Monday, October 29, 2012

Bull Accident in Gaza Last Week: Man Killed During Slaughter Attempt

Muslims around the world celebrated the holiday of Eid-al-Adha, commencing on Friday October 26, 2012.  The holiday commemorates the willingness of Abraham (Ibrahim) to sacrifice his son Ishmael and the willingness of Ishmael to be sacrificed according to God's will, although God intervened to provide a ram for the sacrifice instead.  Jewish people read a slightly different version of this story (akeidat Yitzhak - the binding of Isaac) in synagogues around the world on the second day of Rosh Hashanah and will read it again this Shabbat, November 3, 2012 as part of Vaeirah.  

The Muslim custom for celebrating the holiday in many countries is to slaughter a cow, goat or sheep just before or during the holiday.  Millions of cows, goats and sheep are slaughtered around the world during Eid days.  Accidents are apparently common since many of the people buy the animal and bring it home for slaughter rather than taking it to a butcher.  Interestingly, this custom is not so far from home.  Many Yemenite Israeli Jews and other Israeli Jews from middle eastern countries buy goats or sheep and arrange for their slaughter just before the major Jewish holidays - Rosh Hashanah, Sukkot, Pesach and Shavuoth.  Some still arrange to have the Shochet (the ritual slaughterer) come to the house to take care of business although this is less frequent now than it once was.

Taking the bull by the horns and slaughtering the animal by yourself can be tricky business if you are not experienced.  According to YNet News, a Gaza health official reported that a Palestinian man was killed last week while trying to slaughter a cow himself.  Some other reports indicated that it was a bull.  YNet News also reported that 150 other people were hospitalized in Gaza due to knife wounds incurred in the process of slaughtering animals or from injuries caused by the animals to the would be butchers or to bystanders.

Other news agencies picked up this picture, apparently taken in Pakistan, of a loose animal attacking a boy on a soccer field during a failed animal slaughter attempt. Score one here for the bull.

Observant Jewish people often complain about the high cost of Kosher meat but perhaps there is a value after all in having the Shochet take care of the slaughtering, unless you have the proper training. Yemenite Israelis usually arrange for the slaughter of goats rather than bulls before the holidays and the handling of these relatively harmless goats is probably much less risky, from my personal observation.  For those still going ahead with the home slaughter - aside from wishing "Eid Mubarak" - (a "blessed holiday of Eid,") it is probably wise to add aman ("safe") to the greeting.   

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Sarah Silverman's Election Videos and the Exchange with Yaakov Rosenblatt

Comedian Sarah Silverman can be quite raunchy and sometimes downright offensive.  But some of her publicity stunts in connection with this year's upcoming Presidential election have generated quite a bit of hype.  In one video, Let My People Vote, she agitates against voter ID laws that were actually put forward in some U.S. states.  The campaign against these laws has apparently achieved partial victories in Pennsylvania and Mississippi.  In another video, an Indecent Proposal she offers Republican donor Sheldon Adelson sexual favours if he would only be willing to contribute his $100 million to Obama instead of Romney. 

The videos have attracted quite a bit of attention.  In an Open Letter in the Jewish Press printed on October 11, 2012, Rabbi Yaakov Rosenblatt attacked Silverman for using "biblical language" in her campaign.  Although the initial focus of Rosenblatt's letter was, ostensibly, Silverman's use of crude language, he shifted to the real purpose of his attack on Silverman - her failure to marry and have children.  If there was any basis for criticizing Silverman's admittedly crude videos, it was so dramatically undermined by Rosenblatt's transparent attack on Silverman as a career minded woman rather than on any other aspect of her productions, that the thrust of the attack was rendered impotent.

Numerous letter writers skewered Rosenblatt.  But most forcefully, Silverman's dad wrote a letter back to Rosenblatt which was printed in the Jewish Press.  He included this statement:

"Hey asshole: Daughter #1 is a rabbi. Not by your standards. She's reform. How dare she, a lowly woman think god wants her to be a rabbi, created from a mere rib. Her hubby, three times nominated for a nobel peace prize was listed by the Jerusalem Post as the 49th most influential jew in the world built the worlds largest solar field in israel. By the way, Sarah was also on the list. I missed your name. Oldest granddaughter is serving in the Israel Defense Forces. I'm sure you also served.Oh I forgot the orthodox don't do that. You don't fuck with my family."

Although Mr. Silverman's choice of language was an illustration of some of what Silverman might have learned at home, the criticism was biting and spot on.  The reference to Silverman's sister was a reference to Rabbi Susan Silverman, a Reform rabbi living in Jerusalem.  Sarah Silverman herself visited Israel for the first time last year and performed at a number of clubs.   More poignantly, Mr. Silverman exposed the bitter misogyny that was the root of Rosenblatt's open letter to Silverman.

In an October 18, 2012 piece in the Tablet, Liel  Leibovitz responded with a partial defence of Rosenblatt.  Attacking the vulgar nature of Silverman's comedy, Leibovitz asserts that Silverman has simply "turned the electoral process into a spotlight with which to illuminate her own oversized and cartoonish personality for fun and profit."  Like Rosenblatt, Liebovitz misses the mark in his assessment of Silverman's bitingly satirical videos which have apparently served their purpose, at least partially.  In Let My People Vote, for example, Silverman draws attention to the fact that some of the new Voter ID laws permit residents to use gun permits but not veteran cards or student IDs, by suggesting that Americans should get guns and gun permits for their grandparents and students - to ensure that they can vote.  It is unfortunate that Liebovitz can only call this "self-centred" on Silverman's part.  Judging from the tone of the majority of responding letters in The Tablet, readers seem to be siding with Silverman rather than Liebovitz and Rosenblatt.

Satirical comedy has a role to play in election campaigns. Saturday Night Live has often left a lasting impression about particular candidates, sometimes more indelible than the persona that the candidates themselves have tried to present.  Just look at the effect of SNL on the public perception of of Sarah Palin.  

While crude, potty-mouthed humour is not for everyone, I can't remember anyone attacking Eddie Murphy or Richard Pryor for failing to focus on their own domestic lives and focus on having children.  While I don't attribute the same misogynist motivation to Liebovitz as I do to Rosenblatt, it seems to me that satirical videos like these, even if they are vulgar, have a role to play, either politically or in the world of comedy, whether the comedian producing them happens to be a woman or a man.  In Silverman's case, both videos provide a sharp message, the essence of which should be carefully considered even if the vehicle is viewed as flawed. 

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Latest Arrests of Women at the Kotel

Israel continues to serve as a crucible for the multi-layered clash between freedom of religion, gender equality and freedom of expression.  As a liberal democracy with a Jewish religious character, Israel is constantly wrestling with the boundary between state-sanctioned Judaism and the liberal democratic values of gender equality, freedom of expression and tolerance.

In the most recent instance, Jerusalem police once again arrested Anat Hoffman, leader of the group Women of the WallShe was arrested for "disturbing the peace."  Her crime was reciting the Shema, out loud, while wearing a Tallit (a prayer shawl) at the Kotel (the Western Wall).  In other words, she committed the offence of praying out loud, while being a woman.

 Tuesday night was the start of the new month of Cheshvan (or perhaps, more aptly "Mar Cheshvan" - the bitter month of Cheshvan - since it does not feature any Jewish holy days).  But it also coincided with the 100th anniversary of Hadassah, the Women's Zionist Organization of America, which was celebrating the occasion with a convention in Israel.

Ms Hoffman was arrested for the sixth time over the course of her twenty years of advocating for women's equality at Judaism's holiest prayer site.  On this occasion, she was treated in a much more brutal fashion than in the past, she claims.  She was handcuffed, strip searched and detained overnight.  She was eventually released by a judge on condition that she stay away from the Kotel for 30 days.

I have previously written blogs about this topic - (See Women Arrested for Wearing Tallith At Western Wall) but the issue continues to percolate and  to attract a great deal of publicity.  How is it that a free country like Israel can prohibit women from praying out loud at the Kotel

Essentially, the State of Israel has ceded authority over the Kotel to the Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox religious establishment.  In doing so, it has excluded all non-Orthodox forms of Jewish workshop, which comprise quite a significant proportion of world Jewry (other than at the Southern Wall -the Davidson Centre).  The creep of this gender-exclusive Orthodoxy has found its way into other public spheres in Israel, some of which I have also written about previously.  (See:  Jerusalem Not Tehran and Gender Equality In Israel).  This is all under the guise of protecting and promoting religious rights in Israel - indeed minority religious rights - since the Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox are still in the minority.  But unlike other western countries grappling with these tensions, Israel's pendulum has swung over to the side of religion at the expense of other liberal democratic rights.

Though the Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox characterize the issue as one of respect for their Orthodox practises, at what they see as an Orthodox worship site, the flip side is significant disrespect for everyone else and particularly for women.  The Kotel  is a holy site that belongs to all of Israel and should not be viewed as an exclusively Orthodox Synagogue, even though that is the status that it currently has.

The issue is not about a group of women trying to disrupt Orthodox men by praying at the Kotel  provocatively, though that is how it has been characterized by supporters of the status quo.  Rather, it is about a the rights of women to pray and sing out loud, in public.  It is about the rights of women to be heard in Israel and to be treated as equals, religiously and otherwise.  It has implications far beyond what occurs at the Kotel itself, as we have seen in Israel over the past few years.

It remains to be seen whether anything will change as a result of Israel's upcoming elections, though that appears unlikely at this point.  The Orthodox parties are likely to continue on as an integral part of any new government and the status quo at the Kotel is likely to remain in place.  This battle for gender equality and religious freedom is likely to continue on for some time - just as other battles between religion and gender equality are  likely to be played out in liberal democracies around the world. 



Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Indian Restaurant in Jerusalem Loses Kosher Certification For Selling Vegetables From Non-Approved Places

Only Kosher vegetables may be served in Kosher restaurants, according to an increasingly large number of rabbinic authorities around the world.  Although for our parents and grandparents, vegetables and fruit were all considered kosher, that has changed over the past number of years as Kashrut authorities have concerned themselves with whether there might be microscopic bugs hiding out in some of the vegetables.  This has affected Kosher restaurants and caterers around the world, many of which have been prohibited from using romaine lettuce, cauliflower, broccoli, asparagus tips and many other green vegetables.  

I noticed this two years ago in Israel when eating at the Kohinoor restaurant at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Jerusalem.  The restaurant did not have aloo ghobi on the menu (a common Indian dish of potato and cauliflower) since cauliflower had been banned by the rabbinic authorities.  Other vegetables dishes were also missing.  I have also noticed this repeatedly when ordering Kosher meals on airplanes.  I look at my tray and wonder why I have not been served any healthy vegetables.

Now, according to YNet news in Israel on October 15, 2012, the Kashrut authorities have caused the Jerusalem restaurant Ichikidana to give up its Kosher certification.  Ichikidana is a small,vegetarian Indian restaurant in Machane Yehuda, the large Jerusalem market.  The restaurant is known for only using fresh local ingredients.  It does not use canned, processed or frozen food and does not serve sugary drinks or alcohol.  The restaurant does not use a microwave and serves its food on recycled plates only.  It is considered one of the few restaurants in Israel that serve authentic Indian food.

Apparently, the Jerusalem Kashrut authorities have now begun to insist that Kosher certified restaurants only buy their vegetables from specific approved stores.  This was simply too much for Ichikidana which elected to opt out of Kosher certification.

It is quite disappointing to see this spread of extremism which is evident not just in Israel but around the world.  In many of these situations, the only solution will be for competing Kosher authorities to emerge and offer more rational alternatives.  But for now, as many of these monopolistic Kashruth councils are dominated by increasingly extreme rabbis, they try to outdo each other by coming with more and more stringent rules.  The results are terrible for Kosher consumers, particularly those who would like to eat healthy green vegetables.

I plan to visit Ichikidana as soon as I have the opportunity over the coming weeks.  I hope to enjoy some fresh vegetables when I'm there, wherever they happen to have been bought.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

International Day of the Girl: Israel and Gender Equality

According the Global Gender Gap Report, 2011, published by the World Economic Forum, Israel was ranked 55th in the world in gender gap issues.  This was more than 50 places higher than any other country in the Middle East/North Africa region, though the report notes that this is the worst performing region in the world in these issues.  So Israel was quite far ahead of an otherwise ignomious group.

Since today is the "International Day of the Girl," I thought I would add a few comments about this issue.

According to the report, the gender gap in Israel has widened over the past few years with respect to pay differential (for equal or comparable work), political participation and even educational achievement. 

A number of events have taken place in Israel over the past year or so that have raised awareness of some of these issues.  I have written other blog articles about some of them.  Receiving the highest publicity, Israel's past President, Moshe Katzav, is now sitting in jail after having been convicted of sexual harassment/ assault offences.  Other politicians have been investigated and or charged with similar offences.  While it is very troubling that these kind of occurences would be taking place in the Israeli President's office and other high level offices, at least some Israelis will see the positive side of this for Israel as a country governed by the rule of law and will take some comfort in the fact that Katzav was convicted and sent to prison.

There have also been a number of protests in Israel relating to "the exclusion of women," something that has been implemented in certain areas of Israel, primarily by ultra-Orthodox rabbis and their followers.  Whether in Meah She'arim  or in areas of Beit Shemesh, there have been efforts to keep women on a different side of the street, bar women's images from being used in public billboard advertising and bar women from singing or speaking publicly at certain events.  Although these  types of events are limited to certain sectors, primarily the ultra-religious, the number of incidents, as reported by various media, has been increasing and has reached other public spheres.  Organizations such as Be Free Israel and Women of the Wall have been fighting for gender equality in different ways, though it would be hard to say that Israel's current government has taken very many concrete steps to respond favourably.

In the religious sphere, most Israeli Conservative synagogues (called "Masorti" congregations in Israel) are fully egalitarian, providing equal opportunites for men and women to lead services and read from the Torah.  This is certainly the case for our shul, Hod v'Hadar in K'far Saba.  This is in marked contrast to the vast majority of traditionally Orthodox synagogues in Israel.  In the Orthodox Synagogues, women are seated behind a Mechitza (a barrier) and do not participate in leading services, reading from the Torah or playing any kind of active role in the religious services.  The nature of religious worship must play a role in how participants view gender equality issues more generally.  Masorti congregations are making active contributions towards reducing the gender equality gap.

In the military sphere, Israeli women are drafted to serve in the army just as men are.  Israeli women serve as pilots, officers and in many other capacities including some as combat soldiers.  I have not seen studies about this, but it seems likely that Israel's army is somewhat ahead of the armies of many other countries in the area of gender equality and participation even though the Israeli army, as with other armies around the world, tends naturally to be male dominated.

In the educational sphere, the Global Gender Gap Report, 2011 cites a significant gap between male and female educational achievements in Israel.  This was somewhat surprising and disappointing.  Certainly my experience to date in this regard is that my daughters, attending primarily secular schools, have been as actively encouraged to pursue studies in math, science and technology issues as has my son.   But this is only a limited experiential point, and I haven't had the chance to look at detailed gender educational statistics in Israel.

So as we mark the U.N's declared "International Day of Girl," the report card for Israel is somewhat mixed.  Hopefully, Israel will get back to its position in the top 35 countries in the world, a position that it held just a few years ago.  But this will require signfiicant progress in a number of these areas and it will need Israel to move towards a leadership position in addressing gender gap equality issues.  This will be a difficult challenge, particularly in light of the nature of the current Israeli government.   But with Israeli elections coming up shortly, there are a number of parties interested in pursuing these issues more vigorously.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Sukkot 5773/2012 in Israel - A bit about our palm branch roof

We have been celebrating the holiday of Sukkot this week here in Israel.  Sukkot is really one of those holidays that was designed to be celebrated in Israel.  The festival, which lasts 8 days in Israel (including Simchat Torah) and 9 days outside of Israel, involves putting up a Sukkah and eating meals in the Sukkah for the duration of the holiday.  If the weather is 30 C during the day and still more than 20 C at night, you can have some wonderfully enjoyable Sukkot meals, particularly your evening meals.  These are the conditions that we are enjoying this year.  If you are in Canada and the weather drops down to 10C, you can start to see that the holiday of Sukkot may not be pefectly suited to Canadian weather.  (These are the reports I am getting from family members).

The roof of a Sukkah is supposed to be made out of branches and leaves (as a very general summary description) called schach.  Some people use a reusable bamboo branch roof.  We have one of these but it is not very authentic.  Probably the equivalent of a plastic Christmas tree for people celebrating Christmas.  We decided to build our schach roof this year out of palm branches and leaves, freshly trimmed from palm trees.  As I wrote about last year Sukkot 2011, the City of Ra'anana trims its palm trees each year just before Sukkot and posts information about where and when you can go to collect the freshly cut branches.  However, some "entrepreneurs" arrive early at these sites, collect the free branches and then turn around and sell them later for 10 N.I.S. a branch.  You could easily require 20 or 30 of these branches for a medium sized Sukkah - so this can get quite expensive and leave you feeling very ripped off since the City of Ra'anana was giving it away for free.  But if you don't arrive at the City distribution sites on time - or even before the appointed time - you cannot get the free schach.

So we travelled to the Rehovot area this year to collect some branches from very freshly trimmed palm trees.  Cutting and using fresh palm branches can be very risky business.  The lower parts of the branches have very sharp, pointy, thorns that can cause serious infections.  Some people are highly allergic and have been known to require urgent medical attention after losing a battle with a palm branch.  So the first step after trimming the branches - very carefully - is to cut away the thorns.  Here are some pictures of a palm branch with the thorns and after being trimmed.

Once you have cut away the thorns, you can carry the branches fairly easily without worrying about getting poked since upper leaves are not sharp at all.

To cover the roof of our Sukkah properly, we needed about 25-30 of these leaves.  So we gathered them in a pile and had to figure out how to get them from the Rehovot area to Ra'anana - about 50 km away (highway driving).

We loaded them up...on the roof of the car...(they are too long to fit in a trunk or inside the car) and drove back to Ra'anana.  This might look a bit strange but we were not the only ones on the road driving around with a car covered in schach since so many Israelis build Sukkot. 

Finally, back in Ra'anana, we were able to finish building the Sukkah and get our palm-branch schach onto the roof.  There should be enough schach so that there is more shade than sunlight and that you can see some stars.  But the schach must also allow rain to fall in the Sukkah if it rains during Sukkot.  In fact, it rained a bit the first night.  Here is a view of part of the roof from inside the Sukkah and another view from outside.  Having a freshly trimmed palm branch Sukkah has to be one of the most kosher type of Sukkah coverings.  It is very hard to get fresh palm branches in most places in North America.

The holiday of Sukkot includes a very central concept of "ushpizin" - entertaining guests in your Sukkah, particularly new guests who you have not regularly hosted.  We were very fortunate this year to have some wonderful guests, familiar and unfamiliar, join us in celebrating the holiday, having some wine and enjoying the smell and sight of the fresh palm branches, while sitting the Sukkah enjoying the summer-like termperatures.

Now the festival is almost over and we will have the task of getting rid of this huge collection of palm branches.  But the City of Ra'anana is prepared and will have extra pick ups of branches just after the holiday ends.

For those celebrating the holiday, Chag Sameach!