יום שלישי, יולי 10, 2007



Please visit my new site:


I will keep all the old posts up here, at least for now. But they are also at the new site, in a much more navigable format.

New posts will be seen only at the new site.

If you have been so kind as to link to me, please change the link on your site.

יום ראשון, יולי 08, 2007


Eco-Kashrut: Is it "Eco" and Kosher or is "Eco" the new Kosher?

Saturday's Washington Post ran an article about the concept of eco-kashrut and growing interest in eating foods that are produced in a way that meets Jewish ethical standards, e.g., respectful of the environment, avoiding cruelty to animals, and with responsible labor standards--sustaining ourselves sustainably, as I like to say.

The story notes that:

the most dramatic expansion of eco-kosher principles is likely to come in the next few years as Conservative rabbis and congregations, which occupy the middle ground between Orthodox and Reform Judaism, create a new ethical standard for food production.

What remains unclear to me is whether its advocates think of eco-kashrut as an add-on to conventional kashrut ("eco" and kosher), or as an alternative to it (ecological responsibility as the new kosher). The WashPost notes that:

The Conservative seal of approval will not be based on traditional kosher requirements, such as separating meat from dairy products, avoiding pork and shellfish, and slaughtering animals with a sharp knife across the throat.

That sounds like eco-kosher as the new kosher to me. Yet just a bit later, the article quotes a rabbi as speaking of eco-kashrut as an add-on:

We do believe that most Jews, if given a choice between 'This item is kosher' and 'This item is kosher and also was produced by a company that respects its workers and the environment,' that most Jews will choose the latter.

Obviously, we are a long way from an agreed upon definition. But I would guess that the Jews who are most likely to be attracted to an "eco-kashrut" concept are progressive Jews, who just happen also those least likely to adhere to conventional kashrut. (According to the story, only about 15% of US Jews keep kosher.) If so, then doesn't a concept of eco-kashrut as alternative hold more promise?

Thanks to jewschool for the pointer and discussion.

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Live Earth and Shabbat

The following is excerpted from TreeHugger. It is posted from Israel by Karin Kloosterman, who notes she has "mixed feelings" about the Live Earth concerts:

today [6 July] there was a green expo and market at Rabin Square promoting organic food and clothing; ecological movies, shows for kids and a yoga workshop in Tel Aviv. And tomorrow from 6 to 11 pm will be a large screen set up at Rabin Square to broadcast the [Live Earth concert] event live from Channel 10. [...]

Why the mixed feelings? The concert is going to start broadcasting during the Sabbath. And in a way, the Sabbath in Israel offers a 24+ hour period reprieve for nature from man’s material demands. Observant Jews park their cars, turn off the electrical appliances, refrain from working, plowing the fields; and they give their animals rest too. Studies of air pollution levels in Israel decrease dramatically from the Friday night to sundown Saturday night, making us wonder why green groups throughout Israel don’t use Shabbat for their own environmental agenda?

Excellent question, Karin.

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יום שני, יולי 02, 2007


The full moon of Tammuz

This was posted on Sunday and I confirmed that the photo appeared. Then it is gone for some reason. And when I try to edit the post to bring the photo back, stupid Blogger insists on changing the date of the post. Improvements (i.e. change of blogging software) coming soon...

Over one of the Washingtonia palms just in front of the house, at about 10:00 p.m. on Shabbat eve of 14 Tammuz, the full moon that marks the brightest 24-hour period due to its close proximity to the summer solstice.1

Full Moon of Tammuz

The contrast between the bright moon and the otherwise dark sky is a bit of a challenge for my digital camera, but the effect nonetheless conveys just how bright the moon was. It is pretty much the only source of light in the photo, though there is some illumination from a light in the house and other lights visible along the canyon below.

As I discussed in the previous summer-solstice post, it is striking that of the four major seasonal sun-earth events, the summer solstice is the one at which there is no Jewish festival tied to the corresponding moon cycle.2 In that entry, I suggested a reason for there not being one: unlike the other seasons, this time of year threatens few pagan-temptation problems for an ancient agricultural society's monotheism. There is, in a Mediterranean climate, almost no risk of major storms or other natural phenomena that might tempt the people to pay homage to pagan gods. And, while I am confident that the lack of such temptation is correct, I must say that I am puzzled by the references in the Book of Joshua, right near the striking passage about the sun standing still (10:12-13), to hail stones and to a flooded Jordan, the flow of which must be stopped in order for the people to cross. Both of these references imply a sudden storm, very much out of season for events that tradition claims happened around this time of year.3 (Biblical scholars, help me out here!)

As I noted, there are some modern efforts to establish a Jewish summer-solstice ritual (and some similar interest among some Christians as well; see links in previous entry). However, those efforts that I know of all place the proposed rituals on the solstice itself. Given the lunar timing of all the other holidays, such a proposal seems, well, pagan. Any such rituals (and I will leave to others what they might be) should occur or climax on the evening depicted here: the full moon of Tammuz, the period of maximum day and night light.

1. There are years in which the full moon closest to the summer solstice would be that of Sivan. Next year will be one such year, as was 2005.

2. That is, there is Chanukah, timed for the waning moon closest to the winter solstice; Pesach, timed for the full moon of spring; and the High Holy Days, which begin with the new moon closest to the autumnal equinox and continue through to the week-long festival of Sukkot, which begins with the full moon closest to the autumnal equinox. By occurring on Shabbat, the full moon of Tammuz joined Rosh Hashanah, Sukkot, and Chanukah, which all occurred on or began on Shabbat in 5767.

3. The battles depicted therein probably never happened at all. That's not the point. The book was written after the settlement in the Land of Israel to interpret the past in a way consistent with the now-settled national narrative. If it was intended to be understood that these events happened in summer, a hail storm and flooded river are rather out of context. The commentaries I have looked at do not address this, to my satisfaction, although there is perhaps a literature I have yet to locate.

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יום שלישי, יוני 26, 2007


East and West

Just over three months ago, when musing about the states created by the post-WW II partition of British India, I asked why India succeeded, and...

Why not Pakistan? It is almost self-evident that East and West were not going to be viable in one state (lesson for Gaza and the West Bank?)

(But, I wondered, why has even post-second-partition Pakistan been essentially a failed state?) Little could I have imagined just how soon after those remarks Palestine would degenerate into its own separate statelets of East and West.

I have never been convinced that the "two-state solution" was viable. How many states with swaths of another state's territory between its parts have been viable? The US (with Canada separating Alaska and the rest). Not too many others. There is Russia's Kaliningrad, which, from what little I know, is pretty much a failed society. Cabinda has a separatist movement vis-a-vis the rest of Angola. These sorts of arrangements are bound to be difficult at best, if relations with the state between the two separate components are not good. And, even if the two-state solution were implemented tomorrow, mistrust between Israel and Palestine would not go away soon.

The events of the last weeks certainly have not shaken me of the view of non-viability. Which is not to say that I have a better solution. Occupation forever? One state? Three states? Gaza and the West Bank absorbed into neighboring Arab states? None of these looks too likely to succeed, either.

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יום חמישי, יוני 21, 2007


Summer Solstice

The summer solstice is here, at least for those of us in the northern hemisphere. We Jews have festivals for three of the four major sun-earth events of the year (Chanukah near the winter solstice, Pesach around the vernal equinox, and Rosh Hashanah around the autumnal equinox). I have been thinking about why we don't have one for the summer solstice.

The summer solstice for many centuries has been marked by various pagan festivals. However, there is no holiday on the Jewish calendar to mark the summer solstice, despite the obvious fact that other holidays like Chanukah and Passover are built on the backs of pre-Jewish pagan celebrations (as are Christmas and Easter, too). Nonetheless, as the OC Register (not my favorite paper, but whatever) article just linked notes:

some modern Judeo-Christian groups are reviving solstice worship. [Let's assume the writer intended that to be taken as not worship of the solstice but worship on it.--ed]

"Many of those who grew up in Jewish and Christian religion want to see the modern holidays in their agrarian origin," Lucas said. [Amein--ed] "These green Jews and green Christians are incorporating the solstice into their current practices." [Hey, Green Jew, that's me!--ed]

Some religious groups point to biblical passages that may have occurred on the summer solstice, including the verse in Joshua 10:12 in which Joshua stops the sun in the sky. (The term solstice is actually from two Latin words meaning "sun stands still.")

"There is also a legend that Adam and Eve were cast out of the Garden of Eden on the summer solstice," said Rabbi Jill Hammer, director and cofounder of Tel Shemesh, a Jewish organization focused on the celebration of nature. "In the Jewish tradition, the summer is always about this trade-off: abundance but also danger. The summer is about exile and sorrow and loss."

Tel Shemesh offers a description of its summer-solstice ritual. As for the Joshua 10 reference above--and which my previous post was about--it refers to the narrative of the battles for the conquest of Canaan (as re-told well after the events). Often ancient battles stopped at nightfall (night-vision technology being rather primitive back then); might the battle have taken place at the summer solstice?

"Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still" by Gustave Dore, (d. 1883) (courtesy Wikipedia.)

Some tradition says the battle was on 3 Tammuz. While we can't possibly know (even if the battle itself ever occurred, for that matter), if it did occur on 3 Tammuz, the impending night after the standing still of the sun indeed would have been very dark (being just days past the new moon).

Of course, each of the solar seasonal transitions (equinoxes and solstices) marks an important transitional point for the grower of deciduous fruit trees in a Mediterranean climate (such as the Land of Israel or southern California). At the winter solstice, the trees are in their deepest dormancy, while at the vernal equinox most of them are blooming or have just set their fruit. Now, at the summer solstice, we are approaching peak season for the fruit of the deciduous trees.

The "production cycle" for the deciduous fruits and other crops may have much to do with why there is no Jewish holiday tradition at this time of year. Unlike in the winter and spring, there are few natural forces that seem to contend with one another in "battles," the outcome of which will determine the farmer's bounty for the coming harvest (completed shortly after the autumnal equinox, at which we have Sukkot!). In the winter, we worry about warm days preventing good flower-bud set and about not having enough rain. In spring we worry about too much rain, or early heat and drying winds. For an ancient people being slowly weaned off polythesim, each of these battles was a temptation to stray and "bow before other gods" (paying homage to the god of rain or the god of sun, or whoever.)

Here at the summer solstice--the tension between "abundance but also danger" notwithstanding--we have the bounty of sunlight, the warm days and calm nights, almost no threat of major storms (in Mediterranean climates), and thus little to threaten the fruit.

Summer thus offers few temptations by those other gods, but plenty for which to give thanks to the One.


Source note:

The connection between agriculture, mono- vs. poly-theism, and the Jewish festivals is developed in a terrific book by Nogah Hareuveni, Nature in our Biblical Heritage (Kiryat Ono, Israel: Neot Kedumim, 1980). There is nothing in that book about the summer solstice, however, because of there being no significant Jewish tradition about this solar event. There is an interesting discussion about Tu B'Av, however, but one thing at at time! That's not till next month.

Much of this post is cross-posted at my other blog, which means I am getting less and less serious about this semi-anonymity thing.

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Atheist siddur?

Wait, that's an oxymoron, right? Excerpts and very lively discussion at Jewschool.

My favorite from the comment thread: When someone appeared to suggest this would be as bad as adding "imahot and Jesus" to the Amidah, and someone else asked if that commenter really meant to equate imahot and Jesus, Amit said:

sounds good to me: “magen avraham, poqed sarah, vetzolev yeshua”

I must admit that I needed to go to the dictionary to check out what a couple of those key words meant, but after doing so, I thoroughly second Radical Cleric's follow-on:

That’s fantastic. I love it. Anyone who doesn’t know Hebrew, this phrase is so funny it should make you want to learn it. ‘Schoiach to Amit.
I think I am going to have to make a point of keeping up with Amit's blog.

יום שישי, יוני 15, 2007


One moon, but never standing still

It's the 29th of Sivan. And that means I have completed my first moon cycle as a Jew!

It also means that Rosh Chodesh Tammuz is just two days away. Tammuz, the month in which the summer solstice will occur, and the time for reading the book of Joshua and its stories of the conquest of the Promised Land:

12 Then spoke Joshua to HaShem in the day when HaShem delivered up the Amorites before the children of Israel; and he said in the sight of Israel: 'Sun, stand thou still upon Gibeon; and thou, Moon, in the valley of Aijalon.'

13 And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed, until the nation had avenged themselves of their enemies. Is not this written in the book of Jashar? And the sun stayed in the midst of heaven, and hasted not to go down about a whole day.

The last month has been above average on the "busy" scale, with hardly time to stand still and reflect. But the summer is ahead, and in less than a week we will enjoy the extra light of the longest day of the year, when the sun stands still for us, even if just for just a moment.

Speaking of light--Shabbat Shalom!

יום שלישי, יוני 12, 2007


Professor Finkelstein's tenure case

Norman G. Finkelstein, a political science professor at De Paul University, was denied tenure by a vote of his university's campuswide committee on promotions. On the department's website, he is defined as a scholar of "theory of Zionism, the Israel-Palestine conflict, and the Nazi holocaust."

Finkelstein has received considerable attention for a book, published by the University of California Press in 2005, Beyond Chutzpah: On the misuse of anti-Semitism and the abuse of history. The book has generated considerable controversy (putting it mildly). I have not read the book or a review of it, but from various news stories I am aware of the spat he got into with Alan Dershowitz over this book and some of his other work. Dershowitz reportedly wrote a letter to DePaul against Finkelstein's tenure. Now, I am normally quite ready to back anyone who gets into a spitting war with Dershowitz. But is Finkelstein's academic career really falling victim of his own controversial views?

Finkelstein and his supporters allege that he was denied because of the views he has articulated in the book and other published items. If that is the case, it would be a bad day for academic freedom. However, is it the case? I know little about the standards for tenure at DePaul. The university is not really "on the map" for political science. I know of one study that lists the top 200 political science departments in the world (using a methodology that I consider the best of the many rankings out there). DePaul does not make the list. So the standards for tenure in political science at DePaul presumably are a bit lower than in the circles I am more familiar with. Still, when I downloaded his curriculum vitae from his academic site, I was rather surprised. The man received his Ph.D. in 1988 (from Princeton), the same year as yours truly. Nineteen years is a very long time from Ph.D. to tenure, had it been granted. (I was awarded tenure in 1995, a bit earlier than average, but not by a lot.) It is also a long time to have had only two books published by a university press (besides Beyond Chutzpah with UC, there was The Rise and Fall of Palestine: A Personal Account of the Intifadah Years, published by University of Minnesota Press in 1996) and apparently no articles in academic journals. I also note that Finkelstein lists Noam Chomsky (who is not a political scientist) as one of his two references. The other is Avi Shlaim, whom I had not heard of before, but who is a historian of the Arab-Israeli conflict and is at Oxford. Nothing inherently wrong with these references--the lightning-rod nature of Chomsky notwithstanding--but when one is seeking employment or promotion in an academic field, one normally has references within the discipline.

In short, while I can't pretend to offer judgment on the justification, yet alone the motives, of this tenure denial, a quick glance at his record does not exactly allow us to reject the hypothesis that the decision had to do with his academic productivity and impact on the discipline of political science.


יום שני, יוני 11, 2007


Why Jewish: The Left-Libertarian (or Green) Connection

The following is a continuation of the posting of excerpts, somewhat revised, from the various essays I wrote in preparation for my conversion. (The link in the first paragraph refers to one previous post in the series.)

So, here I am, binding my life to that of the Jewish people. All of the experiences I have related so far about getting in touch with the traditions and history preceded any synagogue attendance, any classes, and even any significant reading about Judaism, let alone thought of conversion. And all of my experience in what is now just over one year since I first entered our synagogue, all the study and preparation, have reinforced at the intellectual, as well as emotional, level, what a correct decision this is. The more I learned, the more it was clear that Judaism was the right fit for the sometimes-amorphous worldview that I already held.

First, Judaism combines a commitment to the individual’s education and betterment while at the same time maintaining a strong attachment to communal well-being and responsibility. In politics I have always had a liberal outlook. Yet at the same time, I have always been dissatisfied with classical liberalism and a modern secular society that too often glorifies individual material pursuits with minimal regard for their impact on the larger community. Over the past year, at the same time that I have finally gone from being non-religious to Jewish-identified, I have also gone from a nonpartisan left outlook to formal Green party affiliation.

The Green parties worldwide are what we political scientists, ever deft at naming things, call “left-libertarian.” Libertarian means freedom for the individual from restrictions imposed by hierarchies of human creation—principally the state. Left means the promotion of social justice and egalitarianism through seeking limits on the pursuit of private profit and uplifting the weak in society.

What is too often neglected by leftists and libertarians alike is that one without the other inevitably leads to oppression. Libertarianism without egalitarianism means the freedom to pursue private gain even when it entails losing sight of the communitarian maxim that “we are all in this together.” Egalitarianism without libertarianism means toleration of an oppressive state that interferes with private life and stifles the individual human’s ability to innovate.

I firmly believe that, whatever the partisan political affiliation of any individual Jew, Judaism is fundamentally a coherent set of left-libertarian principles—probably the most coherent combination of these values ever devised. As summarized in words attributed to Rabbi Hillel: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am for myself alone, what am I? If not now, when?" Our Jewish traditions have entailed a remarkable relative lack of hierarchy, especially in the liberal streams of Judaism that go back at least to the time of the Pharisees. The only real hierarchy is that between God and humanity, and even that is tempered by the mutual responsibility of the covenant. We are commanded to look after the poor and the stranger in our midst—left principles—yet we are encouraged to develop our individuality and to make our own choices—libertarian principles. These are fundamentals of left-libertarian thinking. This connection between left-libertarian, or green, politics and Judaism is one that I hope to develop over time in action within both Green and Jewish organizational contexts, and perhaps one day in my academic research as a professional political scientist. The connection may not be original, but it is underdeveloped and underappreciated.

(Other reasons to be posted in the near future!)

יום שלישי, מאי 22, 2007


Shavuot, 5767

The following are the remarks I plan to give before our congregation on Shavuot, in honor of my conversion. (Some names have been suppressed in the interests of "semi-anonymity.") In the coming days and weeks I will also post some excerpts from the longer essay I wrote for my beit din and the exam for the Intro to Judaism course.

I have had an interest in Jewish culture and history for at least twenty years, but it was only in the past two years that my interests took the next step, through a spiritual awakening and ultimately to embracing God’s covenant with the Jewish People.

My interest in Jewish history and culture really blossomed after I began to travel to Eastern Europe for my professional research as a political scientist exploring the emergence of democracy after the oppression of Communism. The first of these trips was in 1992—the year my wife and I were married. In several subsequent visits I became especially fascinated with the collection of the Prague Jewish Museum, which had been assembled by the Nazis for their planned postwar museum of what they would call “the extinct race.” And, with the living Jewish communities in that part of the world being so small, there was little more than a “museum” quality to what I was experiencing.

Then in 2005, in the wake of the Orange Revolution, we traveled to Ukraine. We had talked about going to western Ukraine for years, to visit the city from which my wife's grandmother had emigrated in 1920. Days before our departure for Europe we had made a connection with Yale Strom, a klezmer musician and filmmaker, whose “Carpati” is a documentary about the life of a Jewish man in the small community in Berehovo. We were able to locate this man, Ze’ev. He took us into his beautiful small shul, still active for a very small community. Ze’ev recited a prayer for us. He spent much of the morning with us, telling us about his life, how he avoided being selected by Mengele at Auschwitz, and how he struggles to hold on to the tradition of such a small community today. When we came out of the shul, I said to my wife, I just had a religious experience. This man not only survived, he lived to continue praising God right in the land where Hitler and then Stalin tried to root out all aspects of Judaism.

More than a week later, on the flight back from Ukraine, we found ourselves seated amidst a group of young Jewish American women returning from a summer camp at which they teach young Ukrainian Jews to reconnect with their own traditions. Was this a sign? Flying high above Eastern Europe on one of the bumpiest flights I have ever experienced, surrounded by Jews keeping Judaism alive right in the heart of a land populated by Jews at least as far back as the 10th century conversion by the Khazar emperor and many of his subjects, yet nearly made Judenrein in the very lifetime of our parents. These experiences really drove home to me just how important it is to preserve and grow these Jewish communities of Eastern Europe: Only by Jews’ presence can God’s message of redemption for all humanity be heard in our time, right in the heart of the land where Hitler tried to snuff it out.

Upon returning home, I was determined to begin a process of exploring more seriously how I could connect with the traditions I had just witnessed reemerging in a democratic Eastern Europe from the ashes of Nazism and the darkness of Communism.

There were times during this journey when I thought I had come in “backwards”—that my interest in culture and history before faith and observance was the wrong sequence. But over time I have become increasingly confident that it is precisely the right way to do it. For what is conversion in Judaism? It is not merely the acceptance of a set of religious and theological principles. In fact, it is scarcely that at all. More fundamentally, it is the mutual embrace of the seeker and the community; it is the joining of an intergenerational covenant with a people and that people’s God. On Shavuot we read the Book of Ruth, which includes the following passage:

For wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.

The sequence is significant: joining a community, accepting that community’s God. I have felt increasingly closer to the Jewish People for some time. Now I embrace the God of the Jewish People, making my entry into the Covenant formal today, on Shavuot, as we commemorate the receiving of the Torah. I do not know where this journey will take me from here, but already Judaism has given me a new perspective on several principles and practices that motivate the secular side of my life. I will give a couple of examples of how the Jewish concept of Tikkun Olam gives new meaning to causes I adhere to.

I have already mentioned that I am a political scientist by trade. I am also an organic grower on a small commercial scale; I have brought some of the bounty of the field to the Temple today, although it is fruit of the trees and not wheat. Like Judaism, the organic movement is all about making distinctions in basic activities like producing and consuming food. While I do not find the discipline of conventional kashrut relevant to my own life, I am exploring the emerging concept of eco-kashrut and its connection to organic agriculture. Modern urban, consumer society has become too detached from food production to recognize fully the extent to which one of the core aspects Judaism is to teach us to understand the Source of our sustenance—as reflected in an alternate name given in the Torah for today’s holiday, Chag HaKatzir, the early summer harvest festival. As Jews we are called to accept the responsibility that we not only sustain ourselves, but that we sustain ourselves sustainably. Organic agriculture is about ensuring that we minimize the impact on the environment in producing our food. Eco-kashrut offers a synthesis between good agricultural practice—something the Torah is deeply imbued with, in the context of the knowledge of its times—and modern Jewish living.

Returning to my political science side, I hope to enlist progressive Jews in a form of social action that might seem very distant or even irrelevant to most people hearing this—electoral reform to deepen democracy. We Jews have the most “democratic” of the major religious communities, yet too many major American Jewish organizations are oligarchic in practice and, for my taste, too closely tied to the secular and moneyed political power-brokers. This results in their being too distant from the real responsibilities of fulfilling God’s covenant to bring about peace among the nations and to take care of all Creation.

Fairer elections—right here in our own country as much as in Poland, Ukraine, or anywhere else—are an absolute necessity to open up channels of representation for all of us who otherwise end up submitting to oppressive hierarchies and being led into needless wars and environmental destruction. Without deepening democracy, there will be no sustainable peace in our world and ultimately no sustainability of creation itself. Thus democratic electoral reform is at the core of our responsibility for Tikkun Olam.

So what does being an observant Jew mean to me? It means keeping an eye out for acts committed in my name that harm humanity or the environment—“let them be for frontlets between your eyes.” And it means, taking corrective action—“bind them as a sign upon your hand.” This is how we work to bring closer the day when, as the prophet Micah foretells, the nations shall beat their spears into pruning hooks, so that all may sit under their vine or under their fig tree, and none shall make them afraid.

Ken yehi ratzon.

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יום ראשון, מאי 20, 2007


Your computer is treif!

Must be clicked on to be believed.


Mars is safe

Mars chocolate, that is. The company has reversed an earlier plan to begin using an animal product in the manufacture of its candies, after entreaties from British vegetarians and the Israeli rabbinate.

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יום שישי, מאי 18, 2007


I am a Jew

Yes, it is official! As of a few hours before sundown on 29 Iyar, I emerged from the mikveh as a new Jew.

These last weeks have been exciting and very full, but above all fulfilling. I have not had much time or energy for blogging. But much more is to come in this space soon!

יום שלישי, אפריל 24, 2007


Our Ararat

"My" Ararat is an insignificant scrub-studded hill. But "Our Ararat" refers to an Armenian statement of resistance and remembrance: "In Yerevan, locals can gaze at Mount Ararat but can’t go there."

Today marks the 92d anniversary of the execution of the Young Turk's final solution against the Armenians.

Never forget.

Today also is, of course, Israeli Independence Day. Rejoice! And remember, for today is also Al Nakba.

(Disclaimer: A link here does not necessarily constitute agreement with the statements at the linked site. Just an effort at contextualizing!)

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