Monthly Archives: January 2010

Limmud NY 2010: OMG Adin Steinsaltz!

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I arrived at Limmud NY an hour and rushed to my room to drop my bags before coming back to the lobby to tweet and scour the program for awesomeness. This is my third Limmud, and I’m excited to be back after taking a break last year.

Limmud is a conference for people who want to learn Jewish things, whether it’s Israeli dance, Holocaust films, Talmud, or the history of gefilte fish. The way it works at Limmud, you get this big book full of descriptions of various sessions organized by time, and you pick the sessions you like the best. I have only skimmed the first few days of programs, but it looks awesome. The superstar presenter this year is Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and he is a serious bigshot. I’m really excited to get to learn with him. My only beef is this: How come the session about the evolution of Jewish law, that features awesome people like Rabbi Ethan Tucker, and Mahara”t Sara Hurwitz, is up against Learn Talmud with Adin Steinsaltz?? I have no idea how to decide which one to go to, but luckily most people (Steinsaltz, Tucker and Hurwitz included) are presenting several sessions, so there are multiple opportunities to hear them speak.

Other exciting features of the program: Finally getting to meet Jewminicana Aliza Hausman, and a survey session on Hollywood and the Holocaust. Plus, there’s a tisch tonight (guess what I brought?) and my chavruta is here, so basically—I will be busy.

Shabbat Shalom!

Posted on January 15, 2010

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Best of the Week

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How was your week? Do anything fun? I watched four straight hours to television last night! That was crazy fun. It’s unfair of television to put on an hour of 30 Rock followed by two hours of Jersey Shore. It’s like that grandparent who keeps giving you candy. You know it’s bad for you, but you can’t stop eating it.

I always thought Joseph was a bit of a jerk. But I love Donny Osmond. So now I’m torn. Maybe you can decide for yourself about the guy.

We started revamping our history section, publishing a few new overviews that were previously lacking. Wanna read about Jews and non-Jews in between the wars? Who doesn’t!

I once had an up close and personal viewing of a bris. Easily one of the more terrifying things in my life. Then I got paid $100 though. So it was worth it. But if you’re a little kid, no one is giving you $100. Maybe you should talk to your parents about that. Or vice-versa (talk to your kids about brit milahs. Please).

Finally, we started a new e-letter this week, devoted solely to Shabbat. Just don’t read it on Shabbat. Or read it. It’s really up to you.

Posted on January 15, 2010

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Is Pauly D’s Stalker Girl Orthodox?

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Finally! An excuse to talk about Jersey Shore! It’s funny that with all the talk that the MTV show gives Italians a bad name, I was wondering when they would make an excuse to give the Jews a bad name too.

Well, look no further than last night’s episode. Pauly D, the 29-year-old creepy DJ from Rhode Island, was in a bit of a predicament. He had met a cute girl from the club, Danielle, that he was seriously interested in. Except Danielle wouldn’t leave him alone. She followed him on the boardwalk and repeatedly called his house trying to get in contact with him. She even makes him a shirt that says “Everyone loves an Israeli Girl” after one day of knowing him. A bit stalkerish if you ask me (and him).

As you could have guessed from the t-shirt, Danielle is Israeli. But why would I wonder if she is Orthodox?

She certainly doesn’t dress modestly (by the way, I can’t find any pictures or video of her. You are just going to have to watch the episode). To be fair, she doesn’t dress like J-Woww either. But when our boy Pauly D tried to bring her up to his room, Danielle informed him that it is against Judaism to have sex before marriage.

Nathan Rabin from the A.V. Club described the situation (no, not that situation) as follows: “DJ Pauly D encounters his very first stalker, an Israeli woman who is saving herself for marriage yet inexplicably seems to think her Bashert may be a crazy-coiffed juicehead.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself.

I have a feeling she probably isn’t Orthodox. I think she might just be plain old crazy. Here is Pauly D’s Facebook status from last night: “Wow Stage 5 Stalker Just Contacted Me !!! Ahhhh !!! Helpp !!!!”

Don’t worry Pauly, I’m not into Israelis either.

Posted on January 15, 2010

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From the Academy: Holocaust Studies

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Avinoam J. Patt serves as the Philip D. Feltman Professor of Modern Jewish History at the University of Hartford, and also directs the George and Lottie Sherman Museum of Jewish Civilization. He previously served as the Miles Avi PattLerman Applied Research Scholar for Jewish Life and Culture at the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. His first book, Finding Home and Homeland: Jewish Youth and Zionism in the Aftermath of the Holocaust appeared in May 2009, and his second, a volume he edited on Displaced Persons—We are Here: New Approaches to Jewish Displaced Persons in Postwar Germany—will be published in February 2010. His research and teaching manifest the extraordinary vitality of the field.

What is Holocaust Studies?

Scholars of Holocaust Studies cover a tremendous range of topics and approach the field from almost every single discipline in the academy: History, Literature, Religion, Judaic Studies, Politics, Psychology, Sociology, Film, Architecture, Archaeology, Forensics, etcetera. As a tragedy of unprecedented proportions that in certain ways defies the human capacity for comprehension, the Holocaust has attracted scholars from all of these disciplines who seek to add to our understanding of human behavior. A scholar of the Holocaust might focus on the history of Germany or anti-Semitism; or literary responses to catastrophe; or theological explanations for the destruction; or Jewish responses to persecution; or the political appeal of the Nazi party; or the social dynamics of collaboration, resistance, or rescue; or the Holocaust on film; or the architecture of the death camps; or the legal theory involved in the post-war prosecution of war criminals. All of these approaches and topics fit within the field of Holocaust Studies.

Does the study of the Holocaust require scholarly approaches that differ from those that would be brought to any other catastrophe in Jewish or non-Jewish history?

Is the Holocaust so unique in history that it requires its own unique scholarly approach? As you can tell from my previous response, the answer is no: scholars from various disciplines must approach the Holocaust with the same scholarly approaches they would bring to other events in history in order to gain a true understanding of the aspect of the Holocaust they investigate. If we suggest that the Holocaust is so unique that it cannot be understood, then there is little purpose in studying it; instead of accepting that conclusion, we can seek to learn from the past in order to better understand the human capacity for evil (or, for that matter, resilience, compassion, and courage) and thus perhaps prevent future or contemporary acts of genocide.

What does scholarly research about the Holocaust—as opposed, say, to memorializing the events—offer to the Jewish community?

There is a tendency within the Jewish community to believe that we know everything there is to know about the Holocaust—that everything that needs to be uncovered has already been discovered, examined, and studied. This concerns me for a number of reasons: first, what we know about Jewish responses to the Holocaust only touches the tip of an iceberg. There is a vast amount of material that has not been examined from the war period, from which we can learn so much about how Jews responded to the threat of Nazism (at times successfully, but generally not so). Very few Jews know the story of Emmanuel Ringelblum, who devoted himself to documenting both Nazi persecution and Jewish responses in the Warsaw ghetto, and without whom we would know little about Jewish life in the Warsaw ghetto.

I am currently working on a project that is part of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Jewish Source Study Initiative, called Jewish Responses to Persecution, that draws attention to the millions of pages of unexamined material that most people do not realize survived the war. These sources offer a window onto Jewish life before, during, and after the Holocaust. If we view the history of the Holocaust as only fated to end in Jewish destruction, and merely memorialize the destruction by the Germans, but not the courage of those who resisted both physically and spiritually, or if we fail to examine the efforts of Jews to continue Jewish life during and after the war, then we miss much of the significance of these events for Jewish history and for the Jewish community.

Furthermore, there are still those who seek to deny the Holocaust, whether for political reasons (Ahmadinejad, for example) or out of admiration for Nazism or Hitler (like David Irving)—and the deniers know that time is on their side. As the survivor generation disappears, and the last eyewitnesses to the Holocaust pass on, Holocaust studies must continue to gather evidence and establish the historical record to refute the claims of the deniers, whose numbers, I fear, will unfortunately grow over time.

What are the most pressing questions that remain to be answered by scholars of the Holocaust?

The field is moving in so many directions now. Twenty years ago, the field was largely focused on the intentionalist/functionalist debate, which focused on whether the Final Solution was always the intention of the Nazi leadership or whether it evolved over time as a function of factors related to the war effort and the search for other solutions to the Jewish question.

In the 1990s, much of the focus was on the Browning/Goldhagen debate over whether the perpetrators were “ordinary men” or “Hitler’s Willing Executioners.” Scholars have now moved on to topics that in many cases focus on a number of developing areas not related specifically to German history: more localized research that focuses on the role of local groups in collaboration throughout Europe (in Romania, Lithuania, the Ukraine, Poland, or western Europe, for example); the role of the Church; research on the aftermath of the Holocaust (Jewish life in the DP camps); and research on comparative genocide. Recently opened archives, including the International Tracing Service archive in Bad Arolsen, Germany, and newly available materials that continue to emerge from Eastern Europe also drive new areas of research.

Are there particular challenges, whether institutional or intellectual, facing students and scholars of the Holocaust today?

As I mentioned above, there is an acute sense of urgency regarding the passing of the survivor generation. The survivors not only constitute a valuable resource as eyewitnesses, but they also value and understand the importance of this field. While thousands of hours of testimony were painstakingly recorded by various groups over the past twenty years, we often discover that in many cases, this material is only partial or misses important subjects, such as the postwar experiences of the survivors.

Another issue, also related to time but in a different way, has to do with the increasing focus on contemporary genocide and the topic of comparative genocide. While I certainly believe that the mantra of “Never Again” remains vital in the aftermath of the Holocaust and with the continued acts of genocide in the 20th and 21st centuries, I worry that with the passage of time and the loss of the survivor generation there will be less of a general agreement about the need to study the Holocaust as a historical event, and more of an effort to draw simple, basic lessons from the Holocaust that can be applied to the mission of contemporary relevance. As this happens, we will lose some of the nuance of what needs to be understood from this complicated history, and be left with an oversimplified understanding of this time period.

What drew you toward this field?

Like most Jews, I have family members who died in the Holocaust (great grand-parents, great aunts, uncles, and cousins), but this is not what drew me to the field. It was the realization that Jewish studies scholars had barely sought to investigate the Holocaust from the perspective of Jewish history—that is, that there has been little effort to understand the Holocaust within the broader scope of Jewish history, or to seriously investigate the troves of unexamined Jewish materials that had survived the period before, during, and after the Holocaust to give us a better sense for Jewish life in this period. This failure to study Jewish life during the war does a disservice not only to those who perished, but to those who sought to continue Jewish life under the most impossible of circumstances.

Truthfully, in my first book on Jewish DPs and Zionism, I was much more interested in the question of Zionism and the immediate events leading up to the creation of the state of Israel than I was in the topic of the Holocaust; I was drawn to a topic that looked at the resilience and rebirth of the survivors after the Holocaust rather than the destruction of European Jewry during the war. However, through my research on the Jewish Displaced Persons, I also discovered that this was a fascinating period of time that had barely been examined by historians.

If someone wanted to know more about where Holocaust studies are headed, what would you recommend he or she read?

It is hard to single out just one or two books from the many excellent volumes that are published in the field. However, a few recent works stand out: Saul Friedlander’s second volume, Nazi Germany and the Jews, Volume II: The Years of Extermination, where he masterfully combines German, Jewish, and other sources in an extremely readable volume. Sam Kassow, in Who Will Write Our History?: Emmanuel Ringelblum and the Oyneg Shabbes Archive (Indiana University Press) integrates the field of Jewish history into Holocaust studies through his focus on one of the most important but least known Jewish figures from the Holocaust, the historian, political and social activist, and educator Emmanuel Ringelblum.

My two books on the She’erit Hapletah (Surviving Remnant)—Finding Home and Homeland and We Are Here—are part of the larger field of developing research on Holocaust survivors after the war.

Posted on January 15, 2010

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Wise Fridays: Do Not Stand Idly By

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wise fridays: sharpen the reception on your WiFri

If you hear informers plotting to harm someone, you’re obligated to inform the intended victim. If you can somehow stop the perpetrator from acting, but you do not, you have broken the law, “Do not stand by while your neighbor’s blood is shed.” –Shulkhan Arukh Hoshen Mishpat 426:1

Find more Wise Fridays wisdom on MJL.

Posted on January 15, 2010

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Where Are the Good Kosher Caterers?

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This is one of my real pet peeves. Plain and simple: there are not very many kosher caterers, and most of them are horrible.

I grew up in Chicago, a community of more than 350,000 Jews. And yet, for most of my life there were only a handful of kosher catering options in Chicago, and most of them were abysmal. Sure, if you were willing to spend $100 a plate you could have a good meal, but if you could only afford, say, $20 a head, you could count on having some pretty nasty kosher food at your big event. Now I live in New York, and there are way more options here, but even in New York more often than not at big Jewish functions I’m presented with some pretty gross food. And this, despite the fact that Jews are known for our great classic recipes and our homey kitchens.
My guess is that bad kosher catering comes from three basic problems:

Kosher caterers pay through the nose for kosher certification. It can cost seriously big bucks to have someone stand around and make sure there are no bugs in your lettuce. As a result, there isn’t as much money left over for ingredients and paying for good chefs.

There isn’t that much competition. None of the caterers are that good, and none of them are cheap, so no one is forcing anyone else to get better or cheaper.

For some insane reason, no one seems to be complaining. It’s like people have just decided that this is the way kosher food has to be–crappy and bland–and there’s nothing they can do about it.

But why, people, why?? One of the top five reasons I can’t get excited about the possibility of marriage right now? I can’t think of a kosher caterer I would like to use for my wedding. I’d seriously rather do it myself.

Posted on January 14, 2010

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Jewish Atheism vs Atheism

This entry was posted in Beliefs on by .

In her last post, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein wrote about the inspiration behind Azarya Sheiner, the heart of her new novel. She has been guest-blogging all week for MyJewishLearning and the Jewish Book Council.

rabbi niles goldsteinThe last book I published, Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity, introduced me to a community I hadn’t known much about before: organized non-religion. Spinoza is a hero to that community, and I began to get invitations from various pro-reason and secular humanist groups. I was invited to speak at congregations of freethinkers who gather each week, on Saturday or Sunday, in order to, you know, not pray. I was even elected a Humanist Laureate.

But the more I spoke with people with whom I basically agree the more dissatisfied I became when they spoke about people with whom I don’t agree. Atheists have excellent arguments, yet there was something that many of them weren’t getting. They weren’t getting what it’s like to be a believer, what the world feels like when God seems a presence.

Perhaps even more importantly—and I think this tends to loom larger for Jews than for Christians—they weren’t getting what it feels like to be part of a religiously identified community, the sense of communal bonding that overrides metaphysics. Religion is about far more than the belief in God, which is, again, something that might be less surprising to you if you happen to be Jewish. (I had a thoroughly Orthodox education but never once, at least as I can recall, did we concern ourselves with arguments for the existence of God.)
How does a Jewish atheist differ from, say, a Dennett or a Dawkins? Take the story I’ve heard, in multiple versions, of two Jews arguing on a park bench, one a believer the other an atheist. They’re going at it heatedly, when suddenly the atheist breaks it off with an urgent, “Come on, we’re going to be late for ma’ariv.”

The protagonist of 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction is Cass Seltzer, who has become an international celebrity with the publication of his book The Varieties of Religious Illusion. He’s no stranger to religious experience, and he has been dubbed the atheist with a soul. But there’s another atheist in the book, less prone than Cass to onslaughts of religious emotion. This character is the soul of the book.

In Betraying Spinoza I argued that there was something indelibly Jewish about the seventeenth-century philosopher, despite the vehemence of those who denounced his heresy. Spinoza’s extraordinary rethinking of personal identity was, in part, a response to Jewish history. This paradox was much in mind when I was writing the novel. The most ardent atheist in the book is someone who, like Spinoza, could only exist in Judaism.

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s newest book, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction is now available. Visit the official website for the book at

Posted on January 14, 2010

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JESNA Thinks We’re Great

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Last week, the Jewish Education Service of North America (JESNA) made a list of the Best in Jewish Education over the past decade. And guess who made it on the list. You’re right. Birthright did make it. But so did we!

Read what they wrote about us:

Online Jewish learning – Technology is transforming how we work, play, communicate, and learn, and Jewish learning is no exception. From to Twitter, the technological revolution is coming to Jewish education, empowering learners, challenging teachers, putting new resources at our finger tips, connecting far-flung classrooms, and bridging time and space. 

Nice!…even bigger than Twitter.

Posted on January 13, 2010

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Six Points Fellowship Applications

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Just passing the word along about a fantastic program here in New York. If you are an emerging Jewish artist, or know someone who is, you should definitely give this a good read.

Six Points Fellowship Seeks Emerging Artists In NYC

The Six Points Fellowship for Emerging Jewish Artists is accepting applications for their next group of artists! The Six Points Fellowship will support nine individual artists in New York City (ages 22-38) working in visual arts, music, and performing arts and who want to develop a new project with a Jewish focus, theme, or element. The fellowship provides up to a total of $40,000 as well as workshops, Jewish learning, and professional support to develop new projects exploring Jewish ideas and concepts.

The 2-year fellowship will provide:
-Stipend: Up to $20,000 over two years
-Project Grant: Up to $20,000 over two years
-Retreats, monthly workshops, coaching, and mentorship

To learn more and apply for the Fellowship, visit their website at They are holding application workshops on Feb. 7 and Feb. 17 at 7pm at the Bronfman Center at 7 E. 10th Street, please join them to learn more about the process. The Letter of Intent (LOI) is due March 1, 2010 and the fellowship cycle begins in October 2010.

Six Points is a unique collaboration of Avoda Arts, Foundation for Jewish Culture, and JDub Records, and are pleased to continue the program with significant support from UJA-Federation of New York.

If you have any questions about the Six Points Fellowship program, please check out their website or e-mail
Six Points Fellowship
If I was talented, I’d apply. Believe me, it’s worth it.

Posted on January 12, 2010

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Why I Don’t Eat Animals

This entry was posted in Beliefs on by .

I was just interviewed on the blog Heeb ‘n Vegan. Michael Croland, who runs the site, managed to get a lot out of me in very little space — we talk about Muslim punk music, my novel Never Mind the Goldbergs, my vegetarianism — and, randomly, the last book I read, which is Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals:

It’s hard not to talk about the stories in the book. I’ve stopped multiple dinner conversations because something popped into my head, and I’m really bad about not saying something. Usually in a charming and offbeat and punky way. But, uh, you can’t really say this stuff charmingly.

Judaism isn’t really a religion of choices. In general, in Jewish law, there are no circumstances that get either/or verdicts. You’re either commanded to do something, or you’re commanded not to do it. Being a vegetarian falls into a kind of shady ground. Some people will tell you that Jews are required to eat meat on Shabbat or holidays. Others will say that eating meat is a condescension that God made to people after that whole Noah thing didn’t work out, and the world was full of people with unrealized hostility. (At least that’s sort of the way it’s portrayed in the Torah.) In essence, you can kind of say that Judaism supports either position — that we either have to eat meat, or that eating meat is one of the most base and degrading parts of being human that there is.

matthue roth

He also quoted a line from Goldbergs at me — which, I think, is the highest compliment you can get. It means that you’ve said something that’s affected someone else enough for them to remember it and process it into their brains, and possibly make it part of their thinking. And then he asked me if it was a blueprint for Jewish punk. (The line he quoted was:”I still believed in G-d. I just didn’t believe in other people. I mean, some days, I felt like G-d was the only one who believed back at me.”)

I don’t think anything can be a blueprint for Jewish punk, although it’s awesome that you asked. I think that punk is the idea of taking something in a wild new direction, innovating or mutating it, and I think that the essence of any new development/mutation/pwning in Jewish thought involves going back to the source — to G-d, to the Torah, to the original things that Moses said — and asking ourselves, what’s my relationship to it? And then looking at the relationship that other people and the Greater Jewish World have to those same ideas, and saying that maybe we’ve got to get back to the source.

DIY Judaism is the way that Judaism’s supposed to be. But I think it also means you have to look at the sources and really get to know them, much like food radicals need to read Diet for a New America or political radicals should learn Howard Zinn.

I definitely don’t think I’m at the point of Jonathan Safran Foer, where I can lay out a calm and rational blueprint of each of my beliefs in a wowing and awe-inspiring (although possibly hazardous to your dinner-party conversation) book-length tome — but I guess that’s all part of the discovery process. Whether it’s the food I eat or the God I pray to. Either way, as soon as I’ve got it lined up for sure, I’ll let you know.

Posted on January 12, 2010

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