"A Jewcy Chanukah"

From the New York Times

A Happy Hipster Hanukkah

HELLOOOOOOOO Jews!” the M.C. shouted to the 1,000 or so people sipping drinks and jostling elbows in the hazy purple light of Crobar, the Chelsea club, on Sunday evening. Disco balls twinkled. Electric menorahs glowed. In the candlelighted V.I.P. area, people bit into chocolate Hanukkah gelt. From a stage on the dance floor Rachel Dratch of “Saturday Night Live” bemoaned being Jewish at Christmastime, and Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, the foul-mouthed puppet, belted out a joyous rendition of “Shalom Aleichem.” It was not long before people were waving their arms above their heads and lobbing inflatable dreidels through the air like beach balls.

There was a name for this merriment: “A Jewcy Chnukah,” a freewheeling celebration of the holiday produced by Jewcy, a group that brings together young Jews through celebrity-filled events. (Proceeds from Sunday night went to Natan, a philanthropic organization that supports projects that engage young Jews in their religion and heritage.) At the end of the evening, which included performances by the rocker Perry Farrell and the cast of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” Jon Steingart, a founder of Jewcy, peered down at the packed dance floor. “This,” he said, “bodes very well.”
Rabbi Jason Miller
“A Jewcy Chanukah” is but one of many kitschy celebrations that in the past few years have made comedy as much a part of Hanukkah as latkes and sour cream. The irreverent and sometimes R-rated Hanukkah productions, popping up during what many people have called a Jewish hipster moment, are largely a reaction to what many Jews say is an overwhelming amount of Christmas hoopla. Their humor-laden productions attract thousands of young Jews (some of whom have never gravitated toward their own culture before) and, perhaps inadvertently, raise the question of what it means to be Jewish.

“We have 12 months of the year to assert our Jewish identity, so why now?” said Rob Tannenbaum, one half of the variety show “What I Like About Jew.” “The time of year that I feel most like a minority group is Christmas.”

Mr. Tannenbaum said he tries to convey his feelings to his Christian friends by asking them to imagine this: “Everywhere you go strangers say to you, ‘Merry Ramadan.’ Anywhere you go you can’t get into a store because people are bowing to Mecca. You’d be an angry minority. You’d be like, ‘Enough of this Ramadan all ready.’ “

Christmas has gotten out of hand, said Jackie Hoffman, who is starring in “Chanukah at Joe’s Pub,” a one-woman show. “No one does ‘The Sukkot Revue,’ ” she said, referring to the autumnal Jewish holiday, “because then we’re not being badgered.”

Some Jews feel Hanukkah, which begins this year at sundown on Dec. 25, is the perfect time for comic relief because it is not a significant holiday. “We don’t do this with Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashana,” said Joshua Neuman, the editor in chief and publisher of Heeb magazine. “There’s an added comedic value in that we know it is largely the result of American commodity culture.”

Hanukkah is a minor, generally child-centered holiday that celebrates the victory of the Jews over the Syrian Greeks around 165 B.C. No classic Hanukkah films or ballets were inspired by it. There is no “Miracle on Hester Street,” no “Radio City Hanukkah Spectacular.” Jewish songwriters have been more inclined to compose Christmas songs, including many of the most beloved: “White Christmas” (Irving Berlin), “The Christmas Song: Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire” (Mel Tormé) and “We Need a Little Christmas” (Jerry Herman), to name but three. Adam Sandler’s 1995 “Hanukkah Song,” in which he enumerates Jewish (and semi-Jewish) celebrities, is the closest thing to a mainstream Hanukkah tune.

“I think Sandler was the catalyst for a lot of this,” said Robert Smigel, the voice (and hand) behind Triumph, after his performance on Sunday. “A lot of that was him asserting himself as a Jew.”

In 1997 the creators of “South Park” mined the potential agony of being a Jewish child during December with the lament, “It’s Hard to be a Jew on Christmas.” By 2003 T-shirts that read “Jewcy” were selling like potato hot cakes, and Jewish hip-hop went from a simmer to a boil. On Monday VH1 will attempt to understand why Judaism is all the rage with a pop culture special called “So Jewtastic.” An excerpt from the show’s press material reads, “In an age when Madonna demands to be called ‘Esther,’ Jon Stewart is a sex symbol and seemingly everyone speaks a little Yiddish, it’s never been hipper to be a Jew.”

Chris Mazzilli, the owner of Gotham Comedy Club, said its annual “A Very Jewish Christmas” is one of its most successful shows. This year he expects about 800 people, up from about 400 last year.

“For us it was a lot easier six years ago,” Mr. Tannenbaum said. “There was a lot less competition on Christmas Eve. It was us or the Matzo Ball. Our only competition was a bunch of pathetic Jewish singles trying to drink enough Manischewitz to forget that they were probably going to be alone on New Year’s Eve.”

This year “What I Like About Jew” will have its largest tour ever, a six-city romp around the East Coast. “Like most other trends,” Mr. Tannenbaum said, “the Jewish holiday hipster started in New York and has spread outward.”

The movement is likely to only go so far, said Rabbi Marc Gellman, part of “The God Squad,” an interfaith cable television show, and a columnist. “This revival is primarily a New York-L.A. thing, and it’s the result of the fact that the only geographical region that has a majority of Jews outside Israel is Manhattan,” he said. “If you live in Wichita, the new hip Jewish movement will never reach you.”

That these Hanukkah shows tend to be the product of secular Jews also keeps the mood light.

Over the last three years more and more young Jews have been flaunting their heritage, donning T-shirts that proclaim their Semitic roots, listening to the Hasidic reggae singer Matisyahu and climbing onto the celebrity-driven kabbalah bandwagon. And though many occupy the same Lower East Side walk-ups that their grandparents once did, they are not interested in quietly assimilating. They identify more with the cultural trappings of Judaism – the music, the cuisine, the humor – than with the teachings of the Torah.

“We ourselves are less observant Jews, but we are still very culturally Jewish,” Mr. Steingart of Jewcy said. The comedian Rebecca Drysdale is of like mind. “My connection with being Jewish is not a religious one,” she said. “It’s cultural.”

Mr. Neuman explained: “There’s this emerging sense of new Jewish culture that is self-consciously postdenominational and largely devoid of religious context.”

But those who define themselves as “cultural” Jews may alter their definitions over time, Rabbi Gellman said. “When they have kids,” he said, “they’ll say: ‘What do you mean? Of course my kid will have a bar mitzvah.’ ” He also pointed out that while some people call themselves “cultural” Jews, “Judaism defines identity by blood, not by belief.” Translation: If your mother is Jewish, so are you.

“I think they know very little about Judaism, but they seem to be crying out for some identity,” said Ms. Hoffman, who has nine years of yeshiva under her belt. “I don’t know if this generation knows much about Sophie Tucker and Mort Sahl and George Jessel. I think they’re just grasping for something during such an unbelievable onslaught,” she said, referring to the Christmas season. It is good that people are grasping, she explained, but added that taking a Judaism class can be worthwhile. “Investigate before you declare yourself a Jew in name only,” she said. “It’s not so bad.”

Triumph the Insult Comic Dog riffed on that topic on Sunday night. “Jewcy is the bold new movement of cool Jews,” Triumph said, his gravelly voice dripping with sarcasm. “Yeah, we want to be cool. We’re Jews, like the Beasties! We don’t want to be nerdy, like Einstein.” Then he admonished: “Crack open a Torah. Learn something. That’s right! I’m lecturing you bitches!”

The lecture came lovingly gift wrapped in humor, but like many jokes it contained an element of truth. “It’s not just a kitschy subject matter,” Mr. Smigel said later. “It can be reduced to that, and that’s a fear of the older generation. I feel very lucky that I got to get a real education in the religion.”

Some people do not enjoy the new Hanukkah shows. “The older generation is often uncomfortable with our performances,” Mr. Tannenbaum said. “There is a sense that was common in an older generation that you shouldn’t do anything that could be bad for the Jews. Don’t be loud. Don’t be vulgar. Don’t be proud. Blend in. Assimilate. Finish college.”

During the first song in “What I Like About Jew” (one of the milder lyrics is “She puts the whore in hora”), Mr. Tannenbaum said he usually hears “a chair scraping and a pair of orthopedic shoes leaving the room.”

No such exit was made at “A Jewcy Chanukah” on Sunday. After two hours of music and comedy, Perry Farrell mixed the sacred and secular by singing “Avenu Malkenu” and “Jane Says.” Then he curled his string bean body over a microphone and cried, “Happy Hanukkah!” in a voice so joyful, he might as well have shouted, “Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.”

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |



In an age when Madonna demands to be called “Esther,” Jon Stewart is a sex symbol and seemingly everyone speaks a little Yiddish, it’s never been hipper to be a Jew. VH1’s “All Access Presents: So Jewtastic” celebrates everything you knew- and lots of stuff you didn’t about being Jewish.

Thanks to a mensch laden panel of pundits, “So Jewtastic” premiering Monday, December 19 at 9 PM, will answer questions like: Why is it hip to be a Jew? (the trendy rise of Kabbalah,) Are Jews crunk? (the marriage of Jews and hip hop) and what’s the deal with Jewish stereotypes (money, sex and sports)? Jackie Mason will give classic lessons in “Yiddish 101” and an attempt will be made to figure out once and for all why Jews are so funny. So put down that gefilte fish and pop open some Manischewitz, being Jewish has never been “So Jewtastic!”
Rabbi Jason Miller
A variety of music artists, TV and film stars, comedians, journalists and other celebrities come together to dish on all things Jewish, including Brooke Burke, Ben Lee, Evan Seinfeld, Scott Ian, Matisyahu, Darryl McDaniels, Jackie Mason, Dr. Ruth, comedian Elon Gold, Dustin Diamond, Baby the rapper, LA Time’s Joel Stein, Warner Music Group’s chairman and CEO Lyor Cohen, Ron Jeremy, Rob Tannenbaum from the rock band What I Like About Jew, Atlantic Records’ president Julie Greenwald, Bill Adler and Heeb magazine’s Josh Neuman.

The show will cover topics such as:

  • Jewish Stereotypes: “So Jewtastic” does not tip toe around the lingering stereotypes surrounding the Jewish community and asks whether there’s any truth to the tired old assumptions about the Jewish mother, neuroses and sex.
  • It’s Hip To Be A Jew: Everywhere you look, on TV, in the movies and in music there’s a homie of Moses. From Madonna practicing Kabbalah to Seth from the OC to Orlando Bloom in Troy, it is now cool to be Jewish. Even non-Jews like Demi Moore and Britney are proudly wearing red string bracelets.
  • Yiddish 101: Class is in session as Jackie Mason explains the meaning of various Yiddish words.
  • Oy? Yo!: VH1 will remix both Jewish and hip hop culture as it examines the bizarre intersection of Jews and Hip Hop. Jews have always worked behind the scenes in hip-hop (Def Jam was Co-Founded by Rick Rubin and Lyor Cohen just to name a few) but now it seems like most Jewish kids are drawn to hip-hop more than ever. See the first ever Jewish/ hip hop”Bling Off”, as rap superstar, Baby, teaches a Jewish Bubbe (grandmother) the basics of blinging properly.
  • From The Shtetl To Heavy Metal: Jews have played a key role in Hard Rock/Heavy Metal (Gene Simmons, Paul Stanley, David Lee Roth and many more). Is that the reason Jews are so loud…in music that is? Rockers Evan Seinfeld of Biohazard and Scott Ian of Anthrax provide their take on the heebs who head bang, Bar Mitzvah pics included.
  • Jews In Comedy: VH1 tickles your funny bone as we explore what’s so funny about being Jewish. Even non-Jewish families on TV are Jewish (and played by Jewish actors), like the Costanzas on ‘Seinfeld.’ We send comedian Elon Gold to the famous Canter’s deli in LA on a quest for answers to questions even some Jews can’t answer with a segment titled: “Jew got questions, Jew got answers.” What is a mohel? Why is there a hole in the middle of a bagel? Do you like gefilte fish enough to try it on TV?
  • Jews In Sports: From wrestler Goldberg to baseball star Shawn Green to Jay Fiedler of the NY Jets, Jews are getting down and dirty. And the very few of them are surprisingly good at it.

    For more information .

    (c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
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    From the JTA

    Israeli ‘rabbicops’ probed

    Hundreds of Israeli policemen are believed to be obtaining rabbinical ordination to boost their salaries.
    RabbiCop by Rabbi Jason Miller -
    Citing Justice Ministry sources, Ha’aretz reported in a weekend expose that as many as 600 policemen have taken courses for the Orthodox clergy so they could receive $430 monthly stipends.

    According to the newspaper, some of the “rabbicops” are openly secular, and the sages administering the ordination courses have been known to allow their students to abbreviate the studies for the sake of convenience.

    Police spokesmen declined comment on the affair, citing a probe already under way.

    (c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |

    I wonder if this works for Hebrew too?

    Can you read this?
    Olny srmat poelpe can.

    I cdnuolt blveiee taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd
    waht I was rdanieg. The phaonmneal pweor of the hmuan mnid, aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Amzanig huh? yaeh and I awlyas tghuhot slpeling was ipmorantt!

    (c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |

    Happy Chanukkah Bill O’Reilly

    The O’Reilly Factor’s Bill O’Reilly used a year-old clip from Comedy Central’s The Daily Show in an attempt to make it look as though Comedy Central (or “Secular Central” as he called it) was out to get Christmas.
    Bill O'Reilly is Jewish - by Rabbi Jason Miller
    Bill O’Reilly: “Predictably, the opponents of public displays of Christmas continue to put forth counterparts on “Secular Central” — I mean, Comedy Central. They said this:”

    The clip he then showed was of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show correspondent Samantha Bee in front of a calendar stating: “[But really let’s face it, all other days bow down to the 25th:] Christmas. It’s the only religious holiday that’s also a Federal holiday. That way Christians can go to their services and everyone else can stay home and reflect on the true meaning of Separation of Church and State.”

    Great quote, but the only problem is that the episode is from December 1, 2004 (over a year ago). Easy to recognize this as Samantha Bee is now pregnant and extremely showing while in the segment she was not.

    On tonight’s episode, the pregnant Samantha Bee deadpanned that you could tell the clip was from last year because of the different shade of highlights in her hair, as she then exited stage right exclaiming that her water had just broken.

    The other funny line from Samantha Bee in that same segment a year ago was: “Oh, crap, I forgot Chanukah! Ooh! Chanukah’s on the 7th. How could I forget the holiday that starts on a different day every year and commemorates a lamp not going out?”

    Yep, Chanukah on the 7th (of December). That’s another way to know that the clip was from last year when Chanukah was in fact on the 7th.

    Bill O’Reilly finished his supposed rip on the Daily Show with “And a Merry Christmas to you, Jon Stewart.”

    Well, Bill O’Reilly, I wish you a Chanukah Sameach!

    (c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |

    No More Pork in Washington!

    White House goes kosher
    From the JTA

    The White House koshered its kitchen ahead of its annual Chanukah reception.

    Petak Caterers, under the joint supervision of the Bergen County, N.J., rabbinical council and Washington representatives of Chabad, will serve Glatt kosher meat at the dinner Tuesday night. The meeting is taking place early because President Bush and much of the Washington establishment leaves the city around Dec. 25, when Chanukah starts this year.

    The White House said it was the first time that First Lady Laura Bush had handed over the kitchen to kosher caterers for a Chanukah celebration; previous kosher caterers brought food in from outside.

    “The First Lady said if the function is kosher, it makes it more comfortable for her guests, and it makes it more comfortable for her,” said Rabbi Levi Shemtov, Chabad’s representative in Washington. Bush will meet with Jewish educators before the party, which hosts a cross-section of the Jewish leadership.The Kosher White House - Rabbi Jason Miller
    Whitehouse gets Kosher!

    (c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |

    Alan Dershowitz in Ann Arbor

    Professor Alan Dershowitz, Harvard’s Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law, visited University of Michigan Hillel Foundation on Thursday before addressing the Jewish Law Students Association at the Michigan Union on the topic of Israel advocacy on campus. Here are some photos of Mr. Dershowitz in my office and at the Michigan Union (with Law School dean Evan Caminker and members of the Law School faculty).Alan Dershowitz & Rabbi Jason MillerAlan Dershowitz & Rabbi Jason MillerAlan Dershowitz & Rabbi Jason Miller
    (c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |

    Q&A with Chancellor Ismar Schorsch

    From the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles
    by Amy Klein, Religion Editor

    Dr. Ismar Schorsch, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in New York, will retire in June. In that role, he has been informally considered the closest thing that the Conservative movement has to a leader. Schorsch, 70, met with The Journal to assess his two decades heading the seminary and his hopes for the future.

    The Jewish Journal: Many observers say the next leader of the seminary has to be more than an academic or a capable university administrator — that the next leader will have to assume a crucial leadership role with the Conservative movement. How do you see the role of the next chancellor?

    Ismar Schorsch: The chancellor is the head of the Conservative movement. And the chancellor often speaks of theology and religion, [giving] voice to Conservative Judaism in the public arena.

    JJ: What did you originally set out to accomplish as chancellor? What do you think you did accomplish?

    IS: I can’t say I came in with a well-formed agenda. Early on in my career, I did set a set of priorities for my administration — I was determined to make Jewish education the top priority of the seminary. I never wavered from that goal. I would say that my greatest accomplishment was significantly and largely the investment in serious Jewish education. We created the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education, which is by far the largest school in the country.

    The School of Education has had an enormous impact on the other schools of the seminary. Many of the rabbinical and cantorial students are taking a masters of Jewish education. They are clearly going to be advocates of Jewish education when they finish their education. There will be a team effort in synagogues — you will have the rabbi, the cantor and the educational director all committed to serious education from preschool to adult learning. I think the creation of the School of Education has been an enormous catalyst for what I think is the only effective, viable response to the challenge of assimilation in American society, and that is serious Jewish education.

    JJ: What has been your greatest challenge as chancellor?

    IS: When I came in, we were still in the throes of ordaining women rabbis. We were not admitting women to cantorial school, and I immediately set about admitting qualified women students. And then we promoted the employment of women rabbis and cantors in the movement. So I would say that the integration of women students into the movement and cantorial school occupied my attention in the first [half of his time as chancellor].

    JJ: You helped integrate women into the movement. But they are not at the place they necessarily need to be: The Rabbinical Assembly’s (RA) report last year found that women make less money and don’t serve as leaders of major synagogues.

    IS: I think the publication of the study itself is an important step. It’s crystallized the problem and intensified the advocacy by the RA and the seminary for equalizing pay and employing women in larger congregations. I think that’s happening. There’s been a positive response to the critical study of women in the rabbinate. There are women getting more interviews in larger congregations and getting positions there.

    JJ: Why hasn’t it happened yet?

    IS: Cultural change is slow. It’s naive to expect a change of that magnitude to occur from one year to the next. The transition may be frustrating, but I think it’s inevitable. Proactive measures and advocacy can accelerate the process but not eliminate it.

    JJ: Why are you retiring now?

    IS: There are some other things I’d like to do. I’m first and foremost a scholar; I came from the faculty, and I want to return to the faculty. I want to write a number of pieces that I have been working on, and I want to return to full-time teaching.

    JJ: The seminary won’t ordain openly gay rabbis. Do you see a change coming in the future? Do you think a part of the movement will break off because of the gay rights issue?

    IS: I want to address the larger issue of what direction the Conservative movement should take. The Conservative movement should reaffirm the correctness and power of its base with Jewish law … the Conservative movement should not try and be a rainbow. It needs to reaffirm the validity of traditional Judaism — that’s what the word ‘conserve’ means. The Conservative movement was created as a reaction to extreme reform in this society, which knows no limits. It is incumbent upon the Conservative movement to advocate traditional Jewish values and practice.

    JJ: Who are the leading candidates to replace you?

    IS: I am not involved in the search for my successor.

    JJ: What do you consider a failure in your term or something you did not manage to accomplish?

    IS: I would have liked to accomplish more in Israel. I think [the Conservative movement] is still small and fragile in Israel. In the mid-’90s, I led a national campaign to eliminate the office of the chief rabbinate, to have the State of Israel treat Reform and Conservative rabbis exactly as they treat Orthodox rabbis, to achieve a measure of separation between Orthodoxy and State of Israel. I can’t say that campaign has succeeded.

    JJ: Ehud Bandel, the head of the movement in Israel, the Masorti movement, was let go this summer. How can the movement grow in Israel?

    IS: The movement [here] has not been [good] about raising money [for Israel.] The great success [there] has been the Schecter Institute of Jewish Studies. The Schecter Institute is having an enormous impact on education in the State of Israel through the Tali schools, which is a network of Conservative Israeli schools.

    I think more financial support is critical to grow the movement in Israel. Good leadership would help a lot. The resistance to non-Orthodox growth in Israel is formidable.

    JJ: The Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles was founded from the University of Judaism during your leadership and didn’t please many on the East Coast, as it created a center for rabbinic study on the West Coast. Do you think JTS will always be the leading organization of the movement? How would you categorize the relationship between the East and West Coast schools?

    IS: The seminary, to its enormous credit, has created a number of very significant institutions in the Jewish world. It created the University of Judaism after the Second World War, and it created the Jewish Museum in New York 100 years ago, which today houses the finest Jewish library outside the State of Israel. The seminary created the Schecter Institute, which is today a fully accredited Israeli institution. The seminary has a very fine track record in spawning institutions that grow to maturity and gain independence. That is not something to be diminished.

    I’m proud of the accomplishments of the University of Judaism; our relationship with the Ziegler school is excellent. Our students spend a year together. We do placement together. There is a good deal of traffic and collaboration. There is neither animosity nor competition. What you have today are a number of Conservative seminaries producing leadership for the Conservative movement. What has developed over time is that you have a solar system of Conservative rabbinical institutions.

    JJ: Is that going to weaken JTS’s prominence?

    IS: The seminary has not been diminished. Its impact on the larger world has grown by the virtue of its offspring.

    JJ: What do you think of breakaway synagogues that do not identify themselves as Conservative, despite shared values?

    IS: It’s a phenomenon worth paying attention to. I think it’s an important development. The thrust for post-denominationalism is largely coming from the Conservative movement — it’s not coming from the Reform and not the Orthodox movement.

    I think we should not embrace the rhetoric of post-denominationalism blindly. It is a rhetoric that cuts to the very core of the social capital of the American Jewish community. American democracy is promoted by the private sector, and the organized Jewish community is funded by the synagogue membership. To weaken the synagogue weakens the foundation of the organized Jewish community. Two-thirds of JCC membership comes from the synagogue. To weaken the synagogue base is to weaken the superstructure of the organized Jewish community. Therefore, I would be very careful of anti-synagogue rhetoric.

    JJ: The Reform movement has recently moved to the right, and Orthodoxy seems to be thriving. Why do you think Conservative Judaism is important for American Jewry?

    IS: The right-wing movement of the Reform should embolden us to affirm our traditional base. The climate is in our favor. “Conservative” is not a dirty word anymore. In a climate that is increasingly sympathetic to traditional values, this movement ought not to be shy of advocating values. I applaud the return of Reform to the center — I believe that the center is where most Jews want to be. I believe the cohesion of Jewish community lies in the center and not on the extremes. It is precisely that importance of the center that makes Conservative Judaism so vital to the American Jewish Community. Without a center you have two wings that do not have contact with each other. The Conservative movement is the bridge that keeps this community together. Eliminate that bridge and you get sects and not a religious community.

    (c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |