Monthly Archives: February 2009

Jewish Word Clouds

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A couple of weeks ago, at a family bat mitzvah, my table was challenged to name all 10 commandments, a la that Congressman on the Colbert Report.

We did it (I had to memorize them in 4th grade) but it got me thinking about the text of the commandments, and their overarching themes. For some reason, I had to the urge to throw the text into Worlde, a website that lets you create wordclouds with any text you want. It shows what are the most common words (they show up bigger) and plots the words in a fascinating-looking map of words. Here’s what I got when I put in the ten commandments (from Exodus). Click on the pictures for big clear graphics.
Wordle: 10 commandments
Cool, right? Here’s the text of the full Shema:
Wordle: Shema

Does anyone know if the full text of any machzor is online? Because that would be awesome! Also, I really wish this was available in Hebrew.

Posted on February 27, 2009

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Life Used to be Normal

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A year ago today I had a fairly normal day. I had lunch with my friend Jaya. I went to a yoga class and had a writing workshop and things were basically fine. My mom had just finished chemo for her breast cancer, but the doctors had told us that once she was done with that the chances of the cancer ever coming back were 3%. Though I was concerned that the drugs seemed to have done a serious number on my mother, giving her endless headaches, and leaving her feeling weak and constantly tired, I was very glad it was over, and unconcerned about a relapse, seduced by that magical 3%.eema_in_jerusalem.jpg

That was the last normal day of my life. The next morning my dad called me at about 6:30 in the morning from the hospital. Over dinner the night before my mom had had a seizure, and my father had rushed her to an emergency room. Overnight she’d undergone a series of tests that revealed the cancer had spread to her brain, where it was spotting the gray matter and putting pressure on her brain causing the headaches, and ultimately the seizures.

It’s a bizarre thing, realizing how quickly life can change. One minute you’re eating dinner, the next minute you’re dying. One minute you’re lying in bed, the next your life is crashing down around you.

I spent most of that first day of not-normal life holed up in my apartment with a good friend. I remember I kept checking the news, as if expecting to see my mother’s diagnosis splashed across the headlines. I spoke with various members of the family all day, all of us traumatized, confused, disoriented. That was the beginning of six months of lessons in how quickly things can change. In meeting after meeting with doctors we got new and always astounding information. The cancer spread inconceivably quickly, and as soon as we finished treatment for one issue, a new one cropped up. Finally, there was the ultimate change, from life to death.

One of the things that I often think about when I’m struggling with saying Kaddish is how is provides a sense of stability in this year. Many things are still changing in my life, but there is a constant running through my days. It’s not a fun constant, and I haven’t found it to be healing in the way that many people have told me they find Kaddish to be healing, but it provides a rhythm to my life now that I didn’t have before.

Still, I’d take a hundred more years of changes for five more minutes with my mom.

(Cross-posted on Blogging the Kaddish)

Posted on February 27, 2009

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Congratulations! You’re Israel’s Youngest Divorcee! Thank You?

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Back at my camp, we have an evening program (or Peulat Erev, if you will) called Mock Wedding, that is a favorite of everyone. Every kid gets an invitation and is told to dress up in a certain character. You know, drunk uncle; homeless man who snuck in; old grandmother who thinks it’s her wedding day, etc.

It’s a cool program because not only do the kids get to dress up but they are also taught the Jewish wedding ceremony. It’s basically the ideal “Jewish teachable moment.”

Now, there was always a risk factor in all of this. Technically, if the “bride” and “groom” did all the proper exchanges, according to Jewish law, they’d be married. So we were always careful to make sure that no wedding actually occurred.

In Israel this week, this fear became a reality. The only exception? The kids did it on purpose.

A 14-year-old Israeli girl became the youngest divorcee in the history of the state when, without her parents permission or knowledge, she married her 17-year-old friend. A ring was even exchanged.

When her parents found out, they demanded she get divorced. She initially refused. Only after the parents of the groom offered to pay her and her family money was the divorce granted.

That’s right teenage boys of Jerusalem. She’s back on the market. Unless you’re a Kohen. Then you’re straight out of luck.

Posted on February 26, 2009

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Marcus Freed: Being King Solomon

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

Marcus Freed is a man of many talents — actor, writer, poet, impresario. He is the inventor of Bibliyoga, a text-based system of yoga, and has a head for religious texts in general. But his greatest undertakings have been three plays in a loose series which Freed stars, co-writes, and stages.

king solomon: 1 man, 700 wivesSolomon: King, Poet, and Lover is a lot of things, too. It manages to juggle comedy, tragedy, politics and history at once, and using an impressive array of storytelling techniques from performance poetry to stand-up comedy. It’s almost impossible to avoid comparisons to Shakespeare — due both to the mixture of the highbrow and the lowbrow, as well as to Freed’s pulling double-duty as writer and actor — but he also mixes in elements of everything from Mel Brooks to The Office.

This weekend, Marcus Freed will perform at Jewlicious on the Beach in L.A. alongside Matisyahu, G-dcast‘s Sarah Lefton, and a bunch of other folks. Luckily, though, MJL got a private session to ask about his show, his favorite biblical hero, and why Bible stories get so hot and heavy.

Right from the subtitle of the performance — “King, Poet & Lover” — it’s pretty clear that you’re taking King Solomon on an irreverent, non-traditional ride. On the other hand, you’re getting raves from pretty traditional folks like Joseph Telushkin and Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Sacks. How do you tell the line between being playfully irreverent and crossing over into the sacrilegious?

It’s a difficult balance. For me, this is very much about trying to find a truthful interpretation of the biblical stories. There’s a real danger of flattening the whole thing by trying to be reverent towards what’s essentially a sacred text, but I believe that as long as the intention is correct — for me, to get a real understanding of what it’s about and to connect with the stories in a meaningful way — then I’m happy to play fast and loose with the biblical characters. But it took me a long time to ‘come out’ and say this. Jews are great at religious repression but when we try and pretend stuff isn’t there, we miss the point.

Let’s look at the Bible as it is: Solomon slept with over 1000 women. His father David had a man killed so that he could have the woman he wanted, and the prophet Elisha had a bunch of children killed when they insulted him. It’s all too easy to sweep these stories under the carpet because they don’t fit with our notion of what’s ‘right’, or ‘correct’, or G-d forbid, ‘frum’. These are real people with very real dilemmas! The Bible is full of people who laugh, cry, get scared, mess up relationships, kill siblings, get jealous, f–k up beyond belief — and if we take the time to struggle with these stories and find what they mean to us, it can be an immensely rewarding and spiritually nourishing experience.

Playfully irrelevant or utterly sacrilegious? It’s all down to intention. I love being Jewish, I love our stories and our texts, but I refuse to receive or transmit some over-sanitised version if it makes the whole thing meaningless to me. Of course there’s a time and a place, but the Biblical canon is downright fantastic! Not to mention terrific source material for any writer.

Continue reading

Posted on February 26, 2009

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Blame Canada? You Know They’re Not Even a Real Country Anyway.

This entry was posted in History on by .

You know how Canada has a reputation for being cold? I never really bought it. Living there, I just assumed that cold was normal and that it was totally tolerable.

Then I had friends visiting me this weekend from Montreal and they asked how much slush was on the ground and if they needed to bring their really warm gloves. I looked outside and saw someone in a sweatshirt. Then it hit me. Canada is cold.

But at least Canada’s friendly. Right? RIGHT?!?!?!?!

Apparently not.

I bring you Sid Ryan and the CUPE (ha, see you pee), the union for all university professors in the province of Ontario. This past week, Ryan, the head of the CUPE, and fellow members passed a resolution harshly criticizing Israel’s actions in Gaza.

Now, it has been widely reported that the motion calls for a boycott of Israeli academics. That isn’t precisely the case, but it is still pretty terrible. The motion does encourage universities to hold forums on boycotting Israel and to pressure their administrations to boycotts Israeli products.

I call on the Queen to condemn this. It’s the only way Sid Ryan will listen.

Posted on February 25, 2009

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I Should Have Done More Research.

This entry was posted in Culture on by .

Like many others last night, I watched the Oscars. To tell you the truth, I don’t remember the last time I watched as much as I did. But I was at an Oscar party so there wasn’t much else on (plus there was free pizza).

Again, like many others, I tried to predict the winners. Together with a friend, we made mutual decisions on every award. Of course, some are easier than others. We knew Cate Winslett would win, same for Slumdog Millionaire. But awards like “Best Montage with 70s soul music” are tougher to guess. Though it should be noted that we got both Documentary awards (Thank you Smile Pinki!)

Then came “Best Live Action Short Film.” Again, we had never heard of any of the films. So we chose what seemed like the best movie on title alone, “The Pig.” We were confident. That is, until they showed clips of all the nominees. Then came a twist no one would have expected.

