Such a JAP

From the Michigan Daily
By Whitney Dibo

The speaker’s voice resonates with a natural blend of familiarity and animosity typical of this casual observation. Her friends peer down State Street at the girl’s sorority sweat pants, UGG boots and straight brown hair. They all nod in agreement. “There are so many JAPs on this campus,” one chimes in. She emphasizes the consonants, making the word sound slightly harsher.

I tend to shrug off the JAP reference, but this day the label reverberates off the pavement and sticks to me with an uncomfortable sting. But I don’t have time to dwell on it. I am rushing back to my apartment, trying to catch a plane home for Yom Kippur. It is the Jewish Day of Atonement, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar.

Trying to beat the sundown — the traditional end to any Jewish holiday, I squeeze into my middle seat on Northwest Airlines. I see a few other girls I know to be Jewish board the plane and maneuver their bags into the crowded overhead bins and start to wonder — are we the JAPs? I am a Jewish girl from the north suburbs of Chicago — does the term apply to me? And what does it mean that this stereotype has persisted so strongly on campus, even in this era of hyper political correctness?

As we take off, I have an unsettling feeling that this label is chipping away at the perception of Judaism on campus more than we readily admit. We need to separate this social stereotype from the religion itself — if Xerox can mean copy, then it’s not hard to see how JAP can mean Jewish. I hear the phrase more and more lately; it is picking up steam — and I can feel it bulldozing over the true meaning of Judaism.

For people fortunate enough to be unfamiliar with the term, JAP it is an acronym for Jewish American Princess — a term associated with affluence, homogeneity and exclusivity. The word predates black yoga pants and straightening irons. It has its roots in early immigration, as Jews found new purchasing power in their adopted country. Who better to show their parents how to spend money in this strange new land than their rapidly assimilating daughters? This trend gave rise to a distinctly negative nickname — one synonymous with materialism, entitlement and superficiality.

The stereotype originated during an era when no matter how smart or ambitious women were, they were sill considered dependent. JAP does not describe the headstrong Jewish women I know exist on campus. The term centers on deprecating sexism — but despite its detrimental overtones, very few people in the Jewish community object to its use. It’s a conventional part of campus vernacular — Jewish girls call each other JAPS, bars and restaurants are tagged as “JAPpy” — we continue to institutionalize its use and diminish our own identities. The term is used so liberally it has lost the harshness of an ethnic slur.

The Jewish calendar now reads 5766. It is one of the oldest, most influential religions in the world. To me, Judaism is about the value of family, the importance of charity and the beauty of ancient tradition. Unfortunately, many people on campus are better versed on Judaism’s social labels than its actual history. Why read the Torah when you can get the cliff notes? The actual religion is being lost behind this cloud of physical and social stereotypes.

The loss here is two-fold. For students who have not had much interaction with Jews before coming to the University, they lose incentive to learn more. Why dig deeper when the religion is neatly boxed in a tangible stereotype? And on a larger scale, we are doing a disservice to our religion by passively allowing JAP to epitomize Judaism on campus. I remember back in high school when it gradually became offensive to use the phrase “That’s so gay.” The gay/straight alliance took the initiative to actively reject the phrase — and while it took time, the student body eventually caught on. Peeling away labels and offensive language ingrained in American culture is not easy, but we are all better for trying.

What if we as Jewish women decided that Judaism is too rich in tradition and culture to be ensconced in a superficial cultural label? What if we educated people on what it means to be Jewish instead of perpetuating a stereotype? This does not mean dressing differently or hanging out at a different bar. It means stopping our own perpetuation of the JAP jargon, and in turn the non-Jewish community will likely follow suit. We can set a standard that JAP is not an acceptable description of Jewish woman and just in being open about it we can start to debunk the stereotype.

JAP is really no different than all other ethnic labels. They all serve the same purpose: to mask the individual. And this, I assure you, is everyone’s loss.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Ukraine Experience

From the American Joint Distribution Committee‘s website

Young Adults in Ukraine Inspire College Students from Michigan

From August 22-31, 2005, 15 students from University of Michigan Hillel traveled to Kiev, Kharkov, Sumy, and Konotop, Ukraine, where they joined their peers from Kharkov Hillel and the Jewish Youth Association to paint apartments of elderly Jews in need and to refurbish Jewish community facilities. Below, Sol, a Senior at the University of Michigan, reflects on his experience:Rabbi Jason Miller - Ukraine, JDC

It may have been our group’s 6th rendition of the Yiddish classic Tumbalalika that week, but we were still singing it just as loudly, clapping and dancing hand-in-hand with the elderly with the same exuberance and energy as the first five times.

Although our group — comprised of 15 students and two staff members from University of Michigan Hillel — may have arrived in the Ukraine with the lofty vision of inspiring and educating the local Jewish community, what we soon realized was that the locals would become our teachers.

Over the course of our ten day stay in Ukraine as part of a service program sponsored by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), Michigan Hillel, and Kharkov Hillel, and financially supported by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, the Mandell L. and Madeleine H. Berman Foundation, and others, we witnessed something that exceeded all of our expectations: the revival of a Jewish community, whose core is a group of young, bright, and promising individuals. Personally, as a child of Russian immigrants to the United States, it was immensely valuable for me to see this group of individuals that are not only leading their local communities in rebuilding, but led us, active students at University of Michigan, on a journey through Ukrainian-Jewish history past and present.

This educational and inspirational journey was one full of emotion: from saying Kaddish (Mourner’s prayer) for the hundreds of thousands of Jews massacred by Nazis in 1941 at Babi Yar to reading from a Torah for the first time since its arrival over five years ago at the revived Jewish community of Konotop.

Yet, the highs and lows of emotion we felt throughout this journey were fitting for a Jewish community that has suffered through so much, yet amazingly persevered to this day. This once vibrant Jewish community has suffered through mass murder at the hands of the Nazis along with repression under Soviet rule. But since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and Ukrainian independence of 1991, the Jewish community has experienced an oft-turbulent path to revival. We were lucky to get a glimpse of that revival: hearing a student a Capella group sing Hatikva, the Israeli national anthem, interacting with kids at a special needs program at the brand-new JDC sponsored JCC, and picking potatoes for charity at a Jewish cooperative farm.

Rabbi Jason Miller - Ukraine, JDCWhile it is clear that these young Ukrainians left a lasting impact on us, it is also for certain that our being there, the simple notion that 15 young Americans would travel all the way to Ukraine just to show support for its budding community, meant a lot. Regardless of what one may consider the best future of Ukrainian Jewry — whether it be mass immigration to Israel or a steadfast commitment to rebuilding their community locally from the ground up — it would be erroneous to consider their community dead. Witnessing a newly reopened and refurbished synagogue, a boisterous and smile-laden Shabbat service and dinner, and even a young and rising Jewish Ukrainian rapper, one thing is more crystal-clear than Ukrainian vodka: this community is alive. Alive and dancing.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

I always said JTS is like a sitcom

From the New York Times

In a Town of ‘Friends,’ an Amen Corner
By JOHN FREEMAN GILL

WHEN David Light was a student at Columbia University in the early 1990’s, dating a future rabbi who would later become his wife, the couple watched in fascination as the biggest party animal they knew – a beer-guzzling, skirt-chasing frat king – recreated himself as a rabbinical student.

Out of this conflict between the pursuit of spiritual knowledge and the pursuit of a good seat at the bar at the legendary West End, Mr. Light eventually created “Morningside Heights,” a script for a television sitcom that NBC recently bought. Mr. Light is now developing the script with two executive producers in the hope that NBC will finance the filming of a pilot.

The sitcom is set on Seminary Row, the block of West 122nd Street where the Jewish Theological Seminary sits diagonally across Broadway from Union Theological Seminary. The show is a piously irreverent comedy about good-looking would-be ministers, rabbis and imams who share a dorm and try not to sleep with one another.

It could scarcely be set anywhere else.

“The neighborhood is a huge character in the show,” said Mr. Light, 31, who attended Columbia as an undergraduate and a graduate student in the film division of the School of the Arts, and whose wife studied at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Along with its grand Gothic churches, Riverside Church and the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, the neighborhood’s sheer density of institutions of higher learning – Columbia, Barnard and Seminary Row itself – makes Morningside Heights an area that Mr. Light calls “a hotbed of seeking.”

“Whether it’s knowledge, or what your place is in the world, it’s a place to ask these huge questions,” Mr. Light said. “Whether in Riverside Park or St. John the Divine or the Hungarian Pastry Shop, it’s a truly contemplative and vibrant place that I love.”

The area also provides the soaring visual backdrop for a new, perhaps more spiritually highbrow representation of New York than America is accustomed to seeing in television comedies.

Over the past decade, the dominant comedic images of New York beamed around the planet have been the sophisticatedly shallow self-absorption of “Seinfeld,” the chirpy chumminess of “Friends,” the winking urbanity of “Will & Grace” and the cosmo-swilling, Manolo-obsessed man hunters of “Sex and the City.” Regardless of how unrealistically those shows may have portrayed New York, they shared a certain upscale levity. If “Morningside Heights” makes it into the NBC lineup, it will most likely present a different face of the city.

“It’s definitely a step back from 24/7, and it’s a step back from the glamour, too,” said Ron Simon, who is curator of television at the Museum of Television and Radio and who studied film at the Columbia School of the Arts. “You’re not downtown, you’re uptown, where there’s a little possibility of solitude, where you can have discussions that deal with self-examination instead of materialistic striving.”

Faith and spirituality, he added, “were certainly words that we didn’t hear much pre-9/11.”

If there’s a link between “Morningside Heights” and the more upscale New York comedies of recent years, it is Eric McCormack, one of the show’s executive producers and the actor who plays Will in “Will & Grace,” in its final season on NBC.

“The New York of ‘Will & Grace’ is almost a kind of a dream New York,” Mr. McCormack said. “It’s Riverside, it’s Upper West Side, it’s people with money and time to spend it. It’s a little bit fantasy almost in the way Noel Coward’s New York was in the 30’s, as opposed to what we’re going to attempt to do with ‘Morningside Heights.’ I keep thinking of that opening shot of ‘Welcome Back, Kotter,’ just that sense of more where real things happen.”

In addition to their tone of youthful joie de vivre, the major New York-based sitcoms of the last decade all had at their heart a group of supportive friends that served as an ersatz family. In this sense, “Morningside Heights” is not such a radical departure. While the show’s cheerfully intolerant evangelist character may tell his cohorts of different faiths that they’re destined to burn in hell, by the end of the pilot episode, even he is sharing dinner and camaraderie with the rabbi, the imam and the others. In this reimagining of the New York ideal of perfect integration, the melting pot has become a large pizza at the West End, with everything on it.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Great Rob Corddry Quote

From the Daily Show with Jon Stewart
“Modonna is Jewish in the same way that she’s British!”

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

It’s the deity, stupid

By Jay Michaelson
From the Jerusalem Post

Ask anyone in the Jewish institutional community, and they will reply that demographics is not their primary concern; it’s their only concern. With study after study portending the imminent demise of the Jewish people, philanthropists and the institutions they support are scrambling to somehow avert extinction. Ironically, though, many efforts have been undermined precisely by the desperation which inspires them.

Increasingly, their “target audiences” – marginally-affiliated Jews 18 to 45, the ones most apt to leave the fold – know the game. They smell the con, and sense that the slogans and high-concept Web designs are mere ploys to get them to marry another Jew and reproduce. Where to look for different models of Jewish outreach, which might address the demographers’ panic while remaining authentic enough to actually work?

Statistically, the two most successful Jewish outreach organizations today are Chabad-Lubavitch and the Kabbalah Center. Many “professional Jews” don’t want to face this fact, since it flies in the face of their assumptions – not least the assumption that unaffiliated Jews want to be “just like us.” It’s frustrating, too, that these weird guys in beards are doing a better job reaching the unaffiliated than smart Ivy grads with master’s degrees in public relations. So, in the face of these two organizations’ remarkable success, we hear jokes. Kabbalah – isn’t that about Madonna, and magic strings? And, you know, of all the world’s religions, the closest one to Judaism is Chabad.

But if Jewish organizations are serious about creating engaging and sustainable communities, maybe it’s worth looking at the success of these two mystical institutions to see why they seem to be working so well. So what do we find?

Immediately, one sees that Chabad and the Kabbalah Center are focused not on “community” or “continuity” or any of the other synonyms for tribe, but on spirit. And they both talk about God, a word which many professional Jews hesitate to utter. We may disparage the messianism of Lubavitch and the commercialism of the Kabbalah Center, but their rhetoric is straightforward: This is about God, spirituality, even enlightenment. If you’re interested, come to a class. [more]

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

The Laws of the Sukkah according to Dr. Seuss

Rules of the Sukkah (with numbered footnotes)

© Rabbi Arthur E. Gould, Sukkot 1999 – 2001. Used by permission.

Seuss and Sukkah-by Rabbi Jason MillerYou can build it very small (1)
You can build it very tall (2)
You can build it very large (3)
You can build it on a barge
You can build it on a ship (4)
Or on a roof but please don’t slip (5)
You can build it in an alley (6)
You shouldn’t build it in a valley (7)
You can build it on a wagon (8)
You can build it on a dragon (9)

You can make the skakh of wood (10)
Would you, could you, yes you should
Make the skakh from leaves of tree
You shouldn’t bend it at the knee (11)
Build your Sukkah tall or short
No Sukkah is built in the Temple Court
You can build it somewhat soon
You cannot build it in the month of June (12)

If your Sukkah is well made
You’ll have the right amount of shade (13)
You can build it very wide
You can not build it on its side
Build if your name is Jim
Or Bob or Sam or even Tim
Build it if your name is Sue (14)
Do yu build it, yes you do!

From the Sukkah you can roam
But you should treat it as your home (15)
You can invite some special guests
Don’t stay in it if there are pests
You can sleep upon some rugs
Don’t you build it where there’s bugs
If in the Sukkah it should rain
To stay there would be such a pain (16)

And if it should be very cold
Stay there only if you’re bold
So build a Sukkah one and all
Make it large or make it small
Sukkah rules are short and snappy


Footnotes:

1. Maimonides (RMBM) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Sukkah, Chapter 4, Section 1.
The minimum height of a Sukkah is 10 tefachim. A tefach is a measure of the width of the four fingers of one’s hand. My hand is 3 1/4 inches wide for a minimum Sukkah height of 32 1/2 inches. The minimum allowable width is 7 tefachim by 7 tefachim. This would result in a Sukkah of 22 3/4 inches by 22 3/4 inches.

2. The maximum height is 20 Amot. An Amah is the length from the elbow to the tip of the middle finger. My Amah is 15 1/2 inches for a maximum height of 25 feet. Others say that 30 feet is the maximum.

3. According to RMBM the Sukkah can be built to a width of several miles. Shulchan Aruch also says there is no limit on the size of the width.

4. RMBM Hilchot Sukkah Chapter 4, Section 6.

5. RMBM Hilchot Sukkah Chapter 4, Section 11. RMBM states that one may construct a Sukkah by wedging poles in the four corners of the roof and suspending scakh from the poles. The walls of the building underneath are considered to reach upward to the edge of the scakh.?

6. RMBM Hilchot Sukkah Chapter 4, Section 8-10 discusses the ins and outs of building your Sukkah in an alley or passageway.

7. There is a location referred to in the Talmud called Ashtarot Karnayim. According to the discussion there are two hills, with a valley in between where the Sun does not reach. Therefore it is impossible to sit in the shade of the roof of the Sukkah. I can’t find the reference…hopefully next year.

8. RMBM Hilchot Sukkah Chapter 4, Section 6. You can go into a Sukkah built on a wagon or a ship even on Yom Tov.

9. RMBM Hilchot Sukkah Chapter 4, Section 6. OK, RMBM says a camel but dragon rhymes with wagon a lot better, don’t you agree. Anyway, RMBM says you can build your Sukkah on a wagon or in the crown of a tree, but you can’t go into it on Yom Tov. There is a general rule against riding a beast or ascending into the crown of a tree on Yom Tov.

10. Chapter 5 deals with the rules for the scakh. Basically, you can use that which has grown from the ground, and is completely detached from the ground. So, for example, you cannot bend the branches of a tree over the Sukkah to form the scakh. But you can cut the branches from a tree and use them as scakh.

11. This would be a violation of the rule cited in the prior footnote.

12. Shulchan Aruch, Hilchot Sukkah, Perek 636, Section 1. The Sukkah should not be built sooner than 30 days before the Hag. However, if the structure is built prior to 30 days, as long as something new is added within the 30 days, the Sukkah is kosher.

13. Of course it’s a well known rule that you must sit in the shade from the roof of the Sukkah and not in the shade that may be cast by the walls. It seems that this might affect the height of the walls, depending on the longitude of the location where you are building your Sukkah.

14. Technically, women, servants and minors are exempt from the Mitzvah of Sukkah. In our day we hope we know better than to read out half the Jewish people from the observance of Mitzvot. Of course, that’s just a personal opinion of the author.

15. RMBM ibid Chapter 6, Section 6 explains that you should eat, drink and live in the Sukkah for the 7 days as you live in your own home. One should not even take a nap outside of the Sukkah.

16. RMBM ibid, Section 10. If it rains one should go into the house. How does one know if it is raining hard enough? If sufficient raindrops fall through the scakh (roof covering) and into the food so that the food is spoiled – go inside!

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Conservative Crisis?

It is only the second Rosh Hashanah for Ikar, a new congregation in Los Angeles, and some 600 people will be attending its services at the Westside Jewish Community Center.

Six-hundred people.

Not bad for this synagogue-less community that was started in April 2004 by Rabbi Sharon Brous, a 2001 graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), the flagship institution of the Conservative movement.

While the congregants will be praying from the Conservative prayerbook, and following the Conservative halacha, such as mixed seating and having prayers led by women and men, don’t call them Conservative. Brous has not affiliated with the Conservative movement.

The same goes for Nashuva, which meets in a Westwood Blvd. church, and Kehillat Hadar on the Upper West Side in New York. Both boast mailing lists of 2,000 people, many of whom are in the coveted 20s and 30s demographic. Both define themselves as independent, egalitarian communities committed to spirited traditional prayer, study and social action. That sounds like the very definition of Conservative. But instead of calling themselves Conservative, Nashuva and Kehillat Hadar go by the term “non-denominational.”

Call it the Conservative Crisis. [more…]

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

University of Michigan Students Establish Roots in Ukraine

University of Michigan students pick potatoes for the winter at the collective Jewish farm in Konotop.

By Allison Goldstein

U-M Hillel, Rabbi Jason Miller, UkraineWhile most students were bringing their summers to a close, 15 University of Michigan Hillel students were just beginning our adventure. On August 22, along with our rabbi and program director, we departed on a 10-day service program to Ukraine. The project was sponsored by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), which provides assistance to overseas Jewish communities, University of Michigan Hillel and Kharkov Hillel, with financial support from the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation and the Mandell L. and Madeleine H. Berman Foundation.

Ukraine is home to one of the largest Jewish populations outside of Israel, but the current number of active Jews is small due to the difficulty, and even danger, of dealing with anti-Semitism and the lack of Jewish resources. Thus, our primary goal was to connect with Ukrainian Jews who are rebuilding Jewish life following years of Nazi atrocities and Communist rule, to provide them support and a link to a larger, global Jewish community.

We flew into Kiev, and after a brief visit to Babi Yar, the site of tens of thousands of Jewish deaths during World War II, we boarded an overnight train bound for Kharkov, our main destination. Kharkov, the second largest city in Ukraine, consists of approximately 1.8 million people, 40,000 of whom are Jewish (down from 150,000 before WWII). It was upon our arrival in Kharkov that we got our first glimpse into the incredible revitalization of Jewish life taking place in Ukraine. At six in the morning, we were greeted with signs and roses by students from Kharkov Hillel and JCC Beit Dan, whose incredible warmth and enthusiasm, to our amazement, only seemed to grow throughout the week we spent together. These students, our peers, were so eager to connect with us and to celebrate a joy for being Jewish.

We visited many Jewish establishments, including Hillel, Hesed welfare centers and JCC Beit Dan. We took the time to play with children from broken homes whose development depended on the warmth and caring of Hesed workers, to repair apartments of elderly Jewish community members who relied on JDC’s assistance to meet their most basic needs for food, clothing, and medicine, and to celebrate with our peers. All the while we gained insight into the pride and pure zest for life that is such a prominent part of Ukrainian culture.

The Shabbat we spent at Kharkov Hillel was an unforgettable experience. Despite the lack of Jewish educational resources, these students knew the words to every song and blessing by heart, and in spite of the language barrier that existed for many, their enthusiasm and passion brought everyone together into what felt like one big family. This again held true in our visit to the small town of Konotop where, although the Jewish community was much older, the pure pleasure of their singing and dancing seemed like that of children.

For our University of Michigan Hillel group, the incredible time we spent in Ukraine opened our eyes to Jewish life outside of the United States and Israel, and made us think about what it means to be Jewish and about how much we take for granted living in a land of freedom. We are so thankful to have had the chance to meet so many wonderful people, and we are going to do everything we can to continue our connection with our Ukrainian peers and aid in their quest to strengthen their Jewish community.

Allison Goldstein is a sophomore at the University of Michigan.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller