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Is ‘Hermione’ part of J.K. Rowling’s secret code in the Harry Potter series?

April 7, 2010 2 comments

By Donald H. Harrison

Donald H. Harrison

SAN DIEGO – For a moment, my daughter and grandson looked at me as if I were Dan Brown revealing not the secrets of the Da Vinci Code, but the hidden messages in the Harry Potter code.

I had told them that author J.K. Rowling had put herself into the Harry Potter novels, that Harry’s school friend Hermione clearly was Rowling’s alter-ego.

“What makes you say so?” asked Shor, 8, a dyed-in-the-wool Harry Potter fan.

“Sometimes authors like to send messages with the names that they give to their characters,” I suggested.  “Rowling picked simple names for her boy heroes—‘Harry’ and ‘Ron’—but a complex name for her girl heroine, ‘Hermione’” I said, adding for good measure: “look how similar the words ‘heroine’ and ‘Hermione’ are.”

“Yes, so?” asked my daughter, Sandi, suspiciously.

“Well look at how Hermione is spelled,” I said. ‘Her-mi-one.’  Pronounce ‘mi’ like the musical note and it is ‘me.’  Separate the name into its component parts and it means “Her” and “me” are “one.”

“Way cool!” Shor exclaimed.  You can’t help but love that boy!

“Not so fast,” demanded Sandi, who you’ve got to love despite her tendency to distrust some of her father’s stories.  “That sounds like the same kind of faulty reasoning that convinced Beatles fans that Paul was dead.   You know, he was wearing different clothes than the other Beatles on an album cover, so clearly he was no longer like them—he was dead—and all sorts of nonsense like that.”

I grinned shamefacedly.  When it comes to Harry Potter, I’ve decided that my daughter can do no wrong.  She turned Shor onto the series, transforming a boy who had to be coaxed into reading into one who now gobbles up books, even spurning programs on the Disney Channel and the Cartoon Network to read about Harry and the gang at the Hogwarts school.

Sandi is to Harry Potter books as I am to Star Trek movies and television episodes, I bragged to myself.  Some years ago, I got Shor interested in Star Trek, winning his attention with the original series, featuring Captain Kirk played by William Shatner.  Shor’s favorite character was Mr. Spock,the Vulcan portrayed by Leonard Nimoy.  Then it was onto Star Trek: The Next Generation, in which Patrick Stewart played Captain Jean Luc Picard.  Shor’s favorite character was Data, the android portrayed by Brent Spiner. 

Now we are almost finished watching all the episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine over which  Captain  Benjamin Sisko, played by Avery Brooks, reigns.  Shor’s favorite character is Odo, the shapeshifter played by Rene Auberjonois, although Quark, portrayed by Armin Shimerman, runs a close second because Shor met Shimerman in San Diego during the run of The Seafarer at the San Diego Rep. 

 My wife Nancy already has purchased for her “boys” Star Trek: Voyager, in which Voyager will be captained by Captain Kathryn Janeway (Kate Mulgrew).  I can’t wait to learn who Shor’s favorite character will be in that one.

I had never read the Harry Potter novels until Shor asked me to follow him into them, even as he had followed me into the Star Trek world.  His reasoning was both endearing and compelling: “It will give us more to talk about, grandpa.”

Star Trek DVD’s have the advantage of ‘pausability’’ Shor and I can stop action anywhere we want in an episode to discuss the questions being raised.   One of my favorite episodes came during the ‘Next Generation’ series when the only Klingon in Star Fleet, Worf  (Michael Dorn), was asked by a man from his world to join the Klingon cause and to forsake the Federation.   Shor and I talked about concepts of loyalty.  Here, said I, was Worf being asked to change his loyalty –in essence to switch sides from the Federation to the Klingon Empire.

Shor , a student at Soille San Diego Hebrew Day School, responded that Moses has switched his loyalties—from being an Egyptian prince to being a leader of the downtrodden Hebrews.

Besides Star Trek and Harry Potter, the stories of the Torah are among Shor’s favorite  literary reference points.

