Tag Archives: Jewish

I would have been a horrible Pharaoh

Pharaoh Egypt Sims video game ancient civilizations

Be a tyrant from the comfort of your own living room

“A Virtual Failure as Pharaoh”
By Darren Garnick

Originally Published: The Jerusalem Report, April 2001
I would’ve made a terrible Pharaoh, perhaps even the worst Pharaoh ever.

Moses would’ve worn me down after the first “Let My People Go!”

Hailstones, bloody rivers and voracious grasshoppers would not have been

I know this after my brief stint on the Egyptian throne in “Pharaoh,” a new role-playing computer game that lets you build the pyramids to your own specifications. Part of the Great Empires Collection by Sierra Studios – other volumes let you recreate Ancient Rome (“Caesar III”) and Ancient Greece (“Zeus”) – the game makes the assumption that urban planning is an enjoyable experience. Are homes along the Nile protected with adequate drainage ditches? What kinds of commercial development should be permissible near the Sphinx? Is Alexandria’s tax rate sufficient to build new schools?

All of this tantalizing minutia was left out of the Passover story. But it’s now available in the “Pharaoh” user’s guide, a volume about three times as thick as my Maxwell House Haggadah, which players must consult constantly for tips on keeping the Egyptian public happy. The game shares this much with the Passover seder: It goes on for hours with lots of redundant reading. For those with the patience, “Pharaoh” can span a time frame of 5,000 years – more than 10 times the amount of time the Hebrews spent schlepping rocks.

“Build A Kingdom. Rule The Nile. Live Forever.” The game’s slogan makes the Pharaohs sound like cool dudes. The term “slavery” is never mentioned, making ancient Egypt appear to be a place where labor unions thrived. One of the first stages of pyramid building requires contacting the “carpenters, bricklayers and stonemasons’ guilds,” leaving the “peasants” to deliver raw materials. Because peasants are included in the government’s unemployment figures, it appears as if they are paid for their work.

I didn’t have to worry about pay raises, though. A large percentage of employees died from malaria, a disease delighted by my failure to build medical clinics. As Pharaoh, I was also incompetent in agriculture, not producing enough grain to feed the masses – or enough straw to make the bricks. I was oblivious to it all, hearing only whispers of adulation from my sycophant advisors: “People love you… People idolize you as a god.”

To avoid controversy, the video game designers conveniently don’t identify the ethnicity of those who would have been building my cities (if there were any bricks). Although the Israelites were likely not the only people enslaved by Egypt, they were the only ones to have a movie made about them. That standard carries no weight here – there’s not a single reference to the Hebrews, the Israelites or the Jews. Though this game has no overt political leanings, it is interesting to note that the Libyans and Syrians get plenty of face time.

My major accomplishment as Pharaoh was building a dance school and a jugglers’ school, both of which emerged unscathed after enemy troops torched my capital city. Needless to say, the local deities were not pleased with my overall performance. Seth, the god of destruction; Prah, the god of craftsmen; and Bast, the goddess of the home, all put me on their hit lists.

According to a papyrus memo dated October 1834 BC, I was deemed the worst Pharaoh ever:

“O bitter day! Your ignoble end should’ve been unthinkable. Your failure stains the names of descendants yet unborn. You might have joined the elite who achieved immortality in the Field of Reeds. Instead, you will pass unlamented into shadow.”

Too bad that a bumbling guy like me wasn’t really running the show.


** Why I would have been a horrible Pharaoh !

** Schlock Flashback: Steven Spielberg’s Country Music Moses

** The Joys of Plastic Lice: Passover toys celebrate Ancient Egypt’s regime change

** Schlock Flashback: Origins of the Moses Duck

** Let My Tastebuds Go: I dare you to try Passover breakfast cereal!

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The Joys of Plastic Lice: Passover toys celebrate Ancient Egypt’s regime change

Ten Plagues Bag of Toys -- More fun than spilling wine on a paper plate

CULTURE SCHLOCK – By Darren Garnick
“Passover toys celebrate Ancient Egypt’s regime change”
Originally Published:
The Telegraph, April 10, 2003

As an adult, I find the Passover story to be compelling and overflowing with life-affirming themes. Survival. Freedom. Redemption. Triumph of the Human Spirit. As a kid, I was preoccupied with two themes: “When is this story going to end?” and “Why is my family service sponsored by Maxwell House coffee?

Passover, which commemorates Moses’ showdown with Pharaoh, begins next week. On the first two nights, Jewish families retell the story at Seders (a dinner-prayer combo), and read from the Hagaddah. The English translations of these Hagaddahs are horrendous, written by Shakespeare wannabes who sprinkle around words like “whilst,” and “thee.” After the sixth or seventh poem about rams and sheep skipping around the Sea of Galilee, the average kid is zonked.

Many Hagaddahs printed in the 1950s and 1960s, and handed down to the next generation, were published by Maxwell House coffee. The back page shows a happy Jewish family gathered around the Passover table and enjoying a freshly brewed pot of coffee. What better way to commemorate the liberation of the Hebrew slaves, after 400 years of pyramid construction, than to pour your loved one a cup of Maxwell House?

I don’t know if Sanka or Taster’s Choice ever infiltrated Easter Baskets, but I am proud to report that this marketing ploy was not 100 percent effective. I never touch the stuff.

On behalf of all the children celebrating Passover next week, I implore parents to shake up the Seder plate a bit. If cute little Aaron or Rachel are staring at the coffee ads, you have sentenced them to an evening of intolerable boredom. Luckily for the kids, there is a growing adult movement to make Passover more engaging. Two examples are the Exodus board game and the “Plagues Bag.”

The Exodus game is Passover’s version of Trivial Pursuit. Answering the Who, What, Where, Why and How the Israelites bolted from Egypt brings you one step closer to the Promised Land. First one to cross the Jordan River wins.

“Exodus came out of the desire to get my family recharged about Passover,” says game creator Syndi Kercher, a school teacher from Tucson, Arizona. “I invented the game for us to use during our Seder and we had a blast… Other things I’ve done is play Passover Jeopardy, held the Seder picnic style in the backyard, and held multiethnic/spiritual Seders in the park.”

Exodus, aimed at ages 8 and up, is content driven and will delight parents who prefer not to resort to a Moses vs. Pharaoh video game to get their message across. But will kids want to play? You bet. Even without questions about Harry Potter, it is a game that involves winning and losing. I remember even in junior high school our Spanish class would be clamoring for the chance to play “Vocabulary Volleyball.”

Out of context, you may expect the “Plagues Bag” to be filled with anthrax. But of course, it refers to the infamous Ten Plagues that convinced Pharaoh that Moses was backed by the world’s most formidable superpower, God. The Plagues Bag is filled with the following gimmicks/toys:

1. BLOOD – Red food coloring to turn the Nile into hemoglobin.
2. FROGS – A springloaded frog that does a backflip and lands on its feet.
3. LICE – Black plastic lice that could double as plastic ants.
4. WILD BEASTS – A rubber elephant nose representing the wildlife rampaging through downtown Cairo.
5. CATTLE DISEASE – A collapsible plastic cow with wobbly knees recalling Pharaoh’s agricultural woes.
6. BOILS – Bubble wrap which is more pleasant to pop than skin lesions.
7. HAIL – Styrofoam balls.
8. LOCUSTS – A hot pink grasshopper.
9. DARKNESS – Cardboard sunglasses.
10. DEATH OF THE FIRST BORN – A jigsaw puzzle of a distressed Egyptian mother.

The assortment of trinkets is packaged in a handsome burlap sack that summons up the image of papyrus hieroglyphics. Toy quality is also a level above Skee Ball prizes or birthday party booty, making it likely kids can use the same plague props a few years in a row.

Plagues Bag creator Simon Jaffe, executive director of Congregation B’Nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, NJ, was inspired by his daughters Kori and Molly.

“I didn’t want the Seder to be as uninteresting as the one’s I remembered from my childhood,” he says. “… To me the purpose of the Seder is to bring the next generation into the collective memory of our people and our history.”

Jaffe has sold more than 60,000 of the Plagues Bags to raise money for scholarships and educational programs. Beyond the plagues, he also places a bowl of goldfish on the table as a reminder of the parting of the Red Sea and dresses up as Moses for the second half of the Seder.

“My guests’ favorite plagues are the plastic lice and hail balls which they love to hurl at each other,” reveals Jaffe. “The most difficult plague to represent was death of the first born because of the harshness of it. What I decided to use was I think most respectful of the severity of the plague.”

My only critique is that Jaffe doesn’t include enough lice. Six little critters isn’t enough to infest a single scalp, let alone a whole table full.

Lice portions aside, both the Plagues Bag and the Exodus game are two steps in the right direction to make the Seder table a desirable destination for kids. And neither toy contains propaganda for the coffee companies.


** Why I would have been a horrible Pharaoh !

** Schlock Flashback: Steven Spielberg’s Country Music Moses

** The Joys of Plastic Lice: Passover toys celebrate Ancient Egypt’s regime change

** Schlock Flashback: Origins of the Moses Duck

** Let My Tastebuds Go: I dare you to try Passover breakfast cereal!

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Let My Taste Buds Go: I dare you to try Passover breakfast cereal!

Cleopatra wouldn’t have put up with mediocre Passover food

Here’s a secret that most of your Jewish friends won’t share with you: During Passover week we eat sawdust. Lots and lots of sawdust.

It dates back to the Hebrew slaves, you see. After 400 years toiling in Pharaoh’s non-union shops, Moses brought them on a 40-year retirement hike through the desert. In sandals. No snacks. Every morning they’d slurp the dew, marketed as “manna,” off the sand. But for the first week or so, they had access to carbohydrates – in the form of flattened bread. In the mad rush to scoot out of Cairo, there was no time for the bread to rise in the ovens. Crispy, brittle “matzah” was born.

Slurping moisture off the grass never caught on with the Jewish people. But to commemorate our freedom, we still choose to eat only unleavened bread for the week. Coming from the oven or even a freshly opened box, matzah tastes pretty good. A French toast version of matzah – soaked in water and fried in egg batter – tastes even better. But its versatility ends there. When matzah meal (flour with no yeast) is used to bake cookies, cakes and other starchy staples, the result is wallpaper paste mixed with the aforementioned sawdust.

Two New Jersey food manufacturers think they have the alchemists to change that reality, using “Passover cake meal” as the primary ingredient in breakfast cereal. The problem is a heartbreaker for Jewish kids: Passover means no Cheerios, no Lucky Charms, no Frosted Mini-Wheats.

Manischewitz, making kosher stuff since 1888, is best known for its holiday wine that tastes like melted lollipops. No surprise then, that they opt for “FRUITY’s” as their marquis cereal. Similar in texture and shape to Kix’s corn-flavored spheres, “FRUITY’s” taste sweet at first, but their starchy aftertaste brings us back to the wallpaper bucket. The brand’s chief competition is T. Abraham’s “CRISPY-O’s,” a fruit flavored Cheerios hybrid. Those, too, taste okay in the first few chews, but later come back to haunt you.

Both cereal boxes tout that their contents were “Prepared for Passover under strict rabbinical supervision of The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America,” a fact I hardly consider impressive. I’d rather see the words, “Spiderman Prize Inside!”

Breakfast cereals are supposed to be fun – and that means having top-notch cartoon mascots. “CRISPY-O’s” features a very conservatively dressed cow – her blouse buttoned to the neck — holding a giant spoon. She beckons kids to have “MOOORE FUN IN THE MORNING.” If you missed the humor, the cow sound “Moo” is subtly hidden within the extended word “more.” Meanwhile, “FRUITY’s” put a pair of sunglasses on a piece of its cereal and calls it a “cool dot.” Imagine the promotional tie-ins! The cool dots are smiling at the prospect of being digested. Their daring leader is balancing on a spoon like a surfboard; another fun-loving dot buoyantly replaces the dot in the “i” in the cereal title.

For a holiday with such dynamic Biblical characters, a prudish cow and California Raisin wannabe don’t cut the horseradish. Allegedly, there is a tremendous amount of creative talent in the Jewish community, a fact that led to the paranoid stereotype (professed by Marlon Brando and others) that the Jews control Hollywood. Other crazed conspiracy theories have 12 Jewish bankers in Zurich running the world economy and 15 Jewish copyeditors in Milan controlling the world media. Comprising just one-fifth of one percent of the world’s population (13 million out of 6 billion), the Jews simply don’t have enough manpower to staff even one of these conspiracies. But back to breakfast cereal.

Steven Spielberg showed the kid-friendly potential of Passover with his 1998 animated feature, “Prince of Egypt.” His portrayal of Moses during his rambunctious teenage years (racing chariots with the Pharaoh’s son) was sort of a Scrappy Doo meets the Book of Exodus. That’s the type of imagination Jewish kids deserve at the breakfast table.

How about “Plague Flakes,” a crumbled matzah base with locust and frog-flavored marshmallows? Or “Red Sea Crunch,” an opportunity to drown the Egyptian infantry in milk to simulate what happened when they tried to recapture the fleeing Israelites? Moses could be the cartoon pitchman for either brand, yelling “Theyyyrrrre Greaaaaatttt!” ala Tony the Tiger. Or if you prefer the Trix route, Moses could be bugging some of the younger Israelites in the desert for a taste of their cereal. “Silly Moses,” the children would reply. “Red Sea Crunch is for kids!”

Regardless of their poor mascots, the kosher food manufacturers are betting that most of us would rather have pasty cereal than nothing at all. As far as my breakfast bowl goes, they bet wrong. The Hebrew slaves didn’t have Rice Krispies Treats, and for one week, neither will I.

Bon Appetit!


** Why I would have been a horrible Pharaoh !

** Schlock Flashback: Steven Spielberg’s Country Music Moses

** The Joys of Plastic Lice: Passover toys celebrate Ancient Egypt’s regime change

** Schlock Flashback: Origins of the Moses Duck

** Let My Tastebuds Go: I dare you to try Passover breakfast cereal!

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Schlock Flashback: Origins of the Moses Duck

Moses rubber duck collectibles rubber duckie

Andy Warhol-style portrait of the Moses Duck (actually a corrupted photo file)

“Bye, Bye Red Sea – Hello Bathtub!”
By Darren Garnick
Originally Published:
The Jerusalem Report, March 10, 2003

Forget about the Golden Calf: Imagine a rubber duckie at the base of Mt. Sinai.

Meet the Moses that squeaks instead of stutters, a waterproof prophet who would have had no troubles crossing the Red Sea parted or not. The world’s first Moses rubber duck is the brainchild of 31-year-old Chicago entrepreneur Benjamin Goldman, a former yeshiva student in Gush Etzion.

“I’ve been on a search for spirituality my whole life,” he says. “I believe people connect to Judaism in many ways, whether it’s through the pages of the Talmud or through a Moses duck.”

A first production run of 2500 Moses ducks were specially commissioned through Celebriducks, a company that normally puts bills and feathers on sports stars from Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association and National Hockey League. Moses and the sports-themed ducks retail for $12 at novelty stores across the United States and on-line at http://www.celebriducks.com.

Goldman says that most of his sales are to Bible Belt Christians who are drawn to the duck’s Ten Commandments tablets in Hebrew. The most common feedback from potential Jewish customers is that “Moses looks too much like Santa Claus” and that the duck is “not respectful.”

So far, only about one-fifth of the Moses ducks have made it to the Promised Bathtub. Goldman says his 2 ½ year old son Levy is a good barometer of the slow sales: “Embarrassingly enough, his favorite duck is (Los Angeles Laker) Shaquille O’ Neal.”


** Why I would have been a horrible Pharaoh !

** Schlock Flashback: Steven Spielberg’s Country Music Moses

** The Joys of Plastic Lice: Passover toys celebrate Ancient Egypt’s regime change

** Schlock Flashback: Origins of the Moses Duck

** Let My Tastebuds Go: I dare you to try Passover breakfast cereal!

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Filed under Sacreligious Rubber Duckies

I’m not dissing Chanukah, but that oil miracle was SO overrated!

Judah Maccabee Potato Head -- Can you guess the Chanukah mistake in this otherwise FANTASTIC New Hampshire Magazine cartoon by Brad Fitzpatrick?

Yes, it’s true….  The Chanukah oil lasting eight days is absolutely God’s least impressive miracle of all time.

Yet, I’m thrilled it happened.  Find out why in this month’s New Hampshire Magazine, which is quickly becoming the MUST-READ periodical for up-and-coming Jewish scholars.

Another must-read for the Festival of Lights is Did Judah Maccabee Ever Celebrate Naked Time?… EIGHT fun, family-friendly suggestions to enhance your Chanukah traditions!” If you are inspired by any of Stacy’s research, please tell her that Darren sent you.

I LOVE Stacy Garnick — and that is an unpaid testimonial!

Lastly, Happy Chanukah to all my pro-Chanukah friends and colleagues.  Go out and learn these dance steps now….

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Phishing for Jewish Heritage

phish 96

Though many may see Phish as the heirs to the Grateful Dead, Jerry Garcia’s band never regaled audiences with renditions of “Jerusalem of Gold” – in Hebrew, no less

Originally Published: December 26, 1996
The Jerusalem Report

By Darren Garnick

They never asked to inherit the mantle of the Grateful Dead after Jerry Garcia’s death. They seldom sing about utopian peace, love or brotherhood. But whether they accept the honors or not, the members of the undefinable Vermont band Phish are the shaggy-haired heirs to the Grateful Dead. Their ever-expanding and faithful population of “Phishheads,” comprised mostly of those born after Volkswagen buses went out of vogue, are keeping the American hippie mystique alive.

Guitarist Trey Anastasio, keyboardist Page McConnell, bassist Mike Gordon and drummer Jon Fishman, all hovering around age 30, often bounce mid-stage on trampolines, not missing a beat in their performance – which is never the same set of songs as the previous night. The crowd-pleasing Fishman wears a polka-dot dress in concert and sometimes plays the vacuum cleaner as a musical instrument. Like the Grateful Dead, Phish has always sold more concert tickets than albums and encourages its fanatically loyal fans to make bootleg tapes of their shows.


It is no accident if some of Phish’s infamous free-wheeling jams – which never get airplay on mainstream radio stations – include occasional snatches of Hebrew. Fishman and bassist Mike Gordon are Jewish, and bundled in their tie-dyed core are strands of klezmer and even “Jerusalem of Gold.” The Hebrew lyrics of Naomi Shemer’s classic song, which turned into an ode to the reunification of Jerusalem after the 1967 Six-Day War, was featured in the liner notes of the group’s 1994 album “Hoist,” and the melody made its way into the end of a long instrumental on the disk, just as it sometimes unexpectedly surfaces in concert.

Gordon, who attended the Solomon Schechter Hebrew Day School in Newton, Massachusetts, in his youth, used to hear the tune on one of his parents’ Israeli “Greatest Hits” compilation albums, which got major air time in the house. “It’s been a melody that has been stuck in my head since childhood. We sort of sing a mediocre – or bad – version of the song,” the self-effacing Gordon recently told The Jerusalem Report. “The first time we played the song in concert was a great moment. It was at a sold-out show near Boston, and 17,000 people were perfectly silent. They didn’t know what they were hearing” – not surprising, since Phish was performing it in Hebrew. “It was special, because my grandmother was there.”

Phish Billy Breathes

Gordon, whose grin adorns the cover of Phish’s 1996 release, “Billy Breathes,” recalls that the non-Jewish band members “were eager to do ‘Yerushalayim Shel Zahav.’ I’m more familiar with Hebrew than Jon. It was difficult for them to learn their parts. I’m not as religious as I used to be,” he says. “But at the same time, I feel I have a strong Jewish identity and it is an important part of who I am.”

THE “PHAB PHOUR,” as some wryly refer to them in writing, are always striving to outdo themselves on the quirky meter. Adopting “musical costumes,” for Halloween concerts, the band has done shows consisting entirely of cover versions of the Beatles’s “White Album” and The Who’s “Quadrophenia.” This year they were the Talking Heads, performing songs from their album “Remain in Light.”

