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Holiday Almanac: Palm Sunday starts Holy Week

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"Triumphal entry into Jerusalem."

“Triumphal entry into Jerusalem,” 19th century oil painting by Nikolay Koshelev (1840-1919). Public domain via Wikimedia.

Christians celebrate today as Palm Sunday, the start of Holy Week on the church calendar. Palm Sunday takes its name from an informal welcome given Jesus as he entered Jerusalem on the last week before his crucifixion.

According to the Gospel  accounts, Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, with people paving the street before him with coats and palm fronds. That week he preached in the Temple and celebrated Passover with his disciples. Their observance of the Seder, the ritual meal of Passover, has become known in churches as the Last Supper.

Churches commonly celebrate Palm Sunday with special musical programs and Easter pageants. They often pass out palm leaves, sometimes tied into the shape of a cross. In Catholic and some Episcopal churches, extra palm leaves are burned and the ashes saved for Ash Wednesday the following year.

Holy Week also includes Maundy Thursday, commemorating the institution of the Holy Communion ritual; Good Friday, mourning Jesus’ death; and Easter Sunday, celebrating his Resurrection.



Written by Jim Davis

April 9, 2017 at 8:30 am

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

DVD review: ‘The Lion of Judah’

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DVD review: ‘The Lion of Judah.’ AMG Films. 87 minutes.

Beyond “children’s animation,” The Lion of Judah is hard to categorize. I wanted to like it for the eloquence it eventually shows, and the rather clever allegorization of the gospel. I wanted to diss it for taking so long to get there, beyond the dumb action and trite dialogue.

The story starts in a first-century stable in Bethlehem, home of a wise old hen, a crude pig, a matronly cow, a smart-talking rat, a rooster with ADD, and a horse who’s cowardly enough to embarrass the lion in The Wizard of Oz.

Into this motley lot scampers a spunky lamb named Judah: “I’m a lion — Rarrrrr!” Judah says he’s destined to “set everyone free,” but he is shortly boxed up and taken to Jerusalem.

Stableful of animals forms the cast for 'The Lion of Judah.'

The other animals figure out why: With Passover approaching, Judah is likely the next sacrifice at the great Temple. And they know who can decree the lamb’s pardon. See, this is the same stable where the baby Jesus was born, more than 30 years before. (Yeah, I know, but if you can suspend disbelief about talking animals, you can forgo asking how barnyard animals can live three decades.) They set out for Jerusalem to find the king.

Along the way, they meet other creatures. There’s a couple of pompous, pharisaical pigeons who can’t stand the rat. There’s a flock of ravens who call themselves the “Unclean” gang, as a side lesson on egalitarianism. And there’s a cynical, streetwise donkey colt who laments the power that humans hold over his life. It’s not hard to guess who gets to meet Jesus first.

Artistically, The Lion of Judah is a very mixed bag. The wood and stone textures are nicely rendered. The animal expressions are evocative and their actions are smooth, but their feet don’t leave tracks. And speaking of tracks, the background music often lapses into bland Christian pop. The best sequence is when the camera follows the blackbirds through the streets of Jerusalem, searching for Judah.

Voice-wise, the best is Georgina Cordova as the lamb. A veteran of other animated features, including The Tale of Despereaux and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, she adds just the right bite and perkiness. Michael Madsen, from Kill Bill and Donnie Brasco, is also good as the gruff Mafioso-like raven boss. Sandi Patty as the cow is gentle but a bit snooty. Ernest Borgnine is largely wasted as the rat.

Some of the story is interesting, for someone who can tell the efforts at recasting Bible stories allegorically. The pacing, though, is rather uneven. Much of it is unfunny and uninvolving. And whenever it slows, one of the animals jumps or trips or runs into a wall or somehow gets thrown through the air.

Eventually they find the lamb, but too late: He’s in the Temple yard, being prepped for sacrifice. Meanwhile, Jesus is being led to Calvary to be crucified. The King can’t save himself, let alone a lamb. Or can he?

