thescroll_header

‘Sesame Street’ for Palestinians

Not quite sweeping the clouds away

Email
The Shara’a Simsim characters Karim (green) and Haneen at a Palestinian school in March.(NYTimes.com)

A New York Times Magazine article exploring production of Shara’a Simsim, the Palestinian version of Sesame Street, reveals a gentler microcosm of the strife that plagues the region. According to executives from the umbrella studio, Sesame Workshop, the difficulty in striking the mandated balance between kid-friendly “core values” and realistic portrayals of local life for Palestinians is “rivaled only by Kosovo.”

This trouble manifests most overtly in the show’s struggle to stay apolitical, which “few of the writers seemed to think…made sense in a Palestinian context.” In fact, some of their early ideas involve more politics than the nightly news: a muppet seeking refuge from bats representing Israeli war planes, a dove being shot down, a poster showing children dismantling the separation wall between the Israeli and Palestinian territories (ditched, in part, because a Sesame exec ruled that “giving a 3-year-old a hammer is something we wouldn’t show”).

The program came about after a protracted and doomed effort to make a version that would incorporate both Israelis and Palestinians, each with their own streets, in order to “emulate the philosophy of Sesame Street, to portray the world they wished for, more than the world that was.” The problem with that, of course, is that both sides wished for different worlds. “We are looking for a divorce from the Israelis,” said Shara’a executive producer Daoud Kuttab, “not a marriage.” Optimism may be one thing, but Kuttab couldn’t suffer the irony of a show portraying Arabs and Israelis dropping in on each other, when, as the NYT Mag says, “in real life, the Israeli production staff refused to travel to Ramallah even for informal visits.”

In any case, the show, which represents a new frontier in Palestinian children’s programming, has challenged an understandably serious populace to lighten up. One producer recalls complaints from writers about a game show spoof: “They’ll say, ‘Oh, the way he’s dressed doesn’t reflect the area he’s from.’…But for God’s sake, it’s a rooster doing ‘Who Wants to Win a Balloon?’!”

Can the Muppets Make Friends in Ramallah? [NYT Mag]
Previously: After 20 Years, a New ‘Shalom Sesame’

Israel Tells Foreign Visitors to Stay in West Bank

If they’re of Arab descent, ‘Forward’ says

Email

The Forward has a story on an Israeli policy, enacted earlier this year, in which visitors with a declared intention to visit the West Bank are given a stamp on their passport that prevents them from entering Israel proper. Catch is, the only people who’ve reported receiving the stamp—at least among American travelers—are those of Arab descent (and a few non-Arab activists from the International Solidarity Movement). After months of petitioning on the part of Arab American organizations, a State Department spokesman announced in August that “we have made it known to the Israeli government that we expect all American citizens to be treated the same regardless of national origin, and these kinds of restrictions we consider unacceptable.” Israel has responded, the Forward reports, that “visiting the West Bank does not necessarily provide the right to visit Israel and that Israel does not have to allow foreign nationals wishing to visit the Palestinian Authority to go through its territory and its airport”—though why this would apply only to ethnically Arab visitors is not addressed.

Restricted: Visas Good for West Bank Only [Forward]

New York, You Deserve Better

But Natalie Portman shines in new film

Email

We happened to catch a screening last night of New York, I Love You, the new anthology movie coming out later this month from the producers of Paris, je t’aime, and, well, we can’t say we loved it. For one thing, it’s upsetting to see characters in a movie light up inside a bar, something real New Yorkers haven’t been able to do in years (or not, at least, without getting scolded for trying). For another, we can’t say that watching a teenage boy screw his paraplegic prom date—who has suspended herself from a tree in Central Park for the purpose, after leaving the party at Tavern on the Green—bears any resemblance to anything we’ve ever heard of happening in real life. (But thanks for the idea, Brett Ratner!)

Thankfully, the brief segment starring Natalie Portman as a Hasidic diamond broker—and bride-to-be—who has a brief romantic fantasy about the Jain diamond merchant she deals with in Midtown is one of the few that made sense, and that reflected something real about the city. (It makes a difference that the director, Mira Nair, actually lives in New York.) Plus, Portman dresses up both as a Satmar bride, and a Bollywood one—though we’ve seen that trick before. She may wind up looking roughly like she always does on-screen—that is to say, gorgeous—but paired with Slumdog Millionaire star Irrfan Khan, she manages to open a little window into the awkwardness of reconciling the cloistered insularity of the Hasidic world with the cosmopolitan noise of the New York we love.

New York I Love You [Web site]

Previously: Extra Specialist

Tablet Today

The trappings of Sukkot, and a Scandinavian Yom Kippur

Email

In preparation for next week’s holiday, Tablet Magazine offers a primer on Sukkot, Charles and Julian Boxenbaum present an inspired innovation on the traditional huts, and Mimi Sheraton explores the etrog, a citrus fruit that is one of the major symbols of the festival. Plus, Etgar Keret discovers a surprising affinity for the holiest of High Holidays in Sweden. And The Scroll is here as ever to update you throughout the day.

Israeli Modesty Squads Fighting Miscegenation?

London writer says ultra-Orthodox groups have state OK to keep Jews, Arabs apart

Email

The ultra-Orthodox “modesty squads” that regulate behavior in some Israeli neighborhoods aren’t just enforcing a fundamentalist lifestyle in their own communities—they’re also serving the purposes of a state-sanctioned anti-miscegenation agenda, op-ed writer Seth Freedman argues in London’s Guardian. He points to a piece that ran in the Times of London last week, which reported on organized groups of ultra-Orthodox men dedicated to finding mixed Jewish-Arab couples and harassing them. Some of those groups, including Fire for Judaism, whose members cruise around a Jerusalem-adjacent settlement and have been known to chase “problem couples” in their cars, work with police, according to the Times. “What is sauce for the religious goose is sauce for the secular gander,” Freedman writes. “That the police would even deign to co-operate with such poisonous and prejudiced characters and their fantasies of racial purity is indicative of the malaise gripping certain sectors of Israeli society, both at street and state level.”

Israel’s Vile Anti-Miscegenation Squads [Guardian]

Daybreak: Iran at the Table

Plus a somber anniversary, a big giver, and more in the news

Email

• Talks began between Western leaders and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Geneva yesterday; the United States is looking to be reassured about Iran’s nuclear program but is prepared with sanctions in case that doesn’t work out. [Reuters]
• A German court upheld a law that excludes property in housing estates from being returned to pre-Holocaust Jewish owners. [Haaretz]
• Israeli Arabs commemorate the October 2000 riots that started the second intifada with a general strike and protest marches. [Ynet]
The New York Times profiles philanthropist David M. Rubenstein, who has financed the restoration of Nazi-era Torahs. [NYT]

Sundown: Chicken Soup for the Drinker’s Soul

Yom Kippur without God, a Catholic call-out, and Dylan disappoints

Email

The New York Times pays some attention to a drink from Barbra Streisand’s childhood: the “guggle-muggle,” or Gogol Mogol, made from some combination of egg yolks, milk, and liquor, which the paper calls “the Jewish echinacea: no one really knows if it works, but that doesn’t stop people from taking it.” [NYT]
• A secular Jewish center in Israel grappled with Yom Kippur, which, unlike other holidays when it is “not too complicated to get around the religious issue with a dreidel, a doughnut, by planting trees or offering the first fruits,” requires a conversation with God. [Ynet]
• Israel has made an allowance for lulavim (palm fronds used for Sukkot) to be exported from Gaza to compete with overpriced specimens from Egypt; like the Palestinian women who manufacture yarmulkes, this decision raises questions about religion and economic symbiosis. [JPost]
• Adding injury to those who take his upcoming Christmas album as an insult, Bob Dylan plans to release the thing early to Citigroup customers. [First Post]
• The Vatican attempts to mitigate the Church’s sex scandals in a statement calling out Protestants and Jews for their own abuses. “Comparative tragedy is a dangerous path on which to travel,” replies the head of the New York Board of Rabbis. [Guardian]
• Yesterday marked the launch of the Holocaust Collection, the largest online database of archival material about the genocide. [Holocaust Collection]

What Makes a Jew?

A British paper asks, and four brainiacs stumble to answer

Email

The British Jewish Chronicle asks four known Jews to weigh in on the ever-sticky question of identity. After clearing his throat with the obvious (“We are not just a religion.… Equally, though, Jews are not just an ethnic group”), writer Jonathan Freedland makes the point that the trouble with attempts to “locate the Jewish essence in some sort of sensibility, even a very broad, capacious one, is that there will always be some Jews who are not quite like that.” Filmmaker Naomi Gryn’s insights are limited to extolling her own commitment to some amorphously defined Jewishness while bashing the authority of the Orthodox sector, whose members she defines as “anachronistic misogynists who have decided that they have some sort of authority over defining who is a Jew.”

Reliably, writer Howard Jacobson has the most colorful take, characterizing Jews as thinkers and questioners via an anecdote about two Yeshiva boys discussing which prayer to say over toasted bread. “That seems to me wonderful, that there is a culture in the world that would spend money to say: ‘Go study the difference between bread and toast and it doesn’t matter how long you take.’ It is my passion. I earn my money essentially arguing about the difference between bread and toast.”

Although none of these perspectives is apt to rock the world of identity politics, Rabbi Jeffrey Cohen expresses one common view best in praising the merits of Jewdar: “We can be on the other side of the world and the presence of a Jew is something that doesn’t take us more than a few seconds to determine.” In other words, Jews, at the end of the day, are like pornography: you know them when you see them.


Who Is a Jew? The Great Debate
[JC]

Anne Frank, YouTuber

The famous diarist’s latest online presence

Email
Anne in her YouTube clip.(YouTube.com)

This should be noted: Anne Frank now has a YouTube channel. “The site contains existing and new images, including the only known video footage of Anne—a shot a few seconds-long of her leaning out of an upstairs window during the wedding of a neighbour in July 1941,” reports London’s Telegraph today. There’s also an interview with Anne’s father, Otto Frank, interviews with people who knew her, and a clip of Nelson Mandela talking about reading her diary while he was in prison. This new site, at youtube.com/annefrank, comes on top of annefrank.org, the official site of the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam, annefrank.com, the site of the Anne Frank Center USA, and Anne Frank The Writer, a section on the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s website. It’s an impressive digital presence—especially for a girl who never lived to see Univac.

Anne Frank’s Channel [YouTube]
Anne Frank Channel Launched on YouTube [Telegraph]

Amy Winehouse Raps About Being Jewish

And smoking bacon

Email

Many of the good people of the internet are trashing Amy Winehouse’s rapping abilities, as demonstrated on a YouTube video of her jamming with some mates. But we respectfully disagree. This is punk rock, guys—it’s not a Grammy-winning performance, but it’s contagiously ecstatic (especially if you can deal with a little banshee-like shrieking). More saliently, it includes the following flow from Ms. Winehouse: “Oh, snap, I never knew, I never knew that, well, I’m a Jew/Well a Jew makin’/Anyway, if you can smoke bacon/Then I reckon that, um…”—at which point she changes the subject to the drumming prowess of her friend Zalon. If we’re following the logic correctly, what should fill in the lacuna at the end of that line is that, if you can smoke bacon, you can smoke crack. And if you’re a Jew who smokes bacon—really, what can’t you smoke?

Amy Winehouse Rapping: How Many Seconds Can You Stand Before You Press Stop? [Entertainment Weekly]

Israel, Hamas Reach Preliminary Deal on Shalit

Prisoners for video, as a first step

Email

In diplomacy, symbolism and timing are everything. So we think it’s probably significant that this morning, just as Israeli and Palestinian negotiators arrived in Washington for a new round of meetings with their American interlocutor, George Mitchell, about re-launching substantive peace talks, officials in Jerusalem announced that they had reached a deal with Hamas to trade 20 female Palestinian prisoners for video evidence that Gilad Shalit is still alive.

Shalit is the 23-year-old IDF corporal held hostage by Hamas since 2006; he has not been heard from since the Israeli bombardment of Gaza in January, despite efforts by the International Red Cross and other agencies to win humanitarian access. The bargain is actually the fruit of a joint Egyptian and German initiative intended to smooth final negotiations about Shalit’s actual release—in other words, it, too, is a negotiation about a negotiation. The trade is expected to be made on Friday, but Israeli President Shimon Peres warned not to get expectations up: “The road to his release is still long and not simple, and we do not want to create any illusions.” Washington, are you listening?

Israel to Free Prisoners to Obtain Video of Soldier [NYT]

U.S. Jews Still Support Obama on Israel

But less than they do Netanyahu, and less than they did in November

Email
Obama at an AIPAC conference last year.(Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)

Barack Obama’s Jewish support is slipping, according to the American Jewish Committee’s Annual Survey of American Jewish Opinion. A poll conducted between August and September that canvassed 800 American Jews found that 51 percent disagree “with the Obama Administration’s call for a stop to all new Israeli settlement construction.” Moreover, more approve of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s handling of the Israeli-American relationship than they do of Obama’s handling of it, though a majority—54 percent—approve of Obama’s handling, too. (Only 32 percent disapprove.) Also, more American Jews support military action against Iran and are more pessimistic about the chances for peace in the Arab-Israeli conflict than they are optimistic. Unsurprisingly, Orthodox Jews—about 9 percent of the survey respondents—were tougher on the president than Reform, Conservative, and other Jews.

Survey: Jews back Obama, by narrower margins [Politico]

On Tablet Today

Gravestones, rabbinical unease, and a convert’s craft

Email

Lynn Harris takes a look at the recession’s effect on rabbis. Ruth Ellen Gruber examines the symbols used to represent Jewish women on tombstones in Romania. As the culmination of her conversion to Judaism, C.A. Blomquist designed a chuppah for her upcoming wedding. And, of course, more to come here on The Scroll.

Why Israel Tour Books Are for Tourists

A ‘Haaretz’ writer finds them cringeworthy

Email

Haaretz’s Yotam Feldman takes a “voyeuristic” perusal of guide books for tourists to Israel, and discovers the reason why “[t]hese books are translated into every language but the one spoken in the country being described.” He finds a portrait of his home country that makes him uncomfortable—but we confess that as recent travelers to the holy land, and thus part of the books’ target audience, we don’t find them as far off the mark as Feldman might like to believe.

While the suggestion that curious travelers ask a Palestinian woman “about her embroidery and its significance” might sound silly or condescending, it’s hard to think of a better suggestion; chances are, she won’t want to discuss last week’s episode of Mad Men or the rush hour traffic in your home town. And if, as Feldman says, the books “stop just short of explaining one should chew food moderately yet persistently in order to avoid indigestion,” that’s probably because overwhelmed travelers can get flummoxed by mundane things such as buying toothpaste or making a phone call from their hotel. He takes umbrage at one book’s assertion that “Israelis prefer to drink instant or Turkish coffee, and when they drink alcohol, they prefer Goldstar beer”—but, well, that jives with our recent experience. If he wants to change Israel’s reputation regarding beverages, he might want to start with a letter to whomever plans hotel buffets.

Feldman does strike on something disturbing in the way these guides treat the Palestinian territories, which they present as “ideal sites for the danger enthusiast,” apologizing that Gaza doesn’t quite measure up to Iraq or Afghanistan. But his idea of what kind of book the average traveler might be looking for—“The one I would put together for visitors to Israel would bring them to places that are not very different from the ones where they live: residential neighborhoods, city parks and suburbs. It would help them understand public transportation, and let them sit in on court hearings and university lectures”—proves that not only is it better for locals not to read the books, but probably not to write them either.

Why Israelis Shouldn’t Read Travel Guides to Their Country [Haaretz]

Daybreak: Mumbai Jews Still Afraid

Plus Israel’s Iran options, Libeskind’s latest, and more in the news

Email

• The location of a new Chabad House in Mumbai is a secret revealed only to Jews looking for community; this caution reflects a general atmosphere among the city’s Jewish population since last year’s attacks. [WP]
• Meanwhile, the group responsible for the destruction remains a threat. [NYT]
• Thomas Friedman compares attempts to delegitimize President Obama with the “poisonous political environment” that led to the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in Israel in 1995. [NYT]
• An examination of Israel’s options when it comes to a nuclear Iran. [Haaretz]
• Architect Daniel Libeskind is set to design a new synagogue for a Reform congregation in Munich, replacing the city’s “liberal synagogue,” which was destroyed during World War II. [JTA]

Thank You!

Thank you for subscribing to the Tablet Magazine Daily Digest.
Please tell us about you.