Thursday, June 30, 2011


I was minding my own business the other day, surfin’ the seven seas of the interwebz, when suddenly I was assaulted by an acquaintance of mine (who shall be heretofore referred to as L) who I was only vaguely aware reads this here blog.

“That blog you and your friends set up is very offensive. You guys are snobs… you think you’re better than everyone else. Why do you have to put your elitism on display?”

L went on to say that even though we’ve had bad experiences with the community, we shouldn’t make our issues with the community public. It just isn’t right for us to shame our fellow Jews.

Now, listen here, audience. L was treated like utter garbage by her yeshiva high school because her parents failed to donate money, jewels, and offer sacrifices to Rah, the Sun God. She doesn’t come from a “designer” family, so they have been treated like cellophane by the sad excuse of a community they inhabit. When I first met L, we bonded over being outsiders – we were in the community, but not of the community. Her reaction was completely unexpected.

Why L feels the need to defend the people who have made her life miserable is beyond me. She has ranted against them herself, but now that others have taken a more public stand, she jumps to their defense.

Perhaps if more people vocalized their concerns and complaints instead of passively allowed things to continue just as they are, we might see a bit of change…? Dare I hope for such a thing?

Or are we doomed?

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Flying and Fritters

Something crystallized for me earlier this week, a real-life realization of a story someone once told me.

The story: An Israeli who taught in an Orthodox school was seen by her students while driving on Shabbat. They accosted her -- how can you drive on Shabbat, don't you know it's forbidden, you are a sinner -- to which she replied, and what about you? You are forbidden to live outside of Israel. We each choose how we sin.

It might be distressing to acknowledge, yet it was one of the wisest theological comments I'd ever heard. Everyone picks and chooses the components of their own Judaism. This is simply true, as much as we might intend -- or pretend -- otherwise.

That said, it was just an instructional story until Sunday, when I tossed a friend into the back seat of an airplane, got into the front seat, and flew out to Montauk for lunch.

I stuck to my kashrut principles once we got there, but it was she, not I, who said tefilat haderech -- something I should say but generally don't -- at 3,500 feet over the south shore of Long Island. Unsurprisingly, a discussion started after I stuck with my salad and declined the corn fritters. Does being stricter about kashrut but more lax about prayers make me a worse Jew? A better Jew? A hypocrite?

Perhaps there's something to be said for the way Jews get along seemingly everywhere other than here, namely by acknowledging that, yes, we each do this a bit differently, in our way, but we are all respected parts of the same community. Maybe we Jews of New York should try it. We won't, of course, but maybe we should.

Cheeseburgers on Pesach? Jewish Tattoos? Shaking girls' hands? They're all different shades of the same thing, and not so much about what we practice as much as how we choose to do so. On a micro scale, in any case, the combination works out nicely: I fly the airplane while she says tefilat haderech, but all in all I'm the cheaper date.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011


Firstly, I’d like to apologize to everyone who was expecting a post last week. For those of you who didn’t know, the holiday of Shavuot fell out last week from Tuesday night to Thursday night. Due to the cooking and preparation involved in simply getting ready for the holiday, nevermind the fact that I couldn’t write anything for the stretch of the three nights and two days that made up the actual holiday itself, lest I be smote by god, an executive decision was made that Arbitribe would go on official holiday vacation for the week. And so I schlepped up to Washington Heights to spend chag by The Ginger Man and S, and good times were had by all. However, that doesn’t mean that I wasn’t thinking about what to write the whole time, and so without further ado, this:

We are in a very interesting time of year right about now, musically. The 4-6 week stretch coming right around late May/early June is a unique period for an avid music fan, and it is also quite important. Its uniqueness lies in the fact that it is not technically significant on its own; it’s only noticeable because it is the one time on the musical calendar that has nothing special about it, kind of in the way darkness is noticeable only in that it’s an absence of light so you can’t see anything. It’s the time when bands embarking on early summer tours have had the albums they’ll be touring behind out for a month already and when bands embarking on late summer tours won’t be releasing their albums for another few weeks. As such, a musical vacuum of sorts is created. To fill the void, we music nerds generally pick this time to revisit some old favorites that don’t get nearly enough airtime anymore due to all the new stuff that’s been released.

During the 2011 version of my annual perusal of my musical back-catalog, I happened upon two bands that fall into the same category, Israeli Bible Prog Metal. Orphaned Land and Amaseffer are both comprised of Israelis, and they write prog metal concept albums about biblical stories. It’s pretty awesome to be able to start a long night drive home from Jersey with an 11 ½ minute epic about the 10 plagues followed by a 3-song musical interpretation of the Mabool clocking in at just under 20 minutes. Around the time that happened (Saturday night, three weeks ago, just in case you were wondering), I decided my next post would be about music, specifically music and how it relates to Judaism. Conveniently enough, Orphaned Land and Amaseffer (that’s an Americanization of Am Haseffer i.e. people of the book, by the way) offer a wonderful segue into the topic I would like to discuss in that vein.

