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My latest (Gothamist): ‘Ira Glass Tries His Hand At Improv Comedy’


I went to see Ira Glass do improv comedy. I wrote about it for Gothamist. It begins thusly:

Ira Glass has been taking an intro to improv comedy course. It sounds like a pitch for an episode of “This American Life,” but last night Glass and his Level One: The Principles of Improv classmates took to the stage at the Magnet Theater’s studio training space for their class performance.

Apparently, improv has been on his mind for a little while. Back in September, he told The New Yorker’s Sarah Larson: “I’m thinking of moving on to improv comedy” and “I’ve never said these words out loud. It’s been a secret thought for like a month and a half.”

You can read the whole thing over here.

There used to be a few videos of it too, but there were some complaints, and my editors opted to take the videos back down. So now the videos are just mine to hold and cherish forever and ever *evil laugh* …

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Most offensive siddur ever? More like BEST siddur ever!


The best/worst siddur in my collection is Nehalel beShabbat. Rather self-triumphantly, Nehalel beShabbat throws a Modern Orthodox/religious right-wing Zionist outlook into a blender with a bunch of glossy stock photos from the Israeli Ministry of Tourism and comes up with a uniquely loopy result..

I am like 80% sure that more marketing drivel has been written about this siddur than any other in the brief and glorious history of siddur marketing drivel. It is the tackiest siddur in my collection (worse than the garish tourist siddurim from Israel I inherited from my grandparents, which have their own genuine vintage charm). Of all the Jewish crap I own, this siddur comes by far the closest to some sort of Jewish Kinkade-ist¹ movement. Despite Because of all this, it has the honor of being one my favorite siddurim in my collection.

Nehalel repeatedly shoves down your throat a tale of how the Jewish people were saved from post-Holocaust oblivion by the redemptive powers of the State of Israel by pairing actual, honest-to-God images of the Holocaust with prayers about divine redemption.²


Here’s the part where it suggests that you should be praying for the conversion of these Hindus and whatever those people on the facing page are. (Shinto?)


Nehalel beShabbat also comes with a few displays of liturgical jingoism. If you accept the whole photo-based premise of this siddur, the ultimate logical conclusion is this image of prayerful Israeli soldiers facing this “Entreaty for Soldiers of the IDF.”


Shame they’re all white/Mizrachi dudes…

In other news: It’s a sturdy mid-sized volume volume (but pretty heavy because of all the glossy photo paper) and it’s typeset nicely.

Been a while since I did any night blogging about siddurim. Feels good.

¹ Jerry Saltz perfectly captures my thoughts on Nehalel beShabbat in his final assessment of the work of Thomas Kinkade: “Kinkade’s paintings are worthless schmaltz…. However, I’d love to see a museum mount a small show of Kinkade’s work. I would like the art world and the wider world to argue about him in public, out in the open. Kinkade once said his goal was to ‘make people happy.'”

² Eliyahu Fink: “Another quirk is that almost all the liturgy about the Exodus and redemption is reinterpreted to refer to the Holocaust and the State of Israel through photos. In other words, as you are reading about our bondage in Egypt you see Holocaust photos. And as you read about the redemption and ancient entry to the Land of Canaan, you see Zionist pioneers in the modern Israel. Non-Zionists might find this disconcerting. But I would hope that it could subversively influence skeptics about Israel to see the parallels and perhaps embrace the State of Israel more fully.” … *shudder* … Fink also points out another bizarre choice of photo in Nehalel: “poseach es yadecha umasbia l’chol chai ratzon is illustrated…. [With] third world children with hungry eyes and smiling faces on this page. It’s disconcerting…. There is tremendous hunger in third world countries. It is ironic at best to be using these photos for this verse.”

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Welcome, Jewniverse Readers!

If you’ve arrived here because of today’s Jewniverse email, welcome! (If you’ve come for some other reason, well….)

And if you’re a regular here and you don’t know what I’m talking about: My Jewish Learning does this great daily email called Jewniverse. The material in the emails is original — I don’t even think it appears online at MJL — and it’s all over the map.

The signup page on their site says it’s about “the inspiration, the extraordinary, and the just plain strange.” We’ll leave aside the matter of which of those three categories I fall into. So I’ll just say that I’m a big fan, I get it every day and you should too.

The text of today’s email:

Book reviews are found in newspapers, magazines, and literary journals. But what about prayer book reviews? Who can you go to for a good siddur review?

Writer and editor David A.M. Wilensky answered that question with his blog, the Reform Shuckle. Here, Wilensky posted lengthy reviews of any siddur or Mahzor (High Holiday prayer book) he came across. A true siddur enthusiast, he commented on everything from design and layout, to commentary, liturgical integrity, and of course translation. He dings one siddur for coming without a bookmark ribbon, and praises another for “sensical and elegant line breaks…with the blocks of English and the blocks of Hebrew mirroring each other in shape like a Rorschach ink blot test.”

These days Wilensky, who’s the editor-in-chief of New Voices, has a new blog, but you can still explore the archives at the Reform Shuckle, and read his thoughts on all kinds of liturgical texts, from old family siddurim, to new bentchers.

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Three new haggadot: Excellent ‘New American’; middling Reform; whitewashed Ethiopian

My new piece for JTA is live today. The gist:

SOUTH ORANGE, N.J. (JTA) — Leading a seder for the first time this year? There’s an app for that.

Entries in the annual stream of new Haggadahs this year include a Reform version that comes in hardcover, paperback and iPad app editions. Two others  feature a gorgeously designed Haggadah that features an array of literary celebrity contributors and one with an Ethiopian flavor.

The Reform Haggadah, “Sharing the Journey: The Haggadah for the Contemporary Family” (CCAR Press), is terrific for its introductions and artwork, bland in its content and promising in its use of technology.


Coffee table art books have given birth to an entire sub-genre of artistic, if unwieldy Haggadahs, including the gorgeous “New American Haggadah” (Little, Brown and Company). Edited by novelists Jonathan Safran Foer and translated by Nathan Englander, this Haggadah aims not just to tell a story but to be about storytelling. It is far too unwieldy to be deployed in full at your seder, but that hardly seems to be its ambition — and it’s too beautiful to pass up.


The story of the ongoing immigration of Ethiopian Jewry to Israel seems to be a perfect thematic match with Passover. As interest grows in far-flung Jews with unexpected skin tones, an Ethiopian Haggadah was inevitable.

What a shame, then, that “The Koren Haggada: Journey to Freedom” (Koren Publishers Jerusalem) is such a whitewashed letdown. It’s “The Gould Family Edition,” edited by Rabbi Menachem Waldman and translated by Binyamin Shalom.

Read the rest of it over here.

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