Tonight is Rosh Hashanah, the start of the new Jewish year - it's been a bit of a crazy year for me, as my return to freelancing has landed me with great companies and organizations, like Pictures From the Fringe (follow us on Facebook & Twitter), G-dcast (check out eScapegoat & SinfulGoat) & ELI Talks (check out this talk about God and this one about hacking Judaism), among others. I'm also relaunching EstherK.com with fresh content coming soon, and am starting to put together a newsletter to share helpful social media tips, interesting articles and things I've written, so stay tuned.
This coming year is 5775, which I realized a few weeks back is a palindrome. Since I missed all the fun with 2002 (no one was really allowed to have fun that year) and don't remember why I didn't figure this out in 1991, I decided to pay tribute to this special occasion by playing around on Imgur.com. (This is obviously a tradition that dates back to rabbinic times.)
Below are some of the results of this experiment, with apologies to Girls, The Simpsons, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Frozen. Wishing you and your families a wonderful new year, of health, happiness and humor.
As some of you know, I work part-time at Pictures From the Fringe, a small production company based in Los Angeles - PFTF co-founder Salvador Litvak recently conceptualized and directed a music video for IKAR, an innovative progressive spiritual community in LA, to help celebrate their 10th birthday. Many of us spent the entire day on set downtown, herding people and being herded by other people, having our wardrobes adjusted and our scenes blocked. The result was a joyous video with inspiring music that heralds the arrival of the High Holidays season...
How many familiar faces can YOU spot? (More info on the video after the jump.)
“Hallelujah” is a vibrant and joyous video with music by Judeo, a music project fronted and crafted by "rock cantor" Hillel Tigay. Tigay created mesmerizing tunes that IKAR uses for the High Holidays and year-round; the Judeo sound is an eclectic blend of Tigay’s past influences – the 7 years of music he has been making for IKAR and his past as a pop musician.
Over 100 people are featured in the video, including IKAR members and friends, spanning the age spectrum and reflecting the diversity of the IKAR community as it prepares to celebrate both the arrival of the High Holidays and IKAR’s 10th birthday.
The video was conceptualized and directed by Salvador Litvak – a.k.a. the Accidental Talmudist and writer/director of "When Do We Eat?" and "Saving Lincoln"; the city landscapes are over a 3-4 block radius in colorful downtown LA, for an urban desert feel.
For more information about this video, contact 411 at ikar-la.org.
On July , I did my first ELI Talks on Air hosting gig, an interview (embed below) with the guys from the Jewish video site Shmideo (check out their guide to creating a perfectly boring High Holidays speech here). We talked the Pew Report, puppets, Pythons, Yom Kippur, the Middle East conflict and the Messiah, not in that particular order. Actually, in this particular order - feel free to skip around to view only the parts you like, or watch the whole bantery thing....
2:15 - What is the difference between "laughing with" and "laughing at Judaism"?
5:25 - Talking beards with Lubavitchers
13:04 - Will the Messiah be one big comedy club?
14:17 - Is there a role for comedy in these uncertain times?
18:25 - Is Jewish humor about joy or pain?
20:28 - How might humor mend the rift between Israelis and Palestinians (or at least contribute to Jewish unity)?
25:00 - What is the deal with puppets? (And is there a role for them in the Middle East?)
32:06 - I ask them about the comparison to Monty Python, making an error in announcing the number of Pythons in trying to make a joke that doesn't work.
32:39 - As we approach the High Holidays, so much of our focus is on fixing our speech, making sure we don't spread rumors, gossip etc. How do we create comedy that incorporates our aim to use speech more carefully?
37:40 - We talk about the Pew study. But only briefly. Because enough already.
38:40 - Right before we end, we talk more about Monty Python, and I tell a joke that goes nowhere.
I'll be hosting (and occasionally livetweeting) more of these in the future - ELI on Air (#ELITalks on Twitter) happens every Thursday at 1pm Eastern/10am Pacific (unless otherwise scheduled) - join us live with your questions, and/or subscribe to the YouTube channel, and listen at your leisure.
If you work in or adjacent to the Jewish nonprofit world, you know that the release of a study on Jewish identity can launch a thousand op-ed pieces, even if the findings themselves are not entirely surprising. The arrival of such a study can elicit excitement or flat-out panic, and reactions swirl together violently into an intellectual and emotional froth. As passionate consumers - educators, academics, rabbis, Jewish communal workers, pundits and theorists - assess this information, each draws out the information that serves - or threatens - them most, taking to their computers to provide analysis about how the findings indicate Jews must alter our priorities in order to thrive, or - more frequently - to merely survive.Pew Internet and American Life Project released a new study about Jewish identity. (Not only is this study not on their homepage, a search for "Jewish identity" brought up "Faith Online," and for "Jewish" yielded "Wired Churches, Wired Temples.") According to a summary on eJewishPhilanthropy, "The survey suggests that Jewish identity is changing in America, where one-in-five Jews (22%) now describe themselves as having no religion. This shift in Jewish self-identification reflects broader changes in the U.S. public, whose share of religious 'nones' is similar (20%)." It also included the statistic that 34 percent of those surveyed said you could still be Jewish if you believe that Jesus was the Messiah. (That was a surprising one, actually.)
If statistics like these fill your brain with a froth of new ideas about how this survey is good or bad for the Jews, here are some guidelines designed to help you in writing your response, whether it's an academic article, a sermon or a Facebook post. These are tried and true methods that will enable your treatise to resonate - but don't use them all in one place. Pick and choose wisely, for greatest impact.
In June, my last Jerusalem Friday before my return to the US, I went to the Western Wall (the Kotel), to say a prayer for a friend's father who was seriously ill. I jotted down some notes, and returned to the US. A few weeks later, this piece emerged. I'm posting it here, now, because it's the 9th of Av, which commemorates destruction in Jerusalem because of baseless hatred between and among people. This hatred has contemporary echoes, and daily we receive reminders that the world is battered and broken.
And so on the 9th of Av, a day which is designated for the remembrance of tragic events, I offer this, a look at the Kotel plaza and what it represents, on an ordinary day, to the natives and tourists alike, all seeking connection to something bigger.
This is emotional Ground Zero, for ache and despair, for the suffering and the wounded. I made aliyah b'regel (ascending to Jerusalem on foot) here, walking all the way from the edge of Katamon, through the German Colony and past Sultan's Pool, arriving at the zigzag, snaking path up the side of Jerusalem's Old City.
I feel the topography in my feet, as my heels land on not-so-holy-ground and propel my stride forward, pressing my toes into service. My sneakers-clad feet aren't in perfect shape, and I'm sweating in the Mideast heat. But this is how it should be done, if you can; on foot, feeling the incline as you walk.
This is the way our ancestors did it, from locations far removed from Emek Refaim, the street in the German Colony which is as saturated with Anglos as any street in a foreign country could expect to be. Our forefathers (and sometimes our foremothers) treaded these paths in a time far before Marzipan rugelach or wifi cafes were a thing. They did it three times a year, from points north, south, east and west, trudging on foot and on the backs of donkeys, pulling with them offerings to be sacrificed on Temple altars, as well as any items needed in order to create a campsite along the journey. All I had was an empty backpack, my passport, credit cards and a 1.5 liter bottle of water. I was traveling light, and had no excuses. No treadmill in the world replicates aliyah b'regel, ascending to the Old City, on the power of one foot moving forward at a time.
At the stairs, I join a group of schoolchildren and guardians doing the same thing, erev Shabbat, bound for the wall that never talks back. One of the children slips and falls, bursting into tears and dropping his toy on the stone path - I rescue the toy and return it to him. He looks up at me through tears, but doesn't say anything. (Much like a wall would, but more tearfully than a wall, even a "Wailing Wall," that never seems to weep.) I walk away.
On the security line, two secular Russian-Israeli parents and their completely Israeli kids are waiting to go through the metal detector. "It's separate, banim (boys) and banot (girls)," the daughter observes. "Why?" "You know why," her father says crisply before transitioning to Russian and talking to his wife.
On the plaza, I hear one Israeli man in his 50s, part of a tour group of Israelis who may have never been to Jerusalem before. "Higanu laKotel!" (We arrived at the Kotel!) he says excitedly. Then he looks around. "Nu? Az eifo neshot hakotel?" (Nu, so, where are the Women of the Wall?) I chuckled at the indication that he thought the Women of the Wall - a group of women who are fighting for equal access to prayer space and the freedom to worship as they would like instead of according to Orthodox dictum - were so called because they actually lived at the Wall, as if they were a permanent tourist attraction. This confusion is understandable, considering both the name, and that other social protests in Israel happen daily, sometimes all day and all night for months, instead of the one morning a month that the Women of the Wall gathered.
At the plaza, I sit at the back, perched, preparing the note I'd come here to bring. I am here, emissary for a friend who believes or may believe or needs to believe, on behalf of Stephen, Shlomo, son of someone whose Hebrew or English name I don't know. I am opposite the wall that represents hope, healing and perhaps a deity. I have no evidence of any divine link, no real belief in the efficacy of prayers uttered here or perhaps anywhere on behalf of the infirm, and most certainly lack the faith to merit a response.
My brain finds liturgical phrases about healing the sick, freeing the imprisoned, straightening those who are bent or who cannot find their footing, helping those who suffer in agony, in broken bodies or fractured souls. I'm also remembering all the times I uttered these words with emotional specificity, in the years before my mother's death, and even after, during a year of mourning's synagogue-going, and kaddish-saying. Is there a value in the repetition, the clinging to words that don't seem to help in reality? Where is faith if not in the repetitive drone, and yet, as drone and repetition, how does it count as authentic prayer?
While composing the prayer and struggling with my own inadequacies as a faith-challenged messenger, I overhear the brilliant, cacophonous symphony of cultures and languages clashing and interweaving.
I've been to five LimmudLA conferences, and have twice been granted access to the Mothership - the original UK Limmud. At all of them, I've experienced new approaches to familiar texts, fresh opinions on Jewish engagement, and reinvigorated connections to culture and tradition. This weekend is my first time to the NY version of the conference, and I'm ("only") doing three sessions, so I'm super-excited to participate lots. It's sold out, but you can check out the schedule here, and don't forget to follow along with the Tweets at #limmudny.
Find me on Friday night after dinner doing a TalkSpace on Modern Jewish Identities and Global Culture (or something like that...). We'll raise and discuss some difficult questions about Jewish identity, connection and responsibliity. Seating is limited, but we might have a few seats available...
Then, Saturday afternoon, join a group of people who have experienced grief or who are anxious about a future loss, or those who want to reach out to friends who are grieving for Nothing Helps (But This Might Help): Community and Comfort in the Social Media Age. The loss of a loved one throws the world into chaos, for mourners and for the people who surround them. Whether you've been through a loss in your family, or you've recently tried to comfort someone who has, come for some open, honest talk about what may help, finding humor in unexpected places, and how today’s Jewish community (and you) can use technology and personal interactions to support those who grieve. (In memory of my mother, Shulamith z”l.)
And finally, Sunday night, at Yaffa & Esther's Excellent Limmudventure: A Judeo-Cultural Odyssey, Jewish comedy is a tradition as old as the Talmud. But don't take our word for it - join us for a conversational, potentially controversial collision of pop culture, tradition, text, feminism, technology and Jewish identity, reflected through re-enacted scenes (or YouTube clips) of movie dialogue and their Talmudic parallels. Most sources and YouTube clips will be in English (unless we find a really awesome one in Hebrew). Some Talmud sources and movie dialogue may not be rated PG, especially since this session happens late at night and some people may have started, um, celebrating already.
Overall a good mix of Jewy, cultural and communal. And those are just my three sessions...
Looking forward to seeing what the other 799 participants have in store for us. :) Catch you all on the flip side of this intense conference experience. A wonderful Shabbat and weekend to you all.
Anyone who's following Josh Malina on Facebook or @joshmalina on Twitter knows that the actor - an alum of various Acts of Sorkinalia (A Few Good Men, Sports Night, The American President,The West Wing) and other memorable roles (Psych, Big Bang Theory) and currently featuring as the resident "white hat" district attorney on Shonda Rimes' Scandal - is achingly funny. With the literal "to wit," here's his comment from a few hours before the Golden Globes Awards: "I love the Golden Globes! There's something touching about current waiters giving awards to former waiters. (In fact, my theory is that any Twitter backlash against Malina's Scandal character, David Rosen, stems from fans' disappointment that the role is largely dramatic and doesn't permit Malina to manifest his comedic timing as much as the fans would like. But I digress...)
But now, Malina proves that he's also sensitive, and a nice Jewish boy to boot - for his 47th (!) birthday, he's declared a campaign to raise funds for MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, a national nonprofit organization working to prevent and alleviate hunger among people of all faiths and backgrounds. The intial goal was set at 1 billion dollars (and why not?), but in the accompanying campaign video, Malina notes it would be great if they could raise $5,000. Perhaps he should have targeted higher - the campaign is at $8,800 and rising, and his birthday isn't until January 17. (It would be great if he could mobilize his celebrity friends to match what the crowdfunding raises, too. That would send a powerful message.)
Besides the swag that Malina offers in the video below for higher donations, you too can get as you give - for a donation of $10 or more, @joshmalina will follow you on Twitter.
Mazal tov to you, Josh - on your birthday, on making the 40s look like not such a scary place, and for being an example of how your public voice can amplify the message that we can all do our part to make the world a little better while we're here. Kol hakavod!
"He's a bad mother...sheket b'vakashah..." - The Hebrew Hammer theme song
Several years ago I was at a Jewish arts and culture conference in NYC, and happened to meet writer Jon Kesselman. After a few minutes of conversation, wherein I expressed some delight for his 2003 film, The Hebrew Hammer, and its script, which was jampacked with absurdist Jewish references, he made the pitch.
"Glad you liked it. Got $2 million dollars? I want to make a sequel."
At some point after that, word (and a few pages) leaked out that the sequel, "The Hebrew Hammer Vs. Hitler," was floating around Hollywood somewhere, and that it featured an obliteration of then-famously-anti-Semitic-and-drunk-misogynist Mel Gibson. (Some people reported on that somewhere.)
If you're a fan of The Hebrew Hammer, the cult film featuring Mordechai Jefferson Carver as the world's first Jewxplotation hero to save both Christmas and Kwanzaa, you already know that earlier this week creator, writer, producer, gaffer, best boy, set tutor and crafts services menu coordinator (I don't know, I'm just making those titles up) Jon Kesselman has launched a Jewcer campaign to fund the sequel, with the confirmed title of "The Hebrew Hammer Vs. Hitler." Kesselman, with apparently minimal success at pitching bloggers for two-million-dollar investments, has decided to take it to the fans to drum up initial support (the goal is $200,000, but the minimal pledge for Kesselman to receive funding is $50,000) for the film.
In addition to cash donations, Kesselman is looking for his Hitler. (Hopefully this will not be the result of an old-style casting couch scenario.) The promotional pitch video below suggests actors as varied as Jack Black, Will Ferrell, and Paul Rudd...but I want to make a bold suggestion: John Hamm. Hamm is cool for the men, compelling for the ladies, but isn't afraid to deglam the Hamm in favor of the funny. Plus, putting "ham(m)" in a Jewish film has a rebellious aspect to it, and you get to use the tagline: "Hamm IS Hitler."
So who's your Hitler? And what would Kesselman do? Support the campaign (and follow their filmmaking adventures on @HammerVsHitler), and maybe we'll all have a chance to find out. And happy Hanukkah, motherf*&%ers.
On December 2nd, 2012, sixteen Muslim and Jewish organizations across Los Angeles joined to create "Home: True Stories of L.A.'s Muslims and Jews" - a unique cultural event centered around the theme of "home" with music, stories and interactive art installations. The evening was co-hosted by New Ground Executive Director Sarah Bassin, and Edina Lekovic, Director of Policy and Programming, Muslim Public Affairs Council in L.A.
Inspired by the wildly popular Moth Story Slams, six Muslims and Jews shared their true tales (see links and embed below) about what "home" means to them as audience members had the opportunity to explore the concept for themselves. More than 200 people came to hear tales that covered everything: