Monthly Archives: January 2007

Big Money Books

This entry was posted in Culture on by .

Five finalists have been announced for the new Sami Rohr prize for Jewish literature. According to the official announcement (a PDF), the whopping $100,000 award is the largest ever for a Jewish literary prize.

The prize will be given annually to an “emerging writer” and this year’s nomination list has a distinctly international flavor:

-Naomi Alderman of England for Disobedience (Touchstone)

– Amir Gutfreund of Israel for Our Holocaust (Toby Press)

– Yael Hedaya of Israel for Accidents (Metropolitan Books)

– Michael Lavigne of San Francisco, CA, for Not Me (Random House)

– Tamar Yellin of England for The Genizah at the House of Shepher (Toby Press)

I’ve only heard of two of these book: Lavigne’s and Alderman’s, and only the latter has gotten much press, as far as I’ve seen (though I have come across Yellin’s story collection Kafka in Bronteland).

Posted on January 18, 2007

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Safran Foer in Arabia

This entry was posted in Culture on by .

I love Wikipedia as much as the next guy (who’s constantly debating facts with his friends), but as the editor of another internet resource I’ll admit to a measure of schadenfreude when I stumble upon something on Wiki that’s grossly and oddly mistaken.

The tidbit I just found is even funnier because it pertains to one of our partner organizations: The Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel.

Wait.

In Israel?

BYFI?

Are you sure it’s not BYFA?

Because according to his entry on Wikipedia, Jonathan Safran Foer was once “awarded a Bronfman fellowship for study in Arabia.”

Sure makes the whole controversy about whether the Academy Award-nominated Paradise Now was from “Palestine” or “Israel” seem less intense. Imagine if it was submitted as an entry from Arabia? Eeks…

UPDATE: Looks like someone’s corrected JSF’s Wiki entry (we’re hearing it was BYFI’s Rabbi Shimon Felix).

Posted on January 17, 2007

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Walter Benjamin

This entry was posted in Beliefs, History on by .

Walter Benjamin was one of the most idiosyncratic 20th century intellectuals. Though his formal academic training was in philosophy, he eventually wrote his major works in areas that are closer to literary, art, and pop-culture theory. For this reason, and for his association with the Frankfurt School, Benjamin is revered as a kind-of grandfather of contemporary cultural studies.

Benjamin’s popularity in the university has skyrocketed in the past couple of decades and interest in his Jewish roots and identity followed.

In the early 1990s, Professor Susan Handelman published a book on the Jewish thought of Benjamin, Emmanuel Levinas, and Gershom Scholem. Benjamin’s friendship with Scholem has also been well documented and the correspondences between these two intellectual giants has been published, as well.

Still, much of this Benjamin-related material — particularly the Jewish-interest material — is scattered and difficult, so we at MJL have tried to rectify that. Meaning…

I’d like to call your attention to Jessica Kraft’s wonderful and just-published MJL article on Walter Benjamin. In just 1,500 words Jessica summarizes Benjamin’s important contributions to intellectual life and explores his unique Jewish identity.

Benjamin always maintained some distance from his fellow Germans, and from the presumed German audience to which he addressed most of his writing. He, like so many intellectually prominent German Jews of the time, was stuck in the morass between anti-Semitism and modernity. This in-between space did not allow him to retreat into traditional Judaism, nor did it allow him to assimilate entirely into a hostile host society.

The full article is available here.

Posted on January 17, 2007

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Nip/Tuck (Olmert Edition)

This entry was posted in History on by .

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had unannounced cosmetic surgery last week. On what part of his body, you ask?

Find out here.

Posted on January 16, 2007

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

MJL Discussion Board Highlights

This entry was posted in General on by .

The discussion boards on MyJewishLearning.com have always been an important part of our website, and consistently offer insightful conversation and rich debate. This week we are spotlighting the following two discussions relevant to today’s culture.

What is a Secular Jew?

How to keep kosher?

We invite you to take a look at these discussions, and contribute to them if you like, or feel free to start a new thread of your own.

Posted on January 16, 2007

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

The Cost of Torah

This entry was posted in History on by .

