Friday, December 23, 2016

Shabbat-O-Gram for December 23


Tis the Season for Mitzvot!

TBE students cast their Mitzvah net in all directions this week, visiting residents at Brighton Gardens, singing at last Friday night's Kabbalat Shabbat service, and preparing gift packages for the JFS Adopt-a-family program and for the Jewish Home (where my mom was a happy recipient).  See more photos in our TBE winter album.  



Thank you to the Temples!

And speaking of special Mitzvot, a special thank you to Ken and Amy Temple for organizing our annual Christmas Eve visits to local agencies.  This year, we will be visiting three places, New Covenant House, Pacific House and Inspirica.  More than 100 people from 44 TBE families will be assisting in this effort on site as singers and servers (if you total up all the Hanukkah candles lit during the 8 day festival, that's one family per Hanukkah candle), and another 35 families who won't be on site made donations of food and supplies.  Truly a massive effort on behalf of Ken and Amy, as well as all who are giving of themselves this weekend.  I will be bringing electric Hanukkah menorahs to each location, so that we we may celebrate not one but two holidays this year along with our neighbors.

Shining the Light in Berlin


Given the horrible terror attack in Berlin this week, it makes us appreciate all the more our innate ability as human beings to pierce the darkness with ever-increasing light.  We grieve with the people of that city.  The Hanukkiah that will glow once again this year overlooking the central symbol of that city, a place that has known so much darkness, demonstrates that explicitly.  So will our visit to some of the darkest places of human history this summer.  Our Jewish Heritage Tour will also pierce that darkness.  Our group is growing and the registration deadline is fast approaching.  Check out the itinerary by clicking here.

Hanukkah Nights (and Shabbat)

The cantor and I will both be here for services over the holiday week. Join us!  Also, 
we are delighted to be partnering with "Members of the Tribe" family Facebook group for the best young family Hanukkah party in town! If you are around on Tuesday and have young kids, this is the place to be! You can sign up here. See the flyer at the bottom of this email for more information.

With Hanukkah just a week away, don't forget to send me your candle lighting photos for our Hanukkah album.  See some of last year's here.

If you are looking for a one page printout of the Hanukkah blessings and a morsel of learning for each night, JTS has provided just what you are looking for.  You can print out the pdf here.

And if you were stymied by last week's snow, you can read Evan Goldblum's Bar Mitzvah commentary on Vayishlach here.  

Mazal tov to him and a special mazal tov also to TBE's Rick Redniss, deservedly chosen as Stamford's Citizen of the year.

Aphrodite and the Rabbis - and the December Dilemma

A zodiac mosaic at the ancient synagogue in Sephoris (Tzipori) in the Galilee.  
That's Zeus-Helios, the sun god, in the center! And incidentally, it's the exact same image that is depicted on top of Brandenburg Gate (photo above)

A new book by one of my professors at JTS, Rabbi Burton Visotzky (who has spoken here), highlights one of the perplexing questions about Hanukkah, and for that matter, the December Dilemma:  To what degree does the Hanukkah story reflect the Jewish rejection of the prevailing culture?  Or are our celebrations, and rabbinic Judaism as a whole, immersed in Greco-Roman symbolism and themes.

The book is called "Aphrodite and the Rabbis," and I'll be discussing it here this Shabbat.
Visotzky gives ample evidence of significant Hellenistic influence on the versions of Judaism practiced during the centuries before and especially after the destruction of the Second Temple:

- The Passover Seder is a Greco-Roman symposium banquet
- The Talmud rabbis presented themselves as Stoic philosophers
- Synagogue buildings were Roman basilicas
- Hellenistic rhetoric professors educated sons of well-to-do Jews
- Zeus-Helios is depicted in synagogue mosaics across ancient Israel
- The Jewish courts were named after the Roman political institution, the Sanhedrin
- In Israel there were synagogues where the prayers were recited in Greek.

In that case, the Maccabees were not so much freedom fighters seeking to purify Jewish faith in the face of an alien culture, as they were rabble rousers from the countryside seeking to, um, drain the swamp of Jerusalem from a corrupt aristocracy that was both Greek and Jewish.  Ironically, once they gained power (long after Judah died), the descendants of the Maccabees themselves became corrupt, so that later on the rabbinic class, known as the Pharisees, opposed them. But the story here is not so much political as it is cultural.  If Jewish culture was so connected to Greco-Roman themes even at its origins, what are we to make of cultural syncretism today?  Is there such a thing as a "pure Judaism?"  Have "December dilemmas" been built into Judaism from the start - and what does that mean for our own times?

This is a great topic for those rare years when Hanukkah and Christmas Eve coincide. In fact, listen to an excellent podcast called "Judaism Unbound" and go to episode 42, where Burt Visotzky appears,  about midway through you'll hear him get very uncomfortable when asked to compare the widespread practices of having images of Zeus on ancient synagogue mosaics with Jews today bringing Christmas into their homes.  It's a fascinating conversation, and one we should not avoid.

And while you are at it, this article from the Forward sees Hanukkah bushes as a subversive means of both claiming and satirizing the Christmas tree.  Interesting.

But in the meantime, I recommend Visotzky's book - and also, BTW, the Judaism Unbound Hanukkah web page, which has lots of creative ideas, including Eight Ways to Light Your Menorah.

