New Podcast: Randy Cohen

Randy Cohen

Randy Cohen

Hear former New York Times “Ethicist” Randy Cohen answer ethical questions and speak about his book Be Good: How to Navigate the Ethics of Everything.

For twelve years the New York Times‘ original “Ethicist” Randy Cohen helped readers locate their own internal ethical compasses. His new book deals with both everyday ethics and public policy–the moral problems we face as a society–using scenarios from his popular column as a guide to making moral choices.

Randy Cohen was the author of the popular “The Ethicist Column” in the New York Times for twelve years. He has been a guest on the Oprah Winfrey Show, Anderson 360 and NPR. He is currently the creator and host of “Person Place Thing,” a public radio show produced by WAMC.

Click to listen (podcast will begin automatically). To download as an MP3, right click and select “Save Link As.”

Cohen Podcast

Shabbat Surfing: Feeling Good

Earlier this week, NPR aired a story about the new Pakistani Muslim owners of Coney Island Bialys and Bagels. A family business started in 1920 by a Polish immigrant from Bialystock, the shop claims to be the oldest bialy bakery in New York City.  The new owners have promised to keep everything the same: the ingredients and suppliers, hand-rolling and properly boiling the bagels, and the kosher supervision.

In the Bronx, an Islamic Center has opened its doors to a  Chabad synagogue so that they have a place to hold Shabbat services. The two houses of worship have a history of supporting each other and  have formed a deep bond.

The New York Times  took its sports section readers to Kiryat Shmona, one of Israel’s smallest cities, in a feature about its professional soccer team. The small club beat power team Hapoel Tel Aviv to capture the Toto Cup and sits atop Israel’s Premier League with an 11-point lead. The club is full of promise  and on the course for its first league championship. If Hapoel Ironi Kiryat Shmona captures the championship, it will certainly be well-deserved.

New York I Love You, But You’re Bringing Me Down

Lost in all the excitement surrounding Tuesday’s announcement in the New York Times of the Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden’s plans to create an inflatable meeting hall in its courtyard, was the article’s hackneyed condescension towards culture in our fair city. We’ve come to expect this from the New York Times and the article’s author, Nicolai Ouroussoff seldom misses an opportunity to take a dig at the District. It’s become rather predictable, even when Mr. Ouroussoff, the Times’ architecture critic, is writing a generally positive piece.

For instance, the article about the Hirschhorn begins,

I’ve never stepped onto the National Mall without feeling a mix of emotions — reverence, a flash of national solidarity, a feeling of loss — but pure delight has never been one of them.

Which is fairly tame compared to his praise of the proposed design for National Museum of African American History and Culture which began, “I’ll admit my expectations are pretty low when it comes to new architecture in the nation’s capital.” That seems positively glowing compared to the opening salvo of his review of the Newseum which lamented, “How many mediocre buildings can one city absorb?” We get it. The architecture here can be kind of, well, boring.

But I thought Ouroussoff missed the city for the neo-classical columns when towards the end of his article on the Hirschhorn he predicted, “The project could become something Washington has never had: a real democratic forum for the debate of cultural issues as varied as, say, Hollywood morals and the impact of fundamentalism on the arts.” What? That might have been true twenty years ago, but not now. There are plenty of opportunities in this town to critically engage with the great cultural issues of our day. You just have to get off the mall to find them.

Without speaking here about our own programs, just take a look at the cultural explosion of the last decade throughout Washington: the new venues of Woolly Mammoth, Shakespeare Theatre, Gala Hispanic and Signature Theatres; the artistic renaissance Michael Kaiser has brought to the Kennedy Center, grass-roots phenomena like Artomatic, the Capital Fringe Festival and DCist Exposed, the serious cultural critiques in the films at Silverdocs, one of the best live-music venues in the country at the 9:30 Club, author talks at any number of venues on a given evening, and on and on…

Perhaps I am misunderstanding and Ouroussoff  means something grander when he talks about “a real democratic forum” beyond the citizens who actually live here engaging with the culture around them on their evenings and weekends. But I think he probably knows better. DC-bashing is a kind of unconscious reflex for New Yorkers–even when they may not even really mean it.

Ouroussoff is not without a soft spot for our city, even on the National Mall. Perhaps it was a fit of Obamania pre-inaugural euphoria that caused him to consider the merits of the Mall and reminisce specifically about the Vietnam War Memorial,

As a student, I would sometimes wander down there with friends in the middle of the night, mingling with one or two other visitors. The sense of shared pathos could be overwhelming; it seemed to be one of the few places in Washington where you could experience grief without moral judgment.

While I’m not sure that the Vietnam Memorial is without moral judgment, it is clear that this critic has some true affection for this place. And he’s probably right about the architecture. But when it comes to the debate of cultural issues, there’s plenty going on in DC. While the Hirschhorn’s Up-inspired pavilion will be a welcome addition to the scene, it won’t be the first or last venue where the real citizens of this area can be just as concerned with art and culture as our countrymen in New York.

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Ballet’s December Dilemma and Our Own

I’ve been paying more attention to ballet recently. I don’t have much of a choice since my five-year-old daughter began lessons and has quickly become obsessed with her own pas de chat and rond de jambe. In addition to her classes she spends many evenings (along with her twin brother) watching the DVDs of classic ballets we’ve borrowed from the library. Among her favorites are Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, Romeo and Juliet and of course, The Nutcracker.

Ah, the seduction of The Nutcracker — it is indivisible from Christmas and yet when you take a look at the content of the actual ballet, it really has very little to do with the holiday. In fact, there is more Christmas in A Charlie Brown Christmas (which gives a shout-out to the Gospel of Luke) than in The Nutcracker where the meaning of the holiday is confined to trees, presents and winter-fairy type themes. For a Grinch like me, Charlie Brown should be viewed with much more suspicion than The Nutcracker.

So why does The Nutcracker bug me so much? Perhaps because it has become emblematic of a seductive, commercialized, shallow Christmas that seeks to draw us all in through its saccharine allures? You think I’m cynical for seeing it like that? Come on, Tchaikovsky only wrote it on commission and in the end, “really detested the score.” The cynicism is entirely on the part of the product itself. But allowing for a moment of self-criticism, my distaste for The Nutcracker is wrapped up in an internal and ongoing debate I have in which my relationship to Christmas is either that of an alcoholic to booze (even a taste is too much and destructive) and that of an anthropologist (not my culture, but I can learn and grow from observing and perhaps limited participation). Am I worried that my daughter, having danced the dance of the sugarplum fairies will abandon her Jewish identity? Realistically, if I’ve done my job as a Jewish parent, that isn’t very likely. But when your competition for Jewish continuity is an anthropomorphic nutcracker along with a fat man handing out gifts, it’s easy to descend to that level.

So I was relieved to see that I wasn’t the only one with Nutcracker issues. Sarah Kaufman writing last month in the Washington Post (and re-hashed today in the NY Times ArtsBeat Blog) offers a withering critique of The Nutcracker, not so much as a work of art (though she does accuse it of suffering from “pervading tweeness”), but as Exhibit A of everything that is wrong with American Ballet.

Because “The Nutcracker” can turn a profit, it can account for as much as half of a ballet company’s total annual performances. Chances are, the other, non-“Nutcracker” half of a company’s season relies on a couple of standards and too few new works of consequence. And most companies cannot bring in enough funding to exist without relying on “Nutcracker” sales.

This all sounds pretty Scroogish, but I’ll be straight with you: While I have grown tired of “The Nutcracker,” I don’t hate it. I don’t discount that the ballet brings great happiness to many — even, off and on, to a critic. What I do regret is “The Nutcracker’s” ubiquity, the way it stifles any other creative efforts in dance during the holiday season. Most of all, I regret its necessity as an income source.

All arts organizations (our own included) struggle with the balance between artistic ambition and predictable, profitable product that puts butts-in-seats. But Kaufman argues that the example in ballet is a kind of worst-case scenario in-which one product has become so bankable that it has crowded out the marketplace for anything more ambitious and in the process created a dumbed-down audience that doesn’t aspire to more. The result is that attending The Nutcracker has become more a part of the civil religion of Christmas than the artistic experience for which ballet at its best can become. Most damaged in this vicious cycle, Kaufman argues, are American dancers who can spend an inordinate part of their careers dancing in various Nutcrackers — while their European counterparts work from a broader repertoire that allows them to develop more varied skills that allow them to fill the leading roles, even in American companies!

What brings these two things together is that I want more for my daughter on both counts. If she loves ballet as much in 15 years as she does now, I’d like to think there is an expansive world of artistic possibilities waiting for her. On the same note, I’d like my daughter to have a Jewish identity that opens her up to the world, not sets her apart (as her curmudgeonly father is wont to do). The Nutcracker is no more a threat to Jewish identity than any other part of the civil religion America has built around Christmas. Surely she can be taught to admire that which is admirable and draw clear boundaries between her appreciative observation and participation thereof? If only The Nutcracker weren’t so…Nutcrackerish.

Beyond Jewspotting or Why We Care About Jews in Unlikely Places

Both Marc Tracy writing in Tablet and Jack Shafer writing in Slate seized the opportunity to take the New York Times out behind the woodshed for a small but incredibly popular item it ran over the weekend. The piece, written by Eric A. Stern is one part caricature of the Jewish community of Montana (which seems to consist entirely of people abducted while waiting on line at Russ & Daughters), and one part shaggy dog story (literally) about a Dutch-born, Israeli-raised German Shepard trained to sniff out bombs, respond osnly to commands in Hebrew and now works for the Helena Polica.

Striking first, Tablet called the article, “charming—in a bad-Bernard-Malamud-story kind of way.” And after cataloging the various stock characters of Jewish life that live in Montana –but just like us!– Tracy gently chides, “Memo to the Times: a philo-Semitic stereotype is still a Semitic stereotype.” He then goes on to cite the article’s supposed redeeming properties which include the well-known 1993 story of Antisemitism directed at Jewish families in Billings with Hanukkah menorahs (the Frédéric Brenner photo which re-creates the town’s reaction is a much better summary of the story).  And of course, the above-mentioned tale of Miky, the bomb sniffing dog with a heart of gold, but an ear of tin.

Jack Shafer, who makes red-penciling the Times his stock-in-trade, was less forgiving. He not only derided the article for its exclusive on the breaking story of matzoh availability in a Great Falls supermarket, but he bashed the Times for a litany of articles in the same vein. “Pseudo-exotic Jewspotting has become so common in the Times that the paper might as well turn the genre into a standing feature.” Well, duh–it’s called the Weddings/Celebrations section in the Sunday Times Style. Shafer runs off a list of strange-Jew-in-a-stranger-place features the Times has run going back to 1996, along with a yizkor for the sub-genre of last-synagogue-in stories dating back to 1990. For those keeping score, it is a total of 15 stories about Jews and the absence thereof over slightly less than twenty years.

Still, he’s absolutely correct that stories like these tend to be fluff — sepia toned throat-lumpers that bemoan the forgotten Jewish structures and communities that the former denizens were generally happy enough to abandon (if it was their choice to do so). They could be accorded some respect if they took a serious look at the demographic trends that lead to the rise and fall of the doomed community, and here Shafer trots out his own demographic history of the Jews to show us what that might look like, “the urge to relocate might be irresistible for those who live in a small Jewish enclave but are looking for a spouse—many Jews won’t marry non-Jews.” It’s not terribly impressive, but we get the point. Really, he concludes, these stories get written because of lazy readers and writers, “Rarity stories are easy to write, and their sappiness makes them even easier to read.”

But over the years I’ve been doing cultural programming here at the 16th Street J, I’ve come to a different conclusion about the popularity of the genre of Jews-in-strange-places. We’re a more frequent offender than the Times–the most recent example being last night when we screened a double-feature of documentaries about Jews in India. Over time we’ve been all through South America, China, Greece, Ireland, Tunisia, Libya, the American South, Ethiopia, Uganda, Albania and countless abandoned shtetlach in Poland, Russia and the like.  Unlike Shafer, I believe the appeal in these stories is not that of the “holdouts—the guy who refuses to sell his home, the Papua New Guinea tribe that won’t become “civilized,” the last blacksmith in town, the last survivor of World War I, even the last Oldsmobile.” Rather the answer lies in a culture that has been defined by diaspora.

History gets written by the majority culture and for most of the past 2,000 years Jews haven’t been in that position. Until the 19th century, Jewish communities existed in foreign lands for as long as the sovereign tolerated them or found them useful. When that tolerance ended, or another better use, that of scapegoat, was found for them, those Jewish communities disappeared. But even putting aside those Jewish communities that have declined through genocide and expulsion, there is a still deeper reason we are attracted to these stories.

These stories are reminders that Jewish life and Jewish communities, even when they feel permanent, lasting components of the larger culture they exist within, may not be so. They remind us that before we were here, we were of somewhere else, and in the future might be elsewhere still. It is the paranoid kernel at the heart of any serious look at Jewish history. While the 21st century may well mark the era of lasting pluralism, sustained economic prosperity and religious tolerance, it also may not. In the end, the Jews-in-strange-places narrative is a self-affirming tale of Jewish persistence that we’d like to think ourselves capable of living if the need were to arise. Perhaps, it is the very fragility of Jewish identity, teetering as it often seems to do on the edge of American assimilation and the triumph of consumerist culture that we are seeking to reassure.

The Times will be running other Jewspotting articles in the future. You can bet on it. But not because the writers are lazy. But because they are seeking to find something of ourselves.

In Case You Missed It: Tom Friedman Writes About Project Better Place

For those of you who missed the presentation on Israel’s project to create the first infrastructure to support a mass-produced electric car, here’s Tom Friedman writing about it in yesterday’s New York Times:

What would happen if you cross-bred J. R. Ewing of “Dallas” and Carl Pope, the head of the Sierra Club? You’d get T. Boone Pickens. What would happen if you cross-bred Henry Ford and Yitzhak Rabin? You’d get Shai Agassi. And what would happen if you put together T. Boone Pickens, the green billionaire Texas oilman now obsessed with wind power, and Shai Agassi, the Jewish Henry Ford now obsessed with making Israel the world’s leader in electric cars?

You’d have the start of an energy revolution.

Of course if you’d been at the 16th Street J on July 17th you would have been able to answer Mr. Friedman’s quiz.

Tattoo Jew

Coming Soon to your JCC

Coming Soon to your JCC

According to one of the few, remaining, universally respected sources of information on contemporary Jewish life, The New York Times, it turns out that it is okay for Jews to have tattoos. Since it is in the New York Times, it must be okay. I trust their movie reviews, why not their promulgation of religious rulings?

Well, maybe not okay. In any case, there’s nothing about having a tattoo that prevents you from being buried in a Jewish cemetery–the reason cited by many a parent and grandparent, the more dramatic of whom would go on to describe how they would wail at the side of your non-Jewish grave, and “how could you do this to them?” As if the location of the grave and not your premature presence in said grave would be the true tragedy.

In any case, it turns out that getting a tattoo is prohibited in Leviticus 19:28, “Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor imprint any marks upon you: I am the LORD.” But that commandment, coming as it does on the heels of a similar law that charges, “Ye shall not round the corners of your heads, neither shalt thou mar the corners of thy beard,” might fall under the category of mitzvot commonly ignored by the great mass of non-orthodox Jews and those who do not take their personal grooming tips from the Torah. But, like we mentioned earlier, until they start refusing to bury those whose last meal included a bacon-cheeseburger, you will be able to rest in peace in the Jewish cemetery of your choice.

But what does this really mean for you? More importantly, what does it mean for the 16th Street J? Well, for starters I think a Jewish Body Art Cluster is in due-order at EntryPointDC/Gesher City (have you signed up for a Shabbat cluster?). Also, we may be making some “cosmetic” changes to the Gift Shop. Stay tuned.

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