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The New York Jewish Week’s 10 most-read stories of 2023

(New York Jewish Week) — We’ve made it to the last week of 2023, and before we start the new year, we’re looking back on all the stories that you engaged with most over the past 12 months. 

This year, Jewish New Yorkers showed us what meant the most to them — from getting excited about best bites around the city to standing up in solidarity with Israel and against antisemitism to celebrating nearly lost pockets of New York Jewish history. 

As the New York Jewish Week continues to grow as part of the 70 Faces Media family, we want to thank you for joining us throughout 2023. Here are the 10 stories you engaged with most this year.

1. Sammy’s Roumanian, iconic Lower East Side Jewish restaurant, mounts a comeback by Lisa Keys (April 27)

Sammy’s Roumanian Steakhouse owners David, left, and Stan Zimmerman, outside their restaurant at 157 Chrystie St. in 2005. (Julian Voloj)

You read that right: The iconic Sammy’s Roumanian Steakhouse — the Lower East Side eatery famous for chopped liver prepared table-side, carafes of schmaltz on the tables and its shticky, in-house entertainer, Dani Luv — is mounting a comeback.  The Ashkenazi-influenced restaurant — which shuttered in January 2021 during the pandemic  — has a lease “in the works” at 191 Orchard St., between Houston and Stanton streets. 

2. This Bronx bakery and its Holocaust survivor founder have been making cheesecake the same way for 63 years by Julia Gergely (May 22)

Fred Schuster, left, smiles next to his son-in-law Yair Ben-Zaken. The two of them run S&S Cheesecake, a bakery in the Kingsbridge neighborhood of the Bronx. (Julia Gergely, Design by Mollie Suss)

Near the northern terminus of the 1 train, just south of Van Cortlandt Park, S&S Cheesecake has been producing thousands of dense, delectable cheesecakes each day for more than 60 years, distributing to steakhouses all across the country. The proprietors are 98-year-old Holocaust survivor Fred Schuster and his daughter and son-in-law Brenda and Yair Ben Zaken. 

3. 18-year-old pianist opens Carnegie Hall performance with Israeli national anthem by Luke Tress (Oct. 22)

Kevin Chen performing at Carnegie Hall on Oct. 19, 2023. (Screenshot)

After the Hamas attacks in Israel on Oct. 7, Kevin Chen, an 18-year-old rising star in the world of piano, used his platform to show his support. He opened his performance at New York City’s Carnegie Hall with a rendition of “Hatikvah,” Israel’s national anthem and Hebrew for “the hope.” While he played the melody on piano, members of the audience sang along.

4. The first-ever Borscht Belt Festival celebrates a bygone Jewish era by Leah Breakstone (July 3)

The Nevele Country Club Stardust Room in Ellenville, New York in its heyday. (Catskills Borscht Belt Museum)

The Catskills Borscht Belt museum launched “Borscht Belt Fest,”a one-day festival to honor the history and culture of the “Jewish Alps” this summer in Ellenville, New York. The festival, which included comedy shows, workshops, lectures, exhibits, film screenings, lots of food and a street fair, paid tribute to the legacy of the Borscht Belt — the colloquial name for the once-ubiquitous resorts and bungalow colonies in parts of Sullivan, Ulster and Orange counties that catered to Jewish families — and its influence on modern American culture. 

5. Yeshiva University is left in mourning after a beloved gay alum dies by suicide by Jacob Henry (May 5)

Herschel Siegel, who was a beloved member of the Jewish communities at Yeshiva University and in his hometown Atlanta, died by suicide April 28. (Courtesy)

Herschel Siegel said he had struggled to reconcile his Jewish and queer identities, particularly as a student and 2021 graduate of Yeshiva University. Siegel died by suicide April 28 in Atlanta, where he grew up and had been living. He was remembered by countless friends and allies who felt connected with his struggle for acceptance in the Modern Orthodox world. 

6. This Orthodox Jewish model made history at New York Fashion Week by Julia Gergely (Feb. 14)

Lily Brasch, who has muscular dystrophy, walked the runway at New York Fashion Week for the South Asian brand Randhawa. (Hilary Phelps)

Disability activist Lily Brasch didn’t know if she would be able to walk the runway as a model for New York Fashion Week — not because she has a rare form of muscular dystrophy, which weakens muscles and limits her ability to walk, but rather because the show was set for Friday evening, when the weekly Jewish holiday of Shabbat begins. But Brasch, who is Orthodox and goes by the stage name Lily B., quickly devised a workaround: She took her turn on the catwalk in Midtown at 5 p.m. and, instead of schlepping back uptown to her Morningside Heights apartment, quickly headed to a nearby hotel to welcome Shabbat with her sisters.

7. Falafel Tanami had its regulars. Then the New York Times declared it the best falafel in NYC. by Julia Gergely (June 14)

Galit Tanami, the owner of Falafel Tanami, is shown in her restaurant, which in April was named one of the 100 best restaurants in the city by The New York Times. (Julia Gergely, design by Mollie Suss)

Falafel Tanami is a tiny hole-in-the-wall kosher Israeli restaurant. Beloved by Midwood locals, it’s stardom was put on the map in April when the New York Times named it one of the best restaurants in New York City. Hundreds of people show up every day, creating lines that occasionally snake out the door. News stations from across the globe ask for interviews, catering requests come in from all over the city and, of course, the falafel often sells out before closing time. “It has been crazy, baruch Hashem,” Galit Tanami, who owns the store with her husband, Ronen, told the New York Jewish Week. “Everybody is so excited for us.” 

8. A ‘not f-ing Jewish’ NYer is going viral for confronting a man who ripped down Israeli hostage posters by Ben Sales (Oct. 27)

A man confronts another man who was filmed removing Israeli hostage posters on a street corner in Queens, according to video shared by the watchdog group StopAntisemitism. (X)

As Israel began its retaliation against Hamas in order to eradicate the terrorist group and get back the 250 hostages who were kidnapped, New Yorkers began to spread awareness by putting up posters of the hostages across the city. While many videos of people ripping down the posters went viral, one in particular stood out. Like the others, this video featured someone tearing down the fliers. But unlike the rest, the man confronting the poster-ripper did not just urge the person to stop. Instead, he said the f-word. A lot. Another difference: The man confronting the person taking down the posters was, by his own admission, “not f—ing Jewish.” “You don’t have a f—ing right to touch that s—,” the man sporting a brown plaid shirt yelled in a thick New York City accent about halfway through the 43-second clip.

9. At a live event with Netflix’s ‘Jewish Matchmaking,’ fans of the show find their people by Julia Gergely (May 19)

The cast of Netflix’s “Jewish Matchmaking” met for a live event in New York, May 17, 2023. (Julia Gergely)

Aleeza Ben Shalom, star of the Netflix hit “Jewish Matchmaking,” visited New York earlier this year to dole out dating advice and promote her show. She stood in the middle of a tight circle of fans, both men and women, young and old, maintaining the same warmth she displays on her TV show and speaking to as many people as she could. More than a few single women were sent to the event at the behest of their worried Jewish parents. “I’m young, I’m 24, I have a lot of great things going on in my life,” said Yael Chanukov, a Manhattan-based actress. “But my parents are so concerned about me finding someone. They bought me the ticket, sent me the email confirmation and said I had to ask Aleeza for advice.” 

10. The quest to replace Park East Synagogue’s 92-year-old rabbi is not going smoothly by Jacob Henry (Feb. 8)

The Star of David stands atop the Park East Synagogue, March 3, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

More than a year after it attracted attention for the abrupt termination of a popular assistant rabbi, Manhattan’s Park East Synagogue hadn’t hired a replacement for its longtime senior rabbi, Arthur Schneier. In February, one candidate, Rabbi Yitzchak Schochet, came close, but after a heated squabble about his past outspoken opposition to same-sex relationships, Schochet withdrew his candidacy.

Bonus: NY Jewish Week’s 36 to Watch 2023 

This year, our 36 to Watch was a dynamic group of Jewish New Yorkers, from bakers to business owners, athletes to artists, Broadway stars and TikTok stars, pulpit Rabbis and a prison chaplain. As we begin our search for 2024’s batch, take a look back on the New Yorkers we’ve recommended you keep an eye out for as they make their mark on the city.

The post The New York Jewish Week’s 10 most-read stories of 2023 appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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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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