Monthly Archives: November 2006

From the GA

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I’m here at the United Jewish Communities General Assembly in Los Angeles, the annual meeting of Jewish professionals and Federation leaders, which attracts thousands for a few days of panels and plenaries.

If it wasn’t clear before, yesterday’s opening event stressed the theme of this year’s GA: Israel. Speakers included Zeev Bielski, Chairman of the Jewish Agency; Fentahun Assefa-Dawit, the head of an Ethiopian absorption center in Northern Israel; Karnit Goldwasser, the wife of kidnapped Israeli solider Ehud Goldwasser; and the keynote speaker — Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.

Apparently, this theme was a relatively late development. The GA decided to focus on Israel this summer, during the war with Hezbollah.

As always, the production value for the opening event was remarkable, the stage, video screens, sound, and thousands-member audience resembled a Hollywood award show. The highlights? Karnit Goldwasser delivered a moving plea to work for the release of her husband and the two other Israeli soldiers kidnapped this summer. Despite the pomp and circumstance of the setting, her words were sincere, intimate, and incredibly sad.

Tzipi Livni was also good, and her speech was marked by a nuance that most of the other speakers lacked. Which brings me to my overall assessment:

The opening plenary was, first and foremost, a pep rally for Israel. Each speaker thanked those in the audience for their support of Israel, which gave the event a self-congratulatory air. Most interestingly for me, the program betrayed an obvious and intense conflation of Judaism and Zionism. Now, there’s nothing fundamentally problematic with this. But it struck me as rather unselfconscious, given that we often hear the organized Jewish community grumbling about the world’s conflation of Jews and Israel.

Meaning, somehow we can be trusted to make Israel and Jews synonymous, but others are expected to keep their Israel-talk and Jew-talk (or in unfortunate instances, their anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism) totally separate.

It’s important to allow for free speech and a range of political opinions, which means that it needs to be okay for people to be critical of Israel. But if we conflate Judaism and Zionism, do we have the right to criticize others when their anti-Zionism seems tinged with anti-Semitism?

Since Zionism is our concern, perhaps it’s our responsibility to forge a rhetoric that can distinguish between Jews and Israel. The theme of the GA’s opening plenary was “One People, One Destiny,” and while I’m all for unity, singularity is another story — a story that can, ultimately, banish complexity from the building.

Posted on November 13, 2006

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The Forward 50

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Obsessive list-making is a hallmark of contemporary pop culture. No institution has contributed to this more than VH1, which has a list for everything from the “100 Greatest Artists in Rock N’ Roll” to the “40 Most Awesomely Bad #1 Songs…Ever.” But more serious entities have partaken in this mania as well.

Just a few months ago, the New York Times released its list of the best works of American fiction of the last 25 years. (Toni Morrison’s Beloved grabbed the top spot.)

Lists like these are remarkably unscientific, of course. They’re capricious and usually the subject of both debate and disgust. But their existence is understandable. Pop culture is America’s civic religion, and these lists are our canonized, sacred scriptures. Cultures have used lists as reference points forever. Remember the Ten Commandments? No doubt, the Israelites sat around the mountain debating that one, too. (“Keeping Kosher isn’t on the list? Are you kidding me? And adultery in the Top 10? Please!”)

Well, the Forward just released its annual Forward 50, the 50 people who “are doing and saying things that are making a difference in the way American Jews, for better or worse, view the world and themselves.” The list includes establishment figures like Abe Foxman and Joe Lieberman, and media personalities we’re happy to colonize like Jon Stewart, Sacha Baron Cohen, and Scarlett Johansson. Like all lists, the Forward 50 is somewhat random, somewhat obvious, and somewhat informative.

Take a look for yourself, and I’ll post some other thoughts about it later.

Posted on November 12, 2006

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I Beg to Differ with Heeb

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Daniel’s off today, so I’m filling in for him. It’s a Friday, so I figured I’d share something of a lighter nature.

I was reading Heeb Magazine a week ago and came across their list entitled “The Best Fifty Foods in the Whole Wide World.” Being a huge fan of both lists and food, I studied the Fifty in detail for potential new culinary delights selected by other fairly young Jews. I was intrigued by entry #3:

Michel Cluizel Noir Infini 99%

Godiva is for your mother-in-law. Michel Cluizel is for your dominatrix. Drink a shot of tequila with each bite and release the deepest and densest strains of dark chocolate ever experienced. Crack is less addictive.

I sampled Noir Infini this past weekend (sans tequila and dominatrix), and, while not speaking from experience, posit that crack may in fact also be less vile tasting. After just one bite I had to run to the nearest market so I could wash out the taste with a bar of Hershey’s. Granted, Noir is an extremely dark chocolate, so it was to be assumed that it was almost totally devoid of sugar, but who could possibly eat something so bitter?

