Jewtopia the Movie: My Kvetch

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Right off the bat I feel the need for a disclosure: I’m not a movie reviewer. I took a film class in college, but that doesn’t count. I also love watching movies, but that doesn’t make me a credible reviewer.

I do have a lot of respect for professional film critics because it’s not an easy job. I recall being on jury duty in NYC about a dozen years ago and the film critic Jeffrey Lyons was in my group of potential jurors. It was right before the Oscars and we had a few hours to kill while we waited (before eventually being dismissed from a trial), so I had the opportunity to ask his opinion about some of the films up for Best Picture of the Year. I was amazed at how knowledgeable he was about each movie. Personally, I have a hard time remembering anything about a movie after I see it, let alone the names of the actors in the movie.

Now that I got that disclosure out of the way I feel much better. You see, after publishing <a href=”http://www.popjewish.com/2013/09/jewtopia-movie-seriously.html” target=”_blank”>a little blurb on my PopJewish.com blog about the Jewtopia movie</a> that opened this past weekend I was asked by the film’s public relations guy if I’d be interested in screening the movie and reviewing it. So I said sure. Which was a mistake. Because it was right before Yom Kippur and I was busy with a million things including writing sermons for said holiday and really didn’t have time to watch an hour-and-a-half movie. So after Yom Kippur was already a memory and the first couple days of Sukkot had passed I finally got around to screening it.

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<tr><td class=”tr-caption” style=”text-align: center;”>Jewtopia</td></tr>
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<!–more–>I can probably sum up this movie in one Yiddish word: OY! It was horrible. I sort of feel bad saying that because I don’t think this movie will get a single positive review. It was that awful. While I enjoyed seeing Jewtopia off Broadway in NYC several years ago and found the non-stop Jewish satire to be pretty funny, the movie version was just… well… different. Despite a cast of well-known actors like Jamie Lynn Sigler, Jon Lovitz, Rita Wilson and Jennifer Love Hewitt, the movie is a broken record of Jewish stereotypes. It was insufferable.

A cross between the Naked Gun movies and the <a href=”http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0317640/” target=”_blank”>Hebrew Hammer</a>, this is a raunchy (unnecessarily so) story about a <i>nebbish </i>Jewish guy (Joel David Moore) who doesn’t want to marry his Jewish fiance (Jamie Lynn Sigler) and a very non-Jewish guy (Ivan Sergei) who only wants to get married to a Jewish girl even if that means undergoing a circumcision surgery (it’s only a procedure when its done on a baby!). The two childhood friends have to help each other in their pursuits of “the Other”.

Somehow on a stage Bryan Fogel and Sam Wolfson managed to deliver this pseudo-offensive stereotype laden humor in a fun, feel-good sort of way. The movie version fails. And fails badly. The caricature of the rabbi would be funny enough without resorting to toilet humor. Jews are picky when it comes to ordering in restaurants — okay, we chuckled at that joke the first time around but by the dozenth it was more than enough. The bridge tournament, vaginal rejuvenation surgery and multiple hunting trips with the gentiles was just filler in a movie that had me looking at my watch more than once to see when the painful experience would end.

The bottom line is that Fogel and Wolfson should have counted their lucky stars that their Jewtopia stage version and book by the same name were so successful. And then they should have stopped right there. This was just a mess. Oy!</div>

Sukkot Themed KidLit by Dori Weinstein

One of the greatest gifts in the Jewish community in the 21st century has undoubtedly been the addition of the PJ Library. Started by Harold Grinspoon’s philanthropic foundation, the PJ Library now sends over 100,000 free books to Jewish families each month through the generosity of local Jewish philanthropists. As I wrote about last June on this blog, the PJ Library’s 3 millionth book was given to the daughter of a good friend of mine in Livingston, New Jersey.My three children have amassed an entire bookshelf worth of complimentary PJ Library books over the years. These books have covered all of the Jewish holidays, Shabbat, Israel, Jewish history and Jewish ethics. My family is grateful for the wonderful gift of literature that has made the PJ Library such a meaningful endeavor. But as great as the PJ Library is, the books are really more suitable for children up to a certain age. After a child reaches age 9 or 10 there are few offerings for the pre-teen crowd (although the PJ Library is beginning to add these more advanced books to its monthly offerings).

As my oldest child approaches double-digits in age, I’ve begun to collect more advanced books with Jewish themes. One such book that my son has already enjoyed is Dori Weinstein’s “Shaking in the Shack.” This book is the second in the author’s YoYo and YaYa series and is published by the author’s own Five Flames Press in St. Louis Park, Minnesota.

Dori, a Jewish educator, began writing these books — she’s currently at work on number three in the series — because she too was looking for modern Jewish books for her own children as well as for the students she was teaching. While there is no shortage of these Jewish themed books for younger children, especially the pre-school cohort, the options become very sparse for middle school age children who were used to more challenging books like the Harry Potter series.

Dori’s first stab at a pre-teen novel based on a Jewish holiday came out in 2011 when “Sliding into the New Year” was published by Yotzeret Publishing. That book was named a 2012 Moonbeam Children’s Book Awards gold medal winner in the category of Young Adult Fiction-Religion/Spirituality. Dori’s goal is to write 12 books in which we watch boy-girl twins Joel Silver (YoYo) and Ellie Silver (YaYa) grow up during a year of their lives. As my own twins — also a son and a daughter — get older I’m sure they’ll appreciate and be able to relate to YoYo and YaYa (both nicknamed after their Hebrew names Yoel and Yael respectively).

Dori’s recent book is perfect for the Jewish holiday of Sukkot that begins tomorrow night. “Shaking in the Shack” takes place during the Sukkot festival and focuses on the Jewish value of helping those less fortunate. YoYo loves to be a comedian and to play practical jokes, but when he, YaYa and the rest of their fifth-grade Hebrew school class find a mysterious four-legged visitor in the synagogue’s sukkah they all take it seriously. Their unexpected adventure brings the twin brother and sister duo face-to-face with the importance of shelter and caring for those in need during Sukkot and year round.

The book hits on the core themes of Sukkot like hachnasat orchim, being hospitable and inviting guests into the sukkah. It also has a subtle way of teaching all of the ingredients of the fall holiday including about the lulav (palm branch) and etrog (citron), as well as the ritual of ushpizin, the mythical guests of the sukkah.

Dori has decided to switch between the two protagonists as narrators in each successive book so that “Shaking in the Shack” is narrated by Joel (YoYo). In the book, he really comes across as the typical 5th grade boy who shows both a silly side as well as a maturing serious side with all of the awkwardness most pre-pubescent boys exhibit.

When I recently met Dori during her summer swing through Detroit on a family-vacation-slash-book-tour, she couldn’t contain her excitement over the new book. Every time another Judaica store or synagogue gift shop agreed to sell her KidLit series, she enthused on Facebook how YoYo and YaYa will now be available in another Jewish community. The YoYo and YaYa series is ideal for 8-12 year-olds, but even the bar and bat mitzvah age teens will enjoy them.

Happy Sukkot and Happy Reading Kids!

Yom Kippur 2013 – 5 Things You Should Know

Here is my “5 Things You Should Know About Yom Kippur” article, originally published in the AOL/HuffingtonPost Patch.com in 2011:

Here are five things you should know about Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement holiday that begins on Friday evening and concludes 25 hours later on Saturday night.

Calendar
Yom Kippur is the most solemn and holiest day on the Jewish calendar. It is also known as the “Sabbath of Sabbaths” because of its magnitude. In fact, it is such an important holiday that it can even occur on the Jewish Sabbath (as it does this year), making it the only time that fasting is allowed on the Sabbath. This Day of Atonement occurs on the tenth day of the first month of the Jewish calendar, rounding out the Days of Awe from Rosh Hashanah. Due to its popularity, you’ll notice local synagogue parking lots at full capacity on Yom Kippur, although many observant members of the Jewish faith do not drive on this day and therefore walk to and from the synagogue instead. Several school districts do not hold classes on Yom Kippur, but this year’s occurrence on a Saturday does not make that necessary.

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Rosh Hashanah 2013 – 5 Things You Should Know

Here is my “5 Things You Should Know About Rosh Hashanah” article, originally published in the AOL/HuffingtonPost Patch.com in 2011:

The Jewish New Year celebration, Rosh Hashanah (Hebrew, meaning “the head of the year”) begins this week on Wednesday evening and lasts until Friday. Here are five things that everyone should know about the holiday.

Rabbi Jason Miller blows the shofar (ram’s horn) which is used on Rosh Hashanah

Popularity
On the Jewish calendar, this holiday is one of the big ones. Even members of the Jewish faith who aren’t regular synagogue attendees make a point of attending services on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, which occurs 10 days later. You’ll notice local synagogue parking lots are overflowing on these days. For some, Rosh Hashanah services are an opportunity for spiritual renewal and introspection. For others, this is a time to visit with friends and enjoy time with family

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