This is a guest post by Rabbi Oren J. Hayon, the Greenstein Family Executive Director at the Hillel Foundation for Jewish Life at the University of Washington.
In his biography of Pyrrhus of Epirus, Plutarch recounts the details of the ancient Greek general’s costly victory against Rome at Asculum in 279 BCE. According to Plutarch’s account, shortly after the battle, Pyrrhus considered the devastating losses to his Macedonian troops and made the dark but prescient reflection: “If we were to be victorious in one more battle against the Romans, it would utterly destroy us.” [Life of Pyrrhus, 21:9]
The story of that long-ago battle comes to remind us that some victories produce a sense of exhilaration so intoxicating that they prevent us from realizing that we are actually marching unwittingly toward defeat. I write these lines in the immediate aftermath of a period in the life of our organization which looks unmistakably like a time of triumph. Nevertheless, as I write, I am keenly aware of how we have been diminished by the events of this year. I find myself surprised and concerned about how much we have lost, and about how much more we stand to lose in the future. More »
This is a guest post by Jesse Paikin. Jesse is a rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion, where he has also received a Graduate Certificate in Jewish Education. Before attending HUC-JIR, he worked for a Jewish nonprofit, running educational youth travel programs around the world. He currently lives in Jerusalem and also blogs at jessepaikin.wordpress.com and The Times of Israel. Follow him at @jessepaikin.
Unrecognized Bedouin Village, Negev Desert, October 2013
Israel’s Negev Desert is not a hospitable place. Vast, dusty, and scorching hot, it takes a great deal of effort to live on this land. Yet it was out of this very land that the Jewish people emerged, and from which the modern State of Israel was birthed. Anyone who has walked its canyons can attest to the feeling of ancient history pulsing out of the stones. Anyone who has laid their head down on the rocky bed and gazed up at the bowl of stars has felt the awe-inspiring power that emanates here. This is the place of the still, small voice.
David Ben-Gurion said that it is in the Negev that the creativity, vigor, and spirit of Israel will be tested. He prophesied that it would be there that the standing of Israel in the history of humankind would be determined (“The Significance of the Negev,” 1955)
Perhaps he was more correct than he knew. Today, close to 60 years after Ben-Gurion presciently spoke of the relevance of the desert, Israel faces a monumental test in this place. Israel’s treatment of its Negev Bedouin population is a trial that has the potential to unravel the dream Ben-Gurion envisioned over half a century ago. The Negev is not only the place where the creativity, vigor, and spirit of Israel are tested; it is the place where the conscience, values, and social values of Israel are being tested today.
Two and a half months ago, I moved from Boston to New York.
I had lived in Boston for 33 of my 35 years, but I had always wanted to live in New York, and the time was right. When speaking with friends after the move, the refrain was the same. “I don’t miss it. I was ready to go.” I’ve missed my friends but not my city.
And then bombs went off at the Boston marathon.
It’s hard to overstate the role of the marathon in the life of the city. The state takes a holiday. (The entire state, not just the city, as Boston does on St. Patrick’s Evacuation Day.) People flood into the city from around the world. And rather than run the other way, as Bostonians tend to do when confronted with tourists, instead we line the entire route of the marathon so we can cheer: for our friends, for our visitors, and for our city.
I work in a relatively small office, and three of us have moved to NY from Boston in the last three years. So when one of the others interrupted a meeting I was having to say, “Have you heard about Boston?” I had no expectation that those words would bring bad news.
Nothing is worse than being the direct victim of violence. But being far away from those you love, not knowing what’s going on, and seeing only a stream of “I’m okay!” and “here’s what we think is happening” and especially “here are the ways we can all help” flood my Twitter and Facebook feeds does a number on you.
Last night, I was looking at Twitter on my way home and saw a friend in Boston had shared a picture from Brooklyn of BAM lit up with messages of support for Boston. In a moment of synchronicity, I happened to be getting out of a cab in front of BAM at that moment, so I walked around the building to see the display for myself. There was a small crowd of people taking pictures and offering comfort to each other.
A blogger with some handheld video device approached me and asked if I would be interviewed on camera. I figure bloggers should help each other out, so I agreed. He asked how I was feeling on that day, and I shared that I was a recent Boston transplant so the day was difficult, but thank God as far as I knew everyone in my life was safe. He then started down the path of comparing what happened to daily life in Syria. I cut him off and said something about how I knew that today alone in Iran the fatalities outnumbered anything in Boston, and that people all over the world were suffering, and it was important for us to remember that too. And then I got myself out of the conversation because I didn’t want to become a pawn in some kind of project of comparative suffering.
Over the course of the last two months, I’ve been participating in the Shalom Hartman Institute’s iEngage program, which offers a text-based approach to discussing the State of Israel through the perspective of Jewish values. (I now work for the Institute, so in this course, I am both participating and learning about one of our own programs.) Rather than dealing with fact sheets or calls to activism, iEngage challenges us to grapple with ideas like “what are the Jewish values around power and powerlessness,” and “what does a Jewish conception of democracy look like,” and “what exactly is Jewish peoplehood?” We study texts ancient and modern, guided by the Institute’s scholars and in chevruta with our colleagues.
The particular cohort for my iEngage group is Jewish social justice professionals, with a mix of folks from the lefty spectrum, including staff members from New Israel Fund, T’ruah, Keshet, Jewish Community Relations Councils, etc. In our discussions of Jewish peoplehood, some of the participants bristled at the concept, feeling like it was ancient chauvinism morphed into some kind of Zionist guilt-trip. For me, a sense of Jewish peoplehood has always been more about a deep-felt connection to people around the world and throughout history, most of whom I’ve never met and many of whom I’m sure I wouldn’t like very much if I did. The idea that we look out for our own first (but not only) and worry about those with whom we share a connection more than those from whom we are disconnected has never felt chauvinistic to me. It feels human.
And until yesterday, I never realized how much I feel that same connection to the people of my home town. And when the (certainly well-intentioned but misguided) blogger outside of BAM implied that my concern for my fellow Bostonians was somehow misplaced in light of suffering in the rest of the world, it came together for me, and I got angry. I am capable of complex thought and multilayered emotion. I can grieve for Boston without belittling Syria, Iran, or anywhere else in the world where people suffer. I can be a member of the Jewish people while also being a citizen of the world. I can be a New Yorker and be a Bostonian. And how dare anyone imply otherwise.
Now that January is here, and the Israeli election is just a few weeks away, it’s time for… JANUARY MADNESS!!!! You may recall March Madness from 2006, or February Madness from 2009. Now, Jewschool and Mah Rabu are excited to announce our third Israeli elections prediction pool!
How to Enter: Go to the January Madness link and put in your predictions for how many seats each of the 34 parties will win. All predictions must be non-negative integers (0 is allowed), and your predictions must add up to 120. Entrance is free, but there is a suggested donation of $10 to the organization of your choice dedicated to making Israel the best it can be. Israeli citizens are encouraged to vote in the actual election as well.
Prizes: The winner gets a copy of The Comic Torah, which one Jewschool contributor has called “the perfect match for the zany lunacy and unbridled blood lust of today’s Israeli politics”. Second place gets a copy of Ghettoblaster by So Called, because the Yiddish Hip-Hop Accordion Party wouldn’t be out of place in the Knesset elections.
The Rules (for the real election): The 34 parties have submitted ordered lists of candidates. Here are the full lists in Hebrew, and partial lists in English. On election day (January 22), Israeli citizens will go to polling places in and near Israel, and vote for a party (not for individual candidates). All parties that win at least 2% of the vote will win seats in the Knesset, proportional to their share of the vote. For example, suppose the Pirate Party wins 1% of the vote, One Future wins 33%, and Kulanu Haverim wins 66%. Then the Pirate Party wins no seats in the Knesset (since it was below the 2% threshold), and the other parties will proportionally split the 120 Knesset seats: One Future gets 40 seats (so the top 40 candidates on its list are elected), and Kulanu Haverim gets 80 seats. If vacancies arise later in the term, there are no special elections – the next candidate on the party’s list (e.g. #81 on the Kulanu Haverim list) enters the Knesset. It is mathematically possible for all 34 parties to win seats in the Knesset, but experts say it is unlikely.
The Rules (for the January Madness pool): The deadline to enter is Monday, January 21, 2013, at 11:59 pm Israel Standard Time (4:59 pm EST). When the final election results are published, each entry will receive a score based on how many Knesset seats were predicted correctly. For example, suppose the results are as in the above example (Kulanu Haverim 80, One Future 40). I predicted 60 seats for One Future, 50 for Kulanu Haverim, and 10 for Da’am Workers Party. Then my score is 90, since I correctly predicted 40 seats for One Future and 50 seats for Kulanu Haverim.
Ties will be broken based on two tiebreaker questions:
1) Of the parties that do NOT win seats in the Knesset, which will come closest?
2) Which party will get the FEWEST votes?
The tiebreakers will be resolved in this order: exact match on question 1; exact match on question 2; closest on question 1 (if you picked a party that DOES win seats, you’re out of consideration for this one); closest on question 2.
In the coming weeks, we’ll put up a post with a handy guide to all the parties, and links to their websites.
If you have other questions, post them in the comments. Good luck!!!!
Tellingly, the head of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, Rabbi Garry Skolnick, gave hint to this counter-current in an email blast: “When Protestant groups are pushing for a total reconsideration of all American foreign aid to Israel and Iran is working hard to develop the capacity to go nuclear, we must be thoughtful as to how, and in what forums, we choose to address the very real issues that are of burning concern to us.” He continued, “Yes, Israel must change. But those of us who love her must help her change, not hurt her through our good intentions.”
As one (female) Jewschool contributor quipped, “No one’s got the tits at all in this movement.” But it’s not just “wussing out” on women’s rights as another contributor said, it’s the obvious selective outcry of institutions joining this particular outcry. They’ve been silent on recent offenses equally important — and in a few cases, even more dire. More »
This is a guest post from Pork Memoirs, a story project about pork and identity by friend-of-the-blog and food journalist Jeffrey Yoskowitz. His project seeks to “explore the struggles and celebrations of our often complicated relationship to the ‘other white meat.’” This Purim-themed memoir introduces Ari, a disaffected secular Israeli whose anti-religiousness manifested itself in baking pork-themed hamantaschen.
Ari Miller • Tel Aviv, Israel
Hamantaschen were an annual feature of my American-Jewish childhood. I made them with my mom and siblings. They were filled with poppy seeds because dad liked them, cherries because we all liked them and prunes because Jews will purchase any pie filling if put on sale.
When I became a baker in Tel Aviv it seemed only natural that I would make oznei haman, as the cookies are called locally. (It became hard to explain hash-entaschen in Hebrew, but that’s another story.) I have no religious leanings, mind you, it’s just that there are professional expectations of a baker. More »
As the new year begins, here at Jewschool we put together an entirely unscientific, completely biased view of some of the best and worst of 2011.
2011 was simultaneously one of the most inspiring and dispiriting years I can think of. From the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords way back at the beginning of the year, to the passing of important greats like Debbie Friedman, to Occupy Judaism’s prominent place in the Occupy Everything movement. Israel has been a roller coaster, between the hopefulness of the J-14 protests to their quiet whimpering away, new settler attacks, undemocratic legislation, and fights over gender segregation. However, it was a mostly great year for the arts, despite JDub Records’ closing. Here’s to a new year with more distillants, and less despirits.
Friday October 7th, 7:15 AM: I wake up to a text message. It’s Eli Kasargod-Staub. He wanted to see if we could get together a kol nidrei service like the one being planned in NYC by Mobius et al. We had less than 10 hours before sunset.
8:30am: The facebook invite goes up.
Mid-day: E-mails zip around, people keep inviting folks, RSVPs roll in.
5:30pm: People start rolling in. A torah arrives from the Religious Action Center. A table pops up from the AFL-CIO. Max Socol brings a table.
6:00pm: People are still streaming in as Alys Cohen starts to sing a niggun.
With just a few hours to prepare, like other OccupyJudaism events, we thought we’d be lucky to get a minyan. What ended up happening was truly shocking. Within a few hours 69 people RSVPed and roughly 200 showed up. The ages ranges from a baby (9-months) to many folks in their 70s (perhaps even 80s). We had professional activists, students, people living in the OccupyKst camp, Jewish communal workers, think-tank-types, and even a few corporate lawyers. Some donned kittels, white kippot and/or tallitot, others attended in none of the conventional trappings. Since we were in McPherson Square, a busy plot right, smack, in the middle of downtown DC, there was a lot of bustle around us. We drew in near around the table (thanks AFL-CIO!) on which the Torah (thanks Religious Action Center!) sat. Used to praying Kol Nidre in straight rows of chairs, being so closely packed, shoulder-to-shoulder, with fellow supplicants was a new experience.
The davening was powerful. We used much of the same material as the Kol Nidre service happening at OccupyWallSt (thanks team NYC!). Speaking personally, I think of Yom Kippur as a time to disrupt our lives so we can gain a deeper understanding. This Kol Nidrei did a lot to disrupt people’s understanding of Judaism and what it could mean in their lives. Many came up to me afterward and shared that it had been the most powerful, meaningful, exciting, or surprising YK experience they had everhad . It was certainly all of those things to me.
As the word spread like wildfire that a band of intrepid progressive Jews were organizing evening Yom Kippur services at Occupy Wall Street, there was some skeptical push back. “Politics doesn’t belong in religion.” “Will it be a scene?” “Sounds cool but services might be bad.” Even, yes, “I don’t want to get arrested.” But for those who stomached the risk all the same, Friday night in the plaza beneath ambient lighting through the offices of Brown Brothers Harriman appeared simple, even quaint. It was in people’s hearts that wonder and transcendence were found.
Organizer Daniel Sieradski, flanked by service leaders Avi Fox-Rosen, Sarah Wolf and Getzel Davis, huddled at the center of a crowded seated circle counting 500, 700, by some counts even a thousand people. At the same moment, friends in Boston, DC and Chicago’s solidarity camps were gathering simultaneously with unexpected hundreds more. Hollering announcements though the Occupy Wall Street main camp, I found dozens more last minute participants, “What? Really? Where!” What was intended to be a small and symbolic gathering of perhaps 10 men and 10 women, called barely a week ago, had become a phenomenon. More »
What do Yom Kippur and the Occupy Wall Street movement have in common? Both are about imagination. On Yom Kippur we imagine that a better self is possible. At Occupy Boston, we imagine that a better country, a better world, is possible. And although these are individual imaginings, we come together in community to make them collectively realized. By moving Yom Kippur from a sequestered, individualized experience in a synagogue out into the public square (literally!), we transform the purpose of the holiday from simply imagining a better self to imagining an whole better world.
Undeniably, one of the most exciting things about this movement is how democratic and collective it is. This rang especially true as we recited the Sh’ma together at our Kol Nidre service, proclaiming oneness – of our voices, of our values, of our aspirations, of Hashem, all one and the same, unified. My emotional climax occurred during the Al Chet – we invited folks to call out sins, personal, political, economic, social, all repeated through “the people’s mic,” adding even greater resonance: “Racism. Turning our backs on the old. Turning our backs on the young. Climate change. Defunding women’s health programs. Putting profits before people (aka capitalism). Citizen’s United. Private health care. Eroding the social safety net. Blaming victims. Katrina. Sexism. Homophobia. Anti-Semitism. Islamophobia. High interest rates. Student loans. Unemployment. Not taking responsibility sooner. Not speaking out sooner. Not showing up sooner.”
