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Passover celebrates freedom to worship

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Stack of matzoh used in Passover; photo by Alex Ringer via Freeimages.com.

Passover, called the oldest festival of freedom, starts at sundown today for the world’s Jews. The eight-day holiday dates back some 34 centuries, recounting the deliverance of the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt.

As the story is told in the biblical book of Exodus, the pharaoh rejected the prophet Moses’ demand to release the people, bringing a wave of 10 supernatural plagues on the land. The Nile River turned to blood, disease struck humans and livestock, vermin multiplied, the sky rained hail mixed with fire, and darkness struck the land for three days.

The last plague was the Angel of Death, who struck down the firstborn of every Egyptian household in one night. The Israelites escaped death by dashing lambs’ blood on their doorposts — a sign of faith that made the angel “pass over” those homes.

In modern Jewish homes, Passover starts with a ceremonial meal called a Seder on the first two nights, with foods symbolizing the Exodus story. They include a lamb shank, for the sacrificial animal; a piece of bitter herbs such as horseradish, for the bitterness of slavery; a bowl of saltwater, for the tears of oppression; and a mix of apples, cinnamon and wine, for the mortar used in the Egyptian bricks.

Also on the Seder plate are a roasted egg and leafy vegetables, for the springtime occasion of Passover; and the hard, unleavened bread called matzoh, for the Israelites’ haste in evacuating Egypt.

— Jim Davis



Written by Jim Davis

March 30, 2018 at 7:00 pm

Holiday Almanac: Purim, Jewish victory over arch-enemy

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Jews worldwide celebrate Purim today. The joyous Jewish Festival of Lots celebrates their deliverance from a would-be mass murderer 2,500 years ago.

Pastries like this one, called hamantaschen, are common treats for Purim. (Photo: eran chesnutt via sxc.hu)

Pastries like this one, called hamantaschen, are common treats for Purim. (Photo: eran chesnutt via sxc.hu)

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. Because of this, 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 in 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. Jewish community centers often sponsor Purim festivals, with carnival rides and games. Synagogues hold costume parties, with 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 16, 2014 at 4:08 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

Reading the Quran is risky — if a Muslim woman does it

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The day begins with recitation and prayer at the school at Al-Zahra Mosque in ‘The Light in Her Eyes.’ Photo by Itab Azzam.

TV Review: The Light in Her Eyes. Clockshop, produced in association with American Documentary-POV. Broadcast date: 10 p.m. July 19 on PBS (check local listings). 56 minutes.

“We can be teachers and students; we can rule and arbitrate,” Houda Al-Habash tells her Quran class for girls in Damascus. “You are free in your choices, free in your way of thinking, free in your faith, free in everything.”

If only it were that simple. But of course, it never is, not in the Middle East. The Light in Her Eyes strikes a hopeful tone, but it was shot shortly before the civil war that currently grips Syria.

The documentary, directed and produced by Julia Meltzer and Laura Nix, shows the delicate balance of Middle Eastern women in advancing intellectually while staying true to their faith — a faith whose leaders often denounce their efforts.

Nix and Meltzer focus on the two-month Quran memorization program Houda sponsored every summer at Al-Zahra Mosque in Damascus. Now in her 40s, she founded the program at 17, then gradually began supervising similar programs at mosques around the Syrian capital.

She presents a mix of opposites, wearing black robes but donning sunglasses and driving around Damascus in her car. Making rounds of mosques, she delivers a mix of praise and demands — both of students and their teachers — smiling but prodding everyone to work harder.

The students are charmingly like young girls elsewhere: giggly, fidgety, quick with smiles and silly songs. But they’re also dutiful, pacing circles on the mosque’s carpet with their Qurans, reciting what they consider to be direct quotes from God.

