3/31/09

“The math is the math” - Al Franken prevails in court on the road to the Senate

The battle of the frozen chosen is nearly over -- in a way that we really like. The death match between the two Jewish politicians on the prairie is nearly done. It feels like the Ne'elah service at the end of Yom Kippur, the Eighth Day of Hannukah and the singing of Chad Gadyah at the end of the Passover Seder all rolled into one long Megillah. We are ready, with the permission of the judge, to recite the blessing over the absentee ballots and to make the election outcome kosher. Those two Jewish candidates sure are stubborn, aren't they?
Franken Wins Ruling in Minnesota Senate Race
By DAVID STOUT and BERNIE BECKER

WASHINGTON — Al Franken, the comedian turned politician, won a potentially decisive court ruling on Tuesday in his bid to replace Norm Coleman, a Minnesota Republican trying to hold on to his Senate seat.

A three-judge panel ruled that only 400 absentee ballots — far fewer than Mr. Coleman had sought — should be examined for possible counting. If the ruling stands, it could be devastating for Mr. Coleman, who trailed his Democratic challenger by 225 votes out of some 2.9 million cast and had hoped that nearly 1,400 absentee ballots might be recounted.

Even if the results put Mr. Coleman further in the hole, as expected, he could fight on, before the Minnesota Supreme Court or perhaps in the federal courts. His lawyer said Mr. Coleman had not given up.

After seven weeks of deliberations, the court said it would decide which of the 400 ballots would be counted in open court by next Tuesday.

The panel said it based its decision on “a complete and thorough review of the 1,717 exhibits and transcripts of testimony.”

“To be clear, not every absentee ballot identified in this order will ultimately be opened and counted,” the panel wrote.

Nonetheless, the political terrain as well as the mathematics appeared to give Mr. Franken a big advantage, and the lawyers for both sides recognized that.

“We feel pretty good about where we stand,” Marc Elias, a lawyer for Mr. Franken, said in a conference call with reporters. “But we’re going to wait until Tuesday for these ballots to be opened and counted.”

But Mr. Elias observed that “the math is the math.” ...more...

The Phone Revolution Accelerates: Google brands its Voice service and Skype comes to the iPhone

Last week I logged in to my Grand Central voice account and converted it to Google Voice.

It's free, its slick, it's not yet open for subscribers who did not have a Grand Central account. But... you can ask for an invitation here.

Tonight my son called me on his iPhone using Skype.

It's a brave new voice world.

Bloomberg: Bridgeport Superior Court Judge Arthur Hiller freezes Madoff family assets

The next chapter has begun in the downfall of the Madoff family criminal enterprises.
Madoff, Relatives, Feeder Funds Have Assets Frozen
By Patricia Hurtado and Edvard Pettersson

March 31 (Bloomberg) -- A Connecticut judge froze the assets of Bernard Madoff, his wife Ruth, his sons and brother Peter as well as so-called feeder funds including Fairfield Greenwich Group, said a lawyer who obtained the order.

A state judge in Bridgeport yesterday granted a freeze at the request of the town of Fairfield’s pension fund and its 1,500 members, David Golub, a lawyer for the fund, said in a phone interview today. The town’s initial $22 million investment with Madoff through Maxam Capital grew to $42 million, he said...more...

Video: Geithner Denies Krugmans Criticisms

"Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner responds to Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman's critique of President Obamas bank bailout with NBCs David Gregory on Meet the Press."

Roz Chast's New Yorker Cover of the Great Offers from Madoff Industries

Okay it's Roz Chast's turn to take a go at Bernie Madoff, and does she ever in her New Yorker cover. She reduces Bernie to a common huckster. Here are the great offers your can order from Madoff Industries on Ponzi Boulevard in Hazelnut Hills, NJ...

Is Krugman a Natterer, Chatterer or Cassandra?

Do we applaud or do we cringe when grown people call each other names? Writers think that we just won't notice when they do that. We notice.

Newsweek editor Jon Meacham clearly does not like this week's cover-boy Paul Krugman. He wrote a cover letter (From the Editor's Desk) to the cover story in which he hurls two epithets at the Nobel laureate. He calls him a "chatterer" and a "Cassandra."

It seems to us that he ran the story just so he could undermine the subject with erudite sounding left handed insults.

Meacham sounds off first with this twisted descriptive,
Every once in a while, though, a critic emerges who is more than a chatterer—a critic with credibility whose views seem more than a little plausible and who manages to rankle those in power in more than passing ways.
Boy does that rub me the wrong way. "More than a chatterer..." means the subject is more than a person we automatically ignore, more than teeth that click together automatically on a cold day. (We think that Meacham meant to use the classic Spiro Agnew put-down, "Nattering nabob" but got cold feet and switched it to the less effusive "chatterer".)

Another pompous entity posing as a writer used the term "chattering" recently. And there again it raised our hackles. Daphne Merkin, writing her bizarre defense of her brother in the Times, threw in this little turn of a phrase, which we have not taken out of any meaningful context,
Meanwhile, the animus against the rich continues to thrive, especially among the chattering classes (has anyone ever been among a group of artsy types who had anything positive to say about the wealthy?), even as they are held up as exemplars of initiative and drive.
So putting together these two contemporaneous uses of the insults, "chatterer" and "chattering classes" we come to the conclusion that Meacham nearly choked when he realized he had to spit out that "More than a chatterer..." compliment-wrapped-in-an-insult about his cover-man Krugman.

Meacham is no slouch. He recouped quickly to wind up his introductory devaluatory prefatory remarks to his cover story with this unquestionable derogatory,
...a lot of people have a "creeping feeling" that the Cassandra from Princeton may just be right. After all, the original Cassandra was.
Hurrah. The Newsweek editor got the names "chatterer," "creeping" and "Cassandra" pinned on Paul Krugman.

Now which should it be? Hurrah? Do we applaud or do we cringe?

Oy. Soon You can collect Bernard Madoff and the whole set of Goniff Trading Cards

Blogging Stocks reports that, like the familiar baseball cards, you will soon be able to collect Goniff trading cards.

We think this is a tiny bit funny but mainly not the kind of hobby that you want to foster among the youth of America.

This comes under the rubric of mockingly promoting moral turpitude. Two thumbs down.
Topps' 2009 Allen & Ginter baseball card set will include the usual mix of all-stars and utility players, with a special twist: Fraudsters like Bernie Madoff, Charles Ponzi and Enron will also be inserted in some packs as part of the "World's Biggest Hoaxes, Hoodwinks & Bamboozles" subset. more..
Anyway, what, no Ezra Merkin card?

3/29/09

Madoff the Psychopath, Merkin the Deadbeat, and SIPC says, "Yes we have enough money"

Three noteworthy articles of late on the Madoff and Merkin criminal enterprises:

1. The Canadians are checking in with their take on the Madoff personality profile sweepstakes. "Spot the psychopath if you can," By HARRY BRUCE, makes a rather nice case for this diagonsis,
IF THERE’S a lesson in money-manager Bernard Madoff’s bilking his clients of US$65 billion in the biggest one-man fraud of all time it’s that you should never entrust your life savings to a psychopath....more...
2. We are growing to detest the Times' Dealbook writer Andrew Ross Sorkin, not only because of his pompous name, but also because of his demeanor on TV appearances, like his recent stint on the Bill Maher show. He comes off as a rank apologist for the right wing interests of Wall Street. It surprises us then that he has no sympathy for J. Ezra Merkin -- since he deems it important to allow Zachery Kouwe to inform us on Dealbook of the deadbeat's failure to pay his attorneys and their abject pleas to the judge to free up the Ascot Fund so Merkin can complete the plunder of his victims accounts. In the post "Merkin’s Lawyers Are Still Waiting to Be Paid" Dealbook's Kouwe chronicles -- along with the actual transcript before the judge -- how the Park Avenue scoundrel owes his lawyers, "$154,626 for corporate governance and other work they are doing to wind down the fund." Our heart bleads of course for the lawyers whose ploy to open the coffers was roundly rebuffed.

3. Finally, Bloomberg reports that the liquidators along with the SIPC, Securities Investor Protection Corp., claim they have enough cash to pay the claims against the crimes of Mr. Madoff. $2.6 billion ought to do it? "$2.6 billion it has on hand is enough to satisfy all legitimate claims by victims of the money manager’s $65 billion Ponzi scheme." I guess they changed the rules of mathematics since I was a math major in college.

Seymour Hersh in the New Yorker on Syria and the US Middle East Policy Under Obama

Watch it Barack. Be careful who you trust in the Middle East. Seymour Hersh thinks aloud in New Yorker about Syria and the policy of the new administration. I wouldn't trust a single word of this article. Here is how it ends:
The White House has tough diplomatic choices to make in the next few months. Assad has told the Obama Administration that his nation can ease the American withdrawal in Iraq. Syria also can help the U.S. engage with Iran, and the Iranians, in turn, could become an ally in neighboring Afghanistan, as the Obama Administration struggles to deal with the Taliban threat and its deepening involvement in that country—and to maintain its long-standing commitment to the well-being of Israel. Each of these scenarios has potential downsides. Resolving all of them will be formidable, and will involve sophisticated and intelligent diplomacy—the kind of diplomacy that disappeared during the past eight years, and that the Obama team has to prove it possesses.

3/28/09

Maos Chitim: The Times Teaches Us About Feeding the Jewish Hungry

The Times (New York's #1 Jewish Newspaper) has two incredible articles to inspire us to give charity to our fellow Jews during this difficult season in this difficult year. The mitzvah is called maos chitim - simply money for food, especially for the Passover Seder. Please give generously.

Is this Criminal? $230,000 diverted to restore a defunct Eastern State Penitentiary synagogue


In our estimation the Times' story below reveals five criminal acts that have been committed in connection with the restoration of a defunct synagogue at the national landmark Eastern State Penitentiary. The acts are:
  1. Taxpayers and a host of private donors and funders are paying Sean Kelley to be the program manager for a defunct penitentiary and Sally Elk to be the executive director of that closed penitentiary.
  2. Philadelphia’s Jews diverted and donated $230,000 to restore the 31 by 17 foot defunct shul. List of donors.
  3. The person who "discovered" the synagogue, Laura Mass, received a graduate degree in 2004 from the University of Pennsylvania for her thesis on the synagogue room -- for analyzing its "artifacts" -- pages from a holiday song book and pieces of plaster.
  4. There will be more money diverted to create another "museum" to "tell the story of Jewish life at Eastern State, trace the progress of the renovation, and create a mitzvah corner marking the contributions of past and present volunteers who worked to sustain Jewish faith at the prison."
  5. The Times paid a reporter to write this up as a straight religious news feature and to locate and interview Rabbi Martin Rubenstein, who was the prison’s last Jewish chaplain when the prison closed in 1970. [The Prison's own online press release is in fact far more interesting than the Times' story. Ahem, Mr. Hurdle. That reporter forgot to include the tidbit that, "At its peak, the Jewish population within the prison was no more than 80 inmates." And he also neglected to mention the news that more money will be thrown away for the renovation and stabilization of the Penitentiary’s Catholic Chaplain’s Office, "...with its beautiful Catholic and prison-themed murals painted by a former inmate." Perhaps when the Times covers the next story on the prison it can look into some of the dubious Wikipedia claims such as, "...the holy bible was the only procession (!) that the inmates were given while incarcerated," and the assertion that the prison system itself was cruel and inhumane, "It was widely believed... to have caused significant mental illness among its prisoners due to its solitary confinement." ]
For those of you who see nothing at all wrong with this whole unsavory and bizarre picture, be sure to hop on the celebratory bandwagon and reserve your spaces in the inaugural tours of the restored prison shul, filling up quickly:
This online reservation system can be used to reserve tickets for The Restored Synagogue / Lost Chaplain's Office Weekend (April 4 & 5). Tours of the synagogue are ongoing from 10 am to 4:45 pm. Please select your tour time from the menu below.
It's our view that it is not just a bad choice -- it is criminal -- for the government to use taxpayer money and for a long list of philanthropists to divert much needed funds and donations to create a monument out of a defunct prison -- and for the those funders and donors outside and within the Jewish community to use charity funds to help restore it in any way, shape or form.
Times' Religion Journal
Synagogue Restored in Historic Philadelphia Prison
By JON HURDLE

PHILADELPHIA — Jewish prisoners at Philadelphia’s notorious Eastern State Penitentiary in the mid-20th century had one gleam of light in their hard lives.

Within the prison walls stood a synagogue, a tiny room created from exercise yards by volunteers from Philadelphia’s Jewish community who believed that Jewish convicts should be able to practice their faith, regardless of their crimes.

The synagogue was built in 1924 and was used until the prison closed in 1970. It was then abandoned and suffered severe water damage that rotted the timbers of the ark and benches and destroyed plasterwork, including a large Star of David affixed to the ceiling.

Now the synagogue, the Alfred W. Fleisher Memorial Synagogue, has been restored as a vital part of the 142-year history of the prison, which is a National Historic Landmark and is open to the public.

The synagogue was named after its founder, a Jewish philanthropist who was president of the prison’s trustees in the 1920s. It is believed to have been the first synagogue in a United States prison, said Sean Kelley, program manager for the penitentiary.

After its yearlong renovation, the synagogue, measuring just 31 feet by 17 feet, has a mostly original ark, a reading table, and bench seats down the long sides of the room. A gold-trimmed Star of David is restored to its previous place in the middle of the nine-foot ceiling.

The work cost about $230,000, raised from private donations among Philadelphia’s Jews. The renovated synagogue will be consecrated Wednesday and will open to the public for the first time next Saturday. It will then become a part of the penitentiary’s public tours but will not be used for regular religious services.

On the left side of the room, a new bench back is hinged at the bottom, and can be lowered to reveal a bare masonry wall with three low doorways from which inmates — in the years before 1913 when all were in solitary confinement — would enter individual exercise yards for just one hour a day.

At the rear is a narrow kitchen where kosher foods prepared on the outside were brought in for the Jewish holidays. That space has not been restored so visitors can experience some of the conditions that preceded the renovation.

“We wanted to show what the place looked like when we found it,” said Sally Elk, executive director of the penitentiary.

The synagogue was rediscovered by Laura Mass, a University of Pennsylvania graduate student who wrote her thesis on it in 2004, and found artifacts amid the debris, including pages from a holiday song book and pieces of plaster that helped determine the decorative nature of the space.

Next door, another former exercise yard has been converted into a museum that will tell the story of Jewish life at Eastern State, trace the progress of the renovation, and create a mitzvah corner marking the contributions of past and present volunteers who worked to sustain Jewish faith at the prison.

Among the historic items in the museum will be the synagogue’s original front door on which the outlines of two Stars of David can be seen in the peeling paint. The old door will be set into a steel frame and left slightly ajar because a closed door did not seem very welcoming, Mr. Kelley said.

Conservators led by Andrew Fearon of Milner and Carr Conservation in Philadelphia have taken pains to restore the space to its original condition, even where the original materials were cheap and plain. The benches, for example, were first built with simple plywood, and so have been recreated with the same material.

Rabbi Martin Rubenstein, the prison’s last Jewish chaplain, said the synagogue helped inmates feel connected to their families and their Jewish traditions. When Israel fought the Six-Day War in 1967, some inmates offered to donate their prison wages to help the war effort, he said.

Because Jewish inmates — a small minority in the prison population — were always on their best behavior during services, the synagogue was the only faith group in the penitentiary where a guard was not present, Rabbi Rubenstein said. Any new prisoners who were tempted to breach that trust were given a “very direct lesson” from more experienced hands that transgressions were not permitted, he said.

“It was important for them to feel that the community was still there and that we were there to help them,” he said.

3/27/09

Video of Rabbi Moshe Tendler on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem Creates a Controversy

Curious that the rabbi has been visiting the holy site for years and nobody raised a ruckus but when a video of Rabbi Moshe Tendler on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem appeared on YouTube, that created a controversy. What do we learn from that? A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a video can earn you a thousand stones. Rabbi Tendler who is both a Talmud teacher and a biology professor at Yeshiva University, does make a few political remarks during his visit, making this more than an innocent spiritual pilgrimage. From Haaretz,
Clip of U.S. rabbi on Temple Mount reignites debate
By Raphael Ahren

A YouTube video released one week ago depicting a prominent American rabbi visiting the Temple Mount in Jerusalem has sparked a new round of controversy about whether it is permitted for Jews to enter Judaism's holiest site, which is believed to have been the location of the Holy Temple.

The film shows Rabbi Moshe Dovid Tendler, a senior figure at New York's Yeshiva University, leading a group of English speakers to the Temple Mount, explaining the religious and political context of his custom to visit the site every time he comes to Israel. Within a week of the video's appearance it has been watched more than 7,000 times, prompting both approving comments and harsh criticism.

The Temple Institute, which produced the 17-minute film, earlier this week disabled YouTube's comments section temporarily, deleting all previous comments, some of which sharply condemned Tendler. At the American-Haredi news Web site Voz Iz Neias, which reported the posting of the clip, more than 110 readers commented on the film - some calling Tendler a "complete heretic" who is liable, according to Halacha, to karet, or premature death.

Tendler, who is the son-in-law of the late Rabbi Moshe Feinstein - one of the most respected halachic authorities of the last century - has ascended the Temple Mount for years, in order to perform the commandment of "Mora Mikdash," showing reverence to God at the place of the Temple. ...more...

Bloomberg's Alice Schroeder Sentences Bernie Madoff to Janitorial Work at Yeshiva University

Writing at Bloomberg, Alice Schroeder rips into Madoff with some actual calculations and detailed retributions, concluding,
For his remaining 4,635 allotted days, therefore, I sentence Bernard Madoff as follows:

He will work as a janitor at Yeshiva University and change bedpans at the North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System hospitals. He will donate his bone marrow to the Gift of Life Foundation. He will swallow all the abuse his celebrity clients care to dish out, including slaps in the face from Zsa Zsa Gabor. He will work his little leg irons off doing whatever scut duties required of him. It’s the least he can do.

So far, Madoff doesn’t seem to share any of the sorrow, remorse and shame exhibited by his prey. Maybe a stint on a window-cleaning platform will wring a little guilt out of his cold, hard, sociopathic heart. About once a month, he will spend a few hours washing windows on the 17th floor of the Lipstick Building. There, he can look inside at his former office, where he spun the sugar that enticed his investors into the trap.

We should have no qualms about sending Bernard Madoff 17 stories up. Unlike his clients, it’s a safe bet he won’t jump.

(Alice Schroeder, author of “The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life” and a senior adviser to Morgan Stanley, is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

3/26/09

The Talmudic Sutra and Dead Sea Scrolls Secrets for Gevaldig Sex

I like Shmuley Boteach and I always wish him well and hope his books are big smashing successes. Shmuley is a friend of mine (on facebook). I think I saw him once in person in the lobby at the JCC on the Palisades.

Shmuley has a new book out about how to have better sex. One thing you gotta admit about the rabbi is that he has chutzpah -- and that really inspires us. I just don't know where he got his sex therapy training.

I took out my rabbinic school transcript -- to double check. Nope. Not a single course about sex on my transcript. Now, I'm not 100% sure - they may have tried to teach me about eroticism in the Friday homiletics courses. I however was tight asleep in every one of those classes so I wouldn't know what they taught.

There was one seminar on the menstrual laws given to us rabbinic trainees -- by a rabbi who was also a biology professor. But if I recall, that was more about the different colors of menstrual emissions, not something that ever could be mistaken for helping a couple achieve marital bliss in the bedroom.

I'm sure then that Shmuley picked up a lot of stuff about better sex either before or after rabbinical school.

Stimulated by Rabbi Shmuley, we actually have been doing some research into ancient texts and some of our own thinking about the subject. There are plenty of sex stories in the Talmud. Again, none of that was ever taught to us in class. At the yeshiva I went to, all of the sex stuff was in the aggadic textual sections that we skipped over -- so we could get to the good parts of the Talmud -- the laws. (Curiously, that is not at all parallel to the way that we read our Ian Fleming books as a teenager.)

So far, we have read only the free pages on Amazon of Shmuley's newly published book, "The Kosher Sutra: Eight Sacred Secrets for Reigniting Desire and Restoring Passion for Life."

Mostly, Shmuley's work now does not seem to be a very Jewish guide. The editors probably had him rewrite the eight sacred "secrets" for a more "general" audience.

We think that Shmuley originally must have written eight other more Jewish "secrets" for re-ignition and restoration of erotic life, based on the actual content of his intensive rabbinic training and on Judaism.

Amazingly, we've been able to uncover the original more Jewish title of his book, and we've been able to recover -- from a gardener who found it hidden in a cave in the cliffs of the Palisades -- a fragmentary manuscript of the table of contents of what could be the actual first draft of the more Jewish book by Shmuley. This mysterious text comes with an introductory instruction and an ensuing text. It reads as follows:
"The Talmudic Sutra and Dead Sea Scrolls Secrets for Gevaldig Sex." ((Instruction: "After reading each chapter title, the reader must wink and say, 'If you know what we mean...'"))
  1. The First Secret: The King and Vashti - Have a Purim Party of your own...
  2. The Second Secret: Play Hide the Afikomen, even when it's not Passover...
  3. The Third Secret: Stay up All Night to Mount Sinai and Reveal Your Two Tablets of the Law...
  4. The Fourth Secret: Blow this Shofar...
  5. The Fifth Secret: Put Your Lulav into that Esrog and Shake it...
  6. The Sixth Secret: Light my Hannukah Candle and Come Get Your Present...
  7. The Seventh Secret: Kiss My Mezzuza and I'll Make Kiddush for You...
  8. The Eighth Secret: Let Me Kiss Your Tzitzis...
Okay, enough narishkeit for today.

Podcast of Our Interview with Ryne Pearson, Writer of the Blockbuster Film Knowing

We interviewed Ryne Pearson, the writer of the blockbuster film, "Knowing" starring Nicolas Cage.

We asked him about the deterministic themes of the film, the propriety of promoting the disaster scenes after the 9/11 tragedy, and about the cosmic mythic conclusion of the movie. We also asked him to explain the symbolism of the mysterious little black rocks in the movie.

Ryne speaks eloquently on all the subjects and he praises director Alex Proyas' choices for the interpretation and augmentation of his story.

You can listen to our recorded podcast of the interview above or download it here or here.

3/25/09

NEJM: The Bris is Healthy -- Circumcision Prevents Diseases -- Nice to Know

We Jews circumcise our male children on the eighth day because we were commanded to do so as a religious sign of our covenant with God.

The fact that after all these years we discover that there are health benefits associated with male circumcision -- as the song in Fiddler on the Roof says, "It doesn't change a thing, but even so... it's nice to know."

The NEJM abstract is here. The WSJ story summarizes:
Circumcision Decreases Risk of Contracting STDs, Study Says
By PHILIP SHISHKIN

Circumcision significantly reduces the risk of contracting herpes and human papillomavirus, says a new study that adds to the growing scientific evidence that the procedure helps stem the spread of some sexually transmitted diseases.

Circumcised heterosexual men are 35% less likely to contract human papillomavirus (HPV) and 25% less likely to catch herpes than their uncircumcised counterparts, according to the study, published in this week's New England Journal of Medicine.

The study, led by scientists from Johns Hopkins University and Makerere University in Uganda, relied on data from the same randomized control trials in Africa that already showed that circumcision cuts in half the risk of contracting human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which can cause AIDS.

The researchers hope the latest findings on HPV and herpes will help turn circumcision into a more widespread medical procedure. "The scientific evidence for the public-health benefits of male circumcision is overwhelming now," says Aaron Tobian, a pathologist at the Johns Hopkins Hospital and one of the study's authors.

In the study, researchers randomly assigned 1,684 men in Africa to undergo circumcision and tracked their health against a control group of 1,709 uncircumcised men over the course of two years ending in 2007.

HPV and herpes are among the most common sexually transmitted diseases in the U.S., far more common than AIDS. HPV can cause genital warts and cervical cancer. There are no cures for herpes and HPV.

Just over half of male newborns in the U.S. get circumcised, according to research published earlier this year in the American Journal of Public Health. The percentage has declined over the past decade, in part because the American Academy of Pediatrics said in 1999 that the evidence is "not sufficient to recommend routine neonatal circumcision."

Opponents of circumcision say the procedure isn't medically essential and causes unnecessary distress to the baby. They add that proper hygiene and safe sex can prevent disease.

The academy's guidance, issued before the landmark African trials, remains in effect. Partly as a result, Medicaid plans in 16 states don't pay for circumcision, according to the American Journal of Public Health. Circumcision rates in states with Medicaid coverage for the procedure are nearly 70%, while in the states without such coverage just 31% of male newborns get circumcised, the Journal said. Medicaid is the state-federal insurance program for the needy.

Lack of Medicaid coverage for circumcision -- combined with data showing higher incidence of sexually transmitted diseases in uncircumcised men -- "may translate into future health disparities for children born to poor families," says the study in the American Journal of Public Health.

In light of the new data coming out of the African trials, the American Academy of Pediatrics says it is reviewing its circumcision guidelines, a process that should be finished by the end of the year. "There's no argument that the trials that have been done are really compelling," says Susan Blank, chairwoman of the academy's task force on neonatal circumcision. "That is just one piece in the discussion of circumcision." The academy's panel also includes experts on urinary-tract infections, ethics and health-care finance among others, she says.

3/24/09

Gawker: Times Spanks Daphne Merkin for Treating Cold Facts Like a Fictional Memoir

The Gawker Blog has chimed in on the Daphne Merkin case. That lady tried to whitewash her brother's reputation with a weird op-ed in Sunday's Times. She did not get too far with that one. We yelped about it right away.

Nobody cared when Daphne invented her entire personal history and published it as if it were memoirs in the media. But now that she is playing fast and loose with real life fact as if it was imaginative surreal fiction, she has hit a brick wall.

Gawker reviews the mess and concludes...
Now Ezra, who had "what is believed to be the world's biggest collection of Rothko paintings," has shuttered his fund, resigned as chairman of GMAC, gotten tons of bad press, and is waiting for the wave of investor lawsuits that's surely coming his way.

So it's not all that surprising his sister, a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine, would try to do a little PR for him. Don't blame the big financiers, this thing is everyone's fault, hey! But it is pretty surprising the Times would allow such an obviously conflicted piece to be published with such a paltry disclosure. And the Public Editor agrees. A reader forwarded us this email they received from Clark Hoyt this morning:
Dear Reader:

Thank you for writing about the Daphne Merkin Op-Ed in Sunday's Times. I agree with you that the disclosure that Ms. Merkin's unnamed sibling "did business" with Bernard Madoff was completely inadequate. Given the degree of J. Ezra Merkin's involvement with Madoff, I think much more needed to be spelled out — including name, nature of the relationship and the subsequent lawsuits — so that readers could make up their own minds about whether any of it was relevant to Ms. Merkin's argument that Madoff's victims should be called casualties because they were eager to invest with him. Of course, they wouldn't have been eager to do so if they had known he was a swindler. And it has been reported that, in at least one case involving J. Ezra Merkin, his clients did not know that their funds were going ultimately to Madoff.

I have corresponded with Andrew Rosenthal, the editorial page editor of The Times, who agrees that there should have been greater disclosure. Mr. Rosenthal does not contemplate an editor's note. I am considering what I want to do about this.

Sincerely,

Clark Hoyt
Public Editor
The New York Times
Not to be outdone, Brad Greenberg of the God-Blog in the Jewish Journal ("Daphne Merkin minimizes brother’s Madoff connection") chimes in with his own post of Daphne dissing:
Merkin includes this parenthetical: “(I did not know Mr. Madoff nor did I invest with his firm, but have a sibling who did business with him.)“
Did business. That makes it sound like Madoff and Ezra Merkin met a few times and talked work over lunch.

The two sat on the board of Yeshiva University together, and Merkin made up to $35 million a year from the relationship. NYU is suing Merkin, its moneymanager, for the $24 million it says it lost with Madoff.
Apparently Daphne, nobody has offered you any sage practical advice about how to deal with your family's disgrace at the hands of your brother, what you should do and say or not say in public or in print.

So we humbly step forward to suggest to you a (non-Talmudic) course of cautiously considered action for dealing with your brother and everything connected with his disappointing debacle, something subtly oblique, yet literate like, "This is the kind of tedious nonsense up with which we will not put!"

Video: Hey Paul Krugman v. Tim Geithner in a Funny New Hit Song

Paul Krugman v. Tim Geithner in a new pop song.

3/23/09

A Talmudic Dispute Between two Rabbis of our Economy, Tim Geithner and Paul Krugman

The Talmudic blogger relishes a crisp, clear Talmudic debate between two leading authorities.

The ancient rabbis who disputed, for instance, the order of the rituals of the Sabbath meal, based their opinions on competing theories and expressed their preferences for practice in concrete prescriptions. Do things this way and not that way. Yet always, the rabbis engaged in clear disputes over processes with the same intention - to serve the best interests of the people of Israel.

So it would appear the rabbis of our nation's economic theory are engaged right now in an intense dispute over the order of the economy.

Rabbi Tim Geithner (no, he's not Jewish, see our post) representing a legitimate and learned stream of thinking, says do things according to the theory and prescriptions of a plan which he presented in its fine details here in a WSJ op-ed ("My Plan for Bad Bank Assets").

Rabbi Paul Krugman (yes he is Jewish, but that is beside the point here) representing an alternate sage and respected way of logic, says no, do not do things that way, because it is bad in theory and in action, a case he presented in its refutation here in a Times op-ed ("Financial Policy Despair").

Both masters, utterly critical and argumentative in their presentations, wish to serve the interests of the nation. Their wisdom deserves our study.

And ultimately, like the Talmud, our blog here just canonizes and analyzes them, but does not resolve the outcome of the disputes.

New Yorker: Woody Allen's Lobster Characters Go After Bernie Madoff

Who doesn't want revenge on Bernie Madoff, the king-sized goniff? The lawyers have given the green light to all the victims to go out and about shouting and murmuring about their misfortunes. For what purpose, I cannot fathom. And even though Bernie is in jail now for the next 150 years, nobody seems satisfied that justice has prevailed.

In Woody Allen's universe, there is an exquisite form of divine justice, if not for each one of us in this life, then in our next incarnations.

Recently deceased characters Moscowitz and Silverman come back to life observing, “Lobsters? This is how I wind up after leading a just life? In a tank on Third Avenue?”

Who cannot visualize the long-gone Oscar's Salt of the Sea Restaurant on Third Avenue between sixty-seventh and sixty-eighth streets? As a kid I used to stand outside (never inside) the restaurant and watch the absolutely not kosher lobsters in the tank in the window clawing at each other in a serene sort of agony awaiting their inevitable fates.

Oh, the symbolism. That Woody Allen is a deep thinker with a true sensitivity both to religious meaning and to the question of theodicy, i. e., why all those bad things happen to such good people.

Woody's protagonist lobsters wreak their elegant vengeance on Bernie Madoff this week in Allen's tale of Manhattan in New Yorker's Shouts and Murmurs, "Tails of Manhattan." I am still laughing.

3/22/09

Is Nicolas Cage Jewish?

No, film star Nicolas Cage is not a Jew.

In a recent interview in the Daily News, the star of the new blockbuster movie Knowing (which we panned in our review) says the following about his religion and more,
"Knowing" has overt biblical overtones, especially at its climax. Religious yourself?
My father is baptized Catholic, as is my mother, but my spirituality is deeply personal to me, so I don't really discuss it.

The film also features staggeringly accurate predictions of the future: Do you believe in fortunetelling?
I have an open mind, and I believe that anything's possible. I have been told we only use 10% of our brains, so it's conceivable there have been people in the past or even now who can do these things.

Have you ever had your fortune told? I'll bet people offer predictions while you sign autographs.
That has come up, yeah. There have been people that have offered information I haven't really asked for.

You're clearly not averse to the esoteric, though you own "America's Most Haunted House," the Lalaurie House in New Orleans? Is that true?
It was indeed considered the "haunted mansion" in New Orleans. You know, other people have beachfront property; I have ghost front property - that's what I always say. I have not experienced anything, but I like a bit of mystery, and the house has such a mystery to it. Some of the stories about it are pretty horrific....more...

Bergen Record's Road Warrior John Cichowski Cites Tzvee's Lincoln Tunnel Advice

Our local newspaper the Bergen Record has a column called "Road Warrior" by John Cichowski. We like to call it the redeeming social value of an otherwise bereft publication.

Friday John cited Tzvee's Lincoln Tunnel advice in his column, "Road Warrior: Carrots, sticks can fix bus backups." This is down-to-earth journalism at its bedrock,
Ride a crowded, rush-hour bus into Manhattan, as I did a few times this week, and you begin wondering why anyone with active brain cells would opt for that other form of road commuting — the one with four wheels, a driver and three empty seats.

My buses were comfortable. Rides were smooth. The best feature of all, though, was the speed — a steady 50 mph all the way into the city.

That's probably 25 to 50 times faster than the thousands of cars crawling along Route 495 and inching down, down, down the helix until they compete like lab rats for three measly Lincoln Tunnel entrances.

My 60-passenger NJ Transit steed outran these creepers the way thoroughbreds outpace donkeys — all because of an incentive called the Exclusive Bus Lane or XBL.

Being penalized for driving a car can be a great incentive for taking the bus on the XBL. The concept is simple: XBL reverses one of the tunnel's three New Jersey-bound lanes from 6:15 to 10 a.m. weekdays from the New Jersey Turnpike to Route 495, which leads directly to a tunnel opening dedicated to buses.

At peak efficiency, this lane — the nation's busiest bus lane — speeds commuters to the city 15 to 20 minutes faster than those using the other in-bound lanes.

It's a no-brainer recipe: Efficiency plus incentive. But it's an old concoction. Peak efficiency doesn't occur as frequently as it did in 1971 when the Port Authority launched the XBL. Starting at 7:30 a.m. on a bad day, XBL backups can stretch to the turnpike tolls.

Short of poking a seventh costly tube through the tunnel, how can more commuters be squeezed through existing tubes?

So far, two $1.1 million studies have considered several options, two of which offer a balance of incentives and penalties.

Two XBLs: A second bus lane might double the speed of the current system, but it also might back up the remaining lanes to the Delaware Water Gap.

An XXBL: Usually called a Hot Lane, the second XBL could be Extra Exclusive – either for high-occupancy vehicles or for drivers of private and commercial vehicles who would be charged premium tolls as high as $30.

Choosing the correct balance is complicated and time-consuming. One three-year study was submitted to the Port Authority board in 2007 without a formal recommendation. The premium-pricing study won't be completed until later this year.

So far, nothing has been decided. One reason: The dynamic keeps changing. So do priorities. For example, once the proposed second Hudson River rail tunnel is completed, its mass transit advantages might dwarf any incentives for expanding bus service.

But all this strategic reform is in the distant future. Bus commuters would prefer some tactical help right now.

"We can put a man on the moon and spend a trillion dollars on bailing out banks," said reader Tzvee Zahavy. "Why not do something simple to make life more livable for everyone in the area?"...more...

Times' Jewish News: Nonagenerian Bat Mitzvahs, IDF Ethics Accusations, Obituary for Mystic Lionel Ziprin

Lionel Ziprin, Poet and Mystic of the Lower East Side, Dies at 84 ...Mr. Ziprin was a brilliant, baffling, beguiling voice of the Lower East Side and the East Village in all its phases By WILLIAM GRIMES - Arts

3/21/09

Daphne Merkin in the Times: "(I did not know Mr. Madoff nor did I invest with his firm, but have a sibling who did business with him.) "

What a game of charades we play, when first we practise to deflect.

In the middle of her eloquent Times op-ed essay, Daphne Merkin parenthetically informs us, "(I did not know Mr. Madoff nor did I invest with his firm, but have a sibling who did business with him.)" (Why do we hear echoes of, "I did not have sex with that woman...")

May we translate? Daphne's brother J. Ezra Merkin was one of Madoff's primary money funnels through his Ascot and Gabriel Funds which blithely placed their assets with Madoff the criminal without informing the Merkin investors (="did business with him"). Ezra is now the subject of several lawsuits and various investigations.

And to go on, somewhere later in her "op-ed" Daphne impishly declares, "...for many of us, money remains at the level of the magical, like coins conjured from behind someone’s ear..."

May we reply? No my dear, that is not the case. For the very few of you who grew up on Park Avenue with silver milchig and fleishig and pesachdig spoons in your mouths, that may or may not be an accurate statement. We would not know since we grew up on Third Avenue and, you see, everyone in our family and all of our friends worked for an annual salary to make a living. We all knew the source of our money. No images of conjuring, nothing remotely magical.

So honey, we hear that you are, "Working on a book on Jews and money." Fine. When you do write about "Jews and money" - please be very clear. If you are writing about the Jews who were ganovim - such as Mr. Madoff and your "sibling" i. e., Mr. J. Ezra Merkin - kindly make certain that you erect a high mechitza to separate them from the rest of us - from us the Jews who work hard to earn our daily bread - those 99.44% of Jews who know exactly where money comes from, and who respect it. Please do put us in a separate chapter in your book.

And finally, when you decide, "Mr. Madoff has not implicated his family; even sociopaths have their loyalties," we say, just hold off on your conclusions about that until the final curtain drops. It is safer and fairer and more accurate to say that sociopaths have no loyalties at all, not even to their families or to those who "did business with" them.

So watch your back, sister and hold off on that wishful thinking. You don't really know what Mr. Madoff will do, or for that matter, what your brother will do, until the performance is over and as they say, until the fat man sings.

Here is the start of the text of Daphne Merkin's dazzlingly literate op-ed and the link to the rest of it.
Op-Ed Contributor. If Looks Could Steal
By DAPHNE MERKIN

IN all the hue and cry that has surrounded Bernard Madoff since news of his preternaturally elaborate Ponzi scheme broke last December, we have chosen to concentrate our inquiry and analysis on the perpetrator and his far-flung world, as though we might thereby begin to answer the question of what made him tick.

Yet, as a culture that tends to look for black-and-white, reductionist explanations, it is doubtful that we will ever fill in the gaps in our understanding of a situation that is shot through with ambiguity. There is no single code word — no “Rosebud” — that will lead us to decipher the Madoff phenomenon, no eureka realization that will account for his strange and ultimately ruinous trajectory or the dissociative behavior that allowed him to believe one thing while doing another. What this intense focus has enabled us to do, however, is to skim over the psychology of the other participants in the drama: the ones who got taken.

Given the demonization of Mr. Madoff and the intense sympathy for the plight of those smaller investors who trusted him, it is easy to forget that he actually did bring something to the table. Indeed, what is lost amid the fury of some of those who handed their money over to him is that theirs was a voluntary — nay, eager — association. No one was holding a gun to anyone’s head, saying sign up with Mr. Madoff or else.

Far from it: people scrambled to find a home within his financial orbit, auditioning for the role of Madoff client the way you would try out for a place at an Ivy League college, nudging connections to put in a good word, calling in favors to get in on a piece of the Madoff action. (Although those who were duped are referred to in the press as “victims,” it seems to me it would be more accurate to define them as casualties. Victims are specifically sought out; casualties are an indirect consequence of some larger action.)

What Mr. Madoff brought to the table, I think, was a sense of mishpocha, of being part of an extended family, but one you carefully chose rather than being arbitrarily born into. He seemed to humanize the cold, frequently anonymous business of investing by giving it an avuncular face. By all accounts, he was the quintessential nice guy. (I did not know Mr. Madoff nor did I invest with his firm, but have a sibling who did business with him.) And, no small thing: he looked trustworthy. He has the sort of pleasant mien that makes you think he has your best interests at heart. ...more...

3/20/09

Catholic Critics: Pope Benedict XVI is a Train Wreck

We've been critical of this pope in the past from our point of view as a religious Jew -- last year because of his revival of antisemitic services for Good Friday and this year because of his rehabilitation of a Holocaust denier priest, Bishop Williamson.

Now it appears his own Catholic faithful have started to articulate that they are losing their confidence in his leadership.
Vatican insiders declare the Pope a 'disaster'
Pope Benedict's repeated gaffes and the Vatican's inability to manage his message in the internet era are threatening to undermine his papacy, Vatican insiders have said.
By Nick Squires in Rome

The Holy See is struggling to contain international anger over the Pope's claim on his first official visit to Africa that Aids "cannot be overcome through the distribution of condoms, which even aggravates the problems".

The Pope's remarks about condoms, and a recent furore over his lifting of the 20-year excommunication of a British bishop who has questioned the Holocaust, has left him looking isolated and out of touch, prompting calls for a radical shake-up of the way the Holy See delivers its message.

The Pope is isolated and fails to adequately consult his advisers, said a Vatican source with 20 years' knowledge of the Holy See.

Another Vatican insider described Pope Benedict's four-year-old papacy as "a disaster", recalling the pontiff's previous inflammatory remarks on Islam and homosexuality.

"He's out of touch with the real world," the Italian insider said. "On the condom issue, for example, there are priests and bishops in Africa who accept that condoms are a key part of the fight against Aids, and yet the pope adheres to this very conservative line that they encourage promiscuity. The Vatican is far removed from the reality on the ground."

The Vatican's traditional culture of secrecy has made it ill-equipped to communicate its message in the internet age.

The Holy See claimed that the Pope had no idea that British bishop Richard Williamson had denied the extent of the Holocaust, but critics have pointed out that a simple Google search would have uncovered the maverick's anti-Semitic views.

"Until recently the Vatican was secretive and their way of controlling the message of the Church was to release information slowly and highly selectively through carefully worded documents," said Francis X Rocca, Vatican correspondent for Religion News Service.

"The problem now is that the internet and the blogosphere won't wait for the Vatican, so its message gets swamped."

The pope's spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, also wears two other hats – he is also the head of Vatican radio and of its television service. Observers question whether he can effectively handle such an onerous workload.

"He's got too many jobs. There's talk that he is going to go," said a third Vatican source. "You have people around the pope who seem to be out of their depth. There needs to be a major re-think of the operation, not the structure necessarily but the people."

The Vatican's press office works to a timetable from a gentler era, closing each day at 3pm, and familiarity with the internet appears barely to have penetrated the Vatican's cloistered confines.

The pontiff's message is further confused by disagreement within the ranks. Cardinals and archbishops within the Curia, the Holy See's administration, often appear to be at odds with each other, most recently over the excommunication in Brazil of doctors who performed an abortion on a nine-year-old girl who had fallen pregnant after being raped by her stepfather.

A senior Vatican figure, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, spoke out in favour of the Brazilian archbishop who announced the excommunication, only to be contradicted a few days later by Archbishop Rino Fisichella, who heads the Vatican's Pontifical Academy for Life.

"I think there's a good story to be told about this pope but it just doesn't get out because of the colossal ineptitude of the Vatican in terms of communications," said John Allen, a veteran Vatican analyst with National Catholic Reporter who is travelling with the pope in Africa.

Bernie Madoff Will Stay in Jail, but when will he have a minyan?

Bernie is not reputed to be a religious Jew. So I am not worried about whether he will have a minyan in jail for shabbat services. However over the next few weeks I think we will be seeing some of his business associates coming to join him in the clinker. Indeed he may soon have his own Madoff and Associates prison minyan.
Madoff stays jailed as appeal denied
By Martha Graybow
NEW YORK (Reuters) – Bernard Madoff lost his bid on Friday to be released from jail until his June sentencing for Wall Street's largest-ever investment fraud.

The confessed swindler had challenged a judge's decision to immediately jail him after his dramatic guilty plea last week, but a federal appeals court denied his request for release after finding he was a potential flight risk and could have a secret pile of money to help him escape.

The ruling means Madoff might never again see the luxury Manhattan penthouse where he had been placed under home confinement for three months following his December 11 arrest.

He is now being held in a small concrete cell in a downtown Manhattan jail after confessing to a fraud that prosecutors say bilked investors of as much as $65 billion over 20 years. When the one-time Nasdaq chairman is sentenced, scheduled for June 16, he could be ordered to prison for the rest of his life.

A three-judge panel of the appeals court said Madoff, 70, could try to flee if allowed out on bail, given his age and potential for a long prison sentence. He faces up to 150 years in prison after pleading guilty to fraud, money laundering and other charges.