Reinventing Religion

This TED Talk by Rabbi Sharon Brous is a must-see.  She lays out how we can reinvent religion to meet the needs of modern life.  It is worth watching, especially on this weekend where so many are focused on the place of religion in our lives.  It also reflects so much of what we are trying to accomplish here at TBE.

Notes from the Frying Pan:
An Existential Commentary on Latkes 

Debbie Friedman singing
Debbie Friedman singing "I am a Latke"
What is a latke?  

All my preconceptions of latkes have been proven wrong -  it turns out that the first latke was actually made of cheese.  I ponder this question while listening to Debbie Friedman's (1951-2011) musical children's classic, "I am a Latke," which takes us from the vat of batter  to allusions to the crackly fulfillment of a potato's oil splattering fate, helping us to envision how its  death by a thousand sizzles can lead to a miraculous rebirth on the plate.   A lonely potato, united with onions, flour, oil and, if it is lucky, a pinch of cinnamon (my mother's recipe) is transformed into a golden brown swan, delightfully crunchy and delicious.

Is the latke hopeful and triumphant, or is it the loneliest spud on earth?

Fyodor Dostoyevsky begins his classic novella, "Notes from the Underground," with the protagonist's plea, "I am a sick man . . . I am a wicked man."  This cry of despair introduces us to one of the most alienated, indecisive and lonely figures in all of literature.

My suspicion is that Debbie Friedman's latke really wants to be this Dostoyevsky antihero.  It strains through the strainer to emerge cynical, watery and dank, to see the world as a haven of brutishness, darkness and unmitigated evil.
How does this slab of batter, battered by life since its origins in the potato fields of Mother Russia, suddenly jump from the pan, tanned and tasty in full Hollywood splendor, as a Debbie Friedman ditty?  

Debbie's songs lifted the spirit.  As she put it:

My music has become the vehicle by which I am able to create a sense of a safe and loving space. It is a space in which hands and arms and souls touch in gentle song.

That's where her latke ends up. Actually, the latke ends up in my stomach, but metaphysically, it ends up in a nirvana-state on a plate, with children smiling and clapping at its entry into the room. There is no space more safe and warm than a dining room with the smell of fresh-cooked latkes.

But that moment is actually not Debbie's focus in the song. The song takes place in the blender, at the moment of the unformed latke's greatest pain and uncertainty, an existential crucible that slices and dices - and all for $19.95 if you order now - and grates and grates and grates. Or at the hands of grandma, who grates by hand, so that parts of grandma's knuckle end up in the mix, giving rise to diabolical anti-Semitic canard that Jews consume their grandmothers for Hanukkah.

The song takes place where Dostoevsky - not Debbie - lives, where there is no tenderness, no interaction, no ability to mix with the onions and the flour - and not even the possibility that the flour might be something more blessed, like matzo meal.

Friedman's lyrics begin with our protagonist in an existential stupor, acutely aware of his lot:

I am so mixed up that I cannot tell you,
I'm sitting in this blender turning brown.

But all too quickly, the spud-mix is much too amenable to forging friendships:

I've made friends with the onions & the flour,
& the cook is scouting oil in the town.

The batter desires to be cooked but is dependent on an accomplice, which is perhaps its greatest weakness. No one will help him. He is always alone, unattractive and despised. 

All hope seems to be lost.

I sit here wondering what will come of me,
I can't be eaten looking as I do. I need someone to take me out & cook me,
Or I'll really end up in a royal stew.

And finally, this despair leads to messianic anticipation - something that the Underground Latke would never have entertained.

I am a latke, I am a latke
& I am waiting for Hanukkah to come

That salvation does come for most latkes in that post-fry rebirth, crispy on the plate, with the kids licking their fingers. But that happy ending is not found in the Friedman song. Instead, the uncooked latke muses on the foods of other Jewish holidays and the need to perform acts of kindness for others.

Acts of kindness? What planet does this starch-o-phile live on? Dostoyevsky's 
Underground Man asks plaintively, "Which is better-cheap happiness, or exalted sufferings?"

Well, which is better?" In the frying pan, there is no cheap happiness - nor is there in life. He argues that even a toothache is enjoyable, anything that makes us more aware of pain; for pain promotes consciousness. He adds that it is especially enjoyable to make others suffer with us. Where in such a world is there room for acts of kindness? In the cafeteria of Goldman Sachs there are paninis, sushi, grilled options, and a hot buffet with rotating themes...but there are no latkes.

We must remember those who have so little,
We must help them, we must be the ones to feed

The true Underground Latke fries alone, but that sizzling sound that we hear is actually his giggling at the prospect of others that will fry after him, or even alongside.

The Underground Latke is the perfect latke for 2016.

But Debbie Friedman never lived to see 2016. Her optimism and cheerfulness gives us a smidgen of hope that maybe, just maybe, this latke swimming in my stomach will have the audacity to give me indigestion for eight full nights!

That little oil-soaked spud can last a long, long time, just long enough for the days to get longer, the evenings warmer and the morning sun to peer over the horizon, and for Debbie Friedman's "safe and loving space in which hands and arms and souls touch in gentle song" to become the space that we all inhabit.

What a miracle that will be!


Also, see these Hanukkah goodies from the Rabbinical Assembly:

  Prayers & Kavannot (meditations before lighting candles)

And see below a Hanukkah video for kids:

Maccabees and Miracles: The Hanukkah Story for Kids
Maccabees and Miracles: The Hanukkah Story for Kids

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Hanukkah!

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

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