Bibi, Barack Part Amiably as Chilly US-Israel Relations Thaw

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with President Barack Obama during their meeting at a New York City hotel on Sept. 21. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with President Barack Obama during their meeting at a New York City hotel on Sept. 21. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

When President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met for what was likely to be the last time as leaders of their countries, the most  important thing they said was “see you soon.”

Netanyahu’s invitation to Obama to visit Israel post-presidency augured a thaw in U.S.-Israel relations, which was also seen in remarks by Israel’s diplomatic corps and signals from the pro-Israel lobby.

Their friendly, relaxed interaction was in marked contrast to meetings like the one in 2011, when after Obama called for talks based on 1967 lines, Netanyahu lectured the American president in the Oval Office about Middle Eastern realities and Obama clutched the arm of his elegant chair seemingly to keep himself from decking the Israeli leader.

Much of their chatter this time, at least in the open part of the meeting Sept. 21 in New York on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly, was about Netanyahu’s invitation to Obama and Obama’s ostensible eagerness to accept it.

More saliently, Netanyahu made it clear he understood the transformational impact that the country’s first black president would have on the American left and on Democrats, and how important it was to Israel to restore and burnish ties with that political sector.

“Your voice, your influential voice will be heard for many decades, and I know you’ll continue to support Israel’s right to defend itself and its right to thrive as a Jewish state. So I want you to know, Barack, that you’ll always be a welcome guest in Israel,” Netanyahu said, and teased Obama about a  favorite pastime. “And by the way, I don’t play golf, but right next to my home in Caesarea in Israel there’s a terrific golf course.”

I will visit Israel often because it is a beautiful country with beautiful  people.” — President Barack Obama


Obama said he “very much appreciated” the invitation.

“I will visit Israel often because it is a beautiful country with beautiful people,” he said. “And Michelle and the girls, I think, resent that fact that I have not taken them on most of these trips. So they’re insisting that I do take them. Of course, they will appreciate the fact that the next time I visit Israel, I won’t have to sit in [bilateral meetings] but instead can enjoy the sights and sounds of a  remarkable country.”

Which is not to say the meeting was a Seinfeldian one, about nothing. Reports said the closed meeting saw more sparring between the two men on Israeli settlement building — although in his public  remarks, Obama also acknowledged that the issue was one that would soon be out of his control and that Netanyahu had the upper hand.

“Obviously, I’m only going be to be president for another few months,” he said. “The prime minister will be there quite a bit longer and our hope will be that in these conversations we get a sense of how  Israel sees the next few years, what the opportunities are and what the challenges are in order to assure that we keep alive the possibility of a stable, secure Israel at peace with its neighbors, and a Palestinian homeland that meets the  aspirations of their people.”

In his speech the day before at the United Nations, Obama mentioned the Israeli-Palestinian impasse in passing, and notably blamed Palestinian  incitement as much as he did Israel’s settlement policy.

It was anti-climactic after months of fevered speculation in Israel and the pro-Israel community that Obama would in his last month’s launch a new major initiative on the issue, possibly through a U.N. Security Council resolution outlining the parameters of a final status two-state agreement.

That’s an approach Netanyahu abhors, warning the General Assembly in his own speech there Thursday, “We will not accept any attempt by the U.N. to dictate terms to Israel. The road to peace runs through Jerusalem and Ramallah, not through New York.”

On the eve of Obama’s speech, 88 U.S. senators urged the president to veto any “one-sided” Security Council resolutions and to generally avoid pressing for peace talks absent an initiative by the Israelis. The letter was shaped by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a pro-Israel lobby.

 Your voice, your influential voice will be heard for many decades.” — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to President Barack Obama


The back and forth on Wednesday between Obama and Netanyahu was extraordinary in and of itself after eight years of a relationship that more often than not was fraught.

Think back to past tense  relations between U.S. and  Israeli leaders: It’s hard to imagine Menachem Begin asking Jimmy Carter as he packed up the White House to come walk in Jesus’ steps in the Galilee, or Yitzhak Shamir telling George H.W. Bush how relaxing the Dead Sea mud can be.

Making nice with Obama is a key element of Netanyahu’s bid to keep Democrats pro-Israel.

Ron Dermer, the Israeli  ambassador to Washington and one of Netanyahu’s most trusted advisers, said as much last week just before Israel and the United States signed a  defense assistance agreement that guarantees Israel $38  billion over the next 10 years.

Dermer welcomed the agreement by referring to tensions between Israel and Obama — and more broadly, Democrats — over last year’s Iran nuclear deal, which Israel opposed.

“Despite not seeing eye to eye on Iran, this speaks to the strength and power” of the  relationship, Dermer said of Obama’s backing of the assistance agreement. “The fact he’s signing it means we’ll have the backing of the entire American people … the broadest possible support.”

Dermer, meanwhile, has plunged himself into cultivating black Democrats, who saw Netanyahu’s March 2015 speech to Congress lambasting Obama’s Iran policy as a deep signal of disrespect to the president.

More broadly, Israel and the mainstream pro-Israel community are nowhere near as eager to assist Republicans in isolating and embarrassing Obama as they were a year ago, when Netanyahu and AIPAC led opposition to the Iran deal.

Republican senators, however, are still itching for a fight: They introduced legislation in the wake of the defense assistance agreement that would upend the agreement’s clause that requires Israel to return any extra money Congress  allocates for the next two years. That clause shrinks the role Congress plays in supporting Israel and shaping U.S.-Israel relations.

One the sponsors, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), talked up the bill at the Orthodox Union’s annual leadership meeting on Wednesday. Another senator, Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), went  so far as to say he would “rescind” the defense assistance memorandum of understanding.

Israel and AIPAC do not want any part of it. Jacob Nagel, the Israeli national  security adviser who signed the defense assistance agreement, last week said he was aware of Graham’s plans — and that Israeli officials had made clear to the senator that they opposed them.

“Senator Graham is one of the greatest supporters of  Israel in Congress,” Nagel said, “but everyone who spoke with him said it was not a good idea. Israel is a country that honors its agreements.”

AIPAC, notably, had not taken a position on Graham’s legislation, which was also backed by six other Republican senators: Mark Kirk of Illinois; Ted Cruz of Texas; Marco Rubio of Florida; Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire; John  McCain of Arizona, and Roy Blunt of Missouri.

Asked about the bill, AIPAC’s spokesman, Marshall Wittmann, said advancing bipartisan  legislation was key.

“While we have not taken a position on this specific bill, we strongly support security assistance and missile defense funding for Israel and reauthorization of the Iran Sanctions Act,” he said. “We urge Congress to work on a bipartisan basis to achieve these crucial objectives.”

The letter from the 88 senators, as much as its aim was to urge Obama not to allow the Palestinians to get ahead of themselves, also included language that Democrats favored, including a reference to a future “Palestine” and a two-state solution.

An AIPAC insider said the language was deliberate and part of the effort to bring  Democrats on board. It was also enough to drive away key pro-Israel Republicans who refused to sign, among them Cruz, Rubio, Cotton and Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.).

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), speaking to foreign policy  reporters, said that AIPAC and others in the pro-Israel community were moving on from the tensions stoked by disagreement over Iran.

“They understand the backlash is when you make support for Israel a wedge partisan issue,” said Cardin, one of just four Democratic senators who opposed the deal.

ADL’s Greenblatt Embraces Controversy, Bemoans Rancor in Community

(JTA/Courtesy Anti-Defamation League))

(JTA/Courtesy Anti-Defamation League))

Anti-Defamation League (ADL) national director Jonathan Greenblatt, coming off an inaugural year after the retirement of longtime leader Abraham Foxman, is not afraid to call the prime minister of Israel out in an international forum.

The same can be said for embracing causes that, on their face, are not inherently “Jewish.”

But whereas some may point to the Obama administration alum’s propensity to speak his mind — even at the expense of Benjamin Netanyahu — as indicative of a new tack for the 103-year-old Jewish organization, Greenblatt himself sees it as part and parcel of what the ADL has always done: advocate on behalf of the Jewish people and their homeland.

“The ADL, throughout its history, has been an ardent advocate for the State of Israel,” Greenblatt said during an interview last week. “In the year I’ve been here, we’ve been out in front, again and again, advocating … with the U.S. government, with foreign governments.

“From time to time, we’ve called out specific policies of the government,” he added. “That happened under the watch of my predecessor, and that’s happened under my watch. Calling out a policy in no way represents a break in our policy of being an ardent advocate.”

Greenblatt, an entrepreneur who went on to the White House as director of the Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation, recently penned a piece for Foreign Policy that questioned the logic behind the release of a video by the  Israeli prime minister’s office. In it, Netanyahu equates the Palestinian demand for no  Israeli settlers to remain in a future Palestinian state with “ethnic cleansing.”

Greenblatt called the tactic raising “an inappropriate straw man regarding Palestinian policy toward Israeli settlements” and wrote that considering settlers’ wishes to extend Israeli sovereignty and protection to their communities, their presence would not be compatible with a sovereign Palestinian state. The critique dovetailed with the objections of the U.S. State  Department, which slammed Netanyahu’s video.

The Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), a frequent critic of the ADL, chose to criticize the Obama administration instead. It released a news release quoting ZOA  national president Morton A. Klein as saying, “The Obama administration is ignoring the scandalous, racist [Palestinian Authority] demand for a Jew-free Palestinian state. The  Israeli prime minister is right that this demand is outrageous and the international toleration of it no less outrageous.”

In many cases, though, the ZOA reserves its most pointed criticism for the ADL and Greenblatt, accusing him and the organization of, among other things, backing the Black Lives Matter movement despite that movement’s embrace of Palestinian positions.

In a news release invoking Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s characterization of some of his contemporary early 20th-century Jews as “political simpletons,” Klein called ADL educational materials on civil rights, race relations and police powers the “epitome of foolishness.”

For his part, Greenblatt shies away from direct criticisms of leaders of other Jewish organizations, although he did refer to the ZOA in a JTA interview last month.

“We’re a civil rights organization. The ZOA is not,” he said. “We’re an organization focused on combating anti-Semitism and bigotry. The ZOA is not. They’ve been doing this [criticizing us] for over 20 years, so you can draw your own conclusions.”

In his interview last week, Greenblatt vowed to “not criticize other Jewish leaders on the left or the right.”

“I won’t do it,” he said.

Greenblatt acknowledges a new dynamic in Jewish communal dialogue. That includes the apparent readiness of  traditional Israel defenders in the United States to go on record in opposition to Israeli policies or the tenor of debate surrounding such issues as last year’s Iran nuclear deal and the Memorandum of Understanding signed last week.

The historic agreement guarantees Israel $3.8 billion in military aid annually for 10 years, but some in the community have accused the deal of not going far enough.

“I am surprised and troubled by the degree of rancor inside the community,” Greenblatt said. “You saw this around the Iran deal, which I did not support. … All in all, it’s really troubling.”

Now that the Iran deal is a reality, he contended, the community can and must find points of agreement.

“Whether people supported the deal or opposed the deal, for us, what was true then is even more true now: Iran is one of the most anti-Semitic, anti-American illiberal regimes in the world.

“They are the single-largest state sponsor of terror in the world,” he continued, and “continue to propagate hate against Israel like no other country on the planet.”

But ensuring a strong and  secure Jewish state is far from Greenblatt’s only calling. When he speaks of the challenges Jews around the world face, he looks at the long arc of the Jewish people’s history and points out similarities between American anti-Semitism today, the European anti-Semitism of yesterday and the ongoing struggles of the civil rights movement.

The organization was founded around the same time as the lynching of Jewish American Leo Frank outside Atlanta, Greenblatt pointed out.

“The purpose … would be to stop the defamation of the Jewish people and secure justice and fair treatment for all.”

While the founding call is “to protect the Jewish people,” he explained, “our organizational mission is this dual approach [that includes] working to  secure civil rights and fair  treatment” for everyone.

A half century ago, the Ku Klux Klan burned crosses, he said.

“In 2016, they’re burning up Twitter.” Back then, “extremists were fielding independent marginal candidates; today, we have white supremacists openly supporting a presidential candidate. Fifty years ago, Jewish communities were recovering from the Shoah in Europe. Today those same Jewish communities are retreating from Europe because of fear.”

That, perhaps more than anything else, cements Greenblatt’s belief that while the world may look different in the 21st century, the hatred and inequality of 100, 1,000 and 5,000 years ago has neither changed nor diminished.

And although Greenblatt represents, in many ways, a departure from Foxman’s  almost three-decade tenure — “I’m the first Jonathan Greenblatt,” he said — he sees his own leadership as an evolution, a mere continuation of the ADL’s long fight.

“How do I harness that heritage as I stand on the shoulders of those who came before me?” he asked himself. “The Jewish people have always faced challenges. … The challenges looking ahead are increasingly complex [but] just as serious.”

Jewish Mothers Assemble to Connect with Heritage

More than 300 Jewish mothers attended the annual Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project Leadership Conference in College Park. (Daniel Schere)

More than 300 Jewish mothers attended the annual Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project Leadership Conference in College Park. (Daniel Schere)

The realization  of Israel’s wonders is a “life-changing experience” that has a ripple effect from generation to generation.

That was the universal message heard at many points by more than 300 Jewish women from nine countries who gathered at the College Park Marriott Hotel and Conference Center earlier last week for the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project’s annual leadership conference.  JWRP was started by eight women in 2008 as a way to help Jewish women from around the globe connect with their heritage, which they have done by sending them on weeklong trips to Israel throughout the year.

The three-day conference featured a number of speakers and discussions about how JWRP members and former trip participants can bring their experience to their home communities. This was especially apparent during Sept. 19’s breakout sessions in a lecture given by Zeev Ben-Shachar called “Empowering your children to be proud supporters of Israel.” Ben-Shachar is the  director of Israel education at the nonprofit organization Jerusalem U, which seeks to help young Jews learn about Israel through film.

“What’s at stake? Just as we make films, anti-Israel activists make films,” he said before showing a music video called “Freedom for Palestine” that was promoted by the band Coldplay and contains a number of anti-Israel lyrics.

“You see something like that or your child sees something like that and you have to ask, is it effective? Is it persuasive? Most of our children don’t have the answer to that,” he said.

Ben-Shachar then showed a chart of countries and their perception among members of the international community done about 10 years ago. Israel was at the bottom of the chart with a 56 percent unfavorable rating. He then showed a map of the Middle East that distorted Israel to be similar in size to its neighbors, which he said is due to the inaccurate perceptions people have about the country’s influence in the world.

“This is how it lives in the psyche of people,” he said.

Ben-Shachar noted many people, including children, do not bother to read entire news articles but simply look at the headlines, which he cautioned can be misleading due to the differences in the way some news organizations report  terrorist attacks overseas.

“When it happens in Paris or Istanbul it’s terrorism, when it happens in Israel it’s an  attack,” he said.

Ben-Shachar said the best way to teach children about the complexities of Israel is  to look at the big picture by explaining that it lies in an  unstable region of the world surrounded by conflict, noting that Jews are not the only ones facing persecution in the Middle East.

“Israel is an excuse for me to teach critical thinking skills, he said. “If you want to understand Israel you have to be able to zoom out. If we zoom out we can see the predicament of other minority groups. Look at Christians in the Middle East and see that their numbers are dwindling.”

The constant threat of violence has not been a deterrent for JWRP’s participants. Stephanie Blockson and Laura Wolf of Baltimore encountered a mildly scary situation on their trip in October 2015 — a period of escalated violence during the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The group was at their hotel and suddenly noticed a group of anti-Israel protesters across the street, yet they weren’t fazed, Wolf said.

“We all kind of stopped and were like, ‘Should we be scared? Are they violent? We weren’t really sure what to do and  before we all knew it, I looked up at the head of our group and all of our armed guards were dancing and singing ‘Am Yisrael Chai’ and they had an Israeli flag and all of a sudden all of the JWRP women were singing and completely overpowered the protesters,” she said. “It was just one of those moments that wasn’t even planned on the trip.”

Wolf and Blockson said the trip taught them a good deal about what it means to be a Jewish woman. They were  recruited to go on last year’s trip by friends and are now trying to do the same.

“For the trip that’s coming up in December I referred three women and all three of them were chosen for the trip,” Blockson said. “I try to talk about it all the time, and actually when I got back last year, someone said, ‘I want to meet for coffee. Tell me about your trip because I’m thinking about it.’”

Randi Sadugor, a July 2015 trip participant, said she too had a Zen-like experience in Israel when she was in Tzvat and realized that it was “OK to take time for yourself and prepare for your week or your night.” The trip inspired her to become more active with the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington.

“I have since then become involved in the Federation, and I’m getting involved in promoting JWRP,” she said.

One of the conferences highlights occurred on the final day, Sept. 20, when Rachel Fraenkel received one of the Pamela Claman Leadership Awards. Fraenkel’s son, Naftali, was one of three Israeli teenagers kidnapped and killed by Hamas terrorists in 2014 during Operation Protective Edge. She has since  become involved with JWRP as one of its trip speakers.

“For me, unity is feeling connected and remembering we are an extended family,” she told the conference via satellite feed. “In a family, you don’t have to like everyone all the time. Liking is a very personal choice, but love is different. Love is about commitment and responsibility, knowing I would do anything for you and remembering that deep down inside we are family, we are connected.”

In an interview with the Baltimore Jewish Times, Fraenkel said she usually speaks toward the end of the trip and can tell the women are at an emotional high.

“The one thing that’s really extraordinary is that these are people in the middle of their lives who have families. It’s not some kind of blank slate, like, how do you go from here,” she said.

Fraenkel said the support from Jews all over the world has been “unbelievable,” and she hopes the magic of Israel will be felt by women from “a variety of walks of Jewish life.”

Fraenkel said two years after her son’s death, she still hurts but is doing all she can to stay positive.

“The doors and the windows are wide open, and I try to keep perspectives with new experiences,” she said. “My mantra is that I can feel pain, I don’t have to become my pain. There are so many other colors and experiences.”

Obama’s $38B Aid Package to Israel Comes with Caveats: It’s Generous, But On His Terms

Jacob Nagel, Israel’s acting national security adviser, signs a Memorandum of Understanding for $38 billion of U.S. defense   assistance over 10 years with Undersecretary of State Tom Shannon. (Embassy of Israel)

Jacob Nagel, Israel’s acting national security adviser, signs a Memorandum of Understanding for $38 billion of U.S. defense
assistance over 10 years with Undersecretary of State Tom Shannon. (Embassy of Israel)

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama’s near parting gift to Israel, a guarantee of $38 billion in defense assistance over a decade, distills into a single document what he’s been saying throughout eight fraught years: I have your back, but on my terms.

The agreement signed Sept. 14 in the State Department’s Treaty Room increases assistance for Israel over the prior Memorandum of Understanding signed in 2007 under the George W. Bush administration and guaranteeing Israel $31 billion over 10 years.

But it also substantially shrinks the role Congress plays in a critical forum shaping  U.S.-Israel relations, defense  assistance, and in so doing  diminishes the influence of the mainstream pro-Israel community, a sector that at times has been an irritant to Obama.

Wrapped into the $38 billion memorandum is $5 billion in missile defense funding, with clauses placing tough restrictions on Israel’s ability to ask for supplements from Congress.

Under Obama and Bush, that’s been an arena where the pro-Israel lobby has flexed its muscle over the last decade or so, consistently asking Congress for multiples of the missile  defense appropriations requested by each president — and getting it.

“The MOU as it’s constructed seems to obviate the need for Congress’ traditional role in recent years,” said Jonathan Schanzer, the vice president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “What this means is that the relationship between Congress and Israel will have to evolve. Members of Congress feel they are being pushed out of a role that they relish.”

Democrats in Congress praised the deal unequivocally, but Republicans had caveats.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., the chairwoman of the U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee for the Middle East, led passage of a congressional resolution urging an  extension of the defense assistance — coincidentally, just hours after the sides announced a deal was in the offing on Monday. Ros-Lehtinen said she intended to subject the agreement to  congressional scrutiny.

“It is important for Congress to conduct its oversight authority and examine the MOU closely in order to ensure that this agreement is mutually beneficial and meets the needs of both the U.S. and Israel,” she said in a statement.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee’s subcommittee dispensing foreign aid, was infuriated by the arrangement.

“We can’t have the executive branch dictating what the legislative branch will do for a decade based on an agreement we are not a party to,” he told The Washington Post this week, and pledged to push more funds for Israel through Congress.

Jacob Nagel, the acting  Israeli national security adviser who led talks ahead of the agreement, told reporters on Wednesday, before the formal signing, that the Israelis had asked Graham to back off.

“Senator Graham is one of the greatest supporters of  Israel in Congress,” he said. “But everyone who spoke with him” on Israel’s team in the talks “said it was not a good idea — Israel is a country that honors its agreements.”

Indeed, written into the agreement is Israel’s pledge to return to the U.S. government any extra monies that Congress approves on top of the memorandum before it kicks in, October 2018. There is an exception for requests for emergency assistance in the event of “major conflicts,” and Nagel noted that the Obama administration has provided such additional assistance quickly.

There are other rollbacks in the deal demanded by Obama and his team, headed by Susan Rice, the national security  adviser. Israel is currently the only country allowed to spend some of its defense assistance — up to 26 percent — on its own defense industries. That will be phased to zero by the end of the agreement, and all funding will be spent on U.S. suppliers and contractors.

Obama resented having to deal with intercessors in Congress and in parts of the  pro-Israel community over his two terms when he clashed with Israel on critical issues like Israeli-Palestinian peace and the Iran nuclear deal.

Pitching the Iran deal in an August 2015 speech at American University, he referred derisively to critics who called the deal a “historic mistake,” assailing their “credibility.” Republicans in Congress and officials at  the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC understood that they were the targets.

Those wounds were not  entirely healed, as evidenced by Rice’s comments at the signing. The memorandum, the Iran deal and the 2013-14 Obama administration push for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal were all part of the same commitment “to Israel’s security over the long term,” Rice said. Left unsaid was how unhappy Israel was with both initiatives.

Just months before Obama leaves office, the memorandum narrows the spectrum of the U.S.-Israel relationship to the two countries’ executive branches, a posture that could benefit Hillary Clinton, whom Obama hopes will succeed him as president. Clinton’s presidential campaign praised the deal.

“The agreement will help solidify and chart a course for the U.S.-Israeli defense relationship in the 21st century as we face a range of common challenges, from Iran’s destabilizing activities to the threats from ISIS and radical jihadism, and efforts to delegitimize  Israel on the world stage,” the campaign’s statement said.

A JTA request for comment on the memorandum from the campaign of Donald Trump, the Republican presidential nominee, was not answered.

Ron Dermer, the Israeli  ambassador to Washington who helped shape the agreement, said Obama’s imprimatur made it clear that the relationship had the backing of the U.S. political spectrum following two years of tensions between the government of Prime Minister Benjamin  Netanyahu and the Obama administration.

“It shows that the strength of the relationship is in being able to weather disagreements,” Dermer said.

Alan Solow, a longtime Obama backer and a past chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said the deal should make it clear that Obama, contra his critics, always valued the relationship and the strategic assets Israel brought to it.

“This shows why making Iran a litmus test was wrong,” Solow said in an interview. “Here you have a prime minister and a president who disagreed quite strongly on the correctness and impact of the Iran deal, and yet they are able to reach a highly significant historical agreement on U.S. aid and Israel’s security.”

The group that was at the forefront of the Iran battle,  the American Israel Public  Affairs Committee, lauded the agreement.

“We commend President Obama and his administration for forging this landmark agreement,” AIPAC said. “It demonstrates America’s strong and unwavering commitment to Israel.”

Jonathan Greenblatt, the Anti-Defamation League CEO who attended the signing, said the stability of the agreement in a volatile Middle East outweighed whatever political price pro-Israel groups might pay.

“We have surging Islamic radicalism, we have an expansionist and hostile Iran,” he said. “We have a degree of dislocation and suffering we haven’t seen since the Second World War. Rather than try to game this, who’s up who’s down, who’s in, who’s out, what’s  important is that this locks down a commitment that will persist not just with this administration, but the next one and the administration after that.”

Donkey Redemption Is Rare Ritual in Judaism

The Beirig family’s donkey was adorned with a serape and jewelry on its walk to the podium. (Lori Samlin Miller)

The Beirig family’s donkey was adorned with a serape and jewelry on its walk to the podium. (Lori Samlin Miller)

CHERRY HILL, N.J. — The Torah is specific when it  describes what a Jew should do about his first fruits, his first harvest and his firstborn male children. Is it any wonder that it is equally precise about what to do about a firstborn donkey?

Such was the subject of a rare mitzvah performed last Sunday, with 300 people gathering on the lawn behind the Torah Links synagogue in Cherry Hill, N.J., to witness a pidyon petter chamor — literally,  redemption of a donkey’s first issue — ceremony. As the crowd spilled over onto the parking lot that sunny afternoon, participants pondered the significance of a ritual that was likely practiced often thousands of years ago, but in the Western world, according to a survey of news reports, has happened only a handful of times in recent memory. (One report from JTA concerned the redeeming of a donkey in Australia in 2009.)

“This is a mitzvah that I suspect 99.9 percent of the people here will witness for the first time today,” said Rabbi Yisroel Tzvi Serebrowski, founder and director of Torah Links of South Jersey.

Discussed in the Torah in three locations, the mitzvah known as pidyon petter chamor applies to the firstborn male issue of a Jewish-owned donkey, which retains a level of holiness and is therefore forbidden to be used for work. The  redemption is designed to transfer the holiness to another  animal, such as a cow, goat or sheep, so that the donkey can be used for work. The other animal used in the transfer is then given to a Kohen, or member of the Jewish priestly class, who typically eats it.

The ceremony is similar in its rationale to the redemption of a firstborn male child known as a pidyon haben — in which a month-old baby is  redeemed with five silver coins that are given to a Kohen — as well as the fact that other firstborn domesticated animals were sacrificed in the First and Second Temples because of their acquired holiness. Tradition ascribes the acquiring of holiness in such cases to the fact that firstborn Egyptians and the firstborn of their flocks and herds perished during the Ten Plagues.

The donkey is the only nonkosher animal whose firstborn male is born holy and must be redeemed.

Outside the Jewish world, the idea of redeeming a donkey may sound strange, but according to Rabbi Bernard Rothman, rabbi emeritus of Congregation Sons of Israel in Cherry Hill, “this is a very great and wonderful opportunity” to fulfill a divine command.

It was suggested by Rabbi Yerachmiel Milstein, who came from Lakewood, N.J., for the event — and echoed by the dozen or more rabbis who were on hand — that the mitzvah is exciting because it is so rarely seen today.

“It carries with it the opportunity to recall our gratitude to God for everything he has done for us, all the blessings he gives us, and all that he will do for us in the future,” Milstein said.

The donkey is the only  nonkosher animal whose firstborn male is born holy and must be redeemed.


With so few Jewish farmers living near urban areas,  opportunities to participate in the ritual — let alone the knowledge of what to many is an arcane concept — are few.

“A few years ago, I purchased some goats and baby lambs and a set of very young donkeys that were less than a year old, and I bought them to live and graze on our property,” recalled Danny Bierig, a partner in Bierig Brothers, a family-owned kosher slaughterhouse in Vineland, N.J., that operates under the supervision of the Baltimore-based Star K kosher certification agency.

“Apparently, the rabbis who work as the schochtim — the ritual slaughterers who work with us — had been watching the donkeys with some amount of curiosity as to what was going to happen, especially when the female became pregnant,” Michael Bierig, Danny’s brother explained. “When she gave birth to a firstborn male donkey, one of the rabbis  explained that there was a mitzvah we needed to do so the baby donkey could be  redeemed.”

The family decided to perform the ritual in Cherry Hill.

“This allowed us to share the mitzvah with everyone in the community,” Bierig said.

“Let’s face it,” said Sam Bierig, Danny and Michael’s father, “who knows when  another opportunity like this will come along?”

Not only did the Bierigs bring along their baby male donkey for redemption, they also bought along a goat that was just one week old to use in the redemption ceremony.

After several speeches from invited rabbis, Serebrowski  invoked a moment of silence in honor of the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. The Bierig donkey and a goat were then brought in.

As the donkey brayed quietly behind 200 seated guests and in front of the standing-room-only overflowing crowd, Michael Bierig and his two oldest sons, Ethan and Jonah, prepared to the walk the donkey to the podium. Bierig placed a colorful serape and jewelry on the donkey’s back and led it through the audience on a leash. Ethan carried the goat in his arms.

Jake Bierig said a blessing over the donkey, while Ethan gave the goat to Rabbi Yitzchok Kahan, director of Chabad of Medford, N.J., the ceremony’s Kohen. Kahan said a blessing that roughly translates to, “You have given me this goat in place of this donkey. In this merit, may you receive many blessings.”

The donkey will remain at the Bierigs’ Vineland facility with its parents, where, according to Danny Bierig, “it can graze and play to its heart’s content.” At last check, the goat was still living there too.

Lori Samlin Miller is a freelance writer for the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia.

What’s a Republican Jew to Do?

Former White House speech writer Noam Neusner wrote an essay in the Forward, “How Republican Jews Utterly Failed To Prevent Rise of ‘Toxic’ Donald Trump.” (Photo compiliation using

Former White House speech writer Noam Neusner wrote an essay in the Forward, “How Republican Jews Utterly Failed To Prevent Rise of ‘Toxic’ Donald Trump.” (Photo compiliation using

Jews who vote Republican and make  national security both at home and in Israel their main issue every four years continue to wrestle with the question of the day: “Should I support Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump in his bid for the White House?”

Washington-area Republicans have struggled with the GOP candidate’s hostile rhetoric and violent threats toward Muslims, Latinos, women, the disabled, Jews and those who oppose him politically. That, plus his lack of experience, has made it impossible for many Republican Jews to support him.

Prominent Jewish Republicans, including Brookings Institute Fellow Robert Kagan and Wall Street Journal op-ed columnist Bret Stephens, have announced that they would vote for the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton.

Bill Kristol, founder of the Weekly Standard and the Emergency Committee for Israel, and Elliott Abrams, deputy national security adviser to President George W. Bush, say they will support neither.

This marks an exodus of support that  hasn’t been seen since Sen. Barry Goldwater’s 1964 Republican presidential campaign that ended in a landslide for President Lyndon B. Johnson.

Republican strategist Lee Cowen is part of that exodus.

Lee Cowen

Lee Cowen

“I think as Republican Jews we, along with a lot of the country, feel that the country needs stronger leadership. I think most Republican Jews are frustrated by the eight years of the Obama administration,” said Cowen, who has a consulting firm in Washington.

“But I just can’t support somebody who does and says so many egregious things,” he said, referring to Trump.

Cowen supported Ohio Gov. John Kasich in the Maryland primary and is considering voting for Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson in November.

“I’m a lifelong Republican and have supported many Republicans, but I  consider myself an American first and a Republican second,” he said.

Another potential Johnson supporter is former George W. Bush White House speechwriter Noam Neusner, who is also a member of the “Anyone but Trump and Clinton” camp. The two share something in common, he said.

“This is an unusual national election because neither candidate is reliably  pro-Israel,” he said.

In a March essay in the Forward, “How Republican Jews Utterly Failed To Prevent Rise of ‘Toxic’ Donald Trump,” Neusner sounded more dire: Trump “has built within our party the nearest thing America has ever seen to a European nativist working-class political movement.” he wrote. “Such movements, to put it mildly, have never been good for the Jews or allies of free thought and the free market.”

Noam Neusner

Noam Neusner

But in an interview this week, Neusner spoke as a political analyst. The election will be won in swing states, where as little as a five-point lead could make a difference, he said.

“The Jewish American vote in specific states and specific locations matters,” said Neusner, who lives in Maryland. “It doesn’t matter that much in Maryland, but it matters in Northern Virginia. Jewish  voters matter a great deal in Florida and Ohio.”

A poll of Florida voters by GBA Strategies gave Trump 23 percent of the vote to Clinton’s 66 percent. With upward of 500,000 Jews, Florida, has one of the largest concentrations of Jews of all the swing states.

But the poll also found that among Florida’s Orthodox Jews, the percentages were reversed, and those voters were not likely to change their minds.

“One thing is clear right now in terms of Jewish American loyalties, and that it’s the Orthodox have shifted to the right, and that’s the growth sector,” Neusner said.

To be sure, there are Jews who support Trump. The website, has been active for about a month and  includes the names of 1,000 Jews throughout the country.

Carol Greenwald, a Chevy Chase resident and activist, co-founded the site.

“When I told people at my synagogue [Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Potomac], they said, ‘This is going to be a very  exclusive club,’” she said.

Greenwald, who led a campaign to force the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington to end community funding of Theater J because of the plays it produced, said national security is her top priority, adding that Trump is not afraid to state openly that “Israel is an ally and that Islamic extremism is at war with us.”

An opponent of last year’s Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action to curb Iran’s nuclear weapons program, Greenwald said she shares with most Jews a wish for strong national security and support for Israel.

“So I find it incomprehensible that they’re not supporting Trump,” she said. “[Trump] recognizes the Iran deal is the worst  document the U.S. ever signed.”

Greenwald said she was a Democrat until the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, which changed her perspective.

“I was watching [writer] Susan Sontag about five days after the bombing being interviewed by some effusive reporter, and Sontag said we deserve this because we’re a colonial-imperial power. I thought, ‘No, we do not deserve this, and you don’t speak for me.’”

Security concerns are why Fairfax, Va., resident Joseph Gelman supports Trump. Gelman has lived in Israel on and off since age 10 and served in the Israel Defense Forces as a paratrooper during the first Lebanon War in the 1980s.

“The concept of deterrence in order to maintain peace is important,” he said, adding that Israel’s security should not be left to the United States, particularly the Democratic candidate.

“I think the Israelis are far better people than Hillary Clinton to decide what is best for Israeli security,” he said.

Gelman said he is not concerned about Trump’s lack of experience in politics. He thinks the country could use a break from career politicians like Clinton.

Lack of experience is “not something that I think is a negative necessarily,” he said. “People who commit their entire lives to politics are suspicious in many ways. It would be nice if some of these guys got a real job before they got a job in the Washington bubble. Maybe they would be able to relate better.”

But even for Jewish Republicans like Cowen and Neusner who oppose Trump, the businessman’s rise to the top of the ticket do not signal the end of their party. Many are looking ahead to a brighter 2020.

“It’s not the end of the world,” Cowen said. “If there was ever an election that seemed like the end of the world, this is it. But our party has bounced back from equally bad things.”

Catholic Priest Seeks Testimony of Holocaust’s Bystanders

Ryszard R., a witness, is featured on one of the exhibit panels. (© Markel Redondo/Yahad-In Unum)

Ryszard R., a witness, is featured on one of the exhibit panels. (© Markel Redondo/Yahad-In Unum)

Sometimes the  witnesses cry a lot, although they are old now, and their tears reflect memories going back seven decades.

They cry because they can recall in vivid detail their young Jewish classmates being shot and killed right before their eyes. They can remember their schools closing for the day, allowing them to join the rest of the villagers to watch the massacre as if it were a sporting event. They remember the names of their murdered neighbors, where they lived and where their bones now lie.

Sometimes, the witnesses don’t cry, though, because their own families were among the killers and stole the belongings of the dead.

Father Patrick Desbois (© Markel Redondo/Yahad-In Unum)

Father Patrick Desbois (© Markel Redondo/Yahad-In Unum)

But what Father Patrick Desbois hears most often from the witnesses as he travels through Eastern Europe with his teams of researchers, searching for testimonies as well as the mass graves of the Jews and Roma slaughtered by guns during the Holocaust, is, “Why did you come so late?”

“It’s like they’ve been waiting all these years to tell their story,” said Lauren Bairnsfather, executive director of the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh, which is hosting an  exhibit of the work of Desbois and Yahad-In Unum, the international organization he founded. It opened on Sept. 1 and runs through Sept. 26.

The exhibit is entitled “Holocaust by Bullets,” and  incorporates interview footage of several of the witnesses whose testimony Desbois has recorded, as well as panels with text and photos explaining his work.

The exhibit is not recommend for those younger than 14  because of its graphic nature.

Desbois’ research “is about the piece of the Holocaust that we don’t know much about,” Bairnsfather said. “And it’s chilling research.”

During the Nazi invasion of the former Soviet Union, all the Jews were systematically gathered together in each town, and then marched to the countryside where they would be shot in cold blood. That scenario is chilling enough, but perhaps equally alarming is the fact that thousands of non-Jewish townspeople would assemble at the killing sites to watch.

“It was a public spectacle,” Bairnsfather said.

For the last 12 years, Desbois, a French Roman Catholic priest, has made it his life’s mission to raise consciousness of the mass executions by Nazi killing units in Easter Europe during World War II. Through Yahad-In Unum, which he  established in 2004, Desbois and his team expose evidence of the slaughters, as well as raise awareness of current instances of genocide throughout the globe.

Jewish refugees were  executed on this site in the Krasnodar region of Russia. (© Markel Redondo/Yahad-In Unum)

Jewish refugees were executed on this site in the Krasnodar region of Russia. (© Markel Redondo/Yahad-In Unum)

Desbois’ team has interviewed more than 5,000 witnesses to the massacres of Jews and has helped give proper respect to the victims’ burial places and enable their preservation.

Desbois, who serves as head of the Commission for Relations with Judaism of the French Bishops’ Conference and as a consultant to the Vatican, also teaches at Georgetown University as an adjunct professor. He was featured in a “60 Minutes” segment on CBS last year.

Desbois first became aware of the  extent of the killings and mass graves in Eastern Europe while on a trip to Rava Ruska in Ukraine, where his grandfather had been held as a prisoner of war as a French soldier during World War II.

“He was deported to Ukraine in a German camp of Soviet prisoners,” Desbois said, speaking by phone from Paris. “He never spoke of the village called Rava Ruska. So one day I decided to go to Rava Ruska and I discovered that in that village they shot 18,000 Jews, and an unknown number of Gypsies, plus 25,000 prisoners, and nobody wanted to speak about nothing. So I came back, and back and back, until I found one of the mass graves of Rava Ruska, and it began like that.”

When Desbois discovered that those killings had been public and that some of the neighbors remembered them and were willing to talk about them, he formed a team to develop a methodology to record the testimonies.

Klara A., a witness,  is featured on one of the exhibit panels. (Aleksey Kassianov/Yahad-In Unum)

Klara A., a witness, is featured on one of the exhibit panels. (Aleksey Kassianov/Yahad-In Unum)

“In the old Soviet Union, the Germans killed the Jews and the Roma (Gypsies) in public,” he said. “And they’d bring everybody. The Germans killed them in public, and they organized it like a show. And even the schools were closed so that the children could go to see the killing of the Jews. So, in one village, I found 17 villagers who were still alive.”

Desbois’ team makes 17 trips a year to various towns in Russia, Poland, Ukraine and Azerbaijan and typically records the testimony of 40 to 50 witnesses on each trip. But the team now is “running against the clock,” Desbois said, as the witnesses are aging.

Yahad-In Unum has so far located the final resting places of 1.3 million Jews who were murdered by gunshot, but there is an estimated 1 million more that have not been found, and it is Desbois’ aim to do so.

The priest figures he has about four more years to record the eyewitness accounts and  to locate the remaining mass gravesites. Many were previously unmarked, but their location is still fresh in the minds of the witnesses.

“They never moved,” Desbois explained of the villagers. “They were born in the same house and will die in the same house, because in the former Soviet Union it was forbidden for farmers to move. So their landscape is the same. The same trees, the same roads, the same houses.”

Desbois expects that when his work is concluded, the number of Jews killed in the Holocaust will exceed 6 million because so many of those murdered in Eastern Europe were refugees from Germany and were not counted as Soviet Jews in the official death toll. Additionally, because it was legal for anyone to shoot Jews during that time, there were countless unofficial shootings, he said.

Emilija B., a witness, is featured on one of the exhibit panels. (Aleksey Kassianov/Yahad-In Unum)

Emilija B., a witness, is featured on one of the exhibit panels. (Aleksey Kassianov/Yahad-In Unum)

“It was a criminal adventure,” according to Desbois. “It was three years of free killing of Jews and Gypsies. It was legal. So anybody could kill them.”

Part of the work of Yahad-In Unum is to expose current-day genocides, and Desbois has already made six trips  to Sinjar, Iraq to record the testimony of survivors of the Islamic State mission to systematically murder the Yazidi people who lived there. He stressed the imperative of calling out Islamic extremism as genocide and drew parallels between the methodology of the Islamic State and that of the Nazis.

“There is a similarity between the way of killing of the Germans and the way of killing of the Islamists today,” Desbois said. “It’s the same practice.”

So far, he has interviewed more than 100 survivors of the Islamic State torture, and also has located several mass graves of those who could not.

“We are interviewing people who have been released less than 30 days,” he said, “so they remember exactly where they have been put in jail, where were the shootings, what were the names of the killers. It’s not the work for memory here, it’s the work for active justice,  because genocide is alive.”

He noted “the same human indifference” in the way the world is responding to the genocide of the Yazidi as it did to the genocide of the Jews.

“We must identify the  machine to denounce it and to explain the gravity of it,” Desbois said. “We have to denounce. We have to denounce radical Islam like we have to denounce Nazis. It’s not the same ideology, but it’s the same killing school. And we have to say it’s genocide, because people are trying to diminish the gravity. Like for the Jews, during the time it was like that, we said it was genocide when it was finished.”

Yahad-In Unum’s work has provided closure for many families of the lost victims of the Holocaust in Eastern Europe, Desbois said.

“Families write to us now and ask, ‘Which marked grave is my grandmother? Which one is my uncle, or the rabbi?’” he said.

“I have one person full time who works to reconnect families to their country. Many people finally go back there and say Kaddish for the first time.”

For more information on Yahad-In Unum or for help  locating the gravesite of a family member murdered in the massacres of Eastern Europe, go to

Toby Tabachnick writes for The Jewish Chronicle in Pittsburgh. She can be reached at

The Jewish ‘Jersey Boys’ Writers of the Baltimore-bound smash hit talk about the musical’s Jewish-Italian connection

Rick Elice (left) and Marshall Brickman (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Rick Elice (left) and Marshall Brickman (Photo by Joan Marcus)

If there’s one thing that our Italian cousins and we Jews share, it’s a needling sense of conscience. We’re each compelled by our own personal and shrill Jiminy Cricket forever prodding us to spill the beans. About ourselves, about our worldview, our foibles, what we wish we were and, inevitably, what we wish were not.

Whereas the prototypical Italian Catholic finds reprieve through private congress with an unseen priest, we Jews tend to accomplish the same via public confessionals … by way of making movies, television shows and, often, Broadway spectacles.

Which is why it should be of little surprise that two good Jewish boys from the hoighty-toighty Upper West Side of Manhattan would end up the chosen ones anointed to tell what has become one of the most salient representations of the Italian-American’s 20th-century experience, working-class Jersey-style.

“Aside from possibly speaking another language or believing that Jesus is the savior, do I feel something in common with the Italians? Of course I do,” said the first of the writers in question, Rick Elice.

Along with his sometimes writing partner Marshall Brickman, Elice penned the hit Broadway musical “Jersey Boys,” which won multiple Tony Awards when it first premiered in 2005 and which will be playing for the second time since its initial run in Baltimore at the Hippodrome Performing Arts Center from Tuesday, Sept. 27 through Sunday, Oct. 2.

“Jersey Boys,” adapted into a film (also written by Elice and Brickman) helmed by actor-cum-director Clint Eastwood in 2014, tells the unabashedly warts-and-all, rags-to-riches-to-rags story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, who found international success with such chart toppers as “Sherry,” “Walk Like a Man” and “Big Girls Don’t Cry” throughout the ’60s and ’70s.

Along with being “intensely family-oriented,” Elice suggested that what Brickman and he discovered in common with their background and those of the Four Seasons — four Italian toughs, some of whom served jail time before they were 30 — is “a real sense of ‘the other’ and having to fit into a larger society.”

“Jersey Boys” tells the story of the Four Seasons and features performances of their hits from the 1960s and ’70s. (Jeremy Daniel)

“Jersey Boys” tells the story of the Four Seasons and features performances of their hits from the 1960s and ’70s. (Jeremy Daniel)

“There’s the possibility in all of our backgrounds to have felt marginalized or disenfranchised at one time or another, being immigrants. Certainly that was true of the Jews, Italians, Irish, the blacks,” said Elice.

Even in the “great bastion of Judaism” that was New York City during the time he was growing up, Elice encountered anti-Semitism, something he still sees as prevalent today and that, he worries, may in fact be on the rise.

This shared, profoundly palpable sense of being “othered” made it easier for Brickman and Elice “to understand  another demographic’s sense of isolation.”

While Elice, 59, aligns himself with Conservative Judaism — in his teens he considered becoming a cantor and in fact heard the music of the Four Seasons for the first time at a Jewish summer camp — Brickman, 73,  refers to himself as “culturally Jewish.” A self-professing “red diaper baby” raised in what he calls a socialist home environment by his mother and union-organizer father, Brickman’s Jewish identity was one of “pride for our history” more than religious conviction.

His bar mitzvah, therefore, was “more an excuse to have a little bit of a coming-of-age ceremony” held in a hall his parents rented and to which were invited a few friends and relatives who watched as the young Brickman, in lieu of reading from the Torah, gave a short speech whose content he can’t today recall but was likely “something about peace in the world.”

Brickman asserted Elice’s and his dissimilar religious ethos “doesn’t preclude our being very close friends.”
The duo first met in the mid-’90s, courtesy a series  of auspicious circumstances revolving around mutual friends who included filmmaker Stanley Donen, writer Peter Stone and actor Roger Rees, Elice’s longtime domestic partner and husband-to-be who passed away in 2015.

It was some point around 2002 that Elice, working in  advertising and music promotion, received a call from an associate who had secured the rights to the Four Seasons’ catalogue. Elice thought it would be a wonderful idea: he loved Vivaldi.

“No,” the aspiring producer clarified. “Not that Four Seasons. The singer-songwriters behind ‘Rag Doll’ and other favorites.”

“Oh,” Elice countered. “Why?”

“To produce a musical based around the quartet’s songs. You know,” the fellow on the other end proceeded, “like the ABBA-based Broadway show ‘Mama Mia!’ that just came out to rave reviews and huge ticket sales.”

Elice balked at the concept. For one thing, he had no interest in writing a musical like “Mama Mia!” Someone else had already done that … and it was called “Mama Mia!”

There was also the problem that Elice had never written  a Broadway-bound musical. When the producer metaphorically and perhaps literally got down on his hands and knees to ask if Elice would at least  have lunch with principal songwriters Valli and Bob Gaudio, Elice asked, “Can I bring a friend?”

Brickman and Elice had been lackadaisically kicking around the notion of working together on a project, but they had been considering something along the lines of a film. Elice nevertheless rang his comrade in arms up and announced they were being tapped to  potentially write a musical about the Four Seasons.

Brickman’s immediate  response: “Why?”

The cast of “Jersey Boys” lines up to sing the hit “Walk Like a Man.” (Jeremy Daniel)

The cast of “Jersey Boys” lines up to sing the hit “Walk Like a Man.” (Jeremy Daniel)

Besides, Brickman reminded his friend, “I don’t know how to write a musical.” Elice conceded neither did he, but, “We’ll only be wasting our own time, they’re not gonna pay us anything, and if we screw it up, we screw it up. Maybe it’ll be fun.”

And, as Elice recalled, “That’s all it took.”

The fateful lunch with Valli and Gaudio would be a revelatory one. Brickman and Elice marveled at the many songs they hadn’t known were originally by the Four Seasons (and, it should be added, did lead to the selling of 175 million records). They also learned the unheralded story of the musical group that was so fascinating to the two that they couldn’t help but lean forward and ask why these astounding tales hadn’t been made public before.

It seems that while the Four Seasons had their fair share of hits and notoriety, as individuals they didn’t get many write-ups due to the mainstream press at the time’s zeroing in on contemporaries such as The Beatles and the bands of the British Invasion that, frankly, made for more popular headlines.

Of course, there was also a certain self-generated circumspection in talking with the press due to the Four Seasons’ checkered background. It was a different time back then, Valli and Gaudio reminded Brickman and Elice. That was back when brushes with the law tarnished one’s public image and career.

“So this true story turned out to not only be good, but untold,” Elice recalled. “And that’s really a mother lode for a writer. Marshall and I looked at each other and we knew. It was a eureka moment.”

Next came the unforgiving arctic glare of the blank page for two men who had never before done what they were about to do.

Though they were admittedly inexperienced at this particular form of artwork, they had one obvious ace in the hole: Brickman’s well-seasoned background in film, television and musical performance.
“Marshall would hate me saying this, but he was one of the ‘bold face names’ of the people I most aspired to be,” said Elice, audibly swooning on the other end of the phone about the “pleasure of meeting Marshall, someone who is like an icon,” the first time on what would be “a big day for me.”

Brickman “was and is a part of the cognoscenti, especially when one is an over-privileged, overeducated, Jewish, liberal, left-leaning New Yorker who wants to think of himself as a potential person of letters,” Elice said.

“Marshall is like a lion of the culture, and I’m just a kid who got lucky.”

Brickman would humbly disagree with Elice’s sentiment that “there is absolutely no equality in our stature at all,” reciprocating the seemingly lavish praise.

“He may say something different because Rick’s very generous in his evaluation of our relationship,” Brickman said, “but I never thought of him as a protégé. I thought really early on after meeting and working with him that he was a great, undiscovered talent. So smart, so bright, so funny, so knowledgeable, and he knew so much more about the machine and process of Broadway than I.”

The almost neurotically modest, if you will, Brickman sees himself as less a lion and more someone whose career was “all about making sure I never fell on my face.”

We had a great time and ended up writing ‘Jersey Boys’ very quickly. — Rick Elice

To better understand Elice’s pseudo-fanboyistic gushing, it’s necessary to realize Brickman’s career has been as culturally impactful as impressively protean; if anything, it’s been one of a continual fall upward, with such steps along the way as: playing on the ubiquitous version of “Dueling Banjos” incorporated into the 1972 film “Deliverance,” producing “The Dick Cavett Show,” working as head writer on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,” co-writing the pilot to “The Muppet Show” with Jim Henson and gigging with John and Michelle Phillips in their group the New Journeymen before Brickman “fled as though from a burning building” a year later with the Phillipses soon creating a subsequent project, the Mamas & the Papas.
And, of course, as anyone with even a cursory knowledge of contemporary film is aware, there’s ’60s folk-music-playing Brickman’s fortuitous sharing of management with an upstart comedian who at first baffled New York coffee shop audiences before honing his skills to become the Woody Allen we (think) we know of today, leading to a  series of collaborations between Brickman and Allen not limited to the Academy Awards’ Best Picture winner for 1977 and one of the most influential films of modern cinema, “Annie Hall.”

As he learned while working with Allen, Brickman found that “in every collaboration, there must be one side that is the ‘dominant force’ so that what comes out the other side has a semblance of elegance and consistency.” Here, the “lion of culture” confessed then that, yes, “there probably were times when Rick did defer to me.”

But it was always a healthy working relationship, the pair agree, with Elice stating that, “We had a great time and ended up writing “Jersey Boys” very quickly.”

The occasional disagreement would be easily salved by the underlining fact that, to Brickman, “when you have two people in a good working relationship who are sufficiently intelligent, the best idea usually wins.”

How this syllogism played out over the course of the writing could be illustrated by the distinct difference between Elice and Brickman in the employment of soi-disant sentimentality.

“Rick is by definition a much warmer and more open person than I, generally,” Brickman said. “And I tend to run screaming from sentimentality.”

Elice would bring to the table “a kind of warmth and emotion to the story of ‘Jersey Boys’ that I think really deepened it enormously and helped it to reach an audience on a different level than I would have been able to manage myself,” Brickman said.

Brickman’s incisive comedy-writing skills came in handy to “undercut” Elice’s more sympathetic moments to keep the overall framework relatively lambent and, ultimately, veiled with a humanistic humor that years of working with a master such as Allen helped manifest.

The “Jersey Boys” give it their all during a scene in the recording studio. (Jeremy Daniel)

The “Jersey Boys” give it their all during a scene in the recording studio. (Jeremy Daniel)

There was a scene early on in the writing process in which the characters of Valli and Gaudio were talking about going back out on the road again after a lacuna in their career. Valli confides in Gaudio that he’s nervous people might not like him anymore. In this earlier draft, Gaudio leans into Valli and encouragingly supports his fraternal friend, “This is your time.”

“Nuh-uh,” thought Brickman, who changed Gaudio’s line to an equally brotherly jibe more accurately depicting the true-to-life, complicated relationship of both the boys individually and fellow members of their social niche  generally: “Who says they ever liked you?”

As writers and artists themselves, Elice and Brickman know that where any story gets  interesting is in the conflict.  Including such counterpoint and, again, a “warts-and-all” version of the Four Seasons story was an essential component to the writers’ process.

There’s the possibility in all of our  backgrounds to have felt marginalized or  disenfranchised at one time or another, being immigrants. Certainly that was true of the Jews, Italians, Irish, the blacks.
— Rick Elice

When telling the life story of someone else (four someone else’s, at that), it can be a real tightrope walk. Contractually, Valli and Gaudio were given carte blanche to pull the plug if they didn’t like what they read or saw. Brickman revealed that early on in the creative process, there was a scene dealing with a woman who had had an affair with more than one of the quartet members.

“Oh, no,” Brickman said Valli pronounced, effectively knocking the scene onto the cutting room floor. “You can’t put that up on stage.”

“The impulse to include the warts in the story came from the fact that the warts is what made the story good,” Elice said. “As Marshall’s fond of putting it, you have these movie posters that say, ‘Based on a true story.’ With ‘Jersey Boys,’ we were able to say, ‘Based on a good story.’”

It’s this quality of the art beyond anything else that attracts Ron Legler, president of the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center in which the Hippodrome is housed, to the story and is why he’s proud to be bringing “Jersey Boys” to Baltimore.

“I think ‘Jersey Boys’ hit home on so many levels for me,” Legler said, fondly recalling his first seeing the show during its premiere run.

Legler is equally excited by the galvanizing of what he says is a relatively new core audience.

“So often, you have these shows specifically geared toward women,” Legler said. “This is the kind of show you could take a guy to who never has been to Broadway, and he’ll say, ‘Hey, that was a great show, and I could do that again!’”

Legler sees the match of “Jersey Boys” and Baltimore to be “perfect. There’s a lot of similarities between the people of that time and today in a drive to be better than you ever thought you could be.”

“There’s no doubt in my mind that in the future, you’ll see ‘Jersey Boys’ back on Broadway,” Legler said, referring to the Broadway production’s closing in January 2017. “It’s such a compelling story, and you can’t help but feel fantastic after  seeing it.”

‘Jersey Boys’ plays at the  Hippodrome Performing Arts Center, 12 N. Eutaw St.,  Baltimore, from Tuesday, Sept. 27 through Sunday,  Oct. 2. For more information and tickets, visit

To read more about Elice’s and  Brickman’s work with Woody Allen and Clint Eastwood, visit

5 Feel-Good Stories from Israel That Will Echo into the Jewish New Year

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Ethiopian President Mulatu Teshome watch lions at the presidential compound in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in July. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Ethiopian President Mulatu Teshome watch lions at the presidential compound in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in July. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

The Jewish state has nearly made it through another Jewish year and, as always, there was plenty to kvetch about in 5776.

But Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, is a time to take stock and celebrate.

Before the shofar blowing begins, here are five Israeli stories from the past year worth trumpeting. Expect them to echo into 5777 and beyond.

1. The Olympics Gave Israelis Reason to Hope

For Israel, the margin between Olympic disappointment and glory can be a single medal. The country came up empty in 2012, but two Israeli judokas grappled and leg-swept their way to bronze at the Rio games in August.

Their fellow citizens rejoiced: Waving flags and singing patriotic songs, hundreds thronged Ben Gurion Airport to give Yarden Gerbi and Or Sasson a hero’s welcome. The athletes were showered with flowers and hugs, and were immortalized by countless selfies. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu later met with the judo team.

The Olympics have special meaning in Israel, where everyone remembers the 1972 Munich massacre of 11 athletes and coaches by Palestinian  terrorists. The Rio games kicked off with Lebanese athletes  refusing to share a bus to the opening ceremony with the  Israeli delegation. And days before Sasson won his medal, a defeated Egyptian adversary pointedly refused to shake his hand. Israelis booed along with the crowd at the stadium.

Israel’s new medals brought the country’s total to nine since 1952.

Hoped-for windsurfing and rhythmic gymnastics successes proved elusive — and, as usual, some Israelis bemoaned inadequate national investment in the Olympics.

Yet, there were reasons to be buoyant. Seven Israelis made it to the finals in Rio, and the country competed in 17 sports, up from 10 in London, including three newer ones: golf, triathlon and mountain biking. Israel Olympic Committee CEO Gili Lustig has promised to do “some thinking” about improving Israel’s showing at Tokyo in 2020.

2. Israel Made New Friends in a Hostile World

As the Olympics reminded  Israelis, their country is unlikely to win any international popularity contests. But in the past year, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government managed to find some new friends and potential allies.

Israel and Turkey officially reconciled recently following a six-year falling-out over the Mavi Marmara affair. While the deal, signed in June, may not make the countries BFFs again, it should help them  cooperate amid the chaos of the Middle East. Exporting  Israel’s natural gas bounty and rebuilding the Gaza Strip are potential joint projects.

Meanwhile, the shared threats of Islamic extremism and Iran have brought Israel closer to the region’s Sunni Muslim states, even if those states are loath to admit it. Weeks after a telling handshake with Israel’s Foreign Ministry  director-general, Dore Gold, Saudi government adviser Anwar Eshki publicly led a Saudi delegation to Jerusalem. And Gold flew to Cairo to  reopen the Israeli Embassy there — four years after protesters stormed the building and forced its closure.

In an update of former Prime Minister Golda Meir’s Africa policy, Netanyahu toured the continent for four days in July. Offering Israeli high-tech and security know-how and seeking diplomatic support, he was received in country after country like the leader of a world power.

Looking east, Gold has said Israel is building new relations with Asia, and Chinese investment in Israeli companies and venture capital funds has reached record highs. Spurred by the civil war in Syria,  Netanyahu and Vladimir Putin are in regular contact, and the Russian president may be plotting an Israeli-Palestinian peace push of his own. Who isn’t?

3. Haredi Orthodox Men in Israel Rolled Up their Sleeves

A majority of Haredi Orthodox men in Israel have jobs. That may not seem worth blowing the shofar about, but it’s a first. Since officials started keeping track, most of the  demographic has been out of work.

In 2015, the workforce participation rate for Haredi men was 52 percent, part of a 12-year rise since the figure was 36 percent in 2003, Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics  reported in February. Haredi men in Israel have long preferred Torah study to work or army service, living off yeshiva stipends, state benefits and perhaps their wives’ salaries.

Haredi women are even better represented in the workforce at a rate of 73 percent, according to the government — more or less the same as among secular Israeli women. Israel’s overall workforce  participation rate is 80 percent.

Four of the 21 government ministers are women.

Many observers see a larger trend of Haredi society opening up to the outside world due in part to public and private investment — despite successful Haredi reversal of political reforms aimed at integrating the community. Today, an estimated 11,000 Haredi Jews are studying at  institutes of higher education, 5,000 are in the army and most are said to have internet access.

On a seemingly related note, Haredi birth rates have fallen. A surge in the relative size of Haredi preschool enrollment during the first decade of the millennium provoked much handwringing about the growing economic and social burden. But the trend has quietly  reversed, with Haredi schools accounting for less than 23 percent of preschoolers in 2015, down from more than 25 percent in 2008, according to the Taub Center for Policy Studies in Israel.

The share of preschoolers in Arab-Israeli schools has fallen even further. But the government has some work to do to reach its goal of putting more Arab women to work.

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked joins a swearing-in ceremony for newly appointed judges at the president's residence in Jerusalem in July. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked joins a swearing-in ceremony for newly appointed judges at the president’s residence in Jerusalem in July. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

4. More Women than Ever were Making  Israel’s Laws

The 28 women elected to  Israel’s parliament in 2015 set a record. Since then, political reshuffling has seen the number move a little higher.

When Avigdor Liberman became defense minister in June, his Knesset seat went to Yulia Malinovsky, a member of his hawkish Yisrael Beiteinu party — sending the number of female lawmakers to 33. That’s right, more than a quarter of the 120 legislative seats are now occupied by women.

These lawmakers span the political spectrum. From left to right, there is the anti-Zionist firebrand Haneen Zoabi of the Arab Joint List; peacenik  Zehava Galon, the chairwoman of Meretz, and self-described “religious right-winger” Tzipi Hotovely of the ruling Likud. Notably absent are any haredi Orthodox women, whose parties prohibit them from running.

Four of the 21 government ministers are also women: Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked of Jewish Home; Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev and Minister for Social Equality Gila Gamliel, both of Likud, and Immigrant Absorption Minister Sofa Landver of  Yisrael Beiteinu.

Despite the ideological  diversity, the women lawmakers sometimes come together to tackle issues related to women, including in the Knesset’s Committee on the Status of Women and Gender Equality. Given lawmakers’ personal experience, sexual harassment may well be on the agenda when the Knesset starts its winter session in October.

5. The Government Backed Adding Sunday to The  Israeli Weekend

It’s not often that something happens with the potential to redefine how an entire country understands the relationship between time and space.

But that something happened in Israel in June, when ministers approved a bill that would give Israelis six three-day weekends a year starting in 2017 as a step toward making Sunday a day off. The legislation is to be reworked in committee before going to the full Knesset for voting.

Israeli weekends now run from Friday afternoon through Saturday to accommodate the Jewish Sabbath and Muslim Friday prayers. Many Israelis don’t work on Friday. But for religiously observant Jews, Shabbat rules prevent them from driving or visiting most entertainment venues from Friday night until Saturday night, allowing precious little time for fun.

Economists are divided on the merits of adding Sunday to the weekend. Supporters argue the plan would boost the economy by syncing Israel with the rest of the world and promoting consumption by a wider swath of Israeli society. Opponents worry it would reduce productivity, with observant Jews and Muslims getting less done on Fridays, and everyone potentially struggling through longer days to compensate for the long weekend.

But c’mon: Sunday Funday!

Woody Allen’s Longtime Writing Partner on Separating the Art From the Artist

The Baltimore Jewish Times spoke this week with “Jersey Boys” co-writers Rick Elice and Marshall Brickman about their enduring personal and working relationship, including Elice’s looking upon his writing partner as a mentor. Enjoying a profoundly eclectic and prolific career of collaborations – among them: “The Muppet Show” with Jim Henson, “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,” “Dueling Banjos” with Eric Weissberg in “Deliverance,” playing with John and Michelle Phillips before they were the Mamas & the Papas and, of course, co-writing such Woody Allen sensations as “Annie Hall” – Brickman revealed his concerns about the general public’s growing inability to make a distinction between a work of art and its creator, between fantasy and reality.

During the course of our interview, Brickman explained that after collaborating with Allen on numerous sketches, stand-up bits and screenplays, he found himself missing the dialogues he shared with the filmmaker while forging ahead with intermittent solo efforts. It got to the point that Brickman would type up conversations with himself about what to do next as far as plot and character development on subsequent projects.

Chess genius and cause celebre Bobby Fischer playing against himself and “never losing,” as he claimed, sprung to mind after Brickman’s admission, leading to a frank discussion of Brickman’s take on his longtime friend and colleague Allen’s own mounting controversies over the years.

“Woody is an example of somebody who has quite consciously merged his life with his work, so in a sense, he has created a work of art called ‘Woody Allen,’” Brickman observed.

“It’s almost Warholian in its irony, and when he got in trouble, of course, people were willing to believe the things he was saying about himself in the movies. Having no other information, they were ready to believe the worst things about him, because it seemed not inconsistent to some of the things he was offering to the audience as to what he is actually like, which was really an invention. And then, suddenly, he got nailed by that.”

“I’m in an odd position in that I know him and I know the person he is,” Brickman continued, “and so I am able to separate the artist from the art.”

Brickman and Elice have found themselves in a relatively less odd position of having penned the 2014 film adaptation of “Jersey Boys” for director Clint Eastwood. Eastwood has taken something of a media shellacking over the last few years for his provocative personal politics resulting in his castigating an incorporeal President Obama in an empty chair at the 2012 Republic National Convention and a recent controversial interview with Esquire that included what was seen as a tacit approval of Donald Trump along with a rather gruff discounting of millennial political correctness.

“Neither of us really had any relationship with Clint Eastwood,” Elice said. “He made the film, we were never there and we didn’t see it until it was finished. I spoke with the man once, and he seemed to be pleasant. I think the personal politics of Clint Eastwood are irrelevant.”

Agreeing that his interactions with Eastwood during the production of the “Jersey Boys” film were basically nil, Brickman mused that, “I just sort of discount everything he says. Clint has an odd sense of humor. He likes to say things to stir people up. I mean, nobody can say anything about Clint Eastwood: He’s Clint Eastwood. I don’t hold anything against him. He was a very nice fellow.”

Eastwood has meanwhile received his typical lauds for his newly released film, the Tom Hanks-starring true-life tale “Sully,” and Allen has been able to continue at his triumphantly breakneck pace with both a new film, star-studded crowd pleaser “Café Society,” and his first-ever television series, “Crisis in Six Scenes” starring millennial poster-girl Miley Cyrus.

Brickman nevertheless laments the fact that be it the onset of what some call “identity politics” or the more fiscally focused concept of celebrity’s requisite attention paid to “personal branding,” audiences are indeed having difficulty concentrating on the quality of the art, distracted as they are by the life and personality of the artist, often merely an easily manipulated and befogged or outright apocryphal perception.

Read the Jewish Times’ cover story on “Jersey Boys” here.