Monday, November 4, 2013

Simon Cowell's Jewish Wedding

ACCORDING TO AN ARTICLE IN The Daily Mall Reality TV host Simon Cowell plans to be married in a traditional Jewish wedding, complete with kosher food.

The British musical reality shows judge is said to be taking Israeli folk dance classes in preparation for his wedding to his girlfriend Lauren Silverman, who is Jewish. According to reports, the couple's wedding will be officiated by a rabbi.

The Daily Mall reports that Simon Cowell, 54, the English eternal judge of musical reality shows, plans to get married in a Jewish wedding, his good friends say. Cowell, who was born to a Jewish father, is set to marry his pregnant Jewish girlfriend Lauren Silverman in the coming year, and the two will be blessed by a rabbi.

The Daily Mail reports that a source close to the couple told Heat magazine, "Simon and Lauren have spoken very openly about marriage and he’s told pals he may even propose by the end of the year."

Simon Cowell - Credit:

In recent weeks Cowell has even been taking lessons in Israeli folk dances and traditional Jewish dances, and plans to show off his abilities during the wedding.

According to the Daily Mail, Cowell and Silverman will also have a Christian wedding ceremony near his mother's home in Sussex. Cowell and girlfriend Lauren Silverman are expecting their first baby in February and Cowell has publicly stated that he will quit smoking before the baby arrives.

Rabbi Jason Miller is the co-founder of and a Conservative rabbi who blogs at Follow Rabbi Jason on Twitter at @RabbiJason.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Hesped for Walter White (Eulogy)

FRIENDS, WE ARE GATHERED HERE today to remember the life of Walter Hartwell White. I’m sure many of you are aware that Jewish tradition does not permit eulogizing a mass murderer, con-artist, or illegal purveyor of Methamphetamine and Walt was all three.

To say that I wasn't surprised to see hundreds of picketers outside of my Synagogue in protest of today's event would be the understatement of the century. But I believe that something deserves to be said about this man who lived a truly noble life for the first 50 of his 52 years on this earth. More importantly, Walter White’s death will give us the tools, if we apply ourselves, to prevent us from making the same mistakes as he. In this way, Walt’s life will have some redeeming value, though i’m not sure whether God will take that into consideration when determining his fate in the next world.
Walt was a kind man, a loyal husband, good father, and a great science teacher. He cared for his students and motivated them to achieve greatness. That all came to a screeching halt upon receiving his cancer diagnosis. It hit him like a train. His life stopped. He didn’t know what to do. Please don't misunderstand me. Cancer wasn't the cause that slowly transformed Walt into the evil Heisenberg. Cancer was merely the gash that re-opened his past wounds. It brought to the fore his two greatest hurts and regrets which lay dormant in his body and soul for so many years: breaking off his engagement to long-time girlfriend, Gretchen Schwartz, and leaving the multi-million dollar company they started together with her husband, Elliot.

Walter White obituary (Photo: Albuquerque Journal)
To this day, I don't quite understand the circumstances surrounding their breakup or departure from the company; but I know that he regretted these decisions. It pained him and angered him greatly. He was jealous of their wealth, envious of their status, and upset with himself for leaving it all behind. Nevertheless, he was a proud man. So proud that he refused to return to the company when offered the opportunity. So proud that he refused their 'charity' to help pay for his medical bills.

For so many years he managed to subdue the anger, rage, and jealousy that resided deep within him. He managed to keep his skeletons in the closet. He truly loved his wife, Skyler, kids, Walt Jr. and Holly. While the diagnosis gave him pause to reflect on all the good he experienced in life, it also reminded him about his regrets and mistakes. Knowing that he didn't have much time to live, Walt panicked, lost control of himself, and decided to make money cooking and selling crystal meth. He convinced himself that his previous life was a bore; that nothing he did as a teacher was of any true value. Additionally, because of his meager salary, he realized that he wouldn't be able to leave much, if anything, for his family after his death. One thing led to the next and soon enough the kind and gentle Walter White transformed into the evil and maniacal Heisenberg.

In ethics of the fathers we are taught that "Jealousy, Lust, and Honor" remove a person from the world. Walt possessed all three of these terrible traits. He was jealous of Gretchen and Elliot, lusted for money, and was an ego-maniac. True to their word, these evil traits caused Walt to become a shell of himself. He no longer lived in his own body.

Walt’s downfall was in his inability to cope with his past mistakes. He allowed the past to turn him into a monster. Walt's failure to cope is a challenge that all of us are faced with at various points in our lives. We all have skeletons in our closets. We have hurts, losses, and jealousies, which we have placed deep in the recesses of our subconscious’s. We move forward and manage to live happy and fulfilling lives despite our past. Like Walt, however, there's no button to delete our past experiences once and for all eternity. It's part of our identity and formation as human beings. So I ask all of you this morning: when we are confronted with a similar experience of grief or loss will we be able to control our emotions and the collateral damage it may cause? Will the reminder of our past failures and greatest regrets sink us into depression? Will it make us angry? Will we lose ourselves and turn into someone we never wished we'd become? Or will we seek help?

On the last day of his life, Walt admitted to Skyler that a life of crime made him feel 'alive’ and that he ‘liked it.’ Even so, if given the chance to start over, I am certain he would choose a different route. It's not the life he truly wanted.

As Jesse confronted his demons and personal struggles throughout their two year partnership, Walt would manipulate him to 'move on' from his past mistakes. "You can't control the past," he would say as he schemed to rein Jesse in. Walt was somewhat correct. You can't change the past, but you can control whether you let past experiences control your life in the present. Ironically, the master of manipulation couldn’t control his own past. And that’s what caused him to break bad.

As we continue to live our lives and deal with the personal skeleton's hiding in our closets, I hope and pray that unlike Walt, we will not break bad. Seek professional help and place our trust in the care and support of family and friends. In so doing, our regrets and hurts will always remain a thing of the past, and our future will shine every so brightly.

Rabbi Joshua Hess is an Orthodox rabbi in New Jersey and the co-founder of the blog with Rabbi Jason Miller. Follow him on Twitter at @RabbiHess and on Google Plus at +Joshua Hess.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Natalie Portman at Shul with Jennifer Grey from Dirty Dancing

SOME PEOPLE GO TO synagogue to pray. Some go to see other people. For Natalie Portman, she admits that she still gets star-struck every time she see Dirty Dancing star Jennifer Grey at her synagogue.

According to an article in US Magazine, Natalie Portman freaks out whenever she sees Jennifer Grey.

Natalie Portman admits to British Elle in its November issue that she freaks out every time she's around Dirty Dancing actress Jennifer Grey at their Jewish synagogue. Baby's biggest fan! Oscar-winning actress Natalie Portman may often rub shoulders with A-listers in Hollywood, but there's one fellow actress that she can't stop freaking out about -- Jennifer Grey! The Black Swan actress revealed that she gets quite nutty whenever she bumps into the Dirty Dancing star at their Jewish synagogue.

"We go to temple together. And I freak out every time I see her. I'm such a nerd!" the brunette beauty said to Elle UK in its November issue. "Of course [we talk about Dirty Dancing]. I can't talk about it too much or I'll start getting teary.  
She added: "There are other movies that I love but no other movie that I have watched over and over again." 
Grey, 53, better watch her back! The Thor actress also admitted that watching the 1987 classic so often has left her pretty persistent in their interactions. "When she comes she knows that I'm going to jump on her," she said. 
Portman was just 6 years old when the famous indie film starring Grey and Patrick Swayze premiered. "I wish I weren't as nervous as I am around her," she added about the former Dancing With the Stars contestant. "I can't get over it," she gushed.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Jewtopia, the Movie... Seriously!

BACK IN DECEMBER 2006 I had the chance to see the Off-Broadway show “Jewtopia” in New York City. I had already read Bryan Fogel and Sam Wolfson's book Jewtopia and recall thinking before the show began, "How did that book ever get made into an Off-Broadway show?"

Well, now "Jewtopia" the movie is about to be released and I'm thinking to myself, "How did that Off-Broadway show get made into a movie?" But having watched the trailer (below) I must say that this might just be a decent movie. The cast is an impressive one with Jennifer Love Hewitt, Jamie-Lynn Sigler, Nicollette Sheridan, Rita Wilson, and Jon Lovitz. Tom Arnold is in it too (he's still acting?), but let's not hold that against it quite yet.

The movie was screened at the Newport Beach International Film Festival back in April 2012 and then a year ago at the Malibu International Film Festival. It's set to release in the U.S. next week right in the middle of the Sukkot holiday.

The story line seems to stick pretty closely to the stage version. In "Jewtopia," Christian O’Connell (Ivan Sergei) has met the girl of his dreams in Alison Marks (Jennifer Love Hewitt). Unfortunately, Christian told Alison (who happens to be a rabbi’s daughter) that his name was Avi Rosenberg, and that he was Jewish- neither of which are true.

With Bryan Fogel and Sam Wolfson of Jewtopia in NYC in December 2006
Desperate to keep up the illusion, he turns to his childhood best friend, Adam Lipschitz (Joel David Moore) to teach him how to “act Jewish.”  But Adam has problems of his own, with a fiancé (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) pushing him closer to a mental breakdown as their wedding approaches.

With the best intentions, Adam and Christian attempt to help each other out, but things quickly go completely and hilariously off the rails in this outrageous all-star comedy from the creators of the original hit international play seen by millions.

I must say that this silly little idea these two Jewish guys had has really turned into something big. So kudos to Sam Wolfson and Bryan Fogel on what has become a whole Jewtopian enterprise.

Here's the trailer:

Rabbi Jason Miller is the co-founder of the PopJewish blog and a Conservative rabbi. He's an entrepreneur, blogger and Rabbi Without Borders. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiJason.

Monday, August 26, 2013

One Direction at Manhattan Kosher Steak House

AMONG THE PLACES YOU DON'T expect to see popular boy bands would be a fancy kosher restaurant. But that's exactly where One Direction's Harry Styles was spotted late last week.

Styles, who isn't Jewish, is the star of the wildly popular British boy band One Direction. According to the Algemeiner website Styles stopped by one of Manhattan’s most popular kosher restaurants, Le Marais. Outside of the French steak house, Styles posed for selfies with his adoring fans.

Styles sported a blue knitted kippa embroidered with his name, which was given to him as a birthday gift by his friend, director Ben Winston.

Despite possessing a Hebrew tattoo spelling his sister Gemma’s name and tweeting from time to time about Jewish holidays, Styles is not Jewish. Responding to inquiries on the matter, Des Styles, the star’s father wrote earlier this month on Twitter, “Still lots of queries asking if H is some % Jewish? No idea where any rumours came from in but, categorically, he is 0% Jewish. Not at all.X”

No word on what Styles ate at Le Marais.

Harry Styles outside a kosher restaurant. Photo: 1DMofosUpdates via Twitter.

One Direction star Harry Styles with fans outside Le Marais kosher restaurant in NYC. Photo: 1DMofosUpdates via Twitter.

Rabbi Jason Miller, founder of, is a Conservative rabbi in Metro Detroit. He is a blogger, educator and entrepreneur. Follow him on Twitter at @RabbiJason and on Facebook.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Wilt Chamberlain Was Bellhop at Kutshers Kosher Resort

WHO WOULD HAVE EVER known that Wilt Chamberlain worked a summer as a bellboy at the famous Catskills hotel, Kutsher's, in the Borscht Belt. 

A recent episode of ESPN 30 for 30 revealed that the 7'1" Chamberlain not only carried hotel guests' luggage but also put on quite a show on the resort's basketball court for visitors to the Catskills while he was a high school senior. 

In 1954, before his senior year of high school, Wilt Chamberlain took a summer job that would change his life, working as a bellhop at Kutsher's Country Club, a Jewish resort in the Catskill Mountains. At the time Kutsher's was the most popular of the kosher resorts for Jewish families in the Borscht Belt.

By day Wilt Chamberlain was making $2 an hour and getting great tips from the awestruck guests as he lifted their luggage through a second-floor window... while standing outside on the ground. At night, he played on the Kutsher's basketball team and was coached by the resort's athletic director, Celtics coach Red Auerbach. Mixing rarely seen archival video and interviews with people who lived and worked with Wilt, this short chronicles a pivotal chapter in the life of one of the game's greatest players, and gives a fascinating glimpse into a time when basketball met the Borscht Belt in its heyday.

In addition to Wilt Chamberlain, former Detroit Pistons great Ray Scott also worked as a bellhop at Kutsher's. I don't think any famous NBA stars today, like Amare Stoudemire or Lebron James could list hotel work on their resume.

Former Detroit Pistons Star Ray Scott with Rabbi Jason Miller

The entire ESPN 30 For 30 documentary video can be seen here.

Rabbi Jason Miller is a blogger, entrepreneur and educator. He often writes about sports for his popular blog and the Huffington Post. Follow him on Twitter at @RabbiJason.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Mike Meyers is Supermensch

ACCORDING TO AN ARTICLE ON the JTA website actor Mike Myers, the former Saturday Night Live actor who played Austin Powers, is set to direct a new movie called "Supermensch."

The film will focus on the career of talent manager Shep Gordon. Gordon caught the interest of Myers while he was on the set of 90′s classic, Wayne’s World. After some begging and pleading to Shep, Myers got the rights to use Alice Cooper’s song, “Feed my Frankenstein” in the film, as well as an appearance by Cooper himself. Myers and Shep have been friends ever since.

Mike Myers told Deadline, “I met Shep Gordon in 1991 on the set of Wayne’s World. I thought he was a perfect combination of Brian Epstein, Marshall McLuhan and Mr Magoo. I’ve been trying to get Shep to agree to let me make a movie about him for 10 years,” Myers said in a statement. “Last year he finally he said yes. I loved him like a brother before we started making this film and now having sifted through his life and his legacy, I love him even more.”

Monday, June 24, 2013

Is Game of Thrones Jewish?

AS ONE OF THE 5.2 MILLION Americans who spurned “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” to make HBO’s “Game of Thrones” the most-watched show on cable in early June, I admit that I was transfixed by the bloodbath that took out many of the show’s most prominent figures. But as a Jew — and a soon-to-be rabbi — I had to ask myself: What does it say about me that I enjoy this sort of thing?

As someone who has been following the swordplay, the intrigue and the moral vagaries of Westeros (the fictional continent and battlefield in “Game of Thrones”) for three years now, I still found the penultimate episode of the season to be shocking, grisly and deeply disturbing, even by HBO standards. In a horrific scene that ABC News called “the most violent five minutes ever shown on television,” a pregnant woman was stabbed in the stomach, dozens of throats were slit and a beloved dog was slaughtered. The finale was somewhat more sedate in comparison, yet still managed to show the head of that dog stitched to the headless body of his former master.

There is something disquieting about the show’s enormous popularity — particularly if we consider it in the context of HBO’s other offerings. From “The Sopranos” to “The Wire” to “Game of Thrones,” HBO has made a name for itself largely by depicting the violent, morally ambiguous and, often enough, patently misogynistic aspects of human culture.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Justin Bieber on Anne Frank

JUSTIN BIEBER DID WHAT most visitors to the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam do. He signed the guest book. It's something I did as well back in February 2011. I remember taking a few minutes to myself to think about what I should write. How could I sum up my feelings after taking a 1-hour tour of the small annex where Anne Frank and her family hid? How could I leave a reflective and meaningful note in this book? I also wondered about who, if anyone, would actually read my message.

Well, Justin Bieber likely gave it a moment's thought too before autographing the book at the Anne Frank House with his signature and a message. His message, however, will be critiqued over the course of this next week until something else he does is able to take the headlines away from this story.

Bieber's message was, "Truly inspiring to be able to come here. Anne was a great girl. Hopefully she would have been a belieber." Not really inappropriate or tasteless. Certainly not something offensive. Anne Frank was, after all, a teen when she lived in that annex. The Anne Frank that we all know through her diary is the type of young woman who seemed more into literature than music, but I don't think Bieber deserves to be chastised for his message in the book. To be fair, as the Washington Post reported, Anne Frank’s "bedroom wall was covered with photos of teen idols of an earlier era, like Deanna Durbin and Rudy Vallee."

Justin Bieber wrote the message in the guestbook at the Anne Frank House on Friday after his private tour. Museum staff posted his comments on Facebook Saturday, which of course set off the social-media cycle of condemnation. No matter what Bieber says or does, he's going to hear from his detractors. But regarding this matter I think Justin deserves a pass. Sure he could have written something more serious and meaningful, but he shouldn't be judged for his tongue in cheek comment.

Rabbi Jason Miller, co-founder of the blog, is a blogger, technologist and educator. Follow him on Twitter at @RabbiJason and on Facebook at

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Jeremy Piven Reflects on Jewish Upbringing

ENTOURAGE STAR JEREMY PIVEN will star in “Mr. Selfridge,” an eight-part Masterpiece Classics mini-series that airs Sundays on PBS starting March 31. The mini-series is about an American (Piven) who moves to London and founds a successful department store different from anything the British have ever seen.

In a new interview with the Jewish Daily Forward Piven speaks openly about his Jewish upbringing. (I wrote about Jeremy Piven's reflection on his bar mitzvah on the PopJewish blog in January.) In this interview Piven opens up about the Reconstructionist synagogue he grew up in as well as how his Jewish upbringing influences his acting.

Here are some highlights from the interview with the Arty Semite from

Your online bio says you had a Jewish upbringing. What does that mean?

It means I was part of a Reconstructionist congregation. We prayed “to whom it may concern.” I was bar mitzvahed and my father was very active in his community growing up in Scranton, Penn. We weren’t in temple every week, but we would attend for the High Holidays.

This may be a tough question to answer, but do you bring anything from that upbringing to your work today?

It’s not a tough question. It’s actually a great question. I think I learned a sense of community growing up that I brought to my work. I learned through osmosis that another man’s success will not take away from your own. I felt that in the congregation and I brought that to the workplace — that philosophy wasn’t always embraced by everyone.


Ari Gold was Jewish and often obnoxious. Did you try to protect the character?

Well, yes. Every time I read the script I said, wow, this could be the part where we lose everyone, where the audience turns against the character because he was so offensive. It was my job to give the character as much dimension as possible. The one thing I hung my hat on is that Ari loved his family, was always monogamous and when he acted out it was only because he felt the ends justified the means.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

TMZ Notices LeBron's Wedding's on Yom Kippur

FOR THE RECORD I didn't get a save-the-date for LeBron James' wedding. But, even if I did I wouldn't be able to attend since his wedding is on Yom Kippur. It was actually that uncovered this fact when they got a hold of one of the save-the-date cards.

In TMZ's coverage of LeBron's upcoming wedding to his longtime girlfriend Savannah Brinson in San Diego, the celeb gossip site headlined the article "LEBRON JAMES: My Big, Fat... YOM KIPPUR WEDDING!" Nothing wrong with that, but it's the final paragraph that gets right up close to the line of anti-Semitism when they reference the age old joke about Jews and money.

But here's the problem ... Sept. 13 is the beginning of Yom Kippur -- a high holy day in the Jewish religion in which Hebrews and Shebrews are supposed to fast for roughly 24 hours while praying their faces off in temple. And for the record, James DOES have Jewish friends ... including the famous Rabbi Yishayahu Yosef Pinto... a man known around New York as the "Rabbi to the Business Stars." The good news ... LeBron will probably save a bunch of cash on the buffet. The bad news ... he won't be able to brag about the savings to the people who would appreciate it. Mazel Tov!!!
Why TMZ thinks that only Jews would appreciate saving money is beyond me. I don't know many people who don't appreciate a savings. But, I guess they needed to find the hook to the story of the wedding conflicting with Yom Kippur and the Rabbi Pinto reference was the best they could do.

If I worked at TMZ I would have gone with the story line that since LeBron James is getting married on Yom Kippur that means that neither Dan Gilbert (CEO of Quicken Loans), the Jewish owner of his former team the Cleveland Cavaliers, nor Micky Arison (CEO of Carnival Corporation), the Jewish owner of his current team the Miami Heat, will be able to attend. Not that Gilbert would have gotten the invitation.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Fathers Needed: Lebron James at the White House

THIS PAST WEEK THE WORLD CHAMPION Miami Heat made their visit to the White House. These tend to be ceremonial and trite, a tribute to the team’s “perseverance” and “toughness” and a celebration of their success.

Of course, a few predictable jokes are thrown in along the way. Toward the end of his speech, President Obama mentioned a more important theme:

“And I don't know all these guys, but I do know LeBron (James) and Dwyane (Wade) and Chris(Bosh). And one of the things I’m proudest of is that they take their roles as fathers seriously. And for all the young men out there who are looking up to them all the time, for them to see somebody who cares about their kids and is there for them day in and day out, that's a good message to send. It’s a positive message to send, and we’re very proud of them for that.”

The three Heat stars have become very public about their fatherhood. Bosh showed off his kids on Oprah, LeBron’s new Nike commercial shows him joking with his children, and Wade has written a book on fatherhood and spoken about it consistently.

Monday, January 28, 2013

God and the Super Bowl

DOES GOD CARE WHO WINS the Super Bowl? It’s a question that has been asked numerous times in sports and in other areas of life generally considered unimportant. There’s no denying that the Super Bowl, with its half-time show and million dollar commercials, commands a tremendous amount of attention, unequaled by any other sporting event.

In 1985, the public celebration of Ronald Reagan's inauguration was shifted from the constitutionally required day of January 20, a Sunday, to the following day, Monday, so as not to conflict with Super Bowl Sunday. Prof. Joseph Price writes, “fans spend more money on the Super Bowl than Americans spend on traditional religious practices and institutions throughout the entire month.” However, as we all know, God’s policies are not dictated by the spending behavior and attitude of the American public.

Most people laugh at the foolishness of this question and insist that God has more important things to be worried about.  They mockingly tell you that God is busy dealing with major problems like global hunger and world peace and does not pay any attention to trivial matters like sporting events, even one as grand as the Super Bowl. In their minds, the person who believes that God cares about Football is somewhat delusional.In order to provide what I feel is the correct answer to this question, it would be helpful to reframe the conversation. Does God care about each and every human being on earth? I think so. Indeed, the Talmud tells us that a blade of grass doesn’t sway in the wind without God commanding it to. Whether you agree with that Talmudic statement or not, (much ink has been spilled over its theological implications) the point is that God cares about us. We may not like His decisions, we may get angry at Him at times, but God cares.

Ray Lewis
Ray Lewis of the Baltimore Ravens
Ray Lewis has led the Baltimore Ravens to a Super Bowl matchup against the San Francisco 49ers. I don’t know whether God will grant him a second Super Bowl victory, but he quite loudly and proudly believes that God has granted him these last couple of victories. After the first playoff game he wore a “Psalm 91” shirt and declared that because God is his refuge, he was victorious. After their stunning victories against the Denver Broncos and New England Patriots, he preached the holy words of Isaiah to Sal Paolantonio, “No weapon formed against you shall prosper,” and concluded by claiming that “man cannot change what God has already blessed and destined.” A few years back, I wrote an article defending Buffalo Bills wide receiver, Steve Johnson, who similarly blamed God for causing him to drop a game winning catch against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

These men and many others know that God cares about them and their success. They understand that God desires a close relationship with everyone and appreciates every prayer- from the “mundane” to the “holy.” Three times a day, many Jews recite the majestic words of King David, “God is close to all who call upon him sincerely.” If we care, then God cares. It’s as simple as that.

So does God care who wins the Super Bowl? Well, not exactly. But He will be at that game rooting for each player, owner, fan, and concession stand worker hoping that the experience of the Super Bowl will, win or lose, enhance and deepen their relationship with Him. While some may claim that God has more important things to worry about, I believe that God is everywhere. I don’t place limits on the limitless.

Rabbi Joshua Hess is the co-founder of the blog. He blogs for the Huffington Post and is an Orthodox rabbi in Linden, New Jersey. Follow him on Twitter at @RabbiHess

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Gibson Guitars Gives Belated Hanukkah Gift to Musician

STORIES OF AIRLINES DAMAGING travelers’ baggage are about as common as delayed flights these days, but a particularly dreadful mishap occurred recently. Dave Schneider, the lead guitarist of a Jewish band called the Leevees (with Guster’s Adam Gardner) that produces only Hanukkah-themed songs, was traveling on a flight from Buffalo to Detroit. The Delta flight went fine without any problems, but it was after landing at Detroit Metropolitan Airport that the nightmare began.

Schneider, who also is the lead singer of the Zambonis, a band that only play songs about hockey, was told by Delta Airlines that he would have to check his vintage 1963 Gibson ES-335 TD guitar rather than carrying it on the flight with him. He even offered to purchase a seat on the plane for the guitar, but Delta refused. Upon landing in Detroit Schneider shot video footage from his cellphone of the baggage handlers moving his guitar off the plane, but there was no damage then. It was only later that he was informed that his cherished guitar was crushed between a service elevator and a loading dock at the gate in Detroit. Delta authorities quickly offered Schneider $1,000 for his vintage guitar, which was likely worth close to $10,000. Of course he declined Delta’s offer as inadequate. Even to repair the classic guitar would have cost more than Delta’s measly offering.

Friday, January 18, 2013

The Meaning of Lance Armstrong

OPRAH WINFREY'S INTERVIEW WITH Lance Armstrong has come and gone, revealing to the world the open secret that he used a variety of steroids on his way to unprecedented success at the Tour de France. After years of vehement denials, Armstrong is finally coming clean. What created this monster?

In this week’s Parsha, the Jewish people are given the Mitzvah of the Karban Pesach, the sacrifice they performed the night before leaving Egypt. This Karban was a focal point of the entire Seder and we still incorporate aspects of the Karban Pesach in our Seder today.

A prerequisite for a male to participate in the Karban Pesach is having had a Bris Milah. This is a rare circumstance of the fulfillment of one Mitzvah becoming a pre-condition to perform a second Mitzvah. Why would there be such a requirement?

The Karban Pesach served as an opportunity for the Jewish people to publicly declare their faith in Hashem. While they had no responsibilities before the first nine plagues were carried out, in order to be saved from the 10th, the plague of the firstborn, they needed to perform the Karban Pesach and paint its blood on their doorpost. On the precipice of salvation, they needed to be ready and willing to publicly show their commitment to Hashem. They needed to become active participants.

Lance Armstrong - Doping

By requiring a Bris, Hashem was saying that the public declaration of faith was only meaningful if it was accompanied by a private declaration of faith. The Bris Milah was a private, and painful, declaration that showed a person’s true colors. The Karban Pesach would be a sham if the public declaration was allowed without the true personal commitment the Bris Milah demonstrated.

We live in a world that celebrates success and ambition. Lance Armstrong became a national hero because he demonstrated an unusual capacity to push himself to succeed. He won seven consecutive races, even after recovering from cancer. A person that driven to succeed will naturally be tempted to do whatever it takes to win. Just look at baseball. How surprised should we be that a large number of high profile players used steroids when there was no steroid testing in place? When dealing with highly ambitious and successful people, the temptation to win at all costs is enormous.

As a society, we need to ask ourselves what we truly value. Do we value success or character? At a graduation, the valedictorian gets up to speak, not the student with the best character. Our winners get lionized as “immortals” while second place finishers become historical footnotes. We’ll forgive our cheaters, be it Bill Belichick or Alex Rodriguez, as long as they win. If they lose? Then they become useless to us, and are labeled losers and cheaters.

The Karban Pesach teaches us that the public, demonstrative acts of faith are only meaningful with the sincere, private ones. By rethinking who we honor and who we consider a success, we can truly make that lesson a reality. We need to make clear that our public winners are only valuable to us if accompanied by private character. Now grab some popcorn and enjoy Oprah’s interview.

Rabbi Josh Strulowitz is the rabbi of the West Side Institutional Synagogue in NYC. Follow him on Twitter at @RabbiStrul.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Jeremy Piven's EnTORAHge Bar Mitzvah

JEREMY PIVEN, MOST FAMOUS for his role on the award-winning series “Entourage,” doesn't often talk openly about his Jewish faith. In an episode of Entourage, Piven's character Ari Gold famously donned a tallit at his daughter's bat mitzvah. In the 7th season of the show Piven appeared with rocker Lenny Kravitz at his niece's bat mitzvah. But, in real life the actor admitted last week to an interviewer that it was difficult for him to learn Hebrew as a young boy and that he had to resort to rap for help ahead of his bar mitzvah.

Speaking to Jonathan Ross on a British talk show, Piven described himself as “Jew-ish” and said he was a terrible bar mitzvah boy. "It was hard for me to learn Hebrew. I actually had to rap my haftorah portion.” The actor then launched into a short rap, putting his Hebrew skills on display.

Jeremy Piven and Lenny Kravitz with a Tallit (Jewish)Ross was impressed and even suggested that Piven use rap to help other boys through the bar mitzvah process. Piven quickly retorted, "Yes! We’ll get Justin Bieber and circumcise him."

Piven might have been the first bar mitzvah boy to rap his bar mitzvah portion, but he certainly wasn't the only one. A few months ago, I watched a video of a 13-year-old boy with a sever stutter rap on stage at a #140conf conference. What was amazing was that the teen, Lil Jaxe didn't stutter when he rapped, only when he spoke. The video was amazing and inspirational.

I had the opportunity to meet Lil Jaxe this past summer at the #140edu conference at the 92nd St. Y in New York. Lil Jaxe told me that he rapped his bar mitzvah rather than chanting it. Here's a video of our discussion which includes him rapping the Jewish prayer Adon Olam, just as he did in April 2012 at his bar mitzvah.

I'd love to see Lil Jaxe get together with Jeremy Piven and rap a Haftorah!

Rabbi Jason Miller, the co-founder of the blog, is an educator, entrepreneur and blogger. He owns Access Computer Technology in Detroit, Michigan and is a highly sought after speaker on the intersection of technology and Judaism. Follow him on Twitter at @RabbiJason.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Les Miserables Film is Infused with Faith

LIKE MANY OF MY COLLEAGUES, I too was moved to write about Les Misérables after I saw the movie. This was published in Temple Beth Emeth's newsletter, The Truth, as the Rabbi's Message for the January 2013 edition:

I recently saw the new movie adaptation of the musical Les Misérables. I have loved this musical for years and it was the first show I ever saw on Broadway, on a theater club field trip to New York when I was about 16-years-old. It has been a long time since I’ve seen it, though. Watching the movie, I was struck by the extent to which the story -- which is largely bleak -- and the movie are infused with religious faith.

There is significant use of the imagery of crosses and crucifixes, and faith in God plays an explicit role in the transformation of the hero, Jean Valjean. I can’t think of any other movies or television shows aimed at a popular audience with such a clear, strong, and positive portrayal of religion, including other works that are also set in time periods when religion would have played a major role in daily life (I’m looking at you, Downton Abbey).

Religion in Les Mis is not portrayed as communal—you don’t see any church services or anyone going to church (though many people certainly would have in early-19th-century France). Rather, faith is shown as something intimate and deeply relevant to the daily decisions one makes about how to live. It is faith that leads to an act of mercy that changes Valjean’s life. The bishop who helps him sees himself as God’s agent, and tells Valjean that any sense of indebtedness or gratitude he may feel should not be toward another human being but toward God. From then on Valjean does see himself as belonging to God, and because of that he feels a duty to act compassionately toward others. In doing so, he saves lives as his life was saved.

This all happens in the context of Catholicism, but it is certainly not foreign to Judaism. We, too, have as part of our theology the responsibility to care for others through tzedakah (giving to the poor), g’milut chasadim (acts of compassion or lovingkindness), bikur cholim (visiting the sick), and more. The great 20th-century philosopher Martin Buber wrote that God is in the relationships between people in those moments when they truly connect with one another. We recognize that we are all created in the Divine image.

It is easy to point to all the damage people have done in our world in the name of religion. And it is certainly true that religion is not required to live a moral life and be an upstanding person. The story in Les Misérables, however, shows the impact faith can have when it infuses a person’s life—not in a dogmatic way, and not necessarily in a way that would be obvious to another, but as a way to remain conscious at all times of a powerful reason to be honest, to live ethically, and to strive to be a force for good in the world. Religion provides a moral anchor. The reason that religious people practice tikkun olam (repair of the world) is because we are acting as God’s agents, doing God’s work. It’s not about feeling good about yourself (though you might), it’s about serving something larger than yourself, feeling responsible to do good even when it’s hard, even when it hurts, even when it’s not in our immediate self-interest. This is religion at its most beautiful, and this is, I believe, why faith is worthwhile.

As expressed in a lyric in Les Misérables, “to love another person is to see the face of God.” In this new secular year, let us show lovingkindness and compassion to our fellow human beings, and may we see the face of God everywhere we look.

Rabbi Heidi Hoover is rabbi at Temple Beth Emeth v'Ohr Progressive Shaari Zedek, a Reform synagogue in Brooklyn, NY. She is member of Rabbis Without Borders. Follow her on Twitter at @HeidiHoover.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Is Trash Talking Kosher?

WHEN YOUNG KIDS ARE VERBALLY harassed by other children they are taught to respond to their provokers by saying that, “sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me,” conveying the message that words are not physically damaging and therefore aren’t bothersome. While this phrase has become somewhat effective as a tool to prevent bullying, it actually runs counter to the Jewish idea of speech.

Judaism believes that our ability to speak is a very precious gift that God has bestowed on us and must only be used for constructive purposes. Any attempt to use our speech for destructive purposes is, essentially, a rejection of our God given gift. In fact, tradition emphasizes the unique power of speech by relating that God created the world with 10 utterances. In other words, Jewish tradition maintains that words are so holy that they have the ability to create new realities.

The biblical story of the Tower of Babel is a prime example of how speech can be misused. All the inhabitants of the world, at that time, spoke one language and, as a result, were united. They decided to build a tower that would reach the heavens in an attempt to ‘fight’ with and overthrow God. These people took their gift of speech; the ability to communicate clearly with every other inhabitant of the world, and used it for harmful and negative purposes. Ultimately, God punished the people for their attempt to destroy Him by making them unable to communicate with each other.

The problem of verbal harassment is not limited to children in the schoolyard or at the park. It applies equally to adults and children alike. Athletes are certainly not strangers to ‘trash talk’. Certainly not Kevin Garnett. A couple seasons ago, Garnett, insulted Milwaukee Buck forward, Charlie Villenueva, by telling him that he looks like a cancer patient. Garnett claimed he told Villenueva that he is a cancer to his team; not that he looked like one. Regardless of which version was true, both of those statements were inappropriate. And this week, he went after Carmelo Anthony, hurling insults about his strained relationship with wife, La La.