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A Disturbing, Mostly Nonexistent Trend

Do b’nai mitzvah engage in oral sex?

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Becoming a bar mitzvah is about becoming a man, of course. However, every so often it’s alleged that, these days, part of that man-becoming process involves, well, a different rite of passage: receiving oral sex from female contemporaries. Sometimes the act is presented as a private “present,” but, in some fantastic versions, it is part of a group activity in which a “train” of boys lines up to be serviced by a parallel line of girls. An article in 614, a magazine for Jewish women published by Brandeis University, flags the “trend,” and also mentions the inconvenient, if also completely irrelevant, fact that the most famous and consequential blow job ever given (not that there’s a museum) came courtesy a nice Jewish girl named Monica Lewinsky. A few years ago, an essay in The Atlantic also discussed the alleged fad, debunking it as largely “urban legend” with a glint of truth. Neither that article nor 614‘s came up with anything beyond purely anecdotal and suppositional evidence, so we will do the same. We personally don’t recall such behavior from our own bar mitzvah experience—and we’re pretty sure we’d remember it. But certainly that does not mean it has never happened; actually, the mere fact that it is discussed as something that happens guarantees that it will be. Which is why we find the 614 article’s recommended prescription so confounding: “Talk to the kids,” it suggests. “Find out what sex means to them; find out what is realistic. Find out if they see it as sex; if the girls feel they are degraded. Find out if the boys are pressuring the girls.” We would think the best way to get kids not to participate in such behavior would be for them to know as little as possible about it.

Sex and the Suburbs [614]

The Indifferent Settlers

Ground zero for a West Bank compromise

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Construction in Modiin Illit in 2008(Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images)

In The New York Times today, we learn all about the West Bank settlements of Modiin Illit and Beitar Illit, as well as, potentially, the unique opportunity they offer in potential negotiations. Why are these settlements different from all other settlements? For one thing, they are populated by ultra-Orthodox Jews with no particular religious or ideological attachment to settling the West Bank; they live there because housing is cheap and their community can function outside of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem’s more secularized precincts. Additionally, the two communities together account for half of all West Bank settler growth. “If removed from the equation,” the authors write of the settlements’ tens of thousands of residents, “the larger settler challenge takes on more manageable proportions.” Not only that: the settlements are located just on the other side of the Green Line, meaning that their absorption into Israel proper as part of a final deal would present comparatively minor logistical challenges.

Reading the article and watching the accompanying video one is struck by how little these haredim conform to the traditional image of the settler. Strikingly, this distinction is apparent even to the Palestinian villagers of nearby Bilin, where “the settlers over the fence are viewed as different from the Jewish nationalists in, say, Hebron.” That said, these settlers’ ideological flexibility does not lessen “the harm to the villagers caused by the very existence of Modiin Illit and the contest over its land.” (indeed, in the video, we learn that Bilin’s zucchini and cucumber crop is affected by the settlements’ sewage runoff). This truism, that the land is the land no matter the beliefs of those living on it, does somewhat undercut the “hope” alluded to in the article’s headline.

In 2 West Bank Settlements, Sign of Hope for a Deal [NYT]

The Kabbalist and The ‘Birther’

A tale of two crazy Bergs

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Philip S. Berg is the head of the Kabbalah Centre, the organization responsible for turning the ancient strain of Jewish mysticism into a fad among celebrities and the people who emulate them. Philip J. Berg is perhaps the most prominent “birther,” who has been trying to convince the world (and the federal courts) that President Barack Obama was actually born in Kenya, and is therefore Constitutionally ineligible for the presidency. Confused? Our guide to the two Philip Bergs follows.

GIVEN NAME
Kabbalah Berg: Feivel Gruberger
Birther Berg: Philip J. Berg (assuming his birth certificate is not a forgery)

JEWISH?
Kabbalah Berg: Yes, although not all of his co-religionists would say so at this point.
Birther Berg: Yes, according to one interview (he’s also a “life-long member of the NAACP”).

PREVIOUS JOB
Kabbalah Berg: Insurance salesman.
Birther Berg: Deputy Attorney General of Pennsylvania.

QUESTIONED CREDENTIALS
Kabbalah Berg: He claims to have a Ph.D, but it is not clear in what or from where.
Birther Berg: Was successfully sued for legal malpractice by former clients.

WRITTEN WORKS
Kabbalah Berg: Has published several books, including Kabbalistic Astrology: And The Meaning of Our Lives; Astrology, the Star Connection: The Science of Judaic Astrology; and the presumably more mainstream Kabbalistic Astrology Made Easy.
Birther Berg: Authored a 237-page lawsuit accusing President Bush (actually, both Presidents Bush), Vice President Cheney, and 153 other defendants for playing a role in the 9/11 attacks, in violation of RICO. The case has been dismissed.

FAVORITE ACCESSORY
Kabbalah Berg: A red-string bracelet.
Birther Berg: A copy of Barry Soetoro’s fake birth certificate.

ODD BELIEF
Kabbalah Berg: Believes in reincarnation.
Birther Berg:
Believes that thousands of hungry journalists, millions of opposing Republicans, and 300 million Americans have been fooled by an unusually savvy Kenyan man.

Orthodox Israelis Cry American Anti-Semitism

Fail even to attempt a decent Jersey joke

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For Americans, there was a reflexive impulse following last week’s money-laundering charges against prominent Syrian Jews and New Jersey politicians to mutter worryingly about the greedy and criminal predilections of a certain close-knit, provincial people. We speak, of course, of New Jerseyans (“Why is New Jersey so unshakably corrupt?” the New York Times asks today). But for senior members of Israel’s ultra-religious Shas political party, the arrests raised a different question: why are the FBI and President Barack Obama determined to persecute America’s Orthodox community? “There is a feeling here that the FBI purposely attempted to arrest as many rabbis as possible at once in an attempt to humiliate them,” the editor of the party’s weekly told the Jerusalem Post. He said his publication’s next editorial will specifically accuse Obama of inciting anti-Semitism in America. He added, “Regardless of the details of the case—I am not familiar with the precise charges and the evidence … It is so obvious that the whole thing is motivated by anti-Semitism.” So obvious that familiarity with the precise charges and the evidence is apparently unnecessary.

We think it’s telling that the concerns over anti-Semitism are emanating from non-Americans. A different ultra-Orthodox editor told JPost, “After Madoff, now there is this. I’m frankly concerned about the rise of anti-Semitism in the U.S.” But it’s in the nature of American pluralism that most Americans, who may know that Madoff is Jewish, don’t then implicate other Jews for his actions; and so, too, with these arrests. Besides, Americans know better than to blame all the Jews for something as immutable as Jersey corruption.

‘FBI Sting Was A Case of Anti-Semitism’ [JPost]

Today on Tablet

Israeli mafiosi and a disgraced Syrian rabbi

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Today, Tablet Magazine features the first half of Douglas Century’s multi-part article about Israel’s new and “far more violent, ruthless, and young” generation of organized criminals. For the weekly Vox Tablet podcast, Sara Ivry speaks with Century and Century’s guide through the Tel Aviv neighborhood that headquarters many mafiosi. Allison Hoffman, who covered last week’s arrests of 44 prominent Syrian Jews and New Jersey politicians, profiles Rabbi Saul Kassin, the de facto head of both America’s Syrian Jewish community and, allegedly, a massive money-laundering scheme. And in her weekly parenting column, Marjorie Ingall interviews Paula Span, an author and New York Times blogger, on caring for aging parents. Plus, please click on over to The Scroll throughout the day.

Gates In Jerusalem Today

Defense Secretary to talk Iran with Bibi, Barak

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Gates smiles at Barak during this morning’s press conference.(Jim Watson/Pool/Getty Images)

As part of a trip announced a week ago, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates will meet today with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak in Jerusalem to discuss how to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear capability. (Actually, a meeting with Barak has already taken place.) “Both the U.S. and Israel agree it is preferable to solve the Iranian situation peacefully,” David Makovsky, co-author with Dennis Ross of the new Myths, Illusions & Peace: Finding a New Direction for America in the Middle East, told us last week. “The differences are whether there is a Plan B if negotiations do not get off the ground.” The prospect of a potential last-ditch Israeli air strike will no doubt haunt the meetings: at a press conference this morning, Barak announced that “no options should be removed from the table.”

Before President George W. Bush tapped him to lead the Pentagon in late 2006, Gates had been CIA director under the first President Bush, and he is generally seen to share that earlier administration’s realist foreign-policy outlook. In the past, when not confined by the need to follow a particular administration’s line, Gates has advocated negotiating with Iran. In 2004, he co-chaired a task force that recommended that the U.S. “engage selectively,” and concluded that an Israeli bombing strike would be “extremely problematic” practically and “would adversely affect U.S. interests”. These more moderate sentiments, which were mostly out of fashion in the Bush administration (although Bush did oppose Israeli bombing), have largely been adopted by President Barack Obama. On the other hand, as Tablet Senior Editor Michael Weiss noted last week, the events of the past several weeks in Iran have made engagement a temporary non-starter. Moreover, though Gates’s preferred tactical strategy is more moderate than others’, he is nonetheless firm on the importance of resolving the Iranian situation: two weeks ago, he identified Iran’s nuclear ambitions as the biggest threat to global security.

So what happens today? The main goal appears less to be to conduct specific planning and more to achieve a general sense that the U.S. and Israel are on the same general page. According to Makovsky, Gates and Barak—the two countries’ civilian military heads—“hold each other in the highest professional regard.” Hopefully that will count for something even as the two countries disagree on the wisdom of engagement and as Israel continues to raise the specter of military action.

Gates Says U.S. Overture to Iran is ‘Not Open-Ended’ [NYT]

Daybreak: Settlements Deal Close

Plus a nuclear Iran, Tel Aviv threatened, and more in the news

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• Following a meeting yesterday between Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and U.S. Special Envoy George Mitchell, a deal in which West Bank settlement construction would be frozen except for several advanced projects is reportedly close. [Haaretz]
• Meanwhile, Barak and U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, after a meeting this morning, expressed disagreement over the wisdom of engaging Iran over its nuclear program. [NYT]
• Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Hezbullah, announced that his group would send missiles on Tel Aviv if Israel attacks any part of Lebanon, as he predicted it would by the middle of next year. [Arutz Sheva]
• And Israel is “quietly” resuming the immigration process for 3,000 Ethiopian Falashmura. [Haaretz]

Sundown: From Stewart to Leibowitz?

Plus, Weiner’s Muslim fiancée

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From Stewart back to Leibowitz?(Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images)

• Columnist Ron Rosenbaum asks Daily Show host Jon Stewart to change his name back to the original: Jon Stuart Leibowitz. [Slate]
• Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.)’s recent engagement to a Muslim woman—a top aide to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton named Huma Abedin—has spawned a lot of conversation and perhaps a little controversy. [New York Jewish Week]
• Apropos yesterday’s charges that one Syrian Jewish man attempted to buy and sell a human kidney: what does Jewish law say about illegally trading in organs if it might save a life? [Slate]
• The ostensible congregation of a rabbi arrested yesterday as part of the massive anti-corruption sting appears to be a small residential house in Brooklyn—a house to which there are at least 97 non-profits registered. [TJC Newsdesk]
• Can Israel re-brand itself to potential American tourists as a hip, charming destination not necessarily freighted by history and religion? [The Faster Times]

What’s Next For The Syrian Jews?

Yesterday’s 44 arrests hit community leaders

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Tablet Magazine’s Allison Hoffman has been covering the arrest of Rabbi Saul Kassin, the de facto head of America’s Syrian Jewish community. He was apprehended yesterday in connection with a wide-ranging corruption investigation that implicated 43 other people, including four other rabbis and several New Jersey politicians. The FBI has credited Solomon Dwek, the scion of a prominent Syrian Jewish family based in Deal, N.J., with bringing law enforcement to its targets. Dwek apparently agreed to inform on the accused after being arrested in 2006 on suspicion of trying to defraud a bank of $50 million.

In 2007, Zev Chafets wrote about Brooklyn’s tight-knit Syrian Jewish community for The New York Times Magazine. The author of the recently released Cooperstown Confidential: Heroes, Rogues, and the Inside Story of the Baseball Hall of Fame spoke with Hoffman about this week’s events from his home in New York.

Listen here.

Related: Crisis of Faith

Gaza War Heightens British Crimes

Most anti-Semitic attacks ever

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It’s certainly disturbing that there have been more anti-Semitic crimes in Great Britain in the less-than-seven months of 2009 than there were in all twelve of 2008. But also worth despairing over is the explanation: Israel’s three-week incursion into Gaza in January seems to have been the spur behind the statistic. January’s 286 anti-Semitic attacks in Britain—over half of which directly referenced the Gaza conflict—easily made it the worst month since they started keeping track 25 years ago, and February’s 111 made it the second-highest ever. “Of course it may be legitimate for individuals to criticize or be angry at the actions of the Israeli government but we must never allow this anger to be used to justify anti-Semitism,” was the response of Labor Party minister Shahid Malik. Actually, we’d take that a step further: anger at the actions of an autonomous government should never be taken to reflect on autonomous people. Even the association itself, the mindset that says Jews in Britain can be held to account for the Israeli government’s actions, is anti-Semitic. Perhaps that’s why, as depressing as these stats are by themselves, today’s news seems even more of a downer.

Anti-Semitic Attacks in Britain at Record High [JTA]

A Jewish-Themed Horror Movie Looks Like This

What else is wrong with Esther?

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poster for 'The Orphan'

The new horror flick The Orphan depicts a young couple’s decision to adopt a young girl gone seriously, supernaturally, and fatally awry. Ubiquitous posters spookily inform passersby, “THERE’S SOMETHING WRONG WITH ESTHER.” Er, you mean, besides her name? We haven’t seen the movie—it opens today—but a few ideas of what else could be wrong with Esther occurred to us:

• The popular girls in Esther’s Girl Scout troop, enjoying their trayf at McDonald’s, mock the falafel Esther brought from home, evoking its resemblance to charred testicles.
• Esther’s adoptive parents dress her exclusively in ‘80s polyester hand-me-downs from their Hillel friends, despite Esther’s protestations that just because she’s descended from Eastern Europeans doesn’t mean she has to dress like she raided the bargain receptacle at a Bulgarian flea market.
• Esther’s grandmother refuses to invite Esther’s new Irish Catholic boyfriend to the first night of Hanukkah. Doesn’t bubbe know what his ancestors would’ve done for a latke during the potato famine?
• Given her penchant for decapitation, Esther wonders if she should have been named Judith.
• Esther develops an appetite for blood, which in turn leads her to (horror of horrors) the Church—transubstantiation sounds delicious!

Hezbollah Broke U.N. Ceasefire

Official says group is rearming against Israel

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By maintaining arms in southern Lebanon less than fifteen miles from the Israeli border, Hezbollah committed a “serious violation” of the United Nations resolution that formally ended the 2006 war between it and Israel, a top U.N. official told the Security Council today. The existence of the arms depot, which contained long-range rockets, became apparent when there was a large, conspicuous explosion in a Lebanese town last week. Israel’s U.N. Ambassador cheered the official’s finding: “Hezbollah violates [the cease-fire] all the time, but now is the first time that one of the violations has been recognized.” While Hezbollah claims the arms have been there since before the 2006 war, the U.N. official asserted that the group “actively maintained” the cache.

U.N.: Hezbollah Violated Lebanon War Ceasefire [JTA]
U.N. Official: Arms Cache That Exploded in Lebanon Was Hezbollah’s [ynet]
Hezbollah: No More Border Demos [JPost]

‘Anti-Israel’ Film to Screen at S.F. Jewish Festival

Documentary about pro-Palestinian activist

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Expect controversy tomorrow when the film Rachel screens as part of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. Directed by the French-Israeli filmmaker Simone Bitton, Rachel is a sympathetic documentary about Rachel Corrie, a 23-year-old American activist who in 2003 was killed by an Israeli bulldozer while trying to prevent the demolition of a Palestinian home in Gaza. The decision to program the film (which, it should be said, is apparently excellently made; Bitton is a celebrated filmmaker) and to invite Corrie’s mother, Cindy, to speak after the screening prompted the festival’s president to resign, the executive director to apologize, and festival sponsors to protest that the festival has “aligned itself with the wrong side.” The film will still screen, and Corrie’s mother will still sit for a Q&A afterward. However, the festival’s organizers did hastily invite a prominent Bay Area pro-Israel activist to speak immediately before the screening in order to provide “context”.

We haven’t seen the film, but according to the website for the Tribeca Film Festival, the film adheres to the guidelines of the International Solidarity Movement, to which Corrie belonged: “to state only objective and concrete details without placing judgment.” Of course, in choosing to subscribe to Corrie’s group’s own premises, perhaps the film has tipped its decidedly non-objective hand. Still, it reportedly features interviews both with ISM members and “current and former personnel” in the Israeli military. Frankly, it’s a shame that this controversy must play out only as a select few see the film in a couple screenings scattered across the country. If it is indeed so good, we hope that it will enjoy a wider release, so that the curious can make up their own minds.

S.F. Festival Under Fire Over Plan To Screen Rachel Corrie Film [JTA]
Tribeca Film Festival entry
Previously: Chick Flicks

Israel on Facebook

Yup, there’s an app for that

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(David Silverman/Getty Images)

If you’re checking Facebook—after work, say, because obviously you’d never check Facebook at work—and see that a friend’s latest status update reads, “Israel has over 200 wineries,” then chances are your friend has downloaded the Israpedia application and is letting it brag about Israel on his or her behalf. The program, started by several students at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, issues status updates for its users that highlight fun facts about Israel. (Users can always override individual updates.) So far, according to Haaretz, more than 3,000 users have downloaded it. Next stop for Israpedia’s developers? Twitter. Better get those fun facts down to 140 characters .

New Tool Uses Facebook To Improve Israel’s Image [Haaretz]
Tablet Magazine’s Facebook page

Today on Tablet

Obama on Iran, this week’s parasha, Winnipeg Jewry

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On Tablet Magazine today, Senior Editor Michael Weiss explains how the suppression and unrest that followed Iran’s June presidential elections have pushed President Obama’s policy toward that country to resemble President Bush’s. Pondering this week’s parasha, which depicts Moses and the Israelites at the Promised Land’s gates, Liel Liebovitz to considers whether any of us will ever make it out of our own wandering through the wilderness. Winnipeg native Ezra Glinter chronicles the Manitoba capital’s vibrant Jewish community. And The Scroll will chronicle this Friday throughout the day.

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