The Centrality of Jewish Chosenness

Contra Chabon, authors see use for Jewish exceptionalism


Michael Chabon contributes a rollicking, sinuous, but, in the end, unsatisfying op-ed piece to the June 6 New York Times arguing that the world does a disservice to the Jews—the Israeli government’s segment of the Jews, in particular—by holding us to a high moral and intellectual standard. We’re not especially smart and we’re not especially wise.

“Our history,” he writes, “is littered as thickly with the individual and collective acts of blockheads as that of any other nation or people or tribe.” The Jews survived not by virtue of virtue, or wisdom, or moral—or any other kind of—intelligence, he argues, but by dumb luck. In fact, we had better beware of those who rank us high for excellence, since they may soon be sharpening their guillotines when we fall short of the presumptuous standard we ourselves claim.

Chabon works his way to the conclusion that we Jews have been hoist by our own petard. What’s at fault are our exalted standards: “Let us not, henceforward, judge Israel or seek to have it judged for its intelligence, for its prowess, for its righteousness or for its moral authority,” he says, “by any standard other than the pathetic, debased and rickety one that we apply, so inconsistently and self-servingly, to ourselves and to everybody else.”

The idea of the Jews as a chosen people, Chabon maintains, is the fruit of a poisoned tree. Yet what to do with the tree, he doesn’t say. Should it be uprooted? Without it, what remains of Judaism? We think the estimable author of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union underestimates the bizarre idea of chosenness—peculiar, even incredible as it may be. The idea is stranger and richer than he grants, and might indeed, if properly understood, offer a way out of the trap that the present government of Israel has burrowed its way into.

Two years ago, when the two of us first set out to think our way into a book about the concept of chosenness, we felt much as he feels now. (more…)

So Many Opinions, So Little Time

Your post-weekend flotilla round-up

An Israeli boat flying flags in support.(Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images)

• A much buzzed-about article discussed the aura of uncertainty and “soul-searching” in establishment Washington, D.C., over how to solve a problem like Israel. (Such talk even invaded a Seder in Bethesda, Maryland, although really, that happens every year.) [NYT]

• Israel released its official account of “Operation Sea Breeze”: It agreed on a commando boarding after four hours of trying to persuade the Mavi Marmara to divert itself. [WP]

• Analysts (as well as residents) agree: The Gaza blockade has failed to substantially weaken Hamas’s grip on power there. [WP]

• Top novelist Michael Chabon urges Jews to abandon their sense of their own exceptionalism. [NYT]

• Christopher Hitchens on the Turkey-Israel dust-up. [Slate]

• While many Israelis disagreed with the flotilla raid, many supported it, and many, many more support their military generally. [WSJ]

• How Israel’s foreign policy frequently clashes with the Obama administration’s general emphasis on multilateralism and the importance of international rules. [WP]

• Palestinian journalist Daoud Kuttab calls on the Obama administration to engage with Hamas. [WP]

• Tom Friedman notes that the flotilla brouhaha is a distracting sideshow; the main event is the successful, Salam Fayyad-led Palestinian state-building in the West Bank. [NYT]

• Ross Douthat notes that extrication from some land for demographic reasons presents a tough option for Israel, but is probably the only way for it to give itself a chance to survive. [NYT]

• Nahum Barnea really disapproves of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s leadership. [Ynet]

Turkey Turns From the West

Flotilla incident part of broader shift

Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan today. He is flanked by Syrian President Assad.(Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images)

One wonders whether we are seeing more than just the inevitable post-flotilla fraying of Turkish-Israeli ties. By the way, those are significant: Turkey’s ambassador to the United States is demanding an Israeli apology for last week’s raid that will surely not be forthcoming; it is newly revealed that Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan “did not work very hard to stop” the flotilla, which was on an obvious collision course with Israeli authorities; and overall ties between Israel what has long been its strongest ally in the Muslim world are in real jeopardy.

But are we seeing a more general Turkish reorientation eastward? This NATO member, recall, was already positioning itself as an alternative to the West in crafting a separate nuclear fuel swap agreement with Iran. Now, Turkey is increasing its economic eastern integration, as symbolized by the Trans Asian Railroad, which by summer’s end will be regularly running cargo between Turkey and Pakistan.

On top of all that, the rhetoric of some Turkish officials—I am thinking of that same ambassador, who twice referred to Hamas as needing to pay an essential role in the “final solution” to the Palestinian conflict (unfortunate wording of a principle the West currently does not find tenable)—is likely to alienate the West.

Maybe the most interesting symbolism came in the funeral of Furkan Dogan, the U.S. citizen who was one of nine civilians killed in last week’s raid. Dogan was born in Troy, New York, and though he had since lived in Turkey, he had been planning to return stateside. But his funeral was in Turkey.

Turkey Threatens To Cut Ties With Israel [WSJ]
Israel Owes Turkey an Apology for Flotilla Attack [WP]
Days of Planning Led to Flotilla’s Hour of Chaos [NYT]
Turkey Expands Economics Ties With East [JPost]
Turkish Ambassador Calls for Engaging Hamas [Foreign Policy]
Turkey Buries Flotilla’s U.S. Teen [WSJ]
Earlier: Reining in Iran

Tablet Magazine Celebrates One Year

These are a few of our favorite things, part 3


Tuesday marks Tablet Magazine’s one-year anniversary, and in the run-up, we’re remembering our ten favorite articles from the past 12 months. Herewith, your third of four installments. In no particular order …

“My Generation” by Vanessa Davis, November 6, 2009. In this installment of her graphic memoir, Davis grapples with the complicated legacy of R. Crumb.

“Private Booth” by Charles and Julian Boxenbaum, October 1, 2009.. The father-and-son architect team devise the one-person, portable SukkahSeat.

Do you have other favorites? List ‘em in the comments …

Today on Tablet

Idol worship, and more


Today in Tablet Magazine, art historian Eliane Strosberg explains (in this week’s Vox Tablet) why Jews—traditionally barred from making graven images—supplied some of the 20th centuries great figurative painters. Poop: It’s funny. Parenting columnist Marjorie Ingall explores why. Josh Lambert provides his weekly look at forthcoming books of interest. And The Scroll finds things far grosser than poop far funnier than poop.

Cotto Beats Foreman in Nine

But fighting rabbi earns world’s respect

Yuri Foreman (L) vs. Miguel Cotto (R).(All photos by Matthew Fishbane for Tablet Magazine)

Yuri Foreman was always unlikely to defeat Miguel Cotto in their 154-pound bout Saturday night in front of more than 20,000 spectators at Yankee Stadium. But he was even more unlikely to lose the way he actually did: With class and with heart and with a bad limp.

Foreman, the Belarus-born Orthodox Jew who is training to be a rabbi, was stopped in the ninth round by Cotto, who could well rank as one of the world’s ten best fighters. Foreman spent the first half of the fight relying almost entirely on crafty footwork, and even then he was more likely than not on his way to a loss-by-decision. But in the seventh round, unforced by the uncharacteristically timid Cotto, he slipped, forcing a limp that negated his only advantage and left him vulnerable to Cotto’s powerful, precise punching.

It got so bad that in the eighth round, someone in Foreman’s corner—according to both the New York Times and Tablet Magazine’s Matthew Fishbane, who was ringside, it was Foreman’s wife, who is herself a boxer, who was the catalyst—threw in the towel (yup, that’s where the phrase comes from). The only problem was, Foreman did not want the fight the stop then, and so the referee cleared the ring and allowed the bout to continue until a little bit into the following round, when Foreman’s bleeding nose and clear fate caused the ref (wisely, in my opinion) to step in and hand the fight to the challenging favorite, Cotto. At some point, heroism bleeds into foolishness, even as the hero remains.

The scene in The Bronx.

“I’m a world champion,” Foreman said afterward. (more…)

Daybreak: Tension High as Gaza Terrorists Killed

Plus seventh ship peacefully boarded, and more in the news

The Rachel Corrie entering Ashdod, Israel, Saturday.(David Buimovitch/AFP/Getty Images)

• At least four men the IDF identified as “terrorists” were killed off the Gaza coast Monday morning wearing naval suits and apparently planning an attack. [NYT]

• The navy peacefully intercepted and boarded the Rachel Corrie, the Irish-owned boat that attempted to run the blockade, on Saturday. The passengers are being deported. [ABC News]

• Israel is rejecting U.N. calls for an international commission, to include both Turkey and the United States, to investigate the flotilla raid, instead insisting on an internal probe that may involve international experts. [LAT]

• In Western capitals, the new fear is that Turkey is reorienting itself away from their alliances. [WP]

• The U.S. embassy is demanding a full investigation into the circumstances under which U.S. citizen Emily Henochowicz, 21, lost an eye at a demonstration last week. [Haaretz]

• Helen Thomas, 89, the so-called grand dame of the White House press corps, apologized for saying that Jews should “get the hell out of Palestine” and “go back home to Poland, Germany, America and everywhere else.” Expect further repercussions; apparently the White House Correspondents Association Board is currently meeting on the topic. [Ynet]

Sundown: Turkey Threatens Full Break

Plus PR amateur hour, and more

Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan last week.(Evaristo Sa/AFP/Getty Images)

• “I do not think Hamas is a terrorist organization,” said Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan. [JPost] Turkey is threatening to totally cut ties. [Laura Rozen]

• Yair Lapid, a top Israeli TV journalist (and likely future politician), slams the government’s PR performance since the flotilla raid. [Ynet]

• The Flotilla Choir. Not … sure if this one works so much. [YouTube]

• Cross-Currents, a top Orthodox blog, responds to Peter Beinart’s essay. [Cross-Currents]

The New Yorker’s Lawrence Wright talks Gaza. [News Desk]

• A new discovery off the coast of Haifa could turn Israel into one of the world’s main natural gas exporters. [JPost]

• Tablet Magazine contributor Diana Bletter writes wistfully of taking Arabic lessons in Haifa the week of the Gaza flotilla. [NYT]

The Wailing Wall plays Manhattan’s Mercury Lounge tonight.

In Defense of Jill Zarin

A word of praise for a much-maligned Housewife

Jill Zarin.(Flickr)

In the historic battle between the Jewish Mother and her various combatants, I have generally—sometimes even publicly—sided with the detractors. I didn’t need more fodder, but more has been provided by Bravo’s The Real Housewives of New York City, whose Jill Zarin—wife of Lower East Side fabric czar Bobby Zarin—has spent three seasons as a walking embodiment of the caricature: presenting oppressive enmeshment as familial warmth, costuming manipulation as concern, haughtily asserting herself as the benevolent, wisecracking, all-knowing Den Mother, before vengefully lashing out when others deigned to develop relationships that did not flow through her or make decisions without running them past her. In case she was being too subtle about the whole act (she wasn’t), Zarin published this two months ago.

Of all the characters on whom Zarin has bestowed the gift of her toxic love, she was perhaps most generous with Bethenny Frankel, the Housewife who, until this season, wasn’t a wife at all; as the only single member of the cast, Frankel essentially emerged as the Jewish daughter to Zarin’s Jewish mother: beautiful, primped and eternally presentable, yet alone—and thus clearly (clearly) in need of guidance. Zarin and Frankel luxuriated in the bathos of their mother-daughter dynamic for two seasons—until, that is, Frankel found a man and belatedly began doing what children do: separate, as in individuate (and not, as both Zarin and Frankel would later describe it, as in a husband-and-wife split).

Given the obscurantist editing of reality television, it’s unclear how exactly a few wrong moves snowballed into the slow hacking murder of a relationship, though the subject has been Talmudically parsed by viewers and critics alike. The vast majority of folks have been siding with Frankel—New York Magazine included in their weekly round-up a recurring feature outlining “why Jill Zarin is a disgusting person”—a group to which I belonged until last night. In the season finale, Zarin offered Frankel the most heartfelt apology that will ever grace one of these absurd shows, to which Frankel responded with the self-satisfied churlishness and unearned righteousness of a hormonal teenager (“You have a lot of changing to do,” she tells Zarin, at the close of the episode). But why? Frankel is at a wonderful moment in her life, in which—according to her—she finally has everything she has always wanted: a husband, a  career, an apartment “downtown” and a new baby. Isn’t this the time to be generous, to be forgiving? As I watched her maintain iciness, I couldn’t help but think: Jesus, Bethenny, basta already with the kishke-schlepping.

And then, all of a sudden, it occurred to me: The daughter is becoming the mother.

She still has some distance to go, though. As her former friend could teach her, there’s a time to kvetch and there’s a time kvell: When the camera panned to Zarin in her last encounter with Frankel, she looked both genuinely contrite and also happy for someone she loved—even though the brat was too spoiled to appreciate it. At that moment, Zarin was, in a word, a mother. A Jewish one? Maybe, maybe not. But certainly a good one.

The Champ Is Here!

Foreman-Cotto, Saturday night

Miguel Cotto (L) and Yuri Foreman (R).(Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

Guys! It’s tomorrow night! A little before midnight—and well after sundown—at Yankee Stadium in The Bronx, the Belarus-born Orthodox Jewish boxer Yuri Foreman will take on challenger Miguel Cotto in a junior middleweight (154 pounds) title bout. The fight will be broadcast live on HBO.

Who’s going to win? Well, Vegas says Cotto: The Puerto Rican sensation, last seen losing in a 12-round decision to pound-for-pound king Manny Pacquaio, is a 2-5 favorite, while Foreman is 2-1 underdog. Cotto is undoubtedly the more accomplished fighter; Foreman has going for him that he is a bit bigger than Cotto, who traditionally fights at welterweight.

Some pre-fight reading:

• Kevin Iole, one of the most influential boxing writers, profiles our man. [Yahoo! Sports]

• The Wall Street Journal profile. [WSJ]

• Remember the bar mitzvah conflict? [NYT]

• Foreman’s wife speaks. [Fanhouse]

• A goy explains that Foreman really could pull this one off. [Jewcy]

Tablet Magazine Celebrates One Year

These are a few of our favorite things, part 1


Tuesday marks Tablet Magazine’s one-year anniversary, and in the run-up, we’re remembering our ten favorite articles from the past 12 months. Herewith, your second of four installments. In no particular order …

“City of Refuge” by Ze’ev Avrahami, April 22, 2010. Avrahami remembers his old town of Yamit, a ’70s-era Israeli settlement in the Sinai, which was handed back to Egypt following the 1979 peace deal.

“The Crime of Surviving” by Dovid Katz, May 3, 2010.. Katz sheds light on the bizarre and troubling “Holocaust obfuscation” of Lithuania and the other Baltic states, which equates Jewish suffering under the Nazis with Lithuanian suffering under the Soviets.

Do you have other favorites? List ‘em in the comments …

Before Holzman, There Was Holman

A first-person testimony of the Jewish basketball genius

Coach Nat Holman.(CCNY)

In my article yesterday on the legendary New York Knicks coach Red Holzman, I mentioned that the coach’s coach—the man who coached Holzman back when he was a player for City College—was famous himself. Under Nat Holman, CCNY won both the NCAA and NIT championships in 1950, and generally was a dominant program (this, recall, was back when many of the great basketball players were Jews). Holman retired after 37 seasons with a 421-190 record and a reputation as one of the game’s most important early innovators.

But there’s more! Earlier today, I spoke with someone who directly benefited from Coach Holman’s basketball expertise. Col. Ellis Robinson (Ret.) is a loyal reader of The Scroll and, in this writer’s opinion, the world’s best grandfather. He reports that Holman would come down to Plainfield, New Jersey, once a week to offer pointers to the local YMHA squad.

Specifically: Holman taught the Jews of Plainfield how to play dirty.