While non-Phish fans are quick to dismiss some of the band’s own lyrics as foolish babble, they will never be accused of attending the Cliche School of Songwriting. “Scent of a Mule,” for example, is about a girl and her donkey trying to make peace with their UFO abductors. Trying to be diplomatic, she urges the aliens: “Stop, we ain’t looking for a fightin’… Come on over for some lemonade – just follow me now with the whole brigade.” The appropriately titled “Dinner and a Movie” is an endless reel of the dating refrain, “Let’s go out to dinner and see a movie.” And another foot-tapper called “Contact” is a silly, rhyming tribute to our dependence on the automobile: “The tires are the things on your car that make contact with the road… Bummed is what you are when you find out that your car has been towed.”

The band has been together since 1983, when three of its four members met as freshmen at the University of Vermont. Attracting a strong following on the college pub circuit, the musicians held a series of jobs as odd as their song lyrics. According to their fan newsletter, “Doniac Schvice” (the name was chosen by the band itself, and has no known meaning in any modern language), McConnell once worked in a candy store painting white spots on chocolate cows and Fishman formerly stitched maternity bathing suits.

What probably draws most fans, Jewish or otherwise, to Phish is the energetic dancing the band’s concerts afford them the opportunity to partake in. “The appeal of a Phish concert is sweat, gallons and gallons of sweat, although the stench from the unwashed hippies can be a turnoff,” says Al Kaufman, a music critic from Austin, Texas. “Phish just plays. There is no overpowering light show or technical wizardry. It is just a bunch of great musicians on stage enjoying what they are doing. That’s rare today.”

That may be why a two-day concert at an air force base in Plattsburgh, New York, last August, drew 135,000 fans. And why, in the spirit of the Deadheads, Phish has a ferociously loyal national following that includes fans who follow them from show to show. And though live performances are still their bedrock, record sales are nothing to sneeze at either: The band now has three gold albums (500,000 copies sold), “Hoist,” 1995’s “A Live One” and “Billy Breathes,” their latest.

Cincinnati social worker Jonathan Willis, who regards himself as a fan of both Phish and the Grateful Dead, maintains that the comparison between the two bands is an unfair one. “Obviously, the death of Jerry contributes to their recent surge in popularity. The Generation X-ers are looking for a sense of community and bonding around the ideas of hope and peace. People are projecting that onto Phish,” Willis says. “But Phish has a much more ironic and fun view of the world than the Grateful Dead. They don’t buy into that peace, love and harmony bit as much as the Grateful Dead theoretically did.”

Phish fan Lynda Segal, who works in magazine production in Massachusetts, claims to be drawn by the band’s nonromantic lyrics and Fishman’s offbeat feminine wardrobe, which has been copied by numerous male fans. “I hate groups that sing about love. Love is so overrated,” she says. “And I have to admire any guy who wants to wear a skirt. Pants are very restrictive. There is a certain freedom that comes with wearing a dress.” (Fishman, it should be noted, is not a transvestite per se; he’s just a guy in a dress who plays the drums.)

phish rolling stone

Segal, who says she was first exposed to Phish while visiting an American friend who was spending time studying in Israel, also likes the idea of Hebrew-influenced hippies: “It’s cool that the band has tapped into their heritage. It’s cool that a Jewish song has become a pop song. But I wonder if the crowd really understands it.” Gordon, who occasionally has sung verses of the High Holy Days hymn “Avinu Malkenu” in concert, concedes that not too many fans probably “get it.” Phish fans, however, have come to expect becoming familiar with the unfamiliar.

“To some, it seems blasphemous to take a holy prayer and play it in concert. I don’t sing it as a joke. It’s an acknowledgment of my heritage,” Gordon says. “When we play it, I can always look up and see the Jews in the audience smiling.”


I’ve read this unsubstantiated statistic in several Phish profiles, based on anecdotal evidence at Phish concerts (or by prejudiced bastards who think they can spots Jews in a crowd just by looking at them).

In any case, I highly recommend checking out the most entertaining travelogue ever written about the Jewish-Phish connection: Felix Vikhman’s 1999 Salon essay exploring those “looking for God in a haze of mushrooms and acid.”


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