Thursday, May 31, 2018
As we swing into June, lots happening. On Friday night, Rabbi David Markus will join us for a Shabbat-of-Joy, with stories and song. Then on Shabbat morning, our Men's Club will lead the service and our special guest will be the Consul General of Israel. And best of luck on Sunday to our walkers, whether marching in the Celebrate Israel Parade in NYC or our many walkers who will be supporting Hope in Motion for the Bennett Cancer Center. And next Tuesday, our TBE 2018 Israel Group will be assembling for the first time at my home for an orientation meeting. As I said, lots happening.
Last week's tribute to Philip Roth has drawn attention, comparing Roth Jews with Leon Uris Jews; see "Ari Ben Portnoy," on the Jewish Week website. Also, at the bottom of this email you can see the winning article of this year's Rabbi Alex Goldman teen writing contest - written by TBE's own Ashley Shapiro. I was inspired as she read it recently at the UJF awards ceremony; it's a perceptive exploration of being Jewish while entering the brave new world of high school.
Sacred Speech and Prophet Margin
Last Shabbat we had a lively discussion about sacred speech, based on the priestly blessings found in last week's portion. The question was, how can we take all that we say and turn it into a blessing? It goes beyond heartfelt prayer or avoiding gossip. Every word needs to emerge from a place of holiness. Every utterance needs to be intentional, well considered and filtered. There is a real spirituality to sacred speech, and a destructiveness to its opposite. One suggestion from hasidic sources is to imagine that when you look at another person and begin to speak, imagine God appearing over his/her shoulders. The same goes for nonverbal communication, including texting or Tweeting - something that was made quite evident this week with Roseanne Barr's unfortunate comments.
There were lots of other interesting tips, based on Hasidic spiritual teachings, in the material we studied. Take a look at the packet, "Speaking the Language of Blessings."
And know that every Shabbat morning we have provocative discussions of the Torah portion in depth.
Speaking of which, I've assembled a star-studded cast of congregants to lead these Torah discussions while I'm away in Israel with our TBE tour, and then on vacation in July. But I intentionally left one date open - July 14. If you would like to deliver a d'var Torah, I'd love to help you put it together. The portion that day is Matot-Ma'asay. So let me know if you would like to "play rabbi." First come, first served!
And speaking of sacred speech, kudos to Starbucks for starting a new conversation on racism. Click here to see the curriculum Starbucks used on Tuesday, during those four hours when all of America had caffeine withdrawal. Here's a brief excerpt:
Between ages 8 and 10, we've already started to kind of process racial stereotypes and understand how different, races and groups and genders show up in the world. So we're making those quick decisions, we're kind of seeing people and putting them into categories that had meaning for us. And where our brains are going in that is essentially to help us navigate. When we are under time pressure, when we are multitasking, when we don't have enough information to make a decision... that's when we are most vulnerable to making a mistake and relying on those negative schemas or those negative stereotypes of orders to make a decision.
I looked through the 68 page document - really well done. That, along with ABC-Disney's decision about Roseanne this week, is almost enough to make me a little less cynical about large corporations. Yes, it's all about profit. But this week, some "prophet" was thrown into the mix.
Here's page 68, and how the sessions ended at Starbucks branches all over the country:
Sounds like the kind of welcoming community we want to build here, too.
Sheldon & George: Let's Talk
An Open Letter to Sheldon Adelson and George Soros:
It's time to talk. Anywhere, anytime. In my office, if you wish. Southern Connecticut is centrally located, an easy drive from George's Westchester home, where I once performed a wedding, and Sheldon's old Boston area haunts, where I grew up.
But this is not about me.
For you, George and Sheldon, are the polar axes of the Jewish world. Yes, the Jewish people are now bipolar, half Adelsonian particularists and half Sorosian universalists, and we spin around you. With apologies to the non-Jewish world, which the two of you have greatly influenced, this is not about them, either.
This is a matter of mishpacha, family, a term that both of you recognize. Just seven decades after the Holocaust, the remnants of the Jewish people are splitting at the seams, and right now neither of you seems to care about that. But I suspect that you do.
Last year, when Sean Spicer made ill-advised comments downplaying Hitler's atrocities, you, Sheldon, were the one who set him straight and steered the Trump administration away, even if only temporarily, from the path of anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial.
And you, George, while you deny being a practicing Jew or a Zionist, you openly profess to having "a great deal of sympathy for my fellow Jews and a deep concern for the survival of Israel."
So let's put that to the test.
While the Lauders, Bronfmans, Steinhardts, Schustermans and others have had a tremendous impact on Jewish life and Israel, they have neither been as impactful nor as demonized as the two of you. You represent the left and right extremes of both American and Israeli politics, and vicious attacks on you have come from Jews and non-Jews alike. While my views tend to reside somewhere in between, I feel personally attacked when I see how you both have been singled out.
Now you may not care, George, that half of Europe has turned you into Shylock incarnate - and that even Prime Minister Netanyahu has foolishly piled on. Or that the Republican party decided to use your image as a dog whistle in an ad on the eve of Election Day, 2016. And it may not even bother you that Roseanne Barr dragged you into her most recent racist, anti-Semitic Twitter rant.
And you, Sheldon, may not be bothered about being the subject of an anti-Semitic cartoon in the Boston Globe, with an exaggerated hook nose, or the many accusations against you employing classic anti-Jewish tropes of greed and control.
But as a Jew, it bothers me to see any Jew demonized - or any other human - because we know where that can lead.
Meanwhile, the split between Israel and American Jewry is widening dramatically. Since Birthright Israel was imagined two decades ago - and thank you, Shelton, for your recent $70 million gift - world Jewry has been twiddling its thumbs while its two main communities have been drifting apart like polar ice sheets passing in the night. Israeli politicians continue their unabated onslaught of insults directed against American Jews, and American Jews continue to respond by caring less and less about Israel. Those destructive trends must be reversed.
You, Sheldon and George, have the power to do something about it. Simply by sitting down and sharing a knish, you will be sending a powerful signal that will instantly improve the atmosphere. "If even Adelson and Soros can break bread together," people will say, "maybe there is hope for the rest of us."
If you could conclude that meeting with a brief statement covering areas where the two of you agree - and I'm sure you can find some - that would give us all a path for continuing the dialogue.
The alphabet soup of Jewish organizations does not include a single one that is meaningfully inclusive, in other words, one that would willingly embrace both of you. Even the umbrella of them all, the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, has banished J-Street, which is the equivalent of a partisan Congress kicking out California. All we are left with are echo chambers on the left and the right.
But you two can bridge those gaps. Plus, you have enough money to really make a difference. Imagine a program of universal Jewish service, helping needy Jews (a nod to Sheldon) and non-Jews (a nod to George); or expanded programs of Holocaust education, a concern you both share; or maybe assistance to Israeli hospitals that bring together Arabs and Jews. Imagine a "Soros - Adelson Cancer Center." It would blow us all away.
And hey, you both are into media. How about an international newspaper that you both share? Articles might be color coded to reflect whether the source is S.A or G.S., but I think we'd be able to tell. Have the red and blue halves of the paper meet in the middle. You could run a weekly "Point-Counterpoint," in the centerfold, featuring guests like Trump and Obama, or Bibi and...whomever.
I would be the first to sign on to an Adelson-Soros tour of Hebron and Hungary. If you guys could pull that off with no name calling, maybe we'll be onto something.
I'm not expecting an instant bromance here, nor do I have any illusions that major points of conflict will be rapidly resolved. But for heaven's sake, the Bushes and Clintons joined together. Same with Obama and McCain. And don't forget that supreme odd couple, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia. If they can do it, why can't you?
For the sake of Jewish unity and the future of our remnant people, why not - to use an expression you will appreciate - roll the dice?
There's nothing to lose - except an enemy.
Feasting on Choice, Dining with Dignity
Here's my commentary on Parshat Beha'alotecha (Numbers 8:1 - 12:16), as published this week by T'ruah: The rabbinic call for human rights
I've been watching entirely too much television lately. With the basketball playoffs so riveting for this native Bostonian, two Israeli networks now on Cablevision, and a gazillion movie options streaming, my abundance of options has been a good preparation for this large and unwieldy Torah portion. This portion even has an unwieldy name, Beha'alotecha; it's a compendium of odds and ends, mostly odd, that don't fit anywhere else in the Torah, a Chinese restaurant menu of choice.
In Beha'alotecha, you can surf your way from the standard religion channels to HGTV for tabernacle décor, to the Soap Network for stories of domestic betrayal, sickness and healing. Then you've got your C-Span - Moses and the council of 70 elders share power, and your Travel Network, as Israel sets forth on the journey from Sinai.
But what I like most of all is the Food Network.
From the moment the Israelites set foot in the wilderness to the very end of the journey, they complain about lots of things, but primarily, they kvetch about food. Here the issue isn't the scarcity, but rather the lack of variety. They want meat, and they want the fish that was plentiful in good old Egypt. Ah yes Egypt, that fish capital of the world - Gorton's of Giza. They want leeks, cucumbers and melons, onions and garlic. According to Midrash Rabbah and Rashi, Rav Shimon ascribes more sensual connotations to these items, but I see it for what it is - they want more on the menu. More to the point, they want a menu. They want Wednesday to be Prince Spaghetti Day, but not Thursday and Friday too.
What's amazing here is that the food they already had, Mannah, was the tastiest food in the world. Mannah is described as looking like coriander seeds, or smooth peppercorns, and having a bronze, yellow-brownish color. It was made into cakes and tasted like rich cream. Now, if you could choose between having this delicious Haagen Dazs concoction all the time, or a rotation of onions, leeks and fish sticks, what would you select?
Eighteenth-century commentator Jonathan Eybeschutz posits: "To feel prosperous, it is not enough for people to have everything that is needed. One must have more than one's neighbors have." The Mannah was psychologically unsatisfying because everyone had it in abundance.
All too often we look at life as a matter of winners and losers. As Harold Kushner has written, "To see the goal of life as 'winning' forces us to see other people as competitors, threats to our happiness. For us to 'win,' they have to 'lose.'"
Maybe this is why the Mannah has that name. In Hebrew it is "mahn." But it is almost always referred to as THE Mannah, or "Ha-mahn." This delicious little delicacy turned the entire nation of Israel into a bunch of raving, insatiable, dissatisfied, jealous little Hamans, each one looking over his shoulders at what the other one has.
But maybe there is another message here about human nature, one that brings us back to the Chinese menu I was discussing earlier. Even if the quality is bad, having the power of choice is paramount. How the Israelites felt about the Mannah is how I feel when there's no vegetarian option on the menu.
I'm sure we all have our own restaurant stories. Comedians have made a living on the eccentricities of their great-aunts who would ask for a hamburger with the meat "on the side." Food is a very personal thing - and choice is too.
It's interesting that the Israeli Ministry of Health has put out a guide to eating with dignity, directed toward caregivers of those with dementia. At the same time, a new Washington D.C. based restaurant chain "Falafel, Inc," with a clear Palestinian bent, bills itself as "the world's first falafel food social enterprise," with the goal of using proceeds to feed and employ refugees around the world. Its motto is "Eat with dignity."
We all crave food - but equally, we crave the dignity of being able to choose what, how and where we eat. So as we turn our attention to the Farm Bill and the Republican effort to slash food stamps and cut SNAP funding, we need to focus on feeding the hungry. That is a worthy and justifiable endeavor, but we should also recall that the goal of such funding is not simply health, but also basic human rights. People need to dine with dignity, whether at nursing homes, prisons, refugee centers, hospitals or even summer camps. The fact of eating sustains and nourishes our bodies. But beyond that, the act of eating is an essential part of what makes us fully human.
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman
Wednesday, May 30, 2018
Friday, May 25, 2018
Thank you especially to Stephanie Zelazny for putting this together. #grateful/blessed
Joan Weisman presenting the Fred Weisman award to Alyssa Goldberg at the annual meeting. See our End of Year Album, which includes photos from the meeting, including award winners and graduates. Thank you to Aviva Maller Photography for the annual meeting and 7th grade class photos.
And never ones to rest on our laurels, our senior staff and lay leadership had a mini-retreat at Grace Farms this week to begin planning for 2018-2019
Shabbat Shalom and Happy Memorial Day
The "official beginning of summer" always sneaks up on us, never more than this year, with volatile temperatures and dizzying news cycles distracting us. But here we are. If you are i town this weekend, stop by to slow down the pace of life a bit, at services this evening and Shabbat morning as well - along with Sunday and Monday at 9 AM.
Memorial Day, meanwhile was originally a day to remember war dead ("Memorial" Day...get it?), before it became an occasion for car sales, beach trips and barbecues. Maybe this year we can regain some of the deeper meaning of this special weekend. I hope that each of us will take a moment to recall those who have made the supreme sacrifice. As I have in prior years on Memorial Day weekend, I share with you the words of Rabbi Roland Gittlesohn in a speech delivered at the dedication of the 5th marine Cemetery on Iwo Jima, in March 1945. It has been called one of the great battlefield sermons to come out of World War Two.
Here lie men who loved America because their ancestors generations ago helped in her founding, and other men who loved her with equal passion because they themselves or their own fathers escaped from oppression to her blessed shores. Here lie officers and men, Negroes and whites, rich men and poor . . . together. Here are Protestants, Catholics, and Jews together. Here no man prefers another because of his faith or despises him because of his color. Here there are no quotas of how many from each group are admitted or allowed. Among these men, there is no discrimination. No prejudices. No hatred. Theirs is the highest and purest democracy ...Whosoever of us lifts his hand in hate against a brother, or who thinks himself superior to those who happen to be in the minority, makes of this ceremony and the bloody sacrifice it commemorates, an empty, hollow mockery. To this, then, as our solemn duty, sacred duty do we the living now dedicate ourselves: to the right of Protestants, Catholics, and Jews, of white men and Negroes alike, to enjoy the democracy for which all of them have here paid the price ...
We here solemnly swear that this shall not be in vain. Out of this and from the suffering and sorrow of those who mourn this will come, we promise, the birth of a new freedom for the sons of men everywhere.
Ari Ben Portnoy: Reflections on Philip Roth
Many years ago, the American Jewish activist Leonard Fein wrote that there are two kinds of Jews in the world:
There is the kind of Jew who detests war and violence, who believes that fighting is not the Jewish Way.
And then there is the kind of Jew who is convinced that we have been passive long enough, who is convinced that it is time to strike back at our enemies, to reject once and for all the role of victim, who will willingly accept that Jews cannot afford to depend on favors, that we must be tough and strong.
And the trouble is, Fein added, that most Jews are both kinds of Jew.
As I came of age, I felt that tug embodied most in the characters of Philip Roth and Leon Uris. The two books that were most formative of my polarized Jewish psyche were, hands down, "Exodus" and "Goodbye Columbus." I marveled at the pride of Ari Ben Canaan and his ability to stare down an anti-Semitic British officer who could "spot a Jew a mile away." At the same time, I felt the unease of Jews just finding themselves in America, feeling the tug of both maternal and Holocaust guilt while wallowing in passivity and helplessness.
Roth's work profoundly influenced me. It would probably have given him a perverse thrill to
know that his fiction had a lot to do with a young Jew's decision to become a rabbi. I would venture to guess that there is an entire generation of Rothian rabbis, which is a pretty big deal considering how he was so excoriated by the rabbinic establishment for his early works, including "Goodbye Columbus" and "Portnoy's Complaint."
