A Bris It Is: Bennett Epstein’s Daughter Has a Boy

I had no idea how many Jewish attorneys I know. In the past week I received no less than twenty forwarded email messages from lawyers about US District Judge Kimba Wood’s decision to grant a recess in an ongoing court case if Bennett Epstein, one of the lawyers in the trial, becomes a grandfather to a baby boy. As I blogged last week, Judge Wood famously agreed to allow Epstein the time off from the trial to attend his grandson’s bris, but also taught him a lesson about parity. If Epstein’s daughter gave birth to a baby girl, Kimba Wood offered her opinion that a simcha of equal magnitude should be presented.

Of course Jewish feminists around the world applauded Wood’s response to Epstein. But, alas, it’s a boy and we won’t know what type of Simchat Bat ceremony the family would have held.

According to the NY Daily News, “Defense lawyer Bennett Epstein (pictured) stood in court on Monday and told Wood: ‘Judge, I have an announcement to make: Hoo hah!’ It was Epstein’s slightly unorthodox way of announcing the birth of his grandson. But there was precedent. Epstein had cautioned Wood earlier this month that his 33-year-old daughter, Eva, was due to give birth on Dec. 3 – right after the start of his loan-officer client’s mortgage fraud trial.”

I didn’t have to wait to read about Bennett Epstein’s news in the NY Daily News. As promised, Mark Fass, a staff reporter for the NY Law Journal who is friends with Epstein, sent me an email this morning to inform me of the grandson’s birth.

Epstein’s letter to Wood and her response have been so well circulated around the Web that it would appear this newborn baby boy’s fifteen minutes of fame will be among his first minutes of life. Mazel Tov!

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

Hebrew University’s Sarcasm Detector One of Year’s Best Inventions (Time Magazine)

Here is my most recent post on the Jewish Techs blog (The NY Jewish Week)

Jews aren’t sarcastic at all!

Okay, that was me being sarcastic, but the problem with the Jewish tradition of sarcasm is that it doesn’t translate well in Cyberspace where tone of speech doesn’t come through in text. That’s why it makes sense that the ability for computers to detect sarcastic speech has been developed in the Jewish homeland.

Time Magazine‘s recent issue devoted to technology ranked the year’s best fifty inventions and included an application developed at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University.

The sarcasm detection algorithm, developed by researches at the Israeli university, was heralded by the magazine for its accuracy.

Time’s Steven James Snyder wrote, “This is the most important software ever invented. Of course, if a computer using the Semi-Supervised Algorithm for Sarcasm Identification read that last sentence, it would immediately detect the sarcasm. Developed at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the tool is designed to spot sarcastic sentences in product reviews. The algorithm has been fairly accurate even in its earliest stages: in a trial involving 66,000 Amazon reviews, it was right 77% of the time, pointing to a future in which computers won’t just store your words, they’ll interpret your intent.”

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

Richard Dreyfuss as Abraham Joshua Heschel

Here’s my latest post on the “Rabbi J in the D” blog at Community Next

One of my favorite movies as a kid was 1987′s “Stakeout” starring Richard Dreyfuss and Emilio Estevez. Watching the movie on VHS (remember those?) years later as a college student at around the same time I was discovering the writings of the Jewish theologian and civil rights activist Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, I don’t recall ever thinking to myself, “You know, that Richard Dreyfuss is so good at playing Detective Chris Lecce in “Stakeout,” he’d do a fine job playing Heschel too.”

But, Dreyfuss has actually gotten rave reviews playing Rabbi Heschel in “Imagining Heschel” at the Cherry Lane Theater in New York. This, of course, isn’t the first time the actor played a teacher. After all, he played music teacher Mr. Glenn Holland in the 1995 film “Mr. Holland’s Opus.”

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

Israeli Army Uses Facebook to Catch Female Draft Dodgers

Here’s my latest post on the Jewish Techs blog (The NY Jewish Week)

An article in All Facebook, the unofficial Facebook blog, reports that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) has been using the social networking site to nab female Israelis who claim to be religious enough to be exempted from army service. Apparently, their activity on Facebook tells a different story — one the army is interested to learn.

Here’s the full article about these women who probably never thought their Facebook account would would be stalked by the Israeli army. Does the army have a right to snoop around these women’s Facebook photo albums? Is this an infringement on their religious rights? Leave your opinion in the comments section.

The Israeli army is monitoring the Facebook profiles of female citizens in order to identify those who have falsely espoused religious beliefs in order to avoid conscription.

Brid.-Gen Amir Rogovsky of The Israeli Defense Forces said that the IDF currently has six offices tasked with investigating the religious claims of women who would otherwise be eligible for military service. Enlistment is mandatory for all Israeli citizens over 18. Current policy allows Israeli women to be exempt from the draft provided they sign a declaration that they are devoutly religious, adhere to Kosher standards, and do not travel on Shabbat.

But 1,000 women have been caught in violation of the law according Rogovsky, who cited examples of Facebook activity that lead to the charges against the women. One woman had uploaded a photo in which she was holding a menu from a non-kosher restaurant. Another woman had a photo wearing clothing which was deemed to be immodest. Yet another woman was caught because she had logged onto Facebook on the sabbath.

The IDF has employed even more aggressive tactics, entrapping women by creating Facebook events that take place on Friday nights, inviting women, and then charging those that respond “attending”. Once caught the women were brought back to service.

The IDF has seen a sharp increase in draft evasion in recent years. Rogovsky estimates that thousands of women who sign religious declarations exempting them from service are not practicing Jews.

Hat Tip to “Rob the Web Guy” Graham

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

Did the Torah’s Patriarchs Follow Jewish Law?

Xtranormal has helped users create close to 10 million projects by turning their words into funny animated movies. User “krumbagel” has created a hilarious Xtranormal animation that successfully (and humorously) critiques the ultra-Orthodox notion that the Avot (patriarchs) in the Torah not only followed the Halachah (Jewish law) as outlined in the Torah, but even observed the mitzvot (commandments) that were set forth by the sages thousands of years later through the debates of the Talmud and the explanations of the Mishnah Berurah.

The video begins with the yeshivah bucher asking, “Can I say over a vort that I heard by my rebbe’s house last Shabbos?” His interlocutor challenges him when he claims that, in the Torah, Jacob gave his brother Esau bread with the red lentl stew because there is a debate in the Talmud as to which blessing one says before eating lentls, and thus Jacob gave Esau the bread so he would perform the ritual hand-washing(!) and say Hamotzi (the blessing over the bread) without worrying if he was uttering the correct blessing.

I enjoy a fanciful midrash (homiletical explication of the text), but find it problematic when later rabbinic rulings of Jewish law are applied to the actions of the characters in the Torah’s narrative. A great example of this is when I was putting my first-grade son to bed a few weeks ago on a Friday night. It’s long been my custom to tell a Torah story to my children on Friday nights during our bedtime ritual. I was talking about the differences between the twin brothers Jacob and Esau when my son interrupted to tell me that his teacher at school taught him that Esau was bad because he would hunt and kill animals that weren’t kosher. Really?! When I asked my son how it would have been possible for Esau to know which animals were kosher, he just shot me a blank stare. Oh well!

Anyway, here’s krumbagel’s video:

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

Mike Tyson to Open Kosher Restaurant

According to the JTA.org, former boxing champion Mike Tyson is in talks to open a chain of high-end kosher restaurants. Supposedly, Tyson has been in negotiations with the Jewish businessman Moshe Malamud, owner of the Franklin Mint and chairman of the Asian technology service provider emaimai. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency picked up the story from last Friday’s New York Post.

“They discussed the concept as well as the name, but nothing was finalized,” a representative of the kosher Manhattan restaurant Solo (on Madison Avenue), where the men dined, told the Post.

Tyson decided last spring to begin following a strict vegan diet, which he says gives him more energy.

I guess the obvious joke about Mike Tyson become a vegan is that he’s cut human ears out of his diet.

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

Judge Kimba Wood Responds to Imbalanced Simchas for Jewish Babies

In my second year of rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary, I took a year-long seminar that focused on Jewish life-cycle observances. Of course, we covered all the basics like the bris, the Jewish wedding and the Jewish funeral. But we spent more time discussing life-cycle events that traditionally had been given short shrift. In fact, we devoted a great deal of time discussing appropriate ceremonies for the birth of a Jewish baby girl.

For generations, the birth of a baby boy in Judaism was cause for great celebration. The bris, or ritual circumcision, meant a crowded home event with festive foods, speeches, singing, and celebration. Relatives and friends would travel great distances to attend the bris on the eighth day of the baby’s life, carrying gifts with them for the elated parents. The birth of a baby girl often meant nothing more than a synagogue honor for the newborn’s father while mother and baby were still in the hospital. In recent time, it has been a naming ceremony after baby girl’s first month, or any time in the first year when the parents got around to it.

Beginning with recommended rituals for welcoming a newborn girl into the Jewish faith by the authors of the 1960s classic The First Jewish Catalog: A Do It Yourself Classic and continuing more recently with Debra Nussbaum Cohen’s wonderful Celebrating Your New Jewish Daughter: Creating Jewish Ways to Welcome Baby Girls into the Covenant-New and Traditional Ceremonies, greater attention has been paid to welcoming ceremonies for Jewish baby girls.

On Thanksgiving Day, 2005, my wife and I welcomed our twin son and daughter into the Jewish covenant with separate ceremonies that took place in the synagogue one after the other. We figured that they were born minutes apart, so their naming ceremonies should be minutes apart as well. On the eighth day of their lives, they would become part of the Jewish people in rituals that were different, yet balanced. Our son had the traditional bris and then our daughter had a “Simchat Bat,” in which she was blessed by her female relatives in a candlelighting ceremony. Rather than wait a month or longer to bestow a Hebrew name on our daughter, we chose to make both our son and daughter the main event of this life-cycle event attended by many friends and family.

I am feeling nostalgic as the fifth anniversary of that special event, in which neither male nor female was favored above the other, approaches. And so, I had to smile when I read about Judge Kimba Wood’s recent decision in a case in which a lawyer asked to be excused from court if and when his pregnant daughter’s baby turns out to be a boy. Kimba Wood was one of the judges nominated by President Bill Clinton to be Attorney General of the United States before Janet Reno was eventually confirmed. Both she and fellow nominee Zoe Baird were brought down by stories involving their nannies. Wood is also known as the judge who sentenced the “Junk Bond King” Michael Milken to ten years in prison.

Apparently, like me, Kimba Wood recognizes the unfairness in making a big fuss over a Jewish boy’s birth, but seeing a Jewish girl’s birth as a lesser event. Here is the letter to Judge Kimba Wood by attorney Bennett M. Epstein, with Wood’s response following:

Dear Judge Wood:

I represent Mark Barnett in the above matter, which is scheduled for trial beginning November 29th.

Please consider this letter as an application in limine for a brief recess in the middle of trial on the grounds known (perhaps not now, but hereafter) as a “writ of possible simcha]”.

The facts are as follows: My beautiful daughter, Eva, married and with a doctorate no less, and her husband, Ira Greenberg ( we like him, too) live in Philadelphia and are expecting their first child on December 3rd, tfu tfu tfu. They do not know whether it will be a boy or a girl, although from the oval shape of Eva’s tummy, many of the friends and family are betting male (which I think is a mere bubbameiseh but secretly hope is true).

Should the child be a girl, not much will happen in the way of public celebration. Some may even be disappointed, but will do their best to conceal this by saying, “as long as it’s a healthy baby”. My wife will run to Philly immediately, but I will probably be able [to] wait until the next weekend. There will be happiness, though muted, and this application will be mooted as well.

However, should baby be a boy, then hoo hah! Hordes of friends and family will arrive from around the globe and descend on Philadelphia for the joyous celebration mandated by the halacha  to take place during the daylight hours on the eighth day, known as the bris. The eighth day after December 3rd could be right in the middle of the trial. My presence at the bris is not strictly commanded, although my absence will never be forgotten by those that matter.

So please consider this an application for maybe, tfu tfu tfu, a day off during the trial, if the foregoing occurs on a weekday. I will let the Court (and the rest of the world) know as soon as I do, and promise to bring pictures.

Very truly yours,

Bennett M. Epstein

Judge Kimba Wood’s response:

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

Bar Mitzvah Lessons in Cyberspace

Cross-posted to the Jewish Techs blog at The New York Jewish Week

Why shlepp your kid to the synagogue for her bat mitzvah lessons when she can dial in virtually?

A recent article in the New York Times shows how the tech savvy bar mitzvah tutors have taken to the Web to make the process more convenient for them and their students.

If dating, shopping and watching TV can be revolutionized by the Internet, why should bar and bat mitzvahs be immune? Parents who once might have turned to their local synagogue for Hebrew lessons and spiritual guidance are now turning to Google, where a quick search on “bar mitzvah” turns up sites like MyBarMitzvahTeacher.com (“the easiest way to prepare for your bar mitzvah”), barmitzvahlessons.com (“NO synagogue fees, membership dues, building fees”), and Jewish-Wedding-Rabbi.com, whose founder, Rabbi Andrea Frank, also conducts other “life cycle” ceremonies, including pet funerals.

Need to learn the prayers that precede the Torah and the accompanying haftarah readings? There are YouTube videos for that. At OneShul.org, “the world’s first community-run online synagogue,” the founders imagine Web-only bar mitzvahs, with an e-minyan, or group of 10, gathered via Skype. And they have a citation from Maimonides to prove it’s O.K.

There have always been families who bypassed synagogues for their children’s bar mitzvahs, traveling to Israel or holding a ceremony in a hotel. But, limited by geography, they generally worked with tutors who lived nearby. And while the new do-it-yourself approach has been enabled by the Web, it has its roots in demographic and attitudinal changes among American Jews, who are increasingly less likely to join synagogues, just as more of them marry outside the faith.

“Our generation doesn’t view Judaism as an obligation,” said Rabbi Jamie Korngold, aka the Adventure Rabbi, who offers an online bar mitzvah program. “It’s something that has to compete in the marketplace with everything else they have in their lives.”

No doubt, many traditionalists will find the idea of Jewish pre-teens logging in to learn their bar or bat mitzvah portion unappealing. Some will argue that part of the experience is the face-to-face tutelage with the cantor. Others will scoff at the change noting that if previous generations had to endure the hours of preparation in the synagogue, then so should today’s generation of would-be b’nai mitzvah.

Of course, many will simply note this as one more way technological innovation has changed the way synagogues do business. And if 12-year-olds can log off Facebook for a few hours a month to learn their haftarah, then that’s a good thing… isn’t it?

Read the entire NY Times article, “Bar Mitzvah Studies Take to the Web,” here.

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

Yes, Jews Rock Too

Here’s my latest post for the Community Next blog “Rabbi J in the D”:

We all know that Jews can rock. After all, you only need to listen to Bob Dylan or Gene Simmons of Kiss to know that. But there are also some Jewish singers who are rocking Jewish music… and I don’t mean Jon Fishman leading Phish in “Avinu Malkeinu.”

I remember in 1999 when the Jewish rock star Rick Recht came to the Jewish summer camp where I was working (Camp Ramah in Nyack, NY). He had all the little kids dancing and screaming like they were at an arena concert with 20,000 fans. Then he worked his way into a cover of a Dave Matthews song and had the teen and 20-something staff members hooked.

Recognizing that there was a need for an Internet radio website dedicated to Jewish rock music, Recht has created Jewish Rock Radio. “Jewish Rock Radio was launched to provide a mass communication channel utilizing the power of music to attract, inspire, entertain, and educate Jewish youth while providing information about a variety of meaningful engagement opportunities for Jewish youth.”

The channel will expose new and established Jewish artists, as well as provide education for artists to professionalize their music and marketing. Recht didn’t want to simply create another Internet music channel. He wanted to give back to the Jewish youth who have been his biggest fans through Jewish youth groups and Jewish summer camps. As the site explains, Jewish Rock Radio is also “for Jewish youth to share their experiences with each other about a variety of national Jewish programs in which they have participated; and, to inspire and create a ‘path’ for Jewish youth to participate in Jewish life as Jewish composers, performers, songleaders, and teachers.”

Jewish Rock Radio (JRR) is the flagship program of Judaism Alive, a nonprofit 501(c)3 formed in 2009 to strengthen Jewish identity and connection for youth through their love of music, musical instruments, and online interaction. While Jewish teens will continue to fill their iPods with Miley Cyrus, Justin Bieber, Beyoncé and Jay-Z, now they just might add some Jewish rockers to their playlist like Naomi Less, Blue Fringe, Josh Nelson and Socalled.

Cross-posted to the Jewish Techs blog

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

Hangover 2 Trades Mel Gibson for Liam Neeson

Here’s my latest post for the Community Next blog “Rabbi J in the D”:

After Mel Gibson made “The Passion of the Christ” movie a few years ago, he lost many of his Jewish fans.

After Mel Gibson made his anti-Semitic sentiments known by freaking out at a cop a few years ago, he lost the rest of his Jewish fans.

So, this summer when his wife Oksana Grigorieva (who has a Jewish father according to some reports) made his sexist and racist rants public, most Jewish people had already come to the conclusion that Mel’s nuts. Even if he is anti-Semitic and might even share some of his father’s notorious Holocaust denial views, “Meshugana Mel” had become more of a punchline in the Jewish community than an ADL-level concern.

Now, Mel seems to have divided Hollywood. Whoopi Goldberg recently defended Mel and tried to convince everyone that he’s not a racist. Zach Galifinakis, on the other hand, recently refused to work with Mel on the Hangover sequel, in which they wanted him to play a crazy cab driver.

So, Mel is no longer going to be in the Hangover 2 movie. Who did they get to replace him? None other than Liam Neeson — the man who played the man who saved hundreds of Jews in Steven Spielberg’s Holocaust film “Schindler’s List.”

No word yet on what Mel Gibson’s father thinks of that!

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