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September 2007 November 2007 December 2007

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Wednesday, November 28, 2007
Answer Maven



This is part of our Nov/Dec 2007 issue.

Q: I run a small business and need to get my employees some nice gifts for Chanukah. Any ideas for some cute stocking stuffers that won't break the bank?

A: Stocking stuffers? I'll let that one slide.

Considering I've never worked a day in my life (unless you consider writing this bi-monthly column a job, which, let's face it, it's not), I don't have the faintest idea what someone who works for a living might want from their boss for Chanukah. But since I'm not one to shy away from a beloved reader's quandary, I'll take a crack at it and try to give you a few ideas.

How about an all-expense paid trip to Maui (are you listening, Mr. Editor)? Yes, that's a little extravagant, but it was worth a shot. My feeling is that the best kind of gift is the gift that keeps on giving, not the kind that lasts for an afternoon (i.e. a day at the spa or tickets to a Broadway show). How about a month's membership to Netflix, for example? Or an iTunes gift card? Or in these days of high gas prices, how about an Exxon or Mobil gift card? (For the spiritual set, that can be in honor of the olive oil from the miracle of Chanukah — my mavenness is practically oozing from me today). The best gift I ever received was exactly of this sort. It was a one-year's subscription to TiVo, my favorite recent invention (barring the no-interest credit card, that is) and by far, the most logical for a person who wants to save time and watch more TV.

Q: I always have to see my cousin Rhonda at Thanksgiving dinner, and we do not get along (ever since I outed her to the family, things just haven't been the same). In any case, how do I get through another holiday feast without an all-out catfight?

A: Simple. Try the time-tested and age-old shock and awe routine, and I'm not talking about the Toby Keith album. Surprise her with goodwill, shower her with kindness, bombard her with benevolence. (I just love my thesaurus - Microsoft Word's, that is. I just Shift-F7 my way through every column.) But seriously, give her the kind of treatment you'd give your husband if you found out he had a huge sparkler waiting in his sock drawer for you. She won't know what hit her. She'll be so disarmed by your kindness, she won't have time to criticize your outfit or poison your stuffing. You guys might actually even become friends. Hey, if all else fails, why not give her an iTunes gift card? (See the first question.)

Q: I heard you lost 10 pounds and look great. How did you do it?

A: Why thank you, it's almost as if I crafted that question myself (wink, wink). For one, these vertical-striped pajamas I'm wearing at the moment do wonders for my figure. For two, I've been feeding my husband more and more food. That way, I look skinnier next to him. It's an easy, no-fail way to lose weight fast.

I also suggest you watch NBC's The Biggest Loser for motivation. As a matter of fact, watch it on your TiVo so you can fast forward through all those food commercials. (Ironic, isn't it? I prefer to think of it as a proverbial comment on the hypocrisy of the media today, but that's for another, more intelligent, column.)

You know, for a while, my husband was also trying to lose weight, but it seemed that his efforts were in vain. Alas, each time he weighed himself, he had never lost even a fraction of a pound. Neither of us could figure out why he wasn't losing weight, despite his best efforts at daily exercise and healthy eating. I used to commiserate with him about this (being the supportive wife that I am), until I found him at 3 AM one night (or is it morning?), expeditiously polishing off an entire pan of cranberry crunch on the living room couch. Case closed, super sleuth.

Another great idea is to park your treadmill in front of your TV. That way, you can watch all those Access Hollywood episodes while you're working out. Now what could be more productive than that?

-- Text by Chanie Cohen Kirschner / Illustration by Fred Harper

This is part of our Nov/Dec 2007 issue.
posted by Benyamin | 10:14 AM | Link | |
Tuesday, November 13, 2007
613 Words: The Courage of Surrender



This is part of our Nov/Dec 2007 issue.

I never knew my great--uncle David very well. He lived in Dallas and I grew up in Chicago, so our paths crossed only a few times at family gatherings while I was a child. But I'd heard he'd lived a rich life, filled with colorful experiences and challenges, that he'd been a tank commander during the D--Day invasion in France, and I always had an idealized, almost mythic image of him as a fighter.

When I was older, David and I finally had a chance for some real conversations, mainly about the War, but also about Judaism, ritual practice, and God. David and I had our last conversation while I was in Dallas for a conference. By that point, David was an old man -— he had a serious heart condition and was very ill. My parents had said for years that he could succumb to it anytime -- but, fighter that he was, he kept hanging on.

Some years passed; David's health deteriorated. My parents gave me updates on his situation and I spoke with my great-aunt Charlotte over the phone. When I got a chance to travel again to Dallas, to tail and write a magazine piece on a professional storm chaser, I went first to visit my great--uncle at his home.

Charlotte led me into the bedroom. David was there along with a nurse. He was lying on a cot; tubes attached to his body. David didn't recognize me. He slipped in and out of consciousness. At times, he would curl up into a fetal position. When he moved he let out a moan that chilled me to the bone.

I sat with Charlotte in the kitchen. She told me that David's death was no longer a matter of weeks or even days away, but of hours and minutes. "I've been getting myself ready for this for years," she said in her southern drawl. "He's in so much pain. I just want him to let go and let it end."

Just then, something struck me. Though I was David's great--nephew, I was also an ordained clergyman. I felt that, at this moment, Niles "the rabbi" might be of more help than Niles the great--nephew.

I stood over David in the bedroom. This figure who'd seemed larger than life now looked tiny. His limbs were thin and frail. His right leg hung off the side of the cot and he appeared as if he already had one foot in the grave. David had always come across as rooted in the real world. Yet now his appearance was ethereal. The roots that had held him down in his life -- through immigration to a new country, the Great Depression, and a World War far away from Texas -- were now being extracted before my very eyes.

I put my hand on David's leg. He gazed at me with a kind of vague recognition. I decided to recite the Shema prayer with him and for him, the declaration of a Jew's commitment to monotheism that is traditionally said, not just upon going to bed and waking up, but also, if possible, on one's deathbed.

Less than an hour later, Charlotte called. She told me David had died. Charlotte said she was convinced that on some level David grasped the words I'd recited, that saying the Shema had helped him to let go, to give up his long, defiant fight. Yet to me, David was still a warrior. What I'd witnessed was a different kind of heroism: the heroism of surrender. David hadn't given up. He had instead chosen to give over, to surrender his soul, in his own indefatigable way.

Niles Elliot Goldstein is the founding rabbi of The New Shul in Manhattan and the author or editor of eight books, most recently GONZO Judaism: A Bold Path for Renewing an Ancient Faith (St. Martin's), honored by and NBC as one of the best five religion/spirituality books of 2007. His website is www.nilesgoldstein.com.

-- Text by Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein

This is part of our Nov/Dec 2007 issue.
posted by Korieh | 11:19 AM | Link | |
Bible Man



This is part of our Nov/Dec 2007 issue.

Journalist A.J. Jacobs immerses himself head first into his stories. For his latest book, he decided to shed his secularism and spend the entire year trying to follow every single law in the Bible as literally as possible. Adulterers, beware.

A.J. Jacobs spent a year adhering to Biblical law, but shortly after I meet him, he transgresses quite a few rules.

As I approach the table at a New York City restaurant where Jacobs is waiting, he shakes my hand -- a warm gesture, but one that is prohibited since I am a woman. Next, he slides into the booth, a seat that countless women have sat on, another no-no according to the Bible's strict purity laws. Did I mention that we've met on the Upper West Side at the Popover Cafe? It's a beloved neighborhood haunt, but decidedly not kosher.

To be fair, Jacobs has recently completed an experiment in which he followed a literal interpretation of the Bible, an adventure he chronicles in the aptly named book, The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible. Still, I expect to see him in full biblical garb, including the shepherd's robe and staff he carried during the year. At the very least, I want a glimpse of his beard, which grew unfettered (a la ZZ Top), and of which Jacobs himself writes: "I have a beard that makes me resemble Moses. Or Abe Lincoln. Or Ted Kaczynski. I've been called all three."

But let me back up. A popular journalist who writes for Esquire magazine, Jacobs became interested in religion shortly after the birth of his oldest son, now three. A self-described agnostic, he began to wonder what he should teach his child about God. "As someone who grew up in an incredibly secular household," Jacobs says, "I was fascinated with this ancient system of beliefs that still held sway."

His easy smile growing earnest, he adds, "I definitely had that fear, like there's something wrong with me, that I was colorblind, or like someone who had never fallen in love."

But was half the world delusional, or was he? "I wanted to find out whether I was missing something," he says.

~ ~ ~

About a month before his book is released, I meet Jacobs for a late lunch not far from where he lives with his wife, Julie, and their three sons, three-year-old Jasper and one-year-old twins Zane and Lucas. Shaven and shorn, he is wearing white pants -- a vestige from his biblical year. He cites a verse in Ecclesiastes that states, "Let your garments be white," and adds, "Oh yeah, clothes make the man. The outer affects the inner."

I must have looked skeptical, because he continues. "When you're wearing white, you feel great, you feel like you're going to Wimbledon or P. Diddy's birthday party. You can't be in a bad mood. It's the equivalent of a sunny day."

But white pants were the tip of the iceberg during Jacobs' biblical year, when he devoted himself to following the Ten Commandments and a litany of other biblical edicts with often hilarious results. At times opting for Bible-themed activities, Jacobs eats locusts, plays the lyre, hires an intern whom he calls a slave, and burns myrrh that he bought from a store on the Upper West Side. He discreetly throws pebbles at a man he believes to be an adulterer and refuses to lie to Jasper, thereby unleashing a ferocious temper tantrum.

Having been raised in a secular home, where Yom Kippur meant having a "light lunch," Jacobs also takes field trips around the country and to Israel to learn how others express their religious values. Indeed, he finds himself dropping in on an evangelical Bible study class in New York, meeting a snake handler in Knoxville, Tenn., and attending a sermon at the Rev. Jerry Falwell's church in Lynchburg, Va.

To be sure, the lifestyle is completely contradictory to Jacobs' "real life," so to speak. This is, after all, a man whose day job requires him to interview beautiful female celebrities.

But Jacobs wisely consults a group of spiritual advisors during his journey, such as the kindly Mr. Berkowitz, an Orthodox Jew who calls him by his full name, Arnold, and tests his clothes for shatnez, or mixed fibers; his Uncle Gil, a religious guru who was a cult leader in the 1970s; and a host of rabbis and other religious figures.

Jacobs also relies on his family as integral cast members, sharing details of a failed attempt at disciplining his son, as well as the more intimate disclosure that he and his wife are trying to have more children.

"From the beginning, I became part of it," Jacobs' wife, Julie, tells me when I reach her by phone. "Some people marry men who are at the office all night long. I married a man who, as he now says, puts our lives into a laboratory." To be clear, Julie is the ying to A.J.'s yang. She says she is the more extroverted, he is more quirky. They met at Entertainment Weekly, where Julie worked in sales and marketing and A.J. was a writer (whose work Julie adored). Both have since moved on, A.J. to Esquire and Julie to a company that stages scavenger hunts, called Watson Adventures. "He had a crush on me for years," Julie jokes about their courtship.

She kids that Jacobs did not reveal all of his eccentricities, such as wearing earmuffs at the beach, until they were engaged and married. She laughs. "The quirks make him interesting, and opposites attract."

If his wife, A.J. acknowledges her powerful presence in his work, and says she is often the saint or heroine of the story. (Both A.J. and Julie tell me that Julie has the ultimate veto power, although she used it less in this book than she had in the past.)

For Jacobs, living in a self-imposed fishbowl is the best way to learn -- and to write -- about a topic. "It is true that I'm OK with exposing myself." Pause. "That came out wrong. I do not expose myself," Jacobs clarifies. Sobering quickly, he says, "I think everyone has flaws, everyone has good parts. Hopefully my good parts outweigh the bad. I put it out there and see what people think."

~ ~ ~

So far, people are fans of Jacobs' "good parts." Even before his book hits the shelves, it has already beenoptioned for a movie by Paramount Pictures.

"As he unfolded the scenario for me, I thought, 'He's the perfect person for this,'" says Rabbi Andy Bachman, the senior rabbi of Congregation Beth Elohim in Park Slope, Brooklyn, who met with Jacobs several times during the year and maintained regular phone contact with him. The two originally met at a conference several years ago, and they stayed in touch. "To be sitting in the front row when a young comic mind immerses himself in Western civilization's canonical text, the Bible, to probe its text, to me was a sheer joy," he says.

As a journalist, Jacobs has built a career out of immersion journalism, regularly subjecting himself -- and those around him -- to an array of first-person experiences. (On his Web site, he describes himself as "a New York Times best-selling author, Esquire editor and human guinea pig," which pretty much sums it up.)

Among his notable exploits: Jacobs has spent 24 hours in a Barcalounger, impersonated his nanny on an online dating service, and once, renounced all lying (even the little ones like, "No, you don't look fat,") to explore a movement called Radical Honesty. In one of his funnier articles, Jacobs described an experiment in which he outsourced his life to a service in India that took over his daily tasks, such as emailing his boss, reading to his son, and fighting with his wife. (The outsources were more effective in that department than he is, he admits.)

Following the release of his latest book, some reviewers called him a "stunt" journalist, but in another sense, reading his work is like talking to your nebbishy best friend, who happens to be hilarious.

On a basic level, Jacobs feeds off an intellectual curiosity of epic proportions. (When we meet for the first time, he peppers me with questions about myself before I turn the tape recorder back on him.) "I'm a generalist, I like huge topics," he says, "but that's what keeps me interested in them."

At Brown University, he studied philosophy, a discipline he enjoyed "in the sense that I felt I devoted four years trying to figure out the most basic questions." Graduation brought relief from those unanswerable queries, he laughs. Journalism seemed the next logical step, since as a profession it resembled a "continuing education." (Learning is a "very Jewish" trait, he adds.)

Early in his career, Jacobs cut his teeth as a reporter at a "tiny" newspaper outside of San Francisco called the Antioch Ledger Post Dispatch, before returning to New York. Back on the East Coast, he worked for Entertainment Weekly magazine and wrote about B-level stars for five years, he says. ("I caught colds from several celebrities, which I was very proud of," he adds.)

Since 2000, Jacobs has been the editor at large for Esquire magazine (a dream job, he says). His work has also been published in The New York Times and New York magazine. In 2004, he wrote The Know-It-All, a book that chronicled his experience reading the entire Encyclopedia Britannica from A to Z.

"I'm never going to climb Mt. Everest and I'm never going to be an ice dancer in the Olympics," he says, when asked what fuels his drive to perform these experiments. "But I know that I can at least try to do these quests that will give me a sense of accomplishment that will be my intellectual Everest," he says.

~ ~ ~

Intellectual Everest, indeed. By the end of his first biblical week, Jacobs reports that he is still agnostic, his beard is itchy, and emotionally he feels "strung out."

As the year progressed, there were no shortage of challenges, he says, such as rules that prohibit lying, coveting, ("That was a constant battle"), and gossiping ("That's like 70 percent of my conversations. I couldn't talk.").

Jacobs also eschews an edict to wear white clothing, but learns that a white robe (which he purchases from a Halloween store) can be a polarizing garment. "At times I was treated as if I were a D-list celebrity -- two Austrian teenagers asked to have their photo taken with me," he writes. "At other times, I engendered not just the usual suspicion but flat out-hostility. As I was passing this man on the street, he looked at me, snarled, and gave me the finger."

And yet, Jacobs reaches a turning point more than halfway through the year -- on Day 237 to be exact. It comes unexpectedly, when his son, Jasper, falls and smacks his head. "It's a horrible moment -- and also a milestone of sorts," he writes. "My first reaction, as I was running to show Julie, was to pray to God for Jasper to be OK."

Asked today, Jacobs says his biblical research "changed me, definitely." A year after his experiment, he uses the term "reverent agnostic" to describe his religious state of being. He enjoys Jewish holidays and finds himself more thankful. He believes a literal translation of the Bible is far too extreme, but he wants to give his sons a Jewish education of sorts. He is also teaching them kindness because "that's the most important thing."

"I wanted to try to get to the biblical bedrock, to try to figure out what they did back in biblical times," he says, toward the end of our meeting, in describing the paradoxical nature of a literal interpretation of the Bible. "I realized, of course, that that's an impossible thing to achieve and the biblical bedrock doesn't exist and you certainly can't ever get to it because it's all about interpretations and levels of meaning."

--Text by E.B. Solomont / Photo by Michael Cogliantry

This is part of our Nov/Dec 2007 issue.
posted by Korieh | 11:18 AM | Link | |
The Day the Holocaust Died



This is part of our Nov/Dec 2007 issue.

The Holocaust stopped mattering to me on August 18, 2007. It was around dinner, a late dinner, so it was around 7:30 in the evening. It's Abe Foxman's fault. I blame him, and I may never forgive him.

Abe Foxman survived the Holocaust, the one that no longer matters to me, in the care of his Catholic nanny, who enrolled him in the church and taught him to spit at Jews on the street. His parents got him back after the war. On some level it is ironic that this man, technically a survivor though not exactly Elie Wiesel, killed the Holocaust for me.

If you don't know who Foxman is, you're lucky. He runs the Anti-Defamation League, an organization founded about a century ago in the wake of Leo Frank being lynched in Georgia. Leo Frank was a Jew, and that's more or less why they lynched him. More than a few people hated Jews back then, so the Anti-Defamation League was formed in response.

They've done a fine job, because I haven't seen or heard of a Jew being lynched by a very large mob in this country in some time. I'm a Jew, and I live in the city where Frank was strung up a tree, so I like to keep tabs on whether Jew-lynching has come back into vogue. To the best of my knowledge, it hasn't.

This has not stopped Mr. Foxman from professing, pretty much ad nauseam, how much Jews are hated these days. We're endangered, he says. Anti-Semites are all among us, so we must be vigilant lest the Jew-lynching and Jew-gassing returns. He's written a couple of books on the subject. One was called Never Again? The Threat of the New Anti-Semitism. The old anti-Semitism cost many millions of Jews their lives. The new anti-Semitism seems to involve a large number of Muslims, Arabs, and leftie professors who are not fond of Israel, or at least Israeli policy.

His latest book? The Deadliest Lies: The Israel Lobby and the Myth of Jewish Control. The deadliest? Have I missed a rash of Jews being executed in this country due to the myth of insidious Jewish influence? Alarmist much?

That Foxman is a blowhard who opens his mouth way too often to overstate things way too much, a fact which I think is largely indisputable, is not why I stopped caring about the Holocaust - or at least listening to people talk about it.

Some people's blood is going to boil when they read that. Only a child of privilege, having grown up half a dozen decades, and a sizeable ocean, away from the horrors could so flippantly say something like that. I don't care about the Holocaust? What? Do I own it? Do I really think I deserve a better Holocaust, a more fulfilling mass murder to read about? What chutzpah! Who do I think I am?

Oh, calm down. Open your ears, and I'll explain. I'm not a completely spoiled tyrant. Of course the Holocaust matters. Six million Jews died, along with about five million other souls deemed undesirable by Hitler's regime, and by died I mean they were stripped of their belongings, forced from their homes, walled off in ghettos, worked to death, starved to death, then left to disease and despair. The ones who fought back were shot, bombed, and buried in the rubble, and that was before they were packed up in boxcars and shipped like cattle to the camps. Where they were gassed.

You know, in case they needed one more way to die.

That matters. That's something you probably should look into. As mistakes go, history doesn't really need to repeat this one. If you elect an addle-brained stumblebum for a president, you can get away with that four or five times. On the other hand, annihilating millions of people for being Jewish - or gay, or black, or Communist, or just about anything really - doesn't qualify as an oops. You don't get a mulligan on something like that.

So it's not that the Holocaust stopped mattering to me on that Friday afternoon in August. It's just that on that day, I stopped listening to most of the people who frequently comment on the genocide of the Jews. I decided I wasn't going to read any more of their books - all 59,176 of them - or watch any more of their movies. Not even the ones that get the Oscar for best documentary every year. Then there are the museums, the memorials, and the traveling exhibits. I've been to most, if not all, of them.

From now on, I boycott.

If you'd like to know why, if your personal political correctness thermometer isn't wedged too far up your rear exit canal, let me direct your attention to the greater metropolitan area of Boston, Massachusetts.

There, in the suburb of Newton, Massachusetts, lives an Armenian-American named David Boyajian. He wrote to a local newspaper over the summer, criticizing the town's anti-bigotry program, which just so happens to be administered by Foxman's ADL. According to his letter, the ADL "has made the Holocaust and its denial key pieces" of its program, all while "hypocritically working with Turkey to oppose recognition of the Armenian genocide of 1915-23."

You may not know about the Armenian genocide. That's not surprising. There are hundreds of museums and memorials, large and small, keeping alive the memory of the Holocaust. The Armenians, on the other hand, have no such institutional power and face the continued efforts of Turkey to deny that any genocide took place.

Believe me, it did. Or don't believe me. Ask any one of a litany of respected scholars and historians, including Emory University professor Deborah Lipstadt. She's been lionized by the Jewish world, and rightfully so, for fighting tirelessly against Holocaust deniers. Time and time again, including in op-eds and interviews, she's made it very clear that Armenians suffered a genocide at the hands of Ottoman Turks during World War I. One-and-a-half million of them were slaughtered. It isn't a question for historical debate, it's a settled question with piles of evidence backing up the claim.

That hasn't stopped Foxman - and other Jewish leaders - from acting like nothing ever happened. When he was asked in July if the Armenian slaughter was genocide, his answer was a short, "I don't know." The ADL has joined other Jewish groups, such as the American Jewish Committee, in opposing efforts at recognizing the Armenian genocide.

Stop for a moment and think about the reaction of the Jewish community to Holocaust deniers. Every time the Iranian president spouts off about the "myth" of the Holocaust, Jewish groups - the Anti-Defamation League at the front of the line - roundly condemns him. So why would an organization that fights so hard against those who would deny the Holocaust, become an adamant denier of another genocide? The answer is simple, if ugly. They didn't want to offend Turkey, a major ally of Israel in the Middle East.

For years, Turkey has lobbied Jewish groups to stay away from the genocide label, explicitly saying they might be less supportive of Israel. The highest ranks of Turkish officials, including their foreign minister, approached the ADL and others to make their case, and in a fit of fear and realpolitik, the ADL shook hands with Turkey and essentially became accomplices in genocide denial.

Then came 7:30 p.m. on August 18. I was picking through my usual diet of news and magazines when I stumbled on the story. Andrew Tarsy, head of the ADL's New England office, had been fired. His crime was demanding that the national organization remove its head from its hypocritical posterior and recognize the Armenian genocide.

I'll admit I became a bit of a zealot after that. I fired up LexisNexis on a daily basis, scouring the wire services and news outlets for any morsel of information on the ADL's moral implosion. That's what I called it, a moral implosion. I was happy when the backlash came, when Boston's Jewish community rallied behind Tarsy and demanded the ADL reverse itself. At least some people get it.

A little over a week later, Foxman was forced to relent. He rehired Tarsy and issued a statement calling the "consequences" of the massacre of Armenians "tantamount to genocide." This is a little bit like saying the consequences of Nazi gas chambers was tantamount to mass murder. In the words of Joey Kurtzman, the executive editor of Jewcy.com, "It denies the intentionality of genocide."

Foxman wasn't content just hedging his bets though, tiptoeing around the genocide of 1.5 million people. Almost as soon as he sent out his pseudo mea culpa, he sent another letter to the Turkish prime minister. In it, he literally apologized for admitting that yes, Turks had done a bad thing a hundred years ago.

"We had no intention," Foxman proclaims in the letter, "to put the Turkish people or its leaders in a difficult position. I am writing this letter to you to express our sorrow over what we have caused for the leadership and people of Turkey in the past few days."

I was eating lunch when I read that one. My reaction involved an attempt to curse through a mouthful of very hot soup. What exactly was Foxman apologizing for? I wondered if he'd ever thought to express deep sorrow to the leadership and people of Germany. "We had no intention of putting you in the difficult position of having to answer for mass murder," I imagined he might say, "but you did kind of kill several million of us. We would like to express our deep sorrow over the embarrassment we've caused you."

This is an organization created to fight bigotry generally and anti-Semitism in particular, to make our world better by exposing hatred and holding racism, genocidal or otherwise, to account. Where exactly do they get off apologizing to genocide deniers? In two sentences, Foxman had broken the camel's back, letting a deluge of missteps and hyperbolic statements turn into the absolute shredding of his organization's moral authority.

That shredding goes far beyond the issue of Armenian genocide. Earlier this year, Foxman publicly criticized the only Muslim member of Congress, Keith Ellison, for comparing some of Bush's post-9/11 power grabs with the Nazi use of the Reichstag Fire to seize absolute control of Germany. This he did after the ADL had privately worked with Ellison on a statement of retraction and apology, and this he did despite the fact there isn't anything inherently wrong with drawing historical comparisons to modern events. Why is history there if not to be analyzed, applied, and learned from? The history of the Nazis and the Holocaust isn't immune from that, nor should it be.

Then there's the use of anti-Semitism, cast as a dire threat to the state of Israel, as cudgel against political opponents. I could quote from Foxman's new book where so many people who are merely critics of Israeli policy get recast as anti-Semites. But it would be just as easy to quote from Alvin Rosenfeld's recent article, "'Progressive' Jewish Thought and the New Anti-Semitism," endorsed and released by the American Jewish Committee. It explicitly equates progressive political positions, including critiques of Israeli policy, with anti-Semitic belief. The guise of an Israel wiped out by Arab nukes is often presented as a potential "second Holocaust," and at best these progressive critics are aiding and abetting the enemies of Jews. Rosenfeld is hardly alone in putting forth this position, though he may be the most explicit.

This is why the Holocaust no longer matters to me, why I'd just as soon we forget about it, if this is what we're going to do with it. By this, I mean put it in museums, memorialize it to the point of irrelevance, and use it as a platform for moral authoritarianism. By this, I mean use it as a cudgel to silence critics we don't want to hear from, all the while ignoring the crimes of people who support us - or support Israel, which isn't necessarily the same as supporting us. By this, I mean render the Holocaust from a disaster of human action and inaction to be learned from into some kind of memorial flame, too hot to touch and too fragile to light the way to a better tomorrow.

I'm not hopeless about this. Abe Foxman and his ilk can't occupy the stage forever. At the very least, perhaps he could get laryngitis. But I'm not particularly hopeful either. We've made a civic religion, eagerly adopted by plenty of Jews who can't be bothered to meander into a synagogue more than a couple times a year, out of Holocaust remembrance. We've replaced a wandering Diaspora of Torah scholars with an affluent American populace of Jews holding up the flame for the Holocaust without bothering to ask ourselves what moral imperatives that memory requires of us.

If we're not going to ask those questions, and listen to the difficult answers, then we're probably better off not remembering at all. After all, a false veneer of moral authority in the absence of moral action may be the most immoral thing of all.

Editor's Note: We realize Bradford R. Pilcher's views may upset some so please feel free to write us letters which we'll publish in the next issue. And, in the meantime, we promise you that Pilcher is not the president of the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad Southeastern Fan Club.

-- Text by Bradford R. Pilcher / AP Photo

This is part of our Nov/Dec 2007 issue.
posted by Korieh | 11:17 AM | Link | |
Six Who Matter: The Multi-Hyphenate



This is part of our Nov/Dec 2007 issue. More specifically, this article is part of our 2007 Six Who Matter series.

He's a rabbi, a lawyer, an actor, a producer, and was once even a dancer on MTV. Now he's using all those skills to help Jewish youth.

Improvisational actors are trained to avoid the word "no." More than any other word, it stops people and ideas dead in their tracks. For Moshe Bellows, an attorney, rabbi, actor, producer, social entrepreneur, teacher - and one-time student of improvisational acting - the mantra extends beyond the stage and permeates his entire life.

"I'm a connector," Bellows says of his wide-ranging resume and far-flung interests. He uses the improv analogy to describe his most recent venture, working with at-risk Jewish youth. "It's always, 'Yes, and'," he says. "It's a great lesson for them. Yes, I need boundaries, but within those boundaries I can be far more free."

I meet Bellows at his home on the Upper West Side, where he answers the door dressed casually in jeans and a button down shirt. He leads me to a patio in the backyard of his apartment where I prepare to understand how he has been able to find time for so many ventures and for his career, most recently, as director of social and organization leadership training at Yeshiva University's Center for the Jewish Future.

But then he drops a bomb, ever so gently. "By the way, FYI, I just gave notice last week. I'm going to be leaving," he says, once we've settled down with a pitcher of cold water. He says he does not know what his next step will be, but observes that his biggest fear is stagnation.

Luckily, Bellows requires only a few hours of sleep. "There is so much to do and life is so short," he says, his eyes glinting mischievously. "I really believe that adage."

A native of Chicago, Bellows at 38, already has had more career opportunities than most people do in one life. After graduating from Yeshiva University, his first job was as a dancer on Club MTV, a dance show that aired in the late '80s and early '90s. Bellows says that period of his life taught him to "scramble," or make it on his own, although years later he began to see the experience in a more profound way.

One Passover, he says, he was relaxing by the pool at a Miami resort with his siblings and some friends, when a man joined them and began telling them about his unusual return to Judaism. He had drifted away from religion for several years, distracted by drug use. One Friday night, he was watching the credits roll on a television show when he saw the name "Moshe" appear on the screen. "I realized for the first time, Jews can do anything," the man said. Bellows was dumbfounded. "That was me," he eked out, and began to weep.

Recalling the story, Bellows says, "To this day, I don't know why God put me in that position, but if that's the one thing that needed me to be a good dancer, to audition, to get that gig so that this kid in some way, shape, or form…" he trails off. "Worth it."

Indeed, it is only one example of how Bellows has been able to connect his experiences. In a conversation that unspools over several hours, Bellows jumps from topic to topic, from his formal education in law, business, and Judaism, to the informal one he received during his years acting and running his own television development company. He also is involved with various non-profit organizations, including the initiative targeting at-risk children, Project Extreme, as well as a volunteering Web portal, Smart Volunteer, and a campaign to provide more air raid shelters to Israelis, called Operation Lifeshield.

Within the Jewish world, it's hard to find an organization that Bellows has not touched. Asked how he would describe himself at a dinner party, he pauses. "It's hard," he says. "Some people will see my resume as fragmented. They can't understand how to connect the dots," he says. "To me, it's exceedingly linear."

"I love wearing different hats," he says, pointing out that many of his enterprises, "are variations of a theme."

As an example, he says he initially sought rabbinic ordination to fulfill his love of learning, and to quench an insatiable thirst for education. Recently, however, he has found himself officiating at weddings and baby namings for friends. "It's given me some nice opportunities to be there for people in a way I couldn't as a layperson," he says. "I get to be the go-to person. How lucky am I?"

--Text by E.B. Solomont / Photo by Sam Norval

This is part of our Nov/Dec 2007 issue. More specifically, this article is part of our 2007 Six Who Matter series.
posted by Korieh | 11:15 AM | Link | |
Six Who Matter: The Party Girl



This is part of our Nov/Dec 2007 issue. More specifically, this article is part of our 2007 Six Who Matter series.

Big bashes and gala events have all the markings of a gluttonous culture. But with the help of this New York native, parties can be both gaudy and green

Greentrepreneur isn't a word, but maybe it should be, describing innovators who run their own businesses, but are making sure - through greener, more eco-friendly practices -— that the earth is still in business. Danielle Venokur is this kind of business owner.

On a recent Tuesday, Danielle opens the iron gate on the creaky elevator and welcomes me through the door of dvGreen's Manhattan office. In appearance, Danielle seems to embody the earth, from her radiant freckled skin to her brown dress; her hair is pulled back simply, and if she's wearing makeup, it's imperceptible. She shares the vast, impeccably decorated work space with her mother, a designer who has seen to it that every piece of furniture, from the ultra-sleek refrigerator to the glass work/dining room table, looks like it has a specific place.

But behind dvGreen's ordered present is a CEO who found her calling slowly. Beginning with a dream of creating a more fashionable laptop bag, she detoured through the L.A. television industry, became interested in flowers, and evolved her interests into an independent business devoted to saving harried party-planners while saving the planet.

Danielle's awareness that she was "not recycling responsibly" dawned on her while she worked at L'Olivier, a high-end Manhattan florist. She and her fiance switched to better light bulbs and replaced the showerheads and the fridge, which she says "cut our energy bill almost in half."

"I was becoming more aware of eco-awareness in my personal life, and saw a stark contradiction between what was going on at home and what was happening at work," and what she calls the "tremendous amount of waste that there is in the events business. Maybe this was going to be the new business idea: to create events but at a reduced footprint. But I didn't want to start if I wasn't going to be able to produce really beautiful events."

Through online research, Danielle found many resources, including organic caterers and producing invitations using soy-based ink on natural papers. "People shared their knowledge, which made it easy to figure out quickly that this was going to be viable," she explains.

With no one else in New York City equally dedicated to event planning and the environment, the media found dvGreen quickly. She landed a few clients, planning a non-profit benefit and an internal symposium for Pepsi, and lined up a few weddings (including her own, next spring).

For each client, Danielle puts together what she calls a "greening document", reviewing every aspect of the event, the location, the numbers, the budget, and client preferences. Then she calls on her now-extensive network of vendors and resources to help people's green dreams come true.

While the Westchester native would not necessarily define herself as religious, she admits to a spiritual influence on her work. "Everyone has their own definition of God, but for me it means anything living, whether it's a plant or a human. If you're not being responsible in the way you act in relation to that, then you're disrespecting God."

One of Danielle's strongest connections to Judaism is the family coming together to celebrate the holidays. "From an eco-standpoint, the best thing would be to have no more parties at all," she notes. "But I think it's important to take a step back and commemorate what's essential to your life, family and community, to mark the moments. My memories of those family experiences made me realize how important events are."

Danielle happily offers advice about how to reduce your own carbon footprint at events, large or small. "Ideally, shop at farmers markets. Reuse - if you have enough china, that's better than using disposable paper. But if you can't, purchase recycled disposables instead of unrecyclable plastic. Contact a local composting facility to find out what kind of food waste they accept, and keep a separate bin for compost. For tablecloths, choose vintage or organic fabrics over virgin cotton. For candles, use beeswax and soy wax rather than paraffin, a petroleum-based product that emits greenhouse gases. These are not huge life changes."

As the "DV" in dvGreen, the CEO feels a high level of responsibility to her company's mission. "There can be beauty, and it doesn't need to conflict with the environment."

-- Text by Esther D. Kustanowitz / Photo by Sam Norval

This is part of our Nov/Dec 2007 issue. More specifically, this article is part of our 2007 Six Who Matter series.
posted by Korieh | 11:13 AM | Link | |
Six Who Matter: The Rescue Clown



This is part of our Nov/Dec 2007 issue. More specifically, this article is part of our 2007 Six Who Matter series.

When natural disasters strike, most people are content sending money. Not this 35-year-old. He mobilizes a posse of clowns and heads to the tragedy.

An email from Jeremy Cohen may be signed in several ways, including the most popular:
Jeremy "Krispy" Cohen. A performing clown, Krispy is Cohen's alter ego -— the one who acts in circuses, entertains children in hospitals, and most recently, responds to disasters with foamy red noses on hand.

It is a sweltering day in New York City when I meet Cohen, who pads up Riverside Drive in a pair of clown shoes. "I have always enjoyed reaching out to others," he says. "The first time I saw that I could make someone else's day a little bit brighter, I was hooked."

Having learned the art of clowning several years earlier, Cohen was watching Hurricane Katrina unfold from his office in Atlanta, Ga., in August 2005. (Cohen works for Reuters but was employed by CNN at the time.) His eyes flicked back and forth between the television monitor and a circus poster hanging on the wall when a light went off in his head. "I realized that the physical needs were being met, but the concern was, how would people address the emotional needs?" he recalls. "I knew I had to do something."

He quickly mobilized dozens of other performing clowns, who made their way to Louisiana to volunteer their support. Ultimately, some 50 clowns from around the country convened at a New Orleans school, where they went from room to room giving out 2,000 red noses to students and teachers. "It was tough," Cohen concedes, more than two years later, of the New Orleans response. He recalls making the "rookie mistake" of asking one hurricane survivor how he was doing, to which the man replied, "I think my child drowned and is probably dead, and I can't find my parents and I think they're dead." This did not seem like the proper place for clowning around.

Still, Cohen says the experience taught him that offering a shoulder to someone can be as helpful as telling jokes and riddles (which rarely are appropriate in disaster situations anyway). Today, Cohen's Red Nose Response organization includes 400 clowns in 33 states who are trained by the American Red Cross to respond to disasters ranging from house fires to tornados. "I'm not here to save the world," Cohen says matter-of-factly. At the end of the day, "I'm here to bring a little bit of joy and to do a little good."

As Krispy, who is a silent clown, Cohen's face is impeccably made up with dramatic eyebrows and a painted red rose. His typical costume consists of a jaunty sailor jacket and short green wig topped with a black beret. "There is a transformation that takes place when you become a clown," Cohen says, straightening his shoulders and demonstrating his makeup application with precise and graceful hand motions. "When I look in the mirror and I start to put on the makeup, my body starts to change, my face changes. I'm no longer looking at Jeremy, I'm looking at Krispy -- It sounds odd, but you become your character."

Cohen honed his dramatic flair as a theater and film major at Emory University, but did not learn the art of clowning for several years. After watching a History Channel documentary, he began performing in 2004 as a Shriner, whose members run several hundred Shriner's Hospitals for Children nationwide. One of the most important clowning skills he learned: "You have to be able to laugh at yourself before you can make others laugh at you," he says.

Today, the 35-year-old Cohen (an only child) says his parents fueled and inspired his tendency toward community service at an early age. "I've always been involved," he says. "It's always been kind of in my fiber." Jewishly, Cohen identifies most with the Reform movement, and he describes himself as a spiritual person. "Do I go to temple all the time? No. But does it mean that my religion is any less important? No. It's an essential part of my life," he says.

He jokes that he considers Red Nose Response (www.rednoseresponse.org) to be a kind of a mitzvah. "I'm just another guy with an idea for trying to help people. If I can do that in some small way," he says playfully, "Hopefully that will get me into heaven."

-- Text by E.B. Solomont / Photo by Sam Norval

This is part of our Nov/Dec 2007 issue. More specifically, this article is part of our 2007 Six Who Matter series.
posted by Korieh | 11:12 AM | Link | |
Six Who Matter: The Activist Filmmaker



This is part of our Nov/Dec 2007 issue. More specifically, this article is part of our 2007 Six Who Matter series.

Her documentary films have tackled such topics as healthcare and the environment. Meet the Jewish, female version of muckracker Michael Moore.

Few people turn a lens on themselves during a bout with cancer, but for filmmaker Judith Helfand, she felt something bigger was at stake. Diagnosed in 1990 with cancer linked to a medication her mother took during pregnancy, she documented her five-year recovery from cancer, and then staked her career on other issues of health and environmental concern.

As such, Helfand's schedule these days is a veritable whirlwind of film festivals, screenings, shooting, and editing. She returns home to her Manhattan apartment temporarily mid-summer, when I meet her late one weekday night, the only time her schedule allows. In what seems to be a rare movement these days, she relaxes in a plush armchair in a living room made cozy by dark wood floors and a ceiling painted in shades of tangerine.

Two weeks ago, Helfand had the opportunity to meet the filmmaker Michael Moore, who in some ways is a large-scale counterpart to her as a Jewish filmmaker. "I don't think he takes his rock stardom for granted," she says of the visionary behind such films as Bowling for Columbine and Sicko. "Now that he has the public's attention, he has a responsibility to use it."

By age 15, Helfand says she was set on producing films. Even at a young age, her social conscious was finely tuned, and she sympathized with those who were struggling. "I don't think I ever imagined being objective," she says in her soft, almost childlike voice. In part, she indicates, her outlook was a reaction to her upbringing in a relatively quiet, middle-class Jewish home in Merrick, Long Island. Her parents were staunch Democrats who cared about social justice, but focused their attention on the family. "My parents weren't standing on picket lines," she jokes. Emerging from that environment, she recalls, "I wanted to be part of something that was bigger than us."

But Helfand says she never dreamed that she and her family would star in her films until she was diagnosed at age 25 with cervical cancer linked to a hormone her mother took during pregnancy. "My life was changed," she says, of a diagnosis that radically — and irreversibly — altered her personal and professional trajectory.

Between 1940 and 1970, an estimated four million women (including Helfand's mother) took DES, diethylstilbestrol, a synthetic hormone believed to prevent miscarriages. Born in 1964, Helfand came into the world in the middle of the DES-era.

For a woman who dreamt of having lots of children, Helfand recalls the moment of diagnosis, and says the room seemed to stop, and that she began to hear klezmer music playing in her head. An image of her paternal grandmother, with whom she had been close, popped into her mind, as she thought to herself, "How will I explain this to my grandmother?" The perverted connection, in her mind, between DES and cancer, underscored how unnatural the hormone was and set her on a path to revealing other such toxic substances.


For the next five years, she documented her family's experience with DES and Helfand's cancer, completing the 1997 film, A Healthy Baby Girl, which was an official selection at the Sundance Film Festival. Next, she turned a critical lens to the vinyl siding on her parent's home, traveling the world to capture the adverse affects of polyvinyl chloride, which culminated in the 2002 film, Blue Vinyl, the recipient of Sundance's best cinematography award. This year, Helfand's film, Everything's Cool, took on the growing dialogue about global warming. It was screened at Sundance, where it was an official film festival selection.

Throughout, Helfand's Jewish outlook underscores her work. Raised with a strong Zionistic sensibility, she finds nuance in the term, "Ldor vdor," the Hebrew phrase meaning, "From generation to generation." But she believes that unless society puts the brakes on environmental damage, "Ldor vdor" will increasingly refer to one generation bestowing toxic chemicals on another generation.

More recently, Helfand has grappled with the question not only of how to make the best film, but also on the question, "What happens when the lights come up?" Seven years ago, she co-founded a group called Working Films, which links films to grassroots organizing. It is part of the responsibility she bestowed on Moore.

"If you do your job really well, they're going to want to know what to do," she says. "You're never making your film in a vacuum."

-- Text by E.B. Solomont / Photo by Sam Norval


This is part of our Nov/Dec 2007 issue. More specifically, this article is part of our 2007 Six Who Matter series.
posted by Korieh | 11:10 AM | Link | |
Six Who Matter: The Life Saver



This is part of our Nov/Dec 2007 issue. More specifically, this article is part of our 2007 Six Who Matter series.

He invented the internal defibrillator to save your heart. Now he invented the Jewish rehab facility to save your soul.

Last year, more than a million people in America suffered a heart attack. Nearly 40% of them died. If Dr. Mort Mower had his way, that percentage would be reduced to nothing.

That's because he has dedicated his life to saving yours. Back in 1969, while he was the chief of cardiology at Sinai Hospital in Baltimore, he had the bright idea to shrink the life-saving defibrillator device so small that you could literally implant it into patients and push them out the door, knowing full well that if they went into cardiac arrest, their own personal internal defibrillator would shock them right back to life.

"All we needed to do was miniaturize it," he explains to me as if it's some small feat. "Remember, this was the age when NASA was inventing things. We were at the right time at the age of electronics." He's now a proud member of the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

I'm meeting Mower on a recent trip of his to Atlanta. Dressed in a dark suit and tie, his closely cropped hair is disheveled, giving him the aura of a man on a mission to save the world with little time for minutiae like combing. He's in town spreading the gospel of yet another invention of his: The country's first Jewish rehab facility. While most people who invented a life-saving device would probably pull a Scrooge McDuck and start swimming around their piles and piles of cash, Mower has chosen to use his millions productively by creating rehab facilities for Jews.

And we're not talking swanky celeb rehab for the likes of Britney or Lindsey. This is the real deal. About 10 years ago, Mower and his wife Tova, a nurse with a master's in psychology, opened the first Jewish Recovery House (known as the House of Hope) in their hometown of Baltimore where approximately 20 men reside at any given time in their effort to get over drug and alcohol addictions. A few years later, they created its female counterpart, The Tova House. These two campuses are attracting Jewish addicts from all over the country.

So why would anyone need a specifically Jewish rehab facility? "The addicts felt put off that they had to go to churches for their AA meetings," Mower explains. "It's a very self-destructive feeling. You're all alone. And it's taboo — Jews don't have addiction problems. They have nervous breakdowns."

The recovery process at the houses are based intensely on the famous 12-step program, but with a little dash of Judaism thrown in. For example, all residents are required to attend Friday night Shabbat dinners. And the houses have no shortage of success stories: Some previous clients are now back in college, reconnecting with their family, and one is even studying in a yeshiva. "The Jewish Recovery House provided me with shelter, three meals a day, the Judaism I had forgotten and the guidance, structure and camaraderie that is essential for recovery," says a recent graduate.

It's quotes like that that make it all worthwhile for Mower. "You walk," he says leaning forward in his chair, "and eventually they walk further."

Mower has gone from saving people physically to saving them emotionally as well. "Mort is a real nice human being who gives a damn," Kenneth Ball, the Jewish Recovery House's executive director, tells me. "He likes to see the good that it can do."

And Mower is showing no signs of slowing down. The father of two also sits on the boards of the Jewish National Fund, Hadassah, and Ben Gurion University. His philanthropic work has him stretched among a number of other foundations. In his spare time, he's an avid skier and enjoys offering unsolicited ski lessons. Giving me his business card, he jots down his direct number in case I ever want to take up the Slalom. And, he admits, "There's some question about whether I play golf or not."

As if that wasn't enough, he still works in a lab coming up with new inventions. His latest is top-secret, but he says it has something to do with his internal defibrilator. "It's a job," he says. "It keeps me off the streets at night." He's also working on getting Jewish Recovery Houses set up in other cities across America.

"Making money is easy," he says as he walks out the door. "What's meaningful is if you do something with it."

-- Text by Benyamin Cohen / Photo by Christopher T. Martin

This is part of our Nov/Dec 2007 issue. More specifically, this article is part of our 2007 Six Who Matter series.
posted by Korieh | 11:08 AM | Link | |
Six Who Matter: The Super Jew



This is part of our Nov/Dec 2007 issue. More specifically, this article is part of our 2007 Six Who Matter series.

She leaps tall buildings in a single bound. She volunteers, she leads trips to Isreal and Auschwitz, and she donates her bone marrow to complete strangers.

There are those among us who attend parties, and there are others who bring life to them. Alana Shultz does both.

On any given night, she may be attending a benefit, listening in on a lecture, or planning a fundraiser for the multitude of organizations to which she has lent her talents and her enthusiasm for all things Jewish.

I find Shultz on Manhattan's Upper West Side, just as she is in the throes of apartment hunting after a particularly dispiriting experience with a failed roommate. She is dressed artfully in a long black skirt, flip-flops, and a black t-shirt emblazoned with an image of Wonder Woman across the front. "I need to feel like a Wonder Woman," she says, referring to her housing crisis, although to those who know her, the moniker reveals an example of art imitating life. She herself admits: " I like to have a good time, but it's not enough to satisfy my soul. I need to know I'm being productive and adding to the world."

At 28, Shultz sits on the boards of several Jewish organizations, and when asked, she will tick off the groups she is most involved in: The Manhattan Jewish Experience, Dor Chadash, Havalight, the SoHo Synagogue, Friends of the Israel Defense Forces, Jewish International Connection, and Birthright Israel, through which she has led two trips to Israel. She's not just a volunteer. Shultz's professional life is in the Jewish world as well, as a program director for Congregation Shearith Israel, Manhattan's Spanish-Portuguese synagogue. Dating back to 1654, it's one of the oldest congregations in America.

"When I'm enthusiastic about something, I don't hide it," she says.

Raised in a Conservative Jewish home in Fairlawn, N.J., Shultz attended public school but developed a strong Jewish identity at home. Given the choice of having a bat mitzvah party or a taking a family trip to Israel, Shultz chose the latter. She developed even stronger ties to Israel -- and to Judaism -- when she spent her junior year of college abroad at Hebrew University. "I realized it's such a rich world out there. I fell in love with Israel, and was opened up to the spiritual joy and intriguing intellectual dimensions of Judaism," she says.

To hear her tell it, Shultz draws inspiration from many places, in particular her name. In college, Shultz says, a rabbi told her that the letters of her Hebrew name -- Chanah -- corresponded to three attributes belonging to the ideal Jewish woman. "That more than anything inspired me to be an eishet chayil," or woman of valor, she explains. By her own definition, that includes giving charity, and remaining loyal to her family.

Several years ago, circumstances tested those qualities when Shultz donated life-saving bone marrow to a young Israeli woman she did not even know. Like many students, Shultz had joined a bone marrow registry during college and promptly forgot all about it. Then, in 2003, the registry confirmed that her genetic makeup matched that of a leukemia patient. "I'll do it," Shultz responded immediately.

International law dictates that bone marrow donors and recipients must remain anonymous to each other for one year after treatment, though Shultz, who serendipitously learned her recipient was an Israeli woman named Anat, booked a flight to Israel just shy of the one-year mark. When they finally met, Shultz recalls, "I felt this instant connection to her." Their meeting took place on Anat's 29th birthday, a day she nearly did not live to see.

On matters of life and death, Shultz grows sober, recounting the murder of her relatives during the Holocaust. Two years ago, Shultz participated in the March of the Living with her grandfather, an octogenarian who was liberated from Bergen-Belsen but spent much of World War II working in labor camps.

Several times, Shultz repeats words like "inspiration" and "pride" to describe him, and to describe her grandmother, who escaped a Nazi death march and survived the war. "I look at all four of my grandparents, and think of what they and their families have gone through, and what fortunate and unfortunate circumstances have brought to me where I am now. I think anyone who takes their Judaism for granted, it's like a slap in the face for all our ancestors," she says.

"A lot of people, she adds, "don't realize what a miracle their Judaism is… I'm aware of that all the time."

-- Text by E.B. Solomont / Photo by Sam Norval


This is part of our Nov/Dec 2007 issue. More specifically, this article is part of our 2007 Six Who Matter series.
posted by Korieh | 11:06 AM | Link | |
The Essayist: My Life Among the Undead



This is part of our Nov/Dec 2007 issue.

To drool or not to drool. That is the question.

My parents have a new shtick when I visit home. Usually it begins on Shabbat afternoons, after the lunch guests have migrated to the overstuffed velveteen couches to sip tea and swap bulletins on the latest outrages of international anti-Semitism and local community politics. In between rounds of the inevitable, prolonged Ahmedinejad-Haman-Hitler parallel, my dad will come out with his favorite piece of news.

"Did you hear? My son, the yeshiva bochur, is in a porn movie."

"Dad, please. It's not porn."

"Excuse me. 'Adult Entertainment.'"

"Dad. We talked about this. It's a movie based upon Rhinoceros, the famous avant-garde play by Eugene Ionesco, the noted French-Romanian absurdist. Anyone? No? Well anyway, it's a trenchant metaphor for the creeping fascism of our times. Very topical."

"Tell them who the star is."

"No."

"It's Jenna Jameson."

"Who?" asks one of the kindly, pallid rabbinic educators who regularly rotate in from up North.

"Jenna Jameson. She's a well-known porn star."

I have to give my father some props here; just admitting this kind of knowledge no doubt gets you put on some sort of synagogue blacklist.

"Well, I think at this stage in her career 'star' is a bit of a stretch. But I promise you Dad, it's not porn."

"Ok. So what's the name of the movie?"

I pretend not to hear. He is not to be put off, however. This is his favorite part.

"Go on, tell them."

"Tell them what?"

"The name of the movie."

"Oh. Is this danse macabre really necessary, father?"

"Go on."

"Fine ... it's Zombie Strippers. But seriously -- did I mention Rhinoceros?"
It may be hard to imagine, given this level of Hollywood success, but I am not really an actor. Nor am I, any longer, a yeshiva bochur. And to answer the rabbi's inevitable quip ("Nu, so were you a zombie or a stripper?") I was not a stripper. In fact, when not faking knowledge of French absurdists, my job is selling things to dentists. So you might say I have a workaday knowledge of horror, but not one that would really prepare you for the big screen.

The zombie gig came the same way most completely unqualified people get anything -- via dumb luck and connections. In this case a cousin, who after placing third in the Miss Israel Aerobics competition, moved from Tel Aviv to LA to break into "the industry", and somehow ended up as queen of the ironic B-horror genre. We have provided each other couch space over the years, commiserating as she toiled in the fame mines while I hustled through the world of gingiva, so when she hit it big with the unlikeliest of scripts, I was kindly offered a part in the movie. It just happened to be shooting the day after a large dental convention in suburban LA (actual and disturbingly popular lecture topic: "Maximum Cumulative Doses of Sedation Medications for In-Office Use"), so I extended my stay and took my chances.

I should say at this point that the whole stripper/porn thing did indeed give me pause. Not that I'm against it in theory, you understand. Personal enterprise is what makes this country great, so if some entrepreneurial young college girls feel that the local nudity market is being underserved, well, gezunteheit. But the thought of paying for that kind of service is so existentially depressing that I have actually managed never to see a professional naked person. Which makes me unpopular at bachelor parties, but still, it's a streak. Also, my hometown Orthodox community is small and still somewhat Southern, the kind of place where everyone feels free to sit on the porch and discuss my personal habits and lifestyle choices. Did I want to risk providing this level of ammunition to the neighbors and teachers who always knew I'd turn out no good? Perhaps even end up as a cautionary tale in a local High Holiday sermon?

Of course I did. Could I really have lived as the guy who turned down a role in a zombie stripper film? I mean, people go their whole lives doing Ibsen and Sartre in grim community playhouses fantasizing about being in a schlocky naked gorefest like this. And since this was a real movie, distributed by a real big movie company (not porn!) any nudity one happened to stumble upon would be in the service of Art, not paying the rent, right? Did I mention Rhinoceros?

So ultimately, I did exactly what you would do and fled the dental convention early one summer morning to arrive on set, an eerie abandoned hospital in the heart of East LA. I knew that "extras" don't get the same kind of respect as professional artistes like, say, Jenna Jameson, so I didn't waste time preparing a speech thanking the Academy. Nonetheless, the previous night there may have been a few hours spent in front of the mirror practicing eye-twitches and delicate moans, imagining the tortured, nuanced performance I would bring to the role of Freidrich, the undead Viennese med-school student who foolishly volunteered for a secret U.S. government scientific program which tragically took his life before turning him into a monster.

When I got there the assistant director gathered all the zombies in a fluorescent-lit, green-tiled morgue with blood-spattered walls to lay out the rules.

"One: In this movie, zombies are scenery. Not actors. So when I say 'all actors to set' you don't do anything. Just stay where you are. When I say 'zombies to set', you get your ass to the set. Quick. When I say 'zombies twitch, you twitch. 'Zombies drool,' you drool. That's it. But no lazy, half-assed twitching. I want you to mean it. Freak me out.

Two: When they call lunch, you don't get lunch. You wait until the actors are finished and then -- and only then -- you can hit the catering truck.

Three: Stay away from the strippers.

Four: Try not to bleed on the walls. We have to pay for cleanup.

Five: Don't forget what I said about the catering truck. Got it? Now, go to makeup."

So the "scenery" went to makeup. Unfortunately, my shtetl physique made for a very sensitive zombie. Fake zombies, in case you only know real ones, require full eyeball-sized contact lenses seemingly made out of ping-pong balls to look properly dead-eyed. As any normal human should, I have a horrific fear of any eyeball manipulation or insertions, especially the kind that require sanding and hourly top-up lubrication due to their enormous size and industrial manufacture. So after some quick discussions between the producers and the prop team, and I must say a good deal of rather unkind gesturing towards me, I was summarily downgraded from a Stage 3 zombie (fully zombified; able to zombify others, frequently sporting gruesome disfigurements) past a Stage 2 (clearly undead and nicely ripening into zombiehood, yet with some humanoid qualities remaining), straight to a lowly Stage 1 (barely undead; theoretically able to pass on the zombie virus but doubtful in practice; merely queasy-looking, or in the words of t
he clearly irked makeup guy "kind of like an accountant reacting to bad shellfish"). After that it was a quick trip to the plastic room to be doused in blood, and then over to the set.

Eighteen hours and innumerable lurchings, droolings, faux viscera-gnawings and blood refills later, it was over. Yet, because of the magic of the movies, the only person who really got hurt was the unsuspecting Mexican cleaning lady who drove by and seemed to have an involuntary bowel movement on the seat of her '94 Hyundai when Phillips, an especially gory Stage 3, collapsed right onto her windshield as part of an immature hitchhiking prank.

Ultimately, despite my best efforts, it turned out to be a very modest and respectable affair, at least the day I was there. The zombies were kept away from all nudity and Jenna, although in one scene I did get shot by Robert Englund (of Freddy Krueger fame). I didn't even get to go to the cast party or get my name on IMDB.com. But I got paid to drool all day and it was absolutely worth selling my morals and reputation down the river.

In fact, my only real regret is that I was not pulled over by the police on the way home, covered in dried blood and flecks of brain. Officer, I didn't do anything, I swear. It was just a movie. A porn movie. You can ask my dad.

-- Text by Matthew Leader

This is part of our Nov/Dec 2007 issue.
posted by Korieh | 11:04 AM | Link | |
Totally Random Book Excerpt



This is part of our Nov/Dec 2007 issue.

One paragraph from "The Blue Team," a short story by Joshua Braff, from the new collection: How To Spell Chanukah ... and Other Holiday Dilemmas: 18 Writers Celebrate 8 Nights of Lights.

As a ferociously reluctant yeshiva boy in the 1970s, I thought that Chanukah was without a doubt the most joyous time of the year. Unlike the four hundred and twelve other Jewish holidays that surround it on the Hebrew calendar, the festival of lights used to arrive like a life raft of optimism for any of us who felt Judaism had been crammed down our throats. And yes, of course, it, too, is a holiday that recalls an incident in which a mighty king decided that the Jews of the time where having too much luck or fun or prosperity. And yes, of course, this resulted in mass bloodshed throughout the streets of Judea. But unlike Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah, it was always made clear that the story behind Chanukah held relatively little significance. And I always appreciated that. It was about a guy named Judah Maccabaeus and his four brothers and how they rebelled against King Antiochus because he ordered the chosen people to reject God and all their Jewish customs. After three years of gorging each other with spears and swords, the Maccabees won the war and the Syrians were forced out of Judea, which would become Israel. Judah and the boys reclaimed the Temple in Jerusalem and were granted a miracle of eight days of light from only one day's worth of oil. The result of this miracle for me was that my horrific school was closed for a week, a mountain of gift-wrapped boxes formed in my living room, Rudolph and Santa Claus were both on TV in Claymation form, and not once did anyone tell me to fast. Even my Moroccan-born yeshiva teachers were in good moods, showing us their tobacco-stained smiles for the first time since Purim.

-- Text by Joshua Braff

This is part of our Nov/Dec 2007 issue.
posted by Korieh | 11:02 AM | Link | |
The Bookshelf: Sex, Lies and Shoplifting



This is part of our Nov/Dec 2007 issue.

Shalom Auslander's twisted new memoir tells the tale of a God-fearing yeshiva boy with a vendetta against the Almighty.

In the beginning, the name of a child represents not so much the child himself, but the hope of his parents. As the child grows, he might grow into the significance of that name, or spend his life running from it. Shalom Auslander was named for a peace that his parents hoped to find after the death of one child and the deafness of another. But Auslander's memoir, Foreskin's Lament, illustrates that, sometimes, peace of mind is just not in the cards.

Auslander's narrative is both shocking and familiar, especially to those of us who graduated from yeshiva day schools. We, too, struggled to translate tradition's archaic foibles into contemporary resonance; attempted to integrate individuality into a blindingly black-and-white context of sameness; and looked everywhere for peace of mind and spirit. His description of "Holocaust fatigue" - a condition experienced by yeshiva kids exposed to graphic images perhaps earlier than is emotionally optimal - is particularly spot on, as is how he illustrates the inefficacy of parental invocation of the Holocaust as justification for contemporary observance. Our generation feels the Holocaust keenly as part of our history, but its existence doesn't necessarily mobilize us for action or infuse tradition with meaning: it creates guilt, and if you're already prone to God-fearing, anxiety about a horrific repeat.

"It is my job as a man to get to know God," Auslander proclaims at a book reading in Manhattan the night before his international book tour begins. "This is the book I wrote about Him." The author shares his yearning for the peace of atheism, which he is unable to attain. "I do believe in God," he sighs, "but 'believe' sounds positive. I'm more 'terrified'. I would kill for [atheist Richard] Dawkins' certainty, so I could sleep for just one night." In print, Auslander is relentlessly dark, in a way that may obscure the acute humor of his observations. But in person, in some moments, he breaks character from that of his narrator, loosens his demeanor slightly, permitting half-smiles and even a few chuckles to infiltrate his otherwise serious game face.

His family relationship is strained, or as the author explains, "My family and I are like oil and water, if oil made water depressed and angry and want to kill itself." When a classmate's father dies, Shalom muses about what kinds of sins the kid had committed to make his father die, wondering if he could pull off the same trick. He becomes preoccupied with sex, uncovering troves of pornography and inventing an imaginary girlfriend. He struggles with unkosher temptations, from a poolside Slim Jim to an encounter with a prostitute. He shoplifts; first non-kosher candy, then cassette tapes and clothing, which eventually gets him arrested. In an Israeli yeshiva-as-community-service, he's split on the life-and-death power of the Western Wall, but knows that if he doesn't shove notes into the wall's crevices, he will be responsible for the death of his ailing grandmother. And throughout, he's fully aware that whatever happens to him as a result of these transgressions is the work of what he dubs God's "Department of Ironic Punishmentation" (the DIP): "I rode my bike to the nearby convenience mart, bought a couple of Moon Pies, and rode back, terrified the whole way that I would get hit by a car, die, and my mother would find them in my pocket. That would be so God."

Ideally, I'd sit at a cafe with Auslander and ask about what it's like to live with the anger, the paranoia, the paralysis and fear that must accompany theistic certainty: there is a God, He is powerful, and He's definitely out to get you. But this book tour is ruining my plan. Coffee with the God-terrified author is off the table. Instead, I stare at shalomauslander.com; the image of a padded cell greets me and I get lost in its perfectly spaced creases. The white cushioned walls remind me of madness and marshmallows, a pair that for Orthodox kids, is linked by the menacing, yet temptingly evil, gelatin. I stare at the author's photo, and he glares back at me, like Orson Welles warning me of an impending alien invasion. I feel his paranoia pass osmotically into the cells in my blood most likely to boil at Talmudic discussions that don't seem to have any bearing on a modern life.

The audience at the book reading I attend is a sea of familiar, familial faces - many yeshiva refugees themselves. They're here because they understand: just because you're paranoid doesn't mean God's not out to get you for catching up on TiVo on Shabbat. And also, maybe because if Auslander mocks God, we don't have to vocalize our own doubts and fears: we can just say "Amen."

Foreskin's Lament shares a titular phonic symmetry with Portnoy's Complaint, with that kvetchiness warning that the book, a text immersed in the culture and concerns of the teenage boy who-would-be-man in an oppressive family, is not likely to be adapted by Disney. The obsession with all things forbidden and the pornography-obsessed, self-deprecating yeshiva boy's pursuit of sexual self-gratification is stark - like a version of Superbad that doesn't roll on Shabbos. (At least not without guilt, a secret taxicab, and Talmudic loopholes.)

Can you ever trust a memoir to convey a stenographer-style truth, or is it always tainted by guilt, hindsight and senility? Perhaps the best you can say about any memoir is that it is vivid, and feels intensely true. The book, itself an unusually informal yet intensive treatise on the intent, character and nature of God and on divine involvement in human history, contains conversations from a lifetime of conflict, challenging authority and tradition. Whether or not the conversations are fact or memory, the dialogue is rendered without quotation marks, with a long dash heralding a new speaker. It seems like Auslander, throughout, is telling us: This is what happened, but don't quote me on it.

If there's any proof of God's occasional benevolence, it might just be the miracle of Auslander having found his wife, Orli, a kindred - or at least complementary - spirit, who with her very name ("I have light") brings some illumination and hope to the boy named after peace. But any reader of Foreskin's Lament would understand that Auslander sees apparent miracles as setups for some ironic, tragic twist courtesy of "the DIP."

Despite Auslander's apparent desire to distance himself from his parents and constant fears that all his happiness will be stripped from him by an angry and vengeful (or possibly just bored) deity, he and Orli named their son Paix. But in this name, essentially a variant of the same sentiment Shalom's parents had when they named him, there is perhaps, a vague hope amidst the doom and gloom. Or perhaps the symmetry between the father's name and his son is a calculated irony.

But the readers will be patient. We'll find out someday, even if it takes two decades. When Paix Auslander goes on tour to promote his memoir, we'll be in the first row at Barnes and Noble.

-- Text by Esther D. Kustanowitz

This is part of our Nov/Dec 2007 issue.
posted by Korieh | 11:01 AM | Link | |
Musical Notes: Ari Gold and the AJL CD Reviews



This is part of our Nov/Dec 2007 issue.

Entourage's Ari Gold may be a big shot Hollywood agent, but Ari Gold from the Bronx is something even rarer: A gay Jewish R&B artist. Gold, who has been professionally singing since he was six years old (he was "discovered" while singing at his brother's bar mitzvah), specializes in sexy, sensuous rhythm and blues that only happens to be directed to another man. Which is to say, there's nothing shticky about his music.

Mainstream R&B artists seem to notice Gold's commitment to the music. On his latest album, Transport Systems, he collaborates with Sasha Allen (a winner of VH1's Born to Diva) on his single "Where the Music Takes You," and rapper Mr. Man on "Human." "I don't believe the entire hip-hop community is homophobic, and certainly not the whole R&B community," Gold explains. "Two artists can come together to make music, it doesn't matter."

Unfortunately, that open-mindedness hasn't translated to a record label signing him. Gold says that labels have shied away from hiring a Jewish homosexual R&B artist. Some of those label heads, Gold says, were gay themselves. "They said they'd make me a star if I went into the closet. I fought with a lot of them and ultimately decided that I couldn't work with them," Gold explains. "I have to be who I am."


The AJL CD Reviews:

Dan Kaufman: Force of Light
Tova Reich's My Holocaust book is an announcement of sorts for Holocaust studies — it's the moment that satire and concentration camps can come together and be considered serious writing. It's also a bit crude, especially when compared to Kaufman's Force of Light — a series of compositions of poet Paul Celan's work. Celan's poetry remains potent, powerful, feverish writing about the Shoah, and Kaufman's compositions do justice to the work. He gives them a musical echo appropriate to the poetry's style — dark, brooding, and disconnected. Listening to Kaufman is enough to make one weep.

Kosha Dillz: Israeli Independence Week
Once upon a time, Jewish artists attempting to do rap music would steal beats, borrow rhythms, and deepen their voices in humiliating attempts to copy real hip-hop artists. But now there is a new breed of Jewish hip-hop artists. Kosha Dillz, along with Y-Love, DJ Balagan, and others, are firmly committed to the spirit of hip-hop. They release mix tapes long before albums hit the street, they tour to the middle of nowhere, and they plan crunk tours into the deep South. Israeli Independence Week, complete with Photoshop quality cover art, has D.I.Y. written all over it. And hey, the music ain’t bad either.

New Found Glory: From The Screen To Your Stereo Part 2
4/6th of New Found Glory are Jewish boys from Florida, which apparently justified their nomination for Best Jewish Punk in the First Annual Jewish Music Awards. It's likely, though, that the most Jewish thing about the band is their hyper-kinetic, fast-talking pop-punk. Shame that FTSTYSP2 (don’t make me type the whole title out again) eschews punk themes for cinematic ones — the songs are all covers of 80s and 90s movie theme songs. It's a bit of a sell-out, which might make the band that most hackneyed of Jewish stereotypes: Capitalists.

Out of Babylon: The Music of Baghdadi-Jewish Migrations into Asia and Beyond
Against the backdrop of the Iraq war, an album chronicling the liturgy and psalms of the Iraqi Jewish Diaspora seems very contemporary. It’s a credit to the label, Celestial Harmonies, that it never devolves into a political statement, or a social protest. It remains a document of history: 43 tracks, recorded roughly in a way that submits authenticity. Low-key and understated, the album’s most potent statement is the one it never announces outright. The title comes from the 137th psalm, "By the Rivers of Babylon," only in variation. It’s a classic Diaspora tale — abandonment of years of history. Exile in the face of war.

Rooftop Roots: A JDub Mixtape Volume III
Despite their firm commitment not to provide this reviewer with review copies (ahem), JDub remains a player worth paying attention to in the ever-expanding field of Jewish music. Rooftop Roots is a compilation that features older JDub artists (Golem, Balkan Beat Box) next to brand new properties (Soulico), next to what can only be described as MySpace babies. The best of this last group is For My Baby Brother's "The Wailing Wall," which sounds like a religious Jeffrey Lewis. Alicia Jo Rabin's "Bat Yiftach" treads a bit too close to Joanna Newsom for comfort, and Sagol 59 hip--hop "Lech Kadima" has a beat too simple to recommend, and a flow that shows signs for growth, but lacks distinction at the moment. JDub's Jewish scene is one composed of New York Jewish hipsters, one well--represented on this mixtape. Too bad it never really leaves Williamsburg.

Shawn Fogel: One Day In The Desert
Is Shawn Fogel the Jewish Conor Oberst? His EP, One Day in the Desert, certainly makes a case for that conclusion. Over a folk-country beat, he sings lyrics swiped from the Bob Dylan songbook, on opener "The Season I Love Best": "My lungs don't breath the air, they whisper stories never told / The cracking of my knuckles are the marching drums of war." Articulate folk-rock Jew? Gasp. Who's ever heard of such a thing?

-- Text by Mordechai Shinefield

This is part of our Nov/Dec 2007 issue.
posted by Korieh | 11:00 AM | Link | |
Culinary Corner: Green Cuisine



This is part of our Nov/Dec 2007 issue.

One girl's adventures in eco-kashrut.

Like most of my fashionable 20-something friends, I like to consider myself pretty green. I don't compost or anything weird like that, but I use organic cleaning products, and I have those light bulbs that conserve energy. Then the time came when I kept hearing people talk about eco-kashrut, and how it changed their lives and how I should totally embrace it. Yeah, I know about Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi coining the phrase in the 1970s. I also know about Arthur Waskow's book Down to Earth Judaism, where he talked about how Jews should integrate ideas like water conservation and recycling into their lives. But when a Jewish girl isn't sure about something, she has one good way to get answers. I called my mom.

My mom thinks that people who restrict their food options in any way, unless they're allergic to something, are deliberately making their lives more difficult. Growing up Presbyterian, she sees two sinks and two ovens not as ways to keep food separate but as more stuff to clean. When I tried to explain eco-kashrut to her, she wanted none of it. "So you don't just have to eat kosher food, you have to make sure it's organic too? Why go to all that trouble if you don't have to?" She made a good point. And yet the idea of eco-kashrut, living in harmony with both nature Judaism, sounded appealing to me. After all, I once did a book report on "50 Things Kids Can Do to Save the Earth." The hippie ideal wouldn't die for me just because my mom thought it was inconvenient.

Then I turned to the experts. I talked to Leah Koenig, who works for the Jewish environmental group Hazon and blogs at The Jew and the Carrot. "I would have bought your mom's argument 20 years ago," she said, "but now, it's so much easier to join a food co-op or even order food online." Koenig calls herself "a pluralistic eater." Though she's a longtime vegetarian, she thinks it's more important to teach people about how eating meat contributes to global warming than it is to just tell them to stop eating it.

Koenig made good points, and her life didn't seem more complicated because of her eating habits. After I talked to her, I called Shamu Sadeh, Director of the Adamah Fellowship at the Isabella Friedman Center in Connecticut. For Sadeh, eco-kashrut is not just about food, but about acknowledging the role that food plays in our existence. He believes in cultivating gratitude, humility, and respect as well as nourishing our physical bodies. I told him about my mom. He responded, "Food is not a logistical challenge. It is a great joy."

It was then that I thought about the component of eco-kashrut I had been missing out on. Since finishing high school, I hadn't really had big family-centric meals anymore. Growing up, my mom insisted that the whole family eat dinner together. Even though my sister and I kind of resented it, we wound up enjoying catching up on how everybody's day went. As an adult, the only time I ever got to have those big chummy meals were on holidays. All Jewish holidays involve food — can you imagine Passover without the seder, or Rosh Hashanah without apples and honey? Even Yom Kippur is about food, since it's about very pointedly not eating food. Practitioners of eco-kashrut want to make that feeling of connectedness last all the time, and how could I fault them for that? Sadeh agreed, noting, "I believe there is a desire among many Jews, especially young Jews, to make Judaism more relevant." What's more relevant than food, something we interact with a minimum of three times a day?

The thing I heard most often from devotees was that eco-kashrut was "a way of life." They didn't just tell me about changing the way they ate; they talked about growing vegetables in window boxes in filthy apartments in Queens and rewiring their toilets to use less water. Being competitive by nature, I wanted to be as hardcore green as these people. I had fantasies of going vegan and only wearing secondhand clothes and only using one square of toilet paper every time I went to the bathroom. But I remembered something else my mom used to tell me: "Life is not a contest." She was right. My interest in eco-kashrut needed to come from some place pure, not just from wanting to be a bigger hippie than all my friends.

A month after reading everything I could find about eco-kashrut, where am I? I make a point to buy locally grown vegetables. And you know what? They taste better. But I'm not ready to rewire my toilet just yet. And I think God is cool with that.

-- Text by Lilit Marcus

This is part of our Nov/Dec 2007 issue.
posted by Korieh | 10:58 AM | Link | |
Heretic of the Month: The Witch of Endor



This is part of our Nov/Dec 2007 issue.

Preferring prophesies to spells, this biblical woman made her mark.

It's well known that Biblical Israel was never as neat as Biblical text pretends. From reading our sacred texts, one might get the impression that most Israelites were pious devotees of God, visiting Jerusalem thrice yearly, and heeding the Torah's stern warnings against the religions of the Canaanites. In fact, archeological evidence has shown, there was so much mixing between the 'Canaanites' and the 'Israelites' that some scholars doubt there was a real distinction between the two. Furthermore, in ancient Israelite sites, we have found altars in high places, shrines to household deities, even syncretistic statues of 'God and his Asherah.'

Clearly, ancient Israel was home to a great diversity of religious practices, many of them connected to the earth, to spirits, and to activities which today might be regarded as witchcraft. Of course, the Bible condemns all these and more. Rarely, however, do representatives of these scorned traditions speak for themselves in Biblical text. They were some of Judaism's earliest heretics, Israelites whose beliefs differed from the incipient orthodoxy of Biblical religion, and like most heretics, their words are not well preserved.

Except one: the witch of Endor.

Today, the word "Endor" is familiar only to Star Wars fans who know it as the home of the Ewoks. But Ein-Dor was also, apparently, a location in ancient Israel, and the home of a soothsayer consulted by King Saul before his fateful last battle with the Philistines. The setting is desperate: Saul has already learned that he has displeased God by failing to annihilate the Amalekites, and he knows that he is soon to be cast aside in favor of David. Now (in chapter 28 of the first book of Samuel), Saul is about to face the huge Philistine army, and God has stopped answering him. The prophet Samuel is dead, and, the Bible records, neither dreams nor prophets conveyed any message from the Divine.

In desperation, Saul violates his own edict against soothsayers by going to visit "a woman who consults ghosts" (as rendered in the JPS translation) and demanding that she raise the ghost of Samuel from the dead. At first, the woman demurs, citing the ban, but Saul insists, and -- after recognizing the disguised king for who he truly is - the "witch of Endor" conjures Samuel's ghost, who appears as an old man in a white robe, rising up from the ground.

The news is very bad: Samuel angrily confirms that Saul and his sons are about to die, and that the Philistines are about to defeat the Israelites. Anguished, Saul falls to the ground, and is only barely consoled by the witch, who gives him a meal and sends him on his way.

What do we learn from this encounter? The Biblical narrative is clearly more interested in the narrative of Saul than the character of the witch of Endor; she is a bit player in larger story. But we can discern a few aspects of her character and beliefs.

First, obviously, she is a woman -- one of the only women in a prophetic role in the whole of the Bible. Moreover, it was understood that women, not men, "consulted ghosts" in this way; Saul specifically asks to see a woman.

This conforms to a widespread pattern in world religions, in which men run public religion, but women maintain private, often marginalized, religious pieties -- and heresies -- far from official institutions. Scholar Susan Sered has written of how women in Sephardic communities still maintain this role today, keeping alive traditions of saint-veneration and magic that are scorned by mainstream religious authorities, and many of us have bubbes who maintain old "superstitions," like whispering kein ayin hora when they hear good news.

Second, the witch of Endor is connected to the earth. When she conjures Samuel, she says she sees "God coming up from the land." Some commentators explain that the pagan witch, confused by what she sees, calls Samuel's ghost a "god"; others translate the word as a "Divine being." But in non-normative Israelite religion, there may be little difference. The world is full of spirits, all are manifestations of God, and all are connected to nature and its energies. Real religion is location-specific; God in the tree appears different from God in the ground and God in the sky; and God in one place has different apparent characteristics from God in another. This is how we ended up with a "Holy Land" in the first place. It's only when it's abstracted into philosophical theology that religion loses touch with the energies of the earth.

Finally, the witch is, in the end, an agent of God. Today we might see soothsayers as charlatans, only in it for the money, and the best business is in providing prophecies which people want to hear. But the witch of Endor is a conjurer, not a saleswoman, and she (or the spirit she consults) tells what is true, not what is pleasing. Saul desperately wanted a message from God, so desperately that he violated his own law to get it. Well, he got one, but as Jack Nicholson would later say, he can't handle the truth.

Or maybe Saul had hoped that this non-normative prophetess would convey a different message from the one he already knew, perhaps even a message from a different god — kind of a Biblical version of asking mommy when you don't like daddy's answer. But this is precisely the mistake of a dogmatist: Saul assumes (or desperately hopes) that a "foreign" woman must have a different truth from the "orthodox" one. But actually, it's all the same truth, just accessed in different ways.

There is one difference, though, between the witch and the prophets: the witch of Endor provides comfort. After the judgment is delivered, she insists that Saul stay, eat, and gather what strength he can. Really, what else can one do in such a situation? There's no sugarcoating the unambiguous and dark prophecy of Samuel — but there remains the possibility of human comfort. (Some scholars believe the meal was actually part of a pagan rite, but the text does not suggest this.) Perhaps this is the biggest difference between the witch of Endor's religion and that of the prophets of Israel.

These are only hints; one chapter in the book of Samuel is not an ethnographic study, and is the classic case of one religious tradition representing, and thus likely misrepresenting, another. But it does offer a tantalizing glimpse into a religious world that was far more varied, magical, and, yes, strange than the literal Bible suggests.

NEXT HERETIC: From the pagans of the ancient world to the beats of the 20th century, we turn to Allen Ginsberg, the poet laureate of the liberated self.

***
Previous heretics include: Shabbetai Tzvi, Jacob Frank, Baruch Spinoza, Joseph Rabinovitch, and Anan Ben-David.

-- Text by Jay Michaelson / Photo courtesy of Encyclopedia Judaica

This is part of our Nov/Dec 2007 issue.
posted by Korieh | 10:55 AM | Link | |
The Jewish Paparazzi: Busiest Jewish Actor of the Month



This is part of our Nov/Dec 2007 issue.

Shows about lawyers are nothing new, but the midseason Fox drama Canterbury's Law has a distinction that sets it apart: both leads are Jewish. Julianna Margulies (ER) plays a rule-bending attorney named Liz Canterbury and Ben Shenkman (Angels in America), her colleague and voice of reason, named Russell Cross in the pilot "but they told me they might change it to Bloom," the 39-year-old actor notes.

He views the character as "a decent, standup guy ... who feels tremendous admiration for and loyalty to Liz. There's an underlying respect in the relationship that I really liked, a kind of intimacy in the way they fight. It's like a professional marriage. They're dependent on one another to some degree and they also bump against one another in their approach."

Being able to work in New York (standing in for Providence) was a plus for Shenkman, who remained in the city after NYU drama school. He'd been raised to appreciate theater but not as an observant Jew and did not have a bar mitzvah. "I was raised in the secular Eastern European Jewish tradition," he notes, underlining, "My Jewish identity is important to me."

Shenkman has several independent films awaiting release including Americanese, The Key Man, "a Coen Brothers-esque comedy about an insurance scam," Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (directed by The Office's John Krasinski), and Breakfast With Scott, about a gay couple "who temporarily inherit custody of a sissy-ish kid and have to deal with everything that brings up in their own identity." He also plays Helen Hunt's brother in When She Found Me, Hunt's directorial debut. It's due out in the spring.

-- Text by Gerri Miller

This is part of our Nov/Dec 2007 issue.
posted by Korieh | 10:54 AM | Link | |
The Jewish Paparazzi: Retired, or the Wizard of Oz?



This is part of our Nov/Dec 2007 issue.

After 40-plus years and a resume of classics like Jaws, Close Encounters, and The Goodbye Girl, for which he won an Oscar, Richard Dreyfuss is done with Hollywood — unless it makes him an offer he can't refuse. "I don't read scripts or seek out work anymore. I always said to myself that I would stop acting in my fifties and go into politics and teach history and it's a promise I've kept," says Dreyfuss, now 60 and working as a researcher, helping instructors at Oxford to develop a civics curriculum. "I'm trying to bring civics back to the public school system in the United States. I love the atmosphere of that [academic] world. I have a Mister Chips fantasy," he confides. "I'm the guy who never went to college, but is always trying to prove that he did."

But if the paycheck is hefty enough, Dreyfuss cheerfully admits he can be bought. In early December, he'll appear alongside Zooey Deschanel, Neal McDonough, and Alan Cumming in Tin Man, the SciFi Channel's trippy version of a familiar classic. "It's The Wizard of Oz in space. I play the mighty lotus-addicted wizard, Mystic Man. The idea of playing the Wizard of Oz is fun, and they offered me a good salary, so why not? So much for being retired."

Indeed, Dreyfuss may do another film this fall, "a drama-comedy about a tasteless, graceless bookie," but insists that movies take a backseat to his educational endeavors. "The Oscar, none of those things were important. I'm going for the Nobel," he says. "I'd rather have it said, 'He died trying to help.'"

-- Text by Gerri Miller

This is part of our Nov/Dec 2007 issue.
posted by Korieh | 10:52 AM | Link | |
30 Second Sermon



This is part of our Nov/Dec 2007 issue.

In most households across the world, each person lights their own Chanukah menorah corresponding to the night that it is.

For example, on the third night, every member would light three candles. In truth, though, there are three levels in lighting the menorah. The basic way is where the head of the house lights one candle each night for his whole household. The second level is where each person in the household lights one candle each night. The third level, the ideal way, is where each person in the household lights according to the night that it is. Why specifically concerning the lights of the menorah is there a concept of an "ideal way"?

As with all things Jewish, we can answer one question with another. What was the reason for the Greeks' decree of forbidding the Jews from performing the Temple service, specifically the lighting of the menorah? This decree against the Jews was divine punishment due to the fact that the Jewish people were negligent in performing the service of lighting the menorah.

We see from this that when we are lazy and negligent in doing a mitzvah, then it's possible we'll lose the opportunity to perform that mitzvah. Concerning Chanukah, therefore, we have the concept of an "ideal way" to rectify our past negligence in this mitzvah.

This provides us with an important lesson. As the famous adage goes, "If you don't use it, you lose it." If you don't take care of something it will eventually be lost. For example, if you don't nurture a plant and attend to it, it will wither and die. All the more so this is true for spiritual matters such as God's commandments. If we don't invest time and energy, we cannot expect our desire to do the will of God to last. If, on the other hand, we constantly and consistently infuse within these mitzvot our fullest strength and effort, then we can expect them to be sustained and remain meaningful to us for a long time to come.

-- Text by Rabbi Ezra Cohen / Photo by Sam Norval

This is part of our Nov/Dec 2007 issue.
posted by Korieh | 10:49 AM | Link | |
The Jew S. of A.



This is part of our Nov/Dec 2007 issue.

PBS documentary explores the history of the Jewish community in America.

What does it mean to be Jewish in America? Peabody and Emmy Award winning filmmaker David Grubin aims to answer that question in a three-part, six hour documentary airing on PBS stations in January. Narrated by Liev Schreiber, The Jewish Americans depicts "how a tiny minority embraced the American dream and made their way into the mainstream of American life, though America hasn't always embraced them, and we trace that story over 350 years," explains Grubin. "It's a quintessentially American story with all the tensions between adaptation and identity that other minorities will find very familiar."

To prepare, "We worked with more than 250 archives, brought in 10,000 photographs and looked at about 150 hours of film, and did over 100 interviews," about 85 of which made it into the film, continues Grubin, who included both celebrities (Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Steven Spielberg, Carl Reiner, Tony Kushner, Mandy Patinkin, Matisyahu) and civilians, like a descendant of pioneer Anna Solomon.

Most people, says Grubin, "don't realize the Jews first came here in 1654 and were participating in American life, went west to Dodge City or Tombstone, and lived in the south and had slaves. The series shows all sides of the Jewish experience, warts and all."

Aiming for thematic representation more than "a Hall of Fame of great Jews," he chose to explore anti-Semitism via stories about Jewish G.I.s and lynched scapegoat Leo Frank, cover the American Dream through composer Irving Berlin, Miss America Bess Myerson, and Superman comic creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, and "show the extraordinary diversity and vitality in Jewish life today" via rabbis representing all branches of Judaism. "I wanted that because it's about how Jews adapted their religion to America," notes Grubin, for whom it was also important to include the civil rights movement and the Holocaust from a Jewish-American perspective.

Overall, "The theme that kept coming up was how most Jews want to be American. They want to be a part of America, but they hold onto their Jewish identity, whatever that identity is. It could be ethnic. It could be religious. But they want to maintain that identity."

That's certainly the case with interviewee Carl Reiner, who considers himself "an atheist Jew. I'm very Jewish. We eat Jewish, we talk Jewish, we have a Passover seder. There's no religious connotation to it but there's a historic one," he says. Similarly, Grubin identifies as a secular Jew. "One thing I learned from this film is there are a lot of ways of being Jewish," he says, "and my way was making this film."

The Jewish Americans will air on Jan. 14-16 on most PBS stations nationwide and will then be immediately available on a two-disc DVD set with extras including some expanded sequences and deleted scenes.

-- Text by Gerri Miller

This is part of our Nov/Dec 2007 issue.
posted by Korieh | 10:47 AM | Link | |
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