Ari Shavit Talks Israel At Columbia University

The Israeli author discusses his new book, ‘My Promised Land,’ with students

Columbia University's Low Memorial Library. (Wikipedia)

More than 400 people gathered at Columbia University’s Upper West Side campus last night to hear Ari Shavit talk about his much-discussed best-selling book, My Promised Land, which recently won a National Jewish Book Award. The event, which was hosted by the Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies and was open to the public, filled one of the largest lecture halls on campus to capacity and had students and adults alike sitting and standing in the aisles. Columbia alum and Tablet contributor Jordan Hirsch moderated the event, challenging Shavit with tough, and at times quirky, questions.

Though a malfunctioning microphone and Shavit’s imperfect English were cause for some confusion, the author answered Hirsch’s questions excitedly and with conviction about the book he says has been on his mind for 20 years. “Israel was a narrative before it was a state,” Shavit told the crowd, “and the narrative became lost over time, and I made it my responsibility to recover and revive this narrative. My book is not an ideology, it is humanity.” Still, the evening’s discussion was much more of a political, ideological conversation than a literary one. (more…)

Super Bowl Halftime Performer Bruno Mars a Quarter Jewish

The ‘Unorthodox Jukebox’ singer will take the stage during Sunday’s big game

Musician Bruno Mars performs onstage during the Grammy Nominations Concert Live on December 1, 2010 in Los Angeles, California.(GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images)

A solid 10 years after Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake’s infamous Super Bowl wardrobe malfunction, the halftime performance at Sunday’s Super Bowl match-up between the Seattle Seahawks and Denver Broncos is going in a decidedly less controversial direction. Bruno Mars, the 28-year-old singer and 2013 Billboard artist of the year, is a safe, good-natured pick for the show (and throwing in the Red Hot Chili Peppers means your dad will probably want to watch, too).

So who is Bruno Mars? The singer-songwriter and producer was born Peter Gene Hernandez in Honolulu, Hawaii, where his late mother immigrated from the Philipines as a child. She met his father, a half-Puerto Rican and half Jewish-transplant to Hawaii from Brooklyn, while performing in a show (she as a hula dancer, he as a percussionist; the Vows column basically writes itself). Their son was nicknamed Bruno for his young resemblance to wrestler Bruno Sammartino, and he later added ‘Mars’ to his stage name. The rest, as they say, is Top 40 history. (more…)

What Artists Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon Have in Common

British author Robin Saikia looks back at the two artists’ work

A member of Christie's staff walks toward Francis Bacon's 'Three Studies of Lucian Freud' on October 14, 2013 in London, England.(Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

Following Vladislav Davidzon’s recent article on the record-breaking sale of Francis Bacon’s triple portrait of Lucian Freud, British author Robin Saikia recalls meeting the two artists and looks back at their work.

I was on nodding terms with Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud in the mid-1980s, for no other reason than that we frequented the Colony Room, a once notorious and now defunct drinking club in Soho, London. One afternoon I was there in the company of Bacon, the journalist Sandy Fawkes, and the jazz pianist Barney Bates. Each of us had bought champagne, matching the always-generous Bacon bottle for bottle, something of a rarity in those days, as nobody ever seemed to have ready money.

Halfway through the bacchanal, Freud appeared, looking decidedly shifty, unkempt and vulpine—full of what Francis Wyndham euphemistically called ‘eloquent vituperation.’ The latest bottle came to an end and it was my turn to buy the next. I ordered, but in a split second realized I’d run out of cash. Bacon rescued me immediately and paid, peeling off a couple of notes from the many thousands of pounds he always carried about with him for the purpose of gambling. A gauche 24-year-old, I spluttered, temporized, apologized, and squirmed. Bacon turned to me—that ravaged moon of a face, those piercing eyes, that precise, ultra-civilized accent. “The trouble with you, dear boy,” he said, “is that you need to learn the fine art of graceful acceptance.” Freud was less than impressed. (more…)

Scarlett Johansson Drops OxFam, Sticks With SodaStream

The star stands by her carbonated endorsement following backlash

SodaStream unveils Scarlett Johansson as its first-ever Global Brand Ambassador at the Gramercy Park Hotel on January 10, 2014 in New York City.(Mike Coppola/Getty Images for SodaStream)

ScarJo doesn’t mess around. Two weeks after signing on to be SodaStream’s global representative and announcing she will appear in the company’s Super Bowl ad, Jewish actress Scarlett Johansson has stepped down from her post as OxFam ambassador, which she’s held since 2007, citing the humanitarian organization’s stance on the BDS movement. Johansson came under fire from critics, OxFam among them, for endorsing the carbonated beverage company, which operates a factory in the West Bank settlement of Ma’ale Adumim, the AP reports.

A statement released by Johansson’s spokesman Wednesday said the 29-year-old actress has “a fundamental difference of opinion” with Oxfam International because the humanitarian group opposes all trade from Israeli settlements, saying they are illegal and deny Palestinian rights. (more…)

How Batman Creator Bill Finger Was Forgotten

The campaign to get an unheralded Jewish comic book hero get his due

Cover image of Bill the Boy Wonder, Marc Tyler Nobleman's 2012 children's book. (Illustration by Ty Templeton)

In 2012, I called Bill the Boy Wonder, by Marc Tyler Nobleman, one of the year’s best Jewish children’s books. And it is! The book is about the essential role of a writer named Bill Finger in the creation of Batman. Nobleman lays out the way Finger came up with Batman’s and Robin’s origin stories, gave Bruce Wayne his name, gave Batman his cape and hood, named Gotham City, wrote the first comic and much more.

But you’ve probably never heard of him. Bob Kane, the man the world considers Batman’s creator, suppressed information about Finger’s integral role. (As the blog Comics Alliance put it, “When it comes to the greatest supervillain in Batman’s history, the Joker is a distant second behind Bob Kane.”) (more…)

Shomer Shabbos Drug Dealer Gets Five Years in Prison

Eduard Sorin arrested last year in sting operation called ‘Only After Sundown’


The Shabbat-observant drug dealer busted early last year has been sentenced to five years in prison, plus an additional five years under supervision, Gothamist reports. Eduard Sorin was arrested as part of a drug ring that reportedly sold large quantities of heroin, Oxycontin, Xanax, and Suboxone out of a basement in Sheepshead Bay, N.Y.

The group’s unorthodox business hours were revealed in text messages released by police.

Awesome batch of dob just came!!!” read one mass text from April 12. “Open from now till 7:30 also blues stix & subs,” referring to a newly acquired Xanax supply and the approaching sundown.

“We are closing 7:30 on the dot and we will reopen Saturday 8:15 so if u need anything you have 45 mins to get what you want,” specified another.

Along with the drugs, the sting operation, which cops called Only After Sundown (get it?), uncovered a sawed-off shotgun, ammunition, a drug ledger, and a BlackBerry filled with the incriminating texts.

Hopefully he’ll at least get to opt for kosher food behind bars.

Previous: Police Bust Shabbat-Observant Drug Ring

Hillary Clinton Remembers Edgar M. Bronfman

The former Secretary of State spoke at a memorial for the late philanthropist

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton remembering Edgar Bronfman at a memorial in New York City on January 28, 2014. (Courtesy of the Samuel Bronfman Foundation)

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke last night at a well-attended memorial service for Edgar M. Bronfman, the Jewish philanthropist who died in December.

“Edgar was a champion of justice and human dignity,” Clinton told the crowd. “Bill and I will always be grateful for his friendship.”

Clinton went on to describe her first encounter with Bronfman, which took place at a political fundraiser in the early 1990s. “We were seated next to each other at the dinner, and I remember he leaned over midway through one speech and whispered a joke in my ear,” Clinton said. “I remember the joke well, I just can’t repeat it,” she added, prompting laughter from the audience. (more…)

Natalie Portman’s Husband Converting to Judaism

French dancer Benjamin Millepied says he feels very connected to Israel

Natalie Portman and Benjamin Millipied arrive for the 2013 Vanity Fair Oscar Party on February 24, 2013 in Hollywood, California.(ADRIAN SANCHEZ-GONZALEZ/AFP/Getty Images)

Take this, Pew Study! Actress Natalie Portman’s husband Benjamin Millepied, a French dancer and choreographer, has announced his plan to convert to Judaism, Haaretz reports. The couple and their two-year-old son Aleph are living in Israel through March while Portman does casting for her film adaption of Israeli author Amos Oz’s 2003 memoir, A Tale of Love and Darkness (Oz told Vox Tablet contributor Daniel Estrin he approves of the project).

Millipied said in an interview that he feels very connected to Israel and could see the country becoming a second home when the family moves to Paris later this year, in time for him to start his new gig as director of dance at the Paris Opera Ballet. The Israeli-born Portman has a strong Jewish background—the couple was married in a small Jewish ceremony in California in 2012—and has said she would like to raise her children Jewish.

The real question is whether the couple’s next child will be named Bet.

How the Demons of Rabbi Mordechai Elon Continue To Haunt His Community

The charismatic leader refuses to take responsibility for his crimes

Rabbi Mordechai Elon, an leading figure in the religious Zionist community, waits for his sentence at the Magistrate court in Jerusalem, on August 7, 2013.(YONATAN SINDEL/AFP/Getty Images)

It was a decade ago when Rabbi Mordechai “Motti” Elon spoke in my Queens synagogue. He was riding a crest of popularity in the religious Zionist world, having gone from being principal of Chorev High School to rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Hakotel to founding an international educational movement called MiBereishit, which produced materials and sponsored events for children in countries around the world. And he was every bit as charismatic as his reputation.

How ironic it is to me now, in hindsight, that I chose to have him speak not to the adults of my congregation, but to the children.

He breezed in, with a small entourage, and took charge. I don’t remember the contents of his talk, but I remember that he had the audience rapt. He would ask a child for her name and then manage later to use that name and address the child directly. Each audience member felt as if he were speaking to him or her directly.

Three years later, in 2006, Rabbi Elon abruptly retired from public view, citing health reasons. (more…)

When Pete Seeger Brought Bluegrass—and His Banjo—to Czechoslovakia in 1964

The late folk icon’s performance was the first ever to feature the instrument

Pete Seeger. (Legacy Recordings)

Last weekend, in the Czech Republic, I took part in the launch of a new CD by Czech bluegrass band the Malina Brothers. I had helped with their English language singing in the recording studio last year, and on Sunday night, at a sold-out concert in the brothers’ home town of Nachod, in northern Bohemia, they brought me up on stage to toast the new release with sparkling wine.

The Czech Republic probably boasts more bluegrass bands and banjo players per capita than any other country, thanks significantly to folk icon Pete Seeger, who died Monday at 94. It was almost exactly 50 years ago that Seeger performed a series of concerts in the then-communist Czechoslovakia in March 1964. For the first time, people saw a five-string banjo being played, an instrument whose distinctive twang they’d heard while listening clandestinely to the American Forces radio broadcast from across the Iron Curtain. Seeger’s performance electrified music fans, who ended up launching a Czech bluegrass scene. (The first Czech five-strings were made from photos of Seeger’s; today, Czech banjo-makers export their instruments worldwide.) (more…)

Abbas Demands Three-Year Limit on Israeli Presence in West Bank After Agreement

Israel, meanwhile, seeks a gradual withdrawal in the 10-50 year range

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on October 18, 2013 in Berlin, Germany. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said in an interview that aired Tuesday he would only accept an Israeli military presence in the West Bank for up to three years in the transition period following any peace deal.

“The transitional period between the signing of a peace agreement with Israel and the final withdrawal of all IDF troops from the West Bank cannot exceed three years,” Abbas said, according to the Jerusalem Post.

Abbas’ stance conflicts starkly with the Israeli position, which seeks a gradual withdrawal, lasting between 10 and 50 years. (more…)

How You Can Help Holocaust Survivors Living in Poverty

Here are some organizations that offer support to the community

Simon Goldsmith, photographed in December 2013. (Jason Florio)

Yesterday we published Matthew Fishbane’s searing portrait of nine Holocaust survivors living in poverty in New York City. The piece was incredibly moving, not just for its beautiful photographs and heartbreaking audio, but for its staggering statistics: one in four of the 140,000 Holocaust survivors in the United States are living at or below the poverty line.

The response we got was overwhelming, with many people asking how they can help. (more…)

Israel’s ‘Master Chef’ Brings Together a Diverse Cast of Characters

Meet the contestants on Season 4 of Israel’s most popular TV show

The contestants on Israel's fourth season of Master Chef.(Facebook)

Where can you find a native kibbutznik, a British Haredi yeshiva student, an Ethiopian-born civil engineer who speaks eight languages, and an internationally acclaimed fashion designer? In Israel, of course, but more specifically on this season of the Israeli iteration of Master Chef, the reality cooking competition that originated in the United Kingdom and was popularized by Gordon Ramsay in the United States.

Now beginning its fourth season, Master Chef has become one of Israel’s most popular TV shows, with more than a million people tuning into its most recent episode, the most watched TV show in the country that week. The show has also passed the ultimate benchmark for entering Israeli culture: being parodied on both Eretz Nehederet (Wonderful Land) and Matzav Ha’Uma (State of the Union), Israel’s two SNL-style sketch comedy shows. (more…)

Why the Orthodox Union Supports Religious Exemptions to the Contraception Mandate

It’s not because they oppose contraception

President Barack Obama photographed with Orthodox Jewish leaders in the Oval Office, June 5, 2012. (Pete Souza)

In June 2012, the Orthodox Union brought a dozen Orthodox lay and rabbinical leaders to the White House to meet with President Obama. We knew our time with the president would be limited, so we planned carefully which issues we would raise for discussion. Of course, we spoke to the president about the security of Israel. We spoke to him about the critical role Jewish day schools play in our community and the need to provide appropriate government support for them. Any good staffer briefing President Obama for the meeting would have predicted we would broach exactly those issues.

But then we took the conversation down a less predictable path: we raised our concern over the Administration’s effort, under the Affordable Care Act, to mandate employers to provide widespread access to contraceptives and other women’s health services through their employer-sponsored health insurance plans. We stressed to President Obama that Orthodox Judaism does not share the Catholic Church’s view of the absolute impermissibility of contraception. But we also stressed that we do share a deep concern for religious liberty and oppose government policies, even in the service of commendable ends, which would force religious Americans to violate the tenets of their faith, especially when the government can achieve its goals in other ways. (more…)

Folk Music Icon Pete Seeger Dies at 94

His recording of ‘Tzena Tzena’ brought sounds of Israel to Americans in 1950

Singer Pete Seeger performs at the 2009 Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize special outdoor tribute at Hunts Point Riverside Park on September 3, 2009 in New York City.(Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images)

Pete Seeger, the singer and songwriter who helped define folk music for a new generation, and for whom a call to political action informed his music, has died at 94. Seeger’s music championed causes spanning decades; according to his New York Times obituary, “He sang for the labor movement in the 1940s and 1950s, for civil rights marches and anti-Vietnam War rallies in the 1960s, and for environmental and antiwar causes in the 1970s and beyond.” His political ties drew the attention of authorities during the McCarthy era—he was subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955, and indicted on 10 counts of contempt of Congress in 1957. (more…)

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