TV and religion on Speaking of Faith

A friend just pointed me to an episode of the NPR show Speaking of Faith called TV and the Parables of Our Time. In these 51 minutes, host Krista Tippett and her guest Diane Winston explore a handful of television shows which ask (and sometimes answer) fascinating theological questions.

Television is where many of us go to immerse in storytelling. The serialized form echoes the weekly lectionary: just as I hear the next chapter in the neverending story of Torah each week when I go to shul, I tune in to my favorite shows week by week to find out what happens next. I think a lot of people today find in TV what the religious among us find in scripture: a regular chance to immerse in a story which grips us and which prompts us to ask tough questions about who we are and what matters in our lives.

Continue reading "TV and religion on Speaking of Faith" »


Zeek magazine, summer 2009

The new summer issue of Zeek: A Jewish Journal of Thought and Culture has hit the newsstands. We've been putting out a gorgeous print magazine (in addition to our online content) for years, but we only recently moved to a quarterly schedule, so this is our first summer edition -- very exciting.

The issue features an interview I did with artist Richard Kostelanetz earlier this year. He's a fascinating guy, a polymath and an artist who's worked in a variety of genres (including compositions for tape loops, which endeared him to me immediately.) We talked about music, art, composition, Sephardic Judaism, and the connection between Judaism and the avant-garde, among other things.

Anyway, the interview is only available in the print edition (along with poetry from Amy Gottlieb and Rodger Kamenetz, fiction from Tsipi Keller and Yossel Birstein, and essays from Michal Govrin and Jay Michaelson -- and a great deal more) so if you're not yet a subscriber, you should be.

By the by, Zeek recently signed a deal with The Forward (here's the JTA post about it); our website is going to move from the (sadly moribund) Jewcy site to www.forward.com sometime soon, so stay tuned. I'm excited to see what new developments arise from this old-media new-media collaboration.

Shabbat shalom!


Technorati tags: , , .


What if we give it away?

Last week's Sunday Times magazine featured a profile of Lewis Hyde written by Daniel B. Smith, called What is Art For? Lewis Hyde is a colleague of Ethan's at the Berkman Center. He's a poet (I especially like his This error is the sign of love) and he's written a few books, among them The Gift, which came out in 1983 and has never been out of print. That book "tries to reconcile the value of doing creative work with the exigencies of a market economy." Hyde was inspired to write The Gift by the experience of reading the anthropologist Marcel Mauss:

Mauss was a scholar of the old polymathic sort -- a sociologist, a linguist, a historian of religion, a Sanskrit expert, a philosopher. His essay on gift exchange drew on the work of the seminal turn-of-the-century ethnographers Franz Boas and Bronislaw Malinowski to explore aboriginal societies in which the person of consequence -- the man or woman who is deemed worthy of adulation, respect and emulation -- is not the one who accumulates the most goods but the one who disperses them. Gift economies, as Mauss defines them, are marked by circulation and connectivity: goods have value only insofar as they are treated as gifts, and gifts can remain gifts only if they are continually given away. This results in a kind of engine of community cohesion, in which objects create social, psychological, emotional and spiritual bonds as they pass from hand to hand.

The blogosphere is a gift economy: we share our words and ideas freely, and "repay" one another with hat tips and links and comments back and forth between our online spaces. (This is hardly a new idea; smart people have been writing about the high-tech/online gift economy at least since 1998.) So is media fandom (I'm thinking both about story exchanges and overt gifts of vids or podfic recordings, and in a broader sense about the whole phenomenon of creating fanworks in a community context). So is the online poetry/literary world, from prompt communities like ReadWritePoem and Totally Optional Prompts to collaborative 'zines like Qarrtsiluni. In all of these worlds, we create and strengthen community by sharing our creativity.

Continue reading "What if we give it away?" »


On Transformative Works

1.

My first experience with writing liturgy came when I was in college. A group of women gathered in a dorm room where we argued passionately over words and metaphors. The question was how to retell the Passover story -- the central narrative at the heart of Jewish peoplehood -- in a way that would speak to us.

What were the critical pieces of the original haggadah text that we wanted to preserve? Where did we want to make radical changes? How would those radical changes sit with us, year after year? One year we excised all of the God-as-king language, preferring instead to use feminine God-language in both Hebrew and English. Another year, we shifted all of the language of sovereignty to metaphors that reflected immanent power rather than transcendence: instead of King or Queen we wanted to celebrate our source, wellspring, creator.

The Williams College Feminist Seder Project is only a memory now. The college community there doesn't feel the need for a specifically "feminist" seder anymore... though I'll bet the standard seder they do there now is still shaped by the ripples my era of students set in motion. (That's how it goes with third-wave feminism.) But the work of creating my own Passover seder has shaped the way I think about Pesach, and about liturgical language, and about creativity, and about my place within the broader sphere of Jewish life.

I'm grateful to the women of the Williams College Feminist Seder Project, because they taught me how to take up the tools of transformation in my own liturgical life. Transforming the text of that beloved ritual was transformative for me.

 

2.

In the years after college, I didn't belong to a congregation. I hadn't yet found Jewish Renewal, and my dreams of the rabbinate seemed improbable at best. But I wanted a connection with Judaism.

Because the feminist seder project had been so formative for me, I tried my hand at writing other pieces of liturgy. I wrote a seder for Tu BiShvat, the New Year of the Trees. I wrote prayers for Sukkot and for Chanukah. I wrote, and then performed, a baby-naming ceremony for the son of two dear friends. When my sister became pregnant with her second child, she asked if I would write and perform a baby-naming for him, too.

Writing my own prayers and ceremonies helped me feel engaged. I was shaping my own quirky, idiosyncratic Judaism. I started writing about the fact that I was doing that, and encouraging other unaffiliated Jews -- other Jews on the fringes: intermarried folks, queer folks, those who didn't have a congregational home or who felt that there might not be a place at the Jewish table for them -- to write their own liturgies and prayers, too.

I took my MFA at Bennington. At the end of my time there, one of my beloved advisors (the poet David Lehman) suggested that I try my hand at writing prayers and psalms. Although I'd thought I was keeping my Jewish self and my writerly self somewhat separate, he saw right through that flimsy divide.

Active Jewishness is a writerly thing. We're obsessed with texts, and our tradition includes the strong expectation that each of us will be in conversation with those texts all our lives. Sometimes that conversation takes highly creative forms, so there's a sense that creativity is a legitimate way to respond to the texts we hold dear. All of this was fermenting in me in 1999, the year I was first introduced to fanfiction and fanvids: transformative works of a different kind.

Continue reading "On Transformative Works " »


Announcing Zeek @ Jewcy

Big news in the Jewish literary world today: Zeek, the Jewish journal of thought and culture where I'm a contributing editor, has formed a partnership with Jewcy. Zeek's new home is here.

This isn't a merger; it's a joint venture. Jewcy wants to move toward hosting a publishing network of editorial sites serving "young, culturally omnivorous [readers] looking for meaning and community," and Zeek wants more readers and a more robust and flexible web presence. From where I sit, it's a win-win.

Zeek's 2002-2007 archives are still hosted at the old domain, and they'll remain there. But new material will be published now at jewcy.com/zeek, now on a more blog-like schedule (so instead of getting a batch of new content once a month, readers will be treated to an ongoing stream of articles a few at a time.) Zeek will retain editorial independence, and we'll continue to publish our print journal (of which the most recent issue, published last month, is a 120-page anthology of Russian-Jewish art, fiction, and poetry.)

Our May online issue focuses on Israel, in celebration of Israel's 60th anniversary. The first few pieces are online now, including three poems by Rivka Miriam and Joel Schalit's interview with Beaufort director Joseph Cedar. (My contribution to the issue will go live on Tuesday, and I'll point to it when it does.) Nu, go and read -- and feel free to leave a comment, since interactivity is one of the features of the new site. Here's to a long and happy publishing marriage.


Technorati tags: , , .


Zionism and anti-Semitism in the new Zeek

This month's edition of Zeek: A Jewish Journal of Thought and Culture is online, and it's unsurprisingly terrific.

Probably the most provocative piece in the issue is Zionism, Anti-Semitism, and the Boundaries of Dissent: Round 2 of the Alvin Rosenfeld Debate, a discussion between Shaul Magid and Paul Bogdanor. This three-part essay -- by Magid, then Bogdanor, then Magid again -- is intense, and illuminates just how spectacularly the Jewish Left and Jewish Right are talking past each other on this issue.

A quote from Magid, in the first section of the piece:

Ironically, both sides agree that Israel stands at the center of [the rise of anti-Semitism.] Rosenfeld posits that progressive critiques of the Jewish state "foment," perhaps tacitly legitimize, anti-Semitism. Many progressives believe that it is Israel, both in its policies and "ethnic" construction, that foments anti-Semitism. What we need now are fewer jeremiads, and more thoughtful and constructive engagement on both Jewish history and the nature of a Jewish future.

This tripartite essay may make you sad and angry regardless of where you fall on the political spectrum, but I think that's part of why it's worth reading.

And while you're there, of course, read the rest of the issue too. My own personal highlight is The Exile and the Shank: two poems by Philip Terman. Holy wow.


Technorati tags: , , , .


Velveteen Rabbi in the Austin-American Statesman

One of the highlights of last weekend was spending a quiet hour with Joey Seiler, who writes for the Austin-American Statesman. He'd attended the "Ghost in the Machine: Spirituality Online" panel; our chat on Sunday was a rare oasis of quiet and substantive conversation in an otherwise pretty chaotic day.

Parts of that conversation are now in print, in today's Austin-American Statesman; for those of us who live a ways from Austin, fear not, the interview is also online.

There's a detail or two I might have corrected, given the chance (the Aleph rabbinic program isn't based in North Adams, e.g.) but that's a minor quibble. Otherwise it's a lovely piece. Here's a taste:

It seems like your blog works with that sort of desire, a form of outreach.

I aim at a wide range of conversations going about things I care about, the festival cycle and how we can invest them with meaning, discussions of the texts, that sort of thing. And the blog is a way for me to talk about those when, in my wonderful little small town, there may not be people interested in it.

So it's not simply outreach, but a wider reach?

I love my town, but it's a small town. On Shabbat services, there might be only 15 people, which is nice, but it's nice to reach outside the sphere. I also regard the blog as an educational tool. I often get more comments from non-Jewish readers than Jewish readers. I try to make it accessible and find parallels to what I know in other traditions.

It seems like the trend in faith-based blogs is that the audience is external instead of internal.

I suspect that the Internet makes it easier for people to look around spiritually. You might not be comfortable walking into five different churches to see what it's like, but you can easily visit five blogs to get a window into their worlds.

Read it here: Religion blogs get into spirit of Internet. Thanks for the good press, Joey!


Technorati tags: , , .


Truth, reconciliation, and tikkun

I watched three independent films at SXSW. The third of them was Greensboro: Closer to the Truth, a documentary about the 1979 shooting of communist labor activists by Nazis and members of the KKK at an anti-Klan rally in Greensboro, and the truth and reconciliation commission which was formed years later to address what happened and how the community can heal. I recognize that this isn't exactly the stuff of my usual blog posts, but this film has strong tikkun olam and social justice themes, and I thought some of y'all might be interested in reading more about it.

I knew nothing about the Greensboro massacre before seeing the film, though it turns out there's a solid Wikipedia entry about what happened and how it's understood. (If this is new to you, take a moment and read that entry; it offers useful context.)

That entry acknowledges that the police are generally regarded as having been complicit in the Greensboro massacre. (Depending on who you ask, that complicity was either with intent -- it is known that there was a paid police and FBI informant within the Klan at that time, and some see a racist and anti-communist conspiracy in the police's inaction -- or a case of simple ineptitude and apathy. Either way, their lack of response shaped how the day panned out.) That's one complicating factor in this story.

Another is that, as the movie makes clear, the wounds from this incident have in no way healed. Some of the Klansmen and Nazis involved remain proud of their actions and their beliefs. And the CWP (Communist Worker's Party) activists who survived remain angry and saddened by the loss of their loved ones' lives. Because the Tehran hostage crisis broke the very next day, this story barely merited a blip on the national news radar -- and today many civic leaders in Greensboro don't want to talk about it at all.

Most of the African-American labor leaders involved in the protest were local. That includes Reverend Nelson Johnson, then a young radical filled with angry fire and now an ordained minister who preaches forgiveness. (I found his to be one of the most compelling voices in the film. His prepared speech to the commission can be downloaded here.) Most of the white folks came from elsewhere, and left town after the killings, bewildered and grieving. (Not surprisingly, many are liberal Jews from the northeast.) It's good to be reminded how the drive for social justice brought people together across the boundaries of culture and race -- and to imagine how those connections might be re-forged today.

The film introduces us to many of the activists whose lives were changed by the shootings. We also meet some of the surviving perpetrators, whose responses range from defiant self-righteousness to a kind of baffled regret. The 2005 formation of the truth and reconciliation commission is at the heart of the story -- though the film acknowledges that the broader white community had a mixed response to the commission. Many people were unaware of the commission's formation, while others actively opposed the "dredging up" of this painful history.

Here's an interview with filmmaker Adam Zucker. The Greensboro Truth & Reconciliation Commission has a blog -- and a website where one can download their final report and read more about the process they went through in creating that report. Here's an op-ed that Reverend Nelson wrote for the News-Record about the truth and justice commission's report (hat tip Ed Cone.) And here's a historical piece written by doctors Marty Nathan and Paul Bermanzohn, which tells the story of November 3 and its implications from the point of view of two of the Northern survivors. 

I take away from this film a renewed realization that the work of tikkun olam (understood in its broad social justice sense -- though I suppose one could argue that there is some kabbalistic elevation of holy sparks in this process, as well) is often difficult and painful...but the film's closing images offer me some hope that transformation is possible even under these circumstances, if we will only open our hearts and our eyes.

I hope Greensboro: Closer to the Truth is picked-up by a television station so more people will get the chance to see it. It's not a perfect film, but it tells a complicated story more of us need to hear.


Technorati tags: , , .


A Life Apart

Svend White, of Akram's Razor, recently  posted about the documentary A Life Apart: Hasidism in America.The film is a collaboration between Oren Rudavsky and Menachem Daum. (I reviewed Daum's second movie, Hiding and Seeking, here.) Here's how A Life Apart is described on PBS:

A 90-minute film, A Life Apart: Hasidism in America, is the first in-depth documentary about a distinctive, traditional Eastern European religious community. In an historic migration after World War II, Hasidism found its most vital center in America. Both challenging and embracing American values, Hasidim seek those things which many Americans find most precious: family, community, and a close relationship to God. Integrating critical and analytical scholarship with a portrait of the daily life, beliefs, and history of contemporary Hasidic Jews in New York City, the film focuses on the conflicts, burdens, and rewards of the Hasidic way of life.

In his blog post, Svend writes:

There's so much to comment on in the movie and so much that resonates very deeply with me as an American Muslim....

In addition to providing a truly engrossing window into this poorly understood community, the documentary raises a number of stimulating questions about modern American life, especially from the point of view of a religious person.

Reading Svend's post made me want to see the film, and I happen to have a copy on-hand, so I watched it tonight.

Continue reading "A Life Apart" »


This week's portion: vision and grief

Hello again, all! I'm home from my travels, and belatedly posting last week's d'var Torah, for parashat Chayyei Sarah.

