Who Owns Jewish Ritual?

My rabbinic networks have been abuzz about the second episode of a new reality TV show on TLC called “The Sisterhood.” I first learned of the controversial episode when someone Tweeted the clip to me asking me what I thought. I then sent an article about the episode from The Christian Post to my colleagues in Clal’s Rabbis Without Borders program and an interesting discussion ensued.

TLC’s new reality TV show “The Sisterhood” has been panned by Christians for disrespecting Christianity and by Jewish people for using Jewish ritual in a Christian framework.

The new reality show features Texas couple Brian Lewis and his wife Tara and their children. The show premiered on New Year’s day. In the second episode, the family discusses their preparation for their son’s upcoming bar mitzvah. The couple’s 13-year-old son Trevor however isn’t Jewish and neither are his parents. In fact, Trevor’s father is a Christian pastor who was raised in a Jewish household before converting to Christianity before marriage.

In the show Tara speaks directly to the camera, explaining, “To celebrate our Jewish heritage, we are throwing him a Bar Mitzvah. A Christian Bar Mitzvah.” Brian explains it as more than just a passing of age ceremony and more of  a social event.

The notion of a Christian boy celebrating a bar mitzvah was enough to irk many Jewish viewers, but the show ruffled even more feathers by using Jewish ritual items for the occasion. Pastor Brian reveals to his son the tallit that he will wear for his ceremony.

This raises the question of whether Jewish people “own” such concepts as a bar mitzvah and traditionally Jewish ritual garb like a tallit. After all, the Jewish people were not the first people to create entering adulthood ceremonies or prayer shawls (those are likely borrowed from the ancient Egyptians). So, the episode actually encourages an interesting conversation about the kishke (gut) reaction to seeing a religious Christian family appropriating a Jewish life-cycle event and Jewish ritual items. Interestingly, some Jewish people even took exception with the cake prepared for Trevor’s bar mitzvah resembling a Torah scroll.

I’ll get back to the Christian bar mitzvah, but two very recent events forced me to consider these issues as well. Sitting in a session on Tuesday morning at CES (the Consumer Electronics Show) in Las Vegas, a gentleman wearing tzitzit (a four cornered undergarment with ritual fringes hanging out) sat down next to me. I immediately noticed that he wasn’t wearing a kippah (yarmulke) although the four braided fringes complete with threads of blue were proudly dangling around his waist. It didn’t take me long to realize that he was a religious Christian and not Jewish. Eavesdropping on the conversation he was having with the woman on the other side of me, I heard him explain that he and his family live a devout Christian lifestyle in Texas in accordance with both the Old Testament and the New Testament.

Rohan Marley shows off his gold Jewish Star necklace as I display my gold chai necklace.

The second event took place yesterday at CES when I visited with Bob Marley’s son Rohan at the House of Marley booth. House of Marley is a headphones company and part of the Marley family of brands including the Marley Mellow Mood drink that is owned by Bob Marley’s family and investors from the Detroit Jewish community including Gary Shiffman and Alon Kaufman. Rohan, a former football player for the University of Miami and the Canadian Football League, proudly displays a gold Jewish star around his neck. When I asked him why he wears a Jewish star I got a heartfelt ten-minute explanation of how his Rastafarian belief draws from both the Old Testament and the New Testament. He told me that the Jewish star is his way of reminding himself daily of the ethics of the Jewish biblical tradition and how that is the foundation of Christianity.

While some would be uncomfortable with gentiles wearing tzitzit or a Jewish star necklace, my feeling is that we Jews don’t have the trademark on such things. Yes, they are inherently Jewish in our time and in our culture, but what is preventing someone else from adopting those items and connecting their own narrative to them. Who says that only Jews can get married under a chuppah or dance the hora at a wedding? Who says that a Christian boy with Jewish ancestry can’t have a ceremony on his 13th birthday called a bar mitzvah? It might make some Jews uncomfortable, but that gut reaction should lead to a conversation about why it elicits that response.

My colleague, Rabbi Eliot Pearlson of Miami, provided me with some insightful links and images on such topics as specifically Christian tzitizit and tallit, Christian chuppas and ketubas (wedding contracts), South Koreans studying Talmud, and Christian Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. We are living in interesting times, but religions have historically borrowed and appropriated different traditions and rituals from each other.

Another one of my colleagues, Rabbi Joshua Ratner, offered that he takes exception with non-Jews “picking up rituals they (and often we) don’t understand just because they look cool. I have far less of an issue with imitation/syncretism if the object being ‘borrowed’ has some understood meaning that results in others wanting to borrow it, rather than its aesthetic content. But that just begs the question–to be Rabbis Without Borders, if we know that religious syncretism is a way of life, do we now have an obligation to educate the non-Jewish public as well as our particular Jewish communities?”

That comment reminded me of when I was a child and my father would let me borrow his tools. If you’re going to use my hammer, he would say, let me first show you how to use it correctly. But does borrowing something mean the borrower has to use it the same way the lender does? Shouldn’t everyone have the right to determine which religious rituals they want to use from other faiths and have the ability to put their own spin on them without criticism? As uncomfortable as that may make some of us, I think the answer is yes.

Here’s the clip from the “A Christian Bar Mitzvah” episode of The Sisterhood:

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

Jewish Country Clubs Still Alive and Well

Last night, I attended the Michigan Region of the Anti-Defamation League’s annual event at Knollwood Country Club in West Bloomfield, Michigan. Knollwood is one of three Jewish country clubs in the Metro Detroit area and the fact that this event is held at a country club every year wasn’t lost on me. There was a time in the not so distant past that local country clubs (including Oakland Hills Country Club just down the road from Knollwood) had unwritten rules barring Jews from membership. Thanks to the work of the ADL, such discrimination is virtually unheard of anymore.

As the ADL prepares to mark its centennial year, it is important to remember that the ADL is unique as a national Jewish communal organization in that it wants to be able to go out of business. Unfortunately, so long as anti-Semitism exists in the world — and sadly it still does — the ADL will have to stay in business. I first became involved with the ADL as a college student when, through the Jewish Student Union, I helped organize a one-day conference on anti-Semitism. Later that summer I served an internship at the Michigan regional office of the ADL and was directly mentored by Dick Lobenthal, a national legend in the fight against prejudice, racism, and intolerance. This year I am once again finding myself actively involved with the ADL as a Glass Leadership Program participant.

Augusta National didn’t admit its first Jewish members until the 1980s. Many local golf and country clubs in Michigan had unwritten rules restricting the members of Blacks and Jews.

Sitting in that Jewish country club last night with several hundred other supporters of the ADL’s important work, I considered the reasons that Jewish country clubs are still in existence. At a time when Jewish men and women are no longer restricted from membership at country clubs, these Jewish clubs remain throughout the country. While Jewish hospitals (Detroit’s Sinai Hospital closed several years ago) and universities (Brandeis is only about 60% Jewish today) are no longer in existence, Jewish country clubs have endured. In the Metro Detroit area there are three Jewish clubs within a five mile radius of each other.

This past summer I was asked to write an article for the Tam-O-Shanter Country Club’s newsletter about the importance of Jewish country clubs in the 21st century. Here is what I wrote:

I recently discovered that every episode of the 1980s TV sitcom “Family Ties” are available on Netflix. Growing up, I always enjoyed watching that show on Thursday nights and I thought my children might enjoy it too. So, I streamed the pilot episode which first aired 30 years ago in 1982. My 8 1/2-year-old son and I sat down and watched it together.

I was immediately reminded that the TV shows from the 80s were more values focused. This particular episode dealt with Alex Keaton’s girlfriend taking him to her family’s restricted country club for dinner. It was the first time my son had ever heard that clubs existed that restricted minorities from membership. He looked at me dumbfounded.

I pressed “Pause” on Netflix and began to explain bigotry and racism to my wonderfully innocent son. I pictured my own father explaining this to me some 30 years prior when I first viewed this episode of “Family Ties.” The first sentence I said to him was, “This is why Tam exists!”

The reason we have Jewish country clubs like Tam-O-Shanter, I explained, is because decades ago Jewish people were forbidden to join the existing golf clubs in our area. Not only did Jewish visionaries around the country build clubs for their own ranks, they created some of the most beautiful golf courses and luxurious country clubs.

Thankfully, times are much better today and local clubs are open to Jewish membership, but the Jewish clubs have endured. Not only is Tam still strong today, it has maintained its Jewish essence. Passover seders, Shabbat dinners, and break-the-fast meals are highlights of Tam’s annual calendar. Over the years, Tam has played host to several golf outings for Jewish organizations including Michigan State Hillel and the Michigan Jewish Sports Foundation, in addition to hosting events for AIPAC, Jewish Senior Life, and the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces. The locker room at Tam often sounds like a local version of the Broadway show “Old Men Telling Jewish Jokes” and it’s not uncommon to hear some chosen Yiddish expressions tossed around on the golf course.

As [club owner] Sheldon [Yellen] often remarks, “It’s important to keep Tam a Jewish club.” And it is. The “No Jews Allowed” policy at country clubs is a thing of the past, but Jewish clubs are still necessities for our community. After watching that episode of “Family Ties” with my son, I think he will feel a stronger connection to Tam. I know I will.

Jewish country clubs may not exist anymore in response to anti-Semitism, but their existence does remind us of a darker time in our country. I for one am glad that the Anti-Defamation League is strong and continues to serve our community to stop the defamation of the Jewish people, and to secure justice and fair treatment for all. As the ADL approaches its centennial year, we should realize the importance of this organization and celebrate its successes.

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

Getting Chai on ‘Weeds’ – Jewish Themes Galore on the Showtime Hit Series

Fans of the long-running Showtime series “Weeds” know that writer and creator Jenji Kohan is not afraid to pepper the show with Jewish themes. While the show, now in its final season, has changed its flavor over the years and gained some critics, many devotees still enjoy the story about a marijuana-selling widowed mother from the suburbs and her family’s experiences.

Throughout the different webs of relationships, Kohan, who is Jewish, has managed to bring esoteric Jewish concepts into the series, including in a recent episode that featured ruminations on the power and purpose of immersing in the mikvah. Perhaps because the show is on the subscription-based Showtime network, its Jewish essence hasn’t been widely covered, but Kohan, who considered attending rabbinical seminary, has taken on some controversial Jewish subjects in the past eight seasons. Here are the top Jewish references:

* Unveiling (Season 1, Episode 8): It’s likely that many viewers thought this was a funeral service at the cemetery, but Jewish fans recognized the ritual as the unveiling of Judah Botwin’s tombstone. Once the family returns from the cemetery, Nancy Botwin (Mary-Louise Parker) explains her day to the Drug Enforcement Agency agent who becomes her boyfriend: “It’s where they unveil the gravestone. It’s a Jewish thing. I know you’re thinking, ‘She doesn’t look Jewish.’ I come from Welsh stock … I’m not Jewish. My husband. He’s dead now. He was Jewish.”

Showtime

The episode also tackles the controversial topic of Jewish lineage when the Orthodox rabbi tells the Botwin boys, Silas (Hunter Parrish) and Shane (Alexander Gould), that they are not legitimately Jewish because their mother isn’t Jewish and they had never converted to Judaism. The young Shane is hurt by the news and takes out his aggression on his wrestling opponent, whose foot he bites after yelling “Sh’ma Yisrael!”

* Rabbinical School (Season 2): Nancy’s out-of-work brother-in-law Andy (Justin Kirk) decides the best way to keep from returning to military service will be to become a rabbi. He enrolls in the fictional Hamidrash L’Torah rabbinical school, where he falls in loves with the dean, the attractive Israeli Yael Hoffman (Meital Dohan). While much of the ongoing rabbinical school experience is silly, some rather serious issues are discussed, including Andy’s theological convictions, which come up while he is writing his admissions essay.

* Euthanasia (Season 4, Episodes 2 and 3): The Botwins leave the Agrestic/Majestic community after it burns and relocate to the home of Nancy’s father-in-law. There they find Lenny Botwin (Albert Brooks) and his mother, Bubbie (Jo Farkas), who is hooked up to a ventilator. The Auschwitz survivor regains consciousness and asks Lenny to kill her. The Botwin men discuss the wisdom and ethics of euthanizing Bubbie, but in the end Lenny agrees to have Nancy kill Bubbie.

* Sitting Shiva (Season 4, Episode 4): While shiva is one of the most well-known Jewish rituals, not many television shows have accurately portrayed it. This episode focuses entirely on the Botwin family sitting shiva for Bubbie at son Lenny’s insistence. Several laws and customs of shiva are mentioned during the episode, including the understanding that family members should not cook for themselves. A shiva candle is lit, and friends and neighbors come to pay their respect.

* Levirate Marriage (Ongoing): While Andy mentions the Jewish concept of a Levirate marriage to his sister-in-law Nancy at one point in the show’s history, the theme is an ongoing one. The Torah dictates that an unmarried man must marry his brother’s widow, but that applies only if the widow has not had children. So even if the law would not apply in Nancy and Andy’s case — both because she already has children and she is not Jewish — the constant and sometimes awkward attraction between them seems continually to remind the viewer of Andy’s enjoyment and frustration over the hunt.

* Bris (Season 5, Episode 8): Nancy gives birth to Tijuana Mayor and cartel leader Esteban Reyes’ baby boy, but the father (Demian Bichir) refuses to sign the birth certificate for fear of its effect on his political career. Andy signs the birth certificate as the boy’s father and insists on a brit for the baby, whom he promises to raise proudly as his Jewish son. At the brit, baby Stevie is given the Hebrew name Avi Melech (son of a king).

Showtime

* Mikvah (Season 8, Episode 5): At the end of this episode, Rabbi David Bloom (David Julian Hirsh), the rabbi/hospital chaplain, finally confronts Nancy, who has been secretly swimming in his backyard swimming pool. This is the same rabbi who talks theology with Andy at the hospital when he is concerned about Nancy’s well-being after she is shot in the head at the end of the previous season. When Nancy explains that swimming in the pool feels like a sort of rebirth for her, the rabbi explains the Jewish concept of tevillah (immersion in a mikvah). This is likely the most spiritual and New Age definition of the mikvah ritual that has ever been offered on television.

Kohan has said that she’s not afraid to take on inherently Jewish concepts on the show no matter how esoteric they may be. For the many Jewish fans of “Weeds,” there have been many instances of surprise and pride over the years after unpredicted mentions of a Jewish ritual or theme. As the final season comes to a close, there may just be more Jewish references to come.

UPDATE: I just received word that the show filmed scenes for an episode at Adat Ari El synagogue in Valley Village, California last week. They used the historic chapel for one of the scenes. I’m thinking this can mean a Nancy-Andy or a Jill-Andy wedding… We shall see!

Originally published at JTA.org and cross-posted to the PopJewish.com blog.

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

Bar Mitzvah Boy on America’s Got Talent

Cross-posted to the PopJewish.com blog

Watching Edon Pinchot on “America’s Got Talent” tonight I found myself praying. Not praying that the adorable 14-year-old Jewish boy wearing a kippah would win. I was praying that Howie Mandel and Howard Stern wouldn’t make any stupid jokes.

Kudos to Howard Stern for holding back and focusing on young Edon’s singing ability rather than his obvious religion and religious garb.

I guess the other Jewish judge named Howard couldn’t resist. Howie Mandel praised Edon and then asked him if he got a standing ovation at his bar mitzvah too. Not a horrible remark. But then Howie Mandel went the silly pun route and actually said to the young boy, “I said it before and I’ll say it again: From one to another, Jew are terrific!”

Howard Stern came off looking much better by first suggesting he doesn’t use a fog machine and then explaining how impressed he was with Edon’s performance. After an earlier performance Howard Stern criticized Edon for having a whiny voice, but this time around he said the young boy is humble and nice and that “America’s going to fall in love with you.”

Here’s Edon performing on “American’s Got Talent” tonight:

And here’s Edon Pinchot (no relation to Bronson Pinchot — Balki Bartoukomos of “Perfect Strangers”) performing on “American’s Got Talent: Vegas Week”:

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

Sacha Baron Cohen Hits Ryan Seacrest with Kim Jong Il’s Ashes: Funny or Disrespectful?

Sacha Baron Cohen of course made a scene before tonight’s Oscars when he arrived on the “Red Carpet” in character as General Aladeen, the star of his upcoming movie “The Dictator.” Carrying the fake ashes of the late North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il, Baron Cohen dumped the ashes onto Ryan Seacrest. As he walked away, he told Seacrest that when asked “Who are you wearing?” he should answer “Kim Jong Il.”

Sacha Baron Cohen dumps Kim Jong Il’s “ashes” on Ryan Seacrest (Photo: E! Entertainment)

It was meant as a prank and a publicity stunt. And like most of Sacha Baron Cohen’s publicity stunts, it worked. People will be talking about it on Monday morning and that will ultimately result in a larger box office take for “The Dictator.”


Watching the footage of Baron Cohen comically spilling the fake ashes of a dead dictator onto Ryan Seacrest reminded me of a similar scene from the season premier of “Two and a Half Men” this season. The new season began with Jon Cryer’s character Alan being surprised at seeing a soaking-wet Walden Schmidt (Ashton Kutcher) appearing at the Malibu house window and then tossing Charlie Sheen’s character’s ashes into the air. The ashes are later stepped on and then vacuumed. The spilling of a dead person’s ashes in error is an old comedy routine (remember Robert DeNiro’s mother’s ashes falling off the mantle in “Meet the Parents”?), but I still found it troubling. Sacha Baron Cohen dumping Kim Jong Il’s ashes on to Ryan Seacrest and Jon Cryer throwing Charlie Sheen’s ashes into the air were both funny and I laughed. However, it also made me think of how we should respect the dead.

Jon Cryer is surprised by the appearance of Ashton Kutcher’s character in “Two and a Half Men” and throws Charlie Sheen’s ashes (Adam Rose/CBS)

According to Jewish law, cremation is prohibited. We believe that dead bodies should return to the ground. Admittedly that could have had something to do with my discomfort at watching the scene from “Two and a Half Men.” Interestingly, I wasn’t as troubled watching the “Weekend at Bernie’s” movie in which a dead corpse is paraded around the beach for a few days.


The comedic gags with spilled ashes and a dancing corpse are one thing. They are meant to be humorous. However, we should remember the ethic of respecting the dead. K’vod ha-met in the Hebrew refers to the Jewish law of treating the deceased with honor. I have never attended Bodies: The Exhibition in which preserved human corpses are preserved and dissected to showcase the way the body’s systems work. I understand that it is for educational purposes, but purchasing a ticket to such a “show” has struck me as odd. It seems a disrespectful way to treat the dead.


What also comes to mind when I think about how we must honor and respect the dead is the recent published photograph by the National Enquire of a dead Whitney Houston lying in her coffin. I understand that the goal of this tabloid is to sell copies of their paper to make money, but this immediately struck me as crossing the line of decency and appropriateness. Journalistic integrity and responsibility is becoming harder to find these days, but the National Enquire should have refused to purchase this photograph. Publishing it on the front page of the tabloid was disrespectful to Whitney Houston’s family and was certainly a violation of the edict to respect the dead.

While I am uncomfortable even seeing fake ashes being used as a joke, I certainly understand how Sacha Baron Cohen was attempting to get shock value out of his stunt at tonight’s Academy Awards and how “Two and a Half Men” was making a joke (and perhaps a statement about Charlie Sheen). Where I think our society needs to tread more cautiously is when actual dead bodies are used inappropriately. The Bodies exhibit has been very successful for many years despite some people’s criticism of it. While I don’t plan to ever buy a ticket and attend this exhibition, I do understand how it can be an educational endeavor. However, the case of Whitney Houston’s dead corpse being published on the front page of a tabloid newspaper (and then all over the Internet), is a shame.

No matter how curious our society might be to see such a photograph, I hope more tact will be displayed in the future so that dead bodies (no matter what form they take) will be respected and honored. Sacha Baron Cohen was going for sensationalism tonight at the Oscars and he clearly understands how death gets our attention. 

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

Alan Dershowitz Sees Potential in "Curb" Episode

When I blogged about Larry David’s brilliant “Palestinian Chicken” episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, I focused on the role that the yarmulke played in that episode and didn’t really get into the meatier (get it?) issue that chicken can potentially play in Israeli-Palestinian relations. I figured someone would find value in that comical episode and try to use it to bring the two sides in the Mid-East crisis together for dialogue. I was just surprised when I heard it was Alan Dershowitz.

Speaking with Prof. Alan Dershowitz in my office at the
University of Michigan Hillel Foundation in 2005.

In an interview with the Columbia Current, Dershowitz explained his role in making sure Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu saw the Curb Your Enthusiasm episode:

“I recently sent a copy of ‘Palestinian Chicken,’ that Larry David gave me, to Prime Minister Netanyahu — with the suggestion that he invite Abbas over to watch it together,” he said, referring to the episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” centered around the heated competition between a kosher deli and a Palestinian chicken joint in Los Angeles. “And maybe if they both get a good laugh, they can begin a negotiating process … So it may be that Larry David will not only win Emmys, but he may even qualify for the Nobel Peace Prize, if his episode could bring together Netanyahu and Abbas, and bring Abbas to the negotiating table.”

Was it a coincidence that Larry David named the Palestinian Chicken restaurant
Al-Abbas or was it a wink at Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian National Authority?

Wow! I really think it would be fun to watch Abbas and Netanyahu viewing that episode of Curb together. The only thing that would top that would be if Larry David, Jeff Garlin and Bob Einstein were there in the room too. What would they all be eating during the viewing? Obviously, (kosher) Palestinian chicken!

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

Yiddish Everywhere and Late Night TV Goes For the Jewish Triple Play

I’ve always maintained that if an alien from Outer Space arrived in the United States and spent just a short period of time here, he would conclude that Jews make up much more than the measly 2% of the population that we actually do. Jewish people are influential in many areas of society and somehow Jewish themes and words seem to always creep into pop culture.

Take the Yiddish language for instance, which has long been considered the dying language of the Jewish people. Many Yiddish words have crept into popular parlance as I blogged about this summer when presidential candidate Michele Bachmann mispronounced the word chutzpah. Just a few weeks ago another candidate for president, Mitt Romney, attempted to say the same Yiddish word in a televised debate. “I like your chutzpah on this, Herman,” Romney said to Herman Cain. Romney’s pronunciation was much better than Bachmann’s, though he still wasn’t able to get that throat-clearing hard “ch” sound.

And it’s not only Mormon politicians who are casually tossing out Yiddish words and expressions. I’ve begun to notice more Yiddish words being used by non-Jews recently. Last month I was playing a round of golf with an Indian businessman. On this rainy afternoon, he drove the ball into a patch of wet mud. When we arrived at his ball I heard him express his dissatisfaction as he exclaimed that his ball landed in the schmutz. I guess he plays golf with a lot of Jews.

And then earlier this week Canon Kevin George a pastor friend of mine from Windsor, Ontario emailed to ask if I could speak at his church on the Sunday following Thanksgiving in an interfaith service. I responded to his email explaining that I had already committed to officiating at a wedding that afternoon, to which he replied simply: “Oy vey!”

My new Greek friend Nick Raftis, the owner of The Inn Season Cafe (a delicious vegetarian restaurant in Royal Oak, Michigan certified by Kosher Michigan), is always asking me if I want to come in to his restaurant to have a nosh.

These Yiddish phrases have even found their way into social media. I received an email from the social media analytics website Klout informing me I had a new notification. When I logged into my Klout account, there was a message that said, “Mazel tov! You received 1 +K for doing something awesome.” Amazing.

And then of course there’s late night TV. Saturday Night Live is singularly responsible for bringing such Yiddish words as “verklempt” and “shpilkis” into the mainstream through Mike Myers’ “Coffee Talk with Linda Richman”. Last night, I noticed what I would call the Late Night Triple Play when it comes to Jewish references.

First, at the end of The Daily Show last night, Jon Stewart gave a very heartfelt tribute to the late Gil Cates, producer of the Academy Awards. Introducing the “Moment of Zen” dedicated to Gil Cates’ memory, Jon said that the man who produced the two Oscar shows that he hosted was “in layman terms, a mensch.” The next Jewish reference came on Tosh.0 when Daniel Tosh (who is not Jewish) encouraged his viewers to come to his stand-up tour taking place over the holidays and then said, “I mean the Jewish holidays”. The third Jewish reference came from the Irish Conan O’Brien who is hosting his late night show from New York City this week. Joking that he couldn’t see the small signs held by audience members in the back of the theater, Conan asked how he was supposed to be able to read these small signs that look like they’re written in Hebrew.

With all of these references to Jewish themes, from the political arena to late night television and in regular everyday conversation, it really is amazing that we Jews are such a minority in America. In fact, even that topic made it into The Daily Show episode last night. John Hodgman told Jon Stewart how surprised he was that Jews only made up 2-3% of the population because “You (Jews) seem to be everywhere!”

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

Did Oprah Go to the Mikveh for Her New Show?

What has Oprah Winfrey been doing since ending her long-running afternoon talk show last May? If your only news source was JTA.org (the Jewish world’s version of the AP), you might think that she has embraced Judaism on the level of Madonna or Demi Moore.

A misleading title grabbed many people’s attention this week when the JTA published a news brief with the bold header stating “Oprah visits mikvah for new show.” My colleague in Israel, Rabbi Andy Sacks, re-posted the news brief on Facebook and wondered allowed: “Now I have heard of going to Mikveh for Taharaat Mishpacha (family purity), before Haggim or Shabbat, for dishes, conversion, etc. But this is a new one on me.”

Well, apparently Oprah did not embrace the Jewish ritual of immersion in a mikveh before launching her new show (that would have made more headlines I’m sure), but she did visit with two Chasidic Jewish families for an upcoming episode and toured a mikveh. The new series called “Oprah’s Next Chapter” will premiere in January on her OWN network.

Writing on the Forward’s Shmooze blog, Renee Ghert-Zand explained that Oprah stopped by Congregation B’nai Avraham’s new state-of-the art ritual bath while scouting locations to film segments for her new show. “The Shmooze is guessing that the visit to the synagogue’s new, has something to do with Winfrey’s plans to touch upon the halachic concept of ‘family purity’ and the related spiritual nature of immersion in ‘living waters.’ While a crowd of neighborhood people gathered around to get a glimpse of the highly influential mega-celebrity, mikveh lady Bronya Shaffer admitted to knowing virtually nothing about her or her work.”

If the mikveh ends up being showcased on Oprah’s new television show, the Jewish ritual of becoming purified after mikveh immersion at the end of a woman’s menstrual cycle could take off on a large scale. Just look at what effect Oprah had on book clubs!

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

Mitt Romney’s Magic Mormon Underwear and Beating Willows

I know I’m not the only rabbi who watches Bill Maher’s HBO show “Real Time” religiously. I say “religiously” with tongue-in-cheek because I’ve never missed a show and the comedian has become increasingly anti-religion in recent years. Like many religious leaders I tune in to Bill Maher’s show (actually I DVR it and watch it mid-week whenever I have a chance) for his political commentary, but I lose him when he gets into his rants about religion and God.

In yesterday’s New York Times, Maureen Dowd wrote about Bill Maher’s recent appearance at George Washington University when the creator of the documentary “Religulous” went off on an anti-Mormon rant when talking about Mitt Romney, the Mormon candidate for president. “Bill Maher bounded into territory that the news media have been gingerly tiptoeing around. Magic underwear. Baptizing dead people. Celestial marriages. Private planets. Racism. Polygamy.”

Bill Maher is a staunch atheist who attacks all religions. He was raised Roman Catholic and now refers to the Roman Catholic Church as “an international child sex ring.” But he seems to be the most critical on the Mormon faith. “By any standard, Mormonism is more ridiculous than any other religion,” Maher said. This could be because of Romney’s recent popularity in the 2012 presidential race.

I spent some time this morning thinking about Maureen Dowd’s column and Bill Maher’s vicious attack on Mormonism during his recent stand-up comedy appearance. It could very well be that Mormonism gets a lot of attention for some of its odd beliefs and rituals because it is a 19th century religion that was founded in America. Its former views on polygamy and belief in magical undergarments make for good comedy material when the creators of South Park want to write a Broadway show.

But as I marched around the small chapel in synagogue this morning holding my etrog (citron fruit) and lulav (palm fronds bounded together with myrtle and willow branches) and wearing my long multi-colored prayer shawl with four braided fringes dangling from each corner as I chanted Hosannas, I realized that it’s not fair to lampoon any religion for its silly ways. Today, Jews all over the world observe Hoshanah Rabbah when we beat willow branches as a way of ridding ourselves of our sins. A couple weeks earlier on Rosh Hashanah we threw bread crumbs into moving streams of water. Sound weird? It is. But it’s deeply rooted in religious tradition making it an accepted ritual. All religions have these odd customs that appear strange to an outsider.

If temple-going Mormons choose to wear special undergarments because they believe it sets them apart from the world and signifies a covenant between them and God, then great. One person’s special religious underwear is another’s yarmulke or burqa or gold cross around the neck. The Mormon underwear is sacred to the wearer for what it represents, but silly to the non-believer because it is rooted in a religious belief not their own.

I may not like when Mormon’s posthumously baptize deceased Jews (the other focus of Maureen Dowd’s editorial and Bill Maher’s attack), but who am I to laugh at their sacred rituals and religious garb. I find Bill Maher to be a funny comedian, but I wish he’d give up on his unrelenting religious scrutiny. He’s certainly entitled to his opinions about matters of faith and theology, but his aggressiveness has become offensive.

Mitt Romney will continue wearing his special underpants. I’ll continue wearing a yarmulke and waving the lulav. And Bill Maher will continue his crusade against the religious groups in our country. But I hope he remembers that he’s a comedian and gets paid to be funny, not disrespectful.

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

JTS Chef Joe Landa Wins on Food Network’s "Chopped!"

I learned a lot in rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary. I also managed to eat pretty well too. Right before I began my six-year tenure at the Seminary, a new company took over the food management operations in the cafeteria. From what I understand, Flik Independent Schools Dining took it up a notch. Rich Costas and his team had never run a kosher kitchen before, but they learned quickly how to serve three delicious meals a day and cater fancy events while adhering to the kosher laws.

The scrumptious food served at JTS might have been a well kept secret until last night. The Seminary’s executive chef Joe Landa was a big winner on the Food Network’s cooking competition show “Chopped!” Chef Joe’s been establishing his reputation as a creative culinary innovator for almost a quarter century.

Before becoming a champion on “Chopped!”, Chef Joe won the 2010 “Whole Grains Council” national recipe contest. He’s a certified personal fitness instructor with a passion for healthy living, physical endurance, and balanced nutrition. Chef Joe came to JTS in 2003 after many years as a chef at various restaurants in New York City.

As executive chef at JTS, Chef Joe helps serve about 600 customers per day. He’s responsible for the creative choices in the cafeteria line for three meals a day, plus all the catering requests. In addition to preparing meals for Seminary functions, Chef Joe will also cater weddings, conventions, Shabbat and holiday meals, and other events at the Seminary.

On last night’s episode of “Chopped!”, host Ted Allen challenged Chef Joe and three other chefs to create a three-course meal by using flour tortillas, English cucumbers, fresh fava beans and pickled beef tongue for the Appetizer round; pork rinds, galangal, purple kohlrabi and rabbit legs and thighs for the Entrée round; and lambe, chickpea flour, Asian pears, rose water syrup for the Dessert round. These were clearly not the typical kosher meals that Chef Joe is used to cooking up at the Seminary. That could be the reason he didn’t identify where he works; only stating that he’s an executive chef in Manhattan.

Chef Joe took home the $10,000 prize beating out the stiff competition made up of a sous chef at NYU Medical Center, a restaurateur in Brooklyn, and a restaurateur from Gramercy Park. While I’m not a foodie or a regular Food Network viewer (this was actually my first time watching anything on the Food Network), I found this show to be exhilarating. I can’t wait for the next time I’m in NYC to stop by the Seminary and sample some delicious offerings from Champion Chef Joe Landa. Congratulations Joe… even if it was far from kosher, you made the Seminary proud!

UPDATE: For those concerned about the overtly non-kosher fare that Chef Joe had to cook on the TV show, don’t worry because he was able to recreate a kosher version of that meal for cafeteria patrons of the Jewish Theological Seminary this past Wednesday. Here’s the announcement that went out to the Seminary community:

“Join our own “Chopped” champion, Chef Joe Landa, for his award winning menu selection as featured on his recent TV appearance on the Food Network. Chef Joe will be making a kosher version of his Chipotle and balsamic glazed pickled beef tongue tostada with ginger fava bean mash and English cucumber salsa. Come down to the JTS Dining Hall on Wednesday, June 29th at lunchtime!”

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