mediaThe publication with an agenda

I've taken note of a little cross-blog discussion on the agenda, or lack thereof, of my publication Jewsweek. It all began with, of all things, a column by Shmueley Boteach on the recent "fashion show" of sexy lingerie maker Victoria's Secret. Not being a huge fan of Boteach's stuff, I don't tend to pay much attention to it. He contributes often and with a certain quality, so I like that, but otherwise I don't much care. I'll admit that up front.

The cross-blog criticizing began in earnest with Allison Kaplan Sommer's lament of the photo plastered above Boteach's piece. She bemoans the "huge picture of five babelicious Victoria's Secret models bursting out of their bras and thongs" framed above a column "criticizing how the media recklessly splashes pictures of chicks in their underwear everywhere we look." A fine point I likely wouldn't even have noticed if not for another blog posting.

This time it was Steven I. Weiss, ever the vigilant commentator, taking AKS to task for her bemoaning. "The crazy thing about Jewsweek is how much it avoids an agenda, as opposed to nearly every other Jewish publication," writes Weiss (who has regularly contributed to Jewsweek). Hence you can often find an article calling something blue, then see an op-ed assuming it was red. It can get "a bit frustrating, but mostly it's just about having lots of voices." Weiss feels this editorial mix is a good thing, a nice jumble of perspectives even if it is a jumble.

I'm torn. To be honest, I don't see a real problem with the photo. As Weiss adroitly points out, "If you're gonna put up a picture to illustrate that article...what else could you choose?" But then Weiss points out the lack of editorial agenda, and that leaves me all twisted. Jewsweek isn't an agenda-driven publication, but here's a scoop. We've admitted, at least to ourselves, that we're a more liberal magazine. That's as close as we get, and I can't help but wonder if maybe we should get a little closer, really paint a vision of where we'd like to drive the Jewish community. I think Jewsweek has reached a mass of readership and influence that warrants such a discussion, internally if nowhere else. We're not the Forward or the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, but we're not small potatoes. Why can't we have an agenda?

Now what would that agenda be? Oh dear...

filmLove Actually is in season

I'm going to do a few quick Thanksgiving posts then cluck on out of here for the weekend. We were planning a cross-blog book discussion to begin on Monday. That's going to be delayed for a few days, but it'll be coming and it'll be great. In the meantime, every single American (and Brit, for that matter) needs to go to the movies this holiday season and see one flick: Love Actually.

Why, you ask? Well aside from it being a glowing film of sincerity and an absolutely stunning exploration of the meaning of love that makes you feel good even when the love goes awry, it has this one scene. Now, I've been following the rather inept display of statesmanship coming from President Bush during his recent junket in Britain. He brought his own chefs, snubbing the fine cuisine of Buckingham Palace. He destroyed the Queen's gardens, reducing her gardener to tears. He was a first-class oaf, and I wondered what might happen if Tony Blair turned in a press conference and dressed the presidential cowpoke down. Blair could do it, if for no other reason, Bush's betrayal of his commitments to on Middle East peacemaking. But no, it couldn't happen.

Ahhh, but the magic of movies gives us a taste. Hugh Grant, as British Prime Minister, dresses down Billy Bob Thornton, as American President. Now the casting isn't an immediate hit, but they pull off their parts quite well. Thornton is actually infinitely more suave than our Mr. President, though he does get a line so Bush-like ("Our special relationship is still special"). Nevertheless, it's a beautiful scene. It's a beautiful movie.


religionOn New and Old Voices

So I'm flipping through my new issue of New Voices, and the first one helmed by new Editor-in-Chief Hasdai Westbrook. It's a good issue, addressing issues like drug use in the Orthodox community, Israel advocacy on college campuses, Jews for Jesus, and an editorial on Jewish identity in America. My publication, Jewsweek, ran that editorial in our most recent issue.

I must say, the piece is a good one insofar as it raises a litany of issues and paints a broad argument. "Organized American Jewry cannot conceive of Jewish identity as anything other than shtetl identity, it needs a threat against which to define 'Jewish.' A place created by fear, the shtetl is not a shtetl unless everyone must huddle inside it," writes Westbrook. "Unable to point to any real physical threat, any real crisis, the leaders of America's organized Jewish community have done a curious thing -- they have made assimilation the outside threat."

Well, yes. In fact they have, but it didn't take much work for them to do so. Westbrook sees this as hype, as a community setting the wrong standards for Jewishness. His definition of Yiddishkeit revolves around the eminence of the Beastie Boys, the kaballah of Madonna (a fetish even my editor, Benyamin Cohen, has taken to), and The Big Lebowski. "The Jewish community as a whole is becoming increasingly disorganized, diverse, and American," Westbrook argues, "in both the sense that Jews are becoming more American and America is becoming more Jewish."

I don't refute the premise that Yiddishkeit is a broad category, but what makes something Jewish is not that Jews are doing it, nor does it revolve around the use of Yiddish slang or pop versions of Jewish traditions such as kaballah. America isn't becoming more Jewish because Sex and the City featured a Jewish conversion and wedding. Jewishness is more than a cultural schtick, it's a sense of purpose, a worldview that goes deeper than the latest musical fusions of Golem or Yidcorps.

The day the Jewish community, culturally-minded Jews and deeply religious alike, comes together in confronting the larger society and demanding a seat at the table as a communal group and not merely as individuals with "a penchant for tuchus metaphors" is the day America begins to become more Jewish. The day Jews bind together to assert that freedom in America and elsewhere should not be about being left alone, but about fulfilling a greater purpose that requires obligations and responsibilities to our fellow humanity inherited from birth, is the day that Jewish influence in America will be truly pervasive, to say nothing of persuasive.

I don't doubt that Hasdai Westbrook is a committed Jew with deep concern for his cultural roots and the preservation and continuance of the Jewish community. I agree, we should stop trying to "sell" Judaism by wrapping it in hip packaging. But we should also have no doubts about what Judaism is. It is not enough that Mel Brooks is funny, Allen Ginsburg was a great poet, or that the Coen Brothers are magnificent filmmakers. Judaism takes more than that, and by G-d it gives more than that.


literatureWrestling with Zion

I'm in the midst of reading and reviewing Wrestling with Zion, a collection of liberal Jewish voices on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It comes to us by way of editors Tony Kushner and Alisa Solomon, of The Nation, and it goes without saying that these opinions are quite outside the mainstream orthodoxy of the Jewish community (or at least the community's leadership). Nonetheless, there are some interesting arguments and reflections within its pages. I don't want to get too much into the substance, since I'm not finished crafting my review. However, I would very much be interested in perhaps doing a cross-blog book discussion with the elders of Protocols and perhaps Mobius of Jewschool fame. It would make for a far more fascinating discussion than the previous book dissection of the less-than-stellar Douglas Rushkoff tome.

politicsReflections on the National Museum of American Jewish History

I must say, my trip to Philadelphia was more intellectually (and perhaps spiritually) stimulating than I'd expected it to be. The purpose of my jaunt up to Philly was to assist the National Museum of American Jewish History in fleshing out the last floor of the core exhibit, which would deal with the last fifty years. Upon arriving, I was shown some models of the new building to begin construction next year. That will coincide with the 450-year anniversary of the Jewish American community's arrival on the shores of New Amsterdam, with the whole museum being finished by 2007. It's quite a fascinating design, with open glass virtually throughout, designed to show that the Jewish community which has been shut up in ghettos and fearful of outsiders so often in the past has been given the opportunity in America to open its communal doors and shine it's light into the surrounding society.

Such a design is intended to complement the overriding theme of the museum's core exhibit: freedom. When our small review panel sat down, the designers and scholars involved in the project explained how the overarching goal was to show how the American Jewish experience was ultimately defined by the concept of freedom, and how it had afforded American Jews an opportunity few Jewish communities had enjoyed throughout history. But we spent most of our time discussing the inherent tensions between American conceptions of freedom and the Jewish ideal of freedom.

I argued that freedom in the American sense has always been a sort of libertarian conception of the freedom to be left alone, as individuals. In contrast, Judaism always framed freedom and liberty in terms of service and the Exodus story. I pointed out the cogent insights of Michael Goldberg's book, Why Should Jews Survive?, in which he argued that Exodus did not end with the departure from Egypt, but was always a lead up to the giving of the Torah at Sinai. Passover was meaningless, in essence, without Shavuot. Hence Judaism saw freedom in terms of being free to serve, not being obligated as a slave in a manner that might prevent you from fulfilling the mission given by G-d.

To that end, I felt freedom must be complemented by purpose, and that freedom without purpose is meaningless and nothing at all desirable. To which I say, can the Jewish community survive when it is so steeped in the surrounding American milieu, along with the decidedly non-Jewish notions therein. When are youth are so motivated by an American sense of freedom as opposed to a Jewish one, should we be surprised that fewer are willing to serve as Jews and more are willing to marry to non-Jews? It may be the greatest irony of the American Jewish story that this land that has given us the most freedom, the greatest opportunity, and the fullest measure of personal safety may also have been the greatest threat to our continuity and the security of Jewish identity all along.

Leaving the meeting, I can say I'm pleased that the NMAJH is committed to telling this difficulty story and raising these difficult questions. The exhibit, if it ends up following the path laid out for me in Philadelphia, will be one of the best explorations into Jewish history the community has yet constructed. I look forward to seeing how it develops these themes in the coming months and years.

religionMore on suing Jews for Jesus

Alright, so now that I've caught back up after visiting Philadelphia for some business, I'm back with some commentary. The first thing I want to tackle is my most recent column for Jewsweek, in which I thought it might be interesting pursue legal action against Jews for Jesus. I want to expand on that column a bit, not by fleshing out the details of how to pursue the lawsuit but the underlying issues therein. Specifically I wanted to use the last paragraph as a launching point:

"Then again, perhaps I'm opening Pandora's box. Imagine if the Orthodox Union sued Jews for Jesus and won. What would stop them from suing the Reform movement? Nonetheless, you'd have to admit. It would make one hell of a show."

Imagine the underlying principles such a lawsuit would entail. It would be an assertion that yes, there is one form of Judaism and one organizational identifier with that form. Whomever brought such a lawsuit would lay claim to the mantle of "authentic Judaism" and the role of organizational leader of the true form of Judaism. It's easy enough to make such an argument when we use it to paint Jews for Jesus as illegitimate, but there is the other battle over what constitutes true Judaism. Why wouldn't the Orthodox Union, hypothetically, be able to successfully sue Reform Judaism if they were able to successfully sue Jews for Jesus?

I hate to write a column and then write my own counter-column, but I really find it fascinating. So much hay has been made in the denominational wars, the internecine strife over just who is Jewish, who's gone astray, and what is valid halacha. But no civil lawsuit has ever been launched, to my knowledge. I'd be interested to see the results of one. Or perhaps we should organize a Jewish tribunal. But who then would stand as judges? Who would stand as jury? The answers to these questions are, in many ways, attempting to concretize that which is best left abstract and amorphous. But I, for one, would like to bring the whole debate to a head. Bring Jews for Jesus into the foray, and strike them down. But why stop there? Why not keep the argument up until it's reached its logical conclusion? Just imagine how fascinating a play based on this principle might be.

I'll leave it at that, but perhaps others have better ideas.


personalThe National Museum of Jewish American History

I'm currently in Philadelphia taking part in a workshop for the National Museum of Jewish American History. We're attempting to figure out how best to tell the story of the last fifty years in their core exhibit. This exhibit will be installed in the new museum complex which will begin construction next year, to commemorate 450 years of Jewish American history.

Upon my return home, I'll be posting some reflections from my visit here as well as expanding on my most recent column for Jewsweek. In case you haven't caught it, I argue that it might be fun to sue Jews for Jesus for copyright infringement. The column itself isn't spectacular, but there are a few loose threads I'll be picking up here. Until then...


politicsWell, I can name more than 5...

Steven I. Weiss over at Protocols was kind enough to let everyone know I'm blogging again. Thanks to him, and as a token of gratitude I'll follow up his fellow Elder Pinchas' discussion of a recent survey showing a woeful 58% of Americans couldn't name any of the President's cabinet departments. Apparently Pinchas missed four. Well, I didn't do that good, but I did think of the following twelve off the top of my head, so here you go. Correct me if I'm wrong.

1. Department of Homeland Security
2. Department of Defense
3. Department of State
4. Department of Education
5. Department of the Interior
6. Environmental Protection Agency
7. Department of Labor
8. Department of the Treasury
9. Department of Housing and Urban Development
10. Department of Health and Human Services
11. Department of Agriculture
12. Department of Veterans Affairs


sex.jpgSexy in trouble

Tsk, tsk to the Jews -- underage Jews anyways. A breaking headline courtesy of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency informs us, "A Tel Aviv fashion outlet was burned down after it encouraged teenaged girls to strip in a publicity stunt." The old adage of two wrongs not making a right comes to mind, but it nevertheless is hard to find sympathy for the fashion outlet.

Of course it's even harder to whip up some sympathy for three Jewish teenagers formerly of Milken Community High School in Los Angeles. The girl and two boys were expelled from the private Jewish school after they made an explicit sex tape that was circulated around school. One kid told his parents, and the parents told the school, and it was all downhill from there.

I know Jews are more apt to have sex than gentiles, and I know ours is the liberal religion on sexuality relative to Christianity (with its puritanical bent) or Islam (with its burka), but it's worth asking. Are we doing something wrong with our teenagers? (Note: Yes, I'm being overly dramatic.)


religionFrom Christianity to Judaism to Jews for Jesus?

So my mother, who is Christian, asks me the other day if I've read the book The Case for Christ. As it turns out, I have. A religious studies major in college and a personal lover of all things religious, I went over the book when a devoutly evangelical friend of mine bought me a copy some years back. Essentially, an atheistic journalist went on a hunt for proof about Christianity when his wife took up the faith, and the product is this book showing how hard facts do indeed exist to back up the whole Jesus Christ racket. Don't get me wrong, I have no desire to knock anyone's faith but the book is hardly convincing. The author, for one thing, doesn't have a background in religious studies so he lacks the knowledge to seriously challenge his interviewees, most of whom are theologians and Christian partisans. Hence the text turns into a laundry list of softball questions that probably works very well to reinforce the faith of believing Christians but did nothing at all to convince me I'd gone astray in converting to Judaism.

Moving back to my original point, my mother wondered if I'd be willing to discuss the book with a few men at their church. I wondered aloud why I'd meet with people to discuss a lackluster book so they could try and get me to go back to being a Christian and abandon my Jewish faith.

"That's not what they're trying to do," she tells me. "They're not like that at all." I direct her to explain to me how they aren't trying to reconvert me to Christianity. She elaborates. "They don't want you to stop being Jewish. They just want you to accept that Jesus is the Son of G-d and the messiah."

Where, oh where, do I begin? I just handed her a couple of brief booklets on the subjects of Christian missionaries trying to sell the line that you don't have to stop being Jewish to be a Christian, then I handed her the recent article in Heeb magazine recounting the horror of a Jews for Jesus experience. Either way, I never expected that kind of tactic to come so close to home, and I know it was merely out of a genuine desire and a lack of understanding. How's that for a good argument on outreach education on this subject?


personalBack with a book and more...

I'm back, from an extended hiatus from blogging. I took that time to craft a book proposal and work on a few projects, some of which will be rolling out shortly. I'll let you know what they are when they roll out. In the meantime, I will get back to work writing missives and what-not. These are things you do on a blog, so they say.