(JTA) — Was this, at last, a good week for the Jews and President Donald Trump?
Compared to the Trump administration’s initial few weeks, maybe. The president’s first month saw the White House omit Jews from a statement commemorating the Holocaust, then rebuke Jewish groups that criticized the statement and stay silent as waves of hoax bomb threats hit Jewish community centers. Last week, Trump shut down a Jewish reporter asking a polite question on anti-Semitism. The day before, he began responding to a question on anti-Semitism by boasting about his election victory.
But starting with a specific if belated condemnation of Jew hatred on Tuesday, a number of statements and actions by Trump and his associates served to calm Jews who fear a growing specter of anti-Semitism on the right.
Days after angrily shutting down a Jewish journalist who asked about the administration’s plans to counter a spike in anti-Semitism, the president gave his critics what they had been seeking: a specific condemnation of anti-Semitism.
“Anti-Semitism is horrible and it’s going to stop, and it has to stop,” he said Tuesday, the day after the fourth wave of JCC bomb threats in five weeks.
In prepared remarks he delivered that day at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Trump said “The anti-Semitic threats targeting our Jewish community and our Jewish community centers are horrible, are painful and they are a reminder of the work that still must be done to root out hate and prejudice and evil.”
The next day, Vice President Mike Pence gave succor to Jews looking for more than words from the administration. Visiting a vandalized Jewish graveyard outside St. Louis, Pence rolled up his sleeves and spent a few minutes clearing away branches and raking the cemetery.
“There is no place in America for hatred, prejudice or anti-Semitism,” Pence said, literally speaking through a megaphone.
But most concerns from Jews about anti-Semitism have been more about Trump’s supporters than the man himself — from tweeters spewing deluges of white supremacist hate to the (as of now) anonymous criminals phoning in bomb threats and knocking over headstones. Right after Election Day, the Anti-Defamation League blamed “the contentious tone from the 2016 election” and said “extremists and their online supporters” have been “emboldened by the notion that their anti-Semitic and racists views are becoming mainstream.”
But there were signs this week that Trump’s anti-Semitic supporters haven’t infected the Republican Party mainstream. At CPAC, the premier annual confab for political conservatives, attendees raucously cheered Trump — a man they once distrusted — and also made moves to exclude anti-Semitism from their movement.
A Thursday session was dedicated to bashing the “alt-right,” a loose far-right movement that includes anti-Semites and white supremacists, and affirming that it wasn’t part of conservative ideology.
“There is a sinister organization that is trying to worm its way into our ranks,” said Dan Schneider, executive director of the American Conservative Union, which runs CPAC. “They are anti-Semites. They are racists.”
Richard Spencer, a leading white supremacist who showed up at the conference uninvited, was kicked out of CPAC after holding court with reporters.
Jewish concerns haven’t been completely assuaged. At CPAC, Trump adviser Stephen Bannon, who used to run Breitbart, a news website favored by the alt-right, denounced the “corporatist, globalist media,” using a phrase that evokes anti-Semitic tropes of Jews as an internationalist fifth column.
Jewish groups mostly praised the Trump condemnation of anti-Semitism, and especially Pence’s words and actions at the St. Louis cemetery. But nearly all urged the president to follow up with concrete plans for monitoring and combating anti-Semitism. The ADL is circulating a petition imploring Attorney General Jeff Sessions to take “immediate actions that will curb anti-Semitic threats and all hate crimes in our schools and communities.”
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo suggested how that might be done, announcing on Thursday that the state is committing $25 million for safety and security upgrades at Jewish schools and other institutions at risk of hate crimes or attacks. In thanking Cuomo in a tweet, the ADL’s regional director, Evan Bernstein, called it an “ideal example of what an elected official can do: Speak out, have a plan & commit resources to problem.”
Now that the administration seems to have found its voice, the Jewish mainstream is looking for action.
Without subterfuge, he would never have gotten close enough to the former soccer boss Sepp Blatter to shower him with fake dollar bills as he did during a 2015 news conference to protest Blatter’s alleged corruption.
Nor would Brodkin, a London Jew who often performs as Lee Nelson, have been able to gain the access necessary to disrupt Kanye West’s concert that year in Glastonbury by jumping on stage with him.
And he certainly wouldn’t have been able to crawl under a Volkswagen car during an auto show presentation last year in Geneva while wearing a company uniform to install what he explained in German-accented English was a “cheat box” — a reference to the scandal around the firm’s use of doctored software to fake emission readings from some of its vehicles.
But Brodkin needed a whole new level of chicanery for his latest and most elaborate prank yet: Secretly filming himself nearly making it as a contestant on “Britain’s Got Talent” by pretending at auditions to be an orphaned, patriotic rabbi who liked to rap but wasn’t very good at it. His goal, as he described it: Prove once and for all that it is a “contrived,” shallow show that is not about talent at all.
Before reconnecting to his Jewish roots for the prank, Brodkin worked out a formula that he hoped would help him sail through the audition process even though he has neither interest in rapping nor any apparent talent for it. All he needed, Brodkin said, was a sob story, an unexpected act and a patriotic message.
If you have those, then “whatever rubbish you perform for the judges, they will tell you it was the most incredible performance they have ever seen,” he said in a documentary about the prank aired on a British television station earlier this month.
“Without that hype, the millions of viewers watching as home just might start to notice just how devoid of talent the acts actually are,” he added.
In January 2016, wearing a fake beard and side locks and presenting himself as Steven Goldblatt, Brodkin used a hollowed-out boom box to film himself advancing from interview to interview, and from audition to audition, with a half-baked routine comprising patriotic clichés.
Brodkin planned to blow his cover – and that of “Britain’s Got Talent” – during a live show, when producers couldn’t edit out his own unmasking upon receiving praise for what he calls his “crappy routine.”
But after reaping praises from the four-judge panel at the final audition in London, a production assistant finally recognized Brodkin, which kept him off the air.
The weeklong deception required Brodkin not only to channel his inner Orthodox Jew, but also to devote much more time and effort than he initially had allotted for the project, he said.
“This was more a long con thing, which I hadn’t attempted before, so rather than just in and out, which is normally the thing I do, I wanted to see whether I can get in, get undercover, and last for as long as possible,” he explained on the documentary shown on Channel 4.
Impersonating a member of the haredi community, which is hardly known for partaking in popular culture in Britain, allowed Brodkin to stand out among the other contestants, he explained.
“Us Jews are not particularly renowned for rapping,” he said.
Brodkin especially wanted to gain praise from Simon Cowell, the highly critical (and at times nasty) panelist best known to American audiences as the take-no-prisoners judge on the talent competition shows “American Idol,” “The X Factor” and “America’s Got Talent.”
Cowell “sets himself up as the man who cannot be duped,” Brodkin said. “I want him to look at me in the eye and tell me just how wonderful my terrible act is.”
Brodkin got his wish after he delivered his routine draped in the U.K. flag, which he filmed despite a warning that security will “break any camera” used by contestants.
His rap name-dropped William Shakespeare and Winston Churchill and included bland assertions like “British sky is gray, British countryside’s green, as for British skin color, there are thousands I’ve seen.” Continuing to play the diversity card, he also recited: “Tolerance and acceptance for Muslim, Sikh or Jew, I’m so proud, I’m so proud of the red, white and blue.”
The panelists ate up the elementary school-level performance, including Cowell.
“That was great, Steven, makes you feel proud to be British,” he said. “I feel it could be a new national anthem.”
Cowell said he “wouldn’t have imagined” that Brodkin’s alter ego would be able to deliver such a performance, but when the song started, “you turned into 50 Cent.”
Though he didn’t make it on the show, Brodkin still thinks he proved his point.
“I did get four yeses from the judges,” he said, “having put on a not-very-talented act.”
(JTA) — Physicist Mildred Dresselhaus, the daughter of impoverished Polish Jewish immigrants whose pioneering research into the thermal and electrical properties of carbon earned her the nickname “Queen of Carbon,” has died.
Dresselhaus, who also was an advocate for women in science fields, died Monday at 86.
Her research was foundational to the field called nanoscience, in which matter is manipulated at an atomic and molecular level. Her pioneering work earned her the $1 million Kavli Prize in Nanoscience in 2012, the National Medal of Science, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and IEEE Medal of Honor, the highest award of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.
Dresselhaus had gained wider fame in recent weeks with her starring role in a television commercial promoting General Electric’s efforts to promote women in science. The commercial, titled “What If Scientists Were Celebrities?” imagines a world in which young girls dress up as Dresselhaus, glossy magazines feature her on their covers and gossip columns keep tabs on her comings and goings.
Abbi Jacobson, the Jewish actress who stars in “Broad City,” appears briefly in the ad as a Dresselhaus fan.
Dresselhaus, nee Mildred Spiewak, was born in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn in 1930 and grew up in the Bronx.
“The Bronx, I remember, was a very poor neighborhood, but that was all that immigrants could afford at that time,” she recalled in a 2013 interview. “Life was tough. I grew up — my father didn’t have a job, but there weren’t too many people who did have jobs.”
The prestigious Bronx High School of Science was not open to girls in her day, so she attended the selective Hunter College High School in Manhattan. She received a bachelor’s degree in 1951 from Hunter College, where she took an elementary physics class with another daughter of Jewish immigrants, Rosalyn Yalow, a future Nobel laureate in medicine. Dresselhaus often said it was Yalow who pushed her to go down the path of science and physics at a time when educated women were expected to become secretaries, nurses or teachers.
Dresselhaus went on to earn a master’s degree from Radcliffe College and a doctorate from the University of Chicago.
Two years after her marriage to fellow physicist Gene Dresselhaus in 1958, both were offered faculty positions at MIT. In 1968 she became a professor at MIT, where her research led to advances in carbon-based materials used in solid-state electronics.
As early as the mid-1970s she became a public advocate for women in engineering and science, and mentored countless young women during her time at MIT. Later in her career, MIT named her institute professor emerita, its highest distinction, and she continued teaching and researching until shortly before she died.
“I’ve been lucky,” she said in 2013. “I’ve been at a place that’s a meritocracy. It doesn’t really matter that much what your gender is if you do the work well. I think women benefit from being in places and having positions where the quality of work is the criteria, not what you look like. Not every place is like that.”
Dresselhaus is survived by her husband, their four children and five grandchildren.
MONTREAL (JTA) — Igor Sadikov, the student politician who called on his Twitter followers to “punch a Zionist today,” stepped down as a director of McGill University’s student government one day after the university’s Arts Undergraduate Society voted against impeaching him.
The 22-year-old political science student blamed “interference” by the McGill administration, he said in a statement Thursday.
“My continued membership on the [Board of Directors] is, at this juncture, a legal liability for the Society,” he said in the statement.
Sadikov’s decision buoyed the spirits of pro-Israel students and Jewish organizations. The Twitter controversy continued to roil the campus for nearly three weeks, with the pro-Israel side saying Sadikov incited violence with his tweet while Sadikov characterized the controversy as a “misguided joke.”
Sadikov, who also is active in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel, has denied he is anti-Semitic, noting that his father is Jewish and his mother is half-Jewish.
“This is an important victory for Jewish and pro-Israel students and for tolerance in general at McGill,” said B’nai Brith Canada CEO Michael Mostyn.
Sadikov remains a member of the Student Society legislative council, but faces a March 9 council motion to remove him for “impropriety and for violation of the Constitution.”
Sadikov’s four-word tweet was posted on Feb. 6 and taken down three days later.
Sadikov later posted on Facebook: “I regret the way that I phrased my opposition to Zionism and the fact that some of my constituents and fellow students felt harmed by it.”
(JTA) — Purim is a dark story marked by a crazy party. I’m still unsure why a close brush with extermination became, in the Middle Ages, an opportunity for costumes and farce, but there you have it.
It’s the fifth century BCE, about a hundred years after the First Temple’s destruction. The Jews who were exiled to Babylon are now ruled by the Persian king Ahaseurus, who thinks highly of himself. In the city of Shushan, the king’s adviser, Haman, is a cruel Jew-hater. He hatches a plan to kill all the Jews and draws lots (“purim”) to pick the day it will happen, persuading Ahaseurus to go along.
A proclamation is made throughout the kingdom: On that day, all Jews shall be killed. A Jew named Mordechai entreats his cousin, the gorgeous Queen Esther, to prevent it by pleading for mercy with her husband the king.
Esther was married to Ahaseurus essentially against her will. He chose her out of a bevy of prospective wives at a banquet after banishing his then-wife, Vashti, who refused to display her beauty for his guests. (Some say she refused to dance naked.) Esther’s Jewish roots were kept secret when she married the king, so for her to now entreat her husband would mean exposing her Judaism — not to mention that in those days it was life threatening to approach the king without having been summoned.
Nevertheless, she plucks up the courage, successfully appeals to her husband and foils the massacre. The king kills Haman and his sons, and then, because the proclamation could not officially be canceled according to Persian law, the Jews can only defend themselves with a preemptive strike. Some say they took self-defense too far, slaughtering 75,000.
Purim’s modern observance, at least in Reform synagogues I’ve visited, does not focus on that brutal coda, highlighting instead the reenactment of cruel Haman and courageous Esther. The ritual is to read aloud the story from a scroll of parchment known as the megillah, which has the biblical book of Esther inscribed on it.
The narrative is then often theatricalized with wacky costumes in a play called a spiel — pronounced “shpeel.” Whenever Haman is mentioned during the satire, people “boo” vigorously or spin noisemakers, called groggers, to drown out his name.
Purim is, hands down, the biggest party of the Jewish year. Simchat Torah pales by comparison, with its sips of single malt. This is the Big Megillah (wordplay intended), and we’re supposed to get so trashed that we can’t tell the difference between Mordechai (good guy) and Haman (really bad).
I decide to sample some of the elaborate spiel-prep under way in New York City, so I spend an evening watching rehearsals at the Stephen Wise Synagogue on the Upper West Side of New York City, where congregant Norman Roth, 76, a retired accountant, has been writing and directing the shul’s spiel for the past three decades.
Some of his past triumphs line the stairway in colorful, theatrical show posters with titles like “Michael Jackson’s The Thriller Megiller,” “Les Mis — Les Me-gillah,” and “Oh What a Spiel — The Jersey Boys Megillah.” This year’s theme is Elvis. One of Roth’s lyrics riffs on “Blue Suede Shoes,” when the king tells Haman, “Don’t you step on my Shushan Jews.”
Roth takes great pride in his spiel scripts. And he points out that in his librettos, Haman never dies.
“We have very few men in the show, so we need Haman for the closing number. We never kill him off,” he says.
I ask Roth if it gives him pause to know he’s leaving out the real bloody end of the story — the 75,000 slain.
“I don’t think God really let that happen,” he says. “That’s human beings writing that story, not God.”
But it’s in the megillah, I point out.
“It’s not in my megillah,” Roth counters.
But my amusement is tempered when I remember I have to fast before this holiday.
It must be embroidered on a sampler somewhere: “Before Jews party, they should suffer.” The day before Purim is Taanit Esther, the Fast of Esther. This will be my fourth fast of the year, with two more to go.
Taanit Esther is not in the Bible, but was created by the rabbis in the eighth century. The fast springs from the book of Esther — in the Bible’s “Writings” section — when Esther decides to prepare herself to confront her husband by fasting for a day.
One Esther expert is Erica Brown, a Washington, D.C.-based author and educator.
“The thing that I most admire about the Esther story,” she tells me over the phone, “is its notion of the tests that are thrown at an individual and the way in which they transform themselves as a result.”
Brown continues: “Esther’s cousin, Mordechai, says to her, essentially, ‘How do you know you weren’t put in this position of royalty for exactly this moment?’ I would throw in the Sheryl Sandberg ‘Lean In’ way of looking at this, of initially having the insecurity to say, ‘I’m not the right person. I can’t do this for any number of reasons.’ You opt out of your own future. And then you have someone like Mordechai who says, ‘No, this is your time. Take advantage. Leap into that.’”
I think about the challenges I’ve avoided; the moments I’ve chickened out. A few come to mind, both large and quotidian: causes I didn’t fight for (gun control), people I haven’t aided (domestic-abuse victims and Rwandan refugees), articles I didn’t pitch (a long list), physical feats I avoided (parasailing).
But this holiday forces me to reflect on leadership — what it means to be thrust forward when that wasn’t your plan. Seven months earlier, I was asked by the current president of New York’s Central Synagogue if I would be interested in being considered to succeed him.
The very request left me choked up. The job is not only a tremendous honor, it’s also daunting and important. I love Central in a way I never expected to love an institution. I’ve seen how clergy can deepen daily life, how a synagogue community can anchor a family. But if you had asked me back in college, when I was focused on being an actor or writer, if I thought I’d end up as a shul president, I’d have said, “In what universe?”
Now this invitation feels like a blessing and a test: Can you do your part to guide a place that has challenged and changed you? Obviously, being a board president isn’t comparable to Esther’s assignment. But Judaism is always asking us to apply epic stories to everyday decisions.
I say yes to Central’s president and yes to Esther’s fast, even though it’s another holiday that few around me observe.
“The joy of victory in her story is so much more colorful, rich and deep when you participate in the suffering,” Brown says. “The joy that I experience every Purim is heightened by the fact that I’ve fasted and I’ve tried to put myself in that moment of risk — leadership risk — that Esther took all those years ago because so much pivoted on that one individual.”
I love Brown’s term “leadership risk” because as I get older, I’ve come to see how those words are conjoined. Trying to lead is risky, but then so is not trying. Despite my mother’s feminist inculcation, I often worry that people will see audacity in my saying “I’m up to the task.” Esther reminds me to stop apologizing for myself and get on with it.
Then again, she was saving lives, which is a little more pressing.
(Adapted from Abigail Pogrebin’s “My Jewish Year: 18 Holidays, One Wondering Jew” [Fig Tree Books], in which journalist Pogrebrin documents an immersive, highly personal exploration of the Jewish calendar.)