Author Archives: Meredith Kesner Lewis

About Meredith Kesner Lewis

Meredith Lewis is the Director of Operations at MyJewishLearning.com. Meredith holds an MA in Hebrew and Judaic studies and an MPA in non-profit finance from New York University. She also received a BS in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Meredith has served as an advisor for United Synagogue Youth in the Westchester and Rockland Counties area as well as an education consultant.

You Sound Like You Are From New York

This entry was posted in Culture on by .

One of my favorite college classes was Introduction to Linguistics. A particular class stands out in my mind. Our professor put up a picture of this object:

Bucket

People were then asked to find other people who called the object the same thing as them and sit together. Quickly a “bucket” group and a “pail” group emerged.

She put up a picture of a second object:

Faucet or Spigot?

“Spigot” people moved to one part of the room. “Faucet” to another. And “tap” to a different place.

After a few more examples, we have created a map of where people grew up, simply based on the words they used.  I ended up sitting with other Southerners. East Coasters were all together. And then there was the one British guy in our class, all alone in a corner.

Yesterday I had the chance to participate in a webinar led by Professors Sarah Bunin Benor and Steven M. Cohen about a survey they did on American Jewish Language and Identity. There were many fascinating observations, which can be found in the full summary. (You can still take the survey here.)

I was most interested in the question “Have people said you sound like you’re from New York?” Among people who didn’t grow up in New York, Jews (33%) were twice as likely as non-Jews (15%) to say yes. Among that who didn’t have a parent who grew up in New York, Jews were still more likely (25%) than non-Jews (11%).

I fall into that 33%. I grew up in Texas. My family is fifth generation on my father’s side. But my mother immigrated* to Texas from Queens when she was in high school. I always assumed that somehow I had inherited a bit of my mother’s accent.

But now I doubt that. As Benor pointed out studies have found that people link Jewishness with New York. And that when someone says “You sound like you’re from New York” they are actually hearing Hebrew & Yiddish words, certain constructions & pronunciations, or an aggressive speech style. Or in my translation, “You sound like a loud-mouth, obnoxious, bitch.”

I don’t think I sound like a New Yorker at all. To non-Jews I clearly sounded Jewish, but to my parents, my father in particular, I was way too Texan. My sister and I would say we’re “fixin’ ta” as in “We’re fixin’ ta go to the mall.” “We don’t fix things,” my dad would say (ironically, they’ve had a broken washing machine for 10 years). “We’re going to the mall.”

I wonder if telling someone “You sound like you’re from New York,” is really that different from telling someone “You look Jewish.” They are identifying stereotypes, perhaps rooted in some truth, that are often not true measure of identity.

_______

* After first publishing this blog, my mother emailed me to say I used the word immigrate incorrectly. True, immigration is to another country. I would argue that moving from New York to Texas is moving to a new country. 

Posted on November 19, 2009

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

Hanukkah – Still Accessible After All These Years

This entry was posted in Holidays on by .

Yesterday Matthue and I had the opportunity to study with the good folks at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies (at their New York office. Jerusalem is too far away for a lunch and learn). And as it’s Rosh Chodesh Kislev, our topic with Yaffa Epstein centered around Hanukkah.

We looked at the traditional Talmudic text that distinguishes between wicks and oil that may be used for Shabbat and Hanukkah (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 21b). What it boils down to is that one can use candles of a lesser quality for Hanukkah. There are many more candles to light on Hanukkah and the goal was not to prohibit anyone from participating by requiring the high quality oil that is essentially required for Shabbat.

While this makes sense in the context of ancient Jewish life (candles were a precious commodity), it also resonBlue box Hanukkah candlesates today. I’ve only bought Hanukkah candles once in my life. Every year growing up, those free blue-box-don’t burn-more-than-10-minutes candles from Hebrew school seemed to be just fine for Hanukkah. But Shabbat candles were beautiful pure white candles, which had to be purchased.

The most beautiful lesson we learned, though, comes from the Sefat Emet, who expands on this teaching. He says that the word nefesh (soul) stands for ner/petilah/shemen or “lamp/wick/oil.” And for those whose soul does not “rise up” and light the Shabbat candles, they can be “brought up on Hanukkah.”

He further explains that while the three pilgrimage festivals were given to the Jewish people by God, Hanukkah, along with Purim, “are special times that Israel merited by their own deeds…. Because these holidays were brought about by Israel’s own deeds, every Jewish soul can be restored through them. Every single Jew can find a way of belonging and attaching to them.”

Meaning that Hanukkah is a holiday–in a sense–by the people, of the people, and for the people. And it is surely true that Hanukkah is arguably the most accessible holiday. We only celebrate it once a year, we only celebrate it for about 10 minutes a day, and all we have to do is light some candles and maybe eat some delicious fried food. Who can’t commit to that?

The National Jewish Population Survey proves that this is true. According to their findings, Hanukkah is the most observed holiday with 72% of Jewish lighting candles, while only 28% light candles on Shabbat.

So while some people may dismiss Hanukkah as a “not important or significant” holiday for real Jewish observance, perhaps our tradition — and now our practices teach us quite the opposite.

Posted on November 18, 2009

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

It’s Like My Family’s Passover Pasta Fest

This entry was posted in Culture on by .

I love TV. Really love it. At the beginning of the fall television premiers, I may be balancing 40-50 shows. Thank goodness for DVR (all three of them in my house).

The only problem with watching so many shows is that I’m often a week or two behind some of my favorite ones.

But I knew when my sister texted me last night saying, “Are u watching Glee– u must blog about it on mjl!” it was time to catch up.

The scene she was talking about in particular was truly a beauty. (SPOILER ALERT) We find out that Noah ‘Puck’ Puckerman, is Jewish, during a not-so traditional family moment.

He flashes back to his family’s annual “Simchas Torah screening of Schindler’s List.” He says, “It makes my mom feel connected to her Jewish roots.” While offering Puck some sweet and sour pork, his mom begs “Why can’t you date a Jewish girl?”

Later that night Puck dreams that Rachel (who we learned was Jewish a few weeks ago) climbs into his window, wearing a massive Jewish star necklace. It’s not 24 hours later that the two are making out.

The relationship doesn’t last, but you’ll have to watch the entire episode to see manifestations of his Jewish guilt, impromptu kippah-wearing moments, and an ode to one of my favorite Jewish singers– Neil Diamond.

You can find the beginning of the Jewy Jewiness around 13 minutes in.

Posted on October 22, 2009

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

Shana Tova Woot!

This entry was posted in General, Holidays on by .

On this Erev Rosh Hashanah, Woot is offering a fantastic pair of Maximo iM-490 iMetal Isolation Stereo Earphones. Headphones

Need to know more?

That Lucky, Lucky Shofar Happy New Year! There’s probably some phrase for that in Hebrew, which we don’t actually know. Bear with us, we’re in Texas.

Okay, we know we’re a little early, but come sundown, you’re not supposed to be using the computer, right? We think that’s how it works. And that’s why we’re wishing you a Happy 5770 a few hours early, with the help of these Maximo iM-490 iMetal Isolation Earphones.

To be fair, there’s a lot of your traditions we non-chosen types don’t feel that we completely understand. Like, is it true that if you used a whole bunch of two foot extension cords to make a border around a village, the whole place is technically considered one house? If that’s true, you could find these Maximo iM-490 iMetal Isolation Earphones to be extra helpful! Plus we’re thinking that the three sizes of eartips (which allow anyone a snug, comfortable fit) could mean that the Maximo iM-490 iMetal Isolation Earphones will make a great gift for all those people you have wronged in the past year. We’re just assuming everyone you wronged had an iPhone, you understand. We always feel like wronging those types of people too. Irritating smug jerkface iPhone owners, we’d like to give them a good kick right square in the… oh, but we were talking about your most important holiday.

So based on our ten minutes of research, we find it unfortunate that the Maximo iM-490 iMetal Isolation Earphones won’t be pomegranate colored, but you will get a lovely travel pouch which you can use after the holiday when you’re allowed to travel again. Maybe when you hit the ham and shrimp with cheeseburgers buffet down the street. What? Why are you all scowling now? What did we say? Jeez, some people. Oh, right, right, you guys don’t do “Jeez”. Our bad.

Anyway, when you’re out for the afternoon, throwing crumbs into your local river on our behalf, these Maximo iM-490 iMetal Isolation Earphones will make sure you can still be enjoying your Burt Bacharach, John Zorn and the Beastie Boys the entire time. And that will hopefully start off those next five thousand and seven hundred years just right.

So Happy New Year, one and all! We hope it’s fabulous! Leshana Tovah Tekatev Vitechatem! Also we just cut and pasted that bit so we have no idea what it really means. Maybe something about “Talk Like A Pirate Day”. Were there any Jewish pirates? Besides Jake Pitler?

(HT: My awesome sister!)

Posted on September 18, 2009

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

Living Actively

This entry was posted in Beliefs, Holidays on by .

Our partner, The Samuel Bronfman Foundation, regularly hosts Jewish study sessions on a variety of different topics.  Last week, they discussed “Coping with Adversity” taught by Rabbi Avi Weiss, the founder and president of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School. Below are reflections from Nerissa Clarke, the Senior Bronfman Fellow at The Samuel Bronfman Foundation.

Rabbi Weiss presented a text from Rabbi Soloveicheik, which states: “According to Judaism, man’s mission in his world is to turn fate into destiny- an existence that is passive and influenced, to an existence that is active and influential.”

Soloveicheik argues that while there are certain things in life we cannot control, namely our birth and our death, there are other things in life over which we do have an influence. The quote reminded me a picture I have hanging up in my small NYC apartment, which often gives me inspiration. The image shows a young girl joyfully painting a scenic view on the walls of her bedroom while purposefully disregarding the fact that the only view from her small window is of a brick wall. The caption reads “If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change the way you think about it.” According to Soloveicheik (and the art on my bedroom wall), the key to coping with adversity is to live as a subject in your story, wherein you actively pursue life, a rather than as an object, wherein you let life act upon you.

During the session, the group raised question, “So how exactly does one move from being a passive object to an active subject in one’s own life?” I believe the transformation occurs from the development of self-awareness. One cannot become the first-person in their life narrative if they are not aware that they exist as a distinct and unique entity. It is not enough, however, only to be self-aware. In order to take full control of one’s life, one must also understand where they fit into the broader landscape, and how they relate to the many other distinct actors who exist in the world.

On Rosh Hashanah, we are told that “repentance, prayer and charity cancel the evil decree.” To me, the connection between becoming an active subject in one’s own life and these three components of Rosh Hashanah is clear. Repentance involves inward reflective self-awareness; prayer requires the humbling upward realization that there is more to life than self; and charity necessitates outward interaction with other distinct beings in the world.

As we enter the season of Rosh Hashanah, may we each think not only of ourselves and how to take control of our own lives, but also of our interactions with others and our impact on the world. Through inward repentance, upward prayer and outward charity, may we all come one step closer to turning our fate into destiny.

Posted on September 16, 2009

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

Interview with Daniel Levin, author of The Last Ember

This entry was posted in Culture, History, Israel on by .

As part of my normal Sunday morning trip to Costco, I like to head over to the book table to see if they have anything good. This past week, sandwiched in between the latest Daniel Silva and James Patterson books, I found The Last Ember.The plot of Daniel Levin’s debut novel is similar to other historical-religious thrillers: There’s a secret lurking under Rome and Jerusalem. Ancient artifacts have more meaning than one could ever imagine. Finding a buried secret could change the nature of the world’s major religions. It’s a fast-paced book of mystery, murder, and a bit of romance in between.

But there’s something different about this book, and the way it connects the stories of the ancient and present-day worlds.

MyJewishLearning had the chance to talk with Levin recently about Author Daniel Levinhis motivations and theories.

Levin says he was inspired to write the book after clerking on a case for the Israeli Supreme Court. The case, which is also the main storyline in The Last Ember, centers on an alleged illegal excavation beneath the Temple Mount. Preservationists believe that such excavations seek to destroy records and artifacts of Judeo-Christian history in Jerusalem.

In his book, Levin contrasts these excavations with another attempt to change the history of the Holy Land—that of the Roman emperor Titus, who captured Jerusalem in the year 70.

“What we do know is that Titus was obsessed with controlling history,” Levin says. “No one was more expert at manipulating and controlling the past than Roman emperors. When we see statues in museums today of missing heads and other important appendages, it’s not erosion, but rather a systemic campaign of erasing people whose ideas or existence was inconvenient to Roman emperors. As a former classics student, I was taken at the similarities of historical revision of today and in the ancient world. Both are attempts to rewrite the past to fit one politics and belief.”

As the plot thickens, Levin introduces an intriguing academic argument that starts to connect the pieces between the time of the Temple and today. He suggests that Flavius Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian and Roman apologist, was actually a spy for the Jews, while serving as Titus’ official historian.

“We know there was something funky in Titus’ palace,” says Levin. “We know that Berenice, who was a beautiful war prisoner from Jerusalem as well as and Josephus’s publisher, Epaphroditus, along with Josephus, were all either expelled or killed on the same day. All had a connection to Jerusalem. Anyone Josephus touched turned up dead. He disappears from the historical record with a silence that is deafening.”

So what was information was Josephus transmitting to the Jews? The Last Ember argues, though it’s hard to believe, that through clues left in his books as well as archeological evidence, Josephus was laying a map to find the most important artifact Titus supposedly took from Jerusalem–the Temple Menorah.

The Last Ember

“Why is there is a spy plot in Titus’ court at all?” Levin says. “The temple was destroyed and there was nothing left to save.” Or, the novel, asks was there?

In answering that question, the novel–which takes places in only 24 hours–takes the reader through thousands of years of Jewish history. The Last Ember is at the same time a fun, easy-to read thriller and a thoughtful critique of the intersection of politics and archeology. Though the plot lines may be far-fetched, the verisimilitude of the characters helps the reader trust and believe the author’s words. And, as in most thrillers, it’s a challenge to see if you can stay two steps ahead of the mystery.

But just as Levin warns, “In Jerusalem, remember that first impressions are deceiving.”

Posted on September 1, 2009

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

Jewels of Elul

This entry was posted in Holidays on by .

Once again Craig & Co. are producing inspiring words during the month of Elul, in their Jewels of Elul series.

This week Archbishop Desmond Tutu writes all about people being created “in the image of the forgiving God,” and Rep. Henry Waxman offers these words on humility:

For all politicians, an election is a referendum on their responsiveness to constituents, their awareness of the needs of the community, and their pledge to do a good job in the future. For many Jews, the month of Elul sometimes feels like a similar campaign season to get voted in for another year in the “Book of Life.”

The undertaking is intensive. We are instructed to ask forgiveness, prepare for fasting, admit our failings, and promise to be more righteous. By being pressed to accept our humility, we are given an opportunity to rediscover our humanity.

The essence of being humble is the ability to see ourselves as equals with those around us. As Rabbi Hillel taught, “Do not judge another until you are in the same position.” (Ethics of Our Fathers, 2:5)

Humble people can celebrate their successes without being intoxicated by power. They seek to influence events even though they cannot control the outcome. They work to uplift others in need, not exploit their vulnerabilities. They view checks and balances on their actions as a help, not a hindrance.

Humility is a demanding virtue for which to strive. But unlike in elections, the good news is that at the High Holidays, everyone can emerge as a winner.

Posted on August 27, 2009

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

#GiladShalit

This entry was posted in Israel on by .

My morning routine is about the same every weekday: Drag my lazy butt out of bed. Feed the dog. Get to the bus stop. Read Twitter.

This morning, after being saddened by the death of the esteemed Senator Ted Kennedy, I noticed that Gilad Shalit had made it to number 3 in the top Twitter trends. (You can always check them out at http://search.twitter.com/)twitter-logo

I had read a few places that there was a campaign to tweet today for Shalit’s 23rd birthday, to raise awareness about him. Redeeming Jewish captives (pidyon shvuyim) is an incredibly important mitzvah in Judaism, but Jews make up a such a small percentage of the population–world and social media. I really wasn’t expecting to see Shalit break the top ten, particulary on a day with other big news.

So while it’s laudable that the Jewish community can mobilize social media on a massive level for an important cause, I hope soon we won’t have to tweet to release Shalit.

Posted on August 26, 2009

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

Try It, You’ll Like It

This entry was posted in Culture on by .

My husband and I moved to Rockland County, the far suburbs of NYC, nearly two years ago. At first, it was terribly difficult to make friends or find things to do at night. Palisades Parkway

Most people move to our neck of the woods (literally, pictured is the road behind our neighborhood) to raise a family. The few restaurants in our town close around 8 pm.

So when my husband went to work meetings nearly every night, I found myself quite bored and rather lonely.

A member of the synagogue, who lives down the street, knew I was spending a lot of time at home and asked me if I wanted to come over one night. A group of her friends were getting together for an activity. “Try it, you’ll like it,” she said. “You can just watch if you want.”

Those words could be bad news on the streets of the Big Apple, but in the quiet suburbs of New City, NY, they were pretty much harmless.  Or so I thought. The “drug” she was pushing was mah jongg, and soon after my addiction began.

All I knew about mah jongg before I began playing was that is was some kind of game that old Jewish women played. It turns out mah jongg, a tile betting game that I like to describe as “rummy on crack,” is a highly addictive, very social activity that generations of Jewish women saved from extinction.

Mah Jongg MezuzahDon’t believe me? Read my article about the history of the game (my first article for MyJewishLearning!) or check out nearly any Judaic catalog. Need a mah jongg menorah for Hanukkah? Or mah jongg mezuzah? We Jewish women love our mah jongg kitsch almost as much as the game itself.

Every Tuesday, my mah jongg group gets together to catch up on the week’s events, watch a little American Idol, and play rounds and rounds of the game. I look forward to mah jongg nights all week long and rearrange other events to make sure I don’t miss an evening.

While I do find playing to be great competitive outlet, the truth is that at the end of the night, I don’t care if I’ve won or lost. No matter how quarters or dimes make it back to my house, I’ve gained five wonderful friendships.

Posted on August 20, 2009

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

Jewish Genetic Diseases–An Equal Opportunity Issue

This entry was posted in Beliefs on by .

The Forward has released its annual guide to genetics, which features numerous articles about testing for and combating Jewish genetic diseases.

Traditionally Jewish genetic diseases are associated with Ashkenazic Jews, or at least that’s what much of the public thinks.

So I was pleasantly surprised when the first article I read began like this:

Randall Belinfante was a bit baffled.

When he and his wife went to take blood tests in preparation for starting a family in 2003, he discovered that the screening included a panel of tests for Ashkenazic Jewish genetic disorders. But Belinfante is Sephardic.Sephardic Jewish Genetic Diseases exist too

“We told them at the time that we were not Ashkenazi, but
they told us they don’t do testing for Sephardic diseases, just for Ashkenazi ones,” recalled Belinfante, who traces his ancestry to the Iberian Peninsula via the Balkans, Holland and England. “So they went ahead and did the Ashkenazi tests anyway.”

With a note of bemusement, Belinfante, who is the librarian and archivist at the New York-based American Sephardi Federation, added, “Surprisingly enough, they found we did not have any of the Ashkenazi Jewish diseases.”

There are other articles that address non-Ashkenazic genetic issues such as the first testing program in America for Persian Jews.
We here at MyJewishLearning will be the first to admit that we don’t cover Sephardic and non-Ashkenazic communities nearly enough. The truth is that we don’t know a lot about these issues and have found it difficult to find writers that are experts in this field.

But we know our weakness and are constantly working to make our site more inclusive –and we commend our fellow writers and editors who are also helping to paint a more accurate picture of the greater Jewish community

Posted on August 20, 2009

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