Monthly Archives: January 2009

Music Video of the Day: The Jews of Uganda and Some White Hippy Kid

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If you haven’t seen Pesach Stadlin’s Love Song to Islamic Fundamentalists (from a Jew), we highly recommend you hop over and watch it — it’s not exactly a YouTube phenomenon, but we suspect that, if Pesach was a 16-year-old girl in his pajamas singing the exact same song, it would undoubtedly be one.

But that’s not what we’re here to talk about. Last year, Pesach made a trip to Uganda, home of (among other things) the Abayudaya Jews of Uganda. The Smithsonian Folkways Abayudaya CD is a great introduction to the musical virtuosity of Ugandan Jews — although a much better introduction is through Pesach’s YouTube videos of, in his words, “a little posse of 7 year old girls that showed me around town and boy did they love to sing!”

Posted on January 19, 2009

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Tsnius Is Tsexy

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Tsnius, or tzniut, is a word that means modesty, and refers to special Jewish laws about how men and women should dress. Theoretically, a concept that should be embraced at single-sex schools for Orthodox teenagers who’ve had it up to here with social mores and expectations, right?

Not exactly. That is — not until Beth Menahem, a Chabad-Lubavitch girls’ school in Lyons, France, redesigned their uniforms and had a fashion show to highlight the fact.

Now, the girls are singing to a different tune — or, rather, strutting.

Under sultry beats of café jazz and club electronica, a string of young women strutted down the catwalk, as lithe and stone-faced as contestants on “America’s Next Top Model.” They wore playful confections made of gauzy fabric and delicate trim. The bohemian chic skirts and couture-style gowns they modeled looked well suited to the fashion week tents of New York or Milan.

The mother of one of the students, who also works in couture, designed the costumes. The idea is getting talked about all over the world in other Hasidic communities. Notably, the raves it’s receiving are not unlike the comments that my (the other kind of) ghetto high school got when they introduced uniforms:

My daughter Rivka is 13, and in the beginning when she heard about the uniform, she was not happy about it,” said Lidia Azoulay, who also works as an administrator at the school. “But when she saw how easy it became to get dressed in the morning, she loved it. There had been problems of competition between the children from rich parents and the children from poor parents, but now there is no problem.”

Of course, the notion of a modest women’s fashion show is kind of negated by having photos of the event run online. I deleted our lead graphic at the last second, but if you’re that curious, well, the Haredi news service can help you out.

Posted on January 16, 2009

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Special Confession

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

The Washington Post has an interesting article about the Vatican’s “tribunal of conscience” which is an extra special level of confession that you have to go to for very particular sins. Here’s how it works according to the Post:

Confessions of even the most heinous of crimes and sins – such as genocide or mass murder – are handled at the local level by priests and their bishops and are not heard by the tribunal.

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[The tribunal's] work involves those sins that are reserved for the pope – considered so serious that a local priest or bishop is not qualified to grant absolution, said Cardinal James Francis Stafford, an American who heads the Apostolic Penitentiary.

These include defiling the Eucharist, which Catholics believe is the body and blood of Christ. Stafford said this offense is occurring with more and more frequency, not just in satanic rites but by ordinary faithful who receive Communion and then remove the host from their mouths and spit it out or otherwise desecrate it.

Others include a priest breaking the seal of the confessional by revealing the nature of the sin and the person who sought penance, or a priest who has sex with someone and then offered forgiveness for the act.
These sins bring automatic excommunication from the church. Once absolution is granted, the excommunication is lifted, Stafford said.

Yeah, did you catch that? Mass murder, your local priest can help you out with that. Spitting out a little wafer–you’re going to need to head to Vatican City to get that dealt with.

There are times I’ve been jealous of the whole Catholic confession thing, but when I hear this, I’m all about our own system of confession.

Posted on January 16, 2009

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Jewish Words and Knee-Jerk Reactions

This entry was posted in Beliefs, Practices, Texts on by .

Yesterday, Jason bolted out of his office with the news that a plane had crashed into the Hudson.

Caught in conversation, I said the first words that shot through my head: “Boruch dayan emes.” The words literally mean blessed is the true judge — or, in common parlance, God — but calls to mind God’s more esoteric, less-easily-understandable qualities. The two words we usually use for judge in Hebrew are shofet, which calls to mind God’s more merciful qualities — on Yom Kippur, when we’re apologizing and asking God to go easy on us, we say hamelech hamishpat, the Ruler who judges us favorably (“mishpat” is another form of the word “shofet”) — and then there’s dayan, which tends to signify that God is having a bad day.

We say “boruch dayan emes” when we hear about somebody dying.

As we know now, the plane landed safely, and everyone was fine (if a bit frostbitten). Thank the Lord and praise the pilot, I thought, everything is alright. It wasn’t until hours later that I did my famous verbal double-take, my even more famous saying the right thing“d’oh”-flavored slap of the forehead, and realized that, inadvertently, I’d prematurely condemned them to death — to paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of their deaths had been exaggerated. It wasn’t reports, of course; it was just me.

But this kind of thing happens a lot, I think. Among us religious folk, when you ask someone how they’re doing, the correct response (read: the most common response) is “boruch Hashem,” thank God — a response which is by now so ubiquitous that it’s hard to remember, as you’re saying it, what it really means. The answer is also befuddling in its ambiguity: Thank God, I just won the lottery? Thank God things aren’t even worse than they are?

One of the most baffling inclusions of God-related Hebrew into everyday conversation that I still don’t get right is the difference between “b’ezras Hashem” (with God’s help) and “im yirtze Hashem” (If God wants it to happen). These are both used in daily conversation, both ubiquitous, and both seemingly appropriate after pretty much anything that comes out of one’s mouth. But there’s a finely nuanced way to using the two expressions correctly that still leaves me totally wrong-speaking. For instance:

SUPER NICE (AND SUPER HASIDIC) HOSTESS FROM LAST SHABBOS: It was so lovely to have you and your family visit, Matthue! You should come again!
ME: We’d love to, b’ezras Hashem!

Wrong answer. Apparently, we can make it to Monsey on our own, whether or not God’s helping the car get started.

Let’s rewind to a few minutes before, when her husband — who is similarly nice, and similarly Hasidic, and probably would not appreciate the sordid details of my memoir as much as a non-Hasidic-enclave dwelling person would:

SUPER NICE HASIDIC MAN: Your life sounds so interesting! You should bring a copy of your memoir to sell me.
ME: Im yirtze Hashem!

Again, wrong answer. “If God wills it” is not going to help my memoir get there. (Actually, God’s will would be the only thing to get it there, because the last thing this poor dude probably wants to read about is wild parties in San Francisco and dating non-Jewish girls.) But that aside, “b’ezras Hashem” would be in order here, since, I guess, I’m going to (theoretically) try to bring him a copy, and I’ll only get it there with God’s help.

So, there’s your primer for the day. Go out and practice — but not on me. Because the only way I’m going to get these expressions right is b’ezras Hashem.

Posted on January 16, 2009

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The Food Was a Little Salty…

This entry was posted in Culture on by .

Anyone watch the show Top Chef? On Wednesday night at 10 on Bravo, you can watch what I think is the best run reality show.

16 chefs pitted up against each other in somewhat absurd challenges, with the worst chef being kicked off at the end of every week.

The challenges really are crazy. This past week, they were forced to make a plate in 15 minutes only using canned food. While it was a pretty cool challenge, I was disappointed, hoping that their challenge would involve something much tougher.

One of the guest judges this week was Hung, the winner of Season 3 of Top Chef. After he won, Hung took a job at Solo, a fancy Kosher restaurant in New York City. Why then, did he not challenge them to make kosher food?

How crazy of a challenge would that be? Tell the chefs that they are cooking for a Bar Mitzvah party and that all the food has to be kosher? Then when they get to the kitchen, they have a Mashgiach peering over them and throwing away half of their food. It would be the hardest challenge Top Chef ever had.

With all the crazy things that have happened on that show, how has this not happened yet?

Posted on January 16, 2009

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Dropping the S Bomb

This entry was posted in Beliefs, Practices on by .

I have a friend in his fifties who has been dating for about thirty years now. He’s a smart, interesting and funny guy who has never been married, and could reasonably be known as a serial monogamist. Once, in a conversation about dating he mentioned that he has started telling women that he goes to shul every week in his first conversation with them, just to save time. There are apparently a lot of Jewish women out there with no interest in dating a guy who’s big on going to synagogue. And in my own experience I’ve found that it can be incredibly delicate, especially within the Jewish community, to explain to a friend or significant other, that you want to go to shul.
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So here’s my question: when do you drop the S bomb? When do you say, “Hey, I’m gonna get up tomorrow morning to go to shul?” or “Any interest in coming to Kabbalat Shabbat with me?” If you know you’re dating someone with religious views that are very similar to your own, or who you met at shul, then it’s probably not going to be a big concern. But if, like most people, you’re dating someone with a slightly different take on religiosity than you, when do you start to broach the subject? When do you own up to being as observant or as unobservant as you really are?

Posted on January 15, 2009

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The Bible: The Cover Version

This entry was posted in Culture, Texts on by .

The most lasting stories are the ones that transcend circumstance–geography, culture, even linguistic and temporal idioms. An amazing, mind-blowing story about a refrigerator salesman will read as an amazing, mind-blowing story about a refrigerator salesman even in cultures that have no refrigerators, salesmen, or an economic system. Granted, some of the details may be hard to follow (as they are in any instance; I just read a book about Muslim prayer not knowing what salaatul-Ishaa was [it's the time of the morning when it's okay to start praying])–but the emotions should ring true, on some level at least, no matter the context that they’re presented in.

Cassandra misreads the book of samuel by gidon rothsteinGidon Rothstein’s new book, Cassandra Misreads the Book of Samuel, attempts to do just that. It’s not that he’s stripping Biblical stories of their context and time period. Instead, he’s rewriting those stories in contemporary, or contemporized, versions–creating the literary equivalent of cover songs, if you will.

Its subtitle, Untold Tales of the Prophets, is telling, if not entirely accurate (stories hail from the Torah and other early writings, including Greek histories). What Rothstein is doing is creating simple and purposeful anachronisms: colloquial English being spoken by Israeli prophets and handmaidens; a family dinner amidst the tumult of the Israelites fleeing their slavery in Egypt. The conceit is a clever one, and the characters that Rothstein selects for his portrayals are well-planned and thoughtful. His stories have overtures of cliché. The interaction between parents and children is nearly always endearing, lecturing (“You should do this”) or disbelieving (“You did this?”), and the dialogue between a man about to die and his loving family, sincere though it may be, is stiff and at times, though infrequently, painful to read.

What Cassandra lacks in style, it more than compensates for in mood. The first story, “You Can’t Change Human Nature,” opens with a family dinner. “Experts claimed family dinners brought everyone closer,” it begins. “They said all the fighting and commotion would pay off in the unbreakable fellowship forged among those who had shared that table.”

Continue reading

Posted on January 15, 2009

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Raise a Glass to Coney Island

This entry was posted in Culture, History on by .

Well, it’s official: Astroland has closed, and it isn’t opening up again. Although rumors are flying everywhere (am I the only one who’s heard about most of Astroland’s props being moved to an undisclosed location?), it looks like the truth is both grimmer and more boring: it’s going to become some sort of real estate project. The beach that once served as the common social equalizer, a convenient summer getaway for upper-class and lower-class New York families in ages past — immortalized in the TV show Brooklyn Bridge, and in Neil Simon’s plays, and, sadly mortal outside of those.

But there are still things we can do to help save the island. There is the noble path — the group Save Coney Island has a website, and a place to donate — but, for the rest of us, there’s a much simpler way you can support the preservation of history: you can get drunk.

coney island lagerThe venerable Shmaltz Brewing Company — who you might remember as the people who created He’Brew, the kitschy generic beer that actually tastes good — has created Coney Island Lager. The basic lager is a dark, slightly bitter, deep and full-bodied beer that
The originals are doing their job (or they would be, if there’s anything to this “secret location” business), and the He’Brew folks are expanding the line with a new beers: Human Blockhead Tough-As-Nails Strong Lager. There actually is a Human Blockhead, and if any person alive and among us deserves to have a beer named after them, it’s probably the Human Blockhead (whose name, by the way, is Donny Vomit).

If you’re in New York, He’Brew is celebrating tomorrow night with a beer tasting at Galapagos Art Space in Brooklyn. Out in support will be members of the Coney Island Circus Sideshow, including the actual Human Blockhead, Mr. Vomit himself, as well as burlesque dancers. Check it out…but don’t come crying to us when you have to show up for work the next morning with a metal bolt lodged in your head.

Posted on January 14, 2009

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Liquid Love

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I don’t know Molly Young, but she is about to become my new best friend.

Anyone who seems to love Cel-Ray as much as do I is a winner in my book, and Young’s ode on Nextbook to the delicious drink is quite spectacular:

Its crisp, vegetable scent yields to a mellow caramel taste that won’t pickle your tongue with sweetness. “Jewish Champagne” is how Walter Winchell described it, and it’s as light and effervescent as that implies. If an admirer gave you a bouquet of fresh celery, the smell might remind you of Cel-Ray. One gulp cuts the fat of a juicy sandwich and cleanses the palate without tasting, as cream soda does, like dessert. Plus, it has insider caché: only serious eaters choose Cel-Ray. If you can persuade a kid to take a sip, you deserve an extra pickle. (MORE)

CelRay.jpg

I was turned on to Cel-Ray at the original 2nd Avenue Deli by a friend who insisted I had to  try it at least once.

I’ve never turned back.

If there’s anyway to describe the drink, it’s refreshing. The celery taste comes on only after swallowing a mouthful, and it moves from strong to subtle in a matter of seconds.

As the article notes, Diet Cel-Ray was discontinued several years ago, much to my chagrin. Sometimes I dream that it, along with Crystal Pepsi, return to me.

Renew our Days as of Old.

I’ve also thought that a perfect cocktail for the now defunct Moe Pitkin’s House of Satisfaction would be the “Bloody Miriam”:

  • 1 part Vodka
  • 2 parts Tomato juice
  • A splash of Lemon juice
  • A heavy splash of Cel-Ray

Posted on January 14, 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

Jewish Food Tourney: #2 Lox & Bagel vs #10 Gefilte Fish

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That’s right! An all fish matchup.

But before we get to it, I can’t write a post without mentioning that #8 Brisket defeated the #1 seed, Matzah Ball Soup. I’ll have more to say on it during the Final Four, but needless to say, it’s a pretty big deal.

Today’s match features the only food to sport an upset in the 1st round, when #10 Gefilte Fish narrowly defeated #7 Hamentashen.

I personally don’t agree with the low ranking for Gefilte Fish. But then again, more often than not, when I’m at a Shabbat dinner, someone always asks not to have it. Beats me why, but to each their own.

I mentioned previously that the one bad part of gefilte fish is its jarred evil twin brother. But I have thought of another. When in loaf form, the end piece of gefilte fish is gross. I can’t explain why. Because the end piece of hard salami is amazing. But go to my house on Friday night. If I recieve an end piece, you can bet your sweet ass that I’m changing plates with the person next to me when he isn’t looking. loxandbagels.jpg

Of course, at #2, we have Lox and Bagels. The bread and butter of the Secular Jewish World. Lox and Bagels almost lost to #15 Kugel in the first round. I highly underestimated the power of Kugel. Or did I overestimate Lox and Bagels? It can be too salty for people. But besides that, I find very little fault. And don’t give me that “I don’t like fish” excuse. No one buys it.

Voting will end tomorrow evening.

Posted on January 14, 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

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