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Holiday Almanac: Purim, the Festival of Esther, starts tonight

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“Esther Before King Ahasuerus,” oil on canvas, by Andrea Celesti (1637-1712). Public domain image via Wikimedia.org.

Sundown today ushers in Purim, the joyous Jewish Festival of Lots that celebrates the deliverance of the Jews from a would-be mass murderer 25 centuries ago.

The story, told in the biblical book of Esther, takes place in Persia, where many of the Jews were living in exile. There Esther, a Jewish woman, won a beauty contest and married King Ahasuerus.

Haman, the king’s prime minister, hated the Jews after Esther’s cousin Mordecai refused to bow to him. Haman persuaded the king, who was unaware Esther was Jewish, to sign an iron-clad decree for the Jews’ extermination.

After Esther bravely pled her people’s case, Ahasuerus changed his mind but could not rescind the decree. However, he issued another order allowing the Jews to defend themselves. They killed thousands of their enemies, and Haman was hanged on the gallows he had built for Mordecai.

Purim takes its name from the Hebrew word for “lots,” for the method by which Haman had decided the date of the slaughter — which became, instead, the day of the great Jewish victory.

Boisterous celebrations lift Purim above its formal status as a minor religious holiday. Synagogues and Jewish community centers often sponsor Purim festivals, with carnival rides and games. Costume parties have children dressing as their favorite Purim characters. And refreshments include hamantaschen, triangular pastries in the traditional shape of Haman’s hat.

— JAMES D. DAVIS

Written by Jim Davis

March 11, 2017 at 11:06 pm

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

Torah-Science Conference to scrutinize life: birth, death and in between

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(Photo: Renaude Hatsedakis via sxc.hu)

(Photo: Renaude Hatsedakis via sxc.hu)

When does life begin? Who has the right to end it? Where is the soul? And between birth and death, how to decide if a life is worth living?

These age-old questions, once the domain of sages and religious leaders, are being increasingly tackled by doctors and other scientists. But the best approach blends the two, according to a conference in South Florida starting this weekend.

“Scientists can’t deal with miracles, but we humans can,” says Rabbi Sholom Lipskar, the main organizer of the three-day Miami International Torah and Science Conference, starting 8:15 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 14. “[But] science empowers us to understand God in a more majestic way.”

Site for the free biennial conference will be the Shul, just north of Miami Beach, where Lipskar is the head rabbi. The conference had a kind of soft launch Friday night with a dinner and talk.

Scheduled at that event was rabbi-cardiologist Alan Rozanski of Columbia University, who is noted for a study that indicated a person’s attitudes and even moods affect physical structures like arteries, Lipskar says. The dinner had more than 200 reservations, Lipskar says.

Lipskar himself then will help kick off the opening session Saturday night, discussing the beginning of life. Topics will include new biotechnological ways to begin life and the light that halacha, Jewish religious law, can shed on it.

The rabbi will share the dais Saturday night with Nathan Katz, founder of the Program in the Study of Spirituality at Florida International University. Katz, who himself has helped plan the conferences since 1999, agrees on the value of blending scientific and spiritual perspectives.

“Traditionally, religious people and accomplished scientists live in different approaches to reality,” he says. “Here, they seem to be making a tremendous effort to understand each other’s perspective. That deepens their own understanding.”

Sunday’s events will start at 11:30 a.m., with a talk on epigenetics, a new study of changes outside a gene. Lipskar finds the study “exciting, because Kabbalah and Hasidic philosophy already concluded this: that there is something outside the genetic structure that can change it in behavioral reality.”

The Sunday evening events will deal with the end of life — including the provocative question: “Does Life Ever End?” Final issues on Monday will cover neuroscience and cosmology, even comparing ideas of 17th century philosopher Baruch Spinoza and contemporary scientist Stephen Hawking.

The Torah and Science Conferences are held every two years, always around Hanukkah, Nov. 27-Dec. 5 this year. The timing was chosen to relate the spreading light of the menorah candles to the growing light of knowledge and reason.

It was light, and the theories of Albert Einstein, that caught the attention of the late Chabad Lubavitch chief rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who died in 1994. Schneerson gave his blessing to the first Torah-Science Conference, which was held in 1987.

Subsequent conferences have probed heady concepts like time, intelligent design, the nature of the soul and brain, and links between the natural and supernatural realms. Even after the conferences end, the papers of the speakers are available through B’Or Ha’Torah, a peer-review journal of the Jerusalem College of Technology.

Basic viewpoint of the conferences is that faith and science are different yet complementary, Lipskar says. And that each viewpoint is necessary.

“Science makes you an expert, but not a kinder, gentler person,” the rabbi says. “When you integrate science and religion, you add the element of meaning and purpose. You have the conductor of the orchestra.”

If you go

Event: Miami International Torah & Science Conference

Featuring: Discussions of the beginning and end of life, from the perspectives of religion and science

Where: The Shul, 9540 Collins Ave., Surfside, Fla.

When: Dec. 14-16

Starting times: Saturday at 8:15 p.m.; Sunday at 11:30 a.m., 1 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.; Monday at 9:30 a.m., noon and 7:30 p.m.

Cost: Free

Info: 305-868-1411, ext. 329, or torahscienceconference.org

Written by Jim Davis

December 13, 2013 at 11:37 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

Holidays Almanac: Yom Kippur ends High Holy Days

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A Sefer Torah, a handwritten scroll on parchment, about 400 years old. The holy book was written in Poland and survived the Nazi Holocaust there during World War II. (Photo: Bejinhan, via Wikimedia.org)

Jews worldwide end their observance of the High Holy Days tonight (Sept. 13) and tomorrow (Sept. 14) with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. The Ten Days of Repentance, as they are also called, began at sundown Sept. 4 with Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year.

The days are an interim period during which the faithful examine their lives not only for sins committed but for good deeds undone. Traditional Jews call the period Yamim Noraim, or the Days of Awe, believing that God judges each soul to determine what kind of year each will have, and even if they live or die. Less traditional Jews use the time for introspection and resolving to live as better persons for the coming year.

Observant Jews fast from sundown through the following sundown. Yom Kippur Eve has its own distinct service: Kol Nidre, meaning All Vows. The prayer, set to sad, medieval music, is a plea to be released from promises left unkept during the year. Anti-Semites used to point to Kol Nidre as proof that the word of a Jew could not be trusted; however, rabbinic authorities have said the prayer refers only to vows made to God.

Congregants say other prayers in all-dayservices on Yom Kippur. They include:

Al Het, an alphabetical list of sins to recite — including cruelty, dishonesty and direspect for parents — in case the worshiper may have forgotten some or committed them unknowingly. Each time a sin is mentioned, the worshiper strikes a fist on his or her chest.

Yizkor, a memorial prayer for the dead. Yizkor prayers are said also during three other holy days: Passover, Shavuot and Shemini Azteret.

Neilah, a chant at the end of Yom Kippur to hold open the gates of mercy for the last repentant souls.

At the end of the Yom Kippur service, the shofar, or ram’s horn, is sounded in a long, steady note, as long as the blower’s breath holds out. For, according to Jewish belief, the judgment is complete, and the fate of each person has been sealed for the coming year.

James D. Davis

Written by Jim Davis

September 13, 2013 at 8:42 pm

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

Book review: The Szyk Haggadah

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You can get a Passover Haggadah from almost any synagogue or bookstore or even many supermarkets, but you’ll seldom find one like The Szyk Haggadah (Abrams, $40 hardcover, $16.95 paperback, 128 pp). This volume is graced with gorgeous, exuberant pictures and elegant Hebrew script by Polish-American Arthur Szyk (1894-1951).

The book has the full Seder, or Passover service, but the 48 full-color pictures are the literal draw. Rendered in astonishing detail, they set the Hebrew Exodus both in ancient Egypt and the Europe of the 1930s.

You’ll see not only an idealized Eastern European Seder — complete with fur hats on the men — but the epic events such as the parting of the Red Sea. You’ll

Cover of The Szyk Haggadah, published by Abrams. © 2008 Historicana, artwork © 1940 Arthur Szyk.

also see lesser-known tales like when Moses killed an Egyptian for beating a Jewish slave. Szyk also adds other biblical heroes, like the priestly Aaron, the gentle Ruth, and the boy David (toting the severed head of Goliath).

Szyk (pronounced “shick”) used a hybrid technique. He rendered each picture in ornate detail and stylized figures, like sickle-shaped waves. Yet he also shows action and intensity in their postures, conveying a feeling of movement and urgency. Even in the softcover version, they are sharp and vivid.

The book is in a large, 9×12 inch format, suitable for reading at the Seder table. The service itself is in fancy calligraphy, but the vowel marks should make it easy for anyone who reads Hebrew to use it.

But you don’t even need to refer to the Hebrew if you can’t read it; on each facing page you’ll find easy-to-understand text by Rabbi Byron Sherwin of Chicago and Szyk expert Irvin Ungar of California. They also add context with their thoughtful commentary, and even a 49-page section on background and development of Passover.

The commentary deals with matters as basic as how to light the candles and “What is the Afikomen?” It also looks into Kaballistic insights, whether there were really 10 plagues on the ancient Egyptians, and the state of Israel, which many Jews see as a modern redemption. It all may sound overwhelming, but the section is broken into 15 chapters from one to nine pages each. And the longer chapters are broken into several units.

The main problem with this otherwise outstanding book is, well, something about the drawings themselves. Everyone looks so grim. They all scowl even when walking through the Red Sea, which is supposed to be the climax of the Israelites’ deliverance. Passover does have its grim side, but it ends in rescue and liberation.

It’s a small quibble, given the beauty and intelligence of the book. The Szyk Haggadah is one book you may not want to put away after Passover. You may wish to leave it out on the coffeetable during the year.

Written by Jim Davis

April 17, 2011 at 3:50 am

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