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Remembering William Safire

Columnist and language maven—but did he get his last name’s Hebrew root right?

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Safire on Meet the Press in 2007.(Alex Wong/Getty Images for Meet the Press)

The Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist William Safire, who died Sunday at 79, was a New York City-born college dropout-turned-public relations wizard who rose to prominence in 1959 when he organized the famous “kitchen debate” between Richard Nixon and Nikita Krushchev in Moscow. Nixon later hired Safire to work on his failed 1960 presidential campaign against John F. Kennedy and to write speeches for him in 1968, once Nixon was president. Within five years, Safire had left the White House, winning a coveted spot in the New York Times’ op-ed rotation. Safire took issue with the invocation of anti-Semitism by figures he supported, including Nixon and Pat Buchanan, with whom he worked as a speechwriter. But he also didn’t shy from criticizing Israel, as when the country was on the verge in 2000 of selling arms to China, against the wishes of the United States. Tweaking the injunction not to forget Jerusalem lest your right hand wither, Safire advised, “”Reconsider, Israel; let not your democratic hand lose its cunning.” Soon after he joined the Times, he also began writing the “On Language” column for The New York Times Magazine, in which he opined on idioms, etymology, and correct usage. In person, he pointed out (at least on one occasion that we witnessed) that his last name, Safire, derived from the Hebrew letters that make up the word “sofer,” meaning “scribe.” They do. Yet even more precisely, the letters in question—samech, pei, resh—spell the word “book.” (But who’s counting?)

William Safire, Political Columnist and Oracle of Language, Dies at 79 [NYT]
Wlliam Safire, New York Times Columnist, Dies at 79 [JTA]
A Colleague’s Remembrance [Forbes]

Goldstone Presents Gaza Report in Geneva

Urges both sides to seek justice, for peace

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Leshno-Yaar at the Human Rights Council in Geneva today.(Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images)

Richard Goldstone, the Jewish South African judge who headed up a United Nations investigation into potential war crimes committed during last winter’s Gaza war, formally presented his report to the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva this morning. In his remarks, Goldstone—who formerly served as chief prosecutor for the international tribunals for Rwanda and Yugoslavia—said he had held off making an immediate recommendation that both Israel and Hamas be referred to the international criminal court in order to give each side a chance to, in essence, do the right thing. “The ongoing lack of justice is undermining any hope for a successful peace process and reinforcing an environment that fosters violence,” he told the panel.

What happened next depends on which news report you read. According to Reuters, the U.S. representative, Michael Posner, called on Israel to do more investigating. The Associated Press reports that Posner told the council the United States disagrees “sharply” with many of the findings in Goldstone’s report and “believe it to be deeply flawed.” Everyone, however, seems to agree that the Israeli representative, Aharon Leshno-Yaar, continued to dismiss Goldstone’s report and to defend Israel’s existing military investigations into a spectrum of war-crimes allegations, including the firing of white-phosphorus shells and unwarranted attacks on civilian facilities. “Israel is committed to fully examining every allegation of wrongdoing, not because of this report, but despite it,” Leshno-Yaar told the council. The Palestinian representative, Ibrahim Khraishi, was apparently silent about Hamas’s failure to investigate or halt rocket firings, but welcomed Goldstone’s findings about Israel. “My people will not forgive the international community if the criminals are left without punishment,” he said. So much for starting the new year off with a buried hatchet.

U.N. Expert Defends Gaza War Crimes Report [AP]
U.S. Urges Israel to Probe Gaza Crimes to Boost Peace [Reuters]
Related: Report Card [Tablet]

On Tablet Today

Anne Frank’s craft, Louis Brandeis’s Zionism, and books galore

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In Vox Tablet, our weekly podcast, Tablet Magazine’s Sara Ivry talks to author Francine Prose about Anne Frank’s estimable writing skills. Parenting columnist Marjorie Ingall speaks out for great children’s books that have been banned over the years. Book critic Adam Kirsch reflects on the uniquely American Zionism of Louis Brandeis. Book columnist Josh Lambert reads up on the “interpretive chutzpah” of Bible stories, gay Torah commentary, Saved by the Bell, and more. And stay tuned as always to The Scroll, where we bring you updates throughout the day.

Coens’ ‘A Serious Man’ Coming This Week

With even more Jewishness than their other flicks!

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Joel, left, and Ethan Coen at a New York premiere for A Serious Man last week.(Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images)

Conjecture about Jewishness in the cinematic oeuvre of Ethan and Joel Coen has chased them for nearly 20 years, since the 1990 release of Miller’s Crossing, reaching a memorable plateau in 1998’s The Big Lebowski, which featured John Goodman as a Vietnam vet and convert who refuses to drive on Shabbat. Religious buzz is growing much louder now, as Coen fans await Friday’s release of A Serious Man. The new movie kicks off with a quote from Rashi (“Accept with simplicity everything that happens to you”) and a seemingly unrelated scene set in a Polish shtetl and spoken entirely in Yiddish before getting to the main drama—the story of a physics professor who seeks spiritual counsel from three rabbis in Minnesota in 1967. His is life coming undone; his son is a pothead, his daughter wants a nose-job, and his wife has left him.

Years ago, the Coens told The New York Times for Sunday’s Arts & Leisure section, they wanted to make a movie about a bar mitzvah boy who studies with a very old rabbi, “a Semitic Wizard of Oz,” says Ethan Coen. “He never spoke, but he had great charisma.” (In A Serious Man, the son studies for his bar mitzvah by listening to “Rabbi Youssele Rosenblatt Chants Your Haftorah Portion, Volume 12.”) The brothers says beyond the fact that their own father was a professor and that, like the boy in the film, they too had an affinity for the sitcom F Troop and a distaste for Hebrew school, the story is not autobiographical.

As for the Yiddish beginning, Ethan Coen explained it at a preview in Minneapolis: “You look at a shtetl, and you go, ‘Right—Jews in a shtetl.’ And then you look at the prairie in Minnesota and you kind of think—or we kind of think, with some perspective on it, having moved out, ‘What are we doing there?’ It just seems odd.” Added Joel Coen: “Mel Brooks once had a song called ‘Jews in Space.’ I guess that’s sort of the idea.”

Biblical Adversity in a ’60s Suburb [NYT]
The Coen Brothers Talk—Reluctantly—About Talking [MinnPost]
The Coen Brothers’ ‘A Serious Man’: More Jewish Than Matzo Balls? [LA Times]

Daybreak: Holiday Test

Iran threatens, Barak is sued, Madoff victims stew, and more in the news

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• Iran claims it test-fired three missiles on Sunday with the range to hit Israel. [NYT]
• A Jewish visit to Jerusalem’s Temple Mount spurred Palestinian riots in East Jerusalem over Yom Kippur. [JTA]
• Pulitzer-winning New York Timescolumnist William Safire died Sunday at 79. [NYT]
• Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak is being sued in Britain for alleged war crimes in Gaza; Barak, who is currently visiting the United Kingdom, was warned to leave but stayed for his meeting with British P.rime Minister Gordon Brown today. [Ynet]
New York Magazine reports on the victims of Bernie Madoff who have been “cast out and left to stew in their own anger and humiliation.” [NYMag]

Sundown: Comic Stylings of the Brothers Foer

A Jewish helpline, eating right, and Crocs nixed

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• Jonathan Safran Foer’s brother Josh on building a sukkah together: “We’re supposed to be the People of the Book, but we’re actually the people of the carpenter’s square. From Noah to Jesus to Norm Abram, it’s a very proud tradition, you know.” The novelist’s reply: “Always hammering or getting screwed….” [Forward]
• Ultra-orthodox Jews in Manhattan and Brooklyn—and maybe soon, around the world—now have a special number for their own emergency needs, that will connect callers to the volunteer ambulance service Hatzolah or Jewish social services, among other things. [VIN]
• In an article offering advice to diabetics for the Jewish holidays, the only tidbit that’s Yid-specific is a suggestion to save high-fat egg yolks “to brown challah or the tops of some kugels,” which would seem to defeat the purpose. [5TJT]
• An ultra-Orthodox rabbi says that wearing Crocs on Yom Kippur, when leather shoes are traditionally prohibited, is “inadvisable,” as the chunks of foam are too comfy. (For alternative footwear, check out Tablet Magazine’s suggestions.) [Ynet]
The Washington Post’s Michael Gershon fears the internet—“The absolute freedom of the medium paradoxically encourages authoritarian impulses to intimidate and silence others”—seeing in it the “specter” of Germany’s transformation to Nazism. [WPost]

Israeli Census Stats Released

Palestinians more impoverished; ultra-Orthodox more hungry

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Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics released its annual report last week, in time for Rosh Hashanah. This week, in advance of the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty, the Bureau published a report comparing poverty statistics from 2003 with those from 2007. Separately, the International Peace Institute came out this week with new statistics on Palestinian public opinion on a number of political issues. Here are some highlights.

Number of people who live in Israel: 7,465,500
Percentage of those people who are Jewish: 75.5
Percentage of those people who are Palestinian: 20.3

Percentage of children in Israel labled to be at risk of poverty in 2007: 40
Percentage of Jewish children at risk of poverty in 2007: 27
Percentage of Arab children at risk of poverty in 2007: 73

Percentage of secular Jews “foregoing food for economic reasons” in 2007: 15
Percentage of ultra-Orthodox Jews “foregoing food for economic reasons” in 2007: 30

Percentage of Palestinians who support “a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, separate from Israel”: 55
Percentage of Palestinians who favor a bi-national state of Palestinians and Israelis: 11

Percentage of Palestinians who believe the most important step that could be taken to advance the peace process is evacuation of settlements and outposts: 28
Percentage who believe the most important step is the release of prisoners: 27
Percentage who believe the most important step is “halting demolitions and settlement building activity”: 6

CBS: Israel’s Population Numbers 7,465,500 [JPost]
40 Percent of Israeli Children at Poverty Risk [Ynet]
IPI Poll: Palestinians Support 2-State Peace Plan, Fatah, Abbas [International Peace Institute]

Intermarried Chicago Kids Won’t Get Grandpa’s Money

But will presented weird incentives for dad

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This morning, we mentioned the case of the Chicago man whose grandchildren were disinherited for marrying non-Jews. The Illinois Supreme Court ruled that dentist Max Feinberg and his wife, Erla, were within their rights when drafting wills that made marrying Jews a condition of receiving a share of their estate. Legally speaking, this seems logical. Parents have no doubt drawn up valid wills based on flimsier preferences. “Equal protection does not require that all children be treated equally,” the judge in the case wrote. What strikes us as odd is that, in the absence of Jewish spouses, the money earmarked for the dentist’s five grandchildren—a respectable quarter-million apiece—goes instead to Max Feinberg’s son and daughter. What Feinberg seems to have done, in essence, is draft a will that gave his children an incentive to have their children marry non-Jews—which, given the will’s intent, seems a little odd.

Ill. High Court OKs ‘Jews Only’ Inheritance [AP]

Jacko Called Hitler ‘Genius Orator’

At least according to Shmuley Boteach book

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Jackson in London in March.(Dave Hogan/Getty Images)

Opportunist (and rabbi) Shmuley Boteach today starts hawking The Michael Jackson Tapes, a new book based on 30 hours of conversations he had with the late pop star. Among its big revelations is Jackson’s admiration for Hitler, whom he called a “genius orator,” according to Britain’s Daily Mail. “To make that many people turn and change and hate, he had to be a showman and he was,” Jackson told Boteach, noting that Hitler’s bad ’tude could’ve been mitigated with just a little therapy, since “somewhere, something in their life went wrong.” In the romance department, Jackson reportedly told Boteach that Cindy Crawford flirted with him, he considered dating Liz Taylor, and while Madonna loved him, the feeling was hardly mutual—“she is not sexy at all,” he asserted.

Michael Jackson: Adolf Hitler was a ‘genius’ at showmanship [Daily Mail]

Canadian Group Turns Israel Boycott Around

Campaigns for a ‘Buycott’

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Having trouble keeping track of all the boycotts on Israeli products? A Canadian group plans to set up a database “that will allow our subscribers to notify others when they find out about an attempt to boycott a particular [Israeli] item.” The catch is that the group is pro-Israel, and wants people to go out and buy those very things—such as Ahava cosmetics, wine, and, in the case of the U.K. labor union, anything made in Israel—in what they’re calling a “Buycott.” We know at least one or two Jews that won’t have too much trouble participating, including some of our own family members who consider a “Made in Israel” sticker enough of a reason to purchase pretty much anything from cake mix to underwear.

‘Buycott’ Challenges Israel Boycotters
[JPost]

Today’s Sorry

Apologies to the barrista, and to fellow commuters

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It’s the last workday before Yom Kippur, and therefore the last installment in our countdown-to-the-holiday Daily Sorry series. Today, our final two sorries, one from a cheap café-goer and the other from an inconsiderate straphanger. Listen to them here and here.

And, with that, our work is done. We hope you feel like you got some stuff off your chest, like we helped you atone. And, if not: sorry.

Netanyahu’s Brief Homecoming

Visits 92nd Street Y, reminisces, leaves to catch plane

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Netanyahu at the United Nations yesterday.(Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had a brief homecoming—of sorts—last night at the 92nd Street Y, on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, where he apparently learned to swim as a kid. “This was where I had my first immersion into American Jewish affairs,” Netanyahu joked to the thousand or so people who turned up, at relatively short notice, and waited two hours at security to see him give a 20-minute speech about, of all things, an encounter he had with the Lubavitcher rebbe in 1984, while serving as Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations.

Netanyahu, fresh from addressing the U.N. General Assembly yesterday morning, had a plane to catch, so he raced through the tale of how he was summoned to spend the Simchat Torah holiday in Crown Heights by a former soldier who had become Lubavitcher. Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson wanted to tell him to “light a candle of truth” in the U.N.’s “house of lies,” Netanyahu recounted, referring specifically to Holocaust denial and reports criticizing Israel as the aggressor in the conflict with the Palestinians. “We’re not conquerors and we’re not colonialists!” Netanyahu declared, after explaining that he keeps a 2,000-year-old signet ring in his office inscribed with the name of some other Netanyahu who lived in ancient times. “That is my name!”

Then the prime minister asked the crowd—which included a smattering of black-hatted men—to do the same, this Yom Kippur, and “light one more—the same candle of truth.” There was applause. A little girl presented the politician with a bouquet of flowers, the crowd sang The Star-Spangled Banner and Hatikvah, and then Netanyahu waved and went home.

Bibi: U.N. as ‘House of Lies’ [Politico]
Netanyahu Recalls Rebbe’s Advice: Dispel Lies, Darkness, With Truth [Lubavitch.com]
Previously: Netanyahu at U.N.: If They Recognize Us, We’ll Recognize Them

Today on Tablet

A Hasidic tradition, kosher footwear, and Moses’s last day

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Marc Caplan describes Rosh Hashanah with a Hasidic sect in Ukraine. Allison Hoffman has some advice on leather-free shoes for Yom Kippur. Liel Leibovitz brings Pancho Villa into this weeks Torah portion, about the end of Moses’s life. Plus, more to come here on The Scroll.

Daybreak: Hosni Blames Jews for UNESCO Loss

Obama to confont Ahmadinejad, Olmert trial begins, and more in the news

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• Farouk Hosni, the Egyptian culture minister who lost a bid to become head of UNESCO, most likely in part because he once threatened to burn Israeli books, blames the “Jewish organizations and lobby who lit a fire of lies” about him. [Reuters]
• President Barack Obama, along with British and French leaders, will confront Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad about a secret nuclear facility believed to be in the works near Tehran. [NYT]
• White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel told Charlie Rose that Obama’s meeting with Israeli and Palestinian leaders was more than a photo op: “they now have to go home and face the people that they represent.” [Haaretz]
• Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s trial on corruption charges began today; testimony has been postponed until next February. [Ynet]
• The Illinois Supreme Court upheld the wills of a couple who opted to disinherit their grandchildren if they didn’t marry Jews; four out of five lost out on the money. [AP]

Sundown: Make It Rain

Another scam, Ahmadinejad in line, and a settler speaks

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• According to a market-research poll, the number one Rosh Hashanah wish among Israeli Jews is a practical one: increased rainfall. (In a rule that would be instructive to beauty pageant organizers, respondents weren’t allowed to choose peace.) [Ynet]
• Jewish charities in Latin America were the hardest hit victims of the Madoff-esque Ponzi scheme allegedly perpetrated by R. Allen Stanford; he may have targeted them specifically. [CBS]
• A Palestine Monitor interview with a Jewish settler in Hebron who believes “the ends justify the means” is relatively even-handed (albeit interspersed on the page with videos of settlers abusing Palestinians). [PM]
• A Swedish official says Iranian President Ahmadinejad’s speech yesterday did not cross the “red line” that would have prompted a full walkout by the European Union, although she understands “there were other reasons for other countries that decided to leave.” [EJP]
Publishers Weekly has an interview with Maggie Anton, who recently published the third installment in her trilogy of romances based on the real lives of Rashi’s daughters. This one’s “like Gone with the Wind, but with the Crusades instead of the Civil War,” Anton says an editor told her. [PW]

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