Friday, December 6, 2019

Shabbat O Gram for December 6: Absurdities and Atrocities, Ukraine's Jewish President, A Daughter's Tribute, Dair-y Ask? The Torah's most AWKWARD Moment, Shabbat-O-Gram


I had the pleasure of welcoming our 7th graders to my office, 
as they planned next week's (mock) Brit Milah

Shabbat Shalom

Another busy weekend ahead here, along with the prospect of binge watching the new season of "The Marvelous Mrs Maisel." I caught the first episode last night, and cringed sympathetically along with Mrs. M as she tried to mouth the lyrics of "White Christmas." I've been there.

A special mazal tov to Jonathan and Allison Ostroff, who will be given the Harvey Peltz Award at this Sunday's UJF Annual Meeting.  Much deserved!  Also, mazal tov to the other TBE members being honored or elected, including Tara Shapiro, Cathy Satz and Caryn Halbrecht.

At Friday night services, Beth Styles and I will welcome a large group of BBYO teens, and I've prepared a special teen-friendly dvar Torah for tonight (which older folks will like too).  


Shabbat-in-the-Round on Shabbat morning will also be co-led by myself and Beth Styles.  Join us at 9:30 for the freshest muffins in town, with our meditative, informal service beginning at 9:45, followed by lunch, where we'll be joined by our growing number of Shabbabimbam and Kids-in-the-Round families.  During the service, we'll focus in on the most awkward scene of the entire Torah, when Jacob thinks he's marrying Rachel but wakes up with Leah.  Really...what was he thinking?  Click here to preview the Parsha Packet

Dair-y Ask?

An interesting question was raised regarding the Havdalah / progressive dinners on Saturday night (an event that is sold out).  Since some of the dinners will be meat meals, is it OK to serve dairy appetizers at the synagogue before people head out for dinner?  Traditionally, one waits a substantial amount of time between meat and dairy meals, but the reverse is not usually required. In other words, if you have cheese first, it isn't necessary to wait hours before a steak dinner.  But some more stringent rabbis would say that it depends on how hard the cheese is, since harder cheese gets stuck in your teeth and remains there.  It's all very complicated.  Did you realize that rabbis also had to be certified dentists?  Did they floss back then? For those who are interested in the hows, whats and whys of waiting between meat and dairy, you can read more about it here.

It's complicated, but the separation of milk and meat is among Judaism's most important rituals, for several reasons:

1) It is one of the most visible features of a kosher home.
2) It is not easy (although there are short cuts and it's not necessary to go way beyond the requirements), and practices that require extra effort are the ones that cement lifelong bonds to a tradition (or, I suppose, spur rebellion from it).  
3) It links Jews geographically.
4) It links Jews to our grandparents and other ancestors, going back centuries.
5) The idea is that milk is the stuff of life and meat symbolizes death - and Judaism emphasizes the separation of life and death, and the triumph, ultimately, of life.

Here is a more general discussion packet on Kashrut, and some links to additional "How tos" and "Whats."  Ultimately we ask: Why Kosher? Louis Jacobs writes, "Unlike the ethical and moral precepts of Judaism, the dietary laws seem to defy human reasoning. Why should it matter to religion what a man eats and, if it does matter, why are these particular items of food singled out as forbidden?" Maimonides believes it was a matter of good health.  Nachmanides sees it is beneficial to the soul rather than the body.  The Torah sees these laws through the prism of holiness.

From my perspective, the "whys" boil down to identity, spiritual discipline, ethics and social connection.  Kashrut preserves Jewish identity as a contact point for Jews across the globe and across the ages. Culture, after all, is transmitted though the stomach.  Tastes and smells are deeply embedded in our childhood memories.  Kashrut enables us to eat ethically and not indiscriminately, focusing on the sanctity of life and the pain of the animal.  It turns eating from a basic biological instinct to a sacred activity.  

All that said, my decision regarding this weekend's program is that it is OK for us to be serving cheese here before sending people off to their meat meals, since the location is changing, which gives enough time to elapse between the appetizer and the meal.

To Give or Not to Give? (and where?)

Register for our JTS Beyond Dispute series, which starts a week from Tuesday.  Our first session will provide Jewish sources lending perspective on the question as to whether we should focus on Jewish causes in our volunteer and philanthropic efforts, or more universal causes.  This quandary came through to me this week in two articles that appeared in the NY Times - on consecutive pages; one on the devastating impact of climate change (see below) and the other about an anti-Semitic attack on Jewish graves in Alsace (see photo above).  Which should take precedence for us?  (Spoiler alert - for me, there is no clear line between "Jewish and non-Jewish" causes, especially in regards to hate crimes and the environment.)   Register online for the class.


A Daughter's Tribute

Over the holiday week, the family of TBE's Matthew Klein gathered at our cemetery for his unveiling, marking a transitional moment of their grieving process.  Matthew's daughter Samantha shared some lovely words on that occasion, and she has now published them on the website of "Modern Loss," co-founded by TBE's Gabi Birkner.  I've attached the link below, along with some of her introductory words.  I am so proud of Samantha for taking her pain and transforming it into a balm that can help to soothe others who are suffering.

The following is something I've been writing on and off for the past year and a half. Although I could keep re-writing it forever and ever (I break out my laptop to work on it whenever I hear a song or watch a movie or see an object that reminds me of my dad...which is pretty darn often), I decided today, the second anniversary of my father's passing, was the last day I would work on it and that it was time to get it out into the world and for my fingers and tear ducts to take a much needed break. It's not a masterpiece, but it'll do.

