Jewschool: December Without Drama

Originally published on Jewschool.

Interfaith CardsLast year, the Jewish community fell all over itself to merchandise the intersection of Hanukkah and Thanksgiving, but we all know that outside this special exception, the organized community tends to look down at the mixing of Jewish holidays and those of other faiths. Alexis Gewertz and Chelsea Scudder, two New Englanders from interfaith backgrounds with divinity school educations, aim to change that. They are the creators of Happy Challadays, a new line of greeting cards for those looking to celebrate the holidays without the drama of the “December Dilemma.”

The idea grew out of Alexis’s own experience as both the daughter of an interfaith marriage and as the Jewish partner in a Jewish-Catholic relationship. “It was a Christmas home growing up,” she told me, “but we started celebrating Hanukkah when my parents got divorced. My mom wanted to send me Christmas cards because we really do celebrate with both families, but she spends the whole year searching for interfaith cards that she can send to me and [my partner] Steve together. In the past she’s found maybe three really awesome ones.”

It turns out, greeting cards are sort of a passion for Alexis. “I love capturing my thoughts and the vibe of the moment when I’m writing a card and putting it in the mail,” she said, “knowing that a few days later, whenever the recipients check the mail, they’re going to get this message. These days people are used to getting email instantly. I love with cards the old-school mystery of ‘is it going to take one day or three days?’ not knowing at what point they’re going to check that mail. I love getting cards because I love knowing that someone is thinking about me, and I feel that connection across the miles in a way that isn’t the same with virtual connections.” Continue reading

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Jewschool: Meet the Man Behind The Men of the Naughty Jewish Boys Calendar

Originally published on Jewschool.

Naughty Jewish Boys CalendarLast February, I shared a link right here on Jewschool to a Craigslist ad advertising for models for a “Naughty Jewish Boys” calendar. I was so tickled by the idea when I saw it on my friend Duncan Pflaster‘s Facebook page, I didn’t even realize that he had posted the ad – or that the Jewschool post would bring it widespread Jewish media attention. Fast forward five months, and the calendar is a real thing that exists in the world in two versions: the regular and extra-naughty editions. I sat down with Duncan this week to chat about his adventures in putting these calendars together.

Naturally, the first thing I wanted to know about was what kind of controversy the calendar had generated. Duncan’s run-ins with the creator of the Nice Jewish Guys calendar have been well documented elsewhere, but I had to know: were religious people offended at the images of nearly-naked men with ritual objects? Were liberals offended at a non-Jewish photographer eroticizing or even fetishizing Jewish men? Nope. “Most everybody has thought it’s been a fantastic idea,” he told me, “Especially the Jewish press.” While he did have a couple of people get upset over eroticizing Judaism, the more common response has been from women saying “it’s incredible. Thank you so much for doing this.” Continue reading

Keshet: Life After Love: Cher & Jewish Mourning Rituals

Originally published on Keshet’s blog on MyJewishLearning.com.

David & his parents, marching with Keshet at Boston Pride in 2009.In October 2013, when I bought my tickets to see Cher’s Dressed to Kill tour, which would be playing down the street from my house in the then-distant future of May 2014, my mother asked with mock hurt in her voice why I hadn’t invited her to see the show with me.

At the time, I thought it was a bit of a ridiculous request. Although my mother had taken me to my earliest concerts in my pre-teen days, I couldn’t really envision her enjoying a stadium show at age 67. I imagined the show would be unbearably loud for her, and over the last couple of years, her health had slipped, and she just seemed too frail for that kind of environment. Plus, what interest did my mom have in the electronic dance diva that Cher has become in the most recent evolution of her career?  Continue reading

Jewschool: Handle With Care: A Jewish Play Born From An Interfaith Marriage

Originally published on Jewschool.

Handle With CareWhen I first skimmed the press release for Handle With Care, a play currently running off-Broadway in the theater that used to house Old Jews Telling Jokes, I thought I had the whole thing figured out in advance: a non-Jewish playwright married an Israeli actress and wrote a show for her. Simple, I thought. It must be a comedy exploring the hilarity of intermarriage, like an Abie’s Irish Rose for the Pew Report generation. I couldn’t have been more wrong. For although playwright Jason Odell Williams has written a play about love bridging disparate lives, it’s about a burgeoning love affair between an Israeli Jew and an American Jew, finding each other in the most unlikely of circumstances: their “meet cute” occurs when a delivery man loses the box containing the remains of Ayelet’s recently deceased grandmother, which he was supposed to be bringing to the airport for return to Israel. Josh, Ayelet’s love interest, is the delivery man’s only Jewish friend, so naturally he gets the call to help translate the situation to the distressed Israeli who speaks very little English.

The result is a charming romantic comedy that would be right at home on JCC stages anywhere in the country. That the play was written by someone who’s not himself Jewish (although he is part of a Jewish family) is surprising, so I was glad to have the opportunity to speak with both Williams and his wife (and star of the show) Charlotte Cohn about that play, their marriage, and working with one’s spouse. Continue reading

Jewschool: Where Hipster Brooklyn and Youth Group Nostalgia Meet

Originally published on Jewschool.com.

Sermon SlamA couple of weeks ago, an email came over the Jewschool contributors’ listserv asking if anyone wanted to cover a SermonSlam taking place in my neighborhood. As someone who has enjoyed other kinds of slams in the past (poetry, story, and grand – IHOP, not baseball), I jumped at the opportunity. I’m still something of a Brooklyn newbie, having lived here for less than a year. So I want to fully own that my preconceived notions of what a SermonSlam might be were entirely colored by an outsider’s stereotype of Brooklyn hipster culture. Now, to be fair, I have lived here almost a year—it will be a year this Shabbat—and so I have been around long enough to know that most of the stereotypes about Brooklyn hipster culture are true. And I should have been tipped off by the fact that the event was being held at Congregation Beth Elohim (known in the neighborhood as CBE), a very large Reform synagogue that often plays host to community events, many of which I have enjoyed this year.

You see what I’m getting at, right? What I had pictured as a cool, vaguely underground event, perhaps in a dark room with a stage and a bar, turning words of Torah into performance art, was in fact more like a youth group program for young adults, held in a large, well-lit synagogue social hall, with the performers relying a little more heavily on the “sermon” than the “slam.” The only drinks were of the cola variety, and the evening was padded with games straight from my synagogue youth director playbook like Jewish Geography 2.0, affably executed by hosts Ben Greenfield and Samantha Kuperberg, who themselves seemed to have arrived straight from a summer on the staff of Camp Ramah.

BUT! And this is a big BUT! (I like big BUTs and I cannot lie…) I’m pretty sure if you went in to the event with fewer or different preconceived notions, you would have been thrilled.  Continue reading

Jewschool: Making the Stars of David Sing

Originally published on Jewschool.com

Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish debuted in 2005 and has been a perennial bar mitzvah gift ever since. The book, which features interviews by Abigail Pogrebin with about five dozen celebrities about their Jewish identities, is now an off-Broadway musical. Pogrebin is no stranger to the musical stage; she chronicled her experience as an original cast member of the infamous Stephen Sondheim flop Merrily We Roll Along in her 2011 Kindle Single Showstopper. This morning I chatted with her about the experience of writing Stars of David, both book and musical, and how her evolving Jewish identity has shaped the project.

In the introduction to the book, she discusses that part of the impetus for the project was that Jewish identity had crept up on her. She was married to a Jewish man, had two children approaching the ages when they might want to know something about what being Jewish meant, and she realized that she didn’t have an answer to that question. “I wasn’t necessarily honest with myself about why I started the book in the sense that I didn’t know how at sea I was, in terms of my own Jewish identity, when I approached famous people,” Pogrebin said. “I think sometimes stories are generated by some subconscious impulse to understand something for yourself. And I don’t want to over-analyze my motivations in starting the book, but I would say that having these frank conversations with some of our highest achievers made me look much more candidly at myself, and I realized I hadn’t answered a lot of the questions I was asking, personally.”

Continue reading

Jewschool: Bad Jews, Great Performances

Originally published on Jewschool.com

Tracee Chimo, Michael Zegen and Molly Ranson in Bad Jews. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Tracee Chimo, Michael Zegen and Molly Ranson in Bad Jews. Photo by Joan Marcus.

As the organized Jewish community debates the changing nature of Jewish identity in America uncovered by the recent Pew study, theatergoers in New York are engaging in a similar debate spurred on by Bad Jews, a new play by Josh Harmon being presented off-Broadway by the Roundabout Theatre Company, following a developmental production last fall at the Roundabout Underground Black Box.

On its surface, Bad Jews is a dark comedy about cousins reuniting at their grandfather’s shiva, butting heads about who should inherit a chai necklace their beloved Poppy had managed to hold on to through his time in a concentration camp. But Bad Jews is really a play of ideas, offering one hundred minutes of debate about what Jewish identity means for the grandchildren of survivors and contemporary twenty-something American Jews. Representing the “religion matters most” camp is Daphna (Tracee Chimo), a strident senior at Vassar who hopes to marry the Israeli soldier she slept with on Birthright, make aliyah, and attend rabbinical school. Taking the opposing view is Liam (Michael Zegen), her elder cousin who has little to no interest in Judaism or Jewishness, but feels a deep familial connection to what the chai necklace represents. Liam’s younger brother Jonah (Philip Ettinger) just wants to be left out of the argument. The ensuing battle, which is further intensified by the presence of Liam’s perky, privileged, non-Jewish girlfriend Melody (Molly Ranson), will either fascinate or exhaust you, depending on how many times you’ve had this conversation yourself. Continue reading