This most recent Passover, he had the opportunity to help his one-year-old cousin, Brian, search for the afikomen during a seder at our house.   Later in the week, visiting his great-grandfather Sam at the sprawling senior complex at the Ocean Hills Country Club, Shor and his brother, Sky, along with Brian, got to see what Christian kids do, participating with excitement in an Easter egg hunt.

Of course, the similarity between searching for the afikomen to later ransom and searching for an Easter egg to win a prize did not escape Shor.  Nor did he fail to note that in both Passover and Easter an egg symbolizes the renewal of life.

Whether in The Da Vinci Code, Pesach, Easter, Star Trek or Harry Potter, symbols are an important part of story telling.  I give Shor a thumb’s up for catching on.

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Harrison is editor of San Diego Jewish World

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Turkey and Israel escalate war of words

April 7, 2010 Leave a comment

(WJC)–Following another critical remark about Israel by Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan, Israel’s Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said the Turkish leader was “slowly turning into a Gaddafi or a Hugo Chavez”, the Libyan and Venezuelan rulers. Lieberman said: “It is his choice. The problem is not Turkey, the problem is Erdogan.”

On Monday, the Turkish prime minister said that his country could not be indifferent to the question of Jerusalem and to the “murder of innocent children in Gaza.” Erdogan added that Turkey would always be on the side of Muslims, wherever they lived.

Lieberman suggested that Erdogan should deal with Turkey’s “problems with the Kurds” rather than “preach” to Israel. Kurdish rebels have been fighting for autonomy in southeast Turkey for more than two decades, killing tens of thousands.

Turkey’s Foreign Ministry in Ankara swiftly condemned Lieberman’s statements as “inappropriate and impertinent remarks which bear no truth,” and called on Israel to “trade their meaningless and unacceptable attitude with common sense.”

Meanwhile, it has been reported that Ankara will soon replace its ambassador in Israel, who reportedly requested a transfer after being publicly belittled by Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon in January. Ahmet Oguz Celikkol is set to be replaced by Kerim Uras, an expert on Middle Eastern affairs.

Relations between Israel and Turkey have been strained since Israel’s operation against Hamas in Gaza in 2009.

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The preceding provided by World Jewish Congress.

Jewish group alleges fraud in sale of pre-war Torah scrolls

April 7, 2010 Leave a comment

(WJC)–The American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants has called on authorities in the US state of Maryland to launch an investigation into the sale of Holocaust-era Torah scrolls. The non-profit foundation Save A Torah Inc. of Rabbi Menachem Youlus claims it is purchasing and restoring European Torah scrolls, and four Maryland synagogues have recently bought scrolls from Youlus. A ‘Washington Post’ article published in January suggested that the dramatic stories told by the rabbi of the scrolls’ origins were false.

An independent investigation by two scribes commissioned by Save A Torah found that eight of the 11 scrolls restored and sold by Youlus were “suitable for ritual use in the synagogue,” according to a statement and report issued by foundation president Rick Zitelman. All of the Torahs examined were found to be written in pre-Holocaust years in eastern Europe.

Youlus has claimed that he found the scrolls in monastery basements, buried in the ground, and in former Nazi concentration camps. Whilst smuggling Torahs out of some countries, Youlus claimed he was beaten up and threatened.

Last week, the New York-based American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants – which represents 80,000 survivors of the Shoah – filed a request for a criminal inquiry. The complaint was written by historian and attorney Menachem Rosensaft, vice president of the group, and filed with Maryland Attorney General Douglas Gansler and Maryland Secretary of State John McDonough.

Rosensaft said the request for an official inquiry reflects “disturbing information” indicating that Save A Torah, a tax-exempt organization, may have raised charitable contributions based on “incredible and, in some instances, demonstrably false representations” regarding the origin of some of the scrolls.

Rosensaft, the son of survivors of the Bergen-Belsen Nazi concentration camp in Germany, said in an interview last week that evidence of misrepresentation was drawn from the Post story as well as his independent investigation.

In one of the claims which Rosensaft has disputed, Youlus said he discovered a Torah scroll in 2002 beneath the floorboards of a barracks at Bergen-Belsen. Rosensaft said his late mother had told him that she and other inmates helped burn down the barracks and other buildings at Bergen-Belsen in May 1945 to combat a typhus epidemic. “I know for a fact that no barracks at Bergen-Belsen existed after May 1945,” Rosensaft said, adding that he had visited the Bergen-Belsen site several times. “Any statement that he discovered anything, let alone a Torah, at the barracks at Bergen-Belsen is an absolute lie.”

Rosensaft also rejected other claims made by Youlus, including that he had recovered two Holocaust scrolls from a mass grave in western Ukraine and one from a cemetery adjacent to the Auschwitz death camp in Poland.

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Preceding provided by World Jewish Congress.

Hungarian Jews demonstrate against rising anti-Semitism and extremism

April 7, 2010 1 comment

(WJC)–More than 1,000 Jews marched through Budapest’s Old Ghetto district in response to a series of anti-Semitic incidents and the polarized political climate in the run-up to Hungary’s elections next week. The marchers defied a police recommendation to keep a low profile and marched through the neighborhood of the Great Dohány Street Synagogue wearing yarmulkes. The police recommendation was issued last week, after the windows of a Chabad rabbi’s home had been smashed twice during a Passover Seder.

Over the last week, anti-Semitic graffiti has appeared in various places in Budapest, a Holocaust memorial was damaged in the western Hungarian city of Zalaegerszeg and neo-Nazis held an anti-Semitic rally in the eastern city of Tiszaeszlár, where a notorious blood libel against the local Jewish community led to pogroms in 1882-83.

Organized by the Hungarian Jewish community, the Budapest demonstration was secured by the police, and no violence was reported.

Jews in Hungary have repeatedly expressed concern about anti-Semitic overtones in the election campaign. The poll is set for 11 April, with a possible run-off on April 25, and the extreme-right Jobbik party is expected to score significant gains. Jobbik is campaigning on a platform that blames most of Hungary’s woes on Roma (Gypsies)  and Jews. In 2007 it also founded the now banned paramilitary Hungarian Guard.

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Preceding provided by World Jewish Congress.

The culture and music of Seattle

April 7, 2010 Leave a comment

By David Amos

David Amos

We traveled to spend the Passover holidays in Seattle, together with our children and grandchildren, and this afforded us the opportunity to attend a very fine concert of the Seattle Symphony, directed by Gerard Schwarz.

We took our nine year old grandson to the concert, and even as we were entering Benaroya Hall, where we have been multiple times, I could not help but to draw some comparisons with what we have here in San Diego.

The one repeated impression I was feeling is that Seattle seems more comfortable with its arts organizations than San Diego does. Our daughter is involved in theatre in the city, so we can draw as well from other disciplines.

 But for this concert, it might have been the hall, the acoustics, certainly the attending public, the reaction of the audience to really sophisticated and esoteric music, the sound of the orchestra, or the overall ambiance. Even the way the ushers carry themselves manifests a sense of pride and awareness. I miss all of these elements in San Diego.

The audience members, most of them casually dressed came to hear the music, some of which was not totally accessible at a first hearing. There was total silence at the right times, applause at the appropriate places, and awareness of the prominent soloists from within the orchestra, when the conductor pointed to them during the applause. And, yes, I did not see a stampede to the parking lots while the musicians were being recognized on stage. What an abysmal difference!

But, what impressed me the most was the orchestra. Call it the hall’s acoustics, or the 25 years of work in Maestro Schwarz’ shaping of such a fine ensemble, but the tone of the orchestra is simply glorious. The tutti sonorities (that is, when everyone is playing at the same time), and the individual instrumental choirs, the brass, the strings and woodwinds, sparkled with energy and purpose. Sometimes we neglect the heroes in the percussion section, but again, I was impressed with its playing; there was focus and spirit.

Earlier that day I attended the final rehearsal, and walked backstage at the end of the concert. I did not talk to any of the musicians directly, but their sense of pride in what they do, and the organization to which they belong, was quite obvious.

What about the music that was played? We heard two rarely performed works which are not the paragon of accessibility, but are a delight nevertheless, and a perennial orchestral showpiece.

The program started with the suite from the opera The Cunning Little Vixen by the Moravian composer Leos Janacek. Although we hear frequently this composer’s popular Sinfonietta and some of his other works, this particular set of musical selections have been unjustifiably neglected. The music is fresh and brilliant, and the composer, who was by all descriptions a late bloomer in his life, captured so exquisitely the sounds of nature, the forest and its animals.

What was evident throughout this piece and for the entire concert was Schwarz’s fine attention to detail, to subtleties, and delicate orchestral colors. And for their part, the musicians responded with precision, focus, and artistry.

The music that followed was even more dynamic and memorable. The Russian composer Serge Prokoffiev wrote five piano concertos and the one most frequently performed in the Concerto No. 3. This evening, we were treated to the Fifth Piano Concerto, and it was quite obvious why this work is not performed very often. It is a snake pit of technical challenges, which requires a solo pianist with an almost demonic control of the keyboard.

Most pianists will not touch this work, but it was a walk in the park for guest soloist Alexander Toradze. Originally from Tbilisi, Georgia, and now in the faculty of Indiana University, Toradze has already recorded all five of Prokoffiev’s concertos. His familiarity and assertive approach of this work was only matched by his joyful ferocity and abandon. He immersed himself so completely in the music’s calisthenics and emotional impact that he cut his right thumb after a violent finger-twisting phrase. He needed a tissue to wipe the blood from the keyboard between the first and second movements! We all enjoyed a quick laugh and a moment of levity.

His confidence and dynamism was matched by Schwarz and the orchestra, who provided a taut, secure, and impressive accompaniment.

The second half of the program was devoted to the popular and beloved Pictures at an Exhibition by Modest Mussorgsky, in the orchestral arrangement by Maurice Ravel. Here, we were faced with familiar music, which lends itself to comparisons with other celebrated performances, on recordings and live concerts.

Although I might personally have taken certain movements at slightly different tempos, I was again impressed with the fine attention to details, the overall sound of the orchestra, and of the various individual solos by members of the Seattle Symphony. Especially noteworthy were the saxophone, euphonium, and principal trumpet solos.

All the elements that come into play to make for a memorable performance were there, and this is directly attributable to the dedication, talent, organization, artistic direction, and love for music which Gerard Schwarz has given the city of Seattle for over a quarter century. It manifests itself with a feeling and weight of tradition and pride, in one of the finest success stories of a major orchestra in our country.

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Amos is conductor of the Tifereth Israel Community Orchestra and a guest conductor of professional orchestras around the world.

Just a peace or a just peace?

April 7, 2010 Leave a comment

By Rabbi Dow Marmur

Rabbi Dow Marmur

JERUSALEM–Avishai Margalit, arguably Israel’s most significant living philosopher, has recently published a book with the intriguing title, On Compromise and Rotten Compromises. As I haven’t read it, I’m not in a position to comment on it, but one quote as it appears in John Gray’s review in The New York Review of Books, struck me as highly relevant: “The book is in pursuit of just a peace, rather than of a just peace. Peace can be justified without being just.”

Margalit is said to deal mainly with “the moral dilemmas that surround World War II.” But in view of his long and distinguished record as an Israeli “peacenik,” his formulation seems eminently relevant to the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Trying to follow what’s going on in Israel, one comes easily to the conclusion that as long as justice is defined in absolute terms there’ll be no peace in the Middle East. Here not only religious Zionists but also secular nationalists believe that the whole of the Land of Israel belongs solely to the Jewish people; for the former because God so decreed, for the latter because history has bestowed it upon us. Anything less would be regarded by them as a rotten and untenable compromise.

Palestinians also see the whole land as theirs and theirs alone. According to them, it has been forcibly settled by Jews, many using the Holocaust as an excuse for occupation. They accuse the Jews of having distorted history to provide a framework for their claim, which is nothing but a version of neo-colonialism. The only just outcome, in this scheme of things, is for Jews to accept the one-state solution for all of Palestine and learn to live as a minority within it, just as they once did under Muslim rule in the region.

In practical terms neither version of absolute justice can be realized and no outside force could impose it, even if we concede that the issue is a struggle between two rights, ours and theirs. The way to resolve the impasse is through compromise: just a peace even if not a just peace. In the many peace plans on the table each side would get much less than it wants and that it deems to be just. For Palestinians it may mean a state of their own, albeit not of the size and the sovereignty they would want. For Israelis it would mean giving up territory and learning to make do with less, perhaps much less.  

