Miriam Shaviv

  • Why Jews love Chinese food

    Jul 1, 2010

    A comment by Elena Kagan, the American Supreme Court nominee, has set the Jewish blogosphere and Twittersphere (??) on fire.

    As part of her confirmation hearing, she was asked where she was on Christmas Day last year. She answered: "Like all Jews, I was probably at a Chinese restaurant" - provoking much laughter.

    So what is it with American Jews and Chinese food on Christmas day? 

    The obvious answer (as Senator Chuck Schumer helpfully pointed out amid the general hilarity following Ms Kagan's remark) is that there are very few restaurants, other than Chinese ones, open on Christmas. But the Jewish romance with Chinese food goes much further.

    I always understood that part of the attraction was that many Chinese are lactose-intolerant, and therefore Chinese food does not involve a lot of milk products, making it easier to reproduce if you are kosher.

    Hanna Raskin, who wrote a book about Jews and Chinese food, adds that Jewish immigrants to NYC thought that Chinese food was 'sophisticated' and adopted it as part of their assimilation process; they also felt more welcome in many Chinese restaurants than in mainstream, WASPish ones. But perhaps most importantly,

    Location, location, location. Chinatown butted up against the Lower East Side, which made it easy for Jewish residents to grab dinner at a dumpling house. And, as Schumer would point out, those neighborhood restaurants were open even on Sundays. But here's the real importance of geography: The vast majority of American Jews trace their roots to the Lower East Side, meaning New York traditions became Jewish traditions. While Italian and Irish immigrants in New York certainly enjoyed Chinese food too, their brethren in Boston and Milwaukee and St. Louis didn't pick up the same habit -- or decide it was central to their ethnic group's identity. Jews eat Chinese food largely because that's what early 20th-century New Yorkers did.

    Hey, that's good enough for me....


  • The Orthodox atheist rabbi speaks out

    Jun 30, 2010

    The blogosphere has had its share of honest, sometimes too-honest, rabbis and rebbetzins writing about the challenges of their work, and more often than not carping about their congregants (fair enough, most congregants spend quite a lot of time carping about their rabbi). Mostly, they have elected to stay anonymous, aware that much of what they write could get them fired.

    Well, we now have a new contender for the most revelatory rabbinic blog. The Orthoprax rabbi is billed as "The Musings of an Atheist Rabbi of an Orthodox Congregation":

    I am the rabbi of a modern orthodox synagogue.  I have traditional semikha, spent time studying in Israel, have written articles for various Torah journals, I am married (to the Orthoprax Rebbetzin) and have five kids (the Orthoprax Rabbi’s Kids).  This is all pretty unremarkable.  But, I figured I would let you all in on a little secret, while my congregants are all Orthodox, to varying degrees, I am not.  I don’t believe in any of it.  I am an atheist.  I personally don’t keep much of any of Jewish law.  

    How then can I be an Orthodox Rabbi? Simple.  A rabbi is a job like any other.  No one asks the plumber if he believes in plumbing or the attorney if he truly believes in his client.  Instead, everyone understands that many people go into different professions for many different reasons.  Sure, there are those plumbers who view it as their calling or the attorney who only takes clients he can believe in.  Most of us, however, aren’t that lucky.  Instead, we take jobs that we think we can be good at, make money, get power or a host of other reasons.  I took this job because I am a good speaker, personable and have a background in Jewish stuff.  My congregants all like me – or at least it seems so, I just received a five-year contract extension and raise - so what’s wrong if I don’t believe.  My belief doesn’t (for the most part, and I hope to explore some areas where it does) affect my job performance.  I answer “she’elot” and give heartfelt dershot, officiate at weddings and funerals, and, as I said, people are generally satisfied.  So do my beliefs matter?

    So, assuming this is all bona fide, a few points.

    -- Strictly speaking, this is not an Orthoprax rabbi - ie someone who practises Orthodoxy although he does not really believe in it - because he says he doesn't really keep much of Jewish law. He is really just an atheist with an inappropriate day job.

    -- Blogger Harry Maryles and many of his readers seem very shocked by this man's existence. I don't see why. Over the past few years, the blogosphere has clearly shown that the Orthodox world is packed full of people with less than perfect faith. Indeed, there seems to be a massive range of beliefs and compromises - from outright sceptics living fully observant lives to people steeped in doubt, right through to those leading double lives, sinning in private while maintaining a 'frum' cover, often for the sake of their children. The internet has shown many of these people to be highly educated Jews, capable of very serious discourse on God's existence and other philosophical issues, biblical criticism, historical analysis etc. Very often they remain fully committed to Jewish life. Why should they not be rabbis? (As one of Harry Maryles's commentators pointed out, there are certainly equivalent Christian clergymen; I am also told that there is a new series on BBC2, Rev, which portrays the life of one such vicar with doubts.)

    -- Personally, I think this rabbi's beliefs do matter. I would have had no issue had he declared himself to be someone who struggles with faith, or someone who has had rare moments of faith, and lives his life trying to get back to those points. These seem very natural and normal statements which are surely true for many religious people (as I have written before, we have done ourselves a great disservice by making it almost taboo to admit any spiritual wobbles). Even if you are struggling with God, you are in a relationship with Him. But this rabbi is not saying that. He is a complete atheist, who does not believe in God, period. And yet, he is preaching God's word. He is reducing religion to a charade, which is frankly an insult to his congregants.

    -- Just to be clear, I don't think that being an atheist precludes you from living a fully ritually observant and Jewish life. There are clearly many such people about, all with their own reasons for continuing to practise. I do think it precludes you from being an Orthodox rabbi.

    -- Anyone who thinks that tending to the spiritual needs of others is a mechanical function equivalent to plumbing needs to switch jobs.

    So, what do you think? How would you feel if you discovered your rabbi was an atheist? And is this a bigger or smaller problem than Orthodox women rabbis? (Ok, I was just being facetious with the last one.) I am particularly keen to hear from the small number of rabbis I know read this blog - anonymously, of course....

  • The Israel test

    Jun 29, 2010

    According to the Guardian,

    The British and Irish governments were today investigating allegations that members of a suspected Russian spy ring living under deep cover in the US had travelled using false passports from their countries.

    It will be interesting to see whether they expel a Russian diplomat over this.

  • Gaza's life expectancy

    Jun 25, 2010

    Here's a riddle.

    According to the CIA World Factbook (2009), life expectancy in Lebanon is 73.66. Egypt's is 71.12. Turkey's is 71.96.  Iran's is 71.14. Pakistan's is 64.49.

    What is life expectancy in the West Bank and Gaza?

    (Answer here.)

  • The real problem with writing novels about the Holocaust

    Jun 24, 2010

    Over the past few weeks, the literary world and Holocaust scholars have been engaged in two rows over fictionalised accounts of the Holocaust.

    One is Annexed by Sharon Dogar - a novel written from the point of view of Peter van Pels, the boy who was in hiding with Anne Frank, and suggesting that the two teenagers had a sexual relationship. Some Holocaust charities, in particular, have taken exception and claim that fictionalising the story risks trivialising Anne's life. The other is Beatrice and Virgil, by Yann Martel, which concerns a taxidermist writing a play about the Holocaust. It has been absolutely savaged in the reviews, and some have apparently suggested that Martel, as a non-Jew, had no business writing about the Holocaust, leading him to publicly state that "Jews do not own the Holocaust".

    Personally, I have no problem with the Holocaust being fictionalised. No subject should be out of bounds and a good book on the Holocaust can be worth 1,000 Holocaust ceremonies in terms of bringing the horror home to those who know little about it (see: Sophie's Choice). I certainly have no problem with non-Jews writing about the Holocaust. The Jewish community spends a lot of energy working to raise awareness of the Holocaust in the general population, how can they possibly complain when non-Jews treat it seriously?

    No, the real problem in both these cases is entirely different. Would anyone have complained about Martel had his new novel been able to offer some powerful new insight, some memorable images? Would anyone have complained about Dogar had she not included the unnecessary - and some might say slanderous - sexual angle?

    Their real "crime" is not to have fictionalised the Holocaust - but to have done it badly.

  • With friends like these....

    Jun 24, 2010

    I have a piece in the Forward this week about the kinds of friends Israel does not need. It has already generated some heated responses:

    Israel needs friends in Europe, but there are some friends that it could do without.

    In June, the English Defence League, a thuggish anti-Muslim group known for its raucous (and sometimes violent) street protests, launched a Jewish division, attracting at least a handful of Jews among the 500 fans on its “Jewish Division” Facebook page. The EDL had previously brandished Israeli flags at demonstrations to taunt its Muslim opponents, and even announced its intent to join a pro-Israel rally organized by Britain’s Zionist Federation following the recent Gaza flotilla crisis. (The rally’s organizers distanced themselves from the EDL, which has been condemned by mainstream Jewish communal groups; ultimately, EDL members weren’t much in evidence at the rally.)

    While the EDL may be a fringe group, its embrace of Israel activism is part of a growing trend. Over the past few years, a string of politicians and factions on Europe’s far right, particularly those with anti-Muslim agendas, have taken to expressing strong support for the Jewish state.

    Read the rest, and please come back here to comment.

  • Worm-shaped berries and blue bananas, only in Israel

    Jun 21, 2010

    The LA Times reports:

    If Willy Wonka had a farm, it would fit right in here in Israel.

    Want a lemon-scented tomato or a chocolate-colored persimmon? How about some miniaturized garlic cloves for the home chef who doesn't have time to chop, or a purple potato that tastes buttery when cooked?

    There are no chocolate rivers or edible teacup flowers on Israeli farms, but you will find carrots shaped like potatoes, strawberries shaped like carrots, star-shaped zucchini and "watermelon" tomatoes — dark green on the outside with a juicy red flesh.


    There are also specially bred red peppers with three times the usual amount of vitamins, and black chickpeas with extra antioxidants. Not to mention worm-shaped berries and blue bananas.

    Though some mock such colorful crops as "frankenfruit," an Israeli tomato breeder, Hazera Genetics, has created a boutique crop worth more than its weight in gold.

    Not sure about the blue bananas. But read the whole thing here.

  • Gaza's food problem

    Jun 21, 2010

    Media Backspin links to some recent AP and AFP pictures of Gaza, showing buzzing markets and well-stocked supermarkets, backing up what the JC's own stringer in Gaza, Moeen Elhelou, wrote a couple of weeks back. While not all foods may be available, there is no food shortage per se.

    As a side-note, it is interesting to see how many of the products in the pictures are labelled in Hebrew and are clearly imported from Israeli suppliers. If the Israelis are out to starve the people of Gaza, as its enemies allege, they are going about it in a very strange way.

  • Bloom's restaurant, you were awful but we will miss you

    Jun 11, 2010

    Forget the flotilla, and the increasing mess of admissions to Jewish schools. The real story for British Jews this week is the closure of Bloom's restaurant in Golders Green, an Anglo-Jewish treasure if ever there was one. And not in a good way.

    As food critic Jay Rayner put it a couple of years back: "Bloom's is an institution. Mind you, so is Broadmoor [prison], and nobody ever went there for dinner."

    Read the rest of his classic review. It is hilarious.

    But then we all have outrageous Bloom's stories. One of my favourites concerns friends of my husband's family, who both ordered chicken legs. Much to their annoyance, the waiter kept on pushing the husband to try the chicken breast instead. Finally, he confessed that because so many people ordered chicken legs and 'not enough' people were ordering chicken breasts, they instituted a policy of one chicken leg per table.

    The couple got up and left. But years later, they went to Bloom's again. Remembering what had happened last time, they sat at seperate tables and both ordered chicken legs. Once they were safely served, they greeted each other like lost friends and moved to the same table....

    Another friend of the family ordered lemon tea. Having been there before, they told the waiter to make sure they used a clean glass. When the waiter finally came out with several drinks he couldn't remember who had ordered what, so he yelled out to the entire restaurant: "Who ordered the clean glass?"

    Feel free to share your own memories below......



  • Hey, liberals: Palestinians need 'tough love' too

    Jun 11, 2010

    Bret Stephens poses an excellent question:

    What does it mean to be a friend of Israel? What does it mean to be a friend of the Palestinians? And should the same standards of friendship apply to Israelis and Palestinians alike, or is there a double standard here as well?

    It has become the predictable refrain among Israel's liberal critics that their criticism is, in fact, the deepest form of friendship. Who but a real friend, after all, is willing to tell Israel the hard truths it will not tell itself? Who will remind Israel that it is now the strong party, and that it cannot continue to play the victim and evade the duties of moral judgment and prudential restraint? Above all, who will remind Israel that it cannot go on denying Palestinians their rights, their dignity, and a country they can call their own?

    The answer, say people like Peter Beinart, formerly of the New Republic, is people like . . . Peter Beinart. And now that Israel has found itself in another public relations hole thanks to last week's raid on the Gaza flotilla, Israelis will surely be hearing a lot more from him.

    Now consider what it means for liberals to be friends of the Palestinians.

    Here, the criticism becomes oddly muted. So Egypt, a country that also once occupied Gaza, enforces precisely the same blockade on the Strip as Israel: Do liberal friends of Palestine urge the Obama administration to get tough on Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak as they urge him to do with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu? So a bunch of "peace" activists teams up with a Turkish group of virulently anti-Semitic bent and with links both to Hamas and al Qaeda: Does this prompt liberal soul-searching about the moral drift of the pro-Palestinian movement? So Hamas trashes a U.N.-run school, as it did the other week, because it educates girls: Do liberals wag stern fingers at Palestinians for giving up on the dream of a secular, progressive state?

    Well, no. And no. And no. Instead, liberal support for Palestinians is now mainly of the no-hard-questions-asked variety. But that is precisely the kind of support that liberals decry as toxic when it comes to Western support for Israel.

    Read the rest here. It's one of the best pieces on Israel/Palestinians I've read in ages. (If you come up against the paywall, click on the first link here.)