After All That’s Happened, I Meet God Halfway

This is a guest post by Rabbi Josh Bolton, the Senior Jewish Educator for the Jewish Renaissance Project at UPenn Hillel. You can reach him at jbolton@jrp.com.

I say the Kiddush.
I don’t say the Grace after Meals.
I study the Torah.
I don’t own two sets of dishes.
I wrap tefillin, occasionally.
I don’t ever attend minyan.
I long for the Land of Israel.
I don’t have mezuzot on all my doorframes.
I read the Jewish periodicals.
I don’t mind kindling a flame on the Sabbath.
I give charity to the poor person.
I don’t fast on the 9th of Av.
I like klezmer music.
I don’t prioritize kosher over organic.
I leave my son’s hair uncut to three years old.
I don’t live within walking distance of the shul.
I circumcised my son on the eighth day.
I don’t know, I may get more tattoos one day.
I have a social circle comprised mostly of Jews.
I don’t really care if the Torah was written by Man or God.
I have a prominent bookshelf full of traditional texts.
I don’t always behave nicely with orthodox educators.
I weep in Yad Vashem.
I don’t mind listening to salacious gossip.
I wear a kippah.
I don’t make Havdallah.
I speak Hebrew like a child – but I do speak.
I don’t regard the voices of the ancient rabbis to be more sacred than our own voices.
I hang a picture of Jerusalem in my living room.
I don’t believe continuity for continuity’s sake is a compelling reason for Jewish life.
I prayed at the grave of Menachem Schneerson — at twilight with my brother.
I don’t know how to perform the ritual of Hoshannah Rabba.
I take every opportunity to submerge in the mikveh of Isaac Luria.
I don’t think spirituality demands wearing long skirts or a yarmulke.
I have memorized large swaths of the liturgy.
I don’t believe the Va’ad Kashrut serves the interests of the Jewish community.
I am a devoted student of the Hasidic masters.
I don’t really clean my kitchen for Pesach.

#TBT: On 9/11 and Tisha B’Av

Last night, guest blogger Ben Greenfield posted a provocative piece on memory and ritual and how we can and do relate to 9/11 and Tisha B’Av.  This is not the first time the blog has addressed that connection.  For Throwback Thursday today, we’re re-running zt‘s short post from around Tisha B’Av five years ago, highlighting Irwin Kula’s reading in Eikha (Lamentations) trope of last phone messages from 9/11 victims.  Revisit it here.  You can read Rabbi Kula’s own explanation of the recording here, including a better link to his actual recorded chanting.

 

In Brooklyn Next Sunday? Come Make Shofar-blowing History

Calling all Jews with horns (and their allies)–

You are hereby welcomed to take part in a historical mass shofar-blowing gathering this       coming Sunday in Prospect Park. The event will consist of a shofar-blowing workshop, a  series of collective blasts, and a vegetarian potluck picnic.

At 5:30pm, we will meet at the corner of 15th St. and Prospect Park West and proceed to enter the park. Please arrive on-time so everyone can find each other.

If you own a shofar and/or a phone which can film, please bring it with you, as well as something for the potluck, if you can stay after.

Our rain location is the Park Slope Jewish Center (1320 8th Ave, located at the SW corner of 14th St and 8th Av).

This event is free, open to the public, family-friendly, and intended for experienced and novice shofar-blowers alike, so please do come and invite friends. We hope you can join us as we herald in the new year with great fanfare.

It will be…a blast

#TBT: Joan Rivers and Funny Jewish Women

Love her or hate her, Joan Rivers, aleha shalom, was one of the most recognizable American Jews of the past half century and one of our most successful comics.  By my count, she has been mentioned five times in Jewschool’s storied history, so today, for Throwback Thursday, here’s sarah‘s 2007 review of the San Francisco Jewish film festival, including a review of Making Trouble: Three Generations of Funny Jewish Women, produced by the Jewish Women’s Archive and focusing on Molly Picon, Fanny Brice, Sophie Tucker, Joan Rivers, Wendy Wasserstein and Gilda Radner.   All six of these Mt. Rushmorians of Jewish comediennes have left us now.  Rest in…oh, who are we kidding?  Joan Rivers isn’t resting any kind of way; she’s working some crowd to find the laughter and absurdity in the awfulness of something in olam haba.

 

Ready for Withering Flowers: A Ritual for Elul

I’m familiar with your story
This gratitude you cultivate helps ground you
And yet, do you really deserve to ask for more?
The answer to this question will give you the balance you seek

Sometimes you need a reminder that we already said farewell to the month of Av
As it is written in Job: “Man born of woman is short of days, and fed with trouble. He blossoms like a flower and withers, and vanishes, like a shadow.” (Job 14:1–2)
In Elul, you are instructed to enjoy the ephemeral beauty of the flowers without worry of their withering
Since t’shuva/repentance is the name of the game, instead of fearing change we welcome it in

Every morning the shofar calls you to t’shuva/repentance
Are you listening?
How might you be more awake in order to hear its sound?
Allow these blossoms a chance to bring you to the presence you desire.

Step 1 – gather flower petals into a large bowl- ideally four colors and four different species. Bowl is ideally wood but can also be glass or metal.
In New England this is a great time of year to find a diversity of goldenrod, Queen Anne’s lace, chicory and aster.
Step 2 – fill your bowl with water covering the petals – ideally spring water but tap water is also fine. The chance to visit a river, lake or small spring will only add to the ritual
Step 3 – ASK FOR SOMETHING. This is for real. If you’re going to open up enough to do real t’shuvah/repentance this year, you have to acknowledge that you are not yet whole – that there is something about yourself you want to change, or at least cultivate. A useful formula is “May I be…” or “Let me be…”
Step 4 – Pour the entire bowl of petals and water over your head.
Step 5 – Proclaim out loud: “Horeini Ya Darkecha – הוֹרֵנִי יְהוָה, דַּרְכֶּךָ – reveal to me your path” – Ps. 27:11. This is both the sealing of our request and also a letting go of wanting only one thing.

Re-posted by the author from Ma’yan Tikvah’s Divrei Earth: Spiritual wisdom from Earth and Torah.

Therapy and the Jewish Left

by Danya Lagos

“Now, how’s that for good to the last drop? How’s that for a good boy, a thoughtful boy, a kind and courteous and well-behaved boy, a nice Jewish boy such as no one will ever have cause to be ashamed of? Say thank you, darling. Say you’re welcome, darling. Say you’re sorry, Alex. Say you’re sorry! Apologize! Yeah, for what? What have I done now? Hey, I’m hiding under my bed, my back to the wall, refusing to say I’m sorry, refusing, too, to come out and take the consequences. Refusing! And she is after me with a broom, trying to sweep my rotten carcass into the open. Why, shades of Gregor Sarnsa! Hello Alex, goodbye Franz! You better tell me you’re sorry, you, or else! And I don’t mean maybe either! I am five, maybe six, and she is or-elsing me and not-meaning-maybe as though the firing squad is already outside, lining the street with newspaper preparatory to my execution.” — Philip Roth, Portnoy’s Complaint

In Portnoy’s Complaint, arguably the defining book of the modern Jewish-American literary Canon, Philip Roth launches into a full-on confrontation of the debilitating cultural malaise that is the cult of “goodness” – or, rather, a highly individualized and internalized cultivation of agreeableness, at whatever cost. This is the key ingredient of suburban assimilation, of first and second-generation immigrants, of “making it” – a meticulous pursuit of not only acting “good,” but a codependency marked by a strong confessional tendency, where even your innermost thoughts and desires must be attuned to the needs of others – who force you to allow them into a contrived and intense intimacy, making you answerable to them, for everything.  It rings all too true for me personally since I read it 2009, even though it was published in 1969. While the figure of Jewish mother takes the majority blame in Portnoy’s Complaint for the smothering regime-cage of “goodness” as the ultimate redemption of the world, it is difficult to ignore its lurking presence in other people and spaces as well. More »

Everyone Else

Sitting in a restaurant
in the South of the city.
They serve one East Coast dish only.
There is a vegetarian option
but I don’t need it.
I’m reading about the end of Liberal Zionism in the paper
wondering what the hell that even means
as I deconstruct words and dig in with my hands.
It’s not me, I reckon. I am reckoning.

Sauce on every finger on every hand.
Scrolling with my wrist. Reading.
Wondering when everyone will come around.
Divisive and decisive op-eds give some people power, here and there.
Right and wrong are there for the taking
for the organized and the artistic and the committed.
But mostly for the committed. 

I’m nearly bursting, listening to a new song about black rage
sitting in a restaurant serving cuisine from the East Coast of Africa.
Wondering if the discomfort that man told me I probably feel here
is how it feels everywhere for everyone
else.

—-

 

This piece first appeared at allthesedays.org 
 
A. Daniel Roth is an educator and journalist living in South Tel Aviv.
You can find more of his writing and photography at allthesedays.org 
and follow him on twitter @adanielroth
 
 
 

Robin Williams: A remembrance

This is a guest post by actor and stand-up comedian Yisrael Campbell whose show Circumcise Me is now running at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. 

I came home from a busy day at the Fringe, handing out flyers all morning on the Royal Mile with hundreds of other actors and comics. I did my show—getting our largest audience and almost no laughs. But that is okay.  I am a trained actor after all. I plop down on the couch in my empty 5 bedroom apt. When this trip was planned two families were going to be spending two of the three and a half weeks’ run here in Edinburgh. Then with the war in Gaza, my writing partner Gary’s family hadn’t come at all and in fact Gary had had to leave early. My wife Avital and our kids had only come in for four days. So instead of ten of us here, there is just me, in a five bedroom apt.  Alone and doing the thing I love most —performing

I turned on the TV and not a minute later they broke in with news: “Robin Williams found dead in Northern California.” After Sky’s coverage of the war in Gaza I wasn’t sure they could be trusted. So I did what we do, I Googled it. Nothing, no one was reporting anything.  So I did what we do when Google fails us. I tweeted it “Is this true?  Is Robin Williams dead?” Sadly it is. Robin Williams is dead. Robin may your memory be for a blessing. It certainly has been in my case. The tweets and status updates are flowing strong. Finally, now, two hours later I find a tweet other than some form of Robin Williams is dead. And even as someone updates that she was  chased out of a mall by police in Middle America while shopping for her daughter’s first day of kindergarten, and I realize that people won’t just write about Robin for the rest of our lives, and as the status updates move on, all I can think is Robin Williams is dead.

I met Robin twice. The first time was at a party for the premiere of the film Hook. It was at that party as I stood next to Robin holding a tray of  pigs in a blanket that I heard Robin say the following words  “When I graduated from Drama School (he had attended Julliard) there wasn’t enough work so I started doing standup.”

I’ve said that line a million times. It fit for me too. Each time I said it I thought of Robin. Each time I think: “Wow I’ve never had his career.” It isn’t just those two things we shared. We’ve both struggled with depression and addiction. He achieved more in his work. I seem to have achieved more in the arena of mental health. I’m not bragging—the game isn’t over for me. I could go down in the same shit storm he has, that’s the nature of the beast. But for today I won. I’m clean, I’m dealing with my stuff. Robin lost today and with that loss we all lost. With his death all of our lives will be sadder, have a little less laughter, a little less joy.

The second time we met was at the Comedy and Magic club in Hermosa Beach California. I was writing for a friend and he was middling behind Ray Romano. Evan called and said: “Come to the show tonight there’s going to be a surprise.” Well sure enough Robin showed up, and while Ray did his hour, six of us sat backstage. Robin was warm and generous he didn’t need to be the only funny one or the only one telling jokes. Then he went out on stage and got a standing ovation simply for walking out on stage. It doesn’t get any better than that. Expect to know that he was there to get his act tight for a fundraiser for Christopher  Reeves’ charity for spinal cord injuries. 

There is a story in the Talmud in Maseket Taanit that tells the story of Elijah walking in the market and he is asked “Does anyone here have a place in the world to come?” At first Elijah says no, but then he says, “Those two over there.” The narrator runs to them and asks what they do, and they answer “We make people laugh.” Surely the same is true for Robin. Surely he has a place in the world to come. If I weren’t living my dream, performing daily at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, seeing great comics and actors—many I’m sure inspired by Robin Williams— then there’s nowhere else I’d rather be than at the show tonight in heaven.  Robin, Lenny, and Richard. It’s been so long since Robin was the opener.

Meet the Man Behind The Men of the Naughty Jewish Boys Calendar

Naughty Jewish Boys CalendarLast February, I shared a link right here on Jewschool to a Craigslist ad advertising for models for a “Naughty Jewish Boys” calendar. I was so tickled by the idea when I saw it on my friend Duncan Pflaster‘s Facebook page, I didn’t even realize that he had posted the ad – or that the Jewschool post would bring it widespread Jewish media attention. Fast forward five months, and the calendar is a real thing that exists in the world in two versions: the regular and extra-naughty editions. I sat down with Duncan this week to chat about his adventures in putting these calendars together.

Naturally, the first thing I wanted to know about was what kind of controversy the calendar had generated. Duncan’s run-ins with the creator of the Nice Jewish Guys calendar have been well documented elsewhere, but I had to know: were religious people offended at the images of nearly-naked men with ritual objects? Were liberals offended at a non-Jewish photographer eroticizing or even fetishizing Jewish men? Nope. “Most everybody has thought it’s been a fantastic idea,” he told me, “Especially the Jewish press.” While he did have a couple of people get upset over eroticizing Judaism, the more common response has been from women saying “it’s incredible. Thank you so much for doing this.”  More »

Hamas video in Hebrew becomes parodied Israeli hit

Hamas produced a music video in Hebrew singing about terror attacks against Israelis and intended to intimidate them. But the strategy has backfired, as social media-savvy Israelis with their trademark dark humor remixed the catchy tune. Posting to YouTube, Israelis turned murderous lemons into oddly entertaining lemonade, including versions in a capella, acoustic, cartoon, and even animal performers.

The original:

The A Capella version (racist headgarb aside):

An eerily fitting Lion King version:

Check out the Smurf, acoustic, parrot, and diningware instrument versions. This collection selected from, of all places, Artuz 7.

Torah-Bot: Kosher or Blasphemous?


When Tablet Magazine published this piece last week about a Torah-writing-robot, I was astounded and excited and generally freaked out. For those who don’t know, here’s my brief explanation of the art of Torah writing:

A sofer is the Hebrew name for the scribe who painstakingly writes Torahs. For those who don’t know, it can take over a year to write ONE Torah scroll. And it’s not like typing on your computer or writing in your notebook – if you mess up, you have to restart the page you’re on or sometimes carefully scrap the ink of the mistake off thepage. It’s certainly not as easy as pressing “delete.”

So when the Jewish Museum Berlin opened an exhibition called “The Creation of the World” featuring a robot that can write a 260-foot long Torah in THREE MONTHS, my jaw dropped. I thought it was brilliant! That would save time and animal hide and who knows what else. So why was I also totally uneasy about it?

Maybe it’s because I’m in the midst of watching Battlestar Gallactica, but it seems to me the more power we give to robots, the more power we lose. Robotic devices already do plenty, from manufacturing food to cleaning; it seems to me having them do sacred tasks is a bit, well, blasphemous. Or is it?

I’m not really sure. If we don’t want robots writing our Torahs, what else don’t we want them to do? What do we want them to do? Are there any religious tasks that could be done with robotic aid?

I’m well aware that the process of writing a Torah isn’t just about the writing. According to tradition, a sofer must use a certain kind of pen and there are blessings that need to be said throughout the undertaking. Would it count if the robot read the blessings? Or if someone said the blessings on behalf of the robot? Or is this a task we should leave to the humans?

 

Photo from Tablet Magazine

Bourbon Tasting as Jewish Community

It has been a very dark time for Jewish news over the past few weeks. War and war crimes, chants calling for our death, us calling for others’ deaths, and overall nastiness.  Often times, even on the storied pages of Jewschool, we simply ignore the rest of the Jewish world during the perennial security operations taking place in the name of the Jewish people.

Yet there are other things happening in the Jewish world and some of them are good.  In fact some are even fun.  While this post deviates from some of the hard hitting topics we often discuss in this forum, it is an important one for more than the obvious reasons. More »

What does it feel like to be a Jew in America?

What does it feel like
To be a Jew in America
Hearing the news of the Israeli army’s assaults on Gaza

Like a cancer, one part of my body attacking another
The cells do not listen to my cries:
You’ve got it all wrong
This body is one organism
Why can’t I cease this inside of my own skin?

Friends, colleagues, newspapers describe how “we” are attacking “them”
Since when am I this “we” you speak of?
Is it because I face occupied Jerusalem when I pray?
Because I say blessings over my food in the language of the oppressor?

I yearn to protect my edges
I long to strike a balance
How to stay safe while remaining open?
It’s actually a question I ask myself every day

And today, as a Jew in America, my voice is muffled
My opportunity to question is denied
Prayers for peace are welcome
And yet
Calls for justice
Perhaps equal access
…to electricity
…to medicine
…to healing

I ask my body again
It pauses for a moment
As if it somehow remembers that it is one body
And then returns to its task
Destroying the cells one by one

Shamir writes poetry in the Berkshire mountains and also on trains

7 Tammuz, 5774

 
Simplicity
Violence is bad.
Racism is always wrong.
Israel, wake up.

 
Strange
Thrown in a car. Burned.
Occupation and vengeance.
Strangers in strange land.

 
The Name
Not any design,
this profitable power.
Flags and flames throughout.

 

 

A. Daniel Roth is an educator and journalist living in South Tel Aviv. You can find more of his writing and photography at allthesedays.org and follow him on twitter @adanielroth 

A People Without a Land

The new doc by frequent Jewschool guest blogger Eli Ungar-Sargon is premiering on July 3. If you are in New York go see it. The film is by turns saddening, angering, depressing, and hopeful. What more can you ask?

Details:
July 3rd at 3pm at the Quad Cinema 34 W 13th St. NY.
Tickets here.

Tamar Fox: Talking in Shul

Tamar Fox is one third of the team that brings you  “Talking in Shul,” along with Mimi Lewis and Zahava Stadler. Tamar is a writer and editor in Philadelphia. She has worked at MyJewishLearning.comHaggadot.comShma.com, and Jewcy.com, among others. Her writing has been published in the Washington Post, the Jerusalem Post, and Tablet Magazine. Tamar’s first book, No Baths at Camp, was published in 2013, and is a PJ Library selection.

Jewschool: Tell us about Talking in Shul and how it got started. 

Tamar Fox: Talking in Shul is a roundtable podcast featuring Zahava Stadler, Mimi Lewis, and me, talking about various Jewish political and cultural topics. It’s one of several podcasts in the Open Quorum family of podcasts–the other big one is SermonSlam, but there are many more forthcoming. David Zvi Kalman, who came up with the idea for OpenQuorum approached me about creating a podcast and I’m a total podcast fiend, so I was on board right away. I really love podcasts where a group of people bat around an idea for 10-30 minutes, so that’s the kind of podcast I wanted to create and we set about looking for other people to join the table, as it were.

Jewschool:  What do you think each of you brings to the podcast, in terms of background and perspective?

Tamar Fox: Zahava is pretty solidly modern Orthodox. Mimi comes from a Reform background, and I grew up going to Conservative and Orthodox day schools, and going to a non-denominational minyan, so between us I think we speak to a wide scope of Jewish experiences.

Jewschool:  How do you decide what to talk about?

Tamar Fox: We have a Google doc where we brainstorm ideas, and we sometimes come up with ideas for future tapings while we’re recording episodes. We also try to be at least a little newsy, and think about whatever stories are big in the Jewish news world.

Jewschool:  What do you think is unique about this podcast? Why should we listen to it?

Tamar Fox:  I didn’t set out to have it be only women, but I think it’s really wonderful that we are featuring women’s voices, and that’s not something that you see a lot in Jewish podcasts. Also, I think we’re really a fun, interesting crew, and it’s nice to have a Jewish news/culture discussion podcast. That’s not something that really exists otherwise, to my knowledge.

Jewschool: How can people find Talking in Shul? 

Tamar Fox: You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, or you can list on the Open Quorum website.  Sermonslam is basically a poetry slam for sermons, where sermons are very loosely defined as “short performances on a preset theme.” They are similar to the Moth storytelling events, with winners chosen at the end, but we record all performances, and you can listen to them on the Open Quorum podcast stream.

Jewschool: Finally, what are you  excited about for  the future of the podcast? 
Tamar Fox: I don’t know for sure when we’re going to talk about it, but we’re thinking about doing a segment on Jewish social justice, and how sometimes Jews want to frame an issue as particularly Jewish, when really, it’s just a moral imperative, and maybe that’s Torah based and maybe not, but we should still act on it.

 

(P.S.  If you do a Google search for “Talking in Shul,” this comes up. Which apparently is the inspiration for the song “Don’t Talk, Just Daven,” by the Miami Boys Choir. When I did a search on You Tube for that song, I found this.)

Goodbye, Reunions; Hello, Laboratories: On Social Media and Communities in the Flesh

Hey, Jewschoolers.  Check out my piece in Sh’ma Journal considering the consequences for community building and relationship nurturing of social media and virtual life.  I’ll tease it here, and you can click on the link to read the rest on Sh’ma.

————–

People are more mobile than ever; communities and jobs are more fluid, and relationships are taking on new shapes. While we are more globally connected, we are feeling ever more alienated and desperate for rootedness, connection, and community. For those of us in the expanding Zeitgeist of virtual communities, a number of questions require consideration:

  • How do people retain both their deep connections and the casual ones that enable the migration of ideas?
  • How do virtual communities affect our humanity and relationships?
  • Is commitment to physical place important?
  • What do we gain and what do we lose through so much mobility?
For the rest of this article, click here and check out Sh’ma.

Throwback Thursday: the Price of Jew$chool

Nearly all of the issues I raised in my 2011 post,The Price of Jew$chool,” which lamented the state of Jewish Day School tuition and the weaknesses of its alternatives in formal Jewish education, unfortunately remain quite relevant today.  Then again, statements such as the 25-year-old Greek Chief-Rabbi elect‘s recent reflection that the internet was his Jewish education, stand as sobering reminders that beyond the U.S. and Israel, Jewish education, even in its most modest forms, is a scare resourceAccording the 2013 Pew Report Forum findings on Jewish life in America, 23% of Jews report having attended Jewish Day School or yeshiva in their youth, and nearly 60% have attended some other form of (non-Day School) formal Jewish education. What does the future hold? How can we respond to this continuing crisis?

The Price of Jew$school

Before you panic, rest assured: we’re not about to start charging you when you read more than 20 posts per month.  No, we’re talking about the ever-skyrocketing expense of sending children to Jewish day school in the U.S.

With $7,000 you might be able to fly back and forth to Israel six times, but for the same price you could stay put in Overland Park KS and learn at the Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy for one year.  One thousand dollars more will buy you—show them what they’ve won—one year of 1-8th grade education at the Cincinnati Hebrew Day School. If you want to send your child to the Solomon Schechter of Atlanta, be prepared to shell out upwards of $17,000 per year starting with first grade.  $26,650 might be a fine price for a Toyota RAV4 Sport, but did you know that for the same price, you can ‘kaneh likha rav’—or maybe even four—and enroll for one year of high school at the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy in Bryn Mawr, PA? $29, 955 would be a steal for a small, foreclosed apartment in a depressed real estate market, but it could also buy you one year’s education at Milken community high school in LA.  These numbers don’t even include the usual “give and get” $1,000+ minimums typically imposed upon day school families on a yearly basis. More »