Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Yom Haatzmaut

This evening marks Yom Haatzmaut--Israel Independence Day. On this day we celebrate 61 years of an independent Jewish nation in the land of Israel. In the above pictured hall David ben Gurion declared on the 5th of Iyyar 5708, "This recognition by the United Nations of the right of the Jewish people to establish their independent state may not be revoked. It is, moreover, the self-evident right of the Jewish people to be a nation, like all other nations, in its own sovereign state.... Our call goes out to the Jewish people all over the world to rally to our side in the task of immigration and development and to stand by us in the great struggle for the fulfillment of the dream of generations--the redemption of Israel." To read the full text of the Proclamation of the State of Israel click here. To listen to its concluding words in Ben Gurion's own voice, and my favorite part, the thunderous applause, click here. The applause of course captures my mood and should most reflect your feelings. Despite the fact that Israel still faces many enemies who refuse to even affirm its existence, despite the fact that the United Nations which helped to give birth to this nation has become instead more a forum for antisemitism and anti-Israel sentiment, the Jewish state continues to thrive. There people celebrate life. There people celebrate Jewish life. For thousands of years Jews only dreamed of a state in the land of Israel. Let us never take Israel for granted. Israel deserves our thanks and our applause. Take a moment to relish the fact that our generation of Jews is living the dream. "When the Lord restores the fortunes of Zion/we shall be like dreamers/our mouths shall be filled with laughter,/our tongues, with songs of joy." (Psalm 126) Amen! Applause!

Monday, April 27, 2009

Yom HaZikaron

This evening begins Yom HaZikaron--Israel's Memorial Day, when we remember Israel's fallen soldiers. The gravestone above sits at Har Herzl--Israel's military cemetery in Jerusalem. It reads: "Anonymous/Fell in the Battle of Jerusalem/9 Sivan 5708 [June 16, 1948]/May his soul be bound in the bond of life." In the War of Independence Israel lost over 6,000 soldiers of a population of approximately 800,000. In all Israel mourns 22,570 soldiers. Israel paid, and continues to pay, a high price for its freedom and security. (133 died in the past year.) I remember the first time I visited Har Herzl. Unlike Arlington where one is overwhelmed and awed by the vastness of its grounds, Har Herzl makes you gasp because it appears small but is in fact deceptively large. It is terraced and built into Jerusalem's hills. There are a hundred graves here and another there and then even more around another corner. With each terrace one confronts another of Israel's wars: the dead from 1967 and those from 1973, from Lebanon and the Sinai. You think that you have completed your tour of the grounds only to discover another terrace with more dead. And then one day I stumbled upon an empty terrace, as if waiting to welcome more young sons and daughters. The empty spaces of New Montefoire make sense. One day, after many, many years, every one finds his/her way there. The empty terraces of Har Herzl do not make sense. They should not make sense. They must not make sense. Let no more terraces be cut in Jerusalem's hills. Let no more young children die to defend our land... Let our small patch of land and its people know peace.
For a poignant reflection by Rabbi David Hartman about Yom HaZikaron and Yom Haatzmaut (Independence Day) read this.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Risk and Uncertainty

In the most recent edition of The New Yorker (April 20, 2009) James Surowiecki ("The Financial Page: Hanging Tough") offers some interesting insights about the economy and the history of how companies move ahead through recessions. Great companies are those that use such times to leap forward rather than just weathering the storm. Kellogg for example outpaced its rival Post in the late 20's, increasing its profits by 30% by 1933. Apple launched the iPod in 2001. You know the rest of that story. In the past I never read stories about the economy but these days I am drawn to them more and more. And so with this reading I learned that the economist Frank Knight makes an important distinction between risk and uncertainty. "Risk describes a situation where you have a sense of the range and likelihood of possible outcomes. Uncertainty describes a situation where it's not even clear what might happen, let alone how likely the possible outcomes are." At present most everyone's hearts are filled with uncertainty. I share that sentiment when it comes to my investments. I am worried too about paying for college. The problem is that people conflate the uncertainty of their investments with life in general. Life has always been filled with risk. The beauty of spending years absorbed in the study of ancient texts is that you come to realize that human history (and especially Jewish history) is filled with periods like today's, when people are gripped by uncertainty. This perspective of the history of thousands of years gives me strength. It gives me faith to see our current times as those certainly beset by risk, but also by unforeseen opportunities. One day, when the history of our days are written, I am certain we will be able to look back and say, "Because of 2009 we are now blessed with..." I do hope however that it is more than the snap, crackle, pop of Rice Krispies.

Koufax Redux

It is not Sandy Koufax but I will take it. The Jets' home game against the Tennessee Titans on Sunday, September 27 has been rescheduled to a 1 pm start all because of Yom Kippur. Sunday evening is Kol Nidre. Woody Johnson, the Jets owner said, “By changing the time of the Tennessee game from 4:15 p.m. to 1 p.m., the NFL has provided the best compromise to resolve our scheduling conflict. I want to thank Commissioner Goodell and Howard Katz for quickly responding to our request to accommodate our fans of Jewish faith." Only in New York! Well this could make me a Jets fan. Of course I am pretty sure that I will still be unable to make the game...
Then there is Jimmy Kimmel's take on the issue.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Antisemitism Again

It is remarkable that on the very evening that the Jewish world is marking Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), Iran's president speaks to the UN conference against racism and offers evidence that antisemitism is not yet the stuff of history books. We did not defeat antisemitism when the Nazis were defeated. There in Durban Ahmadinejad accused Israel of being a racist and oppressive regime. Yet it is his country that openly calls for the destruction of another. It is his country that marches ever closer to building nuclear weapons. (I do not believe that a militaristic theocracy led in part by a man bent on heralding a messianic cataclysm has the noble intention of nuclear energy rather than weapons.) It is this man who calls for the annihilation of the Jews of Israel. But rather than become depressed by his hate-filled words and disenchanted by the renewed evidence of the world's oldest hatred or become enraged at the UN's inability to quell antisemitism--at least at its conferences and its failure to protect all of its member states equally, I am going to focus on a positive note. The world appears to have changed--slightly. The European diplomats in attendance walked out when Iran's president began his tirade. And there is also this. In a small Palestinian village a new Holocaust museum opened. Yad VaShem helped to translate the exhibit into Arabic. The village's elder said: "If leaders on both sides know and remember what Hitler did, maybe we will have peace." I am still waiting for much of the Arab--and Persian--world to stop denying the Holocaust and learn from recent history. But perhaps this is a start. Perhaps such a museum and such public displays of disagreement will turn history.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Yom HaShoah

Of all the memorials at Yad VaShem I am always drawn to the "Valley of Communities." This 2.5 acre memorial is part maze and part map of Europe. It was dug out of Jerusalem's bedrock. There is a section for each country of Europe and a corner for each area of that country. All that is etched on the wall is the name of the area's largest city and then all of the surrounding Jewish towns and villages destroyed in the Shoah. In all there are over 5,000 names etched on these walls. In most cases nothing remains of these communites. For hundreds of years, prior to the Holocaust, these towns and villages teemed with Jewish life. Vilna, in particular, was the capital of Jewish learning for hundreds of years and was called in Yiddish the "Jerusalem of Lithuania." We lost not only millions of lives and millions of their descendants. We also lost centers of Jewish learning and creativity. Every year I am pursued by this question: how do you come to understand the destruction of six million lives, six million families tormented? How to undertand 5,000 communites that are no more? We can only tell the stories of individuals. This year in remembrance of the Shoah watch and listen to a survivor's story from the Yad VaShem museum. Spend a few minutes watching the testimonies of this year's torchlighters. This year discover a glimmer of what was lost.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Passover Spices

On this Passover let us take a moment to revel in family and friends. Much has changed since we last celebrated Pesah. Much of our world has been turned upside down. Take comfort in the following. For thousands of years Jews have celebrated Passover. At times we marked this day during years of great hardship. In others during years of success and wealth. Despite the world around us, despite the history of our own day, we have continued to celebrate our holidays and gather around our tables reciting the prayers of our tradition. For generations young children have recited the four questions. For thousands of years we have eaten matzah to mark our redemption from Egypt and the day that began our history as a people. When the world is seemingly off balance and our lives appear to be following an unforeseen trajectory our traditions help return us to a straight path. Our customs help to restore balance. They remind us of what is most important. When you feel as if you are falling hold on to the haggadah. Hold on to the songs of our tradition. Look around your Seder tables and listen to our tradition's songs and prayers, open your ears to the music of dishes clanking and family members squabbling. Even this should be music to your ears. Then you can take comfort in the fact that some things are just like last year. One final note, there are many creative ways to spice up your Passover seders. For starters try adding variety to your haroset recipes. Haroset only has to look like bricks. Its taste is in your hands.

Final Four

Ari and I just returned from our trip to the Final Four in Detroit. What an experience! Even though I was pulling for the home town favorite of Michigan State it was still a great weekend and great fun. The game on Saturday night when State beat UConn was incredible. On that night the stadium roared with the excitement of 72,000 plus fans. In the end the Tar Heels were too good for any team to handle. And so I had to let go of my loyalty to Duke and offer congrats to North Carolina and its fans. Most of all congrats to Michigan State for bringing joy and excitement to Detroit!

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Israel's New Government

As you may have read a new governing coalition has been created consisting of: Likud, Labor, Shas, Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Our Home) and HaBayit HaYehudi (Jewish Home). It appears that Netanyahu was unable to bring in United Torah Judaism because they were too steadfast in their demands to change the Law of Return (the question of who is a Jew). He had to bring in Jewish Home as a hedge against a Labor splinter group having the power to bring down the government. Barak’s decision to join the government was a controversial decision within Labor and could very well cause a split within the party, depending on the direction of the Netanyahu government. Here is an article from Yediot Ahronot about the new government which was sworn in on Tuesday. The joke in Israel is that Netanyahu had to give away so many cabinet positions that the ceremonial picture of the new government will have to be taken in Jerusalem's Teddy stadium. Let us hope and pray that Israel's new government will lead the country with courage and resoluteness. Chazak chazak v'nitchazek! And more on a recent post (Israel's Army, March 22)... If you want to read an important article regarding the controversy about Israeli soldiers' actions in Gaza read Leon Wieseltier's recent piece in TNR. Take note of these words: "In its sad way, the recent controversy about Israel's conduct in Gaza was a beautiful thing, because the truest test of the moral condition of a society is its willingness to examine its moral condition." To this I offer a heart wrenching "Amen."