Thanks to FailedMessiah for pointing out this ynet article about Ultra-Orthodox families in Israel who are struggling financially because of an overbearing modern-day dowry system.

A daughter’s wedding should be one of the happiest events in a parent’s life, but it’s become a nightmare because sought-after grooms are demanding that the bride’s parents buy the couple an apartment, and preferably in a desirable location.

“It’s a known thing in our community that you have to give the whole package to get a good groom, that is, to pay for the entire wedding and buy an apartment and furniture,” Says A. “My two older daughters have husbands from good yeshivas, and each of them got two thirds of an apartment from me.

How do you determine the value of a groom?

Before the wedding the terms of the match are negotiated. The ultra-Orthodox Bakehillah newspaper, which writes a lot on this issue, has published the price list for a groom. For a prodigy in a prestigious yeshiva such as Kol Torah or Hevron in Jerusalem, Or Yisrael in Petach Tikvah or Bet Matityahu in Bnei Brak, you have to pay for the whole package.

For a groom who is half a prodigy you pay somewhere between the whole package and 80 percent of the apartment. For a good guy you have to pay between half of the package and two thirds of it, and for an average guy you have to pay for half an apartment. (MORE)

Interestingly, I first heard about this phenomenon while researching Ultra-Orthodox fiction, particularly the work of Yair Weinstock who criticizes his community for this very practice in Borrowed Time.

I wrote more about this here.

Posted on January 16, 2007

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Inspired Schnitzel

This entry was posted in Culture on by .

The latest installment of Adeena Sussman’s MJL food column “The Inspired Kitchen” is now available. The newest recipe: Schnitzel (Israeli chicken cutlets) — with a spicy kick.

Want a vegetarian alternative? Well, there’s always Morningstar Farms Chik Patties. Chikin frikin good!

If you missed Adeena’s first two recipes, here they are:

Parsnip-Sweet Potato Latkes

Baba Ganouj

Posted on January 15, 2007

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Enough About Heschel

This entry was posted in History, Holidays on by .

It’s notable and laudable that many Jewish groups commemorate Martin Luther King Day, but I’ve always found it a bit troubling that these commemorations often return to a single image: Abraham Joshua Heschel marching arm in arm with Martin Luther King at Selma.

Of course, it makes sense that we, as a community, are proud of this image. For one, Heschel was perhaps the most universally revered of all 20th century Jewish theologians. While affiliated with the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary, he had Orthodox bona fides and a commitment to social justice shared by the Reform movement.

But this post isn’t about Heschel. It’s about moving beyond Heschel.

As far as I’m concerned, there are two problems with speaking about Heschel on Martin Luther King Day. First, it smacks of self-righteousness. Too often, these conversations turn into expositions about Jewish involvement in the Civil Rights movement, and Martin Luther King Day turns into a day in which American Jews exchange self-congratulatory pats on the back, which clearly isn’t the point of the day.

Similarly, and secondly, Heschel marched with King in 1965. While it’s worth being proud of that moment, we must also grapple with the last 42 years of Black-Jewish relations. And the pressing questions of today have less to do with Heschel than with what’s happened since Heschel.

And what’s happened since hasn’t always been pretty.

This week on MyJewishLearning, Mik Moore looks at the somewhat contentious history of Black-Jewish relations in America, from the Ocean-Hill/Brownsville teachers’ strike of 1968 to the tensions in Crown Heights in the 1990s. The good news is that Moore believes that after decades of inter-communal decline, Black-Jewish relations are improving.

Obviously, we shouldn’t forget Heschel, and certainly Martin Luther King Day is, first and foremost, about Martin Luther King. But if we do use the occasion for communal introspection, let’s make sure to be honest about where we’ve been — and where we stand today.

Posted on January 15, 2007

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Kabbalah Centre

This entry was posted in Beliefs on by .

Though I have mixed feelings about the Kabbalah Centre, I do feel that the mainstream Jewish community and press has, perhaps, been too hard on the place, too judgmental, maybe.

So I was pleased to see that the Tiferet Institute had invited the Centre’s Michael Berg to its recent conference on Kabbalah for the Masses. Similarly, the Jewish Week has just published a letter to the editor from a man who credits the Centre for leading him back to Judaism:

I am a student at the Kabbalah Centre for over 13 years and I would like to point out the most important story that’s not being told about the Centre, the one where thousands of Jews who totally abandoned their faith end up coming back to it.

Before I found the Centre, I was engaged to a wonderful blonde gentile and went out for Chinese food on Yom Kippur. Even though I had attended Jewish day school, I found that Jewish culture just did not provide me with the spiritual fulfillment I was looking for, so I looked for it elsewhere through karate, other spiritual disciplines, and so forth. Countless lost Jews have come back to the fold because of the work of Rabbi Berg and Karen Berg, and I owe them my life. I am now married to a wonderful Jewish woman and I am raising my family Jewish. I keep the Sabbath, eat kosher, put on tefillin, etc., but more importantly, take an active role in community service. That is the work of the Centre. Not all Jews who come back to Judaism through the Centre end up observant, but most do take away a sense of appreciation for the deeper aspects of our faith and the idea that we are all responsible for making the world a better place. Sure, there are things to criticize about the Centre, but I don’t know of another Jewish organization that has done so much to reconnect Jews with Judaism.

The other story is that the Centre uses its wealth to teach spiritual principles, like self-reliance, personal responsibility, sharing and community service to millions around the world, regardless of their religion.

Again, I have no specific fondness for the Centre, and I’m certainly open to the possibility that it exhibits cult-like behaviors, but I think little is accomplished by merely tuning it out completely.

Posted on January 12, 2007

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Shmuley on Oprah

This entry was posted in General on by .

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach was the featured guest on Oprah yesterday, and I figured I would take one for the team and watch so I could report it to all you loyal blog readers.

Shmuley’s appearance was something of a promotion for his TLC reality show, Shalom in the Home, in which the rabbi infiltrates America’s dysfunctional families and tries to get them back on track.

Shmuley obviously has a reputation for being something of a self-promoter and a celebrity hound, but I’ve also heard people I respect express (surprised) admiration for his work, so I went into my Oprah-viewing fairly neutral in my opinion of the rabbi. Here are my notes and thoughts:

– I was surprised by the aggressiveness of Shmuley’s tone. He doesn’t coddle. He rebukes and preaches with an intensity and certainty that was a bit unsettling at first, but ultimately works for him.

– A key point from Shmuley: “We need to redefine success in America.” i.e. success shouldn’t be, first and foremost, professional success, but rather having a healthy, loving marriage and family.

– Twenty minutes in I find myself convinced that Shmuley’s actually a really smart dude. And at least from the clips they’re showing of him working with the families, it does seem like the goal of the show is to help these people. It’s not sheer voyeurism.

– But it’s striking that, for the most part, the families seem to be solidly middle-class, meaning families that have the socio-economic base to more easily live healthy, productive, fulfilling lives. So maybe that’s why it seems more tasteful than you might think. It’s cleaner. Shmuley doesn’t have to deal with serious class issues.

– I didn’t expect there to be many explicit references to Jewish sources, but I was surprised that there were none at all (that I caught, at least). Oprah referred to Shmuely as “rabbi” and obviously, he was wearing his kippah (and beard), but other than that his speech was wholly de-Judaized.

– Unless you count something he said toward the end: “Every day of your life there’s a fork in the road and you can either choose life or choose death.” (A reference to Deuteronomy 30:19 perhaps?)

– Plus, in a short video vignette about American kids and overindulgence, there were two references to over-the-top Bat Mitzvah ceremonies, including the $10 million affair for
Elizabeth Brooks held at the Rainbow room.

In sum: I was impressed. Shmuley didn’t exactly transform the nature of Oprah-wisdom, but he was likeable and smart and did seem to help the people he worked with.

Pending Question: How does Oprah keep her eyes teary for a full hour? It’s an amazing gift. She always looks like she’s one tragedy away from breaking down under the weight of her empathy.

Posted on January 11, 2007

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy