Friday, December 3, 2010

Hanukkah does in deed, Rock!

There was a recent request for better Chanukah music on a thread that I subscribe to. The rationale being, Christmas is kicking Chanukah's butt in the music department. And the truth is, it is. There are a variety of reasons for this. One is Chanukah in the pantheon of Jewish holidays, is a minor festival. The most significant mitzvah with regards to Chanukah (other than eating foods fried in oil), is to place a Chanukiyah (the menorah) in a place that is visible. Gift giving is usually done during Purim.

Also, as strange as it may sound, many Jewish composers have put their time and energy into writing Christmas music. The list includes: "White Christmas" by Irving Berlin, "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" by Johnny Marks, "Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow" by Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne, "Silver Bells" by Livingston and Evans, and "The Christmas Song" (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire) by Mel Torme, who I learned about from watching episodes of Night Court while growing up. (And Neil Diamond, as I was recently reminded of, who has had a number of Christmas hits, but not so many in the Chanukah department).

But perhaps most significantly is Chanukah, though really a festival commemorating the victorious battle for religious freedom, traditionally has not been as important to Jews as Christmas has been for Christians.

All that being said, there is a recent movement afoot to, if not make better music, at least create more fun during this time of year. It really started in my opinion with Adam Sandler and his Hanukkah song originally performed on Saturday Night Live back in the 90s. There has been the album by the Levees entitled “Hanukkah Rocks! - whose songs include Latke Clan and How do you Spell Hanukkah?,” the Barenaked Ladies have some Hanukkah songs on their Barenaked for the Holidays album, Jon Stewart sang “Can I Interest you in Hanukkah” to Stephen Colbert on A Stephen Colbert’s Christmas, and of course there is this year’s viral sensation Candlelight by The Maccabeats

See below for a number of links to these fun new Hanukkah traditions:

And as always, Chag Sameach, Happy Hanukkah!

Friday, November 12, 2010


A recent article in the Wall Street Journal discusses the trend among some people, especially the geeks among us (and who here is not one to some level or another?) to carry around all of their technology including multiple smart phones, laptops, and tablets. There is one person mentioned in the article who ends up carrying around a 26 pound backpack with him to hold all of his techo-stuff.

Which made me wonder, what has technology done to our lives? I know I am not the first to ask this, nor the last, but as I 'settle down' as a senior rabbi for the first time in my career, I find I am spending more time responding to emails at times than having actual human interactions. And when I do interact with congregants and non-congregants alike, almost every one of those interactions involves using my iPhone at one time or another. Now I don't have email alerts, so it is not that I am distracted during these conversations, but instead I find I often need to check a date or an address or something similar during the discussion.

I feel at times like I am a robo-rabbi. I can just imagine the day with the development of cybernetics that we will look like Robocop but with peyus and a megillah scroll rather than a gun and a targeting system.

But in all seriousness, I do wonder if all of this technological advancement is helping Judaism or slightly removing us from it? I am still unsure, but I did appreciate having an isiddur when I was at a shiva minyan and they ran out of prayerbooks.

So maybe it is a mixed blessing at best. But still something I ponder from time to time.

And for those of you who are wondering, yes I do get the irony of posting this particular post on a blog

The Only Tech These Geeks Lack Is a Cart to Haul Their Gadgets

Monday, September 13, 2010

A Commentary well worth reading

Attached is a commentary by Dr. Jonathan Sarna, an expert on American Jewish History and a clear voice on the future of both American and world Judaism. It is a fascinating article.

United State: A recent contretemps in Israel served to underscore the surprising and recent cohesion among the branches of U.S. Judaism

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Holiday Greetings

L'shana Tova,
Thanks Phyllis and Beth for these links

Here's the Good:

And Here's the ... well...

In either case, l'shana tova
Your Rhythm Guitar Rabbi

Monday, August 30, 2010

Elul Day 20 - Exorcisms, Dybbuks, and The High Holy Days

The Last Exorcism was the big winner at the box office this past weekend. Though it is not a movie I am planning on seeing any time soon or ever, I do recall when I saw the Exorcist for the first time when I was about seven years old. I was home sick and had access to HBO. Let’s just say I chose not have any split pea soup to aid in my recovery that week.

The practice of exorcism is primarily found within Catholic tradition, though there are some rituals for removing a dybbuk that can be found in Jewish tradition as well. We just don’t advertise it very much, nor make too many movies about it. But there are certainly streams of Jewish magic that abound dating back to the Torah.
I started thinking about the idea of exorcism and what it is really about. Some speculate it was a way of dealing with mentally ill people well before mental illness began to be understood in any clinical sort of sense. Almost all the rituals involve the attempt to remove some sort of outside force compelling the afflicted individual into sinful acts.

In some strange way, this is a comforting idea. Commit a sin, perform a ritual, and magically, the demon is gone. But in reality, life doesn’t work that way. To understand our choices for requires lots for reflection. To no longer make those same choices requires daily efforts to change. Neither of which are easy to do, and neither of which can be done over a short period of time.

Change may be a constant, one of the only constants in the universe, but it certainly not easy to engage in personal change. It demands of us desire and commitment, something which we recommit to every High Holy Day Season.

Is there something in yourself you are hoping to change for this year?

Dybbuck - Spiritual Possession

Friday, August 27, 2010

Apropos of nothing

So here I am in the midst of sermon writing, conducting my first bat mitzvah rehearsal at Har Sinai, trying to prep for the High Holy Days, and where is my mind? Its focused on the recent implosion of the so-called rom-coms (romantic comedies).

With the most recent failures of Leap Year, When in Rome, He’s Just Not that in to You, and the Ugly Truth, (the Proposal notwithstanding), rom-coms have been declared movie non-grata amongst movie goers and critics alike. Some have even suggested they are a dying breed.

However anyone who counts out any genre fails to appreciate the ebb and flow of movies. Westerns were on the outs until the arrival of Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. Horror movies were going nowhere until the Scream series made something old into something new. And the Smurfs are now back in James Cameron’s Avatar, oh wait, I meant in the live action/computer animated movie coming out next year.

Though maybe some movies should have remained on television. See: A-Team, Bewitched, Dukes of Hazard, Alvin and the Chipmunks, and just about almost every television show made into a movie. I just pray they never make a Three’s Company movie, but you never know.

But with Rom-Coms, this wasn’t always the case. Part of the problem is rom-coms have gotten away from their roots of actual people living life. The most successful and arguably one of the best rom-coms was When Harry Met Sally. It was and is an endearing movie about two people who fall in love but only after a long fascinating on and off friendship. It was a movie both men and women enjoyed as it spoke to the complexities of modern relationships. Plus it was really funny.

Instead the bromance has taken over the place of rom-coms. With the success of Knocked-Up, the Hangover, the Wedding Crashers, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, I love you Man, and the like, these movies seem to have found a formula missing from the current crop of rom-coms.

With that in mind here are some suggestions for future filmmakers and writers out there: please stay away from marriages in foreign lands, hired dates, simple misunderstandings, and gorgeous women who for some inexplicable reason are unable to find dates. Instead play to the quirky nature of dating and romance, and try not to force people into situations that don’t exist in real life (unless they are straight out of a Disney cartoon come to life), otherwise you will continue to lose the battle to bromance movies.

See I told you this was apropos of nothing. Shabbat Shalom

24 Cliches We'd like to Retire

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Farwell Rabbi Jake

Instead of blogging today with regards to the month of Elul, I want to take a couple of moments to remember and reflect. This is because today in Dallas, many individuals and luminaries will be gathering to say farewell to one of my heroes. They will be saying farewell to one of the giants in the Reform Movement and one of the gentlest and kindest men to ever serve the URJ. Rabbi Lawrence Jackofsky, known as Rabbi Jake to most of us, was instrumental in the success of the Union’s Southwest region which included Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Arkansas. But more than that, he was one of the driving forces behind the establishment of Greene Family Camp in Bruceville, TX as well as the continued support of Henry S. Jacobs Camp in Mississippi.

Greene was instrumental in the forming of my own Jewish identity. And in particular I would look forward to Rabbi Jake’s annual summer visits to the camp. He was an energetic, gregarious, compassionate person who cared deeply about the Jewish youth of the Southwest Region. His booming voice could captivate and silence even a raucous dining hall filled with noisy campers. Rabbi Jake also assisted a number of congregations in the region, especially the smaller ones whenever they needed a rabbi to help in just about any capacity.

But on a personal level, to this day, I believe it was Rabbi Jake’s letter of recommendation to HUC that ensured my admission to the Rabbinic School program. So I feel I owe a debt of gratitude to him I will endeavor to pay forward because with Jake, thanks were never necessary.

I did not learn of the rodef pursuing him these last several months until his untimely passing just a couple of days ago. Upon learning the news, I was and am heartbroken. I know there are so many more whose lives he has touched in more profound and personal ways, but Rabbi Jake will always leave a lasting impression upon my heart.

Thank you Rabbi Jake. May you be bound up in the wings of the Shechina. May God grant comfort to your sorrowing family. And may your memory always truly be for a blessing.

Rabbi Lawrence "Jake" Jackofsky

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Elul Challenge - Day 14 Dirty Laundry

Rabbi Shmuely Boteach recently came out with an article Extravagant Weddings and Bar Mitzvahs Humiliate the Jewish Community on the Huffington Post condemning not just Jews but rabbis for officiating at lavish weddings and bnai mitzvah. In the article he is essentially condemning Jews for their displays of materialism as a way of impressing their friends as well as condemning the Jewish community for failing to reign in such disappointing behavior.

This article struck a chord with me. First I reacted as if this was a personal indictment, but as I thought about it, I realized that was not a correct assessment. Most of the life cycle events I have had the pleasure of officiating at have been modest, tasteful, and appropriate. And I do on occasion speak out about what is important in our lives and not letting our stuff or pursuit of status define who we are.

So what about this article is bothering me? Upon further reflection, I really think it has to do with Rabbi Boteach’s condemnation of a group based on the actions of a few individuals. There are stories of lavish receptions especially in L.A. as well as in New York and Chicago. But there are a lot more stories about much more modest celebrations as well focusing on the marriage or the acknowledgment of entering into Jewish adulthood. Or to put it another way, he was making the assumption that these over-the-top parties are a reflection of the values of American Jewry as a whole, and not a minority of us.

How often have we been angry at a select few and allowed those emotions to then be focused on an entire group? Today’s conversations about immigrants and about Muslims are certainly reflective of this problem.

