Cain's Incomplete Apology, and Religion in Politics

After offending Muslims (and at least one Jew) last week by saying localities have the right to ban mosques because Islam includes the concept of shari'a law, Herman Cain has now met with Muslim leaders and released an apology:

...While I stand by my opposition to the interference of shariah law into the American legal system, I remain humble and contrite for any statements I have made that might have caused offense to Muslim Americans and their friends. I am truly sorry for any comments that may have betrayed my commitment to the U.S. Constitution and the freedom of religion guaranteed by it. Muslims, like all Americans, have the right to practice their faith freely and peacefully.

As I expected, we discovered we have much more in common in our values and virtues. In my own life as a black youth growing up in the segregated South, I understand their frustration with stereotypes. Those in attendance, like most Muslim Americans, are peaceful Muslims and patriotic Americans whose good will is often drowned out by the reprehensible actions of jihadists...

Cain's apology is unsatisfactory for two reasons. First, he ought to have stated specifically that he now realizes that localities do not have the right to ban mosques, if in fact he has come to that realization.  If he has not, and he still believes localities may ban mosques, then his apology for causing offense is utterly hollow. If he has changed his position, then he should say so directly; dodging the specific issue just leaves him looking weaselish. (Speaking of weaselish, see also the phrase "..any comments that may have betrayed my commitment to the U.S. Constitution...")

Second, Cain again makes the problematic assertion that shari'a has no right to "interfere" in the American legal system (see the first sentence excerpted above). It is actually quite tricky to pin down what this might mean, and once again a glance at parallel concepts in other American religions is instructive. Does Cain believe that shari'a should be held to a different standard than Jewish halakhah and Catholic canon law? If so, he continues to favor bigotry. Even if this is the case, I can't imagine he'll be up front about it, so let's assume he would say he believes that religious legal systems should all be held to the same standards. How, then, would Herman Cain define interfering, and how precisely would he seek to curb it?

I have emailed the following questions to Herman Cain's campaign:

  1. Should shari'a law be held to the same standards or different standards than Jewish halakhah or Catholic canon law?
  2. If a Muslim citizen believes shari'a law reflects God's will, and that shari'a prohibits gay marriage, and so votes for a candidate who opposes gay marriage, does that count as "interference"?
  3. If a Jewish citizen believes halakhah reflects God's will, and that halakhah requires a middle ground between the standard pro-life and pro-choice abortion positions, and so votes for a candidate who is centrist on abortion, is that "interference"?
  4. If a Christian citizen believes Jesus commanded socialism, and so votes for a socialist candidate, is that "interference"?
  5. When anti-slavery Christian pastors preached that God insisted slavery be abolished, was that "interference"?
  6. When, in the 1950s and '60s, Archbishop Joseph Rummel of New Orleans threatened pro-segregation Catholic politicians with excommunication, was that "interference"?
  7. When, today, pro-life Christian clergy instruct their flocks that God wants the United States to protect unborn life by force of law, is that "interference"?
  8. Please provide a clear, specific hypothetical example of something that would be "interference": an example for shari'a, for halakhah, and for canon law.

We'll have to see whether or not some campaign staffer sends answers.

(As I mentioned last week, the gold standard for addressing these questions, in my opinion, is Prof. Stephen L. Carter's God's Name in Vain: The Wrongs and Rights of Religion in Politics.)

From the J-Vault: Diversity in Democracy (or, Jewish Difference and the Common Good)

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"[T]here are some among us," said Isaac B. Berkson, during an address in honor of a Columbia professor, "who hold that the retention of Jewish cultural characteristics is not consistent with the processes of democracy. These believe that only such differences as maybe termed religious should be retained by the Jews. It appears to me that such a view rests on an unfortunate misunderstanding of the nature of the democratic process."

This week, from the J-Vault: Education in a Democracy: Democracy and Jewish Culture (1937)

Do Jewish particularism and a commitment to Jewish culture detract from universalism and a commitment to the common good? To the contrary, said Isaac B. Berkson:

Far from running counter to democracy, the maintenance of such cultural elements is a mark of democracy. Among other things, this may act as one of the important barriers against mental regimentation... [A]djustment to American life does not mean utter conformity.

Sub-cultures, religions, and other sources of genuine difference and diversity make the whole society stronger for being different, Berkson argues, and even where they introduce conflicts of opinion, this enhances democracy:

[D]iversity of opinion is a fundamental characteristic of democratic society—really more than that, is a necessary attribute of democracy. Tolerance of divergent opinion is in itself a great advance in the history of thought, but the democratic habit of mind goes much further than benevolent toleration of differences. It has faith in the value of diverse opinion as a positive factor in government and civilization. It uses the dissenting opinion as a means of arriving at the truth, of properly emphasizing aspects of the situation otherwise neglected, of correcting weaknesses in dominant, current view.

Download this publication...

 

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From the J-Vault: Arab-Jewish Relations, Pre-Statehood

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On a day which saw comedienne Sarah Silverman offer her prescription for Middle East peace at the Israeli Presidential Conference -- a conference whose theme is "Tomorrow" -- let's take a look back at the Israel of yesterday, through the eyes of one of America's most important Zionists: Henrietta Szold.

This week, from the J-Vault: Recent Jewish Progress in Palestine (1916)

While Szold's report is mostly concerned with immigration figures, economic development, urban planning, village life, and other such logistical concerns, one section discusses relations between Arabs and Jews, and makes the reader long for an alternate and peaceful past that did not occur:

In general, the relation between Jews and Arabs is not unsatisfactory, in spite of the friction that occurs at certain points of contact. The reasonable expectation is that it will improve, because the mutual respect is increasing. The Arab has begun to recognize the value that has accrued to him and the land by the presence and the activity of the Jew. He already pays him the flattery of imitation. In some places he has adopted the modern methods and implements introduced by the Jew. On the other hand, the Jew recognizes that the Arab may be his teacher in all that relates to the soil. His fiber is, as it were, habituated to it. He knows it by instinct. For instance, the primitive plow of the Arab husbandman, wielded by his predecessor on the soil three thousand years ago, it was thought must be baniyhed beyond recall. More careful investigation has demonstrated that on some soils deep upturning is harmful; the superficial scratching of the wooden plowshare with its small iron attachment is exactly what is needed. Such recognitions of mutual helpfulness will multiply and make for a better understanding and neighborly tolerance. But that the relation is an aspect of Jewish colonization that will require wisdom and tact and statesmanship can and should not be minimized; nor are the leaders of Palestine public opinion guilty of neglect in this particular.

Szold goes on to describe the presence of a significant number of Russian converts to Judaism. She also predicts that Yemenite Jews, who are "tenaciously and loyally Jewish, intellectually alert," but "Arabic in speech and habit," will be "a cement between Arab and Jew, between the industrially-minded Jew of the city and the agriculturally minded Jew of the country, between Sefardi and Ashkenazi."

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Publications on Difference at Passover

Four Cups

Across Barriers

 

Publications on the mixed, modern Seder

 

The First Cup: Mixed Marriages

Passover, a Lesson in Inclusiveness

Adam Bronfman, Kerry M. Olitzky, 2009

 

The Second Cup: Jews and Christians

Is Every Seder Kosher for Passover?

A. James Rudin, 1999

 

The Third Cup: Jews and Palestinians

Sharing Pesach with a Palestinian

Lawrence Baron, 1988

 

The Fourth Cup: Jews and Jews

Keeping Peace at the Seder Table

Sally Shafton, 1984

 

Explore many more publications about Passover at bjpa.org

A Pair of Publications for President's Day

In 1980, Jonathan D. Sarna examined the “myth” that a Jew can become President of the United States. Sarna wrote that this notion has great value and usefulness for both Jewish and Gentile Americans, but he considered it quite unlikely actually to occur at any near date. (It would be interesting to hear what he would say now, these thirty years hence. Dr. Sarna, are you reading this? What say you?)

More recently, a mere decade ago, Leonard Dinnerstein explored the relationship between American Jews and every American President from FDR to Bill Clinton.

Happy President’s Day!

Proliferating Hebrew Language Charter Schools

The Jewish Week has two separate stories on Hebrew language charter schools today, covering one in Bergen County and one (proposed) in Harlem.

It is easy enough to find reasons for being concerned about this trend; how can Jewish religion be kept from creeping into the curriculum, tearing down the wall between church and state? If, on the other hand, that wall is somehow well-maintained, then will not Jewish children whose parents choose the schools as free alternatives to Jewish day school find that their children’s education is far less complete than that offered at a day school, bereft (as it must be) of Jewish values, ideas, messages and meanings?

In an exchange in the Forward in February 2010, Richard D. Kahlenberg raises precisely the former objection: “Using public funds for schools that cater to specific groups dangerously undercuts the unifying purpose of public education,” he writes. In the same exchange, Rabbi Irving Greenberg raises the latter objection: "The problem with charter schools,” he writes, “is that to qualify for government funding, the community must strip out the Jewish content, religion, values and advocacy from the educational program. I fear that such schools will fail to transmit Jewish identity.” Rabbi Greenberg does concede that these schools might “succeed when supplemented with Hebrew school education or Jewish camping. Therefore, I favor this experiment.” Still, he concludes, “the most likely outcome is that charter schools will teach language but lose the identity battle.”

Peter Deutsch, founder of the Ben Gamla Charter School, writes (in the same exchange) that

A Hebrew-English charter school education is not a day school education. However, a student completing a K-12 Hebrew-English charter school would have a strong, deep and intellectually based Hebrew language, history and culture education. That student would also have had the opportunity to easily enhance his or her religious education outside the public school setting.

I think these schools are tremendously exciting. Jewish education has many components, but if one component had to be chosen as the keystone and crown jewel, surely Hebrew language skills must be it; Hebrew opens the door to the vast majority of all other Jewish learning. Rabbi Greenberg is right that a Hebrew education would be an incomplete Jewish education, but think what texts could be presented in a supplementary school (or camp) if the students came in with solid, practiced Hebrew reading skills. That there is a significant trade-off cannot be denied, but life is full of such choices. Different families and sectors of the community will face them differently, which is one more reason to include this new choice on the menu of options.

Consider also the benefits to the Jewish community of having a significant number of non-Jewish students learn Hebrew and Jewish history and culture. Non-Jewish parents, meanwhile, will have the opportunity to see their children learn a legendary language with a fascinating literature, the classical form of which is of massive importance to Western history – a language which was once (in earlier, stuffier eras) de rigueur for the complete education, alongside Latin and Greek. The idea that such schools, as Kahlenberg puts it, “cater to specific groups” is certainly true in the sense that Jews are primarily advancing such schools, and Jews might primarily take advantage of them. But non-Jewish students would have their academic and intellectual lives enriched just as surely by such schools as would Jewish students.

Another aspect of the potential benefits of these charter schools is indicated by the work of BJPA Director Steven M. Cohen and Judith Veinstein of Tel Aviv University in a chapter in the new volume 5 of the International Handbook of Jewish Education. The chapter, entitled Jewish Identity: Who You Knew Affects How You Jew, argues

that Jewish education, like all forms of education that take place in a social context, exerts its impact in part by creating, sustaining, and reinforcing Jewish friendships. And we need to recognize that Jewish friendships, apart from Jewish education, exert an independent effect upon adult Jewish identity outcomes... The impact of Jewish education can be augmented by the creation and sustenance of strong Jewish social networks. If so, then mere Jewish association... can play a valuable role in building Jewish social networks, Jewish community, and lifelong Jewish engagement... These circumstances, then, argue for a broadening of the very concept of “Jewish education” to embrace the formation and bestowal of Jewish social networks.

If Cohen and Veinstein are correct, then the mere fact that Hebrew language charter schools will attract substantial numbers of Jewish students will have positive effects not only upon Hebrew skills, but upon Jewish identity as well -- even if Jewish identity is studiously never "preached." Furthermore, Jewish parents who want their children to have a genuinely diverse group of friends would be able to choose a school that included substantial numbers of Jews, and substantial numbers of non-Jews, serving the students' Jewish and American/democratic identities simultaneously.

What do you think? Can Hebrew language charter schools satisfy the demands of living in a diverse democracy? For Jewish families, will these schools supplement Jewish religious education, or destroy it by being treated as a replacement?

Cohen's Comments: Birthright & J Street

This week, Birthright Israel rejected J Street's bid to operate its own Birthright trip presenting Israel from a progressive viewpoint. (See this article.)

In the first installment of a BJPA original video series we're calling Cohen's Comments, BJPA Director Prof. Steven M. Cohen says Birthright is wrong not only for rejecting J Street in particular, but for its stance on the broader question of operating trips which present particular values and perspectives. Watch the video!

 

Proportions of Giving: A Tiresome Argument

eJewish Philanthropy is highlighting selections fromThe Peoplehood Papers #6 (available in full via the Nadav Fund site), dedicated to the tension between the principles of charity toward the stranger and charity to help one's own. A number of articles appear, with some arguing that the Jewish community must put Jewish needs first, and others arguing that Jews must look to the needs of all people.

This is an argument we have seen before. I think immediately of an exchange last year between Prof. Jack Wertheimer, who argued that Jews give enough to nonsectarian causes and should spend more enhancing Jewish knowledge and engagement, and Rabbi Jill Jacobs, who argued that meeting Jewish needs and meeting other people's needs is not a zero-sum game.

This argument is tiresome for two reasons. First, each side argues mainly against straw-man versions of the other. Listening to the more particularist voices, one might conclude that all outward-directed Jewish philanthropy is undertaken by people and organizations completely uninterested in meeting Jewish needs. On the other hand, listening to the more universalist voices, one would think that anyone who believes in prioritizing Jewish needs wants actually to abandon non-Jewish needs completely. In fact, thank God, neither of these characterizations is true. This is an unnecessary spat between two groups of good people, both of which are full of integrity and compassion. People on both sides of this debate actually agree that Jews should help both Jews and non-Jews.

The only substantive difference over which to bicker is the proportion: should 90% of our funds go to help Jews and 10% to help non-Jews? Or vice-versa? Or 50-50? Maybe we should make a complex actuarial formula that will tell us, conclusively, that 43.79% of communal funds should go to helping our fellow Jews...

And that brings us to the second reason this argument is tiresome: why are we so picky about the proportion? Aren't there better uses for our time and energy than sniping at one another about proportions of giving? We could, for example, spend that time actually helping someone instead. Any time a donor or volunteer or organization steps up to make a difference, we shouldn't wag our fingers at them because they are [too / insufficiently] insular and should be helping [Jews / non-Jews]; we should congratulate them with a big "yasher koach" for doing something at all.

If I may wax ironic for a moment: we have been blessed with an abundance of need. There is a great mass of physical and spiritual poverty; there is great need for both religious and sociopolitical education. If we are ever faced with the terrifying conundrum of not enough needs to be met, then we can indulge ourselves in frittering away our time arguing about the "proper" proportions.

Meanwhile, in the face of such a voluminous and diverse pool of needs, let everyone give where her/his inclinations tend, and it will all be to the credit side of the moral ledger. When our inclinations differ, what of it? The organization which focuses on Jews out of familial love, and the organization which focuses on people who do not happen to be Jewish out of universal love, are both doing essentially the same thing: helping people. When we keep that in mind, the differences ought to take on a secondary importance, at most.

NYU's Unnecessary Apology

Yesterday morning, I received an email from the New York University Office of Public Affairs. (I am a grad student at NYU.*) The email read:

We apologize that John Sexton's memo to the NYU community about Academic Year 2010-11 was sent out after sundown on Friday, September 17.  We were aware of the start of Yom Kippur and had intended to be sure it was distributed early on Friday; however, because of technical problems and miscommunications, the memo was mistakenly sent on Friday evening. Please accept our apologies.

Upon receiving this email I was -- and I remain -- completely baffled, genuinely perplexed about what NYU had done for which it needed to apologize. What on earth is the problem?

Both NYU's student newspaper and the Jewish Telegraph Agency have covered this email and apology as news. (The NYU student newspaper I understand. As for the JTA... well, the fact that they covered these two emails can be seen either as a testament to the JTA's outstanding thoroughness, or as a sign of the Jewish community's obsessive naval-gazing, depending upon one's general mood.) But neither story clearly identifies what, precisely, NYU theoretically did wrong.

The JTA article cites "poor timing". But why, pray tell, was the timing "poor"? The story doesn't say, leaving the matter entirely to the reader's speculation. NYUNews.com notes that, "According to the customs of the holiday, those who observe the Jewish holy day must refrain from eating, drinking and using electronics from sundown on Sept. 17 to sundown on Sept. 18." But the story fails to identify how, specifically, NYU's sending an email runs afoul of Yom Kippur observance. There are a number of possible answers, but I hope to demonstrate below that all of them are quite ridiculous. Let us take each of these potential objections in turn:

Objection #1: NYU broke the laws of Yom Kippur by sending the email.

Response #1A: NYU is not Jewish, and so is not obligated in the laws of Yom Kippur. (NYU is also not a person for that matter, but set that aside, because if NYU were a Jewish institution, most Jews would probably still expect it to observe Yom Kippur. However, NYU is a non-sectarian university.)

Response #1B: NYU also breaks Shabbat all the time. This email went out at 10:36 on a Friday that happened to be Yom Kippur, but what if it had been an official email on a Friday in December, at 4:30 pm? Every winter, when Shabbat begins during the standard business day on Friday, I imagine official NYU emails go out on Shabbat with some frequency. Then consider Shavuot, Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret, and Pesach, which frequently occur on business days, and on which I am confident NYU sends out copious official emails. If we're going to complain about emails being sent when Jews are forbidden to work (which, I maintain, we have no business doing in the first place), then we should at least be consistent, and complain all year long.

Objection #2: The individual who sent the email might be Jewish, and broke Yom Kippur by sending it.

Response #2A: The email went out under the name of NYU President John Sexton, who (despite the fact that his late wife, Lisa Goldberg z"l, was Jewish) is Catholic, at least if his Wikipedia page is to be trusted.

Response #2B: Even if it was a Jew working for NYU who pushed the send button on Yom Kippur, that was her/his personal choice to desecrate the holiday. While I am saddened that any Jew would choose to work on Yom Kippur, I am not the least bit "offended" by NYU as an institution, which has still, under this scenario, done nothing wrong.

Response #2C: We don't have any specific reason to believe that it was a Jew who sent the email. Are we taking a position that anytime a secular institution which employs Jews does something electronically on Yom Kippur, it is a problem because a Jewish employee might be involved?

Response #2D: And if we do have a problem with NYU doing anything at all on Yom Kippur because a Jew might be involved, see Response #1B: shouldn't we say the same of Shabbat, and all holidays?

Objection #3: NYU caused Jewish students and staff to break the laws of Yom Kippur by receiving the email.

Response #3A: Is there some hidden verse of Torah about Yom Kippur email which I've never heard before? ("It is a sabbath of solemn rest unto you, and ye shall afflict your souls; it is a statute forever. Neither you, nor your household, nor the stranger who is among you, nor your laptop, nor your printer, nor your fax, nor your Google account, shall do any manner of work...")

Response #3B: No, nobody broke Yom Kippur by receiving the email. Yeshivas Ohr Sameach, a right-wing Orthodox outreach institution with excellent bona fides in halachic stringency, notes (in the name of Rav Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg) that it is completely permissible for a Jew in New York to send an email on Friday to a Jew in Jerusalem, where it is already Shabbat. Presumably, implicitly, there is no problem at all with that Jerusalem Jew retrieving the email after Shabbat, even though it arrived in her inbox on Shabbat. Receiving emails on Shabbat or Yom Tov is like setting up your lights on a timer; it is an automated process that doesn't break the solemnity of the day because you don't actually do anything to control it on the day of rest itself.

Objection #4: By conducting "business as usual" on Yom Kippur, the University sent the message that Jewish students are marginal and their highest holy day doesn't matter.

Response #4A: I think in order to have this response you need to be actively looking for things to be offended over. In which case, can we consider turning our energies toward matters of important substance instead?

Response #4B: What actually matters is that observant Jews have full access and ability to participate in NYU without compromising their religious life. This email does nothing to hinder Jewish participation in NYU life. So what's the problem?

Response #4C: The apology email went out at 11 am on a Sunday, which many Christians consider the Sabbath, or Lord's Day. Christian interpretations differ as to the necessity or nature of work restrictions on Sunday, but many denominations are quite strict, and some Christians might find this official apology email offensive coming, as it does, on the Christian Sabbath. Should NYU send out a new apology email about that? Or should we instead simply recognize that NYU is a huge and diverse university, with a large number of religions represented in its staff and student body?

Those are the four potential objections I can think of, all of them baseless. So am I missing something else? Is there some other reason a person could be offended by an email sent by a secular institution on Yom Kippur? Let me know.

So why do I bring this up, and pay a trivial matter more attention yet? Because the sad fact is that NYU wasn't being paranoid when they issued an apology for this non-transgression. There probably are Jews who managed somehow to be offended by (horror of horrors) the timing of an email update.

My fellow Jews, I say this with great love: we are a difficult bunch. We are so opinionated, so bold, so diverse and so eager to fight the good fight with all the righteous indignation we can muster that the Gentile world could be forgiven for feeling that, no matter what they do, some of us will be offended.

And let me add, I love those qualities of our people. These qualities gave us what it takes to smash idols and proclaim God's justice, to make enormous contributions to world ideas and culture, to stand up for our rights and for the rights of others. It takes difficult people to do revolutionary things.

I'm just saying: let's make sure our righteous indignation is focused on things that matter most. Iran is on course to build a nuclear bomb. There are millions of people enslaved, and millions more in crushing poverty. There are terrorists bent on destroying Israel and America, and extremists bent on destroying civil liberties. Are we really, really getting offended about emails being sent four hours into Yom Tov?

For some perspective, let's take a look back through the BJPA archives to another High Holiday season: September 1958. Albert J. Weiss of the ADL, writing in the Journal of Jewish Communal Service,discussed quotas and other forms of outright admissions discrimination against Jews at many hundreds of American universities. If anyone can read this piece, and then still manage to be in a huff about EmailGate, then I quite simply marvel at their superhuman powers of huffery.

 

*In the interest of full disclosure I should note that, in addition to being an NYU student, as an employee of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive @ NYU Wagner, I am on the University's payroll, and indeed, my contributions to this blog are in that capacity. I should also note that I am the recipient of a fellowship named for University President John Stexton's late wife, Lisa Goldberg, zichrona livracha. All that being said, however, I promise that I wrote this posting on my own behalf, based on my own true reactions and judgments, which I believe to be fair, despite my ties to NYU.

Jews Not Very Much Like Me

 Our communities' struggles with diversity, tolerance, and openness play out in many arenas, some of which have been discussed here on the blog - conversion issues, intermarriage, pluralism, and more. What's inside and what's outside? When is tradition actually innovation, and when does innovation become tradition? Sometimes it feels like these questions are tearing our community apart. And maybe sometimes you have to tear some lettuce to make a salad bowl? It's easy to get caught up in a particular discourse about difference, but some things help stretch our scope. For me, reading about exotic-to-me Jewish communities gets my 'Peoplehood' feelings tingly - it's fascinating to me to think about people who feel, at the same time, very strongly connected to me (Peoplehood? Family? Tribe?), and also incredibly different.

Although BJPA mainly focuses on the North American Jewish community, we also have some fascinating resources on more distant communities. My favorite of these is this Hadassah working paper on Jewish women. Centered on women, some of these articles offer information on communities that are barely written about - especially, for example, the article on Jewish women in Latvia. Another Hadassah publication tells part of the history of the Jewish community of Curacao and its process of displacement and assimilation, through the story of The Girls They Left Behind: Curacao's Jewish Women in the Nineteenth Century.

But even those communities seem relatively mainstream, compared to those featured in some fantastic recent Tablet Magazine articles. Today I was riveted by Sarah Marcus' "Mountain Jews", which shares some information about the history and current situation of the  Jewish community in the Caucasus mountains, mainly in Azerbaijan and the Russian republic of Dagestan. These Jews live  in a majority Muslim jurisdiction that struggles to reconcile freedom of religion with freedom from religion, in the aftermath of the  imposed athiesm of the Soviet Regime. One settlement was established in the mid-1800s by a local ruler specifically to be a place of refuge for Jews in the community:

Krasnaya Sloboda is inhabited almost exclusively by Mountain Jews, between 2,000 and 5,000 of them, according to various estimates. In the mid-18th century the khan of Guba, Hussein, established Yevraiskaya Sloboda, literally “Jewish settlement,” as a place for Jews to live safe from attack. His son and successor, Feteli, so the story goes, decreed that if anyone came to attack the town, the Jews should light fires and he would see them from across the river and send help to defend the inhabitants.

Today, these Jews generally report feeing accepted and safe in Azerbaijan, and it seems that they have become somewhat of a political instrument. Nowadays, Azerbaijan buys arms from Israel and hosts an Israeli embassy.

In the early days of Azeri independence the authorities deliberately reached out to the Jewish communities, realizing that they could be a magnet for the organized Jewish community in the United States, with its impressive lobbying power, said Murinson.

Last month, Matthew Fishbane wrote about the Jews in Medellin, Colombia, a community that seems both brand new and ancient. In 2004, Juan Carlos (now Elad) Villegas stood in front of his 2,600 evangelical Christian congregation and apologized for leading them astray. A couple of years later, he secured a Torah scroll and a Kabbalist Rabbi who flew to Colombia and oversaw his Jewish education and conversion, along with dozens of other former Christians. They see themselves as descendants of conversos and point to cultural and genetic evidence of the fact that they were in some sense Jewish all along. Fishbane shares some of that evidence, and this story of hints and clues in ritual persistence and cultural resistance is one part of the article I find especially interesting - how the community uses (and doesn't use) pig products in its cuisine, remnants of mikvahs, mezuzahs hidden in Mary statues, and more:

...the stereotypes sure do add up. Paisas refer to themselves as a nation and a race... [and] prefer to marry within the tribe. They are reputed to be spendthrifts, excellent merchants, big debaters, tireless colonizers, and they make a formidable paramilitary... the Barrientos helped create San Pedro cemetery where they could be separate, along with 50 other families, from the riff-raff buried in San Lorenzo. In 1910, the families that founded this cemetery asked the archbishop to consecrate the ground. He agreed, on the condition that the private owners certify the cemetery as Catholic. They refused. The tombstones are rife with Sephardic names like Sénior, Peres, and Salzedo. A local newspaper report on the Barrientos, on the occasion of the conversion of their Art Deco family house into a downtown public library, described them as being “characterized by big, eagle noses” and “silent, shy personalities.” At the library, I asked if the immersion bath in the patio, beautifully restored to its original decorative tile, was Jewish. “No,” the librarian answered, a little perplexed. “It was just their luxurious bathtub. My grandfather has one of those at his farm.”

This small community is learning and using Ladino and re-creating tradition nearly from scratch.

 And sometimes the diversity closest to home can be the most complicated to deal with. Although the community in Fishbane's article gets its fair share of harsh comments (on the authenticity of the community, the quality of the conversion, etc), the Jews in the article on Kohenet, the Hebrew Priestess Institute, are pretty much maligned. They describe their practice as earth-based Judaism, grounded in Jewish tradition and texts, but it sounds pretty pagan to many commenters, though the charge of paganism is explicitly addressed in the article itself.

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