Thin God’s image


Scrolling down the Pinterest page, I see countless photos of bikini clad girls with emaciated bodies. Mirror selfies tagged as ‘thinspiration’ showcase razor-sharp hipbones, protruding ribs, and skeletal thighs set several inches apart.  The blogger’s comments? “Thigh gap and flat stomach…this is what I want,” and, “I will look like this by summer.”

While the Internet has seen many fads that aim to set the standard of beauty for girls and women, the “thigh gap” trend is one of the most destructive and disturbing to date. The goal is to have legs so thin that your thighs don’t touch, even when standing with your feet together.

In reality, this goal is nearly impossible to achieve without a certain body type. Unless a girl has naturally slender legs and wide-set hips, she would have to go to far and often dangerous lengths for a space between her thighs.

It has come to the point where if you type in “thigh gap” on Pinterest, the top of the screen reads  “Eating disorders are not lifestyle choices, they are mental disorders that if left untreated can cause  serious health problems or could even be life-threatening,” followed by the number for the National  Eating Disorders Association Helpline.

Yet, bloggers from all over the world continue to use social media sites like Pinterest, Tumblr, and Instagram to post workout tips, phrases that promote eating less, and photos of girls with the coveted thigh gap as inspiration for their weight loss goals. Pictures of models, celebrities, and —  wait for it — Holocaust victims are among the images featured on the site for “motivational purposes.”

Although the thigh gap trend is horrifying and tragic in the eyes of any human being, as a Jewish teenager I feel that it strikes an even deeper chord. Throughout my life, I have been taught that everyone is created in God’s image. While this can be interpreted in an infinite number of ways, at its core it means that we should embrace people’s differences and accept that we are all equally beautiful in our own right. This includes body shape, skin color, special needs and everything in between.

I remember reading a Mishnah passage in my ninth grade Jewish Studies class: “A person mints many coins from the same mold and they all resemble one another. But [God] forms each person in the image of Adam and not one of them resembles his fellow” (Sanhedrin 4:5).

It pains me to know that so many girls are striving to alter their bodies’ natural forms to resemble the runway models on the Pinterest page. So many girls are giving in to the pressure to eat less so the space between their thighs will be as wide as the photo reposted on the Tumblr blog tells them it needs to be. And so many are sitting back and watching as teenagers all over the world damage their physical and emotional health trying to match the coins minted from the Instagram mold.

One thing that can’t be stressed enough is that beauty is not something that can be defined — not by Tumblr, not by magazines, and not by the girl who complains about needing to lose five pounds. Many bloggers are taking this idea to heart and creating anti-thigh gap pages to combat negative body image. Blogs like The Beauty of Curve are becoming increasingly popular, and with them the phrase, “No Thigh Gap, No Problem.” The pages feature images of real, healthy women and celebrities with a wide range of body types, supporting the idea that there is beauty in diversity — beauty that God would want us to recognize.

Curvy, thin, tall, short or something in between, every body type is a reflection of God’s beauty and perfection — whatever your interpretation of that may be. There is one thing, however, that I think we can all agree on: up in heaven or wherever She may be, God is probably not trying for a thigh gap.

This article is reprinted from The Roar, a publication of the Milken Student Press

Jewish identity defined — a la Facebook


Ora Weinbach is not satisfied with merely calling herself a Jew. Instead, the recent high school graduate strives to put the za za zoo back into her religious observance by being an “impassioned Jew” — a term she uses to define herself on Facebook.

As opposed to the generic “Jewish — Orthodox” listed under the majority of her friends’ profiles, she has created an entirely new category to express the fervor of her faith.

“Selecting Orthodox Judaism from a dropdown list, after Jehovah’s Witness and Jain, just didn’t seem as ‘ Wear it proud!’ as it should,” Weinbach said.

Facebook has become far more than a social network; it is a virtual social necessity.

Providing a do-it-yourself outlet for people to express their likes, dislikes and even their faith, the interactive platform allows users around the world to join together — whether on the newly available Facebook chat or in myriad groups that cater to almost any interest. The Jewish community, in particular, has created a haven for itself on this booming network, claiming hundreds of groups, applications and pieces of Jewish flair.

Beyond providing aesthetically appealing odds and ends for all its Jewish participants, Facebook — unlike MySpace or Friendster — hands over the reigns to developers by allowing them to create their own add-on applications.

Rabbi Moshe Plotkin, the head of the Chabad house at the State University of New York at New Paltz, is the creator of the popular Jewish Dates 2.0, which displays the current Hebrew date and a user’s Hebrew birthday. The application, like JewMeter and Jewish Gifts, is intended as a fun tool to help reinforce Jewish identity.

“I wanted to use every medium to bring Jewish culture closer to their father in Heaven,” Plotkin said.

Putting hundreds of hours into creating various “jewpplications,” developers like Plotkin are ensuring that Facebook is a means of inspiration, rather than just a tool for finding old friends and staying in touch.

Facebook groups can be found for almost any interest, and the selection for Jews extends from the serious, “We Are Still Here (Holocaust Memorial),” to the humorous, “I am a Victim of a Jewish Mother.”

For Zoe Jurkowski, a sophomore at YULA Girls High School and a member of several Jewish Facebook groups, the platform represents more than just sharing pictures and connecting with friends.

“When some show that they are proud of their religion, others are suddenly inspired to embrace it despite some social stigmas that might influence them not to,” she said.

Facebook has also become an asset for community organizers, such as Rabbi Effie Goldberg, the regional director of West Coast National Conference of Synagogue Youth. He uses Facebook as an opportunity to reach out to new members in a comfortable atmosphere where both he and his NCSY-ers can communicate about everything from upcoming events to the underlying goals of his organization.

“I have found through my experience in using Facebook and dealing with teenagers, that teens will go to the nth degree to express their Judaism,” he said. “Whether with a Hebrew letter or the Hebrew date on their page, each profile has a connection to their religious view. Teenagers want to stay together as a strong Jewish network.”

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On Facebook, The Jewish Journal is “pretty Jewish.”

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Black-Jewish Passover not about blame


I am disturbed, not by the content, but by the direction, of the entire discussion regarding the relationship between blacks and Jews, and particularly by the discussion about comments supposedly made at a recent awards ceremony here in Los Angeles.

I am Jewish, of European ancestry; my wife is black, with Chinese and Native American ancestry included. What shall we tell our son this Passover, when we retell the tale of how his Jewish ancestors were freed from slavery in Africa?

Shall we trade accusations against each other? The statement reputed to have been made at a fraternity event, that some Jews in the entertainment industry exploited and profited from black performers, is probably true. It is also true that Jewish union leaders, lawyers and agents in the entertainment industry have fought for better wages and working conditions for blacks and others in the industry. Many Jews played crucial roles in the struggle for civil rights, and undoubtedly there were some on the other side as well. We can go back farther to trade accusations. Were there Jews who owned slaves and were involved in the slave trade? Probably so; and yet there were also Jews fighting for abolition. Does it matter whether those on one side outnumbered those on the other?

To be honest, I must tell my son that his African ancestors were on both sides as well. How else did Africans become African Americans? Did a few Europeans (perhaps including some Jews) march into Africa and march out with tens of millions of slaves? Actually, it was their African “brothers” who sent them into slavery. Whether it was for small reasons like personal squabbles, or large reasons like tribal warfare, it was primarily Africans who sent other Africans into slavery, just as Joseph was sold into slavery in Africa by his own brothers.

So is the point of the Passover story that the Hebrews were the “good guys” being held in slavery by “evil” Africans? Emphatically not. And neither should the point of the current discussion be to lay blame on anyone.

What I will tell my son is how his ancestors woke up to their oppression in Africa, and joined together to claim their freedom. I will also have him dip 10 times from his cup to diminish his joy of celebration by the Ten Plagues suffered by the Africans to allow us to be free. I will tell him of his African ancestors dragged in chains to this country; how a violent war was fought to end the slavery, and a nonviolent struggle fought to gain some of the civil rights he now enjoys. And again, I will have him dip from his cup to diminish his joy by the suffering that was the cost of those advances.

Why was I commanded to tell the story of Passover to my children? I do not believe it is to exchange blame, as I see being done today. No. I believe it is to remember that his ancestors, on both sides, suffered from oppression, and must oppose oppression whenever they see it again. It is my duty, which I must pass on to him, to stand up against such oppression today, whether against my own people or others.

I will tell my son of one of my own heroes. Not Moses or Jesus or the Rev.Martin Luther King Jr., but someone very few people ever heard of: Sigismund Danielewicz.

Danielewicz was a Jewish barber from Poland who became one of the most prominent leaders and organizers of California Labor in the 1880s. His downfall came at the convention called in 1885, which was the forerunner to the current California Federation of Labor. The main issue on the table was a resolution to drive the Chinese from the state within 60 days, by force if necessary. Danielewicz alone spoke out against the resolution. He pointed out that he was a member of a race still persecuted, and challenged each group there to say whether the persecution of the Chinese was more justifiable than the persecution they had suffered themselves. His call for unity among labor was jeered, and he was declared out of order. The resolution passed, and was the justification for a virtual pogrom of deadly violence against the Chinese in the months that followed.

Danielewicz sank into obscurity. He was last seen homeless and on foot toward the East Coast in 1910. Why then do I idolize a man who was driven from the podium and doomed to obscurity? Because he had the chutzpah to stand up against oppression, no matter what the cost, simply because it was the right thing to do.

This is what I will tell my son on Passover: It does not matter what color your skin is, nor even what faith you profess to hold. What matters is what you do; which side you choose to be on. The question we must face is not who is to blame for injustice and oppression of the past, but what can we do to fight injustice and oppression now. We should not exercise moderation in this regard, as some have suggested. We must be forceful and as persistent as our ancestors who fought oppression were. We cannot change the past, but we must remember it. We must look up from our own oppression to the light of freedom. We must not look away from the oppression of others, but confront it directly. We must be brave enough to stand up against the tide as Danielewicz did and cry out against oppression, no matter what others say about us.

Even if we do not see the Promised Land ourselves, as with Moses, and even if our words seem to fall on deaf ears, as with Danielewicz, our words and deeds are not lost. The words of my real Jewish barber hero were heard again in Charlie Chaplin’s fictional Jewish barber, with which I conclude my Passover story:

“Let us all unite. Let us fight for a new world, a decent world that will give men a chance to work, that will give youth a future and old age a security. The soul of man has been given wings and at last he is beginning to fly.”

Brave + mensch = ?


Three years ago, we were sitting around our offices dreaming up an end-of-the-year issue, inundated with examples from other magazines: The Ten Best Movies, The Ten Richest Angelenos, The Ten Most Powerful Hollywood Players, The Ten Top Restaurants, The Ten Hottest Bars and et cetera.

Since these lists are both celebration and statement, we decided we wanted to promote something a little different. What if a list championed a Jewish value, not people, things or bars (not that there’s anything wrong with them….)?

Thus was born The Mensch List — a roster that, humans being human, is far more difficult to crack than one tabulating power or wealth or even cool.

But this year, after we made the list, I — in the spirit of some holiday — checked it twice. And there are four people missing.

These are people I’ve come across in 2007 who didn’t make this list but who deserve some special notice of their own. That’s because they are not only mensches, they are also remarkably courageous.

Funny that the Yiddish adjectives that mean “strong” and “brave” never made the jump into the modern Jewish vernacular. Somehow, schnorrer and shmendrick and ferklempt remained near and dear to our tongues, but mutik and bahartst are no more a part of our lives than Benny Leonard or Kingfish Levinsky. When great Jewish prizefighters like these went down for the count, so did the words their fans used to praise them. That leaves shtarker. But shtarker has baggage that mensch doesn’t begin to carry.

I’m no Yiddishist, but to my ears, the word has always been said with a wink, the speaker already knowing that strength and health, no matter how abundant, are fleeting. To this day, when I drop my son off at a teen party, my last words aren’t “Be a shtarker!” but “Be a mensch.”

So I don’t know what neologism will suffice for someone who is both extraordinarily brave and a mensch to boot. What word describes those Jews and non-Jews who risk their lives to stand up for the things we all believe in? This year, I found four, and I suppose their names will suffice:

Benji Davis and David Landau

These two young men packed up this year and left their comfortable lives in Los Angeles and moved to Sderot, the beleaguered Israeli town under near-constant bombardment by Qassam rockets launched by Islamic Jihad and Hamas terrorists in Gaza.

