It seems like the whole world is afire with Jonathan Safran Foer’s new haggadah, which he’s been planning since at least 2007. Although it’s just one of several new haggadahs out this year (which Foer himself seems to footnote), it’s gotten massive play — including, among others, a blurb (and a snarky joke!) by President Obama.
Foer himself appeared last week at the UJA to talk about his newest project. Here’s a little snippet:
Paley: What is your favorite part of the Haggadah?
Foer: I guess my favorite parts tend to be the ones that are most problematic, you know, most fraught. The ten plagues are a good example. How do we with kids make sense of it, the notion that a kind of communal judgment is passed on an entire population? Obviously there were Egyptians who were not guilty and yet their kids were killed too after God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. It’s very problematic.
So we could turn away from it, pretend it isn’t there, or we could say, “Here’s what we have, this is this document that is more than 3,000 years old, what meaning can we find in it and how can we apply that meaning to our lives?” One of the things that’s so exciting about the Haggadah is that it’s not just a mental exercise, it is intended to guide our lives, to bring us closer to that metaphorical Jerusalem of next year.
The Haggadah is nothing if not an aspirational book, and an optimistic book, a book that envisions something better, and questions what’s wrong with the present and how we can urge this moment toward a better moment. And that is the most dignified adventure that a human can go on, you know, wanting to participate in the repair of the world.
Calling all smart, talented, writerly, computer-savvy, and unemployed people! MyJewishLearning.com is on the hunt for an Editorial Assistant to join our team. Besides working with an awesome crew (seriously, we’re great, and we’ll get you donuts for your birthday), you’d be working in a lovely, casual Manhattan office and getting hands on with everything that goes into running a Jewish website, which is actually quite a lot.
Here’s the official job description:
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Qualified candidates should have an interest in working in web publishing and have a strong knowledge of Jewish life and traditions. We’re looking for someone who can manage multiple tasks at one time, has an eye for detail, and brings energy and creativity to his or her job. Previous experience writing, working with content management systems, and Photoshop are a plus.
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So, um, yeah. The coop last night. Utter craziness.
First, a recap from the The Daily Show:
|The Daily Show with Jon Stewart||Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c|
Last night, the Park Slope Food Coop had a special election, deciding whether to boycott all Israeli-made products. Because we are the Coop and are totally masturbatory overprocessing Brooklynites, it wasn’t actually a vote — it was a vote about whether or not we should have a vote.
Anyway. This international BDS movement (I keep wanting to say “BSDM movement,” and really meant to slip up accidentally-on-purpose on stage last night, but forgot to) has been trying to infiltrate the Co-op for the past few years. It always comes up, but last night was the real boiling point. Two thousand people packed into an auditorium. Supposedly it cost over $10,000. The election would’ve cost another $20,000. The entire assembly was people speaking for one or two minutes. It was a LOT of people.
What I Said
I’m a walker, and I’ve gotten into some of the best fights of my life at the Coop. We’re all different. We have nothing in common except for the fact that we like really good food. And that’s the way it should be. I’m a vegetarian. I totally think the Coop shouldn’t sell meat. I also really hate lima beans, and I’d encourage everyone not to buy them. But I don’t think it’s right to ban other people from buying them. Keep listening to each other, people, and please, keep the arguments alive. Don’t just ban them.
* Got home. Our boarders were like, “You’re Internet-famous.” Went through the tweets, and there were a ton of references to “the hyper Hasid” and “this surfer with payos.” Hey, I even got my own Twitter hashtag, which is super awesome and flattering, if ephemeral. Amy Sohn said “a star is born” about me! My friend Liz wrote, “Highlight 4 me was @matthue on his hatred of lima beans.” P.S.
my mom is so gonna kill me.
* There were a lot of BDS people at the vote last night. A lot of them weren’t actually coop members; they were just there to protest. I asked them, and they were really forthcoming about it. Totally fine for them to be there. On the other hand, they were the only ones not waiting to be admitted, which meant that the reporters got to speak to a lot more of them than anyone else–say, for instance, actual coop members. I’d call it “infiltration,” but then again, I watched every episode of the X-Files (not an exaggeration) and love conspiracy theories.
* I was one of the last people to speak. Itta said the people around us (big BDS shippers) didn’t understand what I was saying — granted, I’m not entirely coherent; I talk really fast and get bubbly, and the mic was really loud. On the other hand, I got stopped by a ton of people on the way out complimenting me. Granted, they were mostly old Crown Heights Hasidic ladies, but they were still awesome.
* I still want someone to ask if I’m in favor of the BDSM movement so I can just say, heck yeah!
“It is too late to prepare when temptation is actually at hand.”
Rabbi Yitzchak Meir of Ger
Sometimes you find yourself dangerously close to a piece of cheesecake. It inches even closer to you, begging to be eaten. “I can’t help myself,” you find yourself saying, as if an extra-terrestrial being has taken hold of you and forced down the cake. This reminds me of a trouble-maker I went to school with whose yearbook quote read: “Lead us not into temptation. Just leave us alone. We’ll find it.” Kicking the cheesecake habit is hard. But it is not impossible if you will it.
Even though they say that bad habits are hard to break, Charles Duhigg, in his recent book The Power of Habit, argues that the more we know about how we form our habits, the easier they are to change. He amasses scientific evidence to show that difficult tasks repeated multiple times become rote. We may barely think about what we do when we shoot a basket, drive a car or take a shower because we go into automatic pilot. We’ve done things so many times that our bodies engage even if our minds are coasting. David Brooks, writing on Duhigg, claims that, “Your willpower is not like a dam that can block the torrent of self-indulgence. It’s more like a muscle, which tires easily.” It needs to be fortified.
If repetition is the key to habit then recalibrating behaviors and doing them again and again differently becomes one critical way that we break bad habits and willfully choose new ones. When we learn new routines and practice them repeatedly we “teach” ourselves how to adopt best practices. It is awkward at first but still do-able. Research done at Duke University shows that 40% of our behaviors are made through habit rather than intentional decisions. With a little concerted mental effort, we can reshape old habits.
Rabbi Yitzchak Meir (1798-1866) was a Talmudic scholar and the first Gerer Rebbe, a Hasidic sect popular in Poland. Many stories and legends have evolved about the Rebbe’s piety and knowledge. Martin Buber, in Tales of the Hasidim, shares a well-known story about the Rebbe. When his mother died, he followed her bier, begging for forgiveness. He spoke to his mother’s coffin, “In this world, I am a man who is much honored and many call me rabbi. But now you will enter the world of truth and see that it is not as they think. So forgive me and do not bear me a grudge. What can I do, if people are mistaken in me?” Perhaps he understood that those who came to her funeral were doing so out of honor for him, taking away from his mother’s honor. He apologized.
Rabbi Yitzchak Meir did not posses any research from Duke University, but he did spend a lot of time contemplating the battle of good over evil. He warned his followers: “There will be many and grave temptations, and he who has not prepared himself for them will be lost.” You cannot prepare yourself for temptation when you are standing in front of it. You will not have had time or forethought to form the good habits you need to overcome desire. Imagine going to Siberia in the winter. Only when getting there do you realize that you need a coat. Ill-prepared, you cannot stay. But this would never happen because we check the weather before we travel. We can also check ourselves before we enter a situation which we suspect will present a test of our willpower. Temptation according to the Gerer Rebbe is something we prepare for precisely because he believed that temptation is a test: “it shows what within you is dross and what is true metal.” When your temptation level feels like jello, it’s time to remember Rabbi Yitzchak Meir and remind yourself that you’ve got nerves of steel.
Temptation is overcome by forming good habits and repeating them. That’s true when it comes to speaking well of others, praying, giving charity, studying, exercising, visiting the sick, and spending time with our families. We know where temptation lives, but research now helps us understand that we can knock on another door.
Our friends Stereo Sinai — who we’ve gushed about on Jewniverse, and who you can pick up a free mp3 by here — have just posted a new video. It’s a love story about a pair of skates. It’s a really clever video. At first you think it’s just a random slideshow of beautiful Instagrams, but then it starts to surprise you.
As I write this, I am simultaneously:
1. Compulsively checking my email, Twitter, and Facebook.
2. Waiting for an “important” text message to determine my weekend plans
3. IMing with several co-workers
4. Flipping through Internet radio to find the perfect balance of “listenable, without requiring too much thought” music
I have, it seems, a fantasy of reaching some sort of technological nirvana – by hitting “refresh”one more time I’ll suddenly become “one with the universe” (or at least the Twitterverse.) I may consciously know that Facebook would be fine and hum along without me, but — what if I miss a funny picture of a cat?? I’m a classic case of being desperately in need of an opportunity to disconnect.
Shabbat is a great opportunity to hit the technology “off” switch (in my case, more of a dimmer switch). NEXT: A Division of Birthright Israel Foundation has partnered with Reboot for NEXT Shabbat 360, as part of Reboot’s National Day of Unplugging to help slow down lives in an increasingly hectic world. They must have had me in mind.
For 24 hours beginning the evening of Friday, March 23rd , thousands of people around the country will “unplug.” NEXT Shabbat will help cover the cost of 360 Shabbat meals that weekend. For those of you who have been on a Taglit-Birthright Israel trip, Shabbat 360 is a great way to unplug – electronically, mentally, physically, whatever! – by bringing together friends for a Shabbat meal, your way. From chicken in Chatanooga to jachnun in Jackson Hole, there’s no wrong way to celebrate Shabbat – especially when you’re celebrating alongside 359 other NEXT Shabbat meals that same weekend.
So? Sign up here! Celebrate! Unplug! A one-day detox from my TV, phone, iPad and “teh interwebz” is exactly what I need.
Now, if you’ll excuse me – I have to post this on Twitter.
This is hilarious: Imagine there’s a Jewish day school called Chagwartz. And imagine that their biggest donor, Lucius Malfoyberg, suddenly withdraws his support. What will the headmaster, Rabbi Dumbledore, do??
Here’s a brilliant take on it:
Our friend (and sometimes hilarious columnist) (sometimes-columnist, not sometimes-hilarious) Ken Gordon made this video. (And, for another take on the Harry Potter legend, check out this article I wrote about an eon ago: Chaim Potterovich and the Sorcerer’s Kiddish. Wherein I debate the real relationship between Kiddish and Quidditch, naturally…
It’s tough out there for an Israeli film at the Oscars. When an Israeli film gets nominated for best foreign language film it’s almost always because the movie references the Holocaust and/or the Israeli-Arab Conflict. But while a Holocaust theme is a guaranteed win in most categories, not so when it comes to Israeli films. And a film that seems very sympathetic to Arabs is unlikely to garner a win from the typically conservative Academy voters.
This year, though, the Israeli nominee is neither a careful look at the history of the Jewish people, or a tense war film. Instead, it’s Footnote, a film that casts its gaze on the small and insular world of academic Talmud scholars. Eliezer Shkolnik is a Talmud professor at Hebrew University whose diligent work has never been recognized by his peers. His son, Uriel Shkolnik, also a Talmud professor, is an up-and-coming star in the field, collecting awards and distinction with ease. When Eliezer is awarded the prestigious Israel Prize, father and son have to try to keep their smugness/jealousy in check and generally behave like respectable adults. This turns out to be remarkably difficult for both of them. Also, there’s a surprise twist, and a fun scene involving a fencing uniform.
The movie is remarkably successful: its depictions of life in the academy are spot-on, and I found the set design to be particularly effective at capturing the jumbled papers and library aesthetic of your typical university professor. It also uses voice-overs and some effects that are nicely reminiscent of the meta-story effects in Stranger Than Fiction.
But what’s most enjoyable about it is its narrow focus. At no point does it pan out to view this family drama in the wider scope of the Israeli-Arab conflict, or look back at the tragedies of Israeli history. Instead it looks deeply and critically at the ivory tower, and the way that petty grudges and jealousy drive a lot of the goings-on in any university department. And it looks too at the relationship between fathers and sons, beyond Oedipus and into adult professional competition. But where it cleverly highlights (and footnotes) the academic politics, when it comes to family drama, the film loses some of its strength and sharpness. Uriel’s relationship with his son is a focal point of the last portion of the movie, but the scene in which they finally fight falls flat (perhaps due to the lackluster performance of Daniel Markovich, who plays Josh Shkolnik). And both Dr. Shkolniks are married to formidable women who get barely any screen time (the film doesn’t come close to passing the Bechdel test).
Despite not quite being able to pull off the father-son drama it attempts, the film is extraordinary and entertaining. In the climax of the movie the audience watches as the elder Shkolnik takes apart a text, finding its references in other places, and looking up words and phrases in his library. It’s difficult to make rifling through books seem interesting, even exciting, but writer/director Joseph Cedar pulls it off with remarkable aplomb.
Sadly, Footnote doesn’t have a chance of pulling off a Best Foreign Film win—A Separation seems guaranteed a win with all the accolades it has pulled in from far and wide. I can only hope that Footnote will get the cheers it deserves when it comes out on March 9, and won’t be destined to be only a footnote.
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.