The Orthodox world did not Kill Faigy Mayer

I decided to spend much of this Tisha b’av thinking about a woman who didn’t make it out of the nine days.

Faigy Mayer had hardly hit the pavement when the war started. The thirty-year-old former Hassidic woman from the Belz community killed herself on Monday; a victim of her own despair.

Mayer was a figure in the Ex-Orthodox (XO) community, which has been both saddened and galvanized by her death. This not the first suicide to hit the XO community. Nearly two years ago Deb Tambor, a 33-year-old, former-Skver woman intentionally overdosed on pills largely due to her estrangement from her children, who remained in the custody of her still-observant ex husband.

Immediately, the sordid and tragic details of Mayer’s estrangement from her family emerged. Even in the age of internet the side-room, second-hand gossip colored most of the stories about her.  In the form of friend’s recollections, family accusations, correspondence and then, most significantly, in a letter by her own hand, Faigy’s difficult journey from confusion to her own personal freedom to despair began to take form. But, no one narrative seemed to emerge as the true one. But this didn’t stop people from coming to conclusions over who was to blame for this tragedy.

Some figures in the XO community lashed out at their former brethren with anger, placing sole blame for the death on Mayer’s parents. However, some, like XO figure Luzer Twersky took a more nuanced approach

“It’s hard to say that her Hasidic upbringing is solely responsible for this tragedy,” he wrote on his Facebook page, but went on to describe his own difficulties in leaving his hassidic upbringing.

But for all of who left the world of modern urban shtetls to try and make it out in the world of startups and cocktails, there are those who made the opposite transition and found peace. I am one of those individuals; although I must agree that I still have found some of the same frustrations as the XO who left. It can be a harsh and unforgiving world that at times seems backward and stagnant.

It’s no secret that modern media does not take too kindly to the orthodox and Hassidic world. The Hassidic world is fraught with many problems many of which we are unable (or more likely) unwilling to address. But that doesn’t set us apart from the rest of the world. It makes us the same. We all suffer from the same frailty and imperfections. However, the Hasidic world’s flaws are often thrown into relief because of much higher expectations and an often-perceived air of superiority.

But the only news stories that manage to poke through the bearded walls of silence are the sensational, perverse and heartbreaking. Which is why it is all the more heartbreaking when such tragedies turn our eyes not inward at ourselves, but at each other. When a Rabbi’s sermon condemns the shul around the corner, this is not introspection. Introspection is when one looks within your own heart and soul and asks hard questions not pointing at your neighbor and thinking that’s enough to absolve yourself.
I’ll save the trite platitudes about unity above all; that at we are at our worst when we are at each other’s throats; that the people united will never… Forget that; all of it. People don’t change when they are being attacked. They dig in they become more entrenched in their own positions and comfort zones.

Faigy could be used as the martyr of the XO community or a cautionary tale of what happens when you stray, both are equally offensive. I would hope that this event could be a turning point in our own interpersonal relations, but the emotional distance between those within the Jewish world never seems to have been this far. It’s sad really. Never has our baselsess hatred seemed so useless…and silly.

As for Faigy Mayer herself? Transition is hard. It’s the hardest thing you can possible undergo. Under a list of stressful events that can lead to illness, all of the events are change; the death of a loved one, a change in job, moving to a new city. A transition in lifestyle, while it may be liberating must take its toll.

Each person that comes into our life enriches us. Forms a thread in the tapestry of the people who we will be for those we will meet in the future. Faigy will forever be a thread that eluded me, because we never met. I cannot say that I would have gotten along with her. I would have respected her, but our disagreements would have been obvious.
“If people were allowed to think, they wouldn’t be religious,” she wrote in a letter. I couldn’t disagree more. But unfortunately, that argument will never take place.

We meander through life uncertain; scared. What’s hidden behind the next turn can be more terrifying than any known danger. Which scared Faigy more; the known or unknown? We will never know; and at this point, speculation will be fruitless.

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We missed the lesson of the dress: Why it should be okay to disagree about Iran

Three days ago the internet was set on fire and thrown off a mountain by a dress; a simple two-toned dress. The same picture circulated millions of times and viewed by an audience larger than many nations saw the same picture and were unable to come to a complete and total consensus as to what those two colors were. Many saw this as an interesting quirk in physics and light. Others saw it as a lesson in perception and how the eyes and brain see colors.

The lesson we should have learned is how two people observing an identical piece of information can arrive at diametrically opposed conclusions.

I have not watched Israeli Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s address to congress yet and I don’t plan on it. This does not make me anti-Israel. It does not make me a self-hating Jew; and it is the ultimate insult to say otherwise. Anybody who tells you that your opinion your dissent your courage of convictions makes you less than, weaker than, or not as patriotic as, is small and weak.

I am vehemently pro-Israel. I believe in the Jewish state, but the current state of affairs makes me embarrassed.

The lesson we should have learned from the dress would have told us that despite having different view points on the state of affairs in the world we are still the same sane people.

Unfortunately, that lesson was short-lived. Within days Jew was against Jew over a simple perception. The rankles of the Sons of Israel have never been stronger in our history. We stand as a people divided over a simple issue and it shouldn’t be that way. I place the blame squarely on the shoulders of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

How can they stand and not act? How can they watch the unthinkable happen? These are Jews!? Won’t somebody think of the children.

In the modern age of filmmaking most films are remakes and sequels, it only makes sense that we would see the redux of the red scares of the 40s and 50s. These anti-democratic and anti-american tactics were used to excise the pesky pluralism that made this country great and consolidate power.

Both President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu agree Iran should not be permitted to obtain a Nuclear weapon. And that is not the only thing they agree on. Throughout the Obama administration, the US and Israel have come together to ensure multiple vetoes of anti-Israel declarations in the UN, funding of the Iron Dome and once again, they agree that Iran should not be permitted to obtain a nuclear weapon. What they disagree on is how to make sure that this situation doesn’t happen. Let’s just stop for a moment and let that sink in.

The current disagreement is not the equivalent of agreeing whether or not Hitler is a threat in 1939. I current disagreement is the equivalent of agreeing Hitler is a threat, but whether to attack him by land or sea.

This isn’t a disagreement on the problem, this is a disagreement on how to proceed.
Sanctions vs Negotiations. This shouldn’t be an argument about who loves Israel more. This shouldn’t be a standoff about who is a better leader. One’s position on this issue should be about the facts. Yet it seem that people’s position on the matter for the most part has fallen on previously drawn ideological lines, which is not good.

I’m going to say something which not to many people have said today regarding which course of action is best regarding the prevention of an Iranian tactical nuclear program.

I don’t know.

I do not know what the proper course of action is, because I’m not a national security expert and chances are neither are you. Nor are you working for Mossad, like Meir Dagan former Mossad Chief who harshly criticized Netanyahu’s Iran policy this week. I’m not a nuclear scientist. I’m not an international observer.

Are you any of those things?

 The question I ask of you is, what makes you so certain? What makes you so unblinkingly sure? Is it your meticulous examination of the facts and figures; not only the ones presented to you by Benjamin Netanyahu in his address, but the ones that have contradicted him and have been fact checked? Do you know the success rate of negotiations vs sanctions?

(side note: The US had an effective embargo against Cuba for half a century. Spoiler alert: they didn’t work)

Also have we forgotten how easily we can be misled by our leaders. We are not so far removed from the speeches of the Bush administration who were sure that Iraq posed an imminent threat to the Israel, The US and the World. That threat is now known to be highly overstated.

The most disturbing part of this whole affair is not the existential threat posed by Iran and their decade-old twelve-month march to Nuclear capability. The most disturbing thing is how easily this issue was used to polarize and manipulate for political gain. It’s disturbing how there is little room for nuance on this issue. If you don’t support Netanyahu, then you hate Israel. And that’s final there is no wiggle room.

Furthermore, I don’t think there has been anybody who would argue that this issue has been best served by the political chaos set off by the Bibi-Boehner tag team. This could have been approached sensibly with a summit with talks with an open dialogue, but Netanyahu in his messianic zeal decided to punt those prospects into the Kinneret. The complexion of this dispute is colored entirely by election-year politics and The Prime Minister’s ever more alarming strain of Jerusalem Syndrome.

Just think about what the fall out would have been if Nancy Pelosi had invited Sarkozy to congress to argue against President Bush’s policies during the march up to the Iraq war. (I know the hypothetical timeline doesn’t match up, but that’s not the point) Republicans would be apoplectic. Limbaugh would have had a coronary. Ann Coulter would have written three books about how liberals are bad bad bad. Fox News would have accused her of treason.

Benjamin Netanyahu has used the politics of fear to set his agenda and set attack dogs by proxy against anybody who dares disagree with him to the right or the left. It’s nonsense.

In a modern world there must be room for disagreement. Pluralism and dissent are the only stop-gap against tyranny. I take no specific stand on the issue of Iranian disarmament, because my stand will not have any measurable effect. If you think otherwise, your ego needs adjustment. And if you think your fellow Jews, Americans, Humans are betraying their people, by questioning the policies of their leader, then there is no hope.

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Je Suis or not Je Suis Charlie?

Before I start. I would like to get something out there. The real story here should not be about Charlie Hebdo. While the brazen and brutal attack on the satirical newspaper is shocking, it is nothing compared to the continuing onslaught suffered by Jews around the world. Immediately after the newspaper attack, terrorists went straight after a Kosher supermarket, a Jewish target. It is 2015. This should not be a thing. This is not ambiguous or shrouded in mystery. It was deliberate and it was deadly. These attacks are becoming more and more common and the pattern is being continuously ignored.

I for one am frustrated and infuriated by the continuing ambivalence of media and world governments of this disturbing and demoralizing trend. That being said I would like to address the phenomena of support of Charlie Hebdo after the attack.


I’ve heard a lot of people who are deifying the work of Charlie Hebdo as the stalwarts of free speech and satire. There are also many who are, perhaps rightly, criticizing them as being little more than glorified neckbeard trolls who stumbled into immortality by pissing of one person too many. But, can’t they be both?

I, like many people, posted some messages of support for Charlie Hebdo, including this image, posted to my Instagram and facebook.

The zeitgeist hashtag #jesuisCharlie (je suis Charlie = I am Charlie) spread at an alarming rate. As with all things that are popular, it’s rampant growth outran the important questions of its validity and merit.

After hearing some of the criticism of their support, I asked myself. Was I showing support for free speech and standing up for tyranny? Or, was I caught in the latest hashtag trend, a follower not a leader? I often wonder if I’m susceptible to the hive mentality that often follows events of such global significance.

The reaction almost immediate.

One such article in the Daily Beast. “Je ne pas suis Charlie” (I am not Charlie)  by Arthur Chu declared that

There’s no particular merit to being an “equal-opportunity offender”—indeed, it’s lazy and cheap, a way to avoid being held accountable for anything you say because none of it is part of a moral worldview or to be taken seriously.

 Is Charlie Hebdo a valid figure in media? Or are they just trolls? Does it matter?

To analyze I had to come up with an analogue and that analogue is South Park. South Park and its creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone are immensely successful and influential in the world of satire. Their musical  The Book of Mormon is a smash hit and has elevated Stone and Parker’s status. South Park itself has received praise for its satire of a broad range of subjects; and Stone and Parker them selves are one Oscar away from a full EGOT.

But that is now. In its inception South Park was bashed as crass and offensive for its profanity, mild racism and scatalogical humor. Had it ended right there, it would have been just that. However, they were able to grow and mature into the force that they are today.

Had they been shut down

Is Charlie Hebdo as “good” as South Park? Probably not, but that is not up to me or any individual person to decide. Is it bad? That’s not the point. If you do not stand up for the merits of expression, just because you find it shitty, then you’re outrage is meaningless. Somebody will always found it shitty. In this case, somebody found it so shitty that they were willing to kill for it.

I am not Charlie because I share their polemic view points. I am not Charlie because I am a longstanding fan of their periodical. In fact, had their not been an attack on their offices last week, I might not been aware of the name Charlie Hebdo. For sure I can be sure that I would have been dismissive of their inflammatory rhetoric; especially some of the stereotypical and anti-semitic portrayals of Jews on their pages.

I am Charlie because I believe in satire as a valid form of discourse. I am Charlie in spite of the terrorist, because they must be shown that any attempt to quiet criticism must have the complete and utter opposite effect. Snuff out a single flame and be confronted with an uncontrollable blaze. I am Charlie because my belief in free expression is not conditional on the quality or morality of its content.

And the fact that Hebdo took the latest, and to date the most brazen salvo in the ongoing saga of the west vs. Islamic extremism, they deserve some recognition. The phrase “the terrorists are attacking our very way of life,” has never been more true until now.

Regardless of what one thinks about them,  I think it would be disingenuous not to admit some bravery on their part; in particular on the part of Stéphene “Charb” Charbonnier,

“I am not afraid of reprisals, I have no children, no wife, no car, no debt. It might sound a bit pompous, but I’d prefer to die on my feet than to live on my knees.”

That is quite a quote. This was a man who did what he wanted, fully aware of the potential consequences. Whether he was a jerk or not is irrelevant.

To answer Arthur Chu, whose essay I appreciated while disagreeing with it.

Yes. There is merit to being an equal opportunity offender. There is merit to testing the boundaries of our free speech and freedom. I am a major proponent of the upset-the-apple-cart school of dialogue. I believe that there a certain times when the best course of action is to take the whole thing smash it into a million pieces then picking up one by one. Why? Because it’s only when you have to pick up all the pieces that you can truly recognize which ones are most important.

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Please stop citing your one black coworker during your debates on race

We can’t all agree on much lately, but if I were to declare this our nation’s most racially tense time in recent history, I don’t think it would be met with much opposition. I would be crass to compare it to the 60s.

(Side note: This works for the 1860s or 1960s. One can only imagine what civil rights break through we’ll all be losing our minds over in the 2060s. I don’t know, but if I manage to still be alive somehow, I will probably be on the wrong side)

Snap back to reality. The difference between those two other eras in history and now is that we didn’t have social media. Skip the trite and pedantic essay on how intense political debate have been forever changed by Facebook, Twitter and of course SnapChat.

I’ve noticed an increasingly common phenomenon in online debate. It often happens when a non-minority is trying to argue their side, and they’ll use this tactic.

“We’ll my coworker says that Michael Brown was a thug who got what he had coming. Oh and SHE’S BLACK!”

I’m not going to argue the merits of that statement, because it’s pointless; and it’s not why we’re here today.

I believe that most people who use this tactic are aware of how weak it is. It’s usually the last thing they have to offer as the argument has exhausted itself, leaving neither the wiser.

This form of attack is problematic for a few reasons. First, it’s a variation of the appeal to authority fallacy.  This fallacy assumes that because a piece of information comes from an authoritative source, that it by definition is true. It bypasses the normal logical justification of a statement by propping up whoever said it. It’s even more particularly insidious in this form, because it doesn’t even appeal to a qualified authority. It merely taps someone to parry your argument merely on their racial status.

Furthermore, it highlights a lack of diversity in one’s social circles. If you you are offering the dissenting black opinion on a racial topic as what smart blacks think, then you’re either lying, or you need more black friends.

Then you and your circle can make a ton of money posing for stock photography

Not to mention, for years now Bill Cosby has been lambasting what he perceived as a black culture gone wrong. My stomach turned as I’d see these videos being shared by my unmistakeable not-black friends. It struck me as a modern day Kipling-esque attempt to modernize the heathens. But I promise you, Cosby’s views were not shared by most and it’s one of the reasons why blacks have remained mostly silent while his career goes up in flames.

Jews should be able to relate. I’ve experienced it while fighting the eternal, intractable war that is the debate over Israel. It’s usually only a matter of time before somebody quotes their “Jewish friend.”

I’m not even going to pretend this isn’t cute.

Where I get particularly offended is that there are those who will use their black friend as an authority on an issue when it suits them, while summarily dismissing the thousands of  blacks who are appearing on Television, writing on the internet, and marching through the streets trying to get their voices to be heard.

I am not offended when I hear a dissenting black voice on these issues. In fact, nothing makes me happier. The wheels of democracy are fueled with rigorous debate. Furthermore, it allows the shows the “black community’s” diversity of opinion and perspective. But, it breaks my heart when those diverse and alternative opinions are used against them.

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Blame Hollywood?


This morning, there was an op-ed in the Ny Post slamming cowardly Hollywood liberals for bowing to terrorist threats and canceling the
premier of “The Interview.” The Rogen/Franco joint where two journalists travel to North Korea to assassinate Kim Jong Un.

Hollywood is a city in California that has housed some of the biggest film studios in history. It is not a singular hegemonic group. But, for the sake of argument, let’s pretend for a minute that it is.

Hollywood did not kill that movie. Sony did. But they only did after movie theater chains decided to pull it.

Regal cinemas based out of Knoxville Tennessee. AMC theaters based out of Leawood Kansas and Cinemark theaters based out of Plano, Texas. Texas is not exactly your liberal stronghold.

Now if you want to blame anybody, you can blame Sony, who gave these theatre chains the option of not showing the film, but Sony is a Japanese company and Sony Corporation of America based out of New York.

The list of people most seething mad about yesterday’s decision are “Hollywood” types, who took to Twitter yesterday to vent their outrage. One of those who had a particular axe to grind is Steve Carell. Carell’s film Pyongyang was canceled before it even began production. Who canceled that film? It was Fox; Fox owned by news corp. Which also owns the New York Post, which published an op-ed this morning blasting “Hollywood” for being cowards.

Hollywood,on the other hand, is the one who made the movie in the first place.

Now to be honest, I don’t completely blame the theaters and Sony for capitulating. The hack on Sony has wrought havoc on them. The threat, while probably not real, was credible enough to weigh a risk evaluation. And while o like those guys, Rogen and Franco are not Gilbert and Sullivan. High art, this is not.

But in any event, to blame Hollywood cowardice is not only unfair. It’s completely inaccurate. I look forward to seeing this film when it eventually leaks on the Internet.

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It’s like being stabbed twice

I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop.

I’ve now read the shocking news. It’s 5:45 am. I’m awake as usual; a product of my sadistic circadian rhythms and an ocean of regret.

The attack which has hit so close to home, 1,600 steps from my front door. A knife-wielding man entered 770 Eastern parkway and stabbed an Israeli student, before being shot by police. Blood spilled where I’ve danced, drank and prayed. But in all honesty that was not what I feared.

I feared the other shoe.

I trudged miserably through the December Rain I arrived at Shacharis, late as usual. Wet. Confused.  Cold. Miserable. Scared.

Naturally,the “shul sshh-ers” lost before the battle had begun and we were all discussing the previous night’s events. I gleaned a few new details, such as the assailant’s death. And I waited for the other shoe to drop.

I prayed; as I always do with distraction and a helping of angst. Then, as the men of my shul were finishing up with their tefillin, somebody suggested we should say chapter 20 of tehillim (psalms) a common practice in prayer for a person recovering from illness or injury.

“should we say capital chaf?” some one asked.

“Why?” A young man answered. “The shvartze’s already dead.” Laughter.


I was repulsed. By the boy who made it. He doesn’t know better, but I was still repulsed. By the reaction. The inevitability. As a black Jew, it’s always coming.

There it is, what I always dread. The backlash. The race backlash It always comes. Sometimes, big. Sometimes small. But it always comes. Living in Crown Heights there are going to be incidents. There are going to be attacks, muggings, but with each one with it brings a new referendum of the entire black community, as if there is such a thing.

I have a confession. Whenever I see an incident of a Jew being attacked, in Crown Heights, there is a part of me–not an insignificant part–that hopes there is another Jew responsible. It brings me no pride to feel this way. It’s a secret I’ve held on to for years, but I hope for the problem to be from within the community.  That way, the anger will be directed inward and not outward; and hopefully, there will be some amount of introspection or consideration. But not this time. Not now.

Blame the Mayor.

Blame the cops.

Blame Obama.

Blame the Blacks.

The accusations will start, followed by recriminations.

Then eventually, somebody will ask for my opinion, whether I want to or not. I’ve been interrogated about Trayvon, Ferguson, Knockout.

The knockout hysteria was the worst, because I was both looking over my shoulder and made to feel responsible. I spent many wasted hours trying to rationalize the attacks and explain how they were over-hyped by the media. It was as much self preservation as it was debate. And it always is, when it comes to these complex issues regarding race and the modern age.

But consider this. The thing that made the early-morning attacks so impactful, was that it could have happened to any of us in the community;  Jewish, Lubavitch, Crown Heights. It was so directed, yet so random, that it’s impossible to not take it personally. It’s as if we personally were stabbed.

And for some of us, it’s like being stabbed twice.

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Five Jewish-themed Instagram Accounts You Should Follow: Part One

Recently,my Instagram account @thehipterrebbe got a huge boost and recognition from my friend and Journalist Sonja Sharp in her essay on Crown Heights titled My Journey to The New Jerusalem. It was a moment which validated my constant and at times obsessive dedication to the picture-sharing social network.

Calling Sukkos my favorite holiday would hardly be groundbreaking nor surprising. The holiday is a mostly festive, zesty affair without the same existential and moral pressures of its two predecessors, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Moreover, it’s by far the most photogenic of the holidays.

Sure, it lacks the pyrotechnic flair of Chanukah or Purim’s audacious masquerade spectacle, but the earthy charm compensates for the ornate and lavish decor of its counterparts. It’s the curious juxtaposition of bringing one’s life and meals outdoors while also bringing inside plants, one of which spent a minimum of three years exposed to the elements before being coveted as the most expensive. It’s the two-week-long parade of men, women and children proudly carrying palm spears upright and regal to their homes. There they will wait to be meticulously crafted into a holy bouquet. It’s men praying, wearing worn, decades old tallesim against crisp yellow esrogim. It’s a photographer’s dream.

What other medium appropriate for the expression of this yearly wonder than Instagram.

Instagram for me is much more than a vessel for the proliferation of teenage vanity in the form of  self portraits and daily meal logs. It’s a crucial avenue for my self-expression and individuality. When I first started my account 146 weeks ago, while crossing Cleveland on a spontaneous road trip, I did not fully grasp the potential it had for connection. As my interest developed, I met people with a similar curiosity in the app. I would eventually go to “meet ups” with total strangers to walk around take pictures and talk. I began to explore niche communities of instagramers that shared passions for me in three areas, bicycles, Brooklyn and Judaism.  

ben collage

If a picture is worth a thousand words, than an Instagram is 7.14 times as efficient than any tweet.

I developed a fascination with them and a habit to follow their daily posts with great interest. My interest in Judaism took me all over the world a series of low-resolution square snapshots.

I’ve collected a strong, but by no means comprehensive list of some of the feeds that I take the most interest in. I made the list based on their having a mostly or partially Jewish theme; and having an unfamiliar interest while at the same time connecting to me.

In not-so particular order

1. Aba Abbo @rabbiaba


Russia and Religion
I’m not even sure when I we started our mutual followship of each other’s feeds, but I’ve always been intrigued.  His account is not much more than a daily documentation of his life as a Chabad Jew living in Moscow. But, it’s managed to maintain my rapt attention for at least a year. It’s a charming vignette into the life of an ordinary Jew with his own personal touch of filters and interesting angles.

I’ve kept an eye on him, watching his life go from single man, to married, to with child, all while living a very similar Jewish lifestyle to mine .

2. Federica Valabrega @federicavalabrega
Rome Jerusalem Brooklyn


Bikes and Balabustas
I first became interested in Federica’s feed for its cycling content. She covers many criterion races on the racing circuit. When I followed her I found an Italian-born, world trotter who spent a lot of her time photographing religious Jewish women from Tunisia to Paris to Brooklyn, documented in her book Daughters of the King. Her website is

frederica collage

4. Mariska Camp @marisharocks


Rabbis and Rockstars.
There are photographers who spend years crafting a unique style that can be instantly identified as their own.  With an off-camera flash and medium to wide angle lenses, Marisha had pretty much accomplished this with her portraits, which are easily recognizable from their bright faces and dark eerie backgrounds.

marisha collage

Her work is also defined by her choice in subjects. She can be seen fearlessly sliding through a throng of hassidic men, capturing Crown Heights’ other black and Hispanic populations or in the Midwest documenting the citizens of America’s heartland. Her fantastic website carries more of her great work.

5. Abby Berman @abbyberm


Caffeine and Culture
At first glance, Abby’s many shots of her daily coffee intake would seem to lump her in with the millions of morning sharers of lattes and grandés, but she really takes an interest in her coffee; like really. Each steaming square marks the country of origin (mostly African nations) and often carries the label “fair trade.”
abby collage

In addition, Abby shares the fruits of her frequent travels throughout the world including India and the African continent.

It has been an honor sharing these with you and I hope to continue again soon.

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Consider The Chicken


I wasn’t even sure what I was doing or where I was anymore. The Crown Heights I knew had been transformed into a Hieronymus Bosch painting set in the shtetl. Several batteries of floodlights illuminated the cloudy night sky; and the standard issue New York City sodium-vapor streetlights cast the whole scene with an eerie orange glow. The streets were unusually packed for a Tuesday night at 8 PM. Several of the stores that would normally have been closed for several hours at that point had their doors open. Children and families were every where. And of course, there were chickens. Hundreds and hundreds of chickens.

The stage was set at Crown Heights’ main thoroughfare, the corner of Kingston avenue and Eastern Parkway. The streets were essentially shut down by the throng of pedestrians flitting this way and that. The Southern Mall of Eastern parkway was loaded with strollers, families and the chicken towers. As I made my way east, the clucking cacophony grew and the smell increased. It was an unpleasant mélange of bochur sweat and chicken feces; and the blood. I will never forget the blood.
Residents of Eastern Parkway are well familiar with the annual trucking of the chickens. A flat-bed truck loaded with stacked with male and female poultry rolls down the service road in front of the NCFJE building. A table is set up where the chickens will….well…you know. Kapparos is the controversial new-year tradition involving the slaughter of a chicken ruffles more than a few feathers every year.(hehe) The chicken is purchased, traditionally one for each member of the family. Either a rooster or hen is used, corresponding to the gender of each person. The chicken is then slaughtered by a shochet. The meat is then contributed to the poor and needy. This is the one part that I feel most can get on board with.

The true source of the minhag of Kapparos is difficult to pin down. Some say it can be traced to the azazel, a beis-ha-mikdash-era goat which was cast down a mountain in atonement for the sins of the Jews, but this is not so clear. Like the goat, the chicken symbolically (and this is important) takes on the sins of the supplicant. The symbolic nature of this transfer of transgressions is important, because as the RambaM says, sins can not be transferred. Also, if we could just “de-sin” ourselves birdstyle, there wouldn’t be any need for fasting the next day.

The practice has always been controversial. Rabbi Yosef Caro discouraged it. The RambaN was against it. Not for the reasons we hear about today, but it’s worth noting, because it wasn’t always  a minhag of the Jewish people; and it should be noted, that the practice is not universal to all Jews even today.

Every year in between Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur the script resets and the controversy over kapporos plays out again. The visiting protesters from PETA, who come to Crown Heights for their annual chicken liberation pilgrimage, are treated as a mild and inconvenient pogrom. Accusations and recriminations fly back and forth and precious little discourse is exchanged. The protestors are accused of anti-semitism and “frum baiting.” PETA’s checkered past is also naturally called into question; partly, their practice of animal euthanasia. You can throw all the shade you want at the gawking, screaming, picketers who line the streets of Crown Heights every year and call them whiny, lefty, anti-semitic, tree-hugging, hippies. But that doesn’t mean that they are wrong. The ad hominem attack only serves to expose a serious weakness in your own position.

This blog is clean

While, I myself have many problems with the way that meat is treated in and out of the kosher realm. I wouldn’t join the the ranks of those who picket synagogues and slaughter houses. I find them too aggressive and distasteful, even if they have some solid points. However, I abstain do from the consumption of beef and, for the most part, don’t eat chicken. (I was vegetarian for a long period of time, but I was having trouble with my protein. So, from time to time, I will eat chicken. But i don’t always like it.) There is far too much separation between the slaughter house and the dinner plate for me. The relationship between a man and his living, breathing food should be sacred. I cannot divorce myself from the notion that the food giving me strength was once its own independent being. Furthermore, I would like to know that the food I eat was treated in the most sanctified way possible. I’m often ashamed by the sporadic nature of my vegetarianism, but I still believe in the concepts behind it.

My objection is not in the slaughter of course, but in the treatment, that being the ’T’ in PETA. I believe that shechita ritual animal slaughter is humane. This assessment is also held by renowned animal scientist Temple Grandin. Grandin herself received an award from PETA for being a visionary. Grandin said that she had no problem with animals not being “stunned” before they were killed by traditional Jewish methods. Her objection, was in the animals’ treatment prior to their necks being cut. And herein lies the question at hand. Is there a problem with their treatment? Well…

There is definitely something off-putting about the sight of so many creatures stuffed in to bird cubicles. Barely able to move. Anybody who has ever been on a farm will know that chickens move around. They were given legs for a reason and wings…for…well something. This is a video of one of last year’s daylight chicken sessions. I found it difficult to watch. And I would imagine anybody who is not at least somewhat bothered by the images of the birds flopping helplessly on the ground are neck-deep in cognitive dissonance.

Some of it is pretty gross

Torah and rabbinic literature is replete with references to animal welfare being an area of concern. These most often culminated in the broad topic of  “Tzar balei Chaim” There is some debate over whether this important issue is D’oraisa (from the Torah) or D’Rabbonim (from the Rabbis of the Mishnaic and Talmudic periods). What is clear though, is that it predates the modern practice kapporos. And in my opinion, should override it, but eh whatever. I’m not too attached to my opinions.

Furthermore, the practice has outlived the conditions that may have made it more meaningful. Back in old Russia times, a chicken that you ate was owned by your family. So when you had your chicken killed, it served as an actual sacrifice (not in The Torah sense, that would not be okay without the temple) It meant something. This animal which you raised, you were giving up in atonement of your misdeeds.(also it wasn’t transported across state lines in a chicken stack, but not the point I’m bringing here) Nowadays, there are very few people who keep chickens in Crown Heights.

It’s hard to see that pain and sacrifice on many of the smiling faces who tweet, Instagram and Facebook themselves holding the chicken over their head. For them, touching the bird is an once-a-year novelty.

It should be noted again,that unlike the Azazel, this chicken is not scattered for as carrion. It’s distributed to be eaten by the needy. For this reason, many use money for kapparos as a substitute. The money then would ostensibly be donated to charity. Others use fish.

I don’t want to condemn anybody for how they choose to go about the next few days. G-d knows I have a lot more than some chicken shaped skeletons in my closet. However, we are in the midst of the aseres yomei teshuva (the ten days of repentence). Is now not the appropriate time for reflection and introspection. We still have some time before our sin clocks reset to zero; and I choose to take that time to ask the question. Is this something we should still be doing? If Jews do one thing right, it’s hold steadfast to it’s traditions.

The name of the song is not…♫ adaptatiooooon adaptation♪

But, there are things we don’t do anymore. We no longer execute transgressors of shabbas. We no longer pass off the childless widow to her husband’s brother. Maybe we shouldn’t be doing this. Not this way.

I don’t know if there is something inherently wrong with transporting living beings in cramped quarters to their imminent deaths, but as a Jew, it leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

Gmar Chasima tova

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It’s time to move on from 9/11

A boy born on Tuesday September 11th 2001 would have had his Bar Mitzvah now. That boy would have began to be held culpable for his decisions and been taught how to survive as an adult in this world. It’s time that we grew up from the scared, paranoid children we became that day.

There is a scene from “The Siege,” the 1998 film, starring Denzel Washington about a wave of bombings that hit New York. Washington’s character is sitting at a security briefing when a phone rings. Then a beeper goes off; then another cellphone then another. The rising pitch of the score let the audience know that something was up. There was a terrorist attack in progress.This movie sums up my 9/11 experience several times over.

During my “where was I when” moment, I was crossing the quad at Towson University. Less than a week into my college career, I was not yet 18. A friend told me some vague account of a plane hitting the WTC and another hitting THE Pentagon. I looked up and all around me, every one was on their cellphone. Thirteen years ago, before obsessive smartphone attachment became the norm, it was quite unnerving. I sprinted to the student union, to the large-screen television there, just in time to see the growing plume of dust that would cover the country for the coming decade; maybe more.

I became obsessed with “The Siege.” Many of its events seemed prophetic in 9/11’s wake. The paranoia, the fear, the depression, the crackdown on personal liberties played out before my eyes just as scripted. The only difference, was that it ended. The climax of the film sees a standoff between the FBI and the final terrorist cell. The good guys win the war is over. The Army General who overstepped his authority is punished, roll credits.

Back in reality, the war never ended; not after the Taliban fell, not after Al Qaeda was dismantled; not after Saddam hung from the gallows; or when Bin Laden had his eye unceremoniously replaced with a bullet after nearly a decade on the run.

I had hoped that the war would see a drawdown after the end of the same Bush administration that had seen its inception. But President Obama pulled the troops from one front and put them in another. Targeted killings and drone strikes increased in Afghanistan and Pakistan; and now it seems all but certain that we are about to write the next chapter in the Iraq war trilogy.

Our various law enforcement  agencies were given unimaginable powers, justified by the continuing threat of domestic agents. These powers have not been given back. The power that they wield has only found new targets in lieu of the previously stated ones. Laws written post 9/11 to combat terrorism are being used to crackdown on minor drug offenses. I don’t think that this is the vision any of us had in the waning months of 2001.
We have all been subject to the increased scrutiny of the TSA blue shirts. I have yet to see any evidence that their increasingly invasive and humiliation searches have made us any safer.

How many flags must we see draped over the coffins of our sons and daughters? How many Americans must suffer the indignity of losing their freedoms under the banner of a war meant to protect those freedoms?

It’s forgivable and understandable that our collective post-traumatic stress would have had more staying power than any other national tragedy, but part of being adults is mediating your emotional state with your rational understanding of what is best for you.We have long ago exceeded any rational mourning period for the thousands who are no longer with us. It’s harsh when you have to end the mourning period. After shiva (the seven-day Jewish mourning period) eventually one has to stand up. One has to go back to work. One has to move on with his or her life. It’s not easy, but it’s what is done.

I am in no way advocating that we forget the ones we lost, forgive those responsible, or ever ignore the ever-present threat of terrorism. However that obsession doesn’t need to play a central role in our lives.
No healthy person defines their identity by their worst tragedy. Jews no longer define themselves by the holocaust. It is an inextricable part of our makeup, but we are much more than that. It’s time for the post 9/11 mentality to give way to the post-post 9/11 world.

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Why I ride: A New Yorker’s love affair with urban cycling.


I know that the best sunsets in the five boroughs are inaccessible by subway. I know the fastest way crosstown isn’t by bus or taxi. I know how to sweat, how to grind how to make every light, and piss off every motorist twenty times a day and keep my cool while doing so. I love the hum of my two aluminum wheels as they roll on open pavement. I love the feeling of how rough my palms feel after gripping my handlebars for six hours straight. I love the ache of my legs after a day of climbing bridges, hills, and forest paths. I ride.

It’s 8:35 and I’m late. I should be 25 blocks ahead by now. I’m going to be late for work and there’s little I can do about it. There are no shortcuts to take, no trains to hop and no gears to shift on my single-speed, fixed-gear, SE Lager. Now accelerating to 18 mph on the Bedford avenue slalom course southbound, I escape the claustrophobic confines of the bike lane. It wasn’t doing me any good anyway. The double-parking capital of the world cares little for the convenience or safety of its two-wheeled counterparts; and I’d rather not get decapitated by a parked, box truck rental driver that forgot to put his hazard lights on.
Immediately the chorus of horns echoes through the brownstone trenches that cut their way from river to bay. One driver rolls down his window to scream me off the road, as if I wasn’t fluent in translating wordless, honking melodies of rush-hour Brooklyn. I whip my head around and take everything in every truck, car, pedestrian, tree, construction worker, pigeon and pothole. I see it all in about a quarter of a second and trust that a little computer somewhere in the base of my brain will ‘Malcolm Gladwell’ the whole scene and guide me swiftly and safely.

Act and react. I ride with my legs, eyes and brain. Everything else is secondary. I take my safety into my own hands (and legs). They hate me. They hate us. They think we’re lawless, running red lights, taking stop signs as a suggestion riding outside of the aforementioned bike lane. Well they’re right. I hold little regard for the municipal infractions that help rookie cops meet their ticket quotas. I could follow every law in the book and I still might not be safe, but I’d definitely be bored.

Living life fast is way too fun to limit it to mere five block increments. And I’d rather get ahead of the light and ride for a quarter mile with the road to myself. Because for every rebel roadie out there, there are a dozen soccer moms, cabbies and workmen who disregard the speed limit, forget about their turn blinker, and have no respect for the double unbroken yellow line. Rules are for schoolyard and the teacher is nowhere to be seen. Rules are for cars. It doesn’t seem fair, but that’s just how it is. If I get careless, I’m not taking a family of five with me. But I don’t get careless. There is an extreme order to the apparent chaos of my cross-city navigation. It’s been five years since I’ve been knocked off my wheels. You’re going to have to be trying to hit me; and you’re going to have to try very hard.

It would seem counterintuitive that I would like this danger-adjacent hobby. I am after all very worrisome, often lazy and prone to extreme fits of anxiety.

But my bicycle is the best therapist, most potent anti-depressant and one of the best friends I’ve ever had.

Ask anybody who regularly rides their bike to work.Everybody should have a bike. You should get one right now. It allows you to tolerate the intolerable, saves you from murdering incompetent coworkers, and keeps the stresses of the 9-to-5 in the office where they belong. It didn’t surprise me that Robin Williams was an avid rider. The catharsis of cycling is quite powerful. A man with his demons could definitely escape them with blinding speed in the saddle of a $10,000 road bike.

So, hate all you want on the growing number of urban Lance Armstrongs filling the city streets. We’re growing. The streets are as much ours as they do belong to the internal combustion engine. And I don’t care if my ride runs on pancakes and quinoa. I’m not going anywhere except forward, and I’m doing it as fast as my legs can take me.


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