Monday, July 26, 2004

Have we fasted long enough already?

At lunch the other day, a non-religious colleague posed the following question: "Could a rabbi come along and decide that we've spent enough years mourning for the destruction of the Temple, and just cancel Tisha B'Av? For typical secular Israelis, it's hard to understand why people still fast. Why should we close the cafes for something that happened 2,000 years ago?"



I don't think I answered him very well on the spot. I've been thinking about it since, especially since I've seen that same question as the title of a religious-secular dialogue evening scheduled for Tisha B'Av. Apparently it's in vogue.



The answer I gave him: "Clearly, a rabbi could issue such a ruling, but he'd have to justify it with very strong halachic arguments. There are certain rabbis today with sufficient stature that if they were to rule that Tisha B'Av should no longer be observed, their ruling would be followed, at least by their communities."



This is true, as far as it goes, but it doesn't get to the essence of what he was asking. He wasn't really asking about the practicalities of rabbinic leadership; he was challenging the essence of Tisha B'Av today: "What's the big deal? Isn't it time we moved on?"



So here are some of the ways I could have responded:



  • Haven't we celebrated Pesach long enough? Purim? Chanukah? Why is this question only asked when it comes to a day of mourning? Does this indicate that modern secular society is open to any opportunity to celebrate, but is willing to mourn only when presented with an immediately tangible loss?



  • How many years should we mourn any national tragedy? What about the Holocaust? The Rabin assassination? What if a rabbi were to rule that we've commemorated the Holocaust long enough, and it's time to move on - how would secular Israel react? Exactly how long is too long? Maybe we should continue mourning so long as the lessons remain relevant?



  • How can you expect religious Israelis to respect the modern days of mourning enacted by the secular Jewish state (Yom Hazikaron, Yom Hashoah) if you are not willing to grant at least equal respect to an ancient day of mourning which has been with the Jewish people over 2,000 years? Does modernity demand that we erase the past?



  • "It's hard to understand why people still fast"? When something is difficult to understand, the appropriate intellectual response is to study it. Even if you continue to disagree, we will at least have a basis for meaningful discussion.



  • The Beit Hamikdash was the central manifestation of Jewish sovereignty in the ancient world. In a world where politics and religion were inherently one, where national success or failure was inevitably attributed to the power of the nation's gods (l'havdil), the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash - twice - expressed the apparent finality of the defeat of the Jewish people. Each time, it was far from clear that we would survive such a devastating blow. Isn't that cause for continued mourning?




Finally, my colleague's question implies another, one which should concern us equally as religious Jews: Haven't we finally overcome the loss of sovereignty symbolized by Tisha B'Av? With Israel a sovereign independent state, with Jerusalem a thriving Jewish metropolis, how can we pray to God lamenting its desolation?



Granted, even in the rebuilt State of Israel there is much we still lack, from peace and security to internal harmony to, not least, the Beit Hamikdash itself. But all this was true throughout most of Tanakh! Fifty-six years of a united Jewish sovereignty in most of the Land of Israel is more than was ever achieved in biblical times. (Though Solomon's kingdom enjoyed greater peace, prosperity and power than we have now, it only lasted forty years.)



Can we continue mourning as before over the lack of the Beit Hamikdash, oblivious to the palpable changes in other aspects of our national situation? If we do, are we being honest with ourselves? With God? Even without discarding Tisha B'Av, shouldn't the character of the day somehow adapt to reflect our current circumstances?



Were my colleague to have posed his question this way, I don't know if I would have a satisfactory response.

Sunday, July 25, 2004

Iceland and the Holocaust

Yes, you read that right. Snorri G. Bergsson writes about the history of Jews in Iceland (talk about short stories!) and, in particular, Iceland's approach to the "Jewish question," the Holocaust, and Jewish refugees.

More on Naomi

JPost's Sarah Honig continues with part II of her essay on Naomi Shemer's politics, Maariv's Rubik Rosenthal writes about the use of biblical sources in her poetry, and Dudu Elharar speaks to Naomi's husband Mordechai Horowitz.

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Michael Graham reminder

I already mentioned that talk show host Michael Graham is visiting Israel this week. He's broadcasting from Jerusalem in his usual time slot, 9am to 11:45am EST, and can be heard on 630 WMAL in Washington, DC, or streamed live on the Internet. I heard half of his show Monday and recommend it.



I also wanted to recommend his Israel Trip Journal. An excerpt:



Then we grabbed lunch on the Israeli/Lebanese border. That's right: Jerusalem, the Mediterranean, the Syrian border and the Lebanon border--all before LUNCH. That's the lesson of the politics of Israel. The place is just so darn small. If there's one thing the Israelis should not give up--for peace or anything else--it's land. They don't have enough as it is.


(Yeah, it's funny. He broadcasts from Jerusalem to Washington; I listen via the Internet from Israel.)



Moore than ironic

Has anyone else noticed that Michael Moore, currently the darling of all self-respecting European "intellectuals," fits precisely all the negative stereotypes Europeans have about Americans?



He's a loudmouthed foul-tongued wisecracking know-it-all Hollywood filmmaker, he goes around in a t-shirt and baseball cap and he's obese to boot. You could probably peg him as an American from half a mile away in any European capital.



If he weren't a radical leftist endorsing all their anti-American prejudices, the Euroleft would be the first to sneer at him haughtily as an uncouth, uncultured Yank. They probably do when no one's listening.

Monday, July 19, 2004

Blessed are the cheesemakers

Today is Rosh Chodesh Av, the start of an annual nine-day period in which Jews mourn the destruction of our ancient temples. Among the strictures observed during this period (at least by Ashkenazim) is a ban on the consumption of meat. It thus seems an appropriate time to talk about cheese (though no glatt kosher cheese steaks this week, Soccer Dad!).



Lately I've become curious about making cheese. An odd interest for a suburbanite like me, I know. Even odder, my motivations were entirely pragmatic.



I like cottage cheese. I've been eating a lot more of it lately, what with cutting the carbs and upping the protein. It's a good, healthy nosh. But get this: In Israel, cottage cheese is sold only in 250-gram containers. (That's about half a pound, for the metrically-challenged.)



Rather than coming home from the supermarket juggling half-pints of cottage cheese, I figured why not try making my own? I can control the quantity and - for better or worse - the taste. If only I knew what to do.



So far I'm still in the research phase, trawling websites for tips on the production of cheesy comestibles. Once I muster enough time - all right, enough courage - to try making a batch, I'll let you know how it comes out.



Meanwhile, I'm busy being fascinated by the magical properties of milk. Through different processes, it can be made into cream, butter, cheese (countless varieties, soft and hard), yogurt. Byproducts include whey and buttermilk. It can be pasteurized, homogenized, skimmed, fermented, coagulated, soured, powdered. And I thought water was an impressive substance.



Now for the Jewish angle. Milk is kosher if and only if it comes from a kosher species of animal. The situation with cheese is more complex.



The rabbis of the Mishnaic era forbade the consumption of cheese produced by gentiles. The reason behind the decree is a matter of Talmudic dispute, but one thing is clear: It's not out of concern that the cheese might be produced with non-kosher milk.



The rabbis were definite on this point: Non-kosher milk does not curdle, and thus cannot be used to make cheese: "Kosher milk curdles; non-kosher milk doesn't curdle" (BT Avodah Zarah 35b). In fact, the fact that milk has been turned into cheese is considered ample proof that the milk came from a kosher animal!



Intrigued, I investigated further. Is this true? Why should milk curdle only if it's kosher? And hadn't I heard somewhere about camel's milk cheese?



Well, the main characteristic distinguishing kosher from non-kosher animals is rumination, the chewing of the cud. It turns out that the milk of ruminant animals differs from non-ruminant milk. According to Cornell University's Professor Dave Barbano, "Since the pig is a nonruminant, the milk fat will be primarily long-chain fatty acids (probably a lot of C16:0). The short-chain fatty acids that provide the typical flavor to dairy products produced from ruminant milks (e.g. cow, goat, sheep, etc.) would not be present in pig milk."



Prof. Barbano doesn't mention whether this also inhibits coagulation, but it stands to reason that the different chemical compositions and the different propensities to form cheese would be related. I found not a single web site about pig milk cheese,* and also discovered that "no cheese is produced from horse milk."



Regarding camel cheese, recent research has apparently succeeded in producing a cheese-like substance from camel milk after a great deal of intricate processing, as described in this report by the Food and Agriculture Organization. Even this technical report, though, doesn't explain what properties of camel milk inhibit cheesemaking.



I'll leave you with the following excerpts:

The processing of camel milk into cheese is said to be difficult, even impossible.... It is surprising that although the majority of pastoral systems have produced at least one type of cheese, no traditional methods exist for making cheese from camel milk....



It appears that camel milk is technically more difficult to process than milk from other domestic dairy animals.... In the Ahaggar region and the Sinai peninsula only a few rare cheeses are manufactured by acidic separation and heating of milk proteins.... It is noted that these cheese types do not come under the standard definition of cheese which results from the simultaneous action of a milk clotting enzyme and lactic souring.


So: Were the rabbis right? Can milk coagulate if and only if it's kosher? And if so, why, from a scientific perspective?




* Except for this fantasy comic strip and this half-baked comment.

Saturday, July 17, 2004

The Shark, by Naomi Shemer

Venerable Jerusalem Post columnist Sarah Honig writes this week about songwriter Naomi Shemer’s politics, illustrated with some personal anecdotes.



In this context, it’s worth mentioning what is perhaps one of Shemer’s least-known songs. “The Shark” was written during the original Camp David talks between Israel and Egypt, which ultimately resulted in the return to Egypt of the Sinai Peninsula, and the razing (by Israel) of the Jewish communities which Israel had built there.



It was apparently never put to music or recorded, and has remained something of a samizdat among nationalist circles. The original Hebrew lyrics can be found at a few websites, including at the end of this essay by commentator Elyakim Ha’etzni.



I’ve translated it rather literally. The original is in rhymed couplets of iambic quadrameter (each line goes da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM), but I haven’t tried to preserve rhyme or rhythm.



I should note that the key word in the poem is “Shalom”, meaning variously “hello” or “peace”. I’ve left it as “Shalom” in the translation.



The Shark

By Naomi Shemer



Off the coast of Eilat or El-Arish

A small sardine met a shark

You meet a shark in the heat of day

What do you say?

You say Shalom!



A small sardine says Shalom

And the shark stares at him in silence

Say Shalom!

Calls the sardine

And the shark does not understand



Then the sardine raises his voice:

I am prepared in exchange for Shalom

To give you an entire fin!

And the shark was deaf and mute.



But this same young sardine

Was also a brilliant diplomat

And thus he did not give up

And from day to day he offered more!



He gave his tail for Shalom,

His two eyes for Shalom,

For a nice, broad Shalom –

His whole belly and his back

You meet a shark in the heat of day

What do you say?

You say Shalom!



Shalom, Shalom – and the shark

Only smiles and stays mum.



Then the sardine with bitter heart

Trumpets in his enemy’s ears!

For a great – great – Shalom

I am prepared to give it all!



This the shark finally heard

And he finally said Shalom

He said Shalom – bared his teeth –

And the sardine he tore apart.



Flowers, peace and love

Not a wave in the water nor a ripple

And off the coast of Eilat or El-Arish

Undisturbed swims a shark.



La la la la la..



You meet a shark in the heat of day

What do you say?

You say Shalom!



For more thoughts on Naomi, see here.

Thursday, July 15, 2004

On air, live from Israel

Conservative talk show host Michael Graham from Washington D.C.'s WMAL 630 will be broadcasting from Israel next week. According to the station's website:



Michael Graham Live From Israel



Join 630 WMAL's Michael Graham July 19 - 23 for a remarkable week of live broadcasts from Israel. Michael will report from across the country -- Jerusalem, Tel-Aviv, even the Golan Heights -- as he explores the continuing conflict in Israel, the War on Terror and the many special ties between the people of Washington and the people of Israel. The Michael Graham Show, weekdays 9am to 11:45am.




Aside from putting on a great radio show, Graham is a great friend of Israel on the air. He's streamed live on the Internet in three formats, so I can listen daily from across the ocean from 4pm. I'm looking forward to hearing his impressions of our beautiful country.



Welcome, Michael.

Would you like ice cream snakes with your sweats?

Quiz: What is the location of the cafeteria menu board in the following photograph? Note especially the last three items.



Image Hosted by ImageShack.us



Answer: Believe it or not, the departure lounge of Ben Gurion Airport.



To give them the benefit of the doubt, I assume they would have checked the spelling but they couldn't find any native English speakers around the airport. Right?



(In case you can't work it out, it should read "draft / draught beer", "sweets", and "ice cream snacks".)

Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Entertainers in Olam Haba

From my current learning, I'd like to share with you a Talmudic story on the value of entertainment. It surprised me, at least.



The translation and bracketed clarifications are mine.



Rabbi Broka from Bei Hozai would frequent the marketplace of Bei Lefet. Elijah [the prophet] would visit him. He [Broka] said to him [Elijah], "Is there anyone in this marketplace with a share in the world to come?" "No."



....



After a while, two brothers came. He [Elijah] said to him [Broka], "These also have shares in world to come." He [Broka] approached them. He said to them, "What do you do?" They said, "We are entertainers. We cheer up the downcast." Another version has it: "When we see two people quarreling, we make an effort [through humor - Rashi] to make peace between them."




(Babylonian Talmud, Taanit 22a)

Tuesday, July 13, 2004

Who's bankrolling our enemies? Our own worst enemy!

