Monthly Archives: November 2008

A Baby By Any Other Name…

This entry was posted in History, Life, Texts on by .

JTA is currently featuring an article about the challenge of choosing a name for a Jewish baby, so I thought I’d mention that we at MJL have an article about choosing a name for your baby, and especially about various naming customs in different Jewish communities.


I’m not planning on having a kid anytime soon, but I have been thinking about naming more than usual because I have a few friends who are in their third trimester of pregnancy, and also because my mother just died so I’ve been thinking about derivations of her name I could use for future children.  As we mention in our article, it’s very common for Jews to name their babies after deceased parents or grandparents, and while I think it used to be normal for people to use the original name again, I often see couples doing some kind of derivation in order to get to a name they like better.  My younger sister, for instance, is named after our great-grandmother Roberta.  My parents wanted something more Jewish and less masculine, so they kept the R, looked for something Israeli-sounding, and ended up with Renana.

It struck me today how completely different our current naming process us from the one we see in the Bible.  Naming is a really big deal in the Bible, and almost every time a woman gives birth to a child in the narrative, the name is given and explained based on the circumstances of the woman’s life, or sometimes of the birth itself. Consider this passage from Genesis 31:35:

The Lord saw that Leah was unloved and he opened her womb; but Rachel was barren. Leah conceived and bore a son, and named him Reuben; for she declared, “It means: ‘The Lord has seen my affliction'; it also means: ‘Now my husband will love me.'” She conceived again and bore a son, and declared, “This is because the Lord heard that I was unloved and has given me this one also” so she named him Simeon. Again she conceived and bore a son and declared, “This time my husband will become attached to me, for I have borne him three sons.” Therefore he was named Levi. She conceived again and bore a son, and declared, “This time I will praise the Lord.” Therefore she named him Judah. Then she stopped bearing.

Here’s another good example from Genesis 38:27-29:

When the time came for her to give birth, there were twins in her womb! While she was in labor, one of them put out his hand and the midwife tied a crimson thread on that hand to signify: This one came out first. But just then he drew back his hand, and out came his brother; and she said, “What a breach you have made for yourself!” So he was named Perez. Afterward his brother came out, on whose hang was the crimson thread; he was named Zerah.

It’s interesting to me that in the Bible people aren’t being named after each other, they’re named because of what’s going on around them when they’re born.  Now people look for names that are interesting, unusual, or pretty. On the one hand, I can see why–if I held by this method and had a daughter this year she’d be named Weep Despondent Fox–but on the other hand, I think there’s something nice about having a name that’s really based on you and what was going on when you were born.

One of the really nice things about giving a baby a Hebrew name is that you can almost cover both bases–name the baby something that is both pertinent to the situation of its birth, but also something that sounds pretty and name-y.  Instead of Weepy Despondent I could go with Naomi Mara. Naomi is a famous mother in the Bible, and the name comes from the root word Na’im, which means “pleasant.” In Ruth 1:20 we get a new kind of naming, “‘Do not call me Naomi,’ she replied. ‘Call me Mara, for Shaddai has made my lot very bitter.'”

Mara means “bitter” in Hebrew. It’s a sad name, one that is taken when Naomi feels forsaken by God, but it’s actually quite beautiful, and what happens to Naomi? She ends up doing pretty well when Ruth marries Boaz and gets them both out of the poorhouse. In fact, Naomi is one of King David’s ancestors. By calling my kid Naomi Mara I could be honoring my mother, and also expressing the sadness of this stage in my life.

That’s just an example off the top of my head, but my point is that you can do a lot with names in Hebrew if you bother to look into the stories and etymology behind them. And I think my method is way better than that of Lisa Keys who wrote the article for JTA. She ends up with Leon just because it sounds Jewish Grandpa-y and she and her husband can agree on it.

Posted on November 21, 2008

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

Texas, O Texas

This entry was posted in Beliefs on by .

An update on the evolution debate my home state of Crazyland, aka Texas. Just before the school year, the board of education approved elective courses in Bible for public schools.

