Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Interwebz and Small Miracles

I see you there, stalking the Facebook pics of a random friend you met at camp when you were fourteen.

Yes, you.

And I see you, too, stalking the wall of that guy you met in Israel to catch e-glimpses of his friends at Bar Ilan and IDC.

Isn’t the internet fun? We can frolic anonymously through pages of information about the lives of people who will never know. Or, at least we hope they will never know, for fear of being arrested and excommunicated.

The story starts back in chilly weather. I sailed on the internet seas and stalked the wall of a friend of mine, who I met in a hotel lobby in the Holy Land. She is involved in international Israeli activism, and through her page, I happened upon the profile of an Australian gal involved in Jewish student life at the University of Melbourne, who seemed to spend entirely too much time in exotic locales such as Japan, New Zealand and Alaska. Naturally, I stalked her travels, providing much fodder for many a daydream.

Fast-forward a few months when snow covers the ground. I escaped the suburbs to meet a friend in Manhattan for lunch, but had an hour to kill betwixt exiting Penn Station and entering the subway. I slid up 34th Street into Macy’s and entertained myself by aimlessly wandering through the store.

Wandering through the second floor, I stopped here and there to browse through the aisles and just… think. While pawing the dresses, I wondered if I should buy something just in case I had somewhere fancy to go in the near future. But what if buying the dress jinxed the future possibilities of nice occasions? On the opposite side of the coin, what if buying the dress would put in motion precisely the things that would have to occur in order to make those fancy occasions happen? Where are those Three Witches hiding out, and could they spare some time for my inquiry?

I wandered on, forgetting about the dress and focusing on the mysteries of fate. I guess anything can and will happen, I thought…

Someone was sitting with her legs crossed on a platform beneath two well-dressed mannequins. As she came into focus, I thought she looked more and more like… no way… what kind of insane joke is this…

Well hello there, Australian gal. The twenty-something certainly looked just like the pictures, and the accent she and her male pal spoke with gave away their country of origin. Trying not to be too creepy, I said nothing more than, “Awesome accent!” while she laughed with her friend and made my way to the exit in a mix of shock and wonder.

There are various messages to be taken from this tale: People can be put face to face with you by a higher power, it’s just a matter of leaving your house and getting out into the world. (Question: Do we write the pages of our story or is the story already written and we are merely flipping the pages by walking forwards in life?) Back in yeshiva, we learned that life is like a tapestry, but people are rarely privy to the backstitches. This time, I saw the backstitching in all its glory. I frequently kvetch and moan about how divided we are as Jews, but I saw how the universe can connect two Jews from different ends of the earth and have them meet in the middle. People are like the thoughts that ping-pong around in our heads as we shop for dresses or otherwise go about our daily lives--We are always moving. If we make more of an effort to stop each other once in a while, we might be surprised at the results.

Connection. Connection. Connection.

And now, to connect my tale to a theme of this here blog: If different Jews from all around the world could just overlook the differences, we would be an unstoppable force. Human connection and relationships make the world go round. Imagine if we could find each other and band together. Imagine the possibilities.

(PS For any skeptics out there, yes, it was actually the girl from the bottomless pit that is Facebook. I checked her page after the occurrence and she had a new album of pictures up from her trip to New York. What are the odds, eh?)

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Respect for Dummies

This time, I’m going to get right to it. I guess there really is a first time for everything…

I’ve had a few experiences involving religious debates and similar things lately, so I’d like to share a loosely connected collective of thoughts on that subject:

As you may recall, Joanna’s post from a few weeks ago was short and sweet, but garnered quite a bit of attention. The resulting discussion in the comments section involved someone other than one of our close friends (who are generally the only ones who comment on the blog HINT HINT), so it was our first real opportunity to respond to someone who is not entirely of like mind with us. Reading over that conversation now, I think we were courteous, but also honest. It is important to be respectful of other opinions and of the person who has them, but it is equally important to remain true to your views and values when faced with a dissenting opinion. It is a difficult balancing act of ideas, but mastering it is extremely rewarding.

My American History II professor during the Fall 2010 semester at NCC was chock full of quotable quotes. Many of you might already know this since I quoted him in my Facebook statuses at least once a week. However, one of the more profound things he said, something that I actually mentioned in the comments on Joanna’s post, is, “you can’t ever say anything politically significant without offending someone.” While this line was said specifically in reference to politics, I believe it applies across the board, especially in regard to religion, and even more especially to one divided on as many lines of thought and practice as Judaism. There are some people who seem determined to be offended by everything everyone says. There are also those who are so itching for an argument to the point that they’ll jump down your throat the instant you verbalize an opinion, regardless of whether it’s remotely controversial or not. For these people, I have no answers; for everyone else, it is important to recognize that a) what you say, as innocuous as you think it may be, can offend someone, and b) if something someone said offends your principals, consider that it was probably not on purpose. I think that will make for fewer arguments and more discussions.

The famous saying “Two Jews, Three Opinions” may or may not be true, but it’s certainly true that Jews have an opinion on almost everything involving Judaism. Considering that our Jewish opinions are the basis of how we live our religious lives, it would seem logical to assume that we hold fast to those opinions and believe very strongly in them. As such, it is a foolish goal to engage in a religious debate with the aim of convincing someone else of your religious convictions.

I think these religious discussions are, or should be, about an expression of ideas as opposed to a debate of who’s right and who’s wrong. Firstly, right and wrong as concepts are very context sensitive. Yes it’s probably wrong that this guy is driving through your extremely religious neighborhood on Shabbat, completely ignoring the big billboard at the entrance that tells people not to, but then you stone his car and it’s kind of hard to pick who was more in the wrong there. Second of all, it’s pretty presumptuous of you to try and force your lifestyle on someone. What works for you may not work for them, and what you see as wrong might not be wrong for them.

A lot of religious choices, lifelong or temporary, stem from a person’s current life situation. I didn’t go to shul at all this past Yom Kippur. At face value, that might make me a terrible person according to some. With only that fact in mind, you might even be within your rights as a fellow Jew to rebuke me. However, if I responded that it was because I was suffering from a serious kidney disease at the time and my Rabbi said that the fast is more important than the prayers so if by going to shul I would not have the strength to fast, I should spend all day in bed, well, you’d feel pretty stupid for going off on me about it. It’s extremely important to consider that maybe you don’t know everything about the situation. The famous “going into McDonalds for a Coke” example plays itself out so often in our lives and it’s prudent to judge everyone favorably. Hell, it’s a mitzvah to do so. I should know, I lain the parsha it’s in.

So anyways, there are a couple of ideas I’ve been thinking about of late, and I figure it’s important to keep these things in mind. As I’ve said before, there are so few of us in this world; despite our differences, we should try to get along. I feel like taking some of these ideas to heart is a good step toward that goal of harmony.

Song of the Day: Broken Wings – Alter Bridge

Wednesday, July 6, 2011


The story goes like this.

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (the Rashbi) was a great spiritual leader and teacher to many Jews in Israel in the days of the Romans. Unfortunately, the Romans had outlawed the teaching of Torah and Jewish practice. But Rashbi persevered, unperturbed by the threat of torture and crucifixion, and spoke out against their decrees. 

One day, as with all stories, the Rabbi’s enemies found out about his actions and placed a price on his head. So Rashbi, along with his son, R’ Eleazar, hid in the Beit Midrash. They taught whoever they could and learned as much as they were able. Their wives and daughters snuck them food and kept them savvy of goings on in the outside world. But then came the time when they could no longer stay in their beloved Beis.

The Rabbi and his son fled. For the safety of their loved ones, they told no one of their destination. The duo found a deep cave, with a fresh spring for water and a carob tree growing outside for sustenance. There they spent a full year, discussing the mystical secrets of creation and the Torah. 

Throughout that year, Rashbi and R’ Eleazar explored the deepest chasms of the hidden scripture, until enough time had passed that they could risk stepping out into the world again.

Upon emerging, they were greeted with the sight of a Jewish farmer, working the land. But this was the Shabbat day, and such work was strictly forbidden on the day of rest by Jewish law. Offended for his G-d and full of righteous anger, Rashbi called out to the farmer.

But the farmer did not stop.

A searing anger passed through the Rabbi, and before he could say another word or knew what was happening, a light burst from his eyes and engulfed the farmer, reducing him to ashes or knocking his head off or something else fatal but nonetheless impressive.

And a voice emerged as if from nowhere, rebuking the Rabbi. For you see, he had gained so much power from G-d's mystical secrets, but he had no idea how to harness it (it was G-d's power after all). And so the voice sent the Rabbi and his son back into their cave for another twelve years, so that they may learn to use their gifts for good. And legend has it that when they emerged, Rashbi brought with him the secrets of the Zohar, the definitive book of Kabbalah (Jewish Mysticism). And he was, for the rest of his life, one of the greatest Jewish leaders of his time.

This story is from the Gemarah (Bavli, Shabbat, 33b for those who care. Look! I did my research!), but it sounds very much like a variation on any modern comic book origin story. Think about it. A mild-mannered hero is faced with an ethical dilemma, and chooses the path of least resistance. This only draws out his enemies, and so in order to protect his loved ones, he must go into isolation, honing his skills, until he emerges with uncanny abilities. But unprepared to use them, he trains himself further and vows to use his power only for good.

When you think about it, Rashbi is the first Jewish superhero (complete with laser vision!), and really it’s kind of cool, considering the rich history of Jews and tales of supermen. Lest you think it all started when two nice Jewish boys created Superman, let me remind you of Rabbi Loew of Prague and his magical Golem.  And that's just one of the most famous stories. Jewish folklore is filled with legends of mighty heroes emerging during their people’s time of need to protect the innocent and defeat the forces of oppression. Most of these are myths, some of them are based on real figures, but the fact remains that the superhero genre was as Jewish as gefilte fish long before Stan Lee and Jack Kirby drew their first panel of X-Men.

I suppose this is to be expected. A people wandering from place to place, dreaming of having a home of their own, getting persecuting wherever they go… for sure they dreamed of having some armored titan there to stand in the face of determined crusaders, Spanish Inquisitors, and charging Cossacks. And tragic as the need for such stories is, we’ve been fortunate enough to inherit the imagination, and on occasion the stories themselves, from our ancestors.

Which brings us to the modern comic book, an especially “Jewish” cultural medium, at least judging by the giants of the genre. I’ve already mentioned the creators of Superman. Stan “Lieber” Lee and Jack “Kurtzberg” Kirby, two true New York Jews, created titles such as Spiderman, The Fantastic Four, The Incredible Hulk, and of course, The X-Men. Even the great graphic novel series, Sandman, has Hebrew geneology in the form of Neil Gaiman to thank for its existence.

The history of Jews and comic books has always fascinated me as both a Jew and an Art Major. Last year, I was lucky enough to intern for one of the larger distributors of the comic book industry, where I had plenty of assignments to read through comics from every source, from way back decades. And I began to notice a pattern, not so much in the Jewish themes of the comics (which, addressing subjects such as acceptance, fear, and prejudice are rather obvious for this post’s brevity) but in the characters themselves. 

(Note: I could go on for hours about Jewish Folklore and its influence on modern culture and comics' Jewish themes, but another time. For the remainder of this post, I will be focusing on the depiction of Jews in the comics.) 

Two of the most famous Jewish comic book characters, Erik “Magneto” Lehnsherr and Kitty “Shadowcat” Pryde are both featured in the X-Men books, the former as a villain/antihero and the latter as a member of the main team. Both are well-written, developed, and enormously popular, and have been featured in multiple TV shows and movies.

