Category Archives: Culture

United by Yiddish

A new group of students is cropping up as the latest champions of the Yiddish language: Israeli Arabs at Middle Eastern universities. A quarter of Bar Ilan University’s 400 students studying Yiddish are Arab, Israeli paper Yedioth Ahronoth reports. Yusuf Alakili of Kfar Kasseem, who is studying for a Master’s degree in literature at Bar Ilan and studies Yiddish on his own, says, “I don’t know who is to blame, but I don’t understand why this magnificent language is neglected, when such an extensive body of literature exists in Yiddish.”

Without Sight, Hearing an Operatic Calling

by Natalie Buchbinder

Laurie Rubin and Popeye (photo credit Jennifer Taira)

If there were one word mezzo-soprano opera singer Laurie Rubin would use to describe her career, it would be “rollercoaster.”

“You get a lot of people telling you you’re great, and a lot of people telling you that’s not what we’re looking for,” Rubin said. “It’s definitely a lot of fun. It keeps you on your toes, this career.”

But Rubin, 33, who was born blind, has not let obstacles block her path to success. The Oberlin- and Yale-educated solo singer, who has appeared in solo recitals and performed alongside opera star Frederica von Stade, continues to travel to performances across the United States.

In addition to a booming singing career, Rubin is also balancing a jewelry line and the release of her new memoir, Do You Dream In Color? Insights From a Girl Without Sight, which will hit bookshelves October 23.

“Music has helped me see in a different sort of way,” Rubin said. A lack of sight enriches Rubin’s sense of the music; she describes instruments as having colors, and different character.

“There is something about the music and the movement,” Rubin said, adding that the different keys and physical motion of the instruments give her a sense of landscape. “When someone says ‘Oh, that is the most beautiful sunset,’ I picture in my head what that sounds like musically.”

Drawn to music at an early age, Rubin always had the idea that classical was her calling.

“I told my teacher that I didn’t want to sing pop music, but I wanted to sing like Christine in Phantom,” Rubin said.

But with musical success came the struggle of finding venues to perform. Wary producers often shied away from the idea of having a blind performer onstage .

“Their vision of blindness is somebody who is fumbling in the dark without their glasses on,” Rubin said.

Rubin’s drive to redefine the perception of blindness is not new. As the first blind bat mitzvah at Valley Beth Shalom in California, Rubin started to accept the role of being a pioneer for people like herself. Rubin’s Jewish identity has played a large role in her musical career. When her friend, Israeli composer Noam Sivan, was tasked with writing a piece for her in 2008, Rubin recalls begging Sivan to write a Hebrew piece of music.

“I really enjoyed singing those Yiddish pieces, those heart-wrenching ones, because I realized that hitting it would also reach out to Jews around the world,” Rubin said of the melodies she sung as a young singer. “It didn’t matter what language, it would be an emotional sort of bonder to a bunch of Jews all over the world.”

According to Rubin, her Jewish identity and connection to Judaism are central to the first few chapters of her book. The book also explores the answers to questions Rubin believes others would ask but are afraid to. The book’s title–“Do You Dream in Color?”–is the question Rubin says she is asked most.

With her book in stores soon and several performances on the horizon, including two concerts in Washington, DC on October 22 at the Kennedy Center and October 23 at the National Endowment for the Arts, Rubin hopes to continue sharing her story with a wider audience.

“There is something about sharing your ideas through music that seems to reach people’s hearts,” Rubin said.

Reclaiming a Symbol of Destruction, Lawful or Not

by Natalie Buchbinder

It’s tough to make a horrific event that happened over 70 years ago relevant to young people.

It’s the struggle that Holocaust museums and March of the Living tours to concentration camps have attempted to address. A recent New York Times article profiled young Israelis who have found a way to keep the Holocaust alive, tattooing the numbers of their survivor grandparents on their young forearms.

Eli Sagir, 21, was inspired to get a tattoo of her grandfather’s number, 157622, after a high school trip to Poland. Her brother, mother, and most recently her uncle have followed Sagir’s lead and had the same done to their own arms.

“All my generation knows nothing about the Holocaust,” Sagir told The New York Times. “They think it’s like the Exodus from Egypt, ancient history.”

To some, the act of tattooing is a reclamation of an act of victimization. During the Holocaust, millions of Jews were crudely branded and tattooed as a symbol of Nazi ownership, a filing system of lives. Hopes, dreams, achievements, family were all erased in favor of a new identity. According to The New York Times, some survivors consider the tattoo a medal of valor, signifying their survival through harsh camp conditions. Only those selected for work at Auschwitz and Birkenau were branded with the numbers. Tattooing the number of a loved one in takes takes the sense of ownership and spins it in a positive way.

But the reclamation of the practice is not entirely kosher. “You shall not etch a tattoo on yourselves,” commands the Bible in Leviticus 19:28, as translated by Chabad. The Torah and Jewish law forbid any activity that alters the body, a supposed recreation of God’s image. According to the laws of Rambam, tattooing falls under the category of idolatry, one of the highest sins in Jewish culture.

“Torah clearly forbids tattooing and self-cutting as ways of mourning or memorializing,” Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan of Or Shalom Synagogue in Vancouver, Canada told Moment in 2009, in the “Ask the Rabbis” section.  “However, Torah also implies that piercing can be opportunities for good or bad. The Israelite men donated their earrings to build the golden calf, but the Israelite women donated theirs to build the mishkan (Sanctuary).”

While it is unlikely that rabbis will be hosting tattoo parlor minyans anytime soon, the practice is slowly shedding its taboo in younger generations. The Conservative branch of Judaism discourages, but does not ban the practice. Tattoo restrictions are still covered under Jewish law, but do not eliminate a person’s burial in a Jewish cemetery; bubbes or Jewish mothers often preach and perpetuate this misconception in an attempt to squelch their daughter’s hopes of forever etching the name of a fleeting boyfriend, or better yet, a Jewish symbol, on her body.

The topic was re-opened briefly last year in London, when heavily tattooed (and taboo for unrelated reasons) singer Amy Winehouse was buried without incident in the city’s Jewish cemetery.

Tattoos are becoming an increasingly widespread phenomenon among American youth. According to data maintained by the Pew Research Center, 36% of 18-25 year olds and 40% of 26-40 year olds had at least one tattoo as of 2007. Tattoos are more prevalent than having a piercing on a place other than the earlobes, with 30% and 22% in those respective populations.

The number of Holocaust survivors declines each day. When the last person who experienced the terror firsthand no longer is among us, we will lose our connection to a historical event that is so unfathomable that future generations may have a hard time understanding how such a thing could happen. Sagir and others’ action against Jewish tradition will bridge the gap between history and reality for a few moments longer, so that the Holocaust is not just another page in a history textbook. It is real, and it is relevant.

David Brooks and Robert Siegel Talk “National Shtetl Radio”

National Shtetl Radio? That’s the lineage that David Brooks imagined for himself and Robert Siegel–newly discovered by Moment to have genetic ties that might make them fourth cousins–last week on NPR’s “All Things Considered.” What kind of shows would NSR air? “All Pogroms Considered,” Brooks speculated. Yes. Listen to the whole thing here.

Reborn in Hebrew

by Ori Nir

I have never thought of my father as a revolutionary. But since his death last month, several of his colleagues depicted him as such and helped me better appreciate some of his professional accomplishments, which I had not fully appreciated before.

Shortly before he died, my father started writing a childhood memoir. “I was born twice,” he wrote: once in Hamburg, Germany, in 1930, and then again in 1936, when he arrived with his mother and three-year-old brother at the port of Haifa on a boat of halutzim, pioneers. The two children watched with admiration as the pioneers danced the hora on board and sang patriotic songs. He probably aspired to one day be just like them.

In Hamburg, my father was born into affluence. His father, a successful physician who was decorated several times for running an outstanding field hospital in the German army during World War I, was one of Hamburg’s leading Zionist activists. In 1935, he left for Palestine to prepare for his wife and children’s arrival several months later.

In Petah Tikva, where the family settled, my father’s rebirth was rough. An influx of gifted German Jewish doctors to the small town made it hard for my grandfather to find work. For years, he rode his bicycle through neighboring Arab villages in search of patients. The family struggled to make ends meet.

Life also was not easy for my father and his brother. They were viewed as foreigners from a despised land. Trying to fit in, Ralph became Raphael and his younger brother, Leo, became Arieh. But their white shirts, buttoned all the way up, were ridiculed by the sabras, as were their broken Hebrew and heavy German accents.  Childhood friends, who came to Jerusalem to sit shiva with us last month, told us how they helped my father navigate through the eclectic spoken Hebrew of the 1930s.

The geeky yekke went on to serve in the pre-state Haganna, then in the IDF. He served for decades in the reserves, through a series of wars, as did others in the generation that built Israel. But my father was no soldier. His unique contribution to the Zionist enterprise was in the field that was so challenging for him when he came to the land of Israel.

He not only mastered Hebrew–biblical, medieval and modern–he developed a passion for it. My father became one of Israel’s leading scholars of Hebrew, rising to the rank of full professor at Hebrew University, where he taught for more than four decades. “Rafi loved Hebrew so much, it was impossible to listen to his lectures and read his works without falling in love with it again and again,” wrote his colleague, Prof. Elda Weitzman, after my father’s death.

He may have not become the sort of pioneer that he saw dancing on the deck of the Tel Aviv, the small ship that brought him from Trieste to Haifa, but he became an academic pioneer, a trail-blazer in his field, the study of the Hebrew language.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the academic establishment in Israel, particularly at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, focused on classical studies. The study of Hebrew was the study of classical texts–biblical and medieval–not the study of contemporary Hebrew. For the purists, the ancient language whose revival became one of the Zionist movement’s most outstanding achievements was too mundane and too messy to be worthy of research. Their study of Hebrew strongly adhered to the discipline of theoretical linguistics.

My father and a handful of colleagues thought differently.  They fought to make Applied Linguistics, a relatively new field in the global academic arena, into a legitimate, recognized discipline. They researched the formation of neologisms in modern Hebrew, how the language is used by the media, how the IDF serves as a workshop for the creation of Hebrew slang, how Hebrew is taught and learned as a first language and as a second language, and much more.

One of my father’s colleagues, Dr. Ruth Burstein, recently described his 1974 book, The Teaching of Hebrew as a Mother Tongue, as “revolutionary.” All the suggestions in the book for revising the rigid methods of teaching Hebrew at the time were gradually adopted, including the recommendation to switch from teaching students to memorize nouns and verb conjugation to a more intelligent teaching of the fascinating way in which Hebrew words are formed.

My father never saw himself as a revolutionary. He was not much of an ideologue either. He was a pragmatist. A modest, measured man, who prized order, discipline, and restraint. I loved him for thse traits, and many others.

But I also admired him for playing an important role in the study and reinforcement of modern Hebrew and its amazing vibrancy. He celebrated the language’s raw energy and encouraged Hebrew purists to let the language spread its wings and remake itself–even when its organic growth did not follow the prescriptions of classic Hebrew grammar.

Professor Raphael Nir, born twice, was buried in Jerusalem last month after a bitter struggle with cancer. I eulogized him in Hebrew at the funeral home, then recited the Kaddish, in Aramaic, four times, as is the custom in Jerusalem. The Kaddish ends with the beautiful Hebrew phrase: “He Who makes peace in His heights, may He make peace upon us and upon all Israel, and say Amen.”

I raised my voice as I uttered these Hebrew words at the Jerusalem cemetery, thanking my father and saluting his life achievements.

Ori Nir, formerly a journalist with Haaretz and The Forward, is the spokesperson of the Washington-based Americans for Peace Now

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.



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.


What Would Randy Cohen Do?

by Sarah Breger

On Monday, at least 5,000 round-trip tickets to Israel from New York on El Al airlines were sold for under $400 (tickets usually cost $1,600). It turns out that the price was a mistake due to a glitch from a third-party company. Upon discovering the error, El Al first announced they would honor the tickets, but are now undecided and said via Twitter that they would announce their decision later today.

Should El Al honor these tickets? It’s hard not to be rooting for the ticket-holders, as this seems like a classic big corporation vs. little guy story. But is that the ethical thing to do? To get some answers, I spoke this morning with Randy Cohen, the former New York Times Ethicist and author of the new book Be Good: How to Navigate The Ethics of Everything. Below is a condensed version of his answer.

El Al should offer to honor all those tickets, and the customers should decline the offer.

El Al, like other companies, has a duty to honor the advertised price. If it is a third party mistake, then El Al should seek compensation from that third party that actually made the error. Part of the reason to honor prices as advertised is to keep markets honest. In some jurisdictions–and check with a lawyer on this–companies have a legal obligation to honor every advertised price. But besides that, this prevents unscrupulous people from doing “a bait and switch”—hooking people with one price, but then charging another. No one here has said it is anything more than an accident on El Al’s part.

However, even if El Al offers to make good on the tickets, we are not supposed to exploit someone. If you see someone’s wallet on the ground you are supposed to return it, not keep it. If you see a bank vault door open, you shouldn’t just go in and take the money. There is a notion of symmetry here: If, say, the El Al website had the price for a coach ticket set at $10,000, you would most likely say something–call to confirm–because it is a price that doesn’t make sense. And if El Al confirms the price, so be it. The same goes for prices under $400–from the reports, it sounded as if people who bought the tickets knew it was a bizarre price.

For example, if you are in a supermarket and a steak was marked at 12 cents a pound, you know it is a mistake and you have a duty to at least inquire from the merchant if that is the correct price. You have to show tolerance for others people’s errors or else we would be walking around always looking over our shoulders, scared that if we make a mistake the hyenas would swarm.

[I interjected to say my mother would most likely hold the merchant to his advertised steak price- SB] Most places would honor the mismark as a kind of customer relations, but if she saw the steak marked $85, wouldn’t she inquire about it? If you do it one way you have to do it the other way. You have to have a consistent ethical principle, whether you will benefit or lose by asking.

So, readers, what are your thoughts on the El Al ticket fiasco?

Kosher Couture

by Daniela Enriquez

One of the obstacles Orthodox women face is finding a good “kosher” fashion line, that is wearable and respectful of tradition. Designer Marina Rahlin is easing the sartorial woes of Orthodox women with MaRa, her line of Orthodox-friendly fashion. Rahlin was born in the Ukraine, and made aliyah with her family when she was four years old. She now lives in Los Angeles, where the new line has been released.

Below is a lightly edited transcript of the conversation I had with Rahlin about her life, her love for Pop art and her new line.

When and why did you decide to create MaRa?

I started my first line, Popavina, after attending a school for fashion designers in Los Angeles. Later on I met my fiancé, whose family is religious: his father, his brother and his sisters are all Orthodox Jews. I met with other religious women and they all told me the same thing: how difficult and challenging it is to wear beautiful clothing and be modest. Whatever they saw in fashion shops was beautiful although not appropriate: the sleeves weren’t long enough, the skirts’ length was too short. So I thought, “There has to be a way to create something fashionable and modest.” I came up with the idea of creating dresses that could cover elbows and knees, and whose length avoids the need to wear an undershirt or a petticoat.

Was it difficult to combine old fashion rules with new ideas?

Yes, it is challenging. Sometimes people are not so open to or interested in new ideas and things. I always have to keep in mind religious girls’ point of view. [Venturing] into Orthodox fashion is risky, so whatever I create has to be a little bit classic even if the color is bright pink. I don’t want to invent something too crazy–I know they want to wear my clothing to go to shul. Thus, the items must be wearable for that occasion, too! I have to think about these restrictions.

What kind of materials do you use?

I usually use cotton, linen, and silk–for me it’s important that the dresses are comfortable. Orthodox women are often pregnant and need to wear something without being worried about their belly or back. That’s why I use a lot of stretch fabrics.

Even if your line is totally “kosher,” it’s innovative. Do you think this could scare Orthodox women who are used to dressing in black and white?

Young girls are really open to new colors and changes. They are sick of dead colors and want to look attractive. Everybody wants to look attractive, everybody wants to wear colors that match the skin. As I said, young Orthodox girls are ready for that–they look for ways to look beautiful but appropriate. One way is wearing a lot of jewelry, because that is not incompatible with modesty. Those girls are very happy with my new line and they give me very good feedback.

Tell us about your first collection, Popavina.

Popavina dresses are meant for cocktail parties. I founded it because when I went to events I couldn’t find dresses that weren’t overly sexy. I like clothing that is cute and feminine, inspired by the 1950s, and I couldn’t find anything like that at that time. Thus, I decided to create this line of very cute and feminine dresses, with bows and bright colors.

Popavina takes its name from Pop art. When did your love for this art start?

When I was a kid, I used to go with my parents to museums and Pop art was my favorite painting style. My mother understood my love for it and started buying me books about Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol and Keith Haring. I became more and more interested in them—Frida Kahlo and other artists. My parents really encouraged my love for Pop Art and for whatever else I was interested in as a kid.

Is there something of your love for Pop art in MaRa?

Yes, the bright colors and the particular patterns and details that I use are elements of my style. I try to use in everything I do. They represent me and what I am. You will never see me wearing black. It’s not part of my personality.

Ukraine, Israel and the United States: Which one of these countries influenced you the most?

When somebody asks me if I feel Ukrainian or Israeli or American, I always answer that I feel Jewish. Even if I am not religious, Jewish is what I feel. Design-wise, I would say that I feel Ukrainian, because I see Ukraine as home. Russians and Ukrainians love colors, and I think I got my love for colors from this part of my life and family.

Would you recommend MaRa to non-Orthodox women?

I think so. It’s not just Orthodox women who are interested in my new “modest” line. Mormon women like my dresses, too. Any woman who loves elegance, and doesn’t want to show too much of her body likes my line. It’s stylish without being weird: I want women to be beautiful and modest.

Telling Mitzvah Stories

by Daniela Enriquez

According to halacha, Jewish law, there are 613 mitzvot that a Jew should fulfill during a lifetime. Some of these are daily duties, like the recitation of the Shema; some involve the relationship between a single Jew and the other human beings, i.e. the commandment of tzedakah; and some can’t be fulfilled without a Temple, as in the case of animal sacrifice.

Still, there are many mitzvot one can do, but people often seem too busy to remember their importance. Rabbi Goldie Milgram, founder of Reclaiming Judaism Press, is working to make mitzvot more meaningful and accessible in the modern world. Her latest project is called the “Mitzvah Centered Life”: using her book, Mitzvah Stories, and a specially created deck of cards known as “mitzvah cards,” Milgram travels the country leading workshops on mitzvot and Judaism. Below is a lightly edited transcript of the conversation I had with Milgram in her house in Philadelphia.

What led you to start a new publishing house in the era of the Internet and a declining book market?

I approached my previous publisher with the idea of a book that would look at Jewish spiritual direction through the eyes of the 30 leading innovators in the world. I wanted to make the book in honor of Rabbi Shohama Harris Wiener—the first and only woman to have a seminary in Jewish history. The answer I got from my publisher was, “We don’t do that. We don’t publish books that honor people.” So I thought, “You know what? I am going to do it by myself. I am going to start a publishing house.”

I approached Rabbi Wiener and then I called 30 of my colleagues who are very active in the field of guiding people in their Jewish connection; they were all excited and donated a chapter for the book.

We started with two books. In the new book, Mitzvah Stories, we have stories from 60 leading Jewish authors, storytellers and clergy in the book from across the entire spectrum of Judaism. One of our goals at Reclaiming Judaism Press is to have respectful pluralism between the covers of a book. We want to help Jews see and share mitzvot together by telling stories and bringing a mitzvah to life in a creative way. Many authors entered the competition, and a jury chose the stories that are in the book. Most of them are juicy, provocative and make people think and expand their understanding of the mitzvah, in order to make them understand the meaning of a mitzvah-centered rather than a self-centered life. Isn’t this the mission of the Jewish people?

You use your mitzvah stories in your regular workshops. How do people react?

We have been travelling the country doing mitzvah story festivals and workshops. In these, we engage all kinds of interactive activities with the associated mitzvah cards. In telling stories, people become very engaged and interested in the dilemmas and how they would handle a particular situation.

Let’s talk about the special deck you created.

The deck has 52 mitzvah cards, each one of which has the mitzvah written in Hebrew and in transliteration, along with a simple explanation and a spiritual one that shows how the mitzvah can be activated. Instead of saying, “You should do this, you should do that,” it creates an opportunity to say, “I want to do that, I love the idea that that is in Judaism.” People have a chance to rejoice in living a mitzvah-centered life as a way to experience Judaism as meaningful.

Which mitzvah card do you have in front of you?

I have “Shalom bait.”

As you can see, “Shalom bait” is translated as “co-create peace–undertake conscious acts of self-restraint.” What we are trying to do is to help people reflect on the meaning of each mitzvah and activate it in their lives.

What’s your favorite mitzvah story from the book?

It is hard to choose, but one story touched me the most. It is the one by Benji Levene, an Orthodox rabbi I never had the chance to meet, who contributed from Israel. He told the story of his grandfather who was the tzadik of Jerusalem. When the British controlled Israel, he walked with prisoners who were condemned to death. He used to walk with them, and be their spiritual guide. Thus, the story is called ‘The Escort’ and emphasizes the importance of fulfilling the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim, accompanying guests. Transplanted in modern times, this mitzvah teaches us that when someone leaves our home, we should walk him a few paces to his car or to the elevator.

Apart from the world-renowned authors represented, like Anita Diamant, the jury picked a number of stories by young writers who have never been published before. One of them is Miriam Grossman, whose story is about the American government trying to take over Native American lands. That happened recently and brings different mitzvot and question to bear. How do we handle ourselves with the first people? How do we live a mitzvah-centered rather than a self-centered life?

Is one of your stories in the book, too?

In addition to a story in the book, I also wrote a chapter where I explained all about mitzvot: their history in Judaism, how they developed and famous commentaries on them.

My story is called “The God of Curried Fish,” and it is about an encounter that I had in a Jamaican restaurant. I don’t want to spoil the story for anyone, so I will just tell you that is about how you would handle yourself with someone who has just lost his job and is about to become homeless. What would you tell him?

I guess we need to read the book to know how you handled the situation. Do you have any new projects at the moment?

We do! We have two new major projects. The first one is a family treasury of mitzvah stories. While Mitzvah Stories honors Pennina Schram, world famous storyteller and one of my mentors, this treasury honors Danny Siegel, who created the Ziv Tzedakah foundation and who is famous for generating millions of dollars and mitzvah-centered projects all over the Jewish world.

You said you have two new projects…

Yes. My teacher, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, who founded Jewish Renewal, became famous after the Holocaust for inspiring meaningful, creative, spiritually profound Jewish living, restoring the spark to Jewish life. We had the forms, but not the energy and the spark.

Following his example, and in his honor, we are creating a multimedia online siddur which will have different innovators, musicians, Jewish yoga teachers, and movement and meditation teachers. You will be able to go online and click on videos that will take you to a service in a multimedia experience. There will also be videos to help you with Shabbat and holidays.