We concluded with the same reading as our sibling minyan at the Occupy Wall Street, and I felt the deepest sense of truly crying out to God, wailing for forgiveness, supplicating and begging – I burst into tears and saw that many in the crowd were similarly moved. Such immense sins, such huge problems – how can we ever forgive and move on and build something better?
We all said the Mourners’ Kaddish together for the values and virtues we’ve lost, for the American dream that now seems dead, for the lost livelihoods, safety nets, and security. For the victims who have been crushed by this oppressive and unjust system. For all that we’ve lost, individually and as a society. Adding on this additional level to the already solemn prayer further increased the deep meaning and significance. Yet with all the despair, the service left me with a distinct feeling of hope at what is possible. None of this existed before 30 hours prior, when a few of us starting getting in touch to organize the event. In such a short time, we convened a congregation and created a sacred space of prayer, repentance, imagination, passion, emotion, mourning, idealism, and hope. More »
Mazal tov to Saul Perlmutter (Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory), Brian Schmidt (Australian National University), and Adam Riess (Johns Hopkins University; Space Telescope Science Institute) for winning the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics for their discovery that the universe is not only expanding, but accelerating!
Apart from the Woody Allen clip, why is this story on Jewschool? Because Perlmutter and Riess are both Jewish! They are the first Jews to be awarded a Nobel Prize since… yesterday, when Bruce Beutler and Ralph Steinman z”l won the Nobel Prize in Medicine (along with Jules Hoffmann) for their work in immunology. They are also the first Jewish physics laureates since Roy Glauber in 2005. More »
An article that everyone has been commenting on lately is “Campus Life 201: Trying Out Frum“, from the Fall 2011 issue of Reform Judaism magazine. The author, a Yale undergrad “raised in a committed Reform household”, tells the story of a week in which she adopted various practices including kashrut, praying three times a day (apparently with a non-egalitarian minyan), praying before and after eating, and wearing long skirts. More »
For the fourth weekend in a row, independently-minded Israelis in New York City are gathering to support some of the largest demonstrations in Israel’s history, in every major Israeli city demanding a change to Israel’s economic policies. This Saturday, Israel’s protest organizers have called for one million demonstrators to hit the streets. Possible or not, it’s the biggest change in politics there since 2002.
RSVP on Facebook, join the English- or Hebrew-language Facebook groups, and show your solidarity for average Israelis improving their own country. Read their full explanation below the fold, organizers are encouraging us non-Hebrew speakers to join as well. (Be prepared: learn by video tutorial how to chant “The people demand social justice!” in Hebrew.)
Before you panic, rest assured: we’re not about to start charging you when you read more than 20 posts per month. No, we’re talking about the ever-skyrocketing expense of sending children to Jewish day school in the U.S.
With $7,000 you might be able to fly back and forth to Israel six times, but for the same price you could stay put in Overland Park KS and learn at the Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy for one year. One thousand dollars more will buy you—show them what they’ve won—one year of 1-8th grade education at the Cincinnati Hebrew Day School. If you want to send your child to the Solomon Schechter of Atlanta, be prepared to shell out upwards of $17,000 per year starting with first grade. $26,650 might be a fine price for a Toyota RAV4 Sport, but did you know that for the same price, you can ‘kaneh likha rav’—or maybe even four—and enroll for one year of high school at the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy in Bryn Mawr, PA? $29, 955 would be a steal for a small, foreclosed apartment in a depressed real estate market, but it could also buy you one year’s education at Milken community high school in LA. These numbers don’t even include the usual “give and get” $1,000+ minimums typically imposed upon day school families on a yearly basis.
Ivanka Trump: a convert to Judaism, bearing an uncanny resemblance to the woman who sat three rows in front of my mother, sisters, and I during the high holiday services of my youth. Just throw a giant hat on her, hand her an Artscroll and presto
Some day schools—such as the Ramaz School of NY and the Ida Crown Jewish Academy in Chicago, IL— do not openly disclose their tuition fees, and perhaps for good reason. Unless you are Ivanka Trump, who wouldn’t want to faint upon seeing these staggering numbers? Especially given today’s economy, how can anyone but the super-rich possibly afford to shell out $20,000 dollars annually to send a child (or, more likely, multiple children) to Jewish day school…for 15 years?
As a day school alum (16 years, but who’s counting) whose entire college tuition (yes, all four years combined, at a private institution which furnished me with an excellent post-secondary education) still cost less than one year of Jewish high school, the irony of this situation is not lost on me. (For purposes of full disclosure: I benefited from a faculty discount for my university tuition.)
Recently, Rabbi Daniel Gordis published an article making allegations of a seeming tidal wave of anti-Israel sentiment in rabbinical schools. This is my reaction.
Dear Rabbi Gordis,
Before I proceed, let me preface this letter with the following disclaimer: I write this with great honor and respect. While you and I have never met, we do hold mutual friends amongst whom I count some of my dearest rabbis and teachers and family members. The dedication you have given to the Jewish people holds special significance for me as you were the founding dean of the rabbinical school which will soon be ordaining me as a rabbi. Therefore I am indebted to your vision and determination. Your words have, at times, been a source of inspiration for me and whether I agree or disagree with any given viewpoint you share, I am always duly impressed by your command of the written English language. I do hope that our paths cross one day, as I would be honored to have the pleasure of meeting you in person. I also want to make clear that it has been at least two years since I have shared my own personal views on Israeli society, the conflict with Arab states and the Palestinians or any other similar matter in a public forum because of fear of being made into a pariah. I am making these statements here, publicly, because I feel it to be incredibly important. I write in my own name, and not in the name of the institution which will be ordaining me, nor in the name of the movement with which it affiliates. Again, I write only in my own name.
I read your recent article, Of Sermons and Strategies, with great interest, as it is a topic near to my heart–both as a rabbinical student and as a person who has been erroneously dubbed “anti-Israel.” I was even accused of being one of the students referenced in your article, which I assure you I am not. That is not to say I would be ashamed to be, I would not be ashamed, but the truth must be told that I am not responding to your letter as one of the selected few whom you wrote of. More »
At 6:15am on Rosh Hodesh Adar Aleph, I stood at a bus stop on Derech Hevron by Tzomet Habankim. I watched Israelis get on and off the green public buses and waited until a blue and white mini bus pulled up. I boarded the Palestinian bus which runs from the entrance to Bethlehem to East Jerusalem, paying only 5 shekels instead of the regular 6.40 NIS.
It was a quick ride with almost no stops until I rang the bell for Jaffa Gate. I was the only passenger to descend from the bus.
In flowy green pants and a purple skirt, I made may way through the pouring rain toward the kotel. I was grateful to both fit into the hippy Jerusalem culture as well as the serious feminist activist group that was having their monthly meeting of worship, song, and taking a stand.
As I approached the plaza, I heard loud voices of men singing a Shlomo Carlebach niggun. Why were they singing so loud? Was it because of Rosh Hodesh? Was their joy pure? Or could it have been do drown out the women’s voices close by on the other side of the mechitza? Having been at the kotel the week before for Havdallah, straining to hear the words of the blessings, my instinct was that this loud singing was the latter. More »
When I heard that Debbie Friedman had passed away, I was sitting in a conference room at the San Francisco Federation, participating in a board meeting for Keshet, a nonprofit organization working for the full inclusion of GLBT Jews in Jewish Life. I learned of Debbie’s passing via a message posted on Twitter by a lesbian Jewish educator with whom I used to work. The news hit our meeting hard. We stopped for a moment of silence. After all, she was one of us.
Sadly, Debbie Friedman was not a member of the Keshet board of directors. She was, however, a lesbian Jew. But reading the press asking for healing prayers during her recent illness, or the overwhelming displays of grief and affection in both the Jewish and mainstream press since her passing, you’d never know it.
I didn’t know Debbie personally. But like most liberal Jews my age who have been even the slightest bit involved with organized Judaism, I’ve been touched by her melodies. Most of those songs came to me second- or third-hand, learned at summer camp and USY events from song-leaders and enthusiastic youth leaders who taught their friends to sing “Not By Might” or her havdalah niggun as though they were as old and as central to Judaism as the Torah itself. Although I eventually became familiar with Debbie Friedman’s name, I still prefer to hear her songs shouted by enthusiastic teenagers over her considerably more polished renditions. And it wasn’t until I reached graduate school that I learned that the havdalah melody I had been singing since the fifth grade came from her wellspring of melody.
I didn’t know Debbie personally. But as someone who’s been a leader in the Jewish GLBT world for a number of years, I’ve heard persistent stories about her life as a lesbian. It seems that Debbie’s sexuality was an open secret; everybody knew about it, but no one spoke of it. This made me angry. Was she ashamed? Did she fear for her career? From all accounts, Debbie was incredibly humble – is it possible that she didn’t realize how central and beloved she was to not only her Reform Movement, but to contemporary American Judaism as a whole? I can’t imagine a single synagogue refusing to sing her prayer for healing because the love of her life was a woman, but maybe Debbie could.
I don’t bear any ill-will towards Debbie for staying in the closet. But her life in the closet was double-barreled tragedy: how sad that Debbie could not live her life with wholeness, and how sad that so many queer kids were deprived such an important role model. How ironic that the tyranny of the closet overpowered the woman whose songs let us let go for a moment of what the world might think of us, just long enough to shout “Nutter butter peanut butter” or sway with our arms around our friends and not worry if we looked gay.
My friends who knew Debbie tell me that she had a life-partner. I don’t know her partner’s name, because all the press around Debbie’s illness and passing only asked for prayers and comfort on behalf of Debbie’s sister, family and friends. I hope this did not add to the unbearable pain and loss her partner must be experiencing now, but how could it not?
My friends who knew Debbie tell me that she struggled against the closet, that as recently as this year she expressed a desire to come out and a loss as to how to do so. It saddens me to think of her life ending, prematurely, with this business left unfinished. I hope whoever becomes the guardian of her legacy will follow through on this wish of Debbie’s, so that her life can be a blessing to future generations of GLBT Jews, and to all Jews.
Fashion designer Zac Posen adjusts orthodox teen contestant Esther Petrack before one of the final runway competitions on ANTM
If you’re anything like me, you’re just dying to hear impassioned opinions on ANTM (that’s America’s Next Top Model, for the non-cognoscenti among you) from someone who has never once watched the show.
What follows is based on a controversial clip featuring an Orthodox–or more specifically, a Modern Orthodox–Jewish contestant from the recent cycle of the CW reality show and the virtual ruckus it caused among the online community, Orthodox and non-Orthodox alike.
In case you have not seen this yet, here are some…visuals:
18-year-old Maimonides alum Esther Petrack was recently eliminated from the popular CW reality television show and has finally spoken out to dispel the rumors about her and to address the damning insinuations circulating among the blogosphere and beyond. In a Nov. 3 article in the Jerusalem Post, for example, the Orthodox Jewish reality TV star responded to a rumor that she had lived in Mea She’arim and was excommunicated by explaining that she had never lived there, and adding: ““How did they even find out about me? The video was on the Internet, which they’re not fans of, anyway.”
Indeed in that same interview, Petrack explained that she is not, nor has she ever been haredi. Yet despite this, the media persists in sensationalizing her story by describing her as haredi or ultra-orthodox.
Amusingly, the Israeli news reporter here also describes the school she attended in Boston (Maimonides–one of the bastions of so-called Centrist/Modern Orthodox Jewish education in the U.S.) as “haredi.” Haredi or not, Petrack’s appearance on the show created a stir among many in both the US and Israel who self-identify as “frum.” The infamous clip of the show went viral in the Orthodox community over a month ago, causing outrage and declamatory, self-righteous tongue wagging wherever it raised its scandalous head. One can understand why such provocative television might elicit a raised eyebrow or two but, in all honesty, I think such righteous indignation is misplaced. In all of the online discussion of this admittedly rather ridiculous episode, search though I might, nowhere could I find condemnation of what seemed to me to be the most shocking moment of all: an instance of blatant religious discrimination. In the video clip above, Tyra Banks makes clear, in no uncertain terms, that all contestants, irrespective of their beliefs or practices, are expected to conform to the show’s 24/7 work schedule, religious observance be damned.
While the norms and mores of civilized life are often suspended in ironically titled “‘reality” TV moments like these make me squirm more than scenes of so-called survivors consuming their own feces in order to prolong, for just another glorious week, their “15 minutes of fame.”
If an employer in the US today denied work to a prospective employee based on her/his religious practice, the almost automatic result would be a job discrimination lawsuit with an expectedly grim outcome for the employer . While, just under a century ago, pious Jewish immigrants, fresh-off-the-boat from Europe would routinely lose their jobs and face poverty and even starvation if they did not work on Saturday, thankfully times have changed dramatically, and now religious tolerance is a blessed norm in the US: no longer does a Jew have to choose between starvation for him/herself and his/her family and Sabbath observance. (Thanks is of course also due to courageous labor unions for more humane work hours and weekends off.) The apparent demand of the show’s creator and hostess, Banks, that Petrack chose between “honoring the Sabbath” and being part of the show, would seem to be a throwback to “bad old times” before anti-discrimination laws established norms of fairness and equality in hiring.
As to the “case” itself, we can hardly blame an 18 year old for the offenses of a crassly sensationalistic, heavily edited, celebrity-powered televised competition. While the wisdom of entering such a competition might be questioned at the outset, what Petrack does is her personal choice; she is not forcing anyone – Orthodox or not — to watch or to sanction or imitate her actions.
Much of the online uproar surrounding Petrack’s supposedly hypocritical activity as an Orthodox Jewish young woman is actually misinformed. We later learn, via a blog comment posting by Petrack’s mother (or someone posing as Petrack’s mother. However you please), that her daughter’s statement, “I will do it,” (viz., desecrate the Sabbath by working) was actually edited out of context. Upon re-watching the clip, you can see the response, indeed, was edited. Despite the remaining tsniut (modesty) issue, Esther’s Shabbat observance may very well have been ‘technically kosher’—contrary to the way several articles (even some sympathetic) suggest.
A good part of me empathizes with Petrack. How many of us can readily recall certain decisions and activities undertaken at the tender age of 18 that we would not exactly wish to immortalize on video? Especially for those of us raised in Modern Orthodox milieus, the eternal saga of rationally reconciling the two (modern and orthodox) is a plight that strongly resonates. Granted, at least in my line of work, this doesn’t generally involve lifting one’s shirt on television…..at least not as far as I can remember, anyway.
One day, when I host a Jewishly-observant-themed talk-show entitled Halakhically Incorrect, I think Petrack should be a guest.
Anyone who has, at some point, lived a genuinely modern and Orthodox existence knows that certain actions, on paper, (or, in this case, video edited out of context) could easily baffle others. Or, as one of my good friends from college whom I recently visited remarked while laughing with a glint in his eye, “Remember when I used to sin for you on Saturdays?” referring to my Shabbat observance in which several of my more keyed-in non-Jewish friends and living-mates knew to flip the bathroom switch on before I ducked in on the seventh day of the week.
In short, the real judgment in this case should be against Banks for issuing such a shockingly intolerant ultimatum, not against an 18 year old struggling to reconcile traditional religious observance and modernity. But Banks is “nit fun unzere” (translation: not one of the “tribe”). So why attack her, right?