Monthly Archives: February 2010

Build a Prayer

This entry was posted in Practices, Texts on by .

If you’ve spent any time with a siddur in the past few years, you’ve probably wondered how you’re supposed to relate to the prayers that were written and organized by rabbis hundreds of years ago. Well now there’s a solution: you can build your own prayer experience on the BBYO website using their new Build a Prayer tool.

Here’s the rub:

Open to the entire Jewish community, Build a Prayer allows users to design a service with Hebrew, English and transliterated text; select prayers based on traditional, pluralistic and custom options, add one’s own pictures, poetry or commentary; and share or print the service for use with their community.

The site also includes videos showing you how to chant prayer you may be unfamiliar with or need a brush up on.
MyJewishLearning has contribute many of the articles in the Resource Center on the site, so we hope you’ll check it out!

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

That Old Time Religion: Interview with a Girl in Trouble

This entry was posted in Culture, Texts on by .

Alicia Jo Rabins is the frontswoman of Girls in Trouble. Their self-titled album was just released on JDub Records, and it’s more than just a ten-song collection — it’s a cycle of songs, each narrated by a specific woman from the Bible,

girls in trouble, alicia jo rabins
Rabins isn’t just a musician following a lark — she has advanced degrees in both poetry and Jewish studies — and to her, the song cycle is a culmination of a lifetime of study. When I asked her whether dealing with some of the sexist-seeming stories ever made her angry, she almost took umbrage at the suggestion: these songs, you can tell, are the product of a person who’s in love with her source material. She replied: “The Torah itself I see as sacred literature, and literature isn’t supposed to be fair; good stories come out of the terrible things people do to each other.”

The interpretations of the sacred literature, on the other hand, can go in any which way.

MJL: Why the Bible? You write good music, and your lyrics are smart and funny and inspired. Why not just write songs with your own voice?

Alicia Jo Rabins: Well, thank you, sir.

First of all, I couldn’t have come up with narrative material this twisted on my own. So I had to get it somewhere. But I do see Girls in Trouble as my voice: it’s just funneled through a particular project, a song cycle. The song cycle has a unifying theme — each song interprets a Biblical woman’s story — but still involves a lot of choices: which stories to write about, and then how to interpret them lyrically and musically. So the project gives me a structure, a form through which to direct my voice, which is really fun as an artist. I like to triangulate: there is my experience, and then the source material, and then the aesthetic artifact.

Of course, I think all art is part of a system that is greater than any one artist. I do find myself particularly interested in art that explicitly re-interprets earlier stories: for example, James Joyce’s Ulysses, a modernist retelling of the Odyssey, or Louise Gluck’s poems in the voices of Greek gods, or midrash which comments on Torah stories, or Leonard Cohen singing about Joan of Arc.

alicia jo rabins, girls in troubleI like the way it collapses time and enables us to knit together the present and history, and see what might remain constant about human experience. Of course, there’s definitely a feminist aspect of bringing the women’s stories out as well.

From the design of your physical album, and the titles of the songs, it’s virtually impossible to tell that their protagonists are thousand-year-old Hebrew speakers. Did you make a conscious decision not to identify your protagonists, or the sources — either as a guessing game, or as a way of making the songs universal?

The girls’ angel wings on Arrington de Dionyso‘s beautiful cover art are a nod to the spiritual provenance of the songs, but it’s funny, I never considered making the source material explicit in the design or titles. From the beginning, I wanted Girls in Trouble to be able to live in both worlds. I experience these stories as pretty direct, universal human narrative, and I didn’t want the associations people have with the word “Bible” or “Torah” to get in the way of people hearing the songs firsthand, without an intellectual or religious slant. I don’t mean to hide the sources from people, though — I did write a key to the songs, and I think JDub posted it.
I guess the design and titles are also a reflection of my general take on spiritual texts. I’ve been studying and teaching Torah for a while now — my students’ questions and observations have provoked a lot of the ideas in these songs — and my entry into it is very practical and real-world.

I respect how old these stories are, but for me the real question is, how does a spiritual text — whether Jewish or Buddhist, narative or mystical or halachic — relate to our lives and our real-life problems, our loneliness, our need for beauty? I wrote these songs to be music of and for this moment, and I wanted the design to reflect that.

You were recently married to your bassist, Aaron Hartman. How did that affect you, writing about all these women, several of whom were in unhappy or sketchy relationships?

Let me put it this way: while we recorded the album, we all lived at engineer Scott Solter‘s house in rural North Carolina. I was in the studio pretty much the whole time and whenever Aaron wasn’t laying down bass tracks he was cooking delicious Japanese curry or making fresh pasta sauce — he kept the whole band fed, which made the music possible. (And Tim Monaghan, the drummer, happens to be a gifted mixologist, and kept us drinking gourmet hot toddies night after night.) That’s something the men in these stories probably would not have done, so it was easy to keep them separate in my mind.

Plus, in defense of Biblical men, in a bunch of the stories (Tamar, Chana, Judith) the men actually come around at the end — whether it’s through realizing their mistake and humbly apologizing, or getting their head cut off.

In “Snow,” you-as-Miriam sings, “And if your God should turn from you/Wouldn’t you turn, too?” Did writing these songs get you closer to the Torah, or more angry at it? Why do you think Miriam rejoined the camp after her bout with tzaraat?

I don’t think I’m angry at Torah. What I’m angry about are some of the Jewish laws that I see as sexist — for example, that women can’t be counted as witnesses or for a minyan, or the issue of agunot. That’s rabbinic Judaism, though. It comes later, and it’s always being rewritten, so the burden lies not on past rabbis but on this generation’s rabbis to right those wrongs. The Torah itself I see as sacred literature, and literature isn’t supposed to be fair; good stories come out of the terrible things people do to each other.

The Torah definitely focuses on men’s stories, and generally uses the masculine pronoun to refer to God, so it is fundamentally skewed towards men’s experience, and that’s crucial to notice — but otherwise I actually didn’t find the Torah stories to be particularly misogynistic. Both men and women get betrayed, tricked, abandoned, murdered. I was kind of horrified by a few of the stories I found, of course, bat Yiftach being the most obvious example, but most of them I was actually impressed by; there are a considerable number of women who are ignored or mistreated but who find ways to get what they need, and the Torah doesn’t seem to judge them for this, in fact they sometimes even get an apology from the man who mistreated them (Tamar, Chana).

As for Miriam’s story, I once slept alone in the desert in Israel for a night. I hitchhiked to a national park with my sleeping bag and some water, and didn’t leave ’til the morning. It was so pure, silent and terrible and amazing. While I was writing “Snow,” I kept thinking, how would that kind of sacred loneliness feel if it were forced on you for a week? Finally I thought, maybe it was a biblical meditation retreat for Miriam. What if she sat in silence for a week, watched the cycles of nature, decided she wasn’t interested in God anymore, and basically became a proto-Buddhist. Once that happens, why not go back and live with your friends and family?

I want to point out that though Miriam’s punishment seems harsh, so is Moses’ — he dies before crossing into the Promised Land, after forty years of leading these difficult, rebellious people through the desert to get there, and just because he hit a rock? Torah stories are deep and bloody and powerful and often disturbing, whether they’re about men or women. I do see Girls in Trouble as a feminist project, because women’s stories are less present in Torah and I think it’s important to bring them out; but it is also a project about encouraging a complex, nuanced view of spiritual texts. Miriam’s song at the sea is famous, because it’s easy to celebrate, and that’s great, but especially for adults I think it’s ultimately so much more satisfying to read all the way to the end of her life and see the exile and sadness alongside the joy and relief. That range of experience doesn’t just happen to women in Torah – it happens to everyone. Just like in real life.

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

You Never Forget Your First Time

This entry was posted in Life on by .

Not long ago I wrote about that old die-hard myth of Jews having sex through a hole in the sheet. If you were looking for further proof that that’s not how the act takes place, check out nerve.com’s latest in its series called My First Time about, well, exactly that. This one tells the story of a 19-year-old Hasidic man trying to get it on with his wife on their wedding night, and not being entirely successful:

Something was definitely wrong. A piece seemed missing. I was sufficiently erect, she claimed to have no anatomical peculiarities, but something didn’t fit. Hard as I tried, I couldn’t get my penis into any kind of body cavity. worried_hasid.jpg

It was almost four in the morning, but I didn’t care. I called the rabbi. “Tell her to lubricate her area with some water,” he advised and hung up. We tried that. Nothing doing. I called the rabbi again. “Tell her to take your ‘organ’ with her hands and direct it to the position.”

Go read the whole thing. It’s fascinating and poignant. You’ll notice that there’s no sheet involved. To my surprise, though, they do seem to have sex while wearing some clothes, which I know in at least some communities is frowned upon. Anyway, in a weird way I think this is a pretty educational piece.

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

(Jerry) Wolfman, DDS

This entry was posted in Culture, Holidays on by .

Have you seen the new Wolfman movie? Yeah, me neither. Not my cup of tea. Plus Benicio Del Toro is freaky looking as is. I don’t need to see him as a wolf. But that doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t enjoy a spoof about it, especially if it’s a Jewish one.

In anticipation of the 8th Annual Shushan Channel Purim Party (more on that next week), Rob Kutner and Sheryl Zohn have written Wolfman, DDS. And it’s pretty great. Is it funnier than their past spoofs, Jewno and Meshugene Men? You can be the judge.

Ooh. And Will Forte is in it. And I think he’s pretty funny.

Posted on February 16, 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

Many Takes on Hamantaschen

This entry was posted in Holidays on by .

We’re closing in on Purim, and in my apartment that means it’s time to start making candy vodka, and of course hamantaschen. I have a hamantaschen recipe that I love, but this year I decided to do some research to see what other hamantaschen-related resources I could find.

Aside from our wonderful recipe at MJL (courtesy of Joan Nathan) there’s my own standard, Mark Bitten’s take, the Smitten Kitchen attempt, and the Epicurious traditional recipe.

I also found videos online demonstrating what looks like a truly amazing rhubarb hamantaschen

And this video shows two chefs making a chocolate hamantaschen with a white chocolate filling. Frankly, this looks good enough I may have to try it this year, standards be damned.Finally, this is a music video that equates eating hamantashen with, um, oral sex. It’s SFW in that there’s no actual nudity, but it is pretty shocking.

So, who’s hungry?

Posted on February 16, 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

How Jews Mourn

This entry was posted in Life on by .

People grieve in different ways. While Judaism may have set rules and regulations on death and mourning, the ways people react to the death of a loved one are unique to each individual.

In the past, we have explored how Jews look, eat, and pray. What we learned is that there is no right answer to these questions. And that’s what we were looking for. So in this fourth installment of our “How Jews Live” series, we ask another very open-ended question:

How do Jews mourn?

Posted on February 15, 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

Buy Yourself Some Nikes

This entry was posted in Culture, Israel on by .

You’d think I’d tire of talking about Omri Casspi. But every time I think I’m done, the guy just gets more and more popular and receives more and more press coverage. It’s gotten so crazy that the Kings have become worried that Omri has become TOO popular. Seriously.

This weekend, he started in the Rookie-Sophmore game at All-Star Weekend and was invited to play in the NBA H.O.R.S.E game. It was really amazing to see how well liked he is by everyone in the league and all the fans.

But I think my new highlight of this amazing season (I mean, besides getting to go in the locker room to meet Omri–not to mention the free dinner the Kings gave me) has got to be this new Nike commercial featuring Israel’s greatest basketball player.

Watch it over and over again. It’ll give you the chills.

Posted on February 15, 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

Best of the Week

This entry was posted in General on by .

The calm before the storm.

I always think about when “busy season” is at MyJewishLearning.com. You would think that it would be at three points during the year: Passover, the High Holidays, and Hanukkah. But really, the busy time of year is before every single holiday, whether you pay attention to it or not. For example, for two weeks, I was eating, breathing, and sleeping Tu Bishvat, even though it was just a minor blip on the calendar.

And now we are at the calm before the storm. Purim is coming up pretty quick, and next week, we will be featuring some cool new content for the holiday. But for now, let’s look at what happened this past week.

I’ve never been on Birthright. The reason is that I don’t really qualify because I went with USY in high school. However, a good friend of mine, who was born in Israel, was allowed to go, because he hadn’t been on an organized trip to Israel. Doesn’t seem fair. But then again, according to our new article on Israelis in America, Israelis understand better than anyone that it’s a nice place to visit.

It’s easy to forget how far we’ve come in the realm of Passover cooking. I can’t be thankful enough that it has been years since my parents bought those gross cans of macaroons to “snack” on. So when I found out we were featuring an article on macaroons, I was skeptical. But I have been proven wrong.

And finally, if you’re celebrating Valentine’s Day with a special someone on Sunday, read what we have to say about the day first. If you’re not celebrating it with somebody, enjoy your candy hearts and tears.

Posted on February 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

The Stage vs. the Page

This entry was posted in Culture, Israel on by .

In his last posts, Joel Chasnoff, author of The 188th Crybaby Brigade: A Skinny Jewish Kid from Chicago Fights Hezbollah: A Memoir, wrote about the battle over his book cover and meeting Dave Eggers. He is guest-blogging all week for MyJewishLearning and the Jewish Book Council.jewish_authors_blog2.jpg

One of the biggest challenges I encountered in writing The 188th Crybaby Brigade was the switch from comedy written for the stage to comedy for the page.

I’m a stand-up comic by trade. Onstage, I have tools at my disposal: facial expressions, body language, the ability to speed up and slow down as I create a psychological dialogue with the audience. Best of all, if a particular string of jokes bomb, I can switch topics, or, better yet, pick on a funny looking guy in the guy in the front row.

In writing humorous prose, these tools are, obviously, out the window. Compounding the problem is that I lose my ever-important barometer: instant feedback. I love the instantaneous nature of stand-up comedy. I never have to wonder how the act is going. Instead, it’s simple: if they laugh, I’m great. If the audience is silent, I suck.

To acquaint myself with humor writing, I read books by the three Daves: Sedaris, Eggers, and Barry.

As I read, I looked for patterns. Although their styles of humor differ, I noticed a common trait: they never signaled the joke. Instead, they simply state the absurd truth in as straightforward a manner as possible. This bluntness makes for a double punch: 50% of the humor comes from what the author is saying, and the other half comes from the fact that he’s saying it so bluntly.

For example: one of my favorite passages in Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is the one in which Eggers describes his night out with friends in a Berkeley, California bar:

Brent and I, and everyone else, are standing on the bar’s second level, looking down upon the heads of the hundred or so below us, while drinking beer that has been brewed on the premises. We know that the beer has been brewed on the premises because, right there, behind the bar, are three huge copper vats, with tubes coming out of them. This is how beer is made.

Whenever I read this passage, I laugh out loud. What makes it so funny is that, instead of waving his arms and signaling the absurdity of the situation (that seeing beer travel through tubes implies that the beer is brewed on the premises), Eggers instead takes the opposite tack: he takes it seriously. His deadpan approach makes the joke doubly funny—much funnier than had he said, “It’s so crazy. They have beer in vats and tubes, as if we’re supposed to believe that this means it was brewed on the premises.”

In The 188th Crybaby Brigade, I attempt to utilize humor by describing absurd situations as candidly as possible. I start with the opening sentence of the book, in which I chronicle my first medical check-up at the military Induction Center in Tel Aviv:image009.jpg

The Russian is poking my balls.
It’s awkward.

Two chapters later, I describe my first day of basic training:

I am Israeli soldier number 5481287. I’m at the Armored School, in the south, halfway between Jordan and Egypt. I’m dressed like a soldier but I look like a clown. My uniform’s three sizes too big, and it’s stiff, so it looks like I’m wearing a suit of green construction paper; I’d thought I would look sexy in uniform, but I don’t. I’ve also got a new look—I’m buzz-cut and shaved—and a new name: instead of Joel, I’m now my Hebrew name, Yoel, and my last name, according to my dog tags, is Shetznitz.
“You misspelled my name,” I said to the guy working the dog tag machine.
“So don’t die,” he said, and shooed me out the door.

Humor can even be used to describe a situation as dark as death. Here, I talk about the platoon’s field trip to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum:joel_small.png

Inside Yad Vashem, it’s the usual Platoon Two, Company B shenanigans. While our tour guide describes Hitler’s rise to power, Gerber pinches Uri in the ass. “Koos-emok!” Uri whispers, then he stuns Gerber with a quick knee to the nuts that sends him tumbling into a display case of Zyklon B.
“Bitch!” whispers Gerber.
“Your mother,” Uri whispers back.
Doni and Tanenbaum step between them, try to break it up, but only get sucked into the melee. Then Ganz jumps in, then Nir, and suddenly six, seven of them are attacking one another with headlocks and noogies, Three Stooges style, next to a wall-size photo of Jewish corpses.
My first thought is to scold my platoon mates. Show some respect! I want to shout. For the sake of the six million dead!   
But as I watch my comrades roughhouse, I suddenly have another thought:
This is awesome.

I go on to describe why my platoon mates’ roughhousing in a Holocaust museum is a good thing for the Jewish people—namely, because it means that after thousands of years of persecution, we’ve reached a point in Jewish history where the notion of our people being annihilated is so foreign that Jews can goof around in Yad Vashem.

Typically, a writer doesn’t get the stand-up comedian’s instant feedback. But since you’re reading this and have the ability to post, I’ll go ahead and ask:

Does it work?

Joel Chasnoff’s The 188th Crybaby Brigade: A Skinny Jewish Kid from Chicago Fights Hezbollah: A Memoir is available in bookstores now. Visit Chasnoff’s official website: http://joelchasnoff.com/.

Posted on February 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

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