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.
Earlier this week, the AVI CHAI Foundation together with the Steinhardt Foundation posed a question to the Jewish community: What would make day schools more attractive to non-Orthodox parents? This has been a key topic in the Jewish world of late, as seen with articles like this one in Sh’ma from MyJewishLearning contributers Rabbi Jill Jacobs and Rabbi Susan P. Fendrick. As part of this dialogue, the following post from Amy Meltzer explores why she has made the choice to send her kids to Jewish day school.
A few years ago I began writing a Jewish parenting blog called Homeshuling. The blog title is a play on the word “homeschooling” Just as some families choose to educate their children at home because the local schools don’t meet their needs, we choose to celebrate Judaism (mostly) at home because the local synagogues don’t meet our family’s needs.
I’ve written about the many ways we’ve created a rich Jewish home life: baking challah for our Shabbat table each week, painting murals on the walls of our sukkah, preparing handmade Purim baskets and filling them with my great-grandmother’s famous hamantaschen, and even hosting a backyard Lag B’Omer campfire complete with bows, arrows and kosher marshmallows.
But the dirty little secret of our success as homeshulers is that although we don’t step foot in our local shul that often (and before you start hurling stones comments at me, yes, we are members, and yes, I’ve served on several committees to try to improve our offerings for young families), another Jewish institution is at the heart of our family’s Jewish life. We are a Jewish day school family.
Ours is hardly the typical profile for a day school family. First and foremost, my husband is an atheist who was raised Catholic. Second of all, we live across the street–literally a stone’s throw–from an excellent public elementary school. Third, as two teacher-parents, one of whom left the workforce for five years to be home with our young children, well, let’s just say we are the 99%. Paying tuition does not come easily to us.
And yet, the choice to send our daughters to the Lander-Grinspoon Academy was an easy one. If we weren’t going to make the synagogue the center of our Jewish life (and as an intermarried family with young children, that would have been a tough sell–the services are mostly in Hebrew, they’re long, and admittedly, I don’t like shul enough to make a convincing sales pitch week after week), then how would we and our children become part of a Jewish community?
Our Jewish day school is so much more than the place our kids go to school. It’s where we’ve found our Jewish community. It’s where we’ve met the families who sit at our Shabbat table and eat our challah, who’ve added their artwork to our sukkah mural, who exchange Purim baskets with us, and who’ve added wood to the fires at our Lag B’Omer picnics. We come together for simchas–when our children receive their first siddur and when they read Torah for the first time–and holiday celebrations–the annual Hanukkah play, the superb Purim shpeil. We celebrate each other’s life cycle events, and mobilize as an army of cooks, cleaners, babysitters, and nit-combers when one of us falls ill.
Jewish day school has also put us on Jewish time. When the school is closed for every single Yom Tov–holidays many of us would probably not observe (um, Shemini Atzeret is what…?)–we come together for our own versions of holiday celebrations: picnics at the park, leisurely play dates, and yes, even sometimes shul.
Many people think Jewish day school is only for Orthodox or very observant families. From my perspective, it’s precisely because my family is decidedly non-Orthodox that a Jewish day school is such a great fit. My level of faith and observance is simply not strong enough to create a Jewish life for my kids that feels organic and seamless. School does that hard job for me.
When Zoe wanders though the house singing Adon Olam and Od Yavo Shalom; when Ella writes her very first book in writing workshop about loving Passover; when my children casually switch to Hebrew at the dinner table; when my kids urge me to give tzedakah to every panhandler on Main Street: these are the moments when our day school tuition dollars (reduced by a generous financial aid packet) aren’t just painless; they are a pleasure.
I’m not suggesting that Jewish day school is right for every non-Orthodox-intermarried-shul-disdaining-middle-income-fan-of-public-schools family. Not every Jewish day school is as welcoming to non-traditional families as ours, and not every day school is as flat-out wonderful (check out our video for just a hint of why we love it so much). But I am certain that it’s been the right choice for us.
Amy Meltzer is an educator, author and mother of two. She blogs at Homeshuling, where she writes about raising Jewish children while spending very little time in synagogue. She is the author of two children’s books, A Mezuzah on the Door and The Shabbat Princess.
Today is Tu Bishvat, the birthday of the trees. There are many ways to celebrate—you can plant a tree if you live in a temperate climate, you can hold a Tu Bishvat seder, you can do some awesome Tu Bishvat crafts with your kids, and of course, you can eat some delicious Tu Bishvat foods (I recommend this amazing banana cake studded with dates, figs, nuts, raisins, and chocolate).
Looking for some Tu Bishvat reading? Try these articles on Theodore Herzl’s tree, kabbalists, mystics and Tu Bishvat, a lesson in abundance, eco-judaism, or Tu Bishvat and the Transformation of Eating.
Just want to sit back and veg out to a Tu Bishvat video? Todd, God, and Al Gore have got you covered:
Tuesday night is Tu Bishvat, the New Year of the Trees. To celebrate it, our great friend and supporter Edgar Bronfman wrote about road-tripping with his brother Charles. Just the idea of the two of them on a let’s-discover-America campaign is brilliant and otherworldly, like an Easy Rider of Robin Hood-type do-gooders instead of druggies, but his essay makes some great points for American conservation — and for insisting that conservation is both (a) spiritual and (b) have some pretty strong roots in the Jewish religious tradition.
In all seriousness, it’s a great story with a great message. Check it out in the Washington Post‘s “On Faith” blog — and, while you’re there, check out my post for their blog as well, if you want to) :
When I was about to turn 21, and my brother Charles was 19, we took a road trip across the United States. As young Canadians, we were eager for an adventure through the American West. We experienced the stunning vistas of Utah, the Grand Canyon in Arizona, and the great redwoods of Yosemite National Park in California. It was a formative experience for me, and solidified my love of this country which I have called home for nearly my entire adult life.
It’s no coincidence that my love of America blossomed as I witnessed its natural wonders and vast open spaces. There is a deep beauty to be enjoyed in the magnificence of nature which leaves us humbled, and aware of how all life is interconnected. There is nothing more authentically spiritual for me than witnessing nature in its glory and power—when it is beautiful, and even when we are imperiled by it.
For someone whose life is writing on the Internet, Patrick Aleph still has a lot of secrets.
Aside from running the alterna-Torah site PunkTorah, the “online minyan” OneShul, the collection The G-d Project, and a bunch of other sites, Aleph is an astoundingly prolific blogger and YouTube video-maker. As a convert, his perspective on Judaism — and on Jews — is that of both an insider and outsider, and his observations on Jewish life and belief are often reflective of that. The things he loves, he loves. And the things he finds disquieting or hard to swallow — well, he doesn’t have any hesitation about making note of that, either.
If you’ve never encountered Aleph before, or if there’s too much of his stuff out in the universe for you to know where to start, here’s a great place. He’s just released — for free — an e-book collection of his writings, titled, appropriately, PunkTorah, named after both his punk do-it-yourself principles and his website. The two dozen or so essays touch on everything from the actual nuts-and-bolts of Jewish practice to the more aesthetic and eschatological wtf-nesses of belief (how weird is it that we believe in an intangible, invisible G-d who doesn’t actively interact with humanity, anyway?). And he really isn’t afraid to break boundaries or mess around with tradition: In one piece, Patrick talks about working with queer Jews, self-proclaimed Jews who’ve neither traditionally converted nor been born into the religion. And the next piece is titled “Everything I Needed To Know I Learned From Chabad.”
Actually, his essays are almost all amazingly-titled. OK, let me just give you my five favorites:
* Indie Rock Is My Shacharit Siddur
* Walgreens and Tempeh Reubens Brought Me Closer To God
* Star Wars and Andy Warhol: PunkTorah’s Non-Jewish Influences
* Diary of An Angry Convert
Full disclosure: Patrick cites me in a few of the essays. But I didn’t remember that until after I was almost finished writing this, and I still think it’s a pretty damn great book. And it’s free, so you aren’t wasting any money — or any trees, for that matter.
Hanukkah started last night, and one candlelighting, one family Hanukkah party, and one early-morning Hallel later, I’m channeling the spirit strong. And actually enjoying the Hanukkah music, which is weird. Didn’t Jewish music used to be incredibly cheesy?
Instead of looking at Jewish music videos as a competition — which one will score more hits, the new Jon Stewart video or our own beloved Mayim’s beloved Maccabeats — I’ve just decided to look at the whole YouTube results page for “Hanukkah” as a playlist made for me by the entire universe. (And, of course, the plethora of free Hanukkah music would be like a stocking stuffer from the universe.) But here are some of our favorite late-arriving videos:
“8 Nights,” by Naomi Less and Glenn Grossman (and visual artist Andrea Ausztrics)
Danny Raphael’s clever, tricky comic-book (excuse us, “graphic novel”)-styled rendition of the Hanukkah story:
And, just to kick the old-school jam, here’s Bible Raps & MyJewishLearning’s collaboration, “Light Is In the Air”:
This Hanukkah enjoy the holiday with more than just latkes and dreidels. MyJewishLearning is hooking you up with a Hanukkah mad libs that you can play with your family. As with all mad libs, these work best when you go with the craziest words you can think of. Enjoy!
Same Name _________
Same building __________
Same liquid __________
A long time ago in ________ place, the Syrian emperor ________ Name came to power. ________ Same Name decreed that Jews could not celebrate _______holiday, learn ________noun, or _________verb their children. He also stormed into the _______building in Jerusalem, and placed ________noun inside. Jews were encouraged to worship _______ noun, and punished when they did not.
A man named ______name and his ________number sons started a revolt against ________ Name1. Though they were a small group of warriors, they were very strong, and many other Jews joined their fight. Armed only with ______ noun, and ________noun, and ______noun from the terrain, the Maccabees, as _______name2 sons, particularly Judah, came to be known, fought a guerilla war against the Syrian army.
In three years, the Maccabees cleared the way back to the ________same building, which they reclaimed. They cleaned the _______building and made a new altar to replace the old one. Most of the _______liquid they found had been tainted and was no longer pure enough to be used for the golden menorah that stood in the Temple. One small container of ________same liquid was found, with just enough to last for a single day of flames. Miraculously the oil burned for ________number days, during which the Maccabees _______verb and praised God for their victory.
Today we light a _________number-branched hanukkiyah to celebrate the miracle of Hanukkah. Some families give each other _______noun. We also eat foods fried in _______liquid, sing Hanukkah songs, and spin the dreidel, a game of luck that involves _____verb a top.
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.
If you’re getting ready for Hanukkah — lighting candles? doing seasonal meditation? throwing a party? — and you need the perfect soundtrack, please let me be the first to encourage you to check out our collection of free holiday mp3s!
That said, sometimes you just need some original music. Partly to combat all the Christmas songs that the radio’s playing, and partly just because this is a really awesome holiday that gets all the wrong kind of press. Here are a few:
This really sweet duet from The Wellspring is a Hanukkah song without actually being a Hanukkah song. It’s really cute, but it’s also thoughtful and clever, and its lyrics hug the boundary between “aw, cute winter song” and “oh! I know they’re secretly talking about Hanukkah.” (The track costs 99 cents to download…but, once you do, you can download their whole debut album for free, so it’s really a bargain. And cool.)
Our friends at G-dcast have another free mp3, the soundtrack to their Hanukkah episode, by the band DeLeon. First watch the movie. Then go and download it from G-dcast’s page (at the bottom, click the “mp3″ box).
And then there’s my band, Chibi Vision. Here’s our Hanukkah single:
And then Raymond Simonson, one of the geniuses behind Limmud UK, wrote this plea on his Facebook wall. (Warning to my editor: There is British spelling.)
Please please please, before you go and post any ‘hilarious’ Channukah parody video clips, watch this and ask yourself, ‘is the clip I’m about to post even close to being as funny and brilliant as this?” If the answer is “NO”* please do me a huge favour and don’t post it!
And this is the clip he posted:
Do you have any favorite Hanukkah songs? Anything we left out? Let us know!