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, March 10, 2022
In This Moment: March 11, 2022: Giving for Ukraine: A Special Announcement; Is it OK to Haman-ize Putin? "Bruno" Purim Parody; Cities of Slaughter. The cookie that never crumbles
In This Moment
Yediot's headline states, "We are the Refugees" and "The Faces of War"
How many times over the past few weeks have I looked at the faces of the victims of Putin's war and seen my grandmother, who, like so many of our American Jewish ancestors, was born in that part of the world. This war has been very personal for so many, for a number of reasons. For me it's because my family's ancestral graves are again being trodden by fascist (this time Russian) boots. Were it not for the courage of Bubbe Dora, who made her way to America by way of Siberia and the Pacific during World War One, when European escape routes were not available, my family would have been killed ten times over in the century since. The stakes right now could not possibly be higher. In this newsletter, I'll share some thoughts on where we are and what we can do. We need to continue following events closely, as painful as it often is to watch, and we must share Big Truths wherever and with whomever we can, so that the Big Lies of Putin do not prevail. We need to stand by our Ukrainian friends and family, Jewish and non-Jewish - as we did last Friday night when the Ukrainian national anthem was played in our sanctuary. With mass graves being dugeven as we speak, on this Shabbat Zachor we must be fully attentive to this new incarnation of Amalek
We also need to pray.
Join us this Friday evening as we welcome Father Nicholas Porter, who, along with TBE's Rob Lesser, will discuss the work of the organization he founded, Jerusalem Peace Builders. The service will be in person and on livestream. We would love to offer more Friday night services on Zoom, but we need to grow our corps of trained Zoom operators. So if you are interested in helping to grow our Zoom brigade, let us know!
On Sunday morning, we'll "spring forward" to our first post-Covid in-person morning minyan, which I'll have the pleasure of leading, at 9 AM in the sanctuary. The service will also be available on Zoom at the regular minyan Zoom link. For the time being, we will no longer have a 1 PM Zoom-only minyan on Sundays - but for Mon-Fri, the 1 PM Zoom-only minyan will continue.
This Wed. evening is Purim. Despite the precariousness of the moment, we, like Esther and Mordechai before us, will find reason to celebrate.
Another thing we can do right now is donate - and prayer and tzedakkah are meant to complement one another. I've collected some links to charities that are doing important work, and have posted them alongside a prayer for peace by Reb Nachman of Bratzlav, whose burial site in Uman, Ukraine, is a prime destination of pilgrimage for thousands of Jews annually.
ON BEHALF OF TBE, I AM DONATING $5,000 FROM THE RABBI'S MITZVAH FUND TO ASSIST THE PEOPLE OF UKRAINE. THANK YOU FOR YOUR GENEROSITY.
Give for Ukraine
Below are ways to help the people of Ukraine, from a list compiled by CBS News, and, specifically for the Jews of Ukraine, by JTA. My Mitzvah Fund donations are going to several of the organizations listed here, including UJF and JDC. During times of emergency, it's important to be extra careful in making online donations. This article gives important pointers on how to avoid scammers.
Here's the list:
Airbnb.org. Airbnb's nonprofit is asking people — especially those residing in European nations near Ukraine — to sign up to provide temporary housing for Ukrainian refugees or donate to their stays. The San Francisco-based company is also pledging to shelter up to 100,000 fleeing Ukraine.
CARE. The international humanitarian group is providing food, water and other items to families fleeing violence in Ukraine. Contribute here.
Convoy of Hope. The disaster relief group says it's partnering with a local Polish organization to provide meals to refugees entering Poland, as well as to deliver food, water and other basics across the region. Donate here.
CORE. The emergency response nonprofit is on the ground in Poland, distributing hygiene kits and thermal blankets, as well as emergency cash assistance to help families resettle. Contribute here.
Doctors Without Borders. Staffers with the medical relief organization remain in Ukraine and are "seeking ways to respond to the medical and humanitarian needs as the conflict evolves." Offer support here.
Internews. Supports independent media and at-risk journalists in 100 countries, with regional hubs including in Kyiv. Donate here.
"Keep Ukraine's media going"is a GoFundMe campaign for journalists around Ukraine that also aims to help reporters relocate and continue their work from neighboring countries. Donations can be made here.
The 762 Project. Volunteers have been collecting, analyzing and posting information about Russia's troop buildup along Ukraine's border for much of the past year. Support the project here.
Project Hope. The global health and humanitarian relief organization is on the ground in and around Ukraine delivering medicines and medical supplies. It has teams in Ukraine, Poland, Moldova and Romania. Donate here.
