Monthly Archives: March 2009

Project FEED: Focus, Engage, Educate, & Deliver

This entry was posted in Holidays, Practices on by .

Each year NYU’s Bronfman Center plans Shabbat for 2,000, an event which strives to engage 2,000 community members in a Shabbat together. This year, students in the NYU community recognized the difficult times we are all facing and decided to take it upon themselves to create a week-long initiative with the goal of engaging 2,000 community members in helping to alleviate hunger.

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The intense week of service begins this Thursday, March 26th kicking off with a “Challah for Hunger” event. Challah will be baked and sold around NYU’s campus and all proceeds will go straight to Project FEED, in efforts to end hunger in New York City. The week is jam packed with awesome programming. There is a concern for hunger fun run, a Shabbat lunch-and-learn about hunger, Meals on Heels food delivery, supermarket street teams, volunteering at the HUC soup kitchen, and more. The week will culminate with the Big Bang Bash at BLVD to celebrate the efforts of the week and with the hopes of raising $10,000.

This amazing effort, being pulled together by all different students on NYU’s campus, is at quite an apropos time. With Passover around the corner, we have a custom of welcoming those less fortunate into our homes for the seder as well as making sure that all have the ability to have food for their own seder. Rabbi Ronald Isaac, in our article on Maot Hittin, states “the custom of assisting the poor with free provisions of food for Passover is very ancient. The Talmud (Pesahim 99b) mandated a distribution of wine to the poor for the obligatory four cups at the Seder so that every person may proclaim the miracle of the exodus.”

What better way to prepare for Passover, the ultimate redemption, than by freeing the needy from their burden of hunger>

Those in the NYC area can go to Projectfeed.org to get the schedule of events or sign up to volunteer at one of the dozens of programs.

Posted on March 25, 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

Poll: What Are Your Feelings On Passover?

This entry was posted in Holidays on by .

Thinking about going on the Atkins Diet? Now is the time. Why? Passover is coming up wayyy sooner than you think and soon, there will be no need to have any carbs in your house (especially if you hate Matzah).

I think that more than any other subject (I’m talking to you, Israeli Politics), Passover causes the largest divide within the Jewish community.

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Some people love it. Their seders are fun…well, that’s actually the only positive thing I can think of about Passover.

That’s right. I am not a fan of Pesach. Matzah is gross. You have to do all that cleaning (when I say “you,” I mean, people around me while I continue to watch television). But, as I said before, for some reason, people, possibly including you, love it.

So here is this week’s poll:

Posted on March 25, 2009

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South by Southwest: The Rest Stop

This entry was posted in Culture, Practices on by .

Alan Jay Sufrin and Miriam Brosseau form Stereo Sinai, a self-described “biblegum pop” band based in Chicago, IL. This week, however, they’re taking it below the Mason-Dixon to report live on the Jewish happenings at South by Southwest, the nation’s largest music festival in Austin, Texas. In the first entry, they saw Mirah and met the Sway Machinery; in the second report, they checked out the underground Iranian hip-hop scene and got into the Shabbos spirit.

Here’s the final of three locational reports — okay, and gossip — straight from the country’s biggest collection of concerts.

ezra furmanSaturday morning, after taking a quick walking tour of the Texas capital building where everything from the chandeliers to the door hinges declare the proud state’s name, we hit up the Birthright Israel NEXT/JDub showcase, “Rest Stop” — a show by Jews that was intentionally held on Shabbat.

And a rest stop it certainly was. With the hectic, crazy, nonstop action of SXSW, the value of a laid-back Jewish music event called “Rest Stop” held on the Day of Rest was not lost on us. And what was everyone talking about? Iranian death metal. Half of the bands playing that afternoon had been at the show the night before. Not only was this even more validating for us, but now the two awkward shomer Shabbat people could finally sit at the cool kids’ table.

monotonixThe show, featuring three of the same acts that performed at the previous JDub showcase, was remarkable. This new atmosphere, with the chill in the vibe and the cool breezes, the free bagel-and-lox lunch and full open bar, the lawn furniture and patio dance floor, lent itself perfectly to creative license for the artists. Most even strayed from their original setlists (including DeLeon’s cover of TarantisT’s “More bass!” sound-check song).

