Monthly Archives: May 2010

Best of the Week

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As the week comes to a close, here is a roundup of all the great stuff you might have missed at MJL over the past few days.

Leah Koenig tells us all about the different outdoor food markets in Israel and what exactly makes them so unique.

Jews love to make fun of their parents. Read all about why we think it’s so funny to do impressions of the Jewish parent and figure out why exactly they want you to be a doctor so badly.

Take a journey back in time and read all about Jewish summers in the Catskill Mountains.

With summer in the air, try this recipe for a refreshing Cold Cucumber Soup.

The Museum of Jewish Heritage has a new exhibit on Mah Jongg. Meredith gives a full run down on what to expect from it.

Posted on May 28, 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

Summer Reading Recommendation: Esther Goes to Madison, WI

This entry was posted in Culture, Holidays on by .

Last month I was picking through a pile of books and came across Good for the Jews, by Debra Spark, a novel that took the story of the Book of Esther and transplanted it to Madison, Wisconsin during the second Gulf War. I was skeptical–it sounded like it could be yet another Red Tent takeoff–but I was curious enough that I went home with the book, and read it within a matter of days.

I was fascinated by so many things, not least the way that putting a modern lens on this ancient story really made me think, in new and important ways, about the implications of the book we read on Purim, and the lessons that we talk about when Purim comes around every year. In particular, what struck me as I read was how everyone really shared in the blame. Even Esther and Mordechai, the heroes of the megillah, really make a lot of poor decisions (remember, if Mordechai hadn’t been so adamant about not bowing to Haman, something that is not halakhically problematic, the Jews would never have been in trouble to begin with). Even a few weeks after having finished the book, I still find myself thinking about it a lot, and I recommend it to friends on a daily basis.

So, please, go pick up a copy for your beach bag. It’s got everything you want in a summer read–sex, booze, people making bad decisions, people make better decisions, and jealousy. All that, and it’s gorgeously written.

After I finished reading the book I got in touch with Debra Spark and asked if she would mind answering some questions for the blog. So without further ado, my Q&A with Debra Spark:

Tamar Fox: Can you tell us a bit about the genesis of the book? When and why did you decide you wanted to write something based on the Book of Esther? What were you attracted to in that book?
Debra Spark: Several years ago, I decided to take my son to Purim services.  He hadn’t had much of an introduction to synagogue services yet, and I thought Purim, rather than our synagogue’s long Saturday morning services would be a good way to go.  In preparation for the service, I decided to reread the Book of Esther.  When I did, I got a shock.  The end of the book was not as I had remembered it.  Not at all.  As I remembered it, Haman’s plot was foiled, Haman was hung on the gallows that he intended for Mordecai, the Jews’ enemies were defeated, and all’s well that ends well.  In fact, what happens is that Haman is hung, his son’s are hung, and Esther asks the king for an extra day of fighting.  This is granted, and the Jews go out and kill thousands.  Self-defense?  Revenger?  There’s no evidence to suggest there is a further threat against the Jews once Haman is gone.  Then again, there’s no evidence to suggest there isn’t a threat.  Without more of an explanation, the ending left me profoundly unsettled, all the more so because I happened to reread the Book of Esther on the eve of the Iraq war.  Like many, I had no problem when we went after the Taliban in the wake of 9/11, but I opposed the entry to Iraq.  It seemed to me that we were victims of the 9/11 attack, but now we were becoming victimizers.  Could the same be said for the Jews at the end of Esther?  I didn’t know, but I knew I was uncomfortable, so I wrote my book in part to explore my feelings.  But once I got into the project, I found that other aspects of the Book interested me.  After all, it’s a great story with its focus on male-female relationships, female roles, and palace intrigue.  I saw how that could easily be translated into a story about contemporary relationships and office politics.

TF: Before I had started the book I was very skeptical that it could work, because the way I’ve always been taught the story it was very black and white. Esther and Mordecai are good, Haman and Achashverosh are bad. But you managed to make Alex, the Achashverosh character, somewhat sympathetic and interesting. And there’s even some sympathy for Hyman, the character based on Haman. At the same time, Mose and Ellen (Mordecai and Esther) while clearly better than Alex and Hyman, are clearly deeply flawed, too. Does that reflect how you read the Book of Esther, or was that something that you did because it felt necessary for your novel? Or both?
DS: Yes, you are right about those characters.  They are certainly played broadly, so really I was just taking what I could for my characters.  But it’s also true that the characters, even as they appear in the text, have their complications.  For instance, Mordecai.  You might say that he behaves really irresponsibly.  There’s no reason he couldn’ t bow down to Haman.  It isn’t like bowing down to an idol.  It would have been expected in the Persian community in which he lived.  (He is technically beneath Haman in the palace pecking order.)  So why not bow, especially when failing to bow threatens the lives of your people?  And doesn’t Mordecai sell Esther’s sexual services?  Yes, he’s the story’s hero, and he behaves admirably, but there are also these other things …

TF: Thinking about the characters in the book, I have a really hard time picking a favorite. Ellen is the obvious choice, but she’s so naive…Who was your favorite character in the book? Why?
DS: Funny but no one ever asked me who was my favorite character with any previous novels of mine, but a number of people have asked me with this one.  Or they’ve told me who their favorite character is.  Mose seems to be the most popular, but perhaps because I am a middle-aged woman, I have a fondness for Valerie, who is the middle-aged woman in the story.

TF: I don’t know how much research you did into Biblical criticism around the Book of Esther, but at least one of the things I’ve heard said about it is that the sixth chapter, (where Haman ends up leading Mordecai through the streets of the city saying, “This is what is done for the man whom the king desires to honor!”) is the pivotal point of the book. Basically, up until that point everything is going badly for the Jews, and after it, everything goes well. When I was reading Good for the Jews I was nervous about how it was going to work out in the novel, and was ultimately relieved that that part was gone. How did you decide to leave that out?
DS: I actually did a LOT of research for this book, and then when I was through with the novel, I started to write a nonfiction book about the Book of Esther, in part because I still wanted to explore this issue of Jews and revenge.  I only got 100 pages in though.  At any rate, I was never thinking of a direct transcription of the Biblical story into a contemporary novel, so I never considered making up a fiction version of that scene you mention.  And that scene!  Here’s something from volume 4 of Lois Ginzberg’s Legends of the Jews :  “When the procession”-i.e., of Haman and Mordecai-“passed the house of Haman, his daughter was looking out of the window.  She took the man on the horse to be her father, and the leader of it, Mordecai.  Raising a vessel filled with offal, she emptied it out over the leader-her own father.  Scarce has the vessel left her hand, when she realized the truth, and she threw herself from the window, and lay crushed to death on the street.”  Yikes!

Posted on May 28, 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

Searching For A Sandwich

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There are certain foods that get me excited. I might eat three times a day, but I really only get EXCITED about what I’m about to eat on a rare occasion. That’s not to say I don’t like food, because, if you know me, that is the opposite of the case, but there are really only a couple of foods that I dream about in my sleep.

One of those is a sandwich from a classic Jewish deli. It doesn’t really matter what the meat is. I love corned beef, roast beef, smoked meat, pastrami, turkey, chicken salad, egg salad…this list could go on for another 300 words. As long as the food is prepared right, then I will gladly eat it (who am I kidding, even if it isn’t prepared right, I’ll still gladly eat it).

In terms of sandwich eating, New York has been a dream. As famous as Montreal is for it’s smoked meat, there really isn’t a classic Jewish deli there. Sure you have Schwartz’s, but Schwartz’s is far from kosher. So if you keep kosher in Montreal, you get deprived from the best Jewish food the city has to offer.

