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Today on Tablet

A very Yiddish Christmas, Christmas songs by Jews, and more

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Today in Tablet Magazine, Marissa Brostoff presents 1920s cartoonist Milt Gross’s Yiddish-inflected version of “The Night Before Christmas”—“De Night in de Front from Chreesmas”—read by a Yiddish actor and accompanied by Gross’s drawings. Music columnist Alexander Gelfand profiles a klezmer quartet started by two brothers whose father lost his family in the Holocaust. David Lehman and Marc Tracy compile the top ten Christmas songs written by Jews. And let The Scroll get you through the day to the long weekend.

All About Casspi

Israel’s first NBA player gets the ‘Sports Illustrated’ treatment

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Casspi goes for a block in a Euroleague game, March 2008.(Jack Guez/AFP/Getty)

This week, Sports Illustrated published a feature on Sacramento Kings rookie forward Omri Casspi, the first Israeli player in the NBA (Tablet Magazine profiled him last summer). Fun facts about Casspi abound: per his father’s request, two Israeli flags fly at every Sacramento home game; Casspi wears number 18, for chai. And there’s this: “When NBA commissioner David Stern announced that Sacramento was selecting Casspi, Stern cracked a smile, which Casspi maintains was a little wider than usual. ‘Because he’s Jewish,’ Casspi reasons.”

You also learn about the rich history of Jews in professional basketball. Brooklyn’s Ossie Schectman scored the first-ever basket in the NBA’s precursor league; Dolph Schayes was a 12-time All Star and is in the Basketball Hall of Fame (he also now checks the Kings box score after every game). Meanwhile, Israeli Mickey Berkowitz was likely good enough to play stateside in the late ‘70s, but Maccabi Tel Aviv—which was also Casspi’s squad—would not let him out of his contract.

When this article went to press, Casspi was the Kings’ seventh man (which is fantastic for a rookie). Since then, however, he got his first start. This week may not be the last time Casspi makes SI’s pages.

Welcome, The King of Israel [Sports Illustrated]

Earlier: Israeli Casspi Stars in First NBA Start

Related: Draft Notice [Tablet Magazine]

Daybreak: How Not To Steal a Concentration Camp Artifact

Plus the West Bank mosque arson’s aftermath, and more in the news

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• Turns out the three alleged thieves who tried to steal the Auschwitz sign bungled the heist in a thoroughly comedic manner. [NYT]
• While the Palestinian residents of Yasuf, in the West Bank, appreciated Israeli condemnations of the arson against their mosque, what they really want is for the perpetrators (presumed to be Israeli settlers) to be found and brought to justice—which now seems unlikely. [Forward]
• On the generally liberal New York Times op-ed page, a professor argues for U.S. airstrikes on Iran’s nuclear program, ASAP. [NYT]
• The U.S. Senate passed its health-care reform bill, definitively paving the way for historic legislation to reach President Barack Obama’s desk in the coming weeks. [LAT]

Sundown: Madoff May Be Sick

Plus long-planned settlements, R.I.P. Exodus captain, and more

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• Bernard Madoff was transferred to his North Carolina prison’s medical center. A federal spokesperson denied that Madoff is terminally ill or has cancer. [NY Post]
• New documents obtained by Israeli human rights groups show that when West Bank settlement Ma’ale Adumim was first conceived in 1975, the government planned to eventually annex its land. [JTA]
• Following the theft and recovery of Auschwitz’s “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign, the Polish culture minister allocated an additional $137,000 for security at the site. [Ynet]
• An argument in favor of making Taglit-Birthright more pluralistic in terms of how it presents the politics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. [Jewcy]
• Yitzhak Aharonovitch, the captain of the Exodus—the famous ship that brought 4500 European Jews to Palestine in 1947—died in Israel. He was 86. [Ynet]

Who Is This Decade’s Best Jewish Athlete?