But it was definitely more about the crowd this time than the audience. People from all walks of life, Jews and non-Jews alike, from redneck Texans who’d never even seen lox before (and loved it) to Israeli expats and their children, came to enjoy the respite. Even the volume of the music was turned down from the SXSW standard ‘eleven’ to a refreshing ‘ten.’

This JDub and Birthright NEXT “Day Party,” as it’s called in SXSW lingo, took us pretty much right up to the end of Shabbat. And then, as soon as three stars shone in the sky, more strange things started happening. Perhaps the Heavens were trying to communicate something to us, or perhaps we had simply become hyper-aware of our Jewishness over the course of our stay, but whatever the reason, we began noticing some very clear symbols of Judasim everywhere we looked. Walking down Sixth Street, a stretch we’d been down at least two dozen times already, we found a Star of David laid into the brick in one of the older buildings (an old synagogue that the decades turned into a music venue?). We found a Chanukiah with unlit candles, of the very same design that we own, atop a buffet in a Thai restaurant (a Jewish Thai restaurateur?). And we found another friend/musician from home, whose show we had planned to attend that night anyway, and who happens to also be Jewish: Ezra Furman.

monotonix at sxwEzra was one of this last year’s Heeb Hundred, a list of 100 influential Jews compiled annually by Heeb magazine. He’s also a master class in folk-rock songwriting unto himself. Together with his band, the Harpoons, he put on a rocking show at a great venue. What a terrific way to bring in the new week.

But the real celebration — the Melaveh Malkah, if you will — was a performance by Monotonix, a heavy-metal hair band hailing from Tel Aviv, and reminiscent of Spinal Tap, but even more insane. At 1:15 A.M., they began their show without a sound-check, by removing the equipment that had been set up for them on the stage, and putting the drumset in the audience, the guitarist on top of the four foot-high speakers, and the lead singer in the rafters on the ceiling. After all, why should a band be confined to a stage? Musically, they were mediocre to awful. But it didn’t matter.

Over the course of the show, band members and their instruments (yes, including the entire drum set and guitar amp) went bodysurfing while still somehow managing to get through their songs, rarely ever landing back on stage. After all, why should a band be confined to the floor? To end the show, they bodysurfed their way out of the club entirely and continued to play outside on the street, where the audience dutifully followed. After all, why should a band be confined to the venue? It was ridiculous.

So maybe we were too quick to judge SXSW. It’s not that it isn’t Jewish. You just have to look for it.

Posted on March 24, 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

Planning a Jewish Funeral Far Away From Jews

This entry was posted in Life on by .

I’m writing this from the airport on my way to Seattle, where my father, sister and I will rent a car and drive a few hours to the small town where my father’s mother has been living for the past 20 years. Yesterday morning my grandmother died during surgery, and we spent most of the day trying to plan her funeral and arrange for a minyan so that my father can say Kaddish.

There is no Jewish community in the town where my grandmother lived, and the nearest group of Jews is more than half an hour away. This presented a number of unexpected and expected challenges as we tried to plan. Most of us who live in big Jewish communities don’t think to worry about these kinds of problems, but Jews who live in smaller cities and towns are often faced with serious challenges. If you or someone you know has a relative or close friend living in a small community, I urge you to prepare the following:
–Find out about the nearest hevra kadisha
–Find out where your loved one wants to be buried, and whether or not they have already purchased a plot
–Make sure you have the phone numbers for the nearest Jewish community

I’m learning lots of very useful and somewhat horrifying things this year. How far away is Rosh Hashanah?

Posted on March 24, 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

Shabbat at South by Southwest

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

Alan Jay Sufrin and Miriam Brosseau form Stereo Sinai, a self-described “biblegum pop” band based in Chicago, IL. This week, however, they’re taking it below the Mason-Dixon to report live on the Jewish happenings at South by Southwest, the nation’s largest music festival in Austin, Texas. In the first entry, they chronicled a Mirah concert, meeting the Sway Machinery, and shmoozing at the Heeb showcase.

Here’s the second of three locational reports — okay, and gossip — straight from the country’s biggest collection of concerts.

We knew we were going to be spending Shabbat at SXSW, but, as with the rest of the festival, you never really know until you get there.

diwon, y-love, and ephrymeFriday afternoon we found ourselves at a mini Shemspeed showcase watching Diwon, Kosha Dillz, Eprhyme and Y-Love lay down rhymes at a show supporting a charity called “Music Heals.” The performances were strong, but there was practically no crowd to support them.

The closest Chabad House — our default setting for a Shabbat on the road — was surprisingly closed for spring break. So we tried Plan B. We marched off to Whole Foods and stocked up on goodies to munch throughout the next day as well as wine and challah (read: pomegranate juice and hamburger rolls) to make kiddush and motzi. We wanted to welcome Shabbat in a familiar way, but also wanted to avoid exhibitionism. The two of us prayed quickly in a relatively secluded corner of the Austin Convention Center, the hub of SXSW, just after the sun set over Sixth Street.

Hearing live music on Shabbat at all is crossing into dangerous halakhic territory — perhaps even more so when the groups you see (intentionally, at that) are an Iranian death-metal band and a Palestinian rapper.

We walked into the venue and found seats along the wall, making no show of our respective kippah and massive orange “Stereo Sinai: Biblegum Pop” sticker that might betray our religious identities. The crowd was an intriguing mix of aging hipsters, young mohawked punk-rockers, and a few more outwardly religious Muslims strewn throughout.

TarantisT,” began the tall nerdy announcer, his shaggy blonde hair hanging down from under a wide-brimmed 80’s hat. The story was pretty compelling. TarantisT had tried for three years to perform at SXSW, each time being denied a visa or having to go through some other bureaucratic loophole to evade the morality police in Iran. Finally, the announcer explained, one of them came to the States a full 363 days early for the festival, reformed the band with a few other Iranians, and finally got to play the big show.

The crowd responded with appropriate appreciation as the lead singer stripped his shirt off and demanded “More bass! More bass! More bass!” in time with the beat of the sound-check, a chant that was eagerly adopted by the rest of the audience. The set was rocky at first, but once the trio got its bearings, there was nothing like it. Death metal became liberation rock and it streamed in all its unshackled glory from every speaker. Mosh pits ensued, as is customary.

After the roars of approval died down, the announcer stepped back up.

“If you think doing death metal in Iran is tough, we’re about to take it up about three notches.”

A couple young men in printed tees and keffiyahs stepped on stage amidst a motley backing band. The announcer himself picked up the guitar, a pot-bellied middle-aged man was behind keys, and a muscled African-American drummer sat behind the set.

stereo sinaiMohammed, the only Palestinian rapper who could make it from Gaza to Austin, picked up the mic and spit in Arabic to the dark, thumping Middle Eastern beats behind him. Really, you haven’t heard rap until you’ve heard it in Arabic. We picked out a few words here and there, but it didn’t matter. The songs were clearly filled with frustration and anger and calls for freedom. The Palestinian Rapperz Myspace profile shows a background shot of the group standing in a massive pile of rubble. The message was pretty clear.

One of the most interesting elements of the show was when Mohammed called up the self-proclaimed “hijabi hip-hop” artists — a pair of Muslim women from London who rapped in English while clad in full modest regalia. They’d named their genre, and so they owned it- and it showed.

At the end of the evening the announcer grabbed the mic one last time.

“This is something you’ll never again see at SXSW,” he declared. “A Palestinian rapper from Gaza playing with two Russian Jews and a drummer from Africa.” Whoa, really? Someone on stage had just openly and eagerly proclaimed his Jewishness, and after feeling so ill at ease about being at this show on a Friday night, suddenly we felt our presence being validated. It was like being counted for the ma’ariv minyan.

Posted on March 23, 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

Why Can’t We Just Call a Jew, a Jew?

This entry was posted in Culture on by .

Discussing television shows is a wonderful pass time. My favorite show to discuss is Lost, not only because it’s fun to guess where the show is going, but there is so much to process in every episode that when you talk with someone about it, you learn so much more.

But earlier today, I was talking with a friend of mine about a totally different subject. He was talking about the show Chuck, something I (surprisingly) don’t watch. But he brought up a point about characters, especially in sitcoms, that I thought was pretty interesting.

Looking at the main character, Chuck, my friend wondered why the show’s writers went so far to make Chuck Bartowski, the main character, so very Jewish in his persona and characteristics, but then fell short of actually deciding he was Jewish.

This isn’t an isolated incident. Look at Rachel Green, Ross and Monica Geller from Friends. Three fairly Jewish names, all living in New York City, with the same stereotypical self-depricating humor that exemplifies Jewish comedy.

But not Jewish.

There are many others like this that we don’t have to get into now. But, why the fear? Or is it fear? I think Seinfeld pretty much proved to everyone that you can have a Jewish main character and not be scare audiences away.

Or is it that the writers, presumably a large percentage of whom are Jewish, don’t want to make Hollywood feel too “Jewey.” So they create characters whom they think are funny and they can relate to, but then don’t make them Jewish so “Joe Six Pack” thinks that Ross could be his son too.

I don’t know, just some food for thought. 24 is on tonight. Jack Bauer. Not Jewish.

Posted on March 23, 2009

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Palestinian Hip-Hop Meets Tupac

This entry was posted in Culture, Israel on by .

An entry on the new Scorchin’ Torah blog sets up a series of interesting comparisons — first, between a new documentary on Palestinian hip-hop and the M.C. Tupac Shakur. He (rightly) flags the documentary for devoting a significant amount of time to the rappers’ frustration with traveling to and throwing a concert in the West Bank, but not spending any time examining why these restrictions were imposed.

lines of faith, a palestinian-jewish supergroupSimilarly, Tupac. In his first-person portrayal of gangsta lifestyle, Shakur frequently argued that he wasn’t glamorizing the thug culture; he was portraying the life “as it is.” But, as effective as his writing and his songs were, it’s hard to make the case that there wasn’t a teeny little bit of glamorization happening — especially when one weighs into account the frequent comparisons to Machiavelli, the constant scenario of (first-person) hero vs. group of antagonists, and a frequent ending to his songs of having escaped, narrowly, with the money. In this kind of paradigm, it’s hard not to argue that Tupac was glamorizing the gangster lifestyle — because, after all, what is glamor if not turning an everyday mundane existence into a movie, complete with pulse-racing plot, action, drama, and the underlying moral dilemma or two? I think there’s an important impetus here that Mr. Scorchin’ is picking out about the plight of the Palestinian people, and the self-identification of a lot of young, affluent Americans (many of them Jewish) — they can participate in the culture (rallies/protests/buying CDs) without having to make an overwhelming lifestyle commitment, or even having to participate firsthand. Wearing a kaffiya, say, instead of learning about the politics behind it.

This is not to say that all hip-hop is violent and thug-inspired — or, even, that all Palestinian hip-hop is. For a positive take on Muslim underground culture, I direct you to about half a zillion blog posts I did on Michael Muhammad Knight’s amazing book The Taqwacores. But, more to the point: the London-based hip-hop unit Lines of Faith is a collective devoted to positive hip-hop, an Orthodox Jew and an Orthodox Muslim who are making music about collaborating, cooperating, and creating an alternative to, well, the violence in our culture and the violence in our music. Right now, Lines’ Danny Raphael is touring the U.S., and he’ll be headlining a New York show with me on Wednesday night — details to follow, but find them right here.