Davis is a college student from Beverly Hills volunteering at an elementary school in Sderot — there is a charmingly awkward YouTube video of him trying to folkdance with his young charges — and at the Sderot Media Center, which tries to raise awareness of what Israelis within the Green Line are faced with every day.

“Sderot’s residents deserve protection,” Davis writes on his blog, 90210tosderot.blogspot.com. “Sderot’s children deserve some sense of normalcy. Sderot deserves our help.

“We can protect Sderot from the terrorists — it’s up to you.”

Landau is 19. When I asked his father, Fred, why his son moved — of all places — to within two miles of Gaza, he said, very matter-of-factly, without a hint of boastfulness, “Because he’s a Zionist.” Many of Sderot’s own residents have moved away, the Israeli government has for a year now struggled to come up with a response to the Qassams, Jews from Tel Aviv to Tarzana have gone about their normal lives, but Davis and Landau have chosen to risk their lives to remind us that, no, not all is milk and honey.

They’re on my list.

Wafa Sultan

Sultan is the Syrian-born psychiatrist who has become well-known for her outspoken condemnation of Muslim extremists and the so-called Muslim moderates whose unwillingness to speak out forcefully serves as tacit approval of the fanatics.

The Journal was the first newspaper to run the text of Sultan’s famous February 2006 rant against two Muslim clerics on the Al Jazeera network. I finally met Sultan last week when I interviewed her on the bimah during the One Saturday Morning service at Adat Ari El Synagogue in North Hollywood.

Beyond the extremists who shower the L.A.-area-based, 49-year-old mother of three with almost daily death threats, Sultan has many liberal critics who deride her for condemning all of Islam and thereby feeding the most negative stereotypes many Americans already harbor.

I asked Sultan about that charge. “I read classical Arabic,” she said. “I know what is in the Quran.”

As a woman, she also personally experienced the most painful and misogynistic aspects of her culture. If the religion is to be saved, she seemed to be saying, the culture would have to drastically change. And Sultan, at great personal cost, refuses to back down from her demands that it do so.

Mordecai Sorkin

I started reading Moti Sorkin’s blog this summer, and I continue to be astounded by his combination of courage and clarity. Sorkin is currently an infantry platoon leader in Afghanistan, with the 82nd Airborne Division.

He grew up in Sacramento and attended Claremont McKenna college. He is young, married and idealistic. Sometimes he can blog at motisorkin.blogspot.com about where he is and what he’s doing; sometimes he can’t.

A while back, I e-mailed him to ask how he’d like to be identified in The Journal. He wrote back: “You can write, ‘He is serving in the Army because he believes in making the world a better place, and defending America against radical Islam is one of the best ways to accomplish that goal.'”

That is four names on a my new rarified Top Ten list — in the coming year, may we all aspire to be one of the other six.

Virtual, viral fundraising brings real donations


Hoping to raise money for a three-day bike ride over Labor Day to benefit the Jewish environmental organization Hazon, Ariela Pelaia turned to her blog.

Pelaia, 26, thought she could find donors by raffling off books on her personal Web site, “>Facebook.com and

Generation Next — a new vision for the Jewish future


This speech, by writer/editor/blogger Esther D. Kustanowitz, was delivered at the 2007 General Assembly convened in Nashville by United Jewish Communities as part of the “Next Generation” plenary. At the plenary, a range of young Jewish and Israeli activists, bloggers, an Oscar-winning filmmaker and others described their visions of community building and the power of the collective.

When I moved to New York in 1994, my community centered around my friends from Camp Ramah and the people I met in synagogue. We used e-mail, but mostly we relied on an ancient device known as “the telephone.” A few of us were experimenting with some new-fangled thing called “Instant Messaging.”

Today, you can forward an e-mail, a Web site or a YouTube video to hundreds of people, creating a network based on a shared experience or affiliation. The Jewish world has always operated that way — the community mobilizes to address an issue or to fill a need.

Today’s technology has altered the modes and frequency of connection, and today’s Jewish 20- and 30-somethings, perceiving gaping holes in the community’s agenda, are seeking each other out using the full power of technology. Web sites, blogs and social networking sites are thriving. It’s a grass-roots uprising.

There is a lot of concern over the development of this kind of vast online community network, largely because of the generational technology divide. But what’s clear is that Federation professionals, volunteers, donors, and publications that want to stay relevant to “Generation Tech” need to significantly increase their techno-literacy.

People also perceive the emergence of online life as a threat to in-person relationships and connections. But our online world does not replace our offline life. Expanding our personal and professional connections; cross-pollinating our projects with others, our initiatives emerge strengthened and energized, and new ideas keep us active and inspired, on- and offline.

Today, the “social” in social action, social entrepreneurship and social networking enables everything else. The power of the collective — not of one organization or charismatic leader — enables change. The collective transforms one idea into something more valuable.

Facebook, for example, had a simple concept: to create a Web site that replaced the traditional college “face book,” the directory of new students. The company, recognizing that the product could probably use a few tweaks, encouraged the users’ input. Call it a different kind of tikkun olam: Facebook users fixing the world of Facebook.

A friend recently remarked that Jews, particularly, are in love with Facebook-wondering who their friends know and which of their friends’ friends they’re already friends with. This is because this activity is a new, easy-to-read iteration of our favorite pastime: Jewish geography. (“You know David from camp? I went to college with David!”)

Jews, living in dispersed locations for thousands of years, have learned how to harness the power of the network as a survival instinct. You need a place for Shabbat? Or an in with David’s cousin Murray, the hotshot lawyer? Or maybe, you’ve got a nephew who’s just perfect for me or some other Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel or Leah? Jewish geography. The friend (or relative) of my friend (or relative) is my friend. Or a relative.

This is the power of the network. As Jews create communities online, large and small, political and social, community becomes more true to the word itself: call out the obvious “unity” at the end of the word, and you’re left with “comm,” which I like to think stands for “comm” communication and commitment. This enigmatic “new generation” is not any less committed than the previous one; we’re just communicating that commitment differently. And to be relevant to the new media generation, old-school organizations have to embrace new modes of communication and new models of commitment.

When I was asked to do this session, I was curious how many of us “new generation” types were on Facebook and attending the GA, so I formed an online group — “Going to the GA in Nashville and Under 45” — today, there are over 140 members.

My generation is not emotionally tied to the traditional structures that served as their parents’ main connection to Jewish community, because we don’t have to be. We are creating our own online and offline publications, initiatives and minyanim, in reaction to having examined what does exist and finding that it doesn’t fill our needs. For example, I’m on dozens of mailing lists and read about 50 blogs a day. I read lots offline too, but most of the programs and events I find out about through Facebook, blogs, e-newsletters, or e-mail. I can’t tell you the last time I attended an event that didn’t have a Facebook profile.

Online, I’ve become involved in opportunities I never would have known about otherwise. I am a team member for the Jewlicious Festivals, an celebration of all things Jewish attended by hundreds of college students each year. I’m involved in the ROI Global Summit for Jewish Innovators, an annual Jerusalem gathering of 120 Jewish leaders in my age cohort from around the world. And through my involvement in PresenTense Magazine, a content-laden magazine for Jewish 20- and 30-somethings, I’ve also been able to experience a broad swath of Jewish life in the here and now. I’ve also experienced new permutations of Zionism, through this summer’s PresenTense Institute for Creative Zionism.

Today’s Jews in my generation aren’t connecting to Federation the way our parents did. And I know this relationship, or lack thereof, troubles you. So view yourselves through our eyes. Are there campaigns, events or initiatives in your community that do draw participation from our age cohort?

Our generation lives generously, but gives differently: in measure, in method and in means. We need to feel the return on our investments — of both time and money — in our hearts and souls. And for those of us who are single or not parents, the community needs to expand the definition of commitment beyond Hebrew school tuition: just because some of us aren’t engaged to be married doesn’t mean we’re not engaged in pursuing a Jewish life.

Because our ideas, our commitment and our initiatives begin online and bleed into real life, Jewish organizations that seek new, younger members must commit to it not only in mission, but in action, supporting and forming partnerships with younger, innovative initiatives, not hoping to subsume them, but to work together with them.

By managing these kinds of creative partnerships effectively, and mobilizing our global Jewish social network, we will forge a future that is strong, vital, and a source of creative inspiration.

Dear Abby of Cyberspace


For a while this past year, several thousand girls between the ages of 10 and 14 read my words every day by logging on to Allykatzz.com, an Internet site for “‘tween” girls that provides a safe alternative to MySpace and Facebook.

They wrote to me about their parents’ divorce or their fear of seventh grade or their little eating disorder they hoped no one else would know about.

For several months, I became the “Dear Abby of Cyberspace,” the friendly counselor whose open door was only a cursor away, the virtual adult who answered a teen girl’s question when the actual adult in her life couldn’t even be asked.

When I was brought on to the Allykatzz staff, I expected that my blogging ‘tweeners would grapple with the same issues as I hear of in person from my at-risk adolescent clients: sex, drugs, and — rock ‘n’ roll not withstanding — anger, anxiety and despair. Although the emotional outpouring was similar to that of the kids I work with daily, some of the stories I was told by my nameless readers astonished me:

There was the girl who was raped when she was 8 and, at 14, wanted to know how to keep it a secret until she got to college; the girl who was born with a deformed limb and wanted to cut it out of her body; the girl whose father just died of brain cancer and who wanted to hypnotize herself out of grieving.

I tried to answer all of them, often urging them to advocate for themselves by seeking out counseling or a support group or by expressing their feelings in a positive, healing way. I made it a point to let each of them know they are cherished, unique young women and that, whatever confronts them, this too shall pass.

On a lighter note, the most frequent issue of all seemed to be the one I call the BFF Dilemma. For those of you who are ignorant of cyber-speak, a BFF is a Best Friend Forever. The problem for many of my bloggers was that, alas, the BFF actually shouldn’t be forever. Here is a typical (if not actual) letter:

“So, Leda, like HELP me!!!! My BFF who I no since we wuz in frst grade has gotten so ANNOYING!!! She IMs me all the time and talks about nothing! She even makes fun of me in front of other grls! She told one really cool popular grl my name is Jade and it is SO not Jade! She was OK til 7 grade and then she got WEIRD. My mom sez 2 ignore her but I cant! What to do?”

There were so many BFF Dilemma letters that they took on a weight equal to that of my occasional clinically depressed teen. Although a few of the girls face horrific problems, most of them were dealing with the simple process of being. I am constantly reminded in my work that an adolescent’s struggle to forge a mature identity can be a lonely one, as singular and as difficult as a butterfly emerging from a cocoon.

Part of that transformation is in deciding who will be compassionate and trustworthy enough to make the passage with them. When I was a teenager, I would become baffled and angry when my normally very progressive Jewish parents, who had a reputation among my friends for being especially hospitable, would shake their heads in wonderment and disapproval at some of my peers. “Di vos vaksn nit, vern kleyner,” my Yiddishkeit, immigrant father would tell me: Those who do not grow, grow smaller.

He was right.

BFFs, BBs (blog buddies) and BFs (boyfriends) will come and go, despite the best of intentions, simply because the level of maturity between adolescents is so uneven. Hopefully, for my readers, there will be new and better friends and perhaps a sympathetic adult or two on the road ahead as they travel from girlhood through adolescence into adulthood. It is my wish that I can be one of those adult voices who can support and cajole a young woman forward.

I am reminded of another bit of Yiddish wisdom: Each child carries his or her own blessing into the world. So far, I have been blessed many times over, and I am both grateful for and honored by them all.

Leda Siskind is a licensed marriage and family therapist in Los Angeles who works with adolescents, young adults and families. She can be reached at (323) 824-0551.

Linked Out


Today I received the 50th e-mail from someone I vaguely know, someone who isn’t spam, but is spam of a different sort. “You are invited to join LinkedIn.”

LinkedIn.com, for those not in the know, is the social interface community Web site or whatever you call it for job hunters. Or so it was explained to me by one of the people I’d blasted for inviting me to one of these blasted things. “You have to be on Linked In, it’s the best way to promote yourself!” he said.

Do you remember when anyone with their own personal Web page was either a narcissist, a lunatic or a geek you would never give your e-mail to? OK, this was back in 1997 or so, when everyone was just starting to get e-mail, but still. Having your own Web page was a big scarlet L. Lo-ser.

Today, if you’re in the writing industry — or any industry where you want to be known, which seems to be every industry — you’re supposed to promote yourself by at least having a Web page, if not a blog. (In what I can’t decide was either a compliment or an insult, a former editor told me, “Amy, you were born to blog.”) But for some reason, I don’t feel like it.

I never built a page on MySpace. In fact, for a while I thought that anyone older than 30 who had a page there was a pedophile, or at least had Peter Pan syndrome. But there was the promotional aspect, and so I was considering relenting, except by then, all the kids — and adults — were moving over to Facebook. Originally designed for college networks, Facebook recently opened itself up to everyone. And everyone, it seems, is on it.

A guy friend here in Los Angeles told me about what my sister in New York is up to. My good friend in Israel wants to fix me up with a friend of hers here — via Facebook.

“You’re not on it?!” my friend writes me in disbelief via regular old e-mail. “It’s so much fun to see what everyone is up to!”

OK, I will admit this: I once did a MySpace search for an ex-boyfriend. It was my only one. He’s got a new band. And a wife, and a kid. That, my friend, is what he’s up to.

So, no, I’m not sure that I need to keep track of everyone from my past.

Frankly, I have a hard enough time keeping up with everyone in my present life. Or should I say lives, plural. My friends from Israel. My friends from New York. My friends who used to live in one of those places but now live somewhere else around the world. My friends from college. From high school. From the neighborhood. And, I think I’m forgetting some people — oh, yes, my friends from here. Not to mention my dates — the ones I’ve seen, am seeing and have yet to see.

They say that modern telecommunication makes our lives easier. And in a way, it has. Between the internet, cell phones and the combination of the two, which gives U.S. numbers to people living overseas, I can keep up with quite a number of people — and through them, nearly anyone I might have ever known, just to hear what they’re up to.

And I don’t mind — I really don’t. But do I really want more friends? Especially the online kind?

Uh oh. Have I just crossed that invisible line from cool young person to aging alter-kacker? “I remember when we didn’t even have the internet to do research,” I heard myself telling a group of journalism students, to which I was met by a blank stare, and I might as well have been saying, “When I was your age, we walked to school. Four miles. Barefoot.”

And while this might date me, I do remember life pre-Internet. About a decade ago I had founded an Internet company in Israel and was trying to explain the concept to Israeli industry leaders. (Suffice to say that it wasn’t an easy task trying to explain something new to a people who know everything.) I told people they would never have to leave the house! From shopping to research to booking travel to making friends to being part of a community, they would be able to conduct their entire lives online. It sounded far-fetched, and I wasn’t even sure believed it.

Not to state the obvious, but that day has arrived. And I, for better or for worse, have arrived with it. I’ve got my Treo Internet/cell phone — and am so adept at text messaging that my thumb has arthritis — my AOL IM, my Skype account, my work e-mail, my personal e-mail, my grad school e-mail and my hotmail account, which receives all promotional, travel and dating e-mails.

Yes, I date on the Internet, sometimes, when I don’t feel like hurling my face through the computer. Because, let me tell you, it takes up a lot of time. Between that, my e-mails, YouTube, eBay, CraigsList, Amazon, TMZ and sudoku (guiltiest of pleasures), entire decades of my life have gone by.

I don’t think I’m a Luddite. I’m just … tired.

So thanks for your invitation to join LinkedIn or MySpace of Facebook or whatever is the community Web Site for online communities these days. But if you want to hang out, why don’t you just give me a call. Better yet, let’s meet up. In person. Face to face.

The Perfect Reads for Those Lazy Days of Summer


I read and write during several days of rain in New York City, and I think about Los Angeles beaches, bleached with sunshine. So reclining on a couch isn’t the same as stretching out on a blanket and listening to the surf, but there’s a certain similar lazy quality, with pockets of time best filled with books.

This season brings engaging reading in a mix of genres: literary fiction, comedy, love stories, detective novels, memoirs, historical fiction and books that break genre boundaries; books by veteran authors and others not-yet well-known.

After not publishing fiction for a decade, Hilma Wolitzer makes a fine comeback with “The Doctor’s Daughter” (Ballantine). Wolitzer’s 17th novel is a lively and poetic novel about a 51-year-old book editor who wakes up one morning with a strong sense that something is amiss — beyond the facts of her troubled son, faltering marriage, halting career and the increasing needs of her father in a nursing home.

Her father, who was once a top surgeon, is losing his memory, as she is combing through hers for clues about her family history, her marriage and the choices she has made. Wolitzer, the recipient of Guggenheim and NEA fellowships, captures ordinary life with tenderness and humanity.

In the opening pages of “The Attack” by Yasmina Akhadra (Talese/Doubleday), a suicide bomb is detonated in a Tel Aviv restaurant, as a children’s birthday party is taking place and other diners sit down for what they assume will be a pleasant lunch. Many are killed instantly, and scores are wounded. Dr. Amin Jaafari, an accomplished surgeon, is called into emergency service in his hospital, which echoes with wailing and screaming.

The son of Bedouins, Dr. Jaafari has become a naturalized Israeli citizen and leads a life that’s well-integrated into Israeli society; he’s much respected by his medical peers.

The hospital is quickly crowded with the terrorist’s victims. Just as soon as Dr. Jaafari finishes with one patient, another is wheeled in and by the end of the night, he has lost count of how many people he has operated on. Soon after leaving the hospital thoroughly exhausted, he is called back and asked to identify a body: It is that of his wife, and authorities are convinced that she was the suicide bomber.

Dr. Jaafari is confounded that his wife, with whom he shared a close, loving relationship, who was equally integrated and comfortable with their Jewish friends, could have had a secret life — that something unknown to him could have driven her to this most heinous act. Ostracized by the community for his wife’s action, he sets out to understand why she would sacrifice herself for a cause that seemed to have little place in their life together and, from what he’s aware of, in her life.

This fast-paced novel is provocative and well-written, leaving the reader with powerful questions. Yasmina Akhadra is the feminine pseudonym of Mohammed Moulessehoul, a former Algerian army officer living in France who is the author of five other books published in English, including “The Swallows of Kabul.”

On her blog, Village Voice sex columnist Rachel Kramer Bussel names Santa Monica author S. Hanala Stadner’s new memoir the most offensive book title of the season, “My Parents Went Through the Holocaust and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt” (Matter Inc.). But once readers get over the title, they may be struck by the author’s clear and honest voice. Stadner continues to shock as she unravels her life story of a Montreal childhood shaped by her parents’ Holocaust experience, her efforts to leave home for Hollywood and their world behind her.

Her journey takes her into the world of drugs and alcoholism, obesity and anorexia, all of which she details, along with her failed relationships and her efforts toward recovery and healing. Her humor is on the edge. Stadner is known around Los Angeles for her popular cable access television program; this is her first book.

“You Gotta Have Balls” by Lilly Brett (Morrow) is another book that might have been served well by a different title. The Australian author whose last book, “Too Many Men” was a best-seller, Brett sets this comic novel in downtown Manhattan, where she now lives. In that novel and this one, she touches lightly on the lingering psychological impact of the Holocaust on the second generation with humor. Here, Roth Rothwax — the heroine of “Too Many Men” — is at first skeptical about the latest project undertaken by her father, a survivor.

He backs a Polish friend with a skill for making variations on meatballs in a new restaurant, and the place becomes an overnight success, the kind of New York restaurant where people make reservations weeks in advance. The book title is the name of the restaurant, and the novel features recipes.

“Adverbs” by Daniel Handler (Ecco) is about people trying to find love. The publication marks the return to adult fiction by the author of a number of popular children’s books written under the name Lemony Snicket, collectively titled “A Series of Unfortunate Events.” Here, the chapters are titled, “Immediately,” “Obviously,” “Collectively,” “Truly,” and 13 other adverbs; the interconnected, inventive stories about searching for love in its many forms are set in a taxi, courtroom, diner and back in a taxi, among other places.
As the author says, “It is not the nouns. The miracle is the adverbs, the way things are done.

In “Triangle” (Farrar, Straus, Giroux), Katherine Weber creates a novel revolving about the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist fire in New York City. The author of several previous novels including “The Little Women,” Weber tells of the granddaughter of the tragedy’s last survivor, as she tries to unravel the facts, while a feminist scholar gets in her way as she tries to do the same. This absorbing novel probes the borders between memory and history. Weber’s own grandmother finished buttonholes for the Triangle Shirtwaist Company in 1909.

A Different War


I went to bed on June 25 believing that Islamo-facism was our country’s most immediate threat. I woke up on June 26 to find out that no, it was The New York Times. That’s the day President Bush publicly criticized newspapers that exposed a secret U.S. government program that monitors international banking transactions. He called the disclosures a “disgraceful” act that could only help terrorists.

But it is his comments that strike me as not just a shame, but somewhat of a sham.

The president singled out The New York Times, though the Los Angeles Times and The Wall Street Journal published similar reports. Bush’s comments amplified attacks on The Times from Vice President Dick Cheney and administration supporters in the media.

Republicans in Congress joined the charge last Thursday, when the House voted along party lines to condemn news organizations for revealing the tracking program.

The Internet devoured the controversy. One blogger said it was time to take seriously the idea that the Sept. 11 attackers should have aimed for The Times headquarters in New York.

A cynic would say the administration picked a fight with The Times because, well, there’s a war it knew it could win, a diversion from the fact that we’re losing a bigger war.

The administration could charge The Times with endangering lives and America’s security, without ever having to prove that, as a result of The Times’ report, lives are in danger or America is at greater risk.

Prior to publication, The Times weighed this speculative risk against the public interest in government transparency and oversight. It can’t have been an easy choice. Newspapers are perfectly capable of being overzealous in their rush to reveal. “The difference between a stripper and a newspaper is that the former never pretends to be performing a public service by exposure,” the jouralist I.F. Stone once said.

But in this case the burden of proof was on the administration. Engaging in warrantless wire-tapping and establishing military tribunals that a conservative Supreme Court found unconstitutional last month does not engender trust.

The Times’ editors no doubt also took into account the fact that reports on financial tracking had appeared numerous times before, beginning with the president’s 2001 announcement that his administration would do everything in its power to disrupt the source of terrorist funding.

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ron Suskind details these steps in his recent book on the war on terror, “The One Percent Doctrine.”

In fact, Suskind writes, the initial success of the money-tracking led terrorist networks to abandon international money transfer by late 2003. “The al-Qaeda playbook,” he writes, “employed by what was left of the network, started to stress the necessity of using couriers to carry cash.” The Bush administration’s use of financial intelligence was “the most successful, coordinated area in the entire government in the ‘war on terror,'” in the words of a former CIA official Suskind quotes. But Al Qaeda — and Suskind — had it figured out long before The New York Times.

It seems a debate on press freedom and responsibility would, at the very least, be a welcome break from the weeks of speechifying over gay marriage and flag burning. But my fear is that this debate too is not part of the real war, but of the culture wars. Call me paranoid, but when the conservative base goes after The New York Times, I sense the attack is wrapped up with notions of “Jewish” and “liberalism.”

And some of my best friends are Jewish and liberal. (First they came for Howard Stern, then The New York Times, then –quick, call Jon Stewart).

I’m not alone in this thinking. “Many members of the president’s base consider ‘New York’ to be a nifty code word for ‘Jewish,'” Jon Carroll wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle.

George Bush has demonstrated over and over his concern for and appreciation of the Jewish community, but — when it’s time to rally the base — he knows which buttons to push.

And that’s too bad. Because even if we American Jews put aside our self-interest as a minority in protecting the civil liberties enshrined in the Bill of Rights, we have an existential interest in the war on terrorists who have pledged to target us, in particular. And I’m afraid this brouhaha shows that the White House’s eye is drifting from the ball.

How badly?

Foreign Policy magazine and the Center for American Progress convened a panel of 100 of America’s top foreign policy experts. They were Republican and Democrat, liberal and conservative and neoconservative. Nearly 80 percent worked in the U.S. government, a third in the military and 17 percent in the intelligence services. The magazine polled them on where America stood in its war on terror, and 86 percent said the world is becoming more dangerous for Americans.

Asked whether they agreed with the president that the United States is winning the war on terror, 84 percent said no, and 13 said yes. Of conservative respondents, 71 percent said no. (The results of the entire poll are in the magazine’s July/August issue and at www.foreignpolicy.com.)

The experts were also asked what America’s priorities should be in the war on terror.

They listed seven top items.

Guess what No. 1 was? Guess what 82 percent of conservative and liberal foreign policy experts agreed was the best way to win the war on terror? That’s right: “Reduce America’s use of foreign oil.”

Funny, shutting down The New York Times didn’t even make the list.

 

A Blog World After All


Last year, the Pew Internet and American Life Project estimated that 8 million American adults had created blogs. Although the number of specifically Jewish blogs is unconfirmed, those with knowledge of the blogosphere say the pool is substantial. Jewish blogs, or Web diaries, run the gamut from kosher cooking to Israeli advocacy. They include leftist rants, dating melodramas, rabbinic ruminations and secular musings from all corners of the globe.

“I’d estimate the number of active blogs at some several thousand,” says Steven Weiss, who currently blogs about religion (canonist.com), food (kosherbachelor.com) and the Jewish college experience (campusj.com).

“Among young, highly affiliated Jews, J-blogs are very popular,” the 24-year-old New Yorker continued. “As you move up the age brackets, the popularity drops off somewhat, though many in the organizational and rabbinic establishment have started paying a lot of attention to them.”

What exactly are these Jewish bloggers seeking on the Web?

Some, like 30-something New York blogging guru Esther Kustanowitz, say the blogosphere connects them to a larger, global Jewish community.

“I started looking at other Jewish blogs to see if there were other people like me out there — single, Jewish and blogging,” she explained.

The No. 1 thread on Jewlicious (jewlicious.com), a group blog focusing on Judaism, Israel and pop culture, addresses premarital sex in the Orthodox community. It pulled in 676 comments.

The No. 2 post, with 502 responses, tackles an equally contentious topic — the identity of Conservative Judaism.

Oftentimes, noisemakers walk a fine line between healthy debate and mudslinging.

“There are definitely blogs where the conversation tends to be acrimonious,” said Barenblat, who recently received anonymous hate mail. “People feel free to be obnoxious because it’s just through a computer screen.”

Fiery language also peppers the Jewlicious site, with posts often descending into vitriolic exchanges.

“It’s a paradigm for disagreement,” Kustanowitz said. “I think because of the anonymity and lack of accountability, people tend to not think before they write.”

Where exactly this blogging phenomenon is going remains unseen.

Schiano, for one, predicts a continuously evolving blogosphere.

“I think there will always be this room for grass-roots voices on the net,” she said.

And as long as rabbis continue to preach, advocates to crusade, singles to gripe and ideologues to spar, Jews will continue clicking — and posting — away.

 

People of the Blog


 

Here’s a theory of social change I’d like to float: Initial attempts by the established order to respond to sweeping changes are either murderous or ridiculous.

The first part is obvious: the French Revolution, Kent State, Arab dictatorships.

As for the second, Exhibit No. 1 would be Dick Cavett’s sideburns. Around the early ’70s, when the ’60s revolution was actually happening, I kept noticing how members of the media establishment — Dick Cavett, John Chancellor — all tried to fit in by letting their sideburns grow. Anchormen with sideburns, aging actors with sideburns, middle-aged rabbis with sideburns — everyone I once respected was starting to look like Chester A. Arthur. All because they thought that’s where society was going and they didn’t want to be left out.

Exhibit No. 2 is Arianna Huffington. This week she unveiled her newest venture, The Huffington Post, an online compendium of articles and musings. Following incarnations as biographer, Republican hostess, gubernatorial candidate and right-wing, then left-leaning iconoclastic pundit (not quite in that order), Arianna 6.0 is now the master of her very own digital domain. She has seen the future and is trying to leap from the choo-choo of a weekly print column to the Maglev of daily Internet interactivity.

Being the shape-shifting multilinguist that she is, Huffington’s own posts are close doppelgangers of what the technically hip these days call blogging, that is Web logs or diaries that record the author’s thoughts, feelings and experiences in something like real time while also posting links to online articles or musing by other bloggers.

But many of those Huffington has invited on are more like Exhibit No. 3: actors who respond to the written word like us non-actors would to a close-up; real writers like Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. who are clearly uncomfortable publishing something short of a 10th draft, and even Walter Cronkite, who wrote something brief and forgettable, maybe about sideburns.

The only memorable entries out of several dozens were by Larry David and Bill Maher — because no matter what the venue, funny is funny.

One hallmark of the blogosphere is that, like talk radio, it tends to cater to the converted. Instead of people of different political persuasions sharing a common forum, every group gets to fine-tune news and essays to its liking. So Huffington’s Post is the circled wagons of successful, well-off liberals — let the word go forth from Brentwood.

Nothing wrong with that, I just wonder where and how all these online opposing camps will intersect.

Once in a while, a right-wing freerepublic.com blogger might get into a long, predictable e-mail shouting match with a Huffington poster, but that’s not the same as sharing a common medium or forging social progress through dialogue.

As goes the big, wide world, so goes the Jewish one.

Earlier this month, Sh’ma magazine organized an e-mail exchange between a blogger and me on the future of Jewish journalism in the internet age. The magazine will publish an edited version of our on-line conversation in its upcoming issue.

The blogger, Dan Sieradski of www.jewschool.com, informed me that my days in the old media were numbered.

“You guys are finished,” he wrote. I think I took the heat out of his flaming when I wrote back that I agreed.

There are at least 1 million blogs on the internet now. Anybody with a computer, a modem and a thought in his head can start one. In many instances, it seems, that thought is: I think I’ll start a blog.

There are hundreds of Jewish-oriented blogs. One tracks the daily life of an Orthodox woman. New ones detail the struggles of settlers in Gaza, facing the Israeli withdrawal. There are blogs from gay Jews, frum Jews, gay frum Jews, pro-Israel Jews and anti-Zionist Jews. There’s an interesting blog called Jewish Whistle Blower, which purports to detail the shady goings on of the Jewish establishment. But someone out there felt that particular blog wasn’t forthcoming enough, so this week up popped Jewish Whistle Blower2, because, that site says, “Open debate is simply too difficult for JWB.”

Amid all this new media, I’m supposed to be the Jewish Bruce Willis, still reporting for work without realizing I’ve already died.

Of course, no one, not even JWBs 1 or 2, know what the Internet future holds. As high-capacity streaming becomes more common, and live video replaces the ancient act of typing, blogging itself will likely be replaced by even more immediate forms of communication. Today’s bloggers might just be the IBM Selectrics of their time.

Along the way to this future, there’s no question digital information is replacing print. Newspaper readership is plummeting, especially among younger adults. And although you would think the change would take place more slowly in traditional communities, that doesn’t seem to be the case. As one Orthodox rabbi told me this week, he hardly looks at anything in print anymore. I assume the exception is a certain parchment scroll.

This is as it should be. If Moses had access to OS X and an Apple AirPort, he wouldn’t have risked a hernia schlepping stone tablets down a mountain. Here we are, the People of the Blog.

Although new technology replaces old, there’s no cause for hysteria. Journalists, after all, aren’t in the printing business, we’re in the information-distribution business. The Internet doesn’t change the essential news-gathering and news-disseminating function of journalism.

But it does change plenty else.

It is simplistic to speak of blogs in general, as some are brilliant, some, like Huffington’s, predictable, and some awful. But the good Jewish ones inject Jewish life with more immediacy, more information. They allow any and all Jews to contribute to the larger community, to voice opinions and claim a stake in the Jewish debates. Many of them are more entertaining than most of the old Jewish media.

But the ease and anonymity of an Internet post, the heat of the online battle, can induce bloggers to slip their ethical moorings. The temptation to peddle gossip, to spread reputation-destroying questions before they can be fully investigated, to run with half-baked information or coarse material just for the shock value, is as great or greater in the blogosphere as it is in, well, the atmosphere. But blogging makes it easier and cheaper.

The world has changed, yes. But our traditions — as journalists and Jews — are here to remind us that the rules haven’t.

 

When Jews Wax Anti-Semitic


 

The expectation that a commentator’s views must be in lockstep with his or her ethnic, religious or sexual identity is always distasteful — particularly when blacks, women, gays or Jews are labeled “self-hating” when they refuse to toe the perceived party line.

Then again, maybe the “self-hating” label is justified on occasion. That’s what I found myself thinking when I read a stunning recent commentary by author and pundit Eric Alterman on the British Muslim Council’s decision to boycott the ceremony commemorating the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. The reason given for the boycott was that the commemoration of Nazi death camp victims did not include the Palestinian victims of Israeli “genocide.”

On his blog at msnbc.com, Alterman sneered at critics of the boycott.

“I’m a Jew, but I don’t expect Arabs to pay tribute to my people’s suffering while Jews, in the form of Israel and its supporters — and in this I include myself — are causing much of theirs,” he wrote, suggesting that one might as well expect gays to honor “the suffering of gay-bashing bigots.”

Alterman noted that “the Palestinians have also suffered because of the Holocaust. They lost their homeland as the world — in the form of the United Nations — reacted to European crimes by awarding half of Palestine to the Zionists…. To ask Arabs to participate in a ceremony that does not recognize their own suffering but implicitly endorses the view that caused their catastrophe is morally idiotic.”

One hardly knows where to begin. There is, for instance, the way Alterman not-so-deftly conflates Muslims with Arabs and Arabs with dispossessed Palestinians, and then declares Jews responsible for “much” of the suffering of Muslims everywhere. Not the brutal theocracies such as the Taliban, which have tried to impose a medieval form of Islam through terror; not the equally brutal secular dictators of the Arab world, such as Iraq’s now-deposed Saddam Hussein or the corrupt monarchies. No, it’s the Jews — all lumped together, including long-dead Holocaust victims.

By Alterman’s logic, every Muslim is justified in viewing every Jew as the enemy. Alterman frets that his words will be “twisted beyond recognition,” but it’s hard to see how they can be twisted into something more indecent than they already are. (While he counts himself among Israel’s supporters, he seems to regard the creation of Israel itself — not just the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza — as an Arab “catastrophe.”)

Call it self-hatred or something less psychoanalytic; the bottom line is that this is the kind of rhetoric that, coming from a non-Jew, would be clearly seen as anti-Semitic. This is not exclusively a phenomenon of the pro-Palestinian left. Ironically, in the same blog item, Alterman castigates a conservative Jewish commentator for giving aid and comfort to anti-Semitism — and, ironically, he’s right.

The commentator is Rabbi Daniel Lapin, head of a group called Toward Tradition, who has been in the forefront of the alliance between conservative Jews and the Christian right. Lapin recently unleashed a bizarre tirade in The Jewish Press against “the role that people with Jewish names play in the coarsening of our culture.”

His target is the movie, “Meet the Fockers,” in which Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand play a sex-obsessed Jewish couple, as well as radio sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer, “shock jock” Howard Stern and trashy daytime talk show host Jerry Springer.

Rather shockingly, Lapin quotes Adolf Hitler, who accused Jews of spreading “literary filth, artistic trash and theatrical idiocy” in pre-World War II Germany. His ostensible point is that the Jewish community should confront and criticize Jewish perpetrators of cultural degeneracy to avoid giving ammunition to Jew-haters. But he provides such ammunition himself, when he misleadingly singles out Jewish entertainers for blame — as if Jewish contributions to art and culture were limited to the “coarsening” kind.

Such tactics are not new for Lapin. During the controversy over Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” he wrote that it was hypocritical for Jewish groups to protest what many saw as the film’s anti-Semitic themes, given that Jewish Hollywood executives had been involved with allegedly anti-Christian fare such as the 1988 film, “The Last Temptation of Christ.” Never mind that “The Last Temptation” was directed and scripted by non-Jews.

We live in a time when anti-Semitic rhetoric is creeping into the respectable mainstream: on the left, in the form of Israel-bashing; on the right, in assertions that Christians own this country and should “take it back.” I’m not sure whether such rhetoric is any more reprehensible when it comes from Jews. But it is certainly no better.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine and a Boston Globe columnist.