Category Archives: Popular Culture

Ruminations on things rabbi’s likely should know about.

The Sins of the Sandy Hook Generation

“Dozens of people are gunned down each day in Springfield,
but until now none of them was important.” – The Simpsons

In the immediate aftermath of the horrific shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton CT, the country was unified in mourning. A seemingly local incident was viewed as a national tragedy, one which prompted much soul searching though not surprisingly little by way of answers. A common refrain I saw online was “there are no words” or “there is no answer – for indeed, who would dare offer any rationale justifying the murder of 20 children and 6 teachers.

In processing my own thoughts, there was one Talmudic passage which I found hard to ignore. B. Shabbat 33b records the following opinion:

When there are righteous men in a generation, they are taken for the sins of the generation. When there are no righteous in a generation, school children are taken for the generation.

As if the idea of vicarious atonement – that someone is punished to absolve others of their sins – is not theologically difficult itself, to imply that the blood of presumably innocent school children serve as some form of sacrifice for the benefit of the rest of the world is, at the very least, distasteful. And following an actual massacre of children, such an assertion would seem to be especially cruel. But after witnessing America’s reaction to the Sandy Hook shootings, it occurred to me that there may be some other truth to the Talmudic statement.

Consider for a moment just how many murders, or violent acts are committed worldwide with minimal coverage, let alone outrage. According to FBI statistics for US crime, there were 13,913 murders in 2011 and 14,103 murders in 2010, yet only a small percentage warranted national news coverage. Worldwide murders are obviousl higher depending on region, including violence against children. According to a 2008 World Health Organization report, approximately 120,000 children worldwide are treated for violence – which would exclude the number of incidents for which children are not treated – and yet relatively few of these incidents warrant our attention. In China school stabbings have been a shockingly frequent occurrence but they barely make the news in the US.

The sad reality is that murders are not uncommon in the world, nor are murders against children, and yet we as a nation remain unfazed. We can easily ignore the deaths of those in other countries because they’re not one of us. We excuse horrific acts of terror because after all they are part of a justified ideological struggle and one side or the other must deserve it somehow. The same is true for local gang violence, where the poor life choices of individuals naturally lead to their own demise.

For so many murders and acts of violence, we find ways to excuse or understand the actions such that we do not have to endure the pain of loss or human suffering. Consider the Sandy Hook shootings themselves. The six teachers who were killed were rightly praised as heroes, though I suspect they would not have received the honor they deserved had children not been included as victims. Furthermore, there was little sympathy for Nancy Lanza, the shooter’s mother and a victim in her own right, with one paper vilifying her saying “she created a monster.”

But when children are targeted, or more specifically our children are targeted, we lose all excuses. We cannot say that tragedies only happen “over there” in lawless countries when a shooting occurs in our own backyard. We cannot console ourselves as we do with adult murders that young children lived full lives. And with so many children being killed we cannot impose familiar narratives of ideology or racism which would otherwise explain or justify their senseless deaths.

For a few days this country overcame its apathy and jadedness and was unified in its sharing the morning of the needless loss of human life. Perhaps the sin of our generation is that it took the murders of 20 children to do so.

Posted in Politics, Popular Culture, Religion, Society. Tagged with , , , , .

Sarah Palin’s Tour de Force

I’ve been following the Sarah Palin bus tour “story” with the same cynicism and disdain as Jon Stewart. But the thought occurred to me that perhaps I had seen this sort of thing before somewhere. And after rummaging through the vault of irrelevant data that is my brain, I uncovered what can only be described as a revelation.

Loyal readers, I submit that Sarah Palin is the modern day Lex Luger.
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Posted in Politics, Popular Culture, Shtick, Sports.

A LOST Opportunity

From the looks of things I’m not the only one sorely disappointed in LOST’s final episode (LGT spoilers). Now I don’t consider myself one of those annoying sci-fi fanboys who insists that everything line up in accordance with their own fan fiction, but I did consider myself a fan of the show. I liked the writing, the references, the thought and intelligence of the writers in crafting the story, and like many fans I trusted the writers in bringing the story to a logical, or at least reasonable, conclusion.

Now I freely admit I’ve watched bad TV – copious amounts of absolute drivel that LOST’s worst episode could not compare – so I’m in no place to write as a TV snob. But if I’m going to follow an extended dramatic narrative I do have expectations of coherency and consistency, which was sorely lacking in the LOST finale.
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Posted in Popular Culture.

YUTOPIA’s Favorite Forgotten Originals

Whoever cites something in the name of the original source brings redemption to the world1

In my religious and academic lives I have an affinity for tracking down the original sources of ideas. Not surprisingly, this trait extends to other areas of geekdom including music. While there are no shortage of cover songs – with more coming every day – there are times when the cover version so completely overshadows the original that only few know whence it came.
In the interests of promoting music education, I’ve collected some of my favorite lost originals.

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Posted in Popular Culture.

YUTOPIA’s Top A Capella Videos

During Sefirat Ha’Omer, many Jews observe some customs of morning in memory of R. Akiva’s students. According to Wikipedia:

The period of counting the Omer is also a time of semi-mourning, during which the Halakha forbids haircuts, shaving, listening to live instrumental music, or conducting weddings, parties, and dinners with dancing.

Of course, Halakha does not “forbid” any such actions – in fact the hakahic basis for mourning during the ‘Omer is even more tenuous than mourning during – the three weeks and nine days, but rather they are at best matters of custom.
But even in matters of custom there can be multple opinions. For example, every year I get several e-mails asking about what types of music are permitted during the ‘Omer. Some distinguish between live and recorded music, others avoid music with instruments. While I personally find these distinctions inconsequential since the entire practice is a matter of custom, let it not be said that here at YUTOPIA we are completely intolerant of minhagim. And so in honor of Sefirat Ha’Omer, I’ve decided this year to compile my favorite a capella videos from YouTube.1

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Posted in Popular Culture.

David Ben-Gurion: Guardian of Israel

This apocryphal factoid seemed appropriate for Yom Ha’atzmaut. From a 2003 Hadassah article:

According to Jewish educator and comics fan and writer Alan Oirich, artist Gil Kane based his design of the large-headed, balding Guardians of the Universe in DC’s Green Lantern on David Ben-Gurion.

You be the judge:


Image from Cracked

Posted in Popular Culture.

Movie Night Suggestions

Ex-Roommate Yossi is planning a movie night for the shul. In one of this typically creative ideas he’s arranging for showing at a local theater on Christmas Eve (no word on Chinese food). The only question is what movie to show? Here are the requirements:

  1. Appropriate for a shul event.1
  2. Able to draw people with diverse tastes across age demographics.
  3. Preferably being able to maximize the “big screenness” of the event

Right now the first choice is Princess Bride, but we need a few backups just in case we’re not able to show it.2 Other suggestions included the original Star Wars for the camp factor along with The Muppet Movie or The Great Muppet Caper.3 The Breakfast Club was also suggested, but then Yossi pointed out that most of the people were born too late to appreciate it.4
There where we are right now, and the topic is hereby open for discussion. Any thoughts?

1. This is highly subjective, especially considering a diverse religious community which likely includes some people thinking that all movies are assur. I trust my Loyal Readers to have good judgement, or at least more sense than I did when as an NCSY’er I picked History of the World: Part I simply because I hadn’t seen it and thought it would be funny. Good times.
2. There are currently technical limitations in terms of getting the reel. While there is a possibility of being able to project a DVD, but in the meantime we can’t count on that.
3. Personally I’d love to have a community-wide sing-along of Happiness Hotel.
4. Sigh.

Posted in Popular Culture.

YUTOPIA’s Summer At The Movies

In what should be no surprise revalation to Loyal Readers, I have a bit of an eclectic taste in movies. However, this doesn’t mean that I actually *go* to many in the theater since “eclectic” should never be confused with “bad.” There have been years where I didn’t see any movie in the theater simply because there was nothing interesting playing. For some reason I found myself seeing more movies this summer than I have in many years. So I figured I might as well innaugurate the “Movie Reviews” category with my thoughts on some of this past summers offerings.
There are spoilers abound in this post, so if you’re interested in seeing any of the following movies, you might want to skip this post (also skip A Scanner Darkly while you’re at it).

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Posted in Popular Culture.

Weird Wedding Songs

Weddings are supposed to be happy occasions celebrating the love and commitment of two individuals who choose to spend the rest of their lives together. And yet for some reason, bands play songs which are completely incongruous with the theme of the day, and incredibly they do so often at the couple’s request.

AskMen listed 10 Wedding Songs to Avoid where people think these songs are romantic but have obviously never listened to the lyrics. While many Jewish weddings don’t usually play secular music in full, every now and again the band will play a riff or two from rock songs just to shake things up a bit. And here too many of the selections can seem a little bit strange.

I first commented on this a while back, and noticed it again at the first wedding I officiated. Since I hear new things all the time I’ve decided to keep a running list of all the well intentioned but probelmatic songs I’ve actually heard at weddings. To narrow things down, I’m just focusing on songs in which the lyrics don’t fit in with the spirit of the day. For example, while Get Down Tonight might not be the most romantic or subtle song in the world, it still makes sense in its own way. On the other hand, the ones listed below are a little more difficult to explain.

I’m sure I’ll be adding more in the future – especially if I get married myself.

1. Though in fairness, Robert Plant does refer to Stairway as a “bloody wedding song.”
2. For Jewish weddings, note that the “Yiddin” dance fits perfectly.

Posted in Music, Popular Culture.

Mentalist Images

Last night’s 60 Minutes covered the psychic talents of mentalist Marc Salem. Most people have heard of him by now as he’s been performing in several shows and appearing on TV for quite a while.
I’m not going to address the guy’s skills, but I do have a really funny story from way back when. About 15 years ago at the Jewish Renaissance Festival, I went to see him with my family. He wasn’t a big name then and the attendance was relatively sparse, but we thought it would be an interesting show. Anyway, over the course of his shtick he goes to my mother and borrows her watch. Immediately after picking it up, he asks “who’s Alan?” and then starts rattling off obscure details about my father. Even the cynical Yuter clan was impressed at this display of psychic prowess.
After the show we started shmoozing with him and he admitted that that particular trick was somewhat unplanned. It turns out he knew my father from way back,1 recognized him in the audience and thought that even though it was a risky shtick to pull, the potential payoff was too great.

1. On the other end, my father isn’t always the best at recognizing or remembering people especially when they use a stage name.

Posted in Popular Culture.