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Sundown: Our Mouthpiece, Ben Stein

Good hair, English roots, and an Egyptian synagogue

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• Ben Stein got props from a woman at a town hall meeting on health care, who credited him with “tracing the decline of America to taking prayer out of school.” No word on how Stein feels about her claim that America’s a Christian nation, or how Jews feel about her claim that Stein’s a “Jewish spokesman.” [Huffington Post]
• Egypt announced the restoration of the Moses Ben Maimon Synagogue in Cairo, named for the second-most famous Moses who lived in that country. The government says this is not a not a ploy to assuage the controversy over would-be U.N. official Hosni Farouk. [AP]
• Writer James Lasdun, who has a new story collection out, grew up in London, where his father—an eminent British architect—expressed his otherwise-dormant Jewish identity by insisting, “We’re not English.” [The Scotsman]
• A Chris Rock documentary about the politics of black women’s hair will be a must-see for many frizzy-haired Jewish women as well, a Forward blogger writes. Best part of the trailer for Rock’s movie: women at a beauty parlor referring to hair relaxer as “creamy crack.” [Forward]
• Some Oregonians are angry that an annual breast cancer walk in Portland is being held on Rosh Hashana this year, especially given that “Ashkenazi women have a genetic propensity toward breast cancer.” [USA Today]

Dudu’s Dead

Disgraced Israeli TV star found hanged in prison cell

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Dudu Topaz, the disgraced Israeli television star who was arrested recently after admitting to orchestrating attacks on entertainment industry honchos he believed had wronged him, hung himself in his prison cell this morning. He was 63. An official investigation has been launched to ascertain how Topaz—whose cell was under constant surveillance since a failed suicide attempt in May—managed to take his own life.

Among Topaz’s alleged list of victims were producers, agents, and fellow entertainers, all of whom, Topaz believed, were actively sabotaging his career. Just last week, an envelope from Topaz—addressed to Tzvika Hadar, the host of Israel’s version of American Idol—was discovered in a Jerusalem post office. Inside was a bullet. “This,” Topaz wrote in an enclosed note, “is the end.”

Judge to Oversee Topaz Suicide Probe [JPost]
Related: Crime Time [Tablet]

Jewish Boxer Is Contender, Scholar

He’s got a title fight lined up, and he’s studying to be a rabbi

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Foreman, at right, fighting Vinroy Barrett in Atlantic City in 2008.(Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)

Yuri Foreman, a 29-year-old Belarus-born boxer who moved to Haifa at age 11 and now lives in New York City, will become Israel’s first-ever fighter in a world championship bout when he battles for the welterweight title in November. But the auspiciously-named Foreman has his eyes trained on even higher goals—the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reports he’s studying to become an Orthodox rabbi. His website’s adorned with religious references—the first thing it shows is a star of David with a lion inside, an allusion to his astrological sign. Foreman’s also something of a polymath, listing favorite books (the Bible and all things Vonnegut), films (In the Mood For Love and all things Miyazaki), and musicians (classical music and all things Motorhead).

Above all, he’s got love for Israel, describing the euphoria he felt upon first arriving there. “I remember how different it smelled—so fresh and fragrant. When we arrived in the airport, the Israelis welcomed us with wedges of fresh oranges. I had never tasted anything so sweet and delicious before. I thought I had arrived in paradise.”

Israeli Boxer Set for Championship Bout [JTA]
Yuri Foreman [Official site]

Did Scotland Have the Wrong Man?

Lockerbie convict released, but some think Iran was really behind the bombing

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Al-Megrahi boarding the plane to Libya today.(Danny Lawson/Pool/Getty Images)

Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, convicted in 2000 of planning the Pan Am 103 bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, was released from prison in Scotland today, on the grounds that his terminal prostate cancer warrants clemency. Al-Megrahi is now en route to his native Libya, aboard a private jet belonging Muamar Qaddafi. “Some hurts can never heal, some scars can never fade,” the magistrate who ordered the release wrote in her ruling. Some 270 were killed the attack, the majority of them Americans. “Those who have been bereaved cannot be expected to forget, let alone forgive…. However, Mr. al-Megrahi now faces a sentence imposed by a higher power.” The United States has condemned the decision, as have many of the Lockerbie victims’ families.

But here’s the interesting part: Some suspect that Scotland has had the wrong man all along. One theory, described in 1989 by David Tal of Israel’s Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, holds that Iran, not Libya, was actually behind the attack, that it was revenge for the accidental downing of an Iranian passenger plane by the USS Vincennes over the Straits of Hormuz in 1988. According to Tal, the attack itself was carried out by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, a terrorist cell based in Damascus. Tal wrote that evidence was found on Popular Front agents caught in West Germany just months before the bombing, including bombs designed like the one that took out the Pan Am plane, and flight timetables. In 1997, Abolghassem Mesbahi, an Iranian dissident, told German officials that Iran was indeed behind Lockerbie—a claim Iran denied.

Scotland Releases Lockerbie Bomber [AP/JPost]

Will the Basterds Take Israel?

Tarantino’s ‘Inglourious’ producer hopes so

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By now, we’ve heard plenty about how Quentin Tarantino is using his new film, Inglourious Basterds, to undo decades of Jewish victimization in Holocaust movies, by casting his renegade crew of Nazi scalp-hunters as angry American Jews. We’ve heard relatively less about the man who made it all possible: Tarantino’s longtime producer, Lawrence Bender, who told the Jewish Journal that he was thrilled not just to avenge Jews killed in the Holocaust, but to re-direct his lingering anger at the kids who taunted him as “Bender kike” in high school.

“As a fan, I thank you; as your producer, I thank you; as a member of the Jewish tribe, I thank you,” Bender recounted telling Tarantino after reading the first draft of the script. (He said something similar, though saltier, to The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg in the magazine’s September issue: “As your producing partner, I thank you, and as a member of the Jewish tribe, I thank you, motherfucker, because this movie is a fucking Jewish wet dream.”) The 51-year-old bachelor, who put together financing for Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, also helped finance the relatively more wholesome Good Will Hunting, which led to an audience at Camp David with Bill Clinton, and, in turn, a second career as a Democratic fundraiser and Israel activist (he’s involved both with AIPAC and the left-leaning Israel Policy Forum). While German critics have lauded Basterds—they do, after all, sort of have to—Bender told the Journal he’s more interested to see how it plays in Israel: “I feel it’s like a little pin in the hay, like, ‘Hey guys, go to Israel.’ I think it’s such a great place, and Hollywood does need to focus on it more.”

The Other Avenger: Tarantino’s Producer Lawrence Bender [Jewish Journal]
Earlier: You Basterds!

A Very Kosher (And Unkosher) ‘Top Chef’

Chef Leventhal pigs out on season premiere

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Leventhal’s pork tenderloin with chorizo, bread pudding, and bacon.(Bravotv.com)

Season Six of Bravo’s cooking-competition show Top Chef, which premiered last night, has the potential to be the Jew-heaviest season yet (although in this regard it faces stiff competition from last season, which was won by one Hosea Rosenberg). Based on the name game alone, we count, to varying degrees of certainty (we’re pretty sure about Eli Kirshstein), five Members of the Tribe among the 17 contestants. And one of them, Seattle chef Robin Leventhal, put her heritage front and center last night. The challenge for the chefs was to present a dish based on a vice of theirs, in homage to this season’s location, Las Vegas. Chef Leventhal announced that her vice was being a “bad Jew,” and with that in mind served up a pork tenderloin stuffed with chorizo, alongside bread pudding and a strip of bacon. Perhaps her vice got the better of her: she did not win, and first prize went to a dish—arctic char (slow-cooked, in deference to the chef’s vice of procrastination) with turnip salsa verde—that looked both absolutely scrumptious and perfectly kosher.

Top Chef [Bravotv.com]

Rabbis Gang Up on HuffPost!

Three essays by four Jewish religious leaders

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Yesterday appeared to be Rabbi Day on the Huffington Post, with four pieces authored or co-authored by Jewish clergy. At 11:10 in the morning, Rabbi Jennifer Krause, a professor of Jewish studies at New York’s City College, kicked off the day with a screed against the “invective, vitriol, basic erosion of civility and humanity, and the overall fever-pitch” of the health-care debate. At 3:15 in the afternoon, Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, opined against a New York Times op-ed that advocated for a one-state solution in Israel/Palestine—with help from his colleague Rabbi Marvin Hier. Finally, at 4:40, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, best known for his books on Kosher Sex, weighed in against President Obama’s meeting with Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, deriding Mubarak’s position that “progress can only be made if Israel agrees to ‘freeze settlements … and agree to negotiate with all issues on the table including the status of Jerusalem and the refugees.’” Tomorrow, perhaps, they’ll have enough for a minyan.

For Heaven’s Sake, See the Movie! [Huffington Post]
The ‘One-State Solution’ Only Stokes Palestinians Self-Delusion [Huffington Post]
Do Arabs See Israel as a Permanent Fact? [Huffington Post]

Today on Tablet

Unbuilt synagogues, a gay-friendly Orthodox rabbi, and more

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On Tablet Magazine today, Diana Muir Appelbaum takes a look at grand plans for 1920s synagogues, left unfulfilled thanks to the 1929 stock-market crash. James Kirchick profiles Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, the gay-friendly Orthodox clergyman in Washington, D.C. Contributing editor Eddy Portnoy considers the gruesome 1871 death of a young girl at the hands of a immigrant from Plotsk masquerading as a doctor. And art critic Jeannie Rosenfeld examines the work of artist Ron Arad, the subject of a retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. There will be more throughout the day, plus regular updates here on The Scroll.

Daybreak: Madoff Charities Face Further Trouble

Passport stamps, tales of two birthrights, and more in the news

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• Charities that lost money to Bernard Madoff could be subject to “clawback,” under which they will be required to return money they withdrew from their accounts with the financier even before his fraud became apparent. [Forward]
• The United States sharply criticized Israel’s practice of frequently not permitting tourists who enter the Palestinian territories to return to Israel or board flights at Ben-Gurion Airport. [JPost]
• The Taglit-Birthright Israel program hired a U.S. PR firm that has represented Girls Gone Wild and Fannie Mae, as well as several groups with right-wing views on Israel. [Forward]
• Meanwhile, the “Birthright Replugged” program, which is funded in part by the Carter Center, takes Palestinian children into Israel on tours of their ancestors’ old villages. [Haaretz]
• Israeli Arabs’ death rate is 1.5 times that of Israeli Jews, with cardiovascular disease a particularly disproportionate killer. [JPost]

Sundown: The Loneliest Congregant

‘Six Feet Under’ is in, day school’s out, and kashrut’s on the rise

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• A synagogue in Maryland canceled High Holiday services because it’s down to one remaining member. “Most of our funds are donations (in memory) of people who have died. When that’s your biggest fundraiser, that’s not a good thing,” he says. [AP]
• As the cost of sending kids to Jewish day school grows, a drop in enrollment could be “an important wake-up call” about the “culture of affluence that somehow got tangled up with American Jewish identity.” [Jewish Week]
• The rabbi of the ultra-Orthodox Lithuanian community in Israel cautions not to visit Jerusalem’s Western Wall on the Sabbath, when security cameras there violate the law against using electricity. [Ynet]
• But while the Kotel may be compromising its kashrut, supermarkets in Moscow are increasingly carrying kosher products. [FJC]
• A writer explains how a class on Judaism, death, and HBO’s Six Feet Under changed her perception of television as an “ethical wasteland.” [Forward]

Don Hewitt on His Judaism

The ‘60 Minutes’ creator died today at 86. For the book ‘Stars of David,’ he talked about his religion.

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Hewitt and his wife, Marilyn Berger, at CBS’s 75th anniversary celebration in 2003.(Matthew Peyton/Getty Images)

To work for 60 Minutes creator and executive producer Don Hewitt, which I did for six years as a producer, was to work alongside an inimitable character who seemed quintessentially Jewish. Don’s manic energy—his hopping up and down about stories that grabbed him, his undisguised dismay at stories that didn’t, the way he’d yell “Hi honey!” when he charged by you, or repeat the same joke he’d heard to every person he encountered in the hallway, the way he’d exhort you to get an interview or give you a wink when you “did good”; his Brooklyn lilt, his histrionics, his dated fashion sense, his unflashy routine—made him feel familial to me despite his eminence within CBS. He was a cheerleading but demanding Jewish uncle.

But in the strict sense, Don couldn’t have been less of a Jew. He observed no holidays (one could always find him at work on Yom Kippur), and he demonstrated zero emotional connection to Jewish identity. “I’ve always felt more American than Jewish,” he says, sitting behind his desk in his trademark camel turtleneck, snug tweed blazer—handkerchief peeking from the pocket. “Let me put it this way: Am I proud to be Jewish? Not particularly Am I happy to be Jewish? Yes! Because I think somewhere somehow it gave me the impetus to be ambitious. I’m proud of what I did at 60 Minutes, but I’m not proud of being Jewish. I’m happy about it. I think being Jewish is nifty. And mostly I’m Jewish by temperament” What does he mean by that? (I have my own ideas.) “I like Jewish food, I like Jewish humor, I like Jewish people. But I’m more at home with nonbelieving anybody; including nonbelieving Jews. I’ve always taken to the nonbelievers”

He grew up in New Rochelle, the child of Frieda, a German Jew, and Ely, a Russian Jew. “I stayed home from school Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but at Christmas I got Christmas presents. I was confirmed at a Reform temple called Temple Israel mostly because that was the social thing to do in that town.”

He goes on: “My grandfather changed his name from Hurwitz to Hewitt long before I was born. In fact, we used to kid around in the family because they said my grandfather wanted to change his name to Hurley, which is Irish. My aunt tells this great story of being at my confirmation with all the kids’ names printed in the program, and overhearing one woman say, ‘Donald Shepherd Hewitt? How did he get in here?’”

Does he think he brings any of his Jewishness to his news judgment? “Yeah, but not consciously. I think what I bring Jewish is called seckel [a Yiddishism for “brains, savvy”]. Jews have got seckel. I think that’s what I bring.”

Hewitt’s Jewish credentials were harshly called into question when 60 Minutes did several stories in the seventies and eighties that were perceived as overly sympathetic to the Arab point of view. There was a deluge of protest in 1975, for example, when Mike Wallace reported that Syrian Jews weren’t as oppressed as had been previously believed. The criticism from some in the Jewish community culminated in Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, then president of the American Jewish Congress, requesting a face-to-face meeting with Hewitt and Wallace in their CBS offices. Hewitt says Hertzberg went after him subtly but personally. “The son of a bitch,” Hewitt recalls, “he came over here to see me and he sat in my office and he said, ‘Hewitt… Hewitt…; there’s got to be a Horowitz under there somewhere.’” Hewitt smiles. “I said to myself, ‘You son of a bitch; you come here for a peace meeting and you make trouble.’

“Now the other hysteria was when we did the Temple Mount massacre.” He’s referring to Wallace’s 1990 story recounting the killing and wounding of Palestinians by Israeli soldiers at Jerusalem’s sacred Temple Mount. The Anti-Defamation League was up in arms, charging that the broadcast “failed to meet acceptable journalistic standards” and that Wallace “gave the false impression that Israel is engaged in a deliberate coverup.” Then-CBS president Larry Tisch, a prominent Jewish figure in New York society, got involved. “Larry went ape about this story,” Hewitt says. “I was portrayed as a self-hating Jew and I said to him, ‘You’ve never met a more self-loving Jew in your life! I don’t hate myself! Secondly, if I did, it would not be because I was Jewish.’” But the personal attacks clearly left their mark. “I remembered that for a long time,” Hewitt says.

Another snub: “I went to a party once at Werner LeRoy’s [the flamboyant restaurateur], and I got attacked by Mort Zuckerman [real estate and publishing magnate] and Barbara Walters, who said, ‘How could you do that story at this terrible time in Israel’s history?’ And I said, ‘How about the stories we did at the terrible time in America’s history in Vietnam? Were you worried about that?’ I was shocked. And I said, ‘I get accused of being a self-hating Jew because I’m critical of Menachem Begin. Nobody ever called me a self-hating American because I was critical of Richard Nixon.’ There’s a thing about Jewishness….” He trails off. “Right now the Jews are too big and too smart to cave in to this feeling that we are victims in the Middle East. They’re not really victims in the Middle East.”

Hewitt heralds the fact that Abraham Foxman, National Director of the Anti-Defamation League, ultimately wrote him a letter apologizing for the ADL’s outcry over the Temple Mount story. “He said—I’m just paraphrasing here—‘Now the verdict is in: It looks like it happened a lot closer to the way you guys said it happened than the government said it happened, and we owe you an apology and I invite you to use this letter any way you want.’”

Hewitt is even prouder of another letter—one that used to sit framed on his office bookshelf. “It’s wrapped up somewhere—I can’t find it,” Hewitt apologizes as he hastily leafs through his memoir, Tell Me a Story: Fifty Years and 60 Minutes in Television, looking for the place where he quotes the letter, sent in honor of his seventieth birthday. Hewitt reads part of it aloud, in a hushed tone. It’s perhaps his most compelling piece of evidence that he wasn’t such a skimpy Jew after all:

“… As you know, your program is critically acclaimed throughout the world and is held in high esteem by many of us in Israel. I would also like to take this opportunity to express my personal gratitude to you for dedicating one of your 60 Minutes segments— the tragic story of our Israeli Air Force navigator, Ron Arad. Both as a Jew and a human being, I was touched by your coverage of his plight. I am deeply grateful to you and 60 Minutes for all your efforts. As you enter your 25th year at 60 Minutes, I wish you the best of luck and continued success in the future. Sincerely, Yitzhak Rabin; Prime Minister of Israel.”

Hewitt reads the signature with solemnity. “That letter is one of the proudest things I’ve got,” he says. “I think the terrorist who did the most harm in this world—more than Al Qaeda—was the Jewish terrorist who killed Rabin.”

More on Israel: “I always admired Israelis. They were the gunslingers. They were great! Before it was politically incorrect to think about it that way, it was like the cowboys and Indians—Israel were the cowboys and the Arabs were the Indians and it was simplistic; I never knew anybody who rooted for the Indians. I always thought the Israelis were arrogant as hell, but I admired them. But I never understood why the smartest people on earth plunked themselves down in the most hostile place on earth. They could have found a better place. They could have gone to Madagascar or something. But they say, ‘It’s the land that God gave them.’ Who the heck knows what God gave anybody?! How do they know that? I think it would be a big loss to civilization if Israel disappeared. I just wish they’d get off all this jazz about ‘God gave us this land’; God didn’t give you the land—you took the land and you made it great! And I love you for doing that, but don’t tell me that God gave you this land and he doesn’t want anybody else here.

“I’ll tell you my favorite phone call: One time, a woman called after we aired a story on Israel. And she said, ‘I’m getting sick and tired of you people.’ I said, ‘Okay lady, what now?’ She said, ‘You’re all pro-Israel, and you’re all a bunch of kikes.’ I said, ‘On your first point, you couldn’t be more wrong; on your second point, you could be right.’ And I hung up on her.”

Excerpted from Stars of David by Abigail Pogrebin. Copyright 2005 by Abigail Pogrebin. Excerpted by permission of Broadway, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Jacob Two-Two

Makes a comeback, courtesy of another Canadian

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Though he’s been dead for eight years, Canadian writer Mordecai Richler is coming back to life—sort of—this fall. Jacob Two-Two on the High Seas, the fourth installment in Richler’s wildly successful kids’ series about a boy who has to repeat himself in order to be heard above the din of his large family, hits bookstores in September. The catch? Richler didn’t write it. Novelist Cary Fagan did.

According to Publishers Weekly, Richler, the author of such adult classics as The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, started thinking about a fourth adventure in the series before he fell ill in 2001 (his initial idea for the fourth book, revolving around a stolen Stanley Cup, was nixed for its unlikely appeal beyond hockey-mad Canada). After his death, his family told his publisher, Tundra, they wanted the series to continue and Tundra set out to find a suitable writer. Fagan, who similarly writes fiction for adults and children said at first he “was a bit flabbergasted by the proposal, and unnerved and excited.… Richler is, in Canada, a very big figure. And for a writer who is Jewish, like me, he looms even larger.”

Meantime, filming has begun on an adaptation of Barney’s Version, Richler’s final novel, about a man with Alzheimer’s; it stars Paul Giamatti and Dustin Hoffman.

Jacob Two-Two Returns [PW]

Evidence of Iran Nuclear Program?

ElBaradei has it but is hiding it, sources tell ‘Haaretz’

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Is the International Atomic Energy Agency hiding evidence of Iran’s nuclear weapons project? According to “senior Western diplomats and Israeli officials” who spoke to Haaretz, the answer is yes. The sources told Haaretz that IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei was the one concealing the goods, withholding information compiled from data his inspectors collected in the field. ElBaradei denies being in possession of any such evidence but that hasn’t stopped the United States, France, Britain, Germany and Israel from pressuring him to release it in a much-anticipated IAEA report due next month.

ElBaradei, a 2005 Nobel Peace Prize winner, is vacating his position this November, and the Israelis are hoping that his replacement, Japanese diplomat Yukiya Amano, will be more forthcoming about how far along Iran’s nuclear program is. The IAEA has in the past referred Iran to the United Nations Security Council for being in breach of various regulations governing uranium enrichment, something Iran officially claims it’s doing for “peaceful” energy-producing purposes.

Sources: UN watchdog hiding evidence on Iran nuclear program [Haaretz]

‘Forward’ Spikes Israelis-as-Chimps Cartoon

Gawker runs it, instead

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A frame from the spike comic.(Gawker.com)

The Forward lets cartoonist Eli Valley get away with a lot in his monthly comic, but the paper’s editor killed his latest contribution, which Gawker instead published yesterday afternoon. It’s got a lot of chutzpah: in its universe, Israelis are portrayed as chimpanzees whose lexicons are limited to “voonga!” and who pick fights with neighboring chimp tribes. The American Jews here are homo sapiens, but the young are taught by their elders that “chimpanzees are your more highly evolved brothers,” that “you should always consider whether your thoughts and words reflect well on the nation of chimpanzees,” and that “the neighboring tribe is chimpanzees who eat brains! Our chimpanzees don’t eat brains!” In the last panel, which takes place “several generations” in the future, American Jewish youth have become chimpanzees themselves.

“If you look at my comics outside the context of what they’re making fun of they might seem even more outrageous, but if you’re familiar with the Jewish community and what I’m making fun of, it’s actually not that great a leap,” Valley told Tablet. He declined to comment on why the Forward killed the comic; Forward editor-in-chief Jane Eisner said she had no time to speak because of the paper’s impending deadline. So, for now, the answer to why a Jewish newspaper refused to run a comic in which Israelis are depicted as non-brain-eating primates must remain a mystery.

Dawn of the Chimpanzee! (Relax Folks, They’re Just a Metaphor) [Gawker]

Today on Tablet

Cultural dissonance, musical fusion, identity crises, and a look back at tragedy

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Liel Leibovitz marvels at the different way G.I. Joe was presented to Israeli kids. Hadara Graubart talks to Afro-Cuban jazz maestro Arturo O’Farrill about the re-release of an album fusing Yiddish songs with Latin dance melodies. Seth Lipsky takes a look back at the massacre of Jews in Hebron in 1929. Ze’ev Avrahami investigates the questionable Jewish roots of a rabbi and community leader in Hamburg, Germany. And much more, as always, on this, Tablet’s blog, The Scroll.

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