Author Archives: Simcha Weinstein

I Hate Thanksgiving

This entry was posted in Beliefs, Holidays, Practices on by .

Guest blogger Simcha Weinstein is the rabbi of the Pratt Institute. His latest book, Shtick Shift: Jewish Humor in the 21st Century, was just released by Barricade Books. His website is www.rabbisimcha.com.

Maybe I’m just a “fundamentalist� rabbi who’s lost his sense of fun, but when it comes to giving thanks, I don’t “get� it.

thanksgiving dinner on a cupcakeWe don’t celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday in my native country of England, and can you blame us? Imagine gathering around plates of mushy peas to express your gratitude for another year of record rainfall.

Being new around here, I looked up the history of Thanksgiving and now I’m more confused than ever. Those Pilgrims and their native neighbors first gathered around the table in 1565, in the month of September. Now that makes sense: celebrating a harvest festival during harvest time. (That’s what they still do up in Canada, by the way; their Thanksgiving always falls on the second Monday in October. This year that was also the first night of Sukkot, so that must have made it extra special.)

But November? Did someone just figure we all needed a party between Halloween and Christmas & Hanukkah?

Don’t get me wrong: it’s not because Thanksgiving seems so “goyish,� thanks to all those indelible Norman Rockwell paintings. I think goyish is great; being a child of American culture, I’ve written extensively on its many virtues. a norman rockwell thanksgivingAnd let’s face it: American Jews have much to be thankful for. We enjoy security, civil rights and material success here in the U.S. that we only dreamed of in other nations throughout history.

But I find Christmas more, well, exciting. No, I don’t celebrate it, but my father owned a toy store, so the holiday holds special memories for me. (And this year, December 25 also happens to be my wife’s due date. Please: no manger jokes.)

These days, Thanksgiving marks the official start of the Christmas shopping season, and maybe that’s why it leaves me with mixed feelings. Given the current economic downturn, it seems bizarre to see people shivering in sleeping bags outside the nearest big box store, just to buy their kids latest plasma gadget for a few dollars off. That’s a scary combination of guilt and gelt. Especially since that cool, must-have, “state of the art� thingamajig will be obsolete right after New Years.

Furthermore, who the heck stuck Thanksgiving a mere 24 hours from Shabbat? That’s like having back-to-back Thanksgivings, and I should know. For the last few years, my family and I have celebrated the holiday with special guests: students at the Pratt Institute where I work. The two special days have many similarities, as my non-Jewish students have often pointed out.

Distinguished theologian Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote in his beautiful book, “The Sabbath,” that the very essence of the Jewish people is summed up in that prayerful weekly gathering. Shabbat truly is a day of thanksgiving, with its focus on faith, family and friends. The difference is, we gather around the table to prayer instead of around the TV set to watch football game after football game, or another “CSIâ€? marathon. Shabbat means no radio or telephone or internet, never mind no plasma doohickeys from WalMart.

Look, I’m no Grinch. My blessings on everyone tucking in to a delicious turkey this Thursday (as long as it’s kosher!)

But don’t forget, 24 hours later, to sit down with at least the same reverence for your bowl of matzo ball soup.

Posted on November 26, 2008

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

Only in America

This entry was posted in Beliefs, History on by .

Guest blogger Simcha Weinstein is the rabbi of the Pratt Institute. His latest book, Shtick Shift: Jewish Humor in the 21st Century, was just released by Barricade Books. His website is www.rabbisimcha.com.

shtick shift, by simcha weinsteinIf the polls are any indication, only an act of God can prevent Barack Obama from becoming the next President of the United States. Given Barack’s meteoric rise from obscurity to worldwide fame, it certainly looks like Somebody up there likes him.

There’s something very Jewish about this man’s rise from poverty and mediocrity to fame and fortune. Millions of Jews came to America with nothing and achieved the American dream. As Obama himself said during his star-making speech, only in America is his story possible. One of Obama’s, and America’s, heroes is Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., who famously reminded the world of how Moses led the Jews to the Promised Land. Today, that Promised Land is America, and millions dream that Obama will usher the nation into a new age of hope and change.

When George Bush was being sworn in back in 2000, hardly anyone knew Barack Obama’s name, let alone how to pronounce it. Yet after one stirring speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention, two bestselling autobiographies (written by the tender age of 47), and a short, undistinguished stint as a U.S. senator, he is now poised to take that oath of office himself.

As my overbearing bubbe often reminds me: with a bit of mazel, you can accomplish anything.

Speaking of bubbes, Obama is a big favorite among many Jewish voters, who have literally schlepped across the country, pushing his punim to the masses. Then again, a vocal minority believes the Democratic nominee to be some kind of Muslim “Manchurian Candidate� with secret anti-Israel leanings.

Personally, I don’t dig the notion of schmoozing — “without preconditions� —with Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. That said, I find Obama an inspirational candidate. Being an Englishman in New York, I’m not eligible to vote, but I would seriously consider casting my ballot for Obama if I could.

It’s one thing (out of many) which has made this election season especially frustrating — watching the fervor and frenzy of the campaigns, and having an opinion that I’m just as vocal about as anyone else — but knowing, in the end, that my vote won’t ultimately be counted, even though I live here now, is a vexing experience.

It’s worth noting that the date Obama delivered his now-famous convention speech was July 27. That coincided with Tisha B’Av, a day of remembrance and mourning -– and, according to the sages, the day the messiah will be born. In other words, it’s a day in which hope will arise out of a history of oppression. Given the history of African-Americans, that coincidence of dates carries the ring of poetic justice.

All it will take is a lot of votes. And a lot of mazel.

Posted on November 4, 2008

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

Daily Show Democrats and Larry-publicans

This entry was posted in Culture, History on by .

Guest blogger Simcha Weinstein is the rabbi of the Pratt Institute. His latest book, Shtick Shift: Jewish Humor in the 21st Century, was just released by Barricade Books. His website is www.rabbisimcha.com.

Democrats must be praying that “Cool Jewâ€? Jon Stewart doesn’t tempt Barak Obama in saying anything stupid tonight. Senator Obama will appear on the Daily Show via satellite, which will air just hours after the Democratic candidate appears on the major networks after having bought a half-hour time slot to pitch his candidacy.

shtick shift, by simcha weinsteinThis will be Obama’s fourth appearance on the Daily Show, but his first since last April.

On the other hand, if you want to hear what Republican candidate John McCain has to say, you can catch him tonight as he sits down with a less “Cool Jew� on Larry King Live.

The two interviewers could not be more emblematic of the two candidates themselves.

The current U.S. election has seen an unprecedented Shtick Shift whereby Jon Stewart and his cast of comedic connoisseurs have replaced the traditional news media as many voters’ main source of information about issues and candidates. As the Rabbi at New York’s prestigious art school, the Pratt Institute, I can assure you that, for better or worse, countless young people look to Jon Stewart’s program as their main, and sometimes only, source of news.

If the Daily Show comes across as written especially by and for hip, young, people with a penchant for irony and iconoclasm, that’s no accident. Jon Stewart acknowledged as much when he accepted his Emmy in 2005: “When I first said that I wanted us to put together a late-night comedy writing team that would only be 80 percent Ivy League-educated Jews, people thought I was crazy. They said you need 90, 95% . But we proved ‘em wrong.�

The program grapples with the inconsistencies and contradictions ignored by the mainstream media, and gives voice to our frustrations with traditional news. If you look past the Daily Show’s cynicism, you see a real attempt to introduce ideas into the nation’s political conversation.

Yet for all its cool-factor, Jon Stewart still belongs to that long tradition of Jewish political satirists that includes Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce. There is something very Jewish about grappling with the discrepancies of power, which is exactly what satire is all about. Jews have a history of wrestling with higher authorities. Ever since Jacob wrestled with the angel, battling earthly and heavenly powers has been at the core of Jewish identity.

Back in the “old country,� Jewish humor critiqued the shortcomings and absurdities of Russian rulers, first the Czar and then the Soviet government. As perennial “outsiders,� Jews possessed a unique perspective that made them natural-born comedians.

It’s a vicious circle. As real news gets more and more shallow, the Daily Show mocks that shallowness and earns great ratings, so real news desperately responds with – still more slick, superficial “reportage.� And so on. It’s a little like cereal passing itself off as nutritional while it adds sugary goodness, which in turn drives some people towards sports nutrition bars packed with expensive calories. Sometimes we just need some oatmeal.

Posted on October 29, 2008

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