Shut Up

Friday, July 28, 2006

A Jew by Any Other Name...

This article in J - the magazine formerly known as the Jewish Bulletin of Northern California - caught our eye:

"When Michael Becomes Moshe: Sometimes, Hebrew Names Fit Better"

Says the article:

Some tried on their new name while living in Israel because it made them feel less like an American tourist, or because it was easier for Israelis to pronounce.

Some grew up with little Jewish identity, and adopting a Hebrew name was a way to identify more outwardly as a Jew.

Some started using a new name for the novelty, or because it was more exotic than their given, Anglo name. And some feel that in a place like the Bay Area, where "ethnic is in," they, too, like to show off their ethnic pride — that is, Jewish pride.

"Language is everything in terms of cultural identity, and so by using my Hebrew name, I'm making a statement that I value greatly my identity as a Jew, to the point where I'm willing to use a difficult-to-pronounce-and-spell Hebrew name," said Yitzhak Santis, Middle East affairs director at the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council.

"It's also a statement against assimilation," said Santis, who was known as Jeff in his formative years.

Nevertheless, we always hear that "Moishe Rosen" (founder of Jews for Jesus) "really" is Martin, and Chaim Yonkel (mythical Jews for Jesus missionary) is "really" Brandon. Apparently it's OK for Jews who don't embrace Jesus to change their names, but not for Jews who do believe in you-know-who.

Excuse the mixed metaphor, but...when the shoe is on the other foot, the emperor has no clothes.

Postscript: And where were these guys anyway, when Tony Curtis, Woody Allen, Soupy Sales et al. did the opposite and changed their names to non-Jewish-sounding ones?

Monday, July 24, 2006

Marc Chagall, Jews and Jesus

Jews for Jesus is sponsoring a couple of Marc Chagall art shows this week in New York on Friday July 28 and on Saturday July 29. The theme? "Marc Chagall: Reflections on Jesus."

Before we reflect on what Chagall reflected about Jesus, it pays to reflect on Chagall himself. Chagall was not a believer in Jesus, as far as we know. But as a Jewish artist, I've argued that Chagall

seems to be sympathetic to the continuity between what is commonly called the Old and the New Testaments. Such continuity is dramatically present in paintings such as The Sacrifice of Isaac, where Y'shua, carrying the Cross, is placed in the background of the Akedah. Moreover, the red color covering Abraham streams down from the Crucifixion scene in the top right hand corner of the picture, richly suggestive of blood. In both Old and New Testaments blood is God's provision for atonement for sin. Thus not only is the Akedah joined together with the Crucifixion, but the suggestion of Jesus' death being an atonement is present as well. When one considers that the Sacrifice painting is part of a series called Biblical Messages, it becomes apparent that Chagall understood the association of the images.

Chagall's idea of Jesus was that he was a symbol, perhaps the symbol, of Jewish suffering and martyrdom. In Judaism, let's not forget, martyrdom can have atoning value, as in Christianity the death of Jesus atones for sin. Chagall's conception of Jesus may not have been that of Messiah or Savior, but he was willing to risk the displeasure of many in the Jewish community by utilizing images of Jesus, and some of his critics were sure that he went well beyond Jesus-as-martyr into more forbidden territory.

My take on Marc Chagall's Jesus imagery is here. Maybe there will be a different perspective at the Chagall showings in New York. If you're up in the Bronx or Westchester area, you might stop in and check them out.

Friday, July 21, 2006

A Really, Really Short Cultural History of Smiling

In the midst of writing this post, I discovered that there actually is a book titled, A Brief History of the Smile, which I'm looking forward to reading at some smiley point in the future. But what got me thinking about the subject was when I noticed Erica Sherman's blog about Jews for Jesus (whom she describes as "twitty ruffians"). Her encounter with Jews for Jesus is depicted thusly:

So, imagine how awkward it was for me last night wearing my standard army green and yellow Israel Defense Forces t-shirt and having to walk past the Jews for Jesus missionaries passing out leaflets outside of my train station.

"No thank you," I emotionlessly exclaimed, hastily walking past the rather hip-looking young lady in the J4J t-shirt trying to offer me some literature.
She noticed my shirt. Damn.

Fidgeting in my pockets for my MetroCard to gain entry past the turnstyle, quickly, I turned around, mildly riled, and found her looking at me, smiling, and then I just got creeped out and ran through the turnstyle.

Ach, killing me with kindness. These people make me sick ...

What's up with that? Creeped out from a smile? It would have been better if the person had scowled at her?

