Raising difficult questions about Jewish slumlords

Back in the spring, the Village Voice published a series on the worst landlords in New York City.

It’s a topic the Voice has visited many times over the years.

This year, a Conservative rabbi named Jill Jacobs wrote a column for the Forward about an extremely sensitive issue that arose when she read about the worst landlords in the Voice. Why, she wanted to know, were about half the landlords on the list Jewish — and significant figures in ultra-Orthodox communities?

She asked: “Will Jewish organizations continue to accept donations from landlords whose wealth comes at the expense of guaranteeing safe living conditions for their tenants? Will these landlords continue to be accorded positions of honor in their Jewish communities? Or are we finally ready for teshuvah?”

Now the Voice has followed up on this very delicate question by asking a number of Jewish leaders to address the question. The headline is “How Can a Religious Person Justify Being a Slumlord?” The responses make for fascinating reading.

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, founder and president of an Orthodox social-justice group, says (in part): “It is a concern for me. There’s injustice coming from every community, but when one publicly portrays their piety, the community naturally holds them to a higher standard. It’s always a concern of mine that ultra-Orthodox Jews are going to get scapegoated. So I think it’s up to us to clean it up, and not for outsiders to point fingers at Jews.”

Isaac Abraham, described as an “unofficial spokesman of Williamsburg’s Satmar Jews to the outside world,” says: “The landlord has to be responsible to provide services. But it gets to a point where a landlord is chasing his own tail. I didn’t create the phrase “Graffiti creates graffiti, vandalism creates vandalism.” Any landlord who doesn’t provide services, he should be hit by the book.”

Shmarya Rosenberg, a former member of Chabad Lubavitch who writes a controversial blog about the Orthodox world called FailedMessiah.com, says: “Once you’re inside the group, there are few crimes you can commit. There are few crimes that anyone can put against you. If the slumlord was doing it to hipsters or Puerto Ricans or blacks, it would be fine. They aren’t going to condemn that person or say he shouldn’t have an aliyah in synagogue or say he shouldn’t be rewarded.”

Joe Levin, an Hasidic Jew and private investigator, says: “I watch the news, and I see these things about these Orthodox guys. This is the nature of some people, screwing around for a little money and embarrassing the whole community. I say to myself, “If you have to do these things, why call yourself a rabbi? Why put this title on yourself? Why do it?” ”

Unfortunately, the public raising of these issues will bring the crazies out of the woodwork, especially on the Web (where so many crazies feel free to be themselves).

I was reading something on Yahoo News the other day about Bernie Madoff’s son committing suicide and half the comments were anti-Semitic rants.

But that is the world in which we live.

‘Can ya tone down all the yelling for crucifixion, maybe?’

As the story goes, the villagers of Oberammergau, a small town in Bavaria, first put on a Passion Play in 1634, possibly in hopes that God would save them from the bubonic plague.

The Passion Play has been performed every decade, more or less, since. Only villagers participate.

The play is famous, of course, for its longevity, the remarkable commitment and faith shown by generations of villagers and — for some — the play’s contributions to European anti-Semitism.

Many Jewish and Christian scholars have long criticized the play’s traditional depiction of “the Jews” as bloodthirsty Jesus-killers. Many of the same issues have long been debated about other Passion Plays, including Mel Gibson’s movie version.

The Oberammergau Passion Play is being performed this year, through October (the photos are from a dress rehearsal in May). Village leaders in Oberammergau have made changes to their play in an effort to appease international concerns.

And now a collection of Christian and Jewish scholars are weighing in on how they’ve done.

The Council of Centers on Jewish-Christian Relations has released a report on the 2010 version of the Passion Play.

The Council is a collection of several dozen academic centers in the U.S. and Canada dedicated to improving relations between Christians and Jews. Its members are very knowledgeable of and sensitive to the history of anti-Semitism in Christian traditions.

The current chair of the Council is Elena G. Procario-Foley, the Driscoll Professor of Jewish-Catholic Studies and Chair of the Religious Studies Department at Iona College.

An ad-hoc committee’s report, adopted by the full membership, credits the play’s scriptwriters for their “effort to attend to history more carefully.”

The report likes three broad aspects of the script: “(1) Jewish society in Jesus’ day is presented as variegated and vibrant; (2) Jesus is clearly shown to be a Jew; and (3) the relationship between Caiaphas and Pontius Pilate is nuanced. Other positive features of the script were also noted.”


The report finds that Jewish opponents to Jesus “are unjustifiably depicted in such extreme terms” that viewers may leave with a negative impression of the Jews in general.

The report notes: “Caiaphas, the script’s principal antagonist, as well as Annas, are unnecessarily and baselessly portrayed as fanatics driven to see Jesus crucified.  As a result the depiction of Pilate is somewhat skewed as well.”

It suggests that the script be rewritten in very specific ways.

One example:


Here is one historically reasonable approach to their interaction: if Pilate and Caiaphas agreed to remove Jesus from the scene to prevent an anticipated Passover riot, why crucify him instead of quietly assassinating him? The answer: to make a public example of him to discourage any other potential troublemakers. This seems to be more a Roman calculation than a priestly one. Caiaphas could therefore be shown to resist Pilate’s preference for a public execution of another Jew.


And another:


Although it is logistically and dramatically tempting to have large numbers of actors cry out for Jesus’ crucifixion, in the interests of historical accuracy and the avoidance of antisemitic tropes it would be better not to make this the focal point of the play. A dozen or so lower-status priestly characters (in contrast to ordinary passersby who might come upon the semi-private scene early in the morning as they are going about their Passover errands) would be preferable.


These are not minor suggestions, but calls for major editing.

Philip A. Cunningham of Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, who co-coordinated the study, says: “This report is important because it involved both Jewish and Christian scholars who are biblical experts, historians, and theologians. It is not merely an exercise in arm-chair criticism, but a collegial review that appreciates the significant improvements that have already been made and offers explicit proposals to take this reform even further.”

Rabbi Eric J. Greenberg, director of the department of interfaith affairs for ADL, says: “The scholars report is a monumental step forward in proving how Christians and Jews can work together to benefit both faiths.”

We’ll see how the report is received.

(AP Photo/Matthias Schrader, File)

‘Catching up’ with the pope’s preacher

I couldn’t help notice that Father Raniero Cantalamessa has been in the news the past few days.

tjndc5-5f09fmxx0khlhhtfba3_layoutCantalamessa, a Capuchin friar, is the “preacher to papal household” or the guy who preaches to the pope.

On Good Friday, he sort of compared recent criticisms of the pope to anti-Semitism, a link that has drawn international attention and some criticism.

I interviewed Cantalamessa back in 2007 when he was passing through New York and found him to be a kindly and good-natured fellow, almost unnaturally modest for a guy who, you know, preaches to the pope.

When I asked him if he gets nervous or feels pressure to deliver four-star homilies, he said nah: “”No, no, not really. It is a grace. It is a blessing. I am not promoting a message of mine. It is the message of Jesus.”

On Friday, toward the end of a long homily dealing with several themes, especially violence, Cantalamessa mentioned a letter he received from a Jewish friend. He quoted from the letter:


“I am following with indignation the violent and concentric attacks against the Church, the Pope and all the faithful by the whole world. The use of stereotypes, the passing from personal responsibility and guilt to a collective guilt remind me of the more shameful aspects of anti-Semitism. Therefore I desire to express to you personally, to the Pope and to the whole Church my solidarity as Jew of dialogue and of all those that in the Jewish world (and there are many) share these sentiments of brotherhood. Our Passover and yours are undoubtedly different, but we both live with Messianic hope that surely will reunite us in the love of our common Father. I wish you and all Catholics a Good Easter.”


On his blog, Robert Moynihan of Inside the Vatican described the moment like this: “As the word “antisemitismo” at the end of that sentence echoed out over the vast hall, over the silent throng, the battle over this Pope and this pontificate seemed to me to take on a new and deeper dimension.”

Rabbi Gary Greenebaum, U.S. director of interreligious relations for the American Jewish Committee — who recently met with Catholic and other Jewish leaders at the Vatican — told the AP: “It’s an unfortunate use of language to make this comparison, since the collective violence against the Jews resulted in the death of 6 million, while the collective violence spoken of here has not led to murder and destruction, but perhaps character assault.”

Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi said that the papal preacher’s parallel could “lead to misunderstandings and is not an official position of the Catholic church.”

Now Cantalamess is expressing regret if his remarks offended Jews, the victims of sexual abuse or anyone else: “If, against any intention of mine, I offended the sensibility of Jews and the victims of pedophilia, I sincerely regret it and ask forgiveness, reaffirming my solidarity with both.”

What does this episode mean? That emotions are easily stirred when it comes to criticism of the pope, even in the context of a sex-abuse crisis that has gone on for quite a while.

Critics of the church are quite angry. Defenders of the pope are increasingly angry. More angry words seem likely.

John Allen wrote the other day about how hard it is (impossible even?) to cover what’s been happening in such a way that will satisfy anyone. At a time when partisanship of all kinds seems particularly fierce, critics and defenders of the Catholic Church and/or Pope Benedict seem to be digging in for lasting conflict.

Allen writes:


What’s striking about much of the reaction I’ve received, however, is that it’s not focused on the content of what I’ve said but rather my alleged motives for saying it.

For one camp out there, my first point amounts to a “hatchet job” on the pope, making me complicit in a campaign led by The New York Times and other media outlets in trying to bring him down or to wound the church. For another crowd, point two is tantamount to a whitewash in favor of the pope. As one e-mailer put it to me succinctly, “Don’t you ever get tired of being an apologist for the Vatican?”

All of which makes me wonder: On an issue about which people feel so passionately, and one which so easily feeds all sorts of broader agenda about the church, the papacy, the media, and so on, is there actually a constituency for balance? Is there room for middle ground?

Anti-Semitic incidents fall

Anti-Semitic incidents in the U.S. are down for the third straight year, the ADL reports.

Their annual Audit of Anti-Semitic Incidents counted 1,357 “incidents of vandalism, harassment and other acts of hate against Jewish individuals, property and community institutions in 2007,” a 13% decline from the 1,554 incidents reported in 2006.

New York state had the highest number of incidents — 351 — up from 284 in 2006.

tjndc5-5b592co8y8j18gcdc7p4_layout.jpgADL national boss Abraham Foxman said:

We are certainly encouraged that the total number of anti-Semitic incidents has declined for three years in a row. Yet we are still troubled that there are so many incidents reported, and that these incidents often involve expressions of anti-Jewish animus that are ugly and deeply hurtful to their victims and the communities where they occur.