Judaism

Crucial, symbolic details in the Jerusalem attack: Why the 'Twersky' name was so important

Crucial, symbolic details in the Jerusalem attack: Why the 'Twersky' name was so important

Anyone who wants to follow the daily flow of news and commentary -- light and serious -- about Jewish life knows that they need to be signed up for the daily newsletters from The Forward. I mean where else are you going to turn for key questions linked to the music of Pink Floyd?

Seriously, readers looking for the fine details on the lives of those lost in this week's bloody slaughter in the West Jerusalem synagogue (click here for the earlier Jim Davis post on the coverage) knew what they would find in the wave of coverage at The Forward. Whose blood was shed with those guns and knives and that ax? What made this attack so unique and disturbing? This is what specialty publications do -- offer depth.

In this case, that meant grasping the symbolic details at the heart of trends in modern Orthodox Judaism

It was all about the names "Twersky" and "Soloveitchik." This was, as is so often the case in Jewish news, about the past, the present and the future.

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Murder in the synagogue: Newspapers excel in coverage, not on analysis

Murder in the synagogue: Newspapers excel in coverage, not on analysis

When people hack, stab and shoot their way into a synagogue -- especially in Jerusalem, a nexus of three world religions -- you can expect a second wave: of news coverage. The killings of Jews at prayer in Jerusalem set a tragic yet vital instance of the value of news media in a world where some want to kill a few of us and blind the rest.

Pretty much all of the accounts are loaded with gory details -- as frankly, they should after such a gory event. The New York Daily News, with its tabloid heritage, was ready to tell the brutal story of meat cleavers and guns:

About 25 people were praying in a synagogue when the Palestinians burst inside screaming “God is great!” in Arabic and began killing.
“I saw people lying on the floor, blood everywhere,” survivor Yosef Posternak told Israel Radio. “People were trying to fight with (the attackers), but they didn’t have much of a chance.”
The carnage ended when three Israeli traffic cops responding to the scene opened fired on the intruders and killed them in a wild gun battle.

With a well-warranted warning of "graphic images," the Daily News also posted a photo of a tefillin-wrapped arm lying in a pool of blood, and the corpse of one of the attackers, stripped to his underwear to make sure he wasn't wearing a bomb.

Like other newspapers, the article includes other clashes -- but the Daily News also ran a photo of a three-month-old baby who was killed in October when a terrorist ran over her stroller.

The New York Times  went for irony, juxtaposing the sense of the sacred with the desecration of murder in a holy place:

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Stephen Glass confesses in The New Republic: Sin, penance and a search for redemption?

Stephen Glass confesses in The New Republic: Sin, penance and a search for redemption?

During a graduate-school readings class on trends in 20th Century Judaism, I was asked to read Simon Wiesenthal's classic book, "The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness." Here is the Amazon description of this amazing and unforgettable book:

While imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp, Simon Wiesenthal was taken one day from his work detail to the bedside of a dying member of the SS. Haunted by the crimes in which he had participated, the soldier wanted to confess to -- and obtain absolution from -- a Jew. Faced with the choice between compassion and justice, silence and truth, Wiesenthal said nothing.  But even years after the way had ended, he wondered: Had he done the right thing? 

After the actually telling of this real-life parable, the book offers a large collection of short essays in which Jewish and Christian ethicists and theologians discuss that haunting question. With a few exceptions, the Christians say that -- after the soldier's repentance -- Wiesenthal should have offered words of comfort, if not forgiveness. Most Jewish thinkers -- citing the tradition that forgiveness should be granted by victims, alone -- support Wiesenthal's silence.

This brings me to Hanna Rosin's 6,000-word piece in The New Republic about her encounter with Stephen Glass, the former journalist whose faked stories (see the movie "Shattered Glass") sparked a crisis that threatened the magazine's future. This story, as you would imagine, has been the subject of a tsunami of water-cooler chatter here in Beltway land.

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AP feature says Hanukkah is beginning to look a lot like Christmas

AP feature says Hanukkah is beginning to look a lot like Christmas

It's gone way beyond old-timey "Hanukkah Bushes" decorated like Christmas trees. Now, reports the Associated Press, Hanukkah includes items like Kippah Kantor, Mensch on a Bench, house decorations, even boxes of Hanukkah chocolates.

"Pinterest and Etsy are loaded with blue-and-white Hanukkah crafts like wreaths and stockings," says the deftly written feature for the holiday, which starts this year at sundown Dec. 16. "There are Hanukkah greeting cards, cookie cutters, and even tree ornaments shaped like the three symbols -- Stars of David, menorahs and dreidels -- that scream 'Hanukkah!' amid a sea of holiday merchandise adorned with Christmas trees and Santas."

The story's Star (of David) is the Mensch on a Bench doll, imitating the Yule-themed Elf on the Shelf. As AP relates, creator Neal Hoffman raised $22,000 on Kickstarter last year; now he's producing 50,000 Mensches for stores like Target and Toys R Us. I recognized a South Florida news station on a collection of TV reports Hoffman linked from his website.

Oy. The traditional eight nights of quiet family gatherings -- those are starting to look like the Ghost of Hanukkah Past. Maybe Steven Spielberg's next movie should be Dreidels of a Lost Art. Or, as tmatt once quipped, "It's beginning to look a lot like Hanukkah." 

But as a rabbi tells AP, it's not the first time Jews have drawn from the surrounding culture. He says latkes, the potato pancakes that are a favorite Hanukkah treat, come from eastern Europe. The dreidel itself comes from Germany, he adds.

But why Hanukkah, a minor holiday on the Jewish calendar? For answers, AP turns to someone who's written a whole book on the holiday:

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Five for Friday: Zombies and other Godbeat headlines that you may have missed

Five for Friday: Zombies and other Godbeat headlines that you may have missed

I'm on the road today, working on a story and planning to enjoy an authentic Philadelphia Cheesesteak.

Since I'm in a hurry, I thought this would be a good time to provide quick links — with limited commentary — to a handful of stories from my GetReligion guilt folder. 

What better way to start your Friday than with a faith angle on zombies, courtesy of award-winning religion writer Peggy Fletcher Stack of the Salt Lake Tribune?

 

The lede:

These days, you can see those lumbering, blood-drenched corpses with vacant eyes coming straight at you just about anywhere or anytime — not just at Halloween.
Zombie walks, as they are called, have become the most popular form of the grotesque genre. Folks dress up as the "undead" and stream down the street by the thousands. Such gory gangs periodically invade urban centers from Rio to Rome, Tokyo to Toronto and Sydney to Salt Lake City.
Zombies are even featured in their own wildly popular TV series, AMC’s "Walking Dead," which highlights the dilemma of a group of people facing enemies who had been their friends and neighbors.
Fascination with death and reanimation is not new, of course, but coming to life again has, in the past, been seen as a more, well, hopeful possibility.
This dark and fearsome image reflects a reversal of what Christians believe about resurrection, says John Morehead, a Utah-based scholar of religion and pop culture.

Next up: St. Louis Post-Dispatch Godbeat pro Lilly Fowler profiles a white female pastor who stands out in a predominantly black denomination and has been at the center of the Ferguson protests.

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Box-office religion: What explains Hollywood’s 'holy movie' picks?

Box-office religion: What explains Hollywood’s 'holy movie' picks?

KIRSTEN ASKS:

I wonder why I cannot think of any movies with stories from the Torah, Quran, or other holy texts. Are there any in the works?

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

There’s considerable mystery about Hollywood and “holy movies.” Why are they often amateurish or offer ham-handed derision toward beliefs and believers? Why do few high-quality movies respect religion despite the large potential audience? Showbiz wised up a bit when Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” (2004) scored $370 million in U.S. box office and became history’s most profitable film with an R rating (due to violence).

Kirsten posted this question early in 2004, which turns out to offer eight notable features with religious aspects. On her specific point, studios know the U.S. audience has far more Christians than Muslims, Buddhists, or Hindus, and that factor affects releases globally. Note that any movie drawn from the Jewish Torah equally appeals to Christians, since their Bible begins with the same five “Old Testament” books.

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Looking for spiritual ghosts, as the Ben Bradlee story moves to National Cathedral

Looking for spiritual ghosts, as the Ben Bradlee story moves to National Cathedral

Of course Ben Bradlee was raised as an Episcopalian.

This is Washington, D.C., and he was one of the giants of the city, a titan from his days consulting with (and covering) John F. Kennedy, Jr., to his final years working hard to encourage a new generation of journalists in The Washington Post newsroom as it struggled, like all major media institutions, to enter the uncharted waters of the digital age. He was larger than life and that kind of Beltway story can only end with a funeral in the interfaith, ecumenical, civil-religion holy place called National Cathedral.

The Post team, as it should, has pulled out all the stops in its eulogies for Bradlee, with untold inches of type -- analog and digital -- and numerous multi-media features. And the role of religion? Let's just say that the liturgical elements of this drama didn't go very high in the story. Here is the top of the massive Style section feature on the funeral:

Following a small choir’s soft alto affirmation of America’s beauty, the organ swelled, and the people joined in, and the national hymn that Benjamin Crowninshield Bradlee chose for his own funeral filled the cathedral, its pews lined with the powerful and the ordinary.
Then a prayer, and two sailors delivering a taut flag to the editor’s widow, and a bugler sounding taps from high in the Gothic rafters, and then, because this was Mr. Bradlee who was being celebrated, a sharp break from the stately and solemn: The band struck up Sousa’s jaunty “The Washington Post” march and Ben Bradlee left the building as he had departed his newspaper on so many nights through the 26 years he led it: electrifying the room just by sweeping through it.

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WPost nails the crucial details in icky Orthodox mikvah cam scandal

WPost nails the crucial details in icky Orthodox mikvah cam scandal

When you hear or read the words "Orthodox rabbi," what is the image that immediately pops into your mind's eye?

Right. That would be this one (mandatory click).

The problem is that, in this day and age, there are many different brands of "Orthodox rabbis," running from progressive Orthodox rabbis to, well, orthodox and ultra-orthodox Orthodox rabbis. The public may or may not know all of that, however.

Thus, when covering a story about a rather sleazy sex scandal linked to an Orthodox rabbi, it is very important -- especially in Washington, D.C., for reasons we will discuss -- for journalists to provide enough factual information to erase the Woody Allen movie stereotypes and let readers know what brand of Orthodox Judaism is involved, this time around.

This is precisely what Godbeat veteran Michelle Boorstein did in her first Washington Post story about what could be called mikvah-gate.

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Pod people: 'Green funerals,' Baby Boomers and the American way of death

Pod people: 'Green funerals,' Baby Boomers and the American way of death

For some reason, I got a bit fired up during the recording of this week's "Crossroads" podcast, with host Todd Wilken (click here to tune that in). The subject wasn't all that controversial, but it really got under my skin. We were talking about my recent post on the topic of the spiritual wanderers called the Baby Boomers (talkin' 'bout my generation) and the trend toward "green funerals." 

Now, that is a topic that has interested me for several decades -- dating back to when I taught as "Communicator on Culture" at Denver Theological Seminary (right after my exit from full-time religion-beat reporting at The Rocky "RIP" Mountain News).

At that time, 1991-93, America was still in the (a) New Age religion era, while also (b) experiencing a wave of death-and-dying movies at the local multiplex (biggest hit, of course, was "Ghost"). Thus, I led a seminar on "The Good Death" and how traditional Christian views on the subject were not what was being sold at the local shopping mall (or most funeral homes).

The main takeaway from the seminar was that the spiritual adventures of the 1960s era were leading Americans in all kinds of different directions, from Eastern religions to traditional forms of Christianity and Judaism, from Oprah spirituality to damned-if-I-don't secularism. There was, in other words, no one trend dominating the death-and-dying landscape.

That was true then and I would argue it's still true today, which is why the recent Washington Post report on "green funerals" bugged me so much.

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