Friday, November 27, 2015

Adam Sandler's New Hanukkah Song Could Include Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor

Adam Sandler's much awaited fourth installment of his wildly popular "The Hanukkah Song" was released the other day and it might be his funniest and most creative song about famous Jews yet. Sandler's production company Happy Madison released the music video of "The Hanukkah Song" on Wednesday and it is a recording of a live performance at the San Diego Civic Theatre on November 18th when he first sang the new version.

In this latest iteration of his celebrity infused Hanukkah song, Sandler includes such celebrities as Joseph Gordon-Levitt (who enjoys eating kugel), Stan Lee, Jake Gyllenhaal, Adam Levine, Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), Ben and Jerry (Ice Cream Magnates), Scarlett Johansson, Shia LaBeouf and even Jared Fogle from the Subway commercials (whom he recommends Dr. Drew can help). The video quickly made its way around the Interwebs as fans shared the YouTube video on Facebook.

Two deceased celebs whom Adam Sandler didn't include in this rendition of "The Hanukkah Song," but could have are Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor. I had long heard rumors that both iconic women had converted to Judaism, but I never confirmed it. Sure enough Marilyn Monroe converted with a Reform rabbi before she married Arthur Miller and Elizabeth Taylor converted in 1959 before marrying husband #4 Eddie Fisher. It turns out that Liz Taylor's 3rd husband, Michael Todd, was the son of an Orthodox rabbi, but Taylor only converted after Todd was killed in a plane crash and she was set to marry Fisher.

I only learned about Marilyn Monroe and Liz Taylor's conversions to Judaism this week after I was called by Lauren Markoe, a reporter with Religion News Service, asking me for a few comments on the matter. It turns out that the Jewish Museum in New York (under the auspices of The Jewish Theological Seminary) has a new exhibit about the conversions of the two famous women. In the RNS article, Markoe writes, "Collecting letters from their rabbis, images from their Jewish weddings, and a rarely-heard audio recording of Taylor’s conversion ceremony, “Becoming Jewish,” documents the relatively quiet way in which Monroe and Taylor adopted the faith, and what that said about the America that loved them."

Friday, November 20, 2015

2015 Technology Holiday Gift Guide

The holiday shopping season is in full effect. Hanukkah begins the evening of Sunday, December 6 this year, which means if you're shopping for Hanukkah observers you have about three weeks fewer to shop for gifts.

Since we’re knee deep in the Digital Age that means a non-technology gift will be relegated to the category of the infamous holiday fruitcake this year, but fear not because there are a lot of options for fun and exciting tech gadgets this Christmas and Hanukkah season.

There are also a lot of practical tech gifts that your friends and family are sure to appreciate. This year’s hot gifts will be flat-screen TVs, smartphones, gaming systems, tablets, headphones, speakers, wearables and drones. As a techie who loves trying out the latest gadgets, I have put together a list of the best tech gifts for holiday shoppers this season. These gifts range in price so there's something for everyone.

Note: Prices might be lower during the holiday season and search for bargains online.

Drones have been in the news a lot lately and pretty soon you might have to register your drone for safety reasons. While a drone might not be the type of thing everyone is racing out to buy for themselves, they make great gifts. They’re fun to use and capture some amazing video footage that you’d otherwise never see (your kids playing a game of touch football on the beach in Florida for example). The Parrot Bebop is one of the most popular recreational use drones on the market because it’s small and lightweight. The quadcopter’s camera has been improved from previous drone models and has a 180-degree angle of view with a 14-megapixel sensor. You pilot this drone with a smartphone or tablet. It can reach speeds of around 45 mph. You'll have to recharge the Bebop's battery often between flights, but anyone who gets one this holiday season will enjoy capturing their friends on the ski slopes this winter. Price: $499

Drones can be pricey, making them a challenging option for children’s gifts this holiday season. That’s why Parrot has come out with a line of light-weight drones for kids. Their new line of Airborne drones connect via Bluetooth and are controlled with the free FreeFlight 3 app for smartphones and tablets. These mini-drones can be used both indoors and outdoors. A vertical camera compares, every 16 milliseconds, an image of the ground to the previous one to determine the speed of the Minidrone and also enables it to take snapshots, which are saved on the 1 Gb flash memory. The Airborne can only hit speeds of up to 11 mph, but kids will enjoy making it do tricks in the sky. Price: $99

