Perceptions of Modern Judaism

The Coffee with the Cantor sessions this year will focus on the Perceptions of Modern Judaism, primarily by the non-Jewish world. Click here to go to the discussion: Perceptions Forum

How are  Jewish customs and rituals perceived in the Christian and secular world of North America? This year we will investigate various practices and discuss both the internal (Jewish) reactions to them and the external (non-Jewish) reactions.

This is a preview of the topics to be covered this year in the weekly meetings of Coffee with the Cantor. Each session will take place on Wednesday, from 11-12 at Beth Shalom. Sessions will be led by Hazzan Rob Menes. Every session includes texts gleaned from books, periodicals, and the Internet.

“Judaism is filled with rituals and customs which have been maintained for thousands of years. Unfortunately, wherever and whenever we settle, these rituals often conflict with secular and non-Jewish society. This year, Hazzan Menes will explore those practices which raise concerns in the secular world and make living Jewishly as much of a challenge as a joy.”

  • Who is a Jew? Who defines who and what we are? The Jew in relation to the non-Jewish world (2)
  • Kashrut: Meaning and Jewish Perspectives; Christian Perspectives (3)
  • Shabbat: Christian and Muslim Perceptions; Orthodox/Conservative/Reform Observance; Recent Responsa (3)
  • Burial and Mourning: How are Jewish rituals handled by the non-Jewish world?
  • Conversion: Jewish views on conversion; Attitudes towards proselytes; Christian views on conversion (2)
  • Intermarriage: Jewish views; non-Jewish views (2)
  • Divorce: Jewish history; contrasts with non-Jewish views; contemporary problems (2)
  • Circumcision: Jewish and non-Jewish views (1)
  • Israel: How is it perceived by non-Jews? As a religious state? As a secular state?
  • Summary (1)

The goal of the discussions is to create greater awareness of Jewish rituals, both in their similarity and in contrast to the non-Jewish world.

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12 Responses to Perceptions of Modern Judaism

  1. rmenes says:

    Who is a Jew?
    Our first session was excellent! We discussed the various ways Jews define themselves and how – and why – non_Jews define Jews. We just started getting into the implications of defining Jews as a race. This is particularly important to understand the relationship between White Supremacists and anti-Semitism.
    You can catch up on the discussion by reading the following compilations:
    Who is a Jew?
    Skin in the Game

  2. Joe says:

    “Skin in the Game: How Antisemitism Animates White Nationalism” is appropriately titled but I don’t agree that anti-Semitism is the fuel of White nationalists. It is simply “a” fuel of White nationalists.

    The rise of White nationalism is a response to the growing disparity between the American rich and poor. As the gap grows, society polarizes and the left and right vie for power at the expense of the center.

    In a polarized society, groups demonized by the party in power tend to band together. The White nationalist are demonizing Americans of African decent and Jews. Americans of African decent realize that they can’t beat White nationalists alone. They understand that Jews are willing to work with them to limit White nationalist power.

  3. rmenes says:

    I see the anti-Semitism as an essential outgrowth of the White Nationalist racist ideology. Jews cannot be accepted as “white,” so they must be a different race. In fact, everything anathema to the White Nationalist ideology must be cast as the product of genetic, or biological differentiation which is, therefore unavoidable and inescapable. Jews, as successful, educated and powerful represent the symbol of the White N’s loss of power and thus what they despise. They can’t be like the Jews – since that would mean they have no excuse for their pitiful state – so they differentiate racially.

    While the economic disparity is crucial to the White Nationalism, the anti-Semitism and racism is deeper than economics. I think that Jews, many ethnic groups, and African Americans have something that White N’s don’t: something to bind their communities together, resulting in a kind of spiritual power.

  4. Joe says:

    Before the Obama years, white N’s were able to make trouble for the Republican party but had little impact on
    Federal Governance. If we accept that the white N’s current position of power is a backlash to the black presidency, then the argument that it is centered around “Jew” falls apart.

  5. Robert Menes says:

    The White Niationalists are centered around race as a defining discriminant. Anyone not white who assumes a position of power – or perceived power – is the enemy. Jews, as perceived holders of power, are the ultimate enemy – but only if they can identified as a race. The current W-N’s noise is not a backlash to Obama, since it was always there. However, now it has been released: “Cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of war!”

  6. Robert Menes says:

    The NEXT Coffee with the Cantor this Wednesday will address the the Christian view of keeping kosher. This should be a fascinating discussion which delves into some misconceptions about what it means to keep kosher and how it’s perceived.

  7. Robert Menes says:

    What an excellent session we had today! I think it really revealed some of the fundamental differences between Christian and Jewish ethics and the approach towards mitzvot.

    The packet distributed at today’s meeting can be downloaded here:

  8. Robert Menes says:

    Another great discussion last week regarding the Christian view of Shabbat – why Sunday? Why is actually NOT Shabbat?

    Packet can be downloaded here:

  9. Robert Menes says:

    Tomorrow, we venture into the murky waters of Intermarriage! Jewish and non-Jewish views diverge almost as much as they do for Shabbat and Kashrut. The packet can be downloaded here:

  10. Audrey says:

    It is interesting how Paul took Jesus’ teachings (we presume) and extrapolated them into something both self-serving and separating. The separation that Jews did found a new extreme.

    Augustine, though, probably brought in Original Sin. I only have his Confessions here, but he was rather obsessed with guilt over what sins he himself had committed as a lad. (Have a friend who would like to write a play about Augustine.)

    The reason I mention this is a news story today that the Christian Nation movement is picking up steam again, hoping to declare the United States to be officially Christian. State Representative Rick Saccone (soon to run for higher office) tried to ram that notion down Allegheny County by submitting and supporting legislation mandating posting “In G-d We Trust” in our County Council Chamber. Council members were ready to give in, regardless what we said against the idea. It was a hard fought battle.

    The movement is still going on. Can’t help but think that we created this “separation” monster.

  11. Audrey says:

    Book I like is “Journey of Souls” by Michael Newton. Worth reading, I think: a friend – who is fairly well opposite me in many ways – told me to read it, made me promise to do so, and I’m glad he did.

  12. Audrey says:

    Is there such a thing as Jewish humor? Or is it just that some Jews are very good at creating it? And then maybe we put ourselves into it… after all, all good art is a reflection of society for society.

    As Dan pointed out in our discussion, Jews are numerous among Nobel Prize winners. Yet there is nothing called “Jewish Science.” (Okay, maybe psychiatry comes close.)

    Jews held our own in Tin Pan Alley. Jews were prominent in Vaudeville. But I don’t think we were the majority of the composers or performers, though we may have ended up more prolific. It is like saying Squirrel Hill is Jewish. It is, but it has never held more than 40% Jewish population.

    It is true that with all the adversity we have felt through the ages, those of us with a sense of humor have been more likely to survive. And we are people of the word, we can tell a good story, and can evoke feelings in our writing.

    As I look around my limited library, in which I didn’t find Steve Allen’s book deconstructing and analyzing comedy, I see both humor and comedy by Jews and non-Jews.

    I found a couple books about Vaudeville. With several slots on the bill in each theater, there was a large market for talent, and acts were paid by the number of performers on stage. Jews could sing and dance and tell stories. So it was an attractive industry. But although we may have had a lot of performers later reach popularity pinnacles in radio and television, we were not necessarily so prominent in the Vaudeville ranks.

    How about related fields? Stephen Leacock, late 1800s to early 1900s humor writer, was not Jewish to my knowledge; but Groucho Marx was very fond of his writing, aspired to be like him. Irving Berlin, composer of over 3,000 songs, was very fond of Stephen Foster, had his picture on his office wall. Can we hear “Jewish” in Gershwin’s music? Arguably, yes. But we hear other ethnicities as well. Copeland? Same, but rather much more American than Jewish. Felix Mendelsohn’s music showed his Jewish heritage often, but it was much, much larger than that.

    Sticking to comedy, although it is not so different from music, not all of Jewish comedians’ humor is “Jewish,” nor is all the output of Jewish playwrights, humor writers, columnists, et al., uniformly identifiable as “Jewish.” Neil Simon wrote Jewish characters in many of his plays, but when he wrote for television he wrote mainstream American. And is The Odd Couple a couple of Jews? Writing television beside Neil Simon were his brother Danny, Larry Gelbart, Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Selma Diamond, Sid Caesar, Dave Caesar, Mel Tolkin, Tony Webster, Lucille Kallen, Sheldon Keller. (See below for more on some of them.)

    James Thurber, not Jewish, often wrote with a voice of the betrodden. (After a hundred times reading it, I still never fail to laugh at the short story “The Night the Bed Fell.”)

    Danny Kaye was Jewish, broke in to the business in the Catskills, but how “Jewish” was his comedy?

    This article has interesting opinions on who was a “great” Jewish comedian…

    And talking about female comedians….

    On YouTube:

    There is a fine clip of Joan Rivers on the Carol Burnett Show 1970.

    There is a clip of Totie Fields from the 1960s.

    Fanny Brice

    There is a clip of Selma Diamond (more known as a writer than a performer) from Johnny Carson on 11/20/1984 worth seeing. (I did a tv show with her in 1975.)

    Fran Drescher

    Also Jewish: Gilda Radner, Fanny Brice, Goldie Hawn, Gertrude Berg, Madeline Kahn

    Phyllis Diller? Not Jewish. But sure seemed to be.

    Some information about Lucille Kallen, writer for television

    And, as a remnant of today’s discussion, a clip of a bunch of older men skilled at comedy and humor, not all Jewish:

    And Leo Rosten’s H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N, or The Joys of Yiddish. For a good laugh.

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