thescroll_header

The Great Orthodox Merengue Scandal

Major bike-lane player dances to a different tune

Email
The damning photographic dancing evidence.(Facebook)

If the Williamsburg bike-lane battle represents the Platonic ideal of a New York (and New York) metro story, then Baruch Herzfeld—self-appointed liaison between the pro-lane hipsters and anti-lane Satmar Hasidim—is the irresistible character who truly stamps it “Only in New York.” The impish 38-year-old ex-Orthodox bike activist who is at home in both communities (or, if you prefer, oblivious to the fact that he is home in neither) shows up in almost every article on the subject. But Tablet Magazine has learned that bike lanes aren’t the only area in which Herzfeld pushes the Orthodox community’s buttons from within. Another one is merengue dancing. Wait, what?

Prior to his current incarnation as bike advocate, Herzfeld spent a year shuttling back and forth between the Dominican Republic, where he ran operations for a telecom company called SkyMax Dominicana, and Brooklyn, where SkyMax’s parent company is based. On paper, it was an absurdly good fit: Herzfeld reported to the company’s owner, a Williamsburg Satmar gentleman named Moses Greenfield, but he also got to indulge his penchant for Dominican culture, and particularly merengue. Naturally, he was bitten by the merengue bug while he was a bad student at Yeshiva University, which is conveniently located in the heavily Dominican Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights.

In the spring of 2007, after Herzfeld clashed with his colleagues one too many times, Greenfield fired him. An ugly dispute followed over how much money Herzfeld was owed. As per their contract, the parties took their conflict to the beth din, or rabbinical court. (more…)

Daybreak: Obama Ties Mideast To U.S. Interests

Plus Scuds across the border, street-name showdown, and more in the news

Email
President Obama at a press conference in Washington, D.C., yesterday.(Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images)

• President Obama appeared to echo Gen. Petraeus’s view that the Mideast conflict “ends up costing us significantly in terms of both blood and treasure.” [NYT]

• Backed by U.S. officials, President Shimon Peres accused Syria of giving Scud missiles to Hezbollah (Syria denies it). These weapons could easily reach Tel Aviv and Jerusalem from Lebanon. [WSJ]

• Remember how U.S. officials said yesterday that China had come around on economic sanctions against Iran? Chinese officials say that’s not so much true. [LAT]

• More than three-fourths of both the U.S. House and Senate signed bipartisan letters arguing for strong U.S.-Israeli ties. AIPAC applauded the signers. [JPost]

• Israel issued an unprecedented travel warning urging citizens to leave Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula immediately due to specific plans for a kidnapping. [WP]

• They’re fighting over the names of streets. [NYT]

Note regarding the first item: The relevant section is buried in an unrelated News Analysis, but it struck me—as well as Laura Rozen—as very important.

Sundown: When It Comes to Nuclear War, No News Is Good News

Plus, kosher beef and disappearing books

Email

• The international conference on nuclear security that Barack Obama convened this afternoon has not led to confrontations between Israel and Muslim states, reported the Israeli minister in attendance. “I regret to disappoint those who expected clashes against Israel in the summit,” he said (then went on to almost-but-not-quite name Iran as the world’s “greatest threat to peace.”) [Ynet]

• The Iowa meatpacking plant once owned by kosher slaughter behemoth Agriprocessors, which shut down after a 2008 immigration raid, is producing (kosher) beef again for the first time, its new owner says. [Vos Iz Neias]

• An Israeli bookstore chain stopped selling a book called The National Left, a political manifesto denouncing settlers and calling for a revival of the Israeli left wing, after receiving “many complaints that the book hurts the feelings of some of our customers.” [NYT]

The Nation reexamines the life and legacy of the late Holocaust scholar Raul Hilberg. [The Nation]

• Self-congratulations are due: the Webby Awards have named Tablet Magazine an honoree in the category of “Religion and Spirituality” on the Web! [Webby Awards]

Venezuela’s Sanctioned Street Art

Graffiti is okay, except when it’s not; then, you’re a Jew

Email
Carlos Zerpa with his work.(New York Times)

The New York Times reported yesterday that Hugo Chávez’s regime encourages street artists to paint graffiti that jibes with official ideology—specifically, anti-Americanism. One mural in the capital city of Caracas depicts a warrior holding the severed head of Secretary of State Clinton; another shows President Obama, in Santa Claus suit, handing out “Afghanistan” and “Iraq” missiles.

Scratch the surface of Venezuela’s left-wing authoritarian government, and not infrequently you will find anti-Semitism. Though by no means the dominant strand of “Chavismo,” the government has repeatedly found that blaming various ills on the Jews (including members of Venezuela’s 12,000-strong but dwindling Jewish community) serves its purposes. Certainly it’s not too large a leap to make (and the Times makes it) between officially sanctioned anti-American graffiti and the swastikas that vandals spray-painted onto a prominent Sephardic synagogue in Caracas last year.