Last week's portion begins with the death of Sarah, and we learn that Abraham grieved her passing. This year, I explored that text through the lens of one of my favorite films, Wim Wenders' Until the End of the World, and found resonance in the way the fictional character of Dr. Henry Farber refracts the story of Abraham:

[Farber] is a wanderer, headstrong, driven by his passions. He nearly sacrifices his relationship with his son -- not in as literal a way as Abraham, but in a way that's no less real for its allegorical qualities -- on the altar of his devotion to what he believes is right.

That devotion is, let me be clear, arguably legitimate, or at least difficult to dismiss out-of-hand. He has dedicated decades to his quest to give his beloved wife, blind since childhood, the gift of sight. He is a passionate believer in science and progress and possibility. But his devotion blinds him in certain ways. Emotionally, spiritually, psychologically he fails to see what's right in front of him, and he's blind to how his actions, and his damaged relationship with their son, impact his wife's fragile health.

FYI, the post does contain spoilers for the film (though since it came out in 1991, I'm hoping no one will mind.)

Read the whole thing here: Vision and grief.


Technorati tags: , , , .


Hiding and Seeking

 

My friend Nate has an encyclopedic knowledge of movies, and his tastes are consistently interesting. Even on the rare occasions when I don't like one of his favorites, I always find his choices thought-provoking. So when he recommended that I see Hiding and Seeking: Faith and Tolerance After the Holocaust, I was inclined to listen. (Okay, so he gave it to me a while ago and I just tonight got around to watching it, but I knew it would be good when I finally watched it, and sure enough, it was.)

An Orthodox Jew and child of Polish Holocaust survivors, [Menachem] Daum has spent many years interviewing camp survivors about the impact of the Nazi "final solution" on Jewish religious faith. Daum worries his two sons' inwardly-focused version of Orthodoxy may be leading them into intolerance toward the world outside the confines of the yeshiva. He has similar misgivings over what he sees as growing insularity in Orthodox Judaism, both in Brooklyn, N.Y., where Daum grew up and reared his sons, and in Israel, where his sons have moved to immerse themselves in Talmudic studies.

So it's no laughing matter when Daum's wife, Rifka, comes home one night from a lecture with a tape of a rabbi openly preaching "hatred" of the non-Jewish world. ...[H]e flies to Israel, the audio tape in hand, to discuss the matter with his sons, who have adopted a strict Orthodox Judaism centered on study of the Torah and other sacred Jewish writings. Thus begins the difficult and revelatory journey documented by the Emmy® nominated filmmaking team of Menachem Daum and Oren Rudavsky, in "Hiding and Seeking."

(That's from the film synopsis at PBS.) What does Daum do when his sons admit that the teachings on the tape, while a little strident for their tastes, basically make sense to them? He takes his sons, and his wife, on a journey to Poland to find the "righteous Gentiles" responsible for their family's survival of the Shoah. And he brings a documentary film crew along for the ride.

Continue reading "Hiding and Seeking" »


Muslims in America, on TV

Last night we watched a fascinating hour of television: an episode of 30 Days, created by Morgan Spurlock. He finds people from one walk of life and places them in a new context for a month, allowing them to really walk a mile in somebody else's shoes.

I didn't see his documentary Super Size Me (I didn't need a movie to tell me that a month of eating nothing but McDonald's will make a body sick), but my interest in the show was piqued when I saw him discuss it on the Daily Show. In the first episode, he and his girlfriend pull the Ehrenreichian stunt of trying to live for a month on minimum wage. (Predictably, they fail. The ep got good reviews, though.) And the episode he was plugging on Jon Stewart sounded right up my alley: it's called Muslims in America.

Spurlock placed David Stacy, a Christian from West Virginia, in a Muslim home in Dearborn, Michigan. For thirty days David dressed as a Muslim, ate as Muslims do, responded to the call to prayer five times a day. And he learned: from his host family and community, from a pair of imams and an Arabic teacher... and from the ordinary experience of interacting with non-Muslim Americans, and seeing those interactions from both sides.

Continue reading "Muslims in America, on TV" »