Donate Money to My Organization Without Actually Spending Anything

I’m always eternally grateful to friends who have been kind enough to be financially generous to the organization that I run, Limmud NY. Now I’m reaching out to anyone who is willing to support us with an opportunity to help us raise money, and you won’t have to spend any money to make it happy.

Limmud NY is participating in American Express’s “Small Business Saturday” promotion on November 24th. If you donate $25 to Limmud NY, American Express will credit your account for the $25. You spend nothing and Limmud NY gets $25. You can do this with every American Express card you have.

It’s a very limited opportunity. You can sign up now, but you have to make your gift on Saturday, November 24th. It only requires two easy steps from you:

Step 1Click here to register your card(s) now for Small Business Saturday with American Express. Please register now as American Express is limiting the number of participants. It will only take a couple of minutes.

Step 2: On Saturday, November 24th go to the Limmud NY website (www.limmudny.org), click on the “Donate” button, and use each registered American Express card to make a donation. This step can only be done on November 24th.*

If you would me to send you a reminder on November 24th, please send me a message here.

I’ll be honest, it’s been an intense time for Limmud NY. We’ve lost our regular offices due to Hurricane Sandy and have had to relocate for at least the next month or so. This is a great opportunity for us to have a big win. And you can help us make that happen.

It would mean the world to make and you’d make a huge difference if you share to your friends and family so they can register their cards today.  If 1,000 people make (free) gifts of $25 to Limmud NY, we’ll raise $25,000. They only way to reach that number is to spread the word. The moment you take to pass on this information will help Limmud NY tremendously.

*Donations to Limmud NY in excess of $25 are tax deductible. American Express generally issues statement credits within 5 business days after your qualifying purchase, but the $25 credit may take up to 2 billing cycles to post to your account. Corporate cards are not eligible for this promotion.

Planning a Comic Uncon

This is expanding a bit on some earlier thoughts about comic cons, found right here. Or you could just scroll down, since it’s the last thing I posted. I’m sure you understand how “weblogs” work. It’s been ten years now. The basic premise is about rethinking the structure of gatherings for comics fans, professionals, etc…and reimagining how they could look within the context of the world of Unconferences.

I recently spent the better part of a week training in designing and facilitating gatherings for people thanks to a micro-grant from the ROI Community, so it felt like an opportunity to apply some of that thinking towards planning my dream comic con. This is a first draft.

If it ever becomes a real thing, you’re all invited!

(No, you’re not.)

The setting: A hotel/conference center with multiple break-out spaces, ballroom-type rooms for large gatherings, solid rooms for panels, perhaps at least one room with circular seating. Also: good spots for screenings. Oh, and a bar.

Timing: At least 2.5-3 days, preferably over a weekend.

Target Population: 150-200 participants, representing a diverse range of people within the comics world/community/whatever. Ideally, this would involve equal numbers of fans, creators (indie, corporate and otherwise), editors, publishers, retailers, journalists/bloggers, and anyone else that I might have missed.

Read on for the schedule. I recommend clicking the links to methodologies, otherwise much of what I’m proposing here won’t make much sense. Assume that breaks, meals, and the ability to move freely at any time are built into the program.

Day One: Starts Mid to Late Afternoon

Opening Keynote – I’m not particularly fond of frontal speeches, but in this case I think it’s necessary in order to set the stage for the gathering. Nothing too long or boring, but rather to get the group on board with what will be taking place in the coming days.

Icebreaker (for lack of a better term) – What is needed is one big wall and whole mess of Post-It Notes in three different colors, let’s say red, yellow, and green. Each participant receives one red, three yellow, and five green. Instructions are as follows:

  • Everyone writes their all-time favorite comic on the red note
  • Everyone writes their three all-time favorite comics on the yellow notes
  • Everyone writes their five all-time favorite comics on the green notes
When the whole group is done, they place their Post-Its on the big wall by color. Once the wall is filled, everyone can simply take a look around to get a sense of the many interests in the room. These will stay on the wall for the duration of the gathering. Variation: do the same, but with favorite creators.
Evening – two options:
  • Pecha Kucha Comics Style: A night of presenting ideas for the comics world. This can be anything from ideas for books, new publishing models, ideas for digital formats, etc…The standard is that each presenter gets 20 slides for 20 seconds each, moving forward in content when slides are changed, for a total of 6 minutes, 40 seconds. The timing and slide stuff is flexible.
  • Film Fest: Comics people tend to also be pretty solid film people. Set up a night of screenings based on film titles pre-submitted and voted upon by participants.

Day Two

Morning: Panels & Skill Sessions – I have nothing against panels, I think they’re pretty great. I just don’t want it to be the only programming around. The only rule for the panels is that they’re talking about craft and relevant issues; promotional panels are forbidden. The other piece is “Skill Sessions”: if participants have particular skills that they want to share and teach, whether it’s scripting/writing/inking/marketing/managing/what have you, then they can propose and lead sessions of their own. I’m thinking 2-3 slots of 75-90 minute sessions.

Midday: Marketplace and Art Jam – I like those spontaneous events where artists just be all drawing crazy things upon prompting from the audience. Good times for everyone. It’s also a good time for classic vendor stuff, but in a limited capacity. Open up a ballroom space for sellers for like 2-3 hours. People have every right to want to get their buy on, it just shouldn’t be the focal point of the gathering.

Afternoon: Open Space – This is what I wrote about in my original post. At this point, the agenda is put into the hands of the participants, to host conversations about comics that they generate themselves. Throughout the experience, people are free to move in between conversations when they want. The best timing for this is at least three hours, containing two slots lasting 45 minutes long. Depending on the number of participants (150-200), there can be between 15-25 conversations taking place at any given time.

Evening: Storytelling – People in the comics world, they got stories about the comics world. I’d just like a night of people performing them for the whole crowd, that’s all. I think it would be a lot of fun.

Day Three

Morning: Samoan Circle/Fishbowl – Let’s do one panel discussion for the whole group, but in a way that anyone can participate if they like. It starts with four people sitting in an inner circle, with the rest of the participants silently sitting in a circle watching them. The facilitator starts by offering a question to the inner circle for discussion, and can bring in new questions whenever he/she likes. At any point in the conversation, if someone from the outer circle wants to join the conversation, all they need to do is “tap out” one of the people from the inner circle and take that spot. The questions for discussion could be anything about comics, the culture, and the industry. They can either be solicited from participants in advance of the gathering, or be generated during the first two days.

Alternative: World Cafe - The variation here is that it engages all participants in continuous conversation about a set of relevant questions, but it also gives everyone the ability to be jotting down notes on the tables throughout. The potential here is that if you have a lot of artists in the room, then you might end up with some really interesting stuff on the tables.

Midday/Closing: Vision Circle: This is a piece where there would need to be smaller groups, but it would essentially be a rotating series of conversations in which participants imagine what the next year will look like for comics and articulate that to their partners. So they would start by saying “It’s 2014 and it’s been an amazing year for comics…” As the event draws to a close, it’s an opportunity for participants to think positively about what they hope to see from comics in the future and to hear the different ideas that emerge from that.

The closing would simply be a debrief on the final exercise and the entire experience as a whole (gotta sharpen this final piece some more). A couple more things I’d add are little tweaks to the whole space to engage people in-between sessions. I’d ask everyone to bring a bunch of comics that they’d like to get rid of, and create a temporary Lending Library/Reading Room that is housed within the gathering. At the end of the event, people take what they want. I’d also make sure to give artists the ability to draw on the walls all over the place.

That’s what I’ve got for now. More at some point in the future. Always curious to hear people’s thoughts if anyone still reads this thing.

Some Thoughts on the Nature of Comic Cons

Not sure if I’m going to NYCC this year due to some work travel conflicts, though I’m sincerely hoping to see any pals who are in town for it. Nobody should care about this declaration, but the Internet is a place where we make declarations that we think people will care to hear. I still hope to have a beer with the aforementioned pals, though.

I’ve been going to NYCC since it started back in 2006. It’s been pretty fun for the most part. Last year, I met up with my friends and I’m pretty sure we collectively lasted an hour before heading for the door. One huge highlight was getting a signed print from Geof Darrow. Meeting him was legitimately the only time I’ve ever geeked out at meeting a comics artist, and he was a such a sweet and humble guy.

Other than that, I barely went to the con, and I didn’t have a very good time in 2010 either, especially after I nearly went insane back at SDCC that same year. Thinking back on SDCC, I barely remember feeling anything other than stressed on the con floor with a few exceptions. What I do remember is sitting at dinner the night the con ended with some new friends and each of us talked about the comics that changed our lives. That conversation was powerful and unforgettable; it felt like the kind of interaction that turned people into friends.

I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few days thinking about what it is about cons that doesn’t work for me anymore, and considering what could look different about these gatherings. And what you should probably understand about me is that my career is based on creating engaging, large-scale gatherings for people with shared interests. And when I’m not doing that, I’m focused on facilitating meaningful conversations between people on various topics.

So I decided to apply my work brain to this question and I started thinking about the primary vehicles by which comics readers/fans are bought together to share and connect around their mutual interest: The Con (an apt double meaning, if unintentional). Comic Cons are primarily promotional and sales events. They’re less about bringing people together around shared love of comics (though it does happen, and PR probably pays lip service to it somewhere) than they are a platform for people to make money, be they comic retailers, sellers of creepy misogynistic calendars, various figurines, stickers or what have you. For 5+ years, I’ve had to spend a lot of time wading through all of that with the hopes of tracking down a friend so we can actually talk in person about liking comics.

Comic Cons are also a great way for major publishers to manipulate and promote the interests of their respective fanbases. It’s about selling, nothing more, nothing less. It seems like many or most of the panels (with obvious exceptions) are there for the goal of major publishers to justify future purchases of comics that have yet to be released. And let’s be honest: most of those comics tend not to be so good anymore.

I also want to give respect to joints like Trickster and The Projects (thanks to Sloane Leong for the note on this one) that are attempting new paradigms for showcasing art and and artists, and what appears to be creating a certain kind of space for networking (at least in the case of Trickster). At the same time, I cannot claim to be an expert on either one of these. But they do appear to have the intention of putting people and the medium before the almighty dollar, so I can support that. I dig that Trickster is creating an alternative within the mainstream gathering, and a lot of what they’re about overlaps with my thinking. What they’re doing represents a lot of what I’d hope to see in the future. (Fake Editor’s note: this paragraph was added. I’m too lazy to edit subsequent paragraphs around it).

But what if gatherings for lovers of comics were inherently different? What if they were grassroots, and driven by the fans themselves? I say this because I run a conference that is based on those principles, and it proves to be an incredibly powerful experience every time. I joke with a lot of people when I’m trying to explain my work that “Limmud is like Comic Con, but for Jewish things”. But then I started wondering…what if it went the other way around?

Here’s one simple example: check out Open Space Technology (there’s also a pretty good description on Wikipedia - mind you, there’s no actual technology involved). Anyone who has ever participated in an effectively-facilitated Open Space experience knows how positive it can be. There are entire conferences that come together without pre-set agendas and allow people to connect for days at a time using this technology. Now imagine if you gathered x number people with whom you’d like to discuss comics: friends, bloggers, creators who were not bound to a party line by their employers, cool retailers, etc…And what if you just had an afternoon (or a weekend, for that matter) of Open Space comics talk. There wouldn’t be agendas or selling (though everyone loves a good dollar bin to be sure), just an effectively facilitated means of people who love comics talking about exactly that instead of sitting on a panel while Dan Didio explains that Green Arrow is such an effective lover that he doesn’t need a vibrating arrow in his quiver in the New 52.

It’s pretty easy to imagine:

  • One person wants to host a conversation about representations of race and gender in comics
  • Someone else wants to talk about the best Jimmy Olsen stories
  • I want to talk about Guy Gardner: Warrior because I always want to talk about that
  • Someone else wants to talk best practices in inking and which tools to use
  • Chris Sims wants to hold a discussion about that time that Batman threw a car battery at a guy
And so on from there. The possibilities would be unlimited. If folks are drawn to a discussion, then it continues. If nobody is feeling another conversation, then it doesn’t take place. There’s no committee deciding which discussions are held and which aren’t; it’s completely organic, because that’s the nature of Open Space.

That particular technique is just one aspect of what I’m referring to, but I keep imagining the possibilities of what it would really mean to inspire comics lovers to consider their appreciation for the medium and engage on that instead of continuously getting embroiled in the pointless conflicts that are engendered by the internet. Look, I love twitter. I’ve unexpectedly made real friends through it, and I enjoy the ongoing dialogue and conversation that takes place around shared interests there. But it only goes so far. And as someone who works on building and growing communities, I always raise an eyebrow when I hear the term “comics community,” because I suppose I’m still not sure what it means.

I’m also not just talking about Open Space. I know that there are models out there for the creation of truly engaging gatherings, and I’d love to see them applied to comics. It wouldn’t be about worshipping creators (who are as human as the rest of us), or being manipulated by publishers who couldn’t care less about us. It’s about this art form, this medium, that we love, once loved, want to love, and sometimes struggle to continue doing so, while surrounded by people who feel the same way, even if they don’t share the same preferences.

This is all very quick and dirty, and the Open Space is just one example of a whole range of techniques that I collect through my work to get people engaged with each other. But it’s the beginnings of what I feel could be a worthwhile vision for a gathering of comics lovers that empowers and energizes its participants rather than exhausting them, emptying their wallets and making them more cynical.

And hey: If you love cons, if you leave them feeling great and excited, then more power to you. And I also care about Artist’s Alley in that it provides revenue stream for those creators. But in terms of programming and design, I think there’s a lot more potential out there for us than waiting in lines for panels. And I suppose I’m not writing this for you, am I? I’m writing this for the people who would legitimately appreciate an alternative to what currently exists.

All of this said, if anyone would be interested in considering the possibilities for an Open Space Comic Con, I’d love to have a real conversation about it someday.

Remembering a Teacher

At the academy (Ida Crown), there were all kinds of kids, some more, some less observant,” Averick says. “Everyone there, whether or not they were observant, had an instinctive respect for him. They understood he represented something that was holy. There were kids who were not so interested in learning, but for him they would stand up. He really was a Talmid chachem (Torah scholar). He sort of radiated from high, but it was not something he demanded from people.

From Chain of Miracles, by Pauline Dubkin Yearwood

I just got this article in the mail from my dad, and it certainly took me right back to the teenage days. The quote above is from an article about Rabbi Meyer Juzint Z”L, an incredibly beloved teacher from my high school. It also perfectly captures how we all felt about him. Coming from a liberal Jewish family into an Orthodox high school, I fell into the category of “less observant” by a certain standard. Talmud study was a real challenge for me back then compared to my classmates who had grown up with it (real talk: still a challenge for me), so at times I was one of those kids who was less interested in learning. But we all loved Rebbe Juzint; and everyone stood up when he entered the room. It wasn’t out of a sense of formality and decorum; that was simply how much we all respected him.

I was lucky enough to go to his home with some friends on a Sunday morning or two to learn privately with him. It was considered a privilege, and I’ll hold it dearly with me forever. My sophomore or junior year, I was put into one of his classes and it felt like the honor of a lifetime, even though I struggled through the whole year. I was sort of a weird kid in high school (still am), and I sense that perhaps Rebbe Juzint didn’t entirely know what to make of me. But he taught me with the same quiet love that he brought to all of his students.

We did have our moments, though. A story:

While in many ways my high school wasn’t like most others, we still had seniors pulling pranks on an annual basis. The best one I ever saw was my sophomore year, when a bunch of guys filled the school with live chickens. They were running around a maze of benches in the atrium on the top floor, they were all over the place. I salute whoever was behind it to this day.

I was on my way to morning prayers in the auditorium when all of  sudden I heard Rebbe Juzint calling me from down the hall, “Dovid! Dovid! Come here! You have to see this!” I ran over to him, thinking that something was wrong, only to find him standing in front of what was usually the school’s trophy case. But there weren’t any trophies because the thing was filled with chickens.

“Chickens, Dovid! Look at the chickens!”

Rebbe Juzint was giggling hysterically at the whole thing, and I’d never seen anything like it from him. Laughing with this sacred man was beautiful as any moment I ever had at that school. I’d like to think that he was instinctively appealing to the oddball in me by calling me over to see the chickens.

His memory is nothing but a blessing for all of those who were lucky enough to learn with him. I’ll never forget that I got to laugh with him, too. Wherever he is, I hope he’s found the peace that he so richly deserved.

And to this day, I still don’t know the fate of the chickens.

Welcome to Rosie’s Basement

Exactly ten years ago, I came to New York planning to find an apartment for my new life here. Instead, I spent the better part of two weeks in Long Island helping my mom and my aunt clean out my grandparents’ house. By that time, their health had declined and they had permanently settled in Boca like…well, like a lot of Jews of their time and place in this world. And I joined my mom and Aunt Linda as we sorted through some 40 years of memories and personal history.

I was 22 at the time, somewhat lacking the maturity to appreciate the gravity of the situation and probably too focused on my own transition out of college to process what was happening around me. Then again, maybe it was a coping mechanism. My mother and aunt felt the pain of having to sift through their respective childhoods and their parents lives, having to decide over and over what could or should be saved, and what must be sold through a cousin’s business. Meanwhile, I found myself shopping in a hybrid between a thrift shop and the world’s coolest museum.

There’s no blame to be laid, but as a kid I didn’t ask the right questions, and I suppose that my grandparents weren’t always the world’s biggest storytellers. Humble to a fault, my grandfather would only ever tell me that he was an architect. In truth, he was a Jewish communal professional, helping U.S. servicemen get kosher meals on holidays with the Jewish Welfare Board. At some point, he helped to design the interiors of JCC’s across the country. I didn’t know any of this until I went into the basement with mom and Linda, and by then it was too late to ask him about it.

My grandfather was also one hell of a natty dresser, and I ended up taking more than a few items of clothing with me from that house. There’s a linen shirt that I still wear every Passover that I’m convinced is infused with magic; I’ve spilled everything from red wine to apple cobbler on it and it still comes out clean every time. More than any standard Jewish ritual object, that shirt holds a spiritual importance for me that I still can’t quite define. When I wear it, I think of my grandfather praying on his own in my parents’ living room every morning as the sunlight washed over him, of sitting next to him at the synagogue as he passionately crooned the prayers with his almost comically deep voice. He was the Jewish role model to our family, and he remains so to this day. Every year as my father presides over high holiday services at his synagogue, he proudly wears the same tallit that my grandfather wore when he was a chaplain in WWII.

My grandfather never got to discover that I’d committed my career to serving in the Jewish community. While I wonder just what he’d make of this thing that I do called Limmud NY, I suspect that he would have enjoyed it quite a bit.

Out of everything that I found and saved, this is by far my favorite item. It’s an ashtray:

Here’s the back of the thing:

Just so we’re clear, this is an ashtray from a Bar Mitzvah party. Not quite the party favors that you find these days.

Now before we get to the next part of this story, you should know that I found this ashtray in the top drawer of the first piece of furniture that I encountered upon entering the house. So this ashtray could have hypothetically been sitting in the front hall of my grandparents’ home for just over forty years. No one knows for sure.

But here’s the thing: my grandparents were Anne and Murray Rosenberg. I have no idea who Roslyn and Irving Hershkopf were. (As an aside, my grandmother’s nickname for Murray was “Rosie”. She always told me it was because he had rosy cheeks, and for some reason, I always believed her. I’m pretty sure it’s because his last name was Rosenberg.)

No one will ever know the story behind that ashtray, but it does give us some clues about the broader Jewish cultural context of the time, at the very least in terms of the role of smoking and its accessories in Jewish lifecycle events 50 years ago. But in the ten years since I found that ashtray, I’ve developed a fascination with what we choose to save and what we discard, and the stories that are held within the flotsam and jetsam of our lives, Jewish or otherwise.

If I had saved the swag from every Jewish conference I’ve attended in my career and left it in the basement for my own grandchildren to find, what would they conclude about my life? That I loved totebags, t-shirts and water bottles? Or that I loved communal gathering spaces? Would it make any sense to them? I have no idea.

What I know is this: we all have little items like the ashtray that I’ve kept. Sometimes we find them after our loved ones have passed, and sometimes they’re passed onto us. Maybe your grandparents wanted to get rid of that tablecloth because it meant nothing to them, but then it came to mean everything to you. Maybe there’s a story attached to it that you never got to hear, or maybe it’s your favorite story of all.

Everyone’s got something that they found in Rosie’s basement, and I’m really interested in hearing about yours. A few weeks back, I developed a little proposal based on this idea, that someday something like this could have it’s own home. But for now, I just want to see if people have items and stories that they might be willing to share with me, and I’ll host them here.

If you want to play show and tell, you can contact me here.

UPDATE: I have no idea why I waited ten years to do this, but I finally decided to look up Allan Abravanel on google not long after posting this. As it happens, he’s currently a lawyer in D.C., and we’ve been emailing ever since. He may even send me a scan of his Bar Mitzvah picture. Since then, I’ve learned the following:

  • Roslyn was apparently his mother’s first cousin.
  • We continue to have no idea how or why the ashtray ended up with my grandparents.
  • Allan Abravanvel happens to come from a really, really interesting family. In fact, there used to be an Abravanel family newsletter that gathered and shared the many stories of Abravanels throughout history.
  • To those of my friends who read comics, the Abravanels appear to be the real-life equivalent to the Crogans.

There was the famous Rabbi Don Isaac Abravanel, whose Biblical commentary I studied in high school

Or…

Moshe ben Raphael Abravanel, born in 17th Century Salonika.  He moved to Istanbul, converted to Islam, and became Hayatizade Mustafa Efendi, a famous physician who is credited with introducing modern Western medical practices to the Ottoman Empire.  One source notes that he was appointed hekimbashi, or chief physician, to the Sultan.  One of his sons became a professor in a medrese, and two of his grandsons followed him as chief physicians to the Sultan, one of them rising to the position of sheyhulislam, head of the Islamic religious hierarchy in the Ottoman Empire.  To say nothing of his encounter with Sabbatai Sevi, the famous Jewish false messiah. (This was quoted directly from an email with Allan)

Allan also shared from this book:

A pirate named David Abrabanel, evidently from the same family as the famous Spanish rabbinic dynasty (which included Rabbi Isaac Abrabanel), joined British privateers after his family was butchered off the South American coast. He used the nom de guerre “Captain Davis” and commanded his own pirate vessel named The Jerusalem. According to at least one report, he was the person who discovered what is now called Easter Island.

So I’ve learned about Jewish pirates, famous rabbis and Muslim doctors in the space of a couple of days or so, simply by googling a name I found on an old ashtray from my grandparents’ house. For me, this has been an incredibly powerful lesson in the infinite connections to be found between people, stories to be told and learned, and the objects that connect us, unexpectedly or otherwise.

In terms of this project, I’ve had a few people already reach out to me to share some items and stories and so I’m collecting them until I can launch this as a tumblr site that I’ve already reserved. Again, if you have something to share, please do be in touch at the contact link earlier in the post.

 UPDATE #2: So Allan did some digging and we’ve pretty much figured out that there never was a “Roslyn and Irving Hershkopf” in the way that the ashtray listed. Our best guess is that my grandmother had the item produced for through a business that she was running back then and as an erroneous item, she ended up holding onto it…for a really long time.

That said, the unexpected connections continue. In researching the names on the ashtray, Allan ended up tracking down his second cousins in here in New York, who he hasn’t seen in 50 years. He also told me that the next time he comes to New York, he’s going to bring along his Bar Mitzvah album and show it to me. A quote from him that I think is quite beautiful:

My daughter Karen thinks the album harkens back to another era.  I think the album is full of ghosts — protective, not threatening — who continue to hover in my consciousness.

Now here’s the real kicker of this whole thing. His daughter Karen? She was at Limmud NY in 2011, the year I was the Programming Co-Chair!

I’m pretty sure that I officially win Jewish Geography.