About a year ago I was watching a young Israeli physician examine an Eritrean boy at the Physicians for Human Rights clinic. The boy sat looking at the ground as his cousin explained that he wasn’t sleeping at night, often waking up sweating in terror. He said the boy was wetting the bed and that he couldn’t keep his food down. When he was asked to get up and walk to the examination table, he wrapped both his hands around his thin right thigh and lifted- left, lift, right, left, lift, right. Only 13, he was thin and weak because of his trek across the Sinai desert. Along the way he was kidnapped and held captive for three months by a Bedouin criminal organization where he was tortured, deprived of food and water and forced to wait as his family in Eritrea was extorted of thousands of dollars. That day in the clinic, wearing donated clothes that hung off his frame, was his second day in Tel Aviv. More »
It’s a called List of Cognitive Biases, and besides showing what a nerd I am, it basically maps out all the ways in which our brain, on a daily basis, screws up how we perceive the world. These aren’t vague ideas, or suggestions – for the most part, they’re laboratory-tested, easily repeatable things that all of our brains do wrong. Some of them are familiar: the Gambler’s Fallacy (“If I just got three heads in a row, the next flip MUST be tails!”); Hindsight Bias (“Oh, yeah, I KNEW she was going to do that.”); and, getting into sinister territory, the Just-World Hypothesis (“Wow, look at that prisoner. He must’ve done something AWFUL! Fuck him.”).
There are well over a hundred of these biases, just listed on the one Wikipedia page; and, as amazing as it is to go through that page and just “click!” “Oh, I do that!” “click!” “Oh my God, that too!” it’s still a tiny amount. We’re juuuuuust starting to understand ourselves. Philosophers posited the atom in India and Greece in the 6th and 5th centuries BCE, and the physical world has been studied for as long as we’ve been a species, if not longer. But the social survey didn’t exist until around the 1000′s; many people consider the 14th-century Arab Islamic scholar Ibn Khaldun as the first sociologist; and the term sociology wasn’t even defined until 1780, in an unpublished manuscript by French essayist Emmanuel-Joseph Saiyes.
Our very own Sigismund Schlomo Freud didn’t start hypothesizing about what makes individual human beings tick until the late 1800s, and the first social psychology experiment, fusing the social with the psychological, wasn’t published until 1898, when Nathan Triplett wrote down his findings of Social Facilitation, the idea that people do better on simple tasks with other people around. The machine gun, the telephone, the automobile and aspirin are all older than the scientific field of social psychology. More »
“77 Steps,” a documentary by Palestinian-Israeli filmmaker Ibtisam Mara’ana, is a selection at this year’s Other Israel Film Festival. The subject of the film is Mara’ana herself, who moves from her Arab-Muslim village to Tel Aviv. She includes a conversation between herself and a landlord who agrees to show her an apartment until he realizes she’s Arab. “Sometimes,” she tells the audience, “I had to shorten my name.”
After securing an apartment, Ibtisam throws herself into living life in Tel Aviv. “I want to belong to this place,” she says. At a roof top party, she meets Jonathan, her Jewish-Canadian emigre neighbor who’s been in Israel for 6 years. The rest of the film documents their relationship amid MP Avigdor Lieberman’s calls for loyalty oaths from Israeli Arabs, conflict with families, and Ibitsam’s resignation from the Meretz party in the face of the Gaza war (which the party will not renounce).
It’s Jonathan’s grandfather’s visit from Canada to Kibbutz Ein Dor, which he left in 1948, that’s perhaps the turning point for the couple’s relationship. Jonathan’s grandfather regrets leaving the kibbutz, and feels that his grandson’s aliyah makes up for this. He says, “At the time, Israel represented the best of morality. “Not anymore?” Itbisam asks. “No,” he replies.
At the kibbutz, Itbisam questions a staff member if she ever tells people that the kibbutz was built on Arab land. The conversation deteriorates when the staff member says that she believes Arabs should go live in a Palestinian state, and that although it was an injustice that Arabs were displaced, the Holocaust was “a greater injustice.” Jonathan chastizes Itbisam for being “aggressive” in the exchange. “I’ve lived here my whole life,” she says. “I know how I feel.”
Following a series of conversations that illumine “the limits of our relationship,” Jonathan moves out of the apartment building that neighbors Itbisam’s. The end of the affair isn’t melodramatic or angry; instead, it seems like an evolution. For Itbisam, it’s part of what she came to Tel Aviv to do, to stretch beyond the limitations of her previous life in her family’s village and to become more of herself. She counted the steps of the house she grew up in every day she lived there, all 77 of them, until the day she left. Of Tel Aviv, she says, “I found a place where I can get some rest.”
