Decade In Review: J Street

Jewschool’s decade-in-review series began with the best JewFilms of the 2000s, and Independent Minyanim, Social Justice, and the Jewish food movement, and continues with this roundup of the J Street phenomenon.

J Street enters a political arena fraught with peril from all sides. Treading the line between being too far left for the mainstream Jewish community to handle and being too far right to offer any new ideas, J Street’s directors have managed to balance themselves delicately in a position that is new and refreshing, but not threatening. They offer clear and straightforward analysis of Israeli-Palestinian politics, and are consistently true to their Jewish and humanitarian principles.

The clear message that we should take away from J Street’s success and ease of operation is that we are living in a different world, a world where differing viewpoints on complicated topics are no longer going to be acceptable justification for mudslinging and name-calling, a world where mutual peace and security depend on our ability to accept those viewpoints and hash them out.

J Street has proven itself able to listen to others, and to hold constructive dialogues, something that most Jews have never seen an organization interested in doing with regards to Israel. This truly represents a new era of Jewish politics.

Decade in Review: Social Justice

Jewschool’s decade-in-review series began with the best JewFilms of the 2000s, Independent Minyanim, and the Jewish Food Movement and continues with this roundup of the Social Justice phenomenon.

Organizations which either didn’t exist or hadn’t yet gotten their voice a decade ago: Progressive Jewish Alliance (with regions in Los Angeles and San Francisco), Avodah: The Jewish Service Corps, which launched in New York, and now has branches in DC, Chicago and New Orleans, the environmental group Hazon, American Jewish World Service (actually AJWS with Ruth Messinger—whole different thing than AJWS), Jewish FundS for Justice, the New York group Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, Jews United for Justice in Washington DC, Boston’s Jewish Organizing Initiative, Minnesota’s Jewish Community Action. In addition, the eminence grise of Jewish social justice organizations, Chicago’s Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, hired Jill Jacobs, a Conservative Rabbi as Director of Outreach and Education in 2004, and started a summer seminar for rabbis (modeled on Interfaith Worker Justice’s “Seminary Summer”) which integrated Torah study and the practice of social justice. (Jacobs was then hired away from JCUA by JFSJ).

Cautious embrace of some social justice goals by the institutions of the Conservative and (to a much smaller extent) the Orthodox movements: Spurred on by the exposure of the unjust treatment of workers and the abuse of animals at the Agriprocessors meatpacking plant (see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here -this is not an exhaustive list- for various JS posts on this never ending source of nausea) in Postville, Iowa, the Conservative movement launched the so-called heksher tzedek. This is a kosher seal of approval which guaranteed that the product under supervision was manufactured ethically—that workers’ rights were being respected and that animals were not being abused. An Orthodox group called Uri L’tzedek (“Awaken to Justice”) organized shortly afterwards to the same end. Also during this time, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly approved a decision (a “responsa”) authored by Rabbi Jill Jacobs (by then having moved to the Jewish Funds for Justice as their Rabbi in Residence) requiring synagogues to pay their employees living wages. There is also a concurring responsa by Rabbi Elliot Dorff.
Finally, the latest Rabbinical seminary on the block, the Modern Orthodox Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCC) has a social justice track which culminates in doing a social project (Canfei Nesharim was started by students at YCC).

Add it all up: the old split between the Jews who are interested in ritual practice and Jews who are interested in ethical practice is finally being eroded. The practice of social justice as a Jewish textual and ritual and political practice got a solid footing in the past decade. Keep it up.

Decade in Review: Jewish Food Movement

Jewschool’s decade-in-review series began with the best JewFilms of the 2000s, and Independent Minyanim, and continues with this roundup of the Jewish Food Movement.

This last decade has seen a burgeoning of awareness into the source of our food, our lack of connection to our food systems and the environmental and health problems inherent in factory farm methods.

The Jewish community, like many communities around the country and globe, became much more active and involved in their food systems and spent much of the last decade establishing the foundations for real change that will bring us into the next decade with a better posture to protect our food security and protect our environment.

In 2000, a book came on the scene that, at the time, received little attention, but soon would be on many reading lists. I’m referring to Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America by Stephen Bloom, who wrote of a small group of New York Lubavitcher Hasidim who ventured to Postville, IA to run the Agriprocessors meat plant in 1987. No matter which way you look at it, this last decade in food in terms of Jewish community and involvement is most notably marked by the emergence of reports of worker and animal abuse and illegal activity in America’s largest kosher slaughter house. More »

Decade In Review: Independent Minyanim

Jewschool’s decade-in-review series began with the best JewFilms of the 2000s, and continues with this roundup of the independent minyan phenomenon.

Though the independent minyan wasn’t invented in the last 10 years, this decade has seen the tipping point in the growth of grassroots Jewish prayer communities, both in numbers and in impact on the overall Jewish scene. These communities differ from one another in their approaches to Judaism and Jewish practice, but they share a volunteer-led structure and a participatory ethic, and they operate outside the denominational institutions. They range in size from 10 people gathering in a small apartment on a Friday night to 500 people crowding into a church basement for Kehilat Hadar’s Yom Kippur services.

It’s nothing new that many Jews feel alienated from establishment Jewish institutions, but the independent minyan surge has happened in the past decade because, now more than ever before, the means, motive, and opportunity to act constructively on that alienation are all in alignment. More »

Decade In Review: Best JewFilms of 2000-2009

Operating in JST, we still haven’t released our ‘best of’ series as we reflect upon the last decade. This is the first of several posts in which we will review various aspects of Jewish culture in the past ten years.

Let’s face it: if there’s one thing Jews do, it’s watch films (unless they’re ultra orthodox, in which case they absolutely don’t). If there’s another thing Jews do, it’s criticize. Allow me to indulge in both of these glorious activities. Right now.

 keepingupwiththesteins1We all have our favourite hidden ‘Jew’ moments in films. Whether it’s the chaotic hava naglia scene in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985); when we meet the Royal Tenenbaum’s pet bird Mordechai (2001); the Heveinu Shalom Aleichem scene in Todd Solondz’s Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995); the creepily touchy-feely prison counselor with a golden ‘chai’ dangling from his neck in the opening of the Coen brothers’ Raising Arizona (1987), or, of course, the fact that the second instance of music in the first-ever feature-length ‘talkie’ is non other than Kol Nidrei (The Jazz Singer, dir. Alan Crosland, USA, 1927), film is a landfill of subtle references to all things Jewish. 


Perhaps my favourite Jew film of all time, the 2009 Academy Award nominated film, A Serious Man, outdoes itself in this sense: instead of a few understated touches in the mise en scène, the film is wall-to-wall Jewish; my immediate reaction upon leaving the theater after having watched it for the first time was, “for whom was this film made??”  The answer to this question seemed, curiously, quite obvious, when, after viewing this film several times with a variety of  friends, it became clear that  the multiple, cryptic Jewish references  flew by my non-Jewish friends, leaving them rather flummoxed by their inability to access the critical subtext of this film.  Usually however, what I am calling here a ‘Jew film’ reads more accessibly to its general audience. Whatever Jewish element is present in the film is noticeable enough to humour those privy to the joke but also sufficiently subtle to camouflage effortlessly within the rest of the film, thus not disorienting or confusing the general audience. 

In our context here, a “Jew film” will be defined as one containing some prominent Jewish element, such as an obviously Jewish character, prominent mention of a Jewish holiday, or other Jewish cultural references. For the sake of this list, I have not listed every Israeli film that has been made over the past ten years. On the level of logistics that would be rather unwieldy; on the level of content, I do not believe that everything Israeli automatically translates into ‘Jewish.’

(I once had a highly awkward argument with Israeli author A.B. Yehoshua about this.) Disagree with me if you must, but I am correct.

Upon reviewing this semi-complete list, I find it rather unsettling that a sizeable chunk of these selections are Holocaust-themed films. That is to say, many of these films are transparent expressions of the Holocaust-as-Jewish-identity theme that has haunted international Jewry for the past 60-some years.  One would hope that in the process of healing from the catastrophic events of the mid-20th century, “Jew Film”, while not abandoning the memory ofwib2 past horrors, might equally embrace the more vibrant and varied—if sometimes confusing—aspects of 21st century Jewish culture and existence.

Finally, I’d like to thank the Academy*—er, sorry—a handful of good friends who helped me compile this list: Tamar Fox (of, fellow teutophile Sonia Gollance, and former film collaborator Izzy Moskowits.

*(For any Jewish Chicagoans reading this, I am not referring to the high school I attended.)


Raysh’s top ten Jew films of the 21st century:
Winner: A Serious Man / Waltz with Bashir (a tie)


The other eight, in alphabetical order:

Alles Auf Zucker! (dir. Dani Levy, Germany, 2004)            

The Bubble (הבועה) (dir. Eytan Fox, Israel, 2006)                                                      
Kedma (dir. Amos Gitai, Italy/Israel/France, 2002)                                                      

Mary (dir. Abel Ferrara, Italy/France/USA, 2005)                                                  

Monsieur Ibrahim et les fleurs du Coran (dir. François Dupeyron, France, 2003)                     

O Ano em Que Meus Pais Saíram de Férias (dir. Cao Hamburger, Brazil, 2006)

Palindromes (dir. Todd Solondz, USA, 2004)                                                              

Sarah Silverman: Jesus is Magic (dir. Liam Lynch, USA, 2005)


The collective Jewschool writers’top Jewfilms of the first decade of the 21st century list:

Arranged (dir. Diane Crespo/Stefan C. Schaefer, USA, 2007)        

The Believer (dir. Henry Bean, USA, 2001)        

boratBorat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (dir. Larry Charles, USA, 2006)             

Everything is Illuminated (dir. Liev Schrieber, USA, 2005)             

For Your Consideration (Christopher Guest, USA, 2006)              

Keeping the Faith (dir. Edward Norton, USA, 2000)                                              

Keeping Up with the Steins (dir. Scott Marshall, USA, 2006)        

Late Marriage  (חתונה מאוחרת) (dir. Dover Koshashvili, Israel/France, 2001)    

Loving Leah (dir. Jeff Bleckner, USA, 2009)                                     

A Mighty Wind (dir. Christopher Guest, USA, 2003)                     

Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist (dir. Peter Sollett, USA, 2008)                                  

The Pianist (dir. Roman Polanski, France/Poland/Germany/UK, 2002) 

Trembling Before G-d (dir. Sandi Simcha Dubowski, Israel/France/USA, 2001)

A Serious Man (dir. Ethan and Joel Coen, USA/UK/France, 2009)                             

Sixty Six (dir. Paul Weiland, UK, 2006)

Ushpizin (האושפיזין) (dir. Giddi Dar, Israel, 2004)                                                           

When Do We Eat? (dir. Salvador Litvak, USA, 2005)

(Disclaimer: there are undoubtedly films I have missed here. This is where you come in: feel free to add more in the comments).



And here is every first-decade 21st century (2000-2009) ‘Jew film’ that comes to mind: More »