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Posts Tagged ‘Jewish American’

Aly Raisman Leads US to Gymnastics Team Gold

Wednesday, August 1st, 2012

Aly Raisman, a Jewish American, won the floor exercise in helping the U.S. women’s team to the gold medal in the gymnastics competition at the London Olympics.

Earlier this week, Raisman’s parents became part of You Tube lore with their clip of performance anxiety (Aly’s performance, that is).

The Americans on Tuesday won their first team gold medal in women’s gymnastics since the Atlanta Games in 1996, finishing with 183.596 points to defeat Russia (178.530) and Romania (176.414).

Raisman, 18, of Needham, Mass., scored 15.300 in the floor exercise to win the event, performing her routine to a string-heavy version of “Hava Nagila” as she did on Sunday. Raisman also had performed to “Hava Nagila” when she gained a berth on the U.S. team last year.

Raisman is favored to win the all-around individual competition on Thursday, as well as the floor exercise on Aug. 7, when she also will be competing in the balance beam final. She and Gabby Douglas are representing the U.S. in the individual finals.

Raisman is a recipient of the Pearl D. Mazor Outstanding Female Jewish High School Scholar-Athlete of the Year Award given out by the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in New York.

The Gift That Keeps On Giving: Involving Young Children in Hands-on Chesed Activities

Wednesday, December 23rd, 2009

One of the goals we all share as parents and educators is to instill an appreciation for the mitzvah of tzedakah (charity giving) in our children.

I have found that one of the most effective methods of achieving this is to present young children with hands-on opportunities to participate in charity projects that are child-centered and age appropriate. There are those who take the attitude, especially as far as school-based programs for boys are concerned, that these are a distraction from limudim.

I beg to differ. In my opinion, this is an integral component of their limudim. And these projects breed a sense of communal achrayus (responsibility), teach true ahavas Yisrael, and engage children spiritually. Our great rebbe, Rav Avrohom Pam, zt”l, often spoke to us about the importance of giving 10 percent of our time for chesed activities, such as learning with a weaker classmate. I feel honored to pass on this message to my talmidim.

In Yeshiva Darchei Noam, where I serve as dean, we conduct chesed campaigns with our talmidim each year. The criterion I set for the programs are that all of our students can easily understand its objective, contribute something to it, and, quite literally, put their hands around the items they are donating.

Over the past 11 years we sent 400 toys to the children of Gilo, Yerushalayim, during the first few weeks of the 2000 intifada, built a playground for them in 2002, created a laptop lending library in partnership with the local Bikur Cholim for use by bedridden ill children, and sent 150 Israeli terror victims on an all-expenses-paid Chol Hamoed Pesach trip.

We also distributed hundreds of $20 Toys ‘R’ Us gift certificates to Tomchei Shabbos families to purchase afikoman gifts for their children, and in 2005, “adopted” a Gush Katif school, sending them school supplies, sports equipment and bicycles over two years following the Disengagement. In many of these projects, our talmidim wrote cards to the recipients of their gifts – and received many thank you cards from them in return.

While teaching our children to place money in a pushka (charity collection) box is a wonderful thing to do, it is difficult for a school-age kid – especially those in younger grades – to comprehend how those coins he/she parted with actually helped a needy person. Allowing kids access to the latter phases of the tzedakah chain is often far more meaningful to them.

For example, several years ago when we partnered with Tomchei Shabbos in our annual chesed drive, we purchased several hundred rolls of cake with the money we collected to add to each needy family’s box of Shabbos food. We placed the boxes of cake in the yeshiva hallway so the children could see what their money purchased. On Thursday evening, one boy from each class – selected by lottery – went with their fathers to the Tomchei Shabbos distribution center and helped place the cake in each of the boxes designated for the recipients. The next morning, each of the class representatives shared with their classmates their experiences from the previous evening.

When these activities are geared to children, they really “get it.” I will never forget the call I once got from the proud parent of a five-year-old talmid in our yeshiva. He was in Toys ‘R’ Us with his son purchasing a toy for the children of Gilo and suggested that they buy a soccer ball because Israeli kids love to play that sport. He was stunned when his son patiently explained to him that it would probably be wiser to buy indoor games because the children of Gilo could not play outdoors due to the gunfire from the nearby Arab village.

Over this past month, yeshiva parent Mrs. Ava Hamburger involved Darchei Noam talmidim in a project she has been working on for more than five years: sending food packages to Jewish-American soldiers stationed in the Mideast. Students of all grades sent dozens of Chanukah gifts and foodstuff to the troops, and a number of our general studies teachers used the opportunity to incorporate the letter writing as a practical component of their language arts curriculum.

When I noted earlier that children involved in chesed projects “get it,” I was referring to the fact that these activities trigger all sorts of wonderful, long-term chinuch lessons far richer and deeper than the isolated act of charity giving. For an idea of the impact activities like these has on children, here are two paragraphs from a self-created, unedited essay written by Zevi Shuster, a 5th grader in our yeshiva:

“Can you imagine how it would be if you were an American soldier stationed far from home, [and] away from family, during the Chanukah holiday? Surprisingly, one day you get packages and letters from Jewish children. Now you see that you are not alone and forgotten – and others care about you.

“Some may think you can only do kiruv with people in your own neighborhood, but Yeshiva Darchei Noam has shown that you can do kiruv as far away as Iraq. Not only that, but all the non-Jewish soldiers see how caring the Jews are. What a Kiddush Hashem!”

(Note to readers from Rabbi Horowitz: A significant portion of the gifts was sent for the use of all soldiers in those units – not only the Jewish ones.)

Chazal (sages) point out that the Hebrew root word “nasan,” which denotes giving, is a palindrome – meaning it reads the same forward and backward. This informs us that one who gives charity is rewarded by receiving bounty from Hashem. Here’s another application of this thought, namely that exposing your children to the beauty of enriching the lives of others is a gift that keeps on giving. They will apply the lessons learned, and grow into more sensitive adults imbued with nobility of spirit.

Jewperheroes!

Wednesday, June 28th, 2006

For most of my life, I lived a Clark Kent existence: that of a Jew residing in Manchester, England, intent on blending into the modern, secular world. I kept my Hebrew name a closely guarded secret; my desire to assimilate required no less. A degree in film history led to a job scouting movie locations. My work was exciting, even a bit glamorous, but something was missing.


Seeking to fulfill needs that were not met by MTV and materialism, I set out to meet my great-great-grandparents and finally learn about my Jewish heritage. Trips to Israel followed, where I enrolled in the life-changing Mayanot Institute, a Chabad yeshiva in Jerusalem. I eventually reverted to my Hebrew name (from Simon to Simcha). My transformation was complete.


Yet I never entirely lost my love of pop culture. When marriage brought me to New York City, I began thinking about all the Jewish writers, artists and editors who’d lived and worked there too – and who’d created a whole new art form: the comic book. As the rabbi of the esteemed Pratt Institute – the very school many comics pioneers once attended – I began to wonder why comic books had been invented in that particular time and place, by those particular men.


Every Friday night, my wife and I cram a crowd of Jewish Pratt students into our tiny, over-priced Brooklyn Heights apartment. (We often have so many guests we have to double slice our gefilte fish!) While my two sons, ages three and one, play around under the table, we grown-ups discuss the meaning of life, over copious bowls of steaming chicken soup, until the wee hours.


Interacting with these gifted art students challenged me, as a rabbi, to look at those early comic book pioneers from a new, theological perspective. I re-read the classic superhero comics of my youth – this time, through the lens of Jewish tradition and spiritual belief.


The sages expound that all human knowledge and wisdom is contained within the Bible’s 304,805 letters of ink and parchment. (No wonder Jews are called the People of the Book.) The great eighteenth century chassidic master Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi taught that Jews should relate the weekly Torah portion to events in their own lives, right then and there. He called this way of reading “living with the times.”


As Eastern European Jewish immigrants poured into New York’s Lower East Side in the early 1900′s, they viewed the stories of the Bible through the prism of their struggles in a sometimes baffling new land, and passed them on to their children. And some of those children in turn retold those Jewish tales using dots of colored ink on pulp paper, beginning in the 1930′s.


In those days, the shadow of persecution was descending upon European Jews once more, and no one seemed willing to come to their rescue. That decade also witnessed the rise of anti-Semitism in the United States: Nazi sympathizer Fritz Kuhn of the German-American Bund led legions of rabid followers on marches through many cities. Ivy League colleges intentionally kept the number of Jewish students to a minimum, while restricted country clubs and even entire neighborhoods barred Jews altogether.


Clearly, the world needed heroes. So even before their own country went to war with Hitler, young Jewish American artists and writers (some barely out of their teens) began creating powerful characters who were dedicated to protecting the innocent and conquering evil.


Their names include Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster; Batman creators Bob Kane (born Kahn) and Bill Finger and their protégé, Jerry Robinson, who invented the immortal villain the Joker; the Spirit creator and graphic novel pioneer Will Eisner; publisher Julius Schwartz, known as the “father of science-fiction comics” and the man behind the Justice League of America; Martin Nodell, the man behind the Green Lantern; Jack Kirby (born Kurtzberg) and Joe Simon, who brought the world Captain America; Max Gaines, the true father of comic books, his son William, publisher of MAD magazine, and William’s partner in satire, Harvey Kurtzman; Stan Lee (born Stanley Martin Lieber), who created Spider-Man, the Incredible Hulk, the Fantastic Four and the X-Men – and his boss (and wife’s cousin), Martin Goodman of Marvel Comics.


The end of World War II and the defeat of Hitler saw a brief decline in the popularity of superhero comics, but that didn’t last long. After all, every generation needs archetypal heroes of its own, larger-than-life characters who evoke (sometimes blatantly, sometimes subconsciously) the eternal themes found in the Bible and within the Jewish experience.


Comic book superheroes have evolved to reflect the changing times, as well as the changing attitudes of writers, artists and readers. In the 1940′s, superheroes appointed themselves saviors of a world riddled with real-life villains; their fictional exploits boosted the morale of those fighting flesh and blood Nazis, Communists and other threats to “truth, justice and the American way.”


During the tumultuous 1960′s, comic book characters became more complex and ambiguous: flawed, reluctant heroes with their own insecurities to cope with (when they weren’t fighting crime).


Then, in the 1970′s, comic books (some of them, anyway) became “graphic novels.” Now more popular than ever, these comics for adults are more realistic, downbeat, “artistic.” Graphic novels tend to focus on average (sometimes below average) people and their everyday lives, instead of superheroes with extraordinary powers.


The best examples of the genre also illuminate the universal human condition, lifting them to the level of literature. This difficult-to-accomplish blend of the quotidian with the cosmic gives graphic novels their depth and explains their growing appeal to younger people whose vocabulary is visual rather than verbal.


Graphic novels explore the human condition in general (and Jewish American identity in particular) through the eyes of their Job-like anti-heroes. Today’s Jewish graphic novelists – Bob Kanigher, Chris Claremont, Ben Katchor, Daniel Clowes, Sammy Harkham, Joann Sfar, Diane Noomin, Joe Kubert, Harvey Pekar and Art Spiegelman, to name a few – have joined the pantheon of the comic book pioneers.


Each generation of Jewish comic book creators and graphic novelists explored the ambiguities of assimilation, the pain of discrimination, and the particularly Jewish theme of the misunderstood outcast, the rootless wanderer. Again and again, the triumph of good over evil remained a central theme.


Jack Kirby – known as the King of Comics – once said, “In the movies, the good always triumphed over evil. Underneath all the sophistication of modern comics, all the twists and psychological drama, good triumphs over evil. Those are the things I learned from my parents and from the Bible. It’s part of my Jewish heritage.”


My new book Up, Up and Oy Vey seeks to reclaim a vital component of that heritage. While the Jewish contribution to film, theater, music, and comedy is well known, my book is the first to focus exclusively on the Jewish role in the creation of these all-American superheroes.


Just think: comic books that our mothers once tossed out as trash are now worth thousands of dollars and studied within the highest levels of academia. And, most amazingly, they actually represent an important facet of American Jewish culture. We’ll never know for sure how many thirteen-year-old boys like me squirreled themselves away with a stash of comic books when they were supposed to be studying for their bar mitzvahs. The thing is, they were on to something.


Seventy years later, comics have evolved from “throwaway” escapism for kids to a multimillion dollar business encompassing movies, television, music, toys – and, of course, movies.


This year alone, the murderous monks of “The Da Vinci Code” were battered at the box office by the mutants of “X-Men: The Last Stand.” Now a new superhero-inspired blockbuster seems poised to become an even bigger hit with moviegoers. Of all the comic book characters in history, one stands above the rest both as a universally recognized symbol of American values and Jewish themes. That beloved superhero finally comes home this week with the release of the movie “Superman Returns.”


In this latest installment, the Man of Steel returns to Metropolis at the end of a cosmic quest: investigating the facts behind the destruction of his home planet, Krypton. And things on Earth have changed. Lois Lane, the love of Superman’s life, has moved on in his absence. Worse, his old nemesis, Lex Luthor, is plotting to render the Superman powerless once and for all – and then destroy the helpless, hero-less world.


“Superman Returns” is one of the most expensive movies ever made. It’s a long way from 1938, when a couple of Jewish boys from Ohio were paid $130 for the very first Superman story – and sold away their future residuals. (Today, a mint condition copy of that comic book – Action Comics # 1, June 1938 – if you’re lucky enough to find one, will set you back a cool half-million bucks or more).


From the very beginning, the Superman mythos reflected his creators’ Jewish backgrounds. For example, the superhero’s origin story (as fans refer to it) bears more than a passing resemblance to the great Exodus tale in which Jochebed places Moses in a reed basket and sets him afloat on the Nile before he can be killed by the Pharaoh’s henchmen.


Likewise, Superman’s father Jor-El, launches a little rocket ship containing his son into outer space when he realizes Krypton is about to disintegrate. (Diaspora has been a tragic fact of much of Jewish history – think of the kindertransports that whisked so many children to safety from Nazi Germany.)


Superman’s Kryptonian name also reveals biblical underpinnings. Superman is named Kal-El and his father Jor-El. The suffix “El” is one of the ancient names for God, used throughout the Bible. It is also found in the names of great prophets like Isra-el, Samu-el, and Dani-el and angels such as Micha-el and Gavri-el. According to Jewish tradition, Micha-el is the great combatant angel who fights Satan. He could easily be deemed the flying Superman’s biblical alter ego.


The prefix of Superman’s name, “Kal,” is the root of several Hebrew words: “with lightness,” “swiftness,” “vessel,” and “voice.” We may never know whethe Siegel and Shuster were aware of these precise Hebrew translations; nevertheless, the name could not be more apt.


In Jewish tradition, the act of naming has been profoundly and mysteriously connected with creativity. The birth of Superman offers more examples – even the fact that Shuster and Siegel first submitted their cartoons under a Gentile-sounding pseudonym, to better their chances of getting published.


More profoundly, the two young men conceived of a brilliant idea: they gave their superhuman hero a secret identity, too, along with an alternative (and very WASP-ish) name: that of the all-too human reporter Clark Kent. Subconsciously, Shuster and Siegel had created a complex symbol of immigrant identity and assimilation.


Practically speaking, this notion of “double identity” allowed for almost endless storyline twists and thematic depth. On another level, it added considerably to the “mythology” that would eventually accrue around this fictional crime fighter. From then on, double identities became a recurring theme throughout comic book culture and mythology, with Spider-Man and Batman employing this character device to great effect.


According to the sages, we all have a double identity, just like the most enduring of the superheroes. Man is the fusion of matter and spirit, a body and soul. The body cleaves to this physical world, while the soul longs for the spiritual. Likewise, many comic book characters are reluctant heroes who often want nothing more than to give up their incredible powers.


With great power comes great responsibility,” as Spider-Man says, usually in a rueful, resigned tone of voice that hints he’d much rather be an ordinary mortal. And who wouldn’t want to walk away from our daunting duties and mundane cares, at least once in a while? Especially after a long, hard day of leaping tall buildings in a single bound.


But in reality, God created the world so He would “have a dwelling in the lower realms.”(Hebrew:dira b’tachtonim). The likes of Superman or Spider-Man have got a tough, thankless job to do in those “lower realms,” fighting for what’s right, without getting much credit.


Look closely: we’re all surrounded by superheroes. At the Pratt Institute, I see aspiring Jewish artists openly grappling with and embracing their faith within their work. I also see my own efforts mirrored by the brave Chabad-On-Campus rabbis (& Super-rebbetzins) who make sure that every Jewish student is aware of his or her heritage, teaching the Jewish leaders of tomorrow not to grow-up to be like the bumbling Clark Kent but rather to become Jewperheroes.


Comic book ethics are Jewish ethics. Like all of us, Superman and his colleagues are called to “perform wonders,” to repair order and balance in the world. We may not do it while wearing a cape and a big “S” on our chests, but universal messages of duty and justice still come across clearly, via the unlikely vehicle of comic books for kids.


Rabbi Simcha Weinstein, the “Comic Book Rabbi,” is the founder of the Jewish Student Foundation of Downtown Brooklyn, an educational and cultural center that strives to ignite pride and commitment through innovative educational and social experiences in an open environment. A sought after television and radio guest, he has been profiled in many publications. He is also the author of the new book “Up, Up and Oy Vey! How Jewish History, Culture and Values Shaped the Comic Book Superhero” (Leviathan Press). For more information, visit  www.rabbisimcha.com.

My America – The Long Road

Wednesday, May 19th, 2004

The Jewish Museum has a story to tell in “My America: Art From The Jewish Museum Collection, 1900-1955.” The difficult journey of immigrant Jews through the crowded Lower East Side, working, playing and defining their role in America, comes alive in over seventy paintings, sculptures and photographs. Years later, basking in the glow their own success, they entered the mainstream of the American cultural establishment as the creators and leaders
of the Abstract Expressionist movement. In the mid-1950′s, this exhibition’s story ends, as many American Jewish artists had abandoned most of their heritage and were frequently loath to being identified as Jewish.

But the story was not over, not by a long shot. In spite of predictions that American Jews would assimilate themselves out of existence, Jewish artists continued to salvage bits and pieces of their Jewish heritage in the years that High Modernism crumbled and evaporated in the chaos that followed. The landmark ”Too Jewish” exhibition at the Jewish Museum in 1996 explored issues of identity so dear to postmodern thought. Since then, contemporary Jewish art has slowly grown stronger. In this exhibition, the Jewish Museum documents the difficult and painful first part of the story, a narrative of the road out of tradition to an illusory promised land.

Max Weber (1881-1961), the brilliant American cubist who consistently affirmed his Jewish roots in his paintings, attests to the general tenor of those times with his 1919 painting, Sabbath, showing two Chassidim and their wives whiling away a Shabbos afternoon. Morris Shulman’s Tomkins Square Park (1936) is claustrophobically crowded, teeming with mothers,
children, youths and old men engaged in endless arguments. Jewish identity here, as in many other works shown nearby, blends seamlessly into the overall immigrant experience.

Most Jews were not able to seamlessly integrate into mainstream America as Peter Blume’s 1927 Pig’s Feet and Vinegar shockingly attests. Blume (1906-1992) was born in Russia, came to America as a child and developed into a popular surrealist painter in the 1930′s. As an artist he had moved out of the city to paint the ”real America.” There he found not bucolic peace and harmony, but a world that would wrench him further from his Jewish roots, full of dislocation and estrangement. His later surreal and magic realist paintings reflected the exploitation of America invaded by the machine age. This early painting depicts the invasion of nonJewish America into his home. A hyper-realistic rendition of a pair of pig’s feet is seen on his kitchen table that is set before a window that looks out on rural America. The struggle of assimilation was in fact a war against the Jews.

This war was fought on many fronts, especially in our homes and living rooms. Raphael Soyer (1899-1987), one of the most beloved of the Jewish realists, depicted the domestic battlefield in his own home. Dance Lesson (1926) depicts his twin brother Moses dancing with his sister Rebecca as his other brother Israel plays the harmonica. His mother interrupts reading her
Yiddish paper to watch them along with her husband sitting on the couch. Ironically, his grandparents peer down helplessly from the portrait on the wall. In spite of the implicit criticism, we know the dancers will fully embrace modernity at the expense of their traditions. Close to 30 years later, Raphael Soyer painted Seated Couple (1954) that evokes the very modern Jewish couple. He is intense and simmering with modern angst. She is confident and
supportive. Their Jewishness is totally hidden.

Deciding what to give up was only one aspect of Jewish assimilation. One had to replace the old world values with new world agendas, and social justice was always high on the list. Jews became active in left wing politics and John Reed Clubs were filled with Jewish artists. Philip Evergood’s The Hundredth Psalm (1938-39) depicts the horror of southern lynchings in the 1930′s. His depiction of hooded Klansmen lynching a Black man as they played violins, mocks the verse, ”call out to the Lord, everyone on earth. Serve the Lord with gladness, come before Him with joyous song.” Evergood accuses racist Christians of murdering Blacks in perverted religious zeal and, by the invocation of a Jewish text, implores traditional Jews to protest social injustice.

Protest and alarm dominate as ”Reacting to Tragedy?” charts the American Jewish artist’s early confrontation with the Holocaust. Jacques Lipshitz’s disturbing sculpture The Sacrifice (1949-57) sends a deeply mixed message in its presentation of a figure stabbing a chicken. Neither a ritual sacrifice nor slaughter for food, it is a senseless killing. Continuing the theme of
victim-hood, Saul Baizerman’s Crucifixion (1947-50) utilizes an appropriation of Christian imagery to express Jewish suffering. His eight foot high hammered copper relief sculpture suggests an armless man seen from the back. The sheet-like nature of the cooper connotes an absence behind the hammered surface, evoking the loss of millions of Jews behind a single image.

The most disturbing image of the exhibition is Hyman Bloom’s Female Corpse (1945). The artist was at the time a major figure among the emerging Abstract Expressionists and was aware of the extent of the Holocaust in wartime Europe. He went to Boston and did a series of drawings and paintings in a morgue. The lurid expressionistic images he produced are morbid meditations on the mass murders. Seen from above and calmly observed, the painting attempts to mediate the horror of a single decomposing body. Death does not end with the cessation of life, rather it gradually festers and transforms the body until it has consumed every bit of flesh. The horror of Bloom’s painting presents death as a process, a continuation of hell that offers no peace.

The works in the final room poses troubling questions. It shows a handful of examples in which the artists used Jewish subjects to create abstract art. It implicitly asks what art might have been produced if Jewish artists had embraced the vast resources of Jewish thought for content and inspiration. As exciting as it is to see Ben Zion, a founding member of The Ten, an early and overwhelmingly Jewish abstract expressionist club, produce a Jacob Wrestling With The Angel in 1935, his numerous Biblical works were mostly ignored. Even the startling painting Tablets of Moses, Jacob’s Ladder, and Menorah (1951) by Robert Motherwell doesn’t rescue the distinctly minor classification these works deserve. Motherwell remains famous for Spanish Elegy, not Har Sinai. The notorious Larry Rivers, who would go on to become the “bad boy” of late modernism and pop art, is shown here in the Rejected Ark Cloth of 1954, a failed commission because of a Hebrew misspelling. But that cannot be the reason it was rejected. Rather, the vast majority of Jewish American artists at the time knew little and cared less about Jewish tradition and culture. With no inherent connection, it was surprising the few Jewish themes they did create.

”My America,” the survey of Jewish American art in the first half of the 20th century, would be ultimately a sad show were it not for the fact that 40 years later, Jewish art was seen struggling mightily in “Too Jewish?” Now, eight years after that, there is an emerging handful of Jewish artists who move well beyond the deconstruction of ethnic identity to attack, confront and
engage in serious Jewish subject matter. We would hope that the Jewish Museum’s next survey of contemporary Jewish art will be called, “Finally Jewish Enough.”

“My America: Art from the Jewish Museum Collection, 1900-1955,”  Jewish Museum; www.thejewishmuseum.org. 1109 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10128; (212) 423 3200. Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday; 11 a.m. – 5:45 p.m.; Thursday, 11 a.m. – 8 p.m.; Friday, 11 a.m. – 3 p.m., $10 adults; $7.50 students and seniors, children under 12 free;
Thursdays 5 to 8 p.m., pay-what-you-wish. Until July 25, 2004

Richard McBee is a painter of Torah subject matter and writer on Jewish Art. Please feel free to contact him with comments at www.richardmcbee.com.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/my-america-the-long-road/2004/05/19/

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