Monday, December 29, 2008

Operation Cast Lead

Each year at Temple Emanu-El, staff members are assigned to facilitate the lighting of our outside menorah on all eight nights. The final night happened to be mine, as I was returning from vacation that day. Right after we finished singing a few songs and lighting the last candles, a videographer for one of our local news stations approached. Though he initially asked about the meaning of Hanukkah, his real question for the nightly news was about operation Cast Lead, Israel’s current military campaign in the Gaza Strip.
The name Cast Lead is a reference to Hanukkah because in preparation for Hanukkah molten hot lead was poured into molds to make dreidels. Of course this is a double entendre in a way because bullets are often manufactured using the same technique.
I think the videographer might have been caught slightly off-guard by my response. Instead of the usual, we pray for an end to the violence, I basically articulated the argument that Israel has the absolute right to defend herself from outside attacks.
When people look at the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they often think of it in terms of David and Goliath, with Israel somehow being Goliath, and her attacks against terrorists as being disproportionate. Yet those who make these comparisons almost invariably fail to mention that this attack was not instigated by Israel, and the last time we in the United States were attacked by a foreign threat, we invaded not one country, but two. People are also quick to forget that Israel peacefully gave up sections of the Gaza Strip in an attempt to establish more peaceful relations with the Palestinians. The result: kidnappings and more violence.
Israel’s goals in this operation are straightforward as indicated in an opinion piece on by Ron Ben-Yishai,7340,L-3645007,00.html Israel wants to establish a long-term ceasefire with Hamas, end the rocket attacks, stop the military escalation, hopefully be able to finally bring Gilad Shalit home, and end the terror attacks near the border. Israel, as it has demonstrated in the past, will attack when provoked. But the only way for the violence to truly end is if Hamas and the Palestinians renounce it as a form of conflict resolution. Until then, sadly, Israel probably has no other recourse that is accepted in the Middle East no matter what the U.N. might say.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Sylvester's Resolutions

Jewishly speaking, our New Year occurs on Rosh Hashana. It is during that time especially from Rosh Hashana through Yom Kippur that we as Jews strive to return to God and our truer selves through the process of teshuvah.

Yet the impulse to make resolutions around this particular time of year is part of our innate nature as well, especially because it is so pervasive in the English speaking world. Even in Israel, where the New Year was months ago, Anglos can often be heard wishing each other a “Happy Sylvester". This tradition is tied to Saint Sylvester, an early pope of the Christian Church, who died around the year 300 on December 31st.

Thus the secular New Year is very much in our consciousness, and when it approaches, we often make promises to ourselves. Some of the most popular include: losing weight, stop smoking, spend less money (especially since the credit card bills are arriving in the mail), or even to finally sit down and write that great American novel.

But by February or March, with the year’s gym membership paid up, we fall off the horse and return to our old patterns.

I have spent a lot of time pondering why we fail at so many of our resolutions, even though they are filled with good intentions. I think there are really three major reasons. The first is because it is natural for us to return to our normal patterns. It takes a tremendous amount of effort to break out of habits, because they are in fact habits. The second is, I think, because we tend to be very ambitious in our resolutions. We don’t resolve to lose three or four pounds, no, we resolve to lose twenty pounds in two months. It is just simply too unrealistic. And the third reason is because we focus on just one area of ourselves. Stopping smoking while not finding something else to fill in the void, just leaves one not only empty but tempted as well.

In response to this, I have come up with a proposal for myself and maybe for you as well. First of all, I think one needs to set reasonable achievable goals. As any psychologist will tell you, success builds upon success. Secondly one needs to set up resolutions that are not only physical in nature, but also spiritual, emotionally satisfying, and intellectual as well. The more we wish to improve, the more opportunities should come our way everyday.

With this in mind, this coming New Year, I have decided rather than be ambitious in scope, to be ambitious in quantity. And being a list person, here they are in no particular order:

1. To be able to run a 10K. After watching ‘Run Fatboy Run,’ I thought, why not me. But running a marathon is not only incredibly arduous, but also extremely ambitious. Maybe I should start with a small distance and see how my body holds up. Plus I wouldn’t mind losing a few of these Rabbi pounds that seem to have come my way.

2. Be more patient.

3. Be more loving and appreciative especially of my wife and daughter.

4. Keep in touch regularly with my friends. Hopefully Facebook will be helpful in this. Besides, it is wonderfully addictive.

5. Learn something new everyday.

6. Become a better guitarist. I know, this means I will actually have to take time to practice.

7. And my personal favorite: engage in a creative endeavor everyday. I find when I have created something new, I just feel better throughout the rest of the day.

Good luck with your resolutions, and I will keep you posted as to how mine are going. And to all, a very Happy Sylvester.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Golf, a form of Jewish Worship?

I am proud to announce that I just recently took up the game of golf. And no I have not played a round with a priest and a minister just yet. Instead I purchased a set of used clubs from our local golf exchange store where the salespeople were friendly and extremely helpful. This was in stark contrast to the giant box golf stores I went to where I found the salespeople to be condescending and quite rude. I won't say which store it was, but it rhymes with "dolfwith."

Since I purchased the clubs I have played a grand total of two rounds over the past six months. But in those two rounds, I discovered something quite intriguing. I have found that my time on the links gave me a greater appreciation for Jewish prayer.

Aside from the beautiful nature of the courses in the Tucson desert, and my constant prayers that my drives would not veer so far to the right that they actually hit houses, I began to see the correlation between prayer and golf.

First of all, I know no one can just show up at a course twice a year and expect to shoot par or better or even necessarily under 100. This is quite similar to Jewish prayer. One term for prayer is avodah, which literally means 'work.' In order to have a successful worship experience like a good round of golf, one really needs to take the time to practice.

Also golf, like prayer is a private experience done in a communal setting. Think about it, it is just you and the ball (insert Chevy Chase saying 'na,na',na'), while gathered with three other people, all hoping to accomplish the same task.

And golf, like prayer, also involves a lot of shmoozing. No wonder why so many Jews play the game.

Of course this metaphor only works so well. Unlike golf, one does not need any additional equipment, though there are times in the Temple building where I think a beverage cart would come in handy.

I'll let you know the next time I head out to hit the links. Hopefully it will be sometime before next Rosh Hashana.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

The Kosher Steve Martin

I recently read Steve Martin's autobiography Born Standing Up. I first heard of the book while listening to an interview of Steve Martin on NPR. While reading his book, I discovered some interesting history about Mr. Martin like how he honed his skills while working as a youngster in the magic shops of the newly opened Disneyland.
Steve's stand-up career was a little before my time. Growing up, I always thought he was part of the original Saturday Night Live cast. It was only later that I came to appreciate the number of times he instead hosted the show using his own form of anti-comedy comedy. King Tut was always one of my favorites.
But reading Steve's analysis of the evolution of his stand-up career got me to thinking about the use of humor from the pulpit. I still firmly believe that humor is one of the greatest gifts God has ever given us. Why else would God have given us the platypus or gefilte fish? The ability to laugh at the absurd and unexpected is one of life's great coping mechanisms.
In some ways I view humor from the pulpit in a way akin to that of the stand-up comedian. We are both on a stage in front of a mostly welcoming audience. Now of course the goal of the stand-up comedian is to make the audience laugh and maybe even think, whereas the goal of the rabbi is to help uplift the congregation, and maybe get them to think about things in a new by using stories, interpretations, history, and the use of the occassional joke or really bad rabbinic pun.
The trick with humor in either case, I have found, is all about timing. For example: sometimes I use humor too much with the result being all the congregants remember are the jokes rather than the subject or lesson. Sometimes I use humor too little, so that by the time the punchline arrives, the laughs are sparse because no one saw the joke being set up. But on those rare occasions, I have exactly the right mixture of humor and levity, with one leading subtly into the other.
I admire great stand-up comedians like the late great George Carlin, Steve Martin, both of whose books I have read, Robin Williams, Richard Pryor, the anti-comedian Andy Kaufman, Chris Rock, Eddie Murphy, Sarah Silverman, and one of my personal favorites Steven Wright. Of course I would be remiss if I did not mention all of those great Jewish comedians of the borscht belt and vaudeville who laid the path for many of today's comedians as well like Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Grouco Marx and the Marx Brothers, Henry Youngman, Woody Allen, and the list goes on an on
But in the end, I think a really good comedian, like a good sermon, in between the laughs helps give the listener real insight into the human condition. Now if only I could find a way to turn down the lights in the sanctuary, pass out drinks and hors d'oeuvres for my one man juggling, guitar playing, drashing show. All I need now is to a good dummy for my ventriloquist act. Maybe I'll start with a talking gefilte fish.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Halloween Malaise

No this isn’t what you think. This is not a debate about whether or not Jewish kids should or should not participate in trick-or-treating, or whether or not Halloween should be renamed to Purim-in-the-Fall. Instead it is just a simple complaint that Christmas season now officially begins right after the end of Halloween on November 1st. This does not even include the fact that I saw decorations going up in our local mall in August, which for us in Tucson is kind of weird because it is still only 100 degrees outside at that time.
With Thanksgiving, a Jewish holiday by the way, already consumed, I am worried that many fall celebrations are going to fall prey to this voracious beast of winter consumerism. It will not be long until the winter shopping season begins not in November, but just past Labor Day. This means the Christmas shopping season could engulf Columbus Day, Diwali, United Nations Day, Boss’ Day, Grandparents’ Day, Veteran's Day. Most concerning though, if this happens our secular-religious calendar could swallow whole the Jewish fall observances of Rosh Hashana, Tzom Gedaliah, the 10 Days of Repentance, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret, and Simchat Torah in the similar fashion to how Hanukkah has now become inexorably tied to Christmas.
Just a thought.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Everything I needed to Know about Judaism I learned from the Simpsons, South Park, and Family Guy

Here are just few episodes from the cartoon world that I think give hilarious insight into the Jewish condition. Now I know some of you might be troubled by how Jews are depicted both in South Park and in Family Guy, but personally I am a fan. I think some of their insights are absolutely hilarious, and I have used these and other episodes to teach valuable lessons to 8th grade and confirmation students (I hope).
But look at the ratings ahead of time. And please if you are easily offended, don’t say you weren’t warned.

The Simpsons:
1. Like Father, Like Clown (Season 3)
The story of what happens when Lisa and Bart attempt to reconcile
Krusty, a self described lapsed Jew, and his father Rabbi Hyman Krustofski. My favorite part is Lisa’s description of what rabbis desire above all else.
2. Today I am a Clown (Season 15)
See what happens when Krusty discovers he is not considered a
member of the Jewish community, and the lengths he goes to become a
Bar Mitzvah.
3. You Gotta Know When to Golem (Season 18; Treehouse of Horror XVII)
A modern twist on an ancient Jewish myth. Plus Fran Drescher makes an
4. Homer the Heretic (Season 4)
Not a bad way to explain the evolution of Reform Judaism. Plus have you noticed the only character in the Simpsons universe with more than three fingers is God?
5. Bart Sells His Soul (Season 7) A great set induction piece into a conversation about what is a soul

South Park:
1. The Passion of the Jew (Season 8)
Probably the best, most thoughtful response to the Passion of the Christ
that I have seen
2. Cartmanland (Season 5)
A brilliant retelling of the story of Job

Family Guy:
1. When You Wish Upon a Weinstein (Season 2)
Peter’s prejudices about Jews ain’t so bad. Too bad it deemed so inappropriate by Fox that it was not aired on its original date, and did not appear until 3 years later.

Have some latkes or knishes while you watch

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Campaign Coverage 2008

One of the most insightful summations of the historic 2008 election I have read:

Here are some classic articles from my own campaign for president. Oh well there is always 2012.

Purim 5768

Purim 5767

Purim 5766

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Da Vinci Code

When I started to think about it, I find the Da Vinci Code, to be quite extraordinary in how it has captured the world’s imagination. Part of the reason for this is because the central premise of the book is not new at all. The central premise is probably at least twenty years old if not older as is articulated in the nonfiction book Holy Blood, Holy Grail by Baigent, Leigh, and Lincoln. Therefore maybe the Da Vinci Code’s popularity is not because of its premise.
Maybe it is because of its prose. Dan Brown certainly writes in a very engaging way to say the least. He gets you hooked with very short chapters where it seems that the main characters are always in a state of extreme peril. But other writers have written this way for many years as well, without the same degree of success. So maybe it is not the prose. Could there be another possibility for why the book is so popular?
Perhaps it has to do with historical reality when the book first appeared. Think about what was going on when the novel first came out. At the time this thrilling novel first appeared on bookshelves, we were being inundated by the media about the ever-growing abuse scandal within the Catholic Church.
It seemed as if every day new men and women were coming out of the wood work making statements and suing the church over abuses that had occurred over the past several decades. This in and of itself was quite disturbing. But what made the story all the more incredible were the assertions that the Church covered it up. People claimed that the Church knew about what was going on and instead of dealing with it, they would instead quietly move priests from community to community, never formally acknowledging that there was a problem.
And while this was going on, the Da Vinci Code came out, asserting that the Church was involved in the greatest historical cover-up of all time. No wonder why it captured the imagination of a world audience. The abuse scandal made it seem plausible that if the church could cover that up, what else could it be hiding? Now anything seems possible, even the divinity and bloodline of Christianity’s Lord and Savior.
But the Catholic Church is only one of many organizations targeted with conspiracy theories. Often times these theories come out of a belief that there is an insidious power seeking to undermine one’s best efforts. Or because of a lack of conclusive evidence or sometimes in spite of conclusive evidence, there are those who believe that there is a worldly cabal of some sort hiding secrets and arranging world events. We saw this with the assassination of JFK, with Area 51, and more recently with 9/11.
The problem with these theories, aside from their ability to grossly distort the historical truth, is that they often generate tremendous amounts of attention, and mask our ability to deal with actual substantive issues. This is in part because it is easier to focus on supposed cover-ups and conspiracies because they capture the imagination. This is what helps makes television shows like the X-Files and 24 so very popular.
Just ask yourself, which is more interesting, the notion that we need to become more aware of how much energy we consume, or the idea that the automotive industry in collusion with oil companies, is hiding a car that gets 100 miles to the gallon? What is more fascinating: the notion that the Airforce is constantly testing new aircraft designs, or that the pieces falling from the sky are actually UFO’s? Or what is more enticing, the notion that Germans systematically slaughtered 11 million people, or that only a few hundred thousand Jews died from typhus, but played it up to get world sympathy in order to justify their conquering of the land of Palestine?
Conspiracies abound - but the Truth is out There - just waiting to be uncovered rather than made up.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

The Cheshvan Blues

Mar Cheshvan is understood by rabbinic tradition to be a “bitter” month because it is bereft of holidays. This is in stark contrast to Tishrei, which has a plethora (a term I learned from the Three Amigos – who says nothing good comes out of Hollywood?), like Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot.
That being said, it can be just a bit overwhelming with so many sacred and wonderful experiences all crammed in together. Whoever came up with the idea of taking a month off from sacred celebrations (excluding Shabbat of course), was actually a fairly brilliant person (or God). They rank up there in my book with those who invented frying just about any type of food, as well as those who came up with the idea of mixing chocolate with peanut butter, or chocolate with almonds, or chocolate with wafers, or chocolate with more chocolate. You get the idea.
So for me personally, there are no Cheshvan blues. Besides who has the time to think about it anyway? And as an added bonus, its sweeps, so a month of Heroes and Simpsons uninterrupted.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Jewish Movie Recommendations

This is a somewhat limited list of Jewish films that are worth seeing. Many are quite good, though some are better than others. You can use this as a starting point…

Jewish Musicals
Fiddler on the Roof
The Jazz Singer (any of three versions)
Funny Girl
Fiddler on the Roof
West Bank Story

The Holocaust
The Diary of Anne Frank
The Hiding Place
Voyage of the Damned
Au Revoir, les Enfants
Schindler’s List
The Pianist
Paper Clips
Left Luggage
Europa, Europa
The Nasty Girl
Jew-Boy Levi
The Harmonists
The Pawnbroker
The Great Dictator
God on Trial

Jewish Families
Brighton Beach Memoirs
Lost in Yonkers
A Walk on the Moon
Keeping up with the Steins

Gentleman’s Agreement
Chariots of Fire
School Ties
Constantine’s Sword
Protocols of Zion

Old Jewish Neighborhoods
The Chosen
King of the Roaring Twenties
Once Upon a Time in America
Hester Street
A Stranger Among Us
Price Above Rubies

Jewish Humor
Frisco Kid
Life is Beautiful
The Great Dictator
Keeping the Faith
Crossing Delancey
The Producers (either version)

Sword in the Desert
Cast A Giant Shadow
The Band’s Visit
Waltz with Bashir

Biblical Judaism
David and Bathsheba
The Ten Commandments
Solomon and Sheba
The Bible
The Prince of Egypt

Jewish Dilemmas
Walk on Water
The Quarrel
Everything is Illuminated
King of the Corner
Crimes and Midemeanors
Ghengis Cohn
Liberty Heights
God on Trial

Others of Note:
The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg
The Benny Goodman Story

If you have any other recommendations, please let me know and I will gladly add them to the list.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Purim 5768

As many of who have been following my presidential campaign bid know, my poll numbers have been somewhat lagging as of late, though I still did better than Rudy Giuliani in Florida. Because of this, I am proud to announce a change in my campaign strategy. I am now officially the status-quo candidate. Forget change. Forget new directions. I want business as usual.
Give me lobbyists run amuck. Give me low flow toilets. Give me bridges to nowhere. Heck, even give me pork … barrel spending that is, not the other kind. With this platform, I am sure to win. With everyone else for Change, my name will be memorable, at least according to my campaign manager Peanut the cat.
With that in mind, as I do each year right before Purim, here is a new list of my campaign promises to you.
First of all I promise to make the express lanes at grocery stores mandatory under the penalty of death. Ten items or less, means ten items or less. What is so hard about that concept to grasp?
As your president, I will also end this diet, carb, no-carb, low-carb, exercise, no exercise, fish, no fish, count calories, don’t count calories, transfats, trans-solids, Trans Am, debate once and for all. I will have the newly formed Department of Frozen Pizza declare all foods that are fatty, deep-fried, salty, and tasty as completely and utterly healthy in all forms at all times. Fruits and vegetables will be outlawed, except when they can be produced through the aforementioned process. For further information see the Supreme Court’s recent ruling: latkes v. my waistline.
And last but certainly not least, I plan to declare illegal all ‘reality’ television shows. Some may say this is in direct contradiction to the First Amendment. To them I say, “Well la-de-dah,” or is it “doo-wah-diddy?” With the writer’s strike over, we are guaranteed to have fresh original dramas that are never recycled police procedures, courtroom dramas, or medical emergency shows. We will also have sit-coms that are always side-splittingly funny. So who needs yet another show of people competing against one another for America’s love, like siblings wrestling for a pat on the back from a neglectful parent? Speaking of which, I think I’ve got an idea for a new reality show. Can someone get Fox on the line?
So a vote for me means a vote not for someone else. And with your support we will absolutely not change anything, ever. Well except maybe our socks, because otherwise that could be kind of gross.
Chag Purim Sameach