The Evolution of the Jewish Asshole

Morris Dickstein on ‘Greenberg’

Ben Stiller as Roger Greenberg.(often-elided)

National Write-About-Greenberg-Two-Months-After-It-Came-Out Week continues with a Dissent piece by cultural critic Morris Dickstein. Despite its tardiness, it makes an interesting point that builds on what I had to say about the film (two months ago).

“Roger Greenberg’s only rival at saying gauche or obnoxious things to anyone in almost any situation is the character played by Larry David in the HBO series Curb Your Enthusiasm,” Dickstein, the great literary critic, writes of Ben Stiller’s title character. “But while Curb Your Enthusiasm’s once refreshing dose of bile and misanthropy has now degenerated into predictable formula, Greenberg, on the other hand, is guaranteed to set one’s teeth on edge.” It’s important to understand the evolution that resulted in Roger Greenberg.

Dickstein goes on to place the film within the genres of screwball comedy (for the antagonistic romance at its center) and Woody Allen’s brand of “neurotic Jewish comedy.” Those elements are clearly there, but the comparison with Curb Your Enthusiasm is sharpest, and points to a key difference between Woody Allen’s and Larry David’s often-elided comic personas. (more…)

Today on Tablet

Jerusalem, forever anything? and more


Today in Tablet Magazine, Liel Leibovitz mourns the Jerusalem that once was, since supplanted by an increasingly religious, intolerant city. Copy editor Siân Gibby explains why Shavuot has special meaning to her, a recent convert. Joan Nathan decides that Israeli cheesecake would go just perfect with Shavuot. The Scroll could go for some cheesecake right about now, too.

Kagan Had Synagogue’s First Bat Mitzvah

High Court nominee was at modern Orthodox shul

Kagan today on Capitol Hill.(Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Couldn’t make it up. As a 13-year-old girl, Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan demanded and received the first bat mitzvah at her Upper West Side modern Orthodox synagogue.

The notion of gender equality had been making great strides in most denominations by the time the early ‘70s rolled around, the New York Times notes. Though modern Orthodox and led by a modern Orthodox rabbi, Kagan’s shul—Lincoln Square Synagogue, still active on Amsterdam Avenue at around 69th Street on Manhattan’s Upper West Side—had been started by Conservative Jews.

On May 18, 1973—a Friday night—Kagan read from the Book of Ruth (and gave a little midrash on it, too). So not a traditional bat mitzvah, but still the first one of its kind there.

The Jewish Theological Seminary’s Shuly Rubin Schwartz puts the whole thing in context:

In terms of timing, this was the period when young women coming of age, who had those kinds of expectations for equality and taking leadership positions in the secular world, began to question: Why can’t I do this in the Jewish world? What is unusual is that she asked it in an Orthodox institution where that was an unheard-of question at that point.

Growing Up, Kagan Tested Boundaries of Faith [NYT]

Daybreak: Boy Inspires Mine Campaign

Plus Alan ♥ Salam, and more in the news

Daniel Yuval, 11, who lost his leg to a mine.(NYT)

• The story of an 11-year-old Israeli boy whose leg was blown off in the Golan has Israel considering clearing many of its hundreds of thousands of land mines. [NYT]

• Russian and Syrian leaders hinted at nuclear cooperation, alarming the United States and Israel. [Haaretz]

• Israeli business is about to experience a shake-up: Because the country was reclassified from “emerging market” to “developed market”—an honor, really—many businesses need to find new investors. [WSJ]

• Prime Minister Salam Fayyad continues to be most people’s favorite Palestinian: After a meeting in Ramallah, Alan Dershowitz called him “probably the best [peace partner] that Israel has ever had.” [JPost]

• Like Zeppo Marx, Shavuot isn’t flashy, but it’s more or less as important and brilliant as its better-known siblings. [Forward]

• A program designed to encourage Haredi men to enlist in the Israeli military is expected to net 1000 volunteers this year, as opposed to 40 just three years ago. [Arutz Sheva]

Sundown: Goldstone Responds

Plus leave Chomsky alone! and more

Taking a break.(The Onion)

• Richard Goldstone says being an apartheid-era judge was “a difficult moral decision,” and argues, “I do not understand why my actions as a judge in those years precludes me … from judging war crimes whether committed in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, or the Middle East.” [Jewish Chronicle/Vos Iz Neias?]

