Category Archives: Arts & Culture

A Scanner Messianically

R. Justin Stewart may not be the first artist you’d expect to be behind a work called “Distorting (a messiah project, 13c).” The self-described atheist became interested in the idea of the Messiah after his Jewish wife suggested that he might investigate Judaism for topics to explore in his art. “Distorting,” on display at Brooklyn’s Invisible Dog Art Center through May 5, is an installation made of fleece, rope and plastic, and is dotted with QR codes that visitors can scan for more information. We spoke with Stewart about the installation, the Messiah and its surprising connection to the modern courtship dance. (The following is an edited transcript.)

Can you explain the concept behind the piece?

It’s a 3D bubble diagram of one segment of the history of the idea of the Messiah within Judaism. I’ve done a survey map of the history of the idea of the Messiah as I was able to figure it out over 18 months of research. I took the 13th-century segment and used that data to blow it up to fill the space, so each pod represents a person, a category that person wrote about, or an individual bit of information they said or wrote or was said about them. You can access those bits of information by scanning the QR code that’s on each pod.

What inspired the project?

I really like to read, so this project was an excuse to make reading my work. As an artist you can do that kind of thing. Before I started the project, my father-in-law recommended that I read What Do Jews Believe [by David Ariel]. When I was looking for a topic, my wife suggested Judaism because it has this long history of evolving dialogue, and ideas changing over time, and people riffing off of the writing that came before. That was part of the essence of the topic I was looking for. So I was flipping through the book and one of the chapters is the Messiah. When I flipped through that chapter, I’m like, “Jews don’t believe in the Messiah.” At least that was the Judaism I’d learned up to that point. So I started reading and that was kind of the beginning of my Jewish Messiah education.

So is this religious art?

I’d find it difficult to not put it in the religious category. As an artist I come about it more as an interesting idea that happens to be on a religious topic. I would consider this a piece that has very religious content and could be considered religious art, but I wouldn’t consider myself a religious art maker.

What are you hoping for people to get out of the project?

What really fascinates me is the idea that each one of these pods is just an individual bit of information and the pods themselves are suspended and created by relationships between architecture and each other, in the same way that ideas were created by the relationship between the person writing them and the culture they’re in, the place and time they’re in, and other ideas they’re connected to. No idea manifests in isolation. I’m fascinated by the interconnectivity of them. I think the viewer might be able to get to the idea that each one of these pods needs each other to exist, in the same way that if you removed any bit of information from the messiah topic, the Messiah would change. If you cut any of those ropes it would change the art in its totality.

What do you think the idea of the Messiah means today? Do you believe in the Messiah?

I would consider myself more of an atheist, but I see the Messiah in its broadest definition as just a beacon of hope, the idea of a rupture with reality or a change in reality to something better. That’s an idea I can get behind. I think everybody hopes for something better. So many of the ideas that came up were ideas that seemed to resonate beyond a time frame. Issues that people are dealing with in the 2nd century, they’re still dealing with today, and I think the Messiah can represent a resolution to some of those things. Some of the things the Messianic age would bring for people I find fascinating. One of my favorites was a writing that said when the Messiah came, women would pursue men in the courtship dance. When I read that I was like, “That is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever read,” only because that whole anxiety that goes with men pursuing women or vice versa has existed forever. It’s those kinds of things that I just found amazing in the research.

Sticky Fingers’ Sweets and New York Cheesecake Cupcakes

By Monika Wysocki

A self-described “Jew-talian from New York,” Doron Petersan grew up in the land of Jewish delis, bagels, cannoli and knishes. But after assisting with a surgery in a veterinarian’s office and realizing that the flesh of the dog looked just like chicken she had just eaten, Petersan began to look for new ways to cook her favorite foods without using animal products. Her kitchen experiments, combined with courses in food science at the University of Maryland, eventually led to the birth of Washington, DC bakery Sticky Fingers Sweets & Eats, and cupcake recipes like the George Caramelin (chocolate cinnamon cupcake, filled with bourbon caramel) that have beat out non-vegan competitors twice on Food Network’s baking competition, “Cupcake Wars.”