This is not to say we don’t have a right to be angry. But are we angry because of something someone did or said, or are we angry because they are a part of a group we have decided not to like.

Elul is a great time to think about not just how we are feeling, but also why. If we understand the why, maybe we’ll encourage ourselves to think more positively, and not just rush out to air a perceived community’s dirty laundry for all to see.

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Elul Challenge - Day 13 When My people ... humble themselves...

Actually the full quote from the title is: "when My people, who bear My name, humble themselves, pray, and seek My favor and turn from their evil ways, I will hear in My heavenly abode and forgive their sins and heal their land." It is from one of the books of the Hebrew Bible we almost never read, II Chronicles 7:14. The other books we pretty much never refer to or study outside of academic settings are Ezra, Nehemiah, Daniel, and I Chronicles.

The essence of this passage is in order to really encounter God and be able to seek forgiveness; we have to be humble and contrite. Something that is difficult for anyone with any sense of ego to do. For example, I am sure there is one or two of you out there who will stay in an argument well after it has been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that you are wrong simply because you are too proud to admit fault; how much the more so it can be with God.

So what can we do to diminish our sense of ego to truly engage in teshuvah? Well this weekend I had the opportunity to do a physical task that encouraged me to be humble. I spent the morning working with approximately twenty members of our social action committee cleaning up the side of a road as part of the Maryland Adopt-a-Road program.

Aside from making the occasional cracks about if we have to support the road through college, it was a good reminder to be humble in the work that we do. We all spent time cleaning up cigarette butts, McDonalds cups and wrappers, a myriad of beer bottles that the optimist in me hopes is from people drinking while walking and not drinking while driving.

It was a truly humbling experience because I spent the morning picking up trash, a task we usually pay others to do. And not only that, it was morning spent picking up trash others carelessly toss away with no thought to its impact on the surrounding environment. They just throw it out of a moving car and just keep on going.

There is a tradition of keeping two notes in your pockets. The first says, “For me the world was created.” The second note is, “I am but dust and ashes.” We keep these notes to remind us how important we are to God’s creation, but also to remind ourselves that everyone else is just as important, and that we are not as significant as we sometimes think we are.

Not a bad lesson for a morning spent cleaning up a road.

What will you do to help prepare yourself for the season of teshuvah mixed with humility?

Friday, August 20, 2010

The Elul Challenge - Day 10 Say it ain't so...

The other day I posted on facebook a lamentation in response to the indictment of Roger Clemens. It was a lament not about how far Clemens has fallen, but instead how far the value of his rookie baseball card has fallen. A card I have held in my portfolio for years. It was a tongue-in-cheek sort of response, but mostly an admission of not sorrow, but apathy.

More and more athletes’ names are coming forward in connection to the steroid era in baseball. And more and more of Americans are responding by saying, “meh.” We are no longer surprised. In fact we not only expect it, but also assume that just many elite players from that era used to one degree or another. Clemens, Maguire, Pettite, A-Rod, Bonds, are just a few of the big fish to get caught or implicated in the snare of HGH and steroid use.

But I do wonder why we are not angrier about it? Part of the reason is because we enjoyed the game with the towering home runs and 100 mph fastballs. We laud performance on the field more than we do excellence in one’s personal life. Character matters, to a point. Yet for awhile, we were really angry and hurt because we assumed it was one or two individuals, not a generation.

But is it really fair to demand this of athletes, when given the chance, many of us may very well have made the same choices under the same circumstances. Clemens' name may be mud now, but he guided two organizations to World Series appearances, and has assured the financial future of his children, grand-children, and great grandchildren. This sort of temptation would be hard for anyone to give up.

Now I am certainly not excusing any unethical choices by any athletes. I am just wondering if, before we begin to hold others to higher standards, if we shouldn’t first look in the mirror and try to ascertain what standards we are holding ourselves to.

Elul reminds us not to spend time judging others. We cannot control their fate. The only thing we can occasionally control are ourselves.
So what standard will you hold yourself to this coming year?

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Elul Challenge Day 9 - Rainbow Connection

The other day I was driving to a dinner meeting. It was drizzling and the road was slick. I Took my time going around the twists and turns in the road, when I hit a straight patch of roadway. Up ahead I was greeted with the glorious sight of a multi-colored bow in the sky. It was so close in fact; I could just make out the end of the rainbow. I thought for a moment I should pull off to the side of the road and search for my pot gold.

Rainbows have been part of our collective imagination since time immemorial. Not only are we familiar with rainbows of leprechaun lore but they also can be found in our music as well. Most famous is Somewhere over the Rainbow by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg performed by Judy Garland and countless others, though I have a partial preference for the Rainbow Connection written by Paul Williams and sung by my second favorite green muppet, Kermit the Frog.

Jewishly speaking, the most famous rainbow is the one established to seal the covenant between Noah and God at the end of the flood story. Noah and humanity promised to follow seven central laws, and God promised not to destroy the world again by flood.

These laws include:
1. Not worshipping idols
2. Not committing murder (different from not killing by the way)
3. Not stealing
4. Not committing any of a series of sexual prohibitions, which include adultery, incest, rape, and bestiality.
5. Not blaspheming God's name (to blaspheme basically means to refute God and God’s ability to make and uphold this and other covenants)
6. Not eating the flesh of a living animal (i.e. shark fin soup). Genesis 9:4, as interpreted in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 59a)
7. The requirement to set up courts of law

Six of these laws relate to how we treat each other as individuals, whereas the seventh law has to do with how we are to set up a just and righteous society. Because of this, the rainbow became a physical, visual reminder of how we as Jews are to behave in an ethical and moral way, and not just search for our pot of gold.
In this period of Elul, when there are regular ethical reminders surrounding us (i.e. the sounding of the shofar), what sort of actions will you be reminded to do? And what reminders are helpful to you?


Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Elul Challenge Day 7 - A Laugh a Day...

As many of you probably already know, the month of Elul is particular stressful for those of us in the Jewish professional world. Not only are we wrapping up visits to summer camps, vacations, and the like as well as getting the kids ready for school, but it is also the time where we prepare for what is essentially the 'Superbowl Season' of the Jewish year.
Expectations abound, and though we truly work hard through the year, this part of the year tends to be one of the most intense.
So as I was watching the Today Show recently the question was posed: how do you go about coping with stress. Note the emphasis was not on reducing stress, but instead on coping with it. Recommendations included yoga, exercising outdoors, spending quality time with pets, and taking five minutes to meditate every couple of hours.
But one piece I realized that was missing from the show, and from my own life during this time, is taking time to laugh. When I get really stressed I forget to laugh not just at funny moments, but also at myself. Life is far too much fun to take too seriously.
So today, as an attempt at stress relief, I will endeavor to remind myself to laugh a little. What do you do to help yourself cope during this season?

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Elul Challenge Day 6 - The Company We Keep

I have found over time two ways to really get to know a person. The first way is by looking at the choices they make which leads to the actions they choose. In Judaism we very much are a 'show me' religion; meaning - don't tell me what you believe, show me. If we don’t like the choices we’ve made over the past year, it is up to ourselves to change course. Because very little demonstrates more about ourselves than our decisions and actions.
However the other way to get to know someone is by examining the company they keep. If you are looking for someone smart, successful, and compassionate; look to see if they are surrounded by same type of people. For the friends we choose are often times just as reflective of our own character as are our actions.
Good friends, I believe, don’t only accept us for who we are, but also push us to accomplish greater things. Thus if we want to improve over this next year, it is not a bad idea to surround ourselves with friends who challenge us, inspire us to make better choices and are looking for us to succeed in the coming year.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Elul Challenge - Day 5 Mac or PC

I don’t know where the Mac vs. PC commercials went, but I do miss them. They were quite cute and clever, though with Windows 7 out, they do seem to have disappeared. But it did get me thinking about how much we like to focus on dualities: Mac vs. PC, Red Sox or Yankees, Leno or O’Brien, Republicans or Democrats, Team Jacob or Team Edward, goodness or sin. We focus on these dualities as if life has only one of two possibilities.
But within Jewish tradition when speaking about the Yetzeir tov (the good impulse) and the Yetzeir ra (the bad impulse), what we actually find is life is much more complex. For example the yetzier ra is really the impulse to satisfy personal needs, which if not controlled ends up being a runaway Id. But we do need it at times in order to take care of ourselves in order to take care of others.
In Judaism then, its not necessary so much about conflicts as much as it is about finding equilibrium and harmony.
So really, in many ways, the month of Elul provides us with opportunities and time where we once again try to find balance in our lives. Lives that need the yetzeir ra, but not too much. I’m still on the fence about, when it is time, whether I will get a Mac or PC, but I can tell you for sure I am definitely on Team O’Brien.
What are you doing to try to get back into balance during this penitential season?

Hopefully not spending too much time on youtube

Friday, August 13, 2010

Elul Challenge Day 4 - Careful what you say

I think this article pretty much sums up why sometimes its best just not to speak at all.

"Why Dr. Laura? Why?

It is not unusual to let our mouths get ahead of our minds. That seems to be part of the human condition; especially in the case of those paid to talk for three or more hours at a time. Yet, believe or not, we don't have to have an opinion on everything. And even if we do, doesn't mean we always have to share it.
Lashon Harah, malicious speech, is one of the great prohibitions in Jewish tradition. Usually it is with regards to gossip. But equally as important is the idea of not saying hateful or hurtful things simply because you can. Because often what one says is not so much reflective of the object of the speech as it is the speaker.
Or as Abraham Lincoln is quoted as saying, "It is better to say nothing and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.
So maybe during this month of Elul, we can learn from this sad lesson to moderate what we say, so we don't have to then spend to much time apologizing for it. A lesson Dr. Laura might want to spend some time reflecting on.

Dr. Laura's Apology

The Elul Challenge - Day 3 Anger Management

Steven Slater (the Jet Blue Flight attendant) got me thinking about how we express frustration these days. To start off with, I believe Mr. Slater clearly lost it, and made some extremely poor choices. For those in positions of authority, be it real or perceived, as Moses can attest to, to lose one’s temper in such a fashion is probably not such a good thing. Just ask the feds.
But it did get me thinking about all those little frustrations and annoyances that build up in our lives be they at work, at home, or at play. Whether it is a cashier who takes a little too long, or the person who puts sixteen items in the fifteen items or less lane. Be it the driver ahead of you who isn’t paying attention and causes you to miss your left turn, meaning you have to sit and wait another cycle, or something your spouse or partner does that just drives you crazy. All these little moments can build up slowly and insidiously if we are not careful.
I think part of the design of Elul is to remind us that these lingering pieces of anger we hold on to in many ways only bring us down. There is no ripple effect and instead can come out in one great big explosion like in the case of Mr. Slater. Even in today’s web crazy world, I am sure there are better ways to release anger and frustration, though a beer does sound good at times.
I know one area I am working on is letting go. So what if I miss the light or have to wait for one more item to be wrung up at the grocery store. There have been times I probably missed the light or took too many items for check out. Is it worth letting these insignificant moments bring down one’s whole day?
So as we prepare for the High Holy Days, I encourage you to work on finding ways to let go of or at least find a way to release these pent up frustrations, hurts, annoyances, and feelings of anger. For, as far as I know, on Yom Kippur, there is no inflatable slide to help us escape.

Here is a commentary on Steven Slater by a fellow flight attendant
Flight Attendant on CNN

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Elul Challenge - Day 2

Inspired by my colleague and dear friend Rabbi Phyllis Sommer Thoughts from Rabbi Phyllis, I am going to attempt to blog each day of Elul challenging myself and hopefully you as well to fully engage in this profound time of year. Of course the irony is, I am writing this on the second day of Elul, oh well.
Elul for those of you who are not familiar, is the month immediately preceding Tishrei which contains the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Elul is a time of ritual return to God including the practice of sounding the shofar daily along with the recitation of certain psalms and seeking forgiveness from those we have wronged either accidentally or intentionally.
This month I encourage you to watch the excellent and thought provoking documentary: Forgiving Dr. Mengele. It is a movie about Eva Mozes Kor, a survivor of Mengele’s horrific twin studies, who decides of her own volition, to forgive those perpetrators (may their names be wiped out), as a way of enabling herself to heal. In this sense the documentary gets to the heart of what does it really mean to forgive by asking if we have to forgive at all, and are there some crimes so horrendous they need never be forgiven.
There is also a whole section on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but we’ll save that for a blog for another day.
You may not agree with Eva’s choices, but it may inspire you to reflect on whether or not there are some old hurts in your life you are still nursing simply because they keep you warm at night, but no longer remember even their origins.
As this movie teaches, forgiveness is less about those who have committed wrongs than about those who have been wronged. Holding on to the pain and anger did not better Eva’s life. She certainly did not excuse what happened, but she has found as sense of peace through this process.

Monday, August 9, 2010


Here are three articles circulating their way around the web discussing the challenges, perils and opportunities of the modern rabbinate and clergy as a whole.

Taking a Break from the Lord's Work

Congregations Gone Wild

What the Success of Women Rabbis Means for Judaism

And here's one about a new Israeli Documentary about Israel and Gaza:

Steal this Movie

Feel free to look through the articles and let me know what you think

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

On the Other Hand

Just when I start to rally around Israel, two subsequent events give me pause. Not so much in my support for this beautiful country, but in the growing religious intolerance spawning like weeds that can make it so very difficult to be a liberal Jew and an ohev tzion, lover of Israel.

Conversions bill sets Netanyahu on collision course with U.S. Jews

Police arrest Women of the Wall leader for praying with Torah scroll

Be sure to support the Israel Religious Action Center, which fights for the rights for all Israelis and for Jews abroad as well in the land of Eretz Yisrael from a liberal Jewish perspective.

Israel Religious Action Center

Monday, July 12, 2010

The Flotilla Conversation Continues

Like many, I believe Israel handled the Gaza bound flotilla raid on May 31st quite poorly. A recent report from Israeli authorities also agrees with this assessment. Of course blame often is initially directed towards the soldiers who entered the ship, legally I might add. But as the report indicates, they actually handled the situation fairly well given that they encountered not members of a peace resistance group, but people bent on acts of violence to make their point. A common tactic when it comes to the opposition to Israel.

Flawed Intelligence Gathering to Blame - AP Reports

New York Times Article: Israeli Military Finds Flotilla Killings Justified

I feel Israeli military and political leadership should have seen they were being egged on into a fight. A fight that even if they won, which they did, they would still lose in the public eye, which happened as well.
Israel is in an increasingly untenable situation. She has control over lands and people who will do just about anything to end Israel’s current position. Israel is surrounded by the worst kind of oppressive governments who use her very existence to justify their own oppressive and reprehensible practices. Just look at Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, who may yet be stoned to death in Iran for adultery, even though her confession to this crime was acquired through extreme acts of torture.
I would like to note that there are more U.N. proclamations against Israel than any other nation in the world including the likes of the aforementioned Iran, China, North Korea, and Sudan. How does a modern, democratic, moral society compete in such a world?!
Israel really is fighting a battle with one arm tied behind its back. Would any of these other nations appoint a civilian commission to determine the legality of a military action? Of course not. In those nations, any commission, like in their court cases, the outcome is already predetermined. Clearly these are not societies founded on the notion of tzedek, tzedek tirdof, justice, justice you shall pursue.
I take a lot of pride in being a supporter of Israel. It may not always get it right, but it does keep trying to in the end. It does strive to be a holy nation while existing in the modern world. An impossible task, and a dream perhaps, but a worthy dream nonetheless.
If you wish to learn more, I suggest going to the following website which has a lot more useful tools about Israel from a Reform Jewish perspective.

Association of Reform Zionists of America

But in case you have a few spare moments - here is a fascinating article related to the the general bias against Israel:

Two Sides of a Fence

Passion of the Mel

Confession time: There was a time when I was a big Mel Gibson fan. I really liked Lethal Weapon, and I even paid good money to see the three follow ups with Joe Pesci and even Lethal Weapon 4 with Jet Li. I watched Mel’s version of Hamlet, though I felt he was a bit too old to play the part. I enjoyed the good hearted fun of Maverick and I would, on occasion, listen to the music of Braveheart.
That all being said, I like many Jews, became increasingly uncomfortable with Mr. Gibson, especially following the release of Passion of the Christ. Though now I think I am beginning to understand why the movie was filled with so much pain and anguish. Not to reflect the death of Jesus, but instead to showcase all the pain and anguish burning within Mr. Gibson’s soul. This came even more to the forefront following Mr. Gibson’s arrest for drunk driving and his subsequent anti-Semitic tirade to the arresting officer in 2006.
Mr. Gibson appears to be a deeply disturbed individual. Whether that is a result of his upbringing by his Holocaust denier father Hutton, alcohol abuse, or descent into narcissism, Mr. Gibson has demonstrated what is perhaps one of the most amazing falls from grace in recent years.
Midrash teaches us that we are not supposed to rejoice in the fall of our ‘enemies.’ And in truth, to see Mr. Gibson fall so far, causes me to feel at most, sadness. Sadness for his family. Sadness for his children. Time and again, we learn if all we are filled with is hate and anger, eventually we will become consumed.
I personally don’t know if there is a chance for Mr. Gibson now to resurrect his career given his latest incident of allegedly assaulting his ex-girlfriend Oksana Grigorieva. But I do pray that maybe he can let go of all the hate festering inside of him towards just about everyone, and at least find some peace within his soul.
And if not, he can always find refuge in South Park.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010


My bags are unpacked. The boxes are unloaded. All that is left to do is hang a few pictures and diplomas up in my office. Of course it all got done fairly quickly as I have a major aversion to cardboard boxes. Not the kind used for forts, but the kind waiting to be unpacked. I must admit, I have a hard time focusing surrounded by clutter. Hence the need to get everything unpacked before really getting down to the business, the pleasure, of creating hopefully enduring relationships with my new congregation.
I will admit I am of the belief that it is important to have a warm and welcoming office. Something I tried to have with my previous congregation, an effort which my 8th graders constantly worked to undermine.
So for those of you in the area, feel free to stop by. Don't mind the few random frames waiting their final placement. I have a pretty good idea of where they will be going. I just have to figure out what I am going to do with those M.C. Escher posters whose presence reminds me of the necessity to view the world through unique perspectives.
And for those of you not in the area. If ever you happen to head out this way, please do stop by. Just bring a hammer, nails, and a ladder. So I can finally get those pictures hung up.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Inglorious Basterds versus...

Being a little behind the times, I finally took the opportunity to watch Quentin Tarantino's WWII fantasy movie Inglorious Basterds. And I must admit, I thoroughly enjoyed it. In a lot of ways it expressed the same frustrations and aspirations of the early comic book heroes like Joe Simon and Jack Kirby's Captain America, who in Captain America #1, was depicted as punching out Hitler.
A similar story is recounted in the novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon.
However I was stuck wrestling with some conflicting emotions, for though I enjoyed the fantasy created by Quentin Tarantino, I was equally troubled by some of the depictions in movies like The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. I was left wrestling with the idea of why one type of Holocaust fiction would bother me so much, while the other entertained the heck out of me.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized why. Movies like The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and A Beautiful Life, though fictional are grounded the reality of the Holocaust. They are trying to tell of true experiences, but through the eyes of fictional characters. And in order to do this, they both rely upon situations that simply could not have happened.
Inglorious Basterds on the other hand, was complete fantasy, and made no pretenses otherwise. It was an homage to many of the movies Mr. Tarantino enjoyed, while at the same time was his own unique vision. It made me as a viewer question ideas like loyalty, revenge, and power.
I admit I am still wrestling with these movies and may always will, but for some reason, I think I would recommend Inglorious Basterds over the other two even with its portrayals of violence. Because it really does beg the question, what is history? Especially in a time where there are increasing voices denying the Holocaust.
Or maybe I enjoyed it simply because I grew up a comic book fan, and seeing a depiction of Jewish power on the silver screen during a time of great tragedy and horrific events, made me feel good and strong about my Jewish self. In either case, if you haven't seen it, and you are a Tarantino fan, I for one, highly recommend it.

And in case you haven't seen it, here's the cover from Captain America #1

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Forbidden World of the Ultra-Orthodox

I recently watched an Israeli film entitled The Secrets. It is about a young woman named Naomi who is the daughter of a Rosh Yeshiva, a wise, learned and respected rabbi who is also the head of an academy of learning. Following the death of Naomi’s mother, Naomi asks her father to allow her to attend a Yeshiva for Orthodox girls in Tzefat, an ancient and mystical city in northern Israel. I found it to be a fascinating movie, very different from my expectations. Yet it is also filled with sense of frustration by its modern Israeli filmmakers about the closed, strict nature of the ultra-Orthodox world.
Jews and non-Jews alike have been fascinated by the nature of strict Jewish observance probably since the rise of modernity and evolution of liberal Jewish movements. In particular we have a number of films attempting to enter this ‘forbidden’ world. The Chosen based on Chaim Potok’s book by the same name is probably the most famous of these endeavors. Similarly, but from a more comic vein is The Frisco Kid, and there is also the more recent Israeli movie Ushpizin. All of which are very accepting of men in the ultra-Orthodox world.
However more related to The Secrets are movies like Price Above Rubies, Yentl, Hester Street, A Stranger Among Us, and even Fiddler on the Roof. Each of these portrays in some ways wish fulfillment and frustration at the closed and restrictive nature of the ultra-Orthodox world especially for women. Contained in these depictions are forbidden relationships, and failed attempts at equality.
The conflict seems to be that we want the vitality, exuberance, and faithfulness to Jewish tradition to be observed in the Orthodox world, we just want women to be free to make their own choices and not simply be consigned to the home front.
I was even asked recently in response to The Secrets if a woman could be a rabbi in the Orthodox world. The answer is: of course not. The world of the ultra-Orthodox will never be the world we want it to be. They have their societal structures based off generations of Jewish interpretation of tradition.
So maybe we are fascinated by these communities in part because we commend the ultra-Orthodox for living the way they live, knowing we could never live that way. Yet, we wish to change them to reflect our sensibilities as is reflective in so many of our movies and discussions.
Thus for those of us living in the modern world, it will most likely always be a little alien, a little foreign to our sensibilities. Yes it is demanding. Yes it is rigid. Yes it can also be beautiful and spiritual. But truth be told, our modern approach can also be beautiful and spiritual. One does not need to be Orthodox to spirituality and meaning in a Jewish environment.
We just have to remind ourselves that a closed society does not necessarily make it more ‘authentic.’ It just makes closed. Which is why it is nice to be able to visit from a distance, but when the lights come back on, I personally am thankful to be in a tradition that allows my daughter to choose any path she wishes, and not have it be a path she can only dream about.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Purim 5770

As my tenure here as associate rabbi is rapidly coming to a close, I find myself spending quite a bit of time reflecting over my past accomplishments. However there is one area I continue to dwell on, namely my failed bid to become President of these United States.
I am sure it was not because of my plan to move Washington D.C. to Cancun during the winter months. Nor must it have been my proposal that all college bowl games once again be played only on New Year’s Day. Instead I blame my campaign manager, Peanut the cat, who I just discovered hijacked most of my campaign funds for the purchase of large quantities of meow mix. Who knew advertising jingles could be so effective on cats? This news sent me into a spiral of self-pity where I found myself addicted to tummy-rubs and head scratches. Oh wait, that was the cat.
Needless to say, I am now in the process of writing my memoirs on this experience. I have discovered in my notes several other proposals I should have put forth, which I am sure would have catapulted me to victory. Here they are in no particular order:
I propose all airline CEO’s be required to fly coach 300 days a year. Maybe then, they would finally understand.
I propose that if you are on hold longer than thirty seconds, the company be required to play great music like the Beatles, Stones, U2 or Alvin and the Chipmunks. And while on hold, they stop saying, “you’re business is important to us,” because clearly it isn’t. Otherwise, why would we still be on hold?
I propose your license plate number also be your cell-phone number because the light is green already!
And lastly I propose outlawing the following phrase under the penalty of having to watch American Idol reruns over and over again. That phrase is, “you know.” No I don’t know. If I did, I wouldn’t be asking. Please stop assuming I know. Sheesh.
With an agenda like this, I proud to announce I am changing the focus of my campaign. As I will be just outside the D.C. area, during the summer months when it’s not in Cancun, I am hoping to become a player in the current administration. If you are ever in the area, feel free to stop by. Just don’t fly coach; otherwise you might end up sitting next to an airline executive. But be sure to give me a shout, and I will gladly wish you a Chag Purim Sameach, you know!

Monday, February 1, 2010

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is a 2008 British film based on the 2006 novel of the same name by Irish author John Boyne. It is in the genre of historical fiction and stars David Thewlis (of Harry Potter fame), Vera Farmiga (most recently seen in Up in the Air), and Asa Butterfield, the young British actor hired to portray the youthful innocence of the lead 8 year-old-character Bruno.
In some ways The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is similar to Rosenstrasse, the 2003 film, which also portrays elements of the Holocaust from a German perspective. However where these two films differ is that in Rosenstrasse, the main character Lena was a German woman married to a Jewish man who was taken into custody by the Nazi authorities. Also it was based on historical events.
Where Boy in the Striped Pajamas differs is that the only historical element to it, other than the holocaust, was the possibility that a German Commander might have housed his family near a concentration camp.
The problem with the movie is that it is incredibly unlikely any German youth especially of Bruno's age would not have been involved in the Hitler youth, especially if his father was a high ranking official in the German military. We just need to look at the history of Pope Benedict XVI to understand how many German youths fell under its sway. It is equally as unlikely that Bruno would not have known about the vicious, hateful propaganda used against the Jews, especially for a child of Berlin. And it is equally unlikely a child of 8 would be alive in a concentration camp or that Bruno would have been able to do what he did towards the end of the movie.
Thus, in many ways, it is an unfortunate and unrealistic portrayal. Yet I feel there is redeeming value to the movie because it is told through the eyes of a child. It is a movie today’s children can relate to in ways they might not otherwise be able to. With the daily passing of survivors, the next best way to keep their stories alive is through cinematic portrayals. Thankfully the movie industry is getting more involved with telling these stories from a multitude of perspectives. There has been a mass of movies coming out especially during the past twenty years, especially since the critical and commercial success of Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List.
Just over the past couple of years movies have included not just the Boy in the Striped Pajamas, but also Defiance, the Reader, and the excellent PBS movie God on Trial. Not every movie about the Holocaust is great or even good. Not every movie is realistic. Yet what they do is keep the dialogue going when the voices of the eye witnesses are sadly leaving our very midst. So in this sense, it is very much worth it to keep watching. And every now and then, a great movie about such a difficult and troubling subject comes out in ways that helps us understand not just this tragedy, but also our own humanity.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

An Open Letter to Pat Robertson

"Something happened a long time ago in Haiti ... they were under the heel of the French, uh, you know, Napoleon the third and whatever ... and they got together and swore a pact to the devil, they said, we will serve you, if you get us free from the Prince. True story."

Dear Pat,

I pity you. I don't know any other way to say this. I pity you and I pity your world view. You believe, as do many religious fundamentalists that all events on earth have a cause, have a reason. In particular you like to point to tragedy and explain how the people suffering have brought these events upon themselves.
For example you also explained that Hurricane Katrina was in essence God's response to our country's stance on abortion. You have even gone as far as to articulate that former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's stroke was a divine punishment for the Gaza pullout. Instead of possibly being caused by his poor health, high cholesterol, and and obesity.
The reason why I pity you is because you are actually doing a disservice to God, to religion, and to humanity. Now I am not saying that I ascribe to your theology that God causes natural disasters, but I'm willing to play along for a moment.
Playing the role of devil's advocate (pardon the pun): according to all followers of God, it is impossible to fully know the mind of God. So doesn't it follow that if things happen for a reason, we may very well not ever know the reason? Yet you claim in each of the tragedies to know the reason.
According to you, God is punishing someone, in this case the Haitians, for the so called 'pact with the devil.' So if this is the case, why did God wait two hundred years when the land is populated by mostly God-fearing good Christians? Why did God also strike down missionaries, hospital workers, police officers, the elderly, and the young as retribution for 'crimes' committed two hundred years ago?
Is this an act of a loving God? Or is your interpretation simply delusional? Tragedy happens. It happens all the time. We will probably never know why. Instead why don't you look for God in the acts of kindness and charity as the world rallies around Haiti. Countries from across the globe are sending assistance, personnel, money, equipment. Isn't this where holiness really resides?
Instead of looking to lay blame, I suggest you do the world a favor and either help or at least keep silent. For stirring anger and resentment, may make you feel better and keep you warm at night. For the Haitians, they could instead really use some blankets.

Rabbi Benjamin Sharff

Ps - if you click on one of the following links - it will provide you with opportunities to assist.

American Jewish World Service

Union for Reform Judaism

Monday, January 4, 2010

Moving On

It is with bittersweet emotions that I am writing this article for the Temple Times. I am proud to announce that I have been offered and accepted the position of Senior Rabbi for Har Sinai Congregation in Owings Mills, Maryland. Joy and I are very excited by this new opportunity. But we are also saddened by the prospect of leaving such a wonderful community and home we have found both with Temple Emanu-El and in Tucson.
I can remember when Joy and I first arrived here in Tucson 4 ½ years ago to begin serving as assistant rabbi for Temple Emanu-El. I was nervous to say the least as this was my first full-time pulpit position. I was also following in the very large footsteps of Rabbi David Freelund, who had just moved on to begin working for his own congregation in Massachusetts. It was a transition many of you were nervous about as well, but it seems to have worked out pretty well.
Since our arrival, Joy and I have gotten to know many of you. We have also celebrated with you the birth of our two children Emily and Noah.
There are many accomplishments I am proud of, and to summarize them would be a challenging endeavor. I have thoroughly enjoyed teaching our youth and in our Adult Education Academy. I have found profound meaning and holiness in our worship experiences and lifecycle events together. I have delighted in our collaborative creative endeavors like our Purimspiels, the Comic Book Siddur, and Avanim performances. But perhaps my greatest pleasure has come from getting to spend time with many of you in our warm, historical community.
There are many people who I also would like to thank for guiding me and inspiring me throughout these years. Rabbi Samuel Cohon in particular has been an amazing mentor, guide and friend. Cantorial Soloist Marjorie Hochberg has been a consummate professional and colleague who has just simply been a pleasure to work with. I would also like to thank the many staff and lay leadership for their support and understanding during the exhilarating but exhausting placement process.
But not to worry, there is already a committee in place to begin the process of selecting my successor. It is chaired by Bruce Beyer and if you have any questions or would like to provide him with your input, feel free to contact him.
There will be plenty opportunities to say farewell over the coming months, but until then, I wanted to let you know how I am looking forward to continuing to serve as your rabbi.