Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Book Review: Politics, Faith, and the Making of American Judaism

Politics, Faith, and the Making of American Judaism by Peter Adams
Paperback: 230 pages
Publisher: University of Michigan Press (March 25, 2014)

Adams explores how politics and faith played a role in the evolution of Judaism in America. While there is a small amount over overlap with When Grant Expelled the Jews by Jonathan Sarna, this is very much Adams' book.

There's a lot in here on how Reform Judaism came to be, much thanks to Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise.  The book briefly touches on how the Conservative Judaism movement came out of those that thought the Reform movement went too far but didn't feel completely comfortable with the Orthodox movement either.  A middle ground, if you will.

I am one of those that finds it very uncomfortable with walking into a Reform shul and this goes back to the Bar Mitzvah circuit from when I grew up in a Conservative shul before slowly becoming Orthodox in college.  It feels too much like a church with the organs and lack of tallit and kippot.  This book explains just how that came to be.

I knew that Conservative Judaism had started in America but I didn't realize just how liberal Reform Judaism was at the time.  After reading the book, I wonder how Rabbi Wise would feel about the current conflict seeing as how much of an anti-Zionist he was and how he was so opposed to Herzl at the time.

After the infamous order by Grant during the Civil War, many Jews felt that it was best to assimilate with their fellow Americans.  For some, this meant working on Shabbas since it was illegal in many places to open shop on Sunday.

In the post-Civil War of America, American Jews paid attention to what was happening elsewhere with fellow Jews around the world.  President Grant took notice of what was happening in Romania and Russia and did his best to help the situation.

Back in the day, the Board of Delegates served as the predecessor to the the modern-Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.  Wise was not a fan of this board and he made his feelings very much known to those involved.

American Jewry played a role in helping as many of the Russian Jews as possible given the pogroms that they were suffering from in Russia.

All of this, of course, happened in a world without social media.  I can't help but think just how mobilized the Jewish community would have been in the 1800s--especially judging from my Facebook feed in the last few weeks.

I highly recommend this book, especially to those Jewish history buffs out there!

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Prayer for Members of the Israel Defense Forces

He Who blessed our forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob - may He bless the fighters of the Israel Defense Forces, who stand guard over our land and the cities of our G-d from the border of the Lebanon to the desert of Egypt, and from the Great Sea unto the approach of the Aravah, on the land, in the air, on the sea and wherever they may be.

May Hashem cause the enemies who rise up against us to be struck down before them. May the Holy One, Blessed is He, preserve and rescue our fighters from every trouble and distress and from every plague and illness, and may He send blessing and success in their every endeavor.

May He lead our enemies under their sway and may He grant our soldiers salvation and crown them with victory. And may it be fulfilled for them the verse: For it is Hashem, your G-d, Who goes with you to battle your enemies for you to save you.


Sunday, July 13, 2014

Book Review: Shrink Thyself by Bill Scheft

Shrink Thyself: A Novel by Bill Scheft
Hardcover: 289 pages
Publisher: Rare Bird Books, A Vireo Book (June 24, 2014)

It is very rare when an author combines fiction with non-fiction.  This is what Scheft accomplishes in Shrink Thyself as he tells the story of Boston Red Sox outfielder Tony Conigliaro.  But really, this coming-of-middle-age story is about Charlie Traub, who will likely need therapy as he recovers from therapy.

Early on Charlie Traub decides that he's done having sessions with his psychologist, Travis Waldman, and decides that he wants to live the unexamined life.  This goal is noble and all but Waldman decides he wants to stalk Bonnie Dressler, a constitutional lawyer that Traub nearly had an affair with during the Clinton years.

And Traub's mother?  She died while having sex with Sy Siegel, who was friendly with her while living at the assisted living facility.  Siegel and Charlie become good friends in the time thereafter and even work on writing a book about the circumstances surrounding Tony C's injury.  This, in part, turns out to be a look at what many Vietnam veterans are going through in the years after coming back.

It was amazing how Scheft is able to incorporate such a huge amount of non-fiction into a fiction book.  It's not historic fiction at all, not in the least.  He talks with someone that knew Tony C and this project then becomes talking to vets about their PTSD.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Poking a Dead Frog: Conversations with Today's Top Comedy Writers

Poking a Dead Frog: Conversations with Today's Top Comedy Writers by Mike Sacks
Paperback: 453 pages
Publisher: Penguin Books (June 24, 2014)

Platforms such as Twitter, Tumblr, YouTube,  and the Golden Age of Television have given rise to comedy writers like never before.  One doesn't need to be working in New York or LA to make people laugh, they could just type something on the keys of their laptop or even their phones.

Still, it's a long way to the top and there are those that will find a way to make it one day.  Maybe there will be one day in a future generation in that something they wrote will be remembered as what helped inspire somebody else to get into the comedy business.  It could be a movie, radio show, television show, book, improv show, or even a stand-up comedy act on stage.  For me, it was reading Bob Hope's memoir, Don't Shoot: It's Only Me, in the summer of 2003 following his passing and just a few short weeks later, I saw the Second City National Touring Company on campus at Bradley University featuring the likes of Frank Caeti and Matthew Craig, to name a few.

This isn't Sacks' first go-around with interviewing comedy writers.  And Here's the Kicker: Conversations with 21 Top Humor Writers on their Craft was released in the summer of 2009.  This book is just as great with that one and Sacks talks to even more comedy writers.

Sacks speaks with writers that have been around anywhere from 60 years ago to only recently in the last five-ten years.  He looks at their influence and creative process, the hard times and breakthroughs.  Most importantly, Sacks seeks to know how they were managed to succeed in one of the toughest fields in the industry.

Where it's the writer's room for The Onion or The Colbert Report, no page goes unturned.  Want to know why a sketch didn't make it to air on Saturday Night Live even though it killed during the read-through?  That question gets answered.

Terry Jones lets readers in on a secret.  Monty Python almost never came to the United States because the BBC was going to tape over the masters.  They found out and saved the tapes.  The rest, of course, is history.

Sacks interviews comedy icons like Mel Brooks, Terry Jones, Adam McKay, Mike Schur, and Paul Feig, to name a few.  Comedy writing in all mediums are covered: television, movies, radio, cartoons, books, and Twitter.  There are essays scattered throughout from the likes of Amy Poehler, Patton Oswalt, Diablo Cody, Kay Cannon, Marc Maron, etc. as well as questions geared towards something ultra-specific in comedy like the writers' bible or hiring an agent, etc.  Bill Hader offers a list of 200 movies that every comedy writer needs to see in their life.

To say that this book is a bible for aspiring comedy writers and comedy buffs is an understatement.  It's an essential read for anybody that wants to break into the business.  Just like his first book, this one is very much a must-own like Sacks' prior book if you want my opinion.

Friday, July 04, 2014

John Adams on Independence Day

"The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to G-d Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more. You will think me transported with Enthusiasm but I am not. I am well aware of the Toil and Blood and Treasure, that it will cost Us to maintain this Declaration, and support and defend these States. Yet through all the Gloom I can see the Rays of ravishing Light and Glory. I can see that the End is more than worth all the Means. And that Posterity will tryumph in that Days Transaction, even altho We should rue it, which I trust in G-d We shall not."

-John Adams to his wife, Abigail, in a letter sent on July 3, 1776 about the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 2, 1776.

The Declaration of Independence

The Declaration of Independence of the Thirteen Colonies
In CONGRESS, July 4, 1776

The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America,

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

Independence Photos

G-d Bless the USA

G-d Bless the U.S.A
by Lee Greenwood

If tomorrow all the things were gone
I'd worked for all my life,
And I had to start again
with just my children and my wife,
I'd thank my lucky stars
to be living here today,
'Cause the flag still stands for freedom
and they can't take that away.

I'm proud to be an American
where at least I know I'm free,
And I won't forget the men who died
who gave that right to me,
And I gladly stand up next to you
and defend her still today,
'Cause there ain't no doubt I love this land
G-d Bless the U.S.A.

From the lakes of Minnesota
to the hills of Tennessee,
Across the plains of Texas
from sea to shining sea.
From Detroit down to Houston
and New York to L.A.,
There's pride in every American heart
and it's time we stand and say:

I'm proud to be an American
where at least I know I'm free,
And I won't forget the men who died
who gave that right to me,
And I gladly stand up next to you
and defend her still today,
'Cause there ain't no doubt I love this land
G-d Bless the U.S.A.


Neil Diamond sings "America" in the 1980 film, The Jazz Singer: