This Holiday season MyJewishLearning is offering two live, interactive, online classes designed to help you prepare for Thanksgiving.
Global Day of Jewish Learning
Is There A Recipe for Prayer: A Lesson in Picking the Perfect Words
Taught by Devorah Levine Katz
In our class, we will explore both standard and spontaneous prayers and take part in an ancient discussion on the values of both. Using sources from the traditional Siddur (prayer book), Mishna and Talmud we will journey into the world of prayer searching for the perfect recipe for the perfect prayer.
Sunday November 18th 8:30-9:30PM Eastern Time, Free! (Registration Required)
Preparing for Thanksgiving
What’s the Jewish Way to Celebrate Thanksgiving?
The roots of the American Thanksgiving holiday go back to 1623, but the values of gratitude and offering thanks have been a part of Jewish life for thousands of years. Judaism’s classical texts, from the words of the Psalmist to stories of modern masters of Musar (Jewish ethical piety), offer insights into Jewish approaches to what Jews call hakarat ha-tov, “recognition of the good”?good deeds done for us and good things given to us.
Together we will study some of these texts, and discuss the overlapping American and Jewish values of gratitude, joy, and relief that we experience during this Thanksgiving season.
Monday November 19th 8:30-9:30PM Eastern Time, Free! (Registration Required)
After registering, you will receive an email with a link to the class page.
We look forward to learning with you!
Tonight, OWN, the Oprah Winfrey Network, is airing the second part in its “Hasidic Jews of Brooklyn” special. Oprah visits Crown Heights, and after last night’s episode where she toured a Chabad family’s home, tonight she sits down with a quartet of Hasidic women for an in-depth interview about sex, children, spirituality, and good wigs.
Over at Tablet Rachel Shukert has a great commentary on the episode that aired last night (though she didn’t mention my favorite moment: when Oprah noticeably stopped listening to her hostess because she was distracted by the hostess’s wig). But Shukert’s view is that in tonight’s episode, Oprah is able to get over herself enough to deliver a powerful and meaningful interview. And to a degree it’s true—tonight’s episode is much better than last night’s, and has quite a bit more substance to it. But what the episodes really reveal is how intoxicating Hasidic life and culture can be to an outsider, but also how ill-prepared it is for any deviations from the norm.
Oprah’s questions are understandably pitched in ways that won’t ruffle too many feathers. “Are women valued in [Hasidic] relationships?” she asked last night. I can’t imagine she expected the couple she was talking to say, “No, but we make excellent apologetics.” And tonight, after getting the lowdown on the mikvah, and Hasidic sex rules, she starts trying to push a bit more, albeit rather gently. She asks the women what happens if a woman doesn’t want to get married and have a family. The hostess has a (presumably now-mortified) niece who is 22 and somehow not looking to get married. The other women think this is odd, and one says, “I personally don’t even know people who don’t have that as their dream.”
The major bombshell happens when Oprah asks, “What happens when one of your children is different…and by different I mean GAY.” (She speaks in all caps, I’m not making that up.) The women are initially speechless, and eventually settle on repeating, “What you’re saying is very extreme.” They can go so far as saying that there’s a strong connection between a mother and her children, but there’s no discussion of how that would manifest itself if one of your kids is GAY.
And noticeably, Oprah doesn’t ask what happens when a kid grows up and doesn’t want to be Hasidic anymore. Perhaps Oprah, like a newbie at Ohr Somayach, can’t imagine ever wanting to leave such a magical world. It’s a conspicuous absence, though, when a much-hyped new memoir comes out on Tuesday, telling the story of a woman who chose to leave the Satmar community. Surely Oprah, who spends so much time in shock that none of these women know who she is, can understand how someone might want to live in a home with a TV and a regularly scheduled date with the Oprah Show.
Oprah’s chat with Hasidic women is compelling, it’s good TV, but while it does give a glimpse into Hasidic life for the viewers, it stops short of asking questions that would force the women to take even a short glimpse out of their world in Brooklyn.
It’s the end of the year and a lot of us are thinking about money—how much we can afford to spend on gifts, vacations, and charitable donations during this holiday season. Many Jewish homes have a tzedakah box in them, a little box with a slot on top for depositing coins and bills that will eventually be given to tzedakah.
Today, this seems like such an old fashioned way of doing things. I do have a bag of change on my dresser that I give to tzedakah once or twice a year, but honestly, I don’t have a tzedakah box per se. Anyway, most of the charitable donations I make are done via credit card and don’t involve any physical money at all.
So if tzedakah today doesn’t look like a tzedakah box, what does it look like? The American Jewish World Service just launched a new blog that talks about how and where and why people decide to give money to tzedakah. They’re also launching an amazing design competition, focused on philanthropy and social change. Where Do You Give? challenges artists to create a 21st century icon inspired by the values and imagery of the traditional Jewish tzedakah box. The organization is encouraging designers to consider the tzedakah box in the context of an increasingly interconnected, global and technologically accelerated world. The grand prize winner will receive $2,500 and a trip to visit AJWS’s partners in the Americas, Africa or Asia. Pretty sweet.
This is an awesome way to combine your love of design with you love of giving and doing good. To learn more about the competition, visit: www.wheredoyougive.org.
Last week was the first week of early Shabbat. Once the clocks go back, Shabbat jumps back an hour, too. So candlelighting in my zipcode today is at the somewhat startling time of 4:18pm. How to get everything done in time? (Seriously, I don’t know.) On these short Friday I wake up and it’s like a clock is counting down the time before sunset, urging me to get everything done as quickly as possible.
I love the rhythm that Shabbat gives the week, and I even kind of love when Shabbat comes in early, despite the stress that comes with it. This means that at least in theory, my dinner will be cooked and ready today at 4:30pm. My guests aren’t coming til 7:30, so that leaves plenty of time for rest and relaxation before the meal even begins. Yay!
Anyway, this cool video I spotted today has a gorgeous demonstration of the varied sunrises and sunsets over the course of the year. It’s a time-lapse video, instead of looping through 365 days in one video, each day gets its own little movie in a grid. Gorgeous, and weirdly moving.
We are living in a moment of Jewish historic significance, one which embodies the blessing: “Thank you God for helping us arrive at this day.” This Simchat Torah, we express joy not only as we complete the reading of the Torah, but as we come to the end of a five year struggle to achieve the freedom of one Israeli soldier: Gilad Shalit. I will now put away his dog tags that have been near my Shabbat candles, helping me think of him when bringing extra light into my own home. I wonder at how he has changed these past years and how excruciating it must be to leave one painful world and enter another realm entirely, one full of heroic expectations.
Throughout the difficult moral debates of the past weeks, the Jewish unity that people expected has broken down into understandable fractiousness. I have gone back in my mind to one of the most well-known statements in the Mishna: “If a person saves a single human being, Scripture considers it as if he saved the world” (BT Sanhedrin 4:5). We hear this used in all kinds of metaphoric contexts, but now the situation is real and the question is painful. Should we do anything to save one human life? As we read the long list of prisoner names who have and who will be released, we cannot ignore the heinous crimes of most and the fear we have that years in Israeli prisons has only toughened their determination to return to terror. Will kidnapping soldiers become the ticket to prisoner freedom in the future?
There is another Talmudic principle that comes to mind: “If confronted with a certainty and a doubt, the certainty is preferable.” We do not know how to answer the above questions. They are all part of a future landscape we can only imagine but one which has not been actualized. We know for certain now that this lone Israeli soldier is alive and can be freed and so, in our Jewish tradition of redeeming captives as the most important collective commandment we can perform, we will go with that certainty and forgo the doubt for now.
But these decisions are political ones, not Talmudic ones. They were made under great national pressure but also with the overwhelming support of the Knesset and Israel’s security services. They were made when a small window of opportunity opened in a Middle East collapsing with anarchy. And if Gilad were allowed to languish in captivity to prevent this kind of leveraging, would any parent of sound mind be prepared to send a child into an army that is not committed to returning their children, whenever possible, home safely?
I have found my response in a muted, complex happiness and in a prayer found on a piece of wrapping paper in the Ravensbruck concentration camp:
O Lord, remember not only the men and women of goodwill but also those of ill will. But do not remember the suffering they have inflicted upon us; remember the fruits we brought thanks to this suffering: our comradeship, out loyalty, our humility, the courage, the generosity, the greatness of heart which has grown out of this; and when they come to judgment, let all the fruits that we have borne be their forgiveness.
I will think of the thousands of kindnesses that have led to this moment in time, the fruits we have brought to the altar of suffering, the fruits that sometimes can only come from suffering. I will pray that those who are freed will use their freedom responsibly and that we can create a universe where God will redeem suffering because we do.
In the past 54 years, Israel has exchanged 13,509 prisoners for 16 soldiers. Gilad is not the first, and he probably won’t be the last. And if this is the craziest thing we do as a people to show what the value of one life means to the rest of the world, so be it. We are crazy about survival – the survival of each and every one of our people. And we’ve survived longer than most because of this almost fanatical – meshugena - commitment to what life means. And to an enemy that blows up its own and calls them martyrs we say loudly, “Not us. To us, every single life is a treasure.” It doesn’t get more Jewish than this.
The word gemach is an acronym for the Jewish term gemilut hasadim (acts of lovingkindness). A gemach is a Jewish recycling agency of sorts, a repository of useful items that people may borrow and then return. Here’s a collection of different gemachs we found around the world, and the best places on the Internet to go looking for a gemach. For more about the idea, check out our article.
A directory of gemachs related to Jewish weddings, both for participants and attendees.
International Association of Hebrew Free Loans
One of the oldest gemachs in the world, based on the principle that a Jew is not allowed to charge another Jew interest on a loan.
Encouraging good health practices and environmental awareness among Hasidim. No idea why it’s men-only, but still fascinating.
An organization of volunteers — and volunteered goods — for disabled children in Israel.
Newborns and children are a huge part of gemachs — since babies outgrow their clothes so frequently, and people are always needing more.
Search for Gemachim
A searchable map of every gemach in the world.
When I was first coming out 25 years ago, there were precious few books about being gay and Jewish. Thankfully, that’s not the case today. There are enough to fill whole bookcases. But will anyone who isn’t gay read them?
Conventional wisdom in the publishing industry says that non-gay people won’t read books with gay themes – with the notable exception of works by humorists, such as David Sedaris or Augusten Burroughs, who play their lives for laughs. Straight people can’t relate seriously to gay life, the thinking goes; they don’t know from such things, and they don’t want to know.
Even if there’s a kernel of truth in that notion – and I fear, sadly, that there often is – straight Jewish readers in particular should be able to bridge this culture gap by choosing Jewish gay books: While some of the gay content might be unfamiliar, at least the Jewish content will provide a point of identification.
Where to start? Well, my own book, of course. (Here comes the plug.) Sweet Like Sugar includes characters representing a diverse array of Jewish practice, from secular to Orthodox, engaged to alienated. It’s a story of a young man named Benji Steiner, who’s rejected the Jewish traditions he grew up observing, searching for a place where he can still connect to his community. But it also follows Benji on his search for Mr. Right. If you’ve never read a book with gay characters and themes, I hope this’ll be your first.
But I also hope it won’t be your last. There are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of books on gay Jewish subjects. At the risk of leaving out many books and authors whose work is worth your time, here’s a brief list of GLBT books that non-gay Jewish readers will relate to. This list isn’t comprehensive, or representative of anything more than my own bookshelf, so feel free to add your own favorites.
Start with an anthology – it’ll give you a broad survey of what’s out there, and turn you on to authors whose work you’ll want to read more deeply. Nice Jewish Girls, a lesbian anthology edited by Evelyn Torton Beck, was the first of its kind, published in 1982. Twice Blessed, edited by Christie Balka and Andy Rose, came out a decade later, and includes dozens of personal and topical essays on everything from community to spirituality. Queer Jews, edited by David Shneer and Caryn Aviv, came out several years after Twice Blessed, and shows the continued evolution of thinking around GLBT issues for Jews. These three together provide a great historical background, as well as an introduction to some of the most important thinkers on these subjects.
Once you’ve got that foundation, check out a few more recent collections.Mentsh: On Being Jewish and Queer, edited by Angela Brown, features essays by some of the biggest GLBT literary names around. Found Tribe, edited by Lawrence Schimel, collects coming out stories from Jewish authors. AndBalancing on the Mechitza, edited by Noach Dzmura, is the first Jewish anthology to focus specifically on transgender issues.
If you’ve got a particular area of Jewish interest, there’s probably a gay-themed book that’s right for you. If enjoy reading about Israel, check out Between Sodom and Eden, by Lee Walzer, about the (mostly positive) situation for gay Israelis. If you’re drawn to Holocaust tales, read Gad Beck’s An Underground Life, the true (and truly amazing) story of a gay Jew who survived the Holocaust in hiding in Berlin. If you’re invested in cultural politics, Jay Michaelson’s persuasive God vs. Gay?: The Religious Case for Equality comes out this fall. Prefer books about spirituality? The Choosing, by Andrea Myers, recounts the unusual personal journey that led her from a Lutheran upbringing to an adult life as an ordained rabbi – and out lesbian. If memoirs are your thing, here are three to start with: Lillian Faderman’s Naked in the Promised Land, Stanley Ely’s In Jewish Texas, and Lawrence Mass’s Confessions of a Jewish Wagnerite.
Lots of us prefer reading fiction. Sweet Like Sugar isn’t the only novel about gay and Jewish subjects. Two of my favorites are The Same Embrace by Michael Lowenthal (about twin brothers divided by religiosity and sexuality), and Faith for Beginners by Aaron Hamburger (about a mother and her gay son on a journey of surprising self-discovery in Israel). Other great family-focused novels include The Lost Language of Cranes by David Leavitt (set in New York City) and Light Fell by Evan Fallenberg (set in Israel). Sarah Schulman has written daring and complex books – fiction and nonfiction – for decades; start with her novel Rat Bohemia, which will make you look at “family” in a new way, and then work your way through her other titles. T Cooper’s Lipshitz Six, or Two Angry Blondes, is one of the more unusual novels in recent years, combining an old-fashioned Jewish immigrant story with a modern-day gender-bending tale of troubled youth. Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues blazed a trail for other transgender stories almost 20 years ago, and remains a classic. There’s much more. When in doubt, pick up almost anything (fiction, nonfiction, essays, mysteries) Lev Raphael ever wrote – beginning with his short story collections Dancing on Tisha B’Av and Secret Anniversaries of the Heart.
Now I’m going to throw in someone who usually doesn’t make this kind of list: David Feinberg. His books – two novels and one collection of essays – aren’t “about” being Jewish in the way that many of the titles above are. But his stories are steeped in Jewish identity and culture, and focus on Jewish characters; if you think Woody Allen makes Jewish movies, you’ll understand why Feinberg’s books are Jewish, too. Sardonic yet earnest, enraged yet hilarious, Feinberg was also one of the finest chroniclers of the AIDS epidemic, until his death at age 37 in 1994. (I think of him as a cross between Larry Kramer and Paul Rudnick – a front-line activist, but always on the lookout for something to laugh about.) Follow his neurotic Jewish protagonist B.J. Rosenthal through Eighty-Sixed, Feinberg’s dazzling debut novel, which contrasts gay life in New York before the epidemic to a time when gay men started dying in droves. Follow B.J. again in the sequel Spontaneous Combustion, in which he continues his search for love and sex in what has become an unrecognizable war zone. Or pick up Queer and Loathing, Feinberg’s biting collection of nonfiction essays, published weeks after his death, to get a sense of just how horrible things became – yet how humor, coupled with resolve and anger, helped so many people endure and even resist for as long as they could. That’s something every Jew should be able to understand.
Wayne Hoffman is the author of Sweet Like Sugar and Hard, and the editor of What We Brought Back: Jewish Life After Birthright- Reflections by Alumni of Taglit-Birthright Israel Trips. He is currently touring as a part of the Jewish Book NETWORK. For more information on booking Wayne, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Here at MJL headquarters we spend a lot of time trying to make our articles nice loking. We got a nifty redesign a couple of years ago, we like to divide out articles with helpful subheads, provide lots of links, and most importantly—pictures!
But see, getting Jewish stock photos is kind of a major pain in the tuchis. Put anything remotely Jewish into a stock photo search engine and you’re likely to get a handful of pictures of the following:
apples and honey as seen on your grandma’s table
These pictures are boring. They are also annoying in that they tend to include almost exclusively men. They feel (and are) painfully staged. And they perpetuate the annoying point of view that it’s only Orthodox Jews that do Jewish rituals, when in fact I know lots and lots of people who regularly do Jewish rituals but don’t look like haredim.
We’d like to feature way more pictures of non-stock photo Jews. Which is to say, we’d like to feature you and your family here on MyJewishLearning. Because we know that real Jewish families are more interesting and fun to look at than the kind on stock photo services. And because we like real people—real people like you!
So we’re having a contest. We’ve opened a flickr group for Your Best High Holiday Pictures. Upload your pictures to the group. Anything you or your family does to prepare or celebrate the High Holidays, take a picture and send it along to us. We’ll pick the best entry, and he or she will receive a $50 Amazon.com giftcard, and the picture will be featured prominently on MyJewishLearning.com. Do you go apple picking? Make your own New Years cards? Make an amazing brisket? Do kaparot as a family? Whatever it is, upload the photo and you could win. Don’t feel limited to things you’re doing this year—we’ll accept any pictures from any year, and you’re welcome to submit as many pictures as you like. (By submitting your picture to our flickr group you’re allowing us to use your picture on MJL even if you don’t win the contest.)
So what are you waiting for? Head on over to our flickr page and start uploading to win now! Contest ends on Sunday September 25th at Midnight. We will announce a winner on Monday September 26th.
PS—If you’re looking for more stock-photo-induced hilarity, head on over to our very own Molly’s Sh*t I Found On Shutterstock Tumblr.
Update: We have announced a winner! Check out the blog post to see who won!