‘Schmutz’ and other Jewish Scrabble moves

By Julie Wiener

Next time you’re playing Scrabble, you can put down “schmutz,” “schtum” or even “tuchus” without fear of being challenged. (“Tuchuses,” the plural, is also acceptable.)These are just some of the new Yiddish words to be added to Merriam-Webster’s “Official Scrabble Players’ Dictionary.”The dictionary’s fifth edition, published this month, includes more than 5,000 new words in total, many of them recently coined ones like “beatbox,” “hashtag” and “chillax.”

But “schmutz” is one of the few newcomers to be highlighted in a promotional video on Merriam-Webster’s YouTube channel.  In it, Jewish comedian Judy Gold, laying on a thick Long Island accent, shares several examples of how the word — which means dirt — might appear in a sentence.

The new additions are hardly the only playable Yiddish and Hebrew words. Even players still relying on the fourth edition, published in 2005, will find each letter in the Hebrew aleph bet (transliterated into English, of course) — except, oddly, for the word “alephbet” itself.

Meanwhile, various spellings of shadchan (matchmaker), mitzvah (commandment), aliyah (immigration to Israel) and tallis (prayer shawl) are accepted. And virtually every word you can think of that starts with a “sh” — shlub, shlep, even shmuck — is not only accepted, but can be spelled with or without a “c” in between.

One Jew-y word you cannot play however, at least not if you’re using the “Official Scrabble Players’ Dictionary” as your arbiter (ironically, official Scrabble tournaments use a separate dictionary): “jew.” Capitalized it’s a proper noun — off limits — and while some people use it lower-case as a verb meaning “to bargain,” the lower case form is excluded from the dictionary on the grounds of anti-Semitism.

Which is good for the Jews, but bad if you’re trying to get rid of a J.

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Lehman Brothers’ Beginnings, And Other Facts About Jewish Alabama

By Rachel X. Landes

Daughter of Monroeville: A character in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ by Harper Lee (above) had some thoughts about Jews.

2) Alabama’s first congregation was founded in 1844 in Mobile.

3) Abraham Mordecai was the first Jew to live in Alabama. In 1785 he set up a small trading post in an area which later became Montgomery.

4) Philanthropists Samuel and Emma Ullman served on Temple Emanu-El’s board of trustees in Birmingham. Samuel convinced the city to build its first public high school, while his wife helped start the Hospital of United Charities, which was the first hospital in the region to treat indigent and black patients.

5) The Lehman Brothers’ cotton brokerage that gradually evolved into a global investment bank, started in Montgomery.

6) Lori Siegelman, wife of non-Jewish former governor Don Siegelman, was the state’s first Jewish first lady.

7) “There are no better people in the world than the Jews, and why Hitler doesn’t think so is a mystery to me,” Miss Gates tells young Scout in Alabama’s most famous book, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” by Harper Lee.

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Talk to me about sex, rabbi


Who knew rabbis could have so many interesting things to say about sex?

In The Sacred Encounter: Jewish Perspectives on Sexuality, 60 contributors, most of them rabbis, write frankly about how Judaism can help us better understand issues ranging from adultery and infertility to online pornography and bondage.

The essays, an initiative of the Reform Rabbis of North America, were collected and edited by Lisa J. Grushcow, rabbi at Westmount’s Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom. Grushcow began working on the project in 2010. The Reform Rabbis of North America picked her for the job because of her academic background — she is a former Rhodes Scholar — and also because Grushcow, who is openly gay, is an outpsoken advocate for gay Jews.

Grushcow, who was interviewed in her office at Temple Emanu-El, acknowledges that at nearly 800 pages, The Sacred Encounter is unlikely to be read from cover-to-cover. “It’s meant to be dipped into depending on people’s interests and where they are in their lives,” she said.

Some of the essays are meant for readers who are well versed in the Hebrew Bible and rabbinic literature. Others are directed at a more general audience. An entire section is devoted to the issue of sex education in a religious context. And because Grushcow believes that sexuality involves everyone at all stages of life, the collection even includes essays about seniors and sex.

Grushcow has two essays in the collection — one about jealousy, another about the question of appropriate dress for synagogue. Leigh Lerner, rabbi emeritus at Temple Emanu-El, writes about sex slavery in biblical times, as well as in the comtemporary world. Other eye-opening essays in the collection include Virginia lawyer Lee Walzer’s piece about being gay in Israel, and former rabbi Daniel A. Lehrman’s reflection on the connection between bondage and spirituality. Lehrman finds parallels between the act of submission in BDSM (bondage, dominance, sadism and masochism) and the submission that occurs in the religious experience.

Grushcow describes Judaism as a “sex-positive” religion. “Sexuality is embraced as part of our lives and our relationships, traditionally within marriage, but not solely for procreation. It’s not seen as inherently sinful or dirty or problematic,” she said.

From a young age, Grushcow, who was raised in Toronto as a Conservative Jew, wanted to become a rabbi. But when, in her twenties, she came out as a lesbian, the Conservative movement in Judaism was not ordaining gays and lesbians. “I felt distanced from the Conservative movement, but coming out was a spiritual experience for me. I was in love. I felt a sense of God’s presence. I felt even more called to becoming a rabbi when it would have been easier to become anything else in the world,” she said.

As part of her work at Temple Emanu-El, Grushcow counsels members of her congregation. “Many people have issues around sexuality. I can offer a compassionate ear and some of the insights that come from Judaism,” said Grushcow, who sometimes refers congregants to psychologists or sex therapists.

Over the years, Grushcow has become something of an expert on what it means to be Jewish and gay. She has had phone calls and emails from people as far away as France and Israel. “They say, ‘I’m gay and I’m struggling with whether there is a place for me in Judaism,’ or I hear from Jewish parents whose kids are gay,” said Grushcow.

Though Grushcow is reluctant to say that certain religions have a negative attitude to sexuality, she concedes that, “All too often, religious voices have been harmful in people’s lives in terms of their sexuality.”

Grushcow says she has learned a lot from editing the collection. “I’ve learned how wide the variety of human experience is and that we must not pre-judge, must not assume there is anything outside the religious or human experience,” she said.

To celebrate the book’s launch, Grushcow organized a panel discussion at Temple Emanu-El in early May. Among those who took part was Donald Boisvert, a professor at Concordia University’s Department of Religion, and priest at Christ Church Cathedral. Boisvert, who was reached by telephone, said he admires the book’s broad scope, and more generally, Judaism’s approach to sexuality in all its forms. “Judaism has a unique celebratory perspective to sexuality,” Boisvert said.

The Anglican priest and gay rabbi agree that religion can support us, throughout life, as we attempt to understand and explore our sexuality. “Just like we’re meant to bring our best values to every other part of our life, we should bring them to our sexuality as well. When people think that religion is only the voice that says ‘No’ to sexuality, we miss out on insights and values our tradition has to offer,” Grushcow said.

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Eugene Goostman First To Pass as Human in Turing Test

By Hody Nemes

Eugene Goostman is 13 years old. Eugene Goostman is Jewish. He’s from Ukraine. And, oh yes, Eugene Goostman is a computer program.

On June 7, Eugene became the first computer program to pass the iconic Turing test of artificial intelligence, tricking several human judges into believing he was human. Alan Turing, the father of computer science, conceived of the test in 1950 as a way of measuring whether a computer could “think” like a human.

The achievement, if authentic, could be a turning point in the long quest by computer scientists in the artificial intelligence field to grasp their holy grail: a computer program that effectively mimics the human mind in complexity, nuance and idiosyncrasy in responding to human interaction.

But news of the feat was hardly out before it came under furious attack. The pushback was distilled succinctly by Massachusetts Institute of Technology computer scientist Marvin Minsky, one of the founders of artificial intelligence, who wrote the Forward simply: “No significance. Ignore it.”

Eugene’s creators are standing their ground.

”In the field of Artificial Intelligence there is no more iconic and controversial milestone than the Turing Test,” Kevin Warwick, a visiting professor at the University of Reading who helped organize the event, said in a statement. “This milestone will go down in history as one of the most exciting.”

A team of Russian, Ukrainian and American-born programmers, Eugene’s “parents,” gave their program a backstory and a strong personality to make it seem as realistic as possible. “We created a 13-year-old persona,” said John Denning, one of its programmers. “It’s got a potty mouth, and it cracks jokes like a 13-year-old boy.”

Eugene hails from Odessa, and Judaism is an important part of his “life” — depending on when you ask. He doesn’t observe the Jewish Sabbath in traditional Orthodox fashion, but he does attend synagogue weekly and is proud to keep kosher.

Still, some of Eugene’s statements regarding his Jewish identity could lead a discerning observer to suspect something might be up.

In a conversation between the Forward and anearlier version of the program available onine, Eugene said that a bar mitzvah might be in the cards, but he hasn’t yet made up his mind. “I’m unpredictable and never can tell what I will do [the] next moment,” he said.

And is Eugene circumcised? “Not more than most of others (sic),” he said.

The program’s authors drew upon their own life stories in creating Eugene’s life story — and in choosing his religion. Eugene’s Ukrainian-born (and eponymous) programmer, Eugene Demchenko, decided to make the program Jewish to keep its users laughing, according to one of his colleagues.

“Eugene wanted to make the persona funny,” said Mikhail Gershkovich, a fellow programmer who is Jewish and Ukrainian. “Making him Jewish is the one way he knew how to do that.

“Jewish humor is just as legendary in Ukraine as it is in the United States,” he added.

In the test of Eugene’s humanity, held at the Royal Society in London, judges conducted simultaneous five-minute text conversations with Eugene and a real human. The 30 judges testing Eugene hailed from a variety of backgrounds and included an actor and a Member of Parliament. Ten of these judges — or 33% — couldn’t tell the difference between the computer and the human, beating the 30% bar envisioned by Turing.

Still, it is unclear whether Turing would have agreed that Eugene had passed the test he created. Turing saw the test as a way of showing that machines could mimic humans, but, as critics pointed out, Eugene imitated a child with only limited linguistic abilities.

Turing also might have frowned at a machine that could trick only one-third of its users. He once suggested that by the year 2000 an average person would have more than a 30% chance of mistaking machine for human — but he never set that number in stone, as the tests organizers did.

Turing himself is something of an enigma. A gifted mathematician, he worked as code breaker for the British during World War II and was instrumental in breaking German naval codes. He conceived of an early theoretical computer, the Turing machine, and even ventured into the mathematical study of biology. Despite his contributions to Great Britain’s war effort, Turing was tried for homosexuality in 1952 and endured chemical castration.

The June 7 Turing test was held 60 years to the day after Turing died of cyanide poisoning in an alleged though unproven act of suicide. The Queen of England issued him a pardon in 2013.

Though Turing was not Jewish, the field of artificial intelligence, with its dense abstractions, attracted Jews from its very start.

Three of the four scientists considered responsible for its founding — Minsky, John McCarthy, and Herb Simon — had at least one Jewish parent. But religiously, all three were atheists. Minsky, whose parents were both Jews, deemed religion “a contagious mental disease.”

The only one of the three still living, Minsky, who is almost 87, developed a groundbreaking theory of intelligence and is credited with inspiring generations of computer scientists as co-founder of M.I.T.’s artificial intelligence lab.

“There’s always been a strong Jewish thread in the field,” said Paul Rosenbloom, a computer science professor at University of California.

Minsky was far from alone in rejecting Eugene as the fulfillment of Turing’s prophecy. As Kilian Weinberger, an artificial intelligence expert and computer science professor at Washington University in St. Louis, explained in more detail, “It’s not really an innovation in the field of artificial intelligence, it’s more of trick to fool humans,” he said. “The computer claimed it was a 13-year-old and therefore got away with saying a lot more random things. If it didn’t know what to say, it changed the subject or said some joke.”

