Sunday, December 27, 2009

Belated Happy Hanukkah

Last week I attended my daughter's high school winter concert.  She sings in the school choir.  Here are the songs they performed: Siyahamba (a South African Swahili hymn), Maoz Tzur (our very own Rock of Ages), Noche de Luz (Night of Silence), I'll be There (by the Jackson 5), The Storm is Passing Over (a Gospel standard) and the Halleluyah Chorus (from Handel's Messiah).  First of all let's state the obvious.  A far more diverse selection of music than the days of Solomon Schechter!  And also to be honest, I have still not come to terms with the conflicting feelings of seeing and hearing my daughter sing verses from the New Testament's Book of Revelation (that is what the Halleluyah chorus is structured around).  My feelings are something of a mixture of "Wow, she sings so well.  It makes me so proud." with "That's not what we believe.  No, we are still waiting."  Nonetheless the multi-ethnic quality of the occasion was wonderful to behold and despite the inability of Maoz Tzur to measure up to the music of Handel and great Gospel (I love Gospel!) I was taken in by the event's pluralism.  And this of course brings me to Hanukkah.  The Maccabees would have been none too pleased.  This concert and the celebration of Hanukkah in the midst of a non-Jewish culture would have, to be honest to our history, angered them.  David Brooks had it right in his New York Times column.  The heroes of the Hanukkah story were radical in their ideology.  "They were right and the rest of the world wrong" was their motto.  There was nothing good to be found in the non-Jewish world.  Its influences must be opposed at all costs.  It is this kind of ideology that leads some to destroy, apparently, a mosque in Israel's West Bank.  Read the Jerusalem Post's account here and the New York Times account of this tragic tale and its aftermath here.  This destructive act appears to have been a deliberate attempt to live by the Maccabees' values.  And herein lies the essence of Hanukkah in today's world.  The overwhelming majority of the Jewish world celebrates Hanukkah and the victory of the Maccabees but does not call its heroes' values their own.  We live in two worlds.  We have one foot in the Jewish world and one in the non-Jewish world.  Even at day schools where we only sing our own songs, we live in two worlds.  Even in Israel, in our sovereign Jewish state, we are both Jewish and modern.  In my new world we sing their songs.  They sing ours.  That is how I choose to live.  I am thankful for the victory of centuries ago.  I am thankful as well that the Maccabees did not remain in power for very long.  I also hope and pray that their ideology never rules the day.  There is good to be found in my world and the outside world.  It is easier and simpler to be a fanatic and say "Only I am right.  Only my Jewish world."  I choose instead complicated and nuanced.  And by the way my Shira sang beautifully!

Friday, December 18, 2009

Orrin Hatch's Hanukkah Song

I am sure you read about this in The New York Times.  I am still not sure what to say about it...  Happy Hanukkah from Senator Orrin Hatch!? I guess the response is better left to song: "I'm dreaming of a white Christmas..."

Eight Days of Hanukkah from Tablet Magazine on Vimeo.
And by the way, here is the story of that most famous of Christmas songs.

Helping Others

During this Hanukkah our synagogue reached out to those in our community who are hungry and homeless.  We donated gift cards to the Interfaith Nutrition Network's Mary Brennan Soup Kitchen so that we can help restore a measure of dignity to those dependent on tzedakah.  It means a great deal for people to go shopping for themselves and buy what they need and perhaps even what they might want.  That is of course what I sometimes get to do!  At the INN, I helped Rob sort donated clothes and in particular winter coats.  You can watch the YouTube video of my visit here.  On Wednesday our confirmation students met with Dennis and Lisa from the Interfaith Assembly on Homelessness and Housing.  Both Dennis and Lisa were formerly homeless and shared powerful personal stories with our students.  Lisa spoke about her struggle with bipolar disorder and being unjustly evicted from her apartment because of her mental illness.  Dennis spoke about living on the streets of New York City for fourteen years.  He told us about eating food out of garbage cans.  He shared with the students his struggle with crack addiction.  He spoke of the kindness of a few individuals.  This morning I delivered 200 lunch bags filled with fruit, juice, snacks and turkey sandwiches to St. Hugh's Project Hope.  Thank you to the seventh graders for their help in preparing these meals.  Thank you to Joe, Robin, Susan and Renee for their added support!  Danny of Project Hope will deliver these lunches to Latino day laborers in the Huntington Station area today and tomorrow.  It is remarkable to think that less than two miles from my home there are people who do not have enough money to buy food for themselves.  A few statistics.  The INN serves 400-500 people per day--on our very own Long Island.  Project Hope distributes 100 lunches per day--in my very own town.  In New York City there are over 37,000 people living in shelters.  The numbers are staggering.  And these are only the official counts. In the end, one would be too many!  So on this Hanukkah I rededicate myself to helping those less fortunate than myself.  I can do more.  We can do more.  I say with the prophet Isaiah, who told us of our most important duty: "It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to ignore your own kin." (Isaiah 58)  The final line is the most important point.  We cannot fix all of the world's problems.  We cannot even end hunger.   But we also cannot ignore the issues!  We must open our hands to the needy.  One at a time.  One sandwich at a time.  One act of hesed can bring healing to one small world.  That is where we will begin.  That is the only place where we can begin.  Turning aside is not a Jewish option.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Tom Friedman Column

In today's New York Times, Tom Friedman writes about the narrative of hate and blame that permeates throughout the Middle East.  I quote from his conclusion in which he addresses himself to Muslims.  "Whenever something like Fort Hood happens you say, ‘This is not Islam.’ I believe that. But you keep telling us what Islam isn’t. You need to tell us what it is and show us how its positive interpretations are being promoted in your schools and mosques. If this is not Islam, then why is it that a million Muslims will pour into the streets to protest Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, but not one will take to the streets to protest Muslim suicide bombers who blow up other Muslims, real people, created in the image of God? You need to explain that to us — and to yourselves."  There is of course plenty of blame to go around.  Israel and the United States are certainly not perfect.  (I love them despite their imperfections.)  But the heart of the matter continues to be the issue that Friedman writes about in today's paper.  I would add to his words: "Rise up.  Protest.  Take to the streets — not against something, but for something.  Tell the world no longer what you want to destroy, but what you want to create."  I would advise Muslim leaders with the principle by which I have always tried to live my life.  Whenever there are problems to be addressed and repaired it cannot only be about what others are doing wrong.  It must first be about what I am doing wrong.  I have always believed that repair begins with oneself.  Anger is only useful when it is directed inward.  To read Friedman's entire column follow this link.  To read a somewhat related article about President Obama's handling of foreign policy, read Leon Wieseltier's most recent piece in The New Republic.  In Wieseltier's, and my, view we should have more actively supported those in the Middle East (in particular Iran) who did indeed take to the streets, attempting to create something positive.  How we help to nurture a more positive narrative continues to be the question of the day.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Returning Thanks

As always Thanksgiving brings with it the blessings of family and perhaps too much food. Given our blessings I am very proud that our synagogue is organizing a number of projects to help those who are less fortunate than ourselves. On December 9, JCB volunteers will help to sort the many toys and food donated to the Interfaith Nutrition Network's Mary Brennan Soup Kitchen in Hempstead. In addition JCB members will donate gift cards so that INN patrons can purchase what they need themselves and thereby redeem a measure of their dignity. At our next confirmation class, on December 16, a former homeless person, now working for the Interfaith Assembly on Homelessness and Housing, will share his story and educate our students and their parents about the problems of hunger and homelessness. This is a rare opportunity to hear a personal story. Far too often we separate ourselves from these difficulties in our suburban bubbles. We think this is not a problem in our neighborhood. This is not our problem. But as Jews we must never distance ourselves from others and their difficulties. We know the feeling of the stranger. Finally, on December 17, our 7th graders and fellow congregants will pack lunch bags and sandwiches to be delivered to the hungry and poor in the Huntington Station area. These items will be delivered through the Saint Hugh's Project Hope. We can never repair all of the world's problems. We can also never say that there are too many problems to fix. We must start somewhere. We must try to repair our world. Let us begin by trying to address the problem of hunger in our very own neighborhood!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Third Intifada | The New Republic

The Third Intifada | The New Republic
Here is a rather depressing article from TNR about the simmering tensions among Palestinians and the worries about a potential third intifada.  The sad and tragic fact is that Palestinian leaders continue to believe that the only way to advance their legitimate aspirations for statehood is through violence.  You cannot build a nation on hatred and violence.  Until Palestinians accommodate their thinking and affirm the legitimacy of the Jewish state in the land of Israel we will only see times of sheket--relative quiet and never shalom--peace.  Israel can withdraw from this territory or that.  Israel can halt the expansion of "settlements" or not.  The fundamental issue is that the majority of Israelis have accepted Palestinian aspirations as legitimate whereas the majority of Palestinians (at least as expressed by their leaders) have yet to come to terms not only with Jewish aspirations but Jewish history and present reality.  I continue to believe that if Palestinian leaders would truly affirm these and say in English, Hebrew and especially Arabic, "The State of  Israel is here to stay.  Its establishment was recognized by the United Nations over sixty years ago.  It is built on the Jewish people's historical connection to this land that we also hold dear..."  the rest of the details could be worked out at the negotiating table.
Addendum: On a more positive note read this TNR post discussing secret talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

Friday, November 13, 2009

A Serious Man

I just saw the Coen brothers' new film.  "A Serious Man."  It is a must see.  It is as the reviewers have noted a modern midrash on the biblical Job.  It is the story of a math professor who believes that life in general and his life in particular should follow certain understandable and definable formulas.  Of course life does not.  As his life unravels he, unlike his brother and like Job, never curses God and tries to uncover life's hidden meaning and seeks out the advice of three rabbis.  The rabbis all fail, some worse than others.  The below clip contains my favorite scene.  "The rabbi is busy...  He is thinking."  The most senior rabbi actually refuses to meet with the serious man.  The other rabbis either give entirely inadequate answers or tell a story rather than answer the question.  The best answer is of course "He is thinking."  That is the only answer we have.

Some have suggested that the movie is self hating and portrays an unflattering picture of American Judaism, Jews and rabbis.  I disagree.  It is honest, perhaps brutally so.  I feel the inadequacy of sitting at the other side of the table from the serious man.  How can anyone really understand and answer life's mysteries?  That is the essence of the Job story.  Many (especially rabbis) pretend to have it all figured out.  That is what the movie and the biblical Job rejects.  There is more to write about and discuss: the portrayal of the relation between Jews and "goyim," the picture of Hebrew School and bar mitzvahs and of course the prominence of Jefferson Airplane.  The movie is framed by two quotes.  It begins with a quote from Rashi, the great medieval Jewish commentator: "React with simplicity to everything that happens to you." and concludes with Jefferson Airplane: "When the truth is found to be lies, and all the joy within you dies."  Somewhere, sandwiched in between tradition and modernity, and while tossed around by the whirlwind (here a tornado), we uncover our inadequate answers to life's mysteries. Rabbis can't figure it all out for you!  If you would like to participate in a discussion about the film, go to our synagogue's Facebook fan page.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Springsteen Concert

After yesterday's post I thought I would lighten up the mood. In the above picture, Susie and I, along with fellow JCB members, Randi and Patty, enjoyed the Bruce Springsteen concert on Sunday. I ran into at least a minyan of congregants there, as well as Bill Bradley, incoming governor Chris Christie and Elvis Costello (ok I really only saw him from afar). They expressed only mild interest in joining the congregation, although Senator Bradley and I had an interesting conversation about basketball (his former passion), biking (my current passion--and ok only I would have the chutzpah to place his basketball playing and my biking in the same sentence), his interesting new radio show about everyday unsung heroes (Sirius channel 102) and the rabbi at the Bruce concert (I am pretty sure that was me). We were both taken and amused that we would meet at a Springsteen concert. Music unites. Music elevates. There are no divisions when you are singing and dancing together.  It is a powerful feeling when the lights go on and you see everyone standing and singing along with the Boss.  "Do you like good music? Sweet soul music?" Say it with Bruce, "Oh yeah!" And of course thanks again to Robert for the tickets!

Monday, November 9, 2009

Fort Hood

I have been reading with keen interest the stories about the murder of 12 soldiers and one civilian at Fort Hood. I was appalled to learn that a physician would take life rather than fight to preserve it. I was captivated by the heroism of Officer Kimberly Munley. As with similar tales of Columbine and Virginia Tech, the news media is filled with attempts to understand the murderer's motivations. He was opposed to the US wars in Iraq in Afghanistan. He was distraught about his upcoming deployment. He was unable to bear the pain and scars returning soldiers shared with him. He was harassed, ridiculed and perhaps even persecuted because he was a Muslim. Some of these points are no doubt true. I can only imagine the scars soldiers carry with them. I believe that he was the victim of anti-Muslim hate. But shooting at unarmed men and women is never a way to solve grievances, whether real or imagined. Shouting Allah Akhbar--God is great--when taking lives, only diminishes God in this world rather than enlarges religious feelings and passions. If a Jew had done this terrible deed--as Jack Teitel is similarly accused by the Israeli authorities of doing--you would hear me say, "This is not Judaism! This is a defamation of everything we believe in!" I have said this in the past and so I say it again. If a Jew had done this you would not hear statements of let's explore why he is so aggrieved. You would hear instead, "Where have we failed as Jewish teachers?" Where is this debate among Muslim leaders?  I do not excuse the psychiatrist's tormentors. I hold little forgiveness for those who bully others. Part of being Jewish is the attempt to understand the heart of the stranger. If such accusations of discrimination are true, the army should do its part to fight it. The army has in the past led the way in healing the rifts in our society and there is indeed a growing and wrenching divide that must be bridged. I hope and pray that our current armed forces will do its part. I offer this prayer. "Yitgadal v'yitkadash--May God's greatness be sanctified and manifest." May the most recent victims of hate--and despair--rest in peace. May their families be granted healing and consolation. Allah Akhbar--and Baruch HaShem for that matter--must only be said when human life is saved and preserved. May God's greatness be forever praised--in celebration of life!

Monday, October 26, 2009

AIPAC Luncheon

On Wednesday I attended a lecture with David Horovitz, editor-in-chief of the The Jerusalem Post. After reassuring the attendees that there is a day to day feeling of calm and security in Israel and especially in Jerusalem, he went on to say that there is a sense of crisis because of three simmering issues:
1. The need to separate from the Palestinians in order to preserve the Jewish and democratic character of the State of Israel. This need is creating a growing sense of angst because there is no viable partner with which to make peace. The vast majority of Israelis share two conflicting feelings: the Jewish imperative to make peace tugging against the fact that there is no one with which to talk.
2. The growing existential threat of Iran. Soon there will be a regime who agitates for the destruction of Israel combined with the means (namely nuclear weapons) to carry out these aims. A nuclear armed Iran remakes the region and is unacceptable to Israel. The vast majority of Israelis have little hope and faith in Obama's diplomatic efforts. A strengthened Iran continues to embolden the radicals in the region. Israelis believe that Iran must first be de-fanged in order for the moderates to emerge and for there to be serious negotiations with the Palestinians.
3. The increasing de-legitimization of the State of Israel in the international community. The legitimacy of the modern State of Israel transcends the Holocaust and the suffering the Jewish people endured during those years. The modern state is built on the foundations of the ancient state. History binds our presence to the land of Israel. Within international discourse this very connection is being systematically severed. In a bitter irony, at the United Nations, the very institution that lent international legitimacy to the nascent state, Ahmadinejad (y'mach sh'mo) is allowed to spout venom and begrudge Israel's existence. The State of Israel means far more than the amelioration of suffering.
Despite these worries and fears, Israelis continue to sing and dance, celebrate and rejoice. The economy continues to grow and the State of Israel thrives.

Thursday, October 15, 2009


Our synagogue's website has a new feature: podcasts. You can listen to my High Holiday sermons on the website or subscribe through iTunes. You will also find there regular interpretations of the weekly Torah portion, called "Three Minutes of Torah." Occasionally I will share longer talks about contemporary events.
To listen through the website click here.
To subscribe with iTunes click here.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Happy Simhat Torah!

Moadim l'simha--happy holidays! There are two Jewish ideals that are realized in the holiday of Simchat Torah which begins today, October 9 (according to the Reform and Israel calendar).
1. The joy of Torah. There is nothing more joyous than studying Torah. On Simchat Torah we celebrate the fact that we are privileged to begin again the Torah reading cycle. Simchat Torah is analogous to rebooting your computer. Even if you haven't finished all of your work, even if you haven't finished reading every story, even if you haven't finished studying every word, every once in a while you have to start all over again at the beginning.
2. You really can't dance by yourself. You need your friends. You need the swirl of others. You need your community. Celebrating by yourself is impossible. The community adds to your happiness. This is the Jewish contention. We understand this truth best when we are surrounded by others at our own simchas. This contention is truly realized when our happiness is bound to what lies at the center of our Jewish lives: Torah. Hence Simchas Torah.
On Simchat Torah, community and Torah are combined into one great song and dance.
For my YouTube video about Simchat Torah and for evidence of this truth click here. This evening's Simchat Torah/Shabbat celebration will be accompanied by a Klezmer ensemble and concert with Michael Winograd.
If you are looking to learn more about Klezmer read this article on

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Gilad Shalit Video

Below is the video, recently released by Hamas, of Gilad Shalit, who has been held prisoner since June 25, 2006. Israel released 20 female prisoners, serving terms for various terrorist activities, in exchange for the video. I imagine the video brings both a measure of relief and some pain to Gilad's parents. May Noam and Aviva soon hold their son in their arms!

Friday, August 7, 2009

MEMRI Report

Although I know only a few words in Arabic (yes, hello, goodbye, let's go and peace) it is important that we make ourselves aware of what is said in the Arab media. It does not serve the cause of peace to base decisions and opinions on what is only said to the Western press. (The same would be true about Hebrew, but there does not appear as wide a gap between what Israelis say and write in Hebrew and what they say and write in English.) To that end it is worthwhile, if not depressing, to read the reports of The Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI). I quote here from their recent report about the Fatah conference. (Fatah is the ruling party of Mahmoud Abbas' Palestinian Authority.): "Statements made on the eve of the Fatah conference, and during its opening session, indicate that the dominant position among Fatah members is that resistance (muqawama) of various forms is a legitimate right of the Palestinian people. Most Fatah members advocated a combination of the political path with various forms of resistance - from non-violent measures such as demonstrating and planting trees to armed resistance. Except for one lone voice, none expressed a willingness to completely rule out armed resistance. Even Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas took an ambiguous stand, in contrast to past statements in which he explicitly opposed violence. It is clear that his position supports both the political process and popular resistance, but what is not clear is whether he is willing to remove the option of violent resistance from the table altogether." The rest of the report can be found here. We can only make peace if we confront what is said and written everywhere.

Sunday, August 2, 2009


Here are two more articles from this weekend's papers about the peace process, the question of settlements and the increasing tension between the Obama and Netanyahu administrations.
1. Elliott Abrams in Saturday's The Wall Street Journal: Why Israel is Nervous.
2. Tom Friedman in Sunday's The New York Times: Free Marriage Counseling.
I am sure there will be more to read in the weeks and months ahead.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Settlements Again

We have returned to the place we were before. If only Israel would stop its settlement activity then the Palestinians would press for peace with Israel. Ok, perhaps I am overstating the case, but such seems the mood of this week's papers. So let's take a moment and clarify a few points. To my mind there are three distinct categories of what the world calls "settlements." 1. There are a large number of Israelis who live within the boundaries of the Jerusalem municipality but who live in areas that were captured from Jordan in the 1967 Six Day War. These neighborhoods of Pisgat Zeev (with 50,000 people), French Hill and others are regarded by the overwhelming majority of Israelis (and Jews) as part of the unified city of Jerusalem. Their populations range the gamut of Israeli political opinion. 2. There is another significant number who live in what may be called suburbs. These settlement blocs of Maale Adumim, Gush Etzion and Ariel each comprise some 20,000 people. It would be impossible to uproot these communities. Perhaps Israel should not have populated these areas, but had the Arab, Muslim and Palestinian world sued for peace decades ago they would have written their own, different facts on the ground. Rent the movie Unsettled to see the pain of uprooting the comparatively small number of 7,000 settlers from Gaza to understand why uprooting these areas would be overly traumatic for Israel. 3. These comprise the minority of people but the majority of air time. These settlements, some illegal and others sanctioned, are geographically isolated. They are for the most part ideologically isolated as well, at least from the majority of Israelis. The longer they are allowed to remain a part of the Israeli discourse the more such views as "Democracy is antithetical to Judaism" and "God gave the land only to the Jews" will come to dominate Israeli politics. Still I fail to understand (at least philosophically) why Jews can't choose to live in a Palestinian state just as Arabs now live in a Jewish state. This brings me to President Obama who seems to see the primary justification for the modern State of Israel as recompense for past suffering. Obama's biography is in part about transcending differences and thereby transforming suffering. But this is not all that Zionism and the State of Israel is about. The state was not founded in Uganda or Argentina (as Herzl once suggested). It does matter where it is. The West Bank and Jerusalem are the very cradle of Jewish civilization. Palestinian suffering must be ameliorated. A Palestinian State, as Benjamin Netanyahu affirmed, must be created. But it is not just a matter of you live there and I will live here. Nonetheless I still believe that the vast majority of Israelis would sacrifice these very places and even the first Jewish city of Hebron if the Palestinians and Arabs would affirm the right of the Jewish state to exist in the land of Israel (and that means religious, historical, philosophical and international right). I will continue to pray for peace but I remain skeptical if the current round of chastisements are only directed at those who are the most sensitive to rebuke. Read these articles for more insights on the current debate: Yossi Klein HaLevi's in The New Republic, Aluf Benn's in The New York Times and of course Donniel Hartman's article on the Jewish necessity of a two-state solution, found on the Shalom Hartman Institute website.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Tisha B'Av

Pictured above is Robinson's Arch just south of the Western Wall. When standing here one is taken by what must have been the enormity of the Temple Mount. Today we commemorate Tisha B'Av (9th of Av), the day on which the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in 70 CE (as well as a number of other Jewish tragedies). I know I am supposed to be mourning. I know I am supposed to be fasting. I know I am supposed to be praying for the Temple to be rebuilt, Jewish sovereignty restored, the exiles to return to their land... But given that nearly six million Jews have returned to the land of Israel and given that Jewish sovereignty is reborn in the modern State of Israel, I no longer mourn. I refuse to allow the burdens of history to weigh me down. There is an inherent tension when learning history. One is pulled between taking to heart the lessons of history and refusing to let history go. I for one have internalized the Zionist message. The past will not determine our future. The past will not enslave the present. I must be guided by it, but I cannot be ruled it. And so I always remember the tragedies of the past (as a Jew they are forever entangled in my kishkes) but more importantly I celebrate the present. When it comes to the choice between a present filled with hope and a past steeped in sorrow, I choose hope.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Kosher Apple Jacks?

I did not know Apple Jacks were kosher. I never really bothered to ask or to think about it. I won't eat them for a variety of reasons. But when you do think about it you have to ask, how can a cereal that is mostly sugar and that is not healthy for kids really be kosher? Oh, you might say that I am missing the point. The point is that for those for whom this matters the cereal has a hekhsher and they can eat them or not depending on their penchant for sweet cereal. But then this weekend I discovered how even the most kosher of cereals can become trafe. We read the tale of rabbis accused of laundering money and in some instances even hiding cash in Apple Jacks cereal boxes (and apparently selling human organs on the black market as well!). If you really want to read more about this sad and embarrassing story click here. And so the real point is that kosher is not just about the food we place in our mouths. The kosher certification on the outside of the box cannot make unethical behavior ethical, cannot transform trafe into kosher. There are some who are by all appearances religious, but in actuality are anything but. When someone is scrupulous in their ritual observance but ignores such basic human, ethical mitzvot, such as "You shall not steal," they are not religious. The fact that they are rabbis and are therefore regarded as representatives of religion in general and Judaism in particular is in the Talmud's estimation, a hillul ha-Shem--a desecration of God's name. I am saddened and embarrassed that the Torah I so love was defamed, that people will now say, "Why do I need religion?" My answer might be: You need religion to remind you that no matter what cereal you eat in the morning, you require a community, a book and a God to prod you to do good in this world. No one sees what you eat for breakfast, everyone sees (eventually) whether your hands bring healing or harm.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The People of Jerusalem

Enjoy my latest video of the people of Jerusalem. You can find it on my YouTube channel. There is a wonderful mix of people here. It is certainly no melting pot and sometimes there are even clashes. During my stay here there were protests about a parking garage being open on Shabbat and violent protests when social services intervened in order to hospitalize a toddler from the Neturei Karta Hasidic sect. For a summary of this particularly troubling incident and the issues involved read this Jerusalem Post article. Despite this simmering tension between Jerusalem's Zionist and non-Zionist Jewish populations, on most days all co-exist. Jerusalem is a wonderful city, filled with life. Enjoy the videos.

The Object of Art

Last week we visited Israeli artist, Jo Milgrom. She is the mother of my colleague and friend, Rabbi Shira Milgrom. Her sculpture garden features "recycled" Jewish ceremonial objects. She collects discarded tefillin, Torah covers and other assorted objects and turns them into artwork. She said, "'Turn it over' may also mean 'overturn it,' to escape sameness and stereotype. Better a fiesty, controversial life than dullness and burial." For a number of my colleagues her artwork turned sacred into profane. I, on the other hand, found that it to gave new life to ancient symbols. Sometimes you have to be forced to look at things in new, surprising, different, controversial and perhaps what might even be called sacrilegious ways to appreciate their deeper meaning. Is it unholy to place a Torah mantle in a different context and to hang it from a living tree rather than covering what Jewish tradition terms the "tree of life"--the Torah? This could not be the sculpture garden of a synagogue but it makes you think. Thinking in new categories is one of the objects of art. For more pictures of her artwork click here.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Mount of Olives

Today our group traveled to the Mount of Olives and in particular to the churches and cemeteries on the east side of the Old City. On top of the mount is what may be called the holiest Jewish cemetery. Here such Jewish greats as Ramban (Nachmanides), Menachem Begin (prime minister), Shai Agnon (Israeli Nobel laureate) and Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (first chief rabbi and mystic) are buried. Here Jesus spent the evening with his disciples before his crucifixion. Although it is in the heart of East Jerusalem it provides an extraordinary view of the Old City, the slope of the mountain gives the impression that one is peering into the confines of the city's walls. From this vantage point the golden dome of the Dome of the Rock, the silver cupola of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the new, white gleaming dome of the Hurva (Ramban) synagogue now being rebuilt can be seen. For more pictures click here. As one walks down the hill one moves from a Jewish cemetery, to Christian graves and churches to Moslem graves. Each successive ruler built their cemetery closer to the walls, although Zechariah's enormous grave is located in the valley. The gates to the Old City in the picture above were covered by Muslim conquerors because it was through these gates that the Jewish messiah would enter after resurrecting the dead on the Mount of Olives. (I never really understood why a messiah would be turned back by bricks, but such has always been the politics of this place.) It is for this reason that this mount continues to hold special power over Jews. Here they will first experience the redemption and therefore be the first to be resurrected. I have never felt the pull of such graves. History has its pull, but not graves as holy places. It is instead the living, bustling city, that continues to serve as the holiest of destinations.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Idan Raichel Concert

This evening my friends and I went to the Idan Raichel concert at the Israel Museum's sculpture garden. It was a perfect Jerusalem evening, with a comfortable breeze and a few stars scattered across the sky. In attendance were a mixture of young and old, secular and religious. Idan Raichel is a most unlikely image. He is of Ashkenazi roots but looks more like a Rastafarian. His songs are sung in Hebrew, Amharic (Ethopian) Arabic, Ladino and even English. He plays the electric keyboard and accordion. There is a mixture of instruments: electric guitars, oud (Arab guitar), flute, clarinet, shofar, and an array of percussion (my favorite being what appeared to be an upside down wooden salad bowl in a pale of water). It is a mixture of Middle Eastern, Latin and Ethiopian music. He appears to be like my favorite Johnny Clegg, who as a Jewish youth in South Africa combined the sounds of Zulu with English lyrics--years before Paul Simon's Graceland. I have no doubt we will hear more about Idan Raichel. Go to his website for more information about his work and watch this trailer to get a feel about his band's extraordinary trip to Ethiopia. This evening's concert began with the words: erev tov Yerushalayim--gooood evening Jerusalem! To my ears I still hear prayer when I hear Yerushalayim, but this evening's concert was instead the living reality of Israeli life. It is not a prayer. It is a mixture of cultures and languages, black and white, Ashkenazi and Sephardi, Hebrew and Arabic, English and Amharic.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Jerusalem Shabbat

It was a wonderful Shabbat in Jerusalem. For Kabbalat Shabbat services I attended Shira Hadasha, a modern Orthodox synagogue, filled with hundreds of young people. Like most Orthodox synagogues there is a mehitza, a curtain partition separating the men's and women's sections. Unlike most, both men and women lead the praying. Not a word of the prayerbook is skipped. All the words are sung to wonderful melodies. For Shabbat morning services I attended a Reform synagogue, Mevakshei Derekh, where my cousin is the cantor. They use an Israeli Orthodox prayerbook, but make a number of changes in the prayers. Since everyone is comfortable with the Hebrew, the changes are made by the congregants and not in the printed prayerbook. There was a bat mitzvah, with her especially proud parents, and an informal kiddush. It looked and felt most like our services except of course that it was all in Hebrew--even of course the announcements. At both of these synagogues I felt welcome, although given that their customs are unlike ours I did not feel entirely at home. I felt the least at home on Shabbat afternoon when my friends and I walked to the Old City. There we find a Sephardic minyan praying minhah (the afternoon service). Their beautiful Torah scroll housed in a silver case was magnificent. We were welcomed, but the service, although familiar, was not at all my own. I stood with my friends for whom this traditional service had far more pull. Then I realized that in every other place one must think about which direction we face for our prayers. When we are standing at a shiva home on Long Island we discuss which way is East. When I am standing in Jerusalem the question is: which direction is the Wall. When standing at the Wall, the stones beckon you to prayer. After a long Shabbat walk from the Old City to the Tayelet I returned to Emek Refaim for Motzei Shabbat--the going out of Shabbat. The empty streets began to return to life. The restaurants and cafes began to fill with people by 9 pm. The streets were still crowded at 12 midnight. Here in Jerusalem Shabbat mirrors the seasons. In the heat of Shabbat afternoon the city rests and it was very few people to be found strolling. In the evening, following havdalah, the city returns to play. Walking these streets is where I feel most at home, and where my prayers feel answered.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Blessing of Rain

One of my favorite spots in Jerusalem is the Tayelet, a promenade facing the south side of the Old City. Above is a picture taken from this spot. Click here to view more pictures taken from the Tayelet. The other day there was the most surprising of occurrences, a brief misting of rain. It was not a rain like we are accustomed to in New York. Nonetheless it was the rarest of events. It seemed to herald a new mood here. I sense a greater feeling of optimism and hope this summer. In the Amidah we add the prayer for rain during Israel's winter rainy season. When here we add the words: morid ha-tal--who causes the dew to fall--in the summer. Until the other day this was purely theoretical and only an imagined reality. Walking the streets of Jerusalem I felt the mist of these words for the first time. I smiled as I felt Jerusalem's bright sun and this brief rain. It was a day where my prayers met my reality. The possibilities for such a realization are more likely to occur here in the land of Israel rather than in my New York home. This place makes for unforeseen opportunities for hopes, dreams and prayers to be realized. Amen.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Shabbat Shalom from Jerusalem

Everything feels different here--in Jerusalem. When I am in the States I worry about the threat of Iran. I worry about the unlikelihood of peace with the Palestinians--and disagreements with the new Obama administration. I worry about the simmering tensions with the ultra-Orthodox. (In fact there were riots yesterday in the city's ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods.) Still when I am here it feels entirely different. I arrived to find the mood upbeat and hopeful. There are less guards and soldiers. The outdoor pedestrian mall of Ben Yehuda is packed with people. The cafes of Emek Refaim are filled. This is the most optimistic I have found Israel in the past seven years. Still just being here fills me with hope. The lover when separated from his beloved, by the expanse of oceans, worries about his beloved far too much. The heart cannot be placated from afar. But when he is with her his heart is at ease. As the Psalmist proclaimed: "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) To view a brief video message on this theme click here.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Hiking Wadi Qelt

Today a number of us hiked Wadi Qelt, in Hebrew Nahal Prat. A wadi the Arabic term for a dry river bed that runs through the desert. The last time I hiked Wadi Qelt was some 20 years ago. I had been unable to return here because of the turmoil of the past years and in particular the first and second intifada. Even though Wadi Qelt is right outside of Jerusalem, it is in the West Bank and therefore few hiked there. It was in fact the site of a number of terrorist attacks in the past decades. Today this all seemed like ancient history. It is a striking place. (During my winter visits it is off limits because of the danger of flash floods.) The heat and barren hills of the Judean desert soon give way to the cool waters of the spring fed stream. There are pools to swim in and lush vegetation, particular wild mint called Nana, to be found in the wadi. Hundreds of school children played in the pools nearest the spring. Two monasteries are carved into the cliffs. The square holes that served as the monks entrances to their solitary caves can still be seen. For me there is nothing like climbing these hills and swimming in spring fed pools in a barren desert. It is in places like these that Abraham first dreamed of God--and where today I better understood his dreams. The lines of life and death, faith and drought, water and barrenness, seem much clearer in this desert. For more pictures of our trip click here.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

YouTube Walking Tour

We did not have classes on Friday so I spent several hours walking around my favorite city. I walked from my apartment on Emek Refaim through the Old City and to Mahane Yehuda, the open air Jewish market. Follow the link to watch the video I made with my new camera. I am just getting the hang of making and editing videos so you will have to forgive this first, rough attempt. Nonetheless I hope this short video gives you a feel of the city I love. You can watch the video by clicking here.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Jerusalem Film Festival

This evening I attended the opening of the Jerusalem Film Festival in the outdoor amphitheater of Sultan's Pool, adjacent to the Old City's Walls. It is the Jones Beach of Jerusalem. After a number of speeches and awards I was delighted to watch an Israeli comedy, "Sippur Gadol--A Matter of Size." It is the story of how four overweight men and one woman come to terms with their size and of course themselves. They renounce dieting and embrace Sumo wrestling. As you can imagine this is a recipe for some wonderful humor and some even better insights into human nature and relationships. After the past years openings featuring Disney and Pixar films, I was thrilled to see an Israeli film this summer. It is magical to laugh with Israelis outside the city's walls. Given this year's movie, imagine a Jimmy Buffett concert at Jones Beach on a cool summer night. Replace the ocean with Jerusalem's stones. You can get a feel for the experience by watching the video below.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009


My favorite poet, Yehuda Amichai, writes often about my favorite city, Jerusalem. He writes of the interplay of what the rabbis called the heavenly Jerusalem with the earthly. Here the air is thick with dreams and prayers. Here the streets echo with the sounds of young people studying, people scurrying to morning services, buses rumbling on Emek Refaim, and cars honking their horns. It is this very tension that I, as a frequent visitor, find so refreshing and rejuvenating. For those who live here, they see instead people who are forever trapped in the heavenly city, floating through the streets as if on a magic carpet. The truth is that there are too many people here struggling through the day to day of the earthly. Last evening we met with Nir Barkat, the new 48 year old mayor of Jerusalem. Barkat left his career in high tech several years ago. He created a charitable foundation with his millions and then entered politics. He decided that the city of his birth and the object of his love deserved his best efforts. His salary is one shekel per year. He is refreshingly idealistic. He believes that with good management and business acumen the earthly Jerusalem can be improved. He does not appear terribly concerned with the heavenly, but his idealism and love suggest otherwise. He worries that Jerusalem will soon lose its Jewish/Zionist majority. According to his estimate this might occur by 2035. His hope is that by investing in Jerusalem's unique cultural heritage this city will once again be a magnet to foreign tourists and more importantly a destination for secular Israelis. It is sad to say that the earthly Jerusalem is less of a pull than the heavenly. This city is more the stuff of prayers than of walking its streets. I pray that his efforts and his idealism succeed and that he, in his own words, enables all people to love Jerusalem in their unique and different ways and to do so by touching this city's earthly reality. I love my prayers. I love being here even more.

Monday, June 29, 2009

JCB Vision

This is a working draft of a mission statement for our JCB community. Your comments and suggestions would be most appreciated.
The history of Long Island synagogue life is a history built on a shtetl model of old. Synagogues were built around town identities. Synagogues focused on their functions (specifically what services they provided) rather than their visions. Once a town's Jewish population reached a critical mass a synagogue was formed to fill the needs of the area's Jews. This shtetl model is bankrupt and will fail to guarantee the future of Long Island synagogue life. Let us instead recapture the personal connections and warmth of shtetl life without its pitfalls, namely the dependence on one town's Jewish population. Let us help our fellow Jews find a synagogue not out of convenience but rather out of commitment, where they are attracted to the synagogue's vision and mission. In our mobile society where people drive to the best store, restaurant, show or beach why should they not as well drive to the best synagogue? With a one day per week Hebrew School why should families not be willing to drive to a centrally located synagogue that is in keeping with their vision?
The JCB revolves around the following principles:
1. A community built on personal connections, warmth and intimacy where not only the rabbi but fellow members know each other in order to support one another in times of crisis and help lift each other higher at simchas. In keeping with this principle our congregation only schedules solo bar/bat mitzvah celebrations. We are also an inclusive community welcoming interfaith couples and encouraging both partners' participation in the life of the synagogue.
2. Our Shabbat and holiday services provide a respite from the world's troubles. Our services are meditative, joyful, inspiring, intellectually stimulating and participatory where music and song, teaching and poetry play central roles.
3. The backbone of our community is lay involvement. We are energized by the ideas of our members and welcome the participation of all.
4. We are a learning congregation. Our Hebrew School is built on the ethic that only learning that is enjoyed is learned well. In addition we offer a myriad of adult education programming. Jewish learning--talmud torah--must not stop at the age of 13 years. Our learning enables us to become better Jews, but also better citizens, more educated about the issues our country faces and more in tune with cultural phenomena. We are open to learning from all streams of thought, both Jewish and secular, modern and ancient.
5. We are committed to the world around us through the values of tzedakah, gemilut hasadim, and tikkun olam. We are committed to helping our neighbors, both those who live nearby and those who live in distant lands, especially those connected to us by our shared Jewish traditions. We seek to maintain a deep connection to the land and State of Israel.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Obama and the Muslim World

I have been meaning to write for some time about President Obama's speech in Cairo and his trip to the Arab world the first week of June. First, a brief moment of relish. For me one of the most remarkable photos was that of Obama sitting to the left of Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah and to his right, Rahm Emanuel. I know Emanuel no longer lives in Israel. He is instead the White House chief of staff. Still you have to smile when you think about the symbolism of a Jew (and an Israeli) sitting next to Saudi Arabia's king...
Regarding President Obama's speech there is much to be said. There are positives and there are negatives. Let us first say loud and clear that Obama deserves enormous credit for traveling to the heart of Islam and speaking there words of passion and truth. Saying here is far less important than saying there words such as these. "The sooner the extremists are isolated and unwelcome in Muslim communities, the sooner we will all be safer." President Bush rightly saw the world in clear, bold lines between good and evil, friend and enemy. Let us not be naive. We have enemies. Yet how we see the world is not always how we should deal with the world and so a new strategy was required. We do not know yet if Obama's new approach will produce positive results, but if the elections in Lebanon and the simmering of revolt in Iran are measures then we can allow ourselves to be cautiously optimistic. Where the speech failed was in its treatment of Israel. It was not that he called for a Palestinian state or even in the abandonment of settlements (although I would qualify settlements to include only isolated settlements--both geographically and ideologically). My disappointment was instead in his misunderstanding of Zionism. President Obama spoke of Jewish suffering as that which lends legitimacy to the modern State of Israel. I wish Emanuel had whispered in his ear the following: It is also the United Nations (remember the vote on Partition), the Bible, Jewish history, the Hebrew language. It is the fact Jewish life begins and ends in Jerusalem and the land of Israel. It has always been our focus. It was once our dream. Now it is our reality. Despite these misgivings I conclude with our prayers who wrap words of hopes in the stones of Jerusalem. Words can change worlds. Words can move mountains. Peace begins with the word shalom echoing forth from the land of Israel.

Thursday, May 28, 2009


This evening begins one of the most important, although ironically least observed, Jewish holidays: Shavuot. I have often wondered why the day that celebrates the giving of the Torah is not number #1 of our holidays. I suspect it is because the holiday lacks a central home ritual--and perhaps because it falls in late spring or early summer. Passover is better timed (especially because of school vacations) and has of course the seder. Sukkot the sukkah. Hanukkah the menorah. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur draws people to their synagogues. Purim carnivals entice parents to lead their costumed children to celebration. Shavuot has a book--the Torah. This to be sure is a hard sell. But this book is the center of our lives. It is the love of Torah, the love of books that has nurtured the Jewish soul for countless generatation. Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch (who died in 1719) takes this view to an extreme when he argues that if one even finds a book shelved upside down, one is to turn the book right side up and kiss it. (Sefer Kav haYashar) In addition, for most reading a book is a solitary activity. Reading a book while being warmed by the sun and soothed by the ocean's waves is for many a #1 activity. Yet Judaism insists that we not read alone. So it is not so much the book but rather how we engage it that does not fit with contemporary society. Many are comfortable leafing through a book's pages or scrolling through a Kindle, but sitting across the table and arguing over every word and every phrase is what makes Shavuot feel remote. For Judaism literature is not an escape, to be relished on vacation, but a daily activity, a central enterprise. Studying Torah is how we engage the world. It is why we care for the world. On this Shavuot take time to re-engage Torah and thereby re-engage the world. Begin here with these websites: Shalom Hartman Institute and Nextbook. Chag Shavuot Samayach--a Happy Shavuot!

Monday, May 25, 2009

Memorial Day

One year I was driving back from officiating at a funeral at one of the Jewish cemeteries on Pinelawn Road. As I approached the military cemetery I realized that it was Memorial Day weekend so I pulled into the cemetery. I parked my car and with my Rabbi's Manual in hand I walked the grounds searching for a Jewish grave marker. It did not take me long to find such a grave. I opened my manual and recited El Malei Rachamim (the traditional prayer said at a grave). It was a beautiful Spring day and the cemetery grounds had been manicured and prepared for the next day's services. The distance between sacrifice and every day life is far too great. I suspect it was less in prior generations, but in mine it is so great as to be almost invisible. I had to take a detour in order to see the multitude of sacrifice--thousands of crosses and hundreds of stars. I had to look through the beauty of Spring to see the simple grave with a Jewish star, standing among rows of thousands. I do not know how a country sustains a war--even one as righteous as fighting our avowed enemies of the Taliban and Al Qaeda--when ordinary people are detached from the sacrifices it demands. A soldier's grave derives meaning from the prayers of his fellow citizens. If we do not even know that these prayers are required of us then how we will sustain any war?

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Yom Yerushalayim

A few weeks before Israel's 1967 Six Day War Naomi Shemer submitted her now famous song entry, Yerushalayim shel Zahav, to the Independence Day song competition. The theme for that year, at the insistence of Teddy Kollek, was Jerusalem. Jerusalem of Gold was performed on May 15 and became an instant sensation. Interestingly the first version of the song did not contain any mention of the Old City. By the time of the competition, and at the suggestion of friends, Shemer added the second verse about the empty market places and the Jewish longing for the Temple Mount's Western Wall. A few weeks later the IDF's soldiers stood at the Wall and cried. The army's chief rabbi blew the shofar and those gathered there broke out into song, singing Jerusalem of Gold. In a few short weeks the song had become the war's anthem, its hopes and longings a new reality. Shemer composed a new and final verse: "We have returned to the cisterns, to the market and the square. A shofar calls out on the Temple Mount in the Old City. And in the caves in the rock, thousands of suns shine. We will once again descend to the Dead Sea by way of Jericho." These verses were not without controversy. Amos Oz, for example, criticized Shemer for suggesting that the city was empty until Jews returned. Arabs of course lived there and continue to live in Jerusalem. The Old City's Arab shuk continues to bustle with activity. Yet something had indeed changed. During the years 1948-1967 Jews could not pray at the Western Wall. Jews could not walk among the ruins of King David's palace. There was an emptiness in our hearts. There is no more longing for these stones. Every summer I return to Jerusalem to rekindle the fires in my Jewish heart. Indeed the air there is as "clear as wine and filled with the fragrance of pine." Yet I share Amos Oz's worries. What happens to a people when they get what they most wanted for thousands of years? Every day I thank God that I am privileged to live in an age when the dreams of my great grandparents is my reality. The question remains: is there room in my dreams for another's reality?

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Obama and Israel

I have been thinking a lot about this question. Does our new president understand and appreciate the worries and existential angst of Israel and Israelis--and of course Jews? Jeffrey Goldberg's article in Saturday's New York Times provides an excellent analysis of this dilemma. While I fully believe that President Obama appreciates the significance and importance of the State of Israel to the Jewish people, his priorities will not always coincide with those of Israel's leaders. His interests are not the same as Israel's. That Israel's government and the United States's leaders might sometimes disagree is normal and natural. If Obama disagrees with the priorities of Israel's Netanyahu this does not necessarily mean that he is abandoning Israel. Friends can also tell friends that they are wrong. In actuality this does not mean that they are not friends. It is in reality a greater testament to friendship when friends can disagree. Loving criticism means that the friendship is far more than superficial. Disagreement means that the friendship is not just about "I need this from you and you need that from me." Still, here are my worries. The increasing mantra that "If only Israel would do x or y, then there would be peace," suggests a lack of appreciation of recent history. Yes, Israel has allowed settlement expansion and the construction of the security fence to at times inflame Palestinian hatred. But the root cause of the conflict is not Israel's capture of the West Bank from Jordan and its subsequent construction of settlements. Most Israelis would blindly give away the store if the Arab world would do but one thing--accept the legitimacy of a Jewish state in the Middle East. If the Arab world, and especially the Palestinians, would come to terms with Jewish sovereignty over at least a portion of the land of Israel, then the ground would give way under the settlements. Then the security fence could be taken down. Finally most if not all Israelis and Jews have learned that we must take antisemites at their word. When the leader of nearby Iran says, repeatedly, that he wants to destroy Israel and he hosts a conference denying the Holocaust, we cannot ignore his words. When he seeks to acquire and build the weapons to make his words a reality we must act. Waiting and inaction embolden Iran and its leaders. Mr. President I believe you are our friend. Understand our worries. Pay heed to our fears. They are legitimate and real.

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."

Monday, March 23, 2009

Crosses at the Wall

There is yet another controversy brewing in the city and country seemingly filled with controversies. The pope is planning a visit to the State of Israel. The rabbi (Shmuel Rabinovitch) in charge of the Western Wall has ruled that Pope Benedict should not wear his cross when visiting this Jewish holy site. This is absurd. How is it that the pope's beliefs impinge on my beliefs or his practices on the sanctity of my holy place? Let the pope come to our Western Wall and offer a prayer. Let him pray to God as he as always done. Let him wear what he always wears. It does not lessen my faith. We will be doing more to honor the history of hatred and enmity between us by allowing him to be an authentic representative of his Christian faith than by asking him to hide his cross. I remember the previous Pope Paul's words at the Wall, said some nine years ago this month: "God of our fathers, you chose Abraham and his descendants to bring Your name to the nations: we are deeply saddened by the behavior of those who in the course of history have caused these children of Yours to suffer and asking Your forgiveness we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the people of the Covenant." I also remember Rabbi Melchior's words said to the visiting pope at that time: "For today we commit ourselves to end the manipulation of the sanctity of Jerusalem for political gain. Jerusalem must reject hatred, struggle, and bloodshed, and be again the 'City of Peace' and a source of holiness." Those were of course different days but I still say, even after 9-11 and the Second Intifada, Amen!

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Headwinds and Tailwinds

I have been thinking about the economy and our current crisis. I have this sense that we will be writing history in 2009. Everything is going to be rewritten. How businesses are run and how their employees (and executives) are paid. How charities are supported. How synagogues function. Much has been said about the making of history. And now we are really in the thick of it. History is hanging over our heads. For this reason I am pulled to the first century. I know that how I practice my Judaism was written during those years. I understand that the rabbis then made historic choices. They chose the Torah over the Temple--after the catastrophe of 70 C.E. when the Temple was destroyed. They chose relevance over irrelevance. The rabbis seized history over the Sadducees and Zealots. I know I am simplifying their struggles but how many Sadducees are still quoted in Jewish circles? I can only imagine the fear that gripped our people during those days. I can only imagine how afraid they were of the future. Such is the mood today. But I will not be taken in by depression. I am already planning tomorrow. I take strength from my reading of history. I believe success is determined by turning and changing. Struggling to rebuild the past is impossible, pining after what we once had a distraction. Remember the past. Turn to the future. You may be surprised to know that I not only gain strength from our history and tradition, but also from of all places, my passion for bicycling. This is why. The wonderful thing about heading out on your bike into a headwind is that you know you are going to be coming home with a tailwind. The lesson in this is simple. Every headwind can be turned into a tailwind. You just have to figure out which way to turn. People think the secret is pedaling harder but the real secret to success is turning. Don't be afraid to turn. There are many blessings to be written in your turning.

Israel's Army

This morning's New York Times has an excellent, albeit unflattering, article about Israel and its army. My teacher Moshe Halbertal, with whom I study every summer at the Shalom Hartman Institute, is quoted at length. Moshe helped to rewrite the IDF's code of ethics and helps to teach in the Institute's officer training course. The goal of his teaching, as I see it, is to place modern, humanistic values within the language of Jewish tradition and texts. That of course is simplifying the enterprise for his project is no small job and no small matter for Israeli society. How can Israel remain a modern, democratic state, infused with Jewish language and discourse, while fighting enemies bent on its destruction? Do our enemies every forfeit their right to humanity? When does our love for the land of Israel become an intoxication that overshadows all other values and commitments? When does our love of the Bible and our enthrallment with its words overwhelm our devotion to democratic values? For me, living in the diaspora, the answers to these questions are merely theoretical. In Israel the answers are matters of life and death. There are some Israelis who take the easy way out and reject democracy--as antithetical to Judaism and others who reject Judaism--as antithetical to democracy. I am thankful to my teachers for their continuing efforts to wed the two--Judaism and democracy--in the modern State of Israel. Even though today's article might be unflattering on the surface, I remain deeply committed to the enterprise it brings to light, the painful and wrenching internal debates that are a part of the fabric of Israeli life. I pray these debates make Israel even stronger and better.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Madoff Again

Last week Bernie Madoff finally went to jail. But his punishment will never befit his crime. I remember reading that Elie Wiesel (who lost all of his personal money as well as his foundation's dollars) suggested that the only fitting punishment would be if in Madoff's cell there was a TV screen with a perpetual interview of his victims. 24 hours a day, every day of the year, Madoff would have to watch an endless loop of interviews. He would have to watch the tears of pain, the anger, the feelings of betrayal. That would be the only show he could ever watch, the only story he could ever read. To that end Vanity Fair's video produced by Stephen Wilkes is worth watching. The sad truth is that I doubt this would have any effect on Madoff's soul. He is no different from the pocket thief (except in terms of dollars) who hugs someone while reaching into his pocket to steal his wallet. He laughed and vacationed with people who called him friend and then stole from them. Madoff gave to tzedakah with stolen funds. He was praised for his generosity and piety--when in fact his virtue was at the expense of others. Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Koidonover, a 17th century ethical master, leveled this charge against the Madoffs of his time: Our sages have written that one does not have to guard himself against a really bad man who expresses his evil openly, but one must be on guard against the person who acts as if he were righteous, who kisses the prayer book, recites psalms and prayers day and night, yet in money matters is a “crook.” There really is no punishment that would fit Madoff's crime, although I for one think that he should be made penniless. There should be no plea bargain deals until the last of his ill gotten gains are recovered and every co-conspirator is found. That would serve justice best. Punishments I leave in God's hands. And with that I leave you with this final word from Jimmy Kimmel and Sesame Street.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Happy Purim!

Happy Purim! For more pictures from JCB's Purim celebration follow the link in the sidebar under My Pictures. Chag Purim Samayach--may it be a Purim filled with fun, laughter and joy.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Purim Def Poem

In honor of the upcoming holiday of Purim (beginning Monday, March 9) which celebrates, among many of its themes, Esther's growing awareness of her Jewish identity, I recommend watching the following Jewish Def Poem with Vanessa Hidary: The Hebrew Mamita. Even though this performance was recorded some years ago it is still a wonderful statement about the awakening of Jewish pride and consciousness. On Purim we remind ourselves that our people's survival is dependent on standing with Esther and declaring, as she did in the megillah, that our personal survival is intertwined with our people's.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Car Memories

I have been thinking about the first car I drove--a Pontiac Safari station wagon with a 455 hp engine. Although it was a rather unattractive car for a teenager to drive, I still managed to find the positive and brag to my friends about its power. It did not matter then that the car got only eight miles per gallon--when not running the AC. After reading this week's papers I have been thinking about cars and my first memory. It is wrapped up in a car as well. I was three and a half years old. It was the evening my brother Michael was born. My dad came into my bedroom in the middle of that cold January night and wrapped me in my light blue blanket. He placed me on the back seat of our Pontiac Catalina--no car seats back then. I can still see that car. It was dark green with a black vinyl roof. He carried me into our friend's home and let me fall back to sleep. I was awakened to the news that I was a brother. A few years later, that green Pontiac Catalina was the same car my dad drove around the block searching for me to show me our new puppy. It is funny how one line in a paper can trigger a flood of memories. "GM also announced that it will stop making Pontiacs." I never really understood why old men collect old cars. Now I do. On days such as these we are only left with our memories.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Obama's Rousing Words

Yesterday I was only allowing myself to hope. Today I am filled with hope. My faith in our country is restored. To witness a Black man with a Middle Eastern name become president is remarkable. You do not need to be schooled in history to appreciate this moment's significance. Given how unlikely this moment was--even one year ago--gives me renewed hope that anything is possible. I was especially stirred by Obama's words as he hearkened to the cadence of the Bible and called us to take responsibility for our future. This country, like our Jewish tradition, was once built on responsibility and action. It will be rebuilt on these ancient truths. "In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never given. It must be earned." Amen! I especially applaud our president's warning to our enemies. "And for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that, 'Our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken. You cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.'" Even more important than this warning to others were the numerous calls for our country to return to its ideals. Fear has eroded our values. Terrorism succeeds when we allow it to destroy our greatest treasures--the values on which our nation was founded. "As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals." Amen v'Amen! I sense our country is once again ready to rekindle its spirit and work to a better future. Today I believe Maya Angelou's assessment in Sunday's Washington Post may be correct. Our new president is the "real deal." He is a man of great intelligence, ability, depth of character and devotion. I am inspired by his words. "Our challenges may be new, the instruments with which we meet them may be new, but those values upon which our success depends, honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism--these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout history. What is demanded then is a return to these truths. What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility..." Kein y'hi ratzon--may it be so!

Monday, January 19, 2009


Tomorrow Barack Hussein Obama will become our president. And I am going to allow myself to hope. I have spent the last days watching the festivities, reading about the final weeks of his transition and of course listening to Obama's words. There are two notes in particular that give me hope. Obama more than any of his predecessors appears to listen to his ideological opponents. He has for instance sought out the counsel of John McCain. He has listened to the thoughts of leading conservatives. He is not blinded by ideology. He is comfortable with debate and dialogue. Maureen Dowd took note of this character trait in yesterday's Times, while also cautioning that this can turn into a tragic flaw. Obama is "...a complex, polysyllabic professor sort who will make a decision only after he has held it up to the light and examined it from all sides." Most important of all Obama possesses a remarkable ability to be honest and forthright about our struggles while still sounding a note of hope. His hope is not pollyannish. Our country does indeed face many challenges. Yet despite this, and perhaps because of our new leader's words, I am once again hopeful about the future and the great potential of our country. Until tomorrow I conclude with Obama's words from yesterday's ceremony at the Lincoln Memorial: "...Despite all of this -- despite the enormity of the task that lies ahead -- I stand here today as hopeful as ever that the United States of America will endure, that it will prevail, that the dream of our founders will live on in our time.... There is no doubt that our road will be long, that our climb will be steep. But never forget that the true character of our nation is revealed not during times of comfort and ease, but by the right we do when the moment is hard. I ask you to help reveal that character once more, and together, we can carry forward as one nation, and one people, the legacy of our forefathers that we celebrate today." I am going to allow myself to hope. I am also going to answer the call to strengthen our nation's character.