Monday, March 31, 2008

Two Jews, One Opinion

The Stamford Advocate 04/03/2002

A story is told of a Jewish congregation where half the people stood up for that seminal prayer known as the Shema, while the other half sat. The two sides bickered endlessly about what was the proper practice, until the rabbi finally appointed a committee to investigate the matter. The committee went to a nearby nursing home to interview a 98-year-old resident, the oldest surviving member of the congregation. Each side made its claim to liturgical correctness, but in each case the old man said "No, that's not the original tradition." Then the rabbi lost patience and exclaimed, "I don't care what the original tradition was. Do you know what goes on in services every week? The people who are standing yell at the people who are sitting and the people who are sitting yell at the people who are standing."

"That was the tradition," the old man said.

In the wake of the Passover massacre and other acts of terrorism against Israeli civilians, it is time for Jews around the world to express an unprecedented degree of unity. Jews have long taken pride in their cultural proclivity for argumentation. Since Talmudic times, it seems, the standard quip has been, "Two Jews, three opinions." But the current crisis requires a falling-into-line that will seem to many dangerous and unnatural.

Awkwardly, with not a little trepidation but with an even greater fear of the alternative, I raise the new banner: Two Jews, One Opinion.

I say this as long-time dove and critic of Ariel Sharon. I cheered the Handshake on the South Lawn and bristled at the folly that was the War in Lebanon. I've labored effortlessly for equality for Israeli Arabs and I cried when Yasser Arafat paid a condolence call to Leah Rabin. But now I see the need to set aside parochial concerns and the dreams of yesteryear. I am ready to throw unquestioning support to Israel's unity government and await my marching orders.

I am not proposing that all Jews become mindless automata. Fat chance of that happening anyway. Jews are innately too wary of absolutism to place unlimited trust in human beings. Even the ultra-Orthodox do not follow their sages as blindly as one might think. Just before Passover, a story was circulating in Israel among religious Israelis that in the ultra-Orthodox enclave of B'nai Brak, at the home of a revered rabbi, a toilet seat broke. When the rabbi's wife was seen at the local hardware store purchasing a new seat, large numbers of his disciples assumed that their mentor was promoting a new, stricter way of removing all traces of leaven from the home. Instantly, toilet seat sales boomed in B'nai Brak.

Whether this actually happened is secondary to the idea that religious Israelis were joking about it. For while traditional Judaism does advocate unyielding obedience to the Torah, it never promotes blind submission to the will of another human being. For Jews, the mind is an impossible thing to waste.

In fact, Judaism and Jews are at a severe disadvantage in this war. A faith that espouses reason and reveres the sanctity of life must confront a cult of suicide that glorifies martyrdom. A tradition that encourages conscientious objectors to flee the battlefield must deal with those who are bringing the battlefield to every cafe in Tel Aviv and pizzeria in Jerusalem. A people that has spent decades ripping apart its own leaders, most especially the one currently occupying the Prime Minister's office, must face a nation that has blindly followed its larger-than-life patriarch into this most foolish cataclysm.

I am not a tribal Jew. I am a Jew with a universal vision of peace, with a desire to share with the world the highest values of my faith. I long to have my passport stamped in a neighborly Palestinian state and to sip Turkish coffee with Arab friends in Jericho and Ramallah. But right now, I recognize that Judaism's message will be rendered irrelevant if I am incapable of first responding to the blood of my brother screaming from the earth. For this is what Jewish tradition would call an Obligatory War, a war of survival, the one exception to the rule that encourages conscientious objectors. For the Jew right now, there is no alternative but to become completely engaged on behalf of Israel.

In the book of Numbers, two and a half of the twelve tribes were given the right to settle outside the land of Israel, under the condition that they extend complete support to the fledging nation. I am from among that privileged group, living in prosperity far from the carnage. But last week as my family in Connecticut comfortably prepared to reenact the departure from Egypt, innocent Jewish blood was being spattered all over the collapsing door posts of a Netanya hotel. God may have passed over that atrocity, but I will not. Neither will I allow the Jewish people again to become the world's paschal lamb. I am now a foot soldier in this needless war that Arafat has wrought, and I will voluntarily exercise my God-given right to shut up. There is a time to argue and debate and a time to simply do what needs to be done.

And so, Mr. Sharon, tell me what I must do.

The Problem With Pedestal Rabbis (Jewish Week)

The Jewish Week, 9/00

We ve been hearing a lot about rabbis lately, and most of it not good. Allegations of abuse of rabbinic power and betrayal of trust are hardly new, here or in Israel. In fact, many Israelis, weaned on the galling defiance of Aryeh Deri and the unmitigated chutzpah of Ovadia Yosef, are having a hard time comprehending how an overtly religious person like Joseph Lieberman can be both observant and uncorrupted.

But it s not just over there. Now Publishers Weekly reports that HarperCollins has paid author and former PBS religion reporter Arthur Magida "a significant six figures" for a book based on a trial that won t even be happening until next spring. Why? Because the defendant, Fred Neulander, is believed to be the first rabbi ever to be charged with murder, according to the Publishers Weekly report. Neulander is accused of murdering his wife in suburban Philadelphia. Magida states that the book will pose the question, "What happens when we deify men and women in the pulpit and are betrayed?"

What happens, evidently, is a boffo book advance, with film rights to follow.

Adding insult to injury, a new study of American Jewry authored by Bethamie Horowitz shows that only 5 percent of American Jews see their rabbis as a positive influence in their lives, while 10 percent say rabbis have negatively influenced them.

The remainder of those surveyed didn t mention rabbis as an influence at all, positive or negative. For rabbis, that it is a striking indictment. It means we are 85 percent irrelevant. That statistic screams out for some major rethinking of the rabbi s place in modern Jewish life.

Personally, if my work is to be irrelevant to 85 percent of American Jewry, there is no reason for me to be missing my kids school plays and Little League games. If I am to be an invisible rabbi, I might as well be a good father.

The very week the Horowitz survey was released, I received three calls from people new to my area wishing to find out about my congregation. Each caller complained about how bad experiences with a rabbi turned him or her off to synagogue life umpteen years ago. I m used to hearing that. But what stunned me most was the depth of their gratitude for my merely returning their call.

Have people come to expect so little of their rabbis that they are actually shocked when one displays simple human decency and warmth? Or is it that we still expect too much? Have we set up our leaders for a fall by placing them on pedestals, allowing them to tower so high above being simply human that when the fall occurs, as is inevitable, it is often devastating? Speaking as a rabbi, there is a clear danger in our being so eager to place rabbis on pedestels: we rabbis begin to believe all our press clippings and forget the reasons we got into the rabbinate in the first place. And when we fail, our followers often blindly defend us because they still need to revere us, and we begin to believe that an admission of fallibility will compromise our ability to lead.

It's time to smash the pedestal rabbinate like so many of Terach s idols. Whereas human rabbis make mistakes, take responsibility for them, and move on, pedestal rabbis make mistakes, deny them, hope that others will not notice, and inevitably succumb to them. Pedestal rabbis are the ones most likely to become 85 percent irrelevant in the end because relevance requires relationship, and human beings relate best to other human beings. Only to the degree that I can be human can I lead others on the human quest.

We rabbis are seeking ways to humanize the role without compromising the respect due the position. A few weeks ago I ran an informal survey of colleagues on my on-line rabbinic chat group and found that most prefer to be called "rabbi" by congregants rather than by their first names. I tend to agree. If our important work is to be taken seriously, then let s not infantilize it. Even Mister Rogers gets to be called by his last name. Imagine if the Baal Shem Tov had been called "Rabbi Izzy." Would his disciples of have taken him seriously?

Actually, yes, because it was the power of his message that made the Baal Shem Tov great, not his name (which means, ironically, "Master of the good name."). And for all those rabbis of the Talmud, like Akiba, who were revered by their first names, and all those medieval rabbis with the cool nicknames, like the Rambam and the Ran, these pet names were indicators of the great respect and affection earned through close relationships rather than pedestal-sitting.

It's clear that if we are to navigate our way through this crisis in confidence and re-establish the rightful place of the rabbi in Jewish life, we have to both safeguard the integrity of the role and reaffirm the frailty of the human being who fills it. And that begins when the rabbi steps down from pulpit of the soul and laughs, cries, errs and does teshuvah together with the rest of us. In the end, it doesn t really matter how the rabbi is addressed. What matters is only that the rabbi is addressed, one soul to another, two flawed human beings in dialogue.

The Peter Panning of America (New York Times)

New York Times -- 1988 

 Perhaps THE defining characteristic of the baby boomer is his inexhaustible attachment to his own childhood. Our need to return seems insatiable. Adults rush home from their jobs and flock to films like "Back to the Future" and "Big," where little boys court their mothers and the aging process is magically reversed. 

 Just recently I have rediscovered another genre of film that has added a new dimension to my own retrospections: the home movie. Home movies of the '50s and '60s, left in dusty basements for many years, are now gaining a technological resuscitation through the magic of the V.C.R. I excavated mine, transferred them to videotape, turned on the television, and images that would take a psychiatrist years to draw out of dim memory were suddenly flashing before me like today's news: "Hammerman born; film at 11." 

 I see a baby being carried from the obstetrics ward, apparently asleep. How small and frail he looks, how barely alive. Minutes pass before I realize that the infant was - is - me. George Santayana wrote, "The fact of having been born is a bad augury for immortality," and now I see why, for I am gazing through the looking glass at a time when my existence was a novelty to my parents and the world. 

 The next instant reveals my father tossing burgers at the grill; he smiles, unaware that a heart attack will cut short his life at age 60. I view this bucolic family scene as would Emily in Thornton Wilder's "Our Town," yearning to return to the fray and rewrite the script. "Don't eat that, Dad! Stay away from the cholesterol! Talk to me! Let's toss the ball. Let's make the most of what time we have left." I wish to freeze-frame the moment forever, but that is beyond even the capacities of my V.C.R. 

The next moment I see my mother - no, my grandmother - also now dead, and she holds me up to the camera. An older version of me stands alongside. Having learned how to decipher the genetic code of this film, I know that the man must be my uncle. As for the baby - me - I squirm uncomfortably in my grandmother's arms. Funny, in all the photo albums I'm smiling. Movies are far more subtle, more frightening, than any stills. 

My mother appears, as young then as my wife is now. She speaks to the baby. I although I hear none of the dialogue in these silent flicks, it is clear that in her mind I am only a child. Could any legitimate baby boomer not be left wondering how much that relationship has changed? 

 I see the sacred places of my youth, places to which I thought I'd never return: the snowman on my front lawn, the piano in the living room, the swing set in my backyard. The resurrected people, relatives and friends, stare into the camera. And I, the captivated viewer, newly mindful of how precious and fleeting life is, wonder if that is what they are trying to tell me. 

 No wonder my contemporaries and I obsess about our wonder years, the first generation possessing the power to act on that obsession. We are inexhaustibly attached to childhood precisely because we've never had to leave it. We can go home again, thanks to the unwitting collaboration of amateur and professional film makers. 

In the "Back to the Future" series, Steven Spielberg created the town in which we all could have lived; in "Big," Tom Hanks masterfully recreated the child we all could have been. And our trusty home movie fills in all the gaps. We can thrill at our own first step, laugh at our messier feedings and stare in wonder at our birth -- as our own children watch alongside. 

 The home movie and Hollywood film share one inherent weakness: the reel always runs out. Just when the film has resurrected a father's living glance, filling for an instant an aching vacuum in a grown-up child's soul, the scene shifts cruelly to the Grand Canyon or Disneyland, and we must fast-forward past twenty minutes of Mickey Mouse, only to discover in our fright that Mickey Mouse is where it ends. The screen goes blank, the child-that-was fades to black, and we are instantly propelled back to adulthood again. 

That is, until the next showing.

Surfing for God

A Review of Give Me That On-line Religion"
(This article originally appeared on

"Give Me That On-line Religion" by Brenda E. Brasher. Jossey Bass. 208pp. $24.95
If there is one commonly accepted truth about the emerging cyber-culture, it is that the only constant is change. Only a couple of years ago, when I was in the midst of writing my own book about spirituality and the Internet, people were just beginning to realize that cyberspace connected us to one another in ways analogous to offline religious experiences.

Now that fact is accepted as a given, what with the proliferation of major religious Web sites like Beliefnet and the nearly universal access to the Internet that suddenly spans all the generations. When I toured with my book, I was astonished at how many seniors turned out for my lectures, and at how cyber-savvy they had become.

So we've reached a new stage in our exploration of religion in cyberspace, one of redefinition and advocacy. This is the underlying premise of Brenda Basher's most recent contribution to the growing genre of books dealing with online spirituality, entitled, "Give Me That Online Religion." Basher, an assistant professor of religion at Mount Union College in Ohio, draws upon her vast understanding of a variety of world religions and the role of religion in society in exploring the topic from a variety of perspectives.

She makes two main points: 1) that religion is a necessary and valuable contributor to a civil society, or as she calls it, "a rich incomparable meaning resource -- necessary ballast to individual identity," and 2) that religious expression must be fostered, cultivated and protected online.

She looks at how traditional religions, including Judaism, have been enhanced. She notes that previous technological innovations were catalysts for change -- television, for instance, led to the slow ascendancy of image over word, and to religious services designed to look like media events. Now, we are moving toward what she calls an "electronic souk of the soul," where developing forms of hypertext surfing are becoming a religious experience unto themselves.

We are learning to broaden our spiritual horizons. Where television opened the door to seeing carefully staged presentations of other cultures, "cyberspace puts us in direct one-on-one contact with our neighbors around the world." Millions of people are only a mouse click away, she adds, "and they are all our neighbors." This poses some moral dilemmas (such as whether cyber sex constitutes adultery) that Basher explores in detail.

She broadens the definition to include some cultural phenomena that we might not automatically associate with "old time religion," including virtual shrines to the cult of celebrity (everything from "Star Trek" celebrations to Princess Diana memorials). Basher also explores modern apocalyptic movements like Heaven's Gate, emphasizing again that, despite the dangers, cyberspace must continue to be a place preserved for people to "climb and roam."

This book reads best as a series of disconnected reflections rather than a sustained, integrated argument. But that in itself is a product of our new, hyperlinked zeitgeist, where writing, like praying and believing, is taking on the spontaneous, word-association flavor of Web surfing. The book will certainly find its place in this still tiny genre, a first-generation study at how we are religious online and how, all expectations to the contrary, traditions of the past are not being subsumed by the eternal present of cyber-culture. As we become more and more computer-like in our thought processes and more technologically sophisticated, we are most certainly not leaving religion behind. God is coming along for the ride.

S.O.S.: Saving Our Synagogues

Review essay for, 2003

The concept of synagogue renewal has been around for as long as there have been synagogues. Liturgical reform might well have been invented by Abraham, who decided that his father's idols didn't fit in with his generation's cutting-edge modes of spirituality, so he applied his own "cutting edge" to the idols themselves. The Torah is replete with examples of places of worship being knocked over and altars destroyed. Relatively speaking, today's efforts at synagogue renewal are rather mild.

The contemporary synagogue-renewal effort can easily be traced back to the beginnings of the Havurah movement of the late 1960's. Within a few years, that old/new model of communal intimacy in worship and study infiltrated the large amorphous edifices of post-war suburbia, thanks to visionary rabbis like Harold Schulweis and the enormous popularity of the Jewish Catalog series. It was in the third volume of the Catalog (JPS, 1980) that Lawrence Kushner, Arnold Jacob Wolf and Everett Gendler addressed the issue most directly: "The synagogue is the only institution claiming as its reason for existence the perpetuation of religious Judaism in America. For all but a very few Jews, the synagogue is the sole vehicle for religious life and response...And despite this, few would disagree that most synagogues are irrelevant, boring and probably secular."

In fact, back then, few might have disagreed with that statement, but far fewer would have admitted it openly. That was because a generation of American Jews was not completely lost yet. Twenty years ago, those afflicted with boredom and irrelevance had not yet defected in droves into the arms of then many alternative gods awaiting them and their new-found freedom. Synagogues were boring, but we had no choice but to eat our peas and sit in muffled acquiescence. Few enjoyed the non-participatory music and dusty irrelevant sermons given from distant, stratospheric pulpits, not to mention the rectangular gridiron seating configuration, but there was no compulsion to change things.

No longer. Now we in synagogue life fully understand that our children have choices and that we must compete for their attention. We must provide a nurturing and energizing oasis for their journeys. When I was in rabbinical school twenty years ago, we were told that services didn't need to compete with the cultural offerings at Lincoln Center and Broadway, because they couldn't possibly measure up to those levels of entertainment and pathos. Now, belatedly, we are realizing that what Jewish prayer has to offer can be just as moving, revitalizing and spiritually gratifying as anything else out there. Bold new models have emerged that have proven that we can compete with anyone, and actually attract younger people to venture through the doors.

Coming to shul can be "cool" again.

The Jewish world has come to understand that synagogues are still the best possible place for renewal to occur, so even staunch secularists have come to the rescue. Federations are looking to nurture synagogue life--a once-unthinkable notion. And private foundation dollars are pouring into this effort, creating new think-tank organizations like STAR (Synagogue Transformation and Renewal) and Synagogue 2000.

One of the co-founders of Synagogue 2000 (who might now wish to rename) is Lawrence Hoffman, a professor at Hebrew Union College. Hoffman's recent writings on liturgy and renewal are becoming required reading for clergy, and they have inspired other books on the subject. Three books of note are Hoffman's own The Art of Public Prayer: Not for Clergy Only, Sidney Schwarz's Finding a Spiritual Home: How a New Generation of American Jews Can Transform the Synagogue, (for which Hoffman contributed a glowing endorsement), and Isa Aron's Becoming a Congregation of Learners, which is part of the Synagogue 2000 "Revitalizing Synagogue Life" series and contains a forward by Hoffman. Collectively, these three fine books can help us to understand what are the primary aims of contemporary synagogue reform and how they might differ from those that came before.

One thing is clear. Boredom will no longer be tolerated. Mediocrity is unacceptable, and those synagogues that refuse to ride the new wave will ultimately sink under the weight of their excessive ballast. And in order to overcome the boredom, change tends to be more revolutionary than evolutionary. Whereas the Havurah movement toyed with neo-hasidism but basically hung close to tradition and emphasized community and fellowship most of all, the moderns are far more eclectic and open to spiritual experimentation. B'nai Jeshrun in New York, for example, is one of the four model congregations profiled in Schwarz' book. This is the model "Conservative" congregation, although neither it, nor the models selected from the other movements, remotely resembles what the mainstream of their movements have been doing. B.J.'s selection of music has gone far beyond the basic Eastern European niggunim tunes of its Havurah forbears, to feature an eclectic blend of American, Sephardic and Israeli contemporary melodies.

We find in these books conflicting prescriptions for effective leadership. While the trend is clearly toward democratization (i.e. the empowerment of the congregant and the less-central role of the rabbi--with the role of the cantor in even greater danger), the model institutions presented by Schwarz all have rabbis who have achieved nearly iconic status. Somehow, it seems, we have to find the perfect blend of charisma and passivity among religious leaders, allowing congregations the chance to grow organically without coercion from above. The "shepherd" model of a pastor tending his passion-less mindless flock appears, thankfully and most certainly, to be dead. Dynamic congregations have learned not to depend on the rabbi's healing powers alone, but to take on the responsibility, and the joy, of caring for one another and creating community. The rabbi as visionary is very much alive, with the caveat that the congregation has to be ready to share and develop the vision as a partner.

Hoffman's Not for Clergy book is in fact must reading for clergy, for he exposes clearly some of the subtleties that make the worship experience dysfunctional, and how we can change them. When people say they are unable to pray, or that they don't need to pray, Hoffman tells us, "they are unknowingly scapegoating themselves, mistakenly blaming themselves for a system failure." He goes on to discuss matters ranging from choice of music to the selection and arrangement of sacred space, which have been central to the mission of Synagogue 2000.

Aron looks away from the sanctuary service as a key to revitalizing the synagogue, but applies many of the same goals of massive transformation and shared vision. Most recognize that the post-War Hebrew School model, as practiced for two generations, has essentially failed. Jewish education, like worship, like Judaism itself, no longer can be compartmentalized. When education isn't just confined to the Hebrew School, but makes its way into the boardroom, sanctuary and home, it can imbue the congregation's visioning process with Jewish authenticity as well as spirituality. Aron gives us a number of success stories. Utilizing personal testimonies and citing congregations of excellence, she, like Schwarz, provides needed motivation for other clergy and lay leadership.

After reading the Schwarz book, I bought copies for my entire board and arranged for a field trip to one of the congregations described, knowing that it wasn't enough for me to want change, they needed to want it too. I now wonder if the Aron book might have been of greater use. While less dramatic in presentation, she offers a cogent, step-by-step approach, using her skills as an educator to lead congregations on the path toward transformation. Schwarz is less able to get the average congregation from "here" to "there"--he just gives us a glowing sense of where "there" is. That in itself is valuable, but unless your congregation has a hyper-dynamic rabbi (preferably a venerated founding rabbi) whose vision is automatically accepted by a rousing consensus of lay leaders eager for experimentation, you will have to travel far even to begin the process of transformation described here.

Schwarz admits that the utopias he describes are diametrically opposed to the norm: "Unfortunately," he writes, "the corporate organizational structure of most synagogues is inhospitable, if not antagonistic, to the kind of singular rabbinical leadership that characterizes our four featured synagogues...The rabbi may have some success in changing the tone of religious services and will have relative freedom to speak and teach as they wish, but changing the organizational culture is next to impossible."

I'm not sure I agree that it is next to impossible. I've managed to achieve it in my own congregation, to some degree, but only over the course of many years. Changing the culture is in fact the easy part. The hard part is to get the congregation to want to change. That means chopping off the head of Terach's idol--and Terach, after all, is our father. Terach is the 90-year old macher who sits in the second row every week, or the past-president and department-store owner who wants nothing to change so that he won't be tempted to leave golf course each Saturday, or the Holocaust survivor who has had enough turmoil in his life who does want anymore change.

However, when people can read of success stories such as these via Schwarz, and then through Hoffman (with liturgy) and Aron (with education), they find a road map toward achieving similar success. When the synagogue comes alive, I've found that even Terach wants to come along for the ride to the Promised Land.

Books Discussed in Night Reading

The Art of Public Prayer: Not for Clergy Only by Lawrence Hoffman. Skylight Paths. $17.95
Finding a Spiritual Home: How a New Generation of American Jews Can Transform the Synagogue by Sidney Schwarz. Jossey-Bass. $24.00
Becoming a Congregation of Learners by Isa Aron. Jewish Lights. $19.95

Pokemon's "Swastika" and the Right to Cultural Privacy

Originally Appeared in The Stamford Advocate, 12/19/99

On Veterans Day last month, the day after the Pokemon Movie opened, nine-year-old Paul Springer and his younger sister Ilana came to my office, seeking my advice. They brought with them a Pokemon trading card featuring two of the series’ 150 characters, Golbat and Ditto, alongside what looked like a swastika. They wanted their rabbi’s opinion as to whether engaging in further Pokemon activities was, well, Kosher.

Much was riding on my recommendation. Paul had already given away most of his Pokemon cards and was quite upset, as was his grandfather, a refugee from Poland who had lost many of his family in the Holocaust. As a father, I couldn’t help but consider that my own two children were looking forward to seeing the movie that day. As a rabbi, I couldn’t help but think of how our synagogue’s parking lot had been desecrated with swastikas only two months before. And Buford Furrow’s attack on Jewish children near Los Angeles was also fresh in our minds.

But as a lifelong student of religions and advocate of cultural diversity, I knew something else -- that it wasn’t really a swastika. I pulled a book from the shelf and held up the Pokemon card to a photo of Hitler, with arm extended in his infamous salute and an "authentic" Nazi swastika on his sleeve. As one Hebrew School student later remarked, "the tentacles face the other way." It wasn’t a swastika at all next to the Golbat and Ditto. It was a "manji," a Japanese sign of hope, a symbol whose meaning evokes for the Japanese exactly the opposite of what a swastika connotes to those of us in the West. Doing some quick research on the Internet, I was intrigued by the claim that the Nazis deliberately reversed this emblem, transforming an ancient Asian symbol of life into one of death. I managed to convince Paul and Ilana and myself that a strong letter to Nintendo might be in order, but that it was OK to see the movie.

A few weeks later, Nintendo pulled the card, claiming that it was never intended for distribution in the West and that "what’s appropriate for one culture may not be for another." That claim at first made me bristle at the company’s insensitivity to the Pauls and Ilanas of this world. But then I wondered about the fairness of it all, whether we in the West have a right to bulldoze ancient cultures whose symbols don’t quite suit our sensibilities. Or have we simply reached the point where East has met West, and never the twain shall part? In our new border-less civilization, is there still room for cultural privacy? Or must everything fit neatly into a single, bland package?

In this global village, the wall of separation between church and state still stands tall, but the one separating church from mosque and synagogue is dropping fast. Through the Internet, a Jew whose name isn’t Kissinger can now "visit" Saudi Arabian holy places, and I do, often, then occasionally extending my multicultural hajj to Chartres, the Vatican, or to one of my favorites, the gorgeous Meenakshi Hindu temple in Madurai, Southern India. Usually, I end up at the Western Wall in Jerusalem (called the Kotel in Hebrew), where, through a live camera feed called Kotel Kam, this Conservative male rabbi can zoom his way smack into the women’s section, unbeknownst to the Ultra-Orthodox overseers of this Jewish holy site. I love these on-line expeditions, but wonder if through my temerity I am crossing too many cultural boundaries, compromising the uniqueness of other faiths and denominations, and possibly betraying my own.

As we become more crowded on this shrinking Earth, there still must be a place to respect the belief-space of the other.

If any symbol deserves to be internationally taboo, it is surely the swastika. Nintendo should have been able to see the problem that would arise. But I fear for a world where the symbol police will be out in force, cruising the Web for non-conformity to standards that no one really sets.

Maybe it is time to set some, so that cultural privacy will be respected, and so that those few symbols sullied by universal evil will gain the international censure they deserve. Perhaps our world is small enough now that Buddhists might consider voluntarily giving up or modifying the manji, understanding that they are paying an unfair but necessary price for the crimes of leaders half a world away. Other faiths must also be willing to follow suit. The Catholic Church has certainly done its part, reversing centuries-old positions regarding Jews and Judaism, tenets of faith that had fed anti-Semitism for nearly two millennia. Adherents of all faiths are coming to understand that no one creed possesses a monopoly on truth, and that we all have much to learn from the Other.

Given this increase in dialogue and understanding, new rules of interfaith engagement might prevail. That means not engaging in missionary activity, especially of a deceptive nature. "Jews for Jesus" and other so-called Messianic Jews routinely dupe people with their Christological interpretations of Jewish symbols and rituals like the Passover Seder. This activity demonstrates no respect for the cultural integrity of another faith.

For Jews, the Millennium presents a particular dilemma, since it is based on a Christian calendar calculations. By the Jewish date book, we are in the year 5760, and Y2K is based on the supposed birth date of a popular Jew whom Jews don’t recognize as the Messiah. Yet rather than scorn at the world on Dec. 31, Jews would do better to join others in serious reflection, made even more serious by the fact that New Years Eve and Day happen to coincide with the Sabbath.

So in the end, we all have something new to learn from the manji: for us in the West, to see the joy the serenity it brings to the Buddhist, and to accept it; for our Eastern neighbors, to see the grimace of pain on the face of Paul’s grandfather, and to change it.

Minyan Mastery

So you’ve decided to come to our morning minyan, on weekdays at 7:30 or Sundays at 9. First of all, THANK YOU! You are performing one of the most important “mitzvot” in all of Judaism – you are ‘BEING THERE.’ They say that so much of life is just showing up? Well, in fact, showing up is what it’s all about. The service is fast – about a half hour on most days, 40 minutes on Monday and Thursday, when we read Torah. It’s a great time to collect your thoughts and focus on the day ahead – plus you will almost certainly be giving someone needed comfort and companionship at a most difficult time, someone you might not even know.

If you are feeling a bit intimidated about coming the most important thing to remember is this:

There is no need to be intimidated. Your mere presence is your present!

You don't have to do anything except be there and stand up and sit down as directed, and for that everyone will be grateful! Those who wish to participate further can follow along in the prayer book in Hebrew or in English, open the Ark or have an aliyah, just like on Shabbat morning. But if you prefer, you may remain a passive observer until such time, if any, as you desire to become more involved.

First, some terminology: For an interesting explanation of the word "daven" - read here. Bracha? read here.

But if you are interested in learning more, and becoming a real Minyan master, read here!

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Kosher Oreos®: The Rest of the Story

The Jewish Week, January 1998

The sudden appearance of the kosher Oreo, reported in the Jewish Week a few weeks ago, has by now received ample media attention, including my own observations in the New York Times Magazine. But the significance of the story cannot be overstated. My research has led me to some important conclusions that could not be discussed at length in the Times article. So allow me to fill you in some of what didn't fit amidst "all the news that's fit to print."

1) Kosher is not just trendy, it's becoming downright profitable. In recent years, a number of kosher food companies have been bought out by large corporations, not as an act of tzedakkah, but purely for profit. This makes for strange dietary bedfellows; like Shofar salamis being peddled by Sara Lee, and Hebrew National being owned by the same company that makes Armour bacon. If you don't believe that kosher is profitable, ask the overseers of Nabisco, who just spent big bucks to purify all their factories and change their packaging. The only thing they didn't do is throw out massive supplies of the old packaging, but that in itself was in compliance with the Jewish concept of "Bal Tashchit," which prohibits needless waste. This accounts for the annoying lag between the actual time when Oreos became a supervised kosher item (October at the latest) and the belated appearance of Oreos with the Orthodox Union symbol on the packages at your local grocer.

2) In marketing, perception is everything, and "kosher" has undergone a radical and positive image makeover -- among everyone except Jews. Why is it that kosher products are suddenly receiving rave reviews and double digit sales increases annually, while many Jews still seem to be abandoning our treasured dietary practices? Part of the answer is that non-Jews are coming at it from a very different perspective. They (or their parents) never rejected these laws, so there is none of the guilt or defensiveness often displayed by Jews when confronted with kosher options. Jews also can easily recall a time when Jewish cuisine was equated with soggy meat, bad breath and clogged arteries, a time when and all the good things in life, like lobsters and Oreos, were denied us.

But now vegetarians see kosher as implying creative meat substitutes, and Moslems see a guarantee of no pork, and these two groups are the fastest growing segment of the kosher market. It is estimated that in ten years, each of these groups will account for a larger share of the kosher market than Jews. In addition, pareve is becoming a magic word for those with lactose intolerance. And for the average American, who has seen Burger King close down because of tainted meat and the safety of just about everything edible thrown into doubt, U.S. government inspection has become something of a joke. Desperate for assurance, people are looking for dietary protection from a Higher authority.

While kosher products might not always be healthier, our dietary laws promote the type of self control that often leads to healthier living. They are based on a value system that sanctifies life, limits the pain of animals and views the body as a temple; all of which places these ancient principles in confluence with the current spiritual zeitgeist.

But while people all around us are looking for the kosher symbol, why do so many Jews still scoff at the dietary laws, considering them archaic, burdensome and pointless? And while everyone else equates kosher with quality and good health, why do Jews still equate it with cholesterol levels higher than the stock market?

Maybe it's because we like to be defiant. It's been part of our nature since Abraham challenged God over Sodom. Some Jews flaunt their consumption of "treyf," as a way of avenging an oppressive Jewish childhood. I feel for the poor guy who now won't be able to notch this one whopper of a sin to his defiant belt and say, "Take that, Rabbi Marcus! Not only do I eat Oreos, I LOVE Oreos! And I served 'em with shrimp at Joey's Bar Mitzvah!"

And who can blame us if we're confused by this Oreo revelation? Imagine how Adam and Eve would have felt if God had come to them years after Eden, saying, "You know that fruit, the one that caused all the trouble? Well, it's O.K. now. Here, unscrew it. Take a bite." Suddenly, what many avoided like the plague has become as blessed as mannah from heaven.

But most of all, our ambivalence about kashrut has little to do with confusion or defiance and much to do with our inability to see Judaism in shades of guiltless grey. While there are undeniable boundaries that clearly delineate kosher from non-kosher, in reality, for most of us the lines are much more blurry. There are Jews who eat kosher "in" and others who eat it "out," and others who simply avoid pork and shellfish. Some eat only "glatt," and others eat "glatt treyf" but never have milk with their cheeseburgers. We are all over the map. And all of us feel guilty about our level of kashrut, because each of us, without exception, has compromised from time to time, if only not to embarrass a host or or alienate a relative.

For everyone else, kosher has become synonymous with quality. For us, kosher remains that wagging finger of shame, ever reminding us of our shortcomings.

Rather than being so hung-up about our slip-ups, we should accept inconsistency, marvel at the wisdom of our ancestors, and seek to grow, spiritually as well as physically, with every bite we take. In rabbinic tradition, the pig is unkosher because of its hypocrisy. While it flaunts an outwardly kosher appearance, stretching its split hooves for all to see, it hides its dark digestive secret: it does not chew its cud (kosher mammals must be split hooved-ruminants). Too many Jews flaunt their levels of dietary observance or non-observance, wearing on their sleeves either a condescending strict adherence or an equally abrasive rebelliousness; but internally we all dwell in far more complex territory. We need to admit that and get beyond it.

Let's enjoy the cookie that the world has long enjoyed, just as the world is now learning to appreciate a philosophy of eating that has long sustained us. Let's delight in our de-larded Nabisco factories the way the Maccabees reveled after removing swine from the Temple. This Oreo thing calls for a celebration and a renewed appreciation of kashrut.

Got milchicks?

Civil War (What has become of civility?)

The Jewish Week, May 1996

What has become of civility?

We see its demise in Washington, where angry ideologues have driven the moderates underground, and on talk shows, where hard-earned reputations are routinely demolished; from Giants Stadium, where catcalls led to ice-balls, to our own offices, schools and homes.

So I decided to launch a counter-attack -- by being extraordinarily nice for a single day.

My inspiration came from Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, who originated the idea of a day when all Americans would refrain from hurtful speech, and Senators Lieberman and Mack, who last August introduced a resolution designating this May 14 as the first "National Speak No Evil Day." The resolution is still well shy of the 50 co-sponsors needed to propel it out of the Judiciary Committee. Evidently, a number of senators feel this idea is too hokey to fly. I wanted to prove them wrong.

I elected to go cold-turkey on destructive language for 24 hours. These were my ground rules: 1) No cursing or screaming; 2) No negative statements about any third party not present; 3) Utter courtesy in all interactions; and 4) I would not tell anyone about this little experiment.

I began at five o'clock on a Monday afternoon.

5:30: My mother calls, with oodles of advice about relatives, the kids, work, health. By 5:45, she's broken me and I revert to my usual role as the annoyed son and willing gossip partner. On both counts, I've blown it. I decide to call off my quest until midnight.

1:10 a.m.: Mara, my wife, plops two-year old Daniel next to me in bed, jarring me from dreams of making the world better for nice people. "I'm sorry I didn't hear his screaming," I mutter, "I'll listen better next time." Perfect. I manage to suppress my knee-jerk response ("Listen, if the kid's bawling, why should we both have to suffer?"), and diffuse a potential chain reaction of verbal violence. I'm getting the hang of this.

5:05 a.m.: Four-year old Ethan plows into the bed, screaming, "Daniel is in my spot!" Again, I subdue the anger impulse, suggesting calmly that all Hammerman children return to their own beds. "Then carry me," my 49 pound eldest demands, always able to sense weakness in his parental prey. I do, with a forced smile, like a senator making nice to a wealthy lobbyist.

7:30 a.m.: I tip-toe out the door, leaving the domestic part of Speak No Evil Day successfully
behind me.

As a rabbi, I represent a tradition that recognizes evil speech as an addiction and equates it with physical assault. But I'm human too, and since I spend most of my day communicating, the potential for verbal lapse is ever-present. On this day, I need to avoid all temptation. Driving to my rounds at the hospital, I switch from Imus and Stern to classical music. I miss the dirt. I need coffee.

9:25: An elderly patient whispers to me that the hospital is filled with anti-Semites conspiring to steal her flowers. I hold her hand, calmly, saying, "The people here are very nice." The word "nice" is beginning to get to me. As I leave the hospital, I smile at everyone, including an orderly sweeping the floor. He seems agitated. I'm stepping on his mop.

11:30: Back at the office, a phone call from a man moving to the 'burbs from Manhattan. I try to talk up Stamford without saying anything derogatory about the noisy, filthy, crime-infested city he inhabits (just kidding, Big Apple-ites; I love New York). It's not easy. I'm famished.

12:14 p.m.: As I return from a quick bite of anything-sweet-I-can-find, my secretary tells me that she didn't know I would be back so soon, so my 12:15 appointment, a potential new congregant, has left.

"You sent her home?!"

It's not quite a shout but I know instantly that I've gone beyond my strict boundaries. I apologize profusely. It turns out the appointment is waiting for me in the library. She badmouths another local congregation. I go out of my way to defend it. The conversation fizzles after that.
With each encounter that follows, I walk on verbal eggshells. I meet with a divorced couple, planning their child's Bar Mitzvah. Thankfully both are there, so neither can talk about the other.

A close friend calls, a primary source for community gossip. I'm afraid to ask a simple "How is everything," for fear of what could follow. I have a deep thirst for some juicy stuff and sense an unnatural distance between us. What can I say to convey warmth without it being at the expense of innocent others? The call ends, abruptly. A congregant stops by to discuss a program she is working on, and states flatly of a co-worker, "Doesn't she drive you crazy?" Either a no or a yes makes me an accomplice to defamation. I pretend not to hear. Another rabbi calls, asking me for an evaluation of a teacher applying for a job in his synagogue. I've only good things to say, but every word feels like a dagger, every sentence a thrust. Through the day, I manage to deflect deprecatory comments about everyone from the Lubavitcher Rebbe to Yasser Arafat.

3:30: I am courteous to a phone solicitor offering "Rabie" Hammerman a Visa Gold card.

3:40: I stand before 75 restless Hebrew School students, wishing to dock them from life eternal if they don't shut up. I've a splitting headache. I'm ready to give myself over to a higher power.
Exhausted, I go home, flick on the tube and hear Dole attacking Forbes. I turn it off; in local news, Ethan reports that Daniel was pinching and kicking at gymnastics class. From day one, we are programmed to blame and defame.

The morning after: I am humbled by my noble failure and far less inclined to blame talk show hosts and Washingtonians for this national addiction. With or without a Senate resolution, I will have to shake it alone, step by step, word by word. On May 14, I'll try again.

A Tribute to Mel Allen (Eulogy given at his funeral)

Delivered at his Funeral, June 19, 1996

There is a prayer that Jews recite three times daily known as the Amida. This is in many ways our most significant prayer, containing within it the essence of our personal and collective aspirations. And it begins with a peculiar line, always recited silently, taken from Psalm 51.

"Lord, open my lips that my words might speak your praise." This phrase is actually a prayer that we be able to pray. For Judaism is a faith that emphasizes the significance of each word, and considers each word uttered with perfect authenticity a prayer. Each breath is a prayer, each utterance, if authentic, is an expression of our Godliness, each sentence, if it comes from the soul, is testimony to the wonder of being alive, of the miracles that God has given us.

Mel Allen's life was one long, extended, exhaustive, exhilarating, triumphant prayer. It was a call to all of us to see the sublimity in the smallest things, the pitch one inch off the corner, the stolen sign, the first seasonal shifts of the wind. And as for the larger things, he coined the most sublime expression of wonder of all, radical amazement in three short words: "How About That." To have lived to have been able to witness something worth a "How About That," that, to him was a gift. Whether it was a triple play or a mammoth clout, with those three words, Mel Allen was able to elevate broadcasting to the realm of prayer, not just for him, but for the millions who clung to every word he spoke. And he was so fortunate, and he knew it, to have seen Gehrig and Ruth, to have chronicled the heroic deeds of Mantle and Dimaggio, to have placed the imprint of the bard on Don Larson's moment, to have helped us all to say, week after week, night after night, "How About That."

Mel Allen was a good, humble and sensitive man. He was a loving son who took care of his parents in their old age -- only, through his sensitivity, he led his parents to believe that they were moving up here from Alabama to help him. When his father was ill, he said to them, "I need you to make a home for me up here." Such exquisite sensitivity. And after they passed on, they continued to be in his thoughts. Every year, at our memorial service in the cemetery next door, Mel would be there, with his sister Esther of course, to remember.

Imagine the kindness of this man, a man in a position to be overpowering and cruel and get away with it; but not Mel. He understood the sheer miracle of his good fortune in life and recognized the power of his words. Imagine, his was a voice that spoke so many millions of words, so many millions, heard by so many millions of people, and yet how few of those words were spoken in anger or bitterness, how few shaming another person, how few containing the gossip that poisons today's vernacular, and how many simple words of wonder and praise. It was as if every time he sat in front of a microphone or otherwise opened his mouth he uttered that line from psalms, "Lord, open my lips so that my words might speak your praise."

Mel would probably be laughing right now, because of his humility, and he never spoke of death, never really prepared himself or us for this moment. He wouldn't have wanted us to make a big deal: we're talking about a man who in grammar school was allowed to skip a grade in the middle of the year and he never thought to tell his parents. But with all due respect to his humility, we must speak his praise. Bert Parks once called him the nicest man in the whole industry. Walter Cronkite telephoned him at home a short while back, and that call really touched Mel. While the two had been at the same network they hardly ever conversed, but Walter wanted to thank him, decades after the fact, for being so kind in showing him around the studio when he was just starting out.

In the '50s when Mel was at the height of his career, he received a call from an assistant football coach in the midwest who had some interest in being a sportscaster. Mel Allen spent over an hour with this young man on the phone and left a lasting impression. It was only years later that George Steinbrenner reminded him of the incident.

His kindness went beyond normal expectations. As a teacher in Alabama, he once gave a failing grade to Bear Bryant. But he did it nicely. And in his '20s, Mel Allen actually decked someone, a Klansman. He beat the tar out of him, and then years later he found out that they guy was living in Connecticut, so Mel called him and said, "You want another lickin'?" The man couldn't remember who it was, so Mel took him to lunch. It says in Proverbs, "If your enemy be hungry, give him bread to eat." Mel had a knack of turning enemies into friends.

When we think of Mel Allen, it will be with that microphone in front of him, but let us first recall the kind words that always came out of the mouth that spoke into that mike. He achieved greatness through hard work and good fortune and genuine talent, but never through malice, deceit or backstabbing. He achieved every honor imaginable, he is a resident of several Halls of Fame, but it didn't change him one bit.

And when we think of Mel, inevitably we'll think of baseball. Undoubtedly, some of you are here today mourning today not only the loss of a good person but the end of an era, a time when baseball reminded us of all that was good, an innocence that baseball has long since lost but Mel himself maintained until the end. We felt that as long as Mel was with us, maybe we could regain that lost youth, that passion, that innocence.

But here we are: today is the day when the man who coined the name Joltin' Joe has left and gone away. Baseball's era of gentility lies before us.

And we are here to mourn the silencing of that voice. A journalist once called him the Homer of homers. Now that can be taken in many ways; but the intention was to designate Mel as the Homeric poet of the home run. His magnificent descriptive talents were on display especially when the drama hit its heights, and this gift was matched perfectly with a team and a time that immortalized him as he immortalized them. Another journalist once exclaimed that his voice had been decorated by a florist. I can see that. It resonated, but with class, with style, with a combination of southern grace and Jewish irony: And that fabulous sense of humor, well that was both southern and Jewish. Night after night, October after October, Mel Allen composed the epic poem of baseball's Homeric age. And for that he'll live on long after most of the heroes he described have faded from memory.

Most who knew Mel know that his passion for his work was unquenchable. He never really stopped working. Just over the past several days, he was making preparations to return to This Week in Baseball. Through an illness that would have stopped lesser men, I saw Mel struggling, and at times doubting it all, but never willing to give in to it. For him, giving up his work, and his game, would have meant giving in. He didn't keep working for ego or status. Undoubtedly it gave him satisfaction to be appreciated, I know how much that meant to him to be so much a part of the Yankee family. But Mel didn't do this for the glory. To silence his voice would have been to silence his soul.

Two years ago, just hours prior to Yom Kippur, baseball officially cancelled the World Series for the first time in Mel's lifetime. Everywhere, people were in deep mourning. How could it be the fall without the Fall Classic? Where would our heroes come from? What would become of our nation without our national pastime? The baseball world, the country and the calendar were entering an autumnal abyss.

I wasn't sure what to say to Mel that evening. I wanted to comfort him in the hope that he could comfort me. So I said to him, "Such a sad day." And Mel, in his matter of fact way, which could often mask deep wisdom as plain common sense, replied: "This is not a tragedy. War, now that's tragic. Poverty and hunger, that's a tragedy. This is not a tragedy."

And I ascended this pulpit that night a whole lot wiser. Mr. Baseball, the one I had thought lived and breathed only for the game, made me understand that it was just a game, a game which lived and breathed through him, but only inasmuch as it expressed the drama, beauty and poetry of life. It wasn't the game that mattered: it was the living and breathing. It was on that night that the Voice of the Yankees enabled this Red Sox fan to understand that ultimately we are all on the same team.

Mr. Baseball had his priorities straight. So while he will best be remembered for his association with the sport, and while one of his final activities was watching the Yankees win on Sunday, let us never forget the lesson he taught me that night. Let us mourn today not because baseball has severed its final tie to innocence, but because the human race has lost a voice that brought us closer to one another and closer to God. And let us celebrate today too. For Mel's voice, which was his essence, which became the essence of his sport, will never be silenced. The Lord opened his mouth, his words spoke God's praise, and those words will reverberate unto eternity.

May that voice continue to resonate through the heavens and through our souls, and may his gentle spirit be bound up in the web of life.

Jewish Perfectionism Can Wreak Havoc on Our Self Esteem

Moment Magazine, August 1996

Ever notice how dumb we've all become -- and how proud we are of it? Maybe it began with that famous internal memo of President Clinton's '92 campaign staff, "It's the economy, stupid," or maybe it's just that we've hit the point of overload in absorption of new technologies. Just as we figured out the microwave, along came the VCR; then the computer invaded the household; then we discovered that the rest of the world was having a great time in a strange place known as "on line." With each innovation, we know that we must conquer our techno-phobias or risk becoming social dinosaurs.

But at least we have company. Bookstore shelves are now filled with titles like "DOS for Dummies," "Finances for Dummies," even "Sex for Dummies," (and I thought some things still came instinctively). In the same spirit, I'm holding a seminar in my synagogue entitled, "Davening for Dummies." We the utterly incompetent have come gliding out of the closet, now liberated to admit our inadequacies, and it is comforting to know that everyone feels the same way.

The rest of the world is just now catching up to the Jewish people, because we have declared our ineptitude for centuries. Moses felt entirely unworthy of his weighty responsibilities, as, it seems, has every Jewish leader since him, at least until Bibi Netanyahu. Anyone who has ever set foot in a synagogue on Shabbat morning has, at some point in his life, sat next to Joe the Super-Davener and felt like a complete idiot. We're very good at encouraging self-inflicted degradation, only we are taught to call it humility.

This attitude prevails in my profession. Even the greatest of my seminary professors used to shrink at the mere mention of a sage of the previous generation; my classmates and I were expected to abase ourselves in a similar manner, at least in public. But one does not have to proclaim unworthiness in order to honor one's teachers; the Torah instructs us to rise before our elders, not to lie prostrate in their presence.

Rabbis dutifully pass down this insecurity to our own students. The little secret that our congregants don't know is that, while they are standing in front of us terrified that we heard them mispronounce "Yitgadal," we're shaking in our boots at the prospect of blowing the Bar Mitzvah boy's middle name or misquoting a talmudic aphorism and having our professors yell at us in our dreams.

It's not just about people: even our greatest city has an inferiority complex. With all the fuss about Jerusalem this year, we still pray for the restoration of its former glory, as if all of Teddy Kollek's efforts were mere window dressing. Even the grand Jerusalem of Temple times, which our sages claimed possessed nine tenths of the world's beauty, wasn't good enough. In rabbinic literature the earthly Jerusalem has a celestial counterpart, and it is the heavenly Jerusalem that God will inhabit first.

For us, this problem stems in part from the pervasive feeling that our parents were "more Jewish" than us, simply for their having lived one generation closer to the cultural milieu of the idealized "old country." But it is also traceable to that messianic itch that has denied Jews the chance ever to be totally satisfied with things as they are. Some would call this in-bred perfectionism healthy, better for the world if not for our own mental well-being. That itch has propelled us to great accomplishments (often to spite our demanding parents and teachers, rather than to please them), but it is also at the root of our alienation and an impetus for assimilation.

"Avinu Malkenu, remember that we are but dust," is the mantra we'll repeat so often during the upcoming High Holidays, that most ego-deflating of seasons. But we forget that the Torah instructs us not merely to love our neighbor, but to love ourselves as well. We neglect the other side of the equation: we're lowly, but for our sake the world was created.

Ironically, although we come out of the High Holidays thinking that Judaism is all gloom and doom, most of us actually feel very good about ourselves at the services, because those prayers are so familiar to us. It's the one time each year when everyone can be Joe the Super-Davener, with added relish, since the original Shabbat-variety Joe, now vastly outnumbered and self-conscious, shuckles timidly in his corner. If only we could feel so at home at services the other days of the year.

Which brings me back to "Davening for Dummies." Inadequacy loves company, and the Microsoft age has presented us with a "window" of opportunity. Yes, we're dummies, but so is everyone else, so we don't have to feel so bad about it. The key to stemming the tide of assimilation is not to dilute Judaism or reduce the level of Hebrew at our services, but rather to pump up self-esteem by diminishing the stigma associated with Jewish illiteracy. People grapple with foreign subject matter all the time, at museums or at the opera, and they come out inspired, humbled perhaps, but hungry for more. We've got to make sure that they come out of shul feeling equally uplifted, in spite of the gaps in their knowledge, else they spend the next Shabbat searching for God back at Lincoln Center.

A practical suggestion: I recommend that every rabbi intentionally blow it at some very visible time -- how about Rosh Hashanah -- and then admit the mistake, proudly. Not only will the experience emancipate the leader from his own fear of failure, it will make the congregation feel a hundred times better about itself -- and probably lead to an increase in service attendance and a contract extension. People struggle with machines all day; it's refreshing when they see a real human being on the pulpit.

As for the rest of us, when we look at Joe the Super-Davener sitting next to us, measure him not by the intensity of his shuckling, but rather by a more sophisticated tool, the mensch-o-meter. Does he help us find the page and not make us feel dumb in the process? Does he even say hello? When we forget to stand for Kedusha and he gives us that stare, remember that there's a good reason why he's shaking so much.

Let's just feel good about being Jewish. Let's wake up each morning, look in the mirror and say, "I can pray the way I want. I love my neighbor and I love myself. Gosh darn it, I'm a good Jew."

My Brother’s Keeper

(Adapted from the Stamford Advocate, June 28, 1991)

My brother Mark, who is mentally retarded, is sixteen months my junior. We shared the same room while growing up. People often mistook us for twins, though I never could see such a resemblance, though I was proud to be identified with him. Our family albums are filled with photos of me holding his hand on roller coasters and kissing him at birthday parties. As a teenager, while most of my friends spent their Friday nights hanging out in someone's basement or at the movies, I often gave Mark a bath.

Life in my home consisted of a bizarre series of recurring vignettes -- bizarre to most, normal for me. While my mother bemoaned the fact that we could entertain so rarely, I naively clung to the presumption that our guests would not be fazed by Mark's spontaneous calls of "kan--meetchee-molin!!" and "A-weekee-wee!!" the occasional flailing of his arms in an unfathomable rage, and his insatiable appetite. Perhaps they would think it cute.

He wasn't toilet trained until late adolescence. Until then my parents, sister and I took turns wiping him; not a pleasant task, but one that older siblings of toddlers face every day, I figured. A minor inconvenience. For my parents, Mark's condition was a tragedy; for me, a given.

I believed the old saw that having a retarded sibling was really a blessing in disguise, a gift that would make me a better person. Therefore Mark's purpose on earth was to provide me with cheap sensitivity training.

Until several years ago, we never knew whether his disability resulted from human error or divine decree. The endless search for a definitive cause was for my parents an obsession, for me a curiosity. But in the mid ‘80s we finally got the conclusive answer, one that transformed me from observer to survivor.

My brother has Fragile X syndrome, a genetic disorder first discovered in 1970 and now recognized as the second leading cause of mental retardation among newborns. Fragile X results from a weakness in the genetic structure of the X chromosome. Females, who are born with two Xs, one from each parent, are often less affected by the syndrome, because their normal X shields them from the fragile one. Most males born with the defective X are not so lucky.

Genetic screening now can detect Fragile X with astounding accuracy. I was tested before I was married. I'm clean. Completely, utterly clean. Not even my great grandchild could inherit the defect from me. It was a fifty-fifty shot, a flip of the coin. I won.

Of my mother's two X chromosomes, I got the good one.

Mark got the bad one.

If my mother had known then what we know now, she would likely not have had Mark.

Or me.

Mark spends his days folding bags in a sheltered workshop, eagerly awaiting his reward for a job well done: a can of Coke at 1:30. I earn more in a week then he'll earn all year. I vacation in Paris and eat at all the best restaurants. He chows down at the local Burger King. I graduated from an Ivy League college and earned three advanced degrees. With gentle encouragement, Mark can count to 20. I got married. I drive a car, I have children. I chart my future. He's happy -- unbelievably content -- with a candy bar and a few old '45s to play on his run-down record player.

In nature's demonic process of selection, Mark was the victim, while I was condemned, in my good fortune, to live out my life knowing it.

Mark has become my mirror image, the X-factor defining who I am and what I could easily have become. We are two sides of the same coin. We share the accident of birth.

Mark's rage and frustration live within me. Whenever I forget a meeting or misplace my keys, I grumble heavenward for being hampered with such mundane limitations, sometimes voicing sentiments strikingly similar to the ones Mark used to mutter at the dinner table. And when I see Mark beaming proudly, after asking Mom, in a complete and utterly civilized sentence, to pass the chicken, "pleeze," my frustration quickly melts into his exultation.

We sleep in separate bedrooms now, 180 miles apart. I wander the face of civilization seeking meaning and imparting my uncertainty to others. Although he wipes himself now, Mark stayed in his Garden, shielded from the terrible knowledge I now possess, about me, about him, about us all. As my children grow, their fragility exposed, no matter how far I stray, my brother's DNA screams at me from the bowels of the earth.

A Father’s Presence

(Adapted from an article published in the Stamford Advocate, March 24 1991)

Today marks the beginning of a holy week for three religions. For Moslems, the week-long observance of Ramadan continues with daylight fasting and nightly prayers. For Christians, the drama of the Passion unfolds. And for Jews, the annual reenactment of the Exodus from Egypt takes place at the Passover Seders. These three sacred moments coincide only once in a blue moon – which, by the way, we also experienced this year.

What I am about to write is going to sound sexist, but I beg al my female friends to indulge me on this one; because there is a common thread that joins the three celebrations together, and that is the relationship of father to son.

During Ramadan, the entire Koran is supposed to be memorized and recited, with special care given toward its transmission to sons. The primary command of the Passover Seder is “And you shall teach this to your son,” and the Seder is considered incomplete without the presence and active participation of children. And the story of Jesus revolves around the most theologically complex father-son relationship imaginable – complex and yet so very simple.

For it all comes down to one thing. Every son needs a father, one who is present and caring.

This season of fathers and sons comes at a most opportune moment for me. For 12 years, I had been searching for my father, and in one magical instant just six weeks ago, I found him. Allow me to explain.

My father collapsed from a heart attack on New Years Day of 1979, during halftime of the Rose Bowl. That’s when my mother called me from Boston and I began the longest and most difficult journey of my life. I was a student living in New York at the time, four hours from home, four hours from the finality that in my heart I suspected was coming. Although my mother’s words told me that he was still alive, her voice hinted at a more devastating truth. But that truth remained as elusive as the road beyond the reach of my headlights on that rainy night, and time stopped for me while I made that non-stop drive.

I turned onto my street and could see from half a block away that all the lights were on in my house and at least a dozen cars were parked outside. Not a good sign. A darkened house would have meant everyone was still at the hospital, where there might be some hope; but no such luck. So the choice was mine: whether to go inside and face the irreversible void that was about to enter my life, or drive on in the hopes of keeping time frozen indefinitely – as if once or twice around the block would change everything back to normal.

Fast forward to six weeks ago. With my wife about to deliver my first child, I felt myself turning the corner of that street once again. And then, when Ethan was pulled from his mother’s womb and his face turned toward me, I knew that my eons of roaming aimlessly around the block had ended. My father had returned.

The face was too serious and calm to belong to an infant, and too focused on one object in the room: me. It was as if those eyes were imploring me that it was now OK to leave the car and come into the house. The hair, the lips, the nose, they belonged to Ethan, but the eyes were my father’s eyes. And in a single moment, the distant past became the present, from death came new life, and the clock that had stopped so aburptly that New Years day began ticking again. Halftime was finally over.

My dad was a rarity for his era, demonstratively affectionate and involved with his children, day and night. Unlike all those TV daddies of the Ward Cleaver era, mine actually took me to his office – often. (And how often did Fred and Barney take Pebbles and Bam Bam to the quarry?). While he worked, I filled coloring books and traded knock-knock jokes and corny riddles with the secretaries.

In “Iron John,” Robert Bly writes of the phenomenon of the remote and absent father, so pervasive during the past three decades. This is the dad so often mocked in our popular culture, the one who ahs no idea which cold remedy to take and where the diapers are hidden. Even the success of the “sensitive dad” films like “Kramer Versus Kramer” and “Mr. Mom” only served to reinforce the notion that authentic, All-American dads aren’t supposed to be involved with their kids unless they get fired, and the only way to be a good, caring dad is to be a mom in disguise.

Citing the work of a German psychologist, Bly argues that if the father does not actually see what the father does during the day, a hole will appear in his psyche, “and the hole will fill with demons who tell him that his father’s work is evil and that the father is evil.” It was the absent father fo the Ward Cleaver era that led directly to the student protests of the ‘60s, Bly suggests, as the students’ fears regarding their own fathers were transferred to all male figures in authority.

I don’t want to be a Mr. Mom. I want to be a Mr. Dad, but one whose son will never feel that his father has abandoned him. I want to be a present father. When the boy cries, I want to hold him every time until the cry becomes a coo. And if that is impossible, which it is, I want him to have such vivid memories of me that he’ll feel me there even when I’m not. The father who is present to his child is never remote, I’ve discovered, and the father who is remote is never present, even when he is in the same room.

Which brings me back to Passover and Easter. What they share, I believe, is the idea that even when a present father appears to be off on an endless business trip, he can still hear and be heard. What Passover and Easter teach us is that the loving parent never really dies and the loving God always returns. We wait. But the Israelites waited too, through centuries of toil in a faraway land; and I waited, for 12 years before an answer finally came.

Over the past few weeks I have discovered something else, something astonishing. My father is back all right, but he can no longer be detected in the face of my son, although those eyes do still look strangely familiar. Instead, my father has chosen a most yet appropriate place to make his presence known – in my own presence. In my own soothing words and caresses, I hear his. Inasmuch as Ethan’s dad is able to be the kind of father every child deserves, Ethan’s grandfather will never be far away.

The Call


It all started innocently enough, but then again, so did the Creation. On a humid summer night on Cape Cod in 1995, I brought my four-year old to his first baseball game. For Ethan, it was to be an initiation into the boyhood passions of his Dad. For me, it was the chance to rediscover a love that had begun to slip through my fingers nearly a decade earlier, when Mookie Wilson's fateful squibber slid under Bill Buckner's glove and the Red Sox blew the '86 Series.

The Orleans Cardinals took the field against the Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox and as I started to describe the action in explicit detail, pitch by pitch, I heard echoes of contests I had announced before.

No, I was never a real broadcaster, but as a youngster, I spent many evenings in front of the TV, tuning out Curt Gowdy and tuning in to my own call of the action, whatever the sport. More thrilling yet were the games that took place in the arena of my mind, for those were the ones over which I had complete control. A two-mile walk from school would be just enough time to fit in the final few innings of a World Series duel between the Sox and Cardinals, or a championship tilt between the Celts and Lakers. I could do Gowdy or Johnny Most with the best of them, or Marv Albert, or Ken Coleman. Invariably, some two-out Yastrzemski homer or last-second Havlicek swish would clinch it for the home team. As I grew to early teenhood, my athletic skills developed to the point where I could make guest appearances on the court or at the plate -- precisely at the right moment to be the hero.

By the time I hit my 30's and even retired athletes were younger than me, I had long since abandoned dreams of personal glory; but the call of the game remained vivid, the possibility of redemption through incantation. The call, like all other forms of prayer, was most soothing in its promise that our words can, ultimately, affect destiny -- until that most terrible of October nights at Shea dissolved my dreams abruptly.

But on Cape Cod, for a single evening at least, paradise was regained. Ethan and I both wore our mitts as we settled in on the grassy hill behind first base. His glove was spanking new; and on my tattered old horse, its webbing held together by fading string, my father had inscribed my name and boyhood address a quarter of a century before. We caught no foul balls, but my glove served to punctuate each crack of the bat with a note of history. "Swinnng and a miss!" I exclaimed at an Orleans batter's futile try, and then I proceeded to tell Ethan about another of my mitt's epic outfield grabs at camp; "Grounder to second -- over to first -- he's out!" I bellowed, and then added a word about the autographed ball his late grandpa had handed down, covered with the names of his beloved Brooklyn Dodgers; "That's deep to left..." I cried, and then told him some stories about Opening Day at Fenway and the hometown team I had come to love -- nothing, of course, about Buckner.

As the innings rolled by and the fog from Nauset Beach crept over the left field fence, my rapt son spewed forth the most natural questions, keeping to the rhythm of my call. By the third frame, he had become the color commentator, interviewing me between pitches: "Why, when the pitcher is always throwing a ball, is it not always called a ball?" "Why are there no girls playing?" "Why are the Red Sox losing?" While I knew that each answer would peel away another layer of innocence, his growing curiosity only fueled my passion; for with each question I regained an additional vestige of my youth -- only better this time, without the pimples, the rejection, the pain. My play by play had finally orchestrated a real-life happy ending.

Six months later, and things have gone awry. Ethan now refuses to watch Sesame Street -- only Sportscenter will do, or whatever else happens to be on ESPN. When the morning paper arrives, he grabs the sports section and sizes up all the scores, and at bedtime he prefers his sports calendar to Babar. When we allow him, he will watch anything that has uniforms and moves, even the Jets and Saints recently, for three quarters. When he isn't watching, we're playing: bedroom sock football, laundry basket basketball, hall hockey. Our house has become a Superdome, each room an arena.

And just recently, he has taken to broadcasting imaginary games. In the bathtub, Disney shampoo containers are squared off in titanic battles. Goofy becomes Michael Jordan, slam dunking into the soap dish. Winnie the Pooh belts a tape-measure job into the sink across the way.

Ethan recently came into the room and declared, "I like Coor's Light best but I also like Bud." Indeed, I explain gingerly to my wife, the commercials for Coor's and Bud Light are the most entertaining but, I assure her, he knows nothing of beer. We tune in ESPN. A Spandexed young California lass stands before the smooth Pacific informing us about the fastest way to flatter stomachs.

Mara is not amused.

But she's as culpable as I am. She was the one who pitched to him daily in our driveway last summer; who encouraged him to select both the Dan Marino and Emmett Smith T-shirts at the mall; who told about her father's love for the Red Sox and how Yaz's daughter was her campmate; who worked with him on passing, pitching, kicking, shooting and putting while I was adrift at the office. She wanted him to love it too, for social purposes. My aims were more transcendent and ultimately, more foolhardy.

Last week, Ethan pulled the big one. "Dad, I don't like the Red Sox," he said. "I like the Yankees."

Since the Garden of Eden, parents have known that children cannot truly be molded in our own image, nor can we create happy endings for them. But as I drive home listening to my boy calling an illusory match between the Bears and Eagles from his back seat press box, I clutch the wheel in tearful wonderment. I realize that I'll never again be able to traverse the turf through which he now scampers so effortlessly, and that he too will someday confront the limitations of imagination. But for now I marvel at his ecstatic discovery of his own capacity to create order in this chaotic world.

Then I overhear him interrupting his call, saying, "We now pause for this message from Mastercard. It's more than a card. It's smart money."

The kid is watching entirely too much TV.

Shushan's Top 40

The Jewish Week, March 17, 1995

Did you know that our sages considered Purim the most significant of holidays, the only one that will still be celebrated in messianic times? Even Yom Kippur can only measure its merit in relation to that jewel of Adar, the Jewish Morty-gras. In Hebrew, the name Yom Kippurim can be translated as "A day like Purim." Purim is our best kept secret, and it's a shame, because if it received even half the press given to our somber September-fests, Judaism would be as popular among the younger set as, well, as the Lion King himself.

In fact, a Purim album has just been released to coincide with the avalanche of publicity accompanying the release of that Disney video. Or maybe it was the video that was timed to come out just before Purim. This album, called "The Lyin' King," contains numerous hits from "Shushan's Top 40" that rival anything Motown has released since the days of Buddy Hallah.

Just look at what you get: immortal songs like, "It's My Minyan, I Can Pray If I Want To," "Mama, Don't Let Your Children Grow Up To Be Rabbis," and from that famous team of synagogue sextons, the Beadles, an all-time Purim favorite, "Esther Day."

To set the scene, the King has just banished his previous Queen because she refused to dance naked in front of all his friends. He couldn't understand why she would turn down such a reasonable request. So, he decides to arrange a beauty contest. He calls his friends at Sports Illustrated and asks them to send over their latest swimsuit recruits. Unfortunately, he gets the phone numbers mixed up, and he calls Hadassah Magazine by mistake. The models aren't exactly the type he's looking for. They're beautiful, of course, but better in the evening gowns than the swimsuits. But there is one who catches his eye immediately. And when he sees her, he knows right away, that it is:

Esther Day
Ahashverosh sent his queen away
Had a game Vashti refused to play
And so today is Esther Day

Every woman dreams of royalty
But there is one so fair all can agree
Esther Day came suddenly

Why she had to show I don't know
She wouldn't say
Of her deep, dark past no one asked
On Esther Day
Esther Day
Ahashverosh' court was swept away
Little did they know she was a "J"
Hip hip hooray
For Esther Day

The story continues. The king's servant, Haman, wants everyone to bow down to him. But Mordechai, Esther's agent and cousin, refuses to because he has a bad back. Haman goes to the King and says, "There's this man who won't bow down to me, and I'm very unhappy, so I'd like to exterminate his people." The King thinks that's a reasonable request and he grants it. The date of this mass murder is set by lottery: Adar 13. Everyone in the Kingdom then plays the number 13 in the Shushan Lotto Weekly Jackpot. No one wins. But Haman rubs his hands with Glee ( a popular Shushan brand of soap), and prepares to build a gallows.

And how could we forget that moving ballad of Haman's made popular by Mottel the tailor's kid brother, James, "Up On the Noose."

When these old Jews just refuse to bow down
It really makes me want to cook their goose;
So I climb way up to the top of this tree
And I feel a sense of glee
Affixin' the noose

On the noose, that's where ol' Mort will fly
And then all of his relatives will die
Oh my!

So I'll place a star by the month of Adar
On the thirteenth day, by lot, I'll end my truce
Mordechai will hang and his friends I'll defang
And then if the verdict's in,
I'll hang The Juice

On the noose, as lethal as can be
Thank God that rope was not put up for me!
Yippee! Up on the noose...

Mordechai catches wind of Haman's plot. Mordechai is not so pleased to have been standing downwind from Haman, but that's another story. He decides to act quickly and decisively.... He tells Esther to solve the problem.

The newly released "Lyin' King" album also has a number of original songs, from the "Lyin' King" soundtrack, sung by Elton Beit Shimoosh (ask your neighborhood Hebrew maven to decipher that one; you will gain a friend). Sample this new classic, taken directly from the dramatic encounter between Mordechai and Esther soon after Haman's plot is discovered, called, "I Just Can't Wait to See the King."

M: You're going up to see the king
To tell him of the plot

E: I just don't feel comfortable
His temper's rather hot

M: Don't worry, God is on your side
And I'll be right there too

E: I wouldn't have been in this mess
If it hadn't been for you
But maybe I can charm that ding-a-ling

M: See - you just can't wait to see the king

E: "Honey won't you wear this
Honey won't you cook that,"
He doesn't think I have a brain
He treats me like a ding bat

M: Now you can make history
You could be his Hillary

E: Maybe I should sleep on this
For a day or two

M: Go ahead and suit yourself
We'll pray and fast for you
But then you've got to get to him
To tell the king the truth

E: And if he's in a foul mood
I'll not live out my youth

M: But maybe half his kingdom will he bring

E: Oh I just can't wait to see the king!

And how about that modern spiritual classic from "The Lyin' King," "Teshuvah/Tzedakkah," sung by the king's philosopher-sidekicks, Poppy and 'Taschen: This song is sung when the King finds out from Esther about Haman's plot and he decides to hang Haman instead. Then, while Haman is being hoisted onto the gallows he had built for Moredchai, the King asks his sidekicks to explain to him the power of the Jewish message. And here's how it goes:

Teshuvah/Tzedakkah, what a wonderful phrase
Teshuvah/Tzedakkah, 'aint no passing craze
It means we worry, for the rest of our days
It's our philosophy of responsibility

Why, when he went to Hebrew School

When I went to Hebrew School

He found that his actions were not always nice
Could hurt other people, it made him think twice

I'm a sensitive soul, though I seem thick-skinned
And it hurt to remember the times I'd sinned.
And oh the shame! Thought of changing my name!
But through all the pain, knew
To say "Avinu Malkenu."

Teshuvah/Tzedakkah, no one's ever alone
Teshuvah/Tzedakkah, we take care of our own
It means we worry, when we pick up the phone
With so much at stake, remember Amalek

So who needs Disney, when our own traditions can guide us seamlessly along the great Triangle of Life -- so named, of course, after Haman's three cornered hat. Disney might have great stories, but only Purim has a plot that leaves nearly everybody hanging. The Lion King might be cute, but in Esther we have the face that launched a thousand Hadassah campaigns.

Purim could really be big. Bigger than Simba. Bigger than Power Rangers. Bigger than Elvis Elviself (the preferred gender-neutral form). It's cool. It's hip. It's fun. And -- it's a mitzvah!

That's right. You can enjoy your Judaism sans guilt. Even adults without young children can love Purim. Then, on the morning after, you can tell everyone at the office that you did a mitzvah the previous night. And wipe that silly smirk off your face.

So pick up your copy of "The Lyin' King" today. And tune in again next year for "Shushan's Top 40."

The Jews' Jews

The Jewish Week ,June 27, 1997

How does it feel to be a Conservative rabbi at the start of a full-fledged Culture War, a struggle that will have vast implications for the future of Israeli-diaspora relations, the Jewish nature of the Jewish state and the often shaky relationship between synagogue and federation?

It feels like being Jew two times over.While some would choose to minimize the problem and chalk it up to politics, and others hope to pacify us with a few pluralism bucks in the hope that we'll return to Rashi or our black-tie benedictions, it's just not going to happen. The recent attack on Conservative worshipers at the Western Wall was nothing short of a pogrom, according to eyewitnesses. The complete lack of revulsion on the part of Israeli officials immediately following the event only adds to our pain.

And what do we hear from the American Jewish leadership? The same things Israel is used to hearing from the U.S. State Department: "We hope both sides will stop shouting at one another and, well, can't you just try to get along?"

It's enough that I have to stomach the moral equivalence imposed from the outside that allows a bus bomb killing dozens of Jews to be balanced with a construction project on the West Bank. Now I'm supposed to accept moral equivalence imposed by fellow Jews, when only one side is allowed to pray at the Western Wall, and only one side is creating halachic scenarios that will justify the murder of the other side.

My prayers are becoming inverted. When I pray for peace, it is for an internal peace, because our external enemies are no longer the greatest threat to Jewish survival. When I pray for victory, it is for me to be able to lead prayers at our holiest site. When I pray for Israel, it is for an Israel of dreams, for the real Israel would not accept my prayers as authentic, at least until the encouraging news of a compromise reached this week on the conversion issue. When I pray for the prime minister, it is with the knowledge that he would doubtless not visit my synagogue to hear that prayer for fear of angering his haredi minions. He's had a number of chances to attend services at a non-Orthodox synagogue since becoming head of state but has refused to be seen at one.

Mr. Prime Minister, you are cordially invited to mine. We even provide baby-sitting.

I've been disenfranchised by my own people. I've become the Jew's Jew.

I would love nothing more than peace and unity. But I'm becoming a haredi in the literal sense - one who trembles. All of us should be shaking at this turn of events, including Orthodox Jews. Especially Orthodox Jews. What happened at the Kotel was hardly unique: Women's groups, for example, have been assaulted routinely for years by Jewish fundamentalists. But the scope of these new attacks, the unleashing of pure hated, has not been seen between Jew and Jew since the zealot days of the first century. The Shavuot incident was nothing less than the Culture War's Lexington and Concord, the (excrement deleted) Heard `Round the World. And the Israeli police just stood by and let the hooligans dod their business. Why defend the Conservatives, they must have wondered. After all, they are small and weak. Jews' Jews.

When my people are attacked, my reaction is always from the gut. I recognize that it is dangerous to allow the gut to make decisions for the rest of me, but that's what most of us do. That's why so many of us poured so much money into emergency campaigns to aid Israel during her wars and immigrant airlifts. So did I.

And that's why I'm about an inch and a half from resigning from the UJA Rabbinic Cabinet in response to, among other things, an ad recently circulated by UJA throughout the country whose headline read, "He's not Reform, Conservative or Orthodox. He's poor and hungry." According to a memo circulated by Richard Wexler, national chairman of UJA, and Bernard Moscowitz, chief operating officer, the ad reminds the public of UJA's "most important" work, "for the good and unity of the Jewish people."

But that ad, as well as the remainder of that memo, also minimizes and mocks my pain and lends the false impression that those who support religious choice in Israel are putting the lives of innocent immigrant babes in jeopardy, that pluralism can be sought only at the cost of absorption. The pitiful immigrant pictured in the ad will soon discover the need for pluralism in Israel, probably much sooner than Mr. Wexler. A Conservative rabbi with feces on his tallit might not be as suitable a poster child, but the pain is no less deep and the threat to the Jewish people far greater because of his plight. Echoing the misguided strategy of the poster campaign, Manfred Steinfeld, general campaign chairman of JUF in Chicago, wrote recently in the Chicago Tribune, "It's not important whether a person in need is a Reform, Conservative or Orthodox Jew. We refuse to allow anyone to drive a wedge between us and the people of Israel."

Memo to Mr. Steinfeld: Unless you get out front on the pluralism issue, you will continue to spend lots of money shlepping needy Jews to a country where undoubtedly they will come to hate the Ayatollan brand of Judaism presented to them as the only option, and where they won't get to be buried with loved ones denied the chance to covert. You want to raise money on the back of human tragedy? Accompany your poster babe to his Promised Land and do a follow-up in a few years.

As a rabbi, I am committed to keeping my own community viable and unified. I have always supported our local campaign and will continue to do so. I, too, believe in helping poor and hungry people, as well as promoting Jewish education here at home. But for those leaders who would choose to stand above the fray and pretend that the diversity mess will all go away if only those darn rabbis would learn their place and behave themselves, let them understand that pluralism isn't just the top of the agenda; right now it is the agenda.

I suspect that rabbis all over North America are reassessing their communal partnerships, as I am, in light of the recent provocation. And I guarantee that our congregants will be behind us. They are feeling this pain, too. We will preach about this week after week and it won't go away. It's bigger than just the conversion bill now. The era of Status Quo, which never really existed anyway, has officially ended. If our organizations and leaders continue to mock our pain, we'll just have to find new leaders and new organizations.

We didn't fling the feces from the window of the Porat Yosef Yeshiva in Jerusalem as our brethren fled the Western Wall on Shavuot morning, but it has most definitely hit the fan.