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Oldest Spanish Torah Scroll Sold

At Sotheby’s for about $400,000

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Northern Spanish Torah scroll, late 13th century.(Sotheby's New York)

The oldest surviving complete Torah scroll from pre-Inquisition Spain was sold at Sotheby’s yesterday to an unnamed American private collector for $398,500—not quite the half-million bucks the auction house gave as the high estimate, but impressive nonetheless. The 700-year-old scroll was put up for sale by Rabbi Yitzchok Reisman, a Torah scribe and repairman on New York’s Lower East Side who bought it for less than $40,000 a decade ago from a Moroccan family of Spanish origin now living in Israel. Not a bad return—and, as is its wont, Sotheby’s did the rabbi the favor of giving him a photograph of the scroll as a keepsake.

Torah Scroll, Kabbalistic Circle of Shem Tov Ben Abraham Ibn Gaon, Northern Spain [Sotheby’s]
Related: Treasure Trove [Tablet]

A Jewish Leader at the First Thanksgiving

Colonial cantor Gershom Mendes Seixas was a George Washington favorite

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Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, The First Thanksgiving(Wikipedia)

“We hear much these days about our ‘Judeo-Christian’ heritage and its early and enduring influence on our culture,” says the Jewish Press. But given that only about 2,500 Jews lived in the American colonies in 1776, it continues, “usually those of us who speak of that early dual influence are referring to the Christian Bible with its Jewish roots.” Turns out, however, there was at least one influential Jew at the time of the first official Thanksgiving in 1789. Gershom Mendes Seixas was the cantor and spiritual leader of New York City’s only synagogue, Congregation Shearith Israel, until it shut down operations during the Revolution, and he became the leader of a synagogue in Philadelphia, where he used his pulpit to speak out in support of General George Washington. When Washington was inaugurated as president, Seixas was one of the presiding clergy. “This was certainly an act of gratitude by Washington for the preacher’s stalwart support during the war,” says the Press. “It was also, though, an expression of Washington’s thinking about the importance of religious freedom and diversity in the new nation.”

And when Thanksgiving became an official holiday that year, Seixas, back at Shearith Israel, preached that Jews were “equal partakers of every benefit that results from this good government” and should try “to live as Jews ought to do in brotherhood and amity, to seek peace and pursue it,” which, says the Press, “is every bit as relevant to all of us 220 years later.”

This Thanksgiving, Please Pass the Brisket [Jewish Press]

Hadassah: Start Annual Breast Exams at 40

Jewish women’s group doesn’t accept new, relaxed federal guidelines

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Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, announced earlier this week that they’re siding with the Susan G. Komen breast-cancer awareness organization and telling women to keep getting annual mammograms starting at 40—not at 50, and only every other year, as a federally funded task force recommended last week. Valerie Lowenstein, Hadassah’s national chair for women’s health and wellness, told Tablet Magazine the decision was basically a no-brainer. “There really wasn’t a debate,” she said yesterday afternoon. “It’s just something we’ve been educating women about for the past 16 years, and it’s something Hadassah stands behind.” It’s probably relevant to note that Komen—whose head, Nancy Brinker, held a press conference on Monday to say how outrageous she found the panel’s recommendations—has given Hadassah about $335,000 in grants for breast-cancer awareness. And also, as the Jewish Telegraphic Agency helpfully noted, that Ashkenazi Jewish women are about five times likelier than everyone else to have the genetic abnormality that can lead to breast cancer.

Hadassah Says Mammograms Should Start at 40 [JTA]

Tablet Today

Talking turkey, parsing Palin, and a writer remembered

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Allison Hoffman rounds up some plans and suggestions for making Shabbat palatable the day after Thanksgiving. Seth Lipsky ponders reactions to Sarah Palin’s support for Israel and the settlements. Liel Leibovitz remembers the impact of Israeli writer Naomi Frankel, who died last week. And The Scroll will roll out updates until this afternoon, when Tablet Magazine will take a break until Monday. Happy Thanksgiving!

Daybreak: Proposed Settlement Freeze Not Enough

Plus relief for survivors, Wizards owner dies, and more in the news

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• Palestinian officials have announced that they will reject Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plan to halt settlement growth for 10 months in the West Bank, which does not include East Jerusalem. [AP]
• Meanwhile, negotiations for a prisoner swap to free Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier held captive by Hamas, are stalled over a list of top militants the Palestinian group wants freed. [AP]
• Israel’s Supreme Court ruled that Holocaust survivors who were kept under curfew will not need to produce extensive documentation in order to be eligible for reparation payments. [JPost]
• Abe Pollin, philanthropist and owner of the Washington Wizards basketball team, known for firing Michael Jordan in 2003, has died at 85. [WP]

Sundown: A Rabbi, a Minister, and a Sheik Walk into an Article

Plus Google shrugs, resolution on the court, and more

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• In a profile of the “interfaith amigos”—a rabbi, a minister, and a Muslim sheik who get together not in a joke but in houses of worship, spreading their message of cooperation and mutual understanding—the New York Times points out: “Clearly, all three clergymen are in the liberal wing of their respective faiths.” [NYT]
• The board of directors at San Francisco’s Jewish Federation rejected a proposal to prohibit cooperation with groups that “defame” or use boycotts, divestment, or sanctions against Israel; one member said it “would have made the federation the decider and enforcer-in-chief of very subjective language.” [JTA]
• Google explains that it is not responsible for anti-Semitic and racist search results: “One reason is that the word ‘Jew’ is often used in an anti-Semitic context.” In other words, don’t blame the messenger. [AFP]
• Who says competition doesn’t bring people together? Hamed Haddadi, the first Iranian player in the NBA, and Omri Casspi, the league’s first Israeli player, “met at midcourt and shook hands” before their teams, the Memphis Grizzlies and the Sacramento Kings, faced off. [Commercial Appeal]

95-Year-Old Sets German High Jump Record

Well, she set it in 1936, but Germans are now reinstating it

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(FR-online.de)

Jewish athlete Gretel Bergmann jumped a record 5 feet, 3 inches, on the German Olympic high jump team in 1936. Bergmann, now 95 and known as Margaret Lambert, had been threatened by the Nazis into joining the German team instead of the British in what the Associated Press calls “a political stunt meant to appease the Americans,” but they nonetheless booted her off and erased all traces of her record a few weeks later, barring her from the Berlin Olympics that year. She later escaped to America and now lives in Queens, New York. “I used to sit there and curse my head off when the Olympics were going on,” Lambert said. “Now I don’t do that anymore. I’ve mellowed quite a bit.”

Now, Germany has belatedly restored her record, acknowledging it as an “act of justice and a symbolic gesture” that “can in no way make up” for what happened. Lambert responded: “That’s very nice and I appreciate it. I couldn’t repeat the jump today. Believe me.”

Germans Restore 1936 High Jump Record [AP]

Jewish Guy Protests Fla. Election on Passover

‘An attack upon the religious Jewish community,’ he says

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A Jewish gadfly in Miami Beach is protesting the date of next spring’s special election to fill the seat being vacated by Boca Raton Rep. Robert Wexler, a Democrat, because it falls on the last day of Passover. The Associated Press is reporting that Bob Kunst, who made a name for himself in 1996 by organizing protests outside a McDonald’s that opened across the street from the Dachau death camp, wrote a letter yesterday to Florida’s governor, Charlie Crist, complaining that the April 6 date is “an attack upon the religious Jewish community.” A Crist spokesman told the Associated Press that the governor, a Republican, is looking into changing the date.

Jewish Group Protests Passover Election Date for Wexler Seat [Sun-Sentinel]
Related: Wexler Quits Congress to Campaign for Peace

‘Times’ Weighs In on ‘The Invention of the Jewish People’

A brief history of polemics

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The New York Times revisits the debate over whether the Jews have a “shared racial or biological past” today in an article tied to the publication in English of The Invention of the Jewish People, by Tel Aviv University professor Shlomo Sand. Sand is frank, writes reporter Particia Cohen, in his effort “to discredit Jews’ historical claims to the territory.” Though various “facts” of Jewish history (for example, that all Jews were expelled by the Romans from Jerusalem in 70 A.D.) have long been understood by scholars to be untrue, Cohen says, their occasional rehashing for popular audiences reignites polemics for and against the right of Israel to exist.

In the course of her piece, Cohen puts forth Sand’s assertion that Jews and Palestinians share DNA and notes that “early Zionists and Arab nationalists touted the blood relationship as the basis of a potential alliance in their respective struggles for independence.” That kinship claim was later dropped, she observes, when it failed to help achieve political goals. Similarly, Sand retreads the idea (never proven and more or less accepted as myth) that the Jews descended from the Khazars, a group in the Caucasus which allegedly converted to Judaism in the 8th century, in order to suggest that the Jews can’t claim Israel as an ancestral home.

Ultimately Sand’s book, and others like it, forces us to grapple with the question of why some misconceptions gain traction and others do not. “A mingling of myth, memory, truth and aspiration,” writes Cohen, “envelopes Jewish history, which is, to begin with, based on scarce and confusing archaeological and archival records…. He is doing precisely what he accuses the Zionists of—shaping the material to fit a narrative.”

Book Calls Jewish People an ‘Invention’ [NYT]
Related: Inventing Israel [Tablet]

Painter Kirshenblatt Dies at 93

Recaptured prewar Poland with vivid memories and brilliant canvasses

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Mayer Kirshenblatt, a painter and chronicler of prewar Jewish life in Poland, died at his home in Toronto on Friday. He was 93. Kirshenblatt was born in 1916 in the Polish town of Apt, and in 1934, at the age of 17, he, his mother, and his three siblings immigrated to Toronto to join his father, who’d made the trip six years earlier. The family ran a paint and wallpaper store.

In 1990, retired and at loose ends, Kirshenblatt picked up a paintbrush and began painting images from his youth. The images served as a complement to an extended series of interviews Kirshenblatt began with his daughter, New York University folklorist Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, in the late 1960s. These conversations culminated with the 2007 publication of They Called Me Mayer July: Painted Memories of a Jewish Childhood in Poland Before the Holocaust, a panoramic, profusely illustrated portrait of Kirshenblatt’s hometown, compiled by father and daughter. The volume served as a companion to an exhibition first shown at the Judah L. Magnes museum in Berkeley, California, and, later, at The Jewish Museum in New York. The exhibition is still to travel to Amsterdam and Warsaw.

As I wrote in a review in 2007, the book managed to offer a new visual language for describing prewar Eastern European life. In stark contrast with the black-and-white record that had made up our vision, Kirshenblatt’s paintings were untainted by the horrors to come. They offered a picture not of Polish Jewish life as it was before tragedy struck, but simply as it was. The book was a unique achievement: the product at once of scholarly rigor and a boy’s sense of wonder, respect for the dead, and an even greater respect for the living, ethnographic exactitude and artistic style.

At a time when the scholarly establishment is often at odds with the survivor community, Kirshenblatt and Kirshenblatt-Gimblett’s collaboration offered a rare synthesis of memoir and scholarship—and we are the richer for it.

Related: Portrait of a Lost Town [Tablet]

Ricky Gervais Sheds Light on the Bible

In a colorful, hilarious take on Genesis

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Gervais at the L.A. premiere of his The Invention of Lying, September.(Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

The blog Effect Measure, focused on public-health issues, over the weekend turned up a YouTube video of modern-day biblical scholar Ricky Gervais holding forth on the book of Genesis. The British comedian casts God as a brilliant magician who screws up and “goes mental,” and the snake in the Garden of Eden as the lucky bastard who got away. He also revives a little-known passage that got scrapped in the first edit: “And lo, Gervais was not only a handsome man but also a funny fucker.” It’s a little bit old, sure, but it’s awfully funny:

Freethinker Sunday Sermonette: Ricky Gervais on The Book of Genesis [Effect Measure]

On Tablet Today

Behind the tiles, beyond the myth

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Hadara Graubart penetrates the National Mah Jongg League, a group both feared and respected by players of the increasingly popular game. Tablet Magazine columnist Adam Kirsch looks at a new book that wants to eliminate leftist affection for Leon Trotsky once and for all. And all throughout the day, The Scroll will offer insightful updates.

Daybreak: No News on Shalit

Plus a potential settlement freeze, messiah problems, and more

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• Amid the latest talk of a prisoner exchange with Hamas, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that there is still “no conclusion, no decision, and no deal” for the return of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. [JPost]
• According to an unnamed Israeli TV program quoting unnamed officials, Netanyahu has proposed a 10-month settlement freeze in the West Bank. [AP]
• The Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America bans those with messianic views from membership, which will primarily affect those in Chabad who believe the Lubavitcher Rebbe may come back from the dead. [COLlive]
• Bernard Avishai speaks up for J Street: “[I]f Jews can be said to have stood for anything traditionally, was it not this allergy to dogma—this breaking of idols? Did we not see the democratic rights as, well, commanded? And, tragically, have not the land of Israel and Jewish military power themselves become idols for American Jews since 1967?” [WPost]

Sundown: The Hitler-Mobile

Plus Jews on film, unconventional art, and more

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• Despite feeling “really torn” about trading in property that once belonged to a “horrible mass murderer,” a German car dealer has reportedly arranged the sale of Hitler’s Mercedes to a Russian billionaire. [AP]
• A group of Los Angeles Catholic schoolteachers celebrated a midweek Shabbat as part of the ADL’s “Bearing Witness” program, which reinforced the connection between the religions—guilt—when one woman was moved by a Holocaust story to ask herself “[W]hat am I doing with Darfur and the genocide in Africa?” [LAT]
• To mark the anniversary of the Chabad center bombing in Mumbai, a blogger reflects on how a video tribute to victims Rabbi Gavriel and Rivka Holtzberg led him to a transcendent viewing of the Denzel Washington thriller Déjà Vu. Yes, you read that right. [Blogcritics]
• Kiki Smith, a German-born American artist known for using ideas of feminism and Catholicism in her work, has been chosen to create a window for New York City’s landmark Eldridge Street Synagogue along with architect Deborah Gans. [NYT]

Florida Kids Suspended for “Kick a Jew Day”

After Facebook group suggested hugs

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Last week, a group of kids at a Florida middle school tried to declare Thursday “Kick a Jew Day.” According to the Naples News, ten students at North Naples Middle School sent around an e-mail on Wednesday night telling classmates that if they saw someone Jewish, they should deliver a kick. The kids have all been suspended, and now, instead of reading for 20 minutes during homeroom, all the students in the school will have to watch videos about bullying and take lessons in respect and kindness. Maybe they were just jealous after “Hug a Jew Day” earlier this month.

10 North Naples Middle Students Suspended for ‘Kick a Jew Day’ E-Mail [Naples News]

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