Empowered fisking

(Crossposted to Mah Rabu.)

The 21st-century independent minyan phenomenon has inspired many newspaper articles. However, the published “serious” writing (with the appropriate academic or intellectual credentials) on this topic is still far more limited, leading to founder effects, with a few mutations being propagated over and over. For example, Riv-Ellen Prell’s article in Zeek, comparing two generations of independent Jewish communities, is often cited as an authority. While Prell literally wrote the book on an older generation of havurot with an ethnographic study, there is no evidence that she did any primary research on the newer minyanim, or has even been to one; her main source of information on these communities seems to be the roundtable of minyan leaders that appeared in the same issue of Zeek. Yet that article is what there is. In the quantitative realm, the 2007 National Spiritual Communities Study gathered lots of valuable data on independent minyanim, but the report (and/or initial media stories about it) also originated some misleading conclusions that won’t go away. Rabbi Elie Kaunfer’s book Empowered Judaism isn’t the entire story, but there is absolutely no question that Kaunfer knows his subject, and it’s now out there as a real live book.

Margot Lurie’s recent review of Empowered Judaism contains many of the lazy smears about independent minyanim that we’ve been hearing for years (citing such sources as “one parent of a minyan-goer” and “a friend of mine”). Under other conditions, the best thing to do might be to ignore it. But this review is published in the Jewish Review of Books, which gives it the intellectual cachet to place it into the small pond of “serious” writing on this subject. So this review needs to be fisked in the bud before it becomes the next authoritative voice on independent minyanim.

So here we go.
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Shalom Auslander on the Rabbanut

I don’t think I really need to add anything.

Suddenly there came a furious knocking at my front door. Outside stood an ultra-Orthodox rabbi, with a big black hat, a long black beard, and a red canister of gasoline in his hand. Two young yeshiva students were at his side, one holding a clipboard, the other holding a baseball bat. I opened the door.

“Shalom Auslander?” the rabbi asked.

“Yes?”

“Shalom Auslander, the Jew?”

“What an odd question,” I said.

“Yes or no,” he said.

“Yes.”

The yeshiva student with the clipboard checked something off on his sheet of paper, and the rabbi handed me a small wooden box.

“It is my duty to inform you,” he said, “that you are no longer Jewish.”

HT Dan Sieradski via FB.

New Journal for Jewish Fiction

jewish-fiction-logo2

(from Dr. Nora Gold)

Announcing Jewish Fiction .net, a journal committed to showcasing the finest contemporary Jewish writing (either written in, or translated into, English), and creating a virtual home for writers and readers of Jewish fiction from around the world. Unique among English-language Jewish journals today, only Jewish Fiction .net is devoted exclusively to the publishing of Jewish fiction. The journal is currently inviting submissions for their first issue in the fall of 2010.

And God Said… what exactly?–a review of “And God Said” by Joel Hoffman

I have just read “And God Said: How Translations Conceal the Bible’s Original Meaning.” And it’s great. And you should all read it. I say these nice things by way of pointing out that you should think hard about all of the criticizing of this book that I’m about to heap on you and then go read it anyway because, despite my criticisms, the book is really quite good. It’s engaging, it’s funny, it makes sense and it’s written to appeal to anyone of any level of knowledge about the Bible or about Hebrew.

Hoffman, who I’m already a big fan of from his translations of the siddur in Larry Hoffman’s (father of Joel) My People’s Prayer Book series, attempts in this book to completely change the way we think about the process and purpose of translation, with the Bible as his case in point. After an initial section in which he lays out his rules and his process, each chapter deals with a specific, well known passage that Hoffman believes has been badly mistranslated. Among the words he dismantles our common translations of are ro’eh–usually translated as “shepherd,” b’chol nafshecha uvechol meodecha–usually translated as “with all your soul and all your might,” and lev–usually “heart.” There are others. More »

Happy Birthday Allen Ginsberg wherever you are

The Lion For Real by Allen Ginsberg

Soyez muette pour moi, Idole contemplative…”

I came home and found a lion in my living room
Rushed out on the fire escape screaming Lion! Lion!
Two stenographers pulled their brunnette hair and banged the window shut
I hurried home to Patterson and stayed two days

Called up old Reichian analyst
who’d kicked me out of therapy for smoking marijuana
‘It’s happened’ I panted ‘There’s a Lion in my living room’
‘I’m afraid any discussion would have no value’ he hung up

I went to my old boyfriend we got drunk with his girlfriend
I kissed him and announced I had a lion with a mad gleam in my eye
We wound up fighting on the floor I bit his eyebrow he kicked me out
I ended up masturbating in his jeep parked in the street moaning ‘Lion.’



Lion that eats my mind now for a decade knowing only your hunger
Not the bliss of your satisfaction O roar of the universe how am I chosen
In this life I have heard your promise I am ready to die I have served
Your starved and ancient Presence O Lord I wait in my room at your
Mercy.

Paris, March 1958

Keep Your Wives Away!

Last night I went to the JCC for a book launch event. Fresh from the printers, Keep Your Wives Away From Them: Orthodox Women, Unorthodox Desires is a new anthology by and about Orthodox queer women (including those on the transgender spectrum who were raised as women or now identify as women).

A half dozen authors read excerpts from their contributions to the book (or related publications), to a sold-out room. (Ok, ok, it wasn’t sold-out, because it was a free event. But there were chairs set up for maybe 50 people, and there were easily 150 there last night.) We heard stories of struggle and triumph, sadness and humour.

I was especially happy to hear another chapter from Leah Lax; she was an Artist-in-Residence at the NHC Summer Institute in 2007 and brought an entire room to tears with her story of births and abortion struggles as a still-closeted, married to a man, frummie.

What can I say? I was persuaded enough by those few excerpts to pick up a copy of the book for myself. If you’re interested in the intersection of orthodoxy and sexuality, check it out.

I saw the best garden gnomes of my generation…

I followed links from The Beat to Fantagraphics back to PLOG (The Presspop Blog) just so I can share with you this image of the vinyl sample of the forthcoming Presspop statuette of Jewish beatnik poet Allen Ginsberg.

Allen Ginsberg Statuettes

I desperately want one for my new office.

(I was a totally good kid in high school, but the one time I ever skipped school was to attend one of Ginsberg’s final poetry readings.)

“Crybaby” mocks, insults, teaches and touches

The 188th Crybaby Brigade: A Skinny Jewish Kid from Chicago Fights Hezbollah by Joel ChasnoffThe effectiveness of the Israeli Defense Forces is a miracle. Reading Joel Chasnoff’s humorous memoir, The 188th Crybaby Brigade: A Skinny Jewish Kid from Chicago Fights Hezbollah, you’ll find it’s a miracle they haven’t lost a major war yet. (Drum snare please.)

I’m no stand up, but Chasnoff is, which is where his book begins: as a wannabe comic going nowhere fast, he enlisted for a year in the IDF. The resulting hijinks with boot camp, the pushy parents of his Mizrahi girlfriend, and ultimately fighting Hezbollah in Lebanon became fodder for 270 pages of Israel-Diaspora satire.

But this isn’t Dad’s copy of The Jewish Book of Humor, put down the drum snares. Chasnoff’s straight man is himself — us Americans and Diaspora Jews by extension. Our assumptions (fantasies, really) of kickass, hardcore Jews become the joke just as much as the unprofessional (and deadly) antics of his platoon mates.

You learn a lot of military vocabulary through Crybaby. Most important, it seems, is mefageret – retard. In loyally reproducing the conversations of a teenage army, we learn the Hebrew for fuck up, whore, coward, dick, moron, disgrace, nincompoop, momma’s boy, zealot, and your mother’s cunt. What behavior could we expect from combat units staffed and run by 18- to 22-year-old males?

Male pride and military enthusiasm culminates with the most morbidly funny vignette in the book, “The Unluckiest Dog in Lebanon.” One night patrolling in Lebanon, Chasnoff sees the only action of his service: a heat signature through his Merkava tank’s night vision that could be a terrorist. Everyone awakes; the alarm is passed up the chain; the order comes to fire! Then Chasnoff identifies the “terrorist” — it’s a dog. A dog. Fueled by combat adrenaline, his commander nonetheless fires several shells. Several. Check the book for the conclusion.

The incident symbolizes the moment where the reality really kills the myth. All the training and technological mastery crescendos in a moment of absurdity. And humor is the only way to make sense of it.

I like this book because it shows us Israeli society at it’s most simple: as fickled and stratified as any other. Despite their bonding by shared boot camp hell, his fellow soldiers are awarded rank and job by virtue of racism. The whites become commanders, the Russians get second best, the Mizrahi get the worst. We may think all Israelis are heroes, but we count the notable percentage of his unit that didn’t pass boot camp. The book features cowards, drop outs, and the criminally reckless. A veritable alternate dimension.

I appreciate most that Joel Chasnoff doesn’t hit us with reality like a punch to the face. (As perhaps I am wont to do.) Instead he slowly and steadily pops our little sacred cows one by one, like a square yard of bubble wrap. It teaches as it pokes fun and it loves as it admonishes. Laughing makes both the Diaspora and Israel normal, even humble. I would highly encourage the use of this book by educators.

Ultimately Crybaby is a good book because it’s not a canned laugh track but a well-written story about a relatable Jew seeking manliness as America defines it. He comes of age not when he masters his tank or shows off his gun (see the trailer for that bit), but when he sees Israel for what it is and not what he wants it to be. And that, even if the book weren’t funny, would still make it touching and totally worth reading.

Subversive Sequels in the Bible

There is no more persuasive a proponent of the coherence and relevance of the Bible than Judy Klitsner in her new (new-ish, I’m a little late on the review here) book, Subversive Sequels in the Bible.

The premise of the book is that when the Bible appears to repeat a story or contradict one narrative with another, it is making a point or offering a new, equally valid read of the same issue or situation.

Subversive Sequels is a remarkably lucid, clear, easy read. Despite being relatively short, it is packed with creative, original, mind-blowing reads of of stories both familiar and obscure. The book will be accessible to any reader, regardless of prior knowledge. For those familiar with the Bible, it will be a refreshing way to revisit familiar territory. For those new to Bible study, it will provide the most engrossing intro possible.

In each of the first five chapters, Klitsner explores a biblical story and in the second half of the chapter explores a second story, which serves as a subversive sequel to the first.

In my favorite example, Klitsner explores the Tower of Babel. Her conclusion, the same reached by many classical commentators, whom she consults quite a bit, is that the sin in Babel was the oppression of the nameless citizens of Babel. Closely examining narrative styles, specific words and phrases, Klitsner demonstrates pretty convincingly that the story of Israelite slavery in Egypt is a subversive sequel to Babel. In Babel, God acts to end the oppression. Through the example of the remarkably named  midwives (compare with the completely unnamed citizen-slaves of Babel), the sequel encourages us to take matters into our own hands and act to end our own oppression.

The book is pretty much the greatest thing ever. So go read it. It’s gonna make you say “Wow!” more times a day than you’d expect.

Independent Minyanim: the book

(Crossposted to Mah Rabu.)

I’ve had the opportunity to lead rocking musical services in a number of great communities (such as Kol Zimrah, NHC, Limmud NY), and have been asked “Can you come to my community and lead a service like that?”. And the answer, of course, is no, I can’t. What made that service awesome wasn’t anything that I did; it was the participation of the whole community, which isn’t something that one individual can just parachute into an existing community and create. Then there are other people who get that one person can’t do it alone, and instead suggest “If a bunch of you come to my community and sing loud, then maybe services will be better.” Sometimes this works to one degree or another, but sometimes this, too, fails miserably, because even bringing in a group of enthusiastic people to an existing structure can’t always overcome other entrenched factors.

Both in the specific case of prayer and in the more general case of building meaningful Jewish community, it’s not enough to have a leader, and not enough to have a group of committed participants. The answer is both more difficult (since it’s not as simple as hiring a new rabbi or “bringing in more young people” or whoever the target group is) and more accessible (since it’s about what the community does, not about who does it, so it’s available to any community that is truly committed to it). If a Jewish community is interested in beginning the process of self-examination and transformation to become fully empowered (both in prayer and in other aspects of Jewish life), I recommend starting by reading Rabbi Elie Kaunfer’s new book, Empowered Judaism: What Independent Minyanim Can Teach Us about Building Vibrant Jewish Communities (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2010).

Empowered Judaism is a book about the newest wave of independent minyanim, as well as about a larger vision for Judaism and Jewish community. It offers something to many different constituencies: independent minyan organizers seeking to read about best practices from other minyanim, people in other Jewish communities who want to learn what these minyanim are all about and how to incorporate successful elements into their own communities, and future historians of this period in American Jewish history who want something more in-depth about the early 21st-century independent minyan phenomenon than the many superficial articles that have appeared in the press.
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New Golem Graphic

I came across this on facespace and thought it was quite interesting. The artist, Jason Kipp, resides in MN and I love his style.  He’s looking for page sponsors – for $90 you not only help him complete the graph’, you get two faces of your choice drawn into crowd scenes.  Geeky cool.

He’s trying to get this done in time for Comicon in May, so help a brother out.

The 188th Crybaby Brigade Book Launch

If you like funny things or Israel or books or Joel Chasnoff, go to the launch party for Joel’s new book, The 188th Crybaby Brigade: A Skinny Jewish Kid From Chicago Fights Hezbollah.

So sayeth Joel:

I will read to you. I will entertain you with a slideshow and movies if I can get my act together. Characters from the book will appear in the flesh.

Afterwards, drinks at a pub to be determined later.

Sound good?

Here are the details:

Monday, Feb. 15
7-10p p.m.
Borders Books Columbus Circle
New York City

Here’s Joel being funny:

Shall I let myself be translated alive? In Memory of Avrom Sutzkever (1913-2010)

It is with great sadness that I learned, a few days ago, of the death of the great modernist Yiddish poet Avrom Sutzkever ז”ל. Sutzkever’s immense talent as writer was matched only by his heroism as a freedom fighter.  During WWII, Sutzkever fought as a partisan and famously saved Yiddish documents in Vilna from destruction at the hands of the Nazis, who killed both his mother and his son. After the war, Sutzkever immigrated to Israel, where he became editor of the Israeli Yiddish literary quarterly Di Goldene Keyt.sutzkever

Sutzkever has never received his proper due among literary audiences, especially Jewish American readers, and if you have never read anything by him, I commend his understated but intensely powerful writing to your attention (yes, go ahead; buy two copies: one for you and one for the Yiddish lover in your life). Here is a poem he penned in 1948, entitled Yiddish:

Shall I start from the beginning?
Shall I, a brother,
Like Abraham
Smash all the idols?
Shall I let myself be translated alive?
Shall I plant my tongue
And wait
Till it transforms
Into our forefathers’
Raisins and almonds?
What kind of joke
Preaches
My poetry brother with whiskers,
That soon, my mother tongue will set forever?
A hundred years from now, we still may sit here
On the Jordan, and carry on this argument.
For a question
Gnaws and paws at me:
If he knows exactly in what regions
Levi Yitzhok’s prayer,
Yehoash’s poem, 
Kulbak’s song,
Are straying
To their sunset —
Could he please show me
Where  the language will go down?
May be at the Wailing Wall?
If so, I shall come there, come,
Open my mouth,
And like a lion
Garbed in fiery scarlet,
I shall swallow the language as it sets.
And wake all the generations with my roar!

How Jewish Women Mourn

A call for submissions was just sent out by Tamar Fox and her sister, Deena Fox, soliciting writing about the experiences of Jewish women in dealing with death and mourning.

The full submissions call is below, after the jump. They’re looking for all sorts of writing, but to show you the depth and breadth of the collection-to-be, I thought I’d include a little cut from Tamar’s bleak and wholly incredible blog, Blogging the Kaddish, which she wrote over a year of mourning for her mother:

It has been a pretty scary month since I stopped saying Kaddish. Two weeks ago the family gathered in Chicago for the unveiling of the headstone, and since then I’ve been feeling pretty strange. I’m calmer than I have been in months. I’m getting more sleep. I’m seeing more of the people I want to see more of. I’m riding my bike, and reading interesting books and staying up all night with friends drinking whiskey and laughing. I don’t think I’m better, really. I certainly have a lot more “grief-work” to do, but I think that ending Kaddish allowed me to settle into my grief in a way that I never could during the eleven months.

For me, saying Kaddish was really a struggle. It hurt, but it felt important. I guess it was like the intense ache you get in muscles after you work out really hard. The next day it’s painful, but also a sign of increasing strength. You’re not exactly glad for the pain, but you appreciate that it’s necessary for the work you have to do.

Now here’s how to submit.
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Sh’ma at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in SF

More info.

What I’m Reading

I’ve been a little quiet here lately (although not in the comments section!). I’ve been busy with work and school and life and jet-setting (if a day trip to Cherry Hill to teach attendees of the USCJ Biennial Convention how to be nicer to gay people counts as jet-setting). But I’ve also found some time to do a bit of reading. My secret? Google reader and the Barnes & Noble e-reader on my phone make multi-tasking while I poop loads of fun, no pun intended. And audiobooks enliven even my minuscule 15-minute commute.

Anyway, dear Jewschool readers, I figure if you’re here, reading this very blog, then you might also enjoy reading (or listening) to the self-same things I am reading (and listening to). So here’s dlevy’s list of recommended reading (and listening) for the moment.

First, let’s talk about Philip Roth. Love him or hate him, it’s hard to deny that his window into the behavior of American Jews in the twentieth century is unique and provocative. I fall into the love him category, although I admit I haven’t read a ton of his work. However, I recently reacquainted myself with the shorts collected in Goodbye, Columbus and Other Stories. I took the audiobook out of the library and have been listening in the car all week. The stories are fantastic, but we know that. The performances here are all equally phenomenal. John “Pippin” Rubinstein, Jerry “I Made Nathan Lane a Star” Zaks, Elliot “I Shtupped Barbra Streisand” Gould, and Theodore “Topol Who?” Bikel each bring their own particular charm to some of Roth’s best. But Harlan Ellison’s rendition of “Defenders of the Faith” elevates the story to new heights. I was totally blown away by his performance, and the way this story of soldiers during WWII came alive through it. I won’t say much more in case some of our readers aren’t familiar with the story, but despite its setting, the issues it raises are still relevant in Jewish communities today. Fantastic.

Outside the world of literature, I’ve found myself visiting and revisiting a bunch of blogs that are worth plugging here.

Cupcake Menorah

Eat Me Daily is not a Jewish blog. It is, as you might guess, a food blog. It’s relatively new on the scene – I believe it’s been around for just over a year – but it’s reliably entertaining, with a mixture of original content and links to fun food stories out there in the interwebs. This week two posts in particular caught my Jewy attention: the Cupcake Menorah and Finagle-a-Bagel Webisodes. !בתאבון

Jew Point 0, the blog of Darim Online, features some interesting insights into how Jewish organizations are using internet technology to achieve their goals. The posts can be a little inside baseball, but as I’ve mentioned before, that’s my thing.

Teddy Bear reading Kafka Comicjew on this might be best described as the Jewschool of Australia, although that doesn’t really do them justice. Like Jewschool, it’s a group-authored blog from a progressive viewpoint. In their own words, they are “jews who ponder, not just wander. we’re writing about stuff. thinking critically. eating jewishly (because we all know how important food is to jewishness, and we all love that that is so).” Chances are, if you like Jewschool, you’ll like jew on this as well.

Punk TorahModern Tribe’s Jewish Life and Style has become the blog home of Punk Torah. The blog is a mix of how-to videos (way more entertaining — and accurate — than eHow) and d’vrei Torah on the weekly parsha, with a smattering of other features and the occasional plug for Modern Tribe’s products. Patrick Arthur and friends break down Judaism to make it accessible with a punk rock attitude mixed with southern hospitality. (You can also follow him on Twitter.)

Old BooksFinally, a blog that I’ve subscribed to with my trusty RSS reader but haven’t had the time to fully explore is The Jewish Writing Project. Envisioned as a place where anyone can share stories about what being Jewish means to them (regardless of how or whether they self-identify as Jewish), the site also has a commitment to quality (that includes an editing process! on the internet! Praise the Lord!) that makes me hopeful.

I’m also gearing up to write my master’s thesis, which looks like it’s going to involve quite a bit of reading about informal Jewish education, technology, modern American-Jewish history, and more, starting real soon. So get ready for some super nerdly over-sharing from me in the coming months.

The Law of the Land

The new Sh’ma is out. It’s got some great articles about the intersection of Judaism and “the law of the land” (i.e. this land), and responses to a wonderful passage from Agnon about Hanukkah — its not what you would think.

Check it out:

Look Inside >>
December 2009, The Law of the Land is the Law

The Invention of the Jewish People

Shlomo Sand‘s book The Invention of the Jewish People has come out in English translation. It is intentionally provocative and explicitly political, and it has hit a cultural nerve. The New York Times, the largest circulation Jewish daily in the world, has taken it up, as have others.

Here is a sampling:

(Hat tip to Jewlicious for the Schama piece.)