JewishBoston.com: Farewell from JewishBoston.com’s Managing Editor

Originally posted on JewishBoston.com.

About three and a half years ago, I got an email from Bonnie Rosenbaum, the Director of Communications at Keshet, where I sit on the board. CJP was holding a meeting for area organizations to come learn about a new project they were developing called JewishBoston.com. Could I attend on Keshet’s behalf?

I had no idea how that meeting would change my life. Patty Jacobson and Liz Polay-Wettengel, the co-founders of JewishBoston.com, presented their vision of how this website could change our community. They outlined a tool to level the playing field for synagogues and other organizations to get their information out to the public, a portal that would lower the barriers to entry to the Jewish community. They shared a dream of making the Jewish community a little bit friendlier and a lot easier to join.

At the end of the meeting, I ran up to both of them, introduced myself, and asked how I could get involved. At that time, there wasn’t a committee I could join, but they took my information and promised to keep in touch.

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A few months later, they reached out to me for help. They were looking to hire an editor, and they knew I had great contacts in the Jewish blogosphere. Did I know anyone who wanted the job? Of course I did—me. The only problem was that I wasn’t looking for a job. So I tried really hard—really hard—to find someone else for the job. Because I needed the temptation to go away. But time passed and the job remained open, and I realized I needed to throw my hat into the ring.

I became editor of JewishBoston.com on June 7, 2010, the day after I graduated with two masters degrees from Hebrew College and presided over my fifth Prozdor graduation. My first day on the job, I didn’t even come into the office. In a twist of fate, I had to staff the JewishBoston.com table at a CJP conference for Jewish Educators, putting me in the position of demonstrating my new job to my old colleagues.

In the intervening years, JewishBoston.com has grown and evolved in exciting ways. In my early days with the project, Patty would get aggravated when she’d periodically ask me my favorite thing about working on JewishBoston.com and I’d tell her it was the team of people we comprised. “I want your favorite thing to be the impact we’re having!” she’d protest. The truth is, I can have it both ways.

I’ve been blessed to be part of an incredible team here, from my start with Patty and Liz, to the team I’m leaving behind with our web developer Alex, community manager Kali, project manager Zachary, our fantastic columnists, committed volunteers, and extended CJP colleagues — in particular, the team behind The Network, and CJP’s Associate Vice President of Stategy Implementation, Karyn Cohen, who oversees our work on JewishBoston.com as part of CJP’s broader commitment to Jewish connection and engagement. I couldn’t dream of a more invested, capable, and creative group of people, and it’s been a joy to work with them.

And what an impact we’ve had! From the hundreds of people holding their first-ever Passover seders thanks to Seder in a Box to the thousands of people world-wide reciting words I wrote at their seders with our Haggadah, the people across greater Boston who’ve tried out an event or organization they wouldn’t have known about without JewishBoston.com and my colleagues at other Jewish organizations who’ve made significant strides in their own abilities to reach new audiences… I kvell.

So the decision to move on from JewishBoston.com—and from Jewish Boston as a whole, as I pack up my life and start anew with an apartment in Brooklyn and a position at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America—was not an easy one. I love JewishBoston.com and the Jewish communities I’ve been a part of in the greater Boston area. But I am confident that I leave you in good hands, and that both work and family will bring me back here regularly. Keep in touch. You can always find me on Twitter. And despite what it says at the top of the page, if your wandering brings you my way, make sure you look me up.

All my best,

David

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JewishBoston.com: Don’t Wait to See RAGTIME at the Strand Theatre

Originally posted on JewishBoston.com.

Don’t tell your grandmother, but it’s time to head back to the old country of Dorchester to catch the Fiddlehead Theatre Company’s excellent new production of Ragtime: The Musical now playing at The Strand Theatre. The City of Boston is investing in reinvigorating this storied old theater as a center for arts and culture in the city, particularly for the communities of Dorchester, Roxbury, and Mattapan.

Adam Shapiro as Tateh and Julia Deluzio as his daughter; photo by Matt McKee Photography

Ragtime is a particularly poignant show for the occasion, offering an epic story from the turn of the previous century, just prior to the opening of the Strand itself. With its focus on a segregated society of WASPs, African-Americans, and Jewish immigrants in New Rochelle, N.Y. — and what happens when those groups interact with each other — Ragtime could be the story of the history of Dorchester itself. But the musical, based on the novel by E. L. Doctorow, spins a tale of social evolution and personal assimilation, societal injustice and individual kindness, which explains why this production is sponsored by the ACLU. In the hands of playwright Terrance McNally, lyricist Lynn Ahrens, and composer Stephen Flaherty, though, Ragtime never feels preachy or didactic. It’s simply a great evening of theater.

You know you’re in for something special from the opening number, which skillfully introduces not only 15 characters, but also the social dynamics at play among the three groups, made vivid through Anne McAlexander’s choreography and Jennifer Tremblay’s costumes. Meg Fofonoff’s direction keeps the story moving at a pace that belies the show’s three-hour length, and with a couple of brief exceptions in the second act, keeps the various plotlines clear. The 16-piece orchestra under the baton of Matt Stern is thrilling.

If I’m hesitant to single out any of the performers, it’s only because of the excellence across the board. Damian Norfleet’s rich baritone makes it easy to see why anyone would fall in love with his Coalhouse Walker Jr., making his eventual downfall all the more upsetting. Adam Shapiro as Tateh perfectly balances the pain of a single father repeatedly thwarted in his attempts to find a better life for this daughter with a comedic touch that keeps things from becoming too heavy. Shonna Cirone as Mother presents an incredible transformation over the course of the show, from a buttoned-up housewife at first to a powerhouse matriarch by the time she delivers the final anthem, “Back to Before.”

“Back to Before” may be Mother’s final anthem, but it’s not Ragtime’s, and therein lies one of the few problems with the show. The score, while beautifully reminiscent of the best Americana music, is overstuffed with anthems, from “Wheels of a Dream” to “‘Til We Reach That Day” to “Make Them Hear You.” While each song is worthy, all that declaration of purpose gets exhausting. Still, each carries an important message that resonates today, whether it’s about the pursuit of justice, the direction of progress, or the power of the American Dream. This is a show that will leave you not only humming the songs; you’ll also be discussing their messages. At least you will once you wipe the tears away.

On second thought, Ragtime may be the perfect reason to grab your grandparents and bring them back to the part of town they likely haven’t visited since their families fled to the suburbs in the fifties. Have them show you where they used to live and which churches used to be synagogues, and then after the show, talk about the issues raised by the performance and what we can do about them today.

RAGTIME runs at Dorchester’s historic Strand Theater, 543 Columbia Road in Boston, through October 7, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. and Thursday, October 4, at 7:30 p.m. Ticket prices: $45-Orchestra, $39-Mezzanine, $35-Balcony, $32-Seniors and Children, $25-Students. For tickets or more information, please call 866-811-4111 or visit www.fiddleheadtheatre.com. For more information and group sales (10 or more), please call Show of The Month at 617-338-1111.

Photo of Adam Shapiro as Tateh and Julia Deluzio as his daughter by Matt McKee Photography.

JewishBoston.com: Judaism 101: Sukkot and the Opportunity for Change

Originally published on JewishBoston.com.

Most of our holidays commemorate specific events: Passover recalls the exodus from Egypt, Hanukkah the rededication of the Temple following a military victory against the Greeks, Yom Ha’atzmaut the founding of the modern State of Israel, and so on. But Sukkot is different. Sukkot reminds us of the time between the Exodus and our ancestors’ entry into the promised land of Israel.

created at: 2010-09-21Jews remember this time of wandering in the dessert by building temporary dwellings, little booths called “sukkot” (singular: sukkah) from which the holiday draws its name. As with most Jewish practices, there’s wide variety in how people interpret what it means to “dwell” in the sukkah during the week. Some people eat big meals in their sukkot. Others will only eat in a sukkah and refrain from eating anything more than a snack outside of one. Some people will sleep in their sukkot as well, which can either be super fun or cold and miserable depending on your location and the vagaries of the weather.

Because the holiday is eight days long (including its concluding days of Simchat Torah and Shemini Atzeret), there are lots of other rituals and customs for Sukkot. There are the “four species,” aka the lulav and etrog, the former being a palm frond lashed together with a willow branch and a myrtle branch, the latter being the lemon-like fruit better known as a vodka flavor. Each day of the holiday (except Shabbat), these plants are held together and waved in all directions (north, south, east, west, up and down) during services in a rite that feels as old as religion itself. On the sixth day of the holiday (known as Hoshanah Rabbah), the willow branch is removed and beaten to a pulp in an act symbolizing beating our whatever last remnants of sin made it through Yom Kippur.  Continue reading

JewishBoston.com: Shamefully Simple Tzimmes

Originally published on JewishBoston.com.

tsimmes, photo used under CC license from Flickr user Edsel LittleTzimmes is an Ashkenazi specialty generally associated with Rosh Hashannah due to its sweetness. There are as many variations on tzimmes as there are Jews, but the common threads are that it’s a sweet dish made from carrots and whatever else you want to throw in. A common version is “tzimmes with flanken,” featuring short ribs to add a meaty savor.

Tzimmes has a reputation for being a big pain in the neck to make — so much so that the phrase “to make a tzimmes” is synonymous with “to make a big deal” out of something. But my family’s recipe is so simple, it’s almost embarrassing to call it a recipe. Even so, it’s delicious and is always a hit when served at holiday meals and potlucks. Better yet, it freezes well and reheats even better.

And since my tzimmes relies on sweet potatoes, an autumnal vegetable if there ever was one, it’s perfect for Sukkot, our fall harvest festival. But honestly, I serve it year-round.

2 large (29 oz.) cans of cut sweet potatoes or yams
2 15-oz. cans of carrots (I like canned whole baby carrots)
1 frozen kishke, thawed (feel free to substitute vegetarian kishke)
Maple syrup and cinnamon, to taste
Optional: raisins, prunes or other dried fruit

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Drain most of the liquid out of the cans of vegetables, then mix the vegetables in a casserole dish. If you’re including dried fruit, add it now. Add liberal amounts of maple syrup and cinnamon. Toss to coat. Slice kishke, laying rounds across the top of the casserole to cover. Bake for 45 minutes, or until the kishke is browned and the casserole is bubbling.

Tzimmes photography used under Creative Commons license from Flickr user Edsel L.

JewishBoston.com: Stuffed Cabbage (aka Holishkes): Edible Torahs for Sukkot

Originally published on JewishBoston.com.

Most Ashkenazi Jewish food traditions can be summed up with the sentence, “Our ancestors were poor, and this is what they could afford to eat.” Even so, it’s pretty incredible how creatively our forebears were able to construct themed dishes for the holidays that worked on a tight budget.

Stuffed cabbage — known in the shtetl as holishkes — are one such dish. They get paired with Sukkot in part because cabbage is in season now, and in part because two holishkes placed next to each other on a plate look a bit like Torah scrolls, and Sukkot culminates with Simchat Torah, our holiday celebrating the yearly cycle of reading our central text.

Previously on JewishBoston.com we’ve featured a vegetarian, Passover-friendly recipe for stuffed cabbage. For Sukkot, we offer a variation that’s not quite traditional, in that it eschews rice and ground beef, but offers a poultry and whole-grain version as one might expect in 21st-century liberal Boston.  Continue reading

JewishBoston.com: High Holidays 101

Originally published on JewishBoston.com.

Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) are collectively called the High Holidays (or, alternately, the High Holy Days). The entire 10-day period is referred to as the Yamim Noraim (literally “Days of Awe”) or Aseret Yamei Teshuva (“Ten Days of Repentence”).

Rosh Hashanah 2013 begins at sundown on Wednesday, September 4, and ends at dusk on Friday, September 6. (Some Reform synagogues observe only one day of Rosh Hashanah.) This year, we will be inaugurating the year 5774 on the Jewish calendar. The number comes from an understanding of the age of the earth articulated by sages in the Middle Ages.

created at: 2011-08-22Rosh Hashanah combines our joy at reaching another milestone with the solemnity of reflection about the year we’ve just completed. We eat sweet foods (such as apples dipped in honey) to emphasize our hopes for a sweet year. We alter our challah to be round (like the cycle of the year) and dotted with raisins (more sweetness), and have celebratory meals with friends and family. But we are also called upon to make an accounting of our souls (cheshbon ha-nefesh in Hebrew). We figure out what we might need to ask our friends to forgive us for doing and make resolutions to try better in the coming year.

Other Rosh Hashanah traditions include sounding the shofar, a hollowed-out ram’s horn, which serves as a spiritual wake-up call. Tashlich is a practice of tossing breadcrumbs into a moving body of water to symbolize throwing away our sins.

The period that begins with Rosh Hashanah and culminates in Yom Kippur is known as the Days of Awe, or the Ten Days of Repentance. Some use this time for deeper reflection–check out 10Q for an online tool for focusing your thoughts during this period. Tradition sets up Yom Kippur as a deadline for making amends with those we’ve wronged, so this period can also be a time of reaching out and asking forgiveness.

Yom Kippur 2013 begins at sundown on Friday, September 13. The evening service that opens Yom Kippur is often referred to as Kol Nidre, after the prayer said at the beginning of the service declaring that we are all fit to pray together, saints and sinners alike. This prayer’s emphasis on religious vows reminds us that on Yom Kippur, we can use a day of fasting and prayer to make right with God, but wrongs done to other people need to be addressed directly.

Fasting on Yom Kippur is supposed to allow us to fully concentrate on the meaning of the day. The sages described the Yom Kippur fast as not only abstention from food and drink, but also from sex, bathing and anointing (e.g. perfumes). Only those in good health and over the age of 13 are expected to fast. Fasting at a time that could put your health at risk is forbidden.

Whether you’re planning on spending three days in synagogue, hosting or attending a holiday meal, or taking this time of year to focus your thoughts about the year that’s passed and the year to come, JewishBoston.com has resources for you. Visit our Rosh Hashanah & Yom Kippur page for information about services, recipes, our High Holidays Idea Guide and more.

JewishBoston.com: What’s Jewish about Gay Pride?

Originally published on JewishBoston.com.

Last Shabbat, I was invited by Rav Claudia Kreiman to give the drash (sermon) at Temple Beth Zion in Brookline for the GLBTQ Pride Shabbat. She asked me to speak on the question of why gay pride is a Jewish concern. Here’s what I had to say:

Falsettos - Broadway PlaybillIn 1992, the summer before I started high school, I saw Falsettos on my second-ever trip to Broadway. For those of you unfamiliar with the show, it was the combination of two earlier, ground-breaking off-Broadway musicals by songwriter William Finn: March of the Falsettos, which told the story of Marvin, a Jewish man in his forties who had left his wife and son for a male lover, but who wanted a “tight-knit family” that included all of them; and its sequel, Falsettoland, in which Marvin’s son struggles with becoming bar mitzvah while Marvin’s lover struggles with the disease that would come to be known AIDS.

I don’t know that there’s ever been another show — or ever will be — that spoke so directly to me. A large part of that is simply that it’s the first time I can remember seeing gay lives portrayed, well, anywhere. I didn’t know any gay adults, and while I had an inkling that some of my friends might also be gay, none of us had yet spoken the words out loud to each other.

I’m just young enough to have missed Billy Crystal on Soap, and Tom Hanks in Philadelphia was still a year away; Ellen wouldn’t come out for another five years. So in 1992, gay boys who loved Broadway musicals had Falsettos, lesbians had newly out of the closet country singer k. d. lang, and that was it. The gays of Falsettos were Jewish – and I don’t just mean Jew “ish” – the opening number of the show is called “Four Jews in a Room Bitching,” which really sets the tone for how the rest of the show unfolds… that these characters’ sexuality and domestic struggles were wrapped in the familiar neuroses of my community intensified the resonance. Continue reading