In her new cookbook, Sticky Fingers’ Sweets, Petersan shares the secrets behind 100 of the bakery’s hugely popular recipes—everything from tiramisu to red velvet cake to key lime pie—and not an egg or an ounce of butter in sight. Moment Magazine sat down with Petersan at the Columbia Heights bakery to find out about her favorite Jewish foods, the cupcakes that made her a celeb chef and the recipes that elude her to this day.

MM: In Sticky Fingers’ Sweets, you call yourself a “Jew-talian from New York.” What was it like growing up there and how important was food to your family?

DP: I grew up in a household that celebrated every type of food. Every single Italian deli or Jewish deli in New York that you walk into, there’s this sort of Italian-Jewish hybrid food where it’s like, pizza, bagels, calzones… It’s just a constant meshing of the two cultures—the Jewish and the Italian food groups. Even though I went to junior high and high school in upstate New York, my family is from Queens, so I would always head over there for every holiday and every family gathering. So, I did grow up eating a lot of Jewish foods, but it was all one to me really. It was just New York food. These days, I would say that I identify with a more Mediterranean style of eating.

MM: If you had to pick just one, what would be your favorite Jewish food?

DP: I would say my all-time favorite is latkes. We made them here at Sticky Fingers this year during Hanukkah, and then during Purim we made apricot hamantaschen, which was really fun. We’re definitely learning how to introduce foods that are not as common in DC and really be able to enjoy making them…and eating them!

MM: What led you to open up a vegan bakery in Washington, DC?

DP: When I first decided to go vegetarian, I went home and ate every single one of my favorite foods in my grandmother’s house—chicken cutlets, meatballs. I just emptied out the fridge and the freezer, because I thought I’d never get to eat them again. But soon I realized that I could still make the flavors I was missing and I really loved. I was taking some food science classes at the University of Maryland and suddenly realized that a lot of the ingredients that came from animal products could easily be tweaked using some food science techniques to come up with the vegan counterparts. I didn’t want to have to suffer or risk not being vegetarian, so that led to the creation of the bakery. Although we started off as a bakery, we quickly realized that people are going to pass out from sugar overdoses, so when we expanded into Columbia Heights, we included a café, so now we have everything from sandwiches to soups, salads, and wraps. But we’re still really known for our vegan baked goods. You can go anywhere and find a veggie burger but you rarely find an egg-free, dairy-free cupcake.

MM: As a two-time winner of Food Network’s “Cupcake Wars,” you’re definitely known for your cupcakes. What do you think is behind the cupcake craze in Washington, DC, New York and across the country?

DP: They’re the perfect little hand-held dessert. They’re the perfect size, just enough to satiate a sugar craving, and they’re inexpensive. We sell more cupcakes than anything else in the store and the chocolate cupcake is our most popular cupcake. But if you had to pick one individual item that we sell the most, it’s a toss-up between our cinnamon sticky bun and our Calvin cookie, which is an oatmeal sandwich cookie filled with frosting.

MM: Do you have a vegan cannoli recipe in the works?

DP: Yeah, I talk about cannoli a lot. My mother’s side of the family is Sicilian and we’re very particular about the flavor of the filling. So I’ve had a lot of cannoli in my life and tried a lot of vegan cannoli, and I have not found the right combination yet, but it’s something I’m actively working on. I promise we’ll get it!

New York Cheesecake Cupcakes

(adapted from Sticky Fingers’ Sweets)

Crust

  • 1.5 cups almond flour
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon almond extract
  • 2 tablespoons non-hydrogenated vegan margarine (recommended: Earth Balance)

Filling

  • 2 cups non-hydrogenated vegan cream cheese softened (recommended: Tofutti)
  • 2 cups vegan sour cream (recommended: Tofutti)
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 2 teaspoons egg replacer (recommended: Ener-G)
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/4  teaspoon lemon zest
  • 1/4  teaspoon orange zest
  • 1/4  cup all-purpose flour

Directions:

Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit and line two 12-cup muffin tins.

For the crust:  In a medium bowl, mix together the almond flour, the sugar, and the almond extract. In a small heavy-bottomed saucepan, melt the margarine. Add the melted margarine to the sugar mixture and stir to combine. Fill the muffin cups with the two tablespoons of the crust mixture each and press the mixture into the bottom of the muffin cups. Set aside while you make the filling.

Make the filling: In the bowl of a stand mixer whip the cream cheese with a paddle attachment until soft, 1 to 2 minutes. Scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl and add the sour cream and sugar. Cream together the ingredients until fluffy, 3 to 5 minutes. In a small bowl, whisk together the egg replacer and water to dissolve the egg replacer. Add the egg replacer to the sugar mixture and mix until incorporated. Add the vanilla, lemon zest, and mix until incorporated. Scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl to ensure that all the ingredients are mixed together. Add the flour and mix.

Fill the twelve prepared almond-crust cups with the cream cheese filling until the filling reaches the top of the muffin liners. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, until the tops begin to brown. Cool completely on a cooling rack. Refrigerate for 1 to 2 hours to firm the cupcakes before serving.

Hungry? Sticky Fingers Sweets & Eats is in Columbia Heights, on Park Road between 13th and 14th streets—and everything in the café is baked on the premises. Sticky Fingers’ baked goods are also available for purchase in the Mid-Atlantic region at natural foods stores and Whole Foods. Have a knack for baking? Petersan’s recipe book, Sticky Fingers’ Sweets, is on sale at the bakery, as well as on her website.

Aviva Kempner and “The Rosenwald Schools”

By Monika Wysocki

In celebration of Black History Month, the National Archives in Washington, DC hosted a preview of Aviva Kempner’s newest film, The Rosenwald Schools, which chronicles the story of Chicago businessman and philanthropist Julius Rosenwald. Inspired by the social justice-oriented teachings of his rabbi, Emil Hirsch, and Booker T. Washington’s book, Up From Slavery, Rosenwald helped finance more than 5,000 schools for black children and awarded scholarships to up-and-coming luminaries such as W. E. B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes and Ralph Ellison.

Speaking to a packed room last week, Kempner shared the stage with Stephanie Deutsch, author of You Need a Schoolhouse: Booker T. Washington, Julius Rosenwald, and the Building of Schools for the Segregated South. Moment caught up with Kempner after the event to find out more about this fascinating bit of history.

MM: What is the message of The Rosenwald Schools, and how is it different from your previous works?

AK: I make films about under-known Jewish heroes. In my previous films, all the characters are battling a particular kind of “ism”—in Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg it was sexism, in Partisans of Vilna it was fascism, and in The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg it was anti-Semitism. In this again, we have an under-known Jewish hero, Julius Rosenwald, and an “ism”—racism. And he takes his mission very seriously in terms of providing funding for education and housing for black Americans. He was so inspired by Booker T. Washington’s book and realized that in the south there was such an incredible need for education.

 
MM: What initially drew you to this story?

AK: It’s an essential part of American history, a part of Jewish-American history. Julius Rosenwald was a man who gave away 62 million dollars in his lifetime, which today if you do the math would probably be more like a billion dollars. And he believed that his money should serve the public good; he started small in the Jewish community and then eventually really changed the world. He made a difference for 600,000 black children in the South, and he made a difference in Chicago. And it wasn’t for his greater glory—it was to make a difference in our society, which is very admirable, and it was decades and decades before the civil rights movement.

MM: What kind of response to the preview have you gotten from the Jewish and African American communities?

AK: On the one hand, the subject of the film is very esoteric and not well known outside of people who know Chicago history or are big philanthropists. But even though it’s not as well known, it’s something that’s very compelling to all different types of viewers. Today’s response, with people becoming very enthusiastic about sharing their own stories, is very typical. I always have people saying “My relative received a Rosenwald fellowship but I didn’t know much about it before this…” or “This is fascinating, I want to know more.” But, I had more tears at the preview at the Jewish Film Festival.

 
MM: What are some of the common misconceptions or little-known facts about the relationship between Jews and African Americans in the United States?

