We love B&H Photo & Video, the only midtown New York store that I actually have fun in that doesn’t sell comic books or Legos. It’s not just a massive electronics store. It’s not just a massive electronics store owned and operated by Hasidic Jews. And it’s not just a Hasidic electronics store with bowls of free sour candy all over the place and mysterious, amazing conveyor belts over your heads that move merchandise with seeming lightning speed. It’s unearthly. It’s unnatural. And yet, it seems to function with all the determination and efficiency of a synagogue service.
Every time I visit the store — whether it’s a 3-hour trip to pick out a new video camera or a quick run-in for some batteries — I come out with a new story. Sometimes it’s as simple as the Satmar Hasid at the checkout counter asking me what I think of the Sleater-Kinney album blasting from my earbuds. Sometimes it’s a little more complicated. Other times, I don’t even have to go inside the store to get a new B&H story. Here are three of my favorites:
1. Someone stops me on the street. He asks, in bad Hebrew with a bad put-on Israeli accent, “Ayfo B&H” — Do you know where B&H is? I start to answer — in my own equally bad Israeli accent — but then I stop. Something about the lilt of his Hebrew sounds familiar. “Are you Australian?” He is. He’s from Sydney. He ends up knowing not just my wife, but her entire family. As a matter of fact, he had lunch at my parents’-in-law’s house a few months ago. He apologizes to me for not wearing a yarmulke (I’m not clear on why) and wishing me a good Shabbos. It’s Wednesday afternoon. It makes me look forward to Shabbat. It makes me feel good.
2. Someone stops me on the street. He asks me the same question — in English, this time — laughing, like he knows it’s ironic. I answer, although I’m a little offended at the stereotype. I mean, does every Jew in midtown Manhattan with a beard and sidecurls have to be affiliated with B&H? If he stopped to pay attention to the person I am, and not just the way I look, maybe he’d be a bit less stereotypical and bit more astounded. I’m a freakin’ Hasidic Jew who writes films, dude! I’m more than my payos! Just because I’m Hasidic, it doesn’t mean I know every other Orthodox Jew in New York. Or where they work.
I smile. Graciously, I give him directions. Fifteen minutes later, we bump into each other at B&H, where I’m buying equipment for a new short film. Sigh. Not so ironic.
3. I’m waiting in line for a refund. I thought we needed a .25″ microphone cord and we need a .125″. When I get to the front of the line, the guy — a clean-shaven Israeli guy who starts talking to me in Hebrew — asks me if everything’s inside. I tell him it’s all there; I didn’t even open it. He tells me, more as a by-the-way sort of thing than as criticism, that we all need to be very careful. People in the world distrust Orthodox Jews. They think we’re all out to get them. That’s why we need to be even nicer than the world, and more polite and more meticulous in all our dealings. Business. Personal. Life.
With that, he finishes scrutinizing the corners of the box — all undented — and drops it into the chute that takes it back home. He offers me a candy. In spite of myself, I accept. He smiles, seeing my momentary indulgence. And, as the others around him all chime in to add their two cents to the issue, he counts out one of each flavor candy from the bowl and gives it to me. When I protest, he tells me to give some to strangers. “They need it,” he insists.
Later that day, I speak to Frum Satire. Without telling him about it, he tells me about his B&H blog post — which talks about basically the same thing. And how B&H turns all that around. He asks: “How many instances can you think of when Charedi Jews make a good impression on non-Jews and irreligious Jews on a constant basis? It’s unfortunate, but much of the world only has negative experience and rarely see the beauty of the ultra-orthodox community.” Not at B&H, though.
4. This is a bonus — not that it’s an experience, just because it’s cool. My cousin Mendy works for B&H’s customer service phone line. The other day, someone called him Sammy. We asked what was up with that. He told us that (a) half the floor was named Menachem Mendel, and (b) no one can pronounce Menachem anyway.
I’m liveblogging today from Kosherfest, a kosher food and food service trade show held in Secuacus, NJ.
The first thing I noticed when I came in is that the enormous room with all of the of the trade booths smells like somebody’s bubbe’s kitchen. In theory this should be a good thing, but somehow it feels wrong in a room the size of a baseball field. Plus, bubbe’s kitchen smells like too many foods mixed together. Breads and desserts, chickens and cheeses and spreads of all kinds. And sweat, and anxiety.
Everyone here is peddling something, and as a result everyone is simultaneously desperate to talk to you, and scanning the room for more important people while you make small talk.
The packaging is, overall, embarrassingly bad. Someone told frum companies that they should wrap everything in bright yellow and blue, and stick with very ’90s fonts, and theyâ€™ve all jumped on that bandwagon. Both the Manischewitz and the Osem booths have plush carpeting, and small armies of frum-looking guys in suits and huge grins.
About half of the room seems to be speaking Yiddish. A third of the room is speaking Hebrew, and everything else is a jumble. It turns out even potato chips can be served one chip at a time on toothpicks, and no one bothers to stop chatting while they chew.
On the other hand, some of the stuff here looks delicious and brilliant. Best thing I’ve seen so far? Sets of tupperware that come color coded as Dairy, Pareve or Meat. They’re called Kosherkeepers.
There is always some debate as to whether or not Jews should participate in Halloween, being that it isn’t a Jewish holiday and all. But, like it or not, your kid wants to go trick or treating. And like it or not, your girlfriend wants to go to that cool costume party.
So you’re gonna need a costume. I hate costumes. I have enough trouble finding normal clothes to wear in the morning. Now you want me to buy something that I can only wear one night a year? I’m dreading it already.
But if you’re going to have a costume, why not put a Jewish twist on it? Here are a couple Jewish Halloween costumes that I suggest:
– Haman: Halloween is kind of like the bizarro-Purim. So if you’re going to dress up as Esther during Adar, you might as well go as her arch-nemesis in October.
– Maimonides: Just because it is Halloween, it doesn’t mean you don’t have to be lame!
– Slutty Maimonides: Halloween is an opportunity to explore your “wild” side. The Rambam might want to add a little spice in his life.
– Chopped Liver: It’s pretty easy to make. Just wear all brown and eat a lot of onions before you go out. Then, if you talk to a pretty lady, and she walks away in disgust from your horrible breath, you can say, “What am I? Chopped liver?”
– Orly Taitz: The queen of the birther movement! Be both topical and Jewish! Do this costume this year before her 15 minutes of fame run out!
Try as I might to find the best new material of the week on MyJewishLearning.com, I’m coming to the conclusion that nothing can ever beat Joaquin Phoenix being Jewish. Not only is he insane, but him being Jewish means that his brother River was also Jewish. Things like this blow my mind. Just blow my freakin mind.
On to the week that was…
Try to think of a biblical character that Simeon Solomon didn’t paint. I dare you. Ezekiel? Sorry. Moses? Come on. Ruth and Boaz? Get out of here. He did it all.
Wanna make your bubbie happy? Going on a date with an older woman? Nothing impresses them like a good old traditional dessert. Try out our new plum cake recipe.
Finally, here is our new article on the independent minyan phenomenon. Yes, “independent minyan” is an oxymoron. I just realized this now. Too bad it’s already published. Oh well.
Some of you may remember my post from a few weeks ago about what I considered to be a blasphemous new product on the market: dessert hummus. You can find recipes to make this “treat” online, but the Dessert Hummus company sells five flavors: chocolate mousse, pumpkin pie, toasted almond, peanut butter, caramel apple, and maple walnut.
I challenged the good people at the Dessert Hummus company to send me some of their wares so I could make an educated review of their product, and to my complete surprise, they sent me a box of their hummus. Thank you, Dessert Hummus people!
So, I really had my doubts about sweet hummus. I just couldn’t imagine it being good. And, um, I was pretty much right.
I thought that most of the flavors were really bizarre-tasting and definitively not delicious. The chocolate mousse, for instance, was really chocolatey, but then came this weird hummus aftertaste, and, well, yuck. By far the worst was, as I suspected, Apple Cinnamon. Fruit and hummus should not mix, people. Just say no! I also thought the Maple Walnut was pretty unfortunate (though Jeremy liked it, and is now eating it by the spoonful). The problem with the Peanut Butter flavor was really the texture. I think if it was significantly smoother I would have been less grossed out. And, to my utter shock, I actually kind of liked the Pumpkin Pie and Toasted Almond flavors.
Toasted almonds, it turns out, go pretty well with chickpeas, and this shouldn’t really be as much of a surprise to me as it is. And pumpkin pie actually usually has a texture that’s similar to hummus, so somehow the pumpkin flavor in this form seemed perfectly fine. I’d even serve these two to my Shabbat guests (but be warned–they’re not hechshered).
Still, I stand by my original point: hummus is sacred and should not be mixed with other flavors willy-nilly. But if you are going to mix it with something, I suggest toasted almonds.
A.J. Jacobs is a bit of a gonzo journalist and a little bit of an undercover secret agent — but, most of all, he is a living, walking experiment. In his first book, The Know-It-All, he read the entire EncyclopÃ¦dia Britannica from beginning to end. In his follow-up, The Year of Living Biblically, he attempted to follow the Bible as literally as possible — expunging all polyfibrous garments from his wardrobe, not shaving for a year, living inside a tent in his living room for a week (his wife, an enduring spectator and the eternally good-natured Teller to his Penn, was invited to join him inside but chose to sleep in their bedroom instead) and even stoning sinners in Central Park.
In Jacobs’ new collection, The Guinea Pig Diaries, he embarks upon a new project every chapter, from outsourcing every aspect of his life to India (including emails, calls from his boss, and sending love letters to his wife) to practicing Radical Honesty, a method of living in which he tells everyone exactly what’s on his mind, from his mother-in-law to an attractive editor at Rachel Ray magazine. He even sneaks into the Oscars, impersonating Australian actor Noah Taylor, and becomes a celebrity for a night.
Jacobs is less a guinea pig than a test tube, letting new theories pass through him with nearly no absorption. But he never misses an opportunity for profundity, and he’s always ready to learn life lessons from any source, great or small. Sometimes, it feels like he’s learning the same lessons every time –that he needs to stop multitasking, stop being shallow, and relearn the simple lessons of being a child. Although it’s never explicitly stated, Jacobs’ hero could be Robert Fulghum, the author of All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten — with a side dish of Kurt Vonnegut, perhaps.
The new book doesn’t come close to the emotional honesty and rawness of Jacobs’ attempt at in vitro fertilization in Biblically or his reconciliation with his father in Know-It-All, there are basic emotional truths in each chapter of Guinea Pig, like the let’s-work-together-and-save-the-world moment at the end of a Stephen King book, or a really good rabbi’s sermon. It’s punchy, funny, constantly self-deprecating but unfailingly optimistic.
We were lucky enough to talk to Jacobs by phone from Denver, where he was preparing for a reading. After the swarthy, self-assured-but-inquisitive tone of his books, I wasn’t sure what to expect — either the snarkiest person alive or the gentlest. To my surprise, the voice that answered the phone was laid-back, chilled out, and not at all what I imagined from already having read about his innermost thoughts. Inadvertently, I blurted out:
MJL: Where are you from?
A.J. Jacobs: I am actually from New York City. I grew up in Manhattan.
Weird! You have such a…I don’t know what to call it, a relaxed accent. It’s not at all what I expected.
Well, I’m in the middle of my book tour in Denver. Maybe I’ve adapted a Colorado accent unknowingly!
This new collection kind of feels like a best-of. There’s not really a point A that you’re starting from, or a point B that you’re aiming for, like you had in your first two books.
About half of the pieces come from Esquire, and half are new. One piece I did, the one about pretending to be Noah Taylor at the Academy Awards, I did a tiny version of it in Entertainment Weekly — which was just a couple hundred words in a box. I sort of built it up into a full story in here.
How did you recreate the experience? Do you keep a journal?
I do keep a journal, and I did keep some notes. So I felt good. It felt like delving back into the glory that was being a celebrity. As a matter of fact, it felt good revisiting all these pieces.
Did you feel like you were digging up dirt on your own past?
Actually, no. Most of them were either very recent or they were completely new, so it wasn’t like I had to do too much digging.
You say you always keep a little bit of each experiment over the rest of your life. As a Sabbath-observant person, I felt a little bit of myself shrivel up at that…like a lot of people I know, I hoped you were going to keep with it, or that we were somehow different from all your other experiments.
The Biblical experiment changed my life forever in so many profound ways. First of all, we joined a synagogue. We don’t really go, but we’re members, which is a pretty big step for me. Also, we’re sending our kids to Hebrew day school there. I’m okay whether they become observant or non-observant, as long as they’re mentsches. At first, I thought it would be nice to send them there. Now they know more Hebrew than I do.
One of the biggest ways it affected me was in blessings, where the Bible says to bless everything you eat. It changed my whole attitude toward gratitude. During my year, I was saying all these blessings of thanksgiving, and I kind of got carried away, as the Bible tells us to do. I was saying thanks for every little thing in my life. Over the course of our day, we tend to ignore all the things we have that go right. Instead, we focus on the three or four that go wrong, and this has kind of taught me not to overlook those things.
And the same for many of the experiments in the new book, they’ve changed me for good as well.
Did any of the new experiments activate something in you that you don’t like?
Maybe the celebrity-for-a-night experiment. I was getting so many compliments, and people telling me how great I was, that my ego started to balloon out of control, even though I knew deep down that I wasn’t a famous celebrity. I got a taste of how these celebrities become egotistical maniacs. Afterward, I remember waiting in line at a restaurant, thinking, “Don’t these people know who I am?”
In this week’s parshah, Noah, we read about the Tower of Babel, constructed at a time when “everyone on earth had the same language and the same words” (Gen. 11:1). But because the Tower’s builders thought that they could storm the gates of heaven, their speech was “confounded, so that they could] not understand one another’s speech” (Gen 11:7). The Bible puns on the Hebrew words, bavel, referring to ancient Babylonia, and balal, to mix up. And so the people had to stop building the tower and were “scattered over the face of the earth” (Gen 11:9). And so we remain to this day — dispersed, speaking a babble of languages, not understanding one another.
As I prepare to step down at the Jewish Publication Society after eighteen years, I am struck by how much of my work has been devoted to translation, not only from foreign languages, ancient and modern, into English, but also from foreign contexts into an idiom accessible to contemporary Americans. Whether it’s the Mekhilta, a second century rabbinic midrash on Exodus, or the teachings of the Sefat Emet, a late 19th century Hasidic master, most of today’s Jews need interpreters to guide them through the unfamiliar terrain of Jewish texts, written is so many exotic dialects: philosophy, ethics, halakha, theology, feminist criticism, folklore, history, poetry, and prayer. Without translation, these languages remain opaque.
Of course, neither my work nor that of my illustrious JPS predecessors, beginning with Henrietta Szold (who herself translated Graetz’s History of the Jews and much of Ginzberg’s The Legends of the Jews from German into English), has succeeded in restoring the primal harmony described in Genesis. Nor has the world resumed building the tower that was originally designed to unify humanity — especially after the twin towers built by our own hutzpadik generation came tumbling down eight years ago.
Yet I believe that the modest work of translating Jewish texts into words that we moderns can understand is nonetheless essential to healing our people’s disunity, if not the rest of humanity. For how can we build anything together if our speech is confounded into a noisy discord, so that we cannot understand one another’s speech? Now more than ever, we need all the wisdom that we can find, and we need to make sure that we share it in words that bring us closer together.
Samuel Heilman serves as a Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Queens College of the City University of New York and as the Harold Proshanky Chair in Jewish Studies at the CCNY’s Graduate Center. He has spoken and lectured as a visiting professor at universities in Israel, China, South Korea, and Australia, as well as throughout North America.
His many books include Sliding to the Right: The Contest for the Future of American Jewish Orthodoxy (2006), When a Jew Dies: The Ethnography of a Bereaved Son (2001) and Portrait of American Jews: The Last Half of the 20th Century (1995). As the editor-in-chief of Contemporary Jewry, the leading journal for social scientific studies of Jewish experience, he helps to set the direction for his field’s development.
How does a sociologist’s approach to studying Jews differ from a historian’s?
The historical approach is interested in mainly what the factors are in the past that led to the present, whereas the sociological approach is more focused on the way things are in the present: what are the ongoing cultural, social, anthropological factors that affect how things are in the present? The focus is different.
We start from what we can see around us, often by surveying the scene, sometimes by interviewing people, doing observations, sometimes even participating. A historian can’t participate in what’s happened in the past, can’t ask questions of participants. In some ways, historians would do well if they had the material that sociologists and anthropologists have collected. If they had those kinds of testimonies and studies from the past, history would be fuller. I don’t think we’re doing competing kinds of things. I think they’re complementary.
Does the sociological study of the Jews differ in any particular ways from the study of other contemporary communities?
In every group, the social and cultural conditions play a part in how you study them. You use some of the same approaches, of learning about people, understanding the values that they have, and the behaviors by which they express themâ€”enough so that you can talk about a discipline of sociology or anthropologyâ€”but also differences, so that you can’t assume that somebody who has experience studying the Jews would necessarily have the same facility in studying other groups.
On the other hand, just to add to the complication, if you’re studying German Jews, well, you really can’t study German Jews without having an understanding of German culture and society. German Jews very powerfully reflect German culture and society in ways that are different from Jews in, say, Morocco. All of those things come into play. No group of people is purely one thing or another: they’re a combination of ingredients, and you have to have a certain sense of cultural and social sensitivity when you’re looking at them and trying to learn something about them.
How can sociology affect the practices and choices of contemporary Jews?
There are a whole variety of ways. Starting, first of all, with the quantitative. The community, or people who are interested in organizing and understanding Jewish life, need to know: how many Jews are there? What kind of Jews are there? Are Jews aging more quickly than the rest of the population? What is the nature of Jews’ marital patterns? What is the nature of their fertility, how many kids are they having? Those are important questions, which are in the domain of sociology.
Another kind of question that the sociologists have been able to explore is the nature of Jewish communal life. What constitutes Jewish communal life? How is the community linked together? Those, and many other kinds of questions, can help in understanding the nature of the Jewish population or the trends in the Jewish population, how best to serve the Jewish population.
Even such a basic question as, “Do people care about their Jewish identity at all?” is one of the questions to which Jewish sociology and anthropology can give us an answer. Sometimes it’s taken as a starting point that Jewish continuity is a value in and of itself, that it’s important to continue to have Jews as an identifiable minority.
Well, what if you have a significant number, a proportion of the population of Jews, that doesn’t feel that? What of those people for whom the ideaÂ of Jewish identity is something they seek to disattend in their desire to be assimilated by their other national identities? These are all the sorts of questions that Jewish sociologists and anthropologists explore, and have direct bearing on everything from fundraising to social welfare to planning for the future.
What drew you toward this field?
Well, I first of all became interested in sociology, not necessarily of Jews. Because I was Jewish, naturally many of the things I was familiar with, in terms of social life, background, and so on, drew on my understanding of Jewish life. When it came time to write a dissertation, for a variety of reasons that I talk about in one of my books, I did a study of a synagogue, which I didn’t necessarily think was particularly about Jews, but about social and symbolic interaction in a setting that happened to be a synagogue.
But from there, given the kind of things I had said and the people who read my work, and the interest people showed, I found myself being dragged more and more into talking about issues that were relevant to Jewish life and to Jewish society. But I continue to believe that while I write about the Jews, many of the things I write inform sociology in general and the study of human behavior. Franz Boas wrote about the Kwakiutl of the Pacific Northwest, or Margaret Mead wrote about the Samoans; these were not just studies for a particular group of people who were only interested in the Samoans or the Kwakiutl. These were discussions about a particular group of people through which you can learn something about the general condition of humanity.
As someone once put it: “Seeing heaven in a grain of sand is not something only poets can accomplish.”
Are there particular challenges facing students of Jewish sociology?
Yes. One of the great challenges is that you are looking at a community for which the question is: is it actually a community, or is it just an aggregate of people who are defined in a variety of ways? So you’re looking at a moving target.
Secondly, there is an economic problem, which is that the kinds of work that we do is often rewarded more when we’re in economic good times. This is not necessarily a field where people are going to get rich quick.
The third challenge is, of course, where the jobs are going to be. It’s a mad academic hazard whether you get a job or don’t get a job, and who you are going to teach. In the community outside the academy, as well, there is not always sufficient support for the work and insights of social science. Even such a basic thing as a National Jewish Population Survey, which was once a given at least every ten yearsâ€”the community is increasingly seeing it as a luxury, rather than a necessity.
There are jobs out there. I always argue that if you really have a passion to do something and are really interested in it, and have the skill to do it, then you should go for it, and you’ll find a way to sell what it is you do. But if someone were asking me, “What’s a good field for me to go into because I want to support myself and a family and have a future of honor and good fortune?”, sociology and anthropology might not be on the top of my list.
If a reader wanted to know more about how the sociological study of Jewish communities is developing, what would you recommend he or she read?
First of all, I’d recommend the journal that I edit, Contemporary Jewry. It comes out three times a year and it shows you what people are thinking about, what they’re writing about, and what research they’re pursuing. Reading a journal like Contemporary Jewry would be a very good starter.
If I’m going to give a pitch for a book, I’d say that people should be on the lookout for a new book that I and Menachem Friedman have written called The Rebbe: The Life and the Afterlife of Menachem Mendel Schneerson which will be out from Princeton University Press in the spring; that will give you a sense of how we can study one of the more interesting phenomena in the contemporary Jewish scene, which is the Lubavitch movement.
The images of God as lover, friend, companion, and co-creator are more appropriate metaphors for the God of the covenant than are the traditional images of lord and king. Defining God’s power not as domination but as empowerment, they evoke a God who is with us instead of over us, a partner in dialogue who ever and again summons us to responsible action.
Rather than reminding human beings of their frailty and nothingness, these images call us to account as partners in a solemn compact–a compact that demands our response. We do not act most responsibly when we feel subjugated, worthless, and culpable, but when we know our own value, mirrored in the constancy of a God who is both friend and lover, a God who calls us to enter into the task of creation. We respond, not to avoid guilt, but because–as the kabbalistic tradition reminds us–what we do or leave undone as co-creators makes a difference in the world.
– Judith Plaskow
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Of all the gigs I’ve ever had, this had to be the most extreme. And I wasn’t even there.
You might think it’s heretical to take a leisurely cruise in order to honor the sole survivor of a catastrophic event that, well, annihilated the rest of the world. I might disagree with you. I grew not far from the ocean. My parents carried on the ancient Jewish tradition of taking us to Atlantic City for weekends during the summer. When I lived on my own, I moved to San Francisco, and stopped at the ocean every week before Shabbos.
I love watching the ocean. And I’m scared to death of it. It’s the most tangible part of God that we can get close to: it’s bigger than any human eye can fathom, shapeless, and deadly. I think I’ve read somewhere that humans have explored less than 10% of the total mass of the ocean. If there’s undeniable proof of the Flood, or any other mysteries of creation/the Big Bang/early Earth history, it’s probably lurking somewhere down deep, protected by some fearsome sea creatures bigger than dinosaurs.
Or maybe there’s nothing…and that just makes the mystery that much more mysterious.
Either way, the ocean is huge. It’s big and it’s bad. There’s a reason that nearly every sea shanty ends in tragedy, the same as every life ends in death. Noah’s not just the story of some dude and his boat. It’s the story of the sole survivor of a global tragedy, and — although my G-dcast implies that he wasn’t the best person in the world — tragedies transform people. The same way Holocaust survivors and military veterans have some unspoken piece of wisdom that the rest of us will never be able to understand, that’s what Noah has. And that, much as God and the depths of the ocean itself, is un-understandable.