That being said, the list is varied and interesting, and there are several compelling items that I plan to try when I get the chance… in LA, Heeb recommends the Combo Special at Cham Sut Gol Korean BBQ, Double-Double at In-n-Out Burger and the Dodger Dog at Dodger Stadium (note: many, if not most of the items on the list aren’t kosher).

You can find the list in the latest issue of Heeb.

By the way, this week, Daniel and I will be representing MJL, along with Josh Gershman, our Marketing Associate, at the annual United Jewish Communities General Assembly in Los Angeles. We’ll be intermittently posting our thoughts. If you’re also attending the GA, why not stop by our booth and meet us? If you sign up in person for our mailing list, you’ll be entered into a drawing for a new 8 GB Apple iPod Nano!

Posted on November 10, 2006

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Rachel Corrie, Part II

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I said I would share my thoughts on My Name is Rachel Corrie, so here goes…

Though the play and its lead actress — Megan Dodds — were greatly lauded for the original English production, this one-woman show is not great theatre. But it is good theatre, and the controversy surrounding the politics of the play is somewhat misguided.

Corrie’s take on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is, no doubt, fairly one-sided and perhaps even simplistic. Israel and the USA are, in her mind, oppressors who make innocent Palestinians suffer. She justifies Palestinian violence as an understandable response to despair, and she does seem to believe that Israeli occupation is the root of the problem.

But despite this, My Name is Rachel Corrie is not really about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It’s about a young woman and her passion, a person from a relatively privileged background trying to come to grips with the horrible fate of other human beings. And this part of the play — which is most of the play — is both effective and compelling.

Ben Brantley, writing in the New York Times put it perfectly:

The play, directed by Mr. Rickman, is not an animated recruiting poster for Palestinian activists. Its deeper fascination lies in its invigoratingly detailed portrait of a passionate political idealist in search of a constructive outlet. And its inevitable sentimental power is in its presentation of a blazing young life that you realize is on the verge of being snuffed out.

Rachel continuously cites the kindness of the Palestinians who take care of her during her stay in Gaza. These are not throw-away lines. Rachel is, first and foremost, motivated by the tragedy of these people’s lives. And she’s right. It is a tragedy — and it’s our tragedy. Even if you believe Israeli policies are 100% appropriate, it would still be tragic that our brothers and sisters are wrapped up in a conflict that causes suffering to so many people — many of whom are, no doubt, very good people.

As Brantley concludes, so do I: “No matter what side you come down on politically, Ms. Corrie’s sense of a world gone so awry that it forces her to question her ‘fundamental belief in the goodness of human nature’ is sure to strike sadly familiar chords.”

Posted on November 9, 2006

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Creepy “Jews” Headline

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I know I just picked on the JTA last week for its coverage of the “Most Hated Israelis” study, but I’ve got another bone to pick.

This just in from today’s Breaking News:

Jews Gain in U.S. Congress

Jews increased their numbers by two in the U.S. Senate and at least four in the House of Representatives…

That means at least 30 Jews will serve in the House in the next Congress.

Discussing Jews as a special interest group or weighing support for Israel as an American election issue is complicated enough, but this Jew-tally seems totally fetishistic and inappropriate. Even I’ve played “Count the Jews” before, but as a guilty pleasure — not Breaking News.

If in a month, JTA said “Hey, wow, can you believe there are 30 Jews in congress?” (or whatever the journalistic version of that would be), I’d be fine with it, but on a day when the balance of power in the House, and possibly the Senate, is shifting, a day when Donald Rumsfeld is (finally?) getting the boot, is this really appropriate?

Posted on November 8, 2006

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Go Shmuley!

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I never thought I’d say this, but: “Shmuley Boteach rocks!” Or at least his latest piece for the Jerusalem Post does. In response to the intense protests against the gay pride parade schedule for this Friday in Jerusalem, Boteach writes:

I have always found it puzzling that religious people of all denominations continue to see gay men and women as the single greatest threat to civilization and the ultimate sin…

For religious Christians in America homosexuals are the single greatest threat to the family, even though gays are no more than five percent of the population, while the heterosexual divorce rate stands at 50 percent.

So who needs gays to finish off the family when straight men and women are already doing that job admirably? …

The vitriolic Orthodox and haredi response to the gay pride parade and the recent riots in Mea She’arim, which left a dozen police officers injured, show that we Jews are just as capable of mistakenly making gay sex into the foremost religious issue of our time.

I don’t necessarily agree with Boteach’s political commentary about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that follows, but it’s nice to be reminded that Rabbi Boteach — who has been accused of being a celebrity hound — has some smart things to say, too.

Rabbi Boteach’s appeal is only more powerful because he still believes that homosexuality is a sin.

I am an Orthodox Jew, and I do not deny that homosexuality is labeled a sin and an abomination in the Bible. But the word abomination appears 122 times in the Torah, including for such behavior as eating certain non-kosher foods (Deut. 14:3), a wife remarrying her first husband after she has been married to someone else in the interim (24:4), and offering a sacrifice that is blemished (17:1).

Go Shmuley!

Posted on November 7, 2006

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Rachel Corrie

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On Sunday I went to see My Name is Rachel Corrie, the controversial play that was first staged in London and is now in the middle of a run at the Minetta Lane Theatre in New York.

The play was adapted from the journals and emails of Rachel Corrie, a 24 year-old member of the International Solidarity Movement from Olympia, WA who was killed trying to obstruct an Israeli bulldozer in Gaza in 2003 (during the Second Intifada). Corrie’s death turned into a highly politicized version of “He Said-She Said.”

The ISM say that the driver of the bulldozer deliberately ran her over twice while she was trying to prevent what they say might have been a house demolition. The IDF say that the cause of death was falling debris pushed over by the bulldozer, that the bulldozer driver did not see her; that the bulldozer was clearing brush and not engaged in a demolition; that Corrie was interfering with security operations designed to uncover the tunnels used by Hamas and other groups for smuggling weapons from Egypt. (more from Wikipedia)

Though some Jewish groups and leaders have expressed concern about the play, on the whole, the community has refrained from any sort of comprehensive protest. Still, outside the theatre, a group of women handed out informational cards that intended to lay out the Israeli side of the story. When I asked one woman what organization she was with, she said, “None. We’re just a group of people.”

Unlikely. But no doubt, a smart approach. Certainly, more effective and more appropriate than a campaign like the ADL ran against Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.

How was the actual play?

More on that later.

Posted on November 7, 2006

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If Borat Was Iranian

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Just weeks before the release of Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat, Twentieth Century Fox downgraded the scope of the film’s release — planning an opening weekend of 800 theatres instead of the original 2,000. Despite massive internet buzz, including a slew of YouTube clips, Fox worried that Borat might be the next Snakes on a Plane, “all hat no cattle” as they say in some corners of the heartland traversed by Borat.

Alas, the concerns were for naught. The numbers are in and as Borat himself might say, “It’s Nice!”

The $18 million gonzo comedy averaged a phenomenal $31,511 on its 837 screens, for an overall haul of $26.4 million — easily tops for the weekend, according to estimates Sunday from Exhibitor Relations.

“This was the case where the movie was bigger than the hype instead of the hype being bigger than the movie,” said Exhibitor Relations’ Paul Dergarabedian.

This week, MJL takes it’s own look at Borat, with Saul Austerlitz analyzing the dynamics of the film’s faux anti-Semitism. According to Austerlitz, Borat’s country of origin is key to understanding why his Jew-hatred is funny and not threatening.

Borat’s anti-Semitism is funny because it’s so comically ill-informed and because — for Americans and Jews — Kazakhstan is a relatively obscure country that lacks political and social resonance. If Borat were Iranian, his jibes about Jewish economic power might not be as funny. We laugh at Borat because we feel comfortable putting him in his place and because Cohen telegraphs to the audience that he is little more than a buffoon. We laugh at Borat because he is an anti-Semite, not in spite of it.

Read the rest of Austerlitz’s article here.

Posted on November 6, 2006

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The Haredi Tom Clancy

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In my latest column for the Jerusalem Post, I analyze the phenomenon of Ultra-Orthodox novels, particularly the work of Yair Weinstock, the Stephen King/Tom Clancy of Haredi fiction.

I first discovered this genre a few years ago after walking into a bookstore in Boro Park. Prominently displayed, at the entrance of the store, were a slew of novels — mostly thrillers — written by and for Orthodox Jews. I had no idea such things existed.

Apparently, the concept is relatively new, and its emergence is analyzed and described in detail in an article by Yoel Finkelman published last year in Yeshiva University’s Torah u-Madda Journal. A PDF of Finkelman’s article is available online, here.

In my item for the Post, I situate the novels in the context of the Christian Left Behind series. What did I think of Weinstock’s most recent effort, Borrowed Time? As I (kind of) expected, the writing is amateurish, at best. But I was pleasantly surprised by one aspect of the book. Find out what over at jpost.com.

Posted on November 3, 2006

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Protests in Jerusalem

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More from YNet on the Haredi protests against the gay pride parade set for November 10 in Jerusalem. Protesters have accused police of excessive violence and the photos are harrowing. Note the men in the second picture dressed in sackcloth, an ancient, traditional Jewish mourning custom.

Posted on November 2, 2006

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