Tomorrow Night, A Fun Holiday for Jews

Merry Nittel Nacht!


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


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


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!

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


• 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


• 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


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


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

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.”

Abbas Insists on East Jerusalem

Palestinian Pres says he’ll compromise on lots, but not that


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s refusal to freeze construction in East Jerusalem or to permit that issue on the negotiating table is a leitmotif throughout Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s new interview in the Wall Street Journal: he keeps returning to it, citing it as the obstacle in the way of direct negotiations on a final settlement. An example:

Netanyahu says, ‘I call on Abbas to negotiate, but he has to understand that Jerusalem is the eternal capital of Israel, that’s not up for discussion. The refugees—there will be no talk about them at all. He has to recognize Israel as a Jewish state.’ So who is putting conditions. I’m not putting them. He is putting conditions.

The “refugees” issue—the so-called right of return, which may be the one topic even more toxic to the Israelis than East Jerusalem—appears to be something Abbas could give up. “We are serious in building peace with you,” he tells the Journal, when asked what his message for Israel is, “in building a Palestinian state that lives side by side with Israel on the ’67 borders in peace and stability. … If we reach a final solution, we will drop all kinds of other demands.” (My emphasis.) A call for two states frankly implies no right of return anyway. We could be persuaded away from it, Abbas seems to say, but only if our state is delineated by “the ’67 borders.” Those borders locate East Jerusalem in Palestine.

Transcript: Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas [WSJ]

Earlier: Op-Eds Duel Over Netanyahu’s Freeze

Brittany Murphy’s Mother Was Jewish

Deceased actress was very close to her

Murphy at a tennis match in 2008.(Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

The news, if you like, technically means that her daughter was Jewish as well. Just as importantly, though, Brittany Murphy was very close to her mother, Sharon, living with her into adulthood. Murphy’s husband, British screenwriter Simon Monjack, was a self-identified Jew; the two married in a Jewish ceremony in 2007.

Murphy’s most famous role was also, in a way, her most Jewish. In the 1995 smash Clueless, Murphy played Tai, a streetwise but fashion-unconscious teenager from New York. Though that character isn’t necessarily Jewish, her clashing, ambivalent relationship with the movie’s protagonist, Cher Horowitz (who is necessarily Jewish), is a hilarious and memorable illustration of one Jewish archetype (the L.A. princess) conflicting with another (the outer-borough ethnic).

Our Loss, By Brittany Murphy’s Family [Jewish Chronicle]
Brittany Murphy, Actress in ‘Clueless,’ Dies at 32 [NYT]

Today on Tablet

A tale of murder and medicine


Today in Tablet Magazine, Joshua Cohen’s monthly column on translated works considers Ernst Weiss’s Georg Letham: Physician and Murderer and the rest of the early-20th-century Czech Jew’s medically rigorous fiction. And The Scroll will do its best to diagnose what ails us all day today.

What Copenhagen Means For Iran

A watered-down emissions treaty could mean watered-down sanctions

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in New York yesterday.(Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Does a weak international climate accord presage weak international resolve on Iran? That’s the provocative argument anonymous diplomats made to Haaretz over the weekend following the U.N. summit in Copenhagen, which produced no binding requirements to lower emissions.

Following the end of the summit, diplomats said that China’s flexing of its political muscles in its disputes with the United States at the conference should serve as a warning of what will happen when the Obama administration seeks to bring tougher sanctions against Iran for U.N. Security Council approval.

China has expressed at least as much hesitance to truly bring the hammer down on Iran as it has to substantively curb its emissions. And if anything, China has greater power when it comes to Security Council resolutions. On a matter like an international climate treaty, China’s influence is huge—any resolution without its support can only accomplish so much, and will look bad to boot—but not formal. Within the 15-member Security Council, however, China’s permanent veto is literal and absolute.

Diplomats: Weak Climate Deal Is Harbinger of Failure on Iran [Haaretz]

Daybreak: Israel Makes Offer For Shalit

Plus Polanski’s way out, Egypt’s hated wall, and more in the news


• Israel confirmed its condition for releasing Palestinian prisoners in exchange for captured soldier Gilad Shalit: mass deportation. Hamas is considering it. [Ynet]
• In an exclusive interview, Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas vowed to begin talks with Israel in the event of even a quiet five-month construction freeze that includes East Jerusalem. He also pledged not to permit an intifada on his watch. [WSJ]
• A California appellate court rejected Roman Polanski’s request to dismiss his statutory rape charge, while suggesting that should he agree to be sentenced in absentia, he may ultimately avoid jail-time. [LAT]
• The New York Times profiles Women of the Wall, a feminist Orthodox group whose members, in acts of deliberate civil disobedience, wear tallit and carry the Torah at the Kotel in an effort to expand what women are allowed to do. [NYT]
• Egypt’s new underground barrier at the Gaza border—designed to preclude smuggling tunnels—has earned the title “wall of shame” and Egypt the enmity of much of the Arab world. [LAT]
• One report has it that the stolen (and since recovered) “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign from Auschwitz was destined for a private citizen in Sweden. [Ynet]

Sundown: Israel Admits Docs Harvested Organs

Brittany Murphy’s widower is Jewish, Israel wants further reparations, and more


• Israel admitted that in the 1990s some forensic pathologists harvested organs from corpses, including Palestinians, without family permission. Reports in a Swedish newspaper that some Palestinians were killed for their organs remain unproven and vigorously denied. [Vos Iz Neias?]
• Actress Brittany Murphy, who died yesterday at age 32, had been married to a British Jewish screenwriter named Simon Monjack in a Jewish ceremony. [People]
• Brooklyn’s Naftali Tzi Weisz, the leader of the Hasidic Spinka sect, was sentenced to two years in prison after pleading guilty to helping Spinka evade federal income taxes. [San Jose Mercury News]
• Israel will request an additional 450 million to 1 billion euros ($642 million to $1.4 billion) from Germany in Holocaust reparations. [Haaretz]
•The left-wing Israeli arrested last week for leaking FBI documents to a blogger had served as defense counsel to Palestinian terrorist Marwan Barghouti. [Vos Iz Neias?]

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