Friday Five: The Pope, Joan Rivers, Iris Richman, Philip Roth and Frederick Cohn


Habemus Papam: Jorge Bergoglio

When the white smoke rose this week from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel, it offered one hotly anticipated answer and a host of questions, including for Jews. Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the man now called Pope Francis? Will he improve Catholic-Jewish ties? His track record offers cause for optimism. As archbishop of Buenos Aires, a city with an estimated 200,000 Jews, Bergoglio attended Rosh Hashanah services, stood in solidarity with the community in commemorating the 1994 AMIA Jewish center bombing and has referred to Jews as his “elder brothers.”

Joan Rivers stands with Israeli gays

It’s easy not to take Joan Rivers seriously, what with her exuberant love of cosmetic surgery and crusty “Can we talk?” shtick. But this week the 79-year-old was’t joking around when she joined with other celebs in support of an Israeli couple trying to raise money for a surrogacy attempt in the United States. Rivers posed with a sign, in Hebrew and English, which read: “I also want them to have a baby.”

Iris Richman rallies women

For months, the struggle over women’s prayer rights at the Western Wall has been mounting. On Tuesday, members of the group Women of Wall got demonstrations of support from several American Jewish communities, thanks in part to the efforts of Rabbi Iris Richman, who organized a solidarity prayer service at a New York synagogue. Richman, a Conservative rabbi, put the word out on Facebook and more than 50 Jewish organizations signed on as partners. Hallel Abramowitz Silverman, who is the niece of Jewish comedian Sarah Silverman and was detained last month at the Western Wall along with her mother, showed up. Events were held in other cities, too.

Philip Roth, still talking

After a career spanning more than half a century, authoring 30-plus books and receiving a small arsenal of literary awards (though still no Nobel), Philip Roth is still generating conversation. As the man who gave the world Alexander Portnoy and other Jewish malcontents prepares to turn 80 next week, a new documentary has prompted a flurry of pieces about this celebrated figure of American letters. In “Philip Roth: Unmasked,” which opened in New York this week and will be broadcast nationally on PBS on March 29, Roth speaks for himself — rather than relying on the literary alter-egos he employs in his books. And just in time: Roth announced last November he had retired from writing.

Frederick Cohn’s Jew-free jury

Frederick Cohn must have been feeling a little desperate. How else to explain the attorney’s appeal to a federal judge to bar Jews from the jury trial of his client, an accused Taliban associate, on the grounds that Jews naturally would be biased? “Given that there’s going to be inflammatory testimony about Jews and Zionism, I think it would be hard for Jews to cast aside any innate antipathy,” said Cohn, who is defending Abdel Hameed Shehadeh against charges that he lied to the FBI about his Taliban ties. The issue of Jewish jurors first arose in February, with Cohn telling Judge Eric Vitaliano he wasn’t “wild about” Jewish jurors while conceding that his request to have Jews barred was a “long shot.” On Monday, Vitaliano denied the request.

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