The comparison of the animal sacrifice with the death of what the Bible calls the “Lamb of God” is an easy and obvious one. But for viewers who weren’t brought up in church, or may not have attended lately, will it be as evident?

Like most Christian forays into various genres, The Lion of Judah is a good first effort. But Christian producers often don’t have the time and talent and effort to compete with their secular counterparts, in this case Pixar and Dreamworks. Thus far, the main Christian group to pull off CGI is the one that made VeggieTales. And they sold out to a network, which could foot the bills, but watered down the Christian message.

After its national theater run, the film is to be released on DVD this fall by the Warner Bros. Home Entertainment Group. If you want to check it out further, visit http://www.lionofjudahthemovie.com/.

Written by Jim Davis

July 17, 2011 at 4:08 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.


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

A Noble Sanctuary for Muslims

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Explore the 35-acre quad in Jerusalem known to Muslims as The Noble Sanctuary via this attractive, fact-filled site. From the Dome of the Rock to Al-Aqsa Mosque to the Islamic Museum, you’ll gain a glimpse of why this is considered the third-holiest site in the Islamic world.

You’ll get a little history, starting with Muhammad’s legendary ascension to heaven from the mountain. You’ll see some closeups of the stunning Dome of the Rock, with its golden dome and its blue-and-white calligraphic tiles added by Suleiman the Magnificent. You’ll learn how informal centers of discussion at Al-Aqsa Mosque gradually grew into the four main schools of religious thought.

You’ll also see the vaulted underground prayer room sometimes called Solomon’s Stables. This is the structure that drew much controversy a decade ago, when it was being excavated by the Waqf, the Muslim trust that administers the area. Some Israeli observers said the Muslims were dumping truckloads of valuable archaeological materials. As this site says, Muslims counter that it was actually built during an eighth-century caliphate.

The writing is fairly lucid and direct, with only a few of those pious expressions like “peace be upon him.” Surprisingly, the site acknowledges that many people believe the mountain was the site of Solomon’s Temple. Some Muslim leaders deny that a temple ever stood there, loathe to concede any Jewish claim on the land.

One quibble: The siderail with the crosslinks is blue text on a field of green, making it hard to read. Green is supposed to have been Muhammad’s favorite color. But I suspect that unlike the designers of this site, he would have opted for function over form.

The Noble Sanctuary is a fairly complex Web site, and not all the sections are linked from the homepage. Fortunately, there’s a Contents page, which works as a site map for the 21 main sections.

Written by Jim Davis

March 12, 2009 at 4:10 am

Pictures worth a thousand prayers

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Traditions are one thing; seeing the spots that inspired them is another. Christus Rex brings them together, with photos and text put together by a Marian priest.

Bearing a distinctly Italian Catholic feel, Christus Rex has a lot of virtual pilgrimages, guiding you around holy sites with devotional as well as historical comments. A nice clickable map shows biblical highlights of Jerusalem, such as St. Stephen Gate and Hezekiah’s Tunnel.

An evocative section shows the Via Crucis, or Way of the Cross, retracing Jesus’ steps on the day of his crucifixion. But it does need some updating. The webmaster’s idea of a standard page width is a mere 700 pixels.

Check out the Pater Noster Convent on the Mount of Olives. The convent houses plaques with the Lord’s Prayer in 1,444 languages. (Pictured: Farsi and Sanskrit.)

Vatican City is shown in a lush collection of photos — not only the familiar St. Peter’s Basilica and Sistine Chapel, but also the little-seen apartments of the pope.

There’s more: a Catholic calendar, an online lectionary, a celebration of the dedication of St. John Lateran Basilica in Rome (see why I said the site has an Italian Catholic feel?). Two other sections, though, seem out of place.

One section is on the 1989 student uprising in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, and the military repression that ended it. The other is on the medieval Khazar Empire, which converted to Judaism in 740 A.D. The section accepts the controversial theory of author Arthur Koestler that the Khazars became Europe’s Ashkenazic Jews.

Written by Jim Davis

November 28, 2008 at 10:31 pm

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