Azerbaijan: Good for the Jews?

The true story of Jewish Azerbaijan past and present has Hollywood written all over it. Two ancient cultures meet on the same land. One is Muslim and one is Jewish. But here is the twist: The land is overflowing with natural riches, from fruits to “black gold” (oil), and the cultures work and live harmoniously. Not only that, but they forge new, vital forms of culture, government and commerce. And pay attention Hollywood: Almost no one outside of Azerbaijan has heard this story. Those who have are amazed and want to know more.

What is today the Republic of Azerbaijan, bordered by Russia, Georgia, Turkey, Iran and Armenia, has been home to Jews since Late Antiquity. Many of these early Jewish settlers came during the Persian Empire and settled in the north of what is today Azerbaijan, in an area called Guba.

Over the centuries, Jewish practices, beliefs and traditions held the Jews together even during low points. Shared family lives and business relationships, particularly in agriculture and trade, kept the neighboring Jewish and Muslim towns functioning as close neighbors.

After breaking away from the Soviet Union in 1991, Azerbaijan found quick recognition by Turkey and then by Israel. The Azerbaijan-Israel strategic partnership today plays a vital role in the security of both countries.

A venerated and beloved figure in Azerbaijan is a young Jew named Albert Agarunov. Agarunov fought valiantly in the battle for Azerbaijan’s sovereign territory in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict that continues to plague the country today. Agarunov died at the hands of Armenian forces during the 1992 occupation of the town of Shusha, a center of Azerbaijani culture. Azerbaijani authorities buried Agarunov in Martyrs’ Lane in Baku and posthumously awarded him the title of National Hero of Azerbaijan, the country’s highest honor.

Surely Hollywood would accord Agarunov top consideration for a Jewish Azerbaijani lead. But other Jewish Azerbaijanis too have a place on the big screen; a movie about colorful Baku-born Nobel Prize-winning (1962) physicist Lev Landau is already in the making.

In Azerbaijan, the close, even seamless relationships among residents are a powerful balm against any perceived societal ills. Friendships, weddings, businesses, all show signs of Jewish-Muslim closeness and solidarity.

When pressed about Azerbaijan’s unique cultural oasis, many Azerbaijanis cite “Ali and Nino,” the romantic novel based in Baku from 1918 to 1920. The book, virtually embedded in Azerbaijani consciousness, is believed to have been authored by 20th-century writer/historian Lev Nussinbaum, a man of mixed Jewish-Russian background from Baku who adopted a Muslim pen name, Kurban Said, and assumed Azerbaijani identity.  In this Baku of old, East and West, Muslim, Christian and Jew and ancient and modern appear in a seemingly impossible yet complementary weave of elements. To many contemporary visitors and residents, that is Baku.

Hollywood, are you listening?

Diana Cohen Altman is executive director of the Washington D.C.-based Karabakh Foundation, a U.S. cultural charity focused on Azerbaijan.

A Shared Sense of Survival

runyan_josh_otYou don’t need to live in Israel to be the target of anti-Jewish hatred. You could be attending a rally in Los Angeles or praying in a Paris synagogue.

Of course, you wouldn’t know this solely by reading the region’s daily newspapers. Both The Baltimore Sun and The Washington Post in fact contained not a single mention Monday or Tuesday of the hateful attacks against Jews in Europe or here in the United States. Amid their significant coverage of Israel’s Operation Protective Edge to stop more than a week of rocket fire from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, neither paper managed to note that two Parisian synagogues had come under attack July 13.

An Associated Press report, however, managed to make it to The Post’s website.

“Pro-Palestinian protesters tried to force their way into a Paris synagogue Sunday with bats and chairs, then fought with security officers who blocked their way,” said the report, noting that “some 150 people were inside for a ceremony honoring three Israeli teens recently killed.”

In Los Angeles, according to a report in Haaretz, hundreds of pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian protesters clashed near the campus of UCLA. The scuffle got so heated that a federal officer fired his gun.

No one was hurt in the L.A. incident, and those inside the Don Isaac Abravanel synagogue in Paris managed to eventually get out, but these instances of violence have so concerned the Anti-Defamation League that the organization, which counted more than 50 anti-Israel rallies to take place stateside since the beginning of last week, issued a security advisory to Jewish institutions.

“The events taking place in Israel and the Gaza Strip have resulted in tense atmospheres at anti-Israel rallies in Europe and across the United States,” ADL’s national director, Abraham Foxman, said in a statement. “While most of the demonstrations in the U.S. have been peaceful, we are encouraging Jewish institutions, organizations and synagogues to have a heightened sense of awareness, particularly in light of what is happening overseas.”

It’s important to remember that the events abroad are affecting communities here. And the death of the first Israeli civilian to Hamas rocket fire in the current conflict — the man reportedly suffered a direct hit Tuesday near the Erez border crossing between Gaza and Israel as he was passing out food to Israeli soldiers — demonstrates, as if any demonstration were necessary, that it’s not just Palestinians who are suffering.

As you’ll read in this week’s JT, many Baltimoreans have responded to the events of the past few weeks with a renewed sense of Jewish identification. Many teens and young adults continued their summer trips to Israel and defiantly decided to stay, despite the sirens, the rocket attacks and the bomb shelters. Others on this side of the world are donating their hard-earned money to any of several funds established by Jewish organizations to help Israeli civilians and the Israeli military.

It’s dangerous to view the world through an “us vs. them” prism, but sometimes it’s helpful to realize that at the end of the day, a shared sense of Jewish peoplehood is what will enable not only Israel, but all of the Jewish communities throughout the world to survive.


Jewish Humor: A History as Dense as Matzo Balls

Larry David, Jerry Seinfeld, Jonah Hill, Adam Sandler, The Three Stooges … there are a lot more Jewish comedians than meet the eye. In fact, Jewish comedians accounted for 80 percent of all comedians in the U.S. during the 1970s. The abundance and success of Jewish comedians can mostly be accredited to the distinct form of humor that most Jewish comedians share. This humor, of course, can only be known as “Jewish humor.”

Jewish humor is humor by Jews for Jews, and it is characterized by wit, self-mockery and a play on words. These distinctions developed in Eastern Europe in the early 1900s, when Jews were greatly discriminated against, and, in turn, Jews chose humor as a means of deflecting hatred with laughter. Humor became a portable defense mechanism against anti-Semites, and the humor Jews used was very self-mocking and ironic. The Jews were the first people to embrace the stereotypes that were assigned to them, and this made their humor stand out more than others.

The first form of stand-up comedy was created by the Jews. In the 1600s to 1800s in Northern Europe near Lithuania, a Jewish jester, a badkhn, was a popular entertainment form. The badkhn developed during the mass murders of Jews by Bohdan Chmielnicki (nicknamed Chmiel the Wicked) during the Cossack rebellion. The badkhn, during this oppressive time, was the only form of humor allowed. Badkhns performed at large parties and events such as weddings, and their humor was extremely mocking, pointing out insecurities in both themselves and the audience. The badkhn was a major part of comedy history… the “First Comic Standing.”

Throughout history, Jews have fled from persecution. Due to the constant movement of Jews through Eastern Europe, and because they lacked the homeland now known as Israel, their linguistic skills improved greatly. This is why they became especially witty, and their humor was based mostly around language. In fact, “Seinfeld” scripts were, on average, 20 pages longer than other sitcom scripts due to the excessive amount of language the actors used to make their jokes.

Many Jewish comedians in the mid-1900s rose from a string of hotels known as the Catskills Hotels, which were located in the mountains of upstate New York. This is where many legends, such as Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks and Jerry Lewis, performed. As time progressed, however, the number of Jewish comedians has decreased. In a survey taken in 1970, about 3 percent of the U.S. population was Jewish but 80 percent of comedians were Jewish. In the 1980s, the percentage of Jewish comedians declined by about 10 percent. Continuing decline can be attributed to several reasons. One is the socioeconomic advancement among other races and cultures that has altered the scene. Another is that Jewish families are more economically stable now than in the past. About 92 percent of Jewish comedians have come from families in the lowest socioeconomic class; because Jews are more well-to-do now, there are less Jewish comedians.

