Thursday, May 25, 2023

In This Moment: Darkness, Paul Simon's old friend; The idolatry of displaying the Ten Commandments; A Blintz Barbecue for Shavuot & Memorial Day; Israel's Greatest Song, Again;


In This Moment

Cantor Kaplan and TBE teens preparing for

the June 11 Cantor's Concert with the Zamir Chorale

Shabbat Shalom, and Happy Shavuot and Memorial Day

The festival of Shavuot begins at sunset. We are a co-sponsor of the Conservative movement's online Tikkun Layl Shavuot on Thursday night. In addition, we have services (in person and remote) Friday morning and evening and on Shabbat morning. Our business office is closed through the holiday weekend.

Sometimes when Jewish holidays coincide with other secular or religious holidays, it's not easy to find common themes to link them. But it's always a fun exercise. We've seen Purim and Good Friday coincide, Tu B'Shevat and MLK Day, Rosh Hashanah and Labor Day, and that once-in-a-lifetime celebration we called Thanksgivukkah. I can't wait for Yom Kippur to fall on Halloween - but I'll be waiting a long time for that. In the Hebrew year 9995 (secular year 6234), the fast day will fall on Oct. 30. The rabbinic sages knew that the calendar is shifting ever so slightly but chose not to correct the problem, expecting the Messiah to correct it long before we need to have our seders in June and atone for our sins while dressed up as Spiderman.

But of all the possible holiday combos that can occur, Shavuot and Memorial Day fit most perfectly - despite the dilemma posed by having a blintz barbecue. For one thing, Shavuot always includes memorial prayers. Yizkor will be recited on the second day of the festival, which this year will fall on Shabbat morning -- a convenient time to join us in person or remotely for those at the beach. Both Memorial Day and Shavuot focus our thoughts on those who have sacrificed, on their commitment, selfless sacrifice, and love. Just before the Torah reading on the second day, we read the Book of Ruth, the tale of a kind Moabite woman who chose to cast her lot with the Jewish people; Ruth is among the most exemplary, compassionate and courageous people in all of ancient literature.

Every Memorial Day, I link to one of the great wartime speeches of all time, the eulogy given by Rabbi Roland Gittelsohn on Iwo Jima. It is hard not to get chills when listening to it. These holy words could just as easily have been uttered at Sinai. Iwo Jima is nearly as sacred a place as that mountain range on the journey to the Promised Land.

As for how to combine dairy (a Shavuot custom, see below for more info) and a traditional Memorial Day barbecue, here's an idea from Ha'aretz that keeps it all kosher.

This Shavuot / Memorial Day party can include grilled fish, whole or filleted, grilled veggies with crumbled goat cheese, and grilled halloumi cheese. And best of all, you can finish off this decadent meal with a cheesecake (preferably an Israeli cheesecake), or with ice-cream, or even both, and it will still be kosher.

The Ten Commandments: Fetishized Idol or Feast of Diversity

Ten Commandments and World Religions - A Texas bill to force classrooms to display the ten commandments failed to pass yesterday - for now. This blatant crossing of the church-state divide has long been opposed by Jewish groups. The fetishization of the image of the commandments is, ironically, a form of idolatry, which is explicitly prohibited in those very commandments. For Jews, the Big Ten are just the appetizers. Our tradition has many more that are of equal or even greater significance than the Big Ten. Would Texas like to display all 613 in their classrooms, including the one that allows for leniency on abortion? See the entire list of 613 here, and send it to your favorite Texas representative.

Or maybe the key is to use this legislation as a springboard for the promotion of religious pluralism. Instead of fetishizing those dusty tablets with the Roman numerals, why not display versions of the commandments found in different faiths?

No one ever claimed that "our" Ten Commandments are unique; if you search online you'll find lots of different versions. In the packet found here, I compare and contrast the "Big Ten" as they are presented by major world religions. Did you know that for Hindus, the "tenfold law" as they call it, includes self control, forgiveness, wisdom and abstention from anger? Buddhists include not merely killing, stealing and coveting wives, but also refraining from "divisive, harsh and senseless speech." Imagine planting two tablets containing that on a courtroom lawn!

For the Sikhs it is a sin to argue with your parent. An African proverb states, "If a parent takes care of you up to the time you cut your teeth, you need to take care of them when they lose theirs." Islam vociferously condemns the murder of innocents and Confucianism states, "No crime is greater than having too many desires."

Check out our Big Ten against all the others.

And then let's post them all, side by side.

Just not in public school classrooms.

See also: Hang Ten? Ten Commandments in the Public Square

"No other country - and no other #1 song"

Here's the list of Israel's 75 greatest songs, as chosen by readers and listeners of Yisrael HaYom newspaper and the radio station Kan Gimmel. You can hear most of them on this YouTube playlist. The number one song of all time is one that I spoke about in depth last High Holidays. "I Have No Other Country." (Ein Li Eretz Aheret), continues to stir the hearts of Israelis, more even than "Jerusalem of Gold "(#6). Number two on the list? The classic, "Ani V'Ata" ("You and me will change the world..." And only in Israel would the number four song of all time be a song that we associate with kichel, herring and black and white cookies - Adon Olam (the Uzi Hitman, Hasidic Song Festival version), which can be sung to just about any tune - but this one has stuck.

To hear the #1 song, click here and scroll down to my second day RH sermon.

In that sermon,.here's what I said about the song that was just voted Israel's #1 of all time.


When he died in 2005, the Israeli public voted this Ehud Manor's most popular song The guy wrote literally over a thousand songs, so many of them immortal standards and much more optimistic.


He wrote Chai, for God’s sake, which was a winner at Eurovision, and, Ba-Shanah ha-Ba'ah the most optimistic, hopeful song ever written! Od Tireh, Od Tireh, Kama Tov Yihye – you’ll see, you’ll see, how good it will be – next year, next year, next year. While “Ba’Shana Ha’Ba’a” has a hopeful and nostalgic note to it, “Ein Li Eretz Acheret” is all fire and flame.


And that is the one he is most loved for. And this song, with its bone rattling pain and even shame – combined with an unbreakable, almost mystical love for the culture, the language and the soul of his people and his country – that’s the one that Israelis call a patriotic standard. There is no issue about self-criticism. No problem with grappling with Lebanon War and it’s stained history – this song would be probably banned if it were sung in Florida. 


But this song gained power over time, and like so many of our prayers and great poems, gained meaning and resonance through shared national experience. In November of 1995, after the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin that same song was chanted on streetcorners where the Israeli youth lit candles. They called them the candle generation.  


While our Millennial generation of the ‘90s was busy asking their parents for Beanie Babies and Tickle Me Elmo, Israeli youth were lighting candles on street corners and singing Ehud Manor’s song. They agonized over how things could go so wrong, how their beloved country could generate such hate – and zealots like Yigal Amir, dark souls who killed with such impunity. 


And all we could do, as Israel buried its beloved leader and then endured a horrific string of bus bombings and other attacks, was say, from afar, “Shalom, chaver.” 


And THAT is the song brought out twice by Nancy Pelosi, first after January 6 and then again after the Dobbs decision this past June.  Her favorite Israeli song turned out to be about America too. And now, that song unites November 1995 and January 2021; it brings together the War of Attrition and the War on Abortion. These are the words that could capture the tears of Peres and Pelosi.


We have no other country. We will not stay silent when our country has gone astray. And we shall prevail. But we will always be proud, and it will always be our country.


Am I tempted to abandon America because it is increasingly slouching toward authoritarian rule? No way! Because there are people in this country who hate me simply because I’m a Jew? What else is new? 


And am I going to give up on Israel, the first homeland the Jews have had in 2,000 years, because Israel too is flirting with anti-democratic leanings and policies? No way! Ein li Eretz Aheret. Were I Hungarian I would be angry as hell at what Victor Orban has done to that country – and I would fight to change it. Same thing if I were Russian, or Turkish, or Nicaraguan.  

We Jews, and we Americans have it easy in comparison. We need to have that same courage – to be proud and to stand up for the ideals of our country.

Hello Darkness, His Old Friend

  • See also The Mysticism of Paul Simon (New Yorker)“Seven Psalms” is focussed on a more expansive, open-ended notion of God. Simon has described the piece as “an argument I’m having with myself about belief—or not.” Over and over, he imagines a divine presence, and then interrogates its borders. “The Lord is my engineer / The Lord is the earth I ride on, ” he sings on “The Lord.” He returns to the construction in a refrain, finding the sacred everywhere and nowhere:
The Lord is a puff of smoke
That disappears when the wind blows
The Lord is my personal joke
My reflection in the window
I've been thinking about our troubled nature
Our benediction and our curse
Are we all just trial and error

One of a billion in the universe?

Simon has always been a seeker. In 1968, Simon & Garfunkel released “America,” a haunting song about being young, bewildered, and hungry:

“Kathy, I’m lost,” I said, though I knew she was sleeping
“I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why”

Over time, his concerns became more existential. On “The Only Living Boy in New York,” from 1970, he admits, “Half of the time we’re gone, but we don’t know where.” Pilgrimage, homecoming, and absolution became recurring themes. On “American Tune,” from “There Goes Rhymin’ Simon” (1973), he sings about death as a glorious release:

And I dreamed I was dying
I dreamed that my soul rose unexpectedly
And looking back down at me
Smiled reassuringly

The melody of “American Tune” was inspired by “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded,” a seventeenth-century hymn built around a medieval Latin poem that describes Christ’s body on the Cross. It’s not the only explicitly Christian material tucked into Simon’s discography. On “Getting Ready for Christmas Day,” a track from 2011, Simon lifts chunks of a sermon from the Reverend J. M. Gates, a Baptist preacher who released 78-r.p.m. records from the twenties to the forties. (In a 2011 interview, Simon tells a story about Paul McCartney showing up backstage after one of Simon’s shows and joking, “Aren’t you Jewish?”)


This is Paul Simon's spiritual last will and testament, though he claims in the lyrics to be in good health. It is a powerful album, and as always, Simon does not shy away from asking the hard questions. Sometimes mockingly and often awkwardly, he strains to find new metaphors for God where the old ones no longer work. It's an exercise I've engaged in often. Even with the mocking, often flippant tone, this is a serious piece of theological grappling, and as such is a nod to Simon's most Jewish of qualities. The grappling itself is a profound religious act. Even when he quotes from the Sermon on the Mount (in "Blessed") or juxtaposes "Silent Night" with the Vietnam-era 7 o'clock news, or cries about burning churches in the segregated south ("A Church is Burning") that for me is a summons to a very Jewish mission. And it's also a reference to Jewish martyrdom - the story of the Rabbi Chanina ben Teradyon that is recalled on Yom Kippur. While being burned at the stake by the Romans, he clutches a Torah scroll and says, "The parchment is burning, but the letters are flying free."

A church is burning the flames rise higher

Like hands that are praying, aglow in the sky

Like hands that are praying

The fire is saying

"You can burn down my churches

But I shall be free."

Hear the whole album - and read the lyrics.

Recommended Reading

Today's Israel Front Pages

Haaretz (English)

Jerusalem Post

Yediot Achronot

  • After Passover, Shavuot comes along and shakes the foundations of existence (Shaul Magid - TOI) - What if Passover and Shavuot are actually opposites — not compatible but in tension with one another? Shavuot is not (only) the culmination of Passover, but (also) its subversion. The danger (or perhaps hazard) of Passover is remaining mired in the ethnos, in the familial comfort of the Exodus, without the event in which God enters the world and introduces that which is utterly new. This is the moment where everything changes irrevocably, where the tradition is both introduced and overcome: That is matan Torah — the giving of the Torah.

  • Lehrhaus Brings Flavors of the Jewish Diaspora to Somerville (Boston) - Not to mention an extraordinarily fun cocktail list—and community space for learning. The Lehrhaus food menu dances around the globe, featuring ingredients like chakla bakla, a mixed pickle from Baghdadi Jews that migrated to Western India; the Moroccan spice blend ras el hanout; and herring, brought to Jewish markets by the Dutch way back in the 15th century. Closer to home, there’s plenty of Old Bay, that famous Maryland spice mix—it was created by a Jewish refugee from Germany. And the mac and cheese kugel is “an ode to the Jews of color in America,” says Clickstein, based on a recipe from Michael W. Twitty’s Koshersoul: The Faith and Food Journey of an African American Jew. We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the fish and chips, an early favorite, ultra-crispy and served with amba vinegar, s’chug aioli, and Old Bay fries. (Amba is a pickled mango condiment with Jewish-Indian roots; s’chug is a spicy hot pepper and herb condiment from Yemen.) “It’s a Jewish dish, something I didn’t know until I joined this project,” says Clickstein. As the story goes, Jewish refugees fleeing persecution in Spain and Portugal in the 16th century landed in what is now the United Kingdom, bringing with them pescado frito, fish they’d fry on Fridays, thinly coated with flour, which helped preserve the fish so it could be eaten cold the next day. (There’s that Shabbat timing again.) “You can tell the old fish and chip shops are the real deal if they still have matzoh meal as an option for breading,” notes Clickstein. See the website at

  • There Are Lots of Jews in Hollywood. Let a Rabbi Explain Why (Rolling Stone, Jay Michaelson) - ...Chapelle was also right when he said, “I’ve been to Hollywood, and… it’s a lot of Jews. Like a lot.” That is true, and it’s true for specific, historical reasons. But it is, as he continued, a “delusion that the Jews run show business.” That delusion of control — whether of finance, politics, or media — is a classic antisemitic move. When did you last think about who “controls” farming or automobiles or rail companies? No one talks about white, Christian men controlling certain industries. It’s only when there are Jews around — again, due to specific historical causes — that this delusion becomes a conspiracy theory. 

  • Rabbis and Karaites | Dr. Miriam Goldstein (podcast) - From roughly the 9th through 12th centuries, Jews—or at least, those living under Islamic rule, who formed a majority of world Jewry—were sharply divided between Karaites, who rejected the authority of the Talmud, and Rabbanites, who accepted it. Miriam Goldstein, in conversation with J.J. Kimche, puts the flourishing of the now-obscure Karaite sect in its historical context, explains its lasting impact on mainstream rabbinic Judaism, and tells the story of Arabic’s rise and fall as a Jewish language. (Audio, 66 minutes.)

  • A God Just Like Us (Hartman) - Yehuda Kurtzer and SVARA’s Benay Lappe discuss Torah as the inheritance not of an elite and pious few, but of all Jews — especially those on the margins. SVARA scholar Rabbi Lauren Tuchman will be joining us for our Pride Shabbat service on June 2. What is SVARA? - Find out about this traditionally radical yeshiva. At SVARA, everyone—queer, straight, trans, alef-bet beginners, experienced talmudists, secular, religious, Jews, non-Jews—everyone learns together in a mixed-level bet midrash. And no matter where you dive in, you’ll gain a sense of empowerment to shape a tradition that has always been yours.

A Key Responsum by the Conservative Movement Law Committee: Calling non-binary people to the Torah

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