The following post is contributed by guest poster Miriam Liebman. A native Detroiter, Miriam Liebman is currently a second-year rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Miriam is also an alum of AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps.
On a Shabbat afternoon last summer, sitting with two colleagues, one turned to the other and said, “Daniel, is this your tallis?” “No,” I said, “It’s mine.” Nothing specifically identifies my tallis as feminine. To the contrary, it is nondescript; white with blue stripes, the tallis my brother received for his Bar Mitzvah. The bag, too, is blue velvet with a gold embroidered star. I would have made the same mistake. The only thing that identifies my tallis as belonging to a woman are the lipstick stains.
I wear make-up and high heals, I like manicures and nice clothes; I am a girly girl. But when it comes to my prayer garb, I feel I will be taken more seriously in something considered un-gendered, neutral. But the more time I spend in traditional Jewish spaces, the more I have come realize that when we claim that a tallis is not gendered what we really mean is that it is male. And when we claim that we are creating egalitarian spaces what we really mean is that women are allowed to enter and participate in traditionally men’s spaces. Are we really only asking for women to find a role in a man’s world or are we asking to ungender the entire space?
Still from "Sermonizer" video
Judaism was a system created by men for men. To the rabbis of the Talmud, “all Jews” meant “all free men.” Today, I am in my second year of rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary. I spend my days immersed in texts that tell the lives, stories, and laws of those rabbis. As their words come to life for me, I feel more and more embedded in a vision of Judaism that will both allow me to honor my inheritance and bring my voice to bear on what future generations will inherit. My love of Jewish texts and tradition is not void of an understanding that my voice and the voices of many others are missing. If we are to exist in community where “all Jews” really means “all Jews,” we must live that out without exceptions, without caveats, and without apologies. We must hold ourselves to standards, not because we are expecting perfection, but because being in community means holding each other accountable.
This past fall, a group of seminary women at Duke University put out a parody of Britney Spears’ Womanizer. Taking the music of Britney Spears, they sang and danced on library tables about their own experiences as Lady Preachers in a music video they called Sermonizer. In reflecting on the video, one of the women, Christina, wrote,
I am a lady preacher because some of the best preachers I know are women. Because they stood behind pulpits and talked about periods and infertility, about rape, about divorce. Because they stood behind pulpits and said words that you don’t say in church. Because they helped me learn to say them, too.
I too stand behind a long line of women and their male allies who helped create a place where I can struggle openly and honestly with the inheritance handed to me.
And so, inspired by the Lady Preachers, a group of women at the Jewish Theological Seminary decided to make our own video for the JTS Purim Spiel: Rabbinical Girl, to the music of Madonna’s Material Girl. We did this because we are both proud of and proud to be at JTS. We make jokes about the absence of women’s restrooms on the fifth floor and the pressure often felt at JTS to be partnered, especially as women. Like the Lady Preachers, we were being silly. We were creating and sharing what we knew to be the best Purim Torah we could think of. And like so much of the best comedy that exists, there was no doubt truth in what we said.
There was a moment during editing of the video where I wondered out loud if some of what we were saying was too offensive. I immediately retracted my statement understanding that if we are not willing to publicly say what we believe at our core, we don’t stand for anything. And though we joke about being invisible to those in the non-egalitarian minyan at JTS, and pride ourselves on having worn tefillin since the 80s, the sentiments behind our jokes hold true. Because until we begin to redefine what a person who wears a tallis looks like, lipstick stains or not, and incorporate the experiences of non-masculine bodies and voices into our perceptions of what we mean today when we say “all Jews,” we are continuing to do nothing more than allow women to participate.
When we start from the premise that women and other minority members of our community must be affirmed, we are maintaining a system of patriarchy. Let’s start from the fundamental assumption that all members of our community are equal. I am not under any allusion that habits change over night. But the way we perceive gender roles can only change if we begin to shift the conversation to one that assumes that all roles are open to all people. Affirmation and allowance are not enough. Acknowledging that we are already on a path to full equality, this necessary phase of acceptance must move beyond a woman’s ability to enter into and participate in traditionally held men’s spaces and into one where roles and obligations are no longer questioned on the basis of gender.
It’s time we stop viewing particular women as honorary men. It’s time we stop giving women permission to take on certain roles. It’s time we raise a generation who no longer assumes the rabbi is a man. It’s time we embrace tradition not because it belongs to the binaries we’ve created of men and women but because it belongs to us.
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.”
Hey, Jewschoolers. Check out my piece in Heeb about Lou Reed, z”l. I’ll tease it here, and you can click on the link to read the rest on Heeb.
If you’re reading this, you probably already know that Lou Reed died. So, I’m not going to write a newspaper obituary. This is the internet; you can find betterones on your own, and learn all about why The Velvet Underground was such an important band and all that. I’m also not going to write one of those “Hey, Lou Reed kicked ass and Lou Reed was Jewish, so see? Judaism can kick ass too” kinds of pieces, nahmean? Let’s not stretch the Jewish thing, but take him at his word: “My God is rock’n’roll. It’s an obscure power that can change your life. The most important part of my religion is to play guitar.”
But I’m Jewish and Jewy and I do want to reflect about why I think Lou Reed’s artistry is so vital, how it reaches me, through my prisms, or as the case may be, mirrors.
“I’ll be your mirror
Reflect what you are, in case you don’t know
I’ll be the wind, the rain and the sunset
The light on your door to show that you’re home” (“I’ll Be Your Mirror”)
More than anything else, Lou Reed was our mirror, reflecting what we are, in case we didn’t know.
We are terrified of freedom, but deny it. Shaking off the effects of sterile Long Island and forced, adolescent, electro-convulsive “therapy” to “cure” him of his bisexuality (it didn’t work), Lou Reed grabbed a rock and roll public by the collar, spit in its face, made it stop averting its eye from anyone fearful, and look hard at what liberation really looks like.
To read the rest of this article, follow this link.
“Chain gleaming, switching lanes, two-seater.
Hate him or love him for the same reason.
Can’t leave it; the game needs him.
Plus, the people need someone to believe in.”
–Nas, “Hero” (2008)
In the past couple of days, since Rav Ovadia Yosef died at 93, the Jewish media, both published and social, have been abuzz with tributes about his towering scholarship, bold rabbinic leadership, controversial political and cultural impact, and his frequent episodes of vituperative and hostile verbal violence, especially late in his life. I have also seen comments by progressive Jews expressing surprise that so many progressive friends of theirs were showing the love to Rav Ovadia. As one friend put it: “My FB page is full of love for Ovadia Yosef-from lefty people? I thought he was kind of terrible?”
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 »
The man made a choice informed by his own views and information on the ground. Anyone hiding behind the “fact” that Israel is only democracy in the Middle East or that Palestinians have it better under Israeli rule or any of the other tired and lame excuses for the vile things being said about a physicist in a wheelchair, should be ashamed of themselves.
Perhaps as opposed to automatically blaming those who have the audacity to stand up and say something — even if it is seen as overbearing, inappropriate, or bias — the American Jewish community could say something about the Palestinians and how as Jews we don’t like the way they are being treated BY OTHER JEWS. I don’t know, that might actually work.
It might be time for a significant change in our approach to dealing with legitimate criticism of Israel. But it has been time for that for the last 15 years.
The following is a guest post by Efrem L. Epstein. Efrem is the founder of Elijah’s Journey, an organization focusing on the issues of suicide awareness and prevention in the Jewish community.
For several months now I’ve joked about the potential lawsuit I could file against Matthew Quick, author of the novel “Silver Linings Playbook” from which the film nominated for eight 2013 Oscars is adapted. On first glance, Pat Peoples (renamed “Pat Solitano” in the film) could only be based on me. We’re both die-hard Philadelphia Eagles fans, who took up dancing as a hobby, spent time living in Baltimore, wrestled with issues of life’s purpose and idealized love and battled the demons of depression and won (K’eyn Ayin Hara). In reality, I am hardly the only person in the world who can relate to Pat. Depression affects 350 Million globally and, in the U.S. alone, there are 1,000,000 suicide attempts annually. Many are surprised to learn that reported suicides outnumber homicides by more than a 2:1 ratio (and if one were to account for unreported/unconfirmed suicides the ratio would likely be closer to 3:1). In thanking David O. Russell after her SAG-AFTRA Best Female Actor win, Jennifer Lawrence proclaimed, “You made a movie for your son so that he wouldn’t feel alone, and so that he could feel understood. And I think I can speak on behalf of most of us and say that you helped more than your son. You’ve helped so many sons and daughters, husbands, wives, everybody.”
The positive lessons that can be learned from Silver Linings Playbook are so numerous that at times it feels like an entire social justice curriculum…and a good one at that! Not only does the movie enlighten us about tolerance and acceptance but it also offers some fresh and rich insight on how we as a society can move past many of our stubborn stigmas regarding depression, mental illness and emotional disorders (three cheers for Pat’s character being portrayed as both desirable and dateable even with his demons and flaws). And let’s not forget the lesson about how so many of our personal relationships (romantic, platonic and family) can be improved through more open and honest lines of communication. Silver Linings Playbook has also been a wonderful conversation-starter that has prompted many public figures to further share their own stories. I strongly recommend reading former Congressman Patrick J. Kennedy’s piece from The Daily Beast.
But the movie is especially poignant in my eyes for offering up a “playbook” of sorts for handling life’s curves. Life is, and should be, full of dreams but the dark side of dreams is that they often get shattered! Six months before Pat Solitano appeared on movie screens, Vice President Joe Biden gave many of us in the suicide awareness/prevention movement our own “Jackie Robinson moment.” Recalling the tragic accident which claimed the lives of his daughter and first wife, he recounted, “”For the first time in my life, I understood how someone could consciously decide to commit suicide…because they had been to the top of the mountain and they just knew in their heart they’d never get there again.” As we watch Pat move on from his old dreams to build new ones, we realize a truth of life: Bad things do happen to us and sometimes REALLY bad things happen to us, but even amongst our most shattered dreams there is always a road back to happiness. “Folks, it can and will get better,” Biden told the audience later in his speech.
The result is Wake the f**k up, a new video reminding us to vote (for Obama) that is getting a lot of attention and play on the youtubes.
I don’t personally feel it any great accomplishment of craft or cleverness, but is noteworthy in that JCER is now officially a Super PAC, has funding from George Soros and is using its funding to offer campaigns rooted in Jewish culture as a counterpoint to the Adelson cash flooding the election. Its also noteworthy in that it is circulating virally (voluntarily) rather than mass-cast on the airwaves. Its not Ezekial 25:17, but it has about the same amount of profanity (you have been warned) and is just as entertaining.Watch it here.
Asked whether Tel Aviv had any “personal significance” to him as a choice of venue for Lollapalooza, Ferrell gazed as he struggled to give a non-committal response, “Let’s just say that I think that it’s a place that needs good music. It deserves it, it demands it, and so it shall be.” Elsewhere he has cited Tel Aviv’s geography, lack of an international festival or a curfew… Very nice, but is that all?
Indie Rocker and Jewish Day School Alumna Regina Spektor
As those of you who have been following this season’s America’s Got Talent and/or have read my previous post know, one of the most promising contenders in the show is a religious Jew who is a singer. Not only that, but he is an incoming freshman at the Jewish high school I attended. Curious if any ICJA alumni before have ever enjoyed success and fame as popular musicians, I did some searching but could not find anything. To my knowledge, the only music icon to have graduated from ICJA was Disturbed front man David Draiman (who first spent some time at the Wisconsin Institute of Torah Study, WITS, and Torah Valley High in California).
I then expanded my search to include alumni rockers from any major Jewish day school in the U.S., the U.K., Canada, and Australia. (Incidentally, this search revealed volumes about the institutional identities of the individual schools. While some schools mention Nobel Prize winners and Rhodes Scholars among their graduates, others mention only male ‘notable alumni,’ and some only rabbis, major Jewish community leaders, and mega-machers. And some even mention convicted murderers. I’m looking at you, Charles E Smith Jewish Day School.) Interestingly, the rock star Jew-school grads hail disproportionately from Orthodox day schools. Care to interpret?
Anyway, on to the challenge (answers after the ‘more,’ but no peeking!):
which of these famous musicians attended which of these Jewish Day Schools? Hint: two or more may have attended the same school
Lest there be any doubt in your minds, Skokie, IL is the bastion of cool these days. Jewschool’s very own Adam Davis just moved there, I grew up there, and…oh yeah, the likely winner of this season’s America’s Got Talent hails from there too.
AGT Contestant and Skokie native Edon Pinchot, 14
Singing sensation AGT finalist Edon Pinchot is 14 years old and about to start high school at Chicago’s Ida Crown Jewish Academy this coming fall. He and his family live just blocks from my parents (who are long-time friends of his grandparents), and his parents are pillars of the orthodox Jewish community there. I remember his mother, Laurie—an exquisitely refined, thoughtful woman, from the Skokie Women’s Tefilla Group which I regularly attended in my pre-adolescent years. The rest of the family are also substantial folks who excel at what they do. More »
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.
In addition to her own distinguished career, Achinoam Nini (aka Noa) has a history of working on behalf of peace and reconciliation. Notably, she has partnered with Israeli-Arab singer Mira Awad, a Christian and resident of Haifa, on a concert tour and as the country’s entrants 2009 entrants into the Eurovision contest. This creative collaboration brought them wide attention around the world, mostly of the positive sort.
On Yom Hazikaron, the acclaimed international Israeli musical artist performed for a gathering of Combatants for Peace, an organization of former fighters and their families on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This recent performance brought on attention of a much uglier, vile sort from extremist corners in Israeli and North American Jewish corners.
Calling her “Garbage” and “Rat” and far worse. They’ve taken to facebook calling for a boycott of Noa’s performances, and Noa has responded.
Half Jewish Beastie Boy Adam Nathaniel Yauch (aka MCA, aka Nathaniel Hornblower) has passed away after a three year battle with cancer. He was 47. He was a practicing Bhuddist and active in many Tibetan causes. His passing comes a moth after the seminal hip hop act was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Share your Beastie Boys thoughts in the comments.
Following Earth Day it seemed appropriate to share that Academy-ward winning actor Russell Crowe will star in director Darren Aronofsky’s (Black Swan) feature film about the biblical boat builder, Noah. The film will be released spring 2014. Crowe’s depiction of Jewish detective Richie Roberts in American Gangster keeps coming to mind, how he was such an everyman. Now he’ll get to be an ish tzaddik tamim haya b’dorotav(A righteous man in his generation). Exciting. Hunky. Noah. I can’t wait for the musical. I wanna hear Crowe say, “I’m on a boat!”
“The news prompted the “Basic Instinct” writer to allege in a letter posted by the Wrap that Gibson, who was to produce and possibly direct the film, never wanted to make it because, as Eszterhas said of Gibson, “You hate Jews.”
When recently asked if he detects any Antisemitism among the House Republican caucus, Rep. Eric Cantor answered by not answering, rambling on about the continuing struggle to improve “religious and racial matters” in this country.
“We’ve continued to provide, ya know, equal treatment to everybody,” Cantor remarked. Best of all was his uncomfortable silence when pressed yet again to comment specifically upon his colleagues in the House. See for yourself:
Twisted Sister frontman Dee Snider will team up with Tony winners Patti LuPone and Bebe Neuwirth, in addition to Broadway veterans Cyndi Lauper, Clay Aiken and more on his new album Dee Does Broadway. The heavy metal singer’s forthcoming album will feature a selection of classic Broadway hits. Dee Does Broadway is set for release on May 8 on the record label Razor & Tie. Snider himself appeared in Broadway’s Rock of Ages, which features music from his band, in the fall of 2010.