But as I said, New York has been a dream. The amount of kosher delis seems endless to me. What kind of beautiful world do I live in where I can say, “Nah, I don’t want to go there. There pastrami sandwiches are a little dry. There is another place just down the street that is way better.”

But what I really need to do is get out of Manhattan. Because as amazing as 2nd Ave. Deli is, there is a whole world of kosher delis out there that I have yet to discover.

One of those deli was featured on Huffington Post yesterday. Now, all I want to do is go out to Rego Park, Queens and eat at this amazing looking meat from Ben’s Best. Look how amazing this looks. I want all of it. Now. I’m like a nebishy, Jewish Veruca Salt.

The Secret to Surviving the Deli Business: Ben’s Best Kosher Deli (food. curated.) from SkeeterNYC on Vimeo.

Posted on May 28, 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 Orthodox Jersey Shore

This entry was posted in Beliefs on by .

When Frum Satire showed me In Over Our Heads — billed as “the first unscripted Jewish reality television series” — my knee-jerk reaction was, is it good for Orthodox Jews? The first episode followed women on a trip to the mikveh, a bath used for, uh, spiritual cleanliness (or, “ending the period of not having sex and transitioning into having sex,” as one character puts it).

The second episode is less abrasively sex-centric, but manages to be even more sexual: Our heroes leave their religious community for the night, go into the city, and stay up all night at a dance club.

The verdict’s still out. When new, odd Orthodox articles or stories or videos come out, I get a surge of overprotectiveness, because if you’re Orthodox, every non-Orthodox person you meet over the next month will make all sorts of sweeping generalizations that your life is exactly like the thing they saw on YouTube. (If you think I’m exaggerating, I’m not — you won’t believe how many people asked me which Hasidic folk song Lady Gaga stole the hook to “Bad Romance” from.)

The show has its stronger and weaker moments. I’d be the last person to argue that dancing isn’t a form of spirituality, but I cringe watching one Orthodox character struggle to defend her spiritual practice, eyelids fluttering from being up all night while scarfing down coffee, while sitting next to some non-Orthodox guy who keeps cutting her off and cursing at her. “A lot of people are afraid of what’s inside them and don’t express it,” she says. “But if you express it, then you’re free.” On the other hand, it’s flippin’ reality TV. Of course these people aren’t at their most coherent state.

The series has some moments of blinding clarity, and they’ve picked strong, smart, and likeable characters. We want to know these people. In some way, we do know them. Not just those of us who have friends, family, or who’ve even been those kids sneaking out at night from Monsey to the city, but for all of us who’ve been different.

I think I will keep watching In Over Our Heads, even if I’m not totally with it yet. It feels like we’re watching a rehearsal for something. I’m not sure what it is yet — they might not know either, either the producers or the stars — but I’m excited to see it when it happens.

Posted on May 28, 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

Wise Fridays: Mind Your Own Business

This entry was posted in Israel, Practices on by .

wise fridays: sharpen the     reception on  your WiFri

“Most people are concerned with their own material well-being and their neighbor’s soul. Better that they worry about their own soul and their neighbor’s material well-being.”

Rabbi Israel Salanter

Find more Wise Fridays wisdom on MJL.

Posted on May 28, 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

Shutting Up the Bigots

This entry was posted in Beliefs, Life on by .

So I was planning on writing a pretty lighthearted post about this amazing website called SameSexShidduch.com. I mean, as long as there are gay Orthodox Jews, they should be able to find their bashert by the same means that straight people do at SawYouAtSinai.

But when MJL’s friend Heshy Fried, over at FrumSatire, posted what he also thought would be a pretty lighthearted post about the site, he was subjugated to some pretty vile homophobia on the part of some of his readers.

Now, I have to hope that, like many comments you read online, the people who write these things are more radical than your average reader. But still. It’s one thing to be against gay marriage. It’s another thing to write things like this: Why don’t you tell us about the sins you’ve committed?

Or this:  Next there will be a “Jewish bestiality” site…. why the freak not!?!?!?!

Or even this: they can call it “frunsexsheepshidduch”.com!

Luckily for all of us, Heshy Fried doesn’t get offended too easily when there is bigotry in his comments section. So to respond to all the hate, he wrote a satirical “Letter to the Editor” making fun of all his homophobic readers.

Here is my favorite line that actually made me laugh out loud: Child molestation, mixed seating, non-glatt meat and sexy sheitles are just a few of the crimes committed openly and willingly against our Torah on a daily basis.

I think there is nothing worse that you can do than sit in synagogue next to your wife while she wears her sexy sheitel. And for that, I’m guilty. Forgive me.

Posted on May 27, 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

Consider Your Audience

This entry was posted in Israel on by .

In her last posts, Miriam Libicki blogged on taking Egged buses across Israel and on her process of drawing comic books. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning’s Author Blog series.

I love exhibiting at comic book conventions. Without a big publisher — and, maybe more importantly, as a memoirist — the best way to introduce readers to my comics is to introduce myself to them, one at a time.

From my first comics, ripped out of my army diaries & turned in as assignments in art school, a year & a half after my discharge, my subject matter was controversial. My very first writing professor was dissatisfied with my examination of the social politics of burning the classified papers of a military infirmary, & implored me to address the politics of Israel’s existence instead. His critique, “It might be worth you considering who you feel is your intended audience — would it be your peers at Emily Carr, a community that is more familiar with the military situation in Israel, or some other group (or combination)?” led to the creation of the Jobnik manifesto.

(detail from the first page of the Jobnik Manifesto. To view the complete comic, go here.)

The manifesto was exactly what I didn’t want to write when I began putting my very personal, very small stories to pictures. I thought I could reveal Israeli life & humanize Israeli soldiers without being the spokeswoman for Israeli policy & the latest news story out of the Middle East. But if I was being forced into that role, I might as well own it. The four-page manifesto is now the flier I give away at cons, and a cornerstone of my booth setup.

This is my booth setup:

I wear my Jewiness & Israelitude not only on my sleeve, but across my chest and on a giant banner behind me. I have definitely become a magnet for everyone’s feelings about Israel & Judaism. Some people have really… interesting feelings. What follows are the parts of my table that get the most comment, & some adventures I’ve had trying to stay on everyone’s good side while being true to myself & not delivering a free two-hour lecture on the state of modern Zionism.

1. “Desire Peace and Chase After It.”

This shirt design is a mashup of my mother’s favourite Psalm (it’s 34:14) with an infamous road sign on I-5 near the Mexico-California border. Many people take the t-shirt as an opportunity to practice their rusty afterschool Hebrew. But even a completely nonspecific message of peace attracts political reaction-mongers.

An earnest young guy, who looked like he might be hiding a velvet kippah under his baseball cap, knew what it meant & the source, but asked, “What does that mean to you? What do you think it means, exactly, to chase peace?”

I was pretty sure he was fishing for my political stance, I imagined so he could classify me as Good for the Jews or Bad for the Jews. “It means — it means it’s not enough to sit around waiting for peace. You have to struggle for it.”

He gave up. I don’t think he ended up buying anything, but I felt I told the truth while avoiding pigeonholes.

“Oh,” said one middle-aged guy after I translated. “I saw it was Hebrew, so I assumed it must be Palestinians running from bombs dropped by my fellow Jews.”

I could not immediately imagine a response. He smiled triumphantly and walked away.

2. Towards a Hot Jew: the Israeli Soldier as Fetish Object

This essay was my senior project in art school. I didn’t originally intend to bind & distribute it as a comic, but it has become, as I say in my convention pitch, “my most popular and most controversial piece.” (I also say, “Makes a great gift for the hot Jew in your life!”)

Some people are horrified at such symbols of violence being sexualized at all (obviously, this is not at superhero-oriented comic cons). Many, many people want to tell me about Israeli soldiers they have lusted after. Most people, before reading it, have no idea if it’s a pro-Israel or anti-Israel screed, but are sure it’s one or the other. (Some people still feel that way after reading it.)

Another yeshivish-looking kid said to me with a big smile, “Thanks, but this book isn’t for me. I’m a Zionist.”

That time, I was quick enough to say, “Me, too.” We actually had a decent talk after that.

When “Hot Jew” was first published digitally, I got called an anti-Semite on the internet for the first time. One patriotic American Jew sent me a scolding email, saying, “I’m 17 years older than you, and I remember the pride Jews felt in the period after the Six Day War,” and that my essay was “parroted from what I imagine is the Northwest lefty-academic milieu that you live among.” That person went silent after I wrote back that I had not only lived in Israel, but served in the IDF.

I have yet to be called a Jew-hater by anyone who has completed IDF service.

Which brings us right up to…

3. jobnik!

So I get it from the right for “Hot Jew,” & I get it from the left for jobnik! I try to hand out my manifesto to anyone who stops long enough to make eye contact. But since they can’t read it all while standing at the table, I have a brief spiel too, about how I was raised in Ohio, came to Israel on a year program, fell in love (with everything and everyone), made aliyah, joined the army, and was totally unprepared for it.

Some people come over very serious at the “joined the army” part. “Were you unprepared for it because of culture shock, or because of the actions of the IDF?” asked a young white guy in Toronto.

I acknowledged that it was really the culture shock; when I thought of bad actions of the IDF, I thought of government policies, & military strategies that were evil or heavy-handed, not the ground troops, I mean, I know there are violent racists among enlisted soldiers, but I didn’t know any, or I don’t think I did…

An olive-skinned college-age girl asked me why I volunteered for army service, at SPX. I explained that service is compulsory for Israelis, so if I was making aliya at age 18, I felt it showed the seriousness of my commitment to join the army like a real Israeli.

“Is joining the army the only way to be Israeli?” she asked.

I admitted that many Israelis do civilian national service, and some get out on health grounds. But it seemed to me that the best way to prove my non-tourist-hood was to enlist.

She was very calm but persistent. It slowly became clear that she was Palestinian-Israeli (or Israeli Arab, or 1948 Palestinian). My innocent youthful crush on Israel was suddenly a big hole I had dug for myself. I didn’t have too much to say after that. I handed her a manifesto and abortively described my other comics.

I felt so bad afterward that I waved her down, an hour later, when she passed back through the aisle. I said I was sorry I didn’t ask her name, or about her own story. As she told me about her peace activist work in D.C., I found myself blurting out all the names & organizations of friends of mine in peace & coexistence groups, until she recognized a name (or pretended to). I felt even more ridiculous. But better a clueless defensive well-meaning colonizer, I guess, than a violent racist.

Miriam Libicki has been writing and drawing the self-published comic book jobnik! since 2003. She has been blogging all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning’s Author Blog series.

Posted on May 27, 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

Would You Wash for Me?

This entry was posted in Life, Practices on by .

According to Jewish law, before one eats bread, one is required to wash one’s hands, say the blessing for bread, and afterwards say birkat hamazon, the grace after meals. This might not seem like a huge deal, but if you’re serious about it, it can alter your eating habits considerably. Out somewhere and someone offers you a bagel? Great! But what if there’s nowhere to wash your hands? And do you have time to say birkat hamazon afterwards? Also, there’s the question of how much bread requires this whole rigamarole. (Most people say a k’zayit, or an amount the size of a large olive.) And are you eating the bread as a snack, or as part of a big meal? There’s a wide variety of customs about what really requires one to wash and say hamotza, and especially when I was growing up it was fairly easy to find someone who would poskin (rule according to Jewish law) that however much bread you wanted to eat wasn’t enough to absolutely require you to wash/say hamotzi/say birkat hamazon. (The alternative is simply saying a different blessing before eating, mezonot, and a much shorter blessing afterwards.)

I once heard an administrator at my high school claim that half a bagel was less than a k’zayit. I’ve also heard that two slices of pizza, if you don’t eat them as a main meal, do not require washing. A tortilla used in a wrap doesn’t require motzi, but maybe it does if it’s made with white flour. Like I said–it’s complicated.

(Once, I was on a date with a pretty frum guy and we had a picnic, and I knew he was serious about me when he suggested we bring bread, and had a bottle of water specially allocated for handwashing.)

Anyway, I suspect that for a lot of people it often boils down to how lazy they’re feeling at the moment that would require them to get up and go wash. And also if there’s a non-bread possibility that looks good.

I was reminded of this issue while watching the video below–a promotional video for the high school I went to. You’ll notice that in the video they point out the bagels available for breakfast, and also the Corn Pops. The Corn Pops are kind of a joke, and also a kind of insider’s way of pointing out that the cafeteria offers a lot of different possibilities for breakfast, some that require washing, and some that do not.

(Watching this video is one of the more surreal experiences of my life. Imagine your worst nightmare–seriously the worst dream you’ve ever had. Now imagine if someone had made a trailer for that dream, as if it was a major motion picture–and a romantic comedy. You watch it knowing how horrible it’s going to end up, and also knowing that the poor unsuspecting audience has no idea what kind of misery it’s in for should they choose to buy tickets. That kind of what it’s like. Also, the best line is, “Wow, there’s a lot of Torah learning going on around here!” Wow, indeed.)

Posted on May 26, 2010

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Some More Jewish Boxing

This entry was posted in Culture on by .

Yesterday, I mentioned that the documentary on Jewish boxer Dmitry Salita is available on Hulu. So while we are on the subject of Jewish boxing, we might as well mention that there is another Jewish boxer out there who has a pretty big fight coming up next weekend.

Waiting for the subway every morning and afternoon, I pass by posters for this upcoming match between Miguel Cotto and Yuri Foreman at Yankee Stadium. The fight is going to be on HBO, if you are interested in watching (which luckily for boxing fans, means it won’t be on PPV).

There is a cool feature on ESPN.com today about Foreman. What makes Foreman’s story every sportswriter’s dream? Well, beyond having a great story about being born in the former Soviet Union, growing up in Israel and then moving to Brooklyn with the dream of becoming a champion, Foreman is also training to become an Orthodox rabbi. That’s pretty impressive for a guy who trains full time and is considered a top boxer in his weight class.

There is some pretty good stuff in the ESPN.com article. For one, because the fight is on a Saturday night, and Foreman is shomer Shabbat (and I would have to assume that he wouldn’t want to spend his entire Shabbat at a baseball stadium…as nice as it is), Foreman isn’t going to be able to head over to the Bronx until Shabbat ends, which by ESPN.com’s figures, is 9:13 at night.

You should read the whole article because it is pretty cool. But if you want to watch ESPN’s video piece on him, it’s just as awesome.

Posted on May 26, 2010

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Synagogues in the News

This entry was posted in Practices on by .

The experimental Nashuva (“We will return”) Friday night service involves “a band, meditation, reinterpreted prayers on a handout sheet, and a PowerPoint presentation” all in under 45 minutes. (New Jersey Jewish News)

A synagogue finds itself in a legal battle over its large sign “Lyndi and Rodney Adler Sephardi Centre.” (Australian Jewish News)

In Northeast Queens, Orthodox, Conservative and Reform shuls all adapt in order to survive and grow. (Jewish Week)

A merger between a Reform congregation (325 families) and a neighboring Conservative synagogue (250 families) in Miami leaves religious services and clergy separate, the rest combined. Is this a recipe for “increased conflict,” or a wave of the future? (Jewish Week)

The grand neo-classical style White Stork Synagogue in the Polish city of Wroclaw, which was ransacked and desecrated by the Germans on Kristallnacht, was formally rededicated after years of renovation work. (Jerusalem Post)

Posted on May 26, 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