Siding With Scarlett

I’ve been a Scarlett Johansson fan for years, starting with her role in The Horse Whisperer up to her recent stage performances.  And why not?  She’s a local kid made good, a product of local public schools.  Her mom hails from The Bronx, her forebears fromMinsk.  We’re  landsman.

So when, in January 2014, Johansson resigned from her Oxfam position after facing criticism for her promotion of Sodastream, whose main factory is based in Ma’aleh Adumim, an Israeli settlement in the West Bank, I was puzzled at first.  I didn’t understand the issues around it, and had only just seen the TV ads featuring Johansson.

Oxfam opposes all trade with Israeli settlements. Johansson said she and Oxfam “have a fundamental difference of opinion in regards to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.”

Confused, I turned to my rabbi for enlightenment.  And here is what Rabbi Judith Lewis, of Riverdale Temple, Bronx,NY, had to say:

“I love my Sodastream!

“I’ve had one of those Sodastream seltzer machines for about 10 years – I think I bought it right when they started marketing it in the United States.  And yes, part of the reason I bought it was that I liked the idea of supporting an innovative Israeli company.  I did not know that the factory was located in the West Bank.  But it’s been a part of my culinary life too long for me to part with it now.  In fact, I am chagrined to admit that I bought my sister and brother-in-law one this year – just weeks before the Scarlett Johansson flap.

“I didn’t realize the factory was in the West Bank until then.

“But I’ll say it very clearly – I’m glad I bought it.  And I’m glad Scarlett Johansson stuck with ‘us’ instead of Oxfam.  And this is coming from someone who prides herself on being liberal, who avoids the West Bank when she visits Israel, and who would like nothing more than to see a peaceful and secure resolution to the Israeli -Palestinian conflict, even if it means that some of my favorite spots in Israel will once again be difficult, if not impossible to get to.

“I remember riding down the Red Sea coast of the Sinai Desert when it was Israel- while I was in rabbinical school, which means sometime between the fall of 1975 and the spring of 1976.  We explored the Sinai confidently – climbing the peak that was identified as Mt.Sinai (after having slept at the base of it, outside of Santa Katarina Monastery, on the ground, no tents, nothing – in the middle of the desert).  I remember swimming off Dahab, wearing a pair of swim goggles, no fancy mask, and being so overwhelmed by the beauty of the coral reef that I could hardly breathe.  That was, in fact, the beginning of my love affair with scuba diving.  I had never seen anything like it, and now I cannot see enough of it!

“We drove all the way down to Sharm-el-Sheikh, and then I remember being able to see sharks quite clearly, swimming  in swarms through the Straits of Tiran as we stood on the high vantage point of Ras Muhammed.

“Then I remember, about 20 years later, traveling to Nuweiba, on that same Red Sea coast, on a bus with 40 other reform rabbis, so that we could take an overnight ferry to Aqaba.  Yes, you can walk to Aqaba from Eilat now.  They are contiguous.  You just have to have patience while you navigate the red tape of both sides of the customs authorities.  Back then, one could not leave Israel for an Arab country and return through the same location.  Nor could one go back and forth between Jordan and Israel.  You could go one way, but not both.  The peace treaty with Jordan was brand new.

“As we schlepped down to Nuweiba to catch the ferry, I asked our tour guide – actually the owner of a fantastic tour company in Israel called ‘Da’at’ — how it felt to be in the Sinai now that it was no longer Israel.  He said something like, ‘it wasn’t ours before, then it was, and now it’s not again – but we have peace.  I’d rather have peace if I have to make a choice.’

“Now, about 20 years after that trip, I think about Israel and her neighbors.  You can still walk across the Jordanian border and the Egyptian border, but the Egyptian border isn’t recommended these days.  Certain Israeli orthodox leaders are saying that Reform Judaism isn’t really Judaism.  Certain women are still struggling to liberate the Western Wall from the Haredim.  Certain vice presidents are warningIsraelabout what the public relations effect will be if she remains recalcitrant on the settlements.  And certain American academics are boycotting any products made in the West Bank, or inIsrael– it’s not always clear.  Three cheers for Scarlett Johansson.

“I am not a fan of the settlements.  Never have been.  I am a fan of certain neighborhoods in Jerusalem that were once Jordan.   Heck, I’ve even lived in some of them.  I am a fan of Israel- the IsraelI dream of, but also the Israel that exists today, even though I hate some of the things that go on there.  But if I’m not ready to vote with my feet, I have to focus on the things I do like.

“Lately we have begun to hear more and more about the technological innovations that consistently come out of Israel- even snow making for the Sochi Olympics – how profoundly ironic can you get? Israel helping Russia make snow!

“But Israeli innovations also spring from every aspect of the digital world, medicine, agriculture, and even yogurt, as I learned from Ari Shavit’s book, “My Promised Land.”

“I don’t think the greatest threat to Israelis from its neighbors, notwithstanding the possibility of a nuclear bomb in Iran.  I think Israel’s greatest threat is from herself; from a failure to nurture what makes her great, and a willingness to turn a blind eye to the things that make her not so great.

Yes,Israel hassles Palestinians when they try to get from one place to another.  Ever heard of stop and frisk?  Yes,Israel continues to build settlements where public opinion would indicate that she should not.  Have you ever heard of misuse of eminent domain?  Redlining?  Yes, Israeli Palestinians do not really enjoy the same benefits of citizenship Jewish Israelis do.  Have we overcome the effects of slavery in this country?  Do all minority citizens of the United States really enjoy the same benefits of citizenship that white, Anglo-Saxon Christians do?

“I wish that Israel could live up to the standards and ideals that created the state.  I also wish that the United States could live up to the standards and ideals that created it.  And so, surprising myself a bit, I have finally come down squarely on the side of those who say that criticism of Israel– when done in isolation and not in the context of criticizing all nations who fail to respect human rights, justice, fairness, etc. — is outright, blatant anti-Semitism.  There, I said it.

“Now I think I’ll go make myself a bottle of seltzer.”

I’m still sorting out what Rabbi Lewis told me, but I guess I’d say: “Yeah, what SHE said.”  And, for Oxfam, the net takeaway?  Scarlett — New York City-kid-made-good — is “just not that into you.”

She Brings the Bronx to You

Anna Ortiz-Irving brings today’s Bronx to the thousands of ex-pats who long ago left the Borough of Universities for other pastures, greener and otherwise.

Every day, no matter the weather, the 63-year old single mother of five walks the streets of the Bronx’s Fordham and Kingsbridge neighborhoods, in the 52nd, 46th and 50th police precincts, and takes pictures of apartment buildings, private houses, stores, alleys, step-streets and more – all on behalf of former Bronx residents eager to see what their old haunts look like.

She then takes cell phone photos and posts them on her Facebook group “Fordham Road Yesterday & Today”

As an added plus, she posts the occasional photo essay, such as the timely “New York Blizzards, Then & Now,” or a look at early ’60s Bronx bars.

“They see their old homes, and it takes them back, yet they are so surprised,” Ortiz-Irving said.  “They’re surprised at how GOOD it looks.  It’s like a shock to them.  They’re expecting burned out buildings, like a scene out of ‘Escape From New York’ or ‘Fort Apache, The Bronx.’”

The former Verizon service technician is comfortable walking anywhere in the area, day or night.  And she is comfortable dealing with building supers, allowing easy access to the back alleys that connect many Bronx apartment buildings.

Ex-pat Bronx people seem to be everywhere, based on a visit to the Facebook affinity groups that abound, with names such as “Grew Up in the Bronx in the 1960s,” “Bronx People Who Have Moved Elsewhere,” “Born, Raised & Schooled on Da Streets of Da Bronx,” “You Grew Up in the Bronx When…,” “Bronxites Now Living in Southern California,” and “Fordham Area Bronxites.”

Many long-time residents left in the era of high crime and economic collapse, and headed for first-ring New York City suburbs, as well as Florida,Arizona and California.

And then there is Ortiz-Irving, born in Morningside Heights and a Bronx resident since she was a baby.  She has never left the Bronx’s Kingsbridge area, except to take an infrequent, domestic, vacation.

“Why should I?” she said.  “People are surprised that I didn’t run.  I tell them, ‘This is my home, my neighborhood – it’s where I belong.  Why should I run?’”  Her mother, on the other hand, was sometimes terrified for Anna’s safety back in the day, as her teen-aged daughter would leave for parties around the city late at night.

Anna was unfazed.

“I never got in trouble,” Ortiz-Irving said, referring to dangerous situations.  “The Bronx was, and is, beautiful.  And I’m comfortable everywhere I go.”

Many of the former Bronxites who regularly post on Bronx-related Facebook groups have a lot invested in maintaining their image of theBronxof their youth.  “It used to be so nice,” is the phrase Ortiz-Irving commonly hears from ex-Bronxites before seeing the current photos of their birthplace.

In fact, NYPD Compstat Unit statistics show that felonies are down 75.67 percent from 1990 in the 52nd Precinct, 81.13 percent in the 50th Precinct, and 80.70 percent in the 46th Precinct.

The gentrification that has changed vast parts of Brooklyn and northern Manhattan is still nascent, at best, in isolated sections of the south Bronx, as reported in cool blogs such as Ed Garcia Conde’s Welcome2TheBronx show  And, according to many longtime residents, a wholesale revamp of the borough may not be desirable.

Nevertheless, recent newspaper articles, such as this one in The New York Times, point out the aesthetic and financial appeal of Ortiz-Irving’s neighborhood

“I show them their old apartment buildings, the lobbies, the parks, schools and they’re amazed,” Ortiz-Irving said.  “They can’t believe how nice it looks, how elegant the buildings are, how blue the sky is.  They marvel at the green grass in St. James Park.  Yes, we have grass in the Bronx!

“They’ve left and they’re older now – they won’t come back.  So I bring their Bronx to them.”