Author Archives: Lindsey Bridwell

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Moving On

Rabbi Karol Sidon stepped down as Prague's chief rabbi amid  reports about his love life. (Provided)

Rabbi Karol Sidon stepped down as Prague’s chief rabbi amid reports about his love life.
(Provided)

PRAGUE — When the novel “Altschul’s Method” hit the shelves in Czech bookstores in March, it was hailed as a brilliant political and psychological thriller combining elements of science fiction, alternate history and Jewish mysticism.

But it became a true literary sensation when it was revealed a week later that the book’s supposed author, Chaim Cigan, was a pseudonym for Karol Sidon, the longtime chief rabbi of Prague.

Sidon had explained that he was writing under a pseudonym mainly to draw a distinction between his literary work and his duties for Prague’s Jewish community.

“Such writing does not befit a rabbi,” he told a Czech news website.

“Being a rabbi has its limits,” Sidon explained in the interview. “I won’t lie; I wanted to quit some time ago, and it will happen sooner or later.”

But it was more than a passion for literature that led Sidon to step down as chief rabbi in June, earlier than he had planned.

His resignation came amid reports that he had separated from his third wife and become engaged to one of his former conversion students.

Sidon’s departure marks the end of an era for the Prague Jewish community. The first post-communist chief rabbi of Prague, Sidon, a former dissident, symbolized the revival of Czech Jewry following decades in which religion was suppressed.

“His arrival at the post was crucial for the community,” said Charles Wiener, a former executive director of the Prague Jewish community who lives in Geneva, Switzerland. “All institutions in then-Czechoslovakia were in the shadow of communism and collaboration, and suddenly someone came who had not been collaborating but was in fact thrown out of the country by the communist authorities.”

But Sidon leaves behind a divided community struggling to overcome a conflict in which he played a prominent role.

The combination of a generational gap, religious disagreements, accusations of cronyism and personality conflicts contributed to intra-communal tensions during his tenure. A decade ago, Sidon was even removed from his post when a new communal leadership took charge, only to be reinstated when his allies regained control of the community.

In the wake of Sidon’s resignation, his friends have been notably quiet. Sidon and several other community leaders declined interview requests.

Jakub Roth, 41, who served as the Prague Jewish community’s deputy chair between 2005 and 2008 and has been a Sidon supporter, said the rabbi’s resignation had long been anticipated. But he would not comment on the circumstances surrounding Sidon’s decision.

Prague Jewish leaders have chosen Rabbi David Peter, 38, to succeed Sidon. A native of Prague, Peter is an Orthodox rabbi who returned to the Czech capital in 2011 after 13 years of studies in Israel.

Sidon also asked for an unpaid six-month leave from his duties in the largely ceremonial position as chief rabbi of the Czech Republic. The head of the country’s Federation of Jewish Communities, Petr Papousek, said that Sidon would return to the post after his hiatus.

Sidon, who just turned 72, is known for his scholarly demeanor and biting sense of humor. An Orthodox Jew, he focused much of his energy on encouraging greater religious observance among Prague’s largely secular Jews, who are estimated to number some 6,000, though only about 1,800 are officially registered as community members.

Sidon’s tenure has seen the growth of a small but active traditionally observant segment of the city’s Jewish community. But Sidon also has accumulated critics during his more than two decades in office.

Sylvie Wittmann, the founder of a liberal Prague Jewish congregation, Bejt Simcha, who sits on the Prague Jewish community board, believes it would make sense if Sidon retired from his rabbinical duties altogether.

“If he’s embarked on a new life, literary or private, he should pursue it,” she said. “We should thank him for his efforts. He did what he could. But a self-searching, three-times-divorced, egocentric man cannot really be considered a serious figure respected by his community or a good rabbi.”

Sidon became the chief rabbi of both Prague and Czechoslovakia in 1992, less than three years after the fall of communism in what was then Czechoslovakia. A respected writer and ally of Czech dissident and future president Vaclav Havel, Sidon had lived in exile in Germany, where he studied at the College of Jewish Studies in Heidelberg.

By 1990, Sidon’s fellow dissidents and intellectuals had replaced discredited communist-era officials at the Jewish community and asked him to take over the rabbinate. He agreed, going on to study at the Ariel Institute in Jerusalem and to be ordained as an Orthodox rabbi before finally returning to Prague.

Sidon’s path to Judaism was not straightforward. The son of a Christian mother and a Jewish father who was murdered in the Terezin concentration camp in 1944, Sidon formally converted to Judaism in 1978. At that time he found himself under immense pressure from the secret police after signing the Czechoslovakian human rights manifesto Charter 77.

“What made me want to convert was my experience with the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia and with Charter 77,” Sidon told the Terezin Initiative Newsletter in 2005. “To put it short, I realized that I had a soul, and my commitment to God emerged from that.”

Although Sidon only adopted Orthodox Judaism during his rabbinical studies in Israel, his strategy for reviving the Prague Jewish community after four decades of communism consisted of focusing on observance of halachah, or Jewish religious law, and building up religious life.

In the eyes of the public, Sidon soon became the symbol of a new chapter in the life of Czech Jews and of their opposition to communism. But his approach met with opposition from some community members.

“He pushed us into an Orthodox box, which drove many people away,” Michaela Vidlakova, a Holocaust survivor and a longtime community member, said.

Sidon clashed with more religiously liberal Prague Jews who wanted communal recognition of non-Orthodox congregations and of those who had Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers.

Eventually, the community offered those who traced their Jewish identities only from their fathers what was called “extraordinary” membership in 2003, without the possibility of running for leadership positions. By that time, however, controversies over control of the real estate-rich community’s finances and other issues had raised tensions between Sidon and supporters of Tomas Jelinek, who was elected community chairman in 2001.

In 2004, Jelinek moved to oust Sidon as Prague chief rabbi, alleging that he had failed to carry out his duties.

“He wasn’t able to groom a successor, there were always problems with kosher food at the community and scores of other things,” Jelinek said.

Jelinek appointed Rabbi Manis Barash, a representative of the U.S.-based Chabad Hasidic movement, to take over Prague’s famed Altneu Synagogue. But in November of that year, Jelinek suffered a staggering defeat in a communal vote that eventually resulted in him being removed as leader.

Emotions continued to run high for several months. In April 2005, members of the Sidon and Barash minyans had a fistfight during Shabbat prayers at the Altneu Synagogue.

A year-and-a-half after his initial ouster, Sidon was reinstated as Prague’s chief rabbi.

Since then, the community has become more pluralistic, with several liberal leaders having been elected to the board. At the same time, a number of people have left to form their own group, the Jewish Liberal Union.

Sidon had been planning to retire in the fall, but on June 23 the Prague Jewish community suddenly announced he would be stepping down, citing his age.

The announcement came a day after a Czech Jewish blog run by Jelinek reported that Sidon had separated from his wife and was in a new relationship.

Sidon’s critics circulated a rumor that the Prague beit din, or rabbinical court, ordered him to step down. But the court’s chair, Rabbi Noah Landsberg, who lives in Israel, said that Sidon himself offered to step down.

“He sent me a letter some time ago and said he had some personal problems, and he also mentioned his age. The court agreed,” Landsberg said.

Sidon’s successor will be following a rabbi who has left a large mark on the Prague community.

During his term as Prague chief rabbi, Sidon has translated a number of religious texts into Czech, including the Pentateuch, a Haggadah, a siddur and a machzor. He also played a major role in establishing the Lauder School of Prague, which combines kindergarten, elementary and high school, enrolling some 150 students.

“Rabbi Sidon has made the community more visible and played an important role in establishing very good relations with the country’s new democratic governments,” said Alena Heitlinger, the Czech-born, Canada-based author of “In the Shadows of the Holocaust and Communism: Czech and Slovak Jews Since 1945.”

But she added that his focus on Orthodoxy has left those who are not Jewish according to halachah not feeling completely welcome.

“It is still an issue,” Heitlinger said.

Wiener, however, said that Sidon should not be blamed for disappointing some of the more liberal members of the community.

“The problem was on their side rather than his,” he said, “because as an Orthodox rabbi, he could not have really behaved differently.”

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Timeless: Love, Morgenthau and Me

090514_mishmash-bookBy Lucinda Franks
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 390 pages

If opposites attract, it’s little wonder that recovering radical Lucinda Franks and respected and feared district attorney Robert Morgenthau — poster children for May-December marriage — cling to each other as if welded.

They met in 1973 during an interview. She was 26, a Christian Vassar grad, lively and talkative. He was 53, a gaunt, quiet Jewish widower, father of five and part of New York society.

He got her an interview at The New York Times, which hired her; began giving her news tips; and in 1976, asked her to a party at former JFK adviser Arthur Schlesinger’s home. Love blossomed.

Franks, who had poured pigs’ blood over draft-office files and chained herself to the White House fence, once was “a young woman in a state of rage. I hated my country.” Morgenthau, son of FDR’s treasury secretary, was a World War II naval officer awarded two Bronze stars for bravery and a former U.S. attorney whose 1974 election as New York County’s D.A. put in office a prosecutor whose reach and fame would become international. He supported helping the poor, pursued justice no matter the pressure and vigorously opposed the death penalty.