Sorry, New Yorkers, but it may be Youkilis

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The Jewish Chronicle solicits nominations, but not before making a few of its own. Israelis Yossi Benayoun, a soccer star, and Arik Ze’evi, a gold-medal- winning judo fighter, are mentioned; so is Jason Lezak, the American gold-medal-winning swimmer.

But maybe the most compelling candidate, whom the JC does not mention, is for Kevin Youkilis. In the past decade, the Boston Red Sox first baseman won two World Series rings, including the first such piece of jewelry won by Boston in nearly 80 years; made himself into a fantastic power hitter (29 home runs, 115 RBIs in 2008); and played a major role in the rise of sophisticated statistical analysis of the game, serving as perhaps the prime example of a player whose superior ability to get walked made him severely underrated. In Michael Lewis’s Moneyball—the most important sports book of the decade—Youkilis’s nickname is “The Greek God of Walks.” But as those who have seen this clip know, Youkilis is not Greek.

Jewish Sports Person of the Decade [Jewish Chronicle]

The Road Map to Real Negotiations

What they’re talking about when they talk about talks

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Mitchell, Abbas, and a very large pillow, in October.(Thaer Ganaim/PPO/Getty Images)

Steve Rosen, the one-time hawkish AIPAC higher-up, helpfully lays out what precisely is in the way of final-status negotiations between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. U.S. Special Envoy George Mitchell’s task in the coming weeks is to reconcile Netanyahu to Abbas’s pre-assumptions (“terms of reference,” in diplomatese). These are what Abbas is demanding, followed by how likely he is to get them:

The literal 1967 boundary must be considered “sacrosanct.” Most Israelis presume that although the spirit of the ’67 Green Line should guide thinking, various land swaps, reflecting updated facts on the ground, will dictate the actual borders.
East Jerusalem must be Palestinian. This issue is perhaps the most pivotal. Netanyahu, Rosen says, “has accepted that the Palestinians will bring their claims for Jerusalem to the table, but he is not going to make this or any other concession just to bring Abbas to negotiate.”
There must be a two-year deadline for a final settlement. Again, Netanyahu is unlikely to agree to any guarantees.
Reparations, and potentially repatriation, must be offered to Palestinian “refugees”: the “right-of-return” issue. Netanyahu’s room to make concessions here is limited by the simple fact that admitting an Israeli obligation in the wrong manner could delegitimize Israel itself.
The Arab Piece Initiative, famously launched by Saudi Arabia in a 2002 Thomas Friedman column, must be the negotiating blueprint. Netanyahu has agreed to list it as a reference.
Interim agreements must be minimized—the goal should be final resolutions. Israel tends to find interim agreements more agreeable to itself.

(Unmentioned: Hamas’s rule over the Gaza Strip and its 1.5 million Palestinian residents. But that is a horse of a totally different color.)

The main drama now is where the two sides will bend and where they will not. If enough bending is done—if, for example, Netanyahu agrees that East Jerusalem is on the table, or even extends the West Bank construction freeze to there as well; if Abbas tampers down right-of-return expectations—then we could very well see substantive, even promising talks. If not enough bending is done … well, you already know what that looks like.

The Mideast Peace Deal You Haven’t Heard About [Foreign Policy]
Steve Rosen Comes Around [JTA]

Earlier: Abbas Insists on East Jerusalem
Figure in AIPAC Case Changes Story

Tomorrow Night, A Fun Holiday for Jews

Merry Nittel Nacht!

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Today, Slate discussed Nittel Nacht, the unofficial Jewish “holiday” that takes place on Christmas Eve. Jews celebrate Nittel Nacht, according to the article, by avoiding Torah study, lest the spiritual joy it produces rub off on nearby Christians. Instead, Jews play games like chess (or dreidel—some scholars believe Hanukkah’s proximity to December 24th explains the spinning top’s origins), pre-rip their weekly Shabbat toilet paper, or generally do anything other than study religious texts.

In this month’s Text/Context—a joint production of The New York Jewish Week and Tablet Magazine parent Nextbook—Moshe Sokolow also offered the Nittel Nacht basics. He traces its origins to 200 C.E., when Jews were barred from trading with Gentiles on Gentile holidays for fear that commercial success would enhance their false celebration. So, instead, you play games:

It may be only a coincidence that card playing is first noted among Jews in 1415, around the time that Nittel is first mentioned, but, once introduced, card playing, like all games of chance, cast an addictive spell over European Jewry. Numerous communal attempts to ban the practice succeeded only in abating it, with exemptions formally granted on minor festive occasions including Rosh Chodesh (new moon), Chanukah, and Purim. It was also specifically sanctioned on Christmas.

So Jews have the Christians to thank for their love of gin and mah-jongg. Merry Christmas, indeed!

A Nittel Debate [Text/Context]
The Little-Known Jewish Holiday of Christmas Eve. Seriously. [Slate]

Moldovan Church Blames Jews for Anti-Semitic Attack

And we graciously apologize

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On behalf of the Jews of Moldova and the world, The Scroll is sorry for the incident that occured several days ago in the Moldovan capital of Chisinau. What happened is that a crowd, led by an Orthodox Christian priest, attacked and toppled a Hanukkah menorah and replaced it with a cross. (A century ago, Chisinau hosted pogroms that killed thousands of the city’s massive Jewish population and forced even more to emigrate, including this author’s great-grandparents.) Some might blame the priest and the crowd for this incident; in fact, the Moldovan government did, condemning “hatred, intolerance and xenophobia.” But earlier this week, the Moldovan Orthodox Church helpfully cleared up matters and pointed out whose fault this regrettable event really was:

We believe that this unpleasant incident in the center of the capital could have been avoided if the menorah had been placed near a memorial for victims of the Holocaust. … we think it inappropriate to put a symbol of the Jewish [religion] in a public place connected to the history and faith of our people, especially because Hanukkah is classified by the [religious] books of Judaism as a ‘holiday of blessing’ that symbolizes the victory of Jews over non-Jews.

Frankly, this clarification, though welcome, is a bit extraneous. The priest who led the protest put the matter much more succinctly while his followers were removing the offending display: “We are an Orthodox country. Stephan the Great defended our country from all kinds of Zjids [a derogation], and now they come and put their menorah here. This is anarchy.”

So, again, on behalf of all of us (we can speak for everyone, we all talk all the time): we apologize. Won’t happen again.

Moldovan Orthodox Church: Jews To Blame for Menorah Incident [Ynet]
Video: Moldovan Priest Attackes Menorah, Erects Cross [Arutz Sheva]

Today on Tablet

Navasky on Lieberman, Hannukah’s ‘Avatar,’ and more

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Today in Tablet Magazine, Contributing Editor Victor Navasky says that, by opposing universal health care, Sen. Joe Lieberman has betrayed his faith’s commitment to social justice. Andrew Marantz sees the new 3D blockbuster Avatar through the prism of the Hanukkah story. Poetry critic David Kaufmann reviews Stanley Moss’s new collection of comically God-doubting work. The Scroll is agnostic on all matters, but we always strive to be funny.

Canada PM Harper Continues Drive for Jewish Vote

Up north, Conservatives play Israel politics, too!

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Harper in Seoul earlier this month.(Kim Su-Jin-Pool/Getty Images)

Canada’s Conservative Party, led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, has continued trying to win more votes from the 350,000-strong Jewish community by ever-so-delicately implying that its rivals are not big fans of Israel. (As in the United States, Canada’s relatively small Jewish population is disproportionately powerful. Canadian Jews tend to favor the Liberal Party, but there has been the inkling of a trend in the other direction.) Previously, Conservatives sent mailers to strategic neighborhoods asserting that several Liberal MPs attended the anti-Zionist Durban I conference (several did, though some claim this was to defend Israel); that Liberal Party leader Michael Ignatieff accused Israel of “war crimes” (he did, and has apologized); and that the party is soft on Hamas and Hezbollah (debatable at the very best).

