Sandy Koufax and Yom Kippur: The Link that Lasts Forever

By: Marc Brodsky; jta.org

(JTA) – As Yom Kippur approaches, Jewish baseball fans hark back to the fall of 1965, when Dodgers ace Sandy Koufax said he would not take the mound in Game 1 of the World Series against the Minnesota Twins.

Mind you, this was no ordinary pitcher. Koufax dominated on the hill that season for Los Angeles and would be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Koufax, now in his early 80s, and his choice would go down in Jewish lore, to be recalled annually on the Day of Atonement – or perhaps whenever his coreligionists have a tough call to make.

“There was no hard decision for me,” he would say later in an ESPN documentary released in 2000. “It was just a thing of respect. I wasn’t trying to make a statement, and I had no idea that it would impact that many people.”

Learn more about Koufax’s story in the video above.

 

Echoes of a Yom Kippur Shofar

By Dr. Yvette Alt Miller / aish.com

Under Turkish and then British rule, Jewish activity at the Western Wall (the Kotel) — the last remaining remnant of the ancient Jewish Temple in Jerusalem and the holiest site of the Jewish people — was severely constrained. British law restricted Jews who wanted to pray at the Wall: Jews were not allowed to recite prayers loudly, they could not bring a Torah to the Wall, and they were forbidden from sounding the Shofar.

On Yom Kippur 1930, at the conclusion of the Neila (the closing prayer recited just before sundown), a sound rang out that had not been heard at the Kotel in generations: the ringing blast of a Shofar. A young rabbi, Moshe Segal, had smuggled a Shofar to the Kotel, and blew it at its traditional place at the end of the Yom Kippur service.

Rabbi Segal was soon arrested, but in the intervening years, other Jewish boys — all in their teens — took his place. Each year from 1930 to 1947, Jewish teenagers smuggled Shofars to the Kotel, concealing them under their clothing, and blew them at the end of Yom Kippur. The boys worked in teams of three, aiming to blow the Shofar at each end of the Wall and in the middle. Abraham Caspi, who was 16 when he blew the Shofar at the Western Wall in 1947, remembers being told “You’ll be the first, and if you don’t succeed or are caught, someone else will do it.”

 

Homecoming for Iraqi Christians

Assyrians celebrate Christmas Eve in a church reclaimed from Islamic State

Iraqis attend Christmas Mass at the Mar Shimoni church in Bartella, a predominantly Christian town recently recaptured from Islamic State. (Chris McGrath / Getty Images)

By Molly Hennessy-Fiske / LATimes.com

Ten white buses sped west from the northern Iraqi city of Irbil on Saturday morning, packed with displaced Assyrians intent on spending Christmas Eve in their mostly Christian hamlet, recaptured in October from Islamic State.

“I miss my church and my town,” said one of the drivers, Ibrahim Behnam, 50.

When they arrived for an 11 a.m. Mass at the Mar Shimoni church, they found a Christmas tree at the entrance, flanked by armed guards. Snipers perched on the roof.

Two days earlier, suicide bombers had attacked a busy market just a few miles west, killing 23 people. But that didn’t stop several hundred of the faithful from making a pilgrimage home.

“I know all of them,” said Father Yacoub Saad Shamas, noting that the church once served 2,000 families.

The priest darted across the church courtyard in his black cassock, welcoming worshipers as gray skies threatened rain.

An elderly woman kissed his hand. Iraqi military commanders greeted him warmly, as did U.S. Army Lt. Col. Ed Matthaidess III, who brought a dozen members of the 101st Airborne Division. The Americans sat at the back of the sanctuary with an interpreter.

As the church filled, women slipped on lacy black mantillas and filed up into the balcony, past singed walls still spray-painted with warnings of bombs, since removed. Windows and crosses were broken, but the crystal chandelier was unharmed, reflecting the glow of the altar as they prayed in Assyrian and Arabic.

“God protect us and clean us from the inside,” the priest intoned. “You are the almighty God, our God forever.”

It was Samira Aziz’s first visit since Bartella was freed. The 50-year-old maid thought of her mother, who had always wanted to be buried here next to her son, a soldier killed years ago in the Iran-Iraq war. She died last year, after the family fled east to the semiautonomous Kurdish region of Iraq, and had to be buried in Irbil.

“I am happy, but with a broken heart,” said Aziz.

Sgt. Maj. Mokhles Salem Yousef, a local police officer, brought his two sons, ages 8 and 5, to see a hometown they barely remember. Before Mass, they stopped by their old house, now empty, their toys destroyed.

The church bells rang and drowned out, for a time, the boom of fighting in nearby Mosul.