 It seems that this is the kind of (not rotten) compromise that the new United States administration is trying to impose on the two sides. To reassure the Palestinians as part of his overall plan for the region, Obama has put the screws on the government of Israel. Nobody seems to know if the new US approach will work and what the consequences might be if it doesn’t. The danger of a nuclear Iran is always in the background.

 The risk is, of course, that if they don’t settle for a compromise, each may end up with a rotten compromise. That’s why many serious analysts are saying that the clamor for what they see as a just peace is endangering the existence of the Jewish state no less than the Palestinian Authority while enabling enemies of both to take undue advantage.

This leads to the not unreasonable conclusion that while intransigence may be the order of the day, the popular consensus at least in Israel is pointing toward a compromise: just a peace, whether or not it’s a just pace. If this can be achieved under Israel’s and the Palestinians current political leadership is difficult to predict. Looking in from the periphery as I do, the consequences of not achieving it are too gruesome to contemplate.
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Rabbi Marmur is spiritual leader emeritus of Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto.  He now divides his time between Canada and Israel.

How Israel avoided the global economic meltdown

April 7, 2010 Leave a comment

 

By Dorothea Shefer-Vanson

Dorothea Shefer-Vanson

MEVASSERET ZION, Israel–Been there, done that. Why was Israel not affected by the global economic crisis to the same extent as some other countries, specifically the US and the UK? It was probably due to a number of factors.

In the 1980s, due to a combination of ideological rigidity and economic mismanagement, Israel experienced galloping inflation. This was accompanied by a major banking crisis, triggered in part by the banks’ manipulation of their share prices. There are only five major banking groups in Israel, and just two of those are really large, so that they essentially operate as a cartel. In 1985 the government bailed out all the banks, i.e., nationalized them, in order to prevent the entire banking system from collapsing. Private assets and savings were frozen for several years, the local currency was devalued and the entire economy was revamped through the concerted efforts of the government, the Histadrut (National Federation of Labour), and the Employers’ Association. Most significantly, strict controls on banks’ activities were put in place, with particular reference to the Basle Banking Supervision Regulations.

Since then the socialist ideals that motivated Israel’s founding fathers and dominated its political and economic thinking have been gradually replaced by an awareness that in the long run the capitalist model has more to offer. Even the kibbutzim, the last stronghold of the socialist ethos, have been privatized to a great extent.

There are, of course, other factors at work. As a country with little or no natural resources, Israel has had to rely on its only comparative advantage, its people. Israeli brainpower has given the country high-tech and bio-tech industries that are considered among world leaders. In fact, one of Israel’s  foremost exports in recent years has been its start-up companies, which are often bought by foreign companies, thus bringing in large amounts of foreign exchange, enriching Israel’s treasury through taxation and creating a thin stratum of extremely wealthy people.

But ‘exits’ apart, there are other reasons for Israel’s relative immunity to the global crisis. Israel has no pretensions to being an international financial centre, it has focused on niche markets and its fiscal and monetary policies have been reasonably sensible. Thus, the budget deficit and government expenditure are kept low by law, and taxes are relatively high. There is an extensive welfare system, and anyone seeking a mortgage must provide adequate proof of payback ability. Government intervention in the currency and financial markets has been drastically reduced and funds are channeled more to R&D and less to propping up unsustainable industries.

Bankers’ bonuses exist in Israel, but a relatively small number of people are involved and in recent years there has been greater transparency in this regard. High-tech companies also hand out bonuses to employees, but no-one seems to begrudge these. The one public institution that pays its employees a decent wage, the Bank of Israel, comes under criticism for this but justifies it on the grounds that its employees are of a higher caliber than the average civil servant and that it has to compete with the banking sector, where wages are higher than average. It is only fair on my part to admit that, as a former employee of the Bank of Israel, I may be biased on this point.

There are still many aspects of the political system which are deleterious to attaining a healthy economy. These will continue to constitute a drain on Israel’s resources until the electoral system is changed to ease the stranglehold that pressure groups have on coalition governments. But unfortunately that is unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future.

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Shefer-Vanson is a freelance writer and interpreter based in Mevasseret Zion, Israel