“When you’re jumping against a man that’s much taller than you,” the colonel recalls Holman having taught him, “you step on his toe as you’re jumping, and of course he can’t get off his feet. And [Holman] taught us that if you’re up against a man, you put your hand on the bottom of his pants and hold his shorts down, and then he can’t jump.”

“There was a league in New Jersey,” the colonel continues. “The largest cities had YMHAs, and there was a league amongst those teams: Elizabeth, Perth Amboy, Trenton, Jersey City.” (Yes, this is basically something out of a 1990s Philip Roth novel.)

And then there is the hip-check: “When we both went for the ball off the backboard, I would give the other team’s center a hip, right after I jumped, and he would land on his ass.” Oh, grandpa.

Magic Number [Tablet Magazine]

Unholy Roller

Real-life Orthodox drug kingpin arrested

Justin Bartha (L) and Jesse Eisenberg (R) in Holy Rollers.(Holy Rollers)

Jewish drug peddlers are having their moment. In Holy Rollers, Jesse Eisenberg portrays a young Hasidic ecstasy smuggler who transitions, a little awkwardly, from hapless amateur to seasoned pro. Jonathan Braun, it seems, was a natural pusher. The New York resident was recently arrested by federal authorities for heading a major marijuana trafficking operation. His ties to organized crime allegedly span the country and extend into Canada. When cash was stolen from an organization’s house in California, Braun reportedly whipped a worker with a belt and threatened his family. “He’s the real deal,” a law enforcement source the Daily News. “He’s huge.”

He’s also 27. And he lives with his parents, Orthodox Jews, in Staten Island.

Braun’s squad allegedly shuffled in 110 tons of marijuana from Canada since 2007, channeling the drugs through the Akwesasne Native American reservations upstate. According to the Staten Island Advance, authorities seized $30,000 in cash and “drug ledgers for ‘hundreds’ of marijuana shipments” from Braun’s home. They also nabbed 16 cell phones from the young entrepreneur, who once owned a cell phone store in the borough.

Nearly 60 members of Braun’s operation have been arrested by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. But he was the big get. After an earlier raid of a stash house in Staten Island, Braun apparently fled to Israel. Even there, he still ran the show. And his dealing operation was reinforced by partnerships with crime syndicates in Canada and California, including the Hells Angels.

Yesterday, Braun was denied bail. If tried and convicted, he could be sentenced to 30 years to life in prison.

Either way, the tale of the local drug kingpin should, no doubt, hit a theater near you soon.

Marijuana Kingpin Jonathan Braun Ran Major Drug Ring from Staten Island Home: Feds [NY Daily News]
Earlier: ‘Holy Rollers’ Sacrifices Intrigue and Precision

Tablet Magazine Celebrates One Year

These are a few of our favorite things, part 1


Tuesday marks Tablet Magazine’s one-year anniversary, and in the run-up, we’re remembering our ten favorite articles from the past 12 months. Consider this your first of four installments. In no particular order …

“A Zionist Supreme” by Adam Kirsch, September 29, 2009. Kirsch, our books critic, credited Louis Brandeis, the first Jewish U.S. Supreme Court justice, with “la[ying] out the terms of the compact that still governs American Jews’ relations with Israel: they would offer money and moral support, but not sacrifice their Americanness.”

“Mother May I?” by Eryn Loeb, June 11, 2009. Loeb, a contributing editor, revisits A Treasure for My Daughter, which contains everything a young Jewish woman is supposed to know … in 1950.

“King Without a Crown” by Allison Hoffman, May 10, 2010. Hoffman, our senior writer, epically profiled Malcolm Hoenlein, one of the most politically influential American Jews.

Do you have other favorites? List ‘em in the comments …

Today on Tablet

The movements try to get along, and more


Today in Tablet Magazine, staff writer Marissa Brostoff reports that a new bequest’s interdenominational nature has thrown the three main movements’ waning power into relief. Mark Schechner remembers the great Seymour Krim—not just the writer, but the man. Liel Leibovitz finds himself unable to write a column about this week’s haftorah, because the flotilla fiasco weighs too heavily on his mind. It sure has weighed on The Scroll this past week.

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