Monthly Archives: March 2010

The Three-Dip Seder

This entry was posted in Holidays on by .

Earlier today, we announced the winner of our Best Seder Ever contest. Here’s another of our favorite entries.

sederThere are a lot of dips in the Passover seder, points out Joan Vick of New Hampshire, who shared this story with us. There’s the spring vegetable in salt water. There’s the ten drops of wine we pour for the Ten Plagues. And then there are some others…Ms. Vick gives us two stories in one, and they’re both great.

My family does great Seders. Some of the best were a series of Three Dip Seders in a ski lodge in Killington, Vermont. What’s a three dip Seder? First you dip karpas in salt water, then you dip maror in charoset, and then you put the kids to bed and dip yourself in the hot tub.

However, this was not my best seder ever. The best seder I ever attended was in 1979, which I organized with Judith Goldshmidt at the Barter Theater in Abingdon, Virginia. We were the only Jewish kids in the company, and we decided to invite everyone to a seder. This meant importing matzah, gefilte fish and wine from New York, and the two of us cooking for days.

We set up a large table in the rehearsal hall, and kept the soup warm in crock pots. We used the Maxwell House haggadot, which — if you haven’t noticed — has stage directions. So when it says, “Point to the matzah and say: __,” that is just what our actor friends did. In their best declamatory stage voices, they stood up, book in one hand, gesturing with the other, “This is the bread of our affliction.” It was the most dramatic seder I’ve ever attended.

Posted on March 24, 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 Best Seder Ever!

This entry was posted in Holidays on by .

Our Best Seder Ever contest turned out an array of entries that none of us anticipated. First of all: How did you people manage to write such great stories in a week and a half!?

best seder everAnd, second: We have some of the best, funniest, warm-hearted, and most selfless readers in the whole Internet. Whether it was taking care of your friend who had one or two more than the four cups of wine you’re supposed to drink, or helping the poor or needy, or tracking down a kosher-for-Passover birthday cake in a strange city, there was so much goodness in these stories that it was pretty easy to forget that it was a contest…and pretty easy to remember that this is the festival of our freedom.

Here’s the winning story, which comes to us from Rori Picker Neiss and Russel Neiss. It exemplifies the opening declaration of the Passover seder, “Ha Lachma Anya,” or “May all who are hungry come and eat” — but it’s also a great story. All week, we’ll be posting more of your entries. Please come back and check them all out…and have a great holiday.

One Passover we hosted a seder for our family and some friends. One friend asked if she could bring another friend and we agreed. “What’s the difference between thirteen people and fourteen people?” I thought. Just before the start of the holiday, I had a text from said friend saying that her friend was unable to join us. I wasn’t concerned. “What’s the difference between thirteen people and fourteen people?” I thought. We didn’t even bother to remove the extra place setting.

My friend was late arriving and so we decided to start without her. We had just poured the wine when she walked in with another person behind her. It seemed she had decided to bring along another friend. We adjusted seating accordingly and sat them down, saying we would do introductions later since everyone was antsy to get started.

The seder commenced. Our newest guest, was pleasant, though quite awkward. After the seder ended and he left, I went over to my friend and asked, diplomatically, “What’s the deal with your friend?” She look at me, confused, and said, “What friend?”

He had been standing by the door when she arrived. None of us knew who he was.

Rori and Russel have asked that their prize be donated to a charity, which is pretty awesome of them. We’ll still send them a package of good stuff, just because they’re such good souls.

And come back later today, and for the rest of the week, to read more of the Best.

Posted on March 24, 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

From the Academy: Modern Hebrew Literature

This entry was posted in Culture on by .

Miryam Segal is Assistant Professor in Hebrew in the Department of Classical, Middle Eastern & Asian Languages & Cultures at Queens College of the City University of New York. She received her PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of California, Berkeley. Miryam SegalHer first book, A New Sound in Hebrew Poetry: Poetics, Politics, Accent (Indiana, 2009) has been praised by major scholars including Robert Alter and Dan Miron; Harry Fox of the University of Toronto calls it “an extremely impressive piece of literary and historical scholarship.”

What sorts of texts do scholars of modern Hebrew literature study? What are the boundaries of the field?

Scholars of Hebrew literature study poetry, drama, novels; they read poems closely and write about prose fiction as a part of a larger web of cultural production of a given period—including music and visual art; they teach Hebrew poetry in relation to works in other languages; they study Hebrew literature as a series of great writers. In other words they survey the field in almost every conceivable way—by genre, period, ideology, influence, style. Periodization usually has a bit of the arbitrary about it and historians mark a few beginnings for Hebrew literature in modern times: the publication of Avraham Mapu’s novel Ahavat tsiyon in 1853, Moshe Hayim Luzzatto’s La-yesharim Tehillah of 1743 and Naphtali Wessely’s Shirei tiferet written at the end of the 18th century.

How does the study of modern Hebrew literature tend to differ from the study of Hebrew texts in earlier periods?

Hebrew literary scholarship is often seen as part of Jewish studies, but it is also a sister to other fields of literature—and is probably more directly influenced by trends in literary theory and criticism and critical theory than Jewish studies as a whole.

Modern works do not present the complex textual problems that are inherent to pre-modern multi-authored texts (e.g. midrashic compilations, the Talmuds). We have Bialik’s letters, the periodicals in which he published his poems; we know a lot about where and when he wrote his poems. The late Yehuda Amichai and Amos Oz are popular authors both here and in Israel, and their manuscripts and letters are preserved in archives at Yale, Ben Gurion, and Indiana University. Scholars rarely have this quantity of materials for non-modern subjects.

What do you see the field offering to Jews outside of the academy?

What does the literature itself offer? Great reading!

For anyone interested in Israel—as a state, a culture, a phenomenon—modern Hebrew literature is a way in. North American Judaism and Jewish culture project a lot on to Israel. They seem to expect it to provide some explanation, some critical piece of modern non-Israeli Jewish identity. Hebrew literature is an interesting place to start re-examining assumptions of the connection between Israeli culture and Jewishness.

How can the study of modern Hebrew literature influence the practices and choices of contemporary Jews?

There are many possibilities for how religious communities might use vernacular literature for inspiration. Hebrew poetry and prayer have always had a relationship—going back to the Bible where they overlap to a great extent. The relationship between prayer and poetic address is a fascinating one in general—and given the religious/theological/mystical poetry being written in Hebrew now, that is an especially interesting oeuvre in which to think about that relationship.

Does the study of modern Hebrew literature require approaches that are substantially different from those applied to other modern literatures?

You might say that Hebrew is different by degree—in seeming to invoke at every turn the variety of languages and literatures which have touched it, including Yiddish, German, Russian, Arabic, and English. And the history of Modern Hebrew literature is so condensed, so utterly subject to Jewish and Israeli history—and also marks and delineates it.

Hebrew has a long history with unique points of disjuncture, such as the so-called language revival, and surprisingly long stretches of continuity, including two millennia of literary creativity in Italy. I think these give Hebrew literature its personality, its fingerprint. They are part of what make it interesting. That and the great poem or superb novel one rediscovers.

What are some of the more pressing questions that remain to be answered by academic scholars of modern Hebrew literature?

In an introductory essay first published in 1947, Dov Sadan poses questions on the borders of the field. Perhaps in a living literature these can never be fully answered. Is Hebrew literature an entirely secular literature? Is the break with tradition in the period of the Jewish Enlightenment as definite, as clear cut, as some historiographies articulate it?

Then there is the question of Hebrew literature’s relationship to other literatures, beyond questions of influence, to parallel or divergent developments in genre, school, and their relationship to other historical and cultural developments. The entanglement of modern Hebrew literature with modernity—with secularism, capitalism—this remains an area with room for a lot more scholarship. In the last twenty years or so scholarship has begun to be critical of Zionist ideology, inspiring attempts to understand anew the history of literary developments in Hebrew.

What drew you toward this field?

I have always enjoyed the concise elegance of the Hebrew language, and am drawn to its sprawling history. Before graduate school I was far more familiar with classical Jewish texts than with modern Hebrew ones (in fact hardly at all with the latter!). What drew me to the field was a sense that there were so many exciting questions waiting to be asked, more so than other fields in the discipline. Small as the corpus of modern Hebrew literature is, it stands at the crossroads of modern Jewish history and has all sorts of unexpected takes on the clichés of literary studies: new-old, exile, postcolonialism, literary language and vernacular. Hebrew asks you to ask the usual questions but also turns them every which way—makes you ask them differently, funnily, sideways.

If someone wanted to know more about where the scholarly study of modern Hebrew literature is currently headed, what would you recommend he or she read?

In English, the journals Hebrew Studies, Prooftexts and BGU Review. In Hebrew, Mehkerei yerushalayim be-sifrut ivrit, mi-Kan, and some that have a wider focus: Teoriyah u-bikoret, Alpayim and the recently launched Yisrael. The newspaper Haaretz also has a useful culture and literature supplement as well as a popular book review section. The best way to start, though, might simply be to read a variety of authors and then follow your own individual reading trail. So much Hebrew literature is available in translation. Checking out an anthology to help you find your new favorite Hebrew authors. Consult your local librarian!

Posted on March 23, 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

Robot Passover Dilemma

This entry was posted in Holidays on by .

Most observant Jews don’t use electricity or mechanical devices on Shabbat or Jewish holidays. But what if you are a mechanical electric-operated device?

That’s the question that the Computer Science department of the College of Management, Rishon Le’Tzion made this movie to address. And the top two ways that you can tell this video is Israeli (aside from the college’s name) :

1. You have way-intelligent science people going to extravagant lengths to demonstrate something silly and kitschy.
2. The I-pop music that only 2-year-olds would ordinarily think is amusing…and yet, at any Israeli public event, provokes the wildest and most enthusiastic dancing possible.

Thanks to Aunt Michelle for sharing the video. Happy Passover, guys. And may the Force be with you.

Posted on March 23, 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

Preparing for Passover: Choose a Theme for Your Seder

This entry was posted in Holidays on by .

I am a huge fan of theme parties and themed meals. Just this past Friday I hosted a Breakfast for Dinner Shabbat meal, with pancakes, blintzes, mimosas, and coffee cake. In the past I’ve had a Commonwealth Shabbat, where I invited all my friends from commonwealth countries, an autumnal Shabbat, with all orange and brown seasonal foods, an Indian Purim Seudah, and a Shabbat Kiddush where everything was orange. Themed gatherings are a great way to exercise your creativity in a way that everyone can get excited about. This makes them perfect for Passover seders.

You might be thinking: The seder already has a theme. It’s called Exodus. And okay, yeah, that’s a good point, but that doesn’t have to be the only theme. Here are a few ideas off the top of my head, but feel free to riff on many more:
The springtime seder. Fresh flowers and seasonal produce abound in this seder. Instead of big fancy centerpieces, just use some small flat vases with wheatgrass growing in them. If you have any locavores, or tree huggers in the house, they’ll have plenty of opportunities to talk about the connection between people and the earth.

The comedy seder
. Have every guest try to come up with a joke or comedy sketch for a part of the haggadah, whether it’s the breaking of the middle matzah, or the rabbis staying up all night. You can play improve games revolving around the story of the exodus, and give a joke book as the prize for the person who finds the afikomen.

The contemporary slavery seder. Have everyone learn about a country where slavery is still prominent and tell the group a little about the slave trade in that country, how many slaves there are, and various organizations that are working to help free the slaves. Talk about the psychology of being a slave today, and how it would have been different in the time of the exodus. Experiment with being shackled, and then let out (okay, that might be taking it to an extreme).

The hipster seder. Skinny jeans required, arriving by bicycle preferred. The food should be gourmet, with a nod to the ironic (homemade gefilte fish, garnished with the jelly from the scary premade kind in the jar, organic whole wheat matzah served with prunes, etc), and the haggadah should be abstract. Serve the wine out of 40oz empty PBR bottles. Talk a lot about how slavery is so over.

The key to all of this is that you, as the host, really embrace the theme, and that you encourage your guests to embrace it, too, without shoving it down their throats. You can’t demand that everyone show up in costume, or that people will get really excited about an eco-friendly seder, but you can make it fun enough that people will naturally get enthused. One thing I suggest is sending out real mailed invitations that enthuse about the theme. Decorations are also key. And with any of these themes, keeping the wine flowing is a good and important way to keep people in reasonably good moods.

Posted on March 22, 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

A Matzah Eating World Record

This entry was posted in Holidays on by .

It’s a dream that many people have, but few have accomplished. People train for years just for the opportunity to be a champion.

I was once like that. A man with just a dream. But I reached for the stars and came back with one the proudest moments of my life. That’s right, I set a world record. This puts me in the same league as Michael Phelps, Usain Bolt and Joey Chestnut.

With Passover coming up in a week, I figured now was the perfect time to get myself in the record books. I got in contact with the fair people at the Universal Record Database, an organization that believes that every person has the right to be best at something.

I told them that I was deserving of my own record and they were happy to oblige in making things official.

What transpired was some of the worst few minutes of my life. But as the saying goes, “No pain. No gain.”

Watch me set a world record…

Posted on March 22, 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

Finder Keepers, Losers Drug Dealers

This entry was posted in General on by .

Apparently some guy was walking around downtown Jerusalem and he found a bag with almost a million shekels in it. Amazingly, instead of just holding onto it and doing a happy dance, he reported it to the police. bag_of_money.jpg

Police officers in the Modiin station were pleasantly surprised Sunday when a local resident reported to the station with a bag containing hundreds of thousands of dollars he accidentally came across, Ynet learned.

Police investigators are currently trying to locate the money’s owner and establish the source of the funds.

The man who found the cash told the officers he preferred to remain anonymous, however police stressed that should the owner not be found, the dollars will be returned to the responsible citizen.

Full story

This is awesome for many reasons, but at the foremost is that it’s a classic example of the Talmudic concept of hefker, or an ownerless object. Basically, when something is hefker then the next person who grabs it gets to keep it. If you, say, leave your new headphones on the bus, you probably think to yourself, “Well, those are long gone. There’s no way for anyone who finds them to get them back to me.” If you give up looking for them, then they become hefker, and the next person who finds them can, according to Jewish law, keep them. But, if there’s reason to believe you might expect to get them back, then the person who finds them has to do all he can to give them back.

Let’s assume that whoever put a million shekels in a bag was up to no good, and that he (or she) isn’t the type to run and report the loss to the police. Well, then, that person has probably given up hope of ever getting his money back. And our finder? He might really get to keep the cash.

Learn more about hefker in Bava Metzia.

Posted on March 22, 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

Not Kosher

This entry was posted in Culture on by .

Nora Rubel, author of the recently published Doubting the Devout: The Ultra-Orthodox in the Jewish American Imagination, will be blogging all week for MyJewishLearning and the Jewish Book Council.

jewish authors blogI just finished rereading Elizabeth Ehrlich’s Miriam’s Kitchen for what feels like the umpteenth time. I assign this multi-layered memoir of a woman’s journey into the observance of kashrut for my class on religion and foodways. Upon completion—every spring semester—I want to throw out all my dishes, kasher my pots, and start all over in a neatly organized kosher kitchen that pays homage to these boundaries that my ancestors found so important. Except that this is myth, one that goes quite a few generations back. My paternal grandparents—Holocaust survivors—taught me to enjoy a good lobster. My maternal grandfather, the grandson of a great rabbi in Poland, had no use for organized religion, let alone such antiquated dietary laws. My parents eat on Yom Kippur. And yet, despite the longstanding ritual impurity of my kitchen history, I am haunted by minor transgressions. I am hyperaware of the cutting board used to slice meat and I will choose a different one for dairy—even if these items will share space on the dinner table.

When I see my mother-in-law drink a glass of milk with a meat meal, I recoil. But is that the response of a closeted kosher girl or just that of a pretentious foodie who believes that milk is not the proper gastronomic accompaniment to a lemongrass-scented beef stew? It is one thing to take on these obligations when there is a cultural context for such behavior, but I grew up with none. Perhaps I am just too lazy to take the leap into what would surely be a downward spiral into obsessive compulsive behavior. My partner and I already have food rules, but ours are more along the lines of Michael Pollan’s recommendations than those mitzvot passed down at Sinai. We make our own bread, buy meat from farmers we know, belong to a CSA, and eschew processed foods. We eat in what we see as an ethical way. But is it Jewish?

Last fall the president of the Reform Movement, Eric Yoffie, suggested a way that it might be. “This is not about kashrut…We need to think about how the food we eat advances the values we hold as Reform Jews.” In the aftermath of the nightmare revelations of the Postville slaughterhouse, one realizes that kosher does not always equal ethical. Yoffie’s—and the URJ’s—Green Table/Just Table initiative requires us to bring back a sense of wonder to thinking about how our food gets to our table. Is factory farmed beef worthy of a bracha? Or is the local pasture raised lamb, slaughtered without a shochet, something more laudable? At least for now, my table remains ritually impure. Maybe it’s not kosher, but I think it’s still Jewish.

Editor’s note: There has also been a significant response among kosher-keeping Jews to Postville. Check out MJL’s coverage of the Tav HaYosher campaign from Uri L’tzedek.

Nora Rubel is the author of the recently published Doubting the Devout: The Ultra-Orthodox in the Jewish American Imagination. She will be blogging here all week.

Posted on March 22, 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

Dara Horn + Franz Kafka = Cute Cuddly Creepy Love

This entry was posted in Culture on by .

Dara Horn, whose astonishing book All Other Nights was just released in paperback, is a big fan of the Czech author Franz Kafka. She also likes stuffed animals. Not coincidentally, a charity project called Significant Objects is bringing the two together: you can bid on an undeniably-creepy-yet-undeniably-cuddly monkey puppet, together with an original story about the puppet — that, yes, does involve Kafka — written by Horn. (All money raised supports Girls Write Now…and, with 4 days left, the bidding is still at $3.26, which is nothing short of astonishing, and would probably fall under the legal definition of “a steal.”)

dara horn monkey puppet

Horn writes:

Among Franz Kafka’s possessions upon his death from tuberculosis in 1924 were many unpublished manuscripts and personal effects, all entrusted to the novelist Max Brod, whom Kafka had appointed as executor of his estate. In his will, Kafka specifically instructed Brod to burn all of his manuscripts, an order which Brod chose to defy. No instructions were provided regarding Kafka’s personal effects.
In addition to The Trial, Kafka at the time of his death was also at work on another manuscript, tentatively titled Metamorphosis II: Monkey Puppet. A sequel to The Metamorphosis, Metamorphosis II continues the story of the surreally afflicted Samsa family. After Gregor the cockroach’s death and Mr. and Mrs. Samsa’s relief as they notice their daughter Grete’s blossoming young figure (“they had come to the conclusion that it would soon be time to find a good husband for her”) in the final pages of Volume 1, Metamorphosis II resumes ten years later, with Grete Rosenzweig, née Samsa, as a discontented hausfrau and indulgent mother of three in Prague. In the opening paragraph, Grete Rosenzweig awakens from uneasy dreams to discover that she has been transformed into a plush puppet belonging to her surly and ungrateful six-year-old son Adolf. As young Adolf begins a systematic program of sadistic destruction of his playthings, Grete reconsiders her approach to parenting while pondering the absence of God.

Are you sold? I’m sold.* If you’re salivating half as much as I am (uh, eww), then go place a bid, or go here to read an extract. (And if you’re whetting for more Kafka, come back to read MJL’s Franz Kafka article, with my favorite subhead ever.)

* – Except, not really: We’re moving in 2 weeks and I’m officially not allowed to buy anything until then. Seethe.

Posted on March 22, 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 .

When I was a kid, the worst week of the year was the week before Passover. My mom would stop shopping and all we would eat was leftovers. It was rough. I’m still pretty scarred. And hungry.

Speaking of eating as a kid, I’ve gotta admit, I’ve always loved gefilte fish (except for the end piece on the roll…that’s just gross). Except as a kid, I always ate it plain, fearful of the wrath of horseradish. But boy was I wrong. Chrein is a highlight of any Jewish meal. Don’t know what it is? Well, learn more about it and make your own.

David Shneer doesn’t visit places like a normal tourist. That’s why he is known as the Radical Jewish Traveler. Check out his visit to Jewish Sweden and learn some crazy facts about a community which few know about.

Finally, if you’re nervous this week about kashering your kitchen for Passover because you don’t know what to do (or maybe you just need a little refresher), have no fear. My Jewish Learning is here (to teach you).

Posted on March 19, 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