Posted on March 23, 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

South by Southwest: The Jewish Edition

This entry was posted in Culture on by .

Alan Jay Sufrin and Miriam Brosseau form Stereo Sinai, a self-described “biblegum pop” band based in Chicago, IL. This week, however, they’re taking it below the Mason-Dixon to report live on the Jewish happenings at South by Southwest, the nation’s largest music festival in Austin, Texas. Here’s the first of three locational reports — okay, and gossip — straight from the country’s biggest collection of concerts.

South by Southwest (SXSW) is not Jewish. At all. The only semblance of religion is the few hopeful Hindus passing out semi-free copies of the Baghavad Gita and complimenting people (me) on their headgear. And, of course, there are the ubiquitous heavy metal crosses dotted on black t-shirts and swsw jewish jdubgeneral rock bling. But the real religion at SXSW is live music. Its worshipers glide from temple to temple, eagerly taking in the words of its preachers…or dismissing them as false prophets. They also drink a lot of beer.

We spent the entire first day running around the city of Austin, Texas trying to find out where we could find and buy wristbands, which would allow us entry into many of the official SXSW showcases. Since the volunteers and venue employees were of almost no help at all this took literally hours of walking, running, cabs, shuttles, hot sun, and confusion. However, during that time we learned what it’s like walking down Sixth Street. From any given corner you can see countless musicians carrying raggedy instruments around on their shoulders, and artists and fans alike wearing everything from Flock of Seagulls-esque hairdos to Samurai robes as far as the eye can see. A genuine gimmick fest. And at any point, you can hear up to five distinct bands playing. And when you hear a band you like, you go inside that bar and simply… enjoy.

Or not. Some bands suck.

mirah, live at sxswWe caught an afternoon show by Mirah, a literate folk-rocker in the spirit of Shawn Colvin. Mirah, a tiny, redheaded, openly lesbian Jew, appeared in front of what was eventually a full house decked in purple jeans and a pink high-collared shirt with frills on every edge. Her quietly powerful set was met with occasional whistles of recognition and dreamy, appreciative smiles from the clearly knowledgeable crowd of fans, even through the multiple technical difficulties.

Her last song, “Cold, Cold Water,” apparently her “hit,” was by far the most dynamic, displaying the band’s hidden energy. It had the same haunting, lilting sound that carried the rest of the material, but with more grit and practice behind it. Overall, her set was dripping with that moody introspective folk-pop everyone needs on rainy days, but aside from Mirah and some of her fans, nothing about it was decidedly Jewish.

Then began the marathon. We had two showcases to catch simultaneously — one from the hip, irreverent Heeb Magazine, the other by eclectic Jewish record label JDub.

The Heeb showcase, held in a Communist-themed club called The Red Seven, featured a group of bands that were, as far as we could tell, not in the least Jewish. In general, it was a disappointing event. The show lacked the funky, in-your-face and self-deprecating attitude you typically get from Heeb Magazine. In addition, there was little to indicate that the showcase was hosted by Heeb Magazine with the exception of a back-corner table idly strewn with the latest editions. When we’d absorbed all the reverb we could handle from the first group, it was off to JDub.

The Heeb event had been on an obscure back patio just off of the main strip of Sixth Street. JDub was in a classy, split-level bar on Congress- stepping outside gave you an awesome view of Austin’s massive capital building. The line-up, by nature, was more distinctly Jewish the sway machinerythan Heeb’s by virtue of the JDub name. And the bands were better. They were more fun, more professional, and more diverse than Heeb’s showcase. Unfortunately, however, we felt like two of the lucky few. Turnout was way too low for an event this good.

Every band presented a unique take on Jewish identity- from the vaguely Irish yai-dai’s of The Wailing Wall to Girls in Trouble’s retellings of biblical women’s stories, to the bright, Spanish-inflected stylings of DeLeon. The incomparable Golem rocked the final set; you can always rely on them for a fun show.

But it was indie supergroup The Sway Machinery who stole the evening. Transplendent. The group — a powerhouse combination of three horns (including a massive bass sax), lead vocals/guitar, and drums- has forged an act that is both wildly inventive and deeply rooted in Jewish traditions. The show itself is a musical reenactment of the Jewish immigrant experience — arrival in a new world, arguing with G-d, setting old traditions to new modalities. It’s a high-octane, inspiring, and somehow disquieting experience that can invoke involuntary prayer.

So far, SXSW has been an incredible experience for us, both as music fans, and as Jews. With just about every musical culture imaginable represented here in Austin, Shabbat at the music industry’s biggest festival should be interesting….

Posted on March 20, 2009

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Too Busy Studying to be a Terrorist?

This entry was posted in Life on by .

My high school was in the news around New Year’s because it received a bomb threat on Dec 31st. I remember reading this and being kind of shocked, and kind of amused. On September 11st 2001, I was a senior in high school, and the day of the attacks hundreds of parents called the school to find out if they should come get their kids. It seemed ridiculous to me at the time—somehow a small Orthodox Jewish high school didn’t seem like a natural target to terrorists who had targeted the World Trade Center and Pentagon. We seemed pretty small time in comparison (and were, for sure). But now the school is receiving what I guess are fairly legitimate bomb threats, and some guy has just been arrested in connection with that case.

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The guy lives only a few blocks from my parents’ house in Chicago, and apparently he told reporters that he is being wrongly charged: “I’m too busy studying and working to commit [hate crimes],” he said.

I have no idea whether or not he’s guilty, but it occurs to me that writing a bomb threat and actually bombing a place are about as different as chalk and cheese. As a student of engineering, this guy may not have time to make bombs, but he probably does have time to write a threatening letter. If he was really going to bomb the place, he probably wouldn’t give enough warning for the school to close.

Ugh. These cases give me headaches. I certainly don’t like to see my school and neighborhood vandalized by anti-Semites, but I also don’t think the feds have much on this guy they’ve arrested. Looks like another case of everybody loses.

Posted on March 20, 2009

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Open Mouth, Don’t Insert Foot

This entry was posted in Beliefs on by .

Last night a friend of mine really upset me. I know it wasn’t intentional, but she said something that sent me reeling with anger and hurt for hours.

The thing is, she didn’t know the comment she made was going to push one of my buttons, and I’m sure if she had known, she wouldn’t have said it. None of us know 100% what kind of effect things we say will have on our friends and other people we come across in our day to day lives. More often than we’d like we manage to hurt and insult people, and for the most part, I think we’d rather avoid that.conversiondosanddonts.jpg

With our close friends, we get to know what kinds of things we should avoid bringing up—someone’s ex boyfriend, someone else’s parents’ divorce, problems with alcohol, etc—but with strangers or new acquaintances, it’s easier to accidentally step on a landmine. This is especially true when dealing with people who come from really different backgrounds from our own. Comments that you might not give a second thought to can be seen as downright offensive, and sometimes a simple curiosity about a life that’s so different from your own can come off as nosiness or voyeurism.

This week on MJL we’re featuring an amazing article by the very talented Aliza Hausman, of Memoir of a Jewminicana about the Dos and Don’ts of talking to converts. This is an issue that I know I’ve struggled with before. If you know someone has converted, it’s hard to know what’s appropriate to ask, and what’s just none of your business. Aliza’s article helps clear a lot of these issue up, and reminds me to loosen up, and always remember to welcome converts to the Tribe. Check it out.

Posted on March 20, 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