While Ari Ben Canaan was who we wanted to be, Roth's characters represented who we were, or at least who we perceived ourselves to be. And in their own way, those characters were equally heroic.
Roth was able to call out the materialism and superficiality of postwar American Jewry. In his stories, the insecurity of Jews was a source of weakness and shame, but their marginality was also a source of strength. It was those characters who had not "made it," who never fit in, who could best point out the hypocrisy that was so rife in their communities.
My favorite story of the "Goodbye Columbus" collection, is the last one, "The Conversion of the Jews," featuring Ozzie, a Hebrew School student who rebelled against an abusive teacher, who ultimately realized a degree of power of over his tormentors when he ran to the roof and threatened to jump. I was a Hebrew School student myself when I first read it - actually, it was read to my bunk at bedtime at Camp Ramah. My counselors were fully immersed in the counter culture, and through them, Roth's work was weaponized as a means of attacking the Jewish establishment. Combined with the music of Bob Dylan and Simon and Garfunkel, and films like "The Graduate," Roth enabled us to fight a very different battle from the one being waged by our Ben Canaan cousins in Israel at that same time, but no less revolutionary.
I recently picked up a new collection of Roth's nonfiction essays, called "Why Write," the final work published in his lifetime.
I was taken by a speech called "New Jewish Stereotypes," originally delivered at a symposium in Chicago in 1961, at a time when the film version of "Exodus" had just been released, when Roth was enduring constant barbs from the Jewish establishment about "Goodbye Columbus."
Uris had criticized Roth indirectly in a New York Post interview, saying, "There's a whole school of American Jewish writers, who spend their time damning their fathers, hating their mothers, wringing their hands and wondering why they were born. This isn't art or literature. It's psychiatry.... I wrote "Exodus" because I was sick of apologizing. (I discovered that) we Jews are not what we have been portrayed to be. In truth, we have been fighters."
In this essay, Roth responds: "However you slice it, there does not seem to be any doubt that the image of the Jew as patriot, warrior, and battle-scarred belligerent is rather satisfying to a large segment of the American public."
He mocked the facile transition of the image of the Jew from victim to warrior, and noted that the new image was so off base that official version of the theme song for "Exodus" had to be sung not by Jewish singers Moshe Oysher or Eddie Fisher, but by the ultimate WASP, Pat Boone.
Roth suggests that "Exodus's" inflated popularity stems from the fact that both American Jews and Americans in general were desperate to change the subject following the Holocaust. "The Jew is no longer looking out from the wings of the unending violence of our age, nor is he any longer its favorite victim; now he is a participant."
He adds, "Mr. Uris's discovery that Jews are fighters fills him with pride; it fills any number of his Jewish readers with pride, and his Gentile readers less perhaps with pride than with relief."
Roth then compares Uris to a young author named Elie Wiesel, whose work "Dawn," a sequel to "Night" taking place in pre-state Palestine, depicts the true face of this new Jewish warrior, not the idealized Ari Ben Canaan, but one who has been profoundly wounded in Buchenwald and Auschwitz, who has seen and suffered so much.
Uris's depiction of fighter Jews is also an explicit rejection of the ghetto Jew so often mocked by early Zionists and, to a degree, still the stereotyped depiction of American Jews for modern day Israelis. When they look at the Diaspora, they are looking at it through Urisian disdain and Rothian ambivalence.
This might partially explain the Israeli right's infatuation with American evangelicals, who can be be compared to the "shiksa goddesses" of Roth's works. Meanwhile, the guest list at the recent American embassy relocation indicates that three quarters of American Jews were left at the altar while Prime Minister Netanyahu was pining for acceptance to the country club that would never have let Alexander Portnoy in.
Was Pat Boone invited?
The Roth-Uris battle still resonates, nearly six decades later. Who are we? The fighter or thekvetcher? The noble or the nebbish? The ideal or the real?
Or are we both types of Jew? Proud, but complicated. Or complicated, but proud of it.
We are Ari Ben Portnoy. So don't mess with us.
We make enough of a mess of things all by ourselves.
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman