Homer and Bart at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

The Simpsons are very popular in Israel. During my first visit in the early 1990s, I saw the whole mishpacha on Ben Yehuda Street in Jerusalem. Much to my surprise, the giant cartoon mascots were promoting frozen TV dinners.

My husband also has a small collection of Hebrew Simpsons gum and candy bar wrappers.

But this Sunday will be the first time that Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and Maggie will be flying El Al on the small screen.

I can only assume they’ll be traveling on Israel’s national airline, but only a few details have leaked out about the Jerusalem-themed episode — including comedian Sacha Baron Cohen (not to be confused with Sasha Cohen) being Bart and Homer’s tour guide.

As you may have noticed from my blog’s occasional silly diversions, I believe that American pop culture can often provide Jewish teaching moments in the classroom. Of course, with the Simpsons, the level of irreverence will determine how age appropriate the lessons can be.

According to the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, the episode will be called “The Greatest Story Ever D’ohed,” and will have Homer come down with a case of “Jerusalem Syndrome,” the psychological state where one believes he or she is a Biblical personality or prophet.

Simpsons producer Al Jean warns that “people from all three religions will be equally offended.”

I’m honestly not a huge fan of the show, but my radar will be up and running when it airs the day before Pesach.

I wonder if Bart and Homer will see any flying chairs.

The Simpsons’ Israel episode airs at 8 p.m. Sunday, March 28 on FOX. Please let me know what you think of the show!

I thought throwing chairs at people was an activity confined to tabloid TV talk shows and extreme cage fighting. I was wrong.

Check out this outrageous video of plastic chairs being thrown at the Women of the Wall, a multi-denominational group of women who gather to read Torah at the Kotel on the first day of every Hebrew month.

Unfortunately, harassment of women worshipers in Jerusalem is quite common — some haredi men have even thrown trash on the women’s side of the Kotel. Fortunately, the Israeli police come out in force when these incidents happen. About 40 officers formed a human wall of security around the WoW.

Most remarkable in the chair-throwing video is how calm and dignified the Women of the Wall are while under attack. One woman jokes that their Jewish attackers were doing them a service because she “actually wanted to sit down!”

If you’d like to support the Women of the Wall and the right of women everywhere to pray as they see fit, click here to learn ways to express solidarity.

Support the Women of the Wall

How many audience members knew that Ben Stiller's nonsensical alien Oscars speech contained part of the Hebrew prayer for wine?

Ben Stiller, who played a rabbi in “Keeping the Faith,” is no stranger to Jewish humor.

At last night’s Academy Awards, he slipped in an inside joke that I wonder how many people noticed. Presenting the honors for Best Makeup, Stiller was flamboyantly dressed as a Na’vi alien from the blockbuster movie “Avatar.”

His presentation speech in the Na’vi language was actually a string of jibberish, tongue clicks and familiar phrases blurted out in a funny accent. Anyone unfamiliar with Hebrew would not recognize two of those phrases: “Pesach,” and “Boray Pah-Ree HaGaffen.”

The guttural letter Chet at the end of “Pesach” definitely sounds like it is from another planet. Just not the Alpha Centauri moon of Pandora. (I had to look that up. I haven’t yet seen “Avatar,” but I want to).

What do you think? Is sneaking in the last part of the prayer for wine into the Avatar speech a gesture of Jewish pride? Or does it mock Judaism — or the Na’vi culture for that matter — by inferring that all foreign languages are just jibberish?

I don’t profess to intimately know Ben Stiller’s soul, but I think he meant well.

In fact, given that Avatar takes place in the year 2154, I see it as a positive development that Passover is getting some extraterrestrial airplay. We Jewish educators are obsessed with Jewish continuity, after all.

And although Judaism does not encourage proselytizing, the religion is very welcoming to all who want to learn Torah. No matter what planet you come from.

Apparently, I am not the only parent who dresses her children as Jewish cuisine!

“Learning, Laughter & Light” reader and friend Cathy Karp writes in to share the winners of the 2009 Purim costume contest at Congregation B’nei Israel in San Jose, Costa Rica:

The Hamantaschen Puzzle -- Purim costume contest at Congregation B'nei Israel in Costa Rica

Cathy and her husband Artie’s sons Oren and Ethan — along with friends Alex and Max Feingold — shook things up a bit with their exclusive Hamantaschen Puzzle. What a refreshing twist from the usual batch of Queen Esthers and Mordechais.

Purim in Costa Rica at San Jose's progressive synagogue

Well done, boys!

Don’t forget to vote in our Hamantaschen Filling Poll — the ballot box will stay open for the entire week, as I believe that these cookies should be year-round treats.

Our little plate of hamantaschen

Anyone who knows me knows that I love words; big words, small words, monosyllabic ones and polysyllabic ones. I love word games and puns.

So back when I was living in Jerusalem, it was not a surprise to my “new” chevrah when I dressed as “B’DaTz” for Purim.

“B’DaTz,” is the Hebrew acronym for “Bet Din Tzedek” (Just Rabbinical Court), which is a hekscher, or rabbinic kosher stamp of approval for food and food-related items.

A forest green, mid-calf length, drop-waist dress was the base of my costume. I stuck big 2-inch diameter orange, fuchsia, and teal paper DOTS all over my dress. Voila! I was dressed as “B’DaTz.” I won the costume prize at the mostly English-As-A-First-Language Purim party. Light-years away from, and much different than winning the costume prize years before at a Halloween party dressed as a slice of bacon.

In more recent years, I have moved to a different food group: the hamantasch. At just over 6 feet tall, I make for a very statuesque one. I have dressed as both a mohn (poppy seed) hamantasch and as a more “modern” very bright purplish pink centered one.

I have made buckets full of fabric (felt, to be specific) hamantaschen, complete with black or brown, or red or orange pom-pom centers. I have made and worn Sculpey hamantaschen earrings and brooches galore. I have even decorated my very young son, Ari, as a plateful of these delectable felt treats.

Experience has shown me that people prefer to eat real hamantaschen. Even though I have attempted to make rounded corner yeast hamantaschen (my Dad’s favorites are prune-filled), I have failed every time. So, whether baking with my children, other people’s children, or other adults, I make the pointier cornered cookie hamantaschen.

Some of my maven cookie-baking friends kvell over my cookie recipe and we swap filling recipes and actual fillings. Every cookie my friend Eileen makes is a perfect & closed triangle, which is much more challenging when baking with children. Eileen’s platters of Purim delights are picture perfect, looking as though they are straight out of a food magazine. Better than any unmelted chocolate chip center, Eileen makes her adored Chocolate Brownie Hamantaschen Filling (see below), which she has agreed to let me share here:

“EILEEN’S FAMOUS CHOCOLATE BROWNIE HAMANTASCHEN FILLING”

5 oz semisweet chocolate
3 oz unsweetened chocolate
6 T butter
2/3 C flour
1 tsp baking powder
¼ tsp salt
2 eggs
2 tsp vanilla extract
1 T instant coffee granules
¾ C sugar
¾ C chocolate chips
2/3 C chopped nuts (OPTIONAL)

In a medium saucepan, over medium-low heat, melt the first 2 chocolates together. Take off heat and mix in the butter, flour, baking powder, salt, eggs, vanilla, coffee, and sugar. Mix to combine and then fold in chocolate chips. Add nuts if desired. After this has completely cooled, store in fridge in air-tight container.

I have had my dough recipe for years and although I know it’s not original (it comes from a tiny small-format Jewish cookbook I once owned), I share it here, along with some more filling recipes. These delightful Purim treats are welcome any time of year, except for Pesach, of course.

