Clint Eastwood Talks to Obama’s Empty Chair

Watching Clint Eastwood’s speech at the Republican National Committee convention last night I just knew it would turn into a meme and a Twitter frenzy. And it did.

Clint Eastwood performing an old comedic routine of talking to an empty chair made international news immediately. Some called it funny, while others thought it was disrespectful to the sitting President of the United States. Most people thought the shtick made Eastwood look a bit crazy.

This morning I tweeted the following joke: “Flipping through channels last night & watched few mins of Gran Torino. Confused. Don’t remember scene where Clint Eastwood talks to chair.” That tweet immediately got this funny response from Twitter user ‏@skii_bum1985: “@RabbiJason I learned something important the other night: Don’t invite Clint Eastwood to a Seder, he might yell at the empty chair.”

That would turn out to be the first of many connections made between the imaginary seat of Barack Obama to the empty seat of Elijah. My colleague and friend Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz submitted a wonderful post to the PopJewish.com blog that compares Obama’s empty seat with Elijah’s at every bris. She writes:

Elijah’s Chair was the original empty chair. It shows up at a Bris (circumcision) in particular, but there are other community occasions when the idea of an empty chair – an extra seat that indicates openness to receiving an unexpected visitor or guest – is commonly referred to as ‘Elijah’s chair’. On Passover, we also have the tradition of ‘Elijah’s Cup’. The story behind this tradition is that there were certain questions that the Sages of the Talmud were unsure how to answer, specifically with regard to how they designed the Passover Seder ritual, but on other occasions as well. Elijah, who is held in Jewish tradition to return to announce the arrival of the Messiah, would be able to resolve our unanswered questions when he did so.

Of course a meme has been started based on Clint Eastwood’s performance last night. I thought this one was pretty funny:

I created my own contributions to the meme using Photoshop. Here is Clint Eastwood at Barack Obama’s bar mitzvah as he hoists him up in the chair during the Hora dance:

 And here’s the imagined conversation if President Obama were actually sitting in the chair:

As Rabbi Gurevitz notes, the idea of an “Elijah chair” for Obama isn’t such a stretch. Tablet, an online journal, related a few months ago that some of Obama’s donors use the term “Elijah’s Chair” to refer to the empty chair left at the tables of certain major donors just in case the President comes by to sit and shmooze.

Well, at least Clint Eastwood brought some fun to what are usually pretty dull conventions.

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

Ki Tetzei: Our Names, Our Heritage

As a rabbi, one of my favorite phone calls to receive is from expectant parents who are in search of Hebrew names for their future child. Before even suggesting any potential names, I always preface my response with an explanation of how important names are to us as Jewish people. Our name is our legacy. It is not only our identifying label in the community, but it is also how we will be remembered.

“Crown of a Good Name” by Artist Mordechai Rosenstei

When you go up to the Torah for an aliyah, you are beckoned before the minyan and before God with your moniker including your parents’ names. You are not receiving this kavod (honor) alone, but rather with your entire heritage. In many lifecycle events, our Hebrew name is invoked and thereby our heritage is invoked as well. For our name is more than mere nomenclature, a classifying label – it is who we are, what we stand for, and from where we have come.

In Pirkei Avot, the Teachings of our Sages, R. Shimon taught: “There are three crowns. The crown of Torah, the crown of priesthood, and the crown of kingship. But the crown of a good name exceeds them all.” To become a king or a priest, one must be born into this position. However, to achieve the crown of Torah, one must have a quick mind and a sound memory. One must be willing to learn and to grow. Thus, the crown of a good name transcends them all, for it is open to all.

Parashat Ki Tetze ends with the famous commandment to remember what Amalek did to our ancestors and to blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Timche et-zecher Amalek mitachat hashamayim. Lo Tishkach. We must at the same time remember what the Amalekites did to our ancestors and also blot out their name. As the commentary in the Etz Hayim translation explains, we are not being commanded here to eradicate all recollection of the Amalekites. Indeed, we are commanded to remember forever what the Amalekites did. We must both remember what they did as well as erase their name. That, the Torah seems to be teaching us, is the ultimate revenge – to eliminate or wipe out a name.

On Purim, when we hear the name of Haman, the descendent of Amalek, read from the Megillah, we literally drown out the name. So too, when we utter the name of Hitler, arguably another descendent of Amalek, we make sure to add the words “yimach shmo,” that his name should be erased. But these stand as negatives; ways to blot out the name of evil individuals. If we look back only a few verses before the mitzvah to eradicate the name of Amalek, we learn of another mitzvah concerning names; but in this instance, it is a positive commandment. It is to carry on the name of an individual – the man who dies childless.

Levirate marriage or yibum is the commandment stating that the brother of a childless husband is obligated to marry his widowed sister-in-law and the first son that she bears shall be accounted to the dead brother that his name should not be blotted out in Israel. Thus, the underlying intention of this mitzvah is that a man’s name should not disappear forever if he dies leaving no children to carry on his name. His legacy will be assured. We learn in the Book of Ruth, when Ruth’s relative Boaz marries the widower Naomi, that yibum is considered the ultimate in loving-kindness.

There is simply no better way to honor ones memory than by perpetuating ones name. Inherent in a person’s name are all of their achievements, their beliefs, and their ethical creed. Indeed, the memory of our loved ones is bound up in their name. When we remember their name, we maintain an enduring nearness to their neshama, to their soul.

On Yom Hashoah – Holocaust Remembrance Day – throughout the Jewish community, on college campuses, in Jewish day schools, and in synagogues, the names of all six million Jews who perished during the Shoah are read to show respect to the dead by helping their names live on. Pronouncing these names, the names of those whose lives were cut short during the darkest time in our people’s history, is not only one of the greatest way we can carry on their legacy, but also the greatest way we can ensure that we remember what Amalek did to us and blot out their name. Zakhor, remembrance, can be for both good and evil. In remembering the good, we too, erase the evil.

We understand that while our body will eventually cease to function, our name will continue on. As a community, we have the mitzvah to perpetuate the name, the legacy, of others by carrying their name forward throughout the generations. Francis Bacon, the famous English essayist, lawyer, philosopher, and statesman, once said: “I bequeath my soul to God… My body to be buried obscurely. For my name and memory, I leave it to men’s charitable speeches, and to foreign nations, and the next age.”

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

Summer Camp Online Photos: The Good, the Bad and the Oy Vey

Like many parents I was concerned that my son wasn’t getting enough sleep while he was away at sleep-away camp. As it turns out, it was my wife’s lack of sleep that posed a bigger concern. Each night beginning around 11:30 she would sit anxiously in front of the computer screen scanning each new photograph as it was uploaded from the camp. It was a slow process that lasted well into the wee hours.

On the slim chance that she caught a glimpse of our son in one of the photos, the analysis would begin. Was he wearing the same t-shirt that he was wearing in the photo two days ago? Did he misplace his glasses since he wasn’t wearing them? Did he look sunburned? Did he make new friends since he was posing in the photo with the same friend from last time? Was he showering? Was he brushing his teeth? Was he having fun?

This new parental anxiety is thanks to the advanced technology now available to sleep-away summer camps. In the “olden days” (more than five years ago), parents had to wait until junior returned home to see photos from his camp experience. Now, summer camps have invested in a few digital cameras and an Internet connection so there’s simply no excuse not to post the daily collection of photos. But is it healthy? After all, just because the technology is available doesn’t mean it has to be used.

Evidence that this has become a national trend among sleep-away camp parents (many day camps post daily photos too) came in the form of a popular animation video this summer. The video, which was created on xtranormal.com and posted to YouTube, mocked the “helicopter parent” who is addicted to scanning the camp website for photos of her child. Many parents with children at Jewish sleep-away camp found it funny and relatable.

In the video (below), two cartoon animals portraying mothers are discussing summer camp. It is obvious that the character whose son is away at sleep away camp is Jewish and the character unfamiliar with the culture is not. The Jewish character keeps saying “refresh” until the other character finally asks why she repeats that word uncontrollably. She explains that it is because she spends many hours late at night refreshing the summer camp’s website to see if a photo of her son has been uploaded. The other character finds it odd that she has just spent a large amount of money to send her son away for a few weeks during the summer only to neurotically check the camp’s website each night to catch a glimpse of her son.

It’s no accident that the online posting of summer camp photos each day has become de rigueur for Jewish sleep-away camps across the nation. A man named Ari Ackerman made sure of it. When Ackerman was in graduate school, he wrote the business plan for Bunk1. He thought of it as a “one-way window into the camp world” so parents would be able to get a taste of what their children were experiencing while away from home for a few weeks each summer. From fewer than 100 camps a decade ago, Ackerman’s Bunk1 now boasts over 1,000 camps that utilize his web application to showcase a couple hundred random photos each night.

Camp directors who thought the daily online photo gallery wasn’t a good idea were pressured by zealous parents who demanded such transparency. Many parents do note the odd culture that has been created with the obsessive scanning of photos just to see that their child is still alive and well. One parent wrote on the Bunk1 blog, “Anybody else here see the irony of confiscating your kids electronics and sending them off into a Wi-Fi free zone, only to spend the summer obsessed with electronics yourself?”

The problem with this new phenomenon is that the photo doesn’t tell the whole story of the child’s day at camp. Analyzing a photograph which only documents one second of a very busy day at camp can lead to unnecessary anxiety. The camper could have spent the day happily engaged in her favorite activities and only at the end of the day when she was exhausted was a candid photo taken of her and posted to the camp’s website. The parents immediately repost it to their Facebook account with the message, “Uh oh… Our daughter looks exhausted and unhappy at camp! Concerned.”

One sleep-away camp staff member who fielded calls from parents this summer recounted that most of the urgent inquiries from parents were prompted by the online photos. Neurotic parents wanted to know why their children were never in the photos (“my child’s friend is in every photo”), why they were never in photos at the beach, why they were wearing someone else’s clothes, and why they weren’t wearing a hat when it was very sunny out. It seems these online photos, while posted with the best intentions, have caused more concern for parents.

A recent column in Time Magazine focused on this online camp photo gallery phenomenon theorizing that it is a “nod to helicopter parents’ inability to cut the cord.” One parent quoted in the column exclaimed, “I totally am stalking my kids.”

Camp was once a safe place where kids didn’t have to worry about their parents watching them. They were free to just grow and enjoy themselves. The new technology, however, changes that.

Demonstrating that camp directors aren’t thrilled about this new culture, the article in Time quotes Sam Perlin, the director of Camp Solomon Schechter in Olympia, Washington. He explained, “In the beginning, it was like, Wow, how cool. Now I spend much of my day answering phone calls from parents who say, I don’t see a picture of my kid, or, They’re not smiling — are they having a good time?”

For some parents, just recognizing the back of their child’s head in a photo is reassuring that at least he’s not in the clinic. However, parents survived for many generations not seeing current photos of their children at summer camp. Just because the technology is now available for camps to post these photos doesn’t mean they should feel compelled to do so. After all, there are many other technologies that camps can utilize but have decided that it’s not healthy. The online camp photo phenomenon is a wonderful example of what happens when new technology changes the equilibrium.

Camps should wait until the end of a session to post the photos. Parents will get a lot more sleep that way.

A version of this appeared in the Detroit Jewish News. Cross-posted to The Jewish Techs blog at The Jewish Week.
(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

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

Craig Taubman’s Jewels of Elul

My friend Craig Taubman, a very talented musician in California, asked me to “make something funny” to promote his 8th annual “Jewels of Elul” project.

For the past eight years Craig has been collecting short stories, anecdotes and introspections from fascinating people and publishing them on his Let My People Sing website during the Jewish month of Elul. As he writes, “There is a great Jewish tradition to dedicate the 29 days in the month of Elul to study and prepare for the coming high holy days. The time is supposed to challenge us to use each day as an opportunity for growth and discovery.”

Apparently, I misunderstood Craig when he asked me because I could have sworn he said “Drools of Elul.” Kol Hakavod on this awesome project Craig! Shabbat Shalom!

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

Brett Cohen’s Not Famous (Or Is He?)

Who is Brett Cohen? He’s just a regular person who has become famous for pretending to be famous while not being famous. Did you follow that?

Brett Cohen was curious to see what would happen if he walked around Times Square looking like he was famous, complete with bodyguards, Paparazzi and a film crew. Guess what? It worked. Tourists posed for photos with him. Kids clamored to get his autograph. And when Times Square pedestrians were asked what they thought of Brett Cohen by the film crew, they acted like they were his biggest fans, raving about his work as an actor in a recent Spiderman movie and praising his latest song.

Regular guy Brett Cohen posing as a celeb in New York City’s Times Square

So this 21-year-old Jewish SUNY at New Paltz college student proved that anyone can pretend to be a celeb as long as you can play the part. The YouTube video (below) of Brett’s shenanigans is already going viral and his “experiment” has been covered by Mashable, the Washington Post, Reddit, and The Daily What. So, not only did Brett Cohen prove that he could fake fame, but he managed to get his 15 minutes of it along the way.


But Brett Cohen isn’t the only one parading around Times Square pretending to be someone he’s not. I was duped earlier this month when I thought I caught a glimpse of Snoop Dogg in Times Square. A man who is a spitting image of the rapper (now called “Snoop Lion”) was walking at a celeb pace with a large entourage. After taking a photo with the lookalike (below) I still wasn’t sure he was the real deal so I posted the photo on Facebook asking my friends if they thought this was actually Snoop Dogg or an impostor. Turned out that the majority thought it was really him.

