Author Archives: caitlinyoshiko

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The Rise of the Religiously “Unaffiliated”

One in five adults in the United States—and one in three adults under the age of 30—do not identify with any religious tradition, a new study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life shows, marking a noticeable growth in the number of “unaffiliated” Americans in the past five years. But lack of religious affiliation does not correspond to spirituality, the survey also finds: Of the 46 million Americans that don’t claim a religion, more than two thirds say they believe in God, more than a third consider themselves “spiritual but not religious,” while just over a quarter are self-proclaimed atheists or agnostics. These changes affect more than just demographics, as the religiously unaffiliated are becoming an increasingly important part of the electorate. In 2008, they came out for Barack Obama as strongly as white evangelicals did for John McCain, and continue to show preference for the Democratic Party and support liberal social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage.

Mayim Bialik Goes Vegan

Mayim Bialik is speaking out about the benefits of a meat-free diet in a new ad for PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). Bialik, star of “The Big Bang Theory” and a longtime vegan, says much of the inspiration behind her decision to shun all animal products was Jonathan Safran Foer’s book Eating Animals. “There were two major shifts for me when I became vegan,” the Emmy Award-nominated actress tells PETA in a video interview. “I never had a sinus infection or been on antibiotics since cutting out dairy… I’ve noticed that my true seasonal allergies are much less severe… But I think he most significant shift for me was I used to feel guilty, even as a child, I felt very guilty about eating animals and never knew there was something to do about it. And as I got older, it became clearer that there are things that I can do and choices I can make.” For Moment‘s interviews with Bialik, click here and here.

Debating War With Iran

As Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visits New York this week for the UN General Assembly, the question of Iran and what the United States and Israel should do is on everyone’s minds. Here’s a roundup of opinions on both sides of the debate.

A top Israeli security official explains the Iranian nuclear threat, saying, “A nuclear Iran is one of the gravest things that could happen to Israel. If Iran goes nuclear, everything here will be different. Everything. We will shift into a different state of existence.” [Haaretz]

Jamie Fly and Bill Kristol call on President Obama to take action against Iran, writing, “The real and credible threat of force is probably the last hope of persuading the Iranian regime to back down. So: Isn’t it time for the president to ask Congress for an Authorization for Use of Military Force against Iran’s nuclear program?” [The Weekly Standard]

Former U.S. Ambassador to the UN John Bolton writes that sanctions and containment won’t work, so a pre-emptive military strike is the “only other option.” [USA Today]

Georgetown professor Matthew Kroenig writes: “The truth is that a military strike intended to destroy Iran’s nuclear program, if managed carefully, could spare the region and the world a very real threat and dramatically improve the long-term national security of the United States.” [Foreign Affairs]

Former chief of Israeli military intelligence, Amos Yadlin, writes: “Today, Israel sees the prospect of a nuclear Iran that calls for our annihilation as an existential threat.” [New York Times]

A bipartisan group of senior foreign policy experts—including former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, Senator Chuck Hagel and Ambassador Thomas Pickering—have released a report warning that an attack on Iran would only set the country’s nuclear program back four years. Ensuring Iran never acquires a nuclear weapon would involve a prolonged conflict, which would inflict “serious costs to U.S. interests” and “lead, potentially, to all-out regional war.”

Former Mossad chief Meir Dagan says in an interview, “We are going to ignite, at least from my point of view, a regional war. And wars, you know how they start. You never know how you are ending it.” [CBS]

Atlantic writer Jeffrey Goldberg lays out seven reasons Israel should not attack Iran, which include the loss of innocent lives and the possibility that a strike may speed up Iran’s nuclear capabilities. [The Atlantic]

L. Michael Hager, co-founder of Italy’s International Development Law Organization, writes: “Under the strict wording of the [United Nations] Charter, neither Israel nor the United States would have a legal right to preemptively launch a military strike on Iran.” [Christian Science Monitor]

A New York Times article details the strategic difficulties of an Israeli attack on Iran, which would require pilots to “fly more than 1,000 miles across unfriendly airspace, refuel in the air en route, fight off Iran’s air defenses, attack multiple underground sites simultaneously—and use at least 100 planes.” [New York Times]

Former Ambassador Nicholas Burns writes: “[T]he United States should do all it can to avoid war and look for another way to stop Iran’s drive for a nuclear weapon.” [Boston Globe]

A Measured Feast

By Martin Berman-Gorvine

Contemporary poetry on Jewish religious subjects is rare in America outside the pages of specialized Jewish publications. Thus, Peg Duthie’s delightful new collection Measured Extravagance (Upper Rubber Boot Books) is doubly welcome.