Toyland,” its main competition, is a Holocaust film. Not only that, but the clip they showed (seen below) involved a kid being taken by Nazis. Right then and there, we knew it was over. How can you compete against a Holocaust film? Sure, some Holocaust films are bad. But if it is good enough to get nominated, its usually good enough to win.

So congrats Toyland on your win. The Pig never stood a chance.

Posted on February 23, 2009

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Jews and the NAACP

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I was reading something in The Economist yesterday that mentioned that NAACP was started by “a group of Jewish, white and black activists” and I did a double take. The NAACP was founded by Jews?? Who knew?

Head over to the NAACP website to learn more about the Jewish co-founder, Dr. Henry Moskowitz, who was a doctor, a civil-rights activist, and eventually the Commissioner of Public Markets in New York City.

The NAACP is dealing with some tough times these days, but continues to do good work, advocating tirelessly for civil rights. Consider joining today as your celebration of African American History Month.

Posted on February 18, 2009

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Now What Am I Gonna Watch on Sunday?

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It’s gotta be tough to be a tennis player. In team sports, you have a home base where you get to come back every week and stay with your family. Tennis, though, is a world tour. Sure, you can skip tournaments and head home, but then you don’t get paid.

Usually, though, that’s your own choice. For Israeli tennis star, Shachar Peer, the 48th ranked player in the world, she has no choice sometimes.Shachar Peer

Last week, the United Arab Emirates denied Peer a visa to play in the upcoming Barclay’s Dubai Tennis Championship, basically because she’s Jewish. They say it’s for her own security, but no one is that dumb to believe that.

Well, the real losers of this are turning out to be the tournament organizers and the UAE. The Wall Street Journal has already dropped its sponsorship of the event.

And now the worst part for the organizers. The Tennis Channel has announced that it will no longer broadcast the tournament, meaning all those commercial revenues will not come in.

Don’t mess with the Jews. We own the media.

Posted on February 18, 2009

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Inglorious Basterds

This entry was posted in Culture, History on by .

Jonas E. Salk posited that the cure for most diseases lay right in the disease itself — that, by administering a disease in a tiny, less potent form, one may render the body itself immune to more salient strains of the same disease.

There’s been a recent glut of Holocaust movies, as has been mentioned in these pages — everything from naked-Holocaust-Kate-Winclet to campy-Nazi-Tom-Cruise and in between. There’s even a Holocaust movie for kids.

And now, Quentin Tarantino has his hand in the action.

Here’s what the press materials say:

In German-occupied France, Shosanna Dreyfus witnesses the execution of her family at the hand of Nazi Colonel Hans Landa. Shosanna narrowly escapes and flees to Paris, where she forges a new identity as the owner and operator of a cinema. Elsewhere in Europe, Lieutenant Aldo Raine organizes a group of Jewish soldiers to engage in targeted acts of retribution. Known to their enemy as “The Basterds,” Raine’s squad joins German actress and undercover agent Bridget Von Hammersmark on a mission to take down the leaders of The Third Reich. Fates converge under a cinema marquee, where Shosanna is poised to carry out a revenge plan of her own… Release Date: August 21st, 2009

The trailer (below) promises good times, a guilty-but-giddy thrill ride through Brad Pitt and his cronies making all sorts of bloody pulpy messes out of Nazi scalps. The trailer itself is mostly talk, but we know that Tarantino is a man of his word — the lone act of violence in the trailer shows a baseball bat about to swing into a man’s head, cut off at the very last moment possible…and you know it’s not gonna cut away in the film. (The film also stars the director Eli Roth, whose Hostel films are among the most explicitly gory of modern cinema.) I can be squeamish sometimes, but there’s an underlying buzz of appealingness from the trailer…I mean, we all know how it ends (America wins), but who doesn’t want to see Nazis get pounded?

But, dude, I don’t know. There’s going to be the inevitable moment where some Nazi claims retribution, going on a bloody rampage of his own, and one of the heroes will, of course, be tortured….and though Tarantino knows how to take his audience on a roller-coaster of emotions and leave them standing on their feet at the conclusion, I don’t know if I’m ready for this ride. (I do, however, have until August to decide.) Personally, I’m more excited for Tarantino’s mired-in-authenticity kung-fu film, which he’s allegedly recording in Cantonese with English voice-overs being dubbed spontaneously on the set.

Thanks for the tip, World Jewish Daily.

Posted on February 17, 2009

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Did you take Shumlik’s dance class at summer camp too?

This entry was posted in Culture on by .

This video has been going around the internet over the past two weeks.

For me, the scariest thing is not its existence, but the fact that the women are doing the dance exactly as I was taught.

Posted on February 16, 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