. (AP Photo, File)

For Gustav Niebuhr, the former New York Times religion reporter, this month’s controversial decision by the Presbyterian Church (USA) to divest from companies that do business with Israel is an affront—both spiritual and personal.

The 58-year-old grand-nephew of famed Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr—once described by Barack Obama as “one of my favorite philosophers”—is fighting back against what he sees as the Church’s misguided take on Israel and attack on his great-uncle.

In “Zionism Unsettled,” a study guide published by a national committee of the Presbyterian Church that blames the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “on pathology inherent in Zionism,” the authors attack not only the Jewish State, but also its supporters— including Reinhold Niebuhr. (more…)

German Teacher Caught Stealing From Auschwitz

Arrested for taking 10 items he wanted to bring back to his classroom

Entrance gates to the former Auschwitz concentration camp. (JANEK SKARZYNSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

People really like taking stuff from Auschwitz. In April, an Italian tourist was arrested for trying to smuggle 16 inches of barbed wire from the former Nazi concentration camp, and last month, administrators at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, which operates on the site, reported a rise in visitors taking “souvenirs” like railway spikes and other small items from the grounds. (School groups are apparently also carving their names into walls in the former barracks.)

The latest case of theft from Auschwitz allegedly comes in the name of education. A German teacher was arrested at the former concentration camp with 10 stolen items on his person, including a fork, shards of pottery, and a piece of a scissor, taken from where a warehouse once stood, JTA reports. His defense? He wanted to use them in his classroom. (more…)

Want Joan Rivers To Officiate Your Wedding? Just Ask

The online-ordained minister married a gay couple during her book signing

Joan Rivers on Feb. 26, 2014. (Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for GLOBAL GREEN USA)

Joan Rivers, the patron saint of I Don’t Care What You Think, is also, apparently, a woman of god. The Jewish comedian got ordained online last year with the Universal Life Church so that she could officiate at a friend’s wedding atop the Empire State Building. Her ordination was called upon again this week at the decidedly less formal Barnes and Noble in New York City’s Union Square, the New York Post reports, when an attendee at her book signing asked if she could marry him and his boyfriend. Right there. At Barnes and Noble.

Rivers, of course, was game. Someone found flowers and the crowd of 400 (!) serenaded Jed Ryan and Joseph Aiello as they (I imagine) walked down the almanac or new fiction aisle, where Rivers (Reverend Rivers? Rabbi Rivers??) was waiting to officiate. (more…)

Setting the Mood for the Fourth of July

A freedom-themed playlist for however you’re celebrating Independence Day


It’s the fourth of July. You’re having a barbecue. Or maybe you’ll be going to one. There’s potato salad to make. Or eat. Corn to shuck. Watermelon to slice. Meat to sear. Beers to drink.

All the while you think you might want to contemplate independence. Or liberty. Or freedom. Or your Bill of Rights. Your Constitution.

Well, friends, it’s your lucky day. We’ve made a playlist to gird you in these admirable endeavors. (more…)

Visiting the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s Grave in Queens

Thousands flock to New York for the 20th yahrzeit of the Hasidic leader


During the 24 hours of yesterday’s 20th yahrzeit for Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe, tens of thousands of people descended on a Queens cemetery to pay tribute to the beloved Hasidic leader, who died on June 12, 1994. They are there to visit the graves (Schneerson is buried at the Montefiore Cemetery next to the grave of his father-in-law, Rabbi Joseph Isaac Schneerson, and near their spouses as well as the wife of fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Sholom Dovber Schneersohn) as well as tour the visitor center and yeshiva that is housed in the various buildings near the Ohel, as the site is known by members of Chabad.

While waiting in line under a tent in the blazing sun yesterday, with fans and water coolers set up for the crowds of visitors, and videos of the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe playing on large screens, I heard a symphony of Jewish languages from around the world. Chabad emissaries and their families and friends traveled here from around the world for the chance to spend two minutes at the graves at the Ohel. (more…)

Nazis’ Aryan ‘Poster Child’ Was Actually Jewish

She’s now an 80-year-old chemistry professor in New York City

Image of a photograph of Hessy Taft taken in 1935 and used as Nazi propaganda. (YouTube/USC Shoah Foundation)

When the Nazis held a contest in the 1930s to determine the most beautiful Aryan baby, Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels probably didn’t mean to choose an image of a Jewish child out of the stack of baby photos submitted. But according to Hessy Taft, now 80 and a chemistry professor in New York City, the image selected was a professional photograph taken of her as a six-month-old in Berlin in 1935.

The Telegraph reported the story, first published in Germany’s Bild, of how the photographer, knowing full well that the child pictured was Jewish, entered the photograph into the contest “to make the Nazis ridiculous.” The joke was certainly on somebody, because when the photo appeared on the cover of the Nazi magazine Sonne ins Hause—and on postcards and other widely distributed forms of Nazi propaganda—the family panicked, worried that the Nazis would discover the identity of the child, and learn she was Jewish.

