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Bob Dylan’s Noel

The singer shares holiday memories with British mag

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The latest addition to the Bob Dylan chronicles is an exclusive interview the singer gave The Big Issue, a British magazine, about his new album, Christmas in the Heart, profits from which are going to charitable organizations that feed the hungry. His generally terse answers (How does he spend the week between Christmas and New Years? “Doing nothing—maybe reflecting on things.”) do little to offer greater insight into his imagination or talent. Raised Jewish, Dylan says he never felt excluded from holiday celebrations and recalls that around his Minnesotan hometown there was “you know, plenty of snow, jingle bells, Christmas carolers going from house to house, sleighs in the streets, town bells ringing, nativity plays. That sort of thing.” The singer converted to Christianity in the late 70s and is now, he tells the magazine, “a true believer.”

Bob Dylan [The Big Issue]

Berkeley Paper Accused of Anti-Semitism

Activist says its editor is ‘addicted’ to criticism of Israel

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There’s a battle against alleged anti-Semitism going on that even the Anti-Defamation League won’t get behind, perhaps because it’s taking place in that hotbed of political debate: Berkeley, California. Several groups have taken issue with a local newspaper, The Daily Planet, and its editor, Becky O’Malley, for publishing what they see as excessive criticism of Israel.

“We think that Ms. O’Malley is addicted to anti-Israel expression just as an alcoholic is to drinking,” said Jim Sinkinson, who has urged advertisers to pull out from the paper. His efforts have succeeded in contributing to the publication’s decline, with ad revenue down 60 percent from last year and its reportorial staff down to one full-time employee. Also joining the campaign is the website dpwatchdog.com, edited by John Gertz, who focused on a letter from Iranian student Kurosh Arianpour, suggesting that Jews “had brought historical persecution—including that by the Nazis—on themselves,” as proof that the Planet is the equivalent of a “publication that praises the Nazis or the Ku Klux Klan.” He put the question to advertisers: “In these tough economic times, is it really a good investment to continue advertising in a paper, one of whose main purposes seems to be the defamation of Jews and the state of Israel?”

O’Malley, who says “I have the old-fashioned basic liberal thing of believing that the remedy for speech you don’t like is more speech,” refers to the criticism of her paper as a “protection racket,” and, says the New York Times, “she also offered a possible two-entity solution to the conflict, saying of her critics, ‘They could start their own paper.’”

In a Home to Free Speech, a Paper Is Accused of Anti-Semitism [NYT]

Today on Tablet

Reading material for one and all

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Marjorie Ingall lists the best Jewish picture books of the year for children, while Josh Lambert looks at books for the holiday season geared to all ages. On Vox Tablet, our weekly podcast, Sara Ivry talks with David Gelernter about his new book, “an impassioned and provocative plea for Jews to recognize their religion’s unique relationship to God and to Western civilization.” And more to come with updates to The Scroll throughout the day.

Daybreak: 10-Month Settlement Freeze

Plus prisoner swapping, a defiant Iran, and more in the news

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• Israel has begun the fraught process of implementing a 10-month settlement freeze in the West Bank. [Haaretz]
• Israel announced plans to release 980 prisoners in exchange for the release of Gilad Shalit by Hamas; the statement declared that this is not “part of a gesture and/or diplomatic agreement” but rather “an incident of bargaining, which can be seen as an ongoing terror attack.” [Ynet]
• Iran is moving forward with a “dramatic expansion” of its nuclear program “in defiance of U.N. demands,” as the AP puts it. [AP]
• The trial of John Demjanjuk for World War II war crimes begins today in Germany; the Times of London says he “was not a Nazi, or even a German…. He is now stateless and regards himself as a victim of the 20th century.” [Times]

Sundown: Gobble, Gobble, Baa, Baa

A gift of sheep, a controversial collage, and more

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• Turkeys aren’t the only animals that should be shaking in their boots this week. Israel and the Jewish community in Senegal have donated 99 sheep to needy Muslim families there to sacrifice for the holiday of Tabaski, which marks Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Ishmael, as “a symbolic gesture between Israel and Senegal, between the Jewish community and the Muslim community.”* [VOA]
• Finalists for the 2010 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature have been announced, including Danya Ruttenberg and Sarah Abrevaya Stein. [JTA]
• A collage made of cut out portions of the Torah and the Koran was kept out of an exhibition in New Haven, Connecticut. Artist Richard Kamler says he intended “to create a common ground.” “You’re not going to cry ‘fire’ in a crowded movie theater, even if you have free speech,” says one of the organizers. [NH Independent]
• Hadar, a new council for English-speaking immigrants in Israel, plans to find ways to maximize their influence in the nation. Some have criticized its right-wing bent, but, says the chairman, “we are not trying to be all things for all people.” [JPost]
• Israel is working on new weaponry—including “cutting-edge anti-missile systems and two new submarines that can carry nuclear weapons”—to prepare for a potential conflict with Iran. [AP]
• Have a happy Thanksgiving. We’ll see you Monday.

*Correction, November 30: This post originally stated that the Muslim holiday Tabaski marked Abraham’s binding of his son Isaac.

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]

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