Monthly Archives: May 2012

The Plight of the Three-Day Holiday

by Rebecca Borison

The good news is that a long holiday gives us an excuse to eat cheesecake for three days.

This past Friday, I turned off my iPhone at approximately 7 pm and prepared myself for three days of being disconnected. Shavuot happened to fall on Sunday and Monday, which meant that Shabbat led directly into the holiday, allowing no time to catch up on missed emails on Saturday night.

While I am used to unplugging for one day a week, the three-day holiday always poses a greater challenge: It’s a lot harder to deal with three days of unplugging than one. But ultimately, I found the three days to be more beneficial than bothersome. I was able to catch up with high school friends, play basketball with my younger brother, go to synagogue, and even read some George Eliot. Granted, I don’t think I’d be able to do it every week, but once in a while, it’s actually nice to disconnect for three days.

For observant or traditional Jews, 25 hours a week of unplugging is commonplace. Every Friday at sundown, iPhones are turned off and laptops are shut down. In today’s world of constant connectivity and instant feedback, those 25 hours can be extremely challenging. Add on two more days of Shavuot, and you’re practically salivating at the thought of checking your email.

The three-day holiday always seems to return as a shock. Outside of Israel, observant Jews keep two days of Shavuot, and when it falls out on a Sunday and Monday, that means three full days of synagogue, lots of food and no technology.

For many, even one day of Sabbath can seem impossible. In a 2010 New York Times article by Austin Considine, Jill Soloway, a television producer, said that a  day without her iPhone was “next to excruciating.” Not being able to connect to the modern world leaves one feeling anxious and antsy.

In that same article, Considine writes about an experiment by Reboot, a nonprofit think tank of Jewish professionals. Reboot had decided to promote a National Day of Unplugging.  Some of the day’s instructions were to “avoid technology,” “find silence” and “drink wine.” According to Reboot, unplugging fulfills a major need, whether or not you’re Jewish.  While it may be difficult to turn off the iPhone, it can also be extremely beneficial.  In today’s fast-paced society, it is crucial that we step back and reflect.

Growing up, my family always ate dinner together, seven days a week. But once we were old enough to get our own cell phones, the weekday dinners shifted entirely. Yes, we all sat at the same table and ate the same food, but we were all texting our friends at the same time. It only got worse with the transition to smart phones. My parents tried to enforce no-cell-phone rules, but we always managed to hide our cell phones in our pockets or under the table.

Friday night dinners, on the other hand, were entirely different. It was no longer just my parents enforcing the no cell phone rule, it was Shabbat. All of a sudden, my siblings and I were actually engaging in real-life conversation.

Six days a week, we are constantly in touch with the modern, digital world. Even for those who don’t intend on fully observing the Sabbath, unplugging for one day a week can serve as a great way to relax and promote family time.

But what happens when it turns into three days of your week? Former religion reporter for The New York Times Ari L. Goldman used to call the stretch “the triple whammy.” “As Sabbath observers,” he writes, “we already know what it is to unplug for a day. Two days is unusual, but three is almost imaginable.”

As the years passed, however, Goldman began to actually look forward to the three-day holiday. He sees the need to disconnect from  technology as a blessing. It allows him to catch up on reading and spend valuable time with his family.

Maybe three days of unplugging is a bit much for the average Internet frequenter. I happen to agree with Goldman. I can appreciate the three-day holiday as an additional excuse to relax and spend time with friends and family.

During the week, I find myself feeling guilty for not being productive and lazing around. When I’m forced to relax, however, the guilt melts away. Why wouldn’t I want two more days of that?

Three days without an iPhone forces you to be creative. Maybe you take out a board game or a puzzle; maybe you grab a novel. Or maybe you go for a walk with your mom. The possibilities are endless. And let’s be honest, how likely are we to actually think outside the box when the Internet is at our fingertips?

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? (The Great Gatsby Edition)

Been on the Internet today? My guess is yes. In that case, you’ve probably seen the trailer for Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby. Oh, you want to see it again? Okay!

Spot the cameo from Meyer Wolfsheim, Gatsby’s seedy Jewish associate? You can’t see his human-molar cufflinks in the clip, but you can read more about the fictional hoodlum and his culinary tastes–and how they, and those of other Jewish characters from fiction, highlighted their otherness.

The New Religious Intolerance: An Interview with Martha Nussbaum

By Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil

From Switzerland’s ban on minarets, to France’s ban on headscarves, and the controversy that raged over Park 51, the “Ground Zero Mosque” in lower Manhattan, religious fear is on the rise, writes Martha Nussbaum. In her latest book, The New Religious Intolerance, the University of Chicago law professor tackles the politics of fear, and lays out a roadmap for society to overcome its fear of the other, which she warns, “currently disfigure[s] all Western societies.” To learn more, Moment spoke with Nussbaum about religious fear, anti-Semitism, burqas, Mitt Romney’s Mormonism and more.

MM: You write, “We should be worried about the upsurge in religious fear and animosity in the United States, as well as in Europe. Fear is accelerating, and we need to try to understand it to think how best to address it.” Can you explain why you think religious fear is accelerating—hasn’t it always been with us?

MN: There are periods of high anxiety and lower anxiety, so when I say it’s accelerating, I mean from what it was 10 years ago. There’s a new upsurge of anxiety about Muslims. 9/11 was the catalyst, as well as the wave of Muslim immigration—Muslims are the fastest growing religious minority in America. Every time you have a new minority coming in, you often have an upsurge in religious anxiety, so this is nothing new. We saw a great deal of anxiety in the late 19th and early 20th century with the waves of Roman Catholic immigration from Southern Europe. In some ways today is not quite as bad as then, because there’s no national political party right now basing its appeal on a nativist agenda the way there was in the 19th century. But we have to watch out.

MM: How did the old religious fear, anti-Semitism, give way to today’s religious fear, Islamophobia?

MN: The treatment of the Jews in Europe is in many ways parallel to the current European treatment of Muslims. If you assimilate, dress like everyone else, marry with us, eat with us, then you can fit in. But if you don’t, then we’re going to regard you with great suspicion. That was the European approach to the Jews, wherever the Jews were allowed to be. The reason was that for many centuries, Europeans have based their idea of national belonging and nationhood on ethnicity and religion. It’s a romantic idea of solidarity, and the idea that if you’re truly one of us, you’re going to have the same language, culture and religion, and you’re going to fit in. America never had that conception of that national identity. We were fortunate to be a nation of immigrations where people came as refugees from various types of religious persecution. So many of the American religious minorities dressed oddly: Quakers wanted to wear their hats in the courtroom, and Jews, of course, dressed in a characteristic way and didn’t want to testify in court on a Saturday. So there were many occasions for Americans to get used to the fact that religion leads people to behave differently. The American conception of national belonging is one of sharing political values, so if you swear to respect our Constitution, that’s enough. Anti-immigrant politics has never really taken off in America. The closest was in the 19th century, when so many Roman Catholics were coming from Southern and Eastern Europe. Anti-Semitism in America was also quite real. But still, it was at the level of refined, polite discrimination in employment. There was social discrimination among elites, but it wasn’t the kind of systematic political discrimination you got in Europe.

MM: You say that fear is a “narcissistic emotion.” Why is that?

MN: Fear has this riveting character that it makes you exceedingly aware of your own body and its own processes. If you read descriptions of fear in combat, it means you’re very alert and alive, but to yourself. Often it blocks the view of other people and other things around you because you’re so focused on survival. It’s an evolved instinct for survival, and it gives the message that you’d better pay close attention to yourself. It can be good, and very helpful, but it also means we neglect the implications of our actions and our policies for other people who are in our area, and we become very focused on warding off threats to ourselves, our families and people like us.

MM: What are some of the inconsistencies in the arguments for the burqa ban?

MN: In general, it’s always a good idea when you make an argument against somebody else’s culture, to first look at your own, and if you have the same problem, to treat the two similarly. The first argument is about security risk of bulky clothing under which you could carry a bomb or a gun. Because Chicago is a very cold place, when I go out in the winter, I’m more covered than a woman in a burqa, even more. I have a floor-length down coat, a shawl over my mouth and nose, a hat pulled down over my eyebrows and sunglasses, so my whole body is covered. And nobody thinks that’s a threat because they’re used to this. So we have to ask ourselves, when do we think that there’s a reason for extra caution? I’m prepared to say that in airports, let’s have the full body scan, as long as everyone has it. I don’t think they should single out the Muslims for special treatment.

The other argument is that you can’t have a good human relationship unless you can see their whole face. I think that’s just wrong. For one thing, eyes are traditionally thought of as the windows to the soul and the main place you make contact. Also, think about all the people with disabilities who can’t see, yet they have rich human relationships. Human beings have many ways of making connections with each other–through the voice, for instance—without seeing each other’s faces.

And then there’s the argument that the burqa objectifies women. I think the fact that women are often treated as objects for male use and control is a real problem. But let’s also think about porn magazines, the treatment of women in advertising and in the media, where women are treated as consumer objects and are encouraged to package themselves for male use and control in a way that eclipses their individuality. If you go to a high school dance, girls are wearing identical micro-skirts and packaging themselves as objects for a simulated group sex ritual that takes the place of dancing. There are lots of practices in our society that objectify women, unfortunately. To complain about one that happens to be the practice of the minority religion and not to examine yourself and the many ways in which you participate in such practices is terrible, especially when the force of law is brought to bear. In America, fortunately we don’t have bans on the burqa and the headscarf. But the French would ban you from walking down the street in a burqa, while you could wear a micro-skirt and your 4-inch heels and they’d think nothing of that. I think it’s just an ugly inconsistency.

MM: You lay out several principles that can be used to overcome religious fear. These seem to be designed for well-intentioned people, but how can they be used to push back against those in power who use religious fear for political gain?

MN: The first of my principles, which is having good constitutional norms, is helpful here. Fortunately we do, because our constitution was written by people who were very alert to religious persecution and religious fears. You can see over time that minorities find relief when they go to court and practices that stigmatize them are found unconstitutional. Again and again we find minorities making law and prevailing because we have good constitutional principles. That’s something that even in bad times, when politicians are doing bad things, it’s a bulwark.

The other things I talk about are consistency and self-examination and the use of a sympathetic imagination. We still shouldn’t despair of these things even in our own political climate because we should keep trying to have a deliberative public culture and to appeal to sympathy. I found that in studying the Park 51 controversy, there was a lot of sympathy. Sometimes it was one-sided sympathy, sympathy for 9/11 victims and their families, and not the Muslims. But even Sarah Palin—who I don’t support politically—expressed a fair amount of sympathy with peaceful Muslims. There were very few people who demonized all Muslims. I think George Bush set a good tone when he said we’re not at war with Islam. Americans both left and right have tended to try to exercise some thoughtfulness and sympathy. I think that reminding people constantly of history and of parallels to anti-Semitism is a useful way to get them to remember what they’re saying and to get them to look at things in a more complicated way.

MM: One interesting aspect of this presidential campaign is that not much has been made of Mitt Romney’s Mormonism. Does this signal a change in the climate of fear in the United States, or is it something else?

We have heard a fair amount about it. I think that’s why there was so much resistance to Romney early on, and such a desperate search for an alternative. In my earlier book, Liberty of Conscience, I wrote about the demonization of Mormons in the 19th century, which is an unfortunate part of our history. Mormons were pilloried in a way that involved a kind of racism, oddly, because, of course, Mormons look like the dominant white-Anglo culture. But they were described in journalism as having African features, as an African race. There was great demonization and lies about Mormons and the link to polygamy, which at the time was not any worse than the conditions of women in monogamous marriages. Women in monogamous marriages had no property rights and couldn’t get divorced on the ground of cruelty. Women in the territory of Utah had the vote in 1874, which is way before any other Mormon in monogamous America. So there was no reason to think these women were slaves. Today polygamy has long been outlawed by the Mormon religion, so it’s ridiculous to try to link them to that. The thing that ought to be discussed is the fact that Brigham Young is a university that does not have genuine academic freedom because the Mormon elders have decided that it’s okay to fire people whose theology is dissident. I’d like to know if Mitt Romney takes issue with this, and if he speaks up for academic freedom. If he doesn’t, that’s a problem.

MM: What are the consequences if we can’t keep religious fear in check?

MN: What would be bad is to get to the point where there’s demand for laws that are genuinely repressive. Europe has already gotten to that point. Beyond that point, there’s a potential for real violence. We’ve seen this from isolated psychotic individuals such as Anders Breivik in Norway. He may be deranged, but he’s certainly functional and has a program closely linked to right-wing bloggers in America, who have denounced him, but nonetheless his ideas have a lot in common with them. That kind of situation—where unstable individuals are whipped up and violence takes place—that’s what we need to worry about. It has happened in our past; we have had a lot of violence against Mormons, who were murdered, which is why they kept moving further west. We also had Jehovah’s Witnesses who were lynched because people feared they were a threat to American security. Let’s hope we don’t get to that point again—I think we’re not near that now. Let’s just stay vigilant.

Remembering Sholom Aleichem

by Kara A. Kaufman

It’s not every day that you see your own photograph in a newspaper, much less a Russian publication printed halfway around the globe. But one afternoon when I was a young girl (age “six and two-thirds,” as I told the reporter), I found myself gazing into the grayscale eyes of my own face. The newspaper article centered around the Yiddish author Sholom Aleichem, perhaps best known for his “Tevye the Dairyman” stories which are the basis for the musical Fiddler on the Roof. The reporter had snapped my photograph because Sholom Aleichem is my great-great-grandfather. My family has hosted an annual yahrzeit in honor of his memory for 95 years; this Sunday will mark our 96th.

My family holds these yahrzeits out of our collective desire to remember my great-great-grandfather, and also to follow the wishes he laid out in his last will and testament. In it, Sholom Aleichem (born Solomon Rabinowitz) asks his descendants to remember him either by saying kaddish or by selecting one of his stories and reading it aloud. He directs us to “select one of my stories, one of the really merry ones, and read it aloud in whatever language they [his descendants] understand best.” Since 1916, when Sholom Aleichem passed away, my family has read some of these “really merry” stories aloud with family and friends in both Yiddish and English every year on the anniversary of his death. Perennial favorites include, among others, “Grandfather’s Story,” “On America,” and “On Account of a Hat.” Collectively, they remind us of the realities of small-town life in Eastern Europe as well as a wave of Jewish immigration to the United States early in the 20th century. They also invite us to laugh at our own foibles and the hurdles life can throw in our way.

Sholom Aleichem’s will also reveals his desire to write for the common person. He writes, “Wherever I die, let me be buried not among the rich and famous, but among plain Jewish people, the workers, the common folk.” His funeral attracted hundreds of thousands of spectators in New York City, and his will was printed in the New York Times so that thousands more could read his words. Hundreds of invited guests continue to attend our annual yahrzeits each year.

Throughout my life, I have had the pleasure of hearing about people’s unadulterated love for Sholom Aleichem. When I mention that I am a great-great-granddaughter, people’s mouths often fall open in surprise. “Really?” they ask. They tell me about their grandmother, grandfather, aunt, uncle, mother or father, who read Sholom Aleichem’s stories to them as young children. They don’t often dwell on particular characters or tales, but their eyes light up as they remember my great-great-grandfather’s humor and the feeling of connection to their Jewish heritage that he inspired. Once, I met a woman at synagogue on the day that she adopted a new Hebrew name. When she heard I was related to Sholom Aleichem, she nearly cried. Apparently, the relative whose Hebrew name she had just chosen for herself had also read Sholom Aleichem’s stories to her throughout her childhood.

In some ways, Sholom Aleichem’s legacy is a hard one to live up to. People I meet often ask if I enjoy writing (I do), if I have read all of his stories (I am in the process), and whether I speak Yiddish (I do not; interestingly, Sholom Aleichem spoke Russian, not Yiddish, in his own home). But, more than anything else, I feel pride. When I look at yellowed photographs of him with my great-aunt on his knee, I feel connected to a person who made a difference in the world not through grandiose gestures, but through writing about what he knew. Sometimes, when I write about my own experiences or struggles, I feel particularly close to him.

To me, my great-great-grandfather’s continued popularity rests on the fact that his characters and narrative voice touch our lives today. When we read his stories aloud, we feel a palpable familiarity. We listen with bemusement to the story of the man so mixed up that he arrives at three different towns in the wrong order—missing all of his appointed lectures in the process—because we have all been desperately lost at some point in our lives. We relate to Tevye’s desire to find suitable matches for his daughters because we are still concerned with relationships, family and status. Threading these narratives together is Sholom Aleichem’s own voice, at once sympathetic toward his characters and removed from them, enabling us, the readers, to laugh at life’s absurdity. These tales paint a picture of shtetl life to show us where we came from, while, in the process, making us increasingly aware of who we are.

A large number of yahrzeit attendees do not own computers. Many of them understand the stories in their original Yiddish. When, in several years, my brother and I inherit the honor of conducting these yahrzeits from our parents, we will likely send out invitations with a click of a button, rather than the lick of a stamp. One thing will remain the same: our collective joy at hearing these tales.

My great-great-grandfather, ever the pragmatist, asked us to take care of his widow, pay his debts if any arise, and remember him with joy. He also asked, “Let my name rather be remembered … with laughter than not at all.” As we remember my great-great-grandfather for a ninety-sixth year, one thing I can say for certain is this: laughter will fill the room.

Amar’e Gets Animated

First there were New Yorker cartoons with Kanye West tweets. Now there are Moment cartoons with Amar’e Stoudemire tweets. No explanation should be necessary.

“Correction” Jay-z’s baby girl name is Blue Ivy Carter. Not Ivy Blue Carter


Is it true that lil Wayne is married? Not that I care. Just asking.


Did I hear Movie Night? I’m thinking about watching a blu ray, what movie should I watch? God Father? Or Casino?


Come And Knock On Our Door, Ira Glass

We thought we couldn’t love Ira Glass anymore. The hipster glasses. The public-radio sensitivity. The Baltimore roots. But then he recorded the title story of Etgar Keret’s newest short story collection, Suddenly a Knock on the Door, and we were proven wrong. Enjoy.

(For more from Etgar Keret, see the May/June issue of Moment, where he and many others weigh in on the question “Is there such a thing as Jewish fiction?”)

A Vietnamese Yom Kippur

by Kelley Kidd

A Yom Kippur spent fasting on the beautiful island paradise of Phu Quoc, in Vietnam, is not my typical Day of Atonement. But somehow that’s where I found myself, fasting after a seaside dinner in a bungalow. I stayed up late that night gazing into the sea reflecting, and wondering at its vastness. The next day, an early morning moto ride led us to a waterfall in a secluded jungle, where I splashed in the water and lost a flip flop, but where I also took the time to sit on a tree branch with water rushing across my legs and meditate. I considered my resolutions for the coming year, considered what I had noticed in my life that I wanted to change and to improve, and what to keep. I focused on my desire to be more courageous and open, and to live with gratitude, and as I gazed at the beauty around me, I made it my goal to find that kind of peace, joy and beauty in my life every day.

By 10:30 that morning, I was on a private boat out on the water, awed by the absolute beauty of the sparkling water and sunshine. In keeping with my resolutions, I went snorkeling and jumped off the top of the boat a few times—things I would often have been too timid to try. I spent the entire day in a state of wonder at the world, and my own life, and made a conscious effort to focus in on it, savor it, and pay attention to it so that I could preserve that sense of gratitude.

By most standards, this is not what Yom Kippur generally looks like. However, I don’t think that spending my Yom Kippur in hungry bliss detracted from the meaning or experience of the holiday. On the contrary, rather than spending the day exclusively in backwards-looking repentance (which I do also appreciate, as I actually love Yom Kippur), I was able to spend it looking forward to the new year as a time in which I wanted to incorporate the beauty, gratitude and wonder connected to its beginning.

To me, this meant that the traditional way is not even close to the only way, but rather, that personalized approaches can bring value and renewed meaning to faith and practice. Another blog inspired by the idea is the Wandering Jew, written by Ben Harris, who seems to share my appreciation for adventurous Judaism. He traipsed across the Jewish world and traced his experiences, many of which revolved around learning from non-traditional, and even many non-Jewish, sources. None of this detracts from its value. Similarly, I find that a Jew can experience Judaism even far removed from it.

The Jewish people are by no means a global majority, despite our capacity to maintain a sense of community and collectivity no matter where we may be. But our frequent isolation from the majority around us means that we must also cultivate a personal understanding of faith, one that can manifest itself even far from anything familiar or typically Jewish. By making Judaism my own, I am able to access it anywhere, because it exists within me, rather than as something I need to take in from outside.