“I can laugh about it now,” the 80-year-old Professor Taft told Germany’s Bild newspaper in an interview. “But if the Nazis had known who I really was, I wouldn’t be alive.”


How One Victim of Hamas Terrorism Responded to the Murder of an Arab Teen

Israelis and their leaders react to possible revenge killing outside Jerusalem

Israeli policemen search the area after a body of a Palestinian youth was found in Jerusalem's forest area on July 2, 2014. (MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images)

This morning, the body of 16-year-old Muhammad Hussein Abu Khdeir was found in a Jerusalem forest. While the perpetrators have not been identified, police are investigating whether the murder was committed in retribution for the three slain Israeli teens whose bodies were discovered earlier this week, or if it was the result of clan violence in the area.

Israelis and their leaders, however, did not wait to discover the murderers and their motives before condemning the brutal act. Prime Minister Netanyahu called it a “despicable murder” and ordered that “investigators act as quickly as possible” to find who committed the killing and why. Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat labeled the murder “a horrible and barbaric act.” Similar statements of outrage and calls for swift justice were made across the political spectrum from Justice Minister Tzipi Livni to Housing Minister Uri Ariel, while a rally against hate was organized in Jerusalem, drawing thousands of Israelis.

But one of the most powerful Israeli condemnations of the crime came not from any public official, but from a woman named Kay Wilson. (more…)

Paul Mazursky: ‘I Was Born Eating Kreplach and Matzoh Brei and Lox’

An excerpt from Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish

Director Paul Mazursky on November 7, 2012 in Beverly Hills, California. (Valerie Macon/Getty Images)

In 2005, Abigail Pogrebin published Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish. The following is an excerpt from the chapter about Paul Mazursky, the director and actor who died Monday at 84 in Los Angeles.

“Halvah is probably the closest thing I have to being religious,” says director/actor Paul Mazursky, sitting in an office so spartan it looks temporary. “I’ve been on a diet for 20 years, but if you give me a piece of halvah, it’s over; I’m going to eat it.”

Mazursky, 75, writer and director of An Unmarried Woman, Down and Out in Beverly Hills, and Tempest, among other films, is acting these days in Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm on HBO. “I don’t have a good psychological explanation for why I’m Jewish,” he says from under his baseball cap. “I was born eating kreplach and matzoh brei and lox. The Jews don’t make good main dishes, by the way. They’re only good at making what you call ‘fore spice’—the stuff before the meal. And some of the desserts. Rugelach is a treasure.” (more…)

Body of Palestinian Teen Found in Forest

Riots in East Jerusalem as Palestinians call the grisly murder a revenge act

An Israeli police investigator stands at the scene where a body was found on July 2, 2014 in Jerusalem, Israel. (Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images)

Two days after the bodies of three kidnapped Israeli teenagers were discovered buried in a field in Hebron, the charred body of a Palestinian teen was found in the Jerusalem Forest. Muhammad Hussein Abu Khdeir had been reported missing from the East Jerusalem town of Beit Hanina several hours earlier.

According to the New York Times, Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said that authorities “received a report early Wednesday of a teenager being forced into a vehicle in the Palestinian neighborhood of Beit Hanina and immediately put up roadblocks to try to locate the vehicle.” The body was discovered soon afterward in the nearby forest, and “Rosenfeld said the police were investigating both criminal and nationalistic motives for the killing.”

The timing of the murder, so soon after the bodies of Naftali Fraenkel, 16, Gilad Shaar, 16, and Eyal Yifrach, 19 were discovered in the West Bank following an expansive 18-day search, has only heightened tensions in the region, as the suggestion that Abu Khdeir’s murder could have been an act of revenge gains traction. (more…)

Two Women Arrested for Attacking Elderly Jewish Man

79-year-old Brooklyn resident treated for minor injuries at the hospital


Two women were arrested early Sunday morning for assaulting an elderly Jewish man in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Raven Small, 20 and Tatyana Bone, 18, were charged with the assault of 79-year-old Naftali Lebovits, the New York Daily News reports. The two women attempted to leave the scene but were apprehended by police shortly after 1 a.m., according to JTA. Police said that the motive was unknown.

Lebovits, a member of the Orthodox Jewish community in Williamsburg, was reportedly hit on the back of the head and knocked to the ground; he was treated in the hospital for minor injuries. (more…)

What Kurdish Independence Would Mean

And why Israel supports the ambitious—if unlikely—push for statehood

Kurdish Peshmerga forces raise the Kurdish flag at a checkpoint on the road leading from Kirkuk to northern Iraqi city of Tikrit on June 30, 2014. (MARWAN IBRAHIM/AFP/Getty Images)

The president of the Kurdish Regional Government Massoud Barzani announced today that he intends to call for a referendum on independence within the next few months. And if the Kurds do elect to break free of the central government in Baghdad, they’ll have at least one regional actor eager to acknowledge them as an independent state—Israel.

“They are a warrior nation, that is politically moderate,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said of the Kurds in a speech Sunday. They are “worthy of statehood,” Netanyahu continued. “We need to support the Kurdish aspiration for independence. They deserve it.”

However, as the pioneers of Zionism knew very well, whether a people deserves a state is a very different question than whether or not they are able to attain one. The Kurds are indeed a warrior nation, and likely capable of defending the borders of a prospective state. The problem, however, is in getting to the point where you can draw borders, which has little to do with the right to self-determination, or even material wealth, which the potentially oil-rich Kurdish Regional Government, or KRG, may soon have in abundance. Rather, it’s about geopolitics and the disposition of larger, more powerful states. And at this point it seems that besides Israel, none of the regional and international players involved—above all, Turkey, Iran, and the United States—have any interest in promoting Kurdish statehood. (more…)

The Biblical Side of ‘Saving Private Ryan’

Spielberg’s WWII epic alludes to Abraham Lincoln and Abraham the patriarch

Still of Tom Hanks and Matt Damon in 1998's Saving Private Ryan.(Amblin Entertainment © 1998)

At the heart of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan is an act of compassion.

After learning that the mother of four U.S. servicemen has lost three sons in one week—two at Normandy and one in the Pacific—Army Chief of Staff George Marshall orders that the fourth, a paratrooper located deep behind enemy lines, be found and sent home, so as to spare the mother any further suffering.

Saving Private Ryan is not an explicitly Jewish movie. It’s conceivable that after Schindler’s List, which came out less than five years before it, Spielberg was looking to work in a more universal—or at least in a more decidedly American—idiom. Still, the treatment shown to the film’s Iowa mother—and other figures in the script—is consistent with Jewish law and custom in ways that add texture and meaning to the film as a whole. (more…)

Man Sentenced for Synagogue Bomb Threat

Faces 33 months in prison for calling in threat to Houston congregation


A Houston resident was sentenced to more than two years in jail for calling in a bomb threat to Congregation Beth Israel. a local synagogue, in April 2013, JTA reports. He faces 33 months in jail after pleading guilty to threatening to bomb a synagogue as well as making a bomb threat over the telephone.

Dante Phearse, 33, was sentenced in federal court for threatening to bomb Congregation Beth Israel, according to a statement issued by the U.S. Justice Department. The statement said Phearse was an ex-convict with a long criminal record and a history of mental illness.

U.S. District Judge Kenneth Hoyt also ordered Phearse to pay $13,000 in restitution and to serve three years of supervised release after his prison term.


World Leaders Condemn Israeli Teens’ Deaths

As thousands in Israel attend the funerals of the three kidnapped teenagers

Israelis light candles in Rabin Square in Tel Aviv on June 30, 2014 after the announcement that the bodies of three kidnapped Israeli teenagers had been found near Hebron. (OREN ZIV/AFP/Getty Images)

As the families of the three murdered Israeli teens—Naftali Frankel, 16, Gilad Shaer, 16, and Eyal Yifrah, 19—bury their sons alongside thousands of mourners, memorials are being held throughout Israel and in the United States for the three slain teens. In the aftermath of the discovery of their bodies in a field near Hebron, details have emerged about exactly what happened in the short time between when the three hitchhiking teenagers were kidnapped June 12 and when they were shot to death. Israeli forces have struck back forcefully against Hamas, bombing dozens of Gaza sites and demolishing the homes of Marwan Qawasmeh and Amer Abu Aisha, the missing Hamas operatives suspected in the murders, killing a Palestinian teen during an arrest raid in the West Bank.

World leaders, meanwhile, have roundly condemned the kidnapping and murders of the three Israeli teens. (more…)

Poet and Scholar Allen Grossman Dies at 82

One of the most important voices in 20th-century poetry

Allen Grossman; Descartes' Loneliness. (Brandeis; New Directions Books)

Allen Grossman, the renowned poet and scholar, died on Friday of complications from Alzheimer’s the New York Times reports. He was 82.

Grossman was born January 7, 1932 in Minneapolis. He received bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Harvard and received his PH.D in English at Brandeis. He went on to teach poetry, poetics, and humanities at Brandeis from 1957 to 1991, and later at Johns Hopkins.

Grossman has published several collections of poetry, including A Harlot’s Hire and Descartes’ Loneliness. Grossman also wrote extensively about poetics; his essays discussed the works of writers such as Milton, Wordsworth, and Whitman. Grossman received the prestigious MacArthur Foundation fellowship as well as the Bollingen Prize for Poetry from Yale University. (more…)

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