Monthly Archives: December 2011

A Few of Our Favorite Things

The end of the year brings Hanukkah, Christmas, the stress of finding the perfect New Year’s Eve plans and a barrage of best-of lists. Christmas and Hanukkah are now behind us, and we may not be able to help with the New Year’s plans, but here are a few of the best things we read and saw this year.

Chathexis,” n+1; “On Gchat” by Caroline Bankoff, Thought Catalog; “Chat History” by Rebecca Armendariz, Good Magazine

Gchat is how we talk now–our lives a connect-the-dots of green, orange, red and gray. A generation of us now finds one another communicating in a new language from behind the gleaming shields of computer screens, becoming experts in the Gchat deadpan (“i think i kind of like drake. is that wrong.”) and in parsing the social nuances of the medium (“oh he just went orange. so i guess he’s really not there?”). The Gchat essay took off this year, with these three–ruminating on the evolution of the Internet chat, the ins and outs of Gchat etiquette and the memory of a deceased lover kept alive by Gchat logs–notably probing both the depths and limitations of the tool.

The Aquarium” by Aleksandar Hemon, The New Yorker

Aleksandar Hemon’s account (subscription-only, unfortunately) of his nine-month-old daughter succumbing to brain cancer is as it should be: painfully sad, the kind of sad that makes you wonder how anyone can stand it. Dying children in fiction can be a kind of manipulation, often a cue for an emotional response without really earning it; in nonfiction, the weight of truth is nearly too much to bear. But Hemon tells a story you can’t turn away from, one that doesn’t pretend to glean a lesson from his family’s ordeal: “One of the most despicable religious fallacies is that suffering is ennobling—that it is a step on the path to some kind of enlightenment or salvation. Isabel’s suffering and death did nothing for her, or us, or the world. We learned no lessons worth learning; we acquired no experience that could benefit anyone.”

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

It’s about baseball, for God’s sake–not a topic in which the Moment staff is particularly well-versed. You want to know the best Dylan album? No problem. (Blood on the Tracks, in the not-so-humble opinion of this writer.) Which Israeli television show to watch? Gotcha covered. (Srugim, duh, have you seen Breger’s blog? Check those comments! She’s famous.) But baseball? Oy. It’s a sad day when the writer of this blog post has to be the one to explain that a low ERA is better than a high one. But this book snagged us by combining richly developed characters with some exceptionally lovely writing: “He was five or six, he was cutting pumpkins in the sun with his father. The tiny sere needles of stems bit through his cotton gloves and stung his hands. Still he loved the pumpkins, he could not lift the big ones, and the field all around was autumn brown.”

You Blow My Mind. Hey, Mickey!” by John Jeremiah Sullivan, The New York Times Magazine

Yeah, yeah, consider us bandwagon-jumpers, but this story of sneaking pot into Disneyworld had us at Lil’ Dog. Sullivan, as everyone knows by now, is an immensely gifted storyteller, with an eye for the perfect detail (“By the time we lurched into our appointed spot in one of the moonscape Disney World lots, gestured toward it by a series of old men, all showing the same drunk-on-power stone-facedness, it was raining too hard to get out of the vehicle”) and a capacity for remarkable imagery (“The camper containing Shell, Trevor, Flora and Lil’ Dog moved south-southeast from Chattanooga. We were converging like lines on a graphing calculator”). To paraphrase Sullivan: the brother is always, always good.

Yelping with Cormac

Cormac McCarthy’s stark writing style, full of stoic characters and unadorned sentences, is ripe for parodying. And this blog–which imagines McCarthy writing reviews of Olive Garden, Ikea and the like for Yelp–has McCarthy-mimicry down to an art. Take this faux-review of Berkeley Slow Food mecca Chez Panisse: “His eyes fixed beyond the warm glow of the restaurant to a middle distance known only to him, to a home on a wasted prairie and those men and the outrage he’d born witness to and his promise to them on that day and the years that followed hunting and waiting and one by one he delivered his promise to each of them and with their money he bought this food and this wine and he could taste none of it.” Sometimes the Internet just gets it right.

And finally, this.

Happy new year, everyone!

–Sala Levin

The Dybbuk of Christmas Past

By Matthew Kassel

Christmas doesn’t mean much to me anymore, though for the first ten years of my life, it was my favorite holiday. Pretty standard, even for a Jewish child, to be drawn in with eager spirit by that yuletide festivity. But you might wonder: why only ten years?

In my fourth year of elementary school, my parents decided that our family would stop celebrating Christmas, and that abrupt halt, to me, signaled the end of an era. Why were we, a secular Jewish family, celebrating this holiday in the first place? Well, as a child, my mom adored Christmas; she celebrated the holiday every year with her paternal grandmother. (My grandfather, her dad, converted to Judaism for my grandmother, a child of Depression-era Brownsville.)

Growing up, my mom was drawn in by the whole Christian aesthetic—not the Jesus stuff, but the sentimentality, the songs, the cookies. I think she wanted to share that with me and my brother and my dad, because it was a part of her.

We observed Hanukkah as a cultural rite, with a menorah and prayer and latkes. (We still do.) But I remember savoring Christmas more—the mystery and excitement of it all—and it’s hard for me to explain why my parents put an end to it. There was the obvious monetary challenge of doing two gift-heavy holidays at once. Then there remained the more ambiguous reason. We were becoming a Jewish family—my brother had just had his bar mitzvah—and celebrating Christmas didn’t seem to make sense anymore. That’s not to say I wanted it to stop at the time, but I don’t remember putting up any sort of fight.

My mom has a funny and slightly sad anecdote from her childhood. As a young girl, she asked her mother if their family was “church” or “temple.” When my grandmother authoritatively replied with a “temple,” my mom got upset, telling her that wasn’t what she wanted.  Too bad, my grandmother replied. That’s the way it is.

I remember waking up the first morning without Christmas and feeling this sort of emptiness that, in retrospect, reads as slightly funny and slightly tragic at the same time. The mystery was gone. It was too bad, as my grandmother might put it. But a new mystery had been put in its place.

For a few years after my parents put an end to Christmas, we still put stockings on the mantle the night before. It wasn’t the same without the tree, the morning excitement, the gleeful gentility of it all. I figured, with some regret, that we couldn’t go back. But frankly, I’m not sure if I’d want to now, even though I still envy the holiday.

Christmas is, however tenuously, a part of my past. I can’t ignore it.  I’m still drawn in by the anticipation, the cozy insularity of the holiday.  The difference for the last thirteen years of my life has been that Christmas now makes me feel like an outsider.

What I didn’t know that first morning I woke up without Christmas was that the combined absence and presence of a holiday I had come to love, the push and pull of two opposing yet highly enmeshed worlds, could have, for the first time in my life, presented me with a clue to what being Jewish might mean.

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Living in Israel But Were Afraid to Ask

by Erica Shaps

It's best not to think about how many people have touched these challahs.

In a few weeks, I will be coming to the end of seven months spent in Israel. When I first arrived, I thought I was pretty familiar with the cultural differences and knew what to expect. For the most part, I was correct. But there are moments that remind me of the small differences that go unnoticed but say a lot about this complicated society that I have grown to love. So, here is a list of ten observations, in no particular order that I have made while in Israel.

Here goes:

1. I don’t care how badly you are craving Bamba or pop rock chocolate–never, under any circumstances, go to a grocery store on a Friday before Shabbat. You know what a grocery store looks like leading up to Thanksgiving? Well, that’s what it’s like every week. So unless you feel like having your toes run over by shopping carts and waiting in line for 30 minutes while a woman argues with the cashier over the cost of coffee, wait until Sunday.

2. For some reason, no two English road-sign translations match, and they often are spelled quite awkwardly. Yes, Petach Tikva and Petach Tiqwa are, in fact, the same place. Don’t ask me why signs a couple kilometers a part don’t match or why the Israeli bureaucracy cannot distinguish between a k and a q or a v and a w.

3. There is a correct way to eat hummus. Forks should never be necessary.

4. There is only one legitimate way to wash the floor: Sponga (also known as a squeegee or magav). For some reason, either no one has been brilliant enough to bring the Swiffer to Israel, or the Swiffer cannot compete with the charmingly authentic and ridiculously inefficient sponga. How does this national cleaning supply work? First, pick up everything off the floor and move all the furniture. Then, dump a pail of soapy water all over the floor and use the sponga to push the water across the house into the always inconveniently located drain. For maximum cleaning, place a rag with a hole around the sponga. You will never understand it, but eventually acceptance is unavoidable.

5. Jewish foods have different names here. Hamentaschen are oznai Haman. Latkes are leviot. Apparently, I have been using Yiddish words instead of Hebrew words for Jewish things my whole life and often didn’t realize it!

6. Buying challah at the shuk (open market) is an unsanitary art form. Pick up a challah (no gloves required of course), squeeze it to judge its freshness, and even smell it if you would like. Repeat this process until you find the challah that is just right. The same process can be applied to basically all fresh produce at the shuk. It’s okay, a few germs are good for you.

7. If you want anything approximating a fair taxi price, be ready to argue, aggressively, with the driver. No, traffic should not make this trip 35 shekels more than it did yesterday.

8. In spite of the lack of Costco or Walmart, it appears to be impossible to buy toilet paper in less than 36 packs. If anyone has counter-information please let me know, because I could use a roll or two.

9. Mattresses are not actual mattresses–at least, not where I’ve lived. Instead, they are large, thick foam pads that I lovingly refer to as “yoga mats on steroids.”

10. On a Friday afternoon before Shabbat, the only things on television are cooking shows. So, after surviving a pre-Shabbat grocery store adventure, your TV will remind you that you should be cooking Shabbat dinner. Talk about Jewish guilt.

A Cemetery Story

Berlin's Weissensee Cemetery (courtesy of Seventh Art Releasing)

A documentary about a cemetery: It may not sound like much of a crowd-pleaser, but the German film In Heaven, Underground, directed by Britta Wauer and tracking the 131-year history of Europe’s second-largest Jewish cemetery, has been garnering some high praise. Last month, the New York Times called the movie, about the Jewish Weissensee Cemetery in Berlin, “poetic and exquisite.” Wauer spoke with Moment‘s Sala Levin about the past and present of Berlin’s Jewish residents.

What inspired the film?

It was not my idea—five years ago a program director from a Berlin television station asked me to make a film about this cemetery. I knew the cemetery and found it very special, but I felt that it wasn’t a good idea to make a film about it. You can walk in there and look around, and you can read online about the famous people buried there, so why make a film? I thought that no one would be interested. The only thing I was interested in were the stories behind the graves that hadn’t been told yet, so I tried to find people who are related in any way to the cemetery—people who have ancestors there, but also maybe people who work there. I had no idea how to find them. I wrote a article in a magazine called Aktuell published by the Berlin government for ex-Berliners. Many of them had to leave during the Nazi reign, so most of them are Jewish. I wrote a little article about the cemetery saying that if there was someone who wanted to help me by sharing their memorikes or photos, they would be welcome to write me or call me. I hoped for 20 or 30 responses. In two weeks we had 215 letters from everywhere: Australia, South Africa, South America. I was really overwhelmed. I thought, ‘Okay, I can think about really making a film.’ And then I had another problem: which stories to choose.

Most of the stories were related to Nazis and the Holocaust. I didn’t want to use stories only from this period, so I tried to find stories from the 1900s, when most Jewish people were really proud to be German and Jewish. I tried to find people with stories from post-war times, when the cemetery belonged to East Berlin. I tried to find stories from each time, for each period. I always chose from the unknown, the non-famous people, because you can read about the other ones in books or online.

What role does Weissensee play in the consciousness of the German public?

Most Berliners have heard of Weissensee, but never went there, though there were always people who were interested and went there. There’s a German term for this kind of Jewish cemetery—they call it an orphan cemetery, because all the relatives [of those buried there] were murdered or had to leave Germany. There’s no one really to take care of it. In the 1950s, the German government decided that they were responsible for Jewish cemeteries because they killed the people in charge, or forced them to flee. There are also private citizens who want to help, who go to the registry and say, ‘I really want to do something. What can I do?’ The people at the registry might say, ‘These are graves of families who committed suicide, so there’s really no one who can take care of the graves. If you want to, you’re welcome to.’ They choose one or two graves and say, ‘I’m the one who goes there now because there’s no one left to do this job.’ So for every birthday or date of death there’s someone coming, sometimes with flowers, or to put stones on it. They feel responsible for it. We, the Germans, are responsible. But there are also governmental intitiatives to take care of the mausoleums, because they say, ‘That’s something that belongs to our culture, and we have to preserve it.’

Are there other Jewish cemeteries in Berlin?

Since the eighteenth century, there were three Jewish cemeteries, but they were completely filled, so they had to open a new one. The oldest one was completely destroyed by Nazis. The next one closed in 1880, when Weissensee was opened. That one is untouched—it’s overgrown and really little compared to the Weissensee cemetery. Weissensee is the third Jewish cemetery. There are also other ones in that area that were destroyed.

There’s another Jewish cemetery in the west part of Berlin, which was opened around 1956. The Jewish community uses both of the cemeteries, but the plots in the West Berlin cemetery are all reserved now; they don’t have any space for Soviet Union Jews. So all the families who came here in the last 20 years from the former Soviet Union are supposed to go to Weissensee.

Can you tell me about contemporary Jewish life in Berlin?

There are some Jewish families in West Berlin. In East Berlin most of them were also communists and not really proud to be Jewish. Right now much of the Jewish community is from the former Soviet Union. Eighty to 90 percent is Russian, and most of them are not speaking German and don’t have any relations to Jewish culture, because they were not allowed to celebrate Jewish traditions in the Soviet Union. Berlin is the fastest-growing Jewish community in the world, but you have to look at the members of the community and see where they’re from and what they’re bringing. That’s why the cemetery changed that much—because the gravestones of the Russians are really different from the older stones. There are also Jewish people from the U.S. or Israel who live here in Berlin, but most of them are not officially members of the Jewish community—they’re just living here, or being an artist. So you find a lot of people on the street who speak Hebrew or people who have Jewish backgrounds, but they’re not in the Jewish community.

Many of your films deal with Jewish topics—where does your interest come from?

Everybody asks me why I’m making Jewish films if I’m not Jewish. It’s not Jewish-themed for me: It’s Berlin’s history, German history. I made a film about a Jewish couple who were also communists and had to escape to the U.S. After the war they were still communists, and had to flee from the McCarthy era, so they went back to Europe. I was really interested to make a film about the older communists who are still believers in the communist system. The ones who lived in America found it much better there. This woman was the founder of the pediatric department in a very famous hospital in Berlin, and my father was one of her students—so I have a special relation to the topic. I made a film about the Jewish quarter here in Berlin, but it was also a communist quarter. I chose this quarter to tell the story of German history over 100 years. That’s the quarter where I grew up, so I was always influenced by Jewish people. I’ve always been interested to know about Jewish people.

Little Jewish School on the Prairie

By Scott Fox

A girls’ high school catering to Orthodox Jews in the little town of Bricelyn, Minnesota, population 340.  Sounds crazy, no? On the surface, The Minnesota Girls Academy (MGA) seems unusual for several reasons, which could be a reason for its lack of success. The school opened in 2009, but was forced to shut down earlier this year after running out of money to operate. Yet it is a needed resource for a community that is sometimes unnoticed.

People sometimes assume that due to their devout nature, teens in Orthodox Jewish communities in places like Borough Park, Brooklyn, do not succumb to self-destructive behavior like abusing drugs or alcohol, cutting themselves, or  suffering from eating disorders. Teens facing emotional and/or behavioral challenges, also known as at-risk teenagers, are not only just as prevalent in Orthodox communities but have become a growing problem there recent years. A  New York Times article from April featured rabbinic leaders confronting a growing of number of teenage girls in their community dealing with eating disorders.

MGA, also known as the Miryam Ghermezian Academy, was devoted to putting the lives of at-risk teenage girls on the right track. Its student body was entirely composed of girls from Orthodox communities in the U.S., U.K. and Israel. The school was the first Jewish-run therapeutic boarding school in the U.S.

“In the non-Jewish world, there have been programs running for troubled teens for a long time,” Rabbi A.Y. Weinberg, founder and director of the school, explained. “That left a need for Jewish troubled teens that are searching for some sort of spirituality, which they will not get in a non-Jewish program.”

Going back to the 18th and 19th centuries, there have been Jewish groups, such as local Jewish Family Service organizations across the country, devoted to helping troubled children. However, there had not been a year-round Jewish therapeutic boarding school before MGA.

Why Bricelyn? Weinberg was surprisingly nonchalant in discussing the seemingly unlikely selection of a town 90 miles from the nearest Jewish community (Rochester).

“We came across a vacant public high school with the right price and right location,” he said. “Rural Minnesota is not a problem. Twin Cities Poultry distributes kosher meat and products throughout the Midwest.”

One factor that likely helped Weinberg pick Minnesota was that the company run by the school’s largest benefactor, Don Ghermezian, helped create and currently owns the Mall of America in the suburbs of Minneapolis. MGA has used the Mall of America for fundraising and to educate the girls on life skills and professional experiences. Weinberg also said it is not uncommon for therapeutic boarding schools to be placed in remote areas.

Bricelyn turned out to be a welcoming community for the Jewish educational center that took over the community’s old public school (Bricelyn has become too small for its own school; the nearest public school is in nearby Wells). The local school district helped set up an online-based program for the girls to take classes in English subjects. and has also employed several local residents as dorm staff and cooks. Many of the town’s residents attended the school’s dedication ceremony in 2009 to show their support. Students were also involved in the community by volunteering at local hospitals, schools, and senior centers.

After 19 years spent serving as Midwest Regional Director of National Conference of Synagogue Youth (NCSY), an Orthodox teen group, Weinberg founded MGA’s parent program, Project Extreme, in 2001 when he saw an unfulfilled need in his community for the teens that required the most help. Project Extreme began as a summer camp that took Orthodox Jewish boys and girls whose behavior was alienating themselves from their loved ones and community out to the Canadian Rockies. The program, based out of Long Island, soon introduced weekend and holiday retreats in upstate New York, character-building “Nights on the Town”, and a helpline to provide year-round service.

Starting a full-time school was the next logical extension of the program’s reach. Advertising itself as “kosher, therapeutic, residential setting,” the school opened its doors in 2009 as a year-round facility with a student body of 15. It closed last September.  For now, the school is on hold until a source of outside funding can be discovered.

One could argue that the school’s downfall was its extensive commitment to its students. MGA had ten staff members for its 15 students. Each student’s individualized treatment was overseen by a clinician, program director, assistant program director, program nurse and academic administrator. According to Weinberg, the cost of caring for each student is $75,000 a year. Since each student’s parents are required to only pay what they can afford, much of that $75,000 for each student needs to come from fundraising. Weinberg has so far explored several avenues, including state and federal governments, in search of funding, with no luck.

While it was open, the school was able to attract girls primarily through word-of-mouth in Orthodox communities. Though Project Extreme’s programs are run by Orthodox Jews, separated by gender, and have a solely Orthodox clientele, the program is open to teenagers from all backgrounds and hopes to attract Jews from other denominations in the future. Students at MGA were not required to adopt an Orthodox Jewish lifestyle beyond keeping kashrut and observing Shabbat.

One especially helpful aspect of MGA and Project Extreme is their requirement that all of its staff sign a social contract stating that they will maintain contact with each teen that they work with into adulthood.

“It’s a necessity,” Weinberg explained. “If you run a program, the impact needs to last. If we follow up, the impact lasts or we send them to another program where they need to go to. We need to be there to pick up the pieces when they slip. There’s nothing like helping (these kids). You’re basically saving their life.”

Judaism without Belief in God? Moment Readers Say Yes

Moment Magazine is pleased to announce the winners of the inaugural Elephant in the Room essay contest. This year’s question, “What does it mean to be Jewish without belief in God?” elicited wide-ranging, thought-provoking responses. Essays covered a broad variety of ideas, but an overwhelming majority said it was possible to live a full, rewarding Jewish life without belief in any higher power.

This year’s winners are Craig Hanoch, an Orthodox Jew and author of a forthcoming book on Judaism and nihilism from Highland Park, NJ; Rebecca Van Horn, a 2009 graduate of Bowdoin College working in Chicago as a community and labor organizer; and New York-based Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer, president of The Shalom Hartman Institute of North America and, previously, the inaugural Chair of Jewish Communal Innovation at Brandeis University, where he wrote a soon-to-be-published book on Jewish memory.

“These essays were selected not only for their eloquence, but also for their clear and thoughtful voice and perspective,” says Nadine Epstein, editor and publisher of Moment Magazine.

“To be a Jew is to stand trembling in the embrace of the essential mystery of humanity, that we are possessed of questions we cannot answer,” wrote Hanoch in his essay. “The most secular physicist peering into the far reaches of the universe and the most devout Hasid, swaying at prayer, struggle daily with these same fundamental questions: Why life? Why this here and now rather than something else, rather than nothing at all?”

Wrote Van Horn: “I am the elephant in the room, the Jew who makes us question whether or not it’s possible to claim a monotheistic religion when you question theism.

“I don’t know what it’s like to be Jewish without a belief in God, but I know what it’s like to be me, Jew-ish, and not know if I believe in God. I have watered down a big, beautiful religion steeped in thousands of years of history and tradition into my own personal story that views its foundation as a choice. I stand in Rosh Hashanah services and bow my head, praying to no one. And yet, still I pray.”

Kurtzer’s response addressed the importance of the Jewish community moving away from belief as a “litmus test for serious Jewishness (and much less Jewishness altogether).”  He wrote: “Jewishness has always been about book, and not canon; tradition, more than authority; journey, rather than arrival. Our communities must model this, with fluid boundaries, fewer tests of belonging, and a kind of radical and desperate pluralism that we – in spite of more and more institutions that model denominational pluralism – still have yet to achieve.

The goal of the contest is to encourage conversation about topics that are difficult, if not impossible, to discuss openly in traditional venues. “It is important to create safe places for people to explore their religious identity and spirituality,” says Epstein. “The response we received, both in terms of numbers and quality of entries as well as spontaneous discussion in social media, shows how much conversation is needed. We found that many people wrestle with this question alone and feel isolated because of it.”

Analysis of the 2011 essays as a whole revealed the following:

  • Ninety-seven percent of contest participants said (for a range of reasons) that one can be Jewish without belief in God.
  • Forty-eight percent said that they identified as a Jew despite their own lack of belief in God.
  • Thirty-two percent of them said that belief is a choice, not a requirement.
  • Sixteen percent identified something other than belief as the most important Jewish value. Family, religious practice, tradition and love of learning were identified as primary Jewish values.
  • Only thirty-two percent mentioned a denominational affiliation.

“These percentages show that this topic is truly an elephant in the room,” says Epstein. “One participant told me he asked the question of his rabbi and the rabbi said he wouldn’t touch this question with a ten-foot pole. Here is a major question of faith that the majority of American Jews (and a majority of non-Jews) confront, and many clergy in our country are reluctant to touch it. This makes it very difficult to have a true conversation. We hope that people will read these essays and be inspired to join the discussion.”

The winning essays, along with excerpts from the other finalists and interesting essays, were published in the November/December issue of Moment, available now.

Moment Magazine seeks to encourage a higher level of civic discourse and is committed to portraying intellectual, political, cultural and religious debates, ranging from left to right, fundamentalist to secular. Founded by Nobel Prize laureate Elie Wiesel and acclaimed writer Leonard Fein in 1975, Moment is the premier independent Jewish magazine in North America. Today, Moment reaches more than a million readers through its flagship print edition, digital edition, weekly e-newsletter and “In the Moment” blog. Moment also sponsors other annual contests, including Publish-A-Kid, the Moment Magazine-Karma Foundation Short Fiction Contest, and the Moment Magazine Memoir Contest.

For more information and to interview winners and finalists, contact Aubrey Lopez at or 202-363-6422.

Okay, Annie Hall Is Pretty Jewish

Jews? Yeah, we didn't think so, either.

So, listen, we get it: The whole greatest-Jewish-movies thing is overdone. We know that Fiddler on the Roof is Jewish. Yentl? Yep, lots of tzitzit and shtenders in that one, too. Sure, even Clueless has Cher Horowitz, a none-too-subtle jab at allegedly entitled Jewish girls across the land. No one needs to remind us that Exodus was about Jews, or Schindler’s List, or The Jazz Singer.


The online Jewish magazine Tablet has spent the past five days counting down their 100 greatest Jewish movies. And the thing is–we’re not convinced. We get it. Really, we do! These movies aren’t just about people whose last names end in -berg and -stein; they’re about Jewish themes, about the big ideas: memory, exile, anxiety, cleaving together and apart, gallows humor.

But: Ghostbusters? The logic (that, and I can’t believe I’m typing this, when asked to pick a form for the evil god to assume on Earth, three of the four Ghostbusters adhere to the Jewish prohibition against physical representations of God) is flimsy, to say the least, and, recognizing its own tenuousness, resorts to the lowest common denominator of “it must be Jewish”: written by a Jew.

And Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind? We love that movie as much as everyone else, but Jewish it’s not. The central tenets of the film–the simultaneous terror and tenderness of memory, the singular hold it has on us, that we both yearn for and recoil from it–aren’t uniquely Jewish concepts; they’re human ones. Which is perhaps more to the point: claiming some ideas as inherently Jewish ones is, in a sense, absurd. We’re not the only ones who feel the tug of memory, or have experienced the loneliness of otherness, or find solace in the familiarity of community. That Jews hold dear certain values doesn’t entitle us to them anywhere and everywhere they turn up. It only entitles us to our place within the expanse of humanity.

We’ll give you The Big Lebowski, though. Not rolling on Shabbos is certainly Jewish enough.

–Sala Levin


Why the Israeli Ad Campaign Matters

by Erica Shaps

Last week, the Israeli Ministry of Immigration Absorption’s now-cancelled ad campaign directed at bring Israeli expatriates in American back home took the American Jewish media by storm.

The contents of the ads are, by this point, well known. My personal favorite shows a young family Skyping with their grandparents in Israel. As we look at the menorah in the background of the grandparents’ screen, they ask their granddaughter, in Hebrew, if she knows what Holiday they are celebrating. She enthusiastically responds, “Christmas!” Her parents look on in horror. The  fear-mongering, offensive, inaccuracy-laden ads were almost comical. If I didn’t know better, I could have easily mistaken them for skits on Eretz Nehederet. These insulting advertisements showed Israeli disdain for Diaspora Jewry and a perception that we cannot live full Jewish lives.

Almost immediately, Abe Foxman, of the Anti-Defamation League, and the Jewish Federations of North America released statements deploring the ads. Only three days after Jeffrey Goldberg wrote his blog post, Benjamin Netanyahu and Ambassador Michael Oren issued an apology, and the ads were gone.

I think that a number of important conclusions can be drawn from this series of events

The ad campaign had been playing in Israel for months; even then, Israelis were not particularly thrilled with the campaign. My Israeli roommate put it this way: “Isn’t it nice that they do the right thing after they insulted all of you [Diaspora Jews] and not months ago when the Israelis said that it was a bad idea?

It goes to show that when American Jewish leaders are outraged enough and make a lot of noise, Israel listens. This phenomenon was also well observed last summer when Diaspora Jews’ campaign against the Rotem Conversion Bill led to a vote being postponed indefinitely. Although I don’t think American Jews should abuse their potential influence over the Israeli government, I do think it is fair for us to put pressure on government officials when their decisions have ramifications for worldwide Jewry and the United States, like legislation that restricts our government’s ability to allocate funds to organizations of its choosing.

American Jews place substantial money, resources and time into defending Israel’s best interests in the American political arena. Therefore, we have the right to advocate for the Diaspora and express our frustrations with the Israeli government from time to time. As this incident proved, when we do, it can be a powerful motivator and catalyst for change.

Second, Israel has the right (and good reasons) to try to court expatriates to return home–it has been reported that as many as two million Israelis are currently living in the United States. However, the too-cheesy-to-be-compelling ads are an insult to Israeli intellect. When the ads first aired here, many people saw them as hilariously over the top, disconnected from Israelis’ mindset, and completely ignoring the real issues that draw Israelis away. The ads offer no tangible incentives for Israelis to come back. One friend joked that the ads might have been more effective if they reminded expats that the weather is much nicer in Tel Aviv than New York.

Instead of attempting to play off Israelis’ emotions, the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption would be better off addressing the legitimate factors that might have led so many to leave Israel in the first place. If the young family from the “Christmas” ad lived in Israel, they probably would not live in a comfortable suburban home, but possibly in the apartment of the very grandparents they were Skyping.  Their daughter might not have the same educational opportunities. If Dafna from the “Remembrance” ad was home, she might very well have pitched a tent on Rothschild this past summer to protest economic and social inequalities. If Israel is truly determined to bring expatriates home, instead of spending a reported three million shekels on a tacky ad campaign, it should allocate its resources to addressing the issues that made Israelis take to the street this summer and probably make the “land of opportunity” so enticing.

I hope these four days of tumult between the Israeli government and U.S Jews proves to be a teachable moment. The Israeli government should take more strides to understand both Diaspora Jews and the needs of her own people. U.S. Jews, on the other hand, should think carefully about their relationship with Israel and ability to influence its behavior; when the time is right for us to speak up, we make change happen.

“I’m an Israeli Spy”: Best Pickup Line Ever? Best Pickup Line Ever.

Who couldn't love this face? (Christopher Kingswood)

Guys, a tip: If you’re married but, you know, flexible, and you embark on an affair with a younger co-worker who then decides that your 176 text messages and 23 emails over a 16-hour period are, you know, creepy, she might ask for a transfer overseas. If she does this, the only way (repeat: the only way) to get her back is to fly to her new home in London, bearing a box of Cuban cigars and bottles of whiskey for her father (because you are, after all, thoughtful), and, when stopped, say that you are an Israeli spy. Trust us: this plan has never failed.

–Sala Levin

What We’re Reading

  • This profile of Gene Weingarten, the scatalogically inclined humorist and brilliant Washington Post journalist. Weingarten is the only person to win two Pulitzers for feature writing: the first for his account of an experiment gauging whether or not hustling rush-hour commuters would recognize the singular beauty of violin virtuoso Joshua Bell’s performance in a crowded Metro station (spoiler: they didn’t, basically), and the second for his gut-wrenching story on parents who have accidentally killed their children by leaving them in the backseats of hot cars.
  • Nathan Englander talks with The New Yorker about his fiction: “I never take sides in a story. And I don’t mean that if the story is called “The Baby-Seal Clubber Steals A Christmas Present” that I’m going to tell you I’m wholly neutral and can’t tell the difference between the kid weeping as she stares at the empty Christmas tree, and the clubber of baby seals who also steals from children.”

–Sala Levin