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.
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.
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. More »
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.
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 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,
Smash all the idols?
Shall I let myself be translated alive?
Shall I plant my tongue
Till it transforms
Into our forefathers’
Raisins and almonds?
What kind of joke
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,
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!
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.
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.
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.
jew 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.
Modern 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.)
Finally, 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 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.
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.
I was a little bit late to the game myself, only catching up with the book in September. If you haven’t read it yet, let me tell you – don’t wait. It’s a great window into how one person grappled with the big questions of life, and as you know from reading Danya here, she writes with panache. She also writes with extensive footnoting, which makes for a memoir that has the feel of a great (and very accessible) academic work. We’re Jews, we tend to interpret our lives through text (and interpret our texts through life), and the way Danya weaves in the voices of those who have written before her reflects this ethos in a thrilling way.
Apparently, some other people got nominated too. I have neither read their books nor shared webspace with them, so I offer their names and titles without further comment:
Lila Corwin Berman – Speaking of Jews: Rabbis, Intellectuals, and the Creation of an American Public Identity (University of California Press)
Ari Y. Kelman – Station Identification: A Cultural History of Yiddish Radio in the United States (University of California Press)
Kenneth B. Moss – Jewish Renaissance in the Russian Revolution (Harvard University Press)
Sarah Abrevaya Stein – Plumes: Ostrich Feathers, Jews, and a Lost World of Global Commerce (Yale University Press)
Mazel tov to them too, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I’m rooting against them. (Look, I don’t watch sports, so ever since America’s Next Top Model stopped being good, this is about as invested as I get in any kind of competition.)
For a somewhat less biased and more informative take, read the press release from the Jewish Book Council.
When I was younger, I was half convinced that all gay people were Jewish. Certainly, the only images of gay people I saw in the media were characters in the plays of William Finn, Tony Kushner, and Paul Rudnick. (That I considered Broadway plays to be “the media” is likely a unique feature of having been a gay, Jewish, middle-class kid.) I’ve remained a fan of all three writers ever since, so I was delighted to see that Rudnick had a new memoir out last month.
I Shudder is a collection of autobiographical essays very much in the David Sedaris mold, although Rudnick’s New Jersey Jewish relatives, New York theatrical exploits and Hollywood headaches provide quite a different framework for his humor. It’s to his credit that stories about his great-aunt Lil are every bit as entertaining as his account of visiting a real-life nunnery for inspiration while writing Sister Act. His only missteps come in the segments that give the book its title. Peppered throughout the book are “Excerpt[s] from the Most Deeply Intimate and Personal Diary of One Elyot Vionnet.” Rudnick certainly can write in character — his “If You Ask Me” column in Premiere magazine, written as middle-aged housewife Libby Gelman-Waxner was hysterical — but Elyot’s complaints about the insufferable people one encounters in life don’t measure up. These essays’ weakness is only made more visible by their inclusion in an otherwise fabulous collection.
Rudnick isn’t the only gay Jewish funny man with a new collection of autobiographical essays. Eddie Sarfaty, a stand-up comedian who’s probably best known to those who summer in Provincetown (where he’s had a regular gig for many seasons) has produced Mental: Funny in the Head. I’ll say up front that it’s unfair to Sarfaty to compare his book to Rudnick’s — but they came out within months of each other, and I read them back to back, so what can you do? On the other hand, I have a soft spot for Sarfaty because he performed a stand-up show as one of Keshet’s very early fundraisers, back before anyone had ever heard of us.
My feelings on Mental are much more mixed. When it’s at its best, such as when Sarfaty writes about his relationships with older relatives, it’s both funny and touching. (His publisher has posted Second-Guessing Grandma, the first essay in the book, for free on-line.) But too much of the book doesn’t measure up to its best parts, and I found myself impatient for chapters on the comedian’s sex life to end so I could get to the good bits about his European vacation with his parents. The nice part of a book like this is that you can skip past chapters you don’t like without worrying that you won’t be able to follow what comes next. The essays aren’t presented chronologically, and when events from previous essays are mentioned, they’re explained as though the reader is encountering them for the first time. I loved roughly half of the essays, but could have done without the other half. (My favorites: “My Tale of Two Cities,” about the aforementioned European trip; “Can I Tell You Something?” detailing the comedian’s experience teaching a stand-up class for amateurs; and “The Eton Club,” a tribute to a certain kind of gay culture that died off with AIDS.)
Both Rudnick and Sarfaty profess their own distance from Jewish religion, but both books are infused with Yiddishkeit, from the focus on Jewish family dynamics to the meditations on how Hillel’s teachings might inform the way we partake in online cruising sites. Neither book is likely to inspire readers to find any great insights into Jewish culture, but I suspect most Jewschool readers will find many moments in each that provoke a knowing smirk of familiarity.
This year Sh’ma is inaugurating a monthly column in which authors from across the Jewish spectrum address the question: What are the idols that you had to/still have to smash in order to move on in your religious/Jewish life? I introduced the column and wrote the initial essay here.
Jewschool’s own Danya Ruttenberg was interviewed by Haaretz. It’s a great read, and not only for her not-so-subtle dig at Shmuley Boteach:
There are plenty of people who find Shmuley Boteach’s simplistic approach [to "kosher sex"] to be insultingly dumbed-down Judaism. He’ll say, “This is what the Bible says,” and then give a one-sentence answer to a complicated question that cuts out 2,000 years of serious discussion and debate. Certainly, the Bible didn’t say that, whatever “that” is, and it’s not certain that rabbinic texts said it either. We can give ourselves and our children the opportunity to see the dynamism in Jewish thought, and to see that faith and engagement don’t have to come at the expense of our intelligence. There are plenty of people who are looking for something more nuanced. There’s definitely a class of educated, sophisticated lay Jews in America who want to have a serious conversation, and one that takes them seriously.
The rest of the interview touches on feminism (is it ruining Judaism?), Israel (not just a false dichotomy?), sex (you can salt your meat?), and topics that I would like to see in a sequel to her book, “The Passionate Torah: Sex and Judaism” (pornography, anal sex, and sex toys – oh my!). Full Haartez article is here.
Next Wednesday, July 8, I’m doing a free reading at the 92Y Tribeca with
one of my heroes. Michael Muhammad Knight wrote the Muslim punk-rock novel “The Taqwacores,” which might just be my favorite spiritual book ever. Sure, we get alterna-Jewish stuff tossed at us from every direction, but MMK started from ground zero, taking the seemingly disparate elements of punk culture and Muslim spirituality and fusing them together in a book about what matters most. (In the book, he wrote about an imaginary socio-political-art movement called Taqwacore — which, amazingly, solidified into a real movement after people read the book and were inspired to form bands. If you haven’t heard me rave about him, you don’t have to lookveryfar.
My own first novel, Never Mind the Goldbergs, was my kind of punk-rock Jewish fantasy. In it, a 17-year-old punk Orthodox Jewish girl is trying to prove to the world that it isn’t a contradiction in terms to like loud, passionate music at the same time that you like loud, passionate praying. (And then she stars on a TV sitcom, where she’s basically not allowed to be loud or passionate about anything.)
I might read some of Goldbergs and/or my memoir about becoming observant, Yom Kippur a Go-Go, as well as something new and exciting and unprepared. And then we might talk about the cultural value of revolution…
I admit it. The reason I haven’t posted up until now on the amazing new book by Rabbi Jill Jacobs is only partly because I’ve been reading it slowly. Really, a big part of it is that books this good just don’t come around all that often, and I’m feeling kind of 1st grade-ish about sharing. But we all have to grow up sometime. Or at least, if we don’t someone will come along and make us share our toys. Ahem.
Grounded deeply in Jewish text, Rabbi Jacobs begins with her own journey to understanding how Jewish canonical texts are actually far more deeply invested with the everyday experience of poverty and need than most of us will (God willing) ever be, and how allowing the midrash, the talmud and other of our classical works to really enter us, not as something which we read for fun or education just because they’re important texts, but to really become doors to a perception of God and our fellow human, can cause us to be transformed through those texts, in the way that the rabbis meant us to be.
While she does this, Rabbi Jacobs also takes on the imprecise… well, let’s be honest, the complete meltdown of “Jewish” terms such as “Tikkun Olam,” “Tzedek” (as in the ubiquitous, and so therefore now nearly empty, verse “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof,” the favored phrase of Jewish organizations that don’t know – or at least can’t be bothered to find – any other text, no matter what the topic under discussion) and “Prophetic Judaism” into the utterly meaningless and restores them to a Jewish and more faithful context. (And can I say, thank you thank you thank you.)
This isn’t to say the book is completely without flaw. Like the tradition of leaving in tiny flaws to prove that a human creation cannot be perfect, there are some minor quibbles I have here and there. Primarily, I think that Rabbi Jacobs occasionally slides between “we can say that…” and the assumption of the supposition. Or that there doesn’t seem to be much room for the individual and national relationship/communion with the divine in any context other than social justice. But these are minor quibbles in a book so terrific, that I will be buying it for all my friends. How can I make any complaints about someone who at least implicitly supports my observance that, while everybody loves Hillel, it is Shammai who in his grumpy stringency, is actually the one who is more concerned for the disempowered and helpless (p. 32).
Rabbi Jacobs’ book also includes an excellent, concise introduction to the canonical texts, meaning that even the beginner can make sense of what she writes, and, I hope, that in reading her work will come to see that Judaism and social justice cannot be untangled from Judaism and Jewish law – that the system is a holistic one, and that Judaism does indeed give us a mission.
As Jacobs herself states in the conclusion, wrapping up her fine book with a brief codicil about Judaism in the public sphere,
“What is missing… is a real public discussion about how Jewish law and tradition might address contemporary policy questions… when Jews engage in the public discourse as Jews, we should bring Jewish law and principles into the conversation in such a way as to enrich… discourse…The commitment to living our Judaism publicly should then push us to take public action on these principles, both as individuals and as a community… We will witness the emergence of a Judaism that views ritual observance, study and engagement in the world as an integrated whole, rather than as separate and distinct practices.”