Tuesday, July 28, 2015

When is the Last Time You Met An Iranian?

Zeinab Shahidi Marnani
The nuclear deal with Iran [a 4-page White House summary] has been signed, and everyone's talking about it. But how many people have actually met an Iranian citizen who currently lives in Iran? 

Two weeks ago, I covered for the Washington Jewish Week an event at the Middle East Institute with Iranian artist Zeinab Shahidi MarnaniShe is a video and text artist who divides her time between Tehran and New York. Among other things, she said that "of course, I am for women's rights and equality," suggesting there is younger generation in Iran seeking change. 

She was reluctant to talk about the nuclear deal or directly criticize the regime, but my impression was that she is proud of her Iranian roots and upbringing, and, at the same time, critical of the more restrictive elements of the Islamic Republic.  

This event opened my eyes to the diversity of Iran; it is not a monolithic entity. And it's just one of the reasons I am very supportive of the nuclear deal. Not only is the agreement an unprecedented victory for diplomacy over war, but it's a critical foreign policy achievement which I believe will lead to a détente and further improvements in our relations with this country.  

As Fareed Zakaria points out, the deal is likely to have a normalization effect on Iran. Indeed, history suggests that as countries get more integrated into the world and the global economy, they have fewer incentives to be spoilers and more to maintain stability. Iran won't change overnight, but we're likely see a new generation of moderate leaders who want to restore Iran to a more normal status.

I'm happy to see that Jews support the agreement by significant margins. 

Two new polls show that around 60% of Jewish Americans want Congress to approve the deal. Just today, a new poll conducted by GBA Strategies  found that 60% of Jewish Americans support this deal. Last week, the Los Angeles Jewish Journal, an independent, nonprofit media company, found that 53% of American Jews want Congress to approve it, while only 35% oppose it.

But the warmongers like AIPAC - who enabled and pushed for the invasion and occupation of Iraq which resulted in the deaths of over 4,000 U.S. troops and more than 100,000 Iraqis and led to the creation of ISIS/ISIL - are planning to spend millions of dollars in advertising campaigns because they want to convince Congress that Americans oppose this deal. That's just not true.

I recognize that those who oppose the agreement and want to derail it have some valid concerns. But they offer no alternative, other than keeping the sanctions, and no international inspections. This will certainly lead to Iran's building a nuclear weapons program without any outside monitoring.

The pro-Netanyahu crowd is going to bombard us with half-truths and outright lies, using scare and intimidation tactics that have become a trademark of their campaigns. But their opposition arguments have been debunked (see Mitchell Plitnick's great article here).

Even Israel's former head of the Mossad and National Security Advisor, Efraim Halevy, has come out in favor of the deal, saying it's crucial for Israel's security.

So make your voice heard. I already called my Congressman,  Chris Van Hollen.  Have you called yours? 

Monday, July 27, 2015

What Are Biblical "Policemen"?

Ask any Israeli kid how do you say ‘policeman’ in Hebrew, and they will immediately shoot back, “shoter.” This word appears in this week’s parsha, Devarim, but it doesn’t mean ‘policeman.’ How is that possible?

Moses opens this week’s parsha, Devarim, with a long speech that recounts the trials and tribulations of the Israelites during their 40-year journey in the desert.

In the very first episode he describes, Moses uses this word in the plural, “shoterim.

He retells the story of how he could not bear the burden of adjudicating alone all the disputes of the people, and how he established a judicial system comprised of judges of different levels (though he strangely take omits Yitro’s central role in this story). And Moses describes:  

So I took your tribal leaders, wise and experienced men, and appointed them heads over you: Chiefs of thousands, chiefs of hundreds, chiefs of fifties, and chiefs of ten, and officials (shoterim) for your tribes. (Deuteronomy 1:15 , JPS translation)

According to the context, the term ‘shoter’ means an official who is a leader with administrative duties to help the judges.

Indeed, it is a rare Biblical word, so we need to look in other places to get a better understanding of its usage.

The word's first appearance is in the story of the Exodus, where the shoterim were Israelite foremen who served as part of the Egyptian slave-labor system. The Hebrew slaves were organized into groups, each headed by a foreman (shoter) from among their own, and he, in turn, was subordinate to the Egyptian taskmaster.

The Torah tells us the shoterim were beaten for not carrying out their assignment which was to record work quotas and see to it that they were forcibly filled. Later, we are told, these shoterim cried out to Pharaoh on behalf of the Israelite slaves, and when that didn't help, they turned their anger toward Moses, accusing him of bringing harm to the people. Thus, the shoterim were leaders who heroically challenged the cruelty of Pharaoh to alleviate the suffering of the slaves.

The most famous appearance of the word  ‘shoter’ is probably found later in Deuteronomy: 

שֹׁפְטִים וְשֹׁטְרִים תִּתֶּן-לְךָ בְּכָל-שְׁעָרֶיךָ

The JPS translates this verse as follows:  

You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes. (Deuteronomy 16:18)

Here we encounter, for the first time, the administrative pair of words: magistrate (shofet) and official (shoter). Pinhas Artzi, Bar Ilan University professor of Hebrew and Semitic Languages, shows that this is a new stage in urban civilization. Every judicial and administrative center in every city was to have a legal system: a magistrate and his assistant, the shoter, whose job was apparently to draft legal documents and maintain proper legal procedure.

This leads us to Rashi, the preeminent Biblical commentator, who explains the shoterim here as "bailiffs" and gives the following colorful description, perhaps reflecting the practice of 11th-century France:

[Shoterim are] those who chastise people at the judge’s order, beating and binding the recalcitrant with a stick and a strap until he accepts the judge’s sentence.

In modern Hebrew, however, the word took on a very specific meaning. Based on this Biblical root, the great Eliezer Ben Yehuda, revivalist of the Hebrew language, invented the word “mishtara” for “police.” Thus, shoter became a ‘policeman,’ and shoteret a ‘policewoman.’

So is “shoter” a foreman, an official at the court, a bailiff, or a policeman?

As lawyers like to say—it depends. You have to specify which era in the development of the Hebrew language you are referring to.  

But modern Hebrew is constantly developing, and this is particularly evident in slang words. In our case, we can find colorful slang words that have been created to describe policemen and police cars.

In street lingo, a policeman is a “מאנייק  (“maniac” - pronounced manyak), and if a “maniac” motions to you to pull over, you better listen, otherwise you’ll be taken in the zinzena - the police van used to transport people who get arrested – and that’s a place you should avoid at all costs!   

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Abigail Adams - My Choice for the $10 Bill


The $10 bill is getting a makeover. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew announced that by the year 2020 it will feature the picture of a woman. The all-male paper money club will finally have a permanent place for a woman.
The Bureau of Engraving and Printing is redesigning the $10 note, and will add the picture of an "iconic woman" who has made a significant contribution to advancing and protecting the freedoms on which our nation was founded.

It seems the woman will have to "share space" with the current resident, Alexander Hamilton, as Treasury said that Hamilton "will remain part of the $10 note." I hope it doesn't mean that the new bill will have 2 pictures on it -- a woman finally makes it to our currency but she has to be seen next to a man? Disrespectful, to say the least.
Perhaps Jack Lew agrees with  Ivy Baker Priest, U.S. Treasurer in the Eisenhower administration, who is reported to have said, "We women don't care too much about getting our picture on money as long as we can get our hands on it!"
On a more serious note (pun intended), it matters very much that our currency fails to commemorate an important woman in our history because, as the dedicated government website states,  US currency "has long been a way to honor our past and express our values."
Ultimately, Lew will decide on which woman will adorn the new bill, but he's opening up the debate to the public, asking that we use the hashtag  #TheNew10 on social media to share our suggestions. Keeping in line with the theme of democracy and freedoms --  my choice is Abigail Adams.
Perhaps I am biased because my daughter's name is Abigail, but there are some truly good reasons for putting Abigail Adams on our currency.
She wasn't simply the wife of our second president John Adams, but rather an amazing woman in her own right.
Growing up near Boston as the daughter of a minister, Abigail Smith was far better educated than most girls of her day. She read everything she could get her hands on, and never hesitated to voice her opinion. Abigail met John as a teenager and struck up a correspondence with him which blossomed into romance. The couple was married in 1764, when Abigail was twenty and John, almost ten years older, an ambitious young lawyer in Boston.
While John Adams participated in the Continental Congress in Philadelphia in the Spring of 1776, Abigail remained at their home in  Massachusetts, managing their daily affairs in his absence.  Abigail was not only a successful farm manager and merchant who could handle Adams' business affairs, but also a  prolific letter writer. She never hesitated to debate her husband on political matters.
At the same time that Adams was preparing to publish his “Thoughts on Government” essay, which outlined proposed political structures for the new nation, Abigail was concerned if and how the rights of women would be addressed in an American constitution. In March 1776, future first lady Abigail  wrote to her husband and urged him to “remember the ladies” when drafting a new “code of laws” for the fledgling nation:
“I long to hear that you have declared an independency—and by the way in the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make I desire you would remember the ladies, and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors.  Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands.  Remember all men would be tyrants if they could.  If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.”
After John Adams was elected president in 1796, he constantly asked for her advice and opinion. He wrote, “I never wanted your Advice and assistance more in my life . . . The Times are critical and dangerous, and I must have you here to assist me.”
Honoring our "Founding Mother" would also signal the importance of making women part and parcel of policy-making decisions, including in traditionally male-dominated areas such as security, foreign policy, and business.
Abigail Adams was an eshet chayil a true Lady of Liberty - and she belongs on the $10 bill!

Friday, May 8, 2015

How Victory in Europe Day Connects to Counting the Omer

Today we mark the 70th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day, and, in the Jewish calendar, we just finished observing Lag Ba'Omer, the 33rd day of the Omer. 

Two Holocaust stories show a profound connection between the two events. 

Counting the Omer requires no religious artifacts, such as shofar, lulav, matzah, etc. All you need is your mind. Once you remember how many days have passed since the second night of Passover (if you forgot - use the magic formula), you can perform this mitzvah in any situation you find yourself. Simply recite the blessing, and the count for that day, e.g.: Today is 33 days, which are 4 weeks and 5 days to the Omer. 

It was thus a mitzvah the Jewish people could keep even when they were suffering from persecution, pogroms and imprisonment. Even in the darkest of days, during the Holocaust, we find that counting the Omer was an inspiration to Jewish camp inmates, and a form of spiritual resistance: The Nazis can take everything from us, but they can't take our dedication to our tradition.  

Dwight D. Eisenhower accepts a menorah from Rabbi Menashe Klein.
Rabbi Menashe Klein z”l was a teenager in Buchenwald when he was liberated by  American troops on April 11, 1945.  In volume 10 of his book Mishneh Halachot, he recounts that he was so sick, wounded, and emaciated after Auschwitz and subsequent camps that he could not stand on his feet or even sit up.
But at that great moment of liberation, he wanted so much to perform the mitzvah of counting the Omer in the proper form, since it is preferable to count the Omer standing:
Using the very last reserves of my strength, I grabbed a pole with two hands, and pulled myself into a sitting position, counted the Omer, and then collapsed back on the wooden floor . . . but I knew this would be the day of freedom. 
And that day, he remembers, was the 13th day of the Omer.

Another survivor, author Livia Bitton-Jackson, records in her memoir  I Have Lived AThousand Years  a tragic episode related to counting the Omer that shows, once again, the kiddush hashem that was done through this mitzvah. She and her mother had been transferred from Auschwitz to a slave labor camp in Germany.  In the minutes preceding her liberation on  Shabbat, April 28, 1945,  there was machine-gun fire. The  three Stadler sisters from Livia’s hometown were sitting next to her. Two sisters were instantly killed. As the surviving sister, Beth Stadler, wailed, Livia’s mother had the presence of mind to shout to Beth, “Remember, your sisters’  yahrzeit will be  three days before Lag Ba’Omer. Today is the 30th day of the Omer.”

These survivors’ dedication to keeping track of the Hebrew calendar even in those horrific times is testament to the Jewish spirit. Despite living through unimaginable horrors, they performed the mitzvah of counting the Omer, turning it into a form of spiritual resistance. When we recite the Omer, we are remembering them, connecting to our tradition and continuing their legacy. 

Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Magic Formula for Counting the Omer

If you were stranded on an island without a Jewish calendar and no internet connection (oy gevalt!), how would you know what number to count in the Omer?
Every year, on the second night of Passover, we begin a special 49-day period in the Jewish calendar known as Sefirat Ha’omer, the counting of the Omer.
The problem, however, is how to remember the correct count for any particular night, especially now that we’re past the first week. This Friday (April 24), is it 14 or 15 or 16 to the Omer?
Sure, you can look up a Jewish calendar or go online and find websites, but what if you don’t have access to calendars or to the web? Imagine you are in an army operation where no electronics are allowed? Or what if you’re hiking on the Appalachian Trail?
Magic Formula: G.S.S–7
Every year there is a magic formula to figure out the correct Omer count on any given night. It can be summarized with the acronym G.S.S – 7 which means:
  1. GUESS a number
  2. SUBTRACT the day of the week (Sunday=1, Monday=2, etc).
  3. SUBTRACT magic number 1
  4. If your result is DIVISIBLE BY 7 (or it’s 0), your guess is right. If not – make another guess and repeat the process.

