Monthly Archives: May 2009

Me and the Maharal (Down by the Schoolyard)

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

maharal, golem, yudl rosenbergJust got my copy of Curt Leviant’s translation of The Golem and the Wondrous Deeds of the Maharal of Prague, the softcover edition, which has a quote from my review on the back.

I actually don’t remember writing it at all — which is kind of surprising, because I make it sound like exactly the kind of book I’d want to read. Which I already did, I mean — but it still made my eyebrows shoot up.

“Leviant’s translation of Rosenberg’s work is both an academic triumph and a fun read….Rosenberg’s book succeeds in offering a mix of suspense and Torah with a dash of humor. It’s a weird, anachronistic romp through both the mysticism of the 16th century, the sensibilities of the 19th, and the timeless humor and mysticism of Judaism.”
— Matthue Roth, World Jewish Digest

The only part that makes me cringe is the fact that I’ll never be able to write “weird, anachronistic romp” about anything ever again. Because it is such a good phrase, and I would seriously use it any time I call my kids down to dinner.

Posted on May 26, 2009

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Around the World With Hava Nagila

This entry was posted in Culture, History on by .

Aliza Hausman, over at Memoirs of a Jewminicana clued me in to this hilarious and awesome Indian version of Hava Nagila. The mullets alone make the video worth watching, but the dancing is excellent, too.

Watching that video made me think of this fugtastic modern version, by Lauren Rose in which Hava Nagila is reimagined as a dance hit (and was marketed as a Christmas song). Rose’s additional lyrics include, “Now’s the time to do it, now’s the time to lose it, just jump, and jump, close your eyes and breathe.” The video tries to make bat mitzvah parties look cool, and doesn’t entirely succeed.

Here’s a version by a Beatles tribute band called the Moptops. It’s shockingly good.

What if Riverdance was about Jewish music and dance, instead of Irish music and dance? It exists, and they do a classic version of Hava Nagila except that a) I think the male lead dancer might actually be a woman, and b) the payes are obviously stick-on. Other than that, though, it’s great. These are the people I want leading the dancing at my wedding.

Ever wondered what Hava Nagila would sound like on the bagpipes? Now you don’t have to.

Last but not least: Russian figure skater Evgeni Plushenko used Hava Nagila as the music for his short program at the 1999 World Championship. I have never seen anyone get as roused by this music as Plushenko is.

You’re welcome.

PS: Apparently great minds think alike. Check out Amy Guth’s similar Hava Nagila roundup at Jewcy for more. Hers predates mine by almost two years, which shows just how late to the party I am.

Posted on May 26, 2009

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Interview: Gerald Schroeder

This entry was posted in Beliefs on by .

Dr. Gerald Schroeder is an MIT trained physicist and an Orthodox Jew. His previous books, including Genesis and the Big Bang, and The Science of God, focus on the connections between science and faith. His new book, God According to God, published by HarperCollins, comes out this week. Dr. Schroeder was kind enough to answer a few questions pertaining to his latest research.

gag_front2.gif Jeremy Moses: You’re writing focuses on the connections between science and religion. As a physicist and a Jew, have you ever experienced a “crisis of faith?”

Gerald Schroeder:
The world is like an Escher painting, figure/ground reversals constantly. Sometimes the staircase goes up in an impossible way and sometimes equally impossible down. Sometimes the wonder of the world is so apparent that there is no option other than a divine-based explanation and sometimes it all looks natural with chance, free will and the laws of nature running the show. But when the total picture is taken into account, the energy of the big bang creation evolving over time into life and consciousness, the Divine becomes too apparent to ignore.

The wonder of life is not whether it took billions of years or a mere few days to appear. The wonder of life is life itself in all its wonder and ordered complexity. Life and consciousness formed from the rocks and water and a few simple molecules on the once barren surface of the earth. How? It takes a huge stretch of the imagination to attribute life and consciousness to being the result of random events, even over billions of years.

Why do you feel a need for your new book? What are people getting wrong when they talk about God?

GS: There is a vast misconception of how God, as described in the Bible, interacts with the creation It brought into being. And that misinterpretation has led many persons to reject the idea of a God, biblical or otherwise. We form an image of God as being the ever-in-control Force guiding the world with only our free will choices left to us. But that is not the God of the Bible. Both Maimonides [rationalist] and Nahmanides [kabalist] insist that accidents happen; that God’s control is over the group, but not totally over the members of the group.

Rava, in the Talmud (Moed Katan 28A), brings examples that three aspects of life happen by chance: length of life, children, and material wealth. These are exactly the three most precious parts of life for which a person might pray. The more a person lets God into his or her life, Maimonides and Nahmanides tell us, the more that person has a God-directed life.

This is very empowering. We control God’s presence in our lives. Earthquakes and tsunamis are not necessarily sent into the world by God as a wake-up call. They happen by the way of nature. How we react to them is our choice. We are partners with God in making our world, for example, an earthquake proof world. That goes equally with the need to find cures for illnesses, and purified water to prevent droughts and famine. That is what our part in this divine partnering is all about.

JM: Who is your intended audience for the book?

GS: As with my first three books, the target audience is composed of those persons wondering how and why the world works the way it does, from both a Divine and a natural perspective. Most poignantly here, why amidst the vast beauty of the world, tragedy occurs. Why isn’t the world perfect if there is a perfect God who created the world? In God According to God, I drop preconceived notions of what God is supposed to be and how God should act. Instead by basing our understanding of God totally on the Bible’s description as brought by the many biblical episodes, we resolve the seeming conflicts between the Bible’s claims and the reality we observe around us.

Did your notion of God change when writing the book?

GS: I wrote the book because my notion of God had changed the more I studied the reality of the world. I felt there was a need for such a book in order to counter, with the authority of the Bible, those arguments that attempt to prove the absence of God either by claiming that life and consciousness could arise from non-living matter by random reactions or by demonstrating the imperfections readily found in life and in nature.

JM: Do you think faith needs science to remain relevant for people?

GS: Blind faith does not require science. But as Maimonides and others point out, in order to know, and not merely believe, that there is a Divine Force acting in this world, then a knowledge of science as well as of Bible becomes a necessity. The two together change believing into knowing.

For more on God According to God, click here.

Posted on May 26, 2009

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Free Love and Communal Shabbat Dinners

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

When I lived in San Francisco, I didn’t have much going on in the way of hospitality — mainly because I had so much going on in the way of running to concerts and readings and bars and keeping myself sleep-deprived after hours.

robert altman crowd 60s

My one respite from the constant influx of alcohol and art was to throw Friday night Shabbat dinners. I could spend pages telling you about it, but I actually already wrote a book about it, so I’ll skip that part for now. At any rate, when I was out-cooked, around the time of the holidays, I used to go to the local rabbi’s house for Rosh Hashana dinner and Passover seders and stuff.

Always, without exception, there was a formidable crowd — a combination of local families stopping by, semi-detached 20somethings looking for a free and decent meal, and the odd traveler. One of those travelers, brought by a friend of his who owned a (fabulous) local bed and breakfast, Noe’s Nest, was Robert Altman. “Oh, wow!” I gushed. “Like the dude who made all those movies!”

“I am not,” he replied — gallantly, and especially so, considering that, on a later occasion, he would (good-naturedly) rant that everyone mixed them up, and his web site was ranked higher on Google.

Robert, it turned out, was a cameraman in his own right — and one of more than significant merits, having been the photo editor for Rolling Stone magazine for much of the Sixties. Through the meal, we sat next to each other, sticking out in both our career choices (him: photographer, me: robert altmanprofessional poet) and attire (him: black mock turtleneck; me: probably something 20 years old and paisley) and not exactly fitting in with the rest of the crowd, although fitting in in the way that we were all of us mismatched, all of us more-or-less haphazardly tossed into the melting pot that is a Chabad House.

Through the meal, he kept joking that he wasn’t really Jewish because he didn’t keep kosher and this was his first Rosh Hashana meal in years. I kept telling him back: if he hasn’t done any of that and he still remembers he’s Jewish, he’s doing better than most of us.

