Dayenu: When Is It Enough

imagesSitting at a friend’s seder table, full and content and a bit bleary-eyed, I was awakened by this lovely sermon that was to be given the next morning. Welcome, guest blogger Rabbi Rosalie M. Osian. Thanks for sharing your words.

A Yahrzeit Sermon on Pesach – 2016

Rabbi Rosalie M. Osian

New York, New York

My dear friends,

This week I observed the Yahrzeit of my dear father Elya Markowitz, who died in 1989. This week my husband observed the death anniversary of his mother, Mary Giamundo, who died in 2011. My father died before I met John and therefore he and Mary never met. They were very similar people in nature. Hard workers. Humble. Practical. Wise. They were poor and at times impoverished. They suffered from illness. Rarely complained. They might have thought they came from worlds too far apart to be acquainted. Mary’s father was one of the founders of St. Vladimir’s Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Smithmill, PA. My father was the Gabbai and Sheliach Tzibur (Service Leader) in most of the synagogues near where he lived. Spiritually, they were closer than they would have imagined.

They were both deeply faithful to God. They had their share of bargaining. Mary would say, “I was sick. I promised God that if He gets me through it, I will have another baby.” Time passed. John was born. Fifteen years after her last childbirth. Elya’s promise before and after the Shoah that there was no bargaining who he was as a Jew. His commitment to Torah was unshakeable. For both of them, in their darkest times and in their happiest times, prayer was on on their lips. Gratitude. I am reminded of the song we sing at our seder table, “Dayenu” which means; “It would have been enough.”

This up-beat Passover song is over a thousand years old. It appeared first in the medieval period, in the 9th century, attributed to Rav Amram. (Amram Bar Sheshna, head of the Jewish Talmud Academy of Sura in Babylon, who arranged the complete liturgy of the synagogue.)

The song is an expression of gratitude to God. It is arranged in 15 stanzas representing 15 gifts God bestowed upon Israel, divided into 3 sections:

Leaving slavery (leaving Egypt, justice, first born, wealth)

The miracles (the sea, dry land, drowning, needs manna)

Being present with God (Shabbat, Mt. Sinai, Torah, Israel, Temple)

American singer-songwriter Ben Kweller (Benjamin Lev Kweller, b. 1981) included the word Dayenu in one of his songs. Ben Kweller explains Dayenu to the masses:

when something good happens to you and then another good thing happens to you. What you had in the first place would have been enough, if nothing else happens to you. It’s all about counting your blessings and staying grounded. (1)

Some mornings after my alarm rings and I wake up, I take a few minutes to catch a snooze. I try to assemble the day’s schedule. Imagine it happening. Maybe I dwell on the remnants of some dream. When I get up, a Dayenu is conveyed through the prayer, Modeh Ani. ‘I am grateful dear God for restoring my soul to me in compassion, Rabbah emunatech, You are faithful beyond measure’. (Another trans. ‘Your faithful Eternal trust…’)

Modeh Ani is the first gratitude prayer uttered when we wake in the morning. It is a major Dayenu. A testament of the duality of the relationship we seek to establish/understand with the Divine. It is a lifelong quest. We say, You, God, are faithful beyond measure…you trust in us. You, God need us too.

At our seder tables we raise four cups of wine and bless them. Each cup symbolizes the Israelite physical and spiritual journey from Egypt and each would have been enough.

Freedom from burdens

Deliverance from slavery


Joining of Jews to God

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch makes an important point regarding the difference between liberation and redemption. He says that liberation is only the beginning of freedom. Freedom is a state of physicality. Redemption is the alliance with God, to serve God. (2) It’s a spiritual state. It’s an invitation to what, in Heschel’s words, is “the ‘intimacy’, the quasi-identity between God and man, the meeting between the Divine and human will.”

In Heschel’s poem, ‘Ikh un Du’ he writes:

“Am I not –You?

Are you not –I?

I live in Me and in You.

Through your lips goes a word from Me to Me.

From Your eyes drips a tear – it’s source is Me.

When a need pains You, alarm me!

When you miss a human being –

Tear open my door!

You live in Yourself. You live in me.”


When we say the word “Dayenu”, “It would have been enough,” it conveys a sense of acceptance and trust in the “Ikh un Du” relationship.

But what if, for whatever reason, the good things that happen to a person are not enough? What if the bitter outweighs the sweet in such proportions that gratitude cannot be uttered from one’s lips? Then, dear friends, what is the meaning of Dayenu when it is not enough?

ONE answer is in the Passover Seder and the Haggadah. Passover doesn’t lie. Passover tells the truth about suffering, affliction and struggle. Passover asks questions. Bitter herbs are eaten. We dip in saltwater. We humble ourselves with unleavened bread. Slavery is named. Plagues are named. We process.

I want to put forth an affirmation of the duality of Dayenu. YES, it is Todah, gratitude, for what fulfills. Indeed, there are aspects of “it would have been enough.” Yet, if we are NOT in that particular state of grace, we are permitted to honor the feeling that says: “Today, it does not feel like it’s enough. Today, there is struggle. Today I need a little more, dear God. I hope, and long for the day, I will feel Dayenu.”

Like my father Elya, and my mother in law, Mary, and others, may we be inspired to find our way. Through the blessings over wine, food, and Hallel, we affirm the hope found in the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel:

“may the Divine AND the human will meet . . . and may that will be one.”

In memory of our loved ones not here this day . . .

L’Shanah Ha-ba-ah B’Shlemut! In the year to come . . . more whole!

A zissen Pesach.

Rabbi Rosalie

1. Wikipedia 

2. Hirsch, The Jewish Year



New York, New York

unnamedRabbi Rosalie M. Osian is a Hospice Chaplain for over a decade serving at Caring Hospice Services of New York where she provides clinical pastoral care to multi-faith clients, families, and staff.  She considers her clients  ‘living human documents’ and builds professional relationships based on a construct she created called  the ‘Five Touchstones of Spiritual Strengths’ derived from Torah teachings.

‘Presence’ – The person receives the gift of care, and can join together to walk the path of the Divine (Genesis 18:1-6).

‘Being‘ – An openness and permission to experience one’s self.   “I am that I am, I am Who I am, I Will Be what I will be” (Exodus3:14).

‘Listening’ – Listening with profound stillness so that the still small voice within can be heard (High Holiday Liturgy).

‘Hope’ -The Divine intention as promised in the rainbow, of hope and non-abandonment (Genesis 9:12-17).

‘Joy’ –  A person can ‘draw water with joy’ (Isaiah 12:3), and access spiritual resources to create an inner calm.

Rabbi Osian is also the founder of Derech Chayim-Cycle of Life Pastoral Services which provides individual spiritual care in private and community settings.  She is married, resides in Manhattan, and enjoys travel, writing and music.


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Blogging the Torah: Parashat Shemot, What Happened?


It seems almost appropriate that this week’s Torah portion is read on the cusp of a new year as it represents a transitional time for the Israelite people. We have just ended the book of Bereshit (Genesis). The Israelites have found hope in Mitzrayim against the famine of Canaan. Now in the first portion in the book of Shemot (Exodus), the hope is gone. First we hear about the descendants of Joseph, tying this section with the previous book. It only takes a few sentences, though, to change everything. In Shemot 1:5 we see the line that changes the trajectory of the Jewish people: “Vayikam Melech Chadash…A new king arose who knew not Joseph.”

I’ve always wondered, what happened in the generations since Joseph to take the Israelites from protected status to slaves? Did Joseph’s descendants do something to disgrace their community? Or, was there a post-Joseph hit to the economy that make the leadership and people seek out a scapegoat? Was it similar to what happened in Germany during the early 20th century? Could it happen in 21st century United States if we listen to some of our candidates?

The Rabbis tell us that the Torah came to us as black fire on white fire. The black fire is the text and the white fire is the space around the text. Perhaps we should listen to the silences as much as the text. We learn from the events in Mitzrayim that rights can disappear as quickly as they are given. People can change, as well as nations. Perhaps it is only with vigilance and attention to detail that we can protect our rights. Speak up. Fight back, even if it is only on Twitter and Facebook. And most importantly, VOTE! 2016 is going to be a tough year. We are going to be slammed with candidates’ emails, snail mail, phone calls, polls, and rhetoric of all kinds. We must not turn away. We need to pay attention and VOTE! Not just in presidential primaries and elections but in Congressional elections, state elections, and local elections. VOTE! It’s not just how we change our world. It’s how we protect our world.

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“The Other” Is You

divinciIn preparation for the new season of Downton Abbey, PBS ran a behind-the-scenes show the other night. I was struck by their insistence on propriety. Clothing, posture, and manners must adhere to the period. (Although, we have caught a few 21st century catch phrases in this early 20th century piece.) As I heard Hugh Bonneville, the actor who plays Lord Grantham, speak about manners, I thought, we could use some more today.

In this world of “No problem” as a response to “Thank you” and unanswered emails meaning non-interest (or maybe acknowledgement, I’m not sure), manners are a nice thing. When kids are little, parents often say, “What do you say?” And the response will either be “Thank you” or “Sorry!” I pride myself on saying “Thank you” often, and I appreciate my colleagues who actually acknowledge emails. (They’re usually over 45 years old.) As a women’s basketball fan, I love how both teams, and the coaches from both teams, go through a “high-five” line at the end of every game. There are even some hugs! I noticed that football has some form of this ritual. This Sunday, my NY Giants had a heartbreaking loss with a tie-breaking, last second field goal. (This is the second time this season that this happened.) Did Eli Manning steam into the locker room? No, he went to shake hands with the opposing quarterback and the coach did the same with his counterpart while players on both teams mingled with one another on the field.

Yet, our public discourse these days has devolved into crude innuendo and even dangerous racial and ethnic language. Emily Post, the mother of modern etiquette, would most certainly be red-faced following the campaigns and news. There are presidential candidates who use immature language to spew hatred against ethic groups that are different from themselves. Acting like big men (yes, they are men) they hide their fear of the “other” in lies about hidden dangers. They suggest that refugees are the enemy and not really people in need. They suggest that we should kill terrorists’ families. The ugliness is beyond the pale. (I’d rather not give these guys more publicity by mentioning names. After all, we are taught to blot out Amalek.) And Americans have taken their sentiments to heart by burning mosques and by attacking and killing Muslims in this country. America, the land of freedom. Often, these acts are committed by people who consider themselves God-fearing. Yet, they seem to have absolutely no clue about God. They seem to have missed the many lessons that the Torah has to teach them.

As we complete the book of Bereshit this week with Parashat Vayechi, I can’t help thinking about how much we as a people learned since the creation. If we look at the Torah as the history of our people, then the book of Bereshit can be seen as our growing up as a family and the remaining four books can be seen as our growing up as a nation. In Bereshit we see a lot of growing and learning. Even God learns. Right after creation, in the second portion of Noach, God destroys all that lives on the earth. After that, God says that will never happen again. And when God is angry again in Parashat Vayera, God doesn’t destroy everyone, just the people of Sodom and Gemorrah. And, in the story of Jonah, God threatens to destroy a city and in the end, lets the people repent and change there way. Perhaps this was God creating teshuvah. I often wondered whether there is an entire planet that God destroys before Bereshit even begins. If God can learn to temper God’s anger, to widen God’s view, to be more accepting, perhaps we should too.

The main family story of Bereshit really starts with Abraham. We know that he had two sons, Ishmael from Hagar and Isaac from Sarah. Ishmael is actually the first born, but once Sarah, Abraham’s wife, gives birth to Isaac, Hagar and Ishmael are cast out (Parashat Vayera). You would think that Ishmael would hold a grudge against his brother Isaac and his father Abraham. No. We learn at the end of Abraham’s life, the sons come together to bury their father (Parashat Chayei Sarah). If Isaac and Ishmael can learn to temper their anger, widen their view, and be more accepting of one another, perhaps we should too.

We see a similar story with Isaac’s sons Jacob and Esau. Jacob stole the first-born Esau’s birthright and blessing (Parashat Toldot). But in the end, they reunite. Even though it is twenty years later, Jacob is worried that the bigger Esau would want to exact vengeance for Jacob’s earlier acts. But no. Upon seeing Jacob, Esau weeps and kisses him. Jacob has nothing to fear from Esau and Esau shares his wealth with Jacob. Esau says that he has more than enough in the world and gives to his brother (Parashat Vayislach). If Esau can learn to temper his anger, widen his view, and open his heart to his brother, perhaps we should too.

And now we come to the next generation in this week’s portion, Parashat Vayechi. It is the end of Joseph’s story. To recap from the past few Torah portions, Joseph was his father Jacob’s favorite son, eldest of his beloved Rachel, and next to youngest son. His father gives him a fancy cloak, the “coat of many colors” that we all drew pictures of as kids in Hebrew school. Because of his father’s doting, he grows up to be an obnoxious, spoiled young man. He interprets one of his own dreams to mean that he will one day rule over his older brothers. His brothers are not amused. (He couldn’t have kept this dream to himself?) His father sends him to check on his brothers who are out in the field. (I’ve wondered whether this is a set-up or Jacob is simply blinded by love for his son.) They take the opportunity to do evil. First they want to kill him, then they throw him in a pit, and finally they sell him as a slave. Despite the obstacles, and many adventures to come, it turns out that Jacob’s gift for dream interpretation is his get-out-of-jail-free card. Jacob rises to become the Pharaoh’s highest adviser. He has changed so that when Joseph’s brother’s come looking for food during a time of famine, they don’t recognize him. At first, he tries to hide himself and plays some tricks on his brother, but as we saw in last week’s portion, he can’t hide. Joseph tells them not to worry about selling him to the slave traders. It all turned out for the best. And even this week, when Jacob dies and the brothers fear that Joseph might finally exact his revenge, Joseph says not to fear, because he will take care of them and their families. If Joseph can learn to temper his anger, widen his view, and open his heart to his brothers, perhaps we should too.

This New Year I pray that our xenophobic, racially charged anger and ugly speech will stop. I pray that our nation’s leaders and leader wannabes on all levels will learn how to be civil with one another and with America and the world. I pray that they will change their rhetoric from nastiness to welcoming. And I pray that we elect leaders that will follow the values of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And when they don’t, that they can learn from their mistakes, temper their anger, widen their views, and open their hearts to those in need. And I pray that we can too.

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Blogging the Torah: Parashat Miketz, On Terror and Grain

amber-wavesThis has been a difficult Chanukah for this world.  As we light our candles in the darkest time of the year, we struggle to find a way to overcome the darkness of this world with the light of goodness.  In this week’s Torah portion, Miketz, we learn of Joseph the dreamer, Joseph the environmentalist, Joseph the predictor of a great famine

I am thrilled to share this d’var Torah from Walter R. Isaac, rabbinical student at the Jewish Spiritual Leaders Institute.  As Walter says, we are facing a famine right now.  We just don’t know it.

On Terror and Grain

by Walter R. Isaac

11902303_1469640793340117_4730633130629884115_nIn our Parashah this week, Joseph lives and interprets the American dream.  His story is a rags to riches classic.  But his story is not only about prosperity and success.  Like the dream he interprets for Pharaoh, it may have told of prosperity, but at its root it was a warning.  And warnings foretell the potential for disaster.  Joseph also interprets Pharaoh’s dream as a warning. He counsels Pharaoh to store up grain so that during a coming famine, there would be enough food for the people of Egypt.

Similarly, the American dream is a dream about abundance and plenty.  And times of plenty are good because during those times one does not lack necessities such as food, clothing or shelter.  But times of plenty also carry a hidden danger. The danger is that in the midst of plenty we might become lazy and forget that such times do not last forever and are always followed by times of relative lack.

If we live by grain like the Egyptians did, then we must store up that grain during times of plenty so that we can survive the famine during the times of scarcity.  But this is the take away…What goes for the needs of the body, also goes for the needs of the mind. What is true in our story for Egypt’s grain is also true for the human heart.

Grain is compassion.  Grain symbolizes a crucial sense of justice and love and concern for those who are different.  And just as Joseph saw how Egypt’s future depended on how, during times of plenty, they prepared for the trials of famine and scarcity… it is also the case that during times of comfort and safety we must check the grain stored in our hearts and see if we’re prepared to withstand the trials of danger and insecurity.

Terrorism is a kind of famine.  It is a trial characterized by the scarcity of safety and the presence of danger.  No it is not the absence of food or water or shelter, but it IS the absence of things such as peace and stability.

Fortunately, the season of terror does not last forever.  And because of this, we need to store up the proper grain in order to survive what terrors will afflict us.  What troubles me is that too many of us as Israelites have not stored up the proper amount of grain in our hearts to survive this famine.  And this time, it is not a famine of food, but rather a famine of compassion, a famine of security, and a famine of care for those human beings we both know and don’t know.

I fear that in blaming others for recent terrorism many people miss the fact that terrorism is nothing new for America.  There is a long American tradition of spreading terror among people of color.  Our inability to stamp out the remnants of this tradition has enabled far too many to feel comfortable expressing ideas such as rounding other people up, expelling undesirables from society, surveiling people of a different ethnicity, and creating barriers on the basis of some arbitrary religious or racial or linguistic tests.

So earlier this week, when I heard people discussing these ideas, and I heard on the news serious conversations among politicians about what kind of surveillance or what kind of mass expulsion would or would not be permitted by law, I thought to myself that we are on the verge of a society-wide famine.  And I worried that too many of us as a people have not stored up enough grain in our hearts to survive it.

As you travel through the world this week, as you go to your job and see different kinds of people in the market, on the street, at the bus stop or in the post office—check up on your food stores.  Examine your heart’s balance sheet.  What does it tell you?  Have you stored up grain during this time of plenty?  Can you withstand a famine of compassion?  Can you survive a scarcity of love for the stranger?  If not, then you should remember the warning of Joseph’s dream.  And if you can’t remember his dream, then remember the American dream, or what some people have called the American nightmare.  Because both of them warn us of the suffering that will come without sufficiently storing up that precious grain in our human hearts.

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No Turkey For You

Next week, Americans will celebrate the most Jewish of our American holidays: Thanksgiving. Each day in our Amidah, we say the words  “Moadim Anachu Lach, we are thankful to you God” for the miracles of each day and God’s wondrous kindness at all times.  Perhaps for most Americans, God’s kindness is enough.  It surely seems as if so many have forgotten that we are created b’ztelem Eloheim, in God’s image.  In the 13 Attributes of God which we recite every holiday, we say that God is rachum v’chanun, gracious and compassionate. Yet, when it comes to the Syrians refugees, we Americans are more and more saying no.12265973_560694237421403_2384141622928775213_o

We are a nation of refugees.  No one denies that.  From the time of the Pilgrims, whose story we are about to remember (I won’t comment on how accurate our memory is), we have welcomed people to our shores.  What would happen if we looked at it from the Native American perspective as this cartoon does?

Lech L’cha M’artzicha, u-Mimolot’cha u-MiBeit Avicha

Leave your land, the place you grew up, the house of your father

Genesis 12

My own grandparents were refugees. They came on Romanian passports, he in 19Weinbaum.Betty Weinbaum.citizenship23.  She came later on the Ile de France leaving out of LeHavre on May 16, 1929.  My grandmother did not travel alone, but with two adult daughters and three minor daughters.  They all became citizens and the trajectories of their lives were changed.  They had two more daughters in NYC. I am the youngest of the youngest.

12274304_984662765982_8111746130872831878_nThe United States welcomed them and they thrived.  No one says that everyone was happy to see them.  Thanks to Facebook, we’ve been learning about how unwanted we were. According to this chart, in 1938 an overwhelming number of college students thought the Jews should not be allowed into the US.  In 1939, The US denied entry to the 90facebook_14478529139418 Jewish on the SS St. Louis.  The ship was sent back and many of the Jews on it died at the hands of the Nazis.  Many countries did not want the Jews.

Yet, in the 20s, my ancestors  were admitted, as were so many others. My mother went to City College for free and became a teacher in the New York City school system. I know less about my father’s family.  I do know that his father was born in Poland and at some point had a factory in the Bronx.  The factory made fabrics which were used in WWII and then was sold to the state to make room for the Cross Bronx Expressway. He did quite well from the United States. My father had a blue collar job that turned into a white collar job.  My parents are both enjoying a well funded retirement with savings, social security, and healthcare.  Yet, like more and more Americans, they are not welcoming to the Syrian refugees.

Everything we are, I am, is due to the the United States.  And it’s not like we came here and were freeloaders. We have given back.  My brothers and I all have college and advanced degrees. My five nieces are all college graduates who either have professional jobs or a still continuing this process.  None of this would be possible without their having come to the US.


As a kid, I took  the usual school trip to the Statue of Liberty.  This was the first of many trips and I often see the statue when I am downtown or watching a ballgame from the new park in Staten Island. I always smile when I see that statue. When I take the Staten Island Ferry, which I do at least a few times each year, I often think of what my grandparents must have thought when they saw this sight for the first time. Do we no longer believe the words of Emma Lazarus, “Give us your tired, your poor, yearning to be free?”  I hear politicians say that the refugees can come if they prove they are a certain religion.  What they really mean is, can the refugees prove that they aren’t Muslim? I don’t remember Emma Lazarus suggesting that the “tired and poor” seeking freedom be of a certain religion or color.  After all, she was Jewish.

As we sit down with our family and friends next week, I hope that we think about those who do not have a table to sit at or a belly that will be filled.  I hope we act like Abram and Sarai  (Genesis 28) who upon seeing three strangers at their door, fed them.

And for those who say that the Syrians do not have guns pointed at them like the Jews did, please watch this:







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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?”


“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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Blogging the Torah, 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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