Friday, June 29, 2012

Will LaDanian Tomlinson Get to Promised Land?

THIS WEEK, LaDANIAN TOMLINSON retired from the NFL. The former San Diego Charger and New York Jet had a stellar career and will be remembered as one of the greatest running backs in NFL history. There is no doubt that he will be elected into the Hall of Fame as soon as he is eligible. The only blemish on his glorious career is that he never won the Super Bowl. In fact, he never made it to the Super Bowl.

Erik Kaselius of NBC sports brought up this issue with Tomlinson during an interview a few days ago and asked him if he would trade in his hall of fame career for a super bowl ring.

This is what he had to say: [I'd rather be a] "Hall of Fame player without a ring, because you’ve got to sacrifice so much individually to be good."

Many criticized Tomlinson for his comments. Some people thought he was being arrogant; that he only cared about his individual stats and didn’t acknowledge that football is a team sport. Others argued that he was only saying this after his retirement. Here’s Teddy Bruschi lambasting him on ESPN:

The Monsters in Our Closet

I WAS CRUISING MY NEWSFEED on Facebook, when I came across the trailer for a new movie called “The Possession.” It stars Jeffery Dean Morgan and Kyra Sedgewick as the parents of a young girl who buys a “dybuk box” at a garage sale and is subsequently possessed by the demonic spirits trapped inside. The movie also stars Jewish reggae sensation Matisyahu, as the Jewish sage in charge of helping the family while filling in the audience in all things dybuk (Yiddush for demon).

Growing up I heard Jewish ghost stories about dybuks, or demons, but I was still stunned when I saw the words “Based on a True Story.”

From what I could gather from Wikipedia (I know, weak source), the “Dybuk Box” came to fame after it was sold on Ebay with an accompanying story of its mysterious and dark powers. Apparently, each owner has had some calamitous incidents befall them. This, of course, begs the question, why do people keep buying it? With a little more research, I found out that the movie is a fictional retelling of LA Times reporter Leslie Gornstein's LA Times story "Jinx in a Box," about an antique wooden box purchased on eBay that contained an evil spirit and was brought to America by a Holocaust survivor after World War II.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Aaron Sorkin's Preachy Newsroom

THIS PAST SUNDAY AARON SORKIN re-entered the world of television with his usual erudite splendor. For those of us familiar with Sorkin’s work, we welcome his return to television.

We’ve missed shows like West Wing and SportsNight (at least some of us did); we were tired of clinging to lifeboats strung together by AMC and HBO. We wondered just how many CSIs, Criminal Minds, and Law and Orders we would have to sift through to find a show that engaged our minds instead of numbing them. We longed for witty repartee between brilliantly written characters engaged in eternal struggles between good and evil, all while talking as they walked, of course.

So onto the scene strides Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), a lead character whose eloquence and intellect already rivals such luminary Sorkin characters as President Josiah Bartlet or Mark Zuckerberg. In his opening scene Will sits on a panel with other media people, talking to students at Northwestern. The moderator asks them all questions, and we quickly understand that Will’s seat in the middle is not coincidental. He is the moderate on the panel, sitting in between a man from the right and a woman from the left. He is the “Jay Leno” of the media world, because he doesn’t offend anyone. When asked questions, he either evades them with a quip about the New York Jets,or completely ignores the question altogether. Then Jenny, a pretty sophomore, comes forward to ask, “What makes America the greatest country in the world?”

Another Israeli Baller in NBA?

RUMOR HAS IT THAT after his rookie season in the NBA, Israeli Omri Casspi was getting bothered by all of the attention he was getting from Jewish fans around the league and from local media who only asked him about being the first Israeli in the league.

Well, now Casspi might not be the only Israeli in the league. The NBA could be opening the door for Eliyahu!

Maccabi Tel Aviv forward Lior Eliyahu could be coming to the Minnesota Timberwolves and joining his mate. Eliyahu was selected 44th overall by the Orlando Magic in 2006, but got traded to the Houston Rockets. In Israel, Eliyahu, averaged 11.3 points and 4.1 rebounds per game this season for Maccabi Tel Aviv.

The rights to the 26-year-old Lior Eliyahu were traded to the Timberwolves as part of a trade involving Chase Budinger going to the Timberwolves in exchange for the 18th pick in Thursday's NBA draft.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The NFL's Biggest Fumble

FOOTBALL IS AT a fascinating crossroads. In one sense, it is the most popular sport in American history. Each year the Super Bowl is the highest rated show on TV, and around 90% of the top 25 shows are NFL games. The NFL's TV contracts keep getting richer and richer, with no end in sight.

At the same time, some people see the end of football altogether lurking on the horizon. There is a growing mountain of study proving the multiple concussions, as well as frequent lower level head trauma, is a harbinger for mild brain damage, early onset dementia and many other brain related injuries. Congress called a House judiciary committee hearing, and some very damning evidence was presented. This has caused concern amongst many different constituencies. Over 1,500 former NFL players are suing the NFL for knowingly withholding and misrepresenting scientific findings on the dangers of football related head trauma. There has been a rash of suicides by former players, most famously Chicago Bears safety Dave Duerson and San Diego Chargers linebacker Junior Seau. The latter's recent suicide sent shock waves throughout the country, and caused many to wonder if brain trauma from his playing days was a factor in taking his own life.

The Demise of Kevin Youkilis

AS A JEWISH YANKEE FAN, I'm conflicted. Last Sunday, the heated rivalry between the Yankees and the Red Sox lost a bit of its luster, as Boston traded struggling third baseman Kevin Youkilis to the Chicago White Sox. I gotta tell you, as a Yankee fan, I couldn’t be happier. For as much as I love my boys in pinstripes, I loathe everything that has to do with those bums from Beantown. And few players drew more of my ire than that bald, goateed, hitting machine that is Kevin Youkilis.

Youkilis man was a bonafide Yankee killer – he bat .312 against them, seemingly always coming up with a big hit to push the Sox ahead. There was no one you would hate more to see up at the plate in a clutch moment than “Youk”. Making matters worse, he was a sparkplug, an intense and fierce competitor who seemed to spur on the rest of the Red Sox to never give in, never surrender. He was the heart and soul of the Red Sox, so much so that when President Obama made light of the trade, the crowd in Boston booed him!

In the “us versus them” world of sports, in my eyes, Kevin Youkilis was definitely one of “them”. However, as much as I disliked him, there was a part of me that rooted for him, for Kevin Youkilis is Jewish. That’s right – this now-former Boston baddie, once nicknamed “the Greek God of Walks” for his uncanny ability to get on base, is a member of the tribe. He is one of “us”!

Bruce Springsteen and the Jewish People

DOES BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN'S MUSIC contain the key to future of the Jewish people? Can a man who made an international career singing about teenage blues in Asbury Park, New Jersey teach us something about Jewish identity?

In a fascinating column in yesterday’s New York Times, David Brooks writes about his experiences going to Bruce Springsteen concerts in Europe. The fans there are younger and more intense than those in the U.S.. Brooks was amazed that a concert filled with 56,000 Spaniards could be enthralled by mentions of Asbury Park and the Meadowlands. Trying to explain Springsteen’s appeal to people who live far away from New Jersey, Brooks writes:

“The most interesting moment of Springsteen’s career came after the success of “Born to Run.” It would have been natural to build on that album’s success, to repeat its lush, wall-of-sound style, to build outward from his New Jersey base and broaden his appeal. Instead, Springsteen went deeper into his roots and created “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” which is more localized, more lonely and more spare.

Nora Ephron: Looking At Her Reflections (A Tribute)

THERE IS NO QUESTION THAT from the perspective of a consumer of popular culture, the most important thing to say about the passing of Nora Ephron is that a great writer, with a great eye and sharp wit for observing daily life, has left us.  I'm sure for her family the most important thing to say is that a sister/mother/wife has left their world.

After reading the obituary in the NY Times, and then Abigail Pogrebin's intimate and charming reflection in The Forward, I was struck by the complete absence of mention of her Jewish identity in the former followed by a fascinating claim to her being 'utterly Jewish' in the latter.  Pogrebin interviewed Ephron for her 2003 book, 'Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish': She said she thought of herself “as a Jew, but not Jewish.” She wasn’t in denial about her Jewish identity, just indifferent to it...

Later in her article, Pogrebin shares: "She was relieved her two boys didn’t request bar mitzvahs. "First of all, because of my feelings about religion, and second of all, because they’re so expensive, and third of all, because nothing is more awful than a divorced bar mitzvah."

Does College Football Need a National Champion?

Yesterday the presidential oversight committee of Division 1 college football formally approved a plan for a four team playoff system starting in 2014. This comes on the heels of years of calls for a playoff system from the media, coaches, players and even President Obama. Many members of the media are hailing this as a victory for justice and all that is right in the world, and it seems clear that the NCAA has finally listened to the fans desire for a playoff system, or at the very least reacted to declining TV ratings for bowl games.

This seems to be a win-win. What problem can there possibly be with the creation of a more just playoff system?

With the health risks inherent in playing high level football, we as a society need to think long and hard before pushing for more high intensity football games, especially between players who are not even payed for their participation.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Twisted Sister and the Rabbi

IT WAS 1984 WHEN Dee Snider of Twisted Sister first asked me what I wanted to do with my life. He is still talking to us today in the form of his recently published autobiography titled “Shut Up And Give Me The Mic: A Twisted Memoir” published by Gallery Press.

Rabbi Darby Leigh
Dee Snider is not Jewish (his father is Jewish and even though the Reconstructionist and Reform movements affirm patrilineal descent, Dee has a strong Christian identity) and his story, example and teachings are still very relevant to the minority experience. Some might find it odd that he, a musician and a singer, is talking to me, particularly because I happen to be profoundly Deaf.

Growing up Deaf in the mainstream means that one lives a minority experience. Some people might say that being Jewish in North America also constitutes a minority experience. Living a minority experience means that one encounters daily, a harsh reality that the society in which we live was not set up, nor is it prepared to meet our needs. Media, pop culture, education and advancement opportunities are typically focused on and directed towards the mainstream or majority culture. This makes it challenging, if not impossible, for those living a minority experience to understand how we fit into the big social fabric picture. This may be less true today for Jews in North America than it has been historically, but it still holds true as a generalization for minority communities.

Monday, June 25, 2012

The Color Purple and BDS

PULITZER PRIZE WINNING AUTHOR Alice Walker recently refused to authorize a Hebrew translation of her book The Color PurpleWalker is an ardent anti-Israel activist and was a passenger on a flotilla boat aimed at breaking Israel's blockade of Gaza.

It is always disappointing to learn that a celebrity whose work I admire is either anti Israel or anti-semite, or both.  In such cases Jews are faced with what I call the "Mel Gibson Dilemma" or the dilemma of whether Jews can still enjoy the work of an artist despite the artist's offensive views.

Whenever possible I try to avoid learning the political views of my favorite artists, especially on the subject of Israel, because more often than not I am disappointed.

Alice Walker was one of those disappointments. 

It has been awhile since I read the Color Purple, however I have frequently given classes in which Alice Walker's short story For Everyday Use was the subject of discussion.  For Everyday Use is a brilliant piece that directly relates to the American Jewish experience.  Walker is a brilliant author and it shocks me that she has such radical views regarding the Israel / Arab conflict.  She has gone as far as to say that the treatment of Arabs in Israel is worse than the treatment of blacks was in Apartheid South Africa.  I would expect someone of her intelligence to understand that the conflict between Israel and the Arabs is more complicated than the way that she seems to understand it.

I find it especially ironic that she would use The Color Purple as a political tool against Israel.  It was two very prominent Jewish producers who brought The Color Purple to the stage.  The film adaptation was produced by Steven Spielberg (whose movies were banned by the Arab league) and the Broadway musical was produced by Harvey Weinstein.

On the other hand, it is possible it was through her involvement with so many liberal Jews that she was exposed to Arab perspective of the conflict. 

After learning about Walker's views I couldn't help but do a few google searches on some of the actors in The Color Purple and see where they stood on Israel and Jews.

Whoopi Goldberg starred in the movie adaptation of The Color Purple and despite her Jewish sounding stage name (Goldberg, not Whoopi) a google search reveals that she defended both Helen Thomas and Mel Gibson after each of their respective anti-semitic rants.

Danny Glover, Goldberg's costar in The Color Purple, is also not a big fan of the Jewish State  (I liked him better in Predator 2.  It takes Guts to replace King Arnold in a sequel.  Almost like Jeff Bridges taking on John Wayne's role in True Grit).

Oprah was the big surprise. Before I hit the 'search' button I was a bit apprehensive.  I have always thought that Oprah was one of the Righteous Among the Nations.  Oprah introduced millions and millions of people to reading through her book club and she is regularly involved in countless acts of chesed and tzedakah, inspiring her millions of fans to follow her shining example. 

I didn't want to learn that she too shared Alice Walker's extremist views.

But I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Oprah has actually stood up for Israel in the past and went on an Israel solidarity trip.  In fact, she has even been the subject of criticism for her pro Israel views.

This certainly supported everything I had felt about Oprah and I am happy to know that she is a friend of Israel and the Jewish people. I think it's time for a subscription to O magazine to show her my support.

Rabbi Jonathan Gross is rabbi of Beth Israel Synagogue in Omaha, Nebraska.

The Mitzvah of Cheering the Underdog

I'M NOT MUCH OF A basketball fan, yet I wanted the Oklahoma City Thunder to win. Like most people (67% of Americans to be exact ) I was rooting for the underdog.

Rooting for the underdog is part of my sports heritage; growing up, I was a Mets fan during the awful years of the late 70’s and early 80’s, when the Mets were simply a punching bag for other teams and a punchline for comedians (more or less where they are right now, once again). And I’m a fanatical Jets fan, which is its own category of misery; most fans can easily recite a laundry list of laments and disappointments such as Coslet, Kotite, Lam Jones, Blair Thomas, Vernon Gholston, not drafting Marino, the Mud Bowl, the Fake Spike, the 10-0 halftime lead in Denver etc. Being a Jets fan is truly the triumph of hope over experience.

Like other Jewish Jets fans, I’ve grown to see rooting for a perennial underdog as something culturally Jewish. As one Jets fan put it:

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Curtis Beach & Ashton Eaton

THIS MORNING THE US is celebrating Ashton Eaton’s record breaking performance in the two day decathlon, which was a thing of beauty. However, the most memorable moment of the two day event occurred at the end of the 1500M race.

It was memorable not because of what Eaton did, breaking another world record in 4:14.47, but how he won the race.

You see, Eaton was not the fastest runner in the 1500M; that title belonged to Curtis Beach, a sophomore at Duke University. And if you watch the race (video at bottom) you will see that Beach slowed down over the final 200M to allow Eaton to win and break the record.

Beach didn’t run out of gas; he was not fatigued. He did it out of respect for Eaton.

Friday, June 22, 2012

David Arquette's Bar Mitzvah Controversy

AS I BLOGGED ABOUT last week, Actor David Arquette was in Israel earlier this month filming a travel show and decided to have a bar mitzvah ceremony at the Kotel (Western Wall).

I thought all was well and good with the David Arquette bar mitzvah story until I read Jewish celeb gossip columnist Nate Bloom's take on the joyous event:

I feel like a party pooper, but I only can “give one mazel tov out of a possible four mazel tovs” to the bar mitzvah of actor David Arquette, 40. Earlier this month, Arquette was in Israel to film a travel show when he visited the Western Wall. A rabbi suggested he be bar mitzvah on the spot and the actor agreed. Not more than a year ago, I heard Arquette proclaim his personal belief in Jesus on a talk show. 

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Snooki Thinks Organic is Kosher

FOR THOSE HOPING TO GET a better understanding of the Jewish dietary laws, I hope they won't look to the Jersey Shore's Snooki for guidance. In the reality TV show "Snooki and JWoww," which is a spin off of "The Jersey Shore," Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi proves she is clueless about the definition of kosher food.

In a sneak peak of the upcoming show (video below), Snooki tells her mom Helen that she will be moving in with her best friend Jenni “JWoww ” Farley. Discussing grocery shopping, Snooki asks her mom “Is kosher the right word for Jenni?”

Snooki’s mom replies, “I do know that’s the food that Jewish people eat.” They then say in unison with a laugh, “Jenni’s not Jewish!”

Snooki then attempts to explain her understanding of kashrut, the Jewish dietary laws: “I think kosher food is like organic, healthy food. But Jewish people eat organic food too, so I feel like it’s all the same.”

Somebody That I Used To Know

THE FAMOUS WRITER, ALDOUS HUXLEY, once said, “there is only one corner of the universe you can be certain of improving, and that’s your own self.” Unfortunately, his sage advice all too often goes unheeded. While we know conceptually that, “to err is human,” and recognize that no one is infallible, we find it difficult to apply these principles to our personal lives. Oh, how the world would be a much better and friendlier place if we were all committed to a little self-improvement.

This is the primary message that I took away from Gotye's popular song, “Somebody that I used to know.” While the song does have a fun and unique beat, which, I am sure, has helped it remain the #1 song on the Billboard chart for 22 consecutive weeks, it is the lyrics that provide extremely valuable and meaningful insight into the sad state of affairs that accompanies those people who are unable to reflect on their lives; people lacking in self-awareness.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Muhammad Ali and Bar Mitzvahs in America

THE EDITOR OF THE JEWISH WEEK just scared every congregational rabbi in America. Gary Rosenblatt's article "Changing Up The Bar And Bat Mitzvah Experience" will no doubt cause many side conversations during kiddush this Shabbat at synagogues throughout the country.

Rosenblatt argues that the bar and bat mitzvah experience should be more about memorization and more about participation. He quotes Rabbi Joy Levitt, executive director of the JCC in Manhattan, who believes that the heavy emphasis on teaching youngsters to chant a Haftorah on their special days is a sign of “wasted training and the wrong message” for bar and bat mitzvah youngsters.

Rosenblatt quotes several Jewish educators who critique the many bar and bat mitzvah services that emphasize mastery of a particular element of the service rather than a broader understanding of the transition to Jewish adulthood.

Lebron James and Tisha B'Av Lessons

AS THE NBA FINALS continue, all eyes remain on LeBron James. The public's perception of LeBron has undergone an astounding transformation. From 2003-2010 LeBron was a universally popular. Not only was he a jaw dropping athlete and a fantastic all around player, but he was likable, friendly and clean cut.

His teammates loved him, fans adored him and he was a Madison Avenue darling. In 2010 he earned $30 million in endorsements, more than double any other NBA player. However, looming on the horizon was his impending free agency. In 2010 LeBron was going to be able to sign with the team of his choosing, and the rumors were swirling. Would LeBron resign with his “hometown” Cleveland (he grew up in nearby Akron) or sign with another team. A player of LeBron's caliber being available in free agency is extremely rare, and Chicago, New York and Miami were viewed as leading the pack to compete with Cleveland. LeBron was very coy with his intentions, which only fueled the speculation that he might leave Cleveland.