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>

Conan O’Brien Teaches Halacha (Jewish Law)

As the founder and director of a kosher certification agency, people often send me anything and everything having anything to do with kosher certification. So last week when the Rabbinical Council of California first certified a sexual lubricant product as kosher and then rescinded the certification, you can imagine I received several articles about the story.

While I wasn’t surprised to see coverage of this story making the rounds on late night TV talk shows, I was taken aback when I saw Conan O’Brien’s uber-esoteric halachic schtick on last night’s episode of “Conan”.

Jewish jokes aren’t anything new for Conan O’Brien, who is Irish Catholic. One of Conan’s long-time writers is Rob Kutner (@ApocalypseHow), who once wrote for “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart”. Kutner has become something of a maven when it comes to writing funny Purim shpiels and created The Shushan Channel, a mail-order Purim shpiel business.

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Spelling Knaidel and Bravo’s Princesses Reality TV Show

We Jews have arrived! That seemed to be the general sentiment on my Facebook news feed last night as word traveled around the social network that the winning word in the 2013 Scripps National Spelling Bee was “knaidel” – the Yiddish word for matzah ball. Most excited Facebook users chimed in on the variant transliterated spellings of the Yiddish word wondering how the organizers of the annual spelling bee could agree on just one accepted spelling.

Arvind Mahankali, the 2013 Scripps National Spelling Bee champ spelled Knaidel for the win (NBC)

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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

Best Hanukkah Videos of 2012

Hanukkah, Hanukah or Chanukkah… no matter how you spell it there’s one thing you can be certain of when Hanukkah arrives and that is that there will be no shortage of fun Hanukkah videos on YouTube. Since posting my list of the top Hanukkah videos the past couple years I now receive dozens of videos to include in my list. I’m sure I’m leaving out some great ones, but these are what I consider to be the best Hanukkah videos of 2012.

Oh, and special thanks to the indie band “fun.” for releasing the song “Some Nights” this year. As you can see from several of the videos below, it was an obvious song to parody y.for Hanukkah. And yes, the band’s guitarist/vocalist Jack Antonoff is Jewish and attended Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County, New Jersey (he also dated Scarlett Johansson in high school). Enjoy!

Stand Four – 8 Nights

Pella Productions – 8 Nights Of Hanukkah A Capella Mashup

Maccabeats – Shine

Matisyahu Sings “Happy Hanukkah” on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno

The Best Dreidel Songs (Including a Version by Jimmy Fallon and Rashida Jones)

Shirat Machar (Marom) – Eight Nights the Miracle of Light

Technion – Rube Goldberg Machine Lights Menorah

Aish – Racing Home: A Hanukkah Surprise

Michelle Citrin – Hanukkah Lovin’

Bubala Please – Making Latkes (Warning: Strong Language)

(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To DREIDEL)

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

Monday Morning Caption Contest

Leave your funniest caption for the photo below in the comments section:

(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

Monday Morning Caption Contest

Leave your funniest caption in the comments section below:

© Martin Holt

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

Monday Morning Caption Contest

Leave your funniest caption in the comments section below:

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

Monday Morning Caption Contest

Leave your funniest caption in the comments section below:

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