Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Hanukkah Rap

Here are the lyrics to the rap I performed at our Greatest Hanukkah on Earth! Centennial Edition.
Note: This is to the 'melody' of Paul Revere by the Beastie Boys
And for those of you in Tucson who missed it. It is playing on Tucson Access. Check your local times and channels.

Now here's a little story I've got to tell
Not about the Marx brothers you know so well
It started way back in history
With Eliezar, Shimon, and Judah Maccabee.
The five had a father named Mattathias
Told to worship an idol but he was pious
Killed a Greek soldier, then turned and ran
Greek posse on his tail cause he’s in demand
One lonely Has-mo-knee
All by himself without nobody
The sun was beating down on his kehpee’s hat
The air was gettin' hot, Dr. Browns was getting flat
Lookin' for a dude he ran into a guy
My name is Judah, he said, "Howdy" I said, "Hi"

He told a little story that sounded well rehearsed
Four days out while schviting, and he's dying of thirst
Antiochus was bad allowed moyels no tip
Greeks were coming, chasing down, we tried not to trip
He said, "Here they come"
I said, "This is no fun"
We had a chance to run
Then fled to a mountain
They were quick on the draw I thought we’d be dead
They put the sword to our head and this is what they said,

"Now we’re armed Greek soldiers - We got a license to kills
I think you know what time it is, this ain’t the catskills
Now what do we have here a shmendrick and his dad
We run this land, you understand don’t make me mad."
What a klutz he plotzed, I took the sword, then had a grin
You think this story's over but it's ready to begin

Now we got the sword and we’re both Jews
We had two choices of what we could doos
It's not a tough decision as you can see
We could run away or we could fight totally
I said, let’s ride together, attack ‘em from the border
Antiochus after me for what I did to his temple
I did it like this, I did it like that
I did it with a meshuggenah bat
So I'm on the run, but I’m the only one
And right about now it's time to have some fun
An-tio-chus that is his name
I know the fly spot where he’ll soon be in pain."
We rode for six hours then we hit the spot
The beat was bumping and the night was hot
This king was staring like he knows who we are
We took the empty spot near him not too far
the king said, "Yo, I know you kid?"
I said, "No way." but I know he did
Then I said, "Get ready cause this ain't funny
The king’s a yutz and we’re gonna take his money.”
Pulled out the slingshot aimed at the sky
I yelled, "Stick 'em up!" and let two fly
Hands went up and people hit the floor
I smacked the king upside the head as he ran for the door
"I’m Ju-dah. and I get respect
My homeland back is what I expect"
Eliazer was with it and he's my ace
So I grabbed the menorah and I lit it in its place
The king was out the music stopped
The statue of Zeus well it got dropped
Its time to spin the dreidel, here’s one made of gold
Let’s celebrate Hanukkah on a night that’s cold.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Hanukkah Vidoes

Here's are some youtube videos for Hanukkah.


The term Gabbai is derived from the Hebrew gavah which means ‘to exact payment.’ In Mishnaic times, the gabbai was actually a gabbai tzedakah – a charity collector. During this time gabbai’im worked in partnership with at least one other to make sure there was no misuse of these funds either in their collection or in how they were dispersed.
The term gabbai later came to refer to someone in the medieval Jewish world who was responsible for collecting and administering tzedakah for the broader Jewish community. By this time period, the gabbai was usually a volunteer who helped disperse funds for such purposes as to help with burial, support the ailing, or simply to provide for those in need. Thus the scope and purpose of the gabbai became greatly expanded. In some larger communities they may have had as many as twelve gabbai’m with one serving each month of the year. This gabbai was known as the gabbai hodesh.
However, the term gabbai over time also came to refer to those who helped out in synagogue life as well. These gabbai’m would sometimes manage congregational affairs, but more often than not, they would help to distribute honors during the Torah service.
Today the gabbai is a volunteer who is central to the Torah service. For example they find volunteers for the honor of being called up to bless the Torah, also known as an aliyah. The gabbai ascertains the Hebrew names of these volunteers as well. The gabbai also helps coordinate the flow of the Torah service. In some cases, they even help keep the rabbi or cantor on track. To do this, the gabbai stands next to the Torah reader, holding a version of the text with vowels and trope markings, following along in order to correct the reader if he or she makes an error.

Friday, October 30, 2009

You can't be serious?!

From cnn.com "Calling Democratic health care bills "seriously deficient on the issues of abortion and conscience," the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is urging priests around the country to speak out against the legislation from the pulpit this Sunday." http://politicalticker.blogs.cnn.com/

I am wondering how a bill attempting to create more access to affordable, reliable health care could possibly be deficient on the issue of 'conscience'? With so many in the Catholic community on the fringes of the socioeconomic divide, I just cannot fathom how their religious leaders are focusing on such a narrow issue found within the healthcare debate. It is as if they are forgetting the needs of their constituency. I'm not saying there is not room for healthy debate on the issue of abortion, but in this case, what the Bishops are proposing appears to run contrary to their own religious heritage. They are rejecting the notion of universal healthcare in its entirety because they reject a provision of it that actually is not a provision at all.

As I recall, Jesus himself tended to those that society ignored, the widows, orphans and lepers. Isn't there a mandate within Catholic tradition to help all those who are most in need to be able to receive quality health care? Or am I missing something here?

Within Jewish tradition, our rabbinic heritage argues that it is the obligation of society as well as the responsibility of individuals to ensure everyone, regardless of need, religion, wealth, poverty, have access to healthcare. To learn more I recommend reading Matters of Life and Death by Elliot Dorff who quite cogently explains the intricacies of this issue from a Jewish perspective.

Religion certainly does have a role to play in the healthcare debate. I just think it should be focused on speaking on behalf of the masses and the moral and religious obligations involved. And not co-opted by a select few who speak on behalf of narrow ideological concerns rather than on behalf of the broader community.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Bikur Cholim

“Rabbi Helbo once fell ill. Thereupon Rabbi Kahana went and proclaimed: "Rabbi Helbo is ill!" But none visited him. Rabbi Kahana rebuked the scholars, saying, "Did it not once happen that one of Rabbi Akiva's disciples fell sick, and the Sages did not visit him? So Rabbi Akiva himself entered [the disciple’s house] to visit him, and because they swept and sprinkled the ground before him, he recovered. ‘My master,’ said the disciple, ‘you have revived me!’ Whereupon Rabbi Akiva went forth and lectured: ‘He who does not visit the sick is like a shedder of blood’" (Babylonian Talmud Nedarim 39b).
We may no longer take the position of Rabbi Akiva. Nonetheless the sentiment expressed in his words emphasizes the centrality of this mitzvah to the Jewish experience. The mitzvah of Bikur Cholim, visiting the sick, is one of the great mitzvot de-rabbanan (rabbinic mitzvot) described in Eilu Devarim. Bikur Cholim is a concept that includes a wide range of activities focused on comforting and supporting people who are ill, recovering from surgery, or are homebound. Bikur cholim can include such activities as: visiting patients in a hospital, rehabilitation center or nursing home; visiting people who are restricted to their home; or by calling and reassuring those who are ill or homebound.
There are a wide variety of reasons to perform this central mitzvah. For one, it lifts the spirits of those who are ill and ailing. It also helps them to feel connected to the community, especially if they are no longer able to actively participate like they once did. Also there is scientific evidence that those who receive regular visitors and well-wishers tend to do better when receiving demonstrations of support. Plus there is the added benefit that when you visit those who are ill, you feel better about yourself by performing this central mitzvah.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Family Guy

For a summary of the most recent Family Guy episode: 'Family Goy' please go to the following link:


I admittedly am a really big fan of Family Guy. Much of the humor speaks to my generation (Gen. X), and there were definitely some funny moments in this episode. However I found myself also disappointed in it as well. I think they did a much better job of challenging assumptions about Judaism in their banned episode: "When You Wish upon a Weinstein" as well as to a lesser extent in "Road to Germany."
I also did not particularly appreciate the reference to Shindler's List, which was also referenced in a recent episode of Grey's Anatomy as well, but in a much funnier way (if that is possible).
Needless to say, there are many Jewish writers and at least two lead Jewish actors on the show (Seth Green & Alex Borstein). And the feeling I get is they only have a nominal understanding of their own tradition. There are so many areas to be mined for humor. Why they need to keep going to the basest stereotypes and Holocaust 'humor' is beyond me.
Though I must admit that I did appreciate Stewie of all people reciting the candle blessings for Pesach correctly.
So all in all, I enjoyed a few of the jokes, but mostly I was very much disappointed in the lazy writing in the episode given that it could have been so much better.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Lulav and Etrog - A User's Guide

“On the first day you shall take the product of the beautiful (hadar) tree, branches of palm trees, thick branches of leafy trees, and willows of the brook and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God for seven days” (Leviticus 23:40). The four species are:
• Lulav (לולב) – a ripe, green, closed frond from a date palm tree
• Hadass (הדס) – boughs with leaves from the myrtle tree
• Aravah (ערבה) – branches with leaves from the willow tree
• Etrog (אתרוג) – the fruit of a citron tree

A midrash in Vayikrah Rabba 30:12 explains the items as symbols of the importance of unity among different types of Jews.
1. The etrog, a fruit, has both a flavor and a scent, like a Jew who is both learned and observant of the commandments.
2. The lulav is from a date palm, and so it has a taste but no scent. It is likened to a Jew to is learned but does not apply that knowledge in action.
3. A myrtle has a pleasant odor but there is nothing tasty about it, and it parallels the Jew who has little book learning behind his or her observance.
4. Finally the willow lacks both fragrance and food value, just like the Jew who neither studies the Torah nor observes the commandments.

Midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 30:14) the rabbis use a quote from Psalms to learn more from lulav and etrog comparing each element to a part of the human body. “All my bones shall say, ‘God, who is like You!” (Psalm 35:10). The metaphor is applied in this way:
1. The long, straight, flexible lulav is likened to the spine.
2. The tiny myrtle leaves are like the eyes
3. The elongated willow leaves resemble the lips.
4. Round and firm, the etrog is symbolic of the heart.

As in the first example, holding all parts of the lulav and etrog together for the blessing informs the meaning of the metaphor. The secret ingredient to achieving the true happiness promised by Sukkot is to feel unity within, to be true to oneself and not say one thing and feel another.

The Mitzvah of netilat lulav:
1. Take the lulav in the right hand and the etrog in the left (unless you are a lefty – then do the opposite). Hold the etrog stem side up. Be sure to have the spine of the lulav facing the person holding it. The myrtle (the one with smallish leaves) should be on the right and the willow should be on the left.
2. Say the blessing:
"Baruch ata Adonai, Elo-heinu Melech ha'olam, asher kid'shanu bi'mitzvo-sav, vi'tzivanu al ni-tilat lulav."
Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe, who sanctified us with Your mitzvot, and instructed us to raise up the Lulav.
3. The first time you wave the lulav and etrog follow with the Shehechiyanu.
Begin by switching hands with the etrog facing stem side down
Baruch Ata Adonai Eloheinu Melech HaOlam shecheyanu, vikiyamanu, vihigiyanu laz'man ha'zeh
R. You then wave the lulav in the following directions:
East, South, West, North, Up, and Down – reminding us how God is all around us.

One other note: According to Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai (BT Rosh Hashana 30a), we take up the lulav every day of Sukkot in remembrance of the Temple. The modern observance is to do this every day except on Shabbat.
However there is a tradition in the Mishnah that states if the first day of Sukkot is Shabbat, then one fulfills the mitzvah on Shabbat (Mishnah Sukkot 4:2). Except the majority of Jews throughout the world do not fulfill the mitzvah of netilat lulav on Shabbat (perhaps as a reminder of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem).

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Roman Polanski and Jewish Tradition

Roman Polanski is considered by many to be one of the greatest filmmakers of his generation. Polanski’s first feature film, Knife in the Water (1962) received an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language film. Many of his other films continue to be held in high esteem like Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and Chinatown (1972), which received 11 Academy Award nominations including one win for best original screenplay. Polanski, a holocaust survivor, received the Academy’s highest award, best director, in 2002 for the Pianist.
However, Polanski truly is a person of Shakespearean stature, accomplished, revered, and deeply troubled. It is well known that Polanski’s second wife, Sharon Tate and their unborn child were slaughtered in the famous Manson murders of 1969. Polanski was devastated by Sharon’s murder, with whom he described his time with her as the happiest of his life.
But Polanski is most well known today for the events that took place 30 years ago in 1977 with the seduction and rape of 13 year-old Samantha Gailey. Following a plea agreement and a 90 day psychiatric evaluation, Polanski fled the United States fearing further prosecution. In 2009, Polanski was arrested as he was entering Switzerland where he was to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Zurich film festival.
In response to Polanski’s arrest and possible extradition back to the United States, there are some, especially in Hollywood clamoring for his release. Even Samantha Gailey (now Geimer) has expressed a desire to have the events put behind her. However there is also the adamant call by many to see Polanski brought to justice for the crimes he perpetrated and admitted to.
The Jewish community is very ambivalent about the Polanski case. On the one hand, we note the horrors and tragedies that have followed Polanski throughout his life. We also acknowledge the prominence he has brought in terms of Jewish portrayals in cinema. At the same time, we are also a tradition of tzedek, tzedek tirdof, justice, justice shall you pursue. And that even though Polanski has admitted remorse, and done teshuvah to a degree, there is still a price to be paid for his crimes that time cannot erase.
As a father and a husband, I am personally appalled by anyone who would defend Polanski’s actions. Rape is one of the great violations, and even Judaism when speaking about issues of life and death argues it is better to die than be forced to commit rape (Babylonian Talmud Tractate Sanhedrin 74a).
So clearly Polanski broke one of American society’s cardinal rules: rape of a minor. He also broke one of Jewish traditions great prohibitions as well. And no matter his many accomplishments since the incident nor the failings of the U.S. legal system make up for this fact. Polanski should in the eyes of both American and Jewish legal precedent have to do time for his crimes. As this time of year teaches us, no matter our past circumstances, we are still all to be held accountable for our actions.

Sacred Guests (Ushpizin) and Holy Spaces - Sukkot

In the Essential Kabbalah Daniel Matt writes, “The essence of serving God and of all the mitzvot is to attain the state of humility, that is, to understand that all your physical and mental powers and your essential being depend on the divine elements within. You are simply a channel for the divine attributes. You attain this humility through the awe of God’s vastness, through realizing that ‘there is no place empty of it.’”
During the first week of October, we will be celebrating the fall festival of Sukkot. Known as heChag, the Festival, Sukkot commemorates both the fall harvest and the time our ancestors wandered in the wilderness before attaining the land of Eretz Yisrael. During their travels, they built portable structures, sukkot, which we commemorate with our annual construction projects to this various day. There are numerous guidelines for how to build a proper sukkah. One of the key elements is that it must have a natural covering by which you can see the stars in the night sky.
Another element involves dwelling in our sukkah. In particular we are to dine there and invite guests to join us. Family, friends, and ushpizin, sacred guests including Abraham, Moses, and Aaron, as well as Sarah, Miriam, and Devorah all join us as we celebrate together.
There is another observance associated with Sukkot, though in truth, it is actually a separate holiday. It is the festival of Hoshana Rabbah. Hoshana Rabbah takes place on the last day of Sukkot, and is considered to be the day when our fates are sealed in the Book of Life. It includes a service with seven Hakafot with the Torah, lulav, and etrog all while Hoshanot are recited. Five willow branches are also beaten on the ground to help us symbolically remove our sins as the penitential season comes to an end.
But more than that, Hoshana Rabbah is the time where we invite God to join us as we dwell one last time in the Sukkah. In many ways this is akin to the kabbalistic notion that there is no place devoid of God.
May your sukkahs this year be strong and lasting. May you be joined by wonderful and delightful company. And may you find God’s holy presence in all of your dwelling places, which in turn, may help you find holiness in yourselves, in your lives, and in the greater world as well.

Thursday, September 24, 2009


There are some great Jewish haikus floating around on the internet today. One of my personal favorites is:

Yenta. Shmeer. Gevalt.
Shlemiel. Shlimazl. Meshuganah
Oy! To be fluent!