Flash forward the better part of a decade. I live in New York now, and walking down 35th Street on my way to work, I pass a bunch of familiar-looking black-and-white photos, iconic flashes of the ’60s: they are familiar because they are the photographs of my childhood, but they’re not only familiar because of that. They remind me of the first time I Googled Robert, really Googled him: a flood of images, some of them iconic, some of them just really damn good (check his portraiture of Tina Turner). That night, meeting him as just some random guy at an even randomer meal for the Jewish New Year, it seemed like a logical extension: just some well-dressed dude who had a knack for telling good stories and better jokes.

Back in San Francisco, we met up a bunch of times. I invited him to my poetry readings; he invited me to his parties — including, for some reason, a huge exhibition inside an abandoned warehouse in SoMA where his sorts of people rarely if ever ventured and where my sort of people frolicked nonstop. They didn’t expect to see some punk kid in a yarmulke and foot-long sidelocks, both more overtly Jewish and more overtly non-Jewish than they were (because most of them were Jews anyway)…but I think after a while I just became one more part of the landscape, one more odd person doing things his own way, just like the rest of them were.

In a side room, the photography on the wall shifted abruptly, and there were canvases scrawled with otherworldly abstractions — some sort of Miro aliens with bodies made of different kinds of fabric. There was a guy who started talking to me, the artist of these paintings. Later, Robert told me he was the lead guitarist of one of the biggest bands of the ’60s. He sold all his guitars and swore only to paint. Everyone said his painting was awful. Truthfully, though, I really liked it — that is, until he tried to sell me one of them for $26,000. I told him I hadn’t even owned $26,000 over the course of my life.

He threw his arm around my shoulders and gestured grandly to the painting. “Then you can look at them for free,” he said. “This art, kid — it’s yours. For the next ten seconds, at least. Enjoy it while it lasts.”

Robert Altman’s series The Sixties is now showing at Macy’s, 34th St. and Broadway in New York. He’ll be signing books today from 5-6 p.m. — I’ve got to pick up my kid from day care, but you should stop by and say hi for me.

Posted on May 26, 2009

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Marketing Hitler

This entry was posted in Culture, History on by .

First there was the Hitler sperm being used to market a brand of condoms.  And now, Hitler is being used in an ad campaign for, of all things, stress-busting tea. The idea (I think) is that Hitler wouldn’t have been so stressed out, and thus so nasty and evil, if he had had some nice stress-relieving tea.


I can’t believe I even have to say this, but I do not think that Hitler is an appropriate or effective marketing device/character.

(HT Slog)

Posted on May 26, 2009

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More Lubavitch Fetishism

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

Remember way back when I wrote about how the New York Times constantly glamorized/fetishized/stared at the world of Hasidic Brooklyn? Oh, wait — my mistake. It was two days ago.

rivka karasikToday, the Times has published another photo essay on Hasidim — only, just like the last one, this is a first-person narrative that doesn’t tell a story of someone who is Hasidic, but of another outsider looking into the Hasidic community. Rivka Karasik, a multimedia artist who grew up in Crown Heights and left the community several years ago.

Her monologue is pretty harrowing, and pretty powerful. I question the veracity of some of her statements, such as her portrayal of Lubavitch life as such that she didn’t know there was another world beyond her few blocks — I mean, even the most religious and close-minded people in my neighborhood take the subway. And our proper Hasidische maidel babysitter from last night who doesn’t watch TV or the Internet…uh, while we were out, my computer battery unexpectedly died, and when I plugged it back in, that episode of 24 on Hulu was still 10 minutes away from ending.

Granted, the Internet wasn’t as accessible back when the 34-year-old Karasik was growing up. Kids didn’t have as easy access to the world beyond their fingertips. But they always knew there was a world out there.

I think I’m more turned off by the Times’ metaphorical sepia-toning of the photographs, depicting the Hasidic community in a stark black-and-white that looks like it should be a mystical Brooklyn of several decades ago — but, once you study the a photograph for more than 10 seconds, you realize that the random Hasidic couple walking down Kingston Avenue was probably taken last week, with an ultra-modern stroller and the woman’s clothes hailing from some of-the-minute designer who just happens to make long skirts.

Even in the 1940s and ’50s, Lubavitchers were in touch with the modern world. Chaya Mushka Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s wife, is always pictured in Audrey suits and stiletto heels. The Rebbe himself, when talking about sending young couples to do outreach, always emphasized dressing in tune with the world — granted, within the realm of traditional Jewish modesty, but modernly — a point emphasized by this great video that contrasts Susie Essman playing a butt-ugly Hasidic Jew on TV with real-life Hot Lubavitch Girls.

The most fascinating part of her narrative, I think, is toward the end, where she talks about meeting up with a bunch of other rebel Hasidic kids and starting a group house. I’d love to know how they all met up, what they thought of each other, where the house was and what happened there…but the easy-to-follow narrative of Orthodox Girl Drops Out prevails, and after a sentence, the slide show has moved on to another topic.

If nothing else, though, it’s pretty awesome that the Times is writing about artists whose work isn’t already hanging on every wall of the Met. Ben Atlas has a tiny blog about Karasik’s artwork (with an artist’s statement) today…which makes a way more illuminating viewing material than yet another series of Hasidxploitation.

Posted on May 22, 2009

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Jewish American Girl

This entry was posted in Culture, Life on by .

Guess what? Yet another toy that we’re not giving my daughter.

The pre-tween set is abuzz with the rumor that the newest American Girl doll is Jewish. Officials at the Wisconsin-based company confirm that she is, indeed, a Jewish character, calling her “a lively girl from New York City,” but have embargoed her name and most other story details until May 29th.

So says the Forward, fueling intense speculation among the 5-8-year-old set over the identity of a new American Girl, who have already created such lovable and lasting stereotypes as Josefina, “a hopeful New Mexican girl” (causing Latino parents to shell out $95 or more for a realistic Cabbage Patch reject, along with all the associated books and props) — as well as Addy (a slave girl, forcing black parents to do the same thing), Kaya (ditto for native Americans) and Kit (a “resourceful” girl of the Great Depression…although her doll will probably be canceled, since I can’t imagine real-life poor people putting up $178 for the “starter pack” of a doll, books, outfits, and — I kid you not — a baby llama.

jewish american girls

Maybe I’m complaining too much about money. I don’t mind spending money on my kid — the fact is, toys are expensive, and I’m totally cool with buying a $100 wooden wagon instead of some cheap plastic crap that my daughter will bite a chunk out of and digest some sort of chemical pathogens, or Lego blocks, which are crazily expensive, but you can build anything you can imagine out of them.

Dolls, on the other hand. My daughter has a bunch of dolls. And she really only plays with one of them. She has the fully-articulated ones, the ones with movable eyelids, and even her first doll, a People Like Us black doll that she bought at the Phat Albert department store. But the only doll that really exists in her worldview is a tiny, unadorned ragdoll, falling apart and floppy as anything and probably constructed on an assembly-line machine in about 20 seconds flat — she doesn’t even look like a Jewish doll, with her blond hair and blue eyes. (But that’s okay — our daughter is blond, too, so maybe she’ll learn that she’s not the only one to be Jewish and blond.)

She barely even has a face — just a couple of dots for eyes, ears, and mouth. The nose, of course, has been overlooked, or perhaps it was simply taken for granted that the doll would be one day bent out of shape.

But all she really needs is someone to take care of, and someone to drag around with her. Not a genetically identical doll. Not a doll that conforms to her religious level or cultural demographic or hashkafah (although, side note: the Lubavitcher Rebbe said that kids should only play stuffed animals that resemble kosher animals. Does that exclude humans?) — just a good, honest toy who she can cradle and chew on and identify with.

So take that, American Girl Posse. And, if you need any consultants, I’m just down a bit on 5th Avenue. Feel free to stop by.

(Thanks for this to Frum Satire, who will know one day what it’s like.)

Posted on May 22, 2009

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Renaissance in a Time of Ration

This entry was posted in History, Israel on by .

This article was written for the 2009 Why Be Jewish Gathering: Renaissance in a Time of Ration, a project of The Samuel Bronfman Foundation’s Bronfman Vision Forum

The title of the Why Be Jewish Gathering “Renaissance in a Time of Ration” challenges us to think about four different yet inter-related concepts: renaissance, ration and crisis, adaptation and leadership. When the Jewish people are the subject of this conversation, our unique makeup becomes highly relevant as well. It is with these ideas that this article will grapple.

All communities – businesses, nonprofits, cities, regions, nations or peoples – are subject to the predicament of success and to the everlasting challenge of change and adaptation. Initially there is experimentation that is designed to address the needs of the time. Then, successful innovations become ‘best practices’ that are consolidated into institutions, habits and patterns of conduct. A few generations later, there is often rigidity and stagnation that lead to ineffectiveness and even irrelevancy. Hence, paradoxically, as the only constant is change, the seeds of decline are always sown in the moment success is attained.

This is a theoretical framework with very practical implications. While some communities are evidently rising and their future is brighter, more prosperous and affluent than their present, others are declining and their future is grimmer. The underlying cause for this is the extent to which they are relevant to the challenges they face. Relevancy propels growth.

Irrelevancy leads to growing insecurity and fewer resources.

Continue reading

Posted on May 22, 2009

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Pride Month is Coming: Tremble and Make a Jihad

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

Pride Month (June) is almost upon us and preparation for big events are already underway within the Jewish community. Get in touch with your local GLBT shul for more info.

In the meantime, A Jihad for Love, a new documentary looking at gay Muslims is now available on Netflix. You can watch it on your computer right now without having to wait for it to be sent to you. It’s awesome. Trembling Before G-d, the Orthodox Jewish predecessor is also available to watch right away. Watching them back to back is a pretty amazing experience. Fascinating to see how many things are the same, and how different the differences are.

Posted on May 21, 2009

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Hasidic Poetry Slam

This entry was posted in Culture, History on by .

OK, as promised:

This past Saturday night was the first Hasidic poetry slam in Crown Heights, at least in the estimations of everyone there. It started out as the brainchild of Levi Welton, a kid in his early 20s (and, incidentally, a rabbi) who does live theater and a weekly comic about the haftarah. He was raised in the Bay Area — his father is one of the Chabad rabbis there — and, on his last visit back, he happened upon the Berkeley Slam. He came back to yeshiva in Crown Heights all fired up and bouncing, ready to do this.

And he did. He enlisted the aid of a bunch of us — mainly, Mimulo, a flowershop and tea bar run by Hasidic hippies who were cool with opening shop at 10:30 on a Saturday night after Shabbat was out. And a bunch of us poets — coincidentally, I’d learned to slam in Berkeley as well — and Alona (who, for the evening, was known as Alona the Purple Prophetess), also a Bay Area alumna.

At first, I wasn’t sure whether women would be there at all. I pushed the question nervously. Levi barked out a laugh. “If they weren’t,” he said, “we wouldn’t have a show!”

It’s true that, even in the most right-wing of circles, there’s no halakhic reason why a woman can’t get up and launch a poem into a crowd. But most of what Jews do, Orthodox and otherwise, has next to nothing to do with halakha — it’s about social mores. (For that reason, perhaps, the poetry reading that Mimaamakim threw last month was overwhelmingly, overwhelmingly male-centric.)

But this was pretty incredible. Beside Alona, one super-Orthodox girl read a few short, funny, wry poems about being frum in spite of what everyone else around her thinks. This one bad-guy yeshiva kid in jeans got up and read a poem he’d written on the way over — it was honest and it was about love and being lonely and it was so simple and beautiful that, I feel like there’s no way to say this without being cliche, but literally everyone in the room was pushed to the border of crying.

And then, of course, there was the Russian Hasid in one of those Boro Park business-suits that all the real super-religious women wear. She pulled out a piece of paper, mumbled an apology into it — “I’m sorry, this is not how everyone else writes, but I am not like everyone else” — and then, no lie, busted out a hip-hop poem about the spirituality of taking the morning subway.

Awesome beyond belief. In a way, it was a more real poetry experience than any I’ve ever had — way back before avant garde poetry and university experiences were created, poetry was supposed to be the tool of the people. Think king’s courts. Think Shakespeare. It was Lost and Star Wars and Buffy and Lindsey Lohan’s relationship troubles all rolled together: it was drama and comedy and tragedy all together.

And, yes, even the fabulous Eliyahu Enriquez came in, and shot the video below.

Posted on May 21, 2009

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