Monthly Archives: April 2011

Defending Justin Bieber

This entry was posted in Israel on by .

Say it aint so Justin! Or better yet, never say never Justin!

You know Justin Bieber, right? The greatest singer alive? The future President of the United States, even though he was born and raised in Canada? My hero? Well, he’s in a little bit of trouble right now and we need to help him out.

My boy Justin is currently on a world tour and has made a stop in Israel. Because Prime Minister Netanyahu doesn’t have a busy schedule in the slightest, the two of them were supposed to meet. Then, as circumstances sometimes get in the way, the two ended up cancelling their ever-so-important meeting.

But why? What were these circumstances that got in the way of the most influential meeting of all time? As it turns out, and this is just according to local news in Israel, the Prime Minister’s office cancelled the meeting after Bieber’s people refused to allow kids to be present at the meeting.

That wouldn’t make the news normally. I’m sure Bieber is so used to getting hounded by teenage girls that the meeting would quickly deteriorate into a screaming frenzy. This probably happens all the time.

Only one problem. The kids he refused to meet with were from Sderot! Oh no! No one says no to kids from Sderot! That is about a big a Jewish no-no as you can do.

But again, the Biebs is on top of it. His spokespeople have said that it was nothing personal and certainly not political. In fact, he has already invited a bunch of kids from Sderot to come to his concert–a move they say was made prior to the cancelled meeting.

Hey people! Cut my boy Justin some slack. He can make butterflies come back to life.

Posted on April 13, 2011

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Patricide, Photography, and Audrey Hepburn

This entry was posted in Culture on by .

On Monday, Austin Ratner wrote about Hillel sandwiches. His first book, The Jump Artist, is the winner of the 2011 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. He will be blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning’s Author Blog.

People who have read The Jump Artist sometimes ask me what’s fact and what’s fiction. My answer is that it’s all fiction, but it’s fiction that incorporates as many facts as I could uncover and reasonably include. Years of research yielded certain results that tested me as a fiction writer—and none more so than those concerning Karl Meixner. To write about him truthfully was to risk caricature or cliché. Did he really keep Max Halsmann’s head in a jar? Lest anyone think I invented him and his bizarre activities with human remains, here are some of the historical facts I uncovered about him:

Meixner was a professor of pathology at the Institute for Juridical Medicine in Innsbruck and an expert witness in the Halsmann trials. Defense attorney Franz Pessler’s account of the trial in Der Fall Halsmann points to Meixner as one of the most spirited advocates for Halsmann’s conviction. In turn, Meixner was a focus of opprobrium from academics all over Austria, Germany, and Switzerland. He published impassioned defenses of himself and of his reasons for condemning Halsmann.

He has a convincing record as a fascist and an anti-Semite. Before joining the medical faculty at the University of Innsbruck, Meixner had been an active member of Vienna’s openly anti-Semitic fraternity, Burschenschaft Olympia. And in 1946, when the war was over, Meixner was recommended for forced retirement by the “investigation committee” of the University of Innsbruck because of his reputation as a “radical Nazi.” (See Oberkofler, Gerhard and Peter Goller, Die Medizinische Fakultät Innsbruck: Faschistische Realität [1938] and Kontinuität unter postfaschistischen Bedingungen [1945], Eine Dokumentation, Innsbruck: Universität Innsbruck, 1999, p. 121.)

There is also convincing evidence of his transgressions against medical ethics. According to Oberkofler and Goller, directors of the University of Innsbruck archives, Meixner received a Nazi decree titled “Re.: Transfer of Corpses of the Executed to the Institutes of Anatomy” and affirmed it with his signature on March 18, 1939 (Oberkofler and Goller, pp. 12-14). The decree dictated that the corpses of Nazi prisoners executed without trial and then denied burial rites be delivered to Austrian universities for scientific use.

There is no data on how many corpses were transferred to the University of Innsbruck medical school under the decree sent to Meixner (and to a couple of others on the medical faculty). Nor is it known what may have been done with such corpses. However, it is well known that the Nazi policy on executed prisoners was exploited significantly at the University of Vienna. A University of Vienna inquiry, made at the behest of Yad Vashem, revealed in 1998 that Dr. Eduard Pernkopf acquired 1400 cadavers from Nazi executions for his anatomic studies. Pernkopf had been an active member of the Nazi party since 1933, and in the original editions of his world-famous anatomy text, his artists signed their names with swastikas and SS symbols.

Staff at Yad Vashem informed me that their correspondence with the University of Innsbruck on this subject will remain classified under Israeli law until 2020. It will be interesting to see what other non-consensual uses of human remains belong to Karl Meixner’s curriculum vitae; he certainly demonstrated significant credentials along these lines during the Halsman trials. According to newspaper reports, Meixner had Philippe Halsman’s father’s head separated from his body and, over the defense’s formal protests, he kept it in a jar at the Institute as a specimen. “I had repeatedly requested that the head of Max Halsmann be released for burial,” Franz Pessler writes on p. 76 of his essay on the trial, published in 1931 by the Austrian League for Human Rights. Meixner displayed the head to Franz Pessler before the second trial and again to the jury during the second trial. See Pessler, pp. 53, 76-77. (For photographs of the severed head, see Meixner, “Lehren des Halsmannprozesses,” Beitrage zur gerichtlichen Medizin, Vol. 10, 1930, pp. 62-76, and Heindl, “Der Mordprozeß Halsmann,” Archiv für Kriminologie, Vol. 92, No. 5/6, Jun 1933, pp. 185-188.)

Max Halsmann’s head remained there in formaldehyde until 1991, according to an article in November of that year in The Jerusalem Report. (See Wise, Michael Z., “Vienna’s Dreyfus Case,” Jerusalem Report, Nov 21, 1991. p. 4.) It appears Max Halsmann’s head was part of a collection audrey hepburn halsmanof body parts and dead animals which Meixner had carefully tended and stocked. “In his capacity as morphologist, Meixner gave particular attention to the completion of the Juridical Medicine Museum, pushing for an expansion of its collection. Meixner also achieved the expansion of the Institute itself by establishing a facility for animals and a workshop.” (From Hundert Jahre Medizinische Fakultät Innsbruck 1869 bis 1969, p. 273. You can also find Karl Meixner’s face in this volume, pictured in plate no. 43. In 100 years of faculty photographs at the University of Innsbruck, Meixner is the only doctor of medicine to sit for a formal indoor portrait with his hat on. He glowers like a B-movie police inspector.)

Meixner died on March 6, 1955, just 4 months before Philippe Halsman would make his 75th Life Magazine cover, a photograph of Audrey Hepburn on her farm in Rome under a pair of white doves.

Posted on April 13, 2011

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

The Downtown Seder

This entry was posted in Holidays on by .

Last night was a culmination of good fortune, good luck, and — as always — my wife running late. The good fortune came in the shape of a dinner invite on the night after we finished cleaning our kitchen for Passover. The good luck was our good friends Miriam and Alan from the band Stereo Sinai inviting us to the Downtown Seder. And the running late … well, we just won’t go there.

The Downtown Seder is a creation of Michael Dorf, half postmodern religious ritual and half cabaret. Rock stars and stand-up comedians and various random famous people are each assigned one step of the seder. And then it’s you in a room with bands like Stereo Sinai, comedians like Rachel Feinstein (who was on Last Comic Standing with our boy Myq Kaplan), half-band-half-comedians like Good for the Jews, and Dr. Ruth. Yes, I said Dr. Ruth.


(Yes, she’s that short pink dot in the picture. We weren’t sitting that far, but she is short, 4’7″. My Holocaust-survivor grandfather who’s 4’11” looks down at her.*)

And she read the Four Questions, too. Granted, she was not the youngest one in the room (she’ll be 83 years old on June 4) but she did it, and she did it up. Backed on a bluegrass guitar by C Lanzbom, she sang the first question solo, and then instructed the audience to accompany her. “If you sing with me,” she said in that undeniably adorable German accent, “I promise that you will have good sex for all the days of your life.” And if we don’t? “Remember,” she told us, “I used to be a sniper in the Haganah.”

Did I sing? You’d better believe I sang.

A few of the guests were esoteric. Others were total crowd-pleasers. Here’s Stereo Sinai, courtesy of my cheapo camera-phone:

Their take on the Son Who Doesn’t Know How to Ask a Question was one of only two all-out dance numbers (the other being, of course, Joshua Nelson and the Kosher Gospel Choir) — but each act was so well-thought-out and cool and unusual that I kept wanting to call someone and let them listen. I’m not a bootleggy type of person, but I wish I had a bootleg of last night. I kept wanting to write things down. I kept wanting to remember them. Joshua Foer* summed it up: “Our tradition demands not just that we eat matzah, but that we interact with it and explain it.” Or, to paraphrase Faulkner: Not only is the past not dead, it isn’t even past.

Because we’re Hasidic and don’t get out much, this is probably the closest I’ll ever come to a non-religious seder. Boxes of Manischewitz matzah on the table. Behind us, Rachel Feinstein was getting down with woman in a severe Florida-retirement hat decked with flowers. The singer of Good for the Jews was wearing a ruffled tuxedo shirt.

Yes, it was bizarre having a seder a week before Passover starts. It was bizarre having matzah on the table in Manischewitz boxes instead of knitted sleeves, and celebrating with two hundred people I’d never met. It might have been a celebration of freedom, but it was also a celebration of getting down.


* – Who also referred to the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, as “the great cognitive scientist,” which probably nobody else cared about but which absolutely made my night.

Posted on April 12, 2011

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Remembering the Stranger

This entry was posted in Holidays on by .

This commentary is provided by special arrangement with American Jewish World Service. To learn more, visit

One of the central ethical injunctions of the Torah is not to wrong or oppress the stranger, for we were strangers in the land of Egypt (Exodus 22:20). “…You know the feelings of the stranger,” says Exodus 23:9, “for you were strangers yourselves.” This repeated admonition represents a profound moral challenge that also lies at the heart of the Passover seder: we are called on to imagine and create a society in which we use our own past experiences of abuse as a compass for doing  justice rather than reproducing patterns of domination and subordination.

Interestingly, the wording of these verses in the Torah reflects a moment when the people of Israel have crossed over the line between slavery and freedom. You were strangers in the land of Egypt, but now you are a free people. Throughout the seder, we praise God for bringing us across this border—from slavery to freedom and bondage to redemption.

And yet we are never allowed to forget the experience of slavery at our roots. The text of the haggadah captures the doubleness of the Jewish situation—both redeemed and yet not free to leave slavery behind—in an especially complex and subtle way. As we begin to tell the story of the Exodus, we say, “This year we are slaves. Next year, may we all be free,” and as we close the seder, we say, “Next year in Jerusalem,” acknowledging that our redemption is not yet complete.

We could forget the past; indeed, maybe we would much prefer to bury the past, but we are forbidden to forget it lest we fail to implement its lessons. Unless we truly know ourselves as oppressed, the haggadah seems to say, we will not be able to regard ourselves as though we personally had gone forth from Egypt and therefore will not feel the necessity of opening our doors wide to all who are still oppressed and hungry today.

The great power and difficulty of the charge to remember that we were strangers even when we live in freedom becomes clear when we consider the countless ways in which individuals and nations fail in this obligation. The prophets’ railings against injustice make clear that even the near descendants of the ragtag group of slaves liberated from Egypt were no sooner firmly established in their own land than they began to oppress the weak and the powerless among them.
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Posted on April 11, 2011

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

As Jewish as a Hillel Sandwich

This entry was posted in Culture on by .

Austin Ratner’s first book, The Jump Artist, is the winner of the 2011 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. He will be blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning’s Author Blog.

When I learned about Philippe Halsman ’s life story and determined I would write a novel about him (The Jump Artist, 2011 winner of the Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature), I was struck by the contradictions he embodied. Here was a man whom history had ensnared in a frightful way—at the age of 22, he was falsely accused of murdering his father in anti-Semitic western Austria, and he served two years in prison, where he attempted suicide and almost died of tuberculosis. At the same time, here was a man who re-emerged in New York in the 1940s as a photographer—one whose work expressed the playfulness and optimism of post-war life in America on the covers of Life magazine. Halsman himself was by all accounts a secular Jew, but his story and his work are as Jewish as a Hillel sandwich, and represent almost as neatly the opposite poles of pain and joy that define the Jewish historical experience.

