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Calling all Contributors to Join the Pop Elul Project!

As we begin prepare for the Hebrew month of Elul, and the beginning of the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe, which will be here before we know it, the Pop Elul Project is trying something new this year. We are calling all contributors to share your thoughts with the Pop Elul Project.

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The Pop Elul Project was started by Rabbi Jesse Olitzky in 2013 as a way of connecting pop culture to the themes of the High Holy Days. We invite you to join in this project with your own thoughts and submissions.

If you want to write for the Pop Elul Project:

Click on the tab above to “Contribute” and please fill out the form, including your name, email address, where you are from, what movie, television show, or song you will be writing about, and your submission (no more than 750 words.) You will be contacted if it becomes a part of the Pop Elul Project.

Thanks for adding your voice, your Torah, and your love of pop culture to this exciting project!

 

Let Our Own Actions Define Us

I enjoy binge-watching shows. Instead of waiting from week-to-week for the latest installment, binge-watching allows a viewer to appreciate the whole arc of a storyline all at once. My young daughter has a very different view on what binge-watching means. As a preschooler, the shows and movies she watches are limited so instead of binge-watching a season, she instead opts to watch the same thing over and over and over again.

Her latest obsession is Disney’s Descendants, a Disney Channel Original Movie that we stumbled upon while searching the On-Demand menu for some of her favorite cartoons. She was excited about the premise, as it focused on the children of her favorite fairy tale Disney characters, and the concept was cute, even if it continued to reinforce Disney’s hetero-normative culture.

DescendantsDescendants is a musical about how the children of Disney royalty — the son of Belle and Beast, the daughter of Aurora and Philip, the son of Cinderella and Charming, and even Dopey’s son — interact with the children of Disney villians — the children of Malificent, the Evil Queen, Jafar, and Cruella de Vil — at a prep school. It’s the cheesiness of High School Musical meets the Magic Kingdom. And yet, my daughter loves it, and insists on watching it again and again. While it may be that these Disney Channel show tunes are stuck in my head from watching the television movie so many times, I have to admit that some of the songs are even catchy.

The story takes place in the fictional United States of Auradon. Following the marriage of Belle to the Beast, they united all kingdoms and were elected Queen and King of this united kingdom. They sent all villains and their henchmen to the Isle of the Lost, an island ghetto where they wouldn’t be able to practice their evil magic. In turn, the royalty of Auradon seemed to be at peace and didn’t have to interact with the villains or their families. When Ben, Belle and Beast’s teenage son, is about to be crowned king, he decides that his first proclamation is to allow the children of villains to return to Auradon, believing that they shouldn’t suffer for their parents crimes. The children are tasked by their parents, led by Malificent (played by Kristin Chenoweth) with stealing Fairy Godmother’s wand in order to get the villains off the island so that they can take control of Auradon. The story is a “will they or won’t they” with an always-predictable Disney ending. Instead of following in their parents’ footsteps, they decide that they want to be good and do good. They don’t want to be defined by their parents. They want to be their own selves.

While the outcome is predictable — and the ending remains the same no matter how many times my daughter and I watch it — the lesson is important. We shouldn’t be judged based on the actions of another. We are often referred to as someone’s child, sibling, or spouse. But we are not them. While our parents and families certainly nurture us and guide us, that does not mean we need to be defined by them. We strive to hold on to the blessings that family gives us and teaches us, but we cannot carry the burden of their past mistakes. The yoke of their errors is too heavy to carry. Whom they are, how they act, and what they believe is not necessarily whom we are. The Torah reaffirms such an idea. We learn in Deuteronomy 24:16 that a parent should not be punished for the transgressions of a child and a child should not be punished for the transgressions of a parent.

We spend these days leading up to the High Holy Days by letting go of our burdens. We let go of our pasts, but most importantly, we need to let go of the pasts of others that we hold on to and carry with us. Their pasts are not our pasts. We need to be our true selves and not worry about who others are.

As we begin the new year with a clean slate, may we be proud to be ourselves instead of worrying about being viewed as somebody else. May we judge all solely based on their own actions and not based on anyone else’s. After all, even the child of an evil villain can become Disney royalty.

tvpopelulimageDescendants premiered on the Disney Channel on July 21, 2015 and is available to watch on the Disney Channel or On-Demand. 

For more “Torah To Go” check out Rabbi O’s blog here.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

Getting the Train back on Track

Amy Schumer’s Trainwreck, directed by Judd Apatow, was really everything I expected it to be – and more. As a fan of Apatow’s previous films and Schumer’s Comedy Central show, I anticipated the crude and vulgar humor. Still, the movie had heart. The film was truly laugh-out-loud funny and yet, I even got a little teary-eyed at the end. The film, the first that Apatow directed that he did not write himself, stars Schumer as a magazine columnist and Bill Hader – who brilliantly transitions from sidekick to leading man – as a sports physician. Schumer’s character profiles Hader’s Aaron — and the career-saving knee surgery he performs for athletes — for the stereotypical men’s magazine that she writes for. Amy sleeps with Aaron, but unexpectedly ends up falling for him.

TrainwreckAmy is the titular trainwreck. Following a speech from her father (played by Colin Quinn) who tells his children that monogamy is impossible, she grows up to drink a lot and sleep around. Not only does she think that true love is impossible, she focuses on “one night stands” because she doesn’t want to get too close to anyone. She worries about what will happen if she lets her guard down and lets other people into her life. If she never lets anyone in, then she will never get hurt.

Aaron refuses to let their relationship be a one night stand and has her stay the night, calls her the next day, and wants to see her again. She doesn’t know what to do. Amy begins to let her guard down, but having never cared for another, she still waits for them to breakup, eventually causing the breakup herself. The film concludes [spoiler alert] as so many romantic comedies do, with her realizing that she loves Aaron and works to reunite with him and get back together. She comes to understand that no relationship is easy or perfect, but she is still willing to try to make it work and attempts to change her ways.

As we prepare for the High Holy Days, one thing stood out to me – besides the brilliant comedic turns of John Cena and LeBron James: how others can help us change. Amy refuses to change, but it is only once Aaron enters her life that she realizes, because of him, that change is possible. The Hebrew month of Elul is focused change. This is our opportunity to do teshuvah, to let go of the past and change our ways. This is our opportunity to have a fresh start and be better in the year ahead. However, we often focus on self-reflection during this time of year. We are taught to do Cheshbon HaNefesh, an accounting of the soul, and focus on how we can change ourselves. Yet, we forget the impact that our actions have on others.

We are taught that we can’t control others; we can only control ourselves, so we should focus on ourselves. But we live in a world of interconnectivity, a world where we touch each other’s lives, a world where every interaction has consequences. As we seek to change, we have the ability to help others change. Every conversation, every interaction, every moment we experience with another –  those who we are closest to and those who are complete strangers – may influence us, and those we interact with, for the better.

Never underestimate your power to change and never underestimate your power to help others change as well.

moviepopelulimageTrainwreck, written by Amy Schumer and directed by Judd Apatow, was released in the United States by Universal Pictures on July 17, 2015. The film has already grossed over $100 million in North America and its opening weekend was the second biggest debut for Apatow. The film is Rated R for sexual content, partial nudity, and language. Viewer discretion advised.  

For more “Torah To Go” check out Rabbi O’s blog here.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

This Is Where I Need You

The weekend before the holiest days of the year for the Jewish community, the High Holy Days, a movie focused on one of the most sacred acts in the Jewish community hit theaters. Written by Jonathan Tropper (based on the book of the same name that he also wrote) and directed by Shawn Levy, This Is Where I Leave You has an all-star ensemble cast including Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Adam Driver, Connie Britton, Timothy Olyphant, Dax Shephard, and Jane Fonda.

This-Is-Where-I-Leave-You-PosterIn the film, the four Altman siblings, all struggling in different ways in life, come back together at their childhood home after their father dies. They spend the week together, fulfilling their father’s final wish and request, to sit shiva (the traditional Jewish week of mourning following a funeral) for him. Ironically, their father, who requested that his children sit shiva, was an avowed atheist. Was the family patriarch trying bring together his estranged family, even after he left this world? Or was he, even though he did not believe in God or ritual, asking his family to turn to ritual as we so often do, during times of mourning and loss? Maybe, he just knew the importance of coming together.

This premise is set up to bring the family back under one roof, so we can watch a story unfold about family dysfunction and the hilarity that ensues as a result.

The movie has only gotten lukewarm reviews but the film still offers us an important lesson about the importance of coming together. We may fight and argue. We may distance ourselves from our family, from those closest to us. Yet, it is at times of need, at times of loss, mourning, and grief when we must come together, when we need each other the most.

Community is truly defined by how we come together, for each other, at the high points and low points in life, how we celebrate together and how we mourn together. Jews, and those who have cast their lot with the Jewish people, throughout the world will gather together in synagogues in the coming days for the High Holy Days. We may not entirely connect with the liturgy. We may not understand the themes and messages found in the narrative of the Torah reading. We may not fully understand what our relationships with the Divine are or how we each struggle with those relationships. Still, we come together. For many, we also come together with extended family and deal with the dysfunction – the blessings and sometimes challenges – that come with extended family being under one roof, just as we witness in this film.

But the tension, the disagreements, and the dysfunction do not prevent us from coming together because if we don’t come together then what’s the point? Judaism cannot survive on a deserted island. One can continue to believe. One can be alone and still have faith. But without community, without coming together, Judaism – and faith in general – cannot survive. So we come together, in joy and in grief, and at this time of year, for holiday celebrations. We come together to celebrate a new year and as we celebrate, we let go of the past that has caused such dysfunction in the first place. We come together because we depend on each other. We come together because we need each other. So let us come together during this holiday season, as family, as friends, as community. Let us lean on each other. Let us raise each other up. Let us find renewed strength of body and soul together. Because this is where I need you.

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Please Note: “This Is Where I Leave You” produced by Spring Creek Productions and 21 Laps Entertainment and distributed by Warner Bros. premiered on September 19, 2014 in the United States. The film is Rated R for language, sexual content, and some drug use. Viewer discretion advised.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

A Clean Slate Means A Transparent Self

The most talked about show of the fall tv season emphasizes the themes of the Jewish New Year, most notably, how we redefine ourselves and begin anew. You won’t find this buzzworthy show on a major network. You won’t even find it on a cable channels responsible for some of television’s most recent hits, like FX or AMC. Netflix hit the jackpot a year ago when they began introducing original scripted programming, including the award-winning Orange Is The New Black and House Of Cards.

Amazon has since tried to keep up and respond with their own original programming. They have finally succeeded with this fall’s new series, Transparent, created by the incredible Jill Soloway. The entire season will be available to stream on Amazon Prime on September 26th, but the pilot episode is available to stream now for free here. Vulture already called it the best pilot they’ve seen in years. Stop everything you are doing and watch it. You won’t regret it.

TransparentThe series follows the interconnected lives of a Los Angeles Jewish family after discovering that the patriarch, Mort (an award-worthy performance by Arrested Development’s Jeffrey Tambor), is transgender. The title is a play on words. Mort is the titular “trans parent.” However, the title gives greater insight to the questioning identities of all characters. Sarah is a married mother and wonders if her life is too boring, ordinary, and settled. Josh navigates from one fling to the next, being lonely without having a true partner. Ali feels like (and is viewed as) a failure, even if she hasn’t yet figured herself out.

While Jeffrey Tambor’s main role as Mort/Maura is a groundbreaking moment in Hollywood for the transgender community, offering dramatic and humorous insight into the world of gender identity, the other characters also, in their own ways, must come to terms with the transparent version of themselves as well. The version of themselves that they portray for the world to see is not necessarily who they are deep down inside. It is not how they feel. They too need to be true to themselves.

We do the same thing. It is human nature to try to conform and fit in, to try and be what society expects us to be. When we do that though, we do ignore the truest versions of ourselves.

The beauty of the Hebrew month of Elul and of the Jewish New Year is that we have the opportunity to start over. Teshuvah, repentance, rids us of past burdens. Elul allows us to let go of that which held us down, and allows us to start over. We are given the unique opportunity to begin again. We are given the opportunity to redefine ourselves and be the person we always knew we were and knew we wanted to be. We become our true selves. We are no longer burdened by how we conformed, by how others expected us to act, or by what others expected us to do. We do not hide who we truly are. We reveal our transparent selves to God and to community. That is what beginning anew is all about.

May we have the courage to be our true and transparent selves, to be whom we are supposed to be – because that is exactly who God created us to be.

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Please Note: “Transparent” starring Jeffrey Tambor, Melora Hardin, Jay Duplass, Amy Landecker, and Gaby Hoffmann, is available to stream in its entirely on Amazon Prime on September 26th. Episodes are Rated TV-MA for nudity, profanity, sexual content, and occasional drug use.

 

 

 

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

 

We Would All Be Better Off If We Learned to Just Shake It Off

Singer, Songwriter, and Pop Star Taylor Swift  has been a household name since 2008 when her album Fearless skyrocketed to the top of the charts, and every radio station played her hit singles, Love Story and You Belong With Me. Originally a country music star, she transitioned to pop music with that album and won a place in America’s hearts at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, when Kanye West took the stage after Swift received her “moonman” statue for Best Female Video and proceeded to tell her that her video was not as good as Beyoncé’s music video that year. America loved how mature Taylor Swift was and composed she was during that situation, even though she was still only a teenager.

Taylor-Swift-Shake-It-OffWhile still celebrated for her acknowledged responsibility to be conscious of her influence on young fans, she has also been criticized for choices she has made and how such choices are viewed by those fans. Some say that she dates too many other celebrities and musicians. Others have criticized her for being “dorky” and “neurotic.” Throughout her entire career as a pop star, from Kanye West literally stealing the stage to critics commenting on everything she does, Taylor Swift just smiles politely.

Her new single though, Shake It Off, answers these critics by essentially saying that you can’t sweat the small stuff. Her song lists many of the complaints critics have written in blogs, newspapers, and magazines:

 

I stay up too late, got nothing in my brain
That’s what people say, that’s what people say
I go on too many dates, but I can’t make them stay
At least that’s what people say, that’s what people say

She is no longer just politely smiling and pretending that she doesn’t hear such criticism. She is acknowledging that she hears what people say and despite, putting on a smile, words can hurt. Still, her message is a powerful one: it doesn’t matter what they say. She is not going to change because she is happy with who she is.

She sings:

But I keep cruising, can’t stop, won’t stop moving
It’s like I got this music in my body and it’s gonna be alright
Cause the players gonna play, play, play, play, play
And the haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate
Baby, I’m just gonna shake, shake, shake, shake, shake
I shake it off, I shake it off
Heartbreakers gonna break, break, break, break, break
And the fakers gonna fake, fake, fake, fake, fake
Baby, I’m just gonna shake, shake, shake, shake, shake
I shake it off, I shake it off

We know that the childhood mantra of “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me” is not true. Names do hurt. Gossiping, spreading rumors, and speaking ill will about someone can do a great deal of damage. As a result, we are too often overly concerned with what others think of us. We want to be accepted by all. We want them to speak highly of us and we fear if the opposite happens. We fear others talking about us behind our backs.

Taylor Swift’s new single, besides being really catchy, gives us permission to let go of what others think of us. She encourages listeners to not be bothered by what others think. Be proud of who you are, not who others want you to be. Just shake off what they say and don’t let such negativity stick to you. We would all be better off if we could do that.

The Hebrew month of Elul allows us to look back on the year that has passed as we prepare to change our ways in the year ahead. As we do so though, let us change what we want to change about ourselves, not what others pressure us to change. Let us each be proud of the individuals that we are, as well as the individuals that we strive to be. And when someone criticizes you, learn to just shake it off.

musicpopelulimagePlease Note: “Shake It Off” by Taylor Swift is the first single off of Swift’s upcoming fifth studio album, “1989.” The song premiered during a Yahoo! live stream only a couple of weeks ago. The music video was released the same day on YouTube. As a result, the song debuted at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, making it Taylor Swift’s second #1 single in the United States.

 

 

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

Don’t Let Anyone Tell You That You Are Wrong

When A-ha hit it big almost thirty years ago with their breakthrough single Take On Me, no one could’ve predicted that we would have to wait until now for another Norwegian pop sensation to top the Billboard charts. However, that has happened with Nico & Vinz’s Am I Wrong. The song has been getting airplay on radio stations all summer with many deejays even calling it this summer’s anthem. 

The truth is this duo from Oslo first released this single in April 2013 under the group name Envy. When artists Nico Sereba and Vincent Dery signed with Warner Bros. Records and ventured into the international market, they changed their name to Nico & Vinz. Their hit single is a rhetorical question, but also an important mantra to live by, especially during this month of cheshbon hanefesh, self-reflection. 

The pop song begins with the lyrics:

Am I wrong, for thinking out the box from where I stay?

Am I wrong, for saying that I choose another way?

I ain’t trying to do what everybody else doin’

Just ‘cause everybody doin’ what they all do

If one thing I know, I’ll fall but I’ll grow

I’m walking down this road of mine, this road that I call home.

Nico-and-VinzWe often feel stuck in a particular stage or situation in life. This is what others decided our lives should be like. This is the box that they put us in. Or maybe this is the box that we have put ourselves in. We feel it is impossible to change. So we conform. We act as others do. We walk down another’s path without thinking about it, without willing to create our own path.

As a result, we never try to change. The powerful reminder of the Hebrew month of Elul and this High Holy Day season is that we all must look inward for self-reflection. No one is perfect. Even the kindest and most righteous among us still must strive to change for the better. We are taught not to settle. Rather, we must strive to be the best version of ourselves. We are afraid to do something different. We are afraid to change. It is easier, as the lyrics suggest, to do what everyone else is doing. But what is right for another is not necessarily right for someone else. One’s path is not the same as another’s path. 

We avoid change — even change for the better — because we fear failure. Nico & Vinz also remind us that I’ll fall but I’ll grow. The road to become the best version of ourselves is not necessary a straight path. It is a bumpy road with detours along the way. However, just because it is bumpy, that doesn’t mean we don’t take the journey. 

Don’t let anyone tell you that you are wrong for doing something different, for trying something new, for changing your ways. In the year ahead, may we all be brave enough  to think outside the box and walk down our own roads. May we have the courage to fall and to fail, so that we can ultimately grow as a result. This time next year, may we look inward and  comfortably say “I am right” without worrying about being wrong.  

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Please Note: “Am I Wrong” by Nico & Vinz was originally released internationally in April 2013. The music video was released via YouTube in June 2013 and has been viewed over sixty million times. The song topped out at #1 on Shazam’s Top 100 worldwide and  peaked at #4 on Billboard’s Top 100 chart this summer. 

 

 

 

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky