A Blog Post About Circumcision That Resists the Temptation to Use the Word “Cut” in a Pun, and Ends Up Promoting a Washington DCJCC Program After-All

My wife is a blogger. She blogs mainly about family building and infertility and there are two topics she has learned to studiously avoid: breastfeeding and more to the point here, especially circumcision.  Why? People’s opinions on these two matters become quickly polarized and flame-filled comments inevitably ensue [ see below].

So it is with some hesitation that I even bring this up, but today’s Washington Post article about Intactivists by Dan Zak got me thinking. Particularly this excerpt:

Spend some time with intactivists and you will hear how circumcision is responsible for, among other things, the oppression of women, sexual disharmony, deforestation, militarization, the rise and fall of empires and the invasion of foreign lands for oil.

Here’s a little experiment. In the above paragraph substitute the words “intactivists” and “circumcision” with “anti-Semites” and “Jews” respectively and tell me if the result isn’t something that wouldn’t sound out of place on an Aryan Nation website.  I’m in no way equating the anti-circ crowd with anti-Semites, but the breadth of “crimes” that each assigns to their adversary is certainly resonant.

It also seems to me, reading the article that Zak went out of his way to avoid using the “J” word. (Acutally, Zak’s article basically read like an excuse to repeatedly print the word “penis” in a family newspaper.) Certainly both Muslims and Jews practice male circumcision — according to Wikipedia 68% of circumcised men are Muslims. But there has historically been an anti-Semitic fetishization of Jewish circumcision and Jewish sexuality. All sorts of nineteenth and early-twentieth century literature speaks of a close tie between Jews and the transmission of syphillis. Among the more hysterical claims was that circumcision was actually a means of transmitting sexual diseases for which Jews had developed an immunity. The explicit claim was that Jewish sexual diseases were infecting a pure culture from within, and that circumcision was both tactic and strategy in this conquest.

Anti-circumcision activists are more than conscious of this history and go out of their way to disown those who would conflate Jews with circumcision. And yet… It still sits weirdly with me. Does the article say that Jason Siegel and Zachary Levi Balakoff, two young men who are on a hunger strike to expose male genital mutilation, are Jewish? No. But, come-on.  And I immediately think, what better prop to deflect charges of anti-Semitism than two young Jewish men outraged over their mutilated genitals. Lots of young Jewish men like myself are circumcised, have had quite nice sex lives thankyouverymuch, and have chosen to circumcise our sons. It’s hard not to be defensive in the face of Misters Siegel and Balakoff’s outrage. But hey, we all have our conspiracy theories.

In any case, how you feel about circumcision is probably something you should work out with your mate prior to marriage, and hey, we just happen to be offering a Tying The Knot: Premarriage Workshop in April. If this is a more pressing issue for you, which is to say you’ve got a bun in the oven, then you can also puzzle through the bris issues in our two-part workshop L’Amazing Baby: Childbirth Preparation with a Jewish Twist which is coming up in June.

We’re Number Two! We’re Number Two!

From the Washington City Paper’s Best of DC:

Staff Pick: Best Place for Readings

Best: Politics & Prose

Second-best: Washington D.C. Jewish Community Center

If you’re an author who wants to give a reading in the District, Politics & Prose is where you want to be. But if you’re an author who wants to give a reading in the District, it’s not where you’re gonna be—not unless you’re attached to a large publishing house or have achieved a kind of cult status you can never hope to attain. (Hell, Roberto Bolaño got an event there a few months back, and he’s dead.) That’s not to say that the DCJCC has a lousy lineup for readings: Its annual festival, Nextbook series, and other events attract top talents like Etgar Keret, Rivka Galchen, Bernard-Henri Levy, and Shalom Auslander. But its focus on Jewish culture and authors at least gives aspiring writers a more specific theme to aspire to. Still have to be brilliant, though. 

Getting Ready for Pesach With National Noodle Month

Well folks we just learned that it is National Noodle Month and to honor it we are sharing a favorite noodle recipe with you.  We figure it must have been a Jew who created this special month since it is just at the time we are clearing out our chametz for Passover.  Enjoy this and feel you are doing your part to celebrate the noodle and also to prepare the house for the upcoming holiday.

Spinach Noodle Kugel
1 bag noodles (I prefer medium but thin will do as well.  Use what you have)
1 bag or box of frozen spinach, defrosted and drained
2 large diced onions sautéed in oil and golden brown
4-6 eggs to hold it all together
Salt and pepper to taste

Mix all together
Heat oil in a large pyrex rectangular pan on 450 until nice and hot
Add the noodle mixture to the hot pan and bake at 350 (lower the oven) until golden and crisp on top ½ hour to 45 minutes or however long it takes.
Enjoy hot or room temperature or cold the next day. 

Happy Noodle Month!

Why Do a Reading of Caryl Churchill’s “Seven Jewish Children” at a Jewish Theater?

Cross-posted on the Makom website

You can understand the outrage. Imagine it: a non-Jewish, British playwright has the temerity to write something as provocative as the line, “The Jews do not belong here” and a Jewish theater, in a fit of obvious self-loathing, gives that voice a venue by placing it on its stage. I am not speaking of the sudden controversy surrounding Caryl Churchill’s short-play, Seven Jewish Children which the Washington DCJCC’s resident professional company Theater J will present readings of this week. Rather, I am referring to the same Theater J’s production of David Hare’s Via Dolorosa nearly a decade ago, in the fall of 2000.

Back then we knew we were undertaking something with the potential to be controversial for its outsider’s observations of the Israel-Palestine conflict. We braced ourselves for outrage. We prepared our leadership for potential protests, even boycotts. We were not doing this merely for controversy’s sake, but because of our belief, that the work – consisting mainly of Mr. Hare’s channeling the voices of the various Israelis and Palestinians he met – confronted us with a challenging and artful portrayal of ourselves and our Israeli cousins. But so concerned were we about the potential for outraged audiences that we built into the presentation of the play a response vehicle, “The Peace Café” co-created by artistic director Ari Roth, Theater J councilmember Mimi Conway and a frequent participant in Arab-Jewish dialogue, restaurateur and Iraqi-American Anas Shallal. Following the performances, audiences gathered around tables, broke bread and picked from a menu of discussion questions and quotations of some of the play’s most provocative lines.

In spite of all our fears, or perhaps because of them, the tidal wave of controversy never materialized, but the Peace Café experience gave us a model with which to engage more controversial material in the years to come. Meanwhile, the work itself, Via Dolorosa has gone on to productions both at other Jewish theaters and in Israel itself.

If you have an opinion in this matter I hope to G-d you’ve taken the time to read the seven pages of verse that’s causing all the ruckus. I have neither the space nor the charge to do an explication of the work here, but if this is to be a Jewish argument, which is to say, an argument amongst Jews, then I hope we can all work from the source text and not just the commentaries.

So what’s different about Seven Jewish Children? Via Dolorosa was the theatrical equivalent of a documentary in its specific attribution of comments and ideas to individuals either named, like Benny Begin and Shulamit Aloni, or unnamed but definitely real, like the American settler couple Mr. Hare spends Shabbat with on the West Bank. Ms. Churchill’s work goes as far in the other direction as possible: neither the speaker nor to whom they are speaking, nor when they are speaking are ever made explicit. Ms. Churchill doesn’t assign statements to individual actors, instructing instead that,

The lines can be shared out in any way you like among those characters. The characters are different in each small scene as the time and child are different. They may be played by any number of actors.

The result is that it becomes difficult to find an authentic and specific Jewish voice in a work so broad that it is somehow attributable to all Israelis and no Israelis, to all Jews and yet no one Jew. Which speaks pointedly to the fact that while David Hare traveled the land of Israel gathering the cacophony of voices in his play, Ms. Churchill participates in an obstinate cultural boycott of Israel and does not even permit her works to be performed there. So there’s two strikes against Ms. Churchill. Let’s even throw in for argument’s sake that maybe she’s also a bit of an anti-Semite. That doesn’t take away from the power and verisimilitude of the compressed language she puts on the page for I would argue, five-sixths of the short work. That last part, suffers not from the caricature of a racist, belligerent, ultra-Nationalist (anyone caring to read material equally offensive but of more estimable provenance need only peruse Amos Oz’s essay “The Tender Among You and Very Delicate” from his collection In the Land of Israel); but its lack of attribution.

So why bother putting her generic opprobrium on our authentic Jewish stage? Why sully ourselves with the association? Because the only way to parse that which carries the merit of specific resonance from that which sinks under weight of shapeless assumptions is to inject the Jewish voice back into the monologue. To engage the work and respond to it with Jewish voices like Robbie Gringras and Deb Margolin, and the intelligent audience members that have sought us out for years now because of our mission to engage and discuss the most pressing moral and political issues of our time. To decide for ourselves after hearing a collection of generic poetics placed in the mouths of specific actors whether they land with the force of truth or disappear with the speed of your average smoke screen and with just as much substance.

Speaking only for myself, there is plenty of both in Ms. Churchill’s work. One may decry the ideological axe she brings with her, but one would be hard pressed to simply dismiss her mastery of craft and phrase. She has created a compelling work. And for every line as politically artless as “Tell her we killed the babies by mistake” there are aching verses that acknowledge the complex and contradictory world we Jews inhabit:

Tell her there are still people who hate Jews
Tell her there are people who love Jews
Don’t tell her to think Jews or not Jews

Ultimately, precisely because it is about us, we owe it to ourselves to apply our skills as artists and our intellectual rigor as audiences to divine what the worth of this piece is. I suspect Israelis are going to want to hear for themselves (although I would demand that they be allowed a production of Top Girls or Cloud Nine in exchange) and decide on their own whether or not they feel blood libeled. Ultimately, what Ms. Churchill has written “for Gaza” will be less important than the conversation Israelis have with each other as new accounts by IDF soldiers are published in Ha’aretz and Ma’ariv.

And while she’s no Shakespeare, the Bard himself never visited Italy, but still managed to write The Merchant of Venice. On second thought, let’s not go there. Not today.

A Piece of BENEDICTUS Reflected in the News From Iran

Our production of Benedictus is particularly timely considering the news out of Tehran today. Consider this passage from the play, followed by this news clip from the New York Times.

Motahedeh:      (To the audience) For eighteen months I was in the Evin prison for political detainees in Tehran. I was interrogated and tortured every day. I saw thousands executed. When the prison became overcrowded I was sent to a jail in the south.

And from the New York Times:

Iranian Blogger Dies in Prison,
By Robert Mackey

Human rights groups and an American-financed radio station report that an Iranian blogger, Omidreza Mirsayafi, who had been sentenced to two years in prison for insulting the country’s leaders, died in Tehran’s Evin Prison on Wednesday.

According to Radio Farada, a Farsi-language station that is part of the American-government-financed network of radio stations Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Mr. Mirsayafi’s family is not certain that authorities told them the truth about how the blogger died:

Prison authorities have notified Mirsayafi’s family that he committed suicide on March 18 by overdosing on sedative tablets. But while Mirsayafi was known to have taken such medication to treat depression, his sister says he would not have possessed enough to kill himself.

Radio Farada adds that Mr. Mirsayafi’s lawyer, Mohammad Ali Dadkhah, “claims that a doctor imprisoned at Evin named Hesem Firozi told him the death could be attributed entirely to the prison’s failure to provide Mirsayafi with proper medical assistance.” Mr. Dadkhah told the radio station that the imprisoned doctor told him that Mr. Mirsayafi, reportedly in his mid- to late 20s, had an irregular heartbeat, possibly as the result of taking an overdose, but that his life could been saved if the prison hospital had responded appropriately. According to Mr. Dadkhah’s account:

“The doctor told them how to treat him, asked them to send him to a city hospital. But they ignored the doctor and said [Mirsayafi] was faking his illness. The doctor said, ‘His heartbeat is 40 per minute, you can’t fake that.’ But they sent the doctor out of the room.”

The Madness Begins….

As promised, a bit of an NCAA Tournament Preview MGM-style…beware, though, as this year’s bracket has left me less confident than any previous year.  It’s amazing how little a difference there is this year between, say, the 3-seeds and the 11-seeds.  Being a coach myself, I like to pretend that I know a thing or two about college basketball, but this year’s bracket is baffling.

Anyways, on with my annual FEARLESS PREDICTIONS about the upcoming tournament, guaranteed to be wrong or your money back (apologies to Gregg Easterbrook):

1.  I picked no double-digit seeds to advance to the Sweet Sixteen this year, but if there’s one to watch in this tournament, it’s Utah State (11-seed, West Region).  An excellent season at 30-4 this year in the WAC, with a fantastic post presence in 6’9″ 26-year old Gary Wilkinson.  I have them beating a depleted Marquette squad in Round 1 and taking Missouri to the brink in the round of 32.

2.  13-seed Portland State will defeat 4-seed Xavier in the East Region.  Experience at the guard position is always a big plus when it comes to tourney time, and this team shoots the ball exceptionally well from the perimeter.  Xavier is also painfully overrated as a 4-seed; they realistically have the profile of about a 6 or 7.

3.  The SEC, thanks to Mississippi State’s upset win over Tennessee in the league title game, has three teams in the tournament, and ALL of them will get bounced in the first round.  Oklahoma State over Tennessee, Washington over Mississippi State, and Butler over a talented but soft LSU.

4.  Everyone seems to be talking about West Virginia as a sleeper.  Don’t buy it.  People fall in love with them because they are “long and athletic”, but they struggle handling the ball and are inconsistent from the perimeter.  They get dumped in Round 1 by Dayton.

5.  Don’t buy the Memphis hype, either.  They’re not nearly as good as they were last year and they haven’t been legitimately tested in months.  Conference USA is a joke and has been ever since the Big East poached everyone who was worth a darn.

6.  Here are two games that are going to be A LOT CLOSER than their seedings would otherwise indicate:  Kansas/North Dakota State and Wake Forest/Cleveland State.  I predict that both of these games will be within eight points with less than four minutes to go.  Wake can’t shoot, and Kansas is very young.

7.  Utah is probably the best team that no one is talking about.  They will ride yet another 7’2″ Australian center (Luke Nevill, who follows in the footsteps of current NBA stiff Andrew Bogut) into the Sweet 16, knocking off a wildly inconsistent Arizona team as well as the aforementioned Deacons from Wake.

8.  The Sweet Sixteen will be as follows:
Midwest: (1) Louisville, (5) Utah, (3) Kansas — barely, (2) Michigan State.
West: Chalk city.  (1) UConn, (4) Washington — because they’ll be playing in the Great Northwest, (3) Missouri, (2) Memphis — who will struggle with (10) Maryland.
East: (1) Pittsburgh, (5) Florida State, (3) Villanova, (2) Duke.
South: Chalk again.  (1) UNC, (4) Gonzaga, (3) Syracuse, (2) Oklahoma.

9.  Each of my Final Four teams has a FATAL FLAW that, if it rears its ugly head, will destroy their chances of reaching their potential.

Midwest: (2) Michigan State.  Tom Izzo is a fantastic coach at tourney time, but if superb wingman Raymar Morgan is less than 100%, Kalin Lucas will be asked to do just a little more than he’s capable, and Louisville will take the region.

West: (1) Connecticut.  Put simply, this is a team that relies heavily on the inside presence of 7’3″ center Hasheem Thabeet, and if he finds himself in foul trouble, the Huskies suddenly become a very average defensive outfit.  They’re lucky to have an easy draw, but keep an eye on their regional final with Missouri.

East: (1) Pittsburgh.  Essentially the same as UConn, but substitute man-child DeJuan Blair for Thabeet.  If he’s down, they could get beaten by a huge Florida State team.  Blair must play at least 28-30 minutes in order for Pitt to be the team it’s capable of being.

South: (1) North Carolina.  Their game begins and ends with point man Ty Lawson.  He allows them to play at an incredible rate of speed that is unmatched by anyone in this field.  If he’s close to 100%, the Heels are the best team in the tournament and it’s not close.  If he’s not, they suddenly become about the sixth or seventh-best.

10.  Michigan State and UNC meet in the NCAA Title game, and UNC wins it by the score of 90-78.

Check back on Monday, and we’ll see how poorly I did!

Good luck!


Complete Discussion of “Lansky to Madoff: Talking About Jewish Criminals”

As promised, below you will find links to either stream or download the entire Rapid Responsa. Just a little reminder that this event as well as the Podcast are free to you, but not free for the Washington DCJCC to produce. Given that we’re living through the era of Madoff and AIG, consider making an online gift to support the programs both virtual and real, of the Washington DCJCC.

To re-set the scene: On March 12, we had a great discussion as part of our Rapid Responsa series entitled, “From Meyer Lansky to Bernie Madoff: Talking About Jewish Criminals.” Over 150 people turned out on the very day of Bernie Madoff’s guilty plea to discuss prominent Jewish criminals past and present. On the panel that evening were attorney Abbe Lowell, writer Susan Fishman-Orlins and Professor Gery Kauvar. We’ve made available below a recording of the entire discussion which is broken down into two parts. Both parts will eventually be available as podcasts on iTunes.

Just a note: the recording is edited, as some people chose not to ask their questions with the microphone, resulting in some long empty silences which we have excised in the name of brevity and maintaining your interest.

Part 1:
Part 2:

You can download both parts as an MP3 by right-clicking on each link below and saving to your computer:

Part 1

Part 2

The Locavore Seder: Because Kosher for Passover Doesn’t Have To Be Gross (not to mention environmentally hostile)

From Wendy Fergusson, not only our director of the Ann Loeb Bronfman Gallery, but also the organizer of this year’s Community Second Night Locavore Seder.

Why does “kosher for Passover” automatically send shivers down my spine? Well, I guess it all started in my days in an ultra-orthodox seminary in Jerusalem. That year, instead of covering the kitchen from floor to ceiling in tin-foil, I threw my hands in the air and begrudgingly ate at the seminary’s cafeteria. I was sick for a week- no, make that 8 days. The cafeteria’s version of “kosher for Passover” was overly processed and packaged foods, soup mix with MSG over everything, and food cooked days in advance (sometimes weeks, folks). Ugh. I found myself eating strange cakes three meals a day and my stomach ultimately hated me.

Two things struck me as very odd. First, plain ol’ fruits and vegetables are kosher for Passover! So, why then during Passover, do we try to make everything we are used-to out of sub-par ingredients?!? It’s just 8 days! Would it kill us to just eat healthy meals for 8 days? Do we need all these funky cakes, matza-lasagna, and other crazy Passover inventions? You know what? A dinner of tilapia, broccoli, and mashed-potatoes is kosher for Passover.  A chicken breast, asparagus, and honey-glazed carrots dinner is kosher for Passover too! Those packaged, overly processed Passover foods are disgusting and an embarrassment to Jews everywhere.

Why as Jews, who love to eat, do we settle for this crap?

Second, as Jews we have the responsibility (and sometimes burden) of honoring our environment (Rambam’s baal tashchit) and too many people completely convert to excess aluminum, plastic ware, and other disposable items on Passover. Forget Passover, this often happens every week on Shabbat! With minimal effort, we can easily cut down on the amount of disposables used at Shabbat and holiday meals. Every little bit helps!

This was the inspiration for our 2009 Community Second Night Locavore Seder. We are inviting you to join us for a celebration of the second night of Passover on April 9, using ingredients found within a 250 mile radius of Washington. As we celebrate the freedom of the Israelites let us also take a step forward towards sustainable, local produce! We’re asking you to help us reduce the amount of waste at the Seder by bringing your own cup or glass to avoid the need for additional disposables. The actual Seder will be led by Cantor Maurice Singer in the traditional style with lots of singing and participation. Our private chef for the Seder has created a fabulous menu which showcases a variety of local flavors while recreating some of the traditional tastes of Passover like matzo balls and tzimmes.

To learn more about the Seder, view the entire menu, and register online, go to: http://thejdc.convio.net/site/Calendar?view=Detail&id=108841

Signing On!


Mark Gray-Mendes here, Director of Sports Leagues at the 16th Street J — coming at you for the first time on this space!  I’ll be blogging from here on a fairly regular basis about everything from current sports events to our leagues here at the J — and I’ll be looking for your input as well!

Allow me to briefly introduce myself.  I’m a HUGE sports fan who grew up in this area, and as a result I’m a bit of a “homer”.  Redskins, Caps, Wizards, Orioles (I’m still warming up to our new Nats, but it’ll happen before too long).  College basketball and the NFL are my specialties, but I’ll go all over the map. 

I graduated from the University of Virginia in 2007 and have been here at the J ever since.  In addition to my work here, I also coach high school boys’ basketball at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, VA.

Expect to hear from me again in the next couple of days about the upcoming NCAA Tournament!  Which teams got hosed out of a bid they deserved?  Who are the sleepers to watch?  Who’s making this year’s Final Four in Detroit?  All that and more this Wednesday…..


From Meyer Lansky to Bernie Madoff

Last Thursday we had a great discussion as part of our Rapid Responsa series entitled, “From Meyer Lansky to Bernie Madoff: Talking About Jewish Criminals.” Over 150 people turned out on the very day of Bernie Madoff’s guilty plea to discuss prominent Jewish criminals past and present. On the panel that evening were attorney Abbe Lowell, writer Susan Fishman-Orlins and Professor Gery Kauvar. We’ve made available below a recording of the first part of the discussion and hope to have the second online soon. Both parts will eventually be available as podcasts on iTunes.

Just a note: the recording is edited, as some people chose not to ask their questions with the microphone, resulting in some long empty silences which we have excised in the name of brevity and maintaining your interest.

You can download the the first part as an MP3 by right-clicking here and saving to your computer

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