With a guy who looks an awful lot like Snoop Dogg

It was when I overheard a member of his entourage ask for a small donation from a group of teens who wanted a photo with the supposed celeb that I realized it wasn’t the real Snoop Dogg. This apparently wasn’t his only night pretending to be Snoop Dogg. My cousin’s wife, Ashley Broad of “Hardcore Pawn,” had been similarly duped the week before in Times Square by the same Snoop Dogg lookalike.

So what does this say about celebrity and how we respond to it? Many Times Square tourists pay a good deal of money to visit Madame Tussauds New York and get their photo taken with wax models of their favorite celebs. Is that any different than getting a photo standing next to “Nobody Brett Cohen” or “Not Snoop Dogg”?

In the Jewish calendar we’re now in a period of personal introspection as we approach the High Holy Day season. What does Brett Cohen’s foray into faux stardom teach us? I wonder if Brett Cohen felt differently about himself during his hour of celeb status. Perhaps he got a taste of what it feels like to be a celebrity who can’t walk a few feet without being hounded for photographs and autographs. Perhaps he felt larger than life and enjoyed the feeling. Perhaps he was just trying to prove a point that we’re all too star struck to even realize that we don’t really care if the celeb is even a legitimate celeb.

One thing is for sure — our society continues to go ga-ga over the wrong celebs. The young entrepreneur, Nancy Lublin, who took her inheritance and started a non-profit for homeless women to get free business suits for job interviews will go unnoticed walking through Times Square and yet thousands will flock to catch a glimpse of a Kardashian sister. I’m glad Brett Cohen’s experiment worked because it will give us all something to think about. We’re all mega-celebrities in our own way. Thank you Brett Cohen!

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

Is Your Donkey Equipped with Wi-Fi?

Back in December 2004, I wrote about my technology experience at the Mamshit Camel Ranch, a Bedouin village in Israel. I explained how funny it was to be at a Bedouin village that appeared to be authentically rustic to the Birthright Israel participants I was chaperoning, but behind-the-scenes the place was equipped with the latest technology.

It was odd to be sitting in a Bedouin tent and checking my email and posting to my blog as camels and donkeys walked around outside. I was reminded of that experience today after I read that Kfar Kedem in Israel will be equipping their donkeys with Wi-Fi.

In an article humorously titled “Internet for those who won’t get off their asses,” The Times of Israel reports that “the northern town of Hoshaya [Israel] is planning on installing WiFi Internet access on the donkeys it uses as part of its Talmudic-era amusement village, Kfar Kedem.” The amusement park, which is sort of like Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia or Greenfield Village outside of Detroit, offers visitors a reenactment of Judean life in the Galilee from the 1st and 2nd centuries. Apparently, Kfar Kedem’s director, Menachem Goldberg, felt it was time to offer wireless Internet access on the donkeys so his visitors could post photos while they’re still riding the donkeys.

I’m not certain if Facebook and Foursquare will be able to identify precisely which donkey one is sitting on with GPS tracking technology, but that capability probably isn’t far behind. At least no tourist to Israel will have trouble checking their email while they’re donkey riding anymore. Maybe it should be advertised as E-Mule Access.

Cross-posted to the Jewish Techs blog at The Jewish Week.

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

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© Martin Holt

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

Welcome to the Tribe Csanad Szegedi

Hungarian politician Csanad Szegedi would likely have stayed out of the media spotlight in the U.S. were it not for a recent revelation about his past. Szegedi, according to articles in the AP and Wall Street Journal, was a proud member of a far-right wing political party in Hungary that wasn’t shy about its wanton antisemitism. Szegedi’s party often complained about the “Jewishness” of other politicians and referred to Israelis as “lice-infested, dirty murderers.”

That in and of itself isn’t very newsworthy as antisemitism is still alive and well in Europe. What is newsworthy is the detail about his own history that Szegedi learned recently. He is the Jewish grandchild of Holocaust survivors. As Dave Pell, creator of NextDraft, wrote: “Mazel Tov, you idiot.”

After discovering his Jewish roots last December and going public about the discovery earlier this summer, the Hungarian politician met Hungary’s chief orthodox rabbi. Szegedi revealed this in an interview earlier this summer. The head of Jobbik, the far-right party with which Szegedi affliates, commemorated the 130th anniversary of the Tiszaeszlar blood libel, seen as one of the first anti-Semitic events in modern-era Hungary.

Szeged promised to step down from all party positions but hold on to his seat in the European Parliament. This story could end well however since Szegedi has promised to visit Auschwitz, where his grandmother had been held by Nazi soldiers. Perhaps, he’ll make the transformation of being an anti-Semite to helping to educate his Hungarian people about Judaism and the lessons of the Holocaust.

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

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