Episode 32: The Art of Judaism

How can the methodology of an artist shape or re-shape Judaism in new ways? How can we begin to understand Judaism as a material of art in and of itself? In this final episode of Judaism Unbound's series on the role of art in Judaism, Dan and Lex ask explore the relationship between contemporary Judaism and the creative impulse. [1]

(0:01 - 15:05): We start off the episode by discussing the role of the creative impulse in Judaism. We look back at the historical precedent of the Impressionists, asking how the lessons of their work could apply to contemporary Judaism. [2] We also compare and contrast the phenomena of "skill" and "art," arguing that the Jewish community has primarily oriented itself towards "skill" in recent generations. [3]

(15:06 - 26:25): Dan outlines three different dimensions to the role of art in Judaism, that correspond to the ideas of "Jewish-themed art," "the aesthetics of the Jewish experience," and "Judaism as the material of art itself." Lex discusses the different kinds of people who are best situated to lead the way in each of those three realms, tying the conversation to our idea of the "knowledge vs. chutzpah curve," first outlined in Episode 6 of our podcast. [4]

(26:26 - 40:49): We ask what conditions would help ensure a Jewish ecosystem where artistic, creative impulses can most thrive? How could the Jewish artists (in each of the above three realms) that already are out there connect with and learn from each other, elevating one another's work (and Judaism) in the process? We close by tying the discussion into our next block of episodes, focusing on sectors of the Jewish world that have historically been marginalized.

[1] To listen to the previous three episodes in this series, visit these links: Episode 29 (Featuring Amichai Lau-Lavie) Episode 30 (Featuring Nina Paley) and Episode 31 (Featuring Aliza Kline).

This space, Brown RISD Hillel's Hillel Gallery Project serves as the main foyer and dining area of their building, while simultaneously doubling as an art gallery, featuring exhibitions like this one. Image Credit: www.jessxchen.com

This space, Brown RISD Hillel's Hillel Gallery Project serves as the main foyer and dining area of their building, while simultaneously doubling as an art gallery, featuring exhibitions like this one. Image Credit: www.jessxchen.com

[2] Impressionist art was viewed by many people (including some prominent art critics) as amateur-ish, uninteresting, and occasionally as vulgar. Most famously, the critic Louis Leroy coined the very name "impressionism" as an implication that their art is not genuine, but merely an "impression" of real art. To learn more about Leroy (and the widespread, negative opinion of impressionism he represents) visit this link.

[3] Lex discusses a case study of the Brown RISD Hillel Gallery Project, an initiative of the Hillel that serves both Brown University and The Rhode Island School of Design. Learn more about it here.

[4] For a fuller explanation of the "knowledge vs. chutzpah" curve, check out Episode 6 of our podcast.


Episode 31: Designing OneTable - Aliza Kline

Aliza Kline, Executive Director of OneTable [1] and former Executive Director of Mayyim Hayyim Living Waters Community Mikveh, [2]  joins Judaism Unbound for the third episode in a four-episode series on Judaism's relationship to art and artists. She explores the ways in which design thinking can play a crucial role in successful Jewish institutions, along with some of the unique contributions of the two organizations that she has directed to contemporary Judaism.

Image Credit: ELI Talks

Image Credit: ELI Talks

(0:01 - 13:22): Kline begins the episode by discussing the beginnings of Mayyim Hayyim Living Waters Community Mikveh[3] She outlines what a mikveh is, what needs they have traditionally been able to fulfill, and some new needs that Mayyim Hayyim set out to meet in the lives of individuals and communities today. 

(13:23 - 25:03): She elaborates on ways that Mayyim Hayyim connects with people on both an individual and a communal level, and then segues into a discussion of OneTable, the organization she new directs. She also hones in on the ways that particular forms of design thinking play into OneTable's relationship to the concept of Shabbat dinner. [4] [5]

Image Credit: OneTable.org

Image Credit: OneTable.org

(25:04 - 45:44): Kline continues by putting forth her argument for why Shabbat dinner can be a meaningful, important part of people's lives, even for those who are not particularly religious. In closing, she explores what it means to make Judaism your own, and gives her own answer to one of the ever-present questions of our podcast -- Why be Jewish?

[1] To learn more about OneTable, take a look at their website, OneTable.org.

[2] Explore what Mayyim Hayyim has to offer on their website.

[3] Anita Diamant is one of the people who played a pivotal role in the establishment of Mayyim Hayyim. To hear from Diamant about that process in a bit more detail, along with a wide variety of other topics, listen to Episode 12 of Judaism Unbound which featured Diamant as our guest.

[4] Explore the concept of design thinking in more depth at www.WhatIsDesignThinking.org. Watch their video by clicking the link directly to the right.

[5] If you would like to create a Shabbat dinner with OneTable yourself, you can learn how to do so at this link.

Episode 30: Seder Masochism - Nina Paley

How might Judaism, atheism, and art blend together into a deep exploration of the meaning of a key Jewish practice today? Celebrated comics artist and animator Nina Paley, creator of the highly regarded animated feature film Sita Sings the Blues and the animated feature film-in-progress Seder Masochism [1],  joins Dan and Lex to discuss a wide variety of issues that have arisen as she has taken on the Passover seder in her current project. This episode is the second in a four-episode series on the role of art and artists in contemporary American Judaism.

Image Credit: www.alchetron.com

Image Credit: www.alchetron.com

(0:01 - 12:17): Paley describes her own Jewish background, growing up with parents who were atheists but who, for one reason or another, still valued the experience of the Passover seder. She identifies herself as a "born-again atheist" and explains the ways in which her recent study of the Book of Exodus has left her uncomfortable. We discuss how her current film project, Seder Masochism, came to be. [2]

(12:18 - 27:04): Paley explains her opposition to copyright and what she terms "permission culture." [3] She then explores what it means for her (and her parents before her) to identify as both Jewish and as an atheist. We discuss Paley's previous feature-length film, Sita Sings the Blues, and consider whether there are relevant similarities between American Hindus and American Jews. [4]

(27:05 - 42:52): We return to the topic of art, exploring the extent to which prohibitions on graven images have had a detrimental effect on the quantity and types of art produced by the Abrahamic religions over time. We also return to the subject of Passover seders, examining their evolution over the course of history and how the Rabbis may have been struggling with the same concerns that Paley is struggling with today in making the film.. 

[1] Though she has not compiled all of her videos into a feature film yet, Paley has shared much of her still-in-progress work on Seder Masochism on her blog.. It is available to view online. Visit this link to view many of the short clips that will become part of Seder Masochism. Click the video link on the left for one particularly provocative clip, entitled "This Land Is Mine" (not advisable for young children).

[2] To view Sita Sings the Blues in its entirety, you can visit this Youtube link (available for free due to Paley's opposition to permission culture). It has been viewed by over 1,000,000 people!

[3] To learn more about Paley's opposition to copyright and permission culture, you can view her TEDx Talk on the subject, entitled "Copyright is Brain Damage" (available by clicking the video directly to the left).

[4] For an interesting article on the similarities between Hindus and Jews, read this piece by Gabe Weinstein in New Voices Magazine

Episode 29: Lab/Shul - Amichai Lau-Lavie

What role do art and artists play in contemporary Judaism? Amichai Lau-Lavie, founder, Executive Director, and Spiritual Director of Lab/Shul [1], joins Dan and Lex to kick off a unit of episodes exploring that question in detail. He speaks about his own experiences leading an artist-driven community, and he takes on a variety of related questions on issues ranging from technology, to pluralism, to literature, and more. [2]

(0:01 - 10:18): Lau-Lavie begins by describing the beginnings of Lab/Shul, including its evolution from a project called StorahTelling. [3] He also introduces two paradigms -- "artists are the new rabbis" and "rabbis are the new artists" -- in explaining what Lab/Shul means when is talks of itself as "artist-driven." He also questions the utility of the phrase "Jewish art" as it is often employed.

(10:19 - 24:12): We explore the twin questions of "Why do Jewish?" and "Why be Jewish?" and go on to examine some of the important similarities between the realms of religion and art. Lau-Lavie offers an alternative perspective on the story of the Golden Calf, including (perhaps surprisingly) why he thinks he probably would have contributed to its construction had he been at Mount Sinai. He also discusses some of the innovations he has implemented in his community that could be successfully utilized in other contexts. [4]

(24:13 - 34:20): Lau-Lavie describes ways in which he has incorporated contemporary technology into his work with Lab/Shul, spotlighting the use of screens in worship services and a weekly call-in for individuals who wish to say Kaddish (the memorial prayer for a recently deceased loved one, also said annually on the anniversary of their death). [5] He also explains why it is important for his community to actively identify as "God-optional."

(34:21 - 43:16): Lau-Lavie connects his discussion of the importance of being "God-optional" to broader notions of pluralism. He closes by looking back at his own personal narrative and exploring the impact that Stefan Heym's novel The King David Report played in his life, opening him up to an awareness of the immense multi-vocality of Jewish tradition.

[1] Lab/Shul's website can be accessed at www.labshul.org for those interested in learning more about its wide variety of initiatives.

[2] Lau-Lavie delivered a JDOV Talk, entitled "The Transmission of Our Sacred Legacy in 5 Simple Steps." You can view it by clicking the video on the right.


[3] If you are interested in seeing what the methodology of StorahTelling looks like in action, click the video below.


[4] On a few occasions, Lau-Lavie uses the term "B-Mitzvah." This term is a gender-neutral option that incorporates "Bar Mitzvah" (for male-identifying people), "Bat Mitzvah" (for those who identify as female), and can also be utilized to refer to a coming-of-age ceremony for individuals who are transgender or genderqueer. Saying "Bar or Bat Mitzvah" would not incorporate the experiences and identities of those who identify outside of the gender binary, and as a result, the term B-Mitzvah has been gaining popularity in many corners of the Jewish world.

[5] To learn more about Lab/Shul's Kaddish ritual, which takes place via phone, visit this link.

Episode 28: The Secret Book of Kings

In an act of role reversal, Lex enters the role of solo host of Judaism Unbound and welcomes Dan onto the show as this week's featured guest! In this episode, Dan discusses a newly published book entitled The Secret Book of Kings by Yochi Brandes, which he has been working for three years to bring to English-speaking readers. [1] Together, Dan and Lex explore why this book's publication represents an important moment for American Judaism, along with ways in which its themes tie to many ideas that have previously been discussed on Judaism Unbound. [2] 

(0:01 - 9:54): We welcome our "guest" Dan Libenson onto the show, and he gives us some background about the process that led to the publication of The Secret Book of Kings by Yochi Brandes in English. He explains his desire for a new look at the "mythology" of the ancient Northern Kingdom of Israel and talks about how The Secret Book of Kings begins the process of tuning that longing into reality.

(9:55 - 20:33): Dan describes the Bible as a work of art. Being careful to avoid spoilers, he then alludes to ways in which The Secret Book of Kings looks at the Bible through a contemporary feminist lens. To give further perspective into the storytelling strategies of The Secret Book of Kings, Dan and Lex compare it to other contemporary re-tellings of well-known narratives (The Da Vinci CodeWicked, and The True Story of the Three Little Pigs). [3]

(20:34 - 34:35): We consider the ways in which The Secret Book of Kings both authentically includes elements of Biblical narratives and re-tells them in innovative, interesting ways. We also explore two interweaving themes of the book -- the power of storytelling and the multiplicity of historical narratives. In doing so, Lex suggests a analogy to contemporary tensions around the curriculum of the AP US History exam[4]

(34:36 - 45:04): Lex explores the idea, stemming from a recent piece in Lilith Magazine, that Judaism is about "relationship with" as opposed to "adherence to" Jewish texts, history, culture, etc. [5] Dan concludes by arguing both that Judaism has generally been an incredibly multi-vocal tradition and that its multi-vocality has been a great strength. [6]

[1] To learn more about The Secret Book of Kings, learn more about its author, explore some interesting questions for discussion, and expand your learning by exploring books and audio and video resources about Biblical history, head to the book's companion web site, which was created by the Judaism Unbound team, at www.secretbookofkings.com.

[2] Purchase The Secret Book of Kings on Amazon at this link.

[3] Learn more about The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, named in 2012 as one of the top 100 picture books of all time, by clicking here.

Bestselling author Yochi Brandes

Bestselling author Yochi Brandes

[4] Explore the recent controversy over how we tell the story of the history of the United States through our AP US History exam in this CNN article.

[5] This quotation comes from a recent article in Lilith Magazine by Amelia Dornbush, entitled "Why I Hate the Phrase 'Jew by Choice,'" which you can read by clicking here.

[6] If you missed last week's episode with Professor Richard Elliott Friedman, based on his book Who Wrote the Bible?, it is worth listening to in tandem with this episode on The Secret Book of Kings. Listen to it by clicking here. If you enjoyed that episode and would like to learn more from Friedman, consider purchasing his 27-episode online course for $19.95 on Coursecraft at this link.


Episode 27: Who Wrote the Bible? - Richard Elliott Friedman

Professor Richard Elliott Friedman joins Dan and Lex for a conversation about modern Biblical scholarship, which his book Who Wrote the Bible? brought to lay audiences in an accessible way nearly thirty years ago (and which had a major influence on Dan and Lex). Among the most influential books on Biblical literature of the 20th Century, Who Wrote the Bible? provides a scholarly overview of the authorship of the Torah through a lens known as the "Documentary Hypothesis." [1] Subsequently, Professor Friedman wrote additional books making these ideas available to non-experts. Along with co-hosts Dan and Lex, Professor Friedman dives deeply into his ideas and scholarship, their impact on the world, and more!

(0:01 - 13:46): Prof. Friedman begins shares a bit of his own personal narrative, and then explains some of the basics of the Documentary Hypothesis. [2] To flesh out his explanation, he outlines how two separate flood narratives were woven together into one story in the Book of Genesis (the story of Noah and the ark). [3] [4] 

(13:47 - 27:37): Prof. Friedman examines some of the ways that the Documentary Hypothesis can shed light on ancient political struggles. Specifically, he looks at a variety of stories that elucidate a tension between those Biblical authors who traced themselves back to Aaron and those who traced themselves to Moses. He also discusses the question of historicity -- the extent to which particular events or characters depicted in the Bible were historical or literary. [5]

(27:38 - 44:12): Dan brings up a novel (which we will explore in further detail on our next episode) entitled The Secret Book of Kings. He and Prof. Friedman look at the similarities and differences between the northern kingdom (Israel) and the southern kingdom (Judah), both through a historical lens and through the textual lens of the Bible, an important distinction that is significant to the plot and understanding of The Secret Book of Kings. [6] We close the episode by looking at another of Friedman's books, The Bible Now, which asks what the Bible has to say about contemporary issues, along with the broader impact of Who Wrote the Bible? on individuals, the Jewish community, and the world. [7] [8]

[1] You can purchase Who Wrote the Bible? on Amazon at this link.

[2] Click here for a short, written overview of the documentary hypothesis that you can find online.

[3] You can look at Prof. Friedman's presentation of both Noah stories, intertwined with one another, by clicking here (it is a download link, not a website).

[4] Purchase The Bible With Sources Revealed, Friedman's book that separates the entire Torah into four sources, J, E, P, and D, here.

The Merneptah Stele. Image Credit: www.haaretz.com

The Merneptah Stele. Image Credit: www.haaretz.com

[5] Friedman mentions the "Merneptah Stele." For more on this important archaeological discovery -- the oldest artifact mentioning the name "Israel" (the people, not the land or state), click here.

[6] Dan mentions The Secret Book of Kings, a novel that he helped translate and bring to English-speaking readers. To pre-order it, click here, and to learn more about it, head to www.secretbookofkings.com.

[7] To purchase Friedman's book The Bible Now, applying the Torah to contemporary political debates, click here.

[8] You can find further biblical history or archaeology resources for further reading, listening, or viewing by clicking here.

Episode 26: Six Months In

It's hard to believe, but this episode marks Judaism Unbound's six-month anniversary -- 26 weeks! In honor of the occasion, Dan and Lex look back at what they've learned from the topics we've covered thus far, and offer a lens into the next six months of the podcast and beyond.

(0:01 - 12:19): We begin by exploring a theme we discovered in many of our guests -- they often start organizations to solve their own problems, engaging individuals similar to themselves in age and life experience. We also explore ways that our podcast is providing a space not merely to engage in Judaism, but also to talk about it. While we initially didn't realize that there was an audience out there looking for conversations about Judaism, we have since realized that Judaism Unbound is one of the only public-facing spaces that provides a way to participate in those discussions. [1]


(12:20 - 26:16): Dan brings up Hello Mazel, an initiative we have explored in many of our past episodes. [2] Specifically he and Lex consider their inclusion of margarita mix in their summer box, implying that Jews themselves can make any object relate to Judaism -- not just those that we see as inherently Jewish. We also ask how to balance the element of surprise with the familiarity that many people desire, especially in religious institutions. [3]

(26:17 - 43:36): We close by looking at the question of nature vs. nurture. Is there something inherent to particular people that gives them the ability to craft exciting new Jewish ideas? On the other hand, are there particular skills that can be taught? Some combination of the two? We also introduce the idea of "plausibility structures," along with the important role they can play in re-inventing Judaism. We also come back to the title of our initiaitive -- Judaism Unbound, exploring why it is we need to push past some of the limits we've imposed on genuine expressions of Judaism. [4]

[1] In this opening section of the show, we allude to some of our early episodes. If you were intrigued by some of our references to these early episodes, you can listen to them at the following links: Episode 3: Exodus - Benay Lappe, Episode 4: Exodus IIEpisode 12: Minhag America - Anita Diamant

[2] We have mentioned Hello Mazel, an initiative of The Kitchen (a San Francisco emergent community), a few times in past episodes. For our most in-depth look at it, check out Episode 23, featuring the individuals who created it -- Yoav Schlesinger and Noa Kushner of The Kitchen

[3] If you're interested in exploring the episodes we allude to in this segment, you can listen to Episode 5: Leviticus - Vanessa Ochs (on inventing and re-inventing Jewish ritual) and Episode 14: Putting the "American" in American Judaism (where we discuss the "Bernie Sanders Jews").

[4] We allude to a conversation about Judaism as an operating system towards the conclusion of this episode. To explore the question of Judaism as an operating system vs. Judaism as an app, listen to Episode 21: jOS 4.0 - A New Jewish Operating System?.


Episode 25: Unbundling Judaism

Dan and Lex close out a series of episodes entitled "Emergent Innovation," which featured Rachel Barenblat and David Markus (of ALEPH: The Alliance for Jewish Renewal), Noa Kushner and Yoav Schlesinger (of The Kitchen), and Sarah Lefton (of BimBam). [1] We discuss what it means to look at Judaism through a "modular" lens, such that various elements of Judaism can be "unbundled" from what has been thought of as more of an integrated system, and explored and developed as independent pieces.

(0:01 - 11:14): Dan and Lex take on the question of "what if?" To what extent do we assume, in the Jewish world, that ventures that succeed were "meant" to succeed and ventures that did not were "meant" to fail? How can we account for serendipity and bad luck? What means of evaluation could be used to avoid dismissing an idea after one attempt that does not succeed? We consider the role that such a shift would play in the funding of Jewish institutions as well. [2]

How does the hit musical Hamilton relate to contemporary Jewish institutions? Listen to this episode to find out! Image Credit: www.tvline.com

How does the hit musical Hamilton relate to contemporary Jewish institutions? Listen to this episode to find out! Image Credit: www.tvline.com

(11:15 - 27:24): We carry forward the conversation about the economics of Judaism by discussing ways that elements of Judaism could be made less expensive (both with respect to money and time). We then open up the conversation instigated by the title of this episode -- what does it mean to "unbundle" Judaism? Is it permissible (or necessary) to create avenues of connecting to one or two "modules" of Judaism without connecting those modules to the rest of the Jewish "system"? In this conversation we explore analogies to the worlds of music, academia, and theater. [3] [4]

(27:25 - 42:22): We consider how the "unbundling" of Judaism relates to the contemporary phenomenon of shifting the location of Jewish communal activity from Jewish institutional buildings to the home and to other spaces that aren't necessarily marked as distinctly Jewish. [5] We close by looking to the future and ask whether it might be possible to create entirely new kinds of spaces that fit particular Jewish needs.

[1] To listen to our previous three episodes of this series on Unbundling Judaism, click the following links. Episode 22, Episode 23, Episode 24.

[2] At the beginning of the episode, we mention the launch of our Patreon account. Paterson is a web-based funding platform that allows people to become patrons of creations and creators they want to support by signing up to give a small (or large) monthly donation. Become a patron by donating here (any amount, even $4 or $5 a month, goes a long way, especially if many of our listeners do it). We think this method of support is interesting in its own right in light of the topic we are exploring on today's show -- modular Jewish experiences (like Judaism Unbound) funded by modular support -- like paying $1 for a song instead of $15 for an album. Thanks so much for your support!

[3] For a deeper look at the shift embodied in music from full-length albums to individual tracks and playlists, along with how it applies to Judaism, read Kerry Olitzky's book Playlist Judaism.

[4] We mention the organization One Table in discussing modular Judaism. To learn more about their work, visit www.onetable.org. We will interview the executive director of One Table, Aliza Kline, in a few weeks.

[5] We allude to our "chutzpah vs. knowledge" curve in this section of the episode. For a more detailed description of this idea, listen to episode 6 of our podcast here.

Episode 24: BimBam - Sarah Lefton

What does it look like to start a Jewish organization that functions almost entirely in the digital world? Sarah Lefton, the founder and executive director of BimBam (formerly G-dcast), an organization that produces animated videos about Jewish texts, practices, and ideas, as well as apps and other new media, [1] joins Dan and Lex to give us a window into that process. She outlines her own Jewish story, the evolution of BimBam over time, some of the unique characteristics of digital forms of Judaism, and more. [2]

Before founding Bimbam, Lefton was a successful t-shirt designer! Here, she's pictured with one of the t-shirts she designed.

Before founding Bimbam, Lefton was a successful t-shirt designer! Here, she's pictured with one of the t-shirts she designed.

(0:01 - 18:53): Lefton begins by looking back at her own Jewish life. She discusses growing up with a strong sense of Jewish pride, but very little knowledge, and then describes her corrective journey into Jewish study and texts that began in her twenties and outlines how that story helped lead to the founding of G-dcast (now BimBam). [3] [4]

(18:54 - 31:50): We explore the feelings of intimidation and alienation that can arise in people who are less Jewishly knowledgeable (or feel less knowledgeable) than other Jews they encounter. [5] Lefton also analyzes the success that BimBam has had reaching intermarried families and couples, along with prospective converts to Judaism.

(31:51 - 43:34): Lefton considers both the positive and negative sides of the digital world in general and digital Judaism in particular. We also go into some more detail about BimBam's series of videos on the yearly cycle of Torah portions [6] and Bimbam's newest project -- a children's television show called Shaboom! [7]

[1] To learn more about BimBam and check out all of their videos, visit www.Bimbam.com.

[2] As part of Judaism Unbound's Shavuot Unbound initiative, one of our 6-hour tracks was to watch the entire cycle of BimBam's Torah portion videos! They're still available on our site, even though it's not Shavuot, and you can access them here (allow a few seconds for the page to load, as there are many videos).

[3] Dan and Sarah both spoke about the important role a conference called "The Conversation" played in their professional growth. (It's also where they first met, nearly a decade ago, when they were both starting out.) To learn more about this event (sponsored by New York's Jewish Week newspaper), visit its website here.

[4] Lefton speaks about her work at Camp Tawonga, a Jewish camp near Yosemite National Park, in discussing what led to the founding of BimBam. Visit the Camp Tawonga site here.

[5] Lefton explains that BimBam's video on shiva (a Jewish ritual for mourning the death of a loved one) arose partially due to her own intimidation at the thought of attending her very first shiva. Watch this video by clicking the video above and to the right (click the square button in the bottom right for full-screen).

[6] The very first video that Lefton produced for this project was on the Torah portion of Balak. Click the video above and on the left to watch it (click the square button in the bottom right for full-screen). 

[7] Watch the pilot episode of Shaboom by clicking the video directly to the left (click the square button in the bottom for full-screen).


Episode 23: Hello Mazel - Noa Kushner and Yoav Schlesinger

The Kitchen, an emergent Jewish spiritual community in San Francisco, made waves earlier this year when they launched their Hello Mazel initiative -- a "quarterly box of Jewish stuff" sent to people's homes, which quickly became the most-funded Jewish Kickstarter project ever and reached thousands of people across the country. Dan and Lex welcome two of its leaders -- Rabbi Noa Kushner and Yoav Schlesinger -- to explore what The Kitchen is, to understand its goals and methods, and to find out how Hello Mazel came to be.  [1]

Rabbi Noa Kushner and Executive Director Yoav Schlesinger of The Kitchen.

Rabbi Noa Kushner and Executive Director Yoav Schlesinger of The Kitchen.

Image Credit: The Kitchen

Image Credit: The Kitchen

(0:01 - 13:14): Noa Kushner walks us through the origins and evolution of The Kitchen, focusing on San Francisco's low Jewish affiliation rate (even lower than much of the rest of the United States), and she lays out The Kitchen's mission to do everything in its power to reach segments of San Francisco's Jewish population who did not find available options compelling. In doing so, she emphasizes the importance of both communal events and individual experiences, along with describing the Jewish world's general tendency to prioritize the former over the latter.

(13:15 - 26:39): We learn why "The Kitchen" was chosen as the name for the organization. Kushner and Schlesinger explain why they've chosen not to acquire any real estate, along with their process for determining the locations of their various events. We learn about the process The Kitchen went through with IDEO, a design firm, to determine long-term vision and strategy. [2]

(26:40 - 43:45): Schlesinger walks us through the thinking behind Hello Mazel, a national initiative that The Kitchen launched earlier this year with great success. [3] He talks about some of the items included in Hello Mazel's first box, released this past Passover, and Dan and Lex recount how they utilized them at their own seders. We also explore the extent to which Hello Mazel exemplifies a new focus on homes as the loci of Jewish experiences -- potentially displacing Jewish public spaces like synagogues and Jewish community centers. [4]

[1] To learn more about The Kitchen, visit www.thekitchensf.org, and to explore Hello Mazel you can visit www.hellomazel.com.

[2] To learn more about IDEO, the design firm The Kitchen worked with, view an episode of Nightline in which they were featured by clicking the video on the left.. 

[3] Read more about the record-breaking success of Hello Mazel in this JTA article, and watch the video that launched Hello Mazel by clicking the image directly below these notes.

[4] In discussing the shift towards homes as a locus for Jewish life, Kushner mentions the Chavurah movement and the Jewish Catalog that has come to symbolize much of its work. You can learn more about the Chavurah movement here, and purchase the first Jewish Catalog here.

Image Credit: The Kitchen

Image Credit: The Kitchen


Episode 22: Jewish Renewal - Rachel Barenblat and David Markus

Rabbis Rachel Barenblat ("The Velveteen Rabbi") and David Markus, co-chairs of the board of ALEPH: The Alliance for Jewish Renewal, join us for the first episode of a four-episode series entitled "Emergent Innovation." Along with co-hosts Dan Libenson and Lex Rofes, they look back at the history of Jewish Renewal, look forward towards its future, and discuss its animating philosophies and their application beyond the movement itself. 

(0:01 - 15:20): Barenblat and Markus begin by going over the history (the movement officially started in the 1980s) and pre-history of Jewish Renewal, along with some of its basic tenets (including "deep ecumenism," feminism, and elements of Hasidism). [2] We also learn about their journey together into Jewish Renewal, which began at Williams College and was sparked when both read The Jew in the Lotus, by Rodger Kamenetz[3][4]

(15:21 - 22:37): Our guests expand on the notion of "inventing" our own Judaism -- even when similar Jewish rituals might already have been invented! We also look at Jewish Renewal as it relates to some of the other denominations of Judaism (such as Reform, Reconstructionist, and Conservative Judaism). [5] Rachel asks a pressing question -- "What is the Judaism of the future that you want to see?" -- and discusses some of the ways that Jewish Renewal attempts to answer it.

Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, founder of Jewish Renewal - Image Credit: VelveteenRabbi.blogs.com

Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, founder of Jewish Renewal - Image Credit: VelveteenRabbi.blogs.com

(22:38 - 34:14): We discuss the extent to which there exists a tension in Judaism between flexibility on the one hand and structure on the other, and we explore how that question manifests in Jewish Renewal. In doing so, we explore the place of prayer in Judaism, along with the variety of forms of prayer that exist in Jewish Renewal. 

(34:15 - 47:37): To close the episode, Markus and Barenblat look toward the future, considering two key questions: first, to what extent can (or must) forms of Judaism evolve that are substantially less expensive from a financial standpoint, [6] and second, what might Judaism and Jewish Renewal look like once the Millennial generation is given the proverbial "keys to the car." 

[1] Learn more about Jewish Renewal by visiting ALEPH: The Alliance for Jewish Renewal's website.

[2] For more information on the life of Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, the founder of Jewish Renewal, visit this link from Aleph's website.

A collection of Williams College Haggadot - Image Credit: Rachel Barenblat

A collection of Williams College Haggadot - Image Credit: Rachel Barenblat

[3] Barenblat and Markus explain how the book The Jew in the Lotus by Rodger Kamenetz played an important role in their journeys into Jewish Renewal. You can purchase it on Amazon at this link.

[4] On the left you can see a variety of feminist Haggadot, as referenced by Barenblat.

[5] Dan mentions two individuals that have historically been regarded by many rabbis as heretics -- Elisha ben Abuya (also known as "Acher" meaning "the other") and Baruch (Benedictus) Spinoza. The book As a Driven Leaf explores the life of Elisha ben Abuya in greater detail and is available here. Learn about Spinoza here.

[6] To read Markus's recent MyJewishLearning piece about the financial costs of being Jewish in the 21st century, click here.

[7] In discussing the future of Judaism, Markus alludes to ALEPH's rabbinic program, which primarily functions online. To learn more about this program (as well as ALEPH's cantorial, rabbinic pastor, and spiritual director programs), click here.

Episode 21: jOS 4.0 - A New Jewish Operating System?

Might we learn something about Judaism from the cell phones that we carry in our pocket every day? In this episode, Dan and Lex explore whether Judaism's "operating system" is functioning properly. If not, they ask whether it is need of a "patch," an "upgrade," or a "new release" -- or is it even possible that Judaism could shift from an "operating system" into an "app"?

Image Credit: www.tekrevue.com

Image Credit: www.tekrevue.com

(0:01 - 13:21): We lay out the metaphorical framework of Judaism as an operating system. Dan lays out three models for potential Jewish change that he analogizes to "patching" the operating system, "upgrading" it, and creating an entirely "new release." [1] Furthermore, we ask whether an even bigger transition might be taking place, where Judaism is transitioning from an "operating system" (the primary or foundational identity of its adherents) to an app -- where it is merely one element of people's lives alongside many others. [2]

(13:22 - 24:53): We explore the ways in which Judaism would look different in the future if it transitioned into an application (an app), as opposed to an operating system. [3] This includes a shift from the question of "How do I live as a Jew?" to "Why be (or do) Jewish at all?" [4]

(24:54 - 42:24): Is Judaism "all or nothing"? We consider the extent to which Judaism could in the future become "unbundled" -- where individuals opt in to particular elements of Jewish ritual, history, culture, and more without opting in to the entirety of Judaism as a system. Additionally, we ask whether Judaism fundamentally is or should be dedicated to being separate from the rest of the world and its various religious traditions. Is it "crossing a line" for Judaism to incorporate practices from other religious or non-religious traditions? What about the inverse -- is it problematic for those who are not Jewish to incorporate elements of Judaism into their lives? [5] Perhaps answers will shift as Judaism transitions into a different kind of operating system or into a "cross-platform app."

[1] In discussing Judaism as an operating system, we allude to the story of Steve Jobs, the man behind Apple and its successful operating systems. For more on the story we discuss of how NeXT's operating system (designed by the company Jobs created after he left Apple) was later acquired by Apple, read this piece.

[2] Dan wrote an article, entitled "Jewish Education for a Time of Wandering," in 2012 in Zeek Magazine that began to explore the idea of "Judaism 4.0," which we develop further in this episode. To read Dan's article, visit this link

[3] In discussing The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn, we allude to an earlier episode of our podcast (Episode 6: Leviticus II). To listen to it, click here

[4] For the importance of making "why" an enterprise's central question, watch this TED Talk, entitled "Start With Why," featuring Simon Sinek (available by clicking on the video directly to the right).

[5] At the end of the episode, Lex refers to a Jewish school in Utah whose student body is only 25% Jewish. Learn more by reading this article from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Episode 20: Jewish Without Walls - Beth Finger

Beth Finger, founder of Jewish Without Walls (JWOW) joins Judaism Unbound for the third episode in our "New Platforms in Jewish Life series." We learn about the successful strategies JWOW uses to engage Jewish families and talk about issues ranging from contemporary denominational divides to the role of the internet in the Jewish present and future.

(0:01 - 11:41): Finger begins by explaining what Jewish Without Walls (JWOW) is, how it came to be, and who its seeks to serve. [1] She compares and contrasts the role that JWOW plays with those of traditional Jewish organizations, such as synagogues. We also discuss the financial and programmatic reasons that JWOW's mission is to exist "without walls."

(11:42 - 23:36): We examine various challenges involved in forming, maintaining, and growing a Jewish start-up. [2] Finger also explains why JWOW has chosen not to identify as a "religious" organization, along with the importance that Big Tent Judaism's philosophy of "Public-Space Judaism" plays in JWOW approach. [3] 

Image Credit: Jewish Without Walls

Image Credit: Jewish Without Walls

(23:37 - 34:29): Finger describes her own background and reflects on what led her to found a Jewish start-up, focusing on her trans-denominational Jewish upbringing and early professional experience as a JCSC (Jewish Campus Service Corps) Fellow at Brooklyn College Hillel. [4] She also discusses the crucial importance that social media and the internet play in JWOW's work, and Lex adds some thoughts on the central role that Facebook can play in Jewish lives. [5] [6]

Passover in the Matzah Aisle is one of Big Tent Judaism's most prominent "Public Space Judaism" initiatives. Image Credit: Boulder Jewish News

Passover in the Matzah Aisle is one of Big Tent Judaism's most prominent "Public Space Judaism" initiatives. Image Credit: Boulder Jewish News

(34:30 - 46:04): Finger gives some specific examples of what JWOW programming looks like. We then delve into how JWOW not only positively affects not the children who come to its programs, but also can deepen their parents' Jewish identities and knowledge as well. [7] [8] Finger emphasizes the importance of empowering people to create their own Judaism, as opposed to insisting on a top-down model.

[1] To learn more about JWOW, check out its website here, and watch to Beth Finger's JDOV Talk here.

[2] Finger mentions a few organizations that exist to support Jewish start-up efforts. To learn more about them, check out the following websites: Slingshot, UpStart, Natan, Joshua Venture, and ROI Community.

[3] To learn more about the philosophy of Public Space Judaism, check out Big Tent Judaism's resources here.

[4] The JCSC Fellowship no longer exists, but a new program recently launched by Hillel International -- the Springboard Fellowship -- plays a similar role in cultivating early career staff. Learn more about it here.

[5] You can join JWOW's Facebook group by clicking here. If you're interested, you can check out a few other Facebook groups mentioned in this conversation (JEDLAB and Jews for Decolonization).

[7] Dan talks about the impact that PJ Library had on his family, and about the potential of a "PJ Library for adults." To learn more about that initiative, check out its website.

[8] For more on Judaism being meaningful not just for kids, but parents as well, check out this Kveller article, entitled "I Am Jewish For Me, Not For My Kids."

Episode 19: Moishe House - David Cygielman

David Cygielman, founder and CEO of Moishe House, joins Dan and Lex for the second episode in a four-episode series entitled "New Platforms for Jewish Life." Moishe House's mission is to provide vibrant Jewish community for young adults by supporting leaders in their 20s as they create meaningful home-based Jewish experiences for themselves and their peers.

Image Credit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S7DoyyU_tqg

Image Credit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S7DoyyU_tqg

(0:01 - 10:26): Cygielman begins by explaining how Moishe House began, along with how its model works. [1] He also illustrates the funding challenges faced by new Jewish ideas by telling the story of how Moishe House -- now one of the biggest success stories in the Jewish world of the last decade -- almost closed down only a few years after it got started.

(10:27 - 22:00): We explore what it is about Moishe House that helps it succeed in mid-size and smaller cities, [2] something that many national Jewish organizations struggle to do. Cygielman goes on to describe the relatively new Moishe House Without Walls[3] He also explains the role that learning retreats, also a relatively new Moishe House initiative, play in their model and considers a variety of reasons that Moishe House has resonated with its demographic (22-30 year-old Jews).

Image Credit: http://slingshotfund.org/directory/moishe-house/

Image Credit: http://slingshotfund.org/directory/moishe-house/

(22:01 - 33:36): We discuss the extent to which Moishe House residents (and other participants in its programming) become involved in the broader landscape of organized Jewish life. We also consider whether Moishe House is part of a larger shift in 21st Century American Jewish life, in which the home is becoming an important center of Jewish life, not only for families, but also for extended networks of friends and other interested people -- potentially taking on at least part of the role played in the 20th Century by synagogues and other "official" Jewish gatheriing spaces. [4] Cygielman introduces a dichotomy he refers to as "large tent" vs. "lots of tents," explaining how Moishe House's model is based on lots of tents.

(33:37 - 44:21): We ask Cygielman to reflect on what characteristics are most necessary for individuals and groups looking to build new and successful Jewish organizations. As we close, Cygielman articulates the fundamental importance of financial transparency and authenticity with one's staff and constituents, arguing that both are necessary in engaging rising generations. [5]

[1] Visit Moishe House's website to learn more about the organization.

[2] To find out if there's a Moishe House near you, or just to get a sense of where Moishe Houses are currently located, check out the full list of houses here.

[3] Moishe House Without Walls funds programming that does not take place in Moishe Houses; among other things, it is a way to support programming in cities without a critical mass of people to open a Moishe House to implement similar programming on a smaller scale. Learn more about it here.

[4] To learn more about some of the other Jewish organizations referenced which are, similar to Moishe House, focusing their programming efforts on the home, visit the websites of One TableKevah, and Hello Mazel.

[5] Moishe House demonstrates its transparency by including its Evaluation Findings publicly on its website. You can access them here.

Episode 18: How We Gather - Angie Thurston and Casper ter Kuile

Angie Thurston and Casper ter Kuile, experts on the emerging group of Americans known as the religious "nones," join Judaism Unbound for Episode 18. Thurston and ter Kuile are co-authors of two monographs, entitled How We Gather and Something More, respectively, and they serve as Ministry Innovation Fellows at Harvard Divinity School.

Image Credit: News.Harvard.edu

Image Credit: News.Harvard.edu

(0:01 - 12:56): Thurston and ter Keile begin by telling their own stories and explaining what led them to their current work on the religious "nones." They discuss the origins of their How We Gather report [1], along with some of the communities featured in it. [2] Additionally, they consider the question of whether these organizations are replicating themes of religion consciously or subconsciously. [3]

(12:57 - 25:55): Next, ter Keile and Thurston unpack six themes they identified as particularly important for organizations looking to build successful communities outside of organized religion (community, personal transformation, social transformation, purpose finding, creativity, and accountability). They also delve into a broad swath of topics ranging from sports fandom, [4] to Religion for Atheists (a book by Alain de Botton), [5] to the Harry Potter series as a sacred text. [6]

Image Credit: www.crossfitmaxeffort.com

Image Credit: www.crossfitmaxeffort.com

(25:56 - 44:36): In this section, ter Keile (a native to Great Britain) outlines some of the differences between the United States and Great Britain in the realm of religion. [6] He and Thurston, along with Dan and Lex, next explore questions of language -- what are the benefits and drawbacks of the term "spirituality?" How about "religion?" We close out the show by exploring shifts in the landscape of American religion due to advances in digital technology.

[1] For those interested, here are the full pdfs of How We Gather and Something More

Image Credit: Harry Potter And the Sacred Text Podcast

Image Credit: Harry Potter And the Sacred Text Podcast

[2] To learn more about the idea of "CrossFit as Church" (CrossFit is one of the communities featured in How We Gather), check out this New York Times article featuring ter Kuile and Thurston.

[3] The philosopher Joseph Campbell comes up twice in this conversation. To learn more about him and his philosophy, check out his wikipedia page.

[4] For more on sports fandom's resemblance to religion, read this article in The Atlantic.

[5] Lex asks about the intersection of How We Gather with the book Religion for Atheists, by Alain de Botton. You can purchase it here.

[6] To listen to Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, a podcast that ter Kuile co-hosts with Vanessa Zoltan, click here.

[7] The following are links to the websites of all organizations included in How We Gather, for anyone interested in exploring them in greater detail: The Dinner PartyCrossFitSoulCycleCTZNWELLU.S. Department of Arts and CultureMillennial Trains ProjectLive in the GreyJuniper PathCamp Grounded, and The Sanctuaries.

Coming Up Soon on the Judaism Unbound Podcast: Casper ter Kuile, Angie Thurston, David Cygielman, and Beth Finger

Stay tuned for Episodes 18-21 of our Judaism Unbound podcast! These four episodes together constitute a series we are calling "New Platforms for Jewish Life," and they will feature guests Casper ter Kuile, Angie Thurston, David Cygielman, and Beth Finger, along with co-hosts Dan Libenson and Lex Rofes! For more information on our upcoming guests, read their bios below.

Casper ter Kuile and Angie Thurston are Ministry Innovation Fellows at Harvard Divinity School. They authored two monographs together, entitled How We Gather and Something More, which explore a variety of organizations that are successfully engaging the growing subset of Americans known as the "nones" (those who do not identify with any religion).

David Cygielman is the founder and CEO of Moishe House. Moishe House provides vibrant Jewish community for young adults by supporting leaders in their 20s as they create meaningful, home-based Jewish experiences for themselves and their peers. While the organization is only 10 years old, there are now 85 Moishe Houses, located all around the world (58 in North America and 27 located on other continents).

Beth Finger is the founder of Jewish Without Walls (JWOW), a two-time Slingshot selection as one of America's most innovative Jewish organizations. JWOW brings young Jewish families together across denominations and affiliations in vibrant Jewish communities. She is also a Wexner Graduate Fellow who holds Masters degrees in Judaic Studies from the Jewish Theological Seminary and Social Work from Columbia University.

Episode 17: Intermarriage - A Fact of 21st Century Judaism

Dan and Lex close out their three-episode series on Intermarriage: The New Normal in this episode. They explain why they don't think intermarriage is bad for American Judaism, explore questions of what it means to be a "Jewish leader," and discuss shifts away from binary, either-or ways of thinking.

Image Credit: FOX Broadcasting Company (New Girl)

Image Credit: FOX Broadcasting Company (New Girl)

(0:01 - 10:36): We begin the episode by articulating our belief that intermarriage is not a problem to be solved, but simply a fact of 21st Century Judaism. We then reflect on issues of intermarriage and gender that we discussed Keren McGinity and the intersection between intermarriage and race that we touched on with Paul Golin. [2] We also discuss the disconnect between American Jewish institutional leaders, many of whom still see intermarriage as a problem, and most American Jews, who take intermarriage is a given and nevertheless seek and believe that the can have meaningful Jewish lives. [3] [4]

(10:37 - 21:56): Next, we take a look at the idea of "Jewish leadership," suggesting that some institutional leaders imagine their constituencies to be broader (perhaps all Jews in their area) than they are in actuality (the subset of local Jews who are engaged in that organization). Returning to the subject of intermarriage, we think through why intermarriage isn't inherently bad for American Judaism. 

(21:57 - 35:33): We discuss the shift from binary, either-or ways of thinking to new ways of thinking that don't assume, for example, that a person or a family must either be Jewish or not Jewish; we seem to be looking at a present and a future in which Judaism will be on of a number of parts of people's lives. [5] Building on this thinking, we express concern that in not believing that Judaism can stand up against "competition," a self-fulfilling prophesy comes about in which it truly cannot. [6]

(35:34 - 44:47): We re-visit the question of "Jewish leadership," critiquing the tendency to conflate the idea of a "Jewish professional" with a "Jewish leader," and overstating the actual influence "leaders" seem to have with "regular Jews." We also argue that those who elevate the status of "leaders" send the message to the rest of us that it is not our place to invent or innovate new and exciting ways of being Jews, when such innovations by regular Jews might be quite successful if they were undertaken.

[1] This episode is coming out the day before Shavuot begins. If you'd like to participate in the Shavuot Unbound initiative that we mention at the beginning of this episode -- deep immersion in Judaism with a 21st Century twist -- click here!

Image Credit: The Daily Show with Jon Stewart

Image Credit: The Daily Show with Jon Stewart

[2] To access the first two episodes in our Intermarriage: The New Normal series, click here (Episode 15, with Dr. Keren McGinity) and here (Episode 16, with Paul Golin)

[3] Dan tells the story of the twelve spies who saw themselves as "grasshoppers." For the full story, see Numbers 13:1-14:24.

[4] Lex mentions Big Tent Judaism's "Stained Glass Ceiling" report. To explore its findings, click here

[5] In this segment, Dan critiques the tendency to dismiss engagement by non-Jews (and Jews) with various "modular" ideas of Judaism instead of being into the whole system. Dan mentions the celebrities who have gotten involved with the Kabbalah Centre as potentially an example of legitimate "Jew-ish" engagement. To learn more about the Kabbalah Centre and decide for yourself, click here.

[6] Lex refers to an episode of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, where Jon Stewart asserts that Easter is far preferable to Passover. To view that clip, click here.

Episode 16: Intermarriage and the Future - Paul Golin

Paul Golin, noted thinker and writer, past Associate Executive Director of Big Tent Judaism, and administrator of the Jewpanese Facebook page, joins Dan and Lex for the second episode of our Intermarriage: The New Normal series. We examine the role that intermarriage plays in the Jewish world today and broaden our conversation to discuss trends affecting the Jewish present and future more generally. 

(0:01 - 10:28): Paul Golin reflects on Benay Lappe's "Crash" Theory (which she presented in Episode 3 of our podcast), looking back on his own crash -- his rejection of major tenets of Judaism as a child -- and he critiques the prominent tendency among Jewish institutional leaders to talk about "the intermarried" as a single broad group. [1]

(10:29 - 22:14): Building on the concept of privilege, Golin explores the harmful role that the idea of people "looking Jewish" [2] plays in the Jewish world. [3] He also introduces the idea of "born-Jewish privilege." [4] Ultimately, he asserts, we need to ask (and answer) the question "why be Jewish," arguing that most of the concerns expressed about "Jewish continuity" and perceived threats to it, would be alleviated if Jews really had a sense that being Jewish contributed meaningfully to the lives they want to lead. [5] 

Image Credit: www.tested.com

Image Credit: www.tested.com

(22:15 - 34:29): Golin lays out the reasons that the High Holidays can be a difficult time for intermarried individuals and their loved ones, along with his own distance from Jewish spaces that center on prayer. He pushes against the idea that Judaism must be one's primary or sole identity, embracing the fact that in 21st Century America, identities are incredibly nuanced and multi-faceted. [6] [7]

Image Credit: Jewpanese - Where Jewish and Japanese Converge Facebook Page

Image Credit: Jewpanese - Where Jewish and Japanese Converge Facebook Page

(34:30 - 47:21): We look to the future, asking Golin what he thinks Judaism could look like in 100 years. We explore contemporary notions of universalism and particularism and the extent to which particularism can become tribalism. We deepen this conversation through the example of philanthropic giving, where we discuss the belief by some that Jews should prioritize giving to Jewish organizations over giving to "universalistic" causes. [8]

[1]  In the course of this segment of our conversation, Golin mentions a facebook group that he oversees, called Jewpanese - Where Jewish and Japanese Converge.

[2] This recent Huffington Post article, which references Golin, expands on the issues presented by the idea of "looking Jewish."

[3] The idea of "looking Jewish" relates to a concept referred to as "Ashkenormativity," which Jonathan P. Katz's expands on in this piece in The Forward

[4] To read more of Golin's thoughts on "Born-Jewish privilege" read this 2010 article that he authored.

[5] We briefly allude to Irwin Kula's idea of "Judaism as a technology" in this segment of the show. For more, watch the video on the left featuring Kula, entitled "Innovation in the Technology of Religion."

[6] Professor Shaul Magid expands on the changing nature of American identity, including the idea of "post-ethnicity" in Episode 13 of our Judaism Unbound podcast.

[7] For more of Golin's "Futurology," read an essay he wrote entitled "Judaism and the Singularity: Using Futurism to Predict Possible Trajectories of Jewish Identity and Community"

[8] Rabbi Rebecca Wolitz Sirbu wrote a piece for eJewish Philanthropy that expands on these questions.