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Ruth Seymour, public radio pioneer devoted to Jewish culture, dies at 88

(JTA) — Ruth Seymour, who as general manager of the Los Angeles public radio station KCRW produced a landmark series on Yiddish short stories, died Friday after a long illness. She was 88.

Her daughter, Celia Hirschman, confirmed her death.

“She was a determined person, not always the easiest to work with, but she had seykhl, a kind of remarkable common sense and judgment about her,” said Aaron Lansky, the founder of the National Yiddish Book Center.

The Yiddish Book Center and KCRW co-produced the 1995 radio series “Jewish Short Stories From Eastern Europe and Beyond.” The 13-part series was directed by Joan Micklin Silver and consisted of readings by A-list Hollywood actors, among them Lauren Bacall, Alan Alda, Rhea Perlman, Jerry Stiller, Elliott Gould, Julie Kavner and Walter Matthau. Original music was composed by the Klezmer Conservatory Band, led by Boston’s Hankus Netsky.

“Every single actor we approached agreed immediately to read for us,” Lansky recalled. “They were all quite excited about it.”

Lansky, who was introduced to Seymour by the film critic Kenneth Turan, credits her with providing the title for his 2004 memoir, “Outwitting History,” about his efforts to rescue Yiddish books destined for the dumpster. Seymour, who studied at the City College of New York with Max Weinreich, said she asked the renowned Yiddish linguist how he could keep teaching with just three students in his class. “It’s not a problem,” Weinrich reportedly responded. “Yiddish is magic. It will outwit history.”

KCRW produced a second Jewish short story series in 1998, “Jewish Stories from the Old World to the New,” which was repackaged as an audiobook.

“KCRW sold more of those collections than anything else in our history,” Jennifer Ferro, the station’s current manager, wrote in an appreciation of Seymour published on KCRW’s web site.

For 28 years Seymour hosted KCRW’s “Philosophers, Fiddlers and Fools,” a three-hour special that aired on a Friday afternoon during Hanukkah. She played music she referred to as the Second Avenue hit parade, read short stories by Jewish writers and included a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. Some of the shows were done in Yiddish with Seymour providing an English translation. She called it “an homage to a culture and its people — my people — to their indomitable spirit, their irrepressible humor and inventiveness, their capacity for wonder, endurance and faith.”

Ruth Epstein grew up in the Bronx. From the age of seven she attended one of the Sholom Aleichem Yiddish folk schools.

Her grandfather, an observant Jewish furrier on the Lower East Side, was broken-hearted that the younger generation of his family did not keep the Sabbath. Her parents met at the progressive New School for Social Research, which offered college-level courses to new immigrants. She described her father as an atheist and a socialist.

At the age of 16 she enrolled at City College where a mutual friend, the writer Judith Rossner, introduced her to a poet named Jack Hirschman. Epstein and Hirschman married and started a family, living in New Hampshire when Hirschman taught at Dartmouth, then moving to Southern California where Hirschman accepted a faculty position at UCLA in the summer of 1961.

Seymour’s radio career began that year at KPFK, the left-leaning Pacifica station in Los Angeles, where she served as drama and literature director. The family moved to Europe in 1964, where she filed stories for KPFK. During their time abroad the Hirschmans lived on the Greek Island of Hydra, where the singer Leonard Cohen became a friend. In a 1987 interview with the L.A. Times, Seymour said the island had “about 30 highly charged, demented people running around stark naked.”

After returning to the U.S. in 1968, she worked as a social worker for the state of California before becoming KPFK’s program director in 1971. Over the course of her tenure there she put the Firesign Theater comedy troupe on the air and decided to broadcast live a 1974 raid by the FBI and LAPD on the radio station, which had received a “communique” from the Symbionese Liberation Army. The militant leftist group claimed credit for the abduction of the heiress Patricia Hearst.

Seymour and station manager Will Lewis were ousted in 1976 during one of the periodic Pacifica staff reshuffles insiders described as “coups.” She came to KCRW in 1977, helping build the station in Santa Monica with its first fund drives and extending its signal across Los Angeles.

In 1973 she divorced her husband; some 20 years later she decided to drop his surname and replace it with Seymour, anglicizing the first name of her paternal great-grandfather, a Polish rabbi known as Reb Simcha of Pultysk. In a July 1993 article in KCRW’s newsletter, Seymour wrote that Reb Simcha was so revered that congregants “were convinced he conversed with the Almighty.” The article noted that two towns reportedly fought over the right to bury the rabbi.

Seymour will also be remembered as a trailblazer in public radio’s embrace of digital platforms and an important player in campaigns to raise funds for NPR’s news operation.

Under Seymour’s stewardship KCRW’s signature music show “Morning Becomes Eclectic” became a huge influence in the world of popular music. The KCRW audience was chock full of showbiz movers and shakers: writers, directors, actors and musicians who frequently called the station to find out what music was being played.

Seymour’s voice, with its unmistakable Bronx accent, was familiar to KCRW listeners who heard her not only during the Hanukkah specials but also during pledge drives and when she did daily readings of the New York Times in her early years at the station when there was little in the way of locally produced public affairs programming.

“She sounded like your mother or aunty who was scolding you,” said Sarah Spitz, who served as the station’s publicity director and worked with Seymour for 27 years. “Ruth could be mercurial and she could be difficult but without a doubt she was a complete visionary. We will not see her likes again.”

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ACLU Threatens Lawsuit Against Columbia University

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

The New York chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), a far-left nonprofit, is threatening to sue Columbia University unless the school nullifies disciplinary sanctions which temporarily suspended anti-Zionist groups that staged unauthorized demonstrations on campus.

“The referenced ‘unauthorized event’ was a peaceful demonstration and temporary art installation advocating for the end of Israel’s current military campaign in the Gaza strip,” the group wrote in a letter to Columbia University president Minouche Shafik. “Columbia’s actions suggest impermissible and pretextual motives for sanctioning the student groups.”

The ACLU also accused the university, which is being sued for allegedly standing by while pro-Hamas students beat up Jews and screamed antisemitic slogans, of perpetuating “already pervasive dangerous stereotypes about Palestinians, Arabs, Muslims” and other minority groups.

“These student groups were peacefully speaking out on a critical global conflict, only to have Columbia University ignore their own longstanding, existing rules and abruptly suspended the organizations,” ACLU executive director Donna Lieberman said in a press release issued on Friday. “That’s retaliatory, it’s targeted, and it flies in the face of the free speech principles that institutes of higher learning should be defending.”

Columbia University suspended Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Jewish Voices for Peace (JVP) in Nov., explaining in a statement that the groups had “repeatedly violated university policies related to holding campus events, culminating in an unauthorized event Thursday afternoon that proceeded despite warnings and included threatening rhetoric and intimidation.” Both SJP and JVP have been instrumental in organizing disruptive anti-Israel protests on Columbia’s campus since Hamas invaded Israel on Oct. 7 and killed 1,200 people, mostly civilians.

“Lifting the suspension will be contingent on the two groups demonstrating a commitment to compliance with university policies and engaging in consultations at a group leadership level with university officials,” a campus official said at the time, adding that the groups will be ineligible to hold events on campus or receive university funding for the duration of the punishment.

Even after being disciplined, however, SJP members continued their activities in front groups — such as Columbia University Apartheid Divest (CUAD), a non-campus affiliated group that supports the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement — staging more protests in flagrant violation of the terms of its suspension.

ACLU’s portrayal of pro-Hamas students as peaceful and artistic victims of racism is in tension with how Jewish Columbia students have described their behavior and the university’s response to it.

“F— the Jews,” “Death to Jews,” “Jews will not defeat us,” and “From water to water, Palestine will be Arab,” they have chanted on campus grounds since Oct. 7, violating the school’s code of conduct, a lawsuit filed against Columbia University by last week says. In other incidents, they beat up five Jewish students in Columbia’s Butler Library and attacked another with a stick, lacerating his head and breaking his finger.

Anti-Jewish violence and hatred became so common, the lawsuit alleged, that Columbia told Jewish students that campus security could no longer guarantee their safety.

SJP insisted in Friday’s press release that its members are the victims and suggested that those claiming to be advocates of social justice are beyond reproach.

“Columbia University likes to showcase itself to the world as a champion of student protest, equality, justice, and free speech — but the university’s actions in the lead up to our suspension, and its targeted punishment of our student groups, showed that it is all a farce,” SJP member Safiya O’Brien said. “As students of conscience, we know injustice when we see it. The university’s priorities are not with its student body — certainly not with its Palestinian students and the overwhelming number of those that advocate for them.”

Follow Dion J. Pierre @DionJPierre.

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Low Expectations Ahead of Palestinian ‘Unity’ Talks in Moscow Convened by Russian Regime

Posters on a wall in Tel Aviv highlighting the plight of Israeli hostages seized by Hamas. Photo: Reuters/Dylan Martinez

Representatives of Palestinian factions are traveling to Moscow this week for talks aimed at forging a greater degree of unity, but analysts remained skeptical that the Russian initiative is likely to register progress.

The talks, which are scheduled to begin on Wednesday, will bring together officials of the Islamist terrorist organizations Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) with representatives of PLO factions including Fatah, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP). Announcing the talks last week, Russian deputy foreign minister Mikhail Bogdanov told pro-regime media outlets that “all Palestinian representatives who are located in different countries, in particular in Syria and Lebanon, other countries in the region,” would be invited to the Moscow parley, emphasizing at the same time that Russia’s rulers continue to regard the PLO — the main power in the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority (PA) — as “the sole legal representative of the Palestinian people.”

Several regional policy analysts argued that expectations from the talks should be necessarily limited, especially as Russia has failed in past efforts to bring rival Palestinian factions closer together.

“Russia does not have any road map for the Palestinian file, especially for the Gaza Strip as it would be necessary to have mediation functions and maintain good contacts with both Israel and the paramilitary wing of Hamas in Gaza,” Ruslan Suleymanov — an independent Middle East expert based in Baku, Azerbaijan — told the German broadcaster DW on Monday.

Suleymanov said that the talks were primarily an opportunity for Russian President Vladimir Putin to showcase Russia’s geopolitical clout amid its ongoing invasion of Ukraine and with elections — which Putin is expected to win easily — on the calendar in March.

“It’s really just dialogue for dialogue’s sake,” Suleymanov remarked.

Hugh Lovatt — senior policy fellow with the Middle East and North Africa Program at the European Council on Foreign Relations — offered a similar perspective.

“This Russian summit is a way to show that Russia has the diplomatic capacity to play a hands-on role in supporting Palestinian national unity,” he told DW. However, previous reconciliation talks that were hosted in Moscow, Algiers and Cairo have “also not succeeded in brokering a lasting reconciliation deal between the rivals,” he said.

A potential obstacle to the talks emerged on Monday with the resignation of the PA’s Prime Minister, Muhammad Shtayyeh, who had enthusiastically backed the Moscow talks in a speech at the Munich Security Conference earlier this month. The PA has been under increasing pressure from the US to form a more representative government that would be in a position to manage the Gaza Strip once hostilities end.

“The decision to resign came in light of the unprecedented escalation in the West Bank and Jerusalem and the war, genocide and starvation in the Gaza Strip,” Shtayyeh told PA President Mahmoud Abbas in a formal letter.

“I see that the next stage and its challenges require new governmental and political arrangements that take into account the new reality in Gaza and the need for a Palestinian-Palestinian consensus based on Palestinian unity and the extension of unity of authority over the land of Palestine,” he added.

A Hamas spokesman told the Saudi channel Al Arabiya on Sunday that the terrorist group wants to form “an impartial national government based on the consensus of the Palestinian factions,” adding that the talks in Moscow would focus only on “a certain period and clear tasks.”

Separately, Hamas politburo member Muhammad Nazzal told the pro-Hamas website Middle East Monitor that the Moscow meeting was necessary because there had been “no official communication” with the PA on the subject of post-war planning.

Nazal claimed in the same interview that Hamas remained a powerful force in the Gaza Strip, where it continues to hold hostage more than 100 of the 240 people seized during its pogrom in southern Israel on Oct. 7. “Rumours of Rafah in the south of being the last stronghold of Hamas are false; the resistance exists across the entire Gaza Strip,” Nazzal said. “Moreover, the movement is fighting a fierce political negotiating battle, no less than the battle it is waging on the ground.”

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Harvard Professor Resigns From Antisemitism Task Force

Demonstrators take their “Emergency Rally: Stand with Palestinians Under Siege in Gaza” out of Harvard University and onto the streets of Harvard Square, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, U.S., October 14, 2023. Photo: REUTERS/Brian Snyder

Internal tension and disagreement have caused a member of Harvard University’s Presidential Task Force on Antisemitism to resign as co-chair, The Harvard Crimson reported on Monday.

Raffaella Sadun, a Harvard Business School professor, reportedly left the group —which was formed to issue recommendations for addressing anti-Jewish hatred on the campus — because the university would not guarantee that the task force’s guidance would be implemented as official school policy. Her aggravation has been mounting for “some time,” the paper added, but she declined to cite conflict as the reason for her departure.

“I am grateful to have had the opportunity to help advance the vital work to combat antisemitism and believe that [interim Harvard University] President Garber has assembled an excellent task force,” Sadun said. “I will continue to support efforts to tackle antisemitism at Harvard in any way I can from my faculty position.”

In a statement, interim president Garber told The Harvard Crimson that Sadun had “expressed her desire” to get back to “research, teaching, and administrative responsibilities.”

“I am extremely appreciative of Professor Sadun’s participating in the task over the past few weeks,” Garber said. “Her insights and passion for this work have helped shape the mandate for the task force and how it can best productively advance the important work ahead.”

Announced in January, the Presidential Task Force on Antisemitism is Harvard University’s response to years of antisemitic incidents that earned the school the distinction of being labeled the most antisemitic campus in American higher education by education watchdog AMCHA Initiative. A now defunct group had been created by former president Claudine Gay, the Antisemitism Advisory Group, amid an explosion of antisemitic activity on campus following Hamas’ massacre across southern Israel on Oct. 7.

Gay eventually resigned from her position after providing controversial answers to a congressional committee about her efforts to manage the problem and being outed as a serial plagiarist. In her absence, Garber pushed ahead with forming task forces for addressing both antisemitism and Islamophobia.

Since then, the antisemitism group’s membership have stirred controversy and speculation. In January, Jewish community activists and nonprofit leaders criticized its naming history professor Derek Penslar as a co-chair because, in his writings and public remarks, he had described concerns about rising antisemitism at Harvard as “exaggerated” and blamed Israel for fostering anti-Zionism. According to the Crimson, Penslar considered resigning but decided against doing so. In Jan., Rabbi David J. Wolpe stepped down from the group, saying in a statement on X that “both events on campus” and Gay’s congressional testimony “reinforced the idea that I cannot make the sort of difference I had hoped.”

Last week, the school issued a statement denouncing another antisemitic outrage, a faculty anti-Zionist group’s posting on social media an antisemitic cartoon which showed a left-hand tattooed with a Star of David containing a dollar sign at its center dangling a Black man and an Arab man from a noose. The group’s leader, professor Walter Johnson, has since resigned as a member.

Follow Dion J. Pierre @DionJPierre.

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