The Jewish Literary Salon in Krakow, Poland - one of the many complex Jewish projects in contemporary Poland
In Dan Sieradski’s recent web project 31 Days, 31 Ideas, cartoonist and rootsman thinker EliValley suggests that the American Jewish community create “Birthright Diaspora.” Awkwardly conceived as a 10-day immersion in a Jewish diasporic site, the manifesto suggests that by creating a program in which Israeli and American Jews visit “global” Jewish communities located far from their own, their Jewish identities will transform into something better. Valley writes:
It’s time to expand our notions of positive Jewish identity and at long last move beyond an ideology that fretfully masquerades self-hatred as Jewish empowerment. By digging through centuries of global Jewish life, Birthright Diaspora will help transform Jewish self-awareness and break the dichotomy of “hero” and “victim” that has handicapped internal Jewish intellectual inquiry for decades. The goal is not merely widespread immersion experiences in global Jewish communities but a renewed understanding of Diaspora as a Birthright that forms the roots of Jewish consciousness. If implemented effectively, Birthright Diaspora can lead to an existential transformation in the way Jews and Israelis view themselves and the world.
It is a heartfelt manifesto, and what it lacks in theoretical precision it regains in passion. For many years now, there has been an emphasis on the next big “program” that will contribute to the strengthening of what we have come to call Jewish Identity and Community. Various ideological camps, including Jewschool, have claimed that by funding the notion of “global Jewish Peoplehood,” Jewish identity and community will bz’h undergo the type of “existential transformation” that Valley describes.
I am confident that longing for this type of existential transformation is a red herring, or even more troubling, a fantasy of our own power. By denying the reality that the Jewish Diaspora has geographically contracted and remained intact, our cultural activists continue to accept a model of a “shackled” community that pivots off a vague notion that, as Valley writes, “in the Jewish world, the interconnectivity often manifests itself through ripples emanating from the perceived center of Jewish life in Jerusalem.” More »
I do not hate orthodox believers. I do not hate Orthodox Judaism. I do not hate the haredi or their Judaism either. I like and dislike them as much as I dislike orthodoxy (lower case “o”) in any stream of Judaism, including Reform and Conservative and (yes even!) havurah hippyness. Which I think is why the vociferous, self-contradictory and abusive comments left by self-identified Orthodox Jews on Eli Valley’s latest comic at The Forward are missing the point. Then again, those commentors always miss the point.
Extremists are bad for Judaism. But the romanticization of those extremists — meaning views that put them at the top of the Jewish authenticity scale — is like admiring Islamic extremists for their “authenticity.” The vastness of religion is always shamed by a minority who will excuse their human desires through theology. Women are barred from leadership and study. Xenophobia is granted a divine rubber stamp. Social contract obligations are ignored. The rule of law is disregarded. I would think we can all agree on this.
Which is why I think anybody should be able read Eli Valley’s comic and see the truth of it without going berserk. No where does Eli say all Orthodox Jews are like this. If you feel defensive, then I recommend a particular course of action: speak up not to Eli but the speakers whose words are quoted. (Citations are here.) But the speakers of these words are not kicked out of communal leadership, shunned or defunded. In fact, quite the opposite.
If these speakers had no authority or little influence, they would remain our crazy uncle. But in Israel, the haredim control the Official Stamp of Judaism. And the Modern Orthodox bloc is the home camp of the settlers. And in America, as Eli rightly points out, starry-eyed and naive Jews leave a boring Judaism for another Judaism that at least has a mission. Because of this, we need to (and are) pulling down the boring Judaism and building something better. But we also need to point out that authenticity is a sham. And that evil is evil, especially if it’s authentic evil.
I don’t what you’re doing over MLK weekend, but I’m gonna be at Limmud NY at a hotel in the Catskills with 700 Jews from every age bracket and every Jewish background imaginable–in short, I’ll be hanging out in the most diverse Jewish community I’ve ever heard of.
We’ll be eating, singing, learning, teaching, and just plain hanging out. On Friday night, we’ll choose from 10 different services in a variety of styles of observance and music. From Friday January 15-Monday January 18 we’ll be learning from some of the most engaging teachers we could dig up and many of us will be doing some teaching of our own.
Some of this year’s most exciting presenters include Adin Steinsaltz (yes, that Adin Steinsaltz), Sara Hurwitz (head of Yeshivat Maharat), Joel Chassnof (hysterical comedian), JT Waldman (creator of the comic book of Megilat Esther and developer of the JPS Tagged Tanach, and many, many more. You could become one of them by volunteering to present or teach or perform or do what ever it is you happen to do!
Limmud NY is where I met my first Jewschoolers and where I first got keyed into the idea that I might be able to live a Jewish life independent of large institutions and the “official” Jews. It is truly the most eye-opening event I’ve ever been to.
You can register here. If you’re from the NY area, you can register for a scholarship, but the deadline for guaranteed scholarships is Monday.
So…Simchas Torah. Lately, it’s become famous for being the #2 Jewish drinking holiday, but my past few Simchas Torahs have all been pretty clean events — festive and debaucherous in that wholesome way where we jump around with the Torah and sweat up our thrift-store suits until we’ve soo earned every penny of that $15 dry-cleaning visit.
And it’s not just me, I don’t think. People have been raving about G-dcast in a way that makes me blush like they’re saying how good I look, and it’s all positive and gung-ho in a way that appeals to 5-year-olds. And David’s post about the new Moses movie that probably will owe more to 300 than Charlton Heston…but making an action movie about the Torah is as close as Hollywood will probably ever come to a studying-books-can-be-cool movie as we’ll get.
This year, I went to San Francisco. I’d somehow managed to convince my ex-boss, David Levithan (who wrote the awesome Boy Meets Boy, as well as the so-indie-its-jeans-hurt Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist), to narrate for us. So we did V’Zot Habracha with a bang.
Then, of course — because some good things don’t have to come to an end — we did our real conclusion episode, and did Bereshit again. (There was a whole huge concert, and Elana Jagoda performed her alterna-folk-dancey children’s anthems, and Julie Seltzer talked about being a soferet, but mostly talked about her project baking a different challah for every parsha in the Torah, and we all just generally rocked out.)
And then the lights dimmed, and we rewound the Torah, and showed our final episode.
“Judaism is the world’s most obsessive-compulsive book club,” says Aaron Freeman, standup comic, Storahtelling-certified Torah Maven, and occasional Jewschool contributor. “Every week, religous Jews read a portion or “parsha” of the Hebrew Bible, so that at the end of a year we’ve read the whole thing. Then we start all over again.”
In 2006, Aaron discovered a program called Comic Life and set out to create a weekly visual midrash. Originally illustrated with photoshopped pictures and titled “52 Parshas,” the strip evolved into the Comic Torah as his wife, artist Sharon Rosenzweig, offered to lend her considerable talents to the project if only Aaron would “stop sucking up to the rabbis.”
For three years, Aaron and and Sharon lived the book club life together: More »
There’s that thing that people say about the Torah: that every word and every letter is there for a reason. When I first saw Mayim Bialik’s G-dcast, I winced. I mean — she is, of course, smart and funny and clever — but she was, after all, Blossom. And the silly-hat thing — I mean, did we have to include it?
I should not have worried. Just like every word has its purpose, so too does every accoutrement have its purpose — including Mayim’s hat.
And, because we are nothing if not Torah-study completists, here’s the incomparable Dahlia Lithwick, of NPR/Slate/Newsweek fame, talking about the other Torah reading of the week, Nitzavim:
Now what could EV possibly be saying here? That Zionism is an untimely regression? That idolizing a culture so steeped in “us first”-ism will corrode our universal values? That claims to Israel’s moral superiority are embarrassingly Pyyric victories? Surely not! He’s just calling for a Jane Goodall to translate for us: we’re actually civilized, when you get to know us and lower your standards far enough.
You might remember the media hooplah in 2006 when DC comics introduced their newest incarnation of Batwoman, Katy Kane, who not only kicks ass but also enjoys breast and thigh. That’s right, the new Batwoman plays for my team.
Somehow, amidst all that hooplah, I missed any reference to another revelation about the society lady / crimefighter — she’s also Jewish. Apparently, DC’s Christmas special in 2006 included a depiction of Batwoman celebrating Chanukkah with her then-girlfriend Rene Montoya.
Well, thanks to Rich Johnston of Bleeding Cool for bringing this to my attention.
Why is this relevant three years later? Well, this week Batwoman steps out of the shadows to take the leading role in Detective Comics, the flagship Batman book. In issue #854, which debuted on Wednesday, neither of Katy’s identities get much mention — a chanukkiah is visible in her apartment, and there’s a backup story featuring Katy’s ex-girlfriend who has assumed the mantle of The Question.
It remains to be seen how relevant these will be to the story as it unfolds. But what is clear from this first chapter is that writer Greg Rucka and artist J. H. Williams III are great storytellers. The artwork is detailed and textured and iconic without being derivative, with pages that invite the eye to linger and indulge. The script unfolds at a perfect pace, drawing the reader into the mystery at hand with just enough details to hook you in without giving away what’s happening next. I haven’t read a DC comic in years, but I had no trouble diving into this story and knowing everything I needed to know about these characters and their world. A few of the jokier lines are groaners, but that only adds to the sense that these characters are real people.
Now, Batwoman isn’t the first queer superhero, and certainly isn’t the first Jewish superhero, and isn’t even the first queer Jewish superhero (that might be Marvel’s Wiccan, from the Young Avengers… he might not have been first, but he’s my favorite, so I don’t care). But she’s certainly the highest-profile queer Jewish superhero, and she comes to the fore at a time when…. oh, hell, can’t I just be excited at another queer Jewish superhero? When one’s identity fits into a fairly small box, it’s exciting to see that identity represented in pop culture, particularly in such a well-told story. Don’t take my word for it – go out and buy yourself a comic book.
(Yes, I know I’m mixing references with the title, but I couldn’t come up with a suitable riff on Holy XXX, Batman!)
If you don’t know about my obsession with Sabra, the Jewish superhero, then just Google around — I’m kind of a sucker for her. I mean, typical Israeli hotheadedness + super powers + guest appearances in “The Incredible Hulk” and “Uncanny X-Men”…well, it kind of equals my dream girl, if you set aside the facts that (a) she’s fictional and (b) I’m married.
Sabra’s official title is the “Defender of Israel,” which sounds like just about the cheesiest thing ever. She wears a blue-and-white uniform, sometimes with a long cape pinned together with a Star of David, of course, and half of the stuff the writers put into her mouth is gag-worthy, and half is totally, spot-on Israeli. When she’s written well, she is arrogant, good-humored, stubborn, compassionate…that mix of delicate qualities that are the quintessence of Israeli culture.
When I was on tour in Manhattan, I even wrote a poem as a pitch for an editor at Marvel Comics, imagining Sabra — who’s always been the ultimate secular Israeli — starting to dabble in being religious. Then I totally scrapped it and wrote a real pitch, which involved the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the religious-secular divide, some really deep character work and some stuff about getting over traumas that “Waltz with Bashir” totally plagiarized, even if they didn’t actually see my treatment.
In the past few years, she started making guest appearances, some wonderfully understated (in the background, portrayed with Yemenite features at Darkstar’s funeral in New X-Men) and some just cool cameos (like defending Israel from the Skrulls in Secret Invasion). Last week, Marvel released a Web one-shot short story featuring Sabra — and, while it’s cool to see our favorite (and, uh, second- and third-favorite) Israeli superhero in the limelight, it wasn’t exactly the most promising of beginnings.
The story opens on Sabra at a picnic with her mother. She meets a girl, Yael, whose father fought alongside Sabra’s father in the Israeli Air Force. Sabra relates her own story of being caught by HYDRA, a Marvel-universe terrorist group, and of her father dying while saving her. It wraps up nicely with the girl confessing her fears — “I don’t know what it’s like to fly,” she confesses — and Sabra swooping her up and taking her for a little flight above the Jerusalem scenery.
It’s a nice little sentimental story. No big whoop, no deeper meaning, and even (bonus!) an explosion. On a storytelling level, I have my complaints — the story wastes far too much time at this stupid party, which has nothing to do with the story Sabra’s telling. And, if we’re supposed to care about Sabra’s father saving her and dying in the act, we should at least see what the man looks like. It also feels a little bit like the writer, Matt Yocum, got most of his information about Israel from a quick Google search. Sabra herself has as much personality as a tube of toothpaste, and the 17-year-old girl’s wide-eyed oh-you’re-so-cool-ness — while it’s also uncharacteristic of Israelis (or, for that matter, anyone) — just doesn’t seem real, or give the reader any reason to care. When Spider-Man is awed to be in a room with Captain America and Daredevil, you can tell it’s because, under his mask, he’s a teenage fanboy.
In the Marvel canon, Ruth Bat-Seraph is a national hero. Sometimes, she’s revered; sometimes, she’s mind-controlled by evil bastards and the public hates her. But she’s never been a sucker. Perhaps the worst part are the token Jewish lines — “I never felt more like David…against HYDRA’s Goliath” — which seem like they were made to be used in Hebrew Schools. And the ending, in which Sabra tells the girl, “This is what our dads lived for. This is what they died for. You’ll make the right decision…” is cringe-worthy — not because it isn’t an inspiring thought, not because it’s not what they believe in, but because, in the entire story, we haven’t heard anything about what “this” is, or what it means to either Sabra or her young fan. If Sabra loves Israel, show us Israel. Don’t give us ten pages, not of Israel, not of a cool fight scene, but of talking about abstract ideas at a party.
Please, Marvel — give us more Sabra. But not like this.
Eli Valley does it again (click to see the full size). As a fan of Jeff Foxworthy and an antagonist of Abe Foxman, I am a little defensive on the former’s case. Personally, I love the tattoo “I <3 Marc Rich” on Abe’s arm.
If you read this comic and don’t laugh…you might not be a Jewschool reader.
Neil Swaab, the cartoonist behind the wickedly funny (and often simply wicked) comic strip Rehabilitating Mr. Wiggles offers his take on the intersection of the holiday season and worldwide economic meltdown:
(click on the image to view full size)
If you’re not familiar with the misadventures of Swaab and his teddy bear sidekick, Mr. Wiggles, enjoy diving into the strip’s archives. Beware: Mr. Wiggles is no Teddy Ruxpin. Wiggles is known for extreme sexual deviance and violence, pushing boundaries that you probably don’t even realize exist (and might wish you still didn’t after reading). Through his explicit humor, Swaab explores the nature of taboo in a world that seems increasingly devoid of any remaining taboos, to great effect. His extreme situations offer a way in to explore everything from the position of the weakest in society (such as in a hilarious and disturbing series in which Wiggles enslaved a senior citizen) to the loneliness and alienation of a single artist in the city. His take on religion is pretty cynical, but his strip on atheism will surely strike a chord with at least a few Jewschoolers (as it did with the editors of The Humanist, who reprinted it in this month’s issue).
Hereville is the work of Barry Deutsch, who also writes Ampersand, a political cartoon published in Dollars and Sense. Hereville is a complete story with a satisfying ending, but in the tradition of the best fantasy stories, it also is the first of what could be a great series of tales. Deutsch has expressed interest in continuing Mirka’s story in the future, and I hope he does.
Beyond the thrill of a well-told story that is steeped in Jewish culture without feeling forced or condescending, it’s a pleasure to read a story with an Orthodox heroine who’s both a feminist and feminine without being, well, a cartoon.