Full disclosure: Peg and I attended the University of Chicago together, and she was a regular contributor to a student poetry magazine I founded and edited. That was more than twenty years ago, and her poetic gifts have if anything expanded and deepened over time.

Measured Extravagance contains only 35 poems, which in olden times would have made it a “chapbook.” Since it is available only in e-book format, I suppose we must call it an “e-chapbook.” There are disadvantages to this format, especially for a poet who makes such artful use of line and stanza breaks as Duthie does, and I found myself printing the whole thing out for a better view of what she was up to

For example, in the seasonably appropriate “Kol Nidre,” Duthie makes her line-breaks occasions for building suspense and the dropping of small surprises:

Sloppy work,

she tells Him. I can’t love anyone

proud of setting me up to fail.

The poem captures perfectly the ambivalence of the modern American Jew estranged from her religion and yet still tied to the tradition through ambiguous, dubious emotional bonds:

…Yet, the years

she pretended the holidays weren’t hers,

she felt like an incomplete book, like a spine

losing its glue, pages dropping away

before their time.

“Shehechianu,” titled after the prayer recited to thank God for “enabling us” to live to see a holiday or other special occasion, explores the disjuncture between religious experience and modern hyper-secularism, and whether there is any spiritual value to be found in the latter:

After sundown,

after its prayers

leave me more restless than at rest,

I walk past clusters of clubgoers,

of people in line for shows, for seats

in small booths and at narrow tables.



am not waiting

to be served

or saved.

I am here

to be moved

by how you are holding your breath.

A minor epiphany, to be sure, and perhaps an unsatisfying one. There is more raw emotional power in the poem “In Memory Of,” where no religious comfort seems to be available to comfort the mourner:

My aunt hanged herself, but her children

told the press she’d overdosed on pills.

It was in fact pills for the boyfriend of

my then best friend…

There are cautious experiments with form and rhyme, notably in the smudged villanelle “Schrödinger’s Top Hat” (a form I have experimented with myself). Peg is a poet we must hope to hear more from.

Arabian Nights, Jewish Dreams

By Martin Berman-Gorvine

Janice Weizman’s The Wayward Moonmarks a refreshing departure in the Jewish historical novel, which is all too prone to focus on a limited range of well-known subjects and the theme of Jewish victimization. The setting in the 9th century Middle East is one that even avid readers of Jewish-themed history and historical fiction are unlikely to be familiar with, if they have thought about

The Wayward Moon
By Janice Weizman
Yotzeret Publishing, $14.95

it at all. Weizman, a Canadian immigrant to Israel and managing editor of The Ilanot Review, a literary journal affiliated with the creative writing program at Bar-Ilan University, brings this time and place vividly to life with lively descriptions of the sights, sounds, odors and tastes of the region.

Our heroine, a 17-year-old girl named Rahel, lives in Sura in what is now Iraq, a famous center of Talmudic learning. When her physician father is murdered by a Muslim rival jealous of his appointment as advisor to the local ruler, which he has reluctantly accepted for the sake of the Jewish community, Rahel kills the murderer in self-defense and immediately flees the city to escape the vengeance of the killer’s family. The novel consists of her adventures traveling alone through Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and the Galilee. It is an exciting story, as the pampered Rahel draws on inner resources she didn’t know she had to survive in a hostile world.

One of the many virtues of The Wayward Moon is that it avoids both of the fashionable extremes with regard to Jewish-Muslim relations—the gauzy sentimentality centering around the “Golden Age” in Muslim-ruled Spain, according to which Muslims were supremely tolerant of their Jewish neighbors until, it is implied, the Zionists came along and ruined everything, and an equally one-sided and historically unfounded view of the entire sweep of Muslim-Jewish relations over a dizzying range of cultures through more than a millennium as an unrelieved hell. Instead, Weizman shows the nuances and conflicts that existed within Islam, and quite reasonably suggests that individual Muslims held different views of how they should relate to their Christian and Jewish neighbors.

A generous humanism pervades the novel, as Weizman suggests that Jews, Muslims and Christians of good faith can find common ground. Without criticizing this spirit, however, I found it unconvincing that 9th century Muslim and Christian intellectuals would have expressed themselves in post-Enlightenment terminology, accepting all of the “monotheistic” religions as at least potentially equally worthy. The hardest task of the historical novelist is to get into the different mentality of his or her chosen historical setting, and while Weizman has clearly done her research, she has not made this leap with complete success.

Moreover, one gets the sense that Rahel’s adventures are driven at times by a perceived need to offer the reader a travelogue. Sold into slavery? Check. Visited a monastery? Check. Traveled with a caravan? Check. Stayed in a colorful inn? Check. Similarly, some of the characters seem to be there for their pedagogical value, and the Jewish characters except for Rahel tend to be two-dimensional kindly and pious cutouts. It’s a little odd in a Jewish historical novel to find that the non-Jewish characters are frequently more fully realized than the Jewish ones. I also found myself getting impatient with Weizman’s overuse of the timeworn plot device of the woman disguised as a man, the fantastic ease with which a girl who has never ridden a horse becomes a skilled horseman literally overnight, and the deus ex machina conclusion that suggests the author really didn’t know how to end the novel.

These flaws should not deter readers from buying this entertaining and thought-provoking novel. I hope Ms. Weizman will bring us more spunky, smart, strong Jewish heroines like Rahel.

Can Politics Stay Off the Field?

By Rebecca Borison

Israeli judokas practice on their side of the barrier, separated from the Lebanese athletes (photo courtesy of the Israeli Olympic Committee)

For 15 minutes, a group of boys lived their dream. These boys met their idols and played soccer during the half-time break of a game between Los Angeles Galaxy and Real Madrid. And after the game, those boys returned home…to their Israeli and Palestinian families.

The game was sponsored by Children United, hosted in L.A., and supervised by Jose Mourinho, the coach of Real Madrid. As the world struggles to find the “solution” for the Middle East, groups like Children United are trying to think outside of the box and employ sports.

According to Spanish journalist Henrique Cymerman, “People like the Real Madrid manager have more power than governments, in many cases, because football is like a religion. We strongly believe that the fastest road to peace isn’t with political agreements but through education and sport. Football is a very useful instrument to encourage different people to live together.”

Even though we may all have different political views, Cymerman thinks that we can put that aside for the name of sport. These young boys all share this passion for soccer, and by creating these opportunities, we can bring them together even though they come from entirely different backgrounds.

If only it were that easy.

While soccer-loving kids may be able to put aside their differences, there are still entire governments that can’t seem to put aside politics in the name of sportsmanship. Just look at the current Olympics, and you will unfortunately find an abundance of examples.

For starters, Iran has long maintained a policy of prohibiting their athletes from competing against Israeli athletes. And while this year, Bahram Afsharzadeh, secretary general of the Iranian Olympic committee, promised that Iran would “be truthful to sport” and “play every country,” no Iranian athlete ended up facing an Israeli athlete. The only hope of a show-off was in judo, but the Iranian judo champion, Javad Mahjoub, mysteriously dropped out of the competition because of a “critical digestive system infection.”

Last year, Mahjoub reportedly told the Iranian newspaper Shargh that he threw a match against a German opponent, explaining, “If I won, I would have had to compete with an Israeli athlete. And if I refused to compete with the Israeli, they would have suspended our judo federation for four years.”

Mahjoub had some issues leaving politics out of the arena.

And apparently, so did Lebanon.  After the Lebanese judo team refused to practice in the same gym as the Israelis, the Olympic organizers agreed to place a barrier between the two teams.

But before we get too depressed about the power of sports to overcome any obstacles, Itamar Marcus has a bit of good news for us.  While there may be no way of sugarcoating Olympic conflicts, we can at least find a slight improvement on the Palestinian policy towards competing against Israelis.

Reporting on the Children United soccer game, the official PA daily, Al-Hayat Al-Jadida had only positive things to say about the tournament. In the August 8th issue of Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, the newspaper reported, “[The game] aims to create a warm atmosphere in order to draw the nations together, and support peace between them… Mourinho’s influence may be much stronger than the influence of the governments, and football is capable of achieving what political agreements and treaties have been unable to achieve”

According to Marcus, “the official PA policy is to ban sporting events promoting peace between Israelis and Palestinians.” And the PA has been known to condemn such events in the past. In 2011, for example, Al-Hayat Al-Jadida reported on a similar tournament in Canada, but wrote that the PA was planning on forming a investigative committee which would “submit its recommendations before legal steps are taken against the players.”

The fact that the newspaper was able to report on the LA soccer game without any condemnation is a big deal.  We can’t be sure that this represents a total shift in policy, but it is definitely a step up.

So while it may take awhile for this sports over politics philosophy to fully permeate, I can’t help but think that it can’t move much more slowly than the current peace process.

A Pioneer of Jewish Music

By Rebecca Borison

Born in Odessa in 1879, Jacob Weinberg was a talented and prolific Jewish composer, who sought to preserve and promote his Jewish heritage through his music. He is survived today by three granddaughters, and one of those granddaughters, Ellen Mausner, is working to revive and foster her grandfather’s legacy. As apart of that effort, Mausner is producing an hour-long concert version of Weinberg’s opera, The Pioneers, on Monday, August 20, in Manhattan. Moment was able to talk to Mausner to learn a bit more about her grandfather and the relationship between music and Judaism.

Can you tell me a bit of background about your grandfather?
He was a trained concert pianist and composer. He composed many works that have been published. In 1924, he wrote an opera called The Pioneers, or Chalutzim in Hebrew, that won an international composition contest. With the prize money of $1,500 he was able to bring his wife and son to New York City from Israel. He then joined the music faculty of Hunter College for many years.

How did he become interested in music?
I know he took piano lessons sort of as a cultural enrichment sort of thing, but he really loved it. And that became his life instead of following in the law practice his family had. I know he had an uncle, Peter Weinberg, who was a translator and a well-respected scholar. If you go on YouTube, there’s a clip of a young woman in Paris who was playing the clarinet in a recital and doing one of my grandfather’s pieces. I emailed her, and she was so excited that his relatives were still alive.

Were any of his pieces performed during his life?
He got several productions of The Pioneers concert version. It was performed at Carnegie Hall in 1946 and 1949 and at City Center in the 1930s when it was called the Mecca Temple. It was also performed in Jerusalem and in Berlin in the 1930s by a group called Kulturbund. The cast of the full production is actually a large cast, so it was more economical to just do the highlights. But The Pioneers have not a revival since 1949.

Why did you decide to put on a performance of the opera?
My father passed away a few years ago, and I’ve been looking more and more into his father’s work almost as a way of getting closer to my father and preserving his legacy. I feel closer to my own past. I’ve also been doing some genealogy research online. It’s only in the last few months that I even found out where my grandfather was buried because my parents never mentioned it. But I went to visit it at Westchester Hill Cemetery.

How did you go about putting together the performance?
I got a score of The Pioneers. We had auditions, and I hired four opera singers and a musical conductor, Cynthia Hiltz. We’re doing a concert version—no set, no props, just highlights. I’ll be the narrator.

Can you tell me about the opera itself?
The music is very beautiful. There are some comic numbers, love duets. It’s basically a tribute to Palestine. When people first left Eastern Europe to escape the pogroms they went to Palestine and lived on kibbutzes. That was the beginning of the State of Israel. The opera is 223 pages long. And this is just one of his many works. He was a brilliant man. He wrote a lot of fugues and rounds, and the way they blend is just beautiful. He also wrote the words, which are all in English. There’s a love story in the opera, sort of a Romeo and Juliet plot.

How have you been trying to publicize your grandfather’s work?
I’m hoping to get enough interest in this, so people will want to do a full production of it. I sent copies of the scores to the Israeli opera company. I’ve been in touch with the Milken Archives, which records classical Jewish music and honors composers of Jewish heritage. They’ve already recorded two CDs of Jacob’s music. I spoke with the director to see if he would do a recording of this opera. This music needs to be heard. It’s very enjoyable and catchy. We want to revive and promote this work so that Jacob Weinberg’s name lives on. The world can always use beautiful music. He has written so many wonderful things in addition to this opera. A lot of his clarinet songs are popular around the world. There’s so much that still hasn’t been recorded. It’s been published, but not recorded. They didn’t have the technology we have back then.

Did you receive your grandfather’s musical genes?
I do love music, and I’ve taken singing lessons, but I’m not an accomplished pianist. My father used to give me lessons, so I can play a little. I do acting and standup, and I played a psychiatrist on the Sopranos. My stage name is Ellen Orchid and you can see clips of some acting I’ve done on I’ve written some plays. One of my plays is a solo piece called Rest in Pieces.  It’s a stand-up tragedy about the story of my father’s death told as a dark comedy. I use my grandfather’s music in it.

Why do you think music is important to Judaism?
Jewish music, the music that is part of the services, Passover, Sabbath, etc., all of the songs and traditions and the cantorial music is unique and beautiful and has unique musical features. Jacob used the traditional folk tunes and melodies of services, and even Hatikva, the Jewish national anthem, is included in The Pioneers. He wanted to preserve the uniquely Jewish music so that the music would be preserved and appreciated. What was unique to Jewish music is exactly what he wanted to promote by writing original music that included these folk tunes. He also wrote three different compositions of music for the Sabbath service as well as multiple Jewish hymns.

What is your next step after putting on this opera?
I’m not sure what the next step is. I’m fortunate enough, living in Manhattan there are a lot of collections of Jacob Weinberg’s papers. I’m going to be Xeroxing some papers my father donated to the Yivo archives. It contains handwritten music and orchestrations. I’m going to make it into an e-file so that I can send it to libraries around the world and the music has a chance of living on.

Six Figures for a Thirteenth Birthday

By Lily Shoulberg

Growing up in New York City, I’ve always had plenty of Jewish friends, gone to public schools with significant Jewish populations, and, in turn, attended my fair share of lavish bar mitzvahs.  I think most Jewish New Yorkers can attest to the fact that when seventh grade rolls around, the fancy envelopes start pouring in and the schedule becomes filled with saved bar and bat mitzvah dates.  The parties usually feature at least one ice sculpture, and would not be complete without a photographer to capture embarrassing images of all the awkward pre-teen guests.

But what, really, should a bar mitzvah entail?

The bar mitzvah is supposed to occur at the time of the Jewish child’s (traditionally, only Jewish boys) thirteenth birthday.  He reads a section from the Torah, and in doing so, proves that he would be prepared to lead the congregation in a service.  Additionally, there is generally a tzedakah component, wherein the bar mitzvah contributes to a charity of his or her choice.  The significance of a bar mitzvah originally was that it symbolized the coming-of-age and manhood of a Jewish boy.

Today, however, many bar mitzvahs more accurately represent social standing and financial status than religious devotion.  Most of my peers who went through the entire process feel very little connection to their Jewish identities and ultimately regret the exorbitant sum that was spent on a single night of loud music and mediocre food.  Furthermore, very few of them maintained any knowledge of Hebrew and went on to assist in services at their synagogues.

I think I have a unique perspective on the issue.  I attended a number of very fancy bat mitzvahs and certainly felt the societal pressure to follow suit, but had been given quite a bit of freedom and independence by my parents, who felt that I could make the decision for myself.  I attended a year of Hebrew school when I was nine, before deciding that it wasn’t for me.  My parents, as usual, supported my decision.  When seventh grade rolled around, I naturally became envious of my peers and their larger-than-life celebrations, and decided that I would get a private tutor and cram for a bat mitzvah so I could have a fancy party of my own.  Luckily, this decision didn’t even make it past my mind to my parents’ ears.  I realized, not several hours after making this resolution, how fundamentally flawed it really was.  I felt very little religious fervor at the time, my Jewish identity was entirely cultural, and my motivation was completely attributed to societal pressure.

Of course there are Jewish children who feel that their bar mitzvahs signify their religious identities.  Some parents raise their children with the expectation of this rite of passage.  My mother grew up attending Hebrew School and had a bat mitzvah without a big party afterwards.  I expect that this greatly contributed to her religiosity and spirituality as she got older.  Because of my mother’s example, I see no problem in raising your children with religion and expecting them to pursue a bar mitzvah for the purpose of instilling them with a spiritual identity.  That being said, it should go hand in hand with actual interest in religion.  The fact that I will have to pursue an adult bat mitzvah of my own volition means that I’ll first have to establish a religious identity, which, to me, is more significant than being motivated by social pressure.  I know that my parents have had their doubts about being so lenient when it came to religion, but I’m glad that it went the way it did.  They clearly did something right if I realized that my superficial desire for a bat mitzvah was for all the wrong reasons.

Is the New York Times More Jewish than Moment?

By Rebecca Borison

For the past couple of months I’ve been mastering the skill of finding Jewish-related news. I follow the Jewish blogs and sites—Jewcy, Jewlicious, JTA—and the Israeli newspapers—JPost, Arutz Sheva, Haaretz. But my favorite articles are
those found in non-Jewish sources. I love going to the New York Times homepage to see an article about making kosher cocktails. Or the article about playing gaga at Jewish Summer Camps. Or the one about how Haredim cope with the summer heat.

You always hear questions like, “If there are so few Jews in the world relative to other religions, why do we keep winning Nobel prizes?” As of 2011, Jews make up around 0.2 percent of the world’s population, and yet 22 percent of Nobel recipients between 1901 and 2011 were Jewish.  Maybe my fellow intern Lily Shoulberg can help us out with that one. But what I’d like to know is if there are so few Jews in the world, why do we keep popping up in the news?

Granted, major newspapers aren’t going to be able to choose whether or not to write about the conflict in the Middle East and Israel’s relationship with Iran, but I’m talking about the more quirky articles. Like Mark Oppenheimer’s column on a kosher Starbucks website.

In Oppenheimer’s column, he profiles Uri Ort, a Jewish New Yorker who started a website that tracks the kashrut status of Starbucks products by labeling the various drinks and snacks with a green light for “recommended” and a red light for “not recommended.”

When I asked Oppenheimer how he came up with the topic, he replied, “I was in a Starbucks, and I saw an Orthodox fellow, and I had noticed this same man at a different coffee shop in New Haven, and I got curious about it.” He tweeted about it, asking if Starbucks was kosher, and someone responded with the Chicago Rabbinical Council official document on Starbucks’s kashrut. After searching some more on Google, Oppenheimer stumbled upon Ort’s website.

But Oppenheimer doesn’t think that he writes about Judaism more than other religions. “I never do columns thinking am I going to satisfy a religious constituent; I just want to write a good story.”

He does admit that perhaps Jews are over-represented in the media, but, he says, “Jews also do a lot of interesting things and have interesting arguments. There’s a lot more interesting controversy within American Judaism than within say the Methodist Church in America.” And Oppenheimer explains this phenomenon with the fact that Judaism is decentralized. “If you want to know what the Lutheran church believes, they have a general assembly that passes resolutions about what Lutherans believe. With Jews, every rabbi can teach something different which gives rise to controversy and argument.”

So what it all comes down to is the fact that Jews don’t agree on much of anything. Ever since the Jews fought the Seleucid Greeks in the second century B.C.E., the Jewish People was divided into different sects or movements. At first we had the Essenes, Sadducees, and Pharisees. Then came the Karaites. About a thousand years later, Judaism gave rise to the first modern movements—the Chasidim and the Mitnagdim. Today, the number of Jewish sects is endless: Ultra-orthodox, modern Orthodox, Conservadox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Humanist, Renewal, and the list goes on and on.

Even though Jews make up only a small percentage of the world’s population, the Jewish gamut is so incredibly wide and diverse that it automatically gives rise to newsworthy stories. As Oppenheimer puts it, “You could write an interesting column about American Judaism every week.”