Miriam Shaviv

  • Leaving the Jewish Chronicle

    Oct 6, 2010

    That's it, folks... this is my last day at the Jewish Chronicle. After five years, I am moving to the Times Higher Education magazine, where I will edit the features.

    But fret not. I will still be blogging, back at my old blog home (2004-2006), http://www.bloghd.blogspot.com. Please bookmark and visit often!

    Thank you all for several years of insightful comments and contributions. I look forward to continuing our discussions on Bloghead, and of course, joining you in the comment section of thejc.com.



  • Stuxnet conspiracy theories are getting ridiculous

    Oct 4, 2010

    Whoever invented the Stuxnet virus, which is supposedly targeted at the Iranian nuclear programme, must be rolling around laughing at the increasingly far-fetched speculation over who created it. Most of the "proof", of course, points to Israel. Now, I'm not saying that the Israelis didn't do it - they certainly have the motive and the capability - but the so-called "evidence" is really moving into the realms of the ridiculous.

    The piece that  has everyone in a tizzy is the file path  b:\myrtus\src\objfre_w2k_x86\i386\guava.pdb, which appears in the virus's code. This is, according to alleged experts, an allusion to the biblical Queen Esther, who saved the Jewish people from a genocidal Persian. Myrtus is the Latin word for myrtle, and Esther's other name is Hadassah, or myrtle, you see....

    Of course, the myrtle is (partially) native to Europe so it might be a link to the Brits. It is also used by aromatherapists, so perhaps the programmers were just trying to kick up a stink? Or, if you are absolutely set on some Jewish symbolism, according to Wiki, "In Jewish mysticism, the myrtle represents the phallic, masculine force at work in the universe." Bibi the alpha male is really showing Ahmadinejad who's in charge....

    But seriously, there is also a clue at the end of the file name: guava, which - guess what - is a member of the myrtle family.

    Myrtus could also easily be construed as My RTUs. In SCADA environments, RTU is a commonly used term for remote terminal unit. Isn't it more plausible that the Stuxnet author named the folder myrtus (meaning My RTUs) then realized it also read myrtus, the botanical term, and hence named his file guava? [source]

    Then again, there are guava orchards in the Gaza Strip. Perhaps the programmers were against disengagement?

    The other piece of "evidence" being thrown about is the string 19790509, which is being interpreted as the date May 9, 1979 - the same day on which Iran executed Habib Elghanian, a prominent Jewish businessman. Unless the programmers are themselves Persian Jews, it is unlikely they are familiar with this episode.  But wait:

    Perhaps what we really have here is someone born on May 9, 1979

    This does sound more likely - although, if the virus was constructed in England (or by a British expat), perhaps we're talking about someone born on September 5, 1979. Who the hell knows? None of this is serious proof for anything other than that we all love a good conspiracy theory.

  • 'Jewish flotilla' captain returns home, nobody cares

    Sep 29, 2010


    Oh, dear. Supporters of the so-called Jewish flotilla sent out tweets today encouraging people to welcome home Glyn Secker, its captain, as he flew into Heathrow. And in the event? Only eight people, including the usual suspects, cared enough to turn up. As for the sign encouraging Jews to boycott Israeli goods - let's just note that Secker was flying home El Al (possibly not by choice).

  • Simchat Torah trivia

    Sep 29, 2010

    For the basics on the festival of Simchat Torah, Tablet has a nice run-down. But here are some other facts you might not know, from Avraham Ya'ari's classic history of the festival, 'Toldot Chag Simchat Torah' ('The Origins of the Festival of Simchat Torah,' pub. in Hebrew by Mossad Harav Kook).

    Whilst we often pride ourselves on / lament (depending on who you are...) the unchanging nature of our tradition, this history shows how enormously fluid some of our traditions actually are. Among the fascinating points:

    -- Simchat Torah originated in Babylon and was not celebrated in Israel until the end of the first millenium - ie it is a total diaspora festival. The reason is that in Babylon, the Jews had the same one-year cycle for reading the Torah as we do today, whereas in Israel they finished the Torah every three / three-and-a-half years, and not always on the same date. When the communities in the land of Israel finished the Torah, they would hold a festive meal, but no 'Simchat Torah' as we know it.

    -- The festival originally did not involve reading from Genesis, but merely finishing Deuteronomy. Hence, the original term was not 'chatan Torah' (Bridegroom of the Torah/Law) but 'chatam Torah' -- sealer of the Torah. There was, of course, no chatan Bereshit.

    -- The original name wasn't 'Simchat Torah' but 'Yom Habrachah' -- the day of the blessing, named after Vezot Habrachah -- the last chapter of the bible which was read on that day, and also after the haftarah they read then, in which King Solomon gave blessings (I Kings 8:22). In Spain it was known simply as 'the last Yom Tov of Chag.' In North Africa it was 'Yom Hasiyum' -- the day of completion. The name Simchat Torah originated in Spain, after the first millenium.

    -- Hakafot on Simchat Torah were not known at all until the last third of the 16th century, and the first time we hear about it is in Tzfat in the days of the Ari, from where it spread out to other communities. Previously, some communities in Ashkenaz took out all the Torah scrolls, but it took 150 years for the custom of hakafot to spread, after it was mentioned in several books and after Jews from the land of Israel travelling to other communities helped institute it.

    -- There are a few customs for Simchat Torah which we know about because there are rabbinic responsa addressing whether they were permissable. These include bringing spices and incense to shul and burning them in front of the Sefer Torah. In Israel between the 17th-19th centuries, during hakafot, people used to hold lit wax candles, and this custom also spread (in several places they used to use havadalah candles...). Another fire-related minhag was getting the children to burn the schach from succot on ST.

    -- Other lost minhagim: Worms - they would dance around bonfires on Simchat Torah. In other places in Ashkenaz celebrations of Simchat Torah involved jumping over a fire. In a small number of communities the singing on Simchat Torah was accompanied by musical instruments played by non-Jews - and at times by Jews (In Venice, for example, there was a debate over whether the players could use an organ as it was used in churches; other instruments, however, were ok). In other places eg. Sarajevo, they played drums during hakafot. In some Ashkenazi communities, particularly in Poland and the Balkans, in the seventeenth century, they let off fireworks and firecrackers. Many people used to eat and drink in shul whilst the Torah was being read, often food baked by the women of the community...

    -- There were many special customs for the women on Simchat Torah, including in some places, decorating the Torah scrolls after Minchah on Shmini Atzeret in preparation for Simchat Torah; selling the 'women's mitzvot' for the rest of the year - which included, I note, sweeping the floor of the shul -- throwing candy on the chatanei Torah; and honouring the wives of the chatanei Torah as 'Kallot Torah.' Once hakafot began, women were graciously allowed to watch proceedings, even in communities such as Yemen where women generally did not come to shul at all. In Southern Russia, women were actually allowed into the men's section; in Lithuania, women and girls came into the synagogue to kiss the Sifrei Torah; in Baghdad, each shul used to lay out all of its sifrei Torah and both the men and the women used to go from shul to shul kissing each scroll.

    -- The tendency to confuse Simchat Torah with Purim has a long history. The priestly blessing was changed from Mussaf to Shacharit so that the Cohanim would not be drunk when they said it; in some communities it was cancelled altogether. There are also a number of poems about Simchat Torah which equate the festival with drinking and frivolity from very early on, as well as rabbinic warnings on the matter. There were lots of parodies of religious songs (including Echad Mi Yodeah, and Kiddush) that were popular on Simchat Torah, and there was also a customof appointing a 'Purim rabbi / Purim head-of-kehillah' on ST and of allowing the young men to take over proceedings, including the old shtick of tying people's tallitot together, stealing food from ovens, etc. etc. etc. This was all very widespread but apparently Salonika was particularly known for letting the service become jokey.

    Chag sameach everyone!

  • Jews and pork

    Sep 29, 2010

    The New York Times has a longish piece on Israel's first pork cookbook, which even the article admits "has not caused much of a stir so far".

    Nevertheless, it has sold over 1,000 copies. And:

    At Yoezer, a high-end restaurant in Jaffa, the chef Itzik Cohen has held dinners for as many as 90 customers exclusively with the book’s pork recipes.

    Dishes included frittata with bacon, prosciutto and zucchini; cabbage filled with pork and polenta; pork scaloppine with risotto; pork-cheek soup with hummus; spaghetti carbonara; pork ribs marinated in yogurt; and pork meatballs with fennel seeds.

    “They were good evenings,” said Mr. Cohen, who has since incorporated three of the dishes into his everyday menu. “Everyone was enjoying the food. It all came out beautiful.”

    The thing is, it wouldn't matter for most of those customers if the food was absolutely disgusting. As with the restaurant, Traif, which recently opened in Brooklyn, the thrill is mostly in eating something taboo.

  • Samuel Pepys goes to shul

    Sep 29, 2010

    OK, ok, I know I post this every year before Simchat Torah, but I just love it.

    On October 14, 1663, diarist Samuel Pepys made a visit to a London synagogue at Creechurch Lane (later Bevis Marks). It was Simchat Torah, but he had no way of knowing that what he was witnessing was not typical. Here is his horrified description of the goings-on:

    Thence home and after dinner my wife and I, by Mr. Rawlinson's conduct, to the Jewish Synagogue: where the men and boys in their vayles, and the women behind a lattice out of sight; and some things stand up, which I believe is their Law, in a press to which all coming in do bow; and at the putting on their vayles do say something, to which others that hear him do cry Amen, and the party do kiss his vayle. Their service all in a singing way, and in Hebrew.

    And anon their Laws that they take out of the press are carried by several men, four or five several burthens in all, and they do relieve one another; and whether it is that every one desires to have the carrying of it, I cannot tell, thus they carried it round about the room while such a service is singing. And in the end they had a prayer for the King, which they pronounced his name in Portugall; but the prayer, like the rest, in Hebrew.

    But, Lord! to see the disorder, laughing, sporting, and no attention, but confusion in all their service, more like brutes than people knowing the true God, would make a man forswear ever seeing them more and indeed I never did see so much, or could have imagined there had been any religion in the whole world so absurdly performed as this. Away thence with my mind strongly disturbed with them, by coach and set down my wife in Westminster Hall, and I to White Hall...

    Good to see that nothing changes....

  • Ahmadinejad's rocky PR plan

    Sep 28, 2010

    Next month, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is planning to visit Lebanon. After political meetings in Beirut he will travel south, tour the areas damaged in the war with Israel in 2006 – and, according to reports, lob a rock at Israel over the border fence in a symbolic gesture.

    The thinking, presumably, is that this would be a great PR coup - that the image would cement Ahmadinejad’s reputation as the Islamic world’s foremost opponent of the Jewish state. But would it really?

    The move (if it ever happens - not at all clear) would, of course, be modelled on the famous photo of Prof Edward Said, who in 2000 threw his own stone at Israel. It is worth remembering that Said’s photo, which was reproduced around the world, did him enormous damage in the West, making him look like a hot-headed agitator rather than a reasonable, respectable academic.

    Ahmadinejad has very little credibility in the West to ruin, but many people would find an image of him personally engaging in political violence distasteful.

    In his own country, Prof Gerald Steinberg reminds me, Ahmadinejad has often been criticised for being too focused on the Palestinian issue at the expense of his own people, and also for projecting an image of Iran that is mad, dangerous and outside the community of nations. A picture which re-enforces those exact perceptions might not be too popular at home either.

    Naturally, we would all prefer not to see Iran's dictator getting the satisfaction of throwing rocks at Israel. But given that there is very little Israel can actually do to stop him, I say, rock on, Ahmadinejad. Give us the picture that will instantly convey, to any remaining doubters, just how mad you really are.

    Related: Tim Marshall, Foreign Affairs editor of Sky News on Ahmadinejad’s Lebanese visit (Sept 13 podcast)

  • Who owns Meah Shearim?

    Sep 27, 2010

    A row is brewing in the Jerusalem neighbourhood of Meah Shearim over the right of women to walk in the street. (I feel like I'm writing about Afghanistan and can hardly believe this isn't satire.)

    It began several weeks ago when the extreme Edah Charedit deliberated whether to close the streets to women on Simchat Beit Hashoevah, during Succot. The thought was that the celebration would attract crowds from outside the neighbourhood, and promote the mixing of the sexes, which might lead to immodesty.

    In the end, they "merely" (according to Yediot Achronot, a secular newspaper!) decided to close the streets to women from outside the neighbourhood. But by then, word had leaked of their original plans, and now a group of secular feminists is demanding the right to march through the strictly Orthodox neighbourhood "in protest against the increasing radicalization and damage to haredi women's status within the community". The police are not thrilled.

    The problem, though, is that they are framing the problem all wrong. Both sides are presenting this as a problem of women's rights - how dare women be kept off their own streets? And of course, that is a major issue - the idea that in this day and age, streets can be closed to women is preposterous.

    But I see it as something larger - a question of the rule of law. Because this is a neighbourhood where the residents are exclusively Charedi, the Charedi leadership is behaving as if it "owns" the streets, and has the right to decide who walks where. This is entirely untrue. Unless a road is privately owned, the street, no matter who lives there, is public property - and is ultimately the responsibility of the state. Private citizens cannot stop others walking there, no matter how strongly they feel about the area. It is simply not up to the Edah Charedit to close the streets to anyone - or to decide which side of the street each gender can walk on, another recent trend.

    Allowing the Charedim to effectively set their own laws in their "own" neighbourhood is a dangerous precedent. The police, and the state, should be fighting to retain their control over these Israeli streets, and not allow little islands to develop with an entire different set of rules.

  • Miliband's mum: backer of Jews for Justice for Palestinians

    Sep 26, 2010

    Much energy has gone into figuring out where the Miliband brothers stand on the Jewish spectrum. For the most part, they show few signs of anything beyond a cursory interest in their Jewish heritage, they are uninvolved in the community, neither of their partners are Jewish and relatively little is known about their positions on Israel.

    So here is another element to throw into the mix. According to the BBC and Haaretz, the Milibands' mother, Marion Kozak, is a "a leading member of the Jews for Justice for Palestinians", the group which is on the very margins of the Jewish community.

    It is actually unclear just how "leading" she is and what real role she might play. But she certainly is a signatory.

  • Michael Oren's Yom Kippur sermon

    Sep 22, 2010

    Jeffrey Goldberg, by far my favourite Jewish blogger, has posted the text of a sermon delivered by Israeli ambassador to Washington Michael Oren to three Washington syngogogues on Yom Kippur. It is an absolute must-read.

    Oren starts by explaining the dilemma faced by the biblical Jonah:

    If he succeeds in convincing the Ninevehians to atone and no harm befalls them, many will soon question whether that penitence was ever really necessary. Jonah will be labeled an alarmist. But, what if the people of Nineveh ignore the warning and the city meets the same fiery fate as Sodom and Gomorrah? Then Jonah, as a prophet, has failed.

    Such is the paradox of prophecy for Jonah, a lose-lose situation. No wonder he runs away. He flees to the sea, only to be swallowed by a gigantic fish, and then to the desert, cowering under a gourd. But, in the end, the fish coughs him up and the gourd withers. The moral is: there is no avoiding Jonah's paradox. Once elected by God, whatever the risks, he must act.

    It is exactly the same, he says, for many modern politicians:

    Take, for example, the case of Winston Churchill. During the 1930s, he warned the world of the dangers of the rapidly rearming German Reich. The British people ignored Churchill- worse they scorned him, only to learn later that he was all along prescient and wise. But what if Churchill had become Britain's Prime Minister five years earlier and had ordered a pre-emptive strike against Germany? Those same people might have concluded that the Nazis never posed a real threat and that their prime minister was merely a warmonger.

    Oren goes through a series of similar examples, and then finally addresses the question of the Israeli prime minister, faced with the dilemma of creating a Palestinian state, which will probably be hostile to Israel; and - most important of all - the question of what to do about Iran's nuclear weapons.

    Do you remain passive while Iran provides nuclear weaponry to terrorist groups, targets Tel Aviv with nuclear-tipped missiles, and triggers a nuclear arms race throughout the region? Or do you act, as Israel has now, joining with the United States and other like-minded nations in imposing sanctions on Iran, hoping to dissuade its rulers from nuclearizing? And, if that fails, do you keep all options on the table, with the potentially far-reaching risks those options entail?

    The issues of terror, the peace process, and Iran evoke strong emotions in this country and around the world, and often spark criticism of Israeli policies. Yet it's crucial to recall that those policies are determined by the leaders elected through one of the world's most robust and resilient democracies. Recall that the people of Israel--not of Europe, not of the United States--bear the fullest consequences for their leaders' decisions.

    There is no escaping the responsibility--as Jonah learned thousands of years ago--and that responsibility is borne by our leaders and by the majority of the people they represent. Israel today faces decisions every bit as daunting as those confronting Jonah, but we will not run away. There is no gourd to hide under or fish to swallow us whole. Terror, the peace process, Iran--our Ninevehs--await.

    He ends with a plea for unity between Israeli and American Jews, and a request that they "appreciate" the quandries faced by their leaders.

    So what is he saying here? Some of those listening, said Goldberg, assumed he was asking American Jewry for support during "difficult times" in the peace process and with Iran. Others thought he was preparing them for the continuation of the settlement freeze and an attack on Iran.  To me, it sounds as if both of those are true. What is interesting is that unlike many shul sermons where support for Israel is taken for granted, Oren is very conscious that his (Washingtonian, probably left-leaning and likely highly influential) audience needs convincing. He is essentially having to make Israel's case to American Jews.

    How do you read it?