Thanks: A DC Poem

For U.S.A. chagim
We love July Fourth
Memorial Day’s meaning
And Labor Day’s worth
Veteran’s Day’s solemn
MLK Day’s inspiring
Columbus Day is about an explorer not tiring
But of all of these days
When our offices rest,
We all should agree
That Thanksgiving’s the best.

It’s the food
It’s the family
It’s an ancestral vision
Even though most of us
Aren’t related to Pilgrims
So with belly’s a-swollen
With victuals digestible
Here are some of the figures
That we thank at our table

We’re thankful for donors,
Volunteers and teachers,
Subscribers, new members
And fitness goal reachers.
We’re thankful for films
For Authorial speakers
For treadmill addicts
Who wear-out their sneakers.
We’re thankful for Circles,
Scott, Dupont and Logan
Thanks for the ‘hood
Someone named “Borderstan

Of course we are thankful
for our partners, Federation.
For synagogue rabbis
And all congregations:
Like Bet Mish and Micah
DC Minyan and Adas
Wash-Hebrew and T.I.
With religious org status
Kesher, Sinai, Ohev
For the ‘gogue on Sixth Street
Rosh Pina and wherever more than
10 Jews can meet

Thank you Vince Gray
And to the government of DC
From our rep Jack Evans
To our local ANC.
For the folks on the Hill,
Boehner, Cantor and Reid,
It not just thanks
But a deal that you need.
Once the debt deal is done
Or before if you’re open,
Thanks, please give a vote
To Eleanor Holmes Norton.

Thanks for Obama,
And Mitt and Newt too,
We’ll see who’s most thankful
In Twenty, One-Two.
And Occupy K Street
And Tea Party Nation
And David Petraeus
And Alex Ovechkin.

Thanks to the Nats,
The Skins and the Caps
The Wizards get thanks
When the lockout gets scrapped.
So thanks to Rex Grossman,
Davey Johnson, Mike Rizzo
The Shanahan clan,
And bald Bruce Boudreau.

Thanks Michael Kaiser
A toast to Todd Gray
Thanks Reggie Love,
Who is going away.
Thanks City Paper and
The Post’s Reliable Source
Thanks weather-guy Bob Ryan
And Nat’s Slugger Mike Morse.

Thanks Wale, thanks Kojo
Thanks Hilda Solis
Thanks Justice Kagan
And the Metro Police.
Thanks Dr. Jill Biden,
And George Pelecanos,
Thanks Ezra Klein
Welcome home Wilson Ramos.

Give thanks for the thanks
That you know that you’re due.
Give thanks for the J
Cause we give thanks for you.

Joe Lieberman Reminds Us Of Things We Love About Judaism: Sex on Shabbat

Joe hints at what Hadassah looks forward to on Friday night.

In an interview that feels as awkward as watching your parents discuss their favorite Kama Sutra positions, Senator Joe Lieberman and Sally Quinn discuss the mitzvah to have  “intimate sexual relations” on the “Sabbath.” Sally was so excited to discuss the topic that she quotes the page number in Lieberman’s book with the same enthusiasm the girls I knew in middle school whispered to each other about page 72 of Judy Blume’s Forever.

The interview, which is part of the Washington Post’s On Faith series is centered around Lieberman’s new book The Gift of Rest: Rediscovering the Beauty of the Sabbath. Ignoring for a moment this call to the erotic from a politician whose charisma has been compared to that of Droopy Dog, this truly is one of the most awesome selling points of Judaism in-general and Shabbat in-particular. One wonders why some sophisticated Jewish outreach organization hasn’t made more hay out of the ole double-mitzvah.

Religion, as too many of us learn it, often feels like a collection of thou-shall-nots and the traditional observance of Shabbat is chock-full of them. In our modern, individualist age, many of us, when confronted with a list of “forbidden activities” such as we find on Shabbat, instinctively recoil. The emphasis on a commandment that compels us to experience pleasure and intimacy confounds those prejudices.

Of course, the mitzvah in its traditional interpretation is intended only for married couples — and while Joe Lieberman was a co-sponsor of the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” he remains opposed to legalized gay-marriage. But I don’t feel like I need to be constrained by the traditionalist messenger from embracing a more inclusive message.

Pirkei Avot tells us “mitzvah goreret mitzvah” — that one mitzvah leads to another. It doesn’t say with which mitzvah you need to begin. JCCs are built on the belief that there are multiple avenues that lead to a committed Jewish life — social action, the arts, study, camp even fitness can beget (no pun intended) a deeper involvement in Jewish life and community. Where you begin is up to you.

So, this Friday night, if you are in a committed, monogamous relationship and find yourselves so inclined, take pride in observing the kinkiest commandment.

Israel, Dialogue & Our Community

by Carole R. Zawatsky
CEO, Washington DCJCC

The Washington Post has an article today about the challenges facing Jewish institutions and Jewish artists who seek to engage with the difficult issues surrounding Israel and its quest for peace and security with the Palestinians. The case-in-point concerned the controversies that arose from this past spring’s presentation of the Cameri Theatre of Tel Aviv’s production of Return to Haifa at our resident, professional theater company, Theater J. We are at a unique moment in American Jewish life. The reality is that in the process of seeking to understand and grapple with this large issue facing Israel and ourselves, our community is still searching for a safe way to engage in this discussion with honesty, civility and respect for the passionate sincerity on both sides. This conversation goes beyond the boundaries of our local Jewish community and speaks to its importance and relevance.

Thus, the Washington DCJCC is committed to inspiring balanced, thoughtful and relevant Jewish culture through film, theater, literature and music, that welcomes all perspectives both from right and the left living up to the highest principles of our Jewish tradition.

Monday evening as we observe Tisha B’av – the anniversary of one of the most calamitous dates in Jewish history that marks the destruction of the two Temples in Jerusalem, it is taught that the Temple was destroyed because of the “senseless hatred of one Jew for another.” (Yoma 9b) It is tempting to conclude that the past is prologue and that the strains placed on the ancient Jewish community by Babylonian and Roman invasions parallel the threats of today. Our Jewish future continues to hold great promise when we encourage all those who hold a stake in our destiny the opportunity to immerse their intellect, their creativity and their spirit in preserving and enriching the Jewish present.

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.

Philip Roth Will Not Be Here Saturday Night. Just His Work.

We’re sorry.

Although really it is the Washington Post’s fault. For some reason they thought that Philip Roth would be attending the Opening Night of the Hyman S. and Freda Bernstein Jewish Literary Festival, which every year offers staged dramatic readings of work by some of the finest Jewish authors. One year we saluted Saul Bellow and Arthur Miller (both had recently passed away, they were not in-attendance either). One year we focused on stories about Jewish Urban Life. Last year we focused on Jewish Humor in Short Stories. This year we are honoring the 50th Anniversary of Roth’s groundbreaking novella Goodbye Columbus with dramatic adaptions from that and some of his other work, performed by four of Washington’s best actors.

So you should still come. Here’s why.

Philip won’t be there, but Neil Klugman will be. And Alexander Portnoy. And a version of the Philip Roth that appears in books like Patrimony and The Facts. The evening will be a way of looking at the work of an author widely acknowledged as one of the greatest writers of the last 50 years.

In the end it is the writing, and not the writer that matters most.

So we’re sorry if you are disappointed that Philip Roth won’t be there. In our defense, in none of our materials did we claim he would be — not even metaphorically — present. But we’ve got plenty of other writers who actually will be here, live and in the flesh, over the next two weeks. Great writers like Zoe Heller and Dara Horn and Binnie Kirshenbaum; important works of non-fiction about art in the Great Depression, the birth of Barbie, surviving infertility, a biography of Louis Brandeis and the amazing but true story of how the Israeli secret-service captured Adolf Eichmann.

The writer for the next 50 years is quite likely among our offerings. So, this is not how we wanted to get your attention. But since we now have it… you should come. Philip would want it that way.

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.

Unsolved Mysteries in the District

Since Chandra Levy’s murder the number of unsolved homicides in the District by year according to the MPD*:

2002- 31

2003- 27

2004- 93

2005- 87

2006- 96

2007- 104

2008- 40 (as of today)

I’m not going to question the wisdom, taste or desperate need to sell newspapers that went into the Post’s decision to trod slowly through one family’s tragedy and the rest of the nation’s pre-9/11 freakshow.  I’ll just rest assured the 12-part Washington Post investigative series for each and every one of the other 478 unsolved homicides is in the planning stages.

*Don’t know if these are official numbers or how often MPD updates their website, or if (and I pray this is the case) a homicide is not officially “solved” until there is a conviction.

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