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Boston writer Norm Finkelstein, whose YA books championed Jewish heroes, dies at 82

BOSTON (JTA) — In the early 1980s, when Norman H. Finkelstein was the director of education at Camp Yavne in Northwood, New Hampshire, campers would greet his daily announcements by exuberantly chanting, “Norm, Norm!,” a reference to a popular character on the hit television series “Cheers.”

The warm reception at the Jewish summer camp reflected Finkelstein’s fun and lively personality, according to his oldest son, Jeffrey.

“He was an educator. But even in summer camp, when the kids are not there to learn, but to have fun, he made it fun,” Jeffrey, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

At the time, Finkelstein was a librarian in the Brookline Public Schools, a career that lasted 35 years. He and his wife, Rosalind, had joined the camp’s summer staff so they could afford to send their three kids to the camp. In addition, he was a teacher at Hebrew College’s Prozdor Hebrew high school for nearly 40 years. 

But it was another role that brought him acclaim in Boston and beyond: Finkelstein was an acclaimed author of nonfiction books and biographies for older children, including many on Jewish subjects. He was a rare, two-time winner of the coveted National Jewish Book award, for “Heeding the Call: Jewish Voices in America’s Civil Rights Struggle” and “Forged in Freedom: Shaping the American Jewish Experience.”

He was also the recipient of the Golden Kite honor award for nonfiction for his 1997 YA biography of newsman Edward R. Murrow.

“His incredible books championed the vital contributions of Jewish Americans, immigrants, and workers to U.S. history and culture,” Della Farrell, associate editor of the publisher Holiday House, wrote in an email.

Finkelstein, 82, died on Friday, Jan. 5 from what his family said was an unexpected illness. Holiday House is publishing one of two books that Finkelstein was looking forward to seeing in print at the time of his death: “Amazing Abe: How Abraham Cahan’s Newspaper Gave a Voice to Jewish Immigrants,” a biography of the legendary Yiddish Forward editor illustrated by Vesper Stamper. The other is “Saying No to Hate: Overcoming Antisemitism in America,” which the Jewish Publication Society is publishing in May. 

He was drawn to stories that were under the radar, including “The Shelter and the Fence: When 982 Holocaust Refugees Found Safe Haven in America.”

“It’s one of those little holes in history that I seem to try to fill with my books,” Finkelstein said in a 2021 interview about the Jews who found safe haven at a resettlement center in Oswego, New York

“He loved teaching. Whether he taught in a classroom, whether he taught in his library or whether he taught through his books, he was a natural teacher,” his son Jeffrey said.

Susie Tanchel, the vice president of Hebrew College, said he had a “profound” impact on the college and students in its teen learning program.

“With his deep knowledge and love of Jewish history, he awakened their minds and hearts to find their own links to our shared past,” she wrote. “Norm’s kind manner…and sense of humor made learning with him a great joy.”

“I would refer to somebody like Norm as a Renaissance man, because he was interested in so many things like arts, entertainment and politics,” said Jordan Rich, of WBZ radio in Boston, who interviewed Finkelstein about his books some half-dozen times over the years.

The two were neighbors and belonged to Temple Sholom in Framingham, Massachusetts, Rich told JTA in a phone conversation.

Finkelstein had a keen wit and was a masterful storyteller, Rich said.

He loved hanging out with his grandkids, Jeffrey said. “He knew how to interact with kids.”

Finkelstein got a laugh from the irony of sharing a name with Norman G. Finkelstein, a controversial political scientist whose harsh views on Israel were polar opposite to his own love for the country. 

“I’ve often wanted to change my name to Lance,” he quipped to The Forward in 2004, in article about the doppelgangers. 

Norman Henry Finkelstein was born on Nov. 11, 1941, to working-class Jewish immigrant parents who settled in Chelsea, a city just north of Boston that was teeming with Jewish life. It’s where he met Rosalind, to whom he was married for 56 years. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Hebrew College, and a bachelor’s degree from Boston University.

This Shabbat, for Temple Israel of Boston’s celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the synagogue’s librarian, Ann Abrams, will display “Heed the Call,” her favorite among all of Finkelstein’s books. She displays it every year.

“When I think of Norm Finkelstein, I think of a mensch,” Abrams, the past president of the New England Association of Jewish Libraries, wrote in an email.

“I hope the world will continue to read his books. But, those of us who were lucky to get to know him, will always remember his generous spirit, and warm smile that clearly conveyed he was very happy to meet you.”

In addition to his wife Rosalind and son Jeffrey, he is survived by his son Robert, daughter Risa Sugarman and three grandchildren. 

The post Boston writer Norm Finkelstein, whose YA books championed Jewish heroes, dies at 82 appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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Montreal’s Jewish Public Library moves books by local children’s author Elise Gravel to closed stacks in response to her series of illustrated messages criticizing Israel

Montreal’s Jewish Public Library has relocated renowned Montreal children’s author Elise Gravel’s books to the closed stacks after Jewish advocacy groups singled out some of her social media posts as antisemitic. Gravel is “one of Quebec’s most beloved children’s book authors. Her work is vibrant, thoughtful, funny, and educational,” said a statement from the Jewish […]

The post Montreal’s Jewish Public Library moves books by local children’s author Elise Gravel to closed stacks in response to her series of illustrated messages criticizing Israel appeared first on The Canadian Jewish News.

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‘I’m Speaking Up Against Evil’: Israeli Columbia University Professor Addresses Smear Campaign

Anti-Israel students protest at Columbia University in New York City. Photo: Reuters/Jeenah Moon

Columbia University professor Shai Davidai, a Jewish Israeli, defended his right to condemn Hamas’ atrocities on Thursday after learning that an anonymous group of graduate students has accused him of anti-Palestinian racism and demanded a professional association of which he is a member to publicly censure him.

Anti-Zionist TikTok influencer Jessica Burbank first reported the accusations the graduate students lodged in a letter to the Society for Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP), an organization founded in 1974 to promote the social psychology field and its usefulness to society. Comprising over 7,500 student and faculty members, it provides invaluable funding and networking opportunities.

Accusing Davidai of “targeting individuals — especially Palestinians and students of color,” the students’ letter describes his efforts to hold pro-Hamas student groups accountable for harassing Jewish students and defending terror as “decolonization” as “blatant dereliction of duty with respect to his responsibilities and ethical standards as a professor and faculty member of SPSP.” The students additionally accused him of promoting “doxxing” and “misrepresenting” the views of pro-Hamas groups, all of whom have defended Hamas’ atrocities on Oct. 7 while calling for a ceasefire, a strategy they have employed to portray themselves as a pro-peace movement.

On Thursday, Professor Davidai told The Algemeiner that the man depicted in the letter is not someone his community, students, and peers would recognize, and he accepts that enduring assaults on his character is a consequence of defending the Jewish people wherever they are, be it Israel or New York City.

“Look, I’m speaking up against evil, and against the support of evil,” he said. “I’m willing to take the reputational hits because people that won’t like me for saying what I’m saying — I don’t need them to like me. This isn’t about the performative virtue signaling that is en vogue right now. This is about having a moral compass and standing up for what’s right.”

Davidai went on to express concern that his colleagues in the field have not defended him, a silence which suggests that criminating pro-Israel activists with baseless accusations will not be denounced or resisted even by moderates holding nuanced views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Israel’s war against Hamas.

“If I have to pay the price, I’ll pay the price. Thousands and thousands of Jews and non-Jews contact me to say that calling out pro-Hamas support on US college campuses is the right thing to do,” he continued. “And the irony is that I won’t be silenced. They might take away my reputation. They might take away my job and my career. But I’m not the kind of person who will be quiet now that there’s a personal cost for telling the truth. They’re just proving my point.”

Davidai first achieved national notoriety after delivering a thunderous speech before a crowd of students and others gathered on campus in which he called the school’s president a “coward” for refusing to condemn Hamas apologists and anti-Zionist demonstrations on campus.

“I’m talking to you as a dad, and I want you to know we cannot protect your children from pro-terror student organizations, because the president of Columbia University will not speak out,” Davidai said to the students, whom he asked to film and send the remarks to their parents. “Citizens of the US are right now kidnapped in Gaza, and yet the president of the university is allowing — is giving — her support to pro-terror student organizations.”

In many ways, becoming a public figure has been a detriment, Davidai said. His email is flooded daily with notes from antisemites accusing him of being an “Elder of Zion” and a “genocidal baby killer.”

His colleagues, furious that his exposing antisemitism and left-wing radicalism at Columbia University has caused important donors to pull their support from the school, have never commented on the hate mail even though they are always copied as recipients of it, he alleged.

Follow Dion J. Pierre @DionJPierre.

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‘We Have Lost All Confidence’: Bipartisan Letter Urges Blinken to Demand Top UN Officials Resign

View of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) building in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip. Photo: Abed Rahim Khatib / Flash90.

A bipartisan group of 12 US legislators sent a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken earlier this week urging him to demand that United Nations Secretary General António Guterres and the head of UNRWA — the UN agency dedicated to Palestinian refugees — Philippe Lazzarini resign over the recent revelation that UNRWA employees were involved in Hamas’ October 7 terrorist attack.

“We have lost all confidence in Secretary-General António Guterres’ ability to ensure that the U.N. is not actively supporting terrorism or giving refuge to known terrorists. Therefore, we ask you to demand that Secretary-General Guterres and UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini immediately resign from their posts,” the letter states. 

The signatories were Democratic Representatives Josh Gottheimer, Don Davis, Jared Moskowitz, Brad Schneider, Haley Stevens, and Ritchie Torres — along with Republican Representatives Don Bacon, Anthony D’Esposito, Brian Mast, Max Miller, Michelle Steel, and Claudia Tenney.

The letter laments what the legislators say was an inappropriate response to October 7 by the UN, pointing out that “While innocent blood was still fresh on the ground, the UN’s first response to these atrocities was to draw a moral equivalency between the Hamas terrorists and Israel, who acted in her own self-defense and the defense of innocent civilians, including Americans.”

“UN Women,” the letter continued, “also failed to condemn the heinous attacks on women in a timely manner — even after widespread, well-documented cases of sexual assaults, rape, and genital mutilation.”

It then turned its attention to UNRWA, the UN agency dedicated solely to Palestinian refugees. Recent reports have revealed that at least twelve UNRWA employees — including teachers — took part in Hamas’s October 7 attack. Seven infiltrated Israel itself along with Hamas terrorists, others helped to kidnap Israelis and provide ammunition.

Not only that, but the Israeli ground offensive in Gaza has exposed that “Hamas has stored weapons in UNRWA buildings, used UNRWA resources for terrorist activities, and built tunnels under UNRWA facilities,” the letter says. The reps ask: “How long before we acknowledge the truth and label UNRWA as a tool for Hamas and others to recruit and train?”

A recent Wall Street Journal report estimates that around 10% of UNRWA employees are terrorist-linked — about 1,200 of the 12,000 UNRWA employees in Gaza.

Blinken has not yet responded to the letter. But after the initial allegations against UNRWA were made, he wrote in a statement that The United States is extremely troubled” by them and that “The Department of State has temporarily paused additional funding for UNRWA while we review these allegations and the steps the United Nations is taking to address them.”

The reports, based on evidence gathered and shared by Israel, caused more than a dozen countries to pause funding to the agency.

However, the statement also noted that “UNRWA plays a critical role in providing lifesaving assistance to Palestinians, including essential food, medicine, shelter, and other vital humanitarian support.  Their work has saved lives, and it is important that UNRWA address these allegations and take any appropriate corrective measures, including reviewing its existing policies and procedures.”

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