Wednesday, June 14, 2023

In This Moment: Let's Marginalize Marginalized, Let My People Know

In This Moment

Our TBE teens joined Zamir's singers and Cantor Kaplan in last Sunday's stirring concert.

Yashar Koach to all who participated!

Let My People Know!

Shabbat Shalom!

Join us for special services this Shabbat - outdoors on Friday night, weather permitting (which looks iffy right now) - and in-the-margins in the social hall on Shabbat morning.

As my final year as rabbi of TBE begins, I'm taking the opportunity to recall some of our prime achievements together and reaffirm priorities. One of those has without a doubt been Jewish literacy. A key instrument in that effort has been these Shabbat-O-Grams, serving up a weekly dose of all-things-Jewish since the mid 1990s.

But we're bucking against a strong tide. There is a growing lack of familiarity with "the basics" among American Jews, despite our having the entire corpus of Jewish knowledge literally in our pockets; and ultimately, that will result in less committed Jews - and fewer Jews.

This essay by David Bernstein assesses the problem of Jewish literacy from a historical perspective. During the height of Rome's world dominance, Jews were said to have comprised 10% of the Roman Empire's population, an astounding number. But that number dwindled quickly, according to one book cited in the essay, because of the lack of basic Jewish literacy among that population. (I suppose they couldn't tell whether it was the 9th of Av, 3830 or August 8, LXX).

A knowledge of basic Judaism instills a comfort level that fosters further exploration and makes it much easier to pass through those scary doors of the local synagogue, or other community gateways. It also enables Jews to speak a common language, one that goes beyond schlepping, finagling and chutzpah. A common language will help us to draw in this next generation, combined with the warm embrace of a community that reaches out and welcomes them. I have long felt that outreach needs to be our #1 priority, and opening doors wider to a community that offers a nonthreatening approach to Jewish literacy would help us to achieve that.

As the essay states:

The typical Jew in a Western country today may be a highly educated professional, but is Jewishly only semi-literate. His (or her) Jewish education was from a Sunday school, or afternoon congregational school. Forgetting about the quality of that education, it is extremely limited in its intensity, and usually not much reinforced at home or by the suburban environment in which so many Jews live. Many Jews cannot read Hebrew at all; of those who can, many can sound out the words, but without comprehension.... In the struggle for Soviet Jewry of the 1970's and 1980's, there was a slogan: "Let my people go!" What if we used a slightly different slogan: "Let my people know!"

Bernstein quotes Harry Frischer, who wrote in an article entitled "Building a Robust, Reform Shabbat Community":

  • Imagine a worship community that values Jewish learning and literacy, and where members find depths of meaning in the regular study of Jewish texts. A community where members are inspired to acquire the skills needed to navigate Hebrew liturgy, and where members regularly chant Torah and haftarah, deliver divrei Torah, and lead in so many other ways.

Imagine indeed. We have long tried to build such a community here, encouraging participation and learning on a number of levels, with multiple gateways (including virtual ones). We also have just completed an Intro to Judaism class (see the final exam below), and just before that, a year-long course on the New Jewish Canon. But people are busy, or shy, or whatever, so some who would otherwise want to take such a class do not. Many tell me that adult education is always the second most important priority on a given night. They would love to do it, but....

So back in 2015, I proposed a much easier way for our congregation to make a concerted effort to increase Jewish literacy this year - and you can do it at home, on your own time. I share this plan again with you now:

All you need are three things.

1)     A book or online source for the answers (I recommend Telushkin's "Jewish Literacy" and

2)     A blank journal (either paper or electronic)

3)     The "Let My People Know" questionnaire

Take a look at that "Let My People Know" questionnaireIt is an adaptation of something I used to use with b'nai mitzvah families. Each one had to complete this project at some point during the B'nai Mitzvah year. In 2015, I proposed using it more broadly in the congregation, with families, havurot, or individually.

Take some time to do this as a summer project on your own. I'll be happy to read and discuss. If a few people become a little more Jewishly literate from this experience, to that I will say, Dayenu!

Oh, and what does Dayenu mean Check it out!


The Introduction to Judaism Class has concluded

So here is your FINAL EXAM!

Your assignment: Take any five (or more) of these quizzes - and/or complete the "Let My People Know" Questionnaire . If you can score 75% or better on at least five of the quizzes, you are a certified Jewish Literacy MAVEN.

Lectures and study materials can be found at the ITJ HomepageThis is an open book test. Take as long as you need!

Quizzes from My Jewish Learning:


-      Israeli Food Quiz

-      Bible Quiz

-      Shabbat Quiz

-      Magic and the Supernatural Quiz

-      Ancient and Medieval History Quiz

-      LGBTQ Jewish History Quiz

-      Which Yiddish Word Are You?

-      What Ritual Object Goes with Which Holiday?

-      Who Is a Jew Quiz?

-      Sephardic Judaism Quiz

-      Ceremonies for Newborns

-      Jewish Sports Quiz

-      Bible Characters Quiz

-      Thinkers and Thought Quiz

-      Kashrut Quiz

-      Conversion Quiz

-      Tzedakkah Quiz

-      Halacha Quiz

-      Jewish Ethics Quiz

-      Rosh Hashanah Quiz

-      Caring for Others Quiz

-      Sex and Sexuality Quiz

-      God Quiz

-      Kabbalah and Mysticism Quiz

-      B/Mitzvah Quiz

-      Weddings Quiz

-      Jewish Literature Quiz

-      Jewish Languages Quiz

-      Talmud Quiz


Quizzes From the URJ:


-      Quiz: Test Your Shavuot Knowledge

-      Quiz: Test Your Passover Knowledge

-      Quiz: Is This Kosher for Passover?

-      Quiz: How Well Do You Know Jewish-American Trivia?

-      Quiz: What Do You Know...about Synagogues?

-      Quiz: How Much Do You Know About Hanukkah Music?

-      Quiz: Which Purim Character are You?

-      Quiz: How Well Do You Know Israel?

-      Quiz: How Much Do You Know About Hanukkah?

-      Quiz: How Much Do You Know About the High Holidays?

-      Cracking the Code: What Torah Trope Are You?

Let's Marginalize "Marginalized"

What the radical right is doing to Jews, LGBTQ, and other minorities should no longer be tossed aside as simple marginalization.

We spend a lot of time, justifiably, bemoaning the predicament of so-called marginalized people. I do as well. The problem is that the term is not nearly strong enough to convey the vile, despicable, unforgivable hatred that leads to marginalization. presents the following synonyms for the term: criticize, demean, deprecate, diminish, disparage, and belittle. None of them does justice to the venomous hate that "marginalize" really connotes - and provokes.

Historically, the Jews have been a marginalized group, but the term simply doesn't do justice to the hate we've endured through the ages, and continue to now. I was both delighted and saddened this week that two Broadway shows dealing with antisemitism, "Parade" and "Leopoldstadt," both won multiple Tonys - thrilled to see antisemitism so openly discussed, but sad that it needs to be.

Micaela Diamond, who stars in "Parade," employed the "m" word in her recent op-ed in the New York TimesShe wrote, “If we refuse to embrace our inherent otherness — the parts that make us definitively Jewish Americans — we forget our common struggle with other marginalized people.”

She is saying, "Hey, we are victims too!" That's true, but why clamor for admittance to this club of the loathed, in a Groucho Marx-ist kind of way. Instead, let's dispense with the caucus of the "marginalized" and replace it with something stronger, less passive and more defiant. We can join forces, but not as the marginalized and powerless, but as a fighting force, the legion of the lynched.

Listen to the songs from "Paradeand study the lyrics, and you can see that "marginalize" doesn't do justice to this lynching, to any lynching. To say that Jim Crow era Blacks were "marginalized" sounds like a parody of the systemic ostracism that they faced. The term is a euphemism designed to lessen the shock and numb the response, much as the Nazis euphemistically called deportation "resettlement." When facing down the most vile human impulses, we can't deliberately soften the blow.

I've always been a believer that transparency disinfects, and the antisemitic tropes exposed in the lyrics of "Parade" are so chilling that they rip off the bandaid of toleration, the illusion of acceptance that the Jews of Atlanta thought protected them then, and that American Jews think protects us now. These lyrics baldly lay bare the despicable lies, one by one.

How's this for starters - from the song, Real Big News.

So give him fangs, give him horns,

Give him scaly, hairy palms!

Have him droolin' out the corner of his mouth!

He's a master of disguise!

Check those bug-out creepy eyes!

Sure, that fella's here to rape the whole damned South!

They'll be bangin' down my door,

Yellin' "More, Craig, more!"

"Call for justice! We need justice!

Beat the bastard! Kill the bum!"

Big news! Real big news!

My savior has finally come!

Some feel the words go too far. The ADL has put together a "Parade" study guide explaining how stereotypes like these invariably lead to much worse. Sticks and stones can break bones - but names too can hurt you. The demonization of Leo Frank that led to his faulty conviction and eventual lynching was hardly a mere marginalization. it draws a straight line from the medieval Blood Libel child-killing accusations right through Pizzagate and associated conspiracies - and straight to the "grooming" accusations of today's news. As the ADL has stated"The antisemitic Goyim Defense League has distributed fliers across the U.S. claiming "every single aspect of Disney child grooming is Jewish.” No wonder this show was targeted by neo-Nazi protesters.

What the radical right is doing to Jews, LGBTQ, and other minorities should no longer be tossed aside as simple marginalization. According to the Beyond Bullying website, half of all trans students in the US are bullied at school. Half! When you kick someone to the curb, that's not mere marginalization. It's pure evil, and it cannot be allowed to become normal.

It is incumbent on all civilized, kind people to stand up to the bullying of trans people that has become all-too-normalized in our society. As Rabbi Lauren Tuchman described it when she spoke to us two weeks ago, this population is feeling "utterly and maliciously assaulted and attacked by absolutely unjust and - I would say blasphemous - legislation, trying to legislate them out of existence." The goal, then, is not to marginalize, but to push them beyond the margins and off the table altogether. Our role as religious leaders, she added, is to affirm that God stamps no two people alike - that we should revel in our unique sacredness, for we are all created in the divine image.

Want to know how this marginalized community feels right now? Look up the Nuremberg Laws. These laws targeted Jewish participation in civil service, medicine and law, and went as far as to control their sex lives, health care and finances, ultimately relegating them to disenfranchised, second-class citizens. We are heading in that same direction now.

The Nazis called Jews "untermenschen," sub-people, and filled people's minds with conspiracy theories about how Jews preyed on children - much as the term "grooming" is bandied about now for LGBTQ.

When the haters attack LGBTQ. it is an attack on all who have historically stood up to bullies - and that means Jews. It's an attack on all of us. Like NATO, an attack on one must be met by a response from all. The hatred directed toward the transgender and others who are LGBTQ is the same hate we have stared down for centuries. We must not stop responding now.


This Shabbat morning, at our "Praying the Margins" service, I'm going to be discussing in detail a landmark decision, passed last year by the Law Committee of Conservative Judaism, introducing a new, gender neutral way to call people up to the Torah. Given the serious threats posed by so man, you might wonder what good this simple gesture will do. Well, a lot, actually. For this little gesture, in a subtle but significant way, affirms that we are all unique yet completely equal in God's eyes. The new practice rings of tradition while making room for non binary perspectives, and simultaneously it relaxes the Hebrew language's built-in masculine bias. It's really rather brilliant.

The fact is that since I introduced the concept to the board several months ago, I've been utilizing the formula in calling people up (I've been the primary gabbai during this Covid and preliminary post-Covid period). But I've never had the right moment to present this responsum and teach it to a wider audience. This week, at this "marginalized" service in the midst of Pride Month, when our focus is on both passages and people that are marginal - this is the perfect time to teach it. You can preview it here. I hope that as we move toward having gabbais not named Hammerman, others in this synagogue will have the courage and compassion to continue this practice.

It's a little thing, but little gestures add up. There's much more that we can do, that we should do, but this is a good beginning. The mere fact that we aren't afraid to make this statement sends a signal out to the world that reverberates far more than calling up a few people to the Torah.

As we state in the second Torah blessing, we are grateful for the "seed of eternal life implanted within us." That seed is the Torah; it is also the image of God.

And that divine image is implanted in all of us.


Coda: Speaking of living in God's image, we're still falling short in affirming the dignity of all of God's creations. At last week's concert, it should not have been a struggle for someone with a walker to get onto our bima. With all of our accomplishments (elevator, ramp, bathroom), we still have a long way to go in the area of accessibility.

Coda II: For all the hate that it exposes, "Parade" features loads for Jews to be take pride in, including a recitation of the Sh'ma, and the cast says Kaddish before every performance.

Speech given by JFK 60 years ago this week at American University, considered by some to be his best. "For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's future. And we are all mortal."

Recommended Reading

"Third Place in the World!"

Israelis are very proud of their Under-20 Soccer team's success in last week's World Cup.

Today's Israeli Front Pages

Yediot Achronot

Ha'aretz (English)

Jerusalem Post

  • Netanyahu loses a key vote. Now a torn, troubled Israel waits for the fallout (David Horovitz, Times of Israel) - Horovitz on Wednesday's crazy day in the Knesset: At the end of a spectacularly tense day in the Knesset, and a vote count that lasted a nail-biting two hours, members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition on Wednesday helped elect an opposition candidate to the panel that selects Israel’s judges, while overwhelmingly opposing its own candidate for the panel’s second slot. That outcome makes no sense whatsoever — except in the upside-down, highly unstable world of current Israeli politics. The narrow election of Yesh Atid’s Karine Elharrar to the Judicial Selection Committee may have temporarily staved off a wave of intensified nationwide protests against the Netanyahu government’s planned judicial overhaul, and could turn out to have prevented the total collapse of talks under the aegis of President Isaac Herzog on alternative proposals for judicial reform. But it could also have the opposite effect.

  • The Moral Failure of U.S. Jewish Leaders Who Meet With Extremist Ministers (Ha'aretz) - There are mitigating circumstances, to be sure. But in the grand scheme of things, U.S. Jews have failed miserably to understand the inflection point Israel was and is facing. Instead, they conveniently and cowardly resorted to false symmetry and abject “bothsidesism.” There was something of a mini-commotion Monday when it was revealed that Daroff and Fingerhut had met in March with Smotrich – the racist, bigoted, misogynistic, homophobic, Jewish supremacist and patently anti-democracy finance minister of Israel. 

  • From Pew: 1) Six-in-ten Americans think business owners should be able to deny services in situations where providing them may suggest support for lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) rights to which they have personal or religious objections, according to a new Pew Research Center survey. This question reflects the arguments in a pending Supreme Court case, in which website designer Lorie Smith says Colorado law violates her freedom of speech by requiring her to design websites for same-sex weddings.

  • 2) Attitudes about same-sex marriage vary widely around the world, according to a new Center survey fielded in 24 countries. Among the surveyed countries, support for legal same-sex marriage is highest in Sweden, where 92% of adults favor it, and lowest in Nigeria, where only 2% back it. In the United States, where the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage nationally in 2015, 63% of adults support it and 34% oppose it. Support for legal same-sex marriage tends to be lower in countries where more people say religion is somewhat or very important in their lives.

  • 3) Since the first same-sex marriages took place in the Netherlands in 2001, more than 30 other jurisdictions have enacted laws allowing gays and lesbians to marry, mostly in Europe and the Americas.

The Blue of the Ocean, the Sky and the Tzitzit - The symbolism of the blue thread of the tzitzit (fringes). Our relationship with the Divine must also encompass a relationship with the world that surrounds us.

Whining and Wining - As the spies brought back huge grape clusters, a look at the Israeli wine industry as well as rabbinic sources.

The Art of the Positive - The Two Upbeat Spies vs. the Negative Ten - “The pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity. The optimist sees opportunity in every difficulty.” Winston Churchill

String Theories: A Multicultural, Touchy-Feely Exploration of Tzitzit

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