Archive for November, 2009

Keyboard vs. Clubroom

November 29, 2009

The late William Safire, founder of the Wednesday 10

A recent Wall Street Journal article by Katherine Rosman titled, “What Facebook Can’t Give You,” got me to thinking. The piece is about the Wednesday 10, a group of 20 New York men who have met regularly for over 52 years and have evolved to prominence together, each in his own professional field or industry. The “10” in the group’s name comes from its unstated rule that at least that number of members were expected to show up at any given monthly breakfast or dinner meeting. The group is 75% Jewish, so it is fitting to call these men machers, their having risen to positions of influence and wealth in business, media, advertising, law, medicine, banking, politics and the arts. Women were not included at the initial formation of the group by William Safire, nor have they been since.  It’s not easy, but I will withhold any commentary on this fact and chalk it up to the “that was then and this is now” excuse.

Upon reading the article, I began comparing the relative merits of old-school social networking such as the Wednesday 10 with new-school social networking. As a disclaimer, I am going to mention right off the bat that I, who am on Facebook but do not Tweet, am no social networking maven. So, I do not claim any authority on the subject other than that derived from my having friends – both those whom I encounter as tiny two-dimensional head shots (419 and counting) and those with whom I interact in three-dimensional space.

A gag Sarah Palin Facebook page

I find I am always, as they say in Hebrew, al kav hatefer, on the seam line. Just as my mother was of the generation of women who were caught between either adopting a feminist identity and working outside the home, or opting for the traditional role of housewife, I too find myself with one foot on either side of a generational divide, this time relating to technology. I am keenly aware of this awkward position I find myself in, not averse to the digital revolution but at the same time not ready to completely embrace it.

There really is nothing that can replace face-to-face conversation with someone, especially if it repeats itself over and over on a regular basis for years. But how many of us are able to keep up in-person relationships with friends in our highly mobile society? Internet technology has allowed us to keep in touch with people no matter where in the world they – or we – live. Phoning, emailing and IM chatting may not be as good as being there, but they sure beat waiting weeks for a letter to arrive by post, or worse yet, saying goodbye forever upon parting.

High touch

Aside from sharing personal news, the members of the Wednesday 10 used their time together to learn the latest about each other’s work. The groups membership was carefully composed of men from a variety of types of professions so that they could “understand why other people do what they do – which is important in life and in business. You don’t learn anything from talking to sameness, ” said Robert Menschel, a senior director at Goldman Sachs Group, Inc.

Today, when so much  – too much, some would say – information is coming at us in a constant, unrelenting stream, I find that I can gain a similar benefit to the one described by Mr. Menschel. That is, if I am careful about separating the wheat from the chaff. In between posts like “I could really use a stick of gum right now” and “My baby just burped,” I glean a decent amount of hard news and useful information and advice. I learn a lot about what is going on in the world from Facebook friends who are either participating in newsworthy events, reporting on them, or linking to articles about them. When they are not playing time-wasting online games or games of oneupmanship in witty quips and commentary, my many contacts bring to my attention interesting professional projects and philanthropic or social causes they are involved in, and invite me to learn more about and support them.

High tech

In an age, and at an age, when I simply don’t have the time to thoroughly read multiple newspapers and magazines and listen to NPR all day, it is extremely helpful (and truly amazing for someone like me who never owned a cell phone before age 29) that I can be kept up to date on important happenings and ideas in real time thanks to social networking. I like to rationalize that my CrackBerry addiction is a small price to pay for this huge payoff for having signed up for a Facebook account.

When it comes down to it, both the old-schoolers and the new-schoolers have it right. The Mishna exhorts us, “Aseh l’cha rav u’kneh l’cha chaver,” find for yourself a teacher and make for yourself a friend (Pirkei Avot 1:6). It appears that social networking may have been invented by Jews living in Ancient Israel. It wouldn’t surprise me, given the historical Jewish track record for discovering, inventing, and most pertinent in this case, schmoozing. The text doesn’t tell us, however, how to go about doing this important activity. In traditional and typical Jewish fashion, it leaves it up to each generation to figure it out for itself.

© 2009 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.

Seriously Funny Jewish Women

November 27, 2009

Often in show business, a writer, director or producer is forced to reduce the essence of a project to a short subtitular phrase or tag line for marketing purposes. However, the much used elevator pitch describing Making Trouble as a film about Jewish women comics is not entirely accurate, nor does it do justice to its subject. Making Trouble is really about American Jewish women who have used comedy to express themselves and develop their identities while making a living and entertaining others. It is about women who defied stereotypes, took big risks and paved the way for female entertainers, Jewish and others, today. Jewish history is richer and the world a more enjoyable place because of their contributions.

Young women today, and I include myself and my fellow Gen Xers among them, may not know without watching this film that there very well might not have been a Bette Midler had there not been a Sophie Tucker, or that we might not have been able to enjoy the work of Fran Drescher, Debra Messing and Rachel Dratch without Molly Picon and Fanny Brice having come first. In a post-feminist/third wave feminist landscape, it is hard to imagine that Wendy Wasserstein was the first woman to graduate from the Yale School of Drama’s playwriting program (in 1976), or that Joan Rivers broke through stand up comedy’s glass ceiling before becoming infamous for her addiction to plastic surgery and obnoxious red carpet commentary. It seems natural today for a Jewish woman to be both funny and beautiful, but it wasn’t until Gilda Radner appeared on TV and the cover of Rolling Stone that this notion was recognized and validated .

Making Trouble is “hosted” by four contemporary Jewish women comics and comedic actors, Judy Gold, Jackie Hoffman, Cory Kahaney and Jessica Kirson. The quartet is filmed at Katz’s Deli enjoying pastrami, knishes, pickles and the like while cracking jokes and discussing how they have been influenced by the work and legacies of Picon, Brice, Tucker, Rivers, Radner and Wasserstein. These scenes are interspersed with traditional documentary style pieces on each of these comedy pioneers, incorporating the expected vintage photographs, archival film footage and exponent talking heads.

If you are looking for a funny film, this is not it. If you are looking for an intelligent one that will teach you something while keeping you entertained, then Making Trouble is for you. Its having been produced by the Jewish Women’s Archive rather than by a Hollywood studio assures you that the film, devoid of special effects bells and whistles, is well researched, written and made in service of the organization’s educational mission.

Jackie Hoffman and Cory Kahaney at Katz's

Although a chuckle emerged from my throat during a scene or two of the documentary footage (can anyone keep a straight face while watching Gilda Radner on screen?), I personally found the bits around the table at Katz’s to be the funniest. They are shot so that the viewer feels as though she (or he, but afterall, this is a group of girls doing lunch) is at the table with Gold, Hoffman, Kahaney and Kirson. And I really did feel like I was right there with them, enjoying their banter and dishing it out to one another in their nasally Tri-State Area accents. Oh. how I (in California pining away for my beloved NY) miss being able to wildly gesticulate and talk over one another, as they do, without being considered odd and ill-mannered! It’s a treat to experience Jackie Hoffman coming up on the spot with an updated version of Katz’s famous slogan, “Send a salami to your boy in the army” (I’m not going to divulge it here – you’ll just have to see the film to hear it.)

Making Trouble doesn’t – and couldn’t – include every Jewish female comic or comedian from the last century (for instance, Gertrude Berg/Molly Goldberg, to whom I pay homage on my blog’s header, does not appear). Its makers deliberately chose to expose and examine six women who used comedy in different ways. The work of comedic musical actors (mainly of the stage, but also in movies) Molly Picon and Fanny Brice is not the same as that of Sophie Tucker, who was really more of a jazz singer who belted out songs with racy, humorous lyrics. Similarly, one cannot directly compare the stand up comedy of Joan Rivers to the skit work and crazy characters of Gilda Radner. Tony and Pulitzer-winning Wendy Wasserstein was yet again something entirely different.

Just as Jewish women come in all shapes and sizes, so do Jewish women comics not fit into a single mold.  Young Jewish women today stand on the shoulders – narrow and broad – of these giants who made trouble so that we can can own our humor and be respected for it.

Making Trouble has already made the rounds of the film festivals to positive reviews. Now it’s available for purchase by individuals, institutions and organizations. If you like any or all of the following: Jewish humor, Jewish history or Jewish women, then you owe it to yourself, your family, your members or your students to see this film. Let it shed some light on an important subject not many of us are familiar with this Hanukkah season.

A copy can be purchased online at

© 2009 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.

The Roller Skater

November 24, 2009

I recently learned that Vivian Finkel died this past June. She wasn’t a great stateswoman, famous entertainer or business mogul. She did, however, help shape the lives of countless Jewish children in Manhattan over the course of more than fifty years. And that counts for a lot, at least in my book.

Leonard Bernstein conducting the Park Avenue Synagogue choir singing his Hashkiveinu, 1945. This was the era in which Vivian began teaching in the synagogue's religious school.

Her obituary in The New York Times was modest. It was short and sweet, unlike Vivian the person who was short and spicy. And salty, too. She could be tough, but always in service of helping her students reach the high standards she set for them. And also unlike her obituary, Vivian was far from humble about her achievements. But after not only surviving, but thriving in the challenging environment of synagogue after school education for so incredibly long, her tooting her own horn was more than justified.

The 19th century Moorish style sanctuary at Park Avenue Synagogue, NYC

I was Vivian’s mentee, colleague, and boss at varying times over the course of a decade. We met at Park Avenue Synagogue in the early 1990’s, when I was beginning my career in Jewish education and she was already in her fifth decade of teaching there. I learned some tricks of the trade by working alongside her for a few years, and was again receptive to her sage advice when I returned to the synagogue a number of years later to direct the education program. Although I did not always see eye to eye with her, I very much appreciated the confidence she had in me and my abilities. The Vivian Finkel stamp of approval was not bestowed on just anyone, so I valued mine greatly. I still do a decade later and thousands of miles away.

Vivian worked to make Hebrew come alive for her students. (The Message by Oded Ezer, 2001)

Geveret (Mrs.) Finkel, also known as HaMorah (Teacher) Vivian, was quite the character. She had presence. And she had style, coming to work every weekday afternoon and Shabbat morning dressed to the nines and fully coiffed. She was from the generation of religious school teachers who not only championed the teaching of the Hebrew language to American Jewish students (and successfully taught it to them), but also viewed themselves as true professionals. There are still many Hebrew school teachers who take their work very seriously, but there are few left who rise to the level of skill, competency and dedication of Vivian Finkel.

I remember one time when I was at a loss as to how to get a certain student and his parents to understand the importance of and to adhere to the school’s attendance policy (three times per week – two days after school plus Shabbat mornings). This was when I was principal and Vivian had already officially retired, though she still seemed to find reasons to come by the school frequently.When Vivian dropped into my office to say hello, I asked her advice. She told me a story:

Could this girl, like Vivian, be on her way to Hebrew school? (Image by H. Armstrong Roberts/CORBIS)

“When I was a young girl I didn’t want to go to Hebrew school. I loved to roller skate and I wanted to go roller skating with my friends instead of going to Hebrew school. My father told me I had to go to Hebrew school, and I protested. And then he told me this: ‘Vivian, there will come a time when you will no longer roller skate, but you will be a Jew all your life.’ So what did I do? I went to Hebrew school like my father told me to…only I roller skated there.”

I am sure that Vivian did hang up her roller skates at some point, but her energy and vigor continued for many, many years. I heard that she did eventually slow down in the period preceding her passing as a nonagenarian, especially after her beloved husband Milton died. I never had the opportunity to ask Vivian about her eschatological beliefs, but I hope she, wherever she is now, knows she can rest assured that her little story, its lesson and she herself will be well and fondly remembered. Her legacy skates on.

© 2009 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.

Update:  The Jewish Women’s Archive has re-published this tribute to the late Vivian Finkel in its “We Remember: Reminiscences About Recently Deceased Jewish Women Who Made a Difference in Our World” section. Click here to read it and see archival photos of Finkel courtesy of her daughter.