A US court has upheld a ruling ordering the Palestinian Authority and the Palestine Liberation Organization to pay $116m. to the family of Yaron Ungar, a terror victim with US citizenship, reports the Jerusalem Post.



But even assuming the Ungars manage to collect on this judgment, where will the money really be coming from? As Post columnist Caroline Glick noted last Friday, quoting Shin Bet chief Avi Dichter:



Dichter stated that Israel is the largest contributor to the Palestinian Authority's budget. Israel gives the PA one billion dollars a year. This comprises 45 percent of the PA's total budget. "There is no oversight [to ensure] that each and every dollar Israel transfers doesn't go to funding terror," Dichter said. He added that Arafat's office receives a budget of roughly nine million dollars and, the director of the Shin Bet noted, "I cannot promise that at the margins the money doesn't go to finance Fatah/Tanzim terrorists."




(And who's defending the PA? Former US attorney general Ramsey Clark, of course.)

Monday, July 12, 2004

Sometimes I forget this guy's still with us

Arafat knows who's responsible for yesterday's terror bombing in Tel Aviv: The Israelis, of course!



We are against such kinds of bombings, and you must never forget that the Israelis are completely behind it as they have been in the past....



You know who is behind these acts, which are aimed at harming the court decision. Europe knows it, the Americans, the Egyptians, the Jordanians, and the Israelis also know it.




I assume your local newspaper also reported this stunning revelation - right?



Encouragingly, the Jerusalem Post's Arieh O'Sullivan explains why yesterday's bombing is actually a sign the Israel's still winning the war on terrorism. (What's that I hear about "no military solution"?)

Tom Gross on the Reuters "news" service

Another excellent expose from National Review Online. Thanks Tom!

They've found our vulnerability!

The recent "ruling" of the International "Court" of "Justice" against Israel's right to self-defense reminds me of various installments of assorted Star Trek series in which the captain and/or crew of the Enterprise, having exercised their ingenuity and stamina to save the universe from imminent destruction, are then hauled up before some tribunal, legitimate or tyrannical, on charges of violating military orders, interplanetary law, natural justice or what have you. (Take, for example, Star Trek IV, Star Trek VI, Encounter at Farpoint.)



Since ancient times, the Jewish people have been strong believers in universal justice and the rule of law. You can persecute us, you can massacre us, but don't you dare accuse us of lawlessness! Have the Arabs concluded that they can't defeat us with guns or bombs, but they can with lawyers and judges?



Unfortunately, they've presumably concluded that they can defeat us in the courtroom while they continue to assault us with guns and bombs. Apparently, bombing buses and cafes is an understandable reaction to Israel's outrageous lawbreaking.



I haven't read the "court"'s "opinion", but I did browse the dissent of the American judge, Thomas Buergenthal. He notes (after objecting to the court's decision to hear the case at all) that the court has, in effect, ruled that the right to national self-defense guaranteed in the United Nations Charter only applies "in the case of armed attack by one State against another State".



In other words, the court has ruled that a nation has no right to defend itself against terrorists, or other non-state threats! I wonder whether our European "allies" agree?



Many have noted that Israel is the only side in this conflict that even attempts to abide by national and international law towards its enemies. But one increasingly wonders why we bother.



This should go without saying, but the legitimacy of law is not inherent in its being law. It derives from its representation of some form of higher justice. Some laws may be closer to that ideal than others, but law which serves the purposes of the powers which define it, which is interpreted arbitrarily and which bears no visible relationship to the principles of justice, is nothing more than corruption.



See, for example, the story of Lot, newly arrived in Sodom, who was berated by the locals for trying to prevent them from raping his houseguests: "Has this one come to reside here and now he acts as a judge?" The city is soon destroyed by fire and brimstone.



The UN, too, is beyond salvation.

Sunday, July 04, 2004

Israeli High Court Rules on Fence (PDF)

The much discussed ruling of the Israeli supreme court, in which it upholds the legality of Israel's security barrier but requires significant changes in part of its route, is available in English translation from the court's website.



I haven't read it, and I'm not a lawyer, but to me it seems very dangerous for courts to intervene in security considerations. The court is effectively ruling that individual property rights can take precedence over national security needs, which seems inconsistent with international law, not to mention common sense.



The only upside is, as the Jerusalem Post editorializes, that at least it demonstrates the independence of Israel's judiciary and its willingness to restrain the government. Still, I don't see how our soldiers can fight a war with lawyers tied behind their backs.



Update: Left-of-center Jerusalem Post columnist Yossi Goell weighs in on the fence ruling. I'm mostly in agreement with him.



Update: JP columnist Evelyn Gordon takes her turn at whacking the mole. Pretty strong stuff.