Friday, July 12, 2019

Midwest Book Review: Mensch-Marks is " extraordinary and potentially life enhancing read"

And Midwest Book review just shared:

The Judaic Studies Shelf

Joshua Hammerman
Health Communications, Inc.
3201 S.W. 15th Street, Deerfield Beach, FL 33442-8190
9780757321771, $14.95, PB, 240pp,

Synopsis: "Mensch-Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi―Wisdom for Untethered Times" is Rabbi Joshua Hammerman personal memoir told as a sacred story, as how-to book, as a series of personal vignettes in dialogue with one another over the span of decades, resonating with eternal ideas that span centuries.

"Mensch-Marks" traces Rabbi Hammerman's own personal growth while providing a road map for people of all backgrounds seeking a life of moral vision. The wisdom is shared not from a pulpit on high, but rather from an unfolding story of a fellow traveler, one who has stumbled, failed, and persevered, struggling with the questions large and small. Through it all, Rabbi Hammerman has tried to live with dignity and grace, what he calls the "nobility of normalcy."

The central message of Rabbi Hammerman's "Mensch-Marks" is that we can turn things around, one mensch at a time!

Critique: Inherently interesting and ultimately inspiring, "Mensch-Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi―Wisdom for Untethered Times" is an extraordinary and potentially life enhancing read that is unreservedly recommended for community and academic library Contemporary American Biography collections, as well as Judaic Studies supplemental studies lists. It should be noted for personal reading lists that "Mensch-Marks" is also available in a digital book format (eTextbook, $10.99).

Editorial Note: A celebrated rabbi and award-winning journalist and blogger, Joshua Hammerman, has served Temple Beth El in Stamford, Connecticut, for over three decades. His essays have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Washington Post, Times of Israel, The New York Jewish Week and many other places. Rabbi Hammerman was a winner of the Simon Rockower Award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism, for columns on the Bernard Madoff case. In 2018, he received an award from the Religion News Association for excellence in commentary. Rabbi Hammerman received ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary after getting an MA in journalism from NYU and a BA, magna cum laude, from Brown University.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Another Glowing Review of Mensch-Marks

Review of  “MenschMarks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi – Wisdom for Untethered Times” by Rabbi Joshua Hammerman. It appeared in the July 12, 2019, issue of the Jewish Federation of Greater Binghamton’s The Reporter, located in Vestal, NY. You can also find the review on The Reporter’s website at

Book Review: Trauma and everyday life

By: Rabbi Rachel Esserman
Sometimes the most important teaching a rabbi does occurs outside the classroom – when giving sermons and lectures or during counseling sessions. Two rabbis offer the lessons they learned over the course of their rabbinate in two new works: Rabbi Tirzah Firestone, Ph.D., discusses how to overcome traumatic experiences in “Wounds into Wisdom: Healing Intergenerational Jewish Trauma” (Adam Kadmon Books/Monkfish Book Publishing Company), while Rabbi Joshua Hammerman focuses more on everyday living in “MenschMarks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi – Wisdom for Untethered Times” (Health Communications). Both rabbis hope their thoughts will help readers live more meaningful lives.

Much of Firestone’s work is based on what is known as the epigenetic factor, the idea that experiences – particularly traumatic experiences – can be passed through the generations even though the experience does not change their DNA. What the trauma does do is change people’s body chemistry and reactions that are then passed to their descendants. She sees this most clearly with the families of Holocaust survivors when the second and third generations’ react to events based on what happened to their parents and grandparents, even when they are unaware of exactly what they suffered. However, those are not the only traumas she discusses: Firestone also interviewed Israel soldiers who suffer from post-traumatic stress and Israeli parents who lost children during their army service or because of terrorist attacks.

The first section of her work contains stories of people Firestone counseled or interviewed for this book. She looked for people who overcame trauma, not by ignoring it, but by realizing the power the trauma had over them and finding ways to limit its effects. She notes that most people’s natural first reactions – to either isolate themselves, be hyper vigilant or numb one’s feelings – not only don’t help in the long run, but create more problems. The second section focuses on ways to heal from trauma, including the importance of facing a loss and then harnessing the power of pain. She also notes the need to find a community that can help one to heal and to stop identifying as a victim. Other suggested ways to find wisdom in trauma are to resist falling into a blaming stance, since dehumanizing others only serves to increase trauma, and to take action to put this newly found wisdom into helping others.

Firestone’s original interest in learning about trauma comes from personal experience. The discussions of her family – her parents and siblings – were the most interesting in the book. She notes the traumas her parents faced and how their reaction to them affected her and her siblings. After one brother committed suicide and another sister began to experience symptoms of mental illness, Firestone found herself looking for answers to their dilemmas in order to save herself. Her original journey took her far from Judaism, but she then came to realize the benefits of Jewish religious practices – although not the same ones as her parents – something that led her to become a rabbi.

While Firestone’s focus is on people who have suffered major traumas, Hammerman looks more closely at how to become a mensch – a good person – during regular, everyday life. Over 42 chapters (which represent the 42 stops the Israelites made when wandering through the desert toward the Promised Land), his mostly brief essays suggest ways to attain personal growth. What makes these essays work is that Hammerman is not preachy: he clearly acknowledges his own faults and how he has struggled to overcome them. Sections focus on such themes as work, loving, pain, belonging, the importance of normalcy, failure and forgiveness. 

The most interesting chapter (MenschMark 34) looks at Hammerman’s own crisis, one that occurred after he wrote a satirical article about religious extremism and sports fanaticism. The backlash was quick and fierce. In fact, the article was mentioned on national television, but the comments were not positive. Hammerman admits that he went too far in his satire and began reaching out to evangelicals in order to better understand their thoughts. He does receive (sometimes lukewarm) support from his congregation and greater support from the interfaith group to which he belongs. The author turned his experience into a sermon the next High Holidays – not to justify what he wrote, but to note that everyone makes mistakes. While he emphasizes the need to hold ourselves to high standards, he also discusses how we must learn to forgive ourselves and others.

Other essays that struck a chord include: 

MenschMark 6, which includes a list of subjects that are usually considered taboo to speak about on the High Holiday and the reasons it’s important to talk about them.

MenschMark 13, when Hammerman writes about the dilemma of having your child in the hospital at the same time one of your congregants is also having a medical crisis in the same building. What is more important in this case: being a parent or being a rabbi?

MenschMark 14, when he writes about his developmentally disabled brother and the fragility of life.

MenschMark 16, which talks about the beauty and necessity of boredom, and how it can enrich our lives and lead us to be everyday heroes.

MenschMark 24, which tells of a funeral Hammerman performed for a gay man who requested that his homosexuality be outed during the eulogy in the hope that it would help those who were unable to accept their true sexual nature.

Hammerman ends his work writing about how important it is to find meaning in our lives. He echos what his father used to say to him – “be a mensch” – and questions whether or not he has attained that status. 

Both Hammerman and Firestone hope their readers will emerge better and wiser people.

Shab-Not-O-Gram for July 12


A great time was had by all at our recent Shabbat-at-the-Beach at Cove Island

Shabbat Shalom. (Not)

Since there are no official Shabbat-O-Grams in the summer months, this is not one; but I do want to highlight a couple of things before I head off for my summer break.

1) This Shabbat Morning

This Shabbat morning will feature not one, not two, but THREE ufrufs!  All three couples are very special and they are connected to the TBE family in very different ways.  Join us this Shabbat as we celebrate with Jennifer Greenman & Matt Sakofs, Claudia Lubin & Mark Creedon, and Hope Stanger & Brian Steranka - and make sure to warm up that throwing arm, as the candy will by flying all morning long.

At this service, we'll also be hearing from TBE congregant Belle Horowitz, who heads up our TBE Immigration Task Force.  Belle returned recently from a trip to the US-Mexican border and I've asked her to report back to us on what she saw.  This is especially important in light of recent reports by journalists and government sources, including a government report, detailing squalid conditions.  Fittingly, this week's Torah portion introduces the legend of Miriam's Well, which nurtured the Israelite refugees during their wanderings toward the Promised Land.  This mythical well, which stopped providing water after Miriam's death, has gained deeper meaning over the centuries.  Click here to read more about Miriam's Well in this week's Parsha Packet.  We need to apply Miriam's nurturing, maternal instincts wherever we find wanderers, the tired, the poor and huddled masses yearning to breathe free - especially when they are children.

2) Friday Night

Join us also on Friday night, when Beth Styles will once again co-lead the service with me.  It's been wonderful to see continued excellent attendance on Friday nights, even into the typically slower summer season.  Over the past few weeks, we've been introducing various innovations designed to foster the kind of intimacy that promotes a prayerful experience.  The early reviews have been very positive.  Let us know what you think - and my thanks in advance to all those who will be leading services during the weeks when I'll be away.

Incidentally, it's also important to support our morning minyans and Shabbat morning services, especially during the summer, when some "regulars" are away.  Please pick a day - or a week - and support our services!

3) Next Summer's Europe Trip

People have been asking - so here it is!   The itinerary for next summer's Eastern Europe trip is now available at THE TRIP'S WEBSITE, WHICH YOU CAN REACH BY CLICKING HERE.  Pricing and other registration info will be available from that site soon as well.  Once the site goes "live," reservations will be taken on a first-come-first-served bases, as it has been for our (now full) March Cuba trip.

4) Some exciting news!

I'm proud to announce that I have been selected as a finalist for the 2019 Religion News Association Awards for Religion Reporting Excellence. Winners of this year's awards - which showcase religion journalism excellence in the news media among 20 categories of print, online, multiple media, broadcast, book and student entries - will be revealed Sept. 21, at the RNA Annual Conference Awards Banquet in Las Vegas. You can see the names of the finalists here (some pretty steep competition):  Here are the three articles of mine cited in the Excellence in Commentary category:


Enjoy your summer and Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman