Monthly Archives: December 2009

Plowing a “Gonzo” Road through the Rabbinate

This entry was posted in Practices on by .

Rabbi Niles Goldstein is the author of The Challenge of the Soul: A Guide for the Spiritual Warrior, an approach to spiritual learning as seen through his eyes as a black belt martial artist. He is guest-blogging all week for MyJewishLearning and the Jewish Book Council.

rabbi niles goldsteinI recently had my ninth book published, The Challenge of the Soul: A Guide for the Spiritual Warrior. While I wrote the book primarily to help other seekers find strength and hope during times of trial, it is a very personal work. It is also filled with some powerful echoes from my previous book (or, rather, manifesto), Gonzo Judaism: A Bold Path for an Renewing Ancient Faith.

In my dual roles as both an ordained rabbi and a black belt martial artist, I have spent the past 15 years trying to bring my sometimes audacious, no-holds-barred approach to my own spiritual journey, as well as to my teaching, lecturing, and writing in my congregation and around the country. When I earned my black belt in karate just after rabbinic ordination, I had learned not only a specific set of combat skills but a wide array of tools that would help me in my vocation as a religious teacher and counselor — commitment, patience, humility, the power of repetition and practice, empathy, the ability to channel my strength in positive ways, self-sacrifice.

I had also learned to confront — and grow from — some of those darker aspects of my restless soul, the fears, insecurities, wounds, and anger that resided in hidden places within me.

challenge of the soulFighting taught me how to teach. And learn.

On the surface, Judaism and karate might seem to represent completely different, even oppositional disciplines. With time and experience, however, I have learned how each has complemented the other in my own life. For me, the two fields are deeply interconnected, complimentary expressions of the same inner path. Judaism has made me a better martial arts practitioner, and karate has made me a better rabbi. In The Challenge of the Soul, I explore how this phenomenon has worked, and in the blog entries that follow in the days ahead I will be writing about some essential concepts and principles that I think are critical to each of our unique spiritual journeys. I hope you have a good read — and a gonzo road ahead of you, one that helps push you along the way and past those forces that try to impede your progress.

Rabbi Niles Goldstein’s book The Challenge of the Soul: A Guide for the Spiritual Warrior is out now. Come back all week to read his guest blogs on MyJewishLearning and the Jewish Book Council.

Posted on December 28, 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

Jewish Characters on TV: The Best of 2009

This entry was posted in Culture on by .

There are lots of characters on TV that happen to be Jewish. Like the emergence of African Americans into mainstream American television in the 1960s, where many shows had a token black character, it now seems to be in vogue for every television show to have a token Jew. The following are the characters who in 2009 rose above the rest — the characters who, instead of merely being Jewish, did Jewish.

Ziva David, NCIS (CBS, Tuesdays 8 p.m.)

NCIS is the number one show on television these days. For some reason no one believes me when I tell them. Trust me, there’s good reason. Cote de Pablo‘s character, Ziva David, is no small part.

Ziva David started at NCIS (Naval Criminal Investigative Service) a few years ago as a liaison from the Mossad, where her father is the director. This year, after her partner Tony kills her boyfriend (a Mossad agent working in the US), Ziva returns to Israel in an episode call “Aliyah.” Her father questions whether she is loyal to the Mossad or NCIS and if it is even possible to work for both countries at the same time.

NCIS‘s entanglement with the Mossad began in 2004, but this year for the first time, questions of the relationship between America and Israel — and the dual loyalty that American Jews sometimes feel — were at front and center of the show.


Rachel Berry and Noah “Puck” Puckerson, Glee (Fox, Returning April 13, 2010)

Glee, the musical-comedy-drama following an Ohio high school’s show choir, has made a splash this fall.

From the get go, viewers were suspicious that Lea Michele‘s Rachel, the over-achieving star of the show choir and daughter of an interracial same-sex couple, was Jewish. This hunch was confirmed when Rachel vies for the spot of Maria in West Side Story, arguing that: Natalie Wood was a Jew, you know. I have had a deep, personal connection to this role since the age of one.

Noah “Puck” Puckerman (played by Mark Salling), the Mohawk-sporting football player also reveals his Jewishness, when he flashes back to his family’s annual Simchas Torah screening of Schindler’s List. He says, “It makes my mom feel connected to her Jewish roots.” While offering Puck some sweet and sour pork, his mom begs “Why can’t you date a Jewish girl?

Later that night Puck dreams that Rachel climbs into his window, wearing a massive Jewish star necklace. It’s not 24 hours later that the two are making out.

While this storyline was fantastically absurd, it expresses the very real pressures that young Jews face to date Jews. And I thought that the Puckerman’s holiday celebration might just be hyperbolic expression of the way families create new rituals.


Howard Wolowitz, The Big Bang Theory (CBS, Mondays 9:30 p.m.)

The Big Bang Theory is quite possibly the funniest show on TV these days. Argue with me if you want. You will lose. One of the great characters on this ensemble sitcom is Simon Helberg‘s Howard Wolowitz. Wolowitz is a nerdy Jewish aerospace engineer, who lives with his overly stereotypical Jewish mother (at least vocally, we only know her through the things she yells to her son through his bedroom door).

Wolowitz is best described as a gastronomical Jew. When the price of moo shu pork from the group’s favorite Chinese restaurant increases, he complains, “It’s getting harder and harder to be a bad Jew.” His mother makes Turbriskafil every Thanksgiving–a turkey, stuffed with a brisket, stuffed with gefilte fish.

While some might scoff at a Jewish-food Jew, we at MyJewishLearning know that food can be a powerful force in shaping Jewish identity. Just ask the more than 33,000 people who receive our recipes e-letter every week.


Cyrus Rose, Gossip Girl (CW, Mondays 9 p.m.)

It’s somewhat surprising that there are no major Jewish characters on Gossip Girl, which calls itself the “one and only source into the scandalous lives of Manhattan’s elite.”

However, Blair Waldorf did gain a new Jewish stepfather, Cyrus Rose (played by Wallace Shawn). In the spring, Cyrus and his family and friends celebrated Passover, and the Jewish customs confused Eleanor Waldorf, Cyrus’ wife: I don’t even know how to say half the words in this prayer book named after Joe Lieberman’s wife. She’s informed, “She’s Hadassah. This is a Haggadah.”

While some people find the show superficial (they are wrong), its inclusion of one of the most popular Jewish rituals is significant. Even if it is in the outlandish Gossip Girl way.


Stevie Ray Botwin, Weeds (Showtime, Returning in 2010)

Weeds has had some heavily-Jewish plot lines in the past including a family sitting shiva and the quest of one man to enter rabbinical school (even if only to dodge the army). But this season we face Nancy Botwin’s pregnancy and her son’s subsequent bris, with an intermarriage twist.

Though the drug-dealing suburban mother of the newborn isn’t actually Jewish, her late husband was. And when she employs her former brother-in-law Andy to be the adoptive father, he demands a bris–complete with bagels and whitefish. “Wait, he’s Jewish now?” Nancy asks. Andy replies, “Reform, but yeah.”

Since neither of baby Stevie Ray’s parents are Jewish, his bris might seem a bit out of place. That being said, in today’s society the question of “who is a Jew?” is a growing complexity.

Posted on December 27, 2009

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Wise Fridays: Your Son is Your Master

This entry was posted in Life, Practices on by .

wise fridays: sharpen the reception on your WiFri

Your son is at five your master, at ten your servant, at fifteen your double, and after that, your friend or foe, depending on his bringing up. –Hasdai ibn Crescas
Find more Wise Fridays wisdom on MJL.

Posted on December 25, 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

Best of the (Short) Week

This entry was posted in General on by .

Merry December 24th!

I hope you are enjoying the end days of 2009. 2010–it’s gonna be a good one. I just got a feeling about it. Things work in even numbers.

With a short week comes a shorter Best of the Week. First, have you ever had the thought, “Hey, what’s the deal with the New Testament?” I have, but not in a “I love Jesus way.” And I’m not alone. This article shows that the New Testament is a great book to learn about Jewish life during the Temple Period.

According to our article on Camille Pissarro, many people don’t even realize the impressionist painter was Jewish. Funny, I didn’t even know he existed. Then again, I’m pretty dumb.

Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat is one of many plays where I know more words in Hebrew than in English. Thank you, Camp Ramah.

I’ll be in California next week, so happy New Year everyone!

Posted on December 24, 2009

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Jewish Books You Didn’t Read: The Best of 2009

This entry was posted in Culture on by .

All week, we’ll be spotlighting the year’s best new Jewish culture in books, music, television, and more. Next: The best Jewish characters on TV.

Jewish literature might be bigger than ever — the success of books such as The Yiddish Policemen’s Union and Everything Is Illuminated will attest to that — but, while a few books flourish and are read by everyone in the world, some of the most worthwhile Jewish books have yet to be discovered by the masses. The next time you feel the urge to read the same book that everyone else in your synagogue is reading, pull out one of these books and suggest it to them.

so punk rockSo Punk Rock (And Other Ways to Disappoint Your Mother) by Micol and David Ostow
The wildest story you’ll ever read about Jewish day school in the suburbs. While all the stereotypes are there — overweight, stuck-up religious boy; introverted Pynchon-book-toting hipster girl — they spring to life in a story that embraces the crisis of identity, politics, rebellion, and trying to make sense both of growing up and of being Jewish.


sima's undergarmentsSima’s Undergarments for Women, Ilana Stanger-Ross
While hitchhiking through America, a young Israeli backpacker takes a job at a bra shop in Brooklyn owned by a 60-year-old woman named Sima. The writing is sentimental without being sappy, and despite some obvious plotting, and some big reveals that don’t happen, it’s a moving portrait of Jewish women at two very different stages in their lives — although not as different as either would believe.

novel of klass

A Novel of Klass, Curt Leviant
Leviant’s barely-transparent Philip Roth-meets-Asher Lev protagonist is the last great unrecognized (and bitter as hell) Yiddish master painter. Under other circumstances, the book’s promise of two separate endings sounds like a cop-out, but in practice, it fits the book’s cranky and lovable protagonist perfectly. The book is funny and sad and self-deprecating and, unexpectedly, beautiful.

paul was not a christianPaul Was Not a Christian, Pamela Eisenbaum
You might think it’s crazy to put a book about a Christian apostle on a Jewish list. But that’s only because you haven’t read the book. This elegant and passionate defense of Paul is both a riveting biography — pieced together from the details that we have about the man, wildly varied and sometimes directly conflicting — and a fascinating portrait of early Christianity, when some of its founders were molding it into a religion and others were attempting to use it as a revolution to rescue Judaism from the moneylenders and Roman peons who were controlling it.

guinea pig aj jacobsThe Guinea Pig Diaries by A.J. Jacobs
Though you might’ve heard of this, or even read MyJewishLearning’s interview with the author, A.J. Jacobs’ third book didn’t make quite as big a splash as his first two. Maybe it’s because it’s so straight-up zany (in one chapter, Jacobs renounces lying, even when it means having awkward conversations with his boss or in-laws; in another, he hires a personal assistant in India to send his wife emails). Or maybe because so many people (like me) wanted to keep this volume as a secret pleasure. Well, secret’s out of the bag.

Posted on December 24, 2009

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Poll: Chinese on Christmas

This entry was posted in Holidays on by .

Yesterday, I ranted about eating Chinese food on Christmas. But I was wondering, how rampant is this practice in the Jewish community? Is it just an old wives tale? Or does everybody actually do it. Answer the poll and we can finally have an answer.

Posted on December 24, 2009

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Two Days of Jewish Confusion

This entry was posted in Holidays on by .

If you haven’t heard, tonight starts Christmas — which I think is the only non-Jewish holiday that starts at sunset, the way that Jewish holidays do. And of course, there are tons of ways for Jews to deal with Christmas, from parties (our picks, if you’re in New York: JDub/Jewcy’s awesome Jewltide, featuring Dan Saks of DeLeon, and the always-rocking Moshav with Soulfarm at B.B. King’s) to the huge Hasidic chess match at 770. And, though many Jews try not to study specifically Jewish subjects on Christmas, it doesn’t mean that you can’t learn about Jewish perspectives on the day, as well as the history of Jews and Christians, in these new articles on MJL.

But that’s not all! This Sunday is the Fast of the Tenth of Tevet. As our article says:

The fast day of the 10th of the Hebrew month of Tevet symbolizes the first of a series of events which led to the destruction of the First Temple: the beginning of the siege of the Babylonians on Jerusalem, the capital city of Judea…Two other events which are related to the first days of Tevet are the completionof the translation of the Torah into Greek on the Eighth of Tevet by the “Seventy Scholars” in the days of Ptolemy and the death of Ezra on the ninth of Tevet. READ MORE >

Posted on December 24, 2009

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Kindly Ones Keep Us Company

This entry was posted in History on by .

I got a review copy of Jonathan Littell’s novel The Kindly Ones — a massive, 982-page paperweight of a novel about a (fictional) SS officer during the Holocaust — and didn’t immediately read it. Although the novel won one of France’s major literary awards and was hailed in Europe, it’s still, well, Europe. The American reviews soundly thrashed the thing, calling it bloated and pretentious and severely scatological in its humor. And then there was the size of it:

kindly ones by jonathan littell


Finally, a few weeks ago I sat down to conquer the thing. It actually came at an opportune time: I had to run out of work to go to the doctor’s. (I’d gotten a tick in the middle of winter, and even though I live in Brooklyn, a city without any trees or bushes or nature, I decided I needed to make sure I wasn’t dying of Lyme disease.) I could run down to the medical center and wait for a walk-in. This sounded to me like the prospect of hours with nothing to do. What better time to dig into a monster such as that?

So I had this period of time, roped off, with nothing else to fill it. I dove in and started to read. And I discovered: The Kindly Ones actually is sort of compelling.

kindly ones littellThe story follows the narration of Dr. Maximilien Aue, a man with no pretense of brevity and a truly OCD mind. The story is by turns relentlessly brutal (explosion after explosion, battle scenes in plenitude) and severely nitpicky. When Aue is given the chance to kill Jews, you get the sense that he thinks of it, not as ethnic cleansing or mass murder, but as an innumerably complex problem to solve, and one more thing to analyze. And the man can analyze: he goes off on ten-page digressions about statistical models and mid-20th-century medical culture. Single paragraphs fill pages, and sometimes when you come to a paragraph break, a chorus plays Hallelujah in your head.

It’s cheapening the story to chalk up Aue’s neuroses to the author’s need to portray the hyperactiveness of the German Nazi methodical mind. At the same time, however, reading this book really illuminates the intricacies of someone obsessed with detail, and how the humanity of humanity can get lost in the process. Aue, at various points in the book, destroys his family, embarks on an incestuous relationship with his sister, and argues — regretfully, it seems — that the more accurate tally of Jews killed in the Holocaust is closer to five million than six. There is also the aforementioned scatology: Aue is obsessed with vomiting and bowel movements, both his own and other people’s. One of my favorite lines from Publisher’s Weekly‘s review puts it best: “Nary an anus goes by that isn’t lovingly described (among the best is one surrounded by a pink halo, gaped open like a sea anemone between two white globes).”

It’s not a sympathetic portrait of Nazis by any means. But it’s a thought-provoking one. I don’t know if I’d actually want to read this book given the choice between it and, oh, just about any other book about the Holocaust (or not) out there. But for those with the curiosity — and the time to spare — it’s an intriguing perusal.

Posted on December 24, 2009

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

We Can Do Better Than Chinese Food

This entry was posted in Holidays on by .

This is something that I’ve never really understood. Why is it a “thing” to eat Chinese on Christmas Eve? Yeah, yeah. I get it. The only places that are open on Christmas are movie theatres and Chinese restaurants.

But that’s not my issue. Why do we feel the need to eat Chinese food on Christmas? Who cares that it’s Christmas? It’s not our holiday. Why do we need to have our own customs? Just make spaghetti or something.

Why don’t we eat sushi on Easter (Because it’s Passover. That’s why)? Eating Chinese is just a sign that we’re uncomfortable with being outcasts on Christmas. But the funny thing is that we aren’t even on Christians’ radars. We don’t matter on Christmas. And I’m cool with that.

Tomorrow, eat something else. I know I will (unless I have no food. Then I’m gonna order some Chinese or something).

Posted on December 23, 2009

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Blood Libel Blues

This entry was posted in History on by .

I’m not sure whether to be offended or amused by this — right after I professed my love for all things Christian, no less. I think the correct answer is (c): All of the above.

russian blood libel vodka

That’s right: Kabbalah vodka, made (according to the label) with Christian infants. I could tell you to read MyJewishLearning’s expert article on blood libel, or the greater context of Russian Jewish persecution, but I don’t think either of them would help understanding exactly what this is. This blog post from EnglishRussia.com puts it into perspective — it’s a joke, a new twist on the Russian fad of high-end vodkas. To seal the deal, each bottle contains a unique child statue made of fortified glass. But, with a bottle like that, why would you ever need to empty it?

Thanks Mobius for the tip.

Posted on December 23, 2009

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Privacy Policy