Jewish humor is present in practically every comedy movie, skit and show. It impacts wider society because Jewish humor is timeless, and it will never grow old with the constant development of language. Without Jews and their hardships, the entertainment industry would be completely different. Jews should appreciate the role their ancestors have had in an integral part of society that never fails to make people smile.

Darren Kasoff is a rising junior at Atholton High School in Columbia.

Summer Camp: Nothing Beats It

Summer is here! I can’t help but get excited because I hope and know that summer memories for my children will be some of the highlights of their life experiences. For me, summer camp was transformative. It was the time of year that I connected with my closest friends, explored new interests I never knew I had and discovered ME! Now as a parent, I get to experience that same joy and adventure by seeing the huge, sweaty smiles and hearing the silly stories that my children bring back from Camp Milldale each afternoon.

From singing Jewish camp songs at the top of my lungs to Friday Shabbats around the campfire, these experiences made me feel more connected to our larger Jewish community. My childhood summers impacted who I have become as an adult — taking on leadership roles in our Jewish community, supporting Jewish nonprofits, valuing and celebrating our Jewish holidays and culture.

My husband, Adam, and I hope our children will continue on this path. This is why, since our children were toddlers, we’ve always made Jewish camp a priority. At Camp Milldale, their traditional summer camp experiences are woven with Jewish values, music, foods and traditions. Campers make homemade hummus in cooking, sing the Hamotzi at lunchtime, learn Israeli dancing from the shlichim (Israeli emissaries), and come home belting out “Od Yavo Shalom Aleinu.”  At flagpole, they learn new camp cheers to show their camp ruach (spirit). Their counselors encourage Jewish values such as kavod (respect) and chesed (kindness) to their fellow bunkmates. Camp provides our kids with an easy entry point to a lifelong connection to Judaism and Jewish values.

Adam and I both attended Camp Milldale, so we have a taste of the endless fun and lasting memories that our children, Jacob, 9, and Mollie, 6, are creating each summer. If you ask them what is their favorite part of camp, every day they seem to have a different answer.

From swimming to the zipline to soccer to archery to visiting the farm at Pearlstone to arts and crafts, our kids come home every day with new stories to tell. This summer, our children will also spend two weeks at the JCC’s new performing arts camp, Habimah. In a Jewish setting, the campers will learn from professional teaching artists in acting, singing, dance and drumming and have an opportunity to perform a showcase on the Gordon Center stage.

Our children attend Howard County public schools, which are incredibly diverse — one of the many reasons we love living there. We have summer camp options locally but not many Jewish camps. Thankfully, Camp Milldale, located in Baltimore County, has made it convenient for Howard County children to attend by providing an express bus from the Bet Yeladim preschool in Columbia. Every morning, both campers and parents have a chance to reconnect with the Jewish friends we know from our children’s preschool and Hebrew school.

As the bus pulls away each morning, I am confident that Jacob and Mollie are well on their way to becoming independent, self-confident, kind and adventurous children in our Jewish community.

Randi Benesch is managing director of Arts & Culture at the JCC of Greater Baltimore.

Upon Further Review

The hagiographic discussion of how the ”Rebbe’s Teachings Continue to Inspire” (June 20) omitted salient data.

First of all, despite the fact that most rabbinic commentators insist that aliyah and settlement in the Land of Israel is one of the 613 commandments, Rabbi Schneerson not only never set foot on its holy soil, but — unlike the common devotional practice of observant Jews — he is not even buried there.

Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb may laud Rabbi Schneerson’s “care and concern for every Jew,” but such solicitude did not extend to Jewry’s seminal 20th-century creation, the State of Israel. Many of his followers do not sing “Hatikvah,” the Israeli national anthem. Continuing this legacy of opposition to Zionism, in 2008, when the bodies of their emissaries were flown to Israel after the terrorist attack in Mumbai, Lubavitch protested when the coffins of the deceased were wrapped in the Israeli flag.

As regards Jewish unity, Rabbi Schneerson rejected the legitimacy  of non-Orthodox Jewish denominations (especially their clergy). Meddling in Israel’s internal affairs, Rabbi Schneerson was the behind-the-scenes mastermind of the Israeli Knesset’s 1989 “Who is a Jew?” legislation and campaign. Of local interest is the fact that this divisive enterprise was only beaten back thanks to yeoman efforts spearheaded by Baltimore communal icon Shoshana Cardin.

Lastly, as a matter of full disclosure, it should have been noted that the author of this article holds Lubavitch rabbinic ordination; and, in light of the untrimmed beard displayed in his JT “Opening Thoughts” photo, remains an adherent. Halachically, such conflict of interest would seem to fall into the category of genaivas da’as (transgressive deceit).
Rachmiel Gottlieb

‘Kosher’ Votes Worth Celebratin

Your post-election analysis of the June 24 primary election falls a little short of the mark.  The Democratic and Republican candidates for governor, who will be competing in the upcoming general election, present the voters with a dismal choice. Neither Anthony Brown, the Democrat, nor Larry Hogan, the Republican, has the moral and ethical qualifications to serve as the next governor of Maryland. Keep in mind that Brown raised  at least $10 million in campaign contributions/bribes. As for Hogan, living off his father’s coattails enabled him to buy the nomination with campaign contributions/bribes.

It appears to me that come November, voters will have another excuse, once again, not to show up at the polls. I believe your failure to properly cover Ralph Jaffe’s Movement to bring about real, true ethical reform was  a tremendous disservice to your readership. You deprived readers from  receiving  a significant eye-opener into what needs to be done to start the process of getting rid of all the corruption in Maryland government; this realization might have propelled more people to cast their votes.

My most recent vote total in the 2014 gubernatorial election is 3,092.  These votes were obtained by ethical means on a specific budget of $450.

Per dollar I got more votes than  either Brown, Doug Gansler or Heather Mizeur. More importantly, though, I would not trade my votes for all of the Brown-Gansler-Mizeur votes put together because my votes were obtained using “kosher” means.  I would like to thank all of the people who had the courage to say enough is enough with corruption and let it be known it is time for ethical change.

Although the Jaffe Movement did not win the war, we did win a battle.  It’s a victory that will advance the Jaffe Movement into its next phase on the road to real, true ethical reform.

Ralph Jaffe

Why the Presbyterian Divestment Vote Matters

The recent decision by the Presbyterian Church (USA) is hurtful on real-world terms and gets in the way of what most Israelis and Paletinians want: two secure states. Most Israelis support the formal establishment  of Palestine, as do most American Jews. The Palestinian Authority has actively stated that the movement  for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) is inimical to Palestinian interests, recently arresting a BDS activist in the West Bank.

I deeply appreciate the Christian calls to peacemaking and justice that inspires the PCUSA. Even so, this decision to divest from three U.S.-based companies undermines the church in its ability to do either.  Instead, it has marginalized its voice from the Israeli and American Jewish communities who would be willing partners in realizing common aspirations and goals. Its ability to be a respected and trusted partner in these critical conversations has been deeply, perhaps irrevocably, damaged.

This unfortunate move comes on the heels of the church’s publication of “Zionism Unsettled: A Congregational Study Guide,” which is widely viewed as anti-Israel and anti-Jewish in that it denies the right of the State of Israel to exist as the Jewish state.  As noted in an open letter signed  by more than 1,700 rabbis, cantors, rabbinical students and cantorial  students, it charges Zionism and  Israel as “false theology,” “heretical doctrine,” “evil pathology,” “racism” and “cultural genocide.” (Disclosure: I am a signatory.)

The official “State Department Guidelines on Anti-Semitism” includes denying Israel’s right to exist as well as applying Nazi imagery to Jews or Israel in its list of offensive actions. By this definition “Zionism Unsettled” is anti-Semitic. This confluence of action is all part of a larger movement of  the PCUSA to place the entire onus of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict solely and squarely on Israel, to view the Palestinians exclusively as victims  and to appease an extremely vocal  minority subset of the church at the expense of any semblance of fairness. As noted in an open letter to  the PCUSA by Rev. Christopher Leighton, the executive director of  the Institute for Christian & Jewish Studies and a Presbyterian minister, it turns the church “from peacemakers to polemicists, and from honest dialogue partners to partisan ideologues.”

This lack of balance is reflected in how the PCUSA process mainstreamed Jewish Voices for Peace, outliers in the Jewish community, for its own purposes and at the expense of the relationships with the Jewish community’s recognized leaders in interfaith dialogue. Jewish Voices for Peace ostensibly shares the same goals as the Israeli government and majority of the American Jewish community: a just and secure peace built on a two-state solution. Yet, the organization goes beyond the pale in its absolute support of BDS.

It is not the mainstream representative of the American Jewish community as are the Jewish Council on Public Affairs and the Council of Jewish  Federations. It is they who represent  all the Jewish religious denominations and Jewish communities across the country through the Israel Action  Network. Not only did the PCUSA cadre responsible for hijacking the process of open conversation rely on JVP outliers, while ignoring the overwhelming chorus of American Judaism, it even disallowed their own church members who have gone on interfaith trips with Jewish sponsorship from  providing their perspectives of witness and testimony to the proceedings at  the General Assembly.

If the American Jewish community feels frustrated and ignored, Israelis feel an even more pernicious betrayal. Protections for Christian in Israel are taken seriously by the Israeli government. Israel is the only area in the Middle East that safeguards the practice of Christianity in its widely diverse presentations. Government funds build churches and parochial Christian schools. Only in Israel proper does Christianity thrive in the region. Yet, these values and commitments are ignored by the Christian BDS activists as are the Christian tribulations under Palestinian rule. Israelis do not understand how these facts on the ground can be ignored.

The PCUSA decision is even more distressing, especially to Israelis, when three Israeli teenagers had been kidnapped (and subsequently murdered), Hamas has been shooting rockets at southern Israel and the Golan Heights is being bombed. It seems that the only concern that commands the attention of the Presbyterian Church is Israel and the Palestinians. It is befuddling that the church has nothing to say about human rights abuses in China, the attacks against Christians in Africa and the Middle East, Buddhist oppression of Muslims in Asia, the Russian annexation of Crimea, repression of or attacks against women such as the laws forbidding women to drive cars in Saudi Arabia or ongoing kidnappings of Nigerian girls by Boko Haram. There has been no call to divest from companies doing business with China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Yemen or the like. One wonders what makes Israel so special in the hearts and minds of the PCUSA to warrant such exclusive attention.

The PCUSA has led the way in creating a roundtable including other Protestant and Roman Catholic  representatives. Sadly, the majority of the mainline Protestant churches are represented in this effort. While the financial reality of divestiture may have limited impact, these denominations share a message that reaches millions of Americans. When these messages are built on anti-Semitic agendas that demonize Israel and Jews, the concern extends far deeper than investment dollars. The movement from anti-Israeli activism to anti-Jewish theology might not be overt or even conscious. That does not make the threat any less pernicious or the concern any less real.

­­Rabbi David Greenspoon is an educator,  theologian and writer who has been deeply
involved in interfaith dialogue and education  efforts for more than 25 years. A former Navy reserve chaplain, he is a guest rabbinic scholar in a wide variety of Christian and Jewish settings. He is based in Baltimore.

Israel’s Economic Impact On T he U.S.

Earlier this week I attended the annual Israel-America Chamber of Commerce (AMCHAM) dinner in Tel Aviv.

The honorary chairman of the AMCHAM is U.S. ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro.  In his remarks, he mentioned that the very first free-trade agreement that the U.S. signed with any country was the United States-Israel Free Trade Agreement in 1985. He indicated that bilateral trade between the two countries is now at $40 billion annually and will probably top $45 billion for 2014.

That is an amazing statistic for a country with just eight million people, yet it does not tell the whole story.  To complete the story, one must understand the additional economic impact of Israeli company operations in the U.S., both in benefits to the local economies and the number of jobs supported.

A case in point is Massachusetts.  An independent study by Stax Inc., a global strategic consulting and research firm, revealed that Israeli founded businesses generate enormous revenue, jobs and capital activity in that state.

The more than 200 Israeli-founded businesses located in Massachusetts booked over $6 billion of revenue there and generated nearly $12 billion in economic benefit to the state, inclusive of their own revenue, plus the multiplier effect of their spending in the local economy, for example, on office space and accounting, legal, marketing, health care and other services.  This represented 2.9 percent of Massachusetts’ GDP in 2012.  These companies directly employed more than 6,600 people and supported more than 23,000 jobs based on the multiplier effect of their demand for goods and services.

In Pennsylvania, just one Israeli company, TEVA, the world’s largest producer of generic pharmaceuticals, employs almost 2,400 people in the state in eight locations. The most recent figures available (from 2011) indicate that this one Israeli company generated 15,800 direct and indirect jobs, $1.2 billion in local income, $4.4 billion in economic output and $115 million in state and local taxes.

But that’s not all: Through TEVA’s corporate charitable donations program and its advocacy and medical education programs, the company made $2.9 million in contributions in Pennsylvania alone in 2013.

Thus far, no one has commissioned a study of the  impact of Israeli business on the entire U.S. economy. Should a study be commissioned,  the numbers would surely be staggering.

No doubt even more can be done to enhance and expand the economic gains and collaborations on both sides, as the foundation is strong enough to support additional activity.

Finally, this goes a long way in neutralizing the anti-Israel voices in the U.S. who complain about our getting $3 billion in foreign aid annually (even though most of it has to be spent in the U.S.).

Sherwin Pomerantz is president of Atid EDI Ltd., a Jerusalem-based economic development consulting firm involved in promoting regional trade and investment. He is a member of the Israel-America Chamber of Commerce’s Regional Cooperation Committee.

From Strength To Strength

062717_friedman_howard_e_ftvTwo years ago, when I became chair of the board of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, my first official act was to invite the guests at our annual meeting to roll up their sleeves and get involved with the many hands-on projects at a volunteer expo that followed the annual meeting. It was a fitting way for me to begin my term, which comes to an end later this month.

The room buzzed with people, as they touched and felt the work of The Associated in action. The various projects brought together a beautiful cross section of people, who all shared the same goal: caring for the health and vibrancy of Jewish Baltimore.

Kol Yisrael arevim zeh la-zeh.  All Jews are responsible for one another.  That is a value deeply held by The Associated and put into action every day. Thousands of Jews in Baltimore contribute their time, their resources, their passion and their commitment to The Associated system. And our whole community benefits from those efforts.

Our reach extends well beyond our borders to Israel and communities in need around the globe. This year, when Jews in Ukraine feared for their safety amid the political upheaval in their country, we were there for them. We helped ensure that older Jews in our sister city, Odessa, were able to get the supplies they needed, and we enabled the celebration of Jewish life to continue even amid the chaos. Around the corner or around the globe, we stand up as a community and take care of each other.

In the two years I served as chair of the board, I have experienced a spirit of cooperation that is a hallmark of The Associated and our community. I have had the privilege of speaking with or partnering with hundreds of members of our organized Jewish community. Together, we have looked at the needs in our community, identified priorities and sought solutions for challenges that face us today or in the future.

During my term, I saw firsthand what it is that makes our city so special. There is an enormous sense of passion and commitment to the greater good expressed by all those who work for the health of our community, from the professionals who manage the day-to-day operations of The Associated and our agencies to the volunteer leaders who dedicate themselves so tirelessly to our system.

And there is a deep and rich history of involvement in the community that laid the foundation for the work I was able to do as chair of the board. I am humbled by the strength and wisdom of the leaders who came before me. It is their guidance that has helped us become a truly inspiring community.

I will close out chairmanship in much the same way as I began it. I invite all members of our community to do what they can to get involved, to roll up their sleeves to make a difference for someone else, whether in Baltimore, Israel or overseas.

I also wish b’hatzlacha to my successor, Mark Neumann, in whose capable hands I leave The Associated board. May he and the lay leaders and professionals with whom he works go from strength to strength in the efforts on behalf of our community.

Great Memories

I saw the very good article about the Tulkoff family (“It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Sting,” June 6). Marty Tulkoff, of the famous horseradish business, and I were friends in the 1950s. I even met my wife though Marty, and I took a photo of our guys’ group back then. A new book came out this year, “Around Mount Washington,” and on page 117 is my picture with Marty in the front row. My dad fixed all of Marty’s mom and dad’s appliances.

Gerald A. Yamin