Behnam, the bus driver, stepped outside for a break. During the drive in, he was upset to see Shiite Muslim flags hanging from empty homes, installed there by the Iraqi forces who ousted Islamic State from the town.

“We just want the Iraqi flag,” he said.

Behnam feared most of his neighbors would not rebuild. At least 400 homes were destroyed, hundreds more burned and looted, according to the priest. There’s no electricity or running water. Some former residents have already moved abroad.

“I’m not sure I will return,” Behnam said.

He pointed to a statue of a church patriarch, its head knocked off by militants. Beyond that lay the church cemetery, where Islamic State fighters dug into graves and planted a rocket.

Many here fear the fighters could return if Mosul isn’t captured and secured soon. Nearby Gogjali, where the suicide bombers struck this week, was supposed to have been freed November 1.

Behnam said he felt safe with all the soldiers at the church. “But to come back and sleep here as a family? No.”

His family of eight has settled into two trailers at a camp in Irbil that is full of Assyrians who fled Islamic State’s lightning advance across parts of northern and central Iraq two years ago. The camp has expanded to include restaurants, a barbershop and a room where elderly men play cards.

Khaled Ishak Matti, 46, a mechanical engineer whose house was destroyed by the militants, was more defiant.

Assyrians have endured here for 6,000 years, he said, surviving Arab, Mongol and Persian rule. He intends to rebuild and wants the U.S.-led coalition to help protect the town.

“This is our land,” he said. “But life cannot be like before. We need security, safety.”

Neama Aggula, a 42-year-old civil engineer, said militants stole everything from her house, “even the doors.” She has not had a Christmas tree since she fled to Irbil and is holding off getting one until she moves back home.

As Mass ended, Saida Hama, 75, walked quickly out the door and down a nearby alley strewn with pots, pans, fans, heaters and other debris, toward what remained of her small orange house.

Hama wore a large wooden cross and a green scarf that barely shielded her from the rain. At home, she found her disabled son, Mazin Danou, who uses leg braces, sorting through the dusty remains of their household.

“Daesh took what was in good condition,” he said, using an Arabic acronym for Islamic State. They stole the refrigerator, stove, water pump, gas drums.

As the pair stood under an olive tree in the yard, a boom sounded in the distance. “From Mosul,” he said.

Hama hurried off to another church, where she had arranged to meet neighbors to pray.

She passed the ruins of a priest’s house, then the downtown shopping district, showrooms all smashed, including a mini-mart her son once ran. Finally, she reached St. George’s, doors gaping, rubble strewn across the floor, the altar charred black.

It was past 3 p.m. Soon the buses would depart for Irbil. On Sunday, there would be more Masses for other families and Assyrian troops stationed in nearby towns.

Bashir Shamon Sadea, a tribal council leader, said the community needs help fighting “dark forces.”

“Daesh came to kill the soul. But they couldn’t. They killed the body,” Sadea said outside Mar Shimoni. “We are back now.”

***

Displaced Assyrians returned to Bartella to celebrate Mass in the mostly Christian town that was recaptured from Islamic State–video.


Video (below) from Oct. 23, 2016 post: Times Special Correspondent Nabih Bulos walks through a Christian church in Bartella, a town just east of Mosul formerly occupied by Islamic State militants.

Iraqi Christians Reclaim Their Town

Muslims Steal Silver Mezuzah From Tomb of the Patriarchs

The Jewish Press

The location where the silver Mezuzah hung before being stolen by Muslims at Maarat HaMachpela / Photo Credit: Maarat HaMachpela
The location where the silver Mezuzah hung before being stolen by Muslims at Maarat HaMachpela /
Photo Credit: Maarat HaMachpela

On Friday, June 24, during the Muslim prayer time at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, Muslims stole the beautiful and ornate silver Mezuzah that was attached to the entrance to the building.

In addition, they broke into the storeroom and stole saplings worth thousands of shekels.

As it was part of the Ramadan holiday, Israeli police were not stationed on site, and “protection” of the site was under control of the Waqf.

In 1929, following the massacre of the Jewish community of Hebron by their Arab neighbors, and similarly after 1948 in the Old City of Jerusalem, Arab Muslims ripped out the Mezuzahs from the doorposts of the Jewish-owned homes, but in many cases, you can still see where the Mezuzahs used to be located.

The Jewish community of Hebron is demanding that the exclusive Muslim days at the tomb be cancelled until the Mezuzah is returned.

The silver Mezuzah once attached to the entrance at Maarat HaMachpela.
The silver Mezuzah once attached to the entrance at Maarat HaMachpela.

The gods of Egypt vs. God of the Bible

By Jerry Newcombe / ChristianPost.com

Dr. Jerry Newcombe
Dr. Jerry Newcombe

The title of a recently released film caught my attention: The Gods of Egypt. This column is not about the film, but rather it addresses God’s judgment on the gods of Egypt by way of the ten plagues. The ten plagues were the systematic judgments of God against Pharaoh and the Egyptians for enslaving the Hebrews for 400 years and refusing to let them go.

“Let My people go,” said God through his servants, Moses and his brother Aaron. But Pharaoh refused. So under God’s instruction, Moses unleashed ten plagues against Egypt.

In each of these judgments, God spared His people, the Hebrews. He miraculously kept them from experiencing His wrath.

The final judgment, the slaying of the Egyptian’s firstborn, involved the very first Passover event. The Hebrew people were instructed by God to take a lamb without blemish, to sacrifice it, and to spread the blood on the top and the two sides of the doorpost, forming a type of cross.

Then the angel of death would pass over the Hebrew households [with the blood on the doorposts], but would slay the firstborn of the Egyptians. The New Testament says Christ our Passover lamb has been slain for us.

Dr. D. James Kennedy points out that each of the ten plagues was a judgment on one of the gods of Egypt. You can find his commentary on this it in the new D. James Kennedy Topical Study Bible in the Book of Exodus.

Kennedy notes, “In the Book of Exodus, we see the great confrontation between Moses and Pharaoh. This is the Old Testament counterpart to the confrontation between Christ and Pilate, the representative of the pagan Roman Empire, with Pharaoh being the representative of the pagan empire of Egypt. Here is a classic confrontation between good and evil, Christ and Satan.”

Consider the plagues one by one and what Kennedy says about God’s judgment on Egypt’s false gods:

1. The Egyptians worshiped the River Nile, the source of their lives.

The first plague attacked that idol by turning the water into blood.

2. The goddess Hekt (Heket, Heqet) had the face of a frog.

“You worship frogs,” said God in effect, “now see what it’s like to have frogs everywhere.” In a short time, the Egyptians were sick of frogs.

3. Plague number three saw lice fill the land.

Kennedy notes, “Now one of the gods of the Egyptians was Seb, the earth god. … The Egyptians’ reverence for the ground having it covered with trillions of fleas or lice would no doubt cool their amorous desires for that earth god Seb.”

4. Swarms of flies made up the fourth plague.

Says Kennedy: “Scholars say they probably were not flies, so much as they were the beetles common to that area, called the scarabaeus from which we get the word scarab, which is a black beetle.”

5. The fifth plague was the judgment on the Egyptian cattle.

Apis, the chief god of Memphis, was a sacred bull worshiped by the Egyptians.

6. The sixth plague involved boils.

This was a judgment against the god Typhon. This god, notes Kennedy, was “a magical genie that was worshiped in ancient Egypt. Here was a god who was connected with the magicians, which were the priests of the Egyptian religion. We find here that the magicians could not stand before Moses because of the boils, for the boil was upon the magicians and upon all of Egypt. So their power was broken.”

7. Then came the plague of hail.

Shu was the “god of the atmosphere.” As Kennedy points out: “Now it is hard to go out to worship the god of the atmosphere when you are being pounded with large hail stones.”

8. Next, locusts swarmed the land.

The Egyptians worshiped the god Serapis, defender of the land against locusts.

9. Another major god of the Egyptians was Rah, the sun god.

But Plague number nine saw darkness come over the land, even during the day.

10. “And finally in the last plague upon Pharaoh himself, who was supposedly descended from the sun god Rah, his first born was killed,” writes Kennedy.

He sums it all up this way: “In the ten plagues, God shows the world for all time that He alone deserves our worship.”

Tragically, people today worship all sorts of false gods: money, celebrities, and football or other sports. Some even worship their own possessions. Each of these will one day be burned up in God’s final judgment of this Earth, and then all will see that only the Triune God is worthy of worship.

Whether audiences find the new movie, The Gods of Egypt, to be an entertaining fantasy adventure or just a high-tech stinker, it’s good to remember that the ten plagues were God’s judgments on human idolatry.

//////////////////////
Dr. Jerry Newcombe is a key archivist of the D. James Kennedy Legacy Library

Iran Arrests 9 Christians on Christmas Day for Celebrating Jesus Christ

By Stoyan Zaimov / ChristianPost.com

The government of Iran reportedly arrested a group of nine Christians on Christmas Day (2015) for celebrating their faith at an in-house church in the city of Shiraz.

“There has been a steady deterioration of human rights abuses in Iran during Hassan Rouhani’s tenure as president, including executions and suppression of religious and ethnic minorities,” said Shahin Gobadi of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the National Council of Resistance of Iran.

“This is just another case in point. Actually, the clerical regime is one of the top violators of rights of religious minorities, including Christians, in the world. The regime has institutionalized repression of the Iranian people as the main tool of its survival.”

NCRI reported that plain-clothed agents of Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security raided the church on Friday, Christmas Day, and confiscated personal items, including satellite dishes, along with arresting the nine Christians.

Just a couple of days earlier on Wednesday, the MOIS agents arrested Meysam Hojjati, another Iranian Christian, in the central city of Isfahan, beating and handcuffing him while confiscating his personal items, even his decorated Christmas tree.

Iran continuously detains Christians for practicing their faith, deeming them a threat to national security. Last week, it freed Pastor Farshid Fathi Malayeri of the Assembly of God church who was held captive in prison for five years.

Malayeri had been arrested in a 2010 raid on Christian churches for “action against national security, cooperating with foreign organizations and evangelism.”

Andy Dipper of the U.K.-based Christian Solidarity Worldwide noted that although Malayeri’s release is good news, the treatment of Christians in Iran remains alarming.

“We remain deeply concerned at the treatment of Christians in Iran, who suffer harassment, mistreatment and imprisonment simply for exercising their right to freedom of religion or belief by gathering to worship peacefully, particularly during the Christmas season,” Dipper said.

Other Christians being held in Iranian prisons include American citizen Pastor Saeed Abedini, who has spent three years behind bars after being arrested while working on an orphanage for children in Iran.

The arrests of Christians have continued despite the historic nuclear deal reached between Iran and Western world leaders back in July, which lifted economic sanctions from the Islamic Republic, in exchange for Rouhani agreeing to limit the country’s nuclear program.

Conservative groups that monitor Christian persecution, such as the American Center for Law and Justice, warned at the time that its not right to grant Iran sanctions relief until it proves its willing to improve its poor human rights record and the end the persecution of Christians it engages in.

Maryam Rajavi, president-elect of the NCRI, said in the report that she hopes 2016 will bring improved relations between Muslims and Christians in the country, despite the troubles.

“Muslims and Christians can rely on their common values to stand up to those who pervert their religions. Let us hope for the relief of converted Christians in Iran from the oppression of ruling mullahs and for freedom of the whole Iranian nation from this religious dictatorship,” Rajavi said in a statement.

“On this occasion, I call on the world community to form an international front against the religious dictatorship in Iran and its proxies and militia in Syria and Iraq and to fight Islamic extremism, the enemy of true Muslims, Christians and all followers of other divine religions,” she added.

Hamas bans Gaza New Year’s Eve parties

Agence France-Presse / published by The Daily Star (Lebanon) DailyStar.com.lb

Islamist group Hamas has banned public New Year’s Eve parties in the Gaza Strip because they offend the territory’s “values and religious traditions”, police said on Wednesday.

“The interior ministry and police department did not give permits to any restaurants, hotels or halls for end-of-year parties” after several venues requested permission, police spokesman Ayman al-Batinji told AFP.

He said New Year’s Eve celebrations were “incompatible with our customs, traditions, values and the teachings of our religion”.

Parties had also been curtailed in “solidarity with the families of the martyrs of the Jerusalem intifada,” Batinji said, referring to violence that has swept the city and parts of the West Bank in recent months.

Since Oct. 1, 136 Palestinians and 20 Israelis have died in a wave of attacks and clashes across Israel and the Palestinian territories — including in Gaza.

In previous years restaurants, hotels and cafes in Gaza were allowed to host closed events to celebrate New Year’s Eve.

The new year under the Islamic calendar began this year in October, but the new year under the Gregorian calendar is widely celebrated across the Arab world.

Islamists Hamas tightly restrict public parties and celebrations in Gaza.

A source close to the police said security forces would close down “any unlicensed party”.

Found: a Real-Life Miracle Baby in Jesus’ Crib

By Michael Daly / TheDailyBeast.com

newborn

It sounds like a movie plot or a Sunday School story. But an hours-old boy really was discovered in a NYC nativity scene — and was rescued by paramedics and the local parish priest.

As Christmas neared, priests from seemingly everywhere were telephoning to inquire about the living baby who had been found in the crèche, the manger scene depicting the birth of Jesus.

“They want to know how the baby’s doing because they want to preach on the baby for Christmas,” said Father Christopher Heanue, of the aptly named Holy Child Jesus church in Queens, New York. “This story will be told in many churches in this country this Christmas, maybe around the world.”

The 28-year-old Heanue was ordained just this year and was a month away from celebrating his first Christmas as a priest when his part of this story began. He reports that he was meeting with a soon-to-be married couple in the parish office. His phone began ringing.

“Being polite, I, of course, didn’t answer it,” he recalls.

The parish secretary then burst in, saying, “Father, I need to talk to you. There’s an emergency.”

Heanue excused himself and got some startling news from the secretary.

“He told me, ‘There’s a baby in the church,’” Heanue remembers. “We just ran over to the church to see.”

Heanue entered and hurried up to the crèche that the custodian, Jose Moran, had set up late that morning. Moran told Heanue that he had taken a lunch break and had then returned to his job sweeping inside the church when he heard a baby. He figured somebody with a child must have come in, and he kept sweeping.

But when he heard the sound again, Moran had looked around and had seen nobody. He had approached the crèche, where he had yet to place the religious statues and the animals. He had discovered what Father Heanue now beheld in the very place where the figure of the baby Jesus would be placed come Christmas.

“He was still in the ‘stable’,” the priest recalls of this living newborn. “He was healthy. He had good color. He was moving around a little bit.”

The infant had been swaddled in dark purple towels. He did not seem to be in any distress.

“Doing what I guess newborn babies do,” Heanue says. “They goo and gah and move their hands a little bit. He was just basically doing the normal things.”

Heanue and the others who gathered around this remarkable nativity scene sought to assure the child that he had been left in exactly the right place.

“We were just sort of kind of touching him and giving him reassurance,” Heanue says.

Heanue understood that he was seeing life in its first hours outside the womb. He was stunned and amazed and thrilled.

“It was quite a beautiful thing,” he recalls. “It was so precious… His innocence, his helplessness. So young and so tiny.”

Heanue saw that the umbilical cord was still attached.

“I had never seen an umbilical cord in real life,” he says.

The nurse from the school across the street was on her lunch break and came running. A parishioner who has children of her own was also there. They understood that the umbilical cord needed to be tied off.

“They both sprang into action,” Heanue says.

The towels in which the infant had been swaddled were wet, apparently from body fluids. Heanue dashed to the priests’ residence and returned with clean, dry towels, these blue.

A call had gone in to 911, and soon the fire department, the police department, and emergency medical services all responded. The firefighters, cops, and paramedics arrived knowing the nature of the call, but the members of the three agencies nonetheless found the sight as spellbindingly wondrous as the three kings must have at that other nativity long ago.

“They knew what they were responding to,” Heanue says. “But, when you see it, it is such a different surprise.”

Cops would later remark how glad they were that this was not a call like the one in the Bronx a few weeks before, when a woman had thrown her newborn out a window.

“They weren’t responding to one of those cases,” says Heanue, whose brother is a NYPD detective. “They were relieved how this story turned out.”

The infant was wrapped in insulating material such as that given to marathon runners. A paramedic was holding a warming lamp over the child as Heanue took a photo. The glow looks in the picture (above) like a light from on high.

“The North Star,” Heanue says.

Heanue accompanied the infant to the ambulance.

“I blessed him,” Heanue says.

Detectives set about tracking down the mother. They found a video of a woman going into the church with a baby swaddled in purple towels, taken minutes before the discovery. The footage matched an earlier video from a nearby discount store of a woman with a baby purchasing purple towels.

The detectives soon identified and spoke to the mother, who proved to be an 18-year-old, just arrived from Mexico five months before. She was living with an aunt who had been unaware of her pregnancy, and she had kept her secret by wearing loose-fitting clothes.

She had been the only one in the house when she went into labor and gave birth. She had been to Holy Child previously and remembered it as a warm and welcoming place, where the protective presence of the Almighty was manifest.

On the way to the church, she noticed the baby’s lips were getting blue, and she ducked into the discount store to buy the towels. She passed two other churches before she stepped into Holy Child.

The mother could not have known that the crèche was being set up even as she was giving birth. She could have only been amazed to see it in the transept, in front of the Blessed Virgin, next to a bank of votive candles and an American flag.

She set the baby down in the warmest and most sheltering part of the church, doubly sheltered by the crèche. She returned the next day to ensure that the child had been found. She now told detectives that a parishioner had recognized her and assured her that all was well.

Under New York state’s safe-haven law, a mother can leave a child less than 30 days old in a place such as a firehouse or a hospital or a church. The law requires that somebody be made aware of the child’s presence, but the mother insisted that she had not left her newborn unattended.

“I left him with God,” she told the detectives in Spanish.

Queens County District Attorney Richard Brown decided that the mother had acted within “the spirit” of the law. He chose not to prosecute.

Three days after the birth, Heanue, who serves as parish administrator, went with the pastor, Bishop Octavio Cisneros, to visit the baby at Jamaica Hospital. One of the medical staff assured them that the boy was as robustly healthy as he had appeared.

“We were able to pray for him,” Heanue says. “Just to see him. He was beautiful, absolutely beautiful.”

Heanue adds, “We had really formed a connection with him, you know, with this child.”

In the parish, there was much discussion about what the baby should be named. Some suggested Jose, after the custodian who found him. More thought Emanuel.

“Which means, ‘God is with us,’ which is appropriate for this child being a gift from God,” Heanue notes.

Heanue himself favors John.

“Short for John the Baptist,” Heanue explains. “He came before Jesus. He heralded His coming.”

On Christmas Eve, Heanue paused in the midst of the preparations for Midnight Mass to speak of the baby who had appeared so miraculously as this holy night neared. He recalled the sight of the living child in the manger as a reaffirmation of his faith and of his calling, which is to say of life itself.

“It reaffirmed for me the beauty of life, the gift of life that we all share, regardless of age, regardless of race or ethnicity or religion,” he said. “It continues to grow and mature to old age, and through it all, life never becomes less precious.”

He noted that he had not planned for the crèche to be set up until closer to Christmas. It was only because he had forgotten to tell the custodian to hold off that the manger scene was there when the mother came in with the baby. And the video shows that the baby had been alone only minutes before he was discovered.

“It is a beautiful Christmas story about how God’s providence works,” he said. “That God is present, as if we didn’t already know that; that God is working in the midst of all this.”

Dozens of people had expressed interest in adopting the boy, though he may yet be returned to his mother. Heanue would love to see this story-gone-viral inspire people to adopt others among the countless thousands of children who are available for adoption nationwide.

While the New Testament’s John the Baptist was born to his mother after she despaired of ever having children, Heanue hopes that this new John will inspire people to bring a child into their lives.

Heanue also hopes that this story will inspire other young mothers to seek help in the face of panic. He had told his parishioners that they should be proud that the mother of this child came to their church.

“This is something to rejoice in,” he said.

He reported that he feels a link with the mother as well as with the baby, though she remains anonymous.

“She could walk past me and say hello to me every day and I wouldn’t know who she was,” Heanue said.

He calls this “The beauty of her anonymity,” adding, “She’s safe in her anonymity.”

For all anyone knows, the mother was at Christmas Eve’s Midnight Mass when the figure of the baby Jesus was carried in procession to the manager, to join the other crèche figures and animals.

The figure of the Baby Jesus was placed in the crèche where the living baby had been left in a real-life tale that is likely being told in churches across the country, and even in other countries, this Christmas.

“It’s a good story,” Heanue said. “It’s just a happy story.”

How the Sultan of Brunei Stole Christmas

He kept his own harem and believes gays should be stoned to death. Now the hypocritical sultan has banned all manner of festive merriment.

Sultan of Brunei Grinch

By Nico Hines / TheDailyBeast.com

At least the Grinch had an excuse.

Dr. Seuss’s most hated character endured a miserable childhood that saw his love of Christmas cruelly snuffed out.

The sultan of Brunei suffered no such hardship.The “Playboy Prince” grew up in unparalleled luxury in a gilded palace that looms over the tiny kingdom of Brunei on the northern shores of Borneo in Southeast Asia.

Behind the palace gates, his lavish and lascivious lifestyle—think harem of international models—stands in sharp contrast to the strict religious control he has imposed upon his people.

Last year, he announced that Sharia (Islamic law) would be introduced in Brunei, transforming the lives of his subjects who now face being publicly flogged or stoned to death for breaching the strict moral code.

Drew Angerer/Getty
Drew Angerer/Getty

In response to his state-sanctioned murderous homophobia, the celebrity world mobilized to boycott his Dorchester Collection group of hotels.

The latest crackdown is on people “openly” enjoying Christmas. The penalties for crimes such as wearing a Santa’s hat in public stretch to five years in prison.

Last year, the Sultan’s Religious Enforcement Division raided businesses and demanded that Christmas trees be destroyed and store clerks take off their Santa costumes.

This year, the kingdom’s imams are concentrating on Muslims who might join the end-of-year celebrations.

“Prophet Muhammad said, ‘Whoever imitates a people is one of them,’” they said, according to the Borneo Bulletin.

In other words, any Muslim who so much as jingles a bell automatically becomes a kafir, or “unbeliever.”

And if there’s one thing Sultan Hassanal Bolkiahhat understands, it’s the power of temptation—so he has also banned non-Muslims from celebrating in public. Speaking during a sermon at Friday prayers, an imam explained that the ban included lighting candles, putting up Christmas trees, singing carols, putting up decorations, or “creating sounds and doing anything that amounts to respecting their religion.”

“Some may think that it is a frivolous matter and should not be brought up as an issue. But as Muslims and as a Zikir Nation, we must keep it away as it could affect our Islamic faith,” he said.

The main thrust of the intervention appears to concern not just Christmas, but partying in the name of anything other than Allah.

“When celebrating such festivities, there certainly exist beliefs and practices that are against the teachings of Islam,” the imam explained. “Be careful not to follow such celebrations that are totally not related to Islam.”

What, like massive sex parties? The sultan and his brother Prince Jefri were described as “constant companions in hedonism” in a 2011 Vanity Fair profile.

They famously keep a harem of beautiful women from all over the world at their beck and call in their palaces, aboard their fleet of private jets, or invited inside what is thought to be the world’s most expensive collection of supercars.

Jefri, who is said to have blown billions on gifts and parties, once owned a 150-foot yacht called Tits.

Among his collection of unusual art was a set of — generously sculpted — statues showing Jefri and his fiancée in flagrante delicto.

These are the most powerful men in a country where the punishment for other people committing adultery is stoning to death; alcohol consumption is a flogging offence; and there’s capital punishment for rape and sodomy.

One member of the harem told The Daily Beast last year that the sultan was also prone to straying from his three wives.

“I am no expert in international human rights,” wrote Jillian Lauren. “My only qualification in commenting on this issue is that one drunken evening in the early ’90s, the sultan and I committed at least two of the aforementioned offenses as we looked down on the lights of Kuala Lumpur from a penthouse suite.”

“Theory states that Allah’s law is cruel and unfair,” said the sultan when he introduced Sharia. “But Allah himself has said that his law is indeed fair.”

The latest crackdown comes as Christmas-lovers all over the Middle East take to Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook to proclaim their freedom to erect Christmas trees in their homes against the wishes of hardline clerics.

Many of those featured on the My Treedom Facebook page come from Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Syria, where Christmas parties are wisely kept below the radar.

Lisa Daftari, who edits the Foreign Desk website, has even had a submission from Brunei, where a secret party was held in a restaurant that boasted a wreath, a couple of Santa hats, and a magnificent, star-topped Christmas tree.

Hanukkah: Modi’in struggles to preserve its Hasmonean roots

Hanukkah 2015 begins at sunset on Sunday, December 6 and ends at sunset on Monday, December 14

By Judy Lash Balint / JNS.org

Modi’in is a town mentioned in the Mishnah that was home to the Maccabees of Hanukkah fame, and where the oldest synagogue in Israel was discovered, but it is also the Jewish state’s largest planned community and bills itself as “The City of the Future.”

Reconciling those two images of Modi’in is at the heart of a struggle that is playing itself out on the local, national, and international level, as archaeologists and preservationists try to raise awareness of Modi’in’s rich Hanukkah-related history and preserve ancient sites, while most city and government officials prefer to focus resources on development of services for today’s residents.

A view of Modi’in. Credit: Ilana Shkolnik
A view of Modi’in. Credit: Ilana Shkolnik

In 1993, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin laid the cornerstone for Modi’in on a rocky hillside in the center of the country on an ancient crossroads between the coastal ports and the hills of Judea and Samaria.

The idea was to develop a large city in the center of the country—equidistant from Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, to spread the population and take advantage of the limited amount of land available for development. Today, Modi’in is a diverse and successful city of more than 85,000 people, spread over 10 neighborhoods built on wadis and hilltops. The city features an extensive park system and a high level of cultural, commercial, and sports facilities.

Amongst the first people to arrive in modern-day Modi’in in 1996 was Marion Stone, an immigrant from the U.K. who had been living in the Galilee development town of Carmiel since 1979. “I moved in two days before Hanukkah,” recalls Stone. She was appalled to learn that bulldozers were then already working on the Titora Hill, where evidence of First Temple-era settlement was found along with a complex of cisterns, mikvaot (ritual baths), tunnels, and dovecotes. Some experts believe the area may have been used as a hideout during the Bar Kochba revolt.

In Modi’in, remains of the Umm el-Umdan (Mother of Pillars in Arabic) synagogue, which was built in the Hasmonean period. The structure, located near the Buchman neighborhood on the Modi’in-Latrun road, closely resembles other renowned Second Temple-period synagogues, such as those at Masada, Herodium, and Gamla, that have all become major tourism sites. Credit: Bukvoed
In Modi’in, remains of the Umm el-Umdan (Mother of Pillars in Arabic) synagogue, which was built in the Hasmonean period. The structure, located near the Buchman neighborhood on the Modi’in-Latrun road, closely resembles other renowned Second Temple-period synagogues, such as those at Masada, Herodium, and Gamla, that have all become major tourism sites. Credit: Bukvoed

Stone immediately joined the Society for Preservation of Sites and Landscape in Modi’in that undertook legal action to prevent destruction of the hill. The society’s efforts were only partially successful, as ultimately part of Modi’in was built on portions of the Titora, covering many of the ancient artifacts. Finally, in spring 2013, a court ruling ordered developers to find an alternative site for construction of an additional 750 apartments.

Stone and Leiah Elbaum—another early resident of Modi’in, who has a background in Land of Israel studies and has conducted extensive research into her hometown—agree that elected officials in Modi’in have neglected to capitalize on the rich Maccabean heritage of the area.

Elbaum and Stone cite Titora, as well as the extraordinary find of the remains of the Umm el-Umdan (Mother of Pillars in Arabic) synagogue built in the Hasmonean period, which boasts a roof supported by eight pillars that was constructed in the time of Herod. The structure, located near the Buchman neighborhood on the Modi’in-Latrun road, closely resembles other renowned Second Temple-period synagogues, such as those at Masada, Herodium, and Gamla, that have all become major tourism sites.

“There’s never been a proper archaeological survey done of this area,” Elbaum asserts. “We have places here that could raise the profile of Modi’in and enhance the connection of the people to the land, but it’s not a priority for local officials,” she says.

“Part of what attracted me to live here was the idea of building a new Jewish community where an ancient one had existed so many years ago,” she adds, noting with disappointment that no neighborhood or school in Modi’in is named after an important Hasmonean-era figure.

Stone says one of her most profound experiences took place at the Umm el-Umdan synagogue during Hanukkah in 2002, shortly after it was discovered. Students from the nearby Nitzanim School held a torchlight march to the synagogue and lit a Hanukkah menorah (hanukkiah) there. “It was momentous,” Stone remembers. “I was in tears. There was singing and speeches. It was the day after the terror attack against Israelis in Mombassa.”

The hanukkiah-lighting ceremony at the ancient synagogue went on for a number of years after that, until the event grew too large and there was concern over damage to the site. In recent years, nearby residents have been marking Shabbat Hanukkah by coming to pray at Umm el-Umdan.

Modi’in resident Howie Mischel wrote of the impact of last year’s Hanukkah’s gathering: “The men stood in the central part of the site, in a rectangular area that was probably the main floor of the beit knesset. In front of me was a small indentation in the stone framework surrounding the floor, perfectly positioned to accommodate an ark to hold Torah scrolls. As I looked past it, I realized that it was perfectly oriented on this hill to face Jerusalem.

“It was not lost on any of us that this site has remained unmarked, undeveloped and virtually ignored by both municipal officials and our national government. How could we have been standing on this incredibly meaningful site, in the town where the Maccabees’ efforts assured Jewish continuity, and be in the dark? How could this archaeological site be so ignored and treated almost as a nuisance by the municipal government, without— aside from the weeds being plucked—a shekel having been invested in site preservation?”

According to a spokesman for the prime minister’s office, the Umm el-Umdan compound was approved for inclusion in the prime minister’s Cultural Heritage Program that designates funding for heritage sites across the country. With a projected total budget of 2.1 million shekels, half from the government and half to be raised from outside sources, the spokesman told JNS.org that renovation of the pathways has been completed; preservation of the synagogue itself, the residential quarters of the Hasmonean village, and artifacts is almost finished, and restoration of the synagogue interior is underway. A protective pergola will be put in place, and the final phase is to include an on-site visitor center.

Alex Weinreb, 55, was one of those who stood in front of the tractors at Umm el-Umdan during Hanukkah 2001 to prevent the destruction of the synagogue. His concern led him to run for office, and the New York native subsequently served as deputy mayor of Modi’in between 2003-2010.

Weinreb, who has an advanced degree in archaeology, has long been in the forefront of efforts to put Modi’in’s history on the map. One initiative he pushed through is the annual Hanukkah and Modi’in Heritage Conference, which brings together scholars, archaeologists, and community members to study aspects of the area’s history. Weinreb also initiated the approach to the prime minister’s Cultural Heritage Program.

In 2010, Weinreb and a team of architects, designers, and museum specialists put together a sophisticated proposal to create a Hasmonean Educational and Tourist Visitors Center for the promotion of the Maccabean heritage in Modi’in on the site of the synagogue dating to the Maccabee period.

Meanwhile, some local families mark Hanukkah by taking an outing to the “Maccabean Graves” just outside Modi’in. They take the kids and a hanukkiah; set up camp on the rocks surrounding the caves in the national park; light the hanukkiah; sing the traditional Hanukkah songs; and even take a Primus stove and fry up latkes.

Despite the official sign at the entrance to the Maccabean graves, contemporary archaeologists believe the site just outside Modi’in is of Byzantine origin. The true location of the grave of the Maccabees continues to be the subject of speculation, and, like many other parts of history in Modi’in, awaits funds for methodical research.