Author Archives: Daniel Septimus

Daniel Septimus

About Daniel Septimus

Daniel Septimus is the Editor-in-Chief of MyJewishLearning.com.

Edgar M. Bronfman: An Appreciation

I first met Edgar Bronfman a few months after becoming editor of MyJewishLearning.com, a website Edgar had nourished and sustained since he founded it five years earlier. By the time of our inaugural meeting, Edgar had already put countless dollars and hours into the project. But at this meeting we didn’t discuss budgets, fundraising, or his ROI.  We didn’t discuss metrics, impact, or board development. And we certainly didn’t discuss continuity, intermarriage, or declining synagogue attendance.Edgar M. Bronfman

Instead, we discussed Torah.

It was a few weeks before Shavuot, and I had been invited to teach a class to Edgar, his foundation staff, and friends. I brought a range of texts—biblical, rabbinic, modern—about revelation and interpretation, and for an hour and a half, a conference room at the famed Seagram Building turned into, what seemed to me, the most unlikely beit midrash (study hall)

But, in fact, there was nothing unlikely about this scene. It was actually quite commonplace. Every week, Edgar invited a different teacher to lead a Talmud class for him and his staff.

Many people will remember Edgar for his career at Seagram, his work with the World Jewish Congress, and his keen investments in the next generation through Hillel and the Bronfman Youth Fellowship. But I will always, first and foremost, remember him for his weekly classes. For me, they highlighted a number of extraordinary things about the man.

Most importantly, Edgar cared deeply about the substance and content of Jewish life. While much of the Jewish community was analyzing every jot and tittle of the most recent population study, parsing intermarriage and affiliation rates, Edgar was gathering people to analyze Torah, Talmud, philosophy. To Edgar it was blatantly obvious that our sacred texts—and the study partners we explore them with—have much more to teach us than any Pew study could.

Edgar’s weekly classes modeled Talmudic pluralism. Strong opinions were offered and welcome, but multiple opinions were essential. People of all stripes and backgrounds studied at these classes, and he invited people who spanned denominational and ideological positions to lead the studies. For Edgar, the Jewish community’s diversity was, perhaps, its most exciting attribute. He believed that learning could only happen when you encounter difference. This commitment extended well beyond Edgar’s weekly study sessions. It is evident in his philanthropic legacy, in organizations like Hillel, BYFI, and MyJewishLearning.

MyJewishLearning Named to Slingshot!

We’re excited to announce that MyJewishLearning.com has been named one of the nation’s 50 most innovative Jewish nonprofits in
Slingshot ’10-‘11,
a resource guide for Jewish innovation. Since 2005,
Slingshot
has become the definitive guide to identifying path-finding and trailblazing organizations grappling with concerns in Jewish life such as identity, community, and tradition.  MyJewishLearning.com was chosen by a panel of 36 foundation professionals from across North America. This was MyJewishLearning.com’s second year in a row being featured in Slingshot.Slingshot

In order to be listed in Slingshot, organizations are selected from among hundreds of nominees across North America. Finalists are chosen based on their strength in four areas: innovation, impact, leadership, and organizational efficiency.

According to Will Schneider, the Director of Slingshot, “2010 was the most competitive year that Slingshot has experienced. Not only are there a greater number of applicants each year, but the extent and complexity of each applicant’s impact has increased. The feedback from the evaluators told us that the guide could easily have been filled with twice as many inspirational projects, so these 50 had to really shine to rise to the top.”

Mazal tov to us! (And thank you Slingshot!)

Kveller: A Jewish Twist on Parenting

I’m very excited to announce that our new parenting website Kveller.com is now live.



The idea for a Jewish parenting website was first dreamed up by MyJewishLearning in 2007, so it’s quite gratifying to finally see it come to fruition. The website is meant to be a resource and community for parents of Jewish children age 0-5 (that is, from pre-conception to preschool). Instead of trying to tell you about Kveller, I’ll let the website speak for itself.

There is no one way to parent Jewishly, and we are not about to change that. Whether you grew up observing Shabbat every Friday night, or had your first taste of matzo ball soup when you married into a Jewish family, the ways you can incorporate Judaism and Jewish culture into your parenting style are diverse. Kveller is here to give you ideas for your children’s early years–ideas for first-time parents, interfaith parents, queer parents, adoptive parents, and everything in between–with the hopes that you can find information and inspiration that is right for your family.

Kveller also wants you to know that you’re not alone. There are parents all over the country raising Jewish kids who confront similar questions and quandaries. Kveller is here to connect you to each other through our discussion forums, blog, and local event listings.

I would be remiss, of course, if I didn’t thank UJA-Federation of NY, which provided seed funding for Kveller. They’ve been incredible partners in this project.

And also a special shout out to Sam Apple who came up with the name Kveller.com — just as we were giving up hope of ever finding a great name for the site. You can show your love for Sam by buying his book American Parent.

To get you started with Kveller, here are some links to some of my favorites (so far):

- The homepage, of course

- Former Daily Show and Tonight Show writer Rob Kutner discusses why Stephen Colbert would be a good Jewish father

- Blossom’s Mayim Bialik talks about the myth of “having it all”

- Search for baby names on our Jewish baby name bank

- Discover Kveller’s favorite Jewish kiddie music

- David Shneer tells us about being a gay dad in a family with three parents

Also check out the special pages we have set up to connect parents in Brownstone Brooklyn and Downtown Manhattan with local events and each other. We hope to expand to other cities and neighborhoods eventually.

And don’t forget to follow us on Facebook.

Jonathan Franzen’s Jewish Mistake

Over at Tablet, Marc Tracy takes a “Jewish” look at Jonathan Franzen’s forthcoming novel,
Freedom
, and quibbles with its representation of a Jewish neoconservative Thanksgiving dinner.

While I agree with Tracy (and pretty much everyone else) that Franzen’s new

novel is remarkable, I must quibble with Tracy. Franzen’s neocon dinner is not his greatest Jewish faux pas in Freedom. That distinction must go to a scene in which two of Franzen’s characters visit the Diamond District in New York looking for wedding rings.

On page 417, Franzen writes:

They went into the first deserted-looking jewelry store they came to on 47th Street and asked for two gold rings they could take away right now. The jeweler was in full Hasidic regalia — yarmulke, forelocks, phylacteries, black vest, the works.

The problem? No Hasid would be working in his phylacteries (what we call
tefilin
), which are — these days — donned only during the morning prayer service. My guess: Franzen confused tefilin and tzitzit and grabbed the English word for the wrong one.

Coming Soon to MJL…

I’m pleased to announce a major development here at MyJewishLearning.com. Recently, we received a significant grant from the Commission on Jewish Identity and Renewal (COJIR) at UJA-Federation of NY to build a new website aimed at parents of Jewish kids age 0-5.

The new parenting website will cover Jewish concerns related to getting pregnant, pregnancy, baby naming, baby raising, educational choices and more. (Yes, I’m sure we’ll have many, many articles on circumcision.)

We’ll also be piloting a section that connects New York parents to local events and resources. If the local section works out well, we’ll be looking to expand it to other cities over the next few years.

The project is particularly exciting because it’s part of MyJewishLearning’s general plan to begin creating content that is more targeted toward specific niche audiences. The web is a wasteland for good Jewish parenting content, and we hope to fill that void.

We’re aiming to launch the new website (which has yet to be named) sometime this summer. Its development will be spearheaded by the website’s editor, the newest member of the MJL family, Debbie Kolben. Debbie was previously the city editor of The New York Sun and the managing editor of the Village Voice. She recently returned to the states after receiving an Arthur F. Burns fellowship to report in Germany. We’re excited to have her on board here at MJL.

And, of course, we’re thrilled to have UJA’s COJIR as a partner in this project. COJIR has taken a particular interest in engaging young families, recognizing that there are key developmental moments during the life cycle when people are making critical decisions about personal and communal identity and that at these times — including when people begin their family life — people are more open to Jewish engagement.

As the launch date of the new website gets closer, we’ll let you know, of course!

Forget About Jewish Identity

Here’s my entry in the 28 Days, 28 Ideas series. The article — Idea #23 — was written for Jewcy.com, which has been having some technical difficulties, so I figured I’d post the whole shebang here, as well.

Over the last several years, I have read dozens of articles and listened to scores of conversations about the challenge of strengthening Jewish identity in America. Indeed, since the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey canonized Jewish American assimilation, an unprecedented amount of communal dollars and efforts have been poured into this endeavor.

Programs aimed at “young Jews” are often explicitly framed as identity projects, a fact readily apparent from the mission statements of two of the most prominent and well-funded organizations serving the 18-30 crowd, Hillel and Birthright Israel.

Hillel “provides opportunities for Jewish students…to explore and celebrate their Jewish identity through its global network of regional centers.” Birthright Israel aims “to strengthen participants’ personal Jewish identity.”

This may seem neither controversial nor remarkable, but I believe that the obsessive focus on identity is both misguided and fundamentally alien to Jewish tradition.

What do organizations mean when they say they want to strengthen or cultivate Jewish identity?

At The Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly, in a panel on Jewish Peoplehood, Dr. Erica Brown noted that there are three components to identity formation: the cognitive (what we think), the behavioral (what we do), and the emotional (what we feel). In discussing some of the maladies plaguing the American Jewish community, Dr. Brown suggested an interesting diagnosis: when American Jews speak about Jewish identity they aggressively emphasize the emotional.

In other words, to too many American Jews, Jewish identity means feeling Jewish.

Dr. Brown’s insight articulated something I have been noticing for years and was, most recently, driven home during a conversation with a prominent Jewish philanthropist. As we spoke, this generous and committed Jewish leader extolled the virtues of Jewish education and lamented its current state. When I asked him what he wanted Jewish education to achieve — what its aim should be — his answer was simple: “I want Jewish kids to feel proud of being Jewish.”

Mordecai Richler’s Rich Living

Originally published in the Jerusalem Post (January 27, 2006).

A few years ago, Slate magazine dispatched novelist Gary Shteyngart to Montreal on a death-defying mission: spend five days walking in the footsteps of author Mordecai Richler, living it up like the protagonist of his final novel, Barney’s Version.

RichlerThe operation, wrote Shteyngart, “involved sampling the favorite vices of Barney Panofsky…Montecristos (the Dominican cigars), medium-fats on rye (a spectacular brisket served at the legendary Schwartz’s Deli), single malts (preferably Macallan whisky), the veal-marrow hors d’oeuvre at L’Express restaurant, XO cognac, marbled rib steaks at Moishe’s Steakhouse, and caffeine.”

By all accounts, Richler did a lifetime of research before creating Barney Panofsky, and Shteyngart met many of the characters who witnessed Richler’s rich living. The barmaid at the author’s favorite haunt told Shteyngart about serving Richler his daily breakfast: espresso, grapefruit, and vodka. Richler, who passed away in 2001, would have turned 75 this month, so it’s an appropriate time to lift a glass of cognac, whiskey, or vodka (all three if you want to do him real justice) and toast the man’s talents.

Richler is often described as the Canadian Philip Roth, and though that’s often a dismissive label, the similarities between the two are worth noting. Both are master satirists who—though not always on the best terms with the Jewish community—are nonetheless unabashedly rooted in it. And very specific Jewish communities, too. For Roth it’s Newark; for Richler, Montreal. Roth and Richler are also known for their political incorrectness and over-sexed prose, and while this sort of writing might seem more appropriate for the young Turks of literature, Roth and Richler created characteristic works after qualifying for their Senior Citizen discounts. Indeed, while Richler’s best-known novel is The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1959)—later made into a film starring Richard Dreyfus—Barney’s Version (1998) may be his best.

The New MyJewishLearning.com

As you have probably noticed, things are looking a little different at Mixed Multitudes — and MyJewishLearning.com, generally.

Indeed, this morning we launched the redesigned site we’ve been working on for almost a year. You can read about some of the new components and features here, but in short, we set out to create a more visually vibrant, editorially interesting, and modern website — and we think we have.

You can expect to see new content on the homepage almost every day, a weekly Ask the Expert column, interviews,  video, and more.

As with any redesign, we’ll be working out technological kinks for the next couple of weeks, probably, so please bear with us, and if you encounter any problems, feel free to email me directly at daniel (at) myjewishlearning.com.

We hope you enjoy the new MyJewishLearning.com…

Plot Against America

Originally published in the Jerusalem Post (September 29, 2004).

In an open letter to the critic Diana Trilling published in Reading Myself and Others (1975), Philip Roth enumerates the differences between himself and "Mr. Roth," the "character" who, in an essay, Trilling identifies as the author of Portnoy’s Complaint. Of course, Philip Roth is the author of Portnoy’s Complaint (1969), but his message is clear: the written word is a dubious medium of representation. The "Mr. Roth" of Trilling’s review–a two-dimensional, reified sketch–bares no more of a direct relationship to the living breathing Philip Roth than does Alexander Portnoy. 

Literary Alter-Egos

Roth’s letter was penned three and a half decades ago, but it was not the last time he challenged the distinction between author and character, between fiction and reality. In 1979’s The Ghost Writer, Roth introduced us to Nathan Zuckerman, who’d serve as his alter ego in several subsequent novels. Yet while Roth and his creation share crucial biographical information–they’re both Jewish writers, born in Newark, whose early works inspired criticism from Members of the Tribe–Roth insists Zuckerman is a device, not a pseudonym.

Roth upped the stakes once again with The Facts (1988), subtitled A Novelist’s Autobiography. Why not just "An Autobiography"? Because Roth is aware that autobiographies are fundamentally suspect. Like a novel, an autobiography–and certainly the autobiography of a novelist–is a creative endeavor. Roth makes this point with a wink, opening The Facts with a letter addressed to none other than the fictional Nathan Zuckerman.

Nor did Roth stop there. There’s Deception (1990), a dialogue between two lovers, one of whom is named Philip and who has written about a character named Zuckerman; Patrimony (1991), subtitled "A True Story"–an inside joke for anyone who has read The Facts and knows what Roth thinks about narrative truth; and Operation Shylock (1993), which features a character named Philip Roth as well as a character masquerading as Philip Roth.

Thoughts from Rabbi Shai Held

Mechon Hadar’s Rabbi Shai Held wrote the following personal and beautiful words about the inauguration, which he has kindly allowed me to share with you.

Those of you have been my friends and/or my students over many years have no doubt heard me say it countless times before: the meaning of the Exodus is that anything is possible, that there is no status quo that cannot be overturned.  Imagine a world in which you are a slave, and your father was a slave, and his mother before him, and so on for generations.  And then, seemingly suddenly, God intervenes and you are no longer a slave.  To be sure, the journey ahead will be long and arduous. Indeed, there will be moments when things seem so frightening and unsettling that you will even find yourself longing for the way things were before.   But there is no returning to the way things were– not ultimately, anyway.  The Exodus is a rupture, a break in history, a moment after which all things are new, a moment in and through which all things are possible.

I have a very personal confession to make:  over the past couple of years, as my struggle with chronic illness has continued and in many ways intensified, I have found myself less able to talk about the Exodus in this way.  Is there really no status quo that cannot be overturned? I have asked myself.  What about the pain and fatigue that wrack your body each day?  What about the degradations and devastations that pervade the globe and seemingly make a mockery of human dignity and of life’s meaningfulness?  Perhaps all this talk of the Exodus as paradigmatic for human history was just loose talk, just so much Pollyanna nonsense.  I have wondered, and lamented the depths to which life seems resistant to, indifferent to, the stories we tell and the narratives we strive to live by.

This morning I feel something I have not felt in quite a long time:  I believe– but really believe– in the Exodus again.  That which was utterly impossible, indeed unimaginable, will become a reality in just a few short minutes.  The United States of America, the great beacon of freedom and democracy, has always been tainted by the monstrous legacy of slavery and the ways it denied that black men and women, too, were created in the image of God and were thus every bit as infinitely valuable as their white counterparts.  Today these same United States will swear in its first black president, a black man who will occupy the very house that slaves built so long ago.  The status quo has been overturned, repudiated, one might even say redeemed.  (This, I hasten to add, remains true regardless of one’s political commitments or affiliations.)

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