In early April, BimBam, the pioneering and award-winning Jewish digital storytelling site best known for its animated videos depicting weekly Torah portions, announced it was shutting down after 11 years.
BimBam’s content library of over 400 original videos — representing more than 11 million views and 22 million minutes of watch time on YouTube — will remain online at ReformJudaism.org, which is maintained by the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ).
BimBam videos emerged from founder Sarah Lefton’s journey to expand her own Jewish literacy, she told the Journal. In 2005, she had an idea for animating the weekly Torah portion, and in 2006 was selected for the ROI Summit (an initiative from the Schusterman Foundation that brings together young Jewish activists, entreprenuers and innovators in their 20s and 30s who enhance Jewish engagement), where she could pitch her innovative Jewish idea to influencers.
Lefton enlisted her creative collaborators, animator Nick Fox-Gieg and writer Matthue Roth; interviewed her friend Rabbi Andy Shapiro Katz about the parsha of Balak, which would be read in synagogue the week of the ROI Summit; and churned out a pilot for what was then called “G-dcast.” At the presentation, Lefton got a standing ovation.
“That lit up the future for me,” Lefton said. “I realized this is a viable thing.”
Two years later, Lefton put together funding to support a complete year of videos, which launched on Simchat Torah in 2008. Then the team animated wide swaths of the Bible, from Joshua to Esther to Psalms. It created the original cartoon series “Shaboom!” for children ages 4-7 and their parents, teaching Jewish values, including welcoming guests, expressing gratitude and visiting the sick. The team built “Judaism 101” to help young adults connect to Jewish rituals, prayers and texts (43% of BimBam’s viewers are ages 18-34).
Longtime fans may recall “Leviticus,” a brutal-yet-entertaining “Fruit Ninja”-style slicing game that tested knowledge about ancient Temple sacrifices. There was “Let’s Bake Challah,” an app/game for ages 2-6, and the e-Scapegoat, an online confession tool recalling the ancient custom of priests symbolically transfering the Israelites’ sins to a goat.
“BimBam could have been the Pixar of multimedia Jewish learning.” — Joshua Avedon.
BimBam convened rabbis and art students to co-create videos on the Talmud, Jewish law and everyday prayer. It worked with more than 5,000 Jewish educators to make its content available to all, at no cost. Lefton is also “insanely proud” of “Studio G-dcast,” which assembled college students to learn Jewish stories and make videos in “a six-day film jam.”
“I never thought that videos were for educators and kids,” Lefton said. “I always thought it was for people like me — young adults making up for a mediocre Jewish education in the past.”
Yael Weinstock Mashbaum, a teacher at Sinai Akiba Academy, said BimBam’s videos “provide midrash and interpretation that enhanced [students’] understanding of the chapter and the story.”
She also encouraged her students to analyze which parts of the text BimBam chose to include or omit from the video.
“The videos challenge students to go beyond defining and summarizing content and go deeper,” she said. “It’s a different layer of how to question and think about the text, sparking ideas in both educators and students. It allows for higher-order thinking.”
Rick Zieff, a Los Angeles-based voice actor who provided a few voices for the “Shaboom!” series, said he was proud of his involvement in the show “because of the messaging and what they’re calling co-viewing, watching with your kid. [The videos] start questions, bring answers and are thought-provoking and funny.”
“Making great content is easy if you have the right people around,” Lefton said, crediting her team, especially video director and producer Jeremy Shuback, as having created “some of the best videos we ever made.” Still, Lefton said that distribution channels make it difficult for small creators to get their work noticed “without celebrities or million-dollar ad campaigns or the right algorithmic magic sprinkled on top.”
“You can control how many times you post and use SEO (search engine optimization) titles,” outgoing BimBam CEO Jordan Gill told the Journal. “But you can’t control audience behavior.”
In a press release, URJ President Rabbi Rick Jacobs called BimBam’s videos “powerful tools and conversation starters for all audiences including … the Reform movement’s network of educators and youth professionals to share with their students.”
“BimBam could have been the Pixar of multimedia Jewish learning,” Joshua Avedon, CEO of Jumpstart Labs, a philanthropic research and design lab based in Los Angeles, told the Journal. “If Jewish philanthropy saw BimBam’s individual videos as the value proposition, they missed the point. Sarah Lefton and a gaggle of very talented people built a studio capable of turning authentic Jewish content into beautifully produced, bite-sized animated storytelling. People understand that if you want great theater, you have to keep theaters in business to produce it. The same is true for a Jewish animation studio.”
BimBam spent about a year considering its options before moving forward with URJ. In the press release, Lefton noted, “BimBam has been blessed with extremely generous donors and friends for 11 years but we were unable to sustain our budget at a size that would let us produce high-quality content without compromising our approach.”
BimBam produced all its content for less than $1 million a year, Gill said.
“I’m surprised that funders who really care about high-quality Jewish education weren’t tripping over each other to bankroll BimBam’s operational costs so the talent could focus on making great videos,” Avedon said. “The URJ is acquiring a terrific library, but the actual value of BimBam was its creative potential to make any kind of Jewish content relevant and captivating.”
“BimBam had a lot more to say and it’s unfortunate the funding wasn’t there to keep going, but we also look at our body of work and consider it a tremendous success,” Gill said. “We feel very proud of this content and are confident that our partners at URJ will continue to steward it and its life will be continued.”
As I read Ed Elhaderi’s powerful memoir — “Nomadic Soul: My Journey From the Libyan Sahara to a Jewish Life in Los Angeles” — I kept hearing the words God said to Abraham, our Biblical father: Lekh lekhah, “Go forth from your land, the land of your birth, the house of your father to the land that I will show you.” A Chasidic master once pointed out that the phrase lekh lekhah, ordinarily translated as “go forth,” has a more literal meaning: lekh means to go or walk, and lekhah means “unto yourself” or “for yourself.”
Elhaderi’s journey outward is also a journey inward. As he discovers a new land and language, a new world and people, a new sense of inner tranquility and direction, he also goes on an inner journey of discovering how to stitch together the world from which he came — the rural, primitive, poor village in Libya of the 1950s and early 1960s — with the world in which he now lives, as a Jew-by-choice in Los Angeles.
I must confess that I thought I knew Elhaderi. We attend the same synagogue each week and greet each other as friends. He is always respectful and courteous, even a bit shy. It is apparent his manners were shaped by a different culture, one more traditional than the avant-garde world of the city in which we live. But the more I read of his life, the more I understood that I had only glimpsed the surface of his story and the length of his journey.
Elhaderi was raised with little contact with the outside world. His family occasionally read newspapers and books, but they had no television and limited access to radio broadcasts. His world was oral — words were spoken, stories were told.
In his book — written with the critically acclaimed memoirist Tom Fields-Meyer of Los Angeles — he is able to convey that world, to depict his distant father and his loving mother, his extended family and his brother, the friends that shaped him and the restrictions of that world.
Elhaderi’s work reminds us of how diverse the Jewish community is today, how many stories we have to tell, and how in our synagogues and communities we must remember to discover one another.
Education offered him an opportunity. His intellect took him from his village to the big city and ultimately to the United States. Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi wanted to transform his country and bring it into the modern world, so he invested in the education of his most gifted youth. The nonathletic and lower-class Elhaderi took advantage of the opportunity by studying at the University of Tripoli and then pursuing a doctorate at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Qaddafi believed that the young people like Elhaderi who were now educated would return home, but education changed Elhaderi, making him realize that he could not return to the land of his birth and the house of his father.
In Libya, Elhaderi had been raised to distrust Jews, even to despise them, though he never met one. Nearly all of Libya’s Jews had left after Israel achieved statehood in 1948, but after Israel’s decisive victory in the Six-Day War, anti-Jewish and anti-Zionist sentiment (one and the same in Libya) intensified. Raised in that atmosphere, Elhaderi came to the United States and almost immediately experienced cognitive dissonance between the Jews he was taught to hate and those he encountered in his university’s classrooms and laboratories. They were accomplished men and women, gifted and dedicated teachers, helpful colleagues, not the horned monsters he had been led to expect.
He was smart enough and hard-working enough to succeed in his education, and open enough to let his journey take him where it was to take him — to encounter the enemy as a person. That courageous openness transformed his life in ways he could not have imagined, in large part because he encountered a Jewish woman who was equally open to him, and a rabbi and a community that welcomed him with open arms.
William James in his “Varieties of Religious Experience” distinguishes between the “once born” and the “twice born.” My Judaism is that of a “once born,” a natural inheritance from my parents and theirs before them; a tradition transmitted to me by teachers and community, from my land, the place of my birth, and the house of my father. Jewish tradition was the first language of depth that I encountered; the melodies of my childhood were deepened by the adult sensibilities I have developed. At times, particularly in those moments when the theology of the prayers I recite challenges the world I inhabit, I return to the native belief of my childhood, suspending disbelief, at least for a time.
Elhaderi is a “twice born” — at least a twice born; perhaps many more times than that. He stands at a distance from his childhood, the world of his youth, the community and tradition that shaped him. He came to Jewish tradition and to the Jewish people as an adult, already with a family and a sense of self. He experienced that community and that tradition as the goal of a long journey. He encountered it as transformation and not just continuity.
The Talmud wisely states that “In the place of one who returns” — teshuvah means repentance but more basically return — “even the righteous cannot stand.” I am certainly not righteous but I am deeply indebted to Elhaderi, whose story has enriched my experience and deepened my community. I cherish him as a man and revere the place where he stands.
Elhaderi’s work reminds us of how diverse the Jewish community is today, how many stories we have to tell, and how in our synagogues and communities we must remember to discover one another. I know for certain that we will be enriched by that encounter.
Michael Berenbaum is director of the Sigi Ziering Institute and a professor of Jewish Studies at American Jewish University.
Themes of love, loss, the AIDS crisis and family bonds blend together in the musical “Falsettos,” about a gay man, his ex-wife, their young son and their new partners. But with songs including “Four Jews in a Room Bitching,” “Miracle of Judaism” and
“Jason’s Bar Mitzvah,” it also explores what it means to be Jewish. The national touring company production is now playing in Los Angeles at the Ahmanson Theatre.
“I relate to the Jewish cadences and culture references in it and I think that the way Judaism permeates the show is so honest,” Nick Blaemire, who plays psychiatrist Mendel Weisenbachfeld, told the Journal. “It does a great job of telling everybody’s story from a Jewish perspective. It begins with the kitschy stereotype of ‘Four Jews in a Room Bitching’ and then it ends with the most beautiful, heartbreaking, entirely human and grounded bar mitzvah I could possibly imagine. It’s a profound intersection between religion and love.”
For Blaemire, a theater veteran who played Jewish “Rent” playwright Jonathan Larson in “Tick…Tick…BOOM!” and the Jewish member of a Christian boy band in “Altar Boys” on his first national tour, “Falsettos” has brought him closer to Judaism.
A self-described “lapsed Jew,” he had a crisis of faith when a close family friend died at the age of 13. “It turned me into a more secular Jew,” Blaemire said, and he didn’t go through with his bar mitzvah. “I’ve always identified with the culture but I’ve had some shame about where I fit into it,” he said. “But this has been a very Jewish year for me. This show coming into my life has been such a gift. In a way, I feel like I got my bar mitzvah at 34.”
Blaemire finds a lot to relate to in his character, Mendel. “While I don’t agree with his ethics to a certain degree, I understand the choices he makes and what he’s going through and the loneliness that motivates the actions that he takes,” he said. “I also admire the stepfather that he becomes. My wife and I are talking about having kids and I’m trying to fathom what a big thing that is and how big an influence you can have over a young person’s life.”
Debuting on Broadway in 1992, “Falsettos” won Tony Awards for its book by William Finn and James Lapine and music and lyrics by Finn. But the show’s genesis dates back several decades to their trilogy of one-act musicals, “In Trousers” in 1979, “March of the Falsettos” in 1981 and “Falsettoland” in 1990. They combined the latter two plays into one two-act show that takes place two years apart, in 1979 and 1981.
“I’ve always identified with the culture but I’ve had some shame about where I fit into it. But this has been a very Jewish year for me. This show coming into my life has been such a gift. In a way, I feel like I got my bar mitzvah at 34.”
— Nick Blaemire
“It’s a pretty unparalleled piece of writing,” Blaemire said. “It speaks to an issue that we’re still dealing with today in a profound way. It describes a nontraditional family in a way that breaks the idea of what a family is. The setup is crazy: gay Jewish man leaves his wife for another man, his therapist falls in love with his wife and they try to create a family. It’s a proxy for all of our own individual experiences. There is no ‘normal,’ and it’s been proven so beautifully in this show. I’m constantly looking for things that challenge me and this is like a New York Times crossword puzzle. It’s so intricate and so subtle. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.”
Born in Washington, D.C., to a Jewish mother and Methodist father, Blaemire grew up in a Reform “Jewish bubble” in Bethesda, Md., where he started taking theater classes before he was in kindergarten. He continued acting in plays all through school and college at the University of Michigan. “I’ve been obsessed with theater since I discovered it,” he said. “I wasn’t a particularly social kid, and didn’t fit in. Make believe was the avenue that helped me find friends and find myself in a very supportive community. And in a lot of ways, I feel that I’ve found my connection to Jewish culture through theater.”
The Brooklyn-based actor has appeared on TV in “The Good Wife,” “Law & Order,” and the new “Fosse/Verdon” as a cast member of “Damn Yankees,” a show he knows well: he played the Devil in a high school production. He’s currently writing two film scripts and stage musicals about the dogs that were sent into space at the dawn of space exploration, and an English adaptation of a French play about the impact of Anne Frank’s diary.
“I’d like nothing more than to make TV, movies, theater, music and art in any way that feels important to me and useful to the audiences that watch them,” he said. “But I’m writing more these days because you never know where the next acting gig will come from.”
Blaemire will be on the road with “Falsettos” through June 30, and his actress-writer wife, Ana Nogueira, and their dog, Leo, are joining him for the California segment. He is particularly excited about playing at the Ahmanson, which he called “a bucket list place.
“This show is such a transcendent experience,” he said. “It’s striking a chord like I’ve never experienced before. I think people need this kind of frank honesty right now.”
“Falsettos” runs through May 19 at the Ahmanson Theatre.
Imagine waking up the week of Passover. While grocery shopping you find that all the Kosher for Pesach items are out of stock. Now you can’t feed the 20 people attending your seder and you haven’t even started cleaning the house for hametz. Never mind the fact that you will have to live off of Matzah and grape jelly for a week since you didn’t plan to grocery shop weeks ago.
For as wonderful and ritualistic the Passover holiday is, logistically it can be a nightmare.
It’s why calligraphy artist and author Rae Shagalov decided to create “The Ultimate Passover Planner,” a coloring book, multiplanner, journal and Passover spirit guide all in one.
“Passover is a time of intense preparation, there are so many details and its very easy to get lost in the details and get overwhelmed with it all,” Shagalov told the Journal. “I decided to put together all the planning tools that I have been using and I crowd sourced Facebook for tips that many other women use and combine them all with calligraphy art notes on passover then also combine with coloring as a stress-free combination of Jewish wisdom and mediations with a spiritual focus on what we are doing for the Passover preparations.
The book includes extensive broken down spiritual tips, logistical tips on what to clean, what to buy, recipes, coloring sections and checklists to get you through the holiday. The book even includes musical playlists, seder prep and a section for what to do for next year.
Shagalov noticed most people in her life started to prepare or begin to prepare thinking about Passover a month before.
With all the worrying the planning doesn’t become a joyful experience and so “The Ultimate Passover Planner” attempts to bring joy back into planning the holiday.
Shagalov said she and her husband got married the day before Passover 15 years ago. Her friend, who put on the wedding in her backyard, told Shagalov the only way it would be a success is if she switched her house for Passover a week before she regularly would. Since the wedding was the destination, planning Passover was a joyful experience.
“That’s the goal of preparing for passover,” Shagalov said adding “We are celebrating our freedom and our marriage to god, so that’s the tone that I put into “The Ultimate Passover Planner” ways to keep focusing on the spirituality and the happiness and the memories we are creating.”
There are more than 100 spiritual tips and thoughts shared throughout the book that one can doodle or color on including, “if you are very apprehensive for preparing for Passover, your children will feel that way, too.”
“I wanted to create more a journal experience where people could customize it themselves,” Shagalov said. “But where all the details are there and they could use those details and have a place in the journal to customize it.”
She doesn’t just want the book to remain in tact. She says if someone wants to rip a page out and start coloring with their kids, they should. If they need to take a break and rip out a thought in the page and decorate the house with it, go for it.
“One of the first checklist I put in there was a self-care checklist,” Shagalov said. “You need to think about how you are going to maintain your energy in an uplifting way and what you’re gonna do to take care of yourself in this intense journey before we enter Passover.”
Shagalov said all the chaos starts in your head and if you don’t have a place to organize it and put it down then the stress builds. She hopes the book allows people to clear their mind space so they can be present and in the moment.
“Remember with whatever you are doing Jewishly, be joyfully Jewish doing it,” Shaglov said. “[The] Passover experience is about searching. Searching for Jewish identity and searching for relationship with God. When you are traveling to go on a big trip to a country you have never been to before you are so excited you are so happy, that’s how we should feel when going into Passover.”
In “Top Chef: Kentucky,” Season 16 of Bravo’s culinary competition, local restaurateur Sara Bradley impressed the judges with dishes influenced by her Southern and Jewish roots, most notably a matzo ball soup recipe that won the challenge and sent her to the final. She ultimately lost the title to Kelsey Clark, but Bradley’s Paducah, Ky., restaurant Freight House, is doing blockbuster business since her TV appearance. While juggling a busy schedule, preparing for Passover and awaiting the birth of her first child — a girl — with husband Austin Martin in May, Bradley took time out to speak with the Journal.
Jewish Journal: Did being from Kentucky give you a home turf advantage on “Top Chef” or increase the pressure?
Sara Bradley: A bit of both. I might have had the inside scoop because I knew the area, but it was added pressure because you don’t want to disappoint your state, friends or family.
JJ: Did your love of cooking begin in your mother’s kitchen?
SB: Yes. She was a huge influence. She taught us to cook and she always made these extravagant desserts. We ate things that were a blend of Southern and Jewish. My father’s mother also had a lot to do with how I cook now. We made potato latkes and ate them with apple butter — applesauce cooked down with cinnamon and a bit of fat in it.
JJ: How did your culinary career begin?
SB: I always wanted to cook and had jobs in kitchens in high school and college. After college, I worked as a researcher in statistical psychology at a psychiatric hospital and at a restaurant. The restaurant was much more fun. My grandfather Julius Cohen gave me the money for culinary school. I worked in New York and Chicago before coming home to Paducah and opening Freight House in September 2015.
JJ: What type of cuisine?
SB: It reflects my Southern, Jewish and frugal roots. We don’t waste anything here. We serve a lot of liver [and] beef tongue. We source as much as we can locally. We’re very seasonal and change the menu frequently. Right now through the end of April you can try the finale meal that I cooked in Macao. We’re listed as one of America’s great bourbon bars.
[At my restaurant in Kentucky] we used to call them cracker dumplings because matzo balls sounded so foreign. But since [“Top Chef”] aired, we call them matzo balls. People are so excited to try them.”
JJ: Your mother works with you there.
SB: Yes. Today she’s making bourbon chocolate chess pies and key lime pistachio cheesecakes. It felt really good to have her there with me in Macaou and to win felt even better! I wasn’t worried about the flavor profile [of the matzo balls]. It was the technique that I was worried about screwing up and having them come out hard, like matzo rocks.
JJ: Is the matzo ball soup on the Freight House menu?
SB: Yes. We used to call them cracker dumplings because matzo balls sounded so foreign. But since the show aired we call them matzo balls. People are so excited to try them.
JJ: What was it like growing up Jewish in the South? What’s your family background?
SB: My mother’s grandparents were from Poland and Prussia. My great-grandfather opened a hardware store in Paducah — E.A. Cohen & Son — later my grandfather’s. My parents met when they were both working in Lexington, Ky., and married 43 years ago. My father is not Jewish. He is spiritual but not a religious man. My brother, sister and I were raised Jewish. I went to Sunday school, had a bat mitzvah at 12, a confirmation at 16. I went to a Jewish summer camp every year. My mother had some very religious relatives, so I also went to black-hat weddings. Being Jewish was a major part of how I identified. There was only one other Jewish family with kids my age in Paducah and we were very close. As a child, I embraced being a minority, being different. Judaism is more than a religion. It’s your heritage, it’s your culture, it’s a whole mentality.
JJ: Your husband isn’t Jewish. Did you have a Jewish wedding?
SB: Yes, but not that traditional. We both stomped glasses. We had a ketubah, we danced the horah, we did all the things that were culturally significant and important to me. We had it at an old greenhouse and we had food trucks, an open bar, a vintage bourbon tasting, a great band. We had about 300 people there.
JJ: How did you meet?
SB: Through a mutual friend. He’s an attorney and a cattle farmer. We met at a brewery and talked about farming for hours. We’ve been inseparable since.
JJ: How will you celebrate Passover?
SB: Paducah has a small synagogue and no full-time rabbi. A rabbi comes from the rabbinical school in Cincinnati for the High Holy Days, and about once a month, so we’ll go to synagogue. My husband loves Passover and all the food I make: gefilte fish, matzo balls, red horseradish, matzo brei.
JJ: You’re expecting your first child. Is it important to raise her with Jewish traditions?
SB: Yes. I want to give her the same choice that my parents gave me — they presented me with the information and let me make my own decision. I wanted to do that for my child too. I can’t imagine that she won’t go to the same Jewish summer camp I went to. It was such an important part of my life.
JJ: Do you have any plans to open more restaurants?
SB: I have dreams of owning a meat-and-three, a traditional type of Southern restaurant: a meat and two or three sides. But with the baby, that’s down the line.
JJ: What did “Top Chef” teach you?
SB: If you have a dream, you should go for it. If I hadn’t done this, I wouldn’t have improved my life and the lives of all of my employees. Don’t hold back.
For Sara Bradley’s matzo ball soup recipe, click here.
Ever since it opened at New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage last July, audiences have been kvelling over “Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish,” the first production of the Shraga Friedman translation of the musical in the United States. Produced by National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene and directed by Joel Grey, “Fidler Afn Dakh” moved to Stage 42 off-Broadway in February and just scored four Lucille Lortel Award nominations for best revival, director, lead actor and featured actress.
Presented in the language of Sholem Aleichem’s stories, this Yiddish version — with English and Russian supertitles — has an element other “Fiddlers” do not. “It has more authenticity, more earthiness. It connects you in a deeper way to the old country, to Eastern European Jews,” Lisa Fishman, who plays Grandma Tzeitel, told the Journal.
“It has obviously touched a nerve for Jewish people and Yiddish speakers, but also non-Jewish people have been so moved by it and exhilarated by it,” said Steven Skybell, who stars as Tevye. “That was a surprise. But it’s also not surprising because ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ is a classic that’s being done every day somewhere in the world. It’s the perfect classic play with incredible songs and depth of character and storytelling. It’s not like we unearthed an obscure Jewish musical.”
“[With] immigrants being forced out and ethnic cleansing, it’s as relevant today [as ever], if not more,” Fishman said. “I think that’s why it’s touching so many people. When is it going to stop? When are we going to be able to say ‘never again’ and truly mean it? We have to learn a lesson from this and learn to live together in peace.”
Skybell confided that he used to think of the Anatevka villagers’ ultimate exile as a positive thing, because it would send Tevye and his family to America. “But with the turn of current events and the rise of anti-Semitism, hatred and bigotry, that nostalgic view is now a dire message,” he said. “This is a story about family and generations and how best to provide for your children, but also what it means to be displaced.” He does see the ending as hopeful, however. “It says you can be tossed and buffeted by the world, but you don’t have to lose your Jewishness or tradition.”
Skybell, of Polish ancestry with a “very strong” Jewish identity, was born and raised in a small, tight-knit Jewish community in Lubbock, Texas, attending a Reform synagogue. His grandparents spoke Yiddish, so he was familiar with it but wasn’t able to speak it until he decided to study it on his own. “I hoped one day it would be an avenue I could pursue in the theater,” he said. “It really is beshert that it’s happening.”
This is Skybell’s fifth production of “Fiddler.” At 11, he held the chuppah in a community theater production, then at 17 and 23, he played Tevye at Interlaken music camp and at Yale University, and he portrayed village butcher Lazar Wolf in the 2016 Broadway revival.
He likened Tevye to the greatest Shakespearean roles and finds playing him a “three-hour workout,” adding that doing it in Yiddish made it easier to make the character his own. “I don’t have to stand against those greats who have preceded me,” he said.
While Grandma Tzeitel is her first “Fiddler” role, the “over-the-top” character is not Fishman’s first experience with Yiddish. Of Russian, Polish and Latvian heritage, she was raised Reform in Highland Park, Ill., with a Yiddish vocabulary limited to meshugge and shayna punim. But she later got into klezmer music and sang
with a touring band and did Yiddish theater in New York. She also studied
Yiddish with the same teacher who taught Skybell.
Singing, writing songs and acting since childhood in camp and at school, Fishman is a musical theater veteran, with roles in “Funny Girl,” “Oliver,” “Cabaret,” Tintypes” and the Folksbeine’s “On Second Avenue” to her credit.
Skybell, whose numerous theater credits include “The Full Monty,” “Pal Joey,” “Camelot” and several Shakespearean roles including Hamlet, also teaches acting. He has appeared often on television in New York-based shows, “Blue Bloods” most recently. He said he would love to do “King Lear” in Yiddish and a Yiddish film version of “Fiddler.” The show is set to run through Sept. 1, but that may be extended, and a cast album will be released soon, with bonus tracks of songs cut from the original production.
“We’ve been doing it now for almost nine months and I could do it for a lot longer. It’s so rewarding because the material is so deep,” Skybell said. “To be able to embrace my Jewishness so wholeheartedly with a role like Tevye and a play like ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ is empowering and feels larger than just an acting gig. It’s emblematic of me and my people.”
Fishman hopes that the production eventually will tour or be staged in other cities.
“It’s proving to be something that people even outside the Jewish community are responding to,” she said. “This is a universal story. It has a theme that humans have been dealing with since the beginning of time and keep repeating over and over. We are all connected to each other in one human family. We have to move forward from this ‘us versus them’ mentality and start learning to live together.”
“Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish” runs through Sept. 1 at Stage 42 in New York.
The men were too tired for love,
Or maybe they were ashamed of their longing,
Dirty as they were with work they hated
And other men’s contempt.
Safer to pretend they wanted nothing
And needed even less.
The women were tired, too,
But they could see the future
In that way that only a woman
Who desperately wants a child can see,
A fiery laser vision which is
Its own superpower.
And so the women made a miracle.
They caught fish, heated water,
Teased, beckoned, held small brass mirrors.
Later, after the babies came, after the Exodus,
They would melt those mirrors into
A sacred bowl for the Tabernacle.
For they knew, as any woman who wants
A child knows, that the mess of the body is holy,
And shame is a curtain over truth,
And love incinerates perfection.
So come, my love, sit with me beneath the apple tree.
You are the center of the world.
Tell me what you want,
Even if you have to whisper.
What’s the point in hiding,
When soon enough we’ll all be gone?
Alicia Jo Rabins is a writer, musician and Torah teacher. Her most recent book of poetry is “Fruit Geode” (Augury Books).
Every year, about a month before Pesach, I start to see the anxious updates from friends on my newsfeed. “I have sooo much cleaning to do,” they say, or “Pesach is so expensive,” or “I wish I could afford a Pesach resort and leave this all behind!”
I get where they are coming from. I’m sure, especially when you have kids, that it’s extremely tough to find the time to clean the entire house and the money to afford expensive Pesach groceries. It’s stressful to host dinner parties while still looking fabulous and getting to shul on time. I hear many people say that they feel like slaves to the holiday, which completely defeats its purpose.
When I’m purchasing overpriced Pesach salad dressing, hauling in the special dishes from the garage, scrubbing down the countertops or finishing my tenth hour of cleaning, I do start to get wound up. If I decide to combine my Pesach cleaning with my spring cleaning or I forget to take breaks, I get very overwhelmed.
But then I take a step back and focus on what I love about it. Pesach has always been my favorite holiday. It was the first Jewish holiday I ever celebrated, in high school, years before I converted. I enjoyed sitting around the table with my high school boyfriend’s family and learning about this fascinating part of Jewish history.
Today, I love being at the meals with my own family and friends, hearing the amazing story of our Exodus and tasting that incredible first bite of the Hillel sandwich. When my husband gets so much joy out of that special lamb dish I make for him once a year, it makes me happy. I love inviting over a bunch of our secular friends to experience the joy of Judaism, and taking sunny walks around the neighborhood, because when else do I have the time? I fully take in the prayers at synagogue and this different way of existing, if only for a few days.
“I connect with the story of Pesach on a metaphorical level, because I believe that we still are not free.”
I connect with the story of Pesach on a metaphorical level, because I believe that we still are not free. We are not free from society’s expectations of us and anti-Semitism, which seems to be prevalent more and more lately. Our bank accounts and our mobile devices and our fears and our stress are traps. Thankfully, Pesach shows us that no matter if we’re experiencing slavery on a literal or a metaphorical level, we can break free from it.
If you’re getting anxious just thinking about the holiday, keep in mind that Pesach only happens once a year, and it usually goes much faster than we expect. We spend so much more time worrying about it and building it up in our heads than actually experiencing it.
We have to remember that this holiday is a blessing. It’s when God directly intervened to free us and ensure we could reach our potential and become the Jewish nation. That wasn’t the only miracle of Pesach. It’s also the most celebrated Jewish holiday, and even the most disconnected Jews go home to their families to sit around the seder table and learn a little bit of Torah.
This holiday, when you’re disgusted by dusting, moping while mopping or trying to hold back your discomfort at the checkout line, keep in mind the positive parts of the holiday. As soon as it starts, it’ll be over, and you’ll be eating another slice of pizza again in no time. You won’t have the opportunity to do Pesach for another 12 months. Soak in the time with God and the experiences with loved ones. Cherish the cleaning. Be delighted by the delicious food.
After all, next year you might not even have the opportunity to clean your home or invite people over. You very well may be in Jerusalem, dancing in the streets with your fellow Jews and celebrating the arrival of peace around the world.
Happy New Year!
You’re probably thinking, “Rabbi you got it wrong. It’s not until the fall and Rosh Hashanah that we celebrate the Jewish New Year.” Yes, this has become the convention as the rabbis shifted the focus toward commemorating the creation of the world. But Torah teaches that it is precisely in the spring that our Jewish calendar begins, “This month … shall be for you the first of the months of the year.” (Exodus 12:1-2) Originally called HeAviv, meaning springtime, this new month, Nisan, is a natural fit when new buds emerge after a dark, damp winter. This month heralds Passover, when we receive the gift of liberation after hundreds of years of slavery in Egypt. The birth of a people is formed and we enter into a new relationship with time.
The Jewish calendar, a yearly cycle of 12 months (except when there is a Jewish leap year, during which a 13th is added), whose names were adopted during our exile in Babylonia more than 2,000 years ago, includes multiple holidays based on the agricultural harvests, important historical events, as well as rabbinic additions of critical moments that enhance our spiritual life. Jews continually remember and celebrate these holy days, each with its own rituals, customs, special character and themes along with an opportunity for personal growth. This happens on multiple levels — required mitzvot (the commanded rituals), family customs in the home, communal gatherings in synagogues and public institutions, as well as being invited inward, to our inner landscape, challenging us to engage psycho-spiritually, mystically through Kabbalah (examining sefirot, expressed through parts of the body) or ethically through Mussar (examining character traits), to bring more meaning and purpose to our lives.
For example, when Passover approaches we not only think about preparing our homes with a thorough ridding the space of chametz, the leavening agent that expands, but we also see this as a metaphor for our lives, an opportunity to examine habits and values, to “clean out” the parts of our lives that can undermine our goals or sabotage our relationships. We might look at the parts of our personality that, like chametz, expand and puff up, feeding narcissistic behavior and impacting our relationships in negative ways. We might question how free we truly are, perhaps enslaved to outmoded behaviors and ideas. Are there inherent taskmasters in our lives — phones, social media, guilt, grief, etc., that control us more than we are aware? Kabbalah invites investigating where in the body dysfunction is expressed. Mussar demands attention to our character traits. This kind of examination might bring new awareness and possible resolution to untapped issues.
“The Jewish calendar calls us to engage in sad and happy moments.”
Each of the holidays is an invitation to experience what the rabbis call keva, fixed requirements, and kavanah, deep intention, of these sacred moments. Both are ways in to celebrate and experience the holy days. Whether through fulfilling the ritual obligations, finding cultural connections or harvesting new awareness of our selves, the calendar is a touchstone to Jewish identity. With their varied themes and emotional expression, each of the holidays gives us an opportunity to elevate daily living and find sanctity in our lives.
Although the cycle is repeated every year, we examine ourselves anew, refining the essence of who we are and experiencing new levels of awareness and wholeness. Unlike the secular calendar that is a reminder of things to do and places to go, the Jewish calendar calls us to engage in sad and happy moments while challenging us to look beneath the surface and ask the hard questions about our beliefs and our behavior such as: What does freedom really mean? How do we see miracles in our everyday lives? Do we need to be enslaved before we can appreciate freedom? Do we need darkness in our lives before we can see the light? Do we treat others — friends, family and strangers — with equal respect?
These and other questions arise to examine our lives and perhaps find the presence of the divine. During the year, I will offer a spiritual doorway into each of the coming holy days, and questions that might bring a connection and a deeper relationship to the Jewish year and the Holy One.
Eva Robbins is a rabbi, cantor, artist and author. To view a chart for this story, visit Robbins’ blog.
Even though most Jewish holidays and celebrations begin with the blessing over challah, I’ve never learned how to bake it. Challah is one of my favorite foods, so every now and then, when I’d see a recipe online — “Challah in a Bag,” “Easy Challah,” “Challah in the Instant Pot” — I would it print out and stick it in a file … never to be seen again.
Then I met Beth Ricanati, author of the hugely successful “Braided: A Journey of a Thousand Challahs.” She agreed to teach me how to bake challah.
Ricanati told me that challah had saved her life. More than 10 years ago, she was at her wits’ end from juggling her work as a physician at a Midwest hospital with raising her three young children. Around Rosh Hashanah, a friend suggested she bake challah. Taking time out to bake challah each week, she said, brought much-needed balance back into her life.
Ricanati said baking challah taught her about the power of community. Whether she bakes alone or with others, just knowing women around the world are preparing for Shabbat at the same time in the same way creates a connection.
When I arrived at Ricanati’s home for my lesson, all the ingredients — yeast, oil, eggs, sugar, flour and salt — were already laid out, along with the bowls and utensils. Ricanati explained that we would be baking two challot to symbolize the double portion of manna distributed on Shabbat during the Israelites’ Exodus from Egypt.
Before we began, Ricanati asked me to set our intention. She said the challah doesn’t taste as good if she doesn’t start off with this acknowledgment. And so we made our challah in honor of “the health and happiness of beloved friends and family.”
First, we mixed warm water and sugar with the yeast. We put that mixture aside to “bloom” while we combined the rest of the ingredients — and 2 cups of the flour — in a separate bowl. After adding in the yeast mixture, we put in another cup of flour and continued to add flour as needed. As we kneaded the dough, we chatted, confirming Ricanati’s message about community. She put the oil in the bottom of a mixing bowl, where we placed the kneaded dough and waited for it to rise.
“I didn’t think anything could smell better than the aroma of chicken soup. I was wrong. We took our challot out of the oven, said the blessing and literally broke bread.”
When the dough was ready, we partook in another ritual. This one, I discovered, was the difference between making challah and baking bread.
“The mitzvah of making challah has to do with this idea of the separation of challah,” Ricanati explained. “We take a piece [of the dough], separate it, say a blessing and get rid of it. That is to commemorate when we used to make an offering at the Temple.”
We then took out the remaining dough and cut it into six pieces, which we turned into long strands. My sections, and resulting braids, were so uneven I turned my second loaf into a round challah. Still, they were passable for my first attempt. We painted our challot with an egg wash and put them in the oven.
And then came that aroma! I didn’t think anything could smell better than the aroma of chicken soup. I was wrong. We took our challot out of the oven, said the blessing and literally broke bread. The challah was delicious.
As I’ve reflected on the experience, I’ve wondered what took me so long. How is it possible that I never made challah before? Sorry, local bakeries, I may never buy challah again.
Hakhel, the Jewish Intentional Communities Incubator, concluded its annual conference at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat in Center Falls Village, Connecticut, bringing together leaders of 80 of its global Jewish communities from 25 countries across six continents.
Eight community groups from California participated at the conference, including Career Up Now (Los Angeles), Or Gavoah (Encino), RuJuLa (Chatsworth), Urban Kibbutz SD (San Diego), Beth Jacob Irvine Community (Irvine), The Organic Yeshiva of Sacramento (Sacramento), Urban Kibbutz SF and Batlanim (from San Francisco).
The community leaders who attended the conference are focusing not only on creating inclusive and welcoming communal spaces for themselves and their peers but also on social projects that make the broader Jewish community stronger, according to the organization.
“I signed up for the Hazon’s Hakhel Fellowship because I am currently building the Career Up Now community in Los Angeles which is asking the question how do we build a multi-generational community at the intersection of Jewish wisdom and career advancement,” co-Founding Director of Career Up Now Bradley Caro Cook said. “I was struck by how many different types of communities there were. And through my conversations with other community leaders, I discovered we all had a common thread—a deep love and passion for Judaism and a desire to be connected with one another.”
Founded in 2014, Hakhel is the first and largest global incubator for Jewish intentional communities. According to its website, its mission is to “spark and support new expressions of Jewish life in the Diaspora by nurturing the growth of intentional communities with mentorship, seed funding and network building.”
“The world is transitioning from hierarchical and centralist structures to networks and shared economies and Hakhel is at the forefront of implementing this spirit of innovation in Jewish life,” Hakhel General Director Aharon Ariel Lavi said in a statement. “The conference provided the tools to help our leaders continue to grow their communities.”
Hakhel operates in partnership with Israel’s Ministry of Diaspora Affairs, which works to strengthen Jewish life in the Diaspora and connection to Israel.
Community leaders from the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, France, South Korea, Johannesburg, Argentina, Germany, Austria, Hungry, Ukraine, Russia, Lithuania, Australia, Kyrgyzstan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Spain, Amsterdam, Italy, Switzerland, Uruguay, Brazil, Mexico, Peru, Panama, Chile and New Zealand attended the conference.
Anyone who has heard a Jewish joke here and there has probably heard the one about how every Jewish holiday is the same. They tried to kill us. They failed. Let’s eat. While certainly comical in nature, there is something truthful about how intrinsic food is to Judaism.
Think about it. Panera Bread recently made waves around social media for their bread-sliced bagels. Before that, Cynthia Nixon, caused an outrage in New York when she ordered a cinnamon raisin bagel with lox, cream cheese, capers, tomato and onion (gag!). Then there’s the debate over bagel bread, bagel thins, the list goes on. Jews are very opinionated about our bagels!
As if that isn’t enough, every holiday has some sort of signature dish. Even on Yom Kippur when we are fasting, we have carefully planned out our meal to “break the fast.” Try heading over to “The Nosher,” an entire website devoted to all things Jewish and food. My favorite is the March Madness Jewish Food Bracket. What is it about Jews and food?
I thought about a lot of this lately, as I spent the month of March doing the Whole 30 diet. It is incredibly restrictive, but as someone with almost no willpower and a lifelong battle with weight, I needed to do it. The Biggest Loser competition at work was definitely a motivating factor as well. I lost fourteen pounds, but what I gained was a greater understanding of just how hard it is to be Jewish and struggle with food issues.
Not wanting to pass on the fun, I took my five-year-old daughter to communal hamantaschen and challah bakes. And did not eat either. This was the first Purim I can ever remember not having a single piece of hamantaschen. The challah is in my freezer. Potatoes were the only carbohydrates I ate during the entire month of March. Passover this year will be a breeze! I’ve already done it four times over and as of this writing, rice is the only thing I have re-introduced into my diet. Dairy and sugar are still out…for now. Sugar and various forms of it are in just about everything. For those who abstain from corn syrup for Passover, you know. I read more labels in the past month than I have in my entire life.
So what did I learn? Yeah, I learned that sugar (and various forms of it) is in just about everything. But, I also learned that as you go about your daily life in the Jewish community, it is hard to eat healthy. None of the foods on that “Bracket Challenge” are what could be called healthy. Now imagine going through the communal motions as a Jew—an oneg, a holiday celebration, a Shabbat dinner. I did it all. And I often had to eat later when I got home. Aside from the synagogue dinner for Purim where I ate a plate of very tasty roasted vegetables, the healthy options are rarely there when it comes to Jewish celebratory meals.
Purim itself includes the Talmudic custom of drinking so much that the “person cannot distinguish between cursing Haman and blessing Mordechai” (Megillah 7b). While I have never been one to drink, I can imagine that this can be problematic for someone who struggles with alcoholism.
I am in no way trying to be the “Debbie Downer” of Jewish food. I fully recognize and appreciate the rich value that food brings to our culture. I can think of no stronger symbolism in Judaism than the upcoming Passover seder. And I was choked up when I read about how Joyce Feinberg’s z”l (one of the 11 murdered at Tree of Life in Pittsburgh) daughter-in-law still has a batch of her matzah ball soup in the freezer. But, I also recognize and appreciate the value of inclusiveness and embracing modernity.
So, just as you might add an orange to your seder plate, I hope you will consider that Passover, like all holidays, is about more than just the food. It is about celebrating the fact that indeed, they tried to kill us and they failed. And, we eat. And drink. Whatever that might be. And be supportive of others in their own choices. As my dad reminded me, “It’s not a sprint, but a journey.” True that.
Lisa Rothstein Goldberg is a social worker and Jewish educator living in Louisville, Kentucky with her husband and their two young daughters.
My friendship with “Caroline” had been fading for years when, on a whim, I clicked on her Facebook page. When I landed there, I had a shock. She had replaced her previous personal photo — where she stands next to her husband, both of them smiling — with an illustration aiming daggers at political conservatives. It depicted a woman, seemingly Lady Justice, forcibly held down on a table. A man stands above her menacingly, his white hands projecting out of the sleeves of an expensive-looking suit. He gags the blindfolded woman with one hand as the other clamps down on her wrist, forcing her scales of justice to lay in disarray.
The pièce de résistance? The bold red-white-and-blue Republican elephant logos burnishing the man’s shirt cuffs.
I gaped at the image, feeling a true sense of loss. Caroline and I had been close for more than 20 years, beginning in junior high school. In high school and college, we were both left of center. Wasn’t everybody? I loved and admired Caroline. She was delightful, adventurous, smart, warm and on a path to success despite a difficult family background. During college, I introduced her to a friend of mine, thinking they would make a great couple. I was honored to be a witness at their wedding more than 30 years ago.
When I met my husband, I was introduced for the first time to conservative political and traditional Jewish teachings. I didn’t want them to make sense because, like so many Jews, I wore my liberal identity as a badge of honor. I resisted any paradigm shift in my self-perception or in how I perceived the world. But after long and careful consideration, I saw the value and wisdom in many conservative positions, both political and religious. My practices and beliefs drifted rightward, toward what I had previously considered “the dark side.” Caroline and I never talked politics after that shift but still found plenty of common ground in talking about our families, our jobs, books, music and more.
Living on opposite sides of the country, we connected less and less often. In our politically polarized culture, I felt increasingly cut off from Caroline, and she stopped taking the initiative to call or email. This also was true of other old left-leaning friends. Several years ago, one of them unfriended me on Facebook after I posted a link to an article with evidence that tighter gun control laws do not necessarily correlate with lower rates of gun violence.
“The Judy I knew used to be more nuanced,” she typed, severing all ties.
“It’s not healthy to live in a purist ideological bubble.”
Caroline’s choice to fuse her social media persona with her politics also felt like a final severing of our friendship. It demonized the left’s favorite target: white Republican men, and with its suggestion of sexual violence, it cheapened the experience of women who had endured such trauma.
Ironies abounded: Haven’t the majority of men accused of such crimes in recent years been famous Democrats? And, far from conservatives stifling dissent or even the right to speak, aren’t conservatives the ones who are frequently banned from speaking at universities, and threatened with violence if they do? Don’t leftists dominate college campuses, the vast majority of news outlets and social media? Google and YouTube censor and restrict access to more than 80 videos produced by the conservative Prager University. Spotify and Twitter also refuse advertising from certain conservative organizations.
Who exactly is gagging whom?
I have never regretted my decision to rethink my views, one that was scary at the time but one I know has provided a life of deeper meaning and joy. But I still miss the friendships with good, well-meaning people that had nourished me for so long, and which I knew would pay the price of my evolving viewpoints. I am blessed to have many longstanding, treasured friendships with like-minded individuals, but it’s not healthy to live in a purist ideological bubble. I would welcome respectful debate and discussion, but as many of my conservative friends have also found, liberal friends are usually unwilling to engage.
If meaningful engagement is too high a bar, maybe we can start by not demonizing those whose politics have strayed from our own.
Judy Gruen is the author of “The Skeptic and the Rabbi: Falling in Love with Faith.”
The American Jewish Committee (AJC) is working to deepen engagement with American Muslim communities, institutions and leaders by creating a listening tour.
The AJC opened a dialogue in Washington D.C. this week with leadership from Masjid Muhammad, the Nation’s Mosque, the All Dulles Area Muslim Society (ADAMS) Center, the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) and the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU) among others.
Talking points included the joint battle fighting bigotry and hate crimes against Muslims and Jews, identifying and combating misperceptions and navigating intercommunal conversations regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Stanley Bergman, AJC honorary president and Muslim-Jewish Advisory Council (MJAC) national co-chair, and David Inlander, AJC Interreligious Affairs Commission chair, led the delegation.
“Jews and Muslims share traditions, values and culture, and in the United States, we both participate in a thriving democracy as religious minorities,” Ari Gordon, AJC’s U.S. director of Muslim-Jewish Relations, said in a statement. “We must learn to work through the tensions that threaten to divide us so that we can yield the fruit of working on a common agenda. This requires decisive action, but we must also listen, learn and understand what moves and disturbs our Muslim partners, even as we ask that they do the same about Jews.”
AJC leaders are also planning to visit American Muslim institutions across the country to inform AJC’s national leadership on the best ways to build bridges and partner with American Muslims.
In recent years, AJC has expanded its commitment to Muslim-Jewish relations by launching MJAC in partnership with ISNA and increasing outreach on the regional level.
In addition to their listening tour, AJC announced March 25 that they have partnered with the New Zealand Jewish Council to provide financial support to the Muslim community who was affected by the mass killing at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.
“The answer to those who traffic in hate, who perpetrate violence against houses of worship, must be unity, solidarity, and linked arms against evil,” AJC CEO David Harris said.
Imam Mohamed Magid, executive imam of the ADAMS Center, said in a statement, “Muslims and Jews need to stand up for each other when either group is attacked. We must also commit to fighting anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim bigotry as they appear within our own communities.”
What was initially thought of as a Purim assembly became a homecoming reunion for Hillel students.
Rabbi Y. Boruch Sufrin of Harkham Hillel in Beverly Hills surprised his students with a real-life Purim hero March 15 by welcoming Major Moshe Scheinfeld home. Scheinfeld had just returned from a nine-month deployment in Afghanistan for the U.S. Army and not only surprised the school, but his three children who had no idea he was coming to surprise them.
“It was very hush hush,” Rivka Scheinfeld told the Journal. “We knew he was coming home before Purim. We didn’t know exactly, but I picked him up Friday. The kids didn’t know. This was a true surprise for them. They ran to him and they were shocked they were so happy that he was back.”
In his remarks following the welcome, he shared with the students his pillar of strength during his time of service which was learning Pirkei Avot and Tehillim. He then gave thanks to Rabbi Sufrin, the Hillel families and staff who gave him and his family strength and support while he served.
“It really was special. And the community, I have to say, was amazing to our family,” Rivka added.
Rivka said she was happy that their family was able to celebrate Purim together. She said the family dressed as a basketball team so their kids were the basketball players while Rivka and Moshe were the referees.
“We were all together,” she said adding that he finished his deployment. “He’s home for good now. He’s home.”
The festival of Purim is known for its carnivalesque tenor — a day of unmitigated joy, a celebration of Jewish survival. This exuberant expression of divine disclosure led the rabbis to view Purim as the final iteration of the theophany at Mount Sinai. But lurking right beneath the surface is a dark secret. Purim is a day when transgression becomes necessary — a day of aveirah lishma (sin for the sake of heaven).
The normative halachic tradition developed a series of directives (mitzvot ha-yom) to performatively shape what was viewed as the very core of the story that includes the expression of joy and the commandment to hate. The liturgical insertion for Purim, the Al’ha-Nisim prayer, is one of the oldest extant liturgical formulas. It begins with setting the day as a battle between good (Mordecai) and evil (Haman). It then moves to praising God for turning evil into good, introducing Purim’s distinctive quality of inversion (v’nahafoch hu). The prayer concludes with something we rarely see in classical Jewish texts: the celebration of murder in the hanging of Haman and his sons — “And they hanged him and his sons on a tree.” It is not surprising that some siddurim add an addendum in parenthesis about divine miracles, as if to say that the sages felt uncomfortable ending a prayer with the celebration of murder. But, in fact, that is part of what Purim is about.
Thus, the day celebrates survival and “commands” hate — the hatred of evil, the celebration of its demise and waiting for absolute evil (Amalek) to succumb to the power of good. There is something here that is dissonant to the Jewish ear. Although violence has always been a part of any human collective history, Judaism does not generally celebrate human violence in such an open, ceremonial and ritualistic fashion. The story’s surprising and unexpected turning of evil into good is part of the emotional charge that enables us to celebrate violence. But what of this inversion? How systemic is it? Can the divine power that is able to make evil into good also make the prohibited into the permissible? Does not Purim, with its focus on inversion, have an innate antinomian (anti-legal) strain? Inversion … rising above the binary of good and evil … divine absence revealed as divine presence (God’s absence from the story reveals God’s innate presence at the end) … v’nahafoch hu, the notion that everything is different than it appears (performed through wearing masks) — these motifs all point to something that erases the line that separates what we see and what really is, from evil to good, from prohibited to permissible.
The mitzvah to become inebriated (levasumei) on Purim, to achieve a state where there is “no difference between blessed (Mordecai) and cursed (Haman),” is another iteration of this same motif. The goal of inebriation in regard to Purim is to experientially enact the rupture of the binary that stands at the center of the entire rabbinic worldview (what is permissible and what is forbidden — issur v’heter). It is thus not far from “sin for the sake of heaven” (aveirah lishma). Much of what is written about Purim revolves around questions of good and evil, the nature and character of inversion, and the permissibility, even obligation, to celebrate death. Let us recall that the midrash has God chastising Israel for celebrating the death of the Egyptians at the Sea of Reeds. But on Purim we celebrate the death of the enemy. These questions illustrate what I am calling, Purim as aveirah lishma.
“Purim provides the occasion for a seismic and dramatic good/evil inversion that breaks the binary of ‘blessed’ and ‘cursed.'”
Averiah lishma is a much-discussed jurisprudential category, denoting instances when prohibitions can become temporarily permitted. Thus, aveirah lishma functions inside the halachic orbit, a legal category that leaves open the possibility that deviance can sometimes be required. My exploration of Purim as aveirah lishma will be based on my reading of a short essay in Rabbi Ya’akov Moshe Charlap’s “Mei Marom.” Charlap (1882-1951) was born and died in Jerusalem, having lived there his entire life. A respected member of the Old Settlement Jewish community — he was rabbi of the Sha’arei Hesed neighborhood in Jerusalem — he became a Zionist and a close friend (talmid chaver) of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook. He served as dean (rosh yeshiva) of the Yeshivat Mercaz ha-Rav Kook from its founding in 1924 until his death in 1951, after which the position went to Kook’s son, R. Zvi Yehuda Kook. Charlap wrote a number of important works including the multivolume “Mei Marom” dedicated to Torah commentary, essays on the festivals, and Musar. Before turning to Charlap’s rendering of Purim as aveirah lishma, I will offer a few brief reflections on the structural nature of aveirah lishma.
In his Hebrew essay, “Averah Lishma: Reflections in Law and Thought,” Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein suggests three traditional responses to cases where one’s sense of divine mandate and halachah conflict, a condition that arguably enables aveirah lishma to become operative. The first response is that such a breach is simply impossible; halachah is the will of God, and thus halachah can and should provide the solution to all potential problems. The second response is that such a breach is indeed possible but has few, if any, practical implications. I understand this to mean that while halachah and divine will can be in conflict, in principle the instances where this occurs are minimal enough as to not pose any threat to the legal system. The third response is both more radical and more conservative than the first two. It suggests that one can actually come to know divine will outside of halachah, but one is still forbidden to follow it because one’s primary responsibility is to the law, “even though it may err.” In this third case, irredeemable conflict between one’s sense of divine mandate and halachah is affirmed and, by implication, that one’s sense of personal mandate may indeed better express divine will than normative practice. This is the space out of which aveirah lishma evolves.
There are, of course, numerous biblical passages that gesture toward the notion that transgressions can sometimes be permitted, often leaning on the verse in Psalms, “How can one act for God, they are desecrating your Torah” (Psalm 119:126). However, this and many other cases of aveirah lishma are episodic and thus cannot support a more systemic break with normative halachah. Thus, the law remains, even “as it may err.” Except, that is, in cases of aveirah lishma. In that case, the halachah is inverted and the aveirah becomes the halachah itself.
One illustration of aveirah lishma that views Purim as a peculiar case of “necessary transgression” comes from Charlap’s collection “Mei Marom.” In an essay about Purim titled “The Obligatory Hatred of Amalek as Aveirah Lishma in a Temporary Setting (hora’at shah),” Charlap begins with the following provocative statement:
There are times when it is impossible for the world to continue (kiyum ha-olam) in its complete purity except by means of transgression in a temporary setting (aveirah b’hora’at shah). And even though this temporary setting is Torah … nevertheless the act [of aveirah lishma] still contains a remnant of transgression. For example, we learn that a light that was kindled by a gentile on Shabbat cannot be used for the light of Havdalah, even though we hold that a gentile is not commanded on the Sabbath laws. To the contrary, “A gentile who keeps the Sabbath is liable to the death penalty (b.T. Sanhedrin 58b).” Nonetheless, there is still a hint of transgression in the light.
Charlap goes on to suggest that the commandment of becoming inebriated (levasumei) on Purim is similar, as the drunken state disables the ability to distinguish between good and evil. When Amalek emerges as an operative force that will try to destroy the world, a temporary situation (hora’at shah) is set in motion to oppose that force from being victorious. Such a situation and goal would require the transgressive to be temporarily permitted. Purim is thus a commemorative iteration of this “temporary setting.” It is the day when one must descend to pure physicality through inebriation, the day when one must celebrate survival and also hate; all of this dark energy so that the evil forces, or “sitra akhra,” will be chocked and consequently destroyed. For Charlap, the temporary situation (hora’at shah) instituted by the continued existence of Amalek exists at all times. Purim, however, is the one day of the year when Israel can have some deep impact on Amalek’s demise. However, they can do so only by acting in a transgressive manner that, in that moment, becomes obligatory. Purim provides the occasion for a seismic and dramatic good/evil inversion that breaks the binary of “blessed” and “cursed.” Purim is the day when the sin becomes the mitzvah.
For Charlap, the inversion — breaking the good/evil binary — is required to understand the hatred and even murder of Amalek, a centerpiece of Purim. Under normal circumstances, hatred, murder and debauchery are inexcusable transgressions, and it is only the divine command to hate Amalek that makes hatred and the aspiration of genocide into a mitzvah. And yet, Charlap writes that an element of transgression still remains in those behaviors on Purim (celebrating genocide and destabilizing the boundary between good and evil), even as Jews are commanded to perform them. The rabbinic notion of “the nullification of Torah is its fulfillment” seems operative here, as if to say that aveirah lishma is a category internal to the halachic system itself. Halachah, on this reading, cannot fully repair the world; its abrogation, as aveirah lishma, must accompany it.
Charlap uses the category “temporary setting” (hora’at shah) as the condition of aveirah lishma that defines Purim. But how are we to understand the structural parameters that constitute a temporary setting (hora’at shah) and how long does such a setting last? Here the category of “national emergency” may help. There have been four instances a national emergency has been declared in U.S. history (1933, 1950, 1970 and 1971). Even though none of them has ever been formally revoked, each time the society reverted to a normative legislative process once the emergency was no longer considered operative. Perhaps the lack of an official end to the emergency points to the fact that something about the state of emergency remains, just not enough to justify executive privilege to act outside the law. This remaining element of emergency after the return to normalcy (its nonrevocation) enables us to see the permitted actions of an emergency as essentially flawed, even if they may have been necessary. During normal times they remain operative but relegated to the realm of the prohibited. The presence, or resonance, of the emergency in that normal space illuminates its prohibitive state (i.e., it is always overruled as an acceptable mode of behavior). Charlap’s view is that the sin that becomes the mitzvah, yet still retains an element of sin even when it is in a mitzvah state, may resemble the actions taken in a state of emergency.
While Charlap doesn’t say all of this specifically, this is how I understand his reflections on Purim as aveirah lishma. It is significant to remember that, in general, Charlap often echoed his teacher Rabbi Abraham Kook on the paradigm of aveirah lishma to describe secular Zionism. Here, I think he is also echoing Kook by taking the idea of aveirah lishma in a slightly different direction. The secularism of Zionism is, by definition, transient and temporary. Elsewhere Charlap writes, “With the grace of God, God’s glory can be revealed in Israel through its status as a people and a nation, even in a secular form.” But the secular, according to Charlap, can never be truly holy. It may only be temporarily necessary.
“We are commanded on Purim to engage in transgressive acts, even, or precisely because, our inclination would be against doing them.”
Charlap adds another layer to this novel idea. He offers a metaphysical rendering of a temporary setting that would result in making a transgression a mitzvah without erasing all of its transgressive qualities. One might assume that the remaining remnant of transgression exists (although Charlap never says so explicitly). Accordingly, when the temporary setting abates, when normalcy returns, it can return to its transgressive status and not be permanently absorbed into the system of the holy. Here it is necessary to quote Charlap at some length:
Here is the general principle: The foundation of all mitzvot is to establish unity, and transgression establishes separation, all evildoers are scattered (Psalm 92:10). How does this work? A mitzvah can and must be established with the will of the soul and the body together. This exemplifies the true perfection out of which the supernal unity is revealed. A sin, however, can never exist from [that place of] unity. Thus, the soul is never in agreement with the body and its appetites. The sign of this temporary setting (hora’at shah) is when that unity is impossible to achieve [in a normal state]. On the one hand, there is the pain in that we are in a place where this sin has been [or has needed to be] turned into a mitzvah. On the other hand, there is joy that we are able to fulfill the will of God and God’s commandments specifically in this multitudinous manner that fulfills the very purpose of a temporary setting…. From here we can understand the sages when they teach, “One must become inebriated on Purim until one does not know the difference between cursed Haman and blessed Mordecai.” (b.T. Megillah 7b). The whole notion of inebriation is like a “temporary setting” that continues to exist as long as Amalek does. But when there truly is no difference between cursed Haman and blessed Mordecai, everything will be considered in the realm of blessed Mordecai. At that time, the temporary setting will end and the obligation to becomes inebriated will cease being operative.
In many ways, this counters what one might expect from Charlap, who was adept in kabbalistic literature. One might say inebriation of Purim brings one to a messianic consciousness. Charlap says no. Once that future arrives (when the “emergency” ends), the need for the aveirah lishma (pure physicality to destroy the Amalekite evil in that physicality) will become unnecessary and the act of inebriation will return to its prohibitive state. Alternatively, aside from Purim as a temporary state of inversion, Jews do not have the requisite power to confront Amalek through transgression. The normative system remains intact. The “inebriated” state returns to its prohibitive nature. In the end time, inebriation won’t be necessary because evil will have been eradicated. In normal times inebriation is not permitted, simply because it won’t be effective. The necessity of inebriation is only obligatory in a temporary setting (hora’at shah) that permits it — that is, the day of Purim itself. Until that time when hora’at shah is lifted, however, the temporary state which requires aveirah lishma remains, becoming operative once a year, on Purim.
This approach offers an interesting rendering of Lichtenstein’s third category of aveirah lishma. “One can actually come to know divine will outside of halachah, but one is still forbidden to follow it since one’s primary responsibility is to the law, even though it may err.” According to Charlap, Purim is a temporary state whereby one’s general intuition of divine will would incline against hatred and rupturing the binary nature of halachah, and yet “the law” on that day commands acting against those inclinations by hating Amalek and getting to the place where there is no difference between “blessed Mordechai” and “cursed Haman.” The reason is that the day represents the persistence of evil, which would require frontal and proximate engagement to destroy its efficacy by means of what would normally be sinful acts. And yet the temporariness of the moment is reiterated by the fact that a specter of transgression remains precisely in those acts that the law commands. In this sense, Purim becomes the quintessence of aveirah lishma, albeit in reverse.
We are commanded on Purim to engage in transgressive acts, even, or precisely because, our inclination would be against doing them. But it is only through such transgressions that Purim can achieve its purpose: to enable us to believe evil can be destroyed through inversion. But let us not think that transgressive halachah can extend beyond the “temporary setting” of that day. It cannot. And thus, after Purim the very thing that was the law on Purim reverts to its prohibitive state. The sign of this, for Charlap and Kook, is that the inversion is never complete, the permissible-transgressive act never fully loses its prohibitive nature, even in the act of mitzvah. The sin that becomes the mitzvah still remains a sin, albeit one that we are commanded to do precisely in order to alleviate the “temporary setting” that requires its performance.
Shaul Magid is the Jay and Jeanie Schottenstein Professor of Jewish Studies and Religious Studies at Indiana University and the Distinguished Fellow in Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College.
Talking about death doesn’t have to be depressing. It can illuminate, uplift and entertain, as the Jewish Women’s Theatre (JWT) production of “It’s a Life” demonstrates. Playing through March 20 at The Braid in Santa Monica and other locations, the show presents 16 provocative pieces chosen to promote conversation about a topic most of us try to avoid.
JWT Artistic Director Ronda Spinak sorted through over 200 submissions to find a range of stories reflecting humor, irony and inspiration. “Even in the Kaddish, the word ‘death’ is not mentioned. We took our cue from that,” Spinak said after a rehearsal. “We wanted this show to be a celebration of life, for these stories to make us remember and feel and think about the future.”
“A lot of the stories are universal and others are specifically Jewish,” producing director Susan Morgenstern said. “The Last Mitzvah,” in which three women volunteers from the chevrah kadishah prepare a body for burial, is one of the latter. It’s about showing respect for the dead. It’s very beautiful and meaningful.”
For JWT veteran Arva Rose, one of the actors in the piece, it’s something she’s experienced first-hand. When a fellow congregant died, she participated in the ritual with her (female) rabbi and called it “an extraordinary experience.” Rose also said she connects strongly with “My Zaydie,” which she wrote about the loss of her own grandfather. “He was everything a grandfather is supposed to be,” she said.
Other stories include the tale of a young female rabbinical student whose first task involves counseling an Orthodox family; a woman who believes the feathers that suddenly pop up everywhere are messages from beyond the grave; and the daughter who finds the perfect way to comply with the final request of a father she loathes. A dead opossum, a bequeathed typewriter and an obituary that goes viral figure in three of the lighter pieces.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is “The Perfect Dive,” about facing the Angel of Death. “[It’s about ] grappling with mortality and the idea that life can change in an instant,” said writer Susan Baskin, who was inspired by her experience with breast cancer. Introduced to the JWT by a friend at the Santa Monica Synagogue, the screenwriter and essayist is making her theater debut.
“All of us are afraid to talk about death and dying or don’t like to. None of us are going to get out of here alive, and it’s OK to think about it more than we allow ourselves to.” — Susan Morgenstern
Lisa Robins, who performs in Baskin’s piece and several others, has been involved with the JWT since its inception. “All of the stories speak to me in some way,” she said. “Society is afraid to deal with anything to do with death. The more we talk about it and bring it into the light, the better off we all are.”
Harris Shore, a singer, actor and playwright who became a cantor 10 years ago, is making his JWT debut with “It’s a Life” and thinks it will resonate with audiences. “There’s a lot of universality in the experience because it’s all about the inevitable. We’re all in the same boat,” he said. “This is the life God gives us and ultimately it’s our decision how we see it.”
Raised in a small Pennsylvania town where the one synagogue was his “second home,” Shore entertained on the Borscht Belt and Pocono circuits and for the troops in Vietnam before moving to Los Angeles. Best known for guest roles in “Seinfeld,” “Bones,” “Wings” and “Weeds,” he will appear in Hallmark Channel’s “The Crossword Mysteries” on March 10 as Detective Cherashney. His next project is “Killing Klaus,” a play he wrote about a man’s plan to assassinate Nazi Klaus Barbie.
Unlike Shore, Robins grew up Jewish in name only. “My father and stepfather were atheists,” she said. Fifteen years ago, she landed the first of several roles playing Jewish women, most notably a grieving mother in “The Blessing of a Broken Heart” at The Braid. “All these roles gave me my Jewish education,” she said. “Now I go to Nashuva and I’m a co-chair of the social action committee.” She plans to remount “Broken Heart” this year and is working on a solo show about her family.
Baskin, who was raised in a traditional, observant home, has always felt connected to Judaism, and that connection strengthened when she joined a feminist Torah study group. “Whatever I got from it has stayed with me,” she said. “It gave me a deep appreciation and respect for the Jewish tradition.”
Learning Torah also brought Rose closer to her faith. “Being Jewish has always been really important to me, and about 25 years ago I began serious study,” she said. “It’s an extraordinary joy to be a Jewish woman among Jewish women who are artistic and grateful and proud Jews. It’s hard to be a Jew and it’s hard to be a woman and it’s especially hard to be a Jewish woman. But when Jewish women get together, we can make the world go round.”
There will be an audience Q&A session after each performance, and Morgenstern anticipates some interesting and meaningful exchanges. “All of us are afraid to talk about death and dying or don’t like to,” she said. “None of us are going to get out of here alive, and it’s OK to think about it more than we allow ourselves to.”
“It’s a Life” runs through March 20 at The Braid and at other locations. Visit jewishwomenstheatre.org for more information.
“The attorney general has reached a clear conclusion, by which corrupt, improper motives, were at the core of Netanyahu’s actions.” So, this is it.
Or maybe not. Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit said he plans to indict Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, pending a hearing. The decision was announced 40 days before election day. The hearing will come many months after election day. Mandelblit clarified — and muddled — the situation by the same action. He informed voters that there is evidence Netanyahu is criminally corrupt, pending a hearing and a trial. He also confused voters by revealing this information. How should they respond to it?
There are three typical responses in Israel to this new, if expected, development. One is to see Netanyahu as not guilty, despite the new information, some of it quite disturbing, that appears in the 50-page document that details how Mandelblit reached his conclusion. One is to see Netanyahu as guilty, despite the fact that there is still a hearing that can change legal minds, and possibly a trial, which can vindicate or implicate him.
The third option is the that of the perplexed voters, those who don’t yet know how to respond to the new information. Pollster Menachem Lazar told me that about 1 in 5 voters haven’t decided whom to vote for. That’s 24 seats in the next Knesset. Professor Camil Fuchs of Tel Aviv University has tallied that about 15 percent of voters are undecided. But based on other questions he asked, Fuchs believes that there are many more voters who still might change their minds. Of course, not all of these voters are undecided because of Netanyahu or his looming indictment. But some are. What should they weigh as they make a decision? I am not sure that all of them run through all the options in a methodical way, but there is a way to do such a thing. It goes like this:
If you consider Netanyahu guilty, and a bad prime minister, then don’t vote for him (or for parties supportive of him).
If you consider him not guilty, and a good prime minister, then vote for him (or for parties supportive of him).
If you consider him not guilty, and a bad prime minister, then don’t vote for him (or for parties supportive of him).
“What should undecided voters weigh as they make a decision?”
But here is the tricky scenario: If you consider Netanyahu guilty, and a good prime minister, then you must ask a follow-up question: Would you tolerate a corrupt prime minister for any reason?
If not, don’t vote for Netanyahu (or for parties supportive of him).
But if under certain circumstances — say, if you think that without him, the country would be in grave danger — you’re willing to consider a corrupt, yet efficient, prime minister, then another follow-up question is necessary: Is this the case of corruption, and is this the man, and are these the circumstances that could prompt you to elect a corrupt yet efficient prime minister?
This is where the 50-page document issued by Mandelblit becomes handy. Voters likely have a solid opinion of Netanyahu as prime minister. Voters also have a perspective of Israel’s current circumstances. So, all voters need to complete their assessment is the document. They should read it and make one of the following two conclusions:
One: This is too much corruption for me to tolerate Netanyahu because A) Israel’s circumstances are not grave; or B) There are people besides Netanyahu who can deal with the circumstances (grave or not).
Two: This seems corrupt, but I still want Netanyahu because A) Israel’s circumstances are grave; and B) Only Netanyahu can deal with such circumstances.
Is it easy to reach a conclusion? For some it is, for others it isn’t. Try to understand the dilemma.
Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, visit Rosner’s Domain at jewishjournal.com/rosnersdomain.
“The embodiment of hillul ha-Shem [profaning God’s name] in Judaism today is the Kahane movement, whose latest political incarnation … has just been brought into the Israeli mainstream … with the active encouragement of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.”
— Yossi Klein Halevi
“We aren’t talking about an ideological partnership with the far-right but rather a legitimate ad hoc merger to establish a bloc that can prevent the left from taking power.”
— Dror Eydar
So which is it?
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to push for a political deal that could help bring representatives of the far-right Kahane movement into the Knesset has prompted widespread anger and condemnation, including a rare rebuke from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). The organization, retweeting a stronger condemnation of the American Jewish Committee (AJC), said it had “a longstanding policy not to meet with members of this racist and reprehensible party.”
AIPAC did not mention Netanyahu by name, nor the parties involved, but the message was clear: Netanyahu crossed a line.
Yair Lapid of the Kahol Lavan party called it a “shameful deal.” Well-known Israeli Rabbi Benny Lau likened it to “a destruction of the temple.” Roni Milo, a former minister of Netanyahu’s Likud party, argued that “no real student of [Zeev] Jabotinsky” — Likud’s ideological pillar — “can accept this.”
Was this condemnation justified? That depends on whether you think it is crucial for Israel to keep Netanyahu in his job as prime minister.
To understand this issue, one must begin with the scenario leading up to the deal — a product of Israel’s complicated electoral system. It goes like this: A coalition must have at least 62 seats in the Knesset. According to current polls, the Netanyahu coalition has a slim edge of one or two seats. Moreover, this edge is fragile because of Israel’s electoral threshold, which requires that a party must receive a minimum of 3.25 percent of the vote — about four seats — to even get into the Knesset. Two weeks ago, some of the parties that Netanyahu relies upon were dangerously close to coming up short of the threshold. In such a case, the votes they gain would be split proportionally between all parties based on a complicated formula.
So, Netanyahu faced a dilemma: If he did nothing, the right-wing parties could end up fighting and splitting apart, risking the majority that has kept him in power. But the prime minister has strong ambition and a long memory. He still remembers 1992, when the right was split and lost control of the Knesset when a few parties in its coalition failed by less than a percentage point to meet the threshold.
The result was the Yitzhak Rabin government, which led to a sharp turnaround in Israel’s policies, in particular the Oslo Accord with the Palestinians — a turnaround Netanyahu and most Israeli voters came to regret and reject.
As one watches the recent developments in Israel’s political arena and ponders Netanyahu’s actions, one must keep 1992 in mind. Because sometimes, a few percentage points have great consequences.
“The Arab Balad Party had representatives in the Knesset that assisted terrorists, supported Hezbollah and rooted for Syria’s Bashar Assad. Still, the Meretz party opposed the move to deny a state-funded pension from the founder of the party.”
The leaders of Otzma Yehudit, a marginal entity on the far-right outskirts of Israel’s political system, consider themselves the disciples of Rabbi Meir Kahane, a Brooklyn-born activist known for his radical views. Before he was assassinated in a Manhattan hotel in 1990, Kahane served one term in the Knesset before Israel’s courts ruled him unfit to run again and the United States government declared his Kach party a terrorist group. His successors continue to call for the annexation of greater Israel and the expulsion of people whom they consider disloyal to Israel — by which they probably mean most Palestinians.
Kahane’s disciples have followers. Not very many, but not as few as one would hope. Their followers tend to be religious and right-wing. They are on the margins of the camp that holds Netanyahu’s coalition. To their left — yes, the term “left” is a little awkward in such context — is the right-wing religious party, Jewish Home. It is a party in crisis. Its two charismatic leaders, Ministers Naftali Bennett and Ayeled Shaked, departed to form the New Right Party, and some voters are going to leave with them.
Enter Netanyahu and his long memory of political disasters. If the Jewish Home party doesn’t cross the threshold, the right could lose close to four seats. Netanyau’s coalition currently does not have two — let alone four — seats to spare. So, he took action: He leaned hard on Jewish Home’s leaders to include two Kahanists on their list. If all right-wing religious parties join forces, their list will surely cross the threshold. No votes will be lost. And Netanyahu will get his coalition.
What is the meaning of all this?
When Kahane was elected, many members of parliament made sure to excuse themselves from the main hall when he was making speeches. Then they changed the law, forbidding parties that reject democracy or support racist ideas from running for the Knesset. In 1988, Kahane could no longer run. The Supreme Court sealed his party’s fate by declaring that its purposes and actions were “clearly racist.”
Kahane did not have much impact when he was a Knesset member, nor did any of his disciples. They formed new groups and parties and are allowed to run, unless or until the courts say otherwise. Michael Ben-Ari, one of two Kahanist activists who could become Knesset members thanks to the deal, was a member from 2009 to 2013 and no one seemed to notice. From time to time he would make a controversial comment or stage a provocative protest, but his impact on Israel’s policies was marginal and his presence was contained. Netanyahu probably believes that if Ben-Ari were to become a Knesset member again, the same scenario would likely be repeated.
No serious observer suspects that Netanyahu is a supporter of the Kahane ideology. He is not. For him, the question is one of balance: Which would be worse — one Kahanist in the Knesset or a government headed by someone other than Netanyahu?
Let me suggest an answer: Neither will be the end of the world.
This is not the first time a Kahanist will be in the Knesset. Israel survived Kahanists before, including the original. Similarly, Israel existed before Netanyahu and, hopefully, it is going to survive his departure from office.
Obviously, not all people agree with this assessment — namely, the prime minister.
Netanyahu believes that keeping him as the leader of the government is essential for Israel’s future — so essential that he is justified in forging a dirty deal with the Kahanists. If one agrees that the country will be in grave danger without him, an ugly deal with a marginal faction of extremists would seem a small price to pay.
Does anyone believe such foolishness? Does anyone really think that Netanyahu is so essential to Israel?
You might be surprised to learn that the answer is yes. About half of Israel’s population is going to vote for a Netanyahu coalition, despite the Kahane deal. These Israelis are not happy about having a reprehensible Kahane ideology in the Knesset, but they accept it as an ugly political reality preferable to the alternative.
They accept it because they remember Oslo and understand that political purism can be dangerous to the practitioner. They also accept it because they believe the attack on Netanyahu is hypocritical. Parties that are denouncing the prime minister for letting in Kahanists were not so keen to censor problematic political elements on the left when such opportunities presented themselves. The Arab Balad Party had representatives in the Knesset that assisted terrorists, supported Hezbollah and rooted for Syria’s Bashar Assad. Still, the Meretz party opposed the move to deny a state-funded pension from the founder of the party, who escaped Israel when the authorities realized he was a Hezbollah spy.
But even without going so far as blaming the left for relying on supporters of terrorism, Israeli right-wingers have reasons to giggle when the left accuses them of cutting dirty deals. Was not Oslo a result of a dirty deal?
Netanyahu can still recount in detail how the Rabin government, struggling to form a slim majority to pass what is known as Oslo B — an agreement that gave the Palestinians self-rule in some areas — essentially bought the votes of two Knesset members (they got positions and benefits in exchange for their votes).
Gonen Segev, one of the two politicians who gave Rabin his 61-59 majority, was just sentenced to 11 years in prison, having been convicted for spying for Iran. That’s right, the man without whom there would be no Oslo Accord is now a convicted spy.
Of course, a large group of people see the Kahane deal as a red line that should not be crossed, no matter the circumstances or consequences.
“There’s a difference between a racist party entering the Knesset — the fringes of Israeli democracy can unfortunately contain such elements — and their being encouraged by the prime minister,” said Yohanan Plesner of Israel’s Democracy Institute.
Rabbi Lau made a similar point: “In the name of love for the land of Israel and maintaining sovereignty over it, the prime minister enticed the followers of Rabbi Kook [from the Jewish Home party] to make the abomination of racism kosher and enable it to enter the gates of the Knesset.”
Both are right. The involvement of Netanyahu in cutting such a deal potentially could confer a grain of legitimacy on an abhorrent ideology.
So what would opponents of the deal expect?
Apparently, they expect Netanyahu and his supporters to tolerate the prospect of a loss in the next election — and much more. “Jewish safety and sovereignty cannot come at the expense of Palestinian rights, freedoms and dignity,” wrote Batya Ungar-Sargon, the opinion editor at The Forward. She is extremely angry at Israel and at the deal. She also has her priorities set: Palestinian rights first, safety second. That is, the safety of me and my children. Naturally, with such priorities, condemning the Kahane deal is quite easy, as it allows for no argument in favor of the deal.
“No serious observer suspects that Netanyahu is a supporter of the Kahane ideology. He is not. For him, the question is one of balance: Which would be worse — one Kahanist in the Knesset or a government headed by someone other than Netanyahu?”
Right-wing Israelis are not receptive to complaints about dirty political deals, even less so when those arguments come from people in the United States — people who won’t suffer the consequences if Israel’s election produces a bad outcome.
Israel Hayom, Israel’s most popular newspaper, which is highly supportive of Netanyahu, was critical of AIPAC’s tweet: “For years, the left has counted in every coalition calculation the pro-Palestinian radical left along with it. This included Arab parties working to destroy Israel’s Jewishness by claiming that it was ‘racism.’ … Where was AIPAC so far, why did we not hear this moral preaching to the Israeli left about this alliance?”
On social media, as usual, the response was sometimes more brutal.
Irit Linur, a very well-known, controversial and popular Israeli novelist, radio personality and commentator, posted: “If the righteous Jews of the United States have the will and the energy to fight abhorrent racism that operates under the auspices of parliamentary legitimacy, let them refer to Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, two anti-Semitic congresswomen, both of whom doubt Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, and recently accused AIPAC of bribing American politicians to support Israel. In my opinion, it is a scandal that a legitimate party accepts two anti-Semitic racists such as Omar and Tlaib. … So if AIPAC is already at the preaching mode, take care of your party first, in the country where you are a citizen, and mess with our parties when you become citizens of the State of Israel.”
Many Israelis liked the post, giving it 2,100 likes, 268 comments and 323 shares.
For most Israelis, politics is not always easy. Had they been told in advance that the only way to ensure their safety was to have two Kahane representatives in the Knesset, I assume most of them would have grudgingly accepted the deal. And in fact, that is exactly the message conveyed by the prime minister’s actions: “It’s either the deal or your safety — because a coalition other than mine is not going to keep you safe.”
Do I buy this argument? No. I abhor the Kahane deal.
But for the reasons I’ve attempted to explain, I understand why other Israelis do.
Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, visit Rosner’s Domain at jewishjournal.com/rosnersdomain.
Britain is scheduled to leave the European Union (EU) on March 29 and could enter its worst period of economic turmoil in decades. As an English Jew, I’m very concerned. The Conservative government might be forced into a general election if Brexit plans fail; the opposition Labour Party, led by Jeremy Corbyn, could win power; and Britain could have its first prime minister who is regularly and openly accused of anti-Semitism. Seven members of Parliament (MP) made the bold move of leaving the parliamentary Labour Party, and one of those departing, Jewish MP Luciana Berger, said Labour has become “institutionally anti-Semitic.”
On March 29, Article 50 will be activated, allowing a member state to leave the EU. There will be severe implications if Britain fails to strike a deal and faces the “no -deal Brexit.” British voters, who approved the referendum to withdraw from the EU in June 2016, might have created the worst constitutional crisis in the U.K. for centuries.
Divorces are rarely easy. The EU has offered what it sees as the best terms, but some think that Europe is like a jilted lover, saying “Fine! You are leaving me. No, I won’t discuss who keeps the puppy, the vintage art we bought on vacation, or the Vitamix. Go on now, go! Walk out the door!”
Except we’re not discussing puppies, but borders, trade deals and workers.
What happens to the estimated 300,000 French people living in the U.K., or 153,000 Brits in France? How will Germany sell BMWs in Britain, or French winemakers get bottles to English markets? Today, I can get on a train from London to Paris on a visa-free U.K. passport, but what about tomorrow?
A no-deal Brexit would spark confusion. There would need to be some kind of customs border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, after 100 years of peace processes that removed walls between the two countries. Yet Northern Ireland is part of Great Britain, and the Republic of Ireland is part of the EU, so if there is no border, then the EU has a back door entry to Britain. This threatens British sovereignty on its own land.
If Britain stops Brexit or calls another referendum, it undermines the U.K. democratic process because the voters already approved Brexit. There is also the strange situation where the prime minister, who voted to remain in the EU, is now responsible for engineering Britain’s exit from the EU.
“The EU has offered what it sees as the best terms, but some think that Europe is like a jilted lover.”
What if Scotland holds another referendum to leave Great Britain and rejoin the EU? Will Braveheart’s descendants build a wall?
Corbyn is the problem for British Jews.In the past, I was reluctant to call Corbyn a raging anti-Semite, reasoning that he is an old-school Marxist who dislikes Israel because it is a nation state, and Marxists don’t like nation states.
Corbyn is reminiscent of the “I am not anti-Semitic because some of my best friends are Jews” approach. He represents the new strain of anti-Semitism, typified by the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement that has spawned sickening “apartheid walls” on California college campuses.
There is a difference between legitimate criticism of Israel and disproportionate criticism. One is fair, the other is anti-Semitic. Why not talk more about Syria, South Sudan, Eritrea, North Korea, Turkmenistan, Equatorial Guinea, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Uzbekistan, Sudan, the Central African Republic and Libya? I won’t play the “Jewish victim” card, but this is different. Enough is enough.
If May is ousted then Britain’s best new prime minister option might be Boris Johnson, a boisterous, says-what-he-thinks, womanizing politician with unkempt blond hair. Sound familiar? I look forward to the entertainment value of “The Trump and Johnson Variety Show.” Why not have a fun distraction while Rome burns?
It is possible that Anglo-Jewry will be safe from Corbyn. Brexit will take place a few weeks before Passover, and as Jews, we know that miracles can happen.
Marcus J Freed is a Los Angeles-based actor.
BlacKkKlansman,” Spike Lee’s 1970s-set film about a black police detective who poses as a white man to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan, is nominated for six Academy Awards, including best picture, best director and best-adapted screenplay. It’s the first nomination for childhood friends Charlie Wachtel and David Rabinowitz, and it’s their first produced script.
Based on the memoir “Black Klansman” by Ron Stallworth, about a black man who posed as a racist in telephone conversations and enlisted his white colleague to stand in for him in person to carry out the deception, the film resonates in today’s America.
“It hits a nerve,” Wachtel said in a telephone interview with both writers. “It’s easy to see the parallels between what the movie is trying to say and what our current climate is today. Spike always said, ‘We have to connect the past to the present and make it contemporary.’ ”
Rabinowitz believes the film benefited from fortuitous timing. “We got the script to Spike through Jordan Peele, and once [Lee] got involved, he was able to make it quickly and release it on the on the anniversary of the Charlottesville rally,” Rabinowitz said.
The writers first discovered Stallworth’s story in a Facebook post. They contacted the author via his publisher and manager, and they received permission to adapt the memoir on spec.
“We worked with Ron Stallworth to develop the script. We did multiple drafts and sent him every draft. He gave us feedback on every page,” Rabinowitz said. One of the things they discussed was the tone, which strikes a balance between serious drama and absurd comedy. “While the absurdist elements of the story lend themselves to comedy, it had to be something that people took seriously,” Wachtel said.
As with most screen adaptations, there were changes the writers suggested early on. While it was never carried out in real life, “We wanted to make the bomb plot real so they had a specific thing to investigate,” Rabinowitz said. The screenwriters also turned Stallworth’s gentile detective partner into Jewish Flip Zimmerman, who must pretend he’s a racist, anti-Semitic Holocaust denier to carry out the ruse.
“We wanted to make him Jewish for a few reasons, first as a storytelling device to give it more stakes and more drama,’” Rabinowitz said. “Just like Ron has to deal with a certain split identity, we wanted to mirror that in his partner. [Klan leader] David Duke emerges as the central villain in the story and for him Jews are enemy No. 1. And we’re Jewish, so it’s our way into the story. Ron was right on board from the beginning.”
The Zimmerman role was expanded when Lee and Kevin Willmott did their revision of the screenplay. Wachtel knew producer Shaun Redick, who had worked with Peele on “Get Out.” Peele signed on to produce and they did another rewrite based on Peele’s feedback. Peele brought the script to Lee, who continued to shape it according to his vision. All four writers share the Oscar nomination.
It’s a dream come true for Rabinowitz and Wachtel, who met in Hebrew school in East Brunswick, N.J., and always wanted to be filmmakers. Raised in Conservative Jewish families, they attended each other’s bar mitzvahs and made movies together for high school projects — writing, directing, producing and acting in them.
Rabinowitz thought that a career in filmmaking would combine his interests in creative writing and movies, and he set about pursuing it after graduating from Quinnipiac University. For Wachtel, two family trips to Universal Studios in Los Angeles and Orlando made a big impact. “We took the tram ride and I got to see behind the scenes on movie sets. I was able to see that making movies was actually a business,” he said. He moved to L.A. nine years after graduation from American University and Rabinowitz followed in 2012.
Today, both describe themselves as culturally Jewish, but they do observe the High Holy Days. “The content of the film being what it is, even having this conversation with you, makes me proud to be Jewish,” Wachtel said. “It’s something that’s been a constant in my life.”
They also said they have writing “in their DNA.” Author and playwright Sholem Aleichem is Rabinowitz’s great-great-great-uncle on his father’s side. Wachtel’s mother, Shirley Russak Wachtel, is an author whose memoir “My Mother’s Shoes” is about her mother, a Holocaust survivor.
Wachtel has thought about adapting that story “down the line,” but the pair already have several projects in progress. Interest in their work has picked up considerably since they woke up to news of their Oscar nomination on Jan. 22.
“It’s extremely rare. The first script we sold got made into a movie and got nominated for an Oscar,” Rabinowitz said. “Winning would be huge but the nomination feels like a win already, just being invited there. As a new screenwriter, you take a lot of meetings and may compete with 10 other people to get a job. With a nomination, the number goes down, or you may not be competing with anyone. And the quality of the meetings goes up.”
Benefiting from this interest is the first script they wrote together, a basketball-themed drama called “Madness” that will soon go into production. They’re also writing “Thacher Island,” about the origins of the witness protection program, and a Cold War spy series about Operation Mongoose, the CIA’s secret operation to eliminate Fidel Castro when he took power in Cuba in 1959. They don’t only want to make films based on true stories, however. “We’re very open to different genres and styles,” Wachtel said.
They’re ready to take advantage of their newfound status in Hollywood. “David and I have a lot of goals. We’ve talked about forming a production company together. We each have interests in directing and becoming a showrunner for television, as well,” Wachtel said. “We like to think we’re just getting started.”
A decade ago, during his first crack at the musical “Ragtime,” Benjamin Schrader was a member of the ensemble and an understudy in the show’s first Broadway revival. Fast forward to the Pasadena Playhouse where “Ragtime” has become magic time for the Seattle-born Schrader.
Not only is Schrader undertaking the role of Harry Houdini in the Pasadena Playhouse production that runs through March 3, he is also the show’s magic consultant. Given his career as a professional magician, the dual assignment of illusionist and illusion overseer fits the actor like a rabbit fits in a magician’s top hat.
“We have straitjacket effects while hanging upside down high above the stage. We have some pyrotechnic elements,” Schrader said during a rehearsal break a couple of weeks before the show’s opening. “A lot of the design work is coming from my end, so I have my role as an actor and I have my role as a magic technician and the meeting of two worlds. It’s kind of thinking with the left and right side of my brain here.”
Adapted from the novel by E. L. Doctorow, with music by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, “Ragtime” tells three intersecting tales. In New Rochelle, an upper-middle-class woman called Mother keeps her family together while her husband is out of the country. A black pianist from Harlem encounters racism while trying to carve out a life with the mother of his infant son, and a Latvian Jew travels to America with his young daughter with a dream of striking it rich. The Playhouse staging is directed by “Frasier” co-creator David Lee and is one of the largest physical productions in the company’s history.
In addition to its fictional characters, “Ragtime” is littered with historical figures: the actress Evelyn Nesbit, Booker T. Washington, Emma Goldman and Houdini, who pops up at strategic points in the narrative, a figure of mystery and the ultimate representation of an immigrant having made good.
“If he was possessed of anything, it was self-promotion. He was a showman through and through,” Schrader said of Houdini, who was born Erik Weisz. “And if he had a Twitter feed or an Instagram if he was alive today, he would be one of the greatest influencers in the world.”
“[Houdini] was a showman through and through. And if he had a Twitter feed or an Instagram if he was alive today, he would be one of the greatest influencers in the world.” — Benjamin Schrader
Schrader had a magic kit as a child and read a couple of books on magic, but lost interest when his attention switched to theater. He studied at the Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, worked extensively at theaters in Washington state and ultimately moved to New York. Schrader appeared in the Broadway productions of “Avenue Q” and “The Book of Mormon” and toured with “Avenue Q,” “Peter and the Starcatcher” and “Big River.”
Relocating to Los Angeles five years ago, he accompanied a friend to the Magic Castle, a visit that triggered a flood of memories and nostalgia for the art form. Schrader returned to the books and became a regular at the Magic Castle. He eventually worked his way up to performing and used his theatrical eye to help other magicians develop their shows. Schrader opened the Magic Bar at a strip mall in Encino where, two nights a week, he and fellow Magic Castle magicians craft cocktails and do close-up magic for an intimate audience of 18.
“It’s been going for over a year-and-a-half now and it’s turned into one of the premiere venues for close-up magic in the country,” said Schrader, who will have a substitute magician hosting at the Magic Bar on Tuesdays during the run of “Ragtime.” “And I’m very proud of it.”
Jews have put their stamp on magic throughout history, from Houdini to David Seth Kotkin (AKA David Copperfield). Schrader’s mother was from Long Island and Jewish, and her family included singers and vaudeville performers. His father was a non- Jew who worked for American Airlines, relocating the family to the airline’s hub in Washington DC.
“The Jewish sensibility, the Jewish sense of humor, the Jewish cuisine, that was all my Jewish experience and still is,” Schrader said. “The culture surrounding being Jewish has always been just a major influence in my life, in everything from my love of theater and performing, to my sense of humor, down to the quality of the matzo ball that my mom makes when I go and visit her. The only thing that hasn’t been a large part of my life is the religious aspect of it.”
As for “Ragtime,” he is seeing new themes in the show this time around, as well as old ones.
“The play has stayed the same. The content technically hasn’t changed,” he said. “But for some reason, the meaning of the play and the words and the description of this play have gone through profound changes because the news cycle brings out new things. I find that fascinating, how a piece of art can stay the same and yet evolve over time.”
“Ragtime” plays through March 3 at The Pasadena Playhouse.
WOMEN IN JEWISH LIFE
From the very beginning of the twentieth century, men and women worshipped side by side in Conservative synagogues, and boys and girls, as well as men and women, studied together in the classroom. (To this day, in most Orthodox communities, after the third or fourth grade, learning occurs in gender-specific classes. Also, teenage boys often study Talmud, while teenage girls study Bible, commentaries, and laws governing Jewish practice.)
In 1922 Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan inaugurated the bat mitzvah ceremony for his daughter Judith, and by the middle of the century most Conservative synagogues were scheduling them for young women. The ceremonies varied, however. Some bat mitzvah girls did what most bar mitzvah boys did: recite Kiddush on Friday night, chant the Torah blessings and the haftarah on Saturday morning, and give a homily on the Torah reading. At other synagogues, the bat mitzvah only recited some readings and delivered a homily on Friday night.
Some Conservative synagogues were fully egalitarian by the late 1940s, but that was rare. Only in the 1970s did a significant number of Conservative synagogues move in that direction. Gradually, legal rulings were needed to justify the emerging customs and to augment them in areas that custom could not determine. This happened with the decision to ordain women in 1983 and with subsequent CJLS [Committee on Jewish Law and Standards] rulings that enabled women to count as part of a prayer quorum, to lead services, to act as witnesses on documents, and to serve in other capacities in Jewish life.
THE ORDINATION OF WOMEN AS RABBIS
Unlike other developments in women’s Jewish rights that entered Conservative Jewish practice first by custom, the Conservative movement’s ordination of women rabbis was a conscious decision grounded in extensive legal and moral reasoning. At present, about three hundred of the approximately seventeen hundred Rabbinical Assembly members are women.
In 1977 the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTSA, or, more commonly now, JTS) and the Rabbinical Assembly (the Conservative movement’s rabbinical association) formed the Commission on the Ordination of Women as Rabbis. As you will read in the following excerpts from the official 1979 report, the majority of members believed that women could be ordained because most of the tasks rabbis do are not restricted to men in Jewish law. Since then, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards has validated rabbinical rulings that open to women the few remaining rabbinical functions traditionally limited to men, such as leading services and serving as witnesses on documents. Even so, women rabbis can choose not to take advantage of these permissive rulings and ask men in their community to perform these tasks instead.
“The role of the rabbi as we know it today is not one that is established in classical Jewish texts, but rather is one that has evolved through social need and custom. Consequently, there is no specifiable halakhic category that can be identified with the modern rabbinate, nor with the currently accepted mode of ordination. … To summarize, then: The halakhic objections to the ordination of women center around disapproval of the performance by a woman of certain functions. Those functions, however, are not essentially rabbinic, nor are they universally disapproved, by the accepted rules governing the discussion of halakhah in the Conservative Movement. There is no direct halakhic objection to the acts of training and ordaining a woman to be a rabbi, preacher, and teacher in Israel.”
RULINGS ON BIOETHICS
When the authors of classical Jewish law weighed ethical issues in medicine many hundreds of years ago, they could never have imagined today’s incredible medical advances. As a result, whereas the conditions and therefore also the rules for building a sukkah have not changed much in more than two thousand years, the medical rulings of yore offer few straightforward answers to most of today’s bioethical questions.
Modern Conservative movement thinkers have consequently approached new medical realities by applying traditional Jewish perceptions and values to the new circumstances. Sometimes that may mean trying to balance conflicting goals. For example, one responsum permits contraception and yet encourages couples not to wait too long to have children and then to have three or more if they can. Because of the radically new medical realities of our times, it should not be surprising that different Conservative rabbis who endeavor to strike the right balance in applying the tradition to contemporary circumstances sometimes arrive at different conclusions. (This is true in the Orthodox and Reform movements as well.) So, for example, Rabbis Elliot Dorff and Avram Israel Reisner agree on most end-of-life issues but differ on whether it is legitimate to withhold or withdraw artificial nutrition and hydration from a dying patient and the amount of morphine that may be used in quelling pain.
The following responsum by Rabbis Miriam Berkowitz and Mark Popovsky asks: When is contraception permitted within Jewish law, and what classical teachings should guide the decision to employ it? When contraception is permitted, does Jewish law determine which contraceptive method is preferable? Does Jewish law distinguish between contraceptive methods initiated prior to intercourse and “emergency” or other contraception introduced only after intercourse?
“Assuming that all aspects of safety and efficacy with respect to more than one contraceptive method are equal for a particular couple, the couple is advised to follow the order set out in this teshuvah from most to least preferable means: Hormonal contraception (the pill, implants, vaginal insertion, transdermal patch)
“Intrauterine device — copper or hormonal (IUD)
“Diaphragm, cervical cap
“Sponge, including spermicidal gel; spermicidal gel in combination with another method
“Emergency contraception (‘the morning after pill’) — only after the fact and not for regular use”
“If a woman elects to employ a method of contraception farther down the list for reasons of health, safety or efficacy specific to her circumstances, she may rest assured that such a choice represents a halakhically valid decision, fully justified within normative Jewish practice. Birth control of any means is far preferable to abortion. Every effort should be made to ensure access to and accurate information about contraception for all who might engage in sexual intercourse. The concern that such measures will encourage risky sexual activity or promiscuity is unsupported by scientific evidence and insufficient to warrant the increased health risks borne by those in communities where access to contraception is limited.”
THE PRESENT CHALLENGE
“Today the challenge is one of seduction into the general, secular culture through assimilation, intermarriage, and a commitment to work over family. … How shall we meet this challenge? Upholding the legal norm imposed by the later Rabbis on the male member of the couple of unlimited reproduction is neither practical nor desirable. Nor does it seem right or wise to say to the female member of the family, ‘Give up higher education and a career to have a large family.’ Rather, a reasonable course would be to encourage a fertile couple to have at least two children in compliance with the early Halakhah and at least one additional child to help the Jewish people replace those lost in the Holocaust and maintain its numbers in the modern world. The first two children that a couple produces are mitzvah children in the sense that they enable the couple (specifically, the man) to fulfill the command to procreate. We would like to suggest that the third child (and any further children) also be designated ‘mitzvah children,’ not only in the sense that classical Jewish law requires us to have as many children as we can, but also in the sense that having three or more children helps the Jewish people maintain its numbers and even regain a bit of the numbers we lost in the Holocaust. Another way to think of this is that the couple should have, if possible, at least one more child than they were planning for the sake of the Jewish people, with a minimum of three.”
Excerpts from “Modern Conservative Judaism: Evolving Thought and Practice” by Elliot N. Dorff.
This story was featured as part of Jonathan Kirsch’s Feb. 22, cover story.
One of the cool and fashionable expressions in modern Jewish life is to say you’re “post-denominational” — that is, you’re a Jew who doesn’t fit into categories and doesn’t need labels. Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg captured this notion with his memorable, biting line, “I don’t care what denomination you belong to, as long as you’re embarrassed by it.”
Greenberg, who is Modern Orthodox and made that statement during a 2006 interview, was dramatizing the sentiment that labels are inherently divisive, since they put more emphasis on our differences than on what we have in common. I’ve always had sympathy for that critique. When I started a spiritual magazine many years ago to promote Jewish unity, we had a T-shirt that said “I’m an ashkephardicultrarefoconservadox Jew and proud of it.”
Over the years, I’ve learned to balance my idealism with reality, and the reality is that human beings enjoy belonging to like-minded groups. In the Jewish world, these like-minded groups go far beyond the Big Three denominations of Reform, Conservative and Orthodox.
Even within denominations, there are plenty of variations. Under the broad Orthodox label, for example, you will find variations such as Open, Modern, Yeshivish, ultra-Orthodox, Chasidic and so on. All of these groups and subgroups have things that distinguish them — from davening style to rabbinic leaders to interpretation of Jewish law to specific traditions based on their ancestry.
The point is this: The Jewish community is and always has been splintered around myriad factors that go way beyond the broad religious denominations.
“Given the differences among Jewish groups, how realistic is it to envision a ‘post-denominational’ future for American Judaism?”
Choosing a synagogue is a key point of distinction. In Los Angeles, for example, Jews who belong to the IKAR community are different from Jews who belong to Sinai Temple, just as members of Young Israel of Century City are different from members of The Happy Minyan. Yes, they are all Jewish and have plenty in common, but there are different tastes, different flavors, different priorities.
The same applies to my Sephardic community — there are many flavors. I get the goosebumps when I hear prayer melodies from my Moroccan childhood. I don’t feel the same way about melodies from other places, which is normal. We have a unique connection to the traditions we grew up with, especially when they trigger our nostalgia.
Here’s the larger question: Given the differences among Jewish groups, how realistic is it to envision a “post-denominational” future for American Judaism? I know Greenberg was speaking in jest, but is belonging to a denomination or specific group really something to be embarrassed about?
In our cover story this week, we go in the opposite direction. Our book editor Jonathan Kirsch reviews the latest book by American Jewish University professor Elliot Dorff, “Modern Conservative Judaism: Evolving Thought and Practice,” that proudly makes a case for the Conservative denomination.
“For those who grew up in other expressions of Judaism,” Dorff writes, “I hope the book will deepen your understanding of Conservative Judaism beyond the one-dimensional ‘Orthodox Judaism watered down’ or ‘Reform Judaism beefed up’ and impel you to engage with its teachings on its own terms.”
Ironically, one of those teachings is the embrace of dissent within Dorff’s own denomination.
“Conservative rabbis and lay leaders reveled in the diversity of opinion and practice within the movement,” he writes. “They did not want to squelch its creativity and liveliness, and, furthermore, they believed it would be Jewishly inauthentic to adopt a rigid definition of what a Conservative Jew must believe or do.”
“Denominations, and all the movements within and around them, are just another expression of a 3,500-year-old work in progress. The Jewish journey itself feels like a never-ending procession of breakaway minyans.”
In an interview with Kirsch, Dorff endorsed the very notion of denominations: “I am a pluralist,” he says. “I don’t think that the major problem in Jewish life is that we have too many denominations.”
Neither do I.
Denominations, and all the movements within and around them, are just another expression of a 3,500-year-old work in progress. The Jewish journey itself feels like a never-ending procession of breakaway minyans. Some Jews think they have something new to add, so they go off and try it out. For all we know, that dance between stability and restlessness may be the key to our continuing survival.
At its best, Judaism provides a refuge of meaning from the emptiness and uncertainties of life. Denominations provide ideological homes, just as synagogues provide communal homes. It’s natural that we gravitate toward a specific place within that refuge that is more familiar to us and appeals to us the most.
Of course, there is plenty of room in all of these nooks and crannies for wandering Jews who feel like experimenting with different flavors. Maybe that’s what people mean when they say they’re “post-denominational.” It’s not that they don’t believe in groups or denominations, they just want to be free to try as many of them as they like.
After all, what is “post-denominational” if not a group you enjoy belonging to?
Comedian Judy Gold emerged on stage at an Upper West Side theater on Feb. 11 and screeched, “Oh my God, I’m so excited,” as she welcomed comedian/actress/performer Sandra Bernhard to a live taping of her podcast “Kill Me Now.”
It didn’t take long for the pair of Jewy comics to dive into celebrity gossip. Bernhard asked if the host had been invited to Jennifer Aniston’s 50th birthday party. “I wasn’t invited,” Bernhard said dryly. Gold asked: “Hasn’t she had a lot of work done?” to which Bernhard diplomatically replied, “She’s had a lot of tsuris.”
Being in the audience felt a lot like eavesdropping on two famous friends having a grown up slumber party. Their conversations roamed from what it was like growing up in a New Jersey suburb (Gold) and Scottsdale, Ariz. (Bernhard); how they’ve dealt with hostility toward female comics and sexual harassment over the course of their careers, as well as the fickle fortunes of fame.
Throughout, Gold dinged a hotel desk bell every time they mentioned someone or something Jewish. There were a lot of dings.
The comics riffed on their shared love of Carole King’s album “Tapestry,” reminisced about tearing the cellophane off new albums while sitting on shag-carpeted bedroom floors, and their mutual obsession with TV variety shows and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”
Although both women are Jewish, Gold builds her shtick around feeling awkward and unpopular because she is tall and gawky. Bernhard, on the other hand, is all cool fashionista. She has graced the cover of Elle, is known for her style as well as her Mick Jagger pout and is as unflappable as Gold is neurotic.
To this day, Bernhard is thankful that she didn’t get cast in her high school production of “Funny Girl” despite her Barbra Streisand-esque nose and beautiful voice. Instead, the casting director picked a curvier “totally blond shiksa” and, Bernhard said, ended up sexually molesting the lead and others girls.
“From the get-go, HaShem protected me and I was never molested,” she said, although she did share another story. She said the late comedian Buddy Hackett invited her to come to his Beverly Hills house the morning after the premiere of her 1982 film “The King of Comedy” with Jerry Lewis and Robert DeNiro. She was 26 at the time. “He met me at the door in a terry-cloth robe,” Bernhard said. That was my #MeToo experience,” but she didn’t elaborate further.
“Judy Gold builds her shtick around feeling awkward and unpopular because she is tall and gawky. Sandra Bernhard, on the other hand, is all cool fashionista.”
Gold shared her own Hackett #MeToo moment. “The Concord Hotel was trying to stay open. Buddy liked me for some reason and asked me to open for him. He liked tall women. (Gold is 6 feet 3). He comes up to me right before I go on, he comes up to here on me,” Gold said, holding her hand at bust level, “and says, ‘Give me a kiss.’ I say, ‘I’m not giving you a kiss.’ He’s like, ‘Just give me a little tongue.’ And then he puts his face in my boobs,” shaking it back and forth. “Then I went right onstage.”
Bernhard she said that while she was growing up, she was teased by schoolmates for having her famously full “n-word lips.” After finishing high school early, she went to a kibbutz in Israel, where she had lots of cousins. She picked oranges and grapefruit, chopped weeds in cotton fields and, in the kibbutz slaughterhouse, vacuumed lungs out of chickens on the assembly line. She credits the manual labor with teaching her a strong work ethic.
After returning to the U.S., she moved to Los Angeles, enrolled in the Charles Ross School of Beauty and studied to be a manicurist for three months before working in salons while doing stand-up in local comedy clubs. Comics Paul Mooney and Lotus Weinstock mentored her.
Unlike other women working in comedy at the time, Bernhard refused to be self-deprecating in her act. The late Joan Rivers told her she’d never make it in show business unless she got a nose job but she never considered it.
“From Day One, it was confidence, confidence, confidence,” Gold said, admiringly.
“I was insecure, don’t get me wrong, but it never came out in my material,” Bernhard said. “I couldn’t let all the feminists down. All my ladies. They fought for me.”
Gold, on the other hand, wanted a nose job. In the exaggerated, Jewish mother voice she uses when quoting her late mother, Gold said, “You’ll get your nose done when Barbra Streisand gets hers.”
Starring with Lewis and De Niro in “King of Comedy,” was a career high for Bernhard. “I’m sure Jerry Lewis was very nice on set,” Gold, said. “No, he wasn’t,” Bernhard replied. “He was a horrible person.”
The two then talked about being Jewish mothers. “I tortured my daughter. I was involved in the Kabbalah Centre for a long time,” Bernhard said. “From the time she was in utero until she was 10, 11, I would drag her to the Kabbalah Centre.”
She said she then took her daughter to Chabad, where she was bat mitzvah’d. “I thought she would never want to be near anything [Jewish] again,” Bernhard said. But about a month ago Bernhard went to visit her daughter in London, who said to her mother, ‘Let’s go to Shabbat in Golder’s Green.’ “So we went to synagogue,” and she was really into it, and I was like, ‘HaShem, thank you.’ ”
“You’re so lucky,” Gold said. “Yeah, I didn’t drive her completely away from her faith,” Bernhard replied.
And as any Jewish mother would, Gold responded, “Mazel tov on that, honey. Mazel tov.”
Debra Nussbaum Cohen writes from New York for Haaretz and is a contributing editor at The Forward.
This article contains spoilers from the Netflix series “Russian Doll.”
The new Netflix series “Russian Doll” is so splendidly Jewish.
The eight 30-minute episodes in Season 1 follow the life of the main character, Nadia, played by Natasha Lyonne (“Orange is the New Black”), who dies and wakes up at her 36th birthday party in a never-ending loop, “Groundhog Day”-style.
The series is Jewish in two distinct ways. It’s a rare combination of secular New York bagels and kosher pickles Jewish, and deep mystical and ethical principles Jewish.
On the surface, there are the trappings of the sort of Jewish history that’s threaded through the streets of the East Village: a birthday party in an old yeshiva building, now an ultra-fancy hipster loft encased in subway tile; a synagogue on 14th Street — at its center an old, bearded rabbi who was a couple of blocks away all along; and the necklace Nadia wears throughout the series, which represents not only her lost mother who left it to her, but her Holocaust survivor grandparents, who lost faith in paper money and trusted only gold currency.
As much as I love the ghost of the yeshiva, the mystical/practical rabbi and Lyonne’s representation of intergenerational trauma, I’m most compelled by the Jewish thought embedded in the plot. The idea that you can make a decision that minimizes rather than maximizes your humanity; a decision that hurts rather than helps those around you is the epitome of the Jewish concept of teshuvah. Often translated as “repentance,” teshuvah really means “returning”: returning to our best selves and the life we should be living.
Traditionally, Jews focus on teshuvah during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but it is an ongoing process throughout the year. The classic interpretation of teshuvah is espoused by Maimonides, the 12th-century Spanish rabbi and philosopher. I love this description of his steps to Teshuvah by Rabbi Leora Kaye and artist/animator Hanan Harchol, not least because we see Nadia precisely as a “Jew on the street,” wandering the streets of Alphabet City over and over:
[Maimonides] wrote for the simple “Jew on the street” as much as for scholars, and his codes have remained relevant across the spectrum of Jewish belief until today. According to Maimonides, four of the most important steps of teshuvah are the following:
When I first encountered this text in my early 20s, I appreciated its practical advice toward righting a wrong. So much better than guiltily agonizing for years and years. But I, like many people, had a problem with No. 4. If making a different decision in the same situation is the final step, then true teshuvah is hard to come by. To really do it right, you’d have to go back to a different multiverse, be presented with the exact same situation and then make a different decision.
This is Nadia’s story. She follows Maimonides’ steps of teshuvah, one by one, multiverse by multiverse. Being human, she sometimes slips, but in general, she moves forward. She apologies to her friend for a hurtful past comment; she reconsiders her refusal to connect with her ex-boyfriend’s young daughter; on two separate occasions she makes sure a homeless man has shoes on a cold night; and eventually, she puts her heart and soul into saving her teshuvah partner, Alan (Charlie Barnett).
“Russian Doll” not only depicts the behavior of teshuvah, as laid out by Maimonides, but also moves us by showing the characters’ inner growth. Before they can complete their teshuvah and live their fullest lives, both Nadia and Alan must face the demons that led them to fail others. This is teshuvah as a therapeutic practice. When she first sees the ghost of her neglected child-self, Nadia immediately dies, but little by little she grows stronger, able to face her own trauma and let go of her guilt.
“‘Russian Doll’ not only depicts the behavior of teshuvah, as laid out by Maimonides, but also moves us by showing the characters’ inner growth.”
Sitting down to write this story, I Googled “Maimonides Russian Doll” and discovered a post on ReformJudaism.org, discussing why Maimonides called his great work of commentary “Mishne Torah,” the “second Torah.”
[Maimonides] must have seen himself as upholding the commandment [of] repeating and retelling God’s law. Maimonides’ addition to the previous replications of God’s word finally results in the textual equivalent of a Matryoshka (Russian nesting) doll, one retelling nested inside another, each one a successively larger copy of the predecessor concealed within it.
In this analysis, Torah itself — including Maimonides’ commentary — is a Russian doll; a series of self-enclosing multiverses considering the same story from a different angle.
Like Torah, the video games Nadia designs for a living are both directional (moving forward in time) and cyclical (starting over and over). So it is with life. We may not wake up over and over at the same aging hipster birthday party, but we do repeat our patterns, and we do have the ability to change our lives by shifting our attitudes, behavior and ultimately our reality.
Teshuvah is the central Jewish expression of this concept; another way of saying that perhaps there are multiverses, different possible versions of each of us. It is up to us to decide which world we will live in and who we will be.
Alicia Jo Rabins is a writer, musician and Torah teacher. Her most recent book of poetry is “Fruit Geode” (Augury Books).
Ohr Torah Stone, a Modern Orthodox network that consists of 27 groups, praised the Jerusalem Rabbinical Court’s decision late last week that ordered the Egged Bus Cooperative to fire one of its employees because of his constant refusal to properly divorce his wife with a Get.
The couple who has been married for 15 years, whose names were not disclosed, came to Israel from India with their child a few years ago. The husband reportedly has had a violent history with his wife, physically attacking her and their child resulting in police intervention on more than one occasion.
Ten months ago, the Rabbinical court ordered the husband to grant his wife a Get but he refused. As a result, the court imposed various sanctions, but the man continued to refuse to give a Get.
Though Egged can’t terminate him without giving him a hearing they told him they are giving 30-days’ notice and will then fire him unless he gives the get.
“Like everyone else, my client deserves to lead a peaceful and happy life,” said Attorney and Rabbinical Court Advocate Tehila Cohen who will be representing the wife. “We will not rest until she receives her freedom and can embark upon a new and secure life together with her son.”
Cohen works with Yad La’isha: the Monica Dennis Goldberg Legal Aid Center which is one of the Ohr Torah Stone organizations that assists agunot – women who are “chained” to marriage because their husbands deny them a Jewish divorce.
“Ohr Torah Stone applauds Tehila Cohen’s ingenuity and untiring efforts on behalf of the wife in this unfortunate case,” said Ohr Torah Stone President and Rosh HaYeshiva Rabbi Kenneth Brander in a statement. “All women deserve the chance to begin anew without being held hostage; all the more so when they are victims of violence and abuse, as in this case.”
The LORD spoke to Moses, saying: Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him. (Exodus 25:1-2)
לֵּאמֹֽר: אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה יְהוָ֖ה וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר
יִדְּבֶ֣נּוּ לִבּ֔וֹ תִּקְח֖וּ אֶת־תְּרוּמָתִֽי׃
כָּל־אִישׁ֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר מֵאֵ֤ת תְּרוּמָ֑ה׃
When I was a kid, tidying up was definitely not something I looked forward to.
Now it’s officially a craze.
Marie Kondo’s show, “Tidying Up,” is a big hit on Netflix. It’s based on her book, The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, which has sold millions of copies and has been translated to 30 languages.
Here’s how Kondo describes the way it all started:
“I was obsessed with what I could throw away. One day, I had a kind of nervous breakdown and fainted. I was unconscious for two hours. When I came to, I heard a mysterious voice, like some god of tidying telling me to look at my things more closely. And I realised my mistake: I was only looking for things to throw out. What I should be doing is finding the things I want to keep. Identifying the things that make you happy: that is the work of tidying.”
The basic idea is to go through your belongings, keeping only those things that “make your heart flutter” or “spark joy” in you.
I was thinking about this “tidying up” phenomenon as I read the opening verses of last week’s Torah portion.
Our ancestors are asked to bring donations for the construction of the Tabernacle.
All sorts of objects are mentioned – gold and silver and bronze; linen and ram skins; acacia wood; pure oil for the menorah; aromatic incense; precious stones. All for the purpose of constructing a Tabernacle so that, as our Torah puts it, we might be closer to God.
It’s an inversion. We are asked to take objects that most probably make OUR hearts flutter and we give them away for a higher purpose.
Here’s the insight from our tradition: the focus is on “sparking joy,” as it were, in God’s heart, in the hearts of members of our community.
I’m not suggesting that what God wants above all else is for us to build edifices in God’s honor. I don’t believe that God would very much care about that sort of stuff.
But the notion that we should devote our time, our talent, and our treasure to behaving in ways that would bring God joy and satisfaction – I like that idea very much.
Indeed – that idea makes my heart flutter.
Let’s ask ourselves – just as a thought experiment – what we could do to spark joy in God and in those around us. I bet we would be kinder, gentler, more loving and more generous people. I imagine we would fight harder for justice. I’m sure we would be better people as a result.
It’s not that our joy is unimportant. It’s the idea that the well-being and satisfaction of others should matter, too.
And it’s a core Jewish value. It’s the way the Rambam understands the very central teaching of our tradition, what Rabbi Akiva called the great principle of Torah:
“Love your neighbor as yourself.”
What I want for myself – that is, what makes my heart flutter – I work to provide for the other.
This way of thinking, this way of living will make hearts flutter. It will spark joy in others, in ourselves, and maybe even in God.
It’s the kind of tidying up to which we should commit ourselves.
When you talk about the greatest television shows of all time, odds are that “The Sopranos” will come up in that conversation. While “The Sopranos” has not produced a new episode in more than a decade ago, many of the “Sopranos” cast members continue to work steadily, and Steve Schirripa is clearly one of them.
Beyond being part of the cast of the CBS hit “Blue Bloods,” Schirripa has found success as a producer, author, voiceover artist and show creator. Schirripa also has his own line of organic, vegan (and kosher) pasta sauces, Uncle Steve’s Italian Specialties Group. The Brooklyn, New York native also has dozens of “Tonight Show” appearances under his belt.
Bringing together the old and the new, Steve Schirripa will be performing as part of “Sinatra Meets The Sopranos” at the NYCB Theatre in Westbury, New York on May 4. Schirripa will be appearing alongside Michael Imperioli (“Christopher Moltisanti”), Vincent Pastore (“Sal Bonpensiero”), singer Michael Martocci and host/comic Joey Kola.
The “Sopranos” actors will be telling stories and answering audience questions – as moderated by Kola — about the acclaimed David Chase series while Martocci will be performing actual charts from Frank Sinatra’s long-time musical director Vincent Falcone.
Below is a snippet from my January 2019 phone chat with Steve Schirripa, while the full chat will be appearing next month as part of the Paltrocast With Darren Paltrowitz podcast.
Jewish Journal: Not everybody realizes that you’re part-Jewish. Were you bar mitzvahed?
Steve Schirripa: No, I was not bar mitzvahed. My mother was Jewish so I had a whole Jewish side of the family. My mother’s maiden name was Bernstein. My grandmother’s name was Moskowitz, so I know all about that world. So I was raised Catholic, but I very much identify as being Jewish as well. I had all kinds of aunts and uncles and I had the best of both worlds.
JJ: Are there any projects or events that I didn’t touch upon that you’d like to mention?
SS: I’m hosting the Garden Of Laughs. It’s a charity event at Madison Square Garden. Jerry Seinfeld and Jon Stewart and Brian Regan… It’s April 2. It’s the third time I’m hosting that, that’s for charity, the Garden Of Dreams Foundation. All the money goes for kids in the Tri-State area .
JJ: Finally, Steve, any last words for the kids?
SS: My thing is, “Listen man, stay the course.” Try to do something that you like. It doesn’t come right away. Listen… I never had any dreams of being an actor until I was in my mid to late 30s. It came out of nowhere. It wasn’t a dream that was simmering. So you never know where it’s going to take you, you know?