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Finding artistic inspiration in Jewish burial rituals + How Kushner navigated Trump-Biden transition

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Preparing Jewish bodies for burial, an artist finds inspiration: Karen Benioff Friedman, a Bay Area painter, signed up to join her synagogue’s new chevra kadisha — a group that prepares the Jewish dead for burial — when it was created in 2004. It might have seemed like an odd choice for someone who grew up mostly secular, but the experience became something of a muse.


A rich artistic history: Fast forward 10 years, and Friedman, now 59, was studying at an Oakland art school, where she learned about a set of 18th-century paintings depicting a chevra kadisha at work in Prague. It was a moment of connection, and made her wonder: What would happen if she turned her eye to the burial rituals that had long fascinated her?


“This is what really moved me:” Friedman has since created more than 150 artworks about tahara, the rituals performed by a burial society. As part of her process, she’s hired models to pose as bodies undergoing those rituals. What she’s learned: “We are all equal in death.” Read the story ➤

Related: Hannah Lebovits, a contributing columnist, volunteers with a burial society in Texas. The experience, she wrote in a July essay, “is calming and comforting specifically because it is not about you.” Read her column ➤



Gabby Jones/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A rabbi turned to ChatGPT to pen a recent sermon. Here’s what he learned. Well, in a religion that’s many millennia old, this is definitely something new: Rabbi Joshua Franklin delivered a sermon to his congregation in the Hamptons on this Shabbat that was written by the artificial intelligence bot ChatGPT. Our Adam Kovac spoke to Franklin, who said he was surprised by the extent to which the bot “can really synthesize ideas.” Read the story ➤


Jared Kushner was apparently behind a ‘shockingly gracious’ note Trump wrote to Biden. A new book gives an inside look at the Biden White House, including details of Kushner’s expectation that former President Donald Trump, his father-in-law, would eventually observe the norms that accompany the transfer of power. Kushner described “knock-down, drag-out screaming matches” with Trump over the transition, writes our Jacob Kornbluh, who got an advance peek at the book. Read the story ➤


Plus: We’re tracking the prominent antisemites who have been reinstated on Twitter under Elon Musk’s leadership. Back on the platform Monday was Sean Turnbull, an influential conspiracy theorist who has said he believes a “Zionist banker international cabal” is out to destroy Western culture. See the list ➤


Dept. of Corrections: Our Friday newsletter incorrectly reported that an American Jewish Committee survey found 87% of U.S. Jews felt less safe a year after the Texas synagogue hostage-taking in January, 2021. In fact, 54% of U.S. Jews in the study said they were aware of the incident, and 87% of them felt less safe. Read the corrected story ➤




Bloomberg/Getty Images

🖊️  More than 90 United Nations member-states signed a letter condemning Israel’s new sanctions on the Palestinian Authority. The new Israeli government implemented the sanctions after the U.N. voted in late December to seek an opinion from the Hague’s International Court of Justice on Israel’s ongoing occupation in the West Bank. (Haaretz)


🤔  About half of Jewish Israelis think they should have more rights than Arab citizens, a new study suggests. The Israel Democracy Institute’s annual survey of some 20,000 Israelis also found that 60% of Jewish respondents felt that the relationships of Jews and Arabs in Israel was “bad or very bad” — a stunning 33% increase since 2018. (Haaretz)


😔  Russian forces have plundered Ukrainian museums and cultural heritage sites since invading last February. Now, experts say that Russia’s theft has reached a scale not seen since World War II, when the Nazis made cultural theft a key aspect of their military campaigns. (New York Times


🖼️  Speaking of Nazi cultural theft, Christie’s Auction House will next week begin a global initiative highlighting the world’s efforts to restitute Nazi-looted art. The yearlong program has been organized around the 25th anniversary of the Washington Principles, which established rigorous new expectations for how countries should work to identify and return artworks stolen under the Third Reich. (Christie’s)


🙄  Yep, still speaking of the Third Reich — sorry! — a Jewish contestant on the United Kingdom’s iteration of “The Apprentice” apologized after it was revealed that his online antique shop had sold Nazi memorabilia. The 25-year-old contestant, Gregory Ebbs, said “the item in question was sold by a third-party vendor,” adding: “I in no way condone or wish to be looking to be celebrating this abhorrent and shameful part of history.” (Metro)


😟  A fallen tree in a Queens park was vandalized with swastikas. “Hatred against Jews is a growing issue and we cannot allow this to keep happening,” a New York City Council member wrote. (Twitter)


✡️  A Denver synagogue that has hosted an interfaith celebration around Martin Luther King Jr. Day for more than half a century was back in person for the first time since 2020. And in Boston, Jews marched to Boston Common from a nearby synagogue as the city unveiled a new monument to King and his wife, Coretta Scott King. (CBS Colorado, Jewish Exponent)


🐎  Back to Nazis and art: A bullet-ridden bronze horse that Hitler commissioned as a symbol of Nazi power went on display in Berlin. The sculpture, one of Josef Thorak’s two “Striding Horses,” is housed at the Spandau Citadel, part of a long-running exhibit of “toxic” German monuments. “The horses are a reminder of Germany’s devastating history in the Nazi dictatorship, which despised people and values, and they can now make a valuable contribution to democratic education,” said one minister who pushed for their display. (The Times)

What else we’re reading ➤  Inside a groundbreaking new Tel Aviv school seeking privileges for secular scholars … The profound Jewishness of a new translation of Franz Kafka’s diaries … How Modi, a beloved Jewish comedian, manifests “Moshiach energy.”

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On this day in history (1904): Anton Chekhov’s play The Cherry Orchard had its world premiere in Moscow. Chekhov had an unusual relationship with Jews for a writer of his time. When an edition of his collected letters was published in Soviet Russia, censors struck out his repeated use of the the word zhid — a term for a Jewish person — fearing allegations of appearing either complimentary to Jews or antisemitic. But to Chekhov, the word was an ordinary one to use in correspondence: He had grown up in a southern town in which he attended school alongside Jewish peers. Maybe that’s why a Jewish traveling band makes a brief appearance in The Cherry Orchard.


Last year on this day, our colleagues at the JTA reported that a new book claimed to identify the person who betrayed Anne Frank and her family to the Nazis. A Dutch publisher pulled the book in March when a team of historians wrote a 69-page “refutation” of its findings.

On the Hebrew calendar, it’s the 24th of Tevet, when an earthquake struck northern Israel in 1837, killing thousands of people Tzfat.





Debuting next week: Playing Anne Frank, a new Forward podcast diving deep into the cultural history of one of our most iconic and impactful works. Upon the publication of his novel, “Cyclorama,” our Adam Langer wondered how it happened in real life. How did producing and performing in the original 1955 Broadway production of The Diary of Anne Frank and the Oscar-winning 1959 film shape the lives of the cast and crew?

Listen to the trailer by clicking above, and subscribe to Playing Anne Frank wherever you get your podcasts. The first episodes drop Jan. 24, just before International Holocaust Remembrance Day.


Thanks to Benyamin Cohen and Lauren Markoe for contributing to today’s newsletter.

You can reach the “Forwarding” team at


The post Finding artistic inspiration in Jewish burial rituals + How Kushner navigated Trump-Biden transition appeared first on The Forward.

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