Category Archives: Arts & Culture

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.

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.

(…)

I

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.

But Can You Do Israeli Folk Dance To It?

by Daniela Enriquez

As the men entered in capsule-shaped cubicles, images started to appear across the entirety of the stage-wide screen—all present felt transplanted to a wild forest, surrounded by brownish mushrooms as tall as trees.

No, it’s not the beginning of a 3D movie on environmental issues, but the start of an Infected Mushroom concert. The psychedelic trance band, currently on worldwide summer tour, landed in Washington, DC’s famous 9:30 Club on Thursday night.

(http://infected-mushroom.com)

(http://www.930.com)

The club was packed with fans wearing all kinds of expected clothing: animal-shaped hats, feeders, phosphorescent colored bracelets and rings to shake to the persistent rhythm of the music. Infected Mushroom arrived at a punctual 11:30—after the crowd had been warmed up by house beats from DJ Randy Seidman—and set the club on fire, with people of all ages dancing, jumping and frenetically shaking their bodies.

As I am guessing is also true of many of our readers, I am not a habitué of trance party music. But this time I had a reason to go: the musicians, Amit Duvdevani and Erez Eisenare, are Israeli.

Duvdev and Eisen, as they prefer to be called, both had classical training at an early age, during which they learned to play, respectively, piano and organ and piano. While Eisen wasn’t an unfamiliar with trance music, having collaborated with several DJs, Duvdev had a background in punk-rock and metal. At the age of 17,he went to his first trance party and describes the event as “a life-changing experience.” The two boys, one bald, the other with long black hair, met in Haifa in 1997 and, within a year, began their musical work together.

Infected Mushroom became revolutionaries of psychedelic trance music, well known all over the world for their innovative and experimental use of synths, computer and electronics sounds.

Don’t be scared by their CD covers—which depict angry sharp-toothed mushrooms, babies holding open hearts, and hook-pierced brains—or by the aggressive titles of their songs: “Converting Vegetarians,” “Smashing the Opponent,” “Vicious Delicious,” to name just a few. It’s not quite Idan Reichel. You won’t find a lot of Middle Eastern sounds in Infected Mushroom’s music; in fact, the only clues to their Israeli background are some of their song titles, like “Legend of the Black Shawarma” or “Dancing with Kadafi.”

They did include a tribute to their native land in their last CD, “Army of Mushrooms”: a cover of “מלאך לי שלך” (“Send Me an Angel”), a famous song from the 1980s by the Israeli band Meshina.

I was skeptical at the beginning, and even if the concert won’t change my musical tastes, it was worth seeing. Their music is deeply engaging, and if you go to one of their concerts you can’t help but dance.

 

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 ellenorchid.com. 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.

No Gaga Here: Extreme Summer Camps in the Middle East

By Rebecca Borison

While I grew up at a Jewish summer camp playing Gaga, kids growing up in slightly (read: very) different areas than me are partaking in slightly (read: very) different activities in summer camp. The Times of Israel recently published two separate articles on Extreme Summer Camps. The first article discusses a Hamas-run Gaza summer camp, where “activities include walking on knives, cleaning beaches and experiencing life as a security prisoner in an Israeli jail.” Five days later, the Times of Israel released a second article about a right-wing camp in Ramat Migron, where the girls learn “self-defense techniques, how to construct temporary dwellings and basic agriculture.”
So we have two camps representing the extremes of Israelis and Palestinians. But let’s take a closer look at these camps.

We’ll start with camp “We will live honorably” in Gaza. Now that the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) no longer runs summer camps in Gaza, “We will live honorably” is the only option for kids in Gaza. This Hamas-run camp attracts around 70,000 kids from across the Gaza strip.  According to one of the camp directors, Omar Aql, the camps try to “strengthen the importance of volunteer work and create a clean social environment.” For example, campers participated in a campaign to clean the Nuseirat beach.

But then there are some disturbing camp activities as well. Campers are introduced to a model of an Israeli security prison in order to “reenact the daily suffering of Palestinian prisoners,” according to the Palestinian Maan news agency. The “prison” consists of an investigation room, a detention room, a confession extortion room, a solitary confinement room, a courtyard and an infirmary.
At Camp “Hilltop Youth,” the campers partake in some disturbing activities as well, learning krav maga in order to fight against any Arabs that may happen to attack them. The girls are also introduced to extreme living arrangements, spending four days without electricity or running water.  Unlike the “We will live honorably” camps, the “Hilltop youth” camp is one of many summer camps available in Israel. An Israeli child can have a normal camp experience at Camp Kimama or Camp Tapuz.

Both camps promote the immense value of devotion to one’s people. A camper from Gaza named Abdulaziz A-Saqa explained, “We learned that Palestinian prisoners suffer greatly for the Palestinian people.” One of the campers at Ramat Migron named Esther told the Israeli Newspaper, Ma’ariv, “Whoever comes here isn’t looking to go to a luna park (amusement park), rather to fight on behalf of the State of Israel.”

Both campers have been taught to devote their lives to their nation. They are instilled with a great sense of patriotism—to the extent that they will fight no matter the cost.

While Gaza camp counselor Abdul-Ghafour denies that the camp is training future Hamas militants, it definitely appears to be a strong possibility. Why else would these campers need to learn how to “slide over thorns using his elbows for propulsion” and run and jump through flaming hoops? According to the Washington Post, the campers are “told to fight Israel to liberate Palestine.”

According to Ma’ariv, the goal of the “Hilltop Youth” camp “is to train and recruit the next generation of warriors to settle the hills.” They even bring in speakers from the settlement movement, such as MK Michael Ben-Ari and Itamar Ben-Gvir.

Yes, that sounds just as extreme as training Gaza youth to be Hamas militants, but there is one crucial difference between the two: the camps’ relationship to their nation. The camp in Gaza is organized by Hamas. As the ruling power in Gaza since 2007, Hamas is not only condoning such camps but is funding and running them. The camp in Ramat Migron, on the other hand, is run solely by extremists. According to Ma’ariv, “security forces came to the outpost tens of times and destroyed the wooden shacks that the youth had built,” but each time the youth return to rebuild it. The State of Israel is not supporting extremists. They are trying to stop them. In fact, Ramat Migron is scheduled to be evacuated by August 1.

You can make an argument that likens these two camps, and you could make an argument that contrasts the two.  What it comes to at the end of the day is does the camp represent an extremist minority or an extremist people.