Monthly Archives: November 2009

You Sound Like You Are From New York

This entry was posted in Culture on by .

One of my favorite college classes was Introduction to Linguistics. A particular class stands out in my mind. Our professor put up a picture of this object:


People were then asked to find other people who called the object the same thing as them and sit together. Quickly a “bucket” group and a “pail” group emerged.

She put up a picture of a second object:

Faucet or Spigot?

“Spigot” people moved to one part of the room. “Faucet” to another. And “tap” to a different place.

After a few more examples, we have created a map of where people grew up, simply based on the words they used.  I ended up sitting with other Southerners. East Coasters were all together. And then there was the one British guy in our class, all alone in a corner.

Yesterday I had the chance to participate in a webinar led by Professors Sarah Bunin Benor and Steven M. Cohen about a survey they did on American Jewish Language and Identity. There were many fascinating observations, which can be found in the full summary. (You can still take the survey here.)

I was most interested in the question “Have people said you sound like you’re from New York?” Among people who didn’t grow up in New York, Jews (33%) were twice as likely as non-Jews (15%) to say yes. Among that who didn’t have a parent who grew up in New York, Jews were still more likely (25%) than non-Jews (11%).

I fall into that 33%. I grew up in Texas. My family is fifth generation on my father’s side. But my mother immigrated* to Texas from Queens when she was in high school. I always assumed that somehow I had inherited a bit of my mother’s accent.

But now I doubt that. As Benor pointed out studies have found that people link Jewishness with New York. And that when someone says “You sound like you’re from New York” they are actually hearing Hebrew & Yiddish words, certain constructions & pronunciations, or an aggressive speech style. Or in my translation, “You sound like a loud-mouth, obnoxious, bitch.”

I don’t think I sound like a New Yorker at all. To non-Jews I clearly sounded Jewish, but to my parents, my father in particular, I was way too Texan. My sister and I would say we’re “fixin’ ta” as in “We’re fixin’ ta go to the mall.” “We don’t fix things,” my dad would say (ironically, they’ve had a broken washing machine for 10 years). “We’re going to the mall.”

I wonder if telling someone “You sound like you’re from New York,” is really that different from telling someone “You look Jewish.” They are identifying stereotypes, perhaps rooted in some truth, that are often not true measure of identity.


* After first publishing this blog, my mother emailed me to say I used the word immigrate incorrectly. True, immigration is to another country. I would argue that moving from New York to Texas is moving to a new country. 

Posted on November 19, 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

TED Talks in Hebrew

This entry was posted in Israel on by .

The TED Conferences (Technology Entertainment Design) are a pretty big deal with big names of all kinds gathering to share insights and deep thoughts. Most of the talks are available online for free, and now, many of them have been translated into Hebrew by a group of volunteer translators. There’s some pretty cool stuff up there, so feel free to pass it along to your Israeli and otherwise Hebrew-speaking friends. Here’s my favorite, a lecture about insight featuring a real human brain:

Posted on November 19, 2009

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We Should Be More Original

This entry was posted in Practices on by .

Think of your stereotypical, Eastern European looking Jewish man. Whether you like it or not, Jews will forever be linked with the beard. We can’t help it. From Hasidim in Crown Heights, to Modern Orthodox rabbis on Pico/Robertson, to my dad, Jews just have beards. There’s no getting around it.

Which leads me to this question. If we’re such experts on all things beard, how come no one ever does something as epic and amazing as this guy? This video is insane. I can’t tell if it’s real. But if it is, your life will be changed forever. Not only your life, but Judaism as a whole. If you have a beard, be like this guy.

Posted on November 19, 2009

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Esther: The Whole (Operatic) Megillah

This entry was posted in Culture, Texts on by .

This season, New York City Opera brought back on stage the late Hugo Weisgall’s Esther, a contemporary work based on the biblical story of mortal danger and miraculous survival. Set in ancient Persia, the opera engages questions of destiny and assimilation, violence and victory, thus making it relevant to contemporary audiences.

Plot Synopsis

The plot of the opera stays surprisingly close to the ancient text of Megillat Esther. King Ahasuerus, here dubbed as Xerxes (probably because the latter name works better for libretto–try rhyming to the former!) in a drunken rage, banishes his wife Vashti. He searches for a new wife to dispel his solitude, and Esther, a seventeen-year-old Jewish girl, finds herself the chosen one. In the meantime, the king’s minister Haman concocts a plot to destroy Mordecai (Esther’s uncle) along with all of the empire’s Jews. When Mordecai pleads with Esther to intervene, Esther accepts the challenge, subjecting herself to mortal danger, and reveals to the king her Jewish origins and Haman’s plot. Haman and his family are hanged and the Jews are allowed to arm and defend themselves from their enemies, emerging victorious from a bloody battle.

Esther opera

Background and Style

Opera turns out to be a particularly auspicious genre for representation of the megillah, a text that is traditionally chanted in synagogues on Purim. Using the technique of cantillation, the text is read with a complex melody, which, at times, hints at its possible hidden meanings, adding a musical, theatric element. Other Torah readings are also read with special cantillation; however, if the theatric element is all but lost to weekly routine, on Purim the readers of the megillah turn it up a notch, playing up the musical potential of the text, and contributing to the general atmosphere of carnival and hilarity.

In essence, that is how opera works as well, turning the text of the libretto into a musical composition–a stylized, sung speech. This is particularly true for modern composers, such as Esther‘s Hugh Weisgall, who avoids explicit melodies and instead focuses on abrupt, broken-off, and often atonal phrasing that has more in common with day-to-day speech than with catchy ditties that many earlier operas contained. The performance thus becomes more tense, theatrical, and challenging.

The choppiness of Weisgall’s style works well with the theme of Esther: snatches of fear, violence, power, eroticism are all thrown at the audience in a way that is modern and therefore more obtuse, disconnected. Occasionally, a familiar (klezmer-like or popular) melody appears for a split second and then vanishes back into the complex fabric of intonations and sounds.

Lauren Flannigan’s performance as Esther is truly outstanding; a seasoned performer, well into her middle-age, she seamlessly plays a seventeen-year old girl, both awkward and graceful, dreamy yet sharp and sophisticated. Roy Cornelius Smith makes for a memorably vivacious Haman, who is not merely evil as the biblical text makes him out to be, but is also complex, likable, and deeply emotional. The expanded part of Hegai is performed by Gerald Thompson, who, as a counter-tenor, sings in the highest, castrato-like pitches, which is quite fitting for his role of the king’s eunuch.

Questions of Assimilation and Responsibility

In the opera’s narrative, Esther, having become queen, distances herself from Mordecai and his heritage. When Mordecai comes to inform her of Haman’s plan, she at first refuses to react, claiming she does not have much to do with the nation any more. Yet, it slowly begins to dawn on her, she’s responsible for her people: we’re all responsible one for another, reminds Mordecai, echoing the talmudic dictum.

“Who am I?” asks the queen, over and over again, finally responding: “I am Esther.” This apparently simple response actually contains the deeper realization that Jewishness is the defining characteristic of her self, her essence; the opportunity–and obligation–to save her people is why she was destined to become Queen of Persia. Struggling with this idea, and in disbelief, Esther gradually summons her strength, her charm, and sheds the layers of herself, publicly pronouncing her Jewishness and petitioning for her nation’s survival.

The Jewish crowds appearing in the production all wear black, almost burka-like outfits. In a pivotal scene, they fill the stage while Esther, in a colorful blue dress, stands out among them, like a symbolic ray of hope against the dark, fear-ridden background. Even at the opera’s culmination, despite the apparent relief of deliverance, the Jews still wear those same garbs. Dark themes pervade the play until the end, and offer no respite.

Violent Carnival

On the carnivalesque holiday of Purim, the Book of Esther is usually seen through the lens of hilarity and joy. Weisgall offers a different perspective, focusing his opera on the darker aspects of the text, particularly, the violence.

The show opens with ten shadows on the gallows–belonging to the hanged sons of Haman–and a gravedigger recounts the opening of the tale. This morally problematic image is made even more explicit at the end of the play, when Haman’s whole family is dragged away, including a few boys probably under the age of ten. While traditionally, in synagogue readings, the persecution of Haman and his clan is greeted with joy, Weisgall questions this glee, exposing the disturbing violence surrounding the cruel punishment which included those who were far from being responsible. To a Jewish viewer, the first moment of the opening scene may immediately summon the imagery of the Holocaust; yet, how does this reaction change, when one realizes who is really hung on the gallows?

The theme of violence is further underscored when Xerxes declares he cannot withdraw his order to destroy the Jewish people; yet he is willing to let them fight back. He is locked into the paradigm of his own power, and it backfires against him: once the machinery of war is started, it cannot be stopped–only magnified.

The hilarity and joy of Megillat Esther is shed in the opera, its narrative turning into a suspenseful, thriller-like tale, dark and depressing. Carnivalesque atmosphere, however, remains and carries through the outstanding costumes and fantastically colorful stage arrangements. A contemporary Jew, Weisgall asks his audience: is it possible to really revel over the enemy’s defeat–if it involves so much violence and trauma?

Posted on November 19, 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

Bob Dylan’s Christmas Album: What Good Is It? (Part 4)

This entry was posted in Holidays on by .

Seth Rogovoy, author of Bob Dylan: Prophet, Mystic, Poet, wrote about Bob Dylan’s Judaism, Jews who write Christmas music, and the album itself. He is guest-blogging all week for MyJewishLearning and the Jewish Book Council.

When I first heard the songs on Bob Dylan‘s Christmas in the Heart, I thought, not only is this the worst recording Bob Dylan has ever made, but it is literally unlistenable.

jewish authors blogBob Dylan’s worst, after all, is typically a lot better than many people’s best, and as good as even more people’s mediocre efforts. But in its lack of inspiration and imagination, and in the poor quality of the performances, especially in Dylan’s horrible vocals, this seemed nothing more than a tossed-off, misguided effort, ranking even below such Dylan misfires as Self Portrait, Knocked Out Loaded, and Down in the Groove. (What’s that, you say? You never heard of those? Well, there’s a reason.)

Which still leaves the unanswerable question, why? Or, more precisely, what does it mean?

I think, short of getting inside of Bob Dylan’s head — which, having studied him long and hard for more decades than I care to admit, is a place I’ve concluded you don’t want to go — we’ve established as well as we can why Dylan would want to make a Christmas album. It makes perfect sense in the greater context of Dylan’s career as an American musician, and even as a Jewish-American musician (see parts 1-3 of this series).

As for what it might mean, with the implication being what it might mean regarding Dylan’s self-identification as a Jew or a Christian, that’s a much more difficult question to answer. Indeed, it’s impossible to say.

It’s not my place to comment on the meaning of Christmas in contemporary America, although I’ve had plenty of chances to observe it up close and personal being celebrated by a wide cross-section of people from all walks of life. And I’ve often had it explained to me by those who do honor the holiday in one way or another that it has little to no religious significance (this is often by way of their inviting me to join in the festivities).

As with all of Bob Dylan’s songs, ultimately whatever “meaning” there is in a song is something personal that exists between the singer and the listener. It’s not for any writer or critic to decide a song’s ultimate meaning (I say this as one whose book about the profound Jewish meanings of much of Bob Dylan’s work is on the eve of publication). I don’t even think it’s up to Bob Dylan to decide his songs’ ultimate meanings; if he offered up any interpretations, they’d be suspect, in any case.

As for me, I’ve warmed to Christmas in the Heart. Some of the performances are insinuating (I’m having a hard time getting his “Do You Hear What I Hear?” out of my head, for better or worse, and much to the annoyance of close friends and Twitter followers). There’s a certain amount of kitsch value to the recordings (although not nearly as much personality and humor as was found on last spring’s Together Through Life). There’s nothing really here to offend anyone of any persuasion, other than some of Dylan’s less attractive barks and growls, and some of the choir’s more offensive dollops of sugar.

Great Dylan it’s not; a great Christmas album it’s not. Another small chapter in the inscrutable career of Bob Dylan it is. And for that alone, it’s worth a listen.

Seth Rogovoy is the author of Bob Dylan: Prophet, Mystic, Poet, due from Scribner on Nov. 24, 2009. Please visit Rogovoy’s official website. Photo taken by Scott Barrow.

Posted on November 19, 2009

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Jewish Life on Orchard Street

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Maya Escobar, a Jewish Latina video director, performance artist, and creator of shomer negiah panties, has previously worked with young Jews, multiethnic Jews, and Jews in reunited Berlin to create works of art. For her newest project, Maya enlisted a new and unexpected collaborator: her father. Here’s what she had to say about it.

maya and gonzalo escobarWhen I received a call for entries for the Orchard Street Shul Artist Cultural Heritage Project, I was intrigued. An opportunity for artists, designers and historians to come together to explore the past and present collective memory of New Haven’s final remaining historic synagogue. I had just returned from Germany, where I spent the summer working on an art-based research project called Berlin’s Eruv. I conducted interviews with members of Berlin’s Jewish community concerning the highly visible presence of the monuments and memorials commemorating Jewish life (death) and the impact these structures have had on their individual and communal Jewish identities.

Fascinated with the idea that history and community can be present but appear to be invisible without communal engagement, I wanted to apply this concept to a new project. I asked my father, Gonzalo Escobar, if he would be interested in collaborating with me.

For the last 13 years, my father — whose background is in education, psychology and socio-cultural anthropology — has produced a weekly radio show called Si Se Puede. He focuses on issues affecting local, state, and national Latino communities. My father has the amazing gift of connecting with people and making them feel comfortable. His interviews are never pre-scripted. Instead, his interviews are created dynamically, in response to what interviewees say about their personal experiences and the feelings about their topic that they project.

He agreed to work with me and the two of us drove from Chicago to New Haven to conduct interviews with former members and friends of the Orchard Street Shul. Since this is a community based, site specific project, we really didn’t know what to expect prior to our arrival. Ultimately, whatever my father and I made would be created in response to the needs and wants of individuals we were about to meet.

Our interviewees told us stories of flirting on the front steps of the shul, eating herring and kichel, speaking “Jewish”, finding first jobs, going on first dates, learning bar mitzvah portions, and hearing (or having) loud conversations in the women’s section. Their collective energy and enthusiasm was far too contagious to pass up and we determined that the actual act of sharing of stories (telling the stories, listening, engaging) was equally as important as the audio that we collected.

Not wanting these stories to begin and end with our recordings, but instead to inspire and trigger more conversations, we attempted to create an environment conducive to chit chat and shmoozing. Our piece, entitled Talking about Orchard Street is a low-tech installation where visitors will be invited to sit in comfortable armchairs, sample herring and kichel, listen to excerpts from interviews and engage in dialog with each other.

The multi-artist exhibition opens December 6th and runs until January 31st at the John Slade Ely House Center for Contemporary Art in New Haven, CT. Photo of Maya & Gonzalo Escobar by Julian Voloj.

Posted on November 19, 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

30 Days Since You Died

This entry was posted in Israel, Life on by .

In Jewish practice, on the thirtieth day after a person dies, the mourners observe sheloshim — a lessening in severity of the mourning practices. It’s kind of weird how we have different prescribed levels for

Tonight and today is the sheloshim for Shula Swerdlov, a 3-year-old girl who was killed in a horrific hit-and-run in Jerusalem. The tragedy was immense. Not only because of the nature of the accident — the driver of the school bus, reportedly a felon with 31 previous traffic accidents, ran her over in view of her 8-year-old brother, then immediately drove away — but also that Shula’s parents are Chabad emissaries, and constantly give up the beds in their relatively small apartment for thousands of guests on their way through Israel. Some were friends, or cousins, or just people they happen to meet. When my wife and I moved to Israel for yeshiva, we camped out nights in the Swerdlovs’ office, checking our email each night, updating my blog and writing a novel because they didn’t think twice about giving sketchy people like us a key to their place of business.

You can check out the comments section to see how many people were reeling from her death. But what you should really check out is the community’s response:

* A massive toy drive, collecting Hanukkah toys for disadvantaged children — in spite of the idea that most Chabadniks don’t give gifts for Hanukkah. Check out the link for phone numbers, drop-off points, and other ways you can contribute.

* There’s a custom that, when someone dies, we start writing a Torah in their memory. I’m not sure why exactly — I’ve heard that it’s a reference to when Moses wrote the Torah at the end of his life, or for the everlastingness of the Torah itself, how it’s called a “Tree of Life” and all that. A Torah was started in Shula’s memory, and you can help sponsor the writing by buying a letter in the Torah — either a letter of your name, or a letter of a name of someone you want to honor.

* The song “Since You Died,” by the Dismemberment Plan, has been in my head all day. Like few others, singer Travis Morrison conveys the intimacy and the distance — and the un-understandingness of it all — that comes with thinking about a dead person.

shula's torah

Posted on November 18, 2009

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Sarah Palin’s “Going Rogue” Inspired By

This entry was posted in Practices on by .

You heard me. We are Sarah Palin’s main source of inspiration. Don’t believe me? Just check out her new book, Going Rogue. In it, you will find clean, pure evidence that Sarah Palin uses our site, what I can only assume to be, daily.

I’m not making this stuff up. And I have two reputable sources to back me up. First, the Washington Post. Check out this headline from yesterday: “The Book of Sarah Embraces God & Todd.” Sure, they totally missed the story. And got the order wrong. But any loyal MJL reader will know that Palin’s main inspiration in life is The Adventures of Todd & God.

sarah palin todd palin and god

Now, it would be one thing if it was just the Washington Post. But what if I told you that the New York Times also covered the story? That’s right. Here is a quote from Palin herself in an article from yesterday’s paper, p. A16, upper left corner: “I get through a lot of my challenges in life thanks to God and Todd.”

I hear you Sarah. I was lost and confused to…until Todd and God taught me how to hang a mezuzah.

Posted on November 18, 2009

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Tallits Bring Out the Worst In People

This entry was posted in Israel on by .

This Haaretz story makes my head explode.

Police arrest woman for wearing prayer shawl at Western Wall 

Police on Wednesday arrested a woman who was praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, due to the fact that she was wrapped in a prayer shawl (tallit).

The woman was visiting the site with the religious women’s group “Women of the Wall” to take part in the monthly Rosh Hodesh prayer.

Police were called to the area after the group asked to read aloud from a Torah scroll.

Police said they arrested the women in the wake of a High Court ruling, which states that the public visiting the Western Wall is obligated to dress in accordance with the site’s dress code.

Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz said the act was a provocation meant to turn the wall into a fighting ground. “We must distance politics and disagreement from this sacred place,” Rabinowitz said.

Chairman of the women’s group, Anat Hoffman, said that this is the first time in the history of Israel that a woman has been arrested because she wrapped herself in a tallit and read from the Torah.
Rabbi Gilad Kariv, associate director of Israel’s reform movement, said that all over the world women are entitled to wear the tallit, and only in the land of the Jews are they excluded from the social custom and even arrested for praying.

Israeli police should be ashamed of themselves,” Kariv said.

Last week Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Israel’s chief Sephardi rabbi, said during his weekly sermon that the women in the feminist movement are “stupid” and act the way they do out of a selfish desire for equality, not “for heavens’ sake.”

Rabbi Ovadia also said about the groups’ custom to pray at the Western Wall that “there are stupid women who come to the Western Wall, put on a tallit (prayer shawl), and pray,” and added that they should be condemned.

Emphasis mine.

Maybe I’m naïve, but I never thought wearing a tallit could really be this controversial. Why is it such a big deal if a woman wears a tallit, especially if she’s modestly dressed? The lady is on the other side of the mehitza (separating wall) from any guys, so I just don’t understand how she could possibly be distracting or really upsetting in any way.

I can’t even begin to respond to Rav Ovadia Yosef’s comments. I have never been as disappointed in a religious leader as I am right now. How someone can be so brilliant and so absolutely clueless and ignorant is mind boggling to me.

I also want to mention that when I brought up women wearing a tallit on a Jewcy post a few years back the post garnered 106 comments, including a memorable one which accused my editors and me of being part of a “ruling cuntocracy.” Seriously, what is it about tallitot that makes people so crazy?

Posted on November 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

Hanukkah – Still Accessible After All These Years

This entry was posted in Holidays on by .

Yesterday Matthue and I had the opportunity to study with the good folks at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies (at their New York office. Jerusalem is too far away for a lunch and learn). And as it’s Rosh Chodesh Kislev, our topic with Yaffa Epstein centered around Hanukkah.

We looked at the traditional Talmudic text that distinguishes between wicks and oil that may be used for Shabbat and Hanukkah (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 21b). What it boils down to is that one can use candles of a lesser quality for Hanukkah. There are many more candles to light on Hanukkah and the goal was not to prohibit anyone from participating by requiring the high quality oil that is essentially required for Shabbat.

While this makes sense in the context of ancient Jewish life (candles were a precious commodity), it also resonBlue box Hanukkah candlesates today. I’ve only bought Hanukkah candles once in my life. Every year growing up, those free blue-box-don’t burn-more-than-10-minutes candles from Hebrew school seemed to be just fine for Hanukkah. But Shabbat candles were beautiful pure white candles, which had to be purchased.

The most beautiful lesson we learned, though, comes from the Sefat Emet, who expands on this teaching. He says that the word nefesh (soul) stands for ner/petilah/shemen or “lamp/wick/oil.” And for those whose soul does not “rise up” and light the Shabbat candles, they can be “brought up on Hanukkah.”

He further explains that while the three pilgrimage festivals were given to the Jewish people by God, Hanukkah, along with Purim, “are special times that Israel merited by their own deeds…. Because these holidays were brought about by Israel’s own deeds, every Jewish soul can be restored through them. Every single Jew can find a way of belonging and attaching to them.”

Meaning that Hanukkah is a holiday–in a sense–by the people, of the people, and for the people. And it is surely true that Hanukkah is arguably the most accessible holiday. We only celebrate it once a year, we only celebrate it for about 10 minutes a day, and all we have to do is light some candles and maybe eat some delicious fried food. Who can’t commit to that?

The National Jewish Population Survey proves that this is true. According to their findings, Hanukkah is the most observed holiday with 72% of Jewish lighting candles, while only 28% light candles on Shabbat.

So while some people may dismiss Hanukkah as a “not important or significant” holiday for real Jewish observance, perhaps our tradition — and now our practices teach us quite the opposite.

Posted on November 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