After the film, a conversation and q/a with Itbisam herself and the executive director of the film festival, Isaac Zablocki, took place at the Speakeasy Cafe. Zablocki remarked that the importance of the film for a North American Jewish audience lies in the fact that in it, “Israel is not what the tourists see. It’s a different perspective.”
Ultimately, Itbisam believes that the end of her relationship with Jonathan was due to a difference in culture. “We loved each other for two years, “she said. “I don’t have shame about my story…I’m not asking people what they think about my work. I just work.” While one of her sisters has seen the film, but it has not been shown in Arab communities. “I”m dealing with taboos. It’s too early for Arabs and Palestinians to deal with this film.”
“The film is about finding identity,” said Itbisam. “I’m lucky that I have a lot of identities. I’m deep in all of them-female, Palestinian, Arab. It’s not hate or love, I have a lot of identities, I’m proud of all of them.”
Last night’s screening of “77 Steps” was co sponsored by the New Israel Fund. The Other Israel Film Festival is running in Manhattan through November 17th. Visit www.otherisrael.org/ for a list of films and to buy tickets.
Segregating a certain class of people to the back of the bus has an intense resonance for anyone raised on stories of the Black civil rights struggle, Rosa Parks, and the irresistible narrative of how far we’ve come. So it’s not surprising that a story about the quasi-public New York City bus, the B110, where “the women is in the back. The men are in the front” [sic] has spread far and wide from the Columbia University newspaper that ‘broke’ the story.
Blogger Unpious describes the general tenor of the media response: “Like a school of hungry piranhas, the secular media seems to have discovered misogyny in the Chasidic world and they’re having themselves a feast.” He has a thoughtful critique on the dynamics of outside criticism on this insular community:
The outrage of outsiders won’t effect change largely because outsiders don’t seem to actually care about the plight of Chasidic women. Rather, they seem driven by a general distaste for all things Chasidic and, in this case, by the larger symbolism of back-of-the-bus discrimination. To them, Chasidic women are pawns in a larger struggle to root out discrimination everywhere, a worthy cause, no doubt, but one that Chasidic women, by and large, will not care for. Moreover, outsider outrage produces a defensive posture within the Chasidic community – on the part of both men and women – and speaking out against discriminatory practices, even by the tiny minority who might do so otherwise, becomes even more unlikely. I have yet to see those indignant outsiders bother to speak to actual living, breathing Chasidic women (or men, for that matter) to gauge how they feel about it.
However correct Unpious may be, and even if NYC’s response is unlikely to actually effect more progressive gender norms in the Chasidic community, it is offensive for the city to permit a public franchise to discriminate in this way.
Trust me, I’m a Jew. So what’s the deal with this attraction anyway?
After galavanting around Manhattan this past Saturday night with Jewish girls of course, I found myself sharing a cab with a Filipino girl back to Brooklyn. Relax mom I was just making sure she got home..uh..safely.
Mind you, officially Filipinos are Asians and the Philippines is part of Southeast Asia. The Philippines used to be called the Philippine Islands of the Pacific, so describing Filipinos as Pacific Islanders is still not wrong.
Our lively conversation ensued, and because this attraction has been plaguing me for so long I had to get her thoughts on the matter at hand. After clearly offending her when I told her the Jewish guys that I know think Asian girls are more submissive- bad idea- she started a defense on behalf of the whole female Asian community. I don’t think she saw my point, that sometimes the attraction is rooted in low self-esteem men who can’t handle the tough Jewish woman, and are attracted to the general passivity of asian women.
That’s just a sample.
Personally, I’m not sure if I should be more offended by the terrible writing, lack of editing, antifeminist approach to dating, conflation of race and religion…. oh, shit, if I list everything then you won’t get to play.
In what seems like a development only possible on the satirical pages of the Onion, Mel Gibson’s Icon Productions has just unveiled plans to co-finance a new film about Judah Maccabee, with Joe Eszterhaus of Showgirls fame onboard as screenwriter. This is too good to be true. I mean, who better than Mel Gibson, the man who boldly asserted that Jews are responsible for all wars in the world, to capture the quintessential epic military struggle of Jewish national religious pride versus the lures of assimilation?
Well, time will only tell what choices Gibson will make, but if he sticks to my above plan, we’re going to have something even greater than The Passion of the Christ (2004). Or, as Reb Yudel puts it, “If Gibson’s Hanukkah film succeeds, can his Tisha b’Av blockbuster be far behind?”
Incidentally, I vividly recall dragging a date to a Sunday matinee screening of his last Jew epic in 2004. We paid for two tickets to see Dirty Dancing: Havana Nightsin the hopes that our tickets wouldn’t profit Gibson’s film, but later, a friend in the industry explained to me that films only benefit from concession stand money, not from actual ticket sales. Alas. The film itself wasn’t particularly noteworthy, aside from its curious subtitling choices. While Gibson promised to cut out any direct implication of the Jews in Jesus’ crucifixion, the English subtitling did not always match the Aramaic dialogue onscreen. (I attended a high school which forced us to learn Aramaic. Now on facebook, I smugly resent that under the languages option, there is an “Aramaic of Jesus” and not also an ‘Aramaic of Rabban Gamliel.”) We, along with busloads of young Christian children, some of whom were as young as four years old, proceeded to watch what amounted to two full hours of Jesus being beaten to a bloody pulp. ::Spoiler alert:: Jesus is killed.
Eli Ungar-Sargon of Cut fame, whose blogging here at Jewschool has generated some interesting conversations, is off and running on his next project—a documentary film about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As part of that project he surveyed both Israelis and Palestinians about their attitudes towards the other (i.e. Israelis about Arabs and Palestinians about Jews). The interviews with Palestinians have not been completely translated yet, and so the data is not ready, however, the data about Israelis is ready. Its not surprising, though its not pretty. At the same time, the data and interviews do not seem to support the screaming headline that the piece was given in Electronic Intifada where it was published. Here is the video:
Meet Les Gold. Mr. Gold is the patriarch of American Jewelry and Loan in Detroit. His family business is the subject of Hardcore Pawn, a new reality television show on the TruTV channel. The show is a window onto the type of Jew we’ve come to associate with the Rhineland in the 17th century more than the American Midwest in 2011. The family that runs the shop is Jewish, not only in the plain meaning of the word, but also in the symbolic, nasty sense of the idea – The Golds are sometimes benevolent, sometimes nasty moneylenders serving a predominantly impoverished, black clientele in the middle of Detroit.
With over two million viewers, Hardcore Pawn is often compared to Pawn Stars, a History Channel reality TV show that, like a blue-collar Antiques Roadshow, presents a gang of Vegas hacks appraising antique soda machines and the Civil War currency. Yet, in reality, Hardcore Pawn isn’t really interested in appraising anything but the fraught relationship that one Jewish family has to the black ghetto in America in our own times. It’s ethnic and racial antagonism presented in documentary style, where the Jews try to pay as little as they can for gold and electronics from a population mired in stress and aggression, with a little bit of tenderness if the need arises.
The show demonstrates a few scenarios. An angry black woman arrives to pay off her interest, only to find out that after waiting 45 minutes in line, she doesn’t have enough money to retrieve her child’s video game console. In another, a poor, elderly black man brings in a ring so he can pay his rent, only to be told that his last valuable possession is worth about ten dollars to Les Gold’s son, Seth. In another, an aryan-looking white woman brings in what she says is Eva Braun’s swastika-bedazzled bracelet. Les Gold says he’ll buy it if its authentic, stating that he’ll use it to teach his grandkids what the Gold family endured during the Holocaust. (Nevermind the bracelet is a fake.)
In the great tradition of Jewish lawyers defending Nazis and Nazi sympathizers (such as the infamous Supreme Court case involving neo-Nazis marching in Skokie, IL in the late 1970s), turns out that the most recent source of drunken and/or drug induced anti-Semitic rants (in the great tradition of Mel Gibson and Charlie Sheen), fashion designer John Galliano, has got himself a Jewish lawyer–to be fair, according to the interview linked below, he has been his lawyer for the last seven years.
YNet has published an interview with the Galliano’s lawyer, Stephane Zerbib, who has apparently received threats because representing the former top designer of Christian Dior. You can see the video of the clearly drunken and rather despicable rant at the HuffPost.
My favorite gem from the interview comes right at the beginning.
Your client is accused of making rather harsh anti-Semitic comments. What is your explanation for this?
“I have no explanation. It could happen to any one of us. Anyone can go to a bar, drink a little and get into a fight with someone.”
Yes. It could happen to any one of us. You walk into a bar, become obliterated drunk while under the influence of prescription drugs and then tell the people next to you that you wish Hitler had killed them… Happens all the time.
My personal opinion, for what it’s worth, is that Galliano’s comments are unforgivable and despicable. Not to mention, in the greatest sense of irony, as a homosexual and self-proclaimed “gipsy” (apparently very publicly) he too would have fallen victim (twice) to the egregious and murderous crimes of the Nazi regime. However, I also think it wrong for people to be threatening his lawyer. Justice is justice, and lawyers take an oath to uphold justice; not to pick and choose which parts of the law to uphold. All the more so I find it acceptable for Zerbib to represent Galliano if they have had a professional relationship for nearly a decade.
Ultimately, anti-Semitic sentiment (drunken or sober) will not be eradicated because Jewish lawyers refuse to represent anti-Semites. Again, justice is justice and in free and democratic societies all people have the right to fair representation in court. Plus, if Galliano’s lawyer is going to make arguments in court such as the one quoted above–that any one of us could, in a drug and alcohol induced state, proclaim our love for Hitler–well, I think we can feel comfortable in how this case will go.
I am loathe to make Passover references at this point in the year, but this one is most applicable. Recently, someone referenced Reb Mimi Feigelson on cleaning your house of hametz-in addition to the removal of physical materials, you should also be cleansing yourself of narratives that no longer apply to you. I spent this weekend at the J Street conference, hoping to find new narratives, people who could supply me with inspiration, and the ability to confront my anxieties about peace and what it would mean to make real concessions for it.
Sometimes I scare myself with my knee jerk reactions. Example: in a session on American Jewish and Muslim efforts to work together, Edina Lekovic of the Muslim Public Affairs Council discussed the idea of having preconditions in relationship building. Convergence is the result of meaningful relationship building, and so we can’t have preconditions if we want people to sit together sincerely and purposefully with this goal in mind.
Chanel’s brain: But I need there to be the precondition that we all renounce violence so that I feel safe sitting with you.
Chanel’s other brain: Yeah, well, Muslim and Arab folks probably need you to check your assumption that they all support terrorism and re-evaluate who has power in this situation,so, there you go. How does it feel to need?
I am worried about J Street and the potential for leadership saturation. As in, we’re so happy to see it that we expect it to fix everything, the way we expect Obama to reverse 8 years of stupidity and trauma within the first 20 minutes of being President. And at the same time, what I most wanted in the moments following my two brain dialogue was someone to raise the question of how, in order to do this work, we have to confront the anti Arab and Muslim rhetoric, that, consciously or not, we all believe. (I know, I could have asked the question myself.) We’re not exempt because we’re peace activists, in the same way that progressive, feminist identified men aren’t incapable of sexist behavior. In spite of our efforts to resist it, it’s made it in, and triggered by feelings of vulnerability (real or perceived).
On a panel regarding the American role in the Middle East, J Street cofounder and Senior Research Fellow at the New America Foundation Daniel Levy spoke of the need to create confidence “between the occupier and occupied 18 years after Oslo,” and “the need for a new language. You can’t treat the Arab population as a demographic threat and also advocate for equality within Israel.” It’s not okay to express opinions from the press box (clapping, booing), but my colleague and I almost passed out with surprise and joy. Hypocrisy named, exposed, opened. I found myself smarting with how hard Levy’s words struck me. There are so many layers of work to do, so much facing of ourselves and what we’re willing to put on the line in the name of peace, so easy is it to get lost in the abyss of process and policy and theory and fear.
Remember the ‘Macaca’ incident that ended the Senatorial campaign and presidential aspirations of George Allen? You may recall that in the ensuing fallout he denied his Sephardic Jewish heritage, inherited from his Tunisian mother Etty Allan (nee Lumbroso).
So far, however, Bibi has condemned the psak din, but has not done anything to fire the rabbis who issued it. So too, the ruling has not been countered by the chief rabbis, or by any of the rabbis who guide Netanyahu’s coalition partners. In other words, while Netanyahu may profess outrage, this does seem to be the normative halachic ruling for the State of Israel.
Would 50 Israeli civil servants be so stupid as to piss off all 6 billion goyim on the planet, including over a billion Christians? You betcha!
After all, the Israeli Orthodox establishment has gone to great lengths to alienate 5 million non-Orthodox American Jews. They’ve declared the child of one of our top theologians to not be Jewish; they’ve arrested our religious leaders for the crime of carrying a Torah in public; and they’ve decreed that Sabbath observance is the only defense against forest fires.
They’ve kicked us in the face, and the leaders of American Jewry — the Jewish Federations and the Jewish organizations — did nothing but applaud and defend the government that empowered them. There was no price to pay.
Back in 1988, the Jewish establishment had balls (I’m looking at you, Shoshana Cardin). Yitzhak Shamir was on the verge of forming a coalition with the haredim by giving in to Habad-fomented demands to ammend Who Is a Jew. A high powered delegation of American Jewish machers flew to Jerusalem… and the result was Israel’s first national unity government.
But that was then. Now, not so much noise from American Jewry. No real push-back as the Israeli Foreign Minister announced, at the UN, his plan to remove the citizenship of Israel’s non-Jewish citizens. No, nothing but applause. This disastrous coalition of Lieberman and Ovadia, of racist nationalists and racist fundamentalists, doesn’t offend the American Jewish establishment.
The question is, will American Christians be so forgiving?
The attack ad practically writes itself:
“”My opponent voted to give billions of dollars in foreign aid to a country where government supported clergymen preach hatred toward Christians….”
If AIPAC leaders care about Israel (rather than the Republican party), they might want to look up from their porn and give Bibi a call. Because this time, Bibi’s buddies are playing with fire.
Image taken of Judith Frieze after her arrest in Jackson, Mississippi on June 21, 1961. Mississippi Department of Archives and History.
Living the Legacygrew out of a need for requests from teachers of social justice education for materials. In their search, educators and researchers at the Jewish Women’s Archive discovered that what was missing from what already existed: the story of Jews in social justice movements.
JWA tackled the topic of Jews in the Civil Rights Movement as its starting point, and, including traditional Jewish texts, paid particular attention to “complicating the narrative,” said Judith Rosenbaum, Director of Public History at the Jewish Women’s Archive. The nuanced educational tool would talk about not only the activism of Jews in the Civil Rights Movement, but acknowledge the fissures, the fallouts, and what the impact of it all has been on the social justice movements of today.
Living the Legacy is designed for use in grades 8-12. Last year, 7 teachers used in the classroom, and during JWA’s Institute for Educators this past July, 26 teachers were trained to use it.
Through primary sources, the curriculum directly confronts questions of personal identity in relationship to history and contemporary issues: who are you, what does that have with what you do in the world, and where and how does your Judaism come into play? When does it feel scary to be Jewish, when is it safer to hide, and when do you put yourself on the line for the cause of justice?
A 1956 letter from the Greenville Hebrew Union Congregation to Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (the Reform movement), regarding their disapproval of the statement that desegregation is a Jewish issues and that Jews should act on behalf of it, shows that Southern Jews saw themselves in a precarious position. “We know full well that any public utterance showing that Jews as a whole favor desegregation will have the direct effect of hurting the Jews’ position in the South…Southern Jews have established a very fine relationship with the white non Jews of the South. We believe that this harmonious relationshjp between the Jews and non Jews in the South is due in a large respect to the personal conduct, cultural progress and adherence to the customs that make for harmony between the Jews and non Jews.” The letter goes on to implore Eisendrath not to “embarrass and injure the Jews of this community and other Southern communities who feel as we do.”
In addition to highlighting the complicated relationships of Jews to race and assimilation, Livingthe Legacy also explores the impact of the Jewish relationship to the Civil Rights movement in the context of a shared history of resistance. Rosenbaum’s favorite letter is to a young woman known as “Chicky,” who had gone to the South as part of Freedom Summer, from her father, a refugee from Europe. While he worries about her safety, she “should not construct your parents’ concern about your safety as a disapproval of your present activities.”
The curriculum also tackles questions of which modes of activism are recorded in our collective memory, as well as the how the perceived solidarity of Blacks and Jews fell apart and the impact of movements such Black Power on Jewish culture and history. The establishment of Black and African American studies departments, for example, prompted an interest in reclamation of Jewish culture and the emergence of Jewish studies departments, among other things. “Other minority groups have these conversations too,” Rosenbaum pointed out. “We wanted to show that.”
Together with Rabbi Jill Jacobs, Rosenbaum collected Jewish texts to dovetail with each section, aimed at creating the opportunity to think Jewishly and provocatively about the material, particularly in the context of contemporary issues. The curriculum provokes questions of Jewish responsibility, giving students the opportunity to consider issues such as segregation in their home communities, and the question of whether equal marriage is a civil rights question.
