Monthly Archives: August 2007

Baruch Dayan Emet

This entry was posted in Culture on by .

Grace Paley, a wonderful writer and fierce social activist has died. She was 84. The MJL article about Paley can be found here.

After the jump, I’ve posted a column I wrote two years ago for the Jerusalem Post about Paley’s 1959 book The Little Disturbance of Man, one of my favorite collections of short stories.

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Posted on August 23, 2007

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Where were the Jews?

This entry was posted in General on by .

In this week’s Jewish Week, our friend Mik Moore from jspot considers the lack of Jewish representation at the YearlyKos convention of progressive bloggers.

One of the guiding philosophies of DailyKos, as articulated by its founder and namesake, Markos Moulitsas Zúniga, is the belief that interest groups have hurt the Democratic Party and progressive politics in America. Kos has repeatedly attacked organizations like NARAL, a pro-choice group, for endorsing vulnerable Republican members of Congress because of their voting record on singular issues of importance to them.

These interest groups, according to Kos, represent the “old� way of doing business. They focus on their own, often narrow issues instead of helping to build a progressive movement. This parochialism accurately describes the current state of much of the Jewish civic square.

MORE…

Posted on August 23, 2007

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Berch is Back

This entry was posted in History on by .

-There may be as much as 4 billion dollars worth of natural gas offshore of Gaza. Why has it not been tapped? (The Jerusalem Post)

-Israelis on unicycles. (Haaretz)

-Polls show that Netanyahu is the most popular leader in Israel today, but Gideon Levy does not see much difference between Netanyahu and his Likud rival, the “extremist Feiglin,� by comparison to whom Netanyahu tries to show himself as a moderate. (Haaretz)

-Khaled Abu Toameh says that while “Abbas has issued more than 100 ‘presidential decrees’ that were intended to punish the Islamist movement…most of Abbas’s decrees are completely irrelevant, largely because he does not have the power to implement them.â€? (The Jerusalem Post)

-There has been improved coordination between IDF and Palestinian forces in the West Bank, with the result that Palestinian police are now being allowed armed patrols in Area B, not just Area A. (Haaretz)

-Ariel, in the West Bank, with “an aging population and an uncertain future,� seeks to bolster its claim to be part of the future Israel by upgrading its college into a University. (Haaretz)

Posted on August 23, 2007

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One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Treif-tasting Fish

This entry was posted in Practices on by .

We all get cravings. There’s the usual–chocolate, pizza, Chinese food. The childlike–macaroni and cheese, peanut butter and jelly. The Jewish–pickles, matzah ball soup, deli.

Now you can add yak, blue marlin, and pigeon to that list. Well you could have been eating these all along, but sometimes it takes the help of gourmet kosher dinner to remind you what Jews can and cannot eat, according to dietary laws.

A recent event at LA’s Prime Grill, a high-end kosher restaurant on Beverly Hills’ Rodeo Drive, offered an unusual menu of kosher dishes:

“Kosher law we often view as very restrictive,” said Ari Zivotofsky, a main organizer of the event. “It doesn’t have to be. . . . People should know the Torah doesn’t prohibit these things.”

For example, there are no prohibitions against yak. It was served with a spicy Asian sauce. The 15-course meal also included blue marlin, sparrow and dove in a minestrone soup, crispy pigeon with mango salad, quail and partridge served with Korean-style cucumber, and spice-encrusted grilled elk. (MORE)

A meat-eaters delight.

The two main organizers, experts in ritual slaugter, travel around the world speaking to rabbis and schochtim to collect testimonies as what animals are kosher.

Perhaps one of the most interesting delights served was the shibuta fish:

More than 1,500 years ago, Jewish scholars wrote of the shibuta, an unusual fish found in the Tigris and Euphrates rivers of ancient Babylon, modern-day Iraq.

In the Talmud, that encyclopedic compendium of Jewish law and tradition, the shibuta is described as a tasty and popular fish with a distinctive trait — it apparently tastes like pork.

According to kashrut, Jewish dietary laws, it is forbidden to eat pig. A kosher animal must have split hooves and chew its cud. The pig, however, is not a ruminant, and is also viewed as an unclean animal in many faiths.

The significance of the shibuta is the idea that while God forbade certain foods, God also provided kosher equivalents that will evoke a similar taste. Thus a porky fish.

All I know is that next time one of these events happens, someone better give me a call ahead of time.

Posted on August 22, 2007

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Today’s Jewel of Elul — Teach Them To Swim

This entry was posted in Holidays on by .

Today’s Jewel of Elul from Craig and Co. is by Jerome Groopman, a professor of medicine at Harvard and a best-selling author.

On the wall of the pool at my Jewish community center is a line from the Talmud, “A father should teach his child three things: Torah, a trade, and to swim.” For years, I read this as inspiration to improve my stroke. But then I wondered if the Talmud was also imparting a profound message about hope and healing.

It is no surprise that the Rabbis would encourage learning Torah to bring us closer to God and mastering a trade to obtain material
sustenance. But why learn to swim?

The Talmud does not say, “be taught to walk” because the ground is our natural habitat. Water is not. In water, there is nothing to hold on to. There is the risk of drowning, so we must learn how to adapt to new, dangerous, and uncertain surroundings.

When we become ill, it is like being thrown into water. Hope and healing are like swimming. To pass through illness, we must change our usual way of functioning and take control of an unnatural environment. At first, we may thrash around, but God has given us the ability to move forward and prevail. This can be taught to our children after we learn it ourselves.

Craig n’ Co. will be posting a new Jewel every day of Elul. To read them all or to order a free booklet of this year’s Jewels, click here or on the banner below.

Jewels of Elul

Posted on August 22, 2007

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Jewish Vulnerability: A Novel

This entry was posted in Culture on by .

I finally started reading Michael Chabon’s new novel The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, and so far, as virtually all the reviews indicated, it’s excellent.

The book takes place in an alternate reality in which the Jews lost the Israeli War of Independence and ended up with a temporary homeland in Alaska.

When I first heard about the book, I immediately thought of Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America. Roth’s novel takes place in an alternate reality in which Charles Lindbergh becomes President of the United States and makes a pact with Hitler not to enter World War II.

It seemed notable that two of America’s most celebrated Jewish novelists had taken the two most intense moments in 20th century Jewish history and turned them on their heads. But reading The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, my initial thoughts about why this happened are changing a bit.

Much of Roth’s novel seemed to be a commentary on contemporary events. As I noted back when the book came out:

For Philip, Lindbergh’s presidency “assaulted as nothing ever had before, that huge endowment of personal security that I had taken for granted as an American child of American parents in an American school in an American city in an America at peace with the world.” These words are sure to resonate with every post-9/11 American. Next, we’re introduced to a president who is “misleading the country with promises of peace while secretly agitating and planning for our entry intro the armed struggle.”

So similarly, while Roth is neither a cheerleader nor a worrywart for American Jewry, in some ways, The Plot seemed to express a renewed anxiety about Jewish security and safety, reflecting the contemporary rise in anti-Semitic incidents and anti-Israel rhetoric worldwide.

My assumption, before starting Chabon’s book, was that his dire set-up — Jews living in Alaska because they were massacred in Palestine in 1948 — could be read as a similar projection of contemporary Jewish survival-anxiety.

But a hundred pages in I realize that there’s another option: Rather than being a display of contemporary Jewish vulnerability, these novels (or perhaps just one of them) is an expression of the opposite: Jewish security and power.

How so?

In the past, an artistic creation about Jewish suffering would likely be a work of realism. Artists didn’t need to create fantastical premises in order to forge an Oy Vey!-worthy setting.

Meaning: Perhaps the fact that Roth and Chabon had to create alternate realities in order to paint pictures of Jewish misfortune is a testament to the fortunate — relatively powerful, relatively wealthy, relatively safe — if still complicated, status of world Jewry.

Posted on August 22, 2007

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All of Us or All of Them?

This entry was posted in Practices on by .

Recently the Union for Reform Judaism published a new edition of Kulanu (All of Us), a resource guide for LGBT inclusion in Reform services and ritual. Notable are two prayers that can be recited on the occassion of undergoing a sex-change, written by Rabbi Elliot Kukla.

Kukla, who was known as Eliza when ordained in 2006 by the movement’s New York seminary, originally wrote the blessings for a friend who wanted to mark each time he received testosterone therapy. Still, Kukla believes they are appropriate for multiple moments in the sex-change process, including “moments of medical transitions.” (MORE)

I have no problems at all with this addition and think the URJ does an outstanding job of catering to the needs of minorities in Judaism who may feel unwelcome other places. My only question is about the length of the book: 500 pages.

Seriously. What’s in it? It seems that by providing so much specialized information, singling out a group of people, it could lead to more separation. I imagine it would be in the best interests and the wishes of the community to eventually merge this material with “regular” ritual guides, to show real inclusion.

Posted on August 21, 2007

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The Pressure Cooker

This entry was posted in General on by .

Don’t get me wrong. Academic pressure is nothing new. Case in point: when I was in third grade my teacher called my parents in and told them they had to ease up on me.

They had no idea what the teacher was talking about, because they weren’t putting any pressure on me at all. It was all my own eight-year-old self.

Let’s face it. Once you move past the protected bubble of blocks and naptime and graham crackers that is preschool and kindergarten, school is HARD. It is serious work. Perhaps even more difficult than so-called “grown-up jobs,” where you are at least allowed to stand up and stretch whenever you please.

But school is also fun. The new friends, unique experiences and even–maybe especially–the learning. So how do we give our children a love of school and learning that will take them through their ABCs, SATs and beyond?

On our homepage this week, Sharon Duke Estroff offers age-old parenting lessons for a new school year, showing us how we can help our children succeed academically without driving them–or ourselves–crazy. And reminding us that:

…even if you conclude that your child is not a budding Albert Einstein, you’re in good company. At the end of the day most of our kids are, well, regular old kids–good at some things, not so good at others. And counting on us to love and support them in all their wonderfully regular-kid glory.

Posted on August 21, 2007

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Where’s Big Bird When You Need Him?

This entry was posted in Culture on by .

“The cats here are asleep- the poor, wretched, imprisoned cats. I feel like abusing them.”

Just another classic quote from Tomorrow’s Pioneers, Hamas’ premier children’s show. In a recent segment, Nahoul the Bee shows children “how not to treat animals.” But perhaps picking up cats by their tails and throwing stones at lions isn’t the best way to do so.

Nahoul_the_Bee.jpg

This isn’t the first time that Nahoul has been in the news. He replaced Farfour the Mouse, a Mickey look-a-like, who was beaten to death by an Israeli trying to by his land. As the child host of the show tells the audience, “Farfour was martyred while defending his land.�

ap_hamas_mickey_070511_ms.jpg
But will Nahoul bee as popular with children? He was introduced as Farfour’s cousin, which is just silly. Even brainwashed children should know that bees and mice aren’t related.

Don’t worry, though. Calev Ben-David of the Jerusalem Post has some suggestions for a new lead character, including:

Jiha-Dora the Explorer – Jiha-Dora is a little Palestinian girl who every program must go on a special quest while wearing her magic explosive Backpack, a character in itself which helps her find her way though various obstacles to a selected target area (an Israeli bus, schoolyard or pizza parlor). Jiha-Dora also has a cute monkey sidekick, Boots Rantisi, who helps her avoid the traps laid for her along the way by the crafty fox Zionist Land-Swiper, and she also has two loving parents, Umm Jiha-Dora and Abu Jiha-Dora, to encourage her in following the path to martyrdom. (MORE)

Posted on August 20, 2007

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A Gentile Drowning

This entry was posted in Texts on by .

Yesterday I blogged about our need, as a community, to confront the darker corners of our textual tradition. I worried that if we don’t study and address Judaism’s “racist and anti-social” texts, we risk the possibility of them being embraced and invoked.

Dig around online and you’ll find several articles posted by white supremacist and extreme Muslim groups “exposing” the “racist” teachings of the Talmud. In fact, the Talmud has a particularly bad reputation amongst those less inclined to view Jews favorably. (The article most disseminated, is “The Truth About the Talmud“.)

Many people will say that we have no obligation to respond to lunatic anti-Semites, but I’m not so sure that these texts and traditions are irrelevant. Though my modern orthodox education wasn’t explicitly racist, there is no doubt that non-Jews were implicitly looked down upon; and other religious traditions were, indeed, at times, explicitly mocked. I believe that these teachings eventually do have practical ramifications.

Noah Feldman has gotten much slack for mentioning Baruch Goldstein and Yigal Amir in his article about modern orthodoxy, but coming from a similar educational background as Noah, I totally understood why he believed they were relevant. It is not coincidental that Goldstein carried out his massacre on Purim, where there is a tradition of invoking violence against Amalek.

So now I’ve talked a big game and said we need to start figuring out what to do with these texts. So what do we do? Well, let’s start by identifying some. I’ll start with one today, and then when I’m back from a brief vacation next week, hopefully, continue with some more.

Difficult text #1 might be random, but it was the first one that made me really internalize the issue at hand, a teaching of Maimonides mentioned in Israel Shahak’s Jewish History, Jewish Religion. Shahak, an anti-Zionist, Israeli Holocaust survivor, who passed away a few years ago, is a good source for these texts. His work, much of which claims that anti-Gentile traditions are part and parcel of Zionism, is well known in the Arab world and amongst those in the international left.

The text from Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, Laws of Murder 4:11:

“As for Gentiles with whom we are not at war…their death must not be caused, but it is forbidden to save them if they are at the point of death; if, for example, one of them is seen falling into the sea, he should not be rescued, for it is written: ‘neither shalt thou stand against the blood of thy fellow’–but [a Gentile] is not thy fellow.”

To be fair, Maimonides uses a term for “Gentiles,” which literally means “idol worshippers.” But I’m not sure this makes things better. It may exclude Muslims, but according to Maimonides it wouldn’t exclude Christians. And while Menachem Meiri might exclude Christians, would any traditional commentator exclude Hindus?

So what do we do about a text that suggests that one should not save a drowning gentile (or idol worshipper, whatever)?

We can reject it and condemn it. But is that enough? It’s still there — and in a book we respect.

When I interviewed British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks a couple of years ago, I asked him about this text specifically (after he invoked Maimonides in the context of presenting traditional Jewish ethics as straightforward: “If someone is in need, give.”) Rabbi Sacks, who I deeply respect, was utterly unperturbed by the text, asserting that, as a community, we have never considered it the correct practical response.

To me this seemed dismissive. What do you think?

Posted on August 16, 2007

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