To begin (because the last three paragraphs weren’t a beginning, duh), I’d like to relate a story that ticked me off, cuz hey, why not get right to the rant? It was about 5 years ago that I was first getting into types of metal other than the loud screamy kind (thanks for the prog, Sim), and during that time is when I first discovered Orphaned Land. There was a song I heard that I really liked and wanted to play for a former friend who had given up a lot of non-Jewish music over the course of the previous few years, citing a modified “you are what you eat” philosophy as his reasoning. While I respect and understand that, I figured that a song by a Jewish Israeli band about the biblical flood should have been alright. One day while we were driving around, I started the song, mentioning that it was a Jewish band but not exactly typical. He was really digging the song, but then something snapped during the first chorus, at which point he shut the song off and told me he didn’t want to hear any more of it. I asked why and he told me it wasn’t Jewish music and he didn’t want to expose himself to it. I asked what wasn’t Jewish about it, and he told me it wasn’t in Hebrew.

Am I the only one who has a problem with that? I mean on principle; it’s not like I was pissed because I didn’t get to finish my song. Let’s look at the facts here: We have Orphaned Land, a Jewish Israeli prog-metal band, and a guy who was a fervent metal fan in a previous lifetime but has since sworn off non-Jewish music. What I have trouble understanding is how a song by Israeli Jews about the biblical flood “isn’t Jewish” just because it isn’t in Hebrew. Hebrew doesn’t automatically mean a song is Jewish. Anyone ever heard of Synergia? Or better yet, Subliminal?

I get that this is just a minority opinion of one guy who I don’t even speak to anymore because he’s gotten so holier-than-thou that he thinks I’m a bad influence, sinner that I am, but I’ve encountered similar situations that all come back to the same core issue: Jews…um…errrrr…I gotta be honest I don’t even have a clue what the driving force behind this one is, it just comes back to more of questions. Why is it that when my friend wants to walk down the aisle at his wedding to the theme from Jurassic Park, a gorgeous orchestral piece, he gets shot down by his mother? Why is it that one of the songs sung in my other friend’s shul on Shabbat is actually a modified version of a Christian church hymn, but when he gets up to lead the davening he gets shouted down for trying to introduce the Skywalker Theme from Star Wars? Why is it that when yet another friend introduces a song to the Shabbat table and everyone digs it, it’s not allowed to be sung again once someone discovers it’s track 8 on an Orphaned Land album, ignoring the fact that it is actually a traditional Sefardi pizmon that’s been sung by Jews for centuries?

Whatever, I guess it’s just another question about Jewish closed-mindedness that I’ll never understand, and yes, I’m well aware that there are obviously going to be exceptions to that rule (as anyone who knows my dad can tell you), but I can only speak from my own experiences. Maybe can someone enlighten me? I just don’t get it. This isn't me being angry and stuff, just confused. To me, as you have already read, music is about how it moves you and moves through you. If a song is going to move you, why does the source matter?

Song of the Day: Wave of Babies - Animals As Leaders

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

An American Jew in Europe

New York, at times the center of the modern universe, seems to have a unique disconnect from the rest of the world, as if crossing the Brooklyn Bridge or the Midtown Tunnel changes the laws of science, or more topically, Halacha.

Since my very Hungarian family and I travel to our old Motherland an average of once a year to visit relatives and get reacquainted, I have front row seats to watch the disconnect. Most of the time it consists of my sister and I joking about how our spoiled American butts can’t handle European toilet paper (but this is okay, because we present-day Americans aren’t the most pampered people history has seen). 

The more fascinating, and sometimes deeply frustrating, version of the disconnect, though, is this strange Halachic language barrier between New York Jews and their foreign brethren.

You see, there is one system of Halacha, but many social standards based on it. These vary in practice and strictness depending on where you come from. Take, for example, Shomer Negiyah. I certainly see the reasoning behind keeping repressed and twitchy pubescent boys and girls from touching, whether or not I agree with it in every situation.  The kicker is that while we Relig-Jews in New York have been trained obsessively in this rule, we don’t realize that it is by no means standard globally, even among the Orthodox.

In Hungary, for example, even our most observant friends aren’t Shomer. I grew up getting polite cheek-kiss greetings from a family friend who wears a black hat. And sure, New York versus Europe is clearly a case of "Potato, Po-tah-to" (with a rolled ‘r’ or two), but it isn’t the difference that bothers me. Sometimes those who were brought up with the rule are not prepared to deal with those who weren't. My problem comes when the emphasis on keeping the rules (or our inability to deal with those who don’t) gets in the way of us acting like human beings, when it causes us to degrade and embarrass people on the other end.

A friend of mine who arrived “fresh off the boat,” so to speak, a few years ago (who grew up and remains Orthodox) told me about the first time he was introduced to a few religious, good, American, college girls.

Yes. They actually ran away.

What these tactless and clearly confused girls failed to realize is that they’d effectively tainted his view of American Jewry for a long time to come. Before I’d heard this story, I’d been surprised at what I saw as my friend’s unnecessarily careful way of tiptoeing around every movement and word when meeting new people. Nobody likes to be judged and made a fool, especially not the new guy. The girls were lucky he’s secure enough in his faith not to let their behavior turn him off from it. 

But the New York/Europe detachment stretches far beyond the borders of social standards, into the realm of serious, unarguable Halacha: Kashrut.

We New Yorkers may complain that more things aren’t available Kosher, or when Starbucks arbitrarily changes its drink base to apparently include slugs, but the truth is that we are incredibly lucky to even have those little OU and OK symbols to guide us, to have our pick of good (if insanely expensive) restaurants at our disposal. Most countries don’t have a system of Kashrut certification at all, or if they do, it is used on only a fraction of food items, due to lack of either demand or cooperation from food factory owners.

These countries handle Kashrut by their own methods. In Hungary, Kashrut “certification” goes by word of mouth. True, Budapest boasts three (really good) Kosher restaurants, an un-freaking-believable Kosher Café, and two or three grocery stores/butcher shops, but the selection of staple items are severely limited. And that’s in the biggest city in a country with one of the largest Jewish communities in Europe. Forget the little towns in countries like Luxembourg.

If you want to keep kosher in Budapest (and few Hungarians do), you’re going to have to cough up an arm and a leg for a package of salami, and travel to the former Ghetto to pick it up. There’s simply no way to only eat certified-kosher products.  Many European countries work the same way, if they have any Kosher restaurants at all. Going back to Europe means I get to live this interesting sort of double-life, relying on unofficial lists and friends’ recommendations instead of a convenient label for two or three weeks a year. It also means I get to see many variations on this discussion once I get back:

What truly cracks me up is when those products which are available Kosher in Europe and Israel, which are made in one factory and distributed globally, are denied in only one place, and that’s the one with the largest Jewish population in the world: the USA. The perfect example of such an item is the old favorite: Bailey’s Irish Cream Liquor.

Bailey’s is “not recommended” as Kosher by the Orthodox Authorities in the United States. It is, however, used in such delicious food items as Ben & Jerry’s Dublin Mudslide ice-cream and Bailey's-Flavored Haagen Dazs, which bear Kashrut certification. It is also certified Kosher in places such as England, Australia, and Israel. The mysterious case of Bailey’s has confused me for years, and I’ve heard every answer from “it’s actually perfectly alright” to “there’s a separate bottling plant in the US which is not Halachically acceptable.”  I’ve asked around and researched online, discovering along the way that yes, there is just one recipe and one bottling plant, and yes, the stuff I get in Budapest is fine. But it’s not fine here. I truly don’t get how this works.

Anyone who has known me for about five minutes knows of my interest in the varying standards of social and Halachic law across the globe. I enjoy my chance to see both worlds. I adore the Hungarian Kosher Café and love my time in Budapest (which I highly recommend as a beautiful and culturally rich travel option). I often complain about how closed-minded and cliquey New York Jews are.

But of course, there’s a reason my parents left the place, the same reason all of my European friends left their hometowns, and it isn’t because they were bored. This summer, I finally got to see it firsthand.

Things in Hungary (and Europe in general) are not great for Jews right now. With the economy the way it is and with an ultra-right wing party in parliament, it’s becoming increasingly acceptable to be a full-blown xenophobe, Gypsy-hater, and anti-Semite. I’ve been told about graffiti in France and rocks through windows in Greece. I know my parents’ stories of hiding their religion during communism and of their escape to the US. I remember when my sister got called “a dirty Jew.”  But a week ago (finally, it seems), I got to see it myself.

My parents took me to the south of Hungary, to a beautiful little city where cobblestones line the streets and porcelain fountains make the town square interesting. We had an awesome time touring, and at the end of the day, we sat down in the town square for a snack, and my father realized he had to daven Mincha.

He walked to the edge of the square and stood behind a tree, as any davener might do in public, and started to pray while my mom and I dug into the sandwiches we’d brought from our Budapest apartment.

As we ate, we began to notice the huge, apparently steroid-popping guys sitting near us, joking amongst themselves. I thought amusingly about how one of them bore an uncanny resemblance to a character from my neighbor’s old Street Fighter 2 video game (the other one looked like a fat hobo). But the farther along we got in our sandwiches, the more my mom, and then I, began to hear what they were laughing about.


Eventually, my dad finished praying and joined us. And the Street-Fighter guys got louder.

That was about as far as they got before my mom said “That’s it!” and told my dad (who hadn’t heard or noticed anything) that she needed to find a bathroom in a building across town NOW. She ushered us out of the town square before telling my dad what happened. He shrugged and said, “We’re here. What do you expect?”

The truth is, I love going to Hungary anyway, and this little incident wouldn’t keep me from it. After all, I’ve been travelling back and forth since I was born, and this is the first time I ever got “Jewed” (in Europe, anyway). But at that moment, I couldn’t help my sudden longing for New York, for my friends, for Kosher-Certified pizza, even for speeches on sleeve length technicalities to roll my eyes at.  

We New York kids, who grew up in the States, who have never been beaten up for wearing a kippah, who have clicked our tongues at the awful anti-Semitic things they do somewhere else… we are so lucky that we can complain about Bailey’s lack of a label. As we sped-walked away from the town square, all I could think was man, am I spoiled. Am I lucky to live where I do, when I do. Well, that and Steroid Man, someone really ought to kick your butt. 
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