STACY’S UNORIGINAL-BUT-YUMMY HAMANTASCHEN COOKIE DOUGH

This recipe does not make many cookies; I never know the yield because I make different sizes. I always double this recipe. Sometimes I wing it and make chocolate dough. I reduce the flour by ¼ C and add ¼ C unsweetened cocoa powder. I do not put in orange juice, instead adding 1 T strongly brewed coffee and 1 oz melted bittersweet chocolate. This dough can be looser, so it’s important to go easy on the liquids.

¾ C sugar
2 C all-purpose flour
2 tsp. baking powder
¼ tsp. salt
8 T unsalted butter or margarine, cold
1 large egg, slightly beaten
3 T fresh orange juice

• Combine dry ingredients in food processor.
• Pulse in butter until mixture resembles coarse meal.
• Add egg and juice and process just until dough forms.
• Form into 8 inch disk, wrap in plastic wrap and chill at least 2 hours or overnight.

• When ready to bake: preheat oven at 350 degrees.

• Line cookie sheets with parchment paper.
• Roll dough out to 1/8 inch thickness on floured surface.
• Cut into circles with 3” cookie cutter, or whatever size you so desire—MAY NEED TO ALTER BAKING TIME ACCORDINGLY.

• Place 1 tsp of filling in center (more or less depending upon circle size).
• Pinch 3 edges of dough together creating 3 corners, leaving small opening in center for filling to peek through.

Bake until golden brown, about 20 minutes. Let cool on cookie sheet for 10 minutes before removing cookies. Cool cookies completely on racks.

I love making cookies with a combo of fillings. I make all of my fruit fillings with dried fruit from Trader Joe’s, but you can use any dried fruit. All of these fillings can be made ahead of time and stored in the fridge in air-tight containers for about two weeks! Cherry-chocolate or cherry-apricot or apricot-chocolate seem to be the biggest hits.

Here are some choice filling flavors that have served me well over the years:

• Dried Slab Apricots
• Dried Blueberries (not the freeze dried ones)
• Prunes (which are now remarketed as “dried plums”)
• Dried Pitted Tart Montmorency Cherries

MAKE YOUR OWN HAMANTASCHEN FILLING

¼ lb dried fruit
½ C water
1 tsp fresh lemon juice

Combine all ingredients in small saucepan and cook over medium heat until most of the liquid evaporates, about 10 minutes.
Let cool and puree in food processor.
Refrigerate until needed
Although I have made my own mohn/poppy seed filling, it’s much more cost-effective to buy canned filling.

So, what’s your favorite filling? Please vote in my first Learning, Laughter & Light Poll:

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!

After discovering this outrageously inappropriate Anne Frank dot-to-dot puzzle and a full kids’ activity page of Holocaust word searches and games, I sent the link to a few respected educational institutions for their perspective.

As I mentioned in my post, “Holocaust Education is NOT Supposed to Be Fun,” if you have to make Holocaust lessons entertaining for children, maybe they just aren’t ready to handle the subject.

So what age is the best age to start teaching the Shoah?  A couple of experts weigh in below:

ANTONY POLONSKY, Professor of Holocaust Studies, Brandeis University:

“I am not in favour of this material being given to primary school children, so I think it should probably be in secondary school. The general context is also necessary. I have found Americans (not only children) woefully ignorant of the elementary facts of European history.”

“At Brandeis, a student said to me after a lecture, ‘You were talking about the Second World War; when was the First World War?'”

NELLY SILAGY BENEDEK, Director of Education, The Jewish Museum (New York):

“From my experience, the best age to introduce students to the topic of the Holocaust is in high school. Even then, I wouldn’t expose them to the most graphic images. The Holocaust is a topic for mature audiences, and teachers should tread cautiously.”

“On the other hand, it is important for the Holocaust to be part of a study of 20th century world history. There are ways of talking about World War II to elementary and middle school students without speaking about the particulars of the Holocaust and emphasizing its graphic and disturbing events. For example, fifth grade students might learn about the how Jews were forced to flee Europe and about immigration to the United States during that time. They can learn about the challenges and hardships Jews faced as immigrants.”

YAEL WEINSTOCK, International School for Holocaust Studies, Yad Vashem (Israel):

“These are fascinating images that you bring to your blog. While I cannot speak from a personal perspective, as I represent Yad Vashem, I appreciate your engaging with such materials and questioning their use in the classroom and with young children.”

“As for educational suggestions, I can share with you the very well thought-out approach that Yad Vashem takes. We feel that outside of Israel (where the Holocaust is present starting at a very young age just by growing up in a Jewish country), children should not begin learning about the Holocaust until about 3rd or 4th grade.”

“Yad Vashem has published three books that are brilliantly written to introduce the topic of the Holocaust without difficult photographs or too much information at once. The first is called “I Wanted to Fly Like a Butterfly” and tells the personal story of a Holocaust survivor, but in a way that a child could understand. We do not believe in lying or making up parts of the story. Tell the truth, but perhaps not the entire truth when the child is young. It is a spiralic approach, so that with each year, a student is introduced to more and more about the subject.”

MICHAL STERNIN, International School for Holocaust Studies, Yad Vashem (Israel):

“First of all, I would like to express my appreciation to your dedication to the subject of Holocaust education. Thank you for drawing our attention to the children’s activities.”

“The most important thing to understand is that learning about the Holocaust should take place in a frame of an educational process. The educators should be constantly focused on the value of the activity they construct for the children and ask themselves what exactly is being achieved by performing each and every task they give.”

“The materials presented to children should be appropriate to their mental and cognitive skills. We think that the subject can be taught to younger children, and in our site, you can find ideas of how to do that.”

Here are some links to lesson plans:
Until Then, I Had Only Read About These Things in Books” (Grades 5-6)
I Wanted to Fly Like a Butterfly” (Grades 3-5)

“Thanks again for approaching us, we would be happy to continue the dialogue with you.”

The New York Times recently dove into the world of religious fight clubs

Wow. The New York Times just ran a riveting story on the growing use of kickboxing and violent cage fighting (as opposed to the gentle kind) to lure young men into church. One Tennessee church called “Xtreme Ministries” follows up Bible class with lessons how to beat the crap out of each other.

The school’s slogan: “Where Feet, Fist and Faith Collide!”

The Times says the fights are “part of a larger and more longstanding effort on the part of some ministers who fear that their churches have become too feminized, promoting kindness and compassion at the expense of strength and responsibility.”

For the record, I believe that Hebrew Schools and all religious education programs should just stick to the kindness and compassion stuff.

You can read the full martial arts story here.

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?

Drew Barrymore at the 2010 Golden Globes

Nope, Drew Barrymore has not converted to Judaism. Not to my knowledge, anyhow.

But she did set up one of the best unrehearsed lines from last night’s Golden Globe Awards at the Beverly Hills Hilton.

Barrymore, extremely nervous on the Golden Globes bimah as she accepted her trophy for the “Grey Gardens” miniseries, apologized that she did not know award show etiquette regarding where to walk. Ironic, she noted, because “I’ve been meeting with the Hollywood Foreign Press for like 97 years and I’ve been in this room since I was seven years old.”

An obvious reference to “E.T.”

That set up the punchline for “Mad Men” creator and executive producer Matthew Weiner, who later accepted a Globe for Best TV Series Drama.

Bar Mitzvah Party Flashback

“I, too, was in this ballroom when I was seven years old,” Weiner said. “It was for a Bar Mitzvah!”

The audience gave his laugh line a loud applause. Mazel Tov, Matthew!

Back to Drew Barrymore, her Greek goddess gown was absolutely gorgeous. But what was that silver, sparkly rodent on her shoulder?

By the way, if you want to wear Meryl Streep’s or Amy Pohler’s Golden Globe gown for Purim, they’re now up for auction with the proceeds to benefit the Haiti earthquake relief effort.

Not sure I can afford it on an educator’s salary, but if Barrymore’s dress also goes on the tzedakah auction block, my bid will be competitive!

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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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