There are many pocket sized projectors on the market, but the Cube is the first designed specifically for your smart devices, adapting the image resolution based on the connected smartphone or tablet. Your lucky friend who receives the Cube this Christmas or Hanukkah will be able to load a YouTube clip on their iPad and immediately host a movie night. Price: $299

The Smart Home is the new rage, but your friends might be apprehensive about turning all their household appliances into 21st century smart devices. Help them slowly transform their home into the Digital Age and save them some money along the way. The round Lyric thermostat is very similar to the Nest, but has improved on that concept in several ways. It’s easy to install and configure, and it uses outdoor weather data for optimal heating and cooling. This Wi-Fi thermostat is controlled and monitored using an iOS or Android smartphone app, and uses your phone's location services, known as geofencing, to save energy. It is very easy to configure the thermostat using the app, but there is no desktop app as of yet. The lucky recipient of this smart thermostat will also appreciate the reports on the app about their energy use. Price: $279 at

One of the best gifts to friends and family is the gift of security. Netgear’s Arlo is an impressive security system with battery-operated 720p-resolution, motion-sensing, night-vision-equipped, indoor/outdoor cameras. These pocket-sized cameras retain the resolution and on-demand video feed of a typically-tethered camera, but without the typical electrical cords. Arlo’s mobile app is simple, but impressive. The cameras can be used inside and outside the home or business to provide security. For many homes, the two-camera kit will be sufficient, but a there is a four-camera kit and additional cameras can be added for $160 each. Price: $329

The Welcome camera from Netatmo isn’t your typical security camera. Think of it more as a Nanny Cam that recognizes faces. It uses facial recognition to provide notifications about who’s in the home. All data is stored locally on an 8GB SD card included with the camera. Users can also watch a live stream in full HD quality to see motion in the house anywhere in its 130 degree field of view, even at night via infrared night vision. The Welcome compares well to the Nest Cam and both have easy-to-use mobile apps. This is an ideal gift for a family that wants to keep tabs on their kids at home alone or anyone who wants to see which workers are in their home – from the housekeeper and nanny to the painter and plumber. Price: $199

Home entertainment systems used mean having professional installation to avoid seeing wires everywhere. Today, with the Samsung Soundbar with Wireless Active Subwoofer, enjoying high definition sound is simple. This is the perfect gift for a friend or relative who enjoys watching sports and movies with dynamic, surround sound. With the free Samsung Audio Remote App they will control the system from a phone. Price: $327.99 at

TiVo Bolt ($200 less than the TiVo Roamio) lets multiple users record their favorite television shows and movies (four at once), as well as stream content from just about every provider. TiVo has loaded this unit with features that simply makes your standard cable box DVR seem like an 8-track player. Simply place a CableCARD into TiVo Bolt and there's no more need for a cable box. It's great for mobile TV viewing with the Android and iOS mobile app. Along with TV shows, Bolt gives you direct access to over-the-top streaming content through individual apps for Netflix, Amazon Prime, YouTube, Hulu Plus and more. Plus, Bolt is the first TiVo to support 4K-resolution video (2160p) from YouTube and Netflix. If your friend already has a TiVo in the house, the Bolt will connect to that unit as well to view recorded shows. Price: $299 for 500GB; $399 for 1TB

These are not your typical ear buds. If you’re looking for a gift for a friend who really appreciates high quality sound, they will love these earphones. They’re made from solid brass and hand-finished, these earphones feature a distinctive form with ergonomic and elegant details, including laser etching and mirrored accents that reflect light. A balanced weight distribution ensures a snug, comfortable fit. They are not inexpensive, but the quality fits the price. Price: $199

Know someone who enjoys music with their workout? This will be their most practical gift this holiday season. I fell in love with these headphones the first time I put them on. They actually stay in place during running! They are lightweight and comfortable with ultra-high quality sound, clarity and power. They also have a built-in microphone and a single button call-answering feature to be hands-free during calls, even when you're 30 feet from your phone. With up to 8 hours run time on a 1-hour charge, these are the best Bluetooth headphones for active people. For under $20, add a Sports Sleeve to hold the phone during running or biking. Price: $119.99 (with hard case)

Desktop computers used to come packaged with cheap speakers, but today everyone wants to enjoy their music with better sound quality. These impressive room-filling speakers are designed for the music, games or movies on the computer. These are powerful little speakers with a front-facing subwoofer and easy to use volume dial. Price: $99.99

This is the ultimate portable Bluetooth speaker. It is great for parties, backyard BBQs or the football tailgate. I’ve been enjoying UE speakers for a long time and even have the smaller waterproof model (UE Roll) in the shower. The UE Boom 2 is rugged, but lightweight. With the mobile app, it’s going to be a top notch Christmas or Hanukkah gift this year. Price: $199

For a much less expensive speaker option, kids will enjoy this LED Bluetooth speaker from iLuv. It’s perfect to match up with a cellphone and comes in various fun colors. Not only is this a fun gift for kids and teens, it actually produces a high quality sound that they'll enjoy. Price: $39.99

The new animatronic Star Wars line from Thinkway Toys is the most technologically sophisticated Star Wars toy line ever created. Everyone is excited for the new Star Wars movie and these cool, responsive and interactive Star Wars figures will be one of the hottest toy gifts this holiday season. It's available in all the popular Star Wars characters. Price: $139.99

The Cycliq Fly6 Bicycle Tail­Light and Safety Camera Combo: Cycliq makes innovative cycling accessories and while the Fly6 HD camera and tail­light combo is ideal for cyclists, it will also prove useful for college students biking around campus. The Fly6 camera replaces your existing tail­light and records what happens behind your bike in real time. The camera provides great low light images featuring 1020 x 720 HD camera footage and dynamic audio recording. It comes with a USB­rechargeable battery (6 hours runtime), 8GB Class 10 microSD card, two seat post mounts for use on two bikes, and an Aero seat post adaptor. Price: $169

Kids and teens love taking selfies and this wireless Bluetooth camera shutter remote with dual-layer protective case for the iPhone will be a fun, inexpensive gift this holiday season. Price: $39.99

This iPhone case serves two purposes – it is a protective case and a detachable battery pack. I love that you don’t have to worry about a charging cable, but just plug your entire phone right into the electrical outlet. While it’s a little pricey for a phone case, remember you’re giving someone both a charger and a durable case all in one. $99.95

If you’re looking for a quick and easy holiday gift that is practical, look no further than Echo’s power banks. No one is happy when their cellphone runs out of juice, so they’ll appreciate the gift of portable power. Many of the power banks on the market are heavy and therefore a hassle to carry around. Echo has figured out how to make high efficiency power banks that are lightweight. Price: $30

This brand-new innovation from iLuv Creative Technology is ideal for kids, teens and college students. The SmartShaker alarm clock is controlled from a smartphone through an iOS app. Young people use their phone as an alarm clock, but what happens when it's in another room? Smart Shaker is programmed via your Smart Phone and acts as an extension of your phone alarm even when your phone is in a different room being charged or set to silent. Available in five colors. Price: $19.99

I love every product that iClever makes. They are all available for purchase on and are priced very affordably. I’ve placed these 6-port wall chargers around my home and office making it easy for guests to charge their devices. iClever also sells an assortment of car chargers, Bluetooth keyboards, Bluetooth earbud headphones, Bluetooth transmitters and portable speakers. $39.99

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Twins Are Very Different (Lessons from Jacob and Esau)

When we hear the term "twins," we often think of two things that are alike -- twin beds, twin turbo engines, etc. However, as the father of twins (who happen to turn ten-years-old today), I can attest to the fact that twins are most certainly quite different from one another.

I'm not talking about the identical twin brothers who have been in the news recently. It's obvious to everyone that these German twins who were separated at birth with one being raised Jewish and the other as a member of Hitler Youth were diametrically different. I'm referencing two humans emerging from the same womb who we might think are very similar, but in actuality are very different from one another. What lessons can we learn from this.

This past Shabbat morning in synagogues around the world, we read about the birth of twin boys to parents Isaac and Rebecca. For the first time the Torah goes into great detail about childbirth, even describing the babies in utero. These two boys, the first twins of the biblical narrative, emerge as polar opposites. The older, Esau, was born hairy, while his younger womb-mate, Jacob, was smooth.

The rabbis, in their commentaries (midrash) about these two interesting characters, go to great lengths to show their differences. They characterize Jacob as a kind, gentle and studious individual who spent most of his time in the tents of study. While Esau, by contrast, is described as an idler and hunter, a man of violence who lived by his strength and conquest. In essence, Esau was a bully of a kid who was rough and tough, while the younger Jacob was a mild-mannered nerd.  The rabbis of old even went so far as to create stories about Esau's murdering, idolatrous and womanizing ways.

Jacob and Esau (Huffington Post)

Monday, November 16, 2015

Governor Rick Snyder's Flip Flop on Refugees is Shameful

I first learned about the Holocaust as a middle school student at Hillel Day School in metro Detroit, but it wasn't until high school that I became aware that the United States could have done more to help European Jews looking for safe haven. As a high school student studying the Holocaust I remember being shocked that the U.S. State Department clung to its strict application of the 1924 Immigration Law during the Holocaust, which made it very difficult for Jewish refugees of Nazi Europe to obtain entry visas.

Later, as a college student I devoted an entire semester to researching the restrictive immigration policies maintained by U.S. consuls, which delayed and rejected granting visas to the Jewish refugees fleeing persecution for national security reasons. By the time the U.S. realized it needed to take in these refugees, it was too late.

That was a harsh lesson that our nation learned in the middle of the last century. However, it's now more than seventy years since that time and our country seems to have forgotten our responsibility to refugees who are fleeing persecution.

Governor Rick Snyder changed his mind about accepting Syrian Refugees in Michigan.

Just over a month ago, Michigan's Governor Rick Snyder, who I think has served our state well, said he was working with the federal government to figure out the best process for Michigan to accept refugees from Syria. Of course, he made the caveat that these refugees would have to be carefully screened to assure they were not security threats and that makes complete sense. I am very disappointed, however, that today Governor Snyder, like several other governors, has done a complete 180 on Michigan's policy toward these Syrian refugees.

Efforts to bring Syrian refugees to Michigan have now been delayed following Friday's terrorist attacks in Paris. Governor Snyder has continued to say that Michigan is a welcoming state is proud of its rich history of immigration, but as of now he is unwilling to welcome in the hopeless refugees from the Middle East.

While this might sound like the most cogent policy in order to ensure the security of Michigan, I'm not convinced it's the right policy. In fact, it's the same excuse the U.S. government used in the 1940s when our country could have provided a safe refuge to the thousands of Jewish men, women and children fleeing Hitler's Europe. It certainly isn't the right moral choice and I would think that Governor Snyder would know better. We cannot allow Islamic State's threat of terrorism to prevent us from doing the right thing, which is participating in potential Syrian refugee resettlement efforts and serving as a safe haven for Syrian refugees. Governor Synder: Michigan's better than that!

Friday, November 13, 2015

Real Rabbis Playing Fictional Rabbis

The list of well known actors who have played rabbis in the movies and on television is quite long and includes Mel Brooks, Ben Stiller, Ben Kingsley, Gene Wilder, Sam Waterston, Alan King, Rod Steiger, Kevin Pollak and Meryl Streep.

A much shorter list is made up of actual rabbis who have played rabbis in movies and on television shows. My friend and colleague, Rabbi Chuck Diamond of Pittsburgh, plays the rabbi role in the upcoming film "American Pastoral," which is based on the Philip Roth novel.

Rabbi Chuck Diamond with Ewan McGregor on the set of American Pastoral

In fact, in a Google search I tried to identify other rabbis besides Rabbi Chuck who who have been called upon to act as rabbis in movies (talk about being typecast!) and I came up empty. What I did find is that the actress Molly Parker, who was on Deadwood and plays Jackie Sharp in House of Cards, not only was "Rabbi Ari" on the HBO series Six Feet Under, but coincidentally also will be in American Pastoral with Rabbi Chuck Diamond. Maybe Parker can give Rabbi Chuck some tips on how to be a rabbi!

