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Today in Tablet

A very Ladino Hanukkah, a very Latvian Hanukkah, and more

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Today in Tablet Magazine, listen in on several Sephardim in Washington, D.C., the subjects of this week’s Vox Tablet podcast, as they enjoy their annual Hanukkah gathering while speaking the nearly extinct Judeo-Spanish tongue of Ladino. Josh Lambert reports on forthcoming books of interest (a lot of Holocaust tomes this week). In her family column, Marjorie Ingall reveals some provocative American Hanukkah numbers. From the archives, David Bezmozgis recalls Hanukkah on the down-low in Soviet Latvia. And you can tell everyone to check The Scroll throughout the day.

Economist Paul Samuelson Dead at 94

“Smart, Jewish Keynesian” somehow succeeded

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It is a bit ironic that yesterday, when the New York Times posted its obituary of the M.I.T. economist Paul A. Samuelson on its home page, the story immediately to the left reported the latest economic proclamation by Larry Summers, the former Harvard president who is now President Obama’s chief economic adviser, and who was also Samuelson’s nephew. Samuelson, who died yesterday at 94, was among a generation of Nobel Prize-winning economists who catapulted from education-obsessed Jewish immigrant households into the stratosphere of American academia on the strength of their own genius, upsetting the genteel order of the Ivy League. As a young tyro at Harvard, Samuelson provoked his department chairman, Harold Hitchings Burbank, by both publishing an enormously successful dissertation on using a mathematical approach to economics and by arguing that economists should spend more time thinking about why there were bread lines outside their windows—that is, about real people, rather than abstract factors. Burbank denied Samuelson a professorship. (His Jewish colleague Robert Solow later noted, “You could be disqualified for a job if you were either smart or Jewish or Keynesian. So what chance did this smart, Jewish Keynesian have?”) Samuelson defected to M.I.T., where he spent the rest of his professional life; the enormously successful publication of his dissertation, Samuelson said, was “sweet revenge” against Burbank. We can only surmise that when Summers— another smart, Jewish Keynesian—became one of the youngest professors ever to win tenure at Harvard a half-century later, it was even sweeter for his uncle.

Paul A. Samuelson, Economist, Dies at 94 [NYT]
Remembering Paul Samuelson [WSJ]

Related: Something Old, Something New

Daybreak: Three Days After Arson, West Bank Still On Edge

Plus Iran’s unpopular proposal, Lieberman nixes health care, and more in the news

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• Ever since settlers’ arson last Friday of a West Bank mosque, fears that the Palestinian cause could now take on a more religious tinge and that the conflict could suddenly turn more violent have abounded. [NYT]
• Having demanded most of it all at once, Western negotiators scoffed at Iran’s proposal to trade little bits of its uranium over a longer period of time. [WSJ]
• The latest version of health-care reform to hit the U.S. Senate floor hit a major setback last night when Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Connecticut) decided he would not support it. [Politico]
• Syrian President Bashir Assad’s little brother died “after a long struggle with a severe illness,” according to reports from the country. [Haaretz]
• President Shimon Peres will represent Israel at the U.N. climate talks in Copenhagen; last week, Netanyahu cancelled his trip, fingering the cost to the taxpayers for his extensive security detail. [JTA]

Sundown: Happy Hanukkah from Barack and Michelle

Plus likely Iran sanctions and the Western Wall on Twitter

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• Barack and Michelle Obama released a Hanukkah message in English and Hebrew, saying in part, “May Hanukkah’s lessons inspire us all to give thanks for the blessings we enjoy, to find light in times of darkness, and to work together for a brighter, more hopeful tomorrow.” [CBSNews]
• On a trip to Iraq, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates predicted the United States would pass tougher sanctions on Iran regarding that country’s nuclear program. He is likely the most senior U.S. official to assert such a move is likely. [NYT]
• Meanwhile, Iran and Syria inked a new defense cooperation pact in Damascus. [Haaretz]
Text/Context: Fresh Encounters With Jewish Tradition, a monthly literary supplement published jointly by New York Jewish Week and Nextbook (Tablet Magazine’s parent), debuted this week. [New York Jewish Week]
• Tweet your prayer into the Western Wall. [The Kotel Guy]

Diamond Does Sandler

Neil’s cover of ‘The Chanukah Song’

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Neil Diamond recently released a Christmas album—his third Christmas album, in fact. But a closer look at A Cherry Cherry Christmas’s track list reveals that after 13 holiday standards (“White Christmas,” “Jingle Bell Rock,” etc.), Diamond closes the album with … “The Chanukah Song”. That’s right, folks: one of the great Jewish-American songwriters (and, as Nextbook Press’s A Fine Romance shows, that is quite the list) has adopted Adam Sandler’s classic early-‘90s recitation of “people who are Jewish—just like you and me.” Adopted it, that is, and turned it into something of an ‘80s power ballad. Put on your yarmulkes, and enjoy!

Related: A Fine Romance [Nextbook Press]

Agudath Israel Sends the White House Hanukkah Cheer

Orthodox group’s head meets with, praises adviser Axelrod

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Axelrod at the White Houst last month.(Joshua Roberts-Pool/Getty Image)

We have absolutely no idea whether Rabbi Yehiel M. Kalish, the Chicago-based director of government affairs for the Orthodox advocacy group Agudath Israel, was among the 500 or so people to score a coveted invitation to next week’s White House Hanukkah party. However, he did apparently get to spend 45 “quality minutes” in the West Wing with David Axelrod, President Obama’s senior adviser. According to an email update Kalish circulated earlier today (not online), he called on Axelrod to talk about school vouchers and federal funding for parochial schools—a key issue for the Agudath, whose members primarily send their children to yeshivot—but also digressed into other issues, like Iran’s nuclear program and Israel’s security. According to Kalish, Axelrod responded by recounting his childhood fundraising efforts on behalf of the Jewish National Fund, which involved carrying “blue and white pushkas” around the Lower East Side. Kalish explains that’s all he needed to hear: “We feel strongly that Mr. Axelrod takes this issue as seriously as we do,” he wrote. Mr. Axelrod: consider that Agudath Israel’s Hanukkah present to you.

Hatch: Jewish Senators Liked Song

We’re just glad to have them as Tablet Magazine readers

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Jeffrey Goldberg, who originally persuaded Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) to write a Hanukkah song for Tablet Magazine, reports that (according to Hatch himself) Sens. Frank Lautenberg (D-New Jersey), Russ Feingold (D-Wisconsin), and Joe Lieberman (I-Connecticut) all the loved the song. Frankly, though, Jewish senators’ reactions are not that surprising. What would be intriguing to know is how the senior chamber’s other Mormons feel about it, and whether they agree with their colleague from Utah, that: “Anything I can do for the Jewish people, I will do.” Sens. Robert Bennett (R-Utah), Michael Crapo (R-Idaho), Harry Reid (D-Nevada), and Gordon Smith (R-Oregon): please get in touch. There are things in the world besides health-care reform, you know.

Orrin Hatch, Moving on to Purim [Atlantic.com]
A Senator’s Gift to the Jews, Non-Returnable [NYT]

Related: Watch the Video [Tablet]

West Bank Mosque Desecration Prompts Violence

IDF confirms incident; skirmishes mild so far

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Palestinians inspect the damage to the Yasuf mosque today(Jaafar Ashtiyeh/AFP/Getty Images)

This vandalism and arson of a West Bank mosque, which we led our morning round-up with, definitely bears  continued watching. As of Friday afternoon in Israel, after initial allegations from Palestinian authorities, Israeli Defense officials confirmed that West Bank settlers desecrated and set fire to a mosque in the Palestinian village of Yasuf, south of Nablus. Since then, the predictable response has begun: stone-throwing at IDF forces, injuring one soldier; a tear-gas and, allegedly, live-fire response. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas condemned the attack, as did prominent Palestinian politician and intellectual Mustafa Barghouti; so, too, did Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak. (We also received a press release from the U.S. Orthodox Union, making this valuable point: “Jewish synagogues and holy sites, in Israel and across the globe, have been similarly vandalized and desecrated over the course of history and, thus, Jews should know very well that such actions are beyond the pale.”) Let’s hope that the perpetrators of this act are brought to justice, and that any violence that stems from the incident has already taken place.

Settlers Allegedly Vandalize and Set Fire To West Bank Mosque [Jpost]
Clashes Break Out After Mosque Arson [Ynet]

Israeli Ambassador Scolds and Praises J Street

Chastises on Gaza, agrees on Iran

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Oren speaks in Washington, D.C. last month(Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)

Israel’s American-born ambassador to Washington, D.C., Michael Oren, finally broke his silence this week about his views on the fledgling lobbying group J Street, which takes a progressive stance on how to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. According to the Forward, Oren told delegates to the Conservative movement’s biennial convention at a breakfast last Monday that he thinks J Street is “significantly out of the mainstream” and poses “a unique problem” insofar as it is willing to espouse policy views at odds with those of the Israeli government—specifically, with regard to last winter’s war in Gaza and the United Nations-backed Goldstone report on alleged war crimes committed during that conflict. Oren didn’t say anything radically different from the view the Israeli embassy articulated in October, when it issued a statement saying that its staff would be “privately communicating its concerns over certain policies of the organization that may impair the interests of Israel.”

Now, according to JTA’s Eric Fingerhut, Oren appears willing to concede that his government and J Street share at least some common ground—namely, Iran. Oren, Fingerhut reported, said in a short telephone interview that he appreciated that J Street had “made a statement and supported these efforts” to push sanctions measures in Congress. Which is reassuring, because it shows that peace, at least between these two parties, is still possible.

Oren: U.S. and Israel Tight on Iran, Appreciates J Street Support of Sanctions [JTA]
In Shift, Oren Calls J Street ‘A Unique Problem’ [Forward]

Today on Tablet

A Hanukkah memoir, an important professor dies, and more

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Today in Tablet Magazine, in honor of Hanukkah (which begins at sundown tonight), Vanessa Davis offers a graphic memoir of her long battle against Hanukkah materialism. Staff Writer Marissa Brostoff eulogizes Professor Yosef Yerushalmi, “an unusually erudite and wide-ranging thinker who made the concerns of Jewish history universally interesting.” Hadara Graubart pounds the pavement to find out what Manhattanites know (and don’t know) about the Jewish Festival of Lights. Liel Leibovitz presents his column on this week’s Hanukkah-appropriate haftorah as a poem. And while we can’t promise more poetry, you never know quite what will appear on The Scroll—so check in throughout the day to find out.

Israeli Orthodox Schools to Start Sex Ed

In all its ‘dullness’

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Modern Orthodox high schools in Israel are going to begin teaching sex education to students. Science will be taught alongside religion, and topics to be covered include anatomy, desire, and even homosexuality—contraception is optional (to be taught, that is). We can’t help but see this as a step in the right direction, but just as students’ teachers should talk about the things the students are thinking about anyway, if might help if they also thought about those things the way the students do. We’re looking at you, educational director Rabbi Yehuda Felix. “Young people today must know about this dull period that starts at 12 and goes on, according to some opinions, until 35 or 40,” Felix said. Felix should know better: that “dull” period frequently extends at least until you’re 45. Then things get exciting.

It’s Sex Education, Orthodox-Style [Jewish Chronicle]

Daybreak: Settlers Burn West Bank Mosque

Plus White House party controversy, Madoff gets some respect, and more in the news

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• West Bank settlers vandalized and then set fire to a mosque in a Palestinian village south of Nablus. [JPost]
• The White House Hanukkah party, scheduled for December 16, has been the subject of controversy over its guest list, its self-declared status of “holiday party,” and other issues, much to the consternation of administration officials. [NYT]
• In his North Carolina prison, Bernard Madoff has made friends—with whom he plays chess, checkers, and bocce—and even earned respect. “To every con artist, he is the godfather, the don,” a fellow resident says. [WSJ]
• At the Conservative movement’s annual convention, a new move for internal reform began to stir in earnest. [Haaretz]
• Columnist David Brooks digs into Hanukkah’s history for a lesson about the complex moral issues raised by legitimate self-defense. [NYT]

Sundown: The Bike Battle Moves to Copenhagen

Plus getting out of Gaza, Yad Vashem’s names, and more

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• Waiting for New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg when he arrives in Copenhagen for the U.N. climate talks will be protesters from Brooklyn angry about a supposedly green politician taking an anti-bike lane stance. [Vos Iz Neias]
• A new trend has been detected, of Gaza Palestinians faking cancer in order to gain passage out of the Strip. [Haaretz]
• The British government is now advising supermarkets on how to distinguish between West Bank produce grown on Palestinian land and that on settler land, in order to more easily facilitate boycotts. [Guardian]
• Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum, has redoubled efforts to register all of Hitler’s Jewish victims. So far, it has approximately 3.6 million names. [Washington Times]
• Former Seagram’s head Charles Bronfman relates how he resisted entreaties to invest with Bernard Madoff. [Jewish Chronicle]

Evangelical Intellectuals: Heirs to the Jews?

Malcolm Gladwell, panelists discuss their former faiths

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On Tuesday night, four prominent intellectuals from evangelical Christian backgrounds—bestselling pop sociologist Malcom Gladwell, New Yorker literary critic James Wood, former The Nation books editor Christine Smallwood, and, as moderator, journalist Caleb Crain—gathered in Manhattan to discuss the impact their religious heritages have had on their work. But this being New York, the conversation between these (uniformly lapsed) Christians was organized by a Jewish editor (Mark Greif) of a heavily Jewish literary journal (n+1); the panelists all described the anxiety of influence they felt toward their Jewish forebears; and the panel opened with remarks about Jewishness, and closed with a question from an audience member who happened to be a rabbi. In fact, this Jewish intellectual ubiquity was the very impetus for the panel, Greif explained in his introduction. Growing up, Greif said, he was steeped in the lore of how 20th-century Jewish thinkers, with their Talmudic ear for argument and their revolutionary outsider politics, had shaped American intellectual life. (His relatives “were very proud of it despite the fact that none of them had anything to do with it.”) More recently, he continued, he became aware of the fact that a number of brilliant contemporary thinkers came from evangelical backgrounds, and wondered if how they thought about their own intellectual genealogies mirrored how their Jewish predecessors felt about theirs.

Both Gladwell (who is Canadian) and Wood (English) were raised with forms of liberal British evangelicalism; Smallwood grew up attending a “mini-megachurch” in a world of WWJD bracelets, conversions at Christian rock concerts, and biblical literalism. All of them have since lapsed from faith, though they’ve all carried over practices of close reading picked up from Bible study, as well as a profound irritation with “New Atheists,” like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, who dismiss religion as humbug.

Discussing their religious backgrounds in public appeared to be a novel experience for all of the panelists, which, they were well aware, was in itself striking given the frequency and ease with which many Jewish intellectuals, even non-practicing ones, address their Jewishness. The panelists agreed that if they were Jewish, their intellectual sensibilities might be more legible to others. After all, everyone assumes she is anyway, Smallwood said, a bit wistfully, despite the fact that you can’t spell “Christine” without “Christ.” Later, an audience member asked whether the panelists thought that Isaac Newton could be considered an intellectual if he lived today, given that he was a total man of faith. Without skipping a beat, Gladwell deadpanned, “Isaac Newton could quite happily exist today if he was Jewish. He’d be living on the Upper West Side and going to one of those big Reform temples up there.”

The last audience member to come up to the mic was an older man who identified himself as a rabbi. “We’ll have you,” he told Christine. “Your conversion is immediate.”

“This is like a dream come true!” Smallwood replied. The rabbi went on to tell a somewhat incoherent joke and to make a confusing argument, both of which seemed to revolve around the idea that Jews are smart, great, and everywhere.

“It’s not enough to have the intellectuals,” Gladwell grinned in response. “You have to hijack them, too.”

Earlier: British Marxist Talks Religion at Harvard Club

ACLU Donor Withdraws $20M Gift

David Gelbaum provided one quarter of the budget

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We noted earlier today that l’affaire Madoff continues to have an adverse effect on philanthropy. And today brought news of another apparently hard-hit Jewish donor: David Gelbaum, a major clean-tech venture capitalist who has invested in several Israeli start-ups, has withdrawn his annual $20 million donation to the American Civil Liberties Union. (Actually, Gelbaum is an anonymous donor; or is supposed to be, anyway.) The $200 million gift represents a quarter of the ACLU’s operating budget. And the organization has already faced significant cutbacks over the past year … thanks to Madoff.

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