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

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