Noam Sienna: Judaism Unbound Episode 170 - Queering The Jewish Bookshelf


Noam Sienna, author of the book A Rainbow Thread: An Anthology of Queer Jewish Texts from the First Century to 1969, joins Lex and Dan for a conversation about expanding our understanding of the Jewish past. [1] [2]

Noam Sienna

(0:01 – 19:09) Noam begins by addressing how we think of Jewish history, remarking that our understanding of the past is informed by the few stories that are recorded and survive their way into the present. Noam tells a story about an individual who leaves the shtetl being read and understood as a woman and returns later, being read and understood as a man. By the newspaper account, this individual was entirely accepted by their community. Using this and another short anecdote from his book, Noam reminds listeners that what is present on the bookshelf is only a selection – and the truer history is more wider than we imagine. [3] He describes how a post-holocaust Ashkenazi Jewish world lost much of its oral tradition, leaving us primarily with texts. But the trouble with texts is that they only describe what someone chose to record, rife with omissions. Noam explains that history is nonlinear and without teleology – history has no end goal or arc. [4] [5] This understanding is necessary to his methodology examining understandings of sexuality and gender. He underscores that, while experiences we might categorize today as queer aren’t really new, our understanding of these behaviors and practices are specific to our place and time.

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(19:09 – 28:20) Lex poses a question to Noam about the tension between creating a book about queer Jewish inclusion and not attempting to use these texts to “prove” a Jewish attitude towards queerness. Noam highlights his desire to avoid anachronism and retroactively assign modern meanings to historical experiences. Rather, the mission of a queer historian is not to make a list of who’s who of queer Jews, but to understand that our identity language and constructions are always moving. The historical data isn’t changing but our lenses and self understandings are. Noam acknowledges the importance of present-day queer people being able to see themselves reflected in history – so he advocates that readers cultivate a self awareness: our readings of historical figures are not inherent to the text; rather, they are informed by the connections we make within ourselves to the past. [6] Lex notes how self-locating in history can often be a way of legitimizing or authenticated oneself, especially towards others. Noam discusses why he’s creating this book to be positive rather than defensive, explaining his inspiration from feminist scholarship and a desire to avoid an essentialist reading of Judaism as either inherently equitable or oppressive. [7] It’s both and neither, he says, containing so many multitudes of experiences and texts. He briefly mentions a discussion with Rabbi Steve Greenberg in which he explains that this book is not meant to “defend” queer Jews, but paint a fuller picture of how gender variance and diverse sexual desires and expressions have existed in Jewish history. [8]

(28:20 – 48:30) Noam discusses present-day assumptions about gender and sexuality, which often see sex and gender behaviors as binary and inherent. However, he explains, categorizing gender and sexuality as identity markers is a recent, place-time specific idea. The language we use to describe these behaviors is ever-changing and the texts in A Rainbow Thread record instance, not identity. Noam describes how, more broadly, Jews living in the time of the Talmud did not live as the Talmudic text itself describes, often engaging in activities forbidden by law, just as most of us do today, even if in small ways. Noam demonstrates that legal systems are only descriptive of a small percentage of people, usually elites, and not the general public whom they sought to legislate. The conversation shifts to an explanation of Sienna’s curatorial process, explaining his venn diagram, selecting texts that express diverse gender and sexual practices and demonstrate a diverse and complex experience of being Jewish. [9] The types of texts in A Rainbow Thread are diverse, many authors with a variety of attitudes towards queerness. He explains his process of selecting texts, privileging traditionally underrepresented voices and seeking out texts from a variety of places and times. Noam mentions a short news clipping he found which briefly describes two Sefardi women engaged in a romantic or sexual act, noting that this very small text evidences something otherwise unrecorded but still very much alive. Sienna closes by suggesting listeners consider the universe of stories that have gone unrecorded, declaring that arguments of silence and omission no longer prove an absence of Jewish queer history – instead, we must push ourselves to think more deeply and creatively about who and what the Jewish past has been.

[1] Order yourself a copy of Sienna’s book, A Rainbow Thread, at ARainbowThread.com.

[2] Read more about Noam’s work and learn about some other queer Jewish stories in this blog post and find his website here.

[3] If you’re looking to build a wider bookshelf, check out some of these cool queer Jewish reads.

[4] The concept of teleology is pervasive in the way most people think about history — but as Sienna notes, history is not linear. This article explains this article in greater detail.

[5] Similar to the idea of teleology in history, the idea of a “moral arc of history” also assumes a goal or linear type of history. Read a recent critique of this idea in this article.

[6] This part of the interview hearkens back to an earlier Judaism Unbound episode with Josh Lesser, who runs Bet Haverim, a gay- and lesbian-founded synagogue.

[7] Sienna’s mentions of feminist methodologies remind us of another Judaism Unbound episode by Rachel Adler, in which Adler discusses gender essentialism. Find it here. You can also read Adler’s articles, “I’ve Had Nothing Yet So I Can’t Take More” and “The Jew Who Wasn’t There”.

[8] Learn more about the work and philosophy of Rabbi Steve Greenberg, the first openly gay orthodox rabbi, in this article.

[9] Just as Sienna has described the curatorial side of editing an anthology, our episode with Ivy Barsky covers similar topics of Jewish history and the tensions that arise when trying to curate the Jewish past. Listen to this episode here.

 

Sarah Bunin Benor: Judaism Unbound Episode 169 - Jewish Language


Sarah Bunin Benor, Professor of Contemporary Jewish Studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and author of the award winning book Becoming Frum: How Newcomers Learn the Language of Orthodox Judaism, joins Dan and Lex for a conversation about Jewish languages, and the deeper discourses revealed through dialect. [1]

Sarah Bunin Benor

Sarah Bunin Benor

(00:01 – 20:13): The episode begins with Sarah Bunin Benor describing her book, Becoming Frum: How Newcomers Learn the Language of Orthodox Judaism [2] and the process of her ethnographic research on American Orthodox communities. She discusses how language marks people as “in” or “out” of a particular group, marking an identity through words and pronunciation. While some newcomers to Orthodoxy perform “hyperacommodation” and try intensely to adopt the language of their chosen community, others perform “deliberate distinctiveness”, trying to distinguish themselves from a community of people who are ‘Frum From Birth.’ They do this in a variety of ways, ranging from speech, to dress, to food (for example, gefilte fish with curry and turmeric). [3] Dan raises a question regarding linguistic “authenticity”, asking about the process through which certain words or expression that began as non-native to Jewish communities gains the perception that is “authentic” enough to be part of the in-language. Bunin Benor describes the history of the word bentsch -- a verb referring to the recitation of the blessing after a meal – which has traveled between Jewish tongues over centuries. [4] Bunin Benor emphasizes that claims of linguistic authenticity often express something deeper; she explains that Jewish communities which praise one pronunciation as correct while criticizing other pronunciations engage in “socio-linguistic projection,” making broader statements about how Jews should behave.

(20:14-  35:30): Lex notes a common Hebraic linguistic feud: the sound of the letter “ת” (Tav/Sav), which is pronounced differently by many communities. While Sefardi (Spanish and some Middle-Eastern) communities use a “T” sound for this letter, Ashkenazi (descended from Eastern and Central Europe) communities will use an “S”. Yet in 2019, a wide swath of Reform and Conservative American synagogues use the Sefardi pronunciation, despite these communities having largely Ashkenazi heritage. Bunin Benor explains how modern Israeli Hebrew (which, in an attempt to modernize, historically rejected Ashkenazi pronunciations) influenced American Hebrew as synagogues began to adopt Zionism. Bunin Benor posits that when people are critical of language, they’re generally critiquing — in particular — ways in which languages change. Jews have always had multiple Hebrews, diversified by geography and time, background and class, and controversy over the “correct” Jewish language is an old phenomenon. Bunin Benor pivots to discuss her research on usages of Hebrew at American Jewish Summer camps, [5] explaining that in these settings, meanings are often changed (rather than lost) in translation.

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(35:31 – 53:15): Lex raises the question: Can any language be a Jewish language? [6] Bunin Benor enthusiastically responds “yes” -- wherever Jews have written and lived, Jews have used colloquial languages, different from their non-Jewish neighbors. She lists distinctive features, intonations, and mannerisms like “overlapping” (distinct from interrupting) in conversation that are unique to Jewish ways of speaking in America. [7] Bunin Benor says that Jews have always been multilingual, writing in one language and thinking in another, attuned to multiple meanings across languages. She calls Jews “the People of the Pun,” having engaged in wordplay for thousands of years, even creating rituals based in quip; for example, eating a fish head, carrots, or cabbage during Rosh Hashana. She affirms that the American Jewish tendency to make puns and the fusion of languages is a continuation of a much longer, wider tradition of Jewish wordplay. Bunin Benor closes by reflecting on the nature of linguistics. Language isn’t just language -- it’s the site where many issues and tensions reveal themselves. When people talk about language, she explains, they’re really expressing how they feel people are or should be, what it means to be human or in a particular community. Whether it’s the vocabulary of newly Orthodox Jews, the Hebrew(s) of American Jewish summer camps, or tensions over rabbis translating on the bima, all of these language differences express deeper questions about how Jews should be orienting and engaging with the broader world and the Judaism itself. [8] [9]

[1] Check out Sarah Bunin Benor’s website for the book, the Journal of Jewish Languages she founded and co-edits, and her Disney, racism, and linguistics blog

[2] You can purchase Sarah Bunin Benor’s book, Becoming Frum, here.

[3] Read up on hyperaccomodation and deliberate distinctiveness in this news article, featuring Bunin Benor.

[4] Interested in uncovering more Hebrew and Jewish etymologies? There’s a blog all about that!

[5] Learn more about this fascinating study on Hebrew in Jewish Camps in a blog post written by Bunin Benor. You can also download a powerpoint presentation about the study, created for the Foundation for Jewish Camp by clicking here.

[6] For more from Lex on this question, see “Every Language is a Jewish Language,” which he wrote in 2017 for Jewish Currents.

[7] Deborah Tannen is one of the leading experts in “overlapping” as a Jewish linguistic pattern. Read this article about “overlapping” in Jewish conversation, then check out some fascinating works by Deborah Tannen here.

[8] If you’re interested in other Judaism Unbound episodes about Jewish languages, listen to our recent Daniel Matt episode which features conversation about Aramaic, Hebrew — and how well Rabbis even knew Hebrew.

[9] If you’re interested in looking deeper at the idea of “Standard Language Ideology,” see Rosina Lippi-Green’s piece on the subject, cited by many scholars since its publication in 1994.

Greg Marcus: Judaism Unbound Episode 168 - American Mussar


Greg Marcus, founder of American Mussar and author of The Spiritual Practice of Good Actions: Finding Balance through the Soul Traits of Mussar, joins Dan and Lex to look at what Mussar is, and how it can operate effectively in an American context. [1] [2]

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(0:01 - 17:35): To begin the episode, Marcus looks back at his realization that he had, a number of years back, become a workaholic. At that point, he shifted a number of elements of his life and found his way to the practice of Mussar. He reflects on how he really was a newcomer to Jewish learning, but despite that, he felt a deep desire not only to engage with Jewish text and tradition, but to teach it to others. [3] Eventually that journey became a success, as his learning led him to teach a Mussar class at synagogue. What he discovered in his learning is that Mussar — even in Europe, centuries ago — was heavily influenced by American ideas, including those tracing their roots to Benjamin Franklin. [4] This led him to desire, and begin to create, a form of contemporary Mussar practice that understands its American context as deeply informing its character.

(17:36 - 37:43): Marcus distills the practice of Mussar into four foundational principles, centering the idea of middot, which he translates as “soul traits” or “character traits.” Counter-intuitively, he asserts that the goal is not to have as much of every middah/soul-trait as possible, but to achieve balance. Shifting gears a bit, he examines ways in which his background as a trained biologist played a role in the work he does, along with how he goes about it. He compares and contrasts the “stakes” of evolutionary biology, on the one hand, and Judaism, on the other, [5] and argues that in Jewish practice, we should not expect people to be “experts” in order to be leaders. He then fleshes out his discussion of the “soul traits” by exploring how one could actually have too much of one of them (humility) which is generally understood to be an unqualified good. [6]

(37:44 - 54:21): Marcus provides a few examples of how he and others have worked on some of the middot/soul-traits in their own lives. In doing so, he gives his own take on what the Biblical teaching of “You should be holy” can look like through an American Mussar lens. Zooming out, he names some of the ways in which Mussar represents a year-round embodiment of the 10-day themes of introspection that arise on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. To close the episode, Marcus reflects on a famous quote from the Talmud, which says that “One who studies Torah without acts of kindness — it’s as if they had no God.” He invites listeners to embrace that quotation full-heartedly, through the integration of Torah study with a regular practice of Mussar.

[1] Check out Greg Marcus’s full bio here, and purchase The Spiritual Practice of Good Actions at this link.

[2] Sign up for a free 1-hour Mussar Strategy Session with Greg Marcus at AmericanMussar.com/Unbound.

[3] Marcus names the 2013 Pew study of Jewish Americans as a document that influenced his work. For more on the role that that study has played since it was released, see a full “decade” of Judaism Unbound episodes from Episode 140 through Episode 150.

[4] For more on Benjamin Franklin’s impact on European Mussar, click here.

[5] The intersection of Judaism and science deserves a podcast episode of its own — and it has one! Check it out here - Episode 114: Sinai and Synapses - Geoffrey Mitelman.

[6] If you’re curious to find out your “soul trait profile,” as a launching point into Mussar, take Marcus’s Soul Trait Profile Quiz, available here.

David Jaffe: Judaism Unbound Episode 167 - The Meaning of Mussar


David Jaffe, author of the National Jewish Book Award-winning book Changing the World from the Inside Out, joins Dan and Lex for a conversation about Mussar -- both what it is, and the transformative potential that it possesses for individuals and the world. [1] [2]

(0:01 - 14:41): To begin the episode, Jaffe introduces the idea of Mussar, looking at both its ancient roots and evolution over time. He looks at the dichotomy of new and old, arguing that it is possible to teach something “new that’s old.” In particular, he focuses on two Jewish developments that reflect that — Mussar and Jewish mysticism. He emphasizes the ways in which Mussar practice causes its adherents to not merely espouse Jewish teachings, but really to feel them deep within their hearts and souls.

(14:42 - 26:48): Fleshing out the topic of Mussar, he talks through some examples of how Mussar has manifested in his own life. He then explores some of the history of Mussar, [3] rewinding all the way to some “Mussar statements” in the Torah, and talking through its evolutions in Medieval Europe, Modern Europe, and in the United States today. [4] In doing so, he tells a fascinating story about (we kid you not) a rotting fish!

(26:49 - 48:38): Jaffe highlights the “Inside-Out” element of his book-title Changing the World from the Inside Out. He discusses ways in which Mussar can be channeled not only toward individual self-improvement, but also toward broader institutional and societal forms of change. He also looks back at his own life experience, including a few key moments in his life in which he realized that he wasn’t living his life in full alignment with his values, [5] and what he learned from them. Turning to some of the specifics of his own practice, he re-visits the ways in which mysticism and Mussar practice can intertwine. To close the episode, Jaffe looks at how Mussar can be taught (and embodied) most effectively in school settings, and he envisions what a Judaism (and a world) that fully lives out the values of Mussar would look like.

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[1] Learn more about David Jaffe at RabbiDavidJaffe.com, and purchase Changing the World from the Inside Out by clicking here.

[2] Check out Jaffe’s Inside Out Wisdom and Action Project at InsideOutWisdomAndAction.org.

[3] Jaffe cites a book by Diana Lobel that looks at Bahya Ibn Paquda’s medieval work “Duties of the Heart.” Purchase the book, entitled A Sufi-Jewish Dialogue: Philosophy and Mysticism in Bahya ibn Paquda's "Duties of the Heart,” by clicking here.

[4] Alan Morinis is a key figure in the growth of Mussar in the United States over the past couple decades. Learn more about him, and an organization that he founded, at MussarInstitute.org.

[5] Jaffe looks back at a moment in his life in which he gravitated towards Buddhist teachings. For more on the intersections of Buddhist and Jewish practice, see Episode 38: Evolving Dharma - Jay Michaelson.

[6] For an article looking at Jaffe’s work at Gann Academy, where he applied teachings from Musar to their curriculum, see this 2018 article in JTA, entitled “Jewish schools grapple with a question: How do you turn a kid into a mensch?”

Arthur Waskow: Judaism Unbound Episode 166 - The Freedom Seder


Arthur Waskow, noted activist, author, and rabbi, joins Dan and Lex for a conversation about 1969’s Freedom Seder. They look at the process that led to Waskow’s invention of that Passover observance, and the impact it has had on both Judaism and the world over the 50 years since its creation.

Image Credit: The Shalom Center

Image Credit: The Shalom Center

(00:01 - 26:10) Before diving into the interview, Arthur Waskow begins with a blessing over the act of Torah study, explaining that the greatest type of study is that which leads to action. Saying a blessing sets an intention and dedicates the practice. Waskow also explains that his blessing will have slightly different wording than the traditional blessing over Torah study, as Waskow has come to understand the pronounciation of God’s name as the breath of all life. After he blesses this conversation and learning, Dan asks about Waskow’s process to create his own Haggadah, sparked by another recent Judaism Unbound episode. [1] Waskow discusses his journey to spearheading the Freedom Seder. [2] He tells a story about his experience at the 1964 Democratic National Convention supporting the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, when activist Fannie Lou Hamer [3] lead picketers in singing “Go Tell it On the Mountain” and he realized, suddenly, that the story of the exodus was not just a Jewish story, but a story which encompassed many narratives and peoples. After Waskow’s bar mitzvah, the Passover seder was one of the only rituals that remained meaningful to him, and so he explains that it was natural when, after a particularly disastrous attempt at protesting the 1968 Democratic National Convention [4], heading to a seder for the first night of passover and passing by a jeep mounted with a machine gun, he thought to himself, “This is Pharoah’s army.” From there, the story of the Exodus become real and tangible, no longer just a metaphor.

Arthur Waskow, pictured (center) at 1969’s Freedom Seder, with Channing Phillips and Topper Carew

Arthur Waskow, pictured (center) at 1969’s Freedom Seder, with Channing Phillips and Topper Carew

(26:10 - 39:05) As he prepared for the Freedom Seder, Waskow realized he wanted to know if his attempt at authoring a new haggadah was acceptable. Waskow sought advice from Rabbi Harold White, a rabbi who had publicly opposed the war in Vietnam, who affirmed him in his quest to write a haggadah for a Freedom Seder [5]. White told Waskow about the story of Nachshon, whom White called “an activist", the first person to step into the waters at the Red Sea — and only after this were the waters parted [6] White also introduced Waskow to the concept of midrash, the interpretation of biblical stories, reading the blank “white fire” in between the written words. What Waskow was doing was a type of modern midrash, part of a much longer tradition. Lex highlights Waskow’s wonderful “chutzpah” in having the courage to write new midrash, also commenting that Waskow’s action in creating the Freedom Seder has also given permission to other people to play with ritual, asking Waskow how Jews can continue to learn from this impulse by applying it to other holidays or traditions. Waskow responds by noting that there is a wide and ancient relationship between ritual and the world, and that it is up to us to draw out these great connections.

(39:06 - 55:00) The conversation shifts to a discussion of today’s political climate. Waskow comments that the connections embedded in ancient texts hold immense relevance for the struggles of today. He gives the example of the Climate Crisis as an issue that is interwoven with ethics from the Tanakh, which he describes as a scripture deeply loving of the land. [7] Waskow points to textual relationships to the earth like “adamah” and “adam”, earth and earthling, as well as the concept of “shmitah”, a release for the land. Waskow calls on us to draw on this wisdom and carry it into our discussions of Torah and of justice. As a final note, Lex asks about how Waskow integrates his understanding of Israeli-Palestinian issues and occupation into his discourse, and Waskow concludes by telling two stories regarding the nature of idolatry.

Fannie Lou Hamer, at the 1964 DNC, Image Credit: American Public Media

Fannie Lou Hamer, at the 1964 DNC, Image Credit: American Public Media

[1] Listen to our recent Judaism Unbound Podcast with Jonathan Safron Foer in which we discuss another modern Haggadah project.

[2] Read up on the original 1969 Freedom Seder from Waskow’s Shalom Center.

[3] Learn more about the pivotal activism of Fannie Lou Hamer here.

Image Credit: Tablet Magazine

Image Credit: Tablet Magazine

[4] For Waskow, the 1968 Democratic National Convention was a turning point. Here’s an article about the protests and the violent backlash from city police in Chicago.

[5] In the book, “Jewish Renewal: A Journey : the Movement's History, Ideology, and Future”, Sholom Groesberg describes his experience at the 1969 Freedom Seder, mentioning a service led by Rabbi Harold White (z”l). Read this riveting account of the event here.

[6] Check out this wonderful Sefaria sourcesheet about Nachshon, including a BimBam video about this activist figure — a great supplement for any seder!

[7] Waskow’s Shalom Center publishes stances and articles regarding Climate Change policy, Torah, and political action. You can read a list of these articles on the Climate Policy page of the Shalom Center’s website.

Denise Handlarski: Judaism Unbound Episode 165 - SecularSynagogue.com


Denise Handlarski, rabbi and founder of SecularSynagogue.com, joins Dan and Lex for a wide-ranging conversation, looking at digital Judaism, interfaith relationships, colonialism, among other topics. [1]

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(0:01 - 20:30): To begin the episode, Handlarski outlines what SecularSynagogue.com is. [2] She explores how her project has sought to reach Jews with a desire for deep Jewish practice, but for whom synagogues do not resonate — often because the central event of many synagogues is a prayer service. She also looks at what it means to “practice Judaism daily,” arguing that it is possible to do so while identifying as Secular (and that she herself embodies that possibility). Introducing the two communities she serves — she is rabbi of an “offline” (on-the-ground) community called Oraynu in Toronto, [3] she asserts that both of them are “real life” even though one, SecularSynagogue.com, meets digitally. Handlarski also considers ways in which, counter-intuitively, some elements of communal connection can actually occur more effectively in a digital space than an offline location.

(20:31 - 37:57): Handlarski looks back at the history of Secular Humanistic Judaism, exploring the two streams (Secular and Humanistic) that are its key influences. [4] Simultaneously, she puts forth the idea that the history of this movement (or these movements, plural) should take a backseat to the contemporary practices being lived out in spaces today. She also looks at how even 5-10 minutes of daily Jewish practice, through digital modalities, can mean a great deal in people’s lives. Handlarski then examines how her background studying colonialism continues to influence her life today, and in the inverse, how her Judaism played a role in her study of colonialism before she was ever thinking about becoming a rabbi. [5] She also opens up conversation around the geographic make-up of her digital synagogue.

(37:58 - 54:56): Dan asks Handlarski why she chose to call her organization a “synagogue” when SecularSynagogue.com looks so different from how many people conceive of a traditional synagogue space. Handlarski responds by exploring the ways in which her effort represents a reclamation of the idea of a “synagogue,” and an implicit argument that the old definition of it need not be our contemporary conception. Turning to the topic of interfaith relationships, she talks through the role that her own relationship (which is interfaith) plays in her Jewish leadership. She speaks to the ways in which intermarried rabbis have life experiences to bring the table which can be transformational for those they serve — whether the latter are themselves intermarried, “intramarried,” or neither. To close the episode, she amplifies the idea that representation matters, highlighting that reality through the example of intermarried rabbis like her, who demonstrate through their leadership a new model of empowered Jewish engagement. [7]

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[1] Visit SecularSynagogue.com to learn more about Handlarski’s digital Jewish community. Click here for a full bio of Denise Handlarski.

[2] For an article about SecularSynagogue.com featured in The Jewish Week, click here.

[3] Learn more about Oraynu at Oraynu.org.

[4] For more on the evolutions of Secular Humanistic Judaism over time, listen in to Episode 44: A Secular Humanistic Hanukkah - Adam Chalom and/or Episode 136: God? Optional - Judith Seid.

[5] If you are interested in Jewish conversations about colonialism, we recommend the Facebook group Jews for Decolonization, which has over 2,000 members.

[6] Denise Handlarski’s article “I am an Intermarried Rabbi,” featured in Canadian Jewish News, can be accessed here.

[7] For a piece from Lex that explores the idea that online and offline forms of Judaism are both “real-life,” click here.

[8] Connect to Denise Handlarski on social media at any of the following links: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter. Learn about Handlarski’s doula practice at JewishDoula.com.

Judaism Unbound Episode 164: Going, Jewishly - Leon Wiener Dow


Leon Wiener Dow of the Shalom Hartman Institute and BINA Secular Yeshiva joins Dan Libenson and Lex Rofeberg in conversation about his new book, The Going. They discuss Jewish law — a system which both bounds and binds — probing the tensions between individual Jewish practice and an ongoing communal endeavor.

(00:01 - 16:30): Wiener Dow begins the episode with an explanation of his new book’s title, “The Going: A Meditation on Jewish Law” [1] where he translates Halacha as “The Going” instead of its more conventional translation as “Jewish Law”. [2] Wiener Dow explains that the word is a gerund, a word which indicates a process, illustrating the dynamic nature of Jewish law which is ever-changing. He briefly talks about his upbringing in a “nominally conservative” home and a young epiphany regarding his own observance of separating milk and meat. He encourages those who see the Torah as compelling to really own that connection, living Torah through action and speech. He highlights that a person’s relationship to halacha is open-ended and may change throughout a person’s life. He also discusses the “limitations” that might occur through halachic observance, causing people to make choices that are uncomfortable, or challenging, because they perceive something deeper at stake.

(16:31 - 30:28): In this section, Dan and Lex ask about the distinction between “the Halacha” versus “a halacha.” Wiener Dow emphasizes that halacha is a deeply communal endeavor which is both concerned with correct interpretation of the law and the evolution of the communal legal system which ties us to our tradition. He argues for a descipription of halacha as a comprehensive entity (“The Halacha”) that both bounds and binds. Meanwhile, calling it something individual (“a halacha”) creates a problematic privatization of practice, divorcing Jews from their own community. Wiener Dow says that this collective binding agent also allows for opportunities of “holy disobedience” which always take place in a communal context. The conversation turns to a discussion regarding the detriments of such a communal system, asking, what happens when one’s personal values are at odds with halachic observance? Can we build a Judaism that is both faithful to our sense morality and honest within the tradition? Wiener Dow affirms these questions, pulling in a quote by Michael Walzer, [3] and asserting that being a responsible member of a community means claiming that community it as one’s own and criticizing it from within. He references a tale in the Talmud, in which students follow a rabbi home — into the bathroom and even the bedroom, during intercourse. When they are asked what they’re doing, they reply, “It is Torah and I must learn it!” [4] In this way, Wiener Dow says, it is up to the greater Jewish community to expand the definition and meanings of that Torah and live it out in a way that is both ethical and honest.

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(31:29 - 50:12): Wiener Dow continues to explore the tension between the idea of received tradition and our individual sense of right and wrong. He expounds on the notion of acting for God by disregarding or rebelling against the system. [5] He discusses how of a communal halachic system requires a recognition of all Jews and their practices, whether they are following halachah in an observant manner or not. In this way, even Jews who might identify as non-halachic or even anti-halachic are actually living a halachic life, but “just pulling a different way.” So what do we do when the system seems so misaligned with our sensibilities? Do we rebuild or rework? Wiener Dow gives the example of constructing a building, explaining that while many people love to create new buildings from scratch, it may be more costly and less effective than just renovating an old one from the inside out. To start from scratch halachically, too much would be lost. The discussion turns finally to theology as Lex remarks that, throughout this whole conversation, there has been very little direct mention of God. [7] Wiener Dow articulates that it is more significant to respond to the divine than to talk about it, that actions articulate devotion. For this reason, he believes that it’s important that living a halakhic lifestyle doesn’t mean being closed off into narrow spaces, but instead demanding of oneself to live in the widest open of spaces, attentive to everything, sensitive to the world around you and bearing the tensions with pride.

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[1] Find Leon Wiener Dow’s website here.

[2] Check out Leon Wiener Dow’s book, The Going: A Meditation on Jewish Law.

[3] Learn more about this reference to Michael Walzer by downloading this PDF of his piece entitled “Interpretation and Social Criticism.”

[4] Read this Talmudic story about the Rabbi’s disciples following him into his home, the bathroom, and the bedroom, declaring, “It is Torah and I must learn it!”

[5] Wiener Dow references the phrase, "Eit La'asot Hashem..." it is time to work for the Divine. Read about this concept here.

[6] Speaking of cleaning up, flash back to a previous conversation where we discuss Marie Kondo, in Episode 154: Ten New Commandments.

[7] We also have conversations about divinity here on Judaism Unbound! Check out this handy playlist of episodes about God!



Judaism Unbound Episode 163: Collective Effervescence - Lizzi Heydemann


Lizzi Heydemann, the rabbi and founder of Mishkan Chicago, joins Dan Libenson and Lex Rofeberg in conversation about creating a 21st Century Jewish spiritual community. In their discussion, she calls for embodied experiences of Judaism that are “primal,” “spiritual,” “bold,” “visceral,” and “powerful.” [1]

(0:01 - 15:11): To begin the episode, Lizzi Heydemann looks back at the beginnings of Mishkan Chicago, which was created to reach people in Chicago who had not yet found a robust form of Jewish communal life that spoke to them both socially and spiritually. She then turns to the name “Mishkan Chicago,” outlining its ancient meaning from the text of the Torah, [2] along with how it maps onto the lived reality of the space that she now leads. [3] She emphasizes the ways in which the Tabernacle (Mishkan) traveled from place to place in the Torah, and how it served as a paradigmatic location of spiritual practice for the Israelites. Heydemann also looks at the wide variety of roles held by different groups of Israelites in the Mishkan’s construction, and how Mishkan Chicago has replicated that through micro-communities, in addition to their large-scale gatherings.

(15:12 - 28:51): Heydemann looks at what it means to experience Judaism as a visceral, or primal, experience. [4] She notes Abraham Joshua Heschel’s critique of 20th Century prayer as overly “polite,” and, following his example, calls on participants in Jewish prayer to embrace the possibility of extraordinarily deep and emotional feeling. She also reflects on the wide variety of insecurities that different kinds of people bring into Jewish spaces. Turning to the question of audience, Heydemann explores the kinds of people who are most attracted to Mishkan Chicago’s work, along with those who are less likely to gravitate towards its work. In doing so, she outlines a few initiatives that are part of Mishkan’s programming, highlighting the “Mensch Academy” and “Maggie’s Place.” [5]

(28:52 - 48:34): Turning to questions around intermarriage, Heydemann talks through her decision to leave the rabbinic association of the Conservative movement (the Rabbinical Assembly). Through a quote from Pirkei Avot (a core text of the Mishnah, which translates to “Ethics of our Ancestors”), which centers on the idea of “bringing people closer to Torah,” she examines ways in which her own methodology of achieving that important goal differs from that of the Rabbinical Assembly. Shifting gears a bit to some “futurology,” Heydemann speaks to ways in which she surprises people with her pessimism — not about the Jewish future, but about the future of our world more generally when confronting the issue of climate change — and how this pessimism leads her to see certain battles fought in the Jewish community differently. To close the episode, Heydemann reflects on the legacy of Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf [7] — a rabbi who was deeply influential one her early life — and how he taught her the foundational and vital truth that Torah can and should be powerful! In doing so, she argues that there are many contemporary voices that resemble his, calling boldly for a more powerful, more liberated, Jewish future.

[1] Learn more about Lizzi Heydemann by clicking here, and check out Mishkan Chicago’s website at MishkanChicago.org. Mishkan Chicago is part of a coalition of Jewish spiritual communities called the Jewish Emergent Network, which you can learn more about at JewishEmergentNetwork.org.

[2] Want to learn more about what the Mishkan (Tabernacle) was, in the Bible? Check out this MyJewishLearning.com article to explore.

[3] In discussing organizational names, Heydemann briefly cites Noa Kushner, rabbi of The Kitchen (another Jewish Emergent community, located in San Francisco). For a past Judaism Unbound conversation featuring Kushner see Episode 23: Hello Mazel - Noa Kushner, Yoav Schlesinger.

[4] Dan refers back to a Judaism Unbound episode with Ruby Namdar in exploring the idea of visceral Jewish experiences. Listen in at this link: Episode 153: Fiction Between Worlds - Ruby Namdar.

[5] Check out Mishkan Chicago’s Mensch Academy here, and learn more about Maggie’s Place here.

[6] Hear more from Heydemann about her decision to leave the Rabbinical Assembly by watching this video.

[7] For more on the legacy of Arnold Jacob Wolf, click here.

Judaism Unbound Episode 162: 100% Black, 100% Jewish - MaNishtana


MaNishtana joins Lex Rofeberg and Dan Libenson for a conversation about race and intersectionality in contemporary Jewish life. They discuss these issues through the lens of the protagonist in MaNishtana’s book, Ariel Samson: Freelance Rabbi, a Black Orthodox rabbi.

Image Credit: Manishtana

Image Credit: Manishtana

00:01 - 15:18: MaNishtana begins by describing his nom-de-plume. A riff on the 4 questions at Passover, instead of asking “Why is this night different from all other nights,” he asks “Why is this Jew different from all other Jews?” From there, the episode dives into MaNishtana’s book, Ariel Samson: Freelance Rabbi, [1] which he describes as a social textbook; a not-autobiography about a Black, Jewish rabbi, which is not a Black book or a Jewish book, but chock full of both. MaNishtana discusses how Black and Jewish identity intersect, giving a unique perspective into the feeling of being an outsider looking in, with respect to the Jewish world.

15:19 - 27:59: MaNishtana briefly talks about his social media presence, with the tagline “100% Black and 100% Jewish, 0% Safe.” [2] The conversation turns to questions of how Jewish identity coexists with other identities, especially in a contemporary world in which many marginalized identities often cohabit within the same person. How should Jews approach their own intersectionality? MaNishtana recounts the ways in which Jewish textual tradition already discusses multiplicity of racial identity, naming the book of Esther, the Exodus narrative, and more. [3] He argues that Jewish tradition has always explicitly described that they Jews are from many regions, of many colors — but that these sections are glossed over and unstudied. MaNishtana discusses racism in the Jewish community, including an instance where Yehudah Webster was accosted by a group of white Jews while taking a Torah Scroll to his car. They did not believe he was actually Jewish on account of his blackness. [4] MaNishtana explains the importance of white Jews acknowledging their whiteness. He describes how Jews can both implicitly support tenets of white supremacy while also being victims of it, and that acknowledging whiteness is integral to dismantling white supremacy in Jewish communities.

28:00-42:50: Lex reads the first page of MaNishtana’s book, a dedication page which takes care to address those who have ever felt out of place within Jewish communities. MaNishtana talks about his own experiences of Blackness within Orthodox versus non-Orthodox communities, expressing that even in spaces that might identify as more socially progressive, racism continues to be a problem. The discussion then orients towards questions of walking the walk regarding inclusivity at synagogues. MaNishtana recommends that synagogue leadership reach out to younger generations, catering to those who will inherit the synagogue rather than trying to maintain a non-satisfactory status quo. The episode closes with a call to read the book, [5] a vehicle for opening dialogue around experiences of race and otherness in Jewish communities.

[1] Check out MaNishtana’s new book, Ariel Samson: Freelance Rabbi on Amazon.

[2] Take a look at MaNishtana’s website, Facebook page, and his Twitter profile.

[3] MaNishtana references the mixed multitudes of Exodus (12:38), Jews from India to Ethiopia in the Book of Esther (8:9), and Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer describing Shem’s blessing of “dark and comely sons”.

[4] Read this article about Yehudah Webster’s experience with racism in the Jewish community, taking a Torah scroll to his car. You can read more about community organizer and activist Yehudah Webster here.

[5] To purchase any of MaNishtana’s other books, click here!

Check out MaNishtana’s ELI Talk, entitled “What Makes This Jew Different from All Other Jews? Race, Difference, and Safety in Jewish Spaces,” by pressing the play-button below!

 
 

Judaism Unbound Episode 161: The Zohar - Daniel Matt


Daniel Matt is a scholar of Kabbalah who translated and annotated the Zohar — a central text of Jewish mysticism — into English. He joins Dan Libenson and Lex Rofeberg for a conversation about the Zohar’s origins, his work that yielded The Zohar: Pritzker Edition (his landmark translation), and questions that the text opens up about the duality of old and new. [1]

Image Credit: Tom Levy

Image Credit: Tom Levy

(0:01 - 21:20): To begin the episode, Daniel Matt reflects on his recent foray into the world of digital Judaism, through an online class that he teaches weekly to hundreds of people all around the world. He then turns to the main subject of this episode, the Zohar itself. [3] Opening by giving a general overview of its content and structure, he names the reality that many Jews — even those who are very learned in many Jewish texts — have never cracked open the pages of the Zohar. He also provides an introduction to the 10 Sefirot, a term that is difficult to translate but can roughly be understood as “attributes” or “emanations” of God that play a central role in the Zohar’s text, as an ever-present kind of “secret code.” Turning to the origins of the text, he explores two vastly different time periods, and two vastly different geographic contexts, each of which play a critical role in the Zohar’s formation. [4]

(21:21 - 41:41): Matt looks at the role of Moses Maimonides in affecting the shape that the Zohar took, emphasizing how the latter text’s authors were simultaneously influenced by, and critical of, the famous Jewish philosopher. [5] He argues that the text sees itself as “new-ancient,” balancing a radical, innovative lens with the authors’ claim that the text dates back to the 2nd Century C.E. He notes his conscious choice to refer to “authors” plural, as Moshe de Leon is the major, but not exclusive, author of the text. He shifts to look in more detail at some of the Zohar’s most radical ideas, and walks through his process of translating the entire work into English.

(41:42 - 57:51): Continuing on the thread of translation, Matt considers why it is that the Zohar was written in Aramaic, and discusses why in a certain sense, it is in and of itself a kind of translation. He takes on the question of why Moshe de Leon felt the need to claim the text was ancient, as opposed to saying directly that he was writing it in his own time. He speaks to the question of whether there may be still be ways in which ancient precedent holds a great deal of weight for religious practitioners, including many Jews. To close the episode, Matt names some ways in which the Zohar’s relationship to gender and sexuality can be understood as equal parts profound and problematic. [6]

[1] Learn more about Daniel Matt by clicking here. Purchase any of his books on amazon here, and purchase The Zohar: Pritzker Edition (Volume 1) in particular here.

[2] Sign up for Matt’s online class on Zohar at this link.

[3] For a brief textual overview of the Zohar, click here. For an article about Matt’s translation, published in Newsweek shortly after it was released, click here.

[4] Matt cites the chariot featured in the book of Ezekiel as, in many ways, a launching point for early Jewish mysticism. Learn more by clicking here.

[5] For another Judaism Unbound conversation that looks at the philosophy of Moses Maimonides, see Episode 131: Protesting God - Dov Weiss.

[6] Matt mentions the work of Elliot Wolfson, on ideas of gender that manifest in the Zohar. For a book on this subject, see Wolfson’s Circle in the Square: Studies in the Use of Gender in Kabbalistic Symbolism

Lori Schneide Shapiro: Judaism Unbound Episode 160 - Open Temple


Lori Schneide Shapiro joins Dan Libenson and Lex Rofeberg for a conversation about Open Temple, an emerging Jewish community she founded in Venice, California.

00:01 - 15:32: Lori Schneide Shapiro begins this episode by telling the story of a Jewish journey that started from scratch. As someone who began with very little Jewish knowledge and eventually came to her Jewish identity through the arts, Schneide Sharpio founded the organization “Open Temple.” Founded in Venice, CA, as a way of reaching Jews on the periphery, [1] Open Temple seeks to integrate spirituality, music, and arts into Jewish ritual.

15:33 - 29:26: Schneide Shapiro discusses how Open Temple seeks to meet certain unmet Jewish needs, creating a space for “weavers” who can make connections between Jewish people and the arts. She describes an Open Temple Yom Kippur service involving a Rolling Stones song blended with liturgy, multimedia performance, and a former antisemitic “life after hate” member seeking forgiveness as an example of teshuva for our modern political moment. [2] The conversation turns to use of digital media in Judaism and questions about the integration of digital media into Jewish experiences. Schneide Shapiro says that using screens and digital media in ritual is another way that Jews are interacting with contemporary American culture, just as Jews have always done with their surrounding cultures.

29:27 - 42:40: Schneide Shapiro explores the intersection of Judaism and pop culture, along with ways in which organizations can encourage Jewish creators to make Jewish creations. She praises Reboot in particular, [3] an organization that provides Jewish education and engagement for people involved in popular culture — including “Transparent” Director, Jill Soloway. [4] The conversation moves briefly to the role that museums can play for Jewish creativity. Schneide Shapiro sees these as multi-media experiences and as places that are like temples: spaces where people go to come alive. She remarks that spiritual communities should be places that people go to feel something through a type of spiritual alchemy, emphasizing the importance of creating a Judaism that has levity and joy. She explains that a traditional Jewish God is a God who writes, and that as contemporary Jews we should honor that concept with our own creations. Schneide Shapiro concludes the episode by describing Open Temple as an open door for anyone to go on a “soul journey” to find their Jewish identity. [5]

[1] Learn more about Open Temple by visiting OpenTemple.org. Read a full bio of Lori Schneide Shapiro here.

[2] Take a look at LifeAfterHate.org to learn more about that project.

[3] More information about Reboot can be found at Rebooters.net.

[4] Watch a Reboot interview of Jill Soloway, director of Transparent, here.

[5] To explore two programmatic elements of Open Temple that were mentioned in this episode, check out the following links: Arts 36, Soul Journey

Jonathan Safran Foer: Judaism Unbound Episode 159 - Judaism Illuminated


Jonathan Safran Foer, author of Everything is Illuminated, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Here I Am, and the non-fiction Eating Animals, joins Dan and Lex for a conversation about the creative process. [1] This episode is the fourth in a series of episodes on art, creativity, preservation, and museums, brought to you in partnership with The Council of American Jewish Museums. [2] [3] [4]

Image Credit: Rebecca Hendin

Image Credit: Rebecca Hendin

(0:01 - 12:57): To begin the episode, Safran Foer dives into the process that goes into creating one of his books. In particular, he emphasizes that his books aren’t particularly pre-mediated, evolving in unexpected ways as they are being written. He then explores the role of Judaism in his works, which he cites as the element of his books that has most surprised him over the years. [5]

(12:58 - 24:40): Safran Foer looks in particular at one of his most explicitly Jewish books: The New American Haggadah. He looks back at his experiences of Passover, his sense that the holiday was not being observed to its fullest potential, and his efforts to fill a gap in the Passover world through the creation of this new resource. Next, the conversation turns to a non-fiction book that Safran Foer wrote, entitled Eating Animals, which Dan sees as a kind of “halachic” text (a text with implications for how one might act in the world).

(24:41 - 39:46): Providing an overview of the case he makes in Eating Animals, Safran Foer outlines the harmful impact of contemporary meat consumption — on animals themselves and on the environment more broadly. [6] He and the two co-hosts also explore the extent to which Judaism itself both does and does not comment directly on the question of ethical meat consumption. Continuing, he considers the intersection of religion (and Judaism specifically) with art. To close, he calls for an embrace of creativity — both within Jewish life and outside of it — while simultaneously cautioning against perfectionism.

[1] Learn more about Jonathan Safran Foer by clicking here. Browse his various books, and purchase them for yourself, here.

[2] Learn more about the Council for American Jewish Museums by visiting CAJM.net.

[3] Check out an interview of Safran Foer on NPR, shortly after the release of his 2016 book Here I Am, by clicking here.

[4] Two of Safran Foer’s books have been adapted into films. View trailers for each of them at the following links: Everything is Illuminated, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

[5] Dan alludes to a conversation with painter Yishai Jusidman at this point in the episode. Listen in to that conversation here: Episode 157: Painting the Unpaintable - Yishai Jusidman

[6] Check out Safran Foer’s appearance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, talking about Eating Animals, at this link.

Ivy Barsky: Judaism Unbound Episode 158 - Curating the Jewish Story


Ivy Barsky, the CEO and Gwen Goodman Director of the National Museum of American Jewish History, joins Dan Libenson and Lex Rofeberg for a conversation about what Jewish museums are, why they matter, and the impact they are having on contemporary Jews. This episode is the third in a series of episodes on art, creativity, preservation, and museums, brought to you in partnership with The Council of American Jewish Museums. [1] [2]

0:01 - 15:23: Ivy Barsky begins this episode by describing the function of a museum in modern life, explaining that the role of a museum is to help the public explore what it is to be human through arts, sciences, and culture. Museums also take on an interpretive function, making the past accessible. She then moves on to discuss the concept of a “Jewish Museum,” and the National Museum of American Jewish History in particular. Barsky posits that one of the challenges of a Jewish Museum is communicating stories to a wide variety of audiences with differing levels of background knowledge, many of whom are often not Jewish. Here, the conversation shifts towards questions of curation, which is full of many “hard choices” about whose voices and narratives to display in the process of crafting stories. [3] Barsky says that these decisions are often driven by the materials and artifacts available to curators, which she calls “star-tifacts”; striking artifacts that might “star” in an exhibit and tell a story well.

15:24 - 28:30: Barsky briefly offers perspective on the importance of Jewish History for contemporary American Jews, especially as it pertains to traditions of lay leadership. She observes how the role of curation has an impact on which stories survive and which are lost to history. While many people may have “star-tifacts” that could preserve histories, Barksy explains that regular people often have different understandings of what material culture is significant than historians or curators, leading many people to believe that they don’t have meaningful materials to donate to museums and archives. However, Barsky says that many objects are “witnesses” to history. [4] This is why the “star-tifact” objects that she discusses are an important, substantive, and memorable part of exhibits - when we see them, we remember them.

28:30 - 47:30: Barsky discusses a handful of significant “star-tifacts” in her museum’s collections, such as a letter of recommendation written Leonard Bernstein’s Rabbi for Bernstein’s Harvard Application and a letter from George Washington, written to Moses Seixas, a Jewish-American immigrant in the late 1700s. [5] She raises the cultural significance of these letters for Jews creating a new life in America. Barsky reflects on the dual, and perhaps contrasting, roles of museums, serving as both a window into the past and a glance at the potential future. Barsky uses the example of the “Sara Berman’s Closet” exhibition, to be featured on the Liberty Mall. The episode ends with a discussion of the new and expansive modalities of museums today, which often provide commentary about contemporary issues, such as the Tenement Museum’s role in discussing modern American immigration [3]. how much of curation is about wrestling with telling both the good stories and the hard stories. Barsky finishes by declaring that the mission of the Jewish Museum is not to say “how great we are, but how grateful we are.”

[1] Learn more about the National Museum of American Jewish History at NMAJH.org. For more information about the Council of American Jewish Museums, head to CAJM.net. Find a Jewish museum near you by clicking here.

[2] Judaism Unbound recently released a number of bonus episodes, featuring scholars of American Jewish history, which were recorded in the exhibition of the museum that Barsky directs. You can listen to them at this link.

[3] Barsky briefly mentions Isaac Leeser, and the important role he played in American Jewish history. Learn more about him here.

[4] Dan alludes to a Judaism Unbound episode featuring Ruby Namdar, on the question of tangible ritual versus intangible ideas. Listen to that conversation here: Episode 153: Fiction Between Worlds - Ruby Namdar.

[5] Learn more about Washington’s letter to the Touro Synagogue in Newport here. For the text of the “Richmond Prayer,” which Barsky alluded to (crafted to pray for the American government by a Richmond, VA congregation in the 18th century), click here.

[6] Click here for more information about “Sara Berman’s Closet” — a 2019 NMAJH special exhibition.

American Jewish History Unbound #3: Levy’s Jewish Rye - Beth Wenger


Beth Wenger, the Moritz and Josephine Berg Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania, joins Judaism Unbound on the ground at the National Museum of American Jewish History. In conversation with Lex Rofeberg, she looks at a series of famously successful advertisements produced in the mid-late 20th century by Levy’s Jewish Rye. This bonus episode is part of a series of bonus episodes, recorded in partnership with the American Jewish Historical Society and the National Museum of American Jewish History.

We’ve included pictures of the advertisements that Wenger examines below, so that you can look at them as you listen to the interview.

 
Levy's Rye Young Black Boy.jpeg
 

American Jewish History Unbound #2: B'nai B'rith - Deborah Dash Moore


Deborah Dash Moore, Frederick G.L. Huetwell Professor of History at the University of Michigan, joins Judaism Unbound on the ground at the National Museum of American Jewish History. In conversation with Dan Libenson, she looks at the origins and evolution of the organization B’nai B’rith. This bonus episode is part of a series of bonus episodes, recorded in partnership with the American Jewish Historical Society and the National Museum of American Jewish History.

American Jewish History Unbound #1: Jews in the Confederacy - Adam Mendelsohn


Adam Mendelsohn, Director of the Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Capetown, joins Judaism Unbound on the ground at the National Museum of American Jewish History. In conversation with Dan Libenson, he looks at Jewish involvement in the Confederacy during the Civil War. This bonus episode is part of a series of bonus episodes, recorded in partnership with the American Jewish Historical Society and the National Museum of American Jewish History.

Yishai Jusidman: Judaism Unbound Episode 157 - Painting The Unpaintable


Yishai Jusidman, a painter whose exhibition Prussian Blue features a series of works looking at the Holocaust, questions of memory, and representation — joins Dan Libenson and Lex Rofeberg to discuss his work and the thinking behind it. [1] This episode is the second in a series of episodes on art, creativity, preservation, and museums, brought to you in partnership with The Council of American Jewish Museums.

For video and images of Prussian Blue to view as you listen to the episode, scroll down this page.

Image Credit: Mariana Yañez

Image Credit: Mariana Yañez

(0:01 - 13:56): To begin the episode, Jusidman looks back at the events that led him to lean into the fraught arena of painting “about” the Holocaust, the works that became the exhibition Prussian Blue. First, he reflects on visiting an exhibition by Luc Tuymans, [2] and how its understanding of representing the Holocaust (and whether one can ever succeed at doing so) differed from his own. [3] He then explores a series of discoveries he made about the pigment “Prussian Blue,” its physical presence in some death camps as a result of chemical reactions with the gases used in the extermination chambers, and his idea to utilize the pigment as a tangible way of connecting to the Holocaust itself. Jusidman also explores, more broadly, the role that art can play in representing precisely those elements of the past and present that are hardest for us capture in words.

(13:57 - 27:05): Jusidman offers a critique of pedagogies that attempt to create an experience that “feels like” being in the Holocaust. Looking in particular at a methodology of providing visitors with a passport of someone who experienced the Holocaust, to Jusidman, it feels a bit manipulative. [4] He recognizes that such approaches come from a place of positive intentions, geared toward the important goal of sparking empathy for those who were murdered, but still believes that “prosthetic experiences” are ineffective ways to relate to elements of the past. Lex compares the idea that one can never authentically represent the Holocaust in art to the religious presumption that one can never effectively represent God in artwork. [5] Jusidman gives his take on those parallel ideas and broadens the conversation to push back on the notion — held by some artists — that representational painting of any kind (not just about the Holocaust or God, but more generally) is impossible, such that attempts at it necessarily fail.

(27:06 - 41:38): The question of audience arises, and Jusidman puts forth the belief that artists always need an audience. In doing so, he pushes back on the cliché image that many people have in their heads, of artists whose only mission is to express themselves, independent of what potential viewers will experience from their work. To close the episode, Jusidman looks back on his own development, from his upbringing as a Jew in Mexico, [6] through experiences in American universities studying art and philosophy, and how all of these served to shape the person and artist that he haJs become.


Prussian Blue - Video

 

[1] Learn more about Yishai Jusidman, and his work, by visiting YishaiJusidman.com. For a variety of articles about Prussian Blue, check out these links: The Village Voice, New York Times, Ha’aretz. For a video that introduces the story behind the paintings and shows many of the paints themselves, scroll down this page and click play on the video.

[2] Get a better sense of the content in Luc Tuymans’s San Francisco show, which propelled Jusidman towards creating his work, by clicking here.

[3] Jusidman discusses the influence of Theodore Adorno’s claim that “poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” Learn more about the context of that quote, and read a critique of it, by clicking here.

[4] Gain a sense of what these passports are, and how the Holocaust Memorial Museum uses them, here.

[5] Lex ties this conversation back to Amichai Lau-Lavie’s appearance on the show, in which he argues that he would have contributed to the construction of the golden calf at Mount Sinai. You can hear Lau-Lavie’s argument by listening to Episode 29: Lab/Shul - Amichai Lau-Lavie.

[6] Jusidman briefly alludes to immigration restrictions in the United States, which led many European Jews to immigrate to Mexico instead. Learn more about the context of those restrictions, and contemporary political parallels to them, by listening to the bonus episode Antisemitism, Nativism, and Immigration - Eli Lederhendler.

Aaron Henne: Judaism Unbound Episode 156 - Creating Jewish Theatre


Aaron Henne, Artistic Director of Theatre Dybbuk, [1] joins Dan Libenson and Lex Rofeberg for a conversation blurring the lines between art, education, politics, preservation, and creativity. This episode is the first in a series, brought to you in partnership with the Council of American Jewish Museums. [2]

Image Credit: Taso Papadakis

Image Credit: Taso Papadakis

(0:01 - 16:15): To begin the episode, Henne provides an overview of Theatre Dybbuk’s work. In doing so, he argues that too often we treat the realms of education, and art, and ritual as entirely separate from one another, when they actually can and should be seen as deeply intertwined. He calls back to ancient Greek tragedies, noting the ways in which they were actual in and of themselves serving a kind of religious, ritual function. He cites a recent work by Theatre Dybbuk, called Exagoge, [3] which draws from ancient Greek texts and styles, to flesh out what the genre-blurring he calls for can look like in practice.

(16:16 - 31:40): Henne considers the ways in which many perceive art as only instrumentally valuable. He claims that we should see art as inherently valuable, not as worthwhile only when it serves some other element of human experience. At the same time, he considers how artists can learn to focus more deeply on the idea of impact, without thinking that doing so is artistically inauthentic. He also pushes back on a dichotomy that many sometimes draw (and which, candidly, Judaism Unbound has occasionally drawn) between preservation, on the one hand, and creativity. Then, riffing off an analogy Dan draws regarding the different ways people can experience a museum, Henne explores how the experience of a good theatrical production can look very different from audience member to audience member.

(31:41 - 49:59): Looking back on a production called Assemble, [4] Henne considers how art can be a successful modality for taking lost rituals from the Jewish past and recovering them in our present. [5] In Assemble, the ritual was associated with Sukkot (called Hakhel). Continuing with the theme of “lost Jewish traditions,” Henne also names a recent production called Lost Tribes, which explicitly looked at the theme of hidden narratives — through an ancient deep-dive into the Kingdoms of Judah and Israel — and examines how one might elevate those voices that have been marginalized or silenced. [6] To close the episode, Henne talks about why artists shouldn’t be afraid of the political, and encourages us to understand audience members (and community members in a synagogue) not as “recipients” of art or worship, but as active participants in it.

Image Credits: Taso Papadakis

Image Credits: Taso Papadakis

[1] Learn more about Aaron Henne by checking out his website. Explore Theatre Dybbuk’s work more broadly by visiting TheatreDybbuk.org.

[2] Head to CAJM.net to learn more about the Council of American Jewish Museums, and visit this link to hear more about the 2019 CAJM conference in Los Angeles, in which Judaism Unbound will be featured.

[3] For more information about Exagoge, click here.

[4] Henne briefly mentions the Leichtag Foundation, and a Sukkah Building competition that they sponsored. Click here to learn more about it! Check out some photos of the 2015 Harvest Festival, at which Assemble was featured, here. This link includes images of a Sukkah built in partnership with the NewSchool of Architecture and Design.

[5] Learn more about Assemble here.

[6] For more details regarding Lost Tribes, check out this link.



April Baskin, Yavilah McCoy, Abby Stein: Judaism Unbound Episode 155 - The Women’s March


April Baskin, Yavilah McCoy, and Abby Stein, the three Jewish members of The Women’s March steering committee, [1] join Dan Libenson and Lex Rofeberg for a conversation about intersectionality, coalition-building, and embodiment — and how all three of those key concepts served a key role in the success of the second annual Women’s March.

Image Credit: Jill Peltzman

Image Credit: Jill Peltzman

(0:01 - 12:22): To begin the episode, McCoy and Stein outline the intersectional approach of the Women’s March Steering Committee, and how that approach plays a key role in how the march manifests. McCoy adds to this, arguing that the work of intersectionality is not merely to gather different kinds of people in a space, but to really internalize the ways in which various forms of oppression intersect. [2] In order to achieve that (embodiment) she calls for increased relationship-building across boundaries of difference.

Image Credit: ARQ

Image Credit: ARQ

(12:23 - 26:53): To further understand the values of the Women’s March, each of the three guests looks at each of the two pieces of its name — “Women’s” and “March.” [3] In particular, they name why there is a need, in particular, for a women-led movement in our society, and why that movement has unified through the modality of a march. Baskin speaks to the ways in which a march can help combat feelings of isolation, showing women that there are others out there who care deeply about the same issues that they do. Stein cites progress that has been made in the past century toward gender equality (for women, and for transgender people, in different ways), but calls on society to recognize in which there is so much work left to be done. McCoy asserts that social justice work must transcend the level of words and become fully conscious “in our kishkes” — deep within our bodies. Baskin also describes one of the most powerful moments of the march, when participants "parted like the sea” so that Jewish women of color could stand at the forefront of the entire movement.

(26:54 - 43:04): The guests look at the topic of coalition-building. In particular, they explore how and why it is so crucial, even and especially in moments when doing that is hard. [4] They look at some of the public discourse regarding leaders of the women’s march, and argue that both intra-communal healing (healing among Jews) and broader healing (around ways in which Jews and non-Jews are not always fully understanding one another) will be important parts of justice work moving forward. McCoy calls for a recognition that Jewish womanhood is represented in their bodies, and Baskin “sings from the rooftops” the need for continuing engagement despite forms of distraction and misinformation in the media. To close the episode, Stein implores listeners to familiarize themselves with the political goals endorsed by the Women’s March policy platform, entitled The Women’s Agenda. [5] [6]

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[1] Learn more about each of the three guests, by reading their bios on the Women’s March Steering Committee website: April Baskin, Yavilah McCoy, Abby Stein. You can also visit AprilBaskin.com, Yavilah McCoy’s Jewish Women’s Archive page, and this profile on Abby Stein in The New York Jewish Week.

[2] For a full presentation by McCoy on Intersectionality as a Jewish Practice, click here.

[3] Learn more about the Women’s March at WomensMarch.com.

[4] Baskin cites the work of Joy Degruy, and in particular the idea of Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome. Learn more about it here.

[5] Take a look at the full Women’s Agenda platform at this link.

[6] For a few different pieces describing some of the debate about the Women’s March, see the following links: by Nylah Burton, in The Forward, by The Jewish Currents editorial board, and by Josefin Dolsten in JTA