Monthly Archives: February 2010

Test 2

This entry was posted in History, Texts on by .

This is the test site for the upgrade.

once more…

Posted on February 24, 2010

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Argue Back at Your Magazine

This entry was posted in Culture on by .

In the tradition of two Jews having three opinions, our friends at PresenTense have made the impossible happen: they’ve published the new issue of their magazine (their tenth) as the first-ever Google Wave magazine. You can read it here if you have Wave, or you can post in PresenTense’s comments section to get an invite.

presentense wave

What does that mean for the Jews? Or, to put it in simpler terms — What does that mean? Analyzing the technological or moral applications Most people, even people with a Gmail address, aren’t on Wave yet — or, like me, they are, and they don’t know what the hell Google Wave does. The closest I’ve come to an authoritative explanation* is what Meredith told me: “It’s like email, if email was invented today, and you edit emails once they’ve already been sent or argue with every line of an email.”

In other words: it’s email in the form of an argument.

There are articles on “going digital,” Israeli internet startups, and how to make a mash-up between a hip-hop song and a 500-year-old Yemenite melody. (That last article was written by our own Miriam Brosseau of Stereo Sinai.

The design is innovative in other ways, too — the mag integrates discussion forums, video, and streaming music. But the most fun (or, hopefully, when people get the hang of it) will be the discussions that can literally spiral out of an article, where people suggest changes to articles that can be implemented — or debated — with the author. Which is, both historically and in this brave new digital era, what Jews have proven to be so talented at.

* — Okay, I did find out one more cool thing about Google Wave: that it was named after the communication technology in the science fiction/western Firefly.

Posted on February 23, 2010

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Are Dragons Kosher?

This entry was posted in Culture, Practices on by .

The just-released Kosher Guide to Imaginary Animals aims to do for kosher food what Barlowe’s Guide to Extraterrestrials did for animal guides, and what The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy did for…well, the galaxy — it aims to apply real-world logic to the most unreal, to create an objective guide to the most non-objective things our creative imagination can conceive of.

And the thing is: it really does the job.

imaginary kosher animals

Ann and Jeff Vandermeer are both science fiction writers, both married (to each other, not coincidentally), and both armed with a smattering of Jewish knowledge and Jewish texts. In 2007, on a whim, they knocked out a blog post arguing which imaginary animals are kosher. Some of the animals came from different cultural mythologies — there’s Bigfoot, chupacabras, and the abumi-guchi, a furry creature in Japanese mythology that’s essentially an animated, live horse stirrup. (Yes, a horse stirrup.)

Mermaids, the Vandermeers decide, are not kosher. Likewise, the jackalope of midwest American folklore. The collection of animals that the Vandermeers summon isn’t exhaustive, but it’s entertaining, and the hard-line pencil illustrations really make you feel like you’re reading one of those medieval demon reference guides that the gang always seems to reference on Buffy. (And, by the way, how do they always look through the right book? Even when they’re on the wrong page, they’re never like, “Oh, it’s in Volume MLXII, not Volume MLXIII.” It’s always a few flips away. Sorry. Tangent.)

The book is good fun, even if it manages to be less than authoritative. Rather than reaching into the back pockets of halakhah and bringing out obscure-but-cool Gemara stories, the same half-dozen qualities tend to be reused — fins? scales? chews its cud? cloven hooves?

mongolian death wormOccasionally, there’ll be a hiccup in the book’s logic, such as when the Behemoth, the massive End-of-Times wild animal that the Jews will eat, is depicted as a monstrous elephant. While the authors note that the Behemoth has been believed to be any one of several animals, I’ve only ever heard it referred to in Jewish texts as a cow or a bull (the name “behamit” itself, in Hebrew, refers to a cow). And, while the Gemara says that, in the World to Come, all the righteous people will sit down and eat the (cooked) Behemoth, well, elephants are pretty much universally known to be unkosher. All told, any quabbles with actual kashrut are minor, and pale beside the virtual orgy of hyper-experimental Jewish law logic that the Kosher Guide provides.

Even in times when the book can’t be straightforward (as in the case of the half-horse, half-fish hippocampus — “the fish-tailed part is good, the horse-part, not so much”) it’s still pretty straightforward, going through the checklist in a way that has an element of routine, but is still lively and quirky and funny, sometimes laugh-out-loud so. The conversations, though short, are wildly amusing, and you actually start rooting for Evil Monkey (Jeff’s alias) to poke holes in Ann’s flawless logic. Even though, of course, that would mean fewer kosher demons and dragons and Sea-Monkeys (yes, Sea-Monkeys) in the universe.

The authors dialog with each other in a way that it’s not a stretch to describe as Talmudesque, squabbling over details and minutiae of each entry:

EVIL MONKEY: What if a dragon asks politely to be eaten?
ANN: Jews don’t take suggestions from non-kosher food.
EVIL MONKEY: Does that mean you take suggestions from kosher food?!

Ann and Jeff’s commentary is the bread and butter of the book, and endlessly entertaining. There’s a certain ghettoizing quality to it, for lack of a better way to say it — you either get it or you don’t. And chances are, if you didn’t grow up reading either Norby the Robot or A Jewish Child’s Bible Stories, chances are, you won’t — but that doesn’t mean you still won’t be able to get into the easy, amiable war of words between the two self-styled kosher certifiers.

wookiee kosherAnother win for the book is in its extras. The press promos came with collectible recipe cards, one for Grilled Mongolian Death Worm Maki (serves 6) and one for Slow-Cooked Behemoth (serves 40,000). If they don’t come with the book, well, try to find some way to get them — I can’t wait to smuggle these into my mother’s recipe box. Equally as astounding is the epilogue, in which Ann interviews reality-TV star and baker Duff Goldman of Ace of Cakes, a huge science-fiction geek himself. It’s seriously astounding to read the lengths to which he discusses how to prepare Tribbles (“like popcorn shrimp”) and what to serve Wookiee with (“fava beans and a nice Chianti”). He’s unexpectedly conversant in the subject material, and unexpectedly thorough. When asked whether a Wookiee — yes, like Chewbacca — is kosher, he replied:

ANN: [D]o you think Wookies are kosher?

DUFF: Yes, I think that. let’s try to keep one foot in the realm of fantasy and one foot in reality. Kind of a comparison. A Highland cow — a Scotland cow — like a yak, bison. Just really hairy and furry. The hair of that thing hangs off like a Wookiee’s hair. I would say that, sans sciatic nerve, Wookiee is probably kosher. Wookiees are reall tough, and I don’t think I’d want to be the one to take one down. The difficulties in just butchering a Wookiee might render it treyf but I’m gonna say give the perfect circumstances — you got a really good butcher — I am going to say go for the Wookiee. If you are going to serve Wookiee, the best way to remove the remaining blood is to soak it because you won’t have to oversalt it. Those things are really tough, so you’ll want to cook it for a very long time. Just ’cause they’re Wookiees. Beefcakes.

I don’t eat animals, but if I did, I’m pretty sure my mouth would be watering right now. Which makes me feel both deeply ashamed of myself…and deeply intrigued.

Posted on February 23, 2010

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Forget About Jewish Identity

This entry was posted in Beliefs on by .

Here’s my entry in the 28 Days, 28 Ideas series. The article — Idea #23 — was written for Jewcy.com, which has been having some technical difficulties, so I figured I’d post the whole shebang here, as well.

Over the last several years, I have read dozens of articles and listened to scores of conversations about the challenge of strengthening Jewish identity in America. Indeed, since the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey canonized Jewish American assimilation, an unprecedented amount of communal dollars and efforts have been poured into this endeavor.

Programs aimed at “young Jews” are often explicitly framed as identity projects, a fact readily apparent from the mission statements of two of the most prominent and well-funded organizations serving the 18-30 crowd, Hillel and Birthright Israel.

Hillel “provides opportunities for Jewish students…to explore and celebrate their Jewish identity through its global network of regional centers.” Birthright Israel aims “to strengthen participants’ personal Jewish identity.”

This may seem neither controversial nor remarkable, but I believe that the obsessive focus on identity is both misguided and fundamentally alien to Jewish tradition.

What do organizations mean when they say they want to strengthen or cultivate Jewish identity?

At The Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly, in a panel on Jewish Peoplehood, Dr. Erica Brown noted that there are three components to identity formation: the cognitive (what we think), the behavioral (what we do), and the emotional (what we feel). In discussing some of the maladies plaguing the American Jewish community, Dr. Brown suggested an interesting diagnosis: when American Jews speak about Jewish identity they aggressively emphasize the emotional.

In other words, to too many American Jews, Jewish identity means feeling Jewish.

Dr. Brown’s insight articulated something I have been noticing for years and was, most recently, driven home during a conversation with a prominent Jewish philanthropist. As we spoke, this generous and committed Jewish leader extolled the virtues of Jewish education and lamented its current state. When I asked him what he wanted Jewish education to achieve — what its aim should be — his answer was simple: “I want Jewish kids to feel proud of being Jewish.”

I, for my part, was stunned. Really? That’s it? That’s the goal of Jewish education, of all your philanthropic benevolence? A feeling of ethnic/religious/cultural pride?

Continue reading

Posted on February 23, 2010

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Blogger’s Pick: What to Do on Purim

This entry was posted in Holidays on by .

As a kid, Purim was a pretty great holiday. My synagogue had a big carnival with tons of food and candy. Let’s just say that mini hot dogs + my ability to throw bean bags into a hole = pretty good time.

purim shpiel at 92y tribeca But now that I’m an “adult,” the options for what to do on Purim have become more complicated. Living in New York City has made this issue even more difficult. With so many things to choose from, really, the only way to decide on how to celebrate your Purim is to go with what interests you the most.

Do you like drinking? I’m sure you have some friends who are having a party. Plus, this year’s Purim is on a Saturday night. Just go to a bar. Do you like music? There are many, many, many Purim concerts, for kids and adults alike.

My personal interest happens to be comedy. And Purim is perfect for comedy. There must be hundreds of Purim shpiels being performed across the country. Yet arguably the best one can be found in NYC.

Last week, I posted the promo video for The Shushan Channel’s Purim Party, (Jerry) Wolfman DDS. If you thought that was funny, then you definitely should check out the actual performance this Saturday night at 92Y Tribeca.

The lineup is hot. It features Lizz Winstead, co-creator of The Daily Show; Scott Adsit, from 30 Rock; a video from Joel McHale, star of one of my favorite shows, Community, and tons of others. It’s $20 in advance, and $30 at the door (but it will probably sell out, so get your ticket now).

Posted on February 22, 2010

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The Writer of Writers

This entry was posted in History, Texts on by .

David Rosenberg’s latest books are A Literary Bible: An Original Translation and An Educated Man: A Dual Biography of Moses and Jesus. He will be blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.jewish_authors_blog2.jpg

My two new books are both about Jewish writers in times when we like to pretend there were no Jewish writers—just Jewish prophets, priests, and proto-rabbis or “sages.” Even today, it’s fashionable to claim that a writer of the Middle Ages such as Yehuda Halevi is among the first Jewish writers. But I ask you: Is not the Hebrew Bible also Jewish writing? Are not the myriad apocryphal books of Hellenistic times Jewish writing?  Is not the Talmud and Midrash?

The answer I most often hear is that writers of all these foundational works of Jewish literature did not identify as writers but, as I said, “sages”—or even, according to a popular trope among Biblical scholars, as pious “invisiblists,” men and women who were so humble they preferred anonymity, so that even their wives (or husbands) didn’t know what they were doing all those long hours up in the attic. Of course, today we are so backward that writers actually expect to make a living from writing. And not only that, but to be recognized as thinkers and invited to lecture and blog, just as I am doing now.
Already I am thinking: two long paragraphs and I haven’t even mentioned the titles of my books. If readers don’t have the titles stamped into their foreheads, they will find something better to do than check my author page at Amazon.com and maybe order a book. And then, when the rent comes due and the account balance hovers near empty, what will I say to my wife? That I was too idealistic to care?literary_bible.jpg

So let me assert, as justification for my newest title, how for Moses or for Jesus there were no old or new testaments, but rather a long history of writers and writing. Their access to this history is so pervasive that their literate educations should not be in question. To ask where and how they got their education is to ask how the Bible was written. And yet the subject we are most absent-minded about today is precisely this one: how and in what writers were the biblical authors themselves educated? It is a historical question, but Jewish history is the proof of revelation itself, as most ironically elucidated in the twentieth century by Franz Rosenzweig, in his The Star of Redemption. And now I’ve already named another book, a guiding inspiration, before my own.

Since we live in an era when history, especially ancient history, seems a quaint subject beside our modern social progress and intellectual self-regard, a lack of Jewish education works to the advantage of our modern Jewish writers. Whatever they may have known, the writers often named as our American Jewish forefathers, Bellow, Roth, and Mailer among them, showed little interest in Jewish history prior to the twentieth century. When it comes to the Hebrew Bible, even modern Israeli authors echo (if they do) biblical “stories” or “text”—which are timeless—rather than flesh and blood biblical writers. The actual biblical writers, in order to be imagined in their living Hebraic culture, require a sense of historical context, and even a love of Jewish history.

And to conclude for now, perhaps I have arrived at the point where the title of my newest book is necessary to sum up this first of three posts to the JBC/MJL Author Blog. An Educated Man: A Dual Biography of Moses and Jesus, presents Moses as the core writer-figure of the Torah—and indeed, in his influence, of the entire Bible, including New Testament. Biography is the appropriate approach because it forces us to acknowledge the later biblical writers who transformed the work of Moses into the Torah (and its further elaboration) in Jerusalem. There can be no life of Moses without knowing where “his” words come from, both in his own historical education, in Egypt and in Midian, and in the ancient Hebraic culture that produced so many profound writers we have lost.educated_man_a_dual_biography_of_moses_and_jesus.jpg

In the next post, I want to dig deeper into why I believe a Jewish writer today needs history more than ever.  In a review last week of Jeffrey Herf’s new book, Nazi Propaganda in the Arab World, Adam Kirsch writes that the anti-Semitic lies can be “so shameless, so contrary to every evident fact, that they seem to render facts meaningless.” But the Jewish education in history, already embedded in Moses’ Torah, is about the struggle for facts and origins. Even today, I ask in the final chapters of An Educated Man if we can truly call a liberal university education and any of its degrees meaningful—if it remains ignorant of the biblical passion for origins and how our Jewish heritage came to write itself into history. Yet further, can we now, all of us caught up in Western culture, risk forging a new definition of Judeo-Christianity?  And can our Jewish writers help us, risking the time off from our success-oriented careers to immerse ourselves in Jewish historical consciousness?

David Rosenberg’s newest books,A Literary Bible: An Original Translation and An Educated Man: A Dual Biography of Moses and Jesus, are now available.  He will be blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Posted on February 22, 2010

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Best of the Week

This entry was posted in General on by .

Quick reminder. Purim is pretty soon. I’m gonna go as O.J. Simpson. It’s weird that there is no space in between “too soon” and “you’re a couple years too late, buddy.”

What happened this week on MJL…

Do you remember our great “How Jews…” video series? Well, we have the next installment of the series, “How Jews Mourn.” Check it out.

I guess it’s been kind of a sad week in terms of the articles we’ve been featuring (but next week’s Purim. So don’t worry). While it might be sad, our new article on the life of Januz Korczak is well worth reading.

I lied! We do have one fun article. And lo and behold, it’s related to Purim. I’m tired of receiving boring Mishloach Manot baskets (kidding, please send me some). If you want to stick out this Purim, read our article on creatively themed Mishloach Manot gifts. I’ll take the one with the beer in it.

Posted on February 19, 2010

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Some Good News For Orthodox Marrieds

This entry was posted in Life on by .

I have been thinking critically about marriage, recently. Partially this is because more and more of my friends and mentors are getting divorced, and partially it’s because since my mom died I’ve seen a, shall we say, insidiously ugly side of marriage. And frankly, life without a huppah looks better every day.

Meanwhile, the shidduch crisis rages on (don’t worry, I’m not a part of it), rabbis give some incredibly stupid advice and, finally, some good news: Married Orthodox Jews report high levels of contentment, reports the Wall Street Journal.

According to the Aleinu Marital Satisfaction Survey—an anonymous online study conducted by the Orthodox Union in conjunction with a program of Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles and the Rabbinical Council of California—72% of Orthodox men and 74% of Orthodox women rated their marriages as excellent or very good. By contrast, only 63% of men and 60% of women in the public at large told the General Social Survey, conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, that they were very happy in their marriages.

The Aleinu results are consistent with previous research indicating that couples who participate regularly in religious activities report greater marital contentment and are less likely to divorce. Still, I was surprised. While there are no official statistics, there exists an overwhelming perception in the Orthodox community that divorce rates have gone up, particularly among younger couples. The undertaking of the Aleinu survey attests to some level of worry on the part of Orthodox leaders that the sacred bonds of marriage have been weakened.

I don’t know anything about the survey’s methods, or how reliable this study is, but I guess it’s good news if you’re Orthodox and married. So, um, mazal tov?

Posted on February 19, 2010

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O Canada is Jewish

This entry was posted in Culture on by .

Fine, the song isn’t Jewish, nor was the person who wrote it. But if you saw the Opening Ceremonies for the Olympics, you saw a very Jewish version of Canada’s national anthem. Because the girl who sang it, jazz phenom Nikki Yanofsky, is a Jewish girl from Montreal.

nikki yanofsky amazing singer

To be fair, I had never seen an opening ceremonies before this year. They are always on Friday night. But thanks to the magic of DVR, I finally saw this one (and thank god DVRs let you fast forward. Man, it’s boring).

Even though it was pretty boring, there were some great parts to the ceremony. And on the top of that list was 16 year old Yanofsky’s rendition of O Canada. It was especially cool for me knowing that Nikki lives just a short block away from my parents (not that she would have any clue who I am). So listen to her again, because I gotta give shout outs to my neighbors and fellow Montreal Jews.

You don’t even have to be Canadian to realize how good this girl is.

Posted on February 18, 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

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