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.
Thursday, February 10, 2022
In This Moment: Feb 11, 2022: Super Bowl Prediction: Rams or Bengals; Jews of Color and Licorice Pizza; Skating to "Schindler's List"
In This Moment
Last week's "Jewish Joke Night" was a great way to fight off the midwinter blues. Click below to watch the video of the service, which includes an audio clip of Frank Rosner's classic final joke on Yom Kippur, just months before his passing.
Join us for a very special Friday night service, in person and on Zoom, celebrating Black History Month. The come back on Shabbat morning at 10, on Zoom only. We are beginning to see the light at the end of this Omicron tunnel, so stay tuned for more in-person opportunities. I'm also happy to note that as of this week, the falling Covid infection rate is enabling clergy to once again visit patients at Stamford Hospital. Clergy may visit outside of regular visiting hours and will not be considered "visitors" (the hospital strictly limits the number of visitors patients can have at one time). But it is important for people to let us know if a loved one is there, as we will not be making regular rounds. Happy Super Bowl - Black History - Valentines Weekend!
Olympic Corner - Seeall the Jewish athletes in the Beijing Winter Olympics (Forward). Read about figure skater Jason Brown, and how for his free skate he utilized the music from "Schindler's List". His costume seemed to be made of barbed wire, fire, and smoke. Which prompts the question: Is this a moving, fitting tribute to the victims of the Holocaust, especially at a time when Holocaust denial is rampant? Or is it a crass trivialization of what happened? According to Sports Rabbi,Jason Brown has always been a proud Jewish Athlete. "From going to Jewish summer camp, to having a Bar Mitzvah service, to going on Birthright in 2016, Brown has been open about being Jewish. Followers of Brown on social media have seen his menorah around Chanukah time and his matzah pizza he makes during Passover. Therefore, it was not surprising when, for the 2019-2020 season, Jason announced he would be skating to music by John Williams from the movie Schindler’s List. With the pandemic shortening the 2020 season, Brown decided to reuse that program and bring it back for this year’s Olympic season as well.
This Tuesday's "New Jewish Canon" class, will take a look at selections from these classic books of the past half century:
The "Maus" Ban and It's Impact (Jewish Boston): “The erasure of the reality of Jewish history is very disturbing and upsetting, and the bigger picture about the surveillance of what educators are teaching at the high school, middle school, university and college levels, to me is just galling and horrifying.”
Texas rabbi details standoff: Gunman ‘literally thought that Jews control the world’ (Forward) - Speaking to a Congressional committee, Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker said: The Torah scroll that we read from each week was gifted to our congregation thanks to hospitality. I strive to live that value every day. Like so many congregations — synagogues, churches and mosques — Congregation Beth Israel strives to be “a house of prayer for all people.” At the same time, I also value security. When our member asked if I knew the person at the door, I was distracted, but I still did a visual inspection and after a brief word, he appeared to be who he said he was – a guy who spent a night outside in sub 40-degree weather. But that was just the first analysis. Yes, I served him tea. I also spoke with him throughout the process to learn his story. Who was he? How did he get to CBI? Such conversation is welcoming and gave me an opportunity to see if he was acting nervous or if his story added up. Security and hospitality can go hand in hand. I was running late, but I spent time to see if there were any red flags and I didn’t see any. Of course, I was wrong. I share this because despite all the plans and funding and courses — I still opened the door. But because of all the plans and funding and courses and literally dozens of small things that just happened to go our way, we were able to escape. And right now, there are far too many houses of worship that are just beginning the process we started six years ago. Right now, there are far too many houses of worship that have developed plans and are counting on the Nonprofit Security Grant Program to put them into place and help them feel more secure in their spiritual home.
This is a Jewish leap month. Read about Adar I and II in this packet that I put together on the topic. Ponder what we can do with that extra day - that extra month. Reflect on the gift of time. Rabbi Jeff Goldwasser wrote,"For those who are feeling beaten and battered by the darkness of winter and by the storms of life and sky, this is a time to focus on brightening our souls. Seek, pursue and create excuses for your own happiness. Be outdoors, sing, play, take pleasure, and delight in all growing things."
Super Bowl Prediction Time
Rams or Bengals? This might be the first time both teams in the Super Bowl have appeared in the Bible in the same verse. Isaiah's (11:6) messianic vision of lions, lambs (rams are from the sheep family), wolves, tigers (the word Nam'er means both leopard and tiger) and kids, not only covers this year's Super Bowl teams, but all the teams Matthew Stafford has led, pro or college (bulldogs - including those from Georgia - are a subspecies of the grey wolf)). Also, If you look at the Avivah Zornberg reading on this week's portion that I shared above (p. 362), you'll see her theory that the figure of Moses brings together the Big Cat (bengal) and sheep (ram) in a demonstration of God-like humility and forbearance. They are meant to overcome their nature and play peacefully. That's how Isaiah imagined an era of messianic bliss. So Isaiah would seem to be predicting a tie.
So who has the edge? In this South African folktale, "The Tiger, the Ram and the Jackal," this ram's guile allows him to prevail. According to Chinese astrology, the Tiger and Sheep have a close relationshipand are potentially great partners. The Chinese Year of the Tiger began just last week, which might indicate an edge for the Bengals because the year highlights their resilience, but both teams had to come from behind in their championship games; both have demonstrated courage. I'm just not feeling the hate here. Maybe everyone's just so happy to see a Super Bowl without Tom Brady that they are laying down arms. Maybe they are tired of seeing the G.O.A.T mess up the NFL's coveted parity. Maybe the messianic age of "any given Sunday" IS at hand.
Here's some more Jewish Tiger material. Tractate Avot 5:20 - Judah ben Tema said: Be strong as a Tiger, and swift as an eagle, and fleet as a gazelle, and brave as a lion, to do the will of your who is in heaven. There we have it again, Bengals AND Lions (Matthew Stafford's old team), and throw in the Philadelphia Eagles for good measure. it's just very hard to pick.
But of course, only the ram takes center stage on a major Jewish holiday. Tigers have no horns to sound on Rosh Hashanah, and I wouldn't recommend blowing in it's ear. Only the ram was spied by Abraham "caught in a thicket."Tractate Avot5:6 says that this miraculous ram, which saved Isaac's life simply by appearing, was birthed by God on the final day of Creation.
The Rams have no player named Abraham. But the main character of this week's portion is not Abraham. It's Aaron. And the Rams do have an Aaron. Do they ever! Its' Aaron Donald, a miracle of a defensive end who also likely was created in the final moments of Creation. In fact, I think he was/is that ram!
According to Fox Sports, Donald's a ram who is chasing G.O.A.T. status. He already may be the greatest defensive lineman of all time. And how do I know that Aaron and the miraculous ram from Genesis are connected? If you look at that passage from Avot, there are ten "miracles" that were embedded into the DNA of Creation at twilight of the 6th day, just before Shabbat. One was Abraham's ram...and another was the "shamir."
What was the shamir? Interesting that you ask. Commentators explain that the shamir was the strong stone used to cut rocks for the priest's breastplate. Others say it was a miraculous worm. There are all sorts of legends about this shamir. including that it was carried to its destination by an eagle. But it was clearly a stone cutter of sorts, and the key is that the initial destination was the breastplate - the one originally worn by...wait for it... Aaron.
And further, Aaron Donald grew up in Pennsylvania, home of the Eagles. Oh, you reply, but he grew up close to Pittsburgh and went to Pitt. Yes he did. And the name of his college team? The Panthers. It turns out that the Hebrew word "nam-er" can refer to three animals, not just two: Tigers, Leopards...and Panthers.
So Aaron Donald, arguably the best player on the field this Sunday - and one of the best ever at his position, a potential G.O.A.T., is - or was - both a Ram and a Bengal/Panther. He resolves the contradictions and realizes Isaiah's messianic promise. In fact, the biblical Aaron's most notable quality was that he was a peacemaker. In the figure of Aaron, the great peacemaker, Donald, the great warrior, resolves those contradictions by leading the Ram/Lamb to lie down peacefully with the Bengal. For a quarter perhaps. But in a reversal of nature's assigned roles, it's the Bengal, not the Lamb, who won't get much sleep.
Jews of Color and Licorice Pizza
A man came to the rebbe of Kotzk with a problem. "Rabbi, I don't think I'm a good Jew. I keep brooding and brooding and I'm unable to stop."
"What do you brood about?" asked the rabbi.
"I keep brooding about whether there is no judgment and no judge."
"Does it matter to you?"
"Rabbi, if there is no judgment and no judge, then what does the Torah mean?"
"Does that matter to you?"
"Rabbi, does it matter to me? What do you think? What else could matter to me?"
"Well, if it matters to you so greatly," said the rebbe of Kotzk, "then you are a good Jew after all. And it is quite all right for a Jew to brood."
I'm often confronted by people who claim to be "bad Jews," because they fail to believe with perfect faith, or act with perfect intent. We have all kinds of models of "good Jews" to choose from, some of whom wear yarmulkes and some who don't, some who pray, some who don't, some who brood and some who don't.
This subject of what defines a good Jew came up in, of all places, the Oscar-nominated best-picture, "Licorice Pizza."
Early on in “Licorice Pizza,” Alana (Alana Haim), her two sisters Danielle (Danielle Haim) and Este (Este Haim) and her actual parents (Moti and Donna Haim) take their seats for some challah and wine. Until this point in the film there was little indication as to Alana’s religious affiliation. By the end of the meal, we know — she’s Jewish. Kosher? Secular? Shul-going? These distinctions collapse after her boyfriend Lance (Skyler Gisondo) declines to say the hamotzi.
“I respectfully refuse,” Lance, who is Jewish, tells Moti. “My personal path has led me to atheism.”
This remark is funny because it’s one heard from young people at Shabbat tables the world over. It’s also a largely irrelevant point for much of Jewish practice. But explaining all the nuances of an ethno-religion where faith is no prerequisite for identity could take an entire film. Anderson does it — rather crassly — in a few seconds.
Alana follows Lance outside and, there on the street, demands to know: “What does your penis look like?”
Lance is taken aback, if perhaps a bit curious as to where this line of questioning might lead. When he flounders a bit at a response, Alana is more direct: “Is it circumcised?”
“Then you’re a f—ing Jew!” Alana screams
Let it be said that we at TBE are not in the practice of asking people to pull their pants down to gain admittance (it's hard enough to ask them whether they've rolled up their sleeves). Nor do we ask for proof of Jewishness when offering someone an aliyah. We know that there are many definitions of who is a Jew, some of which are more acceptable halachically than others, but all of which warrant an unconditional acceptance here.
But I love the directness of Alana's question. She comes across as one of the most authentic Jewish role models to come out of Hollywood in years, a "loud and proud Jewish woman"as one reviewer put it, "Alana’s Jewishness guides every step of her journey," even manifesting itself as pride in her "Jewish" (Barbra-style) nose.
Since I've yet to see the movie, I can't comment first-hand on some of the most controversial elements, including the age gap of the protagonists, some Asian stereotypes employed, and the Jewish nose thing itself. But reading about these things reminds me that the Jewish nose is no longer the big deal that it was in the 20th century, for people like Barbra and Alana.
What defines Jewishness? Certainly not an emotional predilection, like brooding - or guilt, which gives us such great comedic material, and certainly not physical appearance. We must recall that it was Julius Streicherwho propagated the stereotype of the Jewish nose. Not only did the Nazis define who is a Jew for us (in the Nuremberg Laws), they even decided what a Jewish nose looks like.
Maybe Whoopi Goldberg has given us the best definition yet of who is a Jew: A Jew is someone who, no matter what their appearance or demeanor, would join Whoopi Goldberg in running the other way if the KKK were coming at them.
The director of the film, Paul Thomas Anderson, also Oscar nominated, certainly understood that there is more than one way to look or be Jewish. His wife is Maya Rudolph, a Jew of color. During Black History Month, it's worth sharing what MomentMagazine had to say about Rudolph and other notable Jews of color in a recent article.
The actress Maya Rudolph calls her father “a pretty adorable Jew,” but she doesn’t practice Judaism. Walter Mosley, the crime novelist, identifies strongly with his dual black-Jewish heritage. Daveed Diggs, who originated the roles of Thomas Jefferson and Lafayette in Hamilton, says, “When I was young I identified with being Jewish, but I embraced my dad’s side, too.” The actress Rashida Jones went to Hebrew school at a Reform synagogue but chose not to have a bat mitzvah. In other words, these black and brown Jews sound like a lot of white Jews you know.
“We always celebrated the High Holidays. I did fast in high school for Yom Kippur and attend services. We always went to seder for Passover. I really liked the cultural and the familial side of Judaism. It was always the most comfortable place for me, making time for family and community.”
Of her multi-racial identity, she said, "I have gone through periods where I only feel Black or Jewish. Now I have a good balance." and "The thing is, I do identify with being Black, and if people don't identify me that way, that's their issue. I'm happy to challenge people's understanding of what it looks like to be biracial..."
In another interview, Jones said, In this day and age, you can choose how you practice and what is your relationship with God. I feel pretty strongly about my connection, definitely through the Jewish traditions and the things that I learned dating the guy that I dated. My boyfriends tend to be Jewish and also be practicing ... I don't see it as a necessity, but there's something about it that I connect with for whatever reason.
Barbra-noses, brooding Hasids, Jews of color, circumcised atheists: no matter how they act or what they look like, they're all Jews - and, may I add, good Jews. If a KKK leader were coming down the street, they would all instinctively run the other way - and then go about trying to rid the nation of the scourge of the KKK, not just for themselves, but for all who are threatened. That's especially important to remind ourselves during Black History Month.
We're all good Jews. And that's good enough for me.
Send me your Jewish Reviews (Re-Jews) of this year's Oscar nominees!