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]

Clegg To Enter Gov’t, not Foreign Office

David Cameron to be Britain’s prime minister

Tory leader David Cameron, soon to be prime minister.(Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

What do you call a person who is perennially described as “dour” on the day that he resigns? Labour Leader Former Labour leader Gordon Brown cried “Uncle!” today, paving the way for the Conservatives to control the British government, and for Tory leader David Cameron to become the first non-Labour prime minister since 1997. The Liberal Democrats are currently negotiating a governing pact with the Tories, but all signs point to one being reached.

Some, including Larry Miller in Tablet Magazine, were concerned about Clegg’s Israel views, particularly since his party would have been a good bet to land the Foreign Office if they entered into a coalition government. However, while this isn’t final, William Hague—a onetime Tory leader—will be the likely Foreign Secretary. In other words, the Lib Dems won’t be running Britain’s diplomacy any time soon.

Meanwhile, Brown also resigned his leadership of the Labour Party. It’s generally thought that the front-runner to replace him is the previous government’s Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, who is Jewish.

Brown Resigns, Making Way for Cameron in Britain [NYT]
Britain’s David Cameron on Brink of Power [AP]
Related: Yes, Minister [Tablet Magazine]

‘Yerushalayim Shel Zahav’ Today

And the song’s Yehuda Halevi connection


Two things to enhance Liel Leibovitz’s podcast on the classic “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav.”

• Really interesting comments popped up since the podcast was published yesterday morning. “Asher” argues that when he first heard it, in Jerusalem right before the Six Day War, the words had different meaning than they do now:

I think the anachronistic criticism of their “politics” misses the point that it was originally not about the actual Jerusalem across the border in Jordan, but about the mythic Jerusalem of Jewish dreamers in exile. Hence the references to Yehuda Halevi, and the fittingness of the sad melody. Nobody could have imagined in May 1967 that the Old City would ever become accessible to Jews again. Even we living then in the sleepy little town of western Jerusalem, with its still pristine mountain air, on the quiet edge of no-man’s land, felt permanently exiled from the historical Yerushalayim, and were understandably oblivious to the daily lives of its unknowable Jordanian inhabitants. That was the sense in which the song spoke, as in Lamentations, of the city being desolate.

And “Qais” informs us that his family translated the song into Arabic [sic]:

Yesterday may grandmother told me, when she was playing in Jerusalem in the old city, in 1937 in her childhood, it was glorious city, the sun was shiny, her grandfather owned a small restaurant for Hummus and Falafel … she told me that in 1967 the Jews destroyed her neighbors houses and exiled her and her family to Jordan, after few years the Jews closed her Grandfather restaurant, she told me that some day she and her sister visited her remained relatives in the old city, her tears reached her chin, when she saw a Jews people settled in her child hood house, she told me I felt a pain in my throat that I want to cry but I can’t, it’s the feel when you see your home and you can’t enter it.

Thus we translated this song into Arabic; we listen to it every day from 1967 till now. Now it’s a destroyed city, now it’s an empty, nobody comes to the “temple” mount.

• As for the connection between the song’s lyrics and the poetry of Yehuda Halevi, Hillel Halkin had this to say in his new Nextbook Press biography:

On May 15, 1967, the nineteenth Independence Day of the state of Israel, Egyptian forces entered Sinai in large numbers after weeks of growing military tensions. That evening, in celebration of the holiday, a song festival attended by prime minister Levi Eshkol and army chief of staff Yitzhak Rabin was held in Jerusalem’s National Auditorium. The hit of the evening was a lyric called “Jerusalem of Gold,” written for the occasion by the librettist and composer Naomi Shemer and sung to a haunting minor-key melody by a wispy-voiced vocalist named Shuli Natan. The second line of its refrain of “Jerusalem of gold, of copper, and of light, / To all you songs I am a lute” was taken from Yehuda Halevi’s “Zion! Do You Wonder?”

Three weeks later, the Six Day War broke out. On its third day, the old walled city of Jerusalem, with its golden Dome of the Rock and Temple Mount, fell to Israeli troops. Wet-eyed paratroopers sang “Jerusalem of Gold” at the Western Wall. The war’s unofficial anthem and one of the most popular Israeli songs ever written, it marked the moment, one might say, at which Yehuda Halevi went from being a national poet to a fully nationalized one.

Song Cycle [Tablet Magazine]
Yehuda Halevi [Nextbook Press]

Novelist Atwood Boycotts Boycotts

Accepts Israeli prize in face of opposition

Writer Margaret Atwood.(Wikipedia)

Canadian writer Margaret Atwood—best known for her novels, including The Handmaid’s Tale and The Blind Assassin—has been made controversial for her acceptance of Tel Aviv University’s Dan David Prize, for “outstanding contribution to humanity.” Some had called for her to refuse the award in protest of … well, you know.

What makes this incident more interesting than a run-of-the-mill Israel-related controversy is that Atwood offered a staunch defense of her decision without making any sort of argument about Israel, the Palestinians, or Gaza. Rather, she opposed the very idea of a cultural boycott:

We don’t do cultural boycotts. I would be throwing overboard the thousands of writers around the world who are in prison, censored, exiled and murdered for what they have published. Why do these things happen to artists? It’s easy. Artists don’t have armies. What they do is nuanced, by which I mean it is about human beings, not about propaganda positions. They are going to offend someone no matter what they do. They are easy targets. They have names but no armies.

Irish composer Raymond Deane responded angrily. While most his rebuttal is premised on a condemnation of “the tissue of lies that the Zionists and their defenders have woven,” at one point he argues, “Culture is not a sacred realm floating far above the tribulations of the real world, and … artists in Israel and elsewhere are all too often complicit in the crimes of their governments—either by their silence, or by their willingness to allow their work and their presence to be appropriated by oppressive states.”

Atwood Says ‘We Don’t Do Cultural Boycotts’ and Accepts Israeli Prize [ArtsBeat]
Atwood Accepts Israeli Prize, Defends ‘Artists Without Armies’ [Bloomberg]
Open Letter to Margaret Atwood: Reject Tel Aviv University Prize [Oregon Salem-News]

Tiffany Shlain Premieres Her Film

Getting ready for Dawn 2010


Tiffany Shlain, the founder of the Webby Awards, 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. (Then, the next morning, she will give the commencement address at UC-Berkeley. Oof!)

Shlain told me that she will premiering a new, narrated version of a three-minute film, which she directed, called Yelp: with apologies to Allen Ginsberg, which “retools parts of Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ in thinking about how plugged in we are as a species and underscores the importance of unplugging.” She continued: “We were inspired to make this piece after hearing Reboot was organizing a ‘National Day of Unplugging.’”

Beyond the premiere, what’s she most excited about? “Seeing all the funky Jews in one place.”

A few years ago, Shlain sat for a Vox Tablet podcast about her earlier film, The Tribe.

Today on Tablet

Bow down before the king, and more


Today in Tablet Magazine, Senior Writer Allison Hoffman has an epic profile, very much worth your time, of Malcolm Hoenlein, who is quite possibly the most powerful person in the world of American Jewish institutions. Books critic Adam Kirsch reviews a new tome on the Jews from the Renaissance to emancipation. James Kirchick reports that Kyrgzstan’s toppling of its oppressive president has been followed by a wave of anti-Semitism. Good news, puzzle junkies! Ethan Friedman has our latest crossword. And good news, news junkies! The Scroll will be around all day.

Kagan’s Jewish Quotient

The nomination as ethnic moment

Elena Kagan accepting her nomination yesterday.(Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images)

This felt a little different, right? Sorta “Our Nominee”? New York Upper West Side (probably liberal) Jewish, the socialist summer camps and the father with the Ben Shahn drawings … (OK maybe not all of that).

Anyway, a quick look at how some of Kagan’s “cultural cues” were covered.

• Yesterday’s New York Times profile of Kagan was full of all sorts of cultural markers. [NYT]

• The National Jewish Democratic Council; the Anti-Defamation League; and the Reform movement all expressed their excitement. [Haaretz]

• J.J. Goldberg wonders whether certain folks will make an issue of the fact that Kagan’s accession would mean three Jews on the court. [Forward]

• No, she’s not one of those Kagans. [Slate]

• A Kagan confirmation would result in a Supreme Court that is New York-centric and, for the first time ever, WASP-free (three Jews, six Catholics). [Ben Smith]

• “The names of the justices read like a New York phone book—Scalia, Kennedy, Ginsberg, Sotomayor.” [Negev Rock City]

• Got an email yesterday with the following passage from Stephen L. Pease’s Golden Age of Jewish Achievement: The Compendium of a Culture, a People, and Their Stunning Performance:

As of mid-2008, seven of the 110 justices (6.4 percent) have been Jewish. The 6.4 percent statistic exceeds the expected 2 percent but understates the magnitude of the change since Brandeis. That is, there have been 44 appointments in the 92 years since Brandeis. Seven of those 42 (16 percent) were Jews. In the 46 years since Arthur Goldberg was appointed in 1962, four of 15 appointments (27 percent) were Jews. And, two of the last four appointments (Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 1993, and Stephen G. Breyer, 1994) were Jews. That two of our nine Supreme Court Justices (22 percent or 11 times their percentage of the U.S. population) are now Jews indicates just how remarkable their achievement has been.

And, of course, those stats don’t include Kagan.

Daybreak: Russia, Syria Talk Nukes

Plus welfare mess, White House shindig, and more in the news

Presidents Medvedev and Assad.(Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images)

• President Medvedev made the first-ever visit of a Russian head of state to Damascus, where he and President Assad discussed denuclearizing the Mideast (hint, hint). [Ynet]

• But the International Atomic Energy Agency does not plan to tie Iran’s nuclear weapons program to Israel’s. [Haaretz]

• One economist warns that Israel’s bottom-heavy welfare system—where large numbers of able-bodied Orthodox and Arab men do not work—will topple the economy as those demographics grow. [LAT]

• An Israeli minister clarified that, despite rumors to the contrary and restraint in certain neighborhoods, Jewish building in East Jerusalem will generally continue. [JPost]

• A posh resort is being built just inside Lebanon on the Israeli border, a few miles from the Golan Heights. [NYT]

• President Obama will host a reception in honor of Jewish Heritage Month on May 27. Talk about a hot ticket! [JTA]

Sundown: Lebanon Is Hummus Champ

Plus YamulKap, ash over Israel, and more

Holy sh*t.(Anwar Amro/AFP/Getty Images)

• Saturday, a day which will live in infamy, Israel lost the hummus title to its enemy to the north. [Ynet]

• A profile of the Israeli company Teva, the world’s biggest maker of generic drugs. The owner describes it thusly: “We’re kibbutzniks.” [NYT]

• The YamulKap. Pretty self-explanatory, really. [YamulKap]

• An epic takedown of Harold Bloom’s review of Anthony Julius’s book on British anti-Semitism. [Jewcy]

• The volcanic ash has officially reached Israel, and has even disrupted a few flights! Wait, why does this seem vaguely exciting? [Arutz Sheva]

• MTV is throwing a massive party in Israel this summer. In addition to Israeli pop stars, Pink (who is Jewish!) and Jay-Z (who is not!) will perform. [Ynet]

Here’s Jay-Z killing it on this past weekend’s Saturday Night Live.

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