Monthly Archives: May 2010

Herman Wouk: Cliff’s Notes for the Big Bang

This entry was posted in Beliefs on by .

I wrote my first novel standing in Herman Wouk’s shadow. Literally: I was in college at the George Washington University in D.C., an underweight kid living on friends’ couches who’d suddenly decided to be an observant Jew. There was only one Orthodox synagogue in walking distance, and it was like a rogues’ gallery of important Americans who happened to be religious Jews: Joe Lieberman, a senator who’d soon be nominated as a vice-presidential candidate; Leon Wieseltier, who was then writing a book called Kaddish.

And then there was Herman Wouk.

herman wouk language god talksHe was a writer, but an unpinnable one: he’d written doorstoppy masterpieces like War and Remembrance, a 1,056-page chronicle of World War II, but also short, sweet books like The City Boy, a story about one summer in an 11-year-old boy’s life, and Welcome to the Carnival, which Jimmy  Buffett turned into a musical. And then there was This Is My God, the closest thing to an easy, accessible construction manual for Judaism as anyone’s ever put together. And he’d gotten his start writing gags for early Hollywood comics.

Wouk wasn’t an Orthodox Jewish writer; he was a writer who created beach novels and serious histories, who, on the side, just happened to be an Orthodox Jew. When I knew him, Wouk was in his late 80s; now, at 94, he’s still pumping out work.

His latest book, The Language God Talks, is nonfiction — a history of science, from the proto-nuclear 1940s through the golden Space Age of the 1980s, told from the viewpoint of someone who’s decisively not a scientist. In fact, it’s as much a meditation on scientists as scientific theory, a fan-letter to scientists such as Stephen Hawking and Steven Weinberg who easily and fluently explained scientific concepts to mass audiences. As Wouk freely acknowledges, it’s a fluency that does not work in both directions, as he’s spent most of his life trying, and failing, to wrap his head around the finer points of scientific theories.

herman wouk in israel

Herman Wouk visits Israel in the 1950s.

In fact, most of The Language God Talks‘s failings come at the high points of action. And, weirdly, I don’t mean this as criticism at all.  When Wouk confesses that atomic-physics pioneer Richard Feynman’s explanations of atomic theory are more understandable and detailed than Wouk’s own, he doesn’t sound like he’s confessing — it’s more like he’s gushing. And when he notes that Albert Einstein‘s attempts to write a popular science book are inscrutable, he isn’t putting down Einstein — he’s warning us with the confidential advisory of two fanatics speculating about favorite baseball players, or stock tips.

What makes the book unique is, it’s coming from the opposite side of the screen than we’re used to. Histories and explanations of physics and natural phenomena are not rare, not even coming from scientists. Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time is an easy-to-understand bestseller. Einstein is quoted endlessly about the nature of God and science, and many more pithy sayings that simplify scientific ideas for the non-science-inclined. But Einstein was reticent to claim himself as a believer in God; Richard Feynman, one of Wouk’s idols, with whom this book begins and ends, skipped his own bar mitzvah, and, according to lore, refused even to say kaddish at his own father’s funeral.

It’s telling that, for a book subtitled On Science and Religion, there is so much science and so little religion — and yet so much of God. Alongside his biographical scientists, whom he describes tirelessly laboring to unravel the secrets of the natural universe, Wouk is kept endlessly enraptured; at each discovery, his heroes pause, marvel, and continue on with their work; Wouk is rendered metaphorically speechless and literally awe-struck, what Rabbi Nachman of Breslev would probably describe as divine flabbergast. It’s true how, as we learn more about the scope and form of the universe, we realize how truly unknowable it is.

Yet there’s plenty of bravado in this book, too. There’s something endearingly old-school about Wouk’s style in God Talks, both in the book’s candor and in its wit. One character he terms a “brainy maverick sea-dog,” and another, a secular astronomer, radiates “affable Jewish warmth.” His jovial, talky style poses alternately as self-deprecating and as authoritative old-timer; while meeting Neil Armstrong to discuss the possibility of a biography, they sip sodas in a coffee shop; he literally charms his way among the United States’ top-secret nuclear research scientists from the Manhattan Project (among them Feynman) by way of his World War II novels. In Feynman he finds, if not a friendship, then a mutual respect — a respect which permeates this book like nothing else. Not a chapter goes by without some quote or insight from Feynman; though they only met in person a few times in the 1950s, those encounters changed Wouk’s life, and rather than cliche or hyperbole, we travel through the ways that Feynman’s suggestions influenced the course of Wouk’s thought — and, though it would surely cause Feynman to roll over in his grave, Wouk’s religion as well.

More than anything else, The Language God Talks is a stream-of-consciousness piece, a short book that follows no guidance more than whatever happens to be on Wouk’s mind. There are 10-page digressions into the writing process behind Wouk’s early novels; his visits with the Chinese ambassador and his nephew — none of which are more than tangentially connected to the book’s theme. But as a meditation on the intersection of religion and science, of how things work and why they work, it’s an outstanding little book. It’s rare that we get to see inside someone’s head as clearly as this book lets us — and it’s rare that thoughts are as fully formed cogent as Wouk’s on science.

Posted on May 26, 2010

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Jews on Hulu

This entry was posted in Beliefs, Culture on by .

I got in a little bit of trouble the other day. We have been working closely with Brooklyn filmmaker Jason Hutt lately, making some awesome new videos for MJL. You will be able to see them in the next few weeks, but just trust me now that they are great.

When working with Jason on Friday, he made a casual reference to his film, Orthodox Stance, a documentary about the Orthodox Jewish boxer, Dmitry Salita. I gave him a blank stare. For all the amount of time I’ve spent working with Jason, I secretly had never seen his movie.

But Jason told me to have no fear. Orthodox Stance is available on Hulu! The internet is a wonderful place I guess.

This got me to look a bit further into Hulu. Is Orthodox Stance alone as the only Jewish source on Hulu? The answer is no! You can also watch the controversial Trembling Before G-d, the documentary about homosexuality in Judaism. And I’m sure if I searched a little harder,  I could find some other amazing Jewish media online.

All this time, I thought Hulu was just a venue for me to catch up on Modern Family. But all along, I could have been watching great Jewish documentaries that are not as easily accessible as your huge Hollywood films.

Check out the (awesome) Orthodox Stance:

Posted on May 25, 2010

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Jews for Jesus–“You Can’t Say I’m Not a Jew”

This entry was posted in Beliefs on by .

I’ve been reading a book about Messianic Judaism in order to write an article for MJL, and jeesh is it strange. I won’t get into all the oddities of it quite yet (that’s what the article’s for) but if you’re looking for a fascinating read, I recommend Messianic Judaism: A Rabbi’s Journey Through Religious Change in America. Just this morning I was reading about Moishe Rosen, the guy who founded Jews for Jesus (a group that’s just one branch of Messianic Judaism), and today I stumbled across his obituary from this past Friday.

He was a controversial guy, and I certainly have no lost love for him, but I think he brought up some fascinating points about the Jewish world and halakhah. Here’s a quote from the end of his obit: “You can take from me everything but my Jewishness and my belief in God,” he once said. “You can say I’m a nuisance, a Christian, out of step with the Jewish community, but you can’t say I’m not a Jew.”

It seems so strange to me to cling so fervently to one’s Jewish identity while maintaining a belief in Jesus. Then again, I also don’t understand the people who think leggings count as pants, so I guess my capacity for understanding is relatively limited.

Posted on May 25, 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

Egged Bus Life

This entry was posted in Culture, Israel on by .

In her last post, Miriam Libicki blogged on her process for creating the comic series jobnik. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning’s Author Blog series.

People have remarked that there’s a whole lotta bus ridin’ in jobnik. Even in the issue where Miriam is on furlough in the US and Canada, she spends a page riding a bus. Why?

Firstly, there was a whole lot of bus riding in my life at that time. I specifically asked for and got a permanent assignation “far from home,” meaning where you don’t go home every day. I was further from home than most; I lived in Jerusalem and served on a base about 30 minutes from Eilat, the southernmost tip of Israel. Each Sunday and Thursday, I spent 6 hours in transit, not counting local Jerusalem buses.

You may know that a soldier in uniform with proper ID can ride any bus or train for free in Israel. This is true, with the exception of the entire southern triangle of Israel, between Be’er Sheva and Eilat. Apparently, this area is too remote, too sparse, or in the case of Eilat, too touristy for a soldier to have a reason to go there without paying. Soldiers who serve or live in this area need to carry a special “Arava card” to be able to travel free on southern buses (Arava is the desert south of the Negev). This is just to illustrate that my service was bus-filled even by IDF standards.

One challenge of cartooning about my army service is that most of it was really, really boring. Somehow I need to depict tedium without being tedious; hopefully having a bus scene a couple times an issue gives you the feeling that that was indeed how a big chunk of my life was spent.

But Egged buses are also symbolic. To me, buses are a limbo state between identities. You aren’t anybody when you travel alone on a bus. If you’re listening to music and staring out the window, as I prefer, you’re practically disembodied. One of my favorite things to do was to get off at my layover in Be’er Sheva, walk across to the street to the mall, buy a magazine and order a fancy salad at a cafe. I relished that in my uniform, reading a magazine and eating a salad alone, I could be anybody. (Being from a large family, and growing up Orthodox in Columbus, Ohio where there weren’t any kosher restaurants, means I still feel like a woman of mystery when I eat at a restaurant alone.)

jobnik, as a proper bildungsroman, is about identity, trying to find identity, trying on and discarding identities. Israelis join the army at 18 after graduating high school, so almost everyone still lives with their parents whenever they’re not on base or in combat. I think this is an even more extreme condition of toggling between adulthood and childhood than the traditional American one of going away to college (I lived with my sister who was close to me both in age and emotionally, but there was a lot of my army life I kept hidden).

I noticed that not just I, but every soldier I knew, was a different person at home and on base. One of my favorite illustrations of this was when I visited my friend Yossi for Shabbat. He was a flamboyant, in-your-face gay man on base, while at home with his Orthodox Sephardic family, he was a twice as aggressively flamboyant gay man. Then out at gay clubs, he was practically demure. Clearly, the transformations had to take place on the public transportation between these spaces.

When I had that two-week furlough six months into my service, I spent it in Columbus, Toronto and NYC. I planned it that way because I had stuff to do in all three places, and bus-riding was so thoroughly entrenched in my identity, maybe I thought I couldn’t go two weeks without it. The bus rides from Toronto to New York, and then Manhattan to Poughkeepsie, were also significant for me at the time. In the first case, I spent twelve hours on a bus, and then learned when I disembarked that my parents had been frantically phoning and emailing people on both sides, because they had expected me in New York a day earlier. This reinforced my belief that when I was out of sight of people who knew me, I ceased to exist. Which was comforting, given how painful existing often is.

Going to Poughkeepsie in the middle of the night wasn’t an adventure; it was exile from the proper Orthodox world of my sister and her new boyfriend. I thought that after my longest bus trip ever, I would be able to stay still somewhere. But I barely had time to unshoulder my giant backpack before I found out my slutty girl cooties had to sleep several counties away, to preserve tzniut.

That’s the drawback of having a transitional identity, not properly belonging anyplace; sometimes people call you on it, and make you leave.

Then, of course, there’s terrorism. Blown up and upended like a whale skeleton is how most non-Israelis think of Egged Buses, the ones who do think of Egged buses. The second intifada started in jobnik! issue 2, here at jobnik! issue 8, it’s the following March. Suicide bombings haven’t really begun in earnest yet, but they’re coming.

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

Posted on May 25, 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

Shavuot Is Over, Time To Think About Sukkot

This entry was posted in Holidays on by .

The reason you might want to start planning so far in advance is because there’s an awesome contest going on with a deadline of August 1st:

‘Sukkah City: New York City’ will re-imagine this ancient phenomenon, develop new methods of material practice and parametric design, and propose radical possibilities for traditional design constraints in a contemporary urban site. Twelve finalists will be selected by a panel of celebrated architects, designers, and critics to be constructed in a visionary village in Union Square Park from September 19-21, 2010.
One structure will be chosen by New Yorkers to stand and delight throughout the week-long festival of Sukkot as the Official Sukkah of New York City. The process and results of the competition, along with construction documentation and critical essays, will be published in the forthcoming book “Sukkah City: Radically Temporary Architecture for the Next Three Thousand Years.”

In the Jewish calendar, the three biggest holidays are Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot. Passover ended in April, Shavuot ended last week, so I guess it’s time to start thinking about Sukkot 5771, which starts the evening of September 22nd.
You should check out their website for all of the details (for instance, if you want to enter you have to register by July 1st, which is alarmingly soon).

Those “celebrated architects, designers, and critics” they mentioned? The list includes Ron Arad, Paul Goldberger, Thom Mayne, and Adam Yarinsky.

This is your chance to design a sukkah made out of solar panels and hemp, or, like, moss covered walls and banana leaves. Gentlemen (and ladies): Start your…sukkah making machines.

Posted on May 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 Evolution of a Page: jobnik! 8, Page 11

This entry was posted in Culture, Israel on by .

Miriam Libicki, an American Jewish girl from a religious home, enlists in the Israeli Army one summer against everyone’s better judgment. Many qualities seem to make her unsuited for IDF life: her Hebrew isn’t great, she is shy and passive, and she has a tendency to fall in love with anything that moves. If that weren’t enough, the Al Aqsa uprising, a.k.a the second Palestinian Intifada, erupts a few weeks after she is stationed as a secretary in a remote Negev base. Will Miriam survive threats of terrorism, the rough IDF culture, and not least, her horrible taste in men?

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

I chose this page more or less because it was the page I was working on when I was offered to blog about my process, so I was able to un-tape it from my drawing board and scan it several times before I finished it. Below, find more detail on my process than anyone could possibly want!

I script a whole issue and break it down into pages before I start drawing, though I will sketch out the amount and configuration of panels as I am scripting. After a few years of writing comics, I have figured out how much text/dialogue I can fit in a panel and how many panels/scenes I can fit on a page (the answer to both is: a lot less than you’d think) without shortchanging the drawings.

Then I will make thumbnail drawings in an 8.5″x5.5″ sketchbook. I try to lay out the pages facing each other the way they will be when printed, so that I can design a two-page spread in a harmonious manner if possible.

This page has three scenes on it. I originally had each scene occupying one row of panels (I think in proper comix speak they’re called “tiers”), but when I got to my thumbnails, I thought the second scene wouldn’t be well served by really skinny panels, and the third scene wasn’t important enough to get a whole tier to itself.

So I’ve got the last panel of scene two occupying the same tier as scene three. My solution for visually differentiating the two was to shrink the final panel, and surround it by a lot more white space (“gutter” in proper comix speech). This also serves to reinforce how minor it is as a scene. Also, because Miriam is a limited first-person narrator, the very look of each panel is influenced by her mental state. Here, she feels small. Get it?

This sounds so dumb when I have to explain it. I really love how the comix medium allows one to show instead of tell in a more literal manner than text literature.

Note that some figures in a thumbnail are extremely rudimentary, and some of them are a lot more worked through, as I try to practice the facial expressions I want, as well as tricky poses, like how your hands look when you’re opening a tub of cottage cheese. Also note that I add speech balloons but not text. This is to give me a basic idea of where and how much space I need to give for the text. Since I already have the script, it wouldn’t do me any good to actually write the words in.

Computer layouts is something I only started doing when I started hand-lettering. I don’t have enough of a sense of how to form aesthetically pleasing text-shapes or good enough printing to letter completely freehand, so instead I trace printed text. I print the layouts of  the panels along with the text because it saves me some time. If I’m using direct photo reference (*cough* tracing), I’ll also paste it into this document. I format this all in Illustrator, referring to my script and thumbnails. Then I print it out the size of my Bristol boards, and trace it using graphite transfer paper.

As it happens, I felt like I needed more help with Adi M.’s pose in scene two, so I posed in front of my computer’s camera, once for each panel. My characters’ anatomy is, uh, stylized enough that it wouldn’t have done me any good to trace these photos, but having them to look at next to my page was very helpful.

This is my final page, after I had traced the text and layouts and roughed in the figures. I said earlier that my printing isn’t neat enough to letter freehand but you’ll see that’s not exactly true; after I’d traced this page I realized I left out some crucial text, namely, the date and the translation of a Hebrew term I used in panel 1. So I did write these in freehand, using rulers to ensure a minimum of regularity. It turns out, through sheer repetition of my tracing process, I actually have developed some handlettering skills. But I guess I still need my crutch.

I didn’t trace the panel borders straight, because this issue is mostly an extended flashback. Wavy and not-as-thick panel borders is a way I am hoping to make the flashback pages visually distinct from the “present time” pages. I don’t yet know if readers will pick up on this, cause the issue isn’t published yet.

I added a lane behind the formation of soldiers with another division  marching through. I did it cause the composition seemed unbalanced, and I like having the reminder that these twelve girls are just one of dozens of divisions going through exactly the same thing at the same time on this base.

I should have probably ruled all of panel 1 out using three-point perspective. But I decided to just eyeball it instead. I think if you have practiced drawing in perspective enough, you can fake it in a pinch, especially since the only thing in this pane is people, who are lumpy and squishy and irregular anyway. At least jobnik people are. I used 1-point perspective in the last panel, because it has more straight lines in it.

These are pretty much the “final pencils,” before I start “inking” with, in my case, softer pencils. If you care, my penciling pencils are 2H and H, and my “inking” pencils go from B (for flashbacky panel borders, and the smallest or most distant objects) to 3B, then I shade in tones with 3Bs-5Bs.

This is where I put in faces, clothes and any other details. At first I thought I could get away without drawing the endless rows of mess hall tables behind the characters, but then my husband pointed out that even though there are previous scenes in the mess hall, people cant be expected to assume that anytime characters are at a long table, they’re in the mess hall. So I got out my rulers and vanishing points and added in the tables and windows.

I didn’t add any people though, mostly out of laziness, but also because one of the biggest things I still struggle with in comix drawing is how much background to put in, so that there is atmosphere and context to a scene without muddying it up and taking focus away from the main action.

This is after the “inks” and tones, scanned in, but before more fixes in Photoshop. I use different softnesses of pencil when I “ink.” The softer the pencil, the darker and usually thicker the line it produces. So like in panels 2-4, the girls’ bodies are drawn with a 3B, while the distant tables are drawn with a B. Most of the lettering is done with a 2B, while the emphasized words are done with a 3B.

In Photoshop, I darken up my page more so that the darkest pencil lines are black, and it’s a fuller tonal range for printing. It also wasn’t ‘til I scanned it in that I realized I left out an asterisk in the footnote of panel one, so I was able to fix that with cut’n’pasting (not shown).

Um. Any questions?

Posted on May 24, 2010

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Best of the Week

This entry was posted in General on by .

With Friday coming to an close, here’s a roundup of everything that went on at MJL this week.

Even though Shavuot has come and passed, it isn’t too late to catch up on everything about the holiday.

– Find out what all the Jewish denominations believe about revelation at Sinai.

– Here are some cool variations on cheesecake.

– Or for something completely different, try our new recipe for rhubarb rugelach.

– Were you ever confused as to why we read the Book of Ruth on Shavuot? This article can answer all of your questions.

– Up until 1951, every Shavuot, Jews would make a pilgrimage to Kurdistan to visit the prophet Nahum’s tomb. Find out why.

Posted on May 21, 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

Receiving the Torah Was a Home Run

This entry was posted in Culture on by .

If I ever feel slightly interested in catching up on the Jewish side of politics, I look no further than Jeffrey Goldberg’s blog over at The Atlantic. But in his blog post today, I found something else he wrote all the more fascinating.

As Goldberg points out, on Tuesday night, the first night of Shavuot, Major League Baseball players Ryan Braun, Ian Kinsler, Ike Davis, and Kevin Youkilis all hit home runs. All of those guys are Jewish. What a weird and funky stat.

How should we feel about this? On the one hand, it’s totally awesome. It’s not like there are SO many Jews who play professional baseball. But then again, don’t we love telling the story of how Sandy Koufax refused to play during the World Series because it was Yom Kippur?

I think I’ll get over it though. I mean, have you seen Ryan Braun this season? The guy is putting up MVP numbers. I would definitely sacrifice my favorite Jewish baseball player playing on Shavuot in exchange for some hardware. I mean, seriously, this are some darn good numbers.

Posted on May 21, 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

Project Mah Jongg

This entry was posted in Culture on by .

Growing up, I didn’t know anyone who played mah jongg. Yet when I moved to the suburbs of New York three years ago, it was a matter of weeks before the local synagogue ladies pulled me into their game, and I was hooked. Last year, I explored the connection between mah jongg and Judaism. I found very little documented, but I was able to pull together just about everything I could find for an article on this site. Still, I was left with many questions.

Project Mah Jongg at the Museum of Jewish Heritage

Needless to say, I was curious when the Museum of Jewish Heritage in lower Manhattan announced it was putting on an exhibit about mah jongg. Why was a Holocaust museum hosting the show?  And how did they find enough material for an entire exhibit?

When I visited Project Mah Jongg, the staff guided me to a not surprisingly small room–the museum’s rotunda–which contains the entire exhibit. Inside the room, six large pillars covered in oversized mah jongg tiles hold display cases filled with old mah jongg sets, rule books, and related artifacts. The outer walls feature commissioned illustrations and photographs. And in the middle stands one lone mah jongg table, complete with cards and tiles–just waiting for people to sit down and play.

I asked curator Melissa Martens why would the museum–known as “A Living Memorial to the Holocaust,” feature an exhibit about mah jongg.  She explained that the Museum of Jewish Heritage is unlike most other Holocaust museums, because its mission is to explore life before, during, and after the Holocaust (most others focus just on “during”). Some of the museum’s exhibits capture more of the memorial feeling. This one embodies the living tribute. Mah jongg’s popularity in America peaked in the 1920s. Even after it faded as an American pastime, Jewish women embraced the game fervently. The National Mah Jongg League, founded in 1937, raised money during World War II and later for Jewish refugees in Palestine. And to this day the League sells rule cards and donates the proceeds to Jewish and other causes.

The museum also focused the “living tribute” by adding design elements that infuse the exhibit with the voices of mah jongg players. CD players on the wall, when activated by visitors, play recordings of games and interviews. The clicks and the clacks of the tiles from the soundtracks fill the air with the familiar sounds of the game.

Yet what made this exhibit truly come alive was the lone mah jongg table in the middle of the room. Guests can just sit down and play. Starting later this month, the museum will have teachers one day a week giving lessons.

And so I sat down to a game with Martens, along with two other staff members. They told me that about 30 people at the museum learned to play the game over the course of putting the exhibit together. The three women I played with are now part of a group that meets weekly in Park Slope, Brooklyn.

It was a great game, and not just because I won.  While playing, I realized these staff members had become part of the exhibit’s story. They have added themselves as another link in the history of the game, by creating new generation of players.

As the exhibit itself notes, “In many Jewish households, mah jongg was a ritual created by and for women.” Women creating new Jewish rituals has become a significant movement in the past few decades. And while mah jongg may not be a religious ritual, it’s one with deep cultural and communal roots. Those roots continue to plant themselves firmly in the story of American Judaism.

Project Mah Jongg runs from now until January 2, 2011. For more information about visiting the exhibit, visit, where you can also see images from the show.  For those not in the New York area, don’t worry. Just like a mah jongg set, the exhibit was designed to travel and will be appearing across the country next year.

Photo Credit: Melanie Einzig

Posted on May 21, 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