Madoff could have stashed money abroad to finance a potential escape, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit panel wrote in its ruling upholding District Judge Denny Chin's decision last week to jail Madoff immediately.

"The defendant has a residence abroad, and has had ample opportunity over a long period of time to secret substantial resources outside the country," the judges said.

Madoff owns a home in France. While his attorneys argued his assets have been frozen and he has made no effort to flee, the appeals court said Judge Chin "was not required to treat this defendant's financial representations as reliable...more"

3/19/09

Review: "Knowing" the Movie is a Train Wreck

I'll say thanks but no thanks next time to the Observer when they offer me preview tickets to a new movie. The people that newspaper hired to manage our admission to the Regal Theater on 42nd Street were rude and disorganized. That was a totally apt foreshadowing of the movie we were going to see: "Knowing" with Nicolas Cage.

I'm not a Cage hater, although some of my friends are. And the trailer for the film tantalizes with its disasters, numerology and warm fuzzy father-son scenes. The movie itself turned out to be rude and disorganized, a downer with a seriously flawed plot and a message of utter hopelessness for the human race. As the punchline goes, "Other than that Mrs. Lincoln, how was your night at the theater?"

Aptly, the highlight of the film for most people was the overwhelming NYC subway train crash disaster scene of mayhem and death. Some rated the Boston plane crash scene more gruesome and real. The gratuitous fiery forest fantasy scene of burning animals and the general end-of-the-earth destruction of New York City ranked high on the sadism rating charts. The bizarre Garden of Eden post script stood out as one of the most puzzling codas in artistic history. Cage's confused professor character won over no hearts in the theater - who wants to identify with a recently widowed misanthropic alcoholic academic?

There are plenty more reasons not to like this train wreck of a Hollywood feature film. No doubt, the box office for the disaster movie will be huge and come next year some special effects award nominations will be offered to it. I'm sorry I only have two thumbs to turn down on this one.

3/18/09

Is Bernie Madoff's Accountant David G. Friehling Jewish?

Yes, accountant David G. Friehling who has been charged with fraud in connection with Madoff’s Ponzi scheme, is a Jew.

He provided fake auditing services to Madoff’s bogus business for more than a decade and operated out of a storefront office in Rockland County.

The Times reports that Friehling serves on the board of the Rockland Jewish community center, thusly implying his identity as a Jew.

Unfortunately, in its story about Friehling, the Daily News published an antisemitic slur by one of his New City neighbors,
Neighbors said the accountant, who generally kept to himself, deserved whatever punishment came from the scandal.

"They always want more money, these guys," said Thomas Cooney, 44. "The more money they get, the more they want - and they think they can get away with it."

3/17/09

Times uses Kosher-Rabbi-Pork Analogy to explain Warren Buffet's Moodys Investment

With the recent meltdown of our financial system, people have started asking, where were the ratings agencies? And with that question we turn to the Times' story, "Warren Buffett Unusually Silent on Credit Rating Agencies" by DAVID SEGAL.
In his annual Berkshire Hathaway letter, Warren E. Buffett recently urged investors to pose tough questions at the shareholders meeting in May. Here is one on the mind of some Buffett watchers: When are you going to fix Moody’s?

Mr. Buffett, known as the Oracle of Omaha, owns a stake of roughly 20 percent in the Moody’s Corporation, parent of one of the three rating agencies that grade debt issued by corporations and banks looking to raise money. In recent months, Moody’s Investors Service and its rivals, Standard & Poor’s and Fitch Ratings, have been prominent in virtually every account of the What Went Wrong horror story that is the financial crisis...
Yes, there is more than just one story waiting to be told here. But if you want to understand investments, you need a lot of good analogies. Here is one, not so very penetrating attempt...
...Mr. Buffett also seems to have said nothing about a problem that some contend is just as serious and endemic: because ratings are required in so many transactions, the agencies’ inaccurate ratings have no effect on their own bottom lines. And a company that is paid regardless of its performance is a company that will eventually underperform, says Frank Partnoy, a professor of law at the University of San Diego.

“Imagine if you had a rabbi and said, ‘All the laws of kosher depend on whether this rabbi decides if food is kosher or not,’ ” says Mr. Partnoy, a former derivatives trader. “If the rules say ‘You have to use this rabbi,’ he could be totally wrong and it won’t affect the value of his franchise.”

The rating agencies have been mislabeling the goods for a long time. “A lot of investors have been eating pork recently,” Mr. Partnoy says, “and they’re not too happy about it.”...
Kosher, rabbis and pork - now I understand Warren Buffet's Moodys Investment and the entire financial crisis! (Not.)

Joe Queenan's Talmudic anger in the L.A. Times: No More Fake Apologies!

Joe Queenan has issued forth a wonderfully crafted rant against the fake apologies that abound in our world full of public miscreants caught red-handed in the acts of crimes and scandals.

You need to read the whole outpouring of angst, "Madoff's sorry excuses - Bernard Madoff's public apology only makes things worse. Make restitution for the lost billions, or forget it.."

Regarding the Vatican and its fake apologies, and Bishop Williamson and his faux mea culpas, Joe eloquently opines,
Almost any time a public figure has apologized in recent times, he has only succeeded in making a bad situation worse. When Holocaust-denying Bishop Richard Williamson finally succumbed to Vatican pressure and apologized for his heinous views, he merely expressed regret for the pain he may have caused sensitive Jews by making such comments, without actually apologizing for denying the Holocaust. He also used the inelegant expression "survivors and relatives of victims of injustice under the Third Reich" to describe the plight of butchered European Jewry, as if the Nazis were guilty of nothing more serious than putting a few bogus liens against Jewish-owned property for failure to pay back taxes.

Issuing self-serving apologies that make the victimized feel as if they are facing another round of victimization is a Vatican tradition; back in 2000, when Pope John Paul II apologized to Jews for their mistreatment at the hands of Christians over the ages, he expressed remorse for the actions of sons and daughters of the Catholic Church who might have strayed from the church's traditional values. This suggested that the Inquisition and the Crusades were rogue operations with which the church had no official connection. The Christians who burned, blinded and immolated all those Jews down through the centuries were renegades, mavericks, free-lancers. God forbid that anyone should suggest Catholics had anything to do with it.
It won't spoil you appreciation if we further whet your appetite with Joe's climactic conclusion:
Now, with Madoff's sham apology, hasn't the time finally come to officially ban public apologies issued by con artists, politicians, regulators, captains of industry, religious leaders and athletes? Haven't we reached the point at which the choreographed donning of sackcloth and ashes merely pours salt into a festering wound and makes the apologist's victims even more enraged? Wouldn't we all be better off telling anyone who wants to apologize for his transgressions against humanity that the finest, most tasteful and most appreciated gesture of contrition would be simply to keep his mouth shut?

Perhaps we as a people need a new statute mandating that when wrongdoers appear in court, or even in the court of public opinion, they should do so with a sock stuffed in their mouths. Only by outfitting the Bernie Madoffs and the Eliot Spitzers and the Richard Williamsons of the world with a gag will we be able to prevent everyone else from gagging.
The whole op-ed contains an arc of appropriate anger, and a Talmudic precision of insight, so go read it.

WSJ: Is Islamist Creationist Adnan Oktar a "complete and utter ignoramus"?

Adnan Oktar, or Harun Yahya as he calls himself, went far out on a limb seeking review recently in the Western media. Most media types have university degrees and have a deep respect for the vetting process of the academic world.

We recently got an email invitation to interview this gentleman for our blog. Apparently the Wall Street Journal also got one and accepted. The story that resulted is not at all complimentary.

We don't know if Mr. Oktar-Yahya is a "complete and utter ignoramus" - Richard Dawkins' characterization cited in the story. We do know that he is not part of any academic or recognized theological discipline. That matters to us and to the world.

The grandstanding offer Oktar makes to debate Dawkins or other academics and his "contests" seeking proof of evolution - these are all transparent gimmicks to enable him to claim some value from contrived academic encounters.

Real peer review in an academic discipline may not be the perfect way to assure the value of a person's work, but it is the best way we have to filter out the slacker, poser or charlatan and to reward the merit of the real scientist or the thoughtful philosopher. Oktar obviously wants none of that process.

The first half of the WSJ article is informative in a negative way. In the rather dark conclusion of the WSJ profile there is mention of his book with "Judaism" in the title. I hereby invoke the ten-foot pole rule. So we won't be reading his books any time soon. And yes we do know enough to judge that is fair. Andrew Higgins in the WSJ concludes:
In 1986, Mr. Oktar published his first book, "Freemasonry and Judaism," a tirade against the perils of atheism. He then spent 10 months in a mental hospital. Mr. Oktar says he was never mentally ill but was institutionalized to stifle his views. Military doctors later declared him mentally sound, he says, but he complains that Turkish media "propagated the idea that I was a lunatic."

