Monday, April 16, 2007

Israeli Yom HaShoah Rap Video

Yesterday (Sunday, April 15), in honor of Holocaust Remembrance Day, Israeli artists Subliminal & Miri Ben-Ari came out with the rap song, "Adon Olam Ad Matei?" (God Almighty When Will It End?) which is available on YouTube as a video with English subtitles.

The song was distributed as a free CD single in Israeli high schools yesterday as a way to enable Israeli youth to encounter serious issues about the Holocaust. It is also available as a free download (MP3 format) (also available as ZIP file).

Thanks to Ruth Abusch-Magder for the tip-off!

UPDATE (April 16): Ynet published this article today with details about the song and video. An excerpt:

"Ben Ari and Subliminal do not regard the clip as a one-time project. As far as they're concerned, it is the tip of the iceberg; the long-term plan is to launch a movement "Gedenk" (The Yiddish word for "Memory") that using hip hop, the violin and Ben Ari's network of friends in the international music industry will teach teenagers worldwide about the Holocaust."

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Spiritual and Practical: A New Approach to Teaching Prayer

Despite its central role in most supplementary school curricula, guest blogger Lev Metz observes that most students never really develop a meaningful relationship with prayer or even learn the liturgy. He blames the widespread approach in which "some formal instruction is given on how to participate in specific prayers, but no concerted effort is made to acculturate the students to a community that prays with intention."

He suggests an alternative approach in which "the service itself can become the major vehicle for teaching about the service, with supplementary classroom components facilitated both before and after the service."

"The character and nature of the services themselves should be dynamic, changing regularly and intentionally focusing on a particular prayer or theme that parallels what is being taught in the classroom. These themes could be determined according to the community’s values (via the Religious School Committee or its equivalent), which will both challenge the community to articulate its values alongside the clergy as well as help to bring a widespread buy-in for the program among community members.

"Acculturating students to the tefillah [prayer] experience will require a dynamic balance between instruction on how Jews pray . . . and an exploration of why we do so. It is our responsibility to show our students the possibilities that tefillah can provide for them. Spiritually, tefillah can provide a ballast to balance out such pervasive American cultural norms as materialism and narcissism. Educationally, tefillah provides a lens and window through which we can connect to Jews around the world - past, present and future."

The complete article is available here as a Microsoft Word file.

Lev Metz is a graduate student at the Rhea Hirsch School of Education at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

A working definition for Peoplehood, perhaps?

Just as "continuity" and "renaissance" have had their days in the sun as buzzwords around which to rally a Jewish educational agenda, the word of the day seems to be "peoplehood" (a phrase so contemporary that the dictionary in Microsoft Word doesn't even acknowledge it as a real word).

Like other buzzwords, "peoplehood" can be useful as a means for generating discussion - but equally, it can become a catch-all phrase that is hard to define.

Here's a definition of "Jewish philosophy" (from the article "Judaism" by Lenn. E. Goodman in the Blackwell Companion to the Philosophy of Religion - a tome I make no claims to have read and whose other chapter headings include such titles as "Theological realism and antirealism," "Eternity," and "Agapeistic ethics") that I think does a good job of explaining what we might mean by Peoplehood:

"What unites practitioners of Jewish philosophy is not some exotic logic that we can label chauvinistically or patronizingly as 'Talmudic,' nor a common store of doctrines, but a chain of discourse and problematics, an ongoing conversation that is jarred but not halted by shifts of language, external culture, or epistemic background. What makes the conversation distinctive is no unique flavor or accent, no values or concerns that are unshared by others, but a respect for prior Jewish efforts found worthy as points of reference or departure as the conversation continues.

"The unity and distinctiveness of Jewish philosophy, then, are both conceptual and historical. There is a historical continuity from one participant to the next - as there is in general philosophy. And there is a critical reappropriation and redefinition of the elements of tradition in each generation - as there must be in any religious or cultural transmission."

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Why should Jews care about a bike ride?

This May, I will join with 179 other riders in a 300-mile, 5-day ride from Jerusalem to Eilat.

Hazon/Arava Institute Ride '07

I hope that everyone reading this needs no convincing that we are currently dealing with a wide variety of extremely serious environmental concerns that will have long-lasting impact upon the planet. For me, for religion to have any meaning at all, it must be able to provide guidance in responding to such pressing issues. I believe that the Jewish tradition indeed provides a starting point. Here are three such ideas:

1. Blessings (“Brachot”). We are taught to have a moment of reflection and appreciation before and after eating, connecting ourselves with the whole process by which we are nourished -- a process which involves many people across the world and responsible care for the planet that provides our food. We are also taught to say a blessing each time we hear thunder, see an ocean, smell fresh fruit . . . in fact, our days are filled with opportunities to make a connection with the natural world around us, with awe and gratitude.

Abraham Joshua Heschel taught that "prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive;" each time we say one of these blessings can be an opportunity to take our gratitude one step further by taking responsibility. These blessings can be a call to social justice and accountability.

2. The Stories of our People. Call them the Jewish identity-myths if God-talk makes you roll your eyes, but they still contain important truths that don't get trivialized in the retelling. To give just one example: Noah's ark. The whole 2 of every species thing asserts the importance of biodiversity; building the ark and bringing on the animals is a metaphor for our responsibility to be the caretakers of that biodiversity.

Certainly, not every Jewish story sounds like something written by Greenpeace, but there are enough to fill up a Sunday School curriculum. To me, I'd prefer it if my Jewish education taught me that for centuries upon centuries, at least some of my ancestors cared enough about the environment to pass along these stories.

3. Ethics. I don't think I am speaking out of turn when I say that for all of us who were in youth group together, tikkun olam (repairing the world) is central to our understanding of why be Jewish instead of nothing at all. We care about making the world a little bit better for ourselves and for others. There are a whole medley of Jewish concepts that cover environmental issues, and they weren't invented at the first Earth Day celebration in 1970.

For example, the concept of "bal tashchit" (not senselessly wasting) demands that we weigh our pressing human needs (for comfort, security, convenience) against a larger backdrop of their impact on others and upon the planet (resource depletion, destruction of beautiful places, creation of health hazards). It isn't a stretch to think about reduce/reuse/recycle" in this context. The beauty of it, to me, is that there isn't a prescriptive answer - just an obligation to take responsibility, to be conscious that the impact of our actions is often greater than we realize - and so to act carefully and with consideration.

Now, you may be thinking at this point, all that's great, but what does it have to do with a bike ride? Well, the bicycle is a terrific, non-polluting form of transportation. Part of it, I think, is just that a whole bunch of people doing a long bike ride attracts attention - and raising awareness about environmental issues is a key concern here in Israel. Part of it, for sure, is the whole "a-thon" philosophy (can he really do it? I'd pay money to see him get on a bike for that length of time!). And, also, it's just a gimmick to bring together people who care about the environment and care about Judaism.

The thing is, though, it’s a gimmick that works: Hazon has been incredibly successful at building community among Jews with an incredible range of political and religious sensibilities. For a great number of those people, Hazon is the only “Jewish” thing in their lives.

It seems self-evident to me that Judaism ought to be concerned with the quality of the air, water, and earth in the “Holy Land.” The Hazon Arava ride is more than a means for raising awareness – and funds – for Israeli environmental issues. Because the ride brings together Israeli Jews and Arabs as well as Jordanians, Palestinians, and people from other countries, it provides an opportunity for people who care about this land to come together on an issue of mutual concern. I believe that working together to build a livable natural environment in the Middle East and fighting for environmental justice provides a key opportunity to work towards resolving the political and social problems of the region.

I’m proud of the fundraising I have done for Hazon in the past and I hope you will consider making a tax-deductible donation to the ride.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

"I'll take 'certain decisions' for $200, Alex"

According to an article in today's New York Times (May 5, 2007),

"New York City’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene is planning a campaign to encourage men at high risk of AIDS to get circumcised in light of the World Health Organization’s endorsement of the procedure as an effective way to prevent the disease.

". . . In three recent clinical trials in Africa, circumcision was shown to lower a man’s risk of contracting the virus from heterosexual sex by about 60 percent. On March 28, the World Health Organization officially recommended that countries adopt the procedure as part of their AIDS prevention plans.

"Peter Staley, a longtime AIDS activist and co-founder of ACT-UP New York . . . said he was “intrigued” by the idea of offering circumcisions but . . . after reading many postings on gay Web sites about the Africa trials, he said he feared a backlash among black and Hispanic men to endorsements of circumcision from white public health officials or gay activists

". . . he said. 'It’s going to sound like white guys telling black and Hispanic guys to do something that would affect their manhood.'"

Scary paranoid aside in AMA article

In Futurism: The Antidote to Chaos, Eric Garland writes:

"Yes, the world is changing quickly. With its promise of chaos and opportunity, it may seem overwhelming. But I have good news for you. Understanding the future, as it affects your decisions, can become an everyday part of the way you think...

"...Exploring the future is about finding a few trends that could change your world and keeping an eye on them on a regular basis. Futuring is about paying attention to both society and technology and asking yourself: 'Yes, but what will this mean in five years? What about ten years?'...

"...Governments use this kind of thinking in a variety of ways. This scary but potentially real scenario is an example of one such application. Terrorism, unfortunately, is on most people’s minds. National governments use futuring to predict the capabilities of the terrorists of tomorrow. They monitor developments in both society and technology to see where terrorists might gain an edge.

"Some forecasts show that the cost of biotechnology will fall far enough that smaller groups could afford to obtain the equipment needed to alter bacteria. Futurists working for the federal government envisioned a scenario in which terrorists might one day genetically engineer a bacterium or a virus that would target Ashkenazi Jews (originally from Eastern Europe) or Japanese people, but it could be any group with a distinct genetic makeup. For this reason, agencies constantly monitor the power of biotechnology as well as any terrorist networks that are showing an interest in science. The goal is to limit the terrorists’ weaponry to homemade bombs and razor blades instead of genetically engineered plagues. In this way, governments are designing policies for biotechnology that allow scientific progress as well as protection for their citizens."

Moving Ahead, a publication of the American Management Association (AMA), is "a monthly e-Newsletter providing management insights and best practices for all business professionals."

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Wicked Good?

What should we think of the wicked child, who challenges all of us gathered around the seder table at Passover with the question "What does this practice mean to you?"

First, you might not realize that the wicked child is quoting from the Bible - Exodus 12:26, to be precise. In its original context (at the very first Passover celebration on the eve of the Exodus from Egypt), the question is framed as the one that will be asked by future generations - and it receives a straightforward response, an explanation of the meaning of Passover.

The haggadah, however, sees the question in a less positive light (as is made obvious by labeling the child as "wicked"). It indicates that asking what Passover means to "you" signifies the wicked child's hostility to the community. We are instructed to set the child's "teeth on edge" and quote scripture back to the child: "It is because of what God did for ME when I went free from Egypt" (Exodus 13:8). Had you been there, wicked child, you would have been left behind in Egypt.

book jacketTwo recent books use the wicked child's question as the jumping off point for treatises on the alienation many contemporary Jews experience from Jewish community.

David Mamet, in his 2006 book The Wicked Son: Anti-Semitism, Self-Hatred, and the Jews (part of the fabulous NextBook series), begins with the premise that "the world hates the Jews" and so every Jew must choose sides: "In or out" (7). He writes that the "wickedness of the wicked son" is that he "would not stand with those who would stand with him:"

"He feels free to enjoy his intellectual heritage, the Jewish love of learning, and reverence for accomplishment; he enjoys, aware or not, a heritage of millenia of Jewish Law and values; he enjoys his very life, which would have been denied him and his ancestors in the Europe they suffered to leave; he enjoys the right to protection from the community he disavows and, through it all, parrots, 'My parents were Jews, but I do not consider myself a Jew'" (128-9).

In his book, Mamet seeks to issue a wake-up call to such Jews, telling all wicked children to cease blaming Jewish community for its shortcomings and to take pride in their heritage as the descendants "of kings and queens, a holy nation and a kingdom of priests" (180).

book jacketA very different response is offered by Mitchell Silver in Respecting the Wicked Child: A Philosophy of Secular Jewish Identity and Education. He observes that the "sin" of the wicked child is "the expression of alienation from the tradition" while the other children "ask how to celebrate the seder properly or what it is all about." Noting that for liberal and secular Jews, not only is it a challenge "to find reasons to maintain a Jewish identity,"

" is also hard to overcome reasons against maintaining a Jewish identity. The most powerful arguments for assimilation stem from the liberal Enlightenment vision of a universal common humanity. On this view all that is significantly human is, or ought to be, universal . . ." (3)

Silver takes a more positive view of the wicked child than Mamet, writing that "among contemporary Jews there are many wicked children, and they merit answers that amount to more than the traditional scornful dismissal" (1).

Silver's fascinating book attempts to provide a philosophical basis for a Jewish identity that doesn't compromise liberal or secular values. His premise is that "the wicked child's question has a certain logical and moral priority" over that of the wise child, who wants to know all the details for observing the seder. Once the wicked child is satisfied with a more general understanding of "what it is all about, the desire for details will follow. The transition from wickedness to wisdom, from estrangement to communion, is a natural one" (189).

I'd like to chart a middle-path between Mamet's decrying, and Silver's celebrating, of the Wicked Child's question. On the one hand, I think that the question itself is a legitimate one. After all, at the seder we are instructed to invite all who are hungry to join us, and the wicked child might be a guest who is a stranger and - who knows - maybe not Jewish? At least the wicked child is paying attention enough to ask a question!

wicked son - haggadah textOn the other hand, I want to take the haggadah seriously in calling the child "wicked." The haggadah's response only makes sense if we hear in the question not only the voice of an alienated Jew trying to find a place within the community, but also the voice of apathy, of hostility, of a challenge to the legitimacy of the Passover seder and to the community of all those present: Prove to me that this is worth doing, that I should consider myself one of you.

Yet - even though the wicked child's question is confrontational, I'd rather have the child at the table - sitting uncomfortably and annoyed, perhaps - than for the child not to be there at all. I want to thank the wicked child for joining us for the seder, despite having those feelings of alienation and anger.

I would suggest - and here, I think the haggadah agrees with me - that all four children ought to be present at the table. We should be glad when the wise child doesn't go off to hold a seder composed entirely of other wise children, but is willing to suffer through the questions of the simple child (probably with much eye-rolling). The simple child, too, must find the meticulous questions of the wise child tedious, waiting impatiently through even more details of the laws of the afikomen.

Let us not be quick to dismiss the wicked child, any more than we ignore the silent child or become frustrated with the endless questions of the wise and simple children. All four voices - even the silent voice - need to be heard. I'd rather have the seder be a place where the wicked child's question can be asked than leave it go unspoken, with the wicked child sullenly refusing to participate but not explaining why.