There are several other Jewish characters in the comics: Legion, The Thing, Sabra, Batwoman, and Iceman, among others (Yes, this took way too much Wikipedia and Comic Site research). But the Jewishness of these characters (with the exception of Sabra), is a minor detail at best, mentioned in passing. And none of them, none, are shown to be observant. At their “frummest” they are Israeli and mildly affiliated (not Reform or Conservative or Orthodox, just affiliated), but mostly they are presented as ‘agnostics of Jewish descent.’ Even Kitty Pryde, the de facto Jew of the X-Men, is only mentioned as Jewish a handful of times in the... what, 30 years she’s been around. My favorite of these is when she has to fend off a vampire, not with a cross like her teammates, but with a Star of David. Wow, writers. Thanks for the shout-out. Otherwise, she bears the same amount of Jewishness as most other TV and book series Jews do: she lights Hanukkah candles come the Holiday special. 

And I appreciate those shout-outs. I do. I am thrilled (nearly) every time a proud Jewish character is introduced. These are not negative depictions of Jews by any means (not even Magneto, in my opinion), and I am by no means trying to accuse the comic industry of any bias or anti-Semitic sentiment. But sometimes, I just have to flinch and wonder, is that it? But I’ll address my issues with what I call the “Hanukkah Special Jew” another time. I’m not here to talk about that.

I'd like to talk about Arsenic.

During my internship, I was introduced to a relatively obscure comic series called The Runaways, which featured teenage superheroes locked in a cathartic battle with their supervillain parents. What awkward Thanksgivings they must have. The series features characters in a variety of races, religions, and sexual orientations, even, for seemingly the first time, a “fat” female protagonist. 

Gertrude “Arsenic” Yorkes (well, there’s a Jewish name if I’ve ever heard one... Eye roll...), is the sarcastic, witty, “ugly girl” of the group (I don’t see a female Woody Allen here at ALL). Don't get me wrong, she's a great character, but...well...

Her parents are about as stereotyped as you can get: overbearing, constantly arguing, throwing around terms like “Gevalt” and “Meshugas” like confetti…oh, and evil. All of the runaways struggle with their faith and backgrounds, but Arsenic is the only one to completely reject her ancestry, and to be adamant about it. She repeatedly insists that she is agnostic, at one point hesitating to save an innocent’s soul (and life) because she doesn’t want  to take a risk for something she might not believe in. For a large chunk of the series, she refuses to use her given name (although, to her defense, that name is Gert Yorkes), in order to cut ties with her parents and her past. In my comic-book reading experience (which despite this post is actually quite limited), she’s the closest character I’ve ever seen to a self-hating Jew… or really, a self-hating any faith.
All of these characters, and I can’t help but ask: couldn’t one of them have actually been, you know, religious? Now, I’m not saying give them payot and Smicha and end every sentence with “Baruch Hashem.” Really, I would be very happy to see a Reform Jewish character who… I don’t know… prays every once in a while, or discusses their beliefs even once with some pride and sincerity.

Of course I would be thrilled if that character were Modern Orthodox, maybe shown lighting candles on Friday night, eating a Kosher meal, fighting crime in a costume designed in accordance with the laws of Tzniut… 

I know that comics aren’t the most highbrow of entertainment (fun as they may be), or particularly popular in Orthodox circles, but there’s plenty of precedent.

Let’s return once again to our favorite team roster, the X-Men. Sooraya “Dust” Qadir is a Sunni Muslim who fights crime beside the other X-Men, all the while wearing a niqab and abaya. Kurt “Nightcrawler” Wagner is a Catholic priest, and often the moral center of the group.

Certainly, there could be room for one observant Jew. If anything, their religious observance and restrictions could add a touch of flavor to the character.

Honestly, I don’t see this ever happening, on TV or in the comics. As someone pointed out to me, a vast majority of Jews in general are non-observant or agnostic, and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Anyway, I should probably be grateful there’s been no “token Jew” superhero, because knowing the comics, he’d probably end up going by “HEBREW MAN” or “LION OF JUDAH”, and end up looking like this:

And I just don't think that’s how you’re supposed to wear a tallit and tefillin. 

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