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God Is Still a Woman, Even Older

Says rabbi who gave famous 1990 sermon

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The New York Times catches up with Rabbi Margaret Moers Wenig, a lesbian who gained a measure of fame (or notoriety, depending on your point of view) with her 1990 sermon, “God Is a Woman and She Is Growing Older.” A self-professed “sermon junkie” who now teaches at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College New York campus, she defends her legendary talk against any suggestions it was sacrilege, telling Ralph Blumenthal, “Jewish texts are replete with anthropomorphic images of God. I don’t say God would ever die. I fudged that. Whatever else, I would say God is eternal.” So might be the Times’s interest in Jewish lesbians, if Sunday’s Modern Love column—about a couple challenged by whether they ought to call each other wife—is any indication.

A Rabbi Whose God Is a Loving and Long-Suffering Mother [NYT]
Once Political, Now Just Practical [NYT]

Rough Day for Former Israeli Pols

One on trial, two others start jail terms

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Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is not the only pol in trouble in Israel—in fact, it’s a red-letter day for government crime there. Moshe Katsav, who was the first Likud member to be elected president and served from 2000 to 2007, is on trial for rape and sexual harassment; the first witness testified against him this morning. Outside the court, demonstrators rallied in support of the three women who filed the charges, letting them know “they are not alone.” The trial will be closed to the public, but according to Katsav’s lawyer, the court “might allow information about the proceedings to be published from time to time.”

Israeli readers may be holding their breath for these leaks, if only as a distraction from crimes that are beginning to seem dishearteningly run-of-the-mill, by the likes of Abraham Hirchson, Olmert’s finance minister, who begins a five year term for embezzlement today, and Shlomo Benizri, a former Shas minister, who starts his four year sentence for graft. Hirschon will be held in a prison/drug rehabilitation facility, while Benizri will serve in a religious prison. Their fellow inmates can look forward to likely educational sessions from each of them.

First Witness Testifies in Katsav Trial [JPost]
Two Former Israeli Ministers Start Jail Sentences Tuesday [Haaretz]
Related: Grifter [Tablet]

Who By Fire?

L.A. rabbi uses Rosh Hashanah liturgy to ask for help on wildfires

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Wildfires are a fact of life in Southern California, but over the past decade, they’ve grown increasingly destructive of life and property, as developers have pushed subdivisions ever deeper into terrain once considered too risky to build on. The Station fire, which has now spectacularly devoured 122,000 acres of national forest north of Los Angeles, has actually been relatively kind; so far, only 50 homes have been lost, compared to more than 1,000 in the biggest of the fires that raced through suburban San Diego County two years ago. Two firefighters died over the weekend, when their vehicle overturned, but so far no civilians have been killed (though two people who ignored evacuation orders wound up severely burned after taking refuge in their hot tub).

Still, inevitably, there’s the question: Why does this keep happening? Today, in the Los Angeles Jewish Journal, Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky offers up a brief eulogy for the two firefighters, a prayer for those who have lost their homes, and a call to everyone else to start opening their wallets for relief efforts, using a familiar piece of the impending Rosh Hashana liturgy, the Nitaneh Tokef: “Who will live, and who will die? Who by water, and who by fire?” We’re glad he skipped the part about the earthquakes and the plagues.

Who by Water, and Who by Fire? [Jewish Journal]

Today on Tablet

School books, true memories, and Olmert’s web

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Marissa Brostoff explores a Jewish group that advocates for changes to school text books to “fend off group defamation.” Liel Leibowitz parses the charges against former Israeli P.M. Ehud Olmert. Adam Kirsch presents a new book that recreates the world of the Warsaw ghetto. Todd Gitlin looks at the real story of the Baader-Meinhof gang, the subject of a new film. And, as always, we will keep bringing you updates on news and culture right here on The Scroll.

British Novel About Aging Lithuanian-Born Jew

Adam Thirlwell’s latest gets mixed reaction

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The British author Adam Thirlwell, acclaimed a promising young novelist by Granta in 2003, has just published The Escape, and the reviews in the London papers are mixed. The story borrows from Philip Roth (though he thanks Saul Bellow in his acknowlegements): there’s lots of sex and the protagonist, Raphael Haffner, a London-raised Lithuanian Jew getting on in years, wrestles with who he is. Insistent that “his ‘people’ are English while his faith is Jewish,” notes the Guardian, “Haffner thinks of the Abrahamic god as ‘omnipotent yet constantly underachieving.’” He heads to an Alpine town to reclaim the chateau that had belonged to his deceased wife’s family before being seized first by the Nazis and then by the Communists. En route he takes up with a middle-aged hausfrau and a young Romanian yoga teacher. What links Haffner to the instructor, Thirlwell said in a recent interview, is “that they have suffered trauma through being in wars, but back in ordinary life, this becomes unspeakable. There are certain things you might never talk about that are central to your life.”

The Escape by Adam Thirlwell [Guardian]
The Books Interview: Adam Thirlwell [New Statesman]
The Escape [FT]
The Escape [Telegraph]

Daybreak: Obama Plans for Peace

A violent clash, a deportation, and more from the news

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• Despite Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas saying he will not resume talks with Israel without a full settlement freeze and Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s assertion that “We must not commit to target dates on a comprehensive agreement,” President Obama is envisioning a two-year plan to establish peace. [Haaretz]
• While scouring a refugee camp for Palestinians who threw firebombs into a nearby Israeli settlement, the IDF killed a teenage suspect. [Haaretz]
• In an eerie tribute to the now 100-year-old man who orchestrated their evacuation, a vintage train will carry people who escaped the Nazis as children from Prague to London. [AP]
• Another former Ivan, John Kalymon, 88, will be deported from the United States for his involvement with Nazis in World War II. [JPost]
• And the recession has led to cuts in Holocaust education in several states. [USA Today]

Sundown: Madoff Mystery Remains

A perceived threat, a real threat, and bagels

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• According to The Washington Post, three new books about Bernie Madoff “offer insights on a sort of mass denial” that supported his scheme, although “none seems to fully capture the man behind the crime.” [WPost]
• Israeli billboards for Survivor were covered up by authorities in a religious neighborhood; although the ads were clean, said a spokesman, “from reports we have received, it’s an immodest show.” [Ynet]
• A Hamas education minister does not approve of the United Nations’ suggestion that Palestinian students be taught about the Holocaust, which he calls “a big lie.” [BBC]
• An op-ed in The Wall Street Journal warns President Obama that Israel might really attack Iran: “The reality that Western leaders don’t want to admit is that preventing Iran from getting the bomb is an Israeli national imperative, not a mere policy choice.” [WSJ]
The New York Times offers the thrilling opportunity to ask anything you ever wanted to know about bagels! A two-pronged question from one commenter: “1. Is there, in fact, anything intrinsically Jewish about the bagel? 2. If there is, how come we now have bacon bagels?” We’ll be holding our breath for the answer. [NYT]

Madonna Is Over the Borderline

And into Israel, seeing sights, meeting with pols, and bugging a kabbalah macher.

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Madonna (and Jesus) arriving at the Western Wall.(Haim Zach/Getty Images)

It’s finally happening: Madonna is in Israel, and she’s hitting the sites—and the politicians. Having gotten the Old City of Jerusalem and the Western Wall out of the way, Her Madgesty will visit with Tzipi Livni later today and with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday. Also, her “Kabbalah-related celebrity friend[s]” Ashton Kutcher, Demi Moore, and Justin Timberlake will be there to hang out and catch Ms. Ciccone’s shows on Tuesday and Wednesday.

But a leading kabbalah-related rabbi, Yitzchak Batzri, is not pleased that Israelis “put out the red carpet” (and the red bracelets) for the star; as he reminds us, she is a non-Jewish, non-converting, sexual innuendo-making woman who therefore shouldn’t even be studying kabbalah, and on top of it all sings live in front of men—a major no-no. Presumably he doesn’t agree with Sarah Silverman, who says that kabbalah is only “the tiniest slice Jewish, but without big noses.”

Madonna to Meet with PM and Livni [JPost]
‘Madonna Forbidden to Sing in Israel’ says Top Kabbalah Rabbi [Arutz 7]
Jewish Without the Big-Noseness [Killing the Buddha]

Israeli Tennis Star Ready for Flushing Meadows

Became cause célèbre after ban from Dubai tournament earlier this year

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Pe’er at a California tournamet in March.(Robert Laberge/Getty Images)

Israeli tennis star Shahar Pe’er is makes her opening appearance at this year’s U.S. Open tomorrow, facing off against Hungarian player Agnes Szavay. Pe’er told Tablet Magazine in an email that she’s hoping to regain her footing after a season interrupted by political distractions.

Earlier this year, Pe’er found herself turned into a cause célèbre when she was denied a visa to play at a Barclays-sponsored tournament in Dubai just a couple of weeks after a cease-fire was declared in Gaza, allegedly over concerns for Pe’er’s own security. Venus Williams, who won the women’s side, publicly—though gently—criticized the tournament organizers for allowing Pe’er to be excluded, earning herself plaudits from the Anti-Defamation League, and American star Andy Roddick declined to defend his 2008 men’s title. “The Dubai issue was an important point in my life and career,” wrote Pe’er, who arrived in New York last week after being knocked out of the Rogers Cup in Toronto. “This incident has hurt me both personally and professionally—I was in a good run before Dubai and I was really looking forward to that tournament.” She said she wants to make sure that no other athlete from any other country ever has to face similar exclusion, but her more immediate concern is working her way back up from her current 63rd rank. “In past years—not last year—I did very well here, so good memories are something I love coming back to,” Pe’er said.

Meantime, she’s working overtime, appearing in an American Express-sponsored “rally experience” video game that fans can play on their cellphones. And she’s counting on the New York fans. “I always get a lot of support here from the crowd,” she said, “which I really love.”

Shahar Peer [U.S. Open Official Web Site]

Look, Jews in Baseball!

Fourteen in the majors this year, as columnists continually remind us

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Youkilis after striking out against the Yankees at Fenway on August 23.(Elsa/Getty Images)

As the pennant race gets underway, it’s time for the annual, “Look! Jews play baseball!” articles, like one in today’s Boston Globe and another in last week’s Connecticut Jewish Ledger. These articles invariably reference Sandy Koufax and Hank Greenberg before going on to talk about current icons like the Red Sox first baseman Kevin Youkilis. Of course, his year’s clichéd paeans are, arguably, a bit more warranted, as there are a record 14 Jewish major leaguers (three of whom—Youkilis, the Rockies’ Jason Marquis, and the Brewers’ Ryan Braun—played in the All-Star game). It’s more than enough to field a team—and even enough to make a minyan.

Bases Loaded, with Jewish Ballplayers! [Boston Globe]
A Grand Slam Decade for Jewish Majorleaguers [Jewish Ledger]

Gadhafi Banished From Garden State

Planned to pitch a suburban tent for U.N. confab

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Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi will be coming to the United States to attend the U.N. General Assembly in a few weeks, but he’ll be confined New York City. He had planned to stay in a Bedouin tent at a Libyan government-owned estate in Englewood, New Jersey, right next to an Orthodox yeshiva. The visit, and Gadhafi’s prospective suburban headquarters, had fomented a small but heated controversy in the Garden State, with Governor Jon Corzine, Senator Frank Lautenberg, and a host of other officials angrily denouncing the plans. And, though relations between the United States and Libya have warmed since Gadhafi turned over the full contents of his nuclear program to weapons inspectors in the wake of the Iraq invasion, his standing his fallen here after he hosted a lavish homecoming in Tripoli for Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi, the Lockerbie bomber who was released from his Scottish jail due to terminal health problems. Over the weekend, the Libyan government relented, saying Gadhafi will remain in Manhattan.

Qaddafi Cancels Plans to Stay in New Jersey [NYT]

On Tablet Today

Purity, equality, and literacy

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Sara Ivry talks to Varda Polak-Sahm, who has written a new book about the ritual power of the mikveh for Jewish women, on Vox Tablet, our weekly podcast. Marjorie Ingall weighs in on not putting her kids on the “gifted” track. Josh Lambert surveys the book scene, finding looks at liberalism, food, and architect Louis Kahn. And check back for lots more updates to our illustrious blog, The Scroll.

Olmert Indicted

Charged with fraud, breach of public trust

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Olmert after transferring power to Benjamin Netanyahu on April 1.(Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images)

Israeli prosecutors charged former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert yesterday with fraud and breach of public trust in three separate corruption scandals dating to his term as mayor of Jerusalem. According to the 61-page indictment, Olmert—who was forced from office nearly a year ago because of the investigation—overcharged state agencies and nonprofit groups for business travel and, perhaps more damningly, freely traded his influence as a politician to promote the business interests of his own donors and of his associates’ clients. (He is not, however, facing charges of bribery.) Olmert’s lawyers, who had plenty of time to prepare their response as the probe dragged on, immediately responded by welcoming the chance to refute the allegations in court. Olmert attorney Navot Tel-Tzur told Israel Radio this morning that the case will be “an embarrassment to prosecutors.”

Not, however, before it has become an embarrassment to Israel: Olmert now has the dubious distinction of being the first Israeli premier to be criminally indicted. He is hardly, however, the first senior pol to face charges—after all, Israel’s former president, Moshe Katsav, is currently being tried on rape and sexual harassment charges.

Ex-PM Charged Over Cash Envelopes, Double-Billing Trips and Cronyism [Haaretz]
Former Israeli Prime Minister Is Indicted [NYT]
‘Olmert Case Will Embarrass Prosecutors’[JPost]

Daybreak: Love’s Not Enough for Abbas

Olmert under fire, Arkansas pride, and more in the news

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• An aide says that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will not resume talks with Israel without a full settlement freeze, no exceptions: “Mr. Obama, we love you … but I am sorry this is not enough to bring us to the peace process.” [Reuters]
• Former Israeli P.M. Ehud Olmert has been formally indicted on charges of fraud and corruption for which he was pressured to resign from office last year; his adviser isn’t worried, after all, several other major investigations of Olmert have come to nothing. [Haaretz]
• The Associated Press is breaking new updates on a hot story: Madonna’s visit to Israel. So far, she’s been to the Western Wall. [AP]
• The Jewish community of Arkansas has completed its first locally made Torah scroll. [Today’s THV]
• Mystical artist Hyman Bloom died last week at 96. [NYT]

Sundown: Blogger Expected More ‘Inglourious’ Kvetching

Praise, slander, and a grand slam decade

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• A Beliefnet blogger wonders why he’s “not reading or hearing more from the Jewish community about the inglorious representation” of Jews in Tarantino’s latest film. [Beliefnet]
• The obvious answer: he’s not paying attention. Besides our own takedown, the Los Angeles Times rounds up a plethora of disturbed Jewish reactions to Inglourious Basterds, and Slate’s culture gabfest compares Tarantino to T.S. Eliot, in that “they’re both idiots when it comes to Jews.” [Slate]
• Martin Abramowitz, founder of Jewish Major Leaguers, Inc., says this has been the tribe’s best-ever decade on the diamond, and that “some combination of pride and performance is bringing Jewish baseball to a new level of attention in America.” [Jewish Ledger]
• Two Jewish schools in Argentina are being touted as role models for Jewish eduction. Their innovation? Making the schools good. [JTA]
• In Florida, however, a public school is facing its own religious problems: kids keep coming to school dressed as billboards for the ironically named Christian organization Dove World Outreach, in t-shirts that say “Islam is of the Devil.” [Gainesville Sun]

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