Passover: Our Story of Redemption

Rabbi Gregory S. Marx.

By Rabbi Gregory S. Marx

Every faith community has a story of redemption. But what we need to be redeemed from is what divides us.

The Buddhist believes that we need to be saved from suffering. The Buddha taught that all of life is suffering, and we must figure out a way to end craving. Our Christian brothers and sisters argue that it is sin that oppresses us.  They teach that faith alone can save.

Judaism also believes in redemption and being saved.  I remember a number of years ago someone erroneously saying to me, “The Jews do not need to be saved.” Nothing could be farther from the truth. We tell a story of redemption as well, but it is not from sin or suffering. It is from oppression.

The story of Passover is not a story that resonates in an ashram or in some exotic fashion. It is a story that reminds us that there are forces of oppression all around us. They drag us down and prevent us from being fully human.  We are saved by righteous action, or mitzvoth. We can redeem the world in partnership with God by living a life of goodness and mitzvoth.

[Read more…]

When is the Media Going to Treat Israel as an Indigenous First Nation? When Jews Act Like It Is!

KotelBirkatHacohanimThe Jews are a people and Judaism is their religion. The Land of Israel is their ancestral homeland, with an unbroken history of 3,500 years. The Jews in Israel are a modern nation, having gained their independence from Great Briton in 1948.

Israeli Jews as indigenous people have native rights which they should assert. Israel has the deepest, most abundant roots of any people in the land, whether the mainstream media, UN, EU, NGOs, Arabs, Muslims, Anti-Zionists or Anti-Semites want to believe it or not.

So, where do Jews get their title deed to the Land of Israel? From the Bible, archeological proof, and even the Qu’ran. And from modern international law via the San Remo Conference in 1920, and subsequently the United Nations in 1947. Many Arab nations were also created around this time to give expression to their indigenous rights.

Interestingly, the Supreme Muslim Council — led by the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husayni, Hitler’s ally and one of the Arab world’s most vicious anti-Semites — published yearly guide books from 1924 to 1950 stating that the Temple Mount’s al-Haram al-Sharif (the Noble Sanctuary) “identity with the site of Solomon’s Temple is beyond dispute. This, too, is the spot, according to the universal belief, on which David built there an altar unto the Lord and offered burnt offerings and peace offerings.”

Despite being persecuted, tormented, conquered and dispersed from their nation-state numerous times throughout history by many, including Greeks, Romans and Ottoman Turks, there were always Jews living in the land of Israel. Israel was never ruled even one day by an Arab state.

In January 2012, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appointed the Levy Commission to study the legal status of Israeli building in Judea and Samaria (i.e., “the West Bank”). In sum, it found: “Our basic conclusion is that from the point of view of international law, the classical laws of ‘occupation’ as set out in the relevant international conventions cannot be considered applicable to the unique and sui generis historic and legal circumstances of Israel’s presence in Judea and Samaria spanning over decades.”

However, this Commission’s work has been marginalized by the Israeli government in an appeasement to the sensitivities of the “international community” who do not recognize the sovereignty of Israel over the land. This, of course, includes the areas to which Jews are told they have no rightful claim and yet are in the cradle of Jewish history: the Old City of Jerusalem, The Temple Mount and Kotel; Hebron, where the Tomb of the Patriarchs is located; Shilo, where the Tabernacle stood; Joseph’s Tomb; and Rachel’s Tomb among many other sites.

Who are the “Palestinian Arabs?” The vast majority are not native to the land, and in fact cannot even trace their lineage back more than four or five generations. Most came from foreign regions only when the Jews started to rebuild and reclaim the land and make it flourish as an economic powerhouse starting at the turn of the 20th century. Until the formation of the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization) in 1964, those Arabs who lived in Israel, Gaza and Judea and Samaria (i.e., the “West Bank” which was illegally annexed by Jordan in 1950) referred to themselves not as “Palestinians” but as Syrians or merely Arabs. These Arabs are little different in culture, religion and language than those from neighboring Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria. The term “Palestinian” to them and the world, before the re-establishment of the State of Israel, meant “Jews.” In fact, the Arabs of the Palestine Mandate already have a state: Jordan. Jordan comprises 78% of the Palestine Mandate, which was designated by the international community to be the nation-state of the Jewish People. Jordan has a population which is 2/3 Palestinian Arab. Moreover, the Arabs have rejected a state of their own, with a capital in eastern Jerusalem, the “West Bank” and Gaza six times since 1937.

Ryan Bellerose Native Canadian Zionist

Ryan Bellerose, Native Canadian Zionist.

Sometimes it takes an outsider to see things which should be evident to us. Ryan Bellerose is a gentile from Canada. He is of mixed Native and European ancestry. He is an advocate for indigenous people, including the original inhabitants of Canada from whom he is descended. And he is also an advocate for Jewish Israelis, the indigenous people of Israel. He is the co-founder of Calgary United with Israel. According to him: “Everything that makes Jews Jewish — their spirituality, their traditions, their culture, their language, everything — it stems from Israel.” He elaborated further (“Unassailable” in Israellycool, Feb 14, 2016):

The reason Jewish identity is so integral to this struggle is simple – the other side is claiming that Israelis are not indigenous, that they are “white colonizers” who stole “Arab ancestral lands.” Now this claim is patently ridiculous to anyone with a 3rd grade education and a commensurate reading level, but sadly often the Jewish people’s own actions and reactions suggest that they themselves are not quite decolonized enough to claim their birthright and heritage. Many of them still see their identity through a white European lens, rather than a Middle Eastern lens, and this leads not only to massive confusion but lost opportunities such as at the Temple Mount and now in Judea and Samaria.

I have documented Jewish indigenous status beyond any reasonable doubt. I have given you the language and hopefully the knowledge to defend the position, but YOU must internalize your identity. YOU must decide to decolonize and then YOU must decide what that means to YOU and your people.

It’s really simple – you are Jews, your culture is ancient, your traditions date back three thousand years and your spirituality is intertwined with both. Only you can decide what you should be keeping and what you need to lose, but ask yourself, what would my ancestors say? Would they say ‘You needed those things in diaspora, but now you are home again and it’s time to evolve and become who you are meant to be’ or would they say ‘Stay as the diaspora made you out of necessity?’ I believe you are meant to be a ‘Light unto the Nations,’ to show us the way that indigenous people are supposed to evolve while maintaining the core of your identity. You have fought so hard to stay Jewish – literally hundreds of generations have lived and died to bring you to this point. Your ancestors fought, bled and died for you to remain Jews and even more recently for you to be able to go home as Jews to your ancestral lands. They didn’t do that so that you could be the end of it. They did it so that you could be the beginning, the beginning of a brave new world, one that is unassailable.

Now be invulnerable in your identity, then be invincible. THAT is your birthright. Unassailable.

As Ryan has noted, this is about our very identity, not merely about religion and spirituality. And it is a powerful story and example to all indigenous people.

We should be proud and act proud of the nation-state of the Jewish People and all its accomplishments, as it shares with the world its humanitarianism and high-tech know-how in medicine, biotechnology, agriculture and water reclamation. Israel is our ancestral homeland. We do ourselves no favors if we don’t treat ourselves with respect and instead, act wishy-washy and laissez-faire with regard to our rights. If we forfeit the language, we forfeit our heritage and our history—and deserve to.

Note: Ryan Bellerose will be speaking in Philadelphia on June 20.

Religious Conviction and Reality

Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat during the Oslo Accords in 1993

— by Dr. Alon Ben-Meir

The most puzzling aspect of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may be that after 65 years of violence, enmity and suffering, it remains unresolved when coexistence is inevitable and a two-state solution remains the only viable option. The Arab-Israeli conflict is generally viewed as a political and territorial conflict, yet the underlying religious component has created a certain mindset that further complicates the struggle and adds to its intransigence. Both Jews and Muslims alike have mystified the struggle, projecting cosmic significance and introducing national and religious pride into the equation.

More after the jump.
The Israeli’s own religious narrative is one that is based on the biblical connection of the Jewish people to the land of their forefathers. As Prime Minister Netanyahu reminded the US Congress in his May 24, 2011 address, “This is the land of our forefathers, the Land of Israel, to which Abraham brought the idea of one God, where David set out to confront Goliath, and where Isaiah saw a vision of eternal peace.”

Most Israelis believe that no distortion of history can deny the religious component that has created a bond, spanning thousands of years, between the Jewish people and the biblical Jewish land. Since the ancient Hebrews are not historically the same thing as Jews — not culturally and not even religiously — the Hebraic tradition of 3000 years ago, having little similarity to modern Jewry, hardly means an inheritance in land for Jews. That said, and with religious faith requiring no evidence, for many Israelis it is simply unacceptable to completely relinquish control of the West Bank, known in ancient times as the biblical lands of Judea and Samaria.

From that perspective, it is inconceivable in particular for them to surrender their holiest shrine, especially the Wailing Wall (the outer wall of the Second Temple), allowing Jerusalem to be governed or fall under the jurisdiction of any other peoples or an international governing body. As a result, despite all Israelis happily accepting the 1947 UN partition plan, they have always held onto the dream of eventually repossessing all of Jerusalem, particularly the Old City.

Residents protest against the evacuation of the Israeli community Kfar Darom

This unique attachment and affinity to the holy city, which has for millennia symbolized the Jewish sense of redemption, created a powerful motivation to capture the city when it came within their grasp during the Six Day War in 1967. The fall of Jerusalem in the wake of the war remains an unmatched event and came to symbolize Jewish absolution. This historic development created a renewed awakening that vindicated the religious premise which was embedded in the Jewish psyche for centuries. The realization of what was believed to be a far-fetched dream under the most difficult of circumstances was now seen as the work of the Almighty that no force can alter. Considered in this light, we can understand or at least provide a framework for the zeal of those who are committed to keeping all of Jerusalem and much, if not all, of the West Bank under Israeli jurisdiction — they see that as the fulfillment not only of God’s promise but God’s very will.

What further explains the mindset of these believers is that no man can reason to the contrary of God’s plan. Regardless of the facts on the ground (the existence of the Palestinians and their claim to East Jerusalem), the Jews in and outside Israel consider it their obligation to do everything in their power to fulfill God’s will, which transcends humanity’s narrow perception of reality. This explains the position of many Israeli Jews who see no wrongdoing in building new and expanding existing settlements in the West Bank, particularly in East Jerusalem.

From the settlers’ perspective, they are merely fulfilling what God has ordained; for the Jews to earn the right to hold onto Jerusalem they must prove that they are worthy to repossess it, even if this includes the suppression of the Palestinians and defiance of the international community. For these reasons, regardless of how powerful the resistance of Palestinians, other Arab and Muslim states, and much of the international community to the Israeli position, the religious mandate trumps any and all opposition: the settlers view themselves as pursuing God’s mission and must demonstrate unshakable resolve, tenacity and willingness to make any sacrifice necessary before He once again grants them the Promised Land.

With the recapture of Jerusalem and control asserted over the West Bank, what seemed to be destined to remain only a pipe-dream was suddenly transformed into a reality. This development was then strengthened by concerted efforts towards creating permanent anchors on the ground through building settlements and infrastructure needed to augment continuity. These efforts led to the gradual galvanization of intergroup factions, especially the settlement movement, which has gained tremendous political sway and uses it effectively to block any policy or action on the ground that could compromise the settlement enterprise. Indeed, successive Israeli governments, regardless of their ideological leaning, have bent to the settlers’ whims.

The expansion of the settlements, along with the prospect of building the young Jewish state on the entire mythological ancient homeland, has created this particular and most powerful psychological disposition. As this religious mindset has become even further embedded in the Israeli psyche, the nearly decisive power of the settlement movement has made it increasingly difficult to contemplate a return to the 1967 borders, with or without some land swaps.

Due to religious convictions tied to Islam’s third holiest shrines in Jerusalem — the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, or “Haram al-Sharif” — Muslim leaders, like their Jewish counterparts, will not compromise on Jerusalem or on recovering much of the West Bank’s land. Many Muslim scholars believe that Muhammad made his Journey from Mecca to the Al-Aqsa Masjid (literally, “furthest mosque”) in Jerusalem before he ascended to heaven. Although the Al-Aqsa Mosque was built long after the death of the prophet, Surah 17:1 states that Mohammad visited the site where the Al-Aqsa Mosque was subsequently erected. This belief is certainly not limited to the Palestinians but shared by all Muslims, further complicating any solution to the future of Jerusalem. Like the Israelis, the Palestinians too have shown absolutely no flexibility in this regard.

One other difficulty that adds to the psychological impediment in relation to Jerusalem is the Palestinians’ sense of ownership, which has been uninterrupted for centuries. Although Arabs have lived with Jews in relative peace, Jews were treated as second-class citizens, who in turn largely accepted subordination in order to maintain peaceful relations. Centuries of Arab perception of Jews as a subordinated minority make it nearly impossible for them to accept Jews as equals, not to mention as a superior power forcefully usurping land they consider their own. The Palestinians’ position in connection with Jerusalem and the entire West Bank must therefore be seen in this context as well.

Further consideration of the Arab view of Islam as the final revelation of the three monotheistic religions (including Judaism and Christianity) and of Muhammad as the last prophet accentuate Palestinian and Muslim unwillingness to compromise in what they believe to be their inherent religious duty to obey God’s final revelation. Here again, the psychological barrier embedded in religious precepts creates a mindset willing to defy reality. Yet, no one is permitted to challenge God’s decree and Muhammad’s edict.

In The Future of an Illusion, Freud made the claim that religious beliefs should be viewed as wish-fulfillments — or beliefs chiefly motivated by deep-seated human wishes, i.e. illusions. When we look without bias at the beliefs held by so many on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflagration, who could not help but agree with his assessment? Of course, an illusion could turn out to be true: the belief that the Jewish people would someday establish a mighty state on the very same land where their ancient ancestors once lived was certainly illusory only a hundred years ago. Even if we agree with Freud that religious beliefs are illusions, we cannot agree with his prediction that such illusions are likely to wither away any time soon.

In the final analysis, religion has been and will most likely continue to be the repository of our most deeply held wishes and beliefs, as it is for many Israelis and Palestinians alike. For believers on both sides, religion constitutes nothing less than the very substance of their lives, the core of their existence and world-view. The question is: can both parties be brought to reconcile their beliefs to the changed reality on the ground? Neither Israelis nor Palestinians can be expected to undermine their most cherished religious convictions, but if disappointments are unavoidable, the convictions recognized and honored by the other side and by the global community must be adapted and reinterpreted in light of new and undeniable conditions. To take a crucial example, while neither side can forsake Jerusalem without compromising their religion, they can begin to accommodate their aspirations to the prospect of Jerusalem as the dual-capital of two sovereign and independent states.

Perhaps then the historical and religious commitments of both sides can be respected. It is only through mutual realization of spiritual hopes and ideals that Israelis and Palestinians will reconcile and see the fulfillment of God’s promise of peace — and that is surely no mere pipe-dream.

Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.

“Next Year in Jerusalem” – Documentary Film

— By Anat Kuznetzov-Zalmanson

During the Cold War the Iron Curtain was shut, leaving the people of the USSR hidden and isolated from the world. Many wanted to escape from this isolation but their rights and liberty had been taken away. The feature documentary “Next Year In Jerusalem” tells the story of a group of 15 Soviet civilians, mostly Jewish, who in 1970 had the courage to stand up and fight for their freedom. They plotted to charter a plane, throw out the pilots before takeoff, and fly it to Sweden, knowing they faced a huge risk of being captured or shot down. They proceeded in the hopes that this action would give them a platform to inform the world of the conditions behind the Iron Curtain. They were arrested near Leningrad, imprisoned in Siberian work camps and two of them where sentenced to death. However, their message got out and as a direct result of their bravery, world pressure forced the USSR to open its curtain and throughout the 1970’s 163,000 Jews were liberated from the USSR. It started with the action of a few, the few became many, and the echoes of their bravery have reverberated through history. This documentary, directed by the daughter of the group’s leaders, will tell the whole story for the first time.

More after the jump.

This documentary contains interviews with most of the remaining members of the 16 freedom fighters, but focuses mainly on Sylva Zalmanson who was the face of the revolution, and Eduard Kuznetzov, who was the leader of the group and Sylva’s husband at the time.

“Next Year In Jerusalem” tells the courageous story of an ordinary woman who became the face of a revolution. Sylva Zalmanson was raised in Riga, Latvia during the height of Communism. Sylva remembers the atmosphere in Riga and most of the USSR, “was that of fear, lies and hypocrisy. We wanted to get rid of it and live in a free country and we envied everyone who was lucky enough to leave the place.” The words spoken at Passover, “Next Year in Jerusalem,” were written on Sylva’s heart from a young age. She was the only woman tried at the Leningrad trials of 1970, and was the first to take the stand. When the prosecutors tried to bribe her with a reduced sentence in return for a pleas of Amnesty she responded by saying “If you would not deny us our right to leave Russia, this group wouldn’t exist. We would just leave to Israel with no desire of hijacking a plane or any other thing that’s illegal. Even here, on trial, I still believe I’ll make it someday to Israel. I feel I’m the Jewish people’s heiress so I’ll quote our saying “Next Year In Jerusalem” and “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget her skill.”

Old Jews Telling Jokes at the Westside Theatre in NYC

Who knows an old Jew who tells jokes? If you have missed out on your share of such jokes and need ninety minutes of engaging, earthy jokes then head to the Westside Theatre in New York City to see the Off-Broadway show, Old Jews Telling Jokes. The show began as a very popular web site where — you guessed it — old Jews tell jokes.  

More after the jump.
As you wait for the production to begin you will be entertained by music — some Yiddish, some in English.  The Yiddish rendition of Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head was a delightful prelude to the show as was a country rendition of Dreydl, Dreydl, Dreydl I Made You Out of Clay.  

Created by Peter Gethers and Daniel Okrent, Old Jews Telling Jokes showcases five actors in a revue that pays tribute to and reinvents classic jokes.  New songs composed by Adam Gwon add to the show’s fun, upbeat air.  You will hear jokes about religion, assimilation, sex before marriage, after marriage (“you should live so long”)  and during marriage.  Most of these jokes are in the form of long involved stories, which are marvelously engaging.  The actors (Bill Army, Marilyn Sokol, Todd Susman, Lenny Wolpe and Audrey Lynn Weston) sing and they will ask you to sing along as well. They deliver the material with a grace and ease that is a delight to behold.  

The intimate Westside Theatre was filled with Jews, more old than young, some accompanied by grandkids. The comments from the audience members were often as funny as the jokes up on the stage.  An older woman with a heavy Yiddish accent sitting behind me comments to a joke about a man who goes every day for forty years to the Wailing Wall to pray.And how do you feel about this, a local journalist asks him?  “Like I’m talking to a [expletive] wall.” “Det vas good” the woman sitting behind me says to her husband, to whom she had to repeat the jokes, because he was hard of hearing.  

One of the players says: there is no inappropriate moment for humor. The 90 minute show, accompanied by live piano (Donald Corren), is time well spent listening, kvelling, laughing to the often bawdy, sexy, irreverent Jewish humor that has come to be a distinctly American form of humor. From Mel Brooks to Woody Allen, from Larry David to Sarah Silverman Jews have been telling jokes about their status, their sex, and all the intimate details that make up life. “I love it, I love it.  Ach — this I really love!” kvells the Yiddish accented bubby sitting behind me. And so will you.  

  • Westside Theatre (downstairs)  407 West 43rd Street (between 9th and 10th street)
  •  (212) 239 – 6200

Prepare Yourself: Angels in America at the Wilma Theatre

Prepare yourself, announces the Angel, in Tony Kushner’s 1991 Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches, playing at the Wilma Theatre through July 1st.  Indeed, prepare yourself to witness a rare theatrical event, a contemporary classic play by an American-Jewish playwright who weaves together Mormons, Jews, the ghost of Emma Rosenberg, Roy Cohen, Ronald Reagan and African-American drag queens.  

This inspired production is directed by Wilma’s founding Artistic Director, Blanka Zizka, Zizka writes:

“The AIDS crisis of the 1980s provoked Tony Kushner to write a play of a scope and complexity that, I believe, we had not seen before, nor have we seen since, in this country.”  “The playwright gives the play the subtitle, ‘A Gay Fantasia on National Themes,’ and clearly points out his own sexual identity and establish the vantage point for his imagination.  Through one of his characters (the Oldest Living Bolshevik in Perestroika) Kushner asks old but profoundly existential questions that reverberate throughout the whole play. . . . where do we come from? What are  we doing? . . . the play engages these questions on personal, philosophical, political and cosmic levels.”

More after the jump.
With a sparse and effective set designed by Matt Saunders, Angels delivers some outstanding performances, particularly Kate Czajkowski (Harper) and Stephen Novelli (Roy Cohen).  

Angels takes places in 1985, during the Reagan presidency when AIDS victims were often demonized and homophobia was rampant.  Even after twenty years, its themes of millennial disaster and foreboding, both personal and political — for the two are inextricable for Kushner — may be more relevant today than they were then.  In a program note, Kushner writes: “I feel going back now, that the early ’90s, the late ‘802, for all the horrors of the AIDS epidemic, were comparatively innocent and carefree times compared to where we are now. . . .so the play and the times, both feel darker to me now than they did back then.”  

Indeed with a Republican Mormon running for President, a Democratic president who professes in his memoir the New Deal is over and cites Reagan as his political model the play’s themes of identity, power, and freedom seem quite relevant today.   Kushner must have been touched by one of the Angel’s feathers for the writing possesses an aura rarely found in contemporary theatre.  Kushner has written an epoch play about what it means to be an American – whether a Communist, a neo-conservative leftist, a closeted gay Mormon, or a scion of an old WASP family — Angels asks the tough questions.  

The play opens with an old Rabbi giving a eulogy for an old woman — Louis’ grandmother — he’s never met.   But he knows this woman, he says, since she was from the old world and crossed over, bringing with her, her lineage and her memory, to be planted in the memories and bodies of her family.  In Angels, Kushner explores many “thresholds of revelation” where appearance and reality become confused.  Lines are crossed – religious, political, and sexual and laws broken.   The woman, says the rabbi, is the “last of the Mohicans.”  

What does it mean to cross over, to traverse unfamiliar ground, as all the characters in Kushner’s play do?  To be an ancient Hebrew means to be separated, to be on the other side, to be migratory, rootless, a stranger.  Indeed all the characters in Angels — whether Jew or Mormon, gay or straight, Communist or Republican, black or white — are displaced, as “the old orders are spiraling apart and lies are surfacing.”  

Kushner questions what it means to be a citizen of a participatory democracy that seems to exclude so many of its own citizens.  Can democracy succeed in America, Louis asks, at one point.  Kushner handles such weighty philosophical and moral question ss a Talmudic scholar cum playwright, pulling them this way and that with fully embodied characters that are not, thankfully, the vehicle for political ideas but flawed, fleshy, messy, ambivalent and contradictory human beings struggling with what it means to be alive on earth.

Prepare yourself to be uncomfortable, to laugh and to pray for Fall to arrive (but not yet!) so we can witness the second Act of this powerful American drama.

In the fall, Wilma will open its 2012-13 season with Angels in American, Part Two: Perestroika, which continues the epoch saga of these engaging characters.  

On Monday, June 28th at 7:30pm, there will be a free Community Conversation on “The Impact of HIV/AIDS in Philadelphia, sponsored by FIGHT.  Speakers representing Philadelphia’s FIGHT, the Mazzoni Center, the William Way LGBT Center and The City of Philadelphia Mayor’s Office for LGBT Affairs will discuss current topics and issues regarding HIV/AIDS in Philadelphia with an audience Q & A to follow.  The Wilma Theatre will also present a comprehensive exhibit which will examine the impact of HIV/AIDS in Philadelphia through cultural material.  

Angels in America at the Wilma Theatre, (215) 546-7824.  265 W. Broad Street, Philadelphia, PA.  Tickets range from $39 – $66 and are available at the Wilma Box Office or calling the theatre.  Discounted tickets are available for students, groups or anyone in their 20s.  

Six Catholics and Three Jews Uphold an Evangelical Lutheran Church

— by Jeffrey I. Pasek, Chair of the Board of Directors of the Jewish Social Policy Action Network (JSPAN)

Yesterday, all nine Justices on the Supreme Court agreed that a Lutheran Church did not have to answer claims of employment discrimination brought by a former teacher in its school. Applying the “ministerial exemption,” the Court ruled that the teacher could not maintain her claim that she had been fired in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

JSPAN’s Church-State Policy Center has been following this issue closely for some time because the ministerial exemption raises important issues about the ability of government to regulate religious organizations and the extent to which employment actions can be shielded from ordinary judicial review when the defendant raises a religious cloak as a shield.

More after the jump.
The case decided by the Supreme Court involved a “called” teacher who acquired a formal minister of religion commission. Her job duties were similar to lay teachers and included teaching secular and religious subjects, leading her class in daily prayer and devotional exercises and leading a chapel service for students a couple times a year. On these facts, the Court had no difficulty deciding that the plaintiff was a minister within the meaning of the ministerial exemption.

According to Chief Justice Roberts’ opinion, the employment discrimination laws do not authorize “government interference with an internal church decision that affects the faith and mission of the church itself.” The purpose of the exemption is to protect religious organizations as institutions, not to safeguard their decisions only when they prove they made those decisions for a religious reason.

The Court’s interpretation of the ADA was grounded in the First Amendment, but the ruling expressed no view on whether the ministerial exception bars other types of suits, including actions by employees alleging breach of contract or tortious conduct by their religious employers.

JSPAN had been invited to join an amicus brief to the Supreme Court in this case. For policy reasons, JSPAN declined. We rejected the approach that a religious institution must go through a trial to answer the question of motive for its personnel actions. In addition to raising entanglement issues, that would render the ministerial exemption of no value in many instances. The ministerial exemption, as a policy matter, should shield (often poor) religious organizations from the costs of expensive employment-discrimination litigation without forcing a religious organization to establish a doctrinal basis for its action or to show a legitimate non- religious motive for an employment action.

JSPAN will continue to monitor cases involving application of the ministerial exemption in other contexts as courts grapple with the scope to be accorded it. The issue is of significant importance considering the number of social service programs funded by the government that are operated by private religious groups.

Go The F**k to Sleep at the Nat’l Museum of Amer. Jewish History

Join popular author of Go the F-k to Sleep and critically acclaimed novelist Adam Mansbach in a conversation about his ongoing journey as a young writer, the intersection of Black and Jewish cultures… and, of course, his reaction to the success of his recent non-traditional parenting book.  

  • Tuesday, September 20, 2011, 7:00pm
  • National Museum of American Jewish History, 101 S. Independence Mall East, Philadelphia, PA.
  • Members $10, Non-members $12

Adam’s novels include The End of the Jews: A Novel, winner of the California Book Award, and the best-selling Angry Black White Boy: A Novel, a San Francisco Chronicle Best Book of 2005.  His fiction and essays have appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the Believer, Granta, the Los Angeles Times, and many other publications.

For details see the Philadelphia Jewish Voice Community Calendar.

Leni Riefenstahl, Hitler’s Filmmaker, Arrested in Philadelphia

–by Henrik Eger

A beautiful young woman, clutching her film reel like a Torah, is fighting to defend her work against an arresting American officer in occupied Austria in 1946. Reluctantly, with a pistol in her face, she hands over the canister. Then, in a demanding voice, she says, “Cut! We’ll do it again.”

Playing Leni, by David Robson and John Stanton, directed by the innovative Seth Reichgott, and produced by Madhouse Theater Company at the Adrienne Theater in Philadelphia, looks at the manipulations of Leni Riefenstahl, the Führer’s most influential filmmaker, her many propaganda films, and her denial that she glorified the Nazi Empire, numbing millions to the horrors to come.

More after the jump.

Doyenne of Denial

Playing Leni centers around Riefenstahl vehemently rejecting any accusations that her heroic propaganda films contributed to the Third Reich and the Holocaust.

During the play, the audiences witness an excerpt from Riefenstahl’s original film Tiefland (Lowland) with Gypsies as Spanish peasant extras. The soldier tries to get Riefenstahl to confess that the actors were from a forced labor camp and that she made a contract with the SS to hire them, despite knowing that most of them would end up murdered in Auschwitz shortly after the shooting.

Riefenstahl, doyenne of denial, claims that she still maintains a wonderful correspondence with many of them. However, the soldier tries to tear down her web of fabrication: “All of those extras have been exterminated!”

Riefenstahl shrugs off the accusation, “I am a director, not a casting agent.” The soldier, unimpressed, pushes on: “What did you know about the systematic murders of Jews, homosexuals, Gypsies-?”  The woman who was closer to Hitler and Goebbels than anyone outside the Nazi hierarchy, renounces all accusation of involvement, adamantly declaring, “This won’t be in my film or any film!”

Cat-and-Mouse Games

Audiences of Riefenstahl’s works, like Triumph of the Will or the two famous 1936 Olympic films, may not have realized that they got played and sucked into toxic, persuasive propaganda.

Similarly, Frau Riefenstahl, the mistress of power and control (compellingly portrayed by Amanda Grove), goes all out to seduce the arresting U.S. soldier (the multi-talented Robert DaPonte) by playing Leni, browbeating him-and the audience-into submission: “No Leni, no movie,” and, “This is my story and my arrest!  So stop screwing around with B-movie shit!”

She manages to turn her brief incarceration into a scene where she coaxes the American officer into acting various parts, forcing him to play her role while interacting with Goebbels. She even manages to get him to play a German officer who kills prisoners in Poland while she films the scene.

The soldier, unwillingly dragged into Riefenstahl’s cat-and-mouse game, tries to turn the situation to his advantage by working on her script as his ruse to get her cooperation and to reveal information before the Nuremberg trials.

Just when the soldier thinks he has caught her in his trap, confronting her with the impact of her films on countless lives, she brushes him off: “Life is too short for regrets.”

“First Rule of the Interrogation: Don’t Joke About the Jews”

The soldier, modeled on Budd Schulberg, the writer who actually arrested and interrogated Riefenstahl, reveals himself as Jewish. The stubborn anti-Semite, who clearly has not learned anything, ridicules him. He then warns her, “First rule of the interrogation: Don’t joke about the Jews.”

In an almost Pavlovian fashion, Riefenstahl declares that she has nothing against anyone, “as far as I’m concerned, people are all the same.” Yet, she uses euphemisms to avoid the term “Jews.”  The interrogator has to beat it out of her before, referencing Hitler, she admits to prejudices against, “people unlike himself.” The U.S. soldier spells it out for her, “Jews you mean.”

Apparently unaware of the presence of a significant Jewish community in Los Angeles, Hitler’s filmmaker dreams of making movies in Hollywood-the height of chutzpah. The soldier reacts sardonically, “I’m not sure the Jews on Rodeo Drive have gotten past it yet.”  The audience roared with delight.

A Thorny Issue

My friend and guest, Stefanie Seltzer, president of the World Federation of Jewish Child Survivors of the Holocaust (WFJCSH), did not laugh.  The Riefenstahl play had brought back many painful memories of her childhood in occupied Poland.  

Going by the derisive laughter in the theater, often directed at Leni, I wasn’t sure whether the audience went home feeling enlightened or merely entertained by schadenfreude, whether they saw Riefenstahl as the “Inglorious Bitch” akin to Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds-or whether they went home in self-reflection.

“We Are the Same, You and I”

Playing Leni, the drama about the power-hungry filmmaker willing to walk over bodies, encourages the American audience to discover not only some of the inner workings of a Third Reich mind, but also our own: “You’re doing this for you!  We are the same you and I,” asserts Riefenstahl.

Through the American soldier and the German filmmaker, we may recognize our own ambiguities in the pursuit of happiness.  As Robson puts it, Riefenstahl was “an opportunist extraordinaire. Life is full of people willing to do anything to become famous. Where does the conscience go in all that?”

Entering the theater, Riefenstahl’s The Triumph of the Will fills the screen.  Leaving the theater, where we had just witnessed the unbearable Riefenstahl, did we look critically at the triumph of the will-within ourselves?

HENRIK EGER, Professor of English and Communication, DCCC, Media, PA.  Ph.D. University of Illinois at Chicago (1991). Member: Board of Directors, Theatre Ariel, the Jewish theatre of Philadelphia.  Philadelphia correspondent of All About Jewish Theatre (AAJT) and YouTube producer-writer: AAJT–The World’s Largest Secular Synagogue and Open University… Playwright of Jewish life and people, seen from a German perspective. For a detailed description, click here:…

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The Odd Couple of Kabul: Two Jews Walk Into a War

In playwright Seth Rozin’s dramatic comedy, Two Jews Walk into a War, two middle-aged Afghani Jews exchange schtick and tsuris over their being the two last Jews of Kabul following the overthrow of the Taliban government in 2001.  The two men — Ishaq and Zeblyan — hate each other – but agree to work together to write a new torah in order to find a rabbi who will convert a couple of Afghan women to Judaism so the procreation of Jewish babies ma proceed.  This is a delightful farce masterfully acted by Tom Teti and John Pietrowski, directed by James Glassman and currently playing at Interact Theatre (2030 Sansom Street).

More after the jump.

Rozin explains that “It started out as an existential comedy, then moved to more of a vaudeville comedy, and finally toward a drama.  I did not anticipate where the play ended up.”  The playbill comes with some notes on Jewish text and ritual in the play.  In one of the more poignant scenes Ishaq  mimes wrapping tefillin because all the tefillin has been absconded by the Taliban.  Judaism survives despite all the obstacles.  

“As with most of my plays, I use factual events, situations and characters as a launching pad to explore some larger theme or answer a larger question,”  Rozin explains.  When I asked Rozin what kind of research he did to prepare to write the play he said, “I had never read the Torah, so when I decided that was going to be the key to the story I needed to read at least some of it.  I focused my research on the Book of Leviticus, which includes all the laws, and read a number of interpretations of the controversial sections (lesbians, spilling seed, etc.).”   You must go see this amusing, irreverent play which, in its final scene, goes beyond light comedic fare to reach a well-earned dramatic end.  The play goes beyond a borsch-belt type schtick which makes it easily accessible and enters into another realm altogether in the final scene.  

Playwright and founder of Interact Theatre asks the following question in Two Jews: “Why are so many people whose circumstances are so terrible, and whose families have endured the same suffering for generations, so devout in their belief in a higher power?  Why wouldn’t their faith have weakened, as opposed to strengthened, as a result of their suffering?  The answer came to me in the writing of Two Jews: in the absence of such strongly held faith, they would have nothing; they might as well give up.  I never understood that.”  

On Sunday May 1, Dr. Hanoch Guy, Emeritus Professor of Jewish Studies at Temple University, will lead a post-performance discussion of Two Jews Walk Into a War.

Two Jews Walk Into a War.  On the Mainstage of The Adrienne through Mother’s Day, May 8, 2011.
2030 Sansom Street, Philadelphia (215) 568-8079.…