Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish debuted in 2005 and has been a perennial bar mitzvah gift ever since. The book, which features interviews by Abigail Pogrebin with about five dozen celebrities about their Jewish identities, is now an off-Broadway musical. Pogrebin is no stranger to the musical stage; she chronicled her experience as an original cast member of the infamous Stephen Sondheim flop Merrily We Roll Along in her 2011 Kindle Single Showstopper. This morning I chatted with her about the experience of writing Stars of David, both book and musical, and how her evolving Jewish identity has shaped the project.
In the introduction to the book, she discusses that part of the impetus for the project was that Jewish identity had crept up on her. She was married to a Jewish man, had two children approaching the ages when they might want to know something about what being Jewish meant, and she realized that she didn’t have an answer to that question. “I wasn’t necessarily honest with myself about why I started the book in the sense that I didn’t know how at sea I was, in terms of my own Jewish identity, when I approached famous people,” Pogrebin said. “I think sometimes stories are generated by some subconscious impulse to understand something for yourself. And I don’t want to over-analyze my motivations in starting the book, but I would say that having these frank conversations with some of our highest achievers made me look much more candidly at myself, and I realized I hadn’t answered a lot of the questions I was asking, personally.”
Tracee Chimo, Michael Zegen and Molly Ranson in Bad Jews. Photo by Joan Marcus.
As the organized Jewish community debates the changing nature of Jewish identity in America uncovered by the recent Pew study, theatergoers in New York are engaging in a similar debate spurred on by Bad Jews, a new play by Josh Harmon being presented off-Broadway by the Roundabout Theatre Company, following a developmental production last fall at the Roundabout Underground Black Box.
On its surface, Bad Jews is a dark comedy about cousins reuniting at their grandfather’s shiva, butting heads about who should inherit a chai necklace their beloved Poppy had managed to hold on to through his time in a concentration camp. But Bad Jews is really a play of ideas, offering one hundred minutes of debate about what Jewish identity means for the grandchildren of survivors and contemporary twenty-something American Jews. Representing the “religion matters most” camp is Daphna (Tracee Chimo), a strident senior at Vassar who hopes to marry the Israeli soldier she slept with on Birthright, make aliyah, and attend rabbinical school. Taking the opposing view is Liam (Michael Zegen), her elder cousin who has little to no interest in Judaism or Jewishness, but feels a deep familial connection to what the chai necklace represents. Liam’s younger brother Jonah (Philip Ettinger) just wants to be left out of the argument. The ensuing battle, which is further intensified by the presence of Liam’s perky, privileged, non-Jewish girlfriend Melody (Molly Ranson), will either fascinate or exhaust you, depending on how many times you’ve had this conversation yourself.
Have you ever had the experience of introducing your high school friends to your new friends from college? That’s the best way to describe how I felt watching Soul Doctor, the new Broadway musical based on the life and music of Shlomo Carlebach. Throughout the show, staged in 3/4 thrust at the intimate Circle in the Square, I couldn’t keep myself from looking across the theater at the faces of my Catholic friends and wanting to explain, or apologize, or forget they were there so I could give myself over to the music and ecstatically clap along with the rest of the mostly-religious, Jewish audience (based on the number of kippot and wigs in evidence).
Because here’s the thing: if you’re reading Jewschool, you, like me, probably love Carlebach’s music. You might not even realize how much of it you love — I kept finding myself surprised at melodies employed in the show. How could one man have possibly written so many of the melodies that have underscored every Jewish experience of my life, from the synagogue to the campfire? And even when saddled with second-rate English lyrics and a hopelessly inert story, when sung by a terrific cast of Broadway babies (led by Eric Anderson as Carlebach himself and newcomer Amber Iman making a splash as Nina Simone) backed by a fantastic band under the baton of Seth Farber, the music wins out, and I found myself unconsciously tapping my feet even as I rolled my eyes. More »
It makes so much sense it’s shocking it hasn’t happened previously, but New Yiddish Rep, a New York-based theatre company, is putting on Waiting For Godot in a new Yiddish translation (with English and Russian supertitles).
Two and a half months ago, I moved from Boston to New York.
I had lived in Boston for 33 of my 35 years, but I had always wanted to live in New York, and the time was right. When speaking with friends after the move, the refrain was the same. “I don’t miss it. I was ready to go.” I’ve missed my friends but not my city.
And then bombs went off at the Boston marathon.
It’s hard to overstate the role of the marathon in the life of the city. The state takes a holiday. (The entire state, not just the city, as Boston does on St. Patrick’s Evacuation Day.) People flood into the city from around the world. And rather than run the other way, as Bostonians tend to do when confronted with tourists, instead we line the entire route of the marathon so we can cheer: for our friends, for our visitors, and for our city.
I work in a relatively small office, and three of us have moved to NY from Boston in the last three years. So when one of the others interrupted a meeting I was having to say, “Have you heard about Boston?” I had no expectation that those words would bring bad news.
Nothing is worse than being the direct victim of violence. But being far away from those you love, not knowing what’s going on, and seeing only a stream of “I’m okay!” and “here’s what we think is happening” and especially “here are the ways we can all help” flood my Twitter and Facebook feeds does a number on you.
Last night, I was looking at Twitter on my way home and saw a friend in Boston had shared a picture from Brooklyn of BAM lit up with messages of support for Boston. In a moment of synchronicity, I happened to be getting out of a cab in front of BAM at that moment, so I walked around the building to see the display for myself. There was a small crowd of people taking pictures and offering comfort to each other.
A blogger with some handheld video device approached me and asked if I would be interviewed on camera. I figure bloggers should help each other out, so I agreed. He asked how I was feeling on that day, and I shared that I was a recent Boston transplant so the day was difficult, but thank God as far as I knew everyone in my life was safe. He then started down the path of comparing what happened to daily life in Syria. I cut him off and said something about how I knew that today alone in Iran the fatalities outnumbered anything in Boston, and that people all over the world were suffering, and it was important for us to remember that too. And then I got myself out of the conversation because I didn’t want to become a pawn in some kind of project of comparative suffering.
Over the course of the last two months, I’ve been participating in the Shalom Hartman Institute’s iEngage program, which offers a text-based approach to discussing the State of Israel through the perspective of Jewish values. (I now work for the Institute, so in this course, I am both participating and learning about one of our own programs.) Rather than dealing with fact sheets or calls to activism, iEngage challenges us to grapple with ideas like “what are the Jewish values around power and powerlessness,” and “what does a Jewish conception of democracy look like,” and “what exactly is Jewish peoplehood?” We study texts ancient and modern, guided by the Institute’s scholars and in chevruta with our colleagues.
The particular cohort for my iEngage group is Jewish social justice professionals, with a mix of folks from the lefty spectrum, including staff members from New Israel Fund, T’ruah, Keshet, Jewish Community Relations Councils, etc. In our discussions of Jewish peoplehood, some of the participants bristled at the concept, feeling like it was ancient chauvinism morphed into some kind of Zionist guilt-trip. For me, a sense of Jewish peoplehood has always been more about a deep-felt connection to people around the world and throughout history, most of whom I’ve never met and many of whom I’m sure I wouldn’t like very much if I did. The idea that we look out for our own first (but not only) and worry about those with whom we share a connection more than those from whom we are disconnected has never felt chauvinistic to me. It feels human.
And until yesterday, I never realized how much I feel that same connection to the people of my home town. And when the (certainly well-intentioned but misguided) blogger outside of BAM implied that my concern for my fellow Bostonians was somehow misplaced in light of suffering in the rest of the world, it came together for me, and I got angry. I am capable of complex thought and multilayered emotion. I can grieve for Boston without belittling Syria, Iran, or anywhere else in the world where people suffer. I can be a member of the Jewish people while also being a citizen of the world. I can be a New Yorker and be a Bostonian. And how dare anyone imply otherwise.
Those who will be cast will be taped for a pilot presentation to be pitched to major networks.
PLEASE NOTE WHICH CHARACTER YOU SEE YOURSELF AS.
Looking for larger than life NY Jews with stereotypical personalities to create a cast for the next great reality series. This is a chance to work with a three-time Emmy award winning director and a top production company.
THE HAGGLER: Wiz in negotiating for anything. Get an extra thousand dollars off your new car purchase…PLUS free car washes for 5 years! Selling your home “The Haggler gets the brokers to kick in some of his fee toward making the deal. Buying a floor model Get it for practically nothing. The Haggler pushes the envelope and then pushes it further. Knows just how far to push before the deal goes sour. (Hairy Israeli type with gold chains, open shirt)
THE BANKER: Expert in investments and accounting. Getting the most deductions on your taxes without raising a red flag. How to invest for your and your children’s futures. Even teaches children how to start saving for their own college education. (Nerdy wimpy accountant type with glasses)
THE BARGAIN-HUNTER: Finds great deals on everything from luxury to low-end items. Expert in Coupons, day-old bread sales, free dinner on your birthday restaurants, two for one specials, doubling the value of your toilet paper, saving money across the board. Even has a diamond guy he wants to hook you up with. (a man or a woman)
THE MOTHER: An opinion on everything, she’s the Yoda for all advice. How to get over a cold, how to bag a man, how to make an excuse to get out of anything, how to make the perfect brisket, and perhaps most importantly, how to feed your family on pennies a day. (Big woman, always dressed up with a brooch and sparkly sequined top. Loud and thick accent, she has a natural humor)
THE PRINCESS: Perhaps the smartest one of all. She’s perfected the way to marry a man to pay for everything. (sexy and well-put together, you’re constantly at odds between wanting to sleep with her or slap her)
Jackie Hoffman, beloved in theatrical circles for her take-no-prisoners approach to musical comedy (sample lyric: “fuck you for asking me to do a show for free! / fuck you and your benefit for charity”), is at once an ideal and a challenging performer for such a series. Undeniably funny and with a deep understanding of Judaism (she’s the black sheep of an Orthodox family), she knows she can draw a typical Jewish audience in with songs criticizing Jewish Buddhists (“Inner peace and joy are overrated / come back to the fold of the most-hated”) and pushy mothers on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. But when her paean to Shavuot includes lines like “Ten Commandments God gave to us so that we won’t sin again / Ten Commandments I break every day by eating pork and Christian men,” you know this isn’t your typical JCC fare.
While the publicity around this series carefully avoided the word “feminism,” I couldn’t help but watch Hoffman’s show and wonder if there was a feminist message to be divined from the woman who counts among her achievements “convincing the Hispanic security guards and bus boys of this city to use condoms” and openly resents the successes of co-stars she deems less deserving.
Jackie Hoffman doesn’t care if you find a feminist message — or any message — in her performances. And that in itself may be the embodiment of a feminist victory.
When Hava Nagila: The Movie played the Boston Jewish Film Festival last year, I rolled my eyes and opted out of what I assumed would be a twee, cloying tribute to the ubiquitous anthem to American Jewish vapidity.
But when, three weeks into my relocation to New York City, a friend asked me if I wanted to take his second ticket to see it at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, I tried to stifle my skepticism in favor of a night out in my new home.
I was prepared for a nostalgic campfest, and while there was an element of that, the film was also surprisingly moving and educational. I even got a little teary-eyed during the segment with Harry Belafonte. I was surprised to learn the film was created by the team behind the excellent Hannah Szenes documentary, Blessed Is The Match. Director Roberta Grossman and producer Marta Kauffman said that after they completed their Szenes film, both women’s daughters asked them to work on a happier project – hence “Hava Nagila.” And while this is a happier film, it doesn’t shy away from a number of challenging questions about Jewish engagement, the Israel/Diaspora relationship, and the blooming and wilting of various strains of Jewish culture.
The movie begins a national roll-out this week. If it’s playing near you, check it out.
Cartoonist Nina Paley has been working on a (potential) feature film called Seder-Masochism, and earlier this week she released a first look, which is also its last scene. “This Land Is Mine” illustrates the battles over the patch of land that’s been known as Canaan, Israel, Palestine, etc. in a way that’s reminiscent of Chad Gadya without the animals. Check it out:
Today has been a frustrating day on many levels, and surprisingly, at the top of my frustration is two Conservative rabbis who are Facebook friends of mine who have chosen to share an Islamophobic cartoon depicting the Prophet Mohammed. I’m not going to link to it here because I don’t want to have a hand in further distributing the cartoon.
I wrote to each of them
I am disappointed to see the rabbis of my generation circulating a cartoon that flagrantly disrespects someone else’s religion, not to mention perpetuates harmful stereotypes. Is this the spirit in which you hope to enter 5773?
And to my surprise, instead of saying something like, “You’re right, I got carried away. I’m frustrated but this wasn’t the right way to express it,” both dug their heels in and defended their right to mock Islam in a way they both know specifically insults Muslims.
One of these rabbis is a chaplain with the US armed forces. The other holds a significant post in the Conservative Movement in the United States.
I have spent too much time and far too much emotional energy engaging with them and their followers, pointing out over and over again that both our tradition and common sense says that one does not achieve anything by inflaming the fires of hate or provoking those with whom we disagree. They refuse to hear me. Part of me wants to just unfriend them and be done with it, but I don’t want to contribute to my own retreat further into a bubble of people who share all my opinions. But I won’t back down because I believe this is an important discussion to have, and I know Jewish tradition expects us vigorously pursue justice. The quote from Mishnah that I’ve plastered on my social media channels today sums it up for me: “In a place where no one is behaving like a human being, be the human being.”
I have long since disavowed any affiliation with the Conservative movement that was once my home, but incidents like this confirm for me that I’ve made the right choice. I know, I shouldn’t judge an entire stream of a religion based on a couple of vocal leaders, but, well, you see the irony there.
I don’t know these people at all. I just stumbled across this on Facebook. But I’m charmed and want to make sure they get the additional two grand they need in the next day to make this go. Don’t be a hazzer! Contribute!
Ah, Sweden. Birthplace of Ikea. Home of Abba. Case-study in government use of social media gone terribly wrong.
It seems that the Swedish Tourism Board thought that turning over the official @Sweden Twitter Account to regular folks from around the country would be a great way to expose the rest of the world to all the country has to offer. I’m not sure how long the Curators of Sweden program has been running, but it got a boost of publicity this morning when the current curator, Sonja Abrahamsson, tweeted the following:
Whats the fuzz with jews. You can’t even see if a person is a jew, unless you see their penises, and even if you do, you can’t be sure!?
I can’t be the only one reminded of Henry Blodget’s similar question on Business Insider at the end of last month, although there’s clearly a difference between tweets from someone who self-identifies as an under-educated woman from a little isty-bitsy village and the CEO of a respected publication. But I’ve got to wonder myself if there’s something about this moment that’s bringing “the Jewish question” back into public discourse.
The other day Frum Satire shared some pictures from Matisyahu’s Instagram under the heading “Matisyahu posts pictures of himself without a kippah,” lamenting the potential loss of a famous frum role model. There’s been a fair amount of back-channel chatter about what it might mean for Matisyahu — who’s already had to issue statements about shaving his beard and dropping his customary 17th Century Polish garb back in December — to be “off the derech” (moving away from Orthodox practice). Unfortunately, most of that search for meaning has been focused around “what does it mean for us” — with a bunch of different people putting themselves in that “us” category — and not enough thinking about what it might mean for him.
Many of us (and here, I mean “us” the writers and readers of Jewschool) have struggled with what we want our own Jewish observance to look and feel like, and many of us have had to do that in some kind of public sphere as leaders in our own tiny corners of the Jewish world. We know how much that sucks, and therefore how much more that sucks for Matis. Whatever you think about his music and whether or not his religious presentation helped his career, going through this kind of searching sucks even when you’re not a public figure and therefore all the much more so when you are.
If we really must find a way to make meaning for ourselves out of Matisyahu’s own personal journey, we can affirm what we all know, that Jewish living is, well, a life-long pursuit and not a static destination. And perhaps Matisyahu can be a positive role model in that way. And when he has another single or album to review, we can deal with whether or not his music is any good, regardless of the costume.
I am something of a Jewish education crumudgeon. In many years in the trenches working with teens, I saw lots of failed attempts by well-meaning innovators to marry Torah content with 21st-century technology. But while Second Life classrooms have turned to ghost towns and the web is littered with class-project blogs that stopped after one post, G-dcast is going strong.
Perhaps the real strength of G-dcast is that it doesn’t try too hard, and I mean that in the most complimentary way possible. G-dcast works because the concept is simple: invite creative people to narrate a bit of Torah (or a bit about a Jewish holiday), illustrate their narration with animation, and release them for free on YouTube. (Once they got established, G-dcast added some smart extras like a DVD version and complementary curriculum for use in classrooms.) But really, the magic formula of short, entertaining, and free should be studied (like Torah!) by anyone else hoping to break into this field.
And speaking of breaking into the field, that’s where G-dcast’s latest innovation gets me all tight in the pants. They’ve announced plans for Studio G-dcast, a six-day intensive workshop this summer for emerging writers, poets, singer/songwriters and animators who are currently in college or graduate school. This has the potential to be the artistic beit midrash of the future today, where people who tell stories through words (& music) pair in chevruta with those who tell stories through pictures and motion to uncover meaning in our sacred texts. See why I’m getting all tight in the pants?
Application deadline is Friday, March 9, so get crackin’.