Monthly Archives: September 2010

From Serious News to the Tabloids

This entry was posted in Israel on by .

Martin Fletcher’s newest book, Walking Israel: A Personal Search for the Soul of a Nation, will be available tomorrow. He will be blogging all week for the JBC/MJL Author Blog.

I left NBC News to write books. Which explains why I quickly found myself back on their doorstep, begging for work – paid work.

But I didn’t expect this. Here are a few of the stories I’ve reported on as a freelancer in NBC’s London bureau in the last few weeks: a shark attack in Australia, an internet blogger accused of rape in Sweden, a British woman who dumped a cat in the garbage bin, another British woman who urinated on a war memorial, a spy’s sexy photo shoot in Russia. The high point, literally, was going up in a hot air balloon with a glass floor which crashed on landing and came within three yards of being dragged into a river. All network stories.

It wasn’t the kind of writing I imagined when I resigned in December, but guess what? I love it: all the silliness, the bad puns, the tabloid humor. I found myself chuckling as I wrote about Bad British Babes and the cold war femme fatale who’s hot! And sighing at the mandatory lurid speculation when a British spy was found stuffed inside a sports bag in the bath.

The thing is, they’re good stories that people care about, and I began to think that maybe reporting on them wasn’t so different from writing books, or even from reporting serious news. After all, it’s all about telling stories about people in a way that other people will care about.

That’s really all I wanted to do with my new book Walking Israel. I wanted to get away from seeing Israel only through a single prism, that of the conflict with the Arabs, and see the country for what it really is: a fascinating place with fascinating people whose lives are so much more than just a people at war.

People were always phoning me and asking if it was safe to visit Israel. I would say yes, and then they’d call me after a week in Israel and say, wow, what a great place, I had no idea. And so I wanted to write a book about that great place about which so many people have no idea.

I walked along the coast, from Lebanon to Gaza, meeting Israelis of all kinds, Jews and Arabs, and followed up on their stories for a year. And although I’ve reported from Israel for close to thirty years, I’ve never enjoyed any research or writing as much as working on this book. And I hope that I have presented Israel in an entirely new light.

Martin Fletcher spent the last thirty years as NBC News Bureau Chief in Tel Aviv. His second book, Walking Israel: A Personal Search for the Soul of a Nation, will be available tomorrow.

Posted on September 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

You Must Be Happy

This entry was posted in Holidays on by .

In a few hours we begin Sukkot, known also as Zeman Simkhateinu, the time of our happiness. I love sukkot, but I’m troubled by the commandment, at this holiday, to be happy. Can we really be commanded to be happy? What if we just aren’t feeling it? What if we’re heartsick, or unemployed, or grieving, or embittered, or PMSing, or clinically depressed or otherwise disinclined to jump on the happy bandwagon?

As far as I can tell the sources have two responses to this:
1)    Snap out of it!
2)    Happiness is about making other people happy, not making yourself happy.

Rambam, in his commentary on the laws of Yom Tov, wrote, “He who locks the doors of his house, and eats and drinks with his children and wife but does not give food and drink to the poor and misfortunate, does not rejoice in fulfillment of the commandment but only to fill his belly.” (6:18)

I hate being told what to do. Hate it. And right at this exact moment I am not exactly exuding joyous energy. But my plan is this:
1) Fake it till I make it.
2) Try to make some other people happy, and mooch off of them.

Because that’s the law.

Posted on September 22, 2010

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Caffeine Any Way Possible

This entry was posted in Holidays on by .

I remember my old roommate once asked me, “If I could choose between being addicted to coffee and not being addicted to coffee, which one would I choose?”

Without batting an eye, I screamed, “Addicted to coffee!” Getting addicted to coffee was probably one of the best decisions I ever made in my life. Honestly. I love coffee. It’s wonderful. The only reason I get out of my bed in the morning is because I know I’ll be able to soon have my morning cup. In other words, what I’m saying is that if it weren’t for my addiction to coffee, I would have been fired from this job a long time ago.

But if need be, I can always go a day without it.

Yom Kippur is probably the slowest day of the year at Starbucks. Because along with the ban on eating, you aren’t allowed to drink anything on Yom Kippur either, including coffee.

My addiction to coffee really isn’t so bad. Some people really get depressed without coffee and others  get pretty bad headaches. Except for the first hour of grumpiness, I’m pretty good to go for the day.

But as I said, for others, going a day without coffee can seem like an impossible task. That can make an already hard day of fasting the worst day imaginable.

But fear not people! Next year, there is a solution! That is…if you’re willing to take a suppository. That’s right. There’s nothing in the halakhah that says you can’t insert caffeine into your body if it doesn’t go through your mouth (notice how I’m avoiding explaining how this exactly works. Look it up).

So umm…yeah…maybe this whole caffeine addiction thing needs to be re-looked at.

Posted on September 22, 2010

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Saturday Night Sukkah

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Just when you thought Yom Kippur was over — I mean, it is — Sukkot shows up and blows all your expectations out of the water. There’s a Hasidic custom that on the night Yom Kippur ends, after bellies are stuffed and children are put to bed, you get out your toolkit and wooden planks and palm fronds and you start building your sukkah.

So Saturday night, still in my Yom Kippur clothes (minus the white robe of a  kittel that I spent all the holiday in, which my 2-year-old still insisted was a “papa dress”), I descended into the murky spider-lined depths of our garage and started fishing out the fake-wood panels that our cousins in Crown Heights had bequeathed us — yes, the cousins with a zillion kids, the ones who also always have a gabillion guests over to every meal. They’re the sort of consummate entertainers who are so stunningly perfect that you’d totally hate them…except that every time you’re at their house, they make you feel so welcomed and loved and, well, stuffed with food. That’s the genealogy of our new sukkah.

And then Saturday morning, when my kids woke up and came into the kitchen for their cereal, something weird was taking up the whole of the view through the back windows.

If it doesn’t look 100% done to you, congratulate yourself, you sukkah expert! I finished the frame, but then my wife had a catering job and she had to move all the food (that’s food for 150, if you’re curious) through the 2-inch margin between the sukkah and the wall. So I deconstructed a little — I am an author, after all.

Sorry for the gratuitous tushy shot. But there you go. Now you can only mildly make fun of me for my nonmechanical construction abilities.

It still wasn’t fully done, though. We had to get schach — the natural wood/tree/foliage sort of thing that covers the sukkahmy friend Ethan (a harmless and inquisitive friend, who happens to be an amazing comic artist, who’s not Jewish, and has no clue about all these tabernacle things we’re building). For that, we had to go into the wilderness of Coney Island Avenue, the main street of Flatbush, where a 12-year-old boy selling lulavs and etrogs heard me asking someone for directions, and summarily wriggled in between my potential navigator and myself. “You need schach?” he said. “I got some schach for you.” He proceeded to give us an address — a corner of two streets, where, he promised, “this great guy” would be standing outside with bushels of schach.

Ethan, like any right-thinking person, was dubious. But, after all, this was our adventure. So we trekked across Flatbush, and there was a synagogue, and there was our man. And, long story short (the long story involved some very Do the Right Thing-type lines from our 12-year-old hustler, a fourth-story sukkah, and an ATM search) — we got our bamboo sheet.

And there you go. You have a new story, and I have a new sukkah. My older daughter’s been talking all week about how she’s going to sleep in the sukkah. I kind of don’t believe her, if only because she never actually sleeps.

And, just as a holiday special, I would be remiss if I didn’t show you my new favorite 3 minutes in the world. It’s the new Sukkot G-dcast, and it’s all about running away from stressful things into sukkahs. Which will be my life story, in about 6 more hours.

Posted on September 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

What is a Sukkah? A Video Presentation

This entry was posted in Holidays on by .

Have you ever tried to explain to someone what a sukkah is? As opposed to some Jewish rituals and concepts (no electricity on Shabbat, to name one), the sukkah’s description is always met with a mixture of “WHAT???!” and “WHAT?!?!?” (the second “WHAT” is the positive kind).

People, Jews and non-Jews alike, seem to be fascinated with the strange ritual of building and living in  a hut in your backyard for a week every fall. That’s why it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that so many people showed up this weekend to Union Square here in New York City to check out the Sukkah City design competition.

Because the sukkahs that were on display at Sukkah City were so darn cool, we thought it would be a great opportunity to shoot a neat little video for your viewing pleasure. And thanks to the amazing Liz Nord, that’s exactly what we did.

Even if you already know what a sukkah is, I assure you that this video is well worth your while.

Posted on September 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

A Day of Jewish Learning

This entry was posted in Texts on by .

Here at MyJewishLearning.com, we like to say that every day is a Jewish learning day. Then again, we’re nerds.

jewish learningRabbi Adin Steinsaltz, along with his Aleph Society, is putting together a day of global Jewish learning — in which, across the world, thousands of different people in hundreds of different communities will study Jewish texts — not just nerds.

The Aleph Society people, and its documentarians, are involving communities all over the world, in such disparate places as Israel, Russia, and Djerba. The event will coincide with Rabbi Steinsaltz finishing his massive, multi-decade (!!) translation and commentary of the Talmud, the first of its kind. But it’s also just a cool idea in general. It’s kind of like the world’s biggest game of Telephone or Whisper Down the Lane…except that, here, the same text is whispering in all our ears.

The Day of Jewish Learning is November 7, 2010. You can find an event near you, or just visit the website.

Posted on September 21, 2010

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Matisyahu Covers Played on Ukuleles

This entry was posted in Culture on by .

For some reason, if you search YouTube — I’m still not sure how I figured this out — you will find tons of videos of people covering different Matisyahu songs on ukulele.

This strange combination, of Hawaii’s most famous instrument and Hasidic Judaism’s most famous reggae singer, seems like the musical equivalent of putting sweet & sour sauce on knishes. Yet, similar to putting sweet & sour sauce on knishes, it works. (Don’t ask me how I figured out that one, either.) It isn’t even the same song — you can build a virtual Matisyahu discography with all the assorted covers of “Warrior,” “Jerusalem,” “King without a Crown,” and (of course) “One Day” that exist in Internetland.

Here, for no reason other than that we think they’re cool, are some of them.

One Day:

What I’m Fighting For:

“We Will Walk”:

Here’s Trevor Hall’s song “Unity.” The original featured Matisyahu:

Another version of “One Day” — you can’t hear much ukulele in this one, but there’s an entire public bus-ful of people (in Jerusalem) singing along.

And here’s one more version of “One Day,” but it’s performed by a 9-year-old, and she’s really good.

Posted on September 20, 2010

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On Sukkot, Stepping Outside Of Ourselves

This entry was posted in Holidays on by .

This commentary is provided by special arrangement with American Jewish World Service. To learn more, visit www.ajws.org.

After the soul-searching introspection and close setting of our Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur experiences in synagogue, the holiday of Sukkot provides the sharpest of contrasts. Rather than continue to focus on our innermost thoughts and deeds, we are commanded to get outside—outside of our selves, and outside of our homes, eating our meals under the stars.

This reminder for Jews to keep balance in their lives, to be in touch with nature as well as the prayer book, strikes me each year on my visit to the hardware store in preparation for the holiday. I smile on seeing bookish young Torah scholars inquiring about hammers, pliers and extension cords, part of the annual imperative—and opportunity—to forego the study hall for a week for the mitzvah of eating (and for some, sleeping) in the sukkah.

God commands us: “You shall live in booths seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in booths, in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt; I am the Lord.” (Leviticus 23:42–43) In this way we recall the wanderings of our ancestors in the desert for 40 years, between their exodus from Egypt and their entering the Promised Land of milk and honey. They had no permanent shelter during those four decades, but were protected by God’s presence in the form of a cloud by day and fire at night, with manna falling from the heavens each weekday to provide nourishment.

The ancient holiday of Sukkot is perfectly in sync with current cultural values, from its emphasis on agriculture, celebrating the harvest—symbolized by the unity of the four species in the lulav and etrog we hold during prayer—to the practical message of our reliance on and appreciation of nature as we sit in our sukkot, vulnerable to the elements.

The key component of the sukkah is the s’chach, or roof, which must be made from organic material, such as bamboo or cornhusks; no nails or metal are permitted. And the roof must be thick enough to provide mostly shade but be open enough to let some sunlight in during the day and to see the stars at night.

Just as the Passover seder provides an experiential drama of the exodus from Egypt—we taste the bitter herbs to remind us of the slavery our ancestors endured and drink four cups of wine to mark their liberation—the time spent in our sukkah on this festival relives the dependency on God the Israelites felt during their 40 years adrift in the desert.

In an age of rampant materialism, when our homes have the most up-to-date technological advances and we can control heat, light and all our needs with the push of a button or click on a computer, the holiday of Sukkot reminds us to stop and appreciate from whence our protection truly comes.

As Jews throughout the ages have learned, tragically, during centuries of wandering in the diaspora, no matter how grand their homes were, they were only as secure as the whim of surrounding governments and societies. Too often the winds of hatred prompted our grandparents and great-grandparents, and those who came before them, to flee for their lives—if they were fortunate enough to escape bloodshed fueled by anti-Semitism.

Today we have the good fortune to live in a country with more religious freedom than any diaspora community in history. But Sukkot reminds us to look beyond our four walls and consider those around the world coping with levels of insecurity we can barely fathom. How many millions live in poverty, are displaced by floods and earthquakes, or face daily repression from corrupt governments?

The blessings in our own lives inspire us to reach out beyond our own needs to attend to those of others, to recognize that our planet’s resources are a gift but not a guarantee, and that we must do all we can, in partnership with our Creator, to preserve, protect and enhance this world we share.

On Sukkot we step out of our comfort zone and into the sukkah, reconnecting with ancient traditions and establishing new commitments to sanctify this world and all who inhabit it.

In the coming days, as we sit outside in the cool autumn air, may the warmth of the sun and the nighttime glow of the stars inspire us to reach both heavenward and deep within our hearts to do God’s work on earth.

Chag sameach.

Posted on September 20, 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

Dershowitz Jokes

This entry was posted in Culture on by .

It’s been a while since we’ve talked about Old Jews Telling Jokes on this blog. But that site just keeps chugging along, with new joke after new joke. Plus, they’ve even expanded their empire into hats, aprons, mugs, DVDs and even a book.

The site did get me thinking though. None of these old Jews made up their jokes. Not that I have a problem with that. It just got me wondering, who made up all of these hack jokes that bubbies and zaydes (and your dad) tell? No one ever takes credit for them. It’s always, “Get this great joke that Bill told me at shul today. You’re gonna love it…” Where did Bill get the joke? He didn’t make it up either!

Old Jews Telling Jokes, God bless ‘em, has gotten a good amount of press since it came into existence. And with press comes celebrities. Now I use the term celebrity quite loosely, but when you get someone famous to be featured on your site, then you should be proud of it.

So when you’re looking out for old Jews, really you are looking for three people: Woody Allen, Joan Rivers and Alan Dershowitz. While the first two have yet to commit, Old Jews was able to snag a joke from Dershowitz.

Here it is:

Posted on September 20, 2010

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Set Report from Madonna’s New Movie

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Rabbi Elli Meyer, better known as the King of Broadway, is an actor (The Sopranos, Law & Order, New York, I Love You) and a Hasidic consultant for casting and production companies. He’s also a real honest-to-goodness Hasid. (And he’s the reason that I wound up guest-starring on The Good Wife last year.) He just IM’d me this photo — of an immaterial rabbi being directed by a Material Girl:

Here’s the story behind it, courtesy of Rabbi Elli himself.

I was asked by a casting company to help them find people to portray the Hasidic Jews of Williamsburg to submit for the upcoming feature film W.E, which–I learned–was being directed by Madonna.

She was involved in every aspect of the film, from choosing the 14 Hasidic BG [background actors, or extras] from the first submissions down to an inspection of ALL background on set the day of the shoot. Madonna was also right there on set with the actors, walking the path of the shoot and giving instruction to individuals in the scene–when to look at the main character and what reactions to have. It was quite an experience.

I must also compliment the Hasidim for their exemplary behavior on set since, for many of them, this was their first ever exposure to film making which can be long and tedious. All in all the day was definitely a Kiddush HaShem.

That last Hebrew part is particularly relevant — so many movies and TV shows, from A Stranger among Us to the heinous A Price above Rubies, have stereotyped Hasidim as anything from aliens to perverts. Saying that Ms. Ciccone’s film is a Kiddish HaShem is basically tantamount to saying she’s portraying them — well, us — with reality and respect. Kudos, Madge.

Posted on September 20, 2010

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

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