The article profiles Saúl Guerrero, one of the most prominent street artists who isn’t endorsed by the regime: most of his work consists of sad portraits of destitute people, perhaps a subtle form of protest. “I wanted to get away from the European-looking faces that dominate advertising in Venezuela,” he told the Times, “in an attempt to trigger people into thinking about the reality of the place we live.”

He goes by the name “Ergo”; when his name appeared in a magazine, he was denounced for being, yup, Jewish. Which he isn’t. Except, perhaps, in spirit.

Artists Embellish Walls With Political Vision [NYT]
Earlier: Hugo Chávez’s Uses for Anti-Semitism
Un Problema en Venezuela

The Divorce

An old Jew tells a joke

Email

Twisted, only partly understandable, yet in the end hilarious: it must be Old Jews Telling Jokes!

Service Employees Union Head Stepping Down

Andy Stern was most prominent Jewish labor leader

Email
Andy Stern.(S.E.I.U.)

Andy Stern’s retirement marks an end of an era: not just for the Service Employees International Union, which he separated from the historically dominant AFL-CIO and built into a political powerhouse, but for the Jews and the U.S. labor movement.

Several unions, most notably those of garment workers, have long been dominated by Jews even as the number of actual Jewish, say, garment workers has dwindled. (The main garment union is now an S.E.I.U. affiliate.) Last year, the Forward reported on the hasty marriage and then divorce of that major garment union (itself headed by a Jew) and a hotel employees’ union. The paper reported: “The tradition of those old Jewish unions—bringing in immigrants and helping them step up to the middle class—seems to be the legacy that union activists watching the battle are most concerned about as the fights drag on.”

Washington Post columnist Harold Meyerson penned an excellent essay last year on the decline of Irish-Americans in the leadership of America’s labor movement. He noted that Jews have experienced a similar decline. The piece is worth a re-read today.

Stern, Head of S.E.I.U., Plans to Retire [NYT]
Historic Union Torn Apart in Messy Divorce [Forward]
The Age of the Irish [WP]

Commenters Debate Pro-Palestinian YA Novel

‘Shepherd’s Granddaughter’ prompts back-and-forth

Email
(Amazon)

Besides teaching us that one does indeed call a person from Ontario an “Ontarian,” Marjorie Ingall’s reported, perceptive look at a controversial Canadian young-adult novel called The Shepherd’s Granddaughter explored how to educate children about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and to what extent censorship is acceptable. The novel is about a young girl living in the West Bank whose family land is under occupation; her family and other Palestinians are frequently victims at the hands of Israeli soldiers and settlers.

Several groups, including Canadian Friends of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, have called for the book not to be placed on a special reading list formulated each year by the Ontario Library Association. Ingall disagrees:

Might young people have better critical faculties than we give them credit for? … being disingenuous and hyperbolically alarmist about the threats posed by novels—as opposed to the threats caused by shutting down all discussion—means we don’t get the chance to elucidate and debate. If The Shepherd’s Granddaughter can teach us anything, it’s that even educated people with a glorious literary tradition sometimes feel justified in banning books. And we’re all poorer for it.

(Very vaguely relatedly, today Tablet Magazine published a report on anti-Zionism at Canadian universities.)

Ingall’s article prompted a robust discussion in the comments section. Many agreed with Ingall. “I oppose censorship—and with books, it is too much like book burning,” argued fred lapides. As an alternative, he suggested, “Swamp the papers with letters suggesting the book is very biased and does not tell readers how youngsters are taught to hate and kill Israelis and how grandfather probably wants Israel destroyed.”

But some argued that, while perhaps the book should not be banned outright, the problem is that it is currently being actively promoted. Foremost among the commenters who made this argument was Brian Henry, a Jewish Tribune writer (and Toronto parent) who wrote an impassioned open letter asking that the book not appear on the reading list. In his comment, Henry says, “Our schools shouldn’t promote anyone’s political agenda, but with this book that’s precisely what they’re doing. The article also understates the book’s offensiveness: it portrays Israelis as child-murderers, commanded by the Jewish God to steal and kill.”

Henry advocates that, in the future, the reading list include “alternate material about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for kids of this age.” Ingall herself, weighing in in the comments, has vowed to take up that particular challenge:

Next week’s column will offer suggestions of different young adult novels about the “matzav,” as the Israel-Palestinian conflict is called in Israel — it means The Situation (which sounds to me like a great name for a band). It will offer more ideas, short of calling for a book ban, about what to do when you’re horrified by a children’s or young adult book. Right now, I’m frantically reading.

In other words: stay tuned!

Banned in Canada [Tablet Magazine]

Today on Tablet

Pro-Jewish populism, the Biblical American canon, and more

Email

Today in Tablet Magazine, Tevi Troy, who served as President George W. Bush’s liason to the Jewish community, argues that a rise in American populism could actually buttress Jews’ and Israel’s position among the people. Books critic Adam Kirsch reviews a new book by Robert Alte that traces the King James Bible’s influence on American literature. McGill University Professor Gil Troy examines the seemingly anomalous phenomenon of Canadian campus anti-Zionism. Ethan Friedman provides a special, Counting-of-the-Omer-themed crossword puzzle. The Scroll doesn’t think there is any relation between the two Troys featured today, but doesn’t know for sure.

UPDATE: Guess what? They are brothers!

Across A Border

On the road with Girls in Trouble—with video!

Email

Any tour worth its salt includes these three things: major landmarks, occasional navigational difficulties, and lots of laughter in the van. If you’re really lucky, they happen all at once.

There’s also the pleasure of making friends with new bands, like Judgment Day (from the Bay Area), a kick-ass (and unusual) heavy metal trio with whom we played in Chicago:

And then there are the things that are hard to even put into words. Our bass player has toured through Detroit before and made it a point to bring us all to the Heidelberg Project, an absolutely incredible installation by a local visionary who has been making art out of abandoned homes for years:

In Hamtramck, Michigan, we played at a lovely cafe, where the audience energy was absolutely amazing. We stayed that night in a parsonage (!), thanks to our friend Faith, a pastor of the C.M.E. church. And then we headed to the Canadian border.

They almost didn’t let us in the country (shades of the Red Sea), but in the end we made it in and did two press performances (one mainstream, one college radio), and then drove to the club in Toronto. There, our new friend Lainie filmed us playing “Snow/Scorpions & Spiders.”

Daybreak: China Says It Backs Sanctions

Plus Israel insists on ‘homegrown’ peace, and more in the news

Email
Sarkozy arriving in America Sunday.(Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images)

• Meeting face-to-face, President Hu Jintao told President Barack Obama that China could support economic sanctions against Iran. [LAT]

• The Israeli government warned that it would oppose a peace plan that the United States writes and then imposes on the parties. A solution to the conflict, it said, must be “homegrown.” [WSJ]

• French President Nicolas Sarkozy cautioned that a failure of the international community to act on Iran would result in a “disastrous” Israeli strike. [Ynet]

• Israeli troops shot and killed an Islamic Jihad militant who was trying to plant explosives on the Gaza border. [NYT]

• Yom HaShoah celebrations in New York City over the weekend emphasized the passing of stories and memories on to the youngest generation. [NYT]

• Late Polish President Lech Kaczynski continues to be remembered as an unprecedented friend to the Jews and Israel—the first Polish leader to attend a Polish synagogue, for example. Prime Minister Donald Tusk (who was not on the plane) is also considered friendly to Israel. [JTA]

Sundown: A Banner Year For Anti-Semitism

Plus Kyrgyz Jews, Finklestein in Turtle Bay, and more

Email
Norman Finkelstein.(Wikipedia)

• There were over twice as many anti-Semitic acts in 2009 as in 2008, according to a new study. Incidents rose following the Gaza conflict. [Ynet]

• The New Jersey Star-Ledger was one of three finalists (though not the victor) for the Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Reporting for its coverage of the corruption scandal stemming from the state’s Syrian Jewish community. [Pulitzer]

• The Jewish community of Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, is anxious for its own safety given the recent coup in the country. [JTA]

• Veteran negotiator Aaron David Miller posits that the Obama administration’s goal may be to encourage a change in Israeli government—so that they no longer have to deal with Prime Minister Netanyahu. [LAT]

• The notorious Norman Finkelstein appeared last week in front of the U.N. Correspondents Assocation. [TNR.com]

• Jewcy uncovers the executive editor of Village Voice Media writing something … really, really questionable about “Jews.” [Jewcy]

Old Jewish negotiator extraordinaire Herb Cohen discusses Real Housewives of New York. Pretty much can’t-miss.

Herb Cohen on Real Housewives of New York, S3E6 from aarongell on Vimeo.

Bishop Blames Criticism on Zionists

The church of self-hating Jews?

Email
Pope Benedict XVI yesterday.(L'Osservatore Romano Vatican-Pool/Getty Image)

Hey Catholic Church! Are you guys, in your persecution, sorta kinda like the Jews? Or are you yourselves being persecuted at the hands of the Jews? (“They do not want the Church,” an Italian bishop said, saying the recent criticism over pedophilia cover-ups was a “Zionist attack.”) “They are its natural enemies. Deep down, historically speaking, the Jews are God killers.”

My theory is that the Church is both persecuted Jews and persecuted by Jews. That is, they are self-hating Jews. They are certainly self-hating.

‘Criticism Against Church A Zionist Attack’ [Ynet]
Earlier: Vatican Official Compares Church Critics to Anti-Semites

Catching the Mouse

An old Jew tells a joke

Email

This one is, um, y’know, a little bit risqué, so be warned.

The Brooklyn Bike Lane Battle Today

‘New York’ covers the Hasid-hipster clash

Email
Satmar Hasidim in south Williamsburg.(New York)

The new issue of New York has a long, comprehensive article on the Great Brooklyn Bike Lane Brawl: the fight in south Williamsburg between the resident Satmar Hasidim, who aspire “to faithfully reproduce pious shtetl culture—in the sooty five-story brownstones,” and the nearby hipsters who are synonymous with the neighborhood in the popular culture. “Clash of the Bearded Ones”—great title, guys—focuses on the controversy over the Bedford Avenue bike lane, in which the Satmars, who do not like scantily clad young people cycling by, allegedly struck a deal to get the city to remove the reserved lane. It profiles Baruch Herzfeld, who has positioned himself as a go-between, and even alerts us to the emerging trend of, yup, Hasid hipsters.

You should read the whole article, in other words. And, for context, you might want to watch the video, below, that the folks at God & Co. made for Tablet Magazine last year. Certainly provides a new perspective on the Hasid-hipster culture clash, and it’s just really, really funny.

The Golem from Tablet Magazine on Vimeo.


Clash of the Bearded Ones
[NYMag]
Feet of Clay [Tablet Magazine
Earlier: Did NYC’s Transit Dept. Strike A Backroom Deal with Satmars?
Better Living Through Cycling

Tabloid Awaits Pulitzer Announcement

Enquirer’s Levine expects to be shut out

Email

Sometime in 2008, at the height of the National Enquirer’s investigation into John Edwards’ affair with Rielle Hunter, the paper’s executive editor, Barry Levine, found himself at a party in East Hampton with one of his idols: Carl Bernstein, the Jewish half of the team that broke the Watergate scandal. As a kid in the Philadelphia suburbs, Levine scoured newsstands for copies of The Washington Post, a prized find in those pre-Internet days. “Watergate was a defining factor when I was growing up, and what they did was a great inspiration to me,” Levine recalled. “And Bernstein said to me, ‘You’re doing a good job, kid.’”

Levine, 51, is a veteran of the celebrity-scandal news business who directed the Enquirer’s Edwards coverage from the paper’s New York offices, on Park Avenue. He will be as surprised as anyone if he hears his reporters’ names when the Pulitzer Prize board announces this year’s recipients later today. Despite winning a much-publicized fight to gain eligibility for the Edwards stories, he told me last week, “We’re not holding our breath.” He went on, “Whether we win or not, we received a huge amount of recognition from the mainstream media.” And he doesn’t just mean Carl Bernstein.

The Edwards stories were hardly the first serious scoop the Enquirer has scored—there was the picture of Donna Rice sitting on wayward presidential candidate Gary Hart’s lap, in 1988, and the proof that Jesse Jackson was supporting an illegitimate child, in 2001—but it’s the first time the paper has provoked a grand jury investigation into once-viable presidential candidate’s alleged wrongdoing. The paper’s staff has earned itself a place in the pantheon of American muckraking, the long, illustrious history of which stretches from Ida Tarbell and Upton Sinclair to I.F. Stone, Jimmy Breslin, and Bernstein—scrappy, often ethnic journalists who never let go of their outsider perspective.

The Enquirer isn’t usually associated with Jews. Its founder was Generoso Pope Jr., a Bronx-born, MIT-educated former spy whose father published an Italian-language paper in New York. Its reporting DNA primarily reflects the Fleet Street veterans whom Rupert Murdoch imported into its onetime rival (and now sister paper) the Star in the early 1990s. But the three top guns who oversaw the Edwards story happen to be Jewish—Levine, former editor-in-chief David Perel (who now runs Radar Online, part-owned by Enquirer owner American Media Inc.), and AMI chief David J. Pecker, the Bronx-born son of a bricklayer who bought the paper in 1999 with the goal of competing with celebrity glossies like People and Us Weekly.

And they’ll keep running their band of muckraking outsiders, whatever the establishment in Morningside Heights announces this afternoon.

Timeline: How the Enquirer Uncovered the Edwards Scandal [National Enquirer]

Thank You!

Thank you for subscribing to the Tablet Magazine Daily Digest.
Please tell us about you.