Wedding Websites and Apps Are New Buzz

Couples about to be married can add  a “Wedsite” to their pre-wedding to-do list. Not too long ago wedding guests had to make a phone call to inquire where the couple was registered for gifts. They didn’t know much about what to expect at the wedding. And they likely had to wait for the rabbi to speak under the chuppah to learn how the happy couple had met.Today, it’s become standard operating procedure for couples to publish a website in the months leading up to the wedding. These websites — also known as “wedsites” — started off as basic one-page sites on the Web that included a few photos of the couple, the wedding date and location, and a guest book. Fast forward to 2013 and many couples now set up interactive sites complete with multimedia slideshows and videos, meet the bridal party pages, shopping portals to the gift registry, video clips of the band at past weddings, and surveys about what songs the guests want to hear.

These wedsites can be connected with the bride and groom’s Facebook profile and the photos guests take at the wedding can easily be shared to Pinterest and photo sharing sites like Snapfish, Polaroid Fotobar, and Shutterfly. The wedsites include such features as the gift registry, stories about how the couple met and where they became engaged, as well as where they’re headed for the honeymoon. For out-of-town guests these sites have proven to be important resources. Links to the hotel, discounts on airline flights, and the ability to coordinate travel with other guests are essential for a wedsite.

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Passover Message 2013

Passover 2013 - Rabbi Jason Miller

As we celebrate the Jewish festival of Passover this year, we will ask several questions. One question I encourage all of us to ask — no matter our religion, age or current location on this earth — is how we plan to make this year different from past years?

The tradition of the Passover seder is to recite the same story of our ancestors in the desert that has been told throughout the generations, but each generation must tell the story differently. Indeed, each year we must tell the story a little differently to make it relevant to our lives and to our children’s lives. I pray that we each have the opportunity to claim that which enslaves us and to find the courage within ourselves to fight for our freedom and be a part of the positive change so desperately needed in our world.

Wishing everyone a very happy and healthy Passover.

Rabbi Jason Miller

Haggadah Feeling – Some Fresh Haggadot for Passover

I began collecting different versions of the haggadah, the Passover seder’s playbook-script-manual, when I was in college. It all started by ordering a new one each year in anticipation of the holiday and somehow my collection now exceeds 100 and has demanded its own bookcase. This pales in comparison with the vast haggadah collection of Irwin Alterman of blessed memory, a brilliant community leader in Detroit who passed away earlier this month and had an exquisite library of some 1,500 haggadahs. His son, a childhood friend, tells me that plans are underway to allow the public to admire his collection soon.

For many Jewish families the version of the haggadah is as much a family tradition as the food served during the seder meal. Just ask many Jewish Americans and they’ll tell you about their deep connection to the Maxwell House Haggadah from childhood seders.

The 21st century, however, has seen a seismic shift from the rather bland (and free) Maxwell House Haggadah to more creative versions. And that transition has also afforded many Jewish families some poetic liberties with the seder script. The more traditional families have always tended toward the keva (Hebrew for rote or routine), while more progressive families allowed for more kavvanah (that unscripted spontaneity)  while telling the Passover story. Truthfully, the seder was always intended to be a symposium or talk-feast with an ample mix of both keva and kavvanah. A famous rabbi quoted in the haggadah believes one must only mention the paschal lamb, matzah and bitter herb to fulfill the obligation of the seder. The rest as they say is commentary.

So when a family is ready to make the move to a new haggadah, what should they look for? It’s important to remember that adopting a new hagaddah can be a costly investment at first. While the Maxwell House Haggadah came compliments of the coffee corporation, today’s options can cost around $20 each which adds up when all twenty-five guests require a copy. The haggadah will be reused year after year (with an increasing amount of wine stains and matzah crumbs) and that’s why it’s important to choose the right one at first.

My two favorites in my collection are the (Arthur) Szyk Haggadah and the (David) Moss Haggadah, but these works of art are more suited to be displayed on the coffee table than used at the seder table. So I’m going to recommend a few options that your family might consider adopting for annual use at the seder.

WELLSPRINGS OF FREEDOM: THE RENEW OUR DAYS HAGGADAH
(wellspringshaggadah.com)
This haggadah was edited and published by Rabbi Ron Aigen, a Reconstructionist rabbi in Montreal who has also edited a siddur and a machzor (high holiday prayerbook). This haggadah draws on several modern scholars to provide the commentary of the familiar tale of freedom from slavery. It contains more of the biblical narrative than other haggadahs and uses a “split screen” format meaning the page is divided between the spoken story-line of the seder and the personal, inner journey found in the commentaries. This haggadah, with colorful artwork every dozen or so pages, encourages the leader to be creative and engaging.

JONATHAN SACKS HAGGADA
(www.korenpub.com)
Maggid, a division of Koren Publishers in Jerusalem, offers a haggadah with two texts in one. The traditional text is joined by a collection of thought-provoking essays by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth. The newly revised edition, recently released, includes a new translation and layout. The essays are scholarly, yet eloquent. Sacks addresses the relationship between Passover, Jewish identity, and Jewish history, as well as the role of Passover in Western political imagination and offers new interpretations of the traditional haggadah text.

MY HAGGADAH: MADE IT MYSELF
(madeitmyselfbooks.com)
The Passover seder is unique in that it is a serious discussion around the dinner table that is meant to include both adults and children. But that can also post challenges when the children are very young. Francine Hermelin Levite created her own very kid-friendly haggadah several years ago to keep the little ones enthused. Now, with help from Reboot.com she has made it available for purchase. Packed with nearly 40 pages of engaging, open-ended questions and drawing prompts to do before, during, or after the seder, this haggadah creates lively Passover conversations around the table. Children are able to personalize the traditional story through their own pictures and art (it comes with stickers). The simple, creative haggadah is built around the 15 steps of the seder and, while it is an out-of-the-box publication, it still includes the basic blessings, songs and stories. The essence of the seder is to ask questions and drum up discussion. Hermelin Levite’s haggadah helps that process along (and with little kids there isn’t much time to waste before the eating begins).

BRONFMAN HAGGADAH
(bronfmanhaggadah.com)
The well-known Jewish philanthropist and international communal leader Edgar M. Bronfman has joined with his wife, artist Jan Aronson, to produce a radical reimagining of the Passover text. The inspirational readings that Bronfman included span from Frederick Douglas to Ralph Waldo Emerson and poet Marge Piercy. The underlying message of the Bronfman Haggadah is that we all possess the capacity for peace and understanding. The watercolor paintings are stunning and are sure to evoke discussion. It’s evident that Bronfman spent a great deal of time putting his version of the haggadah together and it’s sure to become a popular fixture on seder tables this Passover. It’s been described as an “engaging and interactive contemporary account of Passover, which will foster meaningful and constructive dialogue between Jews and non-Jews alike.”

HAGGADOT.COM
If you don’t like anything you see in already published haggadahs, there’s a website that allows you to become the creator and publish your own. As the introduction on haggadot.com states, “Passover is about freedom. But when it comes to the seder, many of us are lost. This website is a resource for Jews of all backgrounds to make the Haggadah that finally feels meaningful for a contemporary seder, with unique perspectives gathered from individuals worldwide.” With an array of classical texts and contemporary interpretations, this website allows the user to create a more personalized version with original writings and artwork. The creators invite users to mix and match content from other users as well as previously published haggadot so that one family’s haggadah may include selections from a 16th century haggadah interspersed with feminist and social justice readings or poetry. The final step is a PDF copy that can be reproduced for seder guests. Wine stains? Just print a new copy. Of course, as the children get older an amended, more comprehensive version can be created and used.

There’s no shortage of haggadahs on the market. Each denomination of modern Judaism has published its own version. And as more haggadahs are available each year more families are reconsidering how they present their seder, the most practiced Jewish ritual today. It’s encouraging to see this change in culture from a rote Maxwell House seder to an embrace of creativity and creating the opportunity for multi-generational dialogue. After all, that’s the whole point of the Passover seder.

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

The Maccabeats Channel Les Mis for Passover

I don’t usually include Passover videos on this blog because, well, there usually aren’t any worthy of watching. Until this Pesach that is!

The Maccabeats, Yeshiva University’s acclaimed a capella group, do a wonderful job using the songs of Les Miserables to tell the Passover story. This video has much more acting than their previous Jewish holiday fare and the college boys do a nice job with it. No doubt this Pesach parody video will hit the million view mark on YouTube just as the Maccabeats’ previous creations did.

Enjoy and Chag Sameach!

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

Fun Passover Activities for the Seder and Beyond

Passover, which begins on March 25, is one of the most widely observed Jewish holidays. Each year during the Passover seder, Jewish people attempt to integrate the old traditions of the holiday with innovations. Mostly, these innovations are meant to keep the children (and many of the adults too!) alert and engaged during the seder.

Innovations in the Haggadah are certainly valuable for keeping things fresh at the seder while still sticking to the centuries-old script. However, for young children it can be a frustrating and kvetchy experience as they watch each adult at the table take a turn reading the midrashic commentary of our ancestors’ exodus from Egyptian slavery — no matter how lovely the artwork is in the newly published Haggadah.

Rabbi Vicki Tuckman, on the ReformJudaism.org website, writes that the “most important thing in leading a Passover seder is feeling that you have the freedom (pun intended) to be as creative as possible.” These days many families — especially those with young children — are scrapping the traditional seder symposium and opting for fun activities that keep everyone participating. Some families I spoke with pitch tents in their living room and tell the Passover story while pretending to be the Israelites camped out in the desert.

In the weeks leading up to Passover, which arrives quite early this year, I had the opportunity to review a few games and activities that I plan to use to keep my kids having fun at the seder this year. Some of them I’ve been using for years and others I’ve only discovered this year.


PASSOVER BINGOTamara Pester, a Denver lawyer, sent me this game back in January and my kids started playing it right away. They enjoy playing Bingo and I was thrilled to see them using Bingo cards with some educational value rather than a bunch of numbers. Pester came up with the idea for Passover Bingo when she saw her niece and nephew getting restless during the family seder. “Instead of drudging through the Hagaddah, wondering when it’s time to eat,” she explains, “people will be motivated to follow along with the story of Exodus. Guests at your traditional Seder will be participating and paying rapt attention to the pages, thanks to this easy-to-play game.”

The game retails for $24.99 and features six colorful game boards with Passover keywords such as Egypt and Elijah. The game also includes 96 foam markers, and is recommended for children ages three and up. To help fund the project, Pester turned to Jewcer.com, which offers crowd-sourced funding for Jewish projects. “Actually, the Jewcer people contacted me because they’d never done a promotion with a product before,” she said. The Jewcer site waived fees and helped Pester raise nearly $3,000 for the game. Pester’s sold over 150 of the games through Jewcer, the Passover Bingo website, and several synagogue gift stores.

PLAGUES BAGS
I first discovered the Plagues Bags back in the late 1990s when I saw an ad for them in Moment Magazine. I ordered one and began to use it at my family’s seder which I started leading after my grandfather passed away in 1994. It became a custom at our seder for my young cousins Jeff and Ben to put on the hand puppets of Moses and Pharaoh respectively and act out the dialogue between the two. The two cousins are now in their mid-20s and, while their hands no longer fit in the plastic puppets, they’re good sports and still play along.

Rabbi Alan Silverstein thought so highly of the Plagues Bags that he decided his synagogue would take over the sale of them each year. In 2001 my wife and I moved to Caldwell, New Jersey where I served an internship at Congregation Agudath Israel with Rabbi Silverstein. He put my wife in charge of the Plagues Bags and that year she reported to me that they had sold several thousand in the week before Passover.

What’s so great about the Plagues Bags? They encourage the seder participants to have fun during what could otherwise be a very tense time during the seder. The horrible plagues God brought upon the Egyptians, including the death of the firstborn children, can be difficult to explain to children. It’s also getting close to the festive meal and everyone is hungry at this point in the seder. The “toys” inside the Plagues Bags help the seder leader keep everyone’s attention and bring some levity to the “talk-feast”.

JEWISH HOLIDAYS IN A BOX
At JewishHolidaysInABox.com, they’ve completed a new guide called “Celebrate Passover: How to Plan a Fun, Simple Seder”. This creative guide helps families who are novices when it comes to the Pesach seder or want to make their standard seder more engaging and fun. Their The 3-part downloadable package comes with a 36-page PDF + 2 audio tutorials and is available on the Jewish Holidays in a Box website.

RESOURCES FOR INNOVATIVE AND FUN SEDERS
Two books I recommend to help seder leaders enliven the seder each year are David Arnow’s “Creating Lively Passover Seders” and Ron Wolfson’s “The Passover Seder: The Art of Jewish Living”. Danielle Dardashti and Roni Sarig also have a great chapter with some fun Passover seder projects for children in their book “The Jewish Family Fun Book”. All three books are published by Jewish Lights Publishers. This year the Foundation for Jewish Camp has published an activity book for the seder to promote its “One Happy Camper” program. The activity book includes games, Madlibs, and even Capture the Flag using the afikomen.

The Foundation for Jewish Camp’s “Camp Passover” activity book for the seder

SKITS
Many families perform skits during their seder, which is a great way to observe the commandment that we should all act as though we were actually part of the exodus from Egyptian bondage. Behrman House, a wonderful educational publishing house, has a couple scripts on their website. “Seder Time” is a skit by Stan Beiner, a well known Jewish educator who created Sedra Scenes. Meredith Shaw Patera’s “The Courage of Nachshon” is another good skit available on the Behrman House Passover activity website. Aish Hatorah lists ways for participants to act out the ten plagues on their website.

On Facebook and Twitter I asked people to share some of the innovative activities they have adopted at the seder to keep the children participating and the adults from dozing off. Here are some of my favorites:

Rabbi Michael S. Jay: We’ve had children prepare commercials for Matzah or other symbols of the Seder.

Rabbi David Locketz: I find out what songs all the kid who are coming have learned at school and then incorporate them into magid. Give out parts in advance and we act it out in song and brief dialogues.

David Kaufman: We had all the kids bring knapsacks filled with the items they would want to make sure they brought out of Egypt. Then, when we begin Maggid, we all get up from the table, they take their knapsacks, and we make an “exodus” into the living room. There, we start doing Maggid, and the kids also show us what they would bring and explain why.

Prof. Michael Satlow: I had the kids do a play of the Exodus from the Egyptian perspective. It really taught me something and opened discussion.

Jennifer Levin Teper: I make oragami frogs and use them as placecards. Then everyone, can “jump” them during the seder. Our favorite is trying to get it to land in your water glass.

Melanie Dunkelman Hartong: I found silly masks of the plagues at my local Kroger- kids thought it was hysterical!!

Lynn Davis: We throw plagues (tiny plastic animals, etc.) but I realize that a rowdy seder isn’t for everyone!

Rabbi Judah Isaacs: My sister buys a Pesach puzzle and gives out the pieces for answers to questions. She has the kids put the puzzle together during the Seder.

Shawn Broida: When our kids were little and we knew we couldn’t get 6 cousins under age 8 to sit through a seder, we decided to do a bedouin seder on the floor and let them roam! Aside from a few almost disasters with the seder plate getting kicked across the room, it was more relaxing for everyone and the kids had a ball!

I wish everyone a Chag Sameach… may your seders be educational, innovative, and memorable!

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

Shabbat Around the World

I’ve experienced Shabbat in some very interesting places. One of the most memorable Shabbat lunches I can recall was in the home of a Chabad rabbi and his family in Kharkov, Ukraine. This was in August 2005 when I led a small Hillel/JDC mission of University of Michigan students to the Former Soviet Union.The food at that lunch was delicious and the new plates of food seemed to continuously appear throughout the afternoon. As dessert was being served we sang Shabbat zemirot (festive songs) together. The students recognized the traditional songs and began harmonizing. The rabbi asked me to say a few words of Torah and I spoke about the pintele yid – that spark of Judaism that can be found throughout the globe. While the food might be different and some of the customs are unique to that community, the spark is there. How wonderful it is, I explained, for us Americans to travel to the Former Soviet Union in the 21st century and enjoy a warm, spiritual Shabbat, singing the Hebrew songs that are so familiar to us. 

In Parashat Vayakhel (Exodus 35:3), the Torah says, לֹא-תְבַעֲרוּ אֵשׁ, בְּכֹל מֹשְׁבֹתֵיכֶם, בְּיוֹם, הַשַּׁבָּת “Do not light a fire in all your dwellings on Shabbat”. Why is it necessary for the Torah to state settlements in the plural? Shouldn’t it be enough to say that we are forbidden from kindling fire on Shabbat? Why is it necessary to have the designation “throughout your settlements?” After all, the Torah doesn’t add words or letters unnecessarily.

The medieval commentator Abravanel interprets this to mean that the intent of the clause is to apply the prohibition universally; meaning wherever Jews reside. The idea is to demonstrate that the same rule applies regardless of where in the world we’re spending Shabbat. This biblical prohibition stated in this way should remind us that our world is much smaller than we sometimes think. We can observe and celebrate in any community throughout the world and it will feel like Shabbat to us.

We might observe new customs and culinary dishes, but Shabbat is Shabbat. It is a unifying force in Judaism. Shabbat is a standard. We light the Shabbat candles, we recite the kiddush and the motzi, we enjoy delicious meals together, and we conclude with havdallah.

Last month I returned to Ukraine seven-and-a-half years since that first visit. Seated across from me at my table at a kosher restaurant in Kiev was an Israeli man who told me I looked familiar. I laughed and referenced a song I learned as a child, “Wherever You Go There’s Always Someone Jewish.” He laughed and told me that he was serious; he was positive he had met me before. Sure enough, Amir Ben Zvi and his wife Sharon had also been guests at that Chabad rabbi’s home for Shabbat lunch back in 2005. Amir was about to begin his new job for the JDC in Ukraine and was also invited to the Chabad rabbi’s home for lunch. Amir and I reminisced about how enjoyable that experience was and shared an immediate friendship. No matter where we find ourselves in the world, Shabbat is Shabbat.

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

Alleged Fraud with Tech Fund in Haredi Schools

The importance of increasing access to technology in our schools became a top priority during the Clinton Administration. In that vein, President Clinton and VP Al Gore sought to incorporate technology into the classroom and ensure equal opportunity for students to benefit from technology by creating E-rate. In the years since its creation, these federal grants have helped public and private schools across the country connect to the Internet, increase the number of computers in classrooms, and provide technology training for teachers.

Julie Wiener, a former Detroit Jewish News columnist who is now associate editor of The Jewish Week in New York, recently uncovered potential fraud relating to the E-rate program in ultra-Orthodox schools in New York. In a three-part exposé Wiener, together with special correspondent Hella Winston, explained how several ultra-Orthodox day schools and yeshivas in the New York area have been receiving millions of dollars of technology through the E-rate program, but never actually putting that technology to use in their schools because of their community’s disdain for the internet.

Julie Wiener, associate editor of The Jewish Week, discovered the potential fraud with the E-Rate program.

Wiener’s four-month investigation revealed that of the almost 300 Jewish schools benefiting from E-rate, ten schools (all but one Chasidic) collectively were approved for nearly $9 million in E-rate-funded services in 2011, which amounted to almost one-third of the Jewish total. One yeshiva submitted requests in 2012 for 65 direct connections to the Internet including 40 computers, but no computer or Internet connection were ever installed. Wiener’s investigation also found a disparity in the amount of technology funding the New York area’s ultra-Orthodox schools were receiving. She writes, “While Jewish schools enrolled approximately 4 percent of the state’s K-12 students, they were awarded 22 percent of the state’s total E-rate allocations to schools and libraries.”

After reading the three-part series I had a chance to talk with Wiener about her investigative reporting and what she hopes will happen now that these schools’ alleged misuse of a federal technology fund has become publicized. “I’d like to see more investigation and oversight on the part of the FCC and the USAC [Universal Service Administrative Company, which oversees E-Rate], including more audits and actual visits to make sure the equipment that’s actually paid for is being used. I also want more people to know about E-rate. There are more schools that could benefit that haven’t even heard of the program.”

Wiener, who has been writing about Jewish education and technology over the past few years, says she first honed her investigative skills at the Detroit Jewish News in the mid-1990s. She answered some questions about the E-Rate story:

HOW DID YOU FIND OUT ABOUT E-RATE?
My colleague Hella Winston, who has done a lot of coverage of the ultra-Orthodox community, got a tip from someone several months ago and then found the E-rate Central site, where all the data is contained. The idea immediately appealed to us, because the Asifa – the May 2012 [Haredi] rally against the Internet – was still fresh in our memories, and also, I had been covering the whole issue of technology in Jewish education and yet had never before heard of E-rate. Initially, it felt overwhelming to go through the enormous amount of data, but fortunately I was taking a class at CUNY Journalism School this fall, which both inspired me to do data-driven articles and empowered me.

WHAT WAS THE PROCESS?
We decided early on to narrow our focus to New York State. That’s because this was already an enormous project, and because we are based in New York. We also knew that New York has the largest number of fervently Orthodox schools, and when we started we were unsure if the E-rate application process and rules vary from state to state. It turns out they don’t, but it still made our lives easier to focus on New York. I am hoping other journalists will follow our lead and look at E-rate use in other states with relatively large Jewish populations.

We spent a lot of time researching E-rate online, going through various audits and rulings, and congressional testimony about it. We also researched the schools and service providers online. To learn more about what goes on inside the schools, we spoke with the Jewish Education Project and various alumni of these schools. Hella has a whole network of people who have left or currently live in the community. We were reluctant to approach the schools, or even the E-rate consultants/USAC people until very late in the process, as we were worried someone might tip off the schools, making it difficult for us to obtain information, or even, if there was fraud happening, making a cover-up easier. Also, the program is so complicated and confusing that we wanted to make sure we understood it well before we interviewed anyone.

WHAT RESPONSE HAVE YOU GOTTEN SO FAR?
Overall the response has been very positive. Many of our readers are horrified that this is happening and concerned about this community – which doesn’t even use the Internet – getting tens of millions of dollars that other schools might make better use of. Assuming that at least some of this money is being misused – and it is hard for me to imagine it is not – this is hardly a victimless crime: USAC denied over $2 billion in requests last year, and for the past few years only the highest-poverty schools have been eligible for Priority 2 services – connections that make it possible to bring the internet into individual classrooms. Also, the money comes from a tax that we all pay into – the Universal Service Fund.

We’ve certainly gotten a number of angry comments from the ultra-Orthodox community – mostly along the lines of, “Why are you always picking on the ultra-Orthodox?” and “Why put this in the papers rather than just notifying the authorities?” There have been very few substantive critiques from the ultra-Orthodox as no one has explained why these schools need such costly tech services or how they are using things.

Yes, E-rate can be used for some non-Internet expenses, but the fact is that these schools are billing a lot of money for the Internet too and some have spent millions of dollars over the years. I find it interesting that none of these schools or service providers will talk to us, that there is no effort to show that they have the equipment they’ve billed E-rate for and how they are using it to benefit their students. Also, we live in a democracy, and the public has a right to know how tax dollars are being spent, particularly nowadays when government coffers are stretched so thin.

DO YOU THINK THERE IS FRAUD?
I have to be careful here, because I don’t want to be accused of slander or libel. However, I think that at the very least something inappropriate is happening. It makes no sense why schools that don’t give students access to the Internet – or even, in many cases computers – are disproportionately benefiting from this program, particularly when there are other schools whose needs are not being met. I am also puzzled as to why the USAC and the FCC have allowed this to go on for so long.

I should note that I doubt that, if there is fraud, the money is enriching individuals or going to fund luxuries – my guess is that it is sustaining the fervently Orthodox community which is financially struggling because individuals have very large families and don’t see public school as an option, most receive minimal secular education or career training, and many men study full-time, rather than work. While I sympathize with their need for money, it is not fair to ask the government to subsidize this lifestyle. If they invested in secular education or even considered enrolling in public schools, and if they encouraged people to pursue the training necessary for modern careers, they would be in a very different situation.

WHAT DO YOU HOPE WILL COME OF THIS ARTICLE?
I hope FCC and USAC investigate this matter and seriously audit these institutions – both the service providers and the schools. I also think it’s important for the public to be aware of the E-rate program – something that is little-known outside the circles of IT people at schools – and the Universal Service Fund, particularly at a time when all tax dollars are being increasingly scrutinized.

The Jewish Week’s three-part story on E-Rate and the Ultra-Orthodox schools in New York begins here.

Originally published in the Detroit Jewish News

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

Humor and the Holocaust: Where the Line’s Drawn

The New York Times article in yesterday’s Sunday Review section titled “The Holocaust Just Got More Shocking” uncovers the recent scholarly discoveries that the Holocaust was in fact even more catastrophic than researchers once thought. Such news almost 70 years after the Shoah reaffirms what a horrific, devastating era this was in human history.

The Holocaust researchers, according to the Times article, “have cataloged some 42,500 Nazi ghettos and camps throughout Europe, spanning German-controlled areas from France to Russia and Germany itself, during Hitler’s reign of brutality from 1933 to 1945. The figure is so staggering that even fellow Holocaust scholars had to make sure they had heard it correctly when the lead researchers previewed their findings at an academic forum in late January at the German Historical Institute in Washington.”

It is evident that while we are several generations removed from the Holocaust there is still new information coming to light about this dark period in European Jewish history. This makes it even more difficult to find humor in comedy from such tragedy and yet there has not been a single tragedy in the world that has been free from the reach of comedy. Comedians crack jokes about 9/11, worldwide natural disasters, the Chernobyl incident, plane crashes, Space Shuttle tragedies, and horrific mass murders. A common refrain following such off-color jokes is “Too soon?” But, when really is it not “too soon” to tell a joke about a catastrophe on par with the Shoah? Where is the line of taste when it comes to humor about the Holocaust and who do we trust to draw such a line?

An Austrian actor plays Hitler during a Berlin production of Mel Brooks’ musical The Producers (AFP/GETTY)


In the past week alone we have had to make communal judgment as to whether such comedians as Seth MacFarlane and Joan Rivers went too far in their Holocaust humor. Some have pointed to comic Sarah Silverman who has historically gotten a pass on her references to the Holocaust in her humor. Mel Brooks has famously been able to mock Hitler and the Nazis without drawing criticism. And Larry David wrote an entire episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” in which a Holocaust survivor and a past participant on the TV show “Survivor” argue about who endured the bigger challenge. It’s not about being Jewish and having a free pass to use Holocaust references in comedy, it’s about doing it creatively and not causing people to squirm.

In his debut as host of the Oscars, Seth MacFarlane made a Hitler reference when announcing the nominations for Best Picture, he joked about “Amour,” “The last time Austria and Germany got together and co-produced something it was Hitler, but this is much better.” The day after the broadcast of the Oscars, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), under the leadership of Abraham Foxman, went after MacFarlane more for his jokes about Jews controlling Hollywood than for this Holocaust reference, but the comedian took a lot of flack for this joke too.

Much worse than MacFarlane’s Hitler name drop was Joan Rivers’ Holocaust joke on the red carpet before the Oscars. Rivers, who is Jewish and whose late husband lost most of his family in the Shoah, deadpanned about German supermodel Heidi Klum’s dress at the Oscars, “The last time a German looked this hot was when they were pushing Jews into the ovens.” Rivers refused to apologize for the joke stating, “My husband lost the majority of his family at Auschwitz, and I can assure you that I have always made it a point to remind people of the Holocaust through humor.”

The ADL sharply criticized Rivers for her joke calling it vulgar and offensive. Abe Foxman said, “Making it worse, not one of her co-hosts made any effort to respond or to condemn this hideous statement, leaving it hanging out there and giving it added legitimacy through their silence.”

The ADL is often the litmus test for when celebrities have gone too far in making light of the Holocaust. Foxman wasted no time in issuing statements after Jesse James and Prince Harry dressed in costumes as Nazis.

Jesse James, the former husband of actress Sandra Bullock received a Nazi hat as a “gag gift” from his Jewish godfather back in 2004 and a photo of him wearing the hat and pretending to be Hitler was released in 2010. Foxman at the time called it  “offensive,” “in bad taste,” “stupid behavior” and “insensitive behavior.” But Foxman clarified stating that the photo “doesn’t make him an anti-Semite.” Foxman continued, “I have more issues with his Jewish godfather who sent him this is a gift. I find that more bizarre. Why would a Jewish godfather send his godson such a gift? That’s outlandish!”

Back in 2005, photos began circulating of the young Prince Harry wearing a Nazi costume to a Halloween party. The ADL’s Foxman released a statement explaining that, “Our reaction to Prince Harry’s choice to wear a German uniform with a Nazi swastika armband was not that it was a Jewish issue. He offended all the victims of the Nazis and all who fought them, especially the British… Prince Harry’s apology should be not to England’s chief rabbi but to the British people, who suffered in the blitz and who fought valiantly against the Nazi onslaught. Prince Harry’s education should begin at home.”

There are ways to use the Holocaust in humor without getting Foxman to issue a press release. It can be done in a very tongue-in-cheek way on film or on Broadway like Mel Brooks’ “The Producers.” It can also be done in a very dark yet creative way like Larry David did on “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” Sarah Silverman has been very successful in making fun of the Holocaust and Nazis in a shocking, yet acceptable fashion.

On stage in her movie “Jesus is Magic,” Silverman calls Nazis cute before they grow up, refers to the Holocaust as “the alleged Holocaust,” and says her grandmother had a vanity death camp tattoo on her arm that said “Bedazzled.” She tells the story of her niece who attends Hebrew School and called her up to discuss what she learned about the Holocaust. The young girl mistakenly explains that the Nazis murdered 60 million Jews during the Holocaust. Silverman corrects her saying it was actually 6 million, not 60 million to which her niece asks what difference it really makes. “Uh, the difference is 60 million is unforgivable.”

It’s a matter of style and substance. Humans need to be able to laugh; even at the incomprehensible tragedies of life. There is a certain waiting time that must occur before we are even able to laugh and no one knows precisely how long that is. When it comes to the Holocaust and humor, it’s a touchy subject. The red carpet of the Oscars wasn’t the right forum for Joan Rivers’ reference to the ovens during the Holocaust. It was both shocking and offensive. And even Seth MacFarlane himself was able to see that he could have used an alternative joke about the movie Amour that didn’t conjure up images of Hitler. Perhaps what makes talented comics like Sarah Silverman, Mel Brooks, and Larry David so successful is that they can come up with ways to use references to the horrific and make people laugh without drawing criticism for being insensitive or offensive.

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

The Last Year in Jewish Technology

Once again The Jewish Week asked me to try and summarize the last year in technology from a Jewish angle. This was not an easy task since technology is increasingly so much a part of our lives and it affects all areas of our world including religion. I decided to come up with the ten big Jewish/Technology-related stories. What follows is what I submitted to The Jewish Week:

A few years ago when I was asked to start the Jewish Techs blog for The Jewish Week, I was concerned there wouldn’t be enough material to write about. After all, there are a lot of worthwhile news stories about technology and a lot of interesting topics in the Jewish world, but I wasn’t sure there would be enough areas of integration. Boy, was I wrong.

Image Source: RustyBrick

Religion in general and Judaism in particular are very much enmeshed in the field of technology. As our world becomes more dependent on technology, our Jewish lives are adapting as well. Jewish visionaries are at the head of the tech revolution and hi-tech innovation has been a driving force in Israel’s economic growth in the 21st century. The Internet and tech gadgets have revolutionized Jewish learning in ways never imagined before. A set of the Talmud that once occupied an entire shelf now resides on a Smartphone with full search capabilities. The Dead Sea Scrolls were once only available to those able to travel to Jerusalem, but they are now available to the world on the Web. And it is no longer unusual that the homebound are participating in High Holy Day services virtually.

In early January at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, Jewish technology leaders featured prominently. CES is produced by the Consumer Electronics Association led by Gary Shapiro, whose new book Ninja Innovation is sure to become a best seller in the tech world. Through the convention halls of CES were Jewish owners of technology stores and companies, inventors, and industry leaders. Innovators from Israel were seen making deals with investors, a daily minyan was convened, and the Las Vegas Chabad supervised a lunch stand.

In 2012 there were many Jewish-related stories in technology. I put together a list of the top ten stories of the year (in no particular order). To stay informed about the intersection of Jewish life and technology this year, connect with the Jewish Techs blog at http://thejewishweek.com/blogs/jewish-techs.

1. ISRAEL’S GAZA WAR AND SOCIAL MEDIA
For the first time in Israel’s existence the country waged a parallel war on the Internet. During its military situation in Gaza, the IDF focused part of its attention on social networking uploading videos of its operation to YouTube, informing its following on Facebook and posting a barrage of updates to Twitter.

2. SUPER STORM SANDY, SYNAGOGUES AND THE SOCIAL NETWORKS
The East Coast’s found itself challenged by super storm Sandy for several weeks. Synagogues in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut used social media to keep its congregants informed about everything from relief efforts to places to recharge cellphones and alternative locations of Shabbat services. During the week-long power outages, some synagogues had life-cycle events like weddings and bar mitzvahs to contend with.

3. AGUNA CASE HITS FACEBOOK
A drawn out, messy divorce case quickly went from a private matter to a world-wide public debate. Aharon Friedman, a staffer for a Michigan congressman, refused to grant his ex-wife Tamar Epstein a Jewish divorce. Online petitions and then a highly trafficked Facebook page put pressure on Friedman, including a call for him to be summarily fired. It was the first time a Jewish domestic dispute had gone to social networking to be resolved.

4. SOCIAL MEDIA’S INFLUENCE DURING THE ELECTION
Jewish Republican voters have been growing their ranks and looking to the Internet to try to convince their Democratic co-religionists. Never before has social media been so influential in a presidential election. Friends were attacking friends on Facebook for their political views. News articles and YouTube videos were posted on each other’s Facebook walls. Back-and-forth tweets were shot around Cyberspace debating whether President Obama or Governor Romney would be the better choice for Israel.

5. APPLE’S QUESTIONABLE JERUSALEM STATUS
The popular computer and phone company found itself being questioned by pro-Israel supporters for neglecting to associate Jerusalem as the capital of Israel on its faulty map application. When Apple released its new operating system, iOS6, it didn’t show Jerusalem as the capital of Israel although every other country on the map had its capital listed.

6. JEWISH LED GOOGLE AVOIDS CHARGES IT’S A MONOPOLY
Microsoft and a coalition of niche search engines accused Google, founded by Jewish Internet gurus Sergei Brin and Larry Page, of unfair search practices for prominently displaying some results at the top of some inquiries. Google, which began as an Internet search company but has ventured into many other sectors, spent the better part of the year fighting those accusations. The Federal Trade Commission absolved Google of monopoly accusations early in 2013 for prioritizing its own products in search results

7. WAZE APP AND SALE RUMORS
The biggest tech story coming out of Israel this year was about a little GPS app company called Waze. The mobile app, featuring turn-by-turn navigation was developed by the Israeli start-up Waze Mobile and differs from traditional GPS navigation software because its community-driven. The app learns from users’ driving times to provide routing and real-time traffic updates. When Apple’s mapping application had flaws, Apple’s CEO recommended that iPhone users download Waze. After growing to more than 40 million users in 2012 there were rumors that Facebook and then Apple were interested in buying Waze (for some $40 billion), but neither deal panned out.

8. DEAD SEA SCROLLS AND SCHOTTENSTEIN TALMUD GO VIRTUAL
If asked what two collections from the Jewish textual tradition would be most beneficial in a fully searchable, digital format scholars would come to consensus over the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Talmud. The Israel Museum’s Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Project, a partnership with Google, launched in 2012 allows users to examine and explore the most ancient manuscripts from Second Temple times at a level of detail never imagined before. Five Dead Sea Scrolls have been digitized so far and they can be searched through queries on Google.com. What had been hidden and lost in a cave for generations are now online for the world to see.

Earlier this year, Artscroll announced the launch of the ArtScroll Digital Library and the first mobile app they will launch will be the ArtScroll Schottenstein Talmud. The app will offer all of the necessary tools students of the Talmud would want as they study and debate the ancient text. The app was produced by Rusty Brick and features page syncing, place tracking, extra hand, page fusion, hybrid page, floating translation, quick scroll, integrated notes, and page mapping color coding. The Apple version is already available and an Android version is expected to be released this year.

9. RALLY AGAINST INTERNET AT CITI FIELD
In May, more than 40,000 ultra-Orthodox Jews attend a sellout rally in Citi Field, home of the New York Mets. The attendees came to protest the growth of the Internet, which they believe is a moral detriment to their religious way of life. Rabbis spoke to the crowd about the perils of the Internet and cautioned those who are required to use the Internet for their work to use a filter so as to avoid unseemly content.

10. TEXTING HIGH HOLIDAY SERVICES
Rosh Hashanah 2012 marked the first time that several rabbis around the country encouraged their congregants to take out their SmartPhones and use them. In most congregations, participants were reminded to put their tech gadgets away, but in some synagogues like Rabbi Amy Morrison’s Reform temple in Miami Beach she told the worshippers to “Take those phones out.” This innovation was seen as a way to engage the crowd of digitally connected 20- to 30-year-olds. No doubt tweeting and texting during religious services will only become more prevalent in the years to come, right or wrong.

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