Jews and Judaism

PBS story on Iran's Jews hurt by failure to fully explain what captive minorities must do to survive

PBS story on Iran's Jews hurt by failure to fully explain what captive minorities must do to survive

Captive minorities in nations ruled by all-controlling despots play by the rules — or else. Iran’s estimated 9,000-15,000 Jews, one of the world’s most ancient Jewish communities, are a case in point.

Why? Because playing by the rules is just what happened recently when a visiting PBS journalist came calling on Iran’s Jews — with Teheran’s explicit permission, of course.

You’ll recall that Iran’s leaders constantly call for Israel’s physical destruction and that Teheran funds Lebanese Hezbollah and Palestinian Hamas. Both proxies are also sworn to destroy Israel.

This means that Iranian Jews are between the proverbial rock and a hard place. Many of them have relatives in Israel, and the Jewish homeland is where their biblical-era ancestors fled from some 2,700 years ago, when forced into exile.

In late November, one of PBS’s premiere news platforms, “PBS NewsHour,” broadcast a piece that, like other attempts to explain the Iranian Jewish community, came up frustratingly short.

Once again, those Iranian Jews interviewed on camera said what they always say, which is that life for them in Iran is, on balance, secure — though not always perfectly so — and that Israel is their enemy simply because it's their government's enemy.

What else could they say in a nation where just one politically suspect utterance by a Jewish community member, particularly if made to a foreign media outlet, could mean devastating consequences for them and their co-religionists?

(“Special correspondent” Reza Sayah did note some of the tightly controlled circumstances in which Iran’s Jewish minority survives as second-class citizens. But PBS could have added the comments of an outside expert or two to more fully explain the Iranian context. I can’t help wonder why that didn't happen.)

Here’s the lede-in to the NewsHour story, lifted from the segment’s transcript:

Jewish people have called Iran home for nearly 3,000 years. The Trump administration and U.S. ally Israel often depict the Iranian government as composed of anti-Semitic radical Islamists bent on destroying Israel. But within Iran, many of the estimated 15,000 Jews say they're safe and happy living in the Islamic Republic. Reza Sayah takes a rare inside look at life for Iran's Jewish minority.

“Safe and happy”? Perhaps in a Potemkin village sort of way.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Seeking a Hanukkah miracle: Why can't the Gray Lady 'get' the Festival of Lights?

Seeking a Hanukkah miracle: Why can't the Gray Lady 'get' the Festival of Lights?

Now here is a headline that a GetReligion scribe has to pass along, pronto: “Why can’t the New York Times get Hanukkah right?”

What we’re talking about is a Religion News Service commentary by Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin. Consider this a kind of early weekend think piece, since it’s talking about op-ed page work.

However, religion-beat professionals will certainly want to read (and maybe file way) this to get a refresher on some history and facts about the eight-day “Festival of Lights,” which is a relatively minor Jewish holiday that punches way above its weight class for reasons that are quite ironic, to say the least.

The opening is very clever and slightly snarky at the same time.

Every few years, the New York Times runs a contest: “Best Essay About Hanukkah By An Ambivalent Jew.”

That is the only explanation for this past week’s crop of New York Times op-ed pieces about Hanukkah.

“The Gray Lady” is showing signs of advanced Jewish arteriosclerosis.

Take yesterday’s article, “That’s One Alternative Santa.”

The author, a comedy writer, begins with the traditional disavowal of any substantive Jewish connections or affiliations.

In theological terms, there is little love lost between me and Judaism. But culturally — with my unwavering devotion to [Howard] Stern on the radio, [Philip] Roth on the page, [Bob] Dylan on the stereo and kugel in the oven — I am a Hasid.

This self-identification as a Rhett Butler Jew — “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn” — points him in the direction of embracing the “traditional” Hanukkah symbol — Hanukkah Harry — a fictional character on Saturday Night Live.

You get the idea. Somehow, I had missed “Hanukkah Harry.” Just lucky, I guess.

Here’s the big question: What does all of this have to do with Judaism? That leads to a common debate topic this time of year: Are we talking Judaism the religion or Judaism the culture.

The answer, of course, is “yes.”

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Key American Buddhist innovator dies; media ignore his role in shaping religious landscape

Key American Buddhist innovator dies; media ignore his role in shaping religious landscape

Globalization has scrambled just about everything, for better AND worse.

Technology has compressed physical space and time, forcing the myriad human tribes to deal more directly with each other. Nor is there any going back — no matter how isolationist, anti-immigrant or simply anti-change some current political rhetoric may be.

This means that ethnic and religious groups many of our parents, and certainly our grandparents, had little chance of meeting in their neighborhoods can now be encountered in any large American city, and also in our nation’s rural heartland.

Buddhism is one such example.

But it's not just that Asian Buddhists — be they Thai, Tibetan, Vietnamese, Japanese, Chinese or others — have come to North America, where their beliefs and practices have attracted considerable interest.

What’s also happened is that some Western Buddhists — formal converts and the larger number of individuals with no interest in converting but who have been influenced by Buddhist philosophy and meditative techniques (myself included) — have melded broad concerns for Western social justice issues with traditional, inner-oriented Buddhist beliefs.

These Western Buddhists certainly did not single-handily start this trend. Vietnamese Buddhist monks who immolated themselves to protest severe discrimination against their co-religionists by the Roman Catholic South Vietnam government in the early 1960s preceded them.

But these Westerners — many of them marinated in 1960s American liberal anti-war and anti-discrimination activism — pushed the envelope far enough to create a uniquely Western Buddhist path now generally referred to as Engaged Buddhism.

A key figure in this movement died earlier this month. His name was Bernie Glassman and he was 79.

The elite mainstream media, as near as I can ascertain via an online search, totally ignored his death. An error in editorial judgement, I think — certainly for the coverage of how American religion has and continues to change. His contribution to this change was monumental.

Western Buddhist publications reacted otherwise, as you would expect.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Monday Mix: Jonestown significance, blue Orange County, Pittsburgh's New Light, Jews for Jesus

Monday Mix: Jonestown significance, blue Orange County, Pittsburgh's New Light, Jews for Jesus

Welcome to another edition of the Monday Mix, where we focus on headlines and insights you might have missed from the weekend and late in the week.

The fine print: Just because we include a headline here doesn't mean we won't offer additional analysis in a different post, particularly if it's a major story. In fact, if you read a piece linked here and have questions or concerns that we might address, please don't hesitate to comment below or tweet us at @GetReligion. The goal here is to point at important news and say, "Hey, look at this."

Three weekend reads

1. “You could make a strong case that GetReligion.org started with the Jonestown Massacre. Yes, this massacre — a mass ‘revolutionary suicide’ of 900-plus — took place in 1978 and this website launched in 2004.”

The connection?

By all means, check out Terry Mattingly’s fascinating weekend post on this subject.

Meanwhile, The Associated Press notes that “ceremonies at a California cemetery marked the mass murders and suicides 40 years ago of 900 Americans orchestrated by the Rev. Jim Jones at a jungle settlement in Guyana, South America.”

2. “They were Christians whose social circles often revolved around church. And they wanted none of the cultural and racial foment that was developing in Los Angeles and San Francisco.”

But the script has flipped in California’s once reliably Republican Orange County, as the Los Angeles Times reports.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Beat the journalism clock: Track rising anti-Semitism via Jewish and Israeli news media

Beat the journalism clock: Track rising anti-Semitism via Jewish and Israeli news media

This past Saturday, the Jewish sabbath — just two weeks removed from the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre and 80 years to the day following Kristallnacht -- the Israeli news site Times of Israel ran the following stories on its home page. Each was about anti-Semitism; either a hateful display of it (including one new one in the United States) or warnings about its steady rise in Europe.

Because it would take too much space to explain them all, I’ll just supply the links and note the nation of origin. Please read at least a few of them to gain a sense of the level of concern.

(1) The Netherlands.

(2) The United Kingdom.

(3) Poland.

(4) Germany.

(5) Austria.

(6) United States.

A quick web search that same day uncovered a host of other stories documenting recent anti-Semitic actions, many cloaked in anti-Israel and anti-Zionist rhetoric, including this one from The Jewish Chronicle, the venerable, London-based, Anglo-Jewish publication.

A local Labour party [meaning a regional branch of Britain’s national opposition political party] confirmed it amended a motion about the Pittsburgh synagogue attack to remove a call for all forms of antisemitism to be eradicated and for Labour to “lead the way in opposing" Jew-hate.

The story, of course, included the usual explanations meant to excuse actions of this sort. And, for the record, while I do not consider all criticism of Israeli government actions to be anti-Semitic, I do believe that the line between legitimate political criticism of Israel and hatred of Israel because its a Jewish nation is frequently blurred.

I listed all the above stories to make some journalistic points. The first of them is to point out journalism’s unique internal clock.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Friday Five: Synagogue shooting, Messianic controversy, young evangelicals, Squirrel Hill memories

Friday Five: Synagogue shooting, Messianic controversy, young evangelicals, Squirrel Hill memories

Saturday’s synagogue shooting, which claimed 11 lives in Pittsburgh, has dominated religion headlines this week. Here at GetReligion, we’ve produced a half-dozen posts on that unimaginable tragedy.

If you get a chance today or this weekend, check out what we’ve written, and feel free to let us know what you think. We’d love to hear from you.

Among our posts:

• Julia Duin’s thoughtful commentary on how “Pittsburgh horror marks the start of what could become a new atrocity — synagogue shootings.”

Ira Rifkin’s expert analysis noting that “Pittsburgh surprised many: But not those who repeatedly reported rising American anti-Semitism.”

• And my own piece reflecting on “Charleston. Sutherland Springs. Pittsburgh. Why local reporters are crucial in a 'national' tragedy.”

I’ll mention some of our other Pittsburgh-related offerings below as we dive into the Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: In a post Thursday, I called Emma Green’s Atlantic report headlined “The Jews of Pittsburgh Bury Their Dead” one of the best religion stories of 2018.

Washington Post religion writer Michelle Boorstein praised Green’s “lovely reporting,” and CNN religion editor Daniel Burke lauded the "sensitivity, nuance, context — and the insights” of the story.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Seattle Times tells winsome story of a year of Jubilee and generous Pentecostal landlords

Seattle Times tells winsome story of a year of Jubilee and generous Pentecostal landlords

It was the kind of story I rarely see in the Seattle Times.

We’re talking about a religion piece that is, well, positive about people with strong religious beliefs.

In recent years, religion headlines were mostly about Mark Driscoll, the former pastor of Mars Hill, once the city’s largest church. The rise and fall of that congregation left a sour taste in the mouths of many who wanted faith to not be so poisonous.

In this story written by the newspaper’s real estate writer –- the Seattle Times does not have a religion reporter –- we hear about how a pair of Pentecostal Christians are employing an Old Testament rule that dates back at least 3,000 years to apply to the 21st century.

Husband and wife Kory Slaatthaug and Mickey Bambrick are landlords. For the past half-century, Slaatthaug’s family has owned a small apartment building in Greenwood named for the Norwegian town where Kory’s father grew up.

They’re also devout Pentecostal Christians. When Slaatthaug, a 74-year-old retired carpenter, does repairs at the building, he drives there in a Jeep with a 4-foot-tall Bible on top.

The Old Testament has a passage about the year of jubilee — every 50 years, debts are to be forgiven.

So Slaatthaug and Bambrick are celebrating the family’s 50 years as property owners by doing something unheard of for a landlord: For the month of November, everyone in the 11-unit building goes rent-free.

Which is about $15,000 out of their bank account. Apparently the reporter spotted the story on Reddit and realized this couple’s complex is in a very nice section of Seattle. The couple apparently can’t afford the city’s stratospheric rents themselves; they live two counties away in Mt. Vernon, Wash.

But the property referred to in the article is worth $1.3 million, which they will hopefully get when it comes time to sell.

The jubilee-year reference that inspired the gift comes from Leviticus 25. It describes a process whereby slaves would be freed and debts would be forgiven every 50 years in ancient Israel.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Emma Green's 'The Jews of Pittsburgh Bury Their Dead' among the best religion stories of 2018

Emma Green's 'The Jews of Pittsburgh Bury Their Dead' among the best religion stories of 2018

In my last post, I praised the crucial work of local newspaper reporters in covering major tragedies such as the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting.

But the national press has an important role to play, too, as The Atlantic’s award-winning religion writer, Emma Green, has demonstrated in an exceptional fashion this week.

Green noted on Twitter that she spent three hours Sunday night in the Pittsburgh morgue. The result: a piece titled “The Jews of Pittsburgh Bury Their Dead.”

It’s remarkable in a number of ways: The strength of the idea and the implementation of it. The quality of the writing and the specific details contained therein. The depth of the religious knowledge and the ability to convey it in understandable prose.

Green’s compelling opening paragraphs set the scene:

Under other circumstances, Daniel Leger might be among those making sure the 11 Jews who were murdered in Pittsburgh are cared for in death. He is the leader of Pittsburgh’s liberal chevre kadisha—the committee responsible for tending to and preparing bodies before burial. Instead, he is in the hospital. He is one of the two congregants and four police officers who were injured in this week’s horrific attack.

The Pittsburgh morgue sits in a squat cement building on a street with little light, sandwiched between a bar and a highway. The door was locked and the lobby quiet on Sunday evening; few people were out in the chilly, intermittent rain. A sign on the door instructed visitors to use a nearby phone to reach the security desk. Throughout the night, someone new would be arriving each hour. They were the shomrim, or guards.

Jewish tradition teaches that the dead cannot be left alone. Some call it a sign of respect for people in death, as in life. Others say that the soul, or nefesh, is connected to the body until it is buried, or even for days afterward, and people must be present as it completes its transition into the next world.

Various Twitter users praised the story, and rightly so:

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Charleston. Sutherland Springs. Pittsburgh. Why local reporters are crucial in a 'national' tragedy

Charleston. Sutherland Springs. Pittsburgh. Why local reporters are crucial in a 'national' tragedy

Pay attention to Peter Smith.

If that name doesn’t ring a bell, Smith is the award-winning religion writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Your friendly GetReligionistas have been praising his exceptional journalism for years.

At the moment, Smith is — along with the rest of his Post-Gazette colleagues — working overtime on coverage of the Tree of Life synagogue shooting that claimed 11 lives. Today, he’s leading the coverage of funerals for synagogue victims. He’s also reporting on a congregant who hid in a closet and called 911. Earlier, he wrote about an emotional vigil for victims of the synagogue shooting.

And here’s a safe bet: Smith and his newspaper will stick with the story long after the national news media have moved on. That’s not a criticism of the major press per se (after all, I do most of my own reporting for national outlets), but it’s a recognition of the important role of local journalists such as Smith, Jennifer Berry Hawes and Silvia Foster-Frau.

You remember Hawes, right?

She’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The Post and Courier in Charleston, S.C. For months and even years after nine black worshipers were shot to death at the Emanuel AME Church in June 2015, she provided must-read, behind-the-scenes accounts of victims dealing with that tragedy.

“Switch off cable and go local,” someone urged after the Charleston massacre, and we couldn’t help but agree.

Please respect our Commenting Policy