Boy Wonder


When I had my bar mitzvah 18 years ago, it was truly all about the party. Back then, at least at my synagogue and in my community, there was no required community service project, kids didn’t lead the service and the theme of the party was more relevant than the theme of your haftarah portion.

Back then, I certainly didn’t know anyone like Thomas Karatzas.

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I miss my grandmother lately, and apparently I’m not the only one. Perhaps it is the season of the year, one in which Jews commemorate dead relatives and friends at memorial (Yizkor) services on Yom Kippur and on Shemini Atzeret at the end of Sukkot. Perhaps it is because of the economic downturn–we wish we could have a voice of wisdom.

dolphinsOne of my favorite bloggers, Vegan Lunchbox posted a link to this 92-year-old grandmother, Clara, who is showing people how to do Depression Cooking on Youtube. Check her out.

Clara might be competition for my favorite youtube grandma on Feed Me Bubbe. The 89-year-old Bubbe is nothing like my grandmother. For one thing, my grandmother did not grow up speaking Yiddish, and I called her Grandma. My son really loves this bubbe though. I like the way she sells the food to you while she cooks it.

My colleague circulated a link to the blog Margaret and Helen. I don’t know. This doesn’t sound a lot like any of the grandmothers I know. She’s very political and her language is kind of salty. Whether Helen Philpot is for real or not, she fills a need. We want to hear from grandmothers.

I always thought that being into our grandparents was a Jewish cultural value. After all, we have the expression, “and you will see your children’s children and peace will be on Israel.” If so, then probably everyone is Jewish. Elephants are Jewish, because they have grandmothers, and dolphins are Jewish, and a whole lot more people are Jewish than we thought.  Well, if loving your grandma makes you Jewish, I mean. You might as well say that it’s uniquely Jewish to like chocolate, or hugging. Or blintzes. Bubbe will show you how to make them from scratch below the cut. Continue reading

Why Bill Maher’s Wrong


Love him or loathe him, there’s one thing we can all agree on about Bill Maher: he’s a jerk.

In Religulous, his documentary-cum-diatribe on the horrors of religion, his approach to his interview subjects is at best mocking, at worst contemptuous. He variously interrupts, laughs at, winces at and provokes his subjects. He edits the interviews to highlight their ignorance and intercuts their answers with clips from old movies that are more amusing than insightful. This approach would be brave if he were interviewing, say, the Pope or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but it’s just mean-spirited when he’s talking with the guy who plays Jesus at a Christian amusement park or the pastor at a truckstop church. Only a handful of his subjects–such as Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) and Rabbi Dovid Weiss of the anti-Zionist Neturei Karta International–merit such ruthless mockery.

But misguided aesthetics aside, is Maher’s message worth heeding? Um, no.

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Post Yom Kippur


I don’t know why, but this Yom Kippur was really good for me, like the exhilarating ones I use to have when I was in my 20s. Maybe working here at IFF has made a dent in my spiritual ennui? I was swept up in the traditional prayers, and yet it all–fasting, praying, thinking about sin–felt a lot easier to do than usual. I looked with fresh eyes at the fact that we confess our sins in alphabetical order, thinking both about all the families at IFF who were doing it forblack-eyed peas the first time and about my kindergartener, who loves coming up with lists of words in alphabetical order. (He was in childcare while I was reciting the confessions, but I still thought about his alphabet love and it made me feel like we were part of a a great tradition together.)

I have a few post-Yom Kippur links to share–two serious and one very silly–and then it’s on to the next big serious Jewish holiday of the fall season, Sukkot!

I received a book in the mail this morning, I Live Here. The book is actually a four volume graphic novel documenting with art and words the experiences of individuals living through major world crises. Actress Mia Kirschner, a child and grandchild of Holocaust survivors, led the large team that put together the project. The website is full-bore multimedia with a lot of video, and you can see pages from the book there if your computer system is up to it.

I also wanted to link people to another online resource, This is a site that makes available interviews with Holocaust survivors from Central Europe. It’s got a tool for high school students to share their history projects with each other, and lots of ways to search.

Our regular columnist Nate Bloom made sure we saw this video, all about the practice in the Jewish community of selling tickets for High Holiday services. My Havurah doesn’t sell tickets, but I still found this funny. Thanks, Nate! Video is below the cut. Continue reading

Hope, Not Fear


book coverI started as an independent non-profit in January 2002. There was a time three or four years into it that I gave serious thought to closing down. I started to write an essay that I thought I would submit to Moment magazine complaining bitterly about the lack of funding support for outreach to interfaith families.

Yes, we did have pioneering support, without which we couldn’t have gotten started, from the Walter & Elise Haas Fund, the Richard & Rhoda Goldman Fund, the Jacob and Hilda Blaustein Foundation, and Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Boston. But we were plateaued at a low level, and our existing funders were looking for others to join them.

There was a change in the funding climate that began in 2006. Important funders finally realized that attracting more interfaith families to Jewish life was essential to the growth and strength of the Jewish community. After fluctuating below $375,000 for four years, we raised $535,000 in 2006 and $875,000 in 2007, enabling us to take on important new projects with new staff and start a transition from a start up to a more mature organization.

Edgar M. Bronfman was a key catalyst in this change. His Samuel Bronfman Foundation was our first major new funder in 2006 and since then has been among our most generous funders.

We now have some insight as to why Mr. Bronfman supports our organization, as well as our friends at the Jewish Outreach Institute. With Beth Zasloff, he has written an important new book: Hope, Not Fear: A Path to Jewish Renaissance Here are some of the key things he has to say about intermarriage:

If we speak about intermarriage as a disaster for the Jewish people, we send a message to intermarried families that is mixed at best. How can you welcome people in while at the same time telling them that their loving relationship is in part responsible for the destruction of the Jewish people? No one should be made to feel our welcome is conditional or begrudging. The many non-Jews who marry Jews must not be regarded as a threat to Jewish survival but as honored guests in a house of joy, learning and pride.

The oft-cited figure that among intermarried families only 33 percent of children are raised Jewish does not take into account the possibility that if the Jewish community were more welcoming, those numbers could grow dramatically.

Our concern as a community now should be to welcome people into our community, not to build boundaries around it. Conversion should be a choice people make from their hearts and when they are ready, not a condition by which they and their children are accepted into the Jewish community. There are many non-Jews who may not be ready to formally convert – particularly if their parents are living – but may be willing to raise their children as Jews. From my son Adam I learned how insulting it is if your children, who have a non-Jewish mother, are considered not Jews by other Jews, despite the fact that they grew up in a Jewish….”

If more funders and policy makers in the Jewish community adopted Mr. Bronfman’s attitude towards intermarriage, we would see a much greater communal effort to attract interfaith families to Jewish life. We can only hope that that will be the case.

You can find an interesting interview of Mr. Bronfman’s co-author, Beth Zasloff, on Daniel Septimus’ blog at You can also listen to an NPR On Point show that focused on the book with a discussion with Mr. Bronfman and Sylvia Barack Fishman.

Upcoming and Good


I hope all our readers had a good and meaningful Rosh Hashanah. I have some good and meaningful links for you.

Lilith magazine sent us a preview of some articles that they are going to run in their next print issue called Switchbacks on the Road to Judaism. The three writers of the articles in the .pdf file are sensitive in their treatment of gender issues and interfaith families.

Another good and serious thing (appropriate for the Days of Awe between Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is Jewish Social Action Month. This year it will begin on October 30, in order to overlap with the month of Heshvan on the Hebrew calendar. It’s a great chance to take advantage of the end of the Jewish holiday season and reinfuse your Judaism with social meaning.

The Death of Cool


Paul NewmanThe coolest man on the planet died this weekend.

Sure, Paul Newman had all the outward accoutrements of cool: the mesmerizing blue eyes, the charming smile, the fame, the wealth, the love of car-racing. But what really made him cool was his character.

Here was a man who was still a heartthrob into his 80s, yet was married to the same woman–and by all accounts, a faithful and adoring husband–for more than half a century. His face was so famous that he could have made millions in marketing it outside of movies, but instead he used it to sell an ever-growing line of food products, with all of the profits (more than $200 million!) going to charity. And despite all his achievements, he was humble and self-effacing. Nate Bloom sent me this passage from a Los Angeles Time article on his death:

Friends said Newman abhorred what he called “noisy philanthropy.” He felt the awards and honors offered him were excessive and once declined a national medal in a letter to President Clinton, calling such recognition “honorrhea.” Continue reading

Facebook and challah!


I have to admChallahit that I avoided joining Facebook. I am generally a busy person, but yesterday I finally gave in and joined. After moving from city to city and making friends from many walks of life, I needed a way to keep in touch with my friends, hear what is going on in their day to day lives and see updated pictures of their kids. Now I am hooked. I have been registered for a little more than a half a day and have 46 friends. My friends are sending me photos, sharing recipes and the joys and annoyances of their lives. People are even sending virtual challot to each other. (I am hoping one of my friends is reading this and will send me one before Rosh Hashanah!)
If you spend a lot of time on Facebook, you can join the Friends Group on Facebook.
In an effort to add more to my plate in the New Year, I am going to try and use my bread machine to make challah every week this year. I think it will be a fun activity for my son as we get ready for Shabbat. I found a great cooking segment from the Today Show in 2003 on making round challah with Al Roker! It’s after the jump– Continue reading

The Tribe


Bar Mitzvah BarbieI loved this short film The Tribe on Jewish identity when I saw it online last week. It’s funny–all that stuff about Barbie, and the animation–but I think what it has to say about Jewish identity will resonate with our readers. I liked the poetry-slam style poem by Vanessa Hidary at the end of the film. I’m happy to say that I found the full text of the poem here–apparently what was in the film was just an excerpt. The film is embedded below the cut. Continue reading

Jews in the Presidential Campaign and the Blogosphere


I get a lot of Jewish blogs in my RSS reader, and one of the ones I follow, The Velveteen Rabbi, had a link to another blogger who had liveblogged a conference call with Barack Obama. A group of rabbis has started a group called Rabbis for Obama, which the Jewish Telegraphic Agency has called “a first in US politics.” Apparently 900 rabbis from all denominations were on the call; three rabbis asked questions of the candidate. Obama quoted from the Talmud and used Hebrew phrases with some facility.

Interesting! As both candidates court the Jewish vote and attract Jewish supporters, we’re going to get to see a lot about Jewish culture in the news.

In other Jewish blogging news, and on a completely different, non-political note I have been digging Sefer Ha-Bloggadah. It’s a group blogging effort by a group of diverse Jewish writers. They have begun a three-year reading ofThe Book of Legends (in Hebrew, Sefer Ha-Aggadah) by Haim Nahman Bialik, in honor of the 100th anniversary of the publication of the collection of Jewish legends by the famous Hebrew poet. I love the diversity of the writers’ perspectives.