Monthly Archives: April 2009

Who’s Your Mommy?

This entry was posted in Beliefs, Life on by .

About six months ago I went out to coffee with some friends who, after about an hour of chitchat, gently wondered aloud whether I might be interested in donating one of my eggs to a friend of theirs who was having trouble getting pregnant.

For me, this was a no-brainer. Though I’m all about fertility technology and want to be as supportive as possible to women and couples suffering from infertility, I also happen to come from a family with a shockingly thorough history of breast cancer (maternal great grandmother, grandmother, aunt and my mother). We have tested negatively for the BRCA 1 and BRCA 2 genes, but we’ve been told that we’re at an extremely high risk for a breast cancer diagnosis before the age of 50, and considering how little progress there has been in cancer treatment lately I think it would be a kind of strange for me to donate my genes to some other family. Also, I’ve heard some not-so-great things about the egg extraction process before, and am not sure I’d feel safe with it. jewish_egg.jpg

So, I said no, but it got me thinking about the halakhic implications of being an egg donor. And apparently I’m not the only one. Check out this week’s Ask the Expert, in which our expert examines the connection between halakhic motherhood, and genetic motherhood.

And hey, if you have your own Jewish question, don’t be afraid to Ask the Expert yourself!

Posted on April 27, 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

Fine, We’ll Return the Pound of Flesh.

This entry was posted in History on by .

There are a lot of news stories about anti-Semitism. I just searched the term on Google News, and five pages of results came up. That’s a lot of Jew hating!

For today’s dose of anti-Semitism (this should be a regular feature), I bring you to an interesting article from Valerie Tarico from Huffington Post. Don’t worry. She’s not an anti-Semite. She’s talking about other anti-Semites.

What makes her piece so different from all the others? What opened Tarico’s eyes to “liberal anti-Semitism” are comments she continuously finds from readers on Huffington Post pieces. Namely, she points to an article from last week commemorating the Holocaust. The comments that followed the piece turned into rants about Jews doing the same thing to the Palestinians.

But that’s not all folks!

Feel a need for a second anti-Semitism related link? Have no fear because I got one.

Back in 1969, the Florida legislature passed a bill on illegal money lending. In the bill, the terms “shylock” and “shylocking” were used in the description.

Today, Gov. Charlie Frist signed Senate Bill 813, removing those terms from the bill because they are anti-Semitic.

As someone who reads Florida law for leisure, I must say, this was a long time coming.

Posted on April 27, 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

Nice Jewish Girls Get Hit

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

This weeks marks the anniversary of an event I don’t really like to talk about. At some point in college I had a series of discussions with my closest friends and realized that all of us had been victims of some kind of abuse within a romantic relationship. Our experiences ranged from being threatened with knives, punched in the face, and slapped, to rape and serious emotional manipulation. Part of me would like to go into the particulars, because I think it’s interesting and has potential to be eye-opening, but it’s also nauseating, and inevitably horrifying to spend more that just a few minutes thinking back on just how helpless we felt.

Anyway, I’m not going to tell any war stories, or share any of my friends’ stories. But I will say that my friends and I are smart Jewish girls, we went to good schools, and came from reasonably functional families, and all of us have been in non-horrifying relationships since then. So, it could happen to anyone (boy or girl, of course, though I’ve only ever spoken about it with other women), and it has been happening to Jewish women for thousands of years. Please, talk about it with your families and friends, and reach out to those in the midst of suffering.

For more on the history of domestic violence in Jewish communities and halakha, check out our article on domestic violence. To report domestic violence, or to receive support if you have been a victim, visit the Jewish Coalition Against Domestic Abuse.

Posted on April 27, 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

This Week in “Are They Jewish?”

This entry was posted in Culture on by .

Last week, I got an e-mail from my mom. It was only one line and it read, “Do you know Phillip Markoff?”

Two things popped into my head. First, I thought, “No. I don’t know Phillip Markoff.” Second, I thought, “Who is Phillip Markoff and why should I know him?”

phillip_markoff.jpg After googling his name, I found out that Markoff is the Boston medical student accused of luring a women he met on Craigslist to a hotel room, tying her up, robbing her and killing her.

After figuring this out, I was a bit troubled. Why would my mom think I knew this guy? After e-mailing her back with that very question, she responded saying, “He sounded Jewish. I’m assuming we know someone who knew him.”

Apparently, my mom and I are not the only people who have wondered this. Over at the Jewish Journal in L.A., not only did they ask the same question, but they did some research too. For some reason, it doesn’t matter if someone is a good or bad. We just want to know if they’re Jewish.

By the way, the Journal’s research was inconclusive. Nothing on Google suggests that Markoff is Jewish. But then again, nothing suggests he isn’t. We can dream, right?

Posted on April 27, 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

Careful, Or I’ll Slap You With A Moist Piece of Liver

This entry was posted in History on by .

Sometime during all of the Agriprocessors brouhaha I heard that there had been a kosher meat boycott in 1902. I didn’t know anything about it until I just stumbled upon this article from the Jewish Historical Society: Bravo, Bravo, Bravo, Jewish Women! The Kosher Meat Boycott Of 1902.
The boycott was because the price of kosher meat had gotten too high, so Jewish women banded together, influenced by the labor and union strikes of their time, and organized to boycott kosher meat. Here’s how it went down:

According to historian Paula Hyman, the Herald reported that “an excitable and aroused crowd [of mostly women] roamed the streets . . . armed with sticks, vocabularies and well-sharpened nails” in an effort to keep other women from purchasing kosher meat. One woman complained that her husband was sick and needed to eat beef to recover. A woman in a traditional sheitel told her that “a sick man can eat tref meat,” so she must abide by the boycott.

By the end of the day, the police had arrested 85 persons, 70 of them Jewish women, for disorderly conduct. The Herald reported that the women “were pushed and hustled about [by the police], thrown to the pavement . . . and trampled upon.” One of the women responded by slapping a police officer in the face with a moist piece of liver.

Emphasis mine.

First of all, I am now always going to describe myself as being armed with my vocabulary, and if something or someone annoys me, I may just slap them with a moist piece of liver. Treyf liver, of course.

Posted on April 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

Poll: Durban II

This entry was posted in Israel on by .

While Mixed Multitudes hasn’t talked much about it, there has been a lot of media coverage concerning this week’s UN Racism Conference in Geneva. During the first Durban conference, the agenda was hijacked by anti-Israel activists, using the conference as a platform to vilify the Jewish state. There was a fear among many Jews that this year’s conference would be more of the same.

Durban II has gained even more media coverage because 10 countries, including the US, Canada and Australia, decided to boycott the event. Then, during Iranian President Ahmadinejad’s speech, the European delegation staged a walk out.

Today’s poll question is:

Posted on April 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

Wise Fridays: The Most Difficult Commandment

This entry was posted in Texts on by .


Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai taught: The Holy One has [only] revealed the reward for obeying two commandments in the Torah: one of them is the least difficult, and the other is the most difficult.

The least difficult concerns letting the mother-bird go when chancing on her nest –- with regard to it, the Torah promises that you will fare well and have a long life. The most difficult concerns honoring one’s father and mother -– with regard to it also, the Torah promises “that you may live long and that you may fare well.” So the two commandments are alike in the reward received in this world for their observance.

Tanhuma Eikev 2

Go here for more Wise Fridays wisdom.

Posted on April 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

How Jews Eat

This entry was posted in Beliefs, Culture, Holidays, Practices on by .

Just in time for a return to the b-word — you know, the one that some people won’t even say during Passover — MyJewishLearning is proud to present an introspective, intergenerational, intercultural look at the most Jewish of all Jewish holiday activities: eating.

Last month, director Judy Prays took a decidedly non-how-to-like approach to examining How Jews Look. Which is to say, instead of looking at how Judaism tells people to dress or look like, she looked at what Jews actually do look like. This time around, Ms. Prays (yes, that’s her real name) takes a look at How Jews Eat.

In the film, we hear from four radically different people about everyone’s favorite Jewish social activity. Henry returns to show us around a Manhattan Jewish deli, a scene he knows well–he’s been in the deli business for over 60 years. Arielle gives us survival tips for hunting down vegetarian food in South America. We also check back with Miriam, a Hasidic Jew whose family Shabbat custom is not at all what you’d expect it to be. And Yoni invites us over for dinner, and for what we promise will be the coolest song you’ll ever hear in your life about sushi (yes, sushi).

So check it out. Let us know what you think. And share your own stories in the comments section about how you eat, or what you eat, or what you love about being a Jew and eating.

Posted on April 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

From The Academy: Paul Lerner

This entry was posted in History on by .

This installment of From the Academy, comes from University of Southern California Associate Professor of History Paul Lerner. The piece describes his current research, “Jews, Deparment Stores, and German Responses to Mass Consumerism, 1880-1940.”


Years ago, while in Berlin doing research for my dissertation on the history of German psychiatry, I started to pay a lot of attention to department stores. What caught my eye in particular was the ubiquitous Wertheim department store chain, since the name sounded Jewish. I began to wonder about Wertheim’s history, and why its name had never been changed and I also wondered about the relevance of this history to the shoppers who frequented the stores and walked the streets and rode the subways with their Wertheim shopping bags.

Finding out that the KaDeWe [Berlin’s largest and most glamorous department store] and the Hertie and Kaufhof concerns had also been founded by Jews—only Karstadt among major German department store chains was not started by a Jew—only fueled my intrigue. Years later I returned to this topic and am now working on a book about it.

It turns out that I had stumbled onto something which would have been completely obvious in the early 20th century. In fact, to many Germans at that time the phrase “Jewish department store” would have sounded redundant. The great majority of department stores in Germany, perhaps some 80%, were actually owned by Jewish families, but beyond this demographic fact, writers, cultural critics, political agitators, and consumers associated department stores with Jews in a variety of ways.

The economist Werner Sombart famously argued that Jews possessed a particular, historically and racially determined, aptitude for commercial capitalism. He saw the department store as the embodiment of economic modernity which he associated with the Jewish role in economic life. Beginning in the 1890s, Germany’s anti-Semitic newspapers consistently reviled these businesses, and the Nazis targeted department stores in their 1920 party platform and in ongoing street actions.

Propagandists delighted in exposing (or in fact fabricating) the ragged Jewish merchants behind the modern, glitzy “retail palaces,” claiming that the stores, like their owners, were trying to mask their shtetl, peddler origins. More neutral and even sympathetic voices, gentile and Jewish alike, simply assumed the  “Jewishness ” of the stores and represented store entrepreneurs with what contemporaries understood as typically Jewish features and characteristics.

Why did department stores elicit such strong reactions? I argue that they revolutionized daily life. As enormous structures and architectural marvels, which rivaled only train stations and cathedrals in size and scale, they transformed urban landscapes and their presence shifted urban topographies. The stores drew people of vastly different backgrounds and classes into close contact with each other, and the open displays brought people into close contact with commodities too. The stores made a rich assortment of goods easily affordable and accessible, appearing to level social distinctions. They also gave women a space, a socially acceptable place to while away the hours. And most were owned by Jews.

While new openings were greeted with excitement by many city dwellers, for others the department stores represented a threat to traditional economic forms and a provocation to prevailing gender roles and social norms. Unlike smaller specialty shops, which consumers entered to make specific purchases, department stores welcomed casual browsers; they sought to attract as many people as possible and keep them inside for as long as possible. The stores’ success, as contemporaries observed, required luring potential customers in and inflaming their desire for goods.

Kauflust, literally, the desire to buy, became a leitmotif in department store representations of all kinds, an explanation for the stores’ power to attract teeming crowds of customers and excited throngs jostling to ogle their spectacular displays. These consuming desires were said to be aroused through low prices, made possible by the stores’ high volume and rapid turnover, and were allegedly furthered through techniques of display, presentation and marketing. Department stores’ opponents accused them of inciting Kauflust through fraud and deceptive advertising and of preying on naïve consumers through unethical business practices, making it impossible for upright businesses to compete.

That these claims contradicted economic realities—indeed a department store’s success often meant greater prosperity for all surrounding businesses—scarcely diminished their influence or rhetorical power.

Women’s behavior in department stores sparked particular concern, reflecting broader anxieties about how and where women spent their time and their (and their husbands’) money. Critics warned that department stores exerted a nearly irresistible, hypnotic effect on female shoppers. Simultaneously, psychiatrists diagnosed epidemic kleptomania around the turn of the century; their cases described shoplifters’ dreams of possession by department store demons compelling them to return again and again. In a parallel discourse, political agitators used religious and supernatural imagery to evoke the stores’ satanic powers, their seduction of unsuspecting customers and their parasitic effects on the German body politic.

Contemporary accounts commonly depicted erotic, dangerous and violent encounters in the department store. The amble through the aisles had a dark underside where threats of fire and sexual and political violence loomed. I’ve unearthed a trove of materials which use the department store as the setting for dark, even supernatural forces, for deviant and criminal acts, and for destructive, but purifying fires. Each of these motifs intersected with contemporary images of Jews and concerns about Jewish power over German women and over the German economy.

My project traces these themes across different media and over some 60 years. It treats the department store as a site for these highly fraught encounters, a space for the meeting and intersection of currents and forces, of people, goods, capital, styles and tastes from around Germany, Europe and other parts of the world. Department stores touted their cosmopolitanism in advertisements and display, yet for critics this very quality marked them as un-German and Jewish. Thus, I investigate the stores’ positions in transnational networks, which I relate on the one hand to representations of Jews as ultra-capitalists and cosmopolitans and on the other to a deeper history of supranational economic connections among Jews.

The sources I’ve collected include political writings and propaganda, from newspapers, parliamentary debates, and leaflets; professional writings, such as psychiatric studies and economic and sociological treatises; and department store materials from archives and libraries in New York, Berlin and Jerusalem. I also devote a great deal of attention to what I call department store fiction, i.e. novels, plays and stories where a good deal of the plot unfolds within and revolves around the functioning of a department store—I have gathered several dozen examples of this sub-genre, ranging in prominence from a story by best-selling author Vicki Baum to an unpublished novel fragment called “The Escalator.”

These materials and themes have largely been forgotten, as have the German department stores’ Jewish origins—despite the appearance of some good family histories and business biographies over the last few years. My project, therefore, aims to write Jews back into the history of German consumer culture and German urban landscapes. I try to integrate European cultural history, economic and business history, Jewish studies, gender history, and the emerging field of consumer culture studies, areas of inquiry which are only now being brought into dialogue with each other.

But still the place of Jews in the history of German mass consumption and the role of consumption in the history of German Jewry—once taboo topics due to the legacy of anti-Semitic portrayals—have yet to be treated in a serious monographic study. Furthermore, works on consumer culture, whether celebratory or critical, seldom address both economic developments and cultural representations, a gap my project strives to fill. Finally, scholars have generally overlooked the uniqueness of the German encounter with mass consumption.

While many Germans certainly shared in the excitement around these new sites of bourgeois luxury and leisure, in Germany the “Jewish department store” also stood for frightening changes. It provoked morbid, supernatural images and violent responses, both imaginary and real.

You can read more from Prof. Lerner here and here.

Posted on April 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

The Koren Sacks Siddur: Jewish Prayerbook 2.0

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

In a few weeks, a new siddur is hitting the market with a translation and commentary by Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Sacks, the chief rabbi of the United Kingdom. The publication itself is noticeable if only because a siddur is something that’s used so often by so many people, and comparatively few of them exist — but, more to the point, the Koren Sacks siddur is attempting to do the impossible: to challenge ArtScroll’s near-monopoly on the market. I’m getting one of these in the mail, and I’ve haven’t been this excited to get a book since the board-book version of In the Night Kitchen came out when I was two.

koren sacks siddur

The siddur is being published by Koren, whose biggest entry into the US market to date is that neon-pink-striped Jerusalem Bible. It’s more widely known in Israel and Sephardic communities for printing a Shabbat prayerbook together with an ultra-thin Chumash, which provided the most luxurious experience my hand has ever had on a Saturday morning. You don’t even have to go jumping into the mid-service melee before the Torah reading, because, boom! — you’ve already got a Torah in your back pocket. Needless to say, my hopes for this siddur are high.

This JTA article does a good job of subtly making the point about ArtScroll’s domination of the market. For a number of reasons — everything from the clarity of its typeface and the helpful addition of gray-shaded boxes to separate special additions to the text — to the fact that, sadly, there isn’t much competition out there. But ArtScroll has come under fire for a number of offenses. Some of those offenses are textual. For instance, the ArtScroll Siddur translates the Song of Songs allegorically, translating “breasts” (to pull an example at random) as “the Twin Tablets of the Law.” Its “Women’s Siddur” has been widely criticized by both Orthodox and secular women’s groups for asserting itself as a feminist prayerbook while simultaneously printing disclaimers before Kaddish that advise that it’s inappropriate for a woman to say kaddish.

Despite all this, ArtScroll is still the preeminent prayerbook used in Jewish congregations — both in Orthodox synagogues and in many Conservative and Reform shuls as well. The Orthodox Union — which, in the past, has voiced its displeasure with the absence of the Prayer for the State of Israel in ArtScroll siddurim — is on board as a sponsor of the new siddur. And Koren has pages on its own website that go on and on talking about things like paper weight and typeface choice, which makes book nerds like me go all shivery in anticipation. Even among the greater, non-nerdy Jewish community, there’s a considerable amount of hype.

Is the new siddur worth it? Stay tuned — in the next couple days, I’ll be taking it through the motions, everything from morning Shacharit to the Bedtime Shema. Will it get the best of me? Or will I wind up loving every dot and dagesh? Stick with us for the answers.

Posted on April 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