The Jewish Advocate: Behind the Spandex: Secrets of the Superheroes

Originally published in The Jewish Advocate. I feel compelled to mention that I was not responsible for the headline or subhead. 

It’s a bird … It’s a plane … No, it’s comic book writer A. David Lewis

BOSTON – When over 8,000 people gathered at the Bayside Expo Center at the start of the month for Boston’s first WizardWorld comics and pop-culture convention, there was the expected smattering of fans dressed like their favorite superheroes waiting in long lines to snag an autograph from the likes of Margot Kidder (Lois Lane in the “Superman” films) and Lou Ferrigno (TV’s ‘Incredible Hulk”). But tucked away in the back corner of the convention hall was a room devoted to a program called Wizard School, a series of classes offering aspiring writers and artists the chance to learn from industry professionals.

Most of the Wizard School classes centered on practical skills and technique. But Saturday night, the room was packed with fans for different kind of class. The session was entitled “Ever-Ending Battle: Superheroes and Mortality.” The brainchild of Allston resident A. David Lewis, the program brought together comic book pros to look at superheroes through the lens of thanatology, the study of death. Thanatology is still a relatively young area of inquiry, but two of its products have already permeated the culture: hospice care, and the stages of grief identified by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross.

Lewis is quick to note that “it’s not a bad thing to be concerned about death.” However, he came to the project through comics first. “Over the last few years, I was finding it curious that all these characters were getting killed and brought back. I don’t have any agenda other than discussing it.”

While his research is at an early stage, he has amassed the support not only of convention organizers, but also of the Popular Culture Association, comics journalists, and comics writers and artists. However, he is not new to the field of comics research, having taught classes on comics at Georgetown University and presented papers at conferences on topics such as “The Relationship Between Biblical Midrash and Comic Retcon.”

Although he’s an academic by day, currently teaching at Northeastern University, Lewis has a secret identity of his own as a comic book writer. “I can never decide if I like writing or writing about them better,” he said.

Lewis’s latest project looks at a different kind of superhero: Moses. His graphic novel “Lone and Level Sands” retells the biblical story of the Exodus from Egypt from the perspective of the Egyptians. “I had the idea a long time ago,” he said. “I went to Hebrew School [at Temple Beth Am in Framingham], had my bar mitzvah, but the first time I really gave it any thought was then the movie “Prince of Egypt” came out and I didn’t like it.”

The film’s account of Moses’s life didn’t mesh with Lewis’s memories of the Torah text, so he launched into a research project to find out what Egypt was really like during the time. “The challenge became how to make history and biblical myths live together.”

Lewis cites films about the Holocaust as well as modern American disasters as providing an important conceptual frameworks for him. “I didn’t want it to paint all Egyptians as evil,” he said. “I wanted to tell the full story, see their reaction to the plagues – not just being freaked out when frogs are falling. When everything is done, was there an emergency response plan to deal with the frogs on the ground?”

While Lewis deals with the details of the events, there’s one big detail he’s left up to the readers’ imaginations: “You certainly don’t see God [in the book]; there’s no guide with a beard, voice from the heaven, or hand pointing down,” he said.
He’s also left open to interpretation whether the Egyptian gods are present in the story. “A lot of characters are asking these questions,” he said. “I just never let them have an answer.”

The product is a 160-page story, illustrated by mpMann [yes, that’s how it’s spelled on the cover] that debuted in a black and white edition last April, published by the authors. It generated enough press and sales that Archadia Studios Press has picked it up for broad release. The publisher is now readying a full-color, hardcover edition for December.

“I would love for Hebrew Schools and Jewish groups to read and discuss this,” Lewis said. “But it’s not toeing the company line. It’s not evil Pharaoh and pious Moses. I would love to inspire dialogue.”

The Jewish Advocate: Spiegelman draws his comic view of world events for a local audience; Author of ‘Maus’ books brings ‘raw’ message to Peabody Essex Museum

Originally published in The Jewish Advocate.

SALEM – Art Spiegelman, the Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist best known for his Holocaust “Maus” books, drew a sold-out crowd to the Peabody Essex Museum Tuesday night as part of the museum’s month-long look at artistic responses to another horrific event in history, Sept. 11, 2001.

Spiegelman, 57, was born in Stockholm, Sweden, not long after the end of World War II, the child of Holocaust survivors Vladek and Anja. His parents dreamed of him becoming a dentist, but when he discovered Mad magazine, the course of his life changed. “I studied Mad the way some kids studied the Talmud,” he told Tuesday’s audience.

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The Jewish Advocate: Adherents of Humanism putting down local roots; In sign of movement’s local growth, Boston to host biennial conference

Originally published in The Jewish Advocate.

NEWTON – Congregation for Humanistic Judaism in Newton, known as Kahal B’raira, celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. Its name means “Community of Choice,” which also happens to sum up the core philosophy of Humanistic Judaism, which adherents describe as “nontheistic” Judaism. In the absence of a supernatural authority commanding people how to be Jewish, Humanistic Jews rely on the choices of human beings and focus on pursuing the ethical choices in their lives.

Kahal B’raira does not yet have a rabbi, although recently the congregation took its first steps at professionalizing its operation by creating three part-time positions. And while its administrator, Sunday School principal, and youth director are surely working hard, a glimpse around the room at the dozens of volunteers at the congregation’s open house last Sunday proved that the communal spirit in which the group was founded runs strong.

“They’re one of our oldest affiliates,” said Rabbi Miriam Jerris, Community Development Coordinator for the Society for Humanistic Judaism, the national organization linking Humanistic Jewish congregations, communities and havurot in the United States. “KB came out of the ’60s and relies very strongly on volunteerism and consensus decision making. They have a huge spirit.”  Continue reading

The Jewish Advocate: Old B&B record striking a chord with young Jews

Originally published in The Jewish Advocate.

Bagels and BongosA record cut more than 40 years ago in Boston is at the center of a new nonprofit organization’s efforts to grab the attention of young Jewish adults. “Bagels and Bongos” was a hit for the Irving Fields Trio in 1959; now, a group of community-minded individuals are hoping “Bagels and Bongos” will strike a chord with unaffiliated Jews in their 20s and 30s.

The folks behind the record launch are Reboot Stereophonics, a division of Reboot, a nonprofit described by Jules Shell, one of its founders, as “starting an open space for conversation … about identity, about who we are.”

Fields is still active at age 90, playing six nights a week at Nino’s Tuscany in midtown Manhattan. Last week, he spoke with The Jewish Advocate by phone to reminisce about the Boston roots of “Bagels and Bongos.”  Continue reading

The Jewish Advocate: Wiesel, fascinated with Jewish tales, still spinning them

Originally published in The Jewish Advocate.

BOSTON – For 31 years, Elie Wiesel has been sharing his “Fascination with Jewish Tales” with increasingly large audiences of his long-running lecture series by the same name. Next week, Wiesel kicks off Boston University’s annual three-lecture series with a talk entitled “Why Pray?”; it will be held at Metcalf Hall on the university’s Commonwealth Avenue campus.

“I love tales, I always have,” Wiesel told the Advocate in a telephone interview Monday. He credits the centrality of storytelling in his life to his early upbringing in the Hasidic world of Eastern Europe. “Hasidism is not only tales, but it’s also tales. No other religious movement concentrates so much on storytelling and tales as the Hasidic movement,” he said.

His love of storytelling is apparent even in a phone conersation, which continually veered onto tangents as new anecdotes sprang to Wiesel’s mind. Whether adding color to facts or imparting advice to a young reporter, Wiesel cannot help himself when a story comes to mind.

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The Jewish Advocate: Synagogue educators press effort to better their schools

Originally published in The Jewish Advocate.

NEWTON – More than 65 synagogue school educators gathered at Temple Shalom in Newton last week to hone their skills. The teachers were participating in training by educators from the Union for Reform Judaism as part of expanding efforts on the part of both the Reform and Conservative movements to improve congregational religious schools.

Each movement has chosen a different path for bettering its schools. The United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism established an accreditation program four years ago called Framework for Excellence. The program offers schools a choice of six different models and then works with each community to mold its program to fit a model.

“Nobody’s going to get kicked out of United Synagogue if they don’t adhere to it, but we wanted to create standards,” said Wendy Light, USCJ’s national education consultant for the Framework for Excellence. “Schools that meet the standards are known as exceptional schools. My goal is that everybody meets those standards.”

While there are variations in each of the six Framework models for schools, ranging from the number of days each week the school meets to the balance of classroom learning with family education and informal education, there are certain benchmarks shared by all models.

For a school to become certified, the education director and lay committee must go through a process Light describes as introspective to determine what elements of the school might need work. “In some situations it means adding hours or days to the program,” Light said. “In others it’s writing a complete curriculum where none existed before.”

Curriculum is the major focus of URJ’s Chai Initiative, a project launched by URJ’s Department of Lifelong Jewish Learning in 2001. “The goal is to move from an activity-based school experience to a concept-based one,” said Joanne Doades, URJ’s assistant director for curriculum development and the national coordinator of the Chai Initiative.

“We looked outside the Jewish educational system to find a curriculum methodology called Understanding by Design,” Doades said in a phone interview last month. “It guides curriculum planners through a process of starting with the end in mind. In other words, what are the things you really want students to know and carry with them long after they’ve left the classroom?”

The curriculum is structured around the famous saying from Pirkei Avot (the mishnaic “Sayings of the Fathers”) that says “The world stands on three things: Torah (law), Avodah (religious service), and G’milut Chasadim (“acts of kindness”).”

“I’m inspired by its theme, which I consider a major rubric of Judaism,” said Deena Bloomstone, education director of Shir Tikva in Wayland. “We’re a very social justice-oriented congregation and believe that every aspect of it speaks to social justice, even the Torah core, which teaches thematically about leadership and responsibility through pieces of Torah that we wouldn’t necessarily look towards in a religious school.”

URJ simultaneously introduced a Hebrew program called Mitkadem Hebrew Language for Youth, a student-centered approach to language that allows each student to work at his or her own pace.

Doades reports that so far nearly 300 schools have purchased the Chai curriculum, “which for us is extremely positive, given that we have about 800 schools,” she said. However, she said that URJ currently does not keep track of which schools actually employ the curriculum, or how much of it they use. “It’s designed to be flexible.” she said. “You don’t have to adopt the whole thing.”

Framework for Excellence recently welcomed its 85th school, Temple Beth Emunah in Brockton. Light said: “There are about 610 Conservative religious schools affiliated throughout the United States. Over 380 are working towards framework.”

Despite the differences in approaches, one element unites both movements’ efforts: the devotion of professional resources to the development of schools. In addition to URJ’s staff of educators, the Chai curriculum draws on the expertise of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development and JESNA, the Jewish Education Service of North America.

Perhaps more importantly, URJ has committed itself to training synagogue teachers in utilizing the curriculum, offering workshops through their network of regional educators, such as the one at Temple Shalom last week, as well as online courses for teachers.

USCJ similarly emphasizes a personal connection between the school and the movement. “We’ll make suggestions, we’ll send them programs, anything they really need to help them become better,” said Light. “Sometimes we’ll meet with their education committees, their rabbis, whomever we need to meet with to make it easier for them to come on board.”

The Jewish Advocate: New Brighton Rabbi Aims for Inclusiveness

Originally published in The Jewish Advocate.

BRIGHTON – At first glance, Azriel Blumberg could easily be mistaken for a visiting yeshiva student. Yet in reality, this youthful man is the new rabbi of Congregation Kadimah Toras-Moshe, Brighton’s oldest Orthodox congregation.

This New York transplant takes on the leadership of the congregation from retiring Rabbi Abraham Halbfinger, who served the community for 39 years. Kadimah Toras-Moshe is Blumberg’s second pulpit, following Young Israel in Eltingville, N.Y., on Staten Island.

He arrived last week with his wife Michal, a social worker, and his four children, ranging in ages from nine months to 5-1/2. On Monday, he welcomed The Jewish Advocate into his synagogue to share his enthusiastic vision for the future.

“I want to build a sense of energy, vitality and focus,” he said. “I’m very impressed by the precedents set by Rabbi Halbfinger. He set up a shul where he never made himself into the be-all/end-all of the community. He encouraged the participation of all.” Blumberg noted that the synagogue’s motto, coined by Halbfinger, is “all are welcome.” He aims to intensify the message into “all are important.”

“Each person is counted on to be a vital part of decision-making and vision: practical aspects of the day-to-day as well as long-term goals,” he said. “One of the best compliments I know is to say, ‘We need you.'”

The goals Blumberg has set out for himself and his community are broad. He looks to enlarge the community’s reputation as an Orthodox synagogue where all Jews can feel comfortable, regardless of their individual level of observance. He also looks to further strengthen the congregation’s relationship with other Jewish institutions in the community.

But it is clear that Blumberg’s most important goal, the one he keeps returning to, is deepening his members’ investment in their own community at Kadimah Toras-Moshe. “There is no typical demographic of who belongs here – from the very educated to the not very educated, people who speak only English, or only Yiddish, or only Russian, people who would identify as right wing, as left wing,” he said. “The great thing about the shul is it doesn’t matter. We’re all here for the same goal: to get closer to God.”

Blumberg has launched himself into this endeavor at full speed. Barely a week since his arrival, Blumberg is opening his home to the congregation’s teenagers to foster the establishment of a teen program. He acknowledges the existence of a strong children’s program, and in the same breath he talks about formalizing and enlarging it.

Far from ignoring the needs of his adult constituency, Blumberg speaks enthusiastically about offering spiritual learning programs along with enjoyable community-oriented events. “People will feel this is not just a place to come and daven, but a nucleus of the Jewish community,” he said. “We want to be involved in all aspects of their lives.”

Looking at the task ahead of him, Blumberg sees both challenges and opportunities. But at the center of it all, he sees the individuals that make up his congregation. Summing it up, he said, “As we go forward, I’m going to make sure we take everybody along with us.”