Category: Culture

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.

ReCovering Jewish Music

Anyone familiar with Jewish Music knows that Jewish music occasionally “borrows” from its secular culture. There are parody groups such as Shlock Rock and Rechnitzer Rejects,1 who perform with an obviously humorous, satirical, or educational purpose. Some bands blatantly use secular music ironically:

Men at Work – Down UnderPiamenta – Asher Boro

Then are the examples of outright plagiarism, the most notable one pointed out way back by Rabbi Avraham Bronstein2

Dschinghis Khan – Dschinghis KhanMordechai Ben David – Yidden

Even the Hatikva, the Israeli National Anthem, appears to find its origins elsewhere:

La Mantovana (Italy 17th century)Hatikva

And I’m sure my astute and cultured readers can drudge up other examples. But this begs the question if Jews borrow liberally from secular music, does the converse also hold true with non-Jews using “Jewish” music as well?3 Let’s take a look:

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.

Rabbi / Obama Health Care Conference Call

Yesterday morning I was one of 1,000 Rabbis listening in on a conference call with President Obama on the hot button issue of heath care reform. The call was organized by coalition of Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist organizatoins including
The Central Conference of American Rabbis, Union for Reform Judaism, Rabbinical Assembly, Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, and coordinated by the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.
Technically speaking I’m not sure I’m “supposed” to write about the call. The intent of the call was less informative on Obama’s position, but more for the Rabbis to explore how to address the health care controversy in their upcoming High Holiday sermons. (In a nice move by Obama’s handler’s he began his health care discussion by referencing unetaneh tokef). Nevertheless there were point which I took away from the call that I feel are worth sharing with the public at large.

Finding “Freedom” and Protecting “Patriotism”

Every week I write a brief “Rabbi’s Corner” for my synagogue’s weekly e-mail. With the 4th of July this weekend I decided to examine the ideas of and meaning of “Freedom” and “Patriotism”. After a little searching I found a fascinating irony – these two terms holy contested in our perniciously partisan society both have linguistic histories conveying ideas of love and brotherhood.
First, according to the Online Etymological Dictionary the origins of word “Free” are rooted in a context of “love”:

O.E. freo “free, exempt from, not in bondage,” also “noble, joyful,” from P.Gmc. *frijaz (cf. M.H.G. vri, Ger. frei, Du. vrij, Goth. freis “free”), from PIE *prijos dear, beloved” (cf. Skt. priyah own, dear, beloved,” priyate loves;” O.C.S. prijati “to help,” prijatelji “friend;” Welsh rhydd “free”). The adv. is from O.E. freon, freogan “to free, love.” The primary sense seems to have been “beloved, friend, to love;” which in some languages (notably Gmc. and Celtic) developed also a sense of “free,” perhaps from the terms “beloved” or “friend” being applied to the free members of one’s clan (as opposed to slaves, cf. L. liberi, meaning both “free” and “children”). Cf. Goth. frijon “to love;” O.E. freod “affection, friendship,” friga “love,” fri?u “peace;” O.N. fri?r, Ger. Friede “peace;” O.E. freo “wife;” O.N. Frigg “wife of Odin,” lit. “beloved” or “loving;” M.L.G. vrien “to take to wife, Du. vrijen, Ger. freien “to woo.”

The term “Patriot” finds its origins in the word patriote or “fellow countrymen”, though in political terms it evolved into somewhat of an insult:

Meaning “loyal and disinterested supporter of one’s country” is attested from 1605, but became an ironic term of ridicule or abuse from mid-18c. in England, so that Johnson, who at first defined it as “one whose ruling passion is the love of his country,” in his fourth edition added, “It is sometimes used for a factious disturber of the government.”
“The name of patriot had become [c.1744] a by-word of derision. Horace Walpole scarcely exaggerated when he said that … the most popular declaration which a candidate could make on the hustings was that he had never been and never would be a patriot.” [Macaulay, “Horace Walpole,” 1833]

But the term Patriotism was not always an insult, nor was always used as a political sledgehammer to sell flag pins. According to Harvey Chisick’s Historical Dictionary of the Enlightenment, “patriotism” could be defined as something akin social egalitarianism and justice:

Unlike the situation in the 19th century, when nationalism tended to be exclusive and confrontational, during the 18th century patriotism belonged with such inclusive and cohesive values as humanity and beneficence. In the course of the second half of the 18th century, a person who provided relief for the poor, or objected to excessively harsh penal laws, or who criticized institutions such as serfdom or slavery, was likely to be described as a good patriot.” (p. 314) [emphasis original]

My hope for this 4th of July our nation can look back to the history of these important words not be lost amongst the ever-spiteful partisan rhetoric which continues to divide our country. I hope that we can spread freedom – in all senses – to our fellow citizens of the world and that we remember the message of what it once meant to be a true patriot.
While I’m not optimistic, I am proud to live in a country where I have the freedom to dream.

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

A Fair And Balanced Approach To Jewish Social Justice

A few months ago I wrote a short article for the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals’ new journal Conversations. The purpose of this journal is to promote communal dialogue on various issues facing the Jewish community. Unlike the Edah/Meorot journals, the journal is supposed to be more accessible than academic and so I was given two editorial conditions:1. keep it short and 2. no footnotes.

As longtime blog readers know, that last condition was a tough one to overcome.

At any rate, I’m posting my article “A Fair And Balanced Approach To Jewish Social Justice” and I plan on revisiting the motivations for the article at some later point.

Fun With Parsonage

I’m still looking for a place to live on the Lower East Side. The rents have really gotten out of control with the economy and many others are trying to sell. To top it off, the co-ops have fees ranging from $1,000-$1,500 just for the right to rent in that building. In fact were it not for parsonage, I’d never be able to even consider living down there.
What’s parsonage you may ask? The term originally referred to a rectory or dwelling of the priest on the premises of a church. These days it’s more associated with a tax benefit given to clergy members where housing expenses are paid with pre-tax dollars (simplified definition). Quoth the IRS:

A minister who is furnished a parsonage may exclude from income the fair rental value of the parsonage, including utilities. However, the amount excluded cannot be more than the reasonable pay for the minister’s services.

The catch is that clergy are also considered “self-employed” which means we get nailed double when it comes to social security, paying both the employee and employer side of things. However, there is one interesting loophole:

The fair rental value of a parsonage or the housing allowance is excludable from income only for income tax purposes. No exclusion applies for self-employment tax purposes. For Social Security purposes, a duly ordained, licensed or commissioned minister is self-employed…However, you can request an exemption from self-employment tax, if you are conscientiously opposed to public insurance for religious reasons.

Even if a Rabbi were to go Milton Friedman in lomdus on the IRS, I’d have to guess that most Rabbis do in fact participate in social security.
Still I’d love to hear from any Rabbi who has in fact used this exemption – and the arguments they’ve used.