Monthly Archives: January 2009

Atheist Rap

This entry was posted in Beliefs on by .

I bet I’d like Richard Dawkins more if he actually rapped like this.

Posted on January 27, 2009

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Hating “Loving Leah,” But Loving The Orthodox Girls

This entry was posted in Culture, History on by .

I never thought I’d say it — at least, in this context — but thank God that Matisyahu wears good clothes on MTV.

On The View yesterday, Susie Essman — who plays the Lubavitch mother of the eponymous character in the Hallmark Hall of Fame special Loving Leah — served as hot chanie watchingthe world’s authority to Orthodox Jews. Do you know how many people watch The View? Do you know how many of those people have never met an Orthodox Jew in their lives? And, thankfully, someone as knowledgeable and as accurate a researcher as Susie Essman is their only dose of exposure to Orthodox Jews.

BARBARA WALTERS: What did you learn in your course of researching the Hasidim?
SUSIE ESSMAN: I learned they’re not very good dressers.

Sara Ester Crispe, webmaster of TheJewishWoman.org, just told her off on JTA. And there’s definitely no shortage of articles about hot Orthodox women — including a whole Hot Chani Field Guide and a blog — to the contrary. I don’t know if the fact-checkers for The View didn’t get a chance to do their homework, or if it all just happened too quickly to edit, but there’s something wrong in View-land.

I can’t believe that not even Whoopi Goldberg called her out on it. I mean, she starred in the COLOR FREAKING PURPLE. (What she’s doing on daytime TV is a total mystery — I mean, it’s not, everyone needs a good paycheck — but I figured she’d be using her role to better the universe, not be Barbara Walters’ funny-glasses’d sidekick.)

Fortunately, it’s the easiest thing in the universe to send a comment to The View just telling them that Susie Essman was gross, inappropriate, and doesn’t know what she was talking about — but that Sara Ester Crispe is funny, charming, and a laugh riot. Put her up next to Barbara — then we’ll see who’s better-dressed.

In actuality, what offended me most about her comments wasn’t that — it was the intimation that Orthodox men are perverts who are uncontrollably turned on by a woman’s hair. (Not yours, honey.) Okay, I don’t expect anyone (least of all Susie Essman) to understand the finer points of Jewish mysticism, but check this out: ONLY MARRIED WOMEN COVER THEIR HAIR. If hair is that sexually arousing, and that’s why crazy Orthodox people cover it, then wouldn’t all women’s hair be covered? Anyway, Susie: If you’re reading this, next time, do a little research. You don’t even have to meet a real Orthodox woman — just read about it on MyJewishLearning. I promise, the entire article will take you less than 5 minutes, flat.

In any case, here’s the video. Susie’s bad side comes out right at 3:00, if you want to skip the kibitzing.

Posted on January 27, 2009

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Two for the Price of One

This entry was posted in History on by .

You know that joke about the only Jew in a small town? He is giving a tour of the town and he shows two synagogues. One is the one he goes to regularly and the other is the one he wouldn’t be caught dead in.

Well, today is International Holocaust Memorial Day. It was designated to be a day of remembrance by the UN in 2005. I guess the Hebrew calendar was too complicated for the UN. Or they didn’t get the memo that Yom HaShoah already existed.

This must be one of the more ironic remembrance days. It is probably the only remembrance day that the victims don’t actually pay attention to. It’s like someone made a birthday party for you but you declined the invitation saying you want to plan your own. Except they still had the party anyways.

And it’s a good thing you did.

This year’s UN International Rememberance Day is full of controvery. The host of the event, UN General Assembly President, Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann, ended up skipping the event after Jewish groups, Israel and the US, threatened to boycott it if he spoke. There was a fear that he would use the stage to compare Israel to the Nazis.

Thanks for the invite UN. If you want to come to our event in April, you are more than welcome to attend.

Posted on January 27, 2009

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Mourning Stinks

This entry was posted in History, Practices on by .

On Sunday afternoon I went to mincha/maariv at an Orthodox synagogue in my neighborhood. Last week some random lady there told me that because I sat in the back, instead of next to her, the Kaddish I said didn’t count, and later in the week she emailed me to lecture me on “the special structure of Kaddish.” Hey thanks, lady. It’s not like I work at a Jewish educational website or anything… Anyway, I probably should have taken the hint and never gone back, but some of the other possibilities in my neighborhood don’t have a great reputation for always getting a minyan, so this week I was back at the same place, and when I walked into the women’s section I was greeted by…big smelly garbage bags. Many big smelly garbage bags taking up the entire section.trash.gif

There is a metaphor here, and it is not even remotely subtle. Women are trash. Trash belongs where the women usually go. Wow. Thanks.

I was standing in the doorway in shock when a couple of guys showed up to try to figure out what to do with the trash bags so there could be some space for women to daven (I know, novel!). It turned out that the trash bags were full of clothes that had been donated and were going to Israel to families in need, which is nice, I guess, but doesn’t really explain why they were taking up the space that had been designated for women. Also, they were smelly.

In the end, the trash bags were pushed to one side and a mechitza was set up within the women’s section, to separate us from the smelly trash bags. So, the women’s section, which was already less than a quarter the size of the men’s section, was suddenly about a third as big as it had been before, which is to say, very small.

When a person dies, we often say of them, “may their memory be for a blessing,” or, “of blessed memory.” This is the first time that I feel like my mother’s memory has really been besmirched. This is the kind of thing that would make her turn over in her grave (so to speak). My mother was a person of utmost tolerance and respect. She was passionate about egalitarianism, but she wouldn’t dream of intentionally offending any religious person, and was accommodating to a fault. And here I am, trying to honor her, trying to say Kaddish, and I am grouped with trash bags.

I know that there’s a significant difference between bags of trash, and bags of clothing that are going to tzedakah. I appreciate that so many people donated items to go to families in need, but I am frankly irate that the attitude of whoever is in charge of this shul was apparently that the women’s section can be used as a storage facility, that it doesn’t matter if women have to daven next to huge piles of trash bags, and it doesn’t matter if women are davening next to something that smells.

I think observant women need to be making more of a showing at shul, and I think that’s the quickest and most effective way of changing the way Orthodoxy views women and feminism, but after my experience on Sunday I can fully understand why women might stay away.

Posted on January 26, 2009

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Lord of the Foods: The Quest for 16

This entry was posted in Culture on by .

This past Friday night, my friend Jordan and I decided to embark on the ultimate Shabbat dinner challenge. We wanted to have all 16 foods from the Jewish Food Tournament in one meal.

The first challenge we had was finding funds for such an endeavor. Luckily for us, Jordan is a Birthright alumnus, meaning he qualifies for NEXT Shabbat, something which I blogged about a couple months ago. To thank them, I have renamed the tournament the Taglit-Birthright Israel NEXT Shabbat MyJewishLearning.com Kosher Food Invitational (TBINSMJLKFI).

The preparation of the food ran rather smoothly, minus the fact that I angered the old Jewish lady who owns the butcher near me and shouldn’t return there for a month or so.

But sadly, I could not fulfill the dream. When it came to the desserts (honey cake, hamentashen, sufganiyot), I came up short. For some reason, honey cake was tough to find and the other two were impossible to find without dairy products.

But lets not think about the negatives. Have you ever had apples & honey, matzah, horeset, cholent, gefilte fish, lox & bagels all at one meal? Let alone a Friday night?challah.jpg

I think not.

The highlight for me was the cholent. The lowpoint was probably the matzah. It is sitting in my kitchen untouched since I took a piece.

Did we eat all 16 foods? No. Did we try? Yes. Was it one of the craziest meals I ever had? Not even a question.

Posted on January 26, 2009

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The Boys Boys from Brazil

Not a typo: There’s a village in Brazil where one out of every five births produces twins, most of them blond-haired and blue-eyed. If you can guess who might have been behind them — or what experiments may have set the stage for this sort of medical tampering — you win a cookie.

According to a new Spanish book, Mengele: the Angel of Death in South America, the head doctor of Auschwitz shuttled himself between German colonies in Paraguay and Brazil, avoiding capture by the authorities until his death in 1979. (There’s a pretty intense article about his background and evasion of post-war capture here.) But Angel of Death sheds new light, so to speak, on his Brazilian activities and suggests that he might have succeeded in creating a race of perfect Aryan children:

mengele's twins

For years scientists have failed to discover why as many as one in five pregnancies in a small Brazilian town have resulted in twins, most of them blond haired and blue eyed.

But residents of Candido Godoi now claim that Mengele made repeated visits there in the early 1960s, posing at first as a vet but then offering medical treatment to the women of the town.

Uh….if a strange man showed up in town claiming to be a veterinarian but then asking to see the inflated stomach of your pregnant loved one, would you let them? The Telegraph article continues:

“There is testimony that he attended women, followed their pregnancies, treated them with new types of drugs and preparations, that he talked of artificial insemination in human beings, and that he continued working with animals, proclaiming that he was capable of getting cows to produce male twins.”

If you’re pregnant, and you’re going to a German animal doctor with a shady past for pregnancy advice, Mengele’s new biography probably isn’t the book for you — but maybe this one is.

Posted on January 26, 2009

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Has Qaddafi Gone Bonkers?

This entry was posted in History on by .

Yo Qaddafi, where’s the hate, dude?

What happened man? You were the Ahmadinejad of the 1990s! Sanctions were put on Libya! That puts you in Saddam Hussein territory.qaddafipimp.jpg

Now, you are writing op-eds in the New York Times? Not only that, you aren’t writing about your hate for Israel?

Sure, you might be expressing the ill fated arguments for a one-state solution but you are barely putting any blame on Israel. In fact, you are saying that Jews have a right to be there? Where have your morals gone?

I think I’ve heard this argument before:

It is a fact that Palestinians inhabited the land and owned farms and homes there until recently, fleeing in fear of violence at the hands of Jews after 1948 — violence that did not occur, but rumors of which led to a mass exodus. It is important to note that the Jews did not forcibly expel Palestinians.

But where did I hear it?…Oh wait! I know! That’s Israel’s main talking point!

Your ability to create funny country names never ceases to amaze me either. Isratine? More like Qaddafi-You-Creative-Son-of-a-Gun-Tine.

In all seriousness, while he is still supporting a one-state solution, I think it is a major step in the right direction for a guy like Qaddafi, though reformed in the past decade, to make statements like the one above.

Posted on January 23, 2009

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Young-Adult Fiction Gone Bad

This entry was posted in Culture, History on by .

Teenagers have always been the most challenging of characters, and the most convincing. No book has quite gripped people over the past 30 years like The Catcher in the Rye, primarily because no book has so successfully navigated the boundary of utterly real and utterly larger-than-life the teenage mind is, and teenage problems are. Most contemporary YA literature tries to play it exactly like an MTV reality show, and make everything as normal and cliche as possible. (My own new novel, Candy in Action, went all the way in the other direction, sending a teenage girl straight from college into an action-movie sequence with Matrix-like secret agents and cell phones that can do anything.)

jenny green by amy belasenJenny Green is a paradigmatic case of running against the grain — totally grounded in reality, but totally liable to end up on another planet. The protagonist of Amy Belasen’s novel Jenny Green’s Killer Junior Year (cowritten with Jacob Osborn) is a startlingly normal, well-adjusted and acculturated Jewish teenage girl who gets into cringingly normal teenage-girl situations — boys, dances, excruciatingly embarrassing teenage situations. For her junior year, Jenny wants a fresh start in her life. She starts boarding school far away in Montreal, where nobody’s ever heard of her — except for Josh Beck, her long-time crush.

But — and here I’m going to quote from the book’s jacket, because I don’t know how else to put it — “when she discovers just how despicable the male gender can be — with the lying, the cheating, and the utter disrespect — she decides to make them pay…with their lives.”

Yeah, Jenny Green is anything but an ordinary book.

We got a chance to speak to the charming, funny, and (at least we think) totally un-mass-murderer-like Amy Belasen, herself an alumna of the eminent Canadian academy McGill University, to ask her a few questions about the role of JAPs in Jewish literature, what it’s like to write teenagers, and who she’d most like to murder.

In a lot of recent young-adult fiction, you find a lot of wrangling and murmuring and ducking in order to avoid using the J-word – JAP. You, on the other hand, come out and say it right on page 5. Did you have to fight to get some of the Jewish content in the book kept in?

Interesting way to start an interview, getting right to the Jewish thing. Sort of like Jenny Green, I suppose.

There was a bit of resistance when it came to all of the Jewish content in the novel, but my agent really stood his ground when these issues arose. He was confident that the fact that Jenny was a stereotypical JAP was what made this book so unique. One day early on in the publishing process, the publisher sent a contract that listed the novel as “Jenny’s Killer Junior Year” — removing the “Green” and thus removed the “Jewish,” giving Jenny a more universal appeal. The publisher didn’t put up too much resistance to restore the title back to its original form. Other than that, the only resistance to Jewish content I can recall was simply to make Jewish references clear to all readers by inserting explanations of terms like JAPs, bubbie, and Yom Kippur, into the text.

Did it work the other way – I mean, were your editors or publishers really pushing the Jewish side?

My editor and publisher weren’t really pushing the Jewish side, but my agent seemed to really embrace the Jewish content. My guess is that he’d probably known a “Jenny Green” or two in his own life.

Continue reading

Posted on January 23, 2009

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Progress and Stasis in Mourning

This entry was posted in History, Practices on by .

I was overjoyed about the inauguration of our 44th President on Tuesday, but couldn’t help feeling a little sad, too. People like to say that time heals all wounds. I don’t believe that, not least because one of the things that is hardest for me is seeing how time is moving me away from my mother. Every day she is farther from me, and while it’s nice to not have the grief be so raw, it’s more than a little horrifying to think that we’re almost five months away from her death now.eema_fountain.jpg

Yesterday on the way to work I was reading Pablo Neruda’s Captain’s Verses on the subway (note: reading Neruda on the subway is a great way to get picked up by emo Hispanic guys, in case you were wondering) and came across a poem that I’d read many times before, and never liked. The poem is called The Dead Woman (La Muerta) and is basically a promise from a man that he will go on living when his lover dies, even though he will be in deepest despair.

In the past, when I read it, it felt distinctly unsexy. I usually pick up Neruda because I want to read something sensual and stark, and this poem never felt that way to me. It was kind of depressing. A downer. Not what I look for in Neruda.

And then yesterday I read the poem differently for the first time. It wasn’t about a lover dying so much as a mission towards good that continues despite generations of despair. In the middle of the poem, Neruda writes:
I do not dare,
I do not dare to write it,
if you die.
I shall live on.

For where a man has no voice,
there, my voice.

Where blacks are beaten,
I cannot be dead.
When my brothers go to prison
I shall go with them.
When victory,
not my victory,
but the great victory comes,
even though I am mute I must speak;
I shall see it come even
though I am blind.

It’s a poem about civil rights. I don’t think I ever saw that before, though I knew Neruda was an activist, in my mind he was all passion and tenderness. But here he is in a poem saying that even when he is grieving for someone he loves he feels obligated to continue the journey towards justice.

My mother was many things, but to say she was a civil rights activist would be overstating things to a considerable decree. She never charged me with making sure equal rights are finally achieved in this country, but she did believe, passionately, in helping those who need help, and many many times she encouraged me and all kinds of people in her life to work for the things we believe in. While listening to the inaugural address I thought a lot about how much she would have been nodding (and let’s face it, weeping) had she been listening. It made her seem both very far away, and very close.

There’s a lot written about why the Kaddish doesn’t actually mention the dead at all, but it struck me today that perhaps Neruda nailed it in the final stanza of his poem:

No, forgive me.
If you no longer live,
if you, beloved, my love,
if you have died,
all the leaves will fall in my breast,
it will rain on my soul night and day,
the snow will burn my heart,
I shall walk with frost and fire and death and snow,
my feet will want to walk to where you are sleeping, but
I shall stay alive,
because above all things
you wanted me indomitable,
and, my love, because you know that I am not only a man
but all mankind.

When people we love die we want to lie down and never go on. But there is still so much work to do. Just as in the Kaddish we say of God, “veYamlich Malchutei b’chaychon u’veyomechon” ‘his sovereignty should be accepted soon and in our days,’ well that has to be followed up with actions. We have to do something to make that happen. In the face of loss, we need to progress.

Posted on January 22, 2009

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A Few Words on Jewish Organizations

This entry was posted in History on by .

A look at the range of services provided by the Jewish Braille Institute, which serves 35,000 customers in more than 30 countries. (Jewish Week)

Professor Gerald M. Steinberg attacks B’tselem, noting that “the UN, the U.S. State Department, foreign politicians, diplomats and major news organizations such as Reuters and CNN have quoted B’tselem’s running casualty counts comparing the numbers of Israelis and Palestinians killed in the conflict.” (Jewish Week)

Is the philanthropic crisis a unique opportunity “for Jewish federations to reclaim their status as the primary and central address of the American Jewish community.” If so, how would they accomplish this? (Jewish Week)

Posted on January 22, 2009

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