The author of The Coochie Papers blogs that:

I've decided that the Jews for Jesus are a step too far. Go back West, you filth, and leave me be. It's hot and humid and my undershirt is soaked, and I have no time for you and your eager smile and enormous backpack.

Another subtext here that the smile in question is suspicious, creepy, or just over the top.

Smiling is an interesting facial phenomenon. There are many kinds of smiles (think smiley faces, Jack Nicholson's Joker in Batman, the Cheshire Cat). It also has an interesting and probably checkered history. (I've never known exactly what "checkered" means in "checkered history" but it does make the subject sound more fascinating than it would otherwise be.) In old photos like this one, people didn't smile because it was hard to hold a smile for the long exposure time that was needed. When technology allowed for faster photography, smiling became the vogue, a kind of social convention, something to do when your picture is taken. Just like "What's up?" is a conventional greeting whether or not you actually want to know what is up.

I have the impression, just based on personal observation, that in the past few decades smiling has more and more gone out of favor. Some people believe that when your picture is taken, you should just look how you feel at the time. When people greet other people, it seems to me that it's often done more smile-lessly than in the past. Once upon a time, a smile suggested friendliness. Today for many people it tends to suggest insincerity or worse. So-called "authenticity" has replaced social convention. To some, that's all for the better. A lot of social conventions, though, are like oil that greases a wheel or like smoothing out the ice so you can skate. I'm not sure I'd want to be greeted with "Bad morning" by someone who was actually having one.

Or so I think. At any rate, returning to the blogs that started this post, avoiding considering spiritual things because someone is smiling strikes me as an indication of how little social niceties are greasing the wheels of communication these days.

I hope these smiles will make you smile:

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Yesterday's Peace Rally

The New York Times covered yesterday's rally on 42nd Street, in the vicinity of the United Nations. "There was some talk of peace in the Middle East, but not a whole lot. Peace is never much more than an illusory concept to begin with in that troubled region. Yesterday, it barely received even lip service." Unfortunately, the article seems to be available online only to Times Select subscribers, but if you happen to be one, the link is here.

As the Times reports, the speakers--both Democratic and Republican--focused on ending Hamas and Hezbollah. Some Lebanese were sympathetic. "It seems that the world has lost its peacemakers," lamented Cardinal Nasrallah Pierre Sfeir. He was addressing Our Lady of Lebanon Cathedral in Brooklyn.

Concludes the article, "Shalom in Hebrew, salaam in Arabic--either way, it means peace. In the Middle East, no word is more overworked or underrealized."

Jews for Jesus publishes a conversation-starter type pamphlet on The Only Hope for Peace. "True peace," it says, "is not just the absence of what's wrong but the presence of what's right." That's a pretty good summation of the biblical meaning of "shalom." You can click the image to get a download (usually folded in thirds, but you'll be able to figure it out).

Here's a couple of relevant links. Remember the old billboards that would say, "Jesus is the answer," prompting someone to ask, "What was the question"? (Billboard sightings probably more common in the midwest than in Manhattan.) So...

The question:

Have a look at Not the Way It's Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin by Cornelius Plantinga. It's quite a lively book, so whether you believe in sin or not, it's worth checking out. As I remember, it also includes a discussion of the biblical idea of "shalom." Definitely does a good job of describing why the world isn't "the way it's supposed to be," a feeling to which Israelis, Lebanese and all of us can relate.

The answer:*

Forbidden Peace, which is a DVD about Israelis and Palestinians and "how, despite fierce opposition, they have chosen to follow Jesus and how He has brought about reconciliation in every sense of the word."

*"That is the question--where is the answer?" wrote Elton John and Bernie Taupin in This Is My House. Definitely not where the song said it was: "inside my house."

On Vulnerability

In the midst of the Jews for Jesus campaign this summer come the blogs and interviews decrying how the staff of Jews for Jesus "preys" on the "vulnerable."

Now, exactly who are these "vulnerable" people?

Well, to hear some tell about it, it includes these groups that, it is implied, can't seem to think for themselves:
1. Senior citizens
2. Immigrants
3. College students
4. Those without an Orthodox Jewish education

Does anyone else think that this is an insult to older people, those from other countries, those in college, and the vast majority of Jews?

Perhaps the objectors would be satisfied if Jews for Jesus restricted their efforts to American-born, yeshiva-educated males of exactly 45 years old. They, of course, are not "vulnerable," right? Then, again, see this article on vulnerability.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Update on Steve Jobs and Jesus

Just when some bloggers thought Jews for Jesus' iPod pamphlet was weird (see this entry), we discovered the .... iBelieve!

"Inspired by the world's obsession and devotion to the iPod, iBelieve is a replacement lanyard for your iPod Shuffle. It is a social commentary on the fastest growing religion in the world."

A quote from the book of 2 Jobs 3:15 is included on the site.

Maybe Steve and the armies of iPodniks (iPoddies? iPodsters?) really do need to abandon, um, iDolatry, and put their faith in Jesus, who doesn't shuffle at all (rough paraphrase of James 1:17).

iCame, iSaw, iGotBlogged

OK, I take credit, or responsibility, or whatever. I am the author of "What's Next for the iPod Guy?" which has apparently taken the techno-blogs by storm. The reactions seem to range from the appreciative to the mystified to the ... well, you can see for yourself:

1. It's an attempt to personally convert Steve Jobs from (Judaism / Lutheranism / Buddhism, depending on what blog you read)

At macenstein, the headline reads, "'Jews for Jesus' attempts to convert Steve Jobs."
"In what can only be described as the most bizarre marketing tactic we have ever seen, New York-based Jews for Jesus have created a pamphlet specifically designed to convert Steve Jobs (who is Jewish) to Christianity, and it even goes so far as to compare Steve Jobs to Jesus Christ."

(Actually, Steve Jobs is not Jewish, but that's a whole other discussion.)

The take over at Big Action! is likewise that "someone in Jews for Jesus is apparently concerned about Steve Jobs' immortal soul." And at, we learn that
"Here's an evangelist who's so hell-bent (pardon the pun) on getting Apple computer founder Steve Jobs to 'need' Jesus, and eventually accept him. How fixated is this man? Well, he even distributed this evangelical tract to help Jobs realize he should be humble enough to accept Jesus."

2. It's a blatant rip-off of Steve to sell salvation

BoingBoing's take is that Jews for Jesus is "using Steve Jobs' likeness and career timeline (presumably without permission) to peddle salvation."

3. It sucks

A reader at finds it "almost as ridiculous as those Chick pamphlets. I mean, does anyone read this stuff and immediately decide to change their life?" And geoduck comments on the iPod Observer: "Like so much home grown religious literature, it's unbelievably lame. I mean, do they honestly think free clip-art and 4th grade prose would convince anyone? And anyway 'Jews for Jesus', isn't that what Christians are? But, hey don't ask me, I'm an Atheist."

4. It doesn't suck

At unnamed blog with a picture of a big banana: "I actually really like the tract, itself. Not for an evangelism tool, but simply as a piece of literature. The pencil drawings are great." And quoth Shawn of Shawn's Weblog, "This is pretty funny and it’s a pretty good idea. I don’t know if it would get me saved but it might encourage me to buy an iPod."

What's an author to do? Actually, this particular pamphlet, complete with graphics, has been blogged on more than any other from Jews for Jesus. And understandably, mostly on the tech-oriented blogs. Which raises the question of whether spending too much time writing code and tech reviews correlates with a failure to recognize parody and tongue-in-cheek-ness when it appears. Could one be left-brained and the other right-brained? Would English lit majors have a different response?

Anyway, the message was serious (there is more to life than technology; we need something spiritual; Jesus factors into that bigtime). The approach was meant to be light (Steve Jobs "died" and "rose from the dead"...yeah right...hmmm).

So what's an author to do? Read these links, I guess:

Yes, there actually is another blog article called "Jesus and Steve Jobs: Bringing the Community Together" on a blog that includes links to theology and that kind of thing. In fact this Google link will take you to a whole bunch of sites mentioning Steve Jobs and Jesus in the same breath (including the above blogs but a lot more).

And check out Thunderstruck for connections between popular culture and God/Jesus (and Steve Jobs, besides being a husband, father, CEO, and human being, is certainly a part of pop culture)

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Superman Quote of the Day

Earlier versions of Superman stressed the hero's humanity: his attachment to his Earth parents, his country-boy clumsiness around Lois. The Singer version emphasizes his divinity. He is not a super man; he is a god (named Kal-El), sent by his heavenly father (Jor-El) to protect Earth. That is a mission that takes more than muscles; it requires sacrifice, perhaps of his own life. So he is no simple comic-book hunk. He is Earth's savior: Jesus Christ Superman.

--Richard Corliss, TIME Magazine, June 26, 2006
Superman photo courtesy Warner Brothers.

Monday, July 10, 2006

What Milton Berle, Jack Benny, and Jesus Have in Common (and Why I'm Changing my Name)

Note: [RA]in this article links to a RealMedia file; [FL] to a Flash presentation.

You've heard it before. How so many well-known Jewish comedians and Hollywood stars changed their given name, or had their name changed for them. In the eyes of the larger world, the new name gave them an appeal, a glamour, an élan that they otherwise lacked. Bernie Schwartz sounds like an accountant, but call him Tony Curtis and suddenly you have a hot property on the silver screen [RA]. Similarly Issur Danielovitch became Kirk Douglas, Aaron Chwatt reinvented himself as Red Buttons, and Milton Hines turned into a household name as Soupy Sales [RA].

I'm not a celebrity, but I feel that I too need more appeal and charisma in my personal life. So I've come up with a plan. I'm going to remake myself as the kind of Jewish comedian who worked in the old days. The old days, for the purpose of my identity makeover, is defined as the time before comedians were called "comics" and before comics were called "comix."

After much angst over an appropriate stage name, I have finally settled on—Leafy Green®. Don't laugh at me. I happen to think that Leafy Green® is very much in the tradition of Soupy Sales and Red Buttons. I believe Leafy Green® will work because it includes a Jewish surname yet also sounds environmentally friendly. Of course, since this is 2006 and not 1966, I will have to update the shtick a little. I might still do the old routine about spouses who can't cook but with a name like Leafy®, I'll also have to involve salads and ecology, and maybe the rain forests [FL]. "Al Gore still can't figure out where global warming comes from. He should stop by our kitchen when my wife's cooking dinner..." It's still a work in progress but I'm confident that with the proper delivery and the right audience, I will finally have the broad appeal that I am looking for in life.

There are other kinds of name changes, but I'm not going to consider them for myself. Most Jews who changed their names didn't do so to acquire the sparkle of Hollywood tinsel. Sometimes they just wanted to fit in. For some, there was a point in the immigrant experience where a family left the old country under one name and emerged in American society with another, the rationale and the details now lost to memory.

Sometimes there was a desire to denigrate someone, to make them less instead of more, to diminish them as a person. Take Jesus of Nazareth, possibly the most famous Jew of all time. (And don't tell me, "Please, take Jesus." Henny Youngman [RA]—whose real first name was Henry—owned that line, or one like it anyway.) Jesus' name was changed too. His mother Mary (real name: Miriam) actually named him Y'shua, which was subsequently changed to Iesous for the Greeks and finally to Jesus for the English speakers. So far so good. After all, the Greeks couldn't say the "sh" sound and why should they miss a chance to hear about Jesus just because they couldn't pronounce his name? From being called Iesous and Jesus, Y'shua received an audience among non-Jews for his basically Jewish message.

But the name changes didn't end there. I can't tell you who made the decision, but somewhere along the line somebody decided they would change Jesus' name for him, like the neighborhood bully who tells you that he doesn't like your face so he's going to rearrange it for you. And so in the vernacular of some, Y'shua became Yeshu, which was intended to be a pun, an acronym for the Hebrew words, "May his name be blotted out." The equivalent would have been making Bernie Schwartz to be Bernie Schmutz instead of Tony Curtis. Among older generations of Jews, that's how Jesus was known—as Yeshu, may his name be blotted out, the one to be forgotten.

Others didn't even leave a name, and called him "That Man"—you know, the One We Don't Talk About. Interestingly, some of my Jewish landsleit will be very happy to tell me at length what they really think about Jesus, about the one we wanted to blot out and forget and not talk about. Seems like there's still a lot to say.

Unlike "Yeshu," "Y'shua" means "God will save." He was given that name because "he will save his people from their sins,"* a message that should make sense to any Jew who's been in shul on Yom Kippur—"his people," of course, being the Jews. With the change to Iesous and Jesus, it became easier for non-Jews to also hear that he would save them from their sins.

Let's be honest. It wasn't just a change of name that gained Y'shua a hearing throughout the world. It was the message. One reason Jackie Mason (real name: Jacob Moshe Maza) is so popular among Jews and gentiles is that what he has to say is universal. The message that God sent the Messiah to atone for our sins and heal our relationships is also universal. The Bible, both Old and New Testament, is as Jewish a book as any, but it speaks to everyone.

There's a lesson in all of this when I begin my stage career as Leafy Green®. I hope my new name will garner big audiences. But I know that when the curtain falls, if I don't have good material, nothing in the world will help.

* Matthew (name changed from Mattithiah) 1:21, in the New Testament.