Razom for Ukraine. Started in 2014 and devoted to building a stronger democracy in Ukraine, the nonprofit is now "focused on purchasing medical supplies for critical situations like blood loss and other tactical medicine items." Here's a list of supplies it has purchased already and an appeal for more support.
Sunflower of Peace. The nonprofit's current mission involves providing medical and humanitarian aid to people impacted by violence in Ukraine. It's accepting donations through its Facebook page.
UNICEF.The global group devoted to safeguarding children is working to provide humanitarian supplies to families without safe water or electricity due to the conflict. Contributions can be made here.
United Way Worldwide. The world's biggest privately funded nonprofit has set up a relief fund in response to the intensifying humanitarian crisis to provide transportation, shelter, food and medicine, including infant supplies such as baby formula. Donations to the United for Ukraine Fund can be made here.
Voices of Children. The Ukraine-based charitable foundation has been offering psychological counseling, including art therapy, for children affected by war in the country's east since 2015, according to its site. The group is currently helping children and families across Ukraine, including helping with evacuations.
Chaim Nachman Bialik has been on my mind lately. Partly because this great poet of early Zionism flourished in Odessa before heading on to Palestine. Odessa, a thriving center of Jewish life in the early 20th century, is now so close to our hearts. And partly it's because his most famous poem, "The City of Slaughter," a call to arms following the Kishinev pogrom,which took place in 1903, is now a commentary on the cities of slaughter of 2022, including, Mariupol, Kiev, Kharkiv, and Odessa itself.
Bialik's poem, called "the most influential" if not "the finest" Jewish poem written since medieval times," caused "thousands of Jewish youths to cast off their pacifism and join the Russian underground to fight Czar and tyranny," according to historian Max Dimont. You might recall that I wrote about Kishinev last year, on the 100th anniversary of the destruction in Tulsa. There are many parallels to that American riot, and to the scorched-earth war crimes being perpetrated by Putin now - a pogrom with missiles.
Read Bialik's poemin its entirety and see why it was so influential, why it stirred a people to cast off the shackles of victims, reenter history and take their destiny into their own hands. I share here a few verses alongside this week's headlines, so that Bialik's summons might be heard again. It is a cry echoed in the stirring words of the modern Maccabee who now is president of Ukraine. It is a cry to all of us. Ukrainians, Jews, Americans, lovers of democracy: Now is the time to defeat this modern Amalek and take destiny into our own hands.
ARISE and go now to the city of slaughter;
Into its courtyard wind thy way;
There with thine own hand touch, and with the eyes of
Behold on tree, on stone, on fence, on mural clay,
The spattered blood and dried brains of the dead.
Proceed thence to the ruins, the split walls reach,
Where wider grows the hollow, and greater grows the
Pass over the shattered hearth, attain the broken wall
Whose burnt and barren brick, whose charred stones reveal
The open mouths of such wounds, that no mending
Shall ever mend, nor healing ever heal.
There will thy feet in feathers sink, and stumble
On wreckage doubly wrecked, scroll heaped on manuscript,
Fragments again fragmented—
Pause not upon this havoc; go thy way.
The sevenfold rays of broken glass
Over thy sorrow joyously will pass,
For God called up the slaughter and the spring together,—
The slayer slew, the blossom burst, and it was sunny
Then wilt thou flee to a yard, observe its mound.
This headline reads, "Two Million Refugees."
Upon the mound lie two, and both are headless—
A Jew and his hound.
The self-same axe struck both, and both were flung
Unto the self-same heap where swine seek dung;
Tomorrow the rain will wash their mingled blood
Into the runners, and it will be lost
In rubbish heap, in stagnant pool, in mud.
Its cry will not be heard.
It will descend into the deep, or water the cockle-burr.
And all things will be as they ever were.
Those martyred bones that issue from your bags, And sing, with raucous voice, your pauper's ditty! So will you conjure up the pity of the nations,
And so their sympathy implore. For you are now as you have been of yore
And as you stretched your hand So will you stretch it, And as you have been wretched So are you wretched!
Is thy business here, O son of man?
Rise, to the desert fee!
The cup of affliction thither bear with thee!
Talc thou thy soul, rend it in many a shred!
With impotent rage, thy heart deform!
Thy tear upon the barren boulders shed!
And send thy bitter cry into the storm!
Come, now, and I will bring thee to their lairs
The privies, jakes and pigpens where the heirs
Of Hasmoneans lay, with trembling knees,
Concealed and cowering,—the sons of the Maccabees!
The seed of saints, the scions of the lions!
Who, crammed by scores in all the sanctuaries of their shame,
So sanctified My name!
It was the flight of mice they fled,
The scurrying of roaches was their flight;
They died like dogs, and they were dead!
Is it OK to Haman-ize Putin?
"We Don't Talk About Bruno,"
But can we talk about Vlad?
There is still time to get your entry in to our Purim Parody Challenge to come up with new lyrics to the mega-hit Disney song, "We Don't Talk About Haman...er, Bruno." Meanwhile, check out the amazing parody video, literally from Hollywood, and read the backstory (from Kveller).
Here's another good parody of the hit song. But while we are becoming quite comfortable taking about Bruno, is it too soon to talk about Vladimir Putin, and specifically, to compare him to Haman next week?
The answer comes down to three factors:
1) Does Putin pass the villainy test? Let's see...invade a neighboring country, causing the needless deaths of thousands? Bombs hospitals? Gas...Threatens Nukes...Murders innocent children? Eliminates free press and free speech. Flings his economy back to the stone age. So, emphatically, yes, he does. We can say it, without hesitation. Putin is evil.
But can we sing it? Can we be joyous about confronting this evil man when we haven't defeated him yet?
2) Does Putin have any redeemable human qualities? Has he become such a cartoon villain that he would fit nicely into the narrative recalled by that reconstituted old English drinking song, "O Once There Was a Wicked, Wicked Man?" Or is he more complicated? Is there an Elphaba from "Wicked" waiting to burst forth? Can Putin be de-greenified? (For context, see my archived article, "Is the Wicked Man Just Misunderstood?") Doesn't Jewish tradition teaches us that no human being is either totally evil or completely good?
Well, Putin may have been redeemable at one point, like, say, kindergarten, but no more. After what we've seen these past few weeks, I can imagine the inevitable "Would you kill baby Putin?" debates popping up in the near future.
A few years - and crimes against humanity - ago, the Moscow Times listed what they considered to be ten good things about Putin's Russia. They didn't say "about Putin," because presumably no one could come up with anything good to say about the man himself. But some good things happened on his watch.
For example, the Russian economy prospered. But over the past few weeks, Putin has brought about its total decimation by underestimating the potential for universal outrage.. So, a "no" on that one.
It's true that, unlike prior Russian despots, at least he has allowed people to leave. The problem now is that they can't find a flight to take them away. And lots of people, from Brittney Griner to Alexei Navalny, are not free to leave (but at least Navalny is free to speak out, and he is doing so). So, again, that's a no.
Also this: the food is much better than it was during Soviet times - not exactly a high bar. But McDonalds just declared Russia a "No Fry Zone" and the barista at Starbucks will no longer be misspelling "Vlad" on the P.M.'s cup. And get this: No Coke AND no Pepsi. So, that's a big "Nyet" as far as food goes.
There can be a claim that there is less anti-Semitism in Russia now, which is hardly an achievement, given Russia's history of hate. It's true that there might be a tad less hatred of Jews now - that is, unless you happen to be gay or a journalist or have the last name of Zelensky.
And finally, one more factor on whether we can parody Putin this Purim:
3) Has his evil plot been defeated? Sadly we, are not there yet. Now that is not in itself a disqualifier. Purim brought hope to many during the darkest times of the Holocaust, even in the camps. Below you can see a photo of Holocaust survivors in the Landsberg DP camp in Germany, who made a mock-tombstone for Haman and Hitler just after the war. Some even wrote a special scroll, like the scroll of Esther, to anticipate the demise of the Nazis.
Hannah Senesh in Purim costume in Hungary before the war.
"Megillat Hitler." Spread over seven chapters, written in the style of Megillat Esther ("Esther Scroll"), Prosper Hassine, a scribe and teacher in Casablanca, related the events of the Holocaust, from the rise of Hitler to power, through the occupation of Europe and culminating with the murder of the Jews and the plunder of their property. The final three chapters, written after the liberation of Morocco, are dedicated to the history of North African Jewry and their liberation by the Allies.
On the merits, Putin absolutely qualifies as a bonafide Haman for our times. But for this Purim, I'd stick to the tried and true and stay away from Vlad. It's OK to mock a cartoonish villain who sits behind a twenty foot long table, but not while people are still suffering from his evil decrees. Until this war is won, and God willing it will be soon, there is nothing to celebrate. But once it's over, we will be ready to stage the Best. Purim. Ever!
SPECIAL PURIMS - The Purim story has been replicated in real life dozens of times through the ages, as Jewish communities have somehow managed to survive life-threatening situations all around the the world. The Megilla has inspired them and given them hope, as it gives Ukrainian Jews hope now. Here is a list of special Purims - click to see the extent that the Purim story has replicated itself, and be amazed at how we have somehow persevered.
EVERYBODY MATTERS:Mrs. Maisel gets religion (R.N.S) - The new season of "Mrs Maisel" has, thus far, been very Jewy. First: Midge’s manager, Susie Myerson, played by Alex Borstein, delivered an impromptu eulogy at the funeral of her friend and apartment mate, Jackie. Second: There is the scene in synagogue when the Weissmans are unexpectedly invited to the bar mitzvah ceremony of a kid whom they do not know. During the ceremony, there is a cacophony of protests, as the rabbi and others rise up to condemn Abe for giving Buzz Goldberg’s play a bad review in the Village Voice. “We escaped the jaws of Hitler — for this?” asks the rabbi. Jeffrey Salkin explains how each of these scenes is steeped in Jewish tradition, including some very obscure - but timely - customs. Since I've already mentioned the great poet Bialik in this newsletter, Salkin demonstrates how Susie's eulogy, for a nobody who was really somebody (because everybody is a somebody), evoked another great Bialik poem:
May my portion be among you, you meek of the world, you speechless of soul,
who embroidered your lives in secret, retiring in word and deed,
hidden dreamers, small of speech, but great in glory …
You had no place in the ranks of the prophets, no place in ornate chambers,
solitary, your footsteps died away, leaving no echo, no trace.
But your life — that was your prophecy, and your very being was your glory,
you are the faithful guardians of the image of God in the world!
UN climate report urges world to adapt now, or suffer later- Last week's report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was overshadowed by more immediate catastrophes. (It's hard to focus on the next half century when the Russians are firing missiles at a nuclear reactor). But the key takeaway was clear: We need "a wholesale revision in how humanity lives alongside nature. Just tweaking our social and economic systems is not going to get us to a climate resilient future."
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy pleads with American Jewish leaders(Forward): “This is just pure Nazism,” Zelenskyy said on Monday on a video call hosted by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “I keep telling this for the world: to wake up. All of these millions of people are going to be exterminated, and this is a big tragedy.” He added: “I’m asking you to help us, just support us.”
‘I’m terrified for him’: American Jews hearts are tied to Zelenskyy’s fate(Forward) There's something unique about the way that President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine has entered the hearts of American Jews. In a week, the actor-turned politician has gone from “Who’s he?” to mishpacha, family. “I’m terrified for him,” said Stephanie Gold, a Los Angeles lawyer. “The worry has led to a phenomenon almost unheard of in my lifetime.” A New York-based Orthodox group raised $2 million to help Ukraine. Across the country, the Reform Temple Israel of Hollywood is also fundraising for refugees, and its rabbi, Mari Chernow, said affection and admiration for Zelenskyy resonates deeply with her congregation. “He has entered our hearts,” she said.
The Mask Mandate: A Biblical Polemic (Some Purim Torah from TheTorah.com) -The Bible bans making masekhot (Exod 34:17; Lev 19:4; Deut 27:15), and concern about this practice appears in 29 separate verses. The word מַסֵּכָה, masekhah is generally translated as “something molten,” from the root נ.ס.כ, and is understood to refer to an image or idol of some kind, such as the golden calf (Exod 32:4, 8). And yet, rarely does historical-critical biblical scholarship limit a word or verse to one meaning. Moreover, as James Kugel points out, Judaism views scripture as “a fundamentally relevant text,” as תורת חיים, “a living Torah,” which should encourage us to find contemporary meaning in ancient verses. We can do this by translating the term masekhah based on its Modern Hebrew cognate, where a masekhah refers to a face mask.
The Conservative movement's motto no longer should be "tradition and change," but "adaptation and authenticity." Roberta Kwall's book talk on "Remix Judaism" elicited some lively conversation. See video above. The author appreciated her reception and was especially curious as to how we, a Conservative congregation, have gotten our Shabbat morning service down to two hours! I told her that our template is under lock and key. But I gave her a few guidelines; it's OK to pare things down from time to time, as long as the service maintains that ever important degree of (and here's that word again) authenticity. You can order her book here, and if you would like a personalized book plate from the author, let me know and I'll have one sent your way.
Charles Entenmann wasn’t Jewish. But Jews saw his cakes and cookies as part of the family. (Jewish Week). He died recently at 92. I recall the year when I was in Israel as a rabbinical student, and one of my classmates received a care package of Entenmann's chocolate chip cookies. For a few days, he was the most popular student on campus, as we lined up in front of his room for our rations. For all of us, those incredibly moist, bend-but-never-break cookies were a love letter from home. With Entenmann's, we never could say "That's the way the cookie crumbles," because those cookies never crumbled. But still, good as the cookies were, I'd have gladly given half my kingdom for a crumb doughnut! (Read more about the Entenmann's story.)
What's your favorite? Do you have a special Entenmann's tale? I think our first in-house Oneg Shabbat MUST include Entenmann's.