Monthly Archives: July 2010

Schindler’s List and Hip-Hop Remembrance

This entry was posted in Culture on by .

When I was in Junior Congregation services at OCJCC-BI in Philadelphia, we spent Tisha B’Av — the holiday that’s the anniversary of the Temple’s destruction — watching depressing Jewish videos. Some of them (Shoah) conveyed the appropriate they’re-dead-and-it’s-sad response from my 12-year-old self. Some of them (Schindler’s List — specifically, the scenes of Oskar Schindler in bed with the naked bouncing-breasty women getting all pogo-stick on top of him*) left, uh, a different image in my head.

The London-born, Jerusalem-based poet Danny Raphael just laid down some rhymes of remembrance. It’s only 2 minutes long — and, back in 8th grade, I wasn’t very open to appreciating hip-hop — but I’d like to think that I would’ve appreciated this.

* — It feels like heresy to say, but as a geeky barely-teenage boy who’d just seen Jurassic Park (loved it) and was expecting something I could do a Hebrew School book report on, it was unexpected, to say the least. There was plenty of stuff that depressed and inspired me, as well, but when I left the theater that day, the sole image that stuck with me was not a skeleton-thin man behind a barbed-wire fence but a full-bodied woman who touched off a strange chord of both attraction and haunting in my spread-wide-open impressionable mind.

Now, this isn’t to say that I disapprove or disagree with the film. I think the only people who wouldn’t say Schindler’s List is a work of art are either anti-Semites or jealous (the latter category includes all you film-school  snobs). The most common feedback I get from my book about becoming religious is that it’d be a great story except for all the cursing and sex. Real life is real life, and portrayals of life are going to contain stuff that isn’t exactly ready for prime time. Was I ready for it as a kid? I don’t know. Although, on the other hand, most of my formative life-changing experiences were things I wasn’t ready for. And this would be the footnote that’s longer than my actual blog post.

Posted on July 19, 2010

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Beyond Random

This entry was posted in General on by .

Have you ever looked back at an evening and gone, “That was the strangest night of all time!” I think that this past Saturday night qualifies as a strange evening for me.

I’ve just returned from the Just for Laughs Festival in Montreal. All of the comics and important folk were hanging out at their hotel bar on Saturday night, so I figured I’d go and shmooze with the big wigs. While there were few surprises as to who was there, I had to take a double take when I spotted the most random celebrity on the planet from across the room.

That’s right. The Shamwow Guy was there.

Who is the Shamwow Guy? If you don’t know the answer, then you don’t watch infomercials on Sunday morning.

Now when you see the craziest man on television, you make every effort you can to talk to him. Luckily for me, the Shamwow Guy was actually hanging out with a friend of mine. So, I walk up and begin talking to “Vince.” Like most of my conversations, one way or another, it always gets back to the fact that I’m Jewish. I guess I don’t hide it well, or I don’t have anything else to talk about.

So, when it came out that I was a Jew, Shamwow Guy’s eyes lit up and he said, “Hey man! ME TOO! Actually, I’m from Israel!”


The Shamwow Guy is Israeli. Not only that, but he went on to explain that his name isn’t actually “Vince Offer.” It’s actually Offer Shlomi.

Ladies and gentlemen, the most random moment of my life.

Posted on July 19, 2010

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Really, Let It Go

This entry was posted in Life, Practices on by .

On Tuesday I worked my once-per-season shift at my Hazon CSA. It mostly involved hanging around and socializing, but every once and a while another volunteer and I would take a bunch of crates that had been emptied of vegetables and bring them down to the basement. On our first trip we carefully loaded the elevator with crates, and just as we were finishing up another woman entered the elevator and pressed five. We were going to the basement, one floor down, but we ended up going up to the fifth floor first, and then back to the main floor, and then finally to the basement. When the woman realized that she had pressed before we did she said, “Oh, sorry” in a posh and slightly snotty British accent.

As soon as she got off the elevator the other volunteer began fuming, calling her names and generally exhibiting a level of rage that I found baffling. So we rode on the elevator longer than intended. It cost us maybe one full minute of our time, and it’s not like we were doing anything difficult for that minute–we were standing in an elevator. The guy continued to badmouth this woman for the rest of our shift, referencing her multiple times, and at one point pulling out his cell phone to call his wife and tell her about the injustice.

Honestly, I was annoyed at the woman, too. But my annoyance lasted exactly as long as the elevator ride. Beyond that, I could not possibly care less. But this guy was completely livid at the injustice of the matter. I don’t know–maybe he had been having a bad day. Maybe he’s generally an unstable person. Maybe he’s interacted with the woman before and knows she’s mean. All I can say for sure is that the amount of energy he put into his vitriol for her was absurd. There is no way she was worth that level of energy.

I’m really not the person to lecture people on holding not holding grudges, since I am known for doing it very well myself (hi, Dad). But it occurred to me in light of my CSA experience, and my recent experience at the Merchant of Venice, that I see a lot of people investing so much time and energy into hating strangers, and it’s really upsetting.

Forgiveness is a virtue, people. If someone is a moron, take comfort in the fact that they have to live with that day in and day out–and you don’t. Move on with your life. Congratulate yourself on being the better person. At the end of the day, you’ll sleep better.

Posted on July 16, 2010

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What’s Your Jew (for Jesus) #Ish?

This entry was posted in Life on by .

As part of a new marketing campaign to hit the young Jews and the unsold Jews, the Jewish Federations of North America started an outreach campaign by asking everyone in Internetland, “What’s your #ish?” Every time somebody tweets or makes a video or posts on their site, the Federations will give a donation to charity.

This morning, while taking one of our quizzes (yes, they only scored 6/7 — we’re not telling who), one of us came across a crazy little #ish ad. It looks like the Federation is targeting all sorts of Jews. Reform, Orthodox, unaffiliated — and Jews for Jesus.

Let’s take a closer look at that Google Ad box:

The #ish site says that “being Jewish means something different to everyone.” If being Jewish means being a Messianic Jew, it’s a pretty radical departure from the Jewish communal mainstream, isn’t it?

Also, that line in the ad about “tell us and we’ll give a donation” is especially vague, btw. Not that it isn’t very kind of you, Jewish Federations of North America, but whom exactly are you giving the donation to?

Two months ago, “ish” was hip-hop slang for poopy. Then the Federations reclaimed it for the purpose of casting a wide net and reeling in Jews of every sort. Now it looks like they’re casting a wider net than anyone anticipated.

UPDATE #1: The Jewish Federations of North America sent us the following statement. (2:50 P.M.)

We are investigating this unauthorized use of The Jewish Federations name and our What’s Your Ish? campaign. What’s Your Ish has raised new awareness of Jewish Federations, especially among younger Jews, and generated provocative discussion about Jewish identity. Unfortunately some may try to take advantage of the campaign’s popularity for their own purposes.

We have reached out to both Google and to inform them that neither the Google ad or the MyJewishLearning post has any connection whatsoever with The Jewish Federations of North America or the What’s Your Ish? campaign. We will take any appropriate action necessary to ensure that this remains clear.

UPDATE #2: JFNA replies that their own ad agency created the ad as a blunder:

We have done some more internal follow-up and learned that the erroneous Google ad was a by-product of an automated search-word process our ad agency was using to promote the initiative generally.

Hope this clears everything up . Shabbat Shalom!

Posted on July 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

Joshua Braff Goes to 770

This entry was posted in Culture on by .

On Monday, Joshua Braff wrote about falling in love and chasing girls at a Jewish day school. He has been blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning‘s Author Blog series.

What a ride. Some wind at the writer’s back. What else could I ask for? I’m back from a solid two weeks of touring Peep Show, my second novel, that received favorable praise from all the important folks, including People magazine, the San Francisco Chronicle, and Kirkus/Booklist/Publisher’s Weekly.

A writer’s livelihood is based on reviews and, of course, sales. If both are good, you stand to make a respectable royalty advance on your next project. So I’m feeling upbeat about it all. Was in New York for BEA (Book Expo America) where I signed books at the Algonquin booth and threw a party at my brother Zach’s place for anyone in publishing who happened to be in town. When my brother asked how many would be coming to get a sense of the rowdiness I told him that book people weren’t the same as movie people. No one has fake boobs and most of them wear shawls. He bet me there wouldn’t be one shawl. He was right. No tally on fake boobs, though. My favorite part of the evening was being able to acknowledge all the people at Algonquin Books who put out such quality reads each year. Oh we had a rousing old time. New York is a fun place to launch a book.

I’ve read from Peep Show about 20 times. During Q&A time, I’ve heard a lot of questions about research for the book, which is partly a novel about the smutty landscape of Times Square in the 1970s but also about Hasidic life at that time in New York. While on tour for my first book, The Unthinkable Thoughts of Jacob Green, I met a man who came from one of the first baal teshuvah (convert from non-observant Jew to Hasidic Jew) families in Queens who wanted to share his story with me. I knew I was going to be writing about a heavily religious sect of Judaism, but I didn’t know details at that point.

So, we talked and he offered to send me his story, which involved his mother suddenly switching to a non-secular lifestyle and wearing black to her ankles in August. In his mother’s new way of life there would be no talking or even looking at girls and the TV would be removed and rock music was evil and God was watching and on and on. No secular books. No movies. No non-kosher food.

As I read my friend’s e-mails about his life, I began to get a sense of how this story might unfold. There would be a division in the family over which parent was more morally in check and, therefore, worthy of their children’s love. In the end, if the book worked, each would be wrong about the other. We’d find nobility under the wig of the woman behind the screen in the peep house. And we’d find drive under the wig of the Hasid behind the screen of the mehitza. Over the years of building the story I’d visit him in Brooklyn and we ate at the famous Second Avenue Deli just before it closed [it reopened a few months later]. He took me on tours of neighborhoods and explained the various sects of the men who walked by. Somejoshua braff peep showhad high black knee socks, others had closely cropped hair save for their curly peyis. Another man’s hat was circular with soft brown fur. I was told most adult women wore wigs. There were stores around me that sold kosher toothpaste and had the words Smurfs in Hebrew in the window.

Like visiting another country, so far from home but actually just ten minutes on the L train from Union Square. We entered 770 Eastern Parkway, Menachem M. Schneerson’s synagogue in Crown Heights. The person I saw first didn’t know the name “Joshua.” He didn’t speak English. He was able to explain that he prays in Hebrew and only speaks Yiddish. The tall guy behind him spoke some and told me many, many things I didn’t understand but he told me each with a passion that lit his blue eyes to moisture. His skin was indoor pale and his beard was all over, keeping his face hidden, like at the bottom of a bag.

As he spoke I nodded, not wanting to him to feel I wasn’t listening. I heard the words “Rebbe” and then he pointed to a spot, a lectern area where the Rebbe would conduct his sermons and farbrengens. As the Rebbe would get going in Yiddish, he would at times talk of the Talmud, of life, of God and suddenly turn his words into song and start to rock his body in a particular rhythmic motion that all the yeshiva boys would emulate as they sat together against the wall, a sea of boys in black, imitating their rebbe. It was clear that these events were nothing short of rock concerts for those who prayed and lived around here. Our tour guide now had many friends around him and they were all staring at me, the guy with long, blond hair and a tiny white yarmulke bobby-pinned to his head.

“Do you wear tefillin?” the man wanted to know.

“Once,” I said.

The friend who brought me there was not interested in reliving the tefillin experience so he told the guys we were leaving. They didn’t like the news of this. They wanted something but I didn’t know what so I found myself shuffling out of the building behind my friend with the tour-guide’s grip on my arm. It seemed if we didn’t end up wrapped in tefillin straps, these guys were gonna miss out on a layup in the mitzvah world. They wrap us – mitzvah for them. I end up wrapped – mitzvah for me. Who loses?!

“Sorry, we really gotta go,” my friend said in Yiddish.

“What are you doing here?” the guide said to me with a more stern voice than before.

I said nothing. Suddenly my research seemed immoral. I was as good as a tourist in Amish country, snapping pictures of a horse and buggy. “I just wanted to see where the Rebbe stood,” I said.

And after a long pause, he let go of my arm.

When I finished a first draft of the book I sent it to my research friend. He told me he liked it a lot but wanted me to take out certain details so that no one in the community would assume it was him that helped me. That was the last time we spoke.

Back now in the SF Bay Area. Summer has arrived and it feels so good to be home for the moment. My mom just turned seventy and my ten year-old son stood up to make a speech at her party. He spoke so tenderly and with so much expression and love for her. It was amazing for me to watch. I’m so proud of my little man. I may have to write about it.

Joshua Braff’s second novel, Peep Show, is now available. He has been blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning‘s Author Blog series.

Posted on July 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

Rugelach and Blessings To Go

This entry was posted in Israel on by .

My friend dropped me off across the street and pointed out the shelter where the minibus stopped. “The 16 sherut will take you straight to the train to the airport,” she said. “Don’t get on the 4 or the regular bus.” I wasn’t sure if she was telling me to avoid the normal bus because it didn’t go to the same destination as the sherut did, or because the large regular buses are often the target of suicide bombers. (They’re larger, and they’re government-subsidized; both are attractive reasons for a potential terrorist to get his bomb on.)

Not that it mattered. I liked the feeling of the private minibus. The clientele was a mish-mosh of scraggly hippie kids, snowman-shaped Russians, and old ladies with shopping trolleys bigger than they were. Before that, though, I stopped to pick up some rugelach.

Now, rugelach are an important part of any Israel experience. Fresh from the oven, painted with honey and sticky from melted chocolate and cinnamon that’s still oozing out the sides. I know people who’ve finely tuned the art of buying a box of Marzipan rugelach straight from the oven, hailing a sherut to the airport, and landing in New York 10 hours later with the gummy dough still warm and the chocolate still drizzly.

But Marzipan, and the people buying it, had the disadvantage of being in Jerusalem, which is an hour away from the airport on a good day. I was in Tel Aviv. And I was, by my friend’s estimation, 20 minutes from the gates of Ben-Gurion International.

So I popped into the closest store with a kosher certificate. I picked out a selection — mostly cinnamon, a few chocolates, some savory triangles to satiate that side of our mouths. (And by “our,” I mean my wife and kids, because if I got away with one whole piece of the loot, it’d be a good day in Brooklyn.) I picked up the tongs. The guy yelled at me that I shouldn’t touch all the rugelach, that I was taking too long. I told him that I was choosing them for my kids; I was about to get on a flight to America.

The other baker looked up from across the room. “Do you live in New York?” he asked, in Hebrew. And, when I nodded: “In Queens?”

I said, well, Brooklyn.

“Do you ever go to the grave of the Lubavitcher Rebbe?” he asked. I said, sometimes. The truth is, I’d only been once, although my wife gets around there fairly often, being of that ilk herself.

But sometimes was as good as yes. He fed out a piece of paper from the cash register and wrote something down in Hebrew. “This is my son,” he said, and read out the name. “When you go to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, I need you to ask him for a complete healing. Heal his body, heal his soul. Here.” He fumbled in his pocket and drew out a handful of change. I told him, don’t worry, I already had tzedakah to travel with, but he insisted. I promised him I would. Then he came around the counter

My first reaction was, Don’t you realize I’m going down? When someone moves to Israel, we call it making aliyah. No matter what you think of it politically, the land at the latitude and longitude of 31 o 30′ N and 34 o 45′ E is a pretty potent place, metaphysically. The only major world religion that hasn’t had some sort of epiphany near Jerusalem is Buddhism*, and that’s because they’re all vegetarians and don’t have any energy.** Whereas I am going to New York, which is most famous for people making money and soulless TV shows.

Then he came from around the counter and hugged me. Yes, he hugged me. For something I hadn’t even done yet and wasn’t even sure I was going to do personally. It was that potential, that in-the-moment energy, that I really could help him out, that I would transverse boroughs for him, or even just that I happened to be in the neighborhood of the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s cemetery and I’d blurt out a prayer.

In the moment I said yes, I was a complete tzaddik.

I’ve been back for 4 days so far. I haven’t gone yet, but I’m really going to try.

I wasn’t sure about going to Israel for 4 days. It was a hella long flight and an awful long time to be away from a very young baby. But that’s the reason why we do the things we do, whether it’s going to work to earn money or going to Israel and saying a prayer at the Western Wall — because in those moments are all the potential in the world. Fate could go any way. And, if we push hard enough, it really might.

* – Yes, I’m including Hinduism. Ask me about it sometime.
** – Sorry, but it’s true. And I know all Buddhists aren’t vegetarians; it’s just funnier when you say it that way. And, as a further postscript: I am a vegetarian, and I’m feeling pretty tired right now because I forgot to pack some proteiny thing for lunch today (or, I did, but the lentils were crunchy. Ewww). So there.

Posted on July 15, 2010

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JewishFood Contest Winner: The Love Potion Kugel

This entry was posted in Culture on by .

Over on our JewishFood facebook page we just finished running a Jewish food contest, searching for the best homemade Jewish dish. Entrants had to upload a picture of their original homemade recipe to the wall of our facebook group. Four finalists were chosen, and members of the group voted on who took home the $100 Williams-Sonoma giftcard prize.

Well, mazel tov to Rachel Tepper, whose Love Potion Kugel won our contest! Rachel writes for the online home of  Washingtonian Magazine about food and Washington art and culture. In addition, Rachel authors her own blog, Plight of the Pumpernickel.

Here’s what Rachel has to say about the creation of her recipe:

They say the key to a man’s heart is through his stomach. I do know one thing for certain: Jewish men love kugel. The timeless love affair between Jewish men and the Ashkenazi delectable is well documented and on a personal level, has played a role in my own dating life. One Rosh Hashanah during my college years, I decided to make dinner for several of my dearest friends. This, for me, meant baking a kugel solo for the first time in my young life. Needless to say, it was well received. Not a week later, I began dating one of them. I thank the kugel.  Two of my roommates, impressed by the power of the kugel, requested the recipe to see if it would work for them. Each baked a kugel, and each found herself dating a Jewish man soon after. Coincidence? I think not. The recipe is now referred to as “The Love Potion,” and I still receive e-mails from friends requesting a list of ingredients. When one of us finds herself single, we’re often known to remark, “Guess it’s time to bake a kugel!”


– 1/2 pound of wide egg noodles
– 1/4 pound of melted butter
– 4 large apples
– 2 eggs beaten
– 3/4 cups of apple jelly
– 2 teaspoons cinnamon
– 1 cup of brown sugar
– 1 teaspoon salt


Cook the noodles and drain the liquid. Place in a large bowl, add butter and mix
well. Then add the remaining ingredients except the eggs, and chill. Add eggs as soon as you’re sure the noodles are cool enough so you don’t wind up with scrambled eggs. Place mixture evenly in pan and bake it at 350 Degrees for 30 minutes. Then turn the heat down to 300 degrees, and bake for 2 hours. Be sure to watch it—it should be slightly crispy on top, but it might not need the full 2 hours.

Serve warm to your heart’s desire.

Posted on July 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

Gov. Patterson Loves Red String (and Jewish Guilt)

This entry was posted in History on by .

If you live in New York, you probably know about this already, but Governor Patterson has started wearing a red string, a kabbalistic protection which is believed to ward off demons and evil. The New York Daily News quotes Patterson’s spokesman: “It was explained to the governor that the red string is a symbol of protection [that] wards off problems and tribulations…His attitude was that he’ll take all the help he can get.” However, the spokesman was quick to point out that our governor is neither a Jew nor a kabbalah aficionado: ““Kabbalah didn’t change his life, just to be clear here,” he said.

gov patterson kabbalah string

The article notes other celebrities who wore red-string bracelets at some point in their lives: Alex “A-Rod” Rodriguez wore one when he was being investigated for steroid use. Roseanne wore one when her career was in a tailspin (although, in hindsight, maybe it would’ve been more useful when she was dressing up as Hitler last year).

What’s the moral here? On the surface, that famous people turn to religion — or, specifically, Judaism (or, okay — to an overpriced kabbalistic totem of Judaism) — in times of need. Which is about par for the course, on the same level as the rest of us. Granted, most of us don’t get in drug scandals/massive alleged tampering with the judicial system/alleged money laundering…but we’ve all got problems. And those are the times when we start grasping at straws, hoping that anything works. Even the stuff, like Judaism, that some of us have been into all along.

(Thanks to Frum Satire for the nudge.)

Posted on July 15, 2010

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Before and After

This entry was posted in Holidays, Life on by .

Grief is like a fish bone stuck in the back of your throat. You feel it–uncomfortable, scraping–all the time, and wish it could be plucked out.

When I was a kid, after I took a bath my mom would wrap me in a towel and muss my hair quickly to dry it, creating a birds nest of damp hair. I always hated it. But then, when I was taking care of my mother in her final months, after she bathed I would wrap her in a towel, and think of how I wished I could muss her hair. She had no hair at the time, so I would hug her through the towel, annoyed that hugging my dying mother somehow felt cheesy. (The great crime of irony is that it has robbed us of the ability to genuinely feel anything without a tinge of self-loathing.)

For the first year after my mom died the memories that came back most frequently were of bathing her, or otherwise taking care of her. This was horrifying, but unavoidable. They were both the most recent memories, and the most jarring, so it made sense that they recapitulated so often, even if I never really got used to it. It seemed such an insult to her life–she spent more than fifty years constantly doing things and just a few months deteriorating, but it was the memories of deterioration that tugged at me most often as I went about my days.

Suddenly, in the past few months, the memories of deterioration have lifted and I can remember more of the other things, of the hazy happy past. Whenever I used to dream about her it would be of her dying again (and again and again in a thousand freshly horrifying ways) but recently I’ve dreamt of her when she was healthy. In one dream she snored loudly, and laughed when I made fun of her. In another, she told me she didn’t approve of the men I’m dating, but invited them to the house for a barbecue. Last night I dreamt I was looking over a text from this week’s parashah, and she was helping me brainstorm ideas for an essay.

But the thing about grief is that it isn’t a slope, it’s a jagged mountain range. If things are getting better now, one can assume they will dip precipitously as the second anniversary of her death approaches.

Judaism, I think, has a profound understanding of grief, and so even happy occasions like weddings are tinged with a reminder of tragedy. And a few times a year there are moments of intense public grieving as the community gathers to acknowledge a loss that occurred centuries before we were born. We can barely access the communal memory of life with a Temple. It feels foreign and strange to us, though we may read about it in ancient texts. But as we focus on the day of destruction we are forced to recognize that there was a time before the destruction, when there was not a veneer of tragedy over every Jewish experience.

To honor the loss is to remember the presence of love before it was gone. That is also the challenge.

Posted on July 14, 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