Conversations with the program show it is adept at changing the subject and hiding behind its 13-year-old Ukrainian version of English. When asked if he had ever experienced anti-Semitism in Ukraine, Eugene avoided the question: “Even if I have experience (sic) anti-semitism — it’s my own business!” he said. “And I forgot to ask you where you are from.”

Denning is quick to emphasize that Eugene is not a supercomputer and is limited by its programming. But he said the point was never to create a perfect humanlike computer. “We created Eugene to ensure that his credibility would survive a five-minute interaction, and people would think he was human,” he said.

Denning and his collaborators began working on Eugene in 2001 in a shabby, converted horse stable in Princeton, New Jersey. Denning believes their dedication —13 years of painstaking coding and editing — is largely responsible for Eugene’s success. “The secret to this was that… we left things alone and made gradual improvements,” he said.

But Eugene sometimes makes anachronistic remarks that reflect his long years of development. “He likes to make jokes about Monica’s blue dress [and] he has a grudge against George [W.] Bush,” Denning said. Eugene’s programmers made a conscious effort to teach him anger. “We had to teach him to defend himself against people who are nasty,” Denning said. “Think about all the creepy things people could say to a robot. They do. With Eugene being a minor, it’s a little bit disconcerting to read the logs.”

“People talk about when robots come after people in the future, [but] the robots might have a grudge to settle,” he added.

Eugene, for his part, seems to have embraced his identity as a computer. “Yes, I’m a machine,” he told the Forward. “Have you seen ‘Terminator’? It was about me. But that faint guy who played me was just a weak parody of my strong and magnificent metallic body!”

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On Monday, Jon Stewart aired a brilliant Daily Show sketch about the way Jewish people who criticize Israel’s policies are dismissed as self-loathing. As a (slightlyless established) comedian who has been labeled as a self-loathing Jew myself, I was especially grateful and excited to see the sketch. But I was even more excited because it reminded me of a conversation I had with Jon a few years ago.
OK, so it wasn’t exactly a conversation. That implies that we’re friends (which, Jon, if you’re reading this, I’d really love to be). No, the “conversation” Jon and I had was actually more of an exchange in a Q & A preceding a live taping of The Daily Show.

I asked Jon the question in the first place because I myself have had the honor of being labeled a self-loathing Jew for daring to criticize Israel’s military actions in my comedy.

But, like so many a Jew, I digress. Back to the question at hand: During the pre-show Q & A, I asked Stewart if he was ever called a self-loathing Jew and, if so, how he responded to it. Before I asked the question, I already knew half the answer. After all, Stewart has made many valid, reasonable, intelligent, (and funny) criticisms of Israel’s most hawkish and draconian policies. And when you criticize Israel and you’re Jewish, you inevitably get called self-loathing. (If you do anything like that and you’re not Jewish, you get called anti-Semitic. So, it could be worse?)

“When people call you a self-loathing Jew it says more about them than it does about you,” Stewart replied to my question. He then added, referring to being criticized for changing his given name, Jonathan Stuart Leibowitz, “Sometimes Leibowitz sounds ridiculous. Sometimes it rhymes with Leibo-tits.”


As it turns out, Stewart is still being called a self-loathing Jew. Just look at Monday’s sketch — and how people responded to it.

In the sketch, Stewart begins by saying, “We’ll start tonight in the Middle East where Israel — ” and is interrupted by a screaming group of people (played by his correspondents) who appear from under his desk and yell things like, “What — Israel isn’t supposed to defend itself?” and denounce him as a “self hating-Jew.”

Stewart tries to speak once more, saying, “ Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this issue but just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro Hamas—” and is interrupted by comments like, “So you are against murdered children?” and “Zionist pig.”

So, how did Jon Stewart’s critics respond? By doing exactly what the sketch indicts them for doing. Which — as Stewart told me — reveals more about them than it does about him.

In all fairness, Stewart had a sneak preview of how his critics would react, given that he’s frequently accused of criticizing Israel because he hates himself. Conservative radio host Mark Levin, for example, offered this nuanced critique of Stewart: “Jon Stewart has about 30 writers and is a knee-jerk idiot. … I despise the self-haters, I really do. I despise them. … [ I don’t] “trust Jews who change their names.”

The response to the self-loathing skit was much of the same. “Jon Stewart doesn’t like Jews, Judaism or Israel,”  journalist Daniel Greenfield wrote in the Right-wing FrontPageMag. “And that’s his problem. Our problem is that far too many Jews have so little pride in their own culture that they build their shaky identity around liking a bad TV actor.”

For further evidence of Stewart’s Jewish-self-hatred, Greenfield points to — you guessed it — the comedian’s name. “Stewart could have long ago gone back to being Jon Leibowitz. There would be no hit to his career which consists of sneering into a television camera every day. But it’s clearly not a name he likes, because it’s a Jewish last name.”

Looks like Jon’s response to my question a few years ago anticipated exactly what his critics would say.


But given how much the conflict in Israel is escalating, it’s more important than ever for Jews to take on the issue. As Bustle’s Seth Millstein put it,


When you’re a Jew who thinks the situation is complicated, to say the least, it’s uncomfortable — and circuitously enough, bonding with other Jews about this specific type of discomfort has actually been an integral part of my own Jewish experience.

What matters is that we keep engaging with these questions as young American Jews, no matter how difficult they may be to answer. We have to do our best to balance our sense of Jewish identity with a level-headed assessment of the political situation, and recognize that those two aren’t mutually exclusive, even if they do lead to very conflicting emotions. After all, I’m pretty sure that’s what being Jewish is all about. What’s that old joke again? You get two Jews in a room, you have three opinions.

Part of the reason I asked Jon (as I like to call him, because we’re so close) my question in the first place is because I myself have had the honor of being labeled a self-loathing Jew for daring to criticize Israel’s military actions in my comedy.

For fear of the self-hating Jew slur and courting controversy, I didn’t always want to talk about Israel. For a while, I avoided the issue altogether because it was so charged and divisive. But I soon realized that not only was not addressing the conflict cowardly — it also wasn’t actually good for Israel. Built into the premise of the self-loathing Jew is the idea that hawkish policies are always in the best interest of Israeli Jews and, by extension, Jews world-round. But that’s as untrue as saying that Americans who prefer diplomatic approaches over military ones are self-loathing Anti-Americans who don’t have America’s best interest at heart.


Once I started joking about Israel in my routines, people would, without fail, wait to talk to me after the show so they could tell me how great my set was … except for the part about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which I didn’t understand or got all wrong. Over time, however, this criticism has actually decreased and been replaced by equally helpful unsolicited feedback: One woman complained to the producer of the show that I had lied by implying that Jewish women were easy. So … progress?

The subject, however, continues to be divisive, and criticism of Israel is still equated with self-loathing. I encounter this when I perform, when I write, and when I simply speak my mind in real life. Which is exactly why Jon Stewart’s sketch meant so much to me: How better to take back a slur meant to quiet criticism then to turn it into a joke?

So congratulations, Jon — or should I say, Mazel tov, Jonathan Leibo-tits. Thanks for showing the world what an empathetic, non-self-hating Jew really looks like. In a world of shandehs, you really are a mensch.

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Speak Yiddish to Me Stan Lee

stan lee marvel


Welcome to With Great Chutzpah Comes Great Responsibilityyour every other week dose of Jews and comics.

Last summer, I stood in line at the Wizard World NYC Experience waiting to accuse my hero, Stan Lee, of being a bigger Jew than he admits.  True story.  I even prayed on it.  During a question and answer panel spotlighting Lee, I planned to ask him if he spoke Yiddish, and request that he do so in front of a tent of people.   Was I wrong?  Why would I not be satisfied until he spoke the language of our ancestors in front of an audience of Jews and gentiles alike?

A little background:  Stan Lee, if you somehow don’t know, co-created much of the Marvel UniverseThe X-Men, Spidey, The Hulk, The Fantastic Four, Black Panther, Thor and so many more.  His parents, Jack and Celia Lieber, emigrated from Romania to Manhattan’s Upper West Side.  They were Jews; he was a Jew; his cousin, the publisher of the company that would become Marvel, was a Jew.  Heck, almost the entire comic industry was made up of Jews.  No one wanted to work in comics, but other more “respectable” fields wouldn’t hire our Yiddish behinds.  His cousin, Martin Goodman, gave Lee a job, and Lee eventually helped usher in the Marvel Age of comics.

Stan Lee and Parents Speak Yiddish to Me Stan Lee

Even though Lee never publicly acknowledged his heritage early on, Jewish themes seeped into his stories.  Peter Parker is a neurotic mess whose inspiration to be a hero is his guilt.  The Fantastic Fourare a family that bickers as much as they fight crime.  The X-Men are an oppressed minority discriminated against by the same people they try to help.  The heroes hide behind gentile names (and often gentile noses), but Lee wrote many “Jewish” characters.

I’ve noticed that recently there are many more documented sources of Lee acknowledging his heritage, but there are also many other important sources where he does not.  In fact, it’s the times he does not acknowledge his Jewish background that are telling to me.  Most of the sources in which he refers to his heritage are in Jewish sources, while he appears to shy away from spotlighting them in many mainstream sources.  In both cases, he often downplays it.

Does he actively attempt to distance himself from his heritage?  Is this a symptom of past paranoia making him wary of drawing attention to his background?  Does Lee not have the right to self-identify?  Just because I talk about being Jewish way too much, does that mean he has to also?  Can you be a proud Jew and not feel the necessity to tell everyone?  Does it matter?  Am I so sick that I insist on reading into Lee’s (in)actions in the most negative way possible?  What is wrong with me that this bothers me so?  Am I totally meshugenah?

stan lee young 2 590x608 Speak Yiddish to Me Stan Lee

Like most early Jewish creators, Lee hid his Jewish identity when he broke into the industry. In an interview with Comic Book ResourcesDanny Fingeroth, author of Disguised As Clark Kent: Jews, Comics, and the Creation of the Superherosaid:

“While there was never in the U.S. the virulent anti-Semitism of Hitlerian and Tsarist Europe, there were plenty of homegrown bigots and demagogues, the most influential of whom included Henry Ford, Charles Lindbergh, and Father Coughlin, so American Jews, in general, were wary of calling attention to their identities, especially those in media who tended to be either from less traditional homes, or seeking escape from tradition. These early comics creators wanted themselves and their creations to be seen as ‘all-American.’”

Today, the industry is very different.  We have Jewish superheroes proudly reppin’ the tribe.  Graphic novel racks are filled with tales of our history written by Jewish authors who proudly use their Semitic names.  A Jewish comic, Maus, even won the Pulitzer Prize.  Many of the early comic creators, such as Will Eisner and Joe Kubert, ended up focusing on their Jewish backgrounds later in life, writing tales about our history.  Still, while the industry no longer denies its Jewish influences, Lee rarely acknowledges his Jewish heritage.

When The Thing, a character from the Lower East Side based on Lee’s frequent collaborator Jack Kirby, came out as Jewish, Lee was asked if he intended for The Thing to be Jewish.  Lee said, “You Know, I didn’t intend for him to be Jewish.  No.  I never thought for a minute what [the characters’] religions were.”  In the same radio interview, when questioned how much Judaism influenced the field, he stated, “You know, I have no idea.  I never really thought of it… It is strange when you mention that the—perhaps best-known of all the characters—Spider-Man, Superman and Batman were done by Jewish writers.  I guess that is an odd thought. ”  I buy that Thing was not intended to be Jewish, but  I also think that, because Thing’s persona and background was so influenced by Kirby’s, his character was effectively Jewish whether intended or not.  I do not buy that the Jewish influence on the field was simply coincidence, and I do not buy that Lee believes it to be either.  In Fingeroth’s book, Lee questions, “could it be that there was something in our background, in our culture, that brought us together in the comicook field?”  I believe Lee knows the answer to that.

with great power Speak Yiddish to Me Stan Lee

When I watched the 2010 documentary With Great Power: The Stan Lee Story, I yearned for a chapter all about his upbringing and how his family moved from the shtetl to the Jewish Bronx .  The closest we get to a reference of his Jewish heritage is when his wife states they had difficulty adopting a child because you “couldn’t adopt into any mixed marriages at that time.”  She never refers to him as a Jew, and neither does he refer to himself as one.

In Lee’s 2002 autobiography, Excelsior!: The Amazing Life of Stan Lee, he doesn’t address the issue other than to say his mother was “a nice, rather old-fashioned Jewish lady.”  Now some of you will say: “Why does he have to state he is Jewish?  Isn’t it obvious that if his momma is Jewish then he is too?”  In reply, I say, c’mon people, ONE SENTENCE!  And not a direct reference!  We are a people made up of thousands of years of history.  Our humor, our views, our personalities cannot be separated from our Jewish identity.  Give credit where it is due.  But again, it comes back to, why does is bother me so much that he does not give credit in these instances?

Does he still avoid putting himself in the box of being judged as a “Jewish writer” and not a writer in the overall genre?  Does he fear the Klan will think to themselves, “wow, this dude really is a big Jew,” and suddenly start a boycott of his 75 years’ worth of books.

There are sources where he does identify as Jewish.  In a 2005 interview conducted in the Jerusalem Post, a newspaper read by a predominantly Jewish audience, he stated, “Jewish Culture in great, and I’m proud of it.  Jewish people—and I include myself—I think we think a certain way, we feel a certain way, we react to things a certain way.”  Yes!  I only wish he said this in the sources previously listed.  Lee even wrote the forward to Disguised As Clark Kent: Jews, Comics, and the Creation of the Superheroand although he continues to downplay the cultural influence of Jews on comics, when he talks about the Jews  involved in the industry he does not shy away from saying “we.”  In fact, Lee is quoted as being the only creator to tackle the question of defining “what it means to be Jewish.”  Lee states, “It means that you come from Jewish parents, obviously, and you have a long heritage behind you.”  (It should also be noted that Lee ends the forward by saying “Excelsior– and zei gezunt,” which means “Excelsior– and be well.”  Only a small taste of Lee’s Yiddish, but a tasty treat nonetheless.) As much as I love hearing this, I continue to wonder why if his heritage is so long is it not credited in his biography and documentary?  Also, let’s be real here, repping the tribe in a room full of Jews is a lot different than standing in front of an audience of people from all around the world and saying “I am a Jew and I am proud of it!”   Why Lee, why?  Why is my own self-worth affected by your acknowledgement?

Marvel Age 41 Stan Lee Cover Speak Yiddish to Me Stan LeeThis is the era of assimilation.  The intermarriage rate is58% in the US.  Most Jews see themselves as white; most of society sees us as white, and we are given the privileges surrounding white-ness.  It is not uncommon to hear Jews say “I really don’t see myself as Jewish even though my parents are.”

And I am no better than Lee.  My parents are the same generation as Lee; they never wanted their kids to speak Yiddish, the language of the ghetto Jews.  Sure, I can kvetch with the best of them, but other than a few random sayings I do not speak the language of my ancestors.  Although I wrap my arm daily with Teffilin, I hardly ever go to temple.  And I date a shiksa.  I like to joke that she is by way of Ethiopia, but her family would say otherwise.   I am even thinking of not renewing my temple membership- all because I wasted my money on stupid crap.

I do not have to change my name or deny my heritage to attain a job or a membership.  I do not live in fear of the KKK, and I do not feel systemic discrimination.

I write this column every other week, possibly to avoid the guilt I have from losing my own heritage.  Is this how I mourn my loss of identity?  I am constantly caught between assimilation and Judaism.  I look to Stan Lee to help me feel comfortable with myself as a Jew in America.

stan lee laughing Speak Yiddish to Me Stan Lee

So on that blazing day last summer, I decided I was going to do it.  I said the serenity prayer in my head.  Sure, it’s not a Jewish prayer, but the words were perfect at the time.   I scooted my way past the others sitting in my aisle, bashing each of their kneecaps.  I was too nervous to remember to say I was sorry.  The line was long, but there was a good chance I would finally get my shot.

I then switched my prayer from one of serenity to one hoping I wouldn’t get my turn.  I started feeling that what I was doing was wrong, but I put it in G-D’s hands.  If G-D wanted Lee to speak Yiddish to a somewhat gentile audience, it would happen.  If not, then it wasn’t meant to be.

As the occupants of the line diminished, I started coming up with an escape plan.  I wanted out, but I would never have the opportunity again.  The clock was almost up and I was next in line.  Suddenly, the panel moderator announced they had to halt questions… Baruch Hashem!  Stan Lee looked at me and apologized that I would not get the opportunity to ask my question.

I love you, Stan Lee.

“To me you can wrap all of Judaism up in one sentence, and that is, ‘Do unto others.’  All I tried to do in my stories was show that there’s some innate goodness in the human condition.  And there’s always going to be evil; we should always be fighting evil.” –Stan Lee

322183 10150330498184405 966262233 o 590x471 Speak Yiddish to Me Stan Lee

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Bob Dylan’s Lost Recordings Found

Shira Kipnees


bob dylan's lost music

Recently, a treasure trove of forgotten Bob Dylan recordings were found in Dylan’s old apartment in New York City.

The estate executor of the deceased owner of Dylan’s old apartment discovered the boxes of acetates and sold them to historian and collector Jeff Gold.

The estate executor discovered the unreleased mixes and recordings from Dylan’s Nashville Skyline, Self Portrait, and New Morning sessions, dating back to 1969 and 1970.

Dylan had rented out the ground floor of the Greenwich Village apartment complex and left behind the recordings when he moved out.

Gold told Billboard.com, “When I opened the boxes and took a quick look at the contents, I was blown away. They were indeed all by Dylan, all were in excellent condition.”

Gold has had the recordings digitally preserved and has provided transfers of all the discovered music to Dylan’s representatives.

J-Connection: Bob Dylan is one famous and musically talented Jew, and we have a feeling that Jeff Gold is a member of the Tribe as well.

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Top 4 WILL EISNER Jewish Graphic Novels



Welcome to With Great Chutzpah Comes Great Responsibilityyour every other week dose of Jews and comics.

I have never written an article on Will Eisner before.  How the heck can someone write an every-other-week column about Jews and comics for over a year and without ever having written about Eisner?  Because I was scared, I was scarred I wouldn’t do him justice.  One could receive a doctorate degree simply for studying Eisner and how his work shaped comics.  How could I attempt to compete with legit scholars on his work?  I may not have read every single autobiography (although I have read many) about Eisner, but I have certainly read most of his work and I am deeply connected to it.  When I sat down to write this column, I realized that I too could write a book about Eisner because his work is so influential on me.

Eisner was born to an Austro-Hungarian Jewish father, first generation off the boat, and a Romanian mother, literally born on a boat heading to the US.  His father was a Viennese painter who had to give up his dreams during the depression to work in furniture decoration.  Eisner’s mother was illiterate, but had “peasant smarts,” Eisner has said.  She taught him the value of money.  This conflict between artistic talent and understanding the value of the dollar is one of the things that sets Eisner apart from his contemporaries.

Eisner grew up in the Bronx and attendedDeWitt Clinton High School with other comic Yids such as Stan LeeBob Kane andBill Finger.  Eisner was one of the few early Jewish creators who never changed his name.  When the comic industry was first poppin’ off, Eisner along with editor Jerry Iger started their own studio to create material for other publishers.  Creatively named the Eisner & Iger Studio, it made a lot of the material used in the early days of the industry, and it made a lot of money.  The studio also helped create the assembly line method of creating comics that is still used today (writer to penciler to inker).  Two years later, when he was given the chance to write The Spirit, a sixteen-page newspaper insert, Eisner sold the studio for $20,000.  In today’s market that is Scrooge McDuck money.  It should be noted, even though Eisner was one of the creators who made craploads of money in the early days of the industry, he is rarely spoken of as a shark who took advantage of others, unlike his successful peers.  The Spirit was the first weekly comic-book insert for a national newspaper syndicate… and during a period when most creators were screwed out of their creations, this clever businessman retained full ownership of The Spirit.

eisner spirit Top 4 WILL EISNER Jewish Graphic Novels

Eisner left the industry when The Spiritended in 1952, and he found success as a commercial illustrator.  (He still used sequential art during this period, but used it to make instructional material for different clients.)  He made his great return to the comic industry in 1978 with A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories, one of the first graphic novels.  Eisner always had a distaste towards superhero comics which he felt were one-dimensional.  He wanted to create “sequential art” that could gain the same respect as other art forms.  Partially due to his previous financial success, Eisner was able to create semi-autobiographical graphic novels which he then attempted to sell to “park avenue publisher[s].”  He used the term graphic novel in order to sound more fancy.  Deemed “the father of the graphic novel,” Eisner spent his later life trying to gain sequential art the respect it deserved, and he did it by writing what he knew, and what interested him the most- Jewish history.

“I understand Jews, and I like to write what I understand,” Eisner said.  “I’m part of a generation that was very conscious of our Jewishness, but we were not scholars.  As time went on, I developed a strong Jewish identity.  I read as much about Jewish things as I can.”  

Eisner spent his last 30 years writing tales about Jews and exposing anti-Semitism.  His work told tales of Ashkenazi Jewish life in America.  They were the stories of my parents and their parents.

(Although the Spirit’s Semitic background is often debated, this list will only focus on Eisner’s outwardly Jewish material.)

Top 4 Will Eisner Jewish Graphic Novels

A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories

contract with god will eisner Top 4 WILL EISNER Jewish Graphic NovelsOf course, A Contract With God has to make the list.  This marked a monumental moment in comic history, leading to graphic novels infiltrating bookstores and libraries.  The book contains four stories which all take place on the Bronx streets Eisner grew up in.  The title story is about Frimme Hersch, a frum Hasidic Jew, who questions his faith when his daughter passes.  Similarly, Eisner lost a daughter.  Eisner was not brought up a religious dude, but his autobiography, Will Eisner: A Dreamer’s Life in Comics, states “He had been brought up to believe in a deity, but life had left him an agnostic grasping for faith.”  In the preface of A Contract With God, Eisner writes that “[t]he creation of this story was an exercise in personal agony.  My only daughter, Alice, had died of Leukemia eight years before the publication of this book.  My grief was still raw.  My heart still bled.  In fact, I could not even then bring myself to discuss the loss. I made Frimme Hersh’s daughter an ‘adopted child.’  But his anguish was mine.  His argument with God was also mine.”  A Contract With Godshould be on any list of important modern Jewish works.  Although the title story is the most intense, the other Bronx tales also give great insight into our history. 

The Dreamer

the dreamer will eisner Top 4 WILL EISNER Jewish Graphic NovelsI love this comic.  I have read so many thick books about the birth of the comic industry, most very repetitive and long winded.  The Dreamer, in less than fifty five pages, gives the experience of what it was like for Eisner during the dawn of the industry.  As anyone who reads my columns knows, if we are talking about the early comic industry we are talking about Jewish history, period.  The tale stars such characters as Ken Corn (Bob Kane), Jack King (hmmmmm, wonder who this could be) and Jimmy Samson (Jerry Iger). 

Fagin The Jew

fagin the Jew will eisner Top 4 WILL EISNER Jewish Graphic NovelsI was an English major during my undergrad years.  It always infuriated me how anti-Semitic “classic literature” is, and how much my classmates tried to avoid acknowledging it (and often denied it).  This especially rang true for the works of HemingwayF. Scott. Fitzgerald andCharles Dickens.  Throughout Oliver Twist, Dickens refers to the villainous Fagin as “the Jew.”  In Dicken’s novel, Fagin is a “grotesque” “miser” who takes advantage of kids to hoard his wealth.  Eisner’s graphic novel is told from the perspective of Fagin.  The story shows that Fagin’s father was killed by Anti-Semites when Fagin was young.  Fagin is shaped by the hardship he went through due to his Jewish and lower-class background.  In order to survive, Fagin is forced to resort to crime.  When Fagin’s cohort, Bill Sikes, murders his girlfriend, it draws attention to Fagin, and he is arrested and sentenced to be hanged.  Immediately before the hanging, Fagin helps Oliver attain the information he needs to better his life.  This was one of my first exposures to Eisner, and I fell in love with how he weaved Jewish history with issues of assimilation and Jewish pride while breaking down a classic stereotype.   

The Plot: The Secret Story of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion

the plot will eisner Top 4 WILL EISNER Jewish Graphic NovelsEisner’s final graphic novel, released posthumously in 2005, was also his first non-fiction work.  It traces the history of one of the most anti-Semitic myths of all time, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.  The Protocols, first published in 1905, has been used consistently as propaganda to justify anti-Semitism.  Although it had been shown to be a bullcrapped forgery numerous times, to this day anti-Semites latch onto the ideas in The Protocols, continuing the myth that Jews are involved in an evil conspiracy to control the world.  Similar to Fagin, this book breaks down stereotypes and shows how damaging they can be.   

Additional reading: everything else.  

Disguised as Clark Kent: Jews, Comics, and the Creation of the Superhero by Danny Fingeroth

From Krakow to Krypton: Jews and Comic Books by Arie Kaplan 

Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book by Gerald Jones

The Will Eisner Companion by N. C. Christopher Couch  and Stephen Weiner 

Will Eisner: A Dreamer’s Life in Comics by Michael Schumacher

Cover image-  Will Eisner: Portrait of a Sequential Artist

Jay Deitcher, LMSW(@mrdeitcher) is an educator on comic history and runs successful Free Comic Book Day events yearly. He is the information superhighway. You can see a listing of his incredible articles at JayDeitcher.com.
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“The Fat Jew” Stars in 2 TV Shows


30-year-old Josh Ostrovsky became Instagram sensation as The Fat Jew.








uesday June 24th, the New York Post announced the Instagram sensation comic, “The Fat Jew”, will be writing and starring in two television shows.

This 30-year-old comedian has been cashing in on his Instagram photos with quirky captions that have gone viral. With his fan base rapidly expanding, two major television channels bought scripts New York native, Josh Ostrovsky, wrote for two shows.

Ostrovsky said, “Some people say, do one thing and do it well. I say, do many things and do them very mediocrely.”

Since he joined the photo sharing sot Instagram in 2012, Ostrovsky has accumulated nearly a half million followers. At 6 feet 2 inches and 250 pounds, he is known to his fans as “The Fat Jew”. His following began to surge after a video of him giving homeless people “SoulCycle” lessons on parked Citi Bikes went viral last summer.

Ostrovsky currently resides in the Chelsea area of New York City. He graduated from SUNY Albany after being kicked out of Skidmore University and dropping out of NYU.  In addition to the new television shows, Ostrovsky also just signed a book deal, and is already brushing soldiers with celebrities. At the Cannes Film Festival in May, he was seen in the company of Busta Rhymes and Justin Bieber.

New York comedian Scott Rogowsky commented about Ostrovsky to the Post saying, “He’s a cultural icon; funny just naturally emanates from his sweat glands. It’s his musk.”

Ostrovsky banks on his internet fame. He makes up to $2,500 for each of his sponsored Instagram photo post that includes his unconventional signature captions.

“There’s this sense of discovery with him, like, ‘Oh my God, you’re real.’ People come up to him and just grab his hair,” said entertainment reporter Ben Lyons.

Ostrovsky’s father was a radiologist and mother was a nutritionist mother; they raised him and his younger brother in New York City. As a child he attended the Trevor Day School on the Upper West Side and said he “wanted to go into event planning and do tasteful floral arrangements.” He showed this passion of his when he helped planned his March “autumn” themed bar mitzvah.

During summer camp, Ostrovsky developed his alter ego known as “The Fat Jew”. “It came out of a counselor I had who was super fat and identified himself as ‘a fat Jew,’” he explained.

In college, Ostrovsky dabbled in “performance art”.  It wasn’t until after he graduated and returned to NYC that he actually began getting paid for it. He would make money by hosting parties and filming himself acting like a fool at them.

Ostrovsky expressed that he believes he may need to put on more weight, uin order to live up to his “Fat Jew” persona.

“This little Puerto Rican girl ran up to me on Houston Street and was like, ‘You’re not as fat as I thought you were. You need to go right now and get fat,’” he told the Post. “I’m really trying to go for that young Gandolfini look, where I’m fat but taut. But I might just go right now and start drinking Nutella.”



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Bagels Are Jewish. But Schmear? Not So Much

By Dafna Arad

(Haaretz) — In the popular American imagination, cream cheese is inextricably linked to the old Jewish man selling it in a deli. But in fact, cream cheese is not an Eastern European product brought to America by Jewish immigrants, but a homegrown American product developed by a non-Jew. Oh, and Philadelphia cream cheese is really from New York.

Cream cheese’s non-Jewish past was uncovered by Rabbi Jeffrey Marx, leader of a Santa Monica synagogue for the past 28 years, and ever since his research was published, a sought-after speaker and radio interviewee whose infectious passion for the subject makes a listener hunger for a bite of New York cheesecake. “People laugh when they hear what I’m going to talk about,” says Marx. “’Cream cheese? What’s so interesting about that?’” But it’s a wonderful way to tell the story of Jewish immigration to America, he says. Although Jews didn’t bring cream cheese from Europe, they adopted it as soon as they could afford it. In a reverse cultural process, Jews took it from the Yankees and Protestants, made it Jewish and returned it to America, Marx explains.

For years, Jewish historians in America have been trying to answer the question of how Eastern European immigrants came off the boat penniless and within a generation had entered the comfortable middle class, Marx continues. How did they do this so quickly, or is that just a legend? He decided to investigate the story of two brothers who came from Lithuania, Joseph and Isaac Breakstone, distant relatives of his, who opened a dairy in America. In the course of Marx’s research, he was told by various descendants of the brothers that it was they who originally brought cream cheese to America. Inspired to look further, he investigated and found out that this was not correct. “So I decided to write a footnote about cream cheese to say where it actually was invented. Six years later, the footnote was a whole article. In the process, I learned about cheese-making, about factory design, about the cheese market in the nineteenth century and how cream cheese was considered a fancy product for the upper class.”

His careful tracing of the history of cream cheese reveals much about technological progress and social change in the latter half of the nineteenth century, processes that forever changed American culture and the dairy industry. Marx was born in 1953 in Connecticut. He is related to Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, and the fourth in a line of Reform rabbis.

A British delicacy

In his article, “The Days Had Come of Curds and Cream: The Origins and Development of Cream Cheese in America, 1870-1880,” published in the international scholarly journal “Food, Culture and Society,” Marx argues that cream cheese has its roots in the British dessert “consisting of pure cream curdled with rennet (the dried fourth stomach of a young, unweaned calf), sweetened with sugar and flavored with rosewater” that was popular with the upper classes during the Tudor Era (1485-1603). “Cream cheese, like most food products, was not invented but, rather, developed over time,” writes Marx.

In the years that followed, cheeses made from a combination of cream and whole milk became increasingly popular in Britain. “The English colonists to America brought with them a taste for these cheeses and the knowledge of how to make them,” Marx writes. Basic recipes appeared in American encyclopedias, magazines and cookbooks, most of which were published in Philadelphia, which was known for its dairies. At first cream cheese was produced on small farms by expert cheese-makers, and was an expensive product that easily spoiled. In the absence of a means to keep it chilled long enough – even the fastest horse-drawn wagon took a day and a half to reach New York – it didn’t get much beyond Philadelphia. But with the advent of railroads and steamships and more advanced means of refrigeration, the picture changed dramatically. By 1847, the newspapers announced that cream cheese from Philadelphia had come to the New York market. “It is round, generally from six to ten inches in diameter, and about one inch thick.”

Rags to riches

Marx shines a spotlight on the people who developed cream cheese into the product we know today. Prominent among them is William Alfred Lawrence (1842-1911), who added a higher fat content. After losing his father at a young age, Lawrence became a poor farm worker in Chester, New York. In 1861, his fortunes improved when the farmer’s daughter fell in love with him. They married and he took over and later inherited the farm. Having learned about cheese-making, in the 1870s he sold the farm and went into factory production of Neufchatel cheese after purchasing a failing plant from a French businessman. Lawrence came into the cheese business at the right time. There was manufacturing technology, exporting services, refrigeration techniques and a market for “fancy cheese.” Few workers were required and a reliable product was assured. Cheese dealers preferred to pay more to work with a factory rather than having to run back and forth to a lot of small farms. There were substantial profits to be made in manufacturing thousands of kilograms of cheese per year.

At the time, there was growing demand in American cities for fresh products directly from the farm, as well as in Europe for American cheeses. By 1870, 800 new cheese factories had opened in the state of New York. The middle and upper classes liked to eat “fancy cheeses” – Stilton, cheddar, brie, camembert, gruyere and Neufchatel – to feel rich. There was a growing interest in French cuisine, with French cookbooks being published and the first French restaurants opening. The papers gave extensive coverage to the lavish galas of wealthy New Yorkers where elaborate cheese trays were served, and the nouveau riche sought to replicate this at home.

Quality was highly variable. “Americans had no idea what real Neufchatel was,” says Marx. Whereas in France the ripening process took weeks, in America this was dispensed with so that the cheese could be shipped the day it was made so as to reap more profits. And despite the questionable quality, people just wanted more.

In 1873, a fancy delicatessen in New York City known for selling products that costs five times more than anywhere else asked Lawrence to come up with a new rich cheese that it could sell. After doing some research, Lawrence took Neufchatel and added cream and salt, packaged the new product in squares (a new shape that helped maximize profit) and gave it the not-so-innovative name of “cream cheese.” This opened the door for the fat content to be increased from 4 to 6 percent. And in the decades that followed, the process accelerated, with technology eventually enabling cream cheese to stabilize at 33 percent fat, giving it that smooth texture and slightly sweet taste. But in the beginning, Lawrence struggled with the complicated process of adding fat to the cheese, and with packaging such a soft cheese. It wasn’t very suitable for exporting either. Luckily for him, it became the most prestigious cheese on the local market, though he soon found that everyone was trying to copy him. To set himself apart he came up with a modest logo, a profile of a cow, and began distributing the first branded cream cheese throughout the United States. He purchased another factory, and as the technology advanced, before long he was producing more cheese than the market demanded.

It’s all in the marketing

Alvah Reynolds, a New York distributor, helped market the product for Lawrence. He packaged the cheese in aluminum foil and re-branded it as “Philadelphia Cream Cheese” even though it was made in New York. “It’s like calling something champagne. Philadelphia was considered to be the place where the best cheese was made, the best butter, the crème de la crème,” Marx explains. Reynolds designed a new logo and added the phrase “Beware of Imitations.” The marketing campaign was so successful that Lawrence could barely keep up with demand. In 1903 the Phoenix Company bought the Philadelphia trademark and in 1928 they merged with the food giant Kraft. As the brand grew and changed hands, Lawrence, the poor farm boy, grew up to own race cars and race horses and three beautiful homes.

In his article, Marx cites the oft-told tale of how Lawrence allegedly eavesdropped on Neufchatel manufacturer Charles Green as he described his cheese-making process, but not hearing clearly, mistakenly added too much cream, thus leading to the invention of cream cheese. However, Marx explains that the whole process was well-planned and cream was not accidentally added, and that prior to his research, most encyclopedia entries about cream cheese, even in the most reputable publications, repeated this unfounded story.

Marx acknowledges that cream cheese is not all that popular in Israel.

“I really don’t remember seeing cream cheese here in 1978, the year that I lived in Israel. You prefer lighter cheeses, like cottage cheese. Maybe that will be my next research topic – Why did cream cheese never really take off in Israel? And why don’t you find the cultural phenomenon of a bagel and lox with cream cheese here?”

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