Monthly Archives: February 2012

99 Problems But a Bar Mitzvah Ain’t One

Jews have a semi-long and semi-illustrious history in rap music (Beastie Boys: yes; Mac Miller: no; Drake: the jury’s still out). Even Jay-Z’s given Jews a few shout-outs: a “mazel tov” here, a “l’chaim” there and, memorably, an admonition that “You’re crazy for this one, Rick.” (The Rick in question being Rick Rubin, record producer and Long Island native, who worked with Jay-Z on his much-loved “Black Album.”) So of course some denizens of the rap world would have fond memories of their bar-mitzvah days. Grantland’s on it. A few choice quotes:

  • Matisyahu: “That summer in camp when I was supposed to be learning my haftorah I was learning more about female anatomy…I don’t think I was truly bar mitzvah’d in the sense of becoming a man until much later. Maybe 16, the first time I ate LSD; or maybe 17, when I spent Thanksgiving in rehab; or maybe 21, the first time I put on T’fillan. Or maybe a month ago when I shaved my beard.”
  • Xaphoon Jones of Chiddy Bang: “The bar mitzvah is the turning point where your family starts getting you drunk. They’re all arguing around the dinner table, and your grandpa is like, ‘Give him the whiskey,’ and your grandma is like, ‘Oh, he’s such a little boy,’ and your grandpa’s like, ‘Oh, he’s been bar mitzvah’d, he’s a man, he drinks.'”
  • Peter Rosenberg (Hot 97 DJ): “I was Bar Mitzvah’d in Chevy Chase, Maryland, on October 31, 1992…The party was at the Holiday Inn on Wisconsin Ave. A nice Holiday Inn, FYI!” (We’re suckers for any story set in Montgomery County. How many bar-mitzvahs did we go to at that Holiday Inn? Ah, youth!)
  • Necro: “I learned the ritual. Mom dukes was religious, so there was no playing around with that.”
  • Drake: “The song of the night was Backstreet Boys’ ‘I Want It That Way.'” (Apparently Canadians and Americans aren’t as different as you think.)

The Messiah (Issue) is Coming!

The wait for our Messiah issue is almost over! The March/April Moment is coming off the presses now, but here’s a sneak peek at the cover of this very exciting issue.


The Age-Old New-Age Approach to Judaism

by Kelley Kidd

This morning, I woke up feeling extremely grumpy. Too little sleep the night before combined with looming stress put me in a supremely bad mood from the moment I heard the first screech of my alarm. Somehow, in the midst of my fog of negativity, I realized I didn’t want to feel miserable all day, and there was only so much that coffee could do to help my endorphins—I was going to have to help out a little if I wanted to survive the day. So I grabbed my iPhone and Googled “Jewish morning prayers.” I found a website (ironically, a resource for Christians) that provided me with the Hebrew, transliteration and translation for Modeh Ani, the prayer of thanks said upon waking up, and the Birchot HaShachar, the traditional morning blessings. With some assistance from the wonders of modern technology, Jewish prayers enhanced my life in a real, immediate way—something that people often forget religion has the power to do.

Perhaps this is why many are drawn to Do-It-Yourself Judaism. DIY Judaism, also referred to by Jay Michaelson as “empowered” Judaism, entails “creating and adapting Jewish rituals to fit [our] own needs.” Rather than trying to force a constrained version of faith to be meaningful, this approach promotes the idea of being an active participant, “a co-creator” of one’s own faith, tradition and Jewish life. Judaism becomes interactive, rather than strictly instructive, and thus takes on more meaning and substance for each individual.

This idea has gained substantial ground recently, as demonstrated by the East Side Jews, who search for a sense of Jewish identity and community outside the traditional “walls” of synagogues or temples. They aim to provide a resource for Jews who have separated themselves from Jewish life and don’t feel at home in traditional Judaism through programming that feels “ spiritual instead of religious, cultural instead of traditional.” For instance, each year at the High Holidays, the East Side Jews gather for “Down by the River,” a “mod, urban, earnest version of tashlich” that has in the past included Buddhist style meditations, theatrical interpretations of Torah stories through “Storahtelling,” and “flash-mob” rabbis: people chosen to create and share stories, poetry and personalized versions of prayers with the assemblage. Though it is an unusual approach, it has the potential to appeal to people who never considered their Judaism more than a chore, and bring them to a space where they engage in a community of people with similar interests, helping people become engaged with Judaism.

Though this sounds “new-agey,” the method of the East Side Jews is far from new to Judaism. The Hasidic movement, founded in the 1700s by Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov, was dedicated to “injecting vital energy into Jewish life,” and the Chabad movement places that responsibility upon individuals by putting Judaism and its teachings into each person’s hands, so that each can invest it with his or her own personal vitality.  One famous story relates that a student of Rabbi Schneur Zalman  came to his teacher complaining that, despite his austere focus, he could not muster the same passion for prayer that his friend seemed to have. He tried to block out anything but the rebbe’s teachings, and was unable to attain any sense of inspiration. This demonstrates that it is the man who brings his passion for life, his joie de vivre, his experiences and reality to prayer whose praise for God is truly inspired, while prayer that arises from obligation alone may lack the same enthusiasm.

My morning prayers today were admittedly unconventional, but they infused my day with meaning and gratitude. Similarly, the prayers and practices of the Do-It-Yourself Jews may veer from tradition—they may lack a rabbi by choice, or due to limited resources. Either way, today, anyone with a computer or smart phone can Google their way to Scripture, Torah, prayer, and information that holds the most meaning for them, allowing Judaism to adjust and thrive in a modern, technological world. This adjustability and personal appeal is what has always allowed Judaism to survive, and what can keep it alive and thriving in a world that is ever-changing.

Election News Roundup

By Monika Wysocki

Here’s a look at a few religion and politics highlights from this week…

The newest front-runner in the wildly unpredictable GOP primary, former Senator Rick Santorum, has dominated the media cycle with his provocative remarks about President Obama—accusing the President of governing based on “a phony theology, not a theology based on the Bible,” and accusing him of orchestrating an “assault on all religion in America.” On Monday, Santorum’s spokeswoman mentioned President Obama’s “radical Islamic policies” in an interview on MSNBC—only to call the show after the interview to say she misspoke.

In the midst of the religious attacks, Santorum is surging in national polls and attracting larger crowds at public events, putting him on the stage as a serious contender for the nomination. Despite widespread disapproval and calls from 15 religious organizations for presidential candidates to refrain from using religion as a “political wedge issue,” Santorum’s remarks are likely to raise his profile and appeal to the surprising number of Americans who are unsure about President Obama’s faith. Which is no small matter—the latest research by the Pew Forum found that “beliefs about Obama’s religion are closely linked to political judgments about him. Those who say he is a Muslim overwhelmingly disapprove of his job performance…” If Santorum succeeds in re-invigorating false claims that President Obama is a Muslim, the president’s approval ratings will likely suffer—despite his candid remarks on his personal religious beliefs.

Santorum is not the only candidate that has doubts about the sincerity of President Obama’s faith. Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney has also accused the President of “an assault on religion,” while Gingrich today called the president “the most dangerous president in modern American history,” arguing that the Obama administration has failed to address the problem of radical Islamists. Franklin Graham expressed similar notions on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” saying that “Islam has gotten a free pass under Obama.”

Santorum’s controversial remarks might win him support from evangelical Christians that are alarmed over the recent contraceptives debate, but in the long run the religion-based rhetoric could also alienate women and independent voters. Dick Polman points out that the largest Catholic college in America routinely offers birth-control coverage in its employee benefits and that the majority of Catholics support a federal requirement that private health insurance plans cover the full cost of birth control. In the end, Santorum’s attempts to brand himself as the most conservative of the GOP candidates and President Obama as an anti-Catholic may do the GOP more harm than good in November.

Join Moment for a Discussion of Jewish and Journalistic Oppression in Iran

Our November/December 2011 issue featured a photo-essay filled with the never-before-published photographs of Hasan Sarbakhshian, an Associated Press photographer whose work documenting Iran’s Jewish community eventually forced him to flee the country. Sarbakhshian and writer Parveneh Vahidmanesh, also forced to leave Iran for her work with Sarbakhshian, will speak with Moment editor Nadine Epstein at the Washington, DC Jewish Community Center on March 6. Join them to hear about their harrowing experiences, see their rare photographs and learn about the history and present of the 2,700-year-old Iranian Jewish community.

From Challah to Cornbread: Jewish Identity in the South

by Kelley Kidd

Sometimes, when I pray in Hebrew, it feels like cheating. I do not speak Hebrew, beyond my ability to clumsily stumble over a few words and chant what I’ve learned through extensive repetition over time. Nonetheless, when I pray in Hebrew, it does bring me a sense of connection to something more than me—God aside, it allows me to share a practice, an experience, and a history with a community that is scattered all over the world. Part what makes me so passionate about Judaism is that sense of community. Jews experience a strength in small numbers on a global scale that I believe gives us the motivation to endure. In the words of Conservative Rabbi Alon Ferency, “the harder you make it for a religious system, the more likely it is to survive.”

My hometown, Knoxville, Tennessee, is a microcosm of this very idea. Jews are few, but the energy and cohesion of the Knoxville Jewish community is outstanding. Despite having been told by other kids that I was going to h-e-double-toothpicks because I didn’t believe in Jesus, I have never been anything but proud of my faith and eager to represent it as best I can. Jewish Southerners have a deep-rooted belief that it is the responsibility of every Jew in the South to represent us well and put forth a good impression to the many Southerners who have long-standing misconceptions and prejudices, some of whom have likely never met a Jew. Being in the minority comes with an acute sense of self-awareness and the need to be strong and confident in the cause you stand for. Knoxville’s Conservative Rabbi Alon Ferency, whose career began in large Jewish communities like Los Angeles and New York, commented that the minority status “brings people in the Jewish community together for a very high degree of community cohesion. You’d be shocked if you saw that in Chicago.” Similarly, Deborah Oleshansky, a major player in the Jewish community in Knoxville, sees the silver lining of the potentially isolating minority status.  Having grown up in the Jewish communities of DC and Boston, she is grateful that in such a small community, Jews are “forced to take ownership, rather than take [Judaism] for granted” the way people in other, more significant Jewish populations might be able to. It becomes “important to be around other Jewish people, to know that you’re not the only one” so the community bands together. There is strength and freedom to be found in small numbers—it is a source of pride, solidarity, and opportunities to “be part of efforts to innovate, create, make new things, and have an impact on the topography” of the religious community. Though, as Oleshansky mentioned in her interview, it takes a much greater effort to get numerically the same results as another larger community might—“our 10% is only 40-50 kids” instead of 300—this challenge allows her to truly get to know everyone in the community.

Similarly, just as Oleshansky wishes we had the resources to implement every great idea, Ferency laments the lack of educational and financial resources available. Yet the lack of outside resources means the “level of opportunity is very high.” Ferency has found that social clubs that facilitate Jewish extra-synagogue interaction have blossomed since being implemented. When it comes to Judaism is the South, and Knoxville in particular, what we “lack in numbers and resources [we] make up for in spirit.

Despite our resilience so far, as a “double minority”—making up less than 1% of the Southern population and less than 5% of the American Jewish population, the Southern Jew could potentially fade away, becoming assimilated into Bible Belt culture until their Judaism wanes into nonexistence. Though anti-Semitsm is less prevalent, and manifests itself differently, than racism, widespread ignorance persists when it comes to Judaism. Jewish Southerners may not face violence but may encounter phrases such as “Jew you down.” Southerners are also often willing to unabashedly announce that they will pray for your lost soul, or even tell you that you need to be saved. There is also a “huge rabbinic shortage in the deep South,” which is challenging but can help lead to the establishment of a personalized, relatable Southern Judaism. The Institute of Southern Jewish Life, whose mission “is to facilitate being Jewish in small Southern towns…in every possible way, from rabbinic services to Jewish education to cultural programs using to cemetery upkeep and preservation to preservation of historic synagogues,” has established a non-denominational Jewish curriculum that Knoxville’s Temple Beth El has implemented to help youth gain an understanding of their faith. Manifesting pride in these youth is at “the heart of Jewish survival.” If they can feel that sense of identity and community, even if they’re a small-town Jew, they can understand their place in the global Jewish communityt.

Are Jewish Donkeys Suffering from Elephantitis?

by Alexis McNamee

Rampant speculations during this election season that the Democratic party is losing its Jewish loyalty are overblown. Yes, the results of 12 surveys conducted in 2011 by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press do reveal a drop in the margin of support from Jewish voters; in 2008 they favored the Democrats by a 52-point margin, while now they prefer the party by a much smaller 36-point margin. However, this is no reason to assert that the traditional ties between the Jewish community and the Democratic Party have been severed. Rather, this shift in support reflects an overarching trend. Pew Research analysis also revealed that the portion of voters that identify with or lean toward the GOP has grown or remained the same with every major religious group. Due to their historic Democratic affiliation, and the assumption that some Jews provide significant funding to campaigns, Jewish voters are frequently targeted in poll result analysis. Yet even this scrutiny might be exaggerated. In an article for our July/August 2011 issue, Nathan Guttman debunked the myths surrounding “the Jewish vote,” most importantly stating that polling Jews is generally inaccurate due to their small and scattered population. He also notes that the belief that the Jewish vote controls swing states like Florida has little weight. Jeffrey Goldberg at The Atlantic went so far as to call this issue a “massive Jewish vote overreaction,” highlighting the large Jewish donations to Obama’s campaign and predicting at least 70% Jewish support for Obama in 2012. Democrats can stop worrying and Republicans can stop celebrating that Jews are shying away from the Democratic Party due to Obama’s “unfriendly” stance on Israel. Experts agree that most Jewish voters don’t even consider policies on Israel as a decisive issue, with a 2010 American Jewish Committee poll placing the issue as Jews’ fifth priority at the voting booth. Overall, the shift in Jewish support merely reflects a larger trend. Numbers may fluctuate in the 2012 campaign, but the majority Jewish affiliation with the Democratic Party will remain unchanged.

Catholic Candidates, Voters and Contraception

By Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil

From the announcement of President Obama’s controversial new contraception policy, to Rick Santorum’s unexpected triple-win on Tuesday—Catholics have determined this week’s news cycle. To understand these developments, Moment speaks with Shaun Casey, a religious outreach advisor to the Obama campaign and author of The Making of a Catholic President: Kennedy v. Nixon 1960. He is also associate professor of Christian ethics at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC.

MM: What does it mean that we have two prominent Catholic candidates vying for the Republican nomination right now? Is this the first time all the top candidates—from either party—have not been Protestant Christians?

SC: Of course the Democratic Party has nominated Catholics—John F. Kennedy and John Kerry. But on the Republican side, I don’t believe we’ve ever had a non-Protestant be the nominee. The evangelical Protestant vote is very powerful—it’s a huge piece of the Republican base. They have struggled this time to pick the person they want to go to, and no single candidate has been able to garner that vote. So if you’re an evangelical voter, you’re flummoxed where to go.

MM: How does Catholicism inform Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich’s politics?

SC: Newt Gingrich is a recent convert, and he comes to Catholicism from having become a Southern Baptist in his college years—so he’s made quite the pilgrimage. You can’t point to any visible political changes as a result of his conversion to Catholicism, but what unites Gingrich and Santorum is that their faith overlaps with their conservative politics. Both Gingrich and Santorum are drawn to the anti-abortion stance, the stance against gay marriage—there’s a very strong correlation between their conservative faith and their conservative politics. On the other hand, there’s some tension between Catholic social tradition and their conservative political beliefs: the preferential option for the poor, the desire for universal health care, the right for unions to organize—there’s a robust list of political stances that Church teaching points towards that goes in a different direction from Santorum and Gingrich. While their faith does shape their politics, there’s not only an area of conjunction, there’s also an area of disjunction between their political beliefs and the faith of their Church.

MM: Tell me about Catholic voters—how have they voted historically and where do they stand now?

SC: Since the early ‘90s, the Catholic Church has migrated from predominately Democratic to the ultimate swing voters today—typically, the candidate who wins the Catholic vote wins the overall vote. At the same time, mainline Protestant voters are going the other way. They were predominately Republican in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and now they’re moving toward the center. And going back 40 or 50 years, evangelical voters were predominately Democrats, and now they’re predominately Republican. Those are the three great migrations in religious voter patterns.

The Catholic community is also becoming more and more an immigrant church. The Pew forum has data showing that if you’re an American-born, Anglo Catholic, there’s a fairly high attrition rate or movement out of the Catholic faith, while immigrants from Mexico and Latin America, and to a certain extent Asia, are replacing them. Yet again it’s becoming an immigrant church as it was in the 19th century.

MM: Does it matter that Santorum and Gingrich are taking such a hard line on immigration when so many Catholic voters are Hispanic?

Absolutely. Hispanic Catholic voters tend to vote Democratic—Obama won the overall Hispanic vote rather handily over McCain in ’08. While they are social conservatives—they’re not liberals on abortion or same-sex marriage—they are very concerned about immigration reform, and that’s the trump issue right now. Even though theologically and socially they might be more attuned to the Republican Party, they fear their stance on immigration.

MM: Do Catholic voters feel any loyalty toward Santorum or Gingrich because they’re fellow Catholics?

No—they don’t feel any sectarian affinities toward those two that I can detect. I think both Santorum and Gingrich have trouble Catholic voters overall. Conservative Catholics love them, but they don’t make up the majority of Catholic voters.

MM: Are Catholic voters in line with Church leadership in opposing Obama’s new contraception policy? Will it affect voting in the fall?

No, they are not. At the same time, there are some liberal Catholics who support birth control—and even support universal access to it—but who also feel in terms of the First Amendment, that religious groups that don’t share that view have the right not to coerce their employees to get it. The administration was surprised by the breadth of the outcry from progressive and moderate Catholics for whom the issue of contraception is not a big deal, but the issue of religious liberty is. Is that going to drive another 30 percent of Catholics into the Republican Party—I doubt it. But people are watching very carefully to see if there’s a compromise we can come to. At the end of the day, the bishops want to find a solution, and that’s what the Obama administration also wants. Despite the heated rhetoric, I’m pretty confident they can find a way to work through this because it’s in everyone’s interest.

MM: One topic that rarely gets talked about is war and poverty. What’s the Church’s stance on these issues, and why don’t we hear the Church pushing back against the government as much as we do on the social issues, like abortion and contraception?

SC: On the question of poverty, the bishops have been active behind the scenes in Congress, trying to push both parties towards preserving social services to the poor and to children. During this difficult budget process, they have been walking the halls of Congress and calling the White House, but in a much quieter way—they’re not reading letters against Speaker Boehner, President Obama or Vice President Biden on the budget issues and the poor. On war, they were quite good during the Bush administration—they were very clear in their opposition to the Iraq War, which they expressed in letters and direct conversation with the president—but it hasn’t been the same dramatic, direct confrontation.

MM: What’s something most people don’t know about Catholics and politics?

SC: I think that the Catholic vote is going to be an important constituency in this election. While Obama won it handily over McCain in ‘08, it remains to be seen whether that’s going to play out in 2012. But I wouldn’t assume that because there’s a Catholic nominee in the Republican Party that the Catholic vote will immediately flip toward the Republican Party. I think that assumption is debatable.

Dylan Goes Old Testament

Seventy-six artists–the likes of Carly Simon, Elvis Costello, My Morning Jacket and (shudder) Dave Matthews Band–have taken on the task of covering the music of Bob Dylan to benefit Amnesty International. Dylan’s songs are perhaps better suited to the art of the cover than nearly any other musician; his nasal voice has, of course, always been a sore spot for critics. But we like him just fine! To prove it, here are our three favorite “Jewish” songs from the musician with the tempestuous relationship to Judaism.

Biblical imagery and themes abound–Eden, the Golden Calf, the urge to examine and interpret dreams. Don’t recall a “motorcycle black Madonna two-wheeled Gypsy queen” in the Torah, but maybe we missed that day in Hebrew school.

“God said to Abraham, ‘Kill me a son.'” We’re pretty sure that one has biblical overtones.

Cain and Abel, Einstein, notorious anti-Semite Ezra Pound, Noah’s rainbow–they all show up here.

And a bonus fun fact: Dylan’s Hebrew name is Shabtai. Other famous Shabtais? Well, there was that false messiah.

The Jewish Jordan, King Amar’e, and a Kabbalistic Halftime

by Sala Levin

We will use any and every excuse to post this picture. (@amareisreal)

The Super Bowl is upon us, and this year the New England Patriots (owned by Robert Kraft, heavily involved in Jewish philanthropy) and the New York Giants (partly owned by Jewish businessman Steve Tisch) are facing off in Indianapolis. (Or at least so we’re told. The other week someone had to explain to us how many points a field goal was worth. Three, right? Yes. We just Googled it.) Plus, Madonna is this year’s halftime performer, so we should expect some Kabbalistic magic. In honor of the Super Bowl’s Jewish connections, here are a few notable Jewish sports stories of semi-recent years.

  • Amar’e Stoudemire, power forward for the New York Knicks, announced in 2010 that his mother was of Jewish lineage, and embarked on a “spiritual and educational” trip to Israel, where he took to wearing a kippah and keeping kosher. (The practice has sort-of-but-not-quite continued: Stoudemire told Bon Appetit “I figure if you want to have a strong body, why not eat kosher?” But his cholent-loving personal chef admits that “if Amar’e had a good game, he might want crab legs, or maybe lobster macaroni and cheese.”) As of late 2011, Stoudemire had a rumored interest in opening a Hebrew school. Please hurry, Amar’e–without your guidance, how will the Jewish children of New York know how to put together the perfect Purim costume?
  • Jeffrey Toobin’s 2011 New Yorker piece about Fred Wilpon is an excellent look at the personal and professional struggles the New York Mets owner has faced in the wake of the Bernie Madoff scandal. Though he and brother-in-law Saul Katz face a lawsuit that could find them liable for as much as $386 million, Wilpon is still holding on to ownership of the financially struggling Mets.
  • For a certain group of us who grew up in the Baltimore/Washington, DC corridor at the turn of the century, the name Tamir Goodman carries a very specific meaning: the potential to be deeply immersed in both the religious and the secular world; the sacrifice of putting personal beliefs before professional gain; the possibility of being a Jewish kid who could play some serious basketball. The Baltimore-raised “Jewish Jordan” garnered national attention, perking up the ears of University of Maryland basketball coach Gary Williams. Goodman ultimately attended Towson University, where he was allowed to sit out of games played on Friday nights or Saturdays. Though Goodman no longer plays basketball, he recently introduced the “Sports String Tzitzit,” a garment that “features hi-performance properties and a compression fit.” We’ll take his word for it.