Thursday, November 27, 2008

The Kosher Steve Martin

I recently read Steve Martin's autobiography Born Standing Up. I first heard of the book while listening to an interview of Steve Martin on NPR. While reading his book, I discovered some interesting history about Mr. Martin like how he honed his skills while working as a youngster in the magic shops of the newly opened Disneyland.
Steve's stand-up career was a little before my time. Growing up, I always thought he was part of the original Saturday Night Live cast. It was only later that I came to appreciate the number of times he instead hosted the show using his own form of anti-comedy comedy. King Tut was always one of my favorites.
But reading Steve's analysis of the evolution of his stand-up career got me to thinking about the use of humor from the pulpit. I still firmly believe that humor is one of the greatest gifts God has ever given us. Why else would God have given us the platypus or gefilte fish? The ability to laugh at the absurd and unexpected is one of life's great coping mechanisms.
In some ways I view humor from the pulpit in a way akin to that of the stand-up comedian. We are both on a stage in front of a mostly welcoming audience. Now of course the goal of the stand-up comedian is to make the audience laugh and maybe even think, whereas the goal of the rabbi is to help uplift the congregation, and maybe get them to think about things in a new by using stories, interpretations, history, and the use of the occassional joke or really bad rabbinic pun.
The trick with humor in either case, I have found, is all about timing. For example: sometimes I use humor too much with the result being all the congregants remember are the jokes rather than the subject or lesson. Sometimes I use humor too little, so that by the time the punchline arrives, the laughs are sparse because no one saw the joke being set up. But on those rare occasions, I have exactly the right mixture of humor and levity, with one leading subtly into the other.
I admire great stand-up comedians like the late great George Carlin, Steve Martin, both of whose books I have read, Robin Williams, Richard Pryor, the anti-comedian Andy Kaufman, Chris Rock, Eddie Murphy, Sarah Silverman, and one of my personal favorites Steven Wright. Of course I would be remiss if I did not mention all of those great Jewish comedians of the borscht belt and vaudeville who laid the path for many of today's comedians as well like Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Grouco Marx and the Marx Brothers, Henry Youngman, Woody Allen, and the list goes on an on
But in the end, I think a really good comedian, like a good sermon, in between the laughs helps give the listener real insight into the human condition. Now if only I could find a way to turn down the lights in the sanctuary, pass out drinks and hors d'oeuvres for my one man juggling, guitar playing, drashing show. All I need now is to a good dummy for my ventriloquist act. Maybe I'll start with a talking gefilte fish.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Halloween Malaise

No this isn’t what you think. This is not a debate about whether or not Jewish kids should or should not participate in trick-or-treating, or whether or not Halloween should be renamed to Purim-in-the-Fall. Instead it is just a simple complaint that Christmas season now officially begins right after the end of Halloween on November 1st. This does not even include the fact that I saw decorations going up in our local mall in August, which for us in Tucson is kind of weird because it is still only 100 degrees outside at that time.
With Thanksgiving, a Jewish holiday by the way, already consumed, I am worried that many fall celebrations are going to fall prey to this voracious beast of winter consumerism. It will not be long until the winter shopping season begins not in November, but just past Labor Day. This means the Christmas shopping season could engulf Columbus Day, Diwali, United Nations Day, Boss’ Day, Grandparents’ Day, Veteran's Day. Most concerning though, if this happens our secular-religious calendar could swallow whole the Jewish fall observances of Rosh Hashana, Tzom Gedaliah, the 10 Days of Repentance, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret, and Simchat Torah in the similar fashion to how Hanukkah has now become inexorably tied to Christmas.
Just a thought.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Everything I needed to Know about Judaism I learned from the Simpsons, South Park, and Family Guy

Here are just few episodes from the cartoon world that I think give hilarious insight into the Jewish condition. Now I know some of you might be troubled by how Jews are depicted both in South Park and in Family Guy, but personally I am a fan. I think some of their insights are absolutely hilarious, and I have used these and other episodes to teach valuable lessons to 8th grade and confirmation students (I hope).
But look at the ratings ahead of time. And please if you are easily offended, don’t say you weren’t warned.

The Simpsons:
1. Like Father, Like Clown (Season 3)
The story of what happens when Lisa and Bart attempt to reconcile
Krusty, a self described lapsed Jew, and his father Rabbi Hyman Krustofski. My favorite part is Lisa’s description of what rabbis desire above all else.
2. Today I am a Clown (Season 15)
See what happens when Krusty discovers he is not considered a
member of the Jewish community, and the lengths he goes to become a
Bar Mitzvah.
3. You Gotta Know When to Golem (Season 18; Treehouse of Horror XVII)
A modern twist on an ancient Jewish myth. Plus Fran Drescher makes an
4. Homer the Heretic (Season 4)
Not a bad way to explain the evolution of Reform Judaism. Plus have you noticed the only character in the Simpsons universe with more than three fingers is God?
5. Bart Sells His Soul (Season 7) A great set induction piece into a conversation about what is a soul

South Park:
1. The Passion of the Jew (Season 8)
Probably the best, most thoughtful response to the Passion of the Christ
that I have seen
2. Cartmanland (Season 5)
A brilliant retelling of the story of Job

Family Guy:
1. When You Wish Upon a Weinstein (Season 2)
Peter’s prejudices about Jews ain’t so bad. Too bad it deemed so inappropriate by Fox that it was not aired on its original date, and did not appear until 3 years later.

Have some latkes or knishes while you watch

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Campaign Coverage 2008

One of the most insightful summations of the historic 2008 election I have read:

Here are some classic articles from my own campaign for president. Oh well there is always 2012.

Purim 5768

Purim 5767

Purim 5766

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Da Vinci Code

When I started to think about it, I find the Da Vinci Code, to be quite extraordinary in how it has captured the world’s imagination. Part of the reason for this is because the central premise of the book is not new at all. The central premise is probably at least twenty years old if not older as is articulated in the nonfiction book Holy Blood, Holy Grail by Baigent, Leigh, and Lincoln. Therefore maybe the Da Vinci Code’s popularity is not because of its premise.
Maybe it is because of its prose. Dan Brown certainly writes in a very engaging way to say the least. He gets you hooked with very short chapters where it seems that the main characters are always in a state of extreme peril. But other writers have written this way for many years as well, without the same degree of success. So maybe it is not the prose. Could there be another possibility for why the book is so popular?
Perhaps it has to do with historical reality when the book first appeared. Think about what was going on when the novel first came out. At the time this thrilling novel first appeared on bookshelves, we were being inundated by the media about the ever-growing abuse scandal within the Catholic Church.
It seemed as if every day new men and women were coming out of the wood work making statements and suing the church over abuses that had occurred over the past several decades. This in and of itself was quite disturbing. But what made the story all the more incredible were the assertions that the Church covered it up. People claimed that the Church knew about what was going on and instead of dealing with it, they would instead quietly move priests from community to community, never formally acknowledging that there was a problem.
And while this was going on, the Da Vinci Code came out, asserting that the Church was involved in the greatest historical cover-up of all time. No wonder why it captured the imagination of a world audience. The abuse scandal made it seem plausible that if the church could cover that up, what else could it be hiding? Now anything seems possible, even the divinity and bloodline of Christianity’s Lord and Savior.
But the Catholic Church is only one of many organizations targeted with conspiracy theories. Often times these theories come out of a belief that there is an insidious power seeking to undermine one’s best efforts. Or because of a lack of conclusive evidence or sometimes in spite of conclusive evidence, there are those who believe that there is a worldly cabal of some sort hiding secrets and arranging world events. We saw this with the assassination of JFK, with Area 51, and more recently with 9/11.
The problem with these theories, aside from their ability to grossly distort the historical truth, is that they often generate tremendous amounts of attention, and mask our ability to deal with actual substantive issues. This is in part because it is easier to focus on supposed cover-ups and conspiracies because they capture the imagination. This is what helps makes television shows like the X-Files and 24 so very popular.
Just ask yourself, which is more interesting, the notion that we need to become more aware of how much energy we consume, or the idea that the automotive industry in collusion with oil companies, is hiding a car that gets 100 miles to the gallon? What is more fascinating: the notion that the Airforce is constantly testing new aircraft designs, or that the pieces falling from the sky are actually UFO’s? Or what is more enticing, the notion that Germans systematically slaughtered 11 million people, or that only a few hundred thousand Jews died from typhus, but played it up to get world sympathy in order to justify their conquering of the land of Palestine?
Conspiracies abound - but the Truth is out There - just waiting to be uncovered rather than made up.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

The Cheshvan Blues

Mar Cheshvan is understood by rabbinic tradition to be a “bitter” month because it is bereft of holidays. This is in stark contrast to Tishrei, which has a plethora (a term I learned from the Three Amigos – who says nothing good comes out of Hollywood?), like Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot.
That being said, it can be just a bit overwhelming with so many sacred and wonderful experiences all crammed in together. Whoever came up with the idea of taking a month off from sacred celebrations (excluding Shabbat of course), was actually a fairly brilliant person (or God). They rank up there in my book with those who invented frying just about any type of food, as well as those who came up with the idea of mixing chocolate with peanut butter, or chocolate with almonds, or chocolate with wafers, or chocolate with more chocolate. You get the idea.
So for me personally, there are no Cheshvan blues. Besides who has the time to think about it anyway? And as an added bonus, its sweeps, so a month of Heroes and Simpsons uninterrupted.