Author of "Embracing Auschwitz" and "Mensch•Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi - Wisdom for Untethered Times." Winner of the Rockower Award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism and 2019 Religion News Association Award for Excellence in Commentary. Musings of a rabbi, journalist, father, husband, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and self-proclaimed mensch, taken from essays, columns, sermons and thin air. Writes regularly in the New York Jewish Week and Times of Israel.
Friday, March 5, 2021
In This Moment, March 5, 2021: Surfside Kaddish, Is "Green Eggs and Ham" Kosher? Standing with Myanmar
TBE proudly donated a very big check from our Temple Rock fundraiser
to the Freedberg Family Kosher Food Pantry at Schoke JFS
I want to thank all of you for the outpouring of support for my family following the passing of my mother in law. My sons Ethan and Dan spoke eloquently about their grandmother at last week’s Zoom shivas and a number of people have asked to read their words. Read Dan’s tribute here, and Ethan’s here. And click here for a photo tribute.
This weekend is the annual Refugee Shabbat, sponsored by HIAS, an opportunity for congregations, organizations, and individuals in the United States and around the world to dedicate a Shabbat experience to refugees and asylum seekers. This year, we are proud to be among the hundreds of congregations teaming up with HIAS to impress upon Congress how important the struggles of asylum seekers and refugees are for us and our country. Read more about the campaign here and see how you can become more involved. You will find TBE among the 455 participating congregations in the campaign. This outpouring of congregational involvement not only reflects the significance of this issue to our system of values but also to the fact that it was this very affiliation with HIAS and observance of Refugee Shabbat that was cited by the White Supremacist murderer in Pittsburgh at the Tree of Life synagogue in 2018.
Our congregation is active all over the community and beyond, as we can see from the photo up top of the big check written for the Freedberg Family Kosher Food Pantry taken from the proceeds raised at Temple Rock.
I want to add a note of sadness, as this week marked the passing of a former member of TBE who was so helpful to our congregation at various times of need, Steven Mayer. As his obituary proclaims, he was a larger than life figure. Steve will be missed. Our sympathies go out to Nancy and Brett.
Can We Separate the Green Eggs from the Ham?
Let’s try to get beyond all the political posturing about so-called “Cancel Culture” and get to the crux of the matter at hand this week: When speaking of a cultural icon like Dr. Seuss, whose books include both important and timeless messages along with some ideas that cannot stand up to moral scrutiny, at a point where we are desperately trying to at long last reverse the toxic tide of racism, can you separate the Green Eggs from the Ham? Can Dr. Seuss still be kosher?
I say yes.
For one thing, those who celebrate the blatantly racist motifs of some of his work might want to look twice before leaping. They could be quite uncomfortable with some of his early political cartoons, many of which lambasted the “America First” of his day. Like this one. Or this, thisandthis.
As those cartoons show, in his own way, Dr. Seuss was an anti-racist. Except when he wasn’t. And it’s OK to be inconsistent. There I things that I’ve written that I wish I could cancel!
So is it possible to separate the Green Eggs from the Ham? Whitewash as much as we will, the ham can never be kosher. Thosecaricatures of Asians in “And to Think That I Saw it on Mulberry Street” may not have offended many people back then, but that does not make them less offensive - now or then - nor will it become less offensive in the future. The darned spot just won’t come out. The company that safeguards Dr Seuss’s legacy understood that this week. But that doesn’t mean that the offensive work needs to be cancelled. It simply needs to be digested.
We learn that from this week’s portion of Ki Tisa, which features the story of the Golden Calf, in Exodus 32: 19-20:
As soon as Moses came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, he became enraged; and he hurled the tablets from his hands and shattered them at the foot of the mountain.
He took the calf that they had made and burned it; he ground it to powder and strewed it upon the water and so made the Israelites drink it.
Moses became very destructive after seeing the calf, but this was no hissy fit. It was a planned destruction, like the scheduled demolition of a defunct high-rise hotel in, say, Atlantic City. And as with all such devastation, some of the good needed to be cut out along with the bad. Think of it like chemo for idolatry.
First the tablets were shattered. According to a Midrash (Avot d’Rabbi Natan), Moses did this on God’s instructions. Then in the very next verse, the calf was pulverized. And the people were forced to drink it.
The people didn’t have to consume the remains of the tablets (so much for those “take two tablets” jokes). The Ten Commandments would be rewritten and inculcated to the generations by word of mouth. But the calf needed to be digested – as a powder, so that, according to some commentaries, it would come out as diarrhea and not simply slip past as urine. But when all accounts were settled with the digestive system, something of the powder would remain in the body politic. We are, after all, what we eat – and what we drink.
The Golden Calf is part of us. it has literally been absorbed into our system.
Dr. Seuss’s racist past is part of him, and part of us too. It is so much a part of us that we can’t recognize it. Isabel Wilkerson writes in her bestseller “Caste,” “Caste is insidious and therefore powerful because it is not hatred, it is not necessarily personal. It is the worn grooves of comforting routines and unthinking expectations, patterns of a social order that have been in place for so long that it looks like the natural order of things.”
I hate to sound gross, but perhaps whenever we feel we have diarrhea coming on, we should pause to think that maybe just a little of the Golden Calf is about to be expelled from our system. Think about for a split second. Then run – don’t walk – to the nearest bathroom.
Zoom Minyan Testimonies: Surfside Kaddish
A few days ago, I asked those attending our daily 1 PM minyan – and we have had more than the required ten every day since the pandemic hit one year ago – what our daily Zoom services have meant for them. Meryl Silverstein replied, “The minyan at 1PM is an island of peace. For a few minutes, I just stop what I’m doing and take stock.”
Pamela Tinkham now spends most of her time in Florida but through the miracle of technology is still very much a presence in our minyan community. Here’s what she wrote:
It began with support for my dad’s passing, and quickly went to camaraderie and a routine place to be with the TBE community and G-d; right in the middle of the day! Something to look forward to in the midst of the pandemic was a great place to heal my wounds. The heartache I was feeling was surrounded by the heartaches of others who were experiencing the same kind of pain. If minyan were in person, I would not have been able to get there daily. The timing of the 1pm minyan allowed me the opportunity to schedule my clients around it and be present in a holy, sacred space, right in the midst of my workday.
There were many special moments but the one that stands out the most was saying Kaddish with the minyan while I was showing them the lake outside my dad’s condo in Delray Beach where I am now living. With the video I was able to show them my serenity and healing space, where my dad was president and took care of the people and the land for many years.
The other virtual memory happened on Shabbat morning at the ocean in Delray Beach. I, as a Kohen I am honored with the first aliyah at the Torah. I was planning to just listen in to the service as I bathed at the beach and quickly realized when I was sunbathing that even though I was “just listening”, that I ought to check the chat box to make sure they didn’t grant me an aliyah in my bikini! Sure enough, I was the first aliya and I quickly got dressed….turned on the camera…pointed it toward the sand and waves and did the blessings for the Torah! After that I tried to go off camera (and Eileen Rosner knows this) and tried to sunbathe again and as soon as I took off the layers and got back in my bikini, one of my bags blew away with the wind and I had to chase it halfway down the beach running in a bikini that I would not have wanted to run in!!! I told Eileen that G-d has a sense of humor and that because I wanted to check out of the service, off camera, and go back to sunbathing…G-d said NO and had me chasing my bag!!!!!!
The experiences above are humorous, sacred and endless with the virtual minyans and services. People can come from across the globe and be together for mourning. Relatives who would normally not ever attend synagogue could attend and not feel threatened. They felt more welcome than walking into a chapel in the synagogue where they would not know anyone. The Zoom minyan took away the fear of going into the unknown, for many. It was an easy way for people to join, on or off camera, and to feel comfortable with their grief in a safe and holy place.
Words can’t express enough the deep gratitude for TBE and the virtual minyan and now that I’ve moved to my late Dad’s condo, Irwin Gerber’s condo, AKA Grandpas condo (as I tell Londy, my cat) I am hoping that virtual minyan will continue so that I can continue to join in the most beautiful, egoless, holy place at lunchtime that there is!
For me, this not-so-far-away country holds some of my dearest friends, my musical collaborators, my students, teachers, and people who have taken me in like family.
For years, I’ve worked with human rights activists and journalists both in Burma, as well as those exiled to Thailand. With (@shootcamerasnotguns) I’ve taught photojournalism skills so that locals can document human rights abuses get the information out to the rest of the world.
A few years ago, things started improving. Where there had been a military dictatorship, democracy was tentatively allowed in, via the persistence of the people, many deaths and protests, and international pressure and exposure. The rightfully elected leader, Aung San Suu Kyi was released from years of house arrest and elected into office.
And then on February 1, 2021 the military seized power in a coup. In an echo of what happened in America, they claimed that the November election was a fraud, arrested Aung San Suu Kyi and other political leaders, and declared a one year state of emergency that gives the power exclusively to the military.
What’s happening in Burma right now (and for many years prior) is what we feared would happen recently in the USA, and once the threat was over here we sighed relief and went on with our business.
People in Burma are dying.
Do you feel oppressed in America because you’re asked to wear a mask to protect your neighbor? Do you feel like your freedom is squandered because you might need to get a mental health and criminal background check before buying a gun in a Walmart and carrying it into a school?
Oppression in Burma looks like genocide. It looks like not being able to gather with groups of more than 5 people, ever.
Thank you, Diana!
And finally, see below a video of the Friday night hymn, "Shalom Aleichem" just released by Zamir's abundance of choral groups. If you watch closely, you just might see Dan Hammerman's box float by.