I'm sharing it with all of you because I'm hoping it can help and touch individuals who haven't necessarily lost someone close to them (knock on wood!), so that it reminds you to appreciate them while whomever it may be is still on this earth. I also hope it provides some sliver of hope and / or comfort for those who haven't yet dealt with their grief over the loss of a loved one, and happen upon this while not looking for it. Please feel free to share it with anyone who you think it would benefit.

Ukraine's Jewish President
If you have a chance, read the Atlantic's profile of Ukraine's President Zelensky, by Franklin Foer, a really important article, for lots of reasons, not the least of which being the underappreciated Jewish angle to this story. Ukraine is the only nation in that area to have seen a DECREASE in anti-Semitism since 2014, as opposed to Hungary, Poland, and other more Putin-friendly (and corrupt) nations. Ukraine is the place that brought us the Cossacks (read this backgrounder and weep) and the notorious Ukrainian prison guards at Treblinka, including Ivan the Terrible. It has a horrible history of Jew hatred. But part of their heroic response in standing up to Russia has been their willingness to stand up to their own history of anti-Semitism. America should unequivocally support these trends as we continue to defend Ukraine and the reforms of Zelensky's anti-corruption movement.  It would be naive to state that anti-Semitism has been wiped out in Ukraine.  But Foer's article describes an authentic national teshuvah taking place in the least likely of places.  

See a few excerpts below:
As I watched Zelensky rise from afar, I couldn't quite believe that Ukraine would elect a Jewish vaudevillian as its president. My grandmother came from western Ukraine, and I grew up hearing bitter stories about the anti-Semitism of her neighbors. When I first visited the country, in 2002, her voice rattled around my head. I decided against announcing my Jewishness to my translator, although I struggled to fabricate fresh reasons to refuse the pork he kept ordering for me. During one of our meals, he confirmed the wisdom of my reticence by noting confidingly, "Stalin was a bastard to Ukraine because he was a Jew." (Stalin was a bastard, but he was not a Jew.)...

In the past few years, nearly every European nation has witnessed a surge of anti-Semitism. Ukraine, still home to at least 50,000 Jews, is the miraculous exception to this trend. In 2017, the Pew Research Center found that only 5 percent of Ukrainians reject Jews as their fellow citizens-the lowest number among the countries surveyed in the region. Although vandalism of synagogues and cemeteries persists-and the country has a weakness for venerating 20th-century heroes who instigated pogroms-there hasn't been a single anti-Semitic assault reported in the country since August 2016. (If only New York City could say the same.) A researcher named Vyacheslav Likhachev told me that surveys show that Ukrainian parents would be pleased if their daughters married Jewish men, because Jews are identified with devotion to family.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine cemented this new philo-Semitism. The Kremlin's tactics didn't consist just of storm troopers and militias. Propaganda depicted Ukrainians as neo-Nazis. "There was a steady drumbeat from Russia that a fascist junta was taking over," according to Sam Sokol, the author of Putin's Hybrid War and the Jews. In the face of this slander, Ukrainians self-consciously set out to debunk the charge. "Anti-Semitism dropped sharply after the Russian invasion," Likhachev told me. Ultra-nationalist political parties, which the Russians portrayed as dominant, performed terribly in the subsequent elections. 

Absurdities and Atrocities

WATCH this viral video of Sacha Baron Cohen at the recent ADL "Never is Now" summit in New York.  He was the keynote speaker and his address is well worth 20 minutes of your time.  As 2020 approaches, we are seeing once again the massive injection of conspiracy theories and coordinated "fake news" attacks by operatives, foreign and domestic, on the platforms of social media.  Facebook, Google and Twitter, especially, need to take concerted action to protect our democracy.  We have become much more savvy but even the most savvy among us can easily fall victim to what he calls "the most sophisticated propaganda machine in history."  Below is the video link, along with some quotes from the address, which can be read in full at

ADL International Leadership Award Presented to Sacha Baron Cohen at Never Is Now 2019
ADL International Leadership Award Presented to Sacha Baron Cohen at Never Is Now 2019
"Voltaire was right, "those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities."  And social media lets authoritarians push absurdities to billions of people."

Zuckerberg speaks of welcoming a "diversity of ideas," and last year he gave us an example. He said that he found posts denying the Holocaust "deeply offensive," but he didn't think Facebook should take them down "because I think there are things that different people get wrong."  At this very moment, there are still Holocaust deniers on Facebook, and Google still takes you to the most repulsive Holocaust denial sites with a simple click.  One of the heads of Google once told me, incredibly, that these sites just show "both sides" of the issue.  This is madness.  To quote Edward R. Murrow, one "cannot accept that there are, on every story, two equal and logical sides to an argument."  We have millions of pieces of evidence for the Holocaust-it is an historical fact.  And denying it is not some random opinion.  Those who deny the Holocaust aim to encourage another one.

Take the issue of political ads.  Fortunately, Twitter finally banned them, and Google is making changes, too.  But if you pay them, Facebook will run any "political" ad you want, even if it's a lie.  And they'll even help you micro-target those lies to their users for maximum effect.  Under this twisted logic, if Facebook were around in the 1930s, it would have allowed Hitler to post 30-second ads on his "solution" to the "Jewish problem."  So here's a good standard and practice: Facebook, start fact-checking political ads before you run them, stop micro-targeted lies immediately, and when the ads are false, give back the money and don't publish them.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

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