It’s clear that the events of Halsman’s twenties shaped and scarred him, and in a permanent way. In a 1995 interview with Einstein biographer Denis Brian, Philippe’s wife Yvonne Halsman said of the “Austrian Dreyfus Affair” of 1928, “It was a suffering for him for the rest of his life. And for his mother and sister and for all of us.” But it’s also clear that he became an astute observer of people, their psyches, and their torment, and turned pain into art, sometimes with a Kafkaesque sense of humor. He collaborated often with Salvador Dali.

Calling himself the discoverer of “Jumpology,” he also compelled hundreds of subjects to jump in the air for his camera—everyone from Brigitte Bardot and Marilyn Monroe to Robert Oppenheimer and Richard Nixon. He wrote in his 1959 Jump Book, “The roots of my discovery reach into my early childhood. I was born with an intense interest in jumping…. I could run, jump and turn over in the air.” He delighted in jumping throughout his life and in photographing others in the act of jumping. “Everybody hides behind a mask,” Halsman writes. “In a jump the subject, in a sudden burst of energy, overcomes gravity. He cannot simultaneously control his expressions, his facial and his limb muscles. The mask falls. The real self becomes visible. One has only to snap it with the camera.”

Upon photographing the great jurist Learned Hand, then aged 87, jumping off the ground, Halsman concluded that jumping was, among other things, a revolt against death and despair. Halsman, like the Jewish people at different points in their history, found a way to rise above his hardships, as if by an act of magic levitation. As a writer and as a Jew, I found his story irresistible.

Come back all week to read Austin Ratner’s posts. His first book, The Jump Artist, is the winner of the 2011 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature.

Posted on April 11, 2011

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Best of the Week

This entry was posted in General on by .

Hello! The week is over! Have a good weekend and enjoy reading all of this good material I’m providing for you.

Does God belong in the bedroom? Here’s what you need to know about Judaism and sex.

Are your matzah balls sinkers or floaters? Personally, I don’t care because I will eat both.

The seders are just over a week away. Do you know what to put onto your seder plate? There is more to a seder than just matzah.

Did you ever see that Mel Gibson movie where the guy from New Kids on the Block kidnaps his kid? And he screams on the phone (ironic ha!) “GIVE ME BACK MY SON!”? Man that movie was good. It turns out that Jews have a thing or two to say about ransoming captives as well. Take that, Mel.

Okay! Bye!

Posted on April 8, 2011

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy’s Gay Scandal

This entry was posted in Practices on by .

This was almost a story. Thankfully, the people at handled this very well and didn’t let it blow up.

It came out a couple of days ago that was affiliated with JONAH–a Jewish organization that fights against homosexuality by trying to rid Jews of their gay feelings.

Affiliated is actually kind of a loose term. From the looks of it, didn’t even realize who the people at JONAH were. You see, has a program on their site that allows organizations to create coupon codes that give kick backs to the organization that sent traffic to It just so happened that JONAH signed up for this program and was getting money from every time someone put in the JONAH code.

This is not uncommon. As someone in the office here pointed out, sites like Amazon and others do the exact same thing. Do you really think Amazon does a full background check on every group that signs up for their promotional programs?

So JONAH signed up for and probably didn’t realize who they were truly affiliated with. That doesn’t mean a scandal didn’t ALMOST break out. When someone emailed with a complaint, this was the response they received from a representive from the website’s marketing affiliate:

We are sorry to hear that you were disturbed with our affiliation with Jonah. However, we do not have any political agenda. Anyone can join our affiliate program. Our company does not have an opinion on the matter. We will create emails for any non-profit organization that is in need of funds. If you have any further questions or concerns I can get you in touch with someone in the company.

Probably not the most sensitive thing they could have responded with. Unfortunately for them, the person with the complaint brought this issue over to, where this issue suddenly was about to bring a lot of bad press to

But as I said in the beginning, this was only ALMOST a story. In fact, handled it very well. Here is the statement they put out today.

Firstly we wish to apologize if any action taken by any member of our company offended anyone. Our affiliate program has pretty much been an automated system whereby any site can go and join the program and put our banners in their email blasts going to their members. In the past it was not something that we had monitored but considering the current reaction regarding’s decision to send their members our affiliate offerings, we have decided to discontinue that affiliation and our management will review our affiliate programs guidelines going forward. Our agenda is simply to be a good company selling a good product and to be considerate of people’s feelings and sensitivities.

Good job Just be a little more careful next time–and possibly hire a new marketing firm.

Posted on April 8, 2011

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

The Bible in the News

This entry was posted in Texts on by .

A new book “relies on an imaginative reading of the Bible supplemented by legends and lore promulgated by Jews, Christians, and Muslims over the centuries’ to create an “unauthorized biography” of King Solomon. (Jewish Ideas Daily)

Remarkably, “the Bible remains a vital text in secular Israeli culture,” and a new book “approaches the Bible…as an unrivaled literary exemplar, as the locus of a culture’s lasting archetypes and mythology.” (Forward)

Is the Biblical Tarshish just another name for Atlantis? (Jerusalem Post)

Israeli archaeologist Eilat Mazar makes the case for using the Bible as a guide for archeological exploration. (The Trumpet)

Yair Hoffman, professor emeritus of Bible at Tel Aviv University, says that the “Hundreds of linguistic and ideological differences between the Masoretic version of the Pentateuch and the Samaritan text”point to the critical role of editing, and of the later addition of diacritical and cantillation marks to the Masoretic version. (Ha’aretz)

Posted on April 8, 2011

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Leaving Mother Moldova

This entry was posted in Culture, History on by .

Marina Blitshteyn is the author of the new poetry chapbook Russian for Lovers. She has been blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

It’s not my story to tell so I haven’t really been telling it. The struggle was my parents’, who lost their careers and started from scratch in a new country, and more my sister’s than mine, having been thrust into an American public high school with an accent and a bad case of culture shock. Over the years I’d been collecting bits and pieces of the narrative: how bad things got towards the end, Jewish homes broken into, families beaten, demonstrations in public squares, the slogan “We will drown the Soviets in Jewish blood!”

Moldova’s independence brought with it a heightened phase of anti-Semitism, and I remember my father installing a big steel door to our apartment, in case anyone tried to break in. I also vaguely remember having to keep acid by the door as a means of protection. I remember a tank and the earthquakes, I remember finally getting cable before we left. Selling everything off, leaving things behind. A little green piano I still regret leaving, a squeaky red shoe. The car ride to the train station, already narrating my last glance back at the apartment. The train, the big airplane, eating bologna and American cheese russian for loversfor the first time, throwing up. Then the arrival, and nobody knew how to ask where the bathrooms were. My sister piecing together some lines of English.

I found out last month we came here as refugees. I was too young to know it then.

This was May of 1991, and for the most part I was along for the ride. I remember the fear was palpable, moments felt dramatic. I entered into a cut consciousness because my everyday had changed so much. I like to think this contrast helped me remember things better.

But the real work of immigration fell on my family. This is their story. I think mine will have more to do with acculturation, issues of translation and class identification, juxtaposing Old World values and anxieties with 21st century rights and modes of expression, even questioning these freedoms and figuring out how to place myself within Judaism, given my family’s history, my grandmother’s survival of the Holocaust, my naturalness with spoken Yiddish, and my desires as a writer and as a woman.

Russian for Lovers is a step in that direction, perhaps a failed attempt at addressing politics, love, distance, language. It’s also about failures of communication, home, attempts, family relations. If nothing else, I want it to figure as a primer in the general scope of these questions, in the hopes that if I learn the basic language of this kind of discourse I could engage with the material more thoroughly and sincerely.

Maybe, in time, I could be ready to tell my family’s story, too.

Marina Blitshteyn is the author of Russian for Lovers

Posted on April 8, 2011

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy