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.