Monthly Archives: May 2009

Isolation vs. Assimilation When It Comes to Religious Marketing

This entry was posted in Beliefs, Practices on by .

There’s a fascinating post over at Church Marketing Sucks about why it’s offensive and unethical for religious institutions to rip of whatever’s the latest technological craze:

Recently, I came across via the xpirimental blog. My palms became sweaty, my heart sped up, my stomach twisted and my mind went back to the service formerly known as GodTube.GodWitter.jpg

Then I thought of the 68 threads with “copyright” in their title in the Church Marketing Lab. Next was the 44% of churches who don’t give a rip about copyright. After that, the proliferation of iGod series, Survivor retreats and logo ripoffs. Lastly was Joshua Blankenship’s post from a few years ago with a hefty focus on creativity.

We do this under the guise of “redeeming our culture” or “being relevant.” And I have nothing wrong with either of those things. But seriously, a Christian version of Twitter? 28.3 million search results for Christian social network?

We are the jealous friend. We see something that seems cool, and we have to have it. But rather than take the unthinkable risk of corruption or dirtying ourselves with those less holy than ourselves, we created a walled garden. In this walled garden, we can have all the “good stuff” of the world, but we can pretend the rest of the world doesn’t exist.

There’s less of this in the Jewish world than in the Christian world, certainly, but I think mainly by nature of the Jewish community being smaller than the observant Christian community. I do see Jewish orgs and synagogues ripping off various tech trends and copyrighted images all the time. It has never bothered me in the past, but now that I think about it, it is pretty abhorrent.

Posted on May 19, 2009

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Salute to Israel Parade: An Interview with HaMakor

This entry was posted in Culture, Israel on by .

Next week, the Israeli jam band HaMakor will be headlining May 31’s Salute to Israel Parade in Central Park. First, however, they’ll be doing a show at Sullivan Hall in the West Village, fresh off the plane from Israel.


Nachman Solomon, who fronts HaMakor, is a scion of one of Israeli music’s most impressive families. His father, Ben Zion Solomon, co-founded the Diaspora Yeshiva Band, which sounds like a high school marching band but actually almost single-handedly rescued Jewish music from that bad-synthesizer-and-schmaltzy-singer paradigm that, even today, threatens the civilized world, showing Jews that, sometimes, all you really need for a good song is an acoustic guitar and good intentions. His brothers Yosef, Meir and Yehuda Solomon play in Moshav, and his other brother Noah fronts the band Soulfarm.

But enough about Solomon’s legacy. The band’s possibly-self-titled debut album, The Source (it’s the English translation of HaMakor), is comparable to anything the Grateful Dead or Dave Matthews has released, splitting time equally between acoustic and electric rock, psychedelia, sweet pop songs and rhythm-driven jams that could make for some aggressive pogo-ing.

Recently, the band has been playing with Bruce Burger, the remarkable guitarist/singer/world-music producer who fronts the band Rebbe Soul, and has stepped up their once-sporadic trips to the USA. We hit up the Israeli-born, Jerusalem-based Nachman Solomon with a few questions about growing up musical, what drives him to write about the Bible, and what to expect at this year’s Israeli Day Parade.

How did HaMakor start?

the sourceWe started about 4 years ago. I started it with my good friend Layzer Greenwald. He came to the Moshav [Mevo Modi'in, the Israeli town started by Shlomo Carlebach], where I met him and we just had a good click.

Later, he ended up moving to the U.S. for a bit, so we parted ways. A good friend of mine, Yakir [Hyman, who also fronts his own band], had just moved back to Israel from New Jersey. We also had a really good click and it was a good match. We got our first gig, and they asked, What the band is called? I always liked the name “Hamakor,” so I told them that was our name, and it stuck.

You grew up in a famously musical family. When did you start writing your own songs? How hard was it to separate your own songs from your brothers’ and your father’s?

It wasn’t hard at all to separate our songs. There were so many going on, it just happened naturally. I started writing my own songs since I can remember myself — probably at about age four. When I was a kid, I would sing in the shower. As soon as I would come out, my brother Yehuda would record what I made up in the shower.

On some of your songs, like “Eliyahu HaNavi,” it’s pretty clear who you’re talking about and what tradition it’s coming from. On others, like “Lost Man,” and “Should’ve Known,” the meaning and the actual story of the song isn’t as clear-cut or explicit. Do you consciously decide to write a song about a Biblical character, or about yourself?

The Biblical and the other songs I write all come from the same place from the mode or feelings I have, or what is going on in my life at the time. I always try to connect it with God and try to bring a positive message.

Was Rebbe Soul always a member of the band?

No! Rebbe Soul joined the band when Yakir was drafted into the army.

How has playing with him been? How do you handle having several different songwriters and visions of the way a song “should” be?

Rebbe Soul has a lot of experience playing live; he has helped me grow musically a lot. We bring our own songs to the rest of the band when the lyrics are done, so the message of the song itself is not really changed. But we all have something to do with the production of the song, so it kind of becomes all of ours.

HaMakor plays at Sullivan Hall tomorrow night, May 20, and at the Salute to Israel parade. See them live, or listen to a 2-hour interview with HaMakor and Rebbe Soul conducted by our friend Ben Bresky.

Posted on May 19, 2009

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On the Importance of Dreaming in Real Time

This entry was posted in 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.

There is an English phrase – “Your home is your castle.” There may be war outside, but at least in your home and in your bed you can feel safe. This phrase has not been true near the Gaza border for the last 8 years. Think about putting your child to sleep when you know that at any second a missile or a mortar can fall from the sky. It’s horrifying even to think about that. Now try to imagine that this has been our daily reality in S’derot and the Western Negev for the past few years.

Eyal_Mazliah.JPG Living this reality, the directors of Hillel Israel gave me the great privilege of opening a Hillel center at Sapir College, which is located next to S’derot.  My mission, like that of every other Hillel director in the world, was to build a community of young people who are imbued with inspiration and vision, who will take a meaningful part in shaping Jewish life around them by influencing ever-increasing spheres of people, in Israel and, eventually, the world.

I took on this mission in a region that has been in a constant state of emergency. This is an area where people didn’t usually talk about concepts like inspiration, but rather about survival. And when you think only about survival, you’re going to invest in building another shelter – a large one underground, a small one above-ground – and pour quantities of fortified cement and steel into schools and kindergartens. Our communities, which used to be known for their greenery and open spaces, are now covered with great strips of reinforced cement.

Don’t misunderstand me – the cement and steel are vital for saving our lives. A neighbor of mine, who was killed when he couldn’t find cover quickly enough during an attack on our Kibbutz, and my sister’s destroyed house, are both silent testimonies to this threat. While these reinforcements do save lives, concrete and steel do not build a future. It is people who build the future. But people who have no dreams will never build anything. The serious threat of a crisis situation is not just the physical or economic danger, but also the danger to our ability to dream. People with no dreams or vision will see only the cement and the steel in front of their eyes.

This is not a new idea. The Biblical Book of Proverbs says, בְּאֵין חָזוֹן, יִפָּרַע עָם  (Without a vision, the people are undirected).

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Posted on May 19, 2009

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Gourmet Jews, Kosher Wine & Cheese Tastings, and Hasidic Beer Parties

This entry was posted in Culture, Life on by .

On the way out of his goodbye party last night, my doppelganger-in-name Shimon Roth grabbed me and said, “Are you gonna write about this on your website?” Usually, I hate those questions, but between Shimon’s good-natured drunkenness on one of his last nights in Crown Heights and the sheer Hasidic wackiness of our day, there was no way I couldn’t say yes.

benz's deli

It started at about four P.M., when we went to a kosher wine and cheese tasting at BenZ’s Gourmet. If you don’t know, wine and cheese are two of the hardest items to find kosher, and until recently, most Orthodox Jews — especially outside of New York — had to put up with a very small selection of both. (To this day, when we visit Melbourne, my in-laws order us to bring back as much cheese as our suitcases can fit: “Anything but the processed crap!”)

In the past few years, however, due to the combined force of Internet ease-of-purchasing and the greater availability of disposable income in certain demographics of the religious Jewish community, and a small but noticeable closet industry has sprung up: a Hasidic fine food industry.

wine and cheese in crown heightsBecause my wife is a personal chef, I’ve got a bird’s-eye view of the situation: In this section of the community, people are struggling to learn as much about fine food as they can, and the easiest way of investigating is with their wallets.

Thus, we rolled up to BenZ’s thinking we wouldn’t be the only guests with a kid in tow (we were). Instead, we found a crowd that was part gourmands (actual and aspiring), part food-industry people, and part businessmen. That last group were the easiest to spot — they were the ones at the pouring station who were complaining that the pours were “too stingy.” (Author’s note: I still have to figure out the correct way to ask for more, since apparently you aren’t really supposed to drink the same wine twice at a wine tasting.)

To make matters even more unspeakably complicated, the night before had been Crown Heights’s first poetry slam ever (oh, geez, that’s another blog entry — remind me) and, randomly, I kept catching snatches of conversation about “the slam recital” and “hippies yelling hasidic wine tastinghip-hop rhymes.” I felt instantly both scandalized and famous. Add that to the fact that some middle-aged dude kept coming up to me and asking if I was Matisyahu (in Crown Heights, mind you) and it was as trippy an experience as Sunday afternoons get.

From there, it was on to Shimon’s party. Straight through the door, I began getting major flashes from college: beer in a Tupperware trunk, Rock Band on the Xbox (currently playing: semi-recent Metallica) and, most telling of all, a kitchen crammed to the seams with people. Just like college, there were the token sketchily-dressed girls in a corner with know-it-all boys. Except that these girls were sketchily-dressed because they were wearing pants, and the boys were those guys in the back of the class, the ones who never paid attention but always answered the questions right.

There were the slackers — a long-haired kid with no yarmulke who asked after my brother-in-law (he’s currently locked away in a yeshiva, off becoming a rabbi in a land with no TV, internet, or women). There were the married-and-reproduced people who were trying desperately to pretend that they still had a life after dark (uh, us). There were the Upper West Side kids with one foot in the Modern Orthodox world, one foot in the secular world, who still came back to the shtetl to check in (briefly, second-guessingly) and see whether there was anyone promising to date in the Old Country. And there was one girl in a tweedy plaid shirt and skirt who I honestly couldn’t tell whether she was a Williamsburg cool kid or an old-school Hasid.

And then, Shimon, on the way out, asking me if I was going to record this. I didn’t answer him — just reached into my wife’s handbag and took out the gift we’d gotten him, a copy of Benyamin Cohen’s My Jesus Year, a book about getting back in touch with Judaism while checking out everything but Judaism. He’s moving to LA. I figured it might remind him just a little bit of the old Jewish neighborhood. You know, a place not very different from the environment that Jesus probably grew up in.

I don’t know if there’s a moral to this story, except to say that Hasidim live much the same lives, at least on a quotidian Sunday afternoon level, as their non-Hasidic brethren. The same things just manifest a little differently.

Posted on May 18, 2009

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He’Brew Bar Mitzvah Party

This entry was posted in Life on by .

Shmaltz Brewing Company, maker of He’Brew, is celebrating its 13th year of existence. In honor of the anniversary, they are coming out with a brand new beer, Jewbelation Bar Mitzvah.

The theme for the beer, of course, is the number 13. It is brewed with 13 malts, 13 hops, and has a 13% alcohol level. It also allows you to read and write at a 7th grade level.

They are also having a photo contest! But in order to explain it, I thought that I’d channel my 13 year old self…who has also had a couple Jewbelation Bar Mitzvah beers:

Okkkk, SO I thought I should tell you about a good new contestn that a awesome company is doin. Have you always wanted to be part of the media?!? Well heres yur Chance! Now that you look cool and hip with your lattes and macbooks, send Shmaltz Brewing Company your favorite pictures from your bar or bat mitzvah. You will look dorky and cool and ironic at the same time! They will take the funniest looking 1s and maybe they will pput you on their websitee., You have to be over 21 though! This is a beer company! For shammmee.

Send your pics to The contest runs until the 4th of July. I’ll be at camp tho. Machon 2009!

Posted on May 18, 2009

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A Brothel in a Shul?

This entry was posted in History on by .

Jezebel has a recent post about depictions of sex workers:
Laura Agustin is concerned that all sex worker news is inevitably accompanied by pictures of street prostitution rather than brothels or red light districts, so she has created an album of alternate pictures.

Worthy cause. Unfortunately, here’s one of the pictures Agustin found:brothel.jpg

These are German soldiers in 1940 visiting a brothel in what looks to me like a synagogue. Anyone else’s gag reflex working overtime right now? More nauseating pics here.

Posted on May 18, 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

Jews with Guns

This entry was posted in Culture, History on by .

It’s been a banner year for Jews with guns. From Gaza to the Golden Globes, it’s suddenly de rigeur to talk about Jews and militarism in the same breath, as if the equation is a natural one. Reminder to the world: It’s not. A few months ago, at dinner with a centrist American-Jewish friend, at the beginning of a discussion about Gaza, he said: “Without Israel, in 40 years, we’ll all be back in death camps.”

I smiled wryly, and rolled my eyes, thinking he was kidding. He was kidding, right? Right? He glared, deadly serious. “I mean it,” he said. “Without Israel, we’d all be in the sea.”jews_with_guns_hp.jpg

Two months later, accounts of civilian abuse in Gaza began emerging, throwing my friend’s concern into sharp relief. How, I wondered, would he respond to these accusations? Would he (and the American Jewish community at large) be able to see them as anything more than blood libel?

The screening of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds this week at Cannes, arriving on the heels of the simultaneous release of Waltz With Bashir and Defiance in American theaters a few months ago may be able to offer the best answer. There’s something profoundly poignant about all three films and their underlying question: what happens when the world’s perpetual scapegoats are offered a chance to be on the other side of power, the other side of history? And can American Jews conceive of themselves as something more than victims?

These are valid and timely questions, and notable ones given that Waltz with Bashir was uneasily greeted by many American Jews. Why? Because they were uncomfortable seeing their Israeli brethren portrayed in such morally ambiguous light. This was in stark contrast to Israel, where, when Waltz with Bashir was screened over the summer–a good six months before recent events in Gaza–the film was wildly acclaimed.

Israelis, it seemed, were fully open to a film that portrayed an unromanticized version of war, and willing–if not relieved–to see themselves as both victims and aggressors. As my friend Udi, an IDF veteran said, “I think Israelis walk around with blinders on, that we can only live here by the sword and that justifies everything. And Waltz with Bashir showed the crack in those blinders–that there’s a price to be paid for us using force, and we’re compromising ourselves and our integrity and world.” He shook his head, and averted his eyes. That same day, Israeli troops were moving deeper into Gaza.

That these blinders are partly a result of narratives like Defiance is a fact. For decades after its founding, Israeli society recast the Holocaust as, in large part, a story about Jewish resistance. The partisans were treated with great reverence, and even today, many Israeli students visiting the Warsaw ghetto read aloud from the memoirs of leaders of the ghetto uprising, rather than the records of those who survived the camps. The medium is the message: Jews with guns, fighting back, are our forebearers, and their lives are instructive. We need to be able to save ourselves, because no one else will. Heroism is the trope, and blood is the price.

But for American Jews the narrative in Defiance is, by and large, unfamiliar. Jews in American Holocaust films are quintessential victims; which may be why, at the screening I went to in Brooklyn, there was a palpable frisson of excitement in the air each time a Jew shot a Nazi–an excitement that I’d never seen before at a “Holocaust movie.”
 And in Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino, though flippant in his treatment of Nazis and the American-Jews who seek to scalp them, seems to know this: the real currency of both Defiance and Inglourious Basterds is the indulging of revenge fantasies, the fairy tale thrill when victim turns aggressor.

David Rittberg, the grandson of a woman who actually lived and fought with the Bielskis, suggested to me that the message of movies like Inglourious Basterds and Defiance–and the reason they may be so appealing to American Jews–is because they recast Jews as heroes, rather than victims: “For me,” he said, “the message [of Defiance] was that the Jews didn’t sit down and die. They fought and they fought to save each other more than they fought to kill Nazis. That’s what I learned from my grandparents.”

For American Jews, who carry a sense of our own victimhood like Israelis carry their power (uneasily, obsessively, and neurotically), the image of Israeli warriors is seductive, almost comforting.

But for Israelis, particularly those who accompanied me to Defiance, the story of Jewish heroics is overly, if not painfully, familiar, and comes at a cost. In the pivotal and most disturbing scene in the film (which, according to Rittberg’s grandmother, actually happened) when partisans lynch a Nazi, one of my Israeli friends covered her eyes. On the screen, Daniel Craig averted his.

It was an unbearable and terribly uncomfortable moment to watch, suggesting as it did that even during the Holocaust there was moral ambiguity. The line between victim and aggressor is–even in the times when the line between good and evil seems stark–blurry and shifting.

The only problem is that Defiance isn’t unbearable enough. It, like Life is Beautiful, makes the Holocaust palatable for an Oprah-fied America. In Defiance, we are left with a reasonably happy ending, given the possibilities. In Waltz with Bashir, the ending is shameful at best, absolutely wrenching at worst. Leaving Defiance, you need a moment or two to gather yourself, leaving the theater after Waltz with Bashir, language is altogether useless.

The friend I went with to Bashir (the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor) was on the edge of tears for 20 minutes after the credits rolled. In contrast, Defiance, while moving, is at times too easy to watch. It’s not unbearable enough. It makes being a partisan seem, at times, like something in a Kevin Costner film: redemptive, self-edifying, and occasionally, lots of fun. In reality of course, it was a terrible existence. “Based on everything my grandparents told me,” Rittberg told me, “it was absolutely unbearable.”

The Israeli friends I went to Defiance with seemed to know this. When we left the theater, the mood was somber, reflective and circumspect. It is not often that you see Jews on screen with the power to defend themselves, and to kill. (Ah yes, I like this much better. Thanks!) For me, the lone American, this felt like a fantasy, even a fairy tale. For them, it hit closer to home and begged the question: does power always have a price?

It’s a question that’s easier to ask than answer. But Defiance may, in the end, provide its own answer. At the makeshift funeral of two partisans, the Rabbi-cum-teacher of the community offering blessings over the dead riffed this prayer, likely based on Kadya Molodowsky’s 1945 Yiddish Poem, “El Khanun”:

“We have no more blood. Choose another people. Sanctify another land. Choose another people. Take back the gift of our holiness. Amen.”

It took everything we had not to say Amen.

Jordie Gerson is a newly ordained rabbi and a freelance writer living in Brooklyn.

Posted on May 18, 2009

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What Do We Need from Our Leaders?

This entry was posted in General 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.

Let me begin by stating the obvious.  When we speak of leaders, we are speaking about human beings.  This is a self-evident but elusive fact of life; we know it and yet we consistently expect or imagine our leaders to be superhuman, and we are disappointed when they are not.

It is natural, when discussing leadership, to focus on what makes leaders exceptional.  I want to begin our discussion of leadership, instead, by focusing on the shared humanity of those who assume leadership in a given situation, and those who are looking to others to provide leadership.

Why is this important as a starting place for our conversation about leadership? Because it reminds us of what leaders can and cannot offer.

Leaders cannot offer perfect guidance, certainty, or control.  As human beings, we must stand humbly before the mystery of life and of death.  We cannot anticipate the future, of course; but more than that, we cannot even hope to grasp the full meaning of what has passed, or to understand the infinite complexity of the moment in which we live.  These are aspects of the human condition that we all share, though we experience and respond to them in different ways.

To make matters worse, we are each uniquely imperfect vessels, limited and flawed in our own particular ways.  Our effectiveness as leaders depends, to a great extent, on our capacity to see, understand and respond compassionately to our own limitations and the limitations of others.

What, then, can a good leader offer?  Leaders can help awaken, respond to and give direction to the basic human need for meaning and connection.

There are questions that beckon to each of us throughout our lives.  Who am I?  To whom am I responsible (or, who do I love?)  What is my purpose?

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Posted on May 18, 2009

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Archiving Judaism for $0.00

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

If I haven’t made enough of a case for the Internet Archive, please let me ram it down your throat once more: This is the singular most useful, amazing and holy resource on the Interwebz.

We already told you how they’ve catalogued over 10,000 Yiddish books — all saved, recorded, and made available to anyone for free.

But when our friends Haskel and Deah came into the office with this week’s installment of Wise Fridays, they told me about the amazing 19th-century scholar Grace Aguilar and raved about her remarkable book The Spirit of Judaism — which hasn’t been in print for decades, and which it’s next to impossible to find a copy of. “You want to read it?” Deah asked teasingly, smiling her wry smile.

I snorted. Deah and Haskel are notorious for dangling these little bits of wisdom before us like something we could understand completely instead of merely struggle to grasp. They love playing these philosophical games. It’s one of their things.

And then she showed me the book — the complete book — which anyone with an Internet browser can read, right now.

It’s a little frightening. And, regarding the disposability of everything we post on the Interwebz, it’s more than a little humbling: every time I check my Twitter or Buzzfeed or Wil Wheaton’s blog, I could be learning amazing things about the nature of God. The opening chapter — a discourse on the Shema, and a meditation of what we should be thinking about when we say it — is totally just as worthwhile as anything I read on Slate. The only difference is, it’s a little harder to remember the Web address.

Posted on May 18, 2009

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Religious People are Nicer

This entry was posted in Beliefs, Practices on by .

A study by Harvard professor Robert Putnam has found that religious people are better citizens, better neighbors and generally just nicer than the non-faithful.

The scholars say their studies found that religious people are three to four times more likely to be involved in their community. They are more apt than nonreligious Americans to work on community projects, belong to voluntary associations, attend public meetings, vote in local elections, attend protest demonstrations and political rallies, and donate time and money to causes — including secular ones.you_look_nice.jpg

At the same time, Putnam and Campbell say their data show that religious people are just “nicer”: they carry packages for people, don’t mind folks cutting ahead in line and give money to panhandlers.

The scholars say the link between religion and civic activism is causal, since they observed that people who hadn’t attended church became more engaged after they did. “These are huge effects,” Putnam said.

HT Beliefnet

Since I consider myself a fairly religious person, this is a nice pat on the back. On the other hand: I went to a very religious high school, and the girls there–not nice. Just saying.

Posted on May 15, 2009

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