Shabbat Nachamu: If Only

This Shabbat is Shabbat Nachamu, the Shabbat of consolation. We, as a Jewish people, are supposed to be so bereft by the loss of the Temple in Jerusalem that even these many years later we need to be consoled. Unfortunately, this year, even without the Temple, there is much that we need consoling about.

It is said that the Temple was destroyed through Sinat Chinam, baseless hatred of one Jew for another. But as we see, Sinat Chinam does not just have to be Jew on Jew. Sadly, hatred is alive and well in Jerusalem today and around the world. As previously discussed in this space, non-Orthodox Jews continue to be marginalized by the Israeli government. In Facebook discussions I have seen Reform Jews referred to as “false Jews.” If that is not enough, just yesterday on Tu B’Av, the Jewish Valentine’s Day, a man stabbed 6 people at the gay pride parade in Jerusalem. Yes, all the big rabbis and government officials condemned the attack. But did they play a role in provoking it? It looked like a beautiful day for a parade and then this man (I’d rather not mention his name) attacked. This person was recently released from jail for doing the same thing at the 2005 parade. And why? Sinat Chinam, baseless hatred.

Yesterday we  also learned that a Palestinian child was burned alive in the West Bank. The cause was an arson attack by Jews who thought the Palestinians shouldn’t be there. The child’s family is in the hospital. And why? Sinat Chinam – baseless hatred.

On Tisha B’Av, Muslim youths were prepared to throw rocks and fireworks from the Temple mount down to the Jews praying below. And why? Sinat Chinam – baseless hatred.

In Modiin, also on Tisha B’Av, a Conservative synagogue was booby trapped. Doors were blocked so people could not leave. And when they finally did, they found obstacles such as flower pots and ropes in their way. Imagine the fear of being locked inside that building. Although the perpetrators have not been caught, it is thought that they were Orthodox youths who were not accepting any other type of Judaism than their own. Wasn’t Modiin the home of the Maacabees who fought for religious freedom? And why? Sinat Chinam – baseless hatred.

And it’s not just in Israel. I could go on. Sarah Bland. The A.M.E. church in Charleston, South Carolina. The Marine base in Chattanooga. Where will it end?

In the Torah, right in the first chapter of Bereshit (Genesis), we learn that we are all “created in God’s image.” Not just some, but all. Perhaps those who say they are acting in God’s name should remember that when they kill, when they maim, when they judge, they are doing it to someone who is Godly. Shabbat Nachamu. If only that were enough.

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Who Is Chosen?

20150716_202220_resizedI remember reading The Chosen  as a teen and I was hooked. I then went on to The Promise, the sequel and pretty much every other book by Chaim Potok.  But The Chosen was the best.  I was thoroughly engaged by this tale of a Judaism that was not like the Judaism I knew in my house.  It was closer to the Judaism in my grandmother’s house.  Looking for more tales of Jewish New York, I remember reading Call it Sleep and Marjorie Morningstar.

The other day I noticed that we had three copies of The Chosen. I suspect that each of us brought one to the relationship and I’m not sure where the other one came from.  I usually reread it every few years and this summer seemed like the appropriate time. As with any good text, I always notice something new and I was barely past the first few pages before I was struck by something I hadn’t really considered before.

For those who are unfamiliar with the book, it is the story of friendship of Danny Saunders, the son of the Rebbe of a Hasidic movement (Schneerson?) and Reuven Malter, the son of an academic and a writer of articles on the Talmud and such with a clear viewpoint on Jewish thought. Perhaps he would write for Commentary or Tikkun.  They are what I would call mainstream Orthodox.  Danny represents the Jew who brought his home in Europe to America and kept it just the way it was.  Reuven represents the Jew who has made America his home.  They meet when their yeshivot play each other in a baseball game with all the tension of the World Series or a knife fight. Why did they leave their studies to play baseball?  In the midst of WWII, there was a need for the Jews to prove they were physically fit Americans.  As I was reading this, we were celebrating the American women winning the Women’s World Cup.  Although I know of no Jews on the team, this was a bit like a new world in sports. This was a national celebration of women’s achievements in sports and it was gratifying to see these women finally be celebrated like the men, at least parade-wise.  They’ll have to do more work for the pay equity.  As a women’s basketball fan, I’m hopeful that there will be fan spillover to the WNBA. Just yesterday, there were over 18,000 fans in the Garden for a NY Liberty game.

Back to the story…The game has begun and clearly it is war.  Danny Saunders hits a ball directly at the pitcher and almost creams him. He lands on the base that Reuven is covering and the following occurs:

“You always hit like that to the pitcher?” I [Reuven] asked

He smiled faintly. “You’re Reuven Malter,” he said in perfect English . . .

“Your father is David Malter, the one who writes articles on the Talmud?”

“Yes.”

“I told my team we’re going to kill you apikorsim this afternoon.” He said flatly, without a trace of expression in his voice.

I was stunned when I read this.  I’m sure I’ve read this line many times, but I didn’t grasp its meaning. Danny calls Reuven an apikoros? As the Reuven says a few pages later, speaking of his father:

“What annoyed him was their fanatic sense of righteousness, their absolute certainty that they and they alone had God’s ear, and every other Jew was wrong, totally wrong, a sinner, a hypocrite, and apikoros, and doomed therefore, to burn in hell.”

I never really understood their conflict.  In my teen’s mind, they were both Orthodox.  Now with my more nuanced mind, I still think, they are both Orthodox. What is the problem?  Their Jewish practice is not so different.  But of course, Potok nails it with his words about their “fanatic sense of righteousness” and “every other Jew was wrong.”  As a child of the Reform Movement, I didn’t understand this on my first reading, and I don’t understand it now.

Perhaps the reason that this book, first published in 1967, has endured is that this theme is ageless.  Unfortunately the pitting of one Jew against another is not new. It is said that the reason the Temple in Jerusalem fell was “sinat chinam,” baseless hatred of one Jew for another.  With Tisha B’Av, the day when we remember the destruction of the Temple, so close, we hear that Religious Services Minister David Azoulay said that Reform Jews could not be considered Jews. Unfortunately, this is not the first time that comments like this have been made by Israeli government officials. Just when we hoped that the Reform and Conservative (Masorti) in Israel were starting to gain a sliver of equal footing with the Orthodox movements, this is the official stance from the Netanyahu government.

I wish I had some brilliant insight into how this situation can change.  How can we truly have a Jewish State that is welcoming to all Jews, and not just some? My only solace is that after Danny hits the ball directly at Reuven’s head, they become friends. After Yitzchak Rabin was assassinated by Yigal Amir, there was hope that things would change.  And they have.  But now the gains in religious diversity seem to have turned back to losses. There is not much we Americans can do except talk with our dollars. I believe we need to target our Israel donations to liberal causes. Money is the only power we have, and while for most of us it is limited, together, it can be a force for change.

This Tisha B’Av, as you remember the destruction of the Temple, make donations that count.  Here are just a few of the places that I suggest: Israel Religious Action Center, Women of the Wall, The Conservative Yeshiva, the Lone Soldier program.

 

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Parashat Balak: Blessings, Not Curses. Really!

imgresThis week’s parasha literally features an ass. While in this case it means a donkey, it’s an apt word to describe much of what I’ve seen in the media over the last few days, but I digress.

In this week’s parasha, Balak, whose name literally means “waste,” hires Balaam to curse Israel. Balaam finds that he can’t do it and instead, his donkey blesses Israel with the famous words, MaTovu Ohelecha Yaakov, Mishkinotecha Israel. How good are your tents Jacob, your dwelling places, Israel. This piece of text starts our daily morning liturgy.

In the last few days, since the Supreme Court declared gay imagesmarriage legal throughout the land, I’ve heard many curses from this nations leaders (here’s where the asses come in), many of whom want to be President. Ted Cruz, Canadian-born senator from Texas and presidential candidate, said, “The last 24 hours at the United States Supreme Court were among the darkest hours of our nation.” Really? Darker than 911? Slavery? Pearl Harbor?

Former Arkansas governor and presidential candidate Mike Huckabee called for “Christian leaders to channel Martin Luther King, Jr. by resisting the Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of same-sex marriage…”I don’t think a lot of pastors and Christian schools are going to have a choice.” Really? There is a little thing called “separation of church and state” in this country. No one can force a clergy person to do a wedding that they don’t want to. As a clergy person, I know this well! And frankly, no one wants 2016possiblegopcontenders101you to marry them if you don’t want to.

Senator Rand Paul, second-generation Presidential candidate, suggests that government should get out of the marriage business altogether. In an op-ed in Time magazine, Paul says, “I believe all Americans have a right to contract.” The libertarian in Paul is suggesting that marriage is all about contracted rights and thinks government control of marriage is out of control. While I don’t disagree with him on the government over-reach issue, I wonder. Really? Is that all marriage is to Paul? A contract? It has nothing to do with love? Community and family recognition? And yes, rights and obligations.  I wonder how Mrs. Paul feels about his comments?

Presidential candidate Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal put out a statement saying, “This decision will pave the way for an all-out assault against the religious freedom rights of Christians who disagree with this decision.” Really? How? How does the marriage of a gay or lesbian couple affect anyone else’s marriage? Would the marriage of a New Orleans couple seep into the governor’s house?

According to the NY Times, right after the Supreme Court decision, Jeb Bush released a statement that he believed in “traditional marriage.” Although, to give him credit, he did say that we should respect one another. But, really? I wonder, what traditional marriage is he talking about?

I hear many say that marriage, like in the Bible, is between one man and one woman. Like Abraham with his wife Sarah and his surrogate wife/mistress Hagar? How about Jacob and his two wives and two concubines? Or is it like King Solomon and King David who have many wives and girlfriends…who can keep track? David was so bad that when he saw Beersheba, he sent her husband to the front line of the battle. Guess she wasn’t married anymore, so she was fair game.

Or is it the traditional marriage of financial exchange? The Talmud says the groom must give the bride “kesef,” gold, the original dowry. Is that the traditional marriage that Jeb Bush speaks of?

donna-reed1Or is it the marriage of the 1950s where dad came home from work, had his scotch and sat down to a dinner made by his stay-at-home wife and perfect children? I clearly remember Donna Reed vacuuming with her pearls on. I couldn’t help noticing that my mother didn’t wear pearls when doing any housework after coming home from her full-time job. Only in Donna Reed or Leave it to Beaver did that really happen.

Or maybe we should look at former GOP presidential candidate and Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich for guidance on newt_gingrich_hypocrite_in_chiefmarriage. He has a few ex-wives. He married his first wife Jackie in 1962 and served her divorce papers while on her death bed (or so rumors will have you believe). And then there was Marianne whom he divorced to marry his mistress Calista. Calista is smart to stick close to Newt.

Or maybe it is Republican hero, talk show host, and former pain medication addict Rush Limbaugh who is on his fourth marriage. He did divorce his previous wives, so I guess there was only one at a time. Or Senator John Ensign who confessed to cheating on his wife with a staffer and paying hush money to her husband, his chief of staff. Or Representative Mark Sanford, who as Governor of South Carolina, hiked the Appalachian trail (a.k.a. ran away to South America to be with a mistress), or Senator Larry “wide-stance” Craig of Idaho who tried to pick up a guy in a public bathroom. (A guy? Don’t they usually quote the Bible directly on that one, claiming that is what Leviticus is talking about?) Or Senator David Vitter, a good ole boy from Louisiana, who paid for prostitutes and got reelected. And let’s not forget Representative Mark Foley of Florida who like to communicate with male pages. I’m exhausted, but there are so many more fine examples of Republican traditional marriage! Truth is, if these examples represent traditional marriage, I may have to consider divorce. We used to hear a lot about family values. Guess the aforementioned officials missed that memo.

Two years ago this week, my partner and I went to the NY City Clerk’s office to get a marriage license. They had no problem taking our money for a license and then a nice man apIMG_0887 (1)tly named Angel performed the ceremony. While we wanted to have a chuppah, a Jewish wedding, we thought there was no better way to celebrate the repeal of DOMA and Independence day than by making our 17 year relationship legal. On March 23rd of the following year, we stood under the chuppah with several cantors leading the service and over a minyan of clergy signing our ketubah. As far as I know, in the two years that we have been legally married, no heterosexual marriages have been destroyed. At least not because Pat and I tied the knot.

I don’t spend a lot of time blogging about my personal life, although there is no doubt about me among my colleagues. I try to focus this blog on Torah and prayer and how it sneaks into every aspect of our lives. I try toDSC00380 discuss issues of conscience and change. But if there is even the slightest chance that even one child, one at-risk teen, one troubled GLBTQ person feels better about themselves by reading my story, I say, “Really? Isn’t that what it’s all about?”

I have many gay and lesbian friends who have gotten married, set up homes, and had children, and I’m sure there will be more to come. I celebrate them all (and I’m happy to marry them too!) I also celebrate my heterosexual friends who get married. Marriage is a sacred life cycle event in every religion and I hope that everyone who wants to, gets to experience it! And, really, even if it takes an ass or two to teach us the lesson, isn’t that what it’s all about!

 

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I Always Sang: An Interview with Cantor Doris Cohen

This article was originally published in the Womens Cantors’ Network newsletter.  It is reprinted with permission.  For more information check out the WCN website.
An Interview with Doris Cohen
by Gail F. Nalven and Patricia S. Rudden
 2015-04-24 13.50.10-1    This year Doris Siegel Cohen is being honored with induction into the Hunter College Alumni Hall of Fame, a very select group highlighting achievement and service. We spent several delightful hours with Doris at Hunter College, learning more about her life, her achievements and her remarkable career.
     We asked Doris about her background, and she started with some Hunter College memories, noting that her husband was an alumnus of Brooklyn College. “Oh, a mixed marriage. I told him that!” Her sister, nine years older, went to Hunter as well, and so, says Doris, “of course I went to Hunter. I’m happy I went to Hunter. It had the best music department of any of the four city colleges” (City College, Hunter College, Brookaahclogo copylyn College and Queens College, at that time). She pointed out that her Hunter legacy continues with her five-year-old great-grandson Theo, who currently attends the Hunter Campus Schools.
     Her parents came to New York from Russia in 1923. A sister was born during a stop in Bucharest, and a brother was born in Winnipeg, and “I’m the only Yankee in the family,” Doris told us. She was born in Williamsburg and raised in Crown Heights from the age of two. “And that was a great neighborhood,” she said. “It was a middle-class Jewish ghetto, and I was surrounded by high achievers.”
     “I give my parents credit for everything!” Doris repeated this theme throughout our visit. Doris’s parents treated all their children the same and had the same expectations for them. Doris, along with her sister and brother, went to Talmud Torah two hours after school each day and on Sunday mornings for four hours. Her parents felt that their children “had to have a Hebrew education . . . . My father took me to synagogue from the time I sat on his lap.” Along the way, she learned trope and started teaching Bar Mitzvah kids.
     Doris grew up in a musical household. Her brother played the piano and her sister played the violin. They were always singing and playing music.IMG_1741
     At the age of thirteen, things changed for Doris. At the insistence of her teacher and her mother, she took the test for the prestigious High School of Music & Art. It was “one of the best experiences. It was like going to Harvard or Yale.” Everyday she would travel by subway from Brooklyn to the school in uptown Manhattan to study voice and piano. Doris was always “rushing out of school” and graduated at 16.
     Around the same time, her mother arranged for her to sing in the Lowe’s Hollywood Star contest. During that time, most movie theaters showed a double feature with a stage show between movies. When Doris’s mother heard about the contest, she signed her up. Doris won the contest for the entire borough with “Italian Street Song” by Victor Herbert, made  famous by singing film star Jeannette MacDonald , which became her standard song as she toured around the movie theaters. One day she noticed that the program for the stage show between movies listed her as Dora Segale. Having an Italian name was supposed to increase a singer’s prestige through identification with the opera scene.
     “My mother was always volunteering me every place,” Doris told us. And it was around the same time that her mother volunteered Doris to sing at the Menorah Home for the Aged. Although her parents spoke English, her language at home was Yiddish. She had a huge Yiddish repertoire and she loved to sing Yiddish songs, and “taught myself a lot before I even had voice lessons. The more experience you get singing, the better.”
     Doris moved on to Hunter College. “That’s what you did. My sister went to Hunter, I went to Hunter. At that time the city colleges had the best music schools . . . . When I did come in, I was exempt from a lot of music classes . . . .I wanted to get out of school and keep singing, but I also want to have the proper credentials.” In addition to majoring in music, Doris minored in drama and philosophy. “And I did fencing. It was good for movement.” (Pat and Doris then reminisced about their mutual experiences doing fencing at Hunter.) She graduated at age twenty and married Arnold Cohen, the Brooklyn College boy. They were together for fifty-seven years until his death twelve years ago. She had planned to be an opera singer, but “I met my husband too soon.” Later, she earned a masters in music education from Queens College.
      After her triumphs touring the stages at Loew’s theatres, her mother urged her father to imagestake her up to WEVD, a radio station in New York City that was named for progressive figure Eugene V. Debs and had much Yiddish programming, calling itself, “The station that speaks your language!” This led to Doris singing regularly during the Forward Hour, with a thirty-piece orchestra, and eventually to having her own show. The conductor referred her to her first voice teacher, Olga Eisner, with whom she studied on full scholarship from age 16 at Eisner’s Carnegie Hall studio. She also coached with Hans Bruch, the vocal coach at the Metropolitan Opera.
      Sholom Secunda, composer for the Yiddish theatre and of other popular and liturgical music, was “a major part of my life.” She worked with Secunda for many years and catalogued his papers after his death. Along with digitizer Neil Bindelglass, she created the Secunda Archive at the Bobst Library at NYU.
     She met Secunda as a result of singing at a function for the ILGWU, her father’s union. Her father asked that his daughter be added to the program and was told she’d sing if there was time. Well, there was time, and after the event a19768577_118126868957n agent named Ralph Singer approached Doris and invited her to stop by his office at Bettman & Pransky, a major agency at the time. The WEVD conductor she was working with advised her not to go: “He said, they’re a bunch of crooks.” Clearly, he wanted to keep his starlet. So she didn’t go, but then a few months later she did go, and Singer ended up introducing her to Secunda, bringing her into an office and telling her to wait. While she was sitting there, she saw a briefcase with “S.Secunda” engraved on it, “and I started to palpitate. This is like Leonard Bernstein in my house!” He asked her to sing but she wanted to prepare, so she came back the next day and sang for him. “He was a terrible accompanist!” But he asked Doris to sing at a wedding with Richard Tucker. “I told him, sure! The rest is a major history.” This was the beginning of her formal cantorial career.
     After holding several High Holiday and interim positions in a few synagogues, she landed a job at Temple Israel of Canarsie, where she served for 28 years. And it was close to the beginning of this long period that she saw the ad in Jewish Week posted by Cantor Deborah Katchko, looking for other women who felt alone in their cantorate. She was among the first to answer the ad, and the meeting that resulted became the Women Cantors’ Network. Doris has been here from the very beginning, and served as our second president.
     Although she is now officially retired, Doris still works more than many of us, coaching, teaching, and doing various kinds of cantorial work, in addition to some other enterprises she has going. She revels in the life of her city and walks everywhere. “I am a New Yorker,” she says  with pride. “I love my city, and I love to walk because there’s always so much to see.” We both expressed approval of walking as a form of exercise, and Doris replied, “I don’t do it for exercise! I just walk!” And of course she still sings.
     “There wasn’t a time that I stopped singing, ever. I did it ‘My Way’!”
—-
More about Doris can be found here:
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Parashat Chukkat: Finding Your Leaders

cantors color tech logoThis week, I was honored to give the following d’var Torah at the annual Women Cantors’ Network conference in Austin, Texas. The goal of the WCN is to promote the practice of Judaism through the dissemination, development, and commissioning of Jewish music and rituals for clergy and lay leaders serving in the cantorate.  There is no better way to spend four days in June than with these lovely women!

fnl1Boker tov! As some of you know, I’ve been binge watching some television shows that I seemed to have missed in the last 20 years or so. Can’t imagine what I was doing… Maybe it’s just that I am in Texas, but as I read this week’s Parashat Chukkat, I couldn’t help thinking about one of my recent binges, Friday Night Lights. Friday Night Lights takes place in Dillon, Texas, a fictional town that is all about its football. The radio talks about football and the past heroes of teams are revered. And the key to that football team is their leader, Coach Taylor, and his wife, Mrs. T. Together they change the lives of community and in some cases, lead them out of their Mitzrayim. Coach T works to help students get college scholarships, and as the guidance counselor Mrs. T works toward the same goals. And the town’s biggest fear, no matter which side of Dillon they are on, is the Taylors will leave. How will the Dillon Panthers find their way out of Mitzrayim without the Taylors?

In this parasha, the Israelites could ask the same question. Not about the Panthers’ journey, but of their own leaders. Several fateful events happen in this week’s portion and if I had been an Israelite on that journey, I too might have been rattled. In the portion that we read this morning, the traditional first aliyah is divided into three sections, and we learn about the Red Heifer and rules of purification for those who are around dead bodies. The part that you will hear on Shabbat includes the death of Miriam and Aaron, and Aaron’s transfer of priestly leadership to Eleazar. In between those events, the people kvetch, again, that there is no water. We’ve all taught this story a million times. God tells Moses and Aaron to speak to the rock. Moses is frustrated and he hits the rock. For that transgression he is told that he will never enter the land of Canaan. So here we are, the fate is sealed for our three shomrim. How will the people survive? How will they get where they need to go without their leaders?

Fortunately, just like in Dillon, the Israelite leaders were truly leaders. Just as Aaron made sure to transfer the priestly powers before he died, Moses found his successors and nurtured them. As Sam Walton said, “Outstanding leaders go out of their way to boost the self-esteem of their personnel. If people believe in themselves, it’s amazing what they can accomplish.” And as we’ll see over these next couple of months’ readings, which translates to years of time for the Israelite people, the people have matured and leaders are developed.

Spoiler alert: the Taylors leave Dillon and the team goes on. The coaches that Coach Taylor trained take on the task of leading the team and a new generation of players moves on too.

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Call Me . . .

2014-01-07 09.44.53When our latest cat came into our lives two years ago, there was much discussion about what we would name him. I thought of the name Elul, aka Luli (top), to represent the month he came to us. We are a couple of educators and rabbis and to my partner, the month of Elul, which falls in late August-early September, represented a time of stress and craziness. While I didn’t disagree, I also saw Elul as a time of joy and new beginnings. So, little Luli joined his brother Zali, short for Mazal.

Names are of monumental importance to the Jewish people. Parents often hold back on sharing Hebrew names before a boy’s bris or girl’s baby naming. Families are concerned about how previous generations will be remembered by the perpetuation of their name. In modern America, children are often given a first and middle name in English and in Hebrew. Their last name might be their father’s, their mother’s, both, or a combination of the two. And even then, this carefully planned name may be changed. It may be shortened or manipulated: Jonathan becomes Jon or Jonny. Alexandra become Allie or Lexie. They might have red hair and are simply called Red. They may be a left-handed pitcher and be called lefty. Many people choose their names and they may change as they grow. I wouldn’t call my cousin Susie anything by Susan now.

We also have a Torah tradition of name changes. Avram becomes Abraham, Sarai becomes Sarah, Jacob becomes Israel. People are anointed, becoming kings and prophets. In the book of Ruth, Naomi, in her deepest despairs says, “Call me Mara!” She changes her name from one “pleasant” to “bitter.” Naomi doesn’t suit her anymore.

The Midrash, in Kohelet Rabba, says:

“A person has three names:
one that he is called by his father and mother,
one that people know him by,
and one that he acquires for himself.”

In the last week, there has been a ridiculous amount of coverage the coming out of Caitlyn Jenner. I have been pleasantly surprised to hear and see a great deal of positive media. Although, as I’ve said, I do live in a liberal New York, NPR, MSNBC bubble. I have mostly tried to avoid the negative press, but what I’ve seen has not been nice and I won’t give credit by quoting.

I would like to think of Caitlyn’s transformation in terms of the Midrash.

Bruce, the name given by his parents.

jenner5Olympian, Wheaties-box boy, American hero, and later, American reality show star, the name given by others.

Caitlyn, the name Bruce decided to finally acquire!556cd6644ae56e586e4588d8_caitlyn-jenner-bruce-jenner-july-2015-vf

Most of us are lucky. The name our parents gives us seems right. We can work with it, even if there are some awkward moments where it doesn’t seem right. For some it takes years to figure out what name is right for them. Kol hakavod to those who are willing to take the risk to share that name with their loved ones and the world. Bruchim HaBaim – Welcome!

——————

What’s in a name?

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What’s In Your Spam Folder This Year?

6619741_f496Today, as with many a vacation day, I attempted to tackle the massive piles of paper and magazines that seem to multiply exponentially during the school year.  As I flipped through a New Yorker from sometime this fall, I spotted a cartoon.  It shows God, the old-man-with-the-beard view of God, sitting on a throne on his computer.  The caption read:  “God finds all the prayers of mankind in his spam folder.”  And I thought, that explains a lot.  Because 2014 was not one to be repeated.  Although I do not really keep track, I do not remember a stretch of time with so many individual horrible incidents both on the local, national, and international. (I’ve started to list them, and found myself getting too depressed.  So I deleted the list.) You know what I’m talking about.  And if you don’t, you’ll be happier for it.

And everyone wants to review the year.  My NY Times Sunday Week In Review wrap-up in pictures was horrifying.

My favorite daily column, New York Today on the NY Times website, had the headline, “New York Today: The Year in Sports.”  The article went onto recount how all of the NY teams, Giants, Jets, Yankees, Mets, Knicks have had far from spectacular years.  (For the Knicks, that  seems to be the direction that they are headed.)  And it didn’t even include my NY Liberty whose record is in line with those of the other NY teams.

I could go on.  But, rather than detailing the horrors of 2014, and there were some really horrible things that happened, I would like to share a letter to the Kansas City Star that you may have seen on the internet.  This article has been sitting on my computer desktop for about two months now. As you’ll remember, the Kansas Royals played the San Francisco Giants in the World Series.  Jon Pritzker, a San Francisco businessman wrote to the Kansas City Star to tell them about his wonderful experience visiting the KC baseball stadium.  Decked out in his SF Giants gear, he and his friends could not have found a more inviting crowd.  They were not enemies, just because they were rooting for different teams. Being nicely treated at an opponents baseball game, no matter how big a game it is, seems like a small thing.  But it is seems like a good place to begin.

Each morning, Jews start their morning liturgy with,

Modah Ani L’fanecha, Melech Chai V’Kayam, Shehechezartah Bi Nishmati b’Chemlah, Rabbah Emunatecha.

I am grateful to You, living enduring Ruler, for restoring my soul to me for compassion.  You are faithful beyond measure.

Maybe if we begin to act a bit more like those Royals fans in 2015, the world can recapture its soul.

 

Happy New Year!  May it be a better year.  I know it’s a low bar, but it’s a start!

 

KC Star

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To Electrify or Not?

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When I was growing up, my family and I would light the Hanukah menorah every night in the kitchen.  We had one for the family.  It would sit on the counter and we would light together and then sing Maoz Tzur in an English translation that I never understood.  My brothers or I would run our fingers quickly the flames as my mother would tell us to stop it.  We rarely had presents.  I remember wondering why we didn’t have an electric menorah like so many of my friends.  My mother would say that it wasn’t a REAL menorah.

 

As I became an adult, I learned about the custom of “publicizing the miracle.”  We needed to show off our remembrance of the miracle of a little vial of purified oil lasting 8 days instead of 1.  So, I would light my candles in the  window, sing Maoz Tzur in Hebrew, and then turn my hanukiyah around so the entire world could see the “miracle.”  It didn’t matter that for most of my adult life, I’ve lived on a high floor in the city.

 

One year, a parent gave me an electric chanukiyah for a gift. It was beautiful dark mental with delicate lights.  This gift changed my entire Hanukah life!  While we still light candles every day, the electric hanukiyah would “burn” brightly from our 4th floor window.  And while I am not sure that it really was visible from the street, or the neighbors across the broad NYC avenue,  it changed our evening.  Now, instead of having the candle burns for just a 1/2 hour or maybe more, they would seem to be lit all night.  That hanukiyah with the delicate lights has been changed for one with larger lights.

When I was in Jerusalem, I remember coming home from school and being excited to see all the hanukiyot in the windows. I may not be in Jerusalem, but when I came home last night and saw our electric menorah shining from across the street, it was very exciting.
Happy Hanukah y’all

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I Make Jews

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At Thanksgiving dinner, someone I hadn’t seen for several years asked me what I was doing for a living and I replied, “I make Jews.” The person was a little startled by response, so I explained that I was a Jewish educator and a rabbi. That I work in a synagogue and supervise teachers of Hebrew and Jewish studies. That I marry people who want to have Jewish households and I bury people who lived their lives as Jews. I train students for the most important of Jewish rituals, their bar or bat mitzvah and I teach them lifelong rituals like lighting Shabbat and Hanukah candles and putting on a tallit.
Or I could have said:

I make Jews be Jews.
I make Jews whose parents want them to be Jews.
I make Jews who have no idea how to be Jews.
I make Jews who wonder.
I make Jews who question.
I make Jews who think.
I make Jews who pray.
I make Jews who sing.
I make Jews who dance.
I make Jews who struggle.
I make Jews who make other Jews.
I make Jews who are resilient.
I make Jews who make Jewish families.
I make Jews who learn how to do Jewish rituals
I make Jews who make Jewish rituals.
I make Jews read Hebrew.
I make Jews who kvetch.
I make Jews who laugh.
I make Jews who will go out into the world and do great things.
I make Jews who will just be Jews.

 

So perhaps it is just easier to say, “I make Jews.”

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Blogging the Torah: Parashat Toldot, Can’t We Just All Get Along?

boxing-gloves

A few years ago, I was at some sort of education workshop, and I was asked to illustrate this week’s parasha, Toldot. I am not a great drawer and I am especially bad at faces. I simply drew a belly (Rebecca’s womb) with two boxing gloves inside. I thought that even in the womb, these two brothers, Jacob and Esau, were battling it out.

Some may call this portion the sibling rivalry parasha. While it might be rivalry on Esau’s part, deception is what comes to mind when thinking about Jacob. First Esau comes to Jacob and says, “I’m hungry! I shall not live if I don’t eat something.” So Jacob trades a bowl of red soup (yes, folks, this is the red lentil soup Shabbat!) for Esau’s birthright. Is this the first documented case of really bad ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder)? And Jacob takes full advantage of it. And then, toward the end of the portion, Jacob is truly deceptive (with help from his mother) in dressing up as his brother to steal their father’s blessing. Poor Esau. Is he destined to be a shlimmazel or the leader of a great nation? Is he all brawn and no brains?

If I were asked to write a headline for this portion (as I often ask students to do), it might read:

Special Needs Student is Duped by Brother!

Mother Plays Favorites!

Birthright and Blessing Stolen: Perpetrator Escapes!

Cross-Dressing Leads to Theft!

Brother Threatens to Kill Brother

These could be right out of a tabloid newspaper or reality tv. Perhaps this is the precursor to reality tv?

And what is it about brothers in the Bible? Jacob and Esau? Cain and Abel? Issac and Ishmael? Joseph versus them all? No one seems to get along. And for the women, there aren’t many stories to examine. But I can’t help wondering what kind of relationship Rachel and Leah had after Leah married Jacob.

Sometimes, you just have to wonder why these are the ancestors that we look to as our leaders, reciting their names every day in the Amidah. (Or at least we recite the ones that we see as our ancestors.) It’s easy for some commentators to lean on the “God had a plan” angle or to portray Esau as evil and not a dupe. I always wonder if the entire point is that our ancestors were human, and flawed, and still led us to be a great nation. So while we are b’tzelem Elohim, created in God’s image, maybe we are also created in our ancestors’ image. And even though we are flawed, we can also do great things.

Next week, many of us will sit down together with our families to share food, stories, and history. Will we be Godlike in our dealings with our siblings, cousins, or parents, or maybe a bit more human, like our ancestors? Will we renew old feuds or just move on? Will we bring our best food to get a blessing? Or perhaps, will we realize that the blessing will be that we are all together and it is not something to be stolen, but shared?

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