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

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JewishBoston.com: Fathers and Sons: A Special Blessing

Originally published on JewishBoston.com.

As Fathers Day approaches on the secular calendar, I find myself thinking about the traditional Jewish blessing fathers bestow on their sons. This tradition has its roots in a scene towards the end of the book of Genesis, in which Jacob says from his deathbed:

By you shall Israel invoke blessings, saying: “May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.” (Genesis 48:20)

Every Shabbat evening, Jews around the world bless their sons with the words “May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh,” fulfilling Jacob’s deathbed pronouncement from the end of the book of Genesis. I did not grow up with this particular tradition in my family, so when I learned about it, a question immediately sprang to mind: what’s so special about Ephraim and Manasseh that we pray to make our children like them? Continue reading

Jewschool.com When Worlds Collide

Originally posted on Jewschool.com.

Last November, I posted about the formation of a Jewish Young Adult Writers’ Forum in the greater Boston area. Last night was the last official meeting of the first cohort, and the guest author was Jewschool’s own Danya Ruttenberg. (We have one more “unofficial” meeting coming up with Anita Diamant, but that’s more of a dinner discussion than formal workshop.)

The way the workshop has worked, each month our guest author sends out a writing assignment for the participants to complete in advance. Our workshop evening begins with dinner, which flows into our guest telling us a bit about her or his career. Next there’s some “in class” writing. Each evening culminates with participants paring up to share the work they did on the assignment, often reconsidering it in light of what’s happened during the first hour of the workshop.

Since you read Jewschool, I don’t have to tell you how wonderful Danya was as our guest leader. The assignment she sent us was this:

Pick a story from the Bible, or a midrash, or a myth or legend from anywhere (Greek mythology, say, or classic literature) whose themes have a particular resonance for you (eg the story of crossing the Red Sea as jumping into something scary and trusting it will work out), and write a story from your life with that myth/legend in mind.

I’ve included my response to this prompt below the cut. Maybe some of you out there in Jewschool-land will add yours, as well.

Incidentally, several of us in the first cohort are meeting in the near future to talk about what might be next for the Writers’ Forum. If you’re a young Jewish adult in the greater Boston area and interested in taking part in writing-related stuff, leave some comments about what you’d like to see and do.

Continue reading

Hebrew College: Humanity vs. Divinity: Whose Side is Moses On?

In the spring of 2009, I took a graduate-level class co-offered by Hebrew College and the Andover Newton Theological School called Interfaith Models of Religious Leadership, taught by Rabbi Or Rose and Professor Gregory Mobley, examining the leadership styles of Moses and Jesus through interfaith engagement with the primary texts as well as writings from both Jewish and Christian scholars about both figures. This was my mid-term paper, wrapping up the Moses unit.

As the holiday of Passover approaches on the calendar, it’s hard to consider the role of Moses in the exodus from Egypt without questioning how important Moses himself really was in the liberation of the Jewish people.  After all, if he can be so completely[1] written out of the story that he doesn’t even bear mention at the Passover seder, was he ever really anything more than a prop?

Of course, the Haggadah, as a text with a particular religious purpose, has its own set of reasons for focusing its telling of the Exodus on God and away from Moses.  Popular culture certainly has its own set of reasons for storytelling choices, but as artifacts of “the people,” pop culture can offer windows into what elements of the story have captured the imaginations of regular folk in different times and places.

The giving of the Ten Commandments marks a border in the story of Moses, a liminal point at which the story of liberation transitions into a story of law-giving and nation-forming.  Because this moment signifies not only a transformation of the Israelites into a nation, but also a transformation of Moses from liberator to lawgiver, it serves as an interesting point of comparison through which to examine retellings of the story.  Comparing the account in Exodus 19-34 with a play from a medieval Corpus Christi cycle and a contemporary “musical spectacular” reveals telling differences in how each storyteller perceived the character of Moses at this moment in his story.

Continue reading

Livejournal: Workshop My Writing

Originally published on my long-defunct Livejournal.

I’m participating in a Jewish Young Adults’ Writers Workshop. This month, our assignment was to write a two-page scene “in which two people who are fated to become involved meet for the first time.”

I’ve been fooling around with doing a gay take on the Biblical story of Jacob for a while now, so I thought I’d use this opportunity to rethink Genesis 28. After all, that’s Jacob’s first meeting with God, and I think it’s fair to say the two are fated to become involved.  To refresh your memory, this happens when Jacob has left his parents’ house en route to his uncle’s home, where he’s been sent by his father so he can find a wife from within his clan.

I just finished my first draft. It’s very drafty. I’m going to rewrite it tomorrow before I show it to anyone in the workshop. But since I have neither the self-confidence to do this on my own nor the shame to be embarrassed by the considerable shortcomings of this draft, I’m posting it here for feedback first.

A couple of caveats: I’ve been debating whether this should be set in modern times vs. ancient times, and in America vs the original places. In this draft, it’s modern America. That is almost definitely the wrong answer. I think tomorrow I will attempt modern-but-original-places. I may end up just going for overall anachronistic. It worked for Joseph Heller’s retelling of the David story.

Also, I’m not sure what to do about the sex. I’m not sure my answer below works – what do you think? I don’t want it to get pornographic, and I think there’s good reason to leave it ambiguous as to what exactly happens, but… well, tell me what you think.

Okay, enough with the caveats. Here goes:  Continue reading

Keshet: May God Make You Like Ephraim and Manasseh

Originally published as part of  Torah Queeries.

So [Jacob] blessed them that day, saving, “By you shall Israel invoke blessings, saying: ‘May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.’” (Genesis 48:20)

Every Shabbat evening, Jews around the world recall this week’s Torah portion by blessing their sons with the words “May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh,” fulfilling Jacob’s deathbed pronouncement. I did not grow up with this particular tradition in my family, so when I learned about it, two questions immediately sprang to mind: If Jacob says that all of Israel shall invoke blessings in this way, why do we limit our use of the blessing to boys? Perhaps more fundamentally, what’s so special about Ephraim and Manasseh that we pray to make our children like them?

The Torah itself gives us shockingly little information about these two brothers, the sons of Jacob’s favorite son, Joseph, and Joseph’s Egyptian wife, Asenath. We know that they lived their entire lives in Egypt, that Manasseh is the older of the two (although some scholars suggest they might have been twins), that they were born before the famine came to Egypt, and that Genesis and Chronicles disagree a bit about whether one of Manasseh’s descendants was his son or grandson. Otherwise, all we have are conjectures based on this one scene at their grandfather’s deathbed.  Continue reading

Hebrew College: Intertexuality and Metatexuality in the Deuteronomist History

This was my final paper for a graduate-school class called Bible: Text and Context. It’s probably the nerdiest, most jargon-filled piece preserved here, but I just really love it.

The phrase “ספר התורה” (literally “the document of instruction”) serves an interesting dual purpose in its appearances within the Hebrew Bible.  On a textual level, it is one of the identifying locutions of the Deuteronomic Historian.  The appearances of the phrase link the books of Deuteronomy, Joshua, and (Second) Kings to each other.  The books of Nehemiah and Chronicles, understood as originating more recently than the Deuteronomic history, similarly employ the phrase to emphasize their link to the world-view of the earlier books.  However, the phrase also functions on a metatextual level, acting on the text while it acts within the text.  The employment of the phrase (and variations of it) within these texts subtly insists that the very texts in which the phrase appears be incorporated into the canonical version of the scripture.

Although neither word is particularly scarce in the Hebrew Bible, “ספר” and “התורה” only appear together in the construct state nine times, first appearing in Deuteronomy 31:26.  Having delivered his final words of law and set out consequences for its followers should they be faithful or disobey, Moses transfers leadership to Joshua.  Moses presents the Levites with “this book of Teaching (ספר התורה הזה)”[1] to place alongside the Ark “as a witness against you.”  Menahem Haran notes that ספר, when used in this way, refers to the physical artifact of the document, remarking “It is not the designation, or part of the designation, of the work as such, as a thing separate from its scroll.” Moses is not simply delivering information – he’s delivering a sacred object.  Continue reading