Now the state is deciding whether or not to require the teaching of the “strengths and weaknesses” of scientific theories such as evolution.

Really? What year is this? 657?Texas is nuts

JTA is reporting that three Reform rabbis testified before the board, urging them to not pass this measure:

On the surface, teaching about the ‘strengths and limitations of scientific explanations’… may not seem like teaching religious beliefs. Yet…when science teachers answer questions about evolution and origins of life by pointing to the divine or supernatural, they are incorporating religion into science classrooms,” testified Rabbi Ana Bonnheim, assistant director for education at the Union of Reform Judaism’s Greene Family Camp. (MORE)

I guess I left the home while the getting out was good.

Posted on November 21, 2008

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The Virgin Bride

This entry was posted in Life on by .

In recent months I have received a flurry of wedding invitations. I have also been helping plan my sister’s wedding, which is in two weeks.


With this influx of invitations, I have started to pay closer attention to the Hebrew text which usually mirrors the English text on the invitation.

What I found was quite disturbing:

On the English side of the invitation it says “honored children” and then states the names of the man and woman who are getting married.  On the Hebrew side of the invitation there are two extra statements.  Above the woman’s name it states: “The virgin bride who is praised” or just simply “the virgin bride.” Above the man’s name it states “The young distinguished boy.”

When I pointed out these offensive words to people, many responded by stating that the woman is also referred to as a virgin bride in the marriage contract (ketubah). However, I believe that although it can be taken offensively in the marriage contract as well, I can understand it better, because, after all, it is a contract with both parties entering into the marriage under certain assumptions, in many cases the understanding that the bride is a virgin.

But on an invitation is it really necessary to have the phrase “the virgin bride” placed right on top of the woman’s name?

In my humble opinion, it is not only immodest and tasteless but it belittles the woman to nothing more than a sexual object that is being flaunted and bought by her “distinguished” husband.


It is surprising to me that in a culture that is so obsessed with modesty or tz’ni’ut such a phrase would be allowed on a document which is sent out to hundreds and sometimes a thousand people.

If you happen to be a woman making a wedding any time in the near future, keep in mind that you are more that just a virgin bride.

Posted on November 21, 2008

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Hard Core Religion

This entry was posted in Culture, History on by .

The L.A. Times ran a piece a few days ago on Muslim punk-rock teenagers, which mostly served as an excuse to run a non-dairy-creamer story on how Muslim kids are wrestling with, and sticking to, the faith.

muslim punk roock kids?!?

The story is told from the point of view of Hiba Siddiqui, a 17-year-old girl in Texas, who’s in a rebellious spot (she’s not praying 5 times a day or dressing in hijab), but still trying to make sense of her religion. Her room is a pastiche of Rumi books and Nylon magazines.

There are a lot of perfect moments in the story — a girl quoting Muslim rapper T.I.P. in her speech for Muslim Student Association president; a quote from a song in a book, “Muhammad was a punk rocker and he rocked that town.” Another girl confronts her mother with the amazing book The Taqwacores, a Muslim punk-rock novel by Michael Muhammad Knight (which actually kick-started a genre of music) that offers insights like the following:

I stopped trying to define Punk around the same time I stopped trying to define Islam. . . . Both are viewed by outsiders as unified, cohesive communities when nothing can be further from the truth.

But the article’s failure, in my opinion, is the same thing I encountered with (sorry, egotism) people writing about my Orthodox Jewish punk-rock book Never Mind the Goldbergs — it’s a lot easier to say “look! kids are rebellious! and still trying to be religious!” than it is to look at the intersection of the two and ask out why it’s going on, or what it means. I mean, I’m a journalist too, and I know that the best stories are supposed to tell themselves, and the writer shouldn’t let opinions creep in. Hiba sounds like a fascinating person, and I’d love to hear more of what she thinks of herself — not just that she decided to friend Muhammad Knight and some taqwacore bands on Myspace.

Posted on November 21, 2008

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

2009 will rock

This entry was posted in Holidays on by .

So it’s that time of the year when many people start buying calendars for next year. And some nice Jewish boys have put out a calendar featuring… nice Jewish boys. Nice Jewish Boy Ira

Who can’t resist a Jewfro, glasses, and untweezed eyebrows?

And it’s a pretty good deal (I’m thinking Hanukkah gifts for everyone). For only $12.95 you get all 12 gentlemen, with Jewish holidays already marked. The calendar usually ships within 72 hours.

You’ve got Zev, Samuel, Avi, Efran, Aaron, Benjamin, Seth, plus 5 others. It’s more than a minyan of hotness niceness.
Nice Jewish Boy Noah

But if that’s not enough to get you going, perhaps you should look into Jamie Sneider’s 2009 calendar: The Year of the Jewish Woman.

An actress, Jamie writes:

I walked into a Jewish bakery in the Fairfax area of LA and it came back. I smelled the challah, the babkas and I remembered. ‘This is my love. This is who I am.’

On my blog, I wrote about my desire to do a nude photo shoot posed with Jewish foods. I then started posing with pastries from my local Jewish bakery. I have always found Jewish pastries sensual and somewhat erotic. I adore them.” Jamie likes cookies

And a nude photo shoot with Jewish foods she did. There’s even a resource page describing all of the types of bakery goods that appear in the calendar. But perhaps the most bizarre aspect is her dedication:

This calendar is dedicated to my Nana, Edith Sneider. Edith managed a bakery in Miami, Florida called “Kosher Treats.” She loved kibitzing and schmoozing with the customers, and she especially loved the baked goods.

Yes, those nude photos of Jamie and kosher bakery goods are dedicated to her Nana. This so sounds like something Sarah Silverman would do.

Nonetheless, the calendar also features Jewish and international holidays and costs $24. And for only $5 more, you can get an autographed poster.

The perfect gift for your Nana as well.

Posted on November 20, 2008

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

What Happens Then?

This entry was posted in History, Holidays, Life on by .

Last week an older man who I know from various minyanim on the Upper West Side mentioned that he was about to finish his year of saying Kaddish. I opened my mouth to respond and realized I had no idea what was an appropriate thing to say in that situation.  Mazal tov? I’m so sorry? I hope this year has been one of healing? In the end I simply said, “I don’t know what to say,” and he told me it was okay, he didn’t know either.eema_lighting_thanks_candle.jpg

This is not something that I’ve thought much about, since I’m still so early in the year of saying kaddish, but it has become so central a thing in my life that the idea of stopping, of stepping back from the grief, is terrifying.

It has been an incredibly hard few weeks.  I had been doing pretty well, I thought, but then I fell apart, and for more than two weeks I found myself on the verge of tears many many times every day.  On the subway, at the gym, at work, in the shower–I just get so sad I can’t get a hold of myself.  Anytime I think of those last few minutes–the family standing around the bed and holding Eema’s hands as she faded away– I feel like hiding under the covers and never coming out. I am overwhelmed and exhausted by the idea of subverting my grief in order to get through basic interactions with others.  Sometimes paying for a gallon of milk without dissolving into tears seems nearly impossible.

And then yesterday, at minyan, a woman was leading davening and she had a yahrzeit for her son, who died five years ago. It was eight o’clock in the morning and the room was perfectly still, everyone trying to make space for the sorrow that rolled in invisible waves off of her body and pushed against all of us.  She was a stranger, no one I had ever seen before, but I wanted to tell her, afterwards, how sorry I was. When I approached her, the tears came quick and hot and I was humiliated. One of the things about grief that I find so frustrating is how selfish it makes me.  I cannot see past this, I cannot get over myself enough to gently say something sweet to someone else who is in pain.

I’ve been thinking about all this in connection to Thanksgiving, which is coming up in a week.  It’s a holiday that’s meant to be about being grateful, and about eating with a community of people who help each other through difficult times.  This year it seems simultaneously profound and perverse.  It’s hard to imagine being thankful, celebrating a year of plenty when this year has been so soul-crushingly sad.  Yes, we’ve had plenty of food, and plenty of support from amazing and lovely people, but it’s hard to focus on the thanks when everything else is so horrifying. I think thanks is something that you can do effectively when you’re either very close to something (thank you for giving me food because otherwise I would have starved) or have a lot of perspective (now that I’m an adult I can appropriately thank you for disciplining me in a way that was respectful and effective).  When you’re somewhere in between–not super-close , but a long way from having any perspective–it’s so hard to be thankful.

Then, this morning, I read this poem. And I feel a little better, though no less confused.

Praise Song By Barbara Crooker

Praise the light of late November,
the thin sunlight that goes deep in the bones.
Praise the crowd chattering in the oak trees;
though they are clothed in night, they do not
despair. Praise what little there’s left:
the small boats of milkweed pods, husks, hulls,
shells, the architecture of trees. Praise the meadow
of dried weeds: yarrow, goldenrod, chicory,
the remains of summer. Praise the blue sky
that hasn’t cracked yet. Praise the sun slipping down
behind the beechnuts, praise the quilt of leaves
that covers the grass: Scarlet Oak, Sweet Gum,
Sugar Maple. Though darkness gathers, praise our crazy
fallen world; it’s all we have and it’s never enough.

(Cross-posted at Blogging the Kaddish)

Posted on November 20, 2008

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

You got served! Jewish non-profit style!

This entry was posted in General on by .

Shalom TV is starting up a war! Everybody hit the floor so you don’t get hit!

In an interview this week with Malcolm Hoenlein, the Executive Vice Chair of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations (you may remember him from such events as disinviting Sarah Palin from the Anti-Iran Rally), dismissed the Forward’s criticism of the organization for being too right-wing, citing the newspaper as “never (having) anything to say.”

The Forward has yet to respond because they are too busy organizing a rally to urge President Wilson not to enter the war in Europe.hoenlein.jpg

Hey Forward, don’t mess with Hoenlein. He’ll F- you up!

In other news, Malcolm Hoenlein is no longer running for the head of the Bund.

Posted on November 20, 2008

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

Out of the Extraordinary

This entry was posted in Culture on by .

Today on Nextbook, I wrote an article about the brilliant Motown funk of the Israeli colony of Dimona, a Hasidic hip-hop duo with their own soul band, and Matisyahu’s new opening act, marlon from shem's discipleswho isn’t Jewish (actually, he’s from Somalia, currently residing in Toronto) but whose name, K’naan, sort of has a Biblical ring to it, and whose mind-bogglingly good song “In the Beginning” definitely does. Click here to download the track, or listen to a bunch of stuff and read the whole article:

Dimona is a small village in the Negev, half an hour south of Beersheva. It’s an incredibly small town, less than three square miles, and since it’s in the middle of the Israeli desert, it doesn’t get much in the way of tourists. Mostly, Dimona is known for two things: its nuclear power plant, and its community of Black Hebrews, a group of African-American émigrés who left Chicago, followed the revolutionary leader Marcus Garvey to Liberia, and ended up immigrating en-masse to Israel in the late 1960s.

The community is featured sporadically in Jewish newspapers, mostly as a wacky story about unconventional Israeli immigrants. The thing most reporters don’t usually write about, however, is the town of Dimona’s unlikely profusion of pop and soul singles in the 1970s.


Posted on November 20, 2008

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

Signs that Jewish trendiness is dying

This entry was posted in History, Practices on by .

Okay, I just followed a Google Ad which led to a website advertising this book — a 636-page edition, limited to 1200 copies, of photographs mainly of Hasidim, Black Jews, and Amy Winehouse, titled (simply) “A Book of Jews” and priced (elegantly) at $550 USD.

a book of jewsNow, I am the least likely person to argue against the idea of a fancy, overpriced book. As a person with — ahem — a personal stake in the publishing industry, I think that publisher Richard Nash’s call for more really cheap books and more really expensive, nice-looking luxury books is spot-on. I also don’t think there’s something intrinsically unfair or dishonest about making Jews trendy or turning the funny-looking parts of Judaism (payos, chicken-flinging, Barbra Streisand) into hip and trendy-seeming things.

But more than anything that’s been thrown our way so far, “A Book of Jews” seems, well, extravagant. What to get the Jew who has everything — who also happens to have several hundred dollars that they don’t know what to do with, and the far-more-unlikelier situation of a coffee table unadorned by an oversize book. (I mean, come on, doesn’t every rich person already own those beautiful Sandman comic books that I totally lust after for their coffee tables?)

In any case, I think it’s a safe time to declare the Cool Jew trend dead — even if it did produce some neat books, fun pop-song mash-ups, and, as of tonight, some amazing performer line-ups. Let’s see the evidence:

  • The Heeb Hundred are all completely obscure in-jokes. The Forward 50 was one big duh of way-too-obvious candidates (Rahm Emanuel, Ruth Bader Ginsburg), self-congratulatory candidates (Aaron Rubashkin), and so-five-years-ago candidates (Sarah Silverman).
  • Even Jewlicious has officially called it a day: “[T]he chickens have come to roost and contemporary Jewish culture has inevitably become bland and uninteresting -….I think I am contemplating the end of the Jews as a force to be reckoned with.”
  • Meredith says that she saw Jewish trendiness on clearance at Old Navy. “Old Navy,” she says, “is where trends go to die. Gray tight jeans. They used to be cool and hipster, and then Old Navy started carrying them. Now they’re no longer socially acceptable. Wearing scarves indoors, vintage shirts with funny sayings on them — trend over. Goodbye.” Just so you know, she adds, if you go to Old Navy and see an I *heart* Hashem t-shirt — that will be its epitaph.

Any more evidence — for, against, or impartial? I know there’s got to be a huge dossier on this.

Posted on November 20, 2008

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

Rabban Gamliel, Mormons, and People Who Aren’t There

This entry was posted in Beliefs, History on by .

Last night I went to the Mechon Hadar beit midrash  for a session on prayer leaders, and what qualities a prayer leader should have led by Rabbi Elie Kaunfer. One of the sources we looked at was a discussion of whether or not a person leading prayers can discharge the obligation of people who aren’t even present at the place where the prayers are being done. Rabban Gamliel said that even someone who’s out working the fields can fulfill his obligation via the proxy of a prayer leader. This seemed a little ridiculous to me (and to the Sages, who did not hold by Rabban Gamliel’s standards).

Then this morning I saw another article about Mormons who are posthumously baptizing Jews who perished in the Holocaust.  051007_MormonBaptism_vl.small.jpg

Jewish group wants Mormons to stop proxy baptisms
By Deepti Hajela and Jennifer Dobner
The Associated Press

NEW YORK — Holocaust survivors said Monday they are through trying to negotiate with the Mormon church over posthumous baptisms of Jews killed in Nazi concentration camps, saying the church has repeatedly violated a 13-year-old agreement barring the practice.

Leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints say they are making changes to their massive genealogical database that will make it more difficult for names of Holocaust victims to be entered for posthumous baptism by proxy, a rite that has been a common Mormon practice for more than a century.

But Ernest Michel, honorary chairman of the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors, said that is not enough. At a news conference in New York City on Monday, he said the church also must “implement a mechanism to undo what you have done.”

Baptism of a Jewish Holocaust victim and then merely removing that name from the database is just not acceptable,” said Michel, whose parents died at Auschwitz. He spoke on the 70th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the Nazi-incited riots against Jews.

“We ask you to respect us and our Judaism just as we respect your religion,” Michel said in a statement released ahead of the news conference. “We ask you to leave our six million Jews, all victims of the Holocaust, alone, they suffered enough.”

Michel said talks with Mormon leaders, held as recently as last week, have ended. He said his group will not sue, and that “the only thing left, therefore, is to turn to the court of public opinion.”

The Mormon response to the request was pretty lame:

“We don’t think any faith group has the right to ask another to change its doctrines,” Wickman said. “If our work for the dead is properly understood … it should not be a source of friction to anyone. It’s merely a freewill offering.”

Full story
I’m sorry, but ‘freewill offering’ my tush. Baptizing people who aren’t there–not cool. Way worse than praying for people who aren’t there.

Posted on November 19, 2008

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