Houda talks with her daughter, Enas, about how she started work as a preacher in ‘The Light in Her Eyes.’ Photo by Laura Nix

The girls do get positive reinforcement, too. When one memorizes a chapter, Houda has everyone else applaud her. Houda gives an award to the girl who memorized the most. And all the girls go on an overnight field trip, including a dip in a pool — though Middle Eastern swimsuits include sleeves, pants and little skirts.

Change is everywhere in Damascus, as The Light in Her Eyes shows. Women in hijabs and bulky coats share the streets with others who wear jeans and pullovers.

In the background are conservative Muslim scholars, represented by grim lecturers on TV. They sternly state that women’s religious duties are to bear and raise children, take care of the home and serve the husband. None are invited on camera, creating a bias in this documentary. Then again, Nix and Meltzer weren’t filming with the Syrian dictatorship’s permission.

Houda’s husband, Samir Al-Khaldi, says he supports her in her quranic memorization classes, as long as she keeps up her wifely and motherly duties. “A man works hard to provide for his family,” he says.

Some of the students complain often about the rules they feel are holding them back — indeed, causing the whole Islamic world to fall behind. But like Houda, they always blame custom, culture and tradition, not the religion itself.

“If a mother never learns, how can she teach the next generation?” one girl asks. “A woman is a school. If you teach her, you teach a generation.”

Enas, Houda’s 20-year-old daughter, is taking the next step: studying international relations at the University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates. She and Houda acknowledge that some Syrians still frown on a girl going off by herself to study — let alone study secular topics. But “I can serve Islam better if I study politics or economics,” Enas says.

Not that Houda encourages outright rebellion. Indeed, she makes it a privilege for her students to wear a hijab, comparing it to a national flag, an emblem of the faith. And the graduation ceremony is a very big deal — dressing the girls in white gowns and laurels as a female chorale sings the praise of virtuous women.

What a difference from feminism of the 1960s and ’70s in the West. Women’s rights activists here felt the need to reject religion, or at least the parts of it that they perceived was hurting their rights. In proto-feminist circles of Syria, women want it all: the roots of their faith and the opportunity to learn.

It’s all lovely, but in Syria it may be doomed. A postscript to the film notes the uprising that started in spring 2011. A year later, Houda and her family fled Syria, and the school closed. Light in someone’s eyes can be beautiful, but it’s also fragile.

Besides the rundate, The Light in Her Eyes will be available for streaming on the PBS website from July 20 to Aug. 19.

James D. Davis

Written by Jim Davis

July 10, 2012 at 4:30 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

Our shared spiritual heritage

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Did you know there’s an Irish burial mound that goes back to 3200 B.C. — perhaps older than the Egyptian pyramids and the Indus Valley cities?

Statue of Gudea, a Sumerian governor from the third millennium B.C.E. From Allan T. Kohl and AICT.

Statue of Gudea, a Sumerian governor from the third millennium B.C.E. From Allan T. Kohl and AICT.

And a temple complex on Malta that’s just as old?

And a figurine from Turkey of a mother goddess, as old as 5750 B.C.E.?

I didn’t know all that either, until I found Art Images for College Teaching, which has dozens of pictures for free downloading. It’s the work of Allan T. Kohl, an art historian in Minneapolis, who amazingly shot all the photos himself.

My favorite parts are the ancient and prehistoric galleries. They have some expected things, like the bust of the Egyptian Queen Nefertiti and the bull sphinxes of Assyria. Also the marvelous blue Ishtar Gate, restored at the Pergamon Museum, Berlin, with its alternating rows of bulls and dragons.

But they also have lesser-known treasures, like a wealth of burial mounds and settlements across western Europe. Plus a sitting mother figure from Catal Hoyuk, Anatolia — going back as far as the seventh millennium B.C.E. Also a Minoan bull altar and murals by the Etruscans, who preceded the Latins in Italy.

One drawback of this otherwise wonderful site is the lack of info on what we’re looking at. Kohl typically names the object, its location and date, and where it is now. Nothing more on, say, the Sumerians or the people of the prehistoric Orkney Islands. Kohl does, however, supply a list of scholarly works you can hit to check it out yourself.

And just as amazingly, Kohl says he’ll let anyone download the photos free, for educational purposes.

Written by Jim Davis

August 25, 2009 at 4:37 am

Film review: ‘The Third Jihad’

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Want to get scared out of your wits? Watch The Third Jihad.

Want a balanced picture of Islam? You’ll have to look elsewhere.

The 72-minute documentary, being booked for screenings around the U.S., is produced by the same team that did Obsession: Radical Islam’s War Against the West back in 2005. But instead of worldwide radical Islam, The Third Jihad focuses on western Europe and America.

The title is drawn from three waves of conquest: the Arab spread throughout the Middle East and northern Africa in the seventh century, then the Turkish push into Constantinople and southeastern Europe in the 15th century, then the so-called final phase aimed at the U.S. and western Europe.

There’s a token disclaimer at the start: that the film is not about Islam, but “the threat of radical Islam,” only a small percentage of the world’s Muslims. But with those few seconds done with, The Third Jihad leaps to the 2004 case of Russian Muslim rebels who blew up 300 hostages, including 156 schoolchildren.

And it doesn’t let up for the next 70 minutes or so. With the low-key narrative voice of Dr. M. Zuhdi Jasser — himself a Muslim and U.S. Navy veteran — The Third Jihad says, over and over, that they’re out to get minaret03, 72dpi us.

The well-produced video shows how some radical elements have implanted themselves in England and the United States, setting up mosques, establishing neighborhoods and trying to intimidate opponents. It damns Islam’s record for women’s rights and says Sharia, Islamic law, creates “human rights disasters.” It asks what would happen if groups like Al-Qaida got their hands on a nuclear bomb, or if a nuclear power like Pakistan fell to radical Muslims.

Much of the footage is indeed scary. Angry mobs raise fists and shout slogans. Preteen children, armed and hooded like their elders, vow to become “martyrs.” Scowling, bearded, turbaned preachers jab fingers as they forecast the worldwide rule of Islam.

It scary also because it’s the same track taken by Red Scare purveyors in the 1950s. And by church leaders talking about the “new age” in the 1980s. And by religious right ministers who told horror stories about gay activists in the 1990s. They’re not like us. They hate our values. They’ve infiltrated positions of influence. And they’re close to winning.

The sourcing for The Third Jihad is likewise biased. It includes the likes of Tawfik Hamid, a former terrorist. And Walid Phares, a Maronite Christian from Lebanon. And Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who has been threatened with murder for denouncing militants in her former home of Holland. Their feelings toward Islam are totally understandable.

But are they the only voices? What of more moderate ones like Khaleel Mohammed, Irshad Manji and Aisha Musa — people who take totally different approaches to Islamic teaching?

And what of countervailing streams in Islam? There’s nothing on the moderate Sufis and Gulenists, as well as the more relaxed faith in Indonesia. Nothing of the anti-radical writings of Muslims in Syria, Egypt and the United Kingdom — writings readily available from the Middle East Media Research Institute.

Finally, the program doesn’t account for the mutual distrust among many Muslim lands — especially among Turks, Arabs and Iranians.

No, the Islamic world is not a united bloc against western values. The threats posed in The Third Jihad are real — at least, many of them are. But it’s not a simple cultural war between East and West. It’s a battle for the soul and definition of Islam. It’s a war between the radicals and the rest of us — Muslims and others.

The Third Jihad does offer some commonsense actions. Learn more about radical Islam. Get America off foreign oil (although we actually import little from the Middle East these days). Elect Congressmen who will be firm against militants. Demand more human rights in Islamic countries. Prod American Muslim groups to take a stand against imposing Sharia.

It would have been nice to add: Don’t scapegoat your Muslim neighbors for what others do. They are targets as much as you are. Make common cause against your common foes.

Written by Jim Davis

July 1, 2009 at 4:31 am

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