Holy Folly: Using Humor to Reach for God

In his 1905 philosophical analysis of humor, Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, Sigmund Freud cites a classic Jewish joke: “Two Jews met in a railway carriage at a station in Galicia. ‘Where are you going?’ asked one. ‘To Cracow,’ was the answer. ‘What a liar you are!’ broke out the other. ‘If you say you’re going to Cracow, you want me to believe you’re going to Lemberg. But I know that in fact you’re going to Cracow. So why are you lying to me?’”

On the surface, the joke is a self-deprecating jab at the Jewish tendency to overthink things. But on a deeper level (and for Freud of course there is always a deeper level) the joke comments on the difficulty of discerning truth. He asks, “is it the truth if we describe things as they are without troubling to consider how our hearer will understand what we say?” Freud proposes that jokes like the one above “attack not a person or an institution but the certainty of our knowledge itself.” He is struck by how many jokes of this nature are Jewish ones.

For the full article please see the wonderful Summer edition of Lubavitch International Magazine.

What Does the Future Hold for Modern Orthodox Judaism?

From Mosaic Magazine

This week we published an essay by our new columnist Eli Spitzer about the direction of the Modern Orthodox movement and why it finds itself caught up in so many controversies. Eli’s article has attracted significant attention and comment, and so we thought we’d further the conversation, and also introduce him to you properly, by inviting Eli to discuss the ideas in his essay live next week. He’ll be chatting with another Mosaic writer, Sarah Rindner, who has plenty of ideas about Modern Orthodoxy herself. And they’ll both be answering questions from you, our readers and friends in the Mosaic community.

Join us on Tuesday, August 10, at 1:00 pm Eastern time for this private, live-streamed discussion on one of the most important topics facing Jewish observance today.

How to Join

This event is available to Mosaic subscribers. A subscription costs just $30, will get you access to this discussion, all of the essays—like Eli’s—that we publish, along with access to other events like this.

If you’re not yet a subscriber, you can sign up and ensure your access to this discussion right here.

Of Synagogues and Seinfeld: “ANU,” The New Museum of the Jewish People

In March, the Tel Aviv Jewish museum formerly known as the Nahum Goldmann Museum of the Jewish Diaspora(or Beit Hatfutsot) reopened after a ten-year, $100 million renovation. Now called ANU—Museum of the Jewish People, it offers a cheery, inclusive vision of Jewish peoplehood.

For the full review see here, in the wonderful new Summer issue of the Jewish Review of Books.

Jewish Continuity and Jewish Destiny: It’s Not Just About You

A Response to Is Jewish Continuity Sexist? by Mijal Bitton (Sources: A Journal of Jewish Ideas, Spring 2021)

“In delineating the various people and parties who could conceivably be offended by a Jewish continuity agenda, Bitton leaves out the most important population of all: the future humans upon whom the entirety of civilization rests. It’s true that having children is physically and emotionally taxing, and undoubtedly the burdens are unequally distributed between genders, at least for discrete periods in a child’s life. Some of these challenges can certainly be remedied; others are on a certain level inherent. Eve is told “in pain you shall bear your children,” and Adam too, is destined to work hard for all the days of life. Yet any account of these difficulties needs to be contextualized with at least a passing mention of the vast potential that accompanies bringing forth new life into the world.”

Please see here for the full response, thank you to Sources and to Mijal Bitton for the opportunity to reflect.

Frissons of Geulah

Thank you to Lubavitch International Magazine for the opportunity to consider what my own personal redemption might look like at this time. Please read the full article for wonderful contributions by the poets Yehoshua November, Eve Grubin and David Caplan.

Artwork by Sarah Kranz for Lubavitch International Magazine

This Is How It Begins . . . 

SARAH RINDNER

Two summers ago, while my family finalized our aliyah to Israel from the New Jersey suburbs, a few favorite songs found themselves repeating on our Spotify playlist. One was a catchy song by Israeli singer Udi Davidi called “See My Light,” which is in fact filled with rabbinic teachings about redemption. The refrain is a quote from Rabbi Hiyya’s statement in the Yerushalmi Talmud (Berachot 4:2): “This is how Israel’s redemption begins, little by little, everywhere it goes, it goes and multiplies.”  

The song gave me a little comfort as I spent the weeks packing up our life in the USA. When we first landed in Israel, and in the ensuing months, I certainly did not hear the bells of redemption ringing. Yet now, more accustomed to daily life and perhaps more sensitive to the spiritual nuances of the atmosphere here, not a few days pass by before I sense a little spark, a frisson, of redemption, geulah. These moments happen when I am out in nature, exploring the historically overloaded landscape of Israel. Vistas which appear in the Bible, were won and lost by numerous civilizations, and still remain a pleasant option for a Jewish family outing.

I feel redemption when my otherwise fully American children recite a verse from the Torah by heart like it is second nature, their natural sweetness blending with the sweetness of our tradition in a way that can’t be separated. Even as shops and businesses are shuttered because of the government’s response to the coronavirus, what should be a glum public mood is elevated by the goodness of the people of Israel. A young, secular smoothie-stand owner brought to his knees in debt still gives a free daily shake to every beggar who approaches his shop. Witnessing such an act of kindness, I looked at him with surprise and he pointed upward, “None of this is from us, you know?” I think I do know, little by little. 

Covid-19 and J.K. Rowling’s The Ickabog

At the height of the coronavirus pandemic last April, when celebrities around the world were lecturing us via tweet to stay home and wear a mask, British novelist J. K. Rowling took a different approach. As kids were forced to forego school and interactions with friends, she published a new children’s book and released it in free installments for families stuck at home. The novel, The Ickabog, was published in full this past Thanksgiving. Proceeds from sales of the book are donated to communities hurt most by COVID-19.

Rowling has said that the Ickabog story first came to her years ago, when her own children were young. She wrote the book during the period in which she wrote the Harry Potter books, and claims to have made no serious modifications since that time. Yet intentionally or not, The Ickabog may be the most serious literary indictment of the mass response to the COVID-19 epidemic published to date.

The cover of JK Rowling’s The Ickabog. This may be a stretch but note the corona (Latin: crown) artfully woven into the book logo.

I bought the book as a gift for my Harry Potter-loving 9-year-old, and first picked it up on the Sabbath after Hannukah. My family had just returned from Jerusalem, where the lack of tourists and the still-considerable virus restrictions cast a pallor on this normally magical time of year. After months of closures, the street vendors of Jaffa and Ben Yehudah streets finally had their Judaica and souvenirs proudly on display, albeit with few takers. Seemingly half of the usually bustling restaurants were temporarily shuttered or closed for good. I wasn’t in the mood to read more of the endless news about the pandemic, so I turned to my son’s Rowling book looking for a light fantasy escape.

Read the full essay at First Things

When Heidi Met Shimen, or, Why Real Religion Endures

A review of Judaism Straight up by Moshe Koppel

Several years ago, a blog called Judaism Without Apologies began to circulate on social media. The blog began by juxtaposing two Jewish characters’ lives and ideals: Shimen, a Gerer Hasid of sorts and Holocaust survivor living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and Heidi, a cosmopolitan Princeton graduate who thinks of herself as a citizen of the world.

A photograph by George Kalinsky of my own Polish Holocaust survivor grandfather at the Siyum HaShas in 1990. I imagine Shimen having a similar intense, independent-minded look.


The series was narrated by the American Israeli computer scientist Moshe Koppel, who had attended Shimen’s Gerer shtiebel in his youth. After obtaining a PhD in mathematics, Koppel spent a year at Prince- ton’s Institute for Advanced Study, where he met the original Heidi, the first of many he would encounter in the years to come. Koppel’s blog may have been rooted in comic sociology, but it quickly morphed into a serious discussion of moral philosophy, game theory, cultural anthropology, the nature of language, and ultimately an argument about the future of Judaism itself. Despite its rather niche appeal, the blog’s unique fusion of a no-holds-barred attitude with serious erudition attracted some diehard fans. Koppel has just published an expanded book-length version, which presents a cleaned-up and even more compelling defense of the old-fashioned Judaism Koppel imbibed in the shtiebel.

Shimen, a real-life acquaintance of Koppel (Heidi is a composite), is at the heart of the book. He survived the Lodz Ghetto and Auschwitz, but his wife and two precious children did not. After the war, Shimen picked up a handgun and collected Jewish children who had been hidden by Polish families and returned them to their communities. Elie Wiesel, who prayed in Shimen’s Gerer shtiebel from time to time, once told a story about celebrating Rosh Hashanah in Auschwitz without wine. An inmate announced, “we’ll take out tin cups and fill them with tears. And that is how we’ll make our kiddush . . . heard before God.” That, apparently, was Shimen. Koppel writes of Polish Hasidic Holocaust survivors like him: 

[They] were intense, they were angry, they could be funny in a biting sort of way. . . . But one thing they had no patience for was high-minded pieties. They despised pomposity and self-righteousness. Their devotion to Yiddishkeit, old-fashioned Judaism, as a way of life, and to the Jews as a people, were as natural and instinctive as drawing breath.

To read the full review see the wonderful new issue of Jewish Review of Books.

The Rabbi Who Chose Trans Orthodoxy

“Shortly before the 1991 Gulf War, Rabbi Yaakov Smith, a father of six and an emissary of the Chabad Hasidic movement in the Old City of Jerusalem, hosted a Shabbat dinner. As the guests were leaving, one took Smith aside and said something that would reverberate with his host: “That was an amazing act you performed. Whatever is wrong, take care of yourself.” Fast forward thirty years and Yaakov has become Yiscah Smith, a transgender person who still lives and teaches in Jerusalem. Smith’s transformation is the subject of the documentary I Was Not Born a Mistake, created by the Israeli filmmakers Rachel Rusinek and Eyal Ben-Moshe. The film premiered at the Jerusalem Film Festival this past Hanukkah and made its U.S. debut in January.:

Read the full review at First Things.