Mr. Oktar has had various brushes with the law, including a 1991 drug-possession case in which, he says, security agents planted cocaine in his food. He was acquitted. A glamorous model then accused him of blackmail. The case collapsed. Mr. Oktar is now fighting to reverse a conviction last year of himself and six others for forming an unnamed illegal organization that Mr. Oktar says does not exist.

"I have a great number of enemies," says Mr. Oktar, who blames his troubles on a "Darwinist dictatorship."

Unlike strict Christian creationists, who assert the world was created in six days around 10,000 years ago, Mr. Oktar allows for a far longer time period stretching back billions of years. But he agrees with those Christians who insist life didn't evolve, asserting that animals and plants now are exactly as they were at the dawn of time.

His "Atlas of Creation" produces thousands of pictures of fossils of birds, snakes and other creatures side by side with what he says are their identical modern kin. Prof. Dawkins derides the exercise as "total inanity" and says Mr. Oktar confuses snakes with eels and makes other elementary blunders.

One of the pictures in the first volume of Mr. Oktar's work features what is labeled as a caddis fly. It is in fact a man-made fishing fly with a metal hook clearly visible. Mr. Oktar says this is a "little detail" and believes that "just 10 pages of my book can defeat Dawkins."

He's offered a reward of 10 million Turkish lira (around $6 million) to anyone who can produce a fossil that proves evolution. He has also invited his Oxford foe to a debate.

Prof. Dawkins says he has no intention of accepting, as that would only "give legitimacy" to "this weird phenomenon." Mr. Oktar, he says, "doesn't know anything about zoology, doesn't know anything about biology. He knows nothing about what he is attempting to refute."

3/16/09

A Kabbalah Purim for Madonna and Jesus Child on the Upper West Side

Revelations from The Mirror last week to explain Queen Esther's costume:
Queen of pop Madonna looked like she had raided her teenage daughter's wardrobe while out at a fancy dress party last night.

The singer wore a dark wig, Converse baseball boots and fishnets for the bash to mark the Jewish celebration of Purim at the Kabbalah centre in New York.

The eighties-style outfit, finished off with stripey arm warmers and a smiley face signet ring, wasn't a million miles away from 13-year-old Lourdes’ signature look.

Toyboy Jesus Luz also joined in on the fun, arriving as The Joker, complete with green wig, pinstripe suit and full make-up.

The 22-year-old male model arrived at the party accompanying Jessica Seinfeld, wife of comedian Jerry, who was dressed as Cleopatra.
The further details of the deep theological and philosophical background from The Mirror:
Madonna's new boyfriend Jesus Luz has given up his life in Brazil to move in with the superstar singer in New York – just three months after they first met.

Jesus has ditched his modelling agency in Rio de Janeiro and signed with elite agency Ford Models in the Big Apple.

And he’s set up home with the star in her Upper West Side apartment.

His new millionaire surroundings are a far cry from his life in Rio just a few months ago, when Jesus was an unknown jobbing model earning about £160 a shoot.

Madonna, 50, and Jesus, 22, have settled into such domestic bliss that she’s even cooking meals for her young boyfriend most evenings.

They have been attending Kabbalah meetings together and he has grown close to her three children Lourdes, 12, Rocco, eight, and David, three.

A source close to the couple said: “Jesus has left his old life and his old friends behind. His whole world has turned on its head since he met Madonna."
But wait, stop the presses. We just had a comment on another post that claimed something remarkable: "Lindsay Lohan is a soon-to-be Jew, by the way." Details anyone?

Tzvee's Laws of Economics for a Monday Morning Quarterback


We don't have an economic theory. We do have these two apothegmatic laws. They are based on our observations of the pragmatic development of the State of Israel over the past 60 years and they go like this.
  1. Be a socialist when your society does not have large pools of excess capital.
  2. Be a capitalist when your society does have large pools of excess capital.
And if you are some kind of kooky philosopher and want to know which way is better, consider this wisdom that I first heard from Marshall, my old friend in Minnesota.
"Capitalism is the system wherein man exploits his fellow man.
"In socialism, it is the other way around."
And now that large pools of excess capital are drying up all around us, we expect to see more of socialism.

TMZ Video: Rabbi Jackie Mason Calls President Obama a Schvartza

Let's all give Rabbi Jackie a big hand (or at least one finger) for his latest escapade.

Betting Site: Yeshiva U Benefits from Obama Redistribution of Wins

Yikes. How dare they make my alma mater the butt of their humor! "Most inept" - indeed. And please, you really don't need to label it "satire" - unless most of your readership is in Minnesota.
(Satire) Obama Announces 2009 NCAA Tournament Stimulus Plan 

President Barack Obama has announced a stimulus plan for the 2009 NCAA Tournament. Under the proposal, the most successful teams will have wins removed from them and redistributed to the most inept squads.

At a rally to promote his plan, Obama told a citizen merely identified as “Joe the Face Painter” that the successful teams must “share the victories.”

The 2009 Big Dance brackets see Yeshiva College as the top seed in the Eastern Regional. The Reverend Jesse Jackson immediately demanded a boycott of all Yeshiva games noting that the school has no black rabbis on their staff....

Daily News' Michael Daly tells Ruth Madoff where to go - back to Far Rockaway


When anger and humor mix you sometimes get a strong compound that reeks of the heavy sweet smell of sarcasm. That's what Michael Daly served up to us in his Daily News take down of Ruth Madoff, see below.

Also read about Bernie Madoff the lousy tipper. And in the way-too-much-time-on-their-hands-link-of-the-day check out the interactive graphical Madoff Victim Map with its own web site.
Ruth Madoff's ideal home should be back in Far Rockaway
BY Michael Daly

The perfect new home for Ruth Madoff is in Far Rockaway, just a few sea-scented blocks from the high school where she and Bernie were an item.

Even if the government seizes the penthouse and the Palm Beach mansion and the Montauk getaway and the French bungalow and the millions in cash, Ruth should get enough in Social Security to afford one of the $700-a-month studios for rent on Seagirt Blvd.

If she acts quickly, she can even take advantage of a special offer by the proprietors of the Wavecrest Gardens complex.

"One month rent free," promises an Internet ad.

Of course, the 557-square-foot apartment may seem a bit too cozy after the penthouse. She could consider it excellent preparation for a 75-square-foot jail cell in the event she ends up behind bars.

In the meantime, the apartments are directly across the street from the beach where Bernie once served as a lifeguard. She can stroll the boardwalk remembering happier times, and maybe ponder whatever happened.

If Ruth ambles up Beach 20th St., she may encounter a few elderly panhandlers from the nursing home. Not to worry. She is a woman who could clutch millions knowing her husband had robbed so many people of their life savings. She should have no trouble at all just striding past an outstretched hand.

The Beach 25th St. subway stop is only a short walk away. Right by there is Far Rockaway High School. Ruth Madoff would be right back where she started, while the prosecutors decide where she should end up.

3/15/09

Recession Clobbers Teaneck Area Churches and Synagogues but not the Mosque

Looks like more edifice complex worries for our local Jews.

We hear that construction at Rinat Yisrael synagogue started in December (see here) has been put on hold due to general financial uncertainties. We also were told that rebuilding at Englewood's Orthodox synagogue has been halted in part due to major losses emanating from the Madoff-Merkin scandals. We were informed that J. Ezra Merkin's younger brother and many of his neighbors in Englewood were hit hard by the Merkin debacle and hence the shul project is up in the air.

Teaneck's Bnai Yeshurun congregation has no current building plans to cut back on. It has cancelled its annual fund raising dinner ("We couldn't find anyone who wanted to be honored") and replaced it with a less onerous souped up Shabbat afternoon sit down kiddush (with no honoree).

McClatchy News Service reports at length on cut backs at our area churches and then concludes,
A Wayne rabbi said his synagogue is committed to helping what he said is an increase in congregants having difficulty paying their membership dues.

“Our general attitude is that these are hard times, and we want everyone to be able to afford a synagogue,” said Rabbi Stephen M. Wylen of Temple Beth Tikvah. “If they are unemployed or underemployed, we will carry them.”

Some faith groups, meanwhile, have had some success even amid the downturn....

A Teaneck mosque said it raised about $30,000 during a recent one-day fund-raiser to benefit Palestinians in the war-ravaged Gaza Strip. Waheed Khalid, president of Darul Islah, said members of the mosque, in general, haven’t been hit too hard with job losses because they do not work in the banking and investment trades.

Khalid said many members work in the public sector or in the fields of engineering and architecture or medicine.

“Those jobs are not affected at the moment, and I hope they will not be,” Khalid said.

Is Everyone Cheating? Dan Ariely ponders Bernie Madoff's Impact on His Peers



MIT professor, Dan Ariely, author of the pioneering best seller, Predictably Irrational, and of the blog by the same name has a post up called, "3 irrational lessons from the Bernie Madoff scandal."

His third lesson provokes in us a flow of questions that we have been mulling over, post-mortem to Madoff's jailing last week. Consider what he says about the lesson regarding the propensity people have to cheat under different circumstances.
...A third bad lesson that I think people will take from this concerns the way we define acceptable levels of cheating. In a study that may parallel Madoff’s egregious dishonesty, we again gave the participants the opportunity to cheat, while solving a puzzle quiz — but this time we hired an actor. This actor, posing as a fellow participant, stood up at the start of the session and declared that he had solved all the puzzles. Now the question is how his behavior would influence the other participants in the room — the ones who were watching him.

What we found is that when the actor wore a plain T-shirt, which made him part of the student group, cheating increased. On the other hand, when the actor wore a T-shirt of the rivaling university, cheating decreased. What this means is that when someone who is part of our own social group cheats, we find it more acceptable to cheat, but when people who are not part of our social group cheat, we want to distance ourselves from these people and cheat less.

Madoff was part of the financial elite — part of an in-group of our financial leaders. Think of all these people who were in his house, who knew him well. So now, when other people in this circle see him cheating, think about the long-term consequences: Would these other people in this financial industry now be more likely to take the immoral path? It doesn’t have to be another Ponzi scheme. It just means that, now that they have been exposed to this extreme level of dishonesty, they might adopt slightly lower moral scruples. Maybe they will start not letting their clients know exactly what they own and what they don’t own, or change a little bit the interest rate that they’re charging them … I don’t think that those in his circle will necessarily become more Madoff-like people, but I do suspect that they will get a substantial relief from their moral shackles. Sadly, that’s his legacy.

So, Chapter One of the Madoff scandal is over, but I worry that the negative downstream consequences of this experience are just starting …
Ariely already insinuates that we ought not be happy to have grabbed the low hanging fruit -- the big perpetrator -- when the smaller cheats in the game will do us much more harm.

He wraps up his post with this extension of his research. Since Madoff is wearing the plain T-shirt, everyone else on Wall Street now has permission to cheat.

Just that this bothers us because it is so darned theoretical. Where is the actual history or biography here? Isn't it really important to go back to the time that Bernie first saw the other guy in the plain T-shirt cheating? Somehow he gave himself permission along the way to cheat. Only he stepped off the cliff and couldn't climb back up.

We try to think average here at Tzvee's blog. We believe that's why people come back to read more here. We try to be not too clever and not too hip, and just a bit Talmudic.

Look at this thought experiment. Let's say our livelihood depended on us convincing you to give us your money to invest so we could get a commission, buy a nice house, send our kids to nice schools, take nice vacations and the rest to the drill.

Remember. We only make more money if you invest more money. If you sell and go to cash, we suffer.

What's that? You say that gives us a big incentive to lie to you that the market will always go up and no incentive to tell you the truth that sometimes you should sell because the market is going down?

We do have stories from inside. The big firms do know six months to a year before the big declines. Do they tell you, the investor, to sell? Of course not.

The brokers (excuse me, Financial Advisers) get prizes for bringing in the most net new assets to the firm. Can those folk tell you to keep your money in cash?

Let's be honest. We average guys are convinced right here and right now that the game is rigged. Not because of Madoff who was just the world's biggest goniff. But because of all the smaller ones. That takes us back to Ariely's second lesson - look out for the smaller cheats.
Another non-useful lesson that I think we will adopt is to start searching with more vigor for other bad apples. On one hand, it is clearly important to prevent more Madoffs, but at the same time I worry that as a consequence of searching for bad apples, we won’t pay enough attention to other financial behavior that might not be as badly wrong but that can actually have larger financial consequences.

In our research on dishonesty, we found that when we give people the opportunity to cheat, many of them cheat by a little bit, while very few cheat by a lot. In our experiments, we lost about $100 to the few people who cheated a lot — but lost thousands of dollars to the many people who each cheated by a bit. I suspect that this is a good reflection of cheating in the stock market, where the real financial cost of the egregious cheating by Madoff is actually a tiny fraction of all the “small” cheating carried out by “good” bankers.

The risk here is that if we pay too much attention to chasing bad apples, we might pay too little attention to the situations where the small dishonesties of many people can have large consequences (such as paying slightly higher salaries to cronies, making small changes to financial reports, doctoring documents, being slightly dishonest about mortgage terms), and in the process neglect the real economic source of the trouble we are in.
In the context of this research, our own thought experiments and the realities of the past year, we think it is fair to ask our readers, just how cynical should we be?

3/13/09

Will the Religious Audiences Help the Success of the Neo-Biblical TV Series 'Kings'?


From the reviews there's doubt about the viability of the new TV series 'Kings' that starts Sunday 3/15. The series is based on the biblical narratives of the Israelite monarchy. Here's a representative review followed by a JTA story about the series.
TV Review: Ambitious ‘Kings’ With Ian McShane Unlike Anything Else on Network TV

CHICAGO – You won’t see many shows much more ambitious than NBC’s “Kings”. The multi-character drama borrows from the story of King David to create a tapestry piece about power, corruption, and war. It’s dense, layered, complex storytelling that you rarely see on network television. In other words, I don’t think it’s going to be on very long.

In the two-hour premiere of “Kings,” directed by “I Am Legend“‘s Francis Lawrence (as are all of the first four hours) and created by “Heroes”’ Michael Green, we meet the popular King of Gilboa, Silas Benjamin, played with driven perfection by the great Ian McShane. His people have recently emerged stronger from a horrible war and the King lives with his Queen Rose (Susanna Thompson of “Once and Again”), outspoken Daughter Michelle (Allison Miller), and son Jack (Sebastian Stan)...more...
Will the Christian press rally behind the series? JTA does its best to bring in Jewish viewers:
Yeshiva vet aims to make King David must see TV
By Tom Tugend

LOS ANGELES (JTA) -- Michael Green was walking down a street in Jerusalem in late 2006, when the concept of the new television series “Kings” came into focus.

“The idea had been roiling my brain for a while,” Green said, but now he sat down to write the pilot for “Kings,” while working as writer and co-executive producer for “Heroes.”

“Kings,” which will launch with special two-hour premiere on March 15, takes the biblical drama of young David, Goliath, King Saul and the prophet Samuel and transports it to a contemporary city that looks a lot like a gleaming New York after a thorough scrubbing.

Don’t look for a 21st century swords-and-sandals epic in the NBC series. The political intrigues and corporate power plays have a distinctly Washingtonian ring, and part of the fun is to look for parallels to the last year of President George W. Bush’s administration, the Cold War, Vietnam, Iraq, Middle East conflicts and even the kidnapping of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

Green, who attended a yeshiva in New York and whose mother is Israeli, is a bit coy about drawing direct biblical-contemporary comparisons.

“It’s not for me to say what the parallels are,” he commented. “That’s up to each viewer.”

However, the Jewish or Christian viewer, who stayed awake in Sunday school, should have no trouble identifying the TV protagonists with their biblical counterparts.

We meet King Silas Benjamin (King Saul of the tribe of Benjamin, first king of Israel), David Shepherd (David, the shepherd), the king’s son Jack (Jonathan), the king's daughter Michelle (Michal), and the Rev. Ephraim Samuels (the Prophet Samuel).

Actors in the two key roles are Ian McShane (“Heroes”) as the king and Australian actor Chris Egan as David.

In the premiere episode, we find the king, in an expensive power suit, ruling over the prosperous Kingdom of Gilboa and ensconced with his queen in a mansion in the capital of Shiloh.

He is also at war with neighboring Gath and when his son is kidnapped during a military skirmish, it is David, a fellow soldier, who frees Jack and earns the gratitude of the king.

To free the hostage, David has to do battle with Goliath, who appears in a rather unexpected form. At home, David becomes an instant media favorite.

Peace is made but soon broken, followed by new negotiations with prickly Gath officers, who look suspiciously like Russian generals, with square faces and jackets-full of medals. On a softer touch, David and Michelle (the beautiful Allison Miller) begin to fall in love.

Green, as creator and executive producer of “Kings,” makes it even tougher to define the precise genre of the series by introducing touches of sci-fi and fantasy. For instance, the emblem of Gilboa is the orange monarch butterfly, and when a successor to the king is anointed, a swarm of butterflies form a crown around the chosen one’s head.

“King’s” crew has shot a season’s worth of 14 episodes -- the premiere contains two -- in and around New York, studios in Brooklyn’s Greenpoint, and in a Nassau County mansion.

With a large cast, opulent palace scenes and shooting in New York, this is an expensive production.

Green begged off giving an exact budget figure, but he put the cost of an average prime time TV episode as between $2 million and $4.5 million, with “Kings” definitely on the high end.

Green, 36, is a native New Yorker, with close ties to Israel. His mother, born in Tel Aviv, came to the United States after finishing her army service, met Green’s father, and “has visited ever since,” Green said, adding, “Most of my extended family lives in Israel.

He is optimistic that “Kings” will eventually be seen on Israeli and British television, which usually happens after a new series’ second or third season in the United States.

Green reinforced his boyhood yeshiva studies with a more academic perspective when he took a double major in human biology and religious studies at Stanford University.

After college, his interest turned to story writing, rather than religion or biology.

“I once created the character of a doctor in one of my shows," he said, "but never became one myself -- to the disappointment of my parents.”