Good Job, Governor!

I do not understand people who go after Gov. Larry Hogan for his  executive order to begin the school year after Labor Day (“Classroom Conundrm,” Sept. 9). Yes, it is an executive order, but in this particular instance, the majority of voters and residents in this state really want the school year to begin after Labor Day.

If an executive order is used to advance the will of the people and the will of people is overwhelming for the rule, then I do not see anything troubling with it. In fact, the governor did us a great favor in stopping any of the political debate on this issue, which truly does move at a snail’s pace in the current political environment.

Ramallah: A Happening Place

As someone who recently visited Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s grave, I was both amazed and sad that a rabbi would be “virtually lynched” because he considered visiting the site in Ramallah (“A Rabbi Is ‘Lynched,’” Sept. 9).  Visiting someone’s grave does not imply complete agreement with what they did or stood for.  A major reason for travel is to be exposed to new ideas, some not entirely comfortable.

While the rabbi’s visit to Arafat’s grave was canceled, I certainly hope that the group went into Ramallah and visited its bustling markets and established institutions.  It would have opened their eyes in a way impossible from reading newspapers or going to lectures.  We saw doting grandparents with their smiling grandchildren enjoying ice cream, young couples lugging TVs into their cars, businessmen with their attaché cases and women of all ages (in head scarves or not) out for the day.  In short, we saw a thriving city whose daily life rarely makes the news.

Yes, there were Palestinian flags and “Free Palestine” posters.  There were also posters for an annual children’s book fair and a Danish/Palestinian classical music concert.  First Bank  of Palestine ads featured teenagers in graduation caps and multigenerational families at dinner.  Other ads were for soccer equipment and facial massages.

Since the museum is not yet open, Arafat’s grave is (at best) a 10-minute photo op.  However, a visit to Ramallah is crucial for anyone who truly wants to  understand the situation that  Israelis and Palestinians are facing.

A Most Jewish Conversation

Editorial Director

Editorial Director

What could possibly be Jewish about the story of four Italian-American crooners, some of them hoods, achieving stardom in the days before the British Invasion?

As it turns out, quite a bit.

“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,” says Broadway writer Rick Elice, one-half of the creative team that brought the story — as opposed to the music — of the Four Seasons to the mainstream more than a decade ago. In addition, part of that story is “a real sense of ‘the other’ and having to fit into a larger society.”

In creating “Jersey Boys,” the smash hit that comes to the Hippodrome Theatre on Sept. 27, Elice drew upon his own experiences, as well as those of co-writer Marshall Brickman, in formulating the musical’s larger themes. Both members of the team, as JT senior reporter Mathew Klickstein points out, are themselves versions of the Upper West Side cliché of the quintessential Jewish wordsmith. Elice once wanted to become a cantor, while Brickman — whose past credits include collaborations with Woody Allen — describes himself as a “red diaper baby” raised in a socialist home.

When “Jersey Boys” was  introduced to theatergoers in 2005, the news that some of the original Four Seasons had been imprisoned before they were 30 — Tommy DeVito later told a Las Vegas outlet, “Yeah, I went to jail seven or eight times. … I’m not proud of it, but I’m not ashamed of it. My neighborhood was rough. If you come out alive, that’s an achievement” — came as a complete surprise. Had the public known that fact when the group was fighting for recognition, they likely would not have achieved stardom in an age that put a premium on an untarnished image.

That might be the most Jewish element of the story, cutting right to the heart of our tradition’s embrace of redemption and atonement. Seen through the lens of today’s adulation  of rule-breaking athletes and performers, the seemingly puritanical impulses that led Frankie Valli and his compatriots to keep elements of their past under wraps might instead reveal the value of reform and personal growth.

Could that pendulum swing freely between both extremes, especially in the cases of other imperfect artists like Allen or Roman Polanski or even Bill Cosby? How much should we demand of the famous, who more often than not are mere caricatures our own foibles? Can we separate their misdeeds from their art? Should we even try?

Brickman has his own thoughts on the subject, which can be viewed exclusively on the JT’s website at The answers might surprise you, but the conversation — like the ones between him and Elice that led to “Jersey Boys” — I guarantee is a very Jewish one.

Bring on the Judges

In order to maintain public confidence in the legal system of a diverse country, those who uphold and enforce the laws must be from equally diverse backgrounds.

Before the Civil War, when sectional differences were acute, the Supreme Court was composed of justices who were chosen, in part, to maintain a regional balance. More recently, beginning in the late 20th century, the executive branch placed a premium on opening up the federal bench to women. So it is not surprising that today presidents sometimes strive to shape the judiciary in ways that are reflective of America’s religious and ethnic diversity.

If the Senate confirms Abid Qureshi, who President Barack Obama nominated last week to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, the Washington attorney will become the first Muslim appointed to the federal bench.

This is a welcome development. Especially at a time when a ban on Muslim immigration has been proposed and, despite the fact that Islamic jurisprudence plays no part in the U.S. legal system, at least nine states have passed laws to ban the use of Sharia law in American courts, the public’s confidence in our legal system  will benefit from the addition of otherwise qualified Muslim judges.

Who is Qureshi? He was born in Pakistan, became an American citizen and has degrees from Cornell University and Harvard Law School. He is a partner at Latham & Watkins LLP, where he works on health care fraud and securities issues. He also chairs the firm’s pro bono committee and has worked to defend Muslim clients’ civil rights. (Stuart Kurlander, a member of the Mid-Atlantic Media ownership group that publishes the Baltimore Jewish Times, is a partner at Latham & Watkins.)

Qureshi should not be confirmed merely because he is Muslim. He should undergo exactly the same quality and character analysis as every other federal court nominee. And if he otherwise merits the appointment, the Senate should confirm him. But therein lies a problem larger than Qureshi’s religion.

The Republican-led Senate, which had been dragging its feet in considering Obama’s federal court nominees, announced earlier this year that it will not act on any more appointments until the president’s term ends in January. That effectively put Judge Merrick Garland’s nomination as Supreme Court justice in deep freeze and does the same for every other judicial nominee. That makes no sense. There are 96 vacancies in the federal judiciary and 58 nominations pending. It is the Senate’s job to act on those nominations and not to use its constitutional role for political purposes.

Each of the nominees deserves a hearing. The Senate should fulfill its mandate to advise and consent.

J Street Crosses the Line

Should American groups that support those living in the West Bank lose their tax-exempt status because the support fosters the entrenchment of Israeli settlements and is contrary to formal American policy? Is it even American policy to oppose the settlements?

The self-described “pro-Israel, pro-peace” group J Street says it is and has encouraged the U.S. Department of the Treasury and its Internal Revenue Service to withdraw the tax-exempt status of groups working to “entrench or expand” Israel’s presence in Judea and Samaria. That’s a bad idea, and the mere invocation of the effort starts a very dangerous precedent.

Many Israeli left-wing nonprofits receive funding from foreign governments,  including the United States. Right-wing, pro-settler movement groups, on the other hand, are largely funded by private donors. In its challenge, J Street named three groups that have received millions of dollars from U.S. donors “to strengthen the settlements and weaken the Palestinians’ presence in the West Bank.” The three are, in the words of J Street, “Regavim, which presses for the demolition of Palestinian houses; Elad, which works to transplant Jewish settlers into important Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem; and The Hebron Fund, which funds the expansion of the heavily armed Jewish enclave in the heart of Hebron … at the expense of the local Palestinian population.”

Those are serious accusations, which are premised on the erroneous presumption that a Jewish presence in any of the identified areas is prohibited by U.S. policy and somehow violates the law. But the problem with J Street’s effort goes beyond debate over international law. It brings focus to the organization’s ability to function in the big tent of the Jewish community, where organizations may disagree — even strongly — but need to respect the rights of others to hold contrary views.

There are legitimate questions about the legality or wisdom of some settlement activity, just as there is debate over what constitutes “expansion” and “entrenchment.” But J Street’s reliance on a 1979 determination by the State Department’s legal adviser that “Israeli settlements are illegal under international law” may not be the law 37 years later.

The three groups that receive the bulk of J Street’s venom are not known for working within neighborhoods like Maale Adumim or Efrat — areas of the West Bank that everyone agrees will  almost certainly be part of Israel under any peace agreement that might be negotiated. But if J Street gets its way, you can be sure that anyone who builds a community center or housing unit in either of those cities will be next in the “pro-Israel” group’s hit list.

We urge J Street to engage on the issues in the marketplace of ideas rather than trying to put those with whom it disagrees out of business.

An Insult to Jews

I realize American blacks are often subject to racial abuse and stereotyping, as we Jews have often been.  But that does not excuse the vicious name-calling directed at Israel in the Black Lives Matter platform (“Black Lives Platform Gives Hope, Not Fear,” Sept. 2). Its claim that Israel (with U.S. support) is committing “genocide … against the Palestinian people” is not only preposterous, but insulting.

I have no intention of working with any group that chooses to denigrate the world’s only Jewish state. For years, Israel and Jews worldwide denounced the United Nations noxious “Zionism is Racism” resolution until that organization finally repealed it in 1991. Until the Black Lives Matter movement acts in a similar manner with its platform, the organized Jewish community should not support it. It is up to them, not us, to  fix this.

African-Americans have no monopoly on “righteous anger.”  When Jewish people and the Jewish state are libeled, we also get angry. We should not go out of our way to pacify those who insult and attack us.

Take Time to Listen

Being an Israeli should be a privilege not an excuse. Thirty-seven years ago when I made aliya from England at the wonderful age of 22, I was full of hope. Now less, much less.

I have no intention of  bemoaning what we’ve lost or failed to achieve. I’m not going to cry over the spilled milk and honey that has seeped through the cracks in our scorched and “oh so holy” soil. This is not a letter to wail or lay blame, After almost 40 years in Israel, I believe I have reached some kind of insight, possibly even enlightenment or maybe simply a better  understanding, albeit tainted by an increasingly overwhelming and uncontrollable wave of desperation and frustration, that we may have lost our way and that we are once again wandering in the desert.

I respectfully propose that we just stop a second and take stock. Now would be a good time to remember the word “listen.”

The more we listen, the more we understand. The more we listen, the more we respect. The more we listen, the more we’ll be respected. Listen more. Smile more. Let the other person say their piece before cutting them off without as much as an “excuse me.” Listen to peers even if you disagree. Listen to peers even if you have no interest in any other opinions other than your own. Listen to peers even when there’s no mutual respect.

Who knows? Perhaps you’ll realize that others have something to say too.

JT Drops the Ball, Part II

Racism? Elitism? Lazy journalism? Why are the white male business owners identified by name in the photo captions of “Wage Dispute” (Aug. 26) while the black and brown men and women who work for them are identified only as “employees”?

JT Drops the Ball, Part I

lettersI am aghast, puzzled, vexed and quite dumbfounded by the glaring omission in the JT’s  “Gene Wilder: ‘One of the Truly Great Talents of Our Time’” (Sept. 2) of his most Jewish movie, 1979’s “The Frisco Kid.” It is renowned for its  classic Kiddush Hashem scene of Wilder’s Polish rabbi’s willingness to sacrifice his life to save a Torah scroll from damage. This was a completely unacceptable lacuna in a Jewish publication serving a community with a  disproportionate number of Orthodox Jews.

Modern-Day Spanish Jewry

In July, my wife, Roberta, and I led a group from Beth Am on an 11-day Mission to Spain, organized by the Conservative Cantors Assembly. Forty cantors from North America went, bringing 300 congregants with us (no other Baltimore groups went). I was personally interested in the mission’s goals: to learn the history of Jews in Spain, firsthand, on-site; and to connect with Sephardi culture, and specifically, to support modern-day Jewish communities in Spain. We found the experience informative, meaningful, but also somewhat disturbing.

We visited Jewish sites in Barcelona, Girona, Madrid, Toledo, Granada, Cordoba and Seville. We went on guided tours of the respective Old Jewish Quarters — they are more for tourists, since virtually no Jews live there — historic sites that defined the relationship between Jews and Spain and general cultural and architectural sites. Lectures were delivered by experts, and the group took part in direct meetings with leaders of the Jewish communities of Madrid and Seville.

The cantors presented concerts for the community  and mission participants in Barcelona, Madrid (attended by the Israeli ambassador) and Seville, featuring lively music, both solo and ensemble, with sing-along opportunities. The Seville concert included a moving prayer for Jews who were tortured and expelled during Muslim and Catholic monarchies, and again following the Spanish Civil War in the mid-20th century. We knew that the music we brought was hardly ever heard and the services larger than any locals could find in Spain, and it was personally gratifying to participate. The meaning to locals was underscored when a Barcelona resident boldly came up onto the concert stage, asking that we sing “Hatikvah.” In retrospect, omitting “Hatikvah” was an error, immediately fixed, and one we did not repeat in Madrid.

Jewish leaders in both Madrid and Seville shared observations about living in a country still dominated by Catholics — by some counts, 95 percent of current affiliated residents. At this time, Spain is trying to alter its image and welcome back Jewish families who show roots dating back to the Expulsion in 1492, along with those who were forcibly converted.

The group came away appreciating the culture lost to the Iberian Peninsula from the 12th through 19th centuries and again in the 20th century, along with challenges faced by the small numbers of Jews.  As one leader noted, Jews are neither unwelcome nor entirely welcome.

For those interested in hearing more, I will be presenting  pictures and videos from the  mission on Oct. 19 at Beth Am.

Ira Greenstein is cantor at Beth Am Synagogue.