Jewschool: Soul Doctor brings Carlebach to Broadway

Originally published on Jewschool.com

[Soul Doctor show logo]Have you ever had the experience of introducing your high school friends to your new friends from college? That’s the best way to describe how I felt watching Soul Doctor, the new Broadway musical based on the life and music of Shlomo Carlebach. Throughout the show, staged in 3/4 thrust at the intimate Circle in the Square, I couldn’t keep myself from looking across the theater at the faces of my Catholic friends and wanting to explain, or apologize, or forget they were there so I could give myself over to the music and ecstatically clap along with the rest of the mostly-religious, Jewish audience (based on the number of kippot and wigs in evidence).

Because here’s the thing: if you’re reading Jewschool, you, like me, probably love Carlebach’s music. You might not even realize how much of it you love — I kept finding myself surprised at melodies employed in the show. How could one man have possibly written so many of the melodies that have underscored every Jewish experience of my life, from the synagogue to the campfire? And even when saddled with second-rate English lyrics and a hopelessly inert story, when sung by a terrific cast of Broadway babies (led by Eric Anderson as Carlebach himself and newcomer Amber Iman making a splash as Nina Simone) backed by a fantastic band under the baton of Seth Farber, the music wins out, and I found myself unconsciously tapping my feet even as I rolled my eyes. Continue reading

Jewschool: On Exile and Peoplehood

Originally published on Jewschool.com

Two and a half months ago, I moved from Boston to New York.

I had lived in Boston for 33 of my 35 years, but I had always wanted to live in New York, and the time was right. When speaking with friends after the move, the refrain was the same. “I don’t miss it. I was ready to go.” I’ve missed my friends but not my city.

And then bombs went off at the Boston marathon.

It’s hard to overstate the role of the marathon in the life of the city. The state takes a holiday. (The entire state, not just the city, as Boston does on St. Patrick’s Evacuation Day.) People flood into the city from around the world. And rather than run the other way, as Bostonians tend to do when confronted with tourists, instead we line the entire route of the marathon so we can cheer: for our friends, for our visitors, and for our city.

I work in a relatively small office, and three of us have moved to NY from Boston in the last three years. So when one of the others interrupted a meeting I was having to say, “Have you heard about Boston?” I had no expectation that those words would bring bad news.

Nothing is worse than being the direct victim of violence. But being far away from those you love, not knowing what’s going on, and seeing only a stream of “I’m okay!” and “here’s what we think is happening” and especially “here are the ways we can all help” flood my Twitter and Facebook feeds does a number on you.

Last night, I was looking at Twitter on my way home and saw a friend in Boston had shared a picture from Brooklyn of BAM lit up with messages of support for Boston. In a moment of synchronicity, I happened to be getting out of a cab in front of BAM at that moment, so I walked around the building to see the display for myself. There was a small crowd of people taking pictures and offering comfort to each other.

A blogger with some handheld video device approached me and asked if I would be interviewed on camera. I figure bloggers should help each other out, so I agreed. He asked how I was feeling on that day, and I shared that I was a recent Boston transplant so the day was difficult, but thank God as far as I knew everyone in my life was safe. He then started down the path of comparing what happened to daily life in Syria. I cut him off and said something about how I knew that today alone in Iran the fatalities outnumbered anything in Boston, and that people all over the world were suffering, and it was important for us to remember that too. And then I got myself out of the conversation because I didn’t want to become a pawn in some kind of project of comparative suffering.

Over the course of the last two months, I’ve been participating in the Shalom Hartman Institute’s iEngage program, which offers a text-based approach to discussing the State of Israel through the perspective of Jewish values. (I now work for the Institute, so in this course, I am both participating and learning about one of our own programs.) Rather than dealing with fact sheets or calls to activism, iEngage challenges us to grapple with ideas like “what are the Jewish values around power and powerlessness,” and “what does a Jewish conception of democracy look like,” and “what exactly is Jewish peoplehood?” We study texts ancient and modern, guided by the Institute’s scholars and in chevruta with our colleagues.

The particular cohort for my iEngage group is Jewish social justice professionals, with a mix of folks from the lefty spectrum, including staff members from New Israel Fund, T’ruah, Keshet, Jewish Community Relations Councils, etc. In our discussions of Jewish peoplehood, some of the participants bristled at the concept, feeling like it was ancient chauvinism morphed into some kind of Zionist guilt-trip. For me, a sense of Jewish peoplehood has always been more about a deep-felt connection to people around the world and throughout history, most of whom I’ve never met and many of whom I’m sure I wouldn’t like very much if I did. The idea that we look out for our own first (but not only) and worry about those with whom we share a connection more than those from whom we are disconnected has never felt chauvinistic to me. It feels human.

And until yesterday, I never realized how much I feel that same connection to the people of my home town. And when the (certainly well-intentioned but misguided) blogger outside of BAM implied that my concern for my fellow Bostonians was somehow misplaced in light of suffering in the rest of the world, it came together for me, and I got angry. I am capable of complex thought and multilayered emotion. I can grieve for Boston without belittling Syria, Iran, or anywhere else in the world where people suffer. I can be a member of the Jewish people while also being a citizen of the world. I can be a New Yorker and be a Bostonian. And how dare anyone imply otherwise.

Jewschool.com: When Images of Mohammed Showed Up in My Facebook Feed

Originally published on Jewschool.com

Today has been a frustrating day on many levels, and surprisingly, at the top of my frustration is two Conservative rabbis who are Facebook friends of mine who have chosen to share an Islamophobic cartoon depicting the Prophet Mohammed. I’m not going to link to it here because I don’t want to have a hand in further distributing the cartoon.

I wrote to each of them

I am disappointed to see the rabbis of my generation circulating a cartoon that flagrantly disrespects someone else’s religion, not to mention perpetuates harmful stereotypes. Is this the spirit in which you hope to enter 5773?

And to my surprise, instead of saying something like, “You’re right, I got carried away. I’m frustrated but this wasn’t the right way to express it,” both dug their heels in and defended their right to mock Islam in a way they both know specifically insults Muslims.

One of these rabbis is a chaplain with the US armed forces. The other holds a significant post in the Conservative Movement in the United States.

I have spent too much time and far too much emotional energy engaging with them and their followers, pointing out over and over again that both our tradition and common sense says that one does not achieve anything by inflaming the fires of hate or provoking those with whom we disagree. They refuse to hear me. Part of me wants to just unfriend them and be done with it, but I don’t want to contribute to my own retreat further into a bubble of people who share all my opinions. But I won’t back down because I believe this is an important discussion to have, and I know Jewish tradition expects us vigorously pursue justice. The quote from Mishnah that I’ve plastered on my social media channels today sums it up for me: “In a place where no one is behaving like a human being, be the human being.”

I have long since disavowed any affiliation with the Conservative movement that was once my home, but incidents like this confirm for me that I’ve made the right choice. I know, I shouldn’t judge an entire stream of a religion based on a couple of vocal leaders, but, well, you see the irony there.

Jewschool.com: Memoir with a Message: An American Radical

Originally posted on Jewschool.com.

I read a lot of nonfiction, and more than a few memoirs. But my pleasure-reading tends towards showbiz tell-alls (next up: Tina Fey and Betty White) and pop-history (think Sarah Vowell). So when I was asked to review Susan Rosenberg’s An American Radical: Political Prisoner in My Own Country, I knew I’d be wandering out of my comfort zone.

Jewschool readers may know Rosenberg from her work as director of communications at American Jewish World Service. Those with longer memories may recall the 1990 documentary Through the Wire, which detailed a fight that Rosenberg and her fellow prisoners at the Female High Security prison in Lexington, Kentucky fought and won against the government protesting the cruel and unusual treatment they received. Rosenberg’s book connects the dots, detailing her transformation from radical activist on the FBI’s most-wanted list to non-profit Jewish professional.  Continue reading

Jewschool.com: Debbie Friedman and the Tragedy of the Closet

Originally published on Jewschool.com. This is unquestionably the most controversial piece I’ve ever written, and it provoked a lot of strong, emotional responses. I regret publishing it as close to Debbie Friedman’s death as I did; my only explanation is that I was feeling her loss emotionally as well. Many misread this post as a criticism of Debbie’s choices, but that was not my intention at all. It’s a critique of the society we live in that created a situation in which she made the choices she made. A couple months after this post, I had a long phone conversation with Debbie’s sister Cheryl, who I am so sorry to have hurt with my words. I am grateful that she reached out to me to try to understand what I was trying to say, and I think after our conversation ended, she did. I don’t know that I’ve ever experienced such incredible openness of spirit as I did from Cheryl that day, and I hope that I can find such grace in the face of people I’m challenged by in my life.

When I heard that Debbie Friedman had passed away, I was sitting in a conference room at the San Francisco Federation, participating in a board meeting for Keshet, a nonprofit organization working for the full inclusion of GLBT Jews in Jewish Life. I learned of Debbie’s passing via a message posted on Twitter by a lesbian Jewish educator with whom I used to work. The news hit our meeting hard. We stopped for a moment of silence. After all, she was one of us.  Continue reading

Jewschool.com: Augmenting Jewish Reality

Originally published on Jewschool.com as part of the 28 Days, 28 Ideas project.

28 Days, 28 Ideas Blog Partner Remember a year or two ago when GPS technology started being added to cell phone applications? Many of us scoffed at the idea of being trackable by Big Brother or God knows who else, imagining the worst case scenarios of a privacy-free world. Fast-forward to today, and we can’t imagine walking from the subway to a meeting at an unfamiliar location without whipping out our phone and asking Google Maps to guide us, and when the meeting is over, we ask Google Local to guide us to the closest bar with a happy hour.

Well, my friends, Augmented Reality is the next feature coming to your phones that you won’t be able to live without. At its most basic, AR technology allows you to point your phone’s camera lens at objects in the real world to conjure all sorts of information related to it on your screen. The Boston Globe had a great introduction to the technology published in September.

Here's what an Augmented Reality app might look like on your phone!AR technology has many potential applications in Jewish life. The most obvious to me fall in the categories of preservation of memory. Imagine walking through a Jewish cemetery and having instant access to biographical information, photographs, videos, family trees, and more, all available on your phone simply by focusing your camera on a particular headstone. Or envision a tour through the Lower East Side where every building unlocks an oral history from the people who grew up, lived, and worked there. Or think about all those portraits hanging on your synagogue’s walls — wouldn’t it be great to hear your beloved old cantor sing once more, simply by pointing your phone at the painting of him?

Now, I’m an educator, not an engineer. I don’t know how ready our current generations of phones are for this now, but if we’re not there yet, we will be there soon. The real hurdle I see is getting all this information compiled and ready to be accessed. What I propose — although Lord knows I’m not the one capable of making it happen — is a standardized, user-friendly platform developed for Jewish communal use. From the end-user’s point of view, the platform would need to be a free, easy-to-install (and easy-to-use) app available for all the major hand-held devices. From the perspective of Jewish institutions, the interface needs to be as simple as taking a picture of the object and then filling out a template with text, graphics, and videos, no more complex than the system Facebook employs for posting any of those things from the status update box. (I recognize there are probably some hurdles to clear in terms of making the AR app recognize objects more complex than two-dimensional pictures based on amateur photography, but let me dream for a moment.)

Of course, because I am an educator, I see great educational opportunities opening up with this software. Recording the oral histories, researching and writing up the narratives, compiling and editing appropriate graphics and photographs to augment our various realities could be excellent projects for Hebrew High school classes, organizational interns, adult volunteer groups, and others (not to mention trained historians). Because all these organizations would be working on the same platform, a Wikipedia-style collection of related information could be accessed from related objects half a world away. Perhaps a clever programmer could even aggregate existing information from existing sites like Wikipedia, MyJewishLearning, etc. For example, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC and Yad Vashem in Jerusalem could pool their resources — which could then also be linked to by a teenager in Nashville who’s adding AR tags to the Nashville Holocaust Memorial as part of his Eagle Scout project.

AR doesn’t only lend itself to history projects. Imagine a Tzedakkah Gallery in the lobby of your JCC, with exhibits highlighting the work of several great non-profits. Point your phone at the one your like best to load a screen that lets you make a donation. What about a game that encourages your Birthright Israel trip to put down their beers to follow a trail of hidden clues (visible only by pointing your phone at the sites hinted at in previous clues) through a historic neighborhood in Israel? On a more commercial level, wouldn’t it be great to preview the music and videos on sale at the Jewish Book Store by simply aiming your phone at them?

Like I said, I have no idea how to make this happen, but I’m sure one of our readers out there in Jewschool-land has the expertise to program this in one really long, Redbull-fueled evening. I’m not asking for anything, other than the opportunity to be one of the first to start tagging the Jewish sites around Boston and enriching the educational opportunities available to anyone with a phone in her pocket.

This post is part of the series 28 Days, 28 Ideas. Check out yesterday’s idea, The Plan B Institute for a Jewish Future over at 31 Days, 31 Ideas. And be sure to check out tomorrow’s idea at JTA’s Fundermentalist blog. 

Jewschool.com: My Flip Camera May Not, In Fact, Be God

Originally published on Jewschool.com.

Okay, I promise this is my final post about Everything Is God: A Jewish Spiritual Woodstock, the event held Sunday night at Harvard Hillel. Jewschool doesn’t often cosponsor real, live events up here in Beantown, so you’ll forgive me for being a little more excited than usual at getting to represent us out there “In Real Life” as the kids say.

Let me start by saying that as excited as I was to fly the Jewschool flag, I was somewhat suspicious of the event itself. I tend to sneer at the kind of spirituality that comes with chanting and meditating and crystals and beads and what-have-you, and that’s sort of what I expected to be bombarded with here. After all, I know that Jay Michaelson is prone to running off to Tibet for a month of silent contemplation, and Seth Castleman has built his career on bringing the Dharma and the Torah together. I know that Danya holds a torch for the kind of traditional Jewish spirituality that I both crave and mock, although from reading her memoir I know that she’s adopted the lotus position herself on more than one occasion.

So let me be the first to say that the event was not that at all. Sure, Danya and Jay disagreed on whether aromatherapy bath crystals can really be considered spiritual tools, but the discussion was much more focused on the interplay between “religion” (i.e. the structures & strictures, rituals and communities of organized faith) and “spirituality” (what Danya calls the moments of feeling groovy). (Incidentally, if you were hoping for more of an exploration of how your boogers embody God, Jay is holding a series of conference calls for folks to come together in exploration of the non-dual Judaism he espouses in his book.)

Continue reading

Jewschool.com: Tu BiShvat Higia, Chag Hailanot!

Originally posted on Jewschool.com.

Early this week on Twitter, David A. M. Wilensky asked why people get so excited about Tu BiShvat. Two rather mundane but honest answers are that for those who are into Kabbalah (and I am decidedly not one of those), it’s a moment in the spotlight for their favorite elements of Judaism, and for those who are Jewish educators (and I am decidedly one of those), it’s a holiday that fills the dead time between Hanukkah and Purim.

Personally, I could take or leave the holiday. I like fruit as much as the next guy. Strike that. I like fruit more than the next guy (as anyone familiar with my biography and tendency towards bad puns can attest). But my disinterest in Kabbalah and unease with the ways the holiday has been claimed by everyone from Zionists to Ecologists make it hard for me to get a firm grounding on what the holiday might mean to me.

However, we all know I like food. And when Tu BiShvat falls on Shabbat, as it does this year, I love the chance to build a Shabbat menu around fruit. Back in 5763 (aka 2003), when I was in my first year as a full-time Jewish educator, Tu BiShvat also fell on Shabbat. The shul where I worked had a very successful monthly community Shabbat dinner event. I asked if I could take the lead for the month when the dinner would coincide with the so-called birthday of the trees.

I was met with some skepticism. “Our congregation loves the dinners as they are. We don’t want any programming,” I was told. “Don’t worry,” I assured them. “I’m talking about menu and decorations. You won’t even know that you’re taking part in a Tu BiShvat seder.”

Kids' PlacematHaving made the bold claim, and not entirely sure how I was going to back it up, I got to work with my partner-in-crime, Robin Kahn, then the synagogue’s family educator. We bought up every mylar tree that iParty had for sale. We made up vertical seder plates with four levels, representing the four Kabbalistic spheres the seder traditionally mentions. One set of plates was filled with the expected fruits (the top level being left empty, natch). The other filled with dips like hummus and olive tapenade, because we’re classy like that — and because it gave us a second set of surfaces on the table to which we could affix labels. A third set of four bottles of soda or juice (representing the color spectrum from red to white) gave us our third canvas. The labels we places on each level, each bottle presented all the information of the seder in small, non-threatening and non-invasive chunks. (And lest you think I forgot about the שבעת המנים, the seven types of grains and fruit grown in Israel linked to the holiday, we had crackers made of barely & wheat to complement the rest of the fruits & dips on the seder plates.)

Our crowning achievement was the placemats we created. They were double-sided, with one side aimed at kids featuring a word search, a Cosmo-style “What Kind of Tree Are You?” quiz, and more. The adult side included a timeline detailing the evolution of the holiday from the time of the Second Temple though today, some text about the mitzvah of baal tashchit, and the words to the song השקדיה פורחת. No one had to look at the placemats if they weren’t interested, but to load the deck in our favor, we set the table with transparent plates and cutlery.

Placemat for Grown-UpsThe dinner was a success, both from a culinary standpoint and an educational/programmatic one. Today I printed out a new set of those placemats to use this Shabbat. It’s weird to look back at something from so early in my career — I admit to going through and changing the way I spelled the name of the holiday (thanks, BZ!) (although now I noticed I missed a spot). But I’m still proud of the work Robin and I did. And today it serves as a reminder to me that Jewish education can touch even those most resistant to it if we approach it with a little creativity and a lot of office supplies.

If you’d like to use my placemats at your Tu BiShvat table this year, feel free! here’s the adult version and here’s the one for kids.

Jewschool: The Vort: Vayechi – Endings and Beginnings

Originally published on Jewschool.com.

I’ve always been something of a post-modernist, fascinated particularly with the ways in which form and content intersect, interact, support and destabilize each other. Blame it on an early obsession with Stephen Sondheim from an early age. (Yes, folks, that link is a peek into dlevy’s early high school adventures on the internet. But I digress.)

And the seasons, they go round and round...With that in mind, I find it particularly delightful to encounter parshat Vayechi during the week that our secular calendar advances a page. You see, the content of this week’s Torah reading involves Jacob putting his affairs in order at the end of his life, bestowing blessings on his sons (but not his daughter) and two grandsons (you can guess whose progeny they are) before shuffling off this mortal coil. But the form — oh, the form! First we’ll notice that this is the final nugget of Sefer Bereshit (aka Genesis, not the Peter Gabriel/Phil Collins band), the first book of the Torah. When this story ends, we get a flash forward to everybody’s favorite Easter Passover story, The Ten Commandments Sefer Shemot (aka The Book of Exodus, no not the Leon Uris one). That’s a new book – same scroll, but with a nice big, clear differentiation in the text. Plus, we divide our reading up so that we don’t get into that story until next week. And in case anyone wasn’t sure, we’ll all leap to our feet on Saturday morning and sing “חזק חזק ונתחזק” to punctuate the end of our current book. So between the end of the patriarchal era (ha! as if!), the end of the book of Genesis, and the rhythm of our Torah reading that keeps us from reading the next chapter until (at the very least) later on in the afternoon, we’ve got a nice, tidy ending to our story. Continue reading

Jewschool.com: Further Innovations in Progressive Kashrut

Coauthored with The Wandering Jew. Originally published on Jewschool.com.

As readers might remember, dlevy and I like to cook. And we’re all about the organic, free-range food in our kosher kitchen. Okay, so one of us is all about the organic and free-range, and the other likes food that’s, well, gross. Sugary, deep-fried, processed, in a can? That’s dlevy’s idea of delicious. My influence can only go so far.

For what it’s worth, only one of us plucked and kashered free-range, local, nearly-organic chicken this year, and it wasn’t TWJ. Enjoying deep-fried, sugary goodness and caring about the planet and what goes into our body don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

Organic Batter BlasterBut we were thinking: While others who care about Jewish food are affirming their views, and giving themselves pats on the back, at the Hazon Food Conference in California, what can we do from Jamaica Plain, MA? And then dlevy found his inspiration: Organic Batter Blaster! On many a grocery shopping trip, dlevy has lusted over this product, while I’ve laughed and mocked. The only thing stopping him from purchasing it in the past was the lack of hecksher. (Un)fortunately, that is no longer a hindrance as Organic Batter Blaster is now OU certified.

Join us as we take the OBB for its virgin run:

You down with OBB? Yeah, you know me!

PS: Suck it, Hazon.

PPS: Thanks to my brother, Frederick, for giving me the camera. He happens to be the author of 15 Minutes of Fame: Becoming a Star in the YouTube Revolution, but please don’t blame him for this video.