Let’s see how this formula saves the day by following the story of the Amars who went on a vacation to the Pago Pago Islands.
Yaakov and Rachel Amar felt they needed quality time together, and so they left all their smartphones and tablets back home, and traveled to the romantic Pago Pago Islands. They arrived there on Friday April 24, and immediately relished the amazing landscape and inviting beaches of these American Samoa islands.
On Friday night, as they are about to begin a Shabbos meal, the Amars remembered that they haven’t counted the Omer. They were about to begin the blessing, but to their chagrin, they realized they forgot what’s the correct count! Because they were so excited about the trip – they couldn't remember what’s the Omer count tonight. They have no calendar, and it's Shabbos (so they can't call anyone), and anyway, there is no wireless service on this island. 
Both of them know the Halakhic rule that if you forget to count one night, it irreparably disrupts the count, and you are not allowed to continue counting the Omer with a blessing on any of the following nights. The Amars became crestfallen, deeply concerned because they were about to lose the privilege to perform this special mitzvah. An otherwise magical vacation was about to be ruined. 
 Just when they thought all is lost, Rachel remembered the magic formula. Excitedly, she exclaimed: “Guess, subtract day, subtract magic number 1, divisible by 7?”
She proceeded to make a reasonable guess. “Let’s try 22 for tonight’s Omer number. After all, we started counting about 3 weeks ago so it must be in this range.”
Applying the formula, from her guess of 22 she subtracted the day of the week, Friday:
22 – 6 = 16

She then subtracted magic number 1:
16 – 1 = 15
The result, 15, is not divisible by 7. That means her original guess (22) is wrong. 
Catching on quickly, Yaakov realized they need to refine their original guess so he suggested “Let’s try 21 and see what happens.”
They reapplied the magic formula:
21 – 6 – 1 = 14
The result, 14, is divisible by 7, showing that the refined guess of Omer count 21 is the correct count for this Friday night!
They did it! Without any connection to the outside world, our couple figured out that this Friday night, April 24, we count 21 in the Omer.

They high-fived each other, drand a L’chayim, and made the blessing over the Omer, joyous that they were able to perform this mitzvah and count the Omer properly.
This formula will work for any night of the Omer this year, with a small caveat that your guess has to be within a range of 7 of the correct count. That should not be a problem because most people know the approximate range we’re in so their guess is not completely wild.
The formula is good for every year, but the magic number changes. You'll need to come back to our website to get next year's magic number. But for the current Omer season, this formula will ensure that even if you find yourself on the amazing Pago Pago Islands or simply got stuck without your iPhone, you’ll never forget the correct Omer count.

(An expanded version appeared in the Washington Jewish Week.)  

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Praise Blind Loyalty or Encourage Critical Thinking?

This year,  when we read the Haggadah at the seder,  I discovered two Zionist thinkers' opposing views about the Child Who Doesn't Know How to Ask (she'eyno yode'a lish'ol). 

In the famous passage about the Four Children (in some translations - the "Four Sons") we have 4 different types of children (the Wise Child,  the Rebellious Child,  the Simple Child,  and  the Child Who Does Not Know How to Ask) asking about the Passover rituals, and each one is given a different response tailored to their personality. For the fourth child, the Haggadah says:   
As for the child who does not know how to ask, you should prompt the child. As the Torah says: "You shall tell your child on that  day - it is because of this that God did for me when I went free from Egypt."

In the Haggadah of Mishael Zion and Noam Zion I found a fascinating juxtaposition of the opinions of two modern Zionist leaders.  

Ze'ev Jabotinsky, founder of the right wing Revisionist Movement which later became Likud, wrote:

No! I don't agree with the advice of the Haggadah here. The Haggadah says open the child up to critical thinking. In my judgment the parent should be silent. Just kiss this child on the forehead for faithfully maintaining loyalty to those sanctified traditions. The love of knowledge, the philosophical quest is important, but the supreme wisdom is to accept the treasures of the past without second guessing, without evaluating their historical origins and their pragamatic utility. It is essential to cherish and preserve that kind of respectful wisdom and not to tarnish it with unnecessary talk. 

Yariv Ben Aharon, however, adamantly disagrees. Born in 1934, Ben Aharon is a prominent author and educator in the kibbutz movement, and has led the renaissance in Jewish and Talmudic studies among Israeli secular Jews. He embraces the Haggadah's approach and explains the importance of teaching critical thinking:
Open up the children who have not learned to ask. Lead them on the path to becoming a questioning personality, one who inquires about the way of the world. Open them up so they can formulate their own questions. For without questions, your ready-made answers remain inert and there is no common ground between you. The silence of the child can be thunderous. The silence of the one who does not know how to ask may be the result of not having found an appropriate address to express queries . . . Model for the child; show them adults who know how to ask of themselves questions. As the Rabbis said: "If the child and the spouse are unable to ask, let the parents ask themselves" (Babylonian Talmud, Pesachim 115a). Then there is a good chance that the child will learn to ask as well.

I agree with Ben Aharon.  Who do you agree with?