AK: The most important unknown fact is that there was this incredible working relationship between Julius Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington that resulted in over 5,000 schools for black children, decades before the civil rights movement. Today, they’re actually rebuilding these schools to make community centers and other things. The irony with Julius Rosenwald was that he never went to college himself but was a huge advocate of education. But there’s a commonality there in terms of valuing education.

 
MM: What kind of impact do you hope The Rosenwald Schools will have?

AK: Julius Rosenwald is one of these unsung heroes that can be a role model for us all. I hope audiences will walk away with a desire to learn more, and be inspired to get involved in philanthropy in their own lives. This is an incredible story of one man, one fund, one community working together that shows that matching grants really make a difference. The better educated you are, the more compassion you have, the more you tend to embrace your fellow human beings.

MM: When can audiences expect the see the finished film?

AK: Depending on the funding, it will either be done near the end of this year or early next year. If anyone is interested in donating to the project, they can do so by visiting the Ciesla foundation website or the film website.

For more on this topic, check out our previously published exclusive photo essay on Jews and African Americans. http://momentmag.com/Exclusive/2009/02/Jews-Blacks-1.html

Are You There God? It’s Me, Moment

Know a kid who loves to read and write? Tell her about Moment’s annual Publish-A-Kid contest, in which we invite young readers to write reviews of some of our favorite childhood books. The contest is accepting submissions through February 15.. Winning reviews may be published in an upcoming issue. Read last year’s winning submissions here, and find out more about the contest on our website.

What We’re Reading–The Musical Edition

  • Guys, did you know that there are Jewish rappers other than Drake? It’s. True. Forbes has a whole list, though we object to the use of the term “rap” in reference to whatever it is Mac Miller is doing. The Beastie Boys’ possession of the top spot may not be surprising, but we have to ask: have they been relevant since 1998?
  • Carrie Brownstein, the guitarist formerly of the band Sleater-Kinney and currently writing and starring in the hipster-skewering television show Portlandia, is having a moment: her show’s gearing up for its second season, and she’s helming a new band called Wild Flag. You’re making the rest of us look bad, Brownstein.

–Sala Levin

The Rise of Jews in the True North

By Scott Fox

Last week, Canada’s Consul General came to talk at my school (Carleton College in Minnesota) about the importance of the United States’ relationship with Canada. But what actually came across was a recruitment speech for joining our Northern neighbor. To tell the truth, I was nearly convinced as he mentioned the country’s comparatively low national unemployment (around six percent), government-provided healthcare for all and its drive for new immigrants.

I’m not the only American looking to Canada for a brighter future. In 2007, the number of American citizens moving to Canada reached its highest rate in 30 years—and the numbers have only been climbing since.

But what does Canada offer Jews? If you’re a Canada-curious American Jew thinking of heading North, don’t worry aboot the lack of Canadian yiddishkeit. Even though they’re usually overlooked, Canadian Jews have a rich culture and history in North America just like their American counterparts. In fact, Canada is home to the fourth largest Jewish population in the world, only standing behind the United States, Israel and France.

Around 375,000 Jews live in Canada—just over one percent of the national population—and are concentrated in the Toronto and Montreal metropolitan areas. And according to writer Jonathan Rosenblum, 74 percent of Canadian Jews have visited Israel—twice the rate of American Jews.

Canadian Jews experienced a somewhat parallel history as their American counterparts. Jews first came to Canada in large numbers between 1880 and 1930 from Eastern Europe. Most settled in Montreal, but rising Jewish immigration also led to rising anti-Semitism. The city’s French Catholic leadership supported discrimination against Jews in housing and employment, and a homegrown French Nazi movement also flourished in the 1930s. However, after World War II, anti-Semitism declined, and during the Quebec separatist movement of the 1970s, most Jews left for Toronto due to their strong opposition to the movement.

In the realm of entertainment, Jews have been as prolific in Canada as in the United States. Recording artist and actor Drake, one of Canada’s biggest stars, identifies as Jewish, attended Jewish day school and had a bar mitzvah. “My mother is Jewish and we have great Jewish dinners on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur,” he says.

The most popular sitcom in Canadian history was “King of Kensington,” which starred the late Al Waxman, who was born in Toronto to Jewish immigrants from Poland. Leonard Cohen, whose grandfather was the founding president of the Canadian Jewish Congress, is the Canuck answer to Bob Dylan. And of course the greatest Canadian entertainer of all is Jewish William Shatner.

And much of what we consider American-Jewish humor is actually Canadian-Jewish. Lome Michaels, Eugene Levy and Seth Rogen are among other funny makers who grew up in Canada. Rogen, whose parents met at an Israeli kibbutz, was born in Vancouver and got his start by performing stand-up routines at bar mitzvahs. His early jokes usually revolved around his Jewish upbringing. His hit film, Superbad, was co-written with Evan Goldberg, a friend Rogen met in bar mitzvah class. In another movie, Funny People, Rogen even wears a “Super Jew” t-shirt that has the Superman “S” inside a Star of David. Canadian literature also has its own major Jewish writer, Mordecai Richler, a foulmouthed version of Saul Bellow and Phillip Roth wrapped into Tim Horton’s pancake.

Becoming Canadian wouldn’t even mean shifting your taste buds that much. Like American Jews, Canadian Jews love deli food, but with French-inspired touches. Montreal-style bagels are smaller, sweeter, denser and have a larger hole than traditional New York bagels. Deli meat is also smoked Montreal-style with less sugar and more peppercorns and coriander than American salted, cured meats.

Hearing about the exciting world of Canadian Jewry almost makes me want to say, “Next year in Mississauga!” But I don’t think I can handle the Montreal-style bagel.

Auslander in the Attic

by Sala Levin

The Holocaust, as Michael Scott so wisely taught us, is one thing we just can’t joke about. (Scott’s other taboos? JFK and AIDS, though the Lincoln assassination was only recently crossed off that list.) But Shalom Auslander, well, bless him, he’s trying. The angry writer behind Foreskin’s Lament recently released a series of book trailers (entitled “The Attic Calls”) for his forthcoming novel, Hope: A Tragedy. In the trailers, Auslander pleads with fellow Semite Ira Glass and friends-of-the-Jews Sarah Vowell and John Hodgman to shelter him and his family if–let’s be real, in Auslander’s mind  it’s when–there’s another Holocaust.

Auslander isn’t the first Jewish writer to wade into the world of book trailers: Last year, Gary Shteyngart released a hilarious trailer featuring everyone’s favorite post-graduate-degree-collecting Jewish dreamboat James Franco and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Jeffrey Eugenides. But Shteyngart only mocked himself; Auslander goes a step further, probing the perceived Jewish proclivity for pathos and pessimism. Another Holocaust is on its way, Auslander says–so make plans now.

So can the Holocaust be funny? Well, the trailers are. (In one notably absurd moment, Glass suggests that, should the need arise, his family and Auslander’s can buy a house boat and “moor somewhere off of the Florida Keys for a few years.”) Jews, after all, have a long tradition of turning tragedy into comedy, of finding levity in a seemingly endless line of sorrows. And the target of Auslander’s biting humor in these trailers isn’t really the Holocaust. In one scene that perhaps perfectly encapsulates much of the Jewish experience, Auslander and his family play in the woods during a rainstorm; he pushes his children on a tire swing and his dogs frolic as drops of water pound down on them. This is the point: It rains, and we play. What alternative is there?

Editor’s Note: Want a chance for Shalom Auslander to read your writing? Send in your submissions for Moment’s 2011 Memoir Contest, to be judged by, well, you guessed it, Shalom Auslander. Deadline is December 31st; find out more here.

Helen Schulman on This Beautiful Life

by Beth Kissileff

Helen Schulman is the author of novel This Beautiful Life, her fifth novel, which takes on the contemporary issue of privacy and the Internet. The plot is ripped from the headlines of The New York Times: A teenage girl sends an older boy a graphic video of herself in extremely sexualized positions. The boy, unsure how to respond, forwards the video to his closest friend for advice. It goes viral and he is soon called into the office of his New York prep school’s headmaster. The aftermath of the boy’s suspension from school creates extreme tension for his parents and younger sister, fraying their thinning family ties. While there are not explicitly Jewish themes in the book, the mother and children are Jewish characters; certainly Jews need to be aware of a tale of a Jewish family facing an issue that is part of modern life. It is a cautionary tale of making (potentially) public through the Internet what in all other eras would remain a solely private affair. IntheMoment spoke with  Schulman about her work.

What is the task of a novelist today?

I can only talk about my task. I’m not prescriptive about other writers’ work. Everyone has their own passions and ideas. Manifestos about fiction are kind of silly, I think, although they do draw a lot of attention to themselves, which is probably why writers sometimes write them.

What I hoped to do in my last two books (A Day At the Beach and This Beautiful Life) was write about the way we live now.

Why did you choose to write with Daisy [the character who sends the suggestive video] at the novel’s opening and closing but never in the middle?

I wanted to begin by casting a spell over the story, and I hope the prologue turns the reader into a voyeur of sorts, almost as if the reader herself were sent the video. This was something I hit upon well into the first draft of writing the book.

I ended with Daisy because I think she hovers over the whole story, the mystery of who she is and who she may become, and I hope that her resolution sheds light on some of the ideas I was wrestling with throughout the book. I found her both resilient in terms of her life force and devastatingly sad.

I want to ask about the character Liz as a mother  – is she too involved or not enough?

I think she is both too involved and not involved enough. It is extremely difficult to be a good parent. Life is very complicated, made up of rainbow shades of gray, and our internal contradictions and conflicts are what make us human. Liz needs to both let go of her children and hold on to them; it’s her timing that is sometimes off. I think she is a person who when faced with lousy choices makes worse ones. She loves her children with all her heart. In some ways she is blinded by that love.

What is going on with the women’s roles in this novel?

There is a phenomenon I have seen where many well-educated women, lawyers and Ph.D.s and MBAs, for example, don’t work. They often don’t work for good, loving, parental reasons – they want to raise their children, and their former careers and their husbands’ present ones don’t allow for much flexibility. These women are smart and capable, and I was interested in the choices that they made (because they have choices). What happens when you take well-trained people out of the workforce —where do their energies go? How do they feel about themselves? How valued are they? What happens to women when their self-worth is wrapped up in the home and in their appearance? What is the effect on the children they raise?

How do the Jewish identities of Liz and Jake [mother and son] impact them?

Liz is Jewish, and so are her children. Her husband is not. They have had a good marriage up until this point and they love each other, but there is some tension over their mixed status in the marriage, which adds  another layer of complexity to their relationship. I think moving to New York City offers both a sense of relief and new kind of self-recognition for Jake as a Jew.

Are there Jewish themes in the book?

Liz would probably identify herself as a secular Jew, and if she were to attend a temple it would be a Reformed temple. I think that for most of her life she has tried to live an ethical life and she has a lefty, liberal sense about her. She believes in social justice. She believes in the power of education. A lot of her ideas about how to live and construct a life get shaken when Jake forwards the email and she quickly realizes that they, her family, are in over their heads. Although her first impulse is to have her son apologize and own his behavior, she is dissuaded as soon as she realizes that the other parents and the school itself are pulling out the big guns. It’s then that she loses her ethical bearings and betrays her own moral code. She says to her husband  ‘I want you to be an a—hole”[to deal with the problem]. In an effort to save their child, both parents do things they never thought they would do.

The characters who are willing to reveal themselves online are Liz’s former flame Feigenbaum and Daisy.  What connects them?

What is so fascinating about the Internet is that we can reach almost anyone at almost any time, anywhere in the world. Yet we often simultaneously forget this fact –that once sent or posted our messages, images, etc. can indeed go to almost anyone, anywhere, at any time. And at this point, there is no taking them back.

Adults and teenagers make  the same mistakes (look at Anthony Weiner, for instance). We’ve been given this monumental gift, this ability to connect, and we don’t yet truly understand its ramifications. Politically, the Internet provides exciting capabilities –look at how it helped to inspire the Arab Spring. But Twitter and Facebook also helped to perpetuate the London uprisings. Somehow, I don’t think we realize fully what happens when we give up privacy and the inability to wipe the slate clean.  With the Internet, forgetting is over.

A Boy Named David

by Symi Rom-Rymer

David, the recently released feature film directed by Joel Fendelman and written by Fendelman and Patrick Daly, sets out to tell one story, but ends up telling two. The first is about the accidental meeting of two boys, Daud and Yoav, one Muslim, and one Jewish, from the Bay Ridge neighborhood of Brooklyn who manage to break out of their religious bubbles and form an unlikely friendship. The second is the story of the accidental meeting of the same two boys, one the son of immigrant parents and the other of American parents.

In the first story, religion plays a complex role: at once uniting and dividing the protagonists. Initially, it is the reason Daud and Yoav meet. Eleven year-old Yoav forgets his prayer book on a park bench after studying with his friends.  Watching from afar, Daud, a somber and often lonely child, is curious about the boy who seems as intent on his religious studies as he is on his. Noticing the forgotten book, Daud tries to return it. Unfortunately, Yoav is too far away to hear him. Daud follows him to his yeshiva only to find the door locked. When he returns the following day, he is mistaken for a lost pupil and shepherded into a class.

Now calling himself David, he suddenly finds friendships in the yeshiva classroom that had previously eluded him. Soon, his life is full of basketball and splashing in the waves at Coney Island. As euphoric as he is with his new friendship, Daud is still insecure, driving a wedge into the boys’ otherwise genuine friendship. Daud is fearful to admit the truth about his religion. He remembers his father’s admonition that “Jews don’t like Arabs” and does not believe that his new friends would accept him if they knew who he really was.

That fear is present throughout the film. Indeed, one could come away from the film thinking of Muslims as dour and Jews as joyful. The main Muslim characters seem to have little happiness with their lives, grappling as they are with seemingly insurmountable obstacles: traditional parents, feelings of exile and heavy spiritual responsibilities (Daud’s father is the Imam for their community). Daud’s interactions with his parents are serious and reserved. By contrast, the Jewish characters seem to be the picture of confidence. Yoav jokes easily with his family and friends and laughingly drags Daud on various adventures around New York City.

What saves the film from falling into simplistic clichés is that there is a larger context for these behaviors. The boys are not only of different religious backgrounds, but also have vastly different connections to the United States.  Daud’s immigrant fammily and the serious atmosphere of his home life underscores the struggles newcomers to America often face. How will religious and other traditions be passed on from one generation to the next in a country that prides itself on its plurality? Will family ties be broken if one member leaves home to go to college? What is the best way to keep a family together in the face of an unfamiliar culture?

Yoav and his parents, on the other hand, appear to face few, if any, of these existential concerns.  Instead, they exude instead a more light-hearted demeanor that suggests a sense of security and well-being in the United States.

According to the filmmakers, they set out to tell the story of what happens when two boys from Muslim and Jewish backgrounds become friends in the absence of political and historical baggage—building from the premise that the power of basketball is stronger than that of religious stereotypes. Yet as they show it, while a love of sports and a case of mistaken identity may mask the boys’ overt differences, they cannot escape their backgrounds. Daud’s struggles with internal doubt over who he is casts a pall over his growing friendship with Yoav, who cannot understand his friend’s personal turmoil.

The filmmakers may have missed the target of their original conceit, but they have succeeded in presenting a heartfelt coming-of-age story about a young boy searching for what it means to live in the United States as the child of immigrants and as a Muslim. Hopefully one day, he will figure it out.

Tell Us Your Story!

Moment‘s annual Short Fiction and Memoir Contests are currently accepting submissions! The Moment-Karma Foundation Short Fiction Contest, established in 2000, is an international contest that encourages writers of all faiths to submit short fiction about a subject related to Judaism or Jewish culture or history. Past judges include Jonathan Safran Foer, Geraldine Brooks, Anita Diamant, Nicole Krauss and Dara Horn.

Moment‘s Memoir Contest celebrates the rich and diverse narratives of the Jewish people by asking entrants to submit short personal essys or memoirs about themselves or their families that have some Jewish content or connection.

The deadline for both contests is December 31. For more information, please visit Moment‘s website or email us at editor@momentmag.com.