Author Archives: Jew of the Week

Jew of the Week: Eric Garcetti

Mayor of Los Angeles

Eric Garcetti, mayor of LA (Credit: Emily Shur)

Eric Michael Garcetti (b. 1971) was born in Los Angeles to a Russian-Jewish mother and a Mexican-Italian father. He was always interested in civics and politics, and was a member of Junior State of America, an organization for high school students aiming to cultivate America’s future leaders. Garcetti studied political science at Columbia, then earned his Master’s there in international affairs. He was also a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University and worked on his doctorate at the London School of Economics. After returning to the States, Garcetti taught at several colleges and sat on the board of California’s Human Rights Watch. In 2001, he ran for a seat on Los Angeles’ City Council, and won. Between 2006 and 2012, he was president of the council, and implemented important changes including a policy that all constituents must be answered within 24 hours. He led the way in passing new laws to clean up Los Angeles’ waterways, and to make all new buildings environmentally-friendly. During his tenure, graffiti in his district was reduced by 78%, housing got an injection of $100 million in funds, and the Hollywood neighbourhood was revitalized. In 2013, Garcetti won the race for mayor of Los Angeles, making him the city’s first elected Jewish mayor and its youngest mayor ever. He has become one of LA’s most popular figures, and won re-election in 2017 with a whopping 81% of the vote. He has been hailed for improving the city’s budgets, urban development, and immigration policies, as well as for increasing minimum wage and raising more funds for the LAPD and fire department. He has also secured LA as the host city for the 2028 Summer Olympics. Meanwhile, Garcetti is a devoted member of LA’s IKAR Jewish community. He and his wife have one adopted daughter, and have fostered seven other children. Garcetti was also a lieutenant in the US Navy Reserves until 2013, once lived in Thailand, and—together with relatives from his mother’s side of the family—oversees the Roth Family Foundation, which has given out over $6 million in grants and donations. He won the Green Cross Millennium Award for environmental leadership, and was NAACP’s “Person of the Year” in 2014. That same year, Bill Clinton said that Garcetti may be America’s president one day. There were rumours that he would run this year, but he decided to stick with his job as mayor for now. He is currently listed among potential candidates to be Joe Biden’s running mate.

An In-Depth Look at the Custom of Eating Dairy on Shavuot

Words of the Week

Woe to him whom nobody likes, but beware of him whom everybody likes.
– Hasidic proverb

Mayor Garcetti lighting Chanukah candles and putting on tefillin. (Credit: COLlive)

Jew of the Week: Ramchal

The Unparalleled Kabbalist Who Became the Father of Modern Hebrew

Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (1707-1746) was born in Padua, Italy to a wealthy Sephardic family. He studied under some of the great Italian rabbis of the time and was quickly recognized as a prodigy, receiving rabbinic ordination himself while still a teenager. He also took up studies at the University of Padua, and by the time he was just 20 years old had complete mastery of Torah, Talmud, and Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism), as well as philosophy, medicine, and alchemy. He had also written a textbook on Hebrew language and grammar, Leshon Limmudim (predating Eliezer Ben-Yehuda by some two centuries!) Meanwhile, Luzzatto wrote several plays including a dramatization of the Biblical story of Samson. Around the same time, he started writing a book of 150 psalms to mirror the 150 Psalms of King David in the Tanakh. His Hebrew and poetry were of such a high level that people had a hard time distinguishing between the psalms of Luzzatto and the psalms of David! This drew the anger of many rabbis, who banned the work. The final straw was when Luzzatto revealed that he had been visited by a maggid, an angel that taught the mysteries of the Torah. He started writing these teachings down, and relaying them to a small mystical circle. When word got out, the Italian rabbis sought to excommunicate him for good. To avoid the decree, Luzzatto agreed to stop teaching and leave Italy. He resettled in Amsterdam and made a living as a diamond cutter and lens grinder. During this time he produced his greatest works, which would become classics of Judaism and standard textbooks in yeshivas to this day: Mesillat Yesharim (“Path of the Just”), a manual for personal development and character refinement; Derekh Hashem (“Way of God”) on the fundamentals of Jewish theology; Da’at Tevunot, a unification of Kabbalah and rationalism written in the form of a conversation between the Soul and the Intellect; and Derekh Tevunot, a manual for Talmudic study. He also wrote a number of commentaries on the Zohar (the central text of Kabbalah) and countless other discourses, most of which have been lost. After being barred from teaching in Amsterdam as well, he headed to the Holy Land and settled in Acco. There he helped build the Jewish community and a new synagogue (destroyed by Bedouins in 1758). Sadly, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (or the Ramchal, his initials, by which he is better known) perished in a devastating plague that broke out several years later. One of the early Hasidic leaders, Rabbi Dov Ber of Mezerich, would later say of the Ramchal that “His generation did not have the merit of this great man.” The Vilna Gaon famously stated that had the Ramchal still been alive, he would have walked all the way from Lithuania to Amsterdam just to meet him, and that the Ramchal was the only person to understand Kabbalah since the Arizal. The Ramchal was seen as a hero and inspiration by secular Jewish and Haskalah leaders, too, who crowned him the “father of modern Hebrew literature”. Today, the 26th of Iyar, is his yahrzeit.

Words of the Week

He who confronts himself with the paradoxical, exposes himself to reality.
– Friedrich Durenmatt

Jews of the Week: Sinan Reis and Samuel Pallache

Jewish Pirates!

Sinan Reis (c. 1492-1546) was born to a Sephardic family that was expelled from Spain during the Expulsion of 1492 and settled in the Ottoman city of Smyrna. At the time, many Jews became pirates, attacking Spanish vessels both for revenge and to reclaim some of their confiscated wealth. Sinan joined the Barbary corsair pirates that sailed under the Ottoman flag. He became the right-hand man of the well-known pirate and Ottoman admiral Hayreddin Barbarossa. The two fought and won many battles against the Spanish and the Holy Roman Empire. The most famous was the Battle of Preveza in 1538. Barbarossa took Sinan’s military advice, leading to a magnificent Ottoman victory. Two years later, Sinan’s young son was captured at sea and forcibly baptized. The Christians refused to release him to the “infidels”, so Barbarossa led a fleet to bombard the Italian city of Piombino until Sinan’s son was finally freed. Barbarossa later dedicated his memoirs to Sinan, who was often referred to as Sinan Reis or Rayyis, Arabic for “chief”. Historical records from England describe him as “the famous Jewish pirate”, while the governor of Portuguese India at the time called him “the Great Jew”. Sinan went on to become Supreme Naval Commander of the Ottoman fleet.

Scholars believe Rembrandt’s famous painting ‘Man in Oriental Costume’ is a portrait of Samuel Pallache.

Samuel Pallache (c. 1550-1615) was also born to a Sephardic family, one that had fled Spain long before the Expulsion and settled in Morocco. His father and uncle were renowned rabbis, and Pallache became a rabbi, too. He also engaged heavily in commerce, and often took his merchant ships to the Netherlands, where other members of the Pallache family lived. When the Dutch made an alliance with Morocco against the Spanish in 1608, the Moroccan sultan appointed Pallache as his envoy to the Dutch. Two years later, Pallache negotiated a free trade agreement between the Dutch and the Moroccans, possibly the first such treaty ever made between a European and non-European state. Around the same time, the Dutch prince Maurice made Pallache a privateer (a pirate for hire). Pallache’s merchant fleet became a pirate fleet, and for the next several years his job was to capture Spanish and Portuguese vessels. In 1614, a storm diverted his ship to England, where he was arrested at the request of the Spanish. Prince Maurice got him released, and Pallache returned to Amsterdam where he lived out the rest of his life. Records show that he was a co-founder of Amsterdam’s illustrious Jewish community. His son was one of Amsterdam’s greatest rabbis, and a teacher of (former Jews of the Week) Menashe ben Israel and Isaac Aboab da Fonseca. Another descendant is the renowned Rabbi Haim Palachi.

Words of the Week

I like the impossible because there’s less competition.
– Walt Disney