Author Archives: elisniv

Kosher Hip-Hop

By Adina Rosenthal

There’s a new, up-and-coming Hasidic hip-hop artist on the block. Nosson Zand is a Boston-born musician who takes pride in the positive and hopeful lyrics that are inspired by his Hasidic beliefs. “I’m throwing a life preserver out into the cold, dark waters of hip-hop and pop music…I’m here to provide a window into a holier place,” he tells me.

Zand, who has toured with Matisyahu throughout the United States and Canada, is currently in the final stages of completing his new full-length album, which includes the single Believers, featuring Matisyahu. In a recent Shalom TV interview, Matisyahu singled out Zand and his musical promise: “Nosson would be the one artist I really believe in…he’s coming from a religious place. Nosson [is] infusing the music with depth and meaning from the Torah perspective, and he’s a really talented rapper, and writer, and singer. I really believe in him and think he can do good things.” Zand met Matisyahu by “chance” on a street corner, where he subsequently rapped for him and was told, “Hey…Nosson, you’re good!”

Zand explains how he was first exposed to rap by his friends in the projects. “There were a lot of rough characters involved…a big mix of people. I have the most diverse group of friends of all Jewish people I know in this world. I was very into other cultures. It’s very easy to blend in and I did for many years in cultures that were far from anything Jewish.”

Zand is a Baal Teshuva, someone who does not grow up religious and “returns” to it later in life. “I grew up going to Hebrew School…I was connected in some respect to Judaism, but wasn’t really taught in a way that made me feel that was relevant to my life. I was proud of being Jewish, but couldn’t articulate it. I was into rap way before I was into Judaism.”

Zand feels confident that as a result of his background, everyone—not just the religious Jewish crowd—can relate to his music. “I’ve been through so much that the average American has gone through…sneaking into movies, going to nightclubs, getting in cars and getting in trouble, but I can relate to my audience….my heart writes the lyrics…I put my heart on the page because I have been through it all. I want to save people from finding the realization through pain and instead through pleasure, education, and logic. That’s what Hasidim is all about.”

Zand’s Hasidic beliefs allow him to share a universal, positive message that transcends the focus on the sensationalism of promiscuous sex and violence. “[Inspirational music] doesn’t mean you can’t be cool and can’t have fun; it’s just a holier version that promotes good values…. It’s something that can be embraced. It’s Torah in the skies. The influence of Torah is nicely woven in a positive influence that hopefully everyone can absorb. This [upcoming] album is aggressively beautiful. It has attitude, swagger, and an opinion on things, but also is woven into what is melodic and hypnotic at the same time.”

While music is clearly his passion, Zand credits his deep love of Hasidism as the driving force behind his music and his life. Zand explains that his inspiration comes from the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Chabad, and the general Hasidic approach to Judaism and the world. “It’s a very beautiful thing that inspires me a lot…Torah and trying to be the best Jew and person I can be—the best Hasid I can be—is the main course. Everything else is a side order. The Lubavitcher Rebbe said, ‘Music is the pen of the soul.’ We run a risky business listening to any old thing because it defines people. That was the same with me. I identified more with hip-hop growing up than Judaism…music was the main course and Judaism was a side order.”

And how does Zand’s Hasidic community feel about his music? “My rabbi is my biggest advocate. Baal Teshuvas are supposed to incorporate their talents and turn them into something positive. My approach to Judaism is working on yourself to be a light in a dark world, turn others into a light, and thereby illuminate the world.  That’s what my music is all about.  Acknowledging that there is a mission ahead of us and eventually bring heaven down to Earth.”

As the lyrics from the teacher for Zand’s single, “Believers,” says, “Yes, we’re all believers/Through the dark don’t leave us.” Zand clearly uses his Hasidic beliefs to spread a universal message of hope and inspiration with powerful lyrics and a great beat.

Six Degrees of Kosher Bacon Contest

It’s a behavior every Jewish person has participated, and all of their non-Jewish friends have witnessed.  Jewish geography: the game where—without aid of Facebook—Jews who have just met figure out who they know in common.

Moment is searching for the wildest, most coincidental, craziest Jewish geography stories out there.  Just post your story on our Facebook wall, and we will publish the most mind-blowing of them on Moment‘s website!

The Jew With Two “Beards”

By Steven Philp

To their neighbors they look like every other Orthodox Jewish couple, a man and woman married for five years with two children in tow. Even the fact that their marriage is a product of convenience rather than love is not unusual, yet the particular reason for their union is unique: the man is gay, and the woman is lesbian. Their marriage owes its genesis to Areleh Harel, an Orthodox rabbi living on the West Bank; over the past six years, he has paired thirteen Orthodox gay and lesbian couples. For Harel it is a simple solution to a more complex problem: these are men and women who are attracted to people of the same sex, yet desire to remain in good standing with their communities by acquiring the familiar roles of Orthodox adulthood—a traditional family of one man and one woman.  Are the members of these couples simply “beards,” a slang term that usually describes a woman who marries or dates a gay man to “prove” his heterosexuality?

According to Time, Harel has been quietly pairing gay and lesbian couples for years. It was not until this past spring, when he mentioned his service at a Jerusalem-based panel on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights that other communities became aware of these couples. Not surprisingly, he has met criticism from both fronts. LGBT organizations cite his pairings as disingenuous, leading to loveless—perhaps unfaithful—marriages. On the other hand, several of his peers believe that Harel should do more to discourage their attraction to people of the same sex. They look to the controversial practice of “reparative” therapy, which claims that homosexuality can be “cured” through counseling and aversion treatments. However, prominent health organizations such as the American Psychological Association have questioned the efficacy of “reparative” therapy, citing evidence that its methods can cause lasting negative psychological effects. Although Harel believes that many men and woman can change their sexual attraction, he concedes that some individuals cannot—hence the necessity of pairing the men and women who continue to desire a traditional Orthodox marriage despite their homosexuality. “This is the best solution we can offer people who want to live within halakhah,” Harel explained to Time. “This may not be a perfect solution, but it’s kind of a solution.”

After his project went public, Harel found an increased demand for his services. He revealed plans to launch an online matchmaking service—Anachnu, Hebrew for “We” —for Orthodox gay and lesbian individuals who desire similar pairings. At the moment there will be five matchmakers on staff, all heterosexual. Harel will oversee operations as a consultant. Membership for the site will be $42, although if successful pairing is made both the bride and groom will pay $430 each.

When Harel began pairing gay and lesbian couples in 2005 there were no LGBT Orthodox organizations in Israel. Currently there are five, including one that is working closely with Harel to promote his matchmaking service. Kamoha—Hebrew for “Like You” —announced its intent to host a link to Anachnu. The founder of Kamoha, a closeted Orthodox man who has adopted the pseudonym Amit, explained the reasoning behind their decision to support Harel. Although many gay and lesbian individuals want total acceptance within the Orthodox community, there are some whose desire for a quiet, normative lifestyle outweighs their sexual attraction. “We’re not pushing this on people,” explained Amit to Time. “This is for people who want this because Jewish law says this is the normal way and because it’s the easiest way to have children.” As for himself, Amit explained that he has not desire to utilize Anachnu; after many years of therapy, he came to the conclusion that he is “100% gay.”

However, not all LGBT Orthodox groups are comfortable with the implicit support that Kamoha has lended Harel. Daniel Jonas, a gay Orthodox man living in Jerusalem and spokesperson for the pro-LGBT organization Havruta, explained that the matchmaking service will lead to unhealthy relationships. “I am not the one to judge, but if you ask me what a family is, it’s about caring, loving, and sharing,” Jonas told Time. “This kind of technical relationship, it is not based on love, and I do believe that if the parents don’t love each other, the kids will feel it. It’s not healthy for the kids or for their parents to live like this.” Concerns have been raised about the fidelity of these marriages, a problem that Harel acknowledges and addresses with the potential gay and lesbian couples. In an interview with the Associated Press, Harel pointed to his belief that having children will provide a substantial foundation for the pairing to build a genuine relationship. “Their love is based on parenthood,” Harel said. “Parenthood is the glue and it’s strong.”

Still the efficacy of these relationships is called in to question. In an interview with one of the men paired by Harel—who chose the pseudonym Josh—Time revealed that even the presence of children is not a foolproof safeguard against infidelity. Josh, a 30-year-old Orthodox gay man, admitted to cheating on his wife at least three times over the three years of their marriage—most recently in February of this year. They have an 11-month-old son. “I haven’t told my wife, but I think she knows,” Josh said. “She can see it in my face when I come home.” Yet he explains that their mutual struggle with same sex attraction has provided space for an intimate, if unorthodox, partnership. “But she give me space,” Josh concluded. “I really love her because she understands me.”

Singing a New Song

By Steven Philp

It goes without saying that these are trying times. Yet it is in the face of crisis that humankind produces its best music, art, and literature; while grappling with adversity, men and women exercise their creative abilities to express anger, sadness, and—above all—hope that is both genuine and deeply felt. Perhaps it is the celebration of this latter sentiment that prompted MTV to add a new category to its annual Video Music Awards: “Best Video With A Message.” According to Reuters this award was created to “honor artists and music videos that featured a positive message or raised awareness of key social issues facing today’s youth.” Despite chart-topping performances by Pink, Katy Perry, Eminem, Rise Against, and Taylor Swift—whose songs addressed issues ranging from social isolation to domestic violence—it was Lady Gaga’s pro-diversity opus “Born This Way” that clinched the honor. And regardless of what one thinks about the quality of her music, that at the height of her career she would craft a song celebrating the spectrum of human expression—including an explicit nod to the embattled gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community—deserves recognition.

Unfortunately the spirit of tolerance embodied by the new award category was belied by MTV’s nomination of up-and-comer Tyler the Creator, who was recognized as this year’s “Best New Artist.” As a press release from the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation makes note, his lauded sophomore album Goblin is a celebration of homophobia and misogyny—including 213 occurrences of the word “faggot” and its variations. Instead of sending a message of hope, his lyrics promote violence and normalize discrimination against some of the most marginalized people in our society. In the end, the VMAs is testimony to the state of American music: while there are enough songs to cobble together a new award category that features “positive messages,” our “Best New Artist”—which is selected by popular vote—is actively contributing to the adversity felt by minority communities.

So where can we look for songs of hope, when the pop charts so often lend themselves to the dissemination of bigotry? Just this month, Jewish hip-hop sensation Matisyahu uploaded a new single that serves as a reminder that the most profound inspiration can manifest in the most unexpected places. Rabbi Yonah posted a story on the Jewish-interest blog Jewlicious, detailing the history behind the song. It started with an unlikely friendship, between Matisyahu and a young boy named Elijah. Although the boy was battling cancer, his indefatigable spirit inspired the hip-hop artist prompting several years of after-concert visits and phone exchanges. When Matisyahu was on tour this year, Elijah came to his concert in Florida and asked if they could record a song together. The next morning the boy was admitted to intensive care. With his acoustic accompanist and recording equipment in tow, Matisyahu showed up at the hospital that evening. The result was “Elijah’s Song.” According to Matisyahu, most of the words and many of the lyrical decisions were made by the young boy.

Unfortunately Elijah passed away that night. Inspired by the boy’s courage, Matisyahu has made the song available online. The song can also be downloaded for a minimum donation of $1, with proceeds going to the Elijah Memorial Fund. Rabbi Yonah makes note that one would expect a song composed by a dying child would be “sad and full of regret,” but the lyrics point to the opposite: that in the face of adversity, hope can be found. Just as artists like Tyler the Creator showcase the damaging power of words, Elijah reminds us that in every creative act is the potential for redemption. In his own words:

Never know what tomorrow brings,
Don’t have the answers to tell you.
Take it one step at a time,
See where G-d will lead you.

Egypt on the Edge

By Adina Rosenthal

Tensions in the Middle East have sadly reached a familiar high.  Recently, Gaza militants ambushed Israeli vehicles in southern Israel near Eilat, killing eight people in the deadliest attack in three years. In addition to this premeditated act of terrorism, militants launched more than 150 rockets and mortars into Israel—despite a ceasefire—killing one, injuring scores of civilians and inciting panic throughout southern Israel.

While such hostilities at the hands of terrorists are a tragedy, unfortunately, they are not an anomaly. When news breaks concerning violence against Israelis, the word “Gaza” usually seems to follow closely behind. Despite the recent events being perpetrated by Gaza militants, the backdrop behind the atrocities should also raise some eyebrows.

Despite the difficulty in entering a heavily guarded Israel, the Gaza militants were able to travel through a lax Egyptian border to commit their atrocities. In 1979, Egyptian President Anwar El Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin signed a peace treaty, thereby ending the war that had existed between the two nations since Israel’s inception in 1948. Though a cool peace, the treaty has kept tensions between Egypt and Israel relatively quiet for three decades.

But since Hosni Mubarak’s ouster from office last February, much has changed in the discourse between Egypt and Israel. Over the last six months, there have been five separate attacks on the Egyptian-Israeli natural gas pipeline compared to “zero successful attacks” since the pipeline opened in 2008. Such actions have deprived Israel of gas and Egypt of foreign currency. Last June, Egypt lifted its four-year blockade on Gaza, which arguably contributed to the terrorists’ ease in committing last Thursday’s attacks. Moreover, such a political move may even highlight a shift in Egyptian policy and power, according to Evelyn Gordon in the Jerusalem Post Magazine, as the “cross-border attack took place in broad daylight, right in front of an Egyptian army outpost, without the soldiers lifting a finger to stop it.” Such inaction is particularly surprising, as the violence also resulted in the deaths of Egyptian soldiers. As Gordon also points out, “The Egyptian border policemen on patrol whom Israeli troops allegedly killed in their effort to repulse the terrorists were also clearly at the scene; otherwise, they wouldn’t have been in the line of fire. Yet they, too, did nothing to stop it from happening.”

Although last week’s attacks were clearly initiated by Gaza terrorists, Egypt blamed Israel for the deaths of its border policemen and demanded an apology. According to Haaretz, the IDF stated that its soldiers had “returned fire ‘at the source of the gunfire’ that had been aimed at Israeli soldiers and civilians from the area of an Egyptian position on the border…and at least some of the Egyptian soldiers were killed by the [Popular Resistance Committee’s] terrorists’ gunfire and bombs.” Though Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak immediately apologized after the attacks, adding that they “demonstrate the weakening of Egypt’s control over the Sinai Peninsula and the expansion of terrorist activity there,” Egyptians were not satisfied and popular sentiment amongst Egyptian quickly became apparent. Angry Egyptians responded with protests outside of the Israeli Embassy in Cairo, which included the “Egyptian Spiderman” scaling the 21-story building to take down the Israeli flag. The Egyptian government also threatened to recall their ambassador to Israel, though they later revoked their decision.

Clearly, tensions between Egypt and Israel are high, and a shaky relationship has become even more precarious. Such contention not only affects Israeli concerns with hostile Palestinian neighbors. Now, Israelis realize that their relationship with Egypt has changed in a post-Mubarak era, with popular sentiment growing more vocal and antagonistic against the Jewish state and, subsequently, a future Egyptian government reevaluating peace with Israel.

With tensions mounting daily and popular sentiment coming to a forefront, how can relations between the two states remain cordial?

According to Wafik Dawood, director of institutional sales at Cairo-based Mega Investments Securities, Egypt’s stocks fell to the lowest in two weeks as “The negative global backdrop and the killings on the Israeli border’ are driving shares lower…The main fear is the escalation.” Even more worrisome for Egyptians should be that there has been talk in Washington about cutting the $2 billion in their annual aid if the country backs out of its peace treaty with Israel. As Congresswoman Kay Granger, Chairwoman of the U.S. House Appropriations Foreign Operations subcommittee told the Jerusalem Post, “The United States aid to Egypt is predicated on the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, and so the relationship between Egypt and Israel is extremely important.”

If the mutual interest of keeping peace walks, the hope remains that money talks.

The September/October Issue of Moment

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Adding a Little Color to Summer Camp

by Steven Philp

For centuries Jews have been the target of damaging stereotypes; yet in our effort to battle unfavorable myths, sometimes we overlook our own assumptions concerning the Jewish community. Perhaps this oversight is what makes Camp Be’chol Lashon so extraordinary. Located in the forested hills of Marin County—a short 35 miles north of San Francisco—the summer camp seeks to expand the borders of the Jewish community, to allow Jews of color to see themselves as an integral part of world Jewry. According to a New York Times article, Be’chol Lashon—which translates to “In Every Tongue”—has done in two short years what many Jewish communities have failed to accomplish: make the Jewishness of Jews of color a statement of fact, rather than a question. “If there’s Christians of all colors and all kinds, and Muslims of all colors and all kinds then why would Jewishness by any different?” explained Amalia Cymrot-Wu over a typical Shabbat lunch. The descendent of Brazilian and Chinese families, Amalia had helped lead the Torah service that morning. With help from her campmate Maya Campbell, who is half white and half black, she recited the b’rachah celebrating their place in the Jewish community: “Blessed are You, Adonai our G-d, Ruler of the Universe, who has made me a Jew.”

Although vibrant Jewish communities are scattered across the globe—from India to Ghana, Mexico to China—American Jewry has been dominated by its Eastern European majority since the early 20th century; it is their culture that has defined what it means to be Jewish in the United States, from the food we eat— latkes and gefilte fish—to the words we use—oy vey! Yet shortly after the turn of the century, demographers Gary and Diane Tobin determined that 10 percent of the six million American Jews are nonwhite; unlike many of their white peers, a large number of Jews of color have entered our community through conversion, adoption, and interracial parentage. The New York Times notes that other scholars have estimated the number of nonwhite Jews at approximately 450,000. Regardless, this is a significant numbers of Jews who do not see themselves in the self-generated archetypes of our community, even when being Jewish has nothing to do with skin color. Back at camp, Josh Rowen-Karen—born to black and Korean parents and adopted by an interracial Jewish couple in the Bay Area—emphasizes this fact. “Being Jewish isn’t looking a certain way,” he explains. “I could look at anyone and not know if they are or aren’t Jewish. You can’t know till you know the person.”

Camp Be’chol Lashon was born of the experience director Diane Tobin, who adopted her African-American son Jonah as an infant fourteen years prior. Raising Jonah in the Jewish community, she became concerned about how he would be accepted by his peers. “It was a sense of the Other, and we as a community are not great at dealing with the Other,” Tobin told the New York Times. “We had centuries of persecution making us wary. We have a tendency to be more suspicious than welcoming.” At the time of her husband’s death in 2009, the Tobin family had been hosting holy day gatherings and arranging retreats for multiracial Jewish families. This evolved in to Camp Be’chol Lashon, which kicked off last year with 18 children, ages 8 to 16. This year the number of campers has increased to 25, with children hailing from across the United States.

Perhaps the most surprising quality of Camp Be’chol Lashon is its sense of normalcy; the diversity of the campers is celebrated as an integral part of their Jewishness, rather than something that sets them apart. The kids attend services, make challah covers, play games, and spend a couple weeks in the woods, paralleling the summer activities of Jewish children across the country. Yet despite its common mission, Camp Be’chol Lashon helps remind us that Jewishness is not found in skin color, the curl in your hair, or the shape of your nose, but through community.