Then, last week, Minister of Citizenship, Immigration, and Multiculturalism Jason Kenney lit a new fire while visiting, yes, Jerusalem. There, he announced the Harper government’s stern opposition toward those who “advocate the destruction of Israel and the destruction of the Jewish people.” (As The Globe and Mail’s Gerald Caplan wryly added, “That is in sharp contrast to those Canadian parties that do not oppose those who advocate such destruction.”) Kenney further announced that the administration is ending the funding of a popular left-wing NGO, because, it says, of its Israel position.

If nothing else, the kerfuffle is a good reminder that American Jews are not the only ones facing this dynamic. It’s also a good reminder of, y’know, Canada.

Is The Harper Government Playing the Anti-Semitic Card? [The Globe and Mail]
Conservatives Wooing Traditionally Liberal Canadian Jews [Forward]

Earlier: Canada’s Conservatives Suggest Liberals Are Anti-Semites

Related: The Return of the Native [The New Yorker]

Daybreak: Shalit Deal Still Advancing (Slowly)

Plus Erev Christmas and conflict with the Vatican, and more in the news

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• Israel would release 443 of the 450 prisoners Hamas requested in exchange for captured soldier Gilad Shalit, according to an Egyptian newspaper. Among the seven it wouldn’t are Marwan Barghouti and several Hamas officials. [Ynet]
The Wall Street Journal has a nice update and introduction to the Shalit situation, and how it became the “cause célébre” it has. [WSJ]
• Have you ever heard of Nittel Nacht? The holiday still observed by some Orthodox Jews on Christmas Eve? [Slate]
• A site outside Jerusalem near the Tomb of David is a source of conflict between Israel and the Vatican, which says it is where the Holy Spirit first appeared, and wants it. Christmas will come this year without a deal. [LAT]
• A Vatican spokesperson pledged that controversial wartime Pope Pius XII would not be beatified at the same time as John Paul II, and offered a broader defense of Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to advance Pius’s sainthood. [JTA]

Sundown: On Iran, Israel Out in the Cold

Plus Bosnia discriminates, the Guardian offends, and more

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• Israel’s top strategic think-tank concluded after a war-game that there is little Israel can do to dissuade President Barack Obama from his policy of engagement regarding Iran’s nuclear program. [Haaretz/Reuters]
• The European Court of Human Rights found that a rule in Bosnia’s mid-’90s constitution barring any other than Serbs, Croats, or Bosnian Muslims from attaining the highest offices is illegally discriminatory. A Bosnian Jew and a Bosnian Roma had brought the case. [Voice of America]
• The Fundermentalist reports on the new strategic partnership between Tablet Magazine parent Nextbook and JDub. [JTA]
• The New York Review of Books’s blog (yes, they have one, too) argues that Andrei Sheptyts’kyi, a Ukrainian Greek Catholic (yes, they exist), deserves recognition as Righteous Among Nations for saving Jews during World War II. [NYR Blog]
• The Guardian apologizes for essentially printing the blood libel in their article about Israeli organ harvesting. [The Guardian via The Awl]
• Ahmadinejad as iPod (you’ll understand). [The State of the Jews]

Jewish Group Appeals to Sen. Lieberman

Justice, justice and the public option shall you seek

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Although the U.S. Senate has since passed a health-care reform bill that lacks a public option, the Shalom Center (“A Prophetic Voice in Jewish, Multirelgious, and American Life”) has not given up on Sen. Joe Lieberman. Instead, it has asked him to perform tshuvah, or rededicate himself to the Torah and its message—and in so doing, come to support the public option (again):

we believe your obligation of pekuach nefesh, saving life, saving the lives of the flesh-and-blood citizens of Connecticut, shaped in flesh and blood in God’s Image and subject to damage of that same flesh and blood that requires healing, is an even higher obligation than you owe to your insurance-company constituents. Indeed, two-thirds of your flesh-and-blood constituents support a health-care bill that includes a strong public option.