• Prime Minister Netanyahu referred to the hundreds of “Jerusalem” (or “Zion”) mentions in the Bible. [Reuters/Vos Iz Neias?]

• “Masbia” are four restaurants in Brooklyn and Queens that serve kosher meals for free to impoverished Jews. [Brooklyn Rail]

• How to tell a schlemiel from a schlimazel from a schmendrik from a plain old jerk. [Forward]

• Noam Chomsky is taking a pass today. [The Onion]

• Rebecca Lepkoff, 94, speaks at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum tonight about her book of photographs (now out in paperback) of Lower East Side life many decades ago. [City Room]

A slideshow of Lepkoff’s photos is here. One is below.

All The Jewish Young Literary Men (and Women)

Who will make The New Yorker’s under-40 cut?

Novelist Rivka Galchen.(The Washington Post)

The New Yorker will soon publish a list of 20 novelists under the age of 40 that are worth watching (or, rather, reading), reported the New York Observer. This got us wondering: Which prominent young Jewish novelists will make this list? Yes, this is how our magazine-mind works.

First, here’s who won’t. Jonathans Ames, Lethem, and Rosen (the last is also Nextbook Press’s editor) miss the age-related cut. So does Sam Lipsyte, author of the new The AskNew Yorker editor David Remnick said he was especially dismayed to learn that Lipsyte is 41. Finally, young Jewish novelists Nathan Englander and Allegra Goodman will presumably not appear, because they were on the equivalent list that the New Yorker came up with in 1999.

Below the jump, the 15 young Jewish novelists most likely to appear in the June 7 June 14 & 21 New Yorker. They won’t all make it, but at least three or four will. (more…)

Tests for the Doctor

An old Jew tells a joke


It’s funny that the word ‘scatological’ sounds so proper.

British Military Head Is Iran Hawk

And the Miliband brothers battle for Labour lead

New Defense Secretary Liam Fox earlier today.(Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

The dust has settled in Britain: The government is a Conservative-led coalition with the Liberal Democrats; the prime minister is Tory leader David Cameron; most of the other influential ministries are also Conservative; Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg is deputy prime minister; the Labour Party is the loyal opposition.

According to Tablet Magazine’s Larry Miller, Israel’s supporters should be relieved that Clegg is not running the foreign ministry (instead, as predicted, one-time Tory leader William Hague will). Not only that: It appears they should be especially heartened by who is in charge of the military. The new defense minister is Liam Fox, and he is, apparently, known for taking a tough line on Iran. Wikipedia sayeth that he supports the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and has insisted that military action against Iran must remain on the table.

And as for Labour? While five top party officials will vie for the leadership position, the two most high-profile contestants are brothers David and Ed Miliband, respectively the outgoing Foreign and Climate Ministers. And the Milibands are Jews: Their mother hailed from Poland; their father, Ralph, was one of the most prominent British Marxists of his generation. As foreign secretary, David Miliband condemned both Israeli and Hamas actions in the Gaza conflict; advocated a full settlement freeze; expelled an Israeli diplomat following the whole Dubai murder thing; and supported limited British engagement with Hezbollah. But he also insisted, “It’s foolish to think that if you resolved the Palestinian issue, al-Qaeda would disappear.”

Yes, Minister [Tablet Magazine]
Hardliner on Iran to be UK’s New Defense Secretary Under Cameron [AP/Vos Iz Neias?]
Miliband Brothers Plan To Contest UK Labour Party Leadership [JPost]

Rodger Kamenetz Scans The Universe

Getting ready for Dawn 2010


Rodger Kamenetz, author of Nextbook Press’s forthcoming Burnt Books: Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav and Franz Kafka, will be among the presenters at Dawn 2010, the Tablet-sponsored late-night cultural arts festival going down in honor of Shavuot on the evening of Saturday, May 15 in San Francisco.

Kamenetz gets to use the planetarium at the venue, which is the (super-cool) California Academy of Sciences. “I will be co-piloting a tour of the universe, starting from Planet Earth and going out beyond the Milky Way,” he said. “I will be presenting moments from Genesis, Psalms, Talmud, and Zohar that reflect the feelings of awe and wonder, and how experiencing those feelings helps us feel into a connection to God. In a lot of cases, some of our advanced scientific cosmology, such as the theories of inflation and the Big Bang have remarkable parallels to three-fold story of creation put forth in the Lurianic kabbalah.”

This sounds almost eerily well-suited to a late-night study session, no?

Burnt Books [Nextbook Press]

The Facebook Diaspora*

Social network site takes its cue from the Jews

The four Diaspora* founders.(NYT)

Some things are explicitly Jewish. Tablet Magazine, for example. A Serious Man. Israel. Synagogues! Fiddler on the Roof! Some really great things. Like Tablet Magazine, for example.

And then some other things are sort of … implicitly Jewish. Suggestively so. These things contain few if any direct allusions to the religion, the culture, or the people, and you can understand them without reference to their Jewishness. But the Jewishness—or, at least, certain characteristics that are typically associated and correlated with Jewishness—is there all the same. Seinfeld was implicitly Jewish. Certain New England summer camps with wacky Native American names are. Marxism! Many other musicals that aren’t Fiddler on the Roof!

To the latter list, add Diaspora*. The new social network site profiled today in the New York Times is being built to be the anti-Facebook: It will be free, its software will be open source (meaning anyone will have access to the code, and can alter it as they please), and, most important, it “will let users set up their own personal servers, called seeds, create their own hubs and fully control the information they share.” In other words, the byword of Diaspora* is “privacy.”

Except the real byword of Diaspora* is, well, diaspora. Its impetus is the widespread disappointment with the juggernaut that is Facebook—which, when it debuted six (only six!) years ago on select college campuses, was a model of discretion and user-control, but which has quickly warped into something more suited to marketers than to users. There is something special about the fact that when talented young people want to imagine themselves as standing up for themselves, on underdog terms, and trying to establish a better world outside of the corrupted mainstream, they immediately reach for the metaphor of the Jews, expelled from the Promised Land and forced to make do. Moreover, I would submit, it’s not entirely coincidental that—sorry to play the name game—three of the four founders are pretty obviously young Jewish men (and the law professor who inspired them is named Eben Moglen, and has done time at Tel Aviv U.).

Of course, few things are as implicitly and explicitly Jewish as picking fights with other Jews. Like, say, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

Four Nerds and a Cry to Arms Against Facebook [NYT]

Today on Tablet

A death becomes a rebirth, and more


Today in Tablet Magazine, Staff Writer Marissa Brostoff notes that the passing of the wife of the great Yiddish writer Chaim Grade could lead to a revival in Grade’s reputation as his papers are made available. In a follow-up to last week’s piece, Mideast columnist Lee Smith accuses the Obama administration of peddling the notion of Israeli “linkage” in order to distract from the very real linkage between its own policies and the “blowback” in Times Square. Contributing editor Daphne Merkin remembers the late Israeli painter Avigdor Arikha. Shavuot begins in a week! Here is everything you need to know. And for everything else you need to know, there’s The Scroll.

Controversial Cross Stolen

ADL opposes cross, but opposes theft, too


Two weeks ago, the U.S. Supreme Court decided a case involving a cross at a veterans’ memorial on public land in a way that worried some—including the Anti-Defamation League—for its seemingly lax attitude toward the separation of church and state.

Well, damned if someone hasn’t stolen the cross.

Specifically, someone stole the cross’s covering on Saturday; when a National Park Service staff member went to replace the covering on Sunday, he found that the 8-foot-tall cross, which was made of 4-inch-thick cement-filled pipe and had been bolted into the ground, no longer sat atop its usual hill in southern California’s Mojave National Preserve. Removing it, the Los Angeles Times reports, “would have taken a major effort involving planning and probably more than one person.” Conspiracy! (If you want to turn in your partner[s] in, there’s a $25,000 reward.)

I asked the ADL—which opposed the ruling two weeks ago—for a comment. “The theft of this religious symbol is unacceptable and deeply troubling,” the organization said. “We may have disagreed about whether it was lawful to have a 7-foot cross on public property, but this dispute was appropriately being handled by our nation’s court system. This theft may be further evidence that civility in our public and political discourse has eroded.”

Pun—given that said theft was of a cross sitting in a mound of dirt—presumably unintended.

Mojave Desert Cross, Focus of Long Legal Battle, Is Stolen [LAT L.A. Now]
Earlier:c Court’s Cross Decisions Draws Critiism

Daybreak: Clegg Is Deputy, Not Diplomat

Plus Egypt’s lengthy emergency, and more in the news

Cameron on left, Clegg on right. We think.(Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

• Prime Minister David Cameron appointed Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg Britain’s deputy prime minister; the foreign secretary post went to the Tory William Hague. [NYT]

• Don’t look now, but things are maybe starting to heat up on the Lebanon border. [Haaretz]

• Egypt’s parliament further extended the emergency law, albeit (ostensibly) only to terrorism and drug crimes. The law has been in effect for nearly three decades. [LAT]

• Defense Minister Ehud Barak stood behind Israel’s strategic nuclear “ambiguity” and said President Obama does, too. [Arutz Sheva]

• The banality of love in the case of Martin Heidegger and Hannah Arendt. [WP]

• A gray whale was spotted off the coast of Herzilya: The first sighting not in the Pacific Ocean in 300 years. Blame melting ice caps, obviously. [USA Today]

Sundown: Obama and Abbas Have a Chat

Plus a Jewish ‘Jersey Shore,’ and more

(He is actually talking to David Cameron in this picture.)(Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)

• According to an email from the White House, President Obama spoke with President Abbas today. He “urged that President Abbas do everything he can to prevent acts of incitement or delegitimization of Israel” and also “confirmed his intention to hold both sides accountable for actions that undermine trust during the talks.”

• Several American Jewish religious leaders called on Prime Minister Netanyahu to withdraw the Yisrael Beiteinu-sponsored conversion bill. They warn that it would concentrate power over who qualifies for the Law of Return with the Chief Rabbinate. [JTA]

• Apparently, someone wants to do for Jews on Long Island what Jersey Shore has done for Italian-Americans in New Jersey. [Crushable]

• Russian President Dmitry Medvedev urged Hamas leader Khaled Meshal to release kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. [Ynet]

• The late DJ AM, born Adam Goldstein, has a crucial cameo in the box office-smashing Iron Man 2. [LAT]

• An extensive interview with novelist Nathan Englander, in part touching on his story in this week’s New Yorker. [Book Bench]

Netanyahu accused Iran of trying to get Israel and Syria to start firing things at each other. President Ahmadinejad?

Massive Drop in Obama’s Jewish Base

Analyzing a poll that found 42% approval

President Obama Sunday.(Gary Fabiano-Pool/Getty Images)

First, the facts. A new poll conducted by the McLaughlin group found that 42 percent of American Jews are planning to vote for President Obama in 2012, and 46 percent are not (12 percent aren’t sure). The more religious you are, the less likely you were to say you will be voting for him. Exactly half of those polled approve of the job he is doing vis-à-vis Israel. The poll has a four-point margin of error, which makes it a statistical tie in and of itself, but in another sense a significant defeat for the president. After all, the proportion of the Jewish vote that Obama captured in 2008 was 78 percent.

Ron Kampeas has major issues with the poll questions; he (who is generally not a left-wing socialist or anything) calls it “so skewed as to be otherwise useless.” He points to a loaded question whereby respondents were asked if they would approve of the Obama Administration’s supporting a plan to give the Palestinians a state in two years, and wonders, “When did they ask the ‘Obama or another candidate’ question—before or after they depicted the fantasy Obama-Kong who’s busy scooping up the Western Wall and plopping it down at the Muqata?” Well put.

Shmuel Rosner takes a look at some of the poll’s demographics and pretty persuasively concludes that the poll’s sample had a significantly greater proportion of Jewish voters with strong ties to Israel than the population as a whole—which would be another cause for it to trend bearish on Obama. (Of course, there is more than one way to have a biased sample.) Plus, as even amateur poll-watchers probably noticed, the central question is inherently biased: A flesh-and-blood candidate always does worse against an imagined, hypothetical “alternative” then against another flesh-and-blood candidate. And Obama ultimately will be running against another person with his (or her!) own positions and faults.

That said, all the (completely legitimate) hole-poking in the world can’t possibly account for every last percentage point that lies between 78 and 42. I also wonder whether you’re not going to see greater turnout from the generally low-yielding Hasidic and religiously observant Jewish population as a result of Obama’s policies and rhetoric—and, indeed, as a result of the media coverage of Obama’s waning popularity with the Jews. The only caveat left standing? The election is still more than two years away.

Poll: Obama Has Lost Almost Half of His U.S. Jewish Support [Arutz Sheva]
Reality vs. Unreality I: Bad News in Jewish Polling for Obama? [Capital J]
Most Jews Won’t Re-Elect Obama,’ If You Care To Believe Polls [Rosner’s Domain]

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