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Holiday Almanac: Hanukkah, Jewish festival of freedom

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Hanukkah menorah alit with candles. Photo via Pixabay.com.

Tonight starts Hanukkah, the eight-day Jewish Feast of Lights. Hanukkah, whose name is Hebrew for “Dedication,” recalls the Jews’ recapture of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem from a pagan tyrant.

Hanukkah is sometimes called the Jewish Christmas, and the first night falls on Christmas Eve this year. But the two holidays have overlapped only eight times since 1900, according to Vox. And the founding events of Hanukkah are not related to Christmas; they took place 165 years before the traditional date of Jesus’ birth.

At the time, Israel was ruled by a Greco-Syrian king named Antiochus Epiphanes. The king banned Judaism and had a pig — a ritually unclean animal — sacrificed in the Jerusalem Temple.

The Israelites finally revolted for freedom of religion, led by the five Maccabee brothers. They miraculously defeated the Greek army and set out to rededicate the Temple, but found only one day’s supply of oil for the Great Menorah or candelabrum. In the story’s second miracle, the oil lasted for eight days, long enough to purify a new supply.

Jewish families commemorate the victory by lighting a small, eight-branched menorah at home, while singing seasonal songs such as Maoz Tzur, or “Rock of Ages.” One more candle is lighted each night, until by the last night, the whole candelabrum is ablaze.

Hanukkah also features festive foods: latkes, or potato pancakes for East European Jews; sufganiot, or doughnuts filled with jelly or chocolate, for Mideastern Jews. Both are deep-fried in oil, recalling the miracle of the Temple lamp.

A more subtle holiday custom is the dreidel, a four-sided top that children play with. The sides of the dreidel have Hebrew letters: Nun, Gimel, Hay and Shin . The letters form an acrostic for a sentence: Nes gadol hayah sham, or “A great miracle happened there.”

— James D. Davis

 

Written by Jim Davis

December 24, 2016 at 5:18 pm

Jewish-Muslim relations to be examined in FIU series

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Religion scholar Nathan Katz of Florida International University helped organize the upcoming series on Jewish-Muslim relations. (Photo: James D. Davis)

Jews and Muslims have been at each others’ throats forever — or so it might seem from blogs and headlines. But a look at history would show otherwise.

“How Islam Saved the Jews,” in fact, is the title of a discussion this weekend planned for the Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU, on Miami Beach. The free forum is the first of a three-part series on Jewish-Muslim relations planned by Florida International University.

“This is so crucial right now,” says Nathan Katz, an organizer of the series and academic director of the museum. “If we can show people that their God wants them to get along with the other side, it will be a big step.”

Amanullah De Sondy, one of the participants in the FIU series, agrees.

“There is a lot of mistrust and fear between Jews and Muslims for a lot of religious, cultural and geopolitical reasons,” says De Sondy, an assistant professor of Islamic studies at the University of Miami. “But Jews and Muslims have more in common than Jews and Christians.”

The first event, starting at 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 10, will host a talk by David Wasserstein, a professor of history and Jewish studies of Vanderbilt University. Wasserstein will discuss how Muslim rule, including the Ottoman Empire, placed most Jews in a single state, permitting a flourishing of faith and culture.

Responding will be a panel of South Florida leaders and scholars, including FIU’s Katz and Iqbal Akhtar, plus De Sondy of UM and Mohammad Shakir of the Coalition of South Florida Muslim Organizations (COSMOS).

Second in the series will take an equally surprising title: “The Shoah (Holocaust) Through Muslim Eyes.” Giving the keynote talk will be Mehnaz Mona Afridi, director of the Holocaust, Genocide, and Interfaith Education Center at Manhattan College.

Afridi will touch on what she has called the “struggle with anti-Semitism within the Muslim community,” including lack of education about the Holocaust. Her topic is also the title of her soon-to-be published book.

Third of the three-part series, “Sufi Music and Poetry,” will bring back New York-based actor Peter Rogen and Turkish musician Alan Amir Vahab to perform works by Rumi and Hafiz. Sufism is a mystical form of Islam that emphasizes interfaith harmony and a direct connection with God.

The FIU series has some impressive support. Besides COSMOS, which includes mosques and other Muslim organizations, supporters include the Miami Coalition of Christians and Jews. Also endorsing the series is the Jewish Community Relations Council, a branch of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation.

Such endorsement was made possible largely because of Katz himself. Over the last decade and a half, he has built religious studies at FIU through hires like Erik Larson, who currently serves as the department’s chair. And through the spiritual studies program, which he directs, Katz has also brought such diverse speakers to Miami as the Dalai Lama, Marianne Williamson, Christopher Hitchens, Dominic Crossan, W.D. Mohammed, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar.

Modern eyes can be blinded by the conflict between Jews and Arabs in the Middle East, a conflict heightened by the creation of Israel in 1948. Katz says that Baghdad, Iraq, was once the greatest center of Jewish learning in the world. Jewish communities also flourished in Egypt, Morocco and Istanbul, he says.

“We have a shared history that is more friendly than not,” Katz says. “I hope some people will come away [from the series] with more appreciation and understanding, and even affection, for people on the other side of the aisle.”

Like other planners, Tudor Parfitt of FIU, who will moderate the panel talk on Sunday, voices a hope that friendships will grow out of the three-part series. “We’re all interested in promoting discussion and interfaith harmony. We hope the communities will get to know each other.”

They have an advantage in South Florida: Leaders on both sides have increased contacts for more than a decade.

JAM & All was formed by Jews and Muslims in 2001 to counter rising tensions after the terrorist attacks of 9-11 that year. Since then, it has expanded to include Christians, Buddhists and those of other faiths.

Shakir says COSMOS, the Muslim organization, was organized in 2010 with a similar impetus: to combat tensions over the planned so-called Ground Zero Mosque in New York.

Even before then, he was sent to Israel in 2002 by the Miami chapter of the American Jewish Committee to gather facts about the Second Intifada, a Palestinian uprising against Israeli rule on the West Bank. On returning, he wrote about his impressions for the Miami Herald.

“If we come out of the time box of the establishment of Israel, we can see that Jews and Muslims have been interacting for almost 1,500 years,” Shakir says. “This may not solve the problem in the Middle East, but it shows that our communities are open and willing to work together.

“We can respect disagreements, find ways to heal and move forward.”

Jews and Muslims have also met on the UM campus, discussing matters like the hijab, the headscarf worn by most Muslim women. And in 2012, De Sondy says, students watched a movie called Arranged, on marriage in an Orthodox Jewish family.

The activities have helped students of different beliefs get past stereotypes and see one another as people, De Sondy says.

“Jews, Muslims and Christians can use scripture to build bridges or burn bridges,” he says. “But when you get up close and personal, you see how connected we are.”

The Jewish-Muslim initiative is part of an expansion of Jewish studies at FIU, starting with the merger of the Jewish Museum with the university last year.

FIU has launched a project to examine Jewish communities around the world, working with advanced students. Parfitt, former professor of Jewish studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies at London University, cites work with Jewish groups in Israel and Argentina. He and a Ph.D. from Colombia plan to research Jewish communities in Burma and India.

Parfitt has also written a new book about Jewish museums around the world, due out in December.

“The idea is to be a great hub of Jewish intellectual activity,” Parfitt says.

If you go

All the events will be at the Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU, 301 Washington Ave., Miami Beach.

First Event: “How Islam Saved the Jews”

When: 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 10

Featuring: Lecture by David Wasserstein, professor of history, classics and Jewish studies, Vanderbilt University, with panel of local experts

Second Event: “The Shoah Through Muslim Eyes”

When: 7 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 21

Featuring: Mehnaz Mona Afridi, director of the Holocaust, Genocide, and Interfaith Education Center at Manhattan College

Third Event: “Sufi Music and Poetry”

When: 6 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 3

Featuring: Actor Peter Rogen and singer-musician Alan Amir Vahab performing Rumi and Hafiz

Cost: Free, but RSVP requested via info@jewishmuseum.com or calling 786-972-3175.

James D. Davis

Written by Jim Davis

November 8, 2013 at 3:07 am

Documentary on Israeli soldier is fine but flawed

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FILM REVIEW: ‘Follow Me: The Yoni Netanyahu Story.’ Crystal City Entertainment. 84 minutes. Unrated.

Unfolding like a Greek tragedy — where the end is known from the beginning — Follow Me flows through the childhood, romances and military life of Yoni Netanyahu, inexorably toward the climax: the Israeli raid to rescue hostages at Entebbe Airport in Uganda.

Historical accounts, and news stories of the time, present the 1976 raid as a masterful lightning stroke. What Follow Me contributes is a background look at the cost: the governmental hand-wringing, the fast yet painstaking plans, and especially the life of Netanyahu, the raid’s only Israeli military casualty.

Yoni Netanyahu’s last photograph, a short time before the 1976 raid that took his life. (Courtesy of Netanyahu family)

It’s a fine account of a warrior-statesman who longs for private life yet constantly puts his nation’s safety above his own. It would have been even better with a fuller examination of Netanyahu’s flaws as well as his virtues.

The documentary is set to open May 18, just before Yom Yerushalayim, the anniversary of the day in 1967 when Israel captured all of Jerusalem. The release also falls within National Jewish American Heritage Month.

Yoni is presented as a handsome, scholarly boy, born in Israel but raised in the United States. A natural leader and Israeli patriot, Yoni wins a scholarship to Harvard but finds himself called to help defend his birthland again and again.

Through his own letters, plus interviews with friends and family — including brother Benjamin Netanyahu, current prime minister of Israel — we get a picture of a thoughtful, even poetic person who proves himself on the battlefield yet feels ill-suited for military life. Still, he serves twice, with a dedication that costs his marriage and, eventually, his life.

For alongside the biography, filmmakers Jonathan Gruber and Ari Daniels build tension with periodic newsclips of Arab terrorism, such as the massacres at Ma’alot in Israel. The storylines converge in the 1967 Six-Day War, when Yoni is wounded in his left arm while fighting for the Golan Heights.

Despite his wound, he returns to active service and becomes an officer in a crack commando squad known formally as Sayeret Matkal, informally as the Unit. There he acquires a daring and decsive reputation, even leading outnumbered comrades into battle against Syrian forces during the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

When terrorists hijack a plane to Uganda in 1976 — and they start separating Jews from other passengers — it becomes evident to Israeli leaders that they are the only ones with the will and the power to respond. And, of course, the toughest commandos — including Yoni’s squad — are called on to do it.

Follow Me benefits from extraordinary access to top Israeli leaders like Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Yoni’s brother; President Shimon Peres; Ehud Barak, minister of defense, and Matan Vilnai, minister for home front defense. They all speak on camera, as do Yoni’s first wife Tutti and his widow Bruria.

Only occasionally does the film veer from its sentimental tone. In one spot, Yoni morosely contemplates his beloved homeland living in a constant state of war. In another, he casually mentions developing the skills of close-up fighting, such as pressing a gun against a foe’s body to muffle the shot. But there was surely more to his dark side. I doubt you’d get into an outfit like the Unit, much less become a commander, without developing a measure of ruthlessness.

The imbalance in the film may come from the lack of sources outside family, friends, military comrades and Yoni’s own letters. It would have been interesting to hear from those he helped to rescue at Entebbe. Some former classmates from Harvard might have been enlightening.

And any strong character inevitably accumulates enemies, or at least antagonists. Talking to a couple of those would have helped round out the portrait of Yoni.

Despite what another military film says, we can handle the truth.

If you want to look a little deeper, here’s the movie’s website. There’s also a tribute website just for Yoni.

James D. Davis

Written by Jim Davis

May 7, 2012 at 3:56 am

Praying in Jerusalem — via Twitter

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For centuries, Jews have written prayers on slips of paper and tucked them into Jerusalem’s Western Wall, hoping God would grant them. Now, Tweet Your Prayers automates this bit of devotion.

The process is pretty much what you’d expect. First, open a Twitter account, then sign up for the free service, which is called The Kotel (the Hebrew name for the Western Wall.) Then “follow” the site, and it will follow you back. Now CB018239you’re set up for prayer-tweeting.

The beauty of the process, as with anything online, is that your message arrives instantly. (But the Kotel folks in Jerusalem still have to print the requests and physically place them in the Wall.)

The downside? You have to keep it to Twitter’s limit of 140 characters. Any longer requests require fax or snail mail. The Jewish Agency for Israel says the nation’s phone company keeps a fax line for the Kotel: 972-2-5611-2222. (I haven’t tried it, though.)

Jews may find Tweet Your Prayers handy for getting on God’s good side before the High Holy Days. Still, as founders of the service note, lots of non-Jews have prayed at the wall, too — including President Obama and the last two popes.

Naturally, the founders don’t guarantee your prayers will be answered. As they say in a FAQ file: “Take it up with the Big Guy upstairs. We’re just the middle-men!”


Written by Jim Davis

September 3, 2009 at 3:59 am

DVD review: ‘Jerusalem: Center of the World’

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More blood and tears must have been shed over Jerusalem than any other city in history. Rather ironic for a place whose name means “City of Peace.” But perhaps not for the literal touchstone of three enormously influential religions.

Its history is beautifully retold in Jerusalem: Center of the World, which premiered on PBS in April and was released as a DVD shortly thereafter. Handsomely shot and diplomatically written, it is a rarity among documentaries — a film on the Holy Land that’s well done, but doesn’t graft someone’s pet theory onto the topic.

The two-hour show traces the historical reasons — still visible today in the holy sites — why those few acres have grabbed and held our attention for four millennia.

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An Orthodox Jew prays at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

With the sure, steady hand of PBS newsman Ray Suarez, Jerusalem: Center of the World plays it straight with biblical history. It tells of Abraham’s call to move to the land, and how God tested his loyalty by asking him to sacrifice his son Isaac. It tells of the magnificent Temple built on the spot centuries later by his descendant Solomon. And it tells the grief over losing the land when the Romans scattered the Jews.

The documentary continues with the story of Christianity, and Jesus’ final days in Jerusalem. It shows the Via Dolorosa, the winding street said to mark the 14 events between his arrest and his burial. It also ventures into the cavernous Church of the Holy Sepulchre, traditional site of the crucifixion, burial and resurrection.

But it moves on to tell of the importance of the city to Muslims as the “Farthest Mosque,” or al-Masjid al-Aqsa, mentioned in the Quran. There’s an awe-inspiring walk through the Dome of the Rock, the golden-domed shrine that dominates nearly every photo of Jerusalem.

Not that the special swallows all the legends whole. It acknowledges that non-biblical evidence is scant for people like David, and for events like Muhammad’s nighttime visit to Jerusalem. But it doesn’t air historical gossip or shifting archaeological fads.

Jerusalem: Center of the World tells how the Romans put down a Jewish revolt, then destroyed and rebuilt Jerusalem after 70 A.D. The film also covers — perhaps a bit too lightly — its rebuilding as a Roman city, then a Byzantine pilgrimage site, then the Ottoman period, heading into the 20th century.

The documentary producer, Two Cats Productions, clearly found a soulmate in the Muslim family entrusted with the key to the front door of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The head of the family is given considerable camera time explaining the complexities of caring for such a sensitive holy place.

Jerusalem: Center of the World also skirts controversy in saying that scholars agree the Temple once stood on Mount Moriah, but all evidence for the structure is gone. Left unmentioned are the arguments of Asher Kaufman and others that the Waqf, the Arab authority governing the mountain, has purposefully destroyed such evidence.

But it seems to lean toward the Muslim side in dealing with the Crusades. It relates the the brutality of the First Crusade, but stays silent on the destruction of all churches and synagogues in Jerusalem by the Muslim ruler Hakim a century earlier.

Still, Jerusalem: Center of the World is a welcome tone of moderation about a city so given to extremes. The DVD will likely get bought up by a lot of libraries — and by families who want more light than heat.

Written by Jim Davis

August 16, 2009 at 4:26 am

DVD review: ‘Jerusalem: Center of the World’

leave a comment »

More blood and tears must have been shed over Jerusalem than any other city in history. Rather ironic for a city whose name means “City of Peace.” But perhaps not for the literal touchstone of three enormously influential religions.

Its history is beautifully retold in Jerusalem: Center of the World, which premiered on PBS on April 1 and was released as a DVD shortly thereafter. Handsomely shot and diplomatically written, it is a rarity among documentaries — a film on the Holy Land that’s well done, but doesn’t graft someone’s pet theory onto the topic.

The two-hour show traces the historical reasons — still visible today in the holy sites — why those few acres have grabbed and held our attention for four millennia.

With the sure, steady hand of PBS newsman Ray Suarez, Jerusalem: Center of the World plays it straight with biblical history. It tells of Abraham’s call to move to the land, and how God tested his loyalty by asking him to sacrifice his son Isaac. It tells of the magnificent Temple built on the spot centuries later by his descendant Solomon. And it tells the grief over losing the land when the Romans scattered the Jews.

The documentary continues with the story of Christianity, and Jesus’ final days in Jerusalem. It shows the Via Dolorosa, the winding street said to mark the 14 events between his arrest and his burial. It also ventures into the cavernous Church of the Holy Sepulchre, traditional site of the crucifixion, burial and resurrection.

But it moves on to tell of the importance of the city to Muslims as the “Farthest Mosque,” or al-Masjid al-Aqsa, mentioned in the Quran. There’s an awe-inspiring walk through the Dome of the Rock, the golden-domed shrine that dominates nearly every photo of Jerusalem.

Not that the special swallows all the legends whole. It acknowledges that non-biblical evidence is scant for people like David, and for events like Muhammad’s nighttime visit to Jerusalem. But it doesn’t air historical gossip or shifting archaeological fads.

Jerusalem: Center of the World tells how the Romans put down a Jewish revolt, then destroyed and rebuilt Jerusalem after 70 A.D. The film also covers — perhaps a bit too lightly — its rebuilding as a Roman city, then a Byzantine pilgrimage site, then the Ottoman period, heading into the 20th century.

The documentary producer, Two Cats Productions, clearly found a soulmate in the Muslim family entrusted with the key to the front door of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The head of the family is given considerable camera time explaining the complexities of caring for such a sensitive holy place.

Jerusalem: Center of the World also skirts controversy in saying that scholars agree the Temple once stood on Mount Moriah, but all evidence for the structure is gone. Left unmentioned are the arguments of Asher Kaufman and others that the Waqf, the Arab authority governing the mountain, has purposefully destroyed such evidence.

But it seems to lean toward the Muslim side in dealing with the Crusades. It relates the the brutality of the First Crusade, but stays silent on the destruction of all churches and synagogues in Jerusalem by the Muslim ruler Hakim a century earlier.

Still, Jerusalem: Center of the World is a welcome tone of moderation about a city so given to extremes. When PBS makes the DVD available, it will likely get bought up by a lot of libraries — and by families who want more light than heat.

Written by Jim Davis

April 1, 2009 at 4:07 am

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