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Aly Raisman’s gold medal has taken on more symbolism than she might ever have imagined.

So I happen to be the Interim Director of Education at one of the Newton synagogues that DIDN’T win a gold medal at the 2012 London Olympics!

Mazel Tov to Jewish gymnast Aly Raisman, whose family belongs to Temple Beth Avodah in Newton Centre, Mass., for bringing home two golds and a bronze for the USA. (Rabbi Keith Stern sums up our community’s collective joy here).

To borrow the lexicon of that popular Passover ditty, Dayeinu, it would have been enough to just know that the girl on the Olympic podium was American…

… and it would have been enough to swell us with pride to know she was — bonus! — from nearby Needham, Massachusetts.

… and Dayeinu, Aly also happens to be a mensch who grew up at Beth Avodah and chose “Hava Nagila” as her floor routine music!

After being immersed in Aly-mania for a while, the first thing I thought of was one of my favorite YouTube videos: “I Am Jewish” by poet Andrew Lustig, a student at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.

I could watch Andrew perform his riveting rant/poem all day.  It is forever relevant and relatable to us all.  His words are stirring because though serious, when appropriate they are delivered with humor and a smile.  He speaks to so much of who we are as modern Jews.  While each of us is our own link in the long chain of Am Yisrael, we also share a collective history and experience.

Andrew begins by channeling our community pride when a moment like Aly Raisman’s gold medal happens:

I am the collective pride and excitement that is felt when we find out that that new actor, that great athlete, his chief of staff… is Jewish.
I am the collective guilt and shame that is felt when we find out that that serial killer, that Ponzi schemer, that wife beater… is Jewish…”

And he peppers the rest of his spoken word poem with clever references to the universal Jewish experience. There’s at least one analogy here that will resonate with everyone:

“I am an IDF sweatshirt and the Chai around your neck. I am a $100 Challah cover you will never use and a 5 Shekel piece of red string you will wear until it withers away. I am your Hebrew name. I am your Israeli cousins. I am your Torah portion and your 13 candles. I am your Bat Mitzvah dress and the cute Israeli soldier on your Birthright trip.

Check out the full video:

Andrew’s poetry is set to Enya’s “Watermark,” which is extraordinarily purposeful. This piece of music was chosen from all the myriad of instrumentals in the world, and I am sure it is not only because of the way it sounds and because of the way it makes us feel when we hear it.  Many other compositions can evoke the same feelings; I wonder if it was chosen in part because of its name. A watermark is a recognizable image or pattern in paper used to identify authenticity.  A poem about Jewish identity speaks to authenticity.

Who is an authentic Jew?  What about us makes us Jewish?  What defines our Jewish selves? Jews are forever measuring other Jews’ authenticity.

As we kvell over Aly Raisman’s Jewish pride and identity, the most impressive part of the story is this. Aly told the media that she chose “Hava Nagila” because she wanted an upbeat song that the audience could clap along to. There are many soundtracks she could have chosen. “Hava Nagilia” got the nod, not because she was making some kind of statement, but just because she loves the song — it is an integral part of her being.

Mazel Tov, Aly!  Your poise and strength inspires us all as we pursue our own gold medals in life — albeit without the pressure of a billion people watching our every move.

Oh, and if you didn’t catch Aly’s “Hava Nagila” routine, I consider it my second favorite YouTube video!

The menorah safety railing at the Hoover Dam

As the 3-D glasses in my blog masthead will attest, I can’t help but look at the world through Jewish eyes 24/7.

This is a snapshot my husband took of the stylish safety railing that keeps pedestrians safe at the Hoover Dam.  He immediately thought of a menorah and so did I.  Although, depending on where you crop the picture, there could be too many or two few candleholders.

This is not one of those ambiguous Rorschach tests where someone sees the Virgin Mary in a parking lot oil slick or Hello Kitty in a piece of burnt toast. The candelabra is obviously there.

I often think of Stars of David when I see Sheriff’s badges and Jewish stars frequently pop out when I stare at tile floors and the tops of diner salt-and-pepper shakers.

Does this ever happen to you?  Where are some of the unlikeliest spots you see Jewish stars or dreidels or Hebrew letters?  Come to think of it, has ANYONE noticed that the Microsoft Office icons for Word, Excel and PowerPoint look like letters from the Hebrew Aleph-Bet?

Are the Microsoft icons for Office, Word, PowerPoint and Excel meant to resemble Hebrew letters?

Don’t worry, I’m not going to go all Bible Code on you. I’m not sure what it means, but the “P” symbol for PowerPoint is the Hebrew Koof, the “W” Word symbol is a Shin, and the Excel “X” is the spitting image of an Aleph. I’ve fired off an email to Microsoft to see if there is any official comment on this.

In the meantime, what are some of your real-life Jewish Rorschach images you see in the patterns of everyday objects?

UPDATE (2/19/10): Microsoft calls Hebrew letter shapes “coincidental”

Here’s the official scoop from Microsoft spokesperson Tara Mulcahy:

“The Office 2008 for Mac icons are an evolution from the icons in Office 2004 for Mac, and represent the brand guidelines developed for the suite – Approachable, Energetic, Exacting and Elegant. Any resemblance to another icon or symbol is purely coincidental.”

I agree the icons are indeed elegant, but intentional or not, they ARE Hebrew letters!

Magen David tower fashioned out of Kapla building blocks

This is how you can tell who is the Jewish educator’s kid… Dump a crate of blocks on the playroom rug and see what the children come up with.

This Star of David tower was built by my 7-year-old son, Ari. He likes to take pictures of his creations because he hates to put the blocks back in the box and “ruin” his artistic vision. Perhaps the Louvre will call when they set up a religious symbol exhibit.

Or, maybe Ari will eventually pursue Jewish themes with his LEGOs, in the same spirit as this guy who is recreating the Bible in plastic bricks.

These images are from the wickedly clever web site, The Brick Testament:

Adam's rib before it becomes Eve - from The Brick Testament

Cain and Abel - The world's first premeditated murder from The Brick Testament.

Israelite spies penetrate the walled city of Jericho with help from an unlikely ally (go read the story again) -- from The Brick Testament.

Artist Brendan Powell Smith, who is not Jewish, also builds scenes from the Christian Bible. Most fascinating to me are the warning labels he slaps on the books of the Bible like the motion picture ratings.  There’s N for nudity, V for violence, S for sexual content and C for cursing.

You don’t realize how child unfriendly the Bible actually is until Smith smacks you over the head with it.  After all, there is always someone “smiting” someone or sleeping around in those stories.

Although I classify myself as a non-violent person, I love the word “smite” for some reason.

Anyone have any Jewish or Bible-themed block creations in their playroom?  Any thoughts on the LEGO version of the Bible — even though the toy company obviously has nothing to do with it?

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This blog is dedicated to preventing another generation from dreading Hebrew School. I seek to exchange stories, ideas and tips with other parents, teachers and everyone who shares my love for Jewish history, culture, spirituality, arts, and Israeli produce. Care for a pomelo, anyone?

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