It grabbed my attention in part because I recently had the opportunity to see a traveling performance of Spamalot in Tucson. For those of you who might not be familiar, Spamalot is loosely based on the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The Holy Grail is a nonsensical, silly, irreverent movie mostly mocking cinematic depictions of the King Arthur Legend. Spamalot takes this notion one step further and postulates what would happen if Monty Python and the Holy Grail became a Broadway musical.
Needless to say, it is filled with many hilarious lines, jokes, self-referential materials, and some great song and dance routines. One of my personal favorites was a number called, "You won't succeed on Broadway (if you don't have any Jews)." The musical number is a takeoff of several scenes from Fiddler on the Roof. Though I think perhaps the funniest and saddest parts was in some ways how so few audience members were laughing at any Yiddish humor.
I tend to forget that even though Yiddish is increasingly more prevalent in American culture, especially due to the Jewish comedians and writers of the 50s & 60s, how many Americans still only have a nominal understanding and/or exposure to Yiddish.
Yiddish is one of the great languages in part because, like much of our music, it is always filled with hints of sadness. We Jews have suffered tremendously as is indicated in Spamalot when King Arthur finds out his bosom companion, Patsy, is in fact, Jewish. When pressed as to why he didn't reveal this information earlier, Patsy states, "that's not really the sort of thing you say to a heavily-armed Christian."
Yiddish and yiddishisms often indicate our understanding of how the world is not as it should be as long as suffering and persecution still exist. But at the same time, it has the amazing ability to laugh at itself as well in a self-deprecating sort of way. Thus even in the wilderness of Arizona, it is always a good sight to see when non-Jewish audiences are exposed to a pitzel of Yiddish, for we all need a little more Judaism in order to succeed, not just on Broadway, but also in life.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Jewish Haikus

These are from the internet. I don't know the original author though I would be happy to credit him or her for these great thoughts. Special thanks to Bonnie for forwarding these to me

Lacking fins or tail
the gefilte fish swims with
great difficulty.

Beyond Valium,
peace is knowing one's child
is an internist.

On Passover we
opened the door for Elijah.
Now our cat is gone.

After the warm rain
the sweet smell of camellias.
Did you wipe your feet?

Her lips near my ear,
Aunt Sadie whispers the name
of her friend's disease.

Today I am a man.
Tomorrow I will return
to the seventh grade..

Testing the warm milk
on her wrist, she sighs softly.
But her son is forty.

The sparkling blue sea
reminds me to wait an hour
after my sandwich.

Like a bonsai tree,
is your terrible posture
at my dinner table.

Jews on safari --
map, compass, elephant gun,
hard sucking candies.

The same kimono
the top geishas are wearing:
I got it at Loehmann's.

The shivah visit:
so sorry about your loss.
Now back to my problems.

Mom, please! There is no
need to put that dinner roll
in your pocketbook.

Seven-foot Jews in
the NBA slam-dunking!
My alarm clock rings.

Sorry I'm not home
to take your call. At the tone
please state your bad news.

Is one Nobel Prize
so much to ask from a child
after all I've done?

Today, mild shvitzing.
Tomorrow, so hot you'll plotz.
Five-day forecast: feh

Yenta. Shmeer. Gevalt.
Shlemiel. Shlimazl. Meshuganah
Oy! To be fluent!

Quietly murmured
at Yom Kippur services,
"Yanks 5, Red Sox 3."

A lovely nose ring,
excuse me while I put my
head in the oven.

Hard to tell under the lights.
White Yarmulke or
male-pattern baldness.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Shofar, Show Good

The shofar is one of the penultimate expressions of Jewish tradition. In the past it was sounded in times of war as well as to indicate the start of a new month. Today we sound it throughout the month of Elul to help awaken and hearken our hearts to this great and awesome season.
With that in mind, here are a couple of very cute Shofar clips. Enjoy.




Monday, August 31, 2009

Taking Woodsock to Elul

The recent release of Taking Woodstock, a semi-true film about Elliot Tiber, a nice Jewish boy, and the infamous 1969 music festival he helped orchestrate, got me thinking about the month of Elul.
Woodstock was the three-day concert that defined a generation. It has become so legendary now, that just about anyone who is anyone claims to have been there during those exciting and extremely wet days listening to thirty-two acts including Joan Baez, Santana, the Grateful Dead, CCR, Crosby, Stills, and Nash, and the late, great Jimi Hendrix.
Approximately 500,000 people came to hear the music and celebrate youth and hippie culture in a way that has never been seen before or since.
The reason why the Woodstock got me thinking about Elul is because of the very transformative nature of the event. The sense of social harmony attained at Woodstock, in particular, has been a desired goal at gatherings large and small ever since.
Personal and social harmony really are two of most significant underlying goals of teshuvah. We seek forgiveness from ourselves, our friends, our families, and from God, all with the hope of finding inner and outer peace. Fortunately teshuvah doesn't require a seismic cultural shift to help us in this journey. Nor do we need to gather together in the fields of upstate New York. Instead when the shofar beckons us, like a loud guitar riff (yes I did just compare the shofar to a guitar riff), we can feel the awesome nature of what holiness truly means.
May Elul be for you a time to forgive, a time to reconcile, and a time to listen. All with the goal of finding harmony and peace in your own lives and the larger world as well.
I just have one small favor to ask: please no tie-dye at the High Holidays, unless you are also wearing bell-bottoms.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

A Full Moon

A couple of weeks ago, our nation celebrated the fortieth anniversary of the lunar landing. The success of the Apollo missions marked not only a triumph for all of humankind, but also reconnected us with the central figure of the night sky, the moon.
Being a solar powered people, we tend not to pay too much attention to this celestial body, without which, some scientists feel life as we know it could exist. According to this theory, the gravitational pull of the moon is a central force helping sustain the dynamic nature of the earth. It is this dynamic earth that enabled life to exist and continue to exist, unlike some of our other inner-planetary brethren.
But there is another piece, a Jewish piece to the moon that should be noted as well. For though the origins of several of our key festivals are agricultural in nature; our calendar, and by extension, our observances are inexorably tied to the moon.
So important is the moon to Jewish life, that the Sanhedrin, the full rabbinic court needed two witnesses to testify as to when it was a new moon in order to start the month. Only upon cross examination could the new month begin.
Also our days begin in the evening. This comes from the book of Genesis “and there was evening, and there was morning.” But even still, evening is the territory of the moon’s constant wanderings.
So in a way, our days, our nights, our festivals, and our celebrations, are all in one way or another, bound to the moon.
Thus when we celebrate humanity’s achievements in reaching the moon, in a way, we are also reminded not just of humans touching the moon, but of how the moon continues to touch our lives as well.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Jewish Names

This is part of my regular series on Jewish customs and rituals:

“Each person has a name. We each have a name give by God and given by our father and mother” Israeli poet Zelda (Shneurson Mishkowsky).
The tradition of naming a child within the Jewish community dates back several thousand years. This custom is even indicated in the midrash. In Leviticus Rabbah 32:5, we learn Israel was redeemed from Egypt for four reasons. One of which was because our ancestors retained their Jewish names despite their centuries of enslavement.
Even though in more recent times we have since adopted the tradition of giving secular to our children; we have nonetheless kept the tradition of giving them a Hebrew name as well. The Hebrew name is important in part because these are the names we and our children are identified with by the community of Israel. For example, these are the names used when we are called to bless the Torah beginning with our bar or bat mitzvah. These are also the names that are written into the ketubah, the wedding contract. And these are the names used at times of memorial as well.
There are different customs with choosing a Hebrew name. In Ashkenazic tradition it is customary to name the child after a beloved deceased relative. In Sephardic tradition, it is often customary to name them after living relative. In Hassidic tradition, it is customary to name the child after a favorite tzaddik. And in Israel, one will find children often named after modern Israeli heroes. One can also pick a name from the Tanaach like Abraham, David, Miriam, or Ruth.
Because the Hebrew name is so very important, we have the custom of celebrating the naming within the community. For a boy, it is usually done at their circumcision, and for a girl, it is usually done at a naming ceremony in front of the congregation usually at Shabbat services. As part of the ceremony a Mi Shebeirach prayer is recited for the health of the mother and child as well.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Love and Marriage

As Groucho Marx famously quipped, "Marriage is a wonderful institution, but who wants to live in an institution?"
There is no specific mitzvah or commandment in the Torah for a couple to get married. Nonetheless, we know this was a practice our ancestors engaged in (pun intended), in part because couples like Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, and even Moses and Tzipporah paired off. There is also the first mitzvah of p’ru ur’vu, be fruitful and multiply. We also can infer notions of marriage in biblical times because of the laws of divorce stipulated to the Israelites in Deuteronomy 24. Thus marriage (and divorce) have been a part of our tradition since the most ancient days.
Yet if you watch enough television or listen to enough am radio, it would appear that marriage is under attack. The most common threat by these analysts is gay marriage. I could not disagree more with this assessment. I would argue instead, the threat to the 'institution' of marriage and to families is the fifty percent divorce rate in this country.
The number one threat to marriage it would appear to be is celebrity. Jon and Kate sadly have become the latest symbols of this issue. Though as a society quick to judge, it is hard to comprehend the pressure of ongoing public analysis of the flaws in one's relationship. Though to be fair, they did not need to agree to become celebrities in the first place, but that is a blog for another day.
However there are many other compounding factors. Stress, children, one's age at marriage, financial difficulties, children, medical challenges, lack of family support, lack of communal support, lengthy time apart for employment reasons, children, religious differences, incarceration, military deployment, infidelity, children, and the list goes on and on.
The better question we should be asking then is what are we as a society doing to help strengthen the bonds of a loving family, and what are we doing to give them the resources they need. This I feel is a much better conversation than either laying blame or judging no matter how much fun seem to have reveling in the misfortune of others. For what goes on behind closed doors, even in front of cameras, we will never fully know.
My prayer is that Jon and Kate are able to resolve their issues amicably and in the best interest of their children. And that this also serves as a warning to future couples of how the pursuit of celebrity may be detrimental to one’s marriage. And instead they will come to understand how a long lasting loving relationship has its own rewards far greater than either fame or fortune.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Obama and Israel

There is an old Jewish joke. A boy races into his family’s apartment in the lower east side shouting, “The Dodgers won the pennant! The Dodgers won the pennant!” His grandfather, freshly off the boat replies, “Nu boychick! Is this good or bad for the Jews?”
One of the questions fresh off President Obama’s speech at Cairo University is: Is building stronger relationships with the Muslim world bad for Israel?
President Obama began speaking on the Israeli Palestinian conflict with the following statement, “America's strong bonds with Israel are well known. This bond is unbreakable. It is based upon cultural and historical ties, and the recognition that the aspiration for a Jewish homeland is rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied.”
A little later on he continued, “Threatening Israel with destruction -- or repeating vile stereotypes about Jews -- is deeply wrong, and only serves to evoke in the minds of Israelis this most painful of memories while preventing the peace that the people of this region deserve.”
I think the message President Obama was stating is Israel is legitimate. Israel is here to stay. Israel is a reality, and to refuse to accept this central tenant or to deny Israel’s existence or the existence of the Holocaust is a futile effort.
President Obama then continued, “They endure the daily humiliations -- large and small -- that come with occupation. So let there be no doubt: The situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable. And America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own. “
Both of these are true statements that most moderates in the region and around the world are likely to recognize. True it is in America’s interests for a peaceful existence between Israel and Palestine with a legitimate government that recognizes Israel. But it is also ultimately in Israel’s best interest as well.
The ongoing threat of Iran’s nuclear ambitions cannot be denied. And the only way their increasing threat of hegemony in the region can be dealt with is by uniting Arab countries against an actual common enemy instead of a perceived one.
Some will say this is too simple minded. Some critics have denounced Islam as a false religion filled solely with hatred. On the other hand, the Muslim world is certainly not monolithic in belief or practice. There are extremists to be sure, but there are also moderates, and liberals in the Muslim world as well. The only fact of which we can be sure is that, whenever Christians and Muslims fight, it is almost always the Jews who pay the price, be it in Spain or throughout the Crusades, and even today in modern Israel.
So maybe instead if the western and Muslim worlds can actually begin to dialogue and start to understand each other, maybe Israel could ultimately benefit.
Or as the President put it more eloquently, “For decades then, there has been a stalemate: two peoples with legitimate aspirations, each with a painful history that makes compromise elusive… But if we see this conflict only from one side or the other, then we will be blind to the truth: The only resolution is for the aspirations of both sides to be met through two states, where Israelis and Palestinians each live in peace and security. That is in Israel's interest, Palestine's interest, America's interest, and the world's interest.” And this in turn could be good for the Jews. Now comes the hard part. Waiting to see how the Muslim world responds.

Monday, April 27, 2009

The Greatly Unkosher Swine Flu

There is a wonderful scene in Robin Hood: Men in Tights, where Robin Hood slams down a boar on a large dining table in front of Prince John. The unflappable Prince, portrayed by the very Jewish Richard Lewis, mutters to himself, "Treif."
There is an old saying in Jewish tradition of how shellfish is treif, but pork is anti-Semitic. This tradition stems from its use throughout history as a means of humiliating Jews. So it is not surprising Jewish communities are stating how they are not too concerned with the Swine flu because we pray in kosher institutions.
But all kidding aside, the notion of pandemics raises not just a troubling concern for the worldwide community, but for Jews as well. It has not always easy to be a Jew in times of great uncertainty. One of the greatest examples of this was the black plague where an estimated third of all of Europe died. Yet it appeared many Jews were spared this horrendous disease because they bathed frequently and worked hard to keep rats (another non-kosher animal) out of their homes. Sadly many Christian communities took this survival as an indicator of how Jewish communities were poisoning the wells of the local Christians and went on to destroy many of the surrounding Jewish communities. Though we should note there are still some in the world today who are blaming Jews for the swine flu despite our persistent historical aversion to all things pork (See link below).
Blaming the "other" for one's problems appears to be an inherent part of the human condition including the ever-present accusation of orchestrating the financial collapse traumatizing many of the world's economies.
So in an age of pandemics, epidemics, and economic implosions, it would be my fondest hope that the world would learn from its history and focus on actual causes and not so blindly blame those who would prefer pastrami on rye to ham on white.
At least for the swine flu, the doctor says have a bowl of bubbe's chicken soup with knaydelach, which should work even on the un-kosherly named H1N1.


Friday, April 3, 2009

Lost in Translation

Recently there was a minor flap about the DVD subtitles used for "Let the Right One In" a Swedish Vampire movie. The movie is about the friendship between Oskar and Eli, a two hundred year old vampire child. Apparently the producers changed the subtitles from the original release for the DVD essentially dumbing down a more lyrical translation for a broader audience.
Reading about this controversy reminded me of issue of translation. As one of my professors in Rabbinic school liked to say, "all translations are interpretation." What we tend to forget whenever reading a translation of any text, but especially canonical literature like the Hebrew Bible, is somewhere along the line, an editor or editors made decisions about how to interpret words, phrases, and ideas. For the most part, these interpretations tend to be fairly innocuous, however, on occasion, it can be theologically significant, like the decision to translate a word as 'virgin' as instead of 'young woman.' All the more reason why it is worthwhile to learn more than one language. And if this is not possible, to at least look at multiple translations to see if and where there is consensus and disagreement.
This is in part what I find so wonderful about the Jewish approach. We may begin with the Bible, but only as a means of a broader sacred conversation. How we interpret the literature is as important as what is contained within its words. We may just need the help of a few lexicons to guide us along the way. For how we choose to translate and interpret our sacred writings really says more about us than it does about Scripture.

In Memory of Grandpa Ray

Monday, March 9, 2009

Purim 5769

Sadly I learned on January 18, 2009 that I had not won the candidacy for the President of the United States. It would have been really nice if someone would have at least sent me a note, an email, or even posted it on facebook. I really did look foolish all decked out with my American flag suit all ready to be sworn in, with no one but my cat and Emily in attendance. Even my wife said she had better things to do, which isn’t all that uncommon a response to my adventures now that I think about it. The best I can do now is become Secretary of the Department of Kosher Animals and Gefilte Fish. Oh well.
I would like to thank all of my supporters for their hard work, time, and dedication to my campaign. They have stood by me since I announced that I was running for President three Purims ago. In honor of their efforts, I will now present to you, the voting public, my inaugural address.
My fellow Americans, I have come to this high position through a wave of popular support. It was you who stood with me in my stance against low-flow toilets, reality shows, and health food. It was you who joined in the chorus of saying, we have had enough and we are not going to take it anymore… then we took it. But that is another story.
It was you who said no longer will we tolerate people coming into Subway restaurants with a list for forty orders. Come on, how many sandwiches can the average American eat? One should only be allowed to order the amount of food for people present, unless of course, I am picking up lunch for the office or for Congress. They are a hungry bunch, not the office, but Congress.
Let us join together and bring about a better tomorrow by ending the years of bipartisanship. Hand-in-hand we Democrats, Republicans, Whigs, Tories, No-nothings, do-nothings, see-nothings, and hear-nothings can make this country great again. Let’s end the bickering once and for all. But if not would you at least let me know what you would like on your sandwich?
At least there is always 2012. Chag Purim Sameach.

Monday, February 23, 2009

In Memory of Moses

Almost lost in the 2009 Oscar Telecast was the mention of the passing of one of Hollywood's great icons, Charlton Heston. Maybe it was because of his politics or his affiliation with the NRA that he received scant applause. Be that as it may, Heston became the face of both science fiction and the Bible in the 1950's and 60's.
In his rendition of Moses in Cecil B DeMille's The Ten Commandments, Heston created a character from Jewish antiquity in a way that was proud, strong, and decisive. This in a time when modern Jews were either relegated to secondary characters on screen at best, or were totally removed altogether. The Communist scare was in full swing in the U.S. and in Hollywood, and the only Jews allowed to be portrayed were those from long ago. At the same time, Israel had only been in existence for eight years while the Holocaust still fresh in Jewish minds. Jews were moving en mass to the suburbs, and as a result of all of this we were at a crossroads in terms of our Jewish identities.
So to see our hero so boldly portrayed, if slightly over the top, helped us to feel a sense of pride in ourselves and our ancestry we had not felt for two thousand years. There have been other actors to play Moses on the big and little screen since, like Sir Ben Kingsley, Mel Brooks and others, but there will always be a special place at least in my heart for Heston's. Plus you can watch him on television every year right around Passover part those seas one more time. Farewell Moses, we'll miss you.

Thursday, February 5, 2009


I have often turned to movie critics to help me ascertain whether or not a movie is worth both the time and the money. This has becoming increasingly important to me not just because of the rise in cost of movie tickets, but also because of how much babysitters now charge. Sadly, an evening out is not as cheap as it used to be.
One of the critics I tend to lean upon is Roger Ebert of "thumbs up / thumbs down" fame. I like Ebert in part because he tends to review a movie by placing it in context of both what the movie is and how it relates to movies of similar goals. For example if a movie tries to be a romantic comedy, how does it compare with the likes of When Harry Met Sally? Or if it is a mindless comedy, is it funny like Animal House or Airplane or Clerks? I have found critics who review movies in this vein tend to give a more honest review than those who review them based on their own expectations or even their own egos rather than based on the merits of the movie.
But as much as I enjoy these reviews, what has always fascinated me are the responses to these reviews. Almost universally, if someone dislikes a review, they write responses filled with passion not against the review, but instead against the critic. To them the critic is an evil figure for not liking the movie as much as the individual did. Or the critic is incompetent because they liked a movie they should not have. People take it very personally when they are at odds with a movie critic.
The reason why I mention this is because one of the main roles we have as Jews is to serve as societal critics. We have acquired this tradition from our prophets and sages who compel us to pursue justice by righting the wrongs in society. A prophet is usually the last person people want to see because the prophet will generally tell people what they are doing wrong.
I think part of the reason for the long tragic history of Jewish suffering is due to this notion of Jews as critics. We are a living reminder of the world not as it is, but as to how it ought to be. This means our existence can make others feel both guilty and uncomfortable. However, rather than dealing with these emotions, they instead attack the messenger; much in the same way a critic is vilified.
So I encourage you, next time you hear someone say something you do not like, think to yourself: is it the person delivering the message, the message, or how the message makes you feel about yourself. For in the end, the critic’s message much like the teachings of Judaism can only be received by those truly willing to listen.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Jewish Ritual Life

Here are some of my previous posts about a variety of Jewish rituals and ritual life:

Shabbat Candles
Chevrei Kaddisha
Kever Avot
Tisha B'Av and Tu' B'Av
Counting the Omer
Jewish Names

More to come - Stay Tuned

Monday, January 26, 2009

Jews and the Vatican

20 years ago, Richard Williamson, a British bishop in the Catholic Church, was excommunicated along with three others because they were consecrated without papal consent. The rehabilitation of these bishops would normally be a simple part of Vatican procedure by Pope Benedict XVI, except for one small problem. The problem is Williamson is on record stating that at most, 200,000-300,000 Jews died in Auschwitz, and that these Jews were not gassed by the Nazis. Williamson is in a word, a Holocaust denier.

The plan of many Holocaust deniers basically involves attacking the facts of the most well documented event in world history. By arguing the numbers and means of the Holocaust are incorrect, they are trying to prove that it is a historical fallacy made up by the Jews. They do this with the hopes of delegitimizing the establishment of the State of Israel, which they erroneously believe was only founded because the world felt guilty about the Holocaust.

What is so scary about this is the number of people who believe these Holocaust deniers. What is also so scary is how many eye witnesses to these atrocities are dying off. I mention this in part because this past week, I officiated at the funeral of Rachel Engelman, beloved mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, friend, and Holocaust survivor. Rachel's story is similar to many who survived the wellspring of anger generated out of Germany and Eastern Europe towards the Jews. This anger in many ways is rooted in the very teachings of the Catholic Church by the way, as is illustrated in the book Constantine's Sword. Rachel survived by hiding under a stair case in a factory in Budapest for two years. Rachel survived by ignoring orders from German soldiers, and by ripping the yellow star off of her clothes. Rachel survived when so many others did not.

By agreeing to rehabilitate Williamson into the Church, Pope Benedict is spitting on Rachel's grave and the graves of all of the other victims of this senseless violence and hate. As a man who speaks of reconciliation and peace one would hope Pope Benedict would re-think his decision. For words mean little when actions speak volumes.

If there is a silver lining, it is the possibility that German authorities are investigating Williamson to see if he broke German law by denying the Holocaust. One could only wish the Vatican would do the same.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Make 'Em Laugh, Make 'Em Holy

Lately on my blog, I have been pretty much exclusively focused on the events unfolding in Gaza. As a rabbi, a Jew, and a strong supporter of Israel, it is hard not to be thinking about Israel especially when she faces such great challenges.

That being said, I had the opportunity last night to take a breather and smile a little because instead of watching CNN, I spent the evening enjoying PBS’s new documentary ‘Make ‘Em Laugh’ hosted by Billy Crystal. 'Make 'Em Laugh' looks at the history of comedy in American pop culture. Last night's episode focused on the evolution of both stand-up comedy and situation comedies.

I expected to see a narrative history of the development of comedy, with the hope that many Jewish comedians would be mentioned. With the latter, I was not disappointed, as Jews have played a vital role in American comedy since their vaudeville days. With the former though, I was a bit surprised as the narrative seemed to almost jump around from time periods and topics through an associative train of thought. Being the fan of history that I am, I initially had some trouble following how they went directly from the Simpsons to I Love Lucy.

But thinking about it more, I came to realize the series is almost Talmudic in its approach to examining comedy. One train of thought simply leads to another through intricate connections, which is how you can go from the Dick Van Dyke show directly to Seinfeld or visa versa.

In this sense, all forms of comedy are intertwined, with comedians, writers, and actors all being heavily influenced by one another. Judaism is very much the same. We are certainly an evolving tradition, but we do not create in a vacuum. What we do, say, eat, practice, and live as Jews should be understood in the evolution of Jewish tradition and interpretation. In this way, we are a very organic and vibrant tradition just like American comedy.

I am concerned that sometimes people look at Judaism as a stagnant religion with little to offer them in their modern circumstance. They think of Judaism as a tradition either solely focused on the past or on the constant theme of suffering. The truth is Judaism really is a religion all about the future and the promises of better days to come. But unlike many sit-coms, which have become dull and predictable for the most part, Judaism still has a lot of humor and surprises left in her. All you need to do is become part of the ‘live-audience’ and join in the celebration.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Here We Go Again

Two rockets landed in Israel. One of them in a retirement home. Two Israelis were slightly injured, countless others terrified. Sounds like old news. In a way it is, and in a way it is not because these rockets were not fired from Gaza, but from Lebanon, landing in the northern Israeli city of Nahariya.
It now appears that one or two break-off factions of Hezbollah have joined in the fighting, though no one has taken official responsibility for these rockets as of yet. But it does open up the possibility of a two front war, though Israel has expressed it has no desire for this whatsoever. We should note Hezbollah's missiles are even more powerful, can travel farther than those under the control of Hamas, and are capable of inflicting even greater damage and terror.
The Lebanese government has also strongly condemned these attacks as it does not want another conflict with Israel like in 2006, which decimated much of Southern Lebanon. The rockets were most likely fired as a demonstration of solidarity with the ongoing battle in Gaza.
This of course gets to the heart of the problem. Israel is surrounded on several sides by differing extremist groups all with the same ideology of making life as miserable for Israelis as possible. Instead of demonstrations, what do extremists do? They fire rockets hoping to cause as much collateral damage as possible. How does one retaliate in a 'proportional' way to such hate? This is not Ghandi's India. This is not Mandela's South Africa. This is the reality of the Middle East.
The problem for Israel is that in world opinion many simply do not seem to understand, to quote Golda Meir, "We don't want wars, even when we win." Israel does not want this. Israel wants security. Israel wants quiet. Israel wants peace.
I am asked on occasion, what then is the solution? Unfortunately, as Golda Meir so prophetically proclaimed in her 1957 statement to the National Press Club in Washington, "Peace will come when the Arabs will love their children more than they hate us."
Until then, Israel will always have to be prepared for war, no matter how much she desires peace.

Related to this topic there is a fascinating analysis of the ongoing crises between Israel and Gaza explaining how it is so much more than a local conflict. The article is by Sally Buzbee, Chief of Middle East News for The Associated Press. Feel free to follow the link:

Monday, January 5, 2009

Roseanne Barr

As reported in the Jerusalem Post http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?cid=1230733139909&pagename=JPost%2FJPArticle%2FShowFull:
In response to Israel’s war with Hamas in Gaza, Roseanne Barr in a recent post on her blog, compared Israel to the Nazis as well as to the apartheid state of South Africa.
Ms. Barr is certainly entitled to her opinions about Israel’s actions in Gaza, but her comparisons are not only disturbing, but also downright indefensible. Nazis by definition were primarily Germans, under the leadership of Adolph Hitler, who sought total domination of Europe and the extermination of an entire people. 11 million people died in Nazi death camps. This included six million Jews as well as millions of handicapped individuals, communists, members of opposition parties, gypsies, homosexuals, as well as countless others. Thus even to bring up the term Nazi when looking at the Middle East conflict is not only deliberately inflammatory, but incredibly bad use of analogy. Nazis engaged in genocide.
So, Ms. Barr, if you wish to mention the term 'Nazi', please use it in reference to Darfur or Rwanda, not to Israel. By doing so, you are only denigrating the struggle for security and peace and adding nothing new or helpful to the conversation. And worse than that, you are denigrating the memory of those 11 million who died at the hands of the Nazis simply because of who they were and for no other reason.
Israel is nothing like the Nazis. They are not seeking to slaughter millions of Palestinians. Israel gave up Gaza and has been targeting Hamas leadership, who by the way hides among civilians like cowards in schools, hospitals, and mosques.
Israel is also not like the apartheid state of South Africa. South Africans were viewed as inferior by the former British Empire and subjugated at every turn. Palestinians in many ways have only to look at themselves in the mirror to understand their plight, as any person who has studied history would understand.
True Israel has made many imperfect policy decisions, and will most likely continue to do so in the future. And we as a Jews and as concerned citizens of the world certainly have every right to question her decisions, but what we should not do in good conscience is call her either a “Nazi State” or an “Apartheid State,” because both of these statements are simply put: false, misleading, incorrect, and down right wrong.
My recommendation is to come up with a new analogy. How about: Israel is the only democracy in the middle east and is doing what it thinks is right to defend her citizens from unwarranted attacks by a group of terrorists who want nothing more than to drive all Israelis into the sea. Oh wait, that is what is actually going on and not analogous at all.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Gaza Continued

Here is a post I found interesting. It raises a question about the Palestinian situation and their choice of weapons of terror over feeding their population