Ben Burrows

RNC Tries to Make Us Forget Anti-Semitic Partners

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The air of “1984” hangs over the whole trip: History has been erased; the trip was never planned; Fischer was never a spokesman; Priebus and the RNC “always” had other plans.

The Republican National Committee chairman Reince Preibus, with a group of RNC board members, was scheduled Saturday to begin a tour of Israel, sponsored by the right-wing Christian network, the American Family Association, and led by Association spokesman, David Lane. Time Magazine wrote about this trip as early as December 8, 2014.

However, the association of AFA with the RNC did not receive mainstream public attention until questioned by Rachel Maddow and the Huffington Post. The AFA tour guide, David Lane, is on tape declaring that he would not vote for Mitt Romney (because of his Mormonism) in 2012. Fischer is on record, broadcasting repeatedly that Jews (specifically, and immigrants of other religions by implication) do not have the right to free practice of religion: that they are expected to “adopt our religious values and our traditions — that would mean Christianity” in order to emigrate to our shores.

There is no record, as of Groundhog Day, that Priebus and his entourage have actually left on this trip. The RNC website has been cleansed of any reference to this trip. The AFA website has no reference to Reince Priebus today earlier than 8/1/2014.

The air of “1984” hangs over the whole trip: History has been erased; the trip was never planned; Fischer was never a spokesman; Priebus and the RNC “always” had other plans. As Orwell put it in the book, “We have always been at war with Eastasia.”

Perhaps this is a case of Republicans adopting the hated European “right to forget,” which gives citizens of the European Union the right to cleanse offensive and false internet portrayals and search linkages.

In a related article, Charles Krauthammer would like us to believe that anti-Semitism is a genetic disorder in Europeans, and of no account to the European nationalist anti-immigrant movements.

It is, of course, some concern that some Europeans consider Jews permanent immigrants, incapable of becoming fully integrated Europeans — just as Fischer and Lane believe that even Christians who are not of their dominionist beliefs are not fully American citizens.

We hope that these are not normative American/European beliefs, and work to assure that liberal points of view are available to the public (decreasingly so, at least in Philadelphia’s opinion pages of record).

While we certainly strive to tolerate our opponents’ attempts to write their religious beliefs into the law of the land, we should voice our indignant objections when our citizenship is questioned, and when our good wishes for the state of Israel are exploited by those who demand that we ignore their intolerance of our presence as their neighbors.

Perhaps, Priebus, Krauthammer and the RNC could visit Disneyland and pick up measles in their unvaccinated, unvarnished state of nature.

Who Will Replace Rep. Allyson Schwartz in PA-13?

— by Ben Burrows

Three Democratic candidates for Pennsylvania’s 13th congressional district:

debated at the Upper Dublin Township Building in Fort Washington, Pennsylvania.

The remaining Democratic candidate former Congresswoman Marjorie Margolies did not respond to five requests to participate in the forum.

The district is currently represented by Allyson Schwartz, who is now running for the Democratic nomination for Pennsylvania governor.

Since the congressional redistricting, the 13th district covers the Main Line suburbs, much of Montgomery County, and parts of Northeast Philadelphia. It is one of the five districts in Pennsylvania into which the Republican legislature packed as many democrats as possible in order to create Republican majorities in the other thirteen districts. Accordingly, the stakes in this democratic primary are very high as the general election is practically a foregone conclusion in this dark blue district which Allyson Schwartz carried in 2012 with 69% of the vote.

An audience of about 250 watched the forum organized by Montgomery County Democracy for America and the Area 6 Democratic Committee, and moderated by Philadelphia Daily News writer Will Bunch.

Blunt Amendment on Purim Eve: Guests in a Christian Nation

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 brought light to many dark places in American society. It was most famous for opening businesses and institutions which operated in public to members of all races. Less well known were its provisions which prevented discrimination on the basis of sex, creed, national origin, and religion. In the matter of discrimination in the workplace, the act clearly places responsibility for establishing a work environment free of harassment on the operator of the business. Court decisions later established that employers needed to make themselves aware of harassment of minorities in the workplace, that their toleration of such harassment made them liable to penalties and prosecution under the law, that their encouragement of such harassment would lose them federal business.

More after the jump.
The far-reaching consequences of the Civil Rights Act can be seen most clearly in the election of Barack Obama to the Presidency. Unlike Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, Obama’s appreciation for the role that the Civil Rights Act played in providing him with opportunities — for his education, for his advancement, for political career, for his being taken seriously as a human being — has always been open and straightforward. Obama’s recent interpretation of the Affordable Care Act — to guarantee that employees of religious institutions who were not themselves members of management’s religious faith were able to practice the tenets of the employees’ own faith, without the intimidation, coercion, and harassment of the employer’s religious restrictions on those employees — is something that Jews in particular should be grateful to their friend in the White House, who stuck up for our rights.

The Catholic Church has taken the mission of the Civil Rights Act, and stood it on its head. It is not the big bad government imposing free practice of religion on the helpless Catholic institutions — who employ followers of Judaism, the Episcopal Church, the United Church of Christ, Unitarianism, Muslims, Buddhists, Farsis, Hindus and others whose religious beliefs may differ from the Church — not just in matters of contraception, or about when life begins and ends, or about the relative importance of the lives of a woman and her fetus before childbirth. It is in fact the big bad government which has allowed such Catholic institutions to flourish and prosper, tax free, as they compete with for-profit hospitals, even as the Church provides right-to-life demonstrators at secular institutions to increase their costs of doing business. It is rather these powerful institutions who now influence the votes of our Senators Toomey and Casey — who both voted for the Blunt Amendment this past week. It is these powerful institutions, who demand exception from having to provide a harassment-free workplace for their employees, on the grounds that their employees’ free practice of religion offends management’s religious moral sensibility.

I have had to remind some friends, who were not alive at the time of the Civil Rights Movement, that some white churches in the South justified their practice of segregation on religious grounds. Such churches encouraged “Knights” to act in their defense. As government contemplated the Civil Rights Act, these churches too claimed that the government would intrude on their members’ freedom of religion. Many South African white members of the Dutch Reformed Church also justified their apartheid regime, by appealing to their interpretation of scripture, and to the teachings of their church. The coercive use of religious doctrine is not of course confined just to racial segregation and racist governments.

At this time of Purim, where we celebrate the resourcefulness of Mordechai and Esther in proclaiming their Judaism, and attempt to drown out with groggers the name of he who tried to exterminate our people for attempting to practice our basic Covenant, I would urge my compatriots to support their own civil rights, and to support the Obama position on the universal support for women’s health care services — to be exercised as the employee and not the employer sees fit, and to prevent religious harassment in the workplace from being justified, by a sense of freedom which treats the religious freedom of neighbors as if some of us were only “guests” in a Christian Nation.

Gei Oni, a film review


Gei Oni, directed by Dan Wolman
(2010, 105 minutes, Hebrew, Yiddish, and Arabic with English subtitles)

— Ben Burrows

Gei Oni, a film by Israeli producer-director Dan Wolman, was shown this weekend at Drexel University as part of the Philadelphia Israeli Film Festival. Wolman introduced the film, and took questions afterward. A film of light or darkness, of wide expanses or of tightly enclosed spaces, the cinematography is gorgeous, and focuses the audience on its major characters, Fania and Yechiel, with its deceptively simple visual palette. Fania arrives in Jaffa from late 19th century Russia with her baby daughter in tow, accompanied by Shuvale Mandelstam, who may be her husband, but later claims to be her uncle. They are fleeing the Russian pogrom, which killed Fania’s parents, and which has driven her brother Lolik mad and silenced. They are surprised when their relative in Jerusalem has not come to meet them at the port, and Shuvale travels to Jerusalem — only to find his relative, a newspaper editor, has fallen on hard times — so the new immigrants must rely on the charity of strangers. While Fania waits for Shuvale to return, she meets Yechiel, a recently widowed local farmer with two children from his previous marriage. Yechiel is clearly stricken by Fania’s beauty, although he must know she possesses few household skills, when she causes a small explosion while lighting a lantern near the hotel where she waits for Shuvale to return. A marriage is quickly arranged and celebrated, but there is a dark secret which prevents Fania from consummating the relationship. She tells Yechiel that she still mourns the death of her daughter’s father. Yechiel decides to accept her reluctance for the time being, and accepts responsibility to support her brother Lolik. Shuvale retires from the scene, and the new family returns to Yechiel’s village of Jauni.

More after the jump.
Wolman admitted during questioning to a number of interests in making this movie, from the novel Gei Oni by Shulamit Lapid. He wanted to portray a time when Jews actually purchased land from their Arab neighbors. He was interested in the positive romantic aspects of the novel, and did not include Yechiel’s death from malaria or Fania’s remarriage, as dramatic over-complications. He wanted to portray the different Jewish, Syrian Christian, and Arab Muslim cultures coexisting uncomfortably, with different levels of communication layered by the different practical experiences of male and female experience. As I watched the story unfold, I could not help but see parallels between the story of Fania and Yechiel with the stories of Sarah and Avraham. For so long as they pretended that Sarah was Avraham’s sister, the patriarchal couple brought plague to the land of Egypt, where they were sojourning. For so long as Fania kept her secret shame from Yechiel, one misfortune after another befalls the little settlement of Jauni. The Zionist and Biblical patriarchal couples seem equally distant to the modern eye, and both situations are resolved by a return to the Land, the Divine provision of additional people and resources, and the discovery of their mutual love for one another. By the final scene, Yechiel and Fania have brought new life into the world, and the village has begun to produce wheat from their rocky and difficult terrain.

Gei Oni is celebrated as an early feminist Israeli novel. The Jewish Women’s Archive describes Lapid’s Fania and her place in Israeli literature:

After several collections of short stories, Lapid first gained readers’ attention with her popular novel, … , which was the first Israeli book to be labelled “feminist.” Its feminism is, however, displaced, the action taking place in Palestine of the 1890s, thereby establishing a precedent in Israeli fiction for masking feminist protest by historical distancing. Framed in a narrative about first-settlers struggling with a harsh motherland, in a culture that kept gender roles distinct and separate, Lapid’s heroine, Fania, stands out in her attempt to cross boundaries. She is both mother and merchant, venturing out on the road alone, even defending herself against armed Arab horsemen when attacked.

The author had a life of her own, and made a family with Tommy Lapid, of blessed memory. Tommy Lapid was a member of the Knesset, and a champion of secular Shinui Party, which fought the influence of haredi restrictions into everyday Israeli life. Later in life, Tommy Lapid directed Yad VaShem: Preserving the Past to Ensure the Future.

Gei Oni had a difficult time finding distribution in Israel, despite Wolman’s extensive oeuvre, and his track record at attracting audiences. After being rejected multiple times, Wolman at last found a distributor willing to show his film. When Wolman saw the terms of his contract however, he saw that he might never be paid a cent, after the costs of the distributor (never enumerated) were subtracted off the top. When Wolman asked for a more specific enumeration of costs, or for an estimate of audience head count which might be required to achieve some payback, none was forthcoming. It was then that Wolman decided to arrange for his own private distribution of the film, at theaters who had shown his films in the past. He wrote and emailed everyone he could, and urged his friends to see the film in the first two weeks, explaining his predicament. The guerrilla distribution plan worked, and the film’s success in Israel has brought the film here to Philadelphia.

“36 Letters, One Family’s Story” by Joan Sohn

— Book review by Ben Burrows

It was a chilly windy Sunday. My wife and I had just spent four hours on the top two floors of the new National Museum of Jewish American History on Independence Mall, reviewing artifacts like a deerskin frontier Torah, relearning timelines of Jewish settlement in Philadelphia, New Orleans, South Carolina and Florida. It was a lot of material to take in and to keep straight. It was in some ways a relief to drive down towards the Franklin Parkway, to attend the book launch I had committed to review for the Philadelphia Jewish Voice, for a very different and much more personal sort of history, at The Jewish Publication Society.

Joan SohnJust finding a place to sit down was something of a relief. Rabbi Barry Schwartz of The Jewish Publication Society, which published Joan Sohn’s 36 Letters, One Family’s Story, gave a brief introduction to JPS’s decision to publish this family history. Rabbi Andrea Merow, currently of Beth Sholom Synagogue in Elkins Park, spoke of Temple Sholom’s involvement with the Korman family where she had earlier held the pulpit, and the dedication of its chapel to Sohn’s great-grandfather Rabbi Binyamin Korman. She spoke of her friendship with Sohn and her encouragement for elaborating the family story.

Then Joan Sohn herself was introduced, to present a brief outline of her delightful, focused yet whimsical history of her grandparents’ romance — of their immigration estrangement while Chaim came to New York, and of Yente’s arrival to live first with her uncle’s Philadelphia family, and of their joyous reunion and marriage when Chaim came from New York and established
himself in the community.

More after the jump.
But a publication launch, even with personal conversations with the relatives who knew the couple Yetta and Hyman as the matriarch and patriarch of their family, is not enough to communicate the warmth and love, the schmaltz, the krupnik and kugel recipes, the sheer passion of two Jews, each the children of classical Jewish scholars, who chanced to meet, who fell in love, who convinced their families to approve a long-distance match. Unlike my experience at the museum, where we hurried through two floors of American Jewish history in four hours, 36 Letters is a book to linger over, which I read eagerly for almost three weeks, despite its length, just under 120 pages.

At the most fundamental level, this is a story of discovery. As Sohn explains in her introduction, her parents (Sarah and Barney Moss) went to organize family items from Hyman Korman’s apartment, when he passed away in 1970. At the time, a box of portraits, documents and letters were packed away for her Uncle Sam, but remained at the Moss home unopened. Then, in 1996, Sam Korman too passed away. It was then that Sohn was invited to look through the materials for her own family keepsakes. Looking at the portraits, she was able to guess that the photographs were those of her grandparents.

Curious about the letters, she asked her parents, to see if they knew what they were about, but they were unfamiliar. Apparently, Hyman had never explained their significance. A family friend, Elyce Teitleman, located a translator, Mark Alsher, and Sohn’s parents underwrote the translation which began Sohn’s journey.


What she found was so much more than the photographs and letters. What she found was the autobiographical love story of the author’s grandparents, and it reads well – with aching absence, with a parting for the New World, with the delight of recognition and caring, with the anticipation of reunion, with the consummation, and the success of a life’s work together. On quite another level, this is a love story of the author, rediscovering her grandparents as young adults, and falling in love with them as valued friends. On still another level, it is a self-discovery by Joan Sohn, moved now from Melrose Park to Toronto, of how much she shared with her grandparents, and yet how different their experiences, in their very different migrations.

Sohn does not hesitate to give the reader background, from world history, from family history, from family recipes, in prefaces, in footnotes, in illustrations, in marginal notes. The experience of reading this book brought me back to my experience reading Martin Gardner’s The Annotated Alice – one of the favorite texts of my young adulthood — where an apparently simple children’s story was revealed for its complex secrets and internal references. Sohn has provided the same sort of illustrations, annotations, and background, lovingly compiled for the reader to understand the world of 1905, and the burgeoning universe that opened for Hyman and Yetta in the wonderland of the New World. I can only hope that you will linger as I did, and make friends with Joan Sohn’s grandparents, and share their love and their success.

All photographs, courtesy of Joan Sohn, with permission.