An even bigger coincidence is that, according to an article in the Jewish Chronicle, Rabbi Chuck's big scene in American Pastoral will be in a Jewish cemetery, which is where Parker played Rabbi Ari on Six Feet Under, a television show about a family that owned a funeral home. Chuck Diamond won't be the only guy playing a rabbi in a 2016 movie. Actor Stephen Singer will play a rabbi in the upcoming TV movie called "Madoff" about Ponzi schemer Bernie Madoff.

Actress Molly Parker as Rabbi Ari on Six Feet Under
Actress Molly Parker as Rabbi Ari on Six Feet Under

The story of how Rabbi Chuck Diamond, a Jerry Garcia-looking mensch of a guy whom I've known since I was in high school, got the part of rabbi in American Pastoral is pretty funny. He was first contacted by Zane Weiner, the co-producer of the film to be a consultant. He met with Weiner and the actor Ewan McGregor, who stars in the film and is the director. Originally, Rabbi Chuck was only going to consult on a Jewish funeral scene, but then McGregor asked if he'd be interested in playing the role of rabbi -- not much of a stretch for a guy who's been a rabbi for thirty years.

Rabbi Chuck Diamond with Rabbi Jason Miller in Ukraine in 2013
Rabbi Chuck Diamond with Rabbi Jason Miller in Ukraine in 2013

Rabbi Chuck was ordained from the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1985, the same year as the first woman rabbi, Rabbi Amy Eilberg. I first met Rabbi Chuck, as he is known, when he served as the education director at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in suburban Detroit. From there, he went on to Pittsburgh, where he first worked as education director and rabbi at Congregation Beth Shalom and then started his own congregation called Or L'Simcha, which recently merged with Congregation Tree of Life. For decades, Rabbi Chuck has been a staple at Camp Ramah in Canada, where I had a chance to work with him in the summer of 2005. We've stayed in touch over the years and traveled to Ukraine and Israel together a few years ago.

I'm proud of Rabbi Chuck (and a bit envious of course) that he had the chance to be in a movie alongside such actors as Jennifer Connelly, Dakota Fanning, Ewan McGregor, Peter Rieger (of Animal House), Rupert Evans, Molly Parker, Uzo Aduba and David Strathairn.

According to the article in Jewish Chronicle, Rabbi Chuck had to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish about 30 times to get the Jewish funeral scene perfect in American Pastoral. He says he now plans to join the Screen Actors Guild. I'll be sure to remind him to also set up his IMDB account, since he currently isn't listed in the cast for the movie there. I can't wait to see Rabbi Chuck's big debut on the silver screen when American Pastoral comes out next year.

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Mitch Albom Makes Beautiful Music in New Novel

Ever since the huge literary success of "Tuesdays with Morrie," Mitch Albom has been trying to reach the same level of storytelling magic. His five books that followed "Tuesdays with Morrie" were each wonderful in their own unique way, but seemed to lack the passion of his masterpiece. The recurring themes in his follow-up novels have all given tips of the hat to his magnum opus about Brandeis professor Morrie Schwartz -- mentorship, death and dying, faith and spirituality, and leaving a legacy -- but they just didn't have the same best seller qualities.

Now, Albom follows up his recent book about phone calls from the beyond ("The First Phone Call From Heaven," 2013) with a new novel that seems to weave all of his themes into one volume. With "The Magic Strings of Frankie Pesto" (Harper), Albom has taken his writing to a whole new level. He was at his best when writing about his personal heroes -- a dying college professor and a dying childhood rabbi -- but this book is Albom's first about his lifelong passion of music.

I've grown up reading Mitch Albom's sports columns in the Detroit Free Press and was a fan of his early books (all sports-related) long before "Tuesdays with Morrie" came out in 1997. Anyone who has followed Albom's writings and his local Detroit radio show knows that he knows a lot about sports, but he's most enthusiastic about music. So, it makes perfect sense that the narrator of his newest book is Music (the concept of music personified).

On the second page of the book, Albom, a talented musician who plays in a band, is already making beautiful music with the written word. He introduces our narrator in a rhythmic crafting of verse: "I am Music. And I am here for the soul of Frankie Presto. Not all of it. Just the rather large part he took from me when he came into this world. However well used, I am a loan, not a possession. You give me back upon departure."