Living the Legacy is full of challenging and vulnerable pieces which make the process of unpacking the Jewish past in the Civil Rights movement a fascinating project. It’s well worth taking a spin through the primary sources on the website, even if you don’t consider yourself to be an educator. “It’s a newer, more inclusive way of looking at history,” said Rosenbaum. “People are excited.”
My pregnant wife sitting at home, I stood in the grocery store aisle with two bottles of grape juice in my hand–in the one hand I had the bottle of Kedem grape juice (I usually buy the organic, but they were all out) and in the other hand, a bottle of organic Santa Cruz 100% Concord Grape juice. I didn’t know what to do. My wife and I are dedicated to maintaining an organic diet. Some consumers choose organic products only when available; we choose to ONLY purchase organic products, if there’s not an organic option, we don’t get it. But here it was, Friday afternoon, too late to run around to more stores to look for organic juice that had a hekhsher. What to do… Can I, a soon to be rabbi ordained by the Conservative Movement, say kiddush on juice without a hekhsher? It’s not something I had ever done before… would I be willing to start? I was.
Unlike some, I have read and learned quite a bit about stam yeinam. Literally meaning ‘their wine,’ it refers to the practice of maintaining that when it comes to grape products, only Jewish hands may be a part of the production from start to finish. Dating back to Talmudic times, this practice was solidified, codified and reinforced by the work of the Tosafot (Franco-German medieval Talmudic commentators specifically interested in halakhic legal theory). In theory, the practice has two reasons, as far as my research has shown me. 1) There was the fear that wine purchased for kiddush could have been used or dedicated for avodah zarah (idol worship), and 2) that in certain areas blood was used as a purifier (the salts would act to separate out impurities in the wine). So today, in 2010, when there is no more avodah zarah as it was meant by the Talmud and there is hardly a winery in the world that would use blood as a purifier, what do we do with this tradition? (Hebrew readers who are interested in this topic should DEFINITELY check out Hayim Soloveitchik’s book on the topic titled “יינם”) More »
Your life is a mess. You’re tired of the routine, you’re constantly craving more of what you’ve already attained, and you find true satisfaction in nothing and in no one. Well here’s the quick fix: 1. Plan an expensive get-away. 2. No, actually, scratch that—plan three expensive get-aways. 3. But it’s not just the location that’s getting to you. You’re also sick of your significant other. So dump the schlub, give no real reason for your decision to break-up, and then… 4. Swear with almost-compelling adamancy that you’re not looking to be in a relationship— 5. then sleep with a string of people who look nearly indistinguishable from your former sig-o. The key here is that they all must be young, virile, and totally whipped. 6. All the while, make sure not to deny yourself any culinary pleasure. 7. Gleefully declare your independence from weight concerns, as you claim to gourmandize your way around the world, eat more—while still fitting magically into your ever-expanding wardrobe of size 2 sartorial splendor. 8. Seek counsel from at least two oppressed Third World women who are visibly ‘ethnically Other.’ 9. But in the end, make sure that it is you who gives them advice. After all, what are you if not the paragon of discipline, self-control, and loving-kindness? 10. Find yourself…in the arms of a ruggedly handsome Brazilian.
Summarized (in case we’ve lost you already): Eat without gaining weight, pray without believing, and love without…well, loving. In case you have not sacrificed 133 minutes of your life watching the film adaptation of Elizabeth Gilbert’s best-selling Eat Pray Love (which I have not read), the 10 rules outlined above will help you attain enlightenment, according to the film’s impeccable logic. Writing a review of this film, pointing to its almost laughably offensive hypocrisy and disturbingly classist, racist, and sexist messages, is like shooting fish in a barrel, and many have beat me to this task already. Instead, I want to reflect on the larger trends that this film and the book upon which it is based represent and how we can use Judaism to deal with some of these cosmic issues that the EPL cult supposedly tackles and resolves.
In this month of Elul, leading up the earlier-than-usual battery of Jewish holidays this year, we are charged with the task of intensive cheshbon nefesh, a kind of introspective reflection on our actions over the past year. In the current climate of crassly classist and gender-coded self-help quick-fixes, traditional Judaism offers us a much-needed antidote to the kind of ‘me first’ mentality of NSA new-agey spirituality that this film so strikingly emblematizes. EPL has to be one of the least Jewish films out there: despite the protagonist Liz’s insensitive and exploitative treatment of most of the other characters in the film, never once does our well-fed world-traveler express any genuine remorse for her cavalier treatment and attitude towards others. Perhaps most notable in Liz’s string of careless actions towards others is her bizarrely under-explained, sudden, seemingly arbitrary abandonment of her spouse at the very outset of the film. While classically “Jewish guilt” can be stretched to unhealthy limits, at the very least it affirms that which is most essentially human about us—our ability to feel, our ability to be accountable to others.
In Avot d’Rabbi Natan, chapter 41, we are told that we should regard even the slightest wrong we commit against another with utmost seriousness; whereas we should not dwell on the good deeds we have performed for others. This is a near 180 reversal of the EPL approach which dangerously conflates boundless personal enlightenment with boundless self-entitlement. In the EPL film, protagonist Liz Gilbert’s single outward act of kindness to others –the scene in which she ‘selflessly’ emails her friends, appealing to them for donations to help a natural healer and her daughter build a house in Bali—is piously prefaced by Gilbert’s self-righteous declaration that this request comes in lieu of her annual birthday celebration. The dramatic montage that follows of her friends receiving the email appeal signals to us that this Liz’s ultimate moment of enlightenment; this is her defining moment of ‘giving,’ Beyond the obviously paternalistic quality of the rich-white-woman-saves-the-struggling-natives, this scene smacks of the kind of crass, self-congratulatory armchair philanthropy that lulls people into self-righteous complacency: ‘I’ve written the check; I am now absolved of further responsibility towards my fellow humans.’
Real loving-kindness involves a long-term investment in the sanctity of the Other. And no, not just that supposedly ‘significant Other’—rather, the acknowledgement of all other people as significant, and the realization that we must invest in them not only materially, but also personally. The way to grow with others is to take responsibility by being present in their lives. What Liz lacks is a sense of rootedness, the sense of unity upon which community is based. All of Gilbert’s globetrotting points to an inability and lack of desire to commit to other human beings and forge authentic relationships.
Again, it is entirely unclear what exactly propels Liz to leave her husband at the outset of the film—all we’re told is that ‘things can’t continue this way,’ although we see nothing particularly alarming onscreen. In fact, what we see is all fairly typical and benign; Liz and her adoring husband are engaging in light banter. All we know is that Liz cannot handle her life as it is any longer. What present-day in-vogue spirituality misses is the point that one can actually discover boundless meaning in the routine of real, mundane life. Patience and forbearance might be considered passé, but it’s the real deal.
Case in point: even the National Geographic-quality cinematography, with its wide lens doting lovingly on EPL’s glamorously sun-soaked characters and sweeping, exotic landscapes and, bursting with exuberantly lush colour, still fails to make us love the film or the figures portrayed therein. In this film, everything—and everyone—is relegated to the status of ambient scenery…a Potemkin village populated by poorly developed stereotypes. Despite a good chunk of the film taking place in India and Indonesia, we are basically spared any unpleasant and ‘unpalatable’ scenes of actual poverty and suffering.
It’s 133 minutes of tantalizing culinary, spiritual, and pseudo-sexual foreplay. Nothing ever really materializes, except for the sheer ubiquity of the material forces driving the ‘action’ (if you can even call it that). Set against only the most breathtaking of landscapes, we watch Robert’s character shamelessly indulging in an endless parade of epicurean delights, nearly interchangeable, conventionally attractive young men, and more generally, snorting up the cocaine of petty affirmation through the regurgitation of self-help platitudes. EPL, with its ‘money and men can cure all’ approach is panglossian at best, and is inhumanely narcissistic at worst. In this past week’s Parasha, Parashat Ki Tetse, we read towards the beginning of the portion of the sin of gluttony (Deut. 21:20-21); a gluttonous son technically qualifies for death by stoning. Indeed, death by stoning would have made the film considerably more interesting.
One of the more amusing points of the film, which is replete with instances of consoling consumption and too many delightful moments of conspicuous product-placement to mention, is when Liz seeks “whatever” (let’s just call it that, since her Self seems like a lost cause) at an Ashram, and is told she can purchase a “silence” tag at the bookstore. Even the choice to remain silent must be purchased! Indeed, instead of appealing the Master of the Universe, we are advised to whip out our MasterCard.
Interestingly, God is never really mentioned in the film. Only at one point, when Liz first decides to “pray,” does she sort of address ‘God,’ but, like everything else in the film, “God” here functions ornamentally, much in the same way as all of her beaus blend into the landscape as figures she uses instrumentally, solely for the purpose of her immediate personal edification and comfort. Clearly, Liz’s ‘prayer’ is more a signifying act than a genuine appeal or promise for anything. Indeed, that very brief ‘prayer’ scene typifies today’s NSA spirituality.
According to an April 2010 article in USA Today, a whopping 72% of the members of generation Y in the U.S. self-identify as “more spiritual than religious”: a diffuse, general sense of “spirituality” seems to prevail among the younger generation. Exactly what such figures mean is an interesting question. Perhaps young people, jaded by the perceived hypocrisy of societal institutions involved in questionable military adventures abroad and failed economic and social policies at home, wish to avoid the stuffiness of institutional structure as they seek personal meaning. This avoidance of established institutions, while perhaps explainable, is, nevertheless, regrettable. While more structured and specifically religious forms of meaning-making can be stifling, this is not the time to abandon all forms of committed/practice-oriented devotion. If anything, the young have the potential to infuse these older traditions with a new, updated kind of meaning and help build a form of worship and practice that is better attuned to the needs and desires of today’s meaning seeker. But practice-based, community-oriented religion has received an unnecessarily bad rap these days.
Don’t get me wrong—spirituality is a beautiful thing in its genuine form. But every intention needs a structure—a calendar and a location—and most importantly, a community. As social animals, even the seemingly solitary act of self-improvement relies heavily on our interaction with others. Admittedly, at a certain point, it is difficult to draw a line separating ‘religion’ and spirituality.’ Ideally the two converge to create the ultimate meaningful devotional experience. In a way, the two share many of the same potential dangers: exploitative leadership, false promises, extortion of money, and so on. But in today’s cult of “take time for You,” these dangers seem to proliferate with the false comfort of ‘all you can eat’ spirituality that cuts you off from any real sense of empathy, participation and activism.
Is Javier Bardem holding a banana? Really??
Getting back to the film for a moment though: even in her supposedly most vulnerable moments in the film, there is something decidedly smug about Liz’s spiritual odyssey, which culminates in a neatly-resolved scene where she pursues a relationship with yet another attractive man. Having found ‘love’ (or at least lust), Liz’s journey comes to a eminently photogenic close. As we move through the month of Elul, it is critical for us to keep in mind that true seeking never finishes in a Hollywood ending, but rather, is more challenging and also more beautiful and infinitely more subtle.
As we reflect on the past year and plan how we can create more genuine religious (or spiritual, if you like) experiences in the year to come, remember the words of André Gide who said, “”Believe those who are seeking the truth. Doubt those who find it.”
I can only imagine the pitch meeting: “What if the Swedish Chef was a Zionist?” “But the Swedish Chef is kind of a psycho, totally unaware of the havoc he’s wreaking on everyone around him while he’s trying to make his meal.” “Exactly! It’s perfect!”
I’ll admit, after watching the first one I stumbled across (“Jew Bread“), I turned to my office-mate and asked if she tell whether this was anti-Semitic or Zionist. After watching a few more, I think the answer is clearly “both.”
It’s like a train wreck… Each clip I watch repulses me in new and different ways, but I can’t look away…
So the the question is… who’s funding/making/distributing these?
JTA reports that thousands of Hareidim went out to protest today, claiming that racism is – apparently- ordained by God, that -as usual- those nasty Supreme Court people are godless atheists in their insistence that they integrate a school, and that a vote for integration is a vote for “flotilla terrorists.”
Just another day in the life:
You have to give it to them, they certainly stand for Torah and are willing to fight for what they believe in, even if it has nothing to do with anything actually in Torah whatsoever, or if in fact, it opposes Torah altogether. No, no, what they say is Torah, it is Torah.
Why are they protesting? Well, hard to say since the Ashkenazi mothers fail to show for jail term, although 35 Ashkenazi fathers show up for their two week sentence. But as we know, they have the god-given, nay, God-demanded right to segregate their daughters from those nasty Sephardi girls, after all, as one mother pointed out, “The court and media don’t understand that this is another world,” a mother who is keeping her daughter out of school said. “The Hasidic program was created because of a different religious outlook. Only pure children attend it,” and we mustn’t forget that, “No court ruling or Education Ministry decision can bring the two groups together,” an Immanuel resident said Wednesday, “It’s like putting Americans and Africans together. They can’t study together with such huge mental differences,” he said.