Sunday, January 31, 2010

Fly El Al — they know what Tefillin is

In one particular subset of American society, people were recently abuzz with the news story about how a plane was diverted from its NYC-Louiville flight plan, on account of a Jewish teenager taking out his tefillin (phylacteries) on the flight and praying.

It probably won't happen again for awhile at this point. But one can never be too sure...

תודה לדבורה על התמונה

Eretz Nehederet, Israeli "SNL," on the Israeli efforts in Haiti

Above you will find an amusing skit from the weekly Israeli television satire, Eretz Nehederet. From what I understand, the Israeli government's and army's efforts in Haiti have made front page news in the States. It certainly did here, too.

The skit is hilarious. Certainly gives Jon Stewart, Larry Wilmore and Aasif Mandvi  a run for their money in terms of champions of sardonic wit.

Among the stories about Israel's involvement in Haiti, on both sides of the ocean, some have criticized Israel's aid (in the most extreme manifestations) as a media ploy. The argument goes: there are countless human rights problems in Gaza — drive 50 km, and don't cross an ocean to save children dying under destruction.  (see here for a series of examples).

Under Rabbi Brant Rosen's personal blog post, and also the cross-listing on Jewschool, reads:

If it comes from Israel, is it still “Israel bashing?”

This cynicism is caustic. I will not go as far to say it's dangerous. But it lacks subtlety and shows a certain discomfort with one's arguments.

It's a satire, folks. An amusing, hilarious political commentary.

I say this with a dose of frustration and anger because it seems to me to be the height of absurdity to criticize Israel, its military, its government, in any way for going to Haiti and setting up hospitals for one of the great natural disasters in my lifetime. It is the height of irony to be so harmfully cynical about Israel's motives for saving lives in Haiti.  Objectively, the Israeli army was the first to arrive.

Moreover, such a claim on the above blog uses precisely the same tools of political gain that the individual is accusing Israel for in the first place. (Translation: to accuse Israel of manipulating its political and moral image in the world because of its action in Israel = using said "manipulation" for political gains to push Israel down and hence elevate the suffering of Gazans).

Let us all elevate the level of discourse in this entire process. Cynicism acts as the foil to hope.

Rabbi Heschel articulates this agenda throughout God in Search of Man, manifested here as an example:

The dreadful confusion, the fact that there is nothing in this world that is not a mixture of good and evil, of holy and unholy, of silver and dross, is, according to Jewish mysticism, the central problem of history and the ultimate issue of redemption. The confusion goes back to the very process of creation (371).

One can and should criticize Israel in various ways, politically, religiously, for some of its moral choices. Because it takes way to long to do something as simple as paying the electricity bill.

But don't go looking to do so. It's ugly.  And it undermines the fundamental arguments, often important ones in their own right, that you are trying to make.

Israel's actions can and should be celebrated. In this case. And in countless others, as well.

We can hold tensions in balance. And when we lose this capacity, we destroy ourselves with the dangers of polarities.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Milat HaYom — Spanish edition

My friend Maksi from Argentina just expressed to me that he needed to get out of Israel over break, perhaps to go to Europe, to "freeze his brains."

It's a new expression which I'm going to translate directly in the future, as well. We'll see if it catches on. Help make it happen.

Necesito /enfriar / un poco/ la cabeza
I need  / to freeze/ a little/ my brains

I need to freeze my brains, I need to relax, I need to get out and get some air.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Obamas — Spokespeople for Israeli Cable TV

An amusing TV ad for the Israeli YES television network. It is unclear to me how the jokes go over on Israelis, but I certainly got a few laughs out of this.

Milot HaYom

We happened across a hapax legomenon in my Bible class today today (a word that appears only once in the course of the Bible).

It turns out that said word made its way into modern Hebrew. Quite a journey, no?

תרגלתי, tirgalti, from Hosea 11:3:

א) כִּי נַעַר יִשְׂרָאֵל וָאֹהֲבֵהוּ וּמִמִּצְרַיִם קָרָאתִי לִבְנִי
ב) קָרְאוּ לָהֶם כֵּן הָלְכוּ מִפְּנֵיהֶם לַבְּעָלִים יְזַבֵּחוּ וְלַפְּסִלִים יְקַטֵּרוּן
ג) וְאָנֹכִי תִרְגַּלְתִּי לְאֶפְרַיִם קָחָם עַל זְרוֹעֹתָיו וְלֹא יָדְעוּ כִּי רְפָאתִים

The New JPS translation suggests this word is "pamper," the 1917 version "taught." The more recent translation takes a more liberal interpretation of teaching, of God taking the people Israel in God's arms and instructing them. In either case, the verse stresses the parent instructing a child.

Here is the translation of New JPS for verse 3:
3. I have pampered Ephraim, Taking them in My arms; But they have ignored My healing care.

And I, I taught Ephraim to walk, taking them by their arms; but they knew not that I healed them.

Meanwhile the modern definition:

תרגל, tirgel (בניין פיעלֹ, piel verb construction): to train (someone)

And a fun phrase from class, as well.

אין לי ידיים כפולות, ain li yadayim k'fulot: literally, "I don't have hands which are doubled," ie. I can only do one thing at a time. I have one set of hands

Monday, January 25, 2010

Artistic expression of Biblical themes — a helpful website

Check out this website which organizes art from various Biblical stories. Want a collection of many of the artistic representations of the Akedah (Binding of Isaac)? You can find that here.

And while we're on the subject, an amusing New Yorker cartoon.

The text: "Quit worrying about corroborating your sources — it's not as if anyone's going to take all this literally"

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Forward's Jewish education section

For those interested, the Forward published its Jewish education section this week. Several articles of note.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Milat HaYom — when Israeli concerts sell out

The Yellow Submarine is a standing room only venue in Jerusalem. They were really going to turn away concert goers?

Apparently so. Next time I pay the 15 shekel internet fee and don't take my chances.

Tonight's HaDag Nahash concert: Sold out.

מילת היוֹם: אזלו הכרטיסים
Milat HaYom: Azlu HaKartisim.

אזלו גכרטיסים, azlu hakartisim: tickets are sold out

Azlu, originally from the Aramaic "to go." Ie. the tickets have gone.

That's your etymology lesson for the day.

(תודה לגיא על התיקון)

A return to "mind control": Comfort with self as the fulfillment of "Do not covet"

On Monday, I delivered a d’var torah at school echoing many of the themes I have written about on this blog with regard to commandments which mandate one to control her thoughts, particularly the example of the 10th commandment of the big ten, Do not Covet (lo tahmod).

Later this week, Ari and I skyped into the “Community Time” session at JTS, when the rabbinical school met together for lunch to hear the JTS chancellor address the school. Using the address that he gave at last year’s Rabbinical Assembly (the Conservative rabbinical union) as a jumping off point, he spoke about the morning prayer experience.

He writes:

We sometimes pay too little attention to what makes prayer work for us when it does work. Many in this room, for example, journey through the tefillah each day or each week and meet old familiar friends along the way. I myself look forward to the vision of the angels, ahuvim, berurim, gibborim (beloved, flawless, mighty): a description of how I would like myself and my congregation to stand before God…

The modern world, as Max Weber famously put it, is disenchanted. If we cannot believe in the angels, even as metaphor, it is hard to resonate to my ahuvim, brurim, and gibborim angels, or to those whom we imitate when we sanctify God in this world and proclaim it “holy, holy, holy,” and full of “God’s glory.”

Take the time to read the rest of the text here. It’s well worth it.

This image, of become angelic, is a continual quest, perhaps an impossible one, an ideal well worth striving toward.

Chancellor Eisen put this in the terms of our commandment in question, lo tahmod, do not covet. The only way to fulfill this commandment, not to covet the other, is to be satisfied with one’s portion in life. One can only "not covet" if he fulfills Ben Zoma’s dictum from Pirkei Avot: “Eizehu ashir, hasameach b’helko” (“Who is happy? He who is happy with his portion”) (Avot 4:1).

Is it possible to control one’s mind? To ensure that one does not think about particular topics?

Jury’s still out on that one. But I can certainly endorse reading the morning Shacharit service as a continual quest to be comfortable in my own skin.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

My father, the television star

My dad will be one of the narrators for a PBS special on world art, entitled Art through time: A global view. It will be aired in April. It's now up on the interweb. I shout again from rooftops: the internet is incredible.

If you're looking for him in particular, look under the sections of Death, Cosmology, The Natural World, Dreams and Visions and History and Memory.

While we are on family accomplishments, as most of you know, my uncle's factory makes the neck pillows you know and love, as well as fleece blankets. Collect them all!

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Want to laugh?

Of course you do.

Here are two hilarious videos, both courtesy of the "Peaceful lion."

Firstly, a happy birthday card.

And below is self-explanatory.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

A new street in Jerusalem, perpendicular to Emek Refaim.

Yesterday was Martin Luther King Day in America, a day to honor a modern prophet, a hero in American history and in the history of Civil Rights, writ large.

Below are comments by two professors at JTS, upon hearing of Dr. King's assassination. Eulogies only tell part of the story of a person's life. These are no exception.

Take a few minutes to read the words about King of these two scholars and leaders of American Jewry, the effect he had on all Americans.

Full text of Seymour Siegel's comments here, the full text from Louis Finkelstein here.

Seriously, click on them. They are the original documents from which the scholars read.

Below are some excerpts from the texts:

It is the loss of this hope which has brought dismay to so many in other lands, as they look over our country today, regarding its spiritual prospects as bleak. America has amassed great power — greater than any State in history. But in the process it has lost the spiritual vigor and leadership which it possessed in the days of its founding fathers. Dr. Martin Luther King was its opportunity to regain this leadership, as the moral guide to the World; precisely the same opportunity which Abraham Lincoln offered in his day.

Is it not strange that both of these spiritual heroes of America, whose moral greatness transcended all differences of color, ethnic background, creed and nationality should have been cut down before their time, through an assassin’s bullet.

“When a Sage is lost,” asks the Talmud, “where can we find his replacement?” Each of the many tasks of Martin Luther King, Jr., will be assumed by others. But who can combine in himself all the moral authority, all the spiritual promise, all the wisdom, all the greatness, who had become concentrated in him, even before he had reached his fortieth year. America does well to mourn its great loss; the world joins it in this sense of bereavement.

- R. Louis Finkelstein

Anyone’s death is a tragedy. The death of a man like Doctor Martin Luther King is a catastrophe. He has gone up to heaven in a chariot of fire in the midst of a storm. We can best honor him by converting the storm into a cleansing rain which brings new life and reconciliation. There should now roll across this land an irresistible wave of readiness and determination to men the wrongs we have done, a dedication to justice, generosity and boldness of spirit. Doctor King dared to dream the dream that this might take place. But, as he so prophetically said just a few days ago. He had only seen the promised land from afar from the top of the mountain. Perhaps with God’s help, his sacrifice will break the hardness of heart with which we are afflicted so that his people will finally inherit the land of promise. Is there any greater tribute, is there any greater meaning than that his death should bring us all closer to life. The light has been extinguished, the voice has been stilled, but the memory is here among us. When — because of it — we draw the strength and gain the wisdom to do what is right then indeed — as the Bible assures us — the memory of the righteous will be for a blessing.

-R. Seymour Siegel

Monday, January 18, 2010

Hurrah to the Red and the Blue

The Penn Jewish Studies Department has been in the news recently. I'm a big fan of said department. So here are two articles for you.

Firstly, the NYT recently reported Chaim Potok's papers will be stored along Locust Walk.

Additionally, there was recently a give-and-take in the Penn Current with my college mentor and chair of the Jewish Studies Department, Beth Wenger. Find out about the department, and general information about Jewish studies on university campuses here:

A rich and storied history

Beth Wenger, director of the Jewish Studies Program
Photo credit: Candace diCarlo

Beth S. Wenger, director of the Jewish Studies Program, calls her entry into the field an “evolution.”

She was a history major throughout college and found herself gravitating towards the study of Jewish history. If assigned a research paper, she would often write about a Jewish topic. Her interest piqued over the years, Jewish history became her passion and remains so today.

Before receiving her Ph.D. from Yale, Wenger received a master’s degree in American history from Columbia and a second master’s in Jewish history from the Jewish Theological Seminary. Both schools are in New York City, and Wenger attended them simultaneously. She says she enjoyed “walking up the street from one institution to the other, being immersed in Jewish history in one place and in American history in the other.”

Wenger finds most fascinating the era of history during which Jews have had an array of choices about whether, and how, to be Jewish. “The modern period is characterized by the emergence of choice, and nowhere more dramatically than in the United States,” she says. “The openness of American society has produced, in my opinion, the most unique, innovative and diverse culture that Jews have ever known.”

Also an associate professor of history, Wenger is a nationally recognized expert on Jews in the United States. She is the author of “The Jewish Americans: Three Centuries of Jewish Voices in America,” a companion volume to the PBS documentary series of the same name, on which Wenger served as a historical consultant.

At Penn, the Jewish Studies Program encompasses the diverse dimensions of the Jewish experience, reaching from Moses to modern day. “We go from the Bible and ancient Jewish cultures, to medieval history, to modern Europe, and to Israeli and American culture,” Wenger says.

The Current recently sat down with Wenger to discuss the field of Jewish studies, how the Holocaust became the Holocaust, black-Jewish relations and the prospects for Middle East peace.

Q. Jews have been on Earth for more than 5,000 years. How do you break down such a rich and storied history into four years or eight semesters?
Well, you can’t fully cover more than 5,000 years of Jewish history in four years of college. But our major in Jewish studies provides both chronological and disciplinary breadth so that students graduate with a strong grounding in the diverse expressions of Jewish culture in different times and places. Students who major in Jewish studies always study Jewish history in different periods—ancient, medieval and modern—and they take courses in Jewish literature from all those periods. When I say literature, I’m speaking broadly. In other words, we teach Bible and Talmud as Jewish literature, alongside medieval Hebrew poetry, modern Hebrew literature and American Jewish literature. Our students also have the chance to study Jewish culture in all its varieties—from Jewish mysticism to Jewish humor, from Jewish thought to Jewish languages to Jewish films. So while Jewish studies majors won’t know ‘everything’ from the Biblical period to the present, they will have broad exposure to Jewish history, literature, language, religion and culture.

Q. Is it possible to teach about the Jewish people and religion separately or are the religion and people so intertwined that they cannot be separated?
Particularly in the modern period, the Jewish experience is characterized by strong secular movements such as Zionism, socialism and many other cultural expressions. But, that being said, even secular Jewish culture exists in a dialectical relationship with religious culture … they are part of an organic whole. Still, while I don’t think you can ever completely excise the religious aspects of Jewish culture, it is important to recognize that Jewish politics and culture cannot be confined solely to the realm of religion. At the same time, even the most ardently secular modern Jewish writers and political figures filled their rhetoric with Biblical references and religious allusions, so that the religious and the secular remain intertwined.

Q. Is it any easier, or is there any difference in teaching Jewish studies at a university where roughly 25 percent of the students are Jewish?
There’s clearly some difference in the sense that there are many students who come from Jewish backgrounds and have some knowledge about Jewish history and culture. But it wouldn’t be fair to say that it completely alters the classroom experience, at least not in the sorts of subjects that I teach. You might have a student who graduated from a Jewish day school, but he or she may never have encountered the kinds of subjects we teach at Penn or the way we approach those subjects. For example, I often teach courses in Holocaust memory and American Jewish history, and these subjects are rarely taught in Jewish schools. So students who graduate from Jewish high schools do not necessarily have a greater advantage. My colleagues who teach in other areas would probably argue with me somewhat, since, for example, students who can read Hebrew have the opportunity to take courses in the original language. In my case, there are many terms from other languages that must be defined, but I always define them for everyone in the class. I would imagine the same is true for my colleagues who teach Chinese history. Almost every semester, somebody will come up to me and say, ‘I’m Jewish but I really don’t have much background’ or ‘I’m not Jewish and don’t know anything about Jewish history. Will I be comfortable here?’ They’re nervous about it, but if they take the class, they usually become much more than comfortable; they bring unique perspectives to the class. The bottom line is that because this is a university, we expect to have students from a variety of backgrounds, religions and nationalities in our classes, and that’s as it should be.

Q. What kind of information do you discuss in your class ‘Rereading the Holocaust?’ How was it codified into a distinct episode in history?
On the first day of class, I tell students that this course is about how the Holocaust became the Holocaust. In 1945, immediately after the war, the term ‘Holocaust’ had not yet been associated with the Nazis’ attempt to exterminate the Jews. Like any other event in history, the Holocaust became understood as a discreet historical event only as it was narrated, written about and interpreted. So while today most people have a basic understanding of what the term ‘Holocaust’ means, this wasn’t the case in the beginning.
In this course, we begin immediately after the war, at a time when those Jews who had survived were living in displaced-persons camps. We read memorial books, the first responses to the Holocaust, written in Yiddish by survivors. We read them in translation. We then proceed chronologically—from the Nuremberg Trials, to key and unexpectedly complicated texts such as ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ and Elie Wiesel’s ‘Night,’ to the trial of Adolf Eichmann, all the way through contemporary Holocaust monuments, to the creation of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, [D.C.], to present day reflections on Holocaust memory. We also focus on the ways that the Holocaust has been understood differently in various national contexts, because the Holocaust means something different in Germany, in Poland and in Israel, than it does in the United States. Students get a sense of the ways that the Holocaust has taken shape over the relatively brief period since 1945. This is a seminar so there’s a lot of discussion and debate because we treat Holocaust memory as a complex issue, not given to simple explanations.

Q. The PBS documentary ‘The Jewish Americans’ touched on the breakdown in black-Jewish relations over the past half-century. What do you think are the causes of the downslide and can the relationship be restored?
Newer scholarship has actually pointed to the fact that the black-Jewish alliance was always more tenuous than it has been portrayed. There was a mutual interest and concern, but this so-called alliance may have been more precarious from the outset, which helps to understand the so-called breakdown as something not quite so unexpected.
The fact is that Jews passionately fought for civil rights in the United States. Jews gained opportunity in this country because of the expansion of rights and the gradual diminution of discrimination. They fought against a host of legal barriers—job discriminations that allowed employers to advertise positions for ‘Whites Only’ and ‘Gentiles Only,’ and housing discrimination, and educational quotas that frankly excluded both Jews and blacks. But the barriers for Jews fell much more quickly than for African Americans, as Jews gradually became defined as ‘Caucasian’ and found a greater degree of acceptance.
Jews were involved in the founding of the NAACP and displayed a serious, passionate, dedicated commitment to fighting for civil rights. Jews championed the universal goal of equal rights, but they may have been naïve in not recognizing the pervasive power of race in American society. I think that Jews genuinely believed that the doors that they knocked down for themselves could be knocked down for blacks in this country. But we know that racism is the original sin of this nation and racial equality proved to be far more difficult to achieve. It was, in fact, not the same battle that Jews had fought for their own rights. Still, it is worth noting that Jews were indeed disproportionately represented in the Civil Rights Movement. There is a reason why so many young Jews took part in the Freedom Summer and marched at Selma [Ala.]. All those Jewish organizations that committed their energies to the struggle did so largely because they believed that the campaign for civil rights was a Jewish issue.
Also, it’s important to recognize what was happening within the African-American community. As the Civil Rights Movement gained momentum, more and more African Americans wanted to direct their movement by themselves, and not with whites—in the case of the Black Power Movement in particular, but even in other strands of the movement. That sentiment likely weakened the so-called black-Jewish alliance. At the same time, events in Israel also played a role because as the Palestinian-Israeli conflict became more contentious, issues abroad also factored into domestic relationships between blacks and Jews. This is a very complicated story with more than one simple explanation.

Q. In an ideal world, how would you like to see the Israeli-Palestinian issue resolved? Do you think it is resolvable?
I like to think that every problem has some solution and believe that we can find one here. I hope so. Admittedly, the current prospects seem bleaker today than they did a few years ago. When I teach about the creation of Israel in my survey of modern Jewish history, I always include those who advocated a bi-national state. When the state was being founded, some prominent Jewish leaders argued for bi-nationalism, but the idea never gained widespread support. Still, at the moment of Israel’s creation, there were some Zionists who actually advocated not a two-state solution but a single, bi-national state. I always look at that as one example of a road not taken. My own belief is that [a bi-national state], at this moment in history, could not work. I do think a two-state solution could succeed if committed leaders on both sides of the conflict would be willing to work for a lasting peace. That’s my hope.

Q. Do you have any outside hobbies that are non-academic?
I spent much of my high school and college years playing guitar with friends, though musical pursuits have taken a back seat to other things these days. My students are often surprised to learn that I am an avid sports fan and can speak almost as knowledgeably about sports as I can about Jewish history.

Milot HaYom — Balderdash edition

More words that you don't know. And neither do your Israeli friends.


הומוס, hoomoos: black earth/dirt, organic material produced by worms
עמוץ, imutz: closing of one's eyes, squinting
היפוף, hipuf: pagination
אונה, avana: an elevated parking lot

Sunday, January 17, 2010


My friend Sarah recently got published on the Forward's blog for an article about the hit Israeli show S'rugim, a romantic comedy/drama about religious singles in Jerusalem. Well done Sarah.

Many of those who read this blog watch the show. I know that. Read the article.

The Women of Israel's Hit Show 'Srugim'

By Sarah Breger

“Srugim,” the hit television series tracing the love lives of modern Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem, returned this past Sunday to the Israeli cable channel YES! The series — its name is derived from the knit yarmulkes favored by the dati le’umi or religious nationalist boys and men in Israel — has surprised even its creators by its immense popularity among secular Israelis. In the U.S., “Srugim” has developed a cult-like following among the modern Orthodox, who can equate life in the Jerusalem neighborhood Katamon (nicknamed “the bitzah” or the swamp) to life in the similarly religiously and romantically fraught Upper West Side of Manhattan.

Accurate portrayals of Orthodox Jews in American films or on television are hard to come by. Good female characters are especially rare, usually appearing onscreen as either oppressed or unnaturally saintly (see “A Price Above Rubies,” “A Stranger Among Us”.)

But in “Srugim” (written and directed by Laizy Shapira, himself an observant Jew) comes with complex female characters who have commitment issues, religious struggles, and romantic baggage (a lot of romantic baggage). Modern Orthodox young, single professionals can finally see themselves on onscreen. Although created by a man, the show is especially good at portraying the female characters’ complicated relationships with their tradition.

In the first episode of the series, Reut, the high-powered accountant, is seen both dumping a suitor who is uncomfortable with her salary and reciting Friday night Kiddush to the amazement of the men at the Shabbat table. While openly feminist, Reut is constantly being drawn to what she sees as a more normative Orthodox lifestyle. When she pretends to be married to another character in order to help him keep his job, she outwardly mocks her “fake homemaker” identity but inwardly is wistful.

Reut drives a motorcycle but won’t buy a new bed because she fears it would be a sign of her spinsterhood. She learns to lein Torah, but in the process falls for her more right-wing teacher — a Mercaz HaRav Kook yeshiva student whose less complicated relationship to religion has its own appeals. Reut’s fight against the traditional gender roles of Orthodox Judaism is noble, but there also seems to be a nagging thought in the back of her mind that if she only had a less competitive job and a simpler faith she would be married by now. Her angst and confusion about her identity and fear of commitment to one lifestyle lead her to run away to India at the end of the first season.

The character Hodaya goes through the most drastic change over the course of season one. After becoming romantically involved with Avri, a secular Israeli, she keeps her religious identity a secret. When he asks to take her to a movie on Friday night, she says she has other plans, and when he cooks her a meal mixing milk and meat, she pretends to be too ill to eat. One of the most moving scenes last season was Hodaya visiting the mikveh in order to have sex with Avri for the first time. We see her sitting naked and crying on the mikveh floor and it is obvious that for her — and, perhaps, for the show itself — “sex” is somehow a dividing line between being religious and being secular.

Her roommate, Yifat is the most religiously conservative of the three and also the one most focused on her dating life. Madly in love with Nati, a cocky surgeon (to quote a friend, “the Chuck Bass of Jerusalem”), she spends most of the time moping and pining. Nati and Yifat briefly get together and he spends the night, but sans sex. Originally titled “Sex and the Holy City” there is in fact, very little sex in the show, with the big payoff to a season of romantic tension being a mere hug. Nati can’t commit and Yifat is heartbroken. but eventually “finds herself” and then finds Amir, Nati’s best friend and roommate, whom she is all set to marry at the beginning of eason two.

In the first episode of the new season Yifat is about to get married to Nati’s best friend; Hodaya is grappling with her new identity as a DatLashit (a former religious Zionist woman), and Reut has vanished — presumably, she’s off practicing yoga in India.

And while it might seem that these struggles would appeal only to other Modern Orthodox Jews, “Srugim” actually crosses the denominational divide. When I went to a screening of the first three episodes at the Washington Jewish Film Festival last month, I was surprised to see Jews from across the religious spectrum enjoying the dramedy — even if some of the idiosyncracies might be comprehensible only to some.

Yes, the travails of singlehood are universal, and the show offers just as much relationship angst as “Grey’s Anatomy” or “Sex and the City.” But the show also does a depicts the ways faith and tradition can be wrapped up in the dating process, and vice-versa.

Milot HaYom — Homonym edition

Over Chanukah, Nomi hosted a party featuring a game of Hebrew Balderdash. Words we all know, or do we...

Change one letter in the spelling and confusion reigns. For any and all nationalities in attendance.

It was an entertaining evening.

So here they come. First batch. Balderdash.

צהיר, tzahir: clear

פתיכה, peticha: a combination of different colors

יקם, yekem: a vessel which they used in ancient bath houses, such as a bucket

טאוט, teyut: sweeping

Milat HaYom

הסתפרתי, histaparti: I got my hair cut

One word in Hebrew, five in English. CRAZINESS

This is not a revelatory milat hayom. If you have studied Hebrew for a year, maybe a bit more, you know this word. But I just got my hair cut. It's on my mind.

During the summer between fourth and fifth grade, I had a Hebrew tutor and asked her how to say "I got my hair cut" for the requisite composition (חיבור) I would write about the previous week.

She said histaparti. I was blown away.

It still gets me every time.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Haiti Relief

For those looking for a place to donate for aid relief of all kinds in Haiti, please consider donating to the American Jewish World Service, who supports grassroots NGOs on the ground.

Haiti already was caught in a geopolitical and economic whirlwind of chaos. The natural disaster pushes it down further. The people of the world need our help.

The democracy of information

At the conferences for the Schusterman Rabbinical Fellowship, of which I am fortunate to be a part, we've talked a fair amount about the democracy of information in the current world. Anything and everything is available on the internet, and often presented cogently if you take 15 seconds to look instead of the usual 5.

ֵBecause of the internet, you can quickly know about any subject on the face of the Earth. Just a few keystrokes away.

While on a quick pass through Philly, my dad showed me this 16th c. Dutch etching/painting with three sets of Hebrew quotes written on banners (he showed me the blown-up version of the people in the lower right-hand corner). He was hoping to put the exact text in a footnote. I quickly identified them as Psalms because of their wording. One of them was easily identifiable as the beginning of Hallel HaGadol, Psalm 136, sung at the Seder to a panoply of tunes, as well as during pesukei d'zimrah. Also could have been a series of other Psalms that begin with the opening words of Psalm 136, "Hodu Lashem Ki Tov."

That they were Psalms, and one was one of the most identifiable in the 150-Psalm corpus, I knew. But identifying specific verses, using only one or two words at a time?

But I told him, not to fear, I can just type a few words into google and he'd have an answer. And sure enough, he did. Psalm 111:4-5 and Psalms 4:8-9 if you're keeping track at home.

I know, I know. I could have looked in a concordance. This was all available way before the internet. But this was so easy. So convenient. This smacks of new.

After all of this, I read through the article from the Oberlin Museum, coincidentally written by one of our closest family friends. He had also included the texts in the footnotes. And it turns out we agreed. Well done Donald.

Score another one for digital media.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Yahrzeit of R. Abraham Joshua Heschel

I did not get the chance to comment on 18 Tevet (last week), the yahrzeit of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. I will do a fuller post of words at a later time. For now, hear him in his own voice, in the 1972 Eternal Light interview with Carl Stern.

The full show can be found on You Tube. For the transcript, see here in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity.

I would also like to note that the internet has absolutely everything. It's really something.

Where did you go to school? Solomon Schechter North Face

The new North Face store in Mamilla Mall, Jerusalem. (They transliterate "The" as "Duh")

My friend Ilan is an Israeli tour guide. A story from him:
We were sitting in Caesarea waiting for the movie to begin and this birthright group came in and sat in front of us. The father of my family asked me: "What's North Face? Is that like a Zionist youth group in the US?"

Indeed it's true, a youth group of young Jews touring Israel might as well be sponsored by North Face. Except that they pay for them. I bought mine in X'ian.

And sure enough, what do Jewish Young Adults like? Number 95 here we are. Shoutout to Sarah Beth Berman for the reference.

#95 North Face Jackets

(idea written and submitted by Matthew K.)

It should come as no surprise that Jews conspicuously wear North Face jackets; the two make an adorable dyad. In fact, this fashion trait is more indigenous to the JYA, than to the non-JYA. For example, one can see the JYA wear a North Face jacket on a spectrum of disparate occasions: on the way to yoga class with a double macchiato in hand from Starbucks, returning empty handed from a JDate speed-dating night, or sliding down circuitous ski slopes with the family in Aspen, Colorado.

The appeal of the North Face doesn’t just dig deep into the JYA’s yuppiness, but also stems from a need to feel edgy. Let’s examine the brazen JYA: she audaciously tests the limits of practicality unlike the non-JYA by wearing a light spring-appropriate gray fleece jacket with “North Face” emblazoned on the left breast in the frigid death of winter (exceptions: LA and Miami). And let’s not forget her year-round uniform of transparent leggings and ruffled scarf beneath that Denali fleece. Absurd, but nonetheless JYA and cute!

North Face jackets have become the staple ingredient to any JYA’s sense of modern Jewish style, akin to circumcision: Every Jew is required to get it, irrespective of personal choice. In fact, without one, or admission to not owning own, elicits horrified looks and awkward silences among fellow JYAs. The tradition of Denali Fleece, worn 9 months out of the year, has become sacrosanct and no JYA is a member of the tribe until that North Face is on his/her back loud and proud.

Suffice it to say that without the JYA consumer, it is possible that the North Face company would experience the same macabre fate as Lehman Brothers. Fortunately, the North Face can back on Jewish Adults and even Jewish Elders if the JYA fad was to subside. It is not uncommon to see JYA and family all sporting a North Face Denali fleece or the apparel’s derivative ilk like sport gloves and down jackets. Consequently, donning a North Face has become a Jewish universal for both JYA and JA.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

The main issues in Jewish thought today

There is a new fellowship opportunity at JTS next year which will feature a weekly philosophy seminar and bring some of the leading Jewish thinkers to the class to talk about their work as we read it.

And it’s a paid gig, too. Sounds good to me. Below is the application essay for the seminar, an assignment to address the main issues in Jewish thought today. In some ways it's rhetoric, but I'm also interested in the translation of the issues to the practical, which I touch on in the essay itself.

The wording of the question: Describe what you think the main philosophical and theological issues confronting the Jewish thinker are. What methods should Jewish thought follow? What audiences should Jewish thought address? What external philosophical and theological frameworks should Jewish thought employ?

I also point you to a well articulated similar thesis by Rabbi Ethan Tucker, recently published in the Forward.

“The establishment of the State of Israel is the second challenge of the modern world to the survival of Judaism. The first challenge came about 150 years ago, with our emancipation from political and economic thralldom and with our admission into the body politic of western mankind. We have not yet recovered from the impact of that first challenge.” — Mordecai Menahem Kaplan, Delivered Dec. 6, 1949

The merits of Kaplan’s speech still ring true six decades later. The fundamental question that American Jews encounter today is to define Jewish identity in an age of unmatched autonomy. These questions are not new; they remain the fundamental questions of the modern age, one still very much with us in the 21st century.

Yet while the questions themselves endure, the contemporary scene presents untold challenges in terms of scale. As Chancellor Arnold Eisen frames the issue, 21st -century Judaism exists within an age of the “sovereign self,” a condition prevailing ever since Emancipation. Yet even to address the predicament of Judaism within modernity, the very discourse must be refreshed from that moment when Kaplan spoke to the Rabbinical Assembly of Conservative Judaism. Whereas Judaism as a religion and Israel as the center of its peoplehood had previously stood as fundamental presuppositions for philosophers and social leaders in the community, any contemporary scene ideology seems hollow compared to previous generations.

Before Judaism can truly engage in dialogue with modernity, a prior — and primary — task must be to bring Judaism into conversation with itself. Only then can we add those layers that continue to challenge the modern Jew. Earlier this semester, I heard contemporary Zionist thinker Hillel Halkin address why there is a decrease in Zionist fervor in Israeli society, saying that “the age of ideology is dead.” Whether or not, this verdict is hyperbolic or premature, such a comment compels the re-crafting of particular messages, particularly for Zionism, even if the message itself remains fundamentally the same.

During November this year, the New York Times published an article about a British court case, contesting whether a publicly-funded Jewish school could deny a child access based on religion. This decision was particularly charged, because the child was an observant Jew as defined halakhically, but the British chief rabbinate still refused to accept the supervision of the child’s mother’s conversion. This article soared up the “Most Read” chart on the website, surely indicating its pertinence for the Jewish readership of the New York Times as well as the sociological realities of American Judaism’s relationship to the media. But, more importantly, the British high court decision touched a nerve at the core of the religion, the essential question of our contemporary era: What does it mean to be Jewish? What comprises the meaning of Jewish identity?

In Israel, contemporary sociology addresses the ongoing definition of the Jewish state, particularly by dealing with a special subset of the wider question of Jewish peoplehood. The national flavor of “Israel” poses an even more basic question regarding the kind(s) of separation between Church and State. A few examples: Minister of Justice Yaakov Neeman recently declared that the law of the State of Israel should be the same as religious halakha. Similarly, Hesder Yeshiva rabbis have declared that the law of the land will not replace the law of God, so that Hesder students and soldiers thus feel conflicts between the authority of their rabbis and of their nation with regard to military actions. The Haredi community can nearly shut down the Intel plant in the Kiryat Sh’muel neighborhood of Jerusalem because it was open on Shabbat. And Nofrat Frenkel was arrested for wearing a talit at the Kotel. All these items manifest the central issue: whether indeed there is such a universally valid concept as the Jewish people or is it a fiction, reinforced throughout the collective memory, but actually variable according to geography and politics?

The question of what it means to be “Jewish” centers around discussion of Jewish peoplehood, of the “Israel” component of the philosophical triad, “God, Torah, Israel.” Today the American Jew finds herself in the freest society in the history of Judaism, all but free of anti-Semitic attacks, which historically forced the community to coalesce and necessarily defined Jewish identity, albeit from the hostile outside. Precisely because Jews have such autonomy in the world and because others on the outside are no longer defining Judaism, Jewish thought from the inside must now affirmatively restate in contemporary, yet fundamental terms the basic postulates of both faith and peoplehood. — What is Judaism? Who are the Jewish people? How does the Jewish people relate both to itself and to the Other? What meaning and degree of priority does the state of Israel hold in this context? All of this discussion will undoubtedly involve the halakhic definitions of a Jew in this discussion, but these issues also transcend legal arguments.

Virtually every segment of the American sociology shows Jews engaging with the non-Jewish world, and in many cases, defining this social work with Jewish language. This interaction can be seen most clearly in the wide spectrum of Jewish service organizations that serve the greatest needs in society, usually outside the Jewish community, but also throughout the philanthropic world.

Clearly, the modern Jew holds competing allegiances, multiple identities. But more accurately, the American Jew is a member of a series of concentric circles, which need not stand in opposition to one another, and in fact can effectively complement each other, if only they are so construed. In a world where individuals are engaging with “American” identities and “Jewish” identities, often within separate cultures, can we find a framework that honestly engages both American and Jewish identities within a larger, shared system? Indeed can there be some synthesis in the Hegelian sense of Jewish life within America? For me this dilemma remains an open question, one which personally I have struggled to reconcile over in the past several years. But affirmatively engaging both American (or even Israeli) and Jewish identities, the thesis and antithesis, provides the central task of Jewish thought in the 21st century.

Lest this description leads one to think that such a framework leads to a dilution of Judaism, with the infusion of American ideals, I will emphasize that democracy “fundamentally implies the right to be different,” as Rabbi Leo Jung stated in 1945 (“Religion in the American Dream,” The Orthodox Union, June 1945, 4). The articulation of strong particularist ideals is essential for religion to thrive in the land of autonomy.

Part of this thinking about particularist ideals must clearly engage with how other religions are addressing the same issues of engaging both the particular and the national-universal. Communities across the country are engaging in “inter-faith” dialogue, of commonalities across cultures, of social action for the communities they each share. The framework that other religions are using of Americanism and that religion are the best partners that Jewish thought has.

During an era when anti-religion, anti-God manifestos, soar up the best-seller charts, engaging religion from the center, from various religious perspectives, serves as the only way to engage such polar attacks. By describing in positive terms the redemptive qualities of religion, of the particular, religion in turn stakes a claim for itself on the American landscape as a contributor to democratic ideals. What is Jewish peoplehood? Paradoxically through the particular, the American Jew, and for that matter every other religionist in the United States, declares democratic ideals more powerfully than a polemical attack ever could. But this is the case only when religion is framed in such a context of being both universalistic and particularist in and of itself.

The question arises: why America in particular? What about the rest of the world? What about Israel? Indeed all of these are important questions, but I am writing from my own perspective, and one that I think is underserved. Additionally, the point of American Jewish identity is the starting point, by definition, for American Jews. Perhaps the land and state of Israel should indeed be the ontological presupposition of Jewish peoplehood, indeed an Ahad Ha’am-ist view of the cultural epicenter of the Jewish nation. Throughout all of this, these issues represent the fundamental importance of engagement with these issues, of redefining and reframing “Israel” for contemporary Jewish thought. For Jewish thought to be relevant, it must engage with the fundamental issues the day, which by definition are those which occur on the ground.

The Seminary’s decision to change the name of the philosophy department to the department of “Jewish thought” reflects the emphasis of looking outward and expressing thoughts rather than looking inside to find Truth. For Jewish thought to be relevant, it must be conducted in the matrix of the community. And it is precisely for this reason, that engaging with Jewish peoplehood in the 21st century must be the central issue in Jewish thought.