Hard to avoid that this reasoning buttresses others’ argument that the income tax distorts God’s design by punishing virtue. Or that permitting gay marriage subverts God’s will.

Lieberman—It Ain’t Over Till It’s Over [JTA]

Earlier: Is Joe Lieberman Too Jewish?
How To Explain Joe Lieberman: He’s Just Kinda Dumb!

Report Criticizes Israel for Gaza Blockade

As ‘Cast Lead’ anniversary approaches, protests in the offing

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Since Israel launched Operation Cast Lead in Gaza a year ago, Israel’s subsequent blockade has left residents of the Hamas-ruled Strip unable to rebuild their homes and society. So finds a new report signed by over a dozen Western humanitarian groups, including OxFam and Amnesty International. Among other bulletpoints, the groups note that only 41 truckloads of construction equipment have been permitted into Gaza in the past twelve months, and that polluted water has allowed fatal diarrhea to run rampant, particularly among the young. The report was timed for the first anniversary of the beginning of the conflict, on December 27th.

Speaking of which: several international pro-Palestinian groups are planning “Gaza Freedom Marches” to commemorate Cast Lead, starting next Sunday. Most dramatically, on December 31st marchers from northern Gaza and from Israel will converge at the Erez Crossing and demand, nonviolently, that Israel make reopening that passage, one of few out of the 139-square-mile territory, its prime New Year’s resolution.

Rights Groups: World Has Betrayed the Citizens of Gaza [Haaretz/Reuters]
Global Anti-Israel Protests Expect on ‘Cast Lead’ Anniversary [Arutz Sheva]

Legendary Diamond District Eatery Closes

Iconic kosher restaurant mourned

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Diamond Dairy yesterday.(Marissa Brostoff)

Tucked away above a bustling swap-meet of jewelry purveyors in midtown Manhattan’s diamond district, blintzes and gefilte fish have attracted kosher-keeping visitors from around the country since at least 1955. But no more: at the beginning of this month, Diamond Dairy closed down after failing to renegotiate a lease with the building’s new owners, ABS Partners Real Estate.

“A new real estate firm bought the building and I couldn’t get a new lease, I was evicted, whatever you want to call it,” said Diamond Dairy owner Samuel Strauss, who used to commute every day from the Orthodox suburb of Monsey, in Westchester County, to this block of West 47th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues. Strauss noted that nearly two dozen other tenants have met the same fate: “In about two years he wants this building completely vacant. He wants to turn it into a fancy office building.” Strauss said that by mid-January he will begin looking for a venue in the diamond district where he can reopen.

The old-fashioned dairy restaurant’s chief mourners are the jewelers who work in the area, many of them Orthodox or ultra-Orthodox Jews.

“I used to eat there every day,” said vendor Gaby Raz. “Delicious food. The best tuna fish, scrambled eggs, blintzes, cholent. I remember when I first came here”—in 1976—“the old woman who had opened the place was still there. She reminded me of my grandmother.”

A room adjacent to the restaurant was used daily for mincha, the afternoon prayer service, and Talmud study, which made it an even more popular destination.

“If somebody comes to midtown from anywhere in the United States and they want to daven mincha, they come here,” said Yitzchok Fleischer, another vendor. The short service would be held six times in a row so that if a worshiper missed one, another would quickly follow.

Diamond Dairy also drove business to the jewelers on the floor below, including the many tourists for whom the restaurant was a New York landmark. They’re still showing up, Raz said, not knowing that the restaurant has closed.

“People are shocked. They almost cry,” Raz said. “Let me tell you, darling: nothing in life is forever. Nothing but Hashem.”

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