Miriam Shaviv

  • L'chaim - to life! Even in the grave...

    Aug 14, 2008

    The Rabbinical Centre of Europe (RCE) was recently confronted with an unusual halachic question. As their press release explains:

    A German Jew who passed away had expressed as his last will a peculiar request: to be buried together with a bottle of Vodka.

    As the community rabbi heard this weird request, he immediately contacted the RCE's office in order to forward this question to one of the RCE's halachic experts in order to determine if it is permissible to place a bottle of vodka in the grave of the man. The Jew emigrated from Russia in the 70s and was not connected to the local Jewish community. However, a good friend of his, a regular participant of community events and an acquaintance of the local Rabbi, delivered this last message of his friend to the rabbi.

    "Every day he would drink a half a glass of Vodka in the morning and a half in the evening", he told the rabbi.

    This ostensibly odd question actually raises a serious halachic dilemma. On the one hand it is of extreme importance to fulfill the last wish of a Jew, but on the other hand it is unacceptable to bury any object together with the body of a deceased person.

    Rabbi Yaacov Rozhe, who serves as chairman of the Zaka Rabbinical Council and as representative of the chief Rabbinate of Israel in the Medical Institute of Abu Kabir, to which the question was forwarded, replied that there is no halachic prohibition of placing the bottle near the coffin but under no circumstances may it be placed in the coffin, nor beneath it so that no object interposes between the coffin and the ground.

    With the implementation of this ruling the man and the bottle passed away side by side…

    So a happy ending then.

  • What to read today

    Aug 14, 2008
    • -- A court in Illinois has struck down a will by a couple who stipulated that their grandchildren would only receive their inheritance if they married within the Jewish faith. This piece argues the decision was correct

    -- London isn’t the only place where an eruv fight has turned ugly:

    An anti-eruv ad in a local weekly asked, “Is Westhampton Beach an Orthodox Jewish Community? ... Don’t let it happen.” E-mails and rumors have warned that local shops were being coerced into closing on Saturdays.

    -- Honest Reporting asks why The Guardian includes the “Hamas military wing” in its list of “useful links”

    --  Good question: how will the credit crunch affect rates of aliyah? The cost of Jewish living is probably lower in the UK than in the US – as most of us don’t have to pay the same kind of school fees to send our children to Jewish schools – however, the drop in property prices might affect us more….

    -- The LA Jewish Journal examines the contradictions of Bob Saget (of Full House fame)

    Even when he's riffing about his synagogue, Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades, an animal somehow enters the picture.

    "We have a great synagogue -- the rabbi will marry a man to a goat," he said. "It's Reconstructionist -- they'll do gay marriage if you need it, they'll do interfaith -- and interfaith's nothing after a goat."

    -- AB Yehoshua laments Israeli corruption in The Guardian. Some of the comments question whether this was the right forum for this piece

    -- A ‘chnyok’ nowdays is a derogatory term used by religious people for the ‘holier than thou’ super-observant. But what did it originally mean? Some suprising answers

    -- Is Lindsay Lohan converting to Judaism?

    -- The NY Times suddenly cottons on to the fact that there is a Jewish dating scene on the Upper West Side. I suppose that wouldn't have anything to do with the recent piece on Jewish dating in the Wall Street Journal?


  • Is it safe to fly in and out of Ben-Gurion airport?

    Aug 10, 2008

    This week, I wrote about the serious security implications of the story of the little girl who got left behind at Ben-Gurion airport while her family flew on to Paris.

    How, I asked, could an airplane take off from such a security-sensitive airport with luggage on board that did not belong to any passenger? Isn't this a basic security no-no?

    Now it emerges that the same problem exists on planes coming into Israel. As Haim Watzman blogs:

    Here I am stuck in New Jersey, while the four suitcases checked by me and Ilana are in flight. In other words, while security at Kennedy International Airport kept Ilana and me from bringing hand cream into the secure area, our luggage was allowed to fly on its own to Israel. If a terrorist wanted to blow up an airplane, would he rather use a jar of Ponds or a large valise?

    Meanwhile, the American Federal Aviation Administration has uncovered other serious security flaws at Israeli airports:

    The FAA cited a lack of proper supervision from civilian authorities as the major problem affecting flight safety. Among other findings, the FAA found that Ben-Gurion International Airport suffers from serious flight safety shortcomings and cited Israel's especially crowded airspace as a serious safety concern.

    The FAA critique comes after a civilian committee headed by former Israel Air Force Amos Lapidot issued findings a year ago highlighting severe shortcomings in flight safety at Israeli airports. The Lapidot public committee found that aviation safety in Israel is in a "catastrophic state."

    The panel's final report criticized the infrastructure at Ben Gurion International Airport, legislation pertaining to the matter, and air traffic control systems, adding that Israel has not fully seen the technological developments of the last decades in the field of air traffic control. They called to increase supervision on air traffic control systems, and to better train the controllers, many of whom do not always speak in English or use the proper terminology.

    Amos Lapidot resigned from his post as head of the committee in charge of examining flight safety two months ago, reportedly because the committee would not implement his recommendations.

    The FAA is due to submit its final report in just under 90 days. There is a possibility that it will severely reduce the number of flights on the US-Israel route.

    While I, of-course, in no way wish to see Israel suffering an economic blow, perhaps the threat of losing so much money and making it difficult to travel to America will be more effective than the "mere" threat of a catastrophic loss of human life - and those responsible will implement some urgent solutions.


  • And I was Hitler's maid's sister's cousin's neighbour

    Aug 8, 2008

    Many of you will have caught the feature in the Guardian this week on Germans who converted to Judaism and are now living in Israel.
    It included a rather remarkable interview with an unnamed professor of Jewish Studies at one of Israel’s universities, who claims that his grandmother Erna was, at one point, married to one Hans Hitler – the illegitimate child of Adolph’s half-brother, Alois Jr.
    As he explains:

    "Hans married my grandmother Erna after she divorced my grandfather."
    He immediately states that he hates the Hitler branch of his family. He becomes agitated. "I have neither any blood nor DNA from Adolf and his family," he insists. "I was not socialised by that family." He met Hans only once. The Hitlers came for tea when he was 12 years old. "Hans was a very nice man," he says. "No passions, no brutality." But Erna was thrilled to have married into the Hitler clan, and remained a Nazi until she died. "I didn't know her," he says of his grandmother. "She wasn't part of my family."

    The professor gave the same account of his relationship with Hitler two years ago to the American Jewish Action magazine. It included many details about the awkward situations he faces as a German convert - he doesn't, for example, participate in Holocaust Day ceremonies - and on the sometimes hostile reaction of his friends and neighbours to his background.
    At the time, it provoked much excitement in Jewish circles, and the article was widely reprinted on the internet.
    And now, the JC has learned, the Mail on Sunday is also chasing this gentleman – and intends to expose the “Jewish relative of Hitler” this weekend.
    Well, I hate to ruin the party. But I am simply not convinced by his story.
    According to Ben Barkow of the Wiener Library – the most authoritative Holocaust archive in the country – there is simply no record, anywhere, of a “Hans Hitler”.
    Hitler’s half-brother Alois Jr, according to Mr Barkow, certainly had one son, William Patrick. There was also another son, Heinz, who was reputedly Hitler’s favourite nephew but who was killed in 1942 on the Russian front. But certainly no Hans Hitler.
    So who is the unidentified and mysterious Israeli academic who is apparently trading on Hitler’s name in a rather sickening manner?
    I suppose we will have to wait for the Mail on Sunday to find out….
    Meanwhile, this just proves once again what a predilection we have to believing such stories. Nothing makes us happier than hearing of a descendant of a Nazi who converted to Orthodox Judaism, or of a one-time PLO terrorist who now preaches Zionism, or (in some circles...) of a Jew who eats pork on Yom Kippur becoming a Belzer Chossid. Such stories are a way of assuring ourselves we were "right" all along -- if even our greatest enemies (or their descendants) can come over to our side, surely the truth is with us.
    There is also an enormous appetite for stories creating a personal connection between Hitler and Jews. Who amongst us hasn't heard the old urban legend of Hitler having a Jewish great-grandmother? But hey, why let the truth get in the way of a good headline?

  • When husbands used their wives' maiden names

    Aug 8, 2008

    The Israeli Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi, Yona Metzger, recently called on women to take on their husband's surname.

    As a married woman who (mostly) still uses her maiden name, I am grateful to blogger Lion of Zion for providing this fascinating reminder that the way we allocate surnames has changed greatly throughout the centuries - and that a woman taking on her husband's name was not, historically, the only Jewish practice.

    As he explains:

    If it is so deleterious to a marriage when the wife uses her maiden name, how much worse would it be for the husband to take on that name for himself (rachmana litzlan - G-d forbid)?

    A famous example of a husband using a name from his wife's family is R. Shmuel Salant, the Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Jerusalem in the nineteenth century. His father's name was not Salant; rather, he adopted it from his second wife's father, R. Yosef Zundel of Salant.

    Even before the adoption of surnames -- which, contrary to popular opinion, was already in limited use centuries before the Austrian edicts of the 1780s -- there may be evidence that some Jews chose to identify themselves by their fathers-in-law rather than the standard ploni ben ploni.

    Records from the Jews of medieval England list some names as ploni the son-in-law of ploni or ploni the brother-in-law of ploni (click here. I don't know the information on this website is reliable)...

    Likewise, some Jews in Galicia (and elsewhere?) used "names that indicated son-in-law of" (click here)...

    This website (unverified) notes the following concerning R. (Yehuda) Leib Eskeles of Olkusz (Elkesh), near Krakow (17th c.?):

    Rabbi Yehuda [Leib Eskeles] married the daughter of Rabbi Moshe Israel Hendels of Krakow. As it was often the case, R' Yehuda Leib, entering the family of his father-in-law was known under this surname and was known as "Rav Leib Hendels" (and not Leib Eskeles)...

    Finally, not all newlyweds in Europe registered their marriages with the secular authorities (like today, although probably for different reasons). In such cases wives continued to use their maiden names by default and their children were even registered with their mothers' surnames as illegitimate children (click here).


  • Benzion Dunner's inquest is a wake-up call for the Charedi community

    Aug 6, 2008

    So Benzion Dunner, a pillar of Charedi society, had cocaine in his system when he died, according to his inquest. Whatever next?

    The temptation for the Charedi community will be to suppress this genuinely shocking story, internally, altogether. But since it has been widely reported in the national press this may prove impossible.

    And a good thing, too.

    Benzion Dunner was not some kid smoking dope behind a bicycle shed, who can be dismissed as a “problem child” unrepresentative of the Charedi community. He was the best, the brightest, the kindest, the frummest, the richest, the most generous of his group. If a man of his calibre was taking drugs - and knew where to find them - you can sure there are many others. And while there is no suggestion he had a regular drug habit, are we really to believe that he had only ever tried it once – to celebrate Purim, the day before he died? Cocaine is a highly addictive Class A drug which is not for beginners – or anyone.

    Last week, 200 Charedim chased an American rabbi down a street in Stamford Hill, because he campaigned against Charedi pedophiles. It is high time the community recognised that it is not immune to the addiction problems and social ills of the secular world. Because without admitting the problems, it has no chance of dealing with them.

    If the tragedy of Benzion Dunner is not treated as a serious wake-up call, what will be?

  • Is alcoholism on the rise in the Orthodox community?

    Aug 4, 2008

    Newsweek is running a piece on the supposed rise of alcoholism among American Jews, particularly Jewish ones.

    The assertion is unsupported by any real figures - numbers about "Israelis younger than 33" do nothing to shed light on trends in the Orthodox community in the diaspora - but anecdotally, I can believe there probably has been such a rise (no word on whether there is a similar trend in the UK).

    In addition, while the article goes some way to explaining why alcohol addiction among Jews has traditionally been low, it never really even attempts to explain why that might be changing now.

    Doing a little research on the web, I was fascinated to come across this piece from Time magazine in 1958, about a Yale study asking why there is so little alcoholism in the Jewish community. It includes the following strange theory, which I have never heard before:

    ...A more convincing theory, [Yale Sociology Professor Charles R.] Snyder believes, is the Jewish emphasis on food, "so that 'compulsive' eating is more likely to be selected as a means of alleviating psychic tensions [than] addictive drinking." He cites one psychological study showing that Jewish mothers' anxiety about their children's eating often causes the Jewish child to remain an infant, "so far as taking food is concerned, much later than other children.

    Could the much lamented death of the Jewish mother -- and the diet culture -- be responsible for our descent into alcoholism???

  • What to read today

    Jul 31, 2008

    -- Ha’aretz is carrying an excerpt of an interview, which will be published in full over the weekend, with the son of one of the leading Hamas men on the West Bank. He has converted to Christianity, moved to LA, and has some very nice - yes, nice - things to say about Israel.

    --  Haim Watzman reveals the best advice he ever received as a soldier - shouted at him by his company commander. It’s not what you might think:

    “No matter how little time you have to sleep, no matter how miserable you are, don’t shut your eyes until you’ve washed yourself and changed your underwear. It’s not just hygiene – it’s to remind yourself that you are human being, not an animal.”

    I really hate to think what brought on that advice.

    --  The Israeli government has charged a family of American olim for towing away their car - which was damaged in a bulldozer terrorist attack last month. Their daughter was also lightly hurt. Was that really necessary?

    -- Meanwhile, a factory owner in Sderot is giving pay rises to workers who become more observant.

    Since the offer was made, many of the factory's employees have indeed become more religious, organizing groups who break for morning and noon prayers and Torah studies.

    Apart from any financial incentive, all these examples involve taking time off work. Is it any wonder “many” employees have taken the bribe? Personally, I think pay rises should be based on merit - not on mitzvah points.

    -- What is it with Britney Spears and Jews? First there’s her Kabbalah obsession. Then there was boyfriend Isaac Cohen. Now she is apparently dating her new minder - “a former Israeli soldier”, according to the Sun. I don't know what he did in the army, but I'm guessing that whatever it was, it was easier than dealing with Ms Spears.

    -- The Times interviews comedian Josh Howie, who aims to be “the Jewish Woody Allen” - and who has written a piece in this week’s JC.

    -- Cute(-ish) Milton Friedman anecdote.

    -- Thinking of making aliyah? Read Chayyei Sarah first.

    -- And finally, reading material for a (very) long Shabbat: Dr Elliot Cosgrove has just finished his dissertation (University of Chicago), titled “The Insoluble contradictions in the life and thought of Louis Jacobs”. It can be downloaded in two volumes, here and here. Review, anyone?

  • The conspiracy theories around Obama's Kotel note get murkier

    Jul 31, 2008

    Charedi news blog Vos Iz Neias has posted a link to a video on YouTube which, it says, documents the moment at which the note Senator Obama placed in the Kotel was “lifted“. The blog explains:

    The videographer identifies himself as David Cohen, “a freelance photographer/videographer currently living in Jerusalem.” He reports that “Seconds after Obama left the stones, some of his entourage stepped up to the wall (dressed in suits) and I recorded a young man gathering notes in his hands in what appeared to be the search for Obama’s freshly placed personal note. He is joined by others who unwrap notes and read them. One person [is shown] walking away from the wall with a note that he unwraps as he tries to aggressively block the camera lens.”

    Cohen’s testimony provides new evidence that suggests that the alleged pilferer, dressed in the garb of a seminary student, may in fact have been a member of Obama’s entourage. If so, there would not need to have been an official authorization by the campaign to publish the note. The actual “pilferer” may have been working for Obama. This possibility would go a long way to account for the mixed messages emanating from both the Maariv and Obama spokesmen.

    I don’t know what the Obama team members were doing; and it is certainly not clear whether any of these men, the Obama staffers or the obviously Israeli Charedim in the rest of the video, actually did pick up Obama’s note. Just because a guy walks away from the Kotel with a note in his hand, trying to block the camera, does not mean he is the guilty party.

    I fully understand why sites such as Vos Iz Neias might be uncomfortable with the idea that a Charedi man might have been behind the scandal (although it reflects on no one - no one - but that man himself). But one question: If the Obama camp really did want to make Obama’s words public, why would they go to the great lengths of dressing up one of their own staff “in the garb of a seminary student”?? (As it happens, the Obama staffers on the video were actually only wearing knitted kippot and did not look like Charedi yeshivah bochurs at all. If, in fact, that is what these men were - in this video Obama's entourage all seem to be wearing white kippot.) Why wouldn’t they just release the text?

    The Pope did, after all…

  • Are Charedi women at the back of the bus the modern-age Rosa Parks?

    Jul 31, 2008

    About a month ago I wrote about a directive, issued by the Rabbinical Transportation Committee, calling on Charedi women to sit at the back of the bus.

    The Forward picked up on this last week, and adds an interesting angle to the story. The move towards segregated bus lines, it says,

    has sparked a row over who may lay claim to the legacy of Rosa Parks, the African-American civil rights activist who famously refused to obey an Alabama bus driver’s order to give her seat to a white passenger. Opponents of segregation say the mantle is theirs. But enthusiasts for segregation have begun to argue that by making their way to the back of the bus, they are actually Parks’s heirs.

    “I see Haredi women who sit at the back as being the Israeli Rosa Parks,” said writer Shira Leibowitz Schmidt, one of the leading proponents of segregation. “We see it as a stand against the deterioration of standards in the public arena, and view the chance to sit at the back without men gazing at us as a form of empowerment.”

    Later in the story it quotes a woman petitioning against the separate seating:

    A co-petitioner, Chana Pasternak, director of the Modern Orthodox women’s organization Kolech, said it was “impossible in the 21st century to justify discriminating against women like this.” She added, “I feel the need to take a stand, like Rosa Parks.”

    Strictly speaking, of course, Pasternak is the true heir of Rosa Parks - who would probably be horrified that women anywhere (of any colour) were invoking her name to justify segregation. But I do get Leibowitz's Schmidt point that she, in her own mind at least, is fighting to retain her dignity.

    Nevertheless, I wonder if shaping the debate around Rosa Parks is to completely miss the point.

    Parks is a very American icon; her name and her struggle would mean nothing to the great majority of Israeli women whose lives this is actually about.

    But more than that, Parks took her stand spontaneously, of her own volition, in a moment of deep conviction (although she was, admittedly, an advisor to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People [NAACP] youth council, which was looking for a case just like this in order to challenge bus segregation laws).

    Ms Leibowitz Schmidt notwithstanding, how much of the push to get Charedi women sitting at the back of the bus is coming from women - and how much from the men? Is this a cause women actually wanted and were behind - or are they adjusting to, and adopting, and justifying, what is becoming a new social norm, at the insistence of men, more out of inertia than anything else?

    Particularly as we already know what can happen to women who decide they prefer to sit at the front of the bus, after all.