Music Review: Cory Henry “NaaNaaNaa”

Growing up in the Carolinas, I was lucky to hear plenty of Black gospel sounds. There were songs played at family picnics in the park near my house (Freedom Park in Charlotte, North Carolina), church organ grooves on Sunday morning on WPEG FM 98, and the occasional opportunity to go with my family to visit a Black church for an event or concert. I always wanted to sing along. Driving around town with my daughter this evening, this tune came on WBGO 88.3, our local jazz station here in New Jersey. We couldn’t help but sing along. This tune is not just music – it is soul music. To quote Reb Nachman of Braslav:

It is a great thing to hear music from a holy person playing on an instrument for the sake of heaven. Because through this, false fantasies are dismissed, the spirit of depression is dispelled, and the person merits happiness. (Likutei Moharan 54)

Cory Henry, thank you for the happiness. From the album The Revival 2016


Bazaar Ensemble serves up some spicy new Jewish music

Every once and a while a group of wildly talented musicians will travel back in time and grasp a very old poem and an old tune and spin them into the current moment with a magical new spirit. This song is one of those once and a whiles.

Bazaar Ensemble are L.A. based folks who are adding some full throttle soul to a tune that I, admittedly, associate with both a choice Eric B. & Rakim sample and the late great Yemenite-Israeli superstar Ofra Haza. This new version of the 17th century Hebrew poem by Rabbi Shalom Shabazi is simply off-the-hook.

When I think of the classic Ofra Haza version, I imagine her beautiful high pitched tone. Here, lead singer Asher Shasho-Levy brings a grounded energy to the song and when the drums kick in and the energy picks up this tracks takes flight. And it doesn’t hurt that this video is shot with cinematic grace. Give it a listen!





Music Review: Amythyst Kiah’s Wildebeest

Some songs just stop you in your tracks. “Wildebeest” by Amythyst Kiah is one of those songs. The tune begins with a two chord progression usually heard in flamenco music – a simple and raw meditative riff that Kiah lets play for a minute for full hypnotic effect.  When the tune shifts into a Delta blues mode, the fine finger-picking starts to have an emotional life, setting the stage for Amythyst Kiah’s original yet traditional blues lyric of spurned love, homicidal threats, bittersweet memory, and loss. The vocals are reminiscent of the smooth voiced blues singers of the 90s – like Tracy Chapman or Robert Cray – who sought inspiration from an earlier blues era – but with a little added bite. And when the blues are done, and Kiah tells the spurned lover to go find someone else to prey upon, the song shifts back into the flamenco style, ending without resolving the chord progression. All this is to say that the American blues is alive and well in Johnson City, Tennessee. Footnote: I discovered this song because I entered the NPR TIny Desk Concert Contest. A contest I have no chance of winning because of Amythyst Kiah and a dozen other crazy talented musicians. So I concede. Amythyst deserves the spotlight.


Film Review: Wadjda

Originally published in The Forward.

The Muslim Film Every Bat Mitzvah Girl Should See

By Daniel S. Brenner

“Wadjda,” the first feature film shot in Saudi Arabia, seems an unlikely fit for a b’nai mitzvah curriculum. Haifaa al-Mansour’s film about a plucky Muslim tween girl in Riyadh whose greatest desire is to buy a bicycle has no reference to Jews and no coming-of-age celebration to speak of. The film’s one connection to issues widely discussed in Jewish circles? A reference to sending aid money to the Palestinians. So why should we take bat mitzvah girls to see this movie?

When my own tween daughter takes a break from her pre-bat mitzvah regimen to see the film, she will certainly watch attentively as the lead character, Wadjda, practices chanting Koran with perfect pronunciation. She might even identify with the girl on the other side of the planet, with derivative pop-punk piped into her ears one moment and legal rulings of ancient patriarchs flowing out her mouth the next. But this is not the reason why one should take tweens to see this film.

“Wadjda” bravely examines how young women are compelled to act against their best interests and to act against other young women as they are forced to conform to gender codes defined by men. Men rarely appear in the film and with the exception of one male construction worker who catcalls Wadjda as she walks to school, there is no scene of male physical abuse or harassment of women. Focusing her lens on the interplay between women and girls, al-Mansour is not afraid to show us how women — both as teachers and mothers — are taught to enforce religiously rooted gender codes and turn against one another as they are forced to conform and to settle.

So, why is this important for b’nai mitzvah students? First, it speaks to the cognitive dissonance that exists between the lived experience of those who chant Torah and the world described in text itself. In the coming months, b’nai mitzvah students will be chanting tales of the polygamous Jewish patriarchs and of the matriarchs that stood in their shadows. Thousands of these tweens will read the biblical tales of polygamy and obsessive focus on male heirs and dismiss them as tales of a backward yesteryear. But for tweens who see “Wadjda,” the stories of Genesis’ women will be understood not as narratives of a distant past, but as part of an ongoing chain of women’s stories. After seeing “Wadjda,” for example, the rivalry tale between the matriarchs Rachel and Leah will be properly read not simply as a drama between two sister-wives, but as a critique of a social dynamic that pits women against one another and forces both women and men to make unnecessary compromises.
But the most important reason that tweens should see this film is that al-Mansour’s work celebrates the small acts of non-conformity that are essential in any narrative of personal liberation. Wadjda refuses to be contained. She wears her hijab in a crooked fashion, she accents her long black dress with Chuck Taylor high tops, she makes mixed-tapes, she refuses to snitch on other girls, she holds on to her bicycle fantasies. And in a hopeful subplot, a boy in her neighborhood serves as an ally, a glimmer of hope for future change in a nation still up in arms over women drivers. As the film ends, Wadjda’s mother begins to see the world through her daughter’s eyes — but saying anything more would be a spoiler.

A smart feminist meditation on quiet and not-so-quiet subversion, “Wadjda”’s message of creative resistance is an essential one for Jewish tweens. Al-Mansour does for Sunni Islam what Avivah Zornberg and Rachel Adler have done for Judaism — she asks us to pay attention to the subtle details of women’s stories in the cloistered spaces of a patriarchal world and to see in those details a narrative thread of universal liberation. To date, no film has done for Jewish patriarchy what “Wadjda” does for Islam. Let’s hope that a bat mitzvah girl — or a bar mitzvah boy — sees this film and gets inspired.

Consumer Review: Lifesmart Antiqua 5 Person Plug and Play Spa with 20 Jet

Consumer Review: Lifesmart Antiqua 5 Person Plug and Play Spa with 20 Jet

You may be asking: Why would a rabbi review a hot tub? Well after dislocating a disc when I lifted a large rock in our front garden (yes, I, like the Biblical Moses, have issues with rocks) I got crazy about the idea about buying a hot tub. My wife got a nice little teaching award that came with a check and off we went in search of a low-cost, energy efficient tub. We’ve owned the Antiqua for six months now – from the summer to winter – and all I can say is that so far it is a total delight.

Here’s why:

It is not an eyesore – the brown siding and faux leather top look o.k. in the backyard.

The lid fits perfectly and it is easy to take off and put on. One person can do it.

The seating arrangement on this model is perfect – as long as everyone is under six feet. Taller people will feel cramped but it comfortably fits four adults and we’ve even squeezed in five. The “lounger” is a favorite – but so is the most basic seat where your upper body is above the water. The best part is the diversity of seats – we always rotate and that is part of the fun.

This model is quiet and it does not disturb the neighbors. I press my ear up to the back window of my house and I can hear the machine hum. It’s like a purr.

The jets are not strong but they do feel really good. And having a foot jet is nice for my toes.

Ahhh the waterfall. Silly how much pleasure we get from the sound it makes.

The lights are soothing –except for the random disco setting. That is just wacked.

I like to keep it at 104. It drops to 102 or so after a twenty-minute soak…down to 101 on a zero degree night here in New Jersey. After forty minutes it will be down to 99. So if you have parties and expect crowds you need to plan accordingly. It takes an hour to heat it up one degree.

The only problem so far:

It has a mind of its own and sometimes it turns off. Not sure why, but it stays on for weeks and then ‘click’ – so you really have to check it and make sure it is humming and that the red light on the plug is on.

Overall – this is an amazing value and we have used it over 100 times and every time we get in we say “this is so nice” and we are grateful for what we have and for the technicians who built it. And my back is feeling a lot better.

Footnote: I leveled the ground myself with some elbow grease, sand bags, and gravel. Then I put together a heavy duty 8×8 plastic spa pad for the tub to sit on. A large truck driver (who was probably an East German Olympic weightlifter at one point) and I placed the tub on the pad. The one tricky part is that the electrical plug is coiled up under the plastic outer shell and needs to be released from the tiny plastic binding that is keeping it there. If I had a “do-over” then I would release this before placing the tub on the pad. But overall, VERY easy set-up.

Hot tub snow photo

Consumer Review: Alternative Ketubah

File this one as an “only in New York” moment…
About a month ago I was in Williamsburg (the Brooklyn one) officiating a wedding for a wonderful couple who had the highly unusual ketubah pictured above. On their honeymoon in Argentina, they visited the artist. Then the artist wrote up a little story about it: 
I skimmed through the other Ketubahs on the site and all I can say is that I want to hang out with the couple who uses that Dr. Seuss themed ketubah. 
I’m going to add this Ketubah outfit to my list of best of: 
Best Wedding DJ? 
Adam Oded 
Best Wedding Photographer? 
Melanie Einzig 

Restaurant Review: New Kosher Special

Every once in a while you take risk on an off-the-beaten-track restaurant that has escaped the orbit of Yelp and you discover some unexpected deliciousness. This was the case today, as my family made an excursion to Elizabeth, New Jersey for some Kosher Chinese cuisine. The name of the joint was New Kosher Special and it was replete with specials — in particular a lunch combo for under six bucks that we all agreed was the best value of any kosher place we have ever been to. We’ve been to pricey kosher chinese in NY and Florida…the food in Elizabeth was better. My sons are still raving about the Teriyaki Beef. I had the dish above, a Cashew Chicken with extra spices.

The place is low-budget – paper plates, plastic forks, dingy tables, a fan affixed to the wall. But the great food and wonderful manager made it feel like we had discovered a hidden treasure. If you go, bring cash, some quarters for the meters, and an empty stomach. Enjoy!

Book Review: Chinese Moms, Jewish Dads

Chinese Moms, Jewish Dads?

The post-dinner- now-the- kids- are- in- the- other- room -and -the –adults- have- two –bottles- of- wine -to -finish-off talk at our Shabbos table this week was, as I imagine it was for many thousands of other parental types, Chinese moms. We had all read the Wall Street Journal article by Yale Law professor Amy Chua (or heard her interviewed on NPR) and her razor sharp attack on “western” moms seems to have kicked up a storm from all of us who have let our children attend sleep-overs, practice their instruments for less than three hours a day, play sports, and worst of all, try out for school plays. (the horror!)

From Chua:

The fact is that Chinese parents can do things that would seem unimaginable—even legally actionable—to Westerners. Chinese mothers can say to their daughters, “Hey fatty—lose some weight.” By contrast, Western parents have to tiptoe around the issue, talking in terms of “health” and never ever mentioning the f-word, and their kids still end up in therapy for eating disorders and negative self-image. (I also once heard a Western father toast his adult daughter by calling her “beautiful and incredibly competent.” She later told me that made her feel like garbage.)

Chinese parents can order their kids to get straight As. Western parents can only ask their kids to try their best. Chinese parents can say, “You’re lazy. All your classmates are getting ahead of you.” By contrast, Western parents have to struggle with their own conflicted feelings about achievement, and try to persuade themselves that they’re not disappointed about how their kids turned out.

Chua also makes reference to a threat that she made regarding Christmas-Hannukah presents in the article and that got us thinking about the silent Jewish father who is, we imagine, kicking back on the couch with the Arts section of the Times while his ‘Chinese mom’ wife berates the children for getting a 97 on a math test. (yes, another nail in the coffin for all the twenty-something Jewish women I’ve met who ask why Jewish men pass them over for Asian women)

The couples around our table all weighed in – and while none of us had the ‘tiger’ qualities of Chua, we all addressed the various demands we have put on our children and the need for both demands and occasional comments that are, well, frank.

So, shabbos afternoon arrives and I curl up with my New Yorker. After I dispense with my usual perusal of the cartoons, I stumble into David Brooks latest piece, Social Animal

Brooks writes: “Intelligence, academic performance, and prestigious schools don’t correlate well with fulfillment, or even outstanding accomplishment…the traits that do make a difference are the ability to understand and inspire people; to read situations and discern the underlying patterns; to build trusting relationships, to recognize and correct one’s shortcomings, and to imagine alternate futures.” And it occurs to me – this piece, by a Jewish dad, is the perfect anti-dote to Chua’s diatribe.

Brooks bolsters his argument from a place of social psychology and biology, citing recent studies that have shed new light on human behavior. This got me thinking: How would Chua respond to Brooks’ piece? Chua might defend her child-raising techniques and say that her children have developed these qualities. But at face value it would seem that calling your child “garbage” or “fatty” is not going to lead to a very trusting relationship. A brutally honest relationship? Maybe…but a trusting one? Highly doubtful. One can imagine Chua and Brooks at the Passover Seder debating the reaction to the Wicked Son.

So, who’s right? Truth likely lies somewhere in between the two polarities – to be demanding without being controlling, to be sensitive without coddling – these are the challenges of parenting.

But I was thinking about both articles this Saturday night as I took my sons to their indoor soccer game.

After the first half, my sons’ team was down 5-1. It was demoralizing. I thought with my “Chua” head– maybe I need to force them to practice more, run two miles a day, call him lazy, that sort of thing. Then I watched as one of my sons decided that he was not going to lose. In the second half he ran full-speed at every ball and the defense couldn’t stop him. He scored four goals, made an assist on another, and got the win. Then I relaxed and patted myself on the back for my less than Chua-like demands – “see, I never yell at him to practice and still he’s playing beautifully” And then something happened that I did not expect.

I was a typical dad, thinking about my kid – about how he had won the game. But when I met him on field after the game, he didn’t think of the win as something that he had accomplished. His first comment was about how his team played better defense in the second half. As he chugged from his water bottle, he went up to one of the defensive players and gave him a high five. The part of me that liked Brooks’ model of human success was very happy.

So – what did I learn from these articles? I’m still not sure, and not sure if they will change the ways that I parent. But they did get me thinking about the cultural norms we collectively create and the importance of talking, preferably over a glass of wine and some rugelach, about what they mean when applied to each one of our quirky and wonderful children. On the other hand, maybe I should stop writing and go downstairs and yell at them to practice the violin. It will be all that better as I yell because none of my children play violin. yet.

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