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On Tablet Today

A life’s work, a vibrant fest, and the pitfalls of playing God

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Cartoonist Vanessa Davis takes an animated look back at strange jobs from her past. Roger Bennett reports from the “crazy, magical” Jewish culture festival in Krakow. Tablet Magazine’s Liel Leibovitz plays God on his iPhone only to find himself more in awe than ever of the Real Deal in this week’s Torah portion. And of course, new posts on The Scroll throughout the day.

Faster!

We welcome a new, not entirely un-Jewish news website

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We take a break from our regularly scheduled yiddishkeit to point you to The Faster Times, which dubs itself “a new type of newspaper for a new type of world.” Launched yesterday afternoon, it’s a sort of news aggregator for smart people, providing not only curated links to interesting content elsewhere but also healthy dose of its contributors’ own reporting and analysis. It’s run by a number of Friends of Tablet—including its editor-in-chief, who we recently interviewed, and its deputy editor, whose father is the author of Marc Chagall, a biography in Nextbook Press’s Jewish Encounters series. We would also direct you to a launch-day Unsolicited Advice column on philandering British celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay, which is both funny and written by a Tablet contributing editor. Go take a look (ignoring the weirdly cropped headshots, which make all Faster Times contributors appear to have feathered hairdos). But then be sure to come back; we still want your traffic.

The Faster Times [Homepage]

Daybreak: Hunger Strike for Gaza

Fear in Hungary, divine provenance of pol, and more from the news

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• A group of rabbis is calling for a monthly fast day to protest the treatment of Palestinians in Gaza. [Jewschool]
• Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak says Israel pulled out of a deal that would have released imprisoned soldier Gilad Shalit “four or five months ago.” [Ynet]
• Hungarian Jewish officials have asked their government for extra protection from extremist violence, fearing a repeat of the Mumbai attacks on Jews in Hungary. [BosNewsLife]
• Congregation KAM Isaiah Israel, the synagogue across the street from the Obamas’ home in Chicago, has its first female rabbi. [Chicago Tribune]
• A researcher suggests that British Conservative Party leader David Cameron might be directly descended from Moses. [London Times]

Sundown: A Campy Idea

Fashion plates, golden coffins, and bad verse

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• The editor of the New Jersey Jewish News makes a case for summer camp for adults. Is he vying for the newly-vacated CEO position at the Foundation for Jewish Camp? [NJJN]
Moment magazine surveys the role of Jews in fashion, from Ralph Lauren to Levi Okunov. [Moment]
• A blogger links Michael Jackson’s funeral to the story of the Golden Calf (the anniversary of which is today, according to the Jewish calendar), based on someone’s comment that the memorial focused on “how awesome and Messiah-like the deceased was.” [New Wineskins]
• A workshop at Yad Vashem will examine media artifacts in an attempt to determine how in the heck the whole world could have stood by as the Holocaust was carried out. [JPost]
• My Jewish Learning is sponsoring a bad Jewish poetry contest* in honor of Bad Poetry Day on August 18. [Laurel Snyder]

*For inspiration check out this not-quite-haiku from Tablet’s resident rhymester, written circa age 10:

Haiku About Freedom

I like to be free
You can do what you want
You can study Torah

Satmar Mayor Praises Obama on Israel

Supports divinely mandated peace plan

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Obama meeting with Israeli President Shimon Peres in May.(Amos Ben Gershom/GPO via Getty Images)

It’s the rare news item that runs in both Al Jazeera and the Times Herald-Record of Orange County, New York: Abraham Wieder, the mayor of the ultra-Orthodox upstate village Kiryas Joel, wrote a letter to President Barack Obama praising his “noble efforts” to “stop the senseless bloodshed in the Middle East,” as Eric Fingerhut noted on JTA’s Capital J blog. Kiryas Joel is an extremely conservative community, and at a time when even some less-religious Jewish organizations are frustrated with what they see as Obama’s insufficiently Zionist Israel policies the news might come as something of a surprise. But the Satmar Hasidim, who dominate Kiryas Joel, have always been anti-Zionist, arguing that there can be no legitimate Jewish state until the coming of the Messiah. Still, what’s most surprising about the letter is how much Weider opens the letter like a run-of-the-mill lefty, secular Jew, talking of that “senseless bloodshead” and “an equitable and lasting peace.” (Of course, he goes on to note that “the modern State of Israel stands in contravention of the Almighty’s prohibition.”)

Kiryas Joel’s administrator, Gedalye Szegadim, told Tablet that the letter was “all religious, not political,” and that he wasn’t sure if the mayor had even voted for Obama. (Many Kiryas Joel residents don’t vote in presidential elections, he said.) Is Kiryas Joel’s mayor in favor of a Palestinian state alongside Israel? “Whatever the price for peace, and stopping the bloodshed, is all-important,” Szegadim said.

KJ’s Mayor Thanks Obama for Mideast Efforts [Times Herald-Record]

Countering Recent Attacks by Settlers, Mayor of Jewish Town in US Sends Obama
[Al Jazeera]

Queen Sarah?

Sarah Palin as a 21st-century Esther

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(Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images; photo illustration: Abigail Miller)

Move over King David. The new biblical character of choice for public figures in distress is Queen Esther. First there was Carrie Prejean, the beauty pageant contestant embraced by Christian conservatives for her opposition to gay marriage. Focus on the Family, celebrating her “courage to speak for biblical truth” called her the “modern Queen Esther.” Now, those who monitor public utterances for coded allusions to scripture are saying that when Sarah Palin was speaking to ABC News on Tuesday—“politically speaking, if I die, I die, so be it,” the soon-to-be-former governor said—she was channeling the biblical queen, who in the fourth chapter of her eponymous book says, “When this is done, I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish.”

Truth be told, we’re puzzled. Sure, Palin and Prejean were beauty queens, as was Esther, but beyond that, the parallels start to break down. Let’s start with politics. In the presidential campaign, the McCain-Palin ticket was against dialogue with autocratic regimes. Esther, on the other hand, wasn’t just in favor of engagement with a Persian despot—she married one! And while Palin and Prejean are proud of their outsiderness, convinced they’re being persecuted by elites, Esther was the product of a prominent political family. Her uncle Mordechai was a royal adviser—an inside-the-Beltway figure if there ever was one, the Rahm Emanuel of his day. And talk about family values! Esther’s Persia was about as louche a place as they come. When the whole megillah starts, the king, entertaining some friends, summons Esther’s predecessor, Vashti, to come join the party wearing the royal crown—the crown and nothing else, commentators say.

And so maybe the Christian conservatives should cut it out with the Esther comparisons and leave the name to a worthier heiress, someone who embodies the queen’s spirit in all its worldliness and complexity.

Palin Joins Miss California in the Queen Esther Pageant [USA Today]

D.C.’s ‘Self-Hating Jews’

Bibi’s no fan of Emanuel, Axelrod

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So what if Rahm Emanuel’s father is Israeli (and a veteran of the militant Irgun movement), and David Axelrod keeps a campaign poster spelling Barack Obama’s name in Hebrew characters next to his desk? They clearly don’t agree with Benjamin Netanyahu on the subject of settlements, at the very least, and as far as Bibi is concerned, that means they must not really be on Israel’s side at all. Haaretz correspondent Barak Ravid reports today that the Israeli prime minister—who, international diplomatic challenges aside, is dealing with a noisome cabinet and a fragile coalition—is “suffering from confusion and paranoia” and refers to both Emanuel and Axelrod as “self-hating Jews.” No word on whether that makes Netanyahu, a former ambassador to the United Nations, a self-hating diplomat.

Netanyahu’s Paranoia Extends to ‘Self-Hating Jews’ Emanuel and Axelrod [Ha’aretz]

Britney Does it Again

Jewelry choice sparks new conversion rumors

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Spears with her Star of David necklace.(dailybabbler.ivillage.com)

Britney Spears, who has as many reasons to be soul-searching as anyone, is rumored to be considering a conversion to Judaism, based on the evidence that she was spotted in a Star of David necklace. The logic seems a little thin—bling is bling, after all—and we’ve heard it before, over a year ago. Plus, according to some of her jewelry vendors, “diamonds do have healing powers,” regardless of what shape they form, and the chanteuse has been known to turn to accessories for such things.

Maybe she’s preparing for her potential role in an upcoming Holocaust flick, but even if she’s following in Madonna’s footsteps, all that means is she may become Bracha Spears sometime soon, and the name change hasn’t exactly made the material girl any more kosher.

Is Britney a New Jew? [Daily Blabber]
Is Britney Putting the Jew in Jewelry? [Beliefnet]

Silver Jew Is Genius Cartoonist, Or Not

Singer-turned-illustrator David Berman releases cartoon book, to mixed reviews

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Silver Jews frontman David Berman elicited indie tears earlier this year when he announced he was quitting his band to pursue other endeavors. He’d made his name as a member of Pavement; in the Silver Jews, he was known for literary, angst-ridden lyrics. In recent years, he’s overcome addiction, at least in part by embracing religion. “I pray,” he told the site MonsterFresh recently. “Judaism helped me to get sober.” Now, Berman—already a published poet—has put his graphite stick where his mouth is with The Portable February, a book of cartoons. Reviews are mixed. Pitchfork called the collection “absolutely ridiculous”, while Magnet Magazine called it genius. This week, novelist and critic Ed Park is praising the work, all but anointing Berman the heir to influential French literary theorist Roland Barthes. “In drawing after drawing, sign and signifier get tantalizingly tangled,” Park says. You be the judge: Pitchfork has images from the book.

Silver Jew David Berman’s Book of Cartoons, Revealed [Pitchfork]
Book Review: David Berman’s “The Portable February”
[Magnet Magazine]
The Pure Products of America Go Crazy [Poetry Foundation]
Previously: Silver Lining [Tablet]

Jewish Comedy, Then and Now

Cranky essayist prefers the early, funny stuff

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They’re both opening this Friday, but, otherwise, Aviva Kempner’s documentary Yoo Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg and Sacha Baron Cohen’s mockumentary Brüno have little in common. One’s a reverent tribute to Gertrude Berg, who the filmmaker argues was the inventor of the sitcom; the other is—well, you know. But an essay in the New York Press contends that, viewed side by side, the two films trace the decline of American Jewish comedy from the “time-honored humanity” of Berg to Baron Cohen’s “familiar snark.” Writer Armond White is right to note that Berg’s comedy was warm and empathic while Baron Cohen’s is spiky and sometimes cruel, but is this really, as he would have it, because of “contemporary Jewish comedy’s lack of ethnic confidence”? If anything, American comedy became so confidently Jewish so long ago that characters like Berg’s Molly Goldberg, a loud, proud Jewish mother, have been reheated ad infinitum. A cover story in New York magazine several weeks ago went so far as to say that, in the Forward’s paraphrase, Jews have in fact become “too secure” to be funny. Just like Berg in her day, Baron Cohen and prickly Jewish contemporaries like Sarah Silverman are pushing the envelope of Jewish representations beyond what’s already been done.

Homo Panic! at the Cinema [NYPress]
Related: Sitmom [Tablet]

Today on Tablet

Daniel Mendelsohn, Gertrude Berg, and a catchall day of mourning

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Marissa Brostoff considers a new documentary on Gertrude Berg, whose TV show The Goldbergs was the Jewish answer to I Love Lucy. David Kaufmann parses how Daniel Mendelsohn’s work translating Greek poetry reflect the writer’s Jewishness. Tablet Magazine offers our own guide to the 17th of Tammuz, a lesser known fast day on the Jewish calendar. Plus, stay tuned for more updates to this blog, The Scroll.

Daybreak: Israel Forgives, British Jews Don’t

Vandalism, a troublesome comparison, and more from the news

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• Israel’s Foreign Ministry has forgiven the European Union, which apologized for criticizing Israel’s settlement policy as economically crippling to Palestinians. [Arutz Sheva]
• Meanwhile, British Jewish groups have scoffed at the apology of Formula One’s Bernie Ecclestone, who last week praised Hitler’s ability to “get things done.” [CNN]
• Four members of the Jewish Defense League in France have allegedly vandalized a pro-Palestinian book store. [Ynet]
• A new Jewish American museum in Philadelphia, set to open next year, is holding a vote on its website to determine 18 people to honor in an exhibit. [Philadelphia Enquirer]
• Andrew Sullivan revives the Sarah Palin-as-Queen Esther analogy. [Atlantic]

Sundown: To the Rescue!

Batwoman for D.C. mayor, Norway compartmentalizes, and praying via Twitter

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• Comic book superhero Batwoman is running for mayor of Washington, D.C., where she’d be the first lesbian, and also the first Jew, to hold the job, says her “campaign manager.” [Bilerico Project]
• Some Israelis are miffed that Norway has declared 2009 a year honoring Knut Hamsun, who, in the words of a Norwegian official, “was among our greatest authors and a Nazi sympathizer. Can we reconcile this?” The offending institute has invited Israelis to a debate on the topic—to be held next year, of course. [Haaretz]
• This year’s Avignon theater festival in France, which opened yesterday, will include Amos Gitai’s play based on Flavius Josephus’s “History of the Jewish War Against the Romans.” [Bloomberg]
• If you can keep your prayers concise, God will now be receiving them via tweets to the Kotel. [Tweet Your Prayers]
• Chabad Rabbi Peretz Chain completed the Cape Cod Marathon and was “on cloud 37.” That’s one more than twice chai! [NYT]
The Real Housewives of New York’s Bethenny Frankel plans to marry her boyfriend of eight months, despite having strayed from castmate Ramona’s “Rules for Manhandling.” [NYMag]

Chicken Soup for the Macaca Soul

George Allen’s book of moral lessons

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Allen campaigning for Senate in 2006.(Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Regnery, the conservative publishing house, announced yesterday that former Virginia senator George Allen will be joining its author list with a book, due out next year, called The Triumph of Character: What Washington Can Learn from the World of Sports. Allen, you may recall, was famously swept off the national stage in 2006 after he was captured on camera calling S.R. Sidarth, a University of Virginia student who was volunteering as a roving cameraman for Allen’s Democratic opponent, Jim Webb, “macaca.” As in, “So, welcome, let’s give a welcome to Macaca here. Welcome to America, and the real world of Virginia.” “Macaca,” as the Forward went on to reveal, is Tunisian slang for blacks, which prompted a round of questioning from the press that ultimately forced Allen, after complaining that reporters were “making aspersions,” to reveal that his mother, Henrietta, was the scion of one of Tunis’ most prominent Jewish families—something it was never clear why he went to such lengths to conceal.

According to Regnery’s press release, Allen plans to write from his personal experience as a college football and rugby player at the University of Virginia—probably a smart move, since relying on the lessons he learned from his father, legendary Redskins coach George Allen Sr., would open up questions about when he planned to pen a companion volume on lessons he learned from his mother, who spent her adult life concealing her religious background for the sake of her husband’s and son’s careers.

George Allen’s Road Back? [Politico]
Related: Alleged Slur Casts Spotlight On Senator’s (Jewish?) Roots [Forward]

Novelist Messud Visits Middle East

And Marty Peretz—her husband’s old boss—is not amused

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Until recently, British author Claire Messud had only written about Palestine as a vogue political issue that interrupts—but remunerates—the life of quiet contemplation being fitfully led by Murray Thwaite, the liberal newspaper columnist who features prominently in her novel, The Emperor’s Children. Murray blows off a planned speech at a fundraising dinner for a Harlem youth program because it’s on the same night as a dinner given in honor of two Palestinian activists and, to decide between them, “it was as easy as a simple sum.” The Arabs commanded the higher speaking fee.

Now Messud’s attentions have returned to the Middle East, this time with a column in the Boston Globe recounting her recent very unpleasant time in Israel and the West Bank. Messud and a handful of other writers from around the world had traveled to Jerusalem to attend Palestine Festival of Literature, originally scheduled to take place at the Palestine National Theater—that is, until event was relocated, along with its attendees, all bedecked in their evening wear and spilling their cocktails over the rocky terrain, by “machine-gun toting Israeli soldiers in flak jackets.”

Messud offers no reason why IDF soldiers would ask a group of scribblers to take their business elsewhere, except that, as she coyly puts it, “our literary festival had the word ‘Palestine’ in its title.” According to the Palestinians she encountered, many other such cultural events have been shut down or hampered by the Israeli military in a city she notes UNESCO declared the Capital of Arab Culture for 2009. A little investigation might have gone a long way; instead, the rest of her piece is a monument to cant and banality—members of her entourage, she writes, compared the circumstances of a colonial population living under military supervision to “Orwell’s 1984; to Kafka.” It was no doubt Orwellian of Messud to refer to her stifled confab by its popular acronym, “Palfest.” And her background coloration scans like some Fodor’s Guide to Orientalist Cliché:

We scrambled up rocks among terraced olive groves to a stone shepherd’s hut, from which we could see the green and gold hills interlaced to the horizon. We picked our way along a dry riverbed, surprising a patterned tortoise, and on to a small village, where a mangy donkey gazed balefully from its tether and ruddy-faced children demonstrated their tree-climbing prowess.

You know how long it takes for a patterned tortoise to even know you’re there? All that’s missing from this strophe is the call of the muezzin drowned out by machine gun fire, and sand-scorched Western palates thrilling to the wondrous flavors of hummus. But, hey, before you know it, Messud is actually referring to one swarthy denizen of the region as “nut-brown.” And this happens to be Mordechai Vanunu, the Israeli who blew the whistle on his country’s nuclear program 25 years ago and served time for almost as long. He is now a nut-brown man without a sky-blue Israeli passport.

Messud’s piece was more than enough to set Marty Peretz, editor-in-chief of The New Republic, off on a thousand-word blog tear:

Messud’s ignorance and incuriousness—her piece is an instant classic in the literature of the writer as political tourist—shows in her portraits of both the Palestinians and the Israelis. Her Palestinians are innocent victims who wish merely to read and write freely. Nowhere in her plangent prose in there a suggestion that they owe a good deal of their present misery to their own refusal of various offers of statehood. Nowhere is there a hint of actual literary and cultural life under Hamas and under Fatah. Messud seems to think that but for the Israelis and their occupation Palestine is an oasis of freedom and cultivation.

The real question, though, is how Peretz’s former star book critic James Wood, who graduated from TNR to The New Yorker a few years back and is—not incidentally—Messud’s husband, is handling all of this. A high priest at the Temple of Saul Bellow, Wood would no doubt be fielding angry calls from his now-dead hero and the author of To Jerusalem and Back for his wife’s freshman foray into leftist travelogue writing.

Walking Miles in Palestinian Feet [Boston Globe]
Her Truths [TNR]

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