“Timeless” is like an extended conversation, hard to put down, and frequently providing insightful paragraphs and lovely sentences and turns of phrase.

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A Liberal Defense

Texas Gov. Rick Perry seems confident about the outcome of the indictment against him for abusing the power of his office.  (REUTERS/Brian Snyder)

Texas Gov. Rick Perry seems confident about the outcome of the indictment against him for abusing the power of his office.
(REUTERS/Brian Snyder)

Proudly flaunting the list of liberal pundits who have criticized his recent indictment on two felony charges, Rick Perry, the staunchly pro-Israel Texas governor and likely GOP presidential candidate, blasted the Obama administration’s foreign policy in the Middle East Aug. 21 in front of an audience of policy wonks and journalists more interested in his legal predicament than the topic he was originally scheduled to discuss.

Although Perry was booked to speak about the crisis on the United States’ border with Mexico by the Washington, D.C.-based conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation, the governor spent the majority of his speech criticizing President Barack Obama’s handling of Middle East issues and criticized the president’s actions against the militant jihadist group the Islamic State (IS), formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

Yet, with his recent indictment, Perry spent some time satisfying the audiences’ curiosity on how he feels about the legal situation in which he now finds himself.

“There are a few public officials in Travis County who have taken issue with an exercise of my constitutional veto authority. These are, fundamentally, principles that are very important — namely a governor’s power to veto legislation and funding and the right of free speech,” said Perry enthusiastically, knowing that the majority of the audience was supporting him. “I am very confident in my case, and I can assure you that I will fight this attack on our system of government; and with my fellow citizens, both Republicans and Democrats, I aim to defend our Constitution and stand up for the rule of law in the state of Texas.”

On Aug. 15, a Texas grand jury decided to indict Perry, charging him with abusing the power of his office for his well-publicized attempts to force District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg, a Democrat and head of the Travis County public integrity unit, to resign from her position following an April 2013 drunk driving arrest for which she pleaded guilty.

Following Lehmberg’s arrest for driving three times over the legal alcohol limit and brief jail stay — from which a video surfaced of Lehmberg’s belligerent behavior toward police — Perry requested that she resign her position. Upon her refusal, Perry threatened and then followed through on defunding her office, exercising his line-item veto powers to cut $7.5 million of the state government’s share of the unit’s budget.

The charges against Perry would mean five to 99 years in prison if convicted. Yet, the governor appears confident and unconcerned — even playful. A mug shot that went viral last month shows the governor smirking. After posing for the shot at the Travis County Sheriff’s office, Perry went out for ice cream.

Perry’s confidence stems in large part from the outpouring of support he has since received — from his usual supporters, but more importantly from a number of prominent liberal politicos, pundits, legal scholars and publications.

“When David Axelrod, Lanny Davis, Alan Dershowitz, Jonathan Chait all say that this is ‘sketchy,’ ‘outrageous,’ ‘totalitarian’ and ‘McCarthy-ite,’ I agree with them,” said Perry to laughter and applause from the audience. “And that’s just on the Democratic side of the aisle!”

The surprise outpouring from prominent liberals in support of the governor has been essential in forming the public’s perception of the case. On Aug. 18, the editorial board of The New York Times, a common target of Republicans, denounced the pettiness of the charges against Perry despite slamming him for his political positions.

Dershowitz, a prominent Harvard law professor, critic of conservative policies and politicians, had even harsher words about the indictment in an interview with the right-leaning publication, Newsmax.

“The two statutes under which he was indicted are reminiscent of the old Soviet Union — you know, abuse of authority,” Dershowitz told the publication.

Dershowitz pointed out that the unit Lehmberg ran was also responsible for convicting former GOP Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) in 2010 for campaign finance irregularities — something Dershowitz called an “outrage.” DeLay’s conviction was overturned in 2013 by an appellate court.

With the indictment, Perry joins two other national Republican politicians considered likely contenders for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination — New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, involved in an investigation into politically motivated lane closures on the George Washington bridge between New Jersey and New York City, and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who is being investigated on accusations of illegal campaign coordination with outside political groups.

“I think this indictment is a shandah! They’ve always said you can indict a tuna fish sandwich,” said prominent Texas businessman and Republican political donor Fred Zeidman, who has known Perry since
before he became governor. “There is absolutely no reason for it. I’m not a lawyer, but I’m not even sure they’re felonies that he arguably committed.”

From the moment the news broke, Zeidman thought that the indictment would backfire on the Democrats who are supporting it, mentioning that in most circles, especially among conservatives, Perry’s popularity appears to be growing as a result of the case.

“This won’t hurt him at all [politically] I don’t think,” Zeidman said. “In retrospect it’s going to cost [the state] a bunch of money.”

However, Zeidman suggested being careful because of the risk that something new might yet come out during a trial.

Caution is well advised, says Texas trial attorney and prominent Democratic donor, Marc Stanley.

“I generally have faith in the system. I haven’t seen the evidence that the grand jury has, and I’ve got to believe they wouldn’t have indicted him if there wasn’t something there,” said Stanley, adding that as long as Lehmberg’s drunk driving conviction went through the proper legal channels, it should be irrelevant to whether she is able to hold her position.

“We react to 30-second sound bites instead of looking at the evidence that the special prosecutor, a Republican, and the grand jury looked at,” said Stanley. “I think that’s probably more telling than the sound bites that we’ve seen.”

A measure of suspicion exists as to the governor’s motive to defund Lehmberg’s office in addition to her drunk driving conviction. Lehmberg was elected by the mostly Democratic Travis County voters, and her unit is tasked with investigating officials in public office, who are mostly Republicans, since they have a supermajority in the Texas legislature.

Although no candidate has yet officially announced his or her intention to run in the 2016 primaries, Perry has been one of a handful of national-level politicians considered likely to run and, during the past several months, has been a common sight on national media outlets.

During this time, he has visited and spoken favorably about Israel, even telling a New York Times Magazine reporter “I’m more Jewish than you think I am.”

“He’s had this incredible passion for Israel,” Zeidman said. “He understands Israel —what it is and what it stands for, and that Israel is America’s only friend in the Middle East; and he was passionate about it when it meant nothing for him.”

Zeidman recalled that when Perry was Texas agriculture commissioner in the early 1990s, before he was considering national office, Perry used his office’s discretionary funds to subsidize the state’s Texas-Israel Exchange program after the legislature cut its share of the funding.

The Texas-Israel Exchange was a program jointly funded by Texas and the Israeli government focused on facilitating exchange and investment in Texas with Israeli technology.

“For him to cut into his own discretionary budget to fund something the state of Texas has cut, I think goes to show the depth of his belief in [Israel],” said Zeidman.

Perry’s efforts appear focused on revamping his national image after a disastrous performance in the 2012 GOP primaries. Perry, then considered the great Republican hope by many in the party, entered the race late but catapulted into the lead within days.

Just as fast as he peaked in early primary polls, a slew of disastrous debate performances led him to lose favorability and exit the race.

This time around, Perry looks to have changed the perception of him as a free-wheeling cowboy, into something close to an intellectual well studied in policy.

“He’s doing the things he’s doing now so that hopefully that [unsuccessful campaign] won’t be the case again,” Zeidman said.

dshapiro@washingtonjewishweek.com
JNS.org contributed to this story.

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Goodman

090514_miles-GoodmanMelanie (Hamet) and David Goodman of Owings Mills are delighted to announce the birth of their daughter, Layla Rose, on July 12, 2014.

Layla is named in loving memory of her grandfathers, Harry Hamet and Karl Goodman, and her paternal great-grandmother, Rose Goodman. Overjoyed grandmothers are Lucille Hamet-Attia of Baltimore and Chava Goodman of Herzliya, Israel. Proud great-grandmother is Rosa Sheffer of Herzliya, Israel.

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Trailblazing Cheese Whiz Preps Special Holiday Fare

090514_mishmashIf you’re going to Brent Delman’s home in the New York City suburb of Yonkers on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, don’t expect to see the typical meat menu.

Delman and his physician wife, Patricia, plan to host a dairy lunch on the first day that features casseroles and quiches. The meal also will feature a cheese tasting with tropical fruits such as guava, dates and figs.

The sharpness of the cheeses and the sweetness of the fruits make a delicious combination, he said.

What do you expect from someone who dubs himself “The Cheese Guy”?

Delman has plans too for the holiday’s most symbolic food.

“When you drizzle honey over the cheese,” he said, “it’s just a beautiful combination.”

Delman, 51, will be using cheeses he ages in his cheese cellar three steps below ground in his home in Yonkers, which borders the Bronx.

He has 300 wheels and blocks of such varieties as havarti, provolone, cheddar, Swiss, Gouda, Pecorino Romano and several variations of parmesan. With the High Holidays approaching, Delman is preparing a line of brie that he considers ideal for Yom Kippur break-fasts, when eager eaters look for what to slather on their bagels.

The cheeses he ages are certified kosher by the Orthodox Union. Those he cures in such solutions as oil, beer and wine are not yet OU-certified.