Why the Jewish Federation’s Super Sunday Doesn’t Suck

button-supersundayAt the risk of losing whatever credibility I might have established for this blog’s attempt to walk the line between adhering to organizationally approved messaging and an authentic, opinionated voice engaged in a dialogue on the interwebs; I rise in defense of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington’s Super Sunday. It takes place this Sunday (duh), February 22.

That’s right. I rise in defense of the annual ritual which many active and semi-active members of the Jewish community deride for combining the subtlety of a flim-flam phone solicitor with the charm of a maternal guilt trip. For many this day alone justifies the annual expense of caller i.d. For others, it is a chore dutifully awaited with the dread approximating that of a colonoscopy–somewhat uncomfortable, mildly humiliating, easily (natch) ridiculed, but ultimately good for you and your family.

And I’m here to say, “Get over it.”

Let’s deal with a few of the standard objections:

I don’t like being asked to give money to Israel.
However you feel about Israel and its government (if they have one yet), you’re not paying for F-16s or tear gas. Rather the money is distributed through partner agencies which include the Jewish Agency for Israel and is generally used for such devious purposes as aiding new immigrants, the poor and disadvantaged.  Although the reality is that a great deal of the money is used to support local agencies (including my employer) that probably have affected your life for the better at some point or another. If you got something against JCCs, Jewish day schools, summer camps, group homes for the disabled and hot nutrition programs for the elderly, then by all means hang up.

I don’t like giving money over the phone.
Fine you can give online. Do it soon enough and we won’t call you. Although I better not catch you ordering from a catalog over the phone or prepaying for that Chinese delivery.

I don’t like calling and asking strangers for money.
That’s fine, there are other ways to help. But, really, unless you have extreme phone-anxiety, that reason is a little bit of a cop-out. If you want a Jewish community you have to step up and help make it happen. When you make a call, succeed or fail, you’re helping to make it happen. There’s a script you can follow, and not everyone you call is going to be a jerk to you. In fact, on many calls I’ve made, there’s a tacit agreement that the caller and the called are to perform the ritual of asking for a pledge and then giving it in some increment of $18.  It is perfunctory, but oddly satisfying.

Come on, doesn’t the Red Cross or Amnesty International need the money more?
I bet you give your money somewhere. Okay. How well do they spend it? Do you give to the Red Cross? Human Rights Campaign? Amnesty International? Local public radio or tv? The Boys and Girls Club? According to Charity Navigator, an online watchdog of non-profit efficiency (or lack thereof), the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington has a higher overall rating than any of those (JFGW’s 65.84 vs. 49.2, 56.62, 47.3 and 50.87 and 48.98 respectively). Don’t even get me started on the Boy Scouts (bunch of degenerates).

Aren’t you trying a little too hard? Can there really be anything cool about Super Sunday?
I don’t know, is this girl cool? Finally, tell me this girl isn’t cool AND raising money for the Jewish community? [UPDATE: The embedding doesn’t work, but double click on the image or follow this link to YouTube. Believe me, it is worth it.]

See you Sunday.

Fiona Chutney (aka Iris Bahr) Tries to Score Tix to an Inaugural Ball

We all know that our Inaugural Ball for Rest of Us attracted a varied audience and spawned many a misadventure. Here’s but another.

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Presidents Day: Our Annual Salute to A.L. Levine

Re-posting this from last year, because even back in February 2008 I couldn’t have predicted how prescient this novel was in many important ways. And looking back now, I am tempted to say there’s a striking similarity between A.L.’s years in sales and our current chief executive’s experiences in community organizing. Whatever. In the interim A.L. has started getting some more love — Ben Greenman at Nextbook had a nice appreciation just after the election saying what I had suspected back in Iowa: that a novel about a Jewish President prefigured many aspects of the Obama candidacy. I only hope more people come to appreciate in the coming years.

Barack Obama may very well become the first African American President, or alternately Hillary Clinton may become the first woman elected President. It is even possible that John McCain may become the first, well, really really seriously old white guy to be elected President (72 on inauguration day). It is safe to say however, that the first Jewish president is yet to be on the ballot.The Wanting of Levine

So for the time being Jewish Presidents belong to the realm of fiction, which brought to mind Michael Halberstam’s 1978 bestselling novel The Wanting of Levine. It is long out of print, though it appears in the catalog of the Montgomery County Public Library system. When I went seeking a copy this weekend, the librarian I consulted noted the book had not circulated in five years and was probably long-gone from the shelves. Lucky for me, she was wrong.

Set ten years in the future from its publication date (and twenty years before our current quadrennial contest), the novel presents a United States that is well on its way to being a second-rate power. Energy rationing is in effect, standards of living are declining, racial violence is increasing, individual states are involved in border wars over trade and tariffs — there’s a general sense that things are going to hell very quickly. To top it off, the Democrat’s front-runner for the nomination has just stabbed his wife to death in a drunken rage. Enter the mercurial figure of A.L. Levine, until now a back-room DNC committeeman after a fortune made in sales and real estate development. When circumstances thrust him into the spotlight, Levine begins his own unlikely candidacy.

The novel is one-part political insider fiction, one part-late seventies sex romp, one part liberal Jewish wish-fulfillment and one-part a canny take on the rhythms of political enthusiasm and what Americans want from a President. Written as it was in a pre-AIDS, pre-Reagan, pre-Internet and pre-collapse of the Soviet Union (just to mention a few epoch shaping “pre’s”) era, the novel obviously has limits when applied to today’s political landscape. Certainly, Levine, with a libido Bill Clinton could only envy, would not be electable, never mind even runnable in today’s climate.

But certain aspects of Levine’s character — his “firstness” to coin a phrase, his lack of governing experience, his personal charisma do bring to mind the current campaign. In one stump speech he says:

This is the first time I have run for office. It’s an advantage not to be a politician because like all occupations, politics puts a mark on a man. Politics is a worthy, noble profession, but a lifetime in it requires so much compromise, so much dealing, that a person tends to forget what his real principles were in the first place. … Compromise is necessary, but a lifetime of it leaves a mark. It is fine for a career in the Senate, but not necessary or even desirable in a president. I am, I believe, experienced in politics, but not a politician.

Later, with his inauguration impending, Levine speculates to himself about what a great President might be in these times and perhaps anticipates the appeal to “purple states” and our first bi-racial President:

Something always had to give. In that he felt his strongest hope. If there is anything I can do, he thought, it’s to mediate, to intercede, to explain. What the country needs is a middleman, and as a middleman I’ve had two-thousand years practice. Without a middleman, without someone who genuinely felt for both sides, the country was going to tear itself apart, the young at the throat of the old, the freezing at the throat of the conservationists. The defenders of privacy clashed with the legions of the right-to-know. The right to bear arms collided with the right to avoid being shot to death at a stop light…Each American had his passion, and each clamored for attention, shouting, “I’m right! I’m right!” and demanding, insisting, that the government ensure his claim to the right–while denouncing the spread of government.

It is a novel thirty years on, that is as breath-taking for what it gets right as for what it gets wrong (Mexico figures large in the novel, but in geo-political terms it more resembles modern Venezuela). It captures the spirit of the contact sport that is American politics, while at the same time, is unafraid to cop-to the sublimated desires of the body politic.

Michael Halberstam was the brother of renowned author and journalist David Halberstam. Michael was an internist in Washington, DC when he wrote the novel and was tragically murdered a few years after the book’s publication in dramatic circumstances.

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Why Our Pre-Marriage Workshops Prepare You For So Much More Than You’d Expect

from Twitter:

Just ran into my ex-gf for the first time since I broke up with her. At the JCC‘s pre-wedding workshop. We’re here w our fiancees. Awkward * 10^6

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Shabbat Surfing: Triskaidekaphobia

You want something to be afraid of? Look no further:

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more about “Shabbat Surfing: Triskaidekaphobia“, posted with vodpod

Express Yourself: New Limited Stop 16th Street Bus Coming

There was an exciting post on GreaterGreaterWashington yesterday about a proposed limited-stop 16th Street bus that would speed the trip of those coming to the 16th Street J from points north. The finance committee of the Metro Board is considering the addition today and if the full board approves, service could begin on March 29. This is good news and as someone who has taken that S-bus before I’ve often wished there were some way to speed the journey.  I’m curious to know how many people out there, besides staff, regularly come to the J via Metrobus?

I only have one suggestion. The proposed new line will operate under the designation “S9.” Which is fine, although there has been some grousing about Metro’s seeming aversion to employing consecutive numbers to designate bus routes. My attitude is that as long as they’re not going to be consecutive, that Metro only went half-way. Everyone in the Jewish community knows that 9 is only half of chai — or 18.  If this new Express bus is to have a full life it should be the S18.

What’s Your Gangster Story?

gangsters-heebNext Wednesday, the Ann Loeb Bronfman Gallery will be opening its new exhibit “Real Machers: Pat Hamou’s Portraits of American Jewish Gangsters, 1900-1945.” The opening, which is free and open to the public, is accompanied by a Nextbook reading (tickets required) by Ron Arons, author of The Jews of Sing Sing: Gotham, Gangsters and Gonuvim.

Aron’s motivation for writing his book was the experience of learning that his own great-grandfather, Isaac had been an inmate at Sing Sing– something he didn’t learn until after his own parents had died and he was investigating his family history. In talking about his research he has found many people willing, even proud to boast of their own family connection to the Jewish gangster past.

Which begs the question… got any gangsters in your family?

Just in case you’re a little shy, I’ll go first.

My father had an uncle — Uncle Sammy, who liked to, as Dad put it, “play the ponies.” Either he wasn’t very good at this activity, or his luck ran out because he fell deep in-debt. Not unusual in cases like this, the money was owed to an organized crime outfit. One night at a stoplight, either in Weehawken or Jersey City (my sources were uncertain which) Sammy was gunned down while driving either to or from the gas station he worked at. No one was ever arrested or charged with his murder.

I know it is callous, but the first time I heard this story I thought, “How cool is that!” Not that it was cool that this Uncle Sammy had been whacked, but that it made such a great story. I had been thinking about Sammy a lot as the preparations for this coming exhibition were under way. I wanted to know more of the story. But why? Is it because it connects me, even if only through a victim, to an oft-romanticized gangster past? Is it because that as a narrative, it runs counter to the commonly held belief that Jewish life in America is primarily a story of increasing legitimacy and success? The Sammys of American Jewish history are often lost to us, their travails hushed up.

When I pressed my father for more information in preparation for this post, he was less than enthusiastic. He was very young at the time and couldn’t remember very well what had happened. An aunt I spoke to felt much the same way. They both expressed the concern that I not offer too many specifics since Sammy still had living children. Then my father offered to get me in-touch with Sammy’s son — a person I didn’t even know existed and who my father had spoken to once in the last seven years. He gave me phone numbers. Home and work. As we ended our conversation, my dad challenged me. “Call him up. Introduce yourself. Then ask him about how his dad was killed.”

I haven’t made the call.

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Pope is Shocked (SHOCKED!) To Find Holocaust Deniers in His Church

claude-rainsA major kerfuffle in Catholic-Jewish relations sprung up last week when Pope Benedict XVI un-excommunicated a couple of self-appointed Bishops who reject Vatican II and accept Mel Gibson. The Pope was apparently the last person to learn that one of these Bishops, Richard Williamson, in addition to prefering the Latin Mass, also prefers to perpetuate the pernicious lie that six million Jews did not die in the Holocaust and that the paltry 200,000-300,000 who did die did not do so in gas chambers. The Pope apparently isn’t very tuned-in to Swedish television. In all fairness, I can’t say that it’s on my TiVO either.

The ensuing outcry against the Holy Father’s action has proven that the dogma of Papal Infallibilty does not apply to management of the news cycle. The result is today’s statement from the Vatican which stated,

In order to be admitted to episcopal functions in the Church, Bishop Williamson should also publicly and unequivocally distance himself from such positions about the Shoa, which were unknown by the Holy Father at the time of the lifting of the excommunication. 

This statement seems to have satisfied much of the organized Jewish world. But, parsing this statement reveals that the Pope is not threatening the revocation of the revocation of excommunication, rather the withholding of admission to “episcopal functions in the Church.” Roughly translated,  Bishop Williamson can be a Holocaust denier and remain a Catholic, but he can’t remain a Holocaust denier and be a Bishop.

This distinction seems to have been missed by the likes of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Rabbi Marvin Hier, who stated, “if Williamson refuses to recant, the Vatican should excommunicate him – this time permanently.” Also either missing or ignoring this distinction was the ADL’s Abe Foxman who similarly stated that Williamson and company, “must accept the reforms of the Second Vatican Council and the positive teachings about Jews by the last four popes, including Pope John Paul II, before they can be fully accepted back into the Roman Catholic Church.”

They’ve already been accepted back into the Church as members who can receive the sacraments and avoid the after-life penalties that would result from a serious lack of salvation. What remains at stake is whether they will be allowed a role in administering these sacraments.

And perhaps that’s as it should be. While Holocaust denial is a vile lie and Holocaust deniers base anti-Semites, acknowledging the historical fact of the Shoah is not a tenet of the Catholic faith. Pope Benedict may decide that Williamson can’t work as a priest, but as long as he accepts the teachings of Vatican II, (or at least does not publicly crusade against them) what he believes or doesn’t believe about the Holocaust is moot. Whether that will satisfy those in the Jewish community who have felt wounded by the Vatican’s mishandling of this matter remains to be seen.

One thing is certain, Richard Williamson is not the first Catholic holocaust denier, and probably not the last either.

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Same-Sex Jewish Speed Dating: A Recap

had-me-at-shalomWe sat down with Justin Lerner, director of the Kurlander Program for Gay and Lesbian Outreach and Engagement to talk about their first-ever same-sex speed dating event, which was held last Saturday night.

How many people attended the first “You Had Me at Shalom — An Evening of Same-Sex Jewish Speed Dating“?
126 people plus 25 volunteers.

So how many dates is that?
Each person had 8 dates. So that’s 1000 dates in one evening. Plus some “improvised” dates.

How did you match people up?
There was a registration form where people gave their characteristics: their age, what they were looking for, their level of Jewish observance, who else they already knew, if they were a non-smoker or a vegetarian or a hiking enthusiast, etc. They also told us who they had already dated so we could avoid putting them with their exes. We put them all in an Excel spreadsheet and after about 10 hours we had everyone matched-up.

1-31-09-glo-sd0025

What were some of the reactions?
People were thrilled that this event was being held. There wasn’t anything like this for the GLBTQ community. They liked that it was an alternative to the bar scene and it felt safe.

Know of any second dates as a result?
At the end of the evening people circled which of their dates they wanted to be put in-touch with again, and if both people said “yes” we matched them up via email. There was also a spot if someone who they hadn’t been matched with “caught their eye.” I just emailed all the matches out and the majority of people had matches to follow-up with, or had caught someones eye.

1-31-09-glo-sd0035What was the funniest story you heard from someone that night?
Despite our best efforts, for one woman’s first date, she was set-up with her ex. It ended up turning out well, because they had 8 minutes to sort out some of their issues. It was actually good for them. She wished that another of exes had been there so she could get closure on that relationship as well.

For those of you who attended the event, let us know how your second dates went — either in the comments or via email (joshf [at] washingtondcjcc.org).  And remember, any children that result from a GLOE Speed Dating Match must have “Washington DCJCC” as their legal middle name.1-31-09-glo-sd0044 Lastly, you can become a “Fan” of GLOE on Facebook!

Janice Erlbaum Goes Back to the Homeless Shelter

There will be less makeup involved, but that doesn’t mean you should skip Janice Erlbaum reading from Have You Found Her: A Memoir, Tuesday night at